February 27, 2015
I was happy to see that the Metropolitan Opera’s lineup for the 2015-2016 season includes Georges Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) which has not been seen at the Met since Enrico Caruso, Giuseppe De Luca, and Frieda Hempl sang it in 1916. Most opera buffs I know have never seen this opera performed, and I have seen it only once—at the late and lamented New York City Opera. This was a relatively early composition of Georges Bizet who ten years later made his indelible mark with Carmen. I’m in the “I know what I like” category of opera fans and no expert. What I read is that the music in The Pearl Fishers betrays the uncertainty of Bizet’s youth (he was 25 years old at the time), but that the libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré was so poor as to be laughable. Apparently, even they thought so.
The work was introduced in Paris with 18 performances in 1863; the public loved it, but the critics didn’t. Some of Bizet’s contemporaries in music did find some merit in the score. The Pearl Fishers wasn’t mounted again until after Bizet’s untimely death in 1875, but it eventually became a popular piece, mostly because—whatever its shortcomings—the melodies and orchestrations are infectious. In fact, the tenor and baritone have a duet in the first act that is one of the most popular pieces of operatic music. This duet is called “Au fond du temple saint”—in Italian, “Dal tempo al limitar.” The story involves two men, Nadir and Zurga who reunite in Ceylon after Nadir had been absent for some time. These men had once been in love with the same woman, but had promised each other that they both would renounce her so as to preserve their own friendship. In this duet, the men speak dreamily about the beauty of this woman, but then they reaffirm the promise they had made. This is in the first act, so the reader can imagine what comes next.
I never get tired of this duet, which I had heard many times before I ever saw the opera. The beauty of the melody and the blending of the voices reach some sublime level of artistry. I once gave a recording of the Italian version of this duet to the artistic director of a major theater here in New Jersey, and he later told me that he wept when he first listened to it. That had never happened to me, but I understood.
My favorite recording of this duet is by Beniamino Gigli and Giuseppe De Luca. You can hear it by clicking HERE.
You can hear Count John McCormack and the baritone Mario Sammarco sing it by clicking HERE.
A somewhat more contemporary performance, sung in the original French by Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes, is HERE.
February 10, 2015
Pete Seeger said during a concert at Carnegie Hall that when he was thrashing around for a melody for “Sailing Down My Golden River” he got started by using the first eight notes of “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly.” He wasn’t taking too much of a chance. The melody belongs to a sixteenth-century Welsh carol, “Nos Galan,” and has long since passed into the public domain. The popular Christmas song that uses the same music first appeared in 1862.
I recalled Pete’s remark the other day when some folks were getting on Sam Smith’s case for not acknowledging Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne while accepting a Grammy for “Stay With Me,” the “song of the year.” When that song was released last April, many people noticed a similarity to “I Won’t Back Down,” which was huge for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1989. Petty’s people saw Smith’s people and the parties settled out of court last October. Petty and Lynne are both to get writing credit, along with Smith and Jimmy Napes.
It seems that no one thinks Smith deliberately plagiarized Petty’s song; with so many people listening to so much music, some subliminal appropriation is almost bound to happen. Even the court thought that was the case when George Harrison’s 1971 hit “My Sweet Lord” drew immediate comparisons to Ronnie Mack’s “He’s So Fine,” which was a hit for The Chiffons in 1963.The similarity resulted in complicated litigation that lasted from 1971 to 1998. Harrison was eventually directed to pay damages of $587,000—half of an earlier award—and he received rights to the song. As for the notion of unconscious plagiarism, there were some skeptics, including John Lennon, who told a Playboy interviewer: “He must have known, you know. He’s smarter than that … He could have changed a couple of bars in that song and nobody could ever have touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price. Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off.”
My favorite incident of this kind—because of the strange juxtaposition of genres—involved the operatic composer Giacomo Puccini and the American entertainer Al Jolson. The trouble started with the 1920 publication of the popular song “(I Found My Love in) Avalon,” which was written by Al Jolson, Buddy DeSylva, and Vincent Rose. The lyric referred to the city of Avalon, which is located on Catalina Island in California. The following year, Puccini’s publishers sued Jolson and his collaborators on the grounds that the first few chords of “Avalon” were virtually identical to the first few chords of “E lucevan le stelle,” an aria from Puccini’s opera Tosca. I’m very familiar with both compositions, and I never noticed the similarity until I read about the lawsuit. But a judge with a more sensitive ear awarded Puccini $25,000 in damages and all subsequent royalties from “Avalon,” which has been recorded dozens of times.
January 25, 2015
Joe Franklin, who died yesterday, once did a live show at Menlo Park Mall in Edison, here in New Jersey, and a colleague of mine went to cover it. He came back with several anecdotes that confirmed the impression we already had of this unique personality who had been a fixture on New York radio and television for decades. For example, my colleague related that after the show a young man introduced himself to Franklin and explained that he was trying to get started in a career as a comedian. Without taking a second to think, Franklin said, “Meet me on the northwest corner of Times Square and Forty-second street at ten o’clock Monday morning. I’ll make you very happy.” And he made the young man happy by taking him to the WOR-TV studio and putting him on that day’s talk show.
When my colleague’s story had been published, he decided to go to Manhattan in person to deliver copies to Franklin. I accepted the invitation to go along. When we arrived at the studio, Franklin was in the last quarter-hour of his show. Once the broadcast was over, we approached Franklin, and my colleague introduced me and turned over the tear sheets. Franklin grinned and, without missing a beat, said, “Why don’t you guys come on the show?” Mind you, he had never seen me or, for that matter, heard of me before. “What would we talk about?” I asked him. “You can co-host the show, interview the guests.” And so we did.
Sometime after that, my colleague and I were discussing Joe Franklin with others in the newsroom, and I said, “I’ll bet that if we called him up and asked if we could come on the show again, he’d say yes.” My colleague decided to test that theory. He said he wasn’t sure Joe remembered him, but the sentence was hardly spoken before Joe blurted out a date, and we went on again.
We had no illusions about any of this. Joe wasn’t Dave Letterman. It was probably a constant challenge for him to fill his dance card. Still, he had a lot of friends and he often scored a guest with somewhat more status than we had. In fact, on one of the shows we were on, one of the guests was Charles Hamilton, who was one of the best-known handwriting experts and autograph dealers of his time. He had debunked the so-called Hitler Diaries in 1983. But even when his guests were from the middle of the pack, Joe had a genius for appearing enthusiastic. He probably made a lot of folks feel good about their careers despite evidence to the contrary.
He was a combination of pitchman, raconteur, purveyor of nostalgia, and carnival barker, and he was quintessential New York. He ought to be out there on the square in bronze, hanging out with Father Duffy and Georgie Cohan.
January 18, 2015
Having seen the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease up close — having lived with them actually, we don’t go out of our way to see the subject dramatized. The other night, however, we were glad we stumbled on Iris, a 2001 movie starring Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Bonneville. This film is based on the life of Iris Murdoch, a prominent British novelist and philosopher in the second half of the twentieth century. While she was a young woman teaching at Oxford, Murdoch fell in love with another Oxford academic, John Bayley, and eventually married him. It was what Puccini’s librettists might have called “a strange harmony of contrasts. Winslet was confident, high-spirited, articulate, and promiscuous, and Bayley was awkward, stuttering, shy, and virgin.
Their story, based on Bayley’s written accounts, is told in turns by flashbacks to the tumult of their early life together and a portrayal of the gradual deterioration of the elderly Iris’s mind. At the center of the story is John Bayley’s enduring love for this woman, even when her dementia frightens him and strains his patience. Dench and Winslet play the elder and younger Iris, and Broadbent and Bonneville play the elder and younger Bayley. This casting was inspired, because in both cases the premise that we are watching the same people at different stages of their lives is convincing. The quality of the performances is reflected by the fact that, among many accolades, Jim Broadbent won an Oscar and Judi Dench and Kate Winslet were nominated. Why Hugh Bonneville wasn’t nominated I can’t imagine. Those who are familiar with him in vehicles such as Belle and Downton Abbey will learn something about his range by watching him in this film. Incidentally, fans of Downton Abbey and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel might be pleased to see Penelope Wilton’s performance in a significant supporting role in Iris.
January 4, 2015
I told one of my daughters the other day that she should see The In-Laws, the 1979 film starring Peter Falk and Alan Arkin. It has to be one of the funniest movies of its kind. Coincidentally, as Pat and I were surfing for a movie to watch on the following night, we came across Big Trouble, a 1986 film also starring Falk and Arkin and including Charles Durning, Robert Stack, Beverly D’Angelo, and Valerie Curtin. We watched it. We were disappointed. I have read that this movie, the last directed by John Cassavetes, is a spoof of Double Indemnity and that it contains multiple references to other classic movies. In fact, the commentator on the IMDb website recommends that a viewer see some of these films—and others directed by Cassavetes—before viewing this one. That’s too much work, but I can verify the commentator’s prediction that a viewer who doesn’t undertake the prerequisites is unlikely to understand or appreciate Big Trouble.
Arkin plays Leonard Hoffman, an agent for a large insurance company, whose wife, Arlene (Valerie Curtin), is hell-bent on sending their musically talented triplet sons to Yale. But an expected scholarship did not materialize, and Leonard is becoming unstrung under the pressure of his wife’s ambition for the boys. While this crisis is simmering, Hoffman is asked by a blonde beauty named Blanche Rickey (Beverly D’Angelo) to make a house call to write a homeowner’s policy on the mansion she occupies with her adventurer-husband, Steve (Peter Falk). She tells Leonard that Steve’s health is very fragile; in fact, he isn’t likely to live much longer. Leonard, in turn, marvels at the fact that there is no life insurance policy on Steve. From this conversation there flows a complicated and wacky chain of events through which we learn—as though life hadn’t told us so often enough—that things aren’t always what they seem.
There are some laughs in this movie—many of them emanating from the combined personalities of Falk and Arkin—including a scene in which Steve offers and Leonard reluctantly accepts a glass of “sardine liqueur,” something that Steve assures Leonard is almost impossible to find. But the movie overall is bizarre and unsatisfying—unless, of course, you’ve done your research.
See The In-Laws.
December 23, 2014
When I bought the 2008 Jetta I’m driving now, I was disappointed but not surprised to find that it did not have a cassette-tape player. Having been born in the era of 78 rpm records, I have long since accepted the fact that sound technology changes every two or three days. Still, I was nonplussed about all the music now trapped on all those cassettes. I have thought about throwing them away but, fortunately, I never did. I say “fortunately,” because I recently learned how easy it is to transfer the sound from those tapes to CDs (which, I know, are another fading medium). One of the first tapes I transferred was something called “Baseball Musak,” a collection of songs and other recordings having to do with our national game.
Among the cuts on that tape is a jazz tune called “Van Lingle Mungo,” which was written by pianist-composer David Frishberg and released in 1969. Frishberg had composed a melody but couldn’t satisfy himself with lyrics. During this same period, Frishberg leafed through a baseball reference book and came across the name of Van Lingle Mungo, a pugnacious guy who pitched in the major leagues from 1931 to 1945. Mungo’s full name fit perfectly into the cadence of the last seven beats of Frishberg’s melody. After discovering that, Frishberg scoured baseball’s calico past and composed a lyric for his song consisting almost entirely of thirty-seven players’ names, including such melodic monikers as Augie Bergamo, Frenchy Bordagaray, and Sigmund Jakucki.
The result of this improbable combination was described by music critic Ira Gitler as “one of the best jazz works of the 70s.” The song, which one might imagine listening too while sipping a lonely gin-and-tonic in a dark and careworn lounge, has a haunting quality that oddly has as much to do with the names as with the melody.
Van Lingle Mungo, by the way, was a pitcher of some consequence. He averaged 16 wins per season from 1932 through 1936. He struck out 238 batters in 1936, leading the National League. He was on the NL All-Star team in 1934, 1936, and 1937. He suffered an arm injury in 1937 and won only 13 major league games in the next six years. Still, he has a winning lifetime record (120-115) and a respectable lifetime earned-run average (.347) — both enviable achievements.
You can hear Dave Frishberg’s song by clicking HERE:
December 14, 2014
I recently joined a Facebook group devoted to The Honeymooners, and one of the discussion strings included a reference to the fact that Art Carney had appeared in a television production of Harvey,a play published in 1944 by Mary Chase. The play ran on Broadway for more than 1700 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1945, which might have been more understandable at the time than it is now, particularly in view of the fact that one of the plays the Pulitzer jury passed over was Tennesee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.
There have been many adaptations of Harvey, and the first one done for television was the production that Carney appeared in in 1958.The production was performed live as part of a series known as The DuPont Show of the Month. The story focuses on Elwood Dowd, played by Carney, a man who lives on a large inheritance and shares his home with his sister, Veta Louise Simmons, and her unmarried daughter, Myrtle Mae. Although Dowd for a large part of his adult life was a conventional man who was widely admired in his small home town, he has now become notorious for claiming as his best friend, and introducing to anyone who will listen, an invisible six-foot-one rabbit named Harvey. His behavior disrupts Veta’s efforts to maintain some standing in society and Myrtle Mae’s hopes of attracting a beau. They attribute Harvey’s “existence” to Dowd’s habitual drinking. Veta’s agitation is worsened by the fact that she imagines she has seen Harvey once or twice herself. Goaded by Myrtle Mae, Veta decides to take decisive action and have Elwood committed for treatment of mental illness, and the action of the play is generated by that decision.
Although this play was performed live, there is a kinescope of it which is available on the Internet. I saw the show when it was broadcast, and I have been eager to see it again, so I recently bought the DVD. James Stewart’s performance as Elwood in the 1950 film version is difficult to surpass, but this TV version has a life of its own. The casting and the performances were admirable. Carney, who sheds his Ed Norton persona, plays the role in a manner more understated than Stewart’s, and that’s intriguing in its own way because if Elwood Dowd is nothing else he is content with his life. Veta is played by Marion Lorne, who was a stage actress for fifty years before she became one of the most popular character actors on television in the 1950s and 1960s. She was particularly well known for her work on Mr. Peepers, The Gary Moore Show, and Bewitched. She specialized in playing a bumbling figure who couldn’t form a coherent sentence and who could be upset by almost anything that departed from the normal. Miss Kelly, a nurse at the sanitarium where Veta wants Elwood confined, is played by 25-year-old Elizabeth Montgomery, who would later work with Lorne on Bewitched. Myrtle Mae is played by 32-year-old Charlotte Rae. The wonderful Fred Gwynne has a brief but effective and pivotal turn as E.J. Loffgrin, a cab driver who gives Veta a dose of reality concerning the likely consequences of forcing Elwood back to “normal.”
Jack Weston, one of the most versatile actors of his era, plays Wilson, the amorous orderly at the sanitarium. Loring Smith, a fine stage actor, plays Dr. Chumley, director of the sanitarium, and the great character actress Ruth White plays the sympathetic Mrs. Chumley.
For a kinescope, the quality of the DVD is not bad, and it has some historical interest because it includes some elaborate promotional ads for DuPont as well as commercials for Piels beer (with Burt and Harry) and Parliament cigarettes.
November 25, 2014
My wife and I were staying at a hotel in Warsaw a couple of decades ago when we happened to catch on TV a series called “Miodowe lata,” which, I’m told, means “The Honeymoon Years.” The scenes were in contemporary Warsaw and the series was shot in color, but something about it looked familiar. We’re not conversant in Polish, but when we had watched the episode long enough, we realized that the actors were performing the episode of “The Honeymooners” in which Ralph becomes the janitor in the apartment building. The lead character, whose name in the series is Karol Krawczyk, is a conductor on a trolley in Warsaw. His neighbor is Tadeusz Norek. I learned later that the series was produced from 1998 until at least 2004 by the Polish broadcast network Polsat. We wondered as we watched the episode whether the producers had sought permission to use that story line, but as the credits rolled we saw the Viacom logo, which seemed to answer the question. According to an article in “Variety,” the first episode of “Miodowe kata” in 1998 attracted an estimated 40 percent of the viewing audience. The average share for Polsat shows at the time was in the range of 17 to 25 percent.
There also have been versions of “The Honeymooners” in Indonesia, Canada, the Netherlands, and Sweden.
There’s a whole episode of “Miodowe kata” at the link below, and there are more available on YouTube.
November 20, 2014
Movies that accurately portray the lives of people who have mental disabilities are important. Such movies, by helping the general population better understand the exceptional people in their midst, can create a healthier and more constructive environment for everyone. The Other Sister,’ a 1999 film starring Diane Keaton and directed by Gary Marshall, tried to do that but fell on its face. In fact, it was embarrassing for me to watch, and it should have been embarrassing for the actors to perform.
The “other” sister of the title is Carla Tate, played by Juliette Lewis, who is mentally challenged in some way but who is bright and personable and eager to live independently. Carla is the youngest of three daughters of well-off parents, Elizabeth and Radley, played by Diane Keaton and Tom Skerritt.
At the beginning of the film, Carla has successfully completed the course of study at a private boarding school and is returning to her family’s home. She wants to get on with her life (and by that she means get training at a public polytech school, get a job, and get an apartment), but Elizabeth has no confidence in her daughter’s ability to do anything but live under the protection of her parents. Radley — who seems to have licked a drinking problem — is a little more willing to let Carla stretch. Carla does go to a tech school, and there she meets Danny McMann (Giovanni Ribisi) who, of course, is also mentally challenged and, it seems, less bright and emotionally stable than Carla. The two strike up a friendship and then fall in love and then become sexually active — an aspect of their story that the filmmakers handled with exquisite clumsiness. Carla wears Elizabeth down enough to get an apartment, but Danny isn’t doing as well in school, and his absentee father cuts off funding for any further education. There is a painful scene in which Danny attends a country club Christmas party with Carla and her parents, is intimidated by the surroundings, gets hopelessly drunk, grabs the bandstand microphone and blurts out his feelings for Carla and the fact that the two have been having sex. She is furious at the crowd for laughing at her, as she interprets their reaction, and at Danny for embarrassing her. The next we see of Danny, he is on a train heading home, wherever that is.
Cut to the wedding ceremony of the second of the three daughters. Marshall, perhaps to demonstrate that the spirit of Laverne and Shirley is never quite exorcized from his soul, brings Danny back, in the balcony of the church, of course, from whence he interrupts the nuptials with a parody of The Graduate. The young couple, now reunited, want to wed, but Elizabeth won’t consent. Carla and Danny are determined to marry with or without Elizabeth’s blessing or presence, but the worth reader can no doubt anticipate how that turns out. As if to test how much an audience can tolerate in a 139-minute movie, Marshall and the other writers arrange for Danny, who was a kind of gofer for the polytech’s marching band, surprise Carla outside the church with the band in full regalia marching by and playing “Seventy-six Trombones.”
I guess the filmmakers were concerned that this movie would not seem socially relevant, and so they included a subplot in which Elizabeth is estranged from her third daughter, who lives in a gay relationship. Guess what happens at the end.
The most annoying thing about this movie is that it treats a serious subject like a sit-com. The annoyance is aggravated by the patronizing portrayals of both of the young people—although Juliette Lewis does her best with what she was given to work with—and by the improbable and even slapstick scenes. Marshall doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do with those characters, or maybe he’s simply not competent to deal with such personalities. How else to explain that on one hand Carla is presented to us as mature, confident, and determined, while on the other hand she accompanies her mother to a benefit event at an animal shelter and starts barking at the dogs being housed there and ultimately turns them loose. The sequence in which a bartender at a high-end country club serves an obviously troubled young man one powerful drink after another stretches credibility to the breaking point. A scene in which Elizabeth comandeers a golf cart to chase a distraught Carla across the country club lawns is hopelessly absurd. And Keaton’s portrayal of the inconsistently up-tight Elizabeth can set one’s teeth on edge.
Roger Ebert, of happy memory, commenting about this film, cited Jean-Luc Godard’s observation that the best response to a bad film is to make a good film. In this case, Ebert wrote and I agree, that film is Dominick and Eugene. Don’t see this one; see that one.
November 12, 2014
I met Shelley Berman in 1972. He was staying in Bernardsville, New Jersey — I think it was Mike Ellis’s house — and appearing in a production of Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. Berman had become widely known because of his television appearances. His signature routine was sitting on a stool and talking on an imaginary telephone — a bit he put his stamp on before Bob Newhart used it in his own act. I had always thought of Berman as a kind of reiteration of Oscar Levant. I never met Levant, but Berman’s often dour persona reminded me of what I had read about the pianist-composer. I also think that certain points in their lives, they resembled each other physically. I found Berman to be articulate. I remember quite well the case he made about the damage critics can do to performers’ careers. It was something he had experienced himself and had thought a lot about; he could have made that argument before a jury.
I bring up Shelley Berman because we saw him the other night in a 2006 movie, The Holiday. I watch movie credits right to the end, and that’s how I discovered that Berman was in the movie. He had a small role, and I hadn’t recognized him. He was 82 years old when he made that film. But when I saw his name in the credits, I went back into the movie to have a look. I wouldn’t have known him, but the point is that he was a perfect choice for the part he played. And that — the casting — is what makes this movie worthwhile.
The Holiday, which was produced and directed by Nancy Meyers, is about two women who are unhappy in love. Iris Simpkins (Kate Winslet), who writes a society column for The Daily Telegraph of London, has been in love with a colleague for years. He is an affectionate and manipulative friend; he’s also engaged, and there is no prospect for him to return her passion. Meanwhile, frenetic Amanda Woods (Cameron Diaz), who owns and operates a lucrative Los Angeles company that makes movie trailers, finds out that her live-in lover has been having an affair with his secretary. Both women abruptly decide to take a holiday to assuage their anguish and, under the only-in-the-movies rule, they end up swapping houses. The outcome is exactly what you’d expect — in a movie.
But although the plot is obvious and implausible, the casting decisions were impeccable and the result is a very entertaining movie. Winslet and Diaz are perfect as the ingenuous Iris and the frantic Amanda. Jude Law is disarming in an unusual role for him; he plays Iris’s brother, Graham,who makes Amanda’s visit to England worthwhile. Eli Wallach, who was 90 years old when this film was shot, has a tour de force as Arthur Abbott, a retired screen writer with whom Iris develops a warm relationship that revs up the lives of both parties. Shelley Berman plays a buddy of Abbott. The most ingenious stroke of all was the choice of Jack Black as Miles, a sympathetic Hollywood composer who shares with Iris a weakness for the wrong lovers. The script was written with Winslet, Diaz, Law, and Black in mind. Any one of us could had written it, as far as the story line goes, and the reviewers had a few things to say about that, but the movie with its stable of charming characters still made money.
Dustin Hoffman has a brief uncredited cameo in this film. It occurs when Miles and Iris go to a video store and are discussing The Graduate. Hoffman appears as a customer who overhears their conversation and reacts with a whimsical smile. Hoffman has said that he noticed all the cameras and lights at a Blockbuster store and stopped to find out what was going on. He ran into Meyers, whom he knew, and she wrote him into the scene.
Shelley Berman performed one of his telephone routines on Judy Garland’s television show. It is introduced by Garland and a short musical number. To see it, click HERE.