Saturday, May 2, 2015

Laurel & Hardy in "The Music Box"

When I was in school at least once a year, every year, our science teacher would tell us that we would not want to miss the next day as we would be covering some very important material. It never failed that following the day the important material would turn out to be two classic Laurel & Hardy shorts. In my four years in high school our science teacher showed some of the best known work Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy ever did: "Them Thar Hills" (1934), "Busy Bodies" (1933), "Helpmates" (1932), and, of course, "The Music Box" (1932).

"The Music Box" has always been my favourite Laurel & Hardy short, and I'm hardly alone in that. It is the favourite of many, perhaps most, of the Laurel & Hardy fans I know. In fact, of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy's many short subjects, it has the highest user rating at IMDB. "The Music Box" has also been imitated several times over the years.

For those who have never seen "The Music Box", its premise is deceptively simple. Laurel & Hardy operate a moving company, the Laurel and Hardy Transfer Company. They are hired by Mrs. Theodore von Schwartzenhoffen (played by Gladys Gale) to move a piano that is a birthday present for her husband, Professor Theodore Von Schwarzenhoffen (played by Billy Gilbert). Unfortunately, the Von Schwarzenhoffen's house turns out to be at the top of some very steep steps. Those steps only turn out to be the beginning of Stan and Ollie's problems in moving the piano.

While "The Music Box" would prove to be one of Laurel & Hardy's most popular and influential shorts, it was actually in part a remake of their earlier silent short "Hats Off" from 1927. "Hats Off" involved Stan and Ollie attempting to sell a washing machine and then having to move said washing machine up the exact same steps where they would try to move the piano five years later. In fact, it was those flight of steps--an actual flight of steps between 923 and 937 Vendome Street in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles--that would provide the inspiration for "Hats Off". Hal Roach had earlier used the location for the 1925 Charley Chase short "Isn't Life Terrible?". Seeing the rather precipitous steps, it occurred to Mr. Roach that men moving a heavy object up them would make for great comedy. Sadly, "Hats Off" is a lost film; it has not been seen since 1930.

Of course, one of the major differences between "Hats Off" and "The Music Box" is that in "Hats Off" it is a washing machine that is being moved, while in "The Music Box" it is a piano. According to Billy Gilbert in an interview in the Sixties, it was decided to use a piano instead of a washing machine because a piano is not only heavy and unwieldy, but also somewhat fragile. Naturally this would not only create more dramatic tension (will the piano come crashing down at any moment?), but also more comedy. The crate that Laurel and Hardy moved in much of the film was actually empty, so that it was actually both lighter and more manoeuvrable than it would have been had it contained a piano. That having been said, for the scene in which it comes careening down all 131 steps an actual piano was used. While an actual piano was used for that scene, however, the piano that is destroyed in the climax of "The Music Box" was actually a mock up of a piano made of balsa wood and a few parts from an actual piano.

Shooting at an actual location did present some problems for the production. While most Laurel & Hardy shorts were shot in sequence, "The Music Box" had to be shot out of sequence because the cast and crew would often have to wait for the proper light from the sun due to changing cloud conditions. Another problem resulted from the sheer superstardom of  Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. During the shoot a special squad of police had to be assigned to the steps due to a crowd of  3500 fans gathered to watch the production. There are some estimates that during lunch breaks Laurel & Hardy signed over 2000 autographs. Not only was much of "The Music Box" shot at an actual location, but many of the sounds there are reportedly authentic as well. Recording engineers were sent to the location to record actual sounds from the area for use as ambient sound for the short.

The steps used in the filming of "The Music Box" are still there. There is even a sign at their top on Descanso Drive identifying them as "the 'Music Box' Steps". Of course, in reality the steps do not and never have led to a mansion at their top. The mansion that features in the film was actually a set at Hal Roach studios.  Despite the difficulty that shooting on location presented, "The Music Box" was shot in a little less than two weeks in December 1931.

