Monthly Report: May 2020

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By Scott Ross

Romeo and Juliet (1968) It’s difficult to explain to the young today why this adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy was such a sensation. But for a teenage audience in 1968, seeing the almost perfectly endowed Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in bed, the old showbiz pun “There won’t be a dry seat in the house” would not have been out of place.

Romeo and Juliet - Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey


The Weavers - Wasn't That a Time (1982)
The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! (1982) Few movies refresh me like Jim Brown’s 1982 documentary about The Weavers and their final Carnegie Hall concert. Whenever I see it I am reminded of Marlene Dietrich’s comment about Orson Welles: “When I have seen him, and talked with him, I feel like a plant that’s just been watered.”‡


Swimming to Cambodia - Spalding Gray

Swimming to Cambodia (1987) More than thirty years after its release Swimming to Cambodia is still among the most exhilarating performances pieces of its time.


Uncle Vanya 1957

Uncle Vanya (1957) An interesting but not wholly successful transcription of Chekhov’s great 1898 comedy of rural life in tsarist Russia hampered largely by a cramped, uncertain set — at one point, when George Voskovec’s Vanya stands on the stairs and grips the railing, it sways — and  staid, unimaginative direction, both of the actors and the camera. (That’s not to mention the exterior of the house, glimpsed at the beginning of each act and which is an almost staggeringly ugly, and stunningly phony, painting.) Based on a recent stage production overseen by Franchot Tone and, with the exception of the movie’s Yelena, performed by the same cast, it’s one of those perfectly respectable productions of a classic play that, although it gets everything more or less right, in no way inspires or elates its audience.

Tone, who directed the stage production and co-directed by movie with John Goetz, is a rather good Dr. Astrov. But he has little variance, only once, with Dolores Dorn’s Yelena,  showing the sort of excitability that is the pathetically unavailing obverse of the doctor’s alcoholic taciturnity. (Tone is also of the school, which blessedly no longer holds sway, that equates Astrov’s physiognomy with that of his creator, complete with beard and prince-nez. So was Olivier, of course. But he was Olivier, and Tone is merely Tone.) Much better are Voskovec’s Vanya, his plainness of face an outward badge of his mediocrity and his failure; Dorn’s Yelena, bored and indolent and knowing it but unable to change; Peggy McCay’s Sonia, a bit too angry at the start but gradually achieving un-forced pathos; and Mary Perry’s old nurse Marina, tiresomely devout yet too essentially nice to despair of completely.

There are two nice touches: One, a portrait photo of Clarence Derwent’s Serebriakoff [sic] on the wall capturing the character in all his pompous self-importance and two, the witty manner in which Goetz and Tone have Vanya reveal his hiding-place for the morphine he’s stolen from Dr. Astrov, almost as if he’s secreted it in a series of nesting-dolls. The only attempt by the directors at being “cinematic,” however, is to render the characters’ occasional monologues as voice-overs. This not only adds nothing, but is annoying in itself. And the Stark Young translation is, like the rest of the production, serviceable and intelligent without achieving the (to employ a deliberate oxymoron) flights of prosaic exhilaration on which this most essential of plays can, and should, transport us.


Bank Shot - groupBank Shot - silhouette

Bank Shot (1974) Everything that William Goldman and Peter Yates got right in their 1972 adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s “Dortmunder” novel The Hot Rock Wendell Mayes and Gower Champion got wrong with this one. It starts with changing Dortmunder’s name (to “Walter Upjohn Ballantine,” if you care), pasting big bushy brows over George C. Scott’s eyes and giving him a lisp, and goes downhill from there. Even the redoubtable Harry Stradling, Jr.’s cinematography is less ravishing than usual, and such good comedians as Sorrell Booke, Joanna Cassidy and Bibi OsterwaJold overplay every scene and line of dialogue. Only Clifton James as an intellectualizing warden and a young Bob Balaban as a former FBI agent turned potential thief triumph over their material, and in James’ case we spend much of the movie scratching out heads as to why a prison warden is heading up an interstate manhunt.

Mayes was a screenwriter of no small repute (he wrote the superb adaptation of Anatomy of a Murder) but has to bear most of the responsibility for Bank Shot‘s nearly complete failure. Pretty much the only thing that works in the picture is Westlake’s ingenious basic plot, but the tone and the dialogue have been reduced to 1970s sitcom-level… and not of the Mary Tyler Moore or All in the Family variety; think The Dukes of Hazard, with an A-list star. This was the second of two movies directed by the Broadway director and choreographer Champion after the 1963 Debbie Reynolds comedy My Six Loves. I haven’t seen that one, but if Bank Shot is any indication, Bob Fosse doubtless lost no sleep contemplating his rival’s film career. There is exactly one interesting piece of staging, when Dortmunder’s… er, I mean Walter Upjohn Ballantine’s… gang redecorates the mobile bank they’ve just stolen, in silhouette and by pantomime. But it’s theatre imagery, not a movie moment, and as the picture’s only bit of stylization, it stands out as nakedly as Scott’s phony eyebrows. Still… I can just imagine the people responsible for this almost militantly unfunny mess poking each other in the ribs during dailies and congratulating themselves on how clever their director was.


Firefly (2002) cast

Firefly (2002 – 2003) No other network television series, cancelled less than midway through its first season, has enjoyed an afterlife like Firefly‘s. Released on DVD with only 14 episodes (including the un-aired, two-hour pilot) Joss Whedon’s space fantasy was unlike anything that had been attempted before on network television, and far more interesting than almost anything that’s been done since… with the exception of Whedon’s own Dollhouse, likewise canceled much too soon. This gifted producer/writer/director’s perennial refusal in the late 1990s and early Aughts to serve up an easily-digestible précis for any of his shows, or to make them conform to a single, easily promotable category, must have irked the network suits. Is Buffy the Vampire Slayer a comedy? A fantasy? A horror series? A drama? It was, of course, all of the above, and more. Why did it matter how it was categorized, except that television is inherently about selling, and a series that can’t be summed up in one word, or two, frustrates easy sales?

Firefly was typical, atypical Joss Whedon. (“Hey — can we market it as Han Solo in the Old West?”) And while it was, foolishly — and all too typically now — canceled before it could build up an audience, it achieved such cult status that Whedon was eventually able to write and direct a theatrical feature to tie up some of the series’ loose ends (although, alas, not all of them) and it’s a show that those who love it, love with deeper feeling than they do the far better established hits they’re fond of. Its orphaned status is a part of that affection; as passionate as I was and am for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and although Firefly ran a small fraction as long as that televisual nonpariel, yet I think I love its tiny successor just a little bit more. Probably because, as with James Stewart’s Jefferson Smith, one fights harder for the causes that are lost, and has more affection for them.

The future-world of Firefly is one in which the earth has long since become uninhabitable, American and Chinese culture and even language have melded, and where technology is as advanced as in the galaxy of Star Wars but in which the terra-farmed planets the crew of the Serenity visit resemble Gunsmoke‘s Dodge City more than George Lucas’ Coruscant. Intriguingly, even in the pilot, which FOX stupidly decided to eschew airing, the creators (Whedon and Tim Minear, his partner on the show) don’t explain this, and you sense as the episodes roll out that the mysteries would have been explicated incrementally had the show not been killed. (Even the eventual Serenity movie doesn’t, for example, have time to explain the significance of the “Blue Hands” corporation, although I think we can guess.) That lack of spoon-feeding speaks to Whedon’s belief, probably misplaced, in the intelligence, and patience, of the audience. This may have backfired — Serenity was also a flop — but how many creators of television series (or, increasingly, of movies) assume their viewers have any perspicacity whatever?

Watching Firefly again naturally led me to…


CLH.Oe.0804.serenity

Serenity (2005) Some beloved characters are killed, others find redemption, and we do finally see a few of the fearful Reavers (if not, thankfully, what they do). The original crew of the Serenity returns, although — alas — the wonderful Ron Glass makes only two brief appearances as Shepherd Book. But in addition to Nathan Fillion (Captain Mal), Gina Torres (Zoe), Alan Tudyk (Wash), Morena Baccarin (Inara), Adam Baldwin (Jayne), the adorable Jewel Staite (Kaylee), Sean Maher (Simon) and Summer Glau (River) there are also: The charming David Krumholtz as a hacker called “Mr. Universe” and the astonishing Chiwetel Ejiofor as the terribly thorough and endlessly resourceful “Operative” out to track Simon and River down, a superbly effective score by David Newman, a few genuinely terrifying sequences, some beautiful camera work by Jack Green, typically fluid direction by Whedon and, as usual, dialogue by him that is both witty and plangent. Sadly, while Serenity cost $39 million, a pittance in 21st century movie terms, its box office take was only slightly more, which is about as depressing as news of the decreasingly intelligent mass audience gets. And if you are a true sadist and you wish to see me to cry, just whisper into my ear the phrase, “I am a leaf on the wind — watch how I soar.”


Nicholas and Alexnadra

Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) A beautifully photographed (by the great Freddie Young), epic-length adaptation of Robert K. Massie’s superb dual biography that somehow misses greatness at nearly every turn. It’s not a disaster by any means, and it’s never boring; the director, Franklin J. Schaffner, was one of the more thoughtful studio filmmakers of his era, with a nearly unerring visual sense. But if you know the history the inaccuracies bug you, and even if you don’t you keep waiting in vain for the picture to catch fire.


Cops and Robbers - poster art

Cops and Robbers (1973) A sharp caper comedy original by Donald E. Westlake, which he then adapted into a more serious novel. The plot, and the incidents, are nearly identical in each (although their climax in the movie is more satisfying); only the tone has changed, and it makes all the difference between a comedy, and a gutsy thriller with some comic dialogue and overtones.  The plotting, as usual with Westlake, is ingenious, although I prefer how, in the book, what the newly-minted miscreants do with the bearer-bonds they steal from a Wall Street brokerage was obviously worked out beforehand rather than improvised, as it is in the picture. The editor and sometime director Aram Avakian put it all together briskly (it runs 89 minutes), and David L. Quaid’s cinematography perfectly captures both Long Island suburbia and the contours of “Fun City” in the early 1970s. Cliff Gorman and Joseph Bologna are likable and funny as the cops desperate to escape their increasingly untenable professional lives, and while most of the supporting roles are brief, Delphi Lawrence has a good role as a rich crime victim, Dolph Sweet gives a rich performance as the cops’ grocery store manager neighbor (complete with plaid shorts and knee-length red socks),  John P. Ryan and Nino Ruggeri are fulsome as Mafia bosses,  Shepperd Strudwick is effectively smarmy as a more institutionalized thief, and Joe Spinell, immortal as Willi Cicci in the the first two Godfather pictures (“The Family had a lotta buffahs“) is amusing as a minor hood.


Lovers - Castellano, Keaton, Arthur

Richard Castellano with Diane Keaton and Beatrice Arthur. Those hairdos don’t do much for either of them.

Lovers and Other Strangers (1970) This very funny adaptation of Joseph Bologna and Renée Taylor’s connected omnibus of short plays about marriage is now the curious relic of another age: A time when there were actual Broadway plays as well as musicals; even a moderately successful show (in this case, 70 performances) could get a movie deal; dialogue, character, conflict and performance were more important than directorial shenanigans and special effects; the songs that accompanied the action were both original and attractive; and fascinating women got as much screen time as interesting men.


The Chase - Dickinson, Brando

The Chase (1966) There was, potentially, a compelling movie in Horton Foote’s very fine 1956 novel (based in turn on his play of 1952) but it was sabotaged both before the fact, and after. First, the producer, Sam Spiegel, hired Lillian Hellman to write the adaptation. Quite apart from the fact that her adaptations of other writer’s work was generally less than salient, instead of hewing to Foote’s book she used it, she claimed, “as a departure,” about which the original author noted, “and she did depart.” (He also once said Hellman departed so far he couldn’t find his original work in her adaptation.) The novel, about a decent and honest Texas law officer (that’s how you know it’s a fiction) placed in an untenable position when an escaped felon makes for home is, at base, the portrait of a man experiencing a complete nervous breakdown. In Hellman’s hands — or Spiegel’s, since he ran the script through the typewriters of several others including Michael Wilson, Ivan Moffit and, finally, even Foote himself, who could do nothing with the mess he’d inherited — The Chase becomes an indictment of capitalism (how… shocking), a depiction of motiveless and hysterical mob violence and even, trendily for the time, a condemnation of racism before finally devolving into, an imbecilic echo of Dallas in November of 1963. Everything, in fact, but what Foote was actually writing about. (For those who care about such things, it was the movie’s director, Arthur Penn, who came up with the stupid, and all-too-obvious, Ruby-shoots-Oswald climax. So much for the virtues of auteurism.)

