The Rocking Chronicles
by Tim Van Schmidt
By 1961, I had heard my first hit. That is, James Darren’s “Goodbye Cruel World.” I think it was the faux calliope lines running through the song that caught my ear, but it also has a rollicking melody with some swinging delivery from Darren. Maybe Darren got some help from Walt Disney, too. In 1960, Disney had released “Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus” and there was a kind of circus buzz going on, in my mind anyway.
The flip side of “Goodbye Cruel World” was “Valerie” and my memory of the record includes that song- a standard ballad- which means that at some point, I was playing this 45 at home. This brings up the point that my early influences, as far as pop music goes, had a lot to do with having two older brothers. I would be exposed to the records they were buying probably more than I was listening to the radio. I would have been five years old in 1961, so my oldest brother would have been ten. That may be a little early for him to be a record buyer but it must have started soon after because I distinctly remember “Goodbye Cruel World” being in the collection.
The other song from 1961 that stuck with me early was Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John.” This wasn’t a record I listened to in our house, so it must have been something I heard on the radio. That radio was probably on in my parents’ greenhouse, or maybe in the car on the way to the grocery store.
“Big Bad John” has a compelling story- a man giving his life for many others- a man with a checkered past. Dean’s country drawl and dead-honest delivery carried plenty of weight with my young ears as I took in the story about a rough-cut hero. The record is a spoken-word classic but probably what attracted me more than the succeeding verses was the metallic clink in the background that offset the rhythm, as well as the hushed chorus of voices repeating “Big John” while aiding Dean tell the yarn. And is there a little bit of beatnik in the decision to use bongo drums for the featured rhythm instrument?
The flip side of the “Big John” 45 I fished out of my dusty stack of records is “I Won’t Go Huntin’ With You Jake.” This recording is nothing but country corn, but extremely well arranged and brightly delivered. It’s just a good recording, with savory harmony vocals, plenty of instrumental support and even a banjo solo. It’s delightfully silly.
Once again, while I failed to experience much of the pop music of 1961 back then, I can experience some of it in 2011 thanks to my dusty stack of records. Here’s what else I found in my collection from 1961.
1961 was a golden year for vocal groups. And you don’t have to go beyond The Marcels’ “Blue Moon” to get the best of it. Go ahead and try to transcribe the sounds the Marcels make throughout “Blue Moon.” It all delights the ear, but a lot of it is utter nonsense in terms of everyday language. That, and the rollicking performance, makes “Blue Moon” a creative gem. There’s a point where the voices sound like a calliope and they swoop and soar all over the recording, even giving the spotlight to the bass singer at a key moment.
In addition to “Blue Moon,” 1961 also produced another enduring vocal group record- The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Based on African folk influences, the melody is infectious and the positive motion of the piece is exciting. The flip side of the 45, “Tina,” goes even deeper into African folk influences, but “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” succeeds thanks to the soothing falsetto of the lead voice, the impossibly high voice counterpointing the whole thing and smart pop music sensibilities of the production, jamming all this into a very short, but upbeat celebration.
Let’s also declare that the strong surge of vocal group music in 1961 wasn’t just about the guys. There were the girl groups too and The Shirelles’ 1961 hit “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” tells the same story of romance but from the other side of the coin. The string arrangements behind the fragile lead voice add gravity to a rather serious moment of introspection.
However, the flip side of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”- “Boys”- is much more upbeat. This is one Ringo Starr used to sing in the Beatles- but the Beatles didn’t have a great sax solo like in the Shirelles take. It’s a rocker, letting the girls loose to have some fun.
Other distinctive vocal group records from 1961 includes the Capris’ “There’s a Moon Out Tonight,” Shep and the Limelites’ “Daddy’s Home” and the Jive Five’s “My True Story.”
Another kind of landmark vocal group release of 1961 was the Regents’ “Barbara Ann.” It’s a crowded, busy record, less about vocal tricks and more about just bopping along. It’s a group sing alright, but not so focused on harmony as much as just belting it out. The recording also features one hair-raising sax solo, sliding all over the place.
1961 was an especially strong year for Elvis Presley- maybe he finally hit a stride after leaving the Army in 1960. By 1961, Presley had turned into a first class crooner.
His 1961 hit “Surrender” is an unabashed example of passionate music making. Presley fairly well burns up the mike with his forceful delivery. The whole thing is like the climax to a hot romance movie, which indicates something about what had happened to Presley. He had regressed from a rock and roll demon to a powerful crooner and movie star.
More toned down than “Surrender,” but also effective, is “Blue Hawaii,” the title track to Presley’s 1961 film of the same name. Sure, I’ll call it crooner music- even though some steel guitar weaves in and out of the mix. And it’s effective, too- kind of soothing and syrupy. It’s interesting to note here that while original bad boy Marlon Brando was still challenging authority in 1961 as an outlaw in the movie “One-Eyed Jacks,” Presley had become a beach boy.
Presley’s new found strength as a full-voiced crooner also worked on the 1961 medium tempo hit “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame.” There’s that little bit of trembling in Presley’s voice as he explains the predicament, indicating there’s still some of that restless spirit percolating under the surface of an otherwise pedestrian song.
But hold on- that’s not all there was to Presley in 1961. There was also his first real rock and roll record in years- “Little Sister” This one brings the electric guitar right back up front for a searing back and forth with the vocal. Guitarist Hank Garland goes toe to toe with Presley and the result is an exciting record indeed.
One of the most exciting fresh voices of 1961 was Dion, whose hit “Runaround Sue” was a raucous vocal workout. Dion was no stranger thanks to his work in Dion and the Belmonts, famous for “A Teenager in Love.” “Runaround Sue” has plenty of vocal group elements to it- lots of background vocal parts, setting up the motion of the song as well as counterpointing Dion’s howling- but the real spotlight here remains on Dion’s performance.
The flip side to “Runaround Sue” is “Runaway Girl,” a pedestrian ballad along the lines of the Dion and the Belmonts hit from 1960, “Where or When”- formal and stiff.
But then Dion was right back with another vocal classic in 1961 with “The Wanderer.” The song acts like the other bookend to “Runaround Sue”- the male version of Sue, the guy who has a lot of girls on the string and might not finally hook up with any of them. There is an undeniably rebellious attitude about the tune that holds up well fifty years later.
Pop music seemed to be on the upswing in 1961. Chubby Checker was still making people dance with his new hit “Pony Time,” which starts with the exhortation “Get up!” The “boogady, boogady, boogady, shoop” refrain in the background is just goofy fun.
But also in 1961, Ray Charles left behind the slow blues of “Georgia On My Mind” for the snappy, sassy “Hit the Road Jack,” which features a mature- and humorous- view of male-female relationships. The guy’s got no money and the gal just won’t hear any excuses. She’s tough, thanks to the attitude in Charles’ background singers’ performance.
Just like Joe Jones in the 1960 hit “You Talk Too Much,” Ernie K-Doe expresses some common male feelings in his 1961 hit, “Mother-In-Law.” It’s got a nice, funky medium tempo going, a vocal chorus emphasizing the rhythm and K-Doe’s impatient complaints about his nosey, bossy in-law weaving in and out of it all.
Another “everyman” delivery is on Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya.” Dorsey’s voice is kind of thin but plenty expressive as he’s waiting expectedly for his girl.
On the smoother side, Ben E. King continued to serve up that atmospheric Drifters sound in 1961 as a solo artist. “Spanish Harlem” is almost cinematic in its ambiance. The flip side, “First Taste of Love,” includes a taste of that distinctive “mmmmmm” humming sound King made such a flavorful part of the Drifters’ 1960 hit “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
Bobby Lewis’ “Tossin’ and Turnin'” is as unsettling as King’s “Spanish Rose” is soothing. Lewis nails it on the head as a confused, insomniac lover and the full band and back-up vocal arrangement comes on strong too.
Ricky Nelson was also back with some hits in 1961. Both hits, “Hello Mary Lou” and “Travelin’ Man,” are relatively simple songs, but what makes these records warm is the instrumental arrangements. Added to this is a new maturity in Nelson’s voice. On these records, he’s not a kid anymore.
Del Shannon’s “Runaway” is perhaps 1961’s most challenging record. Not only does it fulfill an interesting song structure, it goes out on the limb instrumentally with a wild keyboard solo.
The strangest 1961 record that emerged from my dusty stack of records, however, was Joe Dowell’s “Wooden Heart (Muss I Denn),” which features lyrics in both English and German.
Those crazy country guys- they’re always playing the field. At least the guy in Leroy Van Dyke’s 1961 hit “Walk On By” is. Despite being “promised to another,” this guy can’t wait to get in the back booth with his new flame again. But he’s not serious enough to go public with it. Still, he tries to hang on, asking her to wait on the corner- a real two-timer.
But it isn’t just the country guys getting wild and crazy over their affairs. Patsy Cline’s 1961 hit “I Fall to Pieces” is a kind of female response to “Walk On By.” The hard luck female in “I Fall to Pieces” doesn’t like her position- which is basically no position as far as the object of desire is concerned- and it’s ripping her up.
Cline’s other 1961 hit, “Crazy,” written by Willie Nelson, isn’t crazy frantic, it’s crazy sad. It’s got a smoothly rolling melody, an easy-going tempo and Cline’s rich voice swells and recedes with the introspective passion of the words.
Another distinctive 1961 country hit was Marty Robbins’ “Don’t Worry (Like All the Other Times).” It’s another one of those love-gone-wrong songs, a bluesy shuffle along the lines of Hank Williams’ “You Win Again.” But then Robbins pipes in some high, lonesome “ohhh, ohhh, ohhhs” and the real surprise kicks in- a deep, fuzzy electric guitar solo in the bridge section, making a bold challenge to just what is an appropriate sound for a country record. Crazy.
More 1961 Records
Brook Benton- Boll Weevil Song
Gary U.S. Bonds- Quarter To Three
Pat Boone- Moody River
Petula Clark- Sailor
Dick Dale- Let’s Go Trippin’
Dick and Deedee- The Mountain’s High
The Everly Brothers- Walk Right Back/Ebony Eyes
Ferrante & Teicher- Exodus
Connie Francis- Where the Boys Are
Etta James- At Last
Bert Kaempfert- Wonderland by Night
Ernie K-Doe- A Certain Girl
Chris Kenner- I Like It Like That, Part 1
Ben E. King- Stand By Me
Brenda Lee- Fool No. 1
Mar-Keys- Last Night
The Marvelettes- Please Mr. Postman
Gene McDaniels- One Hundred Pounds of Clay
Roy Orbison- Crying
Gene Pitney- Town Without Pity
Elvis Presley- I Feel So Bad
Neil Sedaka- Calendar Girl
The Shirelles- Dedicated to the One I Love
* Not Recommended
While my first movie memory comes from the backend of a station wagon at a drive-in theater in 1960- watching “Sink the Bismarck”- my next memory comes from 1961 and it was the quintessential movie magic experience.
Sometime around the holidays at the tail end of 1961- at least I remember it was cold and snowy out- my parents took us to see the Disney hit of the time, “Babes in Toyland,” at a big movie theater in Chicago. I thought it was big, anyhow, and elegant too- my memory brings up an old-style theater with fancy drapes framing the screen. It was exciting just being in the theater and the spectacle of the movie- the colorful toys and fanciful settings- made the experience delightfully mesmerizing.
Added to the movie, our family also shopped at the big department store in Chicago, Marshall Fields, and that day my prize was a stuffed “Babes in Toyland” toy soldier. I still have the soldier, who I named Terry at some point after my best friend and who has accompanied me everywhere I’ve lived. I clutched the soldier on the train ride back to Harvard that night- cold and snowy- and all the way home.
Fifty years later, I just ordered up a DVD copy of “Babes in Toyland” through Netflix and watched it in my living room. My memories of seeing the movie as a child do not include as much of the first part of the movie- the sugary singing and dancing numbers in the Mother Goose town- as much as the action in Toyland. I clearly remember Mary and Tom and the kids looking in the window of the Toymaker’s workshop as well as the tiny Tom opening the toy boxes with the swish of his saber, freeing the toy soldiers to come join in the fight against the dastardly Barnaby. The procession of toy soldiers, tanks, airships and boats is a very vivid memory, as is the attack on Barnaby and his eventual defeat.
All the sequences between the Toymaker and his assistant were also memorable- Ed Wynn is such a distinctive character and the whole bit with the toy machine sticks out. After all, what would be the ultimate golden goose for a little kid other than a toy-making machine, spitting out a dizzying variety of items. The sequences involving the miniaturizing spray, and its antidote, also stood out. What surprised me was that the memories were triggered by the colors in the spray guns. The miniaturizing spray was a bright red. Before the assistant showed up with the restoring spray, I knew that it would be bright green.
Despite the kiddie aspects to “Babes in Toyland,” there are some adult elements to it. Just the situation Mary finds herself in- having to agree to marry the ugly, oily Barnaby- tells a harrowing story of life in the real world. Also, Tom doesn’t just defeat Barnaby, he actually kills him- runs him through with his sword.
What stood out so many years later is the incredibly bright colors that make up just about everything in this production- the landscape, the costumes and even the furniture. It is a bright, gleaming visual treat- perfect for the wondering eyes of a child being treated to a big city holiday experience.
Babes in Toyland ***
Directed by Jack Donohue…1961…106 min…featuring Ray Bolger, Tommy Sands, Annette Funicello, Ed Wynn, Tommy Kirk
More 1961 Movies
One-Eyed Jacks ****
“One Eyed Jacks” is a compelling and unusual western, full of angst and double-dealing. Marlon Brando plays a brooding, dangerously simmering outlaw who is betrayed after a bank robbery in Mexico by his partner, played by Karl Malden. After escaping from prison five years later, Brando goes searching for him to exact revenge.
As it turns out, his former bandit buddy has become the sheriff of Monterrey, California and as the outlaw arrives with a gang set on robbing the bank, the whole movie spins on its heels. The new locale takes this western completely out of the normal expectations for the genre. It’s not often you see six shooters and horses mix with the imagery of huge, rolling ocean waves.
But don’t let the waves fool you- there’s some real savagery in this movie. The bullwhipping scene and the sheriff’s ultimate answer to the problem of the gunslinger- without outright killing him in front of the whole town- is harsh and brutal. So are several of the characters populating the story. The outlaw portrayed by Brandon is also harsh- though he cynically applies smoothness and sentiment when everything is going his way with the senoritas.
Directed by Marlon Brando…1961…141 min…featuring Marlon Brando (as Rio,) Karl Malden (as Dad Longworth,) Pina Pellicer, Slim Pickens.
Master of the World ****
Rating old movies is a challenge because advances in technology, changing production styles and the more developed acting skills common in contemporary movies can make an older production look weak and feel slow. A 21st Century viewer sometimes must work at putting aside modern prejudices to get at the real value of some 20th Century releases.
Such is the case with “Master of the World,” a 1961 sci-fi adventure that overcomes fifty year old production values to convey compelling, even important messages. The whole thing is based on writing by Jules Verne and carries a strong anti-war message.
The snag is that the crazy Captain Robur, played by Vincent Price, has decided that the only way to achieve world peace was through creating and using an ultimate weapon. In this case, that weapon is a flying warship named the Albatross and he bombs the powers of the world into submission. While his mission is noble, the guy is a lunatic. Of course, Price plays the part with serious intent.
What won me over, however, was a single scene where Robur is zeroing in on a real battle in an attempt to stop it. In the process the arms manufacturer who is on the ship as a prisoner is shown looking over the railing and seeing what warfare was like up close. His face shows the horror and shock, a turning point for this arrogant industrialist.
There is also another compelling scene where the captives discuss their options and decide to forfeit their lives in an effort to stop Robur- if they have to. Nothing so dire happens, but this is a dead-serious consideration in the middle of an adventure yarn.
Directed by William Witney…1961…102 min…featuring Vincent Price (as Captain Robur,) Charles Bronson, Henry Hull, Mary Webster, David Frankham, Wally Campo.
The Children’s Hour ***
An immature and vindictive student promotes lies about the two women running a girls’ school. Her inferences that the women are lesbians shocks the community and ruins the lives of the women. More shocking is how the adults allow themselves to believe the manipulative young girl, perhaps indicating that the fear of homosexuality is greater than the suspicion that a well-bred youngster would lie to hurt her teachers.
Directed by William Wyler…1961…107 min…featuring Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, James Garner, Miriam Hopkins, Fay Bainter, Karen Balkin, Veronica Cartwright.
The Flight that Disappeared ***
This is a black and white prop job, literally. “The Flight That Disappeared” is a science fiction fantasy that details the strange goings on around the flight of an airplane headed to Washington DC.
