“The Great Rupert” (aka “A Christmas Wish”) (1950) Starring Jimmy Durante, Terry Moore and Tom Drake. Directed by Irving Pichel. From Eagle-Lion Films.
What defines a “Christmas movie”? Is it a film that simply takes place at Christmas, like “Die Hard”? Or does the entirety of the plot need to concern Christmas, like “Scrooge”? We’ll leave that to discuss another time.
Old Joe Mahoney (Jimmy Conlin) can’t book his ‘squirrel act’. Rupert is a dancing squirrel but he is simply not ‘box-office’ so Joe sets him free and vacates the little apartment where his rent is months in arrears.
The Amendola Trio has fallen on similarly hard times. Louie (Durante), Rosalinda (Moore) and Mama (Queenie Smith) are an acrobatic/musical act looking for a place to live. They meet Joe and he turns them on to his recently vacated digs. The Amendola’s go to check it out and, despite the hole in the skylight that lets the snow in, decide it’ll do nicely. They meet Pete (Drake), son of the tight-wad landlord, Mr. Dingle (Frank Orth). Louie sweet talks Pete – who is smitten with Rosalinda – into letting them move in without putting any money up and they set up housekeeping in the little apartment. Little does anyone know that Rupert the squirrel has moved back in to his old place. He looks down on the Amendola’s from the roof beam outside his hutch above.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dingle has received a letter saying that a gold mine has payed off and henceforth he will be receiving a cheque every week in the amount of $1500! Every Thursday he gets his cheque and every week at 3 PM he goes to the bank to cash it. But Mr. Dingle is too smart to keep his money in a bank – “those chiselers!”. He drills a hole behind a baseboard in his house and slips the money through, giggling and rubbing his hands all the while. Someone is not very happy with Dingle’s weekly deposits; the hole he has drilled leads right into Rupert’s hidden hutch!
Below in the Amendola apartment, Mama is overcome with sadness. It’s Christmas Eve and the family has no money, no prospects and Rosalinda needs a new pair of shoes. Exhausted, she slumps in a rocking chair and begins to pray. At about the time that she finishes her prayer for help from above, Rupert is removing the obstreperous 15 one hundred dollar bills that are cluttering his living space. One by one they seem to float down from the heavens, much to Mama’s joy! She has been granted her “Christmas wish”. What should she do with this windfall? Where should she say she got it? Will Papa and Rosalinda believe her?
What follows is a clever little film brought to you by producer George Pal. Pal was born in Hungary and came to America in 1939. His “Puppetoons” series of animated films employed a novel style of stop-motion animation and for these he was awarded an honourary Oscar in 1943. Interesting to note that one of the “Puppetoons” characters was an African American named Jasper. While he was conceived innocently, Jasper, unfortunately, was another racial stereotype during this classic era of old Hollywood. What is notable is that Pal was given somewhat of a pass by Ebony Magazine which stated in a 1947 article that while Jasper displayed negative tropes, Pal himself grew up in Europe and was not raised with racial prejudice.
Pal then moved into film production and directing with “The Great Rupert” being his first production. Pal used his stop-motion expertise to make the talented squirrel come alive. He also appears in the film; something I learned courtesy of The ColemanZone, a site dedicated to Pal’s “The Time Machine” (1960). He would go on to produce and/or direct several notable films, not all of which required his techniques as an animator: “The War of the Worlds” (1953), “Houdini” (1953), “The Naked Jungle” (1954), “Tom Thumb” (1958), and “7 Faces of Dr. Lao” (1964). He passed away in 1980, aged 72.
For his director, Pal chose Irving Pichel. A Harvard graduate, the erudite Pichel began as a character actor in the 1930’s with roles in “An American Tragedy” (later remade as “A Place in the Sun”), “I’m No Angel”, “Dracula’s Daughter” and “Jezebel”. He would later narrate many films including “How Green Was My Valley” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”. He turned to directing and helmed “The Moon is Down” (1940) based on John Steinbeck’s novel and “The Miracle of the Bells” (1948) with Sinatra before making a triumvirate of significant films in 1950: “The Great Rupert”, “Quicksand”, Mickey Rooney’s film noir and “Destination Moon” which was another film Pichel made with Pal and one that is notable as being an early “space age” film that depicted the inherent dangers of traveling from the Earth to the Moon and back.
In 1947, Pichel was blacklisted as one of the “Hollywood Nineteen”. Although it was not initially confirmed that Pichel was a Communist, he was forced to leave the United States to direct his final pictures and it was after being blacklisted that he developed a heart condition that took his life in 1954. It was confirmed after his death that he was, in fact, a member of the Communist Party.
Speaking of Communists… Ted Allan was a writer from Montreal. As a member of the Young Communist League of Canada, Allan infiltrated fascist organizations so he could write about them for Canada’s Communist newspaper, the Clarion. Allan also wrote a children’s story called “Willie the Squowse” that he sold to Hollywood. It went through several alterations and emerged as “The Great Rupert”. Eventually, Allan published “Willie the Squowse” as a children’s book in 1977.
For years, Allan worked closely with Dr. Norman Bethune. Bethune – a Canadian and a Communist – single-handedly brought medicine to rural China during the Second-Sino Japanese War (1937-1945). Today, Bethune is a revered figure in China. Allan fought for years to get a film made of Bethune’s life, finally succeeding in 1990 with Donald Sutherland playing Bethune. Interestingly, one of Allan’s plays was directed by Sean Connery in London in 1969.
“The Great Rupert” stars “The Great Durante”. And Jimmy Durante….needs his own post. Suffice it to say that Durante is a legend in the entertainment business and has few peers and there has certainly never been anyone like him. “Rupert” came at the end of a long run of films for Durante and he would only star in two more films. He is typically great in this film.
Terry Moore is a fascinating actress. “Rupert” was the third film she made billed as “Terry Moore” (the second was “Mighty Joe Young”). Afterwards she appeared in small films until 1952 when she received an Academy Award nomination for “Come Back, Little Sheba”. Later, she was seen in “Beneath the 12-Mile Reef”, “Daddy Long Legs”, “Bernardine” and “Peyton Place”. She is perhaps more well known for her five husbands and a long relationship with Howard Hughes. She claimed that her and Hughes were actually married although the courts denied her widow’s rights. The Hughes estate, however, acknowledged her long relationship with Hughes with a settlement that Moore described as “not more than eight figures” but that a Hughes biographer says was more like $350,000 – well, Moore wasn’t lying, I guess. Terry Moore is still with us at 89 years of age.
Tom Drake was born in Brooklyn and usually played the boy-next-door type. He is probably best known for playing the boy next door, literally – next door to Judy Garland – in 1944’s “Meet Me in St. Louis”. He worked steadily through the late 1940’s making appearances in “Courage of Lassie” (1946) and “Words and Music” (1948). After “The Great Rupert”, things began to dry up. His only other notable film appearance was in “Raintree County” in 1957. He moved into TV and then passed away relatively young at 64 in 1982.
A rather benign music score was provided for this film by composer-conductor Leith Stevens. Stevens is revered in some quarters today for his many edgy “crime jazz” scores for film noirs in the late-’40’s and early-’50’s such as “Larceny”, “Beware, My Lovely”, and “The Bigamist”. He was also George Pal’s go-to composer, working on the Pal-produced “Destination Moon”, “When Worlds Collide” and “The War of the Worlds”. He also scored “The Wild One” with Marlon Brando and “A New Kind of Love” with Paul Newman. If you want an audio companion to the dark mood and dire straits of the film noir world, you can look to Leith Stevens. An interesting side note; his last composing credit appears on the 1971 TV movie “Assault on the Wayne”, a Cold War-themed action film that co-starred Leonard Nimoy and that was originally broadcast the same night that “All in the Family” premiered. Sadly, he died of a heart attack when he was 60 after hearing of his wife’s death in an auto accident.
So, a Canadian Communist writes about a dancing squirrel and a Canadian surgeon who was a hero of the Chinese Revolution? And from this we get Durante in “The Great Rupert”? True story. And it’s a pretty engaging film. It doesn’t stay “Christmas” for very long but it’s charm lies in the subtleties of the plot: the precision of Dingle making his deposits into the wall leading to Rupert clearing his hutch aligning with Mama saying her prayers and looking up at the hole in the skylight. It’s a pleasant little story with a likeable cast. The film is in the public domain and you can watch it at the Internet Archive and on YouTube.
One of the best known and most often recorded songs in history is the Austrian Christmas carol, “Silent Night”. It was first performed in German 200 years ago this Christmas Eve in the tiny St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, Austria. And this Christmas Eve, 200 years later, it will undoubtedly be sung again in places of worship – and in living rooms – all over the world. There are many events planned this year in Salzburg – 20 minutes from Oberndorf – to commemorate the bicentennial of this song that, in 2011, was listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
A young Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics to the song in 1816 and gave it it’s proper title: “Stille Nacht, heilige nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”). Two years later, Mohr took his lyrics to organist Franz Xaver Gruber and asked him to have music written for his words in time for the song to be performed for the Christmas Eve mass. Interestingly and quite unique for it’s day, Mohr requested Gruber write for guitar accompaniment. The song was performed that Christmas Eve but no report exists indicating how it was received. The oft-told story that it was written for guitar because the church’s organ was under repair is untrue.
Over the years, the original manuscript was lost and subsequently Joseph Mohr’s name was forgotten. It wasn’t until 1995 that a manuscript in Mohr’s handwriting was found that confirmed that he wrote the words and Gruber the music.
The original St. Nicholas church was severely damaged by flooding in the 1890’s. In fact, the whole town of Oberndorf had to be rebuilt upstream in 1899. The church continued to sustain damage, so much so that the decision was made to tear down the chapel and erect a new one. Today, you can visit the quaint Silent Night Chapel in pretty Oberndorf and you can take a 25-minute tour for 3 Euros.
The song began to become well known, with fans of it distributing it to churches and traveling singers until it was first performed in the United States in New York City in 1839. It quickly became a perennial favourite, adored the world over. Almost one hundred years after hitting American shores, in 1935, Bing Crosby recorded “Silent Night”. It was suggested to him that he try his hand at this treasured Christmas song and immediately he demurred. At the time, Bing was the biggest singer in the land and had already revolutionized the art of popular song. He initially refused to record the song owing to the fact that he was a pop singer who sang in night clubs. He was also an owner of racehorses and he felt it would be inappropriate. Bing had attended the Jesuit Gonzaga University and was a religious man. Eventually, though, he was persuaded. One of Bing’s first 78RPM albums was “Christmas Music”, released in December of 1940, and it contained his initial recording of “Silent Night”. He re-recorded the song in 1942 and released it as a single. It was enormously successful and went on to sell – wait for it – 30 million copies. This is historically significant for two reasons. Consider that only TWO other records in the history of mankind have sold more copies than Bing’s “Silent Night”: it is the third-highest selling single of all time. Secondly, Bing once again proved to be a pioneer – this time in that he was the first pop singer to successfully interpret Christmas music, both carols and pop songs. To think that at one time this wasn’t a thing whereas now it is a major facet of the music business.