Spiegel wasn’t content with making a shambles of the original material: During the shooting he replaced the Robert Surtees, the ailing director of photography, without consulting his director and, afterward, compounded the problems by screwing that same man out of the ability to edit the picture or even be involved in the process. The tension is evident throughout: Joseph LaShelle’s color and widescreen cinematography is impressive, in a deep-focus, Old Hollywood fashion, but that wasn’t how Penn liked to work, and the style of The Chase doesn’t resemble that of his best movies, like The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde and Night Moves. Not that Penn had much of an opportunity to enrich material Hellman, Speigel (& Legion) had already, on the one hand, flattened out and, on the other, bloated beyond belief. In the Foote novel, the Sheriff (here played as interestingly and as well as Marlon Brando could manage under the circumstances) feels that the object of “the chase” is not the prison farm escapee Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford) but himself; that a reckoning is due, and that he is going to be found wanting at the end of it. This is replaced in the picture by the town’s rather inexplicable mass hatred of him, and complicated by Bubber’s wife (Jan Fonda) being involved, not with a poor one-armed bootlegger, as in the book, but the scion (James Fox) of the town’s wealthiest banker and oilman (E.G. Marshall), the former an old friend of Bubber’s. I don’t intend going much further into this, because I can feel my eyelids droop just typing it, but a lot of talent was buried herein, as was a good dramatic score by John Barry.

Many in hindsight see the brutal sequence in which a trio of vigilantes led by Richard Bradford beats Brando nearly to death in his office as Penn edging toward the bloody violence that exploded in Bonnie and Clyde the following year, but it seems, like everything else in the movie, such as the pointless and hysterical conflagration by the mob of an automobile graveyard near the end, to have been imposed on it by the producer. But then it was the 1960s, and good liberals could never be too condescending or superior to Southerners.


Gray's Anatromy 28351id_141_large

Spalding Gray in one of the movie’s more sedate visual moments.

Gray’s Anatomy (1996) Spalding Gray’s follow-up to his 1991 Monster in a Box might have been a typically ironic and surprisingly affecting Gray performance piece, but was so tricked up by his megalomaniac director it’s hard to keep track of the author’s words, or his performance. Writing about Swimming to Cambodia I said of Jonathan Demme and his collaborators that they never got in Gray’s way. Here, that’s all Steven Soderbergh does. He and his idiot cinematographer Elliot Davis begin by taking Gray’s audience, a central part of his performance, away, and proceed to pound square visual pegs into round aural holes for nearly 80 minutes, continually grafting artsy photographic business and cinematic trickery onto the material until it can barely cry “Uncle!” It says something essential about Soderbergh that he cut so much of Spalding Gray’s material prior to filming that the resulting movie was nearly 20 minutes too short, necessitating the wholly extraneous black-and-white interview padding that bookends and occasionally interrupts the action. I realize Gray, and his director and co-author Renée Shafransky, agreed to Soderbergh’s insane meddling, but I cannot think either knew just how badly they were going to be served by it. If you have to subject yourself to this, best to chase the movie with an extra on the Criterion disc, a videotaped performance of Gray’s charming 1980 monologue A Personal History of the American Theatre: One man, his reminiscences, a desk, a bunch of play titles, the burble of audience laughter, and nothing else required.


Vanya on 42nd Street resized

Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) Although this Uncle Vanya is much more theatrical than the Franchot Tone, it is also, conversely, far more cinematic. It also has the superior cast. André Gregory had been rehearsing them in the David Mamet adaptation for years, with no intention of performing it (although later they did, for very small, selected audiences) merely to explore a dramatic text in depth over a lengthy period. That he chose for this experiment my favorite play is perhaps more than a happy accident, as at the time Gregory was in his late 50s and as much as anything Vanya is about dissatisfaction, regret, loneliness and a general ennui — which, while not the sole province of middle- and old age are certainly preoccupations in both. Performed in the then-crumbling New Amsterdam Theatre (subsequently refurbished by a certain deep-pocketed entertainment corporation) and filmed by Gregory and Wallace Shawn’s My Dinner with Andre collaborator Louis Malle, whose last picture this was, Vanya on 42nd Street is beautifully observed, both pictorially and histrionically, in the first case by cinematographer Declan Quinn and in the second by Gregory, Malle and a cast whose individual and ensemble playing is nearly above reproach.

If Larry Pine is less charming an Astrov than he might be, and less of an opportunistic rotter, yet he has moments when you feel the doctor’s dislocation from life acutely. Brooke Smith is, with Joan Plowright, one of the two best Sonyas I’ve seen, and in some ways superior; Shawn is perhaps more impish than is the norm for Vanya but is no less heartbreakingly ordinary for that; and the aged musical and comedy performer George Gaynes is an utter revelation as Professor Serybryakov. Best of all is the great Julianne Moore as the professor’s young wife, the pivot about whom all else in Vanya revolves. Hers is the first Yelena I have seen who is an absolute human being, not merely a figure on whom the others project their emotions, and one moreover whose lassitude and boredom are emblematic of more than mere youthful self-absorption. Moore is so ready with a laugh or a smile that when, alone on stage near the end of the second act she breaks down, the effect of those astonishingly beautiful features of hers crumbling into abject despair is devastating.

My only complaint about this picture, in 1994 or now, an astonishing (to me) quarter-century later, is the prosaic quality of the Mamet script, and his and Gregory’s adamant refusal to allow Sonya to place her head on Vanya’s knees at the climax. If people cannot express themselves fully at the moment of their greatest emotional self-revelation, physically as well as with their voices, I don’t see why the play is being done to begin with. It’s like watching, as I once did years ago, a production of A Doll House in which when Nora leaves there is no door-slam.


What's Up, Doc - O'Neal, Bogdanovich, Streisand resized

What’s Up, Doc? (1972) I’m not sure what astonishes me more: That it has been 48 years since I saw this modern “screwball comedy” on its initial release, or that it is still so charming, and so very, very funny, nearly a half-century later.


*Alas, in Jim Brown’s self-produced DVD, the amusing sequence illustrating the many recorded versions  of “The Hammer Song,” some of them hilarious (such as Mitch Miller’s and Senator Sam Irvin’s) is gone, presumably a victim of the usual insane music re-use problems. This, in a movie about a singing group Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes started, and concerning a song they wrote!

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Monthly Report: April 2020

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By Scott Ross

Oklahoma - Albert, Greenwood

Eddie Albert as the peddler, with the great Charlotte Greenwood as Aunt Eller.

Oklahoma! (1955) [Todd-AO version / CinemaScope version] The first film adaptation of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show, and the finest.


Doctor Dolittle (1967)

Doctor_Dolittle__Attenborough, Harrison

He’s never seen anything like it: A delightfully exuberant Richard Attenborough as Blossom, with Rex Harrison’s Dolittle and the Pushmi-Pullyu.

That Doctor Dolittle was the picture 20th Century-Fox pinned most of its hopes on in 1967 is difficult to fathom now as that same studio’s earlier devotion to the money-pit known as Cleopatra in 1962. That one nearly bankrupted them. Dolittle didn’t do as much damage but it didn’t bring much honor (let alone profits) either. I well remember the picture’s release; I was in precisely the age-group Fox was aiming it at. It was the first non-Disney movie I recall seeing so many commercial product tie-ins for — the sort of thing that we would, a decade later with George Lucas’ Star Wars merchandising, become blasé about was a big deal in ’67. There were children’s cereal tie-ins, toys, games, storybooks, paperback reprints of the Hugh Lofting originals bearing Rex Harrison’s likeness… and records. O, how they had records! The score existed as a soundtrack album, of course, but also in LPs by everyone from Anthony Newley and Sammy Davis, Jr. to Alvin and the Chipmunks. The only thing Doctor Dolittle didn’t get, surprisingly, was a Gold Key comic book. How did Arthur P. Jacobs miss that one?

I don’t think Richard Fleischer’s direction is more than merely competent, and the movie as a whole has more size than real charm. (The original Lofting books are, whatever their racial… “limitations,” shall we say?… entirely charming.) Perhaps if it had been conceived, not as a big, sprawling musical but as a smaller and more inventive non-musical fantasy Doctor Dolittle might have been a minor classic of its kind. And the presence of Harrison makes Dolittle rather too Henry Higgins-like for comfort. (Reportedly re-written that way at the star’s insistence… after he first insisted the character be as far from Higgins as possible. That’s what you get when you hire a megalomaniacal drunk as your star.) But if it hadn’t been a musical, Doctor Dolittle would have lost the one aspect that lifts it above the norm of original musical movies:  The Leslie Bricusse score.

If his screenplay is less sparkling — you can sense the prints of too many fingers on it, and the pushing of a once-sided romance that never takes flight feels weirdly like an exercise in masochism — Bricusse’s songs have a nearly unerring grasp of character, time and place that, combined with their melodiousness, their feeling for mood and their gentle humor, make them almost ideal musical-comedy numbers. Sadly, three of his prettiest ballads (“Beautiful Things,” “Where Are the Words?” and “Something in Your Smile”) were either cut after the premiere or, in the case of the first, trimmed. The footage apparently no longer exists, making the otherwise lovely Twilight Time Blu-ray a bit of a disappointment. I know there are those who hate these songs (when “Talk to the Animals” won the Oscar for Best Song cries of “Oh, no!” were heard in the auditorium) but as I have often said of the Sherman Brothers’ work, if you think it’s easy to compose a clutch of engaging and melodic songs with witty lyrics that can amuse an adult and that a child can also comprehend and appreciate, you write one.

This was the era of the big “road show” musical, and the second such movie my mother took my sister and me to (the first was The Sound of Music a year or so before) that had an Intermission; a big deal for a seven-year old in 1968. Is the movie any good? It seems to me better than its reputation would suggest, but I lack perspective on it: When a picture enchanted you as a child and holds up generally on adult re-viewing, who knows? It’s entirely possible that I feel about Doctor Dolittle the way younger people do about what I regard as the meretricious garbage they grew up with; Willow comes to mind, and The Goonies, and the movies of John Hughes. Before we trash the taste and pleasures of others’ youths, we would do well to examine our own.


The Lion in Winter (1968)
The Lion in Winter - cast

The movie adaptation by James Goldman of his 1966 play, one of those rare pictures whose wit, and spectacular performances, make it a pleasure no matter how many times you’ve seen it.


Julius Caesar (1953)

Deborah Kerr, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Marlon Brando, James Mason, Edmund O'Brien rehearsing JUL

Deborah Kerr, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Marlon Brando, James Mason, Edmund O’Brien rehearsing. (Everett Collection)

This moderately engaging Shakespeare adaptation benefits almost entirely from its actors, and from its typically expert Miklós Rózsa score. Certainly Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s direction is merely workmanlike, when it isn’t altogether poor, and its special effects would be inadequate in a high school production. (The storm sequence is almost hilariously bad; I pictured Tom Courtenay off-stage, frantically pounding on kettle-drums and sheet-metal.) James Mason makes a splendid Brutus, acting entirely on principal and haunted by his own deeds, and although she has one scene only, Deborah Kerr as Portia matches him, her warm voice and understated anguish the perfect compliment to his brooding. John Gielgud, long absent from the screen, made a superb return as Cassius, that mellifluous bassoon of a voice first seducing Brutus, then hectoring him and, finally, locating the character’s latent sense of honor. Best of all is Marlon Brando’s Anthony. Although the play is really Brutus’, to Anthony was given the great funeral oration, with which the character subtly alters the mood of the all-too-pliable mob through irony and rhetoric. (Brando creates a nice moment when, his back to the Roman crowd, he smiles briefly, knowing he has them. Mussolini would surely have approved.) Brando went to Gielgud for advice on diction and phrasing, but the approach is unmistakably his own. He makes each phrase sound natural, as if it just occurred to him. He’s not imitating Gielgud; he’s not imitating anyone.

On the far side of these splendid players is the gaseous Grande Dame posturings of the appalling Greer Garson. Her acting epitomizes what used to be meant by publicists and newspaper writers when they trotted out the word “distinguished.”


Demon Seed (1977)
Demon Seed-lg
An effective, although not exceptional, adaptation of Dean Knnotz’s creepy, truly disturbing cyber-horror novel, arguably more relevant now than it was in 1977. Fritz Weaver is an A.I. expert who has created a living computer, and Julie Christie is his estranged wife, who becomes its first victim. The picture suffers from its modest budget and the limitations of the 1970s special effects (about to be rendered altogether redundant by George Lucas) and from a lack of interior logic in its Robert Jaffe/Roger O. Hirson screenplay:  When Gerrit Graham as one of Weaver’s employees goes to check on Christie and is murdered by “Proteus IV,” his disappearance is ignored by everyone for the crucial month the computer requires for Christie to carry and give birth to its progeny. Donald Cammell directed competently, although with very little style; but for Bill Butler’s rich cinematography, Demon Seed could almost have been a made-for-TV movie. Jerry Fielding’s musique concrète score is effective in context, although I can’t imagine wanting to listen to it in isolation, although Butler, who two years earlier shot Jaws, brings warmth to a cold story with his supple lighting and color. Almost unreservedly grim, the picture has one good in-joke: The chilly, unemotional voice of Proteus IV was provided by the equally frigid Robert Vaughn.


The Mouse on the Moon (1962)
The Mouse on the Moon - Moody, Rutherford (resized)

A mildly amusing adaptation of Leonard Wibberly’s satirical novel, itself a sequel to his enormously popular The Mouse That Roared and its inevitable movie. As with the movie of that book, The Mouse on the Moon is more twee than funny, although it manages a few laughs. Margaret Rutherford is charming as the Grand Duchess, although her role is shorter than one would like, and she is, curiously, less sweetly moving than Peter Sellers was in the role! A lot of good farceurs are in this one, including Ron Moody as the corrupt Prime Minister, Bernard Cribbins as his earnest son, Terry-Thomas as a less than efficacious English spy, the Broadway actor Tom Aldredge (husband of the costume designer Theoni V.) as a hapless Pentagon assistant and David Kossoff as the preternaturally cheerful and unhurried scientist whose discovery that the tiny Duchy’s combustible wine can be used as fuel for a space capsule sets the plot in motion. Michael Pertwee (brother of Jon) wrote the script, and Richard Lester directed in a style that is rather sedate for him — but A Hard Day’s Night was just around the corner.


The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

Importance of Being Earnest - Criterion

Only a true auteur (or anyway an auteurist home video company) could seriously attach a possessive credit to The Importance of Being Earnest other than Oscar Wilde. Yes, Anthony Asquith wrote the adaptation and directed it, but I suspect he would be appalled at being named, as Criterion does, the “creator” of this movie. Thus does the viral insanity of Andrew Sarris infect everything.

Wilde’s “Serious Comedy for Trivial People” is one of the great pleasures the English-speaking theatre affords, its torrent of polished witticisms and dizzying aperçus piling up in a manner so intoxicating that in addition to laughing, often, we sit in the theatre smiling in perfect bliss for the play’s three delirious acts. The 1952 movie is briefer than the play — it runs a fast 95 minutes — yet somehow we miss nothing. And if both Michael Redgrave (as Jack) and Michael Denison (Algernon) are a good decade older than their roles, Asquith’s framing device of a theatrical performance is superfluous and Denison’s perennial mode of expression is something between a smirk and a sneer, rendering him less impish than unpleasant, everything else is absolutely right. Asquith’s pitch and pacing are exactly correct, and his cast is nearly perfect. Redgrave, with his dashing mien and rich, plummy voice, is an ideal Jack Worthing, perfectly matched by the serene imbecility of Joan Greenwood’s Gwendolen and Dorothy Tutin’s Cecily. Margaret Rutherford and Miles Malleson are, as always with these two sublime comedians, oases of hilariously unflappable British reserve. And if it does nothing else, the movie preserves Edith Evans’ peerless Lady Bracknell. Her performance is so perfectly calibrated, her characterization so utterly certain of the rightness of its extreme rectitude and absurd traditions, her memory must present a formidable hurdle to any actor assaying the role. How do you make it your own when she got every line so magnificently right before you? And yes, everything you may have heard about her reading of the outraged line “A handbag?” is correct; no matter how many times I hear it, Evans’ exquisite comic phrasing always elicits from me a gale of explosive hilarity. As an added fillip, Desmond Dickinson’s rich photography, like the delicious British light music score by Benjamin Frankel, makes the thing like a colorful bonbon, as charming to look at as to digest.

John Simon always maintained that intelligent laughter was the very best sort. There are fewer pure fonts of it than this.


Satchmo (1988)
Satchmo - Giddins
The superb jazz (and, lately, movie) critic Gary Giddins’ heartfelt 1988 tribute to one of his idols, and mine. Written by Giddins and co-directed by him and Kendrick Simmons, Satchmo charts the astonishing youthful rise of one of the few undisputed musical geniuses of the 20th century, illustrating just why he, more than anyone of his time, defined the parameters of the form and the place of the great solo artist within it; his sometimes troubled middle-age; and his transcendent emeritus years, when the taint of Uncle Tomism, never fair, began to fall away and Armstrong’s importance could be more broadly understood. When his great Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings from the late 1920s were reissued on LP around the time Giddins’ documentary was airing on PBS, they were a revelation: While Armstrong was hardly the first jazz performer — the genre predated his arrival in it by decades — those records made it feel as if he was inventing jazz right on the spot. Next to an astonishment like “West End Blues,” almost everything that came before was literally marking time.

Despite Hattie Winston’s passionless and undistinguished narration, Satchmo does for Armstrong, in 90 minutes, what it takes Ken Burns, in Jazz, 10 episodes to do. The live footage of Armstrong in Copenhagen in 1933 alone justifies the entire event.


Divorce American Style (1967)

Divorce American Style - 1967

Dick Van Dyke has clearly had it up to here with Debbie Reynolds. Well, who wouldn’t?

Few things date faster than topical humor. Divorce American Style was old-hat two years after its release, when no-fault divorce became the law of the land in California, where the movie is set, and its then-scathing satire instantly devolved from amusingly au courant to hopelessly passé. So if you like the picture as I do and have since seeing it on television in the mid-‘70s, you have to approach it as a period-piece — even though its Norman Lear/Robert Kaufman screenplay has infinitely more bite to it than William Rose’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the script that bested it at the 1967 Oscars. This was one of Dick Van Dyke’s few non-family friendly projects of the ‘60s, and one of his best. He’s the husband impoverished by his state’s punitive divorce laws, although I would think being married to Debbie Reynolds was punishment enough. While there is some sharp dialogue and several cleverly conceived and executed sequences, usually set to Dave Grusin’s inspired faux-Baroque music (the opening titles, in which the evening’s suburban arguments are orchestrated by a conductor; the scene in which each warring spouse attempts to thwart the other’s abilities to strip their join bank holdings; the Sunday-fathers’ gathering of the clans; and a prolonged silent fight between Reynolds and Van Dyke, punctuated entirely by slamming doors and sliding cabinets) much of the humor of the picture lies in its canny casting: Jason Robards, Jr. as the tragi-comic divorcée hoping to pair his ex (Jean Simmons) with Van Dyke, to get him off the financial hook that is literally destroying his heath; Shelley Berman and Richard Gautier as overly pally divorce lawyers; Joe Flynn as an ethical philandering husband; Martin Gabel as a humorless couples’ therapist; Lee Grant as an insulted call-girl; Tom Bosley as a divorced man explaining the intricacies of weekend fatherhood to a bewildered Van Dyke; Van Johnson as a square, mother-ridden car dealer; and in smaller roles, Emmaline Henry, the “hip hypnotist” Pat Collins (as herself), Shelley Morrison, Eileen Brennan as Robards’ girlfriend (this was her first movie) and, as Van Dyke and Reynolds’ knowing sons, Gary Goetzman and Tim Matheson, the once and future Jonny Quest. Conrad L. Hall’s muted color photography and Ferris Webster’s often effective editing make this one of the rare ‘60s comedies that has more in common with the kineticism of The Graduate than with the glorified Universal television look of a Doris Day vehicle. After a second bracing Van Dyke black comedy (Cold Turkey in 1971) and the 1973 Ryan O’Neal caper The Thief Who Came to Dinner the director Bud Yorkin and his writer and co-producer Norman Lear would develop All in the Family for television and pretty much turn their backs on the movies for good. Interesting too that the fruits of their TV empire, the aptly-named Tandem Productions, which encompassed All in the Family, Maude, Good Times and Sanford and Son, should now be referred to solely as Norman Lear’s. There’s nothing like having good P.R.


Lady and the Tramp (1955)

Lady and the Tramp - 1094603

The first Disney animated feature in widescreen and among the most charming of all full-length cartoons.


Hearts of the West (1975)
Hearts of the West - Bridges, Arkin

Hearts of the West is one of those puzzlers that occasionally crop up: A bright,  funny little movie about a hapless Candide in the early days of cheap talkie Westerns with a charming script and a wonderful cast that went by the wayside when it was released and, for reasons that absolutely defy logic, bombed at the box office. What were its “must-see” competitors in the marketplace in October, 1975? Tom Laughlin in The Master Gunfighter? Diana Ross in Mahogany? The “Blaxploitation” Western Take a Hard Ride? That last is not a slur, by the way; I like Take a Hard Ride enormously. I’m simply saying that Hearts of the West had very little real competition for moviegoers’ bucks, and none remotely as good.*

Sharply and wittily written by Rob Thompson and efficiently directed by Howard Zieff, it’s a breezy, quirky fable of a Western-obsessed youth (Jeff Bridges), determined to become a novelist, who after inadvertently foiling a pair of con artists (Richard B. Shull and Anthony James) and accidentally absconding with their loot, takes refuge with the cowboys at a Poverty Row studio. Thompson, who later wrote for Northern Exposure and Monk, has a gift for the unexpected; his characters don’t always act the way we think they will, and his narratives veer off into avenues that, while perhaps puzzling at first, eventually resolve themselves as, within the gentle madness of the conception, eminently reasonable. And, unlike with Richard Rush’s far more highly lauded The Stunt Man,  Thompson respects the physical realities of filmmaking. Everything about the picture works, from the soft, lovely cinematography by Mario Tosi and the sometimes hilariously accurate art direction by Robert Luthardt and set decoration by Charles B. Pierce to the cunning period costumes by Patrick Cummings and Ron Talsky. Zieff’s direction is clean and uncluttered, and he gets the most from Thompson’s script and from his actors, who aside from a typically wonderful Bridges include Alan Arkin as an excitable director, the sublime Blythe Danner as his practical assistant, and Andy Griffith as a Western gunfighter with a secret. It was the best screen role Griffith had lucked onto since the 1957 A Face in the Crowd, and you can well understand why he was still bitter about the movie’s financial failure a decade later.


The Mosquito Coast (1986)

The Mosquito Coast - Mirren, Ford, Phoenix

After the apocalypse: Helen Mirren and River Phoenix look to Harrison Ford for a sane reaction to their disaster. They won’t get it.

When I first saw The Mosquito Coast on its release in 1986, I clocked more walk-outs in the audience than for any picture of my experience since Looking for Mr. Goodbar in 1977. There were any number of reasons for audience discontent in the case of the latter. As to the former, I think there were two.

First, Harrison Ford’s previous picture, a year earlier, had been Witness, a huge hit in which he played an implacable cop and which built to a big, violent finish. Here he was a mercurial obsessive who blithely endangers his family by repeatedly trying to set up a kind of half-assed Utopia in Honduras, dragging them from one untenable encampment to another, and slowly going mad. This was not what an audience expected of Han Solo, much less of Indiana Jones.

Second (and worse) “Father,” as Ford’s character is usually called, does not grow and change for the better. A mass audience can take a character as weird and arrogant as this only when it receives assurance that he will see the error of his ways. Even Oedipus putting out his eyes is more acceptable to it than watching a beloved actor descend into madness and death assaying a character who (as the asparagus farmer played by Dick O’Neill notes of him) is “the worst kind of pain-in-the neck: A know-it-all who’s sometimes right.” If you’re open to the experience, however, and to its bitter vision, The Mosquito Coast is that rare thing: An American movie that does not compromise.

Paul Schrader’s screenplay telescopes some of the narrative of the superb Paul Theroux novel (the Fox family’s miserable journey is more protracted in the book) and softens some of its nastier edges. I couldn’t understand, for example, why in Theroux the younger Fox children are so antagonistic toward Charley (River Phoenix) who is a nice, sensitive kid even if he only recognizes the full extent of his father’s endangering madness when it’s far too late — just as in the book Father’s bullying, while grounded in his determination to prepare his children for survival in a world he believes is reverting to savagery, ranges well beyond cruelty; Allie Fox is perhaps a minor-league sadist, but anyone who’s grown up with such a parent knows that even low-grade sadism is deeply wounding to the children who are its targets. As with all adaptations of fine literature, much is necessarily lost along the way, but on balance Schrader captures the tone of the book, especially in Charley’s narration, which carries over from the novel and allows the viewer, as it did the reader, some perspective on his Quixotic father.

The Mosquito Coast is one of those pictures that seems to benefit from its director not being an American. Perhaps, as an Australian, Peter Weir was able to look at Allie, and at the world he escapes from, plain. There’s a sense that the filmmakers admire Father’s vision, even as they look askance at how he achieves it. And when Allie inadvertently destroys and pollutes his manufactured Paradise, Ford gets Father’s response exactly, and staggeringly, right: Every set-back becomes a new beginning, and he claims he’s overjoyed at the prospect, utterly unable to see how each such fresh start in the face of failure is another slow death for his wife and children. I think his performance as Allie Fox is the finest Harrison Ford has ever given, and it’s garnered him scant honor. That audience indifference to artistic integrity, a collective shrug, says much about why we get the movies we do: We deserve them.


The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! (1982)
The Weavers - Wasn't That a Time!

Jim Brown’s absolutely wonderful documentary, ostensibly on the final Carnegie Hall reunion concert by The Weavers but really about American values in adversity and defiance in the face of repression is especially relevant now, as hundreds of millions behave like sheep over a winter influenza virus and gratefully permit their various versions of Big Brother to squeeze yet more liberty from their already diminished lives.


Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)
Far from the Madding Crowd - Christie, Bates
Whether or not one is an aficionado of Thomas Hardy’s, and despite the author’s occasional 19th century Chauvanism toward women, Far from the Madding Crowd is an easy book to love. Its four major characters are beautifully drawn, none of them shaded entirely one way or the other; as in life, they are neither heroic, nor villainous, although each is entirely human and therefore eminently capable of both heroism and villainy. The essential narrative is relatively simple: A single woman (Bathsheba Everdine) entrances three separate men (Shepherd Oaks, Farmer Boldwood and Sergeant Troy). The novel’s progress is over several years as each of the men pursues her, gives up (Oaks), temporarily wins her (Troy) or, unable to, is driven to a mad act of violence (Boldwood). That Batheheba is entirely to blame for Boldwood’s infatuation is not in question — indeed, she shoulders the blame willingly and repeatedly. But should anyone be forced to surrender all hope of future happiness over a youthful prank? Yet Boldwood is not an ogre, merely a man possessed; and if Troy is more than a bit of a cad, he too has his moment of reckoning, although he is unable to resist the temptation to return to the scene when fate has permitted him a handy escape. Of the three only Oaks is able to integrate his love for Bathsheba into his working life, and only he regards her on equal terms and not as a conquest or an ornament. And while it is clear that while Hardy too admires Bathsheba’s independence (she inherits a farm, and works it successfully) we can only assume at the end that, once Oaks’ own inheritance is merged with hers, it will be his farm entirely. Well,  one cannot undo the traditions and legalities of the past, although Christ alone knows today’s “woke” filmmakers seem to believe they can if they just ignore them hard enough.

I’m not sure why, since it hews very close to its source, this beautiful and intelligent adaptation by Frederic Raphael and John Schlesinger doesn’t work. Its nearly three-hour running time ensures that most of the central events of the novel are represented; the only major incident not included is Bathsheba’s early rescue of Oaks from suffocation. And the location shooting thoroughly captures the  atmosphere of Hardy’s “Wessex,” a geography of the mind not dissimilar to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. (The movie was shot around Dorset, where the author lived and wrote.) Yet despite its splendid cast and handsome photography — Nicholas Roeg was the cinematographer — the movie never quite catches fire. I think the lack has to do with an accumulation of little things; small details Schlesinger and Raphael either miss, or make too much of. I don’t mean the casting of the famously blond Julie Christie as the (equally famously) raven-haired Bathsheba. I’m referring to the overuse of rack-focus; the elongation of the sequence in which Troy shows off his swordsmanship for Bathsheba, which Schlesinger turns into something so over-the-top its erotic metaphor becomes nearly pornographic and his later appearance disguised as Dick Turpin is presented as part of a raucous slapstick circus; the loss of affecting detail in the novel, such as the way Hardy reveals after the murder that Boldwood had painstakingly assembled an entire new wardrobe for his hoped-for bride, or that his execution is stayed at the 11th hour, or even that he attempts suicide and is foiled; or, conversely, needless invention, such as the way, at the end, Oak and Bathsheba’s quiet wedding is turned by the filmmakers into a very public fête.

Far from the Madding Crowd - poster (resized)

What absolutely does work are the performances of the actors. Christie catches Bathsheba in all her moods and contradictions; Bates locates Oak’s stoicism as well as his  gentle yet dogged professionalism and determination; Stamp is both dashing and  mercurial — here coldly commanding, there over-brimming with passion; and Finch, who has the most difficult role in the picture, makes Boldwood dignified and tragic in equal measure. The production design (Richard Macdonald), art direction (Roy Smith), set decoration (Peter James) and costumes (Alan Barrett) are similarly fulsome and apt, and I cannot imagine how the glorious musical score by Richard Rodney Bennett, with its exquisite main theme, could be bettered.

Schlesinger and Roeg, highly proficient throughout even with my reservations about the totality of their work, handle some of the set-pieces splendidly, such as the terrible moment when the younger of Oaks’ two border terriers drives his flock over the cliffs, or the terrible final trek taken by poor Fanny Robin (Prunella Ransome) to the workhouse, or the sequence in which Oaks, finding all the men drunk on Troy’s brandy, undertakes the necessary covering of Bathsheba’s ricks of wheat in a punishing thunderstorm, joined in the endeavor by Bathsheba herself, perfectly illustrating how well they work together. But the movie’s failure boils down, ultimately, to a matter of its elements being simultaneously too much, and not enough: After Bathsheba leaves him following their first romantic encounter, Stamp’s Troy sits on the side of the hill in wide shot and the unseen sun above is repeatedly hidden by, and emerges from behind, the clouds, the darkness rolling over the land and being chased again by rays of light. It’s one of the loveliest effects in nature, especially when the field for viewing is vast enough. Here, you get the sense that Schlesinger and Roeg were so in love with it, and so lost in contemplation of its pictorial glory, that they lingered over the moment interminably. There’s a metaphor in that, and not the one they had in mind.


*It appears the Bill Cosby-Sidney Poitier comedy Let’s Do it Again was the big winner in October of 1975presumably on the strength of Jimmy “J.J.” Walker, then the inexplicably popular star of Good Times, in a co-starring rolealong with the Walter Hill period bare-knuckle boxing picture Hard Times and the belated True Grit sequel (and African Queen rip-off) Rooster Cogburn starring the unlikely duo of John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! (1982)

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By Scott Ross

Although I knew Pete Seeger, rather vaguely, as a folk music figure — really, more as a songwriting name than as a personality — it was only with the release of this superb documentary by Jim Brown that I became aware of his importance (and that of his fellow Weavers) to the culture and to the history of his/their times. And that, at least initially, due to a long All Things Considered piece, aired when the movie opened; I missed it in the theatres and only caught up with it when my best friend videotaped a PBS broadcast and showed it to me. I became an instant devotee, both of Pete and of The Weavers — especially of that magnificent force of nature, Ronnie Gilbert.

The Weavers (Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman) in 1980.

Wasn’t That a Time! takes as its jumping-off point The Weavers’ 1980 Carnegie Hall reunion, and the road to that concert, footage from which makes up the documentary’s final half-hour. But the preceding hour is the reason for my adoration of the movie. Indeed, after spending so much time with Seeger, Gilbert, Lee Hayes and Fred Hellerman, and hearing their reminiscences of The Weavers’ heyday, and how quickly it all came crashing down during what Lillian Hellman famously termed the “Scoundrel Time” of the hysterically anti-Communist 1950s, the concert itself is almost anti-climactic.

While The Weavers themselves found national fame via absurdly over-orchestrated pop recordings (Gordon Jenkins’ syrupy, choir-supported arrangements of “On Top of Old Smokey” and Pete’s slightly bowdlerized version of the Leadbelly ballad “Goodnight, Irene”) their emergence on the wider cultural stage was the impetus for the so-called Folk Revival of the late ’50s and early 1960s. It is doubtful that Dylan could have made his name without their influence, and certainly, as Mary Travers relates in the film, there would have been no Peter, Paul and Mary without Pete, Ronnie, Lee and Fred.

Lee Hayes, watching an old kinescope of the Weavers during the filming of the documentary: “Will you look at that! Barbie Doll and three stuffed dummies!”

Lee Hays, the quartet’s venerable old bass, is the fulcrum, of both the concert (although he cannily shifts the credit, or the blame, to Seeger) and of the movie itself. He wrote his own relaxed but idiosyncratic narration, and it is his desire to perform with his old comrades in the as-yet unnamed “culture wars” that brings them all together, first on his farmstead, and later at Carnegie.

It was Carnegie, indeed, that gave The Weavers a second lease on performing life following their infamous blacklisting; their 1955 reunion concert spawned two hit records and led to a long-term recording contract with Vanguard that forms the basis of any Weavers collection of consequence.

Hayes was by 1980 confined to a wheelchair, a diabetic double-amputee, and the groups’ sold-out reunion concert was to be the last time they performed together. Lee died, in fact, before Wasn’t That a Time! was completed, and Brown dedicated the finished film to him. It would be interesting to have a view of Hayes outside the context of his own spoken narration. Famously prickly, he was a man of vast contradictions and, despite his strict Baptist background, some sexual mystery; he reportedly had male lovers, but the movie — quite understandably — doesn’t delve into this, or Ronnie Gilbert’s Lesbianism, or indeed into the private lives of any of the original Weavers, aside perhaps from a gently teasing moment of levity between Lee and Pete’s wife Toshi.

Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert

It does, however, preserve the hair-raising moment when Ronnie first sings with Holly Near. At Gilbert’s insistence, Near’s moving anthem “Hay una mujer desaparecida” is chosen for inclusion during the concert, and Brown holds on these two powerful singers, representing different generations, each learning from and influenced by the other, as they perform an impromptu duet. The effectiveness of their harmonies stuns them both; there’s a long moment of silence when they finish, before both let out whoops of excited triumph. It was the beginning of a friendship, and a creative partnership, that would lead to recorded glory as the 1980s went along.

The words on the movie’s theatrical release poster (“We felt that if we sang loud enough and strong enough and hopefully enough, somehow it would make a difference.”) are Ronnie’s, and they sum up not merely her spirit, or that of The Weavers, or of Pete, or Lee (or Fred) but the gentle defiance that led them all to the achievement, not merely of continued fame or records or influence, but of outlasting their defeat and living beyond the means of their persecutors’ abilities to stop them. McCarthyism — then and now — may have been, for a time, the immovable object; the Weavers were the irresistible force that lifted the rock and let in the light.

They made that difference.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross



Post-Script, 2018
The McCarthyite Red-Scare is now, frighteningly, a period we seem intent on resurrecting, and all due to a persuasive (if utterly specious) lie concocted by the losers of the late election. There were liberal anti-Communists then, of course. But this time, horribly, it’s the liberals both instigating the Red-baiting, and doing the worst of it. That none of them seems to grasp that Russia is no longer a Communist nation but, like America, a corporatized one, is mind-numbing.



Post-Post-Script, 2020

Having managed to get a rare copy of Jim Brown’s self-produced DVD of Wasn’t That a Time! (I have previously been able to watch only the old VHS cassette) I was disheartened to note that the filmmaker had dropped the amusing “If I Had a Hammer” sequence, which highlighted some of the stranger recordings of Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes’ most popular song, including one by Senator Sam Irvin. I presume the deletion was made over music rights. Shouldn’t the composers, not the record companies, be the final arbiters of that?

Capitalism will never work.