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A Christmas Potpourri

I’ve somehow largely been out of the mood for Christmas (not in a bad mood, just having trouble feeling like it’s Christmas), watching no Christmas movies, listening to very little Christmas music, and reading even less Christmas related material. It’s been odd. However, here three Christmasy things relating to music, literature, and cinema that are part of my December that I wanted to share.

Julie London and Christmas

Julie London did not have a very big voice. She said she had “only a thimbleful of a voice, and I have to use it close to the microphone. But it is a kind of over-smoked voice, and it automatically sounds intimate.” She manages to sound both sexy and classy.

My December has been rather warm, because I’m temporarily in California. Usually, my Christmas is damp and chilly (rather than snowy), but this year it is sunny and warm. In two songs, Julie London sings about a warm Christmas, but it’s not because of the sun.

“I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” – written by Irving Berlin in the 1937 film On the Avenue.

And “Warm December”

“I’d Like You For Christmas” was written by Julie London’s husband, Bobby Troup, who acted with Julie London in the TV series Emergency!

Relating to John Milton

I’ve been reading about John Milton, author of Paradise Lost. One random fact I learned in a biography about him – The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography by Barbara K. Lewalski – is that the phrase “Hobson’s Choice” derived from Thomas Hobson, who owned a livery stable and rented horse and carriages to the students at Cambridge (presumably including John Milton). He reportedly would force the students to rent whatever horse and carriage was closest to the door, thus the saying “Hobson’s choice,” which essentially means “no choice.” I mention it because I had never heard the phrase before and caused the title of David Lean’s film Hobson’s Choice to make much more sense. I had previously and rather ignorantly assumed it meant that he really had a choice to make.

But the one Christmas work I have consistently been listening to is Ralph Vaughan William’s “Hodie,” which is a cantata with music set to texts from the Bible and various English poems from authors like George Herbert, Thomas Hardy, and John Milton. The most moving song is “It Was the Winter Wild,” which is adapted from John Milton’s poem “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” Listen how, at the end, the music hushes after the soprano sings about how “Birds of Calm” brood over the music so that it forgets “to rave.”

It was the Winter wilde,
While the Heav'n-born-childe,
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature in aw to him
Had doff't her gawdy trim,
With her great Master so to sympathize:
And waving wide her mirtle wand,
She strikes a universall Peace through Sea and Land.

No War, or Battails sound
Was heard the World around:
The idle spear and shield were high up hung; 
The hooked Chariot stood
Unstain'd with hostile blood,
The Trumpet spake not to the armed throng,
And Kings sate still with awfull eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by. 

But peacefull was the night
Wherin the Prince of light
His raign of peace upon the earth began:
The Windes, with wonder whist,
Smoothly the waters kist, [ 65 ]
Whispering new joyes to the milde Ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While Birds of Calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.

A New Christmas Movie

I have yet to see a single holiday film this December, but thanks to Ruth at Silver Screenings, I have a new Christmas film to watch tonight that I have never seen, or even heard of before. It is called The Holly and the Ivy, starring Ralph Richardson, Celia Johnson and Margaret Leighton. It looks to be delightful. For more information and a link to the film, please check out her post, here.

Have a Merry Christmas! I’ll be back before New Year with a look at the past year and some thoughts about the coming new year.

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Posted by on December 23, 2017 in Books, Movies, Music

 

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A Return to Earth and Johnny Hartman

After having dropped off the face of the blogging earth, so to speak, I am feeling rather giddy to have returned. I’ve missed writing and reading about movies and books and hope everyone is doing well and having a lovely fall. It’s been a beautiful autumn where I live. How about your autumn?

I’ve actually stacked up a lot of different things I would like to write about: Japanese cinema, Jo Stafford, a new book about jazz and pop singers that is dangerously addictive to read, a few movie reviews of film noirs, some observations about American hard-boiled writing. But perhaps the best place to begin is with Johnny Hartman.

Johnny Hartman never achieved the success he deserved during his own lifetime and even now is not as well known as he should be. He has a meltingly lovely voice. When the word mellifluous was created, surely that person had Johnny Hartman in mind.

He was primarily a singer of ballads, which was part of his difficulty, because he was singing ballads at a time when rock and roll had stormed in. Perhaps if he had been singing a decade earlier, he would have been better known.

He inadvertently became known as a jazz singer when he collaborated with John Coltrane on their brilliant album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, though he was also a pop singer. Will Friedwald, in the dangerously addictive book I mentioned called A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, wrote that “The basic sound of a Johnny Hartman performance touches on all three sources: jazz, adult pop, and cabaret.”

He was also, according to Friedwald (and it’s difficult to argue), “one of the greatest of all interpreters of love songs.”

It wasn’t just a question of a deep, sensual voice, which he surely had: it was his romantic attitude. ‘There was a sentimentality to him,’ his longtime accompanist Tony Monte put it. ‘He was in love with the idea of being in love, and he [continually] expressed that idea. He would sing about it, and he would speak about in his patter. He would look out wistfully in the audience and say he was going to dedicate the rest of the show to the beautiful women out there and to the men who brought them, and who were paying such great attention to them. And it wasn’t just a little piece of theater, he meant what he was saying.’

In honor of Autumn, which is coming to a close, here is Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane’s rendition of “Autumn Serenade.”

And “The Nearness of You,” written by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington. This song can just about melt a person.

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2017 in Music

 

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Girl Crazy (1943)

Songs by George and Ira Gershwin, a dance choreographed by Busby Berkeley, an appearance by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra, an early appearance from June Allyson, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland doing what they do best? Who could ask for anything more!

George and Ira Gershwin’s 1931 musical “Girl Crazy” is transformed plot-wise, but many of the songs are kept, most notably “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” Fascinating Rhythm,” and “But Not For Me,” all songs that have become standards.

Danny Churchill (Mickey Rooney) is the playboy son of a wealthy publisher who is sent out west to an all boys agricultural and mining school (not that we see much agriculture, mining, or school…just horse-riding and singing). There is, however, one girl present. The granddaughter of the dean (Guy Kibbee). She is Ginger Gray (Judy Garland), who is in charge of the school’s mail and drives the rickety car.

She is not, however, impressed by the east coast playboy, though he is more than impressed with her. He has to prove his love and prove that he’s not a quitter at the school and save the school from closing down by attracting applicants…by staging a musical rodeo. They thus manage to get the “let’s-put-on-a-show” plot line into the story.

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were amazing and seem to be able to do pretty much anything. Mickey Rooney sings and dances and plays the piano with Tommy Dorsey and does physical comedy and is a wonder to behold. He also has a sweet chemistry with Judy Garland. It seems like in so many of Judy Garland’s movies, she is pining away for her wayward man, it is nice to see things reversed with Rooney trying to win her.

Judy Garland was twenty-one in Girl Crazy and she looks fresh, alive and lovely. She had a hard life and in many of her later movies you can see it on her face, but in Girl Crazy she still looks as if she has the whole world before her as she enters womanhood. She just about glows.

She also could seemingly do anything: comedy, drama, sing, dance, etc. She always had a good sense of comedic timing, but could then turn around and rip your heart out with a song. In Girl Crazy, the song is “But Not For Me.”

The musical “Girl Crazy” in 1931 is the musical that made Ethel Merman a Broadway star. Judy Garland’s role was played by Ginger Rogers, but Ethel Merman introduced “I Got Rhythm”and blew everyone away. In the movie, the song becomes a Busby Berkeley choreographed western extravaganza with Garland, Rooney, Tommy Dorsey and many others. It’s a rousing way to end a film.

I’m always rather in awe of Judy Garland’s dancing. It’s not that she’s Cyd Charisse or even Eleanor Powell, but she always gives the appearance of total ease and rightness. It’s a joy to watch her dance and she always makes it look good. So often, now, I feel like singing and dancing is all about making it look like the performer is working hard, but Judy Garland looked as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

My sister and I have often talked about how comedians and people with good physical comedic timing often seem to be able to dance. It’s not that they are the most technically proficient, but that they have a physical lightness and adroitness that translates well to dance. Judy Garland has that same ability. For me, not only could she never sing too many songs, but she could never dance to much.

This is my contribution to “The Judy Garland Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. To see all the posts for this blogathon, click here.

Judy Garland breaks one’s heart.

Mickey Rooney fails to make an impression on Judy Garland.

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2017 in Movies

 

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