LilFed’s #CBR5 Review #15: ‘Talk Show’ by Dick Cavett

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At 73 years of age, and acknowledged as one of the great television interviewers of the talk show genre for close to the past half-century, we have come to accept that there are some indisputable truths about Dick Cavett: he’s a real stickler for the proper enunciation, usage and spelling of words, as he relates in the hilarious Introduction about his maddening intolerance of people in very responsible positions who simply refuse to pronounce words correctly, most notably G.W. Bush and his insistence on continuously pronouncing the word ‘nuclear’ as ‘nu-cu-lar‘; he absolutely despises the aforementioned Bush’s administration and the war they dragged our country into, in some very insightful (and brutal) pieces in the book, the contents of which were written between 2007-08, when the incredible circus leading up to our last election was at a fever pitch, through a brief period after President Obama took office; he gushes, and worships, and writes shamelessly and extensively about Groucho Marx, his obvious hero and a frequent subject of essays throughouthis book; Dick Cavett is also fully aware of his propensity for ‘name dropping’, though not ostentatiously or unnecessarily, just as a matter of course from his experiences in interviewing many of the most legendary icons of the 20th Century (John Wayne comes in at a very close second behind Groucho in Cavett’s estimation).

Often characterized as a blander, intellectual and sometimes boorish version of the great Johnny Carson (another very close friend, and subject of a revealing portrait in one of his articles), Cavett is definitely an acquired taste, as his ratings demonstrated throughout, and he didn’t (and doesn’t) possess the unique charisma that might have made him a much more popular talk show host in the 1960’s and 70’s, which he would be the first to admit. However, the stories he shares in this collection are fascinating at the least and outrageously hilarious at their best, and there isn’t a dull moment in the book.

Cavett not only relates his many encounters with entertainers, authors, and intellectuals, but also provides some wonderful recollections of his childhood, including his lifelong love affair with magic and the wondrous joys of being a young boy growing up in Nebraska.

Considering that the time span in which Dick Cavett was publishing his weekly online essays, there are a surprsing minimum of ‘at-the-moment’ entries concerning the upcoming 2008 election and its immediate aftermath; I thoroughly enjoyed reading these few articles, as my tolerance for the butt-headed administration had reached its absolute peak at this same time.

So I recommend this if you want to read fascinating stories including such luminaries as Jack Benny, Katherine Hepburn, Richard Burton, Marlon Brando and a dozen other entertainment icons, plus the equally bizarre and engrossing story of the guest who spoke of his continuing good health at such a late age, only to actually die during the live filming of Cavett’s show after he had moved down a seat or two for the other guests on that program. (This particular show was never aired, though Cavett has fun in his re-telling of the many viewers who approached him and absolutely swore they had seen the actual show)

NOW, while it probably isn’t in the best interest of potential readers of this book, or even to those reading this here review – I happen to have some specific pet peeves of my own, as Mr. Cavett has expressed some of his, albeit more humorously than I could, and this particular one just rankles me beyond the maintenance of restraint I’m currently capable of: THIS IS NOT A “NEW” BOOK BY ANY MEANS, but rather a compilation of Cavett’s weekly online posts for a site I can’t remember now, readily available to any online reader who was ever aware that this column existed, a category of knowledge I myself was not familiar with.

Cavett shares a couple of harsh opinions about the publishing industry (most specifically that they drag their heels when it comes to actually distributing certain books, such as his autobiography from a few years prior. But for whatever reason, the fact that this is a COLLECTION of previously published online articles is not specifically mentioned at all – not on the jacket front or back, not in Cavett’s own ‘Introduction’ that begins the book, nor on a single page throughout. And this “oversight” just happens to bug the hell out of me.

‘Talk Show’ is a good, fulfilling read, neither too long or short, and I recommend it to those who like reading about up-close and personal ‘encounters of the celebrity kind’. But the deliberate obfuscation that this stuff has seemingly been previously unavailable is simply pointless – from a marketing standpoint, first off; to the online Cavett fan who flips through the book and immediately recognizes the distinct familiarity of this body of work; and most of all, pointless to a reader such as myself, who enjoys the book on its own merits but still feels insulted by the publishers, who conveniently neglect finishing a sentence like ” …and has been contributing weekly articles to the online site –” with a comma, and continuing, “..of which this book is a collection of.”

So anyway, thanks for letting me get that out of my system, and check out the book if you’re a fan of its content – that is, unless you’re too damned offended to bother taking the chance, which would also be perfectly understandable.

LilFed’s #CBR5 Review #13: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

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Imagine a fairly ordinary young adolescent boy of 14 – 15 years of age, growing up with his older brother and parents in an Air Force family. They are transferred to a dream-come-true tour at Hickam AFB in Oahu, Hawaii, where the boy goes through junior high school, then his first year of high school, between the years covering autumn of 1973 to the late summer of 1976.

In this glorious time, the boy experiences virtually limitless freedom to hang with his friends throughout the summer and on weekends; they’re free to take public transportation to every corner of this island paradise (when his older brother isn’t giving them a ride); skateboarding and running as if through their own playground all over downtown Honolulu; checking out the endless parade of beautiful bikini-clad women strolling along Waikiki Beach; going to the North Shore to watch surfing competitions; and snorkeling in the crystal blue waters of Hanauma Bay, among others – essentially this kid is just having the time of his young life.

