Friday, November 17, 2017

***The Roots Is The Toots-The Music That Got The Generation Of ’68 Through The 1950s Red Scare Cold War Night-One Night With You




OR






From The Pen Of Frank Jackman

 Sam Lowell thought it was funny how things worked out in such contrary fashion in this wicked old world, not his expression that “wicked old world” for he preferred of late the more elastic and ironic “sad old world” but that of his old time North Adamsville corner boy Peter Markin who will be more fully introduced in a moment (Markin aka Peter Paul Markin although nobody ever called him that except his mother, as one would expect although he hated to be teased by every kid from elementary school on including girls, girls who liked him too as a result, and his first ill-advised wife, a scion of the Mayfair swells who tried, unsuccessfully, to impress her leafy suburban parents with the familiar waspy triple names).
Neither of those expressions referred to date back to their youth since neither Sam nor Peter back then, back in their 1960s youth, would have used such old-fashioned religious-drenched expressions to express their take on the world since as with all youth, or at least youth who expected to “turn the world upside down” (an expression that they both did use in very different contexts) they would have withheld such judgments or were too busy doing that “turning” business they had no time for adjectives to express their worldly concerns. No that expression, that understanding about the wickedness of the world had been picked up by Sam from Peter when they had reconnected a number of years before after they had not seen each other for decades to express the uphill battles of those who had expected humankind to exhibit the better angels of their nature on a more regular basis. Some might call this nostalgic glancing back, especially by Peter since he had more at stake in a favorable result, on a world that did not turn upside down or did so in a way very different from those hazy days.   

The funny part (or ironic if you prefer) was that back then Sam had been in his youth the least political, the least culturally-oriented, the least musically-oriented of those corner boys like Markin, Jack Dawson, Jimmy Jenkins and “max daddy” leader Fritz Fallon (that “max daddy” another expression coined by Peter so although he has not even been properly introduced we know plenty about his place in the corner boy life, his place as “flak,” for Fritz’s operation although Fritz always called him “the Scribe” when he wanted something written and needed to play on Peter’s vanity) who kept the coins flowing into the jukebox at Phil’s House of Pizza. That shop had been located down a couple of blocks from the choppy ocean waters of Adamsville Beach (and still is although under totally different management from the arch-Italian Rizzo family that ran the place for several generations before they sold it to some immigrant Albanians named Hoxha).

That pizza parlor made it among other things a natural hang-out place for wayward but harmless poor teenage corner boys. (The serious “townie” professional corner boys, the rumblers, tumblers, drifters, grifters and midnight sifters hung around Harry’s Variety with leader Red Riley over on Sagamore far from beaches, daytime beaches although rumors had been heard of more than one nighttime orgy with “nice” girls looking for kicks with rough boys down among the briny rocks, Fritz and the boys would not have gone within three blocks of that place. Maybe more from fear, legitimate fear as Fritz’s older brother, Timmy, a serious tough guy himself, could testify the one time he tried to wait outside Harry’s for some reason and got chain-whipped by Red for his indiscretion.) Moreover this spot provided a beautiful vantage point for scanning the horizon for those wayward girls who also kept their coins flowing into Phil’s jukebox (or a stray “nice” girl after Red and his corner boys threw her over).

Sam had recently thought about that funny story that Markin had told the crowd once on a hot night when nobody had any money and were just holding up the wall at Phil’s about Johnny Callahan, the flashy and unstoppable halfback from the high school team (and a guy even Red respected having made plenty of money off of sports who bet with him on Johnny’s prowess any given Saturday although Johnny once confessed that he, rightly, avoided Harry’s after what had happened to Timmy). See Johnny was pretty poor in those days even by the median working poor standard of the old neighborhoods (although now, courtesy of his incessant radio and television advertising which continues to make everyone within fifty miles of North Adamsville who knew Johnny back in the day aware of his new profession, he is a prosperous Toyota car dealer down across from the mall in Hull about twenty miles from North Adamsville, the town where their mutual friend Josh Breslin soon to be introduced came from).
Johnny, a real music maniac who would do his football weight-lifting exercises to Jerry Lee’s Great Balls of Fire, Gene Vincent’s Be-Bop-A-Lula and stuff like that to get him hyped up, had this routine in order to get to hear songs that he was dying to hear, stuff he would hear late at night coming from a rock station out of Detroit and which would show up a few weeks later on Phil’s jukebox just waiting for Johnny and the kids to fill the coffers, with the girls who had some dough, enough dough anyway to put coins into that jukebox.

Johnny would go up all flirty to some young thing (a Fritz expression coped from Jerry Lee and not an invention of Markin as Peter would later claim to some “young thing” that he was trying to “score”) or depending on whatever intelligence he had on the girl, maybe she had just had a fight with her boyfriend or had broken up with him so Johnny would be all sympathy, maybe she was just down in the dumps for no articulable reason like every teen goes through every chance they get, whatever it took. Johnny, by the way, would have gotten that intelligence via Peter who whatever else anybody had to say about him, good or bad, was wired into, no, made himself consciously privy to, all kinds of boy-girl information almost like he had a hook into that Monday morning before school girls’ locker room talkfest (everybody already knew that he was hooked into the boys’ Monday morning version and had started more rumors and other unsavory deeds than any ten other guys).

Now here is what Johnny “knew” about almost every girl if they had the quarter which allowed them to play three selections. He would let them pick that first one on their own, maybe something to express interest in his flirtation, maybe her name, say Donna, was also being used as the title of a latest hit, or if broken up some boy sorrow thing. Brenda Lee’s I Want To Be Wanted, stuff like that. The second one he would “suggest” something everybody wanted to listen to no matter what but which was starting to get old. Maybe an Elvis, Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee thing still on the jukebox playlist but getting wearisome. Then he would go in for the kill and “suggest” they play this new platter, you know, something like Martha and the Vandelas Dancing in the Streets or Roy’s Blue Bayou both of which he had heard on the midnight radio airwaves out of Detroit one night and were just getting play on the jukeboxes. And bingo before you know it she was playing the thing again, and again. Beautiful. And Johnny said that sometimes he would wind up with a date, especially if he had just scored about three touchdowns for the school, a date that is in the days before he and Kitty Kelly became an item. An item, although it is not germane to the story, who still is Johnny’s girl, wife, known as Mrs. Toyota now.

