Here’s an excerpt from the book “6 Degrees of Film” talking about the landmark film that started the demand for Talking Pictures in 1926. If you watch “The Jazz Singer” (it was on Turner Classic Movies this month) you’ll realize it’s in fact a silent movie with around six segments of sound that all include musical numbers. There’s no spoken dialogue. It’s all typed as sub-titles exactly as any other silent film before it. The exception was the music, and that’s the point where sound breaks the barrier. The dawn of a new age begins with “Mammy!” Excerpt: Then in 1916 or 1917 along came talking pictures, affectionately known as “talkies.” The first movie to use sound was not The Jazz Singer, but a movie called Don Juan, starring John Barrymore. Talkies didn’t catch on at first. The sound quality was poor, the cameras large and unwieldy, and the audiences couldn’t accept that their favorite heroes had squeaky voices and the heroines were nasal and whiny. But The Jazz Singer was a pivotal turning point in the evolution of film. It was a talkie with an exceptional star—Al Jolson. The nation fell in love with a short Jewish man singing “Mammy” in blackface on his knees on the edge of a stage. “America was always quicker to spot the commercial possibilities of the movies, to decide what the bulk of the audience really wanted to see (not art as a rule) and to invest its money accordingly.” The advent of talking pictures, like many aspects of the film industry, was a phenomenon that came on so suddenly that most studios didn’t know how to handle the huge change. From the beginning, silent pictures had been made in a casual atmosphere, with a lot of laughing and talking going on as the cameras whirled. But the advent of sound changed everything. The first reactions by most of the seasoned Hollywood filmmakers were similar to Harry Warner, who said, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” ….. The facts were that films were already in a slump in 1926. Radio, the first of the mass media giants to hit the average American household, had already started to make a dent in box office attendance. But, Warner Brothers decided to take a chance on sound. They gambled on the new phenomenon and went ahead with The Jazz Singer at considerable cost. The problems from the outset were 1) It cost a lot of money to convert the studio to sound: $25,000 was a lot of money in 1926; 2) The sound equipment had to be installed in theaters-at $25,000 dollars per theater. So by the end of 1927, about 200 cinemas in the United States were equipped for sound. Some interesting facts about The Jazz Singer were that there were only about four actual talking segments in the entire film. There were singing portions, but it wasn’t all that easy to reproduce sound in those days. Warner Brothers had taken a huge gamble in making The Jazz Singer and ended up paying a heavy price. One of the brothers, Sam Warner, died 24 hours before the premiere of the film after suffering a massive cerebral
Month: April 2012
The nuances and timeless appeal of Lawrence of Arabia
What can I write that hasn’t been written before about the timeless appeal of “Lawrence of Arabia” and the performance of Peter O’Toole? It is bound to pop up on a “Best Films of all Time” list just about every year. This is the kiss of death for most films. Casablanca and Citizen Kane, then Wizard of Oz and then Lawrence…that is how it goes. But in the case of “Lawrence”, it is a timeless film made in a timely fashion. The retread is never bare. We are in the Middle East in a big way in our immediate lifetime and Lawrence speaks to us of the problems we face. It posits the questions and underlines the insurmountable problems that will never be solved as we try even now to brave the desert sands. There are so many brave souls that have perished for the cause of war in our country. Lawrence speaks to us of the timelessness, the inevitability of our destiny, saying, NOTHING is written… That was one of the main themes of the film. Nothing is written. And it has been a mantra for our American Destiny as we forge ever onward. O’Toole/Lawrence’s face and demeanor spoke volumes of his bravery and yet his naïveté in dealing with a culture he could never fully understand. Our naïveté and bravery in the face of insurmountable odds are facing us again in Afghanistan. This film should be a primer for anyone who dares to try and speak the truth about the muddle of the Middle East. There are some things that are not meant to be known entities and the East and the Desert are two of those things. T.E. Lawrence is a man for all seasons and Lawrence of Arabia is a film for all time. See this movie if you haven’t done so. Put it on your bucket list. This is one that will not disappoint.
The Bad B’s of Summer
The Bad B’s…I got it bad, and that ain’t good. Meaning I like to watch Bad B Movies at times and they are not always bad enough to qualify as “Good/bad”. Sometimes they are terribly bad, or they can be consciously bad (the worst kind), and then there is ”unwatch-ably” bad-those kind are alright because, frankly, I couldn’t stand it. The rules of engagement are simple: Know your Bad B
In Praise of Bad Cinema Many years ago I wrote about really bad movies. Since that time, the list of contenders has grown but the criteria by which we judge deliciously awful films remains the same
Number One– The plot must be non-existent or at least not relevant to the action of the movie. It helps if the actors stink up the joint but that is not a prerequisite.
