Bobby Darin at 80: 10 Key Tracks

bobby judy

May 14, 2016 would have been the 80th birthday of Bobby Darin.   In celebration, here is a look at ten key (although not always obvious) recordings from the five hundred or so that Bobby made between 1956 and 1973.

Silly Willy (1956)

Some singers find their voice the very first time they set foot inside a recording studio, and record some of their greatest work during their early years.  Elvis Presley is probably the best example of this, recording the classic That’s All Right at his very first professional recording session.  This was not the case for Bobby Darin, however.  In fact, it was over two years after he entered a studio before he recorded his breakthrough single, Splish Splash.  Prior to that, Bobby seemed to be constantly in search of his own sound, with many of his early records adopting the styles and mannerisms of other singers of the period.  He needed something to make him stand out from the rest of the would-be pop stars trying to carve themselves a career in the mid-1950s, and that something was his own identity.  Nowhere is this more noticeable than during the eight sides he recorded during his short tenure with Decca.

Recorded at his first session was a song that saw Bobby turning his attention to the novelty rock ‘n’ roll material with which he would eventually find stardom.  Silly Willy is no Splish Splash, however.  Much of the problem with the song is the awkward transitions between the two different tempi and rhythms that the song employs.  It is a shame, for there is much to enjoy in Darin’s performance, but the various elements simply do not gel together in the way that they should.

Silly Willy is interesting, however, in that it provides us with our first audible clue that Bobby wanted to be more than just a pop singer.  The number has its roots in a 1920s risqué jazz number about a drug-addicted chimney sweeper called Willie the Weeper which, in turn, provided the inspiration for Minnie the Moocher, which Darin would record a few years later.  The lyrics of the first verse of Silly Willy and Willie the Weeper are so similar that it’s clear that Bobby knew the more obscure song and was drawing from that rather than the better known Minnie the Moocher.  The first verse of Willie the Weeper reads:

Have you heard the story, folks, of Willie the Weeper?/Willie’s occupation was a chimney sweeper/He had a dreamin’ habit, he had it kind of bad/Listen, let me tell you ’bout the dream he had.

Silly Willy barely changes the lyrics at all:

Listen to the story about Willy the Weeper/Willy the Weeper was a long time sleeper/He went to sleep one night and dreamed so bad/Now let me tell you about the dream that little Willy had.

What is remarkable here is not the fact that Bobby Darin “borrowed” lyrics from an older song (this was not a rare occurrence in pop music at the time), but that he knew the lyrics to Willie the Weeper at all.  Most of the well-known recordings, such as those by Louis Armstrong and George Lewis, were instrumentals – possibly with good reason due to the song’s repeated references to “dope” and taking “pills” – and so one has to wonder where Bobby heard the lyrics in the first place.  If nothing else, it shows just how wide his knowledge of popular music was even at the tender age of nineteen.

Softly as in a Morning Sunrise (1958)

Bobby struggled to find a breakthrough hit following his move to ATCO in 1957, but eventually made the big time with Splish Splash.  However, never one to rest on his laurels, he wanted to try new things and avoid being pigeon-holed as just another rock ‘n’ roll singer.  In late 1958 he recorded his That’s All album, which would feature the track which would become his signature song, Mack the Knife. 

On the same album was Softly as in a Morning Sunrise, taken from a 1920s operetta called The New Moon.  The treatment it receives here is raucous and brash, both in the arrangement and the singing, and it’s clear that the whole point is that it is going against how the song was originally conceived and normally performed (particularly within a vocal arrangement).

There is a possibility that Bobby got this idea from the 1954 Hollywood biopic of the song’s composer, Sigmund Romberg.  In Deep in my Heart (Stanley Donen), Romberg, played by José Ferrer, attends a show in which the song is being performed and is mortified at the up-tempo, crass arrangement of his beloved composition.  There is more than just this casual link between the two performances.  For example, towards the end of the song, Bobby changes the lyrics in exactly the same way as they are in the film sequence by repeating words:  “Softly, softly, as in an evening sunset, sunset.”  But he goes yet further, breaking the “fourth wall” and talking to arranger/conductor Richard Wess, telling him “the title of this tune is Softly, so can we do it that way please?”  He then proceeds to sing it louder than ever.  It’s a brash and cocky move, totally breaking with convention, and the kind of thing which separates him from Sinatra, who treated his material somewhat more reverently.

Sinatra did come close, however, on the rarely heard attempt-at-a-hit Ya Better Stop, recorded in 1954, in which he shouts as the song starts to fade: “Oh here now, this ain’t gonna be another of those fade-away records.  Get your grimy hand off that dial, man!”  The chief difference here is that Sinatra waits until the song is over before his interjection, whereas Darin is making out that he has almost no regard for the song itself in the way it was originally intended.  That, no doubt, was not the case, but Romberg was probably turning in his grave despite the fact that Bobby had just exposed his relatively obscure song to a new generation. Ya Better Stop remained unreleased until 1978, nearly twenty years after Bobby’s recording of Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.

Milord (1960)

Bobby wasn’t just recording in different genres, he was now recording in different languages!  Only one song appears to have been recorded at the session on June 20, 1960, in New York, but it’s a Darin classic, albeit one that is not particularly well-known.  A year earlier, Bobby had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on the same bill as Edith Piaf, and here he takes one of her signature songs and turns it into a tour-de-force.

Milord is one of Bobby’s most infectious recordings, and there are few recordings within the Darin legacy where his enjoyment of singing a particular song jumps out of every groove as much as it does here.   He sings the entire number in the original French, although he changes a few words to account for the song being sung by a man instead of a woman.  There is a Gallic element to the orchestration thanks to the use of the accordion, but the arrangement gains momentum with each verse, until Darin lets loose completely during the instrumental, singing along and clearly having a ball.  The only fault, perhaps, is that it’s all over in two minutes – but what a great two minutes!

Despite the wonderful singing and arrangement, ATCO clearly didn’t quite know what to do with a song sung completely in French, and it languished in their vaults for four years before they released it as a single, reaching #45 in the U.S. charts during a period where Darin was having something of a lull when it came to chart success.  The Daily Mirror in the U.K. called the release “interesting, but I can’t see it tearing the charts apart.” Likewise, the Australian press weren’t too excited either, saying “as great an entertainer as Darin is, he doesn’t inject into the number the mood and feeling that Piaf did.”

It’s hard to tell what the critics were listening to, but it certainly didn’t seem to be Bobby’s version of Milord.

I Got a Woman (1961)

Darin had already recorded I Got a Woman at the jazz combo sessions nearly two years earlier that had produced the Winners album (that version remains unreleased), and also for the Darin at the Copa album.  However, he tackled it again for his Bobby Darin sings Ray Charles LP – for a whole six and a half minutes.  The song starts off in normal fashion, but then Bobby keeps the “alright” ending of the song going for over three minutes despite it being basically the same line repeated over and over again.  This is Darin at his most self-indulgent, and yet there is still a point to it, for he finds almost every possible variation of singing that line during this extended coda which listeners are going to love or tire of quickly and simply hit the “next” button on the remote control.  There is also a rawness here, particularly with this song.  During the main section, he reaches for notes and misses them, but it doesn’t matter – Darin is showing us that this music is all about “feel” and not about technical perfection, and he hits that message home time and again during the course of the album.

I’m on My Way, Great God (1962)

In July 1962, Bobby started work on his first album of folk songs.  Earthy wouldn’t simply tap into the then-current vogue for folk music, though, but would instead pull together both traditional songs from around the globe as well as newer compositions written by the likes of Tom Paxton.

I’m on My Way Great God is the first of the spiritual/gospel songs on the album, and it is quite an epic.  It starts off with minimal instrumentation, with the arrangement growing subtly with each subsequent verse.  The song also utilises a choir, but here they are not at all intrusive in the way that they are on the big band album recorded during the same series of sessions.  It’s interesting to note just how controlled Darin’s vocal is, starting off at barely a whisper, and then slowly but surely getting more and more powerful over the four-and-a-half minute running time.  Bobby, no doubt, was aware he had a showstopper on his hands, and included the number in the folk section of his live concerts through 1963 as well as when he appeared on The Judy Garland Show filmed just days after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Gyp the Cat (1964/5)

In 1964, Bobby couldn’t get a hit record for love nor money.  In September 1964, he made his first attempt at recording his own composition Gyp the Cat, a clever pastiche of Mack the Knife, this time about a thief, and using a similar melody to the Kurt Weill song.  As with Mack the Knife, the song tells a story, and the arrangement works in the same way, with it gaining in intensity with each successive verse.  It’s a lighter affair lyrically, with a nice twist in the final verse, and would have been a better choice of single than Hello Dolly which was released instead.  Despite the British Invasion, there was clearly still a place in the singles charts for this type of material, as Armstrong’s Hello Dolly and the Darin-produced Wayne Newton hit Danke Schoen had shown.  The 1964 version of Gyp the Cat remained unissued until thirty-odd years later, with a 1965 recording of the same song issued as a B-side.  It was something of a waste of a fun Darin original, in his signature style, and showing that he could poke fun at himself through a pastiche of his earlier hit.

We Didn’t Ask to Be Brought Here (1965)

We Didn’t Ask to be Brought Here (recorded just after he returned to Atlantic in 1965) was a fine, adult, contemporary pop song with a clear message and, as such, was Darin’s first overtly political single.  While there were no specifics mentioned within the song, it would have been clear to listeners at the time that the song was referring to events such as the Vietnam War and the Cold War when he sings “the world’s gone mad.”  Billboard called the single “his greatest chance for the charts since Mack the Knife.  In the current commercial protest vein, he excels with his own composition backed by a hard driving dance beat.”  Sadly, very few got to hear it, and the single sank almost with trace.  One has to wonder if both Darin and the advertisements for the song had something to do with it.  An original advert is shown in Jeff Bleiel’s book, That’s All, and tells the reader that the song has a “great message” but then has a picture of Darin in a suit and tie – hardly the image associated with someone singing a protest song in 1965. The image and the content were simply an anachronism.

If I Were a Carpenter (1966)

Bobby Darin told many times in concert a humorous story of how a couple of agents came to see him in 1965 or 1966 and offered him songs by the likes of John Sebastian and Tim Hardin that he rejected and that went on to become hits.  Quite how much of the story is true is debatable, although it was no doubt at least partly based in fact, even if it had been somewhat embellished.  “When they came to me the next time, I was lying in wait for them,” he told an audience in 1973, and the song he ended up recording was If I Were a Carpenter, a number which would introduce yet another phase in the career of Bobby Darin.

Despite the fact that Darin spent time trying to ease the rumours that Tim Hardin was annoyed at him “stealing his song,” the original stories still make for good copy.  Fred Dellar, in the liner notes for the CD release of the If I Were a Carpenter album, repeats the story that Hardin was “incensed” that Darin had “copied Hardin’s own vocal approach.”  He even quotes Hardin as saying “he played my version through his headphones, so that he could copy my phrasing.”  While Darin was clearly inspired and influenced by the original Tim Hardin demo, he certainly wasn’t listening to it through headphones when he recorded the song as he makes a number of small, but not unimportant, changes to both the melody and the timing.  The bridge section, for example, is sung faster in Hardin’s version, but in tempo in Bobby’s.  Meanwhile, certain notes are exchanged for others in Darin’s rendition, particularly in the second verse where this happens on multiple lines.  Finally, Bobby’s vocal is far more intimate, more delicate, than Hardin’s.  Somehow, from somewhere, he had found yet another new voice that had only ever been hinted at over the previous decade.

Me and Mr. Hohner (1969)

In 1968, Bobby moved away from traditional record labels and set up his own:  Direction, where he would spend the next two years recording songs of protest and social commentary.  Darin’s second album for the label opens with Me and Mr. Hohner, and finds Darin talking, almost rapping, the lyrics, producing a sound that was considerably ahead of its time.  At face value, this is a song about police harassment in general, but the references to “South Philly” at the end of each verse makes it clear that this is Darin’s view of Frank Rizzo, who was Police Commissioner in Philadelphia at the time.  His obituary in the New York Times states that Rizzo was often viewed as a “barely educated former police officer who used a hard line and tactics bordering on dictatorial to suppress opposition and keep blacks out of middle-class neighborhoods.”  The 1991 article goes on to say that “Mr. Rizzo personally led Saturday-night round-ups of homosexuals and staged a series of raids on coffee houses and cafes – saying they were drug dens.”  This, together with the multiple charges against Rizzo (all of which were dropped) regarding the beating of suspects, fits in with the picture the song paints of a young man and his harmonica “not doing nothing to no-one/When a squad car stops and out jumps cops/‘You’re one of them if I ever saw one’” and the fear at the end of each verse of getting a beating.

The track is brilliantly executed, with a fine production and Darin’s vocal sounding completely natural despite the nature of it.  Billboard called it “another strong message lyric set to an infectious beat [with a] top arrangement and vocal workout.”  Later in the year, Variety stated that Bobby was told he couldn’t sing the song during his appearance on This is Tom Jones (he sang Distractions instead).

Happy (1972)

Finally, we come to Bobby’s last single, which was released in December 1972.  The effect of television appearances could be seen when Happy was sang twice on Darin’s TV series in early 1973, and the song went on to reach #67 in the US charts.  That may not sound much, but it was his highest charting single since The Lady Came from Baltimore in 1966, and his first to chart at all since 1969.  Happy is subtitled Love Theme from Lady Sings the Blues, but this is a little confusing.  The song itself never appeared in the film sung by anyone.  Indeed, it hadn’t even been written at the time of the film’s release.  Instead, the song simply borrows a melody from the incidental music in the film and adds lyrics to it – much like Somewhere My Love (Doctor Zhivago) or Stella By Starlight (The Uninvited).

Darin turns the song into an epic.  There is a huge orchestral arrangement but, even when the full force of the band is heard during the bridge section, Bobby shows that he can compete and he belts out this section before turning on a dime to a much softer voice for the end of the vocal.  The single clocks in at just under four minutes, but the version released on LP is two minutes longer, although Darin doesn’t sing a single note extra.  Instead, the extra two minutes are an extended orchestral outro, with backing vocals at the very end adding a gospel feel to the proceedings.  The number and production were atypical Darin, but show that Bobby could still deliver even this late in the game.  Billboard called the single “one of Darin’s finest performances on record.”

(Bobby Darin: A Listener’s Guide is available in Kindle and paperback format from Amazon)

 

Noah’s Ark (1928)

tumblr_nc536fMbj21qazanuo1_1280

Director:  Michael Curtiz
Starring: George O’Brien, Dolores Costello
Duration: 133 minutes
Availability: Released as burn-on-demand disc by Warner Archives (Region 1)

Noah’s Ark isn’t quite the biblical epic you might expect it to be, not least because most of it is set during World War I!  For the first hour or so this is a relatively straightforward war film.  However, following an explosion, a number of characters find themselves trapped underground, which is the cue for a religious minister to read to his captive audience the story of Noah’s Ark, which takes up much of the second half of the film.

In the World War I section, George O’Brien and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams (we won’t ask how he got that nickname) play two friends, Travis and Al, who find themselves in a train wreck on the night that war is declared.  They rescue a young German girl and take shelter just over the French border.  When the news reaches them that war has been declared, they take a horse and cart and escape into the night before the authorities reach them.  The narrative takes a number of unlikely twists and turns, but suffice to say that Travis marries the girl, who persuades everyone that she is American as she happens to speak English perfectly (very convenient), but Travis is made to feel guilty by Al for not helping in the war effort when Al joins up.  The (relatively small) part of the film which tells the story of Noah’s Ark itself finds the same actors playing similar roles to those in the modern day story, thus helping the audience to draw parallels between the two narratives.

The film works much better in the modern day sequences.  The story here is more compelling because, unlike the biblical narrative, we don’t know how it is going to end.  It relies a great deal on coincidence, but we care enough about the characters that it really doesn’t matter, and we are happy to just sit back and go along for the ride.  That said, the biblical section contains some great set-pieces, most notably the terrifying flood itself, and the costumes are also noteworthy – or the lack of costume in the case of George O’Brien who, as usual, takes time to show off a body that most of us can ever dream of!

The sound sequences haven’t fared as well, but must have been a logical idea at the time, as Hollywood quickly moved from silent to sound film.   This was a prestigious production, and costly in more ways than one: it is said that three people lost their lives during the filming of the flood scenes, although this remains unverified and may well have just been a story concocted as publicity.  Eighty-eight years after it was made, it remains remarkably good entertainment, and a good example of a film that you quickly forget is silent.

Michael Curtiz, who directed the film, was the directing equivalent of a chameleon, and during his fifty-year career was willing and able to direct practically anything that was thrown at him.  He directed one of the great horror films of the 1930s, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, and also one of the great adventure movies of all time, The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn.  A few years later, he directed the classic romantic drama Casablanca, and in the 1950s turned his hand to musicals as different as White Christmas and King Creole, the latter starring Elvis Presley.

1928-Noahs-Ark-resting-place

Carol Dempster: The Gentle Gypsy (1926 article)

 

 

carol dempster

The Gentle Gypsy

Author: Gladys Hall

 (Motion Picture Classic: October, 1926)

“The Perfect Life…” we said to Carol, “what is your idea of it?  The life above all other lives you would like to live if you could wave a magic wand, say Abracadabra and presto, have it so?”

“If I had been a boy,” said Carol, “and I wish I had been a boy…I should like to have been a vagabond.  A gypsy.  A sailor sailing the Seven Seas.  I should like to have tramped the earth, to have slept under sun and stars.  I should like to have touched at strange ports…to have stayed in them just so long as I found color there.  Romance.  Adventure….then sailed on again…questing…seeking…working my way, if necessary…with just enough money to get from place to place… It seems to me that would be living at the quick of life.  Really living, you know.

“So few people really live.  So very few really live their own lives.  They live the lives of dozens of other people.  They are circumscribed by this and that, caged, hemmed in, forced to do the thing they really don’t want to do, doing it gracefully or ungracefully as they happen to be.   Poor things, most of them do it all gracefully.  After awhile they don’t care.  After awhile they become superficially content.  That is the saddest time of all.

“For me, the Perfect Life would be the life of a vagabond…roving…roaming…”

 Would Live a Man’s Life

The place was Sherry’s.  The hour was the tea-hour.  The atmosphere was one of head-waitered and hushed conventionality.  Well-groomed women sat to left and to right of us, imbibing lemon-tinted tea and nibbling at pastried flakes with well-bred indifference.  Carol herself, in dove gray, her gentle face musing, her clear eyes fired with dreams of the venturesome Might-Have-Been…if she had been a boy, with the heart of a vagabond.

We feel, now, that we did Carol some sort of injustice.  We don’t know what kind of injustice, but some kind, we are sure.  For we thought that she would say, demurely, “I should like a little rose-vined cottage in the country, with baby faces at the windows and a cow browsing in an adjacent meadow…”  Or that she would say, intelligently, as her contemporaries have impressively said before her, “I should like best of all a life of study and meditation…a life among my books.”  Or, possibly, “I live but for my Art…I wish to give to the world a Masterpiece…”

But she didn’t.  The gentle gypsy, toying with lobster salad, and fresh from The Sorrows of Satan, bespoke a life of vagabondage, a gypsy life, a man’s life…hardy and adventuresome and free….

“But as you were not born a boy,” we persisted, never knowing when to let well enough alone, “as you have to be a girl in this incarnation at rate, what then?”

“I’d still like best of all to be a vagabond,” smiled Carol.  “I suppose I’m not inherently domestic.  Not yet at any rate.  I wouldn’t want to do anything unconventional, however, being a girl.  I’m no an admirer of unconventionality.  It’s usually a pose – or worse.  But if I could, even being a girl, I’d love to be a vagabond…”

Just a Care-Free Girl

“I seem to have no possessive instinct.  I mean, I don’t care a bit about having things.  I head girls say ‘Oh, I’d give my life to have this…or that…’  I never feel like that.  I’m not crazy about clothes.  I don’t care a bit about jewels.  I haven’t the slightest desire to own cars or houses or anything concrete.  That may be a part of my vagabonding instinct.  Perhaps it is.  The thought of owning things, possessing things, tires me.  Bores me.  The fewer possessions I have to think about, the more care-free I feel.  I never want to have anything really desperately.  The instinct of possession is simply left out of me…”

 Romantic Musings

“I think The Sorrows of Satan will be a great picture.  I’ve seen some of the rushes and it looks wonderful.  I’m extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to play in it.  Ricardo Cortez does the most splendid work…I don’t think he’s ever touched this standard before…and Mr. Menjou is marvellous, of course.  He is, too, very lovely to work with.”

“What do you think about Platonic friendship?” we asked.  “We talked to John Gilbert on the subject quite a while ago, and he said that such a state is not possible between an attractive, unattached man and an equally attractive, unattached woman.”

“I’m not qualified to speak in the way Mr. Gilbert is,” Carol said.  “I never like to make a definite answer to any broad question, because I feel that I don’t know.

“Life changes so.  People change so.  What is true for you today is not true for you today.

“Besides, I’ve had so very little experience in the – well, the romantic way.  I really feel unable to speak on that subject.  But I don’t know why there shouldn’t be Platonic friendships between men and women.  I can’t imagine any good reason why not.  After all, every man doesn’t fall in love with every woman, nor every woman with every man.  That element doesn’t always enter in, I’m sure.  I know quite a few men I enjoy talking with, but wouldn’t even think of falling in love with.  I’ll have to wait, tho, to deliver my final pronunciamento (sic) on that score.”

Her Secret of Happiness

“I’ve bought a little farm up in the country…outside of Brewster, New York.  It’s an old house with old things in it…big trees…a swimming hole…I’m going up to it when I’m not working.  When I am working I’ll live in hotels…Perhaps when I retire from the screen I’ll live there permanently…unless I go a-vagabonding…I’d rather like to retire in about two years.  I know no one ever has retired when they have said they would – but I hope I do.  I think it’s such a sad mistake to linger on after your pinnacle is reached.  It’s a form of death and I am too keen about living…

“Then, perhaps, I might marry…have children…I realize that, for a woman, is the only real life, the only satisfactory life, especially after your first youth is gone.  It’s a matter of making choices, always, isn’t it?  We usually want two things very much.  To do two things.  We’ve got to take one or the other, never both.  Alternatives.  I think I’m a bit of a fatalist.  I believe in living each day as it comes along…doing the best you can…waiting for the next day to turn up.  It seems to me that that is about all a person can do, really.  If we plan – well, most of us know what becomes of plans.”

Obeys Her Hunches

“If I have one talent about another, it’s that of being instinctive.  Or, in the vernacular, I have ‘hunches’.  If I obey my hunches I come out all right.  If I dont (sic) – the reverse.  Even in the smallest matters…I’ve come to trust my hunches…”

*

Over the last year or two I have been slowly working on editing together a collection of vintage articles from fan magazines and newspapers of the 1910s and 1920s that are written by – or interviews with – silent film personalities.  It’s been an on/off affair, and there was one point when I abandoned the idea completely and so published a handful on this blog.  But now it’s all but finished, and the final product (in paperback and Kindle format) will have twenty-five articles in total, covering eight stars/directors: Renee Adoree, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, F. W. Murnau, and Jack Pickford.  The hope is that further volumes will follow, but we shall see how it goes.

The above Carol Dempster article was intended for the project, but ultimately hasn’t made the grade.  As it was already typed up, I thought I would share it here.

NEW BOOK: THE LOOKOUT

LOOKOUT COVER 6

My new novel, a ghost story entitled The Lookout, is now available in both paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon.

1945. Michael Hamilton, a young soldier wounded during the Second World War, goes to The Lookout, a house on the Norfolk coast owned by his Grandfather, in order to recuperate. He shares the house with Anna and her son, Peter, distant cousins who are living there after their house was bombed a few years earlier. But all is not as it seems at The Lookout or in the nearby village. Recent tragedies involving the village’s children has everyone on edge, and Michael inadvertently finds himself at the centre of the mystery. He sets about looking for answers at the same time as unexpectedly finding himself attracted to Peter.

203 pages.

Homevideo (2011)

homevideo 2

A few years ago, I wrote and published a young adult novel, Breaking Point, about homophobic bullying in schools.  The first section of the book deals with an incident in which the bully videos his victim as he is stripped and thrown into the showers in the changing rooms, and how that video makes its way around the school.  In Breaking Point, the incident is just one of many problems facing the victim, but in the film Homevideo (Germany, 2011), this kind of event is fully explored and is extended to make a ninety minute film.

The set-up in Homevideo is slightly different.  Here, Jakob (played by Deutschland 83‘s Jonas Nay) records himself masturbating, but then his mother inadvertently lends out the video camera (complete with the memory card) and the footage ends up in the wrong hands.  Before long, the footage is circulated online, and Jakob is both ridiculed and ostracised.   Interestingly, in the same year, another film, The Suicide Room, a Polish film, also dealt with cyber bullying, this time with video footage of a dare in which two male teens kiss at a party being circulated.  While both films deal well with their subject matter, Homevideo tells its story in a much more traditional manner and, while I like The Suicide Room, it is probably the better film because of it.

Unlike my own book and The Suicide RoomHomevideo is not about gay teenagers or homophobic bullying, although there is a short, undeveloped scene in which it is intimated that one of the two boys behind the video going online might be turned on by it.  However, Jakob is a shy, somewhat socially awkward teenager as is the case in the other two stories as well.  One wonders how the story might have been different if this was not the case – what if the boy at the centre of the story was one of the most popular kids in school?  Would the effects be the same?  And, if not, what would they be?   Jakob’s story is also complicated by the break-up of his parents’ marriage at the same time, with his mother moving out to live with her female lover.

Homevideo-9

Jonas Nay, looking even more young and innocent than in the recent hit series Deutschland 83, puts in a fine performance as Jakob, and ultimately holds the film together, appearing in most scenes.  He has the difficult job of making a withdrawn, sometimes exasperating, and certainly complex, character likeable.  However, the script here also deserves a special mention, dealing with its subject without lecturing its audience about the evils of the internet and making its characters fully-rounded and believable.  What perhaps is most important here is that the film (along with The Suicide Room) highlights the kind of bullying that can’t be easily stopped or even easily identified.  It is also bullying by humiliation, and therefore rarely talked about by victims until things reach breaking point.

The sad thing about the film is its lack of availability to a non-German speaking audience.  The only DVD available is in German (as you would expect), but without foreign language subtitles – although the tech-savvy can buy the DVD and pair it up with the non-professional English subtitles that are lurking around in the corners of the internet and, in this case, are more than competent.  But its lack of availability is a shame, for this is a fine film and, as with The Suicide Room, deserves to be widely seen.  Maybe with Jonas Nay now becoming known outside Germany, an English  release of Homevideo may follow.

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)

murnau

 

“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

Bobby new york

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.