Monthly Archives: October 2009

The A-Z of Kane

As a new print of the film generally regarded as the greatest ever made is released, here’s my guide to the Orson Welles masterwork.

A-Z of Citizen Kane

A is for the American Film Institute which, in 2007, voted Citizen Kane the Greatest Movie of All Time – as it had also done in 1998.

B is for Boy Wonder, the nickname given to stage and radio star Orson Welles even before he made Citizen Kane (1941).

C is for ceilings. One of the innovations of Citizen Kane was the way in which the domineering title character was always shot from below, so that his power was always underlined (weaker characters were shot from above) – the result was that the ceilings of rooms were seen for the first time in the movies; in fact this was the first time the sets had had to have ceilings..

D is for debuts. Citizen Kane would have been a phenomenal achievement no matter who had made it but the fact that it was Welles’s debut as a movie director (and actor and producer) is astounding. He had to learn even the basics of filmmaking while he preparing Kane. Despite this – or perhaps because of his lack of technical experience and willingness to experiment – Welles subverted the rules of filmmaking and created a new vocabulary in the language of cinema.

E is for the end. Citizen Kane opens with the end of Kane’s story – his death – and then goes back to his humble beginnings.

F is for flashbacks. The story of Kane’s life is told through a series of flashbacks triggered by a newspaper reporter’s interviews with the tycoon’s former colleagues, ex-wife and friends.

G is for Gregg Toland, the cinematographer hired by Welles because of his flamboyance and unconventional style. One of Kane’s many innovations was “depth of field”, the method Toland devised of composing shots so that the screen was loaded with information and the figures and objects at the front of the screen were in focus at the same time as those at the back.

H is for Hearst, William Randolph – the American press baron who inspired the character and story of Citizen Kane. The film was essentially a thinly veiled biopic, which showed how power corrupted and how great egos are born – and grow out of control. Before the film was released, Hearst offered RKO Studios $800,000 (the cost of the film) to destroy the negative.

I is for innovation. Citizen Kane is packed full of new techniques, from the pioneering use of overlapping dialogue (which Welles brought from radio) to the ahead-of-its-time make-up which allowed the young star to convincingly age by 50 years during the course of the film.

J is for Judy Holliday. The scenes in which Susan Alexander is being bullied by Kane into being an opera singer are similar to those in the 1950 movie Born Yesterday, in which a gangster tries to turn his moll into a refined lady. By coincidence, Judy Holliday, that movie’s Oscar-winning star, was tested for the part of Susan in Citizen Kane.

K is for “King” Cole. The great pianist (and singer) Nat “King” Cole can be heard playing in the scene at the El Rancho nightclub where Susan is working.

L is for legacy. Citizen Kane stands as an astonishingly fresh piece of work nearly 70 years after it was made, and it has inspired countless filmmakers, among them Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg who pays homage to it in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

M is for Mercury Theatre, the stage company that Welles founded with John Houseman in New York in 1937. Known for its bold, original productions, Mercury Theatre branched out into radio drama – most famously its vivid 1938 dramatisation of HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which, although broadcast as a Hallowe’en prank, caused a nationwide panic as thousands of Americans believed they were listening to news coverage of a real-life alien invasion.

N is for Neverland. Michael Jackson’s vast estate – a sort of mini-kingdom – is the closest modern-day equivalent to Kane’s Xanadu, where he stored and showed off “the loot of the world” – the art work, architecture and animals he collected from across the globe. The gothic Xanadu was inspired by Hearst’s gargantuan castle San Simeon which was stuffed with antiques and art and had its own zoo.

O is for Only One Oscar. Yup, The Greatest Film of All Time won only one Academy Award – for the screenplay written by Welles and Herman J Mankiewicz. In 2003, Welles’s statuette was about to be sold in an auction at Christie’s in New York (by Welles’s youngest daughter) but was voluntarily withdrawn so that the Academy could buy it back for $1, a deal which all Oscar winners have to agree to. It had been expected to fetch over $300,000.

P is for Parsons. Louella O Parsons was the Hearst newspaper group’s Hollywood gossip columnist who could make or break careers. When she heard that Welles’s film was really about her boss, she demanded to be shown it – and blew a gasket. It was her report to Hearst which triggered his pre-emptive strike of banning advertisements for the film from his papers, a move which led some cinema chains to cancel their bookings.

Q is for the QT. Several key scenes in Citizen Kane were filmed on the quiet, behind closed doors, so that studio executives couldn’t interfere with the production. The projection room scene, plus the interviews, were passed off as tests but Welles fully intended to use them in the movie – and he did.

R is for “rosebud”, the last word uttered by Kane as he dies in the opening scenes of the film. It is the quest to discover what “rosebud” was that drives the whole film as a reporter is assigned the job of getting to the bottom of the mystery by interviewing as many of Kane’s friends and associates as necessary.

S is for score. Bernard Herrmann’s evocative score – his first feature film score – contributed much to the sinister atmosphere of the film. He went on to compose the music for such diverse classics as The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) and Taxi Driver (1976).

T is for twenty-four, the age Welles was when he was making “the greatest film ever made”.

U is for unorthodox. A particularly unusual technique was devised by editor Robert Wise (later the director of The Sound of Music) to make the newsreel footage at the start of the film look authentic and grainy: he ran the film through cheesecloth filled with sand.

V is for vendetta. Hearst’s papers conducted a smear campaign against Welles in revenge for Citizen Kane; one rumour which circulated was that Welles was a communist.

W is for “will-they-won’t-they?”. The release of the film very nearly didn’t happen as RKO’s board buckled under pressure not just from Hearst but also from other studio heads, who felt the controversy would damage the industry. Finally, three months after its original scheduled release date, it opened in New York – the result of Welles pointing out to the studio that his contract gave him the right to sue if the film wasn’t shown within a certain period of time.

X is for x-tras. These included Alan Ladd (who would become a leading man the following year) as the pipe-smoking reporter at the end of the film.

Y is for years. The story of Citizen Kane spans an epic 65 years, from his childhood when he was sent to live in the care of the family lawyer, to his death as an isolated old man. For 50 of those years, Kane was played by Orson Welles.

Z is for the Ziegfeld Follies, the show in which William Randolph Hearst’s much-younger mistress, Marion Davies, was appearing when they first met. Hearst’s relationship with Davies differed from that of Kane and Susan Alexander in the movie in a few ways: although Hearst undoubtedly got Davies into movies, she was actually an accomplished comedienne, whereas her fictional alter ego was a pretty lousy opera singer. And while Susan marries and divorces Kane, Davies, whose movie career made her independently wealthy, remained devoted to her man (though they never married) until his death.
* A new print of Citizen Kane is showing at the GFT, Glasgow from October 30 until Thursday 5, and at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh from October 30 until Sunday 8.

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Five Star CD Reviews Vol 2

Gerry Mulligan: Lonesome Boulevard (Verve 0602527068756)
Anyone who heard the great baritone saxophonist, composer and bandleader Gerry Mulligan when he played the 1988 Glasgow Jazz Festival will recall that he was a player of terrific elegance and lyricism. Those qualities shine through on every track of this superb 1990 quartet album. Highlights include the train-mad Mulligan’s only recording of the thrilling piece he wrote as composer-in-residence at Glasgow, The Flying Scotsman, which was played with a full big band and recorded by the BBC – though never yet released on CD…
Download: Lonesome Boulevard, The Flying Scotsman
Gerry Mulligan-Paul Desmond Quartet: Blues in Time (Verve 0602517995789)
So busy were the saxophonists Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan in the mid-1950s that it took three years to finally get together to make this classic 1957 recording. Accompanied by Mulligan’s regular, piano-less, rhythm section of bass and drums, the sweet-sounding altoist (Desmond) and the wonderfully lyrical baritone player (Mulligan) prove to be a great team, on the same wavelength yet able to keep the music spontaneous and exciting – as the title track, in particular, shows.
Download: Blues in Time, Standstill
Humphrey Lyttelton and His Band and The Paseo Jazz Band 1953-56 (Upbeat Jazz URCD223)
There’s a great deal of previously unissued material on this CD which features the late, great trumpeter and bandleader Humphrey Lyttelton at the peak of his powers. Among the 24 tracks included here are a trio of terrific recordings he made with London-based West Indian musicians under the name the Paseo Jazz Band, and a quartet of songs recorded with the American vocalist Marie Bryant, best remembered as having sung in the iconic short jazz film Jammin’ the Blues.
Download: Paseo Blues, Georgia On My Mind
Johnny Dodds: Definitive Dodds (Retrieval RTR79056)
Johnny Dodds was the definitive New Orleans-style clarinettist of the 1920s, and this superb new CD comprises the recordings he made over a 15-month period from 1926 – at the peak of his powers. Although the five groups featured have different names, the personnel is drawn from a mouth-watering list of Chicago-based jazz greats including, most notably, Louis Armstrong (trumpet), on whose Hot 5 recordings Dodd was well featured. It’s all great stuff, particularly the Black Bottom Stompers sides, with Barney Bigard on sax and Earl Hines on piano.
Download: Wild Man Blues, Melancholy
Billie Holiday: The Ben Webster/Harry Edison Sessions (Lonehill Jazz LHJ10355)
The recordings on this new double CD are essential listening for anyone with an interest in jazz: they represent the last blast of greatness of the greatest jazz singer of them all, Billie Holiday. Comprising three classic 1956/57 Verve albums (Body and Soul, All Or Nothing At All and the peerless Songs for Distingue Lovers), plus a set from the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, this swinging, soulful, and uplifting CD finds Holiday (who died in 1959) with one of her best line-ups – including Ben Webster (tenor sax), Harry Edison (trumpet), Jimmy Rowles (piano) and Barney Kessel (guitar).
Download: But NotĀ  For Me, Stars Fell From Alabama

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Mad About Mulligan

One of the main reasons I pray for a long lifeĀ for my old cassette recorder is so I can go on reliving, ad infinitum, the first concert hall jazz gig I ever attended. Back in 1988, one of the biggest American stars at the Glasgow International Jazz Festival was Gerry Mulligan, a musician whose powerful, distinctive and lyrical playing immediately won me over and continues to seduce me every time I listen to his records.

I still can’t quite believe my luck in hearing the great baritone saxophonist, composer and bandleader Gerry Mulligan on what was undoubtedly his only visit to Glasgow – and I heard him not once, but twice. (I would have heard all three of his concerts had my dad not decided to be fair and take my brother to his gig with the Strathclyde Youth Jazz Orchestra.) I was so immediately smitten by Mulligan’s muscular baritone sound and charismatic leadership of his Concert Jazz Band that I joined the throngs of long-in-the-tooth fans at the stage door and secured my first-ever jazz autograph at the end of the evening.

Mulligan’s quartet gig may have been terrific but my memories of it were immediately swept aside by the tidal wave of excitement generated by the electrifying performance of his Concert Jazz Band on the last night of the festival. This amazing ensemble swung like crazy and played every number as if for the first time – tightly executed arrangements with red-hot solos by the likes of Seldon Powell (tenor sax), Bill Charlap (piano), Barry Ries (trumpet) and of course Mulligan himself, who barely rested. As Dave Brubeck points out in the fascinating documentary, Listen:Gerry Mulligan, made after Mulligan’s death, he was incapable of standing still and not playing.

Among the many gems played that night in Glasgow were such late-era Mulligan numbers as the joyful opener Sun on the Stairs, Walk on the Water (on which he played a serene soprano sax), Song For Strayhorn and 42nd and Broadway as well as a magnificent version of Georgia on My Mind.

But the piece that had everyone in that audience on the edge of their seats was the one which had been commissioned by the jazz festival. As with his K-4 Pacific, Mulligan drew on his love of trains (as well as on a theme from his Octet for Sea Cliff) to create a rollercoaster ride of a composition for Glasgow. The Flying Scotsman is breathtakingly evocative and exciting – a thrilling, dramatic piece that gathers momentum and builds to a spine-tingling climax.

It prompted a euphoric reaction from the audience (though I seem to remember there being some criticism the next day that it had been too short – the bean-counters clearly didn’t think it was value for money; never mind that it was a beautifully crafted composition with not a wasted or redundant note), and was one of the main reasons for my insistence, the following May, on setting up tape recorders all over the house to make sure we didn’t miss a note of the Concert Jazz Band gig when it was finally broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

To my knowledge, Mulligan only recorded The Flying Scotsman once: on the newly reissued quartet album Lonesome Boulevard, originally released in 1990. It certainly sounds great but it doesn’t have the excitement or the thrills of the full-band version. Which makes it all the more irritating that the recording of the 1988 Concert Jazz Band gig has never been released on CD (the following year’s Stan Getz concert, also recorded by the Beeb, has long been available on CD). Everyone should get to hear it.

Frankly, I would rather stay at home and listen to the still-electrifying Concert Jazz Band on the stage at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow in 1988 than endure a live performance by a second-rate band in 2009… Gerry Mulligan ruined us Glaswegians for anybody else.


I got to hear Gerry Mulligan again, four years after the Glasgow Jazz Festival, when I was a student in Paris and he was headlining the La Villette Jazz Festival with his Re-birth of the Cool Band. That occasion I don’t remember so well, possibly because I got distracted by the social side of things – namely the members of the Newport Jazz Festival All-Stars who had secured me my ticket!

When, a couple of years later, I was invited to make my debut on radio, on BBC Radio Scotland’s Bebop to Hiphop, my first track was my all-time favourite – the sublime Shady Side from the Gerry Mulligan Meets Johnny Hodges album. It was only after playing it that I learned that it’s my dad’s favourite too.

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