Saturday, February 25, 2006

ATTENTION ALL OLD BOOGERS!!! Does anyone besides me remember way back in the day (I'm talking circa 1981) when Nickelodeon was a new cable channel??? And does anyone remember when they showed comic books on TV??? I'm totally not psychotic here, this really happened. Nickelodeon once aired a show that literally showed an entire comic book (one panel on screen at a time) accompanied by actors voicing the word balloons and (if I'm not mistaken) even sound effects. The comic books were exclusively DC Comics mostly from the Silver Age (with the exception of Berni Wrightson's Swamp Thing of the early 70's). Along with Green Lantern comix pencilled by Gil Kane and Flash comix by Carmine Infantino there was also a plethora of "spacey" silver age DC comics like Mystery in Space starring Adam Strange, Space Ranger or Captain Comet. I'm completely serious and not dreaming this whole thing. If only I had managed to tape a few of these shows but this was about a year before I got my first (top loading) VCR. Is there anyone who remembers this fun but bizarre programming choice by the fledgling Nickelodeon???? What with Midnighter heading for the New York Comicon and Pax posting Superman meeting Jerry Lewis comic books on his blog, I was reminded of this nearly forgotten moment of my mispent youth.

Friday, February 24, 2006

I've been reading "Escaping the Delta" by Elijah Wald and it's a terrific read. If you're a music head like me. And if you're interested in the blues. This is, in fact, a history of blues (from around the turn of the 20th century through the 30's & 40's up to the 60's "rediscovery" by British rock bands) which has a fairly large focus on Robert Johnson. Wald makes the point (and it's a very valid one) that more foolishness has been written about Robert Johnson than practically anybody (especially by ernest white boys like him [and me] who fall into the trap of the mystical romanticism surrounding the great blues artist). If it's possible you haven't heard the tale: Robert Johnson supposedly met the Devil at a crossroads and sold his soul in order to gain mastery over the guitar. It's a terrific, mythical story that we all hold dear. But what's the real story? Wald approaches Johnson not as a sycophantic fan boy but with a refreshingly clear eye; his chapters on Johnson in fact only quote those who knew the man or who travelled in the same circles and Wald ignores the scores of fawning music critics (again, mostly white) who have been spinning fairy tales for the past 40 years. Wald (a blues artist for 30 years) also dispels the myth that blues was some old-timey backwater music only performed by "authentic" blues men. Blues, in fact, was just one facet of African-American popular music that was thought of by its audience as progressive and new (as well as being on equal terms with current jazz or pop music in its heyday). In fact, our stereotypical idea of the "authentic blues man" is a much later development. Blues, in fact, was an almost completely female playing field (with the exception of W.C. Handy); the most successful blues artists of the 20's & 30's were almost exclusively women (Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, etc.) Men didn't break into the blues charts until the "blues queens" had blazed the trail. Another myth is dispelled when Wald gains access to actual lists of records featured on jukeboxes in African-American establishments in Clarksdale, Mississippi around 1941. These playlists show that African-American audiences of the time were very liberal in their listening habits and played all genres of music (unlike the stuffy blues purists of today who would never dream of playing a "pop" record of the same era). Records by Glenn Miller, The Ink Spots, Bing Crosby and Gene Autry were routinely played alongside blues records. In fact, blues artists were famously versatile in what they played for an audience. The only recordings of Robert Johnson are straight ahead blues records; however Johnny Shines (who travelled extensively with Johnson) recalls that Robert Johnson would play hillbilly songs, cowboy songs, Bing Crosby tunes or even standards. Shines also noted that some of Robert Johnson's favourites included "Yes Sir, That's My Baby", "My Blue Heaven" and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" (!) As I've mentioned, the book does not focus solely on Robert Johnson but gives a vivid overview of many, MANY blues artists from the 20th century. However, one priceless feature of the book is when Wald examines each and every song Robert Johnson recorded (don't get scared; it's only three chapters long and each song gets about 2-3 paragraphs each). I've been familiar with the songs for years but Wald illustrates what to listen for and I got quite a few new insights into the songs. The book comes with a cd but don't get too excited; it's only got 2 songs on it. However, the 2 songs are very important. Not only does the cd include Leroy Carr's seminal "Mean Mistreater Mama" but also includes take one of Robert Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues" which was inexplicably left off the "Complete Recordings" cd. Besides this, there is also a companion cd (which I haven't gotten yet but you KNOW I will) called "Back to the Crossroads: The Roots of Robert Johnson" which includes many of the blues records which influenced Johnson and of which Wald writes so vividly. The book, in fact, is a lot of fun to read and can be truly fascinating. It's not at all a dry text of music criticism but a refreshing retelling of the history of the blues that's as entertaining as the music itself.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

FAREWELL TOM -- WE HARDLY KNEW YE I'm not a cat person. I never have been. I like dogs. So does my whole family. That's why I was surprised this past year when my parents suddenly began feeding a stray family of cats in the backyard: Tom (yeah, original name, huh?) and his family. Story goes that a family in the neighborhood moved away and abandoned Tom to the elements. Nice, huh? Well, Tom (that's him on the right with his son Wiley) had himself a little family and my parents began buying food to put out for them when the weather began turning colder last autumn. They also would catch the cats one by one and bring them in to have them "fixed" so there wouldn't be any more stray cats running around the neighborhood. Now, as I've said, I'm not a cat person. However, there have been a couple cats I've known who I've actually liked (you can count them on one paw). First there was my friend Cindstercind's fat cat Spike back in the 80's. Then there was my friend Sweet Cheeks' cat Peter Peaches (insert gag reflex here) and presently Frodo. Well, my parents and grandmother each had a favourite cat in this stray family. I guess I gravitated to Tom because he had a big fat head like me. Well, as these things go, last week we noticed Tom was limping and holding up his front paw. My parents finally got him yesterday and took him to the vet to fix him up. Unfortunately, the vet called back soon after and said that ole Tom has kitty AIDS and needed to be put down. Which is what happened. Now, I'm still not a cat person but Tom was pretty cool. I'll miss him. The poor guy had been a house cat all his life until those scumbuckets abandoned him. So, for a second, say a little farewell to a cool cat you never met but I bet would've liked. Even if you're not a cat person.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

ALLOW ME TO TELL YOU WHAT LOVE IS...I'll tackle the Meaning of Life later. OK, so this is a story of me finding out what my concept of love is. . .and how a movie helped me realize how I felt. It's very interesting to me exactly why I love the film "Holiday" so much. I may have finally twigged to it. Of course, it stars Katharine Hepburn along with Cary Grant. Of course, its superbly directed by George Cukor from a play by Philip "The Philadelphia Story" Barry. Actually, "The Philadelphia Story" resembles "Holiday" more than a little bit but I don't have nearly the same amount of affection for it as I do for "Holiday". No, there's something else going on there that commands my devotion. And here goes. My entire idea of what love is probably stems from this movie. And it's only just now that I realized it. My total concept of what it means to be in love and to be loved by another. How that makes one behave and, perhaps more importantly, how one SHOULD behave. Maybe it's given me an impossibly high concept of what love is but I don't think so. And don't worry. It's not some sappy, romantic view of love because I don't believe in that at all. In fact, it's probably the opposite and actually realistic view. However, it's the way I've always behaved when in love and, frankly, it's the way I expect the person who loves me to behave as well. And that is: if you love someone, you put their comfort, their hopes and desires, their wishes and wants and dreams ahead of your own. It's not hearts and flowers or candlelit dinners; that's for amateurs. It's simply thinking of someone else before oneself. And what could be more basic? This is, in fact, the way I've done it (perhaps to my detriment) but that is, in fact, how it has to be done. If you don't do that, you're not really in love. I hate to break it to you. Now, don't make me out to be some kind of a saint because that's the farthest from the truth. It's a totally selfish thing for me to do; nothing makes me happier than to soothe every hurt, fulfill every wish and support every goal of the one I love. It makes me feel wanted, useful and ultimately loved even more if I can do that. Failure in this makes me feel horrible, useless and dejected. There's no way I want to feel that. So, putting her first is in some strange way the most self-serving act imaginable while, at the same time, being selfless too. The point is that, if you love them, it comes naturally. It's not a hardship or, in fact, a conscious thought at all. You should automatically, instinctively just do it. However, just as importantly, the other person who loves you should be doing the same thing. If not, the love is one-sided and uneven and one of you becomes a doormat. Love only works when both people put the other above themselves; then each lifts the other up and supports them in their dreams and desires. Equally. If this doesn't happen, the love's not mutual and the relationship will fail. That's what happened to me (and probably to most of you at some time or another). And this concept comes across most strongly in the film "Holiday"; coincidentally one of my all-time favorites. For anyone unfortunate enough not to have seen it, "Holiday" tells the story of a man named Johnny Case (Cary Grant) who has been working since he was ten. He's worked his way up the ladder of success by age 30. On vacation, he meets and falls in love with Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) and proposes marriage. Back home, Johnny goes to her address only to find the place is a palatial mansion and his fiancee is filthy comfortable. Julia's father is a stern captain of finance who has crushed all the spirit out of his alcoholic son Ned (Lew Ayres) and is dampening the free spirit of his "black sheep" daughter Linda (Katharine Hepburn). Linda feels the empty pursuits of the idle rich most acutely and retreats to her "playroom": the only human-scaled room in the otherwise museum-like house. Johnny is working on a deal that, if it comes thru, will allow him to retire at 30 and go in search of a life devoted to more than just the mere "piling up of money". He's not lazy by any means (as his self-made status attests) but wants to go in search of life while he's still young enough to enjoy it; then, when he's older, he will go back to work knowing what he's working for. Sadly, Johnny slowly realizes that Julia quite enjoys the mere "piling up of money" and will in no way support Johnny's plans. It quickly becomes obvious that it's Linda Johnny should be marrying and not Julia. The moment of truth comes when Johnny gives in to Julia's wishes and agrees to take a job at her father's bank, remain in the rat race and postpone his plans to retire for a few years (with the understanding that in two years, if he still feels the same, he will quit and not have any arguments because he gave it a try). Now, this is the correct thing for Johnny to do since he's putting Julia's wishes before his own. However, it soon becomes glaring obvious that Julia has no intention of allowing him to quit even after giving her wishes for a "financially-minded Johnny" a go. This is where Julia reveals herself to be unworthy of Johnny as well as showing her lack of real love for him. Now, this is no "subservient woman" thing; the man is expected to give her wishes top priority just as she is expected to support his wishes. Very few people would call Katharine Hepburn a subservient woman. Linda makes several comments lamenting what kind of a woman would not stand with her husband in his beliefs. If she was Johnny's wife, Linda says, and he decided to come back and grow peanuts. . . .How she would believe in those peanuts! Indeed, and what kind of a man would not support his wife in the same instance. Johnny was willing to support Julia's beliefs and throw away his convictions by going into finance; Julia merely gets her way and would never dream of supporting Johnny if he tried her way and failed. This concept of love is what I truly believe and expect. It's not starry eyed but practical. Both people thinking first of the other; lifting the other up to new heights. The result is a couple rising together; no one person being the giver or taker but both giving and taking equally. If you're not willing to do that. . .no, in fact, if you don't automatically put the other person first without even a conscious thought, when it really matters. . . .well, I hate to break it to you but you ain't really in love and it ain't gonna work. Take it from one who's been there. And take a look at "Holiday" for a glimpse of how someone arrives at this realization. I think it'll be a little enlightening as well as being one hell of an enjoyable movie.

Friday, February 03, 2006

"Irish Luck" is the first film of the unheralded and forgotten comedy team of Mantan Moreland and Frankie Darro. The two men sadly only had a handful of pictures in which to craft their partnership but these films are historically important and deserve to be better known. Frankie Darro and Mantan Moreland remain the very first film team in cinematic history to depict a white man and a black man as equal partners. In each one of their films together, Darro and Moreland were on equal social and professional levels in the depiction of their film characters. Both men were friends on screen and in real life (in fact, Darro served as pallbearer at Moreland's funeral). In each film, Darro interacted with Moreland as if there were no color barrier between them while Mantan behaved as Frankie's equal in each film situation. The significance of such a matter of fact cinematic depiction of racial equality is monumental in film history (especially as it occurred in 1939: the year Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for playing Vivien Leigh's slave -- no equality to be found in their screen partnership!) "Irish Luck" (subtitled "Amateur Detective") is based on the obscure mystery novel "Death Hops the Bells" by Charles Molyneux Brown and concerns the amateur crime-fighting exploits of bellhop Buzzy O'Brien (Darro) and hotel baggage clerk Jefferson (Moreland). The film opens seemingly halfway into another movie. Fire engines and police cars speed to the Hotel Royale with sirens screaming. Buzzy is seen hiding underneath a bed in a hotel room while unknowing gangsters discuss their plans. Simultaneously a suicidal woman paces back and forth on the hotel roof ledge; this is the cause for concern among the racing fire engines and police cars. A bewildered viewer must at this point be thinking that the DVD company must have left out a couple of reels from the beginning of the film. What is going on?!? Of course, this isn't the actual plot of "Irish Luck" but only a quick setup to portray the characters of Buzzy and Jefferson as amateur sleuths. The suicidal woman on the roof is in actuality only a dummy rigged up by Jefferson to get the cops to the hotel quick in order to catch the gangsters who have Buzzy trapped under a bed. This is the only way to get help fast since the pair's previous amateur sleuthing has so annoyed the authorities that calling the police would be a case of our heroes merely "crying wolf". Naturally, Detective Steve Lanahan (Dick Purcell who would later co-star with Mantan Moreland again in both "King of the Zombies" and "Phantom Killer") arrests the gangsters and gives Buzzy a telling-off about playing detective. Buzzy promises he's through with sleuthing and the pair go back to work at the hotel. Before too much time goes by, Buzzy's penchant for clue-gathering lands him right in the middle of another mess. Hotel guest Kitty Monahan (Sheila Darcy) asks Buzzy to call down to the front desk and ask if there is a Thaddeus Porter staying in the hotel. There is. When Buzzy looks at the tip Kitty has slipped him, it turns out to be a small charm of the "see no evil hear no evil speak no evil" monkeys. Buzzy discovers that Porter is a big time banker and manages to finagle delivering a telegram to the man. On the way up to Porter's room, Buzzy barrels into another man as he exits the elevator. Buzzy falls flat on his back as the man, holding his injured nose, berates him for clumsiness. The man gets on the elevator and disappears before Buzzy notices a baggage claim check the man must have dropped. Too late to return it, Buzzy heads for Porter's room. He just glimpses the door to Kitty Monahan's room closing. When he turns the corner, he finds Jefferson knocking on Porter's partially ajar door. The two men push open the door to find the dead banker's corpse. Jefferson tells Buzzy he saw a woman in a striped dress leaving Porter's room. Buzzy secretly opens Porter's telegram which reads: "K. M. left for Bluff City by bus this morning. Have Her Watched. She may contact Jim. Signed Wilkins, Sheriff". Buzzy pretends to call the police, locks Jefferson in the room with the corpse and bolts to Kitty's room to warn her she was seen leaving Porter's room. Kitty insists she went to see Porter and was told to hide in the bedroom when two unidentified men knocked on the door. They argued with Porter and left. She came out to find the banker had been stabbed. Buzzy has Kitty quickly get out of her striped dress and go down to the lobby to await instructions. Buzzy disposes of the dress down a laundry chute and rejoins Jefferson in the murder room. Buzzy then calls the police for real this time and once again faces the exasperated displeasure of Detective Lanahan. The plot soon comes to involve Kitty's missing brother Jim and $100,000 in missing bank bonds but the plot of "Irish Luck" is only secondary to the screen presence of Darro and Moreland. They are the real reason to watch the film; even though the mystery plot is quite good in itself. Michael Price and George Turner (in their book "Forgotton Horrors 2") remark that "Darro and Moreland are about equally matched in the google-eyes department when it comes to scared-silly reactions." This fact can readily be seen by just glancing at the back of the Alpha DVD of "Irish Luck" which displays a photo of both actors in full "google". Price and Turner go on to say: "Darro concentrates on the boyish impulsiveness that generates their close shaves, where Moreland is more the wise and resourceful party who has a philosophical quip for every occasion and an outlandish solution for the final desperate encounter." This formula for their film characterizations would be used in all of their further screen teamings. Being the first film in this loose series, "Irish Luck" hasn't fully crystalized the on screen chemistry of the Moreland/Darro team. Subsequent entries in the series would showcase the comfortable and relaxed magic the two actors could create effortlessly when working together in such joyful romps as "Up In the Air" and "You're Out of Luck". Frankie and Mantan were a natural team. Someone must have realized how good they were on screen together or why else would they have been assigned to make over a half dozen pictures together. This realization makes it even more odd that the two were never touted as a screen team even though they clearly were (and a great one at that). As Price and Turner lament in "Forgotten Horrors 2" (as the only champions of the Darro/Moreland team I've ever seen), the simple addition of an ampersand in movie posters and advertising would have drawn the public's attention to the fact that Mantan & Frankie were a team and cemented that idea in the collective public consciousness. This could have led to more and better film teamings and a wide recognition among film scholars of the ground-breaking importance of the film partnership of Frankie Darro and Mantan Moreland.