Month: July 2017

Julio Mazzei, the Cosmos and the Untold Story of the Man Behind the Glasses (Part Three): Life after Soccer

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Professor Julio Mazzei (Photo: Getty Images)

Dénouement: Decline and Fall

With Pelé’s departure on October 1, 1977, the North American Soccer League (NASL) and Warner Communications were able to negotiate a contract with ABC television to broadcast regular network showings of league games, with a concentration on the Cosmos. Hand in hand with this arrangement, there were the requisite tailgate parties, barbecue outings, photo opportunities, the works. Giants Stadium was filled to capacity for nearly every game, a favorable omen.

But there were rules to be obeyed, and tried-and-true formulas to respect. One of them was self-evident: you can’t have one great team scoring all the goals, with every other team in the league a bunch of nobodies. Without reliable opposition you lose your competitive edge, that ability to test yourself, to prove yourself worthy against a determined foe. In this, the Cosmos suffered a fate worse than sudden death.

In 1978, the NASL expanded to twenty-four teams. Conversely, while the Cosmos themselves were getting better at their own game, the quality of play went down everywhere else. There were teams formed in Texas and Hawaii, even in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, places the NASL had no business being in. As for the Cosmos, they were constantly on the road, with translators, stretch limos, hotel bookings, etc., all on the company dole. In fact, there was an over-abundance of hoopla; numerous league records were also being set for goals, wins, and attendance, but to what end? To victory in 1978, that’s what! And ABC Sports and their award-winning announcer Jim McKay covered it.

By 1979, Chinaglia was supposed to be calling the shots. He put together the team, the so-called “shadow government” (or the man behind the curtain, in David Hirshey’s words), with Coach Firmani and a fellow named Peppe Pinton coming along for the ride. A photograph is fleetingly flashed on the screen showing a beaming Steve Ross, with Chinaglia in half-shadow in the center (his face turned partially to the side), Professor at far right in wide-framed glasses, and João Havelange, President of FIFA from 1974 to 1998 (1:19:45 to 1:19:46) in suit and tie. Ah, to have been a fly on that wall!

True, the Cosmos were ratcheting up the victories, and Giorgio was busy scoring goals — a win-win situation for all, one would assume. That is, until the team ran into the Vancouver White Caps and the infamous shootout phase. Five seconds left, Nelsi Morais beat the goalie to the punch. Nelsi scores! But time had run out for the Cosmos, and for the league. Poor scheduling (a matchup at high noon on a hot and humid Saturday in July) led to even poorer TV ratings. After one year ABC canceled their contract. That spelled doom not only for the team but for the entire league. Back-biting, finger-pointing, and infighting resulted. Everybody blamed the man in charge, Chinaglia, for the debacle. A convenient enough scapegoat, according to his detractors, but the truth was far more complicated.

In 1982, the Cosmos won their fifth title, then under Mazzei’s stewardship. The team photo (at 1:24:10 to 1:24:17) shows the natty Professor, smiling amid the turbulence as was his nature, seated strategically between Chinaglia and Beckenbauer (keeping the “giants” at bay, so to speak), just as the NASL was collapsing around them, the result of a bloated budget and the lack of a profitable television deal.

The 1983 Cosmos team photo. Bottom row: Chinaglia, Mazzei, Beckenbauer

To add to their misfortunes, Atari, Warner Communication’s prize video-game baby, had crashed and burned, a one-day, billion-dollar loss, leaving in its wake a “tsunami of red ink” that Ross could not ignore. One of the last full team shots in the documentary (panning from left to right at 1:25:01 to 1:25:06) features everyone from Jay Emmett, Steve Ross, and the Cosmos players to the animated Ertegun brothers. But where was the Professor? After so many images of the bespectacled trainer, mentor, and coach, Mazzei had become even more pronounced by his absence. With that, Warner started to trim the fat.

Also in 1982, Colombia had withdrawn as the host nation for the 1986 World Cup competition. Perhaps this would be the shot in the arm that soccer needed to ensure its continued existence. An enthusiastic Ross campaigned hard to get the tournament staged for the first time ever in North America, a sign of soccer’s growing importance in our hemisphere. It was here that Professor Mazzei was called back into action. We see another photo of Steve Ross, similar to the one above of Ross, Chinaglia, and Havelange, this time with an ever-so-slight portion of Professor’s face (at 1:26:08 to 1:26:11), from his left eye up to his head, being exposed — emblematic, one would think, of his diminished position behind the scenes. Despite the politicking and glad-handing invested in the effort, the bid went to Mexico (they had previously hosted the contest in 1970). No explanation was given for the turndown.

In 1984, the Cosmos was dissolved.

A group shot (from 1:28:16 to 1:28:20) includes, from left to right, Clive Toye, Jay Emmett, Steve Ross, and Gordon Bradley, surrounding the constantly smiling Pelé, who occupies the central position. He is holding the NASL soccer ball in the palm of his hand — the “King” displaying his scepter, the world in his arms. Just below the ball, squatting in front and cut off from below eye level, is the distinctive visage of Professor Julio Mazzei.

Clive Toye, Jay Emmett, Pele, Steve Ross & Gordon Bradley (with Mazzei’s forehead at bottom)

Only his upper forehead remains visible — photographically speaking (and as far as the Cosmos were concerned), only half as significant a contributor to the organization as he used to be. But all that work wasn’t for naught.

“The legacy of the Cosmos would be that they lay the seeds for every player that plays in this country today.” Thus spoke former Cosmos goalie Shep Messing. “Can you imagine a team like the Cosmos today?” quizzed Chinaglia appreciatively. “With the talent they had on the field? It would be worth a billion dollars!”

Indeed they would.

Steven Jay Ross passed away in 1992. He would never witness the arrival of the World Cup to the United States, which came in the summer of 1994. The film’s hopeful sign off, however, affirmed that “After the success of the 1994 World Cup, a new league, the Major League Soccer (MLS) was formed in 1996.” As an added bonus, it flashed this tidbit of information:

“The US National Team has qualified for every World Cup since 1990.”

Pelé, the lone superstar at the start, and the world’s greatest soccer player before and after his time with the team, declined to be interviewed for the documentary (his salary demands alone would have exceeded the film’s budget). His testimony wasn’t required, for without a doubt his one shot at popularizing the sport in the U.S. can be deemed a qualified success.

Pele (left) with Cosmos goalie Shep Messing

It was indeed a “once in a lifetime” achievement, an extraordinary story of a team and a league that rose from the ashes of its own destruction to become a major force in American sports. That achievement involved a number of individuals, among them the ever-present Professor Julio Mazzei.

Despite his reduced capacity, Mazzei’s influence continued to be felt as the team’s trainer and board member, as well as a spokesperson not just for the Cosmos but for the sport itself. He and Pelé would circumnavigate the globe by putting on countless soccer clinics and training workshops in over 70 countries. Mazzei even participated in a film, Pelé: The Master and His Method, specifically geared to young people with an interest in the skills and techniques required of the game.

I learned later from Professor’s daughter, Marjorie Mazzei Raggo, the reason for her father’s absence as an interview subject: by the time the documentary was being shot and edited, her father had come down with Alzheimer’s disease. “He no longer recognizes me or even speaks, much less talks about futebol. Can you believe it?” Unfortunately, we can. Unable to speak for himself. Professor is there in spirit.

After a lifetime spent in pursuit of soccer excellence, Julio Mazzei passed away on May 10, 2009, in the seaside resort city of Santos where he and Pelé first crossed paths.

