Saturday, October 22, 2016

Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (Universal-International, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “Mars movie screening” in Golden Hill consisted of a couple of science-fiction spoofs, made about a decade apart — Abbott and Costello Go to Mars in 1953 and The Three Stooges in Orbit in 1962 — but rooted in a pretty similar Zeitgeist. Abbott and Costello Go to Mars — a misnomer because, while the two actually (inadvertently) hijack a spaceship and fly it to another planet, they go not to Mars but to Venus — doesn’t have much of a reputation in the A&C oeuvre (Leonard Maltin quoted the New York Herald-Tribune’s snarky one-line dismissal — “And about time” — and called the film itself “one of their worst”) but it turned out to be genuinely amusing, though not laugh-out-loud funny. It was based on a story by Howard Christie (who also produced) and D. D. Beauchamp, worked into a screenplay by Christie and John Grant (the wordsmith who wrote “Who’s on First” and many of A&C’s most famous wordplay routines, though oddly in the 1950’s A&C were moving away from dialogue comedy and getting virtually all their laughs from slapstick — usually comedians moved out of slapstick and towards dialogue comedy as they aged, but for some reason A&C did the reverse. The plot of this one concerns a secret U.S. government program headed by Dr. Wilson (Robert Paige, reuniting with Abbott and Costello from their second film and career-establishing hit, Buck Privates, in 1941) that has successfully constructed a nuclear-powered single-stage rocket capable of interplanetary travel. Orville (Lou Costello) is an orphan who has stayed at the Hideaway Orphanage his entire life until he’s reached age 38, and when the film begins he’s flying one of those model airplanes which has a motor on it but is tied to strings to the pilot can control it. He’s challenged to explain the principles of space travel by two glasses-wearing kids (today we’d call them “nerds”) who of course understand it all better than he does. (According to, Harry Shearer of This Is Spinal Tap is one of the kids at the orphanage.) When Orville flies his drone plane through the window of a post office, the cops go after him and he flees by leaping into a truck that’s delivering equipment to the base where the spaceship has been built.

The truck is being driven by Lester (Bud Abbott), the delivery person for the base, and there’s an amusing scene in which Lester becomes convinced Orville is a spy seeking to steal the secrets of the rocket for some sinister foreign power, while one of the scientists who helped design and build the rocket is named Dr. Orvilla (Joe Kirk) and he and Orville are mistaken for each other. The scientists meet in solemn conclave to vote whether to take the rocket to Mars or Venus, but of course that decision is made for them when Abbott and Costello end up hiding inside the thing and accidentally start it off into space. They fly the thing around New York City, including through the Lincoln Tunnel — there’s a neat scene in which an alcoholic stumbles into a bar, swears he’s just seen a spaceship go through the Lincoln Tunnel (where Costello has just been fishing through his spacesuit looking for a quarter to pay the toll) and demands a drink — and the bartender doesn’t believe him until he sees the ship emerge from the Lincoln Tunnel, whereupon the bartender grabs the bottle from the poor guy and takes a swig himself. The ship finally lands in New Orleans in the middle of Mardi Gras, where our accidental astronauts see all the strangely costumed people getting ready for the parade and think they’ve actually flown to Mars. About the only normally dressed people are two convicts who sneak into the ship, steal two spacesuits, hold up a bank using a ray gun that paralyzes people without killing them (much like the gas in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome six years earlier), and then steal some normal clothes and stow away aboard the spacecraft. Wanted in all 48 states, the two crooks, Mugsy (Horace McMahon) and Harry (Jack Kruschen), demand that A&C take them to another country — only instead A&C screw up the controls instead and the four end up on Venus. (The planet Venus?) Venus turns out to be one of those weirdly sexist fantasy worlds that appeared in a lot of 1950’s movies, including Cat Women on the Moon, Fire Maidens from Outer Space and Queen of Outer Space, in which the entire population is humanoid female — and breathtakingly attractive humanoid female at that, so the filmmakers could cast (and credit!) beauty-contest winners. The queen of Venus is Allura (Mari Blanchard, a nice-looking blonde who a year after this film took Marlene Dietrich’s original role in a remake of Destry Rides Again) and her guards include the young Anita Ekberg (Miss Sweden of 1950 — Abbott & Costello and Fellini, one degree of separation!), Jackie Loughery (Miss U.S.A.), Jeri Miller (Miss Welcome to Long Beach — that’s really her title) and Judy Hatula (Miss Michigan), while Allura’s (the name says it all) handmaidens are Ruth Hampton (Miss New Jersey), Valerie Jackson (Miss Montana), Renate Huy (Miss Germany), Jeanne Thompson (Miss Louisiana) and Elza Edsman (Miss Hawai’i).

It seems that 400 years previously Allura’s husband ran off with another woman, and rather than allow that to happen again Allura made the royal decision to banish all men from Venus, thereby ensuring that its women could live in peace and harmony with each other and would be eternally youthful and immortal (though this rather begs the question of where, with no men, little Venusians — and we see at least one — come from). Only the other Venusians are so hot to have men around they really don’t care whether they look like Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Horace McMahon and Jack Kruschen — at least until Allura shows them photos of the Venusian men who got banished, who all look like Charles Atlas models (rather than the major male movie stars of the period) and says that if they’re going to have men around, they should at least be hot-looking musclemen instead of twerps like the four they’ve actually got. Eventually A&C flee Venus — the Venusians have thoughtfully refueled their ship in hopes of stealing it and using it themselves to conquer Earth and put an end to this “man” thing once and for all — and the four astronauts return to Earth and a ticker-tape parade, A&C in an open car and the two crooks, recaptured, in a paddy wagon. Abbott and Costello Go to Mars is a nice, amusing movie — it’s not laugh-out-loud funny except in a few places (notably a neat special-effects scene towards the end in which the spacecraft is heading for the Statue of Liberty — and the statue ducks to get out of its way; also the final tag scene, in which Queen Allura back on Venus sends a flying saucer to Earth just to splat a pie in Costello’s face as he’s in the middle of the parade honoring him) but it has a certain charm even though, especially early on, the ongoing real-life hostility between the two stars (which for a time reached such nasty proportions that they literally didn’t speak to each other unless they were doing a scene together — and their writers accommodated them by giving them as few scenes together as possible) is quite apparent in their on-screen (lack of) chemistry.

The Three Stooges in Orbit (Normandy/Columbia, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Abbott and Costello Go to Mars we got to see its double-bill partner, The Three Stooges in Orbit, made in 1962 at an odd juncture in the Stooges’ career. They had originally began as the sidekicks of vaudevillian Ted Healy, who in 1930 got to make an early musical for Fox, Soup to Nuts, written by cartoonist Rube Goldberg. Healy ended up under contract at MGM as a contract player and brought the Stooges along for some comic-relief scenes in illustrious movies like Dancing Lady with Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire and Nelson Eddy (the last two in their film debuts), only in 1934 MGM decided that they’d keep Healy under contract but didn’t need his “stooges” anymore. So Columbia, whose president Harry Cohn always liked it when he could one-up the mighty MGM and make stars out of people MGM’s boss Louis B. Mayer had fired, put the Stooges under contract and set them to making two-reel comedy shorts. At the time the lineup of the Three Stooges was brothers Moe and Curly Howard (Moe was the one who anticipated the Beatles’ pudding-bowl haircuts, Curly the shaved-headed guy who invented the “N’yuk n’yuk” vocal noise that became a Stooges trademark) and Larry Fine, the frizzy-haired one. Amazingly, the Three Stooges’ series of shorts lasted from 1934 to 1957 and proved reliable moneymakers for Columbia; the studio occasionally put them in minor roles in features but mostly kept them in the two-reel salt mines. In 1946 Curly suffered a stroke and was replaced in the team by a third Howard brother, Shemp, who’d previously played important supporting roles in comedies with far more impressive stars, like The Bank Dick with W. C. Fields, Hellzapoppin’ with Broadway sensations Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, and Buck Privates with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. When Shemp died in 1955 the Stooges got an unrelated but quite amusing comedian named Joe Besser to replace him, but by that time the advent of television was pretty much killing the market for movie shorts. Columbia let the Stooges’ series die a natural death in 1957, but the following year they started selling the Stooges’ movies to TV — a 20-minute two-reeler was a “natural” for TV because it could be cut up to insert commercial breaks and fit into a half-hour time slot — and they were sensationally successful, especially when stations ran them in the late afternoon so schoolchildren could watch them. Columbia re-signed the Stooges to make feature films, many of them with a science-fiction bent (the first was called Have Rocket, Will Travel), largely the result of director Edward Bernds, who’d cut his teeth on the Stooges’ shorts, but when he stepped up to feature films his career took an odd turn into science fiction.

According to an “Trivia” poster The Three Stooges in Orbit actually started life as an unsold color pilot for a Stooges’ TV series — the first 20 minutes, in which the Stooges get thrown out of a number of hotels for cooking in their rooms (a big bozo no-no in the days of vaudeville — Stan Laurel remembered that when he and Charlie Chaplin roomed together on tour with Fred Karno’s vaudeville troupe before either of them made movies, Laurel would cook their meals over an open gas jet in the room and Chaplin would cover up the sound by practicing his violin), come from their failed TV pilot and are the funniest scenes in the film — before they hook up with mad inventor Professor Danforth (Emil Sitka, who’d been a regular supporting player in the Stooges’ shorts), who invites the Stooges to stay in his mansion. What they don’t realize is that the mansion is haunted, not by the usual ghosts or goblins but by Martians, including Danforth’s butler Williams (Norman Leavitt), a Martian who’s been put through elaborate plastic surgery to look like an Earthling. The Martians au naturel look as close as Columbia’s makeup department could come to the Universal makeup for the Frankenstein monster without Universal suing them for copyright infringement. When Williams fails in his mission to neutralize Danforth’s invention — a peculiar contraption that has tank treads to go on land, electric motors so it can travel under sea as a submarine, and helicopter rotors so it can fly — because the Martians think it’s the only possible craft by which the Earthlings can resist a War of the Worlds-style invasion, the Martians send Ogg (George N. Neise) and Zogg (Rayford Barnes) — one wonders if they knew Yll and Ylla, the bored middle-aged Martian couple who figured prominently at the beginning of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles — and the movie is basically a series of slapstick sequences as the Stooges try to get the contraption ready for a demonstration Air Force Captain Tom Andrews (Edson Stroll) has arranged, largely out of incredibly blandly depicted love for Danforth’s daughter Carol (Carol Christensen), only they end up loading it with a water-activated atom bomb the Navy was testing as an ultimate depth charge against an enemy’s nuclear submarines. There’s also a straight cop of the gimmick from the 1935 Gene Autry science-fiction musical Western serial The Phantom Empire in which the Stooges have to keep getting back to the local TV station they work for in order to do their show on time or risk getting fired.

The Three Stooges in Orbit is a cute, clever film whose target audience was probably still in single digits; people older than that are likely to notice how old Moe and Larry had got — naturally it’s especially noticeable in their close-ups — and how little they were doing the slapstick that had been their stock-in-trade when they were making the shorts whose renewed popularity on TV had led to the Stooges’ comeback. Part of the problem was the new “third Stooge,” Joe DeRita, who had signed on when Joe Besser quit after the cancellation of the shorts series. The Stooges christened him “Curly-Joe,” but that only underscored how much less funny he was than the original Curly Howard; apparently DeRita was unwilling to do too much pie-in-the-face or finger-in-the-eye stuff (though the funniest scene in this film after the first 20 minutes is when the rotors of Danforth’s craft get caught in a batch of pies and fling them at the Air Force brass there to watch the demonstration — an automatic pie fight!) and his preference for dialogue comedy fit oddly with Moe’s and Larry’s more restrained physical antics. The finale features Danforth’s craft literally splitting in half, with the bottom half killing the Martians who had hijacked it when the bomb explodes (invoking another, far superior Columbia release two years later, I couldn’t help but sing “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when” as the bomb went off and a mushroom cloud filled the screen) while the top half delivers the Stooges to their TV studio right when the manager who’s never liked them was about to fire them. They save their career with a new invention, “electronic cartoons,” which basically means the Stooges cover themselves with white makeup and get themselves filmed doing the Twist — the makers of this movie had the idea of digital cartoons decades before computer technology advanced enough to make them a reality — and there’s a clever tag scene in which two surviving Martians see the Martian subtitle communicating the last bits of English dialogue in the film (a reversal since earlier we’ve seen gag subtitles in English purporting to translate what the Martians are saying to each other), and one Martian shoots out all the letters in the subtitle except the ones that read “the end.” (I miss titles that say “The End.” That’s how old-school I am in my movie-watching!)

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time-Warp Again (Fox 21 Television Studios, Jackal, Ode, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time-Warp Again, a 2016 TV-movie remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a 1975 film of the gender-bending musical by Richard O’Brien that premiered in London in 1973. When it was new, it was treated as another manifestation of a growing cultural awareness and acceptance of Queer people that also showed up in David Bowie’s 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and the androgynous persona he adopted for that album and the tour he did to promote it. As most people probably know by now, The Rocky Horror Show — the word “Picture” was added to the title when O’Brien and director Jim Sharman filmed it in 1975 — is a spoof of Frankenstein in which normal couple Brad Majors (Ryan McCartan) and his fiancée Janet Weiss (Victoria Justice) drive off from their friends’ wedding, run into a rainstorm and have a blowout in the middle of nowhere. Hoping to find a telephone so they can call for help (which Charles noted was a very anachronistic plot device for 2016 — these days they’d be carrying cell phones and the only way to show someone lost without a phone connection of some sort would be with an establishing shot about how they left their phones behind, they were out of tower range or the batteries had died — though given that the framing scene features the cars and clothes of the 1950’s one can argue that the film is a period piece taking place before cell phones existed), they walk towards a sinister castle that turns out to be the home of Dr. Frank N. Furter (Laverne Cox), a self-proclaimed “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.”

Dr. Frank is busy in his lab creating the ultimate stud muffin, Rocky Horror (Staz Nair), and to celebrate this occasion he’s throwing a party (billed in this version as the “41st Annual Transylvanian Convention,” reflecting the 41 years between the original film and this remake) with a varied assortment of servants and hangers-on, including his butler Riff Raff (Reeve Carney, playing the part Richard O’Brien wrote for himself in the original stage production and the 1975 movie), maid Magenta (Christina Millan), “groupie” Columbia (Annaleigh Ashford) and others. The party is crashed by Eddie (Adam Lambert, playing the part Meat Loaf had in the 1975 film), who sings a song called “Hot Patootie” in 1950’s-rock style and then gets himself dispatched by Dr. Frank — in the 1975 film his sudden appearance was totally inexplicable but in this version it’s specified that he’s Dr. Frank’s ex-boyfriend who’s jealous of the newly created Rocky (and in the remake his song is also moved up so it happens considerably earlier than it did in 1975). There’s a lot of sexual coupling and recoupling going on, and Brad and Janet both get sucked (figuratively and literally) into Dr. Frank’s polymorphously perverse world — they’re both the recipients of Dr. Frank’s amorous intentions and Janet also flips for Rocky, pissing off Dr. Frank since he intended Rocky as his boyfriend — until at the end Riff Raff turns out to be, not a servant, but a morals enforcer from Transsexual, a planet in another galaxy called Transylvania from which Dr. Frank came to Earth. He announces that Dr. Frank will be executed on the spot — Riff Raff’s guitar turns into a laser rifle for this purpose — and he also takes out the rest of the hangers-on, whereupon the castle turns into a spaceship to take him and Magenta (the only one he’s spared) back to Transsexual, leaving Brad, Janet and their high-school science teacher, Dr. Everett Scott (Ben Vereen, looking ridiculous in a white straight-haired wig) behind to wonder what’s happened to them and what they’re going to do now that Dr. Frank and company have exposed them to a far greater range of sexual stimuli than they were ever expecting. (O’Brien wrote the song “Super-Heroes,” the show’s one genuine moment of pathos, for the ending, but some prints of the 1975 film omit it and substitute a repeat of the show’s big hit, “Let’s Do the Time-Warp Again.”)

 The Rocky Horror Picture Show got filmed in 1975 in England — where, coincidentally, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder were making Young Frankenstein for the same studio, 20th Century-Fox, and as spoofs of the Frankenstein mythos go Young Frankenstein is by far the better movie — and O’Brien and director Jim Sharman chose to open the film with a pair of bright red lips, their owner’s face carefully shadowed so as to be invisible, singing the show’s opening song, “Science Fiction,” an ode to such 1930’s and 1950’s horror and sci-fi films as The Invisible Man, King Kong, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Tarantula. When Rocky Horror was first released in the U.S. under normal theatrical conditions the ads for it referenced the success of the film Jaws — they contained the “lips” logo from the opening and captioned it, “A different set of jaws” — and the movie was a box-office flop. But that wasn’t the end of it; certain theatres with highly counter-cultural clienteles started booking the movie for special showings at midnight, and eventually an entire cult developed around it; people began coming to the screenings in costume, enacting the on-screen action in the theatre, and developing a whole ritual of talking back to the screen, making gestures (like waving their hands in windshield-wiper motions as Brad and Janet drive through the rain to the Frank-N-Furter castle) and throwing things, including hurling rice at the screen when Brad’s and Janet’s friends get married and shooting water pistols into the air when the film showed rain. As a result, The Rocky Horror Picture Show had the longest-running theatrical release in movie history, and at least in isolated pockets of the world the tradition of midnight showings with audience participation is still going on. I remember first seeing Rocky Horror at the Ken Cinema sometime in the 1980’s, having decided I wanted to watch the movie at least once sans audience participation so I’d know what it was about if I ever went to a midnight screening, and going to at least one of the midnight shows before 20th Century-Fox first put it on TV in 1993. Unclear as to what to do with a movie in which the audience was so integral a part of the live experience, Fox decided on a dual presentation; they’d run the movie but simultaneously show the film screening inside a theatre where the audience would be doing at least parts of the live routine that had become traditional.

Eventually the studio rather gingerly released the film on DVD and gave you the choice of watching it au naturel or in the 1993 TV version with that particular audience immortalized — and when Charles and I got this disc we double-billed it with The Bride of Frankenstein (the 1935 horror masterpiece by more or less openly Gay director James Whale) as “the two Gayest takes on the Frankenstein story ever made.” That was four years ago, and neither of us had seen the original since, which put us a bit back of scratch in assessing how close this version came to it — though the two are close enough that the only screenwriters credited are O’Brien and Sharman, who did the script for the original. The director is Kenny Ortega, who’s best known as a choreographer (he worked on the marvelous and underrated 1978 film American Hot Wax, about D.J. Alan Freed and his role in promoting rock ’n’ roll in the 1950’s) and who did some quite nice dances even though Charles was disappointed that the shock-cut that introduces the “Time Warp” number wasn’t quite so shocking this time around. Whoever was responsible for this film did add some felicitous touches — notably having Brad propose to Janet in front of the tombstone of Mary Shelley, author of the original Frankenstein — and Fox blessedly left in the sequence in which Brad, having sex with Dr. Frank and having just learned he is not Janet, says, “Don’t stop, don’t stop — I mean stop, stop!,” which was censored from the 1993 TV showing of the original film. The most interesting departure from the original was the casting of genuine Transwoman Laverne Cox (best known for her ongoing role in the Netflix TV series Orange Is the New Black) as Dr. Frank, which puts a quite different “spin” on the character than when s/he is played by a guy in drag (like Tim Curry, who starred in the original stage and film versions and turned up here as the narrator, “The Criminologist” — his performance as the Criminologist seemed weak, but mentioned that this is his first acting role since he had a stroke in 2012 and therefore I can’t be too hard on him). Assuming she didn’t have a voice double, she’s quite good in the songs and acts the part with a marvelous degree of authority and comfort in her own body that’s quite appealing to watch and helps make up for the fact that, on the whole, this cast is considerably weaker than the one we’ve been watching since 1975.

It was fun to watch Ryan McCartan as Brad wearing nothing but a pair of white briefs and flashing an enviable basket, and Victoria Justice was cute and properly perky as Janet but somehow I won’t be holding my breath to see her develop a reputation as a serious dramatic actress and political activist who eventually wins an Academy Award the way 1975’s Janet, Susan Sarandon, did. Adam Lambert is certainly hotter than Meat Loaf, but that’s not necessarily to the good — and though he’s openly Gay and narrowly missed winning American Idol he’s still not that interesting a performer, and if he has any reputation today it’s as a sort of beta version of Sam Smith. Charles and I both found it hard to judge the new version of Rocky Horror because, even though we hadn’t seen the original in four years, enough of it was imprinted in our memories that we couldn’t help but make the comparisons and find the new version falling short of the original — and while the proposal between Brad and Janet in front of Mary Shelley’s tombstone was a neat touch, other not-so-neat changes included having the show open in a movie theatre that turns out to be called “Castle” and later appears as the Frank-N-Furter Castle — Rocky Horror gets created in a huge ice chest of the kind used in 1950’s movie theatres to keep the sodas cold (in 1975 he came to life in a giant aquarium tank built by Hammer Studios in 1958 for their remake The Curse of Frankenstein, and indeed one thing I noted in my last go-round with Rocky Horror is that whereas Young Frankenstein was a spoof of the 1930’s Frankenstein films from Universal, Rocky Horror was really a spoof of the Hammer Frankensteins). It’s one of those remakes that’s O.K. on its face but makes you wonder why they bothered — why they didn’t just do an anniversary showing of the original film instead — and I’d still like to see a Rocky Horror that would follow the example of the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s live production of the play (during which they had to solemnly instruct the audience not to do any of the traditional interjections because they would throw off the actors’ timing), in which, instead of a nice little British voice doing the opening “Science Fiction” song, they cast an African-American who belted it out in full gospel-soul voice à la Aretha Franklin. Now that’s a thrill I could have used last night!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Contenders: H. Ross Perot and Ralph Nader (OZY Media/PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

First up last night was the latest episode of The Contenders, the surprisingly addictive show on former Presidential candidates (though the next episode will be a bit of a departure in that it will be about two failed vice-presidential candidates, Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin, the only women ever nominated for that position — though it’s been looking more and more like we’ll have a woman President before we have a woman Vice-President!) which this time was about “The Independents,” H. Ross Perot and Ralph Nader. It was impossible to avoid drawing comparisons between Perot and Donald Trump — both multi-billionaires who ran against what they perceived to be a rigged system and presented themselves as expert businessmen who could bring a fresh perspective to governing the U.S., and both of whom had spectacular mental meltdowns in public that kept them from doing as well as they might otherwise have done in the polls. Of course, there were obvious differences too: when the show played a film clip of Perot saying “diversity is America’s strength” it was impossible not to realize how utterly unlikely it would be for Trump to say those words! Still, there were striking similarities between Perot’s appeal and Trump’s; Perot often said things like, “The party’s over. It’s time for the clean-up crew,” meaning that Democrats and Republicans had made such a mess of the country in general and in particular had ran up such a fearsome level of national debt that it was time to get a new crew in there to clean house and get the country back on a sound financial footing.

That, of course, is yet another difference between Perot, who was genuinely concerned about America’s mounting national debt (and one of the few figures in American politics who seemed aware of the difference between the budget deficit — which is basically the amount by which the national debt increases in any given year — and the debt itself) — so much so that he made it the signature issue of his campaign — and Trump, whose economic policies would blow a hole in the debt and vastly increase it (as well as potentially antagonizing the countries, notably China, to whom we owe the debt) in the interest of tax cuts for the rich. Still, the basic appeal of Perot and Trump was pretty much the same: the nation is in crisis, the two major parties had run out of ideas to get us out of it, and only a fresh face untethered to the political establishments of both Republicans and Democrats could get the country back on track again. Perot won 19 percent of the vote in 1992 despite the spectacular meltdown in which he got out of the race in July and got back into it in October, giving an interview to 60 Minutes in which he claimed he’d withdrawn in the first place because the re-election campaign of President George H. W. Bush had threatened to smear his daughter as a Lesbian on the eve of her marriage (to a man). Had he stayed in, he could well have carried enough states to deadlock the Electoral College and throw the election into the House of Representatives — though the program featured an interview with a former Perot campaign staff member in which he said actually deadlocking the election and forcing a constitutional crisis was the last thing he wanted and the real reason he withdrew (temporarily, as it turned out, because he found the TV networks wouldn’t sell him half-hour blocks of time for his infomercials about the debt crisis unless he was an active candidate) was he didn’t want to win the presidency — just to promote public attention about the debt crisis and make sure either Bush or Bill Clinton, whoever won, took it seriously.

