Sunday, April 19, 2015

THE LAST DAYS OF ELAINE STRITCH

If only Elaine Stritch could have secretly attended her own funeral like Tom Sawyer, she would have witnessed a standing ovation.

In early 2013, the legendary Broadway star abandoned her longtime home of New York for Birmingham, Mich., where she underwent surgery a year later for stomach cancer, a diagnosis she never publicly revealed. After she died in July of 2014 at 89, she was buried at a small service in Chicago alongside her husband, the actor John Bay.

The priest delivered an unconventional eulogy, especially when he started to warble “I Feel Pretty,” one of her signature covers from “West Side Story.” He ended his remarks by asking the attendees to give Stritch a round of applause. “We stood up and clapped,” recalls Chiemi Karasawa, the director of “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” who spent two years trailing—and later befriending—the grand dame. “He wanted us to acknowledge her as a performer, because that’s how she wanted to be acknowledged. I thought it was touching he picked up on that.”

The pastor learned all about Stritch, whose prolific career spanned the stage (“Sail Away,” “Company”), films (“Romance & Cigarettes,” “September”) and television (“One Life to Live,” “30 Rock”), by viewing the documentary on the plane ride to the service. “That’s how he got to know who she was,” Karasawa says over a recent lunch with Variety at New York’s Lambs Club. “And that’s something you wouldn’t expect—to go to a funeral and have the priest come over and congratulate you on your movie.”

During those final hours, Stritch had her TV tuned all day and night to Turner Classic Movies. With her eyes closed, she’d fire off her zingers. “Who is that, Garbo?” Stritch barked. “Great looking broad. [Beat] Boring as hell.” Even in her frail state, Stritch wanted another shot at show business. “I could not believe in her condition, she just wished she could be acting again,” Karasawa says. “She was never going to let go of her opportunity to perform.”

Karasawa once asked the Stritch what else she wanted from life. “I’d really like an award,” Stritch told her. For what? “I don’t know,” Stritch huffed. “I just want another award for something!” Appropriately enough, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” is being campaigned this Oscar season in the best documentary category. The film has recently been screened at industry gatherings hosted by D.A. Pennebaker, John Turturro, R.J. Cutler, Chris Hegedus and Rachel Grady. “I loved the documentary,” says director George C. Wolfe, who is helping organize a Broadway tribute for Stritch next week. “I thought it was thrilling—it captured her ferocity and vulnerability.”


Karasawa, a seasoned script supervisor and Oscar-nominated doc producer (2008’s “The Betrayal”), had never directed a film when she set about making the movie in 2010. She got the idea from her midtown hairdresser, who also did Stritch’s hair, and started scheduling appointments at the same time so they’d bump into each other. It took four months of courting before Stritch called Karasawa’s office at 2 a.m.—“God knows what she was doing at 2 a.m.”—and left a message declaring, “I really want to get started and do this thing.”

It was Stritch’s suggestion for Karasawa to take the director’s chair. “I pitched this idea to Elaine, ‘We’re going to find a fancy director with some kind of success,’” Karasawa remembers. “She looked at me like I was an idiot, and asked, ‘Well, why don’t you do it?’” Stritch didn’t care about her lack of experience. “Surely you can pull this thing off,” Stritch told Karasawa. “Plus, I don’t want to meet anybody else. I’ve already gotten to know you.”

Funding for the documentary, which cost $500,000, was cobbled together by a string of private financiers. Karasawa shot Stritch for 300 hours, but after she maxed out her American Express card, she set up an Indiegogo campaign in early 2013 to raise funds for post-production. When Alec Baldwin, who played Stritch’s son on “30 Rock,” heard about their efforts, he donated $50,000 and invited the director over for an interview. The film also features testimonials about Stritch from Tina Fey, James Gandolfini, Cherry Jones and Hal Prince.

Despite the glowing reviews, Stritch wasn’t pleased the first time she saw “Elaine Stitch: Shoot Me.” Karasawa had the idea that she would sneak Stritch into a screening room at NYU, and let her secretly watch the movie with a small crowd. Of course, Stritch made so much of a racket when they rolled her in (“Hello gang!” and “I can’t see a goddamn thing!”) that everybody was aware of her presence, and suppressed their laughter, which Stritch mistook for them not liking the movie.


“She sat down and gave me this whole addendum for what I need to change—to make it better and funnier and more wardrobe,” Karasawa says, explaining that Stritch was mad that she wore the same fur coat for most of her scenes. “She basically criticized it from top to bottom. She had never experienced herself onscreen as anything but a performer. Here she was playing herself.”

It was a role that made her so uncomfortable, she briefly stopped talking to Karasawa. But all was forgiven following the film’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere in April 2013, where 500 enthusiastic New Yorkers erupted in applause. “As I’m walking her down to the front podium, Elaine said, ‘See the changes I suggested really worked!’” Karasawa says. “I hadn’t changed a thing.”

Karasawa has been in full Elaine mode the last few weeks, cutting clips for the Broadway memorial service on Nov. 17. When she misses her friend, she listens to the dozens of voice messages that Stritch left her. In one she plays over lunch, Stritch calls her up with a rant about wanting the documentary to sell for millions, a delayed membership to a country club and a caretaker who complains about giving her a bath. Then she ends her monologue with a kiss. “Love you,” Stritch says, sounding motherly.

Stritch used to say she was frightened by death. “She didn’t want to be alone,” Karasawa says. “She didn’t want there to be nothing.” But she was at peace when her time came. Karasawa leaned over and told her how much she would miss her. “I miss me too,” Stritch responded. It was her way of saying goodbye...



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Friday, April 17, 2015

THE SECRETS OF GENE KELLY


Gene Kelly did have a 103-degree fever when he filmed the iconic dance sequence in the 1952 MGM movie musical “Singin’ in the Rain,” but milk was not added to the puddles.

And the taps were dubbed later–with Kelly dubbing his taps as well as Debbie Reynolds’, said Patricia Ward Kelly, who married the dancer-choreographer in 1990, when she was 31 and he was 77. He died in 1996.

Patricia Ward Kelly said her husband wanted to be remembered for his work behind the camera, as a choreographer, director, writer and producer, as much as for his performances on screen, including in “An American in Paris” in 1951.

“He wanted to be known for changing the look of dance on film,” she said.

She shows clips of dances he choreographed and performed at her tribute shows she gives all around the country like the "Alter Ego” number from “Cover Girl” in 1944 where he dances with himself through a double exposure of the film. The double exposure technique had never been tried before. “It was an incredible feat,” said Patricia Ward Kelly.

The dancing and the camera movements in that number were synchronized with the musical beat as was a number in the 1945 movie “Anchors Aweigh” where Gene Kelly danced with the cartoon character Jerry the mouse. Twenty-four drawings of the mouse were needed for every second of the dance.

“Cover Girl” was a turning point in Gene Kelly’s career because MGM never loaned him out to another studio again. He also gave up the idea of returning to Broadway, deciding instead to dedicate himself to a career in Hollywood.

Patricia Ward Kelly said the problem with showing dance on film is that it is two-dimensional. To combat that, Gene Kelly choreographed his dancers so they were constantly moving toward the camera and he kept the dances shorter than they would have been on stage. He also used light and color to add a sense of a third dimension.


She said Gene Kelly insisted that the full figures of his dancers be filmed, rather than allowing the camera to focus only on the feet or arms. He would cut the film on a dancer’s turn so the audience would be less aware of it.

Patricia Ward Kelly said that when her husband was asked to name his favorite dance partner, he often would say Jerry the mouse “because he showed up on time and worked his little tail off.”
He thought the best all-around dancer was Vera-Ellen and the best tapper was Eleanor Powell while Donald O’Connor was the most unsung, said Patricia Ward Kelly.

She said Gene Kelly choreographed his dances to show off his partners, whether Debbie Reynolds, Frank Sinatra or Olivia Newton-John.

He was classically trained in ballet and had studied modern dance in New York with Martha Graham and others. But he took his inspiration from sports, including hockey, his favorite, she said.


He also was trying to create “a particular American style of dance,” so he preferred to choreograph to music by American writers, such as Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and Irving Berlin.

Gene Kelly also helped spur the use of Technicolor film in low light after he urged his co-director on the 1949 movie of “On the Town,” Stanley Donen, to shoot the last scene as daylight was fading because the Navy ship they were using was about to pull away from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Technicolor film previously had been used only with very bright lights, and the camera operators agreed to shoot the last scene of “On the Town” only under protest, Patricia Ward Kelly said.

She said she met Gene Kelly in 1985, when he was narrator on a television special that she was writing. When they met, she had not heard of the performer.

He brought her to California to work on his memoirs, and they married five years later.
She described taking dance lessons so she would be prepared to keep up with her husband but said he usually pretended to have an injured leg when they attended events that included dancing. They did dance together at home on New Year’s Eve. “He was the epitome of romance,” she added...



