Extempore

https://www.flickr.com/photos/tom-margie/1535708412
Image: Flickr

We never did stop ad libbing. No two performances were ever quite the same. One matinee, during the second month in New York, I cooked up a little surprise for Groucho. During one of his quieter scenes, while I was offstage, I selected a blond cutie from the chorus, and asked her if she’d like a bigger part in the show. She was willing and eager. I told her all she had to do was run screaming across the stage. She did, and I tore after her in full pursuit, leaping and bounding and honking my horn. It broke up Groucho’s scene, but when the laughs subsided, Groucho was ready to top it. ‘First time I ever saw a taxi hail a passenger,’ he said.

— Harpo Marx, Harpo Speaks!, 1961

Motivation

wyoming state penitentiary all stars

Felix Alston, the baseball-obsessed warden of the Wyoming State Penitentiary, wanted his prison’s team to be the best possible. So in 1911 he told his players that so long as they kept winning they would receive stays of execution.

The All Stars were murderers and rapists sentenced to death; they entered and left the field chained together in irons. But in 1911 death sentences were usually carried out within a few months, and the warden’s offer apparently had a strong effect: Between March 1911 and May 1912, the team won 39 of their 45 games.

It couldn’t last. The state supreme court justice who helped arrange the stays (and profited by his bets) came under increasing pressure to carry out the sentences, and when star shortstop Joseph Seng was hanged on May 24, 1912, the team’s winning streak came to an end. In the months that followed, one player escaped, five were hanged, and five were gassed to death. By 1916 the team was a memory.

Podcast Episode 246: Gene Tierney’s Secret Heartbreak

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GeneTierneyLeaveHerToHeavenTrailerScreenshot1945.jpg

At the height of her fame in 1943, movie star Gene Tierney contracted German measles during pregnancy and bore a daughter with severe birth defects. The strain ended her marriage to Oleg Cassini and sent her into a breakdown that lasted years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Tierney’s years of heartbreak and the revelation that compounded them.

We’ll also visit some Japanese cats and puzzle over a disarranged corpse.

See full show notes …

Recycling

For a cocktail party scene in the 1966 Star Trek episode “The Conscience of the King,” composer Joseph Mullendore wrote a subdued version of the series’ main title … which means that the Star Trek theme music exists in the Star Trek universe.

Stirred, Not Shaken

The 1967 version of Casino Royale, starring David Niven, set an unlikely milestone: Its soundtrack album became famous among audio purists for the quality of its sound.

“The legend is that the original master tape had ‘mad’ levels on it,” audiophile Harry Pearson told the New York Times in 1991. “Once the meters pass zero, it means that you’re saturating the tape and running the risk of distortion. On ‘Casino,’ they used a supposedly very fancy grade of tape, and the engineers really pushed it, so the meters were typically running deep into the red — plus one, plus two, plus three, plus four.” The result is an extremely wide dynamic range.

A particular high point is Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” (Track 2). Springfield recorded her vocal in a “tiny isolation booth, so on a really good system, you can hear her voice emerging from what sounds like a little hole in space. She’s not part of the general orchestral acoustic, and once your system gets to a certain point, you can hear that.”

Pearson said the soundtrack came to serve as a benchmark at Absolute Sound, the audiophile bible he founded in 1973. “Whenever we get a piece of equipment that we think is setting new records, out comes ‘Casino,'” he said. “The better your system gets, the more you get out of that album.”

(Thanks, Allen.)

Podcast Episode 237: The Baseball Spy

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MoeBergGoudeycard.jpg

Moe Berg earned his reputation as the brainiest man in baseball — he had two Ivy League degrees and studied at the Sorbonne. But when World War II broke out he found an unlikely second career, as a spy trying to prevent the Nazis from getting an atomic bomb. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Berg’s enigmatic life and its strange conclusion.

We’ll also consider the value of stripes and puzzle over a fateful accident.

See full show notes …

Inspiration

https://archive.org/stream/TheMakingOfKingKongByOrvilleGoldnerAndGeorgeETurnerStarbrite/The_Making_Of_King_Kong_by_Orville_Goldner_and_George_E_Turner_%28Starbrite%29_djvu.txt

In planning the lighting and atmosphere for Skull Island in 1933’s King Kong, animator Willis O’Brien relied heavily on Gustave Doré. In 1930 special effects expert Lewis W. Physioc had said, “If there is one man’s work that can be taken as the cinematographer’s text, it is that of Doré. His stories are told in our own language of ‘black and white,’ are highly imaginative and dramatic, and should stimulate anybody’s ideas.”

“The Doré influence is strikingly evident in the island scenes,” write Orville Goldner and George E. Turner in The Making of King Kong (1976) (click to enlarge). “Aside from the lighting effects, other elements of Dore illustrations are easily discernible. The affinity of the jungle clearings to those in Dore’s ‘The First Approach of the Serpent’ from Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ [left], ‘Dante in the Gloomy Wood’ from Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy,’ ‘Approach to the Enchanted Palace’ from Perrault’s ‘Fairy Tales’ [right] and ‘Manz’ from Chateaubriand’s ‘Atala’ is readily apparent. The gorge and its log bridge bear more than a slight similarity to ‘The Two Goats’ from ‘The Fables’ of La Fontaine, while the lower region of the gorge may well have been designed after the pit in the Biblical illustration of ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den.’ The wonderful scene in which Kong surveys his domain from the ‘balcony’ of his mountaintop home high above the claustrophobic jungles is suggestive of two superb Doré engravings, ‘Satan Overlooking Paradise’ from ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘The Hermit on the Mountain’ from ‘Atala.'”

Good and Ugly

Technical but interesting: Designer Iginio Lardani’s title sequence for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly contains only one error, and it’s in Lardani’s own credit (2:33 above).

“[A]n ‘error’ specific to optical printing caused by improper loading of the footage and mask being composited — Newton’s rings — appears in his title card alongside the text stating ‘TITLES | LARDANI,” notes film historian Michael Betancourt in Semiotics and Title Sequences (2017).

This appears to be an inside joke meant for other title designers. According to his son, Lardani had complete freedom in creating the design. Betancourt writes, “Recognizing this specific ‘error’ in the card stating ‘TITLES LARDANI’ depends on technical knowledge of the optical printing process. … given the technical perfection in the rest of the sequence, it is not just a ‘beginner’s mistake,’ but implies a conscious choice to include this compositing error in the design.”

“It is a joke only comprehensible (even recognizable) by an audience that recognizes the Newton’s rings and understands what they are — an error in the optical printing; this knowledgeable audience specifically includes title sequence designers rather than the general public. … Because it is specifically a specialized, technical mistake, its recognition will be severely limited to his peers — suggesting that they are the ones being addressed by it.”

Set Dressing

William Wellman vowed that his 1927 dogfight movie Wings would contain no stock footage or studio fakery. But after assembling his own planes and film crew, he kept them resolutely on the ground for weeks. When Paramount asked what was missing, he gave them a bewildering answer: clouds.

“Motion on the screen is a relative thing,” he said. “A horse runs on the ground or leaps over fences or streams. We know he is going rapidly because of his relation to the immobile ground.” But a plane alone in the sky may produce no sense of motion at all unless there are clouds around it — and the skies above Wellman’s San Antonio shooting location remained stubbornly clear.

Producer Jesse Lasky later wrote, “There were days on end of perfect sunshine, and our $200-a-week director wouldn’t turn a camera, while overhead mounted at thousands of dollars a day. I confess that we were about ready to yank him off the picture and replace him with someone who would be more amenable.”

In the end they were glad they waited — when the clouds arrived, Wellman’s cameramen took off, and Wings won the first Academy Award for Best Picture.

In a Word

velitation
n. a minor dispute or contest

devel
v. to beat or thrash

herile
adj. pertaining to a master

satisdiction
n. saying enough

Somebody once asked pool hustler Don Willis how good Glen “Eufaula Kid” Womack was.

Willis said, “I never saw him play.”

“What do you mean, you never saw him play? I heard you just beat him out of a lot of money.”

“I did,” Willis said, “but he never got to shoot.”

(From Robert Byrne’s Wonderful World of Pool and Billiards, 1996.)