August 28, 2014
Two crossword puzzles that I recently completed had clues that referred to Jimmy Durante. In one, the solution was Durante’s surname; in the other, the solution was his nickname, “Schnozzola.” Designers of crossword puzzles seem to assume — accurately, for all I know — that theirs is an aged audience. But for the annual rebroadcast of Frosty the Snowman, few people today would ever hear Durante’s voice. My guess is that few people under forty years of age know who he was. This is a natural consequence of the passage of time and of changing tastes in entertainment. Durante was a talented jazz pianist, comedian, and all-around showman. He also set a standard for humility, decency, and generosity. He probably was one of the most recognizable stars of his time, and his “time” lasted for fifty years.
I wonder how many people who see the 1992 film Scent of a Woman catch the reference to Durante. In that film, retired and blind army Lt. Col. Frank Slade, who is bent on suicide, is forced off the ledge, as it were, in a violent struggle with a prep school student named Charles Sims. When the climactic scene winds down, the exhausted Slade, played by Al Pacino, mumbles in a hoarse voice, “Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, but still have the feeling that you wanted to stay?” Even before that line was appropriated for Pacino’s Oscar-winning role, it had been appropriated to express profound ideas about life and death — and particularly about the transition from one to the other. But it didn’t start out that way. Far from originating in deep thought, the line was written and made famous by the antithesis of deep thought, Jimmy Durante. It’s on the order of Groucho Marx’s trademark tune, “Hello, I must be going.” Durante sang the lyric as early as 1931 in a long-forgotten movie, The New Adventures of Get Rich Quick Wallingford. He sang it to Monty Wooley in the 1942 film version of The Man Who Came to Dinner. And he sang it again in the 1944 film Two Girls and a Sailor. In that case, as on many other occasions in his long career, he used it as an introduction to another of his compositions, “Who will be with you when I’m far away?”
To see Pacino deliver the line and Durante sing it to Monte Wooley, click HERE.
To see Durante’s performance in Two Girls and a Sailor, click HERE.
August 12, 2014
The genius of Robin Williams first sunk in for me when we saw him in the motion picture Awakenings in which he played a character based on the neurologist Oliver Sacks.
We didn’t see that film principally because Robin Williams starred in it but because we were interested in the topic. Sacks pioneered the use of the drug L-Dopa by treating a group of patients who had been in a catatonic state for decades as a result of an epidemic of encephalitis that lasted from 1917 to 1928. But we were impressed by Williams’ portrayal which was very understated. And it was only later, when we saw an earlier documentary with the same title, that we realized how well the often manic Williams had captured the shyness of Dr. Sacks.
The breadth of his range was one of the wonderful things about Robin Williams. Recently, we happened to watch again the hilarious but poignant movie Bird Cage in which he co-starred with Nathan Lane. In spite of the over-the-top humor laced through that movie, Williams’ character was restrained, and the contrast with Lane’s flamboyant character is an important reason why the film works so well.
Pat and I had a chance to chat with Robin Williams in 1998 at a party following the New York premiere of the movie Patch Adams, in which Williams played the unorthodox doctor who wanted to use humor in the treatment of patients. At the invitation of our friend Marvin Minoff, who co-produced that film, we attended the premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater and then the party at Four Seasons. We noticed Williams standing alone, so we approached him, intending only to compliment him on his performance, but he seemed willing to talk, so we willingly obliged. The conversation was so casual that I can’t recall details, except that he spoke of his mother, describing her as his first audience. He was subdued, but Pat and I agreed afterward that he was remarkably accessible for a person of his stature and that he seemed to be pleasant to the core, which, in its way, is as precious a quality as any other.
In one of those coincidences that one wouldn’t dare hope for, we finished our conversation with Robin Williams and spied Dr. Oliver Sacks, apparently trying to hide among the leaves of a rubber tree plant. I had read all of the books he had published up to that point, so we moved on to what turned out to be another conversation for another post.
One of Robin Williams’ foils in Patch Adams was played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who also struggled with internal demons and died tragically. You can view both actors in a scene from that film by clicking HERE.
August 10, 2014
In a perfect world, a movie cast including Shirley MacLaine, Vittorio Gassman, Peter Sellers, Anita Ekberg, Alan Arkin, and Lex Barker, couldn’t miss. But, as the author of the Book of Genesis informed us, this is not a perfect world, and Woman Times Seven, a movie with that very cast, does not fulfill its promise. This 1967 film, directed by Vittorio De Sica, consists of seven short episodes, all involving adultery, in which MacLaine is always the principal player. Natalie Wood was considered first for the film but, in one of her wiser decisions, she turned it down. Those who are familiar with European sexual comedies of the 1950s and 1960s may find that this movie has a familiar feel. Most of the episodes are unsatisfying, possibly because they are too short to be developed properly, and a couple of them are just plain silly, which is not the same thing as broadly humorous.
The funniest segment benefits from the deadpan presence of Alan Arkin. He and MacLaine play two adulterers who have checked into a sleazy hotel room after agreeing to a joint suicide, though the rationale for this drastic decision is not convincing. The situation with its alternating depression and panic is a perfect vehicle for Arkin. A heavy-handed denoument spoils an episode in which MacLaine and Ekberg play two stylish women who, while shopping and lunching, realize that they are being followed by a clumsy man — Michael Caine, who does not have a spoken line in the film. Rather than being frightened by this man, the women separate in order to see which of them he will follow. Of course, he follows the headliner and lurks outside her apartment building while she watches him with delight from a window, out of her husband’s sight. No matter what she thinks, it’s not what she thinks. The man has a phone conversion and disappears for good.
I was happy to see the British character actor Robert Morley with a role in this film, but not happy to find that it was in one of the weakest episodes. MacLaine plays the wife of a novelist (Lex Barker) who is obsessed with “Simone,” a fictional character he created. His wife, unable to get his attention off this non-existent figure, decides to become a fictional character herself, leading her spouse, when he finally notices her bizarre behavior, to summon a psychiatrist, played by Morley. One thing I learned in the process of finding this movie is that many of MacLaine’s films are available. That’s a good reason to leave this one to its fate.
August 5, 2014
When President Martin Van Buren died, 19 of his successors had already been born. At the onset of the Civil War, four of them — John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan — joined Van Buren in that exclusive category, former presidents. That was the only time five former presidents were living at one time until 1993 when Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush were still kicking around. It happened again in 2001 with Carter, Ford, Reagan, Bush, and Bill Clinton. The quintet that formed a sort of elite gallery watching the Union unravel are usually ranked in the bottom dozen or so when retrospective experts, who never faced such decisions, cast their ballots. But none of the former presidents saw themselves that way and, in that rough-and-tumble time, they didn’t pose as aloof elder statesmen while Abraham Lincoln dealt with the crisis of secession. What they did do is the subject of The Presidents’ War by Chris DeRose.
This is an unusual and possibly unique approach to the history of the three decades leading up to the war and the prosecution of the war itself. The Civil War is sometimes remembered simplistically as a war over slavery — either over whether slavery should be permitted in new states as the nation expanded westward or whether it should be abolished altogether. Both of these questions were at issue, but the controversy was more complicated than that because it was intertwined with the evolving understanding of the relationship between the states and what was then often referred to as the “general government” — the federal government. The rights of individual states vis-a-vis the federal government are still the subject of often contentious discourse, but the question was far less settled in the decades before and immediately after the Civil War than it is now.
Differing views over that question led to a crisis in 1832 when South Carolina declared that tariffs imposed by the federal government that year and in 1828 were null and void. Andrew Jackson, a tough customer, was president at the time, and he ordered that the duties be collected by whatever means were necessary and he formally declared that states did not have the power to nullify federal regulations or leave the federal union. The crisis was put off, in a sense, by a political compromise; it was put off, but not settled, and it would simmer and occasionally come to a boil until it exploded in secession and war. After Jackson, eight men, beginning with Van Buren, would exercise the executive authority while these fundamental questions remained unresolved and repeatedly threatened to rupture the union. Two of them — William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, and Zachary Taylor, the twelfth president, would die in office and would not play a significant role in government, and one of them, James Knox Polk, the 11th president, would die shortly after leaving office in 1849. Those five who would live to see the nation descend into the bloodiest war in its history had differing points of view on the seminal questions of the time. Although they are usually overlooked or derided in accounts of this period, DeRose explains in detail how they all were engaged in promoting their positions and often were active participants in the political dynamics of the time.
