Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

More sad passings

The 63rd Festival de Cannes has opened. And once again I am not there. But this year I am actually content to leave it to braver souls. Last week I watched a giant wave swamp beachside cafés and restaurants in Cannes on the French TV news. And, of course, that volcano in Iceland continues to threaten havoc with flight schedules. All that doesn’t make me feel better about missing this event once again, but at least this time around I feel like it’s less risky not to go. Besides, thanks to the magic of, well, I guess, corporate greed, I got to see the festival’s opening film (Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood) at more or less the same time as the people in Cannes.

In the meantime, there are a couple more sad passings to note. But first, let me also share with you the best one-liner I have heard about Iron Man 2, specifically about Mickey Rourke’s performance in it. Quipped Dennis Miller on his radio program, “I don’t think Mickey realized he was in a movie.”

Sweet Georgia Brown (1917-2010)

Lena Horne did not appear in a huge number of movies. And in those in which she did appear she almost always played a singer. That is, she basically played herself.

As she has been remembered the past few days since her death, there has been the inevitable speculation about whether she would have been a much bigger star if she had been born in a different time. Like most “what if” games, this can be entertaining but ultimately doesn’t change anything. I prefer to concentrate on the fact that, as it was, Lena Horne’s career was pretty darn impressive. She sang at the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem, in the company of titans like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. She appeared on Broadway and in Hollywood movies. And, even though Hollywood couldn’t or wouldn’t take full and proper advantage of her talent, she had a flourishing musical career for decades.

Her life has been well covered by the old media. How, on the day she was born in Brooklyn, her father was in a card game trying to win money to pay the hospital bill—and how he soon left the family behind. How, at the age of 2, Lena was the cover girl for the monthly bulletin of the NCAAP, an organization of which her grandparents were early supporters. How her grandparents raised her for years before her mother, who had her own stage aspirations, took her on the road. And how, at the age of 16, her mother pulled her out of school to audition at the Cotton Club.

The remains of her film career are all too brief but they are impressive. In 1938 she starred in The Duke Is Tops, not about Ellington but about a theatrical producer played by Ralph Cooper. In 1942 she was part of an all-star cast in Panama Hattie, along with Ann Sothern (in the title role), Red Skelton and Dan Dailey. The following year she made the two movies she is best known for. Andrew L. Stone’s Stormy Weather not only provided Horne her signature song but gave her a starring role opposite Bill Robinson in a cast that included Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, the Nicholas Brothers and Dooley Wilson (Sam in Casablanca). Cabin in the Sky, directed by Vincente Minnelli (with uncredited footage by Busby Berkeley), was a supernatural musical in the vein of Damn Yankees. Horne was the temptress Georgia Brown sent by Lucifer to tempt basically-good-but-gambling-prone Eddie “Rochester” Anderson to the dark side, pitted against his prayerful wife Ethel Waters.

As has been noted elsewhere, she was often featured in MGM musicals in stand-alone segments that could easily be excised from prints destined for certain sections of the country. And she played the mulatto Julie, who sings “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” in the Showboat segment of the 1946 all-star Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By. Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II had invited her to play the role on Broadway the same year, but MGM would not release her from her contract. To add insult to injury, when MGM remade Showboat in 1951 the role went to Horne’s friend Ava Gardner, who had to have her singing voice dubbed by an uncredited Annette Warren. To make it even worse, Gardner’s skin was darkened with a Max Factor make-up called Dark Egyptian, which had been developed for Horne because her skin photographed so light. After she appeared in the 1956 musical Meet Me in Las Vegas (headlined by Dan Dailey and Cyd Charisse), she stopped making movies except for a couple of notable exceptions. She did not disappear, however, as she was seen frequently on TV in specials and on variety shows like Perry Como’s, Andy Williams’s, Dean Martin’s and Flip Wilson’s and on sitcoms like Sanford and Son and The Cosby Show and even on Sesame Street.

Horne returned to the big screen in 1969, playing the love interest of Richard Widmark in the dark western Death of a Gunfighter, directed by Don Siegel and Robert Totten, working jointly under the pseudonym Allen Smithee. Her final feature film role came nine years later as Glinda the Good Witch in Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz.

Just to see Lena Horne was to know that she had class. You also knew it by her voice, which was unique and as distinct as it was beautiful.

Fantasy figure (1928-2010)

If you ever picked up a paperback about Conan the Barbarian and found yourself sucking in your gut and heaving your chest to try to live up to the incredibly muscled example of manhood pictured on the cover, then you have probably seen the artwork of Frank Frazetta. In the world of comic book nerds, where many artists are adored for bringing superheroes and other fantastic characters to life, the name of Frazetta was always breathed with particular reverence.

Spotted for his artistic talent at the age of 8, he was enrolled in the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts. At 16 he began drawing for comic books. For nearly a decade he did journeyman’s work on various comic strips, including Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and a stint for Al Capp on Li’l Abner. He even collaborated on the bawdy comic strip Little Annie Fanny, a regular feature of Playboy magazine. His painting of Ringo Starr for a Mad magazine ad parody caught the eye of United Artists and he was hired to do the movie poster for the Woody Allen-penned, Peter Sellers-starring What’s New Pussycat. Frazetta was directly involved in the making of only one movie in his career. He collaborated with Ralph Bakshi on the 1983 animated fantasy Fire and Ice.

But his true legacy is his volumes of work in the form of paintings that became covers of fantasy magazines and fantasy books, particularly those for enduring characters like Conan and Tarzan. Not to mention many movie posters and album covers (Nazareth, Molly Hatchet). If you still can’t place him, imagine an impossibly muscled warrior with incredibly broad shoulders wielding a huge weapon of some sort. And then imagine an incredibly buxom and beautiful and scantily clad woman at his feet with her arms entwined around his tree trunk of a leg. Got the picture? That trademark Frazetta cover has taken on a life of its own. It was aped by Tom Jung for a Star Wars poster that featured a comely Princess Leia at the feet of an impossibly muscled Luke Skywalker. It was parodied in a poster for National Lampoon’s Vacation, with a comely Beverly D’Angelo grabbing the impossibly muscled leg of Chevy Chase. Homage to it was paid by a poster for Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness, with a comely Embeth Davidtz at the foot of an impossibly muscled and chainsaw-wielding Bruce Campbell.

Farewell, Frank Frazetta. You generously fed the fantasy life of many a teenage boy escaping the boring real world, and (by Crom!) another bit of our youth has slipped away.

-S.L., 13 May 2010

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