beach party, movies, summer

Summer Movie Blogathon: “Muscle Beach Party”

(Note: I’m thrilled to be writing this post as a part of Chris Sturhann’s “Summer Movie Blogathon” on his Blog of the Darned https://chrissturhann.blogspot.ca/)

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I discovered the Beach Boys when I was 12 years old. Soon I began to grow enamored of mid-century Southern Californian culture in it’s entirety. This quickly and obviously led me to the “beach party” movies, especially those produced by American International Studios in the early-to-mid 1960’s. The first film I discovered in this genre was 1964’s “Muscle Beach Party”. On a personal note, I had taped it off TV when it was broadcast on the late, late show on CITY TV in Toronto where I grew up. It was part of their line-up of “Not So Great Movies”. You often hear people say ‘I’ve watched that movie 100 times!’. While I may not have seen “Muscle Beach Party” 100 times, I must’ve watched that video tape dozens of times.

“Muscle Beach Party” was released in March of 1964. It was the second in American International’s “beach party” movie series which began the previous year with “Beach Party”. This second film also features the most unlikely looking beach types in Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello as Frankie and Dee Dee. Also returning are John Ashley, Dick Dale and His Del-Tones, Morey Amsterdam, Jody McCrea and many of the “beach party” guys and girls. The film opens with three car loads of kids beginning some vacation time on the beach at Malibu. Frankie and Dee Dee are the leaders of this troupe but early on we see a hint a trouble as Dee Dee seems to be withholding affection from Frank.

Muscle Beach Party frame grabs (34)

It’s Easter vacation and the gang is heading to Malibu where they’ve rented a house on the beach. Morning finds them hitting the surf and discovering a yacht anchored just offshore. Relaxing on the beach, Frankie talks to Dee Dee about some of his dreams. He loves being free to surf and feels like there is an ’80 foot wave’ out there just waiting for him. A gym full of muscle men has set up shop next to the kids’ house lead by ‘trainer’ Jack Fanny. The kids watch the men doing their morning exercises and heckle and mock them. Out on the yacht, “Bella Contessa”, we meet S.Z. Matts who is the business manager and traveling companion of the very rich Julie Giatta-Borgini. Julie has dragged S.Z. to this neck of the woods in her desire to “buy” Flex Martian, the head muscle man, whom she has fallen in love with while looking at his picture in a magazine. She heads to the beach for a look at Flex and the other muscle men and takes Flex back to the yacht for lunch. Next we see Frankie and Dee Dee stealing away for some alone time by the fire on the beach. Instead of reverie, the discussion gets heated. Dee Dee wants Frankie to grow up, settle down and accept responsibility. Frankie, of course, bristles, declaring he wants no strings. He asks nothing of the world and only takes what’s free: sun, sky, beach and ocean. Back at the muscle house, S.Z.’s assistant, Theodore, continues to negotiate the purchase of the muscle men with Jack Fanny. Jack seems reluctant. When Julie and S.Z. return with Flex, they find that there are still some details to hammer out. Bored with such details, Julie decides to walk on the beach. She overhears Frankie sing a song and kisses him, smitten. This is witnessed by Dee Dee and the two girls trade barbs. Frankie gets slapped and Dee Dee storms off. Meanwhile, S.Z. and Jack have concluded their deal. S.Z. tells Julie the good news but now she says she doesn’t want Flex and Co. She’s in love with Frankie! When Jack, Flex and the muscle men find out they have been jilted, they are none too happy. Later, the kids are hooting at Cappy’s while Dick Dale entertains. Frankie and Dee Dee are trying to patch things up when Julie comes in asking Frankie to sing. Dee Dee sits down in a huff and Julie records Frankie’s song, telling him she’s going to make him a recording star. This infuriates Dee Dee but before she can punch Julie out the muscle men barge in. Jack Fanny declares war on the surfers in order to restore his and Flex’s honour. Before the fists can fly, Deadhead announces that the surf is up and the gang splits. That night, the kids further mock the muscle men and Jack Fanny commits himself to destroying them. Later, in a significant scene on the beach at night, Frankie discusses with Julie whether or not they would be right for each other. Frankie says he’s got paradise right here, right now. Julie tells him he can have all of that and more if he goes away with her. Frankie realizes that Julie and her plans for him are the 80 foot wave he had talked about earlier. This is his dream supposedly coming true. Frankie meets the gang on the beach saying they can all come with him on his adventure. The gang, however, is not having it. They are happy where they are. Thanks but no thanks. Julie and S.Z. run into Dee Dee. Julie explains that Frankie and her are going away together. Dee Dee says that is fine. She is angry but wants Frankie to be happy. Dee Dee storms off and S.Z. wonders aloud if Julie has done the right thing, taking Frankie away. Julie gets upset and asks why can’t she have what these kids have just because she has money. S.Z. wisely suggests that’s it’s a case of “people for people” and that Julie and Frankie don’t fit together. Frankie arrives and begins to pack. S.Z. takes matters into his own hands explaining how Frankie will live off Julie and be “kept”, describing in harsh terms how things will be. Frankie has second thoughts and takes off. S.Z. explains himself to Julie by telling her he was trying to save Frankie and Dee Dee from broken hearts. Frankie runs down to Cappy’s to apologize to Dee Dee and explain to the gang that he was dazzled by Julie’s promises but now he’s come to his senses and realizes that his paradise, his 80 foot wave, is right here with Dee Dee and his friends. Julie arrives to hear the end of his speech and tells Frankie she understands and all is cool. Until the muscle men come in and a ridiculous brawl ensues. The surfers survive the rumble, watch as Julie’s yacht sails away and party the night away on the beach!

Muscle Beach Party lobby card

The first sequel to “Beach Party” (1963) is probably the best of all the ‘beach party’ movies. Perhaps it’s the absence of Harvey Lembeck as the excessively imbecilic Eric Von Zipper that elevates this film. Certainly the cast is the best of the series. In the previous film, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello were billed 3rd and 4th behind ‘mature’ leads Bob Cummings and Dorothy Malone but in this second installment they take top billing and center stage. Frankie and Annette may not look like typical Californians but they carry off the roles well. Avalon definitely had personality and he handles the humourous material naturally. When he is called upon to play it serious or angry, he’s also very convincing. When you think about it, for a guy who’s legacy may be lightweight, he sure had a fair amount of acting – and singing – ability. Annette is pretty and bubbly and you can easily buy her as the girl who is planning for the future and encouraging her man to do the same. One thing about American International; they seemed to be able to attract pretty female talent. Case in point is Luciana Paluzzi as the Contessa. The Italian Paluzzi – still with us at 80 – is possibly best known for portraying SPECTRE assassin Fiona Volpe in “Thunderball”. She also appeared in “Return to Peyton Place”. John Ashley returns as Johnny (formerly Ken). Small and dark like Avalon, Ashley comes off well as a teen-aged surf bum. He later married “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” actress Deborah Whalley. In the ’80’s, he produced the television show “The A-Team” and provided the narration over the opening credits. Don Rickles appears as trainer Jack Fanny. Rickles is exactly how you’d like him to be – delightfully zany. Jody McCrea plays Deadhead. McCrea – son of Joel McCrea – obviously knows what he is doing onscreen despite getting stuck playing the moron. He is also exactly in the type of shape guys wanted to be in, maybe even more so than the bodybuilders. Dick Dale is actually a straight-up guitar legend. His rep is so huge that it actually suffers from being in these “beach party” movies. His music in the films is not his own and nowhere near indicative of his virtuoso playing. Here he’s cool, though. Virile. Candy Johnson and her crazy dancing? I’m sorry. Terrible. Real life bodybuilder Peter Lupus appears as “Mr. Galaxy – Flex Martian”. Lupus is billed here as “Rock Stevens”, as he was in the many ‘sword and sandal’ films he made in the 1960’s. He is given idiotic lines and doesn’t particularly shine in delivering them but it’s all good. We give Peter a pass because of his work in the television series “Mission: Impossible”, where he shone delivering few lines but effectively portraying the team’s ‘muscle’. Valora Noland and Delores Wells deserve special mention. Fresh-faced and attractive, it’s fun to watch them as they decorate every scene they are in. It is difficult to find any info on the internet about Noland but Wells was a prominent Playboy model in the early ’60’s. Singer Donna Loren doesn’t have any lines and only duets with Dick Dale on one mediocre song so there’s not much to say about her in this film. But she turns in a great performance singing “It Only Hurts When I Cry” in “Beach Blanket Bingo” and had a wonderful voice but a decidedly unsuccessful singing career. She is still thriving in the fashion industry in Hawaii. Morey Amsterdam is loony as Cappy, owner of the kid’s hangout. He was funnier in “Beach Party”. Curiously, Buddy Hackett has a low billing in this film. He is great as the oddly named “S.Z. Matts” and while here he is much less manic than he usually is, he is obviously in control, understands his character – such as he is – and plays him well. Little Stevie Wonder actually sings a song. 13 years old at the time, Stevie here puts me in mind of James Brown in American International’s ‘winter beach party’, “Ski Party”: a whole lot of soul in an extremely white environment. Don’t think Stevie built his rep on having been in “Muscle Beach Party”. Keep an eye out for future “Grizzly Adams”, the late Dan Haggerty as one of the muscle men, cutey Amadee Chabot as one of Jack Fanny’s assistants and Peter Lorre, in his last film, as the silent partner, Mr. Strangdour, the strongest man in the world. I take the time to go over the cast because I think each of the above is worth pointing out. It’s actually a great cast with everyone playing their parts well. It’s interesting to me to note that seemingly everybody in this type of film went on to make either terrible movies, terrible movies in Europe or no movies. Ever seen John Ashley in “Black Mamba”? Or Valora Noland in…like..nothing? But the thing is – that’s OK. We love these actors in these roles. They become our friends. We become one of the gang.

MBP frame grabs (13)

“Muscle Beach Party” was filmed in part at Paradise Cove in Malibu. The location now is the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe. They have an excellent website (http://www.paradisecovemalibu.com/) and a really good social media presence. Nice to know that you can plan a trip to the actual place where this and other films were made. It’s also great while you watch this movie to look around in the background and see what the land and homes were like at the time. The painting used over the opening credits I call the “Muscle Beach Mural”. It was painted by cartoonist Mike Dormer, whose surfer cartoon character “Hot Curl” can be seen on sweaters throughout the film. I’d kill for one of those sweaters and certainly for the mural. Dormer also created the children’s show “Shrimpenstein” who was a miniature Frankenstein’s monster that was created when his creator dropped a bag of jelly beans in his monster machine. Apparently Frank Sinatra and the boys never missed an episode. Dr. Pepper was prominently placed in the film, which was why Donna Loren appeared to sing a song; she was the “Dr. Pepper Girl” and sang in their commercials. Legendary Beach Boy, Brian Wilson – genius behind the band’s music – co-wrote six songs for the film. With frequent co-writers Roger Christian and Gary Usher, Wilson penned the excellent opener “Surfer’s Holiday” sung by Frankie and Annette and the equally good “Runnin’ Wild” that Frank sings in Cappy’s. Although American International did not capitalize by issuing a soundtrack LP, Frankie Avalon did sing these two songs and others on his album “Muscle Beach Party and Other Movie Songs” on United Artists Records. A quality recording, the first side features songs from the “beach party” movies and side two showcases Avalon’s great voice on songs from other popular films.

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Here’s the thing about this film. Of all the “beach party” movies – including movies in the same vein made by other studios – “Muscle Beach Party” is really the only one that has a script with any merit. I’m referring mainly to the Frankie-Dee Dee-Julie storyline. Early in the film, we see Frankie on the beach talking to Dee Dee. Keep in mind how old these kids are. We are never told specifically but I think it’s safe to assume they all are at the ‘pivot point’ in life – the time when you begin to turn away from your childhood and look forward to being an adult and assuming your role in society. I’ve always felt strongly about this point in life. It is heavy. It is rife with storylines about how well or how poorly people make the transition. I think of John Milner in the great coming-of-age film “American Graffiti”. In that film, it is said of him “y’wanna be like John?! You can’t stay 17 forever”. In our film, Frankie is dreaming out loud on the beach, sharing part of himself with Dee Dee, his girlfriend. “I think about it sometimes”, he says, “out there, way beyond that white boat, there’s a wave building…maybe it’s 80 feet”. Avalon does well getting the viewer to realize that this is his dream in life – maybe not exactly an 80 foot wave but he has dreams of fun, adventure and accomplishment for his life. The more realistic Dee Dee gently shoots him down saying that that wave is in his head. Even a seagull has to come down once in a while. Frankie disgustedly shakes his head: “Girls don’t fly!”. Later, again on the beach, Frankie and Dee Dee have an argument. Dee Dee again encourages Frankie to start making his life count for something. Sidebar: I own the novelization of “Muscle Beach Party” that came out slightly before the film. It’s written by Elsie Lee, a female author, who punches up the idea that Dee Dee is, of course, the more mature of the two. She is – step by step – making Frankie into the man she wants him to be – the man she knows he CAN be. She uses subtle feminine wisdom to get him to begin to be ready to assume responsibility and be an adult. And – most importantly, a husband. Back on the beach, Frankie counters with the simple fact that he is happy. He’s living the way he wants to live. He says that Dee Dee is starting to sound like a wife. He expresses his desire to avoid “time-payment city…being in hock, working 8 to 5”. Dee Dee comes back with the fact that they could have a nice home and fill it with kids. Then Frankie delivers a classic line: “Look, this beach is free and the sky goes straight on up and your life is your own. Now, isn’t that enough?” No, it isn’t, Dee Dee answers. All you do is take, she says. I only take what’s free, Frankie answers. It’s actually a really well written scene and one that virtually everyone can relate to. Women will smile knowingly and think of how much more grounded and sensible – and, let’s face it, more right – they are. Guys will remember their youthful freedom and how reluctant they were to give it up and face reality. In the midst of all this hassle with Dee Dee, in comes Julie, the Contessa who is gorgeous and filthy rich. She takes a shine to Frankie. Later comes the important scene I alluded to in the synopsis. It’s night and Frankie and Julie are on the beach. When Frankie asks Julie “where do you go on that big, white boat?”, Julie talks about all the wonderful places she can take him. He asks about surf and she replies “the riders look like gods skimming the crest of the waves”. Frankie looks off into the distance and it hits him: “it’s an 80 foot wave”. He realizes that Julie is handing him everything he’s ever wanted. It’s a dream come true and Frank is all in. Until S.Z. shines a bit of light on the realities of “life with La Contessa”. Frank’s second thoughts lead him to a realization. Frankie realizes that he is already living his dream life. He loves Dee Dee. He loves being leader of the gang. He loves his life: living, working, saving for holidays like this and dreaming. Taking him away from all that is not a dream come true. He has been asked a question that is seemingly easy to answer: what is your perception of paradise? I have a special place in my heart for this idea as it formed the basis of the novel I started writing in my early 20’s and have yet to finish (20+ years later).

Let’s get one thing straight: I understand that most surf movies (except “Big Wednesday”) are lame. I know how none of them accurately depicted true surf culture and how “Gidget” resulted in the glutting of Malibu, ruining it for real surfers. And I know that the American International pictures in particular are goofy and kind of dumb. I’m not suggesting that the Academy take another look at these films. They are guilty pleasures, I always say. I’m a fan not a critic. And what I am saying is that these films are really enjoyable if only as snapshots of a wonderful time in American history. The location shooting, some of the things you see in the background or the furnishings in the beach houses, the cars all combine to make these films delightful especially to those of us immersed in mid-century culture. “Muscle Beach Party” is a great example of one of these films. Films I like to call “delightfully ridiculous”.

Muscle Beach Party

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Centennial, Dean Martin, music, singing

Dino 100: Part 3

Dean Martin hit ‘legend’ status early. By the late 1960’s, his records weren’t charting anymore and he wasn’t starring in hit movies. But it didn’t matter. He performed on stage in Las Vegas and elsewhere to sold out crowds. Dino played it “drunk” and sang all the old songs and the people loved it. He gathered his celebrity friends together to put on one of his legendary “Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts” and the people laughed. Funniest of all was watching Dean, laughing harder than anyone. And not just at Don Rickles ripping people to shreds, either. You could believe that he was laughing mostly because he truly had it made. He could sustain a career and reap the rewards with very little effort. He just had to be himself.

The thing about Dean Martin is that he didn’t care. Now, as soon as you say that, it sounds negative. But I don’t mean to say that he had a poor attitude toward things or he was indifferent to his family and friends. When I say he didn’t care I mean that, for the most part, he wasn’t consumed with striving to attain a level of greatness in his singing or his acting. He could sing. He could sing well. He liked to sing. So, he sang. Period. And the record buying public loved it. His talent was based on ‘feel’ as opposed to ‘craft’. He had ‘a way with a song’. While making movies, he was laid back and jovial on set. When the cameras rolled, he acted naturally and his charisma shone through. But that’s not to say he wasn’t good – very good – at what he did. Watch him in his films with Jerry Lewis and you’ll see that Jerry is bang on when he talks of Dean’s comedic timing and his handling of a funny line. Not to mention the looks and expressions he could pull off in place of a spoken punch line. It all came so naturally to him. That is what is at the root of his greatness – it was all so seemingly effortless. He was so completely confident and sure of himself that he was able to simply be himself his entire career. This is what people today remember most about Dean Martin. His attitude, his coolness. He was also successful when he went looking for a stretch and played it serious in films like “The Young Lions” with method actors Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift or “Rio Bravo” with John Wayne. While making records, he could delight you with joyous recordings like “That’s Amore” and “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” but he could also make you close your eyes while his voice washed over you with the smoother sounds of “Once in a While” or “My One and Only Love”. With a change of sound upon moving to Reprise in the ’60’s, he could still delight listeners with a jaunty run-through of “I’m Gonna Change Everything” or make them shake their heads and sigh with the heartbreak of “Nobody’s Baby Again”.

In the interest of taking care of business, it should be noted that the last years of Dean Martin’s life were not happy ones. One of Dean’s sons was Dean Paul Martin, who was known as “Dino”. Young Dino was a noted tennis player and a minor actor. He starred in a TV series in 1985-86 called “Misfits of Science” that also starred Courtney Cox. Dino was also a pilot. He joined the California Air National Guard and rose to the rank of captain. He died in 1987 when his jet crashed into the San Bernardino Mountains, the same mountains that had claimed the life of Frank Sinatra’s mother, Dolly. Losing his son devastated Dean and he was truly never the same. In 1988, Frank Sinatra organized a series of reunion shows featuring himself, Dean and Sammy Davis, Jr. Frank reportedly said that the main purpose of the reunion shows was to give Dino something to do, to get him out and about, to maybe forget his troubles. But Dean’s heart was never in it. He lasted only five performances before bowing out. In the fall of 1993, Dean was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died Christmas Day, 1995 of acute respiratory failure resulting from emphysema. He was 78.

But enough of that. We’re here to celebrate Dino’s LIFE. His legacy is remarkably full and varied. He made many great comedy films in the golden age of Hollywood with one of the greatest and most celebrated comedians that ever lived. He recorded timeless music in his early days, sprinkling lovely Italian melodies amongst gems that are the very definition of mid-century crooning. His alliances with other legends added a luster to his personality as regular joes looked at him as the ultimate ‘pally’: the perfect guy to hang out with. In a tux at Romanoff’s or a sport shirt in the clubhouse after a round of golf. He epitomized the swank Las Vegas lifestyle and aura that appealed to royalty and working stiffs the world over. With his many westerns he won over many fans of that hardy, masculine genre. Adding to this was the appeal of his style of country crooning throughout the 1960’s – just one more way he endeared himself to the majority of the adult record buying public. It seems today he is remembered for one major thing. His most lasting legacy seems to be COOL. When hip, happening people of today look back for inspiration when it comes to handling the lady, handling the cocktail, handling the situation no matter what it is – and handling it dressed to the nines – they all seem to land on Dean Martin. He may have had equals but was there ever anybody cooler than Dino? I don’t think so. As Dean’s character in “Ocean’s 11”, Sam Harmon, said: “Everywhere I go people stare at me in dumb admiration”. Yes. We do.

Dean-martin1

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Centennial, Dean Martin, music, singing

Dino 100: Part 1

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dean Martin, SoulRide will be looking at the life of this legendary entertainer. As usual with iconic personalities, the public perception of Dino is one thing but there is much to know and much to love about the man who may be in a group of only three or four singers remembered as the greatest, most definitive and most beloved vocalists of the golden era. Here’s Part 1 of our 3-part series.

Dean Paul Crocetti was born June 7, 1917 in Stuebenville, Ohio. Born to Italian parents from Abruzzo, Dean spoke only an Abruzzo dialect of Italian until he started school at age five. He was bullied in school for his broken English and dropped out of Stuebenville High in grade 10 thinking he was “smarter than his teachers”. And here, already in his early life, is where Dean’s path differs greatly from his famous friend, Frank Sinatra. As we’ll see later, Frank and Dean would set the standard for cool in the early 1960s. Sinatra was always the more earnest. Edgy and driven to perfection in all things, Frank’s nature was very different from Dean’s. In some interviews, Frank would like to cultivate the idea that he had hard scrabble beginnings and was a bit of a tough in his early days, which was not exactly the case. Dean Martin, who said little or nothing about his early days, did indeed operate outside of the law and in some shady, half-criminal environments. After leaving high school, Dean worked as a bootlegger, dealt blackjack and ran card games in speakeasies. He also worked in a steel mill and spent time – as did Sinatra – in the ring, fighting as ‘Kid Crochet’. During his 12-bout fight career, he suffered a broken nose (which was later fixed with the financial help of comedian Lou Costello) and many broken knuckles. I’ve always thought, when I looked at Dean Martin’s hands, that he had strong looking but gnarled fingers and here is the reason. Martin began singing with local bands in the early 1940’s using the name Dino Martini. His style was heavily influenced by Harry Mills of the Mills Brothers. By 1946, he was making a decent living as a singer but was unknown outside of the small east coast night club circuit he operated in.

