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February 29, 2016

Song of the Day #1333

Song of the Day: Alone Together, words and music by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, is featured on the Gleason production "Music for Lovers Only," and includes another sparkling Hackett solo. The 2016 88th Annual Academy Awards gave its "Best Original Song" statuette to Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes for "Writing's On the Wall" from the Bond flick, "SPECTRE," and the "Best Original Score" went to the immortal Ennio Morricone for "The Hateful Eight." Meanwhile, having closed out our Film Music February yesterday, we can now conclude our Centenary tribute to Jackie Gleason. "And Away We Go...." Check out the warmth of Hackett's trumpet in this track [YouTube Link], which could only have been produced by a warm and loving Jackie Gleason. In this cantankerous political season, I can think of nothing more triumphant than a full-hearted embrace of the cultural contributions of The Great One, who arose from the blisters of his childhood and even above the bluster of his most famous characters to Leap Up and Declare, with undiluted joy: "How Sweet It Is."

February 28, 2016

Song of the Day #1332

Song of the Day: I Cover the Waterfront ("Main Title"), music by Johnny Green, lyrics by Edward Heyman, was originally released in 1933 as a popular song, inspired by the 1932 novel of the same title, written by Max Miller. The book also inspired a 1933 film, which right before its release, was re-scored to include this song. It has been recorded by so many artists, including everybody from Billie Holiday to Sarah Vaughan [YouTube links]. In keeping with both our Film Score February music tribute, which in its final three days intersects with our mini-tribute to the Great One, Jackie Gleason, I should mention that this song was also featured as an instrumental, with a sweet solo by the great trumpet and cornet player, Bobby Hackett, on Gleason's first album, "Music for Lovers Only," which still holds the record for the album longest in the Billboard Top Ten Charts (153 weeks). And so, we end our annual Film Music February, but we're going to give one more encore to Jackie tomorrow, thus concluding our mini-Gleason tribute. In the meanwhile, enjoy the Oscars tonight, especially those competitive categories dealing with music! For now, just dim the lights, and check out the Gleason and Hackett rendition [YouTube link].

February 27, 2016

Song of the Day #1331

Song of the Day: Requiem for a Heavyweight ("Main Title"), composed by Laurence Rosenthal, is the soundtrack for the film version of this boxing drama. It was filmed initially as a 1956 installment of TV's "Playhouse 90", and Rod Serling's teleplay won a Peabody. But it was remade into a 1962 feature film. There are more than a few literal "Bang! Zooms!" in this one. Mickey Rooney and Anthony Quinn co-star; and contrary to any intuitive thoughts you might have had, it was Jackie Gleason who played the role of the manager, not the heavyweight. Quinn observed that Gleason did things just like Frank Sinatra. One take, sometimes with improvisational flair, and he was satisfied. Quinn needed a few more takes than that; but either way, it contributed greatly to a film that was a much darker movie than its small-screen counterpart.

February 26, 2016

The Jackie Gleason Centenary: Celebrating an American Icon

"A SONG OF THE DAY" GLEASON TRIBUTE BEGINS WITH "THE HUSTLER"

Facebook Announcement: The first episode of the famous television series "The Honeymooners" made its debut in prime time, and so I've waited for prime time to debut this essay in honor of the man who gave "The Honeymooners" life: Jackie Gleason. One hundred years ago today, Jackie Gleason was born. Since my celebration of Gleason's Centenary intersects with my Annual Film Music February Tribute, I have decided to post an exclusive Notablog essay (and brief musical series) on the importance and impact of Gleason, and to highlight music cues from films in which Gleason appeared on the culminating Oscar weekend of Film Music February.

This essay can be found in the Essay Section of the Sciabarra "Dialectics and Liberty Site" but I am reproducing it here as a Notablog Exclusive.

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Today, Friday, February 26, 2016, I begin a mini-tribute to one of the greatest entertainers to have ever graced American culture: Jackie Gleason. Just as I grew up listening to the music of Francis Albert Sinatra, an artist who was the focus of my centenary celebration in November-December 2015, so too did I grow up watching the television shows, and films, and listening to the music produced by the man whom Orson Welles called "The Great One," Jackie Gleason. Gleason was a native Brooklynite, born in my hometown one hundred years ago on this date.

Though he was a co-recipient (with Perry Como) of the 1955 Peabody Award for his contributions to television entertainment, his career is notable for what he didn't get: despite five Emmy nominations, for situation comedy ("The Honeymooners"), variety shows ("The Jackie Gleason Show"), and general Recognition ("Best Comedian"), he never won an Emmy. Despite three Golden Globe nominations, he never won a globe. Despite an Oscar nomination as "Best Supporting Actor" in "The Hustler," he never won an Oscar (though he did receive the Golden Laurel Award for the performance). And despite having produced nearly 60 albums that charted on The Billboard 200 album chart, including
"Music for Lovers Only"---which was the #1 album of 1953, spending 153 total weeks within the Billboard Top Ten (nearly twice the number of weeks in the Top Ten that Michael Jackson's opus, "Thriller," which, with 78 weeks in the Top Ten [and 37 weeks at #1], and at 100 million worldwide units sold, is the biggest selling album of all time)---he has never been recognized by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, not even with a "Hall of Fame" induction. Indeed, Gleason practically gave birth to the genre of "mood music" and his first ten theme albums sold over a million copies each.

It being "Film Music February," it should be said that it was film that inspired Gleason to produce such albums. So impressed was he by the capacity of film scores to magnify emotions on screen, especially in romantic scenes, he once said: "If [Clark] Gable needs music, a guy in Brooklyn must be desperate." Let's not forget that Gleason himself was no slouch in the melody department; he was, after all, the composer of the themes to The Honeymooners ("You're My One and Only Love") and "The Jackie Gleason Show" ("Melancholy Serenade").