"The Music Box" was released on April 16 1932 and proved to be incredibly popular on its first release. In fact, it became the very first short subject to win the Academy Award for Live Action Short Film (Comedy). Of course, this also means that it was the very first Laurel & Hardy short to win an Oscar. They would win one more Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Comedy for "Tit for Tat" (1935). Over the years "The Music Box" has had an enduring impact on popular culture. Two short stories by Laurel & Hardy fan Ray Bradbury were inspired by "The Music Box":  "Another Fine Mess" and "The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair". One of a series of commercials made for Aamco that featured actors Jim McGeorge and Chuck McCann as Laurel & Hardy was a take off on "The Music Box". Blake Edwards's 1986 film A Fine Mess took its primary inspiration from " The Music Box". It was in 1997 that "The Music Box" was chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Seen today "The Music Box" remains one of the finest achievements in motion picture comedy. That it has endured for over eighty years can be chalked up to a number of factors, not the least of which are the players. Stan and Ollie are in top form in "The Music Box". Stan is at his most child-like and innocent, while the frustration of moving the piano gives Ollie ample opportunity to display his patented slow-burn. In some ways "The Music Box" is the quintessential Laurel & Hardy short, in which two simple, sweet natured, but none too bright fellows struggle to accomplish something through mounting difficulties to no avail. Billy Gilbert also gives a great performance as Professor Theodore Von Schwarzenhoffen, M.D., A.D., D.D.S., F.L.D., F-F-F-and-F. Indeed, the professor is one of the best characters Mr. Gilbert ever played. Not only is he excitable and nervous, but he is arguably even downright psychotic. The combination of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy's simple characters with Billy Gilbert's more worldly, but volatile character, proved to be comic magic in "The Music Box".

Of course, another factor in the enduring appeal of "The Music Box" is that it takes a simple situation and plays it for all it is worth. Many Laurel & Hardy shorts operated on the premise of starting out with a gag and then building upon it with more and more gags until reaching the climax. This is particularly true of "The Music Box". Laurel & Hardy attempt to move the piano up the steps, which are enough of an obstacle in and of themselves, only to find themselves consistently stymied by complication after complication. What is worse, moving the piano gets no easier once they reach the top of the steps. In many ways "The Music Box" is one of the most perfectly crafted Laurel & Hardy shorts, with the simple idea of moving a piano providing fodder for a whole thirty minutes.

It is because of the combination of memorable characters placed in the seemingly simple situation of moving a piano that "The Music Box" remains funny today. It proved to be a hit in theatres upon its release in 1932. In the Fifties "The Music Box" and the other Laurel & Hardy shorts found a whole new audience when they entered syndication on television. Today audiences find "The Music Box" as funny as audiences did in the Fifties. In the end "The Music Box" was not simply another comedy short from the Thirties. It has become a comedy classic.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Late Great Ben E. King

Ben E. King, known for such hits with The Drifters as "There Goes My Baby" and "This Magic Moment" and such hits as a solo artist as "Spanish Harlem" and "Stand By Me", died yesterday, April 30 2015 at the age of 76.

Ben E.King was born Benjamin Earl Nelson on September 28 1938 in Henderson, North Carolina. His family moved to Harlem in New York City where his father operated a luncheonette. It was there that Lover Patterson overheard him singing and hired him to join The Five Crowns, a do-wop group he managed. The Five Crowns were on their way to a successful career when they performed at the Apollo Theatre alongside The Drifters in 1958. The Drifters' manager,  George Treadwell, heard them and was impressed. Mr. Treadwell and The Drifters were at odds, so eventually he fired the entire group in the summer of 1958. With dates at the Apollo and other venues already booked, Mr. Treadwell entered into a deal with Lover Patterson for The Five Crowns (except  James "Poppa" Clark, who had a drinking problem) to become a new version of The Drifters.

Atlantic assigned the legendary songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (who had already written a string of hits for The Coasters, Elvis Presley, and other artists) to produce this new version of The Drifters. The combination proved to be a success and The Drifters, with Ben E. King as the lead tenor, soon had several hits: "There Goes My Baby" (which went to #2 on the Billboard singles chart); "This Magic Moment" (which went to #16 on the Billboard singles chart), "Save the Last Dance for Me" (which went to #1 on the Billboard singles chart), and "I Count the Tears" (which went to #17 on the Billboard singles chart).

Despite such success Ben E. King would not remain with The Drifters for long. Lover Patterson (who was still Ben E. King's manager) and Ben E. King asked George Treadwell for a raise in salary as well as a portion of the royalties. When Mr. Treadwell refused, Ben E. King ceased touring or making television appearances with The Drifters. He continued to record with the group only until he was replaced by  Rudy Lewis. The Drifters would continue to have hits without Ben E. King, including "Some Kind of Wonderful", "Up On The Roof", "Please Stay" and "On Broadway". As to Ben E. King, he launched a very successful solo career.

Ben E. King remained with Atlantic as a solo artist and was assigned to its Atco label. His first few single as a solo artist (two of which were duets with LaVern Baker) failed to chart, but he had a hit with his fifth single as a solo artist, "Spanish Harlem". Written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector, "Spanish Harlem" went to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Ben E. King would have an even bigger hit with "Stand by Me". Written by Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, "Stand By Me" went to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. With the release of the film Stand By Me, the song re-entered the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at #9 in 1986. According to music licensing company BMI in 1999, "Stand by Me" was the fourth most played song of the Twentieth Century.

Ben E. King would never again match the success of "Stand By Me", although he did have further hits in the Sixties. "Amor" went to #18 on the Billboard Hot 100."Don't Play That Song (You Lied)" went to #11 on the Billboard Hot 100. "Tell Daddy" went to #29 on the Billboard Hot 100. "I (Who Have Nothing)" from 1963 would be his last major hit for a time, reaching #29 on the Billboard  Hot 100. Mr. King continued to release singles and albums throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies. In 1975 he had another hit with "Supernatural Thing, Part 1", which went to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. His last single was "4th of July" in 1997.

Starting with Spanish Harlem in 1961, Ben E. King released several albums over the years. Spanish Harlem went to #57 on the Billboard album chart. His 1975 album Supernatural reached #39 on the chart. Throughout his career over 25 albums (including compilations) were released by Ben E. King.

Ben E. King certainly had an incredible voice. He had a soulful voice that easily blended Gospel, R&B, and traditional American pop together in one sound. His voice also had an emotive quality that is seen in his biggest hits: "There Goes My Baby", "This Magic Moment", "Stand By Me", and so on. If Ben E. King's songs have remained popular through the years, it is perhaps because of the emotion his vocals lent to them.

Of course, Ben E. King was also a songwriter as well as a vocalist. He co-wrote "Stand By Me" as well as "There Goes My Baby", "Dance with Me", and "We're Gonna Groove" (often performed by Led Zeppelin). "Stand by Me" alone has been covered over 400 times and has become one of the most enduring songs of the 20th Century. Both during his career with The Drifters and his solo career, Ben E. King achieved the sort of lasting success many singers only dream about.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie Passes On

Andrew Lesnie, the cinematographer who shot Babe (1995), The Lord of the Rings, King King (2005), and The Hobbit, died April 27 2015 at the age of 59. The cause was a heart attack.

Andrew Lesnie was born in 1956 in Sydney, Australia. He started his career as a camera assistant on the film Patrick in 1979. In the Eighties he served as a documentary cameraman on Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981); an additional photographer on Early Frost (1982) and Dead End Drive-In (1986); and a camera operator on Emoh Ruo (1985) and Tripe (1989). He was director of photography for additional material on The 13th Floor (1988) and second unit director of photography on Farewell to the King (1989). His first cinematography credit came with The Comeback in 1980. In the Eighties he served as cinematographer on such films as The Same Stream (1981), Stations (1983), Fantasy Man (1984), The Man You Know (1984), Unfinished Business (1985), Fair Game (1986), Australian Dream (1987), The Delinquents (1989), Boys in the Island (1990). He also worked in television on the mini-series Cyclone Tracy and the TV movie The Saint: Fear in Fun Park among other projects.

In the Nineties he served as a camera operator on Spider & Rose (1994). He did additional photography for Dark City (1998). He served as cinematographer on The Girl Who Came Late (1992), Fatal Past (1993), Spider & Rose (1994), Babe (1995), Two If by Sea (1996), Doing Time for Patsy Cline (1997), The Sugar Factory (1998), and Babe: Pig in the City (1998).

In the Naughts Andrew Lesnie was cinematographer on The Lord of the Rings, Love's Brother (2004), King Kong (2005), I Am Legend (2007), Bran Nue Dae (2009), The Lovely Bones (2009), and The Last Airbender (2010). He won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).

In the Teeens Mr. Lesnie served as cinematographer on Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the segment "Reunion" in the anthology film The Turning (2013), Healing (2014), The Water Diviner (2014), and The Hobbit films.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Don Mankiewicz R.I.P.

Screenwriter Don Mankiewicz, who was nominated for the Oscar for  Writing Adapted Screenplay for I Want to Live! (1958) and wrote episodes of such shows as Star Trek and Ironside, died on April 25 2015 at the age of 93.

Don Mankiewicz was born on January 20 1922 in Berlin, where his father was working as a foreign correspondent for The Chicago Tribune at the time. His father was legendary screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. His younger brother was journalist Frank Mankiewicz. After graduating from high school in Beverly Hills, Don Mankiewicz attended Columbia University, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1942. He left law school to join the United States Army during World War II. He served in the European theatre in military intelligence.

Mr. Mankiewicz sold his first short story to The New Yorker and later worked as a staff writer for the magazine. In 1951 his first teleplay aired, an episode of the anthology series Schlitz Playhouse. During the Fifties he wrote episodes of such shows as Studio One, Lux Video Theatre, The Ford Television Theatre, Kraft Theatre, Armchair Theatre, and One Step Beyond. His first novel, Trial, was published in 1954. He wrote the screenplays for Fast Company (1953), The Big Moment (1954), Trial (1955--based on his novel of the same name), House of Numbers (1957), Le imprese di una spada leggendaria (1958), and I Want to Live! (1958). He was nominated for the Academy Award for I Want to Live!.

In the Sixties Don Makiewicz wrote the pilots for both Ironside and Marcus Welby M.D., as well as the Star Trek episode "Court Martial". He also wrote episodes of Bus Stop, General Electric Theatre, Armstrong Circle Theatre, Profiles in Courage, The Trials of O'Brien, Ironside, Mannix, and Marcus Welby M.D. He was nominated for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama for episodes of both Ironside and Marcus Welby M.D. His novel It Only Hurts a Minute was published in 1966. He wrote the film The Chapman Report (1962).

In the Seventies Mr. Mankiewicz wrote the story for the film The Black Bird (1975). He wrote episodes of Sarge, McMillan & Wife, Lanigan's Rabbi, and Rosetti and Ryan, as well as the TV movies The Bait and Sanctuary of Fear. In the Eighties he wrote episodes of Simon & Simon, MacGyver, and The Marshal.

Don Mankiewicz was a very talented writer. In both his film work and his television work he displayed a knack for exploring interpersonal relationships. His plots were always character driven. In fact, he had a knack for getting into his character's heads in a way few writers can. As might be expected, because of this he had a gift for writing dialogue as well. When one watched a movie or teleplay written by Don Mankiewicz, he could expect realistic characters with often complex motivations. It was  rare gift during his career and it might be rarer now.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Godspeed Jayne Meadows

Jayne Meadows, the actress who with Steve Allen formed one of the most famous husband and wife teams in show business, died yesterday at the age of 95.

Jayne Meadows was born Jane Meadows Cotter on September 27 1919 in  Wuchang, China. Her younger sister, Audrey Meadows, was born in 1922. Their father and mother were Episcopal missionaries there. The family returned to the United States in 1927 and settled in  Sharon, Connecticut. It was there that their father became a rector of Christ Church. Both Jayne Meadows and her sister Audrey attended an all girls boarding school. Following graduation, Jayne Meadows moved to New York City to pursue acting.

Jayne Meadows made her debut on Broadway in Spring Again in 1941. She appeared again on Broadway in such productions as Another Love Story, Many Happy Returns, and Kiss Them for Me. She made her film debut in Undercurrent in 1946. In the late Forties she appeared in the films Lady in the Lake (1947), Dark Delusion (1947), Song of the Thin Man (1947), The Luck of the Irish (1948), and Enchantment (1948).

It was in 1954 that Jayne Meadows married television personality Steve Allen. The two became one of the most successful husband and wife teams in show business. Miss Meadows appeared frequently on The Steve Allen Show. In the Fifties she also appeared on such shows as The Colgate Comedy Hour, Your Show of Shows, Robert Montgomery Presents, Kraft Theatre, I've Got a Secret, Suspense, Studio One, The U.S. Steel Hour, The Red Skelton Show, To Tell the Truth, and The Ann Sothern Show. She appeared in the films The Fat Man (1951), David and Bathsheba (1951), It Happened to Jane (1959), and College Confidential (1960). She appeared on Broadway in The Gazebo.

In the Sixties Jayne Meadows appeared on such TV shows as The Art Linkletter Show, The Judy Garland Show, The New Steve Allen Show, What's My Line, The Red Skelton Hour, The Eleventh Hour, The Celebrity Game, Match Game, I've Got a Secret, The Milton Berle Show, Hollywood Squares, Good Morning World, Here Come the Brides, Love American Style, and Here's Lucy. She was a regular on the TV show Medical Centre during its first few seasons.

In the Seventies Jayne Meadows appeared regularly on her husband Steve Allen's show Meeting of the Minds. She appeared on the shows The New Temperatures Rising Show, Adam-12, The Tonight Show, The Girl with Something Extra, The Practice, Switch, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, The Paper Chase, Project U.F.O., and Hawaii Five-O. She appeared in the film Norman... Is That You? (1976).  She appeared one last time on Broadway in Once in a Lifetime.

In the Eighties Miss Meadows appeared on the TV shows Rise and Shine, Aloha Paradise, Trapper John, M.D., Fantasy Island, Hotel, Murder She Wrote, The Love Boat, and St. Elsewhere. She was a a a regular on the show It's Not Easy. She appeared in the films Da Capo (1985) and Murder by Numbers (1990). In the Nineties she appeared on the TV shows Civil Wars, Sisters, Vicki!, Tom. The Nanny, Homicide: Life on the Street, and Diagnosis Murder. She was a regular on the show High Society. She appeared in the films City Slickers (1991), For Goodness Sake (1993), City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold (1994), and The Story of Us (1999).

Although many now are probably more familiar with her work on television, Jayne Meadows started her career in film.  What is more, she was an extremely versatile actress. In Lady in the Lake she played a femme fatale who was a true sociopath. In The Fat Man she was cast in a much more sympathetic role as a nurse. Her guest appearances on television shows also displayed her range as an actress. She played a reporter in the Suspense episode "F.O.B. Vienna" and on the Studio One episode "Drop of a Hat" she played the managing editor of a glossy fashion magazine. Throughout her career Jayne Meadows displayed a great talent for acting.

Of course, many today probably remember Jayne Meadows best as a television personality. From the Fifties to the Nineties she appeared on numerous game shows, talk shows, and variety shows. And she was certainly well suited as a television celebrity. Not only was Miss Meadows beautiful, but she was also vivacious, intelligent, and well spoken. She had one of the most wonderful voices on television, loud but very pleasant nonetheless. There should be little wonder that she was in so much demand for so long for television appearances. Gifted with looks, talent,and wit, she was perfect for the many panel shows and variety shows that proliferated from the Fifties to the Seventies.