Other versions followed. Many, actually. Virtually every artist that has ever sang Christmas music on record or in performance has included this most revered song. I always make a point of saying ‘even Dean Martin’. Dino brought joy to the world with his two Christmas albums but did not sing carols on record – except for “Silent Night”. It closes his 1966 seasonal offering “The Dean Martin Christmas Album”. Dino was savvy enough not only to sing it but to sequence it last on his record. It is the perfect closing song for any Christmas program and it seems odd when it appears anywhere else on an album.
There are a couple of notable exceptions to this, though. The third album ever released by Frank Sinatra was “Christmas Songs by Sinatra” for Columbia Records in 1948. “Silent Night” opens this set. You could argue that this also speaks to the song’s status: it deserves to go first. “Elvis’ Christmas Album” was released in 1957 and is the biggest-selling Christmas album of all-time and one of the biggest-selling albums of all-time. King – like Frank – didn’t wait long to record Christmas music; this is his third album also. He arranged his version of “Silent Night” and it appears on this record and is the second song on side 2 (?).
All the greatest singers of Christmas music have recorded “Silent Night” and, with the exception of the two big hitters mentioned above – knew that it was the perfect note to end on. Perry Como has it close his 1959 record “Season’s Greetings from Perry Como”. It is the last song on Nat Cole’s original 1960 offering “The Magic of Christmas”. It is also the final song on the first Christmas album from Andy Williams, 1963’s “The Andy Williams Christmas Album”.
1963’s “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector” is commonly referred to as one of the greatest albums ever and the one that made it hip for pop artists of the mid-1960’s to release Christmas music. Phil ends his record with a spoken personal greeting featuring “Silent Night” as a backdrop. In 1966, Simon and Garfunkel made a statement of sorts by ending their album “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” with “Silent Night” played along with a news anchor telling of the unrest in the world. Seven of the ten best selling Christmas albums of all-time feature “Silent Night” with five of them presenting it last; the other two favour it enough to present it first.
“Silent Night” continues to be recorded to this day. In fact, it has been put on record at least 733 times in the past 40 years alone – that is over 18 appearances every Christmas. It’s interesting to note that even with the division in the world today this 200 year old song about the birth of Christ can still resonate with people the world over.
Listing the “best” versions of “Silent Night” is a bit of a fool’s errand. You don’t come across many drastic reinterpretations of the song. Few artists attempt to “bring something new” to the tune or the classic arrangement of it. Just to sing this celestial song is enough. However, I’m a list guy so here goes. Perhaps we can say that this list takes into account not just the purity of the performance but the significance of it in the Christmas music canon.
The version you sing in church on Christmas Eve — I’m being presumptuous here but indulge me. Call it a dreamy nod to the traditions of Christmas Past. Due in part to it’s Origins, Christmas is a sacred time for a lot of people and regardless of your particular inclinations the Christmas Eve service or Mass is simply a part of the season. Invariably, “Silent Night” is sung by many on this night around the world. Maybe ‘living room’ singing has gone by the boards but this practice – as well as the tradition of door-to-door caroling – is also a part of the pageantry of the season. “Silent Night” – being so familiar to many and so easy to sing – has been sung by many of us at one time or another. And it’s a nice thing, to sing this song yourself.
Bing Crosby (1942) — We’ve discussed Bing’s version already but it bears repeating. For myself and for many, there are certain sounds that signal the start of the Christmas season. It may be the energetic intro of Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” or the Jordanaires singing “Christmas…Christmas…” before King launches into “Santa Claus is Back in Town”. And for many it is the dulcet tones of John Scott Trotter’s orchestra playing the intro to either Bing’s “White Christmas” or “Silent Night”. Bing’s 1942 recording is not only sublime but it is flat-out historic.
Earl Grant (1965) — Earl Grant was a jazz and lounge keyboardist in the ’50’s and ’60’s that had a hit with his vocal rendition of “The End”. For an instrumentalist, he had a great voice and sounded a lot like Nat Cole. His 1965 album “Winter Wonderland” features great arrangements of seasonal favourites. He brings wonderful gospel flavour to his “Silent Night” and blends piano and organ with his humming. The humming – something we all can do – makes this recording extremely accessible and it possesses what Bing would call a ‘mellow glow’.
Harry Connick, Jr. (2003) — Speaking of gospel… After Bing’s, Harry’s was the first version I heard of this song that produced an emotional response in me. Harry was raised Catholic and brings a lot of that reverence to his Christmas music. On his second Christmas collection, “Harry for the Holidays”, Connick brings an exciting New Orleans street parade vibe to the songs of the season. His “Silent Night” ends this record; it even appears after a song about New Year’s. He makes great use of an old friend, trumpeter Leroy Holmes. Leroy’s work on this track literally drips with soul, spirit and emotion. Harry’s vocal likewise. His “Hallelujah”‘s may more likely have been heard in the church Leroy grew up going to as opposed to the one Harry attended.
The Temptations (1970) — Falsetto Eddie Kendricks takes the lead on this track from the Tempt’s first Christmas record, “Christmas Card”. There’s actually nothing spectacular about this version. It contains a gentle orchestral setting and a really fine, soulful vocal from Kendricks. There is an overall heartfelt simplicity to this recording that is somehow comforting.
Elvis Presley (1957) — I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of this record. Elvis’ two Christmas albums – 20 Christmas songs – are near and dear to my heart and, when Christmas comes, for me it’s Bing and King head and shoulders above the rest. Elvis Presley did not release a mediocre Christmas song. But “Elvis’ Christmas Album” features eight Christmas songs and four gospel songs. I love gospel music. The idea that Christmas is the only time to record and release, to hear and to listen to gospel music rankles me. At Christmas, I wanna hear Christmas. I can – and do – listen to gospel throughout the whole year. But that’s just me. EP arranged his fine version of “Silent Night” and the Jordanaires shine. King’s recording of this carol did not raise eyebrows but Irving Berlin thought that Presley’s version of “White Christmas” was a travesty and he had his staff call radio stations in New York to request banning the song and the whole album. Not many complied but one DJ was fired for playing “White Christmas” and most Canadian stations refused to play it.
Dean Martin (1966) — Again I say that it adds to “Silent Night”‘s cred that Dino, who kept it jolly, thought enough of this song that it was the only carol he ever recorded. Dean sings it in his usual laid back style and it’s a fine recording but what I like about it is it’s sincerity. Dean Martin was seldom serious. There is an often heard bit of comedy from Frank and Dean on stage in which Frank admonishes Dean to “be serious!” to which Dean replies that he tried that and he could only get construction work. It’s a joke but it does speak to Dean’s public persona. He played drunk more often than he was drunk but he was always seen with a smile and was ready with a zinger; after all he did make his name in comedy opposite Jerry Lewis. He inherently was an easygoing person who seldom played it straight. So to hear him earnestly singing “Silent Night” is in it’s own way remarkable. It serves as a reminder that there was a time in the entertainment industry when many performers across the spectrum of the business could get serious when it came to Christmas. It seems they all remembered their shared childhoods that contained much the same Christmas traditions. When the holiday season came around most performers contributed something to the Christmas spirit and – at least sometimes – it was heartfelt and reflective. Nice.
Ledward Ka’apana (1996) — I wanted to include “Led”‘s lovely version for the simple reason that the finest Christmas music speaks to your soul. It is warm, emotive, comforting and promotes relaxation. It’s often listened to quietly by the fire or while admiring the Christmas tree’s glow. It is peaceful. A lot of the same could be said for Hawaiian music. Few other musical styles promote escape as much as the ukuleles and steel and slack-key guitars of the 50th State. When you combine the two genres, it is indeed a tranquil experience. Such is the case with Ka’apana’s take on this timeless classic. This appears on an album I can highly recommend, “Ki Ho’Alu Christmas”. It is choice.
Mahalia Jackson (1962) — Did I say I don’t like mixing gospel with Christmas? Mahalia Jackson’s very being exuded gospel. It was the only music she ever sang, saying that “it makes me feel free. It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues”. Mahalia was once referred to as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”. She was heavily involved with the civil rights movement and, during his famous speech at the March on Washington, shouted an encouragement to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to “tell them about the dream”. He proceeded to deviate from his script and utter the ad-libbed words “I have a dream”. She was one of the first 8 people to receive the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and when she sings “Silent Night” on her 1962 album of the same name her spellbinding voice, vocal intonation and breath control are devastating. The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, was a protégé of Mahalia’s and Franklin would take Jackson’s vocal stylings and phrasing into the stratosphere; which would lead to Whitney and Mariah taking 90 seconds and 14 tones to sing a one-syllable word. But Mahalia’s passion is palpable even though it is properly restrained.
Bobby Darin (1960) — I spoke about Dean Martin and others “getting serious” for the holidays. Walden Robert Cossotto was no exception. In fact, Bobby Darin took it even further. Raised Catholic Italian, like Dino, Bobby’s album “The 25th Day of December” bears much more resemblance to Christmas Eve high mass than it does to “Splish Splash”. This record is ambitious and daring and boldly exhibits songs of the Nativity. Bobby sings carols, hymns, spirituals and folk songs and most of them are obscure. Unlike Dean Martin and more like Frank Sinatra, there is nary a “White Christmas”, a Rudolph or a Frosty in Darin’s Christmas canon. For example, Darin sings in the original Latin “Dona Nobis Pacem”, part of the Agnus Dei from the Roman Catholic Latin Mass that is unrelated to Christmas and was introduced in 687! “Bobby’s Swingin’ Christmas Party!” this ain’t. “Silent Night”, however, is worthy of inclusion among these highbrow works. For a guy with a bum ticker, Bobby always had great breath control. He had a great voice, great tone and he does well with this venerable carol, introduced in Austria 200 years ago.
