Friday, September 13, 2019

Chart Song Cinema: Ryan's Daughter (1970)

Robert Mitchum's facial expression on the movie poster, a bit more puzzlement than dismay, sums up the critical reaction to Ryan's Daughter and probably those of most viewers. The otherwise celebrated British director David Lean asked for over three hours of audiences' time to tell this generally unhappy tale set in a nationalist village on the Irish coast circa 1917, where idle, slow-evolving citizens dwell. More spirited than any of them is a publican's daughter named Rosy (Sarah Miles), who marries the low-key teacher, a widower who is oddly cast but played admirably by Mitchum.

Rosy's bubbling youth finds more age-appropriate physical release in a shell-shocked British soldier played by Christopher Jones (Wild in the Streets), who is an eerie, android-like character that makes maybe twenty short utterances. Word about the affair gets out, local outrage simmers, and when an effort by the villagers to aid a band of Irish gunrunners goes awry, Rosy becomes their scapegoat and they mob her, shaving her head and tearing off her clothes. After this, Mitchum nonetheless finds it in his heart to forgive his humiliated wife. His goodness serves, ostensibly, as the film's moral center. Or maybe it's the common-sense humanity of Father Collins (Trevor Howard), or the impressionable classroom children, or the ever-beautiful Irish landscape.

Much legendry exists about Jones's unpleasant experiences shooting this film (getting drugged by Lean and Miles; a resulting auto accident; impatience and friction with Lean; having his voice dubbed; and grieving over news of Sharon Tate's murder) which prompted him to quit show business entirely. Director Lean almost did too, waiting fourteen more years before directing another feature film (A Passage to India in 1984).

Among the themes locating Ryan's Daughter at the turn of the decade were political complexity and frustration, sexual liberation and frustration, andperhaps a bit more below the surfacethe innocence of children and their subjection to the dramas of adults. The classroom scenes with Mitchum and his pupils are few, but they linger because they lift your spirits, however moderately, the way few other scenes in the production do. They also give insight into the character of Rosy, who had fallen for Mitchum's character as one of his former students.

The music in Ryan's Daughter is what makes me, especially, pull Mitchum's poster face. David Lean had apparently requested that composer Maurice Jarre, who'd also done the scores for Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), bring forth no overtly Irish musical signifiers. (Was this an effort to distance the project emotionally from the real-life tensions simmering in Northern Ireland at the time?) The theme Jarre delivered, then, feels like continental schlager, in the vein of "Mack the Knife" or "Those Were the Days," lending a musical incongruence that discourages any melancholic sympathy.

A 1971 album by the Mike Curb Congregation called Burning Bridges and Other Great Motion Picture Themes included two selections from Ryan's Daughter with a fresh set of lyrics written by Curb and Mack David. The film's main title appeared as "It Was a Good Time (Rosy's Theme)" along with "Where Was I When the Parade Went By? (The Major)." The former played well as a new popular vocal standard. Although Eydie Gorme, a Billboard chart regular since 1953, had the only Billboard charting version (Easy Listening #23 in 1971), Liza Minnelli gave it prominent airtime in her 1972 TV special Liza with a Z. 

"It Was a Good Time (Rosy's Theme)" (1970) - Eydie Gormé

Written by Maurice Jarre (music), Mike Curb (lyrics), and Mack David (lyrics) * Produced by Don Costa * LP: It Was a Good Time * 45: "It Was a Good Time (Rosy's Theme)" / "Rosy's Theme" (Don Costa) * Label: MGM * Charts: Billboard Easy Listening (#23)

"It Was a Good Time" made an easy argument for its suitability in any cabaret with its Italian musica leggera vibe and can-can cadence. (The seagulls and tide during the intro are the only elements acknowledging Ryan's Daughter's Irish coastal setting.) Gormé stayed in the spirit for her follow-up single, a non-charting version of Danyel Gerard's popular schlager singalong "Butterfly." The 45 flipside for "It Was a Good Time" contained a rare, vinyl-only instrumental version, titled "Rosy's Theme" and credited to producer Don Costa.

Gormé would reprise the song in a different version with her husband Steve Lawrence for their World of Steve and Eydie album in 1972. Here they would sing songwriter Hubert Ithier's French lyrics as "Rose D'Irlande" before singing it through as "It Was a Good Time" in English.

"It Was a Good Time (Rosy's Theme)"

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Chart Song Cinema: Bless the Beasts and the Children (1971)

The biggest musical curiosity in Bless the Beasts and the Children, Stanley Kramer's film version of a novel by Glendon Swarthout, is an early appearance of what came to be known as "Nadia's Theme." Listed as "Cotton's Theme" on the soundtrack, that hypnotic melody gives the proceedings a dusky pathos, even playing in an uptempo arrangement to accompany a buffalo stampede. The movie depicts six adolescent misfits, victims of short-sighted parenting who become known as the humiliation-prone "bedwetters" at an Arizona boys camp. After witnessing a population-control buffalo shoot, they sneak out in the night on an adventure to set the beasts free, with tragedy lurking near the end in proper bummer film-era fashion.

Although Bless the Beasts and the Children resonates loudest as a general study in societal ills, a clearer-cut anti-war moral does struggle to emerge. The boys journey like a rag-tag military cavalry on horseback and also in a rusty jeep, with an angst-ridden ringleader named Cotton who wears an army helmet and addresses them as "men." (Lost in Space-vet Billy Mumy is the coolest of these kids, with his deadpan, mistrustful gaze; Miles Chapin seems based on the 1969 Hardy Boys cartoon character "Chubby," even appearing at one point wearing an ascot.) The Vietnam War looms largest as a parallel, with the boys aiming to rescue a weaker ally in spite of unforeseen complexity. Mere absurdity, too, functions reliably as an allegorical ingredient.

The Carpenters' theme song, written by Barry DeVorzon and Perry Botkin, Jr., is a solid entry in the early '70s hit parade of childhood awareness, a glaring counterpoint during the early upsurge of Me Generation cultural behavior. "The world can never be the world they see," go the lyrics, with musical accompaniment that sounds clearly elegiac, if not funereal. (You can read more about the era's pronounced interest in childhood in chapter 1 of my book, Early '70s Radio.) By the time this song had appeared as the B-side of their "Superstar" single, the Carpenters had become well-established sovereigns in the new realm of soft-rock, where the young adult expressions and concerns of the post-sixties could foster and abide. This sort of balladry had long-reaching influence. Listen to how the melody resolves at the end of each verse in "Bless the Beasts and the Children" and see how it reminds you of Lionel Richie and Diana Ross's "Endless Love," which came out a full decade later.

"Bless the Beasts and the Children" found enough radio traction to peak at #67 on the Billboard Hot 100, riding on the fumes of its movie placement and its hit A-side, which peaked at #2. The soundtrack album included a version with a vibraphone intro, which is different from the oboe intro on the versions the Carpenters would otherwise release on 45 and LP. The vibraphone version, with its blurry, tear-in-the-eye sound, has the more emotional effect.

"Bless the Beasts and the Children" (1971)
The Carpenters

Written by Barry DeVorzon and Perry Botkin, Jr. * Produced by Jack Daugherty * Arranged by Richard Carpenter  * 45: "Superstar" / "Bless the Beasts and the Children" * LP: Bless the Beasts and the Children (soundtrack); A Song for You (1972) * Billboard charts: Hot 100 (#67), Easy Listening (#26) * Entered: 1971-11-27 (peaked in 1972)

"Bless the Beasts and the Children"

"Bless the Beasts and the Children" (soundtrack version)