A THOMAS EAKINS FOR TODAY

“Taking the Count”, from 1896 — one of several very cool Eakins works depicting “the ring”.

Eakins had a decidedly non-Romantic attitude towards his subjects, which attracted a lot of criticism from the art establishment of his day.  As a teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy Of the Fine Arts he preferred to have his students draw from nude models rather than from plaster casts and was ultimately fired for removing the loincloth from a male model while female students were present.  This contrarian strain has given him a bona fides with modern critics — he's one of the few Victorian academic painters it is fashionable to admire.

Whatever.

JUST BEFORE JAZZ

Thomas Riis's fascinating book Just Before Jazz examines the influence of black composers and performers on American musical theater between 1890 and 1915 — that is, just before the era in which the modern book musical began to take shape.

The songs of black composers were very similar in many ways to the popular songs written by white composers, even the white composers of operettas.  A number of black composers in this period (like Will Marion Cook, below) were highly sophisticated, classically trained musicians, capable of writing and performing in any style.  (Many of them were “slumming” in popular theater because of barriers to their involvement in more refined areas of practice.)

What distinguished their work was the incorporation of the sort of syncopations found in ragtime, which became a popular sensation around the turn of the century.  Their work didn't emphasize such syncopations to the degree that ragtime did — they were more like stylistic inflections — but they thrilled audiences of the time.

Among the most popular songs in this period, an astonishing percentage were written by black composers, and they included not only minstrel-type songs but ethnically neutral ones.  It was the purely rhythmic lilt that made the difference.

Almost all of these songs were first done for musical shows originating in New York City, often in Broadway productions, leading Riis to argue that black composers bear the primary credit for introducing black musical strains into the American musical.  Berlin and Kern and Gershwin weren't “reaching down” into an exotic black musical culture for inspiration — they were responding, artistically and commercially, to developments in the world of musical theater all around them.

You have to wonder why these black composers aren't better known today.  Partly it's because the lyrics of many of their songs are offensive to modern ears — the “coon song” was a typical genre, with its caricatures derived from minstrel shows.  As black songwriters became more powerful, however, they toned down the uglier aspects of these caricatures, leaving stereotypes comparable to those attached to other ethnic groups like the Irish and the “Dutch” (as Germans were once called.)  These stereotypes aren't congenial to our present tastes, perhaps, but they aren't exactly vicious, either.

More importantly, these black composers failed to achieve wider celebrity, and failed to enter our cultural memory, because they could not participate fully in the flowering of musical comedy in the later decades of the 20th Century.  Their songs were bought and performed by white performers in vaudeville, were sometimes interpolated into shows with white casts and were disseminated nationally via sheet music, but in the theater, they wrote primarily for all-black shows.  Broadway had a place for such shows, but it was a limited place.

Black composers were very rarely hired to provide complete musical programs for shows with white casts — they never became part of the mainstream of producers, musicians and writers who created the ordinary run of Broadway musicals.  White composers adapted the style of their black peers within an establishment that stayed predominantly white.

So today, when we hear Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien singing “Under the Bamboo Tree” in the movie musical Meet Me In St. Louis, we likely have no idea that this song, a monster hit in 1903, with a tune that is still familiar and still infectious, melodically and rhythmically, was written by three black men, James Weldon Johnson, his brother Rosamond Johnson and Bob Cole.  Below, a portrait of Cole and Rosamond Johnson:

But the past, of course, as an old Russian saying has it, is always unpredictable.

A ROOM SOMEWHERE

I'm a child of rock and roll.  The first song I remember hearing on the radio, when I was seven years-old, was Elvis Presley's “All Shook Up”.  I don't have a distinct memory of hearing “Hound Dog”, which came out a year earlier, on the radio but I remember some of the cultural fall-out it caused.  I lived in a tiny town in rural North Carolina at the time, and a kid in my first-grade class who lived on a nearby farm brought his guitar to school one day and played the song for us.  I guess it was the first time it dawned on him that knowing how to play the guitar might be seen as a cool thing by his peers.

I remember seeing Elvis perform the song on the Ed Sullivan show, later that year.  A year after that, Jailhouse Rock was the first movie I was ever allowed to go see at night.

I can't say, though, that any of Elvis's songs got to me at that age.  They were just part of the landscape — part of the soundtrack of everyday life.  I didn't really start to appreciate Elvis until I was in my twenties, and didn't own recordings of any of those early hits until then.

The first popular music that got to me came on an LP record.  It was the first LP record my family ever owned, bought to play on our first record player, which my dad brought home as a surprise one day in 1956 and which looked something like this:

It's possible that the LP came with the set, but more likely that my dad bought the player so he could listen to the LP.  It was the Broadway cast recording of My Fair Lady.

This LP was even more popular than Elvis's LPs back then — the My Fair Lady cast recording still holds the record for the most weeks on Billboard's top forty charts.  If my dad bought our first record player just so he could hear it, I'm sure he was doing what tens of thousands of other Americans were doing at the same time.

The extended-play LP — which could fit 26 minutes of music on a side — was only four years old in 1956.  It was developed primarily to fit all the songs from a typical musical on one record, and it was the cast recordings of popular musicals like Kiss Me Kate and My Fair Lady that really established the format.

My dad loved the recording of My Fair Lady and played it over and over.  The song I remember him liking the most was “A Hymn To Him”, with the refrain “Why can't a woman be more like a man?”  The song that got to me was “Wouldn't It Be Loverly?” with its sweet melody and its air of longing:

All I want is a room somewhere,
Far away from the cold night air,
With one enormous chair —
Oh, wouldn't it be loverly?

I'm not sure what I might have been longing for back in those happy times, but the feeling of it struck a chord.

My family always bought the recordings of the big hit Broadway shows — The King and I, Flower Drum Song, Camelot, The Sound Of Music, Funny Girl.  I always loved them, played them over and over, found myself touched by the ballads in particular.  For all that, I never thought of Broadway show tunes as “my music” — when I got to the age when I could choose my own records to buy, they were records of folk and then rock music.  The show tunes were just hidden away somewhere in my heart . . .

. . . until one day, very late in life, I realized what they'd meant to me, what good companions they'd been, what good companions they are and always will be.

“Wouldn't It Be Loverly?” from that 1956 LP still takes me back with uncanny efficiency to the den in my family's house in Belhaven, North Carolina where I first heard it at the age of six.  No other version of the song does this.

Julie Andrews, by the way, was only twenty years-old when she recorded it:


SERUM TO CODFISH COVE (PAGE TEN)

The tenth and final page of “Serum To Codfish
Cove” by the legendary Carl Barks, found on Rodney Bowcock's Comics and Stories blog, which
Mr. Bowcock has sadly just abandoned.

All ends well, of course, though Donald is soon back to his old ways . . . because nothing ever changes too much in Duckburg.

This delightful work has been posted as a tribute to Barks and Mr. Bowcock, whose blog will be missed.

SERUM TO CODFISH COVE (PAGE NINE)

The ninth page of “Serum To Codfish
Cove” by the legendary Carl Barks, found on Rodney Bowcock's Comics and Stories blog, which
Mr. Bowcock has sadly just abandoned.

I said in my comments on the previous page of this story that Donald's
repentance resolved the moral aspect of the fable — the boasting that led Donald into the mess he's in.  He's gotten his comeuppance and he knows it.  This wasn't the moral climax of the tale, though, which comes here, when the nephews decide to give all the credit for their actions to Donald.  This will lead to a final ironic twist in the next and concluding page.

Great cut between the third and fourth panels above.  As usual when the action gets intense, Barks plays with the panel borders to indicate dislocation.  Notice how the head of the spy in the third panel actually violates the border of the first panel, which suggests at first glance that the spy is within the nephews' line of sight, even though he isn't literally sharing the space depicted in the panel.

Stay tuned for the final page of this delightful work, posted as a tribute to Barks and Mr. Bowcock, whose blog will be missed.

WAY OUT

A second report from a recent cultural pilgrimage to New York by Paul
Zahl:



They were all broadcast at nine-thirty, Friday nights on CBS, starting
in March of 1961, right before
The Twilight Zone.


I'm referring to the insanely scary episodes of Roald Dahl's
short-lived television series entitled
Way Out.

[That's Dahl above, about six years before he did Way Out.]


Do you remember them?



They were grisly, brief, almost always with surprising and shocking
endings, and made a huge impression on watchers of any age.



When I compare the impact of
Way Out to The Outer Limits, which was
great, and
The Twilight Zone, which was greater . . .


. . .
Way Out wins the race.


There was not one single element of humor, except that of the henpecked
or cuckolded, and therefore vengeful, husband — a frequent theme.



The music, by Robert Cobert — who would later do
Dark Shadows, Kolchak the Night Stalker, and all the Dan Curtis productions of the
1970s — was extremely eerie.



And Dick Smith, who went on to become a Hollywood legend, did the
Gothic makeup jobs.


 


But the thing is, you can't see them!  They're impossible to see.
They've never been officially released to DVD or video, although four,
and four only, are unofficially available in very poor video versions. 
The reason they haven't been released involves some complicated rights
issues — but David Susskind, who produced the series, gave copies of
the shows to The Museum of Broadcasting in New York City, now known as
the Paley Media Center, on West 52nd Street.



It is only there that these shocking little segments of early Sixties
television can be viewed.


 


They
can be viewed, however.



 


Last Thursday, after seeing
Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre the
night before, I went up to midtown and staked out a scholar's console
in the Library of the Paley Center.



I was able to watch four episodes of
Way Out, all of which I had seen
in 1961, with a child's (haunted) eyes; and none of which I had seen
again since those unsettling Friday nights in Georgetown, D.C.



The one I was most interested in seeing was the scariest, at least
then, and is called “Soft Focus”.


 


“Soft Focus” is 29 minutes of Barry Morse playing a photographer who
has invented a retouching agent for his portraits of people, which has
the side effect of retouching their actual faces.  Thus a little boy
loses an ugly birthmark which “Dr. Pell” has erased in the lab.  Then,
too, an actress whose face has been scarred is able to be beautiful
again with the help of Dr. Pell.  Dr. Pell's wife, however, Louise, is
involved with her husband's young assistant.  Louise doesn't know that
her husband knows what is going on.


 


He begins to 'touch up' a photograph of her.  She starts to age.  (He
touches up his own photograph, too, to make himself look younger.) When she
begins to look about 50 or so — and she looks awful — her boyfriend
jilts her.  Enraged and abandoned, she enters her husband's studio and
right in front of his eyes, pours the whole bottle of solution on his
portrait.  He screams, and in the climax, which no one who saw it in
1961 ever forgot, he turns towards his gloating wife, and towards the
camera, with half his face wiped away, a perfect blank.



Dick Smith accomplished the effect perfectly.  Barry Morse just stares
at you, the left side of his face a smooth nothing of putty.



 


“Soft Focus” was written by Phil Riesman, Jr., a prolific TV writer who
specialized in history-based shows but wrote three episodes of
Way
Out
.  The basic idea of Reisman's script for “Soft Focus”, the
unrelenting evil of the villain's vengeance, and of his philandering
wife's vengeance in return, is completely uncompromised.  The
television
mise-en-scène is perfect, mostly closeups, with two long
shots, one to show that Dr. Pell knows about his wife's infidelity; and
the last shot of the show, viewing the screaming, flailing, helpless
victim of his own wrath in shadow, shadow, shadow.


 


There is no moral or religious significance  to “Soft Focus”, nor to
any of the
Way Out teleplays — and I am interested in finding such
significance when I can.  “Soft Focus” is a completely shattering use
of the small screen to horrify and make an indelible impression on the
viewer, again of any age.


 


Take the time to visit the Paley Media Center on the north side of
52nd Street between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue.  There's much else to
see.



I was told by the very nice keeper of the consoles that no one ever
asks for these
Way Out episodes except one peculiar gentleman who
comes twice a year and asks to see them all.