But his talent could have been stillborn if he did not battle his way out of poverty and parental abuse. His mother was an alcoholic, whose first son Clemence passed away from spinal meningitis at age 14. Determined to protect her second son, she tied young Jackie to a chair during the day while she imbibed in the bar downstairs. When he showed his fine skill at loosening knots, his mother nailed the windows shut. The only solace he had was to go with his father on weekends to see Vaudeville at Brooklyn's Halsey Theatre, and to soak up the comic antics of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in the silent films of his childhood. He had decided that this is what he wanted to be when he grew up: an entertainer. He started school too late, because of his mother's paranoid antics; he attended Public School 73, and John Adams and Bushwick High Schools, but he was never to graduate with a high school diploma. His father abandoned the family in 1925, something for which Jackie always blamed himself, and ten years later, his mother succumbed to complications from alcoholism. He had to quit school, and fought loneliness, alienation, and the ever-empty wallet, by hustling pool halls to make money (experiences that served him well years later for a film role that netted him an Oscar nomination).

He was alienated and depressed and he self-medicated by overeating. Indeed, he spent his life battling the side effects of living large after living so small---smoking too much, drinking too much, eating too much. But those binges were not possible without the ability to earn a living. He quit school, and he began a quest to become an entertainer. His first efforts at fame were humiliating failures, whether attempting stand-up routines on stage or playing bit parts in early Warner Brothers comedies . At first, he was good at stealing the material of others, like Milton Berle, and making it his own. But he hung out with people across entertainment, including many jazz musicians. I suspect that it was the jazz bug that made Gleason's comedy so infectious, for it was at its best when it was improvisational. Lou Walters caught his show, and gave Gleason a chance to perform in a Broadway revue, "Hellzapoppin'." By the late 1940s, he got his big break, landing the role of Charles A. Riley for the first TV incarnation of "The Life of Riley," a show for which William Bendix was famous to the radio audience. He eventually was seen on the DuMont Network's "Cavalcade of Stars." Whereas Gleason was never really a stand-up comic, he was superior in an ensemble setting, where he played off of his co-stars with utterly perfect timing. He was notorioius for very little rehearsing and for hilarious ad-libbing.

Gleason's show capitalized on the great music scene in New York City; he brought in fine musicians, and even a Busby Berkeley-type dance troupe, the June Taylor Dancers, whose precision choreography was always a highlight of the show. But the show allowed him to nourish his strengths; he developed sketch comedy routines drawn from the real-life characters of his youth: Reginald Van Gleason III, the Poor Soul, and Joe the Bartender (with Frank Fontaine playing Crazy Guggenheim) among them.

Most importantly, though, Art Carney joined the cast of the "Cavalcade of Stars" in 1950, but his experiences acting with Gleason went far beyond single-sketch comedy. Indeed, the two starred together in a 1953 Studio One production, "The Laugh Maker," which showed audiences that Gleason's talents went beyond the comedic. He had some serious dramatic acting chops, as they say in the business. He portrayed the tortured comedian who sought compulsive laughs to hide his insecurities. By 1954, CBS gave him a contract larger than any in the history of television, offering him $100,000 a year for the next 15 years to appear exclusively on their network. Among his first changes to the CBS line-up were producing back-to-back filmed episodes recorded before a live audience of "Stage Show," which offered viewers a half hour of music that embraced everyone from Duke Ellington to Elvis Presley; and that was followed by a full 30-minute version of "The Honeymooners," as a self-contained situation comedy. So identified was he with the Every Man, with a dream of making it big that he was celebrated as an American icon. Years later, a life-size statue of Gleason, dressed in the bus driver uniform of Ralph Kramden, was placed outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan.

Ultimately,it was the chemistry of Gleason and Carney that boosted the early "Honeymooners" sketches within the "Cavalcade of Stars," the highest rated show for the fledgling DuMont network. The show was subsequently sold to CBS in 1952 and, renamed "The Jackie Gleason Show." It was being watched by one third of the nation's television viewers by 1953.

"The Honeymooners" came to dominate "The Jackie Gleason Show." Early on, with Audrey Meadows replacing Pert Kelton as Alice and Joyce Randolph replacing Elaine Stritch as Trixie, the stage was set for a spin-off that led to 39 half-hour episodes that have become known as "The Classic 39," and it was in later years that those 39 were syndicated, permeating pop culture with a slew of scripted and unscripted sayings that became part of the American vernacular:

"A-Homina-Homina-Homina"

"You're a Riot, Alice, You're a regular Riot."

"I'm King of the Castle"

"Bang, Zoom, To the Moon"

"I Got a Big Mouth"

"She's a Blabbermouth!"

"One of these days, Alice, POW, right in the kisser!"

While the episodes that preceded these were preserved in kinescopes (the so-called "Lost Episodes"), "The Classic 39" were filmed with an advanced Electronicam system, as were all "Honeymooners" episodes that followed the 39 half-hour season. And for those who have not seen the post-39 "Lost Episodes," I recommend them highly: they were written for an hour-long "Jackie Gleason Show" slot, and included episodes that will have you laughing to the point of needing oxygen, and crying, for the remarkable poignancy shown in such episodes as "The Adoption" (a 1955 episode that was remade subsequently in 1966 as a musical version).

The Kramdens and the Nortons win a riotous trip through Europe: England, Spain, Paris, Rome, and even behind the Iron Curtain. And by this point, Gleason was already pioneering original musical numbers into the sketch comedy; this became a staple of the so-called "Color Honeymooners" when Gleason's show moved to Miami Beach, Florida (and Sheila McRae replaced Audrey Meadows as Alice and Jane Kean replaced Joyce Randolph as Trixie).

Though Gleason never received in life the awards and accolades he deserved, his ensemble players brought out the best in each other: Art Carney, after all, won six out of the dozen Emmy nominations he received, and of these six, four were for his work on "The Jackie Gleason Show" and one for his stint on the Classic 39 of "The Honeymooners." Carney, of course, went on to receive a "Best Actor" Oscar award for the 1974 film, "Harry and Tonto." And Audrey Meadows, nominated for four Emmys during this period, won a single statuette for her work on "The Jackie Gleason Show."

But let's grasp just who was the center of this universe. It was Gleason who was Every Man. He gave expression to every person's natural fears, desires, dreams, and disappointments, with comedic genius and with a simple flair for showing poignancy and empathy. When he goes on a television competition show, in search of "The $99,000 Answer," and [SPOILER ALERT!] loses on his very first guess, your laughter is covering a bit of sadness for every disappointment you've suffered in the hopes of getting that grand payoff that will make your day, or that will help every loved one you know. Even if he loses a "mere bag of shells," you can't help but feel for him.

One other thing stands out, however, in "The Honeymooners." In Pictures of Patriarchy, Batya Weinbaum tried to place the show under the rubric of typical patriarchy (South End Press, 1983, 119-20)). But let's not kid ourselves: This was not the idyllic picture of the 1950s: this wasn't "Father Knows Best" with the family unit living behind a white picket fence, graced by the wisdom of its Father Figure; this wasn't even "I Love Lucy," in which Ricky Ricardo gets to regularly remind his crazy red-headed wife Lucy that she needs to go see a "phys-i-kee-a-trist." And even if you were expecting a loudmouth "King of the Castle" who was always right, just how Ralph advertised himself, what you more often understood was that Alice Kramden was the only one playing with a full deck in this situation comedy. She was the smartest, most rational, most practical, and most loving wife on television, loving enough to forgive her husband the flaws of his endless foibles. [Ed: I found this essay, "Alice Kramden: The First TV Feminist," after posting my tribute and it's worth taking a look at!] I once co-edited a book called Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand; it would not surprise me if somebody suggested a book entitled Feminist Interpretations of "The Honeymooners"
(or, perhaps, "The Honeymooners" and Philosophy) because there are few women in 1950s television that could have rivaled Alice Kramden as a character both strong and loving and virtually always right. (Oh, and don't kid yourself, some scholar out there would contribute an essay based on the Eddie Murphy-inspired homoerotic idea, only this time filtered through the lens of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, that the real love affair here is between Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, since women, like Alice, are merely the mediating presence in a triangle between men who share a "romantic" bond that is unconsummated. Alice suggests as much on more than one occasion that the two of them act like a married couple!)

By 1959, David Merrick offered Gleason the chance to perform in "Take Me Along" on Broadway. For this role, Gleason won the only major award in his career, as Helen Hayes handed him the Tony Award for " Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical" He began his speech with, "I have always wanted to meet Helen Hayes, and it couldn't have been at a better occasion." He went back to television with a show called "You're in the Picture," which bombed and literally played for one week on the tube. The following week, he got on television and made such fun of how bad the show was, that he charmed the audience back to his good graces. He finished out his season with "The Jackie Gleason Show" reimagined as a talk show.; But in 1961, despite unpleasant memories of his early years in Hollywood, he returned to Hollywood, and received triumphant reviews for "The Hustler," losing his Oscar to the tidal wave that was "West Side Story." This was followed in 1962 with a Gleason-inspired story of a mute simpleton who falls in love with a prostitute and her daughter; it was Gene Kelly who directed "Gigot." And in that same year, he starred with Mickey Rooney and Anthony Quinn in "Requiem for a Heavyweight," the big screen adaptation of Rod Serling's small screen masterpiece. Quinn later lauded Gleason for his ability to get everything right in one take; he likened his artistry to the pure talent of Frank Sinatra in this regard. A year later, Gleason added another film credit to his growing filmography, and with it came the first hearing of the "catchphrase," "How Sweet It is!," from the film "Papa's Delicate Condition."

All was ready for his triumphant return to television, with band leader Sammy Spear, and the sketch comedy that made him famous. In 1964, however, Gleason decided to move the entire show to Miami Beach, Florida. CBS knew Gleason was difficult to work with, but he was irreplaceable. On August 1, 1965, the cast, the press, and a swinging Dixieland band boarded the Great Gleason Express, and thousands of tourists lined the parade route to Miami. But Gleason was dismayed that "The Honeymooners" in syndication was doing better than his current show; so he reinvented the show, with a reboot of the Honeymooners later dubbed "The Color Honyemooners" with Sheila McRae and Jayne Keene taking the roles of Alice and Trixie, respectively. He'd eventually end those episodes with another classic sign-off, "Miami Beach Audiences are the greatest audiences in the world!" (probably because most of their inhabitants had migrated from New York City!)

Eventually, CBS and Gleason went their separate ways as cultural mores seemed to change. But Gleason kept moving. He did "Smokey and the Bandit" and its two sequels with Burt Reynolds. He starred in "Izzy and Moe" with his old pal Carney; opposite Laurence Olivier in the two-man 1983 HBO special, "Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson," and with Tom Hanks in "Nothing in Common" (1986). He suffered through the filming of that movie, knowing that complications from colon cancer had metastasized to his liver. But he gave the performace of his lifetime, and when he passed away on June 24, 1987, his fans seemed to have uttered, in one united voice, "Baby, You're the Greatest." On the Centenary of his birth, he remains "The Great One."

Referenes: In addition to drawing from online sources such as Wikipedia, this article drew material from such video recordings as "Golden TV Classics: The Jackie Gleason American Scene," "A&E's Biography, Jackie Gleason: The Great One," and DVD collections of "The Honeymooners" including the "60th Anniversary Edition of "The Honeymooners" Lost Episodes: 1951-1957," "The Honeymooners: 'The Classic 39 Episodes' and several DVD editons of "The Color Honeymooners" and "Honeymooners" holiday specials aired in the 1970s.

Song of the Day #1330

Song of the Day: The Hustler ("Main Theme [Stop and Go]" and Various) [YouTube link], is a masterful soundtrack composed by Kenyon Hopkins in the kind of superb jazz idiom for which he is known. The main theme begins with the unmistakable sounds of jazz alto saxophonist Phil Woods. I can think of no better way to kick off a few days in celebration of the Jackie Gleason Centenary, than to start with the claustrophobic black and white 1961 film that netted him Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations as "Best Supporting Actor," in his role as the great pool player, Minnesota Fats (though there are questions about the authenticity of the story of Minnesota Fats). Authentic or not, there are no stunt doubles for Gleason: He plays pool authentically from beginning to end. As my Centenary tribute essay indicates, Gleason hung out in pool halls from the time he was a young teenager. Now, in some instances, there was a stunt double used for Paul Newman, who plays Fast Eddie Felson, who salivates at the prospect of competing against Fats. Newman earned an Oscar nomination too, but he's probably the only Oscar winner who received an Oscar for the same role in a sequel, entitled "The Color of Money" a 1986 film in which he co-starred with Tom Cruise (though I've always believed that the Academy awarded Newman the gold because the membership knew that he really deserved it for his shattering performance of a lifetime in "The Verdict"). Nevertheless, I'm going to echo the Gleasonian phrase here: "How Sweet it Is" with a twist; for in this movie, the tension makes you wonder "How Sweaty It Is" in the pool hall. ("How Sweet It Is" is the Welcoming Traffic Sign that graces the Brooklyn exit off the Verrazano Bridge; that's how much this man is celebrated as Brooklyn's son!)

Newman's tension rises because his respect and awe rise as he watches the artistry of his competitor. He marvels at the way Fats plays with cool confidence, with the grace of an Astaire and the grit of a Cagney. Though I highlight the Main Theme here, I've taken the liberty to add two other tracks from the score, illustrating Hopkins's terrific jazz sensibility. On the first additional track, you have entered the pool hall [YouTube link]; it sounds like a smoke-filled room, with immaculate pool tables, and the grit of a jazz score in the background just to keep the atmosphere a little naughty. And finally, the second additional track is the Suite [YouTube link], featuring some of the finest jazz players of the era, or any era, including Woods and trumpeter Doc Severinsen. In any event, take a look at this scene [YouTube link] in which Gleason doesn't just embody Fats because of the simple weight parallel. He becomes Fats, moving "like a dancer" and using a cue stick "like he's playing the violin," as Newman's Felson tells us.

February 25, 2016

Song of the Day #1329

Song of the Day: Madame X ("Main Title") [YouTube link] features music composed and adapted by Frank Skinner, who draws directly from the "Swedish Rhapsody" of the Austrian composer and conductor Willy Mattes (aka Charles Wildman). Sometimes referred to as the "Love Theme from Madame X," it has been covered in a variety of styles, including a jazz-influenced version by Sammy Kaye [YouTube link] and in a semi-classical mode by pianist George Greeley (born Georgio Guariglia, the Italian-American pianist, conductor, composer, and arranger), with the Warner Bros. Studio Orchestra for the album "The World's Ten Greatest Popular Piano Concertos." Skinner adapted the theme through a variety of cues, textures, and emotions, including those that are a pure expression of the "Depths of Despair" [YouTube link]. And despair pervades the story of this 1966 film, which stars John Forsythe and Lana Turner as "Madame X." The 1908 stage play by French playwright Alexandre Bisson upon which this film was based has spawned about a dozen other adaptations from the silent era to today. Skinner, who brought us themes for "The Wolf Man" and "Son of Frankenstein," was able to swing effortlessly from horror monsters to horror romances [YouTube links]. And with scores composed for this film, and more than 200 others, including such Douglas Sirk-directed classics of the genre such as "All That Heaven Allows" and "Imitation of Life," Skinner received only five Oscar nominations in his lifetime, the gold statuette eluding his grasp.

February 24, 2016

Song of the Day #1328

Song of the Day: Back Street ("Love Theme") [YouTube link], was composed by Frank Skinner, whose music I highight for the next two days. I have visited Skinner's music before; it is familiar to horror fans the world over for many of those great Universal monster films, from "The Wolf Man" to "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." But he was also known for writing some of the lushest scores to some of Hollywood's famous romantic melodramas (and perhaps there are dialectical relationships between horror and romance that need to be investigated!). The lovely theme here was written for the 1961 film (based on the Fannie Hurst novel) starring Susan Hayward, and co-starring John Gavin and Vera Miles, who, just one year before this film, co-starred in Hitchcock's "Psycho."

February 23, 2016

Song of the Day #1327

Song of the Day: The Fugitive ("Stairway Chase") [YouTube link], music by James Newton Howard, is one of those truly frenetic chase scenes captured perfectly in the way it is both edited and scored.This is a fine 1993 film reboot of the absolutely magnificent original 1960s television series, which starred David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble, who brilliantly portrayed the painful loneliness, fear, and alienation of the innocent man on the run. For the series, composer Pete Rugolo created one of the most expressive scores, always infused with a jazz idiom, to have ever graced a television show. Howard is certainly up to the task, and someday, I'm going to reveal a few cues from the film that are homages to Rugolo's scoring. Whereas a multiyear television series provides us with an opportunity to truly develop its characters, the film provides us with a complex puzzle that must be solved if the fugitive is to find justice. All of this takes place amid a predatory chase between the hunter, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones,who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, as Lieutenant Sam Gerard (in the TV series, the character was played by Barry Morse and was named Philip Gerard, and the name change remains a mystery) and the hunted, well played by Harrison Ford, who maintains his innocence, despite being found guilty for killing his wife, and sentenced to execution by lethal injection. But, like the series, Kimble escapes and goes on a quest to find the one-armed man who murdered his wife. In the film, his search for this one-armed man takes place within the context of a larger conspiracy. I've chosen a cue that is used in a scene in which the unjustly convicted fugitive takes his chances by seeking out one potential suspect behind prison walls. Lietenant Gerard is hot on Kimble's trail and finds him at the prison. What results is a scorching chase scene, neither on motorcycles nor cars, but on foot, down a spiral staircase, through to the exit doors of the prison, with Gerard shooting to kill. It makes for rousing adventure and give us a lesson in how terrific Oscar-nominated scoring augments the excitement on screen (Howard was a casualty of another shattering John Williams score, the Oscar-winning "Schindler's List" soundtrack, which got a little help from the virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman; Williams, ironically, has only five Oscars, out of an amazing 50 nominations, second only to Walt Disney [pdf link]!). For a little entertainment, check out a YouTube video on the "Top Ten Movie Fugitives."

February 22, 2016

Song of the Day #1326

Song of the Day: The Great Escape ("The Chase") [YouTube link], composed by Elmer Bernstein, is just a snippet of the music that captures an heroic and thrillingly suspenseful scene from this superb 1963 World War II epic, directed by John Sturges with an all-star cast. Bernstein captures the suspense perfectly as we watch Steve McQueen (who plays "Hilts," the so-called "Cooler King"), an escapee from a German POW camp, hijack a German motorcycle in an attempt to make it to freedom. We use the word "iconic" a lot, but it's unavoidable: this is one iconic scene and among the most memorable moments in cinema history. McQueen did virtually all the driving himself, except for the final jump. Check out the full scene (edited) on YouTube.

