The Bittersweet Life of Clara Bow

Clara Bow

For some reason I became fascinated by the actress Clara Bow. Like so many of the tangents I go off on, this one started with some clips on YouTube. Delving more deeply, I purchased some DVDs and read David Senn’s biography of Clara: Clara Bow, Runnin’ Wild. Clara’s life is both inspiring and sad—a glimpse into a Hollywood sodden with sexism long before the enlightenment of the #MeToo movement.

Clara was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1905. She was born into abject poverty. Her father Robert was a serial philanderer, constantly out of work. Her mother Sarah was mentally ill, probably schizophrenic. She was born in a rat and roach infested tenement, after her mother’s two previous pregancies had resulted in two dead children. Miraculously Clara survived her birth and grew up in the worst of environments: her father absent and her mother becoming more and more unstable and violent. Clara was a tomboy and learned to fend for herself by using her fists. At school she got good grades, but was bullied by classmates who made fun of her stammer. When she was nine years old a sad episode occurred. Her best friend was a little boy named Johnny. He lived in the same tenement and one day she heard him screaming her name. She ran to his room and found him on fire. She used a carpet to put out the fire but he died in her arms. Later in life directors were astounded that Clara could show emotion and cry at will for the camera. She told people that all she had to do was think about her childhood.

Clara’s one escape was the movies. She went to them as often as possible and read the movie magazines. She would imitate Mary Pickford in front of a mirror. In 1921 Motion Picture magazine announced a Fame and Fortune contest with a prize of a part in a motion picture. Over her mother’s objections she entered the contest. Entry required two photographs, and Clara couldn’t afford them. To her gratitude her father paid for the photographs. She had one dress, which she wore to all the try-outs. Photos of some of the contestants were published and when she saw the expensive clothes and jewelry some of them wore she knew her chances were not good. But, oddly enough, it was her acting ability that got her into the finals. She was a totally self-taught actor, but her natural abilities far out-shown her rivals. To her immense surprise and shock, she won the contest.

Sixteen year old Clara was as promised given a part in a movie shot locally on Long Island called Beyond the Rainbow. She invited her friends to the premiere only to be ridiculed by them. Her footage had been cut from the film! Worse, Clara’s mother, who was becoming more and more insane, was incensed that Clara wanted to become a film star. She screamed that Hollywood actresses were whores. Clara awoke one morning with her mother standing over her with a kitchen knife, saying it would be better if Clara were dead than for her to become an actress. Sarah Bow, prone to seizures, then lost consciousness. She died in an asylum shorly thereafter.

Clara had another chance in her second film, Down to the Sea in Ships. In this film she finally appeared on-screen and, although having a secondary role (which included a scene in which she indulges in some realistic fisticuffs—drawing on her tough upbringing), this time she  was definitely noticed by viewers and critics alike. Clara moved to Hollywood, and film after film came out, at least four a year. In short order she was the most sought-after star in Hollywood.  Despite her popularity and all the money she made for the studio,  her agent B.P. Schulberg ruthlessly exploited her. She was the most overworked and underpaid actor in Hollywood. She was also the most unorthodox actor in Hollywood.  She didn’t play the Hollywood games. Stars at the time signed “morality” clauses, and generally gave the impression of being morally upstanding, though in real life they were constantly sleeping around and having affairs. Clara had open liasons with various male stars and directors (including Gary Cooper and Victor Fleming, later the director of The Wizard of Oz) and so she regularly appeared in a bad light in the gossip magazines. Of course the men she went out with didn’t suffer the criticism she did! Clara was unmarried, and the men she went out with, with one exception (a doctor who was on the verge of divorce), were too. Yet since she was so open about her sex life she was widely condemned, generally by hypocrits who were engaging in the same activities, but lying about it.

Nevertheless Clara was loved by the movie-going public. She dyed her hair red with henna and when this fact leaked out, sales of henna went through the roof. Seeing her in the films that survive (about half of her silent films are lost due to neglect) it is no wonder. In her films she makes the other actors look like wooden robots. She is incredibly natural and alive. In her biggest hit, It, she plays a shop girl who has the mysterious quality “It.” In viewing the film, there is no doubt that Clara had “It,” both in the film and in real life. Her appearence is strangely modern. She looks like someone sent back in a time machine from our own time. Her acting is spontaneous and natural. Her face is incredibly expressive, which of course is essential in a silent film. As she is laughing uncontrollably while rolling around in the rotating barrel in Coney Island, it is impossible not to feel a connection with her. Audiences at the time certainly did.

