Friday, March 22, 2013

ECCO: East Coast Chamber Orchestra

The Musicians of ECCO

Your correspondent has been attending People’s Symphony Concerts (PSC) on-and-off for the past 20 years.  PSC seeks to serve the citizens of the New York area by presenting classical music performances of the highest caliber at affordable ticket prices.  I started in college and never stopped.  Some of the most moving musical experiences of my life have been at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts.

One of them was last Saturday, when I had the great pleasure of hearing ECCO: The East Coast Chamber Orchestra.  This spectacular Orchestra started in 2001, when a group of young musicians – mostly colleagues and friends from leading conservatories and music festivals across the country – envisioned the creation of a democratically-run, self-conducted chamber orchestra that would thrive on the pure joy and camaraderie of classical music making.  That joy is evident in each of their concerts, and abundantly clear in their first-ever commercial recording, which I picked up after the concert.  The CD includes Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings n C Major Op. 48, Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op 110a and the exuberant and surprising La Follia Variations for String Orchestra, arranged by ECCO’s own Michi Wiancko after Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso No. 12 in D minor.  Please do yourself a favor – buy this CD.  You will not be disappointed.  In fact, you can get a better taste of ECCO on YouTube:

Saturday’s concert started with a lilting performance of the Divertimento for Strings in F Major, K. 138 (1772) by Mozart (1756-1791).  This was followed by Variations on a Theme of Brank Bridge, Op. 10 (1937) by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), which contained a great many amusing passages and considerable wit, flawed, perhaps, by the absence of a unifying emotional theme.  I have often found it curious that 20th Century composers are so identifiable by their sound, and how disjointed their emotional appeal can often be.

ECCO then provided an expert interpretation of Fantasias in 4 Parts (1680) by Henry Purcell (1659).  Baroque music has never been my particular forte (I always thought that if it was Baroque one should fix it), but this piece had, for this listener, an unusual emotional attachment and genuine sweetness at its core. 

ECCO closed the evening with another 20th Century composer, Bela Bartok (1881-1945) and his Divertimento for String Orchestra, Sz. 113 (1930).  As if fitting for the evening’s closer, the Bartok was the most moving and entertaining piece in the concert.  At turns moody, romantic and joyful, Divertimento could only have been written at that strange moment when the world prayed that war would not come while knowing, at heart, that it was inevitable.  A “Divertimento” is written to entertain both the listeners and the players, but the occasional melancholy in this piece can still be felt.  It was the last work Bartok wrote before fleeing Nazi-sympathetic Hungary.

ECCO has a prominent presence on Facebook.  Become a follower and learn of their concert schedule – they are not to be missed.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Dahesh Museum Forms Innovative Partnership with Christie’s to Open Orientalist Exhibition at Rockefeller Center

Tangerian Beauty by José Tapiró y Baró

Regular Jade Sphinx readers know of my devotion to the Dahesh Museum – once an oasis of representational and Orientalist art in the heart of Midtown Manhattan.  Since closing their doors, the museum’s stunning collection of works have been on view in various locations around the world.  This year, the Dahesh has opened a gift shop in Hudson Square, hopefully the first step in reopening the museum and making its treasure regularly available once again.

The Dahesh continues its spirit of innovation with an exhibition of 30 major Orientalist masterworks open to the public at Christie’s, at 20 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, from March 27 to April 15.  The exhibition celebrates the 19th Century rediscovery of the East by Western artists, and offers a fresh approach to Orientalism as a complex, cross-cultural encounter.

The show, Encountering the Orient: Masterworks from the Dahesh Museum of Art, will be the first time the museum is partnering with an auction house to present an exhibition.  Encountering the Orient explores how artists from both Europe and America interpreted the culture and people of the Middle East and North Africa during the 19th century.  To the 19th Century mind, the East was anything East of Istanbul, and during that time, Western encounters flourished following the industrial revolution, increased political interest, and the emergence of easier world travel.  Drawn by the exotic, romantic artists wanted to escape the urban rigors back home, realists sought to record the “real” Orient, and others looked for unusual subject matter to satisfy the new demands of a changing art market.  Yet some who did not make the journey rendered an “imaginary” Orient inspired by both Arabic texts -- such as One Thousand and One Nights --and many popular Western literary and travel accounts. After 1839, photographers provided plentiful documentation.

Drawn from the Dahesh Museum of Art’s collection, the exhibition features 30 paintings, sculptures, and illustrated books by such celebrated artists, such as Rudolf Ernst, Ludwig Deutsch, Gustav Bauernfeind and Frederick Arthur Bridgman, as well as evocative works by less familiar names, such as José Tapiró y Baró.  It addresses a broad variety of themes, ranging from Western fascination with ancient Egypt, Islamic architecture and design, ethnography, and biblical history to the exotic genre and harem scenes, and provides a fuller understanding of Orientalism and the artists who practiced it. 

Encountering the Orient: Masterworks from the Dahesh Museum of Art will be on view at Christie’s, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday 1 to 5 pm.  For more information and a schedule of gallery talks and related programs, visit or

Expect a more in-depth review once the show has opened.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Encores! Production of It's A Bird ... It's A Plane ... It's Superman

Our discussion of the 80th anniversary of Doc Savage last week naturally brought up the subject of his successor, Superman.  So it was not without irony that this week Encores! has revived the little-known musical comedy It’s a Bird … It’s A Plane … It’s Superman, which originally debuted on Broadway at the Alvin Theater on March 29, 1966.  (The Alvin would be home to a genuine Broadway megahit also based on a comics character in the next decade with Annie.)

The original show had music by Charles Strouse (born 1928) and lyrics by Lee Adams (born 1924), with a book by David Newman (1937-2003) and Robert Benton (born 1932).  Newman would be one of the many collaborators on the first big-budget Superman film starring Christopher Reeve (1952-2004) in 1978, though how much of his material made it into the final film is a question still disputed.  It’s a Bird … It’s A Plane … It’s Superman opened to mostly positive reviews, but was not a box office hit, closing after only 129 performances. 