Gottfried Kasparek is a musicology and dramaturgy professor. He recently broke down the composition “Silent Night” and had this to say: “Even members of different religions or atheists cannot escape the magic of the moving composition. This is because the song expresses the power of the Christmas story in simple words and motifs and because the music does not sound triumphant but rather touching”. Check out these sites for more skinny:
I’ve been watching the first season of “All in the Family”. I bought it at a garage sale. It came in a fancy tin box and when I got it home and opened it I discovered that the first season of “Archie Bunker’s Place” was inside, as well! I’ve always respected “All in the Family” and considered it one of the grandest, most influential sitcoms in history. Along with “I Love Lucy” and “M*A*S*H”, it is a syndication staple and can almost always be found somewhere on TV. I’ll always remember New Year’s Eve 1999. Amidst worries of a global shut-down with the arrival of the year 2000, I was in my basement watching an “All in the Family” marathon while my wife and baby son slept on the couch next to me.
For the handful of people that don’t already know, “All in the Family” was based on the British sitcom “‘Til Death Do Us Part” and starred Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker. Carroll was born in Manhattan and grew up in Queens; the same area where his future alter ego, Archie Bunker, would live. A member of the Actor’s Studio, O’Connor had a middling film career appearing in smaller roles in such films as “The Defiant Ones”, “Cleopatra”, “Hawaii” and most notably 1970’s “Kelly’s Heroes”. O’Connor would win four Prime Time Emmys for his portrayal of Archie Bunker. When he later won an Emmy for his work on his later series, the drama “In the Heat of the Night”, he became the first actor to win the lead actor Emmy for both a comedy and a drama. Edie Falco later joined him in that exclusive club. Jean Stapleton played Archie’s slow-witted wife, Edith. Stapleton had previously been a musical actress on Broadway but will forever be known as Edith Bunker, a role for which Stapleton garnered three Emmys. Perky Sally Struthers portrayed the Bunker’s mini-skirted daughter, Gloria, winning two Emmys. Carl Reiner’s son, Rob, played Michael Stivic, Gloria’s wife. Reiner won two Emmys playing “Meathead” and went on to be a noted film director with such films as “When Harry Met Sally…”, “A Few Good Men” and “Misery” to his credit. “All in the Family” was the first sitcom in which all the lead actors won Emmys.
Television legend Norman Lear recruited O’Connor to play the lead in “All in the Family”; the role and the show would become iconic. The show is notable for countless reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it spawned numerous spin-offs: “Maude” debuted in 1972 and ran for six seasons. It featured Bea Arthur as Maude, Edith’s cousin. “Good Times” is considered a spin-off of “Maude”. Esther Rolle’s character on “Good Times”, Florida Evans, had appeared as Maude’s maid. “Good Times” also ran for six seasons. “The Jeffersons” was a major hit in it’s own right and featured Lionel Jefferson and his parents who had been friends and neighbours of the Bunkers. “The Jeffersons” lasted 11 seasons – two more than “All in the Family”. “Checking In” was spun-off from “The Jeffersons”. George and Louise’s maid, Florence, had her own show for a mere four weeks. Sally Struthers had her own show, as well. “Gloria” ran for one season. “Archie Bunker’s Place” was more like a continuation of “All in the Family” with a new premise and new characters. After Edith’s death from a stroke, Archie owned his own restaurant and was raising the 10-year-old daughter of Edith’s step-cousin (?). These further adventures lasted four years. The oddest spin-off of “All in the Family” was “704 Hauser”. This was a case of the house the Bunkers lived in getting it’s own show. For five episodes in the spring of 1994, John Amos starred in a “photo negative” version of “All in the Family”. Amos was the head of a black family living at the Bunker’s former address. The difference here was that Amos and his family were liberals dealing with their conservative son dating a white, Jewish woman (Maura Tierney). Like, really? Anyways, for those keeping score at home, “All in the Family” accounts for over 37 seasons of award-winning sitcom entertainment between 1971 and 1994.
I remember years ago a friend of mine stated that he couldn’t watch “All in the Family” because Archie Bunker was a bigot. This was in my mind when I started watching the first season last month. A couple things struck me almost immediately.
Archie Bunker is the focal point of this show. He is the head of the family and played by the star of the program. The fact that the main character is seemingly so unappealing is pretty rare in television. Archie comes out with racial slurs that cover all races and denominations. I’m reminded of a line from “Dirty Harry”, a film that was released the same year that “All in the Family” debuted. A colleague of Harry’s says that Harry does not play favourites – he hates everyone equally. The same can be said for Archie Bunker. On the surface it’s odd to think that a bigot is put forward as the star of a television series but there’s more going on here. The character is representative of a certain generation, a generation that is slowly being superseded by another, newer generation. This change and the inherent nostalgia are well presented by the wistful lyrics of the opening theme song of the show, sung by Archie and Edith at the piano. This was a generation that had always been shown and indeed had always seen the world as dominated by white males. A person of another sex or colour was often looked at differently by men of this generation. While not making excuses for hatred – and I am by no means an expert in this kind of thing – these men often did not know any different. It is what they had always seen, it was how they were raised. However, a great number of this generation were untouched by prejudice so perhaps this ‘excuse’ is flimsy at best.
But I bring that up to try to illustrate that, with Archie, his bigotry does not seem to come from a place of hatred. Indeed, through the run of the show, Archie is somehow given a ‘pass’ and still seen as likable. Perhaps his surroundings and some deft writing contributed to his not being eviscerated. Take Mike, for example. Archie’s daughter, Gloria, is married to Michael Stivic, who is Polish and who is living in Archie’s house with his wife while he goes to college. Mike is very liberal and the character was essential to the show being accepted. NOT ONE of Archie’s slurs is let go by Mike.
Archie will drop one of his inappropriate comments and the studio audience will laugh. This laughter, actually, could stand some discussion but let’s just say that the audience is laughing incredulously; they cannot believe what they have just heard. Mike will immediately challenge Archie’s generalizations, often bringing in various statistics and facts to counter what Archie has said. He’ll often throw in a joke at Archie’s expense and this will draw a laugh that needs not be explained. Perhaps we could say that the audience laughs at the ridiculousness of Archie’s comments and they laugh with Mike as he makes things right by cutting down Archie and his stereotypes.
Gloria also combats her father’s ideology but perhaps in a more emotional way – she loves her father and knows that he is a good man. This is just something in his personality that needs to be corrected. Edith – Archie’s wife constantly being referred to as a “dingbat” needs it’s own post, maybe – seems oblivious to the vicious side of Archie’s stances. And her responses will at first seem idiotic but they will often cut to the heart of what makes Archie’s prejudices so unfounded. She is unmoved and untainted by her constant exposure to these attitudes.
The show was also able to maintain balance by adding black characters to serve as foils for Archie’s outdated thinking. Mike’s good friend, Lionel Jefferson, often has to listen to Archie’s idiocy. Lionel takes it in stride. He heckles Archie so astutely that Archie doesn’t even realize that he’s being heckled. Lionel nonviolently puts one over on Archie all the time, to the delight of the studio audience. Lionel’s father, the legendary George Jefferson, takes a less pacific approach. He is a perfect nemesis for Archie Bunker in that George is fed up with being suppressed by white society. So much so that he hates “honkies”. In what appears to be the first episode in which we meet George Jefferson, Edith has invited George and his wife, Louise, over for supper. Archie is outraged. He has started a neighbourhood petition to deter black families from moving in; how will having them over for supper look? On top of this, this dinner date means giving up his Mets tickets. The Jefferson’s come over and “George” fights with Archie about there not being any blacks at NASA. The audience revels in Archie getting some of the stuff he constantly slings thrown back at him. The payoff comes when it is revealed that this is not George at all but Louise’s brother-in-law. The real George refuses to sit down and break bread with “whitey”. The audience erupts in laughter. Archie can’t believe that George stayed home instead of coming to supper. “He’s not at home,” Archie is told, “he’s at the Mets game”. How perfect is this? The Jefferson family joins Mike in combating Archie’s bigotry, bringing balance to the show.
The way that Lionel is able to one-up Archie without Archie even realizing he’s being ridiculed hints at Archie not being too swift. And it was savvy on the part of the creators and writers of the show to add Archie’s malapropisms to his character. By mangling the English language, there is the minutest sense that perhaps Archie is not as intelligent as he might be. If he is dumb enough to get words wrong, he is dumb enough to get people wrong: Archie often sees his son-in-law’s way of thinking as smacking of communism: “What new subversion are you fermenting here?”. And ‘bums’ who don’t work are “welfare incipients”. And Archie loves his cigars, especially when they are given to him as a gift: “Whoever sent these cigars wants to remain unanimous. These cigars are the nectarines of the gods”.
In this day and age, some of the slurs Archie comes out with can feel like physical blows. You find yourself laughing but not so much because you think that what he said is funny. You are also shaking your head at the audacity of the comment and the incredible close-mindedness it represents. “Man, were people really like that?!”, you find yourself saying. Yes, they were. Some will argue that we haven’t come that far from there after all. I tend to disagree. Maybe it helps to have someone be so blunt and verbalize these epithets so that we can be aware of that from which we progress and this can also remind us that we need to be ever vigilant and continue to progress even further. So, who will stand up and be that person? That person – ourselves, really – that we despise and strive to be different from?
Archie Bunker was not presented as a hero, which is rare on television. But Carroll O’Connor? Now, there’s a hero. He was willing to play the buffoon. But more than just a clown, he was willing to portray the dark side of man’s thinking and attitudes. He was willing to present to millions of families every Saturday night the archaic and harmful thinking of a generation. He was willing to be the pathetic “before” picture in a plan for America losing the weight of bigotry. For the greater good, Carroll O’Connor was willing to risk being hated and vilified in order to show the nation what needed to be fixed. That, in my opinion, is heroic. It is a testament to all of the talent involved in making “All in the Family” that Archie and the show emerged as one of the most socially and culturally impactful programs in history.
In somewhat of a postscript to all this, after nine seasons of the original show, “Archie Bunker’s Place” is interesting in that Archie is to some extent remorseful about his attitudes. The show was created, written and ran predominantly by Jews. Archie’s new partner in the restaurant business, Murray Klein – played by Martin Balsam – is also Jewish. At first, Archie cannot fathom being in a partnership with a Jew, which he almost apologetically explains to Murray. Then Murray speaks to Archie’s 10-year-old ward, Stephanie. When Murray learns that Stephanie is Jewish and Archie had to join the local temple so that she could go to Sunday school, he realizes that maybe Archie is not such a bad guy after all. All this is, of course, the ultimate mea culpa for the bigot from Queens. The Archie Bunker of the early days – the beginning of the story arc and that which made the show popular – is no more. The moral here is obvious: if Archie Bunker can change, we all can change.
Starring Paul Douglas, Richard Basehart, Barbara Bel Geddes, Debra Paget, Agnes Moorehead, Jeffrey Hunter, Grace Kelly, Jeff Corey, Harvey Lembeck, Ossie Davis and Gordon Gebert. Directed by Henry Hathaway. From 20th Century-Fox.
A waiter delivers room service to a man staying on the 15th floor of a hotel. Before he can hand the man his change, the man is gone. The waiter sees the drapes blowing by an open window. He pokes his head out the window and sees that the man is now standing on the ledge. What follows is fourteen hours of tense negotiation between the mentally disturbed ‘man on the ledge’ (Richard Basehart) and an ordinary beat cop (Paul Stewart).
That is basically all that happens in Henry Hathaway’s “Fourteen Hours” but it translates to a tense 92 minutes filled with psychological case studies, brisk pacing, excellent camerawork and a veritable feast of recognizable faces in almost every role.
To start even before the beginning, “Fourteen Hours” is based on a 1938 magazine article in ‘The New Yorker’ that told the sad tale of John William Warde. On a warm Tuesday afternoon in July, Warde was sitting with his sister and a group of friends on the 17th floor of the Gotham Hotel in Manhattan. Something his sister said set the clinically depressed Warde off and he dashed for an open window and went out on the ledge where he stayed for eleven hours. His sister tried to get him to come in to no avail. Policeman Charles V. Glasco suggested to his sergeant that he could pose as a bellboy and try to convince Warde to come in off the ledge. Glasco had nearly succeeded when a photographer burst into the room. This caused Warde to jump, feet first. He struck the glass marquee of the hotel and then landed, dead, on the sidewalk. As he jumped, the 10,000 people who had gathered around the intersection were heard to say in unison “Here he comes!” before there was silence as he landed on the ground.
Fox purchased the article from ‘The New Yorker’ but changed the title from “The Man on the Ledge” after a request from Warde’s mother. Howard Hawks was asked to direct but refused because of the subject matter. Henry Hathaway took charge of the project. At this point, Hathaway had been directing since the early ’30’s and had been responsible for such films as “Kiss of Death” and “Call Northside 777”. He filmed an ending for “Fourteen Hours” depicting the man’s leap to his death but this was quickly reconsidered. While it would have been in keeping with the bleak endings of films noir of the time, audiences of 1951 would have found it extremely hard to take. In additional, there had been a tragedy close to home that made the studio insist on an alternate ending. On the very day that “Fourteen Hours” previewed, the daughter of the president of Fox, Spyros Skouras, jumped from a building to her death. Skouras then wanted the film shelved but settled for the shooting of a new ending.
Hathaway’s deft touch is all over this film. You’ll notice a great shot of a reflection in a window at about the 36 minute mark and there are various excellent shots and camera angles employed. In some of the process shots of Basehart and Stewart talking at the window, Hathaway shows people hanging out of windows in adjacent buildings watching the two. The film depicts all the sensation of a live news event. The spotlights are used well as they climb up the building and illuminate the principals.
“If I had my M2, I could knock him off from here. Easy.” The cabbies that gather around to watch are an interesting element. First of all, all the actors playing the cabbies are uncredited although you can easily spot Harvey Lembeck, Ossie Davis (points for casting a black man) and Henry Slate. Here we see depicted the post-war man. One of the first things we hear the cabbies say – the jarring quote above – references their shared experiences in the war. You could even go so far as to say that the cabbie who brags on his skill as a sniper is lamenting the fact that here and now he is just a hack but back in the service he possessed deadly and useful skills. They certainly are a group of men jaded by their experiences. The cabbies get a bet going, a pool in which they select the time when the ledge-sitter will take his plunge. It’s interesting to watch the cabbies serve as a sort of Greek chorus and to see them begin to feel guilty about betting on a man’s death. As the hours drag on, they eventually lose their taste for the sport and disperse.
The cast of “Fourteen Hours” is remarkable, really. I love a film that has even small roles played by faces you recognize. There are many to watch out for is this movie. Paul Stewart plays Police Officer Charlie Dunnigan. Stewart was a working class actor who was like a poor man’s Broderick Crawford. Paul had previously appeared on Broadway where he originated the role of Harry Brock in “Born Yesterday” – the role Crawford would play on screen – and in the films “A Letter to Three Wives” and “The Big Lift”. He was married five times – which may have contributed to his death at 52 in 1959. At his passing, he had agreed to take the role of Jeff Sheldrake in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment”. The role ultimately went to Fred MacMurray. If you watch the end of “Fourteen Hours” carefully, you will see that Charlie Dunnigan’s son is played by Gordon Gebert who had a much more substantial role two years earlier in the delightful “Holiday Affair” as Janet Leigh’s son. You’ll also notice at the end, when Basehart’s character is safe in bed, Dunnigan gets ready to go home and the other cops look at him admiringly in the hallway. Nice touch. You get a sense that these two principals shared an experience not unlike Officer John McLane and Sgt. Al Powell did in “Die Hard”.
Richard Basehart garnered critical acclaim and the Best Actor award from the National Board of Review for his portrayal of Robert Cosick. It is indeed uncomfortable to watch Basehart as he trembles and sways on the ledge. He draws you in and makes you sympathize with him. While filming “Fourteen Hours”, Basehart’s wife, costume designer Stephanie Klein, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Sadly, she died following surgery while the film was still in production. Soon after his first wife’s death, however, Basehart married Italian actress Valentina Cortese (who is still alive at 95) with whom he had a son, Jackie Basehart. Jackie enjoyed a career as a sought-after actor in Italian cinema before contracting a rare disease that resulted in difficulty swallowing, obesity and several hospitalizations. Valentina Cortese had the unenviable task of burying her son when he died three years ago, aged 63. Richard Basehart had previously been seen in “He Walked By Night” and his work in “Fourteen Hours” was noticed by Frederico Fellini who gave Basehart his best known film role in 1954’s “La Strada”. He went on to roles in “Moby Dick”, “Chato’s Land” and “Being There”. He may be best known for his work on television in “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and as the narrator of the 1980’s series “Knight Rider”.
Barbara Bel Geddes has a role as Cosick’s fiancee, Virginia. Bel Geddes is photographed wonderfully in this film and while she may not be a beauty in the Hedy Lamarr tradition, she appears luminous here and plays her part well. The Broadway actress came to Hollywood in 1947 and soon garnered an Academy Award nomination for “I Remember Mama”. She appeared in “Fourteen Hours” and then returned to Broadway where she originated the role of Maggie “the Cat” in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” earning the first of her two Tony Award noms. She did not return to Hollywood until 1958 when she took a memorable turn as Midge in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”, called by some the greatest film ever made. She ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee for a time but bounced back. Later, she became best known for her portrayal of Miss Ellie Ewing on the long-running prime time soap opera, “Dallas”.
Debra Paget and Jeffrey Hunter provide a lovely alternate plot line playing two spectators on the street below. Paget catches Hunter’s eye and he approaches her cold, asking if she’d like a mint. In a nice, old school touch, Deb refuses by saying “I don’t believe we are acquainted”. Hunter persists successfully. These two are cute but the characters are not simply their for sweetness. It is these two we see at the end of the film. It’s been an emotional roller coaster for all involved for fourteen long hours. As the two young people begin to walk away, Deb becomes emotional, expressing the thoughts and feelings of many of the participants. Hunter comforts her as they walk away with a cop on horseback dismissing the crowd with a poignant instruction: “Go home and take care of your own kids!”. The music comes up and the ending is unlike most film noir endings and, indeed, unlike the ending of the real life story this is based on.
Debra Paget – one of the flat-out prettiest actresses of the era and still with us at age 85 – had appeared in small roles in a few films prior to this one and went on to feature in Elvis Presley’s first film (and playing, technically, his only on-screen wife). She also went on to date Howard Hughes and to appear in small-to-medium-sized roles in films such as “Demetrius and the Gladiators” and “The Ten Commandments” before finishing her relatively short career working in horror films with Roger Corman. Jeffrey Hunter made his film debut in “Fourteen Hours”. He would go on to a sturdy career making such films as “The Searchers” and “King of Kings”. He may be best known for portraying Capt. Christopher Pike, who preceded Capt. James T. Kirk as captain of the USS Enterprise on TV’s “Star Trek”.
Another performer debuted in “Fourteen Hours”. Henry Hathaway had noticed Grace Kelly on television and offered her the small role of Mrs. Louise Ann Fuller, a young wife in conference with her divorce lawyer in a neighbouring building. She is taken by the sorrows of Cosick – sorrows that lead him to the brink of suicide – which lead her to reassess her life and marriage. Kelly comes off fine although she is presented unglamourously. She was noticed on set by Gary Cooper who would recommend her for her next film, “High Noon”, which made her a star.
As I’ve said, the rest of the cast is notable. Agnes Moorehead and Martin Gabel both received extensive stage training as part of Orson Welles’ “Mercury Theatre”. Moorehead ably portrays Cosick’s harried and guilt-ridden mother. Gabel’s role as one of the two psychiatrists on hand is significant. Gabel’s lines serve to explain the mental issues that Cosick is dealing with. He takes a close look at Cosick’s relationship with his parents. (Robert Keith plays the father) The parents have divorced and there is a lot of ill will. Cosick has been used in the battle between the two. When an hysterical Mrs. Cosick has to be dragged away from talking to Cosick at the window, one of the cops says “No wonder he’s cuckoo!”. This goes a long way to explain the things that can happen to children of divorce and unhappy homes. Gabel’s character, Dr. Strauss, even goes so far as to bring in Oedipus as he explains that “all children – boys – are in love with their mother, romantically”. While most kids get over it, Dr. Strauss explains, Cosick couldn’t and began to hate his father which he knew to be wrong so he started hated himself. This must’ve been pretty heavy stuff for audiences to handle in 1951.
Moorehead, as we know, played the mother of Charles Foster Kane and would go on to countless other screen credits. Gabel would play opposite Frank Sinatra as an unlikely crime boss in 1968’s “Lady in Cement”. Later, he would also feature in Frank’s TV movie, “Contract on Cherry Street” (1977) and then finish his film career opposite Frank again in 1980’s “The First Deadly Sin”.
Howard Da Silva (“The Lost Weekend” and two “The Great Gatsby”‘s) plays Dunnigan’s boss and keep a sharp eye out for many other familiar faces: Frank Faylen (“It’s a Wonderful Life”), Jeff Corey (“Bird on a Wire”), Brad Dexter (“The Magnificent Seven”), Joyce Van Patten (“St. Elmo’s Fire”), John Cassavettes (“The Dirty Dozen”), Brian Keith (TV’s “Family Affair”, son of Robert), Richard Beymer (“West Side Story”), Willard Waterman (radio’s “The Great Gildersleeve”), Janice Rule (“The Ambushers”), Leif Erickson (“Roustabout”) and John Randolph (“National Lampoon’s ‘Christmas Vacation'”).
“Fourteen Hours” is a wonderfully made film with the added bonus of a cast full of faces you’ll recognize. This film is hard to find on DVD but there are a few vendors at Amazon that’ll sell you one but it ain’t cheap.
The other day, I was on YouTube watching a documentary on soul music. It ended and the auto play took me right into another documentary. This one was about the TV show “Soul Train”. Now, it was time for bed when this second doc started but I couldn’t turn it off and ended up staying up all hours and watching the whole thing. It was very educational.
I realized that I didn’t know much about the show and even less about the show’s creator and first host, Don Cornelius. A small time broadcaster who had once worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cornelius was working at a small television station in Chicago when he realized that there was virtually no programming geared towards black youths. He decided to create a “black ‘American Bandstand'” and came up with “Soul Train”. Interestingly, his bosses at the station were skeptical about this endeavour and – in a seemingly throwaway gesture – GAVE the show to Cornelius; they made him the owner of it as if to wash their hands of what they thought would be a failure.
He conceived of a show that would combine live music with a house party-type atmosphere. The program launched in 1971 and for the first episode, Don brought in Jerry Butler among others and filled the claustrophobic studio with kids and told them to dance. From this humble, makeshift beginning grew a cultural touchstone and a legendary program that lasted 35 years.
The show moved to Los Angeles – as all shows must – and eventually was picked up by numerous stations all over America making Don Cornelius the first black man to be in charge of his own nationally syndicated television show. He himself became famous as the deep-voiced and superbly dressed host. Over time, guests included every single notable black artist of the era: from Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Isaac Hayes to Earth, Wind and Fire, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Kirk Franklin, Lenny Kravitz, Anthony Hamilton and John Legend. Eventually, white artists began appearing. Some appropriately: Hall & Oates, Michael Bolton, Black Eyed Peas. Some inexplicably: Cheech and Chong, Duran Duran, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys.
Through the years, imitators arose. One interesting one came from Dick Clark, who’s “American Bandstand” “Soul Train” was a version of. In 1973, Dick Clark Productions came up with “Soul Unlimited” which in turn was a knock-off of “Soul Train”. Cornelius was outraged by what he considered Clark’s attempt to “undermine TV’s only black-owned show”. With the help of old friend Jesse Jackson, Cornelius was able to get ABC to agree to cancel “Soul Unlimited” – which apparently had racial overtones – after only a few episodes. Cornelius and Clark reconciled to the extent that years later they worked together on TV specials that featured R&B and soul music. Interestingly, Don Cornelius and Dick Clark share initials and their company logos are very similar.
One popular aspect of the show drew attention to the group of kids who danced on the program every week. The “Soul Train Line” was a variant of the ’50’s “The Stroll” whereby kids would group on either side of an open space – the “line” – and watch as couples danced their way to the end. The idea here was to stand out with sometimes athletic and sometimes outrageous dance moves and audacious attire. These anonymous dancers began to enjoy a certain fame of their own. Indeed, some parlayed this exposure into careers outside of the show. Those who were featured dancing on “Soul Train” include Rosie Perez, Carmen Electra, Nick Cannon, MC Hammer and Fred Berry who would go on to play “Rerun” on “What’s Happening!!”. Several of these “anonymous kids” are also credited with creating some legendary dance moves that they first performed on the show. “The Robot” and “The Moonwalk” were both created by “Soul Train” dancers and taken to a worldwide audience by Michael Jackson. Cornelius even branched out into artist management when he chose Jody Watley and two other kids among the dancers to become the R&B group Shalamar.
Don Cornelius was a conservative person and the main goal of his show was to showcase black youth in a positive light. So with the advent of hip-hop and rap in the early 1980’s, Don was faced with a conundrum. He was vocal about his concerns that this tough, urban music with it’s sometimes violent and certainly aggressive lyrics was depicting these young people negatively. He did not hide the fact that this was music that he could not contemplate. Don even said to Kurtis Blow – on the air – that he didn’t understand what Kurtis had just performed. Kurtis has said that he was crushed by this. Don also was concerned by the antics of acts like Public Enemy and all of this lead to him stepping down as the host of “Soul Train” in 1993 after 22 years. He was succeeded by Shemar Moore, among others. The departure of Don as host – he continued to run the show – coupled with Don’s unwillingness to embrace the burgeoning hip hop culture lead to the show ceasing production in March of 2006.
Cornelius had undergone a brain operation 1982. The 21-hour procedure was intended to correct a congenital deformity in his cerebral arteries. Don had said that after this operation he was never quite the same. For 15 years afterwards, unbeknownst to most, Don suffered seizures and extreme pain. Finally, in early 2012, Cornelius said to his son “I don’t know how much longer I can take this”. On the morning of February 1st of that year, Don Cornelius took his own life with a gunshot wound to the head. It was a sad end for this legendary figure in black entertainment.
I find it extremely difficult to accurately describe the enormous impact this show had on the music business. But more than that, “Soul Train” spoke to basically two generations of black America. Finally, here was a program that was made by blacks for blacks. Here was a show that African American youths were influenced by and inspired by. They saw the basic and obvious things like music acts they loved and their parents loved, singers who sang music they could relate to. And they saw the kids who danced on the show and in them recognized their own friends and themselves. Those dancers set fashion trends and kids became aware of what was hip to wear from watching “Soul Train”. And they saw the heavier and more profound things like artists who had risen from nothing to be stars. They saw that kids like themselves could dance on TV and have a moment in the spotlight that could spur them on to bigger things. And they saw Don Cornelius. A handsome, well-dressed, well-spoken, erudite, hip, classy, savvy black man who was in complete control of his own national television show. It must have been truly inspiring to see that it could be done.
“Moon Over Miami” is one of my favourite films. Many years ago, I decided that I wanted to collect as many classic films as I could. In Canada, our version of the television channel Bravo would often show old movies and I would tape them. Y’know? With my VCR? One of these movies I taped was “Moon Over Miami”. A Technicolor musical from 20th Century-Fox in 1941, it starred Robert Cummings, Betty Grable, Don Ameche and Carole Landis. I fell in love with the film although I realized, much to my surprise, that I could not, for the life of me, see what was so appealing about Betty Grable. I loved the movie for Robert Cummings, mostly, and his interesting interaction with the charismatic Don Ameche. Also, I adore these old ‘travelogue’ movies of the ’40’s. They celebrate the places they go in a wonderful way and you get a great ‘moving postcard’ look at these places in the classic era.
Carole Landis was the second female lead in “Moon Over Miami” and, because of my repeated viewings of the film, I got to ‘know’ her well. Then, this spring, I saw her in “Behind Green Lights”, a film noir from 20th Century-Fox in 1946. I have what I call “Seasonal Interest Syndrome”; I gravitate towards certain films/genres at certain times of year. Springtime always finds me watching film noir. I searched YouTube and found “Behind Green Lights” and noticed that Carole was in it although I really didn’t recognize any other of the performers. Carole is top billed and the male lead is played by William Gargan. Gargan was a movie, radio and television actor who eventually developed throat cancer and had to have his larynx removed. He died in 1979, aged 73, on a flight from New York to San Diego.
“Behind Green Lights” is a fine film but what really struck me was how Carole looked. She didn’t look like she did in “Moon Over Miami”, 5 years earlier. So, I looked her up. What I found was fascinating.
Carole was born Frances Lillian Mary Ridste in 1919 in Wisconsin. The family moved to San Bernardino when Carole was 4. Coming from a broken home, Frances changed her name – an homage to her favourite actress, Carole Lombard – and, at the age of 15, dropped out of school and set her sights on a career in Hollywood. By all accounts, she was a star-struck youngster.
She appeared as an extra in the original “A Star is Born” and made several B westerns. Her shapely figure opened doors in the modelling world and she appeared in numerous cheesecake photographs. Her appearance in “One Million BC” in 1940 made her a star. She appeared as cave girl Loana in the Hal Roach film that was remade in 1966 as “One Million Years BC”. In that version, Raquel Welch took her iconic turn as Loana. Carole’s scantily-clad performance prompted one press agent to dub her “The Ping Girl” because “she makes you purr”.
Her success in “One Million BC” lead to many other second lead roles in successful films – including “Moon Over Miami” – and also brought her to the attention of Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck was a film mogul of the first order. He began writing scripts for silent films before going to work for Jack Warner at Warner Brothers. In 1933, he left Warner Brothers and started 20th Century-Fox. Carole was signed to Fox and during 1940 and ’41, began a sexual relationship with Zanuck, who was known in Hollywood for his conquests almost as much as his film making. Indeed, the married Zanuck had something of a system in place for his canoodling. Every day at 4:00PM, business was put aside and an aspiring starlet appeared in his office through a series of clandestine tunnels. This ‘secret’ arrangement was known to everyone in Hollywood. It has been said that, to Zanuck, the numerous young girls were simply a diversion in a hectic day; “(they were) like polo, lunch and practical jokes”. The term “casting couch” was coined by Variety in 1937 to describe the type of abuse of power that Zanuck and others were engaged in.
This was the man Carole fell for. As an up-and-coming star of 21, who felt that happiness was beautiful clothes, fine dining and the attentions of a powerful man, her relationship with Zanuck must have seemed to her like the attainment of all her dreams. Little did she know that Zanuck was never serious about any woman and, as he went off to serve in the Army Signal Corps at the end of 1941, he forgot Carole completely. Not surprisingly, at the same time the quality of the roles offered to her declined as did her career.
Carole, however, had been around the block a few times by the time she had her fling with Zanuck. By 1940, when her affair with the mogul commenced, she had been married 3 times, the first of which occurring when she was 15 years old. Carole was 14 and Irving Wheeler was 20 when they started dating. No doubt that this is an early example of Carole’s grasping for happiness and she welcomed the romantic nature of a relationship with an older man. The two eloped two weeks after Carole’s 15th birthday. Carole had lied about her age and did not have her parents consent so when her mother found out about the marriage it was quickly annulled. But it must’ve been the ‘real thing’ because as spring that year turned to summer, the two lovers married again, this time with Carole’s father’s consent. This second go-round actually lasted longer than the first; Carole walked out on her husband – they “had an argument” – after three weeks. Irving Wheeler changed his name to Jack Robbins and wound up in Hollywood. He ended up with only two infinitesimal acting roles – however, one was in “Citizen Kane” (“newsreel man”).
In June of 1939, choreographer and director Busby Berkeley proposed to Carole but the two did not marry. Husband number two (or three) was yacht salesman Willis Hunt. Hunt proposed two weeks after they met and in the summer of 1940, the two eloped – three marriages, still no wedding. Hunt soon became abusive, however, and Carole walked out after two months of marriage. Carole said of their brief union that she had been “so happy, so ecstatic, so delirious” until Willis had revealed his true nature. Oddly, the two remained friends. Sadly, Willis Hunt was stabbed to death in 1969 by his wife who claimed self-defense as Willis was being abusive towards her. The last Mrs. Hunt was found not guilty.
The amazing Mr. Gene Markey appears in Carole’s story here in 1941 when Gene and Carole became engaged. Mr. Markey had been married to Hedy Lamarr, one of the most beautiful women to ever live. Carole and Gene were never wed and Mr. Markey would go on to marry Myrna Loy. Hedy, Carole and Myrna? Who was this Mr. Gene Markey and what power did he have over the most beautiful women in old Hollywood?
In September of 1942, Carole embarked on an extensive tour with the USO. Joining with Kay Francis, Martha Raye and Mitzi Mayfair, Carole travelled to England, Bermuda, Africa and Ireland entertaining the troops. During their time spent together, bisexual Kay Francis developed a crush on Carole. Carole was approached by Random House and asked if she would care to turn her experiences with the USO into a book. Carole agreed and proceeded to add author to her resume. Months before her book was even published, “Four Jills in a Jeep” was turned into a film musical for Fox. The four girls played themselves and Dick Haymes made his film debut. Carole was ultimately upset that the film was a mostly fictionalized account of their USO tours.
Four days after her 24th birthday, Carole married an American pilot in the Royal Air Force’s American Squadron, Capt. Thomas Wallace. True to form, this relationship fit in with Carole’s pursuit of storybook romance. Wallace proposed to her on their first date and they were married less than two months after meeting. With the Catholic ceremony held at a church in England, Carole finally got her proper wedding with Kay Francis among those in attendance. Also true to form, though, the marriage got off to a rough start. The newlyweds were denied a honeymoon as Capt. Wallace was stationed overseas. Poor Carole was quoted as saying that she wanted “a wonderful marriage and children” but the two were at odds over Carole’s career. Wallace “hated” her Hollywood lifestyle and wanted her to give it up and become a housewife. Their marriage began to fall apart and Carole attempted suicide. Although Carole always considered Tommy the love of her life, they divorced after roughly 22 months of marriage. Tommy remarried but would take his own life in 1968.
With the lack of success achieved by “Four Jills and a Jeep”, Carole’s film carer was on the wane. As is often the case in these situations, Carole turned to Broadway, appearing in a musical called “A Lady Says Yes” which featured two numbers from Carole singing songs from the score written by Gershwin sibling Arthur. Her co-star in this show was future novelist Jacqueline Susann, who would go on, in 1966, to write the scandalous novel “Valley of the Dolls”. Susann based the character of Jennifer North on Carole. When the novel was turned into the sensational film, Sharon Tate would portray Jennifer. While they appeared together in the short-lived “A Lady Says Yes”, Carole and Jacqueline had a romantic relationship.
Carole and Capt. Wallace were divorced in 1945. Later that year, Carole went to the altar again; it was her fourth husband, fifth wedding in 11 years. This time it was William Horace Schmidlapp from a wealthy Cincinnati family. Jacqueline Susann introduced the two in the spring of ’45, perhaps before Carole’s divorce from Capt. Wallace was final. A mere 8 months later, the two were married. Again, Carole was romantically optimistic and hopeful, stating that in Schmidlapp she had found “the ideal husband”. The newlyweds built a nursery in their Pacific Palisades mansion but soon found that Carole could not conceive. As somewhat of an additional sadness in her pursuit of perfect family and marital bliss, Carole suffered from endometriosis. Carole was faced with her sister having four healthy children and was also stricken every time she saw a woman with a baby. The glamourous Hollywood actress wished often that she could trade lives with ordinary housewives.
It was around this time, 1946, that Carole made the film noir I mentioned at the outset, “Behind Green Lights”. I also mentioned that the whole genesis for this article was the fact that Carole looked so different in “Green Lights” compared to the way she looked in “Miami”. I wondered if she’d had cosmetic surgery or a car accident or something. Well, the mystery persists because I learned that, yes, Carole DID have a nose job – but she had it in 1940, six years before “Green Lights”. So – and this is poor reporting, I know – I still have no idea why Carole doesn’t look like Carole to me in “Behind Green Lights”.
At the outset of her marriage to Schmidlapp, Carole was quoted as saying that now, finally, she had everything she wanted, including “the feeling of deep security which will ensure a permanent future”. She said she was planning an additional home in the east from which she would commute for her film assignments. And still she mentioned children; three, she hoped. But it seems contentment was not to be for Carole Landis. Despite the grand pronouncements of her happiness, after a mere 18 months she became disillusioned with her marriage and began an affair with actor Rex Harrison. She finally filed for divorce in March of ’48.
By the summer of 1947, Rex Harrison had been seen in “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” and “Anna and the King of Siam”. He was a popular and successful 39-year-old actor from Lancashire, England who had been married to German actress Lilli Palmer for four years. It was during her separation from Horace Schmidlapp that Carole fell hard for Rex. He was erudite, urbane and a gentleman. As was Carole’s wont, she began to envision an idyllic life with Rex. She decided that he was her new ideal.
It is the summer of ’48 and for the past year, their affair is an open secret in Hollywood. They are together often and Carole has hosted many parties at her Pacific Palisades home at 1465 Capri Dr. that Rex has attended. Carole had a love for holidays and the 4th of July was no exception. Carole threw a pool party on that day for a dozen friends. She announces to her guests, however, that they will have to leave early as she is having dinner alone with Rex; it is the seventh consecutive evening they spend together. Carole and Rex enjoy cocktails and then a light dinner. It is surmised that the two engage in yet another discussion of when or, indeed, if, Harrison will leave his wife and marry Carole. Apparently, Harrison refuses to end his marriage, he and Carole argue and their relationship is ended.
Harrison says later that he leaves Carole’s home at 9PM, though others say he leaves much later. Rex Harrison is the last person to see Carole alive. He goes to his friend, Roland Culver’s house nearby while Carole continues drinking to ease her pain. One can easily assume that, by this point in her life, she is more than heartbroken; she is broken. From a young age, she had always been a dreamer, a romantic. She had always dreamed of the perfect man, the perfect marriage, the perfect love. She began early and had pursued that ideal with a much older man when she herself was just 14 years old. She eloped twice by the time she was 21. She had affairs with older, influential and powerful men who easily discarded her, further crushing her dreams. She longed for children, to be a mother but even that was not to be. Her brief career in Hollywood flamed brightly only to diminish in the glare of many other young starlets with similar attributes and appeal. Rex Harrison, another distinguished, older, married man that Carole fell in love with, denies her in the end.
Carole, alone now in her lavish home, calls her friend, Marguerite Haymes, the mother of singer, Dick Haymes. Haymes is not home and Carole leaves a message. Marguerite will get the message later that night but assumes it is too late to call. Between 1AM and 3AM on the morning of the 5th, Carole gathers up many photos and mementoes from her relationship with Harrison and packs them in a suitcase. Carole takes them over to Culver’s house and leaves the suitcase in the driveway. She also leaves a note saying that she is going to kill herself. The suitcase and note are not discovered until the following evening. When Roland Culver finds these things in his driveway, he burns everything – including the suicide note. Back in her home, Carole writes two final letters; one to Harrison, one to her mother. At approximately 3AM, Carole takes an envelope of Seconal from her medicine cabinet. She takes 40 Seconal tablets with water and lays down in her bed. At 3:30, no doubt feeling the effects of her overdose, Carole gets up out of bed and goes into her bathroom. She will die on the bathroom floor. Five times the amount of Seconal needed to cause death made this third suicide attempt successful.
Throughout the next morning, Rex calls Carole’s house repeatedly. He is told by the maid that Carole must still be asleep. Rex goes to Carole’s house, walks in the door and curiously says to the maid “Well, I think she’s dead”. Together they go to the bathroom and discover Carole. “Oh, no, my darling. Why did you do it?”, Rex exclaims. He feels Carole’s wrist and detects a slight pulse. Like any proper philanderer in old Hollywood, instead of calling for an ambulance, he goes home and calls a studio head. The maid calls the police and Carole’s best friend. Rex returns to the house and, when questioned by the police, claims that he and Carole were just good friends. The police find the note Carole left for her mother but there is conflicting reports about what happened to a second note that Carole apparently left for Rex. Lilli Palmer will later admit that she and Rex paid the police officer who found the note $500 to destroy it.
In the aftermath, Carole and Rex were linked in newspaper reports that hinted at scandal. This did not stop Rex and his wife, Lilli, from attending Carole’s funeral, also attended by friends Van Johnson, Pat O’Brien and Cesar Romero, who served as a pallbearer. Rex’s career was damaged but he carried on and later enjoyed successes in “Cleopatra”, “My Fair Lady” and “Doctor Doolittle”. He and Lilli Palmer were divorced in 1957. He left as a legacy two sons when he died in 1990, aged 82. Carole’s mother and sister were disconsolate. Carole died with $412 in the bank and extensive debt. Her family sold her house and auctioned off Carole’s belongings, weeping every time a personal item was sold to a stranger. The family contested – as they do to this day – that Rex Harrison was culpable in Carole’s death which they insist was not suicide. In the ensuing years, reports of new evidence would pop up but would quickly vanish resulting in no new investigations.
I have to make special mention of the website that Carole’s family maintains. Never have I seen a site so devoted to it’s subject and so loaded with detail and peppered with appropriate links. I highly suggest you visit the site at http://carolelandisofficial.blogspot.com/. Far be it for me, a stranger to the participants in this sad tale and 70+ years removed from the events, to disagree with the family’s assertions. However, looking at Carole’s life, albeit from this distance, things seem clear.
I think of a young girl 14 years old, a girl who had supposedly been sexually molested. I think of this young girl receiving (somewhat inappropriate) attentions from a 20-year-old man. It’s not difficult for me to think of this young girl as one who would grasp at the chance to accept such attentions. I can imagine this girl would have been romantically intoxicated with this situation. As soon as she reached 15, she eloped with this man. Her mother, of course, had it annulled but Carole was insistent and remarried him. After an argument – and argument – she caved and left him, her romantic dream shattered.
Modelling and Hollywood beckoned. This would feed her ideas of a glamourous life. She may not have reached the super stardom she dreamed of and she engaged in trysts with older, married men who treated her poorly. Marriages ensued. Each time Carole seemed to feel that she is finally attaining the perfect life she’d been seeking. After very short periods of time, perhaps when unglamourous effort or realistic thoughts are called for, she bailed, always in search of elusive perfection. Consider that Carole, in a 14-year span, got married 5 times to 4 different men. All 5 of her marriages only resulted in roughly 3 years and 8 months of wedded bliss. None of her marriages lasted two years. She couldn’t have children. Dreams of home life and motherhood were shattered. And then, one final straw. Another older married man denied her. At 29 years old, I can easily imagine that Carole thought she would never attain happiness, either through her work or her love life. There may indeed be some mystery surrounding her death but the circumstances leading to it also seem very familiar in the film industry of the era. The way starlets were treated by moguls like Darryl Zanuck. The way film careers were killed by “scandal” or simply by the failure of the most recent film. I have a saying that I sometimes apply to the victims of the studio system and the “golden age” of Hollywood. The phrase can certainly apply in this case: “I love old Hollywood. And then I think of what it did to Carole Landis”.
Sirius XM has launched a Beach Boys channel for the summer! Listening to the music of Brian Wilson, et al. randomly has inspired me to highlight these timeless songs in a 3-part series. So, let’s go surfin’ now!
There are few bodies of work in the pop idiom more revered than that of Brian Wilson’s. And the music he made between July 12, 1965 and May 18, 1967 is his crowning achievement. Again, it is SO hard to encapsulate the story of the Beach Boys – particularly this period – in so small a space.
Throughout 1965, Brian had quit touring with the band and stayed home to write music and record it with the best musicians in the business in the best recording studios in Los Angeles. At the beginning of 1966, he began work on “Pet Sounds” – an album and the recording of which deserve it’s own post – an album that has become known as one of the two or three greatest albums ever conceived. The music on “Pet Sounds”, however, was a major move away from anything the Beach Boys had done previously. Earlier I mentioned that Brian Wilson was much better suited to being a producer with a stable of artists. Instead, he was the brains behind a band that the whole world thought of as a lightweight pop vocal group that sang songs about surfing and cars. In the 1960’s, being allowed to break out of the mold the industry had decreed for you was nearly impossible.
It was these restrictions that inhibited Brian Wilson throughout this golden period of his career. The fact that he was still able to make the music that he did is nothing short of remarkable. Brian created the “Pet Sounds” album with the Wrecking Crew while his band toured Japan. When the boys came home, they all got together to listen to the tracks Brian had created. The simplification of the story is that the band was floored by what they heard. With the exception of Mike Love who felt that Brian had abandoned the “formula” in favour of a Brian Wilson solo record. This was damaging to Brian’s psyche and his confidence. It didn’t help that Capitol tended to agree with Mike – it was a vast departure from the sound that the public had come to expect from the Beach Boys. Brian finished the record after adding the guys’ sumptuous vocals. When the sales for “Pet Sounds” proved sluggish and when it stalled on the charts, peaking at “only” #10, Capitol Records turned it’s back on this landmark album and it’s visionary creator by ceasing promotion of the album and instead issuing “The Best of the Beach Boys”.
From February through September, 1966 – over seven months – Brian was busy constructing “Good Vibrations”. Keep in mind that the time and money spent on this one song was astronomical for the time and shows the respect and leeway Capitol was still granting Brian. The song was their 3rd #1 record and sold incredibly well. This further spurred Brian on to create what he thought would be the greatest record ever made.
The “SMiLE” album has been described as “an American gothic trip” and would have been a sprawling epic, telling the story of the American experience throughout history. Mounting pressure from the record company, his father, Murry, and – yes – from Mike Love was piling up on Brian’s fragile shoulders. His perceived eccentricity was also assumed to be a factor in making it difficult for him to complete his opus. Unfortunately, this “eccentricity” was, in reality, a sometimes crippling mental disorder that often took the form of horrific, threatening voices that Brian would hear in his head. Under the weight of all this, “SMiLE” was abandoned. With it crumbled the Beach Boys reputation. Brian Wilson retreated from the world.
Perhaps the most significant ramification of this retreat was Brian’s turning down an offer to play at the Monterey Pop Festival. The Beach Boys’ absence from this pivotal cultural event was seen as a requiem and the Boys were instantly labelled “un-hip”, which left the group to carry on in some sort of netherworld. The rest of the band knew full well that their cred was made up of about 95% Brian Wilson but they were still a band comprised of many talented pieces so they soldiered on. “Smile” became “Smiley Smile” (“a bunt instead of a grand slam” – Carl) and then “Wild Honey”. These two albums were down home affairs created by the band as a whole. But Brian as an entity had become perhaps even more important to the listening public then the band itself and the Beach Boys seemed out of touch with the rock scene of the late 1960’s. To make matters worse, the record industry began to look at the Beach Boys – without Brian in control – differently, too.
The first part of this era is filled with indelible songs that even the most unversed fan knows and loves: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Sloop John B”, “God Only Knows”, “Good Vibrations”, “Do It Again” and “Sail On, Sailor”. Also, the mini era post-“Pet Sounds” to pre-“Endless Summer” contains some excellent music. Music that is somehow made more enjoyable to us who ‘know’ because it is different, quieter Beach Boys music, unencumbered by greatness. Here’s the best of the hidden gems from this era.
10. “Little Pad” (1967 – from “Smiley Smile”) — This song was written by Brian Wilson only a short time after he wrote the revolutionary “Good Vibrations”. This in itself is indicative of the change he had gone through. It had just about killed him to follow his muse and strive for the heights, competing with the Beatles (who were basically 5 strong) and changing the face of pop music. After the demise of “SMiLE”, Brian decided to take the low road; no more shooting for the stars. Instead, he wanted to keep things simple. Songs don’t get much simpler than “Little Pad”. Indeed, the albums that were made in the wake of the aborted “SMiLE” album are today considered the origin of “lo-fi”. It is an unknown fact that, while the Beach Boys could rely less and less on Brian to continue charting new territory, they led the way to a more stripped down, casual sound in pop music. “Little Pad” is the “hiddenest” of gems and it is adored by those who know. The song starts with a shouted “Do it!” and a lot of giggling and then gives way to more angelic Beach Boys harmonizing. Carl plays the ukelele and dreams out loud, stating his desire for a little pad in Hawaii. The song is comforting and soothing with lyrics we all can relate to. A personal favourite, when I lived in a tiny bachelor apartment years ago, this was a cherished theme song.
9. “I Was Made to Love Her” (1967 – from “Wild Honey”) — I have a dear friend who’s a guitarist. Once, back in the day, he scoffed while I was playing the Beach Boys and said “don’t the Beach Boys ever use a guitar?!” So I played him “Student Demonstration Time” but I had to concede his point. A case has been made by Kent Crowley in his book on Carl that his guitar playing was influential and I’ll concede that, as well, but we all know that the Beach Boys – despite their garage beginnings as a ‘surf band’ – are not “guitar based”. That’s not to say they can’t rock out. This cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her” is a case in point. Interesting to note that here it is Carl who shines but not as a guitarist. Carl Wilson was respected in his day and is revered today for his angelic voice. But the vocal he lays down here is “balls out”. Tapping in to his childhood spent digging rhythm and blues and early rock ‘n’ roll, Carl lays down a great blue-eyed soul vocal here. Right from the outset. Listen to the way he sings “I was born in Little Rock, had a childhood sweetheart…”. The second half of that line is amazing and the song could end then and it would still make this list. The “Wild Honey” album followed on the heels of “Smiley Smile” and is considered the second of a group of three consecutive “chill out” albums that the Beach Boys made themselves, as a self-contained band again. Carl referred to these albums as “music for Brian to cool out by”, referring to the break Brian was taking from his control of the band’s sound. “Wild Honey” is fascinating to listen to owing in part to the fact that it is a straight up soul album, owing greatly to the Stax/Motown sound of the time. “I Was Made to Love Her” features instrumentation that includes great piano and tambourine and it features another great group vocal. The song rolls along and is a stone groove.
8. “The Trader” (1973 – from “Holland”) — Carl Wilson is featured again on this track known only by those of us on the inside. “Holland” is a pretty cool album made at a pivotal point in the Beach Boys history. They had fallen out of favour with the critics and the record buying public so, to try to inject some new life into the proceedings, they made the costly move of transporting themselves and recording equipment to Holland. Also at this time, they had taken on a new manager, Jack Rieley. Jack and Bruce Johnston didn’t see eye to eye so Bruce had left the band. But the Boys had added two members of a South African group that Carl had discovered – The Flame – and Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar made contributions to this album. It’s an excellent record that features great work from all group members. You’d do well to check out all of side two, for example, featuring great writing and vocals from Carl, Ricky, Blondie, Dennis and Mike (not to mention Brian’s contribution, “Mount Vernon and Fairway [A Fairy Tale]”, added to the original album on a 7″ record). But I really dig Carl’s “The Trader”. The song was a statement of sorts from Carl. Jack Rieley was something of a lyricist and he wrote the words to “The Trader”, which tell a tale of colonization and slavery. This was heavy stuff from the Beach Boys but Carl offset this by having his young son, Justyn, greet the listener at the beginning of the song. “Holland” is an interesting album in the Beach Boys canon. It signalled the end of an era.
7. “Forever” (1970 – from “Sunflower”) — “Sunflower” is another intriguing album. Historically, it has nothing obvious to recommend it. It even lacks the cache that the previously mentioned trilogy of “chill out” albums enjoy. But it’s sneaky good. Their first album of the 1970’s was also their first album for Reprise Records. The ’70’s were marked as a time when the Beach Boys had trouble maintaining a constant label on which to release material. The cover depicts an older group of fellas posing with their children in a picture taken by Ricci Martin, son of Dean. “Forever” looms large in “Beach Boys World”, the inhabitants of which cherish it’s existence. As stated in Part 1 of this series, Dennis Wilson was a rebel. Coerced to join the band, he ended up venting his pent up frustrations and virile energy behind the drum kit. But by 1970, Dennis was starting to show signs of his submerged musical vision; one of tenderness and quiet beauty. It seems almost cliche – handsome, rough-and-tumble, hard living guy suddenly sits at the piano, of all instruments, and pounds out solemn chords and whispers words of love. But Dennis was not a cliche; he was the prototype. “Forever” is his crowning achievement and the song for which he is best known. (But for my favourite Dennis/Beach Boys song, stay tuned for Part 3) 1968’s “Friends” album had contained Dennis’ initial offerings to the group and those two songs – “Little Bird” and “Be Still” – were surprising in their sensitivity. “20/20”, released the following year, had contained Dennis’ infamous “Never Learn Not to Love”; a song derived from an original composition by one Charles Manson. But with “Forever”, Dennis made his most significant contribution to the band’s catalogue. The strumming guitar, the boisterous vocals on the bridge and Dennis’ heartfelt lead all add up to a simply beautiful track. Brian himself said that “‘Forever’ has to be the most harmonically beautiful thing I’ve ever heard”. Heady praise from a man who knows. For me, it’s the simple purity of the lyric and Dennis’ reading: “If every word I said would make you laugh, I’d talk forever”. Only a song of rare beauty could survive what John Stamos and The Beach Boys* did to it in 1992.
6. “This Whole World” (1970 – from “Sunflower”) — It’s funny; I’ve been talking about this era when Brian Wilson “checked out” but here he is again contributing a gorgeous song. Think of it this way: if another artist had made the type of music that Brian Wilson made when he was supposedly just chilling out, that artist would be revered today. Brian could make beautiful music in his sleep. It helped that the rest of the band – Carl, in particular – were beginning to perfect using the studio as Brian had in his heyday. Carl’s production work during this era is fantastic and he begins to emerge from his big brother’s shadow and takes over control of the band’s sound. Brian has said that “This Whole World” is “about love in general”, which sums up the positivity of his body of work. He wrote the song, taught the boys all their parts, sang on it himself and played piano. He basically produced the record – recorded in his home studio – although the credit reads “Produced by The Beach Boys”. All in all, not bad from a supposed recluse. Allmusic says that here Brian reestablishes his reputation as a “brilliant melody writer(s) and arranger(s)” and “wipes away three years of artistic cobwebs”. Carl’s guitar starts things off and the song features his great vocal. His voice in this era – he is 24 here – is a delight to hear. Brian created a chant background vocal – “Om dot dit it” – that is accompanied by chimes and gongs. Mike shines with his “I’m thinkin’ ’bout this whole world” after Carl sings “Here comes another day for your love” at about the minute mark. The ending is celestial. Two minutes of pop perfection.
5. “Time to Get Alone” (1969 – from “20/20”) — “20/20” – the Boys 20th album – was released early in 1969. Brian had checked himself into a psychiatric hospital and was absent for the recording. Carl and Dennis cobbled together parts of songs that Brian had been working on recently and finished them for inclusion on the album. It was the last album released during their classic era with Capitol Records. “20/20” went to #3 in the UK and #68 in the US – which is indicative of their reputation at the time. Huge in England, disowned at home. The hit single “Do It Again” starts the album but the second track is one of two almost perfect recordings that grace this record. “Time to Get Alone” was written by Brian – I may need to rethink my assertion that he had checked out at this time! Brian had wanted to give the song to a fledgling group he was working with called Redwood, who would later become Three Dog Night. But the band, at this point, was not about to give up any songs to outsiders; they needed all the help they could get themselves. “Time to Get Alone” is in waltz time and was recorded in Brian’s home studio. Video footage of the recording exists. The song has delightfully pleasant chord changes and typically idyllic vocals on the chorus. This era is by far the time when the Beach Boys’ group vocals were not only the best of their career but the finest sounds ever made by human voices in the pop genre. (“Baby, it’s time…”) Consider that the lyric talks of winter; snow, cold and tobogganing of all things. Times had certainly changed for the Beach Boys. And I’ve heard it said that the “deep and wide” at the 1:42 mark is the greatest single moment in the Beach Boys catalogue. I don’t know about that but “Time to Get Alone” has a staggeringly gentle beauty. Here’s the footage of the recording but you need to check out the master.
4. “Here Today” (1966 – from “Pet Sounds”) — “Pet Sounds” is not about singles. Some of the better known Beach Boys songs are from this landmark album but, almost more than any other pop album in history, that record is about the whole. Truth be told, “Pet Sounds” is a work of such singular artistry that it can seem inaccessible if you don’t approach it in the right frame of mind or with misguided expectations. It makes me almost – almost – sympathize with Mike Love and execs at Capitol. You can imagine their confusion when they first heard that record coming from the purveyors of fun in the sun ditties. I say all this to say that when I first heard “Pet Sounds” (I found it on cassette at A&A Records in Market Square in Kitchener, Ontario in 1992) I really didn’t know how to assess it. All these years later, I am still learning about it’s glorious nuances. But aside from the hits, “Here Today” is perhaps the only unknown song on the LP you can dig on first listen. Brian liked to work with lyricists and for “Pet Sounds” he teamed up with ad man Tony Asher who wrote the words to this uptempo number. Musicologists praise the “bass literature” of this song and Bruce hailed the break in the middle as “perfection” and owing to the work of Bach. If you listen closely to the break – as all Beach Boys fans know – you can hear some studio chatter (about cameras) that was left in the final mix. Listen for Brian’s “Top, please!”. Mike takes the lead and the Wrecking Crew is on hand with the addition of Terry Melcher on tambourine, which is actually pronounced in the mix and greatly adds to the feel of the song. Carol Kaye and Lyle Ritz make significant contributions on bass and Larry Knechtel shines on the organ. An interesting, driving song that sometimes sounds almost sinister with it descending sax honks on the chorus and the organ on the break.
3. “Disney Girls (1957)” (1971 – from “Surf’s Up”) — Bruce Johnston won a Grammy for “I Write the Songs” but this is his standard. Bruce had operated successfully in the music business before joining the Beach Boys and he did so again after he left the Beach Boys in the early 1970’s. This ability to function outside of the fold makes it all the more difficult to understand why it’s him that has stayed with Mike Love all this time. Before he left in 1972, though, he nailed it. When you discuss the most affecting Beach Boys songs with which Brian Wilson had little or nothing to do, “Disney Girls (1957)” is near the top of the list. Bruce has always seemed to me to be a softy so it’s no surprise that his most enduring composition is gentle and nostalgic. Bruce plays most of the instruments and the song is dominated by his gentle piano and a strummed guitar. He also employs a Moog synthesizer, creating a wah-wah sound that fits with the lyrics that speak of escaping reality. And the words are wonderfully pleasant and contain many key phrases that depict a happiness attained later in life that may actually be the manifestation of the dreams of youth. First he lets you know that he likes to check out: “reality, it’s not for me and it makes me laugh”. Then, as he reminisces about “Patti Page and summer days on old Cape Cod”, he realizes he may actually have found his “turned-back world with a local girl in a smaller town”. The payoff comes after a rather awkward bridge which has always been my only beef with the song. After the Beach Boys’ voices drift off into the ether, Bruce’s lead reappears to take us home: “All my life I’ve spent the nights with dreams of you…it’d be a peaceful life with a forever wife and a kid someday”. I mean, the song is gorgeous. It’s been covered many times by the likes of Cass Elliot, Art Garfunkel, Doris Day, Jack Jones, Captain and Tennille and Bruce himself on his 1977 solo album, “Going Public”. In 1975, Barry Manilow would take Bruce’s “I Write the Songs” to the top of the charts and earn Bruce a Grammy award but I will always love Bruce Johnston for “Disney Girls (1957)”.
2. “Our Sweet Love” (1970 – from “Sunflower”) — In researching this essay, I stumbled on an astounding fact: there is next to nothing to read on the internet or in my Beach Boy books about the song “Our Sweet Love”. Therefore, this may be the greatest Beach Boys song no one’s ever heard. We are talking “Sunflower” again here; a nondescript album in the canon with nothing remarkable to recommend it. The Beach Boys are on the outs with most everybody and Brian Wilson has virtually abandoned the creative process. Carl Wilson has stepped to the fore and displays great acumen in the recording studio. “Our Sweet Love” was buried on side 2 of the record and it was written by Carl with Brian and contributions from Al Jardine; it may be the only song recorded by the Beach Boys written by those three. The song begins with dreamy guitar and strings and Carl’s angelic voice. It is subdued and prayer-like: “honey, it’s heaven”. At the 1:08 mark, it floats off on Carl’s “sweet love, sweet love…”. It is optimistic and absolutely gorgeous. Listen closely for the sleigh bells at the very end.
1. “I Can Hear Music” (1969 – from “20/20”) — If there is a creation of Carl’s in this era more sublime than “Our Sweet Love”, it is only his “I Can Hear Music”. Written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, it was originally released by the Ronettes in 1966. When you consider that this song is thought to be Carl’s first attempt at taking over for his brother, Brian, and controlling a session, the result is remarkable. The song begins with a wash of divine vocal sound and strummed guitar. Sleigh bells are present throughout. Carl’s lead is on point; as we’ve said earlier this was probably the era in which he sounded best. And I think we’d all have to agree that Carl Wilson possessed the finest voice in this vocal group comprised of fine voices. Indeed, in any of the few times the Beach Boys were enlisted to provide back-ups on the songs of others it is Carl that is dominant. If Carl’s voice was the closest to perfection, it is not too much of a stretch to assume that he would be the one (after Brian, natch) to most ably arrange the Beach Boys’ voices in a way that would showcase them in their finest light and this is the case with “I Can Hear Music”. The a cappella break in this song is beyond description. It’s another example – one of the top two or three – of the segments you play for the uninitiated to back up your claim that they were the best vocal group ever. And Carl’s “ohhhhh…” that brings them back to the chorus is pristine. I like what Kent Crowley says of “I Can Hear Music” in his book on Carl: “Brian’s only involvement in the song was to be astonished when he heard it”. This production of Carl’s was a landmark in this era as it showed the others in the group and the record industry at large that Carl – at 22 years old – was able to take over the musical direction of the Beach Boys. This included not only producing wonderful records in the studio but also the ability to reproduce their sound in a live performance.
Next Up… 1974-1992: The Beach Boys break new ground again, ascend to the heights and embed themselves into the fabric of history…