She went through many engagements, but finally married an actor in cowboy movies, Rex Bell, who later became a Nevada politician, in 1932. By this time her short but bright career was already near its end. Her last film was released in 1933. She was only 28 years old. Plagued by scandals, defrauded by her best friend, denied her earned salary by the movie studio because of purported violation of her morality clause, Clara retired early in life. Adding to these factors, she did not like the “talkies”: she was spooked by the microphone over her head (she kept looking up at it, ruining takes) and her Brooklyn accent was criticized, though listening today it’s clear she could suppress it almost completely when needed. Moreover there was mounting evidence of mental illness. She would have outbreaks on the set. She became hypochondriacal. And so she retired forever from film and went to live on a Nevada ranch with her husband, Rex Bell.

Unfortunately, she seems to have inherited her mother’s schizophrenia. She had two children, but in time grew so unstable that her husband separated her from the children and she was institutionalized. Her psychiatric examination revealed more disquieting facts about her childhood.

Clara idolized her father, and supported him when she became a star. Yet it came out that he had repeatedly sexually abused her as a teenager. Her mother, who had repeated called Hollywood actresses whores had herself been a prostitute.

Clara lived out the rest of her life in isolation, accompanied only by a live-in nurse. She attempted suicide. Eventually she died in 1965 of a heart attack. She was alone, except for her nurse.

Today she survives in her films. She was beautiful, and a good and honest person. She personified the 1920’s “flapper” girl, but she was more complex than that. Her life was tragic, but for a brief moment in time her star shone as brightly as few others. It is sad that so many of films are lost, due to the unconscionable neglect of the film studios, who used copyright laws to prevent copies of these films to be made, while at the same time allowing the originals to rot in warehouses. Nevertheless through her films we can still, nearly a century later, get a glimpse of the phenomenon that was Clara Bow.

Electrophysiology Medicine Movies

Massive Heart Attacks

Google Ngram of the phrase “massive heart attack”

Carrie Fisher’s sad, premature death is an occasion to reflect upon the poor job the news media does in reporting medical news. The initial report from TMZ had the headline “Carrie Fisher Massive Heart Attack on Plane.” If one equates “heart attack” to the more precise medical term “myocardial infarction,” as is usually done, then this is certainly diagnostic overreach on the part of TMZ. From their report it appears that Fisher suffered a cardiac arrest; indeed that term is used in the body of the article. So why not use that term in their headline? Perhaps massive heart attack sounds more dramatic. The word “massive” seems to go naturally with “heart attack.” Try to think of other phrases in which massive fits so well. Massive hack? Massive debt, perhaps? Few phrases roll off the tongue as well as “massive heart attack.” But most of the time when used by the media this phrase is not at all accurate.  Rather it is a catch-all term to indicate something serious related to the heart has occurred.

Of course we don’t know exactly what happened to Carrie Fisher, nor is it any of our business, but none of the information available indicates that she had a large myocardial infarction as opposed to a primary arrhythmic event like ventricular fibrillation or ventricular tachycardia. As a cardiologist having seen this sort of event a depressingly large number of times it is possible to speculate on what happened.  She likely suffered a cardiac arrest related to an abnormal heart rhythm starting suddenly in the heart’s ventricles.  Lay persons and the media often refer to this as the heart “stopping.”  While the pumping of the heart stops or is reduced, in actuality the heart is beating very fast or in a disorganized fashion to the point where it can’t effectively pump blood.   Without rapid correction using an electrical defibrillator this leads to sudden death.

In Carrie Fisher’s case CPR was administered while the plane was still in flight. It is unclear how much time elapsed between the onset of the cardiac arrest and administration of CPR.  It is difficult to tell from the reports if an AED was used on the plane or if defibrillation was attempted only after the plane landed.   We know she never regained consciousness and most likely suffered brain death due to prolonged interrupted circulation.

Carrie Fisher was a cigarette smoker and used cocaine, at least during her Star Wars days.  Could heart disease caused by smoking and drug use have contributed to her sudden death? Could more recent use of drugs like cocaine have been a factor? We don’t know, but if the family deems it fitting that the circumstances of her death be made public, it might help educate the public and the news media on some of the nuances of heart disease and the difference between a “massive heart attack” and a cardiac arrest.

Finally it is interesting to examine some of this lay cardiac terminology using Google Ngrams. The Google Ngram site is a search engine that can be used to look up the frequency of words or phrases in thousands of books published over many years. It can help establish when certain phrases like “heart attack” or “cardiac arrest” were first used and when they became popular. The Ngram at the top of this post of the phrase “massive heart attack” shows the rise in popularity of this phrase over the last 50 years. The Ngram below compares the terms “heart attack”, “myocardial infarction”, “sudden death”, and “cardiac arrest.” It is interesting that “sudden death” is a term that has been used without much change in frequency since the year 1800. “Myocardial infarction” and “cardiac arrest” both entered the literature around 1930-1940. “Heart attack” dates back to around 1920, but has become more and more popular, while the medical term, “myocardial infarction” seems to be less used recently. Curiously although the phrase “heart attack” has been around since the 1920s, it is only since 1960 that the phrase “massive heart attack” has become popular.  One wonders why.  These kinds of results are open to all kinds of interpretation: I’ll leave that to the reader as an exercise. But I encourage you to try Ngrams out yourself, on any subject that interests you. The results are often fascinating.

Google Ngram of other heart attack related phrases
Books Computers & Software Movies

Reading About Steve Jobs

The iconic Jobs and Wozniak Apple II photo
Wozniak, Jobs, and the Apple II

I am interested in the history of computer technology and over the last couple months have read a lot about Steve Jobs. To be specific I read Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, Brent Schlender’s Becoming Steve Jobs, and a book published back in 2001, Alan Deutschman’s The Second Coming of Steve Jobs. To get the point of view of the other “Steve” I read Steve Wozniak’s autobiography, iWoz, How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It.  I watched the two biographical movies, Pirates of Silicon Valley from 1999 and the one from 2013 with Ashton Kutcher, Jobs. The first movie is a lot of fun, exploring the initial rivalry between Jobs and Bill Gates.  The second has been criticized but I like it also, and Kutcher’s resemblance to Jobs is uncanny.  I am looking forward to seeing Aaron Sorkin’s version when it comes out. I also read Fire in the Valley by Michael Swaine and Paul Freiberger, which is a free-ranging and entertaining history of the PC era and on which the first movie mentioned above was based.  Finally there are a number of documentaries on YouTube that address the early personal computer era.  One of the best is the 3-part Triumph of the Nerds.  There are numerous videos on YouTube of Jobs in action, from the earliest days of Apple until shortly before his death.

Reading and watching this stuff makes me nostalgic. I bought an Apple II+ in 1981 shortly after moving to Houston, Texas and starting my fellowship in electrophysiology. It was my reintroduction to computers after my brief fling back in my college days in the early 1970s. As underwhelming as its capacities were judged by today’s standards (base configuration had 48 KB RAM, 40 column all caps text display, 128 KB floppy drives and a MOS Technology 6502 CPU running at 1 MHz), I loved that little machine and was amazed by it. Using its 8 open expansions slots (something Woz insisted on and surprisingly prevailed in getting over Jobs’s objections) I had that thing decked out with an 80 column lowercase text display card, a 1 MB RAM-disk, memory expansion to 64 KB, and a CP/M card — all at considerable cost on a fellow’s salary.  For software I had WordStar for word processing, Turbo Pascal for programming, VisiCalc (the first spreadsheet program), dBase II (a database program) and lots of games, including the very first version of Flight Simulator. It worked well and was fun to use but over the years it was replaced by more powerful systems and eventually I threw it all out. Now I kind of wish I had kept it (or at least sold it on eBay). I kept all my old Byte magazines though, and paging through them is a trip down memory lane.  It’s fun to revisit those days when Microsoft with its software that could run on anything (as long as it was compatible with an IBM PC) appeared to be heading towards  victory over poor  Apple, despite the coolness of their Macintosh computers. As we all know, a lot has happened between then and now.

Isaacson’s book is very well written and, being the authorized biography, has a lot of material that the other books don’t. Nevertheless, the one period that Isaacson skimps a bit on, the time when Jobs was at NeXT and starting Pixar, is well fleshed out in the other two biographies, particularly Schlendler’s. His thesis is that the struggles at NeXT and Pixar were crucial for Jobs to become a better manager and thus be in a position to return to Apple and turn it around starting in 1997. Schlender also seems a bit more sympathetic to Jobs, though it is hard to paper over some of his worst characteristics.  For example, Jobs denied he was the father of his daughter Lisa, and he abandoned her when she was young. Later he acknowledged being her father and reconciled with her. This behavior seems particularly reprehensible given that Jobs himself was “abandoned” by his biological parents and was raised by foster parents. He eventually met his biological mother and his biological sister, the writer Mona Simpson. He discovered his biological father (who was a Syrian graduate student when Jobs was born) and actually had met him once by chance at a restaurant which his biological father owned, but neither realized the father-son relationship at the time. Jobs chose never to meet with his father again.

Jobs is a complex figure. He was self-centered and lacked empathy towards others. He could turn on the charm, but often in a calculating manner. His biographers point out his black and white approach to everything. To Jobs, other people and even things like food or computers or software programs were either perfect or they sucked. There was no middle ground. He may have mellowed somewhat as he grew older, but not much. Jobs’s genius appears to be that he was able to utilize both his strengths and his flaws together to inspire others to do their best (or get out of his way) and thus design and bring to market products that have certainly changed our world. In the process Apple became the wealthiest company on the planet.  But Jobs’s driving force was not wealth.  He aimed for perfection.

No Greek tragic hero is without his blind spot, and Jobs had his: his quirky views on health and diet. A child of the 60s growing up in California, he maintained a distrust of “western medicine” so that when diagnosed with a potentially surgically curable pancreatic cancer found incidentally on a routine CAT scan (he had a history of kidney stones, thus the CAT scan), he delayed surgery for 9 months. He tried various diets, alternative medicines, and acupuncture first. When he finally yielded to the surgery liver metastases were found, and after that, despite a liver transplant and aggressive chemotherapy it was only a matter of time before he succumbed.

