Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Star That Got Away

The Good Girl: Lucille Bremer and the Golden Age of MGM
By David Ehrenstein and Bill Reed

As movie entrances go, the one created for Lucille Bremer at the top of Meet Me in St. Louis couldn’t be smoother. Judy Garland’s Esther Smith is explaining to Marjorie Main’s Katie the housekeeper “the brutal fact” about her sister Rose: she “isn’t getting any younger.”

“Well here comes the poor old maid now,” quips Main’s Katie with offhand sarcasm and we cut to a most attractive young woman with long red hair beneath her picture hat. Swanning up the walkway of the Smith family house, while ever-so-coquettishly trying to steal a glance at the just-moved-in “Boy Next Door, “ Lucille Bremer is the very image of feminine charm. As we quickly learn, said boy isn’t destined for her but her younger sister, leading into one of the songs that made Garland’s fame. But Bremer is scarcely short-shrifted. She gets fourth billing in this beautifully made half-ensemble-piece half-star vehicle. She and Garland make a marvelous “sister act” in a confection light on plot but generous on atmosphere, designed to cheer the spirits of wartime moviegoers in 1944 with sunny images of a better “simpler” life back in 1903. And for the soldiers at the front, always first to be shown the latest Hollywood releases -- this was literally“ what they were fighting for.“ The thing is that Meet Me in St. Louis proved so effective as to transcend its original context, going on to entertain several generations afterwards with no end in sight. And Bremer, with her perfect “cameo” features, “Gibson Girl” look, and light-spirited manner is very much a part of what makes it all work so well.

Clearly Lucille Bremer was a “find.” Even before Meet Me in St. Louis debuted plans were underway to launch her in three major follow-ups: Ziegfeld Follies, Till the Clouds Roll By and most important of all, Yolanda and the Thief. Why the rush, and on such a scale? Well, as Tinseltown scuttlebutt would have it Lucille Bremer was the producer Arthur Freed’s mistress -- or as the ever-colorful Ann Miller put it “Arthur Freed‘s pussy.” If that was indeed the case (and there’s much controversy regarding that point even to this day) Bremer would scarcely be the first movie mogul girlfriend to get the big star treatment. Think of Marion Davies and ultra-powerful newspaper magnate turned movie producer William Randolph Hearst or Darryl Zanuck head of 20th Century-Fox and the bevy of sumptuous ladies (some of quite limited acting ability) he tried to make household words. But as anyone who has seen her work knows Marion Davies, would have been a star had she never met Hearst. And while only the most dedicated of “Trivial Pursuit” players recalls Bella Darvi, Irina Demick or Genevieve Gilles, Juliette Greco remains a name to conjure with. For she had a career as a singer and “Left Bank” intellectual muse long before Zanuck met her that held her in good stead long after their affair had ended. Make no mistake about Bremer, she was always closer to the Juliette Greco than Genevieve Gilles end of the talent scale. The difference is Freed didn’t run a studio. He was simply the most celebrated producer within one -- MGM. While Louis B. Mayer was the big boss, Freed was given considerable free rein to run his “unit” (as the Freed group was called), for the musicals he produced were not only moneymakers but set the pace for the “no expense spared” look and style of MGM as a whole. Consequently any actress chosen for “Freed unit” stardom was a very special entity. And within that matrix there was nothing ever quite like the dizzying height of Bremer’s rise and the brutal rapidity of her fall.

Lucille Bremer caught Arthur Freed’s eye when he saw her performing at New York’s “Versailles” nightclub in 1943 -- the year just before St. Louis was made . It was to that venue that the classically-trained performer repaired after the out-of-town failure of the Broadway-bound, Dancing in the Streets. Prior to this she had appeared in several big New York hits including Panama Hattie and Lady in the Dark. She had also been a Rockette, at which time she was voted by her colleagues of the chorus line as "the one among them most likely to gain fame in pictures." And indeed she was, and Freed had to work fast, for when he met Bremer she had already made a screen test for Goldwyn and been offered a contract. 


