My Old Kentucky Homesite

Archive for the ‘Old Movies’ Category

Happy Boopday (Or Maybe Not)

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 06/19/2010

There will be no earworms here at the Homesite this Saturday, because today is the anniversary of Max Fleischer’s birth.
[Update 4:50 a.m.: Actually, that’s a lie. I misread my source. His birthday was July 19, not June. But, hey, it was late when I wrote this, and what are a couple of letters between friends? Anyway, I like to get my cards out early to be sure they’ll arrive in time. So, sue me. But enjoy this tribute first; don’t let all my Googling go to waste. FYI: The information in the rest of the post, to the best of my knowledge, is correct.]

Max was a genius at animation. He and his brother Dave started the Fleischer Studios in 1921. Among their successes were the “Out of the Inkwell” series and the “Song Car-Tunes,” which invited audiences to “follow the bouncing ball” as they sang along. The Fleischers also created the Popeye series and made adventure cartoons starring Superman.

But the Fleischer shorts that I love best are the ones that scared me shitless when I was a very little boy, and left me fascinated, both visually and auditorily, when I was a little older. They were wildly surrealistic, really wacko. Some of them featured popular jazz artists of the 1930s, both in live action and as “voice-overs.” These psycho-sexual extravaganzas appealed to me on a level I didn’t even recognize. Their “star” was Betty Boop.

In honor of Fleischer’s birthday [next month!], I present you with some of his eeriest, most wonderful work.

First, three cartoons that helped launch Cab Calloway’s career. He not only sings and conducts his band, but — because Max had invented the rotoscope, which recorded live action for animators to trace over —he dances, too.

Minnie the Moocher

Snow White (including “St. James Infirmary”)

The Old Man of the Mountain

The Fleischers also got a great performance out of Louis Armstrong.

I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You

In this last cartoon, Don Redman sings and conducts two numbers, “How’m I Doin’?” and the title song.

I Heard

Even given the flawed YouTube incarnations, I still find those cartoons pleasurably creepy.

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Posted in Music, Old Movies, Pop Culture | 23 Comments »

Read the Book While You See the Movie

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 01/10/2010

Every now and then I get tired of being curmudgeonly, so I  try to take a few hours off from grumbling. This is tougher to do than you’d think, because sometimes the only way I know I’m really alive here in Lexington is to feel cranky.

But on these mellow occasions, I do make an attempt to relax my mind, not burdening it with any cantankerous details whatsoever. That may be easy for some of my butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-their-heads fellow Kentuckians, but it’s no easy task for me. Still, tomorrow is my birthday, and I’m gettin’ old.  So, just for tonight, I didn’t want to have to rev myself up to my usual level of orneriness.

Instead, my wife and I spent some time reminiscing about the good old days. The good old days — which, really, weren’t that great unless you liked French-cut canned stringbeans — were back when only birds tweeted, back before anyone who wasn’t a pie-maker ever thought about a blackberry, back before “iPod therefore iAm.” We certainly had no such thing as Google, where every factual error in the world can be summoned within seconds. In those days, people found information by reading books. I’m not kidding. We turned pages with our — yuck! — fingers.

Of course, that’s an outmoded procedure nowadays, but my wife and I are kind of outmoded ourselves. So, even though each of us can do esearch with the best of them, we still often find ourselves racing to our bookshelves whenever we’re hungry for tidbits of information. You can’t teach an old dog new nitpicks. That’s why it takes us about a week and a half to get through a 90-minute DVD.

To be more precise about the reason it takes us so long: It’s because we’re Lookies.

The original Lookies were a couple of friendly question-mark-shaped children in the 1950s who urged kids to nag their parents for the World Book Encyclopedia. Their motto, as I remember it, was: “We never guess; we look it up. ‘Cause we’re the Lookies!”

I’ve been a Lookie all my life, and so has my ladylove. Years ago, when we first combined living quarters, we sat our two reference collections down and promised that we’d show no favoritism. But now, ages later, we still don’t trust each other’s books.

“What does ‘heuristic’ mean?” she might ask, peering at me above the top of her magazine article.

“I’m not sure. Let’s look it up.”

“Use my dictionary.”

“Mine’s better.”

“Well, it’s my word.”

Our Lookitude really flourishes, though, when we’re watching a film. As we were earlier today.

“What city is that?” asks my wife, while the camera pans down on the opening shot.

“I’m not sure it matters to the story,” I answer, scanning Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, an edition of which I always grab before pressing Play. You never know what kind of film-knowledge emergencies might come up.

“Of course it matters,” she says. “It’s not just some vague place. We’re supposed to recognize those buildings. What does the book say? I see palm trees. It’s probably Miami or L.A., don’t you think?”

“There’s a street sign,” I point out.

“I missed it. Stop and hit reverse. Let’s see it again.”

Meanwhile, the film’s narrator is telling us, “The sun rose that morning over …”

“Stop that damn thing for a minute!”

“C’mon,” I complain. “He just said it was Minneapolis.”

“I don’t care what he said, but I think you’re hearing things. There aren’t any palm trees in Minneapolis. Even you know that, right? Go look up ‘palm’ in my botany encyclopedia.”

“Maybe it was an unusually warm summer,” I suggest. “Let’s just watch the movie.”

My wife leans over and grabs the remote from my hand, frantically hitting pause. “Wait a second. Wait a second. What else took place in Minneapolis? I’m thinking of something but I can’t zero in on it.”

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,'” I say.

“Oh, yeah, right.” We both sing “Who can turn the world on with her smile? Who can take …”

“You know when Mary Tyler Moore really made me smile?” My wife tosses her imaginary hat into the air as she gets up to walk over to one of our 3,000 bookcases. “I wanna find something in Total TV. Just bear with me a second. Go pee or something”

“I don’t have to. Can’t it wait till after the movie?” I ask.

“This is gonna drive me crazy through the whole thing. When we were singing about Mary Tyler Moore, it reminded me of when she was married to Dick Van Dyke. And I suddenly can’t remember their last name. Aha! Here it is! Petrie!”

“Yeah,” I say, “like the dish we used to make gunk in during high school biology. Now you’ve got me curious. Who’s that dish named for? You think it’ll be in one of the desk encyclopedias?”

“I bet it’s in mine.”

“Mine’s better. Hold on, while I check in my office.”

“I’ll go look in mine.” Both of us call out, almost simultaneously, “J.R. Petri, German bacteriologist.” Then, as she heads back to the living-room, she hollers, “OK, I’m ready to watch the movie now.”

“No, no. Not yet,” I holler back. “I wanna see something. I’m checking Nobel Prizes for Medicine in The World Almanac.”

“What year?”

“I don’t know. I graduated from high school in ’65, so it had to be before that. Just shut up and let me do some serious research here.”

About fifteen minutes later, I march into the living-room, triumphantly.

“Did you find out if he won a Nobel Prize?” my wife asks.,

“No, I got sidetracked. But y’wanna hear something weird! We were just talking about Dick Van Dyke, and I was looking up awards given out in 1965, right?” She nods. “Well, guess who won the Miss America Contest in 1965!”

“No clue,” she says.

“Guess.”

“I can’t. Now you’re holding the movie up.”

“Vonda Kay Van Dyke!” I say. “Isn’t that a strange coincidence?”

“What the hell kind of name is Vonda?”

“It’s a variant of ‘Wanda’ and it means ‘wanderer.’ I knew you’d want to know, so I looked it up.”

“Where?”

“In What to Name Your Baby.”

“What are you doing with that?”

I shrug. “It was on sale at Barnes and Noble. I couldn’t resist. You never know what kind of information …”

“That reminds me,” she says. “Remember ‘The Wanderer’?”

“Yeah, yeah. I figured you’d ask so I looked in The Encyclopedia of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Dion sang it in 1962.”

“Not that wanderer,” she says. “A different wanderer. I was thinking of some opera character. Where’s my opera handbook?”

“I’ll go look in mine, too,” I suggest.

Five minutes go by.

Siegfried,” she calls. “By Wagner,” I respond. “The Wanderer is Wotan,” she calls. “Leader of the Norse gods,” I answer.

“Yeah. By the way, my stylebook right here says not to confuse ‘Norse’ with ‘Norwegian.”

“You know who I picture when I think about Norwegians?”

“Garrison Keillor,” she answers.

“Hey, that’s amazing,” I shout. “Minnesota.”

“Minneapolis!” we both cheer.

Finally, having come full circle — at least for the time being — we head back to the couch to unpause the movie. And to breathe a sigh of relief after a job well done.

Nobody ever claimed that being a Lookie was gonna be easy.

Posted in Books & Bookshops, Google, Old Movies | 7 Comments »

Lions, and Tigers, and Pterodactyls – Oh, My!

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 12/18/2009

I’ve subscribed to a free list called birdky, on which people from all over the state of Kentucky write short emails whenever they spot an interesting bird. In the last few days, I’ve received three or four notes by bragging birders who have seen dozens of sandhill cranes flying overhead. At nearly four feet tall, sandhill cranes are among the largest birds in the United States. Their red crowns and grey plumage make them easy to identify from a distance, even for an ornithological idiot like me, who might otherwise just point upwards in awe and yell “Duck! Duck!” Not the noun, the verb.

Unfortunately, sandhill cranes do not come to backyard feeders, just as lions do not eat Meow Mix from a bowl labeled “Princess.” So you won’t see one (a sandhill crane or a lion) if your main contact with nature is the view through your sunroom window. My main contact with nature – really, my only contact with nature – is, in fact, the view through my sunroom window, and even that makes me sneeze. So my avian friends tend to be little guys, like sparrows, titmice, and misidentified squirrels, none of which is the kind of sighting that makes a person scream “Duck!”

My consolation is that I can still clearly conjure up my first encounter, back in the Bronx of my boyhood, with an enormous flying creature. It wasn’t a bird exactly, and you’d never find it on Audubon’s list of North American species, but I knew what it was as soon as I saw it. And it did make me scream.

Until that evening, I never fretted about being attacked from the sky, because I knew Mom was vigilant. She spent a lot of time imagining awful things that might happen to her children, and acted beforehand to prevent them. I was never allowed to have chunky peanut butter, even though I begged and begged her to change over from the boring “creamy smooth” kind. Mom was sure I would forget to chew the small pieces of nuts, and choke.

Pez fell into the same category. I was permitted to have a dispenser, but forbidden to fill it with candy. Instead, I was encouraged to use it as a puppet, opening and closing the lid to make it talk. What I usually had it say was, “Help! I’m empty!”

Besides gaggable foods, there were dozens of other perils lying in wait for me. Mom was constantly on the lookout for friends who were “bad influences.” In the Bronx of 1956, any kid who showed an ounce of independence was a potential corrupter. If Jerry went outside without a jacket before May 1, he was a bad influence. If Shelley stopped at the local bakery for an appetite-ruining cookie on the way home from school, he, too, was a bad influence. Stevie, who was the smartest child in my grade, maybe even the entire school, became, briefly, a bad influence because one day Mom saw him riding his tricycle faster than one mile per hour. He was forgiven only when she learned later that he was in a hurry to get home and kiss his mother hello.

Mom would have been horrified to discover that the other mothers thought her son was a bad influence because he was such a mama’s boy. In those days, people still believed that sissiness was contagious.

Wherever I went, Mom made sure that in my pocket I always carried a small card with my name, address, and phone number, as well as her name. “You never know,” she’d say. “What if you, God forbid, get run over. God forbid.”  Even when I was on my way to play at a friend’s house in the same building, she would remind me to take my identification.

“Do you have your ID card with you?”

“I’m just going over to Shelley’s to read comics. It’s raining. We’re not gonna go out. We’re just gonna sit around and trade Supermans. His mother knows your number.”

“Well, take it anyway. You could fall down the stairs on the way over. You’re not Superman.”

With all Mom’s concerns about my fragile physical and mental state, it was no surprise to Dad or me that she was dead-set against his taking me to see Rodan, a Japanese sci-fi movie about a rubber pterodactyl threatening Tokyo. For a weeny boy like me, it was definitely a trauma waiting to happen.

Dad dug in his heels. Sitting through a horror flick was a necessary rite-of-passage for a male child. F’Chrissake, he was about the same age when he and his buddies had gotten the crap scared out of them by Dracula and Frankenstein. A little healthy fear would make a man out of me.

“Don’t compare yourself to Larry,” my mother said. “You lived in Brooklyn.”

Brooklyn was considered the tough borough, the borough where Jewish boys grew up to form Murder, Inc. The Bronx was where Jewish boys grew up to form orthopedic shoes.

“He’s too young for a movie like that,” Mom insisted. “He still gets a nervous attack from the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz.”

“Listen, Elaine,” Dad said, “don’t tell me about monkeys. When I was his age, I saw King Kong. But I survived, didn’t I? Let the kid grow up, f’cryinoutloud.”

Then, turning to me, he asked, “You’re not scared of some Judy Garland movie, are you, Mr. Cowardly Lion?”

“Um … no,” I replied, trying my best to shrug nonchalantly, although my heart began racing at the very thought of the winged creatures. “I just think they’re … um … ugly.”

“Well, they’re no worse than Uncle Jack, are they?”

Mom was adamant. “Keep Uncle Jack out of this. He’s not going, and that’s final.”

It looked like Mom would prevail. “That’s final” usually was. But Dad still had one trick up his sleeve; he played the Pansy Card. “You know, Elaine, you’re gonna turn him into a homo if you’re not careful. A good scare’ll give him some real balls.” Dad gestured to show the immense size he had in mind. “It’ll put some hair on his chest.”

It’s hard to imagine why the image of a third-grader with freakishly large testicles and body fur won Mom over, but she finally said OK. With conditions. She made Dad promise that we’d take the bus instead of walking to the theater. “He’s a little afraid of the dark, and besides, you never know who’s out there.” She made us swear that we wouldn’t even think about popcorn. “It could get stuck in his throat. Yours too, Murray.” And she couldn’t resist a parting zinger at Dad: “Go ahead and put some hair on his chest, but if my child has nightmares for the rest of his life, it’ll be on your head.” Which is exactly where Dad needed some hair, so he was gonna be winner whatever happened.

The short bus ride over to the RKO Marble Hill was an emotional journey; one moment I was euphoric about my venture into manhood, the next moment I was panicked that I might wet myself in terror. At Mom’s urging, I had already used the bathroom twice before we walked out the door, but I was worried that there was still some residual fear-pee waiting to be released. I had learned in the schoolyard the story of the boy who had pissed out all his internal organs during The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and I dreaded the possibility of losing my essence in an ignominious series of puddles.

Once inside the movie house, we headed upstairs. Dad always staked out territory at the extreme end of the last row of the balcony, where he could smoke or snore without any disturbance. The rest of the people in the theater were teenagers on dates, busy with anatomy lessons.

Monster movies of the ’50s followed a formula. You never got to see the critter until the picture was about two-thirds over. Then he would make some half-hearted attempt to eat a major city, until a human (yay!) figured out a way to blow him up.

But I had no clue about the routine. As Dad sat beside me, contemplating his eyelids, I watched the story unfold and worried about bladder control. A piece of popcorn was lodged in a back tooth; I was sure that if the sight of the monster didn’t immediately kill me with fright, it would cause the kernel to pry loose and cut off my breathing.

And then — oh no!

“Dad? Wake up. I have to go to the bathroom.”

He was not one to coddle me. In those innocent days, you could still send a small boy to urinate by himself, so he gave me explicit instructions for how to get to and from the men’s room. I could hear the blood pumping through my head as I raced down what seemed like a million steps, ran into the toilet, whipped myself out in record speed, and peed as if I were in time trials. Mom always taught me not to “force it,” I could rupture something, but this was a crisis situation.

Ominous music came roaring out of the speakers as I hurried back to my seat. I dared not look at the screen, but I dared not ignore it either. It wasn’t until I had gotten entirely into the theater’s darkness that Rodan surfaced.

“DAAAAAAAAAAAAAD!”

“I’m here!” A cigarette beacon shone in the distance.

“It’s RODAAAAAAAAAAN!”

Adolescent boys are extremely witty, and so the theater filled with echoes of “DAAAAAAAAD! RODAAAAAAN! Watch out, little boy, it’s gonna EAT you! Oh, no, a big CHICK-ENNN!” This was the only downbeat necessary to start a huge clucking chorus. Some of the clucks were meant to be parodies of Rodan, but many more of them were meant to be me.

“Look, it’s no worse than Uncle Jack,” Dad argued. If we had stayed, I would have learned that our species always wins. But my eyes were shut tight, my hands were over my ears, and my air passages were blocked by a handful of popcorn basketballs. I told Dad I had a bad bellyache.

During the ride home, I calmed down slightly. But I did sneak peeks out the bus’s rear window to make sure we weren’t being followed by any monsters. Dad put on an act, but I could tell that he was afraid, too. Mom was going to kill him.

“Let’s not tell your mother, huh? Just say you had a good time. OK?”

Mom was waiting for us. “Short movie,” she commented.

“Well,” Dad answered, “how long does it take to tell about a big bird?”

Mom looked me over until she had satisfied herself that nothing was wet or broken. “So?” she asked me. “Were you scared?”

“Not really,” Dad said, quickly. “But I think he’s got those winged monkeys in better perspective now.”

That was more than five decades ago, and I still haven’t seen any airborne simians. But I do have high hopes of spotting a flock of sandhill cranes one of these days. I trust they’ll be better looking than Uncle Jack.

Posted in Memoirs, Old Movies, Watching Birds | 2 Comments »