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“In the Mood” and the 1939 Context August 1, 2019

Posted by intellectualgridiron in History, Pop Culture.
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August 1 of this year marks the 80th Anniversary of the recording of one of the most legendary records of all time.  Of course, I mean “In the Mood”, which Glenn Miller and his Orchestra cut on this day in 1939.  It would become the most famous record that this notable musician and his band would produce, and would also become part of American culture itself.

The song did not emerge out of a vacuum.  The iconic melody itself was based on a pre-Swing Era hit jazz instrumental by Wingy Joe Manone called “Tar Paper Stomp” from 1930 (re-released in 1935).  Arranger Joe Garland adapted that melody to the iconic one now famous for eight decades.  That said, Miller did not even produce the first version of “In the Mood”, which earned the new title from lyrics by Andy Razaf.  Rather, Edgar Hayes and his Orchestra released the first version of the song the year prior (1938).

But Miller’s version is the most famous by far of any versions, before or after.  Is it the most swinging record of all time?  Certainly not, but its pep and rhythm are enough to appeal to all ages throughout the decades.  Many jazz players and scholars have had problems with Miller’s overly cautious approach to swing, and one can feel a touch of this constraint even in this rather jumpy tune.

Nevertheless, there is an energy that is enough to give the record a timeless feel, constrained or not.  Moreover, dueling saxophone solos between Tex Beneke and Al Klink are one of the most famous duets of that era, followed not long afterwards by a memorable 16-bar trumpet solo by Clyde Hurley.  Then, Miller’s use of undulating volume, from a pianissimo chorus to a fortissimo at the end with a crescendo on the coda all lead to a very satisfying, even triumphant finish.

The buying public certainly took well to the song.  Released in early 1940, it topped the charts for 13 straight weeks.  Not even Elvis Presley’s legendary single of “Hound Dog/Don’t Be Cruel” could match that in 1956 (11 weeks).

One irony of note was that RCA Bluebird stablemate Artie Shaw took an earlier crack at that tune, with Jerry Gray arranging.  But his version was over six minutes long, too long to fit on one side of a 78 RPM record, and the audience response was lackluster.  Nevertheless, Shaw did a produce fine, live version of the song which has been captured and thoroughly circulated among swing aficionados.

Though the song was recorded in 1939 and certainly belongs in that vintage, as noted earlier, it peaked in record sales the following year (1940).  That same year, Miller and his band starred in the movie Sun Valley Serenade, (released in 1941) where they perform a live rendition that’s even more energetic than the famous studio version.

To zoom the proverbial lens out further, though, 1939 itself was a banner year for big band and for American popular music as a whole.  For starters, little-known singer named Frank Sinatra made a strong debut with Harry James’ band, most notably with “All or Nothing at All”.  When James was not utilizing the young crooner for ballads, he was tearing up some hot swing music in his own right, with “Ciribirbin”, and, even better, “Two O’Clock Jump.”

Benny Goodman, the King of Swing, would cut one of his most famous records early that year with “And the Angels Sing”, a collaboration between his then-first chair trumpet player Ziggy Elman and exalted, legendary American lyricist Johnny Mercer.  It would also be one of the last records on which Martha Tilton would contribute her vocal talents.  Later that year, Goodman left RCA Victor to sign with Columbia, as his good friend, John Hammond, was the A&R man there (and, three years later, Hammond would also become Goodman’s brother-in-law), making 1939 nothing if not a very transitional year for His Majesty of Swing.

Meanwhile at RCA Victor, Goodman’s chief rival, Tommy Dorsey, made some fine contributions to that vintage, in very different ways.  One was with a two-side semi-upbeat instrumental ballad in “Lonesome Road”, which offers some very precise, refined reed section performances, among other things.  The other is the swinger “Stomp it Off”, a guaranteed toe-tapper.

Miller’s RCA Bluebird stablemates also made their contributions, such as Charlie Barnet, who cut his most famous record in “Cherokee” that year.  Bob Crosby — brother of Bing — and his Bobcats produced one of that band’s finest records that year, “Over the Rainbow” (tastefully cashing in on the Wizard of Oz hoopla).

Back to Artie Shaw;  although his best vintage was the previous year (1938), he made indelible contributions to the 1939 vintage that range from the powerful businessman’s bounces such as “Deep Purple” (with Helen Forrest, in her young prime, contributing the vocals) to the strong swingers like “Prosschai“, to the unfathomably energetic “Carioca” and “Traffic Jam”, the latter of which to this day, evokes imagery of cartoon characters Tom and Jerry tearing around the house with reckless abandon!

If “In the Mood” were not enough for Miller himself in 1939, earlier that year he recorded his own breakout hit with “Moonlight Serenade”, the record in which he allegedly discovered his own distinctive sound, that of the double-tenor sax lead on the clarinet.  That same year he also cut perennial favorites for his repertoire, such as Moonlight Serenade’s hit follow-up, “Sunrise Serenade” and also “Little Brown Jug”.  “Ain’tcha Comin’ Out” showcases both the vocals of Marion Hutton as well as his lead tenor sax player, Tex Benecke, and “Stairway to the Stars” proved to a breakout record for vocalist Ray Eberle, as well as one of the finest versions of this Tin Pan Alley standard.  Other fine records by the band in question that year include “Blue Evening”, “Pagan Love Song”, the appropriately upbeat “Runnin’ Wild”, and Miller’s take on the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Blue Orchids”.  All these and more add up to the conclusion that 1939, in addition to being a banner year for the Swing Era, was also, arguably, Glenn Miller’s finest vintage, too.

All this said, while Glenn Miller may have ‘owned’ “In the Mood” with his legendary version, he did not produce the swingingest.  That distinction belongs to Goodman, who performed his own rendition in November of ’39 on a Camel Caravan broadcast for NBC, and is yet further proof as to why he was the King of Swing.  If that is not enough, he also outdid Miller earlier that year on other Camel Caravan radio shows with peppier versions of “Moonlight Serenade”, and “Blue Orchids”, proving that whatever Miller could do, the King could do better.

All in all, 1939 proved to be a very fecund, banner year for Swing and thus for American culture.  It would also be the last of the high-energy years of the big band era, as recordings would transition into smoother, more polished-sounding tunes starting in 1940, but that is for another article at another time.  Suffice it to say in the meantime, though, that Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” was arguably the most iconic record of a key year/vintage in the high watermark of American culture.

Oz recalls its glorious past April 19, 2013

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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oz-the-great-and-powerful-poster-1(Warning:  a few subtle spoilers herein.)
One hallmark of a great prequel is that it shows/explains how something well-known came to be.  For example, just how did X-Man Dr. Hank McCoy, a.k.a., “Beast,” become, well, so blue?  You find out in “X-Men:  First Class.”  Just how did Indiana Jones develop a pathological aversion to snakes?  You find out during the prequel segment of “Last Crusade.”  So it goes for the Oz canon.  Just how did this so-called wizard make his way from Kansas in a balloon to this famous, enchanted land?  Just how was the relationship between the sister witches?  All of that and more is explained in this movie.

By now, “Oz the Great and Powerful” has been released in theaters for over a month, so it’s likely that most readers have seen the film.  As a Johnny-come-lately to the party, it’s hard to say anything that has not been said already about this film, but I nevertheless feel strongly compelled to try.  The reason I do is simple:  there is so much to like about this film that it is hard to know where to begin.

Why not start with the actors’ portrayals of the main characters?  James Franco delivers as the protagonist; sure, a number of others could pull it off just as well, but his portrayal of the so-called “Wizard” of Oz — in reality, a traveling circus magician/con man/womanizer — is quite satisfactory, and gives you a plausible origin of how the whole Wizard myth began.  When circumstances take him to a place that most certainly is NOT Kansas, he encounters not one, not two, but three witches, and eventually learns that the combined encounter is a family power struggle in which he is now ensnared.  Oops!  The first witch he meets, Theodora, played by Mila Kunis, ends up taking character development to the extreme.  We the audience first meet her as a young, naive, pretty young lady, almost exuding Meg-like innocence (she provides the voice of Meg in “Family Guy”*).  Nobody would consider a witch, though she is, and moreover, she later undergoes a metamorphosis, shedding her naive facade and afterwards remains, shall we say, jaded, both inside and out.  Soon, though, Oz meets her sister, Evanora, played by Rachel Weisz, who, as the story unfolds, seems to be channeling her inner Famke Janssen-as-Xenia Onatopp (you fellow James Bond aficionados know what I mean!) both in terms of appearance/attractiveness (Giggity!* — although that changes at the end of the film) and in terms of which side of good/evil she truly has chosen.  Not until Oz meets the third witch, Glinda, that he becomes enlightened as to who is actually good and who is actually — queue the Mike Myers voice — evil (/puts pinky finger to side of mouth).  Speaking of Glinda, her portrayal by Michelle Williams is superbly charming.  Any man with a pulse would jump at the chance to make her queen of his kingdom.

The secondary roles are more than ably filled, too.  Tony Cox, whose image as the foul-mouthed, sawed-off sidekick in “Bad Santa” is forever humorously etched in my mind, is extremely well-suited for his role as an irascible munchkin.  Bill Cobbs as a jack-of-all-trades tinkerer practically brings a smile to your face, too.  Other key characters are brought to you via the wonders of modern film-making magic.  Indeed, the biggest reason we the movie-going public were never treated to a big-time, big-budget adaptation of, say, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia was that the things described in that story were so fantastical, the special effects technology simply was not there until the middle of the last decade to finally do it justice on the big screen.  Same things goes for this film in question in many respects, one being two of the characters that become part of Oz’s group as he finds himself on a mission in a land that coincidentally bears his name.  Only the latest in special effects could properly portray a flying monkey dressed like a ritzy hotel bellhop, or a young girl who is a walking, talking china doll.  The latter character brings much to the proverbial table, as some of the interactions between her and Oz are the most tender scenes in the whole film.

But what I loved most about the film was all the special efforts made in recalling the original 1939 masterpiece to which this movie is a prequel.  Start with the treatment they give to the opening segment of the film.  In the 1939 original, everything is in black and white.  Only when Dorothy’s house crashes into Oz, thus sending the Wicked Witch of the East to an early albeit timely demise, does the film turn to color.  Keep in mind that color films in the late 1930s were few and far between. Color alone would have amazed the audience, but the Technicolor that MGM employed was exceptionally vivid.  Same thing goes for this new film.  The opening, “real-world” segment of the story is also depicted in sepia, and only after the protagonist survives his ordeal of a journey into the magical land does the eye-popping color open up before the audience’s eyes.

But that is just for starters.  The start of the Yellow Brick Road as a spiral directly recalls MGM’s standard-bearing predecessor, as does the physical setting of the Emerald City.  One can see its sparkling skyline in the distance behind fields of ultra-colorful poppies, which in turn run up to the edge of a dark forest.  Speaking of the city’s skyline, it also recalls the original from ’39; maybe not as art deco, sadly, but it makes up for it with its realistic imagery, not just a large painting on the wall of a sound stage.  Even the way the curtains drape in the throne room and in the hallway leading up to it seem to recall the timeless classic.  Better yet, Glinda’s memorable arrival in a magical bubble is recalled in fashion more splendid than ever before.  Speaking of memorable entrances, one of the witches making a scary entrance with red fire is a fitting nod to how that character did the same thing in the [much] earlier film.  Moreover, though the story obviously predates the rest of the dramatis personae (Dorothy et al.), it does well in making oblique references to both the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion.  Even the turban that Franco’s Oz wears on his head while an illusionist with the traveling circus in Kansas recalls that atop Frank Morgan‘s head as Professor Marvel.  Let us also not forget the parallel characters in the protagonist’s life between Kansas and Oz.

Regarding the explanation of how things come to be, not only is the origin of the Wizard’s throne room act of smoke and bombast cleverly explained, what is even more clever is the scenario that first necessitated it.  Plenty of other things about the film recommend it, though, in addition to the wonderful references to the 1939 classic.  When Oz finds himself in this strange yet beautiful world, part of the incredible scenery he takes in are various exotic plants making music; such is a classic, vintage Disney touch, right out of “Fantasia” or “Alice in Wonderland.”  Ol’ Walt would have been proud of these touches, and indeed of the whole film.

*See?  Even when talking about the Wizard of Oz and Disney, we can still make Family Guy references!  And who’da thought that Meg could so effectively channel her inner Margaret Hamilton?