The original production starred Jack Cassidy (1927-1976) as one of the main antagonists, Max Mencken, as well as Bob Holiday (born 1932) as Superman and Patricia Marand (1934-2008) as Lois Lane.  Cassidy and Marand would be nominated for Tony Awards, as would Michael O'Sullivan, who played the other antagonist.

The show pits Superman against two rivals, the evil Dr. Abner Sedgwick, multiple loser of the Nobel Peace Prize, who seeks to destroy the Man of Steel, and Max Mencken, a Daily Planet columnist who resents the adulation Superman richly deserves.

In a wonderful bit of psychology, Dr. Sedgwick realizes that it is not we who need Superman, but Superman who needs us.  While he is dedicated solely to doing good (as evidenced by his opening number, Doing Good), it is our adulation that the orphan from Krypton secretly craves.

The revival, starring Edward Watts as Superman, Will Swenson as Mencken, Jenny Powers as Lois Lane, David Pittu as Sedgwick and Alli Muazey as Mencken’s secretary, Sydney, will run in New York’s City Center from March 20th to the 24th as part of the Encores! series of musical revivals.  Encores! is dedicated to restaging little-seen shows with top-notch casts and the finest orchestra performing on Broadway.  The creative minds behind the series are Artistic Director Jack Viertel and Music Director Rob Berman, who have done a superb job of mounting these shows since 1994.  City Center has also been recently renovated to an approximation of its original glory, creating a near-perfect experience for musical buffs.

Before looking at the Encores! revival, a word or two about the show itself.  Not every crackerjack musical finds its audience, and this was certainly true of It’s a Bird… The book is witty and the songs are tuneful and fun.  The score was written at a curious time for the Broadway musical: the Great American Songbook was gasping its last, and show tunes were trying to bridge the gap between sophisticated, adult music and the stuff consumed by more demanding teenagers.

Fortunately, Strouse and Adams shot for a hip, jazzy idiom that still had Broadway razzmatazz without descending into sock hop kitsch.  If ever a show cried out for a full-scale revival, it is this one.  Perhaps if the upcoming Superman film, Man of Steel, is a success, some enterprising impresario would consider it.

Encores! has done a fabulous job with the revival, and the loving attention to all things Superman is evident in the City Center lobby itself: man-size screens play the original Max Fleischer Superman animated cartoons, as well as display Superman drawings by celebrated comics artist Curt Swan.  (Watts’ Clark Kent suit is a wonderful evocation of artist Swan’s mid-60s business attire.)

The score was meticulously recreated – originally, roadshows and touring companies used a score considerably scaled down.  Encores! found the original orchestrations, and Rob Berman does a fabulous job with the orchestra.

The show is designed with a distinct Mad Men sensibility; and with the Daily Planet office romances the choice is perfectly sound. (One could only wish for a period Superman film – any period from the 30s to the 60s!)  The direction, by John Rando, maintains a zippy pace and finds just the right note between musical comedy and actual sentiment.

There are several excellent numbers in the First Act, including the show-stopping You’ve Got Possibilities, where Sydney tries to seduce Clark Kent.  Mencken, a Brylcreem-ed narcissist to put any hipster to shame, has a wonderful song of self-adoration with The Woman for the Man; and We Don’t Matter at All, performed by Adam Monley as scientist Jim Morgan, temporary love interest to Lois Lane, is particularly sweet.

Many musicals lose steam with the Second Act, but It’s a Bird… actually improves after the interval.  Mencken sings a gloating song at Superman’s downfall, So Long, Big Guy, and Swenson delivers the number with spirited élan.   His later duet with Pittu’s Sedgwick, You’ve Got What I Need, brought forth riotous applause and Watts’ lament The Strongest Man in the World was alternately sweet, funny, and heartbreaking.  And Mauzey has the best number of the Second Act with Ooh, Do You Love You – handing her the two show-stopping numbers in the musical.

Like most adaptions of comic book superheroes, the only problem with the show is the central character, Superman.  As is often the case, most film and play adaptations cannot really come to grips with the central superhero, and they become mere cyphers.  However, the upside of this is that it often means that the villains and other supporting characters are deliciously over-written and over-played, and the stellar support from Swenson (who is simply magnificent), Pittu and Mauzey (who is pure Broadway dynamite) deliver the goods.

The staging is endlessly inventive.  Rather than trying to create the impossible, they suggest it.  Superman flies in a glorious cardboard cutout while the cast reacts in awe – trust me, it works!  In the Second Act, an entire sequence takes place with cast members standing before comic book panels, complete with dialog boxes.  Needless to say, the show ends with the prophetic words, To Be Continued, and we can only hope.

It’s a Bird … It’s A Plane … It’s Superman is one of the most enjoyable nights I’ve had at Encores!, and is a treat for Broadway lovers, Superman fans, or anyone who, at heart, thinks they can fly.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Francesca da Rimini at the Metropolitan Opera

It is always a pleasure when New York City’s Metropolitan Opera revives a seldom-heard opera.  So it was with great pleasure that I caught the recent revival of Riccardo Zandonai’s little-heard Francesca da Rimini last Saturday. 

The story of Francesca derived from a brief episode in Dante’s Inferno that is based on historical fact, and has inspired adaptations in a variety of genres over the centuries.  Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863-1938) wrote a tragic play based on the legend, which was adapted into a libretto by music publisher Tito Ricordi, Jr.  Ricordi initially wanted Puccini (1858-1924) to create the score, but when he refused Ricordi turned to Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1944), who had previously written the opera Conchita on a libretto also rejected by Puccini.

Francesca first premiered at the Met in 1916 with Frances Alda and Giovanni Martinelli.  It was performed through 1918, and then fell out of the repertory for 66 years.  The current production premiered in 1984 – and has not been seen at the Met since 1986.

The reason for Francesca’s protracted absence is puzzling, as it has a great deal to commend it, including a dramatic story, theatrical set-pieces and a score that, while not of the first rank, certainly delivers diverse pleasures.  It continues through March 22nd and you should see it, if at all possible.  (It will also be broadcast, eventually, on PBS.)

The story concerns Francesca, promised in marriage to Gianciotto Malatesta.  When the handsome Paolo Malatesta arrives, she mistakes him for her betrothed, and – in one of the most magical moments of the opera, beautifully played here – wordlessly fall in love over the gift of a rose.  The second act takes place during a battle between warring families, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, and we see her actual husband, the crippled Gianciotto.  We also meet the third brother, Malatestino, who rather graphically makes his appearance after losing an eye in battle.