Perhaps the most interesting character DeRose brings back into the light is John Tyler of Virginia, the first man to serve as president without being elected to the office (succeeding Harrison, who died after a month in the White House) and the only former president to become a sworn enemy of the United States. During the administration of James Buchanan, Tyler acted as a go-between seeking an accommodation between the United States and the newly formed Confederacy. Tyler promoted and chaired a ill-fated peace convention in 1861 and then participated in the convention in which Virginia voted to secede from the Union. Tyler was eventually elected to the Confederate Congress, although he died before he took his seat. Although the circumstances were dubious, this last achievement made him one of only four former presidents to serve in public office, the others being John Quincy Adams, Andrew Johnson, and William Howard Taft.
Martin Van Buren of New York, who served one term as president, had ambitions to return to the White House, but they were ultimately frustrated. He was one of many Americans who held that slavery was morally wrong but that it was protected by the Constitution. Although he was initially opposed to the election of Abraham Lincoln, Van Buren ultimately supported him and the war effort. Millard Fillmore, also of New York, was the last Whig president and, therefore, the last president who was not associated with either the Democratic or Republican parties. When the crisis had reached the point of no return and Lincoln called on the northern states to raise troops, Van Buren supported him, as did Fillmore. Van Buren argued that “the attack upon our flag and the capture of Fort Sumter by the secessionists could be regarded in no other light than as the commencement of a treasonable attempt to overthrow the Federal Government by military force. ….”
Fillmore was elected vice president on the ticket with Zachary Taylor and was vaulted into the presidency by Taylor’s death. He, too, skated on the thin ice between his own professed abhorrence of slavery and both the fact that it was protected by the Constitution and his desire to avoid antagonizing the southern states. He was sufficiently repulsed by slavery, in fact, that he raised money and contributed some of his own to enable his coachman to buy his own freedom and that of his family, but Fillmore supported enforcement of the fugitive slave law because it was the law of the land and because, like his four contemporaries, he did not want to provoke the South into Civil War. Three years after he left office, he unsuccessfully ran for president on the ticket of the anti-Catholic American Party, although he himself was not anti-Catholic. Although he was opposed to secession, he did not support Lincoln’s decision to emancipate slaves as a means of expediting an end to the war.
Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, who was a brigadier general during the war with Mexico, was a Democrat who was opposed to secession but openly supported the institution of slavery in the South. He was a close associate of Jefferson Davis, who became president of the Confederacy, and antagonistic toward Lincoln. Pierce, who was beset by personal tragedy and drinking problems, attempted to undermine Lincoln’s policies by organizing an unprecedented “commission” of the living former presidents to mediate the differences between North and South. The commission, which would have been heavily weighted against Lincoln’s positions, never materialized.
James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, Lincoln’s immediate predecessor, had adopted the problematic view that states did not have a right to secede from the union and that the federal government did not have the power to stop them by force.
Buchanan, who had had a distinguished career, particularly as a diplomat, failed to preserve the peace between North and South and left office stinging with the idea that he would be regarded as a failure as president. It wasn’t known at the time, but he had exerted pressure on the Supreme Court to broaden its pending ruling in the Dredd Scott case to not only determine Scott’s status but to state that Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery in the western territories. He spent his retirement years at his home in Wheatland, but he persistently trumpeted the idea that his policies were precursors to Lincoln’s. Buchanan busied himself during that time writing a memoir in hopes of vindicating himself, but he is generally regarded as having been hopelessly inept, at least with regard to secession.
DeRose covers a lot of ground in this book, but by telling the story in terms of the presidents who tried to cope with nagging and explosive issues, he brings as clarity to the subject that is not always present in accounts of that complex period. And besides writing a history of the run-up to the war, he provides a chronicle of the evolution of a public office — the presidency — noting that the five former presidents who lived to see secession and war had “feared that he would break the customs of the office that they had established and carefully cultivated. Their concerns were well founded. The American presidency is now a dynamic institution and powerful force for principle in the hands of the proper occupant…. Often American has been bereft of the leadership it wanted. But … in hours of great crisis for the Republic, America has never failed to find the reader to match the moment.”
July 25, 2014
My brother often shares with me his irritation with the broadcasters who describe Yankee baseball games on television and radio. We were, after all, raised in baseball by Mel Allen and Red Barber, in whose care baseball play-by-play was an art. In a way, no announcers can satisfy us with Mel and Red as a standard. This week, my brother complained that John Sterling, who does the radio broadcasts with Suzyn Waldman, has repeatedly called attention to the fact that the 1927 Yankees used only 25 players over the whole season. I guess that was an implied criticism of, or at least a contrast to, the multiple roster changes — making trades, buying contracts, and bringing kids up from the minors — the Yankees have made during this season in which, incidentally, eighty percent of the starting rotation is on the disabled list.
In fact, however, making comparisons between baseball in the 1920s and baseball in the 2000s is a tricky business. Sterling was right about the number of players on the Yankees’ roster in ’27, and my cursory tour through the statistics for that season suggest that 25 was a low number even then. But Sterling didn’t pick the ’27 Yankees at random. He picked that team because that team won 110 games and rolled over the Pirates in four games in the World Series. He picked that team because that team is often identified as the greatest team ever. That’s an indefensible ranking because — very much to my point here — baseball was so much different before that era and has become so much different since.
But certainly the 1927 Yankees were one of the greatest teams ever, and that was due in large part to the presence of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earl Combs, and Tony Lazzeri. The major league season in 1927 was 154 games. Because of a game that ended in a tie, the Yankees that year played 155 games, and those four players each appeared in more than 150. Gehrig played in 155. So there was a significant element of stability built into the roster. I don’t know if this has been analyzed scientifically, but I often hear it said that players then were less injury prone and less likely to sit down because of an injury. Gehrig carried this last propensity to extremes, which helped to account for his appearing in every Yankee lineup for fourteen years.
The Yankees that year also had five starting pitchers who among them won 82 games. The ace, Waite Hoyt, who won 27 games, threw a total of 256 innings. And in those days before specialization, Wilcy Moore, a reliever, pitched a total of 213 innings and won 19 games. So the rest of the pitching staff had to account for only nine wins. Moore threw 213 innings in 1927. What with the modern system of middle relievers, set-up men, and closers, the most innings a Yankee reliever threw last season was 77.
July 18, 2014
When I was about ten years old, my mother took me to see the MGM movie The Great Caruso, in which Mario Lanza played the title role, the tenor Enrico Caruso. Despite my age, I became absorbed in both singers. At first I nagged my mother to buy vinyl for me, but eventually I was old enough to do it on my own. All that vinyl is down in the living room right now, along with hundreds of other 33 rpm disks that include doo-wop, rock ‘n’ roll, country and western, swing, easy listening, opera, and classics.
At any rate, we recently tried to find The Great Caruso on Amazon and Netflix and came up empty, so we settled for Lanza’s last film, the 1959 romantic comedy For the First Time. This film was popular in its time, it got some good reviews, and it was a financial success. This was strictly entertainment, not to be taken seriously, largely an excuse for Lanza to sing — which was a good thing, because opportunities to hear him were much more limited in those pre-iPod, pre-internet days than they would be today. He sings operatic arias and in operatic ensembles, and he sings Italian folk music and popular songs. It’s all good except, from my point of view, “Pineapple Picker,” a song that had no business being in the same room with Mario Lanza.
Lanza plays Tony Conti, a world-renowned if unreliable tenor. In the flamboyance he exhibits at the beginning of the story, Conti resembles Lanza. After an embarrassing episode in which Conti’s drinking and tardiness cause a Vienna concert to be cancelled with the audience already in the seats, Conti’s agent spirits him off to Capri to lay low until the bad publicity runs its course. There, Conti meets a young German woman, Christa, played by an irresistible actress named Johanna von Koczian, and they are mutually smitten. Johanna, of course, is deaf. (Get it? He’s a famous tenor; she can’t hear him sing.) At the point in the movie at which Tony and Christa meet, I said to my wife, Pat, “In the last scene, she’ll be sitting in an opera house listening to him hit those high notes.” Meeting Christa jolts Conti to the point that he stops drinking and womanizing and becomes responsible about his career. He is practically broke as a result of his shenanigans up to this point, but he takes on a series of performances in various cities of Europe and plans to visit — you guessed it! — the best ear specialist at each stop. No doubt, you can figure out how such a plot turned out in 1959.
Mario Lanza, who was 38, died a few months after this film was released. He looked well and vigorous in the film, his voice — dubbed, of course — was full of the power and earthy passion that had made it famous and he projected the boyish charm that endeared him to the public. This was the sort of movie theme — a romance on the Continent – in which audiences of that era would expect to encounter Zsa Zsa Gabor, and they weren’t disappointed. Zsa Zsa played a countess who had a sporadic affair with Tony, as she did with lots of other prominent men. She was 42 and at the height of her beauty when this film was made and her performance had none of the grating personality she adopted for late-night television shows when her looks would no longer carry her. Kurt Kasznar is comical as Tony’s beleaguered manager and protector, and I particularly liked Hans Söhnker’s sympathetic and believable performance as Christa’s uncle.
Due in large part to his personal habits, Lanza’s career was much shorter than it should have been, but he left behind a wonderful legacy of recorded music. Although he appeared in complete operas only a few times, he played an important cultural role by being one of the first singers to make operatic music popular among a mass audience. Prominent tenors even now often acknowledge their debt to him.
The film closes with Conti, as Rhadames, singing in the ensemble that closes Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. You can see that scene by clicking HERE.
July 11, 2014
I suppose one way to demonstrate film artistry is to tell a predictable and somewhat saccharine story in such a way that it pleases both the audience and the critics. That’s what Marcus Markou did with the 2013 movie Papadopolos & Son which he produced, wrote, directed, and distributed. The title character in this piece is Harry Papadopoulos, who emigrated with his family from Greece to Britain and made a fortune mass producing Greek food products. Harry lives in a mansion with his three children and an outspoken but indispensable housekeeper, Mrs. Parrington, referred to almost exclusively as “Mrs. P.” The older son, James, likes horticulture and resists his father’s nudges toward a business degree. The younger son, Theo, is a prodigy — a kind of European Brick Heck — with an almost frightening understanding of the stock market. The third child is 18-year-old Katie, a benign but spoiled fashionista. This family’s life is marred by the fact that the wife and mother of the clan has died by the time we meet them.
Although his food business is highly profitable, Harry has a dream — an enormous commercial complex bearing his name. Inasmuch as he is not Rameses II, he has to leverage his holdings to raise the money for this monument. Timing is everything, and Harry’s was bad. He is in debt up to his spanakopita when the world economy collapses and the bank calls in its markers. Harry can’t pay, and he loses virtually everything. His only recourse, as he sees it, is to consult his brother Spiros, from whom he has been estranged for many years because of Spiros’ profligate lifestyle. Spiros has no resources, but he wants to help. He suggests that He and Harry re-open what was once the family business — a fish-and-chips restaurant that was doing well until Harry moved on and Spiros spun out of control. Harry is not interested in this plan, but Harry also has no other options. The family still owns the London building in which the shuttered restaurant has been mouldering away, and so Spiros and Harry and the kids move in there and start fixing up the place even while Harry tries to find investors who will help him go back to being a baklava magnate.
A complicating factor is a kebab shop, run by Turks, directly across the street from the fish-and-chips emporium. The owner resents the Greeks for returning to the neighborhood and, to add insult to injury, putting kebabs on the menu. Meanwhile, the kebab merchant’s son has eyes for Katie, and she reciprocates with eyes of her own.
Although the veteran moviegoer might be able to write the rest of this plot, the movie is more than the surface story line as Markou focuses on what motivates Harry and exposes darker aspects of the family’s history. Although the issue of Greek-Turkish tension is introduced in the ‘hood, as it were, Markou’s interest here is in what family ties mean when the chips (no pun intended) are down. The film is well photographed — I especially liked the way Markou studies Harry’s facial expressions — and the performances are, without exception, spot on. The cast includes Stephen Dillane as Harry; Georges Corraface as Spiros; James Dillane as Harry’s elder son, Frank; Georgia Groome as Katie; Selina Cadell as Mrs. P; and Thomas Underhill as Harry’s younger son, the stock wizard Theo.
This film was initially due for very limited theatrical exposure in England but word got out and public demand resulted in wider release. The movie has also been a success in terms of critical comment. My only complaint is that there are some moments, particularly at the beginning of the film, when the dialogue is hard to understand.
July 3, 2014
The death this week of Bob Hastings, the popular and ubiquitous character actor, reminded me that it has been just over 33 years since I passed some time with his brother, Don.
Somewhere in the genetic makeup of these siblings was a trait for longevity, and not only because Bob Hastings was 89 when he died on Monday, and Don Hastings, who lives in upstate New York, is 80. No, it’s their professional longevity that is remarkable. Bob Hastings was an actor for 77 years, and Don has been at it for 74 years. Almost all of their cumulative experience has been in television. As has been reported widely in days since his death, Bob became familiar to millions through his regular appearances on such shows as Sergeant Bilko, McHale’s Navy, General Hospital, and All in the Family.
Both brothers began their performing careers on a radio show, Coast to Coast on a Bus.
I first became aware of Don Hastings when I was seven years old and television’s first science-fiction series, Captain Video and his Video Ranger made its debut on the DuMont Network, which broadcast on Channel 5 in New York. Don, who was about 15 years old at the time, played the Video Ranger for the entire five-year run of the show, which ended in 1955. Captain Video was played first by Richard Coogan and then by Al Hodge. DuMont was the weak sister among the television networks at that time, and Captain Video ran on a very low budget. In fact, Don Hastings told me that the weekly budget for props and scenery was $15: “Anything we could get from the shop and paint to look like something else, we used.”
The production quality of this show was, perhaps, laughable even by the standards of other networks at that time. Still, it was an adventure, and an important one at that. Captain Video was broadcast live, at first six days a week and then five. There were no do-overs, there was no editing, what you saw was what you got. And that, as any actor who worked in early television will tell you, was exciting. Don Hastings, who had a long career in the far more sophisticated medium that television became, thinks well of his experience as a legitimate television pioneer: “It was more fun. The whole attitude was different. Big business wasn’t really with us then.”
“After Captain Video,” Don told me in 1981, “I didn’t do a television show for four months, and that’s the longest period I’ve had in my life when I didn’t work.. It was good for my golf but bad for everything else.” He made up for it, though. From 1956 to 1960, he played Jack Lane on the daytime drama The Edge of Night and from 1960 until 2010, he played Dr. Robert Hughes on As the World Turns. He had the last line spoken on that show when it went off the air: “Good night.”
As well known as Don Hastings became with all that exposure on national television, he told me that he experienced a different kind of fame than what a Hollywood actor or a sit-com star might experience, something unique to soap opera figures. “People treat us like people they know,” he said. “I don’t mean we’re celebrities to them; we’re people they recognize and know. If you’re recognized, it’s not going to ruin your dinner.”
I felt at the time that Hastings might be comfortable with that sort of relationship with fans, because he is soft-spoken and well mannered and, as I learned first-hand, a consummate professional. While I was waiting for a lunch date with Don Hastings, I watched from the control room the taping of an episode of As the World Turns. Something went wrong with a scene, and it had to be re-shot. During the brief pause, Hastings, whom we could see on the monitors, made a wisecrack, but he did it in character, as Dr. Bob Hughes. One of the technicians said to a colleague, “Now there is a guy who can have fun while he’s working without acting like an amateur.”
July 1, 2014
While I was rummaging around in the dusty archives of this blog, I came across a post I wrote in May 2009 concerning a plan by Martin Scorsese to oversee a film about the life of Frank Sinatra. The particular thing that had caught my attention was a report by Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke to the effect that, while Scorsese had Leonardo DiCaprio in mind for the title role, Universal Studios preferred Johnny Depp. I’m not an authority on these matters, but it doesn’t seem to me that either of those actors quite matches the description of Sinatra offered by Debbie Reynolds in a film they made together: “kind of cute, in a beat-up broken-down sort of way.”
I had forgotten about that post, and coming across it made me wonder what had happened to Scorsese’s project. From what little I’ve been able to find out with no more effort than a couple of Google searches, Scorsese typically has several projects in the works at any one time, and the Sinatra movie is among those still turtling along. The most recent report I could find was posted in December 2013 on a site called The Playlist, and all the post added was Scorsese’s confirmation that “that project’s still going strong.” I understand that construction on the Cathedral of St. Peter in Cologne was begun in 1248 and completed in 1880, so I suppose everything is relative, as I was telling Professor Einstein just the other day.
I also read an August 2013 report by Mike Fleming Jr. on deadline.com to the effect that Universal had assigned Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips) to write the screenplay and that the several prospective producers would include Sinatra’s daughter Tina, Peter Guber, and Cathy Schulman. “It was Guber and Schulman who brought in the project to the studio,” Fleming wrote, “after they secured life and music rights from Frank Sinatra Enterprises, which is a joint venture of the estate of Ol’ Blue Eyes and the Warner Music Group.”
In a certain sense, I’m not interested in any of this. I have an aversion to movie or television biographies of folks who were my contemporaries and whose personalities were as strong and pervasive as Sinatra’s. Whether it were DiCaprio, Depp, or Danny DeVito, I wouldn’t be able to accept the actor as Sinatra. I had that experience when Brad Garrett played the title role in Gleason, a 2002 CBS movie biography of Jackie Gleason. Garrett did a creditable job in the part, I suppose, but he simply wasn’t Gleason, and I couldn’t get past that. Ask me to buy Howard Silva as Benjamin Franklin and I’m good, but not with someone who was a constant presence in my own lifetime.
This is exacerbated, too, by the fact that I live in New Jersey, where by common consent we maintain the fiction that Sinatra was our guy, accept no substitutes. Oh, sure enough, he was from Hoboken and did his first singing in that neck of the woods — a figurative term even then — but he was much more of a Mr. Hollywood and Mr. Vegas and even Mr. Manhattan than he was a Mr. Hudson County. Perhaps he took Jimmy Durante’s remark too seriously: “I went to Hoboken to forget, and then I had to go to Hackensack to forget Hoboken.” That was before Hoboken was the high-rent district it is today.
The issue of Sinatra’s connection to New Jersey came up in 1975 when I interviewed a playwright named Louis La Russo II who had written a gutsy play entitled Lamppost Reunion that initially ran for 77 performances at the Little Theater in New York. The play was set in the sort of fictional Lamppost Bar where the owner and a few of his friends reminisce about the days when they sang in a group with a character named Fred Santora (get it?) who is about to make an appearance at Madison Square Garden. After nearly forty years, I don’t remember the details very well, but I know that at least a couple of guys were proud of their background with Santora, but one of them was nursing some undefined resentment. Of course, while they’re discussing all this, Santoro walks into the bar, and the past becomes the present and at least one ugly secret comes out of the dark. In that first production, Danny Aiello played “Biggie,” owner of the Lamppost Bar, and Gabriel Dell, who was a well-known comic actor back then, played Santoro. I believe that play is still produced now and then.
When I interviewed Louis La Russo, he told me that Sinatra’s “people” had let him know that they weren’t crazy about the resemblance between his character and Mr. Vegas, etc. I think La Russo was more amused than anything else.
