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How I Came to Appreciate Charlie Chaplin

A brief moment to confess, which is good for the soul. I am disgracefully late in writing this contribution to “The Charlie Chaplin Blogathon.” My own blogathon, no less! Life became more hectic than I expected and I decided that I would rather read all your contributions than write my own. And in truth, I am glad that I did so, because my topic was on how I came to appreciate Charlie Chaplin and reading the many wonderful contributions has served to increase my appreciation far more than any writing I could have done. Once again, I want to thank you all for your participation and thank Domi for inviting me to co-host! It was a pleasure.

So, how did I come to appreciate the artistry of Charlie Chaplin? As a child, I used to watch Charlie Chaplin short films. I was so young, that I could not read and would nudge my siblings for an interpretation every time there was an intertitle.

But, in truth, I don’t recall having much difficulty following the plots and what stayed with me were images. The moment Chaplin cooks his shoe and then proceeds to eat the laces as if they were spaghetti. The moment in “The Vagabond” when Edna Purviance comes back to get the violin-playing tramp at the end, who has rescued her from gypsies. The time she dressed up as a boy in “Behind the Screen,” which I somehow conflated in my mind with “The Vagabond.” The time he takes a bite out of a child’s hotdog. These were the moments that stayed with me, and I experienced a profound sense of deja vu when I went back as an adult and saw all these films. The moment of recognition, the realization of where these scenes had originated, was sweet. I was extremely excited when I found that the hot dog scene was from Circus.

But after my youth, I largely left Chaplin behind. I knew who he was; I had fond memories of watching him, but that was all. Then I watched The Great Dictator and was oddly not impressed (I was still young and the speech at the end was all I recalled). Some years later, I tried Modern Times and was still oddly not impressed. I began to watch Buster Keaton films and came to the conclusion that I didn’t like Chaplin so much.

What changed it all was watching Keystone Comedies and an increased interest in silent films. I saw Chaplin in a few Keystone films, then watched him through his Essanay and Mutual films. I watched “The Pilgim” and “Shoulder Arms” and “A Dog’s Life.” I next watched The Kid and then The Gold Rush. It seemed so obvious why he was so great, how he transformed silent comedy and led the way, how brilliant his gags were (for example, the gag with the clock that he takes apart in “The Pawnshop,” which he treats as if he were a dentist, a doctor, a jeweler, as though it were a can he was opening and so on; his inventiveness was a delight). And after watching Keystone films, as interesting as they were, I appreciated the way Chaplin had developed as a storyteller, how his gags became a part of his story.

But what really impressed me was how he used comedy to take on some truly awful topics. Starvation in The Gold Rush? Turn it into comedy. Drug use in “Easy Street?” Hilarious! Poverty in The Kid, his most Dickensian film? He even took on Hitler. He made us care, made us aware, and made us laugh. Remarkable achievement. Right up there with Charles Dickens in that respect.

And at the same time, he was important in moving forward silent comedy, and silent cinema in general. I think understanding his place in cinema history helped me appreciate even his comedy, if that makes any sense.

Perhaps it’s been a slow journey to full appreciation. Because he was always talked about in near reverent terms, I wanted to be a rebel and not appreciate the one everyone else appreciated. But sometimes when someone is so often called great, it is because they truly are great.

 

For more posts about Chaplin, click here.

“All images from Chaplin films made from 1918 onwards, Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. Charles Chaplin and the Little Tramp are trademarks and/or service marks of Bubbles Inc. S.A. and/or Roy Export”

 
17 Comments

Posted by on April 17, 2018 in Movies

 

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Doris Day’s Career as a Pop Singer

As Will Friedwald writes in his essential A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers “The world of pop music is a funny place – perhaps the only area of our culture where someone can be rich and famous and still be considered ‘underrated.'” He is referring to Doris Day. Actually, the entire reason that I purchased his book is because I had read that he was an enthusiastic fan of Doris Day as a singer, which turned out to be perfectly true. “Doris Day can be considered the best [pop singer] just because she’s as great as a pop singer can be.” “Doris Day sang like she had nothing to prove.” “Doris Day has a sound like bottled sunshine. It’s hard to think of another human voice that’s so luxuriously sensual.” “At her very best, Doris Day is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, yet though she’ll hardly die broke, she’s never gotten a fraction of their respect.”

The irony is that Doris Day became a singer by accident. In many ways, her entire career was an accident. Born Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff, she once said, “I’m still Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff from Cincinnati, Ohio. All I ever wanted to do was to get married, have a nice husband, have two or three children, keep house and cook – a nice clean house – and live happily ever after – and I ended up in Hollywood.”

But even if she hadn’t ended up in Hollywood, she would have had a stellar career as a pop singer, though it was her career as a singer that ultimately led her to Hollywood. Fortunately, unlike other fine singers like Alice Faye or even Judy Garland, she was still able to record while making films.

She originally intended to be a dancer. As a child, she teamed up with another young dancer, Jerry Dougherty, and danced around Cincinnati, winning prizes until Doris Day’s mother decided they should move to Hollywood, where she was convinced her daughter would be a success. But before they could move, Doris Day was in a car accident, which left her right leg shattered. It took her a year to recover fully. To pass the time, she listened to the radio and tried to sing along with Ella Fitzgerald. She eventually took lessons and her teacher, Grace Raine, recognized that Day’s voice and singing was special.

Day sang at a local Chinese Restaurant, sang on the radio, and soon was hired by band-leader Barney Rapp, who gave her the name Doris Day, supposedly after the song she sang, “Day by Day.” Rapp’s band played at Rapp’s nightclub in Cincinnati, then went on tour. She then sang for bandleaders Bob Crosby, Fred Waring, and finally Les Brown.

Les Brown and Doris Day

After a disastrous marriage to trombonist Al Jorden, who was abusive, she was now a young divorcee with a child and returned to work with Les Brown. In 1945, she would record her first big hit, “Sentimental Journey,” which struck home with the post-WWII mood of returning soldiers and starting life afresh.

Before taking a screen test and being chosen by Michael Curtiz for her first film, Romance on the High Seas (where she had another hit with “It’s Magic”), she signed with Columbia Records. After WWII, the big bands were fading and there was more interest in vocalists, like Frank Sinatra. Unfortunately, many of the songs Columbia would assign Day were cheesy novelty numbers, but there were also records and songs of the highest quality.

She would never tour again and she always preferred not to perform live. The remainder of her career as a singer would occur in the recording studio. But she only grew more popular, both as an actress and singer, into the 1960s.

Some of her greatest albums are “Duet,” where she is accompanied by Andre Previn; “Day by Day” and “Day By Night.” Will Friedwald also makes a case for her recording with Robert Goulet of “Annie Get Your Gun.” But there are many more. She spanned big band, Broadway, pop, and could even swing.

As Friedwald writes, “Dinah Shore, who had been around longer, had a bigger broadcasting career, but couldn’t touch Day in pictures; Judy Garland had a shorter but more spectacular film career, but wasn’t utilized as much on recordings or radio as she should have been. Paramount tried to make Rosemary Clooney the next Doris Day, but she never caught on in pictures. Day was the sole female singer to come from the band world and make the transition to solo stardom and pictures.”

Friedwald tends to measure the ultimate success of a singer, not only by their vocal abilities, but by the body of work that they produce, if they record worthy songs and albums that stand the test of time. In the case of Day, despite all the novelty songs, she recorded an impressive number of songs by the great composers like Gershwin, Berlin, Mercer, Rodgers, etc. Sadly, at least sadly for us, she retired from singing quite early in life, when she was in her forties.

But perhaps it’s churlish to repine. It is her life to live and she gave us so much extraordinary music. Far more than most singer/actors. I can never get tired of listening to her vast body of work.

This post was written as part of the “Second Annual Doris Day Blogathon,” hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood. Click here for more posts celebrating Doris Day.


Sources:

Considering Doris Day – by Tom Santopietro

A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers – by Will Friedwald

The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums – by Will Friedwald

 

 

 
27 Comments

Posted by on April 3, 2018 in Music

 

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Saskatchewan (1954)

Saskatchewan is the first western I have ever seen where a native tribe rides to the rescue of the cavalry. The first thing that is mentioned about the film by anyone, however, is the gorgeous location shooting done at Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. A typically entertaining Raoul Walsh directed adventure, Saskatchewan offers a chance for dashingly attired Mounties to take a scenic tour of the Rockies by way of avoiding the Sioux.

The second thing that is frequently mentioned about the film is that Saskatchewan looks nothing like Banff National Park, but is actually much flatter, so I am not certain if the title refers to the province of Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan River (which does flow through Alberta), or if the fort in the film was called Fort Saskatchewan. Titles of films are often an enigma to me, but Saskatchewan does perhaps make a more catchy title than Alberta.

Alan Ladd is Thomas O’Rourke, an orphan who was raised by Chief Dark Cloud of the Cree (Antonio Moreno) and raised as a brother to Cajou (Jay Silverheels). He is now a Mountie, however, and his duty comes into conflict with his friendship with the Cree.

Early in the film, he and Cajou come across a wagon train that has been destroyed by the Sioux, who have come up through Montana after destroying Colonel Custer. The only survivor of the wagon train is American Grace Markey (Shelley Winters), who is fleeing a U.S. Marshall (Hugh O’Brien). But when the Cree are ordered to turn in their guns, leaving them without a means of hunting food for themselves, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull see an opportunity to persuade the Cree to join them in war. The Mounties set out with guns and ammunition, but the Sioux attack, thus providing the Mounties with the opportunity to escape picturesquely through the mountains.

A little mutiny (though Alan Ladd is the politest mutineer I’ve ever seen; “May I borrow your glasses, Sir”), an exciting canoe chase, a few battles and explosions, negotiations with the Cree, a little romance, conflict between the jealous U.S. Marshall and O’Rourke over Grace, all follows apace, not to mention lots of riding through the Rockies and looking out on shimmering lakes, rivers, trees and snow-capped peaks.

And I must say that O’Rourke seems remarkably complaisant about Grace being an accused murderer. She may possibly be a murderer, but he is always a gentleman, unlike the Marshall, who pushes Grace around and shoots a Cree in the back. But in truth, all the Mounties are gentlemen. The script stresses that in Canada the First Nations tribes are treated fairly. The only reason there is trouble is because the Sioux, who were not treated fairly, are stirring up the Cree to war, aided by the unreasonable attitude of the Canadian authorities about confiscating Cree weapons.

There’s something of the British nobility in the Mounties in general. One Mountie is even Scottish and the commander is played by Robert Douglas, a British actor, thus enhancing the impression. Perhaps a little like those British colonial adventure films meets the western in Canada.

Another connection to Canada is actor Jay Silverheels, who plays Cajou. He was a Canadian Mohawk who achieved his most famous role with Tonto in the Lone Ranger TV series. Before he became an actor, he was an excellent lacrosse player and did some boxing in America. He began in films as a stuntman and gradually was given better roles in a number of ‘A’ Westerns, though was always remembered as Tonto.

While Saskatchewan was being filmed, Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum where also at Banff National Park, filming River of No Return. Shelley Winters evidently spent some of her off time with Monroe and they got along quite well. Banff National Park has been a relatively popular location for filming. Other films at least partially shot there include Days of Heaven and 49th Paralell. I actually have all three films – Days of Heaven49th Parallel, and River of No Return – on my list of films to see in the future (which admittedly is a somewhat unwieldy list).

Saskatchewan is definitely not a classic western, but I tend to find that nearly all Raoul Walsh films have a good pace and interesting action and Saskatchewan has that. There’s not much room for intriguing character development, but the setting in Canada is fresh and lovely. In fact, it is safe to argue that Banff National Park is the real star of the film.

This post was written as part of the “O Canada” Blogathon,” hosted by Silver Screenings and Speakeasy. For more entries, see the recap for Day 1, 2, and 3 of the blogathon.

 
18 Comments

Posted by on February 11, 2018 in Movies

 

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