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Movie Review: The Outrageous Sophie Tucker

SophieTuckerPosteWith commentary by Barbara Walters, among others, including Tony Bennett, Michael Feinstein and the late Mickey Rooney, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker diligently retraces her career in cleverly pictured (and occasionally animated) scrapbook clippings and interviews to rediscover an influential American performer.

Sophie Tucker, in case you haven’t heard of her, was a fat, Jewish singer, actress and comedienne, as the co-producers affectionately describe her in this 2014 documentary, scheduled for theatrical release next week. After her parents came from the Ukraine to America in 1886 and settled in Hartford, Connecticut, where they opened a kosher restaurant, Sophie was dispatched to hustle predominantly Jewish actors at a local theater’s stage door into patronizing the restaurant. It’s in this endeavor that Sophie, raised as an orthodox Jew, apparently became hooked on burlesque or Vaudeville—brash and unsophisticated—a type of live theater experience popular through the 1930s.

Without sugarcoating her early career, when Tucker did blackface on stage as a “coon shouter”, a term which Michael Feinstein thoughtfully puts into context, the filmmakers make it clear that this bawdy woman earned her reputation as a pathbreaking performer who legitimized this type of broad humor. Paving the way for Bette Midler, Melissa Manchester and Cher, not to discredit Mae West and other bossy dames of the day, Sophie Tucker, who took her name from one of three ex-husbands, broke big first in Ziegfeld’s Follies. She worked with an unknown Irving Berlin and other legendary musical and comedy acts. William Morris, whom she met before he was the owner of the famous artist agency when he was still known as a theater owner, represented her for 60 years.

Sophie Tucker was a star.

As The Outrageous Sophie Tucker demonstrates, her singing technique involved calculated hesitation and Feinstein points out that in developing her distinctive vocal style, Tucker rarely gets the credit she deserves, which usually goes to black singers such as Bessie Smith. Tony Bennett (Amy) calls her the most underrated jazz singer that ever lived. Part of what makes her worth examining as a mainstream, popular performer is her endurance. Like Bob Hope, she succeeded in a variety of show formats.

The movie sheds light on the reasons. During Prohibition, for example, she allied with criminal mobs to play in their now-illegal clubs, she was pals with Al Capone—she was pals with J. Edgar Hoover, too—and she didn’t seem ashamed to be arrested in Portland, Oregon for a show in which she implied that women crave sex as much as men. In fact, she started commissioning songs about sex after the arrest and she crowned herself the headmistress of the school of “red hot mamas” that could teach girls about sex.

Several scrapbook items and interviews show her shrewd use of publicity and knack for salesmanship. As early as 1909, Tucker took out ads in newspapers saying Merry Christmas and Season’s Greetings to her fans, which was unheard of, in a kind of pre-social media grasp of the long-term value of relationship building with a fan base. She earned (and hustled herself into) numerous endorsements, was asked by Warner Bros. to be the first female lead to make a talking motion picture and kept company with her co-stars and peers such as Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Robert Taylor, Jerry Lewis, Carol Channing and Danny Kaye, each of whom is interviewed or chronicled here. The woman, who worked rhyming into her routines with banter, including her television debut in 1951 on Jimmy Durante’s show, was like a constantly running motor.

Sophie had standards. She didn’t like TV’s censors, for instance, though she liked doing Ed Sullivan’s show. Even this late in her career, Sophie Tucker appeared at ease integrating business with the show, timing her bi-annual appearances on Ed Sullivan with revamped routines to foster demand for her stage act. More than outrageousness, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker shows her business savvy as the key to her sustained popularity throughout her 60-year career. She knew what people expected from, and liked about, her and she knew her limitations.

Along the way, she played poker, gin and pinochle—her father had sneaked young Sophie out for gambling as a girl—dabbling in solitaire to calm her nerves, according to scholar Jan Lewis, PhD. Sophie’s three husbands, a man named Tuck, Frank Westphal and Al Lackey, are covered as is her only child, Bert, whom she showered with gifts including the failed Robert E. Lee hotel in Miami, which finally seemed to disabuse her of the delusion that he could make something of his life. Also featured is her longtime pianist, Ted Shapiro, who was loyal to the end. The movie suggests that she later held exclusively gay relationships such as an intimate relationship with a doctor named Margaret Chung.

Whatever personal details, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker shows that Tucker’s professional legacy is strong and lasting. Sophie Tucker appears on the cover of Ebony with Josephine Baker, whom she introduced at a Miami nightclub following racist death threats. American soldiers entering Nazi Berlin defiantly played her song about a “Yiddishe Momme” as a triumphant tribute to a fallen American Jewish soldier who loved and played her records. Perhaps the best measure of what makes Sophie Tucker outrageous is that Judy Garland said Sophie, with whom Garland co-starred in Broadway Melody of 1938, taught her “how to put a song over”. This 90-minute documentary, which is endearing by today’s depraved standards, demonstrates how Sophie Tucker taught herself and Americans how to put brassy over without going over the top.