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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

THE THREE STOOGES: THE FINAL YEARS

 
After Shemp Howard died of a sudden heart attack in 1955, the remaining Stooges, Moe and Larry kept the act alive, recruiting comedian Joe Besser as the third Stooge. This, as any Stooge fan will tell you, was the beginning of the end. Besser was never happy as a Stooge and, wary of what had happened to Curly, had a clause in his contract forbidding Moe from hitting him.

By now, Columbia was the only studio in town producing shorts, and in 1957, with television taking over the market, the department was shut down. In December of ’57, the studio declined to renew the Stooges’ contract and, after 23 years’ service, they were unceremoniously fired. A few weeks later, Moe returned to the studio to say goodbye to some old friends. He was refused entry by a security guard. Shortly afterwards, amid negotiations for a live tour, Joe Besser left the act.

By rights, this should have been the end of the road. But, in a supremely ironic twist of fate, the Stooges were actually on the brink of a major comeback. In 1958 Columbia offered a package of 78 Curly-era shorts for TV broadcast. Picked up by a number of networks across the US, they were an instant hit, particularly with children, and soon all 190 Stooge shorts were in circulation and drawing huge audiences. Suddenly the Stooges were in big demand, and Moe and Larry once again revived the act with Joe ‘Curly-Joe’ DeRita stepping into the breach. With Moe and Larry now getting on in years, this was the Stooges’ last hurrah. But it was, in many ways, a triumphant one. From 1959 to 1965 they made a series of feature films in the classic Stooge vein, including the infamous Snow White And The Three Stooges (which is not nearly as bad as people would have you believe — well, not quite). They also recorded 41 live wraparound segments for The New Three Stooges cartoon series. In 1969, Moe, Larry and Curly-Joe shot a pilot for a proposed TV show called Kook’s Tour, a Stooge-style travelogue. It was not to be. In January 1970, Larry Fine suffered a debilitating stroke, ending his career. Longtime Stooge co-star Emil Sitka was contracted to replace him, but no footage was ever shot with Sitka as a Stooge.


In December 1974, Larry suffered another stroke and, the following month, he died at the age of 72. With near unbelievable fortitude, Moe vowed the Stooges would soldier on, approaching veteran Ted Healy-era Stooge Paul ‘Mousie’ Garner. Tragically, while negotiating a number of movie projects, Moe was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He died on May 4, 1975.

However, The Three Stooges live on. In the States it’s impossible to get through a week, a day even, without encountering a Stooge reference — images, clips, signature lines (“Calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard” from 1934’s Men In Black crops up continually in films and on TV), catchphrases (“I’m a victim of soicumstance!” etc), noises (particularly Curly’s trademark “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!” and “woo, woo, woo!”), even sound effects — the Stooges’ ‘frying pan’ is a classic for the ages, still famously used by Vic & Bob. The Stooges are all gone now but their memories and comedy will live on forever...


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Monday, April 13, 2015

HISTORY OF A SONG: MOUNTAIN GREENERY

Readers of my blog as well as people that know me, know what a fan I am of the music of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Lorenz Hart, more than anyone, was a true poet in every sense of the word. Most of my favorite songs are Rodgers and Hart compositions. One of my favorite of the uplifting songs by the duo was "Mountain Greenery". The song was a popular song composed by Richard Rodgers, with lyrics by Lorenz Hart for the musical The Garrick Gaieties (1926). It was first performed on stage by Sterling Holloway. Fans of television's The Dick Van Dyke Show will remember the duet by Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore in the episode "The Sleeping Brother".

Two of the first notable records of the song were made by Roger Wolfe Kahn and his Orchestra  on May 27, 1926 and Frank Crumit on July 29, 1926. Bing Crosby recorded a version of the song for his 1956 album Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings, but my personal favorite version of the song was made by Perry Como in 1948 for the film "biography" of Rodgers and Hart's life Words And Music. Como's version contains some verses that you normally don't hear in other recordings.

Rounding out the great versions of this song was Ella Fitzgerald's great version for  Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers & Hart Songbook in 1956. Mel Tormé had a top-five hit in Great Britain with his version also from 1956. Surprisingly The Supremes as well had a nice version of the song on their retro album The Supremes Sing Rodgers and Hart in 1966. The songs of Rodgers and Hart may be over 80 years old in some instances, but their words and music are timeless...

Friday, April 10, 2015

SWINGIN ON A STAR: THE BING CROSBY 1940s SONGBOOK

Bing Crosby started the 1940s only increasing his fame and stardom. His radio and recording career was successful, and he was at the top in both of those genres. Regarding movies, he was getting more and more popular with film goers, and from 1945 to 1949 he was the most popular movie star in the country. No one before or since has matched that feat.

Crosby started off the decade being paired for the first time with comedian Bob Hope in Road to Singapore (1940). The film lacked a great plot, but it made up with the laughs and songs that Bing got to introduce in the films. Bing and Bob made five “Road” movies in the 1940s, and Bing got to introduce some popular love songs in the films like: “Too Romantic” in Road To Singapore, “It’s Always You” in Road To Zanzibar (1941), “Moonlight Becomes You” in Road To Morocco (1942), “Welcome To My Dream” in Road To Utopia (1946), and “But Beautiful” in Road To Rio (1947).

Back to the early 1940s, Bing Crosby kept on making successful films; the roles were getting better as well. In Rhythm on the River (1940) he played a ghost song writer and got to sing the beautiful ballad “Only Forever. In The Birth of the Blues (1941) Bing sang all old songs as he played a clarinetist trying to get jazz to the masses. Then a year later Bing hit the mother lode when he starred in Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn (1942). The union of Bing Crosby’s singing and Irving Berlin’s songs was a marriage made in musical heaven! Not only did Bing have the lucky pleasure of introducing “White Christmas” in the film (It almost was cut from the film!), but he sang a boat load of great Berlin songs like: “Be Careful It’s My Heart”, “Easter Parade”, and “Happy Holidays”. During this period of Bing’s singing and movie career, he really could do no wrong. Everything he touched was turning into musical gold.


Bing won an Oscar for playing Father O’ Malley, a priest that could sing in Going My Way (1944). A song Bing sang in the film also won the Oscar for best song (“Swinging on a Star”). It is the third time Bing introduced a song that won an Oscar. (He introduced “Sweet Leilani” which won in 1937 and “White Christmas” which won in 1942). The song “Swinging on a Star” was not really a great song by any stretch of the imagination, but because of Bing’s delivery it would become another one of Bing’s best remembered songs. Lightning almost hit twice in 1945 when he played Father O’Malley again in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945). Bing was nominated for another Oscar but lost. He introduced two more great songs in that film as well – “In the Land of Beginning Again” and “Aren’t You Glad You’re You”. At this point Bing was specializing in the philosophical songs that told everyone how to make it through life.

Bing’s first post-World War II musical was one of the best musicals he ever made. He was paired again with dancer Fred Astaire and songwriter Irving Berlin for the Technicolor lavish musical Blue Skies (1946). Even though the film was a postwar movie, it was pure sentimental and took place during the two World Wars. The plot was merely a backdrop for the music, and this film was filled with Irving Berlin standards – more than two dozen of them like: “I Got My Captain Working For Me Now”, “Blue Skies”, “All By Myself”, “Heat wave”, “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody”, “Puttin On The Ritz” and the list could go on and on. Bing got the chance to sing a few new Irving Berlin compositions with the best being “You Keep Coming Back Like A Song”. The song was one of the most recorded songs of 1946, and it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song, but it lost. It would be another decade before Bing would make a musical as big as Blue Skies. It was the biggest musical he ever made at Paramount, and it was one of the most successful.


Bing sort of coasted through the rest of his movies of the late 1940s. They were good, but they were not anywhere near the caliber of Holiday Inn, Going My Way, or Blue Skies. Bing continued to introduce great songs in the film though like “My Heart Is A Hobo” and “As Long As I’m Dreaming” in Welcome Stranger (1947), “The Kiss In Your Eyes” from The Emperor Waltz (1948), and “Once And For Always”  in A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court (1949). Bing still was a top movie star as the 1950s approached, but the music industry would be changing with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll. As a result the movie musical would change. Coupled with Bing’s personal problems in the early 1950s, he soon would see his movie star fade slightly. However, in the 1940s Bing was definitely the biggest movie musical star in the heavens that we call Hollywood…


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

THE THREE STOOGES: THE FALL OF CURLY

As early as 1942, the life of a stooge had begun to take its toll on Curly. Playing a human punchbag day in, day out for years, enduring constant blows to the head — most of which, according to Moe Howard, were every bit as real as they looked — brought on a series of minor cerebral haemorrhages that slowed him down to the point that he was unable to make personal appearances. Shemp, now under contract to Columbia himself, was brought in to replace Curly in live performances. Curly’s doctors insisted that he also take time off from his punishing filming schedule. Cohn flatly refused to give Curly leave of absence, and it was not long before his declining health became evident on screen. His deterioration can first be seen in 1945 short If A Body Meet A Body. By this time, Curly was forgetting his lines, and his balletic physicality and tireless energy, vital components of the Stooges’ comedy, were visibly ebbing away.