Of course, the forbidden love between Francesca and Paolo continues unabated.  The malign Malatestino, who delights in mischief, draws the Gianciotto’s attention to his wife’s true feelings, and the opera ends in tragedy.

The sets, by Ezio Frigerio, have all the beauty of a Pre-Raphaelite painting; indeed, it is one of the most beautiful productions I’ve seen in years.  As mentioned earlier, the First Act closing love scene is a thing of great beauty, and the Second Act battle scenes are spectacular in a way that can only be delivered by the Met. 

Zandonai’s score is something of a mixed bag; equal parts Wagnerian bombast and Pucciniesque Romanticism.  It has echoes of DeBussy, as well as Strauss, but no matter how derivative, it is tuneful and amply dramatizes the action.

As Francesca, Eva-Maria Westbroek is at times transcendentally lovely, and her clear voice and fine tone is sometimes compromised by imprecise diction.  As Paolo, the handsome lover, Marcello Giordani is somewhat out of his league, having neither the voice nor the looks for the role.  However, his acting is occasionally affecting, and he is particularly effective in his silent love scene at the end of Act One.  As the evil brothers – lame Gianciotto and one-eyed Malatestino – Mark Delavan and Robert Brubaker, respectively, were particularly fine.  The performance was conducted by Marco Armiliato, who, in his ill-fitting tails, seemed to have an unfortunate resemblance to the late Dudley Moore.

Francesca includes battle scenes, spectacular fire effects, love affairs, decapitation, adultery, murder and dungeons.  As Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz said, “that’s entertainment.”

Friday, March 15, 2013

Remembering The Man of Bronze

One of the most influential fictional characters of the 20th Century is someone you’ve probably never heard of: Dr. Clark “Doc” Savage, Jr., the Man of Bronze.  He made his debut in pulp magazines 80 years ago in March, 1933 (around the same time that King Kong made his first appearance).  Doc Savage Magazine was published by Street & Smith, and Doc was created by publisher Henry W. Ralston and editor John L. Nanovic, but most of the 181 novels were written by wordsmith Lester Dent (1904-1959).

Doc Savage was a surgeon, explorer, scientist, researcher, criminologist and all-around physical marvel.  He did two hours of intense exercise every day, giving him a fabulous physique.  His body had been tanned a deep bronze during his world travels, and newspapers have dubbed him The Man of Bronze.

Along with his medical degree, he holds several scientific degrees and has published extensively in everything from physics to anthropology.  He lives on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, which includes his living quarters along with his various laboratories.  Doc leaves this fabulous art deco paradise by personal elevator, which moves so fast that he is usually the only one who can remain standing during its descent.

Doc stores his cars, submarine, plane, autogiro and dirigible in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan emblazoned with the legend The Hidalgo Trading Company.  This is something of a joke on Doc’s part (a rarity, as he seldom jokes) – Hidalgo is the Central American nation in which a lost tribe of Mayans mind his private gold mine.

When Doc is not traveling the world, battling mad scientists, super-villains and various fascists, he travels to the Arctic Circle to his Fortress of Solitude, where he can catch his breath and devote time to his scientific studies.  It is also the spot where Doc, an inveterate tinkerer and inventor, creates most of his gadgets.  Doc the Gadgeteer is legendary, creating hypnotic gas, “mercy” bullets that only stun, lightweight bullet-proof vests, the first answering machine, radar…. The list goes on and on. 

How did Clark become the Man of Bronze?  Doc is, in the final analysis, something of a scientific experiment himself.  His father created a strenuous training program for his only son; Doc was reared by a group of scientists who not only developed Clark’s body, but his mind, as well.  Though this sounds like it may have been something of a grind, young Doc was also taken around the world to learn the many languages he speaks, as well as various “mystic” arts of the East.  His boyhood travels alone would have been enough to make Indiana Jones footsore.

Doc has a coterie of friends who go adventuring with him, nicknamed The Fabulous Five.  The Five are the top men in their fields, and include Theodore Marley “Ham” Brooks, famous lawyer and fashion plate; Andrew Blodgett “Monk” Mayfair, brilliant chemist who looks vaguely simian; John “Renny” Renwick, celebrated engineer who has a penchant for knocking down doors with his oversized fists; William Harper “Johnny” Littlejohn, archeologist and anthropologist with a taste for big words; and Thomas J. “Long Tom” Roberts, the world’s leading electrical engineer.  Doc met these five men during the Great War – all are Doc’s senior by at least a decade or more, but Doc calls these men “brothers” and they are fiercely devoted to one-another.

The earliest stories would include all five of Doc’s friends, but later tales would include only two or three, most frequently Monk and Ham, who have a good natured rivalry and inflict endless harassment upon one-another. 

Oddly enough, Doc’s pulp magazine success was not transferable.  There was a best-forgotten radio series and a truly execrable movie version in 1975.  And most Doc Savage comic books fall flat – an oddity considering the visual potential of the corpus.

So … what is so special about the Doc Savage novels?  Well… in terms of influence, Doc’s achievement is colossal.  He was the template for the much better-known Superman, and, indeed, much of the mythology of Superman was stolen from Doc.  Both are named Clark.  Doc is the Man of Bronze; Superman the Man of Steel.  Superman has a Fortress of Solitude up north, and a group of supporting characters beside whom he can look more super.  Most tellingly, advertising art for Doc Savage Magazine often simply read … SUPERMAN.  Doc, however great his accomplishments, is fully human; Superman’s Kryptonian past separates him from us.  Doc is what we all could be, if only.

Doc the Gadgeteer has also influenced everyone from James Bond to The Man From U.N.C.L.E., as well as the adventuring family seen on Jonny Quest and even the dysfunctional adventurers found on The Venture Brothers.  Another key quality of the Doc Savage novels are their exotic locales – the novels usually open in a sun-kissed New York, a sort of art deco neverland – and before long Doc and his crew are in a dirigible or private plane headed for some barely charted spot on the map.  This taste for period exotica was an influence on heroes as diverse as TinTin and Indiana Jones.

All right, I hear you crying, enough!  So, Doc was hot stuff and a huge influence on junk adventure fiction.  But why do you like him?

Well, the simple and unvarnished truth is that I love Doc.  I love him and Ham and Monk and all the rest of them.  There is a portrait of Doc hanging in my studio where I paint, and not a day goes by when I do not think of him at least once.  This does not blind me to the flaws in the series.  Writing at breakneck speed, Dent was not a prose stylist.  He was not, nor could he ever be, Sinclair Lewis.  Hell, he couldn’t even be Edgar Rice Burroughs.  But… Dent delivered what was needed.

I read the Doc Savage novels in my middle teens – the perfect age for the series.  (Since I still love Doc, that teenager is still alive in me somewhere.)  The tremendous sense of Doc’s personal accomplishments along with the variety and scope of his travels and adventures provided a landscape for my own imagination.  Maybe, I thought, one day I would see the world.  Learn a language.  Write a book. Develop deep and lasting friendships.  And maybe … something big, something exciting, something of great importance, would happen to me, too.

The other charm of the Doc Savage corpus is found in the quieter moments of the series.  They are richly infused with comedy (mostly when Ham and Monk bicker), but there are always grace notes that underscore Doc’s quiet benevolence and humanity.  Like the Lone Ranger, Doc would not kill his enemies.  Doc kept a quiet poker face, but it never hid the kindness and warmth that could be found within.
After 1949, the world forgot Doc.  But then, something remarkable happened in the 1960s.  Bantam Books started republishing the novels, and several new generations came to know and love Doc Savage.

The best Doc novels are those from the 1930s.  The world was a large place before World War II, and the exotic settings and outlandish plots are delicious.  Doc Savage novels are easily found on ebay, and writer Will Murray has written several new adventures over the past few years, many based on notes that Dent left behind.  For anyone who is young at heart, Doc Savage is highly recommended.

Not bad for an 80 year old.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The King of Skull Island

The famed explorer and filmmaker stood before a theater of First Nighters and New York sophisticates and said, Ladies and gentlemen, I'm here tonight to tell you a very strange story — a story so strange that no one will believe it — but, ladies and gentlemen, seeing is believing. And we — my partners and I — have brought back the living proof of our adventure, an adventure in which twelve of our party met horrible death. And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you any more, I'm going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive — a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World.

March marks the 80th Anniversary of one of the greatest American films ever made, King Kong.  Though that comment might drive more elitist cineastes up the wall (where they belong), it is an incontrovertible fact.  Indeed, Kong is not only a great American film, but perhaps one of the most iconic, with a closing sequence that has entered into myth and has become part of our folklore.

For readers who have never had the privilege of seeing Kong, the story is simply this: world explorer and filmmaker Carl Denham sails to an uncharted island in the Dutch East Indies to make a film about whatever he finds there. With him are Ann Darrow, a down-on-her-luck actress, and Jack Driscoll, the tough first mate of Capt. Englehorn.  What they find is a primitive tribe, separated from the rest of the island by a gigantic wall.  The natives kidnap Ann to sacrifice her to their god – Kong, a 50 foot ape.  Denham, Driscoll and others breach the wall to rescue her, finding a lost world of dinosaurs.  Capturing Kong, they bring him back to New York, where he escapes.  Recapturing Ann once again, the great ape climbs the newly finished Empire State Building, where it fights for life against a squadron of biplanes.  Once the great Kong lies dead in a Manhattan street, Denham stands over the body and says, “Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty that killed the beast!”

Though set in a then-contemporary 1933, Kong is a portal into a lost world in more ways than one.  Much of it takes place in a now vanished Manhattan peopled by wisecracking operators who speak in a particularly 30s American patios.  The dialog, by James Ashmore Creelman (1894-1941), who would commit suicide by jumping from a building, and Ruth Rose (1891-1978), crackled with an electrical energy often found in Depression-era films.  Its signature note is a combination of sentiment and cynicism and is a delight to hear.

The middle third of the film takes place on the remote Skull Island, home of the last of the dinosaurs.  The world of 1933 was a much larger place than it is today; there were many uncharted islands, and great portions of many continents were still unknown (or largely unknown) by the western world.  The notion in 1933 that one could head out into a wide-world full of the unknown and adventure was not beyond the realm of possibility.  (By the end of World War II, most of the world would not only be successfully mapped, but also closed off for various political reasons.)

To create King Kong, the filmmakers turned to Willis O’Brien (1886-1952), who created Kong and the dinosaurs through a process called stop motion animation.  Kong was, in reality, a puppet about 18 inches tall.  It was a metal, articulated skeleton that could be posed in different positions, covered in rubber, and the rubber covered in rabbit fur.  O’Brien would then position Kong, shoot one frame, re-position him, shoot one frame, and on and on and on.  The final result is that Kong would move with a lifelike grace.  The special effects for Kong are very special indeed, and 80 years later they have not lost their ability to enchant.  (In fact, I much prefer stop motion to the current CGI type of effect; stop motion always seemed to have a touch of the fantastic, and what would Kong be without that?)

For me, one of the most fascinating things about King Kong is how much of it is based on the experiences of the two men who co-directed the film: Merian C. Cooper (1893-1973) and Ernest B. Schoedsack (1893–1979).  Both were globetrotting adventurers with enough exotic experiences to put Indiana Jones to shame, tramping through Siam, Persia, Abyssinia, and the Malaysian Archipelago.  The film’s two protagonists – filmmaker Carl Denham and sailor Jack Driscoll – are actually stand-ins for the real-life filmmakers; Robert Armstrong (1890-1973), who played Denham, looked remarkably like Cooper, and Bruce Cabot (1904-1972), who played Driscoll, resembled Schoedsack.  Cooper stayed active in aviation (and was one of the founders of Pan Am) and motion pictures, working to develop the process known as Cinerama.  Sadly, he spent his declining years a rabid McCarthyite, looking for Reds in every corner of American life.  Oddly, Cooper and Armstrong would die within 16 hours of each other.  Schoedsack continued to direct, but recurring vision problems curtailed his career.  (Screenwriter Ruth Rose was also Mrs. Schoedsack.)

The genius of Kong is not just in its conception, but in its execution.  The first line in the film sets the action and starts racing to its conclusion.  It is exciting and spectacular without ever being flabby or self-indulgent; it is mythic and larger than life without ever losing the sentiment at its core.  In addition to Armstrong and Cabot, the film is wonderfully embellished by a touching and vulnerable performance by Fay Wray as Ann Darrow (1907-2004); when she died at age 96, the Empire State Building dimmed its lights for 15 minutes.

Kong would be remade twice: once disastrously in 1976 and again, with mixed results, in 2005 by director Peter Jackson.  Neither is a patch on the original.  (It had long been my dream that animator William Joyce would remake the film; perhaps some day...)

King Kong is everything to which today’s blockbusters aspire, but seldom achieve.  It’s spectacular, filled with stunning special effects, great performances, smart, funny, mythic, exciting and heartbreaking.  It is, in short, everything a movie should be.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Lone Ranger Riders Again!

This week, we will abandon our usual Fine Arts mandate to observe the 80th anniversaries of several glorious examples of American Pop Culture.

So as not to disappoint usual Jade Sphinx readers who expect a certain amount of grousing about the deplorable conditions of the world in which we live – let me take this moment to pour the mixture as before.  At one time, American Pop Culture was a great and glorious thing: though made to be disposable and never with the pretentions of High Art, occasionally Pop Art created things of great and lasting beauty.  The Great American Songbook, for example, was art of the most popular kind … and may end up being our sole, enduring legacy.   Movies, too, when they were made for adults and weren’t special-effects laden pap made to sell toys, were also Pop Art of a significant and lasting kind.  All of this, of course, was before the rot set in.  Today, “disposable” is perhaps the kindest thing that can be said for the rancid and diseased corruption crafted to amuse the groundlings in our movie theaters and in front of their television sets.  The fall from Cole Porter to rap music, or from Ernst Lubitsch to J. J. Abrams is a precipitous one – and quite possibly fatal.

But as potent as music and movies were in the 1920s-through-1960 or so, so were pulp magazines and radio drama.  Many people today consider pulp magazines to be the precursors of comics, but that’s an oversimplification of a more intellectually challenged time.  In fact, pulp magazines were monthly novels and short story collections – already more demanding of even the most casual reader than comics – and the magazines could be devoted to western stories or science fiction or romance or detective tales or the recurring adventures of a single character, like The Shadow or Doc Savage.  (More on Doc later this week.)

Similar to the pulps and equally important was radio drama.  Before television, people sat around their radios … looking at them.  Radio was truly a theater of mind because gifted actors and often brilliant sound effects men were utterly invisible to the listener.  It was the art of the radio writer to create landscapes out of the airwaves and people them with compelling stories and captivating characters.  Unlike the spoon-fed tosh found on any (most? all?) television stations, radio drama demanded from the audience attention, imagination, and most of all, participation.

Few radio icons have left a deeper or more mythic footprint on our subconscious than The Lone Ranger. Created by writer Fran Striker (1903-1962), The Lone Ranger first appeared in 1933 on radio station WXYZ, owned by George W. Trendle (1884-1972), who also claimed credit for creating the Ranger.  The show was an enormous hit – it was geared towards kids, but more than half of the audience was made up of adults.  The show would last on radio until 1954 – but, as is often the case, the Lone Ranger was to ride again in a television show from 1949 to 1957.  The Lone Ranger was also the subject of two movie serials, three motion pictures (with a fourth one on the way), and one execrable TV movie.

The Lone Ranger also was featured in eight novels by Striker, countless comic books and Big-Little-Books, and the daydreams of boys without number, including your correspondent.

Though the mythos has often been tweaked over the past 80 years, the basic origin of the Lone Ranger remains the same.  He was one of a band of Texas Rangers who were ambushed in Bryant’s Gap by the notorious Butch Cavendish gang.  All the other rangers died in the attack; their bodies found by an American Indian named Tonto.

Tonto buried all of the rangers, and also made a fake grave for the surviving ranger, so that Butch and other bad men of the West would not seek him out and finish the job.  As Tonto said, “you only ranger left; you Lone Ranger.”

Donning a mask to keep his identity a secret, the Lone Ranger and Tonto first set out to bring Cavendish to justice.  And when that job was completed, the duo realized that – having no real fixed or official identities – that they could…. well, as various announcers for the series said, With his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early Western United States. Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a greater champion of justice. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoof-beats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again!

The Lone Ranger is a remarkable creation for a number of reasons.  First off, Striker and company obliviously hit some kind of nerve in creating a kiddie show character that so resonated with adults.  To understand the Lone Ranger’s popularity at the time with both children and adults, think of our contemporary obsession with Batman – and then realize that the Lone Ranger was even more popular in his prime.

I suspect that one of the reasons for this is that the Ranger was his own man in his own time.  He had no secret identity (at least, not once his life changed so dramatically), he had no hideout or regular supporting cast, he had no superpowers that rendered him ridiculous.  And, more importantly, he had freedom.  The Lone Ranger and Tonto ride the West without thought of the necessities of making money or advancing careers or of the real needs of wives and children.  They were free men in a seemingly more free time.

They also were equal partners.  Most people unfamiliar with the actual radio or television series believe Tonto was a monosyllabic stooge; but actually listening or watching the series would dispel this notion.  Tonto was the Ranger’s superior in woodcraft and outdoorsmanship, and was an excellent scout and information resource. More often than not, it was Tonto who did the initial reconnaissance and told the Ranger who and where the villains could be found.  It was also a true friendship – both men cared for and loved each other.  (As is often the case with these long-lasting sagas, there is some debate as to how the two actually met.  The adopted story is that they were boyhood friends and it was chance that brought Tonto to Bryant’s Gap after the ambush.  Each man calls the other Kemo Sabe, which means “faithful friend.”)

Another key, I think, was the duo’s famous mounts, Silver and Scout.  Tonto rode Scout, an incredibly capable paint horse, but the Ranger rode a magnificent white stallion, Silver.  The Ranger rescued Silver when the horse was beset by an enraged Buffalo, and then Silver would never leave his side.  The Lone Ranger also used silver bullets, and the overriding theme of silver helped underscore the character’s sense of purity.

Most famously, the Ranger had a very strict moral code.  The Lone Ranger never took a life, never shot to kill, never took unfair advantage.  Today, a concept like that would never fly, when even the most innocent of family movies have a high body count.  But these were different times and a different America – a more aspirational land when we wanted people to emulate rather than feel smugly superior.

I had the great good fortune to interview Clayton Moore (1914-1999) who played the Lone Ranger on television and in two feature films, around the time he wrote his autobiography, I Was That Masked Man.  Aside from being an amusing and intelligent man, the thing that stuck most with me was how he felt the Ranger had changed his life.  While no saint, Moore spoke candidly of how he tried to “live up to” the Ranger and his ideals.  The stories of Moore taking his role very seriously are legendary – a particularly amusing one can be found here:

When closing the interview, Moore, in complete sincerity, asked if I would like for him to recite the Lone Ranger’s Code.  How could I refuse!  Taking a pause, Clayton Moore/The Lone Ranger said:

I believe...

That to have a friend, a man must be one.

That all men are created equal and that everyone has within himself the power to make this a better world.

That God put the firewood there, but that every man must gather and light it himself.

In being prepared physically, mentally, and morally to fight when necessary for that which is right.

That a man should make the most of what equipment he has.

That 'this government of the people, by the people, and for the people' shall live always.

That men should live by the rule of what is best for the greatest number.

That sooner or later...somewhere...somehow...we must settle with the world and make payment for what we have taken.

That all things change but truth, and that truth alone, lives on forever.

In my Creator, my country, my fellow man.

I will be the first to admit that there was as much corn as gold in our Golden Age of Pop Culture.  However… there is something about the Lone Ranger that still resonates, still has the capacity to touch some more innocent and hopeful self.  And I say without shame and certainly without irony that I miss him.

Who was that Masked Man?  He was the best part of ourselves.

Friday, March 8, 2013

A Pack Train, by Frederic Remington

We close our weeklong look at Frederic Remington (1861-1909) with another of his nocturnes, A Pack Train, painted in 1909 (about 36x27). 
To pick up Remington’s story, his success as a Western painter made him the darling of Western Army officers fighting in the Indian Wars.  He was often travelling with them, usually with General Nelson Miles.  Remington touted the “heroism” of the military after the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, in South Dakota, where 150 Sioux, mostly women and children, were murdered by the U.S. Army. 

Remington continued on his frequent trips around the U.S. and Mexico, painting and writing books and articles on the West.  He wooed many celebrities and politicians – forging an important friendship with Theodore Roosevelt, for instance – but he was never able to break into the entrenched artistic establishment.  Partly this was because of his endless self-publicizing (which, for an interesting comparison, was also one of the problems with Whistler), and partly because he was viewed as a singularly difficult man (which, for an interesting comparison, was also one of the problems with most of the artists covered in The Jade Sphinx).
Remington died in 1909, the day after Christmas, following an emergency appendectomy that led to peritonitis.  It was not helped by the fact that he weighed in the neighborhood of 300 pounds and had lived a very high life.

A Pack Train is another attempt by Remington to paint nighttime scenes.  He does this by using a largely viridian palette, and contrasting larger and darker shades to make up his figures.  There is no crystal-clear delineation of the mules, packs or rider, but the overall impression is unmistakable.  Remington also masterfully captures the quality of shadows cast by moonlight – Remington’s shadows are never black, brown or gray, but shades of blue, green or purple.  He painted with both his brain and his optic nerve.
Two things are going on with this picture.  First off, the sense of how alone this man is.  The landscape around his is enormous and falls back to great distances of emptiness.  However, they sky above, also immense, is filled with stars and other points of light – life also separated by incalculable distances.

Also there is the sense of menace so often found in Remington’s work.  Though there is no clear danger depicted, the wary turn of the cowboy’s head and the sense of isolation and vulnerability in the dark is overwhelming.  Whether delivering supplies or transporting everything he owns personally, no one looking at the pictures wishes he was the driver.  Even the donkeys seem to be beaten down by care or worry.  It’s a remarkably emotional picture executed in a deceptively simple manner.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

We Struck Some Boggy Ground, by Frederic Remington

Here is a stunning black and white piece by artist Frederic Remington (1861-1909), depicting an actual event some 40 years after the fact for an article he wrote about it in Harper’s Weekly.  (He did rely upon the testimony of eyewitnesses.)
Remington’s story, How the Law Got Into the Chaparral, was published in December, 1896.  In the story, Remington relates the tale as told by Texas Ranger Colonel “Rip” Ford.  John Salmon “Rip” Ford intermittently led Ranger companies against Indians throughout the 1850s and dealt with Mexican rebellion on the Rio Grande in 1859-60.  His most notable exploit was the Battle of Antelope Hills, May 12, 1858, in which Texas Rangers surprised and destroyed the Comanche village of Iron Jacket.

For a full description of the engagement, here is a passage from Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers, a magisterial history by Robert M. Utley that comes highly recommended: By March 1858, Ford was advancing toward the northwestern frontier, combing a broad swatch of country in four columns.  He felt himself too weak, however, to mount an offensive into the Comanche homeland.  The Rangers called up under the Pease administration had reached the end of their terms and were being replaced.  That left Ford with only a few more than a hundred men, including his seventy-three-year-old father.  At the Brazos Agency, however, Agent Shapley Ross solved Ford’s problem: more than a hundred Caddos, Anadarkos, Tawakonis, and Tonkawas placed themselves under Ross’s command to take the warpath with Ford’s Rangers.
Striking northwest from is base near Fort Belknap, Ford crossed Red River and bore north into the Comanche ranges west of the Wichita Mountains.  The Indian auxiliaries not only doubled Ford’s firepower but proved their worth as guides and trackers.  The Rangers were superior fighters, well drilled by Ford.  All they needed was to find the elusive Comanches, which they achieved by falling on a broad trail that led to the Canadian River opposite the landmark Antelope Hills.

Early on May 12, 1858, the Rangers and their allies splashed across the Canadian and raced headlong toward the village of the Comanche chief Iron Jacket.  The Brazos Indians took the lead, bore to the left, between the village and the river, and poured a deadly fire into surprised warriors bolting from their lodges.  Iron Jacket, brightly painted and armored in a coat of Spanish mail, mounted and charged the Brazos line.  “The sharp crack of five or six rifles brought his horse to the ground,” recalled Ford, “and in a few moments the Chief fell riddled with balls.”  The auxiliaries shot down all the Comanches attacking toward the river.  Meanwhile, in two wings the Rangers stormed into the village itself.  The fight then became a free-for-all, with knots of Rangers and their allies chasing fleeing Comanches.  Here and there warriors paused to make a stand and give their families time to escape.  But the Rangers, their six-shooters pooping, broke up every such attempt.  Shortly after noon, the winded pursuers returned to the village.  Warriors from another camp a few miles up the Canadian attempted a counterattack, but were driven off.
(Watch these pages for a review of Lone Star Justice, along with other books by master historian Robert M. Utley.)

This stunning gouache picture in grisaille measures 29.4x20, and also shows an interesting insight into Remington’s views on Indians.  In his story, Remington writes about the “screaming of the women and the children,” and in his illustration also shows how viciously outnumbered, out-gunned and out maneuvered the Indians were in this encounter.
The Rangers ride magnificent horses and brandish guns – by focusing on the rear of the animals and moving them uphill, Remington underscores their size and power.  The sheer size of the Rangers in the picture is impressive: they dwarf the Indian encampment in the background, which seems to have no martial contingent ready at-hand.

Telling, too, is the dead Indian in the foreground.  His proximity to the horses show the Indians ridden over by the tide of history.  A fascinating bit of Remingtonana.

More Remington tomorrow!


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Fight for the Water Hole, by Frederic Remington

A copy of this picture hung on my wall when I was Public Affairs Director at Hoffmann-La Roche, which perhaps says more about the shot-‘em-dead working environment of a global pharmaceutical company than any war stories I could share.
Painted in 1903 on canvas (3' 4.13" x 27.13") and currently housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, Fight for the Water Hole is a remarkable picture.   As we said previously, Frederic Remington (1861-1909) thought of the West mostly as a place of peril, privation and as a land where heroes met (or where ploughed under by) these challenges.

To demonstrate how Remington illustrated peril, look closely at what is happening here.  The water hole is really slightly more than a miserable puddle of water – a puddle in the middle of a vast expanse of arid desert.  Five men and their horses are huddled inside, and the men hold their rifles at the ready, for protecting the water hole is their sole hope for survival.  Indians circle in the distance.  And Remington doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for cowboys: in the upper right of the picture is what seems to be one of his trademark cattle skulls, bleached white by the sun.
Remington divides the painting into broad swatches of color, putting the viewer slightly above the action.  This not only gives us a bird’s eye view of the steely-eyed westerner (who looks a bit like actor Sam Elliott), but also provides a view of the purplish mountains in the far distance.  This expanse increases the importance of the waterhole: though it is large in the painting, it is infinitesimal in the scheme of the landscape.

The long shadow on the right side of the hole does not bode well for our heroes – day is clearly waning, making them more vulnerable.  This is especially poignant given the historical moment at which it was painted: in 1903, people were distraught by the closing off of the West.  Here, not only the West but Western heroes are facing an irrecoverable end of their own.  And, in view of the recent Indian Wars, here are heroes of which we will never see the like again.
Fight for the Waterhole was published in 1903 in Collier’s Weekly as part of Remington's four-year contract with the magazine to reproduce one painting each month. This alliance encouraged Remington to experiment with his technique, and as seen here, the results included looser brushwork, refined compositions, a bolder palette, and the development of psychological qualities in his art.  The action is inspired by landscapes such as the Sierra Bonita Ranch in Arizona, and on the Buffalo Wallow Fight in the Texas Panhandle during the Indian Wars.  However, I believe Remington painted this picture while comfortably ensconced in New York.

More Remington tomorrow!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Pretty Mother of the Night, by Frederic Remington

We continue our look at Western artist Frederic Remington (1861-1909) with a picture very different from the frenetic and violent A Dash for the Timber: Pretty Mother of the Night.
Following his first commercial sales to Harper’s Weekly, Remington went to rural Peabody, Kansas, to become a sheep rancher.  He quickly found out the life in Kansas was boring, isolated and rougher than he anticipated.  An Easterner at heart, he was never really completely at home in the wilderness. His inheritance dissipated from the failed venture, Remington returned home.

His mother loaned him enough money to go to Kansas City and start a hardware business.  However, some kind of swindle (the details have never really been clear), made the business fail.  He took what money he had left and invested as half-owner in a saloon.  He also married his New York sweetheart Eva Caten and brought her to Kansas City.
Eva was as unhappy in the saloon business as Remington was in the sheep business.  In addition, she showed little interest or appreciation in his art, and left him to return to New York.  This desertion may have served as something of a wakeup call to Remington, who started to sketch and paint in earnest.

His painting created greater success for him than any of his business ventures, and he soon identified as an artist.  He returned to New York and reunited with Eva in Brooklyn.  He studied at the Art Students League in New York and improved his technique.
At this time, there was a fear in the East that the great open spaces of the West were closing down, and that the pageant of the American West was drawing to a close.  Remington was able to capitalize on that by submitting work to Harper’s Weekly and Collier’s, documenting his recent (and largely exaggerated) Western experiences.  Eastern editors took him for the genuine article, and started sending him back to the West to chronicle its final days.

Between 1885 and 1888 Remington made a number of trips to the American Southwest, principally to cover the U.S. Cavalry and its pursuit of the Apaches. He also followed the Cavalry in pursuit of the renegade Indian Geronimo.  The stark landscape and dramatic human events he encountered there greatly influenced his artistic development. Remington filled his diaries with observations, made countless field sketches, took many photographs with the latest equipment, and collected numerous artifacts to use in his paintings.
In the eternal comparisons between Remington and Charles Russell (1864-1926), one of the most interesting points is their respective feelings toward the American Indian.  Russell genuinely liked Indians – to him, they were just as much a symbol of freedom and living-in-nature as the American cowboy.  He learned the exacting sign language (he and his wife used it as both a private code and a party trick), and even camped with them for extended periods.  Though he never shied from depicting the occasional savagery of the Indian, he also reveled in his beauty, capability and stoicism.

It was an entirely different story with Remington.  Most of his interactions with the Indians were while he was covering the Indian Wars in the company of the U.S. Cavalry.  They were never anything less than the enemy – wily, unscrupulous, untrustworthy and … alien.  There are few positive depictions of the Indians in Remington’s work.  That is why Pretty Mother of the Night (oil on board) is such a remarkable picture.  Seldom has he portrayed the Indian with such a sympathetic eye.
Pretty Mother of the Night is best labeled a nocturne – its explores the technical and aesthetic difficulties of painting nighttime pictures.  (It is a feat at which Remington would excel.)  Painted around 1900, this picture was meant to serve as an illustration for a novel he had recently written called The Way of the Indian.  In the novel the hero, White Otter, addresses the moon (Pretty Mother of the Night) after successfully completing a test of manhood. 

Aside from the lack of the frenetic energy in a painting like A Dash for the Timber, look at the other things that Remington does differently.  A Dash for the Timber details man, horse and landscape with an almost photographic attention to detail.  Here, Remington uses a significant change in compositional technique.  Though beautifully rendered, the horses, Indians and landscape are all done with an almost Impressionist lack of detail. 
Also … Just look at how he poses the subjects and what he’s doing with them.  If the landscape is barren and empty, Remington underscores the hardness of the landscape by the lean, almost skeletal sparseness of the Indians.  These are not well-fed warrior princes, but, rather, people of the land barely squeezing a living from it.

Also, too, look at how he compares the barren immensity of the landscape and its two dots of life with the immensity of the heavens with its corresponding dots of light.  Remington here underscores the quiet miracle of life, both here on earth, and in the heavens.

More Remington tomorrow!



Monday, March 4, 2013

A Dash for the Timber by Frederic Remington

An email crossed our desk wondering why we at The Jade Sphinx have devoted so much time to so many great painters of the American West, yet have paid scant attention to one who is arguably one of the greatest: Frederic Remington.
There are several reasons for the seeming oversight on our part.  First off, Remington’s works are so well cataloged throughout the Web that it seemed a redundancy on our part.  Secondly, I didn’t know if there was anything I could say that was either fresh or interesting.  And finally, in my researches into the man himself … I have to say that no matter how much I admire his work, I don’t like him very much.

Though Remington had several youthful adventures out West, his conception of the time and place were radically different from that of his contemporary, Charles Russell (1864-1926).  Where Russell saw the West as a glorious pageant, a time of freedom and fun and opportunity, Remington saw only the hardship, the brutality and the privation.  Both outlooks are perfectly viable and have more than an element of truth – indeed, either outlook is possible for today’s world – but I could never fully embrace the negativist. 

Frederic Remington (1861-1909) was, if I may slip into the vernacular of the West, born a dude.  He was born in Canton, New York.  His father, Seth Pierre Remington, was a colonel in the Civil War and a businessman who was often absent from the family.  The family moved from Bloomington, Illinois for a brief time, and later resettled in Ogdensburg, New York.
Young Frederic was something of a challenge to his father.  The boy had no great ambition to work too hard, no interest really in the military, and thought he would spend his life as a journalist-illustrator.  While in military school, Remington spent most of his time drawing pictures – he was clearly not soldier material and the older Remington’s dreams of his son going to West Point were squashed.  Instead, young Remington went to art school at Yale, where he was the only male in attendance.  (He also was something of football star.)  After graduating, he used a small inheritance to go West.

Remington spent time in Montana and New Mexico, watching cattlemen, cavalry and foot soldiers, and Indians.  From this trip, he sold a story and illustration to Harper’s Weekly, and in a very roundabout way, his career as an artist began.
Remington’s first great painting was A Dash for the Timber, and it is easy to see how his reputation as a serious artist started here.  It is his first masterpiece.  The picture was commissioned by E. C. Converse, a wealthy New York industrialist who wanted a painting that portrayed “a life-threatening situation.”  Converse knew of Remington from his work with Harper’s Weekly (by this time, Remington had followed General Cook on the trail of Geronimo, the rebel Apache, to get the story for Harper’s.)  As a journalist out West, Remington, knew it to be a place where hard men managed to live off of a harder, more unforgiving land. 

The painting first appeared publicly at The National Academy of Design in 1889; years later, it was bought by a private individual and donated to Washington University.  In 1945, the university sold it to collector David Findlay Sr. for $23,000 so that they university cold then buy a Picasso and a Matisse.  (They should’ve kept the Remington.)  The picture now resides at the Amon Carter Museum.
Let’s look at this remarkable picture.  The first thing of course that draws our eye are the horses.  Remington’s portrayal of airborne horses was revolutionary in 1889.  He was aided in this not just through personal observation, but through the fast-action sequential photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, who invented a technique for taking such fast photos that he was able to capture the horse while it was actually airborne.

These are horses running hard: each muscle is straining, nostrils are flared, eyes are bulging.  Lariats and canteens are suspended in mid-air under the thundering hoof beats, and a cloud of dust follows in their wake.  Look, too, at the contrast of the purplish shadow thrown by the horses and the stark, sandy-colored earth. 
Each and every one of the participants is a distinct personality: except, of course, for the empty-saddled horse, which has obviously lost its rider.  Look, too, at the rigidity of the vaquero on the left obviously hit by a bullet – one of his comrades leans over the keep in him the saddle.  The hats of the riders fold at the brim in the wind, and some of the hardier souls turn round to return gunfire.

The timber, to the left, looks a little thin, and one wonders how much protection it will provide.  Indeed, these look like doomed men.
Aside from the virtuosity of the composition and execution, what Remington really captures is a sense of action.  Painters from the Renaissance onward have been able to create a sense of movement, but not so much of action.  A Dash for the Timber is the kind of painting that leaves the viewer in a sweat of exhaustion.

More than 100 years of Western films have perhaps removed some of the novelty of this composition, but have not diminished at all its power.  This is a remarkable painting.

More Remington tomorrow!