Saturday, January 23, 2016

Godspeed Sheila Sim

Sheila Sim Attenborough, Lady Attenborough, died on January 19 2016 at the age of 93. She was both an actress and the wife of legendary actor and director Richard Attenborough, Baron Attenborough. She had been diagnosed with senile dementia in 2012.

Sheila Sim was born in Liverpool, Lancashire on June 5 1922.  She was educated at Croydon High School in Croydon, London. She worked for a bank for a short time before deciding she really did not care for the routine. She then studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for two years. She made her stage debut s at the Intimate Theatre in Palmers Green, London in the play  Fresh Fields by Ivor Novello. She stayed with the theatre's repertory for six months before moving to the Q Theatre in Brentford, London for another six months. She then toured with Noel Coward's This Happy Breed. She appeared in the play Landslide at the Westminster theatre in London in 1943 and later played the lead in  Roger MacDougall's To Dorothy a Son.

Lady Attenborough made her film debut in A Canterbury Tale in 1944. In the late Forties she appeared in the films Dancing with Crime (1947), The Guinea Pig (1949) and Dear Mr. Prohack (1949). She appeared on television in the productions The Queen's Husband, The Ringer, and Second Chance. In the Fifties she appeared in the films Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), The Magic Box (1951), West of Zanzibar (1954), and The Night My Number Came Up (1955). With her husband Richard Attenborough she was part of the original cast of Agatha Christie's play The Mousetrap.

Sheila Sim retired in the Fifties to raise her family. She worked with the Actors' Charitable Trust for over 60 years. She also supported RADA for most of her life. In 1968 she was sworn in as a magistrate and served on the Richmond bench.

Sheila Sim Attenborough, Lady Attenborough was a fine actress with a good deal of versatility. She played a variety of roles and her performances were all quite good. She was also instrumental in the Actors' Charitable Trust and a benefactor of RADA. While Sheila Sim's acting career was not particularly long, she then certainly made a difference.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Natalie Cole and Glenn Frey R.I.P.

Natalie Cole
Singer Natalie Cole died on December 31 2015. The cause was congestive heart failure.
Natalie Cole was born on February 6 1950 in Los Angeles, California. Her parents were legendary singer Nate King Cole and former Duke Ellington Orchestra vocalist Maria Hawkins Ellington. As would be expected, she grew up in a household filled with music. She made her album debut at only the age of six, singing on her father's LP The Christmas Album. She and her siblings made appearances on Nat King Cole's TV show that aired on NBC in 1956 and 1957. 

Natalie Cole met with success with her very first album, Inseparable. Released in 1975 the album hit no. 18 on the Billboard album chart and no. 1 on the Billboard R&B albums chart. Her first single, "This Will Be", also did very well. It hit no. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 1 on the U.S. R&B singles chart. Her next few albums (Natalie, Unpredictable, Thankful, I Love You So, We're the Best of Friends, and Don't Look Back) all did fairly well. The first few ranked in both the top twenty of the Billboard albums chart and all ranked in the top twenty of the Billboard R&B albums chart. Her singles also did well, with "I've Got Love on My Mind" and "Our Love" both reaching the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. 

By the early Eighties Natalie Cole's career had declined, with her albums and singles not doing particularly well on the Billboard pop or R&B charts. Her albums Everlasting (released in 1987) and Good to Be Back (1989) did a bit better than her work from the early Eighties. Her single "Pink Cadillac", a cover of the Bruce Springsteen song, went to no. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. It would be her album Unforgettable...With Love  (released in 1991) that saw her back on the top.  The albums featured songs that had been covered by her father, including the single "Unforgettable" in which she sang a duet with her father through the miracle of recording. The album hit no. 1 on the  Billboard albums chart and the single reached no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Natalie Cole would not keep up the success of Unforgettable...With Love, although her albums performed for much of the Nineties and into the Naughts. Her last album was Natalie Cole en Español, released in 2013. 

Natalie Cole certainly inherited much of her father's talent. She had a wonderful voice and was quite versatile. She could perform a rock song like "Pink Cadillac" as well as she could a pop standard like "Unforgettable", and perform a pop standard like "Unforgettable" as well as an R&B song like "This Will Be". Ultimately it is then hard to pin Natalie Cole down to one genre. Throughout her career she performed everything from R&B to standard American pop to jazz to rock. Ultimately she could perform anything she chose to.