Number Two-Most of the time it must have a very low-budget. Major films have been known to join the ranks, but as a rule, classically bad cinema usually is in the range from tin-foil robot hats to plastic doors and cardboard rocks.
Number Three-The gold standard to aim for is “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” The title is fairly important, and most bad movies are judged from the base camp of Director Ed Wood’s enduringly awful examples.
Number Four-Science-fiction is preferred, but other genres are always acceptable. If the film does delve into science-fiction, the science portion of the script is usually based on the merits upheld by a television show originally aired in the 1950’s.
Number Five-This is an important element. At some point in the action, the dialogue must be unknowingly funny. If the story line makes too much sense or they try to salvage a movie with a brave attempt at logical plot points, the film cannot qualify. Tonight movie patrons around the country are being treated with a showing of the classically bad, “Plan 9 From Outer Space”. Some bad movies are just plain bad and boring to watch. The Plan 9 club for Bad B’s is in a class that is separate and apart from your typically awful movie. Some modern nominees I have seen (over the past 20 to 30 years) are Donny & Marie’s “Goin’ Coconuts”, Snakes on a Plane, Alexander, all Chuck Norris movies, all foreign martial-arts movies, any movie with Godzilla in the title made in Japan, The Night the Lights went out in Georgia, Mad Max, Old Hercules movies, Jason & the Argonauts, the Ryan O’Neal movie, “Tough Guys Don’t Dance”, Lee Majors as a Viking in “The Norseman”, and any Paris Hilton movie. It is important to note that in my day, we did not have the luxury of “fast-forwarding” through a movie with a button. That is cheating. The dialogue must be enjoyed or endured, however you want to look at it. By the way, my favorite Ed Wood movie is not “Plan 9” but “Glen or Glenda.” It beats Plan 9 by a mile with the wooden dialogue & the inexplicable cuts of buffalo running across the plains, but the clincher is the man behind a desk explaining to the audience what a transvestite is and why they are different than homosexuals. It’s a hoot in any era!
Posted 20th August 2009 by Mary Lee
Capsule Review: Lockout
“Lockout” is a strange brew that is formulated much as “Cowboys and Aliens” seems to have been mixed last summer. The concoction includes one wisecracking “Die Hard” hard-nosed and cynical cop who has seen it all. There’s a beautiful blonde that needs rescuing, there’s a space station that is stranded, and oh, yes, there’s some terribly politically incorrect Irish gangster types who are the bad-ass criminals intent on murder and mayhem. There are a few mob scenes during the course of the film that show the whole criminal prison gang but they have almost as much character development as the mob from “Frankenstein” sans torches. Hollywood is stuck on formulaic models. They say: “Let’s do what’s worked in the past over to the nth degree and add on everything including the kitchen sink ‘just to make sure’ it’s a hit”. So in this one, just for insurance, there’s a scene right out of “Star Wars” where the pilot flies into the heart of the space station to destroy it… The film is fairly entertaining at times, and doesn’t move at a slow pace. But most of the critics seem to be insulted by the lack of effort made to even try and make it look like something other than what it is. What it is is a “hodge-podge” of ideas that have worked in the past that are baked together to brew a script that will make money. That is the oldest trick in the book, and sometimes in Hollywood, it does work!
About Doris Day
Note: Originally Published in 2012
Her roles have been stereotyped and her acting dismissed for decades. She has become a parody of herself, with songs like “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee, Lousy with virginity…” and the famous Oscar Levant quote, “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin”. But she is part of the mythos of Hollywood and is indelibly linked with the fifties persona of the American Dream. She was a major part of Hollywood box-office business for almost two decades and she was a powerhouse who shaped her image and influenced many women who have followed in her footsteps. She knew how to craft an image and to give the public what they wanted. And in the fifties, after two World Wars and the Cold War in progress, America wanted to be entertained. They wanted to be “bathed in banality” at times, the way Marshall McCluhan described the newspaper we “slip into” in the mornings. People often go to the movies to absorb nothing more than beautiful images and to relax in much the same way one goes to get a massage. That is the point of the Doris Day era. She was better than a relaxing massage at times and the public loved her. She was definitely “cornball” and “hokey” and “banal” and eventually syrupy sweet, but she did have talent and made the most of it and some of her films were quite good.
My picks for the best of Doris Day:
1. Love Me or Leave Me: With Jimmy Cagney, she plays the real-life Ruth Etting and she is never better belting out the bluesy theme song, “Love Me or Leave Me”.
2. Pillow Talk: She made several movies with Rock Hudson, and this is the best of the lot. Rock Hudson makes fun of himself in this and that is usually a good thing with movie stars. Day plays a strong, determined woman who in the end, will always “get her man”. Her image is shaped from the first frame to portray a “modern” female who works as an interior decorator and doesn’t like the way the smooth-talker on her party line treats women. That, in a nutshell, is a good reason for women to champion Doris Day’s characters.
3. Calamity Jane: A favorite of mine, she is a frontier woman who is portrayed as a loveable tomboy. Her quirks and comic turn as a rough and tumble pioneer with a characteristically feminine side is one of her best roles
4. Please Don’t Eat the Daisies: Doris Day is surprisingly good with David Niven in all of their scenes together. She doesn’t ham it up as she tended to do in later years. And the sophisticated Niven was equally effective as her mate in this adaptation of the popular bestselling book of the same name. There is a touch of schmaltz that went into overload in her later projects, but in this film the couple is believable and her part as a wife and mother who is navigating the sophisticated world of New York Theater is a nice touch.
5. That Touch of Mink: No self-respecting critic likes this movie. It does look like Cary Grant, the lodestar for all sophisticated male leads, is simply walking through and collecting a paycheck in this part. However, the role suits him and there are some great comic turns. Doris Day is working at one point in the film at an early-fifties era computer company and the size of the computer is so outdated and hilariously large that it, by itself, is enough to make anyone laugh! But the comic overtones tend to wear well even in this day and age. This film almost has the feel of one of those British sex comedies that someone like Terry Thomas would have played in. John Aston has a small but extremely funny part as the “louse” that is used to make Grant jealous. This is not intended to be rocket science, therefore, if you see this on the small screen, it is not to be dismissed so lightly. Day made many pictures far worse than this piece of fluff.
Other films worth seeing with Doris Day are her one Hitchcock film, “The Man who Knew Too Much” with Jimmy Stewart and the James Garner film, “The Thrill of It All”. The scenes in the latter are funniest when they spoof commercials and mass marketing early in the film. And with Hitchcock, Day is never allowed to run away with the syrupy goodness that was a trademark element and a fatal flaw in her later films. Today, some of the actresses linked to Doris Day by 6 Degrees are Renee Zelwegger, of Bridget Jones fame, plus Drew Barrymore, who has her own production company. Goldie Hawn, who shaped her image as the loveable and kooky ditz used that image to carry her to many successes at the box office. And there’s also Sandra Bullock, who has shaped an image, formed her own successful production company and starred in many light comedies that should make Doris herself proud!
Americana in American Films
There are three films that capture the “essence” if you will, of Americana. The films are “The Wizard of Oz”, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In the characters and stories these films introduced to the American public in general and to the psyche of audiences worldwide, the definition is evident of what is best in American life and in the American spirit The Wizard of Oz is a film about a little girl and her dog as they travel through a fantasy world called Oz looking for a way back to her home in Kansas. This is a fantastic story but also a coming-of-age movie for many generations of Americans. Yet this children’s film has been shown in so many countries and to so many different children that it has become an iconic image representing America. There is so much hope and promise in the performance of Judy Garland and her face radiates with so much youth and innocence that she becomes the representation of a beacon of light for all ages. We see in her a promise of something better, something that she is striving for as she sings about a vague Utopia that is “somewhere over the rainbow.” In the vision that was created in that greatest of Hollywood dream factories in the Greatest of film years, 1939, we see an image of Hollywood at its finest. There are wonderful performances found here with a string of character actors that pop up in so many movies from years past. There is Bert Lahr, the old Vaudevillian, and Billie Burke, the veteran from the silent era. There is Margaret Hamilton, who gives us this iconic image of a villainess that is forever ingrained in our minds as she becomes the embodiment of the Archetypal Wicked Witch. There is Jack Haley as the Tin Man and Frank Morgan in a variety of roles. Then there is the mythos surrounding the cast of little people-the Munchkins-but the entire story is woven around the character of a young Judy Garland. Her fresh face and innocent but earnestly quivering voice have stayed with us for almost a century now. She is the stuff that dreams are made of. That is the greatness of the film. When it was introduced to those of my baby boomer generation, it had not been shown for many years and Danny Kaye introduced it in the sixties with a reverent pitch to his voice that gave a new spin to the never-forgotten scene where Dorothy opens the black and white door to a gloriously Technicolor Oz. This is almost a metaphor for the life we had lead in the fifties. It was an era of black & white television and a simpler time before technology brought us to the moon and then brought us lots of gadgets that we learned we could not live without. This was our introduction to a different life, a life where we have all “Gone Hollywood” so to speak. In It’s A wonderful Life, Capracorn is invented. It’s the type of film that Frank Capra believed in, and he believed in it enough to “bet the farm” that Jimmy Stewart was the one to play George Bailey. This movie was not a big hit at the time of release. That is to be expected as it’s a long film, an involved story, and it’s one that needs to be digested after several viewings. It’s the type of film that many people cannot imagine spending Christmas without viewing. There’s a great secular quality to it and yet there’s also a Spiritual dimension to this film. And like Americana, there’s a lot of “hoke” built into it-hence the term: Capracorn. Critics don’t often like to see emotive sequences consisting of God and Mom and Apple Pie. In this instance, George is not always a “goodie two-shoes”. He’s a cynic, at heart, but he’s fallen in love with a small-town girl and he’s fallen into the shoes of an inherited business that depends on his presence for its survival. In other words, this is not the life he chose, but rather one that was foisted upon him by others. He has many burdens to bear and the weight of his life is telling as the strands are becoming unraveled. The theme of religion is never overt but always interwoven in the fabric of our American existence. The story of George Bailey culminates with one of the most moving epiphanies of faith seen in American film. The moment on the bridge when George asks God “Please God, let me live again. I want to live again.” is an affirmation of faith that is declared by all who identify with the character of George Bailey in this movie. We are all buried underneath the yolk that is our lives; the yolk of debt, or of other burdens, and obligations plus family responsibility sits heavily on our shoulders at times. This is perhaps why his character can resonate so forcefully with so many that watch this film. George’s life is a litany of lost dreams and broken promises that are a part of his persona and make him the lovable yet sometimes cynical man that he becomes. In To Kill a Mockingbird we see the elements of Americana throughout. The goodness of the main characters, the innocence of the children, the racism and bigotry in the small town are all interwoven and held up as a mirror for our changing lives and changing society….. The movie is also a coming of age film within a courtroom drama. There is a life or death quality to it at times and the stark reality of small town America and the bigger dreams of the triumph over evil and the fight that Atticus wages as one man alone against a sea of bigotry and hatred represents a large part of our collective American story. We can identify with George Bailey for the dreams he has lost. But we identify with Atticus on a different level. Atticus is the embodiment of so many hopes and dreams that we aspire to in this country. The character of Atticus, as portrayed with quiet dignity by Gregory Peck, becomes someone we see in the same light to be found within the mythical beacon of light in Reagan’s “shining city upon the hill”. When we fight for the rights of the downtrodden and help the poor we are embracing the values that are an intrinsic part of Atticus’ makeup. He is the best in all of us and the person that we aspire to become. In the same movie, we see Scout as someone that many of us can identify with. She is curious and completely innocent of guile and vitriol, yet she has a temper and is easily swayed by many things that she sees and hears. We, the viewing audience, are all gullible to a certain extent and need to have boundaries set to guide us at times as we seek the truth in our ever-changing, fast-paced media savvy culture. Of the three films of Americana, perhaps the most innocent of all the characters is Dorothy, someone who is simply on a quest to come home. She is someone that we all have known and her life in part parallels our own. As a larger symbol of Americana, we are the innocents abroad that refuse to believe the world is the dark and menacing place that it is for so many people who live without our freedoms. Yet, we are a big-hearted society and we do open our hearts to many cultures, many beliefs and many different places throughout the globe. As Dorothy helped others to achieve their dreams, so are we a culture that still believes that helping others up is the only way we will survive. Yet always, in our heart of hearts, we have a great longing for our homes. When the troops were overseas in World War II, one of the top songs of the day played, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” And another hit song spoke to the belief that “There’s no place like home for the holidays”. There’s no place like home is the mantra for the American abroad. We are all vested in the dreams and hopes found in these three films. They have shaped our lives and described our shared destinies. They are a part of Americana and are arguably some of the best parts of our separate yet interwoven and uniquely American stories