Along the way, the plane, a propeller-driven airliner, starts gaining altitude and does not quit until all the passengers and the crew on the plane have passed out in the thin air. Everyone, that is, except for a trio of scientists, all en route to a major conference about an ultimate weapon. It seems that people of the future have decided to intervene in the past with the development of this weapon.
The whole thing plays like an over-long “Twilight Zone” episode. There is actually plenty of dialogue and a story with a twist that also brings up social issues. Still, at 71 minutes, there is a luxurious amount of time that is given up to the loading of the plane and the cabin service. It’s actually quite quaint- the personal service- considering what in-air service has become 50 years later. There’s even a lounge on the plane where the characters go to have a drink and talk.
Despite the slow pace, “The Flight That Disappeared” builds up dramatically, then it goes further by creating an otherworldly atmosphere in the encounter with the future people. It goes beyond belief, but saves itself by giving the story a nobler purpose- one that rejects weapons of mass destruction.
Directed by Reginald Le Borg…1961…71 min…featuring Craig Hill, Paula Raymond, Dayton Lummis, Gregory Morton, Harvey Stephens, John Bryant, Nancy Hale, Brad Trumball.
The Explosive Generation ***
I’m glad I gave this movie a second chance. I started it one night and despite the novelty of seeing a very young William Shatner in action, I didn’t get very far, then had a hard time getting back to it.
In “The Explosive Generation,” a high school teacher opens up his classroom to a frank discussion of “senior” concerns and when sex hits the top of the list, it disrupts the entire community and threatens the young teacher’s job. The principal ends up firing him and then it gets interesting.
Students involved in the disrupted class step up to bat for their teacher and stage a school-wide protest outside the building, dancing and facing the local authorities. When told to be “seen and not heard,” the students stage a further protest that makes their home basketball game one of the oddest sporting events ever produced- in complete silence.
While the movie as a whole moves as slow as mud, the elements of protest and confrontation with authority are laudable, even important. This isn’t just a suburban student problem, it’s about free speech and that’s a good subject to keep alive.
It’s amusing to see Billy Gray in the movie- otherwise known as the clean-cut teenager from the “Father Knows Best” TV series. Here, he’s a trouble maker- cynical and surly. Also featured is a very young Beau Bridges as one of the teenagers involved in the plot.
Directed by Buzz Kulik…1961…89 min…featuring William Shatner, Billy Gray, Edward Platt, Beau Bridges.
Science gone mad and bad. An overzealous scientist comes back to London after being lost in the African wild for a year. He brings with him some carnivorous plants that he uses to create a serum to make other species grow and a chimp named Konga who becomes his test subject. His lonely assistant goes along with the plan even after murder becomes a part of the equation.
But just like the guy in the cheesy monkey suit, things get out of control and crowds run screaming in the streets from the oversized ape. Actually it is the very last image of the movie- that of Konga, dead on the pavement next to his scientist keeper, but back in his original, smaller form- that is the most compelling of the entire production which includes feeble attempts at special effects, dollhouse settings and overwrought performances.
Directed by John Lemont…1961…90 min…featuring Michael Gough, Margo Johns, Jess Conrad
Doctor Blood’s Coffin **
A slow moving horror work out. Despite the clunky production, there are merits to the creepy story. It is indeed shocking to think of cutting a man’s heart out while he is alive and the movie makes the most of crude special effects. More effective than the transfer of the bloody beating heart, however, are the quick-cut scenes of the victim’s eyes. Setting the movie in an exotic locale- including in an old mine- helps give the scenery texture.
Directed by Sidney J Furie…1961…92 min…featuring Kieron Moore, Hazel Court, Ian Hunter, Kenneth J Warren, Paul Stockman, Andy Alston.
Atlas in the Land of the Cyclops *
A strongman named Maciste matches wits with an alluring evil queen, finds himself in the middle of a tug-of-war contest, wrestles a lion and battles a giant Cyclops in this Italian release. That sounds exciting enough, but the streamed copy I saw was extremely poor in quality, as is the acting and awkwardly staged stunts. In the course of the action, a lot of screen time is given over to muscles, rippling and straining- ho hum.
Directed by Antonio Leonviola…1961…100 min…featuring Gordon Mitchell, Chelo Alonso, Vira Silenti.
Summer and Smoke ****
A clash of ideals begins early for a small town preacher’s daughter and a much less constrained doctor’s son in “Summer and Smoke.”
One of the most poignant scenes in the movie occurs in the beginning sequence. Alma, the preacher’s daughter, is sitting by a fountain as a little girl and John, the doctor’s son, joins her.
The fountain features a sculpture of an angel reaching out cupped hands. Inscribed in the pedestal is the title “Eternity.” The little boy couldn’t care less, but the little girl makes an incredibly wise statement- that eternity is where our souls go to live when our bodies are dead and gone. The boy responds by forcing a kiss, throwing a handkerchief in her face and running off, laughing cruelly.
This kind of disregard sets the tone for the strained relationship they maintain into adulthood. Based on the Tennessee Williams play, this is pretty complicated stuff for what looks like a relatively uncomplicated time.
But the relationship between Alma and John isn’t the only thing that’s complicated. There is also the matter of Alma’s mother who is obviously slipping deeply into dementia. This is a rugged portrayal of dementia- filled with a wide swing of emotions from venomous spite to crushed vulnerability.
“Summer and Smoke” also features other intense scenes. One involves John, who gets into a tiny cockfighting ring with an angry guy swinging a razor knife. Later, John foolishly takes Alma to the cockfights, not dreaming it would horrify her when chicken blood gets splattered on her beautifully pressed dress.
There’s more- like when John exams Alma late one night when she’s experiencing sleeplessness. She allows him to unbutton her blouse to listen to her heart and he tells her he hears her heart saying “Miss Alma is lonely.” This is the kind of moment that redeems John.
However, you really don’t know why Alma pines for John or why John stays interested- maybe it was something the two could count on in their lives- this thin, stretched slightly romantic hometown tie. This is the magic in this particular movie- Geraldine Page plays a spinster that is not easily dismissed and Laurence Harvey plays a bad boy that can’t be forgotten.
Directed by Peter Glenville…1961…118 min…featuring Laurence Harvey, Geraldine Page, Rita Moreno, John McIntire, Una Merkel, Malcolm Atterbury, Earl Holliman.
Goodbye Again ***
A suave middle-aged womanizer drives a longtime girlfriend crazy with his skirt chasing antics.
I find some strong parallels between “Goodbye Again” and “Summer and Smoke.” Both feature a strong woman who is pining away for a man who doesn’t make any logical sense as a partner. In “Goodbye Again,” Ingrid Bergman’s character Paula is very urbane, even blasé about her lover’s infidelities- on the outside, that is. In “Summer and Smoke, Alma carries on resolutely taking care of her parents and engaging in mundane social activities even though she can’t keep thinking about that bad boy next door.
In both movies, there is also another suitor in the picture. In “Summer and Smoke,” the new suitor appears right at the end of the movie, like a kind of redemption for Alma. In “Goodbye Again,” the young suitor is a part of the process. Actor Anthony Perkins plays the part of the younger man with an annoying
The spinster doesn’t get her man in “Summer and Smoke”- and she might have done very well indeed with the reformed version of her love interest. In “Goodbye Again,” the woman-in-waiting ends up getting her man- but is that really a good thing, because his brand of reformation doesn’t last?
Directed by Anatole Litvak…1961…120 min…featuring Ingrid Bergman, Yves Montand, Anthony Perkins, Diahann Carroll.
The Hustler ***
A small time pool hustler with plenty of talent and a little luck navigates the underworld of pool playing with mixed results. He can win money- even pin big time players like Minnesota Fats to the felt- but his attitude gets in the way. It’s kind of the same deal with women too. This is a gritty black and white production with very little glamour. OK, Paul Newman was a sex symbol, but here, that is pretty much negated by his character’s loose cannon actions.
However, a redeeming moment happens when the hustler and his neurotic, alcoholic girlfriend take time out for a picnic in the park. There, the hustler reveals a deep reverence for doing something well. In his case, it’s playing pool well; being almost spiritually connected to the pool cue’s “nerves” and the roll of the balls. But, he is just smart enough to understand that this is the connection people of all walks of life can feel to their pursuits when things are going just right. This is a moment of clarity coming from a fellow who’ll go ahead and compete with the wise guys of pool playing even after tragic events.
Directed by Robert Rossen…1961…134 min…featuring Paul Newman (as Eddie Felsen), Jackie Gleason (as Minnesota Fats), Piper Laurie, George C Scott
Breakfast at Tiffany’s ***
Two young hustlers find each other while barely treading water in New York City’s fast-paced environment. I have to admit, Audrey Hepburn’s character, Holly, is a vivacious girl, despite her exaggerated airs. And Holly really knows how to throw a party- there’s a party sequence here that is just rocking with people literally jumping each other in a crowded, loud blasting apartment full of fun. There’s a special touch here- a woman who alternately laughs hysterically and cries uncontrollably while standing in front of a huge mirror- with the party raging in the background.
But then things take a more serious turn as Holly’s not so glamorous past catches up to her. But that’s okay by her young boyfriend, a struggling young writer played by George Peppard. Despite her extremely annoying ways and selfish, childish behavior, the writer just adores the girl and sticks with her even in the pouring rain.
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was based on Truman Capote’s novel and the familiar “Moon River” theme music, which weaves in and out of the production, is by Henry Mancini. Mickey Rooney plays a distinctive, reoccurring comic role here as the Oriental landlord nearly always upset about the noise.
Directed by Blake Edwards…1961…115 min…featuring Audrey Hepburn (as Holly Golightly), George Peppard, Patricia Neal, Buddy Edsen, Martin Balsam, John McGiver, Mickey Rooney.
One, Two, Three ***
I didn’t expect to find anything particularly poignant in this but instead found it to be very poignant indeed. Here, I mean “One, Two, Three” spins speedily around the “hottest” spot in the world in 1961- Berlin, the focus of the Cold War between the Allied West and the Communist East.
Actor James Cagney plays the executive in charge of Coca Cola in Germany and the region. He’s trying to shoehorn into a business deal with various Russian officials despite the politics raging around them. Meanwhile, the CEO has been put in charge of a young woman who unexpectedly takes an East German husband named Otto for a husband in the throes of a whirlwind romance. They’re going to have a baby to boot.
Cagney’s CEO character is a loud, fast-talking, brash and arrogant American who bulls on through each situation with a kind of frantic determination. Ultimately, he’s annoying. The other characters are even less developed, so characterization isn’t what is strong here.
What is strong is the many political pokes the movie takes. The East Germans are portrayed as mindless ideological robots, spewing slogans and socialistic clichés at every turn. The Americans look kind of dumb too, so this is a spoof on everybody.
The scene where East German police are interrogating poor Otto by making him listen to “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” is just laugh-out-loud funny. Some of the other humor- like the constant clicking of heels, or Cagney snapping his fingers with every order- gets old quick
Directed by Billy Wilder…1961…115 min…featuring James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin, Arlene Francis, Leon Askin.
Pit and the Pendulum **
The costuming and the sets are extra nice in this fright night period piece, but that doesn’t make up for a leaden script and comatose acting. The whoosh of the heavy pendulum when it starts swinging is the most frightening thing here- and that blade does look nasty. The rest is pretty much just a lot of stiff posing and creeping around in places with lots of cob webs. Vincent Price’s wide, spooky eyes reflect the dilemma here- it’s supposed to be scary but there isn’t much to work with in terms of dialogue.
Directed by Harvey Corman…1961…80 min…featuring Vincent Price, Barbara Steele, John Kerr, Luana Anders, Antony Carbone.
A Woman is a Woman (Une femme est une femme) **
This could certainly be considered challenging, even groundbreaking, film making- but is it enjoyable? The soundtrack is what ruined it for me. I’m okay with music starting and stopping, but the forceful, fully orchestrated recordings here are just overpowering, many times inappropriate to the action, even drowning it out- the music hasn’t stood the test of time very well at all.
But then again, there is some appeal to the young striptease artist whose dilemma of badly wanting a baby becomes the crux of the movie. She’s delightfully buoyant, a little bubble headed and swings through her day like it’s a fashion shoot.
That is, except at home where her boyfriend has different ideas than her dreams of being a mother. He’s so against it that he even tries to set her up with a friend to get the deed done, but that only complicates things.
This thin story is told with plenty of fooling around featuring guerilla filming on the street and what seems to be a generous amount of improvisation with the scenes. There’s nothing exacting about this filmmaking and that may have been its original appeal, but decades later this seems like a lot of wasted footage when they could be telling a real story instead. The childish antics of the featured actors are not particularly fascinating at this point.
The young woman- or should I say girl- here faintly recalls Audrey Hepburn’s character in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”- a flighty, naive, nearly irrational individual who manages to somehow get by. There’s even a striptease scene in “Breakfast” to strengthen the parallel.
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard…1961…85 min…featuring Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Paul Belmondo.
The Last Time I Saw Archie **
A leaden in-the-Army yarn. Actor and director Jack Webb is not very convincing in a comedy role and Robert Mitchum looks like he can’t believe he’s getting away with a sloppy, bloodless performance. Besides, these supposed wiseacres look way too old to be in the Army- they look like Grandpas working the system with squint-eyed self-regard. They’re cool customers alright- compared to the dumbbells and stooges that surround them. Still, nobody’s funny here.
Directed by Jack Webb…1961…98 min…featuring Robert Mitchum, Jack Webb, Martha Hyer, France Nuyen, Joe Flynn, Don Knotts, Harvey Lembeck. Nancy Culp, Don Drysdale.
More Films Released in 1961
The Absent-Minded Professor
Atlantis, the Lost Continent
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
The Devil at 4 O’Clock
The Guns of Navarone
Judgment at Nuremberg
King of Kings
The Last Time I Saw Archie
Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile
One Hundred and One Dalmatians
The Parent Trap
The Pit and the Pendulum
A Raisin in the Sun
Splendor in the Grass
Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spegel)
Town Without Pity
Two Rode Together
West Side Story
Wild in the Country
A Woman Is a Woman (Une Femme est une femme)
Of all the kids’ shows that I was watching in 1961, at age five, perhaps the most important one of all for me was “Garfield Goose.” It was a live show featuring a puppet of a goose who was constantly clacking his beak, and host Frazier Thomas, who affably did all the talking during the program.
“Garfield Goose” featured a classic puppet stage setting where the interaction between Thomas and the other puppet characters- including an old hound dog with the improbable name of Beauregard Burnside III- occurred. Then the camera would zoom in for broadcasts of various cartoon adventure series. The most prominent for me was “Clutch Cargo,” memorable especially for the odd form of animation- the characters were often in still poses with just their lips moving as they talked.
It was on “Garfield Goose” where I saw one of the other dim early memories I have of TV- and that is, of a series where a group of boys manage to go back in time, via a row boat, to the dinosaur era. Their adventures resonated with me and I fantasized about their predicament often. There was something in the show about how one of the boys had brought along a camera but had lost it by the time they had returned. I remember thinking how much I would like to photograph a dinosaur.
The Dick Van Dyke Show
A brand new family-based show premiering in 1961 brought some new style to the little screen. The show was “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” another of this era’s productions that would become a staple of rerun television for years to come.
The comedy revolved around the characters Rob and Laura Petrie, played by Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. They have a son, Ritchy, played by Larry Mathews, Laura is a housewife and Rob is the head writer for a popular TV show. Rob works with a team of two other writers- Sally, played by Rose Marie, and Buddy, played by Morey Amsterdam- as well as their boss Mel, played by Richard Deacon, Buddy’s favorite target for making fun.
It’s all there- what it was that made the Dick Van Dyke show so entertaining- in the very first episode, which I was able to stream. There’s the Rob and Laura relationship, underscored by their quick banter, the office humor, the pro entertaining by Rob, Sally and Buddy. It also showcased why Van Dyke was great- that is, his very physical comedy while doing a drunk guy bit, straightening up every time his “wife” appears on the scene, slumping down and rubbery when no one is looking. Corny, but not as over-the-top corny as Jerry Lewis, because despite his goofiness, Van Dyke had an urban charm- slim, smart and lively. It was the same thing for Laura.
I must not have come to know the “Dick Van Dyke Show” until later in its run. I was shocked that the opening sequence of Episode 1, titled “The Sick Boy and the Sitter,” was completely different from the one I thought was standard for the series- Van Dyke entering the famous living room and stumbling over the foot stool. In later years, Van Dyke manages to avoid the foot stool.
Other differences I observed included that the action in the Petrie house occurs in the kitchen in the first episodes, not the living room, and Rob refers to Laura as “Laurie.”
Perhaps it fits here to mention that “The Dick Van Dyke Show” was following in the great tradition of entertainment families on TV- that is, families with one or more members in the entertainment business. For example, Ricky Ricardo, in “I Love Lucy,” was a singer. Ozzie in “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” had been a bandleader. Danny Thomas, in “Make Room for Daddy,” was a nightclub singer. Add Van Dyke, a writer and performer, to the mix and that’s plenty of show business narcissism to go around.
More Dick Van Dyke:
Episode 3: “Jealousy.” Thanks to an obnoxious neighbor, Laura gets the idea in her head that Rob is romancing a beautiful star he is forced to work late with. There’s a great physical bit when Sally and Buddy get called back into the office while trying to escape working late. The two stop and retrace their steps moving backwards and talking backwards the whole way- clever physical comedy. Van Dyke does a little wiggly jig on his way to answer the telephone as his physical contribution to the episode.
More New Shows
Also premiering in 1961 was “Ben Casey,” which I would remember as a favorite of my mother’s. At this time and for the years to come, my folks were in business for themselves, running a greenhouse and floral business, so they did not spend nearly as much time watching television as we did. However, they took the occasional break and “Ben Casey,” the handsome doctor in his scrubs, mentored by the wild-haired Doctor Zorba, played by Sam Jaffe, attracted my mom.
On the goofy side among the new 1961 shows was “Car 54 Where Are You?” featuring Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne as hapless cops caught up in all kinds of predicaments. Besides the mis-matched sizes of the cops, the most distinctive thing about the show was the trademark “oooo, oooo” sound Ross made when excited.
But the king of the goof ball shows that premiered in 1961 had to be “Mister Ed.” That’s the series based on the antics of a talking horse- who only talks to his owner, Wilbur, played by Alan Young. That often gets Wilbur into troublesome situations.
There were western shows of all types on the air in 1961. There were the family types- like “Bonanza.” There were the world-weary heroes like Paladin in “Have Gun Will Travel.” Also add in the slightly shady antics of the Mavericks, the relative sophistication of Bat Matterson and the roaming adventures of “The Rebel.”
In the case of “The Cheyenne Show,” it was all about the strong silent type. The show featured slow-moving, brawny but crisply dressed Clint Walker as Cheyenne Brodie. He doesn’t say much but means what he says and that gets him in various predicaments because everybody trusts him and everybody wants him on their side.
I streamed the 1961 episode “Winchester Quarantine” and in this one, Brodie finds himself in the middle of a brewing Range War. Susan Cummings plays Helen Ransom, a tough, hard driving woman trying to move some cattle through an area trying to remained quarantined from infected animals. It’s not just a precaution, it’s a necessity to keep their herds from dying. Ross Elliot appears as the drunk husband, Ernie Ransom, and two great character actors from the time join the drama- William Fawcett as Uncle Rufe and Denver Pyle as Nate Weyland.
Marshal Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke” was also the strong silent type- but not too silent. Sure, James Arness as Dillon is a towering figure, projecting strength, but he is also a thinker, trying to outwit the scoundrels of the moment.
In its seventh season in 1961, “Gunsmoke” was a top show and must have commanded good writing. I streamed the “Gunsmoke” episode “A Man A Day” and found it compelling indeed. The ruthlessness of the outlaws and what had to be done to thwart them was not particularly underplayed despite playing right next to the more goofy parts with Chester. It was a surprise to spy a very young Leonard Nimoy as one of the bad guys in this production.
Though I don’t remember “Gunsmoke” being a favorite at our house, all of the regular characters in “A Man A Day” were very familiar- Doc, Chester and Kitty. This indicates one reason for the show’s popularity- the ability to focus on one or the other of various cast members. Fifty years later, the production values for “Gunsmoke” still seem rather high.
I became fascinated by the news I researched from the year of 1961. So much was going on- the end of Eisenhower, the beginning of Kennedy, Cuba, Berlin, the Cold War and on and on. The music, the movies- so much to experience.
Yet, I would experience the biggest life shift of all- for me in my little world- in 1961. That is, I started going to school. Granted, it was only a half day in Kindergarten, but that first step through the classroom door would begin a process that would last 16 more years. That’s a lot of life.
For me, I don’t remember that first step being very traumatic. I can vaguely remember being ushered into the tall, blonde brick Central School, where I would pass from Kindergarten through 3rd grade, somewhat nervous. But it was more of a case of just going along with the program- I was told that I would be going to school, so I went, just like everybody else.
Our teacher, Mrs. Forbish had a strident reputation- after all, there were 37 students in our class- but I remember things in her classroom going very smoothly. I remember water coloring at the big easels, the snack and milk break, taking a little nap on a pad, sitting in a big circle “Indian Style” and discovering that it hurt my knees somewhat, tasting paste- not too bad, really! Going back out to the bus to go home when the morning was over- Mrs. Forbish had it figured out- establish a routine and follow it. But most of all, keep things moving.
It’s a trip looking at the Kindergarten class photo. The kids’ faces are still familiar to me and I remember some of their names- Kim, Bob. These are the kids I would be growing up with and their faces would appear in class photos to come.
Up until then, my world had been so much about my family’s home life. My parents grew geraniums in greenhouses on our property. They also provided various floral services, including custom arrangements. They had a couple of people working with them- Florence, Danny and Nelson- and the floral arrangement workroom, located in the center of the greenhouse complex with a large cooler to keep the flowers fresh and soft drinks cold- was the usual gathering place. Our house was right next door, so my life was pretty full between home, the greenhouse and the wooded acreage behind the buildings. With two older brothers to help watch on me, we had a pretty free reign of the place. Add in a television set and there seemed like plenty to do.
But my brothers would have to leave in the mornings in the Fall, Winter and Spring months to go to school. In the time they were away, I amused myself, but I remember it was a big deal each day when the bus would drop my brothers off after school.
