Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Laurel and Hardy-A Chump at Oxford (1940)

This is our first Laurel and Hardy post. It has taken us a while to get to one of the greatest comedy teams of all time. Stan(1890-1965) and Ollie (known affectionately as Babe) (1892-1957) will be back for many more posts. Along with the 3 Stooges, they are personal favorites and I am proud to be a member of the Boston Brats chapter of the Sons of the Desert (the Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society).

A Chump at Oxford is one of my favorite L & H features and the penultimate made for Hal Roach studios, their home studio and scene of their best comedies. (the 1941-5 features made for Fox and MGM were sadly below average). In high school , I smartly used this film as an essay in English and recieved an A for it (one of my few As-it payed to review Stan and Ollie). While we have much of the patented L & H slapstick, we also get an interesting role for Stan as he gets to use a new persona as Lord Paddington towards the film's climax.

Before we sample some of the film's highlights , here are some backround points of interest. The film was originally released as a 42 minute featurette , then expanded to 63 minutes , (for European release) adding the pre- Oxford employment sequences. The creative talent involved was top-notch. In 1941 the full version was released in the states.
The director , Alf Goulding was an ex-vaudevillian who introduced Hal Roach to Stan's talents back in 1918. He was a personal friend of Stan , however this was his first directorial job with the boys.

The screenplay was by three comedy pros. Harry Langdon , a comedy superstar of the 20s now reduced to shorts and writing assigments had worked an 2 previous L &H comedies. Charley Rogers , was another comic/writer and a fellow countryman of Stan's. He had on many of the Roach films. Felix Adler was a veteran gagman and worked for years at Columbia with the 3 Stooges and other comics. The title was a takeoff on a popular Robert Taylor film , A Yank at Oxford.

The cast had many familiar faces. At Oxford , one of the boys' favorite foils Charlie Hall was aboard (as a student!) along with Forrester Harvey (their valet, Meredith) , a young Peter Cushing and Wilfred Lucas (the warden in Pardon Us) as the dean. In the earlier scenes two old favorites , Anita Garvin and James Finlayson returned as the Van Deveres , the boys' employers. (they both went back to the Roach silents and were comedy pros). We also had the bonus of the wonderful music of Marvin Hatley , always a highight in a Roach film.(a few touches of swing music pop up along with the usual breezy score).

We open with the boys riding in style in the back of a chauffeured limo. It turns out the chauffeur is giving them a lift. After a catastrophe trying to ride on the back of a water truck the boys arrive at the Employment office in the back of a wrecker. The only jobs available call for a butler and maid at the Vandevere party. Ollie grabs the assignment and Stan is recruited to play Agnes the maid as he did in Another Fine Mess (1930) which also featured James Finlayson. The boys are met with dubious reactions by the Vandeveres, but they're in a bind and decide to give them a try. The folowing sequences borrow from L & H's silent classic From Soup to Nuts using some classic kitchen and servant gags. Ollie's efforts at seating the guests turns into a mele while Stan makes the error of following Finlayson's orders to take those cocktails (he gets himself drunk) and serving the salad undressed (in his underwear!). Finally Fin can take no more and escorts the boys out of the house with his rifle-his shot hits an unsuspecting cop! (L & H regular Harry Bernard).

The boys' next job is as sanitation workers. As they take a lunch break outside a bank , Stan's errant banana peel causes a bankrobber to trip during his getaway , making the boys heroes. (this is a great way of using one of the oldest gags in the book). Their reward is an education at Oxford and here is where we start the original film.

On arriving at Oxford , the boys are put thru a series of pranks by the aforementioned "students". First they are sent thru a maze of shruberry that leads to their quarters. The maze provides some fun gags and of course a "spook" appears to scare them off and we get the old extra hand gag (the spooks' hand lighting up Stan's pipe, twiddling thumbs, etc.). Finally the boys find their quarters , only it turns out to be the Deans' rooms. The boys have some fun with a seltzer bottle , trying to squirt the Deans' picture only to have the real Dean step in. A fight with the Dean ensues climaxing in a pillow fight and the "students" getting found out for their pranks on Stan and Babe.

The students promise to get revenge on L & H , who finally get their proper rooms. Their valet , Meredith regonizes Stan as Lord Paddington , the schools' greatest athlete and scholar who dissapeared years ago. Ollie gets a good laugh over this! When the students come after the boys Stan gets conked on the head by his window and in his daze assumes the persona of Lord Paddington! He quickly dispatches the nasty students out said window including Ollie who leaves a sizable hole in the ground - the Dean winds up in the hole with Ollie.

The last part of the film has great acting from Stan as he gets to ham it up as the stuffy , sarcastic Lord. Ollie has been made his "lackey" and the Dean fusses all over the return of his Lordship. Ollie's exasperation is classic! When the Lord gets to critical of Ollie's abilities and double chins , Ollie prepares to leave for the states. When Stan gets conked on the dome once more he returns to his simple character , much to Ollie's delight! The last shot has Ollie laughing in delight ,embracing Stan and checking his chin! These moments show the wonderful humility and lovable characters that were Stan and Babe. This is what made their films so special.

After Saps at Sea (1940) , L & H left Roach. Roach had been downsizing his comedy roster and was concentrating on features. Stan and Babe wanted to form their own production company.

Sorry to say they were eventually signed up with Fox and MGM for some dismal films without the care and love that Hal Roach gave them. These assembly-line comedies treated the boys as pure simpletons and had none of the humility of the Roach films. Thankfully , the bulk of their films were made for the Roach banner and contain their best work. There will be more to come.
A Chump at Oxford is available on DVD from Amazon. Sad to say , not many of the Hal Roach product is available on DVD , let's hope that will corrected in the future.

Till next time , Keep Laughing.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Ira Ironstrings plays Santa Claus (1959)

This Christmas post will celebrate a personal favorite Christmas album and a wonderful series of recordings by the infamous Ira Ironstrings on Warner Bros, Records.
This series featured great jazz playing and clever swinging arrangements with a touch of Spike Jones' comedy. For years the identity of Ira Ironstrings was unknown but now we know that it was Big Bandleader/Guitar Great Alvino Rey doing some moonlighting. Rey was under contract to Capitol records and created the Ironsides persona as a way to make these fun, swinging albums. (Alvino had a great sense of humor). Alvino plays banjo on these sides , the rest of the players are unknown but have to be a core of the Hollywood studio pros-the musicianship is superb! Warren Barker handled much of the arranging and I suspect guitarist Jack Marshall might have also had a hand- some of the charts sound like his work for other albums.

There's a lot of dixieland, swing ,banjo and plenty of slap-mallet vibe work.(Whoever the player was, he got a workout on the sessions-Emil Richards, a top studio pro has been suggested) . The comedy is subtle but still in the Spike Jones' style-It really comes into play on the Christmas album.(Subtitled-Christmas Music For Those Who Have Heard Everything). I first discovered this album during a stint at a local music store. The owner loved this album and played it during the holidays-I borrowed it and made a cassette copy and now am delighted to have the CD from Collector's Choice Music. Dave Kapp's exellent liner notes echo his own childhood fascination with this album.

The original cover is reproduced with Santa tied down ala Gulliver by irate citizens! The original liner notes are also here-they were always a highlight of the Ironsides series. Despite the humor and bogus persona we get a lot of great jazz and amazing playing by Alvino and his studio pros.
I'm sure some of the usual suspects would include Mannie Klein, Shorty Sherock and John Best-trumpets , Si Zenthner,Abe Lincoln and Moe Scneider-trombone , Skeets Herfurt, Babe Russin, Matty Matlock (who also contributed some of the arrangements) and Gus Bivona-reeds , Ray Sherman or Lou Busch,piano(Lou produced this album-better known as Joe "Fingers" Carr, he guested on another Ira lp) , Morty Corb, bass and perhaps Nick Fatool or Alvin Stoller, drums. If anyone has info. on the personell (especially the mystery vibes man) I'd love to hear from you.

Now on to some of the many musical highlights:
Let it Snow-We get off to a swinging start with a neat riff on the familiar melody. Next is a Dixieland passage (the soprano sax sounds a bit like George Probert from the Firehouse 5) followed by the vibes (a fixture of the Ira sound) , with swinging backround, some growl trumpet, bass clarinet , back to the unison and a dixie ending.

Jingle Bells Stomp-The dixie group opens up followed by bass clarinet backed by sleigh bells, slap vibes, more dixie and back to the bass clar. and bells.

Skater's Nightmare (Waltz)-This is one of the wildest cuts and has popped up on Music Choice on Cable channels. We start with trombone lead backed by tricky piano noodling and growl trumpet. Alvino's banjo handles the verse , a band interlude brings on the vibes(always swinging in 4/4) , unison banjo/vibes on the verse with more trumpet growls and a wild drum break. An all-out band chorus brings back Alvino for the verse, a touch of tympani and dixie finish. All in 2 and a half minutes!.

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus- Shuffle Rhythm opens with trombone lead and wa-wa trumpet. Next is the dixie band and vibes followed by a mellow trumpet (or flugelhorn) solo. A bit of growl trombone, soprano and dixie finish with a Lawrence Welk ending!

Christmas is for the Birds!-An original , probably by Alvino and/or Barker. Lots of sleigh bells, flutes and bird calls. Banjo takes the bridge with some Spike Jones effects , some dixie , a chimes interlude incorporating other Xmas tunes then back to the theme , a unison bridge , touch of banjo and dixie finish with a birdcall coda. Lots of Fun!

Deck them Halls- Two guitars in harmony open with the theme (probably Alvino) backed by bells. Some dixie follows , chimes lead to banjo/vibes unison with some dirty Spike Jones-ish trombone (perhaps Abe Lincoln?). More vibes , dixie and back to the 2 guitars for a fugue ending. A real clever chart.

Over the River (And thru the Woods)- We open with dixie and the familiar vibes followed by a cute unison riff ,more dixie a chimes break and dixie to the coda. A neat twist on a real Christmas oldie.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer- Bass clarinet states the melody with cute band answers , a banjo bridge , touch of flute then into the dixie chorus with some honky tonk piano(probably Lou) and soprano sax. Back to the Bass Clar. and the vibes ride out the coda.

Frosty the Snowman- A dixie intro followed by more honky tonk piano , the dixie band (vibes and banjo on bridge) and a neat unison passage by the band. Some more hokey trombone and back to the piano and dixie band with a neat modulation.

Sleigh Ride- The Leroy Anderson favorite gets a swinging ride by Ira and pals. Banjo/vibes state melody with trombone playing the counter melody with growl trumpet on bridge. On the second chorus the next theme is played in unison with some banjo licks , more drum breaks and a dixie finale with banjo on the bridge and coda.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town- We wrap things up with a mellow version of this perennial. Bass clarinet has a clip-clop figure while banjo/vibes state melody backed by bells with wa-wa trumpet. Next is dixie with vibes on bridge and back to unison melody with bas clar. having the last say.

We hope this review inspires you to pick up this very special and un-traditional Christmas album. Hopefully we will see more Ironstrings albums reissued. There are great titles such as Ira Ironstrings plays for People with $3.98 , Destroys the Great Bands , Plays with Matches and Meets Joe "Fingers" Carr-Together for the Last Time Vol.1.
These albums are a testament to the musical talents and humor of Alvino , his arrangers and top sidemen.

Happy Holidays.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Billy Butterfield: "Conniff Meets Butterfield"--"Just Kiddin' Around"

Our recent Bob Crosby post (11/1/09) lauded the talents of trumpeter Billy Butterfield (1917-88). Billy was a consummate jazzman, lead and section man which made him extremely valuable in the world of big bands, traditional jazz and swing.

These two albums recorded for Columbia in 1959 and 1963, respectively, show his beautiful tone and jazz feel, even in a more commercial setting. Conniff Meets Butterfield reunites Billy with his old buddy from the Bob Crosby band, Ray Conniff (1916-2002). Ray, an excellent trombonist (more on that later) and arranger, had hit it big at Columbia with a simple but effective series of vocal albums featuring his Singers backed by tasty arrangements usually with rhythm section backing.

The 1959 session is a trumpet showcase for Billy playing a series of popular standards backed by Ray's rhythm and catchy charts. Many of the tunes utilize the shuffle rhythm made so popular by Jonah Jones over at Capitol records. The one constant is Billy's huge, gorgeous tone whether muted or open. His jazz ideas are given free reign even though this is essentially an easy listening album. Personally, this album was an early exposure to great trumpet playing and still evokes happy memories. Here are some highlights:

Most of the tunes have Billy either cup muted or open playing some great standards backed by a rhythm section. Despite the commercial nature of the album Billy gets in great jazz phrasing and licks on all the tunes.

The opener Beyond the Blue Horizon gets off to a great start with shuffle rhythm and Billy's pungent cup muted horn. Billy goes open for the second chorus with nice variations before going up high for a classic ending. The rest of the album doesn't disappoint. Ray's arrangements are sparce, but clever. On You must have been a Beautiful Baby, Billy plays open and has a nice jazz chorus with a catchy riff before reprieving the melody with cup.

Time on my Hands has cup mute melody then Billy plays a nice unison riff with the rhythm. What a Differance a Day Makes opens with Billy in cup then a nice open passage over shuffle rhythm with Louis-like glisses before going out up high.

South of the Border is another swinger with shuffle rhythm, more trumpet-rhythm unison and some more Louis high ones. Billy uses the Ay-ay-ay strain as a coda. Rosalie also swings nicely over shuffle with more glisses (Billy sure knew his Louis) and a repeated ending with a hint of Salt Peanuts. Ray's original A Love is Born (Song of the Trumpet) , is a beautiful, haunting theme , just perfect for the great Butterfield horn. Only one chorus, the theme shows off Billy's control and gorgeous tone. A highlight of the album, for sure. The other tracks , I Found a Million Dollar Baby, Can't we be Friends, All the Things You Are, Oh What a Beautiful Morning and Something to Remember You By all have wonderful Butterfield solos.

The only drawback to the album is a gimmicky echo in the rhythm section that sounds like the drums and guitar are behind the beat. This was the era of hifi/stereo and these effects are very annoying-Too bad it wasn't omitted on the reissue. (It would get worse on the next album).

The follow-up album was Just Kiddin' Around (1963)
and this time Ray added his trombone work to his arranging talents. Ray had broken in as a trombonist with Bunny Berigan, followed by stints with Bob Crosby(where he met Billy), Vaughn Monroe, Artie Shaw and Harry James. His work with Shaw, especially his chart on 'Swonderful, established him as a top arranger and soon his trombone had to take a back seat. (He reworked the sWonderful chart for the Singers and had a hit with it.) Ray was a fine jazz player. His work on a March 1944 Blue Note session with Art Hodes, Max Kaminsky and Rod Cless show what a fine trad/dixie player he was. If he hadn't met with so much success as an arranger, he could have been a major player in the trad circles.

Ray and Billy only team up on 2 selections, the rest of the album has them splitting solo features. On Alexander's Ragtime Band, Billy and Ray duet the first chorus with Billy getting off some nice licks, Ray handles the verse and Billy wails up high on the outchorus with Ray sliding underneath. We even get some quotes from Cornet Chop Suey and Muskrat Ramble-A Great Opener! Just Kiddin' Around is a riff tune from Ray's Artie Shaw days with unison playing by the horns, more shuffle rhythm, trading fours a nice Basie-ish piano bridge and back to the unison. Now on to the features.

Billy's features are in the same format as the earlier album. Put your Arms Around Me is a standout with shufle rhythm and Billy getting off great drive and phrasing. After a modulation he wails the second chorus with a long held note on the coda. This Love of Mine has soaring open horn with a lot of Louis and Bunny like phrasing. On You'll Never Know, Billy gets in some nice Harry James licks in tribute to a fellow trumpet great. Louise and But Not for Me are both tasty renditions.

Ray's features are tasty but not as jazz oriented. However he plays strong and percussive-He obviously had been keeping his chops up. Heartaches, When I Grow Too Old to Dream, You Oughta be in Pictures and Peg O' My Heart are all nicely played with his patented tasty charts.
The lovely ballad I See Your Face Before Me has more of a Teagarden feel and is a jazz highlight.

All in all , these two lps show the greatness of Billy Butterfield as an all-round trumpeter and the dual talents of Ray Conniff. The CD versions are available on Columbia thru Amazon.

Till next time-Keep Swingin'