Saturday, February 15, 2014

Some Recent Milestones

Talent exploding through a multitude 
of works = Genius in retrospect

   Two milestones this week were reminders of watershed eras in American and world popular – Shirley Temple Black’s death and the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.  

Shirley Temple
   Shirley Temple was the most famous American child at the age of six, driven by a stage mother desperate that her little girl would be a movie star.  There were a number of women with this psychological need in that generation, the most
famous being Mama Rose, immortalized two decades after her second-rate career in Gypsy.  What Shirley had was a dichotomous combination of adorableness and gravitas.  They played off of each other in a way that made her seem a sweet little girl and ageless sprite.  Her movie persona was to charm an older, avuncular male figure into supporting her, though the audience could also see that she was quite independent and a survivor.  Graham Greene was sued and lost for suggesting in a review that Temple was a miniature adult.  However, he missed the larger point of Temple’s career and the Hollywood dream factory.

   Shirley Temple was under contract to 20th Century Fox for four movies a year.  This probably stunned her parents, who fought to reduce the number to three annually.  Her peak years (1934 –1939) produced twenty-one movies in which she starred and this after she’d appeared in over twenty short films or in cameo roles.   Has anyone made that many movies in the past few decades?  No, and it’s because the government broke up the supposed monopolistic power of the Hollywood studios, the first step in performers being able to control the uncertain destiny of their careers since there have been few studio chiefs in the interim that possess the chutzpah of making creative or financial decisions.  

President Ford Appointed
Shirley Temple Black
Ambassador to Ghana
   “Development Hell” didn’t exist in the 1920 – 1950 Hollywood studio heyday, but performers and crews were simultaneously worked tirelessly and protected.  Temple did not go off the rails as so many child performers have since her peak.  She married early (I imagine to assert her independence) and it didn’t work, but her second marriage to Charles Alden Black was vitally successful.  After raising her children and dabbling in TV, she became a well-known public servant, most notably as an ambassador (Ghana and the Czech Republic).  She was a public face for breast cancer awareness in the 1970s.  

Shirley with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (and Dexter)
in The Little Colonel
  However, above all else, she’ll be known for those cheery, but also tough, musical movies of the 1930s.  My favorites are Wee Willie Winkie, Little Miss Marker, in which she astonished co-star Adolphe Menjou with her professionalism, and The Littlest Colonel, where she first danced with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – a subject of controversy for many over the decades.  It’s even referred to in Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk, but again, that controversy ignores the socio-political context in which two genius performers found themselves, yet made the best of things by creating timeless scenes that will be enjoyed and argued about for generations.

   We’ve been in the middle of the 50th anniversary of Bealtlemania for the past month or so.  Kristen asked a question on Facebook for her friends’ favorite Beatles songs and she received a number of responses, prompting her to finally say that the easier question might be to ask are there any Beatles songs you don’t like?  (I actually don’t love “Rocky Raccoon”, but that’s about it.  My favorite choices are “If I Fell” and “A Day in the Life”).

   Pop music had exploded in the ‘50s and the commercial emphasis shifted from sheet music to records and the electric guitar supplanted the piano as its primary melodic expression.  It doesn’t take Freud to theorize why young women worshipped young men so publicly from the 1940s on.  There was an artistic vacuum on the radio; it didn’t reflect the incipient youth movement and it didn’t make much of the folk revival, or what would become important about soul or country music.  

The Beatles
   Yes, The Beatles changed culture by marrying the highbrow with the lowbrow.  Yes, fashion, music, movies, public relations, politics and pretty much everything shifted.  I take exception with (American) critics who always want to take credit for The Beatles success by saying they took R & B and Rockabilly, anglicized them, and brought them back over the pond.  Sure, their chord structure reflects ‘40s and ‘50s forms, but they were also influenced by the British skiffle craze and, from Rubber Soul on, their lyrics pertain primarily to their English working class and pub culture upbringing as well as commenting on everything from music hall performing to the London Philharmonic.

   What amazes me about The Beatles is how many incredible albums they produced in less than six years.  There were eleven studio albums in addition to live albums and compilation releases. They weren’t the only group producing an outlandish number of extraordinary works at that time (The Rolling Stones, The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, Motown, Aretha Franklin come immediately to mind), but pretty much everything they did had value.  They were good, but not great singers.  They weren’t in the same league as Aretha, Marvin Gaye, Roger Daltry, or Robert Plant.  However, their music and lyrics are unparalleled and no one else put out Meet the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul, Help!, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Beatles (the White album), Let it Be, and Abbey Road during that era (or any era since). 

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