But enough of this downstream stuff Sam thought. The hell with Johnny and his cheapjack tricks (although not to those three beautiful touchdowns days, okay) this thing gnawing at him was about old age angst and not the corner boy glory days at Phil’s, although it is about old time corners boys and their current doings, some of them anyway. So yeah he had other things he wanted to think about (and besides he had already, with a good trade-in gotten his latest car from Mr. Toyota so enough there), to tell a candid world about how over the past few years with the country, the world, the universe had been going to hell in a hand-basket. In the old days, like he kept going back to before he was not the least bit interested in anything in the big world outside of sports, and girls, of course. And endlessly working on plans to own his own business, a print shop, before he was twenty-five. Well, he did get that small business, although not until thirty and had prospered when he made connections to do printing for several big high-tech companies, notably IBM when they began outsourcing their work. He had prospered, had married (twice, and divorced twice), had the requisite tolerated children and adored grandchildren, and in his old age a woman companion to ease his time.

But there had been for a long time, through those failed marriages, through that business success something gnawing at him, something that Sam felt he had missed out on, or felt he had do something about. Then a few years ago when it was getting time for a high school class reunion he had Googled “North Adamsville Class of 1966” and came upon a class website for that year, his year, that had been set up by the reunion committee, and decided to joint to keep up with what was going on with developments there (he would wind up not going to that reunion as he had planned to although that too is not germane to the story here except as one more thing that gnawed at him because in the end he could not face going home , believed what Thomas Wolfe said in the title of one of his novels, you can’t go home again).

After he had registered on the site giving a brief resume of his interests and what he had been up to these past forty years or so years Sam  looked at the class list, the entire list of class members alive and deceased (a rose beside their name signifying their passing)  of who had joined and found the names of Peter Markin (he had to laugh, listed as Peter Paul Markin since everybody was listed by their full names, revenge from the grave by his poor mother, and that leafy suburban first wife who tried to give him Mayflower credentials, he thought) and Jimmy Jenkins among those who had done so. (Jack Dawson had passed away a few years before, a broken man, broken after his son who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan had committed suicide, according to Peter, as had their corner boy leader, Fritz Fallon, homeless after going through a couple of fortunes, his own and a third wife’s). Through the mechanism established on the site which allowed each class member who joined to have a private e-mail slot Sam contacted both men and the three of them started a rather vigorous on-line chat line for several weeks going through the alphabet of their experiences, good and bad (the time for sugar-coating was over unlike in their youth when all three would lie like crazy, especially about sex and with whom in order to keep their place in the pecking order, and in order to keep up with Fritz whom lied more than the three of them combined. Peter knew that, knew it better than anybody else but to keep his place as “scribe” in that crazy quill pecking order went along with such silly teenage stuff, stuff that in his other pursuits he would have laughed at but that is what made being a teenager back then, now too, from what he saw of his grandchildren’s trials and tribulations).

After a while, once the e-mail questions had worked their course, all three men met in Boston at the Sunnyvale Grille, a place where Markin had begun to hang out in after he had moved back to Boston (read: did his daytime drinking) over by the waterfront, and spent a few hours discussing not so much old times per se but what was going on in the world, and how the world had changed some much in the meantime. And since Markin, the political maniac of the tribe, was involved in the conversations maybe do something about it at least that is what Sam had hoped since he knew that is where he thought he needed to head in order to cut into that gnawing feeling. Sam was elated, and unlike in his youth he did not shut his ears down, when those two guys would talk politics, about the arts or about music. He had not listened back then since he was so strictly into girls and sports, not always in that order (which caused many problems later including one of the grounds for one of his divorces, not the sports but the girls).

This is probably the place for Sam to introduce Peter Markin although he had already given an earful (and what goes for Peter goes to a lesser extent for Jimmy who tended to follow in Pete’s wake on the issues back then, and still does). Peter as Sam already noted provided that noteworthy, national security agency-worthy service, that “intelligence” he provided all the guys (and not just his corner boys, although they had first dibs) about girls, who was “taken,” a very important factor if some frail (a Fritz term from watching too many 1940s gangster and detective movies and reading Dashiell Hammett too closely, especially The Maltese Falcon),was involved with some bruiser football player, some college joe who belonged to a fraternity and the brothers were sworn to avenge any brother’s indignities, or worse, worse of all, if she was involved with some outlaw biker who hung out in Adamsville and who if he hadn’t his monthly quota of  college boy wannabes red meat hanging out at Phil’s would not think twice about chain-whipping you just for the fuck of it (“for the fuck of it” a  term Jimmy constantly used so it was not always Markin or Fritz who led the verbal life around the corner), who was “unapproachable,”  probably more important than that social blunder of ‘hitting on” a taken woman since that snub by Miss Perfect-Turned-Up-Nose would make the rounds of that now legendary seminar, Monday morning before school girls’ locker room (and eventually work its way though Markin to the boys’ Monday morning version ruining whatever social standing the guy had spent since junior high trying to perfect in order to avoid the fatal nerd-dweeb-wallflower-square name your term). Strangely Markin made a serious mistake with Melinda Loring who blasted her freeze deep on him and he survived to tell the tale, or at least that is what he had the boys believe. Make of this what you will he never after that Melinda Loring had a high school girlfriend from North Adamsville High, who, well, liked to “do the do” as they called it back then, that last part not always correct since everybody, girls and boys alike, were lying like crazy about whether they were “doing the do” or not, including Markin.

But beyond, well beyond, that schoolboy silliness Markin was made of sterner stuff (although Sam would not have bothered to use such a positive attribute about Markin back then) was super-political, super into art and what he called culture, you know going to poetry readings at coffeehouses, going over Cambridge to watch foreign films with subtitles and themes that he would try to talk about and even Jimmy would turn his head, especially those French films by Jean Renoir, and super into music, fortunately he was not crazy for classical music (unlike some nerds in school then who were in the band) but serious about what is now called classic rock and roll and then in turn, the blues, and folk music (Sam still shuttered at that hillbilly stuff Markin tried to interest him in when he thought about it).

That was how Peter had first met Josh Breslin, still a friend, whom he introduced to Sam at one of their meetings over at the Sunnyvale Grille. Josh told the gathering that Markin had met him after high school, after he had graduated from Hull High (the same town where Johnny Callahan was burning up the Toyota sales records for New England) down at the Surf Ballroom (Sam had his own memories of the place, some good, some bad including one affair that almost wound up in marriage). Apparently Josh and Peter had had their wanting habits on the same girl at one Friday night dance when the great local cover band, the Rockin’ Ramrods held sway there, and had been successively her boyfriend for a short period both to be dumped for some stockbroker from New York. But their friendship remained and they had gone west together, gone on that Jack Kerouac On The Road  for a number of years when they were trying their own version of turning the world upside down on. Josh also dabbled (his word) in the turning upside down politics of the time.

And that was the remarkable thing about Peter, not so much later in cahoots with Josh because half of youth nation, half the generation of ’68 was knee-deep in some movement, but in staid old North Adamsville High days, days when to just be conventionally political, wanting to run for office or something, was kind of strange. See Peter was into the civil rights movement, nuclear disarmament, and social justice stuff that everybody thought he was crazy to be into, everybody from Ma to Fritz (and a few anonymous midnight phone-callers yelling n----r-lover in the Markin home phone).  He had actually gone into Boston when he was a freshman and joined the picket-line in front of Woolworths’ protesting the fact that they would not let black people eat in their lunchrooms down south (and maybe Markin would say when he mentioned what he was up to they were not that happy to have blacks in their northern lunchrooms either ), had joined a bunch of Quakers and little old ladies in tennis sneakers (a term then in use for airhead blue-haired lady do-gooders with nothing but time on their hands) calling on the government to stop building atomic bombs (not popular in the red scare Cold War we were fighting against the Russians North Adamsville, or most other American places either), running over to the art museum to check out the exhibits (including some funny stories about him and Jimmy busting up the place looking at the old Pharaoh times slave building Pyramids stuff uncovered by some Harvard guys way back), and going to coffeehouses in Harvard Square and listening to hokey folk music that was a drag. (Sam’s take on that subject then, and now.) So Peter was a walking contradiction, although that was probably not as strange now as it seemed back then when every new thing was looked at with suspicion and when kids like Peter were twisted in the wind between being corner boys and trying to figure out what that new wind was that was blowing though the land, when Sam and the other corner boys, except Jimmy and sometimes Jack would try to talk him out of stuff that would only upset everybody in town.

But here is the beauty, beauty for Sam now that he was all ears about what Peter had to say, he had kept at it, had kept the faith, while everybody else from their generation, or almost everybody, who protested war, protested around the social issues, had hung around coffeehouses and who had listened to folk music had long before given it up. Markin had, after his  Army time, spent a lot of time working with GIs around the war issues, protested American foreign policy at the drop of a hat and frequented off-beat coffeehouses set up in the basements of churches in order to hear the dwindling number of folk artists around. He had gotten and kept his “religion,” kept the faith in a sullen world. And like in the old days a new generation (added to that older North Adamsville generation which still, from the class website e-mail traffic had not gotten that much less hostile to what Peter had to say about this wicked old world, you already know the genesis of that term, right, was ready to curse him out, ready to curse the darkness against his small voice).

One night when Peter and Sam were alone at the Sunnyvale, maybe both had had a few too many high-shelf scotches (able to afford such liquor unlike in the old days when they both in their respective poverties, drank low-shelf Johnny Walker whiskey with a beer chaser when they had the dough, if not some cheapjack wine), Peter told Sam the story of how he had wanted to go to Alabama in high school, go to Selma, but his mother threatened to disown him if he did, threatened to disown him not for his desire to go but because she would not have been able to hold her head up in public if he had, and so although it ate at him not to go, go when his girlfriend, Helen Jackman, who lived in Gloversville, did go, he took a dive (Peter’s words). Told a redemptive story too about his anti-war fight in the Army when he refused to go to Vietnam and wound up in an Army stockade for a couple of years altogether. (Sam thought that was a high price to pay for redemption but it may have been the scotch at work.) Told a number of stories about working with various veterans’ groups, throwing medals over Supreme Court barricades, chainings to the White House fence, sitting down in hostile honked traffic streets, blocking freeways complete with those same hostile honkings, a million walks for this and that, and some plain old ordinary handing out leaflets, working the polls and button-holing reluctant politicians to vote against the endless war budgets (this last the hardest task, harder than all the jailings, honkings, marches put together and seemingly the most fruitless). Told too stories about the small coffeehouse places seeing retread folkies who had gone on to other things and then in a fit of anguish, or hubris, decided to go back on the trail. Told of many things that night not in feast of pride but to let Sam know that sometimes it was easier to act than to let that gnawing win the day. Told Sam that he too always had the gnaw, probably always would in this wicked old world. Sam was delighted by the whole talk, even if Peter was on his soapbox. 

That night too Peter mentioned in passing that he contributed to a number of blogs, a couple of political ones, including an anti-war veterans’ group, a couple of old time left-wing cultural sites and a folk music-oriented one. Sam confessed to Peter that although he had heard the word blog he did not know what a blog was. Peter told him that one of the virtues of the Internet was that it provided space (cyberspace, a term Sam had heard of and knew what it meant) for the average citizen to speak his or her mind via setting up a website or a blog. Blogs were simply a way to put your opinions and comments out there just like newspaper Op/Ed writers or news reporters and commentators although among professional reporters the average blog and blog writers were seen as too filled with opinions and sometimes rather loose with the facts. Peter said he was perfectly willing to allow the so-called “objective” reporters to state the facts but he would be damned if the blog system was not a great way to get together with others interested in your areas of interest, yeah, stuff that interested you and that other like-minded spirits might respond to. Yeah that was worth the effort.

The actual process of blog creation (as opposed to the more complex website-creation which still takes a fair amount of expertise to create) had been made fairly simple over time, just follow a few simple prompts and you are in business. Also over time what was possible to do has been updated for ease, for example linking other platforms to your site and be able to present multi-media works lashing up say your blog with YouTube or downloading photographs to add something to your presentation. Peter one afternoon after Sam had asked about his blog links showed him the most political one that he belonged to, one he had recently begun to share space with Josh Breslin, Frank Jackman and a couple of other guys that he had known since the 1960s and who were familiar with the various social, political and cultural trends that floated out from that period. 

Sam was amazed at the various topics that those guys tackled, stuff that he vaguely remembered hearing about but which kind of passed him by as he delved into the struggle to build his printing shop. He told Peter that he got dizzy looking at the various titles from reviews of old time black and white movies that he remembered watching at the old Strand second run theater uptown, poetry from the “beat” generation, various political pieces on current stuff like the Middle East, the fight against war, political prisoners most of whom he had never heard of except the ones who had been Black Panther or guys like that, all kinds of reviews of rock and roll complete with the songs via YouTube, too many reviews of folk music that he never really cared for, books that he knew Peter read like crazy but could not remember the titles. The guys really had put a lot of stuff together, even stuff from other sites and announcements for every conceivable left-wing oriented event. He decided that he would become a Follower which was nothing sinister like some cult but just that you would receive notice when something was put on the blog.

Peter also encouraged him to write some pieces about what interested him, maybe start out about the old days in North Adamsville since all the guys mined that vein for sketches (that is what Peter liked to call most of the material on site since they were usually too short to be considered short stories but too long to be human interest snapshots. Sam said he would think about the matter, think about it seriously once he read the caption below:                                                                           
“This space is noted for politics mainly, and mainly the desperate political fight against various social, economic and moral injustices and wrongs in this wicked old world, although the place where politics and cultural expression, especially post-World War II be-bop cultural expression, has drawn some of our interest over the past several years. The most telling example of that interest is in the field of popular music, centrally the blues, city and country, good woman on your mind, hardworking, hard drinking blues and folk music, mainly urban, mainly protest to high heaven against the world’s injustices smite the dragon down, folk music. Of late though the old time 1950s kid, primordial, big bang, jail-break rock and roll music that set us off from earlier generations has drawn our attention. Mostly by reviewing oldies CDs but here, and occasionally hereafter under this headline, specifically songs that some future archaeologists might dig up as prime examples of how we primitives lived ,and what we listened to back in the day.”

Sam could relate to that, had something to say about some of those songs. Josh Breslin laughed when he heard that Sam was interested in doing old time rock and roll sketches. He then added, “If we can only get him to move off his butt and come out and do some street politics with us we would be getting somewhere.” Peter just replied, “one step at a time.” Yeah, that’s the ticket. 


Rock and Roll Legend “Fats” Domino Passes At 89




By Music Critic Seth Garth


Yes, no question, I am belatedly recognizing the passing of the legendary New Orleans piano man Antoine “Fats” Domino. Not out of any ignorance of his passing as has happened in some cases like that of Etta James several years ago when somehow her passing fell through the cracks in this space. Rather in the case of Fats I was for a time unsure of how I wanted to place him in my growing up pantheon of pioneer rock and roll artists and legends.

Here is my dilemma. No question that massively crazy piano men Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard had a great deal of influence on me during my growing up days in hard-pressed Carver down in
cranberry country where I would listen to the Boston rock radio station WMEX and hear Little Richard rolling his eyes toward heaven on Lucille and Good Golly Miss Molly . Even better a little
later when I saw Jerry Lee doing High School Confidential on the back of a flatbed truck heading down the road to the local high school in the film of the same name and I flipped out, went crazy despite the silly cautionary tale about the dangers of drugs portrayed in the film.


But in the Fats case I was pretty non-plussed by his classic Blueberry Hill and others performed by him. So call it coming of age, call it a matter of taste, call it hormones but Fat did not “speak” to me then. Now I can see how he deserved all his fame although he still does not speak to me. I was in great sorrow when I heard that Hurricane Katrina destroyed a lot of his record holdings which I assume were invaluable to the history of rock and roll. Let’s leave it at this the Fat Man had the goods to push rock and roll forward for my growing up generation. RIP, Antoine “Fat” Domino, RIP                 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Of The Caffe Lena And Stuff-Rosalie Sorrels’ My Last Go Round




CD Review

By Zack James

My Last Go Round, Rosalie Sorrels and friends, 2002 

My old high school friend, Seth Garth, who went every step of the way with me back in the 1960s into the Cambridge folk and coffeehouse scene since we lived in next town Arlington reminded me recently that we had spread our folk wings further than Cambridge and its rather boisterous scene. We had taken a few trips down to Mecca, to Greenwich Village in New York City and imbibed the full effect there. But the folk minute while it didn’t survive the British invasion and the rise of “acid” rock to grab young ears also had little outposts in places that one would not assume such music would have much play, at least back then. Seth and I had made a trip to Saratoga in those days to see a cousin of his who was going to Skidmore College. One Saturday night he took us to the Caffe Lena in that town, a small, a very small coffeehouse (still there unlike many other more famous venues which went under when the folk tide ebbed), run by a wild old woman, Lena, who single-handedly ran the place, kept the folk minute alive in that region, kept many a budding folkie from Arlo Guthrie to the McGarrigle Sisters from the wolves and from street corners. It was there that we first saw that night Rosalie Sorrels singing up songs of protest and blues, singing some stuff by a guy named Bruce Phillips, later to be called more famously Utah Phillips.    

All of this a roundabout way of introducing the CD under review, My Last Go Round, a live album of her last public performance along with some of her friends at the Saunders Theater at Harvard in 2002 which Seth and I both attended with our wives who in their own ways had imbibed the folk minute in other locales (Ann Arbor and Berkeley). Rosalie had decided to give up the road, to stick closer to home, so had invited his friends from Caffe Lena and other roads to come and perform. Invited those who were still standing and who could make it. Unfortunately the legendary Dave Van Ronk one of the key figures in the budding folk movement in New York in the late 1950s who was supposed to perform had passed away a few weeks before (to be replaced by the still standing now David Bromberg) which placed a damper on the proceedings.            


It was at this performance that Seth and I (along with the our wives) first took stock than those who stood tall in that 1960s folk minute were starting to pass on and that we had better see performances of whoever was left standing as best we could. We additionally, as we sat in the Café Algiers on Brattle Street after the performance for a late night coffee and pastry (some things never change for that was the bill of fare in the old days when we, low on funds, gravitated to the coffeehouses for cheap dates in high school and college), got into an animated conversation about who did, and who did not, still have “it.” Have a spark of that old time ability to draw a crowd to them. David Bromberg did (and does after a fairly recent performance seen at a Boston venue where he blew the crowd away with his music and a very fine back-up band. And yes, very much yes, Rosalie Sorrels, now sadly passed as well, still had it that night at the Saunders Theater. Listen up.        
The Golden Age Of The B-Film Noir- Dane Clark’s “Blackout” (1954)




DVD Review

By Film Critic Emeritus Sam Lowell

Blackout (released in England as Murder By Proxy), starring Dane Clark, Belinda Lee, Hammer Productions, 1954



Wouldn’t you want a long-time film reviewer like me, or my colleagues in this space who are the regular reviewers, Sandy Salmon and Alden Riley, to draw a map for you, let you know what is what about any particular film in relationship to others in the genre. As the headline to this review notes (and has on other occasions in this ten film series) I am reviewing a series of B-film noirs from the 1950s produced by the Robert Lippert organization in conjunction with Hammer Productions in England. The idea, at least this is what I have been able to gather from various readings and speculations after now having reviewed scads of these efforts, by Lippert was to grab some faded Hollywood star who either needed the dough or was looking for some film, any film to satisfy whatever stardust lust drove him or her to the studio lots in the first place and back him or her up with an English cast, do the production in England and get away with costs on the cheap. If you knew that and then somebody, me, came along and told you that these efforts didn’t compare, didn’t compare at all with classic noirs, you know Out Of The Past, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, The Last Man Standing and others that you almost know all the lines from since you have seen the films so many times, wouldn’t you appreciate that knowledge   

You would think so but you would at least in one case, actually more, but the reader I am thinking of as I write this has become something of a thorn in my side, my efforts to draw comparisons have given me nothing but grief, and had hung on me the title of “penny a word” writer as a joke by my colleagues. 

In noted in my last review in this series, The House Across The Lake, that in my long career in the film reviewing racket, a profession if you will which is overall pretty subjective when you think about it, I have run up against all kind of readerships and readers but my recent escapade with one reader takes the cake as they used to say in the old days. That is the person I am thinking of right now as I write yet another screed against the injustice done to be by that person. To cut to the chase a B-grade film noir is one that is rather thin on plotline and maybe film quality usually made on the cheap although some of the classics with B-film noir queen Gloria Grahame have withstood the test of time despite that quality. I have contrasted those with the classics like The Maltese Falcon, Out Of The Past, The Big Sleep, and The Last Man Standing to give the knowledgeable reader an idea of the different. 

I have as already noted done a bunch of these (excluding a couple which I refused to review since they were so thin I couldn’t justify the time and effort to even give the “skinny” on them) using a kind of standard format discussing the difference between the classics and Bs in some detail and then as has been my wont throughout my career giving a short summary of the film’s storyline and maybe a couple of off-hand comments so that the readership has something to hang its hat on when choosing to see, or not see, the film. All well and good until about my fifth review when a reader wrote in complaining about my use of that standard form to introduce each film. Moreover and this is the heart of the issue she mentioned that perhaps I was getting paid per word, a “penny a word” in her own words and so was padding my reviews with plenty that didn’t directly relate to the specific film I was reviewing.

Of course other than to cut me to the quick “penny a word” went out with the dime store novel and I had a chuckle over that expression since I have had various types of contracts for work over the years but not that one since nobody does that anymore. The long and short of it was that the next review was a stripped down version of the previous reviews which I assumed would satisfy her complaint. Not so. Using the name Nora Charles, the well-known distaff side of the Dashiell Hammett-inspired film series The Thin Man from the 1930s and early 1940s starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, she still taunted me with that odious expression of hers. (I also mentioned there as an aside that one of the pitfalls of citizen journalism, citizen commentary on-line is that one can use whatever moniker one wants to say the most unsavory things and not fame any blow-back). Now Sandy, Alden, Pete Markin, the administrator of this space and a few others have started to call me that as well-‘hey, penny a word.” That has made my blood boil on more than one occasion but I have calmly put up with it rather than blow-up and threaten murder and mayhem to them-and to Nora.      

But enough of that or Nora will really have case about me “padding” my reviews. Here is the “skinny” on the film under review Blackout in any case as is my wont and let dear sweet Nora suffer through another review-if she dares. (This film was released in England and on the continent as Murder By Proxy which unusually in this series is not closer to the nub of the plot since in fact a the lead man character, Dane Clark, does blackout and face serious consequences for that hard fact and has to face all kinds of hell) A down and out drunk Casey, the role played by down and out faded Hollywood star Dane Clark picked up on the cheap by Lippert and who was so “from hunger” he starred in a few of these B-babies not necessarily to his career advantage) was sitting in a bar (a nice bar, maybe classy too, since it had a female blues torch singer up on stage as the film begins which may have been the cinematic and thematic highlight of the whole venture) putting a load on when a beautiful young woman, Phyllis, played by fetching Belinda Lee, comes up to his table and before long makes him an offer he can’t refuse. No, not that, not something sexual which would be catnip for most guys once they got a look at her but an offer for him to marry her for a pile of dough so she can grab some inheritance money from a stingy father. Offers him serious dough, serious dough then anyway but as I have mentioned more than once in previous reviews nothing but cheapjack walking around money these days. Offers him five hundred pounds, pounds sterling which in those heady English days was maybe twenty-five hundred US, and I don’t know and it doesn’t matter now post-Brexit how many Euros. He bites and she drags him out of the gin mill and to a preacher man or justice of the peace maybe better to tie the profitable knot.

Easy dough, real easy for a down and out guy who had a drinking problem and was out of cash-flush. Easy, except for one problem, he winds up in a Gainsborough apartment, you know an artist’s apartment, female, an apartment of a woman who had started a portrait of Phyllis and can’t remember a thing about the night before except he had blood on his coat. Which is not good, very not good, since Phyllis isn’t easy to find and moreover her father had been murdered by a party or parties unknown that night before. So yes the coppers and everybody else have him set up as the fall guy, as the guy to take the big step-off, the guy to be hung high as they used to say. But not so quick because under the threat of the gallows Casey gets “religion” gets on the case to find out who actually did kill poor Phyllis’ father. Through a series of twists and turns with various shady characters he eventually finds out the real killer-the wife, the mother, as usual since she would be left out of the goodies if Phyllis grabbed all the dough. Here is the funniest twist old Casey after having more than a few suspicions about Phyllis winds up in the sack with her (and her bag of dough) which is okay for 1950s film censors since remember they were married- a legal marriage at it turned out.                

For a while the film took turns like a real thriller but the dialogue and the wooden acting by the Brits (and by faded Dane in spots too too) make this thing a holy goof. As I have mentioned before in other reviews where things looked promising at the beginning here despite the come hither title and the titillating advertisement poster (see above) for the film this one fades away on its own dead weight. B-noir but seriously B not heading to classics-no way.                       



Monday, November 13, 2017

The Golden Age Of The B-Film Noir- Paulette Goddard’s “The Unholy Four” (1954)




DVD Review

By Film Critic Emeritus Sam Lowell

The Unholy Four (released in England as A Stanger Came Home), starring Paulette Goddard , Hammer Productions, 1954

In my long career in the film reviewing racket, a profession if you will which is overall pretty subjective when you think about it, I have run up against all kind of readerships and readers but my recent escapade with one reader takes the cake as they used to say in the old days. As the headline above indicates I have been doing a serious of reviews of B-grade film noirs by the English Hammer Production Company from the early 1950s. A B-grade film noir is one that is rather thin on plotline and maybe film quality usually made on the cheap although some of the classics with B-film noir queen Gloria Grahame have withstood the test of time despite that quality. I contrasted those with the classics like The Maltese Falcon, Out Of The Past, The Big Sleep, and The Last Man Standing to give the knowledgeable reader an idea of the different. In the current series the well-known Hollywood producer Robert Lippert contracted with Hammer for a series of ten films which would star let’s say a well-known if fated Hollywood star like Dane Clark or Richard Conte as a draw and an English supporting cast with a thin storyline.     

I had done a bunch of these reviews (minus a couple which I refused to review since they were so thin I couldn’t justify the time and effort to even give the “skinny” on them) using a kind of standard format discussing the difference between the classics and Bs in some detail and then as has been my wont throughout my career giving a short summary of the film’s storyline and maybe a couple of off-hand comments so that the readership has something to hang its hat on when choosing to see, or not see, the film. All well and good until about my five review when a reader wrote in complaining about my use of that standard form to introduce each film. Moreover and this is the heart of the issue she mentioned that perhaps I was getting paid per word, a “penny a word” in her own words and so was padding my reviews with plenty that didn’t directly relate to the specific film I was reviewing. Of course other than to cut me to the quick “penny a word” went out with the dime store novel and I had a chuckle over that expression since I have had various contracts for work over the years but not that one. The long and short of it was that the next review was a stripped down version of the previous reviews which I assumed would satisfy her complaint. Not so. Using the name Nora Charles, the well-known distaff side of the Dashiell Hammett-inspired film series The Thin Man from the 1930s and early 1940s starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, she still taunted me with that odious expression of hers. (By the way one of the pitfalls of citizen journalism, citizen commentary on-line is that one can use whatever moniker one wants to say the most unsavory things and not fame any blow-back.

Here is the “skinny” on the film under review The Unholy Four (released in England and on the continent as A Stranger Came Home which as usual in this series is closer to the nub since in fact a stranger does come home to face all kinds of hell) in any case as is my wont and let dear sweet Nora suffer through another review-if she dares. Four guys, four rich guys not of the nobility in England anyway, took a trip not shown trip to Portugal and only three came back. One guy vanished for four years and as the film opens up he shows up unannounced one party night. The guy, a guy named Phil, had this dishy wife, Angie, played by fading American screen star Paulette Goddard the first female fading star in the series which as mentioned before jacks up the film more than if there were only English nobodies playing the roles, who the other three guys on that fateful trip were in varying degrees interested in. Our man Phil, kind of a chain-smoking cuckoo, was waylaid by one of the three guys and he is well enough now to go the distance to find out who fucked him up enough that he lost his memory and is now seeking revenge-or at least answers to what happened to him and to his wife.



Problem, big problem, or really two problems one of the three guys winds up very dead the night Phil comes back home and guess what he is built to specifications to be the fall guy, to take the big-step off since everybody in their set knew that dead guy was crazy for Angie. Still the peelers don’t have enough evidence to throw him in the slammer and throw away the key. That second problem is that Phil is not altogether sure that good-looking if faded whorish Angie wasn’t playing footsie with one or more of the guys while Phil was lost in the rain out in Lisbon waiting with Victor Lazlo for some airfare to the States. She has a hell of a time trying to persuade Phil and the coppers for a bit that she did rub the dead man out. With only two guys left though Phil honed in on the killer and his lamester reasons for bopping Phil and killing the other dude. Phil lays the dude down and he and Angie head off into the sunset or something like that. For a while the film took turns like a real thriller but the dialogue and the wooden acting by the Brits (and by faded Paulette too) make this thing a holy goof. Despite the come hither title and the titillating advertisement poster (see above) for the film this one fades away on its own dead weight. B-noir but seriously B not heading to classics-no way.                      
Interloper’s Interlude-William Powell’s “My Man Godfrey” (1936)-A Film Review, Of Sorts



DVD Review

By Special Guest Reviewer Frank Jackman


My Man Godfrey, starring William Powell, Carol Lombard, 1936

You know they don’t make bums, tramps, hoboes like they used to at least back in the day, back in the Great Depression, the world-wide 1930s one, if one is to believe the plotline of the film under review My Man Godfrey. I have been handed. asked for, this assignment since I know, or knew for a relatively short time, the sociology of the outcasts of society, when I myself was on the bum for a while after hitting the skids as a result of military service in Vietnam back in the 1970s. (Although I had my fair share of run-ins and run-downs during that period the real deal expert from that time was my old friend from high school the late Pete Markin, always called “Scribe” in our circles who had his own fair share of problems adjusting to the “real” world after his military service but who wrote an award-winning series of articles for the East Bay Other, I think it was that now long gone publication on the West Coast  although it could have been another alternative newspaper now also long gone The Eye, about a bunch of ex-military guys who couldn’t adjust to the real world and wound up forming some kind of travelling nation community along the railroad tracks and bridges of Southern California.)

In my experience, unlike in the comedic effort in the film under review, the guys, and it was mostly guys since ragamuffin women would be is serious danger in the camps and flop houses I ran into, were not anywhere near nature’s noblemen as portrayed here, especially in the person of Godfrey, maybe better particularly in the  person of Godfrey. They were as likely to steal everything you owned as share anything even shaking DTs booze when a guy was on the hammer (I lost several personal items including cash before I figured out how to store my goods). As likely to con you as speak truth and as likely to sell you out to the nearest copper to save their own necks as not. There is nevertheless a hierarchy among the varieties of outcasts which mainly reflect their relationship to the work ethic from no work on principle to enough day work to keep going.

I learned a lot of this lore running into a guy named Dragon Rocky who was a hobo, the highest rank among the outcasts and recognized as such by one and all along the tracks and under the bridges, who was also, or had also been, it was never clear where he stood on this, a folk song writer and when he was sober a performer at clubs and small concerts on those infrequent days when he wasn’t on the bum.  He was some kind of high figure among the brethren and knew more about how to handle himself in that cutthroat world than any man I met then, or have met now.  So philosopher-king kind heart Godfrey would have gotten no play, would have been skinned alive in real hobo, tramp, bum society.  

But see this guy Godfrey was, if you can believe that anybody sane would do such a thing if for no other reason than to avoid the fleas and coughs, faking it, well maybe not faking it but more like he was on a lark, was trying to find himself or something according to the way he told it to one of his high and mighty friends when he was finally caught out by proper society. See, this Godfrey played by William Powell last seen in this space squiring Myrna Loy around seemingly endlessly in the Dashiell Hammett-inspired The Thin Man film series (that information according to the regular film critic here Sandy Salmon), was an interloper, a man of the upper classes in Boston who had gone to Harvard and decided to become déclassé as they say in sociology, or used to, after having a personal epiphany and rather than dunk his head in the East River down New York City way he became a tramp (no way and Dragon Rocky if he were still alive which is improbable given the dramatically Hobbesian shortened, nasty brutish life along the tracks and embankments.


Fair enough, although hobos, tramps and bums, real ones have little enough room to breathe on the outer edges of society to rightly and righteously resent a guy on a flyer. Grabbing up precious resources better used by real brethren. Not to worry though our man will land on his feet once he gets a job as butler to a screwball bunch of Riverside swells, Mayfair swells, if you want to know who have the social consciousness of amoebas until Godfrey puts them straight, settles their affairs and along the way falls for the family’s younger screwball airhead daughter. Not only that but outduel one Karl Marx in the capitalist-communist battle by saying screw you to the class struggle and on the sly opening up swanky nightclub for those Mayfair swells and providing honorable work for the denizens of the dump which had been their (and Godfrey’s) abode before this act of urban renewal. Hell, talk about paeans to trickle-down economics that one guy much later called “voodoo” economics.  A funny film in spots but don’t take any social message seriously.       
On Armistice Day- Iraq War Veteran Warrior Writer Douglas Randall- Jihadi Girl- a poem

Frank Jackman comment:

Every war will bring out some writing or other artistic ability not necessarily previously shown by those who had the hard task of fighting wars up close and personal, too personal, in order to make some sense, some fucking sense in GI speak, out of the ordeal. World War II to name one such war had three outstanding writers tell what they saw and felt-James Jones of From Here To Eternity fame, Norman Mailer of The Naked And The Dead fame and William Styron of Sophie’s Choice (I know, I know, J. D. Salinger was a soldier-writer when he penned Catcher In The Rye but I am talking war story stuff not young guys coming of age stuff just now). My Vietnam War generation had Phil Caputo and Tim Neal among others. And so on through the litany of endless wars since those halcyon 1940s days. Iraq/Afghanistan is just starting to produce writing from guys and gals (the latter only on the margins of previous wars) who have had time to think about what they went through. Douglas Randall is one of the new faces on the scene from the recent series of endless wars.     


************

On Armistice Day- Iraq War Veteran Warrior Writer Douglas Randall- Jihadi Girl- a poem

Frank Jackman comment:
Every war will bring out some writing or other artistic ability not necessarily previously shown by those who had the hard task of fighting wars up close and personal, too personal, in order to make some sense, some fucking sense in GI speak, out of the ordeal. World War II to name one such war had three outstanding writers tell what they saw and felt-James Jones of From Here To Eternity fame, Norman Mailer of The Naked And The Dead fame and William Styron of Sophie’s Choice (I know, I know, J. D. Salinger was a soldier-writer when he penned Catcher In The Rye but I am talking war story stuff not young guys coming of age stuff just now). My Vietnam War generation had Phil Caputo and Tim Neal among others. And so on through the litany of endless wars since those halcyon 1940s days. Iraq/Afghanistan is just starting to produce writing from guys and gals (the latter only on the margins of previous wars) who have had time to think about what they went through. Douglas Randall is one of the new faces on the scene from the recent series of endless wars.     




I am a Muslim informant for the U.S. Government.  My boyfriend, Paul, is a colonel in the U.S. Army.  Jihadi terrorists abduct me and make me their hostage.  They take me to the desert.  Of course the U.S. won’t pay my ransom. Why should they?
My desert prince places my fingers on the blade of his knife. He’s gentle. The knife leaves a slash mark on my fingers, but no blood. His friend video records my prince and me in the desert. Do I want to say anything?  “Paul,” I murmur, my American boyfriend’s name.
My prince draws the blade slowly across my throat. It is so sharp, I don’t feel anything but the tickle of blood as it seeps from the slash across my throat. I look wildly across the desert. The video camera’s red light pulses erotically. Prince grips my hair strongly pulling my head up as his blade continues its journey.  Up higher he pulls. The blade seems to circle my neck. Suddenly there’s a popping sound and I watch my body tumble to the sand. I’ve never seen my body from that angle before. I’m laughing uncontrollably. I’ve always enjoyed laughing, but now I run out of breath unable to inhale, my facial muscles frozen in a curious smile. I want to wave my arms, but they’re tied to my body sprawled in the sand. There was a movie, “Blood and Sand,” with Tyrone Power as a bull fighter. I remember him delivering the coup de grace to a dying bull. He was so handsome. My torso paints the desert red, the shifting sands cover all traces of human contact. I feel sad. A bold prince rides across the desert on a camel. Lawrence of Arabia. He’s come to save me. From what? I’m not in pain. Arabs loved Lawrence. He came to save them too. Behind Lawrence came a smiling Britannia.  France was smiling too…and far in the distance the United States.  Only Lawrence wasn’t smiling.
They came to carve up my Arabia….Sykes-Picot – PARTITION southern Iraq, northern Iraq, Jordan, Turkey – pain…..League of Nations – PARTITION Syria – pain…..Balfour Agreement – PARTITION Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Iraq  – pain….Great Britain, France, Faisal and in the far distance America are laughing….Jihadi prince -  PARTITION my head from my body….so slowly I thought I would die. Three seconds is a long time. Blackout.

                                        end

Friday, November 10, 2017

You Ain’t In Paris Anymore-Kate Winslet’s “The Dressmaker” (2015)-A Film Review




DVD Review

By Associate Film Critic Alden Riley   

The Dressmaker, starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hensworth, 2015   

This is a first at least according to my boss Senior Film Critic Sandy Salmon. The first being in this case reviewing a film like the one here, The Dressmaker, produced by an on-line operation, a streaming affair, Amazon the giant merchandise mart. Although Sandy (and film critic emeritus Sam Lowell) have shied away from reviewing such productions these operations probably are a fair representation of where the film industry might very well be heading since Netflix and others have also entered the fray.

Taking that idea into consideration I must say I was impressed by the production values and the acting, especially of the versatile Kate Winslet last seen in this space according to Sam in a review of Titanic although maybe his memory is not what it used to be since that was many moons ago and she has performed in many films between times so he must have reviewed something more current previously. This is a quirky film no question set in the Outback of Australia apparently the new Wild West of film-dom (another film Australia with Nicole Kidman also showing that tendency). What I don’t get though is why in the blubs about film consider this venture a comedy despite some marginal (and again quirky) moments.

Let me explain. Myrtle, Ms. Winslet’s role, returned home to that Outback after making a name for herself as a dressmaker (hence the appropriately named title) in the high-end fashion industry, okay, okay haute couture in Paris, that is in France not Texas. The at first murky reasons for her return after having been unceremoniously sent away from the town after she allegedly had murdered a fellow student who was tormenting her are what formally drives the plot. She ostensibly returned to take care of her ailing and seemingly unstable mother, Molly played by Judy Davis, and to try to figure out what actually happened back at that incident. (That taking care of “unstable” mother who as the film proceeds gets very, very stable and wise another example of film’s ability to raise the dead.)  And discover whether she is cursed by that event. Or should seek righteous revenge for being displaced out of spite since she was illegitimate and her un-acknowledging local bigwig father had been instrumental in sending her away.         
              
Of course as a professional dressmaker (she only brought one piece of luggage and a sewing machine home) Myrtle or rather Tilly as she preferred to be called was able to gain some cache in town by both wearing high fashion and making such for the braver women of the town. Still the past held her back. Held her back even when handsome Johnny Teddy, played Liam Hensworth, who really was something out of a New Age thoughtful male fantasy despite the 1950s feel of the film, started courting her and helping her retrace her steps to that dark past. And his work paid off as she is made to realize that that so-called murder was actually the tormenting boy killing himself in the act of physically abusing her. That the good part.


That said here is where the thing gets kind of mixed up in the genre department despite some off-beat funny moments. Gallant Teddy after Tilly and he became lovers dies in a freak grain elevator accident. Her “father” is murdered by his unstable wife after Tilly tells her what was what about her son’s so-called murder. In the final scenes Tilly after seeking and gaining revenge at the professional level gains final revenge by burning the town down. You figure out the genre and weird twists but don’t blame the fine performances by Ms. Winslet and Ms. Davis.    

Thursday, November 9, 2017

From The American Songbook-Irene Dunne and Douglas Fairbank, Jr.’s “Joy Of Loving” (1938)-A Film Review



  
DVD Review

By Film Critic Emeritus Sam Lowell

Joy Of Loving, starring Irene Dunne, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., 1938 


I am a child of rock and roll, period. I was present at the creation, or close to it of the classic age of rock when Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee, Bully Holly, Bill Haley and a million other hungry for new music musicians came thundering out of the bland Cold War 1950s night and helped us break out of jail. While I have acquired tastes for other kinds of music like foundation blues and traditional folk I still to this day identify as a child or rock. Which is neither here nor there except in grabbing this film under review The Joy of Loving from Senior Film Critic Sandy Salmon I noticed that the subject matter features a Broadway musical performer which is a very different part of the American Songbook that what has moved me musically over the years.

Of course the minute I (and some of my old-time high school friends) touch on the subject of musicals then I automatically think about the late Pete Markin who while also a child of rock and roll, maybe the child of rock and roll amongst the old crowd he was crazy for musicals, for the Cole Porter/Gershwins/Rodgers and Hammerstein and here Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields segment of the American Songbook. Knew most of the lyric from the old shows that filtered into the popular culture by heart once he had seen the film version of Camelot back in the early 1960s and drove us crazy singing the title son and If Ever I Would Leave You until we almost ran him out of town. Broadway musical lyrics were not what drove a bunch of poor boy working-class corner boy kids to anything but serious doubts about a person’s, about Markin’s masculinity. Pete would have had a field day with reviewing this film and I wonder if he might have seen it back then at Mr. Cadger’s old long gone to condos Strand Theater where he would periodically do what are now called retrospectives of the old black and white films rather than first runs to cut down on expenses.

But so much for old touches. Let’s get to a look at what goes on here in this little sidebar musical about musicals. As usual in such vehicles the plotline is pretty thin, if existent. (The person I viewed it with kept asking me what the plot was, when it was going to develop.) Margaret, the role played by Irene Dunne, is a Broadway musical star who is apparently the greedy sole support of her entire extended stage-bound family (including a sister with two kids and a lightweight husband played by a young pre-I Love Lucy Lucille Ball). Despite making a ton of dough she is always behind due to said sponges and that has left her distraught despite her successes. Still her rags-to-riches success has made adamant about taking care of her kin.              


Enter one Dan, played by handsome Johnny Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. who one theater performance night tries to get to see her among the throngs. She thinking him a “masher” (quaint term) calls the coppers. Score one for Margaret. But Dan is smitten so he takes another stab at it on another night. Again thwarted but this time Margaret gets him in court and winds up as his “probation officer.” Naturally as such things go along the way Margaret’s interest in the lug (who turns out to the scion of a wealthy family) grows as she gets to know him. Know him and his idea that she should enjoy herself and dump that spongy family. The long and short of it is they get married but have tiff over that family business. Not to worry while Dan is heading to the great China seas, or claims to be, our girl sees the light and gives the family the old heave-ho. Thus the big number Kern/Fields song You Couldn’t Be Cuter is very apt for this little film.  Yeah Markin would have had a field day with this one.