Frank Sinatra: 20 Years On

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As someone who has written a book about the music of Bobby Darin, what was especially nice about the recent release of the Frank Sinatra: Standing Room Only 3CD set a few weeks back was to hear Sinatra in 1966 recommending that his audience takes time out to go and see Bobby while they were in Vegas.  The comments were, for this listener at least, unexpected, but put to bed once and for all the fake-feud between Darin and Sinatra that the media seemingly made up around 1960 and have continued to talk of as fact ever since.  It should also be added that, in a 1975 newspaper interview, Tina Sinatra said that her father would be performing at a Darin tribute concert (a concert that sadly never happened).   Another suggestion that the stories of animosity were untrue.

A second edition of my book on Bobby Darin will come out late in 2018, all being well, just as the second edition of my book on the music of Elvis Presley came out last year.   Those books take a reader through the recordings of the artist in question, from the first to the last, re-evaluating them from a modern viewpoint as well as providing excerpts from contemporary reviews and articles from trade magazines and newspapers, showing how the music was received at the time.  They have garnered some nice comments, but the question I’m asked most (especially by those who know me and my musical tastes) is “are you going to do one on the music of Frank Sinatra?”  The answer to that is always that I would love to, but where would I start?  Sinatra recorded more than double the amount of songs than Elvis and Darin put together, and if I ended up writing close to a quarter of a million words on Elvis, how much would I end up writing on Sinatra?  And what about collecting together all of those reviews and articles.  I have around 400-500 for the new edition of the Darin book, so with Sinatra I would be looking at probably five or six times that amount – at least!  I am not sure I am up to that task.

But this week marks twenty years since I switched on the TV and browsed Teletext one morning only to see on the news that Frank Sinatra had passed away.  It’s one of those moments that you don’t forget.  I had “got into” Sinatra about five years earlier while working in a used record store.  There were no customers, and so I started browsing through the albums, trying to find something to play.  I picked up, by chance, Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back.  And that was the start of that.  And I have Sinatra to thank for so much more than just his own music.  I picked up the albums he made with Basie, that got me searching out his records.  The same is true for Duke Ellington after hearing the much-maligned album that Frank Sinatra recorded with him.  And then came the VHS (as it was back then) of the 1967 TV show with Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.  And who couldn’t fall in love with her?  Through Sinatra, I found Basie, Duke, and Ella.  And through them I found John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson.  And through them I found…  Well, you get the idea.  But it all comes back to Frank Sinatra.  Without him, I would never have heard any of them in the wonderful, weird world of musical six-degrees-of-separation.

And so, twenty years after Sinatra’s passing, I thought it would be nice to look at ten of the Sinatra albums, TV shows and concerts that I cherish most, but which aren’t always talked about a great deal.   Of course, our musical preferences change on a regular basis – you learn to like things you didn’t, and go off things you used to love.  But, right now, here’s ten glorious moments with Frank Sinatra.   Albums dates refer to year of release.

1.  The Voice of Frank Sinatra (1946).   There really is no other place to start than with Frank’s first album.  Many have argued that this was the first pop concept album.  Just as many have argued that there were earlier ones.  But it doesn’t matter, because Sinatra took the notion of the concept album to a whole new level.  In this case, not just the bringing together of eight wonderful ballads, but their orchestration with a string quartet and small rhythm section.  If I had to live without any era of Frank Sinatra music (and I hope I never have to make that choice for real), then it would be the Columbia years, but despite that, this collection of eight songs is wondrous in its concept and delivery.  And if These Foolish Things doesn’t tear you in two, then nothing will.

2.  Close to You (1956).  Let’s skip those albums you already know about, and concentrate on Close to You, one of Sinatra’s least-known Capitol albums, and one that seems like a cousin of The Voice.  Here, again, he utilises the string quartet, augmented at various points by a woodwind or brass instrument.  Sinatra avoids the over-used American standards here, and goes for more obscure ones.  They aren’t “unknowns” exactly, but more “rarely heards.”  I don’t think there is a better version out there of P. S. I Love You or Blame It On My Youth.   And Frank gives Chet Baker a run for his money on Everything Happens to Me, only to go on to eclipse all versions in 1981 when he re-recorded the song for She Shot Me Down, although it remained in the vaults for over a decade.

