Friday, July 31, 2009

Her Name was Tallulah, Dahling

Perhaps it's a little bit odd but everyday I have a moment where I think to myself, what the hell would Tullulah Bankhead say at a moment like this. No. . .seriously I do. . .along with the other two moments I have where I wonder what Dorothy Parker and Anita Loos would say. Gone is the age of the sexy smokey voiced actress popping off lines like:

"Cocaine isn`t habit-forming. I should know - I`ve been using it for years."

"I'll come and make love to you at five o'clock. If I'm late start without me. "

"I was raped in our driveway when I was eleven. You know darling, it was a terrible experience because we had all that gravel."

Those quotes, of course, come from the one and only Tallulah Bankhead. Born in 1901 in Huntsville, Alabama the daughter of the Speaker of the House of Representatives the granddaughter of Alabama senators. If you looked up the definition of Southern Democrat in the dictionary you just might find a picture of the Bankhead clan next to it (along with one of George Wallace and one of Strom Thurmond).

But Tallulah was her own woman and struck out on her own at the age of 15 to act, and drink, and blaze her way through 1920s and 1930s high society. Tallulah would be the first to admit she was a woman of strong appetites. She indulged in the roaring 20s and for her the term dirty 30s was far from understatement.

But for all her carousing and partying and pursuing of movie actors, movie actresses, jazz singers and Eaton boys she was a phenomenal actress. She originated the role of Judith Trahern on stage in Dark Victory as well as the role of Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes (both played on screen by Bette Davis). Honestly, I think my personal moment of zen would've been to sit in the audience of the stage production of The Little Foxes to watch Bankhead breath life into the character of Regina Giddens.

I once saw Bankhead in a 1932 pre-code picture called Faithless. She plays a woman who woos Robert Montgomery's rich boy character but once she gets him he loses all of his money then falls deathly ill. In order to get him the medicine he needs to live Bankhead's character starts street walking. Some of the best acting on screen is when Bankhead is walking through her seedy neighborhood trying to pick up Johns. The way she looks at the men that pass her on the sidewalk is downright X-rated. When Montogomery recovers and he learns what she has done to save him, in not so many words he says well if a woman would do that for me she must love the hell out of me. As the credits roll it is implied that they live happily ever after with no baggage or recriminations. That's pre-code Hollywood for you.

Tallulah Bankhead lived a life with no regrets. A classic quote attributed to her is "if I had my life to live over again I would make the same mistakes, only sooner." She died of pneumonia in 1968. Her last words were reported to be "Bourbon. . .codeine."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Something Cool

There’s a moment in the title song of June Christy’s 1953 album Something Cool where the melody of the song breaks and her wistful and vulnerable tone of the previous verses becomes mournful and prosaic. She turns on her listener and with a sad and accusatory tones laments:

"I bet you couldn’t imagine that I one time had a house
with so many rooms I couldn’t count them all, I bet you couldn’t imagine that I had fifteen different beaus, who would beg and beg to take me to the ball, And I bet you couldn’t picture me the time I went to Paris in the fall, who’d have thought that the man I loved was quite so handsome, quite so tall. "

As she sings these lines the orchestra drops away and is replaced with the simple, yet evocative strumming of chords on the guitar. When she returns to the verse the orchestra becomes dreamy and hazy with muted horns and lush strings.

Something Cool, as a song and an album, is a sort of an anomaly. The song is a melancholy monologue set to music lacking both a chorus and refrain. The album is a collection eleven songs that revolve around the theme of loneliness, disillusion and heartbreak. It is amazing that an album with such a concept was ever recorded let alone became a modest hit when the top songs of the year included Pattie Page’s Doggie in the Window and The Hilltopper’s P.S. I Love You.

Something Cool sold an astounding 93,000 copies far exceeding all of Capitol Records expectations and allowed Christy and arranger Pete Rugolo, who helped her conceive the idea, the freedom to go ahead a make what would be in total nine classic albums showcasing Christy’s voice and cementing her place as the epitome of the cool school of vocal stylings.

Among nine albums the must haves are The Misty Miss Christy, which includes a mournful version of Ellington's Day Dream and the most melancholy version of Maybe You'll Be There I have ever heard and Gone For the Day with its collection of songs revolving around life and love in the country. I can't even choose a standout on Gone For the Day (1957) the entire album is just a breath of fresh air and just so perfect that I get chills just thinking about it. Luckily, this CD comes paired with Fair and Warmer (1957) and its a perfect match with its lighter mix of smooth love songs.

I think in the case of June Christy it is best to avoid greatest hits collections or ballad collections which feature songs from this period. There are some great collections of her early work with Stan Kenton and his orchestra but her albums from 1953-1965 should really be listened to in their entirety as pieces of self contained art.

Charleston. . .Charleston

What is it about the flapper that just makes me want to bob my hair and dance around my room like a carefree wild child. Watching videos of long dead young women dancing without abandon to the newest craze circa 1920 is beyond inspiring. True, not every women in the 1920s was a jazz baby or hot sheba but the ones that were somehow were in tune with the new modern age that was being born right there in front of them.

My favorite flapper however is a slightly more sanitized dame named Babe Doolittle from a 1947 technicolor confection called Good News. Hands down Good News is my favorite MGM musical. Sure, it stars Peter Lawford and June Allyson (no Fred and Ginger) but in this film about college life in the roaring twenties they are well cast and enjoyable to watch.

Good News also has the honor of including on of my top MGM dance numbers of all time - Joan McCracken and Ray McDonald dancing to Pass that Peace Pipe. Unfortunately, I can't find a clip of the number anywhere online so I will have to upload it myself. But, until then, I can show you the other top number in the musical a feel good finale called the Varsity Drag.

Click here to watch the Varsity Drag

If only all college dances could have been as swell as this. . . .sigh. . . to live in a musical. . . I think I feel a song coming on. . . .

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

We'll have Manhattan

The other day I found myself randomly humming the song Manhattan. It's an old Rodgers and Hart tune written in 1925 for Garrick Gaieties and God only knows how it lodged itself in my head because I hadn't heard the tune in years. I had no idea what the words were so headed over to itunes which had versions by Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Dinah Washington and many others but the version that got me was Lee Wiley's.

A few years ago two of Wiley's songs (Looking at You and Oh! Look at Me Now) were featured on the soundtrack to LA Confidential but other than that I rarely hear her name mentioned. She had moderate and sporadic success from the 1930s-1960 and sadly today is underappreciated as a vocalist. While not as technically skilled as the other singers there is such a sweet sincerity in Wiley's voice that I immediately connected with her version. The song was featured on the album Night in Manhattan (1951) which also features the finest version of Oh, Look at Me Now! ever recorded (Wiley will forever own that song).

For whatever reason I was reintroduced to Lee Wiley and I am thankful. Night in Manhattan is one of the best albums I have ever heard