HIGH FIVE FOR FIVE STARS

Each of the five days since my last post was the birthday of at least one iconic figure in music or film who left lasting memories for those who appreciate legacies in artistry. I could easily go overboard writing in depth about any of these mid-May arrivals, but maybe it’s best to lessen my losses by not overly testing readers’ patience (O me of little faith!):

May 11 — IRVING BERLIN (1888-1989). Perhaps the most prolific composer in American history, with an estimated 1,500 songs to his credit, including the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films (three of which were Astaire-Rogers musicals). Writing both words and music (relatively rare for his era), his hits include seasonal evergreens White Christmas and Easter Parade, as well as the red, white and blue God Bless America. His lyrics may lack the wit and sophistication of Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart, but there’s no denying the emotional appeal of such songs as….

May 12 — KATHERINE HEPBURN (1907-2003). In the Golden Era of Hollywood, was there ever a more successful, fiercely independent woman than Katherine Hepburn?  Successful? It’s hard to argue against receiving a record four Academy Awards for Best Actress, and being named the greatest female star of Classic Hollywood Cinema by the American Film Institute. Independent? Her own words say it all:

“I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to, and I’ve made enough money to support myself, and ain’t afraid of being alone.” (Hard as it may be to imagine the Bryn Mawr-educated Hepburn uttering “ain’t,” I ain’t about to correct her quote.)

“We are taught you must …. never blame yourself. It’s never your fault. But it’s always your fault, because if you wanted to change, you’re the one who has got to change.”

“As one goes through life, one learns that if you don’t paddle your own canoe, you don’t move.”

“Life gets harder the smarter you get, the more you know.”

“Politicians remain professional because the voters remain amateur.”

NOTE: For my ode to another May 12 bundle of joy, see my post of May 12, 2015.

May 13 — ARTHUR SULLIVAN (1842-1900). Can’t place the name? How about Arthur Sullivan of GILBERT AND SULLIVAN fame? Who doesn’t enjoy their great comic operas such as THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, THE MIKADO and H.M.S. PINAFORE — the latter of which I have loved since When I was a Lad:

May 14 — SIDNEY BECHET (1897-1959). This is a name you almost certainly can’t place unless you’re a classic jazz fan….but if you are such a fan, you know him as a major figure in jazz annals since his recording debut in 1923. New Orleans born, he spent the last decade of his life in France, where he died on the same day — May 14 — that he was born. Here he is on soprano sax in a 1950s recording from the soundtrack of Woody Allen’s magical MIDNIGHT IN PARIS:

May 15 — JOSEPH COTTON (1905-1994). I have previously mentioned Joseph Cotton in regard to his co-starring role (with Orson Welles and Alida Valli) in one of my favorite films, THE THIRD MAN. He first met Welles in 1934, beginning a life-long friendship and on-and-off association with Welles in numerous plays, radio dramas and films, as well as co-starring with Katherine Hepburn in the 1939 Broadway play THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. But it is in his role as Holly Martens in THE THIRD MAN that he stands alone (literally so, in the end), and I can think of no more fitting way to end this post than with that indelible closing scene from the film (to the tune of Anton Karas’ Third Man Theme):

WOODY AND ME

I come three days late to note the 78th birthday of my favorite living film director, Allen Stewart Konigsberg, better known as Woody Allen. Woody’s post-ANNIE HALL (1977) movies may not be to everyone’s taste — particularly those who don’t like films with what might be called an existential fixation/almost-obsession with the meaning of life and death. Whatever you call it, it works for me. I haven’t seen all of Woody’s films (especially since 1995), but I’ve seen most of them, and I can’t think of one I disliked….and more than a few I loved.

As it happens, I am a contemporary of Woody’s (born less than a year after his 12/1/35 birth date), but generational nearness means little if there is little else to relate to. Like Woody, Charlie Chaplin (for example) was a brilliant director, actor and master of comedy, but coming from a different generation doesn’t dim his star for me. Unique creative inventiveness is timeless.

So what is it about Woody that makes me feel an affinity? For one thing, there is our mutual passion for 1920s classic jazz (hence his spare-time gig as a jazz clarinetist). For another, there is what the distinguished film critic Richard Schickel called Woody’s “distrust [of] organized religion [and] conventional politics,” among other things. But perhaps most of all is his love for “magic realism,” as captured in such films as MANHATTAN (1979) and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011)….which, not coincidentally, happen to be two of my favorite Woody Allen films. Other favorites, in addition to his pre-ANNIE HALL great comedies which brought him acclaim, include ZELIG (1983), THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985) and RADIO DAYS (1987). ANNIE HALL was an Oscar winner, but to me, it’s a notch below MANHATTAN.

Schickel’s book WOODY ALLEN – A LIFE IN FILM speaks to Woody’s falling-out with the latter-day mass American movie audience, which Schickel considers a product “of our crude and witless times. I basically despise the quality of modern American life — its history-free culture, its pietistic politics, the grinding stupidity of our public discourse on every topic. I suspect Woody feels the same but is too smart to say so openly.” Elitist harrumphing? Undoubtedly — if you don’t agree with him. Right on the money, if you do agree. Personally, I’ll TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969)….or better yet, I’ll take the book and run. If you’re a Woody Allen fan, it’s too good to pass up.

Well, all good things must run out eventually, and I can think of no better way to take this opus out than with what Woody’s character in MANHATTAN called “one of the reasons life is worth living” — referring to Louis Armstrong’s 1927 recording of POTATO HEAD BLUES:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxN0DZhwvss

Hold on — I just came across this. Can you dig it? It’s Wild, Man:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MQ89OQUPOE