by Sam Juliano

The typical March weather is now regaling us with mercurial tenacity as temperatures rise and fall at a time of year when strong winds and clothing uncertainty are most prevalent.  Of course our friends sound of the equator are inching closer to their own fall season so the numbers there are surely in the heat range.  Meanwhile the world at large continues to make progress on the pandemic front and stateside eateries, stores and of course schools are opening with some initial restrictions.  Some of the most optimistic among us are predicting that by summer we will practically have the virus under full control after what would have surely been the most terrifying fourteen or so months in our lives.

At our own school, students are back but marginally until the end of the month when another parental survey will surely increase the number by quite a distance.  Movie theaters in Manhattan are opening as well though again with attendance restrictions.  Here in New Jersey most theaters are fully operational though will a few less screens in the multiplexes.  Like most Lucille and I continue to watch new releases at home through the various streaming services.  This year will sadly mark the very first time since way back in 1978 that our annual Oscar party will have to be cancelled.  The normal place we stage the event is understandably unavailable this year as we still have a few more months before we could even consider such a “crowded” event.  Frankly, I would not myself be comfortable hosting it and feel it is best for all concerned we dispense with it for this year.

Lucille and I watched many old films and television shows at home, but we did manage two new releases: Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

We really do have reason to be optimistic in view of the lowering of cases and hospitalizations which most attribute to the rising number of vaccinations.  Students are returning today (Monday) to our own school district and after so many months of consternation and uncertainty (documented on this MMD week after week after week) a sense of normalcy is no longer a long shot.

This past week was a busy one at Wonders in the Dark.  Jim Clark added a stupendous essay in his long-running, authoritative and prolific Ingmar Bergman series with a trenchant piece on 1960’s The Devil’s Eye; J.D. Lafrance published a fabulous essay on George Steven’s 1956 American classic Giant; and Lee Price concluded his magnificent Phil Moore exploration with Part 3:  Phil Moore is Top of the Charts!

The Golden Globes are set to air on Sunday evening and I will revise on Monday Morning as a result of my posting the MMD a day early as I sometimes do.  Lucille and I watched two more 2020/2021 films via streaming this past week and I reviewed The Devil’s Eye on blu ray to better prepare for my reading of Jim’s superlative essay. Continue Reading »

By J.D. Lafrance

“It is a saga of America…Though the film chronicles the rise of a great Texas cattle and oil dynasty and its relationship to the rest of the community, it could be the story of any section of the United States, confronted with parallel problems. It is Americana.” – George Stevens

Years ago, when Paul Thomas Anderson’s historical drama There Will Be Blood (2007) was released, I came across a review that compared it to George Stevens’ Western epic Giant (1956) and went on to say that the former was a prequel of sorts to the latter. This comparison intrigued and stayed with me for years, making me think of Stevens’ film in a new light. Like Anderson’s film, Giant chronicles the emergence of big oil in the United States only on a much larger scale. It depicts the trials and tribulations of a Texas family from the 1920s until after World War II.

Adapted from Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel of the same name, it was directed by Stevens who had made the masterful Western Shane (1953), and starred three young actors in their twenties: Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor – both of whom had already made several films – and James Dean, who was appearing in only his third film but already had an Academy Award nomination and would receive another one for his performance in Giant. Unfortunately, he died before it was completed. The film went on to become a big commercial and critical hit and is rightly viewed as a cinematic masterpiece even though it isn’t talked about as much anymore.

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 © 2021 by James Clark

      Early on, in my tenure with Wonders in the Dark, I delighted in the films of Jacques Demy. In those days, I guess I was easier to please. In time, I realized that only two of his films transcended sentimental melodrama. Strangely enough, the two I came to embrace were his first two. The first, Lola (1961), had deftly threaded the needle of wit, disappointment and gallantry. The second, Bay of Angels (1963), pertaining to gambling on the roulette wheel, is a diamond-hard saga of a woman, Jackie, plunging into seducing the universe itself. How, then, did Demy become a student of ontological reflection, only to quickly abandon it? His paradigm, filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman, was made of stronger stuff.

Jackie, being not only a pariah but a poet, can (somewhat) bring to the table much of the emotion of what is lacking in civilization as we have come to know it. “We’ll live the high life.” (That latter phrase, many years later, becoming a title of a film by Claire Denis, another—more tenacious player—in the orbit of Bergman.) “Happiness makes me versatile… No! Voluble…” (Both terms having their value.) “The mystery of numbers… I often wonder whether God rules over numbers… The first time I entered a casino I felt as if I were in a church… He got custody of the baby… Lucky Strike… This display of flabby flesh makes me sick… Why deny this passion.?”

“Versatile”/ “Voluble.” The latter term can mean, “rolling effectively,” clearly the sense of a mystery which Jackie clings to as her only purchase upon planet Earth. Her disinterestedness, however, has sadly underestimated threading a needle of wit and gallantry. Going the extra mile, and then some, we have, first of all, however, the makings of confusion in the form of satire toward Christian  foibles. We are nonplussed by an apparition purporting to be the Devil, dressed as a contemporary corporate leader, spending much of his time admiring his face in a mirror. Make no mistake, this presentation is a challenge to discover those who are alert enough to see something discreet, very rare and crucial. Bergman’s film, The Devil’s Eye (1960), is a filmic treatise of the phenomena of bathos and pathos, and its stairway to the elements. Let’s see if this daunting puzzle can open your eyes. Continue Reading »

David Niven in the opening scene of A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

by Lee Price

The Voice of America in 1945

Opening with the most gripping flirtation scene ever filmed, set against a backdrop of hellish flames, A Matter of Life and Death (1946) never falters in the sweep of its storytelling. With this one-of-a-kind masterpiece, ever-ambitious filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger attempted to entertain in the foreground with one of the all-time great screen love stories while simultaneously promoting a positive post-WWII relationship between England and the US. Filmed immediately following the war’s end, it landed right in the middle of a mind-boggling string of Powell/Pressburger masterpieces, directly following I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) and preceding Black Narcissus (1947). In their professional partnership as leaders of “The Archers,” Powell primarily served as director and Pressburger as screenwriter, working in a relationship that allowed maximal creative freedom for both.

To address the matter of Anglo-American relations in A Matter of Life and Death, Powell and Pressburger cast a somewhat cynical eye on the culture of each country. Naturally, one of their targets was the American music that had just swept across the war-torn countries of Europe, always keeping company with the American soldiers. Within the Archers’ division of responsibilities, music tended to fall to Emeric Pressburger, who was professionally trained as a violinist and had briefly played in a Hungarian orchestra before the war. Therefore, it probably fell to Pressburger to select the representative song that all Europe would immediately recognize as distinctly American. What else but Phil Moore’s “Shoo Shoo Baby”? Everyone would know that one!

Somehow I missed “Shoo Shoo Baby” while growing up in the 1960s, fervently watching old horror movies, Bowery Boys, and Abbott & Costello on Saturday morning TV. I know that “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” sung by the Andrews Sisters, became permanently locked in my brain, inextricably entangled with Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, and their slapstick basic training in Buck Privates (1941). A few years later, Bette Midler cemented my love for the song with her popular revival. But the Andrews Sisters’ nearly-as-popular and just-as-catchy “Shoo Shoo Baby” faded even as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” endured. Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

Though I traveled up to and spent time every single day at the school my wife and I are employed at during this “down” time, today marks the “official” return of the district teachers with next Monday the date when the students will come back.  Parental forms however indicate maybe a third of the kids will actually be attending that day.  Many parents are still leery about the pandemic situation and have opted to wait longer.

A domestic drama played out this past week during another snow siege when one of our beloved felines, a male cat named Noel snuck out of our home through an inadvertently left open back door on Tuesday (February 9) and remained lost until Saturday evening when he returned through our purposely left open basement door after four full days outside in awful weather and heavy snow.  We spent all weak scouring the area, driving around for hours and searching yards and driveways with flashlights in what was quite a harrowing experience.  Yes we are out of control when it comes to pets (7 cats, one very small dog who thinks he is a cat, two turtles, a guinea pig, an older Amazon parrot and a large cage (though at the school) with eight parakeets.  On Saturday evening we were all over the moon!

This past week our esteemed guest writer and friend Lee Price contributed the second part of his brilliant Phil Moore series:  “Phil Moore is Tops, Part 2:  Animating Race.”

Lucille and I watched three 2020/2021 films this past week on the streaming services, and happy to say all were very good! Continue Reading »

Phil Moore credit in Rooty Toot Toot (1951).

by Lee Price

 Did You Ever See an Elephant Fly?

Who was in the room that day in spring 1941 at the Walt Disney Studio when the Hall Johnson Choir did their first run-through of their portion of the Dumbo script?

The initial recording sessions on a Disney animated feature of this period (the twilight of that brief 1937-42 golden age) were opportunities for innovation. All available performing artists would have been present, some of the animators would have been there along with some of the music department and the writers, and other film crew members might have dropped by, too. The Disney Studio encouraged input from everyone. While much of the script would have been fully storyboarded by this point, past experience would have suggested there still might be a lot of changes in store. Unlike all the other Hollywood animation units, the Disney Studio built in an unusual amount of luxury time to play and experiment.

The focus here is on the first day assigned to work with the Hall Johnson Choir, the stars of Dumbo’s crow scene which is highlighted by the song “When I See An Elephant Fly.” Originally called the Hall Johnson Negro Choir, the 30+ member touring choral ensemble was nationally-famous and rigorously professional. Composer and arranger Hall Johnson established his choir in the mid-1920s and brought them to prominence with their acclaimed musical support in the Broadway hit Green Pastures. Johnson earned praise as a master at arranging African-American spirituals. By 1941, the choir was not only experienced with working on movie sets (they reprised their stage role in the 1936 film of Green Pastures), but had even worked for Disney, providing the choral backgrounds on a couple of scenes in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Phil Moore performing, circa 1945.

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by Sam Juliano

We all knew of course that the impeachment trial would end up the way it did and that partisanship would eclipse any valid evidence of treasonous insurrection on behalf of our former commander-in-chief.  Following the proceedings daily cost some of us time we could have devoted to other hobbies at this time of indoor retreat, but it seemed necessary.  Still, the acquittal will not put all the legal matters to rest and Trump is up against lawsuits in a number of states.  Virus numbers have finally began to subside in a number of areas as more and more people are vaccinated.  In my own home town schools will be opening for students on March 1st, though all indicators point to a much lower number of students attending at the outset.  Valentine’s Day provided Lucille and I the opportunity to enjoy a splendid dinner locally.  I trust many of our friends had a marvelous day as well.

This past week we had some fabulous essays, one from Lee Price on “Phil Moore” and the other a film piece on Less Than Zero from J.D. Lafrance. Continue Reading »

Less Than Zero

By J.D. Lafrance

In 1985, Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel Less Than Zero was published when he was only 20 and still in college. Its debauched tale of bored and hedonistic Los Angeles rich kids became a hit with the novel selling millions of copies. The Village Voice included him as part of a new generation of writers labeled the “literary brat pack” along with Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City) and Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York). It didn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling and the 1987 film version proceeded to neuter the source material by imposing a strong anti-drug message and toning down the sexuality to the point that Ellis hated the film, insisting that the end result resembled his novel in name only. Over the years, the film has transcended its source material and works best as a snapshot of the times and the social milieu it depicts.

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Phil Moore at piano, circa 1946, with John O. Levy on bass. Photo by William P. Gottlieb. Courtesy Library of Congress (LC-GLB13-0639)

by Lee Price

Phil Moore, Part One: The Jackie Robinson of Hollywood Film Crews

Picture a film as an iceberg. We see the top 10%. If it’s a southern iceberg, there might be some penguins lazing on it; if it’s an Arctic iceberg, it might be colored by some seals. But underneath, that other 90% is pure white all the way down.

So if you’re watching Gone With the Wind, picture those people on the screen as the top of the glacier. There’s some diversity on view within the frame. It’s not just a big chunk of white. Without thinking closely about it, you might even make an assumption that the percentage of diversity at the top would be proportional to the percentage below the surface. But that’s not the way classic Hollywoodland worked. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it was white all the way down, just like an iceberg.

I don’t dismiss the classic Hollywood industry for a bigotry that was lodged in nearly every American institution of the time. Classic Hollywood was a strong factor in molding me into the person I am. For instance, classic Hollywood gave me Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which I discovered at the age of 11 and permanently convinced me that lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. And it’s this same conviction that has fueled a measure of awe and respect in me toward the Black talent who didn’t accept the overwhelming whiteness, the enforced stereotypes, the insults of segregation, and the systemic viciousness of Hollywoodland. The odds were so stacked against those who wanted to enter through the front door that the situation amounted to a classic Hollywood lost cause. Nevertheless, some repeatedly knocked on the door, others attempted infiltration, and a few directly challenged the system. Sooner or later, someone had to get in.

In 1941, Phil Moore (1917-87) became the first African-American to be hired full-time by the music department of a major Hollywood studio, an achievement even more impressive as that studio was the ever-snooty MGM. Moore never received much credit for his contributions to the movies. MGM, as well as the studios (Paramount, Universal, RKO) that received his talent on loan, worked him hard while declining to give him credit for his work. Nevertheless, his full-time starting salary of $1,200 in 1941 was in-line with starting salaries for Hollywood technicians at the time. For a 24-year-old, it wasn’t an insult. Plus, he got to work on some classy material and with some formidable talent.

Phil Moore’s career has a Zelig-like quality to it at times, except he’s not really in the background. He’s on the soundtrack. He’s over there on the piano behind Harpo Marx, Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge, Frank Sinatra… and they’re listening to what he’s telling them, not vice versa.

Moore had a self-described “all-American boy” childhood in Portland, Oregon, adopted by light-skinned parents who were socially placed and fairly well-accepted in both the city’s white and Black circles. Moore received piano lessons from Edgar Eugene Coursen, one of the area’s top classical musicians, who held him to high and exacting standards. His father’s management of the city’s only hotel open to Blacks led to family friendships with celebrities like Duke Ellington and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Moore absorbed the sounds around him like a sponge, intuitively understanding and appreciating classical music, pop, jazz, blues, and gospel—which is a pretty ideal recipe for success in Hollywood score composing. Continue Reading »