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In 1945, Martin was performing at the Glass Hat in New York. Also performing there at that time was a comic who was nine years Dean’s junior. Jerry Lewis was a skinny, Jewish kid who would lip sync to popular records. The two became friends but didn’t team up until the summer of 1946 when “Martin and Lewis” debuted at the 500 Club in Atlantic City. They bombed. The 500 Club was owned by Skinny d’Amato, a serious guy with mob connections. After the duo’s first unsuccessful show, Skinny told them – in his quiet, menacing way – that if the boys didn’t improve, they’d be fired. What followed is one of those glorious and true Hollywood legends that reveal true talent and personality in performers that today may be taken for granted or not understood at all. Dean and Jerry, huddled in a back alley, decided to go for broke. What they had scripted wasn’t working so, for their next show, they ad-libbed a routine – made it up as they went along – and were a smash. Jerry Lewis – still alive at 91 – is class in so many ways. Not the least of which is his propensity to heap praise on his ex-partner. Lewis is always quick to point out that Martin had impeccable comedic timing and was one of the all-time straight men with immense comedic gifts. This is something often lost in Dean Martin’s story. The comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis went on to conquer first night clubs, then radio, then television and finally the movies. In the films, Dean sang the songs, kissed the girls and played straight man to Jerry’s antics. But after ten years together, the films began to be more tailored to Jerry’s insane style of comedy and Dean had had enough. Under a deep cloud of animosity, Martin and Lewis split up, ten years to the day after forming their partnership.

circa 1955: American comic team Dean Martin (1917 - 1995) and Jerry Lewis smiling in a promotional portrait. Martin smiles and rests his chin on top of Lewis's head, as Lewis makes a funny face.

By the time he split with Jerry, Dino had scored 13 top 40 hits, many of them becoming not only inextricably linked with Dean Martin but also becoming quintessential “crooning” classics: “That’s Amore”, “Sway”, “Standing on the Corner”, “Return to Me” and the worldwide number one song “Memories Are Made of This”. Recording for Capitol Records, Dean soon gained a reputation as a light, breezy, smooth vocalist known for his effortless delivery. He also embraced his heritage recording many Italian flavoured songs and a complete LP devoted to same: “Dino: Italian Love Songs” (1962). His recorded output while with Capitol consists of several great albums exhibiting the relaxed style Dean came to be known for. “Pretty Baby” (1957) contains lovely mid-tempo numbers like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and the title track and some gorgeous ballads, most notably “Once in a While”, maybe Dino’s smoothest, loveliest work at Capitol. “Sleep Warm” (1959) is a dreamy set dedicated to songs dealing with ‘sleeping’ or ‘dreaming’. This album is notable for the orchestra having been conducted by Frank Sinatra. “A Winter Romance” (1959) is a seasonal treat to be listened to every December. Unique among “Christmas” albums, the songs don’t reference Christmas specifically but are odes to winter sports, indoor and out. “This Time I’m Swingin'” (1960) teamed Dean with the great arranger Nelson Riddle and the results are impeccable. Some of Dean’s finest recordings can be found on this LP: “You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Loves You” (this version was used over the opening credits of the film “Swingers”), “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”, “Just in Time” and a contender for Dino’s finest Capitol recording, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”. Another contender, “My One and Only Love”,  can be found on Dean’s last album for Capitol, “Cha-cha de Amour” (1962).

The 1960’s would bring new levels of stardom and success to Dean Martin. And as the decade unfolded, Dino forged a reputation and a cultural significance that would last throughout the ages.

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Your Guide to Winter Movies

I find that my viewing and listening habits are quite often tied to the calendar. I gravitate to certain movies and types of music depending on what time of year it is. For instance, springtime always makes me want to listen to oldies or Huey Lewis and the News. In the summer, I want to watch Beach Party movies. It comes down to wanting what I’m watching, listening to or reading to compliment the time of year. I find I simply get more ‘out of’ jazz in the fall, for example. I don’t always like to lock myself down to this sort of thing (it’s November. You must watch James Bond movies!) but then again I can’t deny that I do enjoy certain things more at certain times.

Every winter time, there are many things I find I turn to for entertainment. A lot of these things come from personal experience and history. Western movies, for example, are not specifically tied to the winter but for me they are. During the winter of 2003-4, I came down with double environmental pneumonia and spent a lot of time in bed. So, I watched movies and, not wanting to get up and change the movie for a long time, I chose one of the longest movies I owned at the time, “The Alamo”. Ever since then, I feel like watching westerns in the winter. I’ve also found that there are a handful of movies I love that happen to take place in the winter. I really enjoy watching these in January and February and here’s the main reason why. When my family and I are ‘suffering’ through a cold, snowy winter, I feel the need to watch other people struggling, too. I like to see how other people cope. It makes me feel like I’m not alone. Watching certain movies shows me you can still have fun in the winter, get in adventures, dress sharp and not only survive your environment but master it, as well. In addition, most ‘winter movies’ just don’t go down the same in the dead of summer. Sometimes it seems flat out wrong. There are also a handful of movies I enjoy during winter because they depict characters who escape inclement weather and head to sunny climes. These are a bit of a cheat, though, as the bulk of the movie generally takes place in the sun but it’s still enjoyable to see people do what you’d like to do – jump in the car and escape to the sunny south. So, January and February become a cozy, hide-in-the-basement season, watching hockey and winter movies. What follows is basically a guide to some of the best movies to enjoy during the first two frigid months of the year. I’ve sort of ranked them in terms of their ‘essential winter viewing’ status.

“THE PINK PANTHER” (1964) The glory of this film perhaps has become skewed over the years due to the sequels and their depiction of the forever bumbling French Detective Jacques Clouseau. Throughout the ’70’s, Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers made these films in a forever broadening slapstick style, with the outrageously inept Clouseau being continually surprise-attacked by his sidekick, Kato. But the original film was quite different. The first installment was actually planned as the first of a series of films featuring the adventures of Sir Charles Litton, the famous cat burglar, portrayed by David Niven. The unbilled star of this film, though, is Cortina d’Ampezzo, a tiny ski town in the Italian Alps. Most of the movie takes place here and the scenery is gorgeous. Instead of slapstick, this first installment of the series is a straight-up cocktail movie. Apres ski, as they say. Great shots of the mountains and skiing, dreamy scenes by the fire with Henry Mancini’s gorgeous soundtrack playing, and great looking men and women in sweaters. I always say when I watch this movie: “If it has to be winter, why can’t it be Cortina?”

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“THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS” (1967) Perhaps the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures, this film has gained a reputation as one of the ‘worst’ films in history. It’s outlandish dialogue and over the top soap opera plot have garnered it many bad reviews, parodies, one bad ‘sequel’ and the disdain of the critics. As often happens, though, at the same time this movie has gained a faithful following of ardent fans who love it. Most of them say that it’s so bad it’s wonderful and they love it although they know it’s ridiculous. I can see their point and I tend to agree but every time I watch this movie I come away saying that there is some real depth in the story it tells and it really packs a lot of entertainment value. Quickly, the story tracks the lives and careers of three women. Their ups and downs, successes and failures, their men and their ‘dolls’ – the prescription drugs that they all indulge in to varying degrees. The winter aspect comes in to play in a very significant way. One of the girls, Anne Welles, is depicted as coming from a rural New England home, a home that has known many crippling winters. Her dreams lead her to New York City and from there she ends up in sunny California, successful, wealthy but unhappy and addicted to ‘dolls’. Here’s the thing: to ‘cleanse’ herself and reset her life, she goes home. Home where it’s full-on winter and to me that speaks to the idea that winter can represent comfort and home, childhood, family and a wholesome, safe lifestyle. To me, it’s an intriguing and sensitive theme to show up in a film like this. As a side note, I researched the filming locations for this film and found that Anne’s house in “Lawrenceville” is actually the Samuel Jarvis house in the pictuesque historic town of Redding, Connecticut. The house dates from the 1790’s. I got some help on this from the fine folks at the Redding Historical Society.

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“BEAUTIFUL GIRLS” (1996) A rural “Swingers”, this movie, of all the movies I’ve loved in my life, is the only movie I’ve ever watched for the first time, then rewound and watched again. The late Ted Demme (nephew of director Jonathan Demme who directed “The Silence of the Lambs”) directed this story of a group of friends navigating the pitfalls of adulthood in small town Minnesota in February. As I said in my opening, here’s a great example of a depiction of characters coping well with winter weather. Some of the boys run a landscaping business so falling snowflakes means going to work with the plows. They hang out indoors – even engage in some video game hockey a la “Swingers” – and bundle up and spend some guy time in an ice fishing hut.  A great wintertime location shoot combines with a great cast here.  Matt Dillon, Timothy Hutton, Lauren Holly, Rosie O’Donnell, Mira Sorvino, Natalie Portman, Michael Rapaport, Uma Thurman, Sam Robards and David Arquette. Great movie. Funny.

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“GRUMPY OLD MEN” (1993)  A delightful comedy for the whole family. Pretty much. Aimed at the senior citizen set, this film stars legendary film actors Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Buck Henry and Ossie Davis as senior citizens coping with getting older and being alone in the fictional town of Wabasha, Minnesota. This film is wonderful on so many levels not the least of which is the delightful Jack Lemmon wearing nice thick sweaters and relaxing in his ice fishing shack. A great story with charming characters and another depiction of people living happily in the snow during the winter. And not only are they surviving the winter but they are enjoying it. There’s just something comforting about watching people put on a toque and mitts and shoveling out their vehicles. And this is another film on this list that makes ice fishing look awfully nice.

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“NOBODY’S FOOL” (1994)  The legendary Paul Newman garnered yet another Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Sully, a “spry ne’er-do-well” living in snowy North Bath, New York. This is a film of the highest quality with a good cast including Melanie Griffith and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Also stars Jessica Tandy who passed away before this film was released and also an uncredited Bruce Willis. This was at the time in his career when Bruce was reinventing the ‘cameo’ and working without a credit was something he did a couple of times at this junction. He was not involved in the promotion for this film due to his action star status.  It’s R rated, this film, and I must admit that winter does not play a major role here but again it’s cold and snowy and that makes for good watching when it’s 40 below.

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“DEATH HUNT” (1981) A renowned film that most guys of a certain generation have seen and have fond memories of. Charles Bronson heads up a great cast and portrays Albert Johnson – “The Mad Trapper” – a real-life Canadian fugitive who was hunted by the Canadian Mounties in the early 1930’s. Filmed partly in Alberta, this film – like “Nobody’s Fool” – is of the highest quality. The film, also, is a great depiction of life in the ‘Yukon’: the dogsleds, the mountains, the cabins, the barren wastelands. Also starring Lee Marvin, Carl Weathers, Angie Dickinson and Andrew Stevens.

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“THIN ICE” (1937)/”HIT THE ICE” (1943)/”LOST IN ALASKA” (1952) Here’s a great classic movie triple feature, perfect for snowy afternoons. “Thin Ice” is a charming film starring Olympic skater, Sonja Henie and handsome Tyrone Power. Lili is a skating instructor in the Alps and starts hitting the slopes with Prince Rudolph who is traveling incognito! “Hit the Ice” is a vehicle for the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. In this film, the boys get mixed up with some bank robbers and flee to a lovely mountain resort. Costello saves the day by becoming a human snowball! And then Abbott and Costello are back and they are “Lost in Alaska”. In this episode, they team up with a gold prospector to help him get his girl back. All the family friendly laughs center around the frozen north: igloos, polar bears, avalanches, the works

“NORTH TO ALASKA” (1960)/”THE FAR COUNTRY” (1954) Here’s a couple of great films from mid-century that have similar Technicolor looks to them. Both take place in the Yukon. “North to Alaska”, really, doesn’t have a lot of snow on display despite some scenes shot in the Yukon. The plot does deal with some gold mining and life in general at the top of the globe. The film itself is excellent. John Wayne stars and is surrounded by a fine cast featuring Stewart Granger, Capucine, Ernie Kovacs and Fabian. “The Far Country” also stars a Hollywood legend, James Stewart. Shot partially in Alberta, it is another great story of the gold rush. Stewart drives a herd of cattle up to Dawson and ends up in the gold business. Although he tries hard not to, he gets in deep trying to purge a town of corruption and lawlessness. Some great scenery, some romantic entanglements and another quality film.

“SKI PARTY” (1965)/”WINTER A-GO-GO” (1965) Here’s two for fans of the wonderfully corny beach party movies. In these two, the gang leaves the beaches of Malibu for the snowy mountain slopes. “Ski Party” features the gang from the actual beach party movies from American International Studios. Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman star as guys who go undercover in an effort to figure out the opposite sex, represented here by Deborah Walley and Yvonne Craig. All this lunacy takes place on the slopes of gorgeous Sun Valley, Idaho. Great scenery – indoors and outdoors – some actual comedy, mostly supplied by Aron Kincaid, and a couple great songs. James Brown and His Famous Flames make an appearance in what I’m sure are the whitest surroundings they ever performed in. You should watch just to see the Godfather of Soul’s legs move. “Winter a-Go-Go” is just as dumb and just as delightful. It stars James Stacy and William Wellman, Jr. as two good looking young guys who inherit a ski lodge in Heavenly Valley (actually Lake Tahoe and El Dorado National Forest in eastern California) and stock it with a bunch of hotties. Some good skiing sequences and lots of great sweaters. Musical acts include the Nooney Rickett Four (love that name). And keep an eye out for Paul Gleason among the extras. He’s young here but you’ll recognize him from his role as the mean teacher Mr. Vernon in “The Breakfast Club”and Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson in “Die Hard”. Cute film that actually ends with a wedding; rare for one of these teenybopper movies.

“GIRL HAPPY” (1965)/”WHERE THE BOYS ARE” (1960) We wrap up the list with a couple of cheaters. These two films actually represent an entire different sub-genre that require their own post: the ‘escape movie’. By that I don’t mean prison escape, like “Shawshank” or “Escape from Alcatraz” but films that portray characters escaping the winter and inclement weather. These movies are great to watch late in February when winter is nearing it’s end and you’re ready to leave the snow behind and pivot towards the spring. Here’s two pleasant and simple escape movies. “Girl Happy” is one of the better Elvis Presley movies, one of three he made with his favourite co-star Shelley Fabares. This is the only King Movie in which you see snow (in fact, there’s only four or five of Elvis’ movies that show inclement weather at all). Elvis plays Rusty Wells and he and his buds (including Gary Crosby, Bing’s son) leave snowy Chicago and head to Fort Lauderdale to keep an eye on Shelley, a gangster’s daughter. Some great scenes here in whatever is passing for Fort Lauderdale and – like most of Presley’s films – this is an easy-going, fun watch. Ditto “Where the Boys Are”. There’s a little more meat to this plot as a group of kids head to Fort Lauderdale and learn hard lessons about sex – consensual and not so much – and making the move to adulthood. This film begins with our pretty female co-eds Dolores Hart, Paula Prentiss, Yvette Mimieux and Connie Stevens struggling to get to class in a blizzard. They all agree to take Connie’s car and escape for Easter Break in Florida. While there, they run into an amorous trio of guys played engagingly by George Hamilton, Jim Hutton and Frank Gorshin. Unlike “Girl Happy”, here we see some great locations in actual Fort Lauderdale including the famous “Elbo Room”, a bar that still exists. There’s something really delightful in watching people do what you’d sometimes like to do; go from battling the wind and snow of a fierce winter and get in your car and drive south. “Where the Boys Are” provides that and also throws in a lovely, coming-of-age story.

Like Bing Crosby said: “looks like a cold, cold winter”. So, head to the basement and light up a nice, smelly candle and escape with one of these cozy, fireside treats.

