Old Rockers Never Die, They Just Flail Away: ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ the Beatles, and the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction (Part Two)
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 and 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 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 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.
Hogwash and balderdash! Wishful thinking you might say? 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 “theme” or 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 field of pop.
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).
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 “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 bet (see the album’s last track, “A Day in the Life”).
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 liked to refer to them, 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 most 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 was 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
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 mind of their authors, Lennon and McCartney.
John and Paul worked together on these songs, but Paul is credited chiefly for both. “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 an extra-large 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.” 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, 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.”
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.”
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.”
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 single 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)
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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)
Ce-le-brate Good Times, Come On!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Old Rockers Never Die, They Just Flail Away: ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ the Beatles, the Stones, and the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction (Part One)
A Year in the Life
If 1968 was considered a landmark year for our planet, then 1967 was its precursor. The pre-revolutionary tide that 1967 ushered into the U.S., Europe, Latin America and elsewhere was already hinted at in the popular and performing arts. The actual physical explosion came later, in 1968. For now, we can relish the times for what they were.
Celebrating the 50th anniversary, then, of the launch of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — an obvious outgrowth of the fomenting fervor of the period — our local Public Broadcasting Station (or PBS for short) presented a marathon run of money-raising efforts. But the most significant aspect of the network’s frequent stops for call-in contributions and on-air fund drives came with the showing of a British-made “making-of” documentary, Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution, informing viewers that it was 50 years ago this summer that the Fab Four’s milestone recording was first issued.
Highly informative and thoroughly documented, the British host for the program, composer and musician Howard Goodall, took television audiences through a “magical mystery” tour of some of the Beatles’ most memorable tunes and pioneering work methods. The group labored for months on end, along with their producer, Sir George Martin (known widely as the “Fifth” Beatle), at the Abbey Road Studios in London, England.
Full of fun facts and priceless trivia, the program leaned a bit too heavily on what a so-called “masterpiece” the Sgt. Pepper album undoubtedly was (as if there were any doubt); and how “transformational” and “industry changing” the classic compilation of songs became in the hands of John, Paul, George and Ringo. But instead of turning viewers on to the boys’ superbly recorded output, it turned this steadfast fan off to the excessively pedantic and doctrinaire style of presentation.
You can’t blame the Brits for trying, though. They will stiff-upper-lip through anything, if given half a chance. But this Beatles buff was having none of it. I did manage to sit through at least two showings, which is saying a lot for my endurance.
Ultimately, I managed to catch the most pertinent aspects of how the affable team of Liverpudlians enjoyed experimenting with the innovative multi-track recording techniques being employed at the studio. From multiple overdubs and tape splicing, to layering and backward tape loops; from brass bands, Baroque fanfares and piano crescendos, from the use of a harmonium, tabla and tamboura, animal noises and sound effects, to a 41-piece orchestra (not to mention drug-induced atmospherics), the songs had a unity of purpose and concentration of thematic ideas that were unlike anything else on the market.
Though not as experimental as some would like for us to believe — the group had released two earlier efforts of more substantive material, to be found on Rubber Soul and Revolver — Sgt. Pepper went on to become the Beatles’ definitive statement on their keen observations of daily life, as well as the influence of everyday occurrences found in British newspapers of the time, along with fond (and not-so-fond) remembrances of childhood while growing up in postwar England.
The most arresting development for non-initiates was that the songs, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” were grounded in actual locations; that both numbers were planned as part of the original Sgt. Pepper concept. Instead, Capitol Records insisted on releasing the songs as the A- and B-sides of a single. Since the Beatles had stopped touring altogether in August 1966 — for a variety of reasons, including security issues, inability to progress artistically, and plain old exhaustion — they decided to record them for later use. Eventually, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” wound up on their December 1967 Magical Mystery Tour release.
Certainly, if “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” had been integrated at the time into Sgt. Pepper, perhaps reluctant critics might have been quicker to get on the celebratory bandwagon, so to speak. Such as it was, the album continued to attract new converts. Consequently, one must consider this undertaking as a major leap forward in the art of popular music.
Days of “Whine” and Roses
Even more striking — and a clear nod to the yet-to-be-born MTV generation — were the idiosyncratic video representations (in living color, no less) that accompanied the two songs. When I first watched these mini-movies on TV in the mid-sixties, I was clearly confounded by the content. So much so that I feared for the Beatles’ state of mind. The viewer is bombarded with a perplexing array of surreal images and head-scratching visuals that transcend the psychedelic LSD trips of the era into outright weirdness.
As bizarre and outlandish as these videos appeared to their fans, however, it was the altered looks of the Fab Four that drew the most attention. Without advance warning, our Liverpool lads had morphed from the clean-cut, tailor-made young gents they pretended to be (under the tutelage of their manager, Brian Epstein) into the bearded, long-haired British Mod-style pop artistes they had become.
Disclosures such as these, while they tend to be unnerving in the short run, helped to explain the Beatles’ overall songwriting logic. By shedding new light on the creative process, one could spot clues as to the various personality conflicts and clashes with authority figures the boys were unfortunately prone to. Some of the harshest behavior would come from Paul and John toward the members of their group — but reserved especially for themselves. These were evidenced in many of the songs from that period. In order to concentrate on the Beatles’ individual contributions, then, I’d like to focus on several of their biggest hits.