Jobs’s genius was that he foresaw what most others didn’t: apart from the computer geeks like Steve Wozniak and the members of the Homebrew Computing Club back in the 1970s, most people don’t care about computer technology per se. They want to use these devices to listen to music, to read books and articles, to look up stuff, to keep in touch with friends, to watch movies, and to get their work done. For most, computer technology is just a means to an end. Steve Jobs realized this better than anyone else in the industry and had the overwhelming personality to find the best people and motivate them to do perform at levels they didn’t realize they were capable of.

One wonders what symphonies a 60 year old Mozart would have written. What songs were denied to the world when George Gershwin died of a brain tumor at age 38? What would Emily Brontë have written beyond Wuthering Heights if she had not died at age 30?  What other “insanely great” products were denied to the world when Jobs died at age 56?  Life at Apple goes on without Jobs. The hand-picked people he surrounded himself with continue without him. But his will be a tough legacy to uphold.

Books Computers & Software Medicine Movies Society TV

1984 in 2014


I am rereading George Orwell’s 1984.  The first time I read it was in the 1960s.  Reading it again I wonder if he shouldn’t have titled it 2014.  The book is closer to reality now than it ever was.  No, we don’t have a dictator named Big Brother looming over us.  But the ubiquitous electronic surveillance that the book describes has come to pass.  In Britain there is one video surveillance camera for every 11 people.   In the United States the National Security Agency (NSA) has been reauthorized by a secret FISA court to continue recording “meta-data” on all cell phone calls within the country.  It has been revealed that the NSA has been recording all voice calls (including those of Americans traveling or living abroad) in at least one foreign country and has plans to expand the program.  On the corporate front, Google scans my Gmail and search history and presents me with targeted ads.  I voluntarily disclose personal information on Facebook and Twitter.  The IRS knows all about my finances.  My medical records are all digitized and stored in computer servers.  My photos and documents are somewhere in “The Cloud” which sounds better than the reality: on some hard drive on some web server in a location unknown to me, tended by strangers.  My life has been encoded into ones and zeros stored on computers scattered across the globe, and everyone wants a piece of the action.  We have all allowed this situation to develop haplessly, many even welcoming these changes as a necessary response to the attacks of 9/11/2001.  The government was able to take advantage of the fear engendered by these attacks to chip away at our Fourth Amendment rights to protection from unwarranted search and seizure of property.  As Orwell says, from the point of view of our masters, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

The Heartbleed Bug is a reminder of our vulnerability.  He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.  Software is powerful but it is also fragile. We have put all our information into one basket, and, to mix metaphors, Heartbleed revealed it is a leaky basket indeed.  There are bad guys out there who want our data.  My website gets attacked daily with brute force attempts to log in by guessing my password.  I know this because my security software automatically notifies me and blocks the attacking site.  My site has been successfully hacked in the past.  It is a constant battle keeping one step ahead of the attackers.  If you run the program Wireshark which inspects data packets arriving to your computer from the Internet, you can see that brute force password attacks are happening all the time.  And if this happens to a minor target like my website, then more important sites are even more heavily bombarded.  With results.  Witness the Target credit card breach.

Now that all our private medical data has been or is being transferred to electronic form due to government mandates in the US, how safe is it from attack?  I think you know the answer.  Unlike Heartbleed which was a vulnerability in an open source implementation of the SSL protocol, medical electronic health record (EHR) systems provided by EPIC, Allscripts, Cerner, and others are proprietary systems, with closed-source software, not open to review by outside experts.  The Heartbleed code, being open source, was readily reviewable by anyone, and despite this the flaw in the code was not picked up for two years.  Are there flaws in the coding of EHR systems?  As all software has bugs, the answer is undoubtedly yes.  Could a large medical information breach happen akin to the Target credit card breach?  Certainly.

It is frightening to consider the economic value of the medical information that these various private EHR companies are sitting on.  Wouldn’t a potential employer want to know about your history of depression?  Wouldn’t the drug companies love to know what’s in these database files?  Targeted drug ads, anyone?  After being sent home from the hospital following a myocardial infarction, will my Google search page include ads for the latest anti-platelet drug?  There are plenty of companies who would pay a lot of money for this kind of information.  Could your EHR company sell your data?  Not legally, at least not now.  But the data could be stolen and sold.  And, given how the US has become more and more ruled by corporate interests, I wouldn’t be surprised if the selling of your private medical information does become legal some day.  You did read that EULA thoroughly before clicking on the OK button when you signed into your doctor’s office, didn’t you?

