Der Hund von Baskerville (1929). Review

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Tonight was a special treat, as I finally got hold of the 1929 version of Hound of the Baskervilles, made as a silent film in Germany. This was a very late silent, and while it was popular in mainland Europe at the time, it never reached the UK or America as cinemas had converted to sound by that point. It is directed by Richard Oswald, the same director as the 1914 version of the story.  The 1929 film was found about a decade ago (after eighty years) and has now been restored and is released on blu ray and DVD (in one pack) by Flicker Alley.

The film is very good indeed. Sadly, a few bits early on are missing and replaced by stills, but not much. It is strange watching a film such as this as one can see how a film like The Cat and the Canary (1927) had been influenced by German expressionism, and then how THIS film was influenced by Cat and Canary. So we have German films influencing American films influencing German films! Carlyle Blackwell plays a surprisingly chipper Sherlock Holmes, which is rather at odds with much of the film that is dark in tone and looks like it came straight out of a silent horror movie. Cue lots of secret passages, hands emerging from wall, and even a Fu Manchu-like device  to try to kill off our hero.

Richard Oswald, who directed the film, is a fascinating figure. He wasn’t a top-tier director in Germany, but a surprisingly important one considering few today have heard of him. He was what might be called a jobbing director. He didn’t secure for himself a particular style, but he was the first director ever to make a film that challenged anti-gay laws in Different from the Others, a film that celebrates its 100th birthday this year. Bear in mind, it took the UK to 1961 to make Victim, a similar themed film!

Oswald also helped to pioneer the portmanteau fantasy/horror film genre – where short stories are joined together to make one movie. In 1916 he did this with his version of Tales of Hoffmann, and in 1919 did the same thing with Eerie Tales, which includes stories by Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allan Poe. If you’ve seen Corman’s Tales of Terror from 1963, this was in many ways the prototype of it. He also made other early horror films that no doubt influenced the expressionist horrors that followed. 1917 saw him direct the Picture of Dorian Gray and A Night of Horror.

Oswald was also the director who brought Conrad Veidt to the fore, giving him leading roles in both Different from the Others (as the doomed gay violinist who gets blackmailed) and Eerie Tales, and casting him as Phineas Fogg in his version of Around the World in 80 Days. Werner Kraus and Emil Jannings also got career boosts at the start of their careers thanks to Oswald. Sadly, despite all of this he is a virtually unknown figure, overshadowed by Wiene, Leni, Murnau and Lang – and, unlike some of those, when he sought exile in America, his career didn’t take off there.

The Flicker Alley release of Der Hund von Baskervilles is quite a treat. It not only includes the 1929 version, but also the 1914 version which was also directed by Oswald – but which I have yet to see. The blu ray/DVD combo edition is region free and will play worldwide. The downside is the price, especially if you are outside of America and get stuck with customs. I paid £25 for a used copy on ebay simply because it was being posted within the UK so no customs to pay, but you’re looking at nearly £40 if you buy it new and factor in customs – which is a lot of money for two films of the same story.

But there is no getting away from the fact that this is an important release, and is the second major “lost” Holmes silent movie to be discovered and released in less than a decade (the other being the 1916 film “Sherlock Holmes”). So never give up hope!

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Review: 13 Reasons Why (season 3)

This review contains spoilers.

You have to feel sorry for those associated with the making of 13 Reasons Why. Despite good intentions, it has come under fire for each of its three seasons. It has been accused of romanticising suicide, of depicting shocking events including rape and sexual assault in too much of a graphic way. It also has been blamed for children’s reaction to the show, despite the fact it is clearly not aimed at kids and that their parents should be to blame for not keeping an eye on what their pre-teens are watching.

The knives were out for the third season before it was released. Critics have asked why there needs to be a third season – a question I find rather odd when the same question isn’t asked of other TV shows. Does their need to be any TV series? And now that we have the third season, the critics have declared it depressing and monotonous – presumably because there is little within the new series that can be viewed as shocking or graphic. What’s more, some critics were arguing this in reviews published less than twelve hours after the series dropped – and we have been told that reviewers didn’t get copies in advance. And if that doesn’t tell you that reviews were written before the writers had seen the series, nothing will!

It certainly seems true to say that the third season is the least impressive so far. Dealing with the murder of serial rapist Bryce Walker, it seems overlong, baggy, and contrived. Much of this is to do with the introduction of a new character, Ani, who dominates the series. When she’s not on screen, she is narrating the action. But Ani is just a plot device. She is there so that we get to see what happened in Bryce’s house. She is, basically, our eyes and ears. But the plot device is clunky and jarring, as is the awful decision of using three different timeframes – Ani talking to the police, the post-murder scenes, and the pre-murder scenes. Again, it’s jarring, not helped by the fact that the makers decided to indicate time frames by going to black and white or by changing aspect ratios. Viewers are clever enough to work it out for themselves – they don’t need on-screen indicators in this way.

There has also been criticism (and in some cases, shock) amongst viewers on social media that a different side of Bryce Walker is shown in this series. But I would suggest this was a brave move on the part of the writers. Bryce was the only one-dimensional character in the first two series. Everyone else in the main cast were much more developed, whereas Bryce was just the bad guy. But people in real life are not good or bad guys. Everyone does good and bad things, some of us more good than bad, and vice versa. But those criticising the move to humanise Bryce are suggesting that people can’t change, and that redemption is never possible, and that some people have no redeeming features whatsoever. Bryce, in the end, doesn’t get redeemed. He tries, but finds it difficult to escape his old ways, and in the end that brings about his murder. Interestingly, I got similar comments from people when I wrote Breaking Down, a sequel to Breaking Point, my novel about homophobic bullying. In the sequel, the bully of the first book tries to make good, but it didn’t sit well with all readers. Likewise, in the first book, I had one of the victims doing bad things, and that was seen as problematic too. “But he’s the good guy,” I was told. Now, whether I or 13 Reasons Why managed to deal with this supposed redemption is up for debate, but it’s not as if Bryce suddenly becomes a good guy or stops doing bad things – as some commentators would have us believe. He’s still an arsehole, and now a self-pitying one.

But, for all it’s awkwardness and ridiculous length, 13 Reasons Why still remains the only programme willing to delve into serious, difficult teenage issues in this way. In reviews of previous seasons, I have highlighted how other TV shows aimed at the same age group give easy answers or gloss over difficult issues as soon as they have brought them up. In 13 Reasons Why these things are ugly, and messy, and life-changing.

There are some truly remarkable and important moments in this third season. Has there ever been a more honest portrayal of the aftermath of male on male sexual assault than in 13 Reasons Why? The moment in episode eight where Tyler finally tells someone face to face about what happened to him months earlier is devastating, brilliantly written, and stunningly acted.

The end of season two found Bryce basically getting away with rape thanks to the court system. I though this was a mistake. It would have been unrealistic to show him getting the punishment he deserves, but in this instance I thought it would pass on the right message to viewers, giving them the courage to report crimes against them. In this series, though, the show makes up for this thanks to the moving sequence in episode ten in which Jessica talks to the school about her experience and members of the school audience stand up and admit they were “survivors” too.

There will be a fourth and final season of the show next year – a rather odd choice given that the final episode of this season seems to wrap up the story rather efficiently. One has to wonder if the show could have gone a different route, perhaps the way of Skins, where a new series brings a new cast of characters and fresh storylines. Quite what the fourth season will bring is unknown at this stage.

13 Reasons Why is not perfect. It tries hard, and it makes some horrible decisions from time to time, but it is remarkably important. Teenage life is horrible – perhaps it always has been – and, if critics and adult reviewers are criticising the show, perhaps it is because it bares some ugly truths that we, as adults, don’t want to face. Bullying, rape, gun violence, sexual assault, drug addiction, violence, mental health issues – they are, unfortunately, part of teenager’s lives. We get them to put on their school uniform, send them off to school in the morning, and assume the school is looking after them for the six or seven hours before they come home. We, as adults, hate to be reminded that sometimes our trust in the school is a mistake. Schools can be ugly places. 13 Reasons Why throws that unsettling fact right in front of us, and it seems that too many (re)viewers would rather complain that the images are too graphic or shocking than accept that there is a problem out there, and that the depictions in the series are far closer to the truth than anyone wants to admit – and so we blame the show rather than the real life it is depicting.

Offenbach at 200

Once upon a time, far too many years ago, there was a boy. He was eleven years old, and had just started high school. There, he met a music teacher – one of those teachers destined to inspire many of the pupils who came into contact with him. A whole new world of classical music suddenly opened up to the boy and he was eager to explore it.

He didn’t hear classical music at home, and so the boy went to the local library and started borrowing records from their collection. But he was a novice. He had no idea what he “should” be listening to, what music was part of the “canon” and what music was obscure. So, he borrowed “Attila” by Verdi, with no idea that most people had never heard of it and would have probably directed him to “Rigoletto” or “La Traviata” instead. He borrowed Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony because he got it mixed up with Beethoven’s. But his naivety regarding the music he was eager to explore meant he had no bias. No-one had told him what was good, or what was bad, what was serious, what was important, or what was trivial.

Someone else had inspired the boy as well. When he had been younger, around seven, he had met an elderly lady who lived close by and they had become friends. Each week, he would go there and they would play board games or card games, maybe watch a classic film on the TV, drink lots of tea, and eat lots of cake. Lots. And they would read books together. One of those books, about the same time the boy was expanding his musical horizons, was “Robinson Crusoe.”

One day, he was in the library, looking for a new musical work to fall in love with, and there on the shelf he spotted a boxed set of records, with a yellow cover and a title emblazoned across it: “Robinson Crusoe” by Jacques Offenbach. He had no idea that there had been an opera made out of the story – and had even less idea that most other people were unaware of it, too. He had no prior knowledge of Offenbach, either. He borrowed the records, went home with them tucked under his arm, and fell in love.

Just as with the music teacher and the elderly neighbour (who the boy continued to visit several times a week for fifteen years until she passed away, and he still misses her more than could be imagined), there was an instant connection. Sometimes these things cannot be explained. Not only was there the music on the records in that boxed set, but also the story in the booklet that came with it, about how neglected the work had been over the years, how it had been carefully reconstructed for the recording, and the detective work that had gone into making that happen. It was a very romantic story for a twelve-year-old to come across.

There might have been notices on many of his records that “home taping is killing music,” but he made a copy of “Robinson Crusoe” all the same, and he borrowed it from the library as many times as he could. In fact, he borrowed it so many times that, after several years, the library agreed to sell the set to him. After all, nobody else could take it out because he had it all the time. A few weeks later, a huge fire destroyed the library, and the boy’s beloved “Robinson Crusoe” would have been lost forever had he not now owned it.

The finale of Act II of Robinson Crusoe. Just sublime from the 2:00 mark

That was a long time ago, and the boy grew up and became me. I spent my teens trying to find more Offenbach, although there wasn’t much to find on the shelves of the record shops here in Norwich. I managed to find the Nicolai Gedda recording of “The Tales of Hoffmann,” and on my first or second visit to London (memory gets foggy now) I went into the giant HMV on Oxford Street (RIP) and found the Sadler’s Wells version of “Orpheus in the Underworld” from the 1960s. Then there was the Ofra Harnoy recording of the cello concerto (long before it was pieced back together into a work twice the length of that recording) bought on cassette tape, and a couple of albums of overtures found in a much-missed second-hand classical and jazz music shop called Ives Records – where I spent much of my misspent youth and spent even more of my pocket money.

As time went on, I started earnestly collecting all kinds of classical music – and other genres too, particularly jazz – and now I’m a middle-aged man with a collection of CDs that runs into the thousands. But if you don’t drink or smoke, what are you going to do with your money?! I have fallen in love with other composers or other works over the years, but no classical music has given me the joy that Offenbach has. Offenbach: the one who has spent much of the last two centuries being ridiculed or classed as too lightweight, has brightened up my often rather depressing life more than he could possibly imagine.

This week, on June 20th, my beloved Jacques will be celebrating his 200th birthday. And somewhat unsurprisingly, there have been a fair few releases on CD to celebrate the anniversary. He is loved after all. There have been new discs of relatively obscure arias, some famous and not so famous overtures, three discs of piano music, an album of cello music, and a rather scrumptious thirty disc set from Warner collecting together classic recordings of the best-known works with a few lesser-known ones thrown in for good measure. The English National Opera are performing “Orpheus in the Underworld” in the autumn and, best of all, I finally got to see my beloved “Robinson Crusoe” performed at the Royal College of Music in a wonderful production that was well worth that twenty-five year wait. Sadly, the BBC Proms have decided to ignore the anniversary, which seems somewhat bizarre – and unforgivable. Perhaps nobody told them.

Nicolai Gedda sings “Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach”

Offenbach has managed to put a smile on my face during some very dark times, and no doubt will continue to do so in the coming years. It is just a pity that people still seem less than willing to investigate his remarkable legacy – and because of what? A reputation? Sheer musical snobbery? I fear it’s the latter, I really do. There is nothing so utterly pointless as musical snobbery. I despise it more and more as the years pass. There is nothing wrong with enjoying music, letting it cheer you, letting it thrill you, or invigorate you, or letting it make you laugh.

So, in order to celebrate Offenbach’s birthday, why not get hold of the sparkling, vibrant new recording of the cello concerto by Edgar Moreau? It’s quite something. Or how about the delicious album of soprano arias from operas well-known and obscure by Jodie Devos? If you want to get even more obscure, try the Brilliant Classics album of songs by Offenbach entitled “Melodies” – it’s more interesting than the title!

Or perhaps you could treat yourself to that Sadler’s Wells version of Orpheus I bought in London many years ago, or grab yourself “The Tales of Hoffmann” – and then read the detective story about how that opera’s been reconstructed. Offenbach’s operas seems to have so many detective stories attached to them. Tales of researchers travelling the globe and sifting through archives to put all the pieces of his operas back together again. Is that actually why all three of the non-fiction books I have written are, in essence, works of detection? Perhaps that romanticised view of putting “Robinson Crusoe” back together that I read when I was twelve actually influenced my own research in adult life without me realising it.

And of course, maybe – just maybe – you could discover for yourself “Robinson Crusoe,” still available (on CD now) from the Opera Rara label.

The last few minutes of Offenbach’s Cello Concerto.

I would say at this point, let’s “raise a glass” to the wonderful Offenbach on his 200th birthday on Thursday, but I don’t drink. In all honesty, I doubt Offenbach would have approved of me raising a cup of tea to celebrate his bicentennial, but it will have to do. Perhaps he’ll see the discs of his work on my shelves, or hear them in my CD player and forgive me. I hope so.

So, happy birthday, Jacques. And thank you.

Doris Day

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Doris Day, who passed away this weekend, had the rather unusual position of being one of the most beloved, and yet underrated, acting and singing stars of the Twentieth Century.

She is remembered first and foremost by many as the lead in the fluffy romantic comedies of the late 1950s and early 1960s that paired her with Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, and James Garner.  But those films were just the tip of the iceberg of her achievements.  Well-made and well-performed though they are, they give little indication of what a great actress Doris Day really could be when she was given material worthy of her talents.  Many will cite as one of her best the film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which she introduced the hit song Que Sera Sera – but even that doesn’t contain a performance as good as Love Me or Leave Me, Young Man with a Horn, or Julie.  And she wasn’t afraid of courting controversy such as in 1951’s Storm Warning, a Warner Bros social conscience film primarily about the KKK, a movie with a final reel that is still shocking today, and one can only wonder how it got past the censors at the time.   And it’s worth reminding ourselves of just how popular she was on the screen – she won the Laurel award for top female star every single year between 1957 and 1964 inclusive.

But it is her musical achievements that seem forgotten partly thanks to her on-screen stardom.   Her string of albums for Columbia from the late 1940s through to the mid-1960s contained mostly first-class renditions of songs from the Great American Songbook.  She wasn’t always paired with arrangers of the quality used by the like of Sinatra, but her thoughtful interpretations of the material nearly always made one forget that.  Every word was crystal clear, and if any female songstress was going to compete with Frank Sinatra when it came to the intelligent reading of lyrics, then it was Doris Day.  Take a look at Mean to Me from Love Me Or Leave Me, as she sings the song with her abusive husband (James Cagney) in the night-club audience.  No histrionics, very little volume, just absolute perfection.

Her best known hits were pure pop, but her best recordings found her adding jazz inflections into her interpretations.  What Every Girl Should Know is an album with a horrible title and cringe-worthy liner notes, but try and find a better vocal rendition of Mood Indigo by Duke Ellington than the one tucked away on that little-known album.

A year or so after that was recorded, she finally got the chance to do a full-blooded jazz album, paired with pianist Andre Previn (who we have also lost this year).  It was called simply “Duet,” and it remains one of the best jazz vocal albums ever recorded, and how it didn’t get recognised at the Grammy’s that year is anybody’s guess.  Day and Previn proved to be a dream team, complimenting each other beautifully, and while the album concentrated mostly on ballads, the up-beat jazz numbers were a delight.  The version of Close Your Eyes that opens the album may well be the very best recording of Day’s career, and her treatment of Fools Rush In is simply stunning.

Sadly, though, Duet wasn’t the commercial success that might have been hoped for, and Day’s later albums, while good, never really hit the mark in the same way as the pre-Duet album had done.  There was an awful religious album, a Christmas album, a kids album – pretty much everything but the albums of great standards that she should have been singing.   In 1965, she recorded Sentimental Journey, an album of songs associated with her big band days of the 1940s, and that rather apt release which took everything back to where it started for Day, was her final album release for three decades.  In 1994, a set of songs recorded in 1967 was released, and in 2011 came My Heart, a hugely successful issue of some songs that she had (mostly) recorded for her TV series in the 1980s when Day was in her mid-60s.   Any notion that she might have retired in the 1960s because of a failing voice was blown out of the water with this album, with Day (aged 89) the oldest person to have a hit album in the UK charts with a record of new material.

Sadly missing from that album was her wonderful 1985 reunion with the band of Les Brown, with whom she had worked in the mid-1940s.   One watches the video and wonders whether there really is something in those eyes that says “I’ve missed this.”  Whether or not she had  missed it, we shall never know – but one thing is for certain: we had missed her.  Her retirement from music in the 1960s deprived the world of so many more wonderful albums that, no doubt, we would still be listening to today.

But the 1960s had been a changing time in the music industry, especially for artists like Doris Day.  By the end of the decade, Sinatra was announcing his retirement, Ella Fitzgerald was without a stable recording contract, Bobby Darin had become “Bob” and was recording protest songs, Julie London and Jo Stafford had both effectively retired, and many jazz musicians who had made their mark in the 1930s and 1940s were musically homeless until Norman Granz came to their rescue with the Pablo label in the 1970s.

Despite attempts to lure Doris Day out of retirement, she couldn’t be tempted.  Only a short-lived, low-budget TV show entitled Doris Day’s Best Friends got her back on screen, where she was visited by human friends, but mostly it was about sharing her canine ones.

And now, aged 97, she has passed away.  Tributes are pouring in, as they should.  No doubt her films will be shown on TV in the coming week from Calamity Jane through to A Touch of Mink and maybe even a thriller like Midnight Lace.  Move Over Darlin’ and other hits will be played on the easy listening radio stations.

But take time out, if you can, to dig that bit deeper and listen to some of what I think was probably the real Doris Day – the superlative singer of jazz ballads both on screen and on record.  And, while you go hunting, here’s Doris in 1975 from the second of her two TV specials singing perhaps one of the most fitting songs for this occasion.  This was her final network TV special and a fitting and dignified end to her entertainment career.

Review: The Birth of the Blues (1941)

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The Birth of the Blues should perhaps be called The Birth of Jazz, or perhaps even more appropriately, The Birth of Jazz According to Hollywood.  If you want to know just why this film from 1941 is problematic in 2019, just check out the last sixty seconds, where the audience is informed that Louis Armstrong learned jazz from an all-white, middle-class jazz band.  Armstrong appears (for two seconds, literally) in a montage of the great jazz musicians of the age, of which only he and Duke Ellington are African American.  The really great jazz musicians of the early 1940s were apparently Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Paul Whiteman, and George Gershwin.

The films charts the rise to fame of a group of jazz musicians headed by Bing Crosby.  It is a loose re-telling of the story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose claim to fame were that they were the first group to record jazz, back in 1917.  This claim to fame is pretty much glossed over in the film, which seems a little odd considering it should perhaps be the climax of it.  Instead, the film concentrates on how the group popularised jazz in New Orleans polite society and how they worked to take their new music to the rest of America.

It’s hard to know whether to be completely offended by the whole endeavour, or to allow yourself to be charmed by the effortless performances by Bing Crosby and Mary Martin.  But for every good performance, the film presents us with a racial stereotype or a rewriting of history.  Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, but this movie seems to be more problematic than most from the period, if only due to its endless endeavour to whitewash history.  There are the occasional moments when the film tells us that African Americans might just have had something to do with the beginnings of jazz – in the rather cute prologue (see below) and where Eddie “Rochester” Anderson teaches Mary Martin how to jazz up a Tin Pan Alley number – but they are few and far between.

Musically speaking, many of the songs are Tin Pan Alley numbers rather that jazz as such, but Bing Crosby and Mary Martin sing beautifully and work very well together on screen.  However, the best number in the film is a wonderfully staged and arranged St. Louis Blues, sung by Ruby Elzy and a chorus. Unfortunately the sequence from the film is not on YouTube, but a performance from a radio appearance from the time is, although it is not as good:

The current DVD of the film runs around eight minutes shorter than the given run time on the internet, and so it may be possible that it is slightly edited for whatever reason.  Picture and sound are very good.  The film was released in the UK on DVD as a double bill with Blue Skies.

BREAKING POINT/BREAKING DOWN

In 2013, I published a young adult novel about homophobic bullying in schools. Breaking Point told the story not just from the point of the victim, but also of the bullies and a teacher. On the initial free download period for the Kindle, it was downloaded more than 7,000 times and user reviews were largely positive.

A few years later, I started work on a sequel which, for various reasons, kept getting put to one side. I finally finished the first draft in the middle of last year, and Breaking Down has now been released in Kindle and paperback editions alongside a revised version of Breaking Point. The revised Breaking Point has a somewhat expanded text, but the narrative is largely the same, although it deviated slightly in the last couple of chapters.

In Breaking Point, James Marsh is sixteen years old and in his final year of high school. He has been suffering from bullying for months at the hands of Jason Mitchell and his friends but, as they return to school after the Easter break, Jason takes his tormenting to a whole new level. As James struggles to cope, a teacher at the school finds his hands tied when he attempts to help him, Jason spirals out of control, and a former friend of James tries to make amends.

In Breaking Down, the sequel, James is about to leave home to go to university, knowing that it might signal the end of his relationship with Paul. Jason has been trying to make amends for what he did at school, but his past is coming back to haunt him. And teacher Andrew Green is struggling with his mental health due to the stress of the events of two years earlier, with his boyfriend at a loss on how to help him. They all learn to realise that the effects of school bullying will be with them for life – whether victim, bully, or teacher.

The following are the links to the books:

Breaking Point
Breaking Down