Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Carmen McRae & Martha Raye Music Break

 I've got another music break for you. This one spotlights two ladies -- the great jazz vocalist, Carmen McRae and the singing funny lady, Martha Raye. This may seem like an odd couple, but I shall explain. 

 


I loved Sunday afternoons when I was a kid. Sunday was music day in our house. We'd spin albums on the hi-fi. Mom and Dad played a lot of their jazz LPs and, in doing so, introduced me to many jazz greats. Carmen McRae was one of them. Here are two cuts from McRae albums that made my ears very, very happy during my South Central L.A. youth. First up, Carmen sings "I'm Always Drunk In San Francisco."


Another one of my Carmen McRae favorites is a song with music by Oscar Levant and lyrics by Edward Heyman. The song is "Blame It On My Youth."


Also on Sundays, Mom and Dad would listen to the live local afternoon radio show hosted by esteemed jazz musician and journalist, Leonard Feather. He'd do fabulous interviews of jazz artists. Many would perform on the show. One day, Carmen McRae was a guest. Joining her was one of her best friends in the world, the sensational Sarah Vaughan. In a delightful chat, Feather asked them to name a few of their favorite vocalists. Carmen said she'd mention a name that might get laughs from listeners but Sarah would agree with her. Sarah enthusiastically did agree. The name -- Martha Raye. This was the 1960s. I did laugh when I heard the name. Mom, smiling, said to me "Don't laugh. When I was a girl, I wore out my record of Martha Raye singing 'Gone With The Wind.' I had to buy a new one." I knew Martha Raye solely as the funny lady with the big mouth who did a lot of TV appearances. 

Here's Martha Raye doing a delicious rendition of "That Old Black Magic."

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Thanks for listening!





Friday, March 26, 2021

The Audrey Hepburn Netflix Story

 There's a new documentary on Netflix that focuses on the fascinating life of screen legend and fashion icon Audrey Hepburn. The documentary is entitled AUDREY. After an oddly amateurish opening, the documentary picks up polish. I read a couple of reviews by nationally known critics who wrote that we really don't learn anything new about the late actress. I don't agree. She was one of my favorite stars. There were elements of this documentary that I found revealing and surprising. In her youth overseas during World War 2, she knew poverty and hunger, her father abandoned the family and two of her relatives were killed by Nazis. She went on to become a radiant movie symbol of -- as Fred Astaire's fashion photographer character says in 1957's FUNNY FACE -- "....a girl who has character, spirit and intelligence." And I might add, elegance.


The first seven minutes of this documentary are awkward. We see a ballerina alone on a stage looking pensive. She starts to dance. We hear the voice of Audrey Hepburn telling us that ballet was her big love. She wanted to be a ballet dancer. She knew nothing about acting. We hear a voice at the Academy Awards about to announce the winner for Best Actress of 1953. The winner is Audrey Hepburn for William Wyler's ROMAN HOLIDAY. We see footage of her making her charming acceptance speech. I recognized the male voice announcing the winner as the voice of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN star Donald O'Connor. This is followed by several voices giving us flattering comments about Hepburn. I recognized one as belongin to the marvelous Molly Haskell, film critic.

Audrey Hepburn danced in FUNNY FACE and 1964's MY FAIR LADY. But no film showed us her skill as a classically trained ballerina more than the 1952 British spy thriller, SECRET PEOPLE. Had I made the documentary, I would've opened with one of Audrey Hepburn's ballet numbers in SECRET PEOPLE coupled with her voiceovers about her love of ballet. That would've been stronger than the anonymous ballerina we first see. Also, on the lower portion of the screen, I would've had graphics identifying the people off-camera who gave comments about Audrey and one identifying Donald O'Connor.

Seven minutes into the documentary, the presentation is more polished. Relatives, former Hepburn co-workers and journalists speak and screen graphics identity who they are. What I learned from the documentary was that Hepburn was working in London -- getting bit parts in films solely for the money -- and met Colette, author of GIGI. With Colette's support, Hepburn played GIGI onstage. During that time, William Wyler held a talent search in London as he sought a fresh fare to star in ROMAN HOLIDAY. Audrey Hepburn landed the lead role. This rest is movie history. One segment I found interesting was the detail on her first, long marriage to actor Mel Ferrer. Actress Leslie Caron played GIGI in the Oscar-winning Vincente Minnelli original screen musical based on Colette's work. Before that, she starred opposite Mel Ferrer in MGM's LILI. Ferrer played the stern puppeteer in that musical. We know more about Hepburn than we do about Ferrer, who was a positive engine to Hepburn's career during the early part of their marriage. They divorced. Her second marriage started off well, but he turned out to be a dog. Her third relationship -- not a marriage -- was wonderful. During that union, she embarked on her magnificent work with UNICEF.

We do get insight into how seriously she took her craft. Also, her relationship with famed designer Hubert de Givenchy displayed her gift for realizing the synergy between high fashion and film. She incorporated his work in SABRINA, FUNNY FACE and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S. The latter film showed a bravery and brilliance in challenging herself as an actress. A template of Hepburn films was her finding romantic happiness and regard for her smartness and spirit in an older male. The young men were not emotionally her equals. So, in SABRINA, she fell for the older Humphrey Bogart character instead of his younger playboy brother. In FUNNY FACE, she went for Fred Astaire. LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON had her falling in love with Gary Cooper. Later, she'd bond with Rex Harrison in MY FAIR LADY and Cary Grant in CHARADE. With BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, she flipped the script on that format. Truman Capote's novella, it's been noted, had Marilyn Monroe as the inspiration for Holly Golightly. The 1961 film was released two years after Monroe's big success in Billy Wilder's SOME LIKE IT HOT. The movie gives us a different Holly than the novella does. The screenplay has a warmer, more sympathetic feeling towards her. She is still that country girl who, like millions of us, headed to New York City to reinvent herself and find a new life. Holly, in the film, left a poor farm where she was known for "stealing turkey eggs" and headed in a hipster life in Manhattan wherein she took cash from older men for sexual favors. In Blake Edwards' BREAKFAST AT TIFFANYS, it's the older man who leads the young woman astray and escorts her further into a life of no substance. It's the young man, one in her own age category, who will be her salvation. That was a major switch from the previous Hepburn template. In the opening scene, looking like a high fashion model who just stepped off a Parisian runway in an Hubert de Givenchy original, she shows her attention to detail. She's alone on Fifth Avenue at daybreak, with a deli purchase of coffee in a paper cup and a pastry. With the wistful harmonica music playing "Moon River," she approached the window at Tiffany's. Notice her walk, her carriage, her style. For the country girl who once stole turkey eggs, she has put a lot of work into her reinvention. It's a studied, calculated elegance that covers loneliness.


In the last act of the documentary, the one showing much footage of her UNICEF work, I did feel there was a missed opportunity of "life imitates art." I love Audrey Hepburn's masterful performance in Fred Zinnemann's THE NUN'S STORY. The 1959 film, based on a true story, reflected some of the actress' real life. Her character was Belgian and her family was seriously affected by Nazism in World War 2. Hepburn played a woman who longs to be a nun. She's the daughter of a renowned surgeon and she is as medically brilliant as her loving father. He sees and respects her independent spirits and wonders if the strict rules of a convent are ready for her feminist independence. Sister Luke (Hepburn) burns with a desire to go to the Congo and help the poor and sick there. She gets there and improves lives. Hepburn went to Africa to do work for UNICEF. She didn't make red carpet-like celebrity appearances. She wore ordinary clothes, sat on the ground, helped and fed poor Black children. She went into huts. She utilized her stardom to help the less fortunate.


In interviews, we hear Hepburn speak frankly about her career, her marriages, miscarriage and divorces. We hear from friends and relatives how much she was loved. She made the world around her a better place. I just wish this Netflix documentary, loving as it is, had been a little more special. She deserved that. Filmmaker Helena Coan gave us this feature on the film star, fashion icon and tireless humanitarian. And now, from one of my favorite Hepburn films, here's a number from her musical with Fred Astaire, FUNNY FACE. It's the sublime "He Loves and She Loves" dance.

AUDREY on Netflix runs 1 hour 40 minutes.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Sammy Davis, Jr. Music Break

Treat your ears for a few minutes. This is just a reminder that the extraordinary entertainer, Sammy Davis, Jr., sang more than just "The Candy Man" and "Mr. Bojangles" in the autumn of his career. He was a fine vocalist in earlier years. To prove that, I've got a Davis double play for you.


Here's Sammy singing "Hey There" from the Broadway musical, THE PAJAMA GAME.



From a classic 1943 Broadway musical, Kurt Weill's ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, here's Sammy at his best singing "Speak Low." It was introduced on Broadway by Mary Martin. Sammy is accompanied by the brilliant Brazilian guitarist, Laurindo Almeida.


I hope your ears are now happy.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Classic Black Talent on Broadway

 I've got some Broadway show tunes for you to hear. In the 1950s through the 1960s, Hollywood scooped up several Broadway musicals and adapted them into big screen movies. We saw the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals transferred to film -- OKLAHOMA!, THE KING AND I, SOUTH PACIFIC and FLOWER DRUM SONG. We also saw THE PAJAMA GAME, DAMN YANKEES, WEST SIDE STORY, GYPSY, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, MY FAIR LADY, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, OLIVER!, CABARET, BYE BYE BIRDIE, HELLO DOLLY!, FUNNY GIRL, ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER and SWEET CHARITY. All those Broadway musicals of the 50s and 60s were made into movies. But Hollywood turned its back on  Tony-nominated Broadway musicals that starred Black talent. 



Audrey Hepburn played a new high fashion model working for a prestigious fashion magazine in the fabulous 1957 musical, FUNNY FACE, also starring Fred Astaire. The model and the magazine crew go to Paris for a special shoot. The fashions and the locations made for wonderful viewing. Diahann Carroll and Richard Kiley starred on Broadway in NO STRINGS as two Americans in Paris. The entire score of this musical came from the famed Richard Rodgers (Hammerstein had passed away). Carroll played a high fashion model who faces far less discrimination in France than she would back in the States. Kiley played an acclaimed author who's hit with a case of writer's block -- until me meets the fashion model. This 1962 production was the first Broadway musical to focus on an interracial romance. The book was done by playwright Samuel L. Taylor, the man who also wrote SABRINA FAIR. That play was turned into the Billy Wilder classic, SABRINA, starring Audrey Hepburn. For her work, Diahann Carroll became the first Black woman to win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a musical. But, with all that going for it, Hollywood wasn't interested. Here's Diahann Carroll and Richard Kiley singing "Look No Further" from NO STRINGS. For the two lead characters, friendship has grown into love.

The two characters seriously wonder if the freedom of their romance that they experience in Paris can survive if they return to America. They both realize that it couldn't. He must return to the U.S. to work. They must part. The stars introduced this song -- the most popular one from NO STRINGS.


GOLDEN BOY was a Broadway drama. The 1939 movie version starred William Holden as the prizefighter and Barbara Stanwyck as his boxing manager's girlfriend. The Golden Boy, Joe, falls for his manager's hard-shelled girlfriend, Lorna. There was a 1964 Broadway musical. It raised the stakes on the drama by making Joe a Harlem prizefighter who falls for the White Lorna. This musical starred Sammy Davis, Jr. and was directed by Arthur Penn. Penn directed the films THE MIRACLE WORKER, ALICE'S RESTAURANT and BONNIE AND CLYDE. Here's Sammy singing "Night Song" from GOLDEN BOY.


Sammy Davis, Jr. and Paula Wayne as Joe and Lorna sing "I Want To Be With You" from GOLDEN BOY. Davis was a Tony nominee for Best Actor in a Broadway musical.

Hollywood wasn't interested in that one either.

1967's HALLELUJAH, BABY made a Broadway star of Leslie Uggams. It won the Tony Award for Best Broadway musical. She won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. To tell a story of the African American struggle for equality in the 20th Century, it focuses on a young, talented and ambitious Black woman determined to overcome obstacles and make it in show business. We follow her from her girlhood during the Great Depression, through the World War 2 years, up to the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.

 

Here's Leslie Uggams on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW singing "Being Good" from HALLELUJAH, BABY.

Hollywood ignored that Broadway musical too despite all the major talents involved. Read the cover of the original Broadway cast album above Leslie's number. Shame on Hollywood. I bet thousands of young moviegoers who loved Leslie Uggams as Blind Al in 2016's DEADPOOL don't even know she can sing.


Tuesday, March 23, 2021

An L.A. Story from Ava DuVernay

 I grew up in South Central Los Angeles -- on East 124th St. and Central Avenue. Compton was near our block and many of our best Rivers Family entertainment nights were spent seeing a double feature at the Compton Drive-In. When I was in middle school -- we called it junior high school then -- our family was in the curfew area during the Watts Riots of 1965. A few years later, when I was attending Verbum Dei High School in Watts, I made my first appearance on television. I was the youngest, at that time, contestant on a classic film trivia quiz show called THE MOVIE GAME. It was shot in Hollywood, hosted by Sonny Fox, there were celebrity teammates and the show was syndicated. My mom drove me to the studio and she sat in the audience for the taping. She watched me win. I loved growing up in South Central L.A. I have visited but have not lived in L.A. for a long time now. Seeing a new 13-minute documentary from executive producer Ava DuVernay was like a sweet trip back home. This short feature is a current Oscar nominee. It's entitled A CONCERTO IS A CONVERSATION.

The documentary opens by taking us to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. We meet young, handsome African American composer, Kris Bowers. His work can be heard in the film THE UNITED STATES vs. BILLIE HOLIDAY and the hugely power Netflix series, BRIDGERTON. His work was also heard in the Best Picture Oscar winner, GREEN BOOK (2018). Kris wonders if he's supposed to be there at the concert hall because the building emits a vibe of having been designed and built for greatness. Kris' grandfather says "You wouldn't be there if you wasn't supposed to be there." That is the beginning of a truly heartwarming conversation in a living room with Kris, at a piano, and his grandfather. Horace is 91.


Kris' grandfather grew up in Florida. There were 13 members of the family in a 2-room home. When Horace was young and saw a grown Black man have to call a boy "Sir" because that was the oppressive racial atmosphere of the time, he was determined to leave Florida one day and settle someplace else. That someplace was Los Angeles.

Not that Los Angeles was/is racism free. Let's just say that. in L.A., it's more passive aggressive than in Southern cities. When I won on the game show, we had to go to a store on Olympic Blvd to pick up one of my prizes. Olympic Blvd turned out to be a life-changing street for Kris' grandfather. He got a job working in a cleaners on Olympic Blvd and that was the beginning of a success story. He met a lovely lady and got married. Family followed. Kris' parents wanted him to be interested in the arts. He was. He took to playing piano in his boyhood. He even played piano at a Marie Callender's eatery in L.A. I new Marie Callender's had pies. I never knew it had a piano.

Kris seemed to yearn to see representations of himself in the arts scene. I understand that feeling. The main reasons I pushed to be a contestant on that game show were not for prizes. I wanted to show my parents that I was serious in my passion for film. Also, I wanted to show that Black people knew things about classic films. My parents did. So did our neighbors on the block and my teachers at school. In my boyhood, local TV rarely -- if ever -- covered the arts scene in the Black community before the Watts Riots. And you rarely saw a Black person anchor the local news on a network affiliate. If I couldn't be in the movies like Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte or Ossie Davis, then I would review them and interview actors and filmmakers on TV. Which I did in New York City. 

Kris Bowers' bonding with his grandfather over music is a sweet composition of Black History and one family's loving success stories from the Jim Crow South to the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The short documentary was directed by Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot.


 
This documentary is shot with generous tight close-ups of the grandfather and Kris Bowers (above pic). The camera loves Kris' face. If I had dreamy brown eyes like his, I'd surely be romantically attached. A CONCERTO IS A CONVERSATION is now streaming on NYTIMES.com.



Monday, March 22, 2021

Tony Curtis in FLESH AND FURY

 Let me tell you up front. I am a definite Tony Curtis fan. I became an even bigger fan when I had the great privilege to interview him on live TV one weekday morning in 1999. I was on Fox5's popular GOOD DAY NEW YORK morning news show. He was in town to promote a special appearance he was doing on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) with host Robert Osborne. Curtis was lively, lovable and funny in our studio interview. The whole crew -- and many viewers -- were thrilled to see him. So, it was Saturday night last weekend. Very late Saturday night and I couldn't sleep. I found an old Tony Curtis movie from early in his career when he was an actor for Universal-International. It was a B-movie from 1952 entitled FLESH AND FURY. It was a B-movie melodrama but not at all boring. It held my interest for its 1 hour and 20 minutes. Curtis played a deaf/mute boxer who has the potential to become a champ. Curtis was major eye-candy back then with his movie star good looks and fine physique.


 Curtis plays Paul Callan. When the story opens, he's in the ring. There's a hard-boiled blonde in the audience with a two-bit date. She's excited by Paul Callan as she yells "Go on! Get in there! Kill him!" She's Sonya, played by Jan Sterling. This is Jan Sterling after Billy Wilder's then-flop, now-acclaimed ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), in which she played a selfish blonde wife, and before she played a former floozie who's one of the passengers on the doomed commercial airliner in the 1954 box office blockbuster THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY. In all three movies, Sterling played blondes who'd been around the block. Some movie dames have a heart o' gold. Sonya in FLESH AND FURY has a heart of cubic zirconia. 



Sonya wants to meet Paul right after he wins that boxing match. In his locker room, she's on him like a skin graft. I kindly veteran manager (played by Wallace Ford) wants to manager Paul -- and does. Sonya realize that if 'Pop' Richardson wants to manage him, he must definitely have champ potential. That means big money which is exactly want Sonya wants. 

The big surprise in this B-movie is how sensitively Paul's deafness and initial lack of speech is handled. Tony Curtis does a fine job in the part. He never overdoes it. If anything, he underplays like a pro for more effect. He brings us into Paul's world. 

Paul becomes a better boxer under the guidance of his new manager, 'Pops.' Sonya is still Paul's manipulative girlfriend. Then he meet a sweet young lady who's a magazine writer. Not only does she want to do a feature on Paul, she knows sign language and utilizes that when they meet. Paul, we later discover, knows how to sign but just reads lips. He doesn't sign. As he and Ann start to fall in love, he tells her "I never like to sign because people laugh at me and call me 'dummy'." Ann is neither deaf nor mute. She comes from a well-to-do warm family. Her father was deaf and she learned how to sign.


 Later in the film, during his relationship with Ann, Paul is taught to speak which gives Curtis some dialogue in the final third of the film. Paul's hunger to box stems from his anger at being called 'dummy.' Says Paul, "I wanna fight. I wanna be champ."

Connie Gilchrist, one of those always-dependable supporting players, has a small role. She's probably most-widely remember for playing Nora the maid in AUNTIE MAME starring Rosalind Russell. Her character gets look at Sonya while Paul's training and says to 'Pops.' "The girl's no good."

Paul will come to realize that when she pushes him into a championship match before he's really ready. He's still dealing with an operation he had to cure one of his disabilities. Mona Freeman stars as Ann, the magazine writer.

With its deaf/mute angle, FLESH AND FURY is not a great film like THE MIRACLE WORKER but it wasn't set out to be. It's an entertaining B-movie designed to groom Tony Curtis for stardom. When 'Pops' the manager first sees Paul in the ring, he remarks "He's got the stuff." The same applied to screen newcomer Tony Curtis. I enjoyed this movie.


 

Sunday, March 21, 2021

About Oscar nominee COLETTE (2020)

About a week ago, the friend of a friend recommended a short documentary to me, one that is currently an Oscar nominee. This 2020 release is entitled COLETTE and it runs only 25 minutes. Those 25 minutes left me awed and devastated. I was more moved by the raw pain and powerful lessons of this short documentary than I've been by some pompous 2-hour movies. If you're one of those many lovers of the classic film, CASABLANCA, you need to see this documentary. Colette is a sharp 90 year-old woman who was a member of the French Resistance. So was her beloved brother, Jean-Pierre. In 1940, France surrendered to Germany and was then occupied by the Nazis. She describes her brother as brilliant, charming and "made of steel." He too was a member of the French Resistance. Tragically, he was arrested at age 17 and sent to a concentration camp in Germany. Since 1945, Colette Marin-Catherine, a well-dressed and attractive woman who looks a good 20 years younger than she is, has refused to visit Germany, A young history student who works in a museum coaxes Colette to visit the concentration camp.


The trip and the visit will bond the two women closely. As Colette predicts before the trip, "I won't ever be the same." We see that the two new friends will never be the same. The history student works with Holocaust history. She had details on Jean-Pierre's time in Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in Nordhausen, Germany.

Colette does not hold back. Her anger and grief are strong and hot still. She is frank talking about herself and her family during the Nazi occupation. We see footage of prisoners in concentration camps. In the museum where the student works, we see prison outfits worn by concentration camp prisoners from France. We see an outfit with a pink triangle pinned on it. The pink triangle was the way Nazis identified homosexual males. The pain of an opened wound  rushes out while Colette dines in a restaurant in Germany. The former mayor of Nordhausen is present and begins to speak dramatically to the crowd, apologizing for Germany's crimes and honoring Colette. She doesn't want to hear his speech and says so forcefully. She's not yet visited the concentration camp site. Here's a trailer.


Colette faced fascism and never forgot its horrors. She is a living lesson to the young history student. And to us. Her beloved brother, Jean-Pierre, died a prisoner on March 22nd, 1945.

If you can find this 25-minute documentary. I urge you to see it. COLETTE comes from filmmakers Anthony Giacchino and Alice Doyard.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Doris Day Music Break

 Doris Day, like Judy Garland, truly was a triple threat film star. She could sing, she could dance and she could act. If you get TCM (cable's Turner Classic Movies), Doris Day has been the Star of the Month. This coming Monday (March 22nd), starting at 8p Eastern, you can enjoy a few of her movies. The first one up is PILLOW TALK, the 1959 romantic comedy that got her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Her excellent leading man is Rock Hudson.


 Doris was a master at screen comedy. PILLOW TALK is worth watching when you consider that Doris never took acting lessons. She had a natural talent, an actor's instinct, that awed such male co-stars as James Cagney, James Garner and Tony Randall. Cagney praised her impressive natural talents in his autobiography. I mentioned Judy Garland, a Doris Day buddy. Doris was rather like Judy Garland's Esther Blodgett character in the 1954 remake of A STAR IS BORN. Doris, like Esther who was renamed Vicki Lester, was a singer with a band. She was discovered by Hollywood figures who took a chance on the newcomer and cast her in a musical when the intended star turned out to be unavailable. Esther (Doris) makes her movie debut. She's a hit and, within five years, is one of the biggest stars at the studio. Doris Day replaced Betty Hutton in Warner Bros. 1948 release, ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS. She introduced the song "It's Magic" which became a hit record and one of her signature tunes. It was an Oscar nominee for Best Song.

By the time she made the original screen musical, 1953's CALAMITY JANE, her name appeared before the title. She was a top star on the Warner Bros. lot. After LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, the 1955 biopic drama for MGM co-starring James Cagney, a film that should've brought Doris her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress, she didn't do so much dancing in her movies -- but dance she could. Here she is with Gene Nelson in the Warner Bros. 1950 musical, TEA FOR TWO.






In the 1955 movie, LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, Doris flipped the script on her sunny, ambitious All-American Girl image and played the dark side of it. As real-life singer Ruth Etting, she becomes a hit with the help of her hoodlum/manager husband played by James Cagney. This film brought Cagney a Best Actor Oscar nomination. It should've brought Doris her first Best Actress Oscar nomination.


One of my favorite Doris Day films during her Warner Bros. years is 1954's drama with music, YOUNG AT HEART. Doris stars opposite Frank Sinatra who plays a hard luck singer/songwriter. His luck will change as he falls in love with Doris' character. Here, you have two former band singers who became movie stars and eventually got Oscar nominations. I love this closing number Doris Day and Frank Sinatra have in YOUNG AT HEART.


Besides being a top ten box office star, Doris Day also had hit records. Two of her hit records were tunes she sang to Best Song Oscar wins -- "Secret Love" from CALAMITY JANE and "Que Sara. Sara" (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" from THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. I totally dig the jazz album she cut with Andre Previn. Here's a taste.


Friday, March 19, 2021

Josephine Baker and Lena Horne Onscreen

 I felt like doing a blogpost on two fascinating show biz figures -- Josephine Baker and Lena Horne. Both were extraordinary entertainers. Both were Civil Rights activists. Baker grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. She married young and divorced young. She performed in vaudeville and eventually made it to New York. At age 19, she decided to sail to Paris where she would not be blocked by discrimination like Black people were in America. Nearly nude, this American in Paris become a show biz icon by dancing on stage with a strings of bananas around her waist as a costume. This was during the Jazz Age, the 1920s. Author Ernest Hemingway called her "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw." She was gorgeous and glamorous. Unlike in America, she could sit in any Parisian restaurant and be served. She didn't just danced. She sang too. She learned the language and sang in French. Her celebrated revue performances on stage, her stardom, led to French film work.


In France, she became a movie star. In the 1930s, when Hollywood limited Black actresses to playing maids or mammies, Josephine Baker was given star treatment in French films. Here's a clip from her 1935 French film entitled PRINCESS TAM TAM. Look at this number and compare it to the 1940s musical numbers Lena Horne did in MGM movies. Also gorgeous and glamorous, Horne was given the deluxe treatment in her musical numbers, but she was never incorporated into the action with her fellow A-list MGM talents who were White. Lena never got to do dialogue and a scene with Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland or Kathryn Grayson. They may have all been in the same movie, but Lena was separated from them. That was Hollywood in the 1940s. Josephine Baker could interact with the White actors in a way Lena Horne was not allowed to. Here's Baker in PRINCESS TAM TAM in the 1930s.


In 1934's ZOU ZOU, Josephine Baker sang "Haiti" which became one of her hit records.


Hollywood never extended an opportunity for the American in Paris to return home and do a guest number in one of its all-star 1940s musicals. Here's trailblazer Lena Horne in the 1948 all-star musical, WORDS AND MUSIC. It starred Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, June Allyson, Gene Kelly, Janet Leigh and Tom Drake. Lena Horne was not seen in a scene with any one of them. Nonetheless, she was a highlight of the film singing "The Lady Is A Tramp."



Think about that the next time you see a 1940s MGM musical featuring Lena Horne. Both Lena Horne and Josephine Baker were present at Dr. Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington.

Actress Ruth Negga, a Best Actress Oscar nominee for 2016's biopic, LOVING, is slated to star as Josephine Baker in an ABC TV production.
 

 
 
 
 








Sunday, March 14, 2021

Back to TED LASSO

A few days ago, I blogged about the new sitcom, TED LASSO. Scroll down or log onto my March 10th "Have You Seen TED LASSO?" post and read it, if you please. Jason Sudeikis, formerly of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, won a Golden Globe and the Critics Choice award for Best Actor in a TV comedy. It's a fish-out-of-water sitcom. He coached college football in Kansas and accepts a job to coach a professional soccer team in London. He knows nothing about soccer, but he's got a steely enthusiasm and a shatter-proof optimism that help him as he attempts to be a good, new coach. I watched the first 3 episodes and laughed a lot. I just watched episodes #4 and #5. I laughed -- and I cried. I saw why Sudeikis won those awards. 

In one of the first 3 episodes, he calls home to talk to his little boy and his wife. He joyfully says "I love you" to his son and he hears those words returned to him. He says "I love you" to his wife, but you sense that she does not say "I love you too." We get the feeling that some unhappiness dwells in the life of this eternal optimist.


 Episode #4 is about accountability. There's a posh benefit to raise funds for needy children. Popular members of the soccer team are up for auction as dates. Ted's statuesque, no-nonsense, calculating and often stern boss has to emcee. Her ex-husband, the former owner of the soccer team that she now owns as part of their divorce settlement, used to emcee and the crowd always loved him. We see a more vulnerable side of Rebecca, Ted's boss, as she prepares for the event. Rebecca is insecure about her middle-aged looks. She's insecure about how the benefit audience will accept her.


 Ted, whom she pretended to like more than she really did to the press and to Ted himself, gives her strong, sincere encouragement. Encouragement is what Rebecca needs. As she's hosting the benefit, her wanker ex-husband appears and takes the stage with her. Ted gives her heart-felt support and he inspires two rival members of the soccer team, both up for auction at the benefit, to put their differences aside and truly act like teammates.

In Episode #5, we learn that Ted loves Broadway musicals. And Ted's wife and child fly to London to visit him. You can tell that they are the greatest loves in his life. His wife is glad to see him. However, there is dissonance in their marriage. They'd been seeing a marriage therapist in Kansas.  Michelle, Ted's wife, said that his "constant optimism is too much." Her unhappiness weighs on his mind as she and their little boy are in the stands watching one of Ted's televised soccer matches.

My partner died of AIDS in the spring of 1994. He was a wonderful guy. I loved him and he loved me. He changed my life. In the following years, I was romantically interested in a few fellows, but the interest was never mutual. And online dating after the age of 40 is like hitting yourself on the head with a stick. It feels so good when you stop. My willingness to love and commit again to a man were treated like an inconvenience. After a while, I took my feelings, boxed them up, put them in a little space in my heart and closed the door. I didn't lock the door. I just closed it.


So...the final scene of Episode #5 with Ted and his wife made my cry. TED LASSO is a good series. Standouts in the solid ensemble cast are Hannah Waddingham (above) as Rebecca, Nick Mohammed as Nathan the bullied locker room attendant, Brett Goldstein as Roy, the short-tempered and hairy-chested older soccer team member and Phil Dunster as his popular young rival, Jamie. You can see the series on Apple TV/

Saturday, March 13, 2021

My Time with Spalding Gray

 "I'm rather a chaos person." That he was. Spalding Gray was a most brave, bold and influential monologist who started on the New York City downtown scene, motivated and helped by the Wooster Group. He talked about loved ones, agents, therapists, medical workers, his father, his mother's suicide, his heterosexual sex life and a same-sex encounter. Oh, yes. He also talked about himself. When I saw him in 1987's SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA, his one-man show that was filmed, I felt my skin and soul tingle. His observations were personal yet so very universal. To me, Spalding Gray was a brilliant monologist. Probably one of the best since Ruth Draper. Certainly one of the most celebrated. From monologist, he transferred over to acting.


 Today, I saw myself with Spalding Gray on the Criterion Channel. 

Back in 2009, I'd been hit hard by the Recession. From 2006 to 2008, I worked with Whoopi Goldberg on her national live weekday morning show out of New York City. I was fulltime and my pay was $44,000. My longtime TV & Radio commercial agent had passed away. She was a great agent and a great friend. She kept me busy with side gigs -- commercials, many of which aired in other parts of the country. I'd get off the air from Whoopi's show and doggedly hunt for a new agent to represent me and get me auditions for employment. However, despite my years of national work, agents turned me down saying "I wouldn't know what to do with you." 

I needed work. In Manhattan, $44,000 was not a sufficient income in a city with escalating rents. One day, I returned to my modest studio apartment to a message on my answering machine. A female voice said, "Hello, Bobby Rivers, I'm Amy Hobby calling from Steven Soderbergh's office. We'd like permission to use a clip of some of your work in a documentary we're doing." Of course, I tried to figure out which one of my friends was pranking me. None was. When I returned her phone call, I was told that Soderbergh was doing a documentary about the late Spalding Gray. Gray had been a wonderful guest on my late 1980s VH1 talk show. Soderbergh wanted to use a long clip from our interview. A VHS copy of my show with our interview was in Gray's personal belongings. 

I was honored to be asked and touched that Gray had a copy of our show in his belongings. The documentary has no voiceovers, no narrator. It's clips of his work over the years, some home movie footage and TV interview clips from E!, MTV, CBS and The Charlie Rose Show -- and from VH1. We see him young, years before a serious car accident in Ireland, and we see him older after the accident. After his reported 2004 suicide, it was revealed that the car accident left him with slight brain damage, Here's a trailer for the documentary, AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE.


I never had a chance to see Soderbergh's 2010 feature until today.

AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE. You'll see Spalding and me about 50 minutes into the feature. It's available now on the Criterion Channel.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Happy Birthday, Liza Minnelli

 Liza Minnelli, an extraordinary entertainer, turns 75 today. I have been a fan of hers ever since I was a little boy and saw her perform with her legendary singer/actress mother, Judy Garland, on Garland's Sunday night CBS music/variety show. Teen Liza had a vivaciousness, look and talent that made me smile and won my heart.  


Since then, I watched her on other TV appearances, I went to see her movies, I saw her onstage, I met and interviewed her on national TV. I will tell you this -- Liza Minnelli is one of the smartest celebrities I've ever interviewed. I often wondered if, like Vincente Minnelli, herOscar-winning dad, she was ever interested in directing films. Having watched him and her mother at work, I'm sure she learned a lot. I'll explain later, but I never looked at GYPSY again in the same way after the discussion Liza and I had about it off-camera.

Liza Minnelli was sort of good luck charm for me during my VH1 years. I did a special one-hour interview of her when she was promoting the sequel she did to ARTHUR. Management was so impressed with my work that the Minnelli interview led to me getting my own prime time weeknight celebrity interview show.


 On one edition of it, Meryl Streep was my guest for the whole show. Streep was promoting her 1988 Australian drama, A CRY IN THE DARK. In some of the pre-interview research I did, I read that Meryl Streep had been greatly influenced by Liza Minnelli. Streep, at the beginning of her career, had seen Liza on Broadway in the 1977 musical drama, THE ACT, directed by Martin Scorsese. For her performance, Liza won the Tony for Best Actress in a musical.


 Here's the clip of Meryl Streep explaining how Liza Minnelli influenced her craft.


About GYPSY. Liza and I talked about that Broadway show. Word was out that it would be revived on Broadway the following year. The part of Rose, originated by Ethel Merman, would go to Tyne Daly. Liza had been hungry to play that part. She felt that composer Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the Broadway show, wouldn't let her because they only saw her one way. However, had he lived, Bob Fosse was interested in directing a new movie version of GYPSY -- one that would bring out the dark psychological parent/child drama of the play. He wanted the burlesque house and the middle-aged strippers to resemble what was seen in Rouben Mamoulian's 1929 film, APPLAUSE. Liza would've played Rose, Gypsy's mother.


 Liza reminded me in conversation that Rose was not a sweet, selfless mother. She's obsessed with her two kids and obsessed with her kids making her frozen dreams come true. As Liza said, "Remember that she calls Louise (Gypsy) a 'no talent ox.' What kind of loving mother says a thing like that about her child?" Rose will use anybody to get what she wants. Liza added that, although some people may have thought her too young to play the role in a production that covers about 15 years, she said that folks often assume Rose was older because Merman was about 50 when she did the play. Liza said that, in real life, the Rose character was in her early 40s and, at that time in society, women married a lot younger. 

As for the burlesque, Liza had done research about attitudes at that time in society. She told me that, during and after the Depression, America needed some kind of emotional release. For men, it was burlesque. At burlesque houses, according to real-life former strippers, it was customary to see men in the audience pleasure themselves with newspapers over their laps.  That gave some burlesque houses a seedy reputation. Rose was manipulative, irresponsible and had a huge ego. When the young, shapely and pretty newly-named Gypsy Rose Lee goes out the make her stripper debut, it's not for a sexual thrill. It's to help her mother financially. They're broke. There's emotional conflict because Rose has always wanted the star spot, to be the center of attention, and to be sexually attractive to the men. It's Rose who coaxes her insecure daughter to do the strip in that seedy joint. Rose sabotages herself. In that strip debut, Louise becomes a new star. She finds her voice as an independent person. 

With all that said, the "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You" number is an upbeat number that's really a chilling example of Rose's parental irresponsibility. Louise and her sister, June, are in their teens. Rose passes them off as pre-teens in their vaudeville act. Rose has recruited about a half dozen teen boys to be in the act as back-up dancers and go on the road with them. She has those boys and her girls sleeping in the same room with no barriers, no privacy. When boys are in their mid-teens, their hormones are spinning like they're in those giant teacups at Disneyland. What kind of parent would allow that?

The way Liza Minnelli broke down GYPSY to me is why I've never look at it in the same way since. I see it as a strong musical drama that could've been done without musical numbers. 

Ironically, Arthur Laurents told National Public Radio some years ago that he wanted Judy Garland to play Rose in the 1962 Warner Bros. adaptation of GYPSY. Garland, the daughter of an irresponsible show biz mother, was on a career high point the time having done a sensational, now-famous, 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall and scored a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role in the 1961 Nazi trial drama, JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG. But studio head, Jack L. Warner, to Laurents' ire, nixed his' wish saying that Garland was 15 pounds too heavy. Laurents felt that was ridiculous as Garland would've been playing a middle-aged mother in a story that covers about 15 years. Said Laurents on NPR, "So we wound up with Rosalind Russell in two-tone shoes."


 Happy Birthday, Liza. I learned a lot from you that day. And thanks for inviting me to your party afterwards. It was fun.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Anthony Hopkins as THE FATHER

 As I watched this film, it hit me how long I've been an Anthony Hopkins fan. The first movie of his that I saw in theatrical release was the engrossing 1978 thriller called MAGIC. In that, Hopkins played a second-rate magician who flops onstage. It's suggested that he get a gimmick to save his act. He gets a dummy and puts his ventriloquist skills to use. That does the trick. The foul-mouthed dummy is a hit for the performer who secretly has mental issues. The dummy's strong personality begins to control the ventriloquist's life. The dummy orders him to commit a crime. Hopkins' performance as the demented man made me an instant fan.  The actor now plays an elderly British parent whose bouts of dementia are exhausting family members. The movie is called THE FATHER.


 I read  review that said the Anthony Hopkins performance in THE FATHER is "astonishing." I agree. Now in his 80s, Hopkins delivers one of the best performances of his long film career. Hopkins gets raw in a mirth-free movie that's creatively done. He plays Anthony, a man who we see living in a nice flat in London. As the film opens, a woman walks to the building and lets herself inside. She has keys to the apartment and announces "Dad? It's me." She's his grown, married daughter Anne. Played by Olivia Colman, we'll see how Anthony's memory deterioration, his refusal to accept help, wears on her emotional state and causes her marriage to fray a bit.


 Anthony can be cordial one moment and caustic the next. He bellows "I don't need anyone" like King Lear and then he whines to his grown daughter "You're abandoning me." If you've seen Anthony Hopkins' video tweets on Twitter, you've seen how jovial and jaunty he is. That makes his physicality as a character losing his selfhood to the infirmities of old age even more impressive. Production wise, the editing by Yorgos Lamprinos is masterful. Anthony criticizes his daughter, her husband and he physically threated a caregiver. When we see shots of Anthony alone, he's surrounded by a darkness in the room. When the talks to someone, we're not sure if the interaction is really happening or if it's one of his hallucinations. But all will become clear. THE FATHER makes you appreciate your faculties, your functioning senses. 

Do not be surprised if Anthony Hopkins gets a Best Actor Oscar nomination come Monday, March 15th. He's that good in THE FATHER. It was directed by France's Florian Zeller and the film is based on a play he wrote.


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Have You Seen TED LASSO?

 This is a new sitcom starring Jason Sudeikis, whom I loved when he was a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE cast member and I loved his work as one of the horny teen-like middle-aged husband in 2011's HALL PASS. Sudeikis stars as the somewhat clueless soccer coach TED LASSO. I admit that I had not really paid any attention to the sitcom until it netted Jason Sudeikis a recent Golden Globe the Best Actor award for an actor in TV comedy series. The Critics Choice Awards followed the Golden Globes and he won in the same category in that awards competition. After that, the show came up during a March 8th interview CBS' Gayle King did of Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai. Malala will be producing content for Apple TV. While mentioning that she is not always serious and loves to laugh, she and Gayle both mentioned how much they love Apple TV's TED LASSO. That motivated me to make a point to watch an episode or two of the sitcom.


 I watched three episodes and liked them. I laughed a lot. Ted Lasso is not just a loopy, fish out of water character who delivers punchlines. He coached college football in Kansas. Now he's been hired to coach a Premier League soccer team in England. Across the pond, soccer is called football. He's not familiar with British soccer, the sports terms or the customs. He cannot get used to tea. He prefers coffee. So how did he get the job? A tall, stately, glacially elegant and mistreated woman is now owner of the team. She took it over from her ex-husband,  a man who hooked up with several young ladies. His hormonal holidays with various women led to a divorce that made headlines in the British tabloids. Ted's boss secretly wants the team to fail and that failure will be part of her ex-husband's legacy. That's why she hired the inexperienced Lasso.


 Whereas the executive lady is devious, deceptive and manipulative, Ted Lasso is just the opposite. He's an unsophisticated but warm-hearted eternal optimist. "I do love a locker room. Smells like potential," he says when he enters the soccer team's locker room. The team and the press have already made up their minds to dislike him. The team is talented but undisciplined. However, he can key in to a team member's true self. The team locker room attendant who's grown accustomed to being bullied, is treated with respect and friendliness by Lasso. He's treated like a member of the team. Lasso could change the team's spirit and thwart his boss' plans.

About Ted Lasso, there's some heartbreak in his life that he realize in the first episode and wait to learn about in future ones. He places a phone call to America. We take it he's speaking to his little boy. He says "I love you." He tells his son to put his mother on the phone. We get the feeling that she treats the call as an inconvenience. Nonetheless, Lasso says "I love you" to her too. We can tell those three sweet words are not said back to him. 

To keep a sense of optimism and good humor when you sincerely say "I love you" to someone and you don't hear those words returned to you is not easy. I know from personal experience.

Jason Sudeikis deserved those awards. If you have the spare time, TED LASSO is worth a look. It's a good, smart ensemble sitcom. One more thing -- British actress Hannah Waddingham is terrific as Ted's boss, Rebecca. 


 

Monday, March 8, 2021

About DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD

 If there is any current production that reaffirms what a precious thing life is and tenderly reminds us of how important it is to remind the loved ones in our lives how much they are loved, it's DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD. It's an original Netflix documentary. The documentary opens with an older gentleman playing with little kids. It's obvious that he's very special to them. He's sort of like a big kid himself. In a voiceover, we hear Kirsten Johnson, his daughter, speak. She tells us that he's "an open, accepting person." He's in his 80s, a widower, and experiencing a few memory problems. He's nearing the end of his life and Kirsten says "we're not accepting it."


 The story starts in Seattle, takes us to New York City and then to Loma Linda, California. Dick Johnson is a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist with an odd-looking set of toes on one foot. His daughter is a cameraperson. She's making a movie about his death. One scene will focus on his odd-looking set of toes on one foot. Her dad has stuntmen because we see different versions of his demise. Some are accidental. Like an air condition falling on his head while he walks down a city sidewalk. We also see his arrival into Heaven. This is a rather Monty Python-meets-GROUNDHOG DAY project and Dick Johnson is a natural, funny actor. He is an absolutely huggable and engaging person. One thing that gives this documentary such a heart and makes it watchable is the radiant love father and daughter have for each other. In Dick's movie performance, he seems to be in a state of pure glee because Heaven has a chocolate fountain. Dick loves chocolate.

The family was raised as Seventh Day Adventists. This meant no alcohol, no dancing, no movies. However, when he took little Kirsten to see Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, she was thrilled. It changed her life. Dad lived outside of the weird confines of an organized religion. You'll like Dick Johnson. Here's a taste of the father/daughter chemistry.


A loopy elegy. While he's still alive, Dick Johnson is made aware, via a movie he's making, of how much he's loved. Finding out how much you are loved while you're still alive -- what a wonderful thing. DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD is on Netflix and runs about 90 minutes.



Sunday, March 7, 2021

Leave Astaire's SWING TIME Alone

This is my opinion on the criticism of a Fred Astaire number in one of my favorite films, the 1936 RKO musical, SWING TIME. It's one of the brightest gems in the crown of original RKO musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. SWING TIME was directed by George Stevens.


 The controversial number is the "Bojangles of Harlem" number which Astaire does in blackface. I've seen a clip of this number highlighted in TV news show pieces about blackface in old films. Author and Black film historian Donald Bogle has talked about it on TCM. Currently on TCM, there's a featurette about the history of blackface in films. Again, a clip of that Astaire number is shown up front with Donald Bogle and TCM host, Jacqueline Stewart, in place to comment on it.

TCM now has a series called "Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror." TCM hosts will discuss problematic aspects in some classic films. The first film was GONE WITH THE WIND. The hosts discussed the racial images. A few other films up for discussion will be BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, THE SEARCHERS, MY FAIR LADY and GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER. And SWING TIME.

If you read Astaire's 1959 autobiography, STEPS IN TIME, you will learn that when Astaire was a teen star on Broadway with his sister, his idol was Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Astaire meant that number as a tribute to his idol. He met Robinson during his Broadway years. Robinson taught young Fred Astaire how to shoot pool. As for the cosmetics in the "Bojangles of Harlem" number, notice that Astaire's "blackface" is a lighter tone. It's not the coal black make-up that Al Jolson wore nor did Astaire wear a nappy wig like Jolson did. He sported his own hair. His outfit is a bit loud, but he did not design it. Eleanor Powell wore a dapper suit when she danced her salute to Bill Robinson in MGM's 1939 musical comedy, HONOLULU. In her number, Powell wore coal black make-up.

Fred Astaire did one blackface number in his long film career. After SWING TIME, he never did another. Reportedly, he never did another blackface number when he learned that many folks found blackface disrespectful. In 1959, he did the first of several multi-Emmy winning music variety specials for NBC. At a time when network TV was not exactly racially inclusive, Astaire booked Black talent to guest star on his show and danced to Black music with his partner, Barrie Chase.

Instead of rehashing Astaire's 1936 "Bojangles of Harlem" number, perhaps they could mention other blackface moments -- like the Chester Morris blackface maid bit when he played a detective in BOSTON BLACKIE'S RENDEZVOUS (1945), Eddie Cantor musical numbers in ROMAN SCANDALS (1933) and KID MILLIONS (1934), the William Holden blackface number in the first 10 minutes of 1950's FATHER IS A BACHELOR or the deluxe blackface production number in 1945's THE DOLLY SISTERS with showgirls in blackface plus stars Betty Grable and June Haver also in blackface and wearing pickaninny attire. Even Doris Day did a blackface number in 1951's I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS.

Now compare Astaire to his 1940s movie co-star Bing Crosby. Astaire did one blackface number in 1936.  In the Astaire/Crosby 1942 musical comedy, HOLIDAY INN, Crosby is in blackface as he sings Irving Berlin's "Abraham," a salute Lincoln's Day. In 1943, Crosby starred in the pre-Civil War musical, DIXIE, which put him in blackface again because the story was basically a salute to minstrel shows.   


 "Accentuate The Positive" is a popular, classic tune from the Johnny Mercer songbook. Crosby introduced the song in the 1944 Paramount modern-day musical comedy, HERE COME THE WAVES. Why don't we see clips of Crosby singing it? Because he sang it in blackface at a time when Black men were serving in the segregated troops of WW2. My late dad was one of those soldiers. To me, those three films with Bing Crosby blackface numbers in the 1940s eclipse Astaire's one and only blackface number in 1936.

For a far more problematic film to discuss in the TCM Reframed series, I'd select the 1945 Warner Bros. romantic drama, SARATOGA TRUNK, starring Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper and Flora Robson. This is a costume drama that takes place in 1875 and I saw it on TCM. Caucasian British actress, Flora Robson, played the housekeeper/narrator in 1939's WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Queen Elizabeth I in the 1940 historical adventure, THE SEA HAWK, and one of the nuns in 1946's BLACK NARCISSUS.


The first performer to get an Oscar nomination for playing a Black person was Hattie McDaniel who played "Mammy" in 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND. She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The second performer to get an Oscar nomination for playing a Black person was Flora Robson. No, she did not play a light-skinned Black character like Peola in 1934's IMITATION OF LIFE. White British actress Flora Robson got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for playing the stern, dark-skinned Haitian maid to Ingrid Bergman's character in SARATOGA TRUNK.


If the part was good enough to get an actress an Oscar nomination, why didn't Warner Bros. let a Black woman play that Black character?

All that is why I feel it's time to move on from singling out Astaire's one blackface number yet again for criticism/discussion. It's been done.



Saturday, March 6, 2021

My Moment with Paul McCartney

 It was one of the most exciting experiences of my TV career. There I was, a guy who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, on a plane flying to London where I would interview the legendary Paul McCartney. This was when I was an employee of MTV Networks. I worked on VH1, sort of the older sibling to MTV. MTV still gets attention. VH1 is like the overlooked child. But it was and is under the same Viacom/Paramount/CBS corporate umbrella as MTV. I absolutely loved working for VH1 as a veejay and celebrity talk show host. I worked on VH1 from 1987 to 1990, three of the happiest years of my life. Paul McCartney was promoting a new album he'd recorded with Elvis Costello. My interview would be a one-hour special to air on VH1. Of course, one of my goals was to get something from the famous former member of The Beatles that we had not previously heard.


 Here's one of my favorite bits from the interview. My goal was accomplished.

On March 4th in 1968, Franco Zeffirelli's ROMEO AND JULIET had a Royal premiere in London attended by Queen Elizabeth II and international stars. The Paramount release was huge hit here in the States. Even the soundtrack was a top seller. Here's a clip from the film that could've starred Paul McCartney -- in tights. The stars are Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey.


At that interview moment with Paul McCartney, I thought of my high school -- Verbum Dei High School in the Watts sections of South Central L.A. The all-boys Catholic high school is still in operation. Our teachers didn't have the big fine arts budget that schools in the then-predominantly white areas did. So our teachers took advantage of special school discount group rate tickets to screenings of new, prestigious films in Hollywood. Those films could help us with our studies. We got on buses for field trips to Hollywood to see ROMEO AND JULIET, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD and the long, brilliant late 1960s epic foreign film adaptation of WAR AND PEACE directed by cast member Sergei Bondarchuk. Yes, those were films seen by African American and Mexican American teen boys from a high school in Watts. I am still grateful to those teachers for using classic films as educational tools. They did help me in my English Lit. classes. They also helped me in my TV career as an interviewer.

About McCartney: I was working with a British TV crew. A terrific crew. Being that Paul McCartney is an international star, we were all prepared to tape as soon as he arrived and expected him to be late because he surely had a packed schedule. Well, we were all pleasantly surprised. Paul McCartney showed up early, alone -- without entourage or publicist -- and was extremely gracious and charming and thanked all of us on the crew. A lovely man.



Thursday, March 4, 2021

New TCM Talk on GONE WITH THE WIND

 Tonight at 8pm Eastern, TCM airs the Oscar-winning and box office champ that was the first classic movie aired when the network channel made its debut. The film is 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND. Reportedly, there will be a discussion about racial aspects of the classic before the film airs. I am eager to see this discussion and others like it because -- let's face it -- we Black people have been excluded from the classic film conversation for decades. I'm interested to see if discussions about problematic images in old movies will connect to modern-day problems in the Hollywood movie business. The groundbreaking Oscar win of Black actress Hattie McDaniel and her Hollywood treatment afterwards have a definite connection to the modern-day versatile actress like Gabourey Sidibe who got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her stunning performance in the 2009 drama, PRECIOUS. The two GONE WITH THE WIND actors to win Oscars were Vivien Leigh, Best Actress for playing Scarlett O'Hara. and Hattie McDaniel, Best Supporting Actress for playing Mammy.


 About the exclusion of the Black gaze and voice in film discussion: My classic film passion was ignited when I was a grade schooler in Los Angeles. The film that sparked it was TOP HAT starring Fred Astaire, my all-time favorite entertainer. Local L.A. television had a few classic movie TV hosts. Not a one was Black. No Black talent was seen on local TV doing entertainment reports. The newspapers -- The Los Angeles Times and The Herald Examiner did not have Black film critics. Nor did major magazines like Time and Newsweek and popular film magazines. Back in the 80s, each network weekday morning show had a critic who did reviews on Fridays. You remember Gene Shalit on TODAY, Joel Siegel on GOOD MORNING AMERICA and Gene Siskel on the CBS morning show. There was also the hugely popular Chicago PBS weekly film review show, SNEAK PREVIEWS, with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. When Siskel & Ebert left PBS for Disney syndication, PBS had new pairs of film critics on the show. We saw the likes of Jeffrey Lyons, Michael Medved and Neal Gabler. ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT had Leonard Maltin. Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons (son of Jeffrey Lyons) were coupled for film review duties on AT THAT MOVIES and later replaced by A.O. Scott (of The New York Times) and Michael Phillips. That was the Caucasian group telling us why we should see THE COLOR PURPLE, DO THE RIGHT THING and BOYZ N THE HOOD.  A group that was predominantly While male. No TV columnist ever questioned the whiteness of that film critic field. The group of hosts on AMERICAN MOVIE CLASSICS, when AMC aired old movies, was all White male. Having lived and worked in New York for 25 years, years in which I attended many movie screenings so I could review the films or interviews its stars, I can tell you that there are many Black film critics in New York City alone. I talked and traded career stories with several of them. We all shared the same frustration -- that we could never get considered to be movie critics or movie hosts on TV. We were only tapped to be on TV and discuss films when it came to these categories:

1. Films to recommend for Black History Month.

2. Black images in a controversial new film

3. To give soundbites about a Black celebrity who just died or got jail time.

To further prove how Black film reviewer/film historian can be easily overlooked, look at the fine HBO special on Steven Spielberg entitled SPIELBERG. That 2017 documentary had seven film critics/historians giving soundbites. Not a one was Black. We didn't even see a Black film critic in the 10 minute portion devoted to THE COLOR PURPLE. 

A White film critic or movie host can discuss Elia Kazan's A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, Gordon Parks' THE LEARNING TREE and Jack Lemmon's performance in UNDER THE YUM YUM TREE. We Black folks would be tapped to discuss only THE LEARNING TREE. I feel that full racial inclusion comes when we can discuss all three of those films like the White folks can.

When I was a kid, before its network premiere on CBS, GONE WITH THE WIND was still making big money in re-releases My sister and I went to see it one Saturday afternoon when it was in re-release. I knew it was a classic and hungry to see it. Mom said it was a really good movie. She drove us to the movie theater and picked us up when the movie ended. When we got home, Mom wanted to hear what we thought of it. I grew up in South Central L.A. during the Civil Rights era. So my sister and I were well aware of the funky images of happy, enslaved Black people. Mom gave us history about Hattie McDaniel.  We were having a discussion about GONE WITH THE WIND.

Yes, there are troublesome images of Black people in GONE WITH THE WIND. Those images will be discussed tonight on TCM. However, there was also segregation during the Hollywood production that made you wonder how far society had come since the end of the Civil War. As reported on National Public Radio (NPR), the restrooms during the Culver City shoot were segregated. They were for Whites only. Two surviving African American men who worked as extras in GONE WITH THE WIND told NPR that there were no lavatory facilities for the Black extras. They complained to star Clark Gable, whose best friend in his youth was Black. When Gable got that news, he was livid. He was a privileged White male who not only heard about racial discrimination, he did something about it. The two Black actors told NPR that lavatory facilities for Black cast members were installed on the Culver City location because of Clark Gable. 


 How does the Hattie McDaniel Oscar victory connect to today's Black actresses? After her Oscar win, Hollywood still treated Hattie like a second class citizen. She won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1940 for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND. Look at the 1942 comedy THE MALE ANIMAL, a comedy that reunited McDaniel with her fellow Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for GONE WITH THE WIND, Olivia de Havilland. The film stars Olivia de Havilland, Henry Fonda, Joan Leslie and Jack Carson -- and Hattie McDaniel. Of those five cast members, Hattie is the only Oscar winner. But her maid role is practically a bit part with lines she has to deliver in a stereotypical way. Lines like, "Yes'm. I'll get da door." The same applies to her maid role in the 20th Century Fox hit comedy from 1946, MARGIE. Her star quality and charisma pops in Disney's 1946 fantasy/musical hit, SONG OF THE SOUTH. She's a plantation cook who introduces a new song, "Sooner or Later," that was covered  by popular vocalists of the day such as Doris Day. She sings it with James Baskett who played Uncle Remus in the controversial Disney film. For his performance, he was bestowed an honorary Oscar -- making him the first Black male and the second Black person to receive an Academy Award. The first was Hattie. White Hollywood loved Mammy and Uncle Remus.

After her Oscar win, Hattie McDaniel should've starred in a Hollywood biopic about educator, activist and advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mary McLeod Bethune or one based on the life of investigative journalist and NAACP founder, Ida B. Wells. But Hollywood kept her in supporting roles as a domestic. From the 1970s to today, there are several Black actress who were treated like second class citizens after their Oscar nominations. I've blogged previously that Black actresses such as Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Margaret Avery (THE COLOR PURPLE), Alfre Woodard, Angela Bassett, Marianne Jean-Baptiste (SECRETS & LIES), Taraji P. Henson and Gabourey Sidibe had to turn to TV for steady employment after their Oscar nominations because Hollywood had no other good script opportunities for them. Even Viola Davis went to ABC TV to star in the series HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER because Hollywood had no work for her after her second Oscar nomination. The same cannot be said of White actresses such as Jessica Lange, Julia Roberts, Amy Adams, Marisa Tomei and Jennifer Lawrence after their first Oscar nominations. They got offers to do other work that brought them more Oscar nominations. I cannot recall any White entertainment journalist covering why Black actresses had to go to TV after their Oscar nominations. Look at the TV news andTCM video obit tributes to Cicely Tyson. The clip from her magnificent Best Actress Oscar-nominated performance in 1972's SOUNDER is not followed by another film clip after 1972.. If it is, the clip is from Cicely Tyson's role in 2011's THE HELP. That's because, after SOUNDER, Tyson had to go to TV to play Miss Jane Pittman, Coretta Scott King, Harriet Tubman and Chicago educator Marva Collins. Hollywood had nothing for Cicely Tyson right after SOUNDER. Gabourey Sidibe recently told COLLIDER that Hollywood opportunities didn't open up for her in the same way they did for Anna Kendrick who was nominated in the same year as Sidibe. Kendrick was a first-time Oscar nominee, like Sidibe, Kendrick was in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar category for UP IN THE AIR.

I've been a devoted TCM fan since 1999. Full disclosure, a TCM representative was in the studio when I was on Fox5's GOOD DAY NEW YORK and did a live interview of Tony Curtis. He was promoting a TCM appearance and that interview is one of the favorites of my career. He was in terrific form and won over the entire floor crew. That was also the beginning of my 10-year pitch to work for TCM. I always got very polite rejections and I was always flattered that TCM actually watched my submitted demo reel. The rejection letters referred to specific parts of my tapes. Nonetheless, during my years of devotion, I noticed that Black accomplishments were occasionally overlooked by TCM before it's 2019 hire of its first African American host, Jacqueline Stewart

I'll give you an example. For Gay Pride Month in 2017, entertainment journalist and TCM host, Dave Karger, celebrated the month by presenting films with a spotlight on Gay Hollywood History. He had films with gay characters, films with actors who were gay (Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift) and films based on works by gay playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and Harvey Fierstein. I watched because I'm a member of the gay community and I wanted to see if there would be any Black representation. There wasn't any. And there could have been. The groundbreaking Broadway play, A RAISIN IN THE SUN, was written by African American playwright, Lorraine Hasberry. She also wrote the screenplay for the 1961 film adaptation from Columbia Pictures. Hansberry was a writer/activist and an out lesbian. A RAISIN IN THE SUN should've been part of that June line-up. In addition, her screenplay credit in the opening credits was a first for a Black woman in a film released by a major Hollywood studio.

In TCM host promos, now airing, Dave Karger mentions his love for the 1980 teen comedies from John Hughes. Remember the Black teen characters in those comedies? You can't. There weren't any. Not in THE BREAKFAST CLUB, SIXTEEN CANDLES or FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF. Even though his teen comedies had action set in or around the Chicago area in the 1980s, there were no Black teen characters. Compare them to the racially inclusive 1980s Chicago area high school teen comedy, WILDCATS, produced by and starring Goldie Hawn and fine 1975 comedy about Black  Chicago high school teens, COOLEY HIGH, directed by Michael Schultz. The John Hughes lack of racial diversity in his high school teen comedies could be TCM discussion material. 

Jacqueline Stewarts participates in the pre-GONE WITH THE WIND discussion tonight on TCM GONE WITH WIND airs at 8pm Eastern.

Here's one of the demo reels I submitted to TCM. No brag, just fact: I was the first Black person to host a weeknight, prime time celebrity talk show on VH1. I hosted and did most of my own research.


For GONE WITH THE WIND fans, here's a short segment from a 2009 travel show pilot that I did.

Here's another thing I learned during that visit to the Margaret Mitchell house. Tbe GONE WITH THE WIND novelist had a Black maid/housekeeper who was very dear to her. When that maid was taken seriously ill in the 1940s, Mitchell was reportedly shaken when no good hospital in Atlanta would treat the maid because she was Black. As a result, Margaret Mitchell gave a hefty amount of scholarship money to the medical school of Morehouse College, a historically Black college in Atlanta. 

Thanks for your attention.




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