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JOHN LENNON, SUNSET BOULEVARD AND THE PRICE OF FAME

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2020 marks two anniversaries. The first is the 40th anniversary of the murder of ex-Beatle John Lennon (1940 – 1980) by the social misfit, Mark David Chapman (1955 – ). The second is the 70th anniversary of the release of Sunset Boulevard. Although they are separated by some thirty years, each event acts as a reminder of what can happen when the desire for fame gets out of hand.

At 10.50pm on December 8th, 1980, Chapman watched as Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono (1933 – ) made their way through the entrance of the Dakota building, dropped into a combat stance, and fired five shots from his Charter Arms .38 Special revolver. Four bullets struck Lennon in the back and shoulder. The fifth missed and shattered a window.

Lennon was rushed to the Roosevelt Hospital where three doctors, two to three medical attendants, and nurse spent ten to twenty minutes trying to revive him. The doctors even tried opening his chest to perform a manual heart massage, but the damage to the vessels around his heart were too great. John Lennon was announced dead on arrival at 11.15pm.

Lennon had been shot at close range by four hollow-point bullets. Two had passed through his body, one had lodged itself in his upper left-arm, and a fourth had lodged itself in his aorta. The autopsy concluded that Lennon died of “hypovolemic shock, caused by the loss of more than eighty-percent of blood volume due to multiple through-and-through gunshot wounds to the left shoulder and left chest resulting in damage to the left lung, the left subclavian artery, and both the aorta and aortic arch.”

John Lennon’s murder and the plot of Sunset Boulevard mirror one another in many ways. Lennon was murdered by a deranged lunatic who believed he could achieve notoriety for himself by murdering a popstar. Similarly, Sunset Boulevard tells the story of a long forgotten, and equally demented, film star who achieves a return to fame by murdering her gigolo.

Sunset Boulevard was the product of a collaboration between Billy Wilder (1906 – 2002), Charles Brackett (1892 – 1969), and Donald McGill Marshman, Jr. (1922 – 2015). The story was based, in part, on the Evelyn Waugh (1903 – 1966) novel, The Loved Ones which recounted the author’s experiences in Hollywood and the funeral business. Wilder, who had become fascinated by American culture whilst living in Berlin, dreamt up a story about a long forgotten silent film star who resides in one of Sunset Boulevard’s grand houses. Brackett suggested making the story about the star’s comeback, whilst Marshman, Jr. suggested using it to explore the relationship between the forgotten film star and a young man.

Sunset Boulevard’s success was aided by three factors: the writing of Wilder, Brackett, and Marshman, Jr., the direction of Wilder, and the cinematography of John Francis Seitz (1892 – 1979). Seitz gave Sunset Boulevard a dreamlike quality in which fantasy and reality blend together almost seamlessly. The fantasy world Norma Desmond inhabits is shot in deep focus and made to look dark and ominous. By contrast, the real world that Joe Gillis inhabits is depicted as well-lit and filmed in a documentary-style fashion.

Numerous actors were considered to play Joe Gillis, including Fred MacMurray (1908 – 1991) and Montgomery Clift (1920 – 1966). Clift was originally signed to play the part, but withdrew from the project at the last minute. The role eventually went to William Holden (1918 – 1981).

Joe Gillis is a down and outer. Prior to meeting Norma Desmond, Gillis’ situation is so dire that he actually considers returning to his newspaper job in Dayton, Ohio. He is hounded by debt collectors, forced to use the telephone at Schwab’s drugstore because he cannot afford one of his own, and is even fired by his own manager. Gillis believes that he can live the life of an expensive playboy by reading Desmond’s script and entertaining her deluded fantasies. The problem is that he has to make a Faustian pact in order to do so.

The reason Gillis finds Desmond’s offer so tempting is that he has become jaded about the Hollywood system. He represents the writer as just a mere cog in the movie-making machine. He notes the general lack of recognition for the writer and his craft, the writer’s uncertain prospects, the likelihood of executive meddling, and the ever-present risk of plagiarism. He complains that Hollywood will reject your script if it is too original or if it is not original enough.

Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard’s antagonist, was based on a myriad of silent film actresses. The name is believed to be derived from the silent film star, Mabel Normand (1892 – 1930) and the film director, William Desmond Taylor (1872 – 1922), who’s sensational 1922 murder has never been solved. Suggested models for Desmond include Norma Talmadge (1894 – 1957), Mary Pickford (1892 – 1979), Pola Negri (1897 – 1987), Mae Murray (1885 – 1965), Clara Bow (1905 – 1965), and Valeska Surratt (1882 – 1962).

Norma Desmond was played by former silent film star, Gloria Swanson (1899 – 1983). Like Desmond, Swanson had been a major silent film star and was known for her beauty, talent, and extravagant lifestyle. And like Desmond, her film career faded with the coming of sound. Unlike Desmond, however, Swanson was able to accept the end of her film career, moved to New York in the early-thirties, and pursued a successful career in theatre, radio, and television.

Norma Desmond has come to symbolise an entire generation of silent film stars whose were thrust aside by the advent of sound. When her star fell, Desmond retreated into her gothic mansion and built up a fantasy world where she was still a big star. At one stage she tells Gillis that she had the floor of her ballroom tiled at the behest of Rudolph Valentino (1895 – 1926), as though Valentino was still a big star. She speaks in melodramatic tones, acts like an infatuated schoolgirl in Gillis’ company, and engages in acts of emotional blackmail through mock suicide attempts.

Desmond refuses to admit that the “parade has long since passed her by.” Incapable of functioning in the real world, she has constructed a fantasy life for herself. Any attempt to bring her out of her stupor is met with either denial or indignation. Towards the end of the movie, Gillis informs her: “Norma, you’re a woman of fifty, now grow up. There’s nothing tragic about being fifty, not unless you try to be twenty-five.” And just like John the Baptist in Salome (the 1891 Oscar Wilde tragedy Desmond has chosen to adapt), Gillis pays for the faux pas with his life.

When Sunset Boulevard premiered, Louis B. Mayer (1884 – 1957) reportedly shouted at Billy Wilder: “You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood.” Mayer had reason to be angry, too. Sunset Boulevard is perhaps one of the most scathing criticisms of Hollywood ever made. The film indicted Hollywood for its treatment of the writer, its obsession with youth, its toxic star system, and cult of celebrity worship.

In a world of social media and reality television, the murder of John Lennon and the story of Sunset Boulevard is more potent today than ever before. Thanks to reality TV and social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, it is far too easy for mentally unstable people to achieve easy fame. How long will it be before society produces another Mark David Chapman or Norma Desmond?

Hypocrisy and Double Standards: Reflections on the Massacre in New Zealand

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Just over a month ago, a crazed gunman entered the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch. Armed with an arsenal of weapons which included semi-automatic firearms, he began to shoot worshippers engaged in Friday prayers.

Fifteen minutes later, the gunman repeated his dastardly deed at the Linwood Islamic Centre. In the end, fifty people lay dead and thirty-six lay injured. The entire incident was broadcast live on Facebook.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, denounced the massacre as a ‘terrorist attack.’ She echoed the sentiments of the general public. In response to the attacks, three thousand people participated in a “march for life” in Christchurch carrying signs that read “Muslims welcome, racists not”, “he wanted to divide us, he only made us stronger”, and “Kia Kaha”, which means “stay strong” in Maori.

The Muslim call to prayer was broadcast on television and radio with twenty-thousand-people attending prayer services in the park across from the Al Noor Mosque. And two New Zealand rugby teams – the Chiefs and the Hurricanes – paused for a moment’s silence before the Super Rugby game in Hamilton.

New Zealanders have been praised for their unity and compassion in response to the attacks. But what would happen if the roles were reversed? When it is not a Westerner killing Muslims, but rather a Muslim killing Westerners? Then the response, or lack of response, is rather telling.

At this stage, I should point out that what happened in New Zealand was an act of evil. The massacre of any group of people for any reason whatsoever is an act of evil. I am not trying to condone attacks against Muslims, I am merely trying to expose to the hypocrisy of our so-called betters.

The point I am trying to make is not that the Christchurch massacre was somehow a form of justified retribution. It clearly was not. The point I am trying to make is that our leaders say one thing when an attack is perpetrated by Muslims and another when the attack is perpetrated against Muslims.

To put it bluntly, whenever a terrorist attack occurs involving a Muslim or a group of Muslims, politicians and the media are quick to downplay the Islamic elements. But if it is a Westerner targeting Muslims, or any other minority group, accusations of racism and xenophobia are repeated ad nauseum.

Whenever a Muslim, whether affiliated with a terrorist organisation or not, commits an act of terror, his actions are typically met by that all-too-common disclaimer: “it had nothing to do with Islam.” Even when the perpetrator expressly states that he is committing his heinous deed in the name of Islam it still has “nothing to do with Islam.”

The British journalist, Douglas Murray made similar observations when he appeared on Fox and Friends. “We’ve had a different response when it comes to Islamic terror”, he stated. “Consistently we find out there are people [after a terrorist attack] who knew about the extremism [and] didn’t report it, members of the community who say they don’t want to go the British police, and we find out Mosques people attended are being run by radicals.”

Murray has accused the West of resorting to the “John Lennon” response to terrorism. “They blow us up, we sing Imagine”, he says. “Our politicians still refuse to accurately identify the sources of the problem and polite society remains silent.”

I think it is self-evident that there would have been an entirely different response had it been a Muslim perpetrator attacking Westerners. There would not have been the protests, the moment’s silence, the religious and cultural messages broadcast on television and radio. Politicians and media identities would not have condemned the attacks as viscerally or as quickly as they did. There simply would not have been the same level of outrage. Instead, the Islamic elements would have been dismissed and the incident largely would have been ignored.

It is hard to believe that this kind of willful ignorance boils down to mere incompetence. To acknowledge that Islam has been responsible for a great deal of misery in the world is to go against the narrative that anyone who is not a straight, white, male, Christian is a member of a victim group. To acknowledge Islam’s role in a great deal of the misery in the world is to acknowledge that Muslims can be, and frequently are, the villains.

The left and the media, but I repeat myself, reacted to the Christchurch massacre in the way that they did because they want to elevate Muslims to the category of victim. It is a blatant attempt to sell black and white and white as black. And if you dare suggest the advertisement is misleading, you’re a bigot.

It really boils down to virtue signalling. That self-centred and cowardly habit of making vacuous comments in an attempt to make yourself look good. Public figures will now say anything that makes themselves appear more virtuous than everybody else. They resort to making statements that appear say something intelligent without really saying anything at all.

HOLLYWOOD STEPS OUT

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There is more to life than just politics. And in the spirit of such a sentiment, this article will take a light-hearted focus on an aspect of popular culture. In specific, it will examine the stars, personalities, and faces that are featured in the 1941 Merrie Melodies cartoon, Hollywood Steps Out.

The cartoon takes place in Ciro’s Nightclub, which is located from 1940 to 1957 on Sunset Boulevard. A neon sign ironically advertises a meal for $50.00 (US$860.00 in today’s money). The first two stars we see are Claudette Colbert (1903 – 1996), famous for playing sophisticated women in light-hearted comedies and emotional dramas, and Don Ameche (1908 – 1993), a film and radio personality who played debonair men. Seated behind them are Adolphe Menjou (1890 – 1963) and Norma Shearer (1902 – 1983), who played spunky and sexually liberated women.

The first interaction occurs between Cary Grant (1904 – 1986), iconic for playing debonair leading men, and the Swedish-American film star, Greta Garbo (1905 – 1990), who is acting as the cigarette girl.

In the next scene, we are introduced to Edward G. Robinson (1893 – 1973), who rose to fame playing gangsters in films like Little Caesar, talking to Ann Sheridan (1915 – 1967). Robinson makes reference to the fact that Sheridan had been voted the actress with the most “oomph” by asking her how her “oomph” is.

The cartoon then pans across a series of tables. At the first table is Henry Binder and Leon Schlesinger (1884 – 1949), both of whom were Warner Brothers staffers. The next three tables are empty. The first is reserved for Bette Davis (1908 – 1989), famous for playing unsympathetic, sardonic characters. The second is reserved for Kate Smith (1907 – 1986), the corpulent American signer. The third is reserved for the cast of Blondie, a radio sitcom that ran from 1939 to 1950. Finally, a fire hydrant has been reserved for Daisy the Dog.

The cartoon then takes us to the cloaking room. Johnny Weissmuller (1904 – 1984), an Olympic swimming champion best known for playing Tarzan (the famous Tarzan yell is his), hands Paulette Goddard (1910 – 1990), a former Ziegfeld girl and film star, his coat. Following Weissmuller is the burlesque dancer, Sally Rand (1904 – 1979). Rand hands Goddard her famous feathers and leaves, presumably naked.

At the bar sits James Cagney (1899 – 1986), famous for playing gangsters, Humphrey Bogart (1899 – 1957), famous for playing cynical and hardboiled characters in film noir pictures, and George Raft (1901 – 1980), also famous for playing gangsters. They are depicted drinking, planning a crime, and pitching pennies.

Harpo Marx (1888 – 1964), the famous prankster of the Marx Brothers, is seen lighting a match under Greta Garbo’s feet.

Next, Clark Gable (1901 – 1960), the undisputed King of Hollywood and star of films like Gone with the Wind, is depicted sitting alone at a table.

Bing Crosby (1903 – 1977), a famous crooner known for songs like “White Christmas, introduces the composer Leopold Stokowski (1882 – 1977) as the evening’s entertainment. Stokowski was best known for his work on Disney’s Fantasia.

In the restaurant, Dorothy Lamour (1914 – 1986), an actress and singer, asks James Stewart (1908 – 1997), known for playing shy, everyman characters, if he would dance with her. Stewart runs away after seeing Lamour dance and leaves behind a sign saying, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (a reference to one of Stewart’s films).

Several famous stars are depicted on the dance floor. Tyrone Power (1914 – 1958), known for playing swashbuckling and romantic leads, dances with the Olympic champion figure skater and film star, Sonja Hennie (1912 – 1969). Frankenstein is depicted dancing mechanically. The Three Stooges, one of the most iconic slapstick comedy groups of all time, poke and slap each other in rhythm. Oliver Hardy (1892 – 1957), the fatter half of the Laurel and Hardy comedy duo, dances with two women at the same time. Finally, Caesar Romero (1907 – 1994), dances with Rita Hayworth (1918 – 1987), star of films like Gilda.

Mickey Rooney (1920 – 2014), who found fame playing Andy Hardy, and Judy Garland (1922 – 1969), a notable singer, dancer, vaudevillian, and film star best remembered for playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Rooney asks Lewis Stone (1879 – 1953), an American character actor, if he can have a “heart to heart talk” with him.

For the next performance, Crosby introduces Sally Rand (he introduces her as Sally Strand, no doubt for legal reasons) and her famous bubble dance. The radio personality and bandleader, Kay Kyser (1905 – 1985), calls to his students. These are William Powell (1892 – 1984), known for playing debonair men, Spencer Tracy (1900 – 1967), known for his natural style and versatility, Ronald Colman (1891 – 1958), Errol Flynn (1909 – 1959), the Australian-American film star famous for playing swashbuckling heroes, Wallace Beery (1885 – 1949), and the English cricketer and film star, C. Aubrey Smith (1863 – 1948).

The Austro-Hungarian born actor, Peter Lorre (1904 – 1964), known for playing creepy and cowardly characters, is depicted sitting at a table by himself. Henry Fonda (1907 – 1982), known for playing characters brimming with heroic integrity, sits at the next table. The voice that calls out “Hen-ree” is a reference to Alice Aldrich of the Aldrich family. Finally, J. Edgar Hoover (1895 – 1972), the legendary first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is depicted repeating “g” over and over again.

At the next table is Boris Karloff (1887 – 1972), most famous for playing Frankenstein, Arthur Treacher (1894 – 1975), a comedian best known for playing stereotypical Englishmen, Buster Keaton (1895 – 1966), a silent-era comedian who legendary status is bettered only by Charlie Chaplin (1889 – 1977), and the Russian-American film star, Mischa Auer (1905 – 1967).  The man who asks them if they are enjoying themselves is Ned Sparks (1883 – 1957), a Canadian character actor known for playing serious characters.

At the next table is Jerry Colonna (1904 – 1986), a well-known musician and comedian, sitting with the invisible man. Finally, the woman Clark Gable has spent the entire cartoon chasing is revealed to be none other than Groucho Marx (1890 – 1977).

THE LADY VANISHES

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This week for our cultural article, we will be examining Alfred Hitchcock’s (1899 – 1980) 1938 film, The Lady Vanishes.  Set primarily on a train bound for England from Central Europe, Hitchcock’s film weaves an intriguing and intense narrative around characters united and divided by their snobbery, self-centredness, complacency, and nationalism.

The Lady Vanishes is one-part comedy, one-part murder mystery, and one-part thriller. The film’s first act is rather comedic in nature. A recent avalanche has blocked the train lines, forcing most of the residents to remain at the hotel overnight. The hotel in question becomes so overbooked and so strained in its resources, that two of its guests are forced to sleep in the maid’s quarters. This first act draws the audience in with its lighthearted attitude and its mixture of verbal and physical humour. Not even the murder of a folk singer outside the hotel is enough to distract us from the revelry.

The first act ends with the disappearance of the film’s titular character, Miss Froy (May Whitty, 1865 – 1948). From this point, the film becomes a murder mystery with Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood, 1916 – 1990), a wealthy socialite, and her helper, the musicologist Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave, 1908 – 1985), searching for her. Here Hitcock begins to play subtle tricks on our minds. We, like Iris Henderson, know Miss Froy exists, but the other characters deny ever having seen her. Simultaneously, Hitchcock plays with our curiosity and our frustration. Eventually, Miss Froy is found and the film then climaxes with a thrilling and action-packed third-act.

Eventually, Miss Froy is found and the film then climaxes with a thrilling and action-packed third-act. This act becomes a fight for survival as the film’s British characters are forced to fight against unnamed foreign forced outside.

Throughout the Lady Vanishes, themes of nationalism and class-snobbery pop-up.  The film’s British characters and arrogant and insular in their attitudes. When it appears that they are about to be killed by foreign police officers, one Brit rather proudly exclaims: “They can’t do anything to us. We’re British subjects.” This is juxtaposed by the subtle undercurrent of politics, exemplified by the film’s antagonists, who may or may not be in league with Fascist Italy.

Then there’s the notion of social class and the snobbery and divisiveness that goes with it. (A reality Hitchcock, as the son of a trader, was quite familiar with). Hitchcock cynically links money and title together by having Iris return to England to marry Lord Charles Forthingale for no other reason than to appease her father, who is reportedly “aching to have a coat of arms on the jam label.” Then there’s the cricket-obsessed Charters (Naunton Wayne, 1901 – 1970) and Caldicott (Basil Radford, 1897 – 1952) representing the idle upper-class. (These two would become popular stock characters in numerous films, radio plays, and television shows).  And then there’s the travelling lawyer (Cecil Parker, 1897 – 1971) and his mistress (Linden Travers, 1913 – 2001) who avoid contact with those they deem beneath them, and who are perfectly prepared to lie to protect their precious social status.

The Lady Vanishes has frequently been credited as Hitchcock’s last great British film.  Hitchcock masterfully weaves elements of mystery, suspense, humour, international politics, class-snobbery, and nationalism together to form an intriguing story. The Lady Vanishes is still as intriguing today as it was nearly eighty years ago.

HOUSE OF LORDS TO LAUNCH AN INQUIRY INTO THE ADVERTISING INDUSTRY

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The House of Lord’s Select Committee on Communications is conducting an inquiry into how the UK’s advertising industry can maintain its leading position in the world market.

According to a preliminary report released by the committee, advertising and marketing services contributed £13.3 billion to the UK economy in 2014, making it second only to the IT industry. Similarly, the Advertising Association has stated that advertising brings in £120 billion in economic activity to the UK.

The inquiry aims to address how the UK’s advertising industry can maintain its access to top level skills and talent. The Chairman of the committee, Lord Henley has stated:

“Advertising in the UK is a major contributor to economic growth and its services are now the UK’s  third biggest export. According to one industry body, the industry generates a total of £120 billion  in economic activity in the UK and provides 500,000 jobs.”

“However, the industry also faces major changes as advertisers switch from the traditional media of  television, radio and print to digital—which now generates more advertising revenue in the UK than  all other media.”

“With such a significant contribution to the UK’s economy, the Committee will examine how this industry can evolve and adapt to a changing market, and what role there is, if any, for the  Government to help. The Committee will also explore ways the advertising industry can maintain  access to a global talent pool and nurture the skills of those already in the UK.”

The committee has given all interested individuals and organisations until October 20th to submit written evidence to the inquiry. It will also hear oral evidence between September and December.

The committee intends to release a publication in early 2018.

MOONLIGHT SERENADE

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This week for our cultural article we will be looking at Glenn Miller’s signature tune, the dreamy ballad Moonlight Serenade.

BIG BAND JAZZ

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Moonlight Serenade is a classic of Big Band Jazz, a popular form of music during the Swing Era of the 1930s and 1940s. Unlike smaller jazz combos, which relies heavily on improvisation, Big Band Jazz is usually highly arranged. It typically involves ten or more musicians, including a minimum of three trumpeters, two or more trombonists, four or more saxophonists, and a rhythm section consisting of a pianist, bassist, guitarist, and drummer

GLENN MILLER

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Glenn Miller was born on March 1st, 1904 in Iowa. His family moved frequently through his childhood: first to Missouri, then to Nebraska, before finally settling in Colorado in 1918. Miller briefly played the mandolin before switching to the trombone. He played in the school band while attending High School in Fort Morgan, Colorado.

Upon graduating in 1921, Miller joined Boyd Senter’s Orchestra. He left the band briefly in 1923 to attend college, but quit after a year to return to music. He worked with the Ben Pollack Band in Los Angeles, California, before moving to New York City to work as a freelance trombonist and arranger.

In 1934, Miller became the musical director for Tommy Dorsey’s Band. The next year, Miller would form an American orchestra for British bandleader, Ray Noble. That same year, Miller formed his own band and began recording under his own name.

The Glenn Miller Orchestra found fame in 1939 when it performed at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York.  The performance was broadcasted on the radio, exposing Glenn Miller to millions of people.

On December 15th, 1944, the transport plane taking Miller to the newly liberated Paris disappeared. He was forty-years-old.

THE SONG

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Moonlight Serenade was written in 1935 when Miller was working as a trombonist with the Ray Noble Band. In 1938, Miller used the song has a theme for his NBC radio broadcast.  On April 4th, 1939, Miller recorded Moonlight Serenade as a b-side for Sunrise Serenade.  The song became a success, becoming a top ten hit on the US Pop Charts, and reached number three on the Billboard charts, where it stayed for fifteen weeks.

Miller’s Moonlight Serenade symbolises the sound of a by-gone era. An era when men wore suits and women wore dresses, and when Big Band Jazz ruled the airwaves. Why not consider giving it a listen?