One of the last scenes in the documentary (at 1:31:23 to 1:31:31) brings back one of the earliest: that of Pelé being hugged by his Cosmos teammates, Steve Hunt and Nelsi Morais, with an exuberant Professor Mazzei alongside as chief celebrant and supporter — the very symbol of joy and passion for the game, of an enthusiasm borne of sheer love for the sport; a childlike purity and naiveté that can only be captured by film and by those who knew him personally.

Although his name is nowhere to be found in the opening or closing credits, Mazzei’s handiwork is evident from start to finish. If his and Pele’s stories, as well as those of soccer itself, are the proverbial immigrant stories of crushing defeat turned into lasting victory; of fame and fortune and having “made it” in America (in Portuguese, de fazer America), then their time here was well spent.

With arms raised in triumph, all hats are off to the man behind the glasses. Not only was he friends with the great Pelé, he was everyone’s friend in soccer. ☼

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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‘Children of the Night’ — Celluloid Creatures and Other Movie Monsters

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The Count (Bela Lugosi) welcomes Renfield to his castle in Dracula (1931)

The Fear Factor

Like many individuals of my generation both before and after me, I grew up with movie monsters. Horrifyingly repulsive creatures (or so I thought), as well as fantastically winged dragons and unidentified flying objects — all of them, thank goodness, brought to our family’s living room courtesy of the medium of television.

Since I wasn’t given much of a spending allowance to go to the local cinema, I was forced to gratify my precocious urges for the bizarre and the unconventional, not to mention those elaborate special effects, through old movies and first- and second-run TV shows.

Credit for keeping my probing eyes under the bed covers was due to such local programming as Million Dollar Movie, Creature Features, and The 4:30 Movie. They provided sufficient grist for my movie-mania mill. These and other programs, i.e., The Late Show, The Outer Limits, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, Land of the Giants, The Twilight Zone, and The Time Tunnel, kept my natural curiosity about the supposedly grotesque world around me at full tilt.

My older cousin and his friends, knowing of my fascination with movie monsters (and my equal fear and loathing of said beasties), had the nasty habit of flashing monster playing cards at me — one more outrageous and disturbing than the other. They would get a tremendous kick out of my revulsion at the black-and-white images of despicable demons, eerie human skulls, and maniacally cackling witches. ARGH!!!!

Not satisfied with that, I remember pleading with my mother to buy those outlandish Aurora Monster Model kits, where, in the safety and comfort of our apartment I could exorcise those personal demons by creating my own fleet of sinister fiends.

As I matured, I realized these photographs and model kits were nothing more than mere advertisements; that “reel” monsters and their ilk were not “real” after all, only figments of some eccentric filmmaker’s wild-eyed imagination. Only then did I realize that horror was rooted in the psyche — a psychological explanation for the unrealized fears buried deep inside our subconscious thoughts. There was no logical rationalization for them.

Consequently, therein lay the reasons for why we fear the unknown: one, as a projection of real-life issues and concerns; and two, as the underlying cause for those same fears. If we could but confront and conquer our fears, they will be removed (or so the theory goes).

Years later, while still in high school, I came across one of the qualified classics of the academic genre, Carlos Clarens’ An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, a superbly written survey of movies from the late nineteenth century up to the mid-1960s (the so-called “classic” period) covering this same aspect. It was this very book, with its concisely edited and elaborately conveyed text, that finally brought me out of the darkened room of my qualms and into the light of discovery.

Carlos Clarens’ classic study An Illustrated History of the Horror Film

Clarens’ cogent yet discerning commentary convinced me that horror, fantasy, and science fiction were a viable art form, one to be closely studied and admired, but never from a distance. The genre could be tailored and shaped to aptness and precision by a talented team of dedicated artisans and supremely skilled craftsmen of the highest order.

With this newly-acquired awareness in hand, I set out with a slight degree of unease — a holdover from my youthful trepidations, I suppose — to revisit as many of the films that had once fueled my dreams and nightmares; to face my childhood fears, and by facing them, to end them. The experience of watching these vintage motion pictures with a fresh outlook and perspective, and in an entirely new light (sorry, Count!), was one I had long wished to share with likeminded readers.

Though not necessarily in strict chronological order, I have modified this list to contain films that have exuded a profound influence and sway on me personally. There is no conceivable way this list can be as all-inclusive as I would like, or encompass the full range of cinematic possibilities that are available to film buffs.

Therefore, with that caveat in mind please accept my apologies beforehand to those films that could not be reviewed.

Bites and Howls

One of the most popular and trendiest of the many horror-movie categories that have captivated viewers, and the one with the longest so-called “lifespan” (vide the Twilight, Blade, and Harry Potter series, to mention only a few), is the vampire and werewolf genre.

The first documented mention of vampirism in literature came from writer and physician John Polidori’s work of fictional prose, The Vampyre, published in 1819. This lurid tale’s cast of protagonists concentrated on a mysterious Lord Ruthven, a minor aristocrat of dubious ancestry (modeled after the poet Lord Byron), and his traveling companion Aubrey, based on the author himself. As the story progresses, it is revealed that Ruthven is one of the undead: a ruthless creature with an unquenchable thirst for human blood.

Left to right: Mary Godwin Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron & John Polidori

This was one of several yarns to have emerged from the vivid imaginations of a June 1816 gathering at Villa Diodati, a stately mansion off Lake Geneva in Switzerland. It was here that Byron and Polidori, along with English romantic poet Percy Shelley and his betrothed, the eighteen-year-old Mary Wolstonecraft Godwin (soon to be Shelley), reputedly passed the time by reading ghost stories and telling one another fantastical tales of the unnatural.

Among the stories spun over a three-night-period were the rudiments of Mary Shelley’s classic science-fiction/horror novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), a work that itself has fueled countless permutations and movie spinoffs.

From this beginning, other vampire potboilers began to circulate, including the serialized “penny dreadful” Varney the Vampire, or the Feast of Blood  by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest (1845-47); and especially Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (published in serial form in 1871-72), about a lusty female vampire who preys upon “lonely young women” that served as inspiration for another fellow Irishman, the Dublin-born theater manager, writer, and lawyer Bram Stoker.

Told in a combination of letters, journals, diaries, newspaper articles, ships’ logs, and individual accounts, the Gothic novel Dracula (1897), while not an immediate publishing sensation, nevertheless met with critical favor. The book eventually took off just as the advent of silent cinema came into being.

Count Orlock (right) in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922)

Stirred by the success of Stoker’s Dracula, German-born film director Friedrich Wilhelm (F.W.) Murnau decided, in 1922, to make Nosferatu (“The Undead”). This first recorded vampire flick has stood the test of time as an undisputed masterpiece of peculiarity, and of horrifically bone-chilling sequences; a veritable sonata of scary moments filmed in naturalistic surroundings near the German port city of Wismar. Since the original title happened to have been Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (“A Symphony of Horrors”), this description is more than apt.

Some may find the movie silly or quaint, or even old-fashioned and out of style. But seen in its proper element — i.e., on a large screen and in a darkened theater — the picture’s ability to shock and provoke audience reaction is still very much alive. Although Murnau failed to secure the rights to Stoker’s book (the author’s widow sued him for copyright infringement), he was still able to transmit the key ingredients to the silver screen that made the figure of Count Dracula so menacing. This silent film remains a work of mesmerizing potency.

Renamed Count Orlock and played by German actor Max Schreck (whose surname in English means “fear”), that repulsive rat-shaped head, those gloomy sunken eyes, and claw-like appendages that serve as fingernails (sometimes seen in shadowy silhouette) pummeled early movie audiences into frightened submission.

Count Orlock creeping up the stairs in Nosferatu (1922)

The style of the film has been described as expressionistic, which isn’t entirely accurate since the term itself is supposed to eschew realism in favor of a projection of intense inner emotions or feelings. Still, that look of unvarnished evil, the accelerated time-lapsed cinematography, and the final image of Orlock slowly fading away to nothingness as the sun rises will remain in viewers’ minds for a long time to come.

There was nothing inherently sexy about this beast, of that we are certain, even though the object of his bloodlust, Nina (a variant on Stoker’s Minna Harker), a pure and “virtuous woman,” sacrifices herself to this monster in order to destroy him, thus saving the city from an infestation. In addition, this was the first indication that the vampire’s blood could be the cause of a countrywide plague.

Call Me Dracula

When Universal Pictures finally decided to film the sound version of Dracula in 1930 (itself based on a successful Broadway theater adaptation by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston), the studio contracted with director Tod Browning to assume the project after their first choice, German filmmaker Paul Leni, had died. It was also rumored at the time that famed silent horror-movie alumnus Lon Chaney would be tapped to star as the lead, which made sense from a practical standpoint.

Chaney and Browning had previously worked together on a variety of features, including such macabre outings as The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927) with Joan Crawford, and the long-lost London After Midnight (1927), Browning’s initial attempt at a hybrid vampire-cum-murder mystery. Incidentally, the film was remade by MGM in 1935 as a talkie and re-titled Mark of the Vampire. Headlined by Lionel Barrymore, it co-starred a heavily-accented Hungarian stage and film veteran named Bela Lugosi.

With Chaney’s unexpected passing to cancer in August 1930, the way was cleared for other actors to assume the mantle of Universal’s king of horror. After the Broadway run of Dracula, the play went on tour with its principal performer intact. Bela Lugosi, whose real name was Béla Ferenc Dezso Blaskó, just happened to have been born in the city of Lugos, not far from the same rural Transylvanian district and Carpathian mountain range as the bloodthirsty Count (how’s that for a coincidence?).

Publicity photo for Dracula (1931) with Helen Chandler & Bela Lugosi

After two years on the road, Bela decided to put down stakes (no pun intended) in California where he started appearing in early silent and sound productions. Lugosi even co-starred in a Tod Browning picture, The Thirteenth Chair (1929), with Conrad Nagel and Leslie Hyams, which may have kept him in the director’s mind once the Dracula project took flight.

I can’t tell you what made this early sound venture so shocking to audiences of the time, except to say that it grabbed startled viewers from the outset. To our modern-day sensibilities, Dracula seems hopelessly stilted and outdated, especially in its stagier second half. Released in February 1931, it’s a labored, slow-moving effort, ponderous in spots and overly talkative, with some of the acting clearly belonging to the theater.

Despite these lulls, the film comes “alive” (so to speak) anytime the formidable figure of Count Dracula, played by Lugosi, is on the prowl — quite apart from that of his predecessor, Max Schreck. Bela’s darkly sinister mien, unblinking stare, and imposing aristocratic bearing and height (he stood six feet and one inch tall) were his most prominent features. And contrary to what most producers might have imagined, his thick, deliberately-paced Hungarian accent was an added bonus in defining the character’s “other-worldliness.”

One of my favorite scenes is the clash of wills between Dracula and Professor Van Helsing (whose lines are woodenly but sternly delivered by character actor Edward Van Sloan). As the two arch-enemies glare at each other in defiance, Dracula breaks the silence with the enigmatic words, “Your vill is strong, Van—Hel—zing!”

Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) “reflects” on the situation with Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi)

Another memorable episode occurs early on in Castle Dracula, where the lugubrious Count greets the unsuspecting Mr. Renfield (played by the pop-eyed Dwight Frye): “I—am—Drac-ula,” Lugosi pronounces. “I bid you—welcome.”

Then, as they slowly mount the massive staircase, the howling of wolves interrupts their upward motion.

“Listen to them. Children of the night!” Dracula’s voice cracks momentarily. “What mu—sic they make!” As Dracula reaches the top of the stairs, he walks straight through the cobwebs — without disturbing them in the least! Talk about creepy; this sequence will chill you to the bone.

Other scenes involving Dracula’s stalking of his female victims were said to have driven ladies in the movie theater to distraction. This brings up a question I’ve always wanted to ask: What made Dracula so attractive to women?

Writer James V. Hart, who was responsible for the screenplay to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation Bram Stoker’s Dracula, found that one scene in Stoker’s book was so “intensely erotic and diabolically evil that I passed out right in my foie gras … Eventually, I caught up with … the Bela Lugosi standard that caused people to faint in the aisles.” Hart was “also impressed with Frank Langella’s interpretation on Broadway, which brought a sexual energy to the character never before seen.”

In addition to which, Hart hinted that “Women more than men have tended to read Dracula and other vampire stories, and to understand the vampire’s attraction. Vampires,” he went on, “offer a delectable alternative to the drudgery of mortal life and the promises of religion.”

Artist, animator, and film director Tim Burton may have gotten it right when the late Martin Landau, in his Oscar-winning performance as the older Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood (1994), voiced a casual aside to maverick eager-beaver filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr. (Johnny Depp). As the two walk up to his broken-down apartment, Lugosi makes the following observation:

“The women … the women preferred the traditional monsters. The pure horror, it both repels, and attracts them, because in their collective unconsciousness, they have the agony of childbirth. The blood. The blood is the horror” (Ed Wood, from the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski).

Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) listens to Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) expound on vampirism in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994)

This hokey diagnosis may have been nothing more than armchair analysis, but it nonetheless helped to explain the vampire’s enduring legacy and popularity. On a side note, it may also have been an indication of Lugosi’s libidinous attitude toward women, as documented in his five recorded marriages.

The excellent camera work in Dracula was provided by Bohemian-born émigré Karl Freund, who was Fritz Lang’s principal photographer on the science-fiction screen epic Metropolis (1927) and who also went on to direct several stylish productions of his own, including Universal’s The Mummy (1932) with Boris Karloff, and MGM’s Mad Love, aka The Hands of Orlac (1935), with Peter Lorre, as well as numerous episodes of I Love Lucy in the 1950s.

The misty atmosphere no doubt heightened the Gothic mood, at least in the film’s first half. The original plot was modified somewhat, however, in that the young clerk Jonathan Harker (stiffly enacted by David Manners) was the fellow who visited the Count at the start of the novel, not Renfield. As far as we are concerned, the only thing missing was a decent music score. Unfortunately, the opening snippet, derived from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet, along with wisps of the Overture to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony are about all we get.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Old Rockers Never Die, They Just Flail Away: ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ the Beatles, and the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction (Part Two)

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The Beatles in pseudo-military uniform on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

The Flip Side

When I finished writing and posting Part One of this piece, I realized to my dismay that I might have misled readers into thinking the Beatles’ revolutionary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was anything but one of their best.

Au contraire, mes frères!  I was simply addressing the conventional wisdom that the record was the be-all and end-all of pop music in the mid- to late 1960s. While claims of its long-term influence have been exaggerated beyond all comprehension, there’s no refuting the fundamental effect Sgt. Pepper has had on the popular culture of its day.

From the reduced time intervals that separate each number from the other; from the innovative manner in which the songs were recorded, to the printing of the lyrics on the gatefold sleeve’s backside; and, most curious of all, the cardboard cutouts included as inserts, as well as cover art figures ranging from Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Lenny Bruce, W.C. Fields, Johnny Weissmuller, Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells, Tony Curtis, Laurel and Hardy, Fred Astaire, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, and Karl Marx, as well as wax models of Sonny Liston, Diana Dors (the British version of Marilyn), and the mop-topped Beatles themselves. This was Andy Warhol territory writ large and in bold musical lettering — more proof that the album was a noteworthy cultural by-product of 1967.

However, one of the downsides of its release sealed the group’s eventual doom, i.e. the impossibility of reproducing Sgt. Pepper’s contents in concert and on tour, making it a virtual one-off. This became true of the bulk of the Beatles’ output at this latter stage in their development, one of several reasons the band stopped touring at the end of August 1966.

Today, of course, that argument would never hold up. The irony of using that strategy as a pretext for their breakup (or one of the explanations offered for same) is apocryphal at best. If the Beatles had only waited a few more years — say, around the time Pink Floyd ventured onto the scene with Dark Side of the Moon — they could have easily replicated their album in its entirety without noticeable loss of authenticity.

The Beatles in 1967, around the time they recorded Sgt. Pepper

Hogwash and balderdash! Wishful thinking you might add? Hmm, perhaps! But as we know from pop-music history, there were forces beyond their control (and already at play) in the year 1967 that would continue to drive the Beatles apart as a coherent working unit. For the sake of this post, let it be said that Sgt. Pepper remains a masterpiece of pop-music confection, one that expanded their artistic horizons to unheard-of heights.

The recurring motif for the album was set from the start by the front-cover photograph of the Beatles in brightly-colored, marching-band uniforms complete with string decorations, shoulder epaulettes, three-corner hat, and instruments of varying degree (to be exact, a French horn, a trumpet, a cor anglais, and a flute). The words “A splendid time is guaranteed for all” were splashed across the backside of the album, about as reliable a guarantee of quality as any in the pop-rock field.

The first number on the record is the title tune, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It begins with an orchestra tuning up for a concert in the midst of an expectant audience. As our boys enter one by one, we hear several audience members break into laughter — possibly, at the sight of Ringo stumbling clumsily onto the stage platform.

The setup was a positively striking one: moving away from their earlier clean-cut image, the Beatles announced to the pop-music world that they had transformed from the drab, cutesy-pie teen idols of the early 60s into the hip, alternative Mod-style artists of the so-called “Summer of Love.” And in spite of the portentous opening lines, the Beatles have never gone “in and out of style,” but have stayed on the cusp of the avant-garde:

 

It was twenty years ago today

Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play

They’ve been going in and out of style

But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile

 

So may I introduce to you

The act you’ve known for all these years

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band

 

We’re Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

We hope you will enjoy the show

We’re Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Sit back and let the evening go

 

The tune, in slightly truncated form, is reprised on side two (of the LP that is) as the penultimate cut, which gave a false close to the “concert” program that came before. “Paul [McCartney] explained that [the concept] was like a band you might see in the park,” remembered Peter Blake, the man responsible for staging the album cover. “[T]hey were a town band finishing a concert in a park, playing on a bandstand with a municipal flowerbed next to it, with a crowd of people around them” — the kind who “stood and stared,” I would wager (see the album’s last track, “A Day in the Life”).

Inside album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Paul confirmed the idea. “I thought it would be nice to lose our identities, to submerge ourselves in the persona of a fake group. We would make up all the culture around it and collect all our heroes in one place. So I thought, a typical stupid-sounding name for a Dr. Hook’s Medicine Show and Traveling Circus kind of thing [no relation to Monty Python’s Flying Circus] would be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Just a word game, really.”

There were more “word games” to come. But the “concert” and “fake group” aspects, as Paul likened them to, didn’t exactly bear out for the entire length of the album. Never mind, it was the thought that counted. John Lennon was opposed to the concert idea from the start (it “left him cold,” according to sources). Nevertheless, he went along with the notion, as did the production crew.

The title track segues directly into Ringo’s signature tune (in his guise as “Billy Shears”), “With a Little Help from My Friends,” with its reference to Marc Antony’s speech from Julius Caesar, the snappy call-and-response banter of the main chorus, and hints of marijuana use (denied by John, by the way):

 

What would you do if I sang out of tune

Would you stand up and walk out on me?

Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song

And I’ll try not to sing out of key

 

Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends

Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends

Mm, gonna try with a little help from my friends

 

Do you need anybody?

I need somebody to love

Could it be anybody?

I want somebody to love

 

Next, we are treated to a faux harpsichord intro to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (done on the Hammond organ and suggestive of Beethoven’s piano piece, “Für Elise”), a Lennon song just as often mistaken for endorsing LSD use as Ringo’s “get high” phrase above (well, not entirely mistaken: John was dropping considerable amounts of “acid” at this point). The title is based on a picture that Lennon’s son Julian painted at school of a classmate named Lucy. Comprised of a hodgepodge of surrealistic nonsense words, the lyrics mixed psychedelia with a Lewis Carroll aesthetic.

“The images were from Alice in Wonderland,” John told Playboy in 1980. “It was Alice in the boat. She is buying an egg and it turns into Humpty Dumpty. The woman serving in the shop turns into a sheep and the next minute they are rowing in a rowboat somewhere, and I was visualizing that. There was also the image of the female who would someday come to save me — a ‘girl with kaleidoscope eyes’ — who would come out of the sky.”

 

Picture yourself in a boat on a river

With tangerine trees and marmalade skies

Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly

A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

 

Cellophane flowers of yellow and green

Towering over your head

Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes

And she’s gone

 

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Ah, ah    

The Fab Four in the late 60s

The following two entries, “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole,” are basically throwaways — that is, if you skip over the lyrics and go on to the succeeding number, “She’s Leaving Home.” But if you were to do that, you would be doing yourself a disservice. Simply put, these two back-to-back numbers are nothing if not an instructive look into the minds of their authors, Lennon and McCartney.

John and Paul worked together on these and other songs, but Paul is credited chiefly for both of the above numbers. “Fixing a Hole” came a month before “Getting Better” (though placed in reverse order on the album) and written after McCartney had repaired a physical hole in his Scottish farmhouse roof. Stated Paul, “This song is just about the hole in the road where the rain gets in; a good old analogy — the hole in your makeup which lets the rain in and stops your mind from going where it will. It’s you interfering with things.”

 

And it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong I’m right

Where I belong I’m right

Where I belong

 

See the people standing there who disagree and never win

And wonder why they don’t get in my door

I’m painting my room in a colorful way

And when my mind is wandering

There I will go …

 

Silly people run around they worry me

And never ask why they don’t get past my door

I’m taking the time for a number of things

That weren’t important yesterday

And I still go

 

I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in

And stops my mind from wandering

Where it will go

 

On “Getting Better,” George Harrison played the tampura, an Indian instrument that resembles a large economy-size sitar. It produces a sort of droning sound and is mostly used for background resonance. The song itself was composed at Paul’s home in St. John’s Wood. Lennon was present and contributed “that lovely little sardonic line” about “It couldn’t get much worse.” Of the two songwriters, Paul was decidedly more optimistic about the world in general, etched with a streak of regret (remember “Yesterday”?); whereas John had anger management issues, as he confessed in those revealing (pun intended) Playboy interviews:

“I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically — any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself,” John added, “and I hit.” Ouch!

 

It’s getting better all the time

 

I used to get mad at my school

(No, I can’t complain)

The teachers who taught me weren’t cool   

(No, I can’t complain)

 

You’re holding me down

Turning me round

Filling me up with your rules

 

I’ve got to admit it’s getting better (Better)

It’s getting better all the time

(It can’t get much worse)

It’s getting better all the time

 

It’s getting better

Since you’ve been mine

 

The following verses were Paul and John’s shared thoughts, each expressing his particular fascination with or disappointment in their interpersonal relationships. Try to guess which one was which:

 

Me used to be an angry young man

Me hiding me head in the sand

You gave me the word, I finally heard

I’m doing the best that I can

 

I used to be cruel to my woman

I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved

Man, I was mean but I’m changing my scene

And I’m doing the best that I can (ooh)

 

And now, an honest to goodness minor classic, the sorrowful ballad “She’s Leaving Home.” Its close affiliation with “Eleanor Rigby,” featured on the group’s Revolver (released in August 1966), can be attributed to the presence of strings (arranged by Mike Leander instead of George Martin), with the harp providing additional impetus to “She’s Leaving Home.”

Comic book depiction of the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home”

A true Lennon-McCartney original — neither Beatle played any instruments on the track, nor were Ringo and George present during the recording sessions — the oft-told chronicle of how this song came about is worth repeating:

“It’s a much younger girl than Eleanor Rigby,” Paul remarked in Beatles in Their Own Words, “but the same sort of loneliness. That was a Daily Mirror story again [identified as the Daily Mail in The Long and Winding Road: A History of the Beatles on Record ]…. We’d seen a story in the newspaper about a young girl who had left home and not been found. There were a lot of those at the time. That was enough to give us a story line. So I started to get the lyrics: she slips out and leaves a note and then the parents wake up and then… It was rather poignant. I like it as a song, and when I showed it to John, he added the Greek chorus, long sustained notes, and one of those nice things about the structure of the song is that it stays on those chords endlessly.”

Paul mentioned that one of the lines in the song may have come directly from the girl’s father, quoted in the newspaper article: “I cannot imagine why she should run away. She has everything here… even her fur coat.”

“But he didn’t give her that much,” McCartney insisted, “not what she wanted when she left home.”

The girl, identified as teenager Melanie Coe, disappeared from her family’s abode in February 1967. Melanie took only what she was wearing, leaving behind her “Austin 1100 automobile, two diamond rings, a mink coat,” and “a wardrobe full of clothes.”

Poster art for “She’s Leaving Home”

John was purported to have agreed with the song’s basic premise, adding: “Paul had the basic theme… but all those lines like ‘We sacrificed most of our life’ [and] ‘we gave her everything money could buy,’ those were things [my aunt] Mimi used to say to me. It was easy to write.” John was credited with the chorus, and the individual lines were Paul’s handiwork:

 

Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins

Silently closing her bedroom door

Leaving the note that she hoped would say more

She goes down the stairs to the kitchen clutching her handkerchief

Quietly turning the backdoor key

Stepping outside she is free

 

She (We gave her most of our lives)

Is leaving (Sacrificed most of our lives)

Home (We gave her everything money could buy)

She’s leaving home after living alone

For so many years

 

This song, while a melancholy break from the liveliness of the previous tracks, prepares the listener for more serious excursions toward the album’s end. There were lots of goings-on in Great Britain at the time than mere granny glasses, Twiggy and Carnaby Street.

For the last item on this side, the Fab Four (or the One, in this instance) turned to the English dance hall, the equivalent of our turn-of-the-century vaudeville, for the bouncy “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” A one-hundred-percent John Lennon composition, this number, along with the preceding “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” led producer George Martin to label him “an oral Salvador Dalí.”

John Lennon pointing to the poster “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”

The unusual non-rock arrangement included four harmonicas (played by George, Ringo, and session players Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall), Hammond and Wurlitzer organs, a piano, recorded snippets of an old Victorian steam organ, and bass and lead guitars (essayed by multi-instrumentalist Paul). John was the lone vocalist. Inspiration for this number was taken from a poster, of all things:

“ ‘Mr. Kite’ was a straight lift,” Lennon observed in The Beatles. “I had all the words staring me in the face one day when I was looking for a song. It was from this old poster I’d bought at an antique shop. We’d been down in Surrey or somewhere filming a piece … There was a break, and I went into this shop and bought an old poster advertising a variety show which starred Mr. Kite. It said the Hendersons would also be there, late of Pablo Fanques Fair. There would be hoops and horses and someone going through a hogshead of real fire. Then there was Henry the Horse. The band would start at ten to six. All at Bishopsgate. Look, there’s the bill, with Mr. Kite topping it. I hardly made up a word, just connecting the lists together. Word for word, really.”

Really! Nothing further need be added.

(End of Part Two)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Met Opera Round-Up: The Season’s Last Gasp with ‘Guillaume Tell,’ ‘Tristan,’ and ‘The Flying Dutchman’ (Part One)

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Rossini’s Guillaume Tell at the Metropolitan Opera (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

Past Glories, Future Successes

There’s no doubt about it: the Metropolitan Opera House is in trouble. Financially and artistically, in every conceivable way an opera company can expect to have difficulties. Hard times are indeed ahead for the performing arts in general. Yet, there is always something to rave about.

While the past 2016-2017 Met broadcast season wasn’t the most audacious or artistically absorbing I’ve heard or read about, it did have some outstanding features. In my book, the main attraction — one we opera fans have long been waiting for — was the new Pierre Audi production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (“William Tell”), one of those celebrated creations one reads about only in history books but rarely gets the opportunity to actually experience.

About all that modern audiences know of the piece is that it was Rossini’s last completed opera. The Met Opera management is to be commended, then, for bringing the Dutch National Opera’s 2013 production to New York, the first such performance of the work at the company in nearly eighty-five years.

Based on the legend of the Swiss folk hero who united the Swiss against a ruthless Austrian ruler, Guillaume Tell had a rousing reception at its premiere at the Paris Opéra on August 3, 1829. Rossini biographer and radio broadcaster Richard Osborne, writing in Opera on Record 3, commented that the opera indisputably pointed “the way forward to the later nineteenth-century Italian and French traditions. Though a composer like [Giacomo] Meyerbeer was content merely to seize the ground plan…, it is arguable that Tell equally well paved the way for the great political dramas of the Verdi years – Nabucco, Don Carlos, and Simon Boccanegra – as well as Verdi’s own great drama of paternity, Rigoletto.”

Osborne goes on to state: “What Rossini’s shrewder heirs inherited from Guillaume Tell was a new musical plasticity and power; a reorientation and humanization of the near-defunct baroque and neo-classical styles. Inspired by [Friedrich von] Schiller’s magnificent play [as, indeed, Verdi himself was inspired by the same author’s The Maid of Orleans, The Robbers, Love and Intrigue, and Don Carlos], Rossini takes heroic opera out of the fabled world of high romance and brings it into the mainstream of contemporary thought and feeling.”

After decades of slaving away in the galleys, as many Italian composers of the period were expected to do, an exhausted but exceedingly well-off thirty-seven-year-old Gioachino Rossini laid down his pen and vowed never to write another stage work. Rossini kept to that promise, although he continued to compose a variety of parlor pieces and sacred music, among them the lovely Stabat Mater and the song cycle “Sins of My Old Age.”

The Macro and Micro View

Act III of Guillaume Tell, with Gerald Finley as Tell & John Relyea as Gessler (both center) and the Met Opera Chorus

So what is Guillaume Tell really like? Why has this infrequently performed work had such an elevated status among knowledgeable music buffs and critics? To begin with, it’s an unwieldy opus. Four acts, a four-and-a-half-hour running time (according to the Met Opera’s broadcast statistics), an unimaginably torturous lead role for tenor, an expanded chorus, elaborate ballet sequences, and other extra-scenic requirements (including Tell’s last-minute rescue attempt across Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne) have made it a tough slog for an evening’s entertainment.

Aw, heck, you say. That doesn’t sound like much! Why, the mighty Ring cycle itself has been testing the technical capabilities of opera houses for decades. And as far as elaborate tenor roles go, some may share the belief (as I most certainly do) that Wagner’s Tristan and Siegfried are still two of the most grueling operatic assignments of this or any other time. There’s got to be more to it than that!

And indeed there is. Despite its monumentality, Rossini’s French-language extravaganza is a truly melodious piece, one of the composer’s finest and most thoughtfully-conceived stage products. Done with craft and artful intelligence, Guillaume Tell is unlike anything the native from Pesaro had turned out before. In the revealing article, “Rossini’s Last Stand,” by New York Times critic Peter G. Davis for the October 2016 edition of Opera News, the work is heralded for its “romantic, even heroic grandeur,” with the “master’s inimitable touch” present “on nearly every page.” Davis praised the “new expressive freedom and individuality” that “courses through the entire opera.”

The world-famous overture, with its thrice-familiar Lone Ranger theme and other recognizable tunes (used liberally in a wide variety of TV programs, movies, cartoons, and advertisements), “sets the tone … in essence, a boldly conceived, four-part symphonic poem [reflecting, if you will, the four-part partition of the opera itself] conjuring up the Alpine panoramas in which this stirring patriotic drama takes place.”

The opera’s qualities are apparent from the start. As indicated in the above passage, the instrumental writing in the overture alone is absolutely breathtaking. Rossini’s descriptive use of the cellos, followed swiftly by the thunderous storm music, which gives way to the simplicity and beauty of the dawn motif with cor anglais and accompanying flute obbligato, as well as the triumphant stretto section in the brass — all are symptomatic of a first-class musician working at the peak of red-hot inspiration.

Tell (Gerald Finley) shoots the apple from his son Jemmy’s head (Janai Brugger)

Still, the question remains: How does one approach an opera of this magnitude if not from the standpoint of admiration and respect? On the one hand, this was a French grand opera, in spite of its having been written by one of Italy’s finest proponents of bel canto. On the other, it is also an endurance test of phenomenal proportions. In short, this is one of those astonishingly conceived oeuvres for which the term “legendary” has more than sufficient merit.

There’s the opening pastoral and the fisherman Ruodi’s gentle love song — with its unforeseen yet excitingly rendered high C (from a minor character, at that) — indeed, every turn of phrase is of major significance to the drama’s development, a novelty in grand opera at the time. We sense this aspect not only in the title part (actually, second only to that of the tenor Arnold), but in the soprano Mathilde’s reflective Act II air, the cavatina “Sombre forêt” (“Selva opaca,” or “Somber forest”) with its gentle drum roll interspersed throughout.

As you can tell (no pun intended), casting is paramount in a work such as this, and the Met spared no expense in that department. The broadcast of March 18, 2017 (from the October 18, 2016 premiere) starred Canadian baritone Gerald Finley as Tell, New Orleans-born tenor Bryan Hymel as Arnold, and Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka as Mathilde, with debuting tenor Michele Angelini as Ruodi, soprano Janai Brugger as Jemmy, mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak as Hedwige, bass Kwangchul Youn as Melcthal, bass Marco Spotti as Walter Furst, and bass-baritone John Relyea as Gessler.

Italian maestro Fabio Luisi conducted the Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus — vibrantly, I am happy to report. The sets were designed by George Tsypin, the costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, with lighting by Jean Kalman, and choreography by Kim Brandstrup. Donald Palumbo, as always, was the chorus master.

Step Up to the Plate

Bryan Hymel as Arnaud and Marina Rebeka as Mathilde (Met Opera)

For all the worthwhile efforts he brought to bear on this marvelous score, Rossini left it to posterity as to how the part of Arnold (or “Arnaud” in the original French) should be handled. THAT, dear readers, is the real issue at hand.

Who in the past was capable of encompassing the extreme range of Arnold’s music? I won’t resurrect the age-old argument as to whether the many Gs, As, Bs, Cs, and Ds should be taken at full-voice (“high C from the chest,” i.e. do di petto, in Italian) or done in voix mixte (“mixed voice”) mode. Whatever it takes to get those “money notes” out, when done right, will bring the public to its feet come curtain time.

Past recorded exponents were wont to negotiate the role’s difficulties in various and sundry forms. Singers from the dawn of recording, the so-called gramophone era, managed to work their way around the hurdles, while others were not as successful. Readers can come to their own conclusions as to which method was best, usually from a personal perspective.

Fortunately, there are lots of examples to choose from, mainly from the Golden Age by such splendid artists as Francesco Tamagno, Giovanni Martinelli, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Francesco Merli, Mario Filippeschi, Georges Thill, René Verdière, César Vezzani, Hermann Jadlowker, Léon Escalais, and others. Among modern singers, one may thrill to the voices of Luciano Pavarotti, Nicolai Gedda, Alfredo Kraus, Chris Merritt, Michael Spyres, John Osborn, and Juan Diego Flórez.

What about the title role of Tell? Good question. On the Italian front, baritones as far afield as Giuseppe de Luca, Giuseppe Danise, Gino Bechi, Benvenuto Franci, Tito Gobbi, and Giuseppe Taddei have left some wonderful recorded mementos of the soulful aria “Sois immobile” (“Keep still”), or “Resta immobile” in Italian translation. From the Gallic side, we have the impeccably tasteful Jean Borthayre (a baryton martin that I much admire, whose superb diction was above reproach), Maurice Renaud, Arthur Endrèze, Ernest Blanc, and Gabriel Bacquier.

Some more Golden Age extracts include the first act duet between Tell and Arnold (“Ah, Mathilde, je t’aime”) with the tenor’s powerful high notes, sung to near perfection by the likes of Taddei and Filippeschi on the Cetra label; with Bechi and Filippeschi again in a private recording; Franci and Toscanini’s favorite tenor, Aureliano Pertile; Leo Slezak and Leopold Demuth; and the remarkable Martinelli (talk about robust!) with Marcel Journet. There’s also the great third act trio for Tell, Arnold and Walter Furst, delivered in waves of passionate intensity by Martinelli, with De Luca and Spanish basso José Mardones setting the standard for how this piece should be sung.

John Relyea as Governor Gessler in Guillaume Tell

While not a dramatic tenor by nature or birth, Bryan Hymel’s gloriously translucent tone overcame most of Arnold’s vocal hurdles. Despite some treacherous footing in the staging itself, this was a most fortuitous assumption for the artist. Although he struggled valiantly in reaching for those stratospheric Cs during his long Act IV scena, Hymel delivered the prayerful “Asile héréditaire” (“O muto asil del pianto”) with pointed tone and meltingly luxuriant voice; this was followed by the furious cabaletta with chorus, “Amis, amis!” (“Corriam, voliam!”), a rafter-raising precursor to Manrico’s “Di quella pira” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore.

Having conquered Carthage in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Hymel prepared to rescue Tell in this riveting sequence. Recalling the late, great Luciano Pavarotti’s ringing 1971 London/Decca rendition of the aria and cabaletta (severely truncated, according to my recollection), I can only state that Hymel has placed himself in good company. Few artists can muster the rock-solid singing technique and punch to the solar plexus this episode demands. Subtlety and finesse are also called for, as well as stamina and endurance. Lung power alone won’t get you through this obstacle course, as many opera buffs can confirm. Heard in its entirety, the scene can be an exhilarating theatrical experience. It takes guts to make this role a success, or so one would think.

That’s not how Rossini heard it. In his day, Arnold’s music was in the respectable hands of Adolphe Nourrit, the epitome of taste and bel canto refinement. Just a few years hence, a robust rival named Gilbert-Louis Duprez (who created the role of Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor) tried a more novel, muscular approach with his high C from the chest. When he heard Duprez’s version, Rossini famously compared it to a chicken getting its throat cut. Gulp! Incidentally, Duprez was indirectly responsible for Nourrit ending his career in suicide.

As for the rest of the cast, the highly underrated Gerald Finley was a model William Tell. His fine-grained, burnished baritone voice, perfectly even from top to bottom and filled with a lush, buzzy timbre, was an absolute joy to listen to. No wonder he made such a hit with Wagner’s Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger: this is masterful singing by an artist of the first rank. A definitive interpretation and one for the record books.

Gerald Finley as Guillaume Tell in Rossini’s masterpiece

Riga-born soprano Marina Rebeka as Mathilde, while gamely tackling the many beauties this part has to offer, did not combine especially well vocally with Hymel, her romantic tenor lead. Nevertheless, she lent needed pathos as well as softness to her singing. Not intimidated in the least by the assignment, Rebeka had some solid recorded competition in Frances Alda, Claudia Muzio, Lina Pagliughi, Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas, Rosana Carteri, Montserrat Caballé, Mirella Freni, and Cheryl Studer.

The other singers acquitted themselves well, especially the appealing Jemmy of Janai Brugger. However, a special shout-out is called for to Toronto-born artist John Relyea as the villainous Governor Gessler, a stupendously realized conception. His snarling, sturdy bass-baritone and malevolent characterization of this evil antagonist were convincingly conveyed over the air with firmness and relish. Relyea came off as a real scoundrel, your proverbial baddie.

Back in the late-1980s, I remember seeing the young Relyea as Méphistophélès in the Frank Corsaro production of Gounod’s Faust at New York City Opera. The Faust on that occasion was the equally talented Richard Leech, another rising star on the operatic firmament. Much later, I bought a Telarc digital LP of the Prologue to Boito’s Mefistofele, with Relyea singing the “Ave Signor!” in that wonderfully potent voice of his. He also made a magnificently commanding devil in Berlioz’s fantastical The Damnation of Faust in Robert Lepage’s stylized high-tech production at the Met from 2008.

It was great to have Relyea back in such superbly diabolical form. The next time they present Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann can the Met Opera management please engage him as the Four Villains? PRETTY PLEASE? It was an even more satisfying experience to have finally heard Guillaume Tell at the Met, and in the expert conducting arms of Maestro Luisi, his last assignment at the house. May they all return with renewed vigor.

(End of Part One… To be continued)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes       

Delivered in Pain: The Birth of Nations — Operas, Musicals and Movies with Patriotic Themes (Part One)

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Ce-le-brate Good Times, Come On!

Poster art for Cecil B. DeMille’s Unconquered (1947)

A happy and belated July 4 to one and all!

Since that date marks the start of our country’s struggle for liberty and independence, the focus of today’s post (and future ones thereafter) will be the theme of patriotism and how it is represented in such varied forms as motion pictures, the Broadway stage and — believe it or not — the opera house.

Let’s begin with a few selected works from the days of silent and sound cinema.

In point of fact, silent films depicting the American Revolution and/or the Founding Fathers were few and far between. Scarce is the word I would use to describe the relative lack of footage from the silent era that depicts the forging of our nation, or any other nation for that matter.

One of the main reasons for this shortage is the incontrovertible truth that many movies have simply deteriorated over time due to their having been made on nitrate or other perishable stock. Film preservation, as an acknowledged and accepted practice, was practically non-existent.

Beyond that reality, there are several silent features that have depicted such prominent figures as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and various others. For starters, famed silent film director David Wark (D.W.) Griffith was noted for such gargantuan presentations as Intolerance (1916), Orphans of the Storm (1921), and especially The Birth of a Nation (1915).

D.W. Griffith (center) with his favorite photographer Billy Bitzer (left)

An early example of long-form storytelling and narrative build-up, the bulk of Birth of a Nation takes place during and after the Civil War, in the so-termed Reconstruction period. Against this backdrop, such historical personalities as President Lincoln (played by Joseph Henabery), his assassin John Wilkes Booth (Raoul Walsh), and Generals Ulysses S. Grant (Donald Crisp) and Robert E. Lee (Howard Gaye) are juxtaposed against fictional protagonists Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish), Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh), Col. Benjamin Cameron (Henry B. Walthal), Silas Lynch (George Siegmann), and Gus (Walter Long) in a romantic tale of two families on opposite sides of the conflict.

In many respects, Griffith’s epic production is a forerunner of the no-less-compelling (and lengthier) Gone with the Wind a full generation later, with GWTW  boasting a less overtly racist premise. Despite Birth of a Nation’s association with controversy vis-à-vis its questionably “heroic” portrait of the Ku Klux Klan “riding to save the South from black rule,” as well as the outrageously stereotypical treatment of African Americans throughout (played by white actors in “blackface”), the film remains a landmark in the cinematic arts for its groundbreaking photography and its use of close-ups, crosscutting and editing.

But as far as it can be connected to this article’s main theme, any mention of the role that “patriotism” had in the development of the screenplay and story line of Birth of a Nation can be deemed misguided.

Griffith was also responsible for America: or Love and Sacrifice (1924), a fictional tale involving colonial patriots (among them, a pre-Batman TV series Neil Hamilton as the coonskin hat-wearing Nathan Holden) battling their British red-coated occupiers near and around the sites of the Revolutionary War.

There are moments in the picture that recall James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (filmed as a silent in 1920, and remade with sound in 1936), particularly the Native American-Indian raid on Fort Sacrifice. Certainly, actor Lionel Barrymore’s over-the-top performance as corrupt British Captain Walter Butler (a historical personage) tended to skirt the limits of melodramatic villainy by using the Native Americans for his own mercenary purposes.

Still from D.W. Griffith’s America (1924)

In sum, more historical figures are present in this picture than in The Birth of a Nation. Welcome appearances in the movie’s first half by the likes of John Hancock, Samuel Adams, William Pitt, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, and King George III were only the tip of the iceberg. And why not? After all, the aim of the project, as stipulated in Cotton Seiler’s article “The American Revolution” for The Columbia Companion to American History on Film, was “to stir the patriotic hearts of the nation as … no other picture has ever done.” Too, it may have been done to make amends for Griffith’s blatantly biased take in the earlier film.

There is also a Romeo and Juliet lover-story angle attached to America, best left explored to more literary-minded readers, but prevalent in the name of one of the feuding families, the Montagues. As a matter of fact, one of their member, Nancy Montague (played by Carol Dempster), is the daughter of Justice Montague (Erville Alderson), a Tory supporter and loyal follower of the British Crown. That Nancy and Nathan fall in and out of love, only to be reunited at the end, is indicative of Griffith’s tugging at the audience’s heartstrings.

Where the film is most impressive, however, is in its mythical interpretation of George Washington (Arthur Dewey) at Valley Forge. We all know the fable from our grade-school days: how the harsh winter of 1777-78 took an incalculable toll on the fledgling revolutionary forces; how Washington and his men withstood hunger and deprivation in order to maintain courage in the face of ever-mounting odds. Despite their “pain and suffering,” Washington and his men overcame the wintry blasts to fight again another day — and eventually win out over superior British forces. The end!

Most historians have discounted this retelling of events. Indeed, according to Washington authority Willard Sterne Randall, “It was not an unusually cold winter: in fact, it was one of the warmest in memory.” So much for historical accuracy! True to form, Griffith went on to capture that self-same frigid ambiance (now a warmed-over cliché) of the prayerful Father of Our Country at Valley Forge, PA, kneeling on sacred ground to ask the Lord for guidance in his hour of need — a surrogate Moses speaking to the Burning Bush (or icy frost, in this instance).

At the time of the film’s release, it was commented on by reviewers that Griffith had attempted to recycle the winning formula he invented for Birth of a Nation into this costly production; that the director had substituted Native Americans (i.e., the “Iroquois”) for African Americans as the “enemy” that needed to be tamed and vanquished; that in Griffith’s rationale, the colonists were not traitors to King George but rather “rebels” or Confederates (his deliberate choice of words was indeed revealing) with high ideals, fighting for a just cause. Whatever!

But never fear, all’s well that ends well. In the final scene, at his inaugural Washington takes the oath of office on the steps of Federal Hall in New York City, where his statue still stands to this day.

Griffith turned once again to the Civil War period in his first talkie: the biopic Abraham Lincoln (1930), a creaky, late-career outing that starred Walter Huston as Young Abe and later as President Lincoln, with Una Merkel as Ann Rutledge, Kay Hammond as Mary Todd Lincoln, E. Alyn Warren as both Stephen Douglas and General Grant, Hobart Bosworth as General Lee, Oscar Apfel as Secretary of War Stanton, and Ian Keith as John Wilkes Booth.

Huston was praised for his understated portrayal of the titular sixteenth U.S. president. Lincoln is presented here as having been foreseen (by Divine Providence, no less, in the manner of his Old Testament namesake, the prophet Abraham) as the reluctant father of his country, a unifying figure at a time of great division. The same can be said for Huston’s admirable performance: from beginning to end, Walter is the sole unifying factor in a somewhat stolid and stagey production.

It’s not what one would call a warts-and-all rendering of the Great Man, but a far more complicated and discerning one. Lincoln’s lingering depression and ever-present sadness over the burdens of high office are carried with him for much of the film’s 97-minute running time.

Walter Huston as our 16th president in Griffith’s biopic Abraham Lincoln 1930

You could say that this was D.W. Griffith’s final hurrah as far as future film work was concerned. He would direct one last feature, The Struggle, in 1931. Based in part on Émile Zola’s novel, The Drunkard, the plot concerns a young alcoholic (Hal Skelly) hooked on bootleg liquor, an obvious criticism of the prevailing Prohibition law. The film mirrored Griffith’s own personal problems with alcoholism, which may have contributed to his death, at age 73, of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1948.

Ready When You Are, Mr. DeMille

One of the most popular and staggeringly successful producer-directors of his time — one who had traversed both the silent and sound eras with equal skill and deftness — was the inexhaustible Cecil B. DeMille. Considered one of Hollywood’s founding fathers, the Massachusetts-born DeMille was an early proponent of patriotically-themed and/or religiously-based screen epics.

Among the more noteworthy examples from the vast scope and breadth of his oeuvre are The Squaw Man (1914), one of the first films to be made in Hollywood proper and remade several times by DeMille himself; The Viriginian (also from 1914); The Girl of the Golden West (1915) after David Belasco’s play; Carmen (1915) with soprano Geraldine Farrar, based not on Bizet’s opera but on the original Prosper Mérimée novella; the silent version of The Ten Commandments (1923); The Volga Boatman (1926) with William Boyd; and the independently produced The King of Kings (1927), the story of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection.

It was during the sound period, then, that DeMille came into his own as a purveyor of the Protestant work ethic as a means toward achieving the American dream. After watching one of his films, viewers, too, may come away with the same feeling, one that pervaded many of his historical productions: the idea that a busy, industrious America is a happy America (at least, according to C.B.).

Such rousing recreations of frontier life as The Plainsman (1937), with Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok, Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane, James Ellison as Buffalo Bill, and John Miljan as George Custer; the War of 1812 in The Buccaneer (1938), with Fredric March as privateer Jean Lafitte, Franciska Gaal as his ladylove Gretchen, Douglass Dumbrille as Governor Claiborne, and Hugh Sothern as a crotchety Andrew Jackson; and the building of the transcontinental railway in Union Pacific (1939), with Joel McCrea as Captain Jeff Butler, Barbara Stanwyck as the Irish-brogue spouting Mollie Monahan, Brian Donlevy as the villainous Sid Campeau, and Francis J. McDonald as General Dodge, all depict a young nation at work, keeping physically strong and mentally sharp by a division of labor between those who toil and those who govern.

Workers laying down track in Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific (1939)

DeMille’s heady mixture of historical luminaries and nationalistic fervor, blended with hard-working fictional protagonists that audiences could seemingly relate to, reaped huge box-office rewards for Paramount Studios’ coffers.

Looking northward, DeMille turned out (in vividly stunning Technicolor) a nostalgic ode to our Canadian neighbors in Northwest Mounted Police (1940). His pièce de résistance in this regard, however, was the later Unconquered (1947), which revisited similar terrain as Griffith’s America and Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. Pure hokum and a potboiler supreme are one way to describe the picture; a “barnstormer rooted in Victorian theater,” as quoted by film critic David Thomson, and “shamelessly stereotyped and sentimental, but eagerly courting twentieth-century permissiveness, if only solemnly to condemn it.”

It was back to the frontier and the hearty folk who populated it. An all-star lineup of talent was assembled for Unconquered, headed by lanky Gary Cooper as Indian fighter Captain Christopher Holden, Paulette Goddard (who co-starred with him in Northwest Mounted Police) as indentured servant girl Abigail Hale, Howard Da Silva as illegal gunrunner Martin Garth, Boris Karloff as Seneca Chief Guyasuta, Ward Bond as John Fraser, Victor Varconi (a DeMille stalwart) as Captain Ecuyer, Henry Wilcoxon (another DeMille favorite who appeared as Major Heyward in the 1936 version of Last of the Mohicans) as Captain Steele, Richard Gaines as a dark-haired Colonel George Washington, and a cast of thousands if not hundreds.

Abby (Paulette Goddard) & Chris (Gary Cooper) meet up with Bone (Mike Mazurki, left) in Unconquered

The impossible-to-follow plot is a ludicrous assemblage of old, discarded bits from The Last of the Mohicans (in the Indian attack on Fort Pitt), to include, but not limited to, Capt. Holden’s stupefying rescue of Abby to prevent her from being roasted by the warring tribesmen. Both he and Abby manage to elude the pursuing braves by going down a studio-bound river in a raft and over a poorly projected waterfall. Nor is the inane dialogue any better, a common complaint in DeMille’s pictures. C.B. wasn’t interested as much in what his actors were saying as he was with what they look liked in costume.

The film’s title could just as easily have referred to the unconquerable “Abby” Hale as to its wilderness setting. In an article about George Washington by John D. Thomas, found in The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have Portrayed the American Past, there’s a scene early on in which Captain Holden and Col. Washington are both privy to “an auction of white indentured servants brought over from Britain,” to include the scrappy Ms. Hale. “Washington ventures this bit of personal information: ‘One of my teachers was an indentured convict, Chris, a fine man, but he never could teach me to spell.’”

Thomas pointed out that historically, the indentured convict belonged to Washington’s father, and that Washington himself had owned numerous slaves (as did other Founding Fathers), as many as 350 or more after he married Martha. For DeMille, such a historically accurate revelation in Unconquered would have detracted from audiences’ enjoyment of his film, as well as clouded the issue of celebrating the fictionalized account of our freedom-loving ancestors.

Be that as it may, DeMille’s involvement with his 1956 Technicolor wide-screen remake of The Ten Commandments would address the slavery question head-on. Only this time, it would involve the tribulations of the put-upon Hebrew slaves of the Old Testament, intertwined with the rise of their Deliverer, Moses, and the flight from Egypt, known as the Exodus (see the following link to my post about the background to The Ten Commandments: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/07/16/the-ten-commandments-american-society-in-the-fifties/).

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes