The fist in the kisser and the gentle caress, that’s March: official Psycho-Bitch Month. The weathermen are predicting we’ll be in the mid-fifties today. The snow retreats; the sun twinkles in the streams in the gutter; coats are opened, chins lifted an inch or two, and everyone realizes that it will all be over soon enough. it's not spring yet, but winter just made its first mistake.
Every weekend I discover something else, and the pleasure of finding out something new – or usually, something old – is mitigated by the suspicion that I’m late to the game. Everyone else who would possibly care about this must know about this already, in other words. A few weeks ago I came across a movie on TNT called “It’s Trad, Dad.” It was part of a series of early rock-and-roll teen movies, and those are always interesting. Young fellows in ties and audacious hair: savages! They’re always cheerful and tame, and in the end the forces of Squaredom are always brought around and encouraged to frug away all residual L-7 tendencies. One of the films in the series featured a solemn Bobby Trout as an academic who had proved – scientifically! – that rock and roll would soon be replaced by calypso. A variety of calypso songs broke out periodically in the movie to illustrate the point. It felt like one of those old movies that had never played to an audience greater than a dozen, usually in some old theater where the plaster had been stripped and the lobby “modernized” and the seats creaked and the floor’s adhesive property had a strange uncertain quality, as though it desired both adhesion and release, a quality that would later show up on Post-It notes. We had a few of those theaters in Fargo. Hell, most of the theaters in Fargo were like that.
Anyway: “It’s Trad” concerned the efforts of local kids in a seaside town to put on a music festival; they were opposed by Moribund the Burgomeister, helped out by with-it adults, et cetera. The usual. But from the very start – a long tracking shot into town with a droll voice-over describing the town – it all felt different from cheapo American International films, and I soon learned why: it was Richard Lester’s first movie. The “Hard Day’s Night” director.
But that’s not why I bring any of this up. In the first scene the kids run to the local coffee shop after school, flip on the TV to see their teen idols rock up the joint. This is immediately pre-Beatles, remember. And what are the kids listening to? Dixieland. As the movie unfolds you realize that this is what the Beatles knocked off the scene. Frickin’ Dixieland. And these bands went all the way, too – banjos, clarinets, tubas, striped shirts, barbershop harmonies. Cheerful enough, but not my cup of Earl Grey – although it was interesting to see Lester stage some of these acts the way TV would later treat rock and rollers; it looked like a report from a parallel dimension where rock never happened Woody Allen was viewed like Mick Jagger.
(Note: that right now, in a coffeeshop in the middle of North America, 45 years after the movie was made, the Beatles are playing from the speakers.)
I’m sure lots of people already knew that, but I didn’t, so maybe it’s news to you too. But that even that’s not my point. Has to do with some DVDs I bought at Costco the other day. (Along with carrots, wine and batteries.) It was one of those “classic TV” packs, which usually means crappy transfers of public domain shows. In this case it was some Johnny Carson stuff from the very early years, which I bought not because I love Carson, but because nearly anything from the late 50s or early 60s fascinates me. I don’t have much interest in the counterculture; I’m interested in the adult culture before it became redefined by the counterculture. Haven’t watched the Carson material yet, but I did enjoy the other half of the pack:
It’s not as if I had no idea who he was or what he did or his place in the culture – I read his autobiography when I was 13, back when I regarded the Tonight Show as a window into that urbane, sophisticated world of adulthood I’d one day inhabit. But until I watched these DVDs, I’d never actually seen more than 30 seconds of Paar. Mostly I knew about the mercurial persona, the famous WC tiff, the eventual retreat from the public eye. And I’d also thought he was probably overrated, like Dick Cavett. (Not to make an unfair comparison, but Paar just seems like a man who’d done things, and makes Cavett look the sort of fellow who, in college, wrote articles about people like Paar.) Anyway: tastes have changed, of course, and not all the monologues or routines still work, but it all feels quite smart and clever; watching the man sit on a chair and perform his opening monologue, you don’t just get the sense of an era, but what defined the hip & indispensable thing. (Letterman was the same, at first.)
Interesting guests. Here, Richard Nixon plays the piano:
JFK appears, exuding health and vigah and cheer:
In retrospect, Kennedy and Nixon sound rather similar, at least when it comes to the Communists; they’re both very, very anti-Communist. Nixon is more bellicose, Kennedy talks more about setting a good international example; Nixon has a specific critique of the Bay of Pigs invasion (I originally wrote Bay of Pugs invasion, which was actually a military operation against the Westminster Dog Show in '61), which he delivers in crisp tart words while looking directly into the camera. Almost as though he intends to run for some office at some point in the future.
Example: Listen (7.5 MB wav) how Nixon cracks a joke, then kills it by explaining it; he criticizes JFK for being more show than substance, and gets quite a lot of applause. (It was early '63, and not everyone loved Kennedy, you know.) Then Paar tells an anecdote about his vacation with the Nixon family – imagine, for example, Jay Leno telling a tale about going to Jamaica with the Gores. It’s a great bit, and gives you a flavor of Paar, and the show.
Combined with the piano playing, it's an interesting & oddly charming sequence. If all you know of Nixon is the damp glowering unindicted co-conspirator, it fills things out a bit. I don’t know Paar’s politics, and don’t particularly care to know; I assume he was a liberal, since that seems to have been the default position for his sort in those days, and of course the word meant something different there. You can’t tell from his interviews with Nixon or Kennedy or Goldwater, or his interview with Billy Graham, which itself is quite remarkable. You certainly get the sense of clear sharp partisan differences afoot in the land, but you also sense the presence of a certain set of ideas to which both sides adhere, a sense of national cohesion greater than we have today. Much greater, for that matter.
If anything sums up the era, it might be this: Bette Davis teaches everyone how to smoke like Bette Davis. So everyone lights up, including Jonathan Winters.
Bette looks horrible, incidentally; she looks like Catherine O’Hara in a spoof of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” (And speaking of Catherine O’Hara: watched “For Your Consideration” the other night. As a long time fan of everything Christopher Guest and his company have done, it’s almost a relief to see such brilliant people are capable of putting out an absolute dud.) After she’s done, we get the last guest:
It’s today’s Historical Footnote person, Ferdinand Waldo Demara, aka the Great Imposter, a a professional prevaricator who gained a ration of fame when his life was converted into a book and a movie. Tony Curtis played him in the film version, which is hilarious – and considering that Jonathan Winters was sitting next to Demara in the show, and considering Winters’ powers of mimicry, well, you think of a fine opportunity lost.
Paar shows us who’s coming up next week, and man, you can just smell Camelot from here:
Vaughn Meador! Kukla & Ollie! More to the point, Hans Conried and Genevieve, two people who - along with regular Paar guest Jonathan Winters - infected the dreams of Dion McGregor, who mentions them in a sleeptalking monologue. (If you believe that he was actually sleeptalking, which I don't.)
That’s what I listened to, and watched, while I was working on various things this weekend. Much fun. When all was done I went downstairs for some real movie enjoyment, and noted with delight that the TiVo had recorded “The Great Gatsby,” which somehow I never saw. Script by Coppola! Redford as Gatsby! Extraordinary sets, all infused with that peculiar intense reverence the 70s had for the 20s and 30s.
Short review: it’s horrible.
Long review: it’s really horrible.
New Quirk and Match. Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you tomorrow.