3.  Monte Carlo, June 14, 1958.  This concert, finally released officially in 2016 (although any self-respecting fan had it in their collection long before that) is a stunning tour-de-force, and a rare snap-shot of where Sinatra was musically at this time.  He brings something to the relatively bland Monique here that he seemed to miss entirely in the studio.  And what can be said about Where Or When?  Sinatra takes it as a stripped back ballad, and sings the hell out of it, again beating the studio version that also remained in the vaults for years.  That song alone is worth the price of admission here, and I’ll take this show over any other from the 1950s that we are lucky enough to have in our collections.

4.  Point of No Return (1962).  This is one of those albums that have had a bad rap over the years.  We hear tales that Sinatra wasn’t really bothered about recording this album of ballads, his last LP for Capitol, and his last with Alex Stordahl as arranger.  But how can anyone listening to this come to that conclusion?  When the World Was Young is as perfect a recording as I can think of.  We don’t think of Sinatra singing French cabaret-type songs, but here he does, and does so beautifully, as always completely understanding the character at the heart of the piece.  A new, jazzier phrasing can be found in I’ll See You Again, and These Foolish Things, originally recorded for The Voice of Frank Sinatra, is here darker and moodier.

5.  Hibiya Park, Japan, April 21, 1962.  This concert was released on DVD on the World on a String boxed set in 2016.  This was part of Sinatra’s charity world tour in 1962, in which he travelled with just a jazz combo to support him, and raising a huge amount of money in the process.  What is so special here is that I don’t ever remember seeing Sinatra happier on stage.  His smile seems to beam from the beginning of the show to the end.  He interacts with the crowd in a way we have rarely seen, clearly getting a kick out of the amount of children in the audience at whom he smiles, waves, and even blows kisses to at various points.  Musically, the show is shorter than some of the others on the tour, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the singing or the playing – despite the wind trying to blow music stands across the stage.

6.  The Man and His Music + Ella + Jobim (TV show, 1967).  The late 1960s were a wonderful time for music specials.  1968 brought us Elvis’s NBC TV special, and the year before had brought us this.  Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald had appeared together on TV before, but not like this.  Everything just clicks into place, from the playful, semi-serious first duet medley, through to the finale of the show where Frank and Ella just go for it.  Ella was in superb form (and, oddly, without a permanent contract at the time) and Sinatra couldn’t be happier to be jousting with her.  The medley with Jobim is also a delight, and one can only wish that somewhere out there is material that was recorded for the show but not used due to time limitations, and one day we’ll have a deluxe release.  Is there more material?  Possibly (collectors will know that there is material in the vaults from the 1973 TV special).  We can but hope.

7.  Francis A. & Ellington K. (1968).  This wonderful album seems to have been much-maligned over the years, with it said that Sinatra wasn’t in great voice, and Ellington not in great form.  And yet it contains some of my favourite performances from both the Ellington band and Sinatra himself.  All I Need is the Girl may be taken at a pedestrian pace, but it’s so exciting, with both singer and the band threatening to let rip at any moment.  And is there a better version of Sunny out there?  If so, I haven’t heard it.  A follow-up album, with Frank singing an LP’s worth of Ellington songs, would have been most welcome, but never happened.

8.  Watertown (1970).   Watertown has become something of a cult favourite in recent decades.  It’s one of those albums that few have heard, but those that have would never be without it.  This is, essentially, a song cycle about a man whose wife has left him, and he now has to look after their two children.  He doesn’t know if she will come back or not.  Sinatra was always challenging himself – and his audiences.  And that is the case here.  This isn’t an easy listening album.  It demands your attention from beginning to end.  Michael & Peter, a song in the form of a letter to his wife about his children and what they are doing, is so remarkably moving.  And the disappointment is palpable when The Train arrives at the end of the album and the man’s wife is not on it.  But nobody appears to have heard the album at the time of release – except Nina Simone, it seems, who covered one of the songs on a 1985 album.  But this is a beautiful, haunting album.  Lady Day remained unissued for years, with Sinatra re-recording it with a lush Don Costa arrangement which was released on Sinatra & Company.  

9.  The Lost Songs (1973-1978).  OK, I’ll come clean.  This isn’t really an album at all.  It is just me taking the opportunity to draw attention to a group of songs that Sinatra recorded during the 1970s that deserve to be heard.  In the studio, at least, Frank seemed to be lost during this period.  He didn’t know what to record.  Albums were discussed and discarded.  Albums were started, and discarded.  Singles came out that were never going to do well commercially.  Other singles came out that were the worst things Sinatra ever disc.  Other songs remained in the vault.  And yet, the really good recordings from this period (outside of the 1973-4 albums) are stunning and deserve to be heard.  I’m talking here of Everything Happens to MeJust as Though You Were HereDry Your EyesLike a Sad SongEmpty TablesSend In the ClownsBang BangI Love My Wife.  Most people have never heard these because many were only available on CD through a 20CD set from the 1990s.  So, if anyone from the Estate is reading, get a collection of these lost 1970s songs (and the 1980s singles too) out on CD.  They deserve to be heard.

10.  The Ultimate Event (1988).  One of those concerts that is out on DVD, but no-one is sure whether the release is legal or not.  This was recorded in Detroit, as part of a tour featuring Sammy Davis Jr and Liza Minnelli alongside Sinatra.  What is wonderful here is that all three are on fire, and the clear love they have for each other.  Davis takes the audience from Rodgers & Hart, through Newley & Bricusse, and on to Michael Jackson and Andrew Lloyd Webber in twenty minutes.  Liza Minnelli had, arguably, never been better.  Her repertoire is familiar, but she wrings every ounce of emotion out of Quiet Love and Sailor Boys.  Then comes Sinatra, showing that Minnelli and Davis created great results but so can he – but seemingly with much less effort!  Finally, the three of them come together for a wonderful medley.  Again, this is an edited show – how great it would be to see a release of the whole thing.

Perhaps that’s an idea for the next Sinatra anniversary?

 

 

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Elvis Presley: The Searcher (Review)

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There has been much anticipation over the last year or so about the three and a half hour documentary about Elvis Presley, entitled The Searcher, which finally got aired last weekend.  Many have believed that this would be the definitive documentary on Elvis and his music, both with regards to what he recorded and what he was influenced by.

In reality, the documentary proved itself to be worthy of its subject in many ways.  It was well put together and edited, it didn’t stray much from its mission to be mostly about the music rather than the man, and there was enough confidence by the filmmakers to delve deep into the Elvis legacy for the soundtrack, skipping over many hits and, instead, presenting songs that many viewers would not have heard before.   The way the documentary used the 1968 TV show as a pivot for the various chapters of the story worked well enough, but it seemed to borrow the idea from the HBO Sinatra documentary a year or two back which used his 1971 retirement concert in much the same way, and with better effect.

However, there was little here that hadn’t been said before.  The story is well-known, and here it certainly got a sophisticated telling, but it’s hard to find anything here that shone new light or new perspective on the established narrative.  There is plenty of material that could have questioned some of that narrative, but instead there was no effort to do so.  For example, Steve Allen was said to have booked Elvis purely for ratings, despite the fact that he booked Elvis before his TV performances caused ratings to soar.  Allen was said to have hated rock n roll music, and yet nothing was mentioned about the other rock ‘n’ roll acts on his show, the fact he defended Elvis in print, and that he gave Elvis’s first album a good review in a magazine column.  This material might not have been widely known in the past, but it certainly is out there now, and this would have been a good opportunity to at least show just a hint of the other side of the equation.  The same is true of the Colonel, who also comes across as a one-dimensional bad guy.

As is so often the case with these things, facts are intentionally or unintentionally distorted.  D. J. Fontana tells us that the “bump ‘n’ grind” ending to Hound Dog  on The Milton Berle Show had not been done before, and nobody knew what was happening, and yet we have aural evidence from a Little Rock concert a month earlier which shows us that it was a regular part of the performance.  Clearly, some mis-remembering on Fontana’s part, but an important detail nonetheless.  Meanwhile, the discussion of Elvis’s Las Vegas return in 1969 was accompanied by footage of Elvis a year later, with no indication in the voice-over or on screen that this was the case.

Some things were almost conspicuous by their absence – there was no mention of Elvis winning three Grammys – despite this being a documentary almost entirely about his music career.  Likewise, there was no mention of the two concert films by name – although footage from them was shown – meaning there was no talk of Elvis on Tour winning the Golden Globe.   The Memphis sessions of 1969 were dealt with in surprisingly little screen time, and Elvis Country, possibly Elvis’s greatest album wasn’t even mentioned at all, despite its return to Elvis’s musical roots and the use of footage of a press conference where Elvis discusses the importance of country music to him.

While the storytelling was sophisticated, the story it told often lacked nuance, and was remarkably safe. The 1968 TV special was a one-stroke return to form.  Not true – and the comment that it received universally great reviews is also not true.  There was no mention of the non-formula movies at the end of the 1960s, which might not have artistic or commercial successes as such, but they certainly demonstrated that Elvis and his work was changing.  There was much discussion about the publishing situation but, again, nothing about some of the fine music that came through that avenue from the likes of Pomus and Shuman or Don Robertson.   There was no mention of how Elvis approached his studio work in the 1970s, and how the mega-sessions might have helped or hindered that process.  And, oddly, nothing at all about the final videotaped performances from Elvis’s last tour.  They might not be an easy watch, but a choice excerpt from Hurt, or I Really Don’t Want to Know or Unchained Melody would have been apt in demonstrating that there were still flashes of brilliance even at the end.

Despite these failings, or (to be kinder) artistic choices, The Searcher achieved something which very little Elvis-related TV does – bringing it back to the music, and that is always a good thing.  However, the endorsement by the Estate does make it feel just that bit too safe.  We never really learn what made Elvis tick.  We learn about his musical influences, and the loss of his mother, but very little else.  Despite much talk about the evil Parker, we don’t ever get to grips as to how their relationship worked, or why Elvis didn’t just sack him when he was unhappy with his choices – a question which many viewers were probably left asking themselves.  In many respects, I’m reminded of Vincent Canby’s review of Elvis on Tour:  “Close-ups do not reveal anything but, rather, they enshrine an ideal, like an official photograph of a president or a pope.”  The Searcher seems to have a similar problem.

If you enjoyed The Searcher and would like to know more about Elvis’s music and how it was received during his lifetime, check out Reconsider Baby: A Listener’s Guide.  http://a.co/eenPMzO

 

Love, Simon (2018)

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Well, we finally made it.  2018 is the year when a major Hollywood studio thought it could finally make a mainstream high school movie with a gay lead character.  Considering gay characters have been part of teen TV dramas for around twenty years, I have no idea why it has taken this long to reach this point, but Love, Simon carries a great burden of responsibility with it.

And the film is a delight.  No, it’s not a cinematic masterpiece, nor is it intended to be.  But it lacks any sense of self-importance, and is a well-made, unassuming, charming, likeable teen high school movie.  Note that I don’t say “gay teen high school movie.”  And this is the key thing here, and why the film has created interest.  This isn’t a film aimed at a gay audience, it is aimed at a general teen audience.

As a forty-something gay man this is a big deal.  There have been plenty of high school movies made before with gay teenagers as the central character, but they were indie movies made by gay men for gay men.  There was never a suggestion that such a protagonist could or would be of interest to a general audience.  And yet, tonight (when the film opened in the UK) the cinema audience appeared to be made of teenagers just having a normal night out at the movies.  And, remarkably for a UK audience, they actually applauded and cheered.   The gay protagonist didn’t matter, and surely that’s the way things could be.  The movie is being viewed as a teen rom-com, not a gay teen rom-com.  I wonder how much of a difference that must make if you’re a gay teenager growing up today.  I could never have imagined twenty-odd years ago going to a cinema with a group of straight friends to see Beautiful Thing or Get Real.  

The fact that Love, Simon betrays none of its historic significance on screen is part of what makes it so likeable.  But credit also has to go to the writer, director and actors for making sure the near two-hour film (Ok, it could have been trimmed just a little) actually works.  Nick Robinson (who I know very little about) was a superb choice in the lead role, but the supporting cast was also filled with faces familiar to the teen audience thanks to roles in The Flash, 13 Reasons Why, and others (a rather canny way to reassure those potential audiences who might be unsure of the subject matter).  And, while the film has attracted attention, there is a vast difference between this and the self-trumpeting pomposity that accompanied Brokeback Mountain thirteen years ago.  It’s a shame that it has taken a dozen years to get from that (all gay guys live miserable lives or die premature deaths) to this (it can be difficult, but it will all work out), but now we’ve finally made it, hopefully this will lead to other movies of a similar ilk very soon.

Geography Club (2013)

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Cameron Deane Stewart and Justin Deeley star as Russell and Kevin, two teenagers at the rather oddly named Goodkind High School who are gay and closeted – as are virtually all of the LGBT teens at the school.  But one night Russell and Kevin are spotted kissing by Min (Ally Maki), who is part of the “Geography Club,” a group where LGBT teens can get together without the worry of arousing suspicion thanks to the name of the group.  Russell joins, but getting Kevin, a star football player, to join is altogether more difficult.

It is easy to dismiss Geography Club, a relatively family-friendly film (only minor swearing and no nudity or sex) about LGBT teenagers (and others who view themselves as outcasts) at a high school in America.  It is bland, even twee in places, and yet it is remarkably charming  for the most part, even if there is something of a sting in the tale’s conclusion.

The film is refreshing in a number of ways.  Firstly, it’s a gay-themed film without sex and nudity at every opportunity.  Anyone who watches gay-themed indie movies regularly might be surprised to even know they exist at all.

Secondly, this isn’t really aimed at gay adults, but gay teens – arguably younger teens at that – and that separates this from the crowd.  The artwork for the UK edition of the DVD compares it to Glee, and the comparison isn’t totally unwarranted, but it also does the film something of a disservice.  Glee, even at its best, was never really believable in any way.  This, of course, was intended for the most part.  People don’t break out into song at every opportunity in real life, and the often-surreal nature of the show didn’t really place it in the real world, despite it’s attempts (both successful and unsuccessful) to cover virtually every topic important to teenagers – with the strange exception of drug abuse.  But my point is that the target audiences for Glee and Geography Club are the same, although they approach things is a very different way.

Thirdly (and this ties in with my first point), the film is well-acted, well-directed, and clearly has a higher budget than most indie gay-themed films from America.  This looks like a real movie rather than a student piece put together by eighteen-year-olds.

However, there are some issues.  Cameron Deane Stewart is superb as Russell – likeable and charismatic, and, ultimately, believable.  However, Justin Deeley was twenty-seven at the time the movie was made.  And he’s playing a sixteen year old.  No matter how fine an actor he might be (and he plays the part well), it’s obvious that the guy is not sixteen.  Quite why filmmakers insist on using men in their mid-to-late twenties to play teenagers is a mystery to me.  A few years older isn’t a problem, but ten year older is, and even more so when major films are now using kids/teens who are the actual ages of their characters (or thereabouts).  This is a relatively new phenomenon – Tobey Maguire was twenty-seven when he played high school student Peter Parker in Spiderman (2002).  Tom Holland was twenty when he played the role for the first time.  The difference is startling.   The same is true of the young cast of It (2017) who were, for the most part, roughly the same age as their characters.  It isn’t just a case of whether someone’s face looks sixteen or twenty-six – the believeability comes about by how they walk, how they talk, their build, etc.  This is not to criticise Deeley’s performance, which is fine, but it does rob the film of some realism.

That issue aside, Geography Club works rather well, and is worth revisiting, especially with the release this year of Love, Simon.  I haven’t seen that movie (it’s not out in the UK for another week), but it is a mainstream movie aimed a gay teen audience in the same way Geography Club is.  It will be interesting to see how the two movies compare, not just in plot and budget, but how they address their intended audiences.  Either way, Geography Club is well worth a watch, and is an important movie in its own right.  No, it’s not a gay teen movie made by a major studio, but it is still a gay-themed movie aimed at teens and, despite the plethora of gay-themed movies over the last fifteen years or so, that is still a rarity – which is rather surprising given the popularity, and almost classic status, of UK gay-themed movies such as Beautiful Thing and Get Real, made in 1996 and 1998 respectively.  In 2013, Geography Club managed to fill a void in the market – or, at least, provided a stop-gap until Love, Simon came along.

The Maze Runner Trilogy

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“They’re late,” are the first words spoke in The Death Cure, the final film in The Maze Runner trilogy.  They are rather appropriate, considering the fact that the film is finally hitting cinemas in the UK this weekend, after production was held up for a year following an on-set accident that seriously injured star Dylan O’Brien.   Sadly, the delay not only injured  O’Brien, but also stopped the momentum that the series had gathered, with audiences not used to waiting for three years for a conclusion to a group of films when the first two had been issued only one year apart.   The gap in production is obvious in some ways – O’Brien and some other members of the cast don’t look just six months older (as the film requires) but several years older, but such minor issues are forgotten after a few minutes and you get used to the difference.  The final film has received very good reviews, and with good reason.   Despite this, it is not the best in the series.  To my mind, the first installment wins that prize for managing to combine a sense of mystery, intrigue and action/adventure, and all of that in a lean running time of under two hours.  The Death Cure is more in line with the second movie, The Scorch Trials, concentrating on action sequences and, despite being nearly two and a half hours in length, no-one could complain that they were bored while the series reaches its explosive climax.

The Maze Runner, despite its production problems, might not be the most recognisable name in the cycle of films based on young adult dystopian novels, but it is arguably the best.  The Hunger Games has received more attention, but that series also seemed to have an air of self-importance that The Maze Runner does not.   The Maze Runner is there to entertain first and foremost, whereas The Hunger Games, for example, is almost a call to arms.  And I’m certainly not complaining about a series of movies or books that are trying to tell youngsters that people in power are not to be trusted and will screw you over in order to better themselves.  The earlier kids recognise that, the better.  But Hunger Games also seems sanctimonious about it, not helped by the lead character.  The same message is perhaps hidden away somewhere in The Maze Runner but it’s not what drives the narrative, and Thomas’s motives are not to bring down the establishment, but to save his own friends.   That he may or may not bring down the establishment whilst doing that is a simply a bonus for him, and this is clear throughout the final film.  Whereas the second ends with the decision to bring down WCKD, the third is still centred around rescuing his mate rather than getting too wrapped up in the bigger picture.  Thomas is a flawed character, and his decisions aren’t always the best ones, but that makes him more believable that Katniss in Hunger Games. 

The final film is a fitting finale, even if there are some moments towards the end where the action sequences just seem to go on for too long, no matter how big and loud and impressive they may be.  This series has always been more than being about big bangs.  But, again, there is no intention to be grandiose here – no desire to drag this adaptation of a single book over two full-length films.  That decision brought Hunger Games to a rather leaden, dull conclusion, whereas Divergent didn’t ever reach a conclusion at all, with the final movies having been shelved after the series ran out of steam and cinema tickets.  The Death Cure also rather unexpectedly manages to reunite viewers with characters from the first film that never got seen at all in the second.

When this cycle of youth adult films has left the cinemas and is looked back upon in five or ten years, The Maze Runner will, in all likelihood, be viewed as the most accomplished – and some reviewers are already saying that.  This is all the more remarkable given that these three movies were the first features directed by Wes Ball.  The casting was, in most cases, superb.  Dylan O’Brien managed to take the lead role and not allow it to dominate the films – despite his presence in most scenes, this is still an ensemble piece, allowing others to shine as and when required.  Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Newt, in particular, is superb, as is Will Poulter who rejoins the films in the third episode.  Despite this, Aiden Gillen seem to be on autopilot as the bad guy, with his motives never really explained, other than he has a job to do and he does as he’s told.   This is perhaps a flaw in the script, but there seems to make no attempt to add any depth here unlike, for example, Patricia Clarkson as Ava Paige, the head of WCKD, who is as morally ambiguous as Teresa (played by Kaya Scodelario), a trait that adds to the list of elements that separates these from similar films.  It will, as always in these cases, be interesting to see what the talented young cast that headed these movies, and director Wes Ball do next.

 

Perry Mason: The Case of the Maligned Movies

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2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Raymond Burr, and Barbara Hale passed away a year ago this month.  This blog post pays tribute to them in an examination of the Perry Mason movies made between 1985 and 1993.

People tend to look at you kind of funny when you tell them that you prefer the Perry Mason TV movies of 1985 to 1993 to the original series that ran for nine seasons from 1957 to 1966.  Raymond Burr, forever associated with the role, stated in interviews to promote Perry Mason Returns (1985), the first of the TV movies, that he thought the first run of the series should have stopped after five seasons, and that he wanted to call it a day after seven.  He also said that he had been keen to make the occasional two-hour episode during that initial run in order to do Erle Stanley Gardner’s often complicated books more justice (excuse the pun) as well as to give more backstory to the main characters of Perry, Della Street (his secretary), and Paul Drake (his private investigator).  The TV movies that began in 1985 didn’t adapt any of Erle Standley Gardner’s original stories, but they did give the chance to give more development to the main characters that Burr had been so keen to do.

As a twelve-year-old back in 1986 when Perry Mason Returns was first shown on the BBC in the UK, I was entranced from the very beginning.  I caught most of the other TV movies featuring Burr over the next ten years or so, and have been revisiting them all again over the last few months after purchasing The Complete Movie Collection, which pulls together Burr’s 26 Mason TV movies as well as the four that were made directly after his death with other lawyer characters standing in for Mason who was always “out of town.”  It was a sad way for the films to limp to their inevitable conclusion, but Burr was apparently keen that the movies continue without him – although why investigator/lawyer Ken Malansky (played by William R. Moses) wasn’t “promoted” to the running of the cases after Burr’s passing is something of a mystery.  This, at least, would have given the series at least a chance of working.

There are some significant differences between the TV movies and the original series, most notably that they are considerably more predictable.  The cases that Perry takes on nearly always involve a celebrity of some sort, working for a radio or TV station, or a stage production, or in film, or a politician, or even a notorious mobster.  This means that they often go over the same ground, which is a shame, but as with so many popular programmes on TV, it is the formulaic nature of the series that people love so much, and glitz and glamour was very much a staple of American TV dramas during this period.  Ironically, though, it is those stories that break away from the formula that are most memorable.

Take, for example, the Case of the Lost Love (1987), featuring Jean Simmons as guest star as one of Perry’s old flames.  The episode is particularly well-written and, for the first time, the writers start to feed in elements of Perry’s life away from the courtroom, and even touches on a subject such as mental health – and deals with it in a responsible and subtle way (especially considering this was three decades ago).  Moving even further away from the formula is The Case of the Desperate Deception (1990) which, along with the Lost Love episode, rates as the best of the movies.  Here we don’t have the killing of a loud-mouth TV presenter, or the writer of a tell-all book, but, instead, that of a Nazi SS Officer.  Mostly set in France, this tale also features one of the best casts assembled for the later Mason mysteries, with Ian Bannen, Ian McShane, Yvette Mimieux, and a wonderful turn from Theresa Wright.

Even the most run-of-the-mill of the movies are worth a watch, however, most notably because of the touching chemistry between Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, with more hints about their characters’ relationship over the years being revealed in some of the movies.  We learn, for example, in one episode (the title of which I shall not reveal in order to avoid giving spoilers) that Mason has a daughter (who doesn’t know he is her father).  In another, The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host (1993), Burr’s penultimate appearance, Mason and Della finally share an intimate kiss just prior to the closing credits.  In a talk show appearance of his own in 1993, Burr offers the information that they had just filmed that scene in what now appears to be an obvious deflection of a question put to him about whether he and Barbara Hale had ever been romantically involved – Burr liked his private life to remain that way, and it was only after his death that it became public knowledge that he had been in a relationship for over three decades with actor Robert Benevedo, who he had met on the set of Perry Mason in the late 1950s.  He even went out of his way to make up stories of having previously been married, with children, for reporters – saying that both his wife and children had died.  But what seems clear from the Telltale Talk Show Host is that the Mason/Della romance might have been developed in the films that would have been made had Burr not passed away, and there is little doubt that such a move would have pleased fans.

Some twenty-five years after Burr made his last appearance (in The Case of the Killer Kiss, 1993), the Mason TV movies remain staples of various cable television channels, and hold up as surprisingly entertaining ways to pass ninety minutes.  There is something remarkably comforting, even heartwarming, in Burr’s portrayal of the ageing Perry Mason – something grandfatherly, even.   There is also a certain reassurance here, too, that Perry Mason, striding along majestically in his fetching big black coat and hat, will provide us with adult entertainment that is still suitable for all, with a surprising lack of gore or violence considering the subject of murder.  This, too, was something that Burr spoke proudly of in promotional interviews when Perry Mason Returns was about to air.

There is more humour here than in the original TV series, and certainly Mason comes across as more human.  The relationship with Della Street is also different, and perhaps reflects more than ever the genuine affection that Burr and Hale clearly had for each other, as well as hinting that there was something more going on between Mason and Della than we were being told about.

All of this doesn’t mean that these are better than the classic TV series of the 1950s and 1960s – I doubt anyone would argue that – but there is still something very special about them and, unlike so many TV programmes from the late 1980s and early 1990s, there is far more to enjoy here than giant shoulder-pads and dodgy hair-dos.

Perry Mason: The Complete Movie Collection (a 15-disc set) is available from Amazon for approximately £25.

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.