Last Night of the Proms: Where Next?

There was a time when The Last Night of the Proms was a huge occasion for the entire UK. Like The Royal Variety Show, Children In Need, The Morecombe and Wise Christmas Show, and yes, even Miss World, families around the country would get around the TV on the second Saturday in September in huge numbers to watch the final concert of that year’s Proms concerts and sing along with the various traditional numbers of the second half. But times have changed. It’s not a “must watch” occasion for most families anymore – in fact virtually no television is. What’s more, society has shifted considerably over the last few years, and the pieces celebrating how wonderful Britain was in the days of the Empire really can leave a bitter taste in the mouth if you listen to the lyrics.

Considering the pandemic this year, we were lucky to have any live music at the Proms, but it all worked out in the end, mixing together new commissions and old warhorses with rarities we never knew existed by composers we all know. I make a reference to the last of those because I think it’s important.

The world of classical music seems to have shrunk over the last couple of decades. I went through a few crates of records in a charity shop this week and came across record after record of music that I didn’t know. Semi-forgotten composers like Spohr, Raff, and Goldmark appeared with surprising regularity on the well-known labels. But if you were trying to find new recordings on those labels of those composers – or rarities by composers we do all know – then you’ll be searching on Amazon or in HMV for a long time in most cases. Instead, commercial considerations appear to have become much more important than a wide repertoire. We have a wonderful array of young talent in classical music at the moment, but those signed to major labels are often stuck recording the pieces we all have on our shelves already: Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Rachmaninov’s piano concertos; Chopin Preludes or Nocturnes; Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (and no, you don’t have to message me to tell me the exceptions to the rule). It’s only when you move away from the big labels of DG, Decca, Sony etc that you see a wider range of repertoire – Hyperion, for example, or CPO – or budget-label Naxos, the success of which over the last few decades has been massive. But the Proms premiere of the Sibelius Impromptu for Strings at the Last Night tonight proved that not only are there many composers whose works are totally neglected, but that there also many well-known composers where we only know a fraction of their output.

But the biggest story about this year’s Last Night was the kerfuffle about whether or not Rule Britannia would be sung with words or not. At first the BBC said no, and then they caved in to pressure from a vocal minority, most of whom probably don’t give a toss about classical music anyway. There were even protests in London, where a mob of angry middle-aged men tried to show us all how much they loved the likes of Land and Hope and Glory, but only knew the words to the first line. Times have changed, and changed quickly in the last few years, but the lyrics to Rule Britannia have left a bitter taste in the mouth for some people for a while now. After all, it is a celebration of the Britain that made its way around the globe invading, murdering, raping, pillaging, and enslaving.

So, it is time for the traditions of the last night to go out of the window – just as the tradition of watching that final concert with the family is long gone for most people? Some say that it will just “not be the same” without the jingoistic singalong, but I don’t think that’s the case. Other pieces could easily take their place and still keep the same atmosphere – and that was proven tonight by the glorious arrangement of You’ll Never Walk Alone, which surely is more inspiring than a three-hundred year old war-horse from a forgotten opera (sorry, masque) by a forgotten composer whose fortunes (contrary to my suggestions for broadening the repertoire) I’m in no hurry to revive. Call me a hypocrite. I don’t care.

For better or worse, I doubt that Rule Britannia and the other traditional pieces on the last night will be dropped in the near future. Much of the UK seems to pride itself on tradition, no matter how idiotic and archaic that tradition might be. But personally, I’d much rather see a last night containing a different programme each year, primarily drawing on well-known and well-loved pieces that are accessible to all rather than the same jingoistic twaddle – and that would give an opportunity to revive those ten or fifteen minute pieces that have been disappearing from concert halls since classical concerts have got shorter in the last few decades. While I’m very much in favour of broadening the repertoire, I realise that, for the most part, the Last Night probably isn’t the time to do it, but that doesn’t mean it has to be the same pieces each and every year.

I shall sign off with a final note about tonight’s Last Night, one of the strangest in the 125 years of the Proms. Considering the difficulties that were faced in putting it together and not making it seem utterly strange, it really was something of a triumph – particularly the first half which presented old favourites such as The Marriage of Figaro Overture and The Lark Ascending (even if that is one of the pieces I never want to hear again) alongside new, but accessible, commissions by Andrea Tarrodi and Errollyn Wallen. It worked extremely well – much better than anyone could have hoped for. So congrats to all those involved, from the performers to the organisers and the staff at the RAH. And I might even suggest that, perhaps, the last night in future should, like tonight, be a ninety minute concert with no interval. That certainly works better for television – but probably not so well for the Royal Albert Hall, who can do with selling as many drinks as possible at the bar next year as it claws its way back to (hopefully) financial health and stability.

Review: Poster Boy (2004)

About ten or fifteen years ago, long before I had any of my writing published, I started work on what was intended to be an encyclopedia of films with gay characters. There were other such books out there, but most of them didn’t seem to understand that such films existed before 1980. I wrote about 200 entries and then put the project aside and forgot about it. I think I had got to the stage where I just couldn’t watch another American gay indie film, even if I tried. This was still the period when many of the gay indies making it to DVD were, to say the least, awfully poor – non-existent plots, actors who really couldn’t act, directors who couldn’t direct, and (perhaps worst of all) writers that couldn’t write. These films had ultra-low budgets, and basically sold themselves on the fact that the actors were cute and invariably got naked for the camera at some point. Watching literally dozens of these was a depressing assault on the senses. Despite this, and as might be expected, amongst the dross there were some really good films, and Poster Boy was one of them. I re-watched it tonight for the first time in seven years, and was interested to see that I still stand by the comments I wrote for the encyclopedia back in 2008 when I first saw the movie.

Poster Boy tells the story of Henry, the gay son of a Republican senator running again for re-election. The senator doesn’t know his son is gay, and there are certainly indications that he is an abusive father. He asks/tells his son that he will be introducing him when he is going to give a speech at the university campus. Henry wants to say no, but can’t do it. The film portrays the few days between the senator asking his son and the day of the speech itself. There is a framing device, set six months later, where Henry tells the whole story to a reporter.

Like so many other gay-themed indies from the time, the film has a low budget, but it overcomes that because of the sassy way it is filmed. The hand-held cameras are prominent but not overused; there is often quick-cutting between shots; and finally the director makes great use of often- extreme close-ups. None of these stylistic choices are new, but they are combined in such a way to give the film a sense of urgency, and to give it a semi-documentary feel.

What’s more, the film isn’t an excuse for frequent male frontal nudity or elongated sex scenes; indeed, there are neither here. And the male leads, while good-looking are not the model-like, chiselled-faced guys with six-packs that populate most gay indies of the period. And the cast is superb. Michael Lerner plays the senator and Karen Allen plays his wife. Matt Newton is superb as Henry (sadly we didn’t get to see a whole lot more of him on screen in the years following Poster Boy), and Jack Noseworthy is equally as good as the activist he meets and hooks up with the night before the speech. None of the characters are cardboard cut-outs – and everyone in the film is a flawed human being. Even the characters we are meant to root for do some decidedly horrible things.

I seem to recall reading somewhere in the past that the film had quite a long gestation time between being written and actually being made, and that may well explain why some elements of the script do seem a bit dated, even for 2004. And I’m certainly not saying that this is the best movie ever made. Some lines are corny, and some sequences are uncomfortable or misjudged – and the framing sequences with the reporter perhaps only serve to pad the film out a little too much. Indeed, those sections often come over as if the makers aren’t convinced that the viewer totally understands what’s going on and has to explain the motivations of characters. They needn’t have worried, and I’m sure the movie would work better without the framing sections.

And yet, after four or five viewings since its release on DVD, it remains one of my favourite films, and one that I get something from each time I get around to watching it. More than fifteen years after its first release, Poster Boy is one of the relatively small percentage of gay-themed indies of the period that still has much to offer today – and I certainly wish there were more like this out there.

The film is available to stream in the US on Amazon (and possibly elsewhere). Elsewhere, the region 1 DVD (now deleted I think) can often be found on eBay.

Opinion: Amazon removes The Birth of a Nation

NB.  I am not going to give a summary here of the 1915 Civil War epic Birth of a Nation or why it is such a notoriously racist film.  If you are not aware of the film, you probably won’t be reading this post anyway, but information on it is available in many places, and the Wikipedia page isn’t a bad place to begin. 

A few years ago, I had a clear-out of some films and music that I no longer wanted and sold them on eBay and Amazon Marketplace.  Amazon Marketplace is a bit unusual because, even when you’ve sold something, the listing remains but is “inactive” – presumably because many sellers there are businesses who get stock back in repeatedly.  Anyway, one item I decided I no longer needed or wanted as I was no longer teaching was the blu ray of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.  And so it was sold, but the listing remained “inactive.” 

Zoom forward to about ten days ago, and I got an email from Amazon, telling me that the version of Birth of a Nation I had been selling three years ago was being removed from the Amazon site, and so gave instructions how to delete that old listing, which I did.   But I was curious – why would the Eureka edition of the film be deleted from Amazon UK?  Even when something goes out of print, the selling page stays open.  When I went on to Amazon to have a snoop around, I found out that the BFI blu ray of the film in the UK and the Kino blu ray in America had also been deleted.  In short, the three in-print versions of the film on blu ray were deleted from the website. 

It wasn’t that Amazon had simply stopped selling them (or they had gone out of print) and the item was unavailable, but that the selling pages were taken down entirely.  Also gone is the streaming of the film on Amazon UK. When I started writing this piece, the Kino version was still available for streaming on Amazon.com.  That now, too, appears to have gone.  I should also add that, at the time of publishing this post, the BFI’s own online shop seemingly no longer has a page for their blu ray edition of the film, although the movie is available to stream via BFI Player.

To try to avoid angry comments saying I’m making it all up, at this point I am going to make it perfectly clear, selling pages still exist for public domain issues of Birth of a Nation on DVD, as well as the out-of-print Twilight Time edition.  But the major releases are gone entirely. 

Interestingly, there has been no reports about this in the media (that I can find), and silent film fan forums and Facebook groups are generally quiet on the subject – some of the Facebook groups don’t even allow a mention of Birth of a Nation, they see it as that problematic.  But, even so, when Gone with the Wind was withdrawn from some streaming platforms for a few days a month or two back, it was everywhere in the news.  The same is true when The Germans episode of Fawlty Towers was also withdrawn from a streaming service for a short time.   So, it seems rather odd that this decision by Amazon about possibly the most notorious film in cinematic history results in no mention at all.

Now, anyone who has chatted to me about films or, indeed, read some of the posts from this blog in the past or Twitter comments etc will know that I generally have no time for D. W. Griffith.  I confess I admire the ambition of Intolerance and find it an entertaining movie, but beyond that I find that his films are a bore made by a boor. 

Birth of a Nation is a putrid film, and the fact that, for so many years, it was a core element of silent film courses at universities is, at best, unfortunate.  It wasn’t on the silent film course I took during my BA in 2005, but I know that it was during later years at the same university under different course organisers.   

While I am, for the most part, overjoyed that the most famous store in the world is dropping the most racist film in history, I do still have reservations. The film is never going to go away, but at least the three blu ray editions that are involved are the best ones on the market, and do not shy away from the realities of the film and the effects it had on society in the decades after it was issued.  As foul as the film is, it is an important part of 20th Century history, and the blu rays tend to present it as the museum piece it should now be viewed as, with a great deal of extraneous information, documentaries etc to contextualise it and inform the viewer of its major part in the resurgence of the KKK in the decades after its release. That isn’t the case for those seeking the film out on YouTube, for example.

In fact, why is the film still on a platform like YouTube? It clearly goes against the policies that they outline on their site, and surely the film is more problematic as a free-to-view stand-alone video rather than as part of a blu ray package with documentaries and a booklet to contextualise it?   If there was a choice, I would rather see it removed from YouTube than have the physical products removed from Amazon – after all, the current various incarnations on YouTube have reached half a million views, whereas sales of the title on disc would be a small fraction of that. What’s more, it’s free on YouTube, meaning people are much more likely to see it there than pay £10-£20 for the privilege (although I agree that it’s a cheaper way for students to see it if their fiend of a unit organiser insists on including it on on the syllabus).

I guess that I am actually surprised by Amazon’s decision, and even more surprised that there was no big announcement for the media with it.  Has Amazon stopped selling the film because they have a moral conscience?  That would be a nice thought, but it seems odd for a company that is alleged to have not paid anything like its fair share of taxes and which has been severely criticised for its working conditions to suddenly get a conscience over a film that was made in 1915.   And one cannot say it is a publicity stunt either – as there has been no publicity.  The removal of these selling pages was done quietly and with no fanfare.  Indeed, prior to writing this article, I checked Google to see if the move by Amazon had gained more publicity, but it hasn’t.  I would also be less surprised had this happened, say, six or eight weeks ago when the Black Lives Matter protests were at their peak, as a way of, perhaps, pre-empting any calls to have the film removed.   But that isn’t the case either.  But, as W. S. Gilbert wrote for H.M.S. Pinafore, “never mind the why and wherefore.”  It has happened.

Many people will no doubt say, “but where will this end?” Indeed, when I raised the Amazon move over on a  forum last week, some of the responders essentially asked this same question. 

A myth seems to have been built up in the last year or so that “cancel culture” is real.  It isn’t.  To my knowledge, no books or films or music have been somehow banned simply because much of the population is far more sensitive to how other people feel than they were a decade ago.  Birth of a Nation hasn’t been banned – or “cancelled” if you’re down with the middle-aged, often-affluent, white men, with steam coming out of their ears, who get in a huff at the thought of other people getting some of the power in society that they used to have.   

There are those that say that, if we remove Birth of a Nation, then other films reflecting attitudes of the times in which they were made will follow.  But there is a huge difference between Gone with the Wind’s grossly distorted view of history or Jolson in blackface and Birth of a NationGone with the Wind and Jolson might have elements we view as racist, but Birth of a Nation encouraged racism.  It was propaganda for the racist community, and that is a far different situation. 

One thing that isn’t up for debate is just how much things have changed and how far we have come in the last five years (and mostly in the last year).  Kino, the British Film Institute, and Eureka video all released new, deluxe editions of Birth of a Nation in and around 2015 to tie in with the film’s 100th birthday.  It is quite clear that none of these companies would be likely to produce such a release in 2020 – indeed, I doubt if there will ever be a new release of the film from any major label in the future, even if some form of new technology comes along and takes the place of blu rays and streaming. I won’t be shedding any tears about that.

I am genuinely interested in hearing people’s opinions on the matter, so please feel free to leave a comment. 

NB. The Eureka and Kino editions of Birth of a Nation are still available from these labels’ websites. The BFI no longer appears to have a page on their online store for the film.

Review: The Red Lily (1924)

Oh, I’m going to get some abuse over this post!

I confess that I don’t think I have ever seen a more preposterous film than the 1924 silent The Red Lily, written and directed by Fred Niblo, and starring Ramon Novarro and Enid Bennett.  This following contains considerably spoilers, which are likely to stop you enjoying the film if you haven’t yet seen it – however, quite why you would enjoy the film anyway is something we don’t have time to argue about.   But I will give a full summary of the story, so you can see the merits of the film.  Or not.

Ramon Novarro and Enid Bennett live in a French village.  Novarro is the mayor’s son, Bennett is the cobbler’s daughter.  They are madly in love, but the mayor won’t allow them to marry.  The cobbler dies, meaning that Bennett has to go and live with some other relations in a nearby village.  (Quite why, as a grown woman, she can’t look after herself is something we don’t know.)   

When she arrives at her new home, she finds that the family she is now to live with is ruled by a husband and wife who are a dab hand at domestic abuse.  When the husband comes after Bennett with a whip, she runs off back to her old house, which is now empty.  Novarro spots the light in the window, and goes to see what’s going on (lucky he was passing, really).  He comforts Bennett as they sit in front of the fire, but nosey neighbours believe they have slept together (quite why when they can plainly see they have spent the night clothed and in front of the fire is anybody’s guess).  When they are discovered the next morning, Novarro tells his father that they will marry, no matter what – but the mayor thinks this is only happening because they have slept together,  and so Novarro and Bennett run off to Paris to get hitched. 

It’s at this point that the film falls apart and becomes even more unsavoury.  At the Paris train station, Novarro says he is going to find out where they can get married (obviously that’s more important than finding somewhere to live in a city where they know no-one).  He leaves Bennett for a few minutes, at which point he is arrested on suspicion of robbing his father (he didn’t do it).  While he eventually escapes from the police, nearly a day has passed.  He arrives at the station just as Bennett leaves, and they don’t see each other because a stone pillar is separating them.  (Yes, it’s that sort of film.) 

They wander the streets of Paris.  She gets a cleaning job, but is fired when she refuses to sleep with her boss.  She makes her way to the banks of the Seine, where she sits down on a bench.  Behind her is Novarro, gazing out into the river.  Despite only being about ten feet from each other, they don’t spot each other.  Yes, it’s still that sort of film. 

Novarro turns to crime.  She contemplates suicide, but becomes a prostitute instead.  (No, I’m not making this up).  One night, Novarro and Bennett are reunited.  But he is so repulsed by the ageing, weary woman she has become that, instead of running into her arms, he hits her in the face.  (I’m really not making this up.)  Shortly after, he gets shot by the police, and Bennett nurses him back to health.  During this time, he verbally and mentally abuses her and then walks out on her, returning to his criminal friends.

She follows, and is there when the police raid.  She gets shot saving Novarro, and Novarro escapes into the sewers.  When he returns to the bar full of criminals, he is told that Bennett is in hospital, dying.  He goes there to see her, and is arrested at her bedside. 

Two years later, she has miraculously recovered and is doing rather well as a seamstress.  Novarro is recently out of prison.  He arrives there in a nice new suit and a bunch of flowers.  They return to their village a married couple, and live happily after. 

Quite what anyone was thinking making such (rather unsavoury) tosh is anybody’s guess.  Novarro was put into some pretty potty vehicles towards the end of his career, but this shows that he was in some potty ones at the beginning too.  At this point (1924), we was basically being viewed as a poor (wo)man’s Rudolph Valentino.  But we can see even through this ridiculous movie that Novarro was easily the better actor.  Despite this idiotic fare, he manages to somehow make something of the young innocent in the first half and being a complete bastard in the second.  Enid Bennett is also extremely good.  If Novarro was being seen as a poor man’s Valentino, then Bennett was the equivalent with regard to Lillian Gish. But on the basis of the current film, she was far more subtle in her own acting skills. 

Quite what Fred Niblo was doing when he wrote this story, I have no idea.  Perhaps he’d been at the absinthe.  Oddly, he wasn’t given a writing credited ever again after The Red Lily.  I can’t think why.  Perhaps they ran out of absinthe.   The best thing to come out of the Red Lily was Ben Hur.  Niblo and Novarro worked well together (and had made a previous film together), and so when George Walsh was deemed unsuitable part of the way into filming the epic, it was Novarro who stepped in.  And the rest is history.   

Should you wish to see The Red Lily (and who wouldn’t?), it is available in the Warner Archive series. And while I might have not liked this movie much, it is wonderful just how many rare silents that the Warner Archive releases have given us access too. The print is good for the most part, with a bit of nitrate damage near the beginning. The score is also very good.

A Queer Romance: Gay Characters and Male Bonding in Early Film (video)

Let me begin my saying that I hope the readers and followers of the blog have managed to remain healthy during the current situation.

Looking at social media, many people have done their best to remain active and busy during the lockdowns that are going on around the world. I also needed a new project, and so I purchased some very basic video editing software and decided to revisit the research I did for my PhD and book on gay characters in silent film. My plan was to create a short video about it, lasting about ten minutes – but it ended up at 68 minutes instead.

“A Queer Romance” is a video essay, written and narrated by yours truly and covering gay characters and romantic friendships in European and American film up to 1934. Clips are included from three dozen movies, some of which are obscure or hard to find. Sadly, a couple of edits had to be made when uploading the finished product to YouTube due to copyright claims on a couple of clips – I could have argued the case given that my use falls under “fair use,” but given the current situation I just thought it best to make a couple of edits and upload it anyway or I could potentially be sitting on the video for weeks.

Hopefully the video will be of interest to some of you. Stay safe.

Review: 13 Reasons Why (season 3)

This review contains spoilers.

You have to feel sorry for those associated with the making of 13 Reasons Why. Despite good intentions, it has come under fire for each of its three seasons. It has been accused of romanticising suicide, of depicting shocking events including rape and sexual assault in too much of a graphic way. It also has been blamed for children’s reaction to the show, despite the fact it is clearly not aimed at kids and that their parents should be to blame for not keeping an eye on what their pre-teens are watching.

The knives were out for the third season before it was released. Critics have asked why there needs to be a third season – a question I find rather odd when the same question isn’t asked of other TV shows. Does their need to be any TV series? And now that we have the third season, the critics have declared it depressing and monotonous – presumably because there is little within the new series that can be viewed as shocking or graphic. What’s more, some critics were arguing this in reviews published less than twelve hours after the series dropped – and we have been told that reviewers didn’t get copies in advance. And if that doesn’t tell you that reviews were written before the writers had seen the series, nothing will!

It certainly seems true to say that the third season is the least impressive so far. Dealing with the murder of serial rapist Bryce Walker, it seems overlong, baggy, and contrived. Much of this is to do with the introduction of a new character, Ani, who dominates the series. When she’s not on screen, she is narrating the action. But Ani is just a plot device. She is there so that we get to see what happened in Bryce’s house. She is, basically, our eyes and ears. But the plot device is clunky and jarring, as is the awful decision of using three different timeframes – Ani talking to the police, the post-murder scenes, and the pre-murder scenes. Again, it’s jarring, not helped by the fact that the makers decided to indicate time frames by going to black and white or by changing aspect ratios. Viewers are clever enough to work it out for themselves – they don’t need on-screen indicators in this way.

There has also been criticism (and in some cases, shock) amongst viewers on social media that a different side of Bryce Walker is shown in this series. But I would suggest this was a brave move on the part of the writers. Bryce was the only one-dimensional character in the first two series. Everyone else in the main cast were much more developed, whereas Bryce was just the bad guy. But people in real life are not good or bad guys. Everyone does good and bad things, some of us more good than bad, and vice versa. But those criticising the move to humanise Bryce are suggesting that people can’t change, and that redemption is never possible, and that some people have no redeeming features whatsoever. Bryce, in the end, doesn’t get redeemed. He tries, but finds it difficult to escape his old ways, and in the end that brings about his murder. Interestingly, I got similar comments from people when I wrote Breaking Down, a sequel to Breaking Point, my novel about homophobic bullying. In the sequel, the bully of the first book tries to make good, but it didn’t sit well with all readers. Likewise, in the first book, I had one of the victims doing bad things, and that was seen as problematic too. “But he’s the good guy,” I was told. Now, whether I or 13 Reasons Why managed to deal with this supposed redemption is up for debate, but it’s not as if Bryce suddenly becomes a good guy or stops doing bad things – as some commentators would have us believe. He’s still an arsehole, and now a self-pitying one.

But, for all it’s awkwardness and ridiculous length, 13 Reasons Why still remains the only programme willing to delve into serious, difficult teenage issues in this way. In reviews of previous seasons, I have highlighted how other TV shows aimed at the same age group give easy answers or gloss over difficult issues as soon as they have brought them up. In 13 Reasons Why these things are ugly, and messy, and life-changing.

There are some truly remarkable and important moments in this third season. Has there ever been a more honest portrayal of the aftermath of male on male sexual assault than in 13 Reasons Why? The moment in episode eight where Tyler finally tells someone face to face about what happened to him months earlier is devastating, brilliantly written, and stunningly acted.

The end of season two found Bryce basically getting away with rape thanks to the court system. I though this was a mistake. It would have been unrealistic to show him getting the punishment he deserves, but in this instance I thought it would pass on the right message to viewers, giving them the courage to report crimes against them. In this series, though, the show makes up for this thanks to the moving sequence in episode ten in which Jessica talks to the school about her experience and members of the school audience stand up and admit they were “survivors” too.

There will be a fourth and final season of the show next year – a rather odd choice given that the final episode of this season seems to wrap up the story rather efficiently. One has to wonder if the show could have gone a different route, perhaps the way of Skins, where a new series brings a new cast of characters and fresh storylines. Quite what the fourth season will bring is unknown at this stage.

13 Reasons Why is not perfect. It tries hard, and it makes some horrible decisions from time to time, but it is remarkably important. Teenage life is horrible – perhaps it always has been – and, if critics and adult reviewers are criticising the show, perhaps it is because it bares some ugly truths that we, as adults, don’t want to face. Bullying, rape, gun violence, sexual assault, drug addiction, violence, mental health issues – they are, unfortunately, part of teenager’s lives. We get them to put on their school uniform, send them off to school in the morning, and assume the school is looking after them for the six or seven hours before they come home. We, as adults, hate to be reminded that sometimes our trust in the school is a mistake. Schools can be ugly places. 13 Reasons Why throws that unsettling fact right in front of us, and it seems that too many (re)viewers would rather complain that the images are too graphic or shocking than accept that there is a problem out there, and that the depictions in the series are far closer to the truth than anyone wants to admit – and so we blame the show rather than the real life it is depicting.

Review: The Birth of the Blues (1941)

458full-birth-of-the-blues----------------------------------(1941)-poster

The Birth of the Blues should perhaps be called The Birth of Jazz, or perhaps even more appropriately, The Birth of Jazz According to Hollywood.  If you want to know just why this film from 1941 is problematic in 2019, just check out the last sixty seconds, where the audience is informed that Louis Armstrong learned jazz from an all-white, middle-class jazz band.  Armstrong appears (for two seconds, literally) in a montage of the great jazz musicians of the age, of which only he and Duke Ellington are African American.  The really great jazz musicians of the early 1940s were apparently Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Paul Whiteman, and George Gershwin.

The films charts the rise to fame of a group of jazz musicians headed by Bing Crosby.  It is a loose re-telling of the story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose claim to fame were that they were the first group to record jazz, back in 1917.  This claim to fame is pretty much glossed over in the film, which seems a little odd considering it should perhaps be the climax of it.  Instead, the film concentrates on how the group popularised jazz in New Orleans polite society and how they worked to take their new music to the rest of America.

It’s hard to know whether to be completely offended by the whole endeavour, or to allow yourself to be charmed by the effortless performances by Bing Crosby and Mary Martin.  But for every good performance, the film presents us with a racial stereotype or a rewriting of history.  Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, but this movie seems to be more problematic than most from the period, if only due to its endless endeavour to whitewash history.  There are the occasional moments when the film tells us that African Americans might just have had something to do with the beginnings of jazz – in the rather cute prologue (see below) and where Eddie “Rochester” Anderson teaches Mary Martin how to jazz up a Tin Pan Alley number – but they are few and far between.

Musically speaking, many of the songs are Tin Pan Alley numbers rather that jazz as such, but Bing Crosby and Mary Martin sing beautifully and work very well together on screen.  However, the best number in the film is a wonderfully staged and arranged St. Louis Blues, sung by Ruby Elzy and a chorus. Unfortunately the sequence from the film is not on YouTube, but a performance from a radio appearance from the time is, although it is not as good:

The current DVD of the film runs around eight minutes shorter than the given run time on the internet, and so it may be possible that it is slightly edited for whatever reason.  Picture and sound are very good.  The film was released in the UK on DVD as a double bill with Blue Skies.

She-Wolf of London (1946)

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The release last year of the complete series of the 1930s and 1940s Universal Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man movies on blu-ray has, no doubt, had many, like myself, revisiting some of the films from these cycles that they hadn’t seen in some time – only this time in much better quality.  It is worth adding that, perhaps appropriately, the Invisible Man movies are nowhere to be seen on blu-ray with the exception of the original movie.  Without doubt, these films look wonderful in high definition, and some of them really come to life in a way they hadn’t in their DVD incarnation.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) is a key example.  This is a weird, dark, and eerie film that came at the end of the first cycle of Universal horror films during the sound period.   On blu-ray, all of that weirdness seems even more startling, and the picture quality for a film of this vintage is truly stunning.

Werewolf of London (1935), from a year earlier, was another that I enjoyed revisiting over the Christmas period.  Not part of the Wolf Man series at all, but a stand alone effort from six years before Lon Chaney Jr started having a problem with facial hair, this one suffers a little from rather sedate pacing, but is still an interesting movie nonetheless and is certainly better than many of the Universal horror movies of the 1940s.

In fact, Werewolf of London was the last film I saw in 2017, and so it only seemed right that She-Wolf of London (1946)  was the first I screened in 2018.  This is probably the least-known of all the films on the recent blu ray sets, and yet it is also one of the best.  As with Werewolf of London, it is not part of the Wolf Man series, but a stand alone feature starring June Lockhart as a young woman who fears she has the family curse of becoming a werewolf when there are a series of murders and attacks in a park close to her home.

I confess I don’t have much time for the “House of” series, in which the various Universal monsters come together in one film, that dominated the 1940s horror cycle.  By this point, the series had, arguably, lost its way, becoming more fantasy (and comedy) than horror.  She-Wolf of London isn’t really traditional horror either – no hairy beasts are seen within the movie at all, with the except of a couple of dogs.  Instead, we have a film which seems to be a mix of Gaslightthe Val Lewton films for RKO, and even Rebecca.   It seems almost ironic that Universal, who at one point led the way with regards to horror during the previous decade, here borrows from what other studios were doing.  The central character’s obsession with her supposed family curse has a great deal in common with Cat People (1942) from the Lewton/RKO series  and The Undying Monster, made by Fox.  Sadly, She-Wolf of London doesn’t have the same intelligent script or sense of dread as Cat People, although it certainly treads some of the same ground thematically.  It is still a taut little thriller, aided and abetted by some really fine performances, including the wide-eyed June Lockhart herself, but also Jan Wiley, who does well in a far less showy role.  Sara Haden, meanwhile, chews up and spits out the scenery.

Running at only 61 minutes, the mystery element isn’t given room to be taxing, and the ending comes about rather suddenly, but the film seems remarkably classy compared to the other horrors that Universal were producing at the time, and the period atmosphere is nicely sustained throughout.   Certainly an enjoyable way of spending an hour if you prefer your horror to be of a sinister rather than supernatural variety.

Elvis Presley: The 1969 Vegas Season

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The following is an except from the book “Reconsider Baby.  Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide, 2nd edition” available in Kindle and paperback formats from Amazon.  

The day after the airing of the NBC TV Special, the New York Times announced: “Elvis Presley to Make Personal Appearances.”[1]  Elvis’s season at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, beginning on July 31, 1969, was to be his first live appearance in eight years (unless one counts the live segments of the TV show).  Unlike the TV show of the previous year, and the albums recorded in Memphis six months earlier, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.

Billboard raved that “the greatest rocker of them all came and met one of his toughest audiences at the International Hotel showroom….But it was not the Elvis with the rough edges of the middle 1950s, on stage Thursday.  It was a polished, confident and talented artist, knowing exactly what he was going to do and when.”[2]  A week further on in the season, they reported that “nine years away from live performing have not affected his affinity for interpretation, combining the visual affects (sic) of the flaying arms and slowly gyrating hips; of his gutsy attack on quasi-blues songs or his shifting into a romantic milieu for Yesterday or Love Me Tender.”[3]

Norma Lee Browning in the Chicago Tribune takes time from her caustic assessment of Elvis’s appearance at a press conference to admit that “Presley’s smash opening in the showroom of the new International hotel, following Barbra Streisand’s fair-to-middlin’ engagement, has set a lot of showbiz folks back on their ears.”[4] Mary Campbell of the Ottawa Journal said that most of the audience were “old enough to have hated him 13 years ago and some of them admitted that they had…Rock music no longer gives cultural shock to the middle-aged.  And neither does Elvis Presley.  Presley still makes those ‘suggestive’ movements.  But the shocking of 1956 can be the nostalgic of 1969.”[5]

The third and final act of the Presley comeback was an unequivocal success, and it was hardly surprising that RCA were there to record a number of shows for a live album.  Six days of shows were recorded, and then a live album was assembled from the tapes.  Originally released as the first disc of From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis, the live album would eventually be re-released on its own with the equally catchy title of In Person at the International Hotel – or In Person for short.

The disc starts with Blue Suede Shoes, the number that Elvis used to open the shows.  The Vegas setting is obvious from the first notes of the album thanks to the introduction by the Bobby Morris Orchestra.  This is followed by an opening vamp from Elvis’s core band before Elvis finally starts singing.  His voice is strong (probably stronger than in the Memphis sessions earlier in the year), and he sounds confident and full of energy.   The song is taken at a faster pace than the studio versions (and, for some reason, Elvis repeats the same two verses rather than using the others), and the whole thing is over in two minutes, including the introduction and the vamp.

The high energy continues with a cover of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode.  Again, Elvis misses out a verse, the second in Berry’s recording, and substitutes it with a repeat of the third verse.  Elvis would continue to use the song in slightly different variations over the coming years.  It would be shorn of the repeated verse by the time of the performance on the Aloha from Hawaii TV special in 1973, and would get the briefest of renditions in the final years, normally as part of the extended band introductions.  The version issued on In Person is probably the best Elvis version that has been released.  He rocks with abandon, spitting out the words at breakneck pace, and the band is as tight as a drum.

All Shook Up follows, at much the same pace as the previous two numbers.  The song doesn’t really work so well at this speed, but Elvis had a penchant for speeding up his 1950s hits on stage during the following eight years, and that habit appears to have been formed even at this stage.  It is a far cry from the shuffle rhythm of the studio recording, and it lacks charm and suggests there were some of his earlier hits that he struggled to update for his new live act.

Are You Lonesome Tonight gets a serious rendition from Elvis, with Millie Kirkham’s almost-otherworldly soprano providing a lovely obligato.  The performance is very different from the one captured on tape a couple of nights later in which Elvis gets a fit of giggles and laughs uncontrollably through almost the entire song.  That version, referred to affectionately as Are You Laughing Tonight, was released in 1980.

Elvis introduces Hound Dog as his “message song” for the evening.  The self-deprecating humour of these shows is often quite charming, but at other times just doesn’t work on record.  From this point of view, the live album released from these concerts doesn’t always work due to the often-sloppy editing.  There are long moments of silence (do we really want to hear Elvis drinking water?), and other times where the on-stage humour needs the visuals to work or where a joke goes on too long.

Hound Dog doesn’t receive the throwaway performance that it would in later shows, but it seems clear that, even in 1969, Elvis didn’t really know what to do with it.  It was no longer the yell of frustration and rebellion that it was in the 1950s, and the first verse is repeated over and over, leaving out the “high-classed” second verse on the vast majority of live performances. This demonstrates the conundrum that Elvis would find himself in for the next eight years – songs that were huge hits a dozen or more years earlier were not necessarily relevant to Elvis in his mid-to-late thirties.  His commitment now was often towards more recent songs of a more serious (and, in the coming years, more maudlin) nature.  And yet it was clear that he had to include the “oldies” in his set.  In 1969, the older songs generally got given proper attention, but they would later be used as a punctuation point in a show where Elvis could sing half-heartedly, catching his breath while handing out scarves to screaming fans.  In these 1969 shows, it is great to hear Elvis singing Hound Dog live, but there seems little point to it.  The arrangement has no real structure (it doesn’t build to a big finish), and it simply does the job and little else.  Not everyone agrees.  Cub Koda and Bruce Eder write that the guitar work of James Burton “puts a new edge on Hound Dog, coming up with something different than, yet vaguely similar to, Scotty Moore’s approach to the song in concert 14 years earlier.”[6]  One can only wish that Elvis had chosen to keep the switch to half-speed that was present in the live renditions from the 1950s.

The same can’t be said for I Can’t Stop Loving You.  Whereas the song was given a country flavour in the short jam session at the Memphis sessions earlier in the year, here it is given a full work-out and becomes a show-stopper, with a much more thought-out arrangement than many of the live versions of Elvis’s own hits.  Elvis’s vocal is both sincere and playful and the big finish is stunning, even if the cut-in of an audience member screaming is unnecessary and distracting.

Elvis romps through the r&b classic My Babe, using the song as a vehicle to show off his stronger vocal abilities.  A second version of the number was released in 1980, and this uses slightly different orchestration, but Elvis’s vocal isn’t as strong or controlled here, although it is always nice to hear the different arrangement, and fascinating that Elvis was still toying with his act this late in the engagment.

The medley of Mystery Train and Tiger Man is given a typically self-mocking introduction in which Elvis talks about the sound he had in the early days.  The sound here is brought up-to-date, though, with an arrangement that rocks like hell and features some great work from Ronnie Tutt on drums, with his riffs effectively punctuating Elvis’s vocals on Tiger Man.  The medley is, alongside Suspicious Minds, the highlight of the live album.

The recent Bee Gees hit Words gets a relatively perfunctory run-through.  Elvis’s vocal is sincere and committed, but the arrangement would be slightly modified for the Vegas season a year later, and those performances seem to have a bit more substance.

In the Ghetto doesn’t have the same impact in a live setting that it did in the studio.  The arrangement is beefier, and something is lost.  Elvis’s voice isn’t in such good shape here either, and he appears to be struggling with the low notes, with them having heavy vibrato and often threatening to go out of tune.  The biggest problem, though, is that Elvis hadn’t found a way to translate the intimate sound of the studio recording on to the concert stage, and this was something that would appear to cause him issues during the next eight years.  The ballads that made their way into the live act were, for the most past, ones with big arrangements and big choruses, which could be delivered with an impact during the live performances.  More fragile songs from the 1970s, such as I’m Leavin’ and Until It’s Time For You To Go were, like In the Ghetto, “beefed up” when sung in Vegas or on tour.  Elvis could have done with a short section in each show where the arrangements were stripped back to just him and a couple of musicians.  This would have resulted in some light and shade during the performance as well as giving an appropriate setting for Elvis to sing some of the quieter moments from his back-catalogue, whether hits such as Loving You and Don’t, or album tracks from the 1970s such as I Miss You or For Lovin’ Me.

The highlight of the original album and the Vegas season in general is Suspicious Minds.  This was Elvis’s latest single at the time, and he turns it into a showstopper that lasts over seven minutes.  Again, this lacks some of the vocal subtleties of the studio version, but here it doesn’t matter, as Elvis starts the number relatively sedately and then slowly but surely works it up into a frenzy over its mammoth running time.  This should be tedious, but it works superbly, and the excitement of the stage performance transfers surprisingly well to record.

The original album ended, as did the shows, with Can’t Help Falling in Love.  Taken at a faster pace than both the original studio recording and that used in the previous year’s TV special, the track becomes a closing credits theme song rather than receiving a fully committed performance.  Soon it would take on a new meaning, as Elvis would use the number in the vast majority of his live shows for the next eight years, and it would signal to the audience that their time with their hero was all but over.

The live section of the double album resulted in Elvis getting some of the best reviews of his career.  Don Heckman in the New York Times wrote that “the rhythmic surge is the same and peculiarly appropriate mix of Presley’s country twang with the rolling syllables of black blues still scorches the ear – what was successful a decade and a half ago is successful today.”[7]  Variety stated the live set is “packed with performer and audience excitement that explain the singer’s title as king of rock ‘n’ roll.  His vocals and poise are in top shape, and although he does considerable material over 10 years old, the backup updates the music.”[8] Robert Hilburn simply called the live album “the best thing Presley has done on record in years…Presley [demonstrates] the restless, unconventional vocal style that made him rock’s most important and most influential male singer.”[9]

Two more songs from this Vegas season were issued in 1970 on the album On Stage, primarily recorded in February 1970.  Runaway, a cover of the Del Shannon hit, receives a fine performance from Elvis, who gives the song a slightly harder edge than Shannon.  Years later, another performance was released, this time on a night when Shannon was in the audience.  It’s a nice moment when Elvis introduces him from the stage, and it’s a shame that it wasn’t this version that was released back in 1970.

The other song from 1969 on the On Stage LP is a rather bland take on The Beatles’ YesterdayIt was originally performed with the “na na na” refrain of Hey Jude tagged on the end, but this is omitted on the original release.  It is a pleasant enough rendition, but the arrangement is uninspired to say the least.

In 1991, RCA issued a three-album boxed set entitled Collector’s Gold, featuring outtakes from Elvis’s soundtrack and secular non-soundtrack recordings during the period 1960-1968, with a final disc given over to more performances from the 1969 Las Vegas season.  The emphasis here was on songs not included on In Person, although alternate versions of some of those titles were used to fill up the disc.  What these recordings show is that the double album released in 1969 should have been an all-live affair, with the Memphis material saved for a separate project.  Here we have a driving version of I Got a Woman, complete with a bluesy coda; a nice update of Heartbreak Hotel; a country-influenced version of Love Me Tender; and a fun medley of Jailhouse Rock and Don’t Be Cruel which teeters on the edge of being a throwaway during the latter half but doesn’t quite topple over.

With RCA recording, Elvis also tried out some of his newer material on occasion, and that is also included on the Collector’s Gold CD.  From the Memphis sessions, Elvis tried out Rubberneckin’, which works rather well in the live setting, and Inherit the Wind and This is the Story which suffer from Elvis losing his focus and fooling around just a bit too much.  From the TV show of the year before, Elvis includes Memories, a strange choice of song that simply doesn’t fit in this kind of live setting, and Elvis is out of breath, rather fatal for a song that requires such precise phrasing.  He also revives Baby What You Want Me To Do, but this time in a much more structured version than seen on TV the previous year. Elsewhere, there are one-off performances of Funny How Time Slips Away (nearly a year before Elvis turned to it in the studio) and Reconsider Baby, which is nearly as good as the studio recording from 1960, and certainly the best live performance of the song released thus far.  Sadly, the disc ends with an interminable rendition of What’d I Say, which might have been exciting to watch, but is remarkably tedious to listen to as Elvis shouts out the words rather than sings them, and the band play a series of solos.  It lasts for nearly six minutes, and is not remotely satisfying.

Over the last decade or so, a number of complete concerts from this Vegas season have been released by Sony both at retail level and on the collector’s label.  What these releases demonstrate is the remarkable consistency in both quality and choice of material within these shows.  There is relatively little variation between shows, with the majority of the material consisting of full throttle performances of past hits as well as the covers already discussed.  Perhaps it is hardly surprising, therefore, that the most interesting shows are the ones that veer most from the standard repertoire, and these are the dinner and midnight shows from August 26th, released as Live in Vegas and All Shook Up respectively.  The first of these features the alternate arrangement of My Babe, as well as performances of Inherit the Wind and Memories.  The midnight show, on the other hand, gives us renditions of Rubberneckin’ and This is the Story, as well as allowing us to hear the laughing version of Are You Lonesome Tonight within the context of the very loose show from which it originates.

These shows may well be the best performances that Elvis gave, but it could be  argued that they are not the most satisfying set-lists.  The concentration here is on rock ‘n’ roll.  Sure, there are a couple of ballads thrown in for good measure, but only Are You Lonesome Tonight really gets a decent treatment.  As we know, there was more to Elvis than rock ‘n’ roll.  There are almost no nods to his country influences here, and no gospel material at all.  By the following summer, he still wasn’t performing gospel songs on stage (except for an off-the-cuff performance) but at least the gospel sound was much more prominent, incorporated into the backing of some of the ballads, such as Just Pretend, and country songs became part of the live repertoire.  At this stage in 1969, then, Elvis’s set-list was surprisingly restricted, and ultimately built upon the black leather segments of the 1968 TV special.

Restrictive set lists notwithstanding, Elvis’s return to live performing was a huge success and, after years of having his career in the artistic and commercial doldrums, he was once again back on top.  It had taken just over three years (from the How Great Thou Art sessions to the live performances of July and August 1969), but the effort had been worth it.  Elvis now had his second chance – all he had to do now was build upon the foundation he had created for himself.

[1] Mike Jahn, “Elvis Presley to Make Personal Appearances,” New York Times, December 4, 1968, 51.

[2] James D Kingsley, “Presley Faces Toughest Challenge in Las Vegas,” Billboard, August 9, 1969, 4.

[3] Eliot  Tiegel, “Elvis Retains Touch in Return to Stage,” Billboard, August 16, 1969, 47.

[4] Norma Lee Browning, “Elvis, in Person, Still the King,” Chicago Tribune, August 24, 1969, Entertainment Section, 5.

[5] Mary Campbell, “The Pelvis Isn’t Stilled,” Ottawa Journal, November 1, 1969, TV Journal, 13.

[6] Cub Koda and Bruce Eder, “Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada,” in The All Music Guide to Country: The Definitive Guide to Country Music, ed. Vladimir Bogdanov (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2003), 605.

[7] Don Heckman, “Zeppelin, Elvis, Butterfield – Three Styles of Rock,” New York Times, December 7, 1969, D42.

[8] “Elvis, The Byrds, Neil Diamond, Rankin, Lou Rawls, Joe Cocker, Parks, Humble Pie Top New LPs,” Variety, November 19, 1969, 48.

[9] Robert Hilburn, “Live Albums Best for Displaying Artists Talents,” Lansing State Journal, December 6, 1969, D3.

Bobby Darin: 1971 – The Lost Year

Even for many Bobby Darin fans, 1971 is a year which is a bit of a mystery.  Darin began the year with a residency at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.  An album was planned, entitled “Finally,” but it didn’t emerge until 1987.  Straight after the engagement, Bobby had heart surgery and laid low for next eight months or so, only appearing on TV again in September in a short, almost unrecognisable, cameo in a Jackson 5 special, and then in two acting roles in Ironside and Cade’s Country.  He finished the year with an appearance on the Merv Griffin Show.

This post pulls together some press cuttings from this “lost year.”  I have purposefully NOT included the many articles that dwelled on the surgery, and instead concentrated on other things.  Check out, though, the second and third articles, both from Variety.  In the first, they accuse some singers in Bobby’s act of walking out without warning on his show.  In the second, just days before the heart surgery and when he no doubt had plenty of other things on his mind, Bobby wrote to Variety to set the record straight.

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Fort Myers News-Press, Jan 6, 1971. 

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Variety, Jan 27, 1971. 

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Variety, Jan 29. 1971

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Detroit_Free_Press_Wed__Nov_10__1971_3

Detroit_Free_Press_Wed__Nov_10__1971_ part 1

All of the above:  Detroit Free Press, Nov 10, 1971

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Burlington Daily-Times News, March 16, 1971

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Des Moines Free Press, June 4, 1971

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Reno Gazette-Journal, September 10, 1971

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San Bernardino County Sun, September 19, 1971