February 21, 2016

Song of the Day #1325

Song of the Day: The Thing from Another World ("Main Title") [YouTube link], composed by Dimitri Tiomkin, opens this chilling 1951 sci-fi/horror film. There have been remakes [YouTube link], but there is just nothing like the original. In truth, I first saw this film at the Sommer Highway Theatre in Brooklyn, New York, which, sadly, no longer exists. Today, it's a Walgreen's. When I was 5 years old, I went with my Uncle Sam and my sister Elizabeth to see this film in a double feature with the 1933 classic film, "King Kong." I'd never seen either film; it was just prior to their endless appearances on classic TV movie shows like Channel 2's (WCBS) "The Late, Late, Late Show," or, perhaps, Channel 7's (WABC) "The 4:30 Movie," or Channel 9's (WOR) "Million Dollar Movie" or, Channel 11's (WPIX) "Chiller Theatre." In any event, I attempted to see "King Kong" but "The Thing" was the first feature; then came Intermission (where, maybe, they'd show a cartoon or two). The theater was dark suddenly, and Kong was finally going to begin, but the crowd of kids was chanting with a single voice, rising in decibels with each passing second: "KONG! KONG! KONG! KONG!" Well, I didn't know what to expect when that curtain rose. And my uncle and sister definitely sensed that this 5-year old was getting a bit panicked. "Are you okay?," they asked. "Well," I explained, "it's a little noisy." I would not allow my apprehension to rise up to visible fear and I would not admit it to anybody, brave young 5-year old tough Brooklynite that I was. "Very loud," I said. "Well, maybe we should come back and see this some other time. It's okay," they both assured me. Relieved, to say the least, I said, "Okay. Sounds good." And we headed for the exits. So, though I later got to see the original Kong on the big screen, it was not to be on this day; but "The Thing" [full-length feature film link] was great '50s sci-fi, and Tiomkin's music provided just the right amount of rising tension throughout the film.

February 20, 2016

Song of the Day #1324

Song of the Day: Jurassic World ("As the Jurassic World Turns") [YouTube link], is composed by Michael Giacchino, as a theme that evolves, almost organically, out of the original "Jurassic Park" theme, composed by John Williams. It is a terrific musical homage, while standing on its own, and if you're wondering: Yes, I utterly loved the 2015 film, which clearly picked up every clue and cue of the original franchise to provide us with thrilling entertainment, eye-popping special effects, and a really exciting adventure story. The great power of film is that it can move us deeply, emotionally and intellectually, and it can entertain us, and there need be no dichotomy between the two. In this case, however, let's face it: it's time to get out the popcorn and enjoy yourself. You'll find yourself rooting for Blue the Raptor and the T-Rex in their battle against the Indominous Rex [YouTube link, with SPOILER ALERT]. I especially like the way that Blue strategically jumps from the T-Rex to the Indominous Rex during the fight to the finish!

February 19, 2016

Song of the Day #1323

Song of the Day: Sophie's Choice ("Love Theme") [YouTube link], composed by Marvin Hamlisch, is a soft, loving theme that cushions the blow of an utterly devastating film. I only saw this film about a year ago, and was deeply affected by the horrors it depicts during the years of the Nazi holocaust. Without referring to the "choice" that Sophie must make in the film, I can say that it reminded me of Ayn Rand's novel, We the Living, which depicts the horrors of Soviet communism, in one important sense: the insanity of totalitarian political systems that allow no choices except among forms of death and decay. It is all the more fitting to remember that nightmare on this day, which is a "day of remembrance" for those who were the subject of Executive Order 9066, signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, allowing the deportation of Japanese Americans to internment camps within the United States during World War II. Ironically, it was film that first made me aware of those camps, when I first saw "Hell to Eternity," as a child, a 1960 movie with Jeffrey Hunter (who played Christ in the 1961 film, "King of Kings") and David Janssen (who was "The Fugitive" in that remarkable television series of the 1960s). Those camps certainly were not extermination camps, but they are a symbol of what happens during wartime, when individual rights are abrogated both at home and abroad. In any event, the 1982 film gave Meryl Streep a much-deserved Oscar award for Best Actress, and Hamlisch received a much-deserved nomination for Best Original Score, losing out to the iconic John Williams score for "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." It is difficult to find a moment of joy or laughter in films of this nature, but I will never forget Sophie's admiration of Stingo's seersucker jacket [YouTube link]. The film's house was situated in Brooklyn, New York, and it stands still on Rugby Road in Flatbush.

February 18, 2016

Song of the Day #1322

Song of the Day: The Thief of Baghdad ("Suite") [YouTube link] captures some of the textures of Miklos Rozsa's soundtrack to this 1940 fantasy film with Sabu. Rozsa's compositions for film and the concert stage remain among the finest symphonic work of any twentieth-century composer. It has been said that Rozsa went through five distinct periods in his illustrious scoring career: what he characterized as the "oriental" or "exotic" period (featuring work on fantasy films with exotic locations, of which "The Thief of Baghdad" is one of the best examples); the "psychological" period (exploring complex psychological portraits, e.g., his Oscar-winning score for Hitchcock's film, "Spellbound"); the film noir period (with films such as "Double Indemnity" and his Oscar-winning score to "A Double Life"); the Historico-Biblical period (of which "Ben-Hur" yesterday is his crowning achievement); and his sci-fi phase (which includes films such as "Time After Time"). This particular suite shows the breadth of his first period, and the lovely violin interlude gives us just a hint of what he provides for the concert hall). The charming British technicolor film was a spectacle for special effects in its day, marking the first major use of film bluescreening. Produced by Alexander Korda, it won Oscars for Cinematography, Art Direction, Special Effects, and Rozsa's soundtrack was nominated for Best Original Score.

February 17, 2016

Song of the Day #1321

Song of the Day: Ben-Hur ("Gratus' Entry To Jerusalem") [YouTube link] is a dark, imperial march composed by Miklos Rozsa that begins immediately after "Salute for Gratus" (included here as well) on a 5-disc edition of the score to my favorite film of all time: "Ben-Hur", the Best Picture of 1959, which set a winning record of 11 Oscars that has been tied, but never beaten. In a sprawling Oscar-winning soundtrack filled with grand and diverse themes, Rozsa provides a wide range of emotions, which capture the "soul" of this remarkable film. It is not without significance that the film has been called the first modern "intimate" epic, one that could stage grand-scale naval battles and real chariot races of widescreen scope without the help or need for CGI, while at the same time exploring the essential depth of its main characters and the intimacy and complexity of their relationships. Much of the credit goes to Oscar-winning director William Wyler, and the performances he elicited from his actors (two of whom brought home Oscar gold: Charlton Heston for "Best Actor" and Hugh Griffith for "Best Supporting Actor"). Rozsa's piece captures the coercive imposition of ancient Roman will on Judea, the oppressive character of imperial occupation on a section of the world that, till this day, remains in turmoil. In any event, it is in keeping with my annual practice of featuring something from "Ben-Hur" on the occasion of my birthday, which always coincides with Film Music February. So I've chosen this muscular piece from Rozsa's greatest, most triumphant symphonic film score, perhaps one of the greatest scores in cinema history.

February 16, 2016

Song of the Day #1320

Song of the Day: The Man in the Iron Mask ("Opening"; "A Boy") [TCM clip], composed by Lud Gluskin and Lucien Morawek, received an Oscar nomination for their score to the 1939 film loosely based on the last section of The Vicomte of Bragalonne: Ten Years Later, the third and final section of the third and final book of the "d'Artagnan Romances" (following : "The Three Musketeers" and "Twenty Years Later"). Even the story by Dumas is based on French legend, but this film is notable for several milestones: it was the first film to introduce us to actor Peter Cushing; it was directed by the great James Whale; and it stars Louis Hayward in a remarkable double role. Born to Louis XIII, the first son is seen as the legitimate heir of France, but a twin is born (Philippe) and the king is persuaded to send the second son to Gascony, to be raised by d'Artagnan (in this film, portrayed by Warren William). The first son grows up to be the hated monarch Louis XIV, imposing oppressive taxes and repressing the people of France. Through a series of dramatic twists, it is discovered that there is a twin, who is much more kind and compassionate, and Louis XIV imprisons him, placing an Iron Mask on his brother's face, so that no one shall ever discover his twin, hoping his brother will simply strangle as his beard crowds out the oxygen within the mask. The Three Musketeers and d'Artagnan come to the rescue, and when Philippe assumes the throne to right the wrongs of his brother, Louis XIV, he enunciates something about the laws of justice and retribution, something from which my mother always used to quote, any time news of some criminality, especially political criminality, hit the headlines: "There is one law in life, brother, that not even a king could escape: The law of retribution. The pendulum of the clock of life swings so far in one direction, then very surely swings back. The pendulum is swinging for you, brother," not so much for the injustices suffered by Philippe, but for all the injustices suffered by the people of France whose sacred trust the King had violated. This Philippe says before the Museketeers put the mask on the corrupt king. Mom didn't realize that she was providing a budding libertarian with a few maxims about the fight against tyranny! Mom is gone over twenty years, but her birthday is on February 20th, so I'm giving her a little tip of the Yankee cap (she was a Yankees fan, after all) a few days early.

February 15, 2016

Song of the Day #1319

Song of the Day: The Three Musketeers ("Themes") [TCM Trailer], music by Herbert Stothart (with some inspiration from the themes of Tchaikovsky), provides the rousing backdrop for what I believe is the best version of the Alexandre Dumas tale, starring Gene Kelly as d'Artagnan! Yes, the song and dance man had more than a few tricks up his sleeve when it came to choreographed sword play (indeed, the film's outstanding choreographed sword sequences have inspired a generation of contributors to the genre). The 1948 swashbuckling Technicolor film is just wonderful, action-packed entertainment with a score to match (and apparently almost impossible to find!). On the other hand, the Grammy Awards are easy to find on the dial. Enjoy!

February 14, 2016

Song of the Day #1318

Song of the Day: The Godfather ("I Have But One Heart") is a 1945 popular song, adapted from an 1893 Neapolitan theme "O Marenariello" (here, sung by Andrea Bocelli) with words by Gennaro Ottaviano and music by Salvatore Gambardella. The adapted English-language version features music by Johnny Farrow and lyrics by Marty Symes and was Vic Damone's debut single [YouTube link], rising to #7 on the Billboard chart. In 1972, in the film version of Mario Puzo's novel "The Godfather," it was given new life when it was sung by the character, Johnny Fontane (portrayed by Al Martino) [YouTube links to Martino's renditions in the film and on the soundtrack], at the wedding of Connie Corleone (portrayed by Talia Shire), daughter of Don Vito Corleone (portrayed by the Golden Globe-winning, Oscar-winning Best Actor Marlon Brando). A long-time family friend, long-assisted by the Don at crucial points in his career, Fontane asks the Don if he could help get him a role in a film for which, he believes, he would be pertectly cast, but the producer Jack Woltz (played by John Marley), despises Fontane and won't give him the part. The Corleones approach Woltz, offering various deals and favors, but Woltz won't budge on this issue. . . until he's given an offer he can't refuse. But Valentine's Day is not the Day to be speaking of SPOILER ALERTS [YouTube link at your own risk!]; it is to be speaking of that "One Heart" you have for your Valentine. Pulling a song from "The Godfather" songbook today gives us an opportunity to note the passing of Abe Vigoda, who portrayed the character Salvatore Tessio in the first film of Francis Ford Coppola's gangster epic. So wipe that film's imagery from your Head, and think of Hearts instead!

February 13, 2016

Song of the Day #1317

Song of the Day: Stowaway ("Goodnight My Love"), music by Mack Gordon, lyrics by Harry Revel, is a truly memorable song, performed by both the young Shirley Temple [YouTube link] and Alice Faye [YouTube link] from this 20th Century Fox 1936 film. Temple also sang it as part of a medley in the 1938 film, "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm." The song also got the royal treatment by two of the greatest vocalists in the jazz pantheon: the 1936 classic recording with Ella Fitzgerald and the Benny Goodman Orchestra (the 80th anniversary of its recording will be marked on November 5, 2016) and Sarah Vaughan.