Movie & DVD Review: On the Waterfront (1954)

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Redemption through testimony—an individual rising against the mob to exercise free speech and speak out—is the theme of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), which deserves its reputation as a great motion picture. The movie, starring Academy Award-winning Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in her Oscar-winning motion picture debut, is comparable in moral heft to Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1962), throwing out radical ideas, questions and challenges for the audience that grant no quarter to half measures, pragmatism and grayness. Everyone should see this film, based on Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper articles, and take the test it offers in this wholly absorbing drama.

Beginning with Leonard Bernstein’s somber musical score, On the Waterfront starts with a particular turning point in the life of Terry Malloy (Brando) who has chosen to become “a bum”. Something stirs within this shell of a man, an embittered New Jersey dockworker, when an act of evil with which he is complicit is executed to its logical conclusion—an innocent man is murdered by a gang of criminals—and, as with the East German Communist in The Lives of Others (2006), the guilty seeks absolution.

This Catholic notion, delivered in a secular sense with Catholicism standing in for morality, is encouraged by a decent priest (Karl Malden), opposed by Terry’s brother (Rod Steiger) and assaulted by the mob boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Terry’s drive for moral cleansing is ignited, navigated and judged by the woman with whom he falls in love (Saint), a strong and innocent type.

Her name is Edie and she represents the good. The real villain in On the Waterfront is the public, the collective, the others. They—look for Pat Hingle, Nehemiah Persoff, Fred Gwynne, also Martin Balsam as a federal policeman—are the silent killers that sanction the rule of the mob. As Terry falls for Edie and learns how to love himself, really, it’s waterfront subculture, society at large, that governs and accepts or denies Terry’s redemption. The moral dilemma he faces is whether to submit to injustice or speak up and stand against the others.

This central conflict, dramatized throughout anti-Communist whistleblower Kazan’s pictures (Panic in the Streets, A Face in the Crowd, Gentleman’s Agreement, Man on a Tightrope, Viva Zapata!), is evident everywhere in On the Waterfront. Opposing ideas are peppered in anti-Communist whistleblower Budd Schulberg’s Oscar-winning screenplay: “Don’t say nothin’—keep quiet; you’ll live longer”—”You don’t ask no questions, you don’t answer no questions, unless you wanna wind up [dead]”—and, as Terry’s thug-tribalist brother puts it: “Don’t think about it—do it.”

On the Waterfront universalizes its narrowly defined setting with a physically brutal and exhaustive contest between reason and anti-reason. From an urge to “join the congregation” which in this case is a euphemism for submitting to rule by brute, tribal force to the priest’s pressing question “Who killed Joey?” as Brando’s Terry walks in, the mob’s blithely accepted ways and means come to fester in each part of the waterfront. The only consistent avenger besides Malden’s priest and Balsam’s lawman—who are both portrayed with deliberation as strictly limited in their effectiveness—is the initially murdered man’s sister, played by Saint, who is pivotal to grasping and granting Terry’s epic quest and request.

Saint’s Edie is intelligent, kind and able. Edie finds and sees the good in Terry—she is unafraid of the damaged and the dangerous—and she is like the deformed kitten she spares and adopts, willing to be different and stand out. When she first finds intimacy with the self-unmade boxer whom the audience later learns thinks he “coulda been a contender”, she welcomes him with total trust. Terry warns against Edie’s benevolence with the line that his philosophy of life is to do it to others before others do it to you. But Edie, a greedy young woman who insists that she wants “much, much, much more” than what’s offered by the Catholic Church, sees the man’s potential despite himself.

Kazan exploits their scenes beautifully, with pigeons fluttering and whistles blowing—and Malden’s Father Barry bracing Edie with the fact that life is hard and actions have impact—until Edie confronts with horror the truth of what’s been done and, finally, with blood spilling and death looming over the waterfront, Terry takes himself down to lift himself up, whatever consequences may come.

This is Terry’s story and Marlon Brando shines as the piece of meat torn between living for others and living for himself, if it’s not framed as such, using his feeble mind to move his muscle to really power up his mind for the first time—”It’s isn’t just brains. It’s how you use them”, someone says—inspired by an unconquered feminine idealist who dares to go against the conventions, notions and practices of the world in which she lives. When Edie tosses a drink back for the first time, to Terry it’s a dare to ditch his fake self and get right with himself.

Whether he does and what comes of it is what moves the movie’s action. On the Waterfront fully explores what it means to take, mold and re-shape one’s lesser self into a greater man (and what it means to love and have him). Elia Kazan, who by all accounts (including his own) lived by these themes, masterfully conveys and cashes in the everyday struggle to be one’s best—even if it means going up against the whole world—and coming out clean, honest and proud. Kazan’s On the Waterfront stands against the conformity that dominates mid-20th century America with a naturalistic snapshot of what one can do against the irrational. It is not as grand and operatic as audiences have been led to believe. On the Waterfront is small and intimate. Today, this great movie still inspires one to rise, fight and win.


The DVD 

A 12-minute conversation with Kazan is excellent. The one-hour documentary is also informative, though best viewed after seeing the movie. Other extras are also included in this edition.


Buy On the Waterfront

Taylor Swift’s Activism for Apple

TaylorSwift on TimeWhen an individual moneymaker takes a moral stand on principle, realizes it with action and wins, the activism ought to be studied as an example in success.

This week, recording artist Taylor Swift provides such an example. Swift, a pop country music star, recently took to Tumblr (a blogging platform) to write a letter of activism (read Swift’s letter here). Swift explains that Apple’s new Apple Music streaming service precludes payment to artists in the first three months. Swift argues that this is wrong. In a persuasive, simple letter implicitly based on egoism, not altruism, because she predicates the letter on achieving her own values in an explicit expression of magnanimity, Swift makes the case for what amounts to intellectual property rights. Swift advocates what Ayn Rand called the trader principle, the essence of capitalism. As Swift concludes her letter to Apple: “Please don’t ask [artists] to provide you with our music for no compensation.”

Besides Swift’s fundamentally acknowledged fact that Apple’s terms are Apple’s to set, what distinguishes Swift’s activist letter from other forms of celebrity activism is her recognition of the good for being good. Swift does not malign Apple. In fact, she titles the post “To Apple, Love Taylor” and proceeds to express her “reverence” for Apple’s innovation and achievements. This demonstrates an understanding that acting in accordance with the company’s professed philosophy of human progress through new ideas is consistent with trading value for value. Harnessing the power of an artist that leftists and racists should regard as a beneficiary of “white privilege” or being among some inexplicably causeless “one percent” of wealthy millionaires, Swift, who has previously expressed support for Barack Obama, offers a perfectly rational example of selfish activism.

The letter is selfish, as against self-centered (as she points out when she writes that the issue of paying artists “is not about me”, which in this context is true), because in writing it she seeks to gain, keep and advance her values; in this case, the ability of artists to earn money to create. In a wider sense, the successful artist posting such a letter deepens the bond with fans and adds credibility to his brand. Swift’s letter succeeds on a number of levels in dispelling the myth that capitalism and benevolence are incompatible. Swift gains value as described, the struggling, unknown writer gains, her competitors also gain, and so do her patrons, employees and partners. The customer gains with greater funding for all artists which leads to more creation, variety and competition. Apple, too, gains from the compliments, publicity and Swift’s endorsement for the new platform and a better grasp of what top artists want and how they may communicate.

Capitalism is, in fact, win-win.

Taylor Swift’s letter displays an understanding of this principle. She does not seek the unearned. She also does not merely “kill them with kindness”, as a cynic might claim. The letter, praising Apple for allegiance to progress and innovation, is not structured for unearned guilt, vanity or opportunism. Swift’s letter ends with a thought which begins with the word ‘please’ extended as a courtesy, not with an arbitrary demand that Apple has a moral duty to serve others and sacrifice its profit. Swift backs her words with action, withholding her property on principle. This is the essence of good, selfish, rational activism (read my thoughts on activism here) in a dispute among good, selfish, rational men.

Those inclined to flame, troll or otherwise rant against anyone who deviates in the slightest degree from one’s values ought to look at Taylor Swift’s letter and learn from her example. This is activism that succeeds. As Apple executive Eddy Cue posted today on Twitter (and, as I teach in my social media course, social media is a crucial, legitimate tool for selfish communication), after granting Swift’s request: “We hear you, [Taylor Swift]…Love, Apple.” The exchange, namely that they are free to have it, is why I love capitalism.

Cinderella for Home Entertainment

Disney disclosed this week that the year’s best movie, Cinderella by writer Chris Weitz and director Kenneth Branagh, premieres on home video this year on September 15. The movie will be simultaneously released on Blu-Ray, digital high-definition and the studio’s proprietary streaming brand, Disney Movies Anywhere.

Cinderella2015 Bluray smallThis picture, which director Branagh modestly calls “feather light”, ought to be the most anticipated home entertainment event of 2015. Most of this year’s films, thus far, are horrible by comparison to this lush, romantic and radical new movie (read my review here). The soundtrack is also perfect (read my review of Patrick Doyle’s musical score here). For the first time, I plan to write and post a separate review of the home video. Having seen Cinderella several times, I must say I look forward to watching this masterpiece again and owning it for home theater viewing.

Among the planned features are a piece on the fairy tale, bits on costume and making the Palace Ball sequence and an alternate opening scene. I’m told by Disney that director Branagh participates and introduces deleted scenes, too, though exact features vary according to merchandising deals and format. The frantic, unfocused short film “Frozen Fever” may also be included on certain products. Whatever the extras, whether you know and adore the fairy tale or not, the film in this format is its own reward. Those who value and long for the sight of romanticism, glamour and the ideal in motion pictures should save the date and, on September 15, savor seeing this exceptional movie.

Jagged Little Pill at 20

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Rock’s seminal album Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette was released 20 years ago this week. Suitably, I remember my discovery of it as purely organic to my life. I was on the brink of turning 30, early in my career and writing about the news, sports and culture for a newspaper. I went dancing one night at a club near downtown Glendale with a co-worker from the newsroom. When the first single, “You Oughta Know”, started softly before unleashing cathartic expressions with strong, rising vocals and Dave Navarro’s looping guitar licks, I knew the song was part of something larger.

It was and it is and Jagged Little Pill ages well. Its brilliance lies in perfect craftsmanship as pop. Lyrics and music are highly intimate and introspective, yet, thanks to co-writer and producer Glen Ballard, the album is remarkably well made and accessible to general audiences.

Each song is a journey and a gem; like a careful, thoughtful step in the artist’s personal progression delivered, shared and expressed with precision, realism and an unyielding desire to grow, to live life to the fullest—for more of the best of everything. In essence, Jagged Little Pill relishes one’s greedy little thoughts on life.

I know that it’s not more complicated than that. Its tunes can, like some of my favorite pop, jazz and rock, be trite, cliched and tidy, which some people can’t stand. But each song, written or co-written by Morissette, contains insight and wisdom and is expressed with originality, honesty and sincerity, rare qualities in pop music, especially in the mid-1990s. Grunge, rap and filth came online back then (some of it with talent) and this encompasses some of Alanis Morissette’s vulgar lyrics, when the world’s bloodiest century was coming to a close and, while no one talked about it, it was abundantly clear that the West’s worst enemy was coming to attack.

The era’s Clintonian malaise and melancholy, or as Smashing Pumpkins put it, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, was everywhere, in the haunting “Disarm” and “1979”, in Soul Asylum’s heart-wrenching “Runaway Train” (1993) and in tunes by Goo Goo Dolls, Nirvana, Tori Amos and others. Alanis Morissette, contrary to the conventional notion that she was propelled by being an angry young woman, was different; in her upright “Hand in My Pocket” and other songs, while hard-edged rock is the genre, Alanis names the negative to become and stay positive.

The album’s unspoken theme is discovering the virtue of selfishness. Every line, thought, musing and idiosyncratic phrasing upswells toward personal growth and enlightenment with the singer-songwriter as the proper beneficiary of her own actions. She is an egoist, not an altruist. From her opening statement of awareness that the world—and this is the age of O.J. Simpson getting away with murder—is in deep trouble to the knowing, rational counsel to “swallow it down” and accept that life’s unfair in “You Learn”, Alanis goes by reason, not faith. She laments lies in “Forgiven” and croons in “Head Over Feet” about a man who offers her the promise of “something rational”. She is driven by her values, chosen values, including trying to help a lost friend in “Mary Jane” and make sense of her past to make a better future in “Ironic”, an often maligned or mocked and tragically underrated song about realignment with reality.

Jagged Little Pill is not a romantic record, with songs of bitter rejection such as “Right Through You” and “Wake Up”. But Alanis always ends up finding, or striving to find, the good and feeding it. This is a good idea 20 years later and will be 20 years from now, too, whether one is free to listen to music, including an album as free-wheeling as this record is, let alone debate its merits.

So, I’m glad I danced to “You Oughta Know” 20 summers ago, glad I bought the compact disc and played it over and over and packed it when I went to Europe and was almost booked on TWA 800—isn’t it ironic?—and had it to come home to so I could listen, enjoy and think about its meaning for years to come. I’m glad I saw Alanis perform in concert in Irvine when all she had was Jagged Little Pill.

I’m also glad I’ve followed Alanis Morissette in the intervening two decades. I don’t mind one bit if her Jagged Little Pill is 13 tunes of a well-produced, pop-rock middle finger at the status quo in the closing days of the 20th century. This is an outburst of outrage displayed to find the good, at a time when what was wrong with the world ought to have been evident to everyone and wasn’t. The world has gotten worse in the 20 years since Alanis Morissette’s biting Jagged Little Pill went on sale. Whatever the artist’s intention, her hugely successful album exists as an impassioned outcry against what went wrong, seeded with lessons in setting it right and the hard, fierce and unmistakable vow to never swallow poison without a fight.

Click here to buy Jagged Little Pill.

Related readings


Review: Alanis Morissette, Havoc and Bright Lights

Review: Sam Smith, In the Lonely Hour

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