Thursday, November 30, 2017

Christmas at Rockefeller Center (NBC-TV, November 29, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the annual NBC special Christmas at Rockefeller Center — it’s indicative of how preposterously the holiday season has got stretched out that it isn’t even December and already the Christmas specials are coming on — which turned out to be a pleasant show with a lot of the seasonal classics. With all the controversy surrounding the Left’s so-called “war on Christmas” (President Trump, being the asshole he always is, insisted that during his entire eight-year term in the Presidency Barack Obama had never publicly uttered the word “Christmas,” and of course MS-NBC responded with a long montage of Obama publicly saying “Merry Christmas” throughout his presidency), it was interesting that virtually all the song selections were from the secular end of the Christmas repertoire — only at the very end of the show, when the Harlem Gospel Choir came out to sing “Joy to the World” (they weren’t seen on screen, just heard over the closing credits, and their rendition didn’t sound particularly gospel-ish but it was nice), was there any of that bothersome stuff about Jesus or the Savior or redeeming humanity from its sins or any of the Christian mythos the defenders of “Christmas” in the so-called “war” are supposedly defending. The show opened with Harry Connick, Jr., whose big band was used as the backup for almost everybody who performed, doing a nicely swinging version of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” following which Gwen Stefani came out for one of the few new songs on the program, “My Gift Is You.” It’s a pretty well-established sub-genre of the Christmas song — the singer tells his or her lover that they don’t have to get them anything because they are the best present s/he could possibly receive — but Stefani wrote and sang it quite nicely (indeed, “nice” seems to be the adjective that most comes to mind describing this entire program). The show followed the usual pattern of these sorts of things — one song per artist, two songs and then cut to a commercial break — and after the first break Pentatonix, an a cappella vocal group that’s become inexplicably popular, did a pretty unsexy version of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” Just about everybody has ignored the pretty obvious sexual implications of this song, but Pentatonix went further than most in de-sexing it. I also continued to be annoyed by Pentatonix’ use of a drum machine — when I first heard them I thought they were cheating and using a real drum machine, Later I found out it’s really one of the Penatatonickers vocally duplicating the sound of a drum machine, but that still doesn’t make me like the sound any better. Then a country singer named Brett Eldridge did “Winter Wonderland” and phrased it almost exactly the way Tony Bennett had when he recorded it — Aretha Franklin’s wild (if ridiculously overarranged) record in the early 1960’s for Columbia might have been a better model for him, but doing Tony Bennett worked just fine, thank you.

After the next commercial break someone or something called Auli’i Cravalho, who’s apparently a minor star on some NBC show or other (and one wonders how she got that multicultural name, which looks like a mashup of Portuguese and Hawai’ian) did an O.K. version of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” that won’t make me forget Brenda Lee’s version (or the surprisingly good Partridge Family record with the recently departed David Cassidy on lead vocal, which remains my favorite cover) but was still nice — and Connick’s tenor sax soloist duplicated the sax solo on the original record almost exactly. Next up was a young man named Leslie Odom, Jr., an African-American introduced as a jazz singer; he isn’t, really, but his version of “Please Come Home for Christmas” showcased a nice, high voice whose range in itself gave the song a different cast from Charles Brown’s sexy baritone; once again, it paled next to the original but was a nice (that word again!) and thoroughly pleasant cover. The next artist up after the inevitable commercial break was Seal, whom I remember from his explosive debut (and whom I immediately formed an intense crush on!) but whose career pretty much seems to have petered out — he’s resorted to one of the gimmicks a lot of people use when their main career starts to fade, which is to cut a standards album (as Willie Nelson did to great effect and Rod Stewart did terribly — and I have so far chosen not to subject myself to Bob Dylan’s bizarre assaults on the Great American Songbook; in the 1980’s he did “Soon” as part of a PBS gala honoring the memory of George Gershwin, and that was the last time I ever want to hear Dylan singing a standard), and he contributed a version of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” which almost uncannily duplicated Johnny Mathis’s phrasing on the song (from one of his later Christmas LP’s: Mathis’s first seasonal album, Merry Christmas, I think is by far his best work; on this album, and especially on the sacred songs that made up side two of the original LP, Mathis turned down that annoying cat-like vibrato of his, dropped his other affectations and sang with more power, sincerity and soul than ever before or since). Then the pop-rock band Train did what appeared to be an original and seemed to be called “Shake Up Christmas” — they aren’t exactly world-beaters but, like so much of the material here, it was nice and engendered good holiday feelings.

After the next break came a Canadian trio called The Tenors — but don’t let the quasi-operatic name fool you: these guys are solidly pop, and their song was announced as “Santa’s Wish” but actually turned out to be the old Coca-Cola jingle “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” that got released as a single in the early 1970’s and actually became a surprise hit (and inspired the Pepsi-Cola company to commission John Lennon, of all people, to compose a similar pop song extolling their product: ultimately they didn’t use it, but if  you’re curious it’s on Lennon’s 1973 solo LP Mind Games). After that came perhaps the best song of the evening, Jennifer Nettles — who’s so convincing a soul singer that if I’d just listened to this instead of watching her I’d have had no idea she was white — doing “Celebrate Me Home” and pouring her heart and soul into her performance instead of reaching for the bland holiday niceness (that word again!) which contented the other performers. The final break featured the Radio City Rockettes (inevitably) dancing to a song called “Let Christmas Shine” sung by an offstage chorus (probably a recorded one), and the Rockettes are what they’ve always been — though it was nice, and a sign of the human progress we’ve made before the Trump administration reverses it all, that there was a Black Rockette right in the middle of the lineup dancing and kicking up her legs in perfect unison with the white ones. The tree-lighting itself was predictably spectacular, and there was an intriguing announcement that after the holiday season the tree is going to be processed into lumber and donated to Habitat for Humanity so it can be used to build housing for homeless people — a nice (that word again!) example of the altruistic oldthink that won’t be around much longer in the Age of Trump.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years (Apple Corps, Diamond Docs, Imagine Entertainment, OVOW Productions, Universal Music Group International, White Horse Pictures, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The original cover for The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl

KPBS was showing a film I had desperately wanted to see but had missed in theatres and found the DVD too pricey even for me: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years. This was a 2016 documentary directed by Ron Howard and featuring quite a few interviews not only with the Beatles themselves (the two survivors, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, shot new interviews for the film, and John Lennon and George Harrison were represented in film clips in which they talked about the Beatles’ past) but with a wide variety of social commentators as well as at least one bona fide rock ’n’ roll great in his own right, Elvis Costello. (I remember thinking in the 1980’s that Costello would be the one person who could legitimately have taken John’s place in a Beatles reunion — the glasses, the slightly nasal voice, the slashing wit and the penchant for politically conscious subject matter — and my hopes briefly went up when Costello and McCartney actually collaborated on a few songs in the late 1980’s.) Eight Days a Week — to abbreviate its title to something a little less cumbersome — was released in 2016 to quite a lot of ballyhoo, with claims that it contained previously unissued footage of the Beatles performing live (Howard and his crew actually put out ads asking people who had sneaked movie cameras into the Beatles’ gigs and filmed them live “in the day” to make their footage available, though since it was silent Howard dubbed in Beatles’ recordings and also much of it was colorized — you could tell because the dingy brown color scheme was all too typical of the inept early attempts at colorization, though come to think of it it’s also, regrettably, the default look for all too many films being made today and shot in color — I’ve often written in these pages about what a relief it is to watch an old-time color film and be reminded of when color films were actually colorful!) and an accompanying CD release of the Beatles’ 1964 and 1965 live recordings at the Hollywood Bowl. These originally came out in 1977 as an LP (I remember being at a Wherehouse store in the East Bay and buying it in preference to Elvis Presley’s last album — or at least the last issued during his lifetime — Moody Blue) with remastering by George Martin, producer on nearly all the Beatles’ original recordings, of live recordings originally supervised by Capitol Records’ in-house producers in L.A. (Voyle Gilmore, who in the 1950’s had produced most of Frank Sinatra’s Capitol recordings, in 1964 and someone else whose name escapes me and whom I haven’t been able to find identified online, in 1965), and with a marvelous cover featuring copies of tickets for the two concerts and a lot of artful white space.