The title of Lennon’s “A Hard Day’s Night” from 1964, for example, was taken from one of Ringo’s frequent malapropisms (“That was a hard day’s night, all right”). Yet the lyrics drove “home” the fact that a working-class stiff such as John would never have amounted to much of anything had he not worked his rear-end off first and foremost, or been forced to do so by others and their specific wants and needs:
It’s been a hard day’s night and I been workin’ like a dog
It’s been a hard day’s night, I should be sleepin’ like a log
But when I get home to you I’ll find the things that you
Will make me feel all right
You know I work all day to get you money to buy you things
And it’s worth it just to hear you say you’re gonna give me everything
So why on earth should I moan, ‘cause when I get you alone
You know I feel OK
When I’m home everything seems to be right
When I’m home feeling you holding me tight, tight, yeah!
Comfort from that certain someone is fine, as far as that goes. For the rich, it’s money in the coffer. For the poor and self-reliant, a loving wife or sweetheart is worth their weight in gold. Whatever gets you through the day, chaps — or the never-ending tour, in Lennon’s case. As long as he gets what he needs at night, at the end of a long and tiring day, “everything seems to be right,” for now.
Things went from bad to worse — or “verse” in this instance, with Lennon’s mammoth hit “Help!” emerging about a year later. Here was the songwriter’s cri du coeur, a “cry from the heart” for aid and comfort that John was forced to utter and that was openly advertised to the world at large:
Help! I need somebody
Help! Almost anybody
Help! You know I need someone
When I was younger, so much younger than today
I never needed anybody’s help in any way
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self-assured
Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors
Help me if you can, I’m feelin’ down
And I do appreciate you being ‘round
Help me get my feet back on the ground
Won’t you please, please help me?
And now my life has changed in oh so many ways
My independence seems to vanish in the haze
But every now and then I feel so insecure
I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before
Whatever happened to John’s youthful exuberance, his pride in his accomplishments and his joie de vivre? Where was that spirit of adventure, of trying out new things, of boldly going where no pop-rock band had gone before? If his independence (and, ergo, his individualism) had vanished in the ensuing haze, what was there left for him to do?
“I really was crying out for help,” Lennon later confessed in that famous 1980 Playboy interview. “I meant it — it’s real. The lyric is as good now as it was then. It is no different, and it makes me feel secure to know that I was aware of myself then. I was just singing ‘help’ and I meant it.” He also preferred to have had the song recorded at a slower pace so as to reflect the seriousness of his situation, but so be it.
As much as Lennon’s life was changing in and around 1965 and beyond, it would change even further in years to come when the Beatles would eventually go their separate ways, and when John took up with Yoko and the avant-garde. The most interesting element going forward, though, was that Lennon returned full-blast to his rock-and-roll roots, which was clearly on his mind in the Beatles’ latter work — specifically, in their final recorded effort, Abbey Road from September 1969.
For me, and for people of my generation, the Abbey Road album is our personal Sgt. Pepper. There is something for everyone on this milestone Apple Records production: quirky word-play and tricky poetics in “Come Together,” all-out hard rock sounds in “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” unfettered soul in “Oh! Darling,” a buoyant sing-along in “Octopus’s Garden,” a jaunty jukebox number in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” two classic forays (by the elusive George Harrison) in “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” lustrous harmonizing by all four of the Beatles in “Because,” and Paul’s extended pop opera (with a little help from former friend John) for pretty much the last 16 minutes.
The songs were laid down amid much strife and squabble. John and Paul were going at each other’s throats full throttle; George felt rejected and under-utilized by both Paul AND John; while the happy-go-lucky Ringo gamely soldiered on, in spite of all the controversy. No two or three Beatles were in the studio at the same time: the backing vocals were recorded separately, for the most part and at varying intervals, to be combined later in the finished cut.
It’s a miracle that anything came out of those sessions, but they did. The recording techniques the Beatles had learned throughout the intervening years had finally “come together” in this, their crowning achievement.
What’s in a Song?
John Lennon wasn’t the only one to have felt the ill effects of fame and fortune, of over-sensitive egos and non-stop touring and concertizing. Those pent-up emotions bubbled over as well into some of his band-mate Paul McCartney’s most inspired output.
On the same album Help!, Paul composed a song that has been covered by more artists worldwide than any other Beatles tune to date. The song, of course, was “Yesterday,” released in September 1965, in which McCartney sang solo while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, with backing by a string quartet (orchestrated by producer George Martin). By way of a self-confessional, Paul chides himself for letting the love of his life slip through his fingers. The essence of the tune basically comes down to “what a dope I was back then”:
Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay
Oh, I believe in yesterday
Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be
There’s a shadow hanging over me
Oh, yesterday came suddenly
Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say
I said something wrong now I long for yesterday
Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play
Now I need a pace to hid away
Oh, I believe in yesterday
Its brooding, melancholy nature, not at all indicative of the cheeriness and unabashed joy abounding in other Beatles hits, made “Yesterday” a singular creation among the group’s oeuvre. The song was so unusual and so un-Beatles-like (it was the first time that a lone member of the group was recorded without the other three) that it caught the ear (and the profit margins) of their British counterparts, the Rolling Stones.
On a side note, the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were not directly influenced by “Yesterday” and its popularity when they penned, together with their manager, Andrew Oldham, the lovely “As Tears Go By” for the 17-year-old Marianne Faithful in 1964.
Similarly, their version of the song, recorded and released as a single in December 1965, also utilized the scoring of string instruments. This suffused the number with a fragile air of poignancy not normally associated with the Stones’ otherwise bluesy arrangements.
The song’s strongest point is its simple and moving lyricism, beautifully phrased by Jagger in softly enunciated cadences:
It is the evening of the day
I sit and watch the children play
Smiling faces I can see
But not for me
I sit and watch
As tears go by
The next stanza is the more telling of the three, in that it expresses a rueful attitude about man’s accumulated wealth that is totally unanticipated, coming as it did from the likes of Jagger and Richards:
My riches can’t buy everything
I want to hear the children sing
All I hear is the sound
Of rain falling on the ground
I sit and watch
As tears go by
The last few verses speak of old age and its inherent wistfulness as we reach that final plateau — something that both these gentlemen, and all of us for that matter, will inevitably have to face:
It is the evening of the day
I sit and watch the children play
Doing things I used to do
They think are new
I sit and watch
As tears go by
Self-reflection is not the kind of methodology one would expect from British rock stars and stone heads of the 1960s. Nevertheless, here it was, in all its starkness.
(End of Part One)
To be continued….
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
What if you went to bed one night with your significant other and woke up the next morning to find that he or she wasn’t exactly the same.
Oh, they may look like the same individual, all right. They even talk, walk, dress, feel, and act like your beloved spouse or relative. But there’s something totally different about them, something you noticed in their eyes. To coin a phrase from a well-known popular song, they’ve lost that “lovin’ feelin’,” that certain gleam, that emotional spark, that intimate connection to you and to past events that tell you your Uncle Joe or Aunt Sarah isn’t the man or woman you thought they were.
The horror and science-fiction genre is privy to all sorts of “what-if-scenarios” such as these. The films of the 1950s were especially prone to invasion theories, of little green men plotting to take over the universe for reasons known only to them. RKO’s The Thing from Another World (1951) told of one such intruder, an advance scout that turned out to be a monstrous blood-sucking “intellectual carrot” with super-human strength and a will to survive at all costs.
In Twentieth Century-Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (also 1951), there were no “space invaders” as such but rather an amiable, cultivated emissary from another planet (played by an equally refined British actor). He wasn’t out to destroy humanity (at least, not yet) but to understand it. In case of trouble, however, this emissary relied on an eight-foot-tall robotic companion — an interplanetary armed guard, if you prefer — to ward off the offenders.
Taking this analogy a step or two further, the one-eyed gelatinous beings of Universal-International’s It Came from Outer Space (1953) were neither conquerors nor destroyers but explorers from a highly-evolved civilization that accidentally crash-land on Earth. Despite their loathsome visage, the aliens’ motives are benign in that they need humanity to help repair their damaged spacecraft so they could return to their peaceful mission.
From the same year, Paramount Pictures released The War of the Worlds, an updated version of H.G. Wells’ Victorian-era novel about those proverbial little green men from Mars. The film took the opposite tack, in that sheer firepower and coordinated attacks, along with a brutal frontline assault, would culminate in total victory. Ah, but those annoying creatures never reckoned with the tiniest of God’s creations: the multitudinous germs and bacteria that inhabit every corner of our planet. Where atomic weapons proved futile in repelling the invaders, infectious disease took over and decimated the Martians’ plans for world domination.
But there were subtler, more insidious methods of conquest yet to be explored. For example, what if you could merge the “alien invasion” picture with a more restrained, less blatant approach — in other words, the humans you are trying to take over would never know they were being taken over?
This is the premise for one of the most chilling, most hallucinatory sci-fi features to have come along in many a decade: producer Walter Wanger and director Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956, distributed by Allied Artists Pictures.
The story, adapted from Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, involves an alien life form that assumes the innocuous shape of seeds. What’s so terrible about that? Nothing at all, really — until those same outer-space seeds plant themselves in a farmer’s field somewhere in Southern California. From there, the seeds grow into giant pods that slowly and sinisterly take over the minds and bodies of whoever happens to be around. Once the victims fall asleep, the “pod people” complete their transformation and dispose of the original body.
Such a preposterous idea could have easily been turned into a campy, low-budget frolic with schlocky special effects and over-the-top performances. In the hands of the gifted Don Siegel, however, Invasion of the Body Snatchers became a bona-fide classic of the science-fiction/body horror genre.
The setting is a sleepy fictionalized town known as Santa Mira. One of its inhabitants, Dr. Miles Bennell (lantern-jawed Kevin McCarthy), is a general practitioner just returned from a medical convention. His nurse, Sally Withers (Jean Willes), greets him at the train station to convey the news that the town is in the grip of a mass hysteria. Miles’ office is full of patients who demand to see him and only him. Upon further inquiry, Miles is informed that various individuals have reported that the person they live with, or confide in on a regular basis, is not that person.
After a day of this dilemma, the anxious patients have all cancelled their appointments and the crisis (whatever it was) appears to have been averted. Once Miles gets settled in, he reconnects with lost love Becky Driscoll (winsome Dana Wynter), fresh from a trip to Reno for a quickie divorce. Becky calls on Miles in his office to report that her cousin Wilma (Virginia Christine) swears up and down that her dear old Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) isn’t Uncle Ira.
A quick stop at Wilma’s place and a talk with Uncle Ira do little to alleviate her concerns. Still, Miles manages to convince the distressed Wilma to see a psychiatrist friend of his, Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates). It’s possible, in Dan’s later clear-eyed appraisal, that the stresses of modern life may have forced the townspeople to escape from reality. Hmm…
While Miles and Becky go off to rekindle their former relationship, they each take notice of peculiar departures from Santa Mira’s normal routine. For instance, that evening the couple goes out to dine at their favorite dance hall and restaurant. But instead of a crowded gathering, the establishment is curiously empty except for the maître d’.
Earlier on, Miles and Nurse Sally drive by an abandoned vegetable stand. The month before, “it was the cleanest and busiest stand on the road,” but now it was boarded up and littered with debris.
There are similar lines of dialogue spoken throughout the picture, minor references and random, off-the-cuff observations that elucidate the plot for viewers in subtle, indirect ways. Taken as a whole, when you’ve re-watched the film (as this author has) after so many years of neglect, you begin to notice, as the characters themselves do, that something is terribly out of kilter from the start.
More samples of what we are driving at: Becky Driscoll’s entry into the story via her spur-of-the-moment visit to Miles’ office. She’s been living in England for the past few years. “It’s wonderful to be home again,” she confides to him, but quickly adds, “I’ve been away so long …. I feel almost like a stranger in my own country.” She’s not joking.
Then there’s little Jimmy Grimaldi, who thinks his mother isn’t really his mother. Miles gives him a sedative, a pill to drive away the demons from his young mind. “Open your mouth. Shut your eyes,” he orders. “In the words of the poet … I’ll give you something to make you wise.” Make him “wise”? Not exactly, but certainly more complacent — a metaphor for what will happen in time to the town’s population as a whole.
At roughly 80 minutes, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a taut little film, with nary a wasted moment or superfluous occurrence anywhere. Everything is held together (and remains that way) thanks to a tidy screenplay by veteran mystery and film-noir writer Daniel Mainwaring (Out of the Past, The Big Steal). There are noticeable noir strictures to be noted and followed, including the perfunctory narration (by Kevin McCarthy), the ominous black-and-white cinematography (courtesy of Ellsworth Fredericks), the crisply-edited footage (Robert S. Eisen), and the creepy musical score (by Carmen Dragon).
And true to the genre itself, Miles and Becky tease each other good-naturedly with quips and innuendos about the ups and downs of marriage and divorce. They also reminisce about being back together:
“I wish you didn’t have to go home for dinner,” Miles states emphatically.
“I don’t,” Becky counters. “Dad’s eating out with a friend.”
“I could pick you up at seven,” Miles hints to her.
“Well … It’s summer, and the moon is full. ‘I know a bank …’”
“… ‘Where the wild thyme grows’,” Miles completes the phrase, and then adds, “You haven’t changed a bit.”
Not yet she hasn’t.
That line about “the moon is full” is an obvious allusion to werewolves, who convert to vicious fiends once the moon is out and bright. It’s a none-too-subtle clue of the horror to come, except there are no rapacious night creatures, only deadly dull, emotionless carbon copies of former loved ones.
The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters
Miles and Becky meet up with Dan Kauffman, the resident analyst, who comments on the epidemic of mass hysteria that has taken hold of Santa Mira. He’s got a full plate on his hands, and just as many explanations for what’s been happening around town. Kauffman is that person of stature who appears in all these science-fiction flicks of the Fifties, the one individual whose sole function is to explain to the audience what the heck is going on.
Hardly satisfied with Dan’s rationale, Miles takes Becky home. It is evening and the lights are out. In silhouette, Becky muses on the strangeness of what’s been occurring to the citizens of her hometown.
“Let’s hope we don’t catch it,” Miles jokes in response. In mock serious tones, he discloses, “I’d hate to wake up some morning and find out you weren’t you.” Prophetic words, indeed!
Towards the end, Becky and Miles are treated as fugitives from justice (another film-noir conceit) in their attempts to get away from the encroaching mob of pod people out to prevent the couple from alerting the outside world to their presence. Panic, paranoia, and suspicion cloud Miles’ judgment, as they do Becky’s and their friends, Jack (King Donovan) and Teddy Belicec (Carolyn Jones). No one can be trusted: it’s neighbor against neighbor, and relative against relative, until eventually the entirety of Santa Mira has been taken over by alien pods.
One of the scariest sequences occurs in Jack’s home, where he and wife Teddy, along with Miles and Becky, witness the pods’ literal transformation into lifelike replicas of (gasp!) themselves. It’s a genuinely unsettling moment: before their eyes, the lineless facial features and bubbling torsos begin to take shape. Destroying the bodies with a pitchfork and setting the corpses on fire, Miles tries to alert the FBI of the danger, but is thwarted when he realizes the phone offices have been usurped by the pod people, as have the police department and everywhere else. The friends flee for their lives but vow to meet up again in town.
Escaping to his medical office (a place that’s supposed to cure people of whatever it is that ails them), Miles and Becky hide out there temporarily, awaiting Jack’s return. They go down a long and narrow corridor, which heightens the feeling of claustrophobia. The walls are closing in around them — and fast. Prior to this, their attempt to enlist Sally in their cause backfires when Miles sees her take one of the seedpods up to her baby’s bedroom. The chase is on, as the police issue an all-points-bulletin to apprehend and detain the couple.
A comparable scene takes place near the end, where Becky and Miles are seeking shelter in a cave near the outskirts of town. They hide from their pursuers in an old mineshaft, placing wooden floorboards on top as they squish inside an empty hole in the ground. It’s tantamount to a gravesite, of being in one’s coffin or burial plot. While the mob runs over them, completely unmindful of where they’re hiding, the lovers cower just below the pursuers’ feet. It’s a real nail-biter of a sequence.
We, the viewer, can feel their unease, since the camera has followed the couple inside that dark, damp hole. But it only provides a temporary shelter. The sense of eeriness about this episode is elevated tenfold by the skewed camera angle and the intensity of the mob’s footsteps. When they’re finally alone, they leave the hole. Miles and Becky have either risen to new life as purposeless ciphers or reached the end of the line. Which is it?
Hints as to what’s in store for our heroes abound throughout the story. When later cousin Wilma encounters Miles in the street, she tells him she no longer needs a shrink. “I woke up this morning, and everything was all right.” She goes back inside her store and flips the sign on the door from “Open” to “Closed” — permanently, I’d venture to say. There’ll be no more need for work. No more ambition, no more striving to better oneself. No practicing of one’s profession, and no call for personal fulfillment. Existence is its own reward, and the pursuit of happiness can be stricken from our vocabulary.
Released in the 2.00:1 aspect ratio (in this instance, called Superscope), Invasion of the Body Snatchers was originally conceived by director Siegel to be in the standard 1.33:1 ratio. But the distributor, Allied Artists, insisted on the wider screen size, possibly to attract movie viewers used to CinemaScope, VistaVision, and other such formats.
Allied Artists also requested that Siegel provide an expository prologue and epilogue to the production. Both Siegel and producer Wanger argued in favor of keeping things the way they were, with nothing bookending the completed film. However, they lost the argument and a quickie prologue and epilogue were added. These were set inside a hospital emergency ward, where a supposedly “insane” Miles Bennell is confronted by the attending physician (Richard Deacon) and the hospital’s skeptical shrink (Whit Bissell). Consequently, the tale is told in flashback from here on.
Either way you slice it, the film works on many levels — with or without those appended sequences. While there is no “happy ending” as such, most viewers come away with the hopeful conclusion that maybe — just maybe — the invasion can be foiled. And that somehow, the long-suffering Miles will at last be vindicated.
The long-held notion that Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a cautionary tale against Communist encroachment, i.e. the so-called Red Scare menace, has not always held up over time. Sure, the U.S. had undergone years of House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, along with the ensuing Communist witch hunts, and accusatory fingers pointed at the movie industry. Once the McCarthy hearings had blown over, however, the dust settled to reveal that Siegel had not explicitly set out to capture those sentiments in his film, at least not overtly.
While not part of the director’s original concept, the themes of conformity and uniformity in 1950s North American life can be viewed as relevant to the main issue. Nowadays, diversity and multiculturalism are the “buzz words” that tend to dominate the conversation, although you would never know it by our highly-charged and exceedingly politicized atmosphere. That the film has resonance for our day is proof enough of its status as a timeless classic.
Here are some things to look for on your next viewing of this archetypal sci-fi flick: pay close attention to the shadows and darkness that slowly engulf the town of Santa Mira; make note of the studied calmness of the so-called pod people; take notice as well of background noises in Miles’ basement and elsewhere; and look quickly for Charlie, the meter reader, played by future film director Sam Peckinpah in a bit part.
More importantly, make yourself aware that the closer Miles and Becky get to one another as a loving couple, the farther apart they will seem relative to their “inhuman” counterparts. As at the beginning of the drama, everything appears to be normal and humdrum; people continue about their business except when those delivery trucks ride into town to deliver more seedpods to all comers. Observe for yourself how quickly they disseminate the pods to every town and village within the Los Angeles vicinity, and within a relatively short time. That’s chaos theory in action!
Remember, too, Miles’ look of utter despair — his expression of absolute shock and bewilderment at the realization that his beloved is now one of “them.” His earlier warning about waking up one day to find that Becky is no longer Becky comes back to haunt him in one of those rare cinematic moments of discovery, an indelible scene that’s sure to send shivers down your spine. There is nothing left for poor Miles to do but run away, right out onto the highway, to inform others of the nightmare that awaits them in sleepy Santa Mira.
When last we see him, Miles stands in the middle of oncoming traffic, spouting the words of a crazed mystic, a male Cassandra that nobody listens to: “You fools! You’re in danger! Can’t you see? They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next! You’re next …”
This is straight out of the school of nihilistic thought. Aren’t you glad you were warned?
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
‘Star Wars,’ the Original Series (Part Six): ‘The Empire Strikes Back, Episode V’ — Finding Your Roots
Stuck in a Rut
Inside the asteroid, the Millennium Falcon and its passengers appear to be safe from the Galactic Empire’s battle cruisers and search vessels. Still experiencing problems with the hyperdrive, Han Solo tells Chewbacca to take the garrulous C-3PO, whom he flippantly calls “professor,” out back to uncover what the problem is with their spacecraft.
Rocked by violent shudders, Princess Leia falls into Solo’s lap. He seems to be enjoying the ride. On the other hand, Leia continues to toss curt comments at him.
“Sorry, sweetheart,” Han remarks (in a lighthearted, Humphrey Bogart moment). “We haven’t got time for anything else.” As if all that’s on Leia’s mind is to sit and chat with the “space scoundrel.”
A few scenes later, the Princess is in the midst of repairing one of the valves on the vessel, when she strains her hand trying to turn a lever. Luckily for her, big strong Solo is there to give her aid and comfort. Taking her dainty palm in his, Han makes his move. He plants a kiss on her mouth and the two are locked in a passionate exchange. The space pirate and the Princess, together and alone at last! Or are they?
“Sir, sir!” cries 3PO. “I’ve isolated the reverse power coupling!” Great news indeed, but not to Han: “Thank you. Thank you very much …” He shows the “professor” the door, but keeps his eye on Leia as she retreats.
In the next scene, we are on board the Imperial Star Destroyer. Admiral Piett enters to inform Darth Vader they are receiving a transmission from the Emperor himself. And Vader’s presence has been requested. Vader orders the Admiral to pull out of the asteroid field for a clear transmission.
In the revised “Special Edition” of The Empire Strikes Back, the scene with Lord Vader and the Emperor is different from that of the original 1980 screening. For one, the actor who embodied the Evil Emperor in the earlier version (Elaine Baker, with the voice of British-born Clive Revill) has been replaced by Ian McDiarmid, who played the bug-eyed, pock-marked Emperor in Return of the Jedi and in the three subsequent prequels. For another, the dialogue has been extended to include the lines, “Search your feelings, Lord Vader. You will know it to be true,” which, depending on your point of view, either foreshadows Vader’s entreaties to Young Skywalker as he dangles for dear life from one of the destroyer’s walkways, or gives the game away entirely.
Some may feel (as this author does) that echoing those lines at this stage of the drama destroys the power of Vader’s speech later on. The original encounter was more cryptic, more subtle, and less overt, while this bit of dialogue is way too specific. Searching for continuity, perhaps executive producer George Lucas (who assigned the directing duties of Episode V to Irvin Kershner) decided to substitute McDiarmid after the fact. There’s another reason that I can think of, namely his obsessive compulsion to tinker with the product. He just can’t leave well enough alone.
Verily, I tell you, there is indeed “a great disturbance in the Force.”
Bring Out the Welcome Mat
There is a screen wipe to the next scene of the interior of the little creature Yoda’s house. (Luke does not yet realize who this tiny figure is). Puttering about his living room, the wrinkly green alien with the fuzzy exterior and wizened expression tries to distract Luke’s mind from his quest by plying him with chow. But Luke keeps insisting that he take him to meet Yoda. And how does this little fellow know so much about him, anyway?
In exasperation, Yoda lets it escape that because of his lack of patience he cannot teach the boy the ways of the Force. A portentous voice now makes its presence felt. It is Obi-Wan Kenobi, back from the dead. His disembodied tone reverberates inside Yoda’s hut.
“He will learn patience.”
“Much anger in him,” is Yoda’s reply. With every thrust that Obi-Wan makes, Yoda counters with a riposte of his own. “He is not ready. He is too old,” et cetera, et cetera, and so forth. Luke, of course, will have none of this. Why, the very reason he’s on the bog planet Dagobah is to learn all about the Jedi. But after Yoda’s tirade, he appears to soften his stance against Luke.
Luke thinks he can sway the Jedi Master into accepting him as an apprentice. “I won’t fail you,” Luke persists. Then he adds, “I’m not afraid.” To this Yoda narrows his squinty little eyes before he responds with, “Oh, you will be …. You will be …..” His voice trails off.
Fear is the ultimate teacher of the young and the naïve.
Back at the asteroid, the Millennium Falcon’s crew is perturbed by a mynock invasion — large bat-like creatures that chew on the power cables. Exploring the crater’s surface, Han and Leia realize they are on unstable ground and without delay flee the asteroid. Just in time, too! For lo, this is no cave, folks, but a gigantic space slug or worm beast! Shades of Frank Herbert’s Dune saga, which Lucas must surely have paid belated homage to in this brief FX sequence.
On Dagobah, Yoda has Luke going through his Jedi training routine — mostly, the physical aspects of same: running, jumping, dodging. You know, a makeshift obstacle course in the bog. In between flips, Yoda fires off a series of sagacious observations about the dark side being quicker, easier, and more seductive. “Anger … fear … aggression.” All that negative “bad” stuff. Luke pesters him with queries, which Yoda brushes off, telling him to clear his mind of questions.
Suddenly, a strange feeling overcomes Luke. The bog grows cold. Death is in the air. Phantoms from the past begin to gnaw at both Master and student. Yoda warns his pupil about this place, which is “strong with the dark side of the Force. A domain of evil it is,” in that reverse cadence of his. He also cautions Luke to go in and explore it.
“What’s in there?” Luke inquires.
“Only what you take with you.”
In this extraordinary sequence George Lucas, along with screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and the late Leigh Brackett, have successfully recreated that mythological moment where the hero’s journey begins. He must leave the safety of his abode and face up to his greatest fears. It’s Mime telling the young Siegfried to go slay the dragon Fafner. It’s St. George riding to the rescue on his white charger (well, not exactly). The forest is the symbol of the unknown, which is the precise place where Luke must confront his demons — his inner self, to be exact — before his training can continue.
The atmosphere is thick with a primeval mystery. Jungian archetypes prevail and abound. There are huge slithering snakes on branches. A monitor lizard flicks its forked tongue at us. In the episode that follows, Luke enters a dark cave and beheads the formidable figure of Lord Vader. As the smoke clears, it is HIS face that we see, not that of the dreaded Dark Lord of the Sith. What does this say about where the saga is going? And what does it reveal about Luke himself?
A quick cut to Jedi Master Yoda, a solitary figure, alone with his thoughts. What must he be thinking? Yoda sighs audibly.
Money for Your Troubles
In a flash, we are back on board the Imperial Star Destroyer. Vader gives a pep talk to a gathering of bounty hunters, including the inexorable Boba Fett. A “substantial reward” awaits the person who can find the Millennium Falcon. You will note that Boba Fett (originally portrayed by Jeremy Bulloch, with vocals by Jason Wingreen) is now voiced by New Zealand actor Temuera Morrison, the same fellow who physically embodied Boba’s poppa, Jango Fett, in Episode II: Attack of the Clones (and the model for all those clones), as well as Commander Cody in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
Emerging unscathed from the asteroid field, Han, Leia, Chewie and 3PO find that their ship still lacks light-speed maneuverability (what gives with that darn hyperdrive?). Still, through some clever tactics Han is able to avoid detection by hiding the Millennium Falcon behind one of the huge Star Destroyers.
Alas, the skipper of the Star Destroyer, Captain Needa, has to “apologize” to Lord Vader for losing track of the craft. He meets the same sorry fate as Admiral Ozzel did. Oh, and Vader has “accepted” his apology. What a sweet guy!
Switching back to Dagobah, Luke has resumed his Jedi training, to include levitating the surrounding rocks and other objects (R2 among them). When he attempts to float his downed X-wing fighter out of the muddy lake, Luke loses his concentration and the fighter sinks ever deeper into the slime.
Yoda berates Luke for his defeatist attitude. “Try not. Do. Or not do. There is no try.” The Master’s words are lost on young Skywalker. There’s only one thing to do, and that’s for Yoda to show the boy how it’s done. He brings the fighter out of the swamp and onto dry land (or as dry as this mud-hole can get). The Force is strong with this one! Yoda’s characteristic musical theme resounds prominently on the soundtrack.
Luke cannot believe his eyes. “That is why you fail,” answers Master Yoda, after taking a long, drawn-out breath. “Judge me not by my size,” Yoda scolded him prior to achieving this nearly impossible feat. The jig is up, as it were. Luke now recognizes, from here on end, that he must put up or shut up. If this puny pint-sized runt can do what he just did, then there is hope for this disbelieving whippersnapper. There had better be, or the saga will end before it has begun.
As the Imperial Fleet begins to break apart, Han and Leia calculate their next move, which is to accompany the discarded trash and float away into deep space. They are unaware of Boba Fett’s craft, which follows the Millennium Falcon as it whisks off to the Bespin mining colony. Han is (or was) friendly with the administrator of the colony, one Lando Calrissian, a fellow scoundrel and shifty space pirate who may provide them with safe haven.
“Can you trust him?” asks Leia pointedly.
“No,” claims Solo. “But he has no love for the Empire, I can tell you that.” Satisfied with himself, Han leans back in his command chair. Leia plants a kiss on the side of his face, sealing the bargain.
Is there true honor among thieves? We’ll soon find out ….
(End of Part Six… To be continued….)
Transcript of dialogue from the original screenplay by Leigh Brackett, revised by Lawrence Kasdan and taken from the novel by George Lucas
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
A solitary figure toting a large suitcase is seen braving the English countryside’s wintry weather. He hesitates for a moment before entering the Lion’s Head Inn in the village of Ipping. Upon opening the door, he startles a group of patrons inside with his peculiar looks and detached deportment. They recoil from him as he slowly approaches the bar.
Sporting dark goggles, a false nose, and a thoroughly bandaged head, the visitor insists to the innkeeper, Mr. Hall, on renting a room. “I want to be left alone, and undisturbed,” he later intones. If curiosity killed the cat, it certainly had a similar effect on the villagers, who gossip among themselves about the visitor’s secretive ways.
Bursting in unexpectedly on the stranger as he’s having his supper, the proprietress of the inn, Jenny Hall, makes note of an unusual facial feature: there’s nothing there expect empty space! “He must’ve been in some horrible accident,” she mutters.
A week goes by and the stranger continues to hole up in his room. In fact, he’s transformed the space into a chemist’s laboratory! Some humorous asides ensue between Mr. and Mrs. Hall. She insists that her husband take up the overdue bill, but he hesitates. “Let him cool off first,” he suggests. Nothing doing! She gives her husband an ultimatum: either the stranger goes or she goes.
Mr. Hall rudely interrupts the stranger and tells him to pack up his belongings and get out. Pleading with the man that he’s the victim of an unfortunate accident, Griffin begs to be left alone. But his pleas fall on deaf ears. Unfortunately for Mr. Hall, the stranger throws the poor man down a flight of stairs. This drives the proprietress Mrs. Hall to a fit of hysterics as the other patrons go in search of a policeman.
It soon becomes apparent that the stranger, whose name is Dr. Jack Griffin, has a deeper affliction: a chemist by profession, Griffin has been searching in vain for a way back from his invisibility.
Although Boris Karloff was originally touted to star (he turned down the part of Griffin due to salary issues and the lack of “screen presence”), the 44-year-old British actor Claude Rains made a successful first impression on audiences in his American motion picture “debut” (in a manner of speaking) with this fascinating film version of H.G. Wells’ 1897 science fiction novella.
The Invisible Man is the ultimate mad-scientist-on-the-loose epic to end all epics, with enough megalomaniacal dialogue (“Power to rule, to make the world grovel at my feet!” and “We’ll begin with a reign of terror. A few murders here and there. Murders of big men, murders of little men — just to show we make no distinction!”) and ironic twists of dark humor (“Here we go gathering nuts in May on a cold and frosty morning!”) to satisfy any sci-fi addict.
What made this feature so memorable, after all, were the astounding special effects for the period (the work of FX specialist John P. Fulton, along with John J. Mescall and Frank D. Williams), painstakingly done with plaster models, mattes, process photography, and double exposures. There were times when the lead actor had to dress from head to toe in thick, black velvet, as well as endure being smothered in plaster casts, in order for the invisibility effect to register on film. When Rains, as Dr. Griffin, takes off the bandages that bind his head and face, he reveals … absolutely nothing. Top that, Industrial Light and Magic!
There are innumerable feats of legerdemain throughout the production, but none of them could stand a ghost of a chance at sci-fi posterity were it not for Rains’ unequalled vocal performance. By voice and body alone, Rains managed to do the impossible by investing the character of the ambitious scientist, on the verge of an earth-shattering discovery, with a huge measure of sympathy for his plight. Some may complain that his acting is over the top, that it’s theatrical and overly melodramatic. But I ask, how else would one play a delusional megalomaniac if not to the crowd?
Griffin is our modern-day Dr. Frankenstein (and part Mummy), with one major difference: he’s experimented on himself instead of a test subject. His inability to undo what he has wrought brings about his transformation into a homicidal, power-hungry fiend, obsessed with wielding his dictatorial rule over mankind to the detriment of those he holds most dear.
So pitifully poor in wealth and background, Griffin had nothing to offer his sweetheart, Flora Cranley. That is, until he stumbled upon the formula that would forever alter his universe: a powerful mind-altering drug called monocaine (a possible pseudonym for morphine), which renders its subject invisible while leaving behind a warped personality.
His scenes with the desperate Flora are pitiable in their futility: she realizes he has gone completely insane, but is helpless to dissuade him from his murderous path; while he, like an impatient child, can only rock back and forth in his chair, seeking solace and relief where none can be had. Grasping at his forehead, Griffin mouths his contempt for humanity and its weaknesses. He is incapable of accepting the truth of what Flora has to reveal, that the drug has altered his soul and his being. Won’t he let her father help him? Not a chance!
Griffin goes on a murder spree, first throttling a policeman to death, next sabotaging a speedy train, and then sending his former assistant, Dr. Kemp, over the side of a cliff for betraying him to the police. In the end, alone and doomed by his lust for power, Griffin is shot and captured by his pursuers. On his deathbed, the invisibility begins to fade, revealing the real man behind the bandages: calm, serene, and finally at peace.
Directed by James Whale, who also worked on the previous Universal hit Frankenstein (1931), the film was another of the studio’s highpoints in the expanding list of classic monster movies. Whale pointed his camera high above the ceiling for the scene where the British bobby (E.E. Clive) and townspeople climb the stairs to Griffin’s room. For others, he kept the focus low and to the ground which made Griffin loom physically larger and more menacing (Rains was famously short of stature), as well as rail from on high about conquering the world. Less dependent on the techniques of German Expressionism than either Frankenstein (1931) or its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Invisible Man spawned numerous sequels and imitators, none of which scaled the heights of the original.
Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr., the picture co-starred the lovely Gloria Stuart (The Old Lady in James Cameron’s Titanic) as Griffin’s fiancée Flora, William Harrigan as his treacherous assistant Dr.Kemp, and Henry Travers (the angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life) as Flora’s father and Griffin’s employer, Dr. Cranley, along with the excitable Una O’Connor as Jenny Hall, Forrester Harvey as Herbert Hall, Dudley Diggs as the Chief Detective, and E.E. Clive as Constable Jaffers. Others in the cast include the dependable Dwight Frye as a reporter, John Carradine (under the pseudonym Peter Richmond), and Walter Brennan.
The screenplay is credited to R.C. Sheriff, who wrote the play Journey’s End, which kicked off Whale’s stage career in 1928 and that also took him to New York. Whale later directed the screen version of the play.
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes