Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Faithful Companion

by Mark Griffin

[Please note that this review originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of The Baum Bugle]

The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion
By Jay Scarfone and William Stillman
Harper Design/HarperCollins Publishers, 2013. 
Cover image courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

I’ve long harbored this fantasy that in the summer of 1939, some subversive MGM janitor – fed up with sweeping the cutting room floor – decided to “preserve” some of the scraps of celluloid that he found after the editors on The Wizard of Oz had knocked off for the night. 

Allowing my fantasy to take full flight, I imagine that this crafty custodian managed to rescue the choicest cuts.  What if he had salvaged scenes deleted from Oz that have obsessed movie buffs for decades?  We’re talking about the mother lode here:  The "Jitterbug" number, “The Triumphal Return” to the Emerald City (following the Wicked Witch’s unforgettable liquidation) and a poignant reprise of “Over The Rainbow.”   As my wishful thinking would have it, my insubordinate janitor not only saved the most significant excisions but he stashed these treasures in his worn-out steamer trunk.  Said cache is now sitting in a downtown Burbank consignment shop, just waiting for someone to peer inside that battered trunk and make the cinematic discovery of a lifetime.

The point of all of this is to express a fervent hope that there is still something new that remains to be seen in reference to everybody’s favorite movie.  That kind of hopefulness envelops The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion by Jay Scarfone and William Stillman.  This is the same duo responsible for the 1989 bestseller, The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History (co-written with John Fricke) as well as its lavishly illustrated follow-up, The Wizardry of Oz, which followed a decade later.  You’d think that by now the cupboard would be bare in terms of excavating any unseen Oz ephemera. 

Apparently not.  In their latest effort, Scarfone and Stillman promise the reader material “rarely seen or previously unknown since 1939” as well as “new, uncovered quotes and fresh facts.”  Do they deliver?  Pretty much.  Or as well as can be expected considering that The Wizard of Oz has been exhaustively analyzed, annotated and footnoted like no other film in history. 

So what new information have the authors uncovered?  The most exciting discoveries in this anniversary companion are the visual elements.  On page 38, we’re treated to a fascinating glimpse of the Oz that almost was:  An image of an uber glam Judy Garland, decked out in a blonde wig and looking far more Lana Turner of Beverly Hills than Dorothy Gale of Kansas.  The authors inform us that this is “the only color photograph known to have survived from Richard Thorpe’s tenure as [the film’s original] director.”  As none of Thorpe’s footage has surfaced, this kind of intriguing artifact becomes all the more important.  The photo also bears evidence of producer Mervyn LeRoy’s original vision – his Oz was initially conceived as a highly stylized production, like an animated cartoon come to life.  In this way, the movie would serve as Metro’s answer to Disney’s groundbreaking blockbuster Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Another rare visual is an arresting sepia-toned image of the Gale farmyard, looking every inch like a Walker Evans photograph of the Dust Bowl in the midst of the Great Depression.  This still image allows one to fully absorb just how meticulously detailed this production was.  To the best of my knowledge, this shot hasn’t turned up in any of the previous books on the film’s production history.   Same would be true for a series of captivating thumbnail photos that reveal how the Great and Powerful Oz’s disembodied head appeared to float over the throne room long before the advent of digital technology.

The book has been beautifully designed by Paul Kepple and Ralph Geroni of the Philadelphia-based Headcase Design.  The elegant, Art Deco style on display is reminiscent of MGM in its voguish hey day.  The visual style of the Companion reminds us that Oz emerged from the same sleek universe where Joan Crawford was gowned by Adrian and William Powell and Myrna Loy solved murders between sips of champagne.

Text-wise, the style is straightforward and restrained, though the narrative is upstaged by the outstanding artwork throughout.  Purists will undoubtedly take exception to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Mighty Miracle Show” being repeatedly referred to as “Turner Entertainment Co.’s The Wizard of Oz,” which sounds an awful lot like a corporate takeover talking.

The glut of commercial tie-ins whipped up to cash in on the 75th anniversary of Oz ranged from the embarrassing  (Julep’s Oz-inspired nail polish…”Give Tin Man a try…It’s a silver, holographic shade that reminds us of the man without a heart”) to the lackluster (the recent Warner Home Video re-packaging of the film).  Compared to these letdowns, the Scarfone-Stillman collaboration achieves the appropriate balance.  Their Anniversary Companion is reverent yet fun and the determination to scrounge up some new material for die-hard Oz fans is admirable.  So skip the holographic manicure and celebrate in style.     

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Good Life: An Interview with Tony Bennett

"I could have retired fifteen years ago but here I am still going at it," says Tony Bennett.  At 87, the legendary vocalist has certainly earned the right to stay home and spend time with his seventeen Grammy Awards and a roomful of hit records that come in shades of triple platinum and certified gold.  Nevertheless Bennett prefers to keep looking forward.  "I'm 87 and believe me, I feel like I'm just starting out and learning so many new things," says Bennett, who has now been performing for seven decades.  He's worked with all of the greats - from Sinatra to Streisand, Garland to Gaga.  He's hit the top of the charts dozens of times and did so while fully clothed and without ever once using a wrecking ball as a means of transportation.

After racking up honors from the Kennedy Center, the United Nations and Billboard, most performers would be content to spend their days hitting the links at Pebble Beach but not Bennett, who is currently in rehearsals for his Waterfront Concerts appearance at Merrill Auditorium in Portland on April 19th.  Bennett says that the program will include many of his favorite standards.  And is it any wonder that one of our country's most gifted singers would find inspiration in the Great American Songbook?

"In America, we're very privileged to have produced this extraordinary group of composers - George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and of course, Cole Porter, who was better than all of them," Bennett says.  "All of these artists were part of a great renaissance period in music...You just swoon when you hear songs like "Embraceable You" or "Night and Day."  These songs don't sound old to me in any way.  In fact, after years of performing these songs, I'm completely convinced that in about fifty years, they'll be called 'America's Classical Music' and not just referred to as 'light entertainment.'"

Several of the songs Bennett performs in concert are featured on his new Sony Legacy compilation, "The Classics."  This career-spanning anthology allows the listener to hear Bennett transition from a youthful, full-bodied belter to a more mature and nuanced interpreter.  The collection kicks off with his 1951 breakout hit, "Because of You," and concludes with "Steppin' Out With My Baby," his 2012 duet with Christina Aguilera.  Listening to the various tracks, its easy to see why record executives determined early on that Bennett had "undeniable crossover appeal."  After all, it's a rare performer who can claim both AARP members and Phi Kappa Sigma members as part of their fan base.

Bennett believes that his widespread and enduring popularity is at least partially attributable to some advice he received at the beginning of his career.  "When I was at the American Theatre Wing, I had this wonderful vocal coach, Mimi Speer, and she gave me some terrific advice," recalls Bennett.  She said, 'Don't imitate other singers because you'll just end up in the chorus if you do that...You always have to remember to be yourself.'"

After signing with Columbia Records in 1950, Bennett says that he never picked songs based on their Top 40 prospects.  "I never tried to get a hit song.  I just tried to find intelligent songs that were built right musically and that have beautiful lyrics," says Bennett.  "I was taught at the American Theatre Wing to never compromise and to sing quality all of the time.  If you find a song that's well written, then you try to record the definitive version of that song.  You know, it's a lot like fishing.  Some days you can catch a whole barrel of good fish and other days, you can't get any of them.  But you go for it anyway and you give it your best shot."

When it was released as a single in 1962, "Once Upon a Time" was expected to be Bennett's next chart topper but disc jockeys preferred the song that had been relegated to the "B' side.  Bennett's wistful longing "to be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars" turned "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" into a career milestone.  "I had a musical director, Ralph Sharon and he found that song for me," Bennett remembers.  "He had some friends that wrote that song and one day when we were trying different tunes out, he just said to me, 'How about this one?'  We had no idea that it was going to go through the roof...I can't think of a better signature song to be associated with because the city is a very romantic city and it's really beautiful.  It's not that Maine isn't beautiful because that's an incredible place also but there is a spirit about San Francisco that is very unique."

The 60's proved to be a particularly fertile decade for Bennett.  "I Wanna Be Around," "The Good Life" and "This Is All I Ask" all soared to the top of the charts and several of the albums he recorded during this period (When Lights Are LowAlone Together) are considered among his finest.  As Bennett recalls, "I had a wonderful arranger, Marty Manning, who never blew horns about his career and never wanted his name mentioned or anything like that but I remember when I was a young singer he said to me, 'Just know that whenever I do an arrangement for you, it's going to be just right for you...'  Lo and behold, every time we had a hit record and I had quite a few of them, it was Marty Manning who had done the orchestrations.  He'd never take the credit but Marty Manning was the one who wrote the music so that it would be an absolute perfect fit to whatever I was singing."      

As for today's music, Bennett believes that art has taken a backseat to the bottom line and that the tide began to turn with the man behind the candelabra. "Liberace was the first one.  He was playing the Waldorf but at the same time he was saying,'I'd like to play Madison Square Garden,'" Bennett recalls.  "He was the first one to fill 35,000 seats.  Every producer in town said, 'This kind of thing can make us a ton of money...' and suddenly you had performers doing their acts in these enormous stadiums.  I resented it because I sing intimately and acoustically.  I'm not in any race to try and be bigger than another act or something like that...It means more to me to have a composer come up and say, 'Nobody performed my song better than that.'  That's the game I play, you know?"

Bennett's eldest son, Danny, has been responsible for many of his father's most successful recording ventures including Tony Bennett Duets: An American Classic. "He was the one who came up with that idea of having all of the young artists record an album with me," Bennett says.  In terms of future projects, there's a highly anticipated collaboration with Lady Gaga being released later this year.  "I think people are going to be shocked because we did all of these great American standards and Gaga has a wonderful Ella Fitzgerald quality on this album," says Bennett.  "I think people are going to be surprised and very impressed."

After his appearance in Portland, Bennett is back on the road with performances scheduled everywhere from Pittsburgh to Kansas.  Between engagements, he keeps up with his other passion - painting.  "It's not that I want to do it," Bennett says.  "I have to sing.  I have to paint.  I never want to stop learning until the day I die, you know?  I just want to keep trying to explore and improve.  I'm just going to keep going for it, you know?"

[Mark Griffin is a writer for the Boston-based organization Laughter With a Lesson]

Go and Do:

What:  Tony Bennett in Concert (One Night Only)
Where:  Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle Street, Portland
When:  Saturday, April 19.  7:30pm
Tickets: $140.75, $110.75, $80.75 at tickets.porttix.com or 207-842-0800.