The LP was reissued on CD with four more songs included and a re-remastering by the late George Martin’s son Giles, who in justification for his latest reprocessing of the tapes said, “Technology has moved on since my father worked on the material all those years ago. Now there’s improved clarity, and so the immediacy and visceral excitement can be heard like never before.” Alas, instead of the beautiful original cover, the CD reissue had a horribly ugly one to tie in with the poster art for the film. When I started watching Eight Days a Week I had a feeling of skepticism — what more could possibly be said about the history of the Beatles, and in particular how much they accomplished in just eight years (1962-1970) as a recording act — and I heard a lot of well-worn anecdotes about their sudden popularity in their native Britain when, at the end of 1962, their second single, “Please Please Me,” hit #1 on the British pop charts. All of a sudden the Beatles were the biggest musical act in their home country, and British reporters started using the phrase “Beatlemania” to describe the intensity of the fan response — though a lot of people don’t realize that in 1963 they were still playing the rounds of concert halls and movie theatres, and weren’t always the top act on the bill. They did one British tour in 1963 opening for the now-forgotten teenage pop singer Helen Shapiro, who told Beatles’ biographer Philip Norman that during that tour John Lennon and Paul McCartney approached her with a song they wanted her to record, “Misery,” and had the air about them of schoolkids shame-facedly turning in a homework assignment late. They were also doing regular live broadcasts on the BBC, including a show of their own called Pop Goes the Beatles, and eventually these were culled into two CD’s that not only added extensively to the Beatles’ recorded repertory but were must-have material for Beatles’ fans. Then in early 1964 the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sneaked its way onto the top of the U.S. music charts — astonishing the Beatles themselves, who had always thought of the U.S. as the wellspring of rock ’n’ roll and had never believed a British act doing rock would be taken seriously here.

Philip Norman’s book describes how “I Want to Hold Your Hand” got popular in the U.S. — the girlfriend of a D.J. bought it in England and brought it over, he liked it and started playing it on his show, a few other D.J.’s got tapes of the record and added it to their playlists, and suddenly Capitol Records, the U.S. outlet for the British EMI company whose label Parlophone held the Beatles’ contract, finally decided there was a Beatles record that might sell in the U.S. (The previous Beatles’ recordings had been leased by EMI to other U.S. labels after Capitol turned them down — the first three singles and the first LP, Please Please Me, went to the Black-owned Vee-Jay label and its subsidiary, Tollie, while “She Loves You” ended up on an even smaller and less important company, Swan. This explains how on April 3, 1964, the Beatles managed to hold all five of the top five positions on the Billboar Beatle d music charts — those five records were on three different labels!) The Eight Days a Week documentary moves along pretty familiar tracks — the Beatles break through to the top of the U.S. charts, they appear on Ed Sullivan’s weekly variety program three weeks in a row (the DVD reissue of the Beatles’ four Sullivan appearances — including a return visit in September 1965 — is itself one of the most compelling documents in Beatleiana, showing that the Beatles staged their musical and cultural revolution in the heart of the old established order) and they play a few gigs, including one in Washington, D.C. that was filmed in black-and-white by a short-lived company called Electronovision. (The complete film survives except for the very last song, “Twist and Shout,” of which the last half was lost; I remember having a bootleg LP of the soundtrack in which “Twist and Shout” was replaced by another Isley Brothers’ song, “Shout,” which the Beatles had covered on the British documentary Around the Beatles. This was supposedly a live performance but was actually the Beatles just lip-synching to their records.) Eight Days a Week includes some crudely colorized clips from the Washington, D.C. concert, including a sequence in which the circular riser on which Ringo and his drum set sat is moved by stagehands — the concert was given theatre-in-the-round style and the Beatles were turned around during it so they could be facing each part of the audience for at least part of their set. As it progresses, Eight Days a Week gains strength as it gives us new insights into the experience of being a Beatle and in particular of being locked into a rigid schedule that gave them virtually no time for rest and relaxation.

Anxious to milk the Beatles phenomenon for as much money as they could in the short time they expected the band to be popular, the people around the Beatles rushed them into one gig after another — records, broadcasts, photo shoots, concert tours — to the point where they had virtually no time off. The famous line of Wilfred Brambell’s in the film A Hard Day’s Night — “I’ve been in a train and a room, and a car and a room, and a room and a room” — originally came out of the mouth of a Beatle to describe their hermetically sealed existence and was overheard and appropriated by the film’s writer, Alun Owen. Eight Days a Week includes the famous clip from Richard Lester, director of A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, that when he took on A Hard Day’s Night he was told it would be in black-and-white and would have a seven-week shooting schedule because the film’s producer, Walter Shenson of United Artists, was worried the Beatles would already be on their way out by the time the film was released. Incidentally, the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, comes off much better in this documentary than in some other recent depictions of him (which have presented him as a borderline incompetent whose only interest in the Beatles was the drugs and rent boys his 25 percent of them could pay for); he was actually a quite imaginative manager who refused to steer them into the conventional pathways of success for pop-music acts — the difference between the way he handled the Beatles and the way Col. Tom Parker managed Elvis Presley is ironically depicted in this film in a passing shot of a theatre marquee from 1964 advertising a double-bill of A Hard Day’s Night with Elvis’s latest film, Fun in Acapulco. While Parker was shoehorning Elvis into one crappy formula movie after another (even Elvis started referring to each film, contemptuously, as “my latest travelogue”), the Beatles’ first movie turned out to be a work of art, with their wicked wit expertly captured by screenwriter Owen, their freewheeling existence well dramatized by director Lester, which got great reviews even from older critics not disposed to like anything featuring a rock act aimed at teenagers, and has since had not only 40th anniversary but 50th anniversary DVD reissues. (Anyone remember the 40th and 50th anniversary DVD reissues of Fun in Acapulco?)

Eight Days a Week is a fascinating film that gets better as it goes along, less because there are any stunning revelations in the script by Mark Monroe and P. G. Morgan or the interviews with people who, if anything, have been interviewed to death for previous Beatles’ projects (including people who have indeed died since, like George Harrison, George Martin and the Beatles’ road manager and, later, their business manager, Neil Aspinall) as well as people who are now celebrities but then were just fans. Besides Elvis Costello (who belonged not only because as an aspiring teen rocker he was naturally influenced as well as moved by the Beatles, but because for all his associations with punk rock and the late-1970’s “new wave” he was really in a lot of ways John Lennon redux and, as I noted above, I long thought he would be the one person who could actually take John’s place if the Beatles had attempted a reunion in the 1980’s) the interviewees included Sigourney Weaver, who saw them at the Hollywood Bowl and at least thinks she recognizes herself in the extant film of the concert; and Whoopi Goldberg, who was surprised when her mom took her to the Shea Stadium concert in 1955 and who found the appeal of the Beatles so transcended the color line she saw them, not as white boys trying to sound Black, but as beyond racial category. The show traces the Beatles’ involvement in the political and social controversies of the day, and one of the things I hadn’t known about them before watching this movie is that as early as 1964 they were taking a quiet, behind-the-scenes stand against racism. One of the Beatles’ stops on their 1964 U.S. tour took them to Jacksonville, Florida, where they were supposed to play at the Gator Bowl — which, like most public accommodations in the pre-civil rights South, had separate sections for white and “colored” patrons. The Beatles quietly had inserted a clause in their tour contracts that read, “Artists will not be required to perform to a segregated audience,” and they held the promoters to that — so when the Beatles played the Gator Bowl in 1964 the venue was racially integrated for the first time in its history.

Naturally Howard can’t resist intercutting the footage of the Beatles’ U.S. tours with that of the John F. Kennedy assassination (a lot of writers about the Beatles have savored the irony that their second album, called With the Beatles in the U.K. and Meet the Beatles in the U.S., was released in Britain on November 22, 1963, and have suggested that the Beatles’ sweeping popularity worldwide was largely because audiences wanted an “upper” after the horrible “downer” of the Kennedy assassination), the civil-rights marches and race riots, and the Viet Nam war and the protests against that. Though it wasn’t until the Beatles were at the end of their run that John Lennon became openly political (and Paul McCartney followed after John’s death, as if John had willed him the social conscience), the Beatles found themselves on the cutting edge of a new youth culture that rejected a lot of the values the older generation not only held dear but regarded as timeless truths. During the years of the big world tours, 1964-1966, the Beatles not only became more radical politically, they became more radical musically as well, quietly introducing more complex lyrics and deeper emotions into their songs. Late in his life John Lennon mocked the early Beatles’ lyrics as “she loves you, you love her, they all love each other” — though as early as the Beatles’ first album John in particular was writing songs that revealed an astonishing level of emotional trauma and pain — notably the first Beatles’ song I really liked, “There’s a Place.” I couldn’t relate as a kid just about to enter puberty (and with little or no idea what that would entail) to songs about holding hands and going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah” about a girl who “loved” me, but to a shy, introverted, intellectual kid (I probably would have been called a “nerd” if the term had existed yet) the words of “There’s a Place” struck me like a sledgehammer: “There’s a place/Where I can go/When I feel low/When I feel blue/And it’s my mind/And there’s no time/When I’m alone.” I suspect the emotional depth of the Beatles’ song came largely, at least at first, from their admiration for Buddy Holly — though the Beatles gave the requisite praise of Elvis in their interviews, it was clear that the white rockers of the 1950’s who had inspired them most were Holly and Carl Perkins, the only two 1950’s white rock stars who wrote most of their own songs; and Holly not only inspired the Beatles’ name (the name of Holly’s band, The Crickets, led John to name his own band after an insect) but anticipated the subtlety and complexity with which they depicted human relationships even when they were still writing love songs almost exclusively. 

Eight Days a Week also depicts the bind the Beatles were in economically because after a year of desperately searching for a record company that would sign them, he had accepted a wretchedly bad deal from George Martin at Parlophone by which their royalties increased every year — by a farthing, a denomination worth so little that by 1963 the British Mint had stopped producing coins for it. Since they weren’t making any money to speak of from their records, they had to tour almost constantly to have any income at all, let alone enough to sustain a burgeoning organization. Brian Epstein’s management of the Beatles has been criticized because he didn’t squeeze every last dime out of the industry for them than he could have, but you have to remember that the Beatles’ long-term success was totally unprecedented and Epstein can hardly be considered incompetent for missing out on revenue streams neither he nor anyone in the business in the mid-1960’s dreamed would ever exist. And in late 1966 Epstein did renegotiate the Beatles’ contract with EMI, Parlophone’s parent company, and got his act enough income from their records they no longer economically needed to tour— a key point in their decision to stop touring that is curiously unmentioned in the film. What Howard does a good job of is depicting how the relentlessness of their schedule — just about every day of their lives was booked well in advance, either to record (and to write songs so they’d be ready to record, which is why a lot of the Beatles’ classics from the touring years were written almost literally at gunpoint in hotel rooms under deadline pressure), to do photo shoots, to play live or to make movies. The Beatles took to regarding the recording studio as their oasis, the playground where they could experiment with their music and concentrate on playing instead of performing — and performing before an audience that was so busy screaming at them as to render them nearly inaudible. Later, in an interview clip that isn’t included in Eight Days a Week but could well have been, Paul said it was like trying to play rock ’n’ roll on an airport runway while a 747 parked behind you and warmed up its engines for takeoff. 

The original cover of The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl showed the Beatles trying to fill that enormous space with three little amplifiers that by 1977, when the record was first released, would have been the sort of thing you’d expect a high-school garage band to have, not a set of internationally famous superstars playing to an audience of tens of thousands. For the 1965 tour Vox developed a new set of amplifiers that went up to 100 watts — which is nothing today (the real revolution in amplifier design that made heavy-metal possible was done by James Marshall for Jimi Hendrix, who worked out a set of “stacked” amplifiers that allowed Hendrix and the people who followed in his wake actually to be heard by their audiences) — and instead of theatres the Beatles found themselves playing stadia, mainly (as explained in Eight Days a Week) because local police departments in the cities where they were planning to play told them and Epstein flat-out that they couldn’t guarantee security for fans if the Beatles continued to play smaller venues. After at least one riot in Manchester, England after the box office for a Beatles appearance closed and the disappointed fans who hadn’t been able to get tickets lost their temper and went crazy in the streets, local police and concert promoters in the U.S. started insisting that the Beatles play stadia so they could sell enough tickets that everyone who wanted to attend a Beatles’ concert could do so — even if they were too far from the stage either to see or hear much of anything. The Beatles’ live recordings at the Hollywood Bowl, which as I noted above were first released on LP in 1977, dropped from the catalogue in 1985 and not issued on CD until the 2016 release of this film, posed a major technical problem and went through three generations of filtering to try to turn down enough of the screaming so you could actually hear the Beatles’ performing. One other basic piece of equipment modern-day bands take for granted that the Beatles didn’t have was monitor speakers — the speakers that point away from the audience towards the stage, which are there so the performers can hear themselves. Without them, the Beatles frequently had to read each other’s lips to stay together in the song — and Ringo in this movie recalls taking his cues from watching Paul’s, John’s and George’s asses. 

Ringo had said elsewhere that as the tours continued and the Beatles got more bored with them, he wasn’t bothering to play on every beat — he just drummed the afterbeats — and there are a few performance clips where he can be seen doing that (on the Beatles’ final Ed Sullivan appearance in 1965 he starts “Ticket to Ride” playing only the afterbeats, but quickly gets caught up in the spirit of the song and starts drumming normally), but for the most part the Beatles were conscientious musicians who did the best they could under virtually impossible conditions. They (or three-quarters of them, anyway, since Ringo didn’t join until 1962) had honed themselves as a performing unit in the basement clubs of Liverpool and especially Hamburg — it can be said that while the individual Beatles were all from Liverpool, the band was really born in Hamburg, playing under arduous conditions and for ridiculously long periods of time (seven days a week, eight hours a night — 45 minutes on and 15 minutes off — except on Sundays, when they played 12 hours). We have very little recorded evidence of what the Beatles sounded like then (there’s a live tape from Hamburg that was issued on LP but which Paul McCartney has successfully kept from being issued on CD, but it was made on December 31, 1962, after the Beatles had already recorded their first two singles and Ringo had permanently replaced Pete Best on drums), but we can hear the incredible tightness and indomitability in the Hollywood Bowl recordings and the other recorded live shows from the touring years even with the audience screaming and either wittingly or unwittingly trying to drown them out. Ironically, Eight Days a Week also hints that it was the end of the touring years that started the Beatles on the path to one of the most acrimonious band breakups in music history; as they worked together in the studio and created masterpieces like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, they also went off in different directions creatively, and the whole “Four Musketeers” us-against-them spirit that had held them together on the road started to dissipate. (Eight Days a Week includes a famous archival clip from John Lennon talking about Elvis and saying that what he thought did Elvis in was that he was totally alone — he had his entourage but no one who was actually sharing the experience of stardom — whereas the Beatles had each other and therefore had a support network Elvis lacked.) 

There’s also a long coda to Eight Days a Week that shows just how the experience of touring wore the Beatles down — in 1964 they were getting insipid questions at their press conferences and became famous for giving flip answers that reinforced their lovable images; by 1966 a reporter in Hamburg (the town that, as I mentioned above, could legitimately claim to have “made” the Beatles) was calling them “snobby” and they got defensive and not at all funny. And there’s a fascinating glimpse of one of the early clashes between the youth revolution and the counterrevolution when John Lennon made his famous comment that “we’re more popular than Jesus now” to British reporter Maureen Cleave (who was also one of his girlfriends), and while the British readers didn’t make an issue of it, when the American magazine Datebook bought the U.S. rights to the story it became a cause célèbre among what would become the U.S. radical Christian Right. D.J.’s in the South organized events at which disgusted Christian ex-Beatle fans could bring their Beatles records and memorabilia to be publicly burned — how Joseph Goebbels! — and John had to issue a public apology saying that he hadn’t meant to imply it was a good thing that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus and his remark wasn’t meant as an attack “on Jesus as a person, or God as a thing, or whatever” — it’s clear from this famous clip how uncomfortable he is and how much he desperately wanted to joke his way out of the controversy as he’d been able to do before, and how much he realized the stakes were way too high for him to make light of it. (What isn’t generally realized is that when he said the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus now,” John was literally signing his own death warrant. His killer, Mark David Chapman, was not — as he’s usually been portrayed — a “deranged fan” or a schizo who thought he was John Lennon and the real one was an impostor; he was a Fundamentalist Christian who had never forgiven John for saying he was more popular than Jesus, or for writing a song that included the line, “Imagine no religion.” Chapman had even been in a prayer group that prayed, “Imagine, imagine John Lennon dead.”) 

Eight Days a Week is an inspiring and unexpectedly complex retelling of a story that continues to fascinate not only because the Beatles broke so many trails artistically, socially, politically and economically (after them pop music was Big Business in a way it hadn’t been before), but they did it in such a short period of time — eight years between their abortive audition for Decca Records in January 1962 and their final session as a group in January 1970 — and advanced so much musically in that period and rewrote the expectations of how long a pop group could last and how they could sustain success without having to compromise or rework their acts to appeal to older audiences the way previous teen idols — Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley — had done. What the Beatles accomplished in those eight years — making music that so dominated the world’s culture almost everyone in even remotely developed areas was listening to the same thing — hadn’t happened before and it’s come close to happening again just once (when Michael Jackson’s Thriller album had the same kind of overwhelming worldwide success the Beatles had achieved routinely). One interviewee in Eight Days a Week claims that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were the greatest songwriters since Mozart and Schubert, and though that seems to me to be overstating the case a little, certainly in terms of the overall quality of their output they’re among the best of rock songwriters and rivals to the great pre-rock standards writers like Berlin, Porter, Kern and Gershwin — and I suspect it’s both the overall quality of the songs and the creativity and musicianship with which they played them that have kept the Beatles so popular for so long

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (Toho Studios, Jewell Enterprises, Transworld, 1954/1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night we turned on the TNT channel to a showing of the original Godzilla, a tie-in to last Wednesday’s official release of the massive high-tech remake by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich of Independence Day. (This is at least the third version of the original Godzilla story — there was a big-budget Japanese remake in 1985 as well.) This, of course, is the 1956 American version in which footage featuring Raymond Burr as journalist “Steve Martin” (it occurred to me that it would have made a marvelous in-joke for Devlin and Emmerich to cast Steve Martin in their version and have him play a character named “Raymond Burr”!) was rather crudely shot in Hollywood and added by American distributor Dave Kay, who was interviewed in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times. He said he spent $30,000 for the rights to the original 1954 Japanese film, Gojira, and $100,000 shooting the new footage with Burr — he also couldn’t remember the name of the person who suggested changing the name of the title character from “Gojira” to “Godzilla” but said he accepted the suggestion because “it sounded more rough and menacing.” Inoshiro Honda was the original Japanese director (and also co-scenarist with Takeo Murata), while a low-budget director named Terry Morse did the additional scenes for the American version, and L.A. Times writer Marla Matzer said, “Kay deftly wove the new footage and the old to the point where a lot of people thought Burr was in the film when it was first shot.” It may well have fooled people who had no way of knowing that Burr wasn’t in the film when it was first shot (there was even one amusing sequence in which Burr was intercut with a Japanese actress he was supposedly talking to, and Morse inserted a reverse-angle shot of an American actress with her back to the camera, wearing a matching costume, to heighten the illusion that the two people had been in the same scene), but if you’re looking for the differences between the two sources of footage you can easily spot the join lines — the original work by Japanese cinematographer Masao Tamai (Carlos Clarens’ An Illustrated History of the Horror Film lists only credits for the Japanese version but co-credits the cinematography to Tamai and someone with the distinctly un-Japanese name of Guy Roe) is soft, gray-toned and a bit grainy, whereas the American footage is hard-edged and almost noir (there’s one surprisingly haunting shot in which a Venetian blind casts a shadow over an Oriental-looking actress who’s in the same scene as Burr — obviously this one, as well as the other scenes in which Burr interacts with Asian-looking people in the same frame, was shot in the U.S. with Asian-American actors).

Besides that, Godzilla deserves credit for at least attempting to introduce some intellectual depth to the monster-movie genre. One of the Japanese characters is an atomic scientist who has invented a weapon called the “oxygen destroyer,” but — fearful of what happened after the atomic bomb was invented — he doesn’t want anyone to know about the existence of this weapon, nor does he ever want it used. Eventually, his girlfriend leaks its existence to the authorities, and he agrees that it be used this one time to kill Godzilla — but he also destroys his plans for it and sacrifices his own life to kill Godzilla with it at the end, so the weapon will no longer exist. (Such issues of conscience almost certainly occurred to these filmmakers because their country is the only one that has actually been victimized by atomic warfare; Clarens noted the irony that “Japan, the only nation on earth to have actually suffered from atomic warfare, has become the world’s foremost producer of filmed holocausts.”) The opening scenes are also eloquent, excellently staged in their use of World War II-era newsreel footage to represent Tokyo in the aftermath of Godzilla’s destruction of the city — and, as all Godzilla buffs know, the monster was brought back to life in the first place as a result of the U.S. H-bomb tests in the South Pacific. That’s about all anyone can say in the positive side about Godzilla — in all other aspects of its production, this film is so cheesy and silly it makes The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (an American production in the same genre made at the same time) look like a masterpiece by comparison. Not only is there way too much stock footage in this film (there’s one clip of Godzilla rising up out of the water — with the same two toy boats between him every time he appears — that is used often enough to evoke Ed Wood comparisons; and while the opening sequences use World War II newsreel footage quite effectively, elsewhere in the film it’s clearly being spliced in only to pad out the running time and represent the futile use of conventional military equipment against the monster), but Godzilla himself is totally unconvincing. Ray Harryhausen's brilliant model work in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms actually made the title character seem credible; the monster in Godzilla is all too obviously a human actor wandering around miniature sets, smashing balsa-wood buildings and severing fishing-line electrical cables, and lumbering around in an overstuffed and unbearably heavy costume that makes him move so slowly he’s about as menacing as a glacier. (Only when he breathes — he has the capability to emit either fire or dry ice from his mouth — does he look even remotely dangerous.) Godzilla and its sequels, in fact, became cult classics precisely because of their cheesiness and cheapness — to the point where Japanese cities would compete with each other, lobbying Toho Studios for the honor of being the next city Godzilla would destroy in his subsequent films — which would seem to make the idea of a state-of-the-art high-tech remake seem rather beside the point. But (unlike my roommate) I’ll reserve judgment on the new Godzilla until I actually have a chance to see it … — 5/23/98


I decided to break out my DVD set of the original Godzilla from the Criterion Collection, which contains both the marvelous original Japanese version of the film — Gojira (1954) — and the American version from two years later, rather crudely dubbed into English and featuring quite a few new scenes directed by Terry Morse (who’d made some unusually interesting “B” movies for Warner Bros. a decade earlier) and featuring Raymond Burr as an Anglo character named “Steve Martin,[1]” a reporter who was on his way to Cairo for an assignment when he stopped in Tokyo for a little R&R — given what we now know about Burr’s real-life sexual orientation one would think he’d first head for all the Gay bars, but instead he’s hoping to see his old friend Dr. Serizawa (Akihito Hirata, a quite interesting actor who apparently made no other movies) when he gets caught up in the whole destructive madness involving Godzilla, a huge prehistoric monster who’s revived underwater by U.S. H-bomb tests in the Pacific. I wanted to run this now because two nights ago I’d seen the original Gojira for a second time at the Vintage Sci-Fi screening in Golden Hill ( after Charles and I got this DVD set containing both versions in 2015, ran the Japanese original and were knocked out by it — and with the original Gojira fresh in my mind I wanted to see the American reworking again for a point of comparison with the Japanese version. The two actually track fairly closely, and director Morse and his cinematographer, Guy Roe, do a quite impressive job of matching the new footage they show in Hollywood with Burr and several Asian-American actors (often standing with their backs to the camera as they talk to Burr so they could impersonate the different cast members from the Japanese original) with the original scenes by director Ishirô Honda and cinematographer Masao Tomai. Only the more creative, almost noir-ish lighting of the Japanese sequences, and a certain graininess about them compared with the crisper but also less dramatically lit U.S. scenes, gives the game away. 

What’s really wrong with the U.S. Godzilla is how much of the subtext got drained away in the reworking: the 1954 Japanese Gojira has an extraordinary sense of pain about it, as if Japan was going through a sort of collective national post-traumatic stress disorder from the relentless bombing they’d undergone from U.S. aircraft in the last year and a half of World War II. First there had been a succession of raids with incendiary bombs dropped by planes launched from the islands of Saipan and Tinian (in Martin Caidin’s book A Torch to the Enemy he talks about how U.S. Army Air Corps General Curtis LeMay pressured the Navy and the Marines to attack this island group, which also includes the larger and more famous island of Guam, two years ahead of schedule because he needed them as a base to get his planes close enough to Japan to launch bombing raids), which destroyed 50 percent of Tokyo and wreaked similar havoc on other Japanese cities, then the atomic bomb raids on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (picked because there were so few “virgin targets” that hadn’t already been largely decimated by the fire raids). There’s even one remarkable sequence in the Japanese original in which just before Gojira attacks the elevated train (one of two sequences, along with the sacrificial dance the natives of Odo Island do as they await the coming of the monster, Honda and his writers cribbed from the other truly great giant-monster movie, the original 1933 King Kong), one of the passengers announces that she survived the Nagasaki bombing and now she’s facing the terror again. Though the Japanese original has less specifically anti-American content than has been reported — the U.S. is never named as the source of the H-bomb tests that awakened Gojira/Godzilla — clearly the monster, like the real-life bombers that had terrorized Japan a decade before the film was made, is a U.S. product because the U.S. was the only country that was doing H-bomb tests on islands in the Pacific Ocean. (The Soviet Union was the only other country that had an H-bomb, and they were doing their tests on land, on their own territory in Siberia.) The most annoying aspect of the U.S. Godzilla in comparison with its Japanese counterpart is actually the narration by Raymond Burr; like Castle of Doom (the God-awful U.S. butchering of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1931 horror masterpiece Vampyr), Burr and whoever was voice-dubbing Momoko Kochi as Emiko, the woman who’s torn between her arranged engagement to Dr. Serizawa and her attachment to the young naval officer Ogata, played by Akira Takarada, give us long, tendentious explanations of plot points that were easy enough for us to “read” without the help of a narrator in the Japanese version. 

Charles wondered when we saw Gojira if any footage from the Japanese original not involving Godzilla made it into the U.S. version, though actually quite a lot did, including the scenes on Odo Island in which Japanese paleontologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura, who was billed fourth in the Japanese version but second, just below Burr, in the U.S. cut) takes a Geiger counter to Godzilla’s giant footprint and thus proves that the monster is radioactive; and the sequence late in the movie in which Dr. Serizawa watches a telecast of a memorial service for Godzilla’s victims in Tokyo and hears a children’s choir sing a lament (a quite haunting composition by Akira Ifukube, whose score is otherwise pretty variable: a rather inappropriate gung-ho “military” march accompanies the Japanese naval vessels that set out to do battle with Godzilla, but some of the scenes of destroyed urban environments — I suspect many of these were stock footage of actual destroyed Japanese cities from World War II newsreels — get quite impressively doleful music), which decides the reluctant Serizawa to use his fearsome “oxygen destroyer” to kill Godzilla. There are shards of the original film’s pacifist and anti-nuclear message in Serizawa’s reluctance to use the weapon he’s developed for fear it will just make future wars even more destructive, and his insistence once he decides to use it not only to burn all his plans and notes for it but to sacrifice his own life to destroy Godzilla so the secret of how to make the “Oxygen Destroyer” will die with him. Otherwise the U.S. Godzilla is a perfectly acceptable giant-monster movie but one which is a pale shadow of the surprisingly intense original Gojira (the name, incidentally, is a mash-up of the Japanese words for “gorilla” and “whale,” and the original intent was to make the monster just that — a visual mash-up of a gorilla and a whale — but at the last minute Honda and his effects crew decided it would look more believable and scary to make Godzilla a giant dinosaur instead), though enough of the Japanese version’s depth and veiled anti-nuclear message remains that the 1956 U.S. Godzilla can at least be taken more or less seriously instead of turning into the camp-fest later Godzilla movies became, especially given the slapdash dubbing they were given in their English-language versions. Surprisingly, much of the footage from the 1956 Godzilla that was retained from the Japanese original wasn’t dubbed at all: instead we get a lot of untranslated Japanese with Burr and the woman who dubbed Emiko explaining to us what the actors were originally saying. It seems that only the professional Japanese scientists and military personnel rated voice doubles; the Japanese proletarians in the movie didn’t — how classist! — 11/21/17

[1] — I remember that when the first U.S. Godzilla reboot came out in the 1990’s I thought they should have done the in-joke of hiring Steve Martin for the cast and having him play a character called “Raymond Burr”!

Monday, November 20, 2017

45th Annual American Music Awards (Dick Clark Productions/ABC-TV, November 19, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I spent the rest of the evening watching the 45th American Music Awards on ABC, one of those rump “awards” shows produced by Dick Clark Productions (the man finally croaked, but his production company lives on, though I remember reading that it’s either been sold or is in the process of being sold to a Chinese company — oh, well, the Chinese are going to end up owning America after all this is over, especially if the Republican tax bill goes through and leaves us owing an even larger national debt to them) but mainly an excuse to present a succession of music stars in more or less representative performances. The big news about this show was that they were presenting a lifetime achievement award to Diana Ross — and quite frankly, one of the attractions of the show for me was to see how well she’s held up, both physically and vocally. The answer is “quite well” — you had to wait until the very end to hear her, of course, but she did a medley that showed off her voice as it stands now. Her voice sounds pretty much as it did in the glory days — most of the songs in her medley were her solo hits from the 1970’s (the host — more on her later — said that probably everyone remembers the lyrics to all Ross’s songs, to which I naturally responded, “I don’t think too many people out there still know the words to ‘Muscles’,” her attempt at a hit when she briefly left Motown Records for RCA in the 1980’s) and they started out pretty forgettably, but the voice itself is in excellent shape and she didn’t have to resort to the dodges a lot of white singers of similar vintage need: taking down the keys or just dropping the top notes they can’t sing anymore to safer, lower ones. Ross’s medley started with “I’m Coming Out,” then did “Take Me Higher” and “Ease On Down the Road” from The Wiz (of course I’m going to recount my reaction when I heard Diana Ross was being cast as Dorothy in the film of The Wiz — “Not content to trash the legacy of Billie Holiday, she’s going to trash the legacy of Judy Garland as well”) and “The Best Years of My Life” before she closed with a great song, her cover of the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” that was one of her first solo hits. Before that she was saluted with a montage of her film and TV appearances, including a clip of her singing “Strange Fruit” from Lady Sings the Blues (“They had to ruin it for you,” Charles joked), after which they showed a montage of clips from her film Mahogany and boasted that in addition to starring in the film Ross designed her own outfits for it (remember that she was playing a fashion model who had three men lusting after her, including Anthony Perkins doing essentially Psycho lite and the one she finally ended up with, Billy Dee Williams, her co-star from Lady Sings the Blues this time cast as a Black community activist in Chicago clearly modeled on Jesse Jackson). When I saw Mahogany I thought it was comparatively inoffensive next to Lady Sings the Blues but it also wasn’t much as a movie — it was essentially a 109-minute music video for one of her best solo records, “Do You Know Where You’re Going To?”

Ross’s segment came at the end of a three-hour extravaganza hosted by her daughter, Tracee Ellis Ross, one of the stars of the hit sitcom Blackish which by pure coincidence (not!) just happens to air on ABC, and as La Diana wrapped up the show she was surrounded on stage by her children and grandchildren, many of whom looked awfully white (remember that both Ross’s husbands have been white men). The show opened with a duet by Pink (blessedly earthbound, which was not the case for her later appearance on the show — see below) and Kelly Clarkson doing R.E.M.’s classic “Everybody Hurts” as a tribute to the recent terrorism victims in New York, Texas and elsewhere. It was one of the best moments of the show, largely because it was one of the few times a song of real weight and power was sung by voices capable of doing justice to it. Then, after they gave out a few awards — as usual in a show like this these days, the “awards” just seemed like an afterthought to the performances — Demi Lovato, who somehow got the reputation as a lightweight but strikes me as a singer of real power and soul, did “Sorry/Not Sorry,” a show about male-female relations and the different expectations straight people of both genders bring to their encounters and yet another anthem in which women are saying that they’re no longer going to take being exploited by sexist, domineering or abusive men. Next up was Nick Jonas attempting to pursue a post-boy band career with a song called “Where to Find You” (some of the titles are my best guesses because the titles weren’t always announced on air, a recurring annoyance to me about music shows), after which Hailee Stansfield (another young singer who’s quite impressed me, not only because she’s a strong, emotionally powerful singer but she’s written a piece with a positive message to young women to believe in themselves and not follow the entertainment and fashion industries’ expectations of what a “beautiful woman” must be) and someone named Bebe Rieza (or something like that) joined Florida Georgia Line, a more or less “country” group, for “Let Me Go.” After that “adult contemporary” award winner Shawn Mendes sang “Ain’t Nothing Holding Me Back” — it was a nice song and Mendes was easily the sexiest guy on the show (Nick Jonas has not weathered the years well — even though he’s still young, he’s got an angular face and those Clark Gable ears: if I were he I’d grow my hair longer to cover them up), but it’s interesting that the men on the program were doing old-fashioned (lyrically, not musically) songs about manipulating women into having sex with them, while the women were singing anthems of strength, defiance, independence and autonomy.

Though there were a few of the now-obligatory “digs” at Trump and his politics, mostly at the beginning and the end, what moved me most about the show’s politics was precisely the messages of independence that came from virtually all the songs sung by women — and it also confirmed my belief that for the last quarter-century (ever since the emergence of Tori Amos in 1990) the torch of creativity in popular music has passed from men to women: both the biggest stars and the most artistically advanced musicians of today are female. Another woman with a voice of strength and power, Selena Gomez, made a rare TV appearance with a song called “To Get to You” and was the first performer on the bill to do one of those overwrought productions that annoy me about many modern music shows — all too often I’ve seen a singer whose voice was powerful enough to move people without all the frou-frou drown herself in production values (the worst example these days is Beyoncé, whose real talent is as a soul singer in the Dinah Washington/Diana Ross mold but who’s drowning herself in ridiculous production numbers even Busby Berkeley would probably have regarded as over-the-top) — though it was a good enough song to withstand the video assault. After that came an inexplicable salute to the 25th anniversary of one of the worst movies ever made with a major musical star, The Bodyguard (if you want to read the gory details of how I feel about this film, see, and instead of doing what I would have done if I wanted for whatever reason to pay tribute to The Bodyguard — bring on the still-living Dolly Parton to sing “I Will Always Love You,” which she not only wrote but sang far more understatedly and, therefore, more powerfully than Whitney Houston did — the producers gave Christina Aguilera a medley that include “I Will Always Love You” and two other songs from the film, “I Have Nothing” and “I’m Every Woman.” Aguilera seemed determined to out-Houston Houston on “I Will Always Love You” and take the song even farther from its plaintive white-country origins, practically screaming out the last verse in a higher key than the rest. I generally like Christina Aguilera but her voice is considerably better than some of the uses she and the people running her career have put it to, and that was certainly true last night.

Then, after a snippet of one of the contestants of the revitalized American Idol — an intriguing singer named Masia doing, of all things, a bit of Billy Eckstine’s early-1950’s hit “Fool That I Am” (there were a few instances in which you could actually vote on some of the awards, but true to form, ABC allowed you to vote only if you lived on the East Coast: in the contemptible tradition of East Coast media mavens once again reminding us on the West Coast that we suck hind tit as far as the media establishment is concerned, they showed the program out here on a three-hour tape delay and by the time we got to see it, all the public voting opportunities had been closed), Lady Gaga was shown from the middle of a performance in Washington, D.C. (the main part of the program was done in L.A., which makes the West Coast being made to suck hind tit again with a time delay even more infuriating), doing something called “I’ll Fool You with My Love” and looking great, in a white knit outfit over a flesh-colored body stocking. The piece wasn’t much but at least it was well structured — one of the things I like about Gaga is that, unlike a lot of dance music artists who just bark a few words out over a dance groove and call it a “song,” her songs have identifiable beginnings, middles and endings, and this one in particular began with a long piano-and-vocal introduction which Gaga, playing the piano herself, used to remind us that she’s really a classically trained musician. Then rapper Macklemore did a duet with a woman whose name I wrote down as “Spartan Grail” (I highly doubt I got it right!), something supposedly inspirational which I assume was called “I Feel Glorious” after the refrain the woman was singing in counterpoint to Macklemore’s too-fast rapping. After that came an odd number by someone who calls himself Portugal: The Man, “Feel It Still” — the lyrics proclaim his desire to re-live the 1960’s, and the stage set and in particular the light projections did evoke the 1960’s rock shows, but Portugal: The Man wears his hair super-short and has little glasses that make him look much more like a nerd than a hippie. Still, it’s a nice song. Then one of my current favorites, Alessia Cara, came out with someone named Zed for one of her emotionally wrenching songs, “Stay,” and after that a Black artist named Khalid (heavy-set and with way too much beard, but cute enough I couldn’t help but wonder what was under those baggy tan shorts) joined the rock group Imagine Dragons for “Lightning and Thunder” (usually those two words come in the reverse order in song titles, but Imagine Dragons deserve credit for putting the L-word first, since because light is faster than sound you see the lightning flash before you hear the thunderclap).

Then Pink came back for a song called “Nothing but You” — and ramped up her Cirque du Soleil antics to totally absurd lengths, rappelling herself and her backup singers and dancers up the side of the Marriott Hotel and singing the song virtually in mid-air. I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened if a Vegas-type shooter had decided to attack the event and been able to pick off Pink while she was floating helplessly with nothing to keep her in place but a thick wire cable. Then someone named Niall Horan did a song called “Slow Hands” — Charles, who’d come home by this point, joked, “Where is Alicia Pointer when we need her?” — though I answered that Horan’s song could be considered an answer record to the Pointer Sisters’ big hit. The final numbers before Diana Ross’s tribute were a medley of two songs by Kelly Clarkson — one her first hit from her star-making win of the first American Idol and one her current record (she’s got pretty heavy-set by now but that voice is still powerful, and 15 years later it’s still intact) — and a bizarre performance by a six-man South Korean boy band called BTS, whose song was pretty incomprehensible because its lyrics are a mishmash of English and Korean and are spat out at such a rate it would be hard to understand them even if you knew both languages. The 45th annual American Music Awards was quite a good show in may respects — especially when women were performing; as I noted above, for the last quarter-century women in music have been considerably more creative than their male counterparts, both in terms of performance (the voices of modern-day pop women are strong and powerful, while most of the men sound pretty wimpy and the few that don’t, like Frank Ocean and Drake, weren’t on this program) and in terms of songwriting: men are still writing songs about wearing down women or tricking them into sex, while women are writing songs that say, “Oh, no, you don’t! I’m just as strong and powerful as you are, and we’re not having a relationship unless you meet my needs!”

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Reptilicus (Saga Studios, Cinemagic, American International,1961)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I cooked my home-care client John P.’s dinners and also one of my own (I’d bought myself some pork chops as a treat and also made up a salad), and when our houseguest Peter returned from doing laundry he and I jointly watched one of the most horrible films ever made: Reptilicus, a Sidney Pink production from American International that was made in Denmark in 1958. It’s your standard-issue revivified-dinosaur monster movie, with singularly bad acting all around (the all-Danish cast acted in English, which they all spoke so s-l-o-w-l-y that, except for two impossibly perky girls who were obviously channeling Sandra Dee as Gidget, the women all sounded like Greta Garbo on Quaaludes and the men all sounded like John Wayne on heroin) and a ridiculous script. This is the sort of movie that really belongs on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 — as it was, all Peter and I could do about it was do a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 number on it by ourselves (which annoyed John P. no end — he was sitting at the dining table, which meant he couldn’t see the movie but he could get a good idea of its quality, or lack of same, just by listening to its soundtrack) — especially the special effects, which were done with a unique process Pink owned called “Cinemagic.” Basically, this meant drawing the monsters with two-dimensional animation and then processing them into the screen with live actors and real backgrounds — which resulted in a monster so blatantly fake-looking that it made Godzilla look like the Jurassic Park T. Rex by comparison! And the monster itself was the best of the effect; when it lifted up a person to eat him, the person became an out-and-out cartoon in mid-scene; and when it attacked, it did so by spewing blatantly animated-looking green slime all over the scene, which then freeze-framed like the famous sound-effect balloons in the old Batman TV show (and the appearance of the green slime suggested to me that instead of bringing in the U.S. Army to fight the monster, the Danish authorities should have called in the Ghostbusters — in which case this movie would at least have been funny by intent!). — 4/25/98


Last night’s “Vintage Sci-Fi” movie night in Golden Hill ( was a tribute to the giant-lizard genre and featured one unsung masterpiece — the original 1954 Japanese version of Godzilla, Gojira, which I gave a rave review to on when Charles and I watched it together on DVD ( and which I still regard as one of only two truly great movies ever made in the giant-monster genre (the original 1933 King Kong is the other) and which engendered the same reaction from some of the attendees (particularly the ones who’d never seen it before) that Charles and I had had: it’s a far, far better film than the tacky, heavily re-edited and with new scenes added (that’s how Raymond Burr got to be in it) by distributor American International and former Warner Bros. “B” director Terry Morse that we got in 1956. Alas, that’s not the movie we’re dealing with here: the other film on the Vintage Sci-Fi bill was a 1961 production called Reptilicus, a co-production of the Danish Saga Studios and Cinemagic, a U.S. indie headed by a character named Sidney Pink. According to his Wikipedia page, Pink got his start as an associate producer on one of the most legendarily bad movies of all time, Bwana Devil (1952), the one that introduced 3-D to American moviegoers (there had been sporadic exhibitions of 3-D movies before but this was the one that started the craze) and was promoted with the slogan, “A Lion in Your Laps — A Lover In Your Arms!” (One foreign-film distributor spoofed this ad campaign and advertised one of their releases, “What do you want — a good movie or a lion in your lap?”) 

He’s also credited on Wikipedia as an associate producer on Arch Oboler’s The Twonky (but then they date The Twonky as 1953 when every other source, including the old Filmfax article that was my primary source for information on it, says 1950), and Pink went on to produce movies with titles like I Was a Burlesque Queen (1953), Flame Over Viet Nam (1957 — and it would be interesting to see how Viet Nam and its conflicts were depicted in an American film almost a decade before the major phase of the war) and The Angry Red Planet (1959). The Angry Red Planet was an intriguing plot premise — Pink and his writer, Ib Melchior (Lauritz Melchior’s son and a writer specializing in science-fiction novels and movie scripts), had the idea that instead of doing yet another story about Martians invading Earth they’d do one about earthlings invading Mars — but it went wrong at almost every turn, including a much-ballyhooed but absolutely terrible effects technique called “Cinemagic.” “Cinemagic” was basically an attempt to patch in animated cartoons into live-action films (something Walt Disney had been experimenting with since the 1920’s!), and in The Angry Red Planet not only were the monsters (including the engagingly named “Ratbatspidercrab,” spelled as all one word) either puppets or cartoons, the action shifted to a solid red tint whenever a scene took place on the Martian surface (it’s “the angry red planet,” get it?) and the whole effect was tacky (albeit engagingly tacky). For some reason I had thought Reptilicus was made before The Angry Red Planet, but its page says it was two years later and it was planned from the get-go as a U.S.-Danish co-production (though oddly Ib Melchior, despite his Danish ancestry, doesn’t seem to have been involved in the Danish version). 

Pink and Melchior came up with a standard-issue Godzilla knockoff in which a group of copper miners in Lapland (which the filmmakers seemed to think was part of Denmark, which it isn’t) would come upon blood in one of their core samples and would dig up a frozen animal from the Cretaceous era, a sort of reptilian missing link between dinosaurs and mammals. Their idea was to film in Denmark and to use an exclusively Danish cast (Nora Hayden, who’d starred in The Angry Red Planet and whom Charles remembered as the author of self-help books, including one aimed at men to teach them how to sexually satisfy a woman, was offered a part in this one but turned it down because she wanted top billing) but one who were bilingual in Danish and English, so Pink could use their actual voices for the dubbed English version. Only when Pink sent the finished film to American International, they decided that the Danish-accented English voices would be unacceptable to an American audience (did the “suits” at AIP actually think anyone who went to the drive-ins where their movies were playing really watched them?), so they erased the soundtrack and dubbed in new voices speaking American English. (AIP would do that again when they got the U.S. rights to the first Mad Max: they decided that the Aussie accents on the original soundtrack would put off American viewers, so they redubbed the whole film from Australian English to American English — Mel Gibson got to do his own dubbing but the rest of the cast had voice doubles.) Reptilicus is pretty much your standard-issue monster movie, and though there’s a review on by a Danish viewer who grew up with the Danish original and says some of the more risible elements in the one we saw last night weren’t in the one he saw as a kid, like the monster emitting green slime (we see the stuff spurt out but never see what it does when it lands, though since the dialogue tells us it’s “acid slime” it presumably dissolves whatever it touches and instantly kills anyone in its vicinity) and the scene in which Reptilicus comes on a farmhouse and eats the entire family living there — who turn into cartoons on their way into Reptilicus’s mouth. (According to, the boy who’s consumed as part of this unfortunate household was Ib Melchior’s 12-year-old son Dirk.) 

The effects work on Reptilicus is a bit better than on Pink’s previous productions — the monster itself is convincing enough (I suspect it was done with good old stop-motion animation rather than the more common 1950’s expedient of gluing fins, tusks, spines and whatnots to actual lizards, filming them in slow motion and trying to pass them off as dinosaurs), and if the “trivia” posters are to be believed, the tacky effects I found so ridiculous the last time I saw this are AIP’s faults, not Pink’s or his Danish co-director’s, Poul Bang. It’s just not a very good movie (and I doubt that watching the Danish version would be the sort of revelation watching Gojira was after being familiar with AIP’s butchery of that masterpiece), a by-the-numbers film with one genuinely hot-looking actor (Bent Meiding as Svend, the mining supervisor who discovers Reptilicus in the first place), one really repulsive comic-relief character (Dirch Passer, who was apparently actually popular in Danish comedies at the time, as “Petersen”), a bunch of fuddy-duddies playing professors and a plot conceit that Reptilicus could regenerate his entire body just from its tail once the frozen tail the miners had found out and turned over to scientists. There’s also a U.S. general who commands the fight against Reptilicus — who, naturally, can’t be harmed by firearms or even artillery because of the spines that grow out of his body — and either Carl Ottosen, who played him on screen, or whoever supplied his voice for the U.S. version seemed to think that if he delivered all his lines like John Wayne he’d sound suitably tough. There’s also a tag scene in which, after one of the professors has declared that Reptilicus is dead (thanks to a well-aimed shot with a bazooka rocket into his mouth) and there’ll be no more of his kind left, the film cuts to an underwater sequence in which a limb previously severed from Reptilicus’s body seems to be starting to grow into a new one. Apparently either Sid Pink or someone in his operation thought Reptilicus was going to do well enough to merit a sequel; fortunately, they were wrong … — 11/19/17

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Conquest of Space (Paramount, 1954-55)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’ve screwed up my sleep schedule royally of later, this time staying up so I could record the 1955 movie Conquest of Space from the Sci-Fi Channel. It’s the fourth and last of George Pal’s cycle of science-fiction movies in the early 1950’s (following Destination Moon in 1950, When Worlds Collide in 1951 and The War of the Worlds in 1953) — and also by far the least of them in terms of quality. Based on a book by “astronomical artist” Chesley Bonestell and expatriate German rocket scientist Willy Ley (who had been one of the technical advisers on the very first major feature on space travel, Fritz Lang’s 1928 Woman in the Moon), Conquest of Space is gorgeous to look at — Paramount was still using three-strip Technicolor while other studios were abandoning it for cheaper but far inferior in-house processes, and Bonestell’s vivid matte paintings and designs (an art director is credited but it’s clear Bonestell was primarily responsible for the look of this film) give it a beautiful sheen even though there are some bizarre boners in his work (for example, it never occurred to him that a view from the Earth from outer space would show it mostly covered by clouds — which made the first actual photos of Earth from space highly disappointing to me when I saw them because they didn’t look like Bonestell’s paintings!). Alas, it’s really a terrible movie; without the work of a major novelist to draw on (as they’d had with Heinlein in Destination Moon, Wylie in When Worlds Collide and Wells in The War of the Worlds), Pal and his writers fell back on every tired old cliché from World War II movies, from the arrogant commanding officer who dragoons his son into his special operation to the ethnically mixed (all white[1] but from different Euro-American nationalities) crew, to animate this space opus. Add to that a no-name cast (the only actor whose name I recognized was Eric Fleming, who starred in the TV series Rawhide — his sidekick was the then-unknown Clint Eastwood) and what you ended up with was a movie that was technically impeccable and visually beautiful, but dramatically deserved to be on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. — 9/18/97


Last night’s Mars movie screening at Golden Hill ( featured a short about three astronauts who are sent on the first [hu]manned spaceflight to Mars but who crash-land and die from lack of oxygen; an episode of My Favorite Martian that was probably the funniest I’ve seen (it’s called “Rx for Martin” and deals with the Martian, played by Ray Walston, falling down stairs, spraining his ankle, ending up in the hospital and confounding the doctors since a Martian’s vital signs are so different from an Earthling’s); a rerun of a film shown on the proprietor’s “Vintage Sci-Fi” program two years earlier called World Without End which he wanted to re-screen because he’d previously shown it from an old VHS tape with washed-out color and no attempt to letterbox or pan-and-scan the image (instead the people doing the tape just put up what was in the middle of the screen, which led to a lot of half-people on either side) and now there’s a letterboxed DVD with a beautiful transfer that does justice to the rich, vibrant color scheme of the film (for my previous comments on World Without End see; and the co-feature, a film from George Pal’s sci-fi unit at Paramount called Conquest of Space. The Conquest of Space (the book uses the definite article; the film title does not) began life as a series of spectacular paintings of astronomical vistas by artist Chesley Bonestell, who in the 1940’s and 1950’s became known as the mainstream media’s go-to guy for what the rest of the solar system was likely to look like. My stepfather had a copy and I recall it as a large-format “coffee-table” book dominated by Bonestell’s glorious paintings with brief bits of explanatory non-fiction text by Willy Ley, who’d been one of the German rocket scientists under the Weimar Republic and later under the Nazis; he was an uncredited technical advisor on Fritz Lang’s 1928 film Woman on the Moon and, like credited technical advisor Dr. Hermann Oberth, was recruited by the U.S. after the war to work on our rocket program. 

George Pal was a Hungarian-born puppeteer who drifted into filmmaking after his original choice for a career, architecture, dried up during the Depression. In the early 1930’s he’d risen to be the head of the cartoon department at Berlin’s UFA Studios until the Nazi takeover forced him to flee, first to Prague and then to Eindhoven, The Netherlands, where he and his wife developed a series of stop-motion films using animated puppets. Paramount signed Pal to a producer’s contract and gave him a unit and the necessary equipment to produce what they called “Puppetoons,” one-reel shorts with animated puppets — the only one I’ve seen was The Perfume Suite from 1947, which featured Duke Ellington in live action interacting with a bunch of animated perfume bottles as Ellington and his orchestra played the first three movements of the suite that gave the film its title. In 1950 Pal wanted to branch out into features, so he bought the rights to several stories Robert A. Heinlein had written about humans’ first trip to the moon (which Heinlein, a Right-wing Libertarian politically, had envisioned being financed by private entrepreneurs because the government wouldn’t have the vision to fund it publicly) and developed them into a script, with Heinlein as one of the credited screenwriters as well, called Destination Moon. Paramount’s executives turned the project down because they didn’t think a film about travel to the moon would have an audience, so Pal took it to the independent Eagle-Lion company (formerly PRC) and made it there. It was an enormous hit, and by chance the theatre Eagle-Lion booked it into in New York was two blocks up from Paramount’s office building, so all the “suits” at Paramount got to watch the long lines of people waiting to pay to see the film they had turned down. 

They got the message and re-signed Pal to make more science-fiction films for them, and for his next project they gave him the rights to Philip Wylie’s 1932 novel When Worlds Collide, which they’d bought for Cecil B. DeMille but then canceled because they didn’t think there’d be enough of an audience for a science-fiction subject. When Worlds Collide was a hit and Pal’s next science-fiction film, a 1953 adaptation of H. G. Wells’ classic novel The War of the Worlds (ironically another project Paramount had bought decades earlier for DeMille!), was an even bigger hit. So in 1954 Pal and Byron Haskin, his director on The War of the Worlds, re-teamed for a film ostensibly based on the Bonestell-Ley book The Conquest of Space but actually a screen original by a writing committee. The film credits three writers with “adaptation” — Philip Yordan, Barré Lyndon and George Worthing Yates — and James O’Hanlon for the final script. What they did was basically shoehorn the multi-ethnic military unit that had been de rigueur in films made about and during World War II and stick them on a mission to space. The film begins on “The Wheel,” the giant space station designed and built by Col. Samuel T. Merritt (Walter Brooke) as a jumping-off point for a trip to the moon. A peculiar-looking spaceship is being built in space next to “The Wheel” by construction crews based there — like Arthur C. Clarke on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Gene Roddenberry on the original Star Trek, the authors of Conquest of Space had posited that the spaceship would actually be built in space so it could fly to wherever it was going without having to contend with passing through earth’s atmosphere or escaping its gravity. The initial conflict of the film is set up between Col. Merritt and his son, Captain Barney Merritt (Eric Fleming, one of the great might-have-beens in cinema history; in the early 1960’s he did a TV series about cattle drives called Rawhide and got offered the lead in an early “spaghetti Western” called A Fistful of Dollars, only he turned it down and the producers instead went with the actor who’d played Fleming’s sidekick, “Pardner,” on Rawhide, a man named Clint Eastwood of whom you’ve no doubt heard since). 

Though participation in the space service was supposed to be strictly voluntary, Col. Merritt signed his son up for him without asking him first, and Capt. Merritt has asked for a transfer to Muroc Air Force Base (itself a legendary name in the early space program, as anyone who’s read Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff or seen the film based on it will know; it was out in the California desert and was later renamed Edwards, and it was where Chuck Yeager first set off on the flight that would break the sound barrier and most of the other experimental X-plane flights took off from there as well) — only everything changes when the Merritts receive sealed orders that their spacecraft is not going to go to the moon after all, but to Mars. (There’s a neat bit of exposition before the “reveal” in which one of the Merritts asks why the ship has been equipped with wings, which wouldn’t be needed for flight over the airless moon but would be helpful if the ship went somewhere that has an atmosphere.) The Merritts assume command of a crew that includes Sgt. Imoto (Benson Fong — nearly a decade after World War II ended they were still casting Japanese characters with Chinese actors!), André Fodor (Ross Martin, in his first film) and Jackie “Brooklyn” Siegle (Phil Foster), along with Sgt. Mahoney (Mickey Shaughnessy), a long-time friend and aide to General Merritt (his promotion from Colonel was contained in those sealed orders) whose relationship to him is depicted in surprisingly homoerotic terms for a 1954 movie. (That’s the copyright date, though dates it as 1955.) The trip to Mars goes reasonably well until an antenna on the spacecraft jams, cutting them off from radio contract with mission control on “The Wheel,” and during the extra-vehicular activity needed to repair it Fodor is lost in space and dies. This sends General Merritt bonkers; from a hard-nosed but relatively rational scientist he suddenly turns into a religious lunatic, raving about the Bible and how nothing in it gives man permission to explore space, and ultimately trying to sabotage the project by blowing up the ship once it reaches Mars. (The fact that the villain is motivated by religious fanaticism makes this unusual for a 1950’s sci-fi films; usually the religious people were the good guys and the scientists the bad guys, as in The Thing, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and all those other movies in which the scientists give up their lives in a desperate, foredoomed attempt to reason with the monster. This reflects the same institutional religiosity of the period that defined our Cold War enemy as not just “Communism” but “Godless Communism,” and in which the words “under God” were stuck into the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” was put on our money.) 

So Captain Merritt has to shoot and kill his own father to save the ship and the rest of the crew, and Sgt. Mahoney goes ballistic with anger and hurt, threatening to report the younger Merritt and get him court-martialed for killing the older one. But thanks to the older Merritt’s sabotage attempt, the crew has virtually no water to sustain them for the months they will have to remain on Mars until it and Earth are once again close enough in their orbits for the crew to return home — until they’re saved when an unexpected snowfall on Mars proves that the Red Planet has water after all. There are some weird bits in Conquest of Space — like the sudden cut from the science-fiction stuff to a big musical production number with an Arabian Nights theme, featuring Rosemary Clooney as a singing, dancing harem girl, that turns out to be a film screening on board the “Wheel” (the film is the 1953 Paramount production Here Comes the Girls) — but mostly it’s pretty straightforward 1950’s sci-fi. The character conflicts may be pretty simple, but just the fact that there are any makes this an unusual movie for the time. One odd and less positive aspect of Conquest of Space is that there are surprisingly few special-effects shots, and the ones there are don’t seem all that interesting: despite some quite illustrious names in the technical credits (the cinematographer is Lionel Lindon from the original King Kong and the head of the effects crew is John P. Fulton, the man who figured out how to make Claude Rains invisible), there are a few process shots with tell-tale black lines around the forward images, a sure sign of sloppy process work. Still, I was quite impressed by Conquest of Space: I’d seen it before on American Movie Classics back when that was still a movie channel, but this time around it came off considerably better, generally well produced and with a level of characterization in its people that, while not especially sophisticated, certainly set this above a lot of science-fiction films of its time. — 11/18/17

[1]  — Not so: see below.