Offenbach: Robinson Crusoe (opera)


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.


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.

Crime and Punishment, U.S.A. (1959)


One of the greatest things about the Warner Archives series is that it encourages film fans to take another look at films that aren’t talked about a great deal and yet can still entertain and pack a punch just as well as their better-known counterparts.  Crime and Punishment, U.S.A. is a case in point.

Starring George Hamilton, the films takes Dostoevsky’s classic tale and transplants it in America in the late 1950s in what is a rather loose adaptation.  Hamilton, in his first film role, plays Robert Cole, a young law student who murders a woman and then finds it difficult to deal with the consequences – both the suspicion towards him from the police and his own conscience.

It’s all been done before, of course, and since, and yet this take on the story manages to be entertaining, and Hamilton’s performance is almost hypnotic.  Somehow, he manages to take what should be a highly unlikeable character and makes the audience care about him.  We know early on, from when he tries to help a man having a heart attack, that he has redeeming features, for example.  In some ways, he’s just yet another “mixed up kid” from the 1950s that could have been played by James Dean, Sal Mineo, James MacArthur or any number of other young actors of the decade.  And yet there is something more going on.  This is, more than anything, a character study – there really isn’t much story going on as such – and Hamilton manages to make his character believable.  Sure, there are times when he appears to overact, but for a first film role his performance is impressive, and Hamilton won a Golden Globe for most promising newcomer for his efforts.


This was Denis Sanders’ first feature film as director, and he comes across as a talented thirty year old here.  There are some sequences that look a little cliched, but others have an urgency and vibrancy which don’t reflect his relative lack of experience.   However, he had already won an Academy Award five years earlier for the short film A Time Out of War, and so his talent was never really in question.  But, despite another Oscar for a later documentary, Sanders never seemed to fulfil his potential.  Crime and Punishment should have been the start of a fine career in film, and yet odd to a slightly bizarre resume, often with several years between projects and jumping from feature films to documentaries to TV episodes with little rhyme or reason.  Perhaps he is best known now for the cult film Shock Corridor and the documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is.  I confess I haven’t seen Shock Corridor in a number of years, but one watches That’s the Way It Is and wonders what happened to all the promise shown in his first feature film ten years earlier.  The Elvis documentary is well-regarded because of Elvis’s fine performances, but not for Sanders’ pedestrian direction or the the sometimes sloppy editing.

Oddly, though, if Sanders never fulfilled his potential, neither did Hamilton.  Despite his fine performance here, he never really hit A-list status in Hollywood and, looks and talent notwithstanding, by the mid-60s he had drifted into television work and, for the most part, continues to work in that medium today.

Elvis at 80

elvis gun

As the year in which Elvis Presley would have turned 80 draws to a close, perhaps it is a good time to look back at what has been, by and large, a year not just of disappointment, but also of comparative disaster – and all due to Presley’s own music label.

It is certainly true to say that Elvis’s popularity has taken something of a tumble over the last ten years or so.  The early 2000s saw the success of the remix of A Little Less Conversation, the release and commercial success of the greatest hits collection Elv1s (and its sequels), as well as what remains the ultimate release of the Aloha from Hawaii and 68 Comeback TV shows on DVD.  And all of that is without factoring in over a dozen re-release singles reaching the top 5 in the UK in 2005 and roughly the same amount reaching the top 20 in 2007.  After that, however, popularity amongst the general public seemed to wane – it was due to an infectious disease called Presleyitis which is more often than not caused by a record label releasing so many inane and bland items aimed at the general public that they no longer give a damn.

What do I mean by that?  Well, as of 2015, if you go onto Amazon you can have Prime delivery on brand new, unopened copies of around 100 different CD Elvis compilations issued by his own record company – that’s not including the public domain releases.  By compilations, I don’t mean products such as FTDs or the Legacy Edition series, but hits compilations, rock compilations, country compilations, gospel compilations, and our old favourite, Christmas compilations!  100.  And people thought Elvis’s catalogue was a mess in the 1980s!

Meanwhile, the last few years have brought us a series of “Legacy Edition” titles that have nothing in common with Legacy Edition titles by other artists but are, instead, two albums shoved on a double CD with a few singles from the period thrown in.  We also have the Original Album series of 3 or 5 disc boxed sets of original albums.  Again, with other artists these are just fine – nice, budget reissues.  With Elvis, however, we have one set with the same album included twice, one dedicated to movie soundtracks that also includes Pot Luck, and one that includes Viva Las Vegas, which was never an original album in the first place.  Speaking of soundtracks, the 20CD soundtrack box from a year or so ago was a nice idea, but ended up with songs being listed but missed off the CD, incorrect artwork, and other errors.

So, all in all, 2015, the year of Elvis’s 80th birthday didn’t have much to live up to – and could only be an improvement.  Right?  Wrong!

It all started ominously with the Elvis80 release in Germany, which was basically a double CD greatest hits release (because the public really needed another one of those) with a third disc that included such tasty treats as There Ain’t Nothin’ Like a Song and a remix of Shake That Tambourine which somehow turned out to be more embarrassing than the original version.  Oh yeah, and a duet on Love Me Tender with someone we’ve never heard of.

Then came the news that the world had been waiting for – a Legacy Edition release of the Today album.  Now, don’t get me wrong I actually really like the Today LP – but with Legacy Editions supposedly reserved for an artist’s best work, it hardly fit the bill.  And, to make matters even more strange, Sony went back to the original soundboard tapes of some 1975 concerts and reconstructed from scratch, and remastered, a concert released in 1980 that was in itself reconstructed.  They took the time to do this, but on FTD (the collector’s label dedicated to Elvis) they released some historically important concerts from 1956 and 1961 without even trying to improve the sound that had been achieved in 1998 – which in itself wasn’t an improvement on the release from 1980 and 1984.

But still fans held their breath, because they knew there was something coming that would “make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.”  They weren’t kidding.  The culmination of this wonderful year of celebration by Sony turned out to be the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra overdubbed on to Elvis recordings.  Wow.  Just what we always wanted or, in Priscilla’s words, “just what Elvis would have wanted.”

Whoever came up with the idea deserves medals for both blandness and stupidity.  It is not possible to hear what Elvis would have sounded like with a symphony orchestra by placing one on top of his vocals.  If he had recorded In the Ghetto with the RPO he would not have used the same vocal phrasings and techniques that he did with just his core group back in 1969.  The vocal performance would have been very different indeed.  This should not be hard to figure out – well, you’d think, anyway.

And so what happened?  Well, someone arranged the new backings – quite what they were smoking when they were doing so is a mystery, as some sound less like they belong on an Elvis record and more like they’re channelling Debussy and Ravel…while Elvis sings Steamroller Blues, no less. Elvis’s voice on the new album might be crystal clear, but the new backings draw attention to themselves from the opening scratching strings on Burning Love to the closing notes of If I Can Dream.  The most horrendous thing about the entire project is that it wasn’t released quietly.  Oh, no, Elvis’s widow – sorry, ex-wife (it’s easy to get confused) – appeared on talk show after talk show in the UK, Sony publicised the release like mad, and the public went out and bought it, making it #1 in the charts.

This is the worst possible result of such an endeavour.  Firstly, it encourages Sony to make more bizarre, boring and bland releases such as this, and, secondly, it means that those who bought it and were buying their first Elvis album are now unlikely to buy another one.  Ever.  The album succeeds in not just being ludicrous and dull (quite an achievement), but it also even manages to make Elvis’s vocal sound worse than it did to start with on occasion.  Just check out What Now My Love.  The RPO arrangement is bizarre, and Elvis sounds awful.  Double whammy.

And that’s it, folks.  In a year when Sony should have been working like hell to release something wondrous on the back of the publicity created by Elvis’s 80th birthday, they provide us with a year bookended by utter crap releases, with a bit of unassuming country music that no-one really cares about in the middle.  Elvis’s 80th birthday year should have been the moment when Elvis rose in stature once more.  Sony will, of course, say that he did, because cash-tills were ringing and the album was a commercial success.  But at what cost?

Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide is available through all Amazon stores. 

The Haunted Palace (1963)


It’s common knowledge that Roger Corman’s 1963 film of “Edgar Allan Poe’s” The Haunted Palace is not really based on Poe’s poem at all but an H. P Lovecraft story entitled The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.  Corman tells us in an interview on the DVD release that, after directing several Poe films, he simply wanted to change things up a little.  However, there is relatively little that is different about this film from the previous Poe adaptations, but this is a case of “more of the same.”  With the emphasis on “more.”

There is more of almost everything here than in the other films of the cycle.  Firstly we have Vincent Price in not one but two roles, and giving perhaps his best performance in the whole series.  There are times, sure, where he eats up and spits out the scenery with gusto, but also moments (thanks to his dual character) where we see subtleties in his performance that are not present elsewhere.  There are moments of genuine tenderness between him and Debra Paget, as well as times when he appears to be the personification of pure evil.  We’re used to seeing the latter, the but former comes as something of a surprise.

The visual aspects of horror are increased here.  While the film isn’t gory as such, we see a number of people burned to death, as well as getting more than a glimpse of the “mutants” of the village, and whatever that “thing” is lurking underneath the palace – and here Corman breaks that golden rule of never showing your monster if you have a low budget.  A blurred image doesn’t make it look any more real.  There are, of course, some visually horrific elements to other films in the series, but they are normally resigned to thrilling set-pieces such as the climax of The Pit and the Pendulum and not to effects through make-up or photography.

There is also more music here, and the soundtrack by Ronald Stein is both stunning and beautiful and, hearing it away from the visuals, one might be forgiven for thinking it was written more for a 1940s melodrama than for a 1960s horror movie.  What this lush score does is complement, and yet draw attention to, the grandeur of the palace itself.  Looking at the cinematography, and the way the set is presented, it is difficult to remember that this is still film-making on a budget.  It seems as if with each film in the series, Corman was getting more and more confident, and managing to achieve a more luxurious look to his film, and this seems to reach a peak here, although many view Masque of the Red Death, which followed, as a better film.

For me, both The Masque of the Red Death and The Haunted Palace fall down slightly because of their longer running times – yet another example of “more.”  While The Haunted Palace is beautifully done, and well-acted, it does seem to outstay its welcome by around a quarter of an hour or so.  Part of the reason for this is due to the repetition within the film.  There are only so many times that Ward/Curwen can decide to leave the palace and the village and then decide to stay again, and this recurring issue seems only to prolong the film rather than make it better.

Perhaps this is why, despite everything I have written above, I just can’t warm to it like I can some of the earlier films in the series.  The other films may not have been so sumptuous as The Haunted Palace, or as well acted, but there were also never sections where they were seemingly being artificially extended.  There is a sense here that the notion of making something of quality from a low budget has gone just that little bit too far towards a real quality picture – a bigger budget literary adaptation – and I’m not sure that’s what audiences want(ed) from a Corman/Poe/Price horror movie.

Otra Vuelta de Tuerca (Turn of the Screw) (1985)

Otra 2

Eloy de la Iglesia’s 1985 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, Otra Vuelta de Tuerca, is almost forgotten today, and about as difficult to find as two critics who agree on the meaning of Henry James’s novella.   The print of the film that is surreptitiously passed from collector to collector over the internet comes from a rare TV screening with home-made subtitles added.  Despite the occasional drop out in picture and/or sound, it is seemingly the only version out there in circulation, and so rather precious.

Not only is the film largely unknown, but so is de la Iglesia himself.  Perhaps his best known works outside Spain are Forbidden Love Games (1975) and Murder in a Blue World (1976).  Both are rather over-the-top dramas with more than a dash of exploitation movie thrown in for good measure.   A handful of de la Iglesia’s late 1970s and early 1980s queer dramas were released in America on DVD at one point, but from poor quality prints, with even poorer subtitling, and have long been out of print.  His adaptation of The Turn of the Screw seems to be a mix of his two earlier styles – thoughtful drama mixed with elements of sex and sexuality.


This 1985 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw borrows a great deal from The Innocents, as perhaps would be expected.  However, some significant changes are made.  Firstly, the governess at the centre of the story is now a male school master and, secondly, the children are portrayed as older than in the previous, acclaimed adaptation.  Asier Hernández was fourteen when he played Mikel (Miles in the original) in the film (and looks older), whereas Martin Stephens was twelve in the 1961 version.

The change in gender within the central role is key to de la Iglesia’s vision – the repressed sexuality in the first film is now repressed homosexuality, and the back story involving the teacher having recently failed to become a priest only encourages that reading.  The older age of Mikel provides added threat to the naïve and out-of-his-depth teacher, with him seemingly attempting to seduce the teacher at every opportunity, but in a way that appears to be more plausible than in the earlier film.  However, as with the ghosts themselves, is this “seduction” all in the mind of the teacher or actually happening?  By the end of the film, the viewer is not any clearer, but that’s hardly surprising in an adaptation of James’s tale.


What is perhaps most surprising here, especially to those who have seen the director’s other work, is how low key the film is.  While not as subtle as The Innocents, de la Iglesia takes his film at a stately pace and avoids the pitfalls of trying to scare the viewer – or shock them.  We find out even less about Quint and Miss Jessel here than in other adaptations, and certainly know very little about their supposed corruption of the children.  Despite his early work involving elements of exploitation cinema, de la Iglesia avoids that kind of material here almost completely.

What perhaps is most surprising about the film is that I like it nearly as much as The Innocents.  That, to some, may be sacrilegious.  However, the gender change of the protagonist is an interesting twist, but not used as a cheap gimmick.  Instead, it allows the director to explore his own themes and motifs.  Forbidden Love Games, from 1975, sees a teacher effectively kidnapping two teenaged students and corrupting them with the games of the title until they actually like what they are being made to do.  The film has shades of Salo, but also of Michael Winner’s ludicrous prequel to The Turn of the Screw, The NightcomersOtra Vuelta de Tuerca is not as explicit as Forbidden Love Games, but the same motifs seem to lurk within the back story, even if they are rarely seen with the exception of the bathroom scene involving the two children.

In short, de la Iglesia’s adaptation of the James novella finds the director reaching maturity within his filmmaking.  No, it’s not as subtle – or as scary – as The Innocents, and the cinematography isn’t as beautiful, but the movie is a fine effort within its own right and not when viewed as just a remake.  If you can find a copy, it is well worth a watch…with the lights out, preferably.


My Mistress (2014)

my mistress

Sometimes when I go over on to IMDB after a film to see what others have thought of it, I wonder if I’ve actually seen the same movie. With all the fuss about Fifty Shades of Grey (which I still have yet to see), perhaps there was an audience expectation that the Australian film My Mistress would be more of the same – certainly the trailer suggests that the film would be more explicit and, let’s be honest, kinky than it actually is. And yet, if you watch the trailer without getting excited at the bare flesh, it’s easy to see that is not going to be a raunchy effort and is going to be far more reflective and under-stated than that. It appears most online comments missed that fact and, when they watched the film, got disappointed that there wasn’t more…well…handcuffs and whipping.

Harrison Gilbertson stars as 16 year old Charlie as he becomes fixated with a middle-aged French woman who has moved in to a house close to where he lives. By accident, he finds out that she provides “services” of the fetish kind to men in the area, and becomes even more besotted by her, and the two begin a rather strange relationship. But there is more going on here, Charlie’s fixation has occurred during the weeks immediately after the suicide of his father, and the woman, Maggie (Emmanuelle Beart), has suffered her own loss of a different kind.

This isn’t a film about whips and chains, although they appear briefly at various points, but about grief and loss and, in some ways, the need to be noticed and understood during those times. There are very few films that deal with grief in a realistic, non-depressive way. We’re either faced with morbid Haneke-type films or movies where someone dies, a funeral takes place, and everything goes back to normal. But that’s not how life is. In fact, I remember being particularly impressed with, of all things, the second Tobey McGuire Spiderman movie, for the wonderful scene in which Aunt May explains how much she misses her husband even though it had been two years since he died. My Mistress only covers the first month after the death of Charlie’s father, but it does deal with how grief and loss can change the way we would normally act – even if that means getting involved with a woman twice your age and being handcuffed in your boxer shorts to a horse from a fairground ride.

My Mistress is hardly the most fast-paced film in the world, but it is beautifully photographed and the performances by GIlbertson (who also impressed in the horror film “Haunt” last year) and Beart are truly stunning. Australian cinema has often been one of the most fascinating of national cinemas through the last five or six decades, and this movie shows why.

Just Pals (1920)

just pals

It’s quite a while since I’ve written about film here, particularly silent film, and so time to put that right.

Many people are familiar with the 1921 Charlie Chaplin film, The Kid, but not so many will have heard of Just Pals, a 1920 film directed by John Ford that has much in common with the more well known film.  Just Pals stars Buck Jones as Bim, the “village bum” according to the intertitles.  Here, he makes friends with a young boy, Will, who enters town on a train that he has stolen a ride on.  Together they find themselves caught up in multiple adventures.  As with The Kid, moves are made to take the boy away from Bim, although this takes up less time than one might expect.  Elsewhere Bim and Will find themselves accused of stealing money, not once but twice.  Buck Jones has never been more likeable in a rather atypical role for him, and he has a natural relationship with George (aka: Georgie Stone), a prolific child actor of the time, who plays Will. Stone left films in 1923 at the age of 14, and died in 2010, aged 100.  John Ford, meanwhile, still at the beginning of his directing career, keeps the film moving along at such a quick pace that it makes this fifty minute movie ideal for those only now discovering silent films.  What is perhaps most surprising is how the mood of a film from the period can change with almost shocking rapidity.  Here we have a light-hearted film in the main, but then a sequence involving an attempted lynching before moving back to lighter fare.

Motion Picture News wrote that “it is the human touches, both of comedy and pathos; the well created atmosphere of the Montana town; the very natural dialogue; and the picturesque character of Bim that will win favor for this picture” – and that still stands today.  In a sign of how things have changed in the last 95 years, Film Daily said the film didn’t make enough jokes at the expense of the country “hicks,” but elsewhere they find it “a pleasing bit of entertainment along the type of Huckleberry Finn.”

Just Pals is available on DVD as part of the John Ford Silent Epics boxed set.