Madness of Youth (1923): A Lost Film

madness of youth

A common practice of early film magazines was to include short story versions of current films – normally one or two per issue.  This practice appears to have started dying out during the mid-1920s.  While these “fictionalised” versions of films often make for rather clunky reading today (the authors were certainly not great writers in most cases), in many cases they are one of the key ways that we can reconstruct a lost film, and get an idea of how it might have looked and played out.  What follows is the short story version of Madness of Youth, a now-lost film starring John Gilbert and Billie Dove from 1923, with a short introduction by myself.

MADNESS OF YOUTH (1923)

By the time John Gilbert appeared as Jaca Javalie in The Madness of Youth in 1923, his star was already in the ascendency, even if he had not yet reached the dizzy heights of a couple of years later when he would appear in The Big Parade and be teamed with Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil.

It is fair to say that The Madness of Youth did not win universal acclaim from reviewers and critics of the time, although it was pleasantly received in the main.  Film Daily praised director Jerome Storm for his “elaborately mounted” film and for building up “a splendid and mystifying suspense” during the first half of the movie, but added that it is “greatly shattered” during the final reels, something which is noticeable in the rather tepid ending of the retelling of the film’s narrative that follows.[i]  Exhibitor’s Trade Review was slightly less enthusiastic, stating that if the spectator is “willing to be good natured and gullible, the picture will give him a good hour’s entertainment”[ii] 

 What these two reviews appear to be saying is that the film was an entertaining potboiler but, ultimately, little more than that.  Like many films of the time, the possibility of spiritualism is raised within the narrative, although it appears to be under-developed. 

 As for John Gilbert, the film seemingly did little to either harm or enhance his reputation, although he is often praised for his performance in reviews from the time.  Exhibitor’s Herald state that he is “excellent in the early footage,” thus repeating Film Daily’s suggestion that this is very much a film of two halves.  Also praised was Billie Dove in the role of Nanette, who was “effective and very pretty in the small part assigned for her.”[iii]  This was one of Dove’s first substantial roles, and the film’s loss is as much a shame because of her performance as John Gilbert’s. 

The film was based on a short story called Red Darkness by George F Worts, but this appears to have been altered considerably for the screen if we are to assume that Grace Lamb’s “fictionalization” of the film was true to the movie version.  Her story version of the film appeared in the June 1923 edition of Motion Picture Classic magazine.  The wording has not been altered in any way, although minor changes to punctuation and layout has been made.  

 *

The Madness of Youth

Told in Story Form by Grace Lamb

A young man strolled thru the smoking car.  He was correctly clad; casual.  At one glance he appeared to have a bearing of some fierce inner spiritualness.  At the next glance as equal a contradictory appearance, of shrewd sophistication.  Calculatedness.  At both glances he appeared to be singularly attractive.  Even compelling.  During the cross-country trip one man had been watching him with a species of concentration.  This man was a detective.

The young man strolled thru the smoking car.  He left behind a spiral trail of elegantly scented smoke. Expensive.  When the trail thinned to faint blueness the famous detective arose, almost casually, and strolled after him.  He thought that he would confront him in the narrow passageway between the smoker and the Pullman car.  But he didn’t confront him.  When he emerged from the smoker into the passageway the young man had casually but completely disappeared.

Fifteen minutes later, precisely, from a ditch by the railroad bed, where precisely fifteen minutes before the Transcontinental had sped by, a young man emerged.  He was the same young man as to face – almost.  He was quite another young man as to garb.  His tailored clothes had given way to a costume somewhat bastardly a mixture between that of a Pacific beachcomber and a holy man of somewhat uncertain orders.  He carried a long staff and, over his shoulder, a bundle.  He strode immediately off toward a destination of which he appeared definite and certain.  In the deep depths of his eyes glowed a flame which was focal and baffling.  Two spots of red burned on the pallor of his face.  Except for soft corners in his mouth he was ascetic.  He walked a long ways, unweariedly….

*

The Bannings were quarrelling among themselves.  They had exhausted most of the other worldly excitements, and really, as they would have told you, the spiritual had no attraction for them, even if they had thought about them, and the mental occupied their minds not at all.

Theodore P. Banning would have said of himself, in extenuation, that he had burned himself out as much as was good for a man in his fight for wealth.  Well, he had obtained it.  What then?  During the process, he had lost his wife in death, lost his son and daughter in life, and gained three obsessions.  Which is as much, all in all, as most men do who go into the cold bowels of mankind to bring back soulless gold.

His first obsession was the large iron-ribbed and steel-lined vault built just off the library of his pretentious Southern Californian residence.  His wife had used to plead with him to bank it, but banks had failed him twice in his life, and he would have none of them.   His son and daughter told him that one day he would be murdered and his safety vault looted, but he merely shrugged his shoulders.  This potential catastrophe was beyond him.  He wouldn’t mind being murdered, he thought, if such should befall.

His next obsession had to do with his two children, Theodore Jr., called Teddy, and Nanette, his daughter.  They had been nice children.  Once, when his wife was living, he had been wont to hear them say their goodnight prayers, had kist them goodnight, loving as much as he had time, the urgent clinging of their damp, small arms.  But they didn’t say their prayers any longer, they knew better now…and of course their slim, strong arms had better uses than to be about his leathery old neck. But they might, he pondered in bitterness, have shown him some final respect, after he had amassed his glittering wealth for them.  They might have been at least respectful.

This third and last obsession had to do with the tenets of spiritualism.  Everything else had failed him.  Everyone on earth had failed him.  Once they had all worn painted, alluring, laughing masks.  Then they had torn the masks away, and lo, the grimacing faces that looked upon him! Even his Teddy, sensual and cynical. Even his little Nanette, petulant, defeminized, hard like a young green apple.   In spiritualism he was able, he thought, to talk with his dead wife.  She was gentle with him.  Sympathetic.  She agreed with all his grievances and was sorry for him.  What he was against she was against.  He had to pay vast sums of money to hear her speak to him, but it was worth it to him.  He believed in her.  Rich men, too, must have their toys, nor need they ever know that they are broken.

But today the Bannings were quarrelling among themselves.  Ted had bought home from France a young French wife.  She was delicately pretty and delicately built.  Ted didn’t seem to care for her as he had.  Almost every day he made her cry, and when he saw her crying, with two red rims etched unbecomingly about her soft dark eyes it served to make him angrier than ever.   Today she was up in her room crying.  Theodore P. senior had heard her and had been remonstrating with his son which made him, in turn, remonstrate with his daughter.  Nanette hadn’t been home for a week before one or two in the morning.  Theodore P. wanted to know what the devil she meant by such carrying on?  What did she think she was?  Nanette sulkily replied that she had been with Peter Reynolds, that Pete was their “guest,” and that he couldn’t be entertained sitting about this old dump like a sore finger.  Theodore P. said, with some rancour, that very well, then let Pete Reynolds get out, and the sooner the better.  From all he could gather Pete was nothing but a sponger on rich men’s money, anyway.   His own father was sickened with him, and so was everyone else.  Nanette sulked and flounced out of the garden.  Ted followed her and they had a separate argument.

“I’m tired of being bossed by that old grouch, Dad,” the girl said.  “Pete wants to marry me and I think I’ll get away tonight.  Dad’ll cut us off with a shilling, but what do I care?  I’m bored still with this stuffy atmosphere.”

Ted laughed derisively.  “If Dad cuts you off with a shilling,” he said, “your Pete will cut you off with less.  All he’s after is your money, sister mine, not you.”

Is that so?”

“That is so.”

“And how you do get so wise?”

“You don’t have to be wise to see thru Pete Reynolds.  I don’t hold any briefs for old Dad, but he can smell a sucker after his money, and that’s what Pete is.  He’s always living around in the homes of the wealthy, as he is now honouring us.  He’s always licking some gilded debutante’s costly boots.  Only most of them aren’t such sweet asses as my own sister.  God, it’s as plain as your skin!”

“But I thought you liked him…” Nanette whined her words.

“Oh, he’s alright to have a drink with, or shoot pool, or go out with some girls.  I don’t want to marry him.”

“You’re some man, aren’t you, Ted?”

“You’re some woman, aren’t you, Nan?”

And into such a garden walked the man of uncertain orders with the light burning in the deep depths of his eyes and the gnarled staff in his long and tender hands.

Theodore P. removed his expensive cigar from his mouth.  He sat up in the chair, straighter than the heat of the day rendered perfectly comfortable.

“Well,” he said, “who in hell are you?  Where do you come from?”

“I am from Everywhere,” said the Stranger, “fom the mountains, from the desert and the sea.  From the high places and out of the low.  I am a symbol of that beneficent power that heals the wounds of the soul.”

“Oh, you are, are you?”

“My name is Jaca Javalie.  There is hatred and trouble in this house.  Vipers coil and stir in a nest of brooding beauty.  Father is armed against son, in his soul, and son against daughter.  Why this has been revealed to me, I do not know.  I want nothing.  I do not take.  I give.  I give peace.”

This was spiritualistic stuff.  Theodore P. sat more erect.  He wanted to hear more.  His spirit was sore disturbed and the strange man’s singular words were like fresh waters.

“So,” he said, “you think we’re in difficulties here, do you?”

“Yes,” said the Stranger, simply.

“And you think you can help us.  How?”

“By remaining with you for a few long hours.  For a day or so.  Simply by remaining with you.  I can sleep in the open field and eat with the help in the outer places.  My bed is beneath the stars as well as silken coverings.”

“You’ll sleep indoors if you stay at all.”

“That shall be as you will it.   I come to bring peace.”

“Well, you’ve come none too soon.”  Theodore P., already more peaceful, perhaps because momentarily arrested, lay back again in his long chair.  “We’re very unhappy here,” he said.

The stranger inclined his head.  He seemed to be like a deep cool well drawing from the air about him all that was poisonous and restless.  Theodore P. found himself talking to the stranger, telling him things.  After a while he rose and insisted upon his strange guest accompanying him into the house.  They entered the library in the midst of which stood Ted and his sister, still disputing a point which had, by now, become wholly obscured from its source.

They stopped with the effect of clockwork when they saw their father with the stranger.

“Where did you come from?” Nanette broke out, with her characteristic audacity.  “Mars?”

“Great Scott, Dad,” laughed Ted, “what new curiosity have you unearthed?”

Theodore P. introduced Jaca Javalie, and the man spoke a few words to them.  Suddenly, for the first time in many months, Ted felt adolescent and awkward.  Like he had used to feel.  And for the first time in even more months Nanette felt distinctly silly, and like making amends.  The two young Bannings suddenly turned gracious.

Ted bethought himself of poor, little Jeanne, crying alone in her room.  He ran up to get her down.  While she was powdering her face and re-arranging her hair, Ted kist the back of her neck, impulsively.  He hadn’t done that in many months, either.  Jeanne felt a little stab of happiness.

Dinner in the Banning home that night was the first peaceful one for as far back as any of the family could remember.  The stranger talked in a low voice of pleasant places he had been, of his beliefs, practically tinged with mysticism, his dark burning eyes ranged with a sort of splendid impartiality over the faces of his host, Ted, Madame Jeanne and the rose-coloured Nanette.  Nanette once thought that his eyes rested longer on her, and her heart gave an inexplicable leap into a curiously high place.  Pete Reynolds was the only one who did not seem to come under the stranger’s spell.  Nanette rather despised him for this.  He didn’t seem so attractive to her as he had done that afternoon.  He didn’t go about the world making miracles, as did Jaca Javalie.  What a name.  Jaca Javalie.  Nanette kept rolling the syllables under her tongue.  After a while she heard them echoing in her heart.  Jaca Javalie.

In the morning of the following day, Nanette talked with him in the garden.  He talked to her about the flowers.  But now she was defiant.  She felt drawn toward him, but she felt resentful, too, a little dubious.  Was he “spoofing” them all?  One did so much spoofing nowadays.  Pete Reynolds, for instance, with his silly adjusted lover’s mask.

That night, the Bannings were giving a fancy dress ball.  Javalie had said that he would watch from the balcony.  There, radiant, late in the evening, Nanette came to him alone.  She was spiritually lovely except for her hard young eyes.

“You can fool Dad,” she said without preamble, “with your supernatural stuff.  But you can’t fool me.”

“But I don’t want to fool you,” Jaca Javalie said.

And somehow in the moonlight his words ran with a clear conviction.  No, Nanette knew, he didn’t want to fool her.

“You don’t want to fool me,” Nanette answered him still with a vein of mockery, “because you’re human, not spiritual.  Because I’m a woman and you’re a man.  That’s why you don’t want to ‘fool’ me.  Isn’t it?  Isn’t it?

Jaca Javalie looked down on her and the light in his eyes burned more deeply, if less strangely.

“That may be it,” he said, “who can tell?”

After Nanette had pirouetted away, Javalie put his hand to his forehead.  He tried to sneer which was his habitual smile when alone, but was somehow unsuccessful.

“Steady, old man,” he muttered to himself.  “Steady there!  Remember that you are here for loot, not love.”

A soft hand touched his arm and he looked down at the little, lonely Madame Jeanne, in a strange land and with a lovely who, like his country, had proven alien and strange to her.  In the moonlight, her large dark eyes were misted with moon-tears.  She was not so lovely as Nanette, the man thought, but she was sadder, more wistful.  Just now, she touched him.

Down in the garden, where the supper was being served, a masked dancer had stepped lightly from a mammoth cake.  Jazz shook the night with ribaldry.  Madame Jeanne murmured in his ear, like the falling of a light rain:

“They say,” she said, point down to where the dance was flinging white arms to the music’s strains, “they say she can have any man she wants.  They say that men have killed themselves for love of her.  Oh, holy man, she wants my Ted, and he has grown so weak and strange since we came back from France.  Won’t you please save him from her?  I know that you can.”

Madame Jeanne stood on tip-toe until her soft mouth was level with Javalie’s ear.  She whispered a few words to him.

“Please help me,” she finished, helplessly.

Down in the garden, Nanette was calling him.  He went down and walked with her down one of the winding paths.  Suddenly she turned on him and threw her arms about him.

“Kiss me, holy man,” she commanded, mockingly.

Javalie took took her in his arms.  The thing that had been stirring within him broke and he crushed her against him.  When he released her she stood back and the mockery of her words was broken by the passion of her voice.

“I knew you were human,” she said, and then ran away.

Javalie stood still.  He heard his name called again, and the masked dancer stood before him, stripping off his mask.

“I wondered what had become of you,” she said.

“So you’re here, Louise.” Javalie spoke without surprise.

The dancer nodded.

“Yes, I’m here.  What are you going to do about it?  After all, Jaca, did you suppose that you could do what you did to me without ever hearing of it again?”

“What do you consider that I ‘did’ to you?”

“The writers of fiction would say that you had broken my heart.  As I probably have none, you have merely made me hate you.  She laughed mockingly.  (How different from the delicate mockery of Nanette!)  “How funny you look in your religious rags!” she said.  “How funny it will be when I tell them who you really are!”

Javalie leaned towards her.

“Please,” he said, “don’t do that.  I’ve been waiting three years for this chance.  Don’t spoil it.  If I’m successful, and I will be if you will help me, I’ll divide with you.  I’ll…I’ll go away and marry you.  Only let me get the money in that safe!  Later, after your dance, I’m going to speak to the guests.  I want to make my final effect.  They believe you a famous vampire.  Help me.  Pretend that you are a convert to my spiritual fervour.  Think, Louise, money and a far country.  Think!”

Louise looked at him, narrowly.  If he had been thinking of her personally, he would have seen that he was safe.  There was love of him in her eyes.  She nodded.

“All right,” she said, “speak your little speech, Jaca, and I’ll pretend that you’ve saved my soul.”

Javalie spoke to them.  He stood on the balcony with the summer winds ruffling his sacerdotal rags and the moonlight encircling his head like a halo.  He told them he was speaking, not of religion but appealing to their better selves, to the spirits that lived in their bodies, to their hearts.

The faces looking at him were stirred and strange when he had finished.  Old Theodore P. Banning kept clearing his throat.  Nanette shifted from one foot to the other and her eyes ceased their mocking and became tender and absorbed.  Under cover of the rosebushes, Ted moved nearer to his wife and was silent while she told him her sweet secret.  And, at the very end, the beautiful dance stepped from the group and knelt beneath the balcony where Javalie stood.

“I want to ask forgiveness of my sins,” she pleaded.  She could have had no more emotion if she had been in earnest.  What an actress she was, Javalie thought, and his fine lips curled.

*

The Banning estate was quiet with sleep.  Theodore P. alone was awake, sitting in his library pondering the events of the evening.  To him came the holy man, Javalie.

“Why don’t you go to bed,” he asked his host.  “You look tired…worn.”

Banning nodded.

“I am,” he said.

Javalie stood before the older man and passed his hands over his grey head.

“Then sleep,” he began to intone.  “Sleep…sleep…sleep.”

Banning relaxed and closed his eyes.  When his breathing was quiet and his hands limp, Javelie took him by his arm and led him softly to the great vault in the other room.

“Open this,” he commanded, and automatically, perfectly, Banning obeyed.  As he did so, Javalie jotted down the combination in a note-book and then, as quietly, led the tranced man back to his chair.

Javalie’s mission in the Banning home was complete.  Where was the victory?  Where the wine of triumph?

As he turned to leave the room, the older Banning being now relaxed into normal, quiet, slumber, he found Pete Reynolds waiting for him.

“So, that’s your game, is it?” he asked, grimly.  “Thought so.  I’ve been watching you.”

Javalie nodded.

“A crook,” he said, “yes.  One of the best.  Are you going to spill the beans?”

“I might not,” Reynolds said, “for a…consideration.”

The two men enteered into an agreement, and Javalie promised to have the money extracted within twenty-four hours.

The only person who did not sleep in the Banning home that night was Jaca Javalie.  The only man who could find no peace was the man who had brought peace on the household.

In the morning, Ted came to his father and told him he was going away with his wife to work for her with his own hands.  Javalie had showed him what he was doing, he said.  He wanted to “begin again.”  He thought that he could.  Old Theodore P. took his grown son into his arms and kist him as he had not done since Ted was a boy.

“I’ll build you a house, son,” he said, “and you can start in that.”

In his room, Javalie was reading a note from the dancer, Louise.  She told him that the joke was on her.  That last night, in the garden as had knelt at his feet, the game had suddenly become reality to her.  The words she had meant to say with her lips had come, somehow, from her heart.  She was going away, back to her own people.

Javalie was strangely shaken.  His two natures rose and fought within him.  He had, like Louise, come to this house to play a skilfully contrived role, and lo, like Louise, too, the role had become reality.  These people had accepted him.  His exhortations had come true.  He felt suddenly defiant.  He would shake off this weakness, this softness, that had come to him as to the whole household.  He went unsteadily from his own room to the vault room.  The family were in the garden.  He would accomplish his mission and steal away.  It would be all over, the moonlight, Nanette…

The vault room was heavy with silence.  He had the combination clearly before him, but somehow the room revolved.  He couldn’t seem to see very well, to stand very firmly.  He gave a little moan and fell to the ground in a sorry heap.

*

When he came to, he was in Nanette’s arms.  The elder Banning was standing over them.  Young Ted was speaking.

“A common thief,” he said.  “I’ll phone for the police, Dad.”

But Nanette held him closer.

“Dad,” she cried.  “Why, Dad, don’t you see?  In saving our souls he has saved his own!”

The elder Banning nodded.

“I think that’s true, Ted,” he said to his son.  “I think Nannie is right…”

Little Madame Jeanne caught her husband’s hand.

“That is right, Ted,” she said softly.  “Don’t you feel that it is, dear?”

Javalie had risen to his feet.  His white face corroborated them all.  Nanette sobbing, clung to her father.

“Dad…Dad…” she cried, “I…I love him…the real him….the him that saved us all.  Can’t you see?”

Javalie raised her hand, and kist it, and was still. They had their right to judge him, these people whom he had saved and would have robbed.

Ted and Jeanne were silent, too.  The elder Banning took his daughter’s hand and placed it in Javalie’s.

“I see, Nannie,” he said.  “I think I see…”

 

[i] “A Good Story and Nicely Produced by Ending is Disappointing,” Film Daily, April 15, 1923, 13.

[ii] “The Madness of Youth,” Exhibitor’s Trade Review, April 28, 1923, 1105.

[iii] “John Gilbert in Madness of Youth (Fox),” Exhibitor’s Herald, May 5, 1923, 52.

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Jazz Mission to Moscow (CD Review)

Jazz Mission to Moscow

Jazz was hardly welcomed in the Soviet Union for much of the 1950s and 1960s. The most famous US jazz artist to play in Russia during a short lull in anti-jazz sentiment by authorities was Benny Goodman in his famous tour of 1962. That tour was documented on record with the Benny Goodman in Moscow release, but a number of other albums related to that tour, Russia and jazz were also released in 1962 and 1963. Three of these have been collected by the independent Fresh Sounds label and were released at the end of last year under the collective title of Jazz Mission to Moscow, also the title of one of the albums.

This is a double disc set that I confess I bought out of curiosity rather than any expectation that the music itself would be particularly good. However, I was quite wrong. The music contained here, not available for decades in most cases, is actually superb. The first album, Jazz Mission to Moscow, was recorded by ten musicians, most of which had been part of the Goodman tour. The album is a kind of souvenir of their experiences. It features a new number, Mission to Moscow, and then five Russia-related items, most of them either traditional Russian songs or pieces written by Soviet jazz musicians. Recorded in New York in 1962, and featuring Zoot Sims, Phil Woods and Mel Lewis, and arranged by Al Cohn, this is vibrant, exciting West Coast music.

A couple of months later, Victor Feldman, another member of the Goodman tour, recorded an album called Soviet Jazz Themes, this time entirely comprised of pieces written by Russian composers. Again, the band contained well-known names such as Nat Adderley and Joe Zawinul, and again the quality of the material and arrangements are very high. It fills up the remainder of the first disc.

The second disc is not quite so good musically, but still enjoyable and interesting. The album on this CD is Jazz at Liberty, pieces recorded for Radio Liberty for airplay in Russia once the crackdown on jazz had begun once again. The resulting album, released by RKO records, was hardly an epic (it runs at about 20 minutes) but the sound quality is surprisingly good and the music is also worthy – this time featuring Zoot Sims, Bob Brookmeyer and Art Farmer among others. Filling out the disc are four alternate takes from Jazz at Liberty and a short interview with saxophonist Phil Woods.

Fresh Sound Records have really come up with the goods here, as this label so often does. The bringing together of these forgotten albums (unavailable for decades in most cases) on one set is a wonderful idea, the music itself is superb, and the sound quality is great. The 24-page booklet contains new material, original album covers and original liner notes for all albums. This is a set that could so easily have been nothing more than a curio, and yet actually one that will be returned to repeatedly. Well worth the modest investment for anyone interested in this material from either a historical or musical point of view. Great stuff.

The Woman in Black: Angel of Death (2014)

Womaninblackangelofdeath

I was pleasantly surprised by Woman in Black: Angel of Death. The reviews have, by and large, been pretty awful, but I think they have also been unfair. Unlike most sequels, this one stands on its own and doesn’t require you to have seen the first film but, at the same time, it’s not just a remake either. This time, the film is set during WW2 with a group of evacuees and a couple of their teachers being sent to the house that dominates the first outing. Whilst there, they meet an airman and the younger teacher starts a tentative relationship with him. At the same time, mysterious things start happening in the house.

Angel of Death isn’t going to win any awards for originality, but it’s not a copycat effort either. The first film seemed overlong to me, and strangely un-cinematic. Despite a very good performance from Daniel Radcliffe, a film where a guy walks around a house holding a candle for nearly two hours just isn’t very exciting, despite the fact it was well made and had more gravitas than this second effort. Where this second film wins out is by having more characters, and yet not enough for the house to feel occupied as such. The greater number of characters allows relationships to develop between them, and this is, after all, something that most films rely upon. The stark, dark, cinematography of the first film, where many scenes were drained of colour, is retained here but the greater use of dialogue means it isn’t quite as foreboding. This sequel might not be as “worthy” as the original but, to me, it’s more entertaining.

Indeed, the film zips along and is over and done with in ninety minutes, and yet still manages to be atmospheric. But it’s not without faults. Phoebe Fox is superb in the lead role of the young teacher, but Jeremy Irvine, as the young airman, seems to be literally on autopilot. That’s not his fault – his part is woefully underwritten and he has very little to work with. One can only wonder what attracted him to the part in the first place. He is as charming and charismatic as ever, but that doesn’t make up for the clichéd dialogue he is saddled with, and his “big scene” about two thirds of the way through the film is, frankly, pretty awful. The final third of the film seems much more of a genuine climax than in the first film, with a couple of impressive sequences packing quite a punch.

Yes, there’s no doubt that we’ve been here before, not just with Woman in Black itself, but with other period ghost stories. But the best horror films are often those that stick to a formula and make sure they do it well – and that’s pretty much what this film does. The atmosphere is well-sustained throughout, and there are some genuine jump-scares too if that’s your thing. If falls down in the sometimes clichéd script, but it’s entertaining enough and certainly not the dire outing that some reviewers are leading us to believe.

The Sinatra 100: Part One

C37417FRANK

2015 sees what would have been the 100th birthday of Frank Sinatra.  In a series of blog posts over the course of the year, I will be taking a look at some of my own favourite recordings by “ol’ blue eyes” in what I’m calling “The Sinatra 100.”  The one hundred performances won’t be in any particular order – I’m not that organised – but hopefully they will highlight some little-known recordings as well as visiting some familiar ones.  This first batch of five numbers come from the first decade of the Reprise label.

1.  MOONLIGHT ON THE GANGES (1961)

I’ve always loved this romp, which was recorded for the album Sinatra Swings – originally titled Swing Along with Me, but Capitol forced the title to be changed, stating that it was too close to their own Sinatra album Come Swing with Me from a couple of years earlier.  The whole album is a blast.  Billy May arranged all twelve tunes, which included some rather left-field numbers such as Granada, The Curse of an Aching Heart and Moonlight on the Ganges.  Despite Capitol’s protestations, the album has far more in common musically with the light-hearted upbeat elements of Come Fly with Me than the more traditional-sounding Come Swing with Me.  This is certainly true in the case of Moonlight on the Ganges, which has an arrangement clearly modelled on that provided for On the Road to Mandalay for the earlier album.  As with that number, Billy May uses everything at his disposal in his arrangement, and even if the result is not quite as much fun or not quite as quirky, Sinatra still swings the hell out of it.

2.  I’M NOT AFRAID (1970)

One of the best Sinatra songs you’ve never heard.  In 1969, the singer had recorded an album entitled A Man Alone, consisting of songs and poetry by Rod McKuen.  It was a hit and miss affair, but an interesting effort all the same, with Sinatra in wonderful voice.  Eighteen months later, Frank was recording another McKuen lyric, this time to a tune by Jacques Brel.  Sadly wasted as one of the most uncommercial single sides ever released by Sinatra, this is rather special.  Arranger Lennie Hayton managed to come up with an orchestral backing that drew heavily on the tonal qualities of music by Debussy and Ravel, particularly the latter’s La Valse.  Sinatra’s performance is dramatic and gives him the chance to show just how good his voice was here, just a month before his final session prior to the infamous retirement.

3.  REACHING FOR THE MOON (1965)

Recorded late in 1965 for Moonlight Sinatra, this is one of my favourite ballad performances.  The song had been written thirty-five years earlier for a film that was intended to be a musical but, with the musical having a decline in fortune by the time of its release, had virtually all of the songs cut.  Reaching for the Moon, the title number, remained, but is still one of Irving Berlin’s lesser-known tunes.   Here it is given a sumptuous arrangement by Nelson Riddle with lovely cascading strings during the instrumental break.  Sinatra’s vocal has a darker tone than usual, giving the number more gravitas than, say, the Ella Fitzgerald recording for her Irving Berlin songbook eight years earlier.

4.  OL’ MAN RIVER (1963)

Many will argue that Sinatra’s Columbia-era take on this classic from Show Boat was better, but I’d have to disagree.  This 1963 version derives from The Concert Sinatra, a strange title for an album recorded wholly in the studio.  The album has just eight songs, each arranged in a rather grandiose way by Nelson Riddle, and each one a ballad.  Ol’ Man River here becomes an epic, taken at a remarkably slow pace by Sinatra and featuring some of his very best vocal phrasing.  His voice is deeper and darker here than in the 1940s version, and is all the better for it.  He used a similar arrangement in his 1967 TV special (mostly with just a piano instead of a full orchestra) with Ella Fitzgerald and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and the result was, arguably, even better than the performance here.

5.  WE’LL MEET AGAIN (1962)

Great Songs from Great Britain was, well, not such a great album when it comes to Sinatra’s voice.  He sounds tired after his world tour, and understandably so.  However this was, importantly, his only studio album recorded outside of the USA (it was recorded in London), and the arrangements by Robert Farnon breathe new life into a batch of songs that were, by and large, viewed as past their sell-by date.  We’ll Meet Again is typical of that.  Here Sinatra takes this old war horse and completely reinvents it, making one completely forget the fact that it had been almost solely associated with World War II.  His tired voice forces him to come up with a different style of phrasing, and the result is that the song becomes not a sing-a-long but a beautiful love song.