Monday, August 31, 2015
Tuesday, August 18, 2015
And, of course, there was the paranoid meltdown and departure of the aforementioned Bryan Gregory, the guitarist whose “misdirected sheets of noise” had provided a baleful backdrop for Ivy’s twangy licks. Visually, Gregory was a masterpiece. “His pockmarked skin,” writes Porter, “had the quality of parchment torn from a book of forbidden lore, while his needlepoint pupils glinted from beneath a flick of long brown hair, arranged to cascade down one side of his face in the style of Veronica Lake.” Gregory simply disappeared one night in the middle of a tour, annoyed that the band remained stuck in the 1950s. “He was just a money-grubbing creep,” declared Lux, who imagined that one day Gregory would end up at “the bottom of a pool somewhere.” Instead, Gregory faded into the fringes of the music biz, dying at 49 of various health problems. Some of us thought he’d died years earlier, perhaps lashed to a witch’s altar.
Yet, the band persisted. There were appearances on the Conan O’Brien show, a shot at writing tunes for a John Waters movie, and even a strange cameo by Lux on Spongebob Squarepants. It wasn’t exactly the career they’d imagined back at CBGB, but they outlasted most of the bands they’d started out with in the 1970s. The Cramps, at least, endured.
Despite Porter’s experience, his prose all too often falls into the sort of jejune hyperventilating that I remember from old issues of Creem and Zig Zag. There’s too much tripe about “sucking at the sweet nectar of rock and roll,” and his assertion that Ivy was “one of the finest guitarists of her generation” is a major stretch. He’s no help critically, describing each new Cramps’ album as “one of the Cramps’ best”, or “up there with their best”, and Porter’s opening rapture about the early days of rock and roll includes howlers like “At a time when the motions of Elvis’ hips were subject to moral panics and seat-dampening enthusiasm in equal measure, Little Richard represented a loudly ticking timebomb.”
Porter should’ve dispensed with the redundant rock rhapsody and focused on the subject of his book. For instance, why did Lux start wearing women’s clothing? How did that play into his relationship with Ivy, who had once earned money as a dominatrix? And when Porter quotes Lux about one of his songs being autobiographical, there’s no follow-up. In what way was it autobiographical? Porter mentions every last Cramps bootleg recording, but he doesn’t dig deep into Lux and Ivy. Part of this could be because the pair spent more time talking about their collection of obscure records than themselves, but there’s also a feeling that Porter wanted to write a book without doing any heavy lifting. Instead, we get endless quotes from Ivy and Lux about how much they love old rockabilly records.
The book falls short as a full-blown biography, but there are just enough gems to make it worth a read, especially when Porter depicts the adoration Lux and Ivy had for each other. As Ivy put it, the pair were “karmically entwined.” They stuck together, even as their dream of rock stardom seemed, as Lux once said, “just out of reach.” One sad little scene involves the pair being denied entry to a Disneyland theme park because Ivy was wearing too much makeup.
“I guess they already had their quota of crazy people in there that day,” said Ivy.
Substitute the music business for the theme park, and you’d have a handy metaphor for the band’s entire, frustrating career.
I met the Cramps once. They did a meet and greet in a small record store in Boston. I was a shy kid from the suburbs who had enjoyed their first album, ‘Songs the Lord Taught Us’. I especially liked ‘Garbageman’, which was the best piece of throbbing rock sludge I’d ever heard. Unfortunately, the band was so stoned they could barely stand up. Somehow, they shambled forward and autographed my shopping bag. I lost it years ago. But I do remember that Ivy took a moment to talk to me about recording in Sun Studios in Memphis. She was a tiny thing, wearing dark glasses and hailing the virtues of tube amps. “The equipment was old,” she said, “but sounded great.”
Yes, exactly. Sometimes the old way is the best way. That’s why, despite the book’s imperfections, it’s fun to read about the Cramps again. They didn’t turn the world into a bunch of cool rockin’ daddies, but it was beautiful to watch them try.
- Don Stradley
Thursday, August 13, 2015
This month marks the 98th birthday of Robert Mitchum, one of Hollywood's most charismatic leading men. He was the epitome of a "movie star", not because he was guaranteed box office, though he was certainly that for many years, but because he had something that very few actors possessed - you could put him in a piece of junk, and he'd still be watchable. And as far as he was concerned, he appeared in a lot of junk. He was never one to over glamorize the movie business, and while that may have cost him a few supporters in the Academy, it never changed the feelings of his admirers....
An actor doesn’t need to be arrested on marijuana charges to become a star, but it sure didn't hurt Robert Mitchum. Of course, by the time of his 1948 pot bust, Mitchum had already received an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "The Story of GI Joe" (1945), and in 1947 he'd appeared in two noir classics, "Out of the Past" and "Crossfire." But after a week in the county jail and 43 days at a Castaic, California prison farm turned Mitchum into a certified Hollywood bad boy. The role fit him like the proverbial glove..
It was Mitchum's casual reaction to the arrest that endeared him to the public. He treated the incident as a lark, amusing the press with jokes about prison life. “It's like Palm Springs,” he said. “But without the riffraff.”
It's no surprise that Mitchum breezed through a short jail sentence, since tough times were nothing new to him. After spending part of his childhood in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, he dropped out of school to ride the rails with his brother. As he crossed the country at the height of the Depression, Mitchum earned money with odd jobs like digging ditches — even boxing. This rough and tumble kid even did some time on a chain gang in Savannah, Georgia after being popped for vagrancy at age 14.
Mitchum’s relationship with the studio was shaky at the time of his arrest, but RKO boss Howard Hughes sensed Mitchum would be a hot property once he was back on screen. To cash in on Mitchum’s new heat, Hughes rushed him into several new pictures. Each one was a hit. Customers couldn’t get enough of Hollywood’s newest rebel. Before rock ’n’ roll, there was Mitchum.
Not surprisingly, Mitchum looked back on his days at RKO with some derision.
"RKO made the same film with me for ten years. They were so alike I wore the same suit in six of them and the same Burberry trench coat. They made a male Jane Russell out of me. I was the staff hero. They got so they wanted me to take some of my clothes off in the pictures. I objected to this, so I put on some weight and looked like a Bulgarian wrestler when I took my shirt off. Only two pictures in that time made any sense whatever. I complained and they told me frankly that they had a certain amount of baloney to sell and I was the boy to do it."
His bad boy image followed him for several years. He was allegedly fired from "Blood Alley" (1955), for getting drunk and arguing with a crew member whom he then proceeded to throw into a nearby river, a charge Mitchum denied. Mitchum had a precarious relationship with his image as a trouble maker. "They're all true," he once said of the stories. "Booze, brawls, broads, all true. Make up some more if you want to."
Still, the next 40 years saw Mitchum bring his sleepy-eyed swagger to a variety of memorable roles. Among the best were his turns as the insidious Reverend Harry Powell in “Night of The Hunter” (1955), the predatory Max Cady in “Cape Fear” (1962), and the small-time Boston hoodlum in “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973). In between there were plenty of westerns, war epics, and even a few romantic roles. For "Thunder Road" (1958) a film that is still a cult favorite among car buffs, he not only starred in the film, but he wrote the story and sang the theme song! Mitchum's singing voice also lead to his recording a calypso album at the height of the calypso craze in the late '50s. His recording of "Little Old Wine Drinker Me" even made the top 10 in the country charts in 1968.
Thursday, August 6, 2015
Few writers would be better qualified to chronicle the life of Harvey Kurtzman than Bill Schelly. A longtime comic historian and author of several books, including two about artist Joe Kubert, his American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1950s, was nominated for a Harvey, the prestigious award named after Kurtzman. Now Schully has produced Harvey Kurtzman: The Man who Created MAD and Revolutionized Humor in America. Despite the clunky title, it’s a smoothly written, exhaustive tribute to an iconic figure.
Kurtzman is important because he created the seminal humor and satire magazine of the 20th century. Granted, if Kurtzman hadn’t done it, a magazine similar to MAD would’ve appeared at some point. The vibe was out there, the societal balloons were ready to be busted, and the writers and illustrators were out there, champing at the bit. But without Kurtzman leading the way, the product might not have been as good as MAD. Consider the number of MAD knockoffs that came up over the years, including Panic, Cracked, Crazy, and others. (I even remember one called Plop.) They paled in comparison. In fact, not even Kurtzman could duplicate MAD, and he certainly tried. After years of arguing with EC publisher Bill Gains, Kurtzman left MAD after 28 issues and tried to recreate lightning in a bottle, first with Trump, then Humbug, and then Help! He never found the groove again, which is part of what gives Schelly’s book an unexpected feeling of melancholy.
There’s a sense of good old American pluck about Kurtzman’s early years. He was the shy middle son of a hugely dysfunctional family, pounding the pavements in post war New York, trying to sell himself as an illustrator. He hoped to work for the slicks, but after several fits and starts, he ended up drawing horror comics for Bill Gains at EC. Kurtzman worked his way up to being the editor and creator of such gripping EC war titles as Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, which showed him to be a visionary. Rather than follow the trend of other comics that sold patriotism and inhuman portraits of the enemy, he wrote ironic tales where soldiers were human. But the war comics took a toll; Kurtzman grew tired of meticulous research and yearned for something in a lighter, or jugular, vein. Hence, MAD was born in the autumn of 1952.
MAD was great from the first hop. The earliest issues are already bursting with the satire and silliness that would be the magazine’s trademark. Superman, Batman, Tarzan, Frankenstein, Dracula, TV commercials, King Kong, game shows, were all ripe for Kurtzman and his gang to skewer. Hell, even if you didn’t know how to read, you could enjoy those early issues for the brilliant illustrations. The magazine had the pulse of a crazy person who couldn’t stop talking. As he’d done for his war comics, Kurtzman outlined everything, and expected his artists to follow his sketches. The results were beautiful, hysterical, and dangerously alive. And of course, it was too good to last.
Gains comes off as the sort of lucky buffoon who has always been rampant in publishing, building an empire on the sweat of others. He’d been the son of a bullying dad, and seemed to take pleasure in bullying Kurtzman. (Many people in the book are the sons of distant or cruel fathers, finding solace in the world of cartoons) When Hugh Heffner, a major admirer of MAD, offered to help Kurtzman create his own humor mag, Kurtzman split from Gains’ shabby enterprise and joined the Playboy mogul’s burgeoning empire. Bad move.
Heffner’s ego was such that he had to oversee every move Kurtzman made, which choked Kurtzman’s creativity. The result was Trump, a glossy but uninspired half-brother of MAD that Heffner canceled after two issues. The Heffner - Kurtzman alliance wasn’t dead, though. Kurtzman would helm Playboy’s Little Annie Fanny strip for two decades. Heffner loved Annie, but the strip did little for Kurtzman besides supply a steady paycheck.
The book’s underlying theme seems to be, Be careful what you wish for. Kurtzman had never liked comic books, and yearned to work for a slick magazine like Playboy. He was, as Schelly writes, “an iconoclast who sought the Establishment symbols of success.” But working at Playboy was an albatross around his neck. He earned money, but never enough. In the 1970s, Kurtzman began a 17-year stint at the School of Visual Art in Manhattan just to make ends meet. In one of the book’s most dramatic scenes, he actually leaves in the middle of a class to cry in the hallway. One can only imagine the breaking point he’d reached, as MAD raked in money without him, while he tried to teach a bunch of long-haired kids how to appreciate satire.
But this frustrating time coincides with what is arguably the best part of Schelly’s book, the era when Kurtzman became a sort of national treasure. Comic cons were a growing phenomenon, and Kurtzman was often invited to events where he’d be feted and praised like visiting royalty. The attention was good for him, and by now he was being heralded by many former employees who’d gone on to other things, including Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame, and underground comic king Robert Crumb. Kurtzman was by now considered the patron saint of all things silly, the guru of guffaws. This period of appreciation allowed Kurtzman to mount a comeback of sorts, but most of his late period output was a disappointment. He was, after all, competing with himself. How does one top MAD? How does one even match it?
Schelly gives plenty of coverage to the lineup of great side characters in Kurtzman’s life, such as the other artists of the day (ie. Wallace Wood, Jack Davis, Bill Elder, etc) and Charlton Publications co-owner John Santangelo, a Sicilian immigrant who wasn’t shy about his mob connections, and was “notorious for paying the lowest rates, and having the worst printing in the business.”
At times, Schelly gives us too many plot summaries, but Schelly’s fascination with Kurtzman rubs off on the reader. Yet, Schelly never presents Kurtzman as a man without foibles. We get a sense of the perfectionism and occasional callousness that drove some good artists away, and at times Kurtzman seems to be quietly self-destructive. He’d strive to reach a goal, but inevitably he’d complain about it. There are moments when you want to reach into the book and grab Kurtzman by the collar and say, You have a good thing here. Don’t screw it up.
Schelly gives just the right amount of attention to Kurtzman’s family life, including the challenges of having an autistic son. Kurtzman’s later years, where he struggled with major illnesses, are incredibly poignant, especially when it becomes clear that Kurtzman will never have the big comeback.
