GONE WITH THE WIND – The Case Against

The following is my contribution to The Leap Year Blogathon, hosted by Rebecca at the blog Taking Up Room on Feb. 29, 2020. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ entries that discuss movies or TV shows which meet the following criteria (as per Rebecca’s blogathon rules):

  • Starring celebrities born on February 29. Bio-type posts work, too.
  • Connecting to Leap Day in some way.
  • Playing with time, e.g., Interstellar, Outer Limits, Back To the Future, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabanetc.
  • Any movie or TV show you’ve always wanted to review but never had the chance to. It’s your February 29th, after all. 🙂

(Naturally, I took the easy way out and took advantage of the fourth criterion!)

I’ve been a film buff all my life, but I put off watching Gone with the Wind for several years because it seemed too much like homework to me. I finally saw it one night with a blind date, when I was 24 years old. Since then, I’ve watched it only one other time (last night, when it was broadcast on Turner Classic Movies).

Usually, I don’t bother listing my personal “history” with a movie, as I did above. But I GWTW seems to invite that kind of history, seeing as it’s a sprawling piece of (fictional) Civil War history itself.

Another reason I put off seeing this movie for so long was that, even before viewing it, I knew that certain elements of it were going to bother me. Let me address those elements first.

1) I didn’t come from the South; I live there now, but I did not move to Florida until I was 17. Therefore, I do not have instilled within me the romantic notion of the Old South (any more than I have any romantic notion of any region where I’ve lived). To this day, I don’t understand that viewpoint.

2) Critics and moviegoers have been raving about the inarguable perfection and quality of this movie for eight decades. I often wonder just what percentage of GWTW fandom is occupied by African-Americans. In other words, if we could turn back time, would blacks be as eager to return to this (for them) subservient setting as whites are?

3) And of course, this calls to attention the elephant in the room: The movie’s political incorrectness. GWTW buffs will surely scoff at my sensitivity and tell me that we must view this movie in light of both the era it depicts and the era in which it was made. I’m afraid that GWTW has too many prickly elements for me to view it through the rose-colored glasses of 1939. If you want to look at the film that way, that’s your prerogative, but I prefer to critique it in contemporary terms. Sorry if that’s off-putting.

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The movie’s primary focus is a Southern plantation named Tara, and even more squarely on one of its snooty residents: An entitled young woman named Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh). It is established early on that Scarlett is the most popular of the three O’Hara sisters and could have any man she chooses. But, simply because a local favorite named Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard, looking too anemic for my tastes) is already spoken for, he’s the one upon whom Scarlett concentrates her laser focus.

And not only are we meant to accept this at face value, the movie presents Scarlett’s cat-and-mouse game with Ashley as the plot point that deserves the most attention. Ostensibly, this sprawling epic is about the Civil War and the dramatic ways in which it changed the South. Yet, even by the end of this four-hour epic, the movie is still smacking its lips in anticipation of Ashley and Scarlett getting together.

But about 25 minutes in, the movie introduces the major element that will keep that from happening: roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who instantly sees through Scarlett’s fiddle-dee-dee persona, makes a point of sticking pins in it every chance he gets, and yet still finds her fetching in her own way. For a long time, Scarlett poo-poos Rhett’s lack of pretentiousness, but eventually she succumbs to him.

As do most moviegoers. I don’t know if it’s true, but I read somewhere that when she was asked, Margaret Mitchell (author of the original GWTW novel) said that her favorite choice to play Rhett Butler would have been Groucho Marx. That’s not as outrageous as it first sounds; imagine Scarlett O’Hara as a slimmer Margaret Dumont, and it’s easy to imagine Groucho pricking Scarlett’s false Southern front. For me, Gable is one of the few actors in the movie to hold my attention. If he hadn’t popped in every so often to burst Scarlett’s bubble, I don’t know if I could have made it through the movie’s four hours.

The only other actor about whom I can say that is Olivia De Havilland as Melanie Hamilton, Scarlett’s cousin and Ashley Wilkes’ inevitable bride. At first glance, Melanie seems one of those insufferably cheery people who could find optimism even in a plague. But somehow, De Havilland plays her so sincerely that you end being charmed by her. You could say that Melanie and Scarlett are two sides of the same coin — both of them being well-liked, except that Melanie is appreciated for her positive view of life, whereas Scarlett is appreciated by the men who “enjoy the chase” and talked about behind her back by most of the womenfolk. (Check out Suellen [Evelyn Keyes], one of Scarlett’s sisters; to hear her tell it, most of her life’s miseries have been brought about by Scarlett.)

For the most part, Gone with the Wind‘s legend as a sprawling story is justified. The set pieces that everyone has always talked about — the big dance where Rhett and Scarlett first get together, the burning of Atlanta — are as rousing as they ever were. But then the movie has to keep coming back to its ostensible main plotline with Rhett and Scarlett. In fact, one wonders why, as with Scarlett’s advances to Ashley to no avail, Rhett keeps coming back to this woman who views the Civil War — shown to great effect in a sprawling shot that keeps amassing dead soldiers as it moves along — in terms of how it affects her. For all of the movie’s interest in Southern chivalry, Rhett and Scarlett’s back-and-forth reminds me of a film noir of some years later, Gilda (1946), in which Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth masochistically keep each other at arm’s length so that they can enjoy the torture it provides.

By the time the movie descends into all-out melodrama in its final hour, one wonders how many moviegoers (to quote you-know-who) will give a damn. I realize that I am in cinematic Siberia as one of the few people who did not get swept away by Gone with the Wind. Nevertheless, for people like me, the movie could easily have been cut into two halves: The first half consisting of the movie’s genuinely moving moments of storytelling, its second half being home movies of Rhett and Scarlett going at it like a couple of birds in a cockfight.

ANOTHER FINE MESS (1930) – Stan Laurel in drag is not a drag

The following is my contribution to The Butlers & Maids Blogathon, being co-hosted by Rick and Paddy at, respectively, the blogs Wide Screen World and Caftan Woman on Feb. 22 & 23, 2020. Click on the above image to read bloggers’ takes on servility in cinema!

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Laurel & Hardy’s short subject Another Fine Mess is based on a sketch written by Stan Laurel’s father, which was also the basis for their first “team” film, Duck Soup. It’s been well-documented that Stan’s dad disapproved of his son’s version of the sketch, but as Laurel & Hardy pictures go, you could do far worse.

Here, Stan and Ollie are vagrants on the run from an irate cop whom Stan mistakenly addressed as “Ma’am.” Through circumstances beyond their control (as usual), they end up hiding in a mansion and having to pose as the owner, Col. Buckshot (Ollie), and his maid Agnes (Stan!), under the pretext of showing the mansion to potential renters.

It’s the wispiest of premises, and it’s not helped by intrusive music and sound effects. But on the plus side is Ollie’s hammy interpretation of Col. Buckshot (“last of the Kentucky Buckshots”), and a priceless give-and-take between Stan-as-Agnes and Thelma Todd, exchanging some “girl talk.” It goes on a bit long (as most of their three-reelers do) but has its fair share of laughs.

And definitely check out the movie’s opening, where two chorus-girl types walk on-screen and recite the movie’s credits out loud. And you thought Stan in drag was bizarre!

Happy Curmudgeonly Valentine's Day!

This blog entry isn’t intended to put down the holiday in general. But it did make me think about taking a different angle on Valentine-themed movies.

Every year at this time, bloggers and critics alike feel compelled to share their choices for favorite romantic movies. And most of the same titles show up over and over. Don’t get me wrong — movies such as It Happened One Night and their ilk remain deserving of praise. (Last week, Turner Classic Movies re-broadcast Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which I’ve seen several times. Despite all of the nastiness that has clouded above Allen’s career, I still find it a lovely movie on all counts.)

But what about the movies that don’t make the grade, at least in your own eyes? How many romantic movies have you gone to see because people were raving about them, only to leave the theater shaking your head as to the mystery of their appeal?

I’ve decided to list a few of my own movie-romances-gone-wrong. Feel free to hurl your invective at me in the “Comments” section below, but where the following movies are concerned, I just didn’t “get it.” (WARNING: Major spoilers follow!)

City Lights (1931) – I’m as big of a Charlie Chaplin fan as you could ask for, and I really like this movie, but I don’t revere it like most Chaplin fans do. And the main reason why is one of its key plot twists. (And I find it amazing that Chaplin, who thought out his plot points as meticulously as his gags, let this one slide by.) Chaplin’s Tramp has gotten a crush on a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and wants to get the money she needs for an operation that will restore her sight. At first, he thinks he has hit the mother lode when he makes friends with a convivial and rich old drunk (Harry Myers). The trouble is that invariably, as long as the drunk is soused, he treats the Tramp like a dear old friend, but as soon as the drunk is sober, he has no recollection of him. (The drunk’s butler has seen his boss’ drunk/sober transformation, but since the butler snottily looks down on the Tramp, he has no interest in intervening on behalf of the Tramp.)

I’ve had my share of benders, heaven knows. But to embrace the same person over and over as soon as you get smashed, only to have no memory whatsoever of that person once you’ve sobered up? That strikes me as more of a very convenient plot point than a character observation.

Bringing Up Baby (1938) – If you’re on Katharine Hepburn’s side for the duration of this movie, you probably regard her as a free spirit who breathes life into the dull routine of a buttoned-down paleontologist (Cary Grant, who lets his eyeglasses do the work for his characterization). For me, she was a pest who kept ingratiating herself into his life long after he should have ditched her. (She even admits nearly as much at one point.) This is not a match made in heaven.

Gone with the Wind (1939) – I’m bound to catch hell for this one, so I won’t even get into the movie’s take on acquiescent slaves happy to make a better life for their rich white owners. Let’s just concentrate on the romantic leads. The main appeal of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) to those refined Southern gentlemen is what a “tease” she is. The only man who eventually gets her is Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) who, initially at least, sees right through her fiddle-dee-dee persona. (True or not, I read somewhere that author Margaret Mitchell’s first choice to play Rhett was Groucho Marx. As incongruous as that seems, listen to some of Rhett’s dialogue, which reveals that he isn’t falling for Scarlett’s act, and imagine Groucho putting her down.) Even after Rhett “conquers” her (carrying her up that stairway to heaven), he still falls prey to her pushiness far too often, even when logic dictates he shouldn’t. Small wonder that he finally “doesn’t give a damn” and leaves her at the end. For how long can an intelligent man (even a rogue) give in to a manipulative woman’s mind games?

Manhattan (1979) – If you’re interested, I already dealt with this movie in a previous blog entry (click here to read it). But I still can’t help being bothered by it, since romance is such a prominent theme of the movie. 42-year-old Isaac (Woody Allen) falls in love with a cutesy 17-year-old named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). Isaac feels guilty about the age difference and keeps Tracy at arm’s length (although he’s quite happy to bask in her worship of him). When Isaac gets a shot at his married best friend’s paramour (Diane Keaton, who gets passed around like a rag doll here), he happily uses it as an excuse to break off with Tracy. Then when that affair goes kaplooie, he rushes across New York City to try and take back Tracy as soon as possible. Throughout the movie, Isaac makes big proclamations about the importance of maintaining one’s moral integrity, but he’ll ditch those ethics in a heartbeat in order to regain the love of his young admirer.

The term “romance” would imply that both parties are — at least, initially) on the same page, whereas all of this movie’s main characters (Isaac included) are out to protect their self-interests. Even Allen admitted that his fans latched onto this movie with a passion that he never understood.

Dirty Dancing (1988) – This movie has always driven me crazy, for a couple of reasons; I’ll list the minor reason first. (1) At the summer camp where her family is staying, Baby (Jennifer Grey) wants to ingratiate herself with the actual camp’s stage dancers. Eventually, she does so in a big way by deciding to ask her rich doctor father (Jerry Orbach) for $200 to help the girl get medical help from a botched abortion. Mind you, Baby never gives the reason for her wanting the money; and amazingly, after getting almost no info from Baby on why she wants the cash, he nonchalantly gives it to her. Really?

(2) The “dirty dancing” of the movie’s title is a metaphor for the movie having it both ways: Baby comes upon the eye-provoking gyrations that the older dancers are performing in private and learns them from her as a, shall we say, rite of passage. But by movie’s end, Baby and Johnny (Patrick Swayze) are performing said gyrations right in front of Dr. Daddy, and we’re meant to think, “Aw, they got to dirty-dance in front of the old folks and the old folks finally accepted it.” So the dancing is dirty until the plot’s denouement calls for it not to be. Really really? Somebody should put Baby in a corner already.

When Harry Met Sally… (1989) – I regard this as a “Woody Allen” movie for moviegoers who don’t otherwise like Woody Allen. To me, it’s an compendium of Allen’s “greatest hits” — the snarky one-liners, Sally’s Annie Hall-like ditziness, the ongoing commentary, and (as in Manhattan) the hero’s big chase to reach the woman he now knows he loves. (There’s even a nod to Warren Beatty’s Reds, with interspersed footage of real-live couples as a counterpoint to the movie’s protagonists.) And here’s my biggest pet peeve. The movie initially presents Sally as an unassuming milquetoast — and then, out of nowhere, she acts out a big, fake orgasm in the middle of a crowded deli. In the end, the movie tries too hard to be earnest about love.

While You Were Sleeping (1995) – Sandra Bullock gets a crush on a guy (Peter Gallagher), saves him from getting killed, and dotes over him while he’s in a coma. Through what the late critic Roger Ebert would call “The Idiot Plot,” the man’s family comes to believe that Bullock is his fiancée. Then Bullock falls in love with the comatose man’s brother (Bill Pullman), and then she has no idea what to do when the comatose guy comes to. So no matter how you slice it, Bullock has ingratiated herself into Gallagher’s family under false pretenses, and yet they never take her to task because she’s so “sincere.” How happy would you be if this happened to your family? (And I know this is just my personal hang-up, but would someone please tell Peter Gallagher to shave his unibrow already?)

Well, I guess I’ve trashed enough iconic movies for one day. If you disagree with any of my choices, feel free to post in the “Comments” section below. And Happy Valentine’s Day!

BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984) – It's always a dame

The following is my contribution to The Magnificent Mia Farrow Blogathon, being hosted by the blog Pale Rider on Feb. 9 & 10, 2020. Click on the above image, and read bloggers’ takes on the life and career of this legendary actress!

In the 1980’s, Mia Farrow not only had a relationship with Woody Allen, but she also appeared in and influenced the tone of his movies as much as Diane Keaton had in the 1970’s. Nearly all of the Allen movies in which she appeared showed the beatific effect she had on him at the time — we’ll here forego any commentary on their relationship’s tempestuous end — and any of those movies demonstrate how Farrow’s gifts complemented Allen’s confident direction. But for the sake of this blogathon, I’ve chosen to discuss the Allen-directed role that is most foreign to our view of the waifish Farrow: Feisty Tina Vitale in Allen’s broad comedy Broadway Danny Rose.

Allen plays the title role, a down-on-his-luck theatrical agent — his acts include a woman who plays drinking glasses, and a parrot that pecks out songs on a keyboard — who always loses his higher-end acts when they get successful and want to move on to more assertive management.

One of Allen’s more promising acts is Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), a crooner from the 1950’s who is getting by on the fumes of his past success. When the nostalgia craze comes in the 1980’s, suddenly Lou is hot stuff again, and he lands a gig on a big-time TV special. For his TV appearance, Lou has only one major request for Danny — that he act as a “beard” and bring Lou’s extra-marital girlfriend, Tina Vitale (Mia Farrow), to the special’s taping for good luck.

As luck would have it, two-timer Tina discovers that she herself has been cuckolded by another woman, and when Danny comes to pick her up, Tina is in the middle of a volatile phone call with Lou in which she says to forgot about her attending the special. From there, Danny goes into the world’s longest panic attack, as he tries to make amends with Tina as well as keep himself and Tina from getting killed by a couple of Tina’s low-life mobster acquaintances.

As rich as the characterizations and setting are, there are really only two characters you remember vividly after the movie ends. Allen eschews his usual schnook persona, but Danny Rose appears to be a not-too-distant relative. He gesticulates endlessly like a traffic cop gone haywire, and he is forever spouting Jewish homilies to placate his enemies. He’s quite a hoot.

But the real revelation is Farrow (also a million miles away from our usual perception of her) as the gum-chewing, hard-nosed Tina Vitale. According to Allen, he based Tina on an assertive waitress at an Italian restaurant that he and Farrow used to frequent. Farrow casually observed that she’d like to play a woman like that in a movie. The irony is that, when Allen wrote the script and presented it to Farrow, she feared she couldn’t possibly do it justice!

Happily, Farrow was wrong, as she fully inhabits her role — bleached blonde hair, dark glasses, and all — and makes Tina funny and touching, even when she’s at her loudest and least sympathetic. In fact, she dons the role so well that the only time we’re aware it’s Farrow is when she takes off those big glasses and we see Farrow’s delicate features beneath.

Broadway Danny Rose is Allen’s happy valentine (probably unintended) to those fans who prefer to see him being just plain funny. He provides the movie’s laughs, and Farrow provides its heart.

PAST MASTERS (1988) – Ongoing proof of The Beatles as the masters of rock music

Why has this blog spent almost two weeks reviewing old Beatles albums? Click on the above image for the answer!

Our contest to win a free, two-CD edition of Abbey Road ends at midnight tonight (Feb. 9). Click on the above image for contest rules and how to enter. (Surprisingly, we have not had any entrants thus far, so you have a darned good chance of winning!)

(This is our longest-yet entry in our Beatles tribute, so grab a snack and be prepared to sit a while. Are you ready to go? SPLENDID!)

Past Masters – Released Mar. 7, 1988

Following the release of The Beatles’ British studio albums on compact disc in 1987, this compilation offered up the remaining Beatles songs that had been issued (in Britain only) either as singles or as extended-play (EP) discs. Originally released as Volumes 1 and 2, the two discs were reissued as a single collection when the group’s catalog of studio albums was remastered in 2009.

Love Me Do: This was The Beatles’ first stab at recording, and it obviously wasn’t taking any chances: Unadventurous lyrics (the word “love” shows up a few dozen times for lack of better synonyms), and middle-of-the-road singing and playing. A pleasant enough tune, but hardly indicative of the heights to be hit shortly afterwards.

From Me to You: Closer to the unassuming Love Me Do than to the legend-making Please Please Me, but at least it’s a little more lyrically adventurous. As in P.S. I Love You, it again delivers a monologue to the presumably swooning female listener, though the inventory of body parts that need attention (heart, arms, lips) comes close to being cliches.

Thank You Girl: A rare cheery message of thanks from John to his erstwhile listener-lover. Actually, the best version of this song, on the early American Beatles’ Second Album, gooses the song along with great harmonica blasts. Next to that one, any other version doesn’t stand a chance.

She Loves You: Considered unusual for its time for (a) using the device of having the singer “address” the listener (as a heartbroken lover who wants to reconcile with his girl), and (b) all those “yeah, yeah, yeah’s.” With its winning lyrics and pounding rock beat, it’s Beatlemania at its most infectious.

I’ll Get You: The cheery melody and delivery help to overshadow the lyrics, which are just this side of a stalker’s lament (though such sentiments were mostly unheard of in the 1960’s). Still winning for its blooper in the middle, where John sings “I’m gonna change your mind” and Paul sings “I’m gonna make your mind” (whoops!).

I Want to Hold Your Hand: This is the one that put Beatlemania across to an Anglophobic America. Somewhere, surely there were a few listeners who believed that a girl’s hand was the least of The Beatles’ concerns, but the song’s sunny sense of innocence still delivers.

This Boy: Introspective Beatles songs came at a premium at this point in their early career, so females were no doubt swooning at the unerring sensitivity of John Lennon here. The jangly guitar and early use of three-part harmony can’t have hurt, either.

Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand: Things certainly come full circle in Beatleland. The Beatles cut their performing teeth among the drunken sailors and whores in Germany, make it big all over the world, and then choose their most lyrically innocent tune (the one that “sold” them in America) to translate to Teutonic tongue. Some of those Star Club patrons must still be laughing in their beer. Come give me your hand, you hairy stinking Fraulein!

Sie Liebt Dich: The previous song and this version of She Loves You were The Beatles’ sop to their German fans. Ja, ja, ja, we got it already.

Long Tall Sally: Rock-‘n’-roll adrenaline mainlined. The later “live” versions are almost an insult to this untoppable studio version. Pity poor Uncle John.

I Call Your Name: This is not one of The Beatles’ more undersold performances, yet the simplistic, reportage-type lyrics contrast nicely with the pounding guitars that emphasize the theme of an anguished lover who can’t sleep at night. Proof that even early-Beatles work had more to it than met the eye.

Slow Down: Yeah, sure she’s moving way too fast. You mean as opposed to that feverish guitar work? Nice little rocker, though it’s hard to believe any woman could move too fast for The Beatles.

Matchbox: Another great cry-in-your-beer song for Ringo. It’s so unclearly enunciated, though, that for years I thought he was singing “Matchbox holdin’ my clothes,” as though the matchbox was holding his clothes up like suspenders. Oops!

I Feel Fine: After that razor-sharp guitar feedback that starts the song (according to John, the first ever recorded), John could probably have sung the phone book and had the audience in his hand. Flawless delivery really does make us believe the singer feels fine, but maybe it’s because for once, the feeling’s contagious.

She’s a Woman: Paul’s lyrics exalting his woman’s near-sainthood nearly turn this into the rock equivalent of his later, more lachrymose drippings. But the rock-barroom atmosphere saves all.

Bad Boy: Based on John Lennon’s confessions about his school years, this is less a “cover” (of a song by New Orleans R&B singer Larry Williams) than it is autobiography. That in no small way explains John’s gusto in his capturing of a swaggering schoolboy. Now, junior, behave yourself!

Yes It Is: Beautifully bittersweet song about a simple color evoking a complete memory of a lost love, helped in no small part by some exquisite three-part harmony. The Anthology 2 version offers an even more interesting contrast, with an acoustically-inclined John in his most Dylaneque mode this side of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.”

I’m Down: “Plastic soul,” mutters Paul McCartney at the end of an early take on this song (captured on Anthology 2). Obviously he got over himself enough to blast the kinks out brilliantly. Little Richard revisited, and revisited pretty darn well, too.

Day Tripper: One of John and Paul’s coy stabs at double-entendre a la Drive My Car. Say, is that “big teaser” that John and Paul are singing, or is it “p***k-teaser”? And are they slurring something that sounds like “one-night stands”? Amazing what passes for risque — these days, this could probably be played on Disney Radio with no problem. The song’s superb guitar-playing, on the other hand, speaks for itself.

We Can Work It Out: A superb example of later John-and-Paul co-writing. Paul’s more combative stance with his erstwhile lover contrasts nicely with John’s more pacific middle bridge of “Life is very short…” (The “unplugged” version of this song, available on Beatles bootlegs, was a real missed bet for Anthology 2 — much more stripped-down, yet just as effective musically.)

Paperback Writer: Great story, great sound. The song’s “narrator” tells how he wants to write paperback books for a living, but based on the guitars and background harmony, he’d be far better off being a rock star. The non-assuming lyrics belie the song’s sound, which blew a few minds at the time of its release and still hold up superbly.

Rain: John Lennon’s lyrics are pseudo-profound in the manner of The Word. (Occasionally, The Beatles were naive enough to believe their given roles as mass entertainment’s messengers.) A far weightier message is delivered in the musicianship, with weirdly jangling guitars, Paul’s great bass, and another oddly perfect use of John’s backward vocals at song’s end.

Lady Madonna: Paul in an Elvis-meets-the-blues mode. A great song about a woman barely getting by (who almost sounds like a lady-of-the-evening from Paul’s description of her). The song’s potential bathos is thwarted by The Fabs doing a mock-horn section in mid-song.

The Inner Light: Of all the Indian-pastiche songs that George foisted upon us, this one is probably the most painful. It might be okay as background muzak at an Indian restaurant, but as a three-minute pop song with preachy lyrics and whiny background, it just grates. Sadly, it’s pretty much a template for George’s later, even more self-indulgent moments on his solo albums.

Hey Jude: A real “beanfest,” as one British music writer put it — a Paul McCartney ego-trip all the way (complete with scat-singing), but a truly worthy one. It’s huge and sprawling and never fails to move one emotionally; when Paul later appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and was asked to sing it at rehearsal, he had to be prompted to remember the lyrics and then proceeded to move all nearby listeners to tears. When you see The Beatles’ original video of the song, you’d never guess it was being performed by a group that was starting to splinter.

Revolution: From that firecracker opening to its feedback closing, one of The Beatles’ all-time best rockers. Much has been made of the Revolution 1 version of the song (on The White Album) where John ambiguously sings, “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out…in.” No ambiguity here — he takes no prisoners. A fiery gem.

Get Back: (previously reviewed as part of the album Let It Be; this “singles” version isn’t significantly different)

Don’t Let Me Down: Another of John’s great “minimalistic” numbers (along the lines of I Want You [She’s So Heavy]). When all John wanted to do was string some rhymes together, the results could be grating (Dig a Pony), but when he put his no-frills sense towards the emotions of anguished love, Beatles greatness occurred. This is one of those instances (although, IMHO, the definitive version can be found on Let It Be…Naked).

The Ballad of John and Yoko: One of John Lennon’s biggest slabs of self-pity, documenting his and Yoko’s travails upon their wedding and much-publicized “Bed-In” honeymoon. John’s comparing himself to a crucified Jesus is, in context, far more tasteless than his innocently-meant “We’re probably bigger than Jesus” remark a few years earlier. The song’s most interesting aspect, other than its sense of irony in the final lyric, is its cut-down production; only John and Paul were available to perform at the time of recording, so Paul doubled on drums.

Old Brown Shoe: Probably one of the few Beatles songs where the Anthology version plays better than the original. This “singles” version plays like a rush job, with George at his most frog-in-the-throat hoarse, giving short shrift to (and in some cases just burying) some thoughtful lyrics. The unadorned version on Anthology 3, by comparison, is downright whimsical.

Across the Universe: This is the originally recorded version of the song, intended as a contribution to a charity LP for the World Wildlife Fund, titled No One’s Gonna Change Our World. This rendition of the song differs from the Let It Be album version in that it begins and ends with the sound of a bird’s fluttering wings (nice) and the harmonies of two groupies (not so nice) who happened to be hanging around Abbey Road Studios when the song was being recorded. For me, at least, their high notes (as requested from them by Paul McCartney) detract from the song’s spartan beauty; I much prefer the subtle choir added to the song by Phil Spector in the album version.

Let It Be: This song, too, differs from the version on the Let It Be album; it is the version that was released as a single. George Harrison did two separate guitar solos for the song’s middle; originally they were intended to be overdubbed together (as though two guitarists were each playing a separate riff), but in the end, one solo went on the single and the other solo ended up on the album. For what it’s worth, I prefer Harrison’s rendition on this single version, as it’s not so heavy-handed.

You Know My Name (Look Up the Number): A “novelty” song a la Yellow Submarine (but with far less point), this is a rambling attempt at comedy that comes off like one of The Beatles’ annual Fan Club recordings that went on too long for its own good. (The song’s title is also nearly all of its lyrics.) Hardly a masterpiece, though we can all be grateful that it wasn’t replaced (on the Let It Be single) with the Fabs’ alternative choice, What’s the New Mary Jane, which eventually surfaced (like a bad case of influenza) on Anthology 3.

What do you think of Past Masters or any of the songs therein? Share your thoughts with us in the “Comments” section below.

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This blog entry is being posted on the 56th (!) anniversary of The Beatles’ first, pop-history-making appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Here is a compact and charming summation of that broadcast on its 30th anniversary, reported by Anthony Mason for “CBS Evening News with Dan Rather” in 1994.

Tomorrow: We announce the winners (if any!) of our Abbey Road Contest.

ANNIE HALL (1977) – Still Woody Allen's best movie

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

When all of the hype and the infamous history of its writer-director-star is removed, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall remains a superb comedy and a charming look at a romance that doesn’t last through the ages.

The core story involves the relationship between stand-up comedian Alvy Singer (Allen in, if not an autobiographical role, then surely a recognizable version of himself) and timid, flighty Annie Hall (Oscar winner Diane Keaton). The relationship has its ups and downs — first their meeting and courting (Alvy deftly manages his first kiss from Annie), their separation, their reunion at her behest, their growing apart from each other, and finally their non-reunion despite Alvy’s best efforts.

Two aspects of the film are most noteworthy. One is that, while Allen is usually adamant about not worrying whether or not he pleases his audience, here he uses just about every trick in the book to draw viewers into the story — trick photography, split screen, animation, and subtitles, among other methods. (Happily, the tricks all work.)

Secondly, while no one would mistake Allen for George Bernard Shaw, there is at least a thread of Pygmalion (or in a more populist mode, My Fair Lady) running through Annie Hall. The movie is subtle yet unflinching in its view of Alvy’s initial condescension towards Annie — making fun of her Midwest origins, urging her to read more serious books and take college classes — and in the way that Alvy starts to lose Annie as soon as she becomes more thoughtful and assertive.

Also noteworthy is the film’s supporting cast. Whereas in his earlier movies, actor Allen seemed to operate in a vacuum with anyone other than Diane Keaton, here Allen bounces off a noteworthy cast of contemporary performers — Colleen Dewhurst, Shelley Duvall, Carol Kane — and future stars such as Jeff Goldblum, Sigourney Weaver, and (in a particularly riotous cameo) Christopher Walken.

Detractors have stated that Annie Hall feels like a group of disparate elements randomly thrown together. (One reviewer said the movie was edited in the manner of “a nervous wreck packing” for a trip.) Yet this is obviously a reflection of Alvy’s declaration, in the movie’s opening monologue, that he is “sifting through the pieces of the relationship” to find out where it failed. And covering all of those bases makes the movie very satisfying — even from Alvy’s point of view. Although critics and viewers are quick to point out how bittersweet the ending is, by movie’s end Alvy feels richer for having had Annie in his life, even if she doesn’t remain there.

Is Annie Hall the Woody Allen movie for people who otherwise don’t like Woody Allen movies? Could be. It’s certainly a rare comedy that works to win over its audience by playing up to their intelligence rather than against it.

(For an in-depth look at the making of this movie, I highly recommend the out-of-print book When the Shooting Stops…the Editing Begins, written by Allen’s long-time [and Annie Hall] editor Ralph Rosenblum.)

LET IT BE (1970) – And in the end…

There’s a reason this blog has been carrying on so much about The Beatles lately. Find out what it is by clicking on the above image!

There are only two days left to get a shot at winning a free, two-CD anniversary set of Abbey Road. Click on the above image for our contest details!


Let It Be – Released May 8, 1970

It’s one of rock music’s greatest ironies that the movie Let It Be was intended to showcase The Beatles’ creative process but ended up depicting their turmoil and eventual breakup instead. This schizophrenic process extended to the movie’s soundtrack album. After hundreds of hours of musical sessions lay untouched for months, the entire debacle was handed over to legendary music producer Phil Spector to process.

Paul was the most vocal about Spector having overdone his assignment (see our entry about The Long and Winding Road below). But, as Beatles biographer Nicholas Schaffner pointed out, the real problem with the soundtrack is that Spector only goes halfway with it; he should either have gone all-out with his famed Wall of Sound on every song, or he should have left each song unadorned (which was The Beatles’ original intention anyway). All of that said, the album is most listenable as a symbol for what it could have been.

(Postscript: Three decades later, Paul used his legendary clout at Capitol Records to put out Let It Be…Naked, an alternate version of the soundtrack that left all of the songs as is, with no fancy strings or heightened production. However, Paul didn’t have enough clout to have the original Let It Be album removed from The Beatles’ catalog; both are available for a side-by-side comparison.)

Two of Us: With this song and One After 909, Paul was definitely trying to light the fire of nostalgia under the hindquarters of his ever-estranged partner John. It obviously didn’t work, but it made for some nicely wistful music. Let It Be (the album) is a very in-and-out affair musically, but this number works wonderfully.

Dig a Pony: You can celebrate anything you want, but this song isn’t quite an occasion for dancing in the streets. Another of John Lennon’s free-associational lyrics a la Come Together, but here the musicianship doesn’t cover the cracks in the writing as well as the other did. Nice guitar work, sloppy verbalization.

Across the Universe: Everyone knocks Phil Spector’s over-production of this album, but he deserves a bouquet for his perfect complementing of John Lennon’s dreamy lyrics in this song. The alternate version of the song (found on Past Masters and Anthology 2) is far less oblique, with fluttery wings at the start and falsetto accompaniment on the chorus that nearly makes one gag.

I Me Mine: George in a Taxman-like mood. Amazing how the same guy who preached love like a tub-thumping evangelist could indulge his more hostile modes with equal fervor. Still, this song is far more successful in conveying a sense of blues than For You Blue was. (Freudian note: George named his 1978 autobiography after this song, not Give Me Love [Give Me Peace on Earth].)

Dig It: Talk about filling a hole where the rain got in! Beatles jamming at its worst, with a lot of supposedly funny wordplay thrown in (though Doris Day was no doubt thrilled to be mentioned in a Beatles song). The bootleg version of this song is even worse, going on forever and sounding like the ramblings of a mud-drenched stoner at Woodstock. When John Lennon said he wanted to release Let It Be with no frills in order for Beatles fans to see them “with their pants down,” this song is just the kind of mooning he was referring to.

I’ve Got a Feeling: A not-bad Paul rocker, though one could live without more of John’s free-associating in the middle. (The movie is surely the only G-rated film to make a reference [John’s] to a “wet dream.”)

One After 909: An early Lennon/McCartney chestnut that Paul brought out of storage in order to spark some nostalgia in John for the old L/Mc partnership. It obviously didn’t work, but it sure added some spark to the movie’s rooftop-concert sequence. The really early version of the song appears on Anthology 1, but stick with the version that John ends with a snatch of “Danny Boy.”

The Long and Winding Road: When you play with fire, you’re gonna get burned, and if you’re Paul McCartney handing over one of his most bathetic recordings to Phil Spector, you’re gonna get a cathedral’s worth of production on the final product (see below). Paul complained for years about Spector going overboard on this one, but with that song, what did Paul expect? Actually, the unadorned version on Anthology 3, obviously closer to Paul’s vision of the song, plays far less schmaltzy than this album version, but neither version is exactly modest in its sense of sentimentality.

Paul’s letter to Apple’s then-manager Allen Klein about Phil Spector’s (over-)production of “The Long and Winding Road.”

For You Blue: The song’s working title (“George’s Blues”) says it all. The bluesy musical approach doesn’t gibe well with the sunny Something/Here Comes the Sun-type lyrics, but at least it sounds interesting.

Get Back: Another of those Beatles numbers where the performance saves all. Get Back, of course, was the intended title of what became Let It Be (the movie, album, and break-up), but the lyrics don’t support that thought very well. (What is it with that Sweet Loretta Martin, anyway? She doesn’t sound like she’s ready to get back to anything.) But The Beatles’ pounding guitars, helped along by Billy Preston’s keyboard, get the idea across quite effectively. (Footnote: Preston later performed the song himself in 1978’s abominable Sgt. Pepper movie and was suitably embarrassing, as was most of the movie.)

What do you think of Let It Be and/or any of its songs (or the movie, for that matter)? Share your opinion with us in the “Comments” section below. Tomorrow: We wrap up our Beatles tribute by digging deep into the Fab Four’s singles catalog with the two-CD compilation set Past Masters.)