In the 1960s television series, The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan proclaims “I am not a number, I am a free man!”  Like the book 1984, quite prophetic.  Even the tiny video cameras of the 1998 movie “The Truman Show” have come true with cell phone cameras everywhere.  We are a nation of voyeurs and exhibitionists, watching our reality shows and posting everything about ourselves on Facebook.  Giving up our privacy is partly self-inflicted but also the result of data collection by Big Brother in the form of government and big business.  In 1949, when 1984 was published, the technology didn’t exist to implement the invasion of privacy he envisioned.  In 2014 that technology is here and the genie is out of the bottle.


Language Movies Society

Le Truman Show

The Truman Show
The Truman Show

Le “Truman Show” est un film qui est sorti en 1998.  C’était réalisé par Peter Weir et c’était écrit par Andrew Niccol.  Le personnage principal est Truman Burbank qui est joué par Jim Carrey.  Truman Burbank est un homme normal qui vit dans une ville normale. Son enfance était heureuse. Il es     t réceptionniste pour une compagnie d’assurance, il vit une vie ordinaire, il a une femme ordinaire, un voisin ordinaire et un ami ordinaire qui apparaît de temps en temps avec un six-pack de bière.  Mais Truman n’est pas heureux avec sa vie. Il veut voir le monde

Clip 1

Il veut sortir de son plaisante mais étouffante vie – toujours rangée – pour s’échapper de sa petite ville qui est sur un île au bord de la mer – une ville qui est toujours propre, toujours ensoleillée et en fait, trop parfaite. En réalité, Truman était le produit d’une grossesse non désirée. Son «père» (pas son vrai père), Christof, un producteur de télévision qui Truman n’a jamais rencontré, a réalisé le Truman Show – le plus grand spectacle sur terre – un spectacle dans lequel la vie est en direct – la télé-réalité. En fait, Truman ne sait pas qu’il vit dans un petit monde de de télévision qui a été inventé par Christof parce qu’il a grandi dans ce monde et il était là depuis son enfance. Donc, tout le monde autour de Truman est acteur avec un peu de casque à l’oreille. Même sa femme est actrice qui fait beaucoup de publicités pour le camera à la stupéfaction de Truman.

Clip 2

Un jour, Truman trouve accidentellement une zone de restauration dans un faux ascenseur de son bâtiment de bureaux et devient assez suspecte. Peu à peu, il vient à la conclusion qu’il ne vit pas dans le monde réel.

Truman découvre que tout son monde est un ensemble de film et que tout était contrôlé par Christof, son «père» son “créateur” qui travaille dans un studio dans une ersatz lune du monde de Truman.

Clip 3

Enfin, Truman réussit à s’échapper de son monde irréel. Il repousse son créateur, son père Christof. Truman ouvre une porte dans une peinture de paysage et il va à un monde qui n’est jamais vraiment montré dans le film. Ce monde reste inconnue, c’est notre monde.

Clip 4

Je crois que le film est très prémonitoire.   Au temps de son sortie, le Facebook n’existait pas et la télé-réalité était à son début.  Cependant, le film démontre que la démarcation entre la vie privée et la vie publique est devenu floue.  C’est aussi une critique des effets que la publicité ont sur notre comportement et même nos pensées.  C’est une critique de la vie occidentale (surtout la vie américaine), de la religion, du capitalisme, des médias et de nos perceptions de la réalité.  À la fin du film, en regardant Truman part son monde iréel, on espère que son nouveau monde sera réel. Toutefois, cette question reste sans réponse.

“Le Truman Show” est un film de science-fiction qui est à peine different de la vérité aujourd’hui. C’est aussi un drame philosophique qui provoque beaucoup de pensées et qui peut vous encourager de regarder votre vie un peu plus près.  C’est un film à ne pas rater ou manquer et un film qui a tout pour le revoir.

Books Movies Music

The Music of James Bond

Dr. No Original Sound Track Album Cover
Dr. No Original Sound Track Album Cover

One of the perks of blogging is that it gives one a license to write about topics that one really is not an expert on (a trait that my readers have doubtless discovered on their own).  And speaking of licenses to do things… there is the double zero license to kill, granted by the British Government to a select few secret agents in the fictional world of Ian Fleming’s James Bond.  It is hard to believe, in this world of Edward Snowden, NSA snooping on American’s phone and internet messages, and government sanctioned murder via drones, that not only were James Bond and his somewhat quaint by today’s standards license to kill, as well everything associated with spying, all the rage back in the 1960s, but also that the movie phenomenon has continued right up to the present day.  My son Brian was nice enough to give me a present last Christmas of “The James Bond 50” that consists of all the James Bond movies over the last 50 years.  I was always a fan, and this wonderful Blu Ray set allows me to see all the movies again in order.  I have been watching about one a week, giving me some precious entertainment over this final year of my medical career.  When I get back to Skyfall, it should be January, 2014.  I am also reading Sinclair McKay’s The Man With The Golden Touch which is a great source of insight into these films.

It is interesting to watch the films again from today’s perspective.  I have gotten as far as the start of the Roger Moore era.  The movies, aside from being an interesting glimpse into the culture of the 60s and 70s and showing how far we have come in terms of sexism and racism, are entertaining and have high production values.  They have always been very popular, apparently the second most popular movie series of all time (the first? Harry Potter).  Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and even George Lazenby in his single outing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service all bring a different spin on Bond.  Connery is tough and gritty, Moore is suave and debonair, but a little silly, and Lazenby is handsome but understandably insecure, this being the first and only acting attempt of the former used car salesman turned model.  Ironically his performance probably emulates the Bond of the novels best, who was a considerably more insecure and complex character than that portrayed on the screen.  What strikes me most on re-watching these early Bond films though is how crucial and how good their musical scores are.

At the end of every Bond film there is a statement that reads “The James Bond Theme was composed by Monty Norman.”  Norman was a writer of Broadway songs and was hired to compose the music for Dr. No.  The producers of the Bond films, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were apparently dissatisfied with Norman’s version of the James Bond theme and brought in John Barry to arrange it, resulting in the version so well know today.  The guitarist Vic Flick played the theme and was paid a one time fee of £6.  Over the years Norman (who is still alive) has won several libel suits over authorship of this theme, so, if you are reading this post, Monty Norman, I don’t dispute your authorship of the theme.  As part of the evidence introduced in the libel suits, Norman produced a song from an unpublished musical written in the 1950s prior to Dr. No.  The song, called “Good Sign Bad Sign,” is pretty awful, but there is part of the familiar guitar riff in it, in a Hindu sitar style.

I’m not sure we know how this was adapted by Norman to become his rejected version of the Dr. No James Bond Theme, but we do know what happened when the late John Barry, who I believe was a film music genius, got hold of it:

Barry was chosen to write scores for the next several Bond films.  He did not write the theme to From Russia With Love, but did orchestrate that score.  He then wrote the great Goldfinger theme, belted out memorably by Dame Shirley Bassey.  The next film Thunderball has a great score, though the film itself is not the best of the oeuvre.  Barry originally wrote the title theme “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” which is a great tune with about as silly lyrics as you can imagine.

This title song, sung by Dionne Warwick was rejected at the last minute because (maybe among other reasons) it did not contain the word “Thunderball” in its lyrics. The unsung version of this song is heard throughout the score of the movie.  So Barry had only a few days to come up with a new song, which turns out to be another great song, sung by Tom Jones.  According to the singer he held the last note so long that he passed out at the end of the song.

A great parody of this song is the opening of the otherwise forgettable Spy Hard, sung by Weird Al Yankovic, including his take on Tom Jones’s passing out at the end of the song:

Barry went on to write several more of the James Bond scores.  His indelible musical stamp, along with title sequences by Maurice Binder, the incredible sets of Ken Adams (remember the volcano interior in You Only Live Twice, complete with working monorail, or the interior of Fort Knox?), and the personalities of the different Bond actors, helped make the films what they are.  I close with my favorite, the orchestral theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  What a great driving theme, perfect to accompany the thrilling skiing sequences of that movie:

Note: given the vagaries of YouTube and fair use of copyrighted material, on which YouTube definitely treads a fine line, I apologize if either some of the above links don’t work in the future, or if someone feels copyright has been violated.  If the latter, please notify me and I will remove the link.  — DEM

Books Movies

John Carter (of Mars)

Ballantine Books Paperback Edition 1963


I saw the movie John Carter last night.  Having read many of the reviews that label the movie a flop and failure, I was happily surprised to find it is a very good movie.  The reviewers all harp on the large price tag ($250 M) of the movie and the relatively low return of its first weekend ($30 M here in the US, though $70 M in Europe).  So it seems movies, like everything else in America, are judged purely on their financial as opposed to artistic merits.  If that is so, why does the Academy Award for Best Picture so often go to some low-budget film that no one has actually seen?  As others have pointed out, some poor marketing and the apparently derivative nature of some of the scenes work against the film getting a fair viewing.  Hacking off “of Mars” from the title didn’t help, leaving prospective viewers wondering what a movie named “John Carter” could possibly be about.  As for the movie imitating Star Wars or Avatar — well that’s just pure ignorance.

Dust jacket of first book edition 1917

As I waited for the movie to start, it was hard to sit still while listening to a guy in the row in back of me explaining to his girlfriend that the movie was based on a comic book by the creator of Tarzan.  There were no comic books in 1912 when A Princess of Mars was published.  Science Fiction was not a recognized literary genre.  Edgar Rice Burroughs, who went on to create the iconic feral human in Tarzan of the Apes, wrote this first novel of Barsoom after having failed at countless jobs.  He had an idea that he could write works of fantasy, and he decided to try his hand at it.  Thank goodness he did!  With this book and the 10 that followed, as well as his tales of Pellucidar, Venus, and many other alien worlds, he managed to invent a majority of the themes that have unabashedly been used by George Lucas, James Cameron and others who create the SciFi movies of today.

I have read everything available that Burroughs wrote, and, yes, that includes such obscure works as The Girl From Farris’s and Marcia of the Doorstep.  The Mars books were always my favorite, more so than the Tarzan series.  They are just so imaginative.  Burroughs had a unique knack for creating alien worlds and alien cultures.  There is great attention to details in these books: the geography is consistent, the languages and names sound right, the many-legged animals are amazing (from thoats — Martian Horses, to calots — Martian dogs, represented by Woola, whose realization is one of the high points of the movie), and the cultures and motives of the many Martian races are well defined.   The bright covers of the Ballantine and Ace editions of these books first appeared in my early teenage years in the 1960s and immediately captured my attention.  Even though paperback books back then only cost 50 cents, this was still a lot given my 25 cent weekly allowance, so it took a while to get all the books.  I also had to make sure my mother didn’t see the covers, which invariably included scantily (for the time) attired princesses (see illustration above).  But the joy of reading these books back then is still palpable today.

So, what about the movie?  Well it would be hard to fit the sensibilities of the early 20th century into a movie made today.  In the books, John Carter does what is right because that’s just the way he is.  He is a born fighting man, and chivalrous to a fault.  In the movie he is given a back story, and, other than his jumping ability (which the movie exaggerates) he doesn’t seem special — not the best swordsman of two worlds, as the John Carter of the books immodestly bills himself.  Being Burroughs’ first book, it improves as it goes along, but starts out with a huge unexplained deus ex machina — Carter’s astral projection to Mars.  The movie probably improves on the book for not only providing an explanation of sorts for this, but making this technology a major theme of the movie.  The movie brings in elements from the 2nd and 3rd Mars books (together they form a trilogy that chronicles John Carter’s rise from an unarmed  captive of the Green Martians to the title of “Warlord of Mars”), as well as other elements that aren’t in the books, but none of this hurt things too much.  Zodanga was not a moving city, and the Therns don’t have the same role in the books as the movie, but it didn’t matter to this Burroughs fan.  To see the wonderfully rendered Green Martians (though not exactly according to Burroughs, they were even uglier with eyes of the sides of their heads), the magnificent fliers (powered by the Martian Eighth Ray), and the “incomparable Dejah Thoris,” played incomparably by Lynn Collins, made up for any discrepancies with the books.  ERB himself sanctioned the various Tarzan movies, almost none of which portrayed the character as he himself did (Tarzan was an English Lord who was fluent in numerous languages; no “me Tarzan, you Jane” in the books).  I’m sure he would have been delighted with the movie John Carter.

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Most Popular Post and Goodbye to a Goddess

I installed WordPress Jetpack recently.  Among other features, it tracks traffic to individual blog posts.  It’s interesting that of all the topics I’ve blogged about, this is the most popular post.  There is not doubt that the special effects of that old series, especially the surface shots, hold up very well even by today’s standards.  A 17 foot submarine model photographed while being towed in a lake has an element of realism that even computer graphics can’t match.  It is no accident that the movies comprising The Lord of the Rings largely eschewed computer graphics and used models for most of their special effects.

No particular connection, but seeing the passing of Elizabeth Taylor brought back to mind how much I admired (ok, was in love with) her when I was young and watched her in movies such as Giant.  For those who are only familiar with the aged version of the lady, these photos show her in her prime.  See what I mean?




Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo is a film about obsession, so perhaps it is not strange that the film itself can become an obsession to the viewer.

Scotty’s first view of Madeleine

If you have not seen the film, stop right here and go out and get it on DVD or watch in on TV — it has been on several times recently, including on the hi-def channels. The movie has been wonderfully restored, with great image and sound quality. There are spoilers ahead, so come back only after you have seen the film.

John (Jimmy Stewart) is a retired cop, unable to work any more because of a traumatic experience involving heights. He is enticed by a former associate to take on some freelance work: trailing his wife who has been behaving oddly, seemingly convinced she is a reincarnation of her great-grandmother Carlotta, who died tragically long ago. As John, aka Scotty, follows Madeleine (Kim Novak), on her weird meanderings to the art museum where she stares at Carlotta’s portrait, to Carlotta’s grave, to the old house where she lived, the movie is devoid of dialog for a long stretch. Scotty, and the viewer, voyeuristically observe Madeleine, and an attachment clearly develops. When Madeleine seemingly tries to kill herself by jumping into San Fransisco Bay, Scotty fishes her out, takes her “unconscious” back to his apartment, undresses her and puts her to bed. Certainly Scotty’s interest in this case has become more than a little unprofessional at this point. There is an electric moment when Madeleine, in a robe, reaches for a coffee cup, and their hands touch… broken off by the phone ringing, the caller being her husband. Madeleine slips away.

