Joe Pesci

‘When the Legend Becomes Fact’ — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Three): ‘JFK’ and the Gospel According to Oliver Stone

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President Kennedy & First Lady Jackie in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963 (Photo: AP)

So Let It Be Rewritten

Returning to the topic of history on film — and specifically to the three-hour+ director’s cut of JFK (1991), written and directed by filmmaker, author and lecturer Oliver Stone — let’s look at several scenes from the movie that highlight a particular point I have lately uncovered.

That point happens to be the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the subsequent investigation into his untimely death not only by the Warren Commission, which issued their findings in a detailed and largely discredited report (in the film that is, not in real life), but also by the sham conspiracy trial of a shifty New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw.

In the movie, this forlorn, effeminate soul (portrayed on screen by Tommy Lee Jones in a short curly-blond wig) is the central figure in an elaborately conceived, highly convoluted plot to kill the president for an untold and ever-expanding number of reasons. It juxtaposes the slippery personality of Shaw with the upright, upstanding district attorney Earling Carothers “Jim” Garrison (Kevin Costner), also of New Orleans — a classic Hollywood setup, the confrontation of “good” versus “evil”: the advocate for “truth, justice and the American way” against the perpetrator of sinister plots.

What struck me, while watching the film again after so many years removed from its original viewing date, was Stone’s allegorical representation of the dedicated D.A. Garrison as a firebrand, a modern-day St. Peter or St. Paul (he could go either way , really), working alongside his “crack” team of investigators embodying the eleven remaining Apostles.

The same could be said of the other participants in the drama, including the secretive “X” (Donald Sutherland), a character based, according to Stone, on several real-life military figures, specifically Col. L. Fletcher Prouty or a composite of the same. There’s New Orleans Assistant D.A. Bill Broussard (Michael Rooker) who slowly but surely loses faith in what Garrison is preaching. And Garrison’s long-suffering wife, Liz (Sissy Spacek), who basically whines about her husband’s neglect of her and their children throughout the entirety of the picture.

The real Jim Garrison — stoic, cold and tall of stature — makes for a ghostly cameo as Chief Justice Earl Warren when he interviews a sweaty, tension-filled Jack Ruby (Brian Doyle-Murray), in prison for the slaying of Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman). In the film, and in real life, Ruby died of complications shortly after being granted a retrial for the assassin’s murder.

Chief Justice Earl Warren (Jim Garrison) grilling Jack Ruby (Brian Doyle-Murray) in Oliver Stone’s JFK

In the extended scenes tacked on to the film, Stone allows for fearful interpretations by Jack Lemmon as gumshoe Jack Martin and a vicious Ed Asner as Guy Bannister, a key member of the team that conspiracy theorists claim included government officials at the highest conceivable level (all the way up to then-Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, if my reading of their theory is correct). This, along with numerous unexplained deaths of various and sundry participants, discredited witnesses, muddled motivations, etc., and so forth, form the backbone of what turns out to be a paranoid’s worst nightmare.

Indeed, there is a veritable narrative mess at Garrison’s summation. The conclusions he draws at trial have no basis in verifiable fact and are hinged purely on conjecture. The case against Shaw and the deceased David Ferrie (a super-hyper Joe Pesci), who died under “suspicious” circumstances, we are shown, is dismissed and a mistrial is declared. The real villains are set free, to be let loose on unsuspecting and freedom-loving citizens, their “crimes” against the public trust going unpunished.

The Christ Connection

As strange as it may seem, Stone took as his model not so much history as hagiography. His main sources for JFK remain Garrison’s book, On the Trail of the Assassins, as well as Crossfire: The Plot that Killed President Kennedy by Jim Marrs. But the source that has gone unmentioned in most movie reviews is the Holy Bible. Stone based his fictional account of the investigation into Kennedy’s death on the Acts of the Apostles, notably the follow-up to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and the subsequent fate of His Disciples as seen through Garrison’s eyes.

Indeed, all the characters have their corresponding associations with personages from the New Testament, i.e. the various gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. In addition to which, the movie asks audiences to take a giant leap of faith as the crusading lawyer and champion of righteous causes, Jim Garrison, confronts the villainous cretins in court.

One of the prosecutors, Broussard, is called “Judas” for his desertion to the other side. It’s every man for himself in the end, with Kennedy (the Christ-like figure par excellence) dying so that others might believe that he was pursuing the “good work” in preventing the military-industrial complex from taking over the U.S. government.

President Kennedy is treated as the elusive Messiah — and despite his reputation with the ladies, a basically good and decent man undone by his political adversaries whose agenda ran counter to his own. That agenda, in the screenplay according to Mr. Stone, involved Kennedy’s plan to scale back the American military’s commitment to wage war wherever and whenever it felt the need. In the movie, the commitment was to Vietnam.

In today’s world, what with all the turbulence the Trump Administration has been experiencing of late and with ever-escalating theories about collusion with the Russians and such, perhaps Stone’s crackpot viewpoint is not so farfetched after all.

Still, the very notions JFK interjected into the conversation and espoused when the film was originally released — and onto which historians have poured their most extensive research into debunking — practically beg to be reconsidered anew in light of current situations. The very thought of a mass conspiracy on an unprecedented scale was unthinkable then, and remains so to this day. Yet, the idea that LBJ, the FBI, the CIA, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were in cahoots in a plot to assassinate the president of the United States can only be the stuff of Shakespearean drama.

To reiterate, District Attorney Garrison, by default, was either Peter or Paul, depending on the filmmaker’s whim and as dictated by the needs of the screenplay. He is a defender of the faith as well as a detractor of the faithless (down to his own wife), an apologist and an instigator, but ultimately a true believer. However, Garrison and his team must operate behind closed doors, much as the Apostles did when they went into hiding after Christ’s demise. Their mission: to prove that Kennedy/Christ was killed for the wrong reasons; that his memory will be preserved in their work and in the work of others; and that the Kennedy/Christ legacy can live on in the “retelling” of the story — that is, in the newly formed Gospel of JFK, as told by Oliver Stone — for generations to come.

Oliver Stone writing JFK (Photo: Elizabeth Stone)

One thing the movie got right was its use of the complete 8mm Zapruder film, which was shown for the first time at Clay Shaw’s 1969 trial for conspiracy and murder (with LBJ and company cited as “accessories after the fact”). The film all-but embraces, with good reason, what critic David Thomson emphasized as “rampant paranoia.” It attempts to connect Dwight D. Eisenhower’s historic warning about the “military-industrial complex” with Kennedy’s death, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and the rising Communist threat in Southeast Asia, along with JFK’s arrival in Dallas (an allegorical allusion to Christ’s “triumphant” entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday).

Actual newsreel footage is shown of the young president in his prime with his alluring First Lady Jackie, who carries a bouquet of red roses (flowers associated with the Virgin Mary) on that fateful November 22nd day in 1963; this is juxtaposed with black-and-white recreations of alleged incidents in the JFK narrative, credited to director Stone and journalist and teacher Zachary Sklar. We then see a brief portion of the Zapruder film and hear broadcaster Walter Cronkite’s breathless reporting of the assassination.

Cut to Garrison in his office and Cronkite’s teary-eyed pronouncement of Kennedy’s passing. Flashes of Lee Harvey Oswald’s face attach him to the murder. Garrison and his staff are gathered in the office, surrounded by law books — i.e., the Apostles, none of whom were present at Christ’s crucifixion, at the first gathering after His death, among the books of the Old Testament which attest to their authority on the matter.

Jim Garrison & his team of lawyers (Wayne Knight in foreground) in the law library

The law library stands as an equivalent monument to the rule of law, the symbol of our government, of the courageous men and women dedicated to the unvarnished truth and the ways of attaining that truth, no matter the cost to their reputation or personal integrity. They are “witnesses” after the fact of Kennedy’s death; they see Oswald’s execution by Jack Ruby, as Kennedy’s funeral procession flashes by before them (and us).

Next, there is the announcement of the Warren Commission. Three years later, in November 1966, we flash forward to where LBJ “seeks $9 billion in extra war funds,” as seen in the headlines of the Washington Post. Little tidbits of information are intercut into the narrative, raising suspicions about minor events, those so-called “unusual occurrences” that “don’t add up,” such as the clean-cut, clean-shaven vagrants arrested the day of the assassination.

The three lawyers, Garrison, Broussard and Lou Ivon (Jay O. Sanders), meet in Lafayette Square in New Orleans. They remark on the proximity to one another of several government office buildings: the Office of Naval Affairs (which is now the U.S.P.O.), the Office of Naval Intelligence, the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service — all in one plaza and inviting comparisons to Biblical claims of propinquity with regard to Pontius Pilate’s palace, King Herod’s abode, the Council of the San Hedrin, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, and Calvary.

Broussard (Michael Rooker), Garrison (Kevin Costner) & Lou (Jay O. Sanders) meet at Lafayette Square, New Orleans, in JFK

The Greatest Story Never Told

During the first third of Stone’s Passion Play, people come forward and state their case — they give testimony, to put it plainly, about what they saw and heard, adding to the available source material as hearsay evidence, or supposed “eyewitness testimony.” The sweaty, porcine physiognomy of shady lawyer Dean Andrews Jr. (comic John Candy in dark shades, naturally) discusses his refusal to act as Oswald’s defense counsel over dinner with a skeptical Garrison.

After further inquiries, Garrison and his group unite with two or three other colleagues over a noontime meal to talk among themselves about the hoboes that were arrested. Assistant D.A. Susie Cox (Laura Metcalf) joins the boys. She is the official record keeper of events, the Mary Magdalene model and transcriber of the spoken word. It is here that Oswald is talked about as the prime suspect by default due to the plethora of contradictory information swirling about him.

This extended restaurant sequence serves the purpose of questioning whether Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in carrying out his crime (the notorious “Lone Gunman” theory) or in conjunction with other co-conspirators.

In the next scene, we are privy to a recreation of eyewitness accounts of what several individuals claim to have seen at Dealy Plaza — i.e., Calgary, or Golgotha (“the place of the Skull”), where our Kennedy/Christ personage died. Smoke rises from the grassy knoll; a man with an umbrella is spotted; there are shadowy figures behind a fence; a pickup truck is mysteriously provided by the Secret Service; and the man behind the wheel of that truck is none other than low-level mobster Jack Ruby before he killed Oswald.

Kennedy & Jackie, with Texas Governor John Connelly at Dealy Plaza

Four to six shots ring out from behind a picket fence. It is here, after these tragic events take place, that a grim-faced Chief Justice Warren (ironically, the real-life Jim Garrison) interrogates jailbird Jack Ruby behind bars, a soon-to-be-martyred victim to the “cause.”

All these pop culture references have been interspersed throughout the picture in order to plant myriad seeds of doubt in the viewer’s mind as to what actually transpired before, during and after Kennedy’s death. These and similar scenes will recur at preordained junctures.

We are then taken to the Texas Book Depository building that overlooks Dealy Plaza (the proverbial “scene of the crime”). Ivon and Garrison will attempt to recreate Oswald’s dastardly deed with the use of a replica of the infamous 6.5mm caliber Carcano Model 91/38 rifle. Their conclusion: it would be impossible, even for an experienced marksman, to accurately fire off three consecutive shots in the 5.3 seconds it took to kill Kennedy. And the manual loading Carcano had a defective scope at that! But the plain fact remains that Kennedy was killed. There is speculation as well as to the actual number of teams (three, to be exact) it would take to be able to execute the crime at strategic vantage points.

Assistant D.A. Lou Ivon looks on as Garrison aims the Carcano rifle

After another meeting of the faithful, this time in D.A. Garrison’s spacious living room, Susie Cox/Mary Magdalene reports the news of a bogus “Oswald” pretending to test drive an automobile, when his wife, the Russian-born Marina Nikolayevna, had previously testified to the Warren Commission that her husband did not have a driver’s license. During Susie’s account, another “Oswald” is caught practicing at a firing range, while a third “Oswald” happens to be spotted in Mexico. What are we to make of these sightings?

Next, the viewer is treated to the LIFE magazine cover which highlights the purportedly doctored photograph of Oswald holding aloft his Carcano rifle. The real (or “reel”) Oswald complains that the man in the photograph isn’t him at all, but an imposter. Deceit piles upon deceit. Garrison begins to believe that Guy Bannister (Ed Asner) created “Oswald” for the sole purpose of using him as a patsy to cover up their real intentions: the planned execution of JFK. This is the second meeting of the group (the Apostles) before the Via Dolorosa, leading up to the Via Crucis or the Way of the Cross.

To further the religious connotations, Garrison goes to interview the mysterious “Clay Bertrand,” in actuality local businessman Clay Shaw. The interview takes place in Garrison’s office on Easter Sunday — resurrection day in Christian theology, telegraphing the death and eventual resurrection of the Kennedy case. Clay denies any and all knowledge of the event and the “sordid cast of characters” Garrison associates him with, to include the oddball David Ferrie, the gay hustler Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon), the Cuban ex-military types, et al.

Bill Broussard steps between Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) & D.A. Jim Garrison in JFK

Garrison confronts Shaw and accuses him of having gotten away with Kennedy’s murder, a statement that profoundly offends the businessman. Garrison’s assistant Broussard gets between the combatants before either man comes to blows.

Bemused yet nonplussed, Shaw wishes everyone a Happy Easter and departs in a characteristically lighthearted mood. In response, Garrison quotes a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” The next move is Garrison’s.

(End of Part Three)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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Hollywood Goes to the Opera – More Cinematic Disparities for Your Viewing Displeasure (Conclusion)

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Director Martin Scorsese
Director Martin Scorsese

Concluding my previous blog posts about the absurdities of opera singers and opera singing in Tinsel Town (and beyond), below are a few more examples of this egregious practice for good measure.

But What Does It Have to Do With Opera?

Everybody knows (or at least, I hope they know) that opera, as it’s been handed down to us, originated in sixteenth-century Italy — Florence, Italy, to be exact. It was supposed to be a somewhat heightened method of speech tempered with music and drama. Whether that concept has successfully carried over into modern times, or whether it’s been good or bad for music and drama as a whole, I’ll leave it to the experts to determine.

What I can say about opera is that many filmmakers and directors of Italian and/or Sicilian extraction, with Francis Ford Coppola among the more notables ones, have been obsessed by the genre from their earliest infancy. It must be in their blood. But whatever the reason, we have Coppola and his fellow paisan to thank for spicing up the medium through non-operatic methods.

One such director has been that prolific genius of the celluloid, Martin Scorsese. A graduate of New York University’s Film School, not only is Scorsese an inveterate movie buff, film historian and preservationist, but a scrupulously curious-minded individual whose fascination with how opera and the performing arts can be incorporated into such a seemingly incompatible form as film has led him down some fascinating roads. I’m not sure Mr. Scorsese has ever successfully reconciled these two art forms, to be honest, but he certainly gave it the old NYU college try!

Many of his most famous films preserve some aspect of the operatic art, whether it’s the music or an actual “staged” performance. Let’s say that opera (that larger than life way of expressing oneself through song), in the hands of master movie-maker Marty, can make you see things in an entirely different light; while adding to our understanding of a scene or plot point without regard to its sometimes gruesome subject matter.

Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull
Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull

There’s plenty of evidence for that in Scorsese’s Oscar-winning biopic Raging Bull from 1980, which should start things off nicely for us. By emphasizing the Intermezzi from both Pietro Mascagni’s one-act Cavalleria Rusticana (loosely translated as “Rustic Chivalry”) and his later unsuccessful Guglielmo Ratcliff, Scorsese featured these two pieces of music, one in crisply edited, black-and-white photographed, slow-motion action shots, and the other in a facsimile of a 16mm handheld camera, to paint two pre-MTV versions of a proto-music video in several artsy-fartsy sequences.

The film, a brutal and starkly realistic look at the turbulent life of middleweight boxing champ Jake La Motta (played by Robert De Niro), and based on the fighter’s autobiographical book, no less, presented a foul-mouthed portrait of an overly jealous man behind the athletic shorts. Co-star Joe Pesci, in his film debut as La Motta’s equally forceful younger brother, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his comic-opera turn. Pesci got the nod again (and won!) a decade later for his similar assumption of a garrulous Mafia hood in the same director’s Goodfellas (1990). What’s so funny?

In a complete 180-degree turnaround from blood-sport and warring factions, Scorsese gave us a suitably lush picture of late nineteenth-century Manhattan high society in his screen adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1993). Beautifully shot and elegantly narrated by Joanne Woodward, the film in its early going takes us to a “live” Metropolitan Opera Company performance of Gounod’s Victorian-era opus, Faust.

Evidencing a deft familiarity with the era’s conventions, as specifically related to this opera (thanks to his superb research department), Scorsese’s movie accurately reconstructs an Italian-language Faust, which as incredible as it may seem the opera was actually sung in. Indeed, all the operas, including most of the German repertoire, were performed by the Metropolitan in la lingua italiana, the norm for that time period.

Wynona Ryder is Age of Innocence
Wynona Ryder in The Age of Innocence

Not to be outdone, Scorsese, in following Wharton’s lead, knew full well that most society families had the rather noxious habit of taking their marriageable-age daughters to see Faust, mostly for purely “moralistic” purposes, in that the lead female character of Marguérite (or Margherita in this version) meets a very sad fate through her out-of-wedlock relationship with the title character. Hey, that’s one way to keep your girls in line!

Evviva Italia!

Continuing along this path, the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s were a splendid time in Italy for films of an operatic nature to be produced. The most unusual aspect, shall we say, of these quickie flicks was the sub-par lip-synching employed throughout, as well as the even more nonsensical practice of dubbing opera stars’ voices with… well, other opera stars’ voices! Appearances counted for much back then.

One of the earliest examples of the above was of Donizetti’s charming comic opera The Elixir of Love (1946), which starred photogenic baritone Tito Gobbi as Sgt. Belcore, bass Italo Tajo as Dr. Dulcamara, and soprano Nelly Corradi as Adina — but with the chirpy singing voice of Margherita Carosio. This made little sense, as Carosio was a pretty enough figure in real life to overcome any implausibility. Hmm, maybe she was just camera shy….

A slightly “better” (relatively speaking) production was The Barber of Seville from 1947, which repeated the successful formula of Gobbi, Tajo and Corradi, but added portly tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini as Count Almaviva (singing and acting, by the way) to the mix, along with burly basso buffo Vito de Taranto as Dr. Bartolo. The sets were rather crude and makeshift, to be kind, as they were borrowed direct from the Rome Opera, where the production was filmed. Talk about a tight budget!

Tito Gobbi a Figaro (youtube.com)
Tito Gobbi a Figaro (youtube.com)

Next up was a series of Verdi operas, including the bombastic La Forza del Destino (1947), with Gobbi, bass Giulio Neri, and Corradi again. This time around, Corradi was dubbed by dramatic soprano Caterina Mancini. Tenor Gino Sinimberghi appeared as Don Alvaro, but was voiced by Galliano Masini. Go figure! An even better production of Rigoletto (1946) starred our old friend Gobbi, with actress Marcella Govoni sitting in for the hugely proportioned, but vocally well-endowed Lina Pagliughi.

Golden-throated tenor Mario Filippeschi emoted onscreen, while his own sterling tones (described by his baritone colleague, Signor Gobbi, as “a splendid Duke with a ringing voice and smilingly sardonic appearance”) sang the life out of “La donna é mobile.” Mamma mia! According to Gobbi, the entire film was shot on the stage of the Rome Opera House in a span of 14 days. Always a quickie, never a longie!

Two films — one a comedy and one a tragedy — were released in 1948. Let’s start with the tragedy: Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci or, as it’s known in the ersatz American translation, Love of a Clown. Again, we have Gobbi acting the part of Tonio, while singing both Tonio and Silvio, the soprano’s love interest. A young (and I do mean YOUNG) Gina Lollobrigida appeared as Nedda. Stay with me now, for this is going to be a real mishmash. Gina was dubbed by soprano Onelia Fineschi. Her lover, Silvio, which we already know from the above was voiced by Signor Gobbi, was acted by… you guessed it, Signor Gobbi.

All right, so far so good. Here comes the funny part (funny as in, “What the…?”). Canio, the main clown (i.e., Pagliaccio), was sung by tenor Galliano Masini. You remember him! He sang in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. Well, then, the actor playing Canio was none other than… are you ready for it? Baritone Afro Poli! (Sure, why not?) Rounding out the ensemble was tenor Gino Sinimberghi, now SINGING the part of Beppe, but PLAYED on the screen by… an ACTOR! And the actor’s name is? The envelope, please: Filippo Morucci. (WHO???) You got all that?

Okay, so what about the other flick? After the above comedy of errors, not even Rossini’s enchanting La Cenerentola, the Italian version of the Cinderella story, could bring as big a smile to one’s face as what transpired with Pagliacci — oh, excuse me: Love of a Clown. Nevertheless, the role of Cinderella was played onscreen by Lori Landi (whoever she was). She was dubbed by the luscious-voiced mezzo Fedora Barbieri, along with basses Enrico Formichi and Vito de Taranto. The most memorable feature of this particular production was the sumptuously filmed locations, which included the Royal Palaces of Monza and Turin in Italy.

Here’s an interesting variant. The late composer, librettist, director and producer Gian-Carlo Menotti — the man responsible for the annual Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds — directed a film version of his own opera, The Medium (1950), in his native Italy. At the time, it was considered opera’s first excursion into film noir and Italian neo-realist territory. American contralto Marie Powers gave a powerful performance of the title role, with a young Anna Maria Alberghetti as Monica, and Leo Coleman in the mute role of Toby.

The finale, where Powers mistakes Coleman for one of her phantoms and shoots him dead, is full of religious iconography and punctuated by funereal chords in the orchestra. Seldom has a theater piece so transcended its operatic origins and become a full-fledged film product on its own. For the movie, Menotti expanded his opera to 80 minutes from its original one-hour running time. Tick… tick… tick….

Hang in there. Only two more to go! Actress and singer Franca Duval, the mammoth-voiced tenor Franco Corelli (he of the mighty thighs and endless high notes), and jack-of-all-operatic-trades baritone Afro Poli all appeared in Puccini’s Tosca (1956). The gorgeous Duval was sung on the soundtrack by aging diva Maria Caniglia. Corelli sung for Corelli (now there’s a novelty), while his good friend and fellow singing-actor Gian Giacomo Guelfi dubbed in the part of Baron Scarpia. The whole film was spoiled by an extremely intrusive English narration. Stop the music, stop the music!

Sophia Loren as Aida
Sophia Loren as Aida

And now for the piece de résistance! A famous 1954 Technicolor-film version of Verdi’s Aida that starred actress Sophia Loren at the very beginning of her career. In case you were wondering, the role was actually sung by the lirico spinto Renata Tebaldi. Lois Maxwell — the future Miss Moneypenny for all those early James Bond movies, and the brunt of Sean Connery’s puns — acted the part of Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter. Lest you think that Lois was capable of assuming the vocal aspects of this part, think again: the famed mezzo Ebe Stignani sang Amneris on the soundtrack.

Our tenor hero Radames was lip-synched by an immobile actor named Luciano Della Marra. Tenor Giuseppe Campora sang for him, (though the tenor was severely over-parted). Afro Poli was the Amonasro, but voiced by the very capable Gino Bechi, while Antonio Cassinelli played Ramfis the High Priest; his voice (you knew he wasn’t going to do his own singing, now, didn’t you?) was dubbed by the noble bass of Giulio Neri. The whole show was directed by Clemente Fracassi. Unfortunately, Verdi’s most popular opera was trimmed down to about 90 minutes. Not a good day for us purists.

Cartoon Frolics and Puppet Shows

At around the same time as those Italian opera productions were making their way around the globe, Warner Brothers got into the act by releasing three unusual theatrical shorts during the heyday of animated features.

The first was “Long-Haired Hare” from 1949. With musical direction by Carl W. Stalling, it featured our favorite cartoon rabbit Bugs Bunny in a raging battle with a smarmy baritone named Giovanni Jones (“That’s the nice fat opera singer”).

Bugs Bunny and Giovanni Jones
Bugs Bunny and Giovanni Jones

The second, “The Rabbit of Seville,” released in 1950, was an animated spoof of Rossini’s opera that used the work’s world-renowned overture to produce a mini-opera in itself. Musical direction was again provided by Stalling. This one had Bugs and a perpetually flustered Elmer Fudd running around the stage trying to top each other in mayhem.

The last, and probably one of the finest animated masterpieces from this period, is “What’s Opera, Doc?” from 1957. A thoroughly hilarious takeoff on Wagner and the Ring cycle operas, this marvelous (and exceedingly expressionistic) short used music from The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, Die Walküre, and a song, “Return My Love,” with lyrics by Michael Maltese, to fulfill our operatic needs. The musical direction was by Milt Franklyn.

It’s a classic by any definition of the word, and a highpoint for the studio — especially when Elmer Fudd expresses his undying love for the German “diva” Bugs Bunny: “Oh, Bwunnhilde, be my wove!” Oy vey, it’s enough to make one swear off opera for good. One can still feel its influence in the 2009 release of The Secret of Kells, an Irish, French and Belgian-produced feature, beautifully rendered in brilliantly colored backgrounds and art work. (And “that’s all, folks!”)

Hansel and Gretel movie poster
Hansel and Gretel movie poster

And now, for a simply delightful change of pace, we have another certifiable cult classic: the stop-motion musical adaptation of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel from 1954. Revolutionary in pioneering electronic techniques, and a prototype for later CGI and stop-motion work by the likes of Henry Selick and Tim Burton, this film was aimed squarely at the kiddies.

Based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, it boasted the voice of famed lecturer, singer and comedian Anna Russell as Rosina Dainty Lips, that irksome child-eating Witch who gets to ride her broom around a candy-colored set. Broadway’s Mildred Dunnock, who acted in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, voiced the part of H & G’s Stepmother. As far as pushing the technology of the medium goes, this puppet-based “toon” earned its stripes in the visual effects department with (ahem) flying colors. Produced and directed by Michael Myerberg.

I Want My MTV – Not!

As anyone who’s ever lived through the eighties and nineties will tell you, it was the age of Music Television, or MTV for short (not anymore it isn’t). And music videos were all the rage — at least, up until the start of the new millennium. That’s when Reality TV took over, thanks ever so much to a prolonged writers’ strike. We’re still paying the price for that one.

Neil Shicoff as Eleazar
Neil Shicoff as Eleazar (youtube.com)

In any case, I can wholeheartedly recommend tenor Neil Shicoff’s MTV-like video performance from 2005 of the aria, “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” from the grandest of French grand operas, La Juive (“The Jewess”), by Fromental Halévy. Directed by television and movie veteran Sidney Lumet (now there’s an odd choice), Shicoff appears as Eleazar, the Jewess Rachel’s father, and emotes convincingly in his Jewish rabbi garb.

In addition to being a full-throated American tenor, Shicoff is also a full-throated Jewish cantor on the side. Significantly, his stirring rendition of this difficult piece, a favorite of Enrico Caruso’s, was in homage to the late tenor Richard Tucker, also a cantor, but who never got to sing the role at the Metropolitan Opera House, his home for nearly 30 years. If anything, Shicoff knocks this out of the ballpark, so fiercely determined was he to express the full gamut of emotions.

The video is included on the DVD edition of the complete opera, released by Deutsche Grammophon and performed live by the Vienna State Opera. You’ll want to get your hands on this one quick, as it’s destined to become a classic.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes