Thursday, July 29, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: SCOTTY BECKETT as JOLSON, the boy

SCOTTY BECKETT, portraying the young AL JOLSON in THE JOLSON STORY [1946], whistles from his bedroom window to his neighbor. Soon a ladder will afford escape to run away from home and start his show business career.
The Columbia Pictures' caption on the reverse of this seldom seen still states: "...BOY AL JOLSON-The boy Al Jolson, played by Scotty Beckett, is a shown whistling to his girl in Columbia's Technicolor music drama, THE JOLSON STORY. The adult Jolson is played by Larry Parks." [from Steve Crum's showbiz memorabilia collection]

The whistling was actually provided by Jolson himself, who was a noted whistler in addition to his comedy, singing, dancing, and acting talents. Throughout the film's boyhood sequences, however, it was RUDY WISSLER (no whistling pun intended) who provided the actual singing as Scotty Beckett lip synched. In the same vein, Jolson himself sang for the adult, Larry Parks, Jolson. Parks moved his lips perfectly to Jolie's songs.
Scotty Beckett, born Scott Hastings Beckett (Oct. 4, 1929-May 10, 1968), began his brief career as one of Hal Roach's Our Gang (aka Little Rascals), often playing opposite Spanky McFarland. Career highlights include featured roles in King's Row, The Charge of the Light Brigade, A Date with Judy, radio's The Life of Riley (as Junior), and TV's Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. His role as the young Asa Yoelson aka Al Jolson in The Jolson Story was his crowning achievement.

Tragically, the last decade of Beckett's life was filled with drugs, alcohol, arrests, marital problems, and illness. He died in a nursing home at age 38.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: JIMMY DURANTE & GENE AUTRY on the set

By Steve Crum

Republic Pictures chose to increase the budget on one of its GENE AUTRY movies, and hired a pretty bizarre cast for any western, JIMMY DURANTE and ANN MILLER among them. Released in 1940, MELODY RANCH became one of Gene's biggest box office successes. It was later considered culturally significant by the Library of Congress, and is now preserved in the United States Film Registry.

The plot has Gene Autry, portraying radio and movie cowboy star Gene Autry (a stretch), returning to his Arizona hometown (Gene was actually raised in Oklahoma, so this is a stretch) where he restores law and order while starring in his own radio show. Others in the cast include Barton MacLane, Barbara Jo Allen (better known as Vera Vague on the Bob Hope radio show), and Gabby Hayes, venerable sidekick to Roy Rogers as well as Gene. Durante's character is Cornelius J. Courtney. Inka Dinka Do.
The rare Republic publicity still (top) is unique in several ways. When in the history of Durante did you ever see him on horseback and sporting cowboy boots? (His horse doesn't look any too happy with him yelling and waving his hat. Notice the steed's ears are pointed back.) That is Gene Autry himself--at least his back--headin' toward his trailer on Champion, World's Wonder Horse. The caption pasted on the photo's backside explains: "At last, here I am at the peak of me power, ha-cha-cha!!" Jimmy "Schnozzle" Durante cheers as he successfully reaches the deck of the tamest horse in the Gene Autry stable. "What a man! What a cowboy! Where's me rope and gun!" Durante clanked a mean spur with Autry and Ann Miller in "MELODY RANCH" at Republic Pictures. In the background here is Autry heading into his stable trailer. [from Steve Crum's showbiz memorabilia collection]

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


By Steve Crum

Significant as RICKY NELSON'S last appearance on either TV or film, 1981's CBS-TV Movie, A TALE OF FOUR WISHES (originally broadcast Nov. 8, 1981) headlined Ricky along with future Growing Pains star TRACEY GOLD. Rick (then billed as such) portrayed Skeeter. Tracey was Jane, a girl who learns important lessons from her grandfather after wishing for more.
RICKY NELSON, born Eric Hilliard Nelson [May 8, 1940-Dec. 31, 1985], died in an airplane crash four years after this made-for-TV film. His career includes his revered role starring with his real life family in radio and TV's The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. There are also his 53 Billboard Top 100 recording hits, 19 of which placed in the Top 10.

TRACEY GOLD, born May 16, 1969, became popular as Carol Seaver, one of the teen cast of TV's Growing Pains series. Like many child actresses (and actors), her private life has included many physical and emotional challenges.
This rare, CBS-TV publicity photo is identified on the backside as A Tale of Four Wishes, CBS--Tues., July 6, 1982--4:30-5:30 p.m. E. T. No doubt this was a rebroadcast. Interesting to note that Ms. Gold is identified as Stacy Gold instead of Tracey Gold. [from Steve Crum's showbiz memorabilia collection]
See and hear Ricky Nelson sing one of his biggest hits, Travelin' Man:

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dream-based 'Inception' boggles eyes, mind

By Steve Crum
Never has a movie forced me to think about it, mull it over, for two days past seeing it. To absorb and make sense out of Inception, out of its dreams within dreams premise and the flashbacks within flashbacks permeating the intricately edited story, Inception still puzzles, but not quite intrigues.

