Wednesday, November 30, 2011

John, Paul, George & Ringo!

Another repost of something I wrote on BeatleLinks Fab Forum in 2005:

I was just thinking what a stroke of serendipity it was that the four Beatles each had such memorable names that — when put together in a phrase — rolled off the tongue so easily (an ad man’s dream). Just think of it: three monosyllabic first names common in the English-speaking world, followed by a more exotic, uncommon polysyllabic one to finish off the phrase. The list of the four names has its own kind of peculiar poetry. 

After all, you don't usually go around calling the Rolling Stones “Mick, Keith, Charlie...” and whoever else happens to be in the group that day.  A simple “Stones” suffices. Not so with the Beatles. 

Isn’t it sorta strange that things worked out so well? What if things had worked out differently?  If Pete Best had stayed in the band, I don't think that “John, Paul, George, and Pete” would have had the same ring (so to speak) to it.  If Paul had been known by his first name, instead of his middle one, “John, James, George, and Ringo” would have had the advantage of the first three names being alliterative, but I think that most Americans would have been put off by the formal sound of the full name “James,” and if it were shortened to “Jim,” John and George might have seemed a bit too stodgy for not also using nicknames. 

On the other hand, what if they each had different names? Coming from England, where certain common names are not as common here in the States, it’s lucky that the monickers were so identifiable to us Yanks. What if this hadn’t been the case?  “Nigel, Trevor, Leslie, and Squiffy” would have been a definite non-starter. 

Yes ... I have way too much time on my hands.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Foolishly Fooling Around with SFX

Christophe à la plage

Lee Van Cleef - The Good, the Bad, and the Pixelated

Hommage à Munch

Natalie Tran - Glasses & Brass


Be sure to check out Natalie Tran’s YouTube alter ego: communitychannel.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Happy 11/11/11!

Happy 11/11/11, everyone!
As I type these words, it is now 11:11 on 11/11/11

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Location, Location, Location

It took a poorly made 1950s exploitation movie to make me realize the importance of location filming to the development of cinema.  If motion-picture cameras had been confined only to the inside of the studios, I doubt that filmmaking could have been revitalized by Italian neo-realism of the 1940s, the international New Wave of the 1960s, or other independent film movements.  It’s not that these new cinema movements never used soundstages for their interior scenes, but location filming was absolutely vital.

The work that made me realize this was Phil Tucker’s Dance Hall Racket (1953), a cheaply made, by-the-numbers exploitation movie whose only real distinction is that it was written by Lenny Bruce and marks his only appearance as a credited actor.  Unfortunately, the film’s wafer-thin plot — an underworld figure, Umberto Scalli (Timothy Farrell), uses the sleazy taxi-dance hall he runs as a front for diamond smuggling — barely materializes as a linear narrative.  This is regrettable because the story shows occasional flashes of insight into the workings of the underworld with an unflinching honesty that Martin Scorsese might appreciate.  And because its plot is so disjointed, the movie’s 60-minute running time has to be padded with burlesque-style comedy routines and a laughable dance number.  Almost the entire movie is shot on a flimsy soundstage with sparse decoration that can’t conceal the artificial environment where the action is actually taking place. 

However, when its last scene appears on screen, Dance Hall Racket seems to transform into a different film altogether, if only for a couple of minutes.  At the story’s end, Scalli’s henchman Vincent (Bruce) double-crosses his boss and makes off with the smuggled diamonds and the racket’s ringleader as hostage.  By this time, the police have traced the smuggling to Scalli’s business and chase after Vincent, who shoots at them before dying from return fire. 

What makes the scene feel like a moment from a completely different — and better — film is its exterior setting.  Presumably shot in an alleyway behind the studio, the location exudes a grittiness and naturalism in marked contrast to the threadbare artifice of the interiors.  Also, this climactic shoot-out is wordless and thus free of the stilted acting that plagues so many of the movie’s dialogue scenes.  The location setting lends the gun battle an air of realism and credibility so utterly missing from the rest of this otherwise trashy film. 

When I first saw Dance Hall Racket, which I watched primarily because of Bruce’s involvement, the slipshod quality of the movie lulled me into a languid stupor.  But the neo-realistic atmosphere of the climax snapped me awake again.  I started wondering how more location shooting might have enhanced the picture.  If Dance Hall Racket had been able to film in an actual bar or taxi-dance hall, the movie might have avoided the substandard production values that diminish its already fragile integrity.  I’m guessing that the film’s budget was so submicroscopic that lugging the camera from one location to another was never even a gleam in the director’s eye.  Granted, more location work wouldn’t have rescued the movie — the script is too loose and episodic to cohere into a solid story, even if it had decent actors — but the stark and truthful atmosphere that elevates the last scene might have elevated the entire film. 

Thinking about this also drove home to me that much of the success of the 1960s New Waves was utterly dependent on the newly available tools that permitted location shooting, particularly lightweight cameras and sound equipment and “faster” (more light-sensitive) film stocks, tools not available to earlier generations of movie-makers.  Much of the freshness of these New Wave films came from the documentary-like flavor of some titles — Shadows (1959), Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960), Accattone (1961), even the costume drama Jules & Jim (1962), and others — which liberated the camera from the studio and endowed the stories with an immediacy and urgency largely missing from the Hollywood product of the era.  If New Wave filmmakers were as bound to the studio as Dance Hall Racket’s previous scenes, there might not have been a New Wave at all.

The sudden eruption of invigorating cinéma-vérité in the climactic scene of an otherwise stagebound and stodgy programmer throws the rest of the risible movie into relief.  The abrupt appearance of a dilapidated back-alley location evokes the idea of an alternate version of Dance Hall Racket, one whose low budget might have been an asset instead of a liability, one whose use of seedy naturalistic settings might lend the cynical story a greater realism, and one whose script would better foretell the hard-hitting and insightful views of human frailty that screenwriter and actor Lenny Bruce would later realize more fully in his pioneering stand-up comedy.  Despite its copious flaws, Dance Hall Racket marks a moment in American film history where the promise of location filmmaking for low-budget productions stood in obvious and eye-opening contrast to the limitations of the soundstage.  In doing this, Dance Hall Racket even today provokes the viewer to imagine the more compelling, studio-emancipated movie that might have been. 

Trailer for ‘Dance Hall Racket’

Friday, November 4, 2011

‘Chu Chin Chow’: A Musical Museum-Piece

Oscar Ashe and Frederic Norton's musical retelling of “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves,” Chu Chin Chow, made into a 1934 British film by Walter Forde, doesn’t withstand the test of time. If anything, the movie version of this 1916 London stage show — now available on DVD — illustrates how the musical has changed over the decades.  

In the years of Chu Chin Chow’s success, the musical comedy was a relatively undemanding form.  In both Britain and America, popular musical shows used rather thin, breezy plots that served primarily as a vehicle for the songs — pop hits which were expected to be sung in concerts and over the radio long after the show had finished its theatrical run.  So entrenched was this tradition of the musical theatre, that very few shows before World War II strove to develop more substantial stories, and those that did have become enduring classics to postwar audiences: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat (1927), George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s Pal Joey (1940).  The stage musical that changed the form into one that regularly developed the story on a level equal to the songs was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s phenomenally successful Oklahoma! (1943).  Regrettably, Chu Chin Chow is not part of this more demanding evolution of the musical.  

Instead of employing its musical numbers to advance plot and character, Chu Chin Chow sings about rather arbitrary subjects not directly related to story progression, and then distracts the viewer with its Arabian Nights-style pageantry.  The musical’s lack of cohesiveness is exemplified by its very title.  If a narrative is titled Chu Chin Chow, after one of its characters, the audience would reasonably expect that character to be significant in some way, whether as the protagonist or as a thematic presence throughout the story (such as James Joyce’s Ulysses). But who is Chu Chin Chow?  He’s the murder victim of the musical’s main antagonist, Abu Hasan (Fritz Kortner), and whose identity the bad guy then adopts for only part of the narrative.  (I’m led to believe by the DVD’s supplemental materials that the character of Chu Chin Chow was somewhat larger in the stage show than in the film, but hardly more significant.)  Not only that, but the musical’s Chinese title misleadingly suggests that the story is set in East Asia, rather than in the Middle East.  This would be like Rodgers and Hammerstein titling their Oklahoma-set musical “South Philly.” 

Fritz Kortner and Anna May Wong in ‘Chu Chin Chow’ (1934)

When Chu Chin Chow was re-released in 1953, the film’s distributor chopped out all the musical numbers and rechristened it Ali Baba Nights (this truncated version is included on the DVD), a less deceptive title.  This should surprise no one.  With the arguable exception of the numbers sung between the romantic leads, Nur-al-din Baba (John Garrick) and Marjanah (Pearl Argyle), the songs are intrusions onto the story.  For example, “The Cobbler's Song” is a relatively long number given to a character whose function in the story is minimal; the song comes off as an extensive digression.  As for Ali Baba (George Robey), he’s given very few numbers, and his central showpiece, “Anytime’s Kissing Time,” is sung for polygamous reasons to a woman who is not his wife — not something that will endear him to the audience. 

In fact, the seemingly arbitrary use of non-germane songs by minor characters emphasizes Chu Chin Chow’s lack of focus.  What is the central narrative thread?  Who is the main character?  Is it Ali Baba?  He begins the film as its most active character but then grows rather inactive by its conclusion.  Is it Nur-al-din and Marjanah?  They play a major role in the climax but have comparatively little impact upon the story until then.  Is it Abu Hasan?  Although Kortner plays the role with over-the-top gusto, Hasan is a hard character to like, and the narrative is too light and airy to demand that the audience plumb the dark depths of identifying with a bad guy.  The movie’s razzle-dazzle Arabian Nights spectacle may distract us momentarily from these questions, but it can’t rescue a movie sadly in need of a stronger narrative arc. 

With all this going against the movie, the only reason to watch Chu Chin Chow is to behold Anna May Wong’s performance as Zahrat, the slave who begins as Hasan’s spy and lover, but who ends the story with different loyalties.  The movie is an all-too-rare chance to see the underutilized Chinese American actress in a prominent role, perhaps the film’s most important character.  But even Wong’s admirable efforts aren’t enough to reclaim Chu Chin Chow for the thoughtful viewer.  In keeping with the film’s flamboyant tone, Wong joins the other actors in chewing the scenery and otherwise exaggerating her emotions; this is disappointing because her best performances are wonders of subtlety and restraint.  Also, despite her centrality to the first half and climax of the movie, Wong spends much of the film’s second half off-screen.  Chu Chin Chow might have made for a more enduring tale if the narrative had made Zahrat the clear protagonist from the start and didn’t waste so much time on Ali Baba and the other characters, who only distract the rambling storyline with expendable tangents. 

As an uncommon chance to savor the screen presence of Anna May Wong in a lavish-for-its-time British musical extravaganza, Chu Chin Chow holds some modest rewards.  But the film is, first and foremost, an artifact of the kind of musical that stronger and more story-driven Broadway offerings surpassed long ago. 

DVD trailer for ‘Chu Chin Chow’

The above review was originally written for in 2004.