Thursday, December 20, 2007

Merry Christmas and All That Jazz!

Speaking of Sinatra, ol' Frank had a big hit with the song, "My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)", from the movie, "Robin and the 7 Hoods" back in the early 60's, that portrayed rival mobsters competing for gambling territory. Well, that era of Chicago gangsters was also celebrated in the more recent vintage musical, "Chicago", except that this show exposed the female of the species to be equally as murderous, albeit with a very dark humour to the whole proceedings. Anyway, when they made the film version of "Chicago" just a few years ago, I loved it so much that I think I ended up seeing it about 5 times during its theatrical run. And I've watched it several times since, once it was released on DVD.

Because I enjoyed the film so much, I ended up using it as the inspiration for my Christmas card that year, a practice that I'd been keeping up for over 15 years, though I must shamefully confess I have been remiss in doing one both this year and last, sad to say. (Sorry to everybody on the list - hopefully next year I'll get back to it!) Anyway, here is the Christmas card artwork I did that year of "Chicago", featuring caricatures of its stars, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly, and Renée Zellweger as Roxie Hart. Hey, just gazing at Catherine in her black negligee, stockings and garters certainly says "Joy of the Season" to me!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Happy Birthday Frank!

Yes, Francis Albert Sinatra was born on this day back in 1915.

Don't worry folks, Frank's not winding up to slug ya'. He's just about to roll that lucky seven as he sings, "Luck Be A Lady Tonight". At least that's the song he was singing on the "Sinatra- A Man and His Music - Part II" DVD when I was sketching out this particular pose. Lucky for me, Frank's career is very well represented on DVD, both in his films and, in this particular case, his numerous televised specials from the 60's and 70's. And this is just great with me, as I am a HUGE Sinatra fan! So much so, that I have amassed a fair amount of Sinatra collectibles over the years, many of which can be seen on these display shelves in my own little bachelor den pictured to the left. In addition to the many DVDs, CDs and publications, I've got several original autographs, including the really neat one on the record seen on the top left in the photo, that has some odd little doodle under his signature that I'm thinking may be a quick self caricature.

So why my interest in all things Frank? It started when I was in my twenties, adjusting to early adulthood. Just as Walt Disney (whose own birthday was coincidentally just one week ago) had been such a major figure in shaping my youth and future career pursuits, it was the music of Sinatra that started to really resonate with me as I was beginning to mature. I'd always casually enjoyed hearing him on radio growing up as a kid in the 60's, but now the lyrics and their heartfelt delivery was starting to really mean something in my own life, leading me to more seriously take notice of Frank's artistry. Though certainly a very controversial and complex man, prone to both petty nastiness and immense generosity, what shines through it all is the intense passion and emotion he displays in every song he sings. Sometimes he's the breezy hipster, joyfully swinging through life to the Billy May and Nelson Riddle arrangements that defined much of his 50's output, while at other times he's the guy nursing a broken heart, exposing his hurt and loneliness for all the world to see. Uncannily, even in the various concert footage preserved on video from his TV specials, Sinatra completely immerses himself in the lyrics and emotions of these songs every time, as if he was feeling each of those raw emotions spontaneously for the first time. It never seemed fake, no matter how often he'd performed them - his passion in delivering the lyrics was so genuinely heartfelt. Listening to his "One For My Baby" never fails to elicit an emotional response - it's that powerful a performance. Likewise, as I myself am approaching the age of 50, I take more and more comfort in hearing his bittersweet rendition of "It Was a Very Good Year".

One thing I've always admired about Sinatra was his respect for all the talented songwriters who provided him with his numerous hits through the decades. It was quite normal for him to introduce a song he was about to sing by first crediting the songwriter responsible. He also did the same thing for his regular arrangers. Despite whatever ego Frank likely had as a top entertainer, I believe that deep down he knew that, if not for the songwriters, he would not have been able to enjoy such a long successful career himself. Frank took his music so seriously that he pretty much micro-managed every recording session for his albums, in which he insisted on singing directly with the musicians, as opposed to many other artists who normally came into the studio to lay down their vocals on top of the prerecorded instrumental tracks. For Frank, the music and the words had to be a unified performance to keep it sincere.