Still I marvel at its eye boggling visions, and have been able to piece together more of its complex plot. Yet the movie pleases and entertains only superficially, and requires extreme focus. Yet again, it feels right to call Inception a classic of its genre.

Speaking of making sense, even the film’s title will have many reaching for a dictionary. No doubt director-screenwriter Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) chose the title as a hint of things to come in the movie itself. For the record, “inception” means “the beginning of something, such as in an undertaking.” As it turns out, the title has not only a double but a triple inference in the plot. There are beginnings and endings criss-crossed throughout the story. Time is manipulated frequently. It is reminiscent of 2001’s Memento, wherein the story unfolds in reverse fashion. Is it surprising Nolan wrote and directed both Memento and Inception?

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dom Cobb, a specialized thief called an Extractor, since he has to penetrate someone’s mind to steal valuable information. His fame is based on maintaining any idea or concept in his subconscious, which is an invaluable gift. The timely plot involves big business and corporate shenanigans, but this sci-fi element of mind fusing takes it to skyscraper levels. Cobb is, by now, well known--too well known among the espionage world. A fugitive, he is disconnected from his wife and young children. This aspect of Cobb’s existence wears on him throughout the movie. We see scene after scene of his wife and children, usually playing on the beach. That is a problem about being an extractor of the first kind, you just can’t let memories of images go.

Cobb leads a veritable team of mind melders who will team dream in a process called “dream sharing.” They all hook into a subject’s dream via cables connected to a ultra tech, portable machine. There are a handful of movies that have employed a similar device to invade another’s mind. Remember Sleepers, Brainstorm, and Dreamscape? The difference here is that the subject is also inserted into the dream as an active player along with the mission impossible troupe.

That specialized unit, like most fictional units (think The A-Team, Leverage, and even The Great Escape trappings), is composed of not only experts, but experts with nicknames. There is Arthur aka “The Point Man,” well played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He and Cobb go way back, and are trusted friends and co-dreamers. Cobb plans the job, Arthur organizes the details. Ellen Page is Ariadne, “The Architect,” who designs and builds places that do not exist. THE visual highlight of Inception is Ariadne’s creation of a huge city that literally folds up onto itself. One can walk to the end of the street, up a wall with buildings and people intact, and continue strolling upside-down, gravity free. It must be seen to be appreciated, and believe me, you will appreciate it.

Other team members are Eames, “The Forger” (Tom Hardy), Saito, “The Tourist” (Ken Watanabe), Yusuf, “The Chemist” (Cillian Murphy), and Robert Fischer, Jr.’s “The Mark” (Cillian Murphy.) It is good to see Tom Berenger, who has been absent in recent years from the screen, in a prime role as Browning, one of the dream team’s subjects. Browning’s particular case in a first for the team. They have to implant, instead of extract, an idea this time around.

Marion Cotillard’s role as Cobb’s deceased (or is she?) wife Mal has an aside to it I have to mention. Remember first that Cotillard won a Best Actress Oscar for her brilliant portrayal of French singer Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. Then watch and listen for one of the dreamers as he listens on a head set to Piaf singing. This is an inside joke within a movie that is anything but humorous. Like everything else in Inception, even a joke is layered within.

Inception is loaded with gun shots, explosions and knuckle fights (many of them in zero gravity a la The Matrix), balanced by believable, sensitive acting and some of the most stunning visuals ever conceived. The negative is the often confusing plot...or plots.

This seems to be the year of taking visuals in movies up a notch. Cameron did it with Avatar, Nolan does it with Inception.
GRADE: On an A to F Scale: B+

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: JOLSON, RATOFF & DARNELL at Fox

On the set of 1939's HOTEL FOR WOMEN (20th Century Fox), featuring 16 year-old LINDA DARNELL in her first starring role, a sharply suited AL JOLSON visits both Darnell and her director, GREGORY RATOFF. Jolson had recently finished his own Fox film, ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE, in which he starred with Alice Faye and Tyrone Power. Both Rose and Hotel were directed by Ratoff. That chain leading to Ratoff's right pocket might be connected to the infamous whistle he often blew for effect while directing. [from Steve Crum's showbiz memorabilia collection]
This was not the last time Linda Darnell (Oct. 16, 1923-April 10, 1965) worked with producer, director and actor Gregory Ratoff (April 20, 1897-Dec. 14, 1960).
Ratoff was both director and scenario writer of 1939's Rose of Washington Square. He was known for his eccentricity. During a scene in which Hobart Cavanaugh played a drunk in the balcony who heckled Jolson's Ted Cotter on stage, Ratoff directed the entire sequence with his back turned. Ratoff explained why in his heavily Lithuanian accent: "That man Cavanaugh, he ees so funny, he makes me cry if I look at him." Ratoff was not called "Gregory the Great" for nothing.
Click on this link for one fantastic performance by NIGEL DREINER as he sings three Al Jolson songs live at the 2010 Jolson Convention in Milwaukee:

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rethinking, recasting ‘Eclipse,’ a saga unto itself

By Steve Crum

Amazing what a screening of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and eating linguini after 10 p.m. can conjure. That night was filled with a monaural, full blown Hollywood horror-romance story in vivid Black and White analog. Being a child during the 1950’s, I flashed back to simpler, Legion of Decency-driven days when rock and roll was just beginning to shake, and relatively bloodless monster movies ruled.

The inspired casting:

ELVIS PRESLEY......Edward Cullen (replacing Robert Pattinson)

NATALIE WOOD......Bella Swan (replacing Kristen Stewart)

STEVE “Hercules” REEVES......Jacob Black (replacing Taylor Lautner & pecs)

Between tossing and turning in my non-sleep-adjustable bed, the nightmarish scenario developed...

Bella (Natalie Wood, in her Splendor in the Grass period) once again finds herself surrounded by danger as the San Fernando Valley is ravaged by a string of mysterious killings as Tuesday Weld’s malicious vampire continues her quest for revenge. In the midst of it all, Bella is forced to choose between her love for the loose hipped, guitar strumming blood sucker Edward Cullen (Elvis Presley, in his Jailhouse Rock days) and her friendship with an older, black bearded, and sublimely muscled older man, a werewolf in so many ways, Jacob Black (Steve Reeves), whose English is dubbed on the soundtrack. Bella must decide to either be with her avowed love Edward, and thus be transformed into a teenage vampire, or run with Jacob’s hairy pack of full moon rising werewolves. Either choice is a pain in the neck.

Meanwhile, a war is coming. It will be the vampirish Cullens teamed in an unholy alliance with Jacob’s band of wolf men versus a bunch of hungry, homeless, newborn vampires en route from Oakland. The newborns (Sal Mineo, Tab Hunter, Jamie Farr, Dennis Hopper, and Mercedes McCambridge among them) track the scent of Bella blood, while the Edward-Jacob alliance vows to protect their fair, air-headed, typically adolescent, and hormone inducing heroine.

The relationship between Bella and her two predatory boyfriends, Edward and Jacob, is more than a match. It is a cigarette lighter.

At this juncture, I woke up in heavy sweat, took a Tums, and turned on TV for return to normalcy. There was Taylor Lautner in a remake of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was Buffy, and topless! I turned off the set, and popped two more Tums.


The blood-sucking, fang-tearing trailer to The Twilight Saga: Eclipse:

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: CAGNEY & CO. salute 'YOU'RE A GRAND OLD FLAG'

Filled with GEORGE M. COHAN'S patriotic songs, 1942's YANKEE DOODLE DANDY includes a particularly rousing, stand-up-proudly-and-salute production number featuring a song Cohan wrote in 1906, YOU'RE A GRAND OLD FLAG. Contrary to what the movie says, Cohan was born the day before Independence Day, July 3 (1878). No matter. His unabashed Americanism and flag waving spirit is forever symbolic of the Fourth of July.

Cohan's inspiration for writing the famous song is explained in the following Library of Congress statement: The original lyric for this perennial George M. Cohan favorite came, as Cohan later explained, from an encounter he had with a Civil War veteran who fought at Gettysburg. The two men found themselves next to each other and Cohan noticed the vet held a carefully folded but ragged old flag. The man reportedly then turned to Cohan and said, "She's a grand old rag." Cohan thought it was a great line and originally named his tune "You're a Grand Old Rag." So many groups and individuals objected to calling the flag a "rag," however, that he "gave 'em what they wanted" and switched words, renaming the song "You're a Grand Old Flag."

Incidentally, You're a Grand Old Flag was the first song from a musical to sell one million sheet music copies.
You're a grand old flag,
You're a high flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave.
You're the emblem of
The land I love.
The home of the free and the brave.
Ev'ry heart beats true
'neath the Red, White and Blue,
Where there's never a boast or brag.
But should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the grand old flag.
This movie still depicts James Cagney as George M., stage front, backed by dozens of flag wavers and his Yankee Doodle Dandy family, portrayed by (from left) real life sister Jeanne Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, and Rosemary DeCamp. Released at the beginning of WWII, the film won three Oscars, including Best Actor for James Cagney. [from Steve Crum's showbiz memorabilia collection]
Celebrate the Fourth of July by viewing the (colorized) most patriotic sequence ever filmed, YOU'RE A GRAND OLD FLAG: