Saturday, July 30, 2016

"Wild Thing" by The Troggs

It was fifty years ago today that "Wild Thing" by The Troggs hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States. Although The Troggs' version remains the best known, theirs was not the first recording of the song. That honour belonged to an American band called The Wild Ones. The Wild Ones' producer Gerry Granahan approached songwriter Chip Taylor about writing a song for the band. That song was "Wild Thing". Unfortunately "Wild Thing" did not prove to be the hit The Wild Ones wanted. Released in November 1965, it failed to chart.

It was not long afterwards that The Troggs' manager brought the band sheet music to two songs. One was "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind" by John Sebastian, a song that had been recorded by Mr. Sebastian's band The Lovin' Spoonful in the United States. The other was "Wild Thing". The Troggs' lead vocalist Reg Presley was not overly impressed with "Wild Thing". He looked at the song's primitive lyrics and thought, "Oh God, what are they doing to us?" Regardless, the band wound up recording "Wild Thing". Released on CBS in the United Kingdom, it proved to be their first major hit there, going all the way to no. 2.

Strangely enough, in the United States The Troggs' version of "Wild Thing" was released on two different labels. Atco and Fontana both claimed to have the rights to The Troggs' recordings in the United States. Even while the two labels were fighting over the band,  both released  "Wild Thing" as a single. When "Wild Thing" hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on July 30 1966, it became the only number one single to have been released simultaneously on two different labels in the United States. Of course, since then "Wild Thing" has been covered by several other artists, including The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Fancy, X, and Cheap Trick.

In honour of the fiftieth anniversary of The Troggs' version of "Wild Thing" hitting no. 1,then, here is the original 1966 promo film.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket (1964)

 (This post is part of the Joan Crawford Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood)

By the early Sixties the film careers of both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were both in decline. Fortunately both actresses would see their careers revitalised when they starred in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Released in 1962 the film proved to be one of the most successful films of the year. It even started a cycle towards what are informally called "psycho-biddy" movies, horror movies centring on older women. Given the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? it was natural that both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis would appear in more psycho-biddy films as the Sixties progressed. Among the pyscho-biddy films in which Joan Crawford appeared was one produced and directed by William Castle, Strait-Jacket (1964). In fact, it became one of her most successful and best known of the films she made after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.

While Strait-Jacket would become one of the most successful of Miss Crawford's later movies, she was not originally set to star in the film. William Castle had wanted Grayson Hall, who had recently starred in an adaption of Tennessee Williams's The Night of the Iguana (1964), to play the lead. Miss Hall turned the role so she could return to the stage instead. William Castle then cast legendary comic actress Joan Blondell in the lead role. Accounts vary as to how Joan Crawford replaced Joan Blondell, but it must be pointed out that Joan Blondell herself later explained what happened. She had an accident in her home involving a glass partition, because of which she required sixty stitches in her leg. As a result Miss Blondell was unable to star in Strait-Jacket; William Castle would have to find someone else.

Fortunately Mr. Castle encountered Joan Crawford at a party and convinced her to take the role. That having been said, a star of Miss Crawford's level did come with a price. Joan Crawford asked for a salary of $50,000, 15% of the profits, and approval of both the script and the cast. William Castle met all of Miss Crawford's conditions for taking the role.

With Joan Crawford now in the lead role there would be one other major change in the cast. Anne Helm was an ingénue who had played opposite Elvis Presley in Follow That Dream (1962) and appeared in the film The Interns (1962). She made frequent guest appearances on television. Anne Helm was set to play the daughter of the lead character played by Miss Crawford. While accounts vary as to why, it was only after a few days that Joan Crawford requested that Anne Helm be replaced. Miss Helm was replaced by Diane Baker, with whom Joan Crawford had appeared in The Best of Everything (1959).

The script for Strait-Jacket was written by veteran horror writer Robert Bloch, who was then riding high on the success of Psycho (which had been based on his novel of the same name).  It was the first of two screenplays Mr. Bloch wrote for William Castle, the second being The Night Walker (1964). 

Although often counted as a psycho-biddy film, it could be argued that Strait-Jacket has much more in common with Psycho (1960) than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. The film centred on Lucy Harbin (played by Joan Crawford), who is released from a mental hospital twenty years after having beheaded her cheating husband and his mistress. She moves in with her brother and sister in law, with whom her daughter Carol (played by Diane Baker) also lives. Lucy's life would seem to be as well as could be expected until a series of axe murders begin. As might be expected, Lucy gets the blame for this new spate of murders. Here it has to be pointed out that Strait-Jacket marked the film debut of Lee Majors, who appeared in the brief, uncredited role as Lucy's husband.

Like most of William Castle's films, Strait-Jacket is an exploitation movie. And like most of William Castle's films, much of it is played as camp. That having been said, like most of William Castle's films Strait-Jacket is a well made, entertaining film. This includes Joan Crawford's performance as Lucy. She portrays Lucy as a fragile woman. As might be expected in someone in Lucy's situation, she is anxious and even afraid of adjusting to society. Even with the knowledge that Lucy murdered her husband and her lover with an axe, Joan Crawford makes Lucy an essentially sympathetic role.

Upon its release critics were not overly fond of Strait-Jacket. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called the film a "...disgusting piece of claptrap". In Films in Review Elaine Rothschild wrote, "...I am full of admiration for Joan Crawford, for even in drek like this she gives a performance." Most critics expressed praise for Joan Crawford's performance while still expressing a dislike for the film (Bosley Crowther was an exception--he disliked both). While Strait-Jacket generally received negative reviews, it did very well at the box office.

Today the reputation of Strait-Jacket is somewhat better than it was upon its release in 1964. It boasts a rating of 6.8 out of ten on IMDB (fairly high for that site) and an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While hardly considered a classic on the level of Mildred Pierce (1945), Strait-Jacket is counted as a classic exploitation film and a camp classic. To this day it has a cult following and it is often counted among the best movies William Castle ever made, as well as one of the highlights of Joan Crawford's final years as an actress.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Sandy Pearlman R.I.P.

Sandy Pearlman, perhaps best known as Blue Öyster Cult's manager and the producer of many of their records, died on July 26 2016 at the age of 72. He had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage  in December 2015.

Sandy Pearlman was born Samuel Pearlman in Queens, New York. He graduated from the State University of New York at Stony Brook with a Bachelor of Arts in 1966. In 1966  Michael Horowitz introduced Sandy Pearlman to Paul Williams, creator of rock music magazine Crawdaddy. Sandy Pearlman became one of the magazine's critics and hence one of the pioneers of rock music criticism.

It was in 1967 that Sandy Pearlman became the manager of a band consisting of  guitarist Donald Roeser (later called "Buck Dharma"), drummer Albert Bouchard, keyboardist Allen Lanier, singer Les Braunstein, and bassist Andrew Winters. Mr. Pearlman dubbed the band "Soft White Underbelly". He got them gigs around New York City and eventually a meeting with Columbia Records president Clive Davis that resulted in a recording contract. It was as Soft White Underbelly that they recorded their first album in 1968. Unfortunately, the album would be shelved in 1969 after Les Braunstein left the band. Eric Bloom then became the lead vocalist of the band, soon renamed Blue Öyster Cult.

Sandy Pearlman not only served as the band's manager, but also wrote or co-wrote some of the band's songs, including  "I'm on the Lamb but I Ain't No Sheep"  from their self-titled first album and "R. U. Ready 2 Rock" from Spectres. Blue Öyster Cult's 1988 concept album Imaginos was based largely on the poetry of Sandy Pearlman. He produced the majority of the Band's albums between 1972 and 1988. Mr. Pearlman remained the manager of Blue Öyster Cult until 1995.

Sandy Pearlman also served as the manager of several other bands, including The Dictators, Romeo Void, Aldo Nova, Black Sabbath from 1979 to 1983, and yet others. He also produced albums for several other bands, including Pavlov's Dog, The Dictators, Dream Syndicate, and Cosmic Free Way. Among the albums Mr. Pearlman produced was The Clash's second studio album, Give 'Em Enough Rope.

Sandy Pearlman became president of the record label 415 Records in 1989 and soon changed its name to Popular Metaphysics. Unfortunately, the label only lasted a couple of years. In the Nineties he became the founding vice president of eMusic, an online music store that was a pioneer in selling music MP3s. In 2009 he was named a member at large of the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Late Great Jack Davis

Jack Davis, the legendary cartoonist and caricaturist known for his work for E.C. Comics, Mad Magazine, TV Guide, and Time, died today at the age of 91. The cause was complications from a stroke.

Jack Davis was born on December 2 1924 in Atlanta, Georgia. He took to art when he was very young. When he was twelve one of his cartoons was published on the reader's page of  Tip Top Comics #9 (December 1936). In high school he provided art for the school paper. After graduating high school he joined the United States Navy and served in Guam. While in service he contributed the comic strip Boondocker to The Navy Times. Following his stint in the Navy he enrolled in the University of Georgia. He drew cartoons for the campus newspaper and also contributed to a local humour magazine titled Bullsheet. In the late Forties he spent one summer inking the newspaper strip Mark Trail.

Following his graduation from the University of Georgia, Jack Davis worked as an intern cartoonist at The Atlanta Journal. It was in 1949 that he illustrated an in-house booklet for Coca-Cola. He used the money from that job to move to New York City. Once there he enrolled at the Art Students League. From 1949 to 1950 Mr. Davis worked as an inker on The Saint comic strip. He illustrated his own short lived comic strip, Beauregard, which was carried by the McClure Syndicate.

The opening page of "Foul Play"
It was in 1950 that Jack Davis began doing freelance work for E.C. Comics, who at the time were making the move into horror, crime, and war comic books. Mr. Davis worked on many of E.C.'s most popular comic books, including Tales from the Crypt, Frontline Combat, The Haunt of Fear, Two-Fisted Tales, The Vault of Horror, and Crime Suspenstories, among others. Among other things he revamped Al Feldstein's original Crypt Keepr, making the character much more complex looking. Perhaps the best known story that he illustrated was "Foul Play", from Haunt of Fear #19 (May-June 1953). It gained notoriety after being referenced in Fredric Wertham's attack on comic books Seduction of the Innocent. Among the other stories illustrated by Mr. Davis was an adaption of Ray Bradbury's story "Black Ferris" in The Haunt of Fear #18 (April 1953), "Tain't the Meat, It's the Humanity" from Tales from the Crypt #32 (October-November 1952), "Death of Some Salesman" from The Haunt of Fear #15 (September-October 1952), and "Country Clubbing!" from The Haunt of Fear  #23 (January-February 1954).

When Mad was launched by E.C. in 1952, Jack Davis was among its original contributors. Jack Davis remained with Mad for its first thirty issues, seeing it through its transition from comic book to a more traditional magazine format. He also worked on E.C.'s other humour comic book, Panic. Afterwards Jack Davis would contribute to other humour magazines launched by Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman, including Trump, Humbug, and Help!. He even did work for Mad's rival Cracked. Harvey Kurtzman returned to Mad in the mid-Sixties, and continued to contribute to the magazine for the remainder of his career.

In addition to E.C. Comics, Jack Davis also illustrated Western comic books for the company later known as Marvel Comics in the late Fifties and early Sixties. In 1959 Jack Davis illustrated humorous bubblegum cards under the title "Wacky Plak" for Topps Chewing Gum Company. In 1961 he wrote, illustrated, and edited the comic book, Yak Yak, for Dell Comics.  He later contributed to Warren Publishing's black and white magazine Creepy, including the cover of its first issue published in late 1964.

An ad for The Monkees from fall 1966
Of course, Jack Davis worked in other media besides comic books and comic strips. In fact, he is perhaps as famous for his many magazine covers as he is for his work with E.C. Comics. In 1965 he illustrated the eight page preview of NBC's fall 1965 line-up for TV Guide's fall preview issue. For the 1966-1967 season Jack Davis would again provide illustrations for many of NBC's shows. Beginning with the July 13-19 1968 issue of TV Guide Jack Davis began illustrating covers for the magazine. He would illustrate 22 more covers for TV Guide between 1968 and 1981. Jack Davis also provided Time with a number of covers beginning with the October 16 1972 issue. Over the years Jack Davis provided artwork for several magazines, including Favourite Filmland Westerns, Playboy, Esquire, and others. He also illustrated covers for books, including The Beverly Hillbillies Book of Country Humour, The Belle of Catscratch by Richard Meade and Jay Rutledge, Watching TV by Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik, and many of the books by Art Buchwald, among others.

Jack Davis would also illustrate several movie posters. His very first movie poster was for the 1957 film The Smallest Show on Earth. He created art for the movie Sergeants 3 (1962) that was not used for its poster, but was used in much of the promotional material for the film. Possibly the most famous poster and promotional art he created for a film was his work for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Over the years Jack Davis would create posters for several films, including The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (1966), The Impossible Years (1968), Viva Max! (1969),  Bananas (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), American Graffiti (1973), The Bank Shot (1974), and many others.

One of the posters for It's a Mad, Mad,
Mad, Mad World
Jack Davis not only created posters and promotional art for films, but he also contributed to both television programmes and films produced by Rankin/Bass. He was responsible for the character design of Rankin/Bass's Saturday morning cartoon King Kong (which debuted in 1966). He was also responsible for the character design for the Rankin/Bass feature film Mad Monster Party (1967). He also contributed character designs to the Rankin/Bass Saturday morning cartoon Jackson 5ive (1971). He also provided character designs for the TV special The Enchanted World of Danny Kaye: The Emperor's New Clothes (1972) and the animated pilot The Conheads (1983).

Jack Davis also illustrated the covers of several record albums, starting with the back cover art of Alfredito and His Orchestra's Crazy Titles For Dancing Cha-Cha and Merengue in 1958. Over the years Mr. Davis illustrated the covers of such albums as Bob and Ray's Bob and Ray Throw a Stereo Spectacular (1958), Johnny Cash's Everybody Loves a Nut (1966), several Ben Colder albums, The Best of The Cowsills, The Greatest of The Guess Who, and many others. Jack Davis also did a good deal of advertising art. In addition to his work for NBC cited above, he also illustrated advertisements for Ralston Purina, Spalding, Slim Jim,  Michelob, and others. In 1989 he designed a stamp celebrating letter carriers for the United States Postal Service, sneaking in a self portrait of himself. He also created the bee mascot for Bee-Line Bus System that runs from Westchester County, New York to New York City.

Jack Davis also did a good deal of work for his alma mater, the University of Georgia. Over the years he did many illustrations of UGA bulldogs. He also designed the mascot for the College of Coastal Georgia, Captain Jack.

A bit of Jack Davis's Georgia Bulldog art
Quite simply Jack Davis was one of the greatest cartoonists of the 20th Century. Short of Al Hirschfeld he might have been the greatest caricaturist of all time. While he was fully capable of beautifully rendered, realistic work (and much of his art for E.C. Comics and Marvel Comics was in such a style), for the most part Mr. Davis concerned himself little with realism. His work on E.C.'s horror titles tended to be very dark and rough-hewn, with a great deal of contrast. His work for Mad, as well as most of his later work, was more whimsical. The people in his artwork would have oversized heads, hands, and feet, with skinny legs. Jack Davis was highly influential, and many imitated his styles. During his time with E.C. many competing horror comic book publishers (particularly Harvey) tried to mimic his style in their magazines. It is safe to say that every single humour magazine published since Mad has featured art that was obviously inspired by Jack Davis. Even in the field of movie posters he was highly imitated. Many of the movie posters illustrated by Frank Frazetta, best known for his more realistic sword and sorcery work, were obviously inspired by Jack Davis.

Given the extremely high quality of Jack Davis's work, what made him all the more remarkable is that he was highly prolific. Jack Davis didn't simply work for Mad. He didn't simply create movie posters. He also illustrated magazine covers, album covers, paperback covers, and much more. Jack Davis did so much that to discuss every single of his works would take a very large book indeed. Of course, Mr. Davis was able to get so much done because he was capable of producing high quality work in a very short amount of time. William M. Gaines, Albert B. Feldstein, and Harvey Kurtzman of E.C. Comics all said that Jack Davis was the fastest artist at the company. He was known for being able to produce three pages, fully pencilled and inked, in one day. Given the speed with which Jack Davis was worked, it was perhaps no surprise that he would be very prolific.

Despite the fact that he was well known for his work on E.C.'s horror titles (including such graphic stories as "Foul Play") and he was a fan of ghost stories and horror, Jack Davis did not particularly care for the sort of gore that E.C. often published. In some respects this should not surprise many who met him, as Jack Davis appeared to be a truly gentle soul. When meeting fans he was known for being friendly, gracious, and polite. Jack Davis was one of the greatest cartoonists of the 20th Century, but he was also a warm, friendly human being and a true Southern gentleman.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Late Great Marni Nixon

In movie musicals today it is not unusual for actors to sing their own parts, even when they are not particularly gifted at singing (examples are 2007's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and 2012's Les Misérables). That having been said, there was a time when Hollywood took a slightly different approach. In the Fifties and Sixties it was not unusual for an actor's voice to be be dubbed even when he or she could sing. The singers responsible for the dubbing are known as playback singers, and in many classic Hollywood musicals it is their voices one hears rather than that of the actors.

Perhaps the most famous playback singer of all time was Marni Nixon. She provided Deborah Kerr's singing voice in The King and I (1956), Natalie Wood's singing voice in West Side Story (1961), and Audrey Hepburn's singing voice in My Fair Lady (1964). While Marni Nixon had her own singing career and even appeared on Broadway, she has remained best known for her work as a playback singer. Sadly, Marni Nixon died July 24 2016 at the age of 86. The cause was breast cancer.

Marni Nixon was born Margaret Nixon in  Altadena, California on February 22 1930. She took to music while very young, studying the violin when she was only four years old. She became a child actress who played bit parts in films. She had a credited role in the film The Bashful Bachelor (1942), which was released when she was only twelve years old. She was eleven years old when she won a singing contest at the Los Angeles County Fair. She studied under Vera Schwarz, an Austrian soprano who had appeared in opera houses throughout Europe. When Miss Nixon was 17 she appeared as a solo vocalist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She later studied at the Berkshire Music Centre in Tanglewood, Massachusetts.

As a teenager Marni Nixon worked as a messenger at MGM. It was not long before the studio decided to use her to dub the singing voices of actors. Her first job as a playback singer was dubbing the singing voice of Margaret O'Brien in The Secret Garden (1949).  This was followed by singing in two classic Disney films, Cinderella (1950) and Alice in Wonderland (1951). The very late Forties through the Fifties would see Marni Nixon very much in demand as a playback singer in films. In 1950 she provided Jeanne Crain's singing voice in Cheaper by the Dozen. The year 1953 saw Miss Nixon provide Ida Lupino's singing voice in Jennifer and also saw her sing a few of Marilyn Monroe's lines in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She provided Deborah Kerr's singing voice in both The King and I (1956) and An Affair to Remember (1957). She was Janet Leigh's singing voice in Pepe (1960), Natalie Wood's singing voice in West Side Story (1961), and Audrey Hepburn's singing voice in My Fair Lady (1964). She provided the voices of the geese in Mary Poppins (1964).  She was the voice of Princess Serena in Gene Kelly and Hanna-Barbera's television special Jack and the Beanstalk in 1967. She later provided the signing voice of Grandmother Fa in Mulan (1998).

While Marni Nixon's spent much of her time dubbing the singing voices of actors, she was seen on screen a few times. She played Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music (1965) and guest starred as herself on the Sixties sitcom The Mothers-In-Law. In the Eighties she hosted the children's show Boomerang. She guest starred on a 2001 episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

Although best known for dubbing the singing voices of actors, Marni Nixon had her own career as a performer. She appeared on Broadway in The Girl in Pink Tights (1954), James Joyce's The Dead (2000), Follies (2001), and Nine (2003). She played Eliza Doolittle in a revival of My Fair Lady at City Centre in New York City in 1964. She also performed with the New York Philharmonic, and at Carnegie Hall,  Alice Tully Hall, and Town Hall in New York City. Over the years she performed many concerts and made several recordings.

In some ways it is sad that Marni Nixon will always be best known for providing the singing voices of other performers in films, as she was gifted with an incredible soprano voice. What is more, it was a highly adaptable voice. Miss Nixon could sound like such diverse women as Deborah Kerr, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn, so much so that to this day many audiences are none the wiser that it is not those women singing. Given her sheer virtuosity and versatility, Marni Nixon really deserves to be better known for her own work than she currently is. Few singers were ever as talented as she was.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The 70th Anniversary of Martin and Lewis

It was 70 years ago today, on July 25 1946, that Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis made their debut as a comedy team at the 500 Club in Atlantic City. Prior to teaming up Dean Martin was a nightclub singer while Jerry Lewis was a comic among whose schticks was lip-synching to records. The two met in 1945 while they were both performing at the Glass Hat Club in New York City.

The debut of Martin and Lewis did not go over particularly well that night at the 500 Club. In fact, it went so badly that the owner of the 500 Club, Paul "Skinny" D'Amato, threatened to fire them if their second show that night was not better than their first. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis then wholly redid their act, doing away with many of the scripted gags they had used in their first show and relying more on improvisation. Their second show that night received a much better reception than the first.

It was not long before Martin and Lewis were performing at clubs all along the East Coast. On June 20 1948 they appeared on the first edition of a brand new TV show, Toast of the Town (later to be renamed for its host, The Ed Sullivan Show). On August 3 1948 they appeared on Texaco Star Theatre Starring Milton Berle. By 1949 Martin and Lewis had their own radio show on NBC. That same year they made their feature film debut in My Friend Irma (1949).

Sadly, Martin and Lewis would not last. After a successful radio show, sixteen successful films, and numerous television appearances, tensions between Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis reached such a point that the two were constantly arguing. On July 25 1956, ten years exactly after their debut as a comedy team, Dean Martin split with Jerry Lewis. Their seventeenth and final film together, Hollywood or Bust, was released several months later, on December 6 1956.

While the team of Martin and Lewis had ended, they would each go onto highly successful solo careers. Dean Martin not only became a popular recording artist, but also starred in a number of movies and had his own long running variety show. Jerry Lewis made several successful comedy films. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis would eventually reconcile, appearing together on Jerry Lewis's Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon on Labour Day 1976. The two appeared together one last time at Bally's Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on June 7 1989. Dean Martin was performing there and Jerry Lewis showed up for Dean's 72nd birthday. Sadly, Dean Martin died on December 25 1995, ending any chance of the world again seeing the team of Martin and Lewis perform live.