In a way, Schelly’s book is the big Kurtzman comeback. Thanks to Schelly, Kurtzman gets his due, and seems larger than life.
- Don Stradley
Tuesday, August 4, 2015
NOIR. It's the most distinctive of American film styles, though it was named by the French and owed a lot to ex-pat European directors who had escaped to Hollywood to avoid the Nazi uprising. Five great examples of this shadowy style of filmmaking are now available from thefilmdetective.com. But remember, not all crime films are noir, and not all noir films are about crime. Got it? Good...
He went searching for love... but Fate forced a DETOUR to Revelry... Violence... Mystery! This Poverty Row landmark features Tom Neal as Al, a lowlife nightclub pianist hitchhiking across the country. Along the way he falls into so many ill-fated circumstances that he wishes he’d stayed in New York. Despite its downbeat atmosphere, this dirty crime classic from cult director Edgar G. Ulmer has many admirers. The late Roger Ebert described Detour as “haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir. No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it." Also, look for Ann Savage in a mesmerizing performance as Vera, the dangerous woman Al meets on his road to ruin!
Several years after appearing in Detour, Tom Neal was given a 10-year sentence for killing his wife. He only served six years on an “involuntary manslaughter” charge, but died of a heart attack shortly after his release….
PORT OF NEW YORK (1949)
A STORY OF SMUGGLING AND MURDER, FRESH OFF THE NEW YORK STREETS! Movie icon Yul Brynner made his debut in this tough crime thriller from director Laslo Benedek (The Wild One). Brynner plays ruthless gangster Paul Vicola, a murderous thug whose gang has stolen medicinal narcotics from a ship docked in New York harbor. The movie also stars Scott Brady and Richard Rober as the agents out to stop Vicola, a dangerous assignment since Vicola is the sort who will have his own girlfriend killed if he thinks she knows too much!
Part of this movie’s authentic look comes from its excellent use of location shooting. The East River, LaGuardia Airport, the U.S. Customs House, and New York’s Penn Station were all shot by ace cinematographer George E. Diskant, the man behind the look of such noir classics as Beware, My Lovely, The Racket, and On Dangerous Ground…
A man learns he's been poisoned and has only a few days left to live. In the remaining time, he's hell-bent on catching his own killer. It's Edmund O'Brien racing against the clock in D.O.A., a picture as excitingly different as its title! The film was directed by Rudolph Maté, who was already known as one of the best cinematographers of the day. As a cinematographer, he’d worked on a number of classics, including Gilda, and Pride of the Yankees. When Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles needed a top cinematographer, they called on Mate’. Mate’ was nearly 50 when he began directing his own films. DOA was one of his early efforts. It’s probably his best.
The scene in which Edmund O'Brien runs through the streets after learning he's been poisoned was a “stolen shot.” It was done without a city permit, and completely improvised without actors. The pedestrians had no idea that O'Brien would be shoving his way through them. It turned out to be a great scene and adds to the movie's sense of urgency. Of course, this technique can sometimes create problems. In another movie, Who Killed Teddy Bear, Sal Mineo was running down a New York street in a similar “stolen shot.” A pedestrian, thinking Mineo was a hoodlum who’d stolen someone’s purse, tackled him to the ground. So much for guerilla filmmaking…
KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952)
Every city wears a mask! This is the picture that goes behind that mask to bare the bullet-scarred face of a brutal underworld!.....Kansas City Confidential stars John Payne as an ex-con wrongly accused of robbing an armored car. He ends up in Mexico, trying to figure out who framed him and why. Along the way he meets thugs, corrupt cops, and hired killers. It's all presented in the exciting noir style by director Phil Karlson, a Hollywood journeyman who directed everything from Elvis Presley movies to the original Walking Tall in 1973. Also, look for a trio of Hollywood tough guys in supporting roles: Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef, and the crazy-eyed Jack Elam.
After serving two years during World War 2, John Payne returned to Hollywood and found that producers no longer offered him the top roles. It was decided by the film studios that Payne should darken his image. That’s when he found himself cast in war movies, westerns, and crime thrillers like Kansas City Confidential. He even stopped shaving his chest so he’d appear more threatening…
All of these movies are available through thefilmdetective.com, where vintage films are remastered, restored, and reborn. Follow us @FilmDetective
Or follow me @DonStradley