But every Saturday night, when all the other kids are out blasting their portable radios and cassette players, drinking copious amounts of ill-gotten beer and wine supplied throughout careful cajoling and in exchange for lawn-mowing and washing some enlisted men’s cars; going through the time-honored adolescent rituals of socializing with the girls to ‘make out’ and ‘go steady’ with (failing more often than not) – this 14-15 year old boy is quietly slipping away from the action, getting back to his house for roughly an hour or so, where he and his mother sit in the living room for their weekly appointment to watch and laugh together as they sit in rapt attention to their favorite TV program: The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

My mother and I shared a ritual that adolescent angst, intense peer pressure and the usual parent/child conflicts couldn’t touch in those days – we both shared a common sense of humor, and had come to realize that The Mary Tyler-Moore Show was our ‘do-not-miss’, ultimate sitcom for the most intelligent and achingly funny writing that television had to offer. All In the Family, a radical and much more topical, ground-breaking sitcom, was getting the lion’s share of the attention when it debuted on CBS at virtually the same time, and was the prime time lead-in show to MTM for a number of seasons. Family‘s humor wasn’t lost on us; Archie Bunker could make us both laugh hysterically at his outrageous ignorance and clueless bigotry, with supreme assistance from his wife Edith, ‘meathead’ son-in-law Mike, and neighbors like the Jeffersons – but mainly to remind us that they were more part of the joke in reacting to the main character than an ‘equal’ cast member, just as shocked and amazed at Archie’s behavior as we the television audience were. All In the Family was indeed ground-breaking, but it was also loud, and sometimes overwrought. It also went on too long, diluting quickly in quality; it hasn’t aged very well, and perhaps it wasn’t meant to.

But while All In The Family had America talking, protesting, debating and publishing articles describing its subversive nature and ‘hot-button’ issues, The Mary Tyler Moore Show could always be counted on to just consistently make us laugh harder with, and genuinely care for, its perfect ensemble cast of lovable and original characters, week in and week out. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s ‘Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted’ is one author’s celebration of this timeless and innovative television series, restoring its proper place as the best-written and acted situation comedy up to that time, perhaps of all time, setting a new standard of excellence that hundreds of other sitcoms simply could not (and still cannot) match, for decades to follow.

MTM was by no means an instant hit, and its transition from a few sketchy ideas about a single, steady-working lady in her 30’s trying to establish a career at a small TV news station in Minneapolis, to the unique format of inviting us into both Mary Richards’ private and work lives in equal measure, was not met with overwhelming support from the CBS network brass, who only reluctantly gave it a 13-episode commitment and generally thought the show was going to be an unqualified failure. It was also nearly rejected outright when it was originally proposed that the Mary Richards character was divorced, a radical concept only for the medium that basically ‘sat out’ the sixties as far as trying to accurately reflect the changing times.

‘Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted’ gives a somewhat insightful history of MTM‘s journey from writing room to primetime network series, focusing on then newly-accepted female writing talent such as Treva Silverman and Susan Silver, who lent real-life stories to their TV scripts, and Ethel Winant, the female executive producer who cast the all-important roles with the disparate cast of struggling actors who gave the scripts life, a brilliant ensemble that made it look so easy, along with the wonderfully crafted confluence of brilliant material and situations that never betrayed their essential characteristics at the expense of quality humor.

This seems like a fairly obvious approach, given the time of the early seventies when more women were seeking fulfillment in careers outside of the traditional female roles of wife and mother, and the women’s liberation movement was in full gear, despite television’s seeming ignorance of such. MTM was itself considered radical in that it featured a single woman in her thirties who made no excuses or apologies for wanting to work in the ‘big city’, independently succeeding in a challenging career without the familiar goal of finding and marrying a man being her priority (a virtual requirement for a female lead such As Marlo Thomas in That Girl).

Writer-producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns had created one other television show, Room 222, a rather mundane yet thoughtfully-written series about a high school that received high critical praise yet not so large a viewing audience. Brooks in particular would go on to an amazing film career, writing ‘Terms of Endearment’ and ‘Broadcast News’, but would first set a new standard in quality comedy writing with shows such as Taxi, Cheers and Frazier. But in 1970, Brooks was a wannabe screenwriter with very little television experience before Grant Tinker, Mary Tyler Moore’s husband and the show’s owner/producer, put the development of this series squarely in his hands.

There are some great stories in ‘Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted’ about the making and molding of what would become a benchmark example of classic ‘coming of age’ television, where the plots didn’t revolve around gag situations and broad comedy as I Love Lucy had become famous for, or clever yet innocent housewives such as Donna Reed, or Samantha Stevens on Bewitched. There are interesting side stories, such as Cloris Leachman’s initial contempt for fellow actor Gavin MacLeod during the show’s first few seasons, and the almost laughable competitive nature between Ted Knight and Ed Asner, each aware that they were fighting for their own spotlight as the outstanding comic actor in each episode.

Sadly, the book fails to make this story as readable or engrossing as it might have been if more attention had been paid to the dozens of outstanding episodes that are still as fresh to watch today as they were nearly 40 years ago. Aside from the mention of just a few classics, such as the episode about the unconventional death and subsequent funeral for WJM’s Chuckles the Clown, where Mary Richards bursts out laughing at exactly the wrong time after berating her coworkers for doing the same, albeit not at the actual funeral; or an episode in the series seventh and final season that I remember watching as if it were yesterday: a brilliantly executed story about one of Mary’s disastrous dinner parties, where it’s being kept a big secret that none other than Johnny Carson himself is going to appear, only for there to be a power outage at the penultimate moment of his arrival, when we hear Carson toss off a few hilarious lines but is never actually seen in the show.

Despite these bright moments, ‘Mary and Lou and Ted and Rhoda’ does not succeed in doing justice to the overall body of work that MTM represents, considering that by its second season it was improving by leaps and bounds, becoming better and about as perfect a sitcom imaginable, and was still in the Top 20 when it left the airwaves.

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The author presents an uneven and ultimately bland history that serves neither the show or its main focus on the women ‘pioneers’ in the writing stable, who in actuality were only responsible for a handful of episodes as writer or director. While their contributions to The Mary Tyler Moore Show are substantial, they were not nearly the foundation of the show’s success, and, consequently, writers like Ed. Weinberger, Larry David, Glen Daniels, and one of the finest comedy writers of TV in the 20th century, David Lloyd, end up getting far less credit than they deserve. (As a matter of fact, David Lloyd is the first sitcom writer I remember seeking out in the credits at the start of each show – if his name popped up, I knew it was going to be an exceptional half hour)

There is also too little exploration into the character portrayals themselves, some of the most original, and complete, ever seen on television. Each actor brought something integral and essential to the unique ensemble, be it Betty White’s overly-amorous TV Chef Sue Ann Nivens, or Ted Knight’s amazing range as the bombastic, yet deeply insecure anchorman Ted Baxter. It glosses over the Lou Grant character’s divorce from his wife Edie, wanting to ‘find herself’, which gave an extra layer to Asner’s already solid portrayal; Gavin MacLeod’s character, Murray-the-wisecracking-jokester, was given his own fully-developed history as a loving husband, recovering gambler, and empathetic coworker to Mary’s character, even once believing he had actually fallen in love with her – this story alone is resolved so beautifully, so believably, that it can be as moving to watch now as it did when Mom and I first watched it nearly 40 years ago. Ted Baxter’s character, while always maintaining a unique form of buffoonery, is given some of the most extraordinary and revealing glimpses into what a loving, sensitive person he is through the episodes featuring his guileless, soon-to-be pregnant wife Georgette, just one of the excellent casting choices of later characters after the departures of Valerie Harper (Rhoda) and Cloris Leachman (Phyllis).

It’s good that this book exists, although a classic television series like The Mary Tyler-Moore Show deserves a much more in-depth appreciation than this one provides. It’s a passionless narrative which too rarely evokes the recognition of just what an enjoyable experience it was to see this show as it developed and matured through the seasons. It’s fine that the author highlights the women behind the series’ history, but the story of the show itself is sometimes seen as an afterthought, and this book as a whole really suffers as a result.

For the more devoted fans, I would recommend ‘Love Is All Around’, in which all episodes are described, giving date shown, guest stars, writer and director, as well as a story synopsis and insider’s comments on the making of it. There are also painstaking details and incidents surrounding the creation of the show that Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s book does not add to or provide with fresh insight.

LilFed’s #CBR5 Review #10: The Searchers – The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel

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This remarkable, unique book (the best nonfiction of this year so far) cannot be solidly categorized: it is a sweeping, historical Western tale of ‘savage’ Indians and ‘new frontier’ homesteaders in the mid-18th century, recounting the eventuality of a nation of Cherokee and other Indian tribes being reduced to near-extinction when refusing to yield the vast prairie lands to these white, brazen settlers intent on eliminating their very way of life and survival. It is an earnest, carefully-researched and vivid true story of a nine-year-old white girl who was abducted by Cherokee Indians in 1836, after the brutal slaughter of her family, and her subsequent life being integrated back into ‘white society’ after years of captivity.

This biography continues, encompassing the life of her son, a pivotal figure in the history of Indian ‘Americanization’, along with a literal history of our country’s “Taming of the West” and its uneasy, violent transition into the 19th century, with a massive Civil War preceding and the migration of millions from East to West following; a hindsight indictment of early America’s intolerance and racism, describing the demise of 30,000 Cherokee Indians as ‘The West Was Won’, their population reduced to less than 2,000 by the late 1870’s, by the ‘progressive’ settling of a civilization completely foreign to and dismissive of them.

It is a chronicle of the overwhelming magnitude of relentless hunting and wholesale slaughter of over six million free-roaming bison throughout the west, buffalo herds that were initially shot down in deliberate and precise fashion for the sole purpose of eliminating the Indians’ principal source of survival in the treeless, rugged and brutal plains throughout Oklahoma, Texas, and surrounding territory.

There’s also the life story of an author, Alan LeMay, who writes hugely popular, best-selling Western stories in the new 19th century, utilizing all available documentation and first-hand accounts of the actual (then-recent) histories of Indians and settlers and their violent encounters, including the abduction of 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker and the years-long search to rescue her by surviving family members like her uncle – a story that would be reinterpreted, re-invented and, in 1956, dramatized in a big-screen Western film called ‘The Searchers’.

And with the close of this prelude, beginning roughly 200 pages into Frankel’s book, there is an entirely new, freshly-detailed and revealing story of the making of an American motion picture classic, derived from all of the above-mentioned sources the author has coalesced and thoughtfully organized to guide the reader into this penultimate story of legendary, classic ‘Hollywood’ storytelling.

Directed by a veteran ‘Western’ film maker named John Ford, and starring an already-iconic leading man named John Wayne,The Searchers was one of many collaborations between the volatile, racist, misogynist, alcoholic, hot-headed ‘Pappy’ and his ever-loyal muse, a lanky, struggling B-actor born Marion Morrison, later given the more appropriate cinematic handle of ‘John Wayne’. Together, they made some of the best Western movies ever produced for the big screen, such as She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Red River, and Stagecoach. The author-slash-History teacher unearths the reality of the off-screen ‘Duke’, a constant victim of derision and humiliation by his closest mentor, intimidating director John Ford, a man of unpredictable disposition and generally a bigoted, belligerent dictator on his film sets, where no actor or production member was spared his outrageous and crude insults (he actually punched actress Maureen O’Hara in the face when she made a now-forgotten remark he took offense to).

To read about Ford alone, one might wonder why someone, anyone, didn’t kick this man’s ass out of town before completing his first movie – but Ford was not just a ‘Western film’ maker, as the director would proudly refer to himself otherwise. Considering that Ford made a quartet of classic films in at least as many years (‘Young Mr. Lincoln‘, 1939; ‘The Grapes of Wrath‘, 1940; ‘The Long Voyage Home‘, 1940; and ‘How Green Was My Valley‘, 1941), that were as far removed from the ‘Western’ genre as could be imagined, the man’s genius as a director was undeniable, which in turn afforded him great indulgences, including making stars like John Wayne tremble before him on a movie set. While Ford is certainly not the only ‘auteur’ director who could be absolutely intolerable to work with in their film making process, to read the accounts of his withering criticisms to Wayne the actor, who passively suffered them all and consistently surrendered to Ford’s will, is an extraordinary contrast to how the public perceived this strong, manly symbol of American Patriotism and willful spirit that is so ingrained in cinematic legend. Film directors in Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ were revered and omnipotent throughout the industry, until their creative powers were lost and their films had become tired and unoriginal – even by the mid-fifties, the Western was already being dismissed as an archaic film formula, but Ford’s Westerns were an exception to the rule.

