Saturday, September 14, 2019

THE FILMS OF BILLIE HOLIDAY

It is sad that with the racism in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s that more African American actresses and actors were not allowed to make their mark on Hollywood. One such star that I think had the potential to make great films was Billie Holiday. She could have been the black Judy Garland. Like Garland, Billie had her share of pain and sorrow that could have transcribed to Hollywood nicely. However, throughout Billie's career, she was only in a few movies.

The first movie she appeared in was as an extra in The Emperor Jones from 1933. The Emperor Jones is a 1933 American pre-Code film adaptation of the Eugene O'Neill play of the same title, was made outside of the Hollywood studio system, financed with private money from neophyte wealthy producers, and directed by iconoclast Dudley Murphy, who had sought O'Neill's permission to film the play since its 1924 production in New York. He cast Paul Robeson in his first film role, Dudley Digges, Frank H. Wilson, and Fredi Washington. The screenplay was written by DuBose Heyward and filmed at Kaufman Astoria Studios with the beach scene shot at Jones beach Long Beach, New York. Robeson starred in the O'Neill play on stage, both in the United States and England, a role that had helped launch his career. Good luck spotting Billie in the film though.


Two years later, Billie appeared with Duke Ellington in Symphony In Black. The film is a nine-and-a-half minute musical short produced in 1935 that features Duke Ellington’s early extended piece, "A Rhapsody of Negro Life". The short was directed by Fred Waller and distributed by Paramount Pictures. Symphony in Black represents a landmark in musical, cultural, and entertainment history as well as significant progress in Ellington’s own biography. It is a member of the first generation of non-classically arranged orchestral scores and perhaps most importantly, one of the first films written by an African-American describing African-American life to reach wide distribution.


A decade would pass before Billie would make her biggest movie appearance in New Orleans (1947). New Orleans is a 1947 American musical romance film featuring Billie Holiday as a singing maid and Louis Armstrong as a bandleader; supporting players Holiday and Armstrong perform together and portray a couple becoming romantically involved. During one song, Armstrong's character introduces the members of his band, a virtual Who's Who of classic jazz greats, including trombonist Kid Ory, drummer Zutty Singleton, clarinetist Barney Bigard, guitar player Bud Scott, bassist George "Red" Callender, pianist Charlie Beal, and pianist Meade Lux Lewis. Also performing in the film is cornetist Mutt Carey and bandleader Woody Herman. The music, however, takes a back seat to a rather conventional plot. The movie stars Arturo de Córdova and Dorothy Patrick, features Marjorie Lord, and was directed by Arthur Lubin.


Billie's only other movie appearance was in another short called Sugar Chile in 1950. The film  presented five jazz numbers in a 15-minute running time. The film includes Billie Holiday performing "God Bless the Child" and "Now, Baby or Never", the Count Basie Sextet performing "One O'Clock Jump", and juvenile performer Frank "Sugar Chile" Robinson performing "Numbers Boogie" and "After School Boogie". The film was directed by Will Cowan and produced and released by Universal-International Pictures. 

More screen roles were becoming available to African American actresses in the 1950s, and some great actresses emerged like Dorothy Dandridge and Ruby Dee, but by the mid 1950s Billie's life was spiraling out of control, and she had a hard time remembering lyrics let alone lines of dialogue. The film career of Billie Holiday should have better, but luckily her voice did the acting for her during her career...


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

ELIZABETH TAYLOR AND 9/11

The last, strange decade of Elizabeth’s life began with one of the most cataclysmic events in American history, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Michael Jackson was in New York, where he’d just given two concerts, on the 7th and 10th of September, at Madison Square Garden, to which he had brought two of his closest friends and idols: Marlon Brando and Elizabeth. His original idea had been for them to sit onstage like two great Easter Island figureheads flanking the show, but instead they sat in the audience. All three found themselves trapped in the city after the Twin Towers fell. Michael had gotten a call from friends in Saudi Arabia who warned that America was under attack. He hollered down the hallway of his hotel for everyone in his entourage, and for Brando, to leave immediately. Elizabeth was staying at another hotel, the St. Regis, a few blocks away. Now here’s where the story gets complicated. In one version, these three towering icons of American pop culture planned their escape, afraid that they would be the next target. Michael and Brando had trouble leaving their hotel garage because fans kept banging on the car windows, following them down the street, screaming. Unable to fly, they drove out of the city.


The actor Corey Feldman, whom Michael had befriended when Feldman was a child star, remembers that he and Michael had quarreled the previous night at Michael’s show, in Elizabeth’s dressing room backstage at Madison Square Garden. “Elizabeth hadn’t arrived yet, and then 9/11 happened. But I remember that [the next day] Michael was trying to get Elizabeth out! He was at first looking for a private jet,” Feldman recalls. “He wanted permission to fly out—but everything was surreal. I didn’t go with him.”