As things turned out, Clinton won the election and Perot probably was the “spoiler” that made it possible — as a graphic shown the night of the election and reproduced on this program indicated, Clinton carried the state of Texas (a Democrat actually carried Texas in my lifetime!) by 41 to 40 percent, and Texas would almost certainly have gone to Bush if Perot hadn’t siphoned 18 percent of the vote. (One of the things that amused me about the 1992 campaign was that all three candidates came from the same part of the country — Bush from Texas, Clinton from Arkansas and Perot from Texarkana, a city so-named because it was on the Texas-Arkansas border.) At the same time, though he did five percentage points better than George Wallace had in 1968, he didn’t win any electoral votes because he didn’t carry any states (Wallace carried five, all in the Deep South) — proof that the real bias in American politics that prevents alternatives to the Republican and Democratic parties from competing fairly and effectively is the U.S. addiction to winner-take-all electoral systems and the law (not part of the Constitution but passed by Congress in 1842) that requires that the House of Representatives be elected from single-member districts. Certainly both Perot and Nader faced the difficulty of getting on the ballot at all, let alone in all 50 states (this year, of the two principal alternative-party candidates for the Presidency, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party is on the ballot in all 50 states and Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party is on the ballot in 44), and they also had the problem of getting on the Presidential debate stage (ordinarily, under the usual rules of the Commission on Presidential Debates — or, as I call it, the “Commission to Make Sure Americans Don’t Hear from Anyone Other than Republicans or Democrats in Presidential Debates” — Perot wouldn’t have qualified for the debate, but Bush insisted that he be let on because for some reason he thought Perot would hurt Clinton more than he hurt him), but the real factor that keeps American political competition so confined to two big parties is the single-member districts and winner-take-all system that ensure that all you can do by voting for an alternative-party candidate is help the major-party candidate you like least.

That, of course, was Nader’s big problem as well — this program does a good job of telling Nader’s story, from his beginnings to his rise to prominence over the issue of auto safety in general and the sloppy suspension design of the Chevrolet Corvair in particular — and the jihad General Motors, makers of the Corvair (and the Buick Roadmaster, another car Nader singled out for criticism), waged against him, including hiring women to entrap him in a sex scandal and using private detectives to follow him around. It turned out to be one of the most spectacularly counterproductive moves in the history of corporate espionage, since it transformed Nader from a minor irritant to a major gadfly, caused sales of his book Unsafe at Any Speed to zoom up and gave Nader the money he need to start the network of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG’s) and other organizations that helped push through laws not only requiring the federal government to regulate auto safety but protect consumers and the environment generally. Nader is shown on this program complaining that such legislative triumphs started becoming more difficult in the early 1980’s when, in order to keep their House of Representatives majority in the face of Ronald Reagan’s political revolution, the Democrats cut deals with major corporate donors and essentially abandoned their pro-consumer, pro-environment agenda in service to their new paymasters — it’s a major oversimplification but basically accurate analysis — and that’s what disillusioned him against politics in general and the two-party system in particular, and led him to a series of Presidential candidates from outside the two major parties. Of course, the most significant of Nader’s five Presidential runs was the one in 2000, in which he won 2.7 percent of the vote and pissed off a lot of his old allies because they were afraid he would take the election from Democratic candidate Al Gore, Jr. and give it to Republican George W. Bush. This show takes the position that Nader did just that — the common perception that Nader was effectively responsible for the Bush Presidency and all that went wrong with America during it (like the squandering of the laboriously achieved budget surpluses of the last two years of Bill Clinton’s Presidency on tax cuts for the rich, and the war in Iraq) has in effect trashed his legacy to the point where if people hear the name “Ralph Nader” they no longer think of the consumer advocate without whom we wouldn’t have the federal regulations protecting auto safety and the air and water, they think of “the man who made George W. Bush President.”

Nader’s own defense against that charge, to the extent he ever made one (during the campaign itself he made the predictable argument that it was a lesser-of-two-evils vote that was the truly “wasted” one and the vote for one’s conscience that was really consequential), was that he thought Gore was so much stronger a candidate than Bush he should have won in a landslide and so a principled vote for Nader wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) have hurt the Democrat any. As I’ve argued in these pages before, I’m convinced the real force that elected George W. Bush President was the National Rifle Association, which ran so-called “independent” campaigns for Bush in Tennessee and West Virginia, giving Bush both those states’ electoral votes. The real astonishing fact about the 2000 election was that, in a race that was otherwise razor-close, Gore became the first major-party nominee since George McGovern in 1972 to lose his home state (at least in the other two blowouts in recent history, Barry Goldwater won Arizona in 1964 and Walter Mondale won Minnesota in 1984), thanks to the NRA — and if Gore had carried Tennessee, he would have been President and all the fooforaw about Florida wouldn’t have mattered. What’s more, the Democrats knew it, too; that’s why gun regulation virtually disappeared from the Democratic issue list for well over a decade and how the NRA has successfully intimidated politicians into voting down every attempt at sensible gun legislation ever since. Just as one can’t watch this program in 2016 without reflecting on the similarities between H. Ross Perot and Donald Trump, it’s also hard to watch it and not notice those between Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders: both gadflies whose attacks on giant corporations and their political power were at the heart of their appeal, both candidates whose power base was among young white college students and who never “cracked” the communities of color (the bedrock of support for Gore in the 2000 general election and for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries — there’s a comment on this show from an activist of color who says that white idealists like Nader and Sanders ignore the communities of color except during election time, then suddenly appear and expect to be taken seriously without doing the years of hard work needed to build relationships with community leaders and be taken seriously by them).

The show also argues that Perot had a lasting impact on the political system while Nader, at least as a candidate, did not; the budget deficit became a major concern during Bill Clinton’s administration (even though Perot’s other main concern — opposition to so-called “free trade” agreements that grease the skids on which jobs are moved out of country and laws protecting workers and the environment are systematically trashed — a position shared by Trump, Nader and Sanders — has got exactly nowhere; but then, as I noted in my last Zenger’s blog post about this year’s election, enmeshing the world in so-called “free trade” agreements that basically subcontract the governance of the world economy from nation-states to multinational corporations is such a high priority of the international ruling class they’re not going to let minor little details like democracy or public opinion stand in its way) — though the surprising strength of Sanders’ candidacy within the Democratic Party and its power to move at least Hillary Clinton’s public positions (as opposed to her private ones!) strikingly to the Left indicates that Nader’s issues still have a lot of political resonance. There’s a sense of sadness in this episode of The Contenders, particularly in the acknowledgment that even people drawn to movements as strongly opposed to the shared priorities of the major-party establishments as Perot’s and Nader’s must now fight their battles within the major parties rather than outside of them — the Republican/Democrat duopoly and its determination of who’s allowed to be on the ballot and who’s taken “seriously” by the media (remember the MS-NBC interviewer who asked Bernie Sanders why he was running as a Democrat rather than as an independent, to which Sanders replied, “If I were running as an independent, you wouldn’t be talking to me”) is just too strong to be challenged.

American Experience: Nikola Tesla (WGBH/PBS, October 18, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the PBS American Experience program on Nikola Tesla last night after the Contenders episode, and while I’m still not sure how they decide who’s an “American Experience” and who’s an “American Master,” the Tesla story is interesting enough it deserves to be told. I first heard of Nikola Tesla from reading L. Sprague de Camp’s book The Heroic Age of American Invention in my teens — de Camp, who also wrote a biography of H. P. Lovecraft and helped edit and complete some of Lovecraft’s unfinished manuscripts for posthumous publication, regarded Tesla as the third in a triumvirate of American inventors (though only one of them was actually born in the U.S.) along with Thomas Edison and Elihu Thomson who shaped the electrical age as we know it. De Camp hailed Tesla’s one commercially successful invention, the induction motor — a way of using alternating current to power an electric motor without having to convert (“commutate”) it to direct current first — but dismissed him in his later years as a “crank.” The Tesla story as presented here by David Grubin, credited as both writer and director of this episode, is rather bizarre; he was born in modern-day Croatia (though his ethnic heritage was Serbian). His dad was an Orthodox priest and wanted young Nikola to follow him into the priesthood, but instead he took after his mom, an amateur inventor. Since both Serbia and Croatia were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when he went to school he was taught in German. He was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army but ran into the wilderness to avoid military service; later he won a military scholarship to Austrian Polytechnic — essentially the Austrian equivalent of MIT — in Graz (coincidentally also the birthplace of Arnold Schwarzenegger) and did well in school until midway through his second year, when he had an argument with one of his professors over whether electric generators needed commutators — the magnetic devices that converted alternating to direct current — and he ended up leaving school, briefly becoming a pool shark, losing most of the money his family had given him to stake him through school, then winning it all back, giving up his gambling addiction and asking to take the final exams anyway, but the extension he asked for to study was denied and he was expelled. He tried again to go to school in Prague, but he didn’t know the required languages, Czech and Greek, and eventually he ended up in Paris working for a subsidiary of Thomas Edison’s company.

Edison’s managers in Paris offered him a letter of recommendation to the Great Man himself, and on that Tesla decided to emigrate to the U.S. Edison actually hired him for about six months, during which he designed (ironically enough) an improved commutator for Edison’s DC generators, but he walked out on his job with Edison over Edison’s insistence that direct current, not alternating, was the future of electricity. (This was probably Edison’s biggest mistake.) Tesla couldn’t find another job in his field and had to resort to digging ditches to make ends meet until a couple of financial backers — what would today be called “venture capitalists” — offered to support his research in alternating-current motors. The advantage of alternating current then — and now — is that it can be “transformed”; you can lower the amperage (the amount of current) and raise the voltage (the force with which it travels through the wires conducting it) so that it can be moved great distances; then another transformer can lower the voltage and raise the amperage so the current can be used to power electric lights and other household devices. With direct current, you had to build a power station every mile or so; with alternating current, you could transmit power over hundreds of miles and build the sort of grid we know today: a handful of giant power generating stations moving high-voltage power over long distances, then transformers to reduce the voltage so the current can be used domestically. Tesla’s VC’s cut a deal between him and George Westinghouse, who was attempting to build a competing power system to Edison’s using alternating current, and Tesla originally got a royalty deal on his successful AC motor which would have made him a multimillionaire — but later Westinghouse went to Tesla and said he couldn’t afford to pay him the agreed-upon royalties, and rather than contact an attorney or renegotiate the deal, he meekly acceded to Westinghouse’s demand that he give up royalties altogether. As presented in the American Experience program, Tesla was a dreamer, literally given to visions, which colored his observations of his own experiments as a scientist. He was also superstitious; he regarded 3 as his lucky number, and when he lived in hotels (which was virtually all the time) he insisted that both the floor number and the number of his room be divisible by 3. Tesla was definitely not the sort of person Edison was — he would never have defined genius as “2 percent inspiration and 98 percent perspiration,” as Edison did — nor would he try to confirm that his gadgets would work by building models of them until they were totally worked out not only in his head but on paper as schematic drawings.

Because he wasn’t the sort of practical researcher Edison or Thomson were (and intriguingly Thomson has become virtually forgotten as a cult has been built up around Tesla, even though, at 700 patents, Thomson is ahead of Tesla on the list of most productive U.S. inventors and behind only Edison, with 1,300), Tesla had a hard time finding financial backers, especially since he was pursuing visionary ideas it would have been hard to, in today’s argot, “monetize.” Among his inventions were fluorescent tubes (which he called “cold light” and tried to illuminate wirelessly) and various means of conducting electricity through the air without wires. In 1900 he got an investment of $150,000 (about $4.25 million in today’s money) from J. P. Morgan to build a giant Tesla coil — a device he invented for creating a sudden burst of released electricity — in Shoreham, New York with the idea of sending electricity through the air so end users could get it for free. Modern physicists say that’s simply not possible — too much of the electricity disperses too quickly for any useful quantity to be received more than a few feet away — but in the process Tesla worked out a way of sending Morse-code messages without wires, thereby essentially inventing radio. Alas, he was frozen out of the credit (and the money) for radio by Guglielmo Marconi — though eventually in 1943, the year Tesla died, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was Tesla who had indeed invented radio and Marconi had, as Tesla charged, infringed on at least 17 of Tesla’s patents. Also, as Tesla’s notoriety increased, so did his craziness; he claimed that exposure to electrical energy could improve human brainpower, he claimed to be in communication with Martians via his electrical gadgets (one wonders if this is where the plot of the movie Red Planet Mars came from), and his later ideas included designs for vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft and electrically powered death rays. Tesla didn’t show any signs of a romantic or relationship life with other people, but according to this documentary he liked to feed the pigeons on New York’s streets and parks, fell in love with one particular female pigeon, and was heartbroken when she died.

Tesla died January 7, 1943 at age 86 in room 3327 (a number divisible by 3) of the New Yorker Hotel, the last survivor of de Camp’s triumvirate of electrical inventors (Edison died in 1931 and Thomson in 1937), and at least partly due to the counter-cultural appeal of some of his wilder speculations (including his claim that, because thoughts were just electrical impulses in the brain, it should be possible to photograph them) and also due to the way his life fits the narrative of brilliant but unworldly genius exploited and done in by capitalism, a cult formed around him years after his death. A heavy-metal band called itself Tesla and on one of their CD’s published copies of the diagrams and patents that documented Tesla as the real inventor of radio. A 1980 Yugoslavian film called The Secret Life of Nikola Tesla was a part-dramatization, part-documentary on Tesla in which an actor named Petar Bozovic played Tesla and J. P. Morgan was played by Orson Welles (returning, in a way, to the sort of Gilded Age tycoon part that had made Welles a star in the first place). There are no fewer than 48 films listed on in which an actor plays Tesla, including a TV series made this year and two feature films listed as “in development” for 2017. And of course the most famous use of Tesla’s name currently is as the name of Elon Musk’s electric-car company, since it’s well known that Musk sees himself as a modern-day visionary on the order of Tesla. (Google News just linked to a Wall Street Journal article showing Tesla the company currently pursuing what could have been one of the madder dreams of Tesla the inventor: cars that can drive themselves across country: The American Experience show about Tesla was only an hour long (they could easily have got two hours out of him) but was fascinating even though the Tesla they depict must have been a handful to be around and one can readily understand why he didn’t achieve the wealth and success he sought in his lifetime — and a modern-day Tesla would probably not have any better luck in ours!

Frontline: “Terror in Europe” (WGBH/PBS, October 18, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Tesla program PBS ran a Frontline special, a sort of follow-up to their previous show on the rise of ISIS, about “Terror in Europe,” how the European Union became vulnerable to radical Islamic terror (a name that for some reason itself has become controversial — as I’m writing this I’ve just watched the third and, blessedly, last Presidential debate this year between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and once again Trump couldn’t resist getting in a blast against Clinton and President Obama for not using the words “radical Islamic terror”) with particular emphasis on the horrific attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015 and at the airport in Brussels on March 22, 2016. The show was produced and directed by Ricardo Pollack but largely based on reporting by European journalist Sebastian Rotella, and what seemed odd about the show is that it took a schizoid vision towards how Europe should respond to terrorism. At one point Pollack and Rotella seemed to be faulting Europe for its open borders, which allow terror suspects to move untraced not only from one European Union country to another but to leave for terror hot spots like Syria and Yemen and then come back to Europe with no one the wiser. At other points they seemed to be faulting the various EU countries for not being more united, and in particular for having separate national intelligence services that don’t coordinate with each other. Those who think the U.S. should be even tougher in the “war on terror” and more inclined to forgo civil rights in the hunt against terrorists will fine plenty of ammunition in this program. One thing Pollack and Rotella seemed especially anxious to prove was that the Paris attacks were well coordinated and stemmed from ISIS’s central base in Raqqa, Syria — they weren’t just isolated attacks by individuals inspired by ISIS and recruited online but not connected to the big terror leadership in Raqqa. The show traced the leadership of the Paris attacks to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was a boyishly handsome young man (virtually all these terrorists are boyishly handsome young men) who was for some reason wearing a watchcap with the logo “Thermo Foam” on the stock photo they had of him, but the bizarre networks between him and other suspected terrorists got a bit hard to follow after a while. The main message of this movie appeared to be that the terrorists aren’t going away any time soon and European nations are going to have to do a lot more coordination with each other to stop them — at a time when the fear of terrorism, and particularly the fear that terrorists will take advantage of Europe’s relatively open borders to sneak in and plan and carry out horrific attacks, is one of the main issues that led to the “Brexit” (Britain’s vote to leave the EU) and may encourage other countries to secede from the EU as well.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

American Masters: Carole King (PBS-TV, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a couple of music programs on KPBS. One was an American Masters episode about Carole King, the iconic singer-songwriter who began as a collaborator with her first husband Gerry Goffin (they married when he was 18, she was 17 and he had just got her pregnant), working out of the celebrated Brill Building for a company co-owned by Don Kirschner, the fabled producer and marketer later responsible for the Monkees, the Archies and the TV show Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert. The Brill Building in New York City had been the center of the fabled Tin Pan Alley in the 1910’s, 1920’s and 1930’s, and by the time Goffin and King — along with their lifetime friends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who wrote for some of the same artists and were fiercely competitive with Goffin and King in terms of who could place their songs with whom and how successful they’d be — got there the rules of the songwriting business were pretty much the same as when Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and others had tried to crack it decades earlier. The music business was ruled by publishers, who had the songwriters under contract and had them crank out songs in huge buildings, equipped with cubicles, each of which contained a piano and a couple of chairs. The publishers would pay the songwriters a regular salary and in return they would own all their material; then they would send out song pluggers to get musicians to perform and record their songs, and if all went well some of them would be hits and make the publishers huge amounts of money, which they might or (more usually) might not share with the actual songwriters. The standard royalty rules was that songwriter payments went half to the writer and half to the publisher, but there were plenty of ways unscrupulous publishers could get around that, either by putting their own names on as co-writers (as Irving Mills infamously did on most of Duke Ellington’s greatest hits from 1926 to 1939, when Ellington left Mills and set up his own publishing company) or by forcing the writers to accept lower royalties — or none at all, on the basis that they were already being compensated by the regular salaries they were getting from the publishers.

Also, publishers often arranged for the singers or bandleaders to take so-called “cut-in credits,” having their names put on a song as “co-composers” even if they’d had nothing to do with writing it so they’d get a steady income not only from their own record of a song but from anyone else who recorded it as well. Some stars, like Paul Whiteman and Frank Sinatra, found cut-in credits immoral and refused on principle to take them; others, like Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley, were notorious for refusing to record a song unless they got a cut-in. This system began to break down in the 1950’s because most of the early Black rock-’n’-rollers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino wrote or co-wrote their own songs — the Tin Pan Alley old-timers really didn’t understand how to write for Black artists and white songwriters who could “write Black” like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Mann and Weil, and Goffin and King were much in demand — though most of the white rock artists still relied on other people’s songs. (The big exceptions were Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly, who not only wrote for themselves but wrote great songs that are still being performed today.) The system was blasted apart by the huge success of the Beatles, who not only wrote most of their own material (though their first, second and fourth albums each adhered to a ratio of eight originals to six covers, and one of their covers from their first album, Please Please Me, was King’s and Goffin’s “Chains”) but were affirmatively promoted by their manager, Brian Epstein, as doing so. The assumption that performers who did their own material did so only because they weren’t strong enough in the business to get the best songs from the publishers went out the window, and instead audiences, record companies, managers and promoters started assuming that performers who wrote their own songs were better, more complete artists than those who didn’t. (In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, thanks largely to the success of Whitney Houston, the pendulum started swinging back the other way and singing and songwriting were once more seen as separate skills — so non-singing songwriters like Diane Warren and Carole Bayer Sager could once again have major careers and make lots of money without having to perform their own material.)

Goffin and King remained together for about a decade and wrote some of the greatest hits and best songs of the period: Little Eva’s “Loco-Motion” (it was a song about a dance but when Goffin wrote the lyric no dance called the Loco-Motion existed; Little Eva, whom Goffin and King met when they hired her to baby-sit, had to invent one in a hurry when she went out on the road to support the record), the Chiffons’ “One Fine Day” (which Goffin and King recorded a backing track for, intending it for Little Eva; when she inexplicably turned it down they gave it to the Chiffons, and the Chiffons added their vocals over the original backing track — you can hear this because Carole King had recorded a hammering piano part for the breaks, which she wouldn’t have if the track had been intended for a vocal group instead of a solo singer because the group members could supply the fills vocally, so you hear the Chiffons singing their backups over King’s slam-bang piano chords), the Drifters’ “Up on the Roof,” Bobby Vee’s “Take Good Care of My Baby” (also covered by the Beatles, though only on their Decca audition tape — this show featured a TV clip of Vee singing it and, not surprisingly, the Beatles’ version is worlds better even though anyone listening to the Decca tape as a whole, which is O.K. but falls far short of what the Beatles did once EMI signed them, will probably think, “Gee, if this is what I’d had to go on, I wouldn’t have signed them either!”), “Halfway to Paradise” for Tony Orlando pre-Dawn (later covered beautifully by Nick Lowe), “I’m Into Something Good” for Herman’s Hermits, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” for the Monkees (the show is an attack on suburban conformity and it was written after Goffin and King had moved to the suburbs, which King loved — she saw them as a much better place than Manhattan to raise their two daughters — and Goffin hated, and made clear his hatred for in his lyric), “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” for Aretha Franklin, and a little-known and quite beautiful song called “Hi-De-Ho (That Old Sweet Roll),” which wasn’t recorded until 1970 by Blood, Sweat and Tears — two years after the marriage of Goffin and King came to an abrupt end. It seems he wanted to see other women and even asked King for permission (it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him to go the Joseph Smith, Jr. route and simply found a new religion where polygamy would be permitted), and the two of them moved with their two daughters, Louise and Sherry, to L.A. but bought separate houses there. King took up with some of the singer-songwriters beginning to emerge on the L.A. scene, including James Taylor and Joni Mitchell (both of whom sang uncredited backup parts on her commercial breakthrough as a performer, Tapestry), and started a band called The City with her second husband, bassist Charles Larkey, and Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, long-time collaborator of James Taylor. The City’s one album, Now That Everything’s Been Said (1969) for Lou Adler’s Ode Records, flopped — it didn’t help that the terminally shy King was now willing to perform in the studio but was still petrified at the thought of playing live; it also didn’t help that Adler shifted the distribution of Ode from Columbia to A&M just after The City’s album was released — and so did King’s first solo album, Writer (1970).

Her second album, Tapestry (1971), was a different matter altogether; song after song on it — “I Feel the Earth Move,” “It’s Too Late,” “Beautiful,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Where You Lead” — became not only hits but enduring standards, and the album sold nine million copies, the best ever by a woman artist to that time. (The record for sales by a woman King broke had been held by Judy Garland for her Live at Carnegie Hall album.) James Taylor had the hit on “You’ve Got a Friend” but King didn’t mind — they had actually recorded it about the same time and she generously made a deal with him that whoever got their record out first would have the hit — and apparently King made a promotional film performing much of Tapestry in private, because there’s quite a lot of footage of her playing these beautiful songs at her piano at home, with Charles Larkey sitting down with his bass guitar on his lap and providing her only other accompaniment. She made one more great album after Tapestry, Carole King: Music, with the great rocker “Back to California” and a reworking of the Goffin-King song “Some Kind of Wonderful,” but after that her albums became increasingly repetitive as she decided that “mellow” would be her stock in trade — though occasionally she’d return to rock, notably with a Capitol release called Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King (1980), her own versions of the songs she and Goffin had written for other artists in the 1960’s. (King gave an interview with the release of Pearls saying that her working title for that album had been the comment a lot of people had had about those songs: “I Didn’t Know You Wrote … ”.) Along the way she ended up with a third husband, Rick Evers, with whom she moved to rural Idaho in 1977; Idaho stayed with her but Evers didn’t. It seems he beat her on a regular basis and he also took large amounts of drugs, and two days after King had had enough and told Evers she was leaving him, he did a major overdose of cocaine which at the time was announced as a fortuitous accident but on this show was presented as suicide. She stayed in Idaho and worked on a bill to protect much of the state from exploitation for its minerals (Idaho has a reputation as the most Right-wing state in the U.S. — it was home to Randy Weaver and his white-supremacist movement, it was the last state in the country to report a case of AIDS and according to the Human Rights Campaign, the only U.S. state that has no openly Queer elected official — so this has been an uphill battle); she’s also had a reputation for supporting, and doing benefits for, Democratic Presidential candidates from George McGovern to Hillary Clinton (in 2008).

King made her most recent comeback when Douglas McGrath got the idea to write a musical called Beautiful, which would be about the career of King and Gerry Goffin and would use their songs as the soundtrack. The people who first read McGrath’s book were disappointed that he stopped the story when Goffin and King split up and told him to expand the story at least to the recording and release of Tapestry. He did, and ended up with a sensational hit; Jessie Mueller won a Tony Award for her performance as the young Carole King and did a spectacular duet on “Beautiful” at the Tony Awards show with King herself. Carole King’s story is fascinating mostly because her songs are so beautiful and so enduring — though, like Burt Bacharach, King survived as a songwriter despite the poor quality of some of the early recordings of her songs. The show features a TV clip of the Shirelles singing “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?,” and confirms my impression of them as a mediocre group who became successes because whoever was picking their material got them a succession of incredible songs. (When I got the Supremes’ 25th Anniversary Retrospective two-CD set, which featured one disc of their hits and one of obscurities and previously unreleased tracks — including a great record from 1961 called “Those D.J. Shows” which should have made them stars three years before “Where Did Our Love Go?” actually did — one of the surprises was hearing the Supremes try to imitate the Shirelles even though they had much better voices than the Shirelles ever did.) One other aspect of the Carole King documentary is how much her music, like all blues, soul and rock, owes to Black Gospel music: it seems every time she sat at a piano, especially to write or record a mid-tempo or fast song, her fingers went to those same chords that had begun in the Black churches.