Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Wild Boys of the Road

Wild Boys of the Road (William Wellman, 1933) Warner Brothers continued their tough Depression era stories with this look at juvenile transiency in the wake of the Depression, where kids who were a burden to their financially strapped families took to the road as hobos rather than going to orphanages or foster homes. With the country in the midst of a vast migration in search for work or to escape the dust-bowl

Tommy Gordon (Edwin Phillips) and Eddie Smith (Frankie Darro) are high school kids who have it pretty good. They go out on double dates with their best girls in Eddie's jalopy and the only thing they have to argue about is who gets the rumble seat. 

But, Tommy has some bad news. He tells Eddie that he's going to drop out of school to look for work so he can help his family. Aw, that's too bad, Tommy, maybe my Dad can help out. Dad can't. Times are hard and Dad Smith has lost his job, too, and he can't help Tommy, he can't even help his own family. Seeing his father in distress and being a good boy, Eddie sells his flivver and gives Dad the $22 bucks he sold it for.

Having given the last of his worldly possessions to his family, and with them facing eviction, Eddie joins up with Tommy in a quest to find work to provide for their families. They jump a train and start riding the rails. They hook up with other boys, learning what they need to in order to avoid the "bulls" on the rail-line looking for any such vagrants using it for free transportation.
One of the "boys" turns out to be a girl—Sally (Dorothy Coonan)—one of the few who disguise themselves as boys to fit in and protect themselves from attack. Sally is on the way to Chicago, where she hopes she can move in with her aunt until she can find work. It's as good a plan as any and Tommy and Eddie run interference for Sally while they make a transition from train to train. Once in Chicago, they find their situation hasn't improved, as work is impossible to find and the local police are picking up vagrants, but Sally gets past it with a note from her aunt and claiming the boys are her cousins.
They make it to Aunt Carrie's (Minnie Gomball), but the stay is short-lived. Seems Aunt Carrie is running a brothel out of her place (Don'cha love pre-Code films?) and the police raid it that night—not a good thing for runaway and vagrants. They beat it out of a window and hook back up with the kids in the rail-yard.
But, life only gets harder for them: one girl, Lola (Ann Hovey) is discovered by a train brakeman (Ward Bond, uncredited probably because the character is so despicable) and raped, which inspires the others to trap the bum and beat him within an inch of his life, leading the brakeman to fall out of a compartment and die a well-deserved death. Once in Columbus, they hop off the train, but Tommy misses his footing, stumbles, and is clocked by a railroad switch and knocked across the tracks.
Wellman stages one of the grittiest set-pieces he ever produced—the other kids watch helplessly as Tommy, unconscious, one leg splayed over the tracks has his foot cut off by a speeding train, crippling him. Only the help of a visiting doctor saves his life as he has to have his leg amputated. Things are tough on the road, and they're only made tougher by Tommy having to make his way with a crutch when speed is of the essence. But, the incidents near Columbus only steel the group of kids making them tougher, bitter, and, rather than running from authority, ready to take it on and fight it.
The group makes it to Cleveland, where they camp in what was called "Pipe-towns" during the Depression—make-shift shelters made from sewer conduits stacked in a supply yard. The kids call it "Sewer Pipe City" and for awhile it's a stable community in the unstable lives of the kids. It's short-lived, however, as authorities move in to take it down to prevent any lawlessness in town, turning water hoses on the group. The past incidences have hardened the young vagrants and they take on the police, beating them back and getting on another train, pelting the law with rocks and whatever else they can use as weapons.
Finally, they end up at the end of the line in New York, living in a municipal dump and things begin to look up, Tommy in line to get a job, if he can just scratch up enough cash to get a decent jacket. But, even that creates complications that get them mixed up with the law and an appearance before a local judge. This gives Eddie a chance to make a bitter speech on their treatment that has an eerie echo recalling the current issue of homelessness: 
I knew all that stuff about you helping us was baloney. I'll tell you why we can't go home--because our folks are poor. They can't get jobs and there isn't enough to eat. What good will it do you to send us home to starve? You say you've got to send us to jail to keep us off the streets. Well, that's a lie. You're sending us to jail because you don't want to see us. You want to forget us. But you can't do it because I'm not the only one. There's thousands just like me, and there's more hitting the road every day.
Wild Boys of the Road was made in 1933, and runs a tight 68 minutes, but its story of Society's way of dealing (or not dealing) with the issues of those souls who have fallen through the cracks of the economic infrastructure still resonates today.
Wild Boys of the Road was voted into the National Film Registry in 2013.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

The Last Man Standing
"No, I Didn't Re-Invent Myself. I Never Invented Myself to Begin With."

"There Are a Lot of Good Female Singers Around. How Could I Be the Best? Ronstadt's Still Alive"
Pat Benatar

There's this thing that happens to me. I've worked with Sound for a number of years, so I notice it. I notice my reactions to it. One of those things is when a vocal artist goes from a resting volume to full-throated in a split-second. My heart gives an involuntary jump and tears can come to my eyes.  Now, I know you're expecting me to talk about Linda Ronstadt (because that's her on the left), but it's also happened with the late announcer of the Seattle Mariners, Dave Niehaus, who would lull you with talking about how green the grass is in the outfield and the count is 1-2 and SWUNG ON AND BELTED DEEP TO RIGHT FIELD! AND THAT BALL IS GONNA FLY, FLY AWAY....

Instant heart-bump. I remember I heard a call like that while I was listening to highlights of a Mariners season for a potential broadcast introduction, potential because there was discussion that the team was going to move, and I heard one of those "0 to 60" calls Niehaus could do and, realizing I might never hear that again and get that amazing heart-bump again, I started to cry. Silly. But it happened.

So...Linda Ronstadt. Ronstadt does that to me, too. She does that on "You're No Good," starting sultry, then on the third verse ("I learned my lesson, it left a scar...") amping it up so you hear the power in the voice and then going full-bore on the chorus. Heart-bump. 

Linda Ronstadt at
I didn't really appreciate what Ronstadt could do until later in her career when she stopped focusing on charting pop songs (actually, that was producer Peter Asher of "Peter and Gordon" fame) and started exploring what she could do with her voice...doing "Pirates of Penzance" for Joe Papp on stage and in a movie version, then doing three albums of American standards with Nelson Riddle doing the arrangements—that's when I noticed what she was doing. Those albums became favorites of mine because Ronstadt played those songs superbly and Riddle's orchestrations always amaze me.
Then, she went on to do music from Mexico because she grew up on it, living near the Mexican border in Arizona, and because she respected it enough to "do it right". There were also collaborations with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, when they formed a mutual admiration society and did a series of albums together. Ronstadt started doing more collaborations with singers she admired because as she says in her new biographical film Linda Ronstadt—The Sound of My Voice: "I was a harmony singer without any material." Plus, she's sold enough records for her backers that they couldn't deny her.

But, how she got that's the story.

It started out with her singing at a very young age in a house that seemed filled with music and the family constantly singing to amuse themselves and because it seemed so natural. Her father had a background of Mexican music and her mother a love for classical. They constantly played standards of the 40's and 50's. Ronstadt was steeped in it and she and her brother and sister started a little singing group that played local clubs, Ronstadt usually appearing on-stage bare-foot. The siblings dropped out, found lives. She stayed and found other collaborators, which became "The Stone Poneys." That lead to a manager who took on the Poneys even though he wanted to fire the guys because he only wanted "the girl singer." Ronstadt wouldn't hear of it, and they had a hit record with Ronstadt's turning of Mike Nesmith's "kiss-off" song "Different Drummer" into a woman's rejection rather than a man's. In the studio, the arrangement was less the Poneys' arrangement and lighter—more feminine, along the lines of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" which Ronstadt objected to. It became a hit, which Ronstadt ruefully admits "It's a good thing they didn't listen to me."

The group did break up, however, although one of the band-members stayed with Ronstadt as she was finding her way. You can usually tell Ronstadt from this period because she's wearing one of only three striped dresses she used for gigs. She wasn't interested in being a star, she just wanted to sing. The manipulation to achieve that would come later and from outside parties.

What she found was The Troubadour, which was the place to hang-out if you were interested in the L.A. music scene. It was where Ronstadt hooked up with J.D. Souther, Glenn Frey, and Don Henley, who became band members and then went and formed a little group called "The Eagles." Their first album didn't do very well, but Ronstadt recorded a song from it—"Desperado"—and raised their profile.
Ronstadt on "The Johnny Cash" show with one of those three dresses.
What Ronstadt was doing wasn't completely definable, although there were many opinions of what kind of singer she was—folk, folk-rock, pop, in an introduction to her appearance of "The Midnight Special," José Feliciano says she's a country singer. The first words of the movie are Johnny Cash's introducing Ronstadt on his show: "Right now, I'd like you to meet a young lady who has what it takes to be around for a long time." But, Ronstadt sang what she wanted to sing, going with what moved her—"Every song has a face I sing to" she would say.

It didn't hurt that she was cute as a button (still is, by the way), but that had a tendency to make folks overlook the voice and what she was doing with it. The face got her noticed, but as Henley notes in the movie, she gave you the impression that she was "feminine and vulnerable—but when she opened her mouth everything was different." Plus, her eclecticism in material made her tough to pigeon-hole and promote, even as she was also introducing record-buyers to new song-writers and old classics.

But, the formula started paying off with the album "Heart Like a Wheel," which began her collaboration with Asher, the first producer with whom she had no romantic entanglements, and it began a string of best-selling albums that propelled her to the top of the charts and made her a top-draw at stadium-sized concerts.
That success allowed her to move beyond pop, rock, and country into her childhood loves of operetta, the American songbook, jazz, and canciones. Her label executives resisted the efforts, but could not say no and were amazed to find that not only did Ronstadt's fans follow her, but new record-buyers picked up the albums opening up new revenue and new accolades. Ronstadt's instincts for projects broke barriers and disproved naysayers, making her a force to be reckoned with.
Ronstadt's last concert was October 25, 2009. She'd been noticing that she was having trouble singing, achieving the notes and effects that she'd been able to negotiate throughout her career. She announced her retirement in 2011 in an interview with the Arizona Daily Star, and in 2013, announced in AARP magazine that she had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. "No one can sing with Parkinson's," she said "No matter how hard you try." 

The documentary, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, was resisted by Ronstadt for years as potentially exploitative and "self-involved," and those instincts aren't there. For those interested in her private life, well, there's some mention of Jerry Brown and J.D. Souther, but that's it. One of The Eagles mentions that he "didn't have a chance," which says more about him and the male-dominated environment Ronstadt was working in, rather than her. There's a lot of archival footage and plenty of heads talking, most importantly Parton and Harris and Karla Bonoff. She blazed a trail, sidestepping relationships, survived what she called "the great culling" of her contemporaries to drugs—her drug of choice was diet pills because...expectations—and instead concentrating on her art and career, and pursuing her muse and her quest for harmony, which led her to championing a lot of songstresses and fellow artists. Blazing a trail? She took a machete to it. And rock...and pop...and country...have gained a lot more soul because of it. And her.
The title is curious, sounding exactly the "self-involved" title that Ronstadt was trying to avoid. But it refers to a Jimmy Webb song Ronstadt covered that plays the end-credits: "Still Within the Sound of My Voice." That might have been a more appropriate title, but a less positive one, evoking the thought that that once powerful voice is "stilled"—Ronstadt confesses she still can hear it in her head, but loss of muscle control makes it impossible to replicate. And although she insists in the documentary that it isn't "singing," she accompanies her nephew on a Spanish song because "it's family."

Heart-bump. Tears.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Don't Make a Scene (Redux): Bridge of Spies

It takes a lot of time to do the "Don't Make a Scene" feature that I put up every Sunday (all those screen-caps!), so while I'm preparing a bunch more, I'm going to take a break and re-post the ones that have gotten the most "hits," counting down from the 10th highest to the first. When I started compiling them, I was totally baffled by the results (enough that I'm considering posting a couple of my favorites that resonate a lot with me, once we're done with this). I would never have thought that these would be the most looked at, but here they are, as part of "Don't Make a Scene (Redux)."

The Story: A quick change-up from what was planned as this seems a bit more timely. There are a lot of negotiations that go on in Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg's film of the efforts by James B. Donovan to secure a prisoner exchange with the Russians for the release of Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 spy-plane pilot captured by the Soviets in 1960. Those negotiations are wordy, exact in their terms (at Donovan's insistence), and nuanced to the point of view that everything is negotiable to the letter of the law.

But what law? At any number of times during the proceedings, rules are broken, agreements are broken, addenda and riders tacked on and the situation is fluid, malleable, and in constant danger of failing. Not only that, it is closely watched and monitored by governments and their watch-dogs, spies in secret, who are looking out for the best interests of each other's governments and the "gamesmanship" of who can come out with the best results.

And that's trouble. That's where rules are ignored and proprieties slip which can endanger the negotiations, but also hedge whatever good can come of it with a lot of "bad."

But, not to Donovan. In this exchange, and there are quite a few good ones in Bridge of Spies, he lays out the rules to his own private "watch-dog" from the CIA, an agent named Hoffman, who will develop a complicated relationship that is mutually respectful, but mutually irritating. Both men will follow their own rules towards the end-goal, despite how counter-productive it might be to the other.

But, here, they are as adversarial as they get. Because the ground-rules haven't been laid out, and Donovan hasn't let on that 1) he won't be intimidated by power and 2) he won't be compromised by threats. He does that by letting the agent know the bottom line of what he measures his limits by, something that might be overlooked by the agent in his lines of inquiry. And that is absolute and it is resolute.

And it is a far cry from the current POV of government part-time-job-holders who think more like the agent than they do by the lawyer. In that regard, this scene and the current situation in Washington are very similar. 

They provide an education.

The Set-Up: James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) has had quite the day. Tasked with providing a defense for accused Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) by his legal firm, he has been rebuffed by the judge on the case for a delay of trial, not for any practical reason but because he wants the case rushed through for political expediency. Then, while walking home, Donovan has been followed, and not innocently and quite deliberately. Thinking that he has lost him, Donovan is surprised when he is confronted by the man, an agent for the CIA (Scott Shepard). Rather than have it out in the rain, the two retreat to a bar.


Donovan faces the man, looking at identification, which he hands back.
MAN Yeah. 
MAN Just wanted to chat. 
MAN How’s the case going?
DONOVAN The case is going great. Couldn’t be better.
MAN Uh-huh. Has your guy talked?
DONOVAN ...Excuse me?
MAN You met him, has he talked? Has he said anything yet?

Donovan stares at him. Then:
DONOVAN We’re not having this conversation.

The man nods agreeably.
MAN No, of course not.
DONOVAN No, I mean we’re really not having it. 
DONOVAN You’re asking me to violate attorney-client privilege.
MAN Oh c’mon counselor, you --
DONOVAN And I wish people like you would quit saying “Oh c’mon, counselor.” 
DONOVAN I didn’t like it the first time it happened today, a judge said it to me twice, and the more I hear it, the more I don’t like it.
MAN Ok, well listen, I understand attorney-client privilege. 
MAN I understand all the legal gamesmanship and I understand that that’s how you make a living. 
MAN But I’m talking to you about something else -- the security of your country. 
MAN I’m sorry if the way I put it offends you, but we need to know what Abel is telling you. 
MAN You understand me, Donovan? 
MAN We need to know. Don’t go Boy Scout on me -- 
MAN ...we don’t have a rule book here.
Donovan takes a beat, sizing the man up.
DONOVAN You’re agent Hoffman, yeah?
DONOVAN German extraction?
HOFFMAN Yeah, so?
DONOVAN My name is Donovan, Irish. Both sides, mother and father.
DONOVAN I’m Irish, you’re German, but what makes us both Americans? 
DONOVAN Just one thing, 
DONOVAN one one one. 
DONOVAN The rule book. 
DONOVAN We call it the Constitution. We agree to the rules, and that’s what makes us Americans, it’s all that makes us Americans. 
DONOVAN So don’t tell me there’s no rule book and don’t nod at me like that you sonof...
DONOVAN ...abitch.
The man stops nodding and just looks at Donovan appraising him. 
Donovan smiles and gets up from the table, gathers his things.
HOFFMAN  Do we need to worry about you?
DONOVAN Not if I’m left alone 
DONOVAN do my job.
He grabs a peanut from the dish on the table and walks away as he pops it into his mouth.

Bridge of Spies

Words by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen

Pictures by Janusz Kaminski and Steven Spielberg

Bridge of Spies is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Touchstone Home Entertainment.