The couple take to wandering together, in the mysterious depths of the redwood forest, on the ocean front before crashing waves, and they clearly fall in love. But Scotty is being duped. When Madeleine seemingly is successful in killing herself by jumping off the tower of a Spanish mission, Scotty is unable to save her because of his fear of heights. He goes into a deep depression, worsened by the harsh words of blame spoken at the inquest. The other love interest in his life, Midge, fails to break through to him, and quietly disappears from the rest of the movie. Then while walking the streets, he finds a girl that reminds him physically of Madeleine — Judy Barton.


Judy considers running away

Judy is crude where Madeleine was refined, but she actually is the same girl, which is quickly revealed to the viewer in a flashback. Apparently Hitchcock considered deleting this flashback to keep the suspense going until the end of the movie, but leaving the scene in completely shifts the focus of the film and turns it into the psychological masterpiece of obsession that it is. Judy considers running away, but self-destructively stays and plays along. She is humiliated that it is not she that he loves, but the image of Madeleine that she p;ayed before. But she doesn’t have the qualities of Madeleine. She instead is the type of woman who would get herself involved in a murder plot and would take advantage and ruin a man like Scotty. On the other side, John/Scotty himself scarcely comes off well as a man who will remake a woman into the image that he is obsessed with, uncaring about her feelings. She is distressed by all this, but allows him to turn her back into the image of Madeleine. She inadvertently gives herself away, and Scotty reacts by bringing her back to the scene of the crime, where she tries to convince him to love him. After all she is Madeleine if anyone ever was, but the original crime comes around full circle to bring about the tragic ending. The movie ends abrupty with Jimmy Steward standing on the tower’s ledge, looking down — his fear of heights cured at a terrible cost.

The effect of the movie is increased dramatically by the excellent acting of the two principals, as well as the Wagnerian (modeled after the opera Tristan und Isolde) score from Bernard Herrmann. Ultimately it raises and leaves unanswered the question: does one fall in love with a person or an ideal? Madeleine and Judy were one and the same, yet Judy could not substitute for the fictitious Madeleine. At the same time, despite the incredible injustice done to Scotty, was he really justified in treating Judy as he did?

Vertigo displays the genius of Hitchcock at the very peak of his movie-making skill. Like the greatest works of art and literature, new subtleties reveal themselves with repeated viewings.


"Elephant" — A Disturbing Movie

I saw the movie “Elephant” on cable a few weeks ago. If you have not seen the movie and want to completely avoid spoilers then don’t read on, though at least finish this sentence: the movie is original, disturbing, and well worth viewing. There is no major spoiler in this review, but if you don’t know anything about what the movie is about, as was my situation when I saw it, it might heighten the experience a bit, possibly. The unique aspect of the movie is not the subject matter, but its point of view. I don’t mean the views of the director or producer or writer. I mean the actual point of view of the film. Let me explain. Books can be written from a first or third person point of view. First person point of view isn’t used very much, but in a sense it most closely replicates our own experiences. When we walk into a room we don’t know about the murderer hidden in the closet until he appears. The third person point of view is more the “god perspective.” The narrator tells what is happening, and knows things about the story that other characters don’t know. He describers the murderer hiding in the closet, the victim opening the door, and so forth. The narrator in this type of story is somewhat god-like, but is not himself (or herself) a character in the story. The second person is rarely used in narratives, being mostly confined to instruction manuals and such: “First you open the box. Then you remove the blender from the packing material. Etc.”

Movies usually take a third person point of view. We are seeing things from a point of view of none of the characters. This does a good job of telling the story, but it is an unnatural point of view. It doesn’t seem to bother people reading stories or watching movies, however.

Movies and stories tend to be linear in time, although I have read plenty of books in which simultaneous events are interleaved through alternating chapters. Movies do less of that, though some do play with time. An example is “Run Lola Run.” Another is “Elephant.”

“Elephant” has very little dialog. Most of the movie is long slow shots of kids in a high school. Early into the movie though you realize that movie time is non-linear. There is a scene that ends with the high school principal. A number of other scenes go by. Then you are back with the principal as if no time has passed. Kids talk and a girl runs down the hall. The scene is later replayed from the girl’s point of view. Essentially the movie takes a limited time period and expands it by reshowing the same scenes from different points of view. The result is a step beyond third person. The perspective is even more “god-like” than a typical third person narrative. You get to see the events from multiple points of view. The events, it turns out, are a school shooting almost exactly parallel to the Columbine shootings. This was jarring to me when I first saw the two kids with rifles appear in the movie. Most of the film up to the shootings seems banal and everyday. The events are transcribed on film, but despite the multiple viewpoints, there is still not answer given in the film for the senseless violence. We see it all, but we still don’t understand it. It is difficult to describe the effect of the movie in words, but there is no doubt the construction of this film amplifies the horror of the events more than a simple linear perspective would have. This effect is worth experiencing. Afterwards, you realize that some things we humans are capable of cannot be comprehended, only apprehended — which is perhaps the point of the movie.