Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Late Great Stanley Donen

Every classic film buff has his or her favourite directors. Among mine numbers Stanley Donen. Both with Gene Kelly and on his own, Mr. Donen directed some of my favourite movies: Singin' in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Charade (1963), and Bedazzled (1967).  And while he directed some of the greatest movie musicals in film history, Stanley Donen was versatile. Over the years he directed everything from comedies (such as The Grass is Greener) to dramas (Two for the Road). Stanley Donen died on Feburary 21 2019 at the age of 94.

Stanley Donen was born on April 13 1924 in Columbia, South Carolina. Young Mr. Donen faced anti-Semitism growing up and found refuge in movie theatres. Among the films to have an impact on him in his childhood was Flying Down to Rio (1933) . In an interview he said that he must have seen it thirty or forty times. His love of the film would lead him to take dance lessons and he would even perform at the Town Theatre in Columbia. While on summer vacations he would visit New York City where he also took dance lessons and watched various Broadway musicals. Mr. Donen graduated high school when he was 16 and then enrolled at the University of South Carolina for a single, summer semester.

His mother encouraged him to pursue his dreams of being a dancer, and so he moved to New York City. There he made his Broadway debut in Pal Joey (1940) as one of the dancers. It was there that he met the man who would be his frequent collaborator, Gene Kelly. Stanley Donen then appeared in Best Foot Forward on Broadway, on which he served as assistant stage manager. MGM bought the rights to Best Foot Forward and Stanley Donen appeared in a small role in the 1943 film adaptation and served as an assistant to dance director Jack Donohue. Stanley Donen moved to Hollywood and it was there that he resumed his friendship with Gene Kelly. Over the next few years Stanley Donen would serve as assistant choreographer on Cover Girl (1944) and Hey, Rookie (1944), and as a choreographer on Jam Session (1944), Kansas City Kitty (1945),  Holiday in Mexico (1946), No Leave, No Love (1946), This Time for Keeps (1947), Killer McCoy (1947), Big City (1948), A Date with Judy (1948), The Kissing Bandit (1948), and Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949, with Gene Kelly). He was an assistant choreographer to Gene Kelly on Anchors Aweigh (1945). He made his directorial debut in 1949 with Anchors Aweigh, co-directing with Gene Kelly.

In the Fifties, as directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly would collaborate on the movies Singin' in the Rain (1952) and It's Always Fair Weather. Over time Messrs. Donen and Kelly's relationship deteriorated and It's Always Fair Weather would be their last collaboration. The first movie Stanley Donen directed on his own was the classic Royal Wedding (1951). He would also direct one of the greatest movie musicals of all time, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). In the Fifties, Mr. Donen would direct the films Love is Better Than Ever (1952), Fearless Fagan (1952), Give a Girl a Break (1953), Deep in My Heart (1954), Funny Face (1957), The Pajama Game (1957), Kiss Them for Me (1957), Indiscreet (1958), Damn Yankees (1958), Once More with Feeling! (1960), Surprise Package (1960), and The Grass is Greener (1960). 

Stanley Donen would continue to have a successful career into the Sixties as he expanded from musicals into other film genres. He directed the comedy thriller Charade (1963), the drama Two for the Road (1967), and the comedy Bedazzled (1967). He also directed the films Arabesque (1966) and Staircase (1969). The Seventies would see Mr. Donen direct the films The Little Prince (1974), Lucky Lady (1975), Movie Movie (1978), and Saturn 3 (1980). Mr. Donen directed a musical sequence for the 1986 Moonlighting episode "Big Man on Mulberry St." He also produced the 58th Annual Academy Awards in 1986. It was also in the Eighties that he taught a seminar on film musicals at the Sundance Institute. His last directorial work would be the made-for-TV film Love Letters in 1999.

Stanley Donen was one of the first director of whom I was actually aware. I saw both Singin' in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers while I was very young and I fell in love with both of them. Over time I would see the other films in his oeuvre. While I cannot say I love very film Mr. Donen ever directed (Saturn 3 is not a particularly good film), I love most of them. And there are many that I would count among the greatest films ever made, including Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Singin' in the Rain, On the Town, Royal Wedding, Charade, and Bedazzled.

Of course, there have always been questions about how much Stanley Donen contributed to the films on which he collaborated with Gene Kelly. There are those who have diminished his contributions to those films. My own thought is that his contributions were probably far greater than many might realise. While I am a huge Gene Kelly fan, I think Stanley Donen's solo work was far superior to Gene Kelly's solo work. While Mr. Kelly directed many fine films, he directed nothing on his own to match the quality of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, let alone Royal Wedding or Charade. While I do not wish to diminish Gene Kelly's contributions to On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, and It's Always Fair Weather, given the respective solo work of the two men, I think Stanley Donen had considerable input into the films they made together.

Indeed, Stanley Donen made some very strong films. Regardless of the genre, most of his films are characterised by strong stories, strong performances, and some very solid direction. I think one would be hard put to find better movies than Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or Charade. As to why Mr. Donen was such a good director, I think it comes down to the fact that he was a born entertainer.  His acceptance speech for his honorary Oscar in 1998 is my all time favourite Oscar moment. He did a soft shoe and delivered a speech filled with humour and wit. It actually makes me wonder how great Mr. Donen would have been had he chosen to pursue a career in front of the camera. Stanley Donen had a gift for knowing what people would find entertaining and for being able to create great films. He leaves behind a body of work that few directors could ever match.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Ten Years on Twitter

As of 2:17 PM Central Time today it has been ten years since I have had a Twitter account. While I set up my account on February 22 2009, it would be a while before I would follow someone. The first person I followed was my dear friend Raquel Stecher (although she was still going by her maiden name Matos back then). It would be a few weeks before I would actually make a tweet. It was on March 9 2009 (the day before my birthday) at 12:37 PM that I made my first tweet, which was a link to my blog post on the passing of Charlie Chaplin's son Sydney. Over time the number of tweets I made on any given day would increase dramatically. And while Twitter has received a good deal of bad press over the years, except for the days when Google+ was in its prime, it has always been my favourite social media service.

Among other things Twitter has given me access to a wider audience than I had before. While A Shroud of Thoughts had a readership well before Twitter (the blog was a few months shy of five years old when I joined Twitter), its audience would grow substantially once I began regularly tweeting links to my blog posts. For much of the past ten years, Twitter has provided more hits to A Shroud of Thoughts than any other social media service. In fact, there are some days when most of the hits on my blog come from Twitter.

It was also through Twitter that I met the majority of my fellow classic film buff friends. While I had a few prior to joining Twitter from my years of blogging (the aforementioned Raquel being one of them), I would meet many more on the social media service. Many of them now number among my closest friends. Indeed, I would be one of the original members of #TCMParty, the group of Turner Classic Movies fans who live tweet movies on that channel. It would be through #TCMParty that I would make even more friends, some of who would also number among the closest friends I have ever had. I would also be able to connect to people I respect and admire. Among the people whom I follow and who follows me is Nell Minow, movie critic and the daughter of my hero Newton Minow. I am proud to count her among my friends. I have also been able to interact with such people as Illeana Douglas, Michael Des Barres, Josh Mankiewicz, and Tommy James.

Indeed, it would be through #TCMParty and Twitter that I would meet the most important person in my life. Vanessa Marquez was another one of the original members of #TCMParty and, like me, she live tweeted to such shows as Mad Men and Downton Abbey as well. At first my friends and I were not quite sure that she was the Vanessa Marquez of Stand and Deliver (1988) and ER fame, as we  had encountered people impersonating celebrities on Twitter before. That having been said, Vanessa turned out to be who she claimed to be, and she proved to be entirely wonderful. Being close to the same age and sharing many of the same interests, it was not long before Vanessa and I bonded and became friends. Our friendship would grow to the point that I would count Vanessa as my very best friend. I am not sure when I fell in love with her, but I believe it was well before I consciously realised it. Vanessa would become the one person I love more than anyone else in my life. I might never have met her had it not been for Twitter.

Of course, Twitter has a reputation for trolls, something that has received a good deal of press over the years. That having been said, I have actually found Facebook to be a much worse haven for trolls than Twitter ever has been (there is a reason my Facebook posts are private and I am not active on very many groups). This is not to say that I haven't had a few bad experiences on Twitter with regards to trolls. When Vanessa died, one of my tweets made national news sources (it is odd seeing one's tweet alongside those from famous actors). As a result I received replies from sociopaths who apparently took joy in trying to hurt someone who was experiencing the worst grief he has ever experienced in his life. I responded to none of them and reported and blocked each and every one of them. That having been said, in Twitter' defence, I had many complete strangers who took up for me and defended me against the trolls, often quite vehemently. To them I am eternally grateful.

While I don't think Twitter's reputation for trolls is quite warranted, I do think Twitter has a problem in dealing with trolls. It often seems that trolls can continue tweeting unabated even after their tweets and accounts have been reported by several people. In fact, at least two very famous trolls come to mind. At the same time, while Twitter gives a few trolls free reign, it seems to me that they will suspend the accounts of women who speak out about sexual harassment. The Twitter account of my Vanessa was suspended after she complained about sexual harassment on the set of ER. I complained to Twitter about her account being suspended, as did many of Vanessa's other friends, to no avail. After her death I asked Twitter to reopen her original account, as did many of her other friends, to no avail. I even tweeted and emailed Jack Dorsey himself about it, but received no response. I cannot deny that I am still a bit angry at this, especially given the trolls who regularly tweet truly offensive things are allowed to continue with their accounts regardless of how many complaints there are against them.

At any rate, while I will admit that I do have some problems with Twitter as far as the way it deals with trolls and as far as suspending accounts that absolutely should not be suspended, it remains my favourite social media service. To this day I receive more hits on A Shroud of Thoughts from Twitter than I do any other social media service. To this day I continue to make new friends there. And to this day it remains the primary means through which I stay in touch with many of my friends. Twitter has enriched my life much more than some other social media services (*cough* Facebook *cough*) and I have no regrets about having created an account there.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

For Pete's Sake: The Late Great Peter Tork

There are those music artists and TV shows that we can remember from our earliest days, those music artists and TV shows that shape who we are, those music artists and TV shows that we love all our lives. As those of you who know me and my regular readers know, for me one of those groups of music artists are The Monkees and for me one of those TV shows is the one in which they starred, The Monkees. I discovered The Monkees in childhood, through reruns on CBS on Saturday mornings and my sister's record collection. I loved both the band and TV show and I love both the band and TV show still. Whenever I am feeling down, I can always put on a Monkees album or an episode of The Monkees, and fairly soon I will feel better. They have seen me though good times and bad.

Sadly, Peter Tork, the multi-instrumentalist who played bass and keyboards with the band, died today a the age of 77. The cause was complications from a rare cancer with which he was first diagnosed in 2009.

Peter Tork was born Peter Thorkelson on February 13 1942 in Washington, D.C. He was the son of Virginia Hope (née Straus) and Halsten John Thorkelson. The family moved to Connecticut while Peter was still young, and his father was an economics professor at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Peter displayed musical talent while still young. He began studying piano when he was only nine. He eventually learned to play several instruments, including banjo, acoustic bass, guitar, and electric bass. Mr. Tork attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, but left before graduating to pursue a career in folk music in New York City. It was while he was there that he met another young folk musician named Stephen Stills. It was also during this period that Mr. Tork developed the persona he described as "a lovable dummy", sort of a cross between Harpo Marx and Gracie Allen. Like Harpo Marx and Gracie Allen, in reality Peter Tork was remarkably intelligent and very talented.

Both Peter Tork and Stephen Stills moved to California. It was there that Stephen Stills tried out for a new television show about a struggling rock band. Ultimately the producers rejected Mr. Stills, according to some sources because he did not have good enough hair or teeth and according to Mr. Still because he wanted to write his own songs and did not want to surrender his music publishing rights. He suggested Peter Tork to the producers, because the two of them resembled each other a good deal. It was then that Peter Tork became one of The Monkees.

While Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Davy Jones played characters who were not too far removed from themselves, Peter Tork played the "lovable dummy" persona he had perfected in his days as a folk singer. As one of The Monkees, Peter Tork wrote or co-wrote several of the band's songs, including "For Pete's Sake" (which was used as the closing theme for the show's second season), "Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again?", "Can You Dig It?", and many others.

After The Monkees ended its run he appeared with his fellow Monkees in the cult film Head (1968) and the TV special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. While with The Monkees he played banjo on George Harrison's sound track for the movie Wonderwall (1968). Unfortunately, being a Monkee was not particularly easy on Mr. Tork. Pleading exhaustion, he bought out his contract and left the band. After leaving The Monkees, he formed the band Peter Tork And/Or Release. The band failed to get a recording contract and broke up in 1970.

Despite having been on a hit TV series and one of the biggest bands of the Sixties, Peter Tork struggled for much of the Seventies. In 1970 he was forced to sell his house and for a time he even lived in David Crosby's basement. He taught at Pacific Hills School in Santa Monica, California for a time. On July 4 1976 he joined Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart on stage in Disneyland. Later in the year he would reunited with Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones for the single "Christmas Is My Time of Year", which was released only to fan club members. In the Eighties he appeared regularly on The Uncle Floyd Show, which aired in New York and New Jersey television markets. In 1981 he released the single "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" (which The Monkees had recorded in the Sixties) with The New Monks. He performed at clubs and appeared on Late Night with David Letterman. In 1985 Peter Tork toured Australia with Davy Jones.

In 1986 MTV aired a marathon of The Monkees which introduced both the TV show and the band to a new audience. With new interest in both the show and the band, Peter Tork reunited with Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones for a highly successful 20th anniversary tour. The three of them recorded the first all-new Monkees album in years, Pool It!, which was released in 1987. Peter Tork contributed the song "Gettin' In" to the album. The Monkees would continue touring from 1986 to 1989, visiting the United States, Japan, and Australia. In the Eighties Peter Tork also toured with his band The Peter Tork Project.

In the Nineties Peter Tork guest starred on the TV shows California Dreams, Boy Meets World (in one of the two episodes he appeared alongside Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones), The King and Queens, and 7th Heaven. All four Monkees reunited for the television special Hey, Hey, It's The Monkees, which aired in 1997. All four Monkees also recorded the album Justus, released in 1996. Mr. Tork contributed the songs "Run Away from Life" and "I Believe in You" to the album. It was in 1994 that Peter Tork released a solo album, Stranger Things Have Happened. With James Lee Stanley he released the album Two Man Band. It was in 1996 Peter Tork joined Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones for a 30th anniversary tour. Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz, and Davy Jones also appeared in The Brady Bunch Movie (1996).

In the Naughts Peter Tork would release two more albums with James Lee Stanley, Once Again in 2001 and Live/Backstage at the Coffee Gallery in 2006.  Peter Tork would release two albums with his new band, Shoe Suede Blues, Saved by the Blues in 2003 and Cambria Hotel in 2007. He toured briefly with Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, although he parted ways with them due to various differences. He appeared in the movie Catheral Pines (2007).

Shoe Suede Blues released two more albums in the Teens, Step by Step in 2013 and Relax Your Mind in 2018. He reunited with Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones for a 45th anniversary tour in 2011. Following the untimely death of Davy Jones in 2012, Peter Tork reunited with Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith as both a tribute to Davy Jones and to honour the 45th anniversary of their album Headquarters. They would tour again in 2013 and 2014. In 2016 Peter Tork appeared with Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith at some concerts. He contributed to The Monkees' 2016 album Good Times! (which also featured Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith, with a previously unreleased track by Davy Jones). He also contributed to The Monkees' 2018 holiday album Christmas Party.

Every Monkees fan has his or her favourite Monkee, and for many people that was Peter Tork. And there should be little wonder why. On the TV show The Monkees  Mr. Tork played a wonderful character that was more complicated than he might appear on the surface. On the surface Peter appeared dim-witted and could be absent minded, but at the same time he possessed a child-like innocence and vulnerability, and he could sometimes express a surprising amount of wisdom. And, arguably, it was Peter who was the most pure of heart of The Monkees. He was always faithful to his bandmates and in the episode "The Picture Frame" it is actually Peter who saves them. Like Harpo Marx and Gracie Allen, Peter on The Monkees was no simple buffoon.

As a musician it was arguably Peter who was the most talented of The Monkees. Peter could play multiple instruments, including guitar, bass, acoustic bass, banjo, piano, organ, and French horn. Peter Tork was the only Monkee to play an instrument on the band's first album. While The Monkees were not permitted to play their own instruments, Michael Nesmith had him play guitar on the two tracks he produced ("Papa Gene's Blues" and "Sweet Young Thing").

Of course, Peter Tork was also a good songwriter. Once The Monkees were allowed to play their own instruments, he contributed several songs to the band. His song "For Pete's Sake" was featured as the closing theme of The Monkees in its second season. His song "Can You Dig It?" was featured in the movie Head. Many of Mr. Tork's songs numbered among the best The Monkees ever recorded.

As one of The Monkees, Peter Tork played an important role in the lives of multiple generations. Both on the TV show The Monkees and as a songwriter and musician he has brought joy to many. As one of The Monkees, he certainly made life more bearable for me, and as I am sure he has for many others. It is for that reason that so many are saddened by his passing.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Sammy Davis Jr., One of the Fastest Guns in Hollywood

If you asked the average person who the fastest gun among movie and television stars was, he or she might reply with an actor best known for Westerns, someone such as John Wayne, Randolph Scott, or James Arness. In truth the fastest guns in Hollywood were performers who aren't generally associated with Westerns. Reportedly the fastest gun in all of Hollywood was none other than comedian Jerry Lewis. Not far behind him was actor, singer, dancer, and comedian Sammy Davis Jr.

Sammy Davis Jr. was taught in the quick draw by Arvo Ojala, a stuntman and marksman who was an expert in the subject. Among other things Mr. Ojala was the gunfighter who was shot down by Marshal Matt Dillon in the original opening of each episode of Gunsmoke. In truth, Arvo Ojala could have beaten Marshal Dillon with ease.  Over the years Mr. Ojala would train many stars in the fast draw, including James Arness, Robert Culp, James Garner, Paul Newman, Hugh O'Brien, and Clint Walker, among others.

As it turns out, Arvo Ojala trained Sammy Davis Jr. very well. Reportedly Mr. Davis could draw a gun between 4/10ths and 4.5/10ths of a second. While Sammy Davis Jr. did not appear in very many Western movies (Gone with the West from 1974 is it), he did get the opportunity to display his fast gun skills on such TV Westerns as Zane Gray Theatre, Lawman, and The Rifleman. He also demonstrated his skill with a gun on various talk shows over the years.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Godspeed Bruno Ganz

Bruno Ganz, who played the angel Damiel in Der Himmel über Berlin (1987--known in English as Wings Of Desire) and Jonathan Zimmerman in Der amerikanische Freund (1977--literally The American Friend), died yesterday, February 16 2019, at the age of 77. He reportedly had colon cancer.

Bruno Ganz was born on March 22 1941 in Zurich, Switzerland. He took to acting when he was young and began his career on the stage, making his theatrical debut in 1961. He was soon appearing in film, in such movies as Es Dach überem Chopf (1962) and Der sanfte Lauf (1967). He would become one of the most respected actors in European cinema. He played the Count in Éric Rohmer's The Marquise of O (1976). The following year he appeared as Jonathan Zimmerman, the picture framer dying of leukaemia who befriends the notorious Tom Ripley (played by Dennis Hopper), in The American Friend (1977). In addition to German language cinema, Bruno Ganz also appeared in English language films. In 1978 he appeared as cloning expert Dr. Bruckner in The Boys from Brazil. The following year he appeared in a German language film that would be familiar to English speaking audiences. He played Jonathan Harker in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979).

It was in 1987 that Mr. Ganz appeared in what could be his best known role, that of the angel Damiel in Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire. The film centred on angels in Berlin, one of who, Damiel, falls in love with a mortal. He would reprise his role as Damiel in Faraway, So Close! (1993). He played author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in the 1996 BBC telefilm Saint-Ex.

Bruno Ganz's career continued unabated into the 21st Century. He played another one of his most famous roles in Downfall (2004), that of Adolf Hitler. His portrayal of the dictator in his last days would receive critical acclaim. In The Reader (2008) he portrayed Holocaust survivor Professor Rohl. In the 2008 film The Baader Meinhof Complex he played another historical figure, German Federal Criminal Police chief Horst Herold. He would later play the grandfather, Alpöhi, in a 2015 adaptation of Heidi and Sigmund Freud in The Tobacconist (2018).

Bruno Ganz was an incredible actor and he had a host of accolades to prove it. Over the years he had received such awards as the Hans-Reinhart-Ring, the Iffland-Ring, and even the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. Mr. Ganz could transform himself into a variety of characters with ease. Over the years he played a diverse number of historical figures, including Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Adolf Hitler, Horst Herold, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, and Sigmund Freud. He played a staggering array of different types of fictional characters, from picture framer turned killer in The American Friend to an angel in Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close! to spiritual healer Gottfried in The Party (2017). For his ability to play a wide variety of roles,  he will be remembered as one of the greatest European actors of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.