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.
June 17, 2014
The potential was there; in fact, it was almost too obvious. An introverted Jewish girl attending a posh private school in Manhattan is the target of anti-Semitic harassment. Her parents seem to think of her as an inconvenience, but she can turn for solace and encouragement to her grandmother — a survivor of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.
These are the main ingredients in I Love You, I I Love You Not, a 1996 film based on a play by Wendy Kesselman, but the result is confusing and at times even incomprehensible.
The cast is promising enough. Jeanne Moreau plays the grandmother, referred to only as “Nana”; Claire Danes plays Daisy, the troubled girl known for her silence, and, in flashbacks and dream sequences, the younger Nana; and Jude Law plays Ethan, the charismatic, lacrosse-captain, straight-A student whom Daisy secretly yearns for and, in fact, stalks.
The movie begins as a Holocaust survivor is making an audio-visual presentation to a class that includes Daisy and Ethan and others who exhibit varying degrees of appreciation for or indifference to what they are hearing and seeing. Daisy is the most affected by far. It shortly becomes clear that she is a misfit at the school. The anti-Semitism that presumably contributes to this condition is clearly presented in only one incident. Another factor in her isolation, one that is openly discussed, is the fact that she is bookish to a fault, a characteristic that her grandmother nourishes even if she doesn’t encourage it. We never meet Daisy’s parents, but we can infer that there is no love lost between them and their daughter. We infer from the dialogue only that they like their freedom as gadabouts and want Daisy as out-of-the-way as possible. Whenever she talks to them on the telephone, they accuse her of adopting a “tone”(she doesn’t), and they accuse Nana of the same thing on one occasion. Although we would expect Daisy’s solitude to raise some issues of intimacy, her obsession with Ethan, whom she barely knows, seems out of character for such a cerebral young woman, and so does her willingness to share this obsession with a few girlfriends, in childish terms.
Daisy’s stalking is clumsy enough that Ethan becomes fully aware of it, and eventually they are face to face, and then in a relationship. When Daisy is unwilling to let their passion progress beyond heavy kissing and caressing, Ethan — who is under pressure from his friends to drop her for one of the other girls who “want your jock” — breaks up with her. This leads to a crisis in which Daisy rages at Nana and flees Nana’s home and survives only because of Nana’s intervention, naturally, and Daisy continues to nurse a hope that she can recapture Ethan’s attention. Nana’s role in all of this is problematic. Daisy is so fixated on Nana’s wartime experience that she once uses a marker to write on her own arm the number the Nazi’s tattooed on Nana’s. And she insists that Nana repeat a macabre sort of bedtime story which represents the loss of Nana’s two siblings in the death camp. Why Daisy deals with Nana’s history in this fashion is not made clear. Ethan’s motivations are familiar enough, but Nana’s and Daisy’s are not, and inasmuch as their relationship constitutes the raison d’être for this film, that’s a problem.
June 9, 2014
I suppose when we search for movie based on the fact that Shirley MacLaine is in the cast, we should be prepared for almost anything. And I suppose that’s what we got when we found the 2003 film Carolina in which MacLaine stars with Julia Stiles and Alessandro Nivola. This was a $15-million property, but Miramax never released it to theaters. After sitting on the movie for two years the distributor abruptly released it directly to DVD in 2005.
The story, written by Katherine Fugate, uses a well-exercised premise in which a character who seems to live within the strike zone has close ties to her family who are well outside the foul lines if not beyond the left-field wall. Stiles plays Carolina Mirabeau — so called because her gadabout dad, Ted (Randy Quaid) always named his kids after the states in which he happened to launch their conception. Carolina has a job handling the contestants on a TV dating-game show. She also has an inexplicably poor track record in her own dating game, despite being smart, witty, and gorgeous. A relationship with a rich Briton named Heath Pierson (Edward Atterton) seems more promising than most of Carolina’s liaisons, and it is a critical ingredient in this film, and not only because Pierson, an unlikely contestant on the garish dating show, inadvertently costs Carolina her job. The only intimacy Carolina seems to enjoy consistently is of the platonic sort, involving her charismatic neighbor, Albert Morris, played by Nivola. Morris earns his living by writing romantic novels under a female pseudonym.
