A couple of things Van Johnson told me about himself have stuck in my mind for more than 30 years. One was that he had a lifelong ambition to ride an elephant during the opening of a Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus performance. The other was that he was disappointed that living in a Manhattan apartment meant that children would never come to his door on Halloween.

VAN JOHNSON

I’ve been thinking about those things today because last night we watched Van Johnson in the 1954 film The Last Time I Saw Paris. He co-starred with Elizabeth Taylor. Others in the cast were Walter Pidgeon, Donna Reed, Eva Gabor, George Dolenz, and Sandy Descher.

This film, which was loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Babylon Revisited,” is a long flashback to Paris at the end of World War II in Europe. Johnson plays Charlie Wills, a soldier and aspiring novelist who works as a reporter for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. At the beginning of the tale, he has returned to Paris from the United States, and he reminisces about the bitter circumstances under which he had left the City of Light: During the celebratory bedlam in Paris when the war ended, Charlie winds up at a party at the home of James Elwirth (Pidgeon), an impecunious American chancer who believes in living high even if one can’t afford it.  Charlie is invited to the home by Elwirth’s quite proper daughter Marion (Reed), but is quickly infatuated with Marion’s ne’er-do-well sibling, Helen (Taylor).

Charlie and Helen marry and have a daughter, Vicki, played by Descher. Marion — who is broken-hearted over losing Charlie to the sister of whom she disapproves, settles on a rebound match with a thoughtful Frenchman, Claude Matine (Dolenz).

ELIZABETH TAYLOR

The marriage of Charlie and Helen goes well, even while they’re living from hand to mouth, but Charlie is gradually losing confidence in himself as one publisher after another rejects his novels. Then their world is permanently altered as oil is discovered on Texas land, thought to be barren, that Elwirth jokingly gave the couple as a wedding gift. While Helen struggles to maintain stability in the family, Charlie sinks further and further into a morass of depression and decadence.

When this movie was released, some critics savaged it. It is true that the story is implausible and that some of the acting is either arch or wooden. Eva Gabor, as socialite Lorraine Quarl, who plays a supporting role in Charlie’s decline, gives exactly the kind of performance one expected of the Gabors. Descher, who was only nine years old, is gag-me cute in the role of Vicki –and she inexplicably never ages as the years roll by.

SANDY DESCHER

Van Johnson’s light comedy is entertaining, but his drunk scenes are simply unbelievable. I once heard from a stage veteran that an actor who can’t play a convincing drunk is no actor at all. That might be too harsh a judgment on Johnson, but this film suggests that faux inebriation was not his strong suit.

WALTER PIDGEON

Elizabeth Taylor and Donna Reed did passably well as the sisters, although a scene in which Taylor’s character is mortally ill is so unconvincing as to be ludicrous. Walter Pidgeon, on the other hand, is delightful as the irresponsible but  charismatic Ellswirth and Dolenz plays Claude as the most realistic figure in the film.

I don’t know if this is true, but I have read that the producers didn’t use the title of Fitzgerald’s story because they were afraid movie-goers would think the film had a biblical theme. I wondered about the title they did use, particularly because its lyrics express sentiments exactly opposite of those in this film. The song “The Last Time I Saw Paris” is heard in the background throughout the movie. It turns out that song was written in 1940 by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, and it was sung by Ann Sothern in the 1941 film Lady be Good. It won the Oscar for best song. The song was composed in the aftermath of the German occupation of France. There were six versions of the song on the hit charts by the end of 1940, and Kate Smith bought the exclusive right to sing it on the radio for six months.

As is often the case with movies, the shortcomings of The Last Time I Saw Paris do not add up to a failure. The film is nicely photographed — much of it in Paris, it captures the mood and mores of the early ‘fifties, and it is entertaining. It’s also an inoffensive opportunity to spend a couple of hours indulging oneself  in the  kind of escapism provided by “golden-age” stars such as Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor.

You can hear the title song, presented in the mood in which it was written, by clicking HERE. The performance is by Anne Shelton, a fine British vocalist who devoted a lot of time and energy to entertaining troops via radio and in person.

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KATE SMITH

During World War II, the popular radio star Kate Smith used to end her daily broadcasts by saying, “And remember … if you don’t write, you’re wrong!” Kate Smith, who was a major supporter of the war effort in general and of American troops in particular, was prodding those at home to send letters to soldiers and sailors. I don’t know whether Kate Smith introduced that expression, and that inspired a songwriter, or the other way around. I do know that a writer named Olive Kriser wrote a song by that title in 1943, and it, too, urged families and friends to write to the troops.

For me, that phrase has always evoked what I imagine was a melancholy aspect of the war years: young men and women suddenly separated from their families, friends, neighbors, familiar surroundings, everyday routines, and hurled into the maelstrom, wondering about the folks, about ever seeing them again, longing for a mundane conversation around the kitchen table, a cheese sandwich made by Mom. And yearning, yearning, for a word from home.

That was the real-life experience of tens of thousands of young people, including Joseph Farris of Danbury, Connecticut, who was drafted, trained, and shipped off to the fighting fields of France and Germany shortly after leaving high school.

Farris, who has become a very successful cartoonist and illustrator, has recreated his experience in A Soldier’s Sketchbook, an elegant volume published by National Geographic. Farris got lots of letters, but in this book, he reproduces many of the letters that he wrote to his parents and two brothers during the three years, beginning in May 1943, that he spent in the United States Army. The book also contains facsimiles of some of those letters and of other documents, photographs of Farris and some of his colleagues, and watercolors and drawings that he did while he was in service.

Farris provides a narrative in which he demonstrates how he pulled his punches in his letters home, both because military censorship sharply restricted what combatants could write about and because he didn’t want to worry his family. The folks wouldn’t know until it was well over that Farris — who wound up heading a heavy machine-gun platoon — came under heavy fire, watched his fellows soldiers being blown away, shivered in the cold and wet of the foxhole, and confronted the fact that any hour could the last in his brief life.

By the time Farris got into combat, Italy had surrendered, Athens had been liberated, France had been invaded, and the German siege of Leningrad had been broken. The jig was up for the Third Reich. So although he experienced the worst of the war, he also had some less lethal duty, moving through towns in France and Germany and temporarily occupying houses that were far more comfortable than a hole in the ground.

A touching aspect of this book is the writer’s lack of self pity and his consistent concern for the well being of his parents and brothers. While he was still in harm’s way, he wrote to his younger brother George, “Dad, Mom, & I are exceedingly grateful, kid, that you are around to help out. Mom & Dad depend a helluva lot on you, so don’t let them down. You may work a little harder than many other fellows your age but in the long run it’s going to pay. You don’t know how thankful I am for the training I got in the store” — a reference to his family’s Danbury Confectionery — “not only the business experience but the systematic method necessary. You’re fortunate in having the swellest folks possible. If I can treat my future children half as good as Mom & Dad have treated us I’ll feel that (I) have done my job well.”

Throughout his military service, Farris thought about his plans for a career in art, and often asked his family to send him supplies. His work has appeared in the New Yorker and in other major publications. You can see many of his cartoons and illustrations by clicking HERE.

For another interesting aspect of World War II, click HERE to read about the Women’s Land Army. The site includes many letters written home by Genevieve Wolfe, who was one of a group of 40 young women from West Virginia who traveled to a camp in Ohio to provide labor needed on farms in the northern part of the state.

There’s a radio station in these parts that started the week after Thanksgiving to play nothing but Christmas music. And that has been pretty much restricted to non-religious Christmas music, which sharply limits the available tracks, even with generic winter tunes like “Let it Snow” thrown in.

JOHNNY MARKS

We usually stick to the public radio classical music station, but once in while, when that station delves into music we find grating, we have switched to the commercial station, but the steady diet of what seems like a dozen songs can be nauseating. Earlier today, within less than 30 minutes, that station played yet again “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Gene Autry, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee, and “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives. It occurred to me as I reached for the remote that all of those songs were the work of Johnny Marks. That’s no small thing when one considers that relatively few pop Christmas songs have become standards.

“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was actually a collaboration with Marks’s brother-in-law, Robert May, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth, who worked as a copywriter for Montgomery Ward.

ROBERT MAY

For many years, the retail chain had been giving away Christmas coloring books to children who visited Santa Claus at Montgomery Ward stores, but in the 1930s, turned to creating its own book, which featured the tale of Rudolph, written in verse by Robert May. By 1946, more than six million copies of the book had been distributed. To its credit, Montgomery Ward, which originally owned the copyright to Rudolph because it had been written by an employee as an assignment, turned the rights over to May in 1947. Marks turned May’s poem into lyrics and set it to music. Although other singers turned down the chance, Gene Autry recorded the song for the Christmas season of 1949 and the disc sold more than 2.5 million copies the first year and has sold tens of millions since.

Incidentally, May’s achievement was remarkable in its own right in that he managed to add a character to the ages-old Santa Claus legend.

Marks, who attended Colgate and Columbia universities, also wrote “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” a musical adaptation of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The song was recorded by several major artists, including Harry Belafonte, Bing Crosby, and Kate Smith.

From what I’ve read, although “Rudolph” made Marks a rich man, he wasn’t crazy about being remembered only for that and a few other Christmas songs. As it happens, Marks also collaborated with Carmen Lombardo and D.L. Hill to write one of my favorite songs, “Address Unknown.”  It was a big hit for the Ink Spots. You can hear their recording by clicking HERE.

JOHNNY MARKS

I don’t want to leave Johnny Marks without mentioning that he served with the U.S. Army during World War II — specifically, as a captain in the 26th Special Service Company — and he was awarded the Bronze Star and four battle stars.

Serving under General George Patton during the invasion of Normandy, Marks won the Bronze Star for leading 20 men in an attack on a castle and capturing the 100 Germans inside. 

I’m obsessed

November 6, 2010

KATE SMITH

The popular song “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” was written in 1931, and its lyricists, Ted Koehler and Billy Moll, provided a hopeful message that sounded all the more melancholy because of the reality of the times – economic depression. My favorite recording of that song was made by Kate Smith. I like the way she sings two lines — both of them in this verse:

Your castles may tumble / that’s fate, after all / Life’s really funny that way / No use to grumble / Smile as they fall / Weren’t you king for a day?

Kate Smith had a wonderful, musical laugh, which I loved to hear on her radio and television shows. And she laughs that laugh on the word “funny” in that verse without breaking the tempo of the line. I can’t hear her sing that line too often, and I’ve had the recording for about 40 years. Then, at the end of the verse, she does a little glide on the word “day,” starting on the note and then smoothly sliding down the scale. Again, I’m obsessed with that line. I play the song just to hear her treatment of that one word – “day.”

BING CROSBY

In a similar vein, for many years, whenever I learned that a TV station was going to broadcast the movie “High Society,” I would watch it so that I could hear Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra perform the duet “Well, Did You Evah,” sometimes referred to as “What a Swell Party This Is.” I even figured out about how far into the movie that song occurs, because I didn’t want to watch the whole film, which is a flawed remake of “The Philadelphia Story.”

COLE PORTER

The movie has a book by John Patrick and songs by Cole Porter. In “Well, Did You Evah” Crosby and Sinatra simultaneously sing Porter’s lyrics and exchange spoken barbs. At one point, Crosby sings, “Have you heard / about dear Blanche? / Got run down by an avalanche.” Sinatra says, “Nooooo,” and Crosby answers “Don’t you worry. She’s a game girl, you know. Got up and finished fourth.” Sinatra: “This kid’s got guts.” Crosby: “Havin’ a nice time? Grab a line.” At which point, Sinatra resumes singing.  Crosby was Mister Smooth, and the way he delivers the line, “Don’t you worry. She’s a game girl, you know . . . ” has captivated me since the first time I heard it about 50 years ago. Fortunately, I now have bookmarked that song from YouTube and I can listen to Crosby say that line as often as I like, which is often, because I’m obsessed.

AL PACINO

I don’t experience this kind of fixation only with music. It also occurs with the spoken word — for example, with Al Pacino’s speech in the climax of the movie “Scent of a Woman.” I read a review of that movie in which the critic remarked that Pacino’s dramatic choices were confined to whether to speak loud or louder. It’s fair to say that Pacino often gobbles the scenery, but the most effective line in that speech is one for which he lowers his voice and uses the words like sharp instruments. It is the last sentence of this passage: “As I came in here, I heard those words, ‘cradle of leadership.’ Well, when the bow breaks, the cradle will fall. And it has fallen here; it has fallen. Makers of men; creators of leaders; be careful what kind of leaders you’re producin’ here.” When Pacino says those last words – “Be careful what kind of leaders you’re producin’ here” – he makes them prophetic, ominous. I bookmarked the video of that scene, too – it’s at THIS LINK — and I never tire of hearing him say it. I’m obsessed.

SETH RUDETSKY

I recently learned that this behavior doesn’t constitute a private disorder of mine – and that there is a name for it: deconstruction. The dawn broke when I was at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick talking to Seth Rudetsky, who is so versatile that he defies definition. It’s something like comedian-actor-radio host-raconteur-musician-composer. I was talking to him because he is going to appear in the George Street production of the musical play “[title of show].”

Rudetsky hosts a web site which includes a series of videos he calls “Deconstruction.” In these, he plays clips from Broadway musicals — a subject he knows inside-out — and analyzes, in his supercharged manner, the techniques with which a singer such as Florence Henderson, Laurie Beechman, or Kristin Chenoweth handles a song – or a line, or a word, or a syllable. “I’m obsessed!” he often says when he has played a phrase over and over again, mouthing the words along with the singer.

I’m glad to finally know that I’m in good company. Rudetsky’s site is at THIS LINK.

SUSAN BOYLE

SUSAN BOYLE

The sensation caused by Susan Boyle’s appearance on a British talent show should be embarrassing to more than those judges and that audience who initially dismissed her based on her appearance alone. They didn’t dismiss her because her appearance was somehow exceptional; if they had met her at a backyard party in her village they might not have given her appearance a second thought. Rather, they either assumed from the outset that a person that ordinary, a person of that age, could have nothing to offer in the way of talent, or they assumed that no matter what she had to offer in the way of talent, it couldn’t be enough if she looked like that. The judges and the audience weren’t alone in making such assumptions. They live in a larger world in which uncounted people of enormous talent go unnoticed while mediocrities like Britney Spears make headlines regardless of their lack of artistic gifts.

KATE SMITH

KATE SMITH

The Susan Boyle phenomenon calls to mind the experience of Kate Smith, one of my favorite singers of standards. Early in her career, she had to put up with ridicule, especially “fat girl” jokes, but in the end the public couldn’t ignore her musical prowess. Based on the only thing I’ve heard Boyle sing, she reminds me of Kate Smith in that the power and clarity of her voice are enhanced by her ability to deliver the song. Kate Smith was a favorite among lyricists for that reason, which explains why she introduced more than 650 hit songs during her radio and recording career.

My guess is that we didn’t learn anything – at least, not permanently – from the Susan Boyle incident, but it will be justification enough for her if she flourishes in a mid-life career. I, for one, would love to hear more.