|Network on Air's streaming service is continuing the idea of using the brand's extensive film library known as The British Film for a series of double bills, inspired by the way to watch movies that only started to be widely phased out in the nineteen-eighties. Before that, tradition dictated that if you attended your local cinema before then, you would be treated to a pair of films, plus advertisements, trailers and even short subjects to supply what would be regarded as a full evening's entertainment (or indeed a full afternoon's entertainment). One such double bill is a star-studded pair of music-themed specials, one with an American musician, the other with jazz celebrities.
First, in Ballad in Blue, Ray Charles was that American, one of the most significant music men of the twentieth century thanks to his writing and performing prowess, but as he was blind, there was nobody who would have taken a chance on him as a leading man in acting. Have father and son team Miguel and Alexander Salkind, who would later make the blockbusting The Three Musketeers of the nineteen-seventies and its sequel, to do something about that, bringing Charles across the Atlantic to play someone he knew very well: himself. Not much of a stretch, and it also offered him the opportunity to serve up a rendition or two of his most famous tunes up to that time, but the fact remained he could not hold up an entire movie on his own and needed help in that department.
Thus Charles's concert footage (specially shot for the film) was intertwined with one of the most sentimental narratives the Salkinds could commission, all to snare that all-important family friendly market. They had their star, he sang some songs, played his piano and all was right with the world, fair enough, yet what they dreamt up to frame this has been the subject of some scepticism ever since, a story of a little blind English boy called David (Piers Bishop, who unsurprisingly left acting far behind after this). Although he is quite plainly looking at things in selected scenes, that was not the worst aspect of his readings, as he was consistently stilted throughout, base level enthusiastic but offering no evidence as to why he was chosen when he was so painfully wooden from start to finish.
Mary Peach played his anguished mother and Tom Bell her boyfriend, who may be an alcoholic but it is never really made much of aside from the odd drunk scene - Ray was well into his heroin addiction at this juncture, and that might have made a more compelling social problem to tackle, but, hey, there would go the family audience. These dramatic parts were scripted in a gritty, almost kitchen sink approach despite the setting being resolutely showbiz - Bell's character was a musician himself, though suspicious viewers may observe we never see his face and hands in the same shot when he's tickling the ivories. Other than that, a camp amusement could be gained from this soapy set of circumstances, but mostly what this entertained as its chief selling point was, of course, the Ray Charles music, which remained as excellent as you would expect, even if director Paul Henreid (from Casablanca!) insisted on adding superfluities such as David's unnecessary floating head constantly visible during a greatest hits medley. Ray rose above it…
Ah, the intermission, and this time we are flogged, as usual, the ices, the refreshing soft drinks, the peanuts and the hot dogs, these in full sixties colour to make them appear more appetising - interestingly, popcorn does not seem to have caught on yet, so there's no advertising for that perhaps too American of snacks. There is also an ad for a used car showroom, not far from this cinema (if you're in Leominster, which you probably won't be). Then we have the trailers, a horror double bill of Behemoth, the Sea Monster and the Hammer version of The Mummy with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, plus an American novelty teaser for I Married a Woman, with Diana Dors.
Onto the second movie, which is the Shakespearean melodrama All Night Long. Obviously, Will never wrote a play with that title, but this is actually an updating of Othello, with Patrick McGoohan, best known from other sixties properties Danger Man and The Prisoner (on television), as our Iago. In the play, the villain's motives are not quite as clear, he appears to be racist but might simply be a psychopath who delights in ruining lives, however McGoohan in this was greedy, he wants jazz singer Marti Stevens to get away from her doting husband and fellow musician Paul Harris, for their marriage has meant she no longer performs. Imagine the profits this Iago could generate if he persuades the Desdemona to return to the circuit, and push the Othello out of the way for good.
It was an ingenious premise, but one that has lasted beyond mere novelty value thanks to the group of professional jazz musicians the producers assembled to add some authenticity to the music, so as the partygoers arrive to celebrate Harris and Stevens' first anniversary, you could see and indeed listen to the likes of Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus, Johnny Dankworth ("Sorry Cleo couldn't make it!") and Tubby Hayes who were offered showcase sequences to demonstrate their prowess on their chosen instruments (the soundtrack is available on CD, if you are impressed - and it is a very good listen). Even McGoohan got in on the act, having been taught drums especially for the role, and offered a serious drumming solo that is a highlight of around the halfway point - intense is a word for it.
But he always was an intense performer, and as he got to keep the drumkit from the movie, it's amusing to think of him returning home after a hard day's thespianism to channel his frustrations and energy into battering the hell out of those skins. Also present, on the acting side, were Richard Attenborough whose party this was, convincing as a jazz fan whose evening spirals out of control since he is a little out of his depth, and Keith Michell as the Cassio stand-in who bears the brunt of Harris's misplaced jealousy. Betsy Blair was McGoohan's wife who knows the truth of his mendacious ways, one of her doormat characters, but the mixture of sharp tunes and self-consciously cool dialogue, delivered with a real snap, makes this irresistible for fans of this era's pre-Beatles entertainments, as it completely believes in itself as a valid take on the Bard, and there's nothing camp about it; add the crisp black and white cinematography and you have a highly pleasing relic of the sixties jazz age, as seen through hep British eyes.
These double bills are a nostalgic in the right way rendition of the sort of evenings out of yesteryear that so many Brits would experience, and as the preserved (or restored) prints of the films are pristine, reminiscent of what they would be like to watch as new. Click here to join the Network website.