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Irving Berlin During the 1920s

imagesNovember 16th was National Flapper Day over at Movies Silently and I had wanted to join in with a post of my own on the music of the era. However, I was unable to do so last week, owing to a variety of activities. Today, however, I am on the ball!

I just finished reading Irving Berlin: American Troubadour and the breadth of his career amazes me. He only played on the black keys of the piano, had very little schooling and no official musical training, but he was extraordinary. His first hit came during the 1910s and he was still writing songs in the early ’60s.

Jerome Kern once said that “Irving Berlin had no place in American music – he is American music.” Berlin could adapt to the different musical tastes of the times (until rock, that is – no one adapted to rock, as far as I can tell) and wrote rag, ballads, novelty songs, holiday songs, patriotic songs, nearly every kind of song there is.

He also believed in hits. Unlike Rodgers and Hammerstein, he was not as interested in having his songs fully integrated into the story, though he certainly intended them to make sense in the context of the story. But he liked his songs to be stand-alone hits outside of their original musical. This is why far fewer of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs are now jazz standards compared to Rodgers and Hart or Berlin or Cole Porter.

But because Irving Berlin liked hits, he liked the revue format rather than the musical story format. One of his best scores was composed for “As Thousands Cheer” in 1933, which was a revue starring Marilyn Miller, Clifton Webb, and Ethel Waters. He wrote “Heat Wave,” “Easter Parade,” and “Supper Time.” The conceit was that different newspaper headlines would morph into musical numbers. It was also the first show were an African-American performer (Waters) received top billing with other white performers.

But quite a few hit songs we now associate with Irving Berlin were written during the 1920s for different musical revues. He composed the music for a Ziegfeld Follies. He also co-owned a theater – The Music Box Theatre – where he put on several Music Box Revues.

What follows is a brief survey of several of Berlin’s enduring hits written in the 1920s.

“Blue Skies (1926)

“Blue Skies” was dedicated to Berlin’s first daughter, Mary Ellin, when she was born. The song was actually interpolated into a musical – “Betsy” – which was being scored by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The actress, Belle Baker, was not pleased with their songs and asked Berlin for a song she could sing. A year later, Al Jolson would make history by singing it to his mother in The Jazz Singer. The song was recorded by a number of people during the late 1920s, along with the bandleader Ben Selvin and His Orchestra.

The Song Is Ended But the Melody Lingers On (1927)

I couldn’t find out anything at all about this song, except that it was published in 1927. This version is sung by Annette Hanshaw, an even more popular singer than Ruth Etting, it seems. Her years of greatest popularity spanned from the late twenties to early thirties. Her trademark was to say “That’s all” at the end of singing and she was the quintessential flapper/singer.

What’ll I Do (1924)

Introduced in Irving Berlin’s third Music Box Revue, this version is sung by Walter Pidgeon, who I had not realized could sing. Reportedly, when the song was heard in England, many people wanted to know what a “whattle” was.

Always (1926)

Irving Berlin wrote for and literally gave this song to his wife, Ellin, when they were married. All royalties for the song belonged to her. Their romance had been a strained one. Her wealthy father disapproved and tried to detach Ellin from Irving Berlin, partly because he was Jewish. Eventually, Berlin and Ellin eloped, but were hounded by the press. It was only after many years later, after Berlin and Ellin unexpectedly lost their newborn son, that Ellin’s father reconciled with the family.

The performer is Nick Lucas, both singer and guitarist, who’s career spanned the 1910s to 1980s.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2016 in Music

 

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“The Fog Horn” and “The Murderer” – two short stories by Ray Bradbury

Classic_stories_1The Fog Horn

When Ray Harryhausen and his producers were working on the story for The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, they discovered that their story was very similar to Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Fog Horn,” published in 1952There seems to be some confusion about exactly how this happened. Bradbury said they had been inspired by his story, but forgotten that it was his story that inspired them. When he pointed this out, they promptly bought the rights to “The Fog Horn” and marketed the film as being based on his story. However, Ray Harryhausen said that while they were working on the story, they saw an image of a dinosaur attacking a lighthouse and they thought it would be a good idea to incorporate that into their script, and so bought the rights to Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn.”

However it happened, there is only one scene in the movie that is based on the short story, which only consists of one main event. I’m afraid Ray Bradbury’s story sounds a bit silly in a dry retelling, but there is nothing silly in the actual reading. It’s actually rather poignant.

Two men work in a lighthouse, one a younger man, Johnny, new at the job and another old-timer, McDunn, who is given to musing about the mysteries of the deep sea. As the fog horn of their lighthouse mournfully calls out one night, McDunn talks about how ancient the bottom of the ocean is compared to the land.

For all our engines and so-called submarines, it’ll be ten thousand centuries before we set foot on the real bottom of the sunken lands, in the fairy kingdom there, and know real terror. Think of it, it’s still the year 300,000. Before Christ down under there. While we’ve paraded around with trumpets, lopping off each other’s countries and heads, they have been living beneath the sea twelve miles deep and cold in a time as old as the beard if a comet.

Rhedosaurus_&_the_lighthouse

scene from the movie

But in some way, the fog horn has an affinity with that ancient world, with its mournful call and a creature (the last of its kind?) responds by visiting each year and calling back to the lighthouse as if it was its long-lost love.

A cry came across a million years of water and mist. A cry so anguished and alone that it shuddered in my head and my body. The monster cried out at the tower. The Fog Horn blew. The monster roared again. The Fog Horn blew. The monster opened its great toothed mouth and the sound that came from it was the sound of the Fog Horn itself. Lonely and vast and far away. The sound of isolation, a viewless sea, a cold night, apartness. That was the sound.

Not even Harryhausen’s monster was that sad! And when the fog horn is turned off briefly, the monster destroys the lighthouse in a fit of rage. Fortunately, Johnny and McDunn escape alive. But the monster is never seen again.

I’m not sure if I would have made the connection between the movie and the short story if I hadn’t known they were connected. The tone is completely different. The short story admirably calls up a sense of vastness, ancientness and loneliness. This was my first time reading Bradbury and his ability to create an atmosphere that hangs heavy over a mere nine pages is remarkable. I can sometimes have trouble focusing on a book when there is other noise or people around, but even in a waiting room I still felt like I was set amidst that vast loneliness and hearing that monster call – no mean feat.

The Murderer 

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Bradbury

After I read “The Fog Horn,” I was flipping through the collection – Classic Stories 1: From The Golden Apples of the Sun and R Is For Rocket – and read a few more short stories, including one that tickled my fancy. “The Murderer” was written in 1953, but is set in some distant time where radios are ubiquitous, including the wrist radio (used like a cellphone), and tell you what to do (rather like a GPS devise) and music is playing constantly in offices and on buses and houses remind you to wipe your feet. The noise is incessant, but most people hardly notice. They are too busy on their wrist radios, calling others to remind them about something or tell them about every trivial little thing.

Hmm….sounds familiar.

The story encompasses an encounter between a psychiatrist and a man under arrest who is being evaluated. The man, Albert Brock, was arrested for the “murder” of electronic objects…anything that made noise. His first crime was committed against his telephone, which he sent down the “insinkerator.” Next he “shot the television set.” He goes on to pour French chocolate ice cream into the radio transmitter of his car. He then goes to work on his house, which is

one of those talking, singing, humming, weather-reporting, poetry-reading, novel-reciting, jingle-jangling, rockaby-crooning-when-you-go-to-bed houses. A house that screams opera to you in the shower and teaches you Spanish in your sleep…with stoves that say, “I’m apricot pie, and I’m done,’ or ‘I’m prime roast beef, so baste me!”…With beds that rock you to sleep and shake you awake. A house that barely tolerates humans…A front door that barks: ‘You’ve mud on your feet,sir!” And an electronic vacuum hound that snuffle around after you from room to room, inhaling every fingernail or ash you drop.

Brock systematically went through the house and killed everything that made a sound. The trouble is that he was only renting all these things.

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Max Smart demonstrates a wristwatch phone

His reasons for these crimes? He wants to “deliver” man from “conveniences” and the incessant noise. The demands that technology seemingly makes on people. The feeling that because there is a phone, therefore it must be used. The sudden need people feel to share every little thing, so that they can feel “in touch.” How people sit on the bus and give updates on their location. How music plays nonstop.

In touch! There’s a slimy phrase. Touch, hell. Gripped! Pawed, rather. Mauled and massaged and pounded…

It was only 1953 when Bradbury was writing, but he perfectly describes the social media/cellphone revolution.

My brother noticed it especially in 2007, when the iPhone became ubiquitous on the college campus When he first went to university, he had to take a bus and everyone on the bus either read or talked to their neighbor. In 2007, that all changed. Suddenly, everyone on the bus had an iPhone and would sit with head bowed over it. Almost like homage payed to a deity.

By the end of the story, one can’t help but feel that it is the psychiatrist – and everyone else – who is sick and that Brock is the only sane man around. The doctor says Brock “refuses to accept the simplest realities of his environment and work with them,” but perhaps Brock has a point that such things ought to be fought against. Maybe we should all turn into Luddites and run around murdering technology.

Except then I couldn’t blog…

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2016 in Books

 

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“Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News” – A. Brad Schwartz

downloadOn the eve of Halloween in 1938, Orson Welles’ The Mercury Theater on the Air presented a radio drama adaption of H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds, on CBS. The next day, there were headlines in nearly all the prominent papers detailing mass panic, tales of people fleeing their homes, farmers roaming the land with guns to repel invaders, frightened people shooting at a water tower in the mistaken idea that it was a Martian. The figure that was thrown around, and is still thrown around (it was mentioned in an introduction to an H.G. Wells novel I own) is that around 1 million people were frightened by the broadcast, frightened that Martians were invading America. It was cited as proof both that people are incredibly gullible and also that the radio wielded unprecedented power over the masses.

The trouble is that the hysteria was grossly exaggerated, according to A. Brad Schwartz, in his extremely engaging book Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News. His book covers a variety of topics: the radio broadcast itself, Orson Welles (which might be tedious for those who are already familiar with his life, but I knew little and found the context fascinating ), about the state of radio in America in 1938, the nature of radio and people’s perceptions of its credibility, the fallout of the “The War of the Worlds” broadcast, the state of radio censorship in 1938, research into the nature of people’s reactions to the radio and a discussion of how the panic got blown out of proportion in the first place.

The script for the radio drama was mostly written by Howard Koch (who became a screenwriter who helped write Casablanca, as well as writing the screenplay for Letter From an Unknown Woman). Most people who participated in The Mercury Theater on the Air didn’t take H. G. Wells’ book very seriously and thought that it was mostly kid stuff. To breath a little life into it. Orson Welles came up with the idea of presenting the story as a news bulletin, with frequent interruptions and news’ flashes. Koch tried to update H.G. Wells’ story, which was set in England, by grounding it in real locations in America, with the Martians landing in Grover’s Mill, NJ. He used real street and city names, which lent verisimilitude to the broadcast.

But what Schwartz points out is that most of the people who were frightened by the broadcast did not actually believe that Martians were invading earth, contrary to popular representation. Most people did not catch all of the show (and most missed the opening, where Welles announced that the show was fiction) and as a result believed that either a foreign army was invading (possibly from some nation like Germany – the world had only recently come through the annexation of Czechoslovakia by Germany, which was reported on the radio, which was new for the radio to play such a prominent role in news reportage) or that some natural disaster had occurred, like a meteor strike.

Orson Welles, after the broadcast, caught in an apologetic attitude by a photographer

Orson Welles, after the broadcast, caught in an apologetic attitude by a photographer

Not only does Schwartz explain the myriad reasons why many people were frightened, but he also shows how the entire incident was blown out of proportion, primarily by newspapers. And readers simply accepted the supposed facts reported by newspapers, mostly because it confirmed their conviction that Americans were gullible. The real hysteria, Schwartz argues, was not caused by panicked listeners, but by the reporting. Suddenly, there was discussion about the power of radio, should radio be censored, did this demonstrate how fascism could come to America as Hitler had done in Germany.

But interestingly, many people feared censorship and there were far more letters written to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) defending Welles and pleading for no censorship than there were from outraged listeners wanting the FCC to step in and prevent any abuse by broadcasting companies. The end result, Schwartz argues, is that American radio was too little regulated and that sponsors of radio shows ended up mostly dictating what was heard on air, resulting in less chances taken on diverse shows (like The Mercury Theater on the Air, which had a fairly small audience – it was allowed because broadcast companies had to prove to the FCC that they were educational).

I highly enjoyed the book and the context that Schwartz provides. It gives you a sense of what it would have been like to hear the show, what people were thinking and all the national and world news that went into the everyday understanding of people in 1938. The book also makes you think twice about accepting news, no matter how widely reported.

After the initial broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” many people wanted CBS to re-broadcast it, but CBS refused for fear that they could accidentally cause a second panic. However, it is now available on youtube. Incidentally, the music for the The Mercury Theater on the Air was composed or arranged by Bernard Herrmann…and often conducted (he composed the score for PsychoTaxi DriverThe Ghost and Mrs. MuirNorth By Northwest – not that there’s any music in this “The War of the Worlds”).

I can understand the confusion; you have to listen carefully to fully follow what is happening. There are lots of references to “the enemy,” as opposed to “martians” or “aliens.” There also isn’t a radio break until 40 minutes into the show, at which point there were a lot of relieved listeners.

And here is Orson Welles, talking to reporters about the incident. I found it interesting, in Broadcast Hysteria, to learn that for the longest time Orson Welles was primarily known for “The War of the Worlds” and the supposed mass panic and not for being a cutting edge director. It was only in the ’70s that he began to receive more general recognition for his work in films. Welles would later claim that he deliberately set up his “The War of the Worlds” so it would be taken seriously to show up radio and people’s gullibility, but Schwartz does not find that creditable. There seems to be a lot of evidence that Welles was shaken up after the broadcast by the reaction of the media and the supposed panic (he was told initially that people had died) and was even a little worried that it would ruin his career. Ultimately, it didn’t and Schwartz believes that it was his “The War of the Worlds” fame that he rode to Hollywood, even more so than the buzz he had generated from his presentation of “Julius Caesar” for The Mercury Theater, the theater company he founded with John Houseman. In this interview, he was mostly interested in damage control. He says he’s “terribly shocked to learn” that people believed that aliens were invading earth, but as Schwartz demonstrates, most people did not think that.

 
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Posted by on November 13, 2015 in Books

 

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