We have a longer version of the Fest today. Bear with me a bit and let me explain. I've posted this all before and I find it a fun story of sorts to repeat.
When the movie musical Scrooge was released in 1970, I remember reading an article about the film's composer-lyricist-screenwriter (and executive producer) Leslie Bricusse (who earlier had teamed with Anthony Newley to write the stage musicals Stop the World - I Want to Get Off and The Roar of the Greasepaint - the Smell of the Crowd, and the next year would write the score to the movie musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). In the piece, Bricusse said that they'd done research and discovered that among all the Christmas carols written, there had never been one actually titled, "A Christmas Carol." So, he wrote one, which begins the film over the wonderful opening credits by the great artist, Ronald Searle (who also did the credits for, among other films, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.)
I mention all this, though, for a specific reason. Bear with me.
Here's that song first, however, and those wonderful opening credits.
As I said, I mentioned all of that above for another reason entirely.
It's that as good a film as Scrooge is, Bricusse's research staff was lousy. Because 14 years before, in 1956, there was a live TV musical version of A Christmas Carol that was called The Stingiest Man in Town and starred the legendary film actor, best known as playing Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone as Scrooge. And the very first song in the show was called -- yes, you guessed it -- "A Christmas Carol."
The music for the show was written by Fred Spielman, with lyrics by Janice Torre. It's not remotely distinguished or memorable, but has quite a few very nice things in it. And there, right at the top, first thing, is a song, "A Christmas Carol." A live musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol on American television doesn't seem like a terribly challenging thing to track down for a research staff working on a movie musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol.
So, continuing our holiday theme of unknown Christmas songs from musicals, here is the earlier song, "A Christmas Carol," sung by The Four Lads. It's short, less than a minute, but whatever its length the name of the song is "A Christmas Carol." That the researchers couldn't find. But we think you fine folks deserve better... Which is why this also isn't the end of the post here. Because there's another one coming. And it's a joy. But here's that other song first --
Note: Though the person posting this put up a screen shot that say's "A Christmas Carol," it is from The Stingiest Man in Town.
And yes, there's more...
In 1959, which is only 11 years before the movie musical Scrooge was made (and three years after the TV musical above), the wonderful Tom Lehrer released his classic comedy album, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer -- which included a song titled...yes, you guessed it -- "A Christmas Carol."
And again, Tom Lehrer was not remotely an unknown entertainer and songwriter. It fact, as popular as An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer was when it was released, he was probably around the height of his popularity in 1970 when the film Scrooge hit the theaters. His huge hit album, That Was the Year That Was had been released in 1965, only five years before Scrooge. So, how on earth those researchers missed these two songs -- and for all I know there are more, and even high-profile ones -- I have no idea.
Happily, we have this song to enjoy, as well...
On this week’s Naked Lunch podcast, hosts Phil Rosenthal and David Wild take a slight detour. As they write, “Phil & David reveal their favorite movies ever with you and with each other. Who's still in love with Mary Poppins and hyperventilated when they actually met Julie Andrews? Who secretly dreams of Local Hero -- the ultimate movie about the romance of travel? Who was so profoundly scared of Jaws that he was afraid not just to go to the beach, but also go to the bathroom? How did The Graduate seduce both Phil & David? And who's a bigger believer in Pulp Fiction -- Phil or David? Find out all these answers and more right here --- and get ready for the inevitable sequel coming soon!”
There's a point to this. Not a significant point, mind you, but a point, nonetheless. So, bear with me.
I've always liked the TV series Mission: Impossible. Since a kid and even now, when reruns are shown on cable. (I’m selective – there are some episodes I didn’t care for, so I pass those by. The ones I like the most are when they do a "simulation" to trick their target. My favorite is an episode where they make a guy think he’s on a submarine in order to get him to give up key information, when in fact they’ve just recreated it all in a warehouse.)
That said, I hate the movies. In fairness, I’ve only seen the first one, but I hated it so much, ripping the guts out of the point and core of the TV series, out of pure hubris, that I was so offended I haven’t had wanted to watch the others. But the TV series was and remains a joy.
My love for the show even helped on a PR job I had. I was the unit publicist on an awful, violent movie, The Hitcher, in which Jennifer Jason Leigh was the female lead. We got along well, but she was very shy and quiet. When I was interviewing her for her bio in the presskit, she mentioned her step-father being Reza Badiyi. “Oh,” I said, “Didn’t he direct a lot of episodes of Mission: Impossible?” Jennifer stopped and just stared at me – “How did you know that????” she almost sputtered. Well, I’d watched the show all the time as a kid, I explained, and he directed a lot of episodes (18, it turned out) and he had a name that caught the attention of a kid and was hard to forget. I think she may have said that I was the first person she’d met on a movie who actually knew of him. (Their loss, by the way -- Reza Badiyi had a long, 40-year career directing, up to 2006 when he directed the feature film, The Way Back Home with Julie Harris and Ruby Dee.) Anyway, it was a nice, added movie-set connection to make, which is particularly important for a unit publicist, since they’re usually very low on a movie’s totem pole of stature. All thanks to loving the Mission: Impossible series.
(Side Note: I tell some other tales about working on The Hitcher, including a couple of nice, amusing ones about Jennifer in this article here. But I digress…
All of this aside, the point here is about one thing that has always struck me as weird and totally unbelievable about Mission: Impossible. And that’s saying a ton, given the premise of the show and that each week they pull off a mission that is…impossible. However, viewers always accepted those weekly, monumentally-convoluted tricks that often stretched credibility (to the point, every once in a while, that brought about eye-rolling), but because they were pulled off with clever writing and great Impossible Mission Force skill, they landed on the good side of acceptable.
But not this one thing.
At the beginning of every show – at least in the earlier years – the team leader (first Dan Briggs, played by Steven Hill who later was the first D.A. on Law & Order, and then Jim Phelps, played by Peter Graves) would go through his IMF portfolio, decided which agents he wanted to join him on that week’s specific mission. And the ones he wanted, he’d toss their photo in a pile.
There was character actor Rollin Hand (“Man of a Million Faces,” his 8x10 actor’s glossy photo said, “World’s Greatest Impersonator”), electronics whiz Barney Collier and strong man Willy Armitage. (I’m guessing not many people know Barney and Willy’s last name. But them up there alongside Reza Badiyi.) And then also, there was Cinnamon Carter, played by Barbara Bain. Her photo was a magazine cover for a glamour magazine that said “Model of the Year.”
And that’s where I always got stumped.
Here was this attractive woman – who not only was a cover model, and not only a famous cover model, but one so famous that she was the Model of the Year!!! And…and…and No One in the Entire World Ever Recognized Her!!! (The team often had missions in Europe and South America.) Forget that no one ever knew her name, the Model of the Year – forget even that on that “Model of the Year” cover it had her name -- but no one in the series ever stopped her and said, “Hey, you look familiar. How do I know you?? Are you famous?” No one – and I don’t even mean the targets that she was thrown into close confines to trick each week, but I mean even people on the street or in restaurants or store who would regularly pass by her and say, “Wait, I know you!! You’re that lady on the magazines!” No one even ever did a double-take when seeing the Model of the Year right in front of them.
It's like, for that era, being the target of a spy mission, and the woman trying to con you is Twiggy or Cheryl Tiegs or Lauren Hutton or Jean Shrimpton or Grace Jones. Or today, Christie Brinkley, Cindy Crawford, Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks, Gigi Hadid or Gisele Bündchen -- and no one in the entire world for four years even recognizes that she might look familiar...!!!
I’m sorry, that was just a bridge too far for me. I never have been able to believe it that Cinnamon Carter, Model of the Year was never recognized. On occasion, sure, I could accept it like when on a mission in a small far-Eastern European country or a South American country that generally had a name like San Cristobal, or when she was made up to look like an old woman, but not recognized over the 78 episodes she was in – not once.
I almost, sort of have the same issue with Martin Landau as Rollin Hand, who was an actor and apparently a successful one. But because he was a character actor who could sublimate himself into secondary roles – and of course because often he’d create a perfect mask so that he could look like someone else, generally played by someone else -- that, at least, had an aspect of the "willing suspension of disbelief,” where you could accept, “Okay, his career is looking like other people, he’s the Man of a Million Faces, after all. The World’s Greatest Impersonator.” But not the Model of the Year the point of whose career was the exact opposite – making herself as attractive as possible and ensuring that you see her, stare at her, are enthralled by her jammed in your face on magazine covers.
Okay, yes, it’s a small thing in the great scheme of things. But in the world of famous TV series that one loves and has watched for decades, it’s worthy of being bugged by. And for all the absolutely unbelievable things on a show about “the impossible,” it’s the one thing I just don’t and have never bought.
Last week, I saw a surprisingly very good movie that (finally) began streaming on Hulu. (I’d been waiting for it since it was released over a year ago.) It’s called Somewhere in Queens – and the reason it’s surprising is because it’s directed and co-written by Ray Romano, who also stars in it.
I’d heard praise for it over a year ago, because (as readers here well-know...) I listen to the wonderful Naked Lunch podcast that Phil Rosenthal co-hosts -- and who co-created with Ray Romano the series Everybody Loves Raymond -- and he’s talked about it with great pride and admiration, and also had Romano on as a guest, as well as the TV series' co-star Brad Garrett who is so humorously snarky about everything, but was raving about the movie – so, I’ve been waiting and waiting for it to stream. And finally it has.
There’s a lot that’s funny in the movie, but mainly it’s actually a drama, at times even serious and even a bit edgy, but not uncomfortably so, in that it always has a good heart. He’s very good in it, too, and Laurie Metcalf as his wife is wonderful, in a very tough role. It's a role that could be played so many different ways, and almost all of them wrong. But she dove deep into it and got it all spot on. In fact, everyone is wonderful in it, each of them having edges to who they are. As a director, Romano he got excellent performances from everyone. (A nice, small performance by Tony LoBianco stands out, as does an important role by a young actress Sadie Stanley.)
And it’s very well-written and quite nicely directed, filled with nuance. It’s about a large, multi-generational, slightly-dysfunctional Italian-American family, and the put-upon father in the middle who wants a better life for his son. And it’s got a hilarious last line of which I want to say so much more, but I won't.
For what it’s worth, It has a 91% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 92% audience rating, so it’s not just me who liked it.
In fact, I recommended it to a friend in the Academy who I wasn’t sure would like it, it didn't seem like it was necessarily his kind of movie, though I thought it possible he might. So, I risked telling him about it. He watched the movie the next day...and wrote back --
“Thanks for recommending Somewhere in Queens. I loved it. A true surprise. Romano has far more range and nuance as a filmmaker than I expected. I watched it on Hulu, but I now see it's on the Academy site, too, so I'm glad the distributor is supporting it. Yes, Lori Metcalfe was astounding. They all shined, but she made that character so distinctive. And yes, you’re right -- the perfect fadeout line.”
Here's the trailer.
On the surface, this is just a piece about entertainment. And basically it is. But I also think it deals with a major news story -- actually, the major news story today, the attack on Israel -- and how people grab onto a false narrative because it's what you want to be true. Even though, at heart, this is just about a song.
A couple days ago, I got a text message from reader (and Camp Nebagamon camper when I was a counselor) Bill Guthman who'd come across an article online about the writing of the song, "Over the Rainbow," and how -- supposedly -- the underlying meaning of the song is that it was written about Israel as the homeland for Jews.
This didn't seem right to Bill, so he wrote me to find out what I might know about it. This is part of the article in question.
Did you know that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was written, not about the mythical Land of Oz, but the homeland of the Jews - Israel?
Honestly, and I say this not knowing much about the history behind the writing of the song, though knowing about writing and writing song lyrics, I don't even remotely believe the song is "about" Israel. I do understand why many would want to believe it so, most especially now -- and a great many of the readers comments clearly did believe it. But wanting to believe something is true doesn't change it from being a false narrative, no matter how noble the wish.
It reminds me -- from a less noble perspective -- when there was an effort to show that the song "Puff the Magic Dragon" was about cocaine and drug use. At least in that case, nuts as it was, the original article about (in a Newsweek cover story, of all things) that used what purported to be supposed "evidence," dissecting the lyrics. Here, though the guy just basically says "Their family were Jewish immigrants, so this must be about Israel."
That said, I'm sure -- like all writers/ songwriters E.Y. "Yip" Harburg (who was very openly radical left) looked for inspiration to help add impact to his words and might possibly have used a homeland for Jews to add a source of inspiration to perhaps part of his thinking. Perhaps. Maybe. But --
The songs for The Wizard of Oz were written in 1938. Though there had long been efforts to create a Jewish homeland, it seems inappropriate to overlay today's political awareness of "the Holocaust to come" (which wouldn't begin to reach the public for three years) on the meaning of the song. Further, and importantly, they were writing a song to fit the very specific plot point of a story about a girl unhappy with her bland, black-and-white life who is about to go to a magical, Technicolor world in the sky! So...of course that's what the song is (and must be) about. Whether the idea of an Israel homeland helped add a touch of texture to that, who knows? Perhaps. But again, the suggestion in the article is not about a touch of texture, but that "Over the Rainbow" is actually and specifically "about" the birth of Israel.
Also, many, if not most Broadway songwriters of the time were Jewish and likely had similar backgrounds. (For starters, Irving Berlin, whose real name was Israel Beilin, and whose family emigrated to the U.S. from Belarus in 1983.) So, the fact that Harburg and Arlen’s families were immigrant Jews (!!) is borderline meaningless.
Moreover, I've posted a video on my website of Harburg talking about the song and him singing it – which is maybe the most moving version of the song I've seen -- and he talks of the song being about wanting to make "a better world, a rainbow world" which fits far more into his personal politics of having been a blacklisted, lifelong socialist. So many of his lyrics were about social conditions. Like “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.” Consider, too, many of his lyrics in the musical Finian's Rainbow (which for all its fantasy about leprechauns is highly political) like “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich,” “On That Great Come and Get It Day,” and, of course, another rainbow song, “Look to the Rainbow.” Rainbows -- a mixture of colors blended together -- are clearly important to Harburg. For his Broadway musical Flahooley, the story is fully, blatantly political, notably relating to Harburg's own blacklisted, socialist life, even though on the thin surface is merely about toys. (It deals with a genie misunderstanding a wish and giving away a company's top-selling toy, which infuriates capitalist forces who then start a witch hunt and attempt to destroy all the free toys.)
That’s the political, social “better world” Harburg wrote about so often, and directly in "Over the Rainbow." (In fairness, he wrote a lot of whimsy, too, like "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" for the Marx Bros.) But here's that video where he talks about it, says what it means. He's not whimsically wondering about things, but Really Wants to Know, with all his heart, if birds can fly, why then can't he??! It's so meaningful and moving to Harburg that, even though he must have sung this hundreds if not thousands of times, he's in tears at the end.
And further still, and importantly, after reading David McCullough's 2015 biography on the Wright Brothers, I made a discovery that at least one very famous passage from “Over the Rainbow” (those words about how if bluebirds can fly over the rainbow, why can’t I?) is surprisingly very likely related, at least in a tangential way to that -- a famous poem from Harburg's childhood and man now being able to fly! Rather than relay the whole story here, this a link to the piece I wrote about it.
So, while it’s certainly possible that thoughts of a Jewish homeland helped color Yip Harburg’s great-many ideas worked into the song, to state without evidence an unsubstantiated presumption that the song is “about” Israel seems to be very unlikely.
Though the goal in this case about "Over the Rainbow" (declaring that it's "about" a Jewish homeland) was well-meaning these days, it was still -- I'm near 100% certain -- wrong. If people want to take a song and interpret it to have deep meaning for themselves as a sort of anthem, that's another matter entirely and completely valid. But to create a false narrative is never good to take as fact and pass along as fact.
Back in 2019, I wrote about a great documentary I saw on the unlikeliest of subjects that one would consider "exciting" and moving -- sailboat racing. But it was. The film was Maiden, about the first all-female crew to participate in the Whitbread Round the World sailing race in 1989, that sets out from England.
It's airing now on the Movieplex cable channel, and it's next scheduled for this afternoon at 3:26 PM (Los Angeles time). And then will run again the next day, Wednesday, September 27 very early at 1:37 AM -- again, Los Angeles time. (It's why God created the DVR...)
A great thing about Movieplex is that they don't have commercials. A bad thing is that they aren't on all cable services -- though are on a lot. These are the services that I believe carry Movieplex.
If your system does carry Movieplex, here's a link to their schedule for the next two weeks. The times they have listed are Eastern. (For Spectrum in Los Angeles, it's on Channel 620.)
Unfortunately, it's not available for streaming on either Netflix or Amazon Prime -- which is why, in particular, I mention it here. However, it can be rented on Amazon Prime for $3.99, if you want to see it but don't have the Movieplex Channel on your cable system. You can get it here.
Just so you know that I'm not alone in my love of this movie, it has a 98% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And a 97% audience rating. It really is this wonderful. And exciting. And moving.
What makes the documentary so great -- beyond the story -- is the access to video they have. Lots of footage from childhood and growing up of the driven-force and skipper behind the effort, Tracy Edwards. (Now, Tracy Edwards MBE.) But also the incredible footage on the boat during the race -- a video crew offered its services to all the competing boats, but no other boat wanted to take them on. The women, however, figured they had nothing to lose, so what the heck, sure. It's phenomenal material -- a record of the 30,000 mile race that took about six months! And then, to top it all off, there's the story and its twists and turns.
Again, it's great.
Here's the article about the documentary that I wrote back in June 18, 2019, along with the trailer.
I saw a great documentary at the Writers Guild Theater over the weekend which seems an unlikely topic for an exciting, moving true story like this. It’s called Maiden, about Tracy Edwards, a British cook on a racing sailboat who decides to put together the first all-female crew to enter an Around-the-World Sailing race in 1989 -- despite never having skippered a boat before. It's really well done, wonderful. Tons of archival footage (including of the race, since there were videographers on board, as well as her earlier life) that almost makes it like watching a work of fiction, and very emotional at times with some twists and surprises. I shall say no more, because the unexpected moments and twists -- and perspective -- are some of the fun.
I don’t know if it will get a theatrical release, but since it’s from Sony Classics, I suspect it will. At the very least it will eventually be on DVD, perhaps in three months or so.
One small footnote I'll add -- when watching the trailer afterwards, I paused at the credit block...and there noticed that her name was listed as "Tracy Edwards MBE." .They don’t mention in the film that she got that impressive honor. In fairness, I don’t recall that the documentary has an end crawl to update the story, so if not, there was no place to reference it.
As I've mentioned previously, my cousin Jim Kaplan has a small sailboat/motor boat, and when I told him about the documentary, he laughed and said, "I love sailing -- and even I wouldn't ever think you could make a film about it that was exciting."
But they did. The video footage they have access to is remarkable, and on a 30,000 miles race there is profound danger all the boats face almost every moment, Above all, though, the film is very involving from the personal stories involved.
This is the trailer. It does a very respectable job telling the story and giving a sense of the richness, but the documentary is even much better -- in large part because the trailer leaves out much of her early personal life that is dramatic and fascinating, and also in part because the race itself is especially dramatic with twists.
As a bonus, I'll re-post this brief piece I added three months later --
Back in late June, I wrote a rave review here of the absolutely wonderful documentary Maiden that's about the first all-female crew to participate in the Whitbread Around-the-World race in 1989. The ship's captain, who put the crew together, Tracy Edwards, also founded The Maiden Factor, an organization that works with charities to provide an education for girls who don’t currently have that basic human right. In doing so, the foundation sails the ship around the world to help raise money.
As I've mentioned here, I occasionally head down to Marina del Rey where my cousin Jim Kaplan has a small motorboat/sailboat, and the two of us tool around the Pacific Ocean. Yesterday was one of those days. And as we turned down the basin where his boat is docked and headed towards the main channel, we looked towards what's known as Basin A and what we saw there was --
Oh, huzzah. Yes, Maiden was docked in the Marina Del Rey harbor as part of its ongoing promotional tour for its The Maiden Factor foundation.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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