Carolina, and ultimately her sisters, Georgia and Maine, were raised by Millicent Mirabeau, Ted’s mother and their grandmother. Millicent is the kind of role a screenwriter would create for vintage ’03 MacLaine if there were only an hour to spare. Millicent lives on the outskirts of the city, figuratively and literally, consorts with whatever odd sorts she takes a shine to and says and does whatever she damn well pleases. You know: Shirley MacLaine. Carolina loves Millicent and often spends time with her, and Millicent has her own ideas about how Carolina should live and particularly whom Carolina should marry. At Millicent’s demand, an outdoor Thanksgiving dinner takes place at her house for her family and a colorful cast of extras, including the only mildly colorful Albert. When Carolina insists that the venue be moved to her apartment one year, there are both predictable and revealing results. This movie is worthwhile for the characters and the performances, but the story is implausible in many regards, the juxtaposition of the uber and under strata of LA society doesn’t seem to have a clear purpose, and the conclusion relies on a turn of events that I would characterize as the easy way out — for the writer if not for the character involved.
May 23, 2014
One of the rewards of research, for me, is so often finding what I wasn’t looking for. For example, I’m viewing Father Robert Barron’s video series, Catholicism, with a group of adults at my parish. One of the episodes in which Father Barron discusses Mary, the mother of Jesus, was filmed in part at the Basilique Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, which is located about fifty miles southwest of Paris. I’m not a student of architecture, but I have read that this church is regarded as the epitome of French Gothic design. There have been several, perhaps as many as five, churches on the site, and the present one was built between 1194 and 1250. There has been no appreciable construction since then. The structure is four hundred thirty feet long, one hundred five feet wide, and one hundred twenty feet high to the roof of the nave. The higher of its two towers is three hundred and seventy-one feet, and that feature of the church led to one of those stories of solitary heroism that characterize war — in this case, World War II.
When I was doing research on the basilica, I came across several web sites that explained why that church might be standing today if it hadn’t been for Welborn Griffith Jr., a soldier from Texas. Because Chartres was in harm’s way when the German invasion of France was imminent in 1939, all of the stained glass in the massive structure, including the spectacular rose window, was removed and stored off site. The glass was cleaned and replaced after the war.
When the Germans of the Seventh Armored Division had entered Chartres in August 1944, it seemed logical to assume that they would use the basilica tower for surveillance of the surrounding area, and U.S. forces planned to shell the building. Griffith, a colonel, disagreed with this plan and volunteered to go behind enemy lines, accompanied by a single enlisted man, to determine if the Germans actually were in the church. They were not, and Griffith rang the church bells as a signal that the Americans should hold their fire.
Griffith, who as posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star, was killed in action shortly thereafter. The citation with his Distinguished Service Cross explained:
“Continuing his inspection of outlying positions north of the city, he suddenly encountered about fifteen of the enemy. He fired several shots at them, then proceeded to the nearest outpost of our forces at which point a tank was located. Arming himself with an M-1 rifle and again with complete disregard for his own safety, Colonel Griffith climbed upon the tank directing it to the enemy forces he had located. During the advance of the tank he was exposed to intense enemy machinegun, rifle, and rocket-launcher fire and it was during this action, in the vicinity of Leves, France, that he was killed.”
A story that appeared in The National Review in 2011 reported that until the 199os Griffith’s family was unaware of the part he had played in sparing the basilica. The residents of Leves had memorialized Griffith with a plaque, but had misunderstood his dog tags and transposed his first and last names. A local historian in the French city discovered the error and took the trouble to find his daughter in Florida.
May 11, 2014
We hooked up our new Amazon Fire TV gizmo and got a little giddy with the voice-recognition remote. One of the names we blurted into the device was “Sophia Loren” and that led us to watch Judith a 1965 example of a wasted opportunity.The cast also included Jack Hawkins and Peter Finch.
This project had possibilities. The story is set in Palestine shortly before the British pulled out of what was to become the State of Israel. A ragtag military organization called the Haganah — forerunner of the Jewish Defense Force — is anticipating more than the usual hostility from surrounding Arabs and is particularly concerned about a former German tank commander, Gustav Schiller, who is providing the Arabs with tactical training. In order to find the elusive Schiller, the Haganah leadership recruits the Nazi’s former wife, Judith, a Jew who has her own reasons for wanting to track him down.
At the beginning of the film we watch as Judith is smuggled into a sea port in a large wooden crate along with another woman and a piece of heavy machinery. When the crate is opened we already see the flaw in this movie: one of the women is dead — not a surprising outcome, considering the mode of transport — but Judith is tastefully disheveled but not so much so that she isn’t ravishing in eye makeup and lipstick as befitted a mid-1960s sex goddess.
Judith is hustled off to the kibbutz where an Haganah unit is housed under the supervision of Aaron Stein, played by Finch. The back story is that Schiller and Judith had a son together, but that Schiller ultimately abandoned his wife and took their child. Judith wound up in the Dachau concentration camp and was forced to have sex with German officers.
Judith doesn’t know where Schiller is, but the Haganah leaders figure that she could identify him if they did locate him. Aaron nudges the impatient Judith into approaching the local British Army commander, a Major Lawton (Jack Hawkins) into letting her see the military file on Schiller. Lawton, who is an upright chap, is nevertheless no match for Judith’s charms, and he hands over the file, which indicates that Schiller’s last known address was Damascus.Stein and another Haganah member take Judith to Damascus where they find Schiller. Judith double-crosses Haganah by shooting Schiller, but somehow the men smuggle the wounded man back to Palestine.While the kibbutz is being attached by Arab forces, Schiller tells Judith about the plan of attack, but he is killed by Arab bombs before telling her where their son has gone.
There probably was enough to go on here to make a decent movie. Finch and Hawkins turned in good performances, and the gritty location shots created a credible image of the environment in which such events would have taken place in 1948. But the film is often reduced to absurdity because of the seemingly irresistible opportunity to exploit Sophia Loren’s physical charms.
We saw a major production of South Pacific the other night — at least the fifth time we’ve seen it on the stage — and so we heard the Seabees sing once again: “We got mangoes and bananas we can pick right off the tree.” No doubt that was true in that part of the world in the 1940s, but the news lately suggests that bananas may not be nearly that available, if they are available at all.
Aggressive diseases that are immune to pesticides and other control measures are threatening to seriously deplete the world’s banana crop, which provides a staple in the diets of an estimated 420 million people and is an important food source to hundreds of millions of others. The worst menace seems to be a soil fungus known as Panama Disease, which has devastated crops in Southeast Asia and has also been identified in Mozambique and Jordan. Authorities say there is a risk that the fungus will spread to Latin America, where the Cavendish variety of banana most familiar in the United States is grown.
As serious as this situation is, I can’t hear about it without thinking of the novelty song, “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” which was written by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn in 1922 for the Broadway revue “Make it Snappy.” Eddie Cantor sang it in that show. Nonsense songs were very popular then and down through the 1950s, and Billy Jones’s recording of this tune was the number-one song in the nation for five weeks in 1923. The origin of the title and first line of the song is uncertain, but the lyrics as a whole may have been inspired by a similar banana blight that originated in Suriname and by the 1920s reached the Caribbean and Central America.As the illustration on the sheet music suggests, this song was part of a genre of entertainment that depended on making fun of immigrants. The lyric tells of a Greek man who owns a fruit store and answers any question in the same fashion: “Yes, we have no bananas.”
I was curious about a reference in the lyric to “sparrow grass,” a term I had never heard before. I learned that “sparrow grass” is a corruption, perhaps a derisive one, of “asparagus.” The Oxford English Dictionary includes a statement written in 1791 by natural historian John Walker, presumably writing about the usage in Britain: “Sparrow-grass is so general that asparagus has an air of stiffness and pedantry.”
You can hear Billy Jones’s 1923 recording, in which his put-on accent sounds more Italian than Greek, by clicking HERE.
These are the lyrics:
There’s a fruit store on our street
It’s run by a Greek.
And he keeps good things to eat
But you should hear him speak!
When you ask him anything, he never answers “no”.
He just “yes”es you to death,
And as he takes your dough, he tells you…
“Yes! We have no bananas
We have no bananas today!!
We have string beans and onions, cabBAges and scallions
And all kinds of fruit and say
We have an old fashioned toMAHto
A Long Island poTAHto, but
Yes! We have no bananas
We have no bananas today!”
Business got so good for him that he wrote home today,
“Send me Pete and Nick and Jim; I need help right away.”
When he got them in the store, there was fun, you bet.
Someone asked for “sparrow grass”
and then the whole quartet
“Yes, we have no bananas
We have-a no bananas today.
Just try those coconuts
Those wall-nuts and doughnuts
There ain’t many nuts like they.
We’ll sell you two kinds of red herring,
Dark brown, and ball-bearing.
But yes, we have no bananas
We have no bananas today.”