Yesterday, Nephew and I caught that Buster Keaton double-feature at the Film Forum in New York (where Nephew is studying filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts). The movies screened were two fine silent comedies, "Spite Marriage" and "The Cameraman." There was live piano accompaniment on the latter film.
I must admit that I was a little nervous when, prior to the film, it was announced (via a slide) that the music would be an original composition by the pianist, Steve Sterner. I was worried that whoever this person was, he might not do it right. In this realm, I had been mildly burned once, and a good friend was seriously burned another time.
Back when VHS was still a novelty, a version of the silent 1925 "Phantom of the Opera" starring Lon Chaney was released with an introduction by Christopher Lee and a new score by Rick Wakeman. Brother Brinie and I thought this would be awesome, man. But Wakeman's score utilized modern sound effects that conflicted with the period film; did not particularly match the action; and even added vocals at inappropriate intervals! Me 'n' Brinie bailed after about a half-hour.
Another time, my buddy Flagstaff Hippie went to see a silent classic with live musical accompaniment by a band. (Since I wasn't there, and I can only go by Flagstaff Hippie's report, I won't share the title of the film or the band's name.) In theory, it had sounded real cool to me. As a band guy, I imagined how cool the challenge of "scoring" a silent classic would be ... to coach my guys to capture the emotions and punctuate the action. But Flagstaff Hippie said the band just played its songs, with no attempt to actually augment the film. What's worse, he said, the audience was spiked with the band's fans. So really, this wasn't a screening of a film accompanied by a band; it was the band's show, with a silent movie playing in the background. If you were there to see the movie, and not the band, you were out of luck. Flagstaff Hippie was furious.
But in the case of yesterday's Film Forum screening, I had nothing to worry about. Yes, this was an original composition, but it sounded like it could have been written in 1926. Pianist Sterner obviously studied every minute of the film; he really helped to tell the story. It was like a collaboration with Buster! While playing, Sterner never took his eyes off the screen. It was glorious. In fact, I have to say that of all the entertainment events I have attended in my life, this screening ranked up there with the greatest. That includes the 1983 ARMS show with Clapton, Page, Beck, et. al.; front row at the Rolling Stones; and "Jesus Christ Superstar" on Broadway in 1972.
I'm happy to report that Sterner received a rousing ovation after his performance with many shouts of "Bravo!" But he pointed to the screen as if to say, "I'm only the piano player -- THAT was Buster Keaton."
THE 28-YEAR PLAN
In the summer of 1978, my old band the Back Street Kids rented the cellar of a pre-school. (Looking back, these places must have been a forerunner to daycare, which wasn't so prevalent back then.) NEVER rent the cellar of your pre-school to long-haired dirtbags. We regularly drank the children's fruit punch from the fridge. Well, it was hot, and we had to walk through the kitchen to get to the cellar.
It was dark, damp and devoid of oxygen down there. It smelled like Eau de Cheap Motel Room. Everything we owned was spotted with mold by the end of that summer. On the first day, I hung a poster; by the last day, the image had faded!
We rented the cellar to rehearse because we decided to get serious about our music. We were finally gonna PLAY A CLUB. (It only took us another 11 years to achieve that goal.) Karch wasn't with us when we picked the place out, nor when we paid the entire summer's rent up front. I agreed to front Karch's share ($25 in 1978 money) until the next time I saw him. (I still haven't seen the money, though he's certainly paid me back in Mike's Hard Lemonades since then.)
We decided that Foghat's live version of "I Just Want to Make Love to You" would be a real crowd-pleaser at the clubs. It's a long song with a lot of parts. We painstakingly taught it to ourselves. We did this by borrowing my sister's portable turntable and putting the needle down on each part as we learned them. (This was before CD players and pause buttons.) I can still smell the stink of mold as we crowded around that little girlie turntable listening to Lonesome Dave Peverett wail, "I don't want you to wash my clothes ... I don't want you to keep a home ..."
Learning "I Just Want to Make Love to You" was just about the only thing we achieved in that cellar (although my brother and I frequenly came close to putting each other's eyes out by flinging still-lit cigarette butts at one another). We've never played the song in a club. We plan to OPEN with it on Nov. 3rd -- another goal achieved. THIS one only took 28 years.
KEATON AND FALAFELS
Nephew has begun his freshman year at the School of Visual Arts in New York. The cat is LIVING IN MANHATTAN. It's been fun to live vicariously through him. He called me at midnight on a Saturday to tell me he was walking back to his dorm room after seeing "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" at the grand old Ziegfeld ... with the chandeliers and the gigantic screen and seating for hundreds.
Nephew is studying to be a filmmaker. I made it my mission to show him Buster Keaton's masterpiece, "The General." Not that the film itself would influence Nephew (I think he's a Quentin Tarantino/Guy Richie kinda dude), but just for him to see how Keaton approached the craft of filmmaking. So dig this: In a week, Nephew and I are going to catch a Buster Keaton double-feature at the Film Forum with live piano accompaniment. He promised to turn me on to a rockin' falafel place, too.
It looks like the next Burners gig will be Nov. 3, venue to be announced. A huge twist this time around: My foursome with Karch and Fro (now called Mad Jack) will open the show. So Brinie (my bassist/brother) and myself are in both bands, playing an overall three-and-a-half-hour program of music. The rehearsal schedule for the next six weekends is brutal. I can't wait.
But of course, I'm Mr. Tears-of-a-Clown. This week is the one-year anniversary of losing Kathy. Maudlin cat that I am, I will bring my guitar to the spot where I spread her ashes and play a song I wrote for her. I was telling one of my sisters-in-law that two or three times over the past 12 months, I've toyed with the idea that I'm actually in a coma and have been dreaming this entire episode. (It's already too long and detailed to be just a regular dream; it would HAVE to be a coma.) No such luck.
"THE CLIMAX" REVIEWED
More on Universal Home Video's "The Boris Karloff Collection" DVD boxed set:
"The Climax" (1944) provides a weird viewing experience for Boris Karloff fans. Back in the day, if a movie had a huge budget with opulent sets, costumes, music and Technicolor -- AND Karloff was in it -- chances are he was fourth-billed in a role that should have been 10th-billed.
But "The Climax" truly top-bills Karloff, and it's truly his movie! Well, he shares it with songbird Susanna Foster.
What happened was this: Karloff's movie career had recently taken a nose-dive. Following his amazing run of classic roles for Universal and MGM in the '30s, Karloff was now down to appearing in low-budget films such as "The Ape" (1940) and the "Mr. Wong" series (1938-40) at Monogram Pictures, home of the Bowery Boys. And so, Karloff packed his bags and headed East to star in "Arsenic and Old Lace" on Broadway to good reviews, healthy box office -- and a bounce in status.
Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, Universal scored with a big-budget "Phantom of the Opera" remake (1943) in Technicolor with Claude Rains (as Erik), Nelson Eddy and the aforementioned Foster. Technically, this was a "crossover'' film -- not merely a musical, but not quite a horror film. "Phantom of the Opera" did so well that Universal immediately began to develop a followup. (Nowadays, its title might have been "Phantom of the Opera II: This Time It's Personal.") What Universal came up with was "The Climax," a very watchable movie with lush production values and mildly horrific undertones. They hired Karloff, who conducts himself immaculately and looks quite dashing in evening clothes.
For horror fans, "The Climax" would be a washout if not for two VERY CREEPY scenes in which Karloff talks to the preserved body of a singer he strangled a decade earlier. The scenes echo two other Karloff films -- one earlier and one later. Compare them to "The Black Cat" (in which Karloff keeps the preserved body of the late wife of Bela Lugosi's character) and "The Terror" (in which Karloff talks to the not-very-well-preserved body of Jack Nicholson's real-life wife).
Two of Karloff's fellow horror veterans tip the scales in our favor: Turhan Bey (the Egyptian priest in "The Mummy's Tomb") and Gale Sondergaard (the title femme fatale in "Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman" and "The Spider Woman Strikes Back"). With its sometimes insufferable production numbers, "The Climax" will separate Boris Karloff fans from Boris Karloff fanatics. You know where I stand.
KARLOFF BOX SET
I've been a Boris Karloff freak since grade school. Without checking with imdb, I can tell you off the top of my head that Karloff was born on Nov. 23, 1887 and died on Feb. 2, 1969 (which I used to call the "Day of Mourning" -- what a geek). I made it my mission to see every movie Karloff was ever in. (Not much chance of that, since he was in more than 150 going back to the silent days.) This was before VCRs and DVD players, of course, so any opportunity to catch a "Karloffilm" (a word coined by Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J Ackerman) was not to be passed up.
When "The Strange Door" was to be shown on Channel 10 at 3 in the morning on a school night, Yours Truly was not permitted to tune in. But I did anyway. I couldn't sleep knowing there was a Karloff film on, so I got up in the middle of the night and watched it with the sound turned down. I couldn't make out everything that was happening, but I remember Charles Laughton was a smiling baddie with bad hair and Karloff had a small role as a good guy working for the bad guy.
"The Strange Door," neither a great film nor a bad one, has turned up on a new five-movie DVD set from Universal, "The Boris Karloff Collection." It should actually be titled "A Boris Karloff Collection," because there's nothing definitive about it. The films are all over the map chronologically (two from the '30s, one from the '40s, two from the '50s). Karloff is top-billed in only two of the five. And only three qualify as "horror" films. Of those, none have any sort of supernatural element. The films are: "The Night Key," "Tower of London," "The Climax," "The Strange Door" and "The Black Castle." Of the five, only "Tower of London" qualifies as a great Karloff performance.
Now that I've run the set down, let me hurry to add that I LOVE it. Because, as I stated earlier, I'm a Karloff freak. Love, love, love the guy. And it was great watching "The Strange Door" again and hearing the dialogue for the first time. NOW it makes sense!
"IN COLD BLOOD" REVIEWED
Some thoughts on "In Cold Blood" (1967), which I just caught for the first time:
This is definitely Robert Blake's finest hour -- better than "The Little Rascals" and "Baretta" put together.
It's so wild when Blake says, "Remember Bogie in 'Treasure of Sierra Madre'?" -- because you KNOW Blake played the little Mexican boy who sold Humphrey Bogart a lottery ticket in that classic 1949 John Huston film. Blake again mentions "Treasure of Sierra Madre" during the bottle-collecting-in-the-desert scene, and a photo of Bogie hangs in Blake's prison cell.
I truly appreciate the movie's authenticity, but there's something sick about the fact that they filmed the murder scenes in the same house where the murders occurred.
It's totally weird to compare Blake's interrogation scenes to his real-life prison interview with Barbara Walters. Both were riveting performances. Blake's character fantasized about singing in "In Cold Blood," and Blake sang during the Walters interview.
How lucky are we that Paul Newman and Steve McQueen turned down "In Cold Blood"? It just works better with "non-movie star" types. And besides -- a decade later, we got to sample Paul and Steve's chemistry in "The Towering Inferno."
I am now on a mission to find Truman Capote's book, but I think I'll pass on the movie "Capote." (TANGENT ALERT) Not to denegrate anyone's accomplishments, but it seems to me there's a trend lately where you can increase your chances of winning an Oscar by playing a famous person with problems (Truman Capote, June Carter Cash, Ray Charles). If Ben Affleck gets nominated for playing George Reeves, so help me God, I'll . . . I'll . . .