Saturday, January 29, 2011

Preston Sturges' Great Moment

Mr. Sturges at the top

In an earlier blog about Veronica Lake, I mentioned Preston Sturges' film Sullivan's Travels.

The film, which helped inspire the Coen Brothers' Oh Brother, Where Art Thou (along with the Odyssey  by Homer), is vintage Sturges: witty, cynical, sentimental and completely original.

For a certain period in the history of cinema, all of Preston Sturges' movies were just like that. He was one of these rare talents that produced high quality material that resonated with the public. Kind of like the Beatles.

Preston (August 29, 1898- August 6, 1959) was born Edward Preston Biden in Chicago, Illinois. His father was a classic ne'er-do-well who deserted Preston and his mother, Mary Desti, then reappeared years later asking for reparations once Sturges became famous. Again, much like Beatle John Lennon's father.

His mother remarried and Sturges was raised by his stepfather Solomon Sturges, whose last name Preston took. Even after Solomon and Mary became estranged, Solomon continued to treat Preston as his son, and was really the only real father figure in Preston's incredibly perepitetic childhood.

His mother, a Bohemian Auntie Mame- type figure, is a whole other story in and of herself. She ran a beauty business- cosmetics, lipsticks, (Preston had invented a kiss- proof lipstick for her line) and powders, and fancied herself a kind of artistic grande dame. Her best friend was the impressionist dancer Isadora Duncan, and an early photograph shows a very young Preston unhappily dressed in a toga, and not as a costume either. She had an affair with (among others) the British magus Aleister Crowley and even collaborated on his book Magick (Book 4).

Mary took Preston with her everywhere and this most American of directors spent most of his formative years in Europe. He learned to speak fluent French, and perhaps that is also where he acquired his veneer of sophistication and his cheerful cynicism.

His mother's relationship with Isadora Duncan ended the day Mary Desti gave her friend a new scarf and waved goodbye as Duncan drove off in a car. The long scarf got caught in the spokes of the wheel and snapped the dancer's neck. Isadora died instantly.

Preston was in the States at that point, and had begun his own quest for success. With his unique background and strange blend of American and Continental sensibilities, he began writing a script for a Broadway play. The title was Strictly Dishonorable.

Strictly Dishonorable (what are your intentions, sir?, the proganist is asked. Strictly dishonorable, he replies) was a huge hit and set the mold for Preston's career.

Hollywood came next with a string of movies written and directed by Sturges for Paramount Studios. Beginning with The Great McGinty, he hit with a string of successes and pretty much invented a new genre- the so- called screwball comedy. In Sturges movies, men and women have affairs, women get pregnant, men falsify their war records, shoot guns on trains, lie about their marital status, bilk rich people out of their money and generally behave like banshees, in short, they do anything to acheive their goals.

Harold Lloyd with the great Jimmy Conlin
He used many of the same actors in every film, including William Demarest, Jimmy Conlin and Eric Blore.

Within a frantic five year period, 1939- 1945,  he made his greatest films: McGinty, The Palm Beach Story, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero. Those years are Sturges' great moment in film. He owned a restaurant, the Players, a legendary hang- out for himself and his pals. He had affairs with beautiful women, including his secretary to whom he dictated his scripts, sometimes completing the next day's scenes only hours before the pages were to be filmed.

He won the very first Oscar given for Original Screenplay.

Joel McCrea and uber- hottie Veronica Lake in Sullivan's Trav
And then it all went downhill.

Like all riches-to-rags stories, it wasn't just one thing, it was a million things. His secretary left him, he left Paramount after they re-cut his serious bio- pic The Great Moment, for  a partnership with Howard Hughes, already beginning his own descent into madness, in a venture called California Pictures. Hughes kept Sturges on a leash for several years, and despite one film, their partnership eventually withered and died. The Players hemorrhaged money and was eventually closed by the IRS.

Several films followed, one for Fox, Unfaithfully Yours, remade by Mel Brooks years later. (Unfaithfully Yours has undergone a critical reevaluation in recent years, and is thought of much more favorably now than it was on its release.)

Although Sturges' reputation continued to decline, he seemed always to be busy, working on a screenplay, an autobiography, television projects and plays. But his downhill spiral remained unchecked, and he died alone in a New York hotel room, while working on the autobiography, entitled, amazingly enough, The Events Leading Up to My Death.

Fortunately for us, all of the great Paramount movies are available on DVD, and the boisterous, larger- than- life work in them remains a delight even now. The witty dialogue delivered at breakneck speed by Sturges' able repertory company sounds as fresh as when he dictated years and years ago.

Several of his stars reached their comedic peak in Preston's films: Barbara Stanwyk, Veronica Lake, Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton are never funnier in any of their other films. Sturges raises the art of the character actor to dizzying heights.

Hutton and Bracken in Miracle of Morgan's Creek
His approach to life in America forms the other half of Frank Capra's heartwarming sincerity and faith in the common man. Seen together, along with Ford's Westerns of the period, they form the cinematic hat trick of life in America. They are our story and still resonate with us today. For every noble man, there is an ignoble man, but he may, like Governor McGinty, have it in him to do one right thing in his life. In a Capra movie, George Bailey pays the bills. In a Sturges movie, McGinty has to leave the country to keep from going to jail.

That is the truth Preston Sturges saw and gave us. Hail the Conquering Hero.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

New Photo Blog Address

Please note that my photography blog can now be found at:

The old address seemed a little clunky.

A Man and His Blues

Best Buddy ever?
George "Buddy" Guy (July 30, 1936) could be called the last man standing in that great third generation of Chicago Blues geniuses*. James Cotton is still very much with us but he's sitting down now, and doesn't sing, although his robust harmonica playing remains undimmed.

Buddy has assiduously courted the white blues audience as well as the more influential blues tastemakers, not the least of whom is Eric Clapton. Clapton called Buddy "the greatest", and that was all Guy needed to vault into the blues superstar status previously reserved for BB King. (There is no comparison between rock superstar status and blues superstar status. Let's just say Buddy probably doesn't have to drive himself to gigs anymore.)

Largely because of this, Buddy's shows had become increasingly tedious, even as the fans had become increasingly more enthusiastic, allowing him to not bother completing songs and saying, "Shee-it" a lot, like the Little Walter outtakes.

To be fair, I haven't seen him in a while, so perhaps the latest shaved head reincarnation of Buddy Guy is putting on a great act. Gentle readers, please let me know.

Enough of this- one may get the feeling that I don't like Buddy Guy. But to paraphrase Billy Gilbert in "The Music Box", I love Buddy Guy! I think he is truly one of the great bluesmen in history. Certainly he is a rare electric guitarist, one of a literal handfull plus one  that can be identified in two notes, along with BB, T-Bone Walker, Guitar Slim, Albert King and Albert Collins.

The first time I saw him was in 1968 at the Newport Folk Festival. He was teamed with Junior Wells, and Fred Below and A. C. Reed were in the band. They were amazing- just what I wanted to see after wearing out my copies of Hoodoo Man Blues and It's My Life, Baby.

After that, it was hit or miss with those two- I saw some of the bravest, deepest blues shows ever and, unfortunately, some of the worst. They never seemd to really like each other, but they did seem to, on occasion, love each other. A strange dynamic, to say the least.

Around the time of Newport, Buddy released his finest recording: the uber- legendary A Man and His Blues on Vanguard records. No Junior, cool horns and an unbelievable performance from Otis Spann who almost steals the show, especially on One Room Country Shack. Check out Buddy's mumbled, "Git it, Spann," while Otis plays low note arpeggios. It's a sublime moment in a disc filled with sublime moments.

Bobby Bland's long-time guitarist and right hand man Wayne Bennett provides rock solid rhythm guitar. The horn section of three tenor saxes (Donald Hankins, Aaron Corthen aka A. C. Reed, and Bobby Fields) are subtle and never get in the way of the rest of the band. Jack Myers, the Hoodoo Man bass player, and no relation to the Myers brothers, repeats his role here. Below and drummer Lonny Taylor trade off on the drum chores, although my ear tells me that Below is doing most of the drumming.

Buddy takes Earl Hooker's Two Bugs and Roach instrumental, adds nursery rhyme lyrics and retitles it Mary Had a Little Lamb. Years later Stevie Ray Vaughn would turn this into a major hit. All the slow blues, and there are a few- it's right after BB's success with Live at the Regal after all, head into the late- night, after hours territory... lonely, sparse and very blue.

The album has an almost casual sound, and Buddy's guitar lacks the distorted overplaying that characterized his post- Hendrix work. In addition to his fine guitar on this disc, Guy's singing is great. He is at the top of his form, his sweet, high tenor perfectly expressing his feelings.

Nowadays blues audiences demand technique and pyrotechnics, but this recording is a throwback to the days of passion and deep feeling, especially in the interplay between Spann and Guy.

And that's why I love Buddy Guy.

*1st generation: Tampa Red, John Lee Williamson, et alia. 2nd generation: Muddy, Wolf, et alia. 3rd generation: Cotton, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Buddy and Junior, et alia.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Keith Olbermann Says Goodbye

I was caught by surprise Friday by Keith Olbermann's departure from MSNBC, as, I suspect, were many.

I'm not a student of ratings, so I have no idea how his show was doing, but as Howard Stern said about Doug Trachte, the Greaseman, when Trachte was fired from radio for racist statements, "If his ratings were better, they wouldn't have let him go."

So true.

Economics, ultimately, rule the commercial airwaves. It doesn't really matter how tasteless you are (and Keith always struck me as somewhat tasteful: the beautifully tailored suits, the $100.00 haircut), it only matters how much money you are making for your sponsors and your network.

I liked Keith's show at times. Of course it was unbalanced. Keith never claimed to be the voice of reason. If you want to hear that voice, tune in Rachel Maddow, whose show is probably the smartest on TV, besides NOVA.

Conservative pundits have a curious set of rules that govern what they can say. Even as he presents himself as a guardian of "family values" (whatever that means), Rush Limbaugh can mock Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's Disease symptoms with total impunity.

Frankly, there's not enough liberals mocking anything these days as far as I'm concerned. Liberals are so afraid of offending some group or another that there's very little wiggle room for them to be pissed off publicly, but Keith managed to find that room and glory in it.

When Keith did get pissed off, he was very good at saying why he was pissed off. Interestingly, in the clip above he compares himself to Howard Beale, the "Mad as hell..." character in Paddy Chayevsky's script for the movie Network. But he never seemed quite that angry.

I recently read Roger Kahn's biography of Jack Dempsey. Kahn spends a lot of time writing about himself and his father and the times in which Dempsey thrived. Kahn is a sportswriter first and foremost, but he's a New Deal guy and he makes sure you know it.

That's how sports commentator and sports buff Keith Olbermann ran his show- like a sports writer. Not like a sports show (how much stupider can they get? The only worthwhile sports show is John Riggins', and that's because he hates Dan Snyder as much as I do, and says so), but like a classic Damon Runyun-eque sports column, the kind Philip Roth parodied so deftly in The Great American Novel.

So, I'm going to miss Keith. His labored attempts at humor (really, really dry), his liberal outrage (never that outrageous), the cut of his jib (whatever that means.) In these insipid, depressing times, Keith was refreshing. Not incredibly refreshing, just... refreshing. And now that's gone too.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Shameless Plug

Is there any other kind?

I'm shamelessly plugging my photography blog, as opposed to my online portfolio,

I've been able to put up a picture a day recently, most of them shot with my Canon G11 point and shoot, a lovely camera that I highly recommend.

So far, so good, except no one knows about the site, so no one goes there. In droves.

Give it a try- the link is under the words "photography blog" and please let me know if you like it or hate it. Or in between.

At the Doctors' Office:

©2011 Breton Littlehales

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Blogging Tips and Tricks

One of the first things I learned about maintaining a blog is that you have to keep blogging on a fairly regular basis. If I go to someone else's blog and see that the last entry was sometime in 2007, then I lose all respect for that blogger. That's right- all respect. Blogging is a very respectable past time.

However, because my blog does not detail my adventures with, say, my grandchildren or what I did today, I often run out of things to say in the context of the blog. In real life I just talk and talk, loudly, until everyone begs me to shut up.

What to do?

Here's a few tricks I've developed over the last year and a half:

1. Watch some pundit on television passing themselves off as an intelligent objective observer of current events. Fox News is is a sure thing. This usually makes me so angry that I'll write an ill- reasoned diatribe.

2. Check dates for birthdays. Especially musician's birthdays. This is very different from actually planning to write something on their birthdays, which I rarely do.

3. There are other blogs where someone else has done a lot of work or research and found some cool pic or video. Just re-publish (with credit of course) and there's your blog!

4. Make a list. Number it.

There you have it: four short blogging tricks. I'm sure other bloggers have their own shortcuts, but these are mine and I'm passing them to you, gentle reader. Blog on!

Finally, in the spirit of tip # 3, here's a very sweet pic from the great If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats:

Here's Willie Dixon, Big Joe Williams and Memphis Slim sharing a laugh on the streets  of Chicago. This is one of those photographs where I wish I had been there,  a cosmic snapshot of three icons doing something they probably did everyday at that point of time.  

After this all three would go their separate ways, Dixon back to the Chess Studios to record some future classic, Big Joe back down south to continue his career as the definitive itinerant nine-string- guitar- welding blues man and Memphis Slim ultimately to Paris where he lived out his life playing nightly in a high- priced bistro.

Luckily for us, on that day in Chicago, someone made this snapshot: Joe with his briefcase and champion belt- buckle, his hat at a rakish tilt and a lit cigarette in his left hand, Willie with his skinny tie and perennial white socks and Slim wearing his  elegant slip-on loafers and wrinkled raincoat. 

Compare their nonchalance with the uptight guy in the background and you realize immediately why it's better to be a great bluesman than to be almost anything else.

Friday, January 14, 2011

New Orleans Panoramic

New Orleans Panoramic, 1919


The street in the approximate middle running toward the water is Canal  and we're looking toward the Mississippi River, visible on the horizon.

Storyville, although closed by 1919, still physically existed and can be seen on the left, near the Regency Shoes' smokestack. The railroad was still there in 1919, on Basin Street. Tom Anderson's Saloon can be seen on the corner of Basin and Iberville.

Most of the French Quarter is obscured by the large white building at the middle left. Maison Blanche's sign can be seen in the background through the building.

Oddly enough, New Orleans still looks a lot like this.

This image is from the Library of Congress collection, and was photographed by George Prince.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Welcome to 2011 or Not, and the Special K Challenge

When we last communicated, gentle readers, it was atop the London Eye with its sweeping view of that great city. Or was it the DC Eye, with its graceful panorama of the Potomac and the monuments?

Well, now it's 2011 and time to get back to the business at hand, whatever that may be. For me, it's photography and music, neither of which will make me a millionaire, but who wants to be a millionaire. I do, of course, we all do. However, short of going on a quiz show (probably rigged) or winning a lottery (need to buy a ticket), it ain't gonna happen.

As I write this, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords lies in critical condition, the result of a terrible shooting incident that left a little girl dead, as well as Rep. Gifford's Chief of Staff and others. In custody is a man of questionable mental stabilty. Representative Giffords had been literally targeted by Sarah Palin in a map advising her followers how to vote.

Needless to say, the media is having a field day trying to implicate Ms. Palin (who has taken the target map off of her website) in the shooting.

Her staff has referred to the crosshairs as "surveyor's marks", which makes about as much sense as heaping all the blame for this tragedy on a misguided, ex-beauty pageant participant from Alaska with a penchant for flamboyant opportunism somewhere between, say, Roseanne in the '80's and Paris Hilton in the '00's. (The zeros? Can we call it that?)

According to the more responsible members of the press, the suspect is extremely delusional. Even David Korn of Mother Jones pointed this out on Keith Olbermann's show, until Keith cut him off.

Can we blame Sarah Palin for any of this? Sure, if we want to grossly oversimplify the situation. Certainly if the shoe were on the other foot, Sarah Palin would blame the President, the Democrats and the "liberal media" and anyone else who might help her make more money.

However, as in all of life, it's more complicated than anyone on television would care to admit. I mean, it's not impossibly complicated, like string theory, it's just more complicated than a sound bite or a movie pitch.

Ultimately, one hopes that instead of pointing fingers, which is fun, we begin to rebuild the informational structure and think more for ourselves, which is not as much fun. We need to access more real information, as opposed to weighted opinion dressed as objective reporting, and make up our own minds. Our opinions are just as valid as anyone's in the media- we have access to the same information as radio/ television personalities, although not as quickly, and are still allowed to come to our own conclusions.

Remember- Sarah Palin is a former politician. She is not an office holder of any kind. She is not in service to this country in any way. She, like Paris Hilton, is a media construct, a personality exploiting a broken system in order to accrue lots and lots of wealth and fame. Unlike Paris, who charged money to go to private parties, Sarah goes to all the parties with a figurative sign around her neck: "Look at me!" it says. "Hel-lo!"

Now, the Special K Challenge: my daughter Emilie writes a blog listed to the left there called I Came to Run.  She does run, every day, and has participated in marathons and other endeavors that make me tired just typing about them. Recently, she wrote a perspicacious (yeah, I said it!) entry about the Special K Challenge. The blog was picked up by Jezebel and has garnered over ten thousand hits on Emilie's blogsite.

I could reprint it here, and spike up my own readership, but instead let's get more folks to Emilie's original entry, found here.

Instead of taking the Kelloggs folks' word for it, she researched their so- called challenge, added up the facts and wrote about her own conclusions and the research behind those conclusions.

Need I say more?

Note: Since I wrote this, I've heard that Ms. Palin has not removed her target from her Facebook page.