Movies

How the movies invaded my sleep Part 2

PearlDean“I see no reason why I should not accede to your request, dear boy” he replied. For a moment I thought it was Noel Coward speaking; then he donned a wig that barristers wear in court, stood in front of me, pulled out a document from his pocket and proceeded to read from it. “Prisoner at the bar you are accused of committing a heinous crime against one of the great pillars of the British film industry, namely – Pearl & Dean. The charges have already been read out in court, but I shall read them out again in order to win more sympathy for the plaintiff. Or is it the defendant? I never get it right first time. Never mind, I must admit I thought most of your antics quite funny.”

“The charges are as follows: you were witnessed in at least 15 cinemas across London committing the following acts whenever Pearl & Dean adverts appeared on the screen:

  • Singing a song throughout the 20 minutes , and receiving a standing ovation from the audience, who ignored Pearl & Dean
  • Applauding loudly at another cinema, and shouting lets see the Pearl & Dean again instead of the main feature
  • Booing continuously
  • Putting on your jacket back to front and walking up and down the gangways with arms outstretched imitating the Frankenstein monster
  • Finally, pelting the Pearl & Dean adverts with rotten fruit

For all these acts which could possibly lead to the Pearl & Dean management shutting up shop and return to their former business – conning rich little old ladies to invest their cash in turning bars of bricks into bars of gold – the court finds you guilty.

TiedChair
The penalty: you be taken from this court to a cinema, yet to be determined, where you will tied to a chair, with a variety of straps and locks, making any escape impossible, and watch Pearl & Dean for 25 years, but to show we are compassionate you will be fed from time to time with that great staple nosh common to cinemas in the UK – a large Pepsi and jumbo carton of popcorn.”

My heart sank. It really was something worse than death, unless a miracle happens, there’s no way I could escape from this seemingly impossible situation. The lights went down… suddenly the Pearl & Dean logo flashed onto the screen. I called out ”can I have my Pepsi and popcorn please?”

End of nightmare, cos I woke up. Never mind the Pepsi – a large gin and tonic please.

How the movies invaded my sleep Part 1

I woke up in a sweat several nights ago, because of a dream I had. No, not a dream, it was a nightmare, in which I was strapped to a seat, unable to move, in a deserted cinema. A side door opened and in walked someone flashing a torch. Ah, an attendant, I’ll soon be out of here. Unable to comprehend my predicament (I was asleep, remember) I called out “when does the feature film start, Mr Attendant?”. He came closer, gazed down at me and shouted in a stentorian voice, “quiet, cur of the realm”. How odd, I thought, nothing is making sense, here I am tied to a seat in an empty cinema, with an attendant spouting Old English. How can I get out of this situation?

I’m a film buff, but this is taking my love of the cinema too far for comfort. I gave a faint laugh and replied “if this is a joke, Mr Attendant, it’s a very good one, thank you for hiring the cinema just for me, in order to play the joke. Wait till I tell my family and friends. I hope they’ll believe me; if they don’t, all of this will be in vain”. I stopped. Oh dear I shouldn’t have said that. He glared at me and spoke, but this time with an American accent, and even more strange, sounding just like James Cagney in a gangster movie. “Button yer lip wise guy, dis ain’t no joke, see, youse bin found guilty by da court an youse gotta pay der full penalty, which, buddy boy is woise dan death”.

I stared in disbelief and attempted to free myself from the straps around my body. “This is unbelievable” I screamed. “What’s going on, who are you? What court found me guilty, and of what?” He spoke again, this time with an Australian accent “I’ll tell you what court found you guilty, cobber, it was a kangaroo court. Those kangaroos were borrowed from a zoo, for the trial. Funny little buggers, they just love hoppin’ around, we had to tie em to their chairs”.

Oh my god, what’s this penalty I have to suffer, that’s worse than death, I‘ve got to know? This is absolute madness. As a last resort I decided to change tack.

“Alright Mr Attendant, I believe I’m strong enough to take what’s coming to me. As a last request would you tell me what I’m guilty of and what is the punishment”?

Best song title

Everyone has a favourite tune, but have you got a favourite song title?

Mine happens to be a song featured in a Bing Crosby/Grace Kelly movie The Country Girl, and called “Dissertation on the state of Bliss”.

Now that is classic. And why not? It was written by Ira Gershwin, George’s brother.

The Surprising Western

OxBowIncidentAny list of the greatest westerns ever made would include one made in 1943, The Ox Bow Incident starring Henry Fonda, about mob rule and its consequences, the hanging of three innocent men. What’s remarkable about the film is, unlike the typical western movie which was shot outdoors, this one was shot 95% in the studio.

Despite being a western movie, it can, because of its strong narrative, hold you transfixed right to the end. Catch it.

Watch Your Step

TheatreSteps

The descent is similar to that at the Haymarket, but this is more modern and has handrails

A week ago I went to see the stage production of A Man And Two Governors at the Haymarket Theatre, London, a comedy well worth seeing.

Because it’s a listed building, it cannot have lifts installed. There are many stairs to ascend if you have tickets for the Circle or the Gallery. When reaching either of those levels there are more stairs to contend with in order to reach your seat. This is – at least I found it so – a hazardous experience, the stairs are very steep, and lack of handrails on either sides makes it more so.

This must deter many from attempting to cope with what could be described as an obstacle course. Not all London theatres have this problem, which is restricted mainly to those built early in the last century.

Unfortunately the only option if you love going to a theatre, is to pay a much higher price for a ticket in the stalls.

Only in the movies

  • Only in horror movies do intended victims enter a house at night, never turn the lights on, and without fail, always walk backwards to where the slasher’s waiting patiently.
  • In the movies there’s always a spot to park a car on any busy New York St.
  • In James Bond movies whenever 007 sets foot in any foreign country, all the inhabitants speak English
  • In the movies taxi passengers, on paying the driver, never wait or ask for change (if its due)
  • In western movies, whenever the star walks into a saloon in the first ten minutes, and is challenged to a gunfight by an ugly hombre, we all know the outcome. What a dumb hombre… wait till 3 minutes before the film ends, then shoot the star in the back.

The Sound of Music (and how it helped bring down Hollywood) Part 3

Sound_of_music

Pinnacle year

1939 is acknowledged as the pinnacle year for Hollywood movies. Gone With the Wind, The wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, plus many other classics, all of which have stood the test of time. Reaching that exalted position had its start 10 years earlier; the beginning of the talkies. Ironically the next 10 years would elapse to see the beginning of the break up of the Hollywood system. Before that event the outbreak of war saw Hollywood going into top gear producing more films than at any time in its history.

 

Chaff and Wheat

Wartime audiences flocked to the cinemas for entertainment regardless if the movies were chaff or wheat. Having no competition Hollywood delivered the goods – be it comedy, dramas, westerns, musicals. It wasn’t until the end of the war that the British film industry got into its stride and began to turn out their masterpieces.

 

The Musical

Throughout the 40s musicals proved to be the most popular film entertainment. Every Hollywood studio embarked on making them. Those produced by what was known as the poverty row studios – Monogram, Republic, were, to be kind, absolutely appalling. The Hollywood musical was just that, written exclusively for the big screen .There was no shortage of talent – singers and dancers. Fortunately supply kept up with demand. At the war’s end Hollywood returned to a more normal production output. By this time too, the public’s interest in the musical began to wane. Only two of the major studios – MGM & 20th Century Fox – both of whom were the leaders of the musical genre, continued making them. But somehow a lot of the spark of the wartime musicals seemed to be missing. The answer was, of course, film stars are mortal, just like the rest of us. Put it to the test, look in the mirror and say to yourself “I don’t look any different than I did 10 years ago”. ‘Nuff said…

A Last Fling

As the end of the 40s advanced into the 50s Hollywood was in dire straits. The dreaded blacklist which ended the careers of many top screenwriters because of their politics, the selling off of the studios cinema chains, the creeping spectre of television, the falling off of cinema audiences, signalled that what was once a thriving industry was about to collapse. It soon came to the attention of the big studios that Broadway, New York, was making musical history, staging the works of top American songwriters, the likes of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and other top notch composers. Annie Get Your Gun, Guys and Dolls, The Pyjama Game, et al. They began to buy those productions to convert to the big screen. The best deal was stuck by 20th Century Fox who signed with Rodgers and Hammerstein to film their blockbuster shows, beginning with Oklahoma, which was followed by The King and I, Carousel and South Pacific, all of which did well at the box office.

A Miracle Occurs

The other studios did fairly well with their purchases, though nothing to get excited about. They were still in the doldrums. Then suddenly a miracle occurred, something completely unexpected. 20th Century Fox had one more Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to complete, a nondescript dullish thing called The Sound of Music, with dullish trite songs. When the film opened in New York the critics had a field day lambasting it. The kindest summing up, being called The Sound of Muzak. One New York critic, Pauline Kael, promptly got the sack by McCall’s magazine for her scurrilous review. And that was the end of that. Or so it seemed because the movie went on to wide acclaim by audiences throughout the world. 20th Century Fox cleaned up, raking in millions of dollars, which compensated for their losses incurred by Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor.

 The Trap Closes

After the world wide success of The Sound of Music, 20th Century Fox began to spend millions of dollars to produce more musicals, in the hope of striking the jack-pot again. The other major studios scrambled on board gambling their dollars too, saying if Fox can do it so can we. Little did they know they were about to enter a minefield. Like those who invest large amounts of their money in the hope of making more, they sometimes come unstuck and lose the lot. This is the fate that befell film-makers looking for another Sound of Music to swell their coffers. Unlike investors who lose everything over-night, it took some years for it to happen in Hollywood. By then of course, many millions of dollars had gone down the drain. Here are some of the crazy concoctions audiences had to sit through:

 

Paint your Wagon: Clint Eastwood sings (to put it mildly) “I talk to the trees, but they don’t listen to me”. For lumps of wood, trees are so intelligent, they told Clint to keep painting his wagon. The film also starred Lee Marvin croaking out “I was born under a wandering star”. It was Lee who should have wandered, not the star. Unbelievably the song went to No 1.
Dr Dolittle: Rex Harrison as a veterinarian who can converse with animals. I understand he trained for the role at Regents Park Zoo. He was also angry because the animals had the best lines in the film.
Man of La Mancha: Peter O’Toole plays Don Quixote, never happier than tilting a windmill, and singing, with a dubbed voice, “The impossible dream”. Sophia Loren was also in it, singing with a dubbed voice. I’m not sure who dubbed for Don’s horse, Pavarotti maybe, who knows?

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever: Barbra Streisand (ah at last someone who can sing) but a pointless waste of talent. When Barbra sang the title song the only clear thing one could see was all the studio’s money going down the drain.

Money going down the drain was also the fate for the other studios which just about bankrupted the once great Hollywood system. Who would have thought a simple little musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein; with a simple, trite, though tuneful score – which could never match their classics, Oklahoma The King and I, Carousel, South Pacific – would unwittingly help the downfall.

What the studios failed to notice was the changing taste in music. This was proved with the sensational response to Saturday Night Fever. The old Hollywood was a thing of the past, and yet, if one wants to get nostalgic, close your eyes and there’s Clark Gable, Gary Cooper up there on the screen, only to be replaced by Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone. The mind boggles…

But keep viewing; sometime in the future Bruce and Sly will disappear. Did I hear someone in the circle call down? Please let it be soon… my god that was my voice…

Well, to steal the Bugs Bunny catchphrase: “That’s all Folks”.