Sunday, October 06, 2013

Happy Birthday, Demas!


Today would have been the [make that 110th] birthday of my dear friend, jazz trumpeter Demas Dean. When I first met him in the mid-1980s, Demas lived in L.A.'s mid-Wilshire area in a pleasant, neat, well-kept one-room apartment. The walls of his abode were an arresting photographic who's who of black entertainment; with many of the photos having been personally inscribed to him from: Maxine Sullivan, Billie Holiday, Valaida Snow and Elisabeth Welch, et al.

Of all his professional accomplishments, the one he liked most to talk about were the recording sessions he did with Bessie Smith; the first on February 9, 1928 with a second one almost two weeks later on February 21, for a total of six sides: "Thinking Blues," Pickpocket Blues," "I Used to Be Your Sweet Mama," "Standin' in the Rain Blues," "It Won't Be You," and "I'm a Cheater." Here is a little of what he told me about the experience:

" I had never heard Bessie Smith. I had only heard of her up until the time I recorded with her. I was so surprised when I finally heard her in the studio. She was so far above all the other blues singers I'd heard up until then---and that includes Lucille Hegamin whose band I was in one time and who probably was just as well known as Bessie in those days.

"You just couldn't stop listening to Bessie and looking at her when she sang. She was a large, attractive, brown-skinned woman, with very good legs. Later on I heard stories about how difficult she was, but I found her very relaxed, very sedate. As long as you were no problem to her, she was no problem to you."

The quote is taken from a never-completed film documentary I was working on about Demas in 1988. Looking back to the Spring of that year, there's little doubt that Demas knew, as his weight begin to plummet vertiginously, that he was dying and not just sick. Then one day I received an emergency call from his nurse asking me to drive him from his home to the hospital. The Demas I saw then was clearly quite ill but still chipper. After a few hours at the facility, I brought him home, and that was the last I ever saw him.

I later learned that that night, instead of his near-pabulum diet, Demas had ordered a fried chicken meal from a takeout restaurant. The next evening, unquestionably still in his right mind, he upped the ante even more by demanding and devouring the best barbecue dinner that money could have delivered to one's home. Demas then went to bed and died a few hours later on May 30, 1990. When people get very very old they sometimes become strangely unafraid of death. I would suppose that such fearlessness must have always been the case with the highly evolved Demas, but---as evidenced by his final dietary daring----it was truer of him than ever in his last days. Death by barbecue.

Not a day goes by. . ..


Here's part of that video I shot of Demas in 1988 not long before he died.


Thursday, October 03, 2013

Frank D'Rone R.I.P.

The wonderful singer/guitarist Frank D'Rone has just died. Here's a career overview/obit by Howard Reich that appeared in the Chicago Tribune a few hours ago. D'Rone came along, perhaps, just a tad too late, circa 1960, to "make  it" on the national scene. The winds of generational music change were already beginning to dust up. But, even extra-demographically, most folks in the Chicago area remain familiar with D'Rone and he could still pull 'em in there. In fact, he performed at a private affair here in L.A. five or six years ago and packed the place (Catalina's).

D'Rone was fairly close to being the first  "name" performer I ever saw perform "live" after I moved to NYC while still mere protoplasm in Buster Brown shoes. He was appearing at the ultra-hip club, The Living Room, in the Murray Hill area.  I was not legally old enough to get into clubs, but somehow I pulled it off. (Fake moustache?) I went with my friend Bill Black. Ironically, Black, somewhat of a singer's singer and a generation older than I, was not familiar with him. But Bill was knocked out by what he heard. (And a little child shall lead them.)  Just D'Rone accompanying himself on guitar. His most recent album, Double Exposure, was fairly much as good as any of the D'Rone classics from the late '50s-early '60s. My condolences to his family and (many) friends.

Here's a great mid-period D'Rone track.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Heads Up!

Here's a few upcoming L.A. Jazz Institute programs (at the LAX Marriott) that should be of interest to devotees of vocal jazz in the SoCal area w/ Sue Raney, Kurt Reichenbach, & Pinky Winters.