Although I never met Sinatra — what with him being All It and me being just this guy in Jersey —I did, through a process somewhat related to the “degrees of separation” phenomenon, socialize with his father, Anthony Martin Sinatra, known variously as Tony and Marty. Because of a mutual friend, I had dinner with the elder Sinatra on several occasions in the early 1960s at the Clam Broth House, a Hoboken landmark that was condemned in 2004. I was in his company for several hours before I realized who his son was, because Marty, who ostensibly had been a paid fireman in Hoboken — in Hudson County, it’s best to use the qualifier when talking about folks who hold public-sector jobs — was an unassuming guy who was content with his own persona.
Eventually, he did tell me about his boxing career and about a mutual acquaintance, Jackie Farrell, who, Marty said, had put the arm on the owner of a local gin mill to give Frank and his companions their first paid job. Jackie, an amiable and helpful guy, weighed about ninety pounds and usually wore a brown suit. I knew him when he constituted the public relations department for the New York Yankees when the team was still being run like a mom-and-pop grocery.
Among Sinatra’s musical moments on film, my favorite is his duet with Bing Crosby in High Society (1956). It starts at about 4:18 at THIS SITE.
June 21, 2014
I ordered two CDs from abroad in the past few weeks. One, a collection of Hebrew songs sung by Dudu Fisher, came from Jerusalem; the other, the first solo album by Charlotte Jaconelli, came from Britain. Despite the best of intentions, I haven’t listened to the Dudu Fisher album yet, but I listened to Charlotte Jaconelli’s album with in a couple of hours of receiving it, and I was not disappointed.
Charlotte Jaconelli was half of an act, with Jonathan Antoine, that caused a sensation when they appeared on Britain’s Got Talent in 2012. They were 16 and 17 years old, respectively, and they were an unlikely looking pair, she already cutting a glamorous figure and he very overweight and very casually dressed, with dark wavy hair falling down to his shoulders. There was the usual eye-rolling from Simon Cowell, and the air of resignation as he walked the teens through their bios. But when Jonathan and Charlotte cut loose — he with a startling operatic tenor and she with a pure pop soprano — the house was on its feet.
When the uproar had subsided, the judges were unanimous in their praise, but Cowell, in that delicate way that he has, suggested to Charlotte that she might hold Jonathan back in his career, and told Jonathan that perhaps he should “dump her.” “Well, We came here as a duo,” Jonathan said, “and we’re going to stay here as a duo.” Inexplicably, Jonathan and Charlotte finished the season in second place, behind a dog act, but Cowell signed them to a recording contract and they turned out two albums together. But then they split up because, Charlotte has said, they had different ambitions with respect to the kind of music they want to perform and record. Jonathan’s first solo album is due out in the fall, and Charlotte’s, aptly named Solitaire, was released recently.
There are eleven songs on the CD — an odd number, by the way — and they seem to have been chosen so that on this first solo album, Charlotte can demonstrate her range. She performs pop, Broadway, and classical works, and her pure, silvery voice is equally at ease in all of them. One might detect a little bit of caution in this first solo venture; but, on the other hand, Charlotte also did not give in to any temptation to show off, something she has the vocal power to do. There are two duets (“I Know Him So Well” with Kerry Ellis and “All I Ask of You” with Daniel Koek) that demonstrate again that Charlotte’s voice holds its own with a male counterpart.
I was particularly happy to find that the carefully chosen playlist includes “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls” from the 1843 opera “The Bohemian Girl.” This is a well-traveled song that has been recorded by performers as diverse as Enya and Sinéad O’Connor. Rosina Lawrence dubbed it for Julie Bishop in the 1936 film version of the opera, starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The song has been lampooned at times, but Charlotte Jaconelli’s sensitive performance makes it clear why the tune still has legs after 170 years.
We’re going to be hearing a lot from Charlotte Jaconelli. For now, you can click HERE to see and hear her sing “Pie Jesu,” one of the songs on the Solitaire album.