The Roots of Danny Fisher

March 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

In his review of the new movie “12 Rounds“, Boston Herald critic Stephen Schaefer writes that the main character’s name, Danny Fisher (played by John Cena), is “a tribute to Elvis Presley’s Danny Fisher in the New Orlean’s-set ‘King Creole…”

That may be true, but just to complete the record, Presley’s Danny Fisher is based on the character created by Harold Robbins in his beautifully written “A Stone For Danny Fisher.” This was Robbins’ first novel, I believe, and is probably autobiographical. How a novel that takes places in the poor neighborhoods of Chicago ends up in Louisiana is anybody’s guess, but that’s what happened.

I read somewhere that Robbins had aspirations to be what can lazily be called “literary” but when “Danny Fisher” didn’t sell, he went off and wrote the potboilers he later became so famous for. (“The Carpetbaggers”, “The Betsy” and the like.)

There’s no shame in that. Robbins sold millions of books which were made into blockbuster films and he made a lot of money.

But if you’re curious, go online and find yourself a copy of “A Stone For Danny Fisher”, and you will be treated to an unexpected gem that has, to my mind, one of the most beautiful titles ever.

— Lars Trodson


One Day In the Life of Movie Ads: June 8, 1968

September 12, 2007 § 2 Comments

By Lars Trodson

It’s no secret that movie posters aren’t much fun any more. Very rarely are startling, stylized graphics employed to evoke the mood of the story. More often than not a one sheet is just the bodies or faces of the movie stars Photoshopped together to give the appearance they are in the same room together. Sometimes the faces of the actors have been so smoothed out they barely look like themselves.

It wasn’t always the case. The other day I happened to come across a box of old newspapers from my aunt’s house — I was cleaning out her house after she died a few years ago — and decided to look through it for the first time. I don’t know why they were saved, for the most part they just seemed ordinary. Although there were a couple papers chronicling the death of Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy’s travails at Chappaquidick.

It was in one of these papers, the Burlington Free Press, from June 8, 1968, that I came across a full page of movie ads, the kind of which you certainly don’t see any more. The front page was all about Sen. Kennedy’s assassination in California. I hadn’t heard of most of the movies, even though some of them had big stars. One was “Counterpoint”, starring Charlton Heston and Maximillian Schell — obscure to me — and some others.

But they sure are fun. The tagline for “Counterpoint” is” “Action awaits at trigger point!” And the ads flaunt that the picture is “In Color.” I looked up the film in Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, and it was described like this: “Absurd WW2 melodrama about symphony conductor captured by Nazi general, forced to put on private concert; Heston looks comfortable because he doesn’t have to change facial expressions while conducting.” One and a half stars.

There’s a fun ad for two Disney films: “Monkeys, Go Home” and “The Happiest Millionaire.” I saw that the “Monkeys” picture featured Yvette Mimeux, who I had a huge crush on as a kid. That was playing at the Mt. View Drive In Theatre on Rte. 2 in Winooski, VT. The ads promise Two Disney Blockbusters, with an endorsement from Good Housekeeping that promises a “…zinging, heel-thumping musical made of the magical stuff of ‘Mary Poppins’.” This was for “The Happiest Millionaire”, starring Fred MacMurray and Greer Garson. “Mary Poppins” — I don’t think so.

Maltin’s book describes that movie this way: “Lively but overlong and uninvolving Disney musical (the last film he personally oversaw) about Philadelphia household of eccentric millionaire Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (MacMurray). Lightly entertaining. Originally tradescreened at 164 minutes.”

I guess, at 2 ½ hours, no one wanted to mess with old Walt’s vision of this masterpiece.

There’s an Elvis movie, “Easy Come, Easy Go”, which titillates the audience with the idea of a “scuba-divin’…singin’…and swingin’…” Elvis. That film also featured Dodie Marshall, Pat Priest (you may remember her from “The Munsters”) and Elsa Manchester!

There are a couple of films suggested for “mature audiences.” Sure. That’s a surefire teenaged crowd lure if there ever was one. The first here is “The Sweet Ride”, featuring the debut of Jacqueline Bissett. “Hear those bikes? Somebody musta opened the zoo” says one of the movies multiple taglines. The film also features Bob Denver. I’d love to see that one.

And how about “Maryjane”? Directed by Maury Dexter (never heard of him), it features the singing star Fabian and a bunch of also-rans. Love the come-on, though: “Anyone for pot? 5 high school kids smoked it…See the shocking effects.” There is a picture of a young woman writhing in ecstasy, or maybe fear, in the poster.

One thing I noticed. The State Theatre in Burlington was showing “The Graduate” and it noted that it was suspending matinees on Saturday and Sunday “In respect for Robert F. Kennedy.” I thought that was honorable, and suddenly realized that just yesterday, Sept. 11, nobody, outside of the places where the attacks took place, seemed to stop at all. Business just went on mostly as usual. I wondered why our leaders did not call for a national moment of silence in the morning at the times the planes hit. But they didn’t.

It isn’t just the movies, or their ads, that have changed.


Click on any of the poster images for a larger view.

The American Idol

August 16, 2007 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

I pulled into the driveway on a bight summer afternoon, and I know the driver’s side window was down because my brother Craig came up to the car and he said that Elvis Presley had died. I have no idea what my response was, but I don’t think it was very dramatic. Elvis, at 42, was from an entirely different era. I was listening at the time to Ten Year’s After and Van Morrison and John McLaughlin and Roy Buchanan. I can’t remember who was on the radio in 1977, but it wasn’t Elvis Presley.

Elvis was, after all, my father’s guy. They were about the same age, and even though Elvis had a couple of hits as late as 1970, he seemed a relic. I think the only songs I heard with any regularity were “Hound Dog”, “Jailhouse Rock” and “In the Ghetto.” My reaction to his death came out of the arrogance of youth, and also the reaction of a kid flush with the knowledge that he was about to head off to college, and leave everything he knew behind. The past was the past, man.

I remember no other discussion after that. I do remember, however, the television coverage, and the accolades, and the outpouring of grief. I think, not long after, that a tabloid magazine had a picture of Elvis in his coffin on the cover. That grief I couldn’t access — not the way I could for John Lennon just a mere three years later — but the spectacle was interesting enough.

I remember two things: visiting Graceland and the time I saw Elvis in concert at the Providence Civic Center in 1974. The tickets for that concert were $10 and I went with a childhood friend by the name of Rod Zolmian.

We had seats way up and before the concert — my parents were also there, somewhere — we saw all the women and men. All dressed up. This was like a Vegas show. Everybody’s hair was perfect — all slicked back and in these pink bouffants, and the dresses were flowing. The ladies seemed to me jovial, they laughed easily, and this was a generation that didn’t feel guilty about their drinking or their 100 millimeter cigarettes. These were the men who had come out of World War II, or Korea, or who had perhaps not returned from Vietnam very long before.

I think I know who Elvis was to them: an American kid, polite, but freewheeling, impossibly handsome, loaded with talent. He was the jukebox and the hamburger joint and the drive-in, and he was a long way away from the madness of America in 1974. So it was a happy time at the Providence Civic Center, and even though, at 14, I didn’t understand the phenomenon, I could certainly feel the vibe inside the hall.

A comedian opened for Elvis, and he told a joke I remember. It went something like, “Why is it when you get up to adjust the antenna on your TV set the picture always clears up?” Big laugh. It was that kind of humor, and naturally the references belong to another era entirely. But it must have been a pretty good gig, opening for Elvis.

The band assembled, and “Thus Spake Zarathustra” echoed through the auditorium and Elvis came out in his white spangled jumpsuit. I can imagine the applause was thunderous. He then did this: he strummed his guitar, waited a beat, and said: “That’s all. Thank you very much.” Everyone laughed, and the mood was easy and cool, and then Elvis cruised through his set. He read the words to “My Way” off a sheet of paper. He did a medley of his hits. And then it was over, and I think my parents gave us a ride home.

For years I had the ticket stub to that concert, and I even wrote on the back the date and locale of the concert, but the last time I looked for it in the box I had it in it was gone. I may have showed it to someone, and didn’t put it back. I don’t know. But I wish I had it.

I can only say the music at that concert didn’t come across in the same way that I hear it now. I thought it was a synthetic thing, but now when I hear those old rock and roll hits, I hear something authentic and wonderful. The music seems to me something I like to call as having the sound and feel of things dug out of the earth. Those old songs of Elvis, and Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis don’t sound so much composed as they feel like something plucked out of the air. They were cobbled together from the sounds they all heard in small rooms, and back alleys and barrooms, train stations and hotel lobbies, in jail, at parades, and on the street late at night, and church, and at outdoor revival meetings, and during the shouting matches between two drunk lovers. I don’t hear any of that today, not so much. As I write this I’m listening to a CD called “Cash Sings Cash” and I’m reminded of that all over again.

And of course when I hear the music, I think of that young man whose life turned out so weirdly wrong. You do want to ask Elvis, “What happened? What were you so sad about? What made you do that to yourself?”

I also laugh at how I thought Elvis was a relic. I’m now five years older than he ever got to be, and I hope I have not yet entered into some late-life decrepitude.

Elvis certainly hasn’t. A couple of years ago I was in Memphis, and our little group went over to the Sun Studios, and then to Graceland. It was a beautiful southern day, and we had traveled over the Mississippi River and into the state of Mississippi and through miles and miles of the kind of goddamn poverty you feel should no longer exist, and then we drove over to Graceland. I suppose we did that as a tonic to what we had just seen.

There were crowds of people flowing in and out of Graceland. The house had just been sold to a private company, and the “Today” show was going to do a story the next morning with Priscilla Presley, and we watched a little bit of that in the hotel room.

But outside Graceland — we didn’t want to get on one of the buses to get inside — we looked at the house and lawn, which had patches of brown, and mostly we read some of the uncountable number of inscriptions on the wall in front of the house. I was surprised, in a way, that the house was so accessible. It was right on the main drag, and it really wasn’t all that far from the street.

But mostly I remember what people had written: “We love you, Elvis.” “In our hearts forever.” “You’re the king.” And on and on. Many of the inscriptions were brand new.

I popped open my cell phone and called my parents. My father answered and I said, “Dad, you’ll never guess where I am.” He asked, and I said, “In front of Graceland.” And the reaction on the other end of the line was one of a 70-year old guy who — and this is the magic of the whole thing, really — was suddenly just as young as Elvis was in his burning prime.

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