In the years following its not-very-major release and initial underwhelming response, The Searchers has been rediscovered and hailed as a major inspiration to some of the greatest film directors of the latter 20th century, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Peter Bogdanovich and George Lucas; in the years following its release, The Searchers has ultimately achieved the status of the Greatest Western Film ever made, and is in the Top Ten of the 100 Best Films, as designated by the American Film Institute. This dark, rueful movie that stands apart from any other formulaic ‘Western’ film of its time, is a subject of continuing debate regarding its all-too-apparent hatred towards, and outright disdain for an entire nation of Indian people, portraying them in only the most derogatory light possible, and notable for the out-of-place, shocking treatment of a female Indian character, which was Ford’s singular interpretation of ‘humor’, albeit at the expense of an entire race and gender. But a reader doesn’t have to seek out the movie and scrutinize it to fully appreciate the narrative that presents most of the screenplay treatment, with all of the relevant subtext, through its beautifully-written pages.

Author Glenn Frankel’s comprehensive work is simply astonishing. There are at least three full-length books that this one tome manages to condense between the covers to a fully satisfying degree. For one like myself, anxiously starting a new ‘making-of’ classic film story, it was a slow realization that this film ‘story’ had a 200-page background history, starting well before the invention of film itself, much less before production began on the actual movie almost a century later. Frankel writes with the authority of a confident historian, who guides us seamlessly through this saga that ends up as an equally-compelling and authoritative film history. Frankel writes with such an economic ease that the reader doesn’t notice the voluminous information he provides simultaneously with whatever story he is relating throughout.

If the concept of absorbing American history, Western myth versus fact, and the byzantine journey from History lesson to Hollywood film-making seems a bit exhausting, well, it can be, if one is not prepared to follow the unhurried and attention-demanding rhythm of Frankel’s book – he has a story to tell, much more informative and complete than would be expected in any other genre-oriented book focusing on a single time and/or subject – but the sooner this ‘rhythm’ is adopted by the reader, the greater the reward is for those absorbed in its telling will be.

LilFed’s #CBR5 Review #9: Monkee Music by Andrew Hickey

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The first line in the Introduction of Andrew Hickey’s Monkee Music’ is a question: “Why would anyone write a book on the Monkees’ music?” 

Well, first off, it’s a stupid question, Andrew – thousands of books have been written about the music of infinitely more obscure, and lesser, rock artists and/or groups than the Monkees; huge, staggeringly in-depth histories, analyses and deep critical, intensely-researched tomes that both revere and meticulously document every single recorded song, from artists as wide-ranging as Doris Day  to ‘Weird’ Al Yankovich, and the questions as to why a history of their music has been given such scholarly attention and careful revisionist treatment of are no more or less worthy of answering than one would attempt to explain the existence of written instructions on opening a carton of milk or the proper unpacking of a new toaster oven.

A much more pressing question might be, “Why would anyone write this kind of book on the Monkees’ music?” I read it cover to cover and I still can’t expectorate a defensible explanation for this book’s existence. Y’think that maybe sometimes a book is written, printed and published solely to prove that an author’s own grossly overrated sense of self-importance and individual need to create such a document as verification of his/her own perceived ‘higher knowledge’ of any given subject might be a factor? Because it’s pretty damn near impossible to finish this book and justify in any logical manner why it should have been written in the first place.

Gosh, I don’t know, maybe I’m the only person who was ever so slightly impressed by such a mundane fact that, in 1967, the year of the Beatles’ legendary ‘Sgt Pepper’ album and Jimi Hendrix’s debut LP, the Monkees’ first two albums sold more that year than the Beatles, the Stones, Elvis and Jimi Hendrix combined?? Or the ‘ho-hum’ acknowledgement that the Monkees’ first single release, ‘Last Train To Clarksville’, written by two unknown songwriters, performed and recorded by a stellar lineup of equally-unknown studio musicians, with only a single vocal part contributed from one actual ‘Monkee’, shot up to the Number One spot in the country’s Pop charts months before a single Monkees’ television episode aired, or barely a one of those sixteen million record buyers could even name all four ‘band’ members of this as yet non-existent ‘group’?? Surely that trifling information wouldn’t merit a second look at the significance and endurance of this ‘pre-fabricated’ group’s teenybopper music, much less than an entire book about such adolescent, throwaway nonsense should receive? The very idea itself seems rather ridiculous, doesn’t it?

All facetiousness aside (temporarily): Please allow me to explain why this ‘Monkee Music’ book infuriates me so much: the author who decided to undertake this elementary task is as ignorant of the Monkees’ music, history, artistic intent and its cultural impact as he is of his own hubris in “analyzing” a subject he obviously has very little insight about.

Mr. Hickey believes that some clever, disposable commentary, interspersed with a variety of ‘intimate revelations’, tedious and useless technical chord-progression descriptions of some songs (“A simple four-chord song, based on a variant of the three chord trick substituting ii for IV in the verses, with a key change to IV in the chorus..”) and pontificating on selected, ‘overlooked’ tracks, while dismissing other, supremely popular songs entirely, is actually going to convince true Monkees fans that he’s written something more than a badly-researched essay that wouldn’t pass as a community college thesis requirement. This unfocused, ill-prepared “analysis of every studio track the Monkees ever released” suffers from the same conceit that has so sharply divided critics and pop music fans alike since the very first rumblings from the music community upon the not-so-secret ‘realization’ that – gasp! – the Monkees didn’t play on their own records! The horror! In recounting the major, near-disastrous threats to our domestic security that the U.S. narrowly avoided in the turbulent sixties, only the Cuban Missile Crisis could lay claim to being nearly as potentially devastating to our fragile collective American psyche and standing in the world community as this ‘non-participation’ by Davy, Micky, Mike and Peter in the music-making process of ‘I’m A Believer’! What other nation could have persevered through such blasphemy and disregard as nobly as our own United States in the face of such horrific reality?

I’m disgusted at paying over $15 for a cheaply-thrown-together ‘vanity’ project- a throwaway, redundant checklist of recorded music that wastes 200-plus pages of otherwise useful paper to spout clueless opinions about a sixties TV cast of young actors thrown together as musicians, and this punk writer Hickey thinks he has their music all figured out, that his vapid, condescending ‘analyses’ are even worth glancing sideways at.

WHO is this book written for?! Whether you’re a huge, or just casual, Monkees fan, no one needs a breakdown of the musical structure behind an all-but-unknown song titled ‘My Share of the Sidewalk’ (“…intro of four bars of 5/4.. breaks down as two bars of 7/4, two of 4/4 and one more of 7/4…“), any more than you need to read for the 1000th time that Davy was the least musically inclined of the group.

What made me reflexively curse this lousy book in contempt, though, was the author’s own admissions, such as “not being sure” whether or not Davy is singing a backing vocal on Micky’s ‘Randy Scouse Git’, or if Mike Nesmith indeed plays the innovative guitar riff running through ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’! Hey, it’s alright for the average Monkees‘ fan to not know these things – it’s a blatantly stupid thing to write as a self-proclaimed ‘authority’ on the Monkees’ music. Hickey’s text is littered by ambiguous contributions regarding, say, vocal parts that any Monkees’ fan who can distinguish between four very different singers have never had to think twice about. There are fine writers such as Andrew Sandoval and Glenn A. Baker, solid authorities on the Monkees and their music, with literally four decades of simply listening and appreciating their recorded discography – Hickey thinks so little of his subject that he assumes every other reader and follower of the Monkees’ history has never bothered doing similar research. But hot damn, we’re well-versed in Carole King’s “metrically difficult” composition ‘As We Go Along’ – “starting out with an extended intro in 5/4 once Dolenz’s vocal comes in  (sic) we have a verse of three bars of 5/4 (in one of which the bass accentuates the wrong beat, adding to the metrical confusion -” he goes on to much more clearly explain that “the bass seems to be implying that these fifteen beats should be broken up six, four, five rather than the five, five, five everything else implies) one of 6/4, three of 3/4 and one of 6/4.” However, he does reassure us that “The chorus, though, is in pretty straight sixes.” Well, la dee dah. Anyone who makes sense of that crap other than Hickey must be a pathetically dried-up shell of an actual personality that would put a music class to sleep with that kind of lesson.

This book is an insult to publishing, to readers both curious and cautious, to any place that sells it, and to every tree that was sacrificed to produce it. Horrifyingly enough, Hickey has also written such page-turners as ‘The Beatles In Mono’ and ‘The Beach Boys On CD Vol. 1: The 1960s’, for those of a newer generation who are dead set on completely misinterpreting every classic sixties song and group history in their lifetime.

LilFed’s #CBR5 Review #11: Live Fast, Die Young – The Wild Ride of Making ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel

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Anyone who truly loves classic movies in general, but limit themselves to genres, or seeking certain categories such as specific decades or eras that you feel are more informative to your own lifetime – well, you’re missing out on some cinematic masterpieces that transcend time, history and place, providing more pleasure with multiple viewings.

Mainly because of the ill-defined ‘innocence’ and crippling censorship that the Hayes Code imposed upon the big-time movie studios of yesteryear, and the meticulous, behind-the-scenes scrutiny given to what today could be considered the most chaste of character portrayals, ‘golly-gee’ dialogue, and avoidance of serious social issues and graphic visuals whose restrictions are most rightly associated with those first 27-30 years (post 1932) of the new, revolutionary art form of the cinema and the vast potential that seemed to be squandered away in those early productions, one really cannot be blamed for passing over classics they have seen thousands of different ‘clips’ from, filtered through the television and internet and other mediums in entirely alien concepts, and who have heard their plots and climaxes without ever seeing them. (‘It’s A Wonderful Life‘? Wait, Jimmy Stewart does redeem himself in the end? Bogie and Bacall actually break up at the end of ‘Casablanca’?)

But one exquisite example of subversive, and authority-challenging, 1950’s films that has stayed with this writer for nearly twenty years is a 1957 black-and-white movie called A Face In The Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan. It’s the story of the rise and fall of an unlikely radio, then- television personality named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a drunken, crude, volatile ex-con drifter, played with underlying menace and deceptively off-hand charisma by Andy Griffith (!), who captures the attention of an ambitious radio producer (Patricia Neal) tape-recording ‘authentic’ southern, small-town people and their quaint visions of life for a radio program, after his arrest and jailing for drunken violence that leaves no doubt that this is one of many previous incarcerations for him. Anyone familiar with the gregarious, affable Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, which Griffith would eventually portray, is immediately taken aback from the very first closeup we see of him, being awakened from a drunken stupor and turning towards the camera with such instant rage that makes a ‘jump-in-your-seat’ moment as riveting and memorable as Anthony Perkins’ first appearance in the shower scene of Psycho or Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.

The movie itself is a revelation in cinematic history, presented in an uncharacteristically ‘modern’, media-savvy story, using actual television personalities of the time (like John Cameron Swayze and a young newcomer newsman named Mike Wallace): this ‘in-the-moment’ film, with provocative language we would blush at even today, such as Andy-effin’-Griffith shoving and calling one of his servants a “black ape,” or telling a prostitute in his hotel room to pick up some dishes and pretend to be a housekeeper when Patricia Neal’s character calls on him unexpectedly, is as original and exciting to watch as it probably was ‘shocking’ to the Eisenhower audience of the late fifties. Though nothing erotic or graphic is shown, the viewer, along with Neal’s character, is all-too-aware that the ‘housekeeper’ and Griffith’s character have spent the night together, which is obvious from Griffith’s suggestive looks and macho demeanor alone, which only arouses Neal’s character more – the scene could not be any more ‘graphic’ than the strictly-forbidden ‘man and woman in bed together’ ban in movies that had existed for years prior. To a then-twenty-something film lover just beginning to discover the old classics he had only read about previously, here was nothing any less shocking (or titillating) than William Hurt and Kathleen Turner burning up the screen in ‘Body Heat’ thirty years later.

But books like ‘Live Fast, Die Young’, carefully and enthusiastically disseminating the creation of classic movies that we only associate with iconic scenes in the ‘moldy, outdated’ films (Moses’ parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, Gable’s shocking use of the word ‘damn’ at the end of Gone With the Wind), are essential reminders of just how much subsequent generations have been missing out on – learning the various techniques, subversive approaches and desperate leaps of faith in the making of these ground-breaking films, along with all the various ‘offstage’ scandals and melodramatic events that were at times as much a factor in molding and distinguishing these films as the subjects they presented to us.

The authors of ‘Live Fast, Die Young’ have written a book that a true classic-movie lover/historian lives for: an in-depth, carefully-researched and detailed history of the making of the iconic James Dean film Rebel Without A Cause, so rewarding in its excellent mix of informative insight into virtually every single aspect of this film’s creation: its trio of iconic stars and visionary director, Nicholas Ray; and the battles, compromises and passionate dedication in bringing this story and the radical-for-his-time director’s vision to the big screen, along with the story of how a young, complex and dynamically intriguing and exciting actor named James Dean turned an unfocused, subversive story of teenage anguish into a film classic for the ages, and gave voice to a generation in search of validity and an identity that had yet to be defined (the word ‘teenager’ had only existed for a decade or so, but had never been of any notable importance in our language as more than a mere descriptor for statistical purposes).

The authors provide a thorough background story to Rebel‘s beginnings as a cautionary novel of ‘youth in revolt’, with a fairly generic approach, but no less unique in its thematic narrative, from the dynamic director Nicholas Ray’s introduction to such, that would come to be almost entirely re-written by the film’s finish, to suit not only his own aesthetics but more importantly conforming to the enigmatic, moody, self-destructive nature and independence of arguably the greatest actor who ever lived, a twenty-three-year old force of imprecise nature known as James Dean, that only his tragically-sudden death, after only three motion pictures, deprived him of reinventing (along with Brando, DeNiro, and others) the very foundation of motion picture performance in the following years. The story of the extremely complex relationship James Dean and Nicholas Ray shared throughout the production of Rebel is itself a student / mentor story, at times reversed and always fascinating in its dynamic.

But allow the ‘gossip-whore’ in me to assure all movie star and show business scandal/secret fanatics that this book delivers the goods big time. So much so that, revealing director Ray discovered his 13-year-old son in bed with his second wife Gloria Grahame, the very afternoon the boy had just met her after travelling 3,000 miles across country to visit his father from military school, unannounced, is not being near “spoilish,” as this Oedipal occasion is revealed in the first three pages.

The authors would have a quite satisfying, complete book with just the ‘making of’ story, which takes precisely 219 and 1/2 pages. The 20-page recreation of James Dean’s final days and subsequent reaction to his death gives the book even more gravitas, when it could easily have been dispensed with in a few pages without diluting the original premise. Upon seeing there were another 60 pages left to go, I was a bit wary of getting impatient with all the ‘afterwards’ to follow, and did get a bit restless with a rundown of all the enduring merchandising, subsequent worshiping and continuing popularity of Dean and Rebel product. But not to fear: upon realizing that the authors are telling an equally compelling story of the two surviving stars (Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo) and the very colorful Ray’s final years, I settled back in and enjoyed it just as much as I did the ‘making of Rebel‘ story.

Along the way, we are informed of many worthy-to-ponder psychological and behavioral (both domestic and worldwide) aspects directly influenced by both James Dean and Rebel even to the present time- consider a Chinese billionaire known as ‘The Biggest James Dean Fan’, who spent a few gazillion yen or yang to construct a monument in Dean’s tribute.

The obvious commitmment of Franscella and Weisel to this book is clearly evident, from its evocative reminiscences of scenes as they were being filmed, using very intimate and believable sources, both human and recorded through studio communications records, to the revealing story that may have vanished into obscurity had it not been so poignantly told here, of the African-American actress portraying Sal Mineo’s character’s nanny, a small but essential presence in the film who was all but forgotten in the overall discussions of the movie itself (and beyond).

Personally, I was struck by the incredibly short amount of time between James Dean’s filming of Rebel and his death from a car crash, while in between completing his third and last movie, Giant, with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Rebel‘s final day of shooting was May 27, 1955 – James Dean was killed on September 30, 1955, barely four months later, with only his debut film, East of Eden, having yet been released.

I have Rebel on DVD and will start watching it as soon as this review is finished. I saw bits and pieces of it on TV growing up, but without ever really experiencing the movie. As an example, I fell asleep during the first half hour of A Few Good Men on my initial viewing, before seeing the entire movie later under more ‘appropriate’ circumstances, and have watched it multiple times since – we’re not in the same condition or disposition to watch a movie with any sustained interest every single time.

I did not want to view this movie before I had reviewed the book, but I at least know that, whatever reaction I have towards the actual film, it will not change the the quality and page-turning fun of reading this true labor of love, that covers all the details.

lilfed #CBR5 Review #8: Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

steve

Steve Martin is one of those comedian/actor/all-round indefensibly genius entertainers that reached superstardom in the late seventies, along with Bill Murray and —? — who survived through decades of ever-changing and evolving audiences of adoring fans who faithfully followed their careers through the rest of the 20th century, without ever losing an original admirer, even when they basically weren’t having a career at all. Just showing up on a late-night ‘Letterman’ show or making an appearance at some Hollywood event and doing a 2- or 3-minute monologue was enough to solicit instant thrills from people like me and many others who absolutely loved everything they did, no matter the circumstance. Unlike any other survivor of the ‘SNL’ glory years, like Chevy Chase or Eddie Murphy, their stars never dimmed, their genius and talent never questioned. If Bill Murray never writes an autobiography or appears in another classic movie, he has earned a lifetime ‘pass’ from the countless fans, both young and old, who will always come back to him and fall right into whatever ‘groove’ he happens to be in at the time, looking, laughing and listening to him as long as they’re around to entertain us once in awhile. They both made an occasional misstep, like their dramatic forays in film, ‘Pennies From Heaven’ (Martin) and the remake of ‘The Razor’s Edge’ (Murray), but those were quickly forgotten and forgiven, because we simply could not stop loving them, and they both left such indelible impressions on our younger lives that all but guaranteed their continuing, ‘legendary’ status, in whatever work they originally did, and continue to do.

The similarities pretty much stop right there. Steve Martin enjoyed a popularity that no other stand-up comedian had achieved prior to 1977. Unlike veterans such as Richard Pryor and George Carlin, who consistently made brilliant, award-winning comedy albums that forever cemented their legendary status, both before and after, Steve Martin the Stand-up Comedian had a finite career in that arena that eclipsed every other performer and set a new standard for just how popular a person standing on a stage and making people laugh could be. Martin himself defines the unique superstardom he achieved in Born Standing Up:

“Sixty cities in sixty-three days. Seventy-two cities in eighty days. Eighty-five cities in ninety days. The Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio, largest audience in one day, 18,695. The Chicago International Amphitheatre: twenty-nine thousand people… I played Nassau Coliseum in New York. How many tickets sold? Forty-five thousand… This lightening strike was happening to me, Stephen Glenn Martin, who had started from zero, from a magic act, from juggling in my backyard, from Disneyland, from the Bird Cage, and I was now the biggest concert comedian in show business, ever.”

It’s hard to define just how well-known and universally loved Steve Martin was back in those two to three years of ultimate 70’s ‘hipness’ – regular magazine articles and appearances on the cover of ‘Rolling Stone’, one with James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, a triad of then-ridiculously famous stars; a debut LP, ‘Let’s Get Small’, the first comedy album to have advance sales of one million copies before it was even released; a feature-film debut just around the corner, ‘The Jerk’, an instant comedy classic that held its own against new blockbusters like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Jaws’. Adults may have perceived him as silly, gimmicky and impossible to relate to, but there was no class, gender or ethnic group coming forward as actually disliking Steve Martin, so effortlessly inoffensive and original in front of an audience that the idea of any negative commentary holding any weight was non-existent, much as it remains to this day.

But Steve Martin’s unique stature could not be consistent for any length of time, and he was more aware of this conundrum before the rest of us fans were. His second album, ‘Wild and Crazy Guy’, which tripled in sales compared to his first LP, already peaked his popularity while at the same time inaugurating his inevitable decline in the stand-up career he had carefully and meticulously crafted through years of polishing and testing on countless television appearances, as varied as Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas’ daytime variety programs to the ‘plateau’ acknowledged by every performer in show business as the ‘Tonight Show with Johnny Carson’ – if a comedian was successful on Carson’s show, they had nowhere to go but down, and very few of them experienced that circumstance when Carson was the King of Late Night, virtually the only program that a stand-up comic could be seen by millions of viewers in one night.

This reviewer was there, all of 18 – 19 years old, and I had nearly worn out my copy of ‘Let’s Get Small’ when ‘Wild and Crazy Guy’ was released in 1978. The recorded evidence could not be ignored by even the most generous fan: it happens at approximately 30 seconds into the beginning of side two, when an another familiar, intimate comedy club act is abruptly cut into a screaming, disorienting blast of enthusiastic stadium noise from an obviously huge, young and overly-familiar crowd of teenagers and twenty-somethings that are anathema to what any comedy-seeking audience should be. Steve Martin is literally reconstructing his entire performance, adjusting his rhythm, timing and delivery to suit an auditorium that is entirely too large and noisy to risk throwing out a punchline too early for the back rows to hear and too late to achieve any kind of spontaneous, complete reaction that a reasonably small club full of people would provide for the enclosed acoustics of a single microphone, where everyone hears the same thing at the precise same time. Steve Martin was indeed “the biggest concert comedian in show business” – the only problem was that there was too big a concert audience to collectively appreciate the fundamental experience of hearing a joke or routine that could elicit any organic response to the comedian himself, absent of having to react along with the multitude of others who all hear the ‘funny parts’ at split-second intervals apart.

Born Standing Up delivers exactly what Steve Martin means to explain, the life, the inspirations and the practiced efforts that any comedian would identify with in their pursuit of being a successful stand-up comic. It is not an instructional text, but neither is its purpose in doing anything more than merely describing his singular process in how his act, his persona, was conceived and practiced. But in spite of this initially disappointing fact, he still makes it a somewhat fascinating journey through his own life and experiences, and this is what makes the book an interesting read even for those who are not aspiring to a career in stand-up comedy.

He sprinkles tidbits of his complicated relationship with his father, whose approval of Martin’s vocation was never given, and you realize early on that this is a particularly important matter of unresolved preoccupation throughout his life. He maintains consistency in both his personal biography and the various dynamics and revelations that inform his craft, surprisingly honest and straightforward as to the actual inspirations and origins of his most iconic humorous trademarks – the arrow-through-the-head gag he seemingly forgets is even there; the self-deprecating of his own talents even while he’s bragging ludicrously about them; the incorporation of complex philisophical studies as filtered through a clueless thought process. It’s all there for any aspiring comic to gain insight from, and while this makes for an informative study of how a comedian can reach beyond the generic set-up and punchline, how to achieve laughs throughout the dialogue instead of saving it all for the end means, Born Standing Up cannot be recommended for anyone aside from the truly knowledgeable and adoring fan of Martin’s work; there are poignant and almost uncomfortably-recounted familial incidents near the end of the book that are both heartbreaking and satisfying for those who would really just like to get inside this man’s head, if only briefly.

In summary, I rate this book an ‘A-‘ for hardcore fans, and a solid ‘B’ for those who are still familiar with most of his work and want a little history of his life outside of it. If you’re one of those who do not go out of their way to experience every facet of Steve Martin’s long rise to stardom and how he (wisely) chose to abandon stand-up comedy completely, it would be hard to recommend this book.

In closing, I cannot help but quote some of the jokes he lists as having to abandon in order to streamline his act but still loves anyway:

“I think communication is so firsbern.”

“I’m so depressed today. I just found out this ‘death thing’ applies to me.”

“I have no fear, no fear at all. I wake up, and I have no fear. I go to bed without fear. Fear, fear, fear, fear. Yes, ‘fear’ is a word that is not in my vocabulary.”

and

“I just found out I’m vain. I thought that song was about me.”

Bill Murray is a funny guy as soon as he walks into a room – Steve Martin is too, when he wants to be. But there’s too much talent inside of him to leave it at that.

lilFed’s #CBR5 Review #7: ‘The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film’ by Michael Weldon

psychotronicWith all due respect to the late Roger Ebert, along with all due ‘not-so-flattering’, but no less valid, criticisms of his work, it is not really a complicated, time-consuming chore to write your average movie review, if you do it all the time. With film critics as prolific as Leonard Maltin and the online Pajiba crew, or EW magazine’s Owen Glieberman (God, I miss Lisa Schwartzbaum!) churning these reviews out regularly, one can surmise that those thick, impressively small-printed film and video review ‘guides’ that Ebert published with such regularity were more or less simply a matter of cutting and pasting the reviews that were already written long ago, with maybe a few embellishments to update the original. And let’s be perfectly honest: most hugely-popular films are so embedded into the public’s consciousness, even people who have never actually seen the movie could write a fairly passable review about it, just from the knowledge gleaned from every other source under the sun – many a high school book report has gotten a passing grade for the writer who knew just how to bullshit properly in a creative writing assignment.

Michael Weldon, on the other hand, was a whole different animal from the standard movie critic, and remains so thirty years on from the publication of ‘The Psychotronic Encyclopedia Of Film’. The back cover summarizes the overall concept of this ‘Encyclopedia’ as well as anything could:

The complete viewer’s guide to the weirdest movies of all time!

‘Psychotronic’ films range from ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ to ‘E.T.‘.. from ‘Angel’s Wild Women’ and ‘Hellcats of the Navy’ to ‘I Dismember Mama’ and ‘Let Me Die A Woman’.
‘Psychotronic’ stars are ex-models, ex-sport heroes, dead rock idols, future presidents, would-be Marilyns, and has-beens of all types.

Out of the 3,000-plus movies reviewed in this 800-page encyclopedic ‘novel’, as I consumed it, you’ll find iconic mainstream fare like 1958’s ‘The Fly’(“A brilliant, sick, absurd hit based on a ‘Playboy’ short story”), 1975’s ‘Jaws’and 1951’s ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ (with asides such as “The robot Gork was played by Lock Martin, a seven-foot-seven former doorman at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.”)

But there’s also ‘Bedtime for Bonzo’, ‘Gog’, ‘Eraserhead’, ‘Johnny Cool’ and ‘Mesa of Lost Women’. Mr. Weldon, with some assistance from a couple of fellow ‘psychotronic’ film lovers, simply amazes at describing the most obscure and ‘forgotten’ B-films with a knowledge that leaves little doubt of the extent of his research, many of these which he was allowed to watch as a kid growing up in Cleveland movie theaters in the 60’s-70’s, but also “from poring through thousands of outdated ‘fanzines’ and promotion pieces – and, not surprisingly, from countless all-night marathons in front of the TV screen.”

Weldon had spawned a well-regarded ‘newspaper fanzine’, Psychotronic Magazine, also jam-packed with literally 100’s of movie mentions, which started before and continued after this book.

There’s so much more to comment on, but I’m trying to make a bigger point here:

Let’s take an example like ‘Raging Bull’ (1980) – anyone who knows the plot of this movie could give an instant review of it, without ever having seen it, but knowing enough through 20 – 30 years of hearing others talk about it, or seeing bits on their TV while switching channels, or reading a ton of entertainment media mentioning it whether you were searching for it or not.

Now try and b.s. through a review of, say, 1959’s ‘The Manster’. Ever hear of it? Probably not, though it’s been one of the regular late-night b&w ‘horror’ movies on local TV stations across the country for, oh, like forever. But Michael Weldon has seen it, and after providing us with the year, country, studio, director, and screenwriter who made it (as he does with every film), here’s his review:

“The world’s first double-headed monster movie! An American reporter (Larry Stanford) is given an injection by the mad Dr. Suzuki (who keeps his mutant wife in a cage). An eye grows on the reporter’s shoulder! It soon becomes an ugly head that resembles a carved coconut! The extra-headed monster kills people! Then it splits into two beings – man and ape man. Man throws ape man into a volcano! End.”

Michael Weldon has a gift of informing a person as to what a film is about. There is no personal opinion of this film mentioned in its description, unless one wants to assume that the exclamation points would denote a favorable attitude towards it – that, or just sarcasm. But it’s really left up to the individual, isn’t it?

This is but one example of a review in this book, but an underlying theme throughout, aside from some classics like ‘Bride of Frankenstein’, which are universally agreed and written about as such, is that the reviewers here don’t presume to tell you how good or bad a movie is, how much you will like or dislike it, or what its cultural or aesthetic worth is – they are merely described for the potential viewer’s benefit.. This device is what makes this huge, information-packed source so imminently readable, whether it be in certain parts or as a unique whole.

This book was followed up by TPVG in 1996, when most of the movies reviewed in the first book had been resurrected through home video. But the original is timeless, and establishes Michael Weldon as a very rare, but vital film historian who belongs with the greats, in film genres that have yet to be explored as thoroughly as he did 30 years previously. Get it if you can find it.

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