Bobby Darin: the Musical Chameleon? I Don’t Buy It!

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I’ve been a fan of Bobby Darin for all my adult life, “discovering” him when I was around eighteen or nineteen, twenty-odd years ago.  Last year when I did some work on Elvis Presley (whose music I got into in a big way at around the same time as Darin), I was reminded of just how many musical styles he covered during his career:  rock n roll, country, folk, gospel, show tunes, blues, and big ballads.  However, Elvis was not as versatile as Bobby Darin who did all of the above and threw jazz and swing into the mix too, as well as delving into folk and show tunes in a way that Elvis never did – nor did Elvis tackle more than a couple of protest songs, whereas Darin recorded more than two albums worth.

Despite this versatility, I’ve never been happy with people calling Bobby Darin a “musical chameleon.”  For me, this has a negative connotation – albeit perhaps an unintended one.  I’m no expert on chameleons but, while they can change their colour for any number of reasons, we generally associate it with a kind of camouflage, an attempt to fit in to its surroundings so as not to be noticed or found out.  When we transfer this idea on Darin, it then makes him out to be someone who was just changing his style and genre in order to fit in to (or cash in on) the current music scene – the whole idea of jumping on a bandwagon.

I don’t buy that idea when it comes to Bobby Darin.  I’m not saying he never went bandwagon-jumping in search of a hit – he clearly did when he recorded the Ray Charles-like You’re the Reason I’m Living and even when he recorded If I Were a Carpenter.  But, elsewhere, I don’t think that is what he was doing.

We first come across this idea when he recorded the That’s All album back in late 1958, with the suggestion that he was somehow trying to be Frank Sinatra.  And yet, anyone who knows the music of both men will know that there are actually huge stylistic differences between their arrangements and vocal styles within the big band genre.  I don’t know of a single Sinatra arrangement that has the same sound and feel as Mack the Knife and Clementine.  Sinatra’s orchestrations swung in a very different way entirely.  In fact, perhaps the nearest Sinatra got to that sound was his version of Old MacDonald – recorded after the aforementioned tracks were released, not before – and even then, it’s not the exactly the same, despite the slow build-up in sound and the repeated modulations with each verse.   And it wasn’t often that Sinatra was as downright brash as the arrangements used for Softly as in a Morning Sunrise or Some of These Days.  Maybe on I’m Gonna Live Till I Die – but this was the exception, not the rule.  Darin’s vocal approach was far different too – he didn’t sing from a jazz background as Sinatra did, but he brought rock ‘n’ roll vocal stylings to the big band sound.  I’m not saying this to knock Sinatra in any way – I adore his music as readers of this blog will know – but my point is just that Darin wasn’t somehow imitating Sinatra, he was doing it his way.

If anything, Darin’s swing sound was more like Sammy Davis Jr’s than Sinatra’s.  Check out Davis’s version of There Is a Tavern in a Town, for example, and you will see what I mean.  He also got much of his material from the same place as Davis too:  the current Broadway scene.  Whereas Sinatra was normally reaching back to shows of the 1930s and 1940s, Darin and Davis were culling material from Broadway in the 1960s and, with Darin, the current Hollywood scene too.  Hence the albums Hello Dolly to Goodbye Charlie, In a Broadway Bag, The Shadow of Your Smile and individual tracks such as What Kind of Fool am I and If I Ruled the World.  Despite these connections with Davis, Darin wasn’t imitating him either, although both crossed over into rock ‘n’ roll material and rhythm ‘n’ blues.

Darin’s last album to be recorded for Atco was his tribute to Ray Charles, and it’s true to say it retains much of the Ray Charles sound.  However, even this wasn’t a straightforward album.  Darin was taking risks here.  What other pop singer of the time would spend over six minutes on I Got a Woman (and, in a late-60s TV appearance, over seven minutes on Drown in my Own Tears)?  Elvis was rarely recording songs over two and a half minutes.  Darin’s I Got a Woman doesn’t actually work – it goes on for far too long – but at least he was willing to take risks or, to be less kind in this instance, be self-indulgent.  Darin was always his own man and recorded what he wanted.  Colonel Parker would have run a mile from such an artist.

Bobby is again accused of jumping onto bandwagons when he released his folk album, Earthy.  And yet, once again, an actual examination of the LP finds that this wasn’t any normal folk album but an ambitious, daring (from a commercial point of view) collection of folk songs from around the world.  What’s more, it’s also one of his best albums.  In this case, the risk and the ambition and the vision paid off.  While Peter, Paul and Mary (who he is often accused of copying) were recording songs by Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, Darin was adapting folk music from across the globe along with a handful of new(ish) compositions in the same style.  And the musicianship here is incredible.  Listen to the final track, The Ee-I-Ee was Rising again – this time through headphones.  Sit and wonder at the remarkably complex rhythms that occur as the song progresses and gets quicker and quicker.  Check out Bobby Darin’s timing – so accurate, and a fraction of a second either way would have thrown the whole thing out.  It’s an incredible performance which can sound like a flippant joke until heard in this way.  And yet the album did very little business commercially.  Darin’s next folk album, Golden Folk Hits, was a simple attempt to hone in on the Peter, Paul and Mary sound, but he’d gone down the artistic route before turning to the commercial one.

Then there have been the comparisons with Bob Dylan when we come to the late 1960s and Bobby’s creation of his own label to record his own protest songs.  And yet, once again, there is no foundation in these comparisons, as what Bobby was writing and recording had very little to do with what other protest singers were doing at the time.  They may have been ignored at the time but, like Earthy, these albums have now gained cult status, particularly in the UK and Europe.  The first Direction album may have contained songs that were musically simplistic, but the lyrics are what matters here.  There is some wonderful word play in The Proper Gander, while Sunday lures the listener in before issuing a damning indictment on organised religion.  Commitment, the second album, is more musically interesting, and is clearly a more varied selection of songs, and Bobby manages to tie together a beautiful melody with a powerful political comment as in Sausalito.  Elsewhere he doesn’t seem to be protesting at all, but there is great wordplay and musicality in Water Color Canvas, and a dry self-deprecating humour in Distractions.

His Motown years were largely disappointing, and yet the 1971 live album (released in 1987) is probably the best live album he recorded.  Yes, he’s relying largely on contemporary covers, but look at what he does with them!  While Elvis’s idea of a Beatles medley was a bland re-tread of Yesterday with the end of Hey Jude tagged on the end, Darin had come up with a multi-song, almost rhapsodic masterpiece.  And, once again, ambition shone through, as in the extended version of James Taylor’s Fire and Rain.

There wasn’t much musical ambition in the Motown studio recordings, as he turned into a bland balladeer with orchestrations that should have been torn up and thrown out long before they reached the studio.  And there wasn’t much ambition on his disappointing TV series either – and yet Darin was still doing what HE wanted when he could.  What other variety show gave over a few minutes each week to a chess game?  Again, this was Darin being self-indulgent and ambitious and this time it didn’t work – but he hadn’t given up despite seemingly losing his way musically in his final years (although appearances on The David Frost Show and Midnight Special showed exactly what he was capable of when he put his mind to it – as did the concert-style final show of his TV series).

No artist leaves a perfect musical legacy.  As I discussed last year, Elvis certainly didn’t, and neither did Bobby Darin.  He took risks, and sometimes they didn’t work or he over-estimated his audience.  And yet the quality of his recordings is far more consistent than Elvis, Sammy Davis Jr, or even (arguably) Sinatra, who went through nearly a decade of artistic doldrums.  But one thing I am sure of is that Bobby Darin had no interest in being a chameleon, and changing his genre and style just to fit in or, worse, cash-in.  If he changed his style, it was always because he thought he could bring something different to it, that he could add something, that he could move it forward, that he could push the boundaries.  So let’s throw away this whole “Darin the chameleon” idea once and for all, and celebrate “Darin the Diverse” instead.

Elvis Presley: His Hand in Mine (review)

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As it’s Easter, here are my comment on Elvis’s first gospel album, His Hand in Mine, recorded in 1960.  The following is taken from my book Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide, available in paperback and in Kindle format from Amazon.

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Some three and a half years after recording the Peace in the Valley EP of sacred music, Elvis finally found himself in a position to record his first full-length album of gospel music.  His Hand in Mine would have a very different feel to the sombre EP.  Here, traditional up-beat gospel songs would sit next to more serious sacred ballads, but the album would still have a consistency with Elvis essentially acting as the leader of the gospel quartet sound he had loved since his boyhood.

Milky White Way had been originally recorded by the Coleman Brothers in 1944, but Elvis based his arrangement on that by another group, The Trumpeteers.  However, he manages to incorporate a blues element into the material, sliding between notes in some places, and even bending notes in others.  Check out how he does this within the line “I’m gonna sit up and tell him my troubles/About the world I just came from” in the last verse.  This is brilliant singing, and shows Elvis thoroughly in his element, merging gospel, blues and doo-wop sounds to make a two minute masterpiece.

Elvis’s influence for the title song of the LP, His Hand in Mine clearly comes from the original recording by The Statesmen.  However, once again, Elvis makes subtle changes.  Doy Ott’s lead vocal on the recording by The Statesman is square in comparison to Presley’s.  Ott moves from note to note with clarity – there are no slides here – and sings with relatively wide, but controlled, vibrato.  Elvis does neither.  There are a number of changes in dynamics within the recording (not present in the original) and, at times, Elvis is almost whispering into the microphone.  There are also some startling switches from the sections in which Elvis sings in his bass voice to the sections where he sings in his higher register in duet with Charlie Hodge.  While his range had no doubt grown over the previous couple of years, it’s clear that Elvis hadn’t quite got the control at the very bottom of his range that he has at the top – he would be much more confident in this area six years later on the How Great Thou Art album.

Elvis gives The Jordanaires a moment in the spotlight at the beginning of I Believe in the Man in the Sky, with the group singing the verse with the barest of accompaniments before Elvis enters to sing the chorus.  His voice sounds glorious, and he uses all his range to navigate the tricky melody.  This is quite unlike anything on the 1957 gospel EP.  The sound is much lighter, the tempo quicker, and the song almost has a swing feel to it.

He Knows Just What I Need is more sombre and sedate and, in many ways, has a sound much more akin to that being used at the time by Johnny Cash on his albums of sacred music.  It’s possibly the least successful song on the album, but that makes it sound worse than it is.  It simply hasn’t got any of the magical moments that make the other songs so wonderful. In a similar vein is Mansion over the Hilltop, but this is distinguished by Elvis’s beautifully-controlled vocal.

In My Father’s House begins with Elvis singing a full chorus not just with The Jordanaires, but as part of them.  Elvis then sings a verse himself before handing over to The Jordanaires bass singer, Ray Walker, for a section before re-joining the group himself for the end of the number.  It’s brilliantly arranged, adding variety to the ballads on the album, and showing that Elvis was more invested in the music itself than hogging all of the spotlight for himself.

Three up-tempo spirituals were recorded next.  Joshua Fit the Battle was a song Elvis had talked about recording back in 1956.[1]  Here he sings the number with a natural swing, aided and abetted by more sterling work from The Jordanaires, against whose voices Elvis’s own nestles comfortably.  Swing Down Sweet Chariot was in the same vein, although there is the smallest hint of rock ‘n’ roll intonation here, not least in the repeated use of the word “well” in between each section.  Elvis would re-record the number in 1968 for the film The Trouble with Girls I’m Gonna Walk Dem Golden Stairs again finds Elvis as part of The Jordanaires rather than as a soloist, especially during the choruses.  Even in the verses, when Elvis is singing the melody while the group add a rhythmic vocal backing, the mix allows for him to totally blend in – and in the final chorus Elvis can hardly be heard as a soloist at all.

If We Never Meet Again and Known Only to Him see Elvis returning to ballad material, with both songs in waltz time.  Both contain more of the same wonderful selfless musicianship that had dominated the session thus far.

Crying in the Chapel was slightly different.  This was more of a pop song with an inspirational theme – in the same way that I Believe was.  The number wasn’t released until five years later, and became one of Elvis’s few hits during the fallow period of the mid-1960s.  Jorgensen writes that, remarkably “the recording log … says that no satisfactory master was completed.”[2]  In other words, the song wasn’t even deemed as fit for release at the time, something which only goes to demonstrate Elvis’s search for perfection with regards to the project.  There is, of course, another option – that Elvis didn’t feel that the song fitted with the sound of the rest of the album.  That is certainly the case; it has a slightly different feel.  However, it has a fine, restrained vocal that deservedly has become one of the singer’s best-loved songs.

To finish the album, Elvis and the musicians turned to Working on the Building.  Of the upbeat material on His Hand in Mine, this is certainly the weakest.  Unlike the other numbers, there appears to be relatively little thought within the arrangement, which becomes repetitive.  The song was sequenced at the end of the album, thus meaning that an otherwise near-perfect record ended on one of the least effective songs.

His Hand in Mine was an artistic triumph for Elvis.  There wasn’t a single mediocre cut on the whole album, and it had all been recorded in a single night.  Billboard raved.  They called it a “fascinating set of performances,” and stated that “the gospel message has never been put forth with any more greater effect and impact than here.”[3]

[1] Aules Archer, “Stop Hounding teenagers,” True Story, Dec 1956, 22,” 24.

[2] Jorgensen, Elvis Presley: A Life in Music, 142.

[3] “Spotlight Winners of the Week,” Billboard, December 5, 1960, 5.

Sammy Davis Jr

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Over the years, Sammy Davis Jr has been referred to a number of times as the “world’s greatest entertainer,” and this may well be true.  He was a gifted singer, dancer, impressionist, comedian, actor, multi-instrumentalist and even an expert at fast-draw (guns, not pencils).  And yet, the title he has been given often masks how brilliant a singer he actually was.  History books have left us with the impression that, for all his vocal talent, Davis was forever trying to emulate or copy his idol, Frank Sinatra, but a closer look at his musical legacy reveals a very different picture.  Contrary to popular opinion, Davis was very much his own man.

Davis began his recording career in the late 1940s for Capitol – an association that can be viewed now simply as a prelude to his work with Decca and Reprise from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s.  I can’t say I’m a huge fan of his early Decca albums, made in the mid-1950s, despite the fact that they helped catapult him to super-stardom.  For example, Lonesome Road, the opening track on the Starring Sammy Davis Jr LP, finds him beginning the song in Sinatra-esque style before moving into a section which sounds like him impersonating Johnnie Ray.  Davis had yet to find his voice.  And yet, even on this album, he had started doing things that Sinatra rarely did, with My Funny Valentine utilising a small group rather than a big band or full orchestra.   What’s more, Davis’s arrangements were often more extravagant and flippant than those often used by Sinatra, with the possible exceptions of certain tracks on Come Fly with Me and Sinatra Swings.

By the time of Sammy Swings, in 1957, and due to be released on CD along with Sammy Awards in a few weeks, Davis had found his own voice.  A look at the track listing for Sammy Swings sees him seemingly avoiding standards that Sinatra was associated with, and he certainly puts his stamp on Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Comes Love, and By Myself.  The arrangements are big and brassy, and Davis himself uses his voice in a way that Sinatra would not have done.  Davis uses his remarkable power, singing in a swing style but with a Broadway voice.   This album, and the even better Sammy Awards, are all showbiz.  What they lack in subtlety, they make up for in exuberance.   For a comparison of how Davis and Sinatra approached songs differently, one could compare their two very different 1950s readings of The Gal That Got Away, with Sinatra’s being more straight-award swing, and Davis’s being a mini Broadway play, starting off in a low-key jazzy style and using an almost rhapsodic arrangement that switches from lyrical sections to bombastic swing and back again.  When he takes on a Sinatra song, as in I Fall in Love Too Easily, he does so in a quiet, subdued manner, using just a guitar accompaniment – something Sinatra didn’t do in the studio until the early 1980s.

By the late 1950s, Davis was putting together albums that were collaborative efforts, including ones with jazz singer Carmen McCrae, the Count Basie Orchestra and, most notably, a whole album of just Davis and guitarist Mundell Lowe.   He was also already venturing far away from standard repertoire, most notably incorporating the influence of Ray Charles with recordings of Mess Around and I Got a Woman (and even incorporating Hound Dog into his live act).   But if there was an ongoing problem with Davis’s Decca recordings it was that he, for some reason, didn’t seem able to take himself totally seriously, often larking around in the middle of serious songs for no apparent reason – almost as if he is embarrassed of his own talent.

When he signed a contract with Sinatra’s Reprise label, he did three important things.  Firstly there was a series of sessions with Marty Paich, who provided Davis with arrangements that incorporated his “showbiz” style of performance, but also added some subtlety.  At the same time, Davis started digging more into Broadway for his repertoire, being among the first to record songs from shows written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, and Lionel Bart.   And then, Davis also stopped the joking.  He was at the peak of his vocal ability, and his first album for the new label, The Wham of Sam, proved that.  Sammy was now his own man, taking songs associated with others and making them wholly his own – not by clowning but by being versatile.  Sinatra’s I’m a Fool to Want You became an unexpected tango, and Blame It on My Youth eclipses virtually every other recording of the song.