February 12, 2016

Song of the Day #1316

Song of the Day: High Society ("Well, Did You Evah?"), written by Cole Porter for the soundtrack to the 1956 film, but originally written for the 1939 Broadway musical, "DuBarry Was a Lady," which starred Bert Lahr, Betty Grable, and Ethel Merman. Gene Kelly, Red Skelton, and Lucille Ball starred in a film version later that year that dispensed with much of Porter's score. But those songs enjoyed a resurrection in "High Society." This particular song is a witty duet in the 1956 musical comedy, featuring Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra at their best; their ad libs kept the song fresh, playfully referring to their generational and intergenerational appeal with a series of "wink-winks" to its audience. Going full circle, we conclude our mini-Bing tribute within our ongoing film music February. Check out two pros who had an innate ability to charm the camera [YouTube link].

February 11, 2016

Song of the Day #1315

Song of the Day: Going My Way ("Title Song"), music by Jimmy Van Heusen, lyrics by Johnny Burke, was sung by Bing Crosby, Rise Stevens, and the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir (one of several songs Crosby sang in this 1944 film, which won a Best Song Oscar, for "Swinging on a Star"). Overall, the fillm was nominated for ten Oscars, and was among the only films to nominate an actor, Barry Fitzgerald, for "Best Actor" and "Best Supporting Actor" for the same role, from the same film, in the same year. As it turned out Bing got the Best Actor Oscar, and Barry got the Supporting Actor Oscar (and, in 1945, Bing received another "Best Actor" nomination for the same character, Father Chuck O'Malley, for the film, "The Bells of St. Mary's"). Sounds like the makings of a Jeopardy "answer" ... Check out the title track here.

February 10, 2016

Song of the Day #1314

Song of the Day: Here Comes the Waves ("Ac-Cent-TchuAte the Positive"), music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, was written in 1944 and heard on the radio documentary, "Pop Chronicles." It was later featured in the 1944 film, "Here Comes the Waves," in a rendition by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters [YouTube link].

February 09, 2016

Song of the Day #1313

Song of the Day: High Society ("Now You Has Jazz"), written by Cole Porter for this 1956 film, which was a musical version of the "The Philadelphia Story" (1939 play), subsequently made into a 1940 romantic comedy with Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn (who starred in the Broadway play), and James Stewart. The musical has an all-star cast as well: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, and Louis Armstrong as himself. Check out this wonderful scene, with Pops offering his "definition" of jazz, by just blowing that great horn, playing and interplaying with Crosby at his best [YouTube link]. For the next few days, we're turning a little attention to Crosby, who contributed so much music to the film score soundtrack of our lives.

February 08, 2016

Song of the Day #1312

Song of the Day: Earthquake ("Main Title"), [YouTube link], composed by John Williams, is the classic "disaster film theme" when the genre was hot (as was this film in 1974). For a composer who has mastered virtually every genre, we celebrate his 84th birthday.

February 07, 2016

Song of the Day #1311

Song of the Day: The Monuments Men ("Opening Titles") [YouTube link]. composed by Alexandre Desplat, takes its inspiration from some of those great war films of the 1950s and 1960s. The film is an astonishing tribute to those who recovered and preserved the art looted by the Nazis during World War II. Check it out on YouTube. The big monument today, however, has little to do with such grand history; it is the Trophy that went to the Denver Broncos and their quarterback Peyton Manning, who won Super Bowl 50.

February 06, 2016

Song of the Day #1310

Song of the Day: Paris Holiday ("Nothing in Common") features the music of Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, and, by the title, one would think of it as something that could have been a product of one of those Hope-Crosby "Road To . . . " films. And, indeed, it was recorded and released by United Artists as a single by the pair [YouTube link] in February 1958, the same month as this film's release, and with obvious links to the film in its marketing. But this wasn't a "Road To" film and Crosby never appeared in it; the original duet was filmed for the movie by Bob Hope and Martha Hyer but was cut from the final edit. The song was also released in 1958 in a pumped-up Billy May arrangement by Frank Sinatra and Keely Smith [YouTube link]. So here we have a song from the movies that wasn't in the movies.

February 05, 2016

Song of the Day #1309

Song of the Day: Hole in the Head ("High Hopes"), music by Jimmy Van Heusen, lyrics by Sammy Cahn, became a hit for one of the stars of this 1959 Frank Capra comedy, Frank Sinatra, a singer who took up quite a bit of cyber-ink by this writer at the close of 2015. The film's score was written by Nelson Riddle, but it was Miklos Rozsa who took home the Score Gold in 1959. Nevertheless, it was Jimmy and Sammy who walked away with the Oscar for Best Original Song for this hit record. It was one of the few Oscars "Ben-Hur" didn't win that year, having walked away with 11 statuettes that till this day remains a record, tied twice thereafter, but never beaten. The song was later adapted with substitute lyrics in Sinatra's campaign for JFK. Check out the original, the song as heard and seen in the film, and the campaign rendition.

February 04, 2016

Song of the Day #1308

Song of the Day: Guess Who's Coming To Dinner ("The Glory of Love"), with words and music by Billy Hill, was recorded in May 1936, becoming a #1 pop hit by the great clarinetist Benny Goodman and his Orchestra, featuring Helen Ward on vocals [YouTube link; and check out this sweet clip of BG with Ella and Peggy Lee doing the song). Ironically, given the subject matter of our film choice today, it's worth noting that the King of Swing was one of the most heroic musicians of his era, "swinging" a bat at the notion of segregation in jazz, and in music, working with Fletcher Henderson, who wrote wonderful arrangements for BG's big band, and forming an original trio and quartet, which featured two African-Americans, respectively, pianist Teddy Wilson and vibes player Lionel Hampton (and later, the trailblazing guitarist Charlie Christian, who was a featured player in Goodman's Sextet and Big Band). On tour, Goodman refused to play in "Jim Crow" Southern states that required the exclusion of his black musicians. Years later, in 1951, the Five Keys took the song to #1 on the R&B chart [YouTube link]. And it has been recorded by countless artists since, making its way into many films as well, from the 1988 tearjerker, "Beaches" (check out Bette Midler's rendition [YouTube link]), to the 1981 film "Pennies from Heaven" and the 2009 horror film, "Orphan." But no film used this song to greater effect than this Stanley Kramer-directed 1967 movie, on our tribute list today. The film is "dated" in some respects, but it boasts a wonderful cast, headed by Spencer Tracy, in his last film role (he received a posthumous Oscar nomination in the Best Actor category), Katharine Hepburn, who won the Oscar for Best Actress (and who repeated that feat the following year for her brilliant performance in "The Lion in Winter," tying with Barbra Streisand, who received the Oscar for her terrific film debut in "Funny Girl"). In any event, the issues with which this film deals were controversial in its day, but the problems surrounding racism, integration, segregation, and the institution of marriage itself remain with us. After all, in this film, Sidney Poitier, who gives us a typically fine performance, wants to marry Tracy and Hepburn's daughter (played by her real-life niece Katharine Houghton), and when the film was released, it was only six months after the last 17 states in the United States were forced to recognize interracial marriage, because the U.S. Supreme Court had finally struck down antimiscegenation laws (with obvious parallels to the more recent debate over same-sex marriage). Sadly, Tracy had actually passed away two weeks after filming his final scene in the movie, and two days after the Court's decision. His character goes through immense pain dealing with the issue of knowing that his daughter could marry a "colored" man, and that they would be tortured by the harsh cultural forces around them, forces that exist till this day. But his character undergoes a transformation throughout the course of the film, and his final monologue [YouTube link] becomes, in essence, a paean to "The Glory of Love" [YouTube link].

February 03, 2016

Song of the Day #1307

Song of the Day: And Justice for All ("Main Title" / "There's Something Funny Going On") [YouTube link], music by Dave Grusin, lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, is heard over the closing credits of the 1979 film; it has that late '70s disco vibe, as it is performed by Zach Sanders and the NY Jailhouse Ensemble. Directed by Norman Jewison, this film is a cynical look at our judicial system (there are fewer ways to look at the structural deformities that often pass for "justice," and this motion picture captures it with touches of satire and tragedy). Al Pacino is virtually forced to defend a hated judge (played by John Forsythe of "Dynasty" fame), [SPOILER ALERT] whom he discovers to be guilty. But you've got to see the entire closing scene of the film, with Pacino at the peak of his career (and Jack Warden, who provides one of his finest turns as the wonderful character actor he is). The scene is just one of those "I'm As Mad As Hell and I'm Not Going To Take This Anymore" 'Network' moments that all of us should have more often. Check the scene out on YouTube. The film opens with an instrumental "Main Title" version [YouTube link] of the closing credits song; it features the unmistakably fine sax work and sound of Tom Scott.

February 02, 2016

Song of the Day #1306

Song of the Day: Son of Kong ("Runaway Blues"), music and orchestrations by Max Steiner, William T. Stromberg, and John Morgan, and lyrics by the uncredited Edward Eliscu, is sung by Helen Mack, in a hilarious scene in this 1933 sequel to the iconic Great Ape film, "King Kong." Carl Denam (played by Robert Armstrong) and Captain Englehorn (played by Frank Reicher) ship off from New York City to avoid the onslaught of lawsuits being readied to cash-in on the destruction wrought by King Kong, shot down from atop the Empire State Building. Denam tells Englehorn that Nils Helstrom, from whom he got the map of the prehistoric Skull Island, hinted that there was a treasure on the island. While en route, Denham and Englehorn stop off in the Dutch port of Dakang, and check out the local show, featuring performing monkeys and Hilda, who sings this song. "She's got something," Denam says to Englehorn. "Well it certainly isn't a voice." You be the judge; check it out on YouTube, along with this expanded version, which includes three variations (though the film has been colorized! For shame!). The film has an awfully unnecessarily tragic ending, but cannot be overlooked due to the superb Steiner score, which expands on many of the themes first established by Steiner in "King Kong" (and let's not forget that Steiner scored the 1949 film version of The Fountainhead). The film features great stop motion animation by the legendary Willis O'Brien. This is the only film I could think of that encapsulates two of the chief themes of the day: "Runaway Blues," the perennial song of the Groundhog who can't wait to run back into his burrow, less he face the blues of six more weeks of winter (and it's official: for Puncsutwaney Phil, "There is no shadow to be cast, an early spring is my forecast" and Staten Island Chuck, who once took a chunk out of former Mayor Bloomberg's finger, and who remains the champ of correct forecasting, agrees with Phil completely: Expect an early spring.) All the better if you want to see The City clearly from atop the Empire State Building. In that grand Art Deco masterpiece of a building, there was once housed the Nathaniel Branden Institute, which, for years, had been publishing and disseminating the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who was born on this date in 1905.

February 01, 2016

Song of the Day #1305

Song of the Day: The Music Goes 'Round ("The Music Goes Round and Round") features the music of Edward Farley and Mike Riley and the lyrics of Red Hodgson. It became a 1935 hit for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, with Edythe Wright on vocals [YouTube link]. In February of 1936, almost 70 years ago to this day, a film, "The Music Goes 'Round" made its debut to less-than-sparkling reviews, and used this song for its interlude, something the New York Times said was "the best thing in the new picture," and many artists through the years would agree with that. Today begins Film Music February, an annual tribute that I post every year; it gives a nod to a film score cue, a song, or even music that wasn't specifically written for a film, but whose presence in the film gives moviegoers a scent of familiarity, while embedding it in an entirely new cinematic context that evokes a fresh emotional response for those who experience it (talk about shifting dialectical applications!). We'll feature a different daily selection right up to the Oscars, and beyond, as our film tribute metaphorizes into a paean to another Centenary Saint. For me, one of the most memorable versions of this particular song was issued in 1959 by the late great Sicilian American jazz entertainer, Louis Prima, who always honored his greatest influence, Satchmo (and, for those of you following Black History Month, which begins today, take note: It was the great Louis Armstrong who did the 1936 classic rendition [YouTube link] of this song). Take a listen to Prima's version here. And check out another film in which the song is featured [YouTube link], the entertaining 1959 biopic of cornetist, Red Nichols (played by Danny Kaye), "The Five Pennies", in which Armstrong has a cameo.