A former employee of Michael Jackson’s says that Michael, like General Washington, led his entourage to a temporary safe haven in New Jersey, before the three superstars took to the open road. “They actually got as far as Ohio—all three of them, in a car they drove themselves!” he recalls. Brando allegedly annoyed his traveling companions by insisting on stopping at nearly every KFC and Burger King they passed along the highway. One can only imagine the shock their appearance caused at gas stations and rest stops across America.

But one of Elizabeth’s close friends and assistants, who asks to remain anonymous, insists that Elizabeth did not flee New York with her two companions. “Elizabeth stayed behind,” he insists, “where she went to a church to pray, and she went to an armory where people were who couldn’t get home or who’d stayed behind to look for the missing. She also went down to Ground Zero, where she met with first responders. Eventually, the airports opened and she flew home.” She may well have done some of those things, though no reports surfaced in the media of sightings of Elizabeth Taylor ministering to the frightened and wounded or showing up at Ground Zero. But it was during and after the crisis that Elizabeth’s relationship with Michael—whom she already adored—deepened...


Saturday, September 7, 2019

HOLLYWOOD BEAUTY: RITA HAYWORTH

This feature, spotlighting Hollywood beauty, has not appeared on my blog since 2015 so I figured I would revive it with one of the most beautiful women of the 1940s - Rita Hayworth. Rita had a sad life, but these pictures show her at her most beautiful...










Wednesday, September 4, 2019

A TRIBUTE TO MY WEDDING - 15 YEARS LATER

It is hard to believe that today marks 15 years since I got married. My wife is my past, my present, and my exciting future. I wish all of my readers would know what an amazing woman she is. For fifteen years she has been my best friend, and every day she makes me a better man...


Saturday, August 31, 2019

BORN ON THIS DAY: BUDDY HACKETT

The great and underrated Buddy Hackett was born on this day some 95 years ago! Every role Buddy was a part of was funny and great. He was really an underrated comic. Hackett was born in Brooklyn, New York to Anna (née Geller) and Philip Hacker, an upholsterer and part-time inventor. He grew up on 54th and 14th Ave in Borough Park, Brooklyn, across from Public School 103. He graduated from New Utrecht High School in 1942.

While still a student, he began performing in nightclubs in the Catskills Borscht Belt resorts as "Butch Hacker". He appeared first at the Golden Hotel in Hurleyville, New York, and he claimed he did not get one single laugh.He enlisted in the United States Army during World War II and served for three years
in an anti-aircraft battery.

Hackett's movie career began in 1950 with a 10-minute "World of Sports" reel for Columbia Pictures called King of the Pins. The film demonstrated championship bowling techniques, with expert Joe Wilman demonstrating the right way and Hackett (in pantomime) exemplifying the wrong way. Hackett would not return to movies until 1953, after one of his nightclub routines attracted attention. With a rubber band around his head to slant his eyes, Hackett's "The Chinese Waiter" lampooned the heavy dialect, frustration, and communication problems encountered by a busy waiter in a Chinese restaurant: "No, we no have sprit-pea soup ... We gotta wonton, we got eh-roll ... No orda for her, juss orda for you!" The routine was such a hit that Hackett made a recording of it, and was hired to reprise it in the Universal-International musical Walking My Baby Back Home (1953), in which he was third-billed under Donald O'Connor and Janet Leigh.


Hackett was an emergency replacement for the similarly built Lou Costello in 1954. Abbott and Costello were set to make a feature-length comedy Fireman, Save My Child, featuring Spike Jones and His City Slickers. Several scenes had been shot with stunt doubles when Lou Costello was forced to withdraw due to illness. Universal-International salvaged the project by hiring Hugh O'Brian and Hackett to take over the Abbott and Costello roles, using already shot footage of the comedy duo in some long shots; Jones and his band became the main attraction.

Hackett became known to a wider audience when he appeared on television in the 1950s and '60s as a frequent guest on variety talk shows hosted by Jack Paar and Arthur Godfrey, telling brash, often off-color jokes, and mugging at the camera. Hackett was a frequent guest on both the Jack Paar and the Johnny Carson versions of The Tonight Show. According to the board game Trivial Pursuit, Hackett has the distinction of making the most guest appearances in the history of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Two of Buddy's greatest film roles were in The Music Man (1962) as Marcellus Washburn and in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) as Benjy Benjamin. The two movies is what I remember Buddy Hackett from the most. Sadly he died of a stroke in 2003...


Wednesday, August 28, 2019

WHAT A CHARACTER: NEDRA VOLZ

You may ask who the heck is Nedra Volz? If you grew up in the 1980s as I did, then you woud recognize her in many television shows. Born in Montrose, Iowa on June 18, 1908, she began her career in the family tent show, and appeared in vaudeville as a toddler (called "Baby Nedra"). In the early 1930s, Volz was featured vocalist with Cato's Vagabonds, a Des Moines, Iowa, big band that briefly enjoyed national popularity. Cato never made records, but Nedra managed to appear on exactly one 78 side, with Will Osborne's orchestra in 1933.

Beginning with an episode of Good Times in 1975, she became a well-recognized supporting character actress, primarily on television and also in feature films. Nedra often played grandmothers or feisty little old ladies, in 1970s sitcoms such as Alice, Maude and One Day at a Time, after she appeared in two of Norman Lear's summer television series: as Grandma Belle Durbin in A Year at the Top in 1977 and as Bill Macy's housekeeper Pinky Nolan in Hanging In in 1979. In 1978, Volz appeared in the pilot episode of the TV series WKRP in Cincinnati, where she whacked a turntable with her umbrella in protest of the station's format change, and in All In The Family was Edith's spinster relative and unwelcome visitor, Aunt Iola. In 1980, she appeared in several Jack in the Box TV spots as they blew up Jack.


By 1980 she appeared on TV almost weekly, starting with a recurring role as housekeeper Adelaide Brubaker in the sitcom Diff'rent Strokes. In 1981 she landed another recurring role as Emma Tisdale on the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. In the 1982–83 season, Volz was the matriarch in the Filthy Rich, a series spoofing prime-time soap operas of the day. Volz's character Winona "Mother B" Beck, was the discarded first wife of cryogenically frozen Big Guy Beck (Slim Pickens and, after his death, Forrest Tucker), constantly trying to escape from the nursing home to return to the family mansion, Toad Hall. Volz's final series role was as the bail-bonds woman that hired Lee Majors bounty-hunter character on The Fall Guy from 1985 until the series ended in 1986.

In "Mission of Peace", a 1986 episode of The A-Team, she was one of a group of senior citizens forced into asking the team for help. She portrayed the roles of Mrs. Perwinkle and Angelica on The Super Mario Bros. Super Show in 1989. She remained a guest star for on such series as Night Court, Coach, The Commish and Babes into the early 1990s and she continued to act well into her eighties.

In Moving Violations, director Neil Israel allowed her to do many stunts herself, including being lifted into a window and falling head-first onto the floor. Volz's last acting role was in The Great White Hype in 1996. She died on January 20, 2003 of Alzheimer's disease...


Sunday, August 25, 2019

THE WIZARD OF OZ: 80 YEARS LATER

The much-loved film first appeared on August 25, 1939 at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, The Wizard of Oz was one of the best-loved Hollywood films ever made. It was the most expensive movie Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had produced to date and it made an international star of Judy Garland, who had begun life with the not wildly glamorous name of Frances Gumm, but endowed with a compelling singing voice. MGM signed her aged 13 in 1935 and did its utmost to pretend that she was still a young teenager when she played the role of the film’s 12-year-old heroine, Dorothy Gale, who with her dog Toto is blown away by a whirlwind to Oz in Munchkin Land. Following the yellow brick road to find the Wizard of Oz, who she hopes will use his magic to send her home, she falls in with the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion (played by Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr, respectively), who also need the Wizard’s help. The travellers are welcomed to Munchkin Land by its inhabitants, the Munchkins, played by an assortment of dwarfs. The Wizard turns out to be a fake and Dorothy eventually returns home by clapping her hands three times and saying ‘There’s no place like home’.

In 1934, Samuel Goldwyn bought the film rights to the children’s novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum which was originally published in 1900. Goldwyn paid $75,000 for the rights and was hoping to turn it into a major motion picture and considered casting Shirley Temple as Dorothy and Eddie Cantor as the Scarecrow. (The Oz story had been previously adapted into a Broadway musical, which debuted in 1903, and also several different versions of the story were made into silent films). 


At the beginning of 1938, Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) studios bought the rights from Samuel Goldwyn. The screenplay went through several revisions before the final draft was approved in October 1938. The principal roles were cast with Judy Garland as Dorothy (she was only 17 years old at the time production started and after the movie was released it would make her a major motion picture star), Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Jack Haley as the Tin Man and Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West and Frank Morgan as the Wizard of Oz. Buddy Ebsen was originally cast in the role of the Tin Man; he filmed a few scenes and then was eventually replaced with Jack Haley. (For more interesting casting notes, please see “The Wizard of Oz” movie trivia section later in this post)
Sadly, there was to be no place like home for Garland herself. Her life was a miserable progression through mental problems, addiction to alcohol and drugs, failed relationships, suicide attempts and desperate unhappiness until death freed her when she was 47 in 1969....