There’s no doubt that Curly’s hard-partying lifestyle contributed to his health problems — he was a massive drinker and, pinhead appearances to the contrary, a voracious womaniser — but neither is there any disputing that Harry Cohn forced him to keep working while he was clearly seriously ill, exacerbating his condition until, later in 1945, the inevitable happened and Curly, aged 42, suffered his first major stroke.

This should have signalled, at the very least, an extended period of rest and recuperation. Yet, incredibly, he was back at work within a month, despite physical impairments that rendered his performances so sluggish and lacklustre they’re painful to watch. The team’s directors, most often Del Lord or Edward Bernds, attempted to disguise Curly’s dire state by using old footage and putting more emphasis on Moe and Larry. For their part, the other Stooges took on the extra responsibility willingly, hoping that Curly would eventually recover sufficiently to resume his role. The results of this combined effort were better than might be expected, in spite of Curly’s infirmity and ravaged appearance (his fat cherub look was a thing of the past).


But it was a losing battle and in 1946, between takes on the short Half-Wits Holiday (a remake of the 1935 two-reeler, Hoi Polloi), Curly suffered a massive, paralysing stroke. His days as a Stooge were over, his career and his health wrecked by dedication to the un-gentle art of slapstick and by Harry Cohn’s gross callousness — callousness compounded with stupidity since his treatment of Curly had cost him one of his studio’s most valuable assets.

Naturally, Cohn didn’t see things that way. His opinion of the Stooges, even while they were raking in money, was that their act was so lacking in sophistication that they were effectively interchangeable, and that pretty much any comic performer who looked funny enough could fill Curly’s shoes in a second. In this he was as mistaken as many observers have been since. The Stooges might not have had the finesse of Chaplin or Keaton, the humanity of Laurel & Hardy or the transcendent novelty of the Marx Brothers, but their chemistry was unique. And if it was not immediately apparent to Cohn what replacing Curly entailed, the endless auditions for a new third Stooge alerted him to what Moe and Larry already knew: they were not going to find another Curly. Curly died tragically on January 28, 1952 at the age of 48...


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Monday, April 6, 2015

BORN ON THIE DAY: ANDRE PREVIN

One of the most versatile musicians on the planet, André Previn has amassed considerable credentials as a jazz pianist, despite carving out separate lives first as a Hollywood arranger and composer, and then as a world-class classical conductor, pianist, and composer.

Previn was born on this day April 6th in 1929 in Germany. Always fluid, melodic, and swinging, with elements of Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, and Horace Silver mixed with a faultless technique, Previn didn't change much over the decades but could always be counted upon for polished, reliable performances at the drop of a hat.
              
He started piano lessons in his native Berlin before the Nazi threat forced his family to move to Paris in 1938 and the U.S. the following year. Settling in Los Angeles, the wunderkind Previn began working as a jazz pianist, an arranger for MGM, and a recording artist for Sunset Records while still in high school -- and by his 18th year, his first recordings for RCA Victor had racked up substantial sales. Originally swing-oriented, Previn discovered bop in 1950 just before his induction into the Army. Upon returning to Los Angeles, Previn went into overdrive, gigging as a jazz pianist, scoring films, and playing chamber music. Forming a smooth boppish trio with Shelly Manne and Leroy Vinnegar, Previn scored a huge crossover hit with an album of jazz interpretations of My Fair Lady, which in turn led to a series of likeminded albums of Broadway scores and kicked off an industry trend.

              
By 1962, Previn started to make the transition away from Hollywood toward becoming a full-time classical conductor, dropping his jazz activities entirely. He stayed away from jazz for 27 years, with the exceptions of a handful of sessions with Ella Fitzgerald and classical violinist/dabbler Itzhak Perlman. Indeed, in 1984, he was quoted as saying that jazz was "an expendable art form" for him. But in March 1989, shortly before resigning from the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a dispute with management, Previn returned to jazz with a trio album for Telarc with Ray Brown and Joe Pass, showing that he had not lost an iota of his abilities. Subsequently, he returned frequently to the studio as a jazz pianist for Telarc, Angel, Deutsche Grammophon, and DRG when not freelancing as a conductor or composing classical scores.  During his LSO tenure, he and the LSO appeared on the BBC Television programme André Previn's Music Night. From 1976 to 1984, he was music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) and, in turn, had another television series with the PSO entitled Previn and the Pittsburgh. He was also principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1985 to 1988...