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Elvis Week 2017: Day 5 – Hollywood

Day 5: Hollywood – Released from the Army in 1960, Elvis Presley found himself right back in uniform. King went straight to Hollywood to play Specialist Tulsa McLean in “G.I. Blues”. This film is actually a great example of what is good and what is bad about King Movies. “G.I. Blues” is probably his most comedic film that features one of his best comedic performances. Presley breezes through the film with confidence, sings some great songs, and looks fantastic. The cast is pretty good and King interacts with them well and delivers some funny lines with impeccable comedic timing. On the flip side, however, there are some key things wrong with the film that unfortunately became part of the ‘formula’. The bulk of the film takes place in Germany but of course Presley never shot any scenes there. He’s acting up against a screen for some scenes and for others a stand-in is used. The cast, as I said, is not bad but some of the actors are the goofy, lightweight type that we will see ad nauseam in the films to come. Along with the great songs are some lame ones and the soundtrack ‘features’ a lullaby sang to a baby. His next two films were serious dramas, both excellent: “Flaming Star” and “Wild in the Country”. They weren’t received well and performed relatively poorly at the box office so he found himself back in a playful romp, the greatest of all King Movies and my favourite film ever, “Blue Hawaii”. This film featured an exotic locale, pretty girls and 14, count ’em, 14 songs and became Presley’s most successful film. So, the die was cast. People didn’t want to see Serious Elvis. They wanted Fun Elvis. And that’s the paradox: you know “G.I. Blues” and “Blue Hawaii” became the blueprint for every derivative and lightweight film to follow and you wished he would make more serious films. But, man, Fun Elvis is so enjoyable!

The films of Elvis Presley deserve to be studied at length. Presley’s time in Hollywood needs it’s own book or website – I’ve been making notes to this end for years. There is a general and widespread misconception regarding them. Not about their quality, unfortunately, but about the level of enjoyment they – and many other ‘bad’ movies, for that matter – can provide. As I say, there is a paradox at work here: you find yourself frustrated with the lack of quality of most of the films while at the same time you are enjoying them immensely. Again, it’s so hard to accurately and thoroughly report on this area of Presley’s career in such a short space. I think it can be summed up thusly: the years Elvis spent in Hollywood are the years when Col. Tom Parker did the most damage to his client’s reputation. It’s also the time when Parker’s business practices reached the height of thievery and the pinnacle of abuse of power. In a nutshell, basically every deal Parker made in Hollywood for ‘his boy’ succeeded in benefiting himself more than Elvis and showed a blatant disregard for the effect that releasing a succession of family-friendly, light comedy films overloaded with poor songs would have on the reputation and legacy of his only client. Elvis’ acting ability was undervalued and commerce was not only valued by Parker over art but was held up as the only reason to be in Hollywood.

Now the good news. Elvis Presley’s 33 films are infinitely enjoyable. From a strictly critical standpoint, they are hard to defend. They are the very definition of ‘guilty pleasures’. Elvis Presley loved to go to movies as a young man and when the opportunity came to go to Hollywood to make his own films he jumped at the chance and had aspirations of following in James Dean’s footsteps. He wanted to make serious films with no singing. His first four films showed promise: these four showed him in his natural, untamed state, the songs he was made to sing were, for the most part, good – some even great – and he was surrounded by quality actors. Also, keep in mind that in one of them he shoots his brother and in two others he kills men; one he kills with a switchblade in an alley. They were gritty, vibrant and two of them were the best dramas he ever made. But the evil colonel’s plan went into effect when Elvis returned from the Army. And so began a cycle of film contracts that benefited Elvis, yes, but the Colonel even more, box office hits mostly bereft of any artistic quality and songs so asinine that, taken out of the context of the films they were used in, they are slight, ridiculous tripe. It’s even baffling to me that this is what qualified as an album release by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1960’s. Soundtracks. Eight to twelve tracks from the movie with maybe a spare leftover song from the past to flesh it out. The Colonel’s theory was that the films would sell the records and the records would sell the films. For financial reasons, the Colonel had his own stable of songwriters and they filled the movies with songs about fat men overeating, songs about shrimp, about how hard it is to dance in a small vehicle and lullabies sung to babies and small children. They were plot devices not songs. The movies gradually began to feature poor casts and ridiculously claustrophobic studio and back-projection filming techniques. And yet…and yet. Much like Cary Grant and John Wayne, Elvis Presley exuded a natural charisma and a magnetic personality that allowed him to basically play himself in most of his films. And it’s this charm above all other things that makes them so enjoyable. As for the soundtracks, as ridiculous as some of the songs are, Presley’s voice, his style of singing and his way with a song makes a lot of them more-than-listenable. It also helps that there are some genuine gems to be found in these films. The movies are wonderful as ‘comfort viewing’. Often they feature great photography of some beautiful locales, great looking female co-stars, they feature scenarios and lifestyles that any young (or young at heart) person would love to find themselves in and they feature Elvis being Elvis.

By 1967, though, Presley had had enough. He wanted – needed – the exhilaration of live performance again. So, the wheels were set in motion to stop making movies and get back to making records and back to the concert stage. Author Alana Nash has written a mesmerizing book on Col. Tom Parker and his relationship with EP. In this book, she puts forth an astounding notion. Elvis didn’t write his own songs. As previously stated, Parker had a stable of songwriters who were not affiliated with Elvis because they were great songwriters but because they were willing to give up a large percentage of their portion of the profits gained from songwriting to Colonel Tom. These songwriters simply did not have what it took to write songs with a style or a quality to rival the output of Bob Dylan, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Therefore, Elvis spending the bulk of the 1960’s in the vacuum of Hollywood and the family-friendly musical comedy served to preserve his celebrity and keep him visible during this turbulent, political era. Talent and charisma aside, the notion is put forth by author Nash that Presley did not have the apparatus in place to stay relevant during the music scene of the ’60’s. The movies kept him alive in the industry until the time was ripe to bust out of the celluloid prison he was trapped in.

When he emerged, he embarked on a season of artistry that rivaled the significance of his first years. His timing was perfect. Yet again.

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Spotlight on…”The Thin Man”

There are some people left – I hope – who still believe that you cannot have a truly great film without a truly great script. Hot chicks or CGI cannot replace an interesting tale and crisp dialogue. You can’t come up with a better example of this than “The Thin Man” from MGM in 1934. I always come back to what Tom Petty said about Brian Wilson’s mid-’60’s work: “I don’t think there’s anything necessarily better than that”. I love the simplicity of his statement. You can debate art all you want but there are some accomplishments that are beyond debate and even beyond ranking: maybe something is not the “best” but it is an example of “as good as it gets” and – as Petty says – it doesn’t get any better.

Such is the case with “The Thin Man”. There are so many things to recommend this film so let’s start at the beginning. Dashiell Hammett wrote the novel “The Thin Man” and also “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Glass Key”, both of which were made into notable films. Hammett’s hard-boiled work has a great mix of the seedy and the elegant. The gumshoe on the sidewalk and the socialite in the penthouse. Intriguing characters and brisk, genuine dialogue. This film also boasts one of my favorite casts. Not necessarily big stars in all the roles but the familiar faces of character actors you’ve enjoyed in other films. There’s always a comfort level in recognizing most of the actors in a film. William Powell and Myrna Loy deserve their own post. Powell plays Nick Charles. He’s a guy that we all want to be. He’s been a successful amateur sleuth for years, dealing with the seedy characters of the underworld and the speakeasies, the gutters. He gives that all up when, through some wonderful good fortune, he meets and marries a wonderful girl who’s father soon dies, leaving her a fortune. Now, Nick has risen to the penthouse – but he is still a guy from the alleys. Myrna Loy plays his wife, Nora. She’s an heiress, yes, but she is in awe of her Nicky and his world and would love to see him get back to work and solve some crimes. The thing is, Powell and Loy have such incredible chemistry and play this married couple with such sexy verve and romance that their interaction is a joy to watch. The lovely Maureen O’Sullivan plays Dorothy Wynant, a young girl concerned about her missing father. O’Sullivan is perhaps best known for her portrayals of a scantily-clad Jane in the Tarzan series of films starring Johnny Weissmuller. Also, she was married to film director John Farrow and is the mother of Mia Farrow and her sister, Prudence, for whom the Beatles’ song “Dear Prudence” was written. Actress Mia, of course, was married for a short time in the late ’60’s to Frank Sinatra. Maureen O’Sullivan, therefore, was at one time Frank’s mother-in-law (she was 4 years older than Frank). Little-known Edward Ellis plays the father. He is also the ‘thin man’ of the title. He is an inventor who closes up his shop to work secretly on an invention and is never heard from again. Ellis is actually a cool dude. His character is a straight arrow but at the same time something of a ladies man with a menacing streak. Ellis is excellent in the role. Nat Pendelton – with his cinder-block head – plays Lt. Gill who’s put in charge of the case and plays him well. His mug has shown up in many notable films. Harold Huber and Edward Brophy are more familiar faces, character actors playing two of the suspects. Brophy in particular is near and dear to me as he spent some time playing the sidekick of The Falcon. As if that wasn’t enough, Cesar Romero shows up playing a ridiculously suave gigolo-type. In only his fifth film role, the gloriously cool Romero brightens the cast just as he does in any of the films he has made. The only problem here is that his character’s name is ‘Chris Jorgenson’ – one look at the swarthy and handsome Romero and you know he’d never be mistaken for a guy with that name.

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“The Thin Man” is what is known as a “pre-Code” film. This means it was made before the Production Code went into effect. This Code restricted a lot of what could be said, done and depicted in Hollywood films. Now, this wouldn’t apply to things like language and nudity because there was never any fear of those things getting into films in the 1930’s but it did address things like double entendre and innuendo, the depiction of cohabiting and it also stipulated that bad guys must always be punished. This Code actually remained in effect until the late 1960’s when the rating system was adopted. Some of the things depicted in our film that may indicate it was made pre-Code are simple things like the depiction of the nature of Nick and Nora’s marriage. The sexual chemistry between the characters is plainly evident in their interaction. There is a moment near the end of the film, for example, when  Nick and Nora find themselves in the confines of a sleeper on a train. Nora off-handedly suggests that Nick put their dog, Asta, in bed with her. Nick only chuckles, tosses Asta onto the upper berth and bends down to kiss Nora. Even Asta knows what’s going on and covers his eyes with his paws. Young Dorothy, distraught over the thought that her father may be a murderer, decides to break her engagement to nice-guy, Tommy. She goes off with a middle aged lecher. She says she is about to make her “first false step”. This same lecher, in an earlier scene, is drooling over Dorothy and asks Nick who she is. Nick scoffs. “Oh, I used to bounce her on my knee”, he says to which the lecher answers “which knee? Can I touch it?” The police are late bringing one couple to the final dinner at which Nick will reveal who the murderer is. They are late, they say, because they “had to break the door down”. This is met with a look of mock disapproval from Nick. And there are certainly two or three outfits that Nora wears that The Code would have objected to. All these things seem like nothing today – so much so that you’re probably still waiting to hear what’s so objectionable. But such was the movie industry in the 1930’s.

Revisiting all of these scenes brings up the question of who wrote this wonderful script. Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich were a husband and wife writing team and “The Thin Man” was their first hit and was nominated for an Oscar. Makes sense that the Charles’ well-written marriage was written by a husband and wife team. Indeed, their script for “The Thin Man” was and is considered groundbreaking in it’s realistic and sprightly depiction of a vibrant marriage relationship. They went on to be nominated for three additional Oscars and wrote such favourites as “Father of the Bride”, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, “Easter Parade”, “The Long, Long Trailer”, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Diary of Anne Frank”, for which they won a Pulitzer Prize. In the case of our movie, their words had a particularly gifted interpreter. I like what Roger Ebert said: “(William Powell) is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance. His delivery is so droll and insinuating, so knowing and innocent at the same time, that it hardly matters what he’s saying”. But even lesser mortals make these words dance. I wanted to share some examples with you but it’s no use, there’s so many. You really have to watch it. I’ll just leave you with a few teasers: “Yes. A case of scotch”, “What’s that man doing in my drawers?!”, “It’s not true. He didn’t come near my tabloids” and the party the Charles’ throw Christmas Eve is urbane comedy choreographed to it’s absolute finest. Actually, so is the whole movie.

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20th Anniversary of a Life-Changer

I like movies. Some movies I really like. Some I watch over and over because I continually ‘get something’ from them. Some movies have even greatly affected my way of thinking and feeling. Some have actually helped shape my character – who I am as a person. But only one has changed the course of my life.

Now, let’s get this over with: as a Christian person, I believe God has directed my path through life. But I also believe He can use anything to achieve His purposes – including a film about a bunch of drinking, smoking, gambling, skirt-chasing, F-bombing young guys touring the cocktail lounges of Hollywood. I’m talking about the movie “Swingers”, which is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary. It started a chain of events that changed my life.

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It’s October, 1996. I’m weeks away from my 24th birthday. Keep in mind, I’ve grown up loving oldies: popular music from the 1950’s and ’60’s. I love where they ‘take me’ and have a general fascination for the culture and entertainment of mid-century America. So, I’ve traveled through life studying and collecting this music which later began to include the classic rock of the 1970’s. I love Elvis Presley and the rock ‘n’ roll of the ’50’s so much so that I once made the ridiculous statement that ”The Fifties’ actually started in 1954′. I couldn’t conceive of anything substantial having happened in music before Presley and his contemporaries. But I’ve always been aware of ‘other stuff’ going on in the music of the past. The music I hear in the background of my ’50’s movies, for example. And what about Sinatra and Nat ‘King’ Cole? When were they active? Surely not the ’50’s. That decade was just about rock ‘n’ roll. Wasn’t it? And then came the early Sixties with Motown and vocal groups and then the Beatles came and then the hippies, etc. But what about the other side of the coin? What about the singers and the lounge acts? What about the shows in Las Vegas showrooms? This is what I’m beginning to contemplate at this stage of my life: what were the adults listening to at this time? Anyways, by this point in ’96, my main man, Harry Connick, Jr. has released his album, “She” which is a fascinating blend of rock and New Orleans funk. As a follow-up, he has recently – this is summer, ’96 – put out “Star Turtle”, which is even more steeped in New Orleans funk. He is touring and bringing his Funk Band to Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall on November 4th. Here’s where a very dear friend of mine and her husband at the time come in. Fans of Harry as well, the three of us decide to go see him. They treat me as a gift for my birthday which is on November 3rd. So I’m anticipating this show, sensing that Harry is putting down something just a little bit different.

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November 3rd, 1996. Sunday. I turn 24 years old. I’m working the night shift, maintenance at McDonald’s. I get there a bit early and I’m going through the entertainment section of the Toronto Sun. On the very back page I see a picture of three sharp looking guys strolling in front of a Las Vegas casino. I’m intrigued. My first thought is that it’s an article about some new fashion or culture trend coming out of Las Vegas or Los Angeles. I read it and it’s about the movie “Swingers” which does, indeed, depict a new culture trend: the cocktail/lounge revival then taking place in Hollywood. This interests me and the wheels start turning. Days later, again at work, a buddy of mine, Bouncer, comes in saying he was just at a sneak preview of a movie. “Swingers”, he answers sheepishly, figuring I won’t have a clue what he’s talking about. When I express interest, he says I would love it. These guys are like me, he says.

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The next day, November 4th, 1996. As this interest is brewing, my friends and I head down to the Danforth to see Harry. The show Harry lays down is one for the ages. He takes a turn on every instrument on the stage – at one point playing bass while walking up and down the aisles. It’s a full-on, no-glamour, sweaty funk work-out. I get home late that night, head spinning. You see, I know the oldies inside out. Nothing has happened in classic rock that I have missed. Is all that maybe getting old, though? I’m ripe for something new. I’m at home that night, listening to “Star Turtle” and scanning my cassettes. I have no funk. Maybe jazz? What I have at this point is the soundtrack from the Thelonius Monk biopic “Straight No Chaser” and a Frank Sinatra collection of some of his recordings from the late ’40’s. That’s it. So, the next day I head downtown to a couple of my favourite used record stores looking for albums by the Ohio Players, et al. At this point, I’m still learning that the Ohio Players and the Ohio Express are different bands. If you know these two, you know they are VERY different. But this is the thing that is starting to grab me: I know all there is to know about the music I listen to. I don’t just enjoy listening to it, I love to learn about it, to know about it. But now I’m learning that there is music out there that I know nothing about. Not only is the music fascinating me  but I’m getting hungry to learn about it. Despite my stupid comment about the ’50’s, I’m starting to realize that something else was going on in music during that decade. Something cool.

November 8th, 1996 and “Swingers” opens in Toronto and by now I know I have to go and see it. I’m starting to worry that this smaller film may not even make it out to the hinterland of Kitchener, Ontario, where I was living at the time. But it does make it there and I do make it out to see it. It was a matinee Saturday and, not having a car, I have to walk there. An hour and a half, 7 kms (4+ miles). It’s freezing. There is about six people in the theater and two of them get up to leave early on. One particularly head-shaking memory I have of the film is that Dean Martin sings over the opening credits and, at the time, I have no idea who I’m listening to. Now, of course, I know Dino from a mile away. Also distinctive at the time were the video game scenes. These just serve to help me relate to these guys as opposed to just wishing I could be like them. Suffice it to say, I enjoy the film. But more than just enjoying it, it serves as further evidence that there is a whole culture and lifestyle out there that I know nothing about. And what is even better is that this culture had it’s own soundtrack – music I know nothing about. Over the next few weeks, I begin to explore this world I had been introduced to. Most importantly, I make it out to see the film again on a cheap Tuesday night. This time I go with my buddy, Hash. The key thing here was that after two weeks playing in Kitchener, “Swingers” was gone from the theaters there. It had only played in my town for two weeks but I had been twice to see it. Then, of course, I had to find the soundtrack on CD. Another difficult task but I find it and buy it even though it costs north of $25. The search also begins for albums by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the neo-swing act that is featured in the movie. I begin to seek out lounge music CDs, as well. To my surprise and delight, my go-to record store, Encore Records, actually has a lounge section. I buy a volume of Capitol records’ “Ultra-Lounge” series called “Bachelor Pad Royale”. It wasn’t what I expected and I was quite thrown off but I grew to love it. I buy a couple cigars. I try making Manhattans in my apartment. I’m at the movies early that December to see “Jingle All the Way”, of all movies. While I’m waiting to go in, I ask one of the girls that works there if she could check in the back for a “Swingers” poster. Keep in mind at this point no one knew what I was talking about when I mentioned “Swingers”. I remember one guy thought I meant “Sleepers”, a movie out at the time with Bacon, DeNiro, Hoffman and Pitt. She’s easily able to find me a poster which she gives to me for free. It’s still on my wall. The soundtrack for “Jingle All the Way” featured Christmas music by the Brian Setzer Orchestra which became another act I begin to seek out.

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By now it’s the middle of December. Now, for the past two or three years, my friends and I have been regulars at the local Kelsey’s roadhouse. So, I figure maybe Kelsey’s isn’t a cocktail lounge in Hollywood but it’s a good place to start and I begin to envision hanging out there with my friends and also maybe exploring some new venues downtown, maybe with some live music. I’m adding to my music collection, my wardrobe and planning for my upcoming Christmas holidays when I’ll really have the time to ‘get a nightlife’: really start exploring this cocktail culture with my friends. Only one problem: nobody’s up for it. Christmas break comes and I get dressed up sharp as I can, put some tunes on in my apartment and wait for the gang to show up. One by one they can’t for some reason or other: other friends, family, girlfriends, wives, other commitments. See, I was single and living by myself in a town where no one else in my family lived. I worked a crap job. I had all the time in the world. Only no one else seemed to. This is the way it stays into the new year, 1997. Which gets me thinking. Firstly, every one of my friends is pivoting into adult life with all it’s time constraints and responsibilities. Secondly, I have an infinite capacity for mid-century American culture. I’m totally ready to live in the past. I’m all in: jazz and lounge music, cocktails and slacks. But I’m learning that although my friends can dig it, they’re not as captivated as I am. And thirdly: maybe it’s time for me to do some pivoting, too.

So, I decide to get a student loan and go to college. I’ll work my night job, go to class in the day and work on a novel I’m writing every other minute of the day. Which is, like, four. In the spring, my mom invites me down to visit her and my stepfather in Florida. I decide to leave my student loan application with my friend who was going to check on my cat, Reef, asking him to mail it away midweek. While in Florida though, I share my plans with my folks who make me see that if I go ahead as I was planning, I would never have time to work on my novel. They suggest I cut ties in Kitchener and move north to work at their trailer park. I’d live in a 60′ house trailer, work digging ditches and selling sausages and I’d be able to write without worrying about sustaining myself. At first I think there is no way I can leave all my friends and my home and go where I don’t know anybody. The point they made me see was that everybody does what is best for them so I needed to do the same. I could testify to this truth as my friends were moving on and doing what best suited their lives. So I make the monumental decision to quit my job and move. I give McDonalds nine weeks notice and hand in my resignation which reads “That’s it, I quit, I’m leaving the band (John Lennon)”. I’m prepared for an emotional final shift that March – when I get the call to not come in. With pay. They didn’t want me to be there with nothing to lose. Who knows what I’d get up to my final shift. So, real touching from them. I tell all my friends I’m moving and say my goodbyes. Before leaving town I’m sure to make two purchases: black, hi-cut canvas Converse and a package of white undershirts.

So, April 1st, 1997, is when I reached my own pivot point. I moved to rural southern Ontario to run the Dog Patch Diner, selling hot dogs, sausages and coffee. I did dig many ditches, preparing to lay wires for hydro-equipped campsites. One night eight weeks later, I had closed up the diner for the night and was walking back to my trailer with a box full of dirty dishes. I walked by two girls and heard one ask the other “who is that?” It’s me, honey, your future husband. I met Andrea that May long weekend and eight weeks later I asked her to marry me. We’ve been together ever since. I left the Dog Patch Diner for a factory job and I’ve been there ever since. To this day, I haven’t worked on that novel for one minute.

As time went by, drinking gin martinis or Jack Daniels and water alone in my basement – and sometimes being called upon late at night to check on our babies in their cribs – soon made me reassess and to question just how much I was getting out of drinking. It eventually went by the boards. But with the tolerant approval of my wife, I delved deeper and deeper into “mid-century modern” culture. My music and movie collections – and my wardrobe – continue to grow. I always say I’ve got 24 favourite movies: 11 from my young adult days and 10 from my adult life. And three absolute favourites up on top of the pile. “Swingers” is number three because I rank those three in the order in which I was introduced to them. Out of all of those 24 movies I love so much, only one has caused me to get up and seek a new life.

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