Glenn Frey
Glenn Frey, vocalist and guitarist for The Eagles, died on January 18 2016 at the age of 67. The cause was rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, and pneumonia.
Glenn Frey was born on November 6 1948 in Detroit, Michigan. When he was five years old he studied piano and later took up the guitar. As a teenager in the mid-Sixties he played with local bands such as The Subterraneans and The Four of Us. In late 1967 he formed the band Heavy Metal Kids (not to be confused with the later British band of the same name). He was 19 years old when his first professional exposure came about, providing background vocals and acoustic guitar on Bob Seger's song , "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" in 1968.

Glenn Frey moved to Los Angeles where he met J. D. Souther and formed the country rock duo Longbranch Pennywhistle with him. The duo remained together only until 1971. It was in 1970 that Glenn Frey worked as part of a backing band for Linda Rondstadt that also included Don Henley, Randy Meisner, and Bernie Leadon. The four of them performed on her album Linda Ronstadt, but only played live with her once. It was at Disneyland in July 1970. The four musicians then formed The Eagles. 

The Eagles proved successful right away. Their self-titled debut album went to no. 22 on the Billboard album chart, while their initial singles ("Take It Easy", "Witchy Woman", and "Peaceful Easy Feeling") all did well. Their sophomore album, Despeardo did not do nearly as well, peaking at only no. 41 on the Billboard chart. None of the singles from the album reached the top forty, although the album cut "Desperado" (which was curiously not released as a single) became one of the band's signature songs. 

The Eagles would recover, with their fourth album On the Border performing much better. The album included the single "One of These Nights" (which went to no. 1). It was with their next album One of These Nights, that The Eagles became one of the most successful rock bands of the Seventies. The album went to no. 1, while the single "One of These Nights" also hit no. 1. The late Seventies would see The Eagles with two more no. 1 albums (Hotel California and The Long Run), as well as such hit singles as "Hotel California" and "Heartache Tonight". 

By 1980 tension had developed in the band, with Glenn Frey and Don Felder constantly at odds. Glenn Frey quit The Eagles, while the remaining band members mixed their parts for the band's live album, Eagles Live. Glenn Frey then launched a solo career. He released three solo albums in the Eighties (No Fun Aloud, The Allnighter, and Soul Searchin'), all of which did moderately well on the Billboard albums chart. His singles "The Heat is On" and "You Belong to the City" both went to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. "The One You Love", "Sexy Girl", "Smuggler's Blues", and "True Love" all went to the top twenty.

In 1992 Glenn Frey released the solo album Strange Weather to little success. It failed to chart and none of the singles reached the top forty. The Eagles reunited without Don Felder to record the album Hell Freezes Over in 1994. The album reached no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Eagles reunited again in 2007 for the album Long Road to Eden. The album also hit no. 1 on the Billboard albums chart.

Glenn Frey recorded one last solo album, After Hours, which was released in 2012. The album only peaked at no. 116 on the Billboard albums chart.

I cannot say I am a Glenn Frey fan. I really did not care for any of his solo work. That having been said, he was a member of The Eagles, a band that produced several songs I like and a band that was very popular in my youth. Glenn Frey certainly contributed to the band's success. In fact, The Eagles would not have existed without Glenn Frey. As Don Henley said, "...Glenn was the one who started it all." He certainly contributed to some of my favourite Eagles songs: "Hotel California", "James Dean", "Desperado", "Heartache Tonight", and "Get Over It". I must then say that I am saddened by his death.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Godspeed Dale Griffin

Dale "Buffin" Griffin, drummer for British glam rock band Mott the Hoople, died on January 17 2016 at the age of 67. The cause was complications from Alzheimer's disease.

Terence Dale Griffin was born on October 24 1948 in  Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire. He grew up listening to big band music such as The Ted Heath Band and Count Basie. Young Mr. Griffin embraced rock 'n' roll when it arrived in Britain, listening to American rock 'n' roll artists Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Buddy Holly, as well as British rock 'n' roll artist John Leyton. He went to Ross-on-Wye Grammar School.  It was while he was still in school that he played in local bands with fellow future Mott the Hoople member Overend Watts. In 1965 both Dale Griffin and Overend Watts played with a local band called The Silence. By December Overend Watts had left for a band called The Buddies, while Mr. Griffin would play with such bands as The Charles Kingsley Creation as well as serving as a session drummer for Future Sound (which eventually became Rockfield Studios in Rockfield, Monmouthshire, Wales). It was in this capacity that he played on the single "Black is the Night" by Yemm and the Yemen and "Is It Really What You Want?" by The Interns.

It was in 1966 that Dale Griffin joined Overend Watts and fellow future Mott the Hoople member Mick Ralphs in the The Doc Thomas Group. The Doc Thomas Group was very successful in Italy, so much so that they even released a self-titled album on the Italian label Dischi Interrecord in early 1967. It was after  organist Verden Allen joined the band that The Doc Thomas Group was renamed The Shakedown Sound  and later The Silence in the United Kingdom, although they continued to be billed as The Doc Thomas Group in Italy. The Silence recorded demos and sent them to EMI, Polydor, Immediate, and Apple. In each case they were rejected. Producer Guy Stevens of Island Records took notice of The Silence, and expressed an interest in the group, although not with their current lead singer Stan Tippins.

The Silence then placed ads for a lead vocalist and ultimately Ian Hunter was hired. It was afterwards that The Silence saw one final name change. Guy Stevens had read the novel Mott the Hoople by Willard Manus. It was in early 1969, then, that The Silence became Mott the Hoople.

Mott the Hoople's self-titled debut album was released in November 1969 in the United Kingdom and a little bit later in the United States. It proved to be somewhat successful, going to no. 66 in the UK and no 185 in the U.S. Their second album, Mad Shadows (released in September 1970), went to no. 48 in the UK, but did not chart at all in the U.S. Unfortunately it was also poorly received by critics. Their third album, Wildlife, peaked at no. 44 in the Untied Kingdom, but also received bad reviews. Their fourth album, Brain Capers, released in November 1971, failed to chart in the UK or the U.S. It was the only Mott the Hoople album ever to do so. The band came very close to breaking up at the time.

Fortunately for Mott the Hoople, up and coming rock star David Bowie was a long time fan of the band. When he heard that they were close to splitting up, he offered them the song "Suffragette City" (which ultimately appeared on his album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars). They turned it down, at which point David Bowie wrote the song "All the Young Dudes" for them. "All the Young Dudes" proved to be a hit on both sides of the Pond, going to no. 3 in the United Kingdom and no. 37 in the United States. David Bowie produced their next album, All the Young Dudes, released in September 1972. The album did well. It went to no. 21 in the UK and no. 89 in the U.S.

The band's next two albums would perform even better. Mott (released in July 1973) went to no. 7 in the UK and no. 35 in the U.S. The Hoople (released in March 1974) went to no. 11 in the UK and no. 28 in the U.S. The band also saw further success with some of their singles. "Honaloochie Boogie", "All the Way from Memphis", and "Roll Away the Stone" all hit the top twenty of the British singles chart.

Unfortunately such success would not mean Mott the Hoople would remain together. Guitarist Mick Ralphs left Mott the Hoople in 1973 to form Bad Company. He was replaced by Ariel Bender, who would later be replaced by Mick Ronson. It was after their Live album (released in 1974), that Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson left to perform as a duo. With Ian Hunter's departure, Dale Griffin, Overend Watts, and Morgan Fisher regrouped, adding guitarist Ray Major (formerly of Opal Butterfly) and lead vocalist Nigel Benjamin. They also shortened the name of the band to "Mott". Mott released two albums, Drive On (in September 1975) and Shouting and Pointing (in June 1976). Neither sold well.

Following Drive On Nigel Benjamin left the band and was replaced very briefly by Steve Hyams. John Fiddler, formerly of Medicine Head, then joined the group and they renamed themselves British Lions. British Lions only released two albums. The first, self-titled debut album (released in February 1978) only went to no. 83 on the Billboard albums chart and did not chart at all in the UK. Their second album, Trouble with Women was \released in 1980 after the band had broken up in 1979. It did not chart in either the U.S. or the UK.

In the early Eighties Dale Griffin and Overend Watts formed the recording production company Grimtone Productions. Starting in February 1980 Dale Griffin began producing artists for BBC Radio 1. Among the artists Mr. Griffin produced were The Cult, Pulp, Smashing Pumpkins, The Smiths, Nirvana, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and Carcass. He last worked for BBC Radio 1 in February 1993.

Dale Griffin was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease when he was only 58 years old. In 2009 he participated in the Mott the Hoople reunion, although he only played the encores due to his condition.

Dale "Buffin" Griffin hardly fit the stereotype of the wild, rock 'n' roll drummer. He was in many ways a far cry from Keith Moon or John Bonham. He was quiet, thoughtful, and well spoken. Regardless Mr. Griffin was one of the best drummers in the business. His playing was loud and his playing was steady, the perfect backing for one of the best known bands of the glam rock era. He was with Mott the Hoople from their beginning to their end, making it hard to picture anyone else drumming for them (although Martin Chambers did when they toured in 2013). Dale Griffin was also a gifted producer, producing a wide array of groups, including Pulp's first recording session in 1981. As both the drummer for Mott the Hoople and the producer of many records, Dale Griffin will be missed.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Barbara Stanwyck in Christmas in Connecticut

Barbara Stanwyck was among the most versatile actresses during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Throughout her career she appeared in films ranging in genre from dramas (Stella Dallas) to films noirs (Double Indemnity) to Westerns (Union Pacific). What is more, she gave good performances in nearly everything she did. Not surprisingly Miss Stanwyck did several comedies throughout her career, including Ball of Fire, Remember the Night, and The Lady Eve. Among her best loved comedies today is another film besides Remember the Night with a holiday theme, Christmas in Connecticut.

Christmas in Connecticut centres on one of the many independent career women that Barbara Stanwyck played during her career, Elizabeth Lane. Elizabeth Lane is a food writer for the popular women's magazine Smart Housekeeping. In reality Miss Lane cannot cook at all and lives in a New York City apartment rather than the Connecticut farm on which she claims to live in her columns. Every one of her recipes come from her good friend, restaurateur and chef Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall).  Smart Housekeeping's publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), like the public at large, actually believes that she is this incredible cook and housekeeper living in Connecticut. Unfortunately for Elizabeth Lane, her charade is in danger of being revealed when Mr. Yardley invites himself and a Navy war hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) to Christmas dinner at her wholly non-existent farm. Her editor Dudley Beecham (Robert Shayne), Felix, and her friend John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) must then scramble to keep Elizabeth Lane's secret intact. The inspiration for Elizabeth Lane was reportedly Family Circle columnist Gladys Taber. Unlike Elizabeth Lane, Gladys Taber actually could cook and keep house.

While the role of Elizabeth Lane would appear to have been written for Barbara Stanwyck (it's hard picturing anyone else in the role), Christmas in Connecticut  was originally offered to Bette Davis, who turned the film down. The casting of Barbara Stanwyck was announced in the April 13 1944 issue of The Hollywood Reporter. The romantic lead of Jefferson Jones would also change before the film started shooting. Originally John Alexander was announced as playing the role. He was replaced by Dennis Morgan. Ultimately Christmas in Connecticut would have one of the best casts of any comedy in the Forties. Not only did Sydney Greenstreet play publisher Alexander Yardley and S.Z. Sakall play chef Felix Bassenak, but the great Una O'Connor played John Sloan's housekeeper Norah. Character Dick Elliott had a humorous turn as a judge who is totally unaware of what is going on.

If it was made today Christmas in Connecticut might well be shot on location in Connecticut. Location shooting being rare in the Forties, the film was shot entirely on the soundstages of Warner Bros.' Burbank studios. In fact, viewers with keen eyes might even recognise one of the sets. The set for Sloan's Connecticut house was previously used in Bringing Up Baby.

Strangely enough for a movie with a Yuletide theme, Christmas in Connecticut was released on August 11 1945. Despite its unusual release date, the film proved to be a hit. In fact, it was the only wartime, non-musical comedy to make over $3 million. Of course, this also made it the highest grossing non-musical comedy of the war years.

While Christmas in Connecticut would not become as famous as other holiday movies from the Forties, such as It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Bishop's Wife, it would retain a loyal following over the years. On March 20 1952 it was adapted for the radio show Stars in the Air with  Gordon MacRae and Phyllis Thaxter in the lead roles. In 1992 it was remade as a television movie with Dyan Cannon and  Kris Kristofferson in the lead roles. Arnold Schwarzenegger directed the TV movie. It was not well received and is generally considered terrible even by the standards of TV movies.

While the 1992 television remake is best forgotten, if anything the reputation of the original Christmas in Connecticut has only grown. Shown every year on Turner Classic Movies around Christmas (usually multiple times), the film has gained an even larger following than it previously had. It is easy to see why. As mentioned earlier, Christmas in Connecticut has one of the best casts of any 1940s comedy. Barbara Stanwyck is in perfect form as Elizabeth Lane. Not only is Elizabeth intelligent and independent, but I personally think Miss Stanwyck was at the height of her sex appeal in this film. As might be expected, S.Z. Sakall and Sydney Greenstreet are perfect as the lovable Felix and the blowhard Yardley respectively. Dennis Morgan and Reginald Gardiner are both well suited to their roles. Christmas in Connecticut is one of those films in which every single cast member delivers a good performance, right down to the supporting characters.

Beyond its cast Christmas in Connecticut benefits from a very good script. It is one of those comedies that is genuinely funny, with the laughs coming very quickly on top of one another. There are several great lines in the film, not only from Miss Stanwyck as Elizabeth Lane but from several other characters as well (particularly Felix). Given the presence of Sydney Greenstreet there should be no surprise that there are a few references to The Maltese Falcon. For a film made in the Forties Christmas in Connecticut can be a bit racy at times, with at least one line that makes one wonder how it got past the Breen Office. Indeed, the New York Times' critic complained that Christmas in Connecticut "... depends not so much on genuine humour as upon suggestive lines and situations for its merriment." Not surprisingly, the Legion of Decency gave Christmas In Connecticut a "B" rating, meaning it was "objectionable in part". Of course, what the New York Times critics and the Legion of Decency disliked about the film I rather suspect most modern viewers will love.

Aside from The Apartment, Christmas in Connecticut is my favourite holiday movie of all time. It would seem that I am not alone, as the film has grown in popularity ever since Turner Classic Movies started showing it regularly. And there is good reason for it to have done so. The film features Barbara Stanwyck doing some of her best comedy work, as well as character actors S. Z. Sakall, Sydney Greenstreet, and Una O'Connor in top form. What is more, it has a genuinely funny script with more jokes packed into a minute than many comedies have in ninety. It is little wonder why it was the highest grossing non-musical comedy of World War II.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

50 Years Ago Today NBC Picked Up The Monkees

It was fifty years ago today that the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) picked up the TV show The Monkees. The show was the creation of Bob Rafelson. Mr. Rafelson drew upon his own experience having played in a jazz a band to conceive a show about a group of young musicians more concerned with having fun than furthering their career. Unfortunately he would not find anyone interested in the project until after The Beatles had arrived on American shores and their film A Hard Day's Night (1964) had met with great success. It was in April 1965 that Mr. Rafelson sold the idea for the series to Screen Gems, the television arm of Columbia Pictures.

It was by August 1965 that Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker finished the script for the pilot of what was tentatively called The Monkeys. It was on September 8 1965 that the famous ad calling for "folk and roll musicians" for "running parts for 4 insane boys" ran in Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Around 400 young men showed up to audition and fourteen would be called back for screen tests. Davy Jones, who had played the Artful Dodger in Oliver! and had a recording contract with Columbia Pictures, was already in consideration for the show. Ultimately, the other three Monkees would be Mickey Dolenz (former child actor and son of character actor George Dolenz), Mike Nesmith (who had already recorded for Columbia's record label under the name Michael Blessing), and Peter Tork (a folk musician recommended by Stephen Stills).

The pilot was shot on a shoestring budget around San Diego and Los Angeles and was directed by James Frawley. an actor who had guest starred on Gunsmoke, The Outer Limits, and The Bill Dana Show, among other. The Monkees pilot was Mr. Frawley's first director's job. Unfortunately when the pilot was tested before audiences it received some of the lowest scores for any pilot ever. Bob Rafelson then spliced in the screen tests for the four Monkees. For its next audience test The Monkees received much better scores. NBC then picked up the show and placed it on its fall schedule. It debuted on September 12 1966.

In honour of the 50th anniversary of NBC picking up The Monkees, here is the first season opening and close of the show complete with the classic theme song.