The album As Long As She Needs Me encapsulates Davis completely, from the beautiful rendition of showtunes such as the title song and an earnest Climb Every Mountain through to a wonderful, light-hearted reworking of There Is a Tavern in a Town that seems somewhat influenced by Sinatra’s rendition of Old MacDonald.  But just listen to what Davis does with the vocal line – it’s Broadway, swing, jazz and comedy all at the same time.

Davis was also ambitious, with him recording the entirety of the California Suite by Mel Torme for one album made up entirely of Torme compositions.  There were yet more collaborations with Count Basie, Sam Butera, Laurindo Almeida and the great Buddy Rich, with the latter resulting in a wonderful live album that swings from start to finish.  Not only does Davis sing two of his signature songs on this occasion, but he also completely reworks them, turning What Kind of Fool am I into a mid-tempo swing number.   Davis was doing things that Sinatra never did, such as the vocal/guitar duet albums, the recording of the Torme album, and an album dedicated to the songs from Dr Dolittle – not the cheesefest one might imagine, but one of Davis’s very best albums.   He was also appearing in his second Broadway show, Golden Boy.

Then it all fell apart.  Davis started working new sounds into his music such as Motown, soul and funk, and while he didn’t do this badly, his efforts to become hip and cool sometimes backfired and he ended up sounding silly (as in the awful In the Ghetto) and appearing on TV in more and more bizarre costumes.  The best days were gone, but he still had hits with I Gotta Be Me, The Candy Man and Mr Bojangles, and recorded a fine TV special entitled simply “Sammy.”  Davis made a move to Motown and recorded some generally poor albums, although they have nice moments.  And, then it was basically over.  His tour of Australia in 1977 was recorded by RCA and released on two albums released in 1977 and 1979.  And there was just one more studio album, of country material, in the early 1980s.  Davis, helped along by fast-living, drink, sex and drugs, had become an imitation of himself.

But there would be one last hurrah.  The Ultimate Event saw him touring with Sinatra and Dean Martin (replaced by Liza Minnelli) in the late 1980s and video footage from the tour finds him in brilliant form.  His rendition of Music of the Night showed that he was still in touch with what Broadway musicals had to offer, and his comic rendition of Michael Jackson’s Bad showed that he could still poke fun at himself.  Sadly there was no final album.  Davis was diagnosed with throat cancer and died in 1990.

Davis was, despite what we might be told, very much his own man vocally, with his own unique phrasing and styling, and his work for Reprise in particular is a real marvel.  Collector’s Choice released the Reprise albums on CD some time back, and then started on the Decca years, but never finished that part of the reissue programme.  PD company Sepia have remastered Sammy Awards and Sammy Swings and this will be released April 2015, making available for the first time in decent quality two key Decca albums on CD.  Great news – my vinyl copies have long been worn out.

Glee: What Might Have Been

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*Contains season six spoilers*

Quite how Glee managed to limp through its mostly-awful fourth and fifth seasons is anybody’s guess.  There were times when it seemed that the whole thing would just grind to a halt and no-one would be bothered to even turn up to write, direct and act in it, let alone watch it.  And yet, since the death knell has been sounded, and the sixth and final season has started, this most erratic and frustrating of series has finally found its feet once again.  At its very best, Glee does not just entertain but it can also move its audience and send out a message like virtually no other programme.

I actually came to Glee in the first place about four years ago because a couple of my students were writing an essay on it, and I needed to see a few episodes.  Even back then, in its first and second seasons, the writing was erratic – brilliant one week, bloody awful the following week.  And yet one thing shone through despite the bland writing, forgotten narrative threads, bizarre characterisations, and awful song choices:  Glee had heart.  There were times when it became a little preachy to say the least, but at least it was preaching acceptance.  But the erratic quality of the programme saw viewing figures fall (understandably), and the third season could easily have been the last.

But still it carried on, trying to dig itself out of the hole it had dug for itself, trying every trick in the book to win back viewers or, at the very least, keep the ones it still had.  The idea to have what were essentially two parallel narratives running through the fourth and fifth seasons was interesting, but doomed to fail.  Glee got more and more silly and irrelevant.  It had been forgotten that the show was at its best when it was also at its simplest, but still there were moments when Glee’s best qualities shone through despite everything.

Now the show is at the midway point of its sixth and final series of just thirteen episodes and, somehow, it has returned to very near its best.  Surreal humour that makes sense to no-one is mixed up with genuinely moving storylines and songs that are actually there for a reason.  There are no fireworks as Glee comes to an end – no big attempt to win back viewers, but just an eagerness to let this once-loved show close out with some dignity.  But this simple aim has resulted in some wonderful moments – and as a forty-one year old man, I really shouldn’t be saying that given that the target audience is probably about fifteen.

Dot-Marie Jones has been nominated three times for a Prime-time Emmy for her performances in the show and, given her performance in recent episodes that have centred around Coach Beiste’s decision to live life as a man, it’s highly likely that a further nomination will be forthcoming.  Excusing the fact that his decision was made and surgery taken place all in a matter of four weeks, this storyline has resulted in one of Glee’s best episodes in years, entitled Transitioning. It’s a simple episode, in which a number of storylines get moved forward, but Jones’s performance as her character returns to work for the first time as a man is remarkable.  It’s been mentioned in various places over the last few weeks that the transgender community gets forgotten or ignored when it comes to LGBT representation and politics, thus making this current narrative arc particularly welcome.

OK, I admit it, just like a Hallmark afternoon movie starring Lindsey Wagner, the climax in which transgender former student Unique sings a message of acceptance to the rather lost Coach Beiste, backed with a 300-strong transgender choir, is obviously intended to pull at the heartstrings and get the audience either crying like a baby or puking as a result of saccharine overload.  And yet it’s done so well (and is so out of the blue) that even the most-hardened watchers would struggle not to be moved by the whole thing.  Yes, it’s manipulating the viewer without apology, and, yes, it’s unadulterated feel-good TV – but that’s not always a bad thing.  And yes, I cried like a baby.

Glee has tackled numerous issues over its six-season run – some were done remarkably well and in depth, while others were handled so appallingly that the writers should be ashamed (most notably when Ryder admitted that he was molested as a child).  And, yes, there are “issues” that have, for some reason, been avoided.  In a series aimed at teenagers, why did the producers seemingly go out of their way to avoid storylines relating to drugs or mental health?  But the one thing it has consistently done, and done well, is ask for acceptance of the LGBT community, and this sixth season is no exception to that – quite the opposite in fact.  And, as a gay man myself, I understand the importance of that message going out to a core audience of the age that is just starting to understand who they are and  their purpose in life.

This final season of Glee has felt more like a beginning than an ending, and no doubt the show’s constant viewers will be watching it thinking of what could have been had the programme had been of this standard over the previous three seasons.  But there is a time and a place for everything, and the series has run its course.  In 2009, when it started, it was fresh, vibrant, funny and different.  Now it’s viewed by most as tired and cliched.  But I for one, even as a grumpy middle-aged man, am pleased that Glee has been allowed these thirteen episodes to get its arse in gear and finish with its head held high and to demonstrate just what it achieved over the last six years rather than where it failed.

Birth of a Nation: Happy 100th Birthday?

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D W Griffith’s epic film Birth of a Nation is 100 years old on 8th February – and still remains possibly the most controversial movie in history. It is a movie of two halves, the first dealing with the American Civil War, and the second half dealing with the Reconstruction Era.

On the one hand it is a remarkable film. For the most part, Hollywood was still reliant on one or two-reel films (up to about 20 minutes in length), although longer, more ambitious films had started to come through from around 1913 onwards – but they were not dominant at this stage. But America had never produced a film on the scale of, or as technically sophisticated as, Birth of a Nation before. Griffith drew inspiration from the Italian epics of the early 1910s, taking their scale and ambition and applying them to a more realistic, American setting. It was, in many ways, the dawn of the modern film.  This wasn’t the first feature film, but with Birth of a Nation, American cinema had come of age.

And then there is the other side of Birth of a Nation. The fact that the second half of the film is a putrid, foul, racist diatribe in which African-Americans are not just portrayed as stupid and lazy, but also as rapist and murderers…with the Ku Klux Klan portrayed as the heroes of the film, not the villains.

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Some today still argue that the film was simply a sign of the times, and stands today as a historical record of the views of 1915. But that, in my opinion, is just burying our heads in the sand. This wasn’t a film that was just re-iterating racial stereotypes or utilising blackface, it was one that was full of hatred and venom – it literally turned whites against blacks in America. There were demonstrations against the film even in 1915, and appeals to get the film banned in some cities. This didn’t happen in most cases. Instead, membership of the KKK swelled over the next few years, as did racially-motivated murders and lynchings. But hey, the film was great box office.

In 1916, partly to silence his critics, Griffith made Intolerance, a film simultaneously telling four stories in four different time periods – flitting back from one to the other faster and faster as the three-hour film progresses. But Griffith appears to have been hiding behind a mask in putting forward a film that was supposedly going to prove that he was anti-prejudice, for in 1930 he filmed an interview to be screened prior to a re-release of Birth of a Nation and he stands by the film and its contents totally. By this time, though, Griffith’s worthy, preachy, self-righteous films were out of favour, and he made his last film, The Struggle, the following year.

How does Birth of a Nation stand up today? Well, no-one can deny its achievement: in many ways the birth of modern film-making. Very little has changed from the point of view of techniques and film grammar in the last one hundred years. And yet Birth of a Nation when viewed today is, to me, a bore. Compared to other feature films from the era, the pace is slow and the direction heavy-handed. There is a sense of self-importance here which weighs the film down, and doesn’t allow it to work as entertainment in the present day. This isn’t true for all films of the period. Many features from the mid-to-late 1910s are still enjoyable today, but sitting through Birth of a Nation is a chore. Is this because of its length? No – Intolerance is just as long, but much more entertaining – even if its innovative structure takes a little getting used to.

But it’s Birth of a Nation that is still shown to poor first-year film students – presumably as punishment of some kind.  No doubt many of the students actually never see the racist elements of the second half of the film due to the fact they had nodded off sixty minutes earlier.  Why do we show it to them?  I have no idea.  Yes, it’s an important film, but it’s not typical of film-making in 1915.  As is so often the case, film students are shown a canonical work instead of a typical movie of the period, and therefore come away with no idea of what people watched most of the time during the mid-1910s.

More importantly, when viewed today, Birth of a Nation leaves one with a foul taste in the mouth, and rightfully so. It makes for remarkably uncomfortable viewing thanks to the racist elements. On the 100th anniversary of its release, we might celebrate what Griffith achieved technically, but that’s where the celebrations should end. Many people suffered, and many people were murdered/lynched as a result of the film being made and shown and kick-starting a resurgence of the KKK.

So, happy birthday, Birth of a Nation – may we never see the likes of you again.

An interview with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

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From the mid-1910s until 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the most popular of film comedians.  However, at the height of his fame, he was tried for the rape and manslaughter of actress Virginia Rappe.  After three trials (the first two of which resulted in a hung jury), Arbuckle was acquitted, and received a written apology from the jury.  However, it was too late.  He was made a scapegoat for the so-called lack of morals in Hollywood and the current ban on his films stayed in place until 1923.  The jury verdict seemed unimportant; he had been one of the first victims of “trial by media” and he was unable to get work in front of the camera, although he directed a number of films during the remainder of the 1920s.  An on-screen comeback took place in the early 1930s, but just as his career was taking off once more, Arbuckle died of a heart attack, aged 46.

The following article is from a happier time in Arbuckle’s career, and he comes across in the interview as a warm, gentle man who was totally dedicated to his craft.  Written in 1916, the article also indicates just how quickly film was changing and becoming ever more sophisticated during this period, with Arbuckle commenting on the way comedy was progressing from the pure slapstick of Mack Sennett.  It’s a wonderful historical document and a lovely portrait of this much-loved comedian.

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Fatty Off Guard

Author: Elizabeth Sears

(Film Fun, March 1916. Source: Media History Digital Library)

“Let’s go ‘round to the office,” said Roscoe Arbuckle.  “We are not rehearsing today, so there is nothing doing here.”

He had been standing in the huge studio, with its roof of glass, watching workmen make a set and rapidly paper two walls with a vivid pink hanging.  At the end entrance there was bunched an eager group of men and women, hoping against hope that they would have an opportunity to speak to him and get in the cast.

When you see his jolly grin facing you from a picture or the covers of a magazine, you are minded to say, “Hey, there’s Fatty!”  Somehow you have no inclination to call him “Fatty” when you come face to face with him in the flesh.   True, if he were not fat, he might not be so funny; but there are brains there as well as bulk.  And Arbuckle has not been idle all these years that he has been in motion pictures.  He has been thinking out his plans and dreaming his dreams, and not he has an opportunity to put them on the screen and see how they pan out.  He has passed the acrobatic stage and the business of flapping his hands against his sides, as the symbols of fun.

“Of course we have to keep up a little of that stuff,” he explained.  “The public has associated it with the Keystone Comedy, and it would not think it a Keystone without a little rough stuff.  Wait a minute, until I call the projectionist room.  I want you to see the first showing of the first picture we did back in New York – and you will see what I mean.  We have tried to get some fine photographic effects here.  I have always though there was room for beautiful scenic achievements in comedy as well as the kick and the custard pie.”

“The motion picture world has turned over several times in the past two or three years,” I suggested, which we waited for the man who was to show us the picture.  “What is the outlook?”

“Outlook!” repeated the comedy star.  “It’s as wide as the blue sky.  Film standards change so fast and film styles come in so often that the director whose ideas were heralded as the climax of brilliancy six months ago is old-fashioned now.  And if he fails to discard his old ideas and keep at least two laps ahead of the procession – you know what’s going to happen to him.”

The director-author-actor paused long enough to courteously assure a would-be actor that the rehearsals would not begin for a day or two and that there were no good positions open as yet.  He bows out his applicants in such a pleasant and friendly fashion that they forget they were turned down and remember only that they have met “Fatty” and found him most delightful in his manner to them.

“I hate to turn ‘em down,” he apologized, “but I haven’t a thing for them just now.”

“Just a word about your scenarios,” I begged.  “Where do you get them, who writes them, and how do you direct them?”

Mr. Arbuckle paused long enough to bid a courteous good-morning to three or four young women employes (sic) who passed through the office and who spoke to him shyly.  He held open the door for one of them who wore her black hair low and held fast to her forehead with a blue silk garter.

“Not a scrap of scenario paper in my studio,” he admitted. “I wouldn’t know what to do with a manuscript in my hand.  I plan out the pictures, and we rehearse them – that’s all.”

Easy enough, isn’t it?  And Arbuckle has discovered a grand bit of audience psychology that some of the other stars might well copy.  He allows a bit of the picture to film along without him once in a while.  He gives the rest of the company a chance.  He says he’d rather the audience would wish he would come on back than to wish somebody would sweep him out of the picture.

“An actor doesn’t lose anything by effacing himself once in a while,” he said, as he swung himself comfortably aboard a chair to see the picture in the little projection room.  “If he is a favourite, they are all the more certain to welcome him when he gets back in the picture.”

We viewed the opening of the picture in silent.  Arbuckle, as the doctor in He Did and He Didn’t has struck a new note, although the film cutter has cut out a trifle too much footage here and there and leaves the picture a bit minus in continuity once in a while.

“You are breaking away from the slapstick stuff,” commented some one (sic) from the gloom of the room.  “How’ll Mack Sennett like that, huh?  Sennett’s idea of humor seems to be one garnd slam of kaleidoscopic action that tires the eye and leaves no one strong point in the memory.”

Mr. Arbuckle continued to watch himself on the screen diving under the bed for a collar button.

“Well,” he said calmly, “Mr Sennett trusted me to come to New York and put on these plays.  He knows what my ideas are along the newer lines of screen comedy.”

It may be that Sennett has noted the trend and begun to moderate his inordinate frenzy of acrobatic falls and tumbles and violent and unnecessary smashes through breakfast rooms, with the unvarying accompaniment of broken china and ceilings.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen to an actor?” I asked, apropos of the remarkable tumble down the stairs of the doctor in search of the burglar.  Mr. Arbuckle handed me the answer slap off the shoulder.

“To arrive,” he said promptly.

“I thought that was what they all desired more than anything else,” I said, in surprise.

“They do,” he replied, “but the trouble is, once they arrive, there isn’t much to do but leave again.  When they are climbing up, the public applauds and says ‘That chap is coming right along – doing better every day.’  But once the actor is heralded as an absolute arrival, the public begins to criticise and pick flaws and expect him to better his own standard, and it is a tremendous strain.  He simply is forced to keep ahead of the public’s opinion and to spring something newer and better every season.  The man or woman who can survive an ‘arrival’ is a star of the greatest magnitude.”

There’s a bit of thought for you.  We mulled it over and watched the picture silently, until Mr. Arbuckle began to chuckle over a scene.

“We had an awful scrap over that,” he said. “You see, sometimes some of us disagree on an essential point of the production, and we stop the picture and thrash it out right there.  Miss Normand is a very charming little lady, but she has a mind of her own, all the same, and we had some argument over that.  My idea was to mystify the audience right there – not let ‘em have an inkling of why Mabel gets her visitor into her room there, until they see the burglar hauled out from under the bed.”

I noticed that it was his part of the idea that got over, though.

“That’s a good bit,” some one (sic) commented in the group, when the screen flashed the picture of the armchair before the fireplace.  Mr. Arbuckle smiled happily.

“That’s what I meant when I said that we need not rob the picture of scenic beauty to get humor into it.  Clean comedy, with an artistic background, not merely hysterical laughter and situations.”

“Think the public wants that kind of comedy?” queries one of the visitors.  “I don’t believe the public wants to get its laughs mixed up with its thoughts, do you?”

“I’m banking on it,” said Arbuckle confidently,” although older and more experience men that I am have failed to grasp the way of the public and what it will do at a given period.  I believe in the comedy that makes you think, and I believe that the time has come to put it on – and that is what I am going to do.”

We stood a moment in the doorway, when the picture and the interview were over, and watched the little file of actors and actresses in the yard, who had been informed that there would be no use in waiting.

“I’d like to go out to the car with you,” said Mr. Arbuckle, nervously glancing out of the window at the group; “but if I go out there and they see me, they’ll ask me for a job – and I haven’t a thing to offer them.”  His blue eyes looked concerned with a boyish sentiment as he bent them on us.  “I – I sort of hate to turn them down,” he said deprecatingly.

You see, responsibility takes the laugh out of you sometimes.  And although Roscoe Arbuckle loves to see his public laugh, it takes the smile off his own face when he much in any way distress even a small proportion of it.

“Miss Normand has a longing to play drama on the stage,” he said, as he bade us good-by (sic); “but I don’t believe there is any finer mission on earth than just to make people laugh, do you?”

A Vintage Non-interview with Renée Adorée

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Despite a prolific career in Hollywood during the 1920s, and a successful transition into talkies, the name Renée Adorée is little known today outside of the inner sanctum of fans and scholars of silent film.   Born in 1898 in Lille, she arrived in New York (via Russia and London) in 1920 and gained some theatre work before making the movie to film.  Her big break came in 1925 with The Big Parade (King Vidor) with a performance much admired by the writer of the following article from Picture-Play Magazine in 1926.   However, in 1930 her career was tragically cut short when she contracted tuberculosis, and she passed away three years later, at the age of thirty-five.

The article that follows is a rather strange one.  Written by Michael H. Oettinger, it sets itself up as a regular interview with the star in question and yet Adorée barely gets quoted at all.  Instead, Oettinger uses the piece to pour out his heart and leave the reader in little doubt that he is a big fan.  This is, essentially (but perhaps unintentionally), a love letter to the actress.  That said, it is an entertaining piece, even if the writer’s flowery language might be a little too saccharine or gushing for some tastes. 

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A Couple of Vive Las!

Author: Malcolm G Oettinger

(Picture-Play Magazine, September 1926)

Renee Adoree (sic) [1]  was impersonating Elsie Ferguson while in New York.[2]

No one, it seemed, could see her.  At her hotel she was incommunicado; the set on which she worked was inaccessible to alien spirits; Renee was what the publicity department euphemistically called “difficult.”  She was immersed in her work, it was said – wrapped up in her Art.  An interview was, unfortunately, out of the question.

Then we chanced to meet at Aileen Pringle’s.[3]  And the elusive Adoree proved to be not a temperamental prima donna but a fascinating soubrette loathe to tie herself down to more or less formal rendezvous with the press.

“I do not like the appointments,” she explained volubly.  “It is always the questions:  Are you in love?  Are you married? Will you leave your present home? Who is your fiancé?  Is there a wedding to be?”  She shrugged her shoulders and smiled childishly, appealingly.  “Who would like to have such questions?” she asked.  “Not I, you may believe me.”

A romantic figure, she has been subjected to the usual rumors of betrothal to one man and another ever since her divorce from Tom Moore.  Direct information from the lady herself on this impertinent subject was this: “Engaged?  Married?  But why?  I am in love with life!”

Her poignant performance in The Big Parade was probably the outstanding sensation of the past season.  Here was characterization that was brilliant, human, sure, penetrating the heart of the spectator as deftly as the etcher’s fine point bites the steel.  Here was a cinema creation who lived and loved and laughed so realistically as to confound criticism.  And more than one hitherto sceptical observer left the theatre seeking the identity of this French girl, whence she had come, why she had lingered.

Adoree had been making pictures for five years – program pictures, just as The Big Parade was designed to be until its magnitude impressed the official eye.  No one had noticed her particularly.  Comedy she had played with Creighton Hale, Glyn flapdoodle with Lew Cody,[4] idyllic romance with Conrad Nagel – unheralded and, as the saying goes, unsung.  In other words she had trouped jauntily enough, but not with compelling success.

Then the big picture came, and the big part met the right actress.  As the adorable heroine of The Big Parade, Renee marched to triumph overnight.

Two other actresses have shared the same plight up to the past season, Louise Dresser and Belle Bennett both having plodded steadily along for years until their chances cane in The Goose Woman and Stella Dallas just as Renee’s opportunity arrived with the war story.  (It is interesting to note, in passing, that the studio executives all expected the picture to be a singular success for John Gilbert.  It was considered the man’s picture.  The advance predictions were partly right: it did make Gilbert.  But it also established Adoree!)

Meeting Adoree, you tell yourself that, after all, once in a while it happens.  Memories of million-dollar ingénues with thirty-cent ideas, and imperial importations with bourgeois intellects, starched gentlemen and half-baked stellas, imitation people, all fade as you find yourself facing a real person with a genuine personality.

Renee Adoree (a stage name, should anyone harbor doubt on that score) is not beautiful, but she is a rare, individual type not soon forgotten.  You remember her sparkling eyes, her curiously high cheekbones, her hungry mouth.  She is the French girl of fiction humanized and made natural beyond recognition.  She is a Maupassant coquette making eyes at Thomas Edison: a Gallic version of Zimbule O’Grady playing Bernhardt; La Boheme with Gershwin interpolations: a wildflower in Thorley’s window.

What Adoree lacks in beauty she makes up for in magnetism.  She is what a more Freudian analyst might term sex incarnate.

Being pointed out as that girl who was so wonderful in The Big Parade worries her.[5]  She has a dread of becoming self-conscious.  When she came to the refuge of the delightful Pringle apartment she was disguised, as usual, swathed in a shapeless cape.  A funny hat concealed her attractively bobbed hair; dark glasses covered half her face.  She could have been Marie Dressler or Mae Murray or Sis Hopkins.  Then the cape was tossed into a corner, the hat alighted on a convenient chandelier, and after much coaxing, Adoree removed the glasses.

She is a gay, mad creature, impetuous, pagan, irrepressible, irresponsible.  Engagements are often forgotten, appointments occasionally overlooked.  Acting is second nature.  Life?  Whatever comes along is life.

A young actor was introduced to Adoree shortly after her arrival in New York last spring.  He was delighted to meet her, formally enough, then in precipitate fashion asked “May I take you to dinner some evening?” and Adoree simply asked, “Why?”  It was primitive in its naiveté, but quite characteristic.  For although Renee has portrayed sophisticated ladies on the screen times without number, she is not truly a sophisticate.

It is difficult to talk seriously to her.  Her mercurial temperament precludes deliberations.

Born of French-Spanish parents, Adoree was reared in the bohemian atmosphere of the circus.  As a child she rode bareback.  Later, she roved about with a road troupe, and eventually her path led to America.  There was the stage, then pictures; marriage to Tom Moore, and divorce.  Then, after so many years, recognition.

“If people only should know of the work in each picture – in every scene,” said Renee.  “If they should hear of the retakes at two o’clock in the morning, the cutting that kills so much, the terrible disappointment so often after all is done.  But they do not know of these things.  These are not what they call good publicity!”

Renee should know something about disappointment.  Those in the know tell me that her work in La Boheme was the high light (sic) of the entire picture, magnificent in conception, eloquent in detail.  Most of it now graces the cutting room floor.  For La Boheme was a starring vehicle, remember, and Adoree was not the star.

To spend time asking her about her acting would be fruitless and a trifle ridiculous.  If there is such a thing as a born actress, she is it. Living in California for years has not served to Anglicize her Gallic charm.  She is vivacious, quick, natural, spontaneous in everything she does.  Her gestures speak volumes, her eyes are exclamation points.

She could say nothing of how effects were obtained, as Nazimova or Gish could.  She has no set formula.  She has no definite method.  But a certain aid to her success is her emotional force.  At all times her feelings lie near the surface, with little veneer to protect them.  There is no pose and little poise.  She is utterly natural.

“I am myself.  That is all one can be,” she said.  “I am a gypsy dancing through the woods, or I am a coquette, or I am a Red Cross nurse.  That is all.  How can one say how one does this thing?”  She arched her brows and smiled helplessly.

Famous Players borrowed Adoree and the gleaming Pringle[6] to supply the drama in the most recent Meighan picture Tin Gods.  The first day Renee appeared at the studio the directorial Mr Dwan called her aside.  “We’re starting with some love scenes,” he said.   “Play them tropically.  Let’s see this great Normandy technique.”  The vibrant Adoree played the scene in fiery fashion.  Mr Meighan turned from an ardent caress with a baffled expression on his face.  “How can I keep any make-up on?” he asked.

In New York for the first time in years, Renee indicated that she was enjoying the pleasures of Manhattan, from parties given by Lenore Ulric[7] to quieter dinners in the Fifties, from the dim elegance of the dance clubs east of the Avenue to the riotous bedlams in Harlem.  But an impending personal appearance at the Astor Theater seemed to worry her.

“What shall I do?” she asked.  “What can I say?  I will not say the same ol’ stuff.  I hate that.”  She turned to me questioningly.  “Why should any one (sic) wish to see me?  I am there on the screen to be seen.  Is that not better?”  She fluttered an artless hand.  “It is ver’ silly, isn’t it?”

As you may have gathered, she speaks English with a wisp of French accent.

For the present Renee was under contract to Metro-Goldwyn (sic), eager to return to Hollywood to start work on a picture that would give her a role similar to the one she played so perfectly in The Big Parade.

Whatever Adoree does will be interesting, because Adoree is interesting!

[1] The name is spelled without accents throughout the original article.

[2] Elsie Ferguson was a stage and screen actress often painted as someone difficult to work with.

[3] Popular film actress of the 1920s and early 1930s before moving to small roles for the next decade.

[4] This is a reference to Man and Maid (Victor Shertzinger, 1925), based on a novel by Elinor Glyn.

[5] Perhaps it’s not my place to say, but I think I’d be worried too if I were her, considering she’s sitting across from a man who takes note of her “hungry mouth” and describes her as “sex incarnate.”

[6] Aileen Pringle

[7] Ulric appeared in a number of films, but is best known as a Broadway star of the 1910s and 1920s