The Sound of Music (and how it helped bring down Hollywood) Part 2: End of an Era

Block Booking Rip off

As early as 1921 the major Hollywood studios were being investigated for operating block booking distribution of their films. The practice involved forcing independent cinemas to take a group of films sight unseen, rather than allowing them to pick and choose. If they didn’t take the bulk, the studio would refuse them further business. Mostly a deal was done, among the group would be couple of attractive films with well known stars of the day, the rest being low budget movies.

The Rise of Hollywood

In 1928 the American Federal Trade Commission took 10 Hollywood studios to court, the case dragged on and in 1930 the studios were declared guilty of monopolisation. America was in the depths of the Great Depression and rather than a lengthy drawn out challenge to the decision, a deal was arranged, the studios agreed to modify some of their activities. However over the next ten years Hollywood, by 1938 became one of the most powerful industries in America. Studio production increased, many great films were made, MGM’s motto was they had ‘more stars than there are in heaven’. The major studios were buying up cinemas in all the big key cities to ensure the showing of their films, and in the process virtually destroyed any opposition from independent film producers

Beginning of the End

This time the Administration did not mince words, ordering the Department of Justice to file suit against the major studios accusing them of breaking the anti-trust laws. The studios wanting to hold onto their gains ,insisted their own right to protect their interests, and prepared to contest the allegations. Another protracted trial was likely, this was compounded by the advent of World War 2. After the war, proceedings continued. It was not until 1948 that the day of reckoning arrived; the major studios were ordered to stop their aggressive block booking practices, and to divest themselves of their cinema chains. By 1949, major film studios had given up ownership of all their theatres.

Out with the Old

The great days of the studio system and Hollywood’s Golden Age were over. MGM ended up with less stars than on the American flag . Without their showcases plus the drop in profits the big banks were now reluctant to provide money to finance films. Despite the setbacks films were still being made, though now there was the feeling of ‘out with the old in with the new’. It was not till the sixties that big changes occurred, best typified by bedroom scenes. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, one of the leading stars was in the bed, the other (as decreed by the censor) always sat on the edge, one foot firmly on the floor (I wish now I’d shouted from my seat in the stalls “take your foot off the brake pedal”). Married couples were no problem, they had twin beds. Now of course without a censor the stars don’t even bother about beds. I think the old is best summed up by the quip

when two people make for the bedroom in a Hollywood movie, they always end up in the nursery

I’ll end this little piece of nostalgia recounting a trip made in the early 1950s to a cinema in East London – the Ben Hur – though not very far from where I lived I’d never been to it before, an old cinema noted for showing two big movies on the same bill.

I went to see  The Last Days of Pompii and She, both 1935 movies. She was on first; an African expedition searching for something or other, and stumbling into a lost city, complete with a queen who greets the safari with “if I knew you were coming…”. Then exactly on cue, the audience belted out in tune I’D HAVE BAKED A CAKE lyric of a popular song of the day. Next up, The Last Days of Pompii. During the eruption of Mount Vesuvias when buildings came tumbling down, I was impressed by the soundtrack, the eruption seemed to be happening realistically above my head, and continued when the film ended. All was explained when leaving the cinema I saw a group of kids throwing stones in the air which were landing on the cinema’s tin roof. All-in-all – good value for one shilling and six pence.

A critic summed up the movie Ben Hur…loved Ben …hated Hur. My favourite is a review of the movie You Were Meant For Me, which the critic dismissed in one line “That’s what you think”.

Next instalment – we finally get around to The Sound of Music.

The Sound of Music (and how it helped bring down Hollywood) Part 1

At the beginning of the sixties Hollywood was in the doldrums. American television was rapidly spreading its tentacles to eventually reach the whole of the population and become the most popular form of media entertainment. Because of the poor quality of movies churned out by the big studios, people thought why pay to watch rubbishy films in the cinema when we can make one payment to buy a TV, sit at home and watch programmes for free.

Cinema, the most potent of all the art forms – simply because it could reach more people than any other medium – was in crisis. As well as the TV threat there were other plausible reasons to consider.

From the middle thirties to the early fifties Hollywood excelled in many genres; the western, thrillers, high drama, screwball comedy, and the musical. This was due to the combination of highly talented artists, writers and technicians, the combination of which never seemed to dry up. The year 1939 is acknowledged to be the high point of Hollywood films The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach et al. The coming war years saw the highest cinema attendances ever recorded. People wanted entertainment more than ever during that bleak period. Hollywood, because of its vast production was unsurpassed in supplying that need. They virtually monopolised lock stock and barrel everything shown in cinemas.

The English film industry didn’t pose a threat, their film output could not match that of Hollywood’. Added to that it was in a moribund state of inertia, a ‘tendency to remain unchanged’ as the Oxford dictionary succinctly puts it. There were exceptions. Some British war movies in the early days of the war were very well made: In Which we Serve, Pimpernel Smith, and my particular favourite, Went the Day Well (based on a story by Graham Greene) British movies of the thirties were notorious for actors speaking with plummy voices, usually referred to as Oxford accents. It was the British war movie that began the trend for more natural (heard in the street) voices. A classic contrast would be in the movie…IN WHICH WE SERVE; hear Noel Coward, then John Mills.

What British films lacked, but what Hollywood had in abundance, was dynamism. A kind of tortoise and hare situation. There were of course exceptions, Alfred Hitchcock being the most notable….but his first outstanding contributions were made in the thirties; The 39 Steps, Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes, The Man who Knew too Much including the last film he made in England 1939, before leaving for America –  Jamaica Inn – agreed by the critics as one of his worst films. How ironic the first picture he directed in America, Rebecca, won a best picture Oscar.

It would be the middle forties before the British Film Industry found their feet and began to turn out movies that captured the public imagination. Another development in the forties that began to accelerate was technicolour which added extra enjoyment when watching a Hollywood musical.

The end of the war brought little change in cinema-going habits both here an in America. There were still queues outside cinemas waiting to go in. Then a number of things began to happen not only relating to films but to popular music. The 1940s also saw the rise of the big swing bands. In this too America led the way. Dance halls like the cinemas were packed. The two most popular bandleaders were Glenn Miller and Harry James. James in particular was an astounding trumpet player and featured in many of Hollywood’s top musical films. He went on to marry the 40s top pin-up girl, Betty Grable. It was around 1947 when cinema audiences began to drop; the swing bands sounded dull . Be-bop music made its appearance but mainly played in clubs and not in dance halls because of its complex harmonies and rhythm structure, therefore only appealing to a small minority.

The film world came under the scrutiny in 1947 of the House Un-American Activities, who swooped into Hollywood to hound anyone suspected of being a member of the Communist Party. At first there was an outcry by the major studios who deemed the investigations unconstitutional. This heartfelt cry by the likes of Louis B Mayer of MGM, and Jack Warner of Warner Bros, sounded very hollow from studio chiefs who ruled their studios like personal fiefdoms, and could say to any star who caused them displeasure ‘I’ll make sure you’ll never work in this town ever again”. But of course they eventually gave their blessing to the inquisitors. The blacklist, as it was called, claimed many victims, those found guilty were sacked by their studios, and just as the studio bosses threatened to do to those who stepped out of line, lost their livelihood, never to work in Hollywood again; though as we shall see there were ways and means getting around the blacklist.

One of the most despicable questions put by the Committee was “tell us the names of others you know to be a party member”. In order to prompt answers the Committee would offer names known to the person being questioned. The playwright Arthur Miller was one of those brought in for questioning. He went on to write a play – The Crucible – about the Salem witch hunts of the 1600s where people were naming those they thought, without a shred of evidence, to be witches, and consequently burned at the stake, and the parallels with the Communist witch hunt of the 1940s and 50s. This modern-day witch hunt ran true to form with informers naming names, ratting on friends, in order to save their own skins and keep their jobs.


One of the most tragic episodes was that of Larry Parks, a minor B movie actor who shot to fame when brilliantly playing the role of the famous singer Al Jolson, in The Jolson Story in 1946. In fact to say he was marvellous would be an understatement (according to me, of course). Parks was one of the first actors to be called before the inquisitors for questioning about his political beliefs. Despite admitting he was for a time a member of the Communist Party, that was not enough for his interrogators who wanted him to name names. At first he refused, saying it was not something he could ethically do because of the harm it would bring on those people. Nevertheless he was brought back for further interrogation and unfortunately not being made of sterner stuff (unlike many others particularly the screen writers who when questioned, stood up to the Committee and gave as good as they got) Parks caved in naming names. But to no avail, his career as a top movie star – because of the Jolson role – ended overnight….he died at an early age shattered by the witch hunt.

Of all those called before the Committee for interrogation, the screenwriters, as quoted above were the most articulate and not in any way intimidated by the proceedings and ran rings round the inquisitors. There are many amusing ripostes to some of the questions. When the writer Ring Lardner was asked to name names, he replied “I could but I’d hate myself when I wake up in the morning”. Ironically almost all the film screenplays of distinction that came out of Hollywood were written by Communist screenwriters, eg Casablanca, Laura, The Little Foxes, The Philadelphia Story, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, A Place in the Sun, to include, would you believe, the Abbott and Costello and Lassie movies.

The Hollywood inquisition is long gone. There were some writers who were able, by using another name to submit scripts that were accepted for the movies, but they were few compared to others who were not so fortunate. The Hollywood studios did themselves irreparable harm by condoning the blacklist. Writers of great talent who could have gone on to write stimulating movies for the post-war audiences might have saved Hollywood from the impending disaster looming in the near future. It was left to the emerging European cinema to fill that need: the neo realism Italian movies, the French New Wave, East European cinema, and even Russia, who produced a movie The Cranes are Flying, the ending of which provoked the most tear-breaking moment in screen history (in fact tears are coming from my eyes as I write this)…light pause while I pull myself together… Need I say catch that movie, it’s available on DVD.

As a footnote to highlight the absurd but tragic farce of the Hollywood witch hunt, I refer you to ….Tender Comrade (1943), one of the movies most often attacked during the McCarthy era. Ginger Rogers plays a woman newly married to a soldier who, soon after, is shipped overseas with his regiment. Ginger moves into a collective household of women in a similar situation. The script contains a line, which Ginger has to say “share and share alike, that’s the American way”. Ginger’s mother, Lela, who was a right-wing reactionary, put herself forward as a friendly witness for the prosecution, and stated that line her daughter had innocently uttered was blatant communist propaganda. The writer of that script, Dalton Trumbo, a communist but also acknowledged as Hollywood’s number one scriptwriter, incredibly inserted at the film’s end the most subversive message which was overlooked by nearly everyone looking for communist propaganda in films. In a closing monologue, Ginger addresses the cinema audience “the social gains in American society secured by the sacrifices of my husband and others in the war against fascism would have to be protected after the war by continuing the struggle against domestic reactionaries”. That deliberation was possibly purposely overlooked by the witch hunters, who probably thought it struck too close for comfort.

END OF PART 1

Mayfair Cinema Brick Lane

Following my recent post, here’s the Mayfair Cinema in Brick Lane. It is now a curry restaurant.

MY GIGS


  • Saturday 6th December 2014

Water Poet, Folgate St


  • New Year's Eve - Wednesday 31st December 2014

Bethnal Green Working Mens Club


MY MUSIC

My Funny Valentine


That Old Black Magic

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Mike Myers Spitalfields Crooner

Mike Myers, The Spitalfields Crooner

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Lily