She doesn't know his name but seems to remember the face.  This is
really true.


 


I wonder if  his name is Pell.  I wonder if his face is even more
memorable than she says.



[Editor's Note:  There was a bit of humor in the series, provided by
Dahl's on-camera introductions, in the first of which he said, “The
story we are about to see is
not for children, nor young lovers, nor people with queasy stomachs. It
is for wicked old women.”

SERUM TO CODFISH COVE (PAGE EIGHT)

The eighth page of “Serum To Codfish
Cove” by the legendary Carl Barks, found on Rodney Bowcock's Comics and Stories blog, which
Mr. Bowcock has sadly just abandoned.

With the nephews on the case, Barks's story kicks into high gear.  Donald's repentance resolves the moral aspect of the fable — all that's left now is action and consequence.  We've come a long way from the first cozy scene in the house, with the snow piling up outside and Donald wanting to read about it in the newspaper — and yet, in the next to last panel above, Codfish Cove, finally in sight, seems farther away than ever.

I'll be
posting the whole thing (ten pages in all) as a tribute to Barks and to
Mr. Bowcock, whose blog will be missed.

STELLA MARIS

Mary Pickford's Stella Maris, from 1918, is a genuinely strange film, not by any
means, I think, the conventional melodrama it pretends to be. Pickford plays two roles in it — the pampered, protected,
ethereal Stella Maris and the homely, hard-luck Unity Blake, a
characterization bordering on the grotesque. On paper, the title role
ought to be the star part, and in a way it is — Stella gets the good
lighting, the pretty clothes and the guy. But Unity steals the show,
blowing all the other actors off the screen — including Pickford as
Stella in the double exposures.


Stella is sweet, but she delivers little more than poise on screen,
while Unity has energy, quirkiness, self-perception and soul. The
performance by Pickford in the role is sublime — she never strikes a
false note, never steps beyond the twisted, battered persona of the
orphan Unity . . . and yet in her moments of despair, yearning,
resolution, she achieves the kind of transcendent beauty we often see
shining out from behind the many grotesque masks of Lon Chaney. Stella,
by contrast, seems like something seen in a shop window.




It's hard not to believe that there was something deliberate in this,
however unconscious. Perhaps it could be explained by the fact that
Pickford simply got carried away, inspired beyond reason, by the role
of Unity. But why pull back so far in the other role? Stella has little
to do beyond smile or sigh at the wickedness of the world. Stella is a
doll-woman, Unity is a force of nature, and the contrast is
illuminating.



It's finally very difficult to come up with a reason for the hero to fall in
love with Stella — the love scenes between them are oddly bloodless
and perfunctory. There are a lot of reasons for him to fall in love
with Unity, who loves him hopelessly. The two times he and Unity
embrace in the film are electrifying and very moving. There's something
close to bitterness in the choices Pickford makes in the two
characterizations and it sets the melodrama of the story on its ear.




I think it's fair to see in the dual role some kind of metaphor for
female duality — not the duality of woman as a man might conceive it,
between angel and whore, but as a woman might, as Pickford might,
between ugly-ducking and swan. Pickford was hardly a “normal” woman of
the early 20th Century — but she played one on stage and on screen.
The contrast between the normal life she incarnated dramatically and
the actual life she led must have weighed on her psyche. She was not a
conventional beauty, yet her attractiveness put bread on her family's
table — the judgment of others, of men, often meant the difference
between success and failure. Is it too fanciful to imagine that she
sometimes, in the tough times, looked at herself in the mirror — as
Unity does in this film — and despaired of her assets, feeling doomed?



Certainly Pickford's heart is with Unity in this film — and so is the
viewer's. The performance is one of the greatest achievements of silent
cinema. It defines the film in a way that would not have been possible
in the sound era, when the literary text set such a limit on what a
film could be, could mean. A transcendent performance that violated the
text, as Pickford's performance as Unity violates the text of Stella
Maris
, would have resulted at best in an interesting failure in a
sound film. Here it results in an improbable, breathtaking, emotionally
disconcerting masterpiece.