I remember one particular afternoon, I was playing in the sand pile by the side of one of the greenhouses. The hump of sand recalled to me the hump of Moby Dick in the dramatic 1956 movie version of Herman Melville’s classic story starring Gregory Peck as the mad Captain Ahab. And I was digging my “harpoon” into that hump, raving with mock madness. I had seen the movie on television- at least the hair-raising ending. I remember looking up and seeing the bus arrive on the road, running off to meet the guys, abandoning my “harpoon.”
But there would be no one waiting for me at home when I got back from school- I was the youngest.
Turn 1961 upside down and it still reads 1961. That may be an apt description for the events of 1961- things were getting turned upside down plenty as change continued to rage.
Though Dwight Eisenhower remained in office as United States President less than three weeks into 1961, he left a lasting mark on the future. In January 1961, Eisenhower announced that the United States was severing diplomatic ties with Cuba and, in a Farewell Address, he stressed that Americans should be aware of the growing influence of the “military-industrial complex.”
John F. Kennedy succeeded Eisenhower as the President and immediately made his own mark. Just five days into his term, Kennedy delivered the first presidential news conference broadcast live on television. The next day, Kennedy appointed the first woman ever to be named a Presidential physician. He gave his first State of the Union address just ten days into his term and then on March 1, 1961 Kennedy established the Peace Corps.
But there was little time to celebrate such milestones as plenty of challenges faced the new President in 1961. In perhaps one of the most dangerous periods in modern American history, Kennedy nearly simultaneously juggled the Cuban missile crisis, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War with the Soviet Union in general as well as Civil Rights unrest domestically.
To top it off, in October, the Soviet Union exploded a huge hydrogen bomb- still known as one of the largest manmade explosions ever- and in November, Kennedy announced that the US will be sending military advisors to Vietnam. In December, the Vietnam War began as the first Americans arrived in Saigon.
One of the hottest areas in competition between Cold War foes in 1961 was the race to reach space. The United States launched a chimpanzee into space in January and then in February, launched a test of the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile. Meanwhile, Russia sent the first human- Yuri Gagarin- into space in April and in May a Russian probe sailed by Venus.
Also in May, 1961, the United States sent the first American- Alan Shepard- into space and Kennedy told Congress that he wanted to make it a national priority to put a man on the Moon. In July another American went up. In August, another Russian. Meanwhile, future Moon man Neil Armstrong set a world speed record in a “rocket plane” in November.
Other 1961 News
The human genetic code is recognized for the first time in May 1961, giving birth to modern genetics. Also in May, an influential article is published that leads to the founding of Amnesty International.
1961 will be remembered as the year that New York Yankees slugger Roger Maris surpassed Babe Ruth’s home run record with 61 home runs- in the final game of the season against the Boston Red Sox.
1961 also marks the year of one of my favorite baseball card sets- that is the “Baseball Greats” released by Fleer. This is where I learned a lot of my baseball history, flipping through these busy, bright cards extolling the exploits of early guys like Grover Cleveland Alexander, Chief Bender and Jack Chesbro. Another popular baseball cards series of the time were the Post cereal box cards- imperfect from the start because you had to cut them out of the box.
Poul Anderson – Three Hearts and Three Lions
Pat Boone – ‘Twixt Twelve and Twenty
Agatha Christie – The Pale Horse; Double Sin and Other Stories
A. J. Cronin – The Judas Tree
Roald Dahl – James and the Giant Peach
L. Sprague de Camp – The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate
Ian Fleming – Thunderball
Gabriel García Márquez – No One Writes to the Colonel (El coronel no tiene quien le escriba)
Winston Graham – Marnie
Harry Harrison – The Stainless Steel Rat
Robert A. Heinlein – Stranger in a Strange Land
Joseph Heller – Catch-22
Richard Hughes -The Fox in the Attic
John le Carré – Call for the Dead
H. P. Lovecraft – The Shunned House
Iris Murdoch – A Severed Head
Harold Robbins – The Carpetbaggers
J. D. Salinger – Franny and Zooey
Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
John Steinbeck – The Winter of Our Discontent
Irving Stone – The Agony and the Ecstasy
Rex Stout – The Final Deduction
Leon Uris – Mila 18
Kurt Vonnegut – Mother Night
Richard Yates -Revolutionary Road
Yevgeny Yevtushenko – Zima Junction
Samuel Beckett – Rough for Radio I, Rough for Radio II
Jean Genet – The Screens
Neil Simon – Come Blow Your Horn
Tennessee Williams – The Night of the Iguana
Leonard Cohen – The Spice-Box of Earth
Philip Booth – The Islanders
John Ciardi – In the Stoneworks
Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) – Helen in Egypt
Ed Dorn – The Newly Fallen
Alan Dugan – Poems
Lawrence Ferlinghetti – Starting from San Francisco
Allen Ginsberg: Empty Mirror: Early Poems; Kaddish and Other Poems
Thom Gunn – My Sad Captains
Daryl Hine – Heroics
John Hollander – The Untuning of the Sky
David Ignatow – Say Pardon
LeRoi Jones – Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
Carolyn Kizer – The Ungrateful Garden
Maxine Kumin – Halfway
Denise Levertov – The Jacob’s Ladder
Philip Levine – On the Edge
Robert Lowell – Imitations
Pablo Neruda – Odas elementales, translated by C. Lozano and with an introduction by Fernando Alegría
Charles Olson – The Maximus Poems; The Distances
Theodore Roethke – I Am! Says the Lamb
May Sarton – Cloud, Stone, Sun, Vine
Richard Wilbur – Advice to a Prophet
James Wright and Robert Bly, translators – Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl