Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Music of Miles Davis and Hank Mobley, Part 2: "In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk" (1961)

Cover for the 4-CD box set of the complete concerts at the Blackhawk. That's Miles Davis's wife Frances on the left.

Amazing picture of the Blackhawk jazz club in April, 1961. It's a parking lot now.

The really cool cover for the 1988 CD reissue of "Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk."

Miles Davis at the Blackhawk, 1961.
In re-listening to some of my Miles Davis albums, I decided that I wanted to write about his 1961 group that included the great tenor sax player Hank Mobley. In my last post I reviewed Miles Davis’s only studio sessions with Hank Mobley, which resulted in Davis’s 1961 album “Someday My Prince Will Come.” In this post I’ll take a look at Davis’s second project with Hank Mobley, the live albums “In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk.” These were Davis’s first live albums to be released by Columbia. His 1958 sextet had also been recorded live, but those performances weren’t issued until 1963 and 1973. “In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk” was expanded in 2003 to a 4-CD set including all of the music that was taped by Columbia on April 21st and 22nd, 1961. It’s a terrific set and I would recommend it to any fan of Davis’s work. Davis’s rhythm section was one of the greatest in all of jazz history. Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb could cook, and there’s ample proof of that on these albums.

The Blackhawk was a famous jazz club in San Francisco, and although it was only open from 1949 to 1963, many of the most famous names in jazz played there in the 1950’s. California native Dave Brubeck was a Blackhawk regular, and Cal Tjader, Thelonious Monk, and Ahmad Jamal all recorded live albums there. Ralph J. Gleason’s wonderful liner notes to “At the Blackhawk” give us a good sense of what the scene at the Blackhawk was like. 

Rather than go through all of the songs the group played one by one, I’ll give an overview of each set.

Friday night, Set 1:
The band is exuberant, outgoing, expressive, hard-driving, and swinging. There’s great playing by all members, and this set shows what a tight band they were. This version of Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo” makes the original sound stately by comparison. There’s also a 17-minute version of “No Blues,” aka “Pfrancing,” which is the longest song the group played either night. Miles’s solo on “No Blues” is more punchy and extroverted than usual. There’s also a lovely bowed bass solo by Paul Chambers. 

Friday night, Set 2:
This was the longest set played either night. I love the way Miles plays on “Neo.” The Latin feel of the song seems to bring out different shades of his playing. He should have kept “Neo” in his concert repertoire. A lovely version of “I Thought About You” is the first ballad of the evening, and features an excellent Miles solo. “Walkin’” swings hard, and Mobley does great work on this tune, which also features another nice arco bass solo by Chambers. “Love, I’ve Found You” is performed by Kelly, Chambers, and Cobb as a trio. 

Friday night, Set 3:
A slightly more laid back set, featuring one of my favorite Miles Davis ballads, “Fran Dance.” On “If I Were a Bell” Kelly plays the same “Big Ben” intro from Davis’s 1956 version of the song with Red Garland on piano. Both “On Green Dolphin Street” and “If I Were a Bell” feature outstanding work from Wynton Kelly. Kelly was an excellent pianist who always sounded effortless and graceful no matter if he was creating beautiful solos or comping behind Miles or Mobley. 

Saturday night, Set 1:
A short set, but it features an excellent solo by Hank Mobley on “If I Were a Bell,” and a terrific version of “So What” that is played at a much faster tempo than the studio version. Miles’s solo on “So What” is blazing. 

Saturday night, Set 2:
As on Friday night, those lucky patrons who saw the second set got to hear a lot of music. There are excellent versions of “On Green Dolphin Street,” which has a great bass solo from Paul Chambers, and a terrific solo from Miles on “Walkin’” where he holds some really long notes. There’s also a slightly sloppy version of “Round Midnight.” 

Saturday night, Set 3:
The third set features a really nice version of “Autumn Leaves,” which is incomplete because the tapes weren’t rolling when Miles and the group took the stage, so the beginning of the song is missing. There’s another great version of “Neo,” featuring two solos from Miles, and some great Wynton Kelly piano playing on “Bye Bye (Theme)” and “Love, I’ve Found You.”

Saturday night, Set 4:
The evening comes to a close with the lovely ballad “I Thought About You,” a great version of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and the trio of Kelly, Chambers, and Cobb playing “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise.” “Prince” and “Softly” both feature excellent playing from Kelly.
“In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk” shows a great band at the peak of their powers. Even though Miles wasn’t digging what Hank Mobley was playing, you can’t tell from these recordings. Both Davis and Mobley offer excellent solos throughout the two nights captured on disc. And Kelly, Chambers, and Cobb display their tightness after two years of playing together. 

By 1961, Davis’s on stage behavior rankled some jazz purists. Miles was famous for playing with his back to the audience, for leaving the bandstand when his other musicians were soloing, and for never introducing songs or making small talk. He was there to play, and that’s all you were going to get. Davis tells a story in his autobiography about his mother talking to him around this time about his on stage behavior.

“My mother said to me, ‘Miles, you could at least smile for the audience when they’re clapping so hard for you. They’re clapping because they love you, love what you are playing because it’s beautiful.’ I said, ‘What do you want me to be, an Uncle Tom?’ She looked at me real hard for a minute and then she said, ‘If I ever hear about you tomming, I’ll come and kill you myself.’” (Miles, p.255) 

That anecdote shows where some of Miles’s pride came from. While now Miles’s behavior on stage wouldn’t be much remarked upon, at the time I think some people thought that he should be like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, two famously outgoing African-American jazz trumpeters. But that simply wasn’t Miles’s style. I don’t think that he ever thought he was being rude on stage, I think he was just being himself. 

Davis’s next album was recorded live at Carnegie Hall in May, just a month after the Blackhawk sets. The Carnegie Hall concert would pair him with the Gil Evans Orchestra, and would mark the first time he had ever recorded live with an orchestra. It would prove to be Mobley’s final recording with Davis, and I’ll take a closer look at the Carnegie Hall concert in my next post.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Music of Miles Davis and Hank Mobley, Part 1: "Someday My Prince Will Come" (1961)

Miles Davis's lovely wife, Frances Taylor, on the cover of his "Someday My Prince Will Come" album, 1961.

Miles Davis, 1961.

Miles Davis playing with his Harmon mute, 1961.

Tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, circa 1960.
Miles Davis was a jazz player of supreme innovation throughout his long musical career. I’ve previously written a short essay about his landmark 1959 album “Kind of Blue,” and another essay that’s an overview of his music in the 1950’s and 1960’s. For a brief period of time in 1961 one of my favorite jazz artists, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, worked with Miles Davis. Mobley only recorded once with Davis in the studio, producing the excellent 1961 album “Someday My Prince Will Come,” but Mobley is also featured on Davis’s live albums “In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk,” and “Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall.” I decided to write about these albums because they tend to be overlooked in comparison with the more famous groups that Davis led before 1961, and from 1964-68. 

Hank Mobley is most well-known for the many classic hard bop albums he made for Blue Note Records from 1955-1970. While he didn’t get that much recognition during his lifetime, Mobley’s posthumous reputation has soared and he is now seen as one of the key hard bop players of his era. Mobley started out recording with Horace Silver and Art Blakey in the Jazz Messengers in the mid 1950’s. When he left the group to record on his own he made a number of excellent albums for Blue Note. Among his most famous albums are “Peckin’ Time,” “Soul Station,” “Roll Call,” “Workout,” “No Room For Squares,” and “The Turnaround!” Mobley’s playing had an open, clear tone, and he was described by jazz critic Leonard Feather as the “middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone,” which meant that his sound was not as heavy as that of Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, but not as light as Stan Getz. Mobley’s sound was always very pretty and melodic. 

Mobley came to Davis during a transition period for the trumpeter. Davis had led a jazz sextet supergroup in 1958 with John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb in his band. This was the group that would go on to record “Kind of Blue.” However, by the time of the “Kind of Blue” sessions in March and April of 1959, the group had already broken up, with Evans leaving the band in November, 1958. Wynton Kelly took Evans’s place and plays on “Freddie Freeloader” on “Kind of Blue.” Evans returned for the “Kind of Blue” sessions, but it was clear that he was not going to rejoin the group permanently. Evans, Adderley, and Coltrane all wanted to lead their own groups, and Adderley was the next to leave, in September, 1959. Coltrane stuck with Miles until April of 1960, after finishing a European tour with the group. It was on this tour that Davis bought Coltrane a soprano saxophone, which Coltrane would use to great effect on his recording of “My Favorite Things,” among other songs. According to Davis’s autobiography, Coltrane tried to quit the band before the European tour, and suggested Wayne Shorter as his replacement. But Davis prevailed upon Coltrane to finish the tour before he left. When the tour was over, Davis contacted Shorter about joining his group, but Shorter was already playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Shorter would eventually join Davis’s group in 1964, joining Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams to form Miles’s “Second Classic Quintet.” Sonny Stitt, who played both tenor and alto saxophones, took Coltrane's place. There are some bootleg live recordings of Stitt with Miles, but they never recorded in the studio together. Davis’s autobiography says that Stitt left the group in early 1961, but a timeline of Davis’s groups included in the liner notes of the “Miles Davis and John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings” box set says that Mobley joined the group on December 26, 1960. 

When Miles Davis entered Columbia’s studios in March, 1961 to record “Someday My Prince Will Come,” his small-group follow up to “Kind of Blue,” his band was Mobley on tenor saxophone, Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. The album was recorded over three days. On the first day of sessions, March 7th, the songs “Pfrancing” and “Drad Dog” were recorded. Both tunes were written by Miles. At the next sessions, held on March 20th and 21st, John Coltrane sat in with the band and soloed on “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “Teo,” making these the final recordings in his collaboration with Miles Davis. Another Davis original titled “Blues No.2” was also recorded at these sessions, but it wasn’t released until 1979, when it appeared on the “Circle in the Round” compilation album. 

Here are my thoughts on the songs on “Someday My Prince Will Come”:

“Someday My Prince Will Come”: A popular song from the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, “Someday My Prince Will Come” became popular as a jazz tune after Dave Brubeck included it on his 1957 album “Dave Digs Disney,” which was entirely comprised of songs from Disney movies. Miles’s former pianist Bill Evans also included the song on his 1960 album “Portrait in Jazz.” The song begins with Chambers strumming a repeated note on his bass, and Cobb softly tapping a cymbal before Wynton Kelly starts playing some pretty chords. Then Miles comes in with the melody, playing with his Harmon mute, which gave his playing on ballads such a unique tone. Miles solos first, sticking fairly close to the melody line, and then giving way to Mobley. Once Mobley enters, Cobb switches from brushes to sticks, giving the music slightly more drive. Mobley’s solo is gentle and pretty, and Kelly takes the next solo. Then, at about 5:20 into the song, Miles comes back and states the melody again, which might make you think the song is winding down. But it isn’t, as John Coltrane’s unmistakable sound fills the speakers. At times during his solo Coltrane plays a lot of notes, similar to his earlier “sheets of sound” playing style. Coltrane’s solo takes the song to a different level. Miles then comes back and states the theme for a third time. Kelly then solos again briefly, and returns the song to the sound it had at the beginning, with Chambers playing the same repeated note and Cobb tapping a cymbal. Interestingly enough, later in 1961 Wynton Kelly would record his own album titled “Someday My Prince Will Come,” with Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb supporting him. According to Bob Blumenthal’s liner notes for the Miles and Coltrane box set, Coltrane had never played “Prince” before, and was reading the chord changes off a sheet of paper.

“Old Folks”: Not to be confused with the Stephen Foster song “Old Folks at Home,” this song dates from the late 1930’s. But while the lyric is a maudlin tale of an old man, Miles makes the song an expression of yearning through his gorgeous playing. Mobley’s solo is also lovely, as he caresses the ballad for all it’s worth. Kelly sprinkles some lovely trills into his brief solo. 

“Pfrancing”: Finger snaps start this tune off, as Kelly states the brief theme, which is then echoed in a different octave, as though Kelly is answering himself. Davis then plays the theme, and Mobley provides the response. Davis then holds the last note of the phrase for about 10 seconds and exits, allowing Kelly to take a brief bluesy solo. Miles re-enters for his solo, which is full of bluesy smears. Kelly then gets a longer solo, which is somewhat reminiscent of his work on “Freddie Freeloader.” Mobley is in familiar territory here, and he turns in a nice solo. Chambers then gets a bass solo which never bores, and shows why he was one of the greatest bass players of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Kelly then gets a chance to solo again before Miles and Mobley restate the theme. “Pfrancing” was written for Miles’s first wife, Frances Taylor, whose lovely picture adorns the cover of the album. When “Pfrancing” was performed live at the Blackhawk it was retitled “No Blues,” and it remained a constant in Davis’s concert repertoire until the end of the 1960’s. 

“Drad Dog”: I had no idea where the name for this song came from until I read an Ira Gitler piece where he wrote that it’s named after Columbia Records president Goddard Lieberson, as “Drad Dog” is Goddard backwards. Ah, it all makes sense now. It’s a slow ballad with Miles’s muted trumpet giving the song a late-night feel. “Drad Dog” is a pretty song, with lovely solos by Davis, Mobley, and Kelly. Wynton Kelly was just smooth as hell. 

“Teo”: This song is named after Davis’s longtime Columbia Records producer Teo Macero, who would later prove to be an important partner during Miles’s electric period as he and Davis edited long jam sessions into albums. I always love it when Davis’s albums featuring him talking after a take-he’s usually saying something to Teo. At the end of “Gingerbread Boy” on “Miles Smiles,” he says “Teo, play that. Teo, Teo, Teo, Teo play that.” I think Davis just really liked the name Teo. Oddly enough, when “Teo” was played live at the Blackhawk in April of 1961, it was retitled “Neo.” “Teo” starts off with only Chambers playing, and then Cobb and Kelly join in, giving the song its Latin feel. Miles comes in and gives the song a mysterious, haunting quality. Miles hits a really high note around the 2:35 mark, and his solo is excellent, changing character several times. Coltrane solos and Mobley lays out. “Teo” is right in Coltrane’s modal wheelhouse, and he unleashes a powerful and yearning solo. “Teo” is a highlight of the album, and a fitting close to the Davis and Coltrane partnership. The liner notes say that a version of “Teo” was attempted with Mobley on tenor, but a full take was never recorded. 

“I Thought About You”: This beautiful ballad was written by Johnny Mercer and Jimmy Van Heusen, and it has been recorded by many singers and jazz musicians. Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra both included it on their seminal 1956 albums “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!” Miles plays the tune with his Harmon mute, and the result is one of his most exquisite ballad performances ever. Mobley contributes a lovely, lightly swinging solo. 

Bonus tracks:

“Blues No. 2”: This song, a Davis original, sees Miles reunited with former drummer Philly Joe Jones, who played in his “First Classic Quintet” from 1955-58 and was replaced by Jimmy Cobb. It’s a straight ahead swinger, with Miles stating the theme right away. You can hear how the band plays a little differently as Jones adds little kickers during Davis’s solo. Jones was one of the hardest swinging drummers of the time, and he gets to play a couple of tasty little solo breaks as he and Miles engage in a back and forth dialogue. Mobley creates a groovy solo, repeating a little phrase several times near the end. Miles then comes back in, playing higher than usual, and Jones gets another little solo. This must have been a fun tune for everyone to jam on.

“Someday My Prince Will Come”: This is an alternate take with only Mobley on tenor sax. The song starts much the same way as the master take, with Chambers repeating a single note before Kelly and Cobb come in. Davis’s solo has some similar ideas as the master take, so it seems clear that he knew what he wanted to do with the song. Like the master take, Cobb switches from brushes to sticks as Mobley takes his solo. The length of this alternate take is about the same length as the master before Coltrane comes in, about 5:30. It’s interesting to hear this alternate take, as it doesn’t quite lift off the same way as the take with Coltrane does. 

 “Someday My Prince Will Come” is an excellent album, full of great playing from all of the contributors, but I feel like it’s one of the few Miles Davis albums that kind of slips through the cracks. It’s one of only two pre-1981 Miles Davis Columbia albums not included in full on a box set. The two Coltrane tracks are on the Miles and Coltrane box set, but the full album isn’t. The other album that doesn’t appear in full on a box set is 1968’s “Filles de Kilimanjaro,” whose tracks are split between the “Miles Davis Quintet 1965-1968” set and “The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions.” That means that you could buy all of the box sets of Davis’s work that Columbia has issued and you would thus own all of the studio albums he recorded for the label from 1955-1975, except for “Someday My Prince Will Come.” It’s something of a neglected stepchild. 

Two of the songs on “Someday My Prince Will Come” entered Davis’s concert repertoire. “Pfrancing,” which became “No Blues,” was played regularly by Davis until at least 1967. “No Blues” is played three times on the “Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Volume 1” 3-CD set, and it even appears once on the “Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Volume 2” concerts from 1969. “I Thought About You” also entered Miles’s songbook, and there are several live versions of the song from 1963-65. “Teo,” also known as “Neo,” doesn’t appear on any live albums after 1961, and neither does “Someday My Prince Will Come.” “Old Folks” and “Drad Dog” never seem to have made it to the concert stage-there aren’t any live recordings of these songs, at least nothing that’s been released officially. 

The cover of “Someday My Prince Will Come” is very striking, as it features a picture of the beautiful Frances Taylor, Miles’s wife at the time. It’s a very sexy album cover, as you can see just a little bit of her strapless dress. Davis had been upset about the original cover of his 1957 album “Miles Ahead,” which featured a white model on a boat. Davis supposedly said to Columbia record producer George Avakian, “Why’d you put that white bitch on there?” Davis writes in his autobiography, “It was on ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ that I started demanding that Columbia use black women on my album covers…I mean, it was my album and I was Frances’s prince, and ‘Pfrancing’ on that album was written for her. Next I got rid of all them stupid liner notes, which I had been trying to do for a long time. See, I never thought there was nothing nobody could say about an album of mine. I just want everyone to listen to the music, and make up their own minds. I never did like no one writing about what I played on an album, trying to explain what I was trying to do. The music speaks for itself.” (Miles: The Autobiography, by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, p.252) So I realize that Miles Davis probably wouldn’t like my essay which is all about his music, but oh well. Such are the perils of being a critic. 

Hank Mobley had a heavy burden to carry on the album, as to the record-buying public he wasn’t replacing Sonny Stitt, he was replacing John Coltrane. Those are pretty big shoes to fill. While Mobley was a great player, he wasn’t the innovator that Coltrane was. It’s not really fair to compare Mobley to Coltrane, as Coltrane was one of the most influential players in the history of jazz music. Mobley's style was not as radical as Coltrane's. Mobley was a smooth player. I don’t mean that in a bad way, he just didn't have the rough edges that Coltrane did. If Miles wanted another Coltrane in his band, then he would inevitably be disappointed with Mobley. So why did Davis have Coltrane sit in on two of the songs on “Someday”? Was it a kind gesture to an old colleague, or was he already less than satisfied with Mobley’s playing?

Davis makes it clear that he wasn’t working well with Mobley in his autobiography. Davis writes about driving out to San Francisco for the dates at the Blackhawk in April 1961: “…the music was starting to bore me because I didn’t like what Hank Mobley was playing in the band…Playing with Hank just wasn’t fun for me; he didn’t stimulate my imagination.” (Miles: The Autobiography, p.252) This begs the question: why did Miles Davis hire Hank Mobley? Mobley was a part of some important projects with Davis, the first small group album after “Kind of Blue,” Miles's first live recordings to be issued by Columbia, and the Carnegie Hall concert. There must have been a reason Miles hired him, but he doesn't say what it is in his autobiography. To my ears, Mobley’s playing with Davis is not that different from his playing on his own albums of the time. So the question is, if Miles liked Mobley’s solo work, why didn’t he like what Hank was playing in his group? Or, if Miles didn’t care for Mobley’s solo work, why did he hire him? I wonder if Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers recommended Mobley to Davis, as they had worked with Mobley on his two classic 1960 Blue Note albums, “Soul Station” and “Roll Call.” That’s my guess, that Davis needed a tenor saxophone, Kelly and Chambers recommended Mobley, and Mobley was available and said yes. 

In the next post, I’ll take a look at the “In Person: Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk” 4-CD box set.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Movie Review: Dean Martin, Kim Novak, and Ray Walston in Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

Dean Martin and Kim Novak in Kiss Me, Stupid, 1964. There's no symbolism in that really long chianti bottle Dean is holding. Sometimes a really long chianti bottle is just a really long chianti bottle.

Dean and Kim tidy up. Hey, Dean, do you have a permit for those guns?

Ray Walston as Orville Spooner in Kiss Me, Stupid.

Kim Novak and director Billy Wilder on the set of Kiss Me, Stupid, 1964.

A rare color photo of Kim Novak in the dress that she wears when she's pretending to be Zelda.
Billy Wilder’s trashy 1964 sex comedy Kiss Me, Stupid, was a film that shocked many moviegoers at the time with its raunchy subject matter. The plot is that popular singer Dino (Dean Martin) is driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles when he stops in Climax, Nevada. (This movie is not subtle.) Gas station owner Barney Millsap (the very funny Cliff Osmond) sees in Dino his chance at fame and fortune. Barney writes songs with Orville J. Spooner, (the excellent Ray Walston) a piano teacher who lives across the street. Barney sabotages Dino’s car, forcing him to stay as a guest of Spooner’s so they will have a chance to pawn their songs to him. Dino is looking for action in Climax, as he tells Spooner that if he doesn’t have a woman every night he gets painful headaches. (John F. Kennedy once said much the same thing to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan: “If I don’t have a woman for three days, I get terrible headaches.”) Spooner is married to the beautiful Zelda (the beautiful Felicia Farr) but he is terribly jealous of her. Zelda reveals that she’s always had a crush on Dino-she saw him driving through town, but doesn’t know he’s currently napping in their guest bedroom. So Barney concocts the ridiculous idea that Spooner should get into a fight with Zelda so she goes back to her parents, and then pick up a trollop from the Belly Button, the local roadhouse, and pass her off as Zelda. Oh, and let Dino sleep with her so he doesn’t get a headache and buys some of their songs. What could go wrong with a plan like that? 

Of course, plenty goes wrong with the plan, as Barney picks up a beautiful cocktail waitress with a heart of gold, Polly the Pistol (the delicious Kim Novak). Polly actually likes Orville, and she gets to fulfill a fantasy by acting like a wife, instead of a girl with a dubious reputation. And once Polly meets Dino she is repulsed by his smooth charm and fast moves. The irony of the movie is that when it comes time for Orville to step aside and let Dino get his action with Polly, he fights for Polly’s honor and throws Dino out of his house, thus losing his chance at selling any songs. But Orville gets to enjoy Polly for a night, as they retire to the bedroom. Meanwhile, Zelda returned home, and Barney, who is spying on the action from the porch, tells her not to go into the house. But he left out some crucial information, so she doesn’t know he’s trying to sell songs to Dino, she just thinks he’s having a great time with Polly. So of course Zelda goes to the Belly Button and gets drunk, whereupon the owner deposits her in Polly’s trailer. And where does Dino go once Orville throws him out? The Belly Button, natch. But Dino is unimpressed by the girls on duty and asks the bartender where the hottest girl is. He directs Dino to Polly’s trailer. Dino finds Zelda there and assumes she’s Polly. Zelda, although star struck by Dino, quickly figures out that he’s a jerk. When she finds out he’s not going to buy any of Orville’s songs, she uses reverse psychology, telling him that the song isn’t right for him anyway, and saying what great things Bobby Darin, Jack Jones, or Robert Goulet could do with it. Zelda and Dino spend the night in Polly’s trailer, and he leaves without a headache the next morning. But everything ends happily, as Zelda gives the $500 that Dino gave her to Polly, so Polly can buy a car and find happiness outside of Climax. Dino sings Orville and Barney’s song “Sophia” on his latest TV special, and Orville and Zelda are happily reunited, although Orville doesn’t understand what has happened. 

Kiss Me, Stupid is, well, a stupid movie. At 126 minutes, it’s far too long, and it takes way too much time to get to the setup. Too much screen time is spent on Orville’s jealousy at the beginning of the movie. If you get bored during this part of the movie, look for Mel Blanc, voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig, among many others, as a dentist. Also, look for John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet, as a minister trying to get the Belly Button to close down. There’s also a super long and only sort of funny sequence where Orville is trying to pick a fight with Zelda, but she deflects everything he says. It’s kind of funny, but Orville is also an overly jealous jerk. If you see Kiss Me, Stupid, you’d better be well-versed in the pop culture of the mid-1960’s; otherwise there will be many jokes that will go over your head. Two of my favorite jokes were lines spoken by Polly. Orville tells her that she’ll flip over who the third person at dinner will be, and that he’s “very exciting.” She asks, “Who is it, Richard Burton?” When Orville reveals that it’s Dino, she isn’t excited and says, “I like Andy Williams better.” Those jokes cracked me up, but I realize they might not be that funny to other people.

The casting of Kiss Me, Stupid was quite excellent. Dean Martin was superb as Dino and I like that he was fine playing a parody version of himself as a total jerk. Dean Martin wasn’t a saint, but from what I’ve heard and read about him, he sounds like a genuinely nice guy. I know a guy who played softball with my Dad who was an extra in the movie Airport, and he told me that when he broke the rules for extras and went up to Dean to shake his hand, Dean took off the glove he was wearing before shaking hands. That’s always stuck with me as a classy thing to do. The role of Dino must have been written especially for Martin, and the line between real life and the movies is blurred as the beginning of the movie is just Martin’s usual nightclub act, filmed for the movie cameras as Dino’s act. Martin’s jokes at the beginning will be familiar to anyone who has heard recordings of his live act. One joke is about Bing Crosby, as Dino says, “Bing’s always so cool. That’s because he has $21 million dollars. On him.” The movie doesn’t include this line that would have fit with the smutty tone of the movie, but in live performance Martin would preface that joke by saying, “I ran into Bing and I said, ‘Hiya Bing, what’s up?’ He said, ‘Not much.’ Oh, you think that’s funny now, wait till you get home it’ll be hilarious!” The car that Dino drives is Martin’s own Dual Ghia, and when Barney talks about Dino’s hit songs, he’s naming Dean Martin’s hit songs. Martin was an extremely gifted comedian, and he makes the most of this part. My only complaint in that someone in wardrobe should have told Martin to unbutton the shirt he wears in the second half of the movie, as he almost always has it buttoned up all the way. Also, the boxy plaid jacket he wears over that shirt doesn’t do much for him. When he takes the jacket off, you can see what good shape he was in. Dean Martin was just awesome, and he had such a great voice. When Dino sings “Sophia” to Zelda just before they have sex in Polly’s trailer, his voice sounds so good. In order to get approval from the Motion Picture Production Code, an additional scene was filmed which shows Dino being bothered by a back problem as he is about to seduce Zelda, and it’s implied they don’t have sex. That footage was shown when Kiss Me, Stupid was originally released in the United States, but it’s since been replaced by the original cut of the scene, which fades out with Dino and Zelda in an embrace. 

Peter Sellers was originally cast as Orville Spooner, and he filmed for several weeks before he had a series of heart attacks, which very nearly killed him. Sellers was actually pronounced clinically dead in the hospital, but doctors were able to revive him. While on the set, Sellers clashed with director Billy Wilder. Sellers was replaced by Ray Walston, and shooting had to start over. No footage of Sellers as Orville seems to have survived. It would be interesting to see what Sellers’ interpretation of the role would have been. As much as I like Peter Sellers, and as funny as he was, I think that Ray Walston was better in the part than Sellers would have been. I know that might sound like heresy, but I think Walston was a better fit for Orville. Walston was such a normal, ordinary-looking guy that there’s a huge contrast between him and Dino, which the script needs in order for the movie to be funny. Peter Sellers always wanted to be a leading man, and he might have played the role more over the top in order to compete more with Dean Martin. You can argue that Walston played the role over the top, but it’s also written over the top. Ray Walston is really the star of Kiss Me, Stupid, as he has much more screen time than Martin or Kim Novak, and he does a great job. 

Kim Novak is one of my favorite actresses. I find a lot of movie actresses to be very pretty and beautiful, but there aren’t a lot of actresses that I find truly sexy. But I find Kim Novak extremely sexy. I’m not sure exactly what it is about her. I guess part of it, besides her obvious physical beauty, is that she feels more like a real person than say Marilyn Monroe, who always seemed to be obscuring herself behind the persona she created. I will always adore Kim Novak, despite the fact that she’s obviously had some bad plastic surgery work done. It surprises me that she’s had work done, because she always seemed to remove herself from Hollywood and the nonsense that sometimes surrounds movies. Novak is both beautiful and sexy as Polly, but I’m a little surprised that she took the part. Novak was a gifted actress, and I think she tried hard to be seen as more than just a pretty face. Which begs the question, why did she take a part that objectified her so much? As funny as Kiss Me, Stupid is, it’s a little uncomfortable to watch the way in which Novak’s body is exploited for laughs. Dean Martin’s character paws Polly as often as he can, and as much as a 1964 movie will allow him to do. In the parlance of 2014, Dino commits a lot of acts of microaggression towards Polly. Actually, it’s more like acts of macroaggression, as he literally can’t keep his hands off of her. Since Polly finds Dino so objectionable, and it’s clear that he just sees her as an object and not as a person, it’s not fun to watch her get felt up. 

Felicia Farr was well-cast as Zelda, who is pretty much the perfect wife and is really not deserving of Orville’s crazy jealousy. In real life, Farr was married to Jack Lemmon from 1962 until his death in 2001. According to IMDB and Wikipedia, Lemmon, a favorite of Billy Wilder’s, was offered the role of Orville Spooner, but had to decline due to other commitments. 

There are some other interesting facts about Kiss Me, Stupid. The movie was rated a “C” for “condemned” by the Catholic Legion of Decency, which meant that you would have to say a lot of Hail Marys and Our Fathers in order to cleanse yourself of the sin of having watched Dean Martin feel up Kim Novak. The songs that Barney and Orville write in the movie are actually by George and Ira Gershwin, incredibly enough. Wilder was a friend of Ira’s, and asked him if he would write some songs for the movie. Ira said yes and wrote lyrics for melody fragments that George had written but never used. The songs are quite witty, as “I’m a Poached Egg” features classic Ira Gershwin wordplay. 

If you’re in the mood for a 1960’s sex comedy, or are a fan of any of the lead actors, you should give Kiss Me, Stupid a try. Just don’t expect to be intellectually challenged.