Category Archives: Tributes

Take 5/Obit Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)

Courtesy of Boing Boing

Aretha Franklin’s musical legacy is a testament to the importance of having the right collaborators at the right time. Aided the cheerleading of her doting father Rev. C.L. Franklin and her impressive gospel recordings, Franklin’s talent was recognized at an early age by the industry. She was signed by Columbia Records, for whom she recorded 9 albums over 6 years. However, the material given to her – a clunky hodge podge of easy listening, pop, and jazz – stifled her larger-than-life soulful talent. Listening to these early songs, it is clear that Columbia didn’t know what to do with her.

The Aretha Franklin that we all love and revere emerged in 1967 when she traveled to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Under the guidance of genius producer Rick Hall, she gave to the world the album I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You). In addition to the title track, her inaugural album contained “RESPECT” and “Dr. Feelgood,” which remain iconic numbers in her repertoire.

This and the other recordings she made with Atlantic records remain as fresh and vibrant today as when they were originally produced. Even in an era (1967-1975) that was a Renaissance for virtuosic American vocalists, Ms. Franklin had that something extra that made her stand out from the pack. Listen to Ms. Franklin’s version of “The House That Jack Built” vs the originator Thelma Jones. Jones gives a spirited performance, but Franklin’s soulfulness better savors the rueful lyrics and her head and chest phrasings have more zing as she belts out the high notes. Consider a side by side of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man:” Etta James’ feisty, assertive version is edged by Franklin’s quietly poignant cover which makes the song more personable.

Courtesy of E! News

Aretha Franklin’s status as The Queen is complicated at best. In its prime Ms. Franklin’s voice combined a euphoric blend of heavenly and earthly tones that conveyed volcanic strength with a naked, raw, gut wrenching world weariness. While many of her peers such as Nancy Wilson, Etta James, and Tina Turner maintained and expanded their gift, Ms. Franklin squandered hers. Quite honestly, for most of her career, she has coasted on her decade of sublimity. Like many of the most supremely talented artists with natural ability, Ms. Franklin’s hedonism (smoking and fatty eating) and lack of discipline eventually diminished her umami of her voice, though glimmers of it tauntingly remained. Despite performing at 10% of her capacity, Ms. Franklin demanded to be treated (and called) as The Queen of Soul unconditionally.

For the last 30 years, Ms. Franklin gave the impression that performing was a chore and that she was doing audiences a favor with her presence. (In several of her live concerts in the 80s, Franklin stops short of rolling her eyes). Nevertheless, Franklin never left the spotlight, touring constantly and releasing several albums. Even if those records, produced by the white bread Arista, were nowhere near the quality of her Atlantic discography, there is something to be said for her willingness to continually produce new music, as opposed to just settling for nostalgia tours like so many musicians do for most of their careers. All this goes to show the strong survivor she was in her own rough way.

Courtesy of Vox

It is astonishing the many obstacles she overcame; pregnancy at 13, not finishing high school, abusive relationships, enduring the brutal murder of her father and the deaths of her sisters to debilitating cancers. It’s a shame that Ms. Franklin wasn’t able to let go of her feeling of lack, which led her to compete, rather than collaborate. This wasn’t restricted to her colleagues such as Whitney Houston and Mavis Staples (where she had the studio engineers virtually render her duet partner a background singer in post). She also undermined her own sisters professionally. The most egregious incident happened when Ms. Franklin was at the zenith of her career; when she found out that Carolyn was recording the soundtrack to the musical Sparkle, she used her clout to commandeer the project for herself. The brutal truth of the matter is that Sparkle wouldn’t be a monumental album in the hands of Carolyn, a good, but not spectacular vocalist. Sparkle marked the last stellar album for Aretha Franklin; a bittersweet last hurrah indeed.

I cannot share the enthusiasm that Carole King, Barack Obama, and social media felt when she sang Natural Woman at the Kennedy Center in 2015. Perhaps people responded to the fact that for the first time in a long while, she didn’t seem contemptuous of her public. Despite her gameness, her voice was drained and trailing. Thankfully we can always revisit the recordings when Ms. Franklin had the magic. For those precious songs, I will always love and cherish her.

Paring down a top 5 is super hard, but here I go.

I Say a Little Prayer For You

Although Dionne Warwick put Burt Bacharach’s songs on the map, Ms. Franklin’s cover elevates this sweet, catchy ditty to sublime bliss. This version is the tops.

Bridge Over Troubled Water

Ms. Franklin’s gentle piano playing alongside her powerhouse gospel vocals, on-point harmonies from the backup queens, and a fiery organist make for a stirring, sumptuous rendition of this Simon and Garfunkel song.

Call Me

In addition to fierce singing by Ms. Franklin and her backup goddesses, Call Me also demonstrates Ms. Franklin’s songwriting talent. There are so many good live versions of this song, but this one edges them out because of the way she goes to a hushed lullaby to a spirited riff at the end.

Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)

Ms. Franklin’s heavy piano pounding and uninhibited belting make for one of the best renditions of anger and heartbreak ever captured. The background singers are pretty, but pretty useless. Never mind, Ms. Franklin more than carries the song.

(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman

The slower tempo of this version gives Ms. Franklin more opportunity to wax the gorgeous Carole King lyrics, and when she belts “makes me feel so aliveeeeee,” honey, she soars through the speakers. And the way she slides those chest notes at the end is magical.

Very, very close 2nds: Angel, A Deeper Love (a guilty pleasure), Ain’t No Way, See Saw, You’re All I Need to Get By, I’m In Love, Spanish Harlem, and Brand New Me. Also check out an overlooked acid soul Mr. Spain.

Obits: Dorothy Malone & Bradford Dillman

This New Year the celebrity graveyard has commenced, taking away two classic movie/TV stars, Dorothy Malone, 92 and Bradford Dillman, 87. Although neither one has become an immortal screen icon, both had long and varied careers.

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When Dorothy Malone changed her hair color, her screen roles transformed considerably. As a brunette in Warner Brothers and Universal pictures, Malone played the good girl. In those roles Malone always underplayed to good effect with a sensible, empathetic warmth. In her early career she’s probably best remembered for her brief, but excellent scene in The Big Sleep where she brought sauciness and smarts as a keen book store salesclerk who helped Bogie’s Marlowe uncover a major clue.

Courtesy of wallpaperup.com

Perhaps her best role in this era was in Raoul Walsh’s stellar Western remake of High Sierra, Colorado Territory, about two sympathetic antiheroes against a bunch of fickle “respectable” people. Malone is well cast as the seemingly nice girl who callously betrays outlaw Joel McCrea in a swift second at the first whiff of adversity.

Regarding Malone’s screen roles, blondes didn’t have more fun. But blonde Malone found more acclaim with meatier roles as crazy, mixed-up, slightly mysterious women. Her most famous role is her Oscar-winning turn as an out-of-control alcoholic nymphomaniac socialite who wreaks havoc on Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall in Douglas Sirk’s opulent melodrama Written on the Wind. The most memorable sequence is when Malone’s character dances maniacally as her father dies of a heart attack.

Courtesy of otrasactrices.wordpress.com

Her film career was somewhat derailed by her first and only starring vehicle, Too Much, Too Soon, a melodrama based off of troubled actress Diana Barrymore, which was savaged by critics and box office returns, and featured a way past his prime Errol Flynn as her leading man.

In the early 60s she delivered poignant performances as enigmatic women whose pasts with dangerous men caught up with her in well-written bittersweet episodes of Route 66 and Checkmate. In 1964, she scored a major coup when she starred in the revolutionary and super popular soap opera Peyton Place. Initially it was an ideal setup as she was the Grande Dame and had clout to set normal working hours to spend time with her children. By the second year, younger actors Mia Farrow, Ryan O’Neal, and Barbara Parkins got more fanfare.

After the show ended in 1968, Malone acted here and there until 1992. Her final role in Basic instinct as a woman who got away with murdering her family was exciting on paper but translated as a random and skimpy cameo on screen.

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Like so many of the male and female starlets groomed by the major studios in the late 50s, Bradford Dillman didn’t achieve major movie stardom like the actors under contract during the Hollywood Golden Era of 1930 to 1950 or the Hollywood New Wave of 1967 to 1975. Other than Compulsion, where he received good notices for playing a rich sociopathic murderer, Dillman’s early filmography at 20th Century Fox was forgettable.

Courtesy of IMDb

Starting in the early 60s, Dillman maintained a prolific career guest starring on TV shows. His first set of guest appearances are his best because the 1960s was a prime time for well-written character-driven TV. He excelled at playing deviants and neurotics. He was uncompromisingly raw as a psycho in an uncharacteristically dark episode of Dr. Kildare who rapes Kildare’s (played by youth idol Richard Chamberlain) girlfriend in front of him and continues to taunt both of them before he is apprehended. He is equally unsettling in a shocking episode of Ben Casey where he is an intelligent, but devious patient who gaslights his dumb, but sweet roommate and tries to steal his sexy fiancée (MASH’s Sally Kellerman).

He also did his share of schlock because they helped put his five daughters through school. By this time his wife Suzy Parker had put her iconic modelling and brief critically panned acting career behind her. In between, he also did character work in movies he was proud of such as The Way We Were and The Iceman Cometh.

Regarding his career Dillman remarked “I’ve had a wonderful life. I married the most beautiful woman in the world. Together we raised six children, each remarkable in his or her own way and every one a responsible citizen. I was fortunate to work in a profession where I looked forward to going to work every day. I was rewarded with modest success. The work sent me to places all over the world I’d never been able to afford visiting otherwise.”

Obit: Gloria DeHaven (1925-2016)

About 15 years after the launching the highly innovative and spellbinding moving picture, the scrappy moguls realized that the future of their industry depended on more than the novel technology itself. After reading several fan letters inquiring about the people in the movies (who were then uncredited), they came up with the ingenious idea of grooming movie stars for public consumption (we all know how well that worked out).

Gloria DeHaven, far left on the 2nd row from bottom. Courtesy of handkerchiefheroes.com

Gloria DeHaven, far left on the 2nd row from bottom. Courtesy of handkerchiefheroes.com

The star machine had its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s during the Golden Age of Hollywood. One of the best practitioners of this method was MGM, whose endearingly corny but apt studio mantra was a place where there were “more stars than in heaven.” MGM, specializing in gorgeously gauche fare, was a perfect fit for the crude and synthetic star system.

One of its starlets, Gloria DeHaven who died from a stroke July 31st, has been a favorite of mine since childhood. Born to vaudevillian parents Carter and Flora Parker DeHaven, Gloria began her career early, making her screen debut as an extra in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).

From the get go, this fresh-faced glamorous brunette (sometimes blonde) exhibited confidence and glamour and made a good impression in small supporting roles, best of which was Best Foot Forward (1943). She more than held her own against the large and vibrant cast, as a feisty co-ed who instigates antagonism towards publicity-hungry actress Lucille Ball, who opportunistically accepts a prom date from a young cadet. This film marked the first pairing between DeHaven and June Allyson who along with Nancy Walker vibrantly delivered the show stopping musical number “The Barrelhouse, The Boogie Woogie, and The Blues.”

Courtesy of in.pinterest.com

Courtesy of in.pinterest.com

DeHaven and Allyson had such great chemistry that the next year, they got their first leading roles as plucky singing sisters in the charming morale boosting WWII musical Two Girls and A Sailor. As two singing sisters who gently spar for the affections of a boyish sailor played by Van Johnson, DeHaven’s sexiness and poise as the slightly impulsive sister who attracts the men perfectly complements Allyson’s warm, maternal, though slightly homely sister. Musically, DeHaven’s smooth, clear mezzo and Allyson’s raspy alto are in sync. In the end, audiences gravitated more towards the cuter, All-American Allyson and Johnson who starred in several subsequent films together, thus ending the Allyson DeHaven duo. (Off-screen, the two women remained best of friends).

With that, DeHaven was relegated back to supporting roles, as mostly kid sisters or secondary ingénues. She always brought an effortless, personable, slightly naughty but nice quality that deftly eschewed cloying sappiness. Her charm and vivacity sparkled even if the film didn’t. She easily outshone the negligible song and dance man, George Murphy, mediocre songstress Ginny Simms, and antiquated ex-Vaudevillian fuddy duddy Charles Winninger in the clunky Broadway Rhythm (1944).

DeHaven had a couple of major career setbacks in the mid-40s. First, she was suspended for refusing a role in Good News. Her next assignment, Summer Holiday, a strange but interesting (though not entirely successful) musical adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play Ah Wilderness, was a highly troubled production that sat on the shelf for two years, and flopped miserably when finally released. Collectively, this kept her off screen for three years.

Courtesy of in.pinterest.com

Courtesy of in.pinterest.com

While many of her peers utterly resented Dore Schary replacing an acrimoniously ousted Louis B. Mayer as head of production at Metro, DeHaven appreciated the chance to play against type in grittier roles under the new executive’s auspices. She gives a potently poignant performance as the black sheep of a cold, elitist family who has a pregnancy out of wedlock (and naturally a tragic outcome) in the broody melodrama The Doctor and the Girl. In the nifty, cynical little film noir, Scene of the Crime, a bottled blonde DeHaven is effective as a quasi femme fatale who strips in a skeevy nightclub and cavorts with riff raff.

Although both films turned a profit and received decent reviews, DeHaven went back to lighter fare, playing Judy Garland’s slightly self-centered sister in the bizarre farm-set musical Summer Stock and Red Skelton’s love interest in The Yellow Cab Man. Shortly after, she left MGM and freelanced, where the quality of the material declined.

Courtesy of www.cbsnews.com

Courtesy of www.cbsnews.com

While no longer an A-lister, DeHaven worked steadily on television, Broadway, and nightclubs until the 1990s. She continued to display her versatility in a variety of excellent performances ranging from a shady old-flame who embroils private detective Mannix in a murder case to an assertive travel agent friend of Jessica Fletcher in a recurring role on Murder, She Wrote. In one of the best episodes of the series, DeHaven, engages in several delightful catfights with several grande dames of the studio-era Julie Adams, Kathryn Grayson, and Ruth Roman, all of whom had dalliances with a town handyman whose shrewish wife was recently murdered.

Like several of the classic stars, DeHaven was approached a few times to write an autobiography, but the deal always fell through because she refused to write a “tell-all” account of her Hollywood days. Instead, in public appearances, DeHaven emphasized the positive aspects of being part of the “Metro family” (though she found some of the sillier aspects of the censorious Hays Code disagreeable). While she didn’t have the widespread fame as some of her peers (I would say she was sorely underrated), Gloria DeHaven has made a lasting impression on movie-loving folks like me.

Obit: Maureen O’Hara

Courtesy of www.zeit.de

Courtesy of www.zeit.de

To cineastes and film scholars Maureen O’Hara, who recently passed away in her sleep at the age of 95, is best known as the woman in a number of John Ford-John Wayne westerns, whose ravishing beauty rivaled that of the wide vistas of the Monument Valley locales; and as dutiful mothers in scores of films, most famously in Miracle on 34th Street and The Parent Trap. Like many her other redhead contemporaries, such as Arlene Dahl and Rhonda Fleming, O’Hara tended to get cast in roles that capitalized on her glamour in Technicolor rather than for her talent.

I would like to write a few words about her work in a film that hasn’t been mentioned in any of her other obituaries. One role that utilized more than her eye-candy quality was the starring role as a talented ballerina who ends up working as a stooge for a burlesque show in the oddball, but compelling dramedy Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). Directed by Dorothy Arzner, the sole remaining female director under the Code (though she fizzled out shortly after this film), O’Hara convincingly transitions her character from a docile waif to an a young woman who develops a firm backbone after dealing with various shysters from her demeaning burlesque gig and getting thwarted around like a yo-yo in the shenanigans of bored and snarky married socialites (Louis Hayward and Virginia Field).

She lucidly and forcefully delivers one of the most articulate and impassioned speeches to a crowd of unruly male hecklers demanding to be treated with respect. She is one of the few female characters who chooses her art over a man and doesn’t get punished for it. Did I mention that she engages in one of the most spirited cinematic bitchfights with a belligerent and opportunistic burlesque dancer (Lucille Ball, also excellent in an against-type role)?

Even in her more ornamental assignments, O’Hara imbued each character with sensitivity, intelligence, pathos, and heart. With her passing, we are closer to the end of the classic Hollywood era.

Obit: Lizabeth Scott (1922-2015)

Courtesy of fineartamerica.com

Courtesy of fineartamerica.com

The evening of Friday Feb. 6 was a sad occasion for the Film Noir community with the passing of Lizabeth Scott (she actually died on the 31st of January). Her home studio Paramount intended her as a carbon copy of sorts to Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall (a common practice in the Studio Era to keep their stars in line), but she quickly forged her own personality.

Aided by her smoky contralto voice, slim slinky physique and angular beauty, Scott perfectly fit in with the shadows and grit of Noir. Fans remember her best for her turns as avaricious femme fatales in Dead Reckoning and Too Late for Tears. She gives her best performance in the latter as a housewife who becomes a mercenary murderess when she and her plain, simple husband (soon to be ex) stumble on a bag of major cash intended for a shady character (Dan Duryea).

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Scott totally sinks her teeth into a character that has no redeeming features, pulling off the hard feat of making the audience root for an unrelentingly soulless and unscrupulous dame. As she demonstrates in a scene with her character’s antagonist played by Dan Duryea, she has an intriguing way of feigning submission that comes off as a parody of the construct of femininity. (The New York Times, which almost always trashed Scott’s acting, gave her a glowing review.)

While fans remember Scott’s criminal baddie characters, most of the roles she played were essentially good girls heavily seasoned with spice. Scott, who was a very sophisticated 25, could have been a total misfire as a rebellious teenager who falls for a dangerous criminal in the 1947 Technicolor Noir, Desert Fury. Since the film itself is wonderfully oddball, Scott’s “miscasting” is an asset as she adds a rough sexual tension that might not be present from a more typical ingénue. Her relationship with her mother (played by the fabulous Mary Astor) has a striking hard-boiled love-hate quality with a lesbian subtext.

Courtesy of www.popscreen.com

Courtesy of www.popscreen.com

In Dark City, best known as the film debut of Charlton Heston, Scott gives her most underrated performance as a nightclub singer who is both a part of the criminal underworld and a tender and faithful companion to Heston’s good-bad guy.

She is equally credible as the good girl in the melodrama The Company She Keeps. Scott elevates the potentially soggy character, an altruistic parole officer, with a clear-sighted, unsentimental performance. She is able to hold her own against Jane Greer, who has the far meatier role as the bruised parolee who falls for Scott’s fiancé.

Courtesy of jake-weird.blogspot.fr

Courtesy of jake-weird.blogspot.fr

The moral ambiguity of Film Noir began phasing out by the 1950s as McCarthy and his hysterical anti-commie posse seized Hollywood with their well organized, but pointless witch-hunt. Quality roles for Scott started dwindling as well. She plays femme fatales with humor and charm in Two of a Kind and Bad for Each Other, but the films themselves are dreadful bores.

Unlike most of her studio-era peers (often under duress from the big boss), Scott never married. In the reactionary regressive cult of suburban domesticity that plagued much of 1950s America, Scott was an easy target for a salacious Confidential article, which alluded that she was a lesbian “prone to indecent, illegal and highly offensive acts in her private and public life.” While this story did not outright destroy her career, it didn’t help it either.

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Around the same time Scott developed stage fright (which is not uncommon among seasoned performers) which made acting less appealing to her. Her appearances became increasingly more sporadic until she retired from the biz for good in 1972. She gives a scene-stealing guest starring turn, playfully camping it up as a mysterious, but sexually aggressive widow in a 1963 episode of the TV series Burke’s Law.

Intellectually curious about the world, Scott continued studying literature and philosophy. In interviews, she came across as an intelligent and thoughtful person. Now that Scott is gone, we are nearer to the end of an era of the great femme fatales. Thankfully, their cinematic legacy will live on.