As an actor, though, Frank Sinatra's film career is, even by his own admission, rather spotty. After an early career in lightweight MGM musicals, Frank had to fight for the role of Maggio in "From Here to Eternity", to prove his real worth as a serious actor and ended up winning himself an Oscar in the process. Unfortunately, his success in movies was pretty up and down in the years thereafter. I must admit, my favourite Sinatra films are mostly guilty pleasures rather than those that are considered his major achievements by serious film critics. Though I can appreciate his sheer skill in a film like "The Man With the Golden Arm", where he played a card dealer addicted to heroin, I confess I'd rather watch him in far breezier roles in "Pal Joey" or my alltime favourite, "Robin and the 7 Hoods", where he starred alongside his fellow Rat Pack cronies, Dean and Sammy. I like "Ocean's 11" a lot too, but I prefer "Robin and the 7 Hoods" because it's the only Rat Pack movie that's an all out musical. Also it's got Bing Crosby in it, so that's a bonus! Ironically, though, I think the standout performer in that film may be Peter Falk as the nefarious Guy Gisbourne, the rival Chicago mobster trying to eliminate Sinatra's Robbo. Falk is just hilarious in the role, many years before he gained greater fame as TV's "Columbo".

Being the cantankerous rascal that he was, I think Frank too often proved hard to work with in the movies, often refusing to do more than one take, no matter who was directing him. Music definitely was his main passion, with his film work not always getting his best effort. Too bad, since he produced some great work when it did get his full attention. Mostly, though, I'm a fan of Frank Sinatra the singer, and I don't think anyone can ever top his body of work. Frank left us an incredible legacy of music for which I am eternally grateful. It sure gets regular play on my stereo, anyway...

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Happy Birthday Walt!

On this day, December 5th in 1901, Walt Disney was born. Though he may not have invented film animation, Walt Disney, more than anyone else, took it from being a mere novelty to an artform of the highest level, as well as a major American popular entertainment medium. I'm not going to attempt any history here on either the man or his legacy, as you'll find much more authoritative assessments by the likes of Mike Barrier, Leonard Maltin and John Canemaker, but I do want to offer up this one thought. Walt Disney has been called a "genius" by many and I am not going to dispute that in the least. However, I've always felt that much of that genius was due to Walt's basic common sense and good judgment. I am certain that the main thing that directed Walt was his own personal taste in art and entertainment. He likely believed that anything he enjoyed and found appealing would likewise be enjoyed by many other people the world over. I doubt that he spent much time trying to second guess the viewing public or by conducting demographic studies, as so many of today's studio brass do. As such, all of the films that were produced by his studio during his lifetime seem to convey much of what Walt personally believed in. I don't think we see that kind of personal sensibility at work very often in today's films.

On a personal note, I must credit Walt Disney and his filmed animation legacy with being the catalyst that started me on the straight and narrow path to my own career as a cartoonist. Though I have many artistic influences, it is the Disney classic animated features that remain my first love. Though the stories are always well crafted, for me it is the sense of characterization that I associate with the classics that I most respond to on an emotional level. There is still nothing more magical to me than a cartoon drawing that seemingly comes alive up on the silver screen. This thrill has never waned in a lifetime of viewing the work of Walt's talented animation staff. My favourites include "Pinocchio", "Fantasia", and of course the film I recently wrote about, "The Jungle Book", which was the last film to bear Walt's personal stamp.

Here's a clip from the Disneyland 10th Anniversary show, where Walt plays tour guide to Julie, his latest Disneyland ambassador. What I love about this show is how playful Walt is as he shows off his latest attractions concepts. You can see that Walt is so happy showing off the handiwork of his WED Imagineers including, in this clip, Mary Blair. As one of the lucky kids who grew up with these shows, this is how I like to best remember Uncle Walt: