From song to screen: “Ode to Billy Joe” (1976)

On the third of June, Billie Joe McAllister committed suicide by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Bobbie Gentry, Ode to Billie JoeBobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit song “Ode to Billie Joe” chronicles a family sitting around the dinner table and casually discussing the death of a local boy-not considering the feelings of the narrator who was dating Billie Joe.

One line in Gentry’s song discusses the narrator and Billie Joe throwing something off the bridge generated the most questions from fans: “What did she and Billie Joe throw off the bridge?”

Fans speculated LSD, a baby, a ring, flowers or a draft card were tossed into the muddy Mississippi waters.

“People are trying to read social comment into the song. I wrote it as a comment on human nature, not on society,” Gentry said in a 1967 Associated Press interview. “I don’t know what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The act itself was more symbolic than anything.”

But in 1976, a movie based on the song gave an answer to what was thrown off the bridge and why Billy Joe McAllister committed suicide: a homosexual experience.

“What the song didn’t tell you, the movie will” it advertised.

Set in 1953, the film version of “Ode to Billy Joe” (the spelling of Billy differs in the song and film) stars Glynnis O’Connor as Bobbie Lee Hartley, the 15-year old narrator, and Robby Benson as Billy Joe McAllister.

Fifteen-year-old Bobbie Lee is an adolescent young woman eager for gentlemen affections. In her frustrated state, she reads torrid romance magazines and says ridiculous lines such as, “I’m a body too with desires,” “Nothing has passed my lips except Pepsi Cola” and “I’m 15, and going on 34 – B cup.”

ode to billy joeBilly Joe confesses his love for Bobbie Lee, but her father says she is too young to date.

The budding romance is mainly a game of cat and mouse of Bobbie Lee pretending she doesn’t like Billy Joe.

One night, the town holds a jamboree with a make shift whorehouse in the back. Billy Joe is drunk and confused about it all and is missing for two days after the jamboree.

The reason for Billy Joe’s disappearance is the same reason as his suicide: at the jamboree he has sexual relations with a man. The man turns out to be his boss at the sawmill Dewey Barksdale, played by James Best.

Billy Joe shows up in tears, ashamed of what he did saying it is sin against nature and a sin against God.

“I don’t know how I want to be with you and do that,” he tells Bobbie Lee.

During their discussion, Billy Joe throws something off the bridge- Bobbie Lee’s childhood doll, Benjamin.

After Billy Joe’s death, the town is filled with rumors that Bobbie Lee is pregnant with his baby, though the two never had sex.

Bobbie Lee melodramatically decides to leave town and pretend that she has the baby and will return when the rumors die down. She meets Barksdale on the bridge, who is on his way to confess what he has done. Bobbie Lee gives a speech, saying telling the truth won’t do Barksdale or Billy Joe, any good.

“Billy Joe’s already on his way to becoming a legend. He made a desirable girl pregnant and then jumped off the bridge. We ought to leave him with that,” Bobbie Lee said.

The film ends with Barksdale carrying Bobbie Lee’s bag to the bus stop.

Gentry received movie offers after the song came out in 1967, but she held out for 10 years, she said in a 1976 article in the Nashua Telegraph written by Vernon Scott.

“I waited because I was afraid it would become an exploitation picture to capitalize off the record,” Gentry was quoted. “I didn’t want it done cheaply.”

“Ode to Billie Joe” was originally a short story written by Gentry, and then condensed into a song, she said in the 1976 interview.

Gentry wrote a song for Max Baer, Jr.’s film “Macon County Line.” Baer produced “Macon County Line” and directed “Ode to Billy Joe.” He is known for his role as Jethro on the TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies.”  She liked Baer’s work and she brought “Ode to Billie Joe” to him as a film idea, the Nashua Telegraph article said.

In the contract, Gentry had approval of characters and plot development. She also re-recorded the hit song for the film.

Robby Benson and Glynnis O'Connor in "Ode to Billy Joe" (1976)

Robby Benson and Glynnis O’Connor in “Ode to Billy Joe” (1976)

“Now that I know why Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, I almost wish I didn’t,” film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his July 7, 1976 film review. “Bobbie Gentry’s famous song, on which “Ode to Billy Joe” is based, found much of its haunting effect in its refusal to reveal why Billy Joe killed himself. His death was seen as sad, and long ago, and unnecessary, and the singer recalled it as a key event in an unhappy time. Gentry didn’t need to explain because she evoked.”

Ebert gave the movie 2.5 out of 3 stars in 1976, saying the dialogue is attractive, but that the movie goes astray after Billy Joe kills himself.

Personally, I found the dialogue hokey with several pointless scenes. “Did they really just say that?” was a reoccurring thought as I watched the hour and forty-five minute film.

The film doesn’t play scenes that are lyric-by-lyric of the song. This is probably a good thing. There isn’t a dinner table scene when Billy Joe’s death is discussed and Billy Joe doesn’t put a frog down Bobbie Lee’s back at the Carroll County picture show.

However, there is a preacher watching as the doll is thrown off the bridge, and Bobbie Lee’s father says, “Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge.” This is said after an incident where some drunk Alabamians try to push his truck off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

While I may not have enjoyed this film, I do understand the message that was trying to be portrayed- Billy Joe’s senseless suicide because of societal beliefs. Billy Joe’s confusion, guilt and shame that leads him to kill himself is a relevant issue for 1953, 1976 and most likely today. Though as Gentry originally said, her song was not a social commentary.

Along with the ridiculous script and disliking Robby Benson, my main issue with the film is giving a reason to Billy Joe’s death.

The original purpose of the song is “unconscious cruelty”- the nonchalant way the narrator’s family discusses Billy Joe’s suicide, Gentry said in an interview when the song was released.

Even though Gentry agreed to the film, I feel giving a reason to the suicide takes away from the mournful tune of “Ode to Billie Joe.”

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I love to sing-a, about the moon-a and the June-a

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Owl Jolson loves to sing-a.

You may see me dancing around the office, shaking my finger and singing the tune from this Warner Brothers cartoon.

The 1936 cartoon “I Love to Singa” is one of those cartoons I saw as a child that has always stuck with me.

Every night before bed, I watched Warner Brother and MGM cartoons on Cartoon Network and TBS while I was growing up.

One of my favorite was the Merrie Melodies cartoon directed by Tex Avery that features Owl Jolson. This was Avery’s ninth animated short.

In the cartoon, Mama Owl is sitting on her eggs as Papa Owl paces. They are waiting on their new children to be born in their home inside a tree.

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Owl Jolson’s brothers are already classically trained!

When they hatch: one owl pops out singing “Chi mi frena in tal momento” from the opera Lucia di Lammermoor,  another is playing “Traumerei” on the violin and a third is playing Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” on the flute.

Yet when the fourth owl hatches, he’s dancing and singing “I love to singa, ‘bout the moon-a and the June-a and the spring-a.”

Papa Owl covers his ears and calls him a crooner and a jazz singer.

To correct his son’s love for contemporary music, Papa tries to teach him the classics and we see Owl Jolson unhappily singing “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes.”

Owl Jolson runs away from home and is on a radio talent show hosted by Jack Bunny-a spoof of Jack Benny.

When his family hears little Owl on the radio, they rush down to the station, encourage his jazz music and he wins the talent show.

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Jack Bunny holds an amateur hour contest.

“I Love to Singa” is a small tribute to Al Jolson’s film “The Jazz Singer” (1927). The song comes from the Jolson film “The Singing Kid” (1936).

The voice of Owl Jolson is child actor Tommy Bond who played Butch in the “Our Gang” series.

The cartoon demonstrates Tex Avery’s talents while paying homage to an early sound film.

One of my favorite parts of the eight minute cartoon is when all the different animals are trying out for the talent show, and all are so bad they fall through a trap door.

Owl Jolson's family accepts his love for jazz.

Owl Jolson’s family accepts his love for jazz.

My other favorite is when all the little owls hatch, already equipped with instruments and excellent musical prowess! Mama owl must be quite talented!

There isn’t one thing I don’t love about “I Love to Singa.” The title song is catchy, the jokes are witty and the name “Owl Jolson”-spoofing Al Jolson’s name- doesn’t fail to make me chuckle.

bloggiversary

This is part of True Classics Fourth Anniversary Celebration contest

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He never met a man he didn’t like: A visit to the Will Rogers Museum

He never met a man he didn’t like.

Will Rogers was born in Oologah, OK, and his final resting place is at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, OK.

Rogers made a name for himself in vaudeville as doing roping tricks, eventually making it to the Ziegfeld Follies. He then made silent films, talking pictures, wrote syndicated newspaper columns and broadcasted on the radio. Rogers was always on top of his communication game.
Rogers died in 1935 in a plane crash in Alaska.

Will Rogers statue near his tomb. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P.)

Will Rogers statue near his tomb. (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P.)

“When commercial radio evolved, Rogers quickly migrated to the new format,” said an exhibit at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum. “If alive today, he probably would be blogging and tweeting.”

This past September, my co-worker Brittany Randolph and I went on a road trip to Oklahoma. She loves the plains and I was along for an adventure. I didn’t care where we went as long as we visited the Will Rogers Rogers Memorial Museum.

The museum includes:
-Rogers’s saddle collection such as Mongolian, French and Navajo saddles
-A gallery of portraits painted of Will Rogers
-A theater that shows “The Will Rogers Story” narrated that Bob Hope
-Rogers’s tiny saddle collection
-A smaller theater that shows Will Rogers films
-A diorama on Will Rogers life
-Artifacts such as hats, scripts or costumes that belonged to Rogers
-History on Rogers’ family, dating back to his Native American heritage
-Rooms of the museum recreate rooms of Rogers’s home such as his study-modeled to make him think of ranch life
-Will Rogers’ grave site is in a garden outside the museum with a large statue of him on a horse.
-Samples of some of his radio broadcasts

Part of Rogers's tiny saddle collection

Part of Rogers’s tiny saddle collection

Portrait of Will Rogers

Portrait of Will Rogers

A hat of Will Rogers

A hat of Will Rogers

Me posing with Will Rogers lobby cards

Me posing with Will Rogers lobby cards

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Watching a Will Rogers film

Watching a Will Rogers film

Young Will Rogers

Young Will Rogers

Will Rogers's family had a pet cow that stayed in the house like a dog

Will Rogers’s family had a pet cow that stayed in the house like a dog

Gorgeous ceilings of the museum

Gorgeous ceilings of the museum

Portrait of Will Rogers

Portrait of Will Rogers

Small sculpture of Rogers roping a calf

Small sculpture of Rogers roping a calf

Part of Will Rogers saddle collection

Part of Will Rogers saddle collection

The back of the Will Rogers Museum

The back of the Will Rogers Museum

Will Rogers tomb

Will Rogers tomb

Posing with Will Rogers's statue

Posing with Will Rogers’s statue

The museum opened in 1938 and was dedicated on what would have been his 59th birthday. The land where the museum stands was purchased by Will and his wife Betty in 1911. Betty donated the land to the state in 1937, according to the Will Rogers Memorial Museum.

Along with Rogers, his wife Betty (d. 1944) and their four children: Fred Stone Rogers, 1918-1920; Mary Amelia Rogers Brooks, 1913-1989; and James Blake (­Jim) Rogers, 1915-2000; as well as Jim’s wife, Marguerite Astrea Kemmler Rogers, 1917-1987 lay to rest behind the museum.

If you are ever in the Claremore, OK area, I highly suggest visiting the Will Rogers Memorial Museum.

For someone who lives in the southeast with few historical film museums to offer, it was a treat to get to visit the Will Rogers Museum and his resting place.
It was peaceful and a beautiful tribute to a highly respected man.

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“Being a hero is about the shortest-lived profession on Earth.”

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Musical Monday: “Centennial Summer” (1946)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

Centennial_Summer_FilmPosterThis week’s musical:
“Centennial Summer” (1946)–Musical #505

Studio:
20th Century Fox

Director:
Otto Preminger

Starring:
Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Cornel Wilde, Walter Brennan, Constance Bennett, Dorothy Gish

Plot:
Set in Philadelphia during the United State’s centennial celebration in 1876, the plot focuses on the Rogers family. Their Aunt Zenia (Bennett) comes to visit from Paris, France for the celebration and brings her French nephew Philippe (Wilde). The oldest Rogers sisters Edith (Darnell)-the flirty older sister who gets all the boys- and Julia (Craine)-the more quiet sister who has never had a romance- immediately both are enchanted by the Frenchman. The two both work for his affections.

Trivia
-Composer Jerome Kern’s last musical score for either stage or film, according to “Hollywood Musicals Year by Year” by Stanley Green
-The film was Fox’s response to MGM’s hit “Meet Me In St. Louis” (1944). Both films focus on turn of the century nostalgia.
-Based on a book by Albert E. Idell
-Very few of the actors do their own singing. Crain was dubbed by Louanne Hogan (who also dubbed Crain in “State Fair“) and Darnell was dubbed by Kay St. Germain Wells (who also dubbed Darnell in “Hangover Square“).

Edith (Darnell) and Julia (Craine) compete for the attentions of Phillippe (Wilde). Comet Over Hollywood/ Screencap by Jessica P.

Edith (Darnell) and Julia (Craine) compete for the attentions of Phillippe (Wilde). Comet Over Hollywood/ Screencap by Jessica P.

Highlights:
-The vibrant, Technicolor sets and costumes make this film.
-The movie includes items that were introduced during this time period such as a magic lantern show.
-Cornel Wilde carrying two dachshunds as he gets off the train….only because I’m a dachshund owner.
-I love the large cast ranging from silent film star Dorothy Gish, pre-code queen Constance Bennett to fresh faced Jeanne Craine.

Notable Songs:
For Jerome Kern’s last work before his 1945 death, none of the songs in this film were memorable.
Many of them seemed misplaced. For example: Philppe (Wilde) and Jesse (Brennan) were about to have a serious conversation in a saloon about Julia (Craine) when African-American singer Avon Long enters the saloon and starts singing “Cinderella Sue.” Though the song was probably one of the more entertaining tunes in the film, it cut right into the middle of a scene. Why would they do that?

Philippe and Jesse look ridiculous dressed in French costumes (after a masquerade) in a saloon. Comet Over Hollywood/Screen Cap by Jessica P.

Philippe and Jesse look ridiculous dressed in French costumes (after a masquerade) in a saloon. Comet Over Hollywood/Screen Cap by Jessica P.

My Review:
This is actually one movie I wish was not a musical. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the cast and the story line and thoroughly enjoyed watching it. But right as the plot was moving right along, it would come to a grinding halt with a misplaced, forgettable song.
All of the actors did a wonderful job, particularly Jeanne Crain who has always been a favorite of mine. However, Cornel Wilde’s French accent sounded more like a Charles Boyer impression.
“Centennial Summer” is a film I have searched for and wanted to see for years. Thank you to our friends over at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings for letting me know it is currently up on Youtube and contributing to an enjoyable afternoon.

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An education from “The Philadelphia Story”

The Philadelphia Story” taught me what a hangover was when I was nine.

And who knew what yare meant before Katharine Hepburn used the word?

My fourth grade education was enhanced when I learned the meaning of those words the first time I saw “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) in 1998.

Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord with too many men after her

Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord with too many men after her

My dad was out of town one summer evening and my mother, sister and I picked a movie to watch. We loved it.

“Why did she shield her eyes from the sun like that?” I asked my mom. She explained the consequences people face the next morning after drinking too much.

For years after, I even tried to imitate Hepburn’s silly little laugh she does in the film.

I had forgotten not only about my new vocabulary words the first time I saw the film but many of the charming scenes in “The Philadelphia Story” until I saw it last night for the first time on the big screen.

Moonlight Movies at Falls Park in Greenville, SC

Moonlight Movies at Falls Park in Greenville, SC

I drove an hour to my hometown of Greenville, SC where outdoor classic films are shown every week in May at the Reedy River Falls Park.

Classic film screenings are a treat for me. Where I live, viewing movies on the big screen is rare.

It had been several years since I had seen this movie. Though I knew it was good- boasting a cast of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, Virginia Weidler and Roland Young-I forgot how wonderful it really was.

The leads are perfect in nearly every film but Virginia Weidler steals the show.

On paper, the film sound dizzy: A divorced woman is remarrying, the ex-husband pops back in the picture and then a reporter-who already has a girlfriend-becomes a potential romantic partner. It’s a love pentagon.

But somehow the story works when it’s acted out.

The only time it doesn’t work is in the horrible Grace Kelly remake, “High Society.”

The script of The Philadelphia Story was written specifically for Katharine Hepburn who originated the role on Broadway and reprised her role as Tracy Lord on screen. The film helped rid Hepburn of her box office poison status. 

Katharine Hepburn with Van Heflin in the stage version of The Philadelphia story

Katharine Hepburn with Van Heflin in the stage version of The Philadelphia story

In the play, Joseph Cotten played C. K. Dexter Haven (played by Cary Grant in the film version) and Macaulay Connor was played by Van Heflin (played by James Stewart). While watching the movie last night I couldn’t help picture those two performing those roles.

I have only been to one other Moonlight Movie series in Greenville back in 2011 to see Strangers on a Train. It wasn’t a pleasant experience due to people talking and continuously getting up and down during the film.

However, last night was much more relaxing and everyone was respectful of the movie.

The only disappointing thing is no one applauded when the film started or when actors entered their first scene like at the Turner Classic Film Festival, however I heard several people around me say they had never seen the movie again.

Revisiting “The Philadelphia Story” was fun and I reminded me how great a movie it was. I’m discovering seeing movies on the big screen is a very special experience.

After all-they were made to be seen that way.

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McCrea in May contest at Comet

Comet Over Hollywood is hosting it’s first ever contest in celebration of Turner Classic Movies finally honoring Joel McCrea as May’s Star of the Month.

As my biggest heartthrob and favorite actor, I had to do something for Mr. McCrea, as well as thank all of you for your support of Comet.

I am giving away three Joel McCrea comedies on DVD: 

Jean Arthur realizes a strange man (Joel McCrea) is staying in her apartment with the permission of border, Charles Coburn in "More the Merrier" (1943).

-The More the Merrier (1943): The World War 2 housing shortage comedy also starring Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn.

Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert in "Palm Beach Story" (1942).

-The Palm Beach Story (1942): McCrea’s wife Claudette Colbert divorces him in order to earn McCrea money from a millionaire in this Preston Sturges comedy. The movie also stars Mary Astor and Rudy Vallee.

Screenwriter Joel McCrea lives as a hobo to see the other side in "Sullivans Travels" (1941).

-Sullivan’s Travels (1941): McCrea is a screen play writer tired of writing fluffy comedies. He travels as a hobo for inspiration for a serious script; getting into trouble and risking his life. The film also stars Veronica Lake.

The contest will be open from Tuesday, May 1, 2012, to Thursday, May 31, 2012. There will be three winners-each receiving one of these DVDs-announced in June.

To enter send the answers to the following questions to cometoverhollywood@gmail.com:

1. What actress was married to Joel McCrea for 57 years?

2. What film did McCrea say was his personal favorite film he made?

3. What is the name of McCrea’s actor son? Name a movie he was in.

4. What actor did McCrea say he always received “leftover scripts” from, including his famous role in Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent”?

5. What was the name of the movie where Joel McCrea played James Kildare (starting off the Lew Ayres series)?

Good luck everyone and spread the word! Remember, email your answers to cometoverhollywood@gmail.com.

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Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel

For the 6th time, “Radio  Waves Over Hollywood” will be streaming live Thursday night from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

 

Basil Rathbone on the radio

 

Topics for Oct. 7:
-State and county fairs in the movies
-Ronald Reagan-a good actor, skewed by late night television
-Learning history from the movies
-Actors who look similar
-Fashion in the movies

So be sure to listen at 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.  live stream on www.winrfm.com (go to Listen Live) or  the old WINR website.

call in at 803-323-2122, whether you know me or not, to contribute to the discussion.  I would love to hear from you!

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page and Radio Waves Over Hollywood Facebook page.

Guest star on “Radio Waves” Sept. 23 show

Cecil B. DeMille as the host of Lux Theater

For the 4th time, “Comet Over Hollywood” will be streaming live Thursday night from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Topics for Sept. 23:
-Pin-up actresses (with special mystery guest)
-Weddings in movies
-Revealing of my Halloween costume
-And more…

So be sure to listen at 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.  live stream on www.winrfm.com (go to Listen Live) or  the old WINR website.

call in at 803-323-2122, whether you know me or not, to contribute to the discussion.  I would love to hear from you!

P.S.) A real, non-radio related blog post is in the works so don’t be discouraged!

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page and Radio Waves Over Hollywood Facebook page.

Different look, same great product

“Comet Over Hollywood” has received a slight make-over. Not that I don’t love Cyd Charisse in “Party Girl,” I just felt that we needed to put on our bathing suits with Constance Bennett and dive in to summer movie fun blogging!

My mink hat on Christmas Day 2009

Cheesiness aside, Constance Bennett is an actress I really admire and try to follow. For years she was known as one of the best dressed women in Hollywood. Why was Bennett such a fashion icon? Because she wore what she liked and didn’t follow fads.

I admit she is the reason I buy a lot of the vintage clothes I own and wear. Within the past year I’ve bought: a mink hat, turban, orange 1960s cape/poncho or 1940s yellow strapless formal.

Therefore, I dedicate this blog to my fashion inspiration, Constance Bennett.

Here is a video that shows Bennett’s glamour and fashion: