F. W. Murnau Comes to America (vintage article)

F. W. Murnau Comes to America

The German Genius of the Films Talks of Movies and Men

Author: Matthew Josephson

(Motion Picture Classic: October, 1926)

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“Simplicity!  Greater and greater simplicity – that will be the key-note of the new films.”

Murnau was speaking with ardour, gesticulating with his long limbs, whenever his English, altho (sic) correct and without foreign accent, failed him.

“Our whole effort,” he went on, “ must be bent toward ridding motion pictures of all that does not belong to them, of all that is unnecessary and trivial and drawn from other sources – all the tricks, gags, ‘business’ not of the cinema, but of the stage, and the written book.  That is what has been accomplished when certain films reached the level of great art.  That is what I tried to do in The Last Laugh.[1]  We must try for more and more simplicity and devotion to pure motion picture technique and material.”

Exactly what I had longed to hear someone say here.  Exactly what I hoped this giant of the moving pictures would say.  But then Murnau went on to say something which gives his own spirit and personal style completely.  Listen:

“In the film you give a picture, for instance, of an object, a thing, and it has drama for the eye; because of the way it has been places, or photographed, because of its relation to the other people or things in this film, it carries on the melody of the film.”

This is Murnau, the man who created the most vivid drama we have ever seen out of the simplest and lowliest things in The Last Laugh; who made brass instruments ring with music on the screen, or lit up faces so that they were loud with speech; probably the finest director who has come to us from Germany.

 His Influence is Felt

What will his influence be here, I wondered?  It has been very great already.  It is not as if we have been backward, for in the last year or two a number of film masterpieces made by American or American-trained directors follow the same tendencies of those of Murnau.  They are simple to the utmost and build solidly on the resources of the cinema – pictures like Vidor’s The Big Parade, Cruze’s Covered Wagon, Henry King’s Stella Dallas, And yet there are people who grumble at the inroads of foreign film stars and directors.  How silly!  If they could only see the mountains of inferior American celluloid that are shipped to foreign countries and blissfully consumed by the populace.

W. Murnau arrives at exactly the psychological moment, as we are on the verge of an era of truly great pictures. In his valise he brought with him a new epoch-making film, Faust, which is to have its first showing in America. At the very moment, Variety, a seriously inspired German picture, was playing to filled houses with the temperature at ninety.[2]  He is deeply interested in America; he has few false ideas about it, least of all that it is impossible to do anything fine over here.  And he is here at the behest of the Fox Film Company, seldom noted hitherto for artistic films, but now going in for bigger things.

He is not merely a giant of the films as I have described him, but in stature towers some six feet and several inches.  He is red haired; he has keen, steady eyes and quiet hands.  He is a calm man, not easily ruffled or thrown into despair.  His manner is unconventional, not at all formal or formidable as that of many Europeans.  He is young, not much over thirty-five; his understanding and his knowledge are broad.  I think that his abilities will make him respected, and his quiet, personal charm (so happily lacking in useless “temperament”) will make him liked.

Murnau was born of good family in a small town of Westphalia.  He was well educated.  He became interested in the theatre a few years before the war, at a time when great things were being done in the theatre by men like Gordon Craig, Max Reinhardt and Granville Barker.  He worked under the wing of Max Reinhardt as an actor and stage director in the world famous Grosses Schauspielhaus of Berlin.  He was doing small things, but learning much under the brilliant Reinhardt, whose production, The Miracle, has thrilled so many thousands of Americans.  Another young German was working quietly with Murnau under Reinhardt.  They became friends, and were destined to become masters of a new art.  The other young fellow’s name was Ernst Lubitsch.

When the Great War came, young Murnau found himself in the first line of infantry, in the Royal Guards.  Then for a year he was an officer in the aviation corps.  Like many of us, he was glad when it was all over, and turned from the art of the theatre to the budding motion picture industry.

Some of the most famous German actors, Emil Jannings, Werner Krauss, Paul Wegener, went into motion pictures.

Few Good Ones in Germany

We talked about the German situation.  What Murnau said will surprise many people.

“Contrary to the impression prevailing here, very few good pictures are being made in Germany.  There are few good directors or actors; there are few people who know anything about the cinema.  The big companies are loaded with deadwood, sheep.  They follow the tide, just as it is followed here.  When an interesting experiment turns out to be a hit, as Caligari did over there, they all imitate it.[3]  Or Variety.  They are all doing circus pictures now.  Those who have really been doing things, the talented, far-sighted men, have simply been feeling their way along.  The artists who made Caligari had no idea when they started out what their results would be.  And yet they discovered some wonderful things, they were pioneers.”

“Too much influence of the modern stage,” I suggested.

“Exactly.  I have had to forget everything I learned about the stage.  We have had to throw overboard everything that suggests the theatre.”

Here, Murnau spoke with utmost feeling and reverence for Max Reinhardt.

“I feel unbounded admiration for him.  He knows more about the theatre than anybody living.  I can never tell in words how much association with him meant to me.  He seems to know everything, follow everything.  He was the most inspiring of men to work under.  He is an old man now and very tired; but he is deeply interested in what we are doing on the screen.[4]  What we need is a Max Reinhardt of the cinema.”

“Most of the film stars of Europe, like Jannings, come from the stage?” I asked.

“Yes, but that isn’t necessary,” said Murnau.  “We don’t need trained stage actors for the movies.  There is splendid material everywhere which directors must take over and mold for the purposes of film.”

Like most of the fine German directors, Murnau has a passion for perfecting each detail of his picture.  That is one of the distinguishing features of the better importations.  In a pinch, Murnau told me, he would rather have a raw, untrained person, who had never played before, than a seasoned star.

Working over his last picture, Faust, he searched for many months before he found a young female apparition who suited the part of Gretchen; she is the beautiful Camilla Horn, a discovery he is particularly proud of.  Her face had just the degree of innocence and child-like beauty he wanted.  What a search it must have been in those times?

“In that way,” said Murnau, “I get exactly the effect, the feeling I want into the picture.  For the character of Faust I found a truly old man, a Swede, Gösta Ekman, who had seldom played before on the screen.”[5]

High Praise for Jannings

“But Jannings is an amazing screen actor,” I said.

“Yes, one of the finest in the world, and a dear friend of mine.  Do not misunderstand me.  Few people really know how to play before the camera.  Jannings is superb before it.  The secret of his power is that he uses his whole body for suggestion.  He is like this – (Murnau was puffing out his chest and throwing up his shoulders) big as a mountain when playing a king.  And when he is a clown or a beggar, he is able to shrink and quiver like the lowest toad.  He is absolutely unique.  But generally we can train players ourselves.”

Murnau is convinced that there is great material for the screen here to work with in his own way.  To find new “types” fills him with pleasure.  What a chance for some of our film-struck children!  Perhaps new life for some of our fading stars, even under the whip of a brilliant directorial genius, as Irene Rich, for instance, was glorified again under Lubitsch in Lady Windermere.[6]

The first picture he will work on will be based on A Trip to Tilsit,[7] a novel by the daring of Herman Sudermann,[8] with many interesting situations.  This will be done for Fox.  Murnau should distinguish himself; everything he does will have his own stamp, his own touch.

Screen authorities, who seldom come near being in agreement, were almost unanimous in pronouncing The Last Laugh the “greatest film ever made.”  Credit for this and for Jannings’ superb acting belong almost wholly with Murnau.  He spoke of it with unconscious pride.

Talks of The Last Laugh

“I wanted to try a story that you could really tell in five words, an exceedingly simple idea or situation; but the range, the feeling of the film which gave this story was to be limitless in its power of understanding and dramatizing ideas.  You can tell the story of The Last Laugh in a sentence, but I wanted the emotions of its central character to become something beyond the power of words to express. I wanted the camera to picture shades of feeling that were totally new and unexpected; in all of us there is a self-conscious self which in a crisis may break out in the strangest ways, and this picture at times reached the subconscious man under his hotel livery.

“The whole action of the thing pointed, for instance to the moment where Jannings takes off his hotel uniform, so that as he removed the coat with its brass buttons the highest point of the drama was reached, a drama that was purely visual.  The type of lighting and architecture we used helped a great deal toward this effect; everything superfluous that did not help to carry on the main idea was suppressed and thrown out of the picture.”

For his work here Murnau has brought over his own architect, a young man named Rochus Gliese, who has collaborated with him in several pictures towards getting the tripled intensity and directness that he goes for.

Faust, the large feature film over which Murnau has been working for several years, is to be distributed by Metro-Goldwyn soon.  It differs widely from The Last Laugh.  It may be another milestone in the progress of cinema.  For one thing, it is drenched with atmosphere and color.  It has been justly heralded as having the most beautiful photography.  Murnau has handled his camera as if it were a great Renaissance painter, a Leonardo or an El Greco.  For another thing, it is a great story, a universal theme, handled with great originality.

Every red-blooded German has had a yearning to do Faust.  It is part of the native atmosphere; it is somewhere in the flavor of the good beer every German drinks.  It is the rollicking legend of a bright, bold, bad man carrying out all his wicked dreams, that has gripped the imagination for centuries.  Those who know their Goethe, or the opera of Faust, will find that Murnau has gone back to the original sources of the legend to create something particularly for the cinema.

“In this film,” he said, “what interested me most was the relation between each scene or sequence.  Every single shot has an inevitable part in the movement of the whole picture.”

We were driving down-town now, toward lunches, banquets, greetings of the Mayor.

Issuing from the quiet, middle-class halls of the great hostelry on Fifth Avenue where Murnau seemed such an odd if good-humored-looking giant, he had shown only a single flash of temperament.  This was his demand for a certain luxurious make of American car such as he owned in Berlin.  We suggested that it must only be made in Germany.

We still talked movies.  His views were of unfailing interest.

Of Pictures and People

What did he think of Variety – the hit of the moment, to the happy surprise of all?

“Beautifully done.  Photography, playing, direction.  The vaudeville stuff is delightful.  It was really planned with the hope of an American success, and I am very happy that it is going so well.  Not because it is a German film.  I don’t really think that it marked a step forward for the cinema.  But it will improve the taste of the public, arouse them and interest them in this type of work.”

Caligari?  “It was frankly an experiment.  It was aufregend (stimulating), aroused wider interest in motion pictures, showed what might be done.”

Lubitsch?  “A brilliant man.  A most interesting director.  But I don’t think he has entirely cast off the influence of the stage that we both got under Max Reinhardt.  Many of his films give you the feeling of watching action on stage.”

Chaplin?  “The genius of the screen.  His comedies have the most profound appeal.  He is always doing something absolutely fresh and unconscious.  There were thing in The Gold Rush that were revelations, he a fountain of cinematic ideas.[9]  A Woman of Paris was extremely interesting; but, of course, it was in the European tradition.[10]

That reminded me of something I had almost passed up.

“And what do you think of – of – America?  I really had to squeeze that in, you know?”

“Thoroly exciting (sic),” he laughed.  “My second visit, you know, but I am like a child about it.  There are wonderful types here, wonderful faces.  Tremendous energy.  The whole tradition here suggests speed, lightness, wild rhythms.  Everything is novel.  Sensational.  I was in Childs’ Restaurant last night.  It was an amazing place to me.  Tonight I am going to Coney Island.  It must be barbarous there.  I would like to do a wild picture about Alaska.  What was the book they were considering?  Something like Frozen Nights or Frozen Lights.  It has wonderful possibilities.  Wonderful.  Wonderful…” he murmured as he drove on along the winding road that led thru banquets, receptions, Coney Island, to Hollywood, ultimately.

[1] Der Letzte Mann/The Last Laugh (F. W. Murnau, 1924), a film best remembered for not using intertitles for dialogue.

[2] Varieté/Variety (E. A Dupont, 1925).

[3] Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari/The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

[4] Reinhardt was actually only fifty-three at the time this interview was first published.

[5] Not exactly true.  Ekman had already appeared in eleven films during the 1920s alone prior to Faust, and had the lead role in a number of them.

[6] Lady Windermere’s Fan (Ernst Lubitsch, 1925)

[7] This would be filmed under the title Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927)

[8] A short story, not a novel.

[9] The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)

[10] A Woman of Paris (Charles Chaplin, 1923).  Chaplin appears only in a cameo role in this film.

2016: Bobby Darin at 80

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post detailing how badly 2015, the year in which Elvis Presley would have turned 80, had been handled by both his record label and the Presley Estate.  The only major release was centred around a gimmick rather than the great music that Elvis made during his lifetime, and that great music was largely ignored for the entire year.  In 2016, Bobby Darin would have turned 80, but what should we be allowed to expect?

Less than a decade ago, all but three or four of Bobby Darin’s original albums were available on CD.  Now, as 2015 draws to a close, less than half a dozen are available as physical product in America.  Not even That’s All or This is Darin are available from Bobby’s own label, although public domain copies can be imported infrom Europe.  In Europe, the situation is somewhat better thanks to Warner’s release of ten of the ATCO albums spread over two 5CD boxed sets.  But, after the ATCO period, the situation is just as bad as it is in America.

“How did this happen?” is a question that many Darin fans are no doubt asking.  From the mid-1990s, Bobby’s star was once again in the ascendency, with well-advertised compilations of issues of unreleased material appearing with great regularity.  And then, without warning, it stopped.  I say “without warning” but that isn’t strictly true.  There were signs that those behind Bobby-related releases were cutting corners or, perhaps, just getting a bit bored.  Aces Back to Back was released with quite some fanfare (even a single to promote it), but was in reality a hodge-podge of performances that didn’t gel together and about which we were told absolutely nothing in the poorly-conceived booklet.  The 2006 DVD Seeing is Believing contained some great performances but seemed to be edited together by someone using Windows Moviemaker, and with no thought as to which performance should go where.  After that, it was not only a further seven years before a release containing “new” Bobby Darin material, but during that time there was not even the appearance of an official compilation to celebrate what would have been his 75th birthday.

The consequences of all this is that Bobby, despite being highly thought of by critics and having an extremely loyal fan-base, is now struggling to be remembered by the general public beyond half a dozen key songs.  Alas, that is what being forgotten about by your label and, seemingly, Estate does for your popularity.  2016 is the year that can change all of that.  Not only would it have been Bobby’s 80th birthday, but it is also the 60th anniversary of his first recordings for Decca.  Whether we can actually expect anything from record companies and/or the Darin Estate to mark these occasions in style, and to get Bobby Darin talked about and noticed once again, is very much up for debate.

One would like to think that, at the very least, there could be a compilation put together of Bobby’s hits and signature songs that could be advertised on TV, radio and the internet.  This might contain nothing new, but at least it would get Bobby’s name out there again.   But what else could we, or should we, expect?  Frankly, going by the last few years, perhaps we should set our expectations low and hope to be surprised.  The Bobby Darin Show series from 1973 was decimated when released on DVD.  Yes, an apology of sorts was issued by the Estate a month after the release, but one would assume they would have seen the planned DVDs and the packaging they criticise some time before release date and could have had things improved or changed if they really wanted to.  It is, after all, The Bobby Darin Testamentary Trust that is credited on the DVD cover.  Moreover, it took some twelve years from the discovery of the so-called Milk Shows to their arrival on CD.  Another sign we should perhaps not hold out breath for a special release next year.  We have been told for some time that a project is in the works containing the previously unreleased Manhattan in my Heart and Weeping Willow, but there appears to be no sign of such a project as yet.  Also, in the May 2014 apology about the television series DVD, we were told about a remastering and restoration of the final concert-style episode of Bobby’s TV series that would be released – and, more than eighteen months later, there’s been no sign of that either.

Could we possibly dare to hope  that a set of rarities might appear to celebrate Bobby’s 80th?  There are, for example, a number of items that have never appeared on CD – such as the studio recording of Swing Low Sweet Chariot and the songs from the 1972 album that were not released as singles.  And how about the title song from That Darn Cat, a song Bobby recorded for the Disney film but which was never released on record.  A four-song live set from Australia in 1959 was released on a bootleg a couple of decades ago, but has yet to be released officially – and neither has the Something Special LP, which was the soundtrack to the BBC TV special recorded in 1966.   What’s more, I Don’t Know How to Love Her, recorded at Motown in the early 1970s, was heard on a BBC radio show a year or so ago but remains unreleased – as do a number of other tracks  recorded during the same period that are still in the vault (and some of which have been heard).  Can we not assume that there are more songs on tape from The Troubadour in 1969 than the four released so far?  And how about at least the audio of some of the songs excised from the TV show DVD and from the Bobby Darin Amusement Company series that came before it?

A release of Bobby Darin “discoveries” might not set the world afire but, with a decent compilation of Bobby’s greatest moments to accompany it, at least Bobby’s popularity/recognition might once again start to rise – and this without even entering the realms of producing an in-depth documentary, or a book of unreleased photographs and other documents, or perhaps a collection of Bobby’s guest appearances on TV variety shows.

Many will, no doubt, say that none of this will ever happen – and they are probably correct – but it is also time for Darin fans to start asking the question of why none of this will happen, even if the answers might well complicate the situation even more.  No matter how talented the star, if their work is largely unavailable and their legacy rarely brought back into the public eye, that star will, alas, shine less brightly than it needs to outside of the fandom.  Fans do what they can to stop that from happening, but it also perhaps time to start demanding more from the powers that be that can and should be making a difference.  Here’s hoping that 2016 will bring about changes in how Bobby is handled that means these questions don’t need to be asked and that these demands don’t need to be raised.  But, I confess, I’m not hopeful. 

Peter and Wendy (TV Review)

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A number of years ago, myself and a friend directed a version of Peter Pan for a local AmDram group and, despite everyone’s best efforts, it was not our greatest moment.  What became apparent was that it was extremely difficult to take something as well known as Peter Pan and do “something with it” to make it fresh and current.  We had a great cast (particularly those playing Peter, Wendy and the Darling children), some ideas we thought would work well, but somehow it just didn’t gel in the way it should.

This appears to be the problem with any production or adaptation of Peter Pan, going back nearly a hundred years.  I’m a great lover of silent movies, but someone would have to pay me to sit again through the interminable bore that is the 1924 movie version starring Betty Bronson as the title character.  Part of this is because I can never get my head around an adult woman playing Peter Pan who, by his very nature, is neither an adult or a woman.  The whole characterisation rests on the fact that he is a boy (both in age and gender), and to change that seems to lose much of the poignancy of the production.  That said, I am fully aware that even the first production of the play saw Peter played by a female.  Since then, there have been many film and TV adaptations, perhaps most famous of which are the 1953 Disney animation and the 2003 live-action film starring Jeremy Sumpter, and it has probably been the Sumpter version that has been most successful up until this point.

What we found in our own attempt at Peter Pan was that trying to do something new with it was irrelevant if there wasn’t a point to what you were trying to do.  Considering all the versions there have been on film and television over the years, it could certainly seem that all variations on Peter Pan had been done and that the story should perhaps take a well-earned break from our screens.  And then came along Peter and Wendy on Boxing Day on ITV1, which not only gave Peter Pan something of a makeover and novel twist, it also worked, and may well be the best screen adaptation to date.  The two hour television film merged the “real world” story of a teenaged girl, Lucy, awaiting a heart operation at Great Ormond Street hospital with the fantasy world of the story of Peter Pan – prompted by her reading the book to other children in the hospital.

True, there were moments when the framing device became a little too dominant, and the opening section before the story of Peter Pan itself actually started was perhaps too long, but these were minor issues.  The key thing is that the switching back and forth worked remarkably well, and even added a somewhat darker side to the narrative.  Also well done was the way in which the two worlds often merged as the stories reached their climax, with the hospital ward itself barely disguised during some of the sequences on Hook’s ship – and, of course, how people from one world appeared as another character in the other.  But the framing device also added a somewhat more sombre tone to the film, and thus removing some of the saccharine elements of the story that all too often are brought to the fore.  Some even took to the internet to complain that the ending was unsuitable for kids – but that depends if you want your kids wrapped in cotton wool and sheltered from the realities of life.  The framing device was clever, but the success of Peter and Wendy didn’t rest on this alone.

No, the greatest success of Peter and Wendy lay in the brilliant casting of Hazel Doupe as Lucy/Wendy and of Zac Sutcliffe (in what appears to be his first screen role) as Peter.  Casting slightly older actors in these two roles allowed for the more poignant aspects of Barrie’s original story to be at the fore, with them both on the cusp of adulthood.  Some Twitter users seemed to be frightened to death that Peter Pan should have a Yorkshire accent – it was like reading the comments of middle England had the BBC introduced regional accents into news bulletins in the 1950s.  Quite what the same viewers make of Sumpter’s American accent in the 2003 version, I’m not quite sure.  It no doubt caused fainting fits in cinemas as it was being shown.  While there was still some of the middle class elements of the original story retained, what made the performances of the two central characters work so well was that both Lucy/Wendy and Peter came across as normal kids from 2015, and not perfect children from a Walt Disney-style land of make-believe.   Here’s hoping we see much more of both performers in the years to come.

As Christmas television gets duller and more predictable by the year, it was great to see Peter and Wendy as an unexpected delight – and hopefully it will be one of the ITV dramas that will be repeated every year (if they can fit it in between re-runs of LewisInspector Morse, and Foyle’s War).  One has to wonder quite why it was scheduled to finish at 10pm, when many of the intended audience would have been in bed (especially when Jekyll and Hyde is on at teatime!), but I guess you can’t have everything.

Peter and Wendy certainly shows that there is still something magical about Peter Pan, and also something remarkably poignant.   Perhaps it’s the kids watching who literally don’t like the idea of growing up (and who can blame them).  Or it’s the adults who realise that life was much simpler when they were kids.  Or perhaps it’s those adults who now look back with the fact suddenly dawning on them that, for whatever reason, their own childhood was wasted or taken from them, and that they’d do anything to get it back.

 

Sinatra at 100: 10 Forgotten Gems

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So, today is the big day – the day on which Frank Sinatra would have turned 100.  The celebrations have been going on all year, with concerts and television programmes galore, from star-studded events through to new, almost definitive documentaries.  There have also been a variety of music releases, including the recent, rather remarkable set of songs from Frank Sinatra’s radio appearances from 1935-1955.  I am not going to wax lyrical about Sinatra here, but I thought this would be a nice opportunity to highlight ten stunning recordings and performances that come under the heading of “obscure.”  We all know about Songs for Swinging Lovers and Sinatra sings for Only the Lonely, but here’s some tracks you may not know that are well worth hunting down.

Let’s start in the late 1960s, with the wonderful Forget to Remember, a beautiful torch song that was, bizarrely, released as a single rather than on an album.  Barely known outside of the hardcore fandom – and rarely used on compilations, sadly – this is a master-class in phrasing, and comes complete with a stunning orchestration by Don Costa.  Even better than the studio recording is the one included in the 1969 Sinatra TV special, included as part of a sequence of torch songs that also included A Man Alone and Didn’t We.

From the same period comes I’m Not Afraid, even less well-known than Forget to Remember.  Sinatra had earlier recorded a whole album of songs and poems by Rod McKuen called A Man Alone, but this song by the same writer came along a few months later.  It’s an unusual recording in part thanks to Lennie Hayton’s great arrangement that seems to cross Sinatra with Ravel’s La Valse, as the waltz number becomes enshrouded in dissonant and impressionistic chords as it builds up momentum and reaches its stunning conclusion.

Shortly after the recording of the above two songs, Sinatra entered his period of retirement, emerging a couple of years later with an album entitled Old Blue Eyes is Back, which is more interesting than many give it credit for.  The key song here is There Used to Be a Ballpark, a wonderful number in which Sinatra acts as if he taking his grandchild on a tour of his old haunts from when he was a child, and reflecting how things have changed, and not always for the better.  “Now the children try to find it,” he sings.  “And they can’t believe their eyes, For the old team isn’t playing, and the new team hardly tries.”  It’s a devastating track, and remarkably moving.

Ten years earlier, Sinatra had recorded an album of rather grandiose arrangements of mostly Broadway show songs, The Concert Sinatra.  Included here is his second recording of Old Man River, which has never become as well known as his 1940s performance that was included in the film Till the Clouds Roll By.  To my mind, the older Sinatra gives a better reading of this wonderful song than the youthful one.  It is dark and reflective, and certainly a far cry from the thirty year old Sinatra singing the song in a white suit on top of a pillar.

Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist of Old Man River was also the lyricist of Lover Come Back to Me, a song that Sinatra never got around to recording, but which he performed on the radio and is included in the recent The Voice on Air boxed set.  This performance shows Sinatra at the start of his solo career but producing a majestic take on this song from the operetta The New Moon.  Sinatra would return to the song in the late 1970s, featuring an upbeat, jazzy arrangement backed by a combo in a number of concerts, but the recordings of this that circulate amongst collectors suggest that this was  less than successful.

Sinatra’s years at Capitol are, of course, his most acclaimed, but even here there are some hidden gems that the general public rarely get to hear.  Quite unlike most of Sinatra’s upbeat recordings for the period is I’m Gonna Live Til’ I Die, a raucous and bluesy number arranged by Dick Reynolds for the 1954 recording.  It was released as a B-side in 1955, and then became the finale of the Look to Your Heart compilation album in 1959.  The song isn’t really a swing number, but more of an upbeat belter, with the switch in tempos mid-way through most effective.  Frank had also sung the song on his early 1950s TV show.

At the other end of the musical spectrum is When the World was Young, the first track on Frank’s final Capitol project, the Point of no Return album which, as a whole, is under-rated.  Here he was reunited with Alex Stordahl, who had worked with Sinatra extensively during his Columbia years.  With the exception of September SongWhen the World was Young is one of the first songs in which Sinatra plays a character looking back on his life – something he would build a whole album around a few years later with the September of My Years LP and, of course, the infamous My Way single.

When the World was Young is both wistful and poignant, two terms that can also be applied to Sinatra’s 1962 recording of We’ll Meet Again for his Great Songs from Great Britain LP.  We’ll Meet Again is hardly traditional Sinatra fare, but what is remarkable here is how he takes this old sentimental war-horse and transforms it completely into a beautiful love song.  Sinatra wasn’t in great voice for these particular sessions, but it doesn’t matter, and his greatness can be seen in how he works around his limitations at this time rather than how they restrict them.  The Robert Farnon arrangement is also worthy of note, with its lush strings that never border on the sentimental.

I could list virtually any song from Sinatra’s collaboration with Duke Ellington here – the album Francis A & Ellington K is, after all, one that is just waiting to be rediscovered.  While Frank’s albums with Count Basie are well-known, this one is not, although there is little reason musically for the lack of attention it has received.  Take the performance of Sunny as an example.  Here it is slowed down into a slightly bluesy slow swing, and it sounds as if it had been a standard for years rather than a recent pop song.  The arrangement also allows the wonderful Ellington band to shine and for Sinatra to explore more jazzier phrasing than he often did during this period.  This 1967 album is also notable for being Sinatra’s last full LP of swing material for a dozen years, when the first album of the 1979 Trilogy set saw him concentrating on standards once again.

Finally, we have a song that is particularly fitting.  Nobody paid much attention to Here’s to the Band when it was released in the mid-1980s, but it’s another example of Sinatra performing a song that looks to the past – and this time he’s talking about all of the great people and bands he has performed with during his (at that point) fifty year career.  Along the way, he name checks Basie, Ellington and even Elvis, but also pays tribute to the “nameless” musicians too.  The studio recording is fine in itself, but the song seemed to work even better on the concert stage, with Sinatra, then seventy, coming over as most sincere when he sang:

“To start at the ground and reach for the top
To have such a wonderful career, I just gotta stop
Stop and turn around to thank everyone that sits on the stand
`Cause I wouldn’t have made it without them, here’s to the band!”

So, there we have it, ten Sinatra classics that only rarely get aired.  I could have included tens of others, including the intimate It’s Sunday, the beautiful tribute to Billie Holiday entitled Lady Day, the forgotten torch song Empty Tables, the moving rendition of Nature Boy which saw Sinatra recording with just choir accompaniment, the entire Watertown album, and, yes, even Old MacDonald.  Luckily, while the 100th anniversary of his birth has seen compilations of his most popular material emerge, there has also been a tendency to highlight from time to time the forgotten gems in the Sinatra catalogue, and long may that continue.

Theda Bara: The Mystery of the Vanishing Vampire

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The following article, written by Frederick Collins, is an interesting interview with Theda Bara from 1933, some years after her final film.  It was first published in The New Movie Magazine in March 1933.

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I went to see Theda Bara the other night.

What memories that name brings up!  Memories of going to theaters packed with people to see pictures packed with passion; memories of Salomes with bare legs and writing torsos; memories of Cleopatras in brassieres and asps!

What a woman she was, with her great waves of dark, lustrous hair thrown back from her fine forehead, her eyes set wide and glowing with the hungry fire of “The Tiger Woman,” her rounding, generously voluptuous body alive with vitality of “The She-Devil”!

And now?  I know what the story needs.  I should show you a poor, wizened old woman – hair thinned and grayed, eyes sunken and lack-luster, body shrivelled and weak – standing on a Hollywood street corner asking for alms.  There, I would say, is the once great Theda Bara.

And what have we?  A beautifully gowned woman in a beautiful home.  The same waving, lustrous hair; the same wide-set, glowing eyes; the same sumptuousness, the same compelling vitality.  The same Theda Bara!

“It was nice of you to come and see me,” she said, extending a welcoming hand.  “I am ‘the forgotten woman’ now, you know.”

“Nonsense!” I exclaimed, with an abruptness that I fear was not very polite.  “Your public will always remember you.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” she laughed, “but how will it remember me?  For my ‘wickedness’?”

That was a good start.  It was as if this lovely, gracious woman of the world, her beauty bathed in the lamplight of her own home, her wine-red gown softly blending into the dark paneling (sic) of her luxurious living room, was inspired by this meeting – our first in more than a decade – to live over the again the breathless years of her cinema triumphs.

“And yet,” she philosophized as we settled ourselves comfortably by the open fire, “the ‘wickedest’ thing I ever did on the screen would seem tame now.”

I wonder.  There were scenes in A Fool There Was, in Carmen,[1] in Du Barry[2] – but I dismissed as unlikely the thought that Miss Bara’s sudden and mysterious retirement from the screen had been due to remorse!

The thought that I could not get out of my head was that this woman beside me was still young, still beautiful, still possessed of those vibrant qualities which had lifted her to the movie heights.

Why had she fallen from those heights?

Why should she ever have fallen, this Cleopatra, this Salome, this woman for whom a wicked man would gladly lose an empire or a pious man a head?

What, in short, was the solution to the mystery of Theda Bara?

Well, this is the story.  You can judge for yourself.

Her real name was not Theda Bara.  It was Theodosia Goodman.  Her mother’s people, the De Coppets, were French.  The family lived in Cincinnati.

The Goodmans were not rich people.  Theodosia is said to have earned her living as a telephone operator.  In time she became infected with the movie bug; went on to New York, which was then the movie capital; and landed a job as an extra girl at the Fort Lee Studios.

Winnie Sheerhan, then as now, general manager for the Fox organization, picked her out of a mob as a possible candidate for the leading role in a Broadway play which he was about to make into a picture.  She tested well. She was the type – and she got the part.

The play was A Fool There Was, by Peter Emerson Browne.  Robert Hilliard had starred in it on Broadway.  It was based on Rudyard Kipling’s poem, The Vampire:

“A fool there was and he made his prayer,

Even as you and I,

To a rag and a bone and hank of hair…”

It was the first vampire picture.  It was an instant success.  Clergymen raged against it.  Audiences raged about it.   Theda Bara, as the vampire, woke up to find herself a theatrical institution.

“Give us more vampires,” the people demanded.

“Give us more Theda Bara!”

The way the gang pictures swept the country was as nothing by comparison.  The growth of the Gable vogue was a snail’s progress compared with the sudden blooming of the Bara.

Well, they gave them more vampires, ancient and modern; and more Theda Bara, with and without clothes: Carmen, Her Double Life,[3] When a Woman Sins,[4] The She-Devil.[5]  Each was a colossal success.

Theda was a personal success, too.  She was well advised.  Beginning at a hundred dollars a week, she hiked her salary up until it had reached the unheard-of-figure – for those days – of four thousand dollars a weel.

In money and in popularity, she was so far out in front of all the other stars that, with the exception of Mary Pickford, there wasn’t any second.

And how she worked!

She made forty pictures in four and a half years.  Each picture earned more money than the one before.  Each was a record-breaker for its day and age.  Her manager, so it is said, offered her a bonus of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to sign a contract for one more year.

And she quit.

She gave up much more than money, much more than movie fame.  She was the most discussed, perhaps the best known, woman in the world.  Her appearance on the stage of a theater packed the aisles and crowded the rafters.  Her appearance on the street called out the reserves.

In 1918, when she was selling Liberty Bonds in competition with Maude Adams and other great favorites of the day, she broke all records by selling five hundred thousand dollars worth to a Wall Street luncheon crowd in just thirty minutes.

She was, as I have said, an institution.  She had not only introduced the vampire to the screen; she had introduced it into the common language of her generation.  She had made her own name synonymous with it.

She is remembered now – and, as she put it, how she is remembered! – for her more daringly naked characterizations; but, as a matter of fact, she it was who introduced the classics to the American screen.  She played every role that Bernhardt played, and a dozen others besides.[6]

She broke precedents and she made them.  She was the biggest box-office “draw” the stage or screen had ever known.  She was a personage, a world personage.  She had before her a limitless future that beckoned her on to gold and glory.

Then, suddenly and without warning, at the height of her career, she walked out of the Hollywood studios, and never entered them again.

These are the real mysteries of Hollywood – not murders, orgies, divorces.  Every town has its quote of such ordinary scandals.  Hollywood’s may have been more eye-catching, more ear-filling than some, but, with few exceptions, not more interesting, certainly not more mysterious.

Hollywood has mysteries that no other town can have.

Why is it, for example, that the greatest actress of the screen cannot get a job?

Why is it that the screen’s more famous comedienne, who had the world by the tail, let it wag her the wrong way?

Why is it that the most talked about dancer of her time, “the girl with the wicked wiggle,” wiggled her way right out of pictures?

Why is it that the first movie actor to get his name into electric lights suddenly lost his popularity?

Yes, these are the real Hollywood mysteries – these and a dozen others that are more curiosity-pricking, more attention gripping, more imagination-rousing than any mere newspaper story of drunkenness, perversion and vice.

But the deepest Hollywood mystery of all, the one that has defied solution over the longest period, is this Mystery of the Vanishing Vampire – which is another way of saying that the rise and fall of Theda Bara – if, indeed there was a fall – is the most mystifying, perhaps because it is the most simple story of the screen.

Why did she quit.

It was unlikely, of course, that the woman in front of me would give me the answer to this question, even if she knew it,  But there was no harm in asking.

“That fact is,” she replied, “I was tired.  It amuses me to read of these present-day starring contracts calling for two or three pictures a year.  My output was seldom less than ten.”

I didn’t take much stock in this “tired” theory.  After all, strong, healthy, vital persons like Theda Bara don’t turn down two hundred and fifty thousand dollar bonuses because they are tired.  They simply take a hitch in their diamond and emerald stomachers and a shot of cod liver oil with their breakfasts and go out seeking new worlds to conquer.

There was, however, the more serious matter of Miss Bara’s eyes.  They are the kind that seem to look right through you.  On the screen they used to reach out into the last row and snare every living soul in the house.  But, as a matter of fact, she is today one of the blindest seeing persons I ever knew.

But she always has been – and to prove it, she fished out of her bag the tiniest of lorgnettes, and held them up to my perfectly good eyes.  The lenses, which she said had not been changed for years, were so strong, I couldn’t see anything through them – fairly good evidence that my hostess’s trouble with her eyes was due to just plain congenital nearsightedness and not to any sudden affliction of the Kleigs.

So I tried another tack.  Her retirement might have been a matter of increasing weight.  I didn’t raise the avoirdupois question that first evening.  But the next day at luncheon – well, one grows brave over a chicken patty and a brandied peach.

“Good, isn’t it?” she said, referring to the peach.

“Wonderful!”

“I have no use for people who don’t like food.  I enjoy it so much myself.”

This was my opportunity.

“Yes,” I ventured, “you manage to keep your -”

“My figure?  Yes, I have never had to worry about that except when I diet or exercise.  I remember once when I was making Salome, I thought I was a little too fat for the costumes – you remember they weren’t very concealing! – so I took a course of Dr. Somebody-or-other’s Reducing Exercises.  I gained twelve pounds!”

Miss Bara laughed as few professionals of my acquaintance are able to laugh at themselves.  She has a nice, detached view on the whole world, including the great screen vampires.

“Except for that one experience,” she concluded, “I have never weighed more than I do now – exactly one hundred and thirty-two pounds.”

[1] Carmen (Raoul Walsh, 1915)

[2] Madame Du Barry (J. Gordon Edwards, 1917)

[3] Her Double Life (J. Gordon Edwards, 1916)

[4] When a Woman Sins (J. Gordon Edwards, 1918)

[5] The She-Devil (J. Gordon Edwards, 1918)

[6] While it’s true to say that Bara played some classic roles during her career (such as Carmen, Cleopatra and Juliet), the number suggested here is rather stretching the truth.

Elvis Presley, Irving Berlin and White Christmas

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Sometimes a story is told so many times that we believe it without questioning it.  We’re all guilty of it – and it is particularly true when it comes to showbiz stories.  However, in 2015, some of these oft-told tales simply fall to bits thanks to the availability of primary documents such as newspapers, magazines and trade journals through online archives.   Take, for example, the story of Irving Berlin’s apparent anger towards, and hatred of, Elvis Presley’s recording of White Christmas in 1957.  We have been told many times over several decades that Berlin tried to get the recording banned and/or that he tried to persuade DJs not to play it.  But is it really true?

There are a number of myths told and retold about Elvis’s White Christmas recording.  The first of which is that it used the same arrangement as the recording by The Drifters a few years earlier.  While Elvis clearly models part of his vocal on the earlier version, the arrangements are far from the same.

The opening of the Drifters take on the song starts with backing vocals, whereas Elvis’s starts with a basic piano and guitar introduction. The backing vocals continue throughout The Drifters’ version, but Elvis opens the song without backing vocals at all, and the backing vocals on his recording are far more restrained than on The Drifters version. In fact, the work of the backing vocalists in the two versions are VERY different indeed.   In the first run-through of the song, Elvis sings the “may your days” section in a straightforward, traditional manner, but the Drifters do not – they sing this section in the same manner as Elvis’s repeat of this verse.  The Drifters repeat the entire song – Elvis only repeats the second half, this time employing a vocal line very similar to the Drifters.   The Drifters version contains other instruments, such as the use of an organ, for example, and their recording ends rather differently to Elvis’s too.   So, rather than Elvis copying The Drifters arrangement, he simply uses their vocal line for the repeat section.

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One story that certainly is true is that the Christmas album received largely negative reviews when it was released.   One writer in the Ottawa Citizen review called the album “a masterpiece of seasonal miscasting,” and that it was “ludicrous and pathetic.”  However, the interesting thing here is that the album isn’t given a poor review by this writer because he or she is shocked by Elvis, but quite the reverse.  “Most of the time,” the review reads, “he’s so hushfully reverent in his approach to these unfamiliar themes that he just isn’t there at all.”

Despite the review in the Ottawa Citizen, the album certainly fell foul of censorship, with certain radio stations banning the playing of the album totally, and others banning White Christmas in particular, with one radio station official in Canada referring to the LP as “degrading” in an interview with Variety on December 4, 1957.   At least one DJ was fired for breaking a ban on playing the album, according to reports (although even this is now debatable).

It is certainly true to say that there are many articles about the album in trade journals and both local and national newspapers in 1957.  So this, surely, is where we can find the first mention of Irving Berlin trying to get White Christmas banned?   No, is that answer to that.  In fact, the story doesn’t seem to appear at all anywhere until 1990 when Laurence Bergreen included the anecdote in his acclaimed biography of Irving Berlin, As Thousands Cheer.   There, we are told that, on hearing the recording for the first time, “he immediately ordered his staff to telephone radio stations across the country to ask them not to play this barbaric rock-and-roll version.”  In the notes for the book, Bergreen lists an interview with Walter Wager as the source of the information.  Wager was a novelist and, later, an executive of ASCAP – and yet there are questions raised here as to how Wager knew this information if he wasn’t with Berlin at the time – and there is no indication that he was.  In fact, this could easily have been a story that Berlin told to him at a later date, and that Wager then repeated in the late 1980s to Bergreen.

The story really entered the Elvis world in 1994 with the release of the CD If Every Day was Like Christmas.  Here, the story from the Berlin book is regurgitated in Charles Wolfe’s liner notes.  Since then, it has been taken as the truth – and why not?   There was nothing at the time to suggest that the story was false, exaggerated or inaccurate.  It has been repeated many times since then, most recently in the liner notes for the FTD edition of Elvis’ Christmas Album (written by Johnny Saulovich) and, yes I admit it, my own book Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide (none of us are infallible!).   We don’t question these stories until something suddenly makes it fall apart – and the thing that makes it fall apart is that there is no mention of it until 1990.

We live in a world now where there are many free online archives of newspapers and magazines, and even more that are not free or only available to researchers and academics.  This allows us to go back and see how things were reported at the time – and that’s exactly what I wanted to do about a year ago.  But there was a problem.  This story, in which one of the most respected songwriters of the 20th Century tried to ban a recording by the new sensation Elvis Presley, was nowhere to be found in these publications.  Not in Billboard or Variety, not in the New York Times or Washington Post, not in fan magazines, not in regional newspapers.   There was/is no logical reason why such a huge story would not have been reported in some (or all) of these publications – unless it never happened.   This would have been big news, and would have been picked up by the trade magazines and journals at the very least.  But there was nothing.  Until 1990.

The only source for the story is that interview with Walter Wager that Bergreen used for his book – every other retelling of the story stems from that, not from other witnesses or interviewees.  Sadly, it is a fact that interviewees are often unreliable, and this is something we are discovering more and more now that we can go back and check facts ourselves with relative ease.  Why would Wager twist, exaggerate or lie?  Sometimes, it appears that interviewees tells us what we want to hear, or memories are dimmed and foggy thirty years after the events.  Or perhaps Berlin told him the story and Wager was simply repeating it – and it was Berlin who was exaggerating or fabricating a good tale.  What is clear, however, is that Berlin never did set in motion an attempt to get the recording of his beloved White Christmas banned.

Perhaps there is a nugget of truth somewhere – that, perhaps, Berlin wanted to ring those radio stations but was advised against it, or he thought it would bring too much unwanted attention to the recording, or perhaps the royalty cheques were just too tempting.   We will never know the answers to these questions.  But, thanks to the ongoing digitisation of our recent past, we do know that neither Berlin or his staff made those calls.

Offenbach: Robinson Crusoe (opera)

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In  all my blog posts over the last couple of years, I don’t think I have ever written about opera.  However, a recent purchase on Ebay has prompted this little effort about a relatively unknown Offenbach work called Robinson Crusoe.

I first came across Robinson Crusoe when I was about thirteen or fourteen.  I had been reading the book around that time and had also been investigating the opera shelves in the audio section of my local library.  I had no idea when I borrowed the Opera Rara recording for the first time that this was some kind of rarity or obscure work.  Still, when I got home and listened to the records, I fell in love.  I’m not sure what it was in particular that was so attractive to me – perhaps because it was the accessibility of the music, or the fact it was sung in English, or the fine performances, or the booklet which told me that there was something of a detective story behind the way much of the music had been restored to its rightful place.  Whatever it was, the love affair with Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoe has turned out to be life-long.  I wasn’t familar with Offenbach’s other works at the time, and so was unaware that Robinson was, as Don White writes, the first time “the songs became arias” and the dialogue that filled so many of his earlier works became recitative.  What’s more, most earlier works had numbers that lasted just a couple of minutes, whereas Robinson has arias lasting more than five minutes, and duets lasting more than ten.

I borrowed the LP set so often from the local library that they eventually sold it to me (no-one else had borrowed it in four or five years prior to me), and this unusual decision on their part turned out to be an odd coincidence as the library burned down a few weeks later, and most of the audio library was lost.  Now, of course, we have Robinson Crusoe on CD, and the LPs sit on a shelf for much of the time (although I believe in this case the mastering of the LPs was better than the CDs).  Still, they remained a treasured possession.

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Fast forward to a week or so ago and, browsing through eBay, I find that there was another recording of Robinson Crusoe (see above pic) of the same translation, but recorded “privately” (I think that means bootleg!) in a 1973 live performance (several years before the Opera Rara recording).  After a few enquiries, I bought the set, intrigued at what differences there might be between the two recordings.   The most obvious difference is the quality of performance – despite featuring many of the same soloists, the 1973 performance is somewhat ragged around the edges in places, and sounds comparatively unrehearsed.

The most intriguing difference, though, is that the 1973 recording doesn’t include the sections that had been cut at various points over the previous hundred years.   This gives us a chance to hear how Robinson Crusoe had been heard in previous performances (which were few and far between).  The cuts – made by Offenbach in some cases – result in a far less satisfactory work.  While the uncut work is long, it is beautifully constructed (particularly acts 1 and 2) with a series of lengthy ensembles and duets that are far more Hoffmann than Orpheus.  In comparison, the edited version is choppy, with even some of the numbers that were retained being shortened.  Knowing the full version, it’s hard to imagine the piece without the With a Kiss duet, and heartbreaking to hear that audiences were deprived of about 50% of the Robinson/Edwige and Robinson/Friday duets in acts 1 and 2 respectively. Those of us that know Robinson Crusoe think highly of it, but I wonder if my view of it would be the same if the Opera Rara recording had not involved the restoration of the lost sections and I had been confronted with the uneven work that the edited version is/was.

Robinson Crusoe remains one of Offenbach’s greatest and yet most neglected works – rarely performed and, often, still edited heavily when it is.  The first two acts contain music that equals much of that in The Tales of Hoffmann, although it has to be said that the third act does tend to let the side down a little bit in that regard.  Hoffmann has always been, to me at least, a more worthwhile (and certainly more entertaining) effort than Die Rheinnixen.  We can only hope that, at some point in the near future, a major new production will be mounted – and that it retains all of the lost music found during the treasure-hunt prior to the Opera Rara recording and revival in the late 1970s.