Hardy, Napier, and Russell Revist World War I in (Bittersweet) Song

War and Peace
Bella Hardy, Findlay Napier, Greg Russell
Doncaster 1914-18/Doncaster Council

2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Whenever centenaries arise, the artistic world responds. Perhaps some of you have seen the Sam Mendes-directed film 1917 or have read about the monumental Peter Jackson documentary project “They Shall Not Grow Old,” in which photographs and filmstock were painstakingly restored, authentically colorized, and shown atop voice-acted survivor interviews. The anniversary is one thing, but if you’ve ever been to Europe you know that there’s scarcely a town or village that lacks a monument to the “Great War.” World War II led to greater loss of life, but World War I left deeper psychological scars. It hastened the demise of the aristocracy, magnified class inequality, ushered in Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, and shook faith in humankind.

Three enormously talented British musicians offer one of the more interesting new takes on the Great War. Bella Hardy is a former BBC2 Folk Singer of the Year (2014) who hails from Derbyshire. She’s also a talented fiddler. Findlay Napier grew up in the Speyside region of Scotland and holds a degree from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Celtic music fans recognize him as the lead singer for the now-defunct band Back of the Moon. He now lives in Glasgow, where he is in great demand as a guitarist, musical collaborator, and producer. Greg Russell hails from near Sheffield, England, and was a 2013 winner of the Young Folk Award. Instead of calling attention to themselves, the trio mined the Doncaster (Yorkshire) archives and produced a commission piece of ten songs (and a film) based on the World War I stories they found there. Don’t expect banners and glory; the archives tell of futility, waste, and searing questions directed at those who led soldiers into senseless battle.

Napier offers “Thou Shalt Not Kill” with its simple-but-poignant query. What mandate, it asks, allows for the 5th Commandment to be set aside when all others are supposed to be followed: I wouldn’t lie, I wouldn’t steal/ Nor take my best friend’s girl/Now they say it’s fine for me/To ignore “Thou shalt not kill…” Napier’s take on the war is positively withering. He also offers the music hall style” It’s Made a Different Man of Me,” a letter home from a soldier who naively (sarcastically?) promises his wife that as soon as he’s discharged, he’ll put the war aside and give it no thought. He rounds off the album with “Little Tommy Atkins” and there is no question that he intends this story from long ago as a warning to future boys who think war is child’s play.

Bella Hardy gives a woman’s perspective. It’s an article of faith among North American feminists that the postwar treatment of World War II Rosie the Riveters was patriarchy and sexism at their ugliest. Check out Hardy’s “Belles of Brickfield” and you’ll know that North Americans were 30 years late in boarding the bandwagon. She also offers object lessons of war. Most wars begin with aforementioned banners and dreams of glory, but they seldom end that way. Don’t be deceived by the light waltz “Miss Freda Hooper;” Hardy has a different take on those who dance “the ghosts” away.

The content and gorgeous melody of Russell’s “God or Union” embodies the word “bittersweet.” Russell is a very powerful singer, as you will hear also on “Egbert.” That one is filled with the stirring muscularity of training camp promises, as well as a few hints of what hasn’t been mentioned. Hardy’s fiddle adds to a melody that’s where the martial spirit and dysphoria collide. If you want to know what war weariness sounds like, listen to Russell sing “20 Minutes.” Russell also gives us one of the war’s more touching stories. “Vic the Dog” is based upon the story of Albert Drury, who was saved from a fatal bullet by his cigarette tin. Vic is the name of an actual pooch, one he brought back to England from the trenches of France.

War and Peace is part of a larger project that recounts the sights and experiences of Doncaster war survivors. There is honor in it, even if it’s not defined the way politicians and generals tell of it. Though I’m not sure if Hardy, Napier, or Russell would agree, for me it’s a powerful reminder of the insanity of war. And more’s the pity that a hundred years later the same old promises–lies in disguise–continue to lead young people down the path of danger, horror, and loss.

Rob Weir


The Grest Depression in 50 Images at Smith College


Dust Bowl of Dog Soup: Picturing the Great Depression
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA
Through May 24, 2020

I’m sure you remember this century’s recession (2008-10). Some places have yet to recover. Perhaps some of you are old enough to recall that the one during the 1970s (1973-1981) was much worse. Nothing in your memory can compare to the Great Depression (1929-41), the greatest economic disaster in American history. Nearly one in three workers was unemployed and if we toss in those forced into casual labor, those on strike, the underemployed, and those who became hoboes, by 1932 about 50% of all American families suffered some form of economic dislocation. If you can imagine it, conditions were even worse in the countryside. A severe drought rocked every state in the Union except Vermont and Maine. In many places, high winds blew away the topsoil down to the bedrock, a cataclysm known as the Dust Bowl.

A show at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) features 50 remarkable images that document hard times during the 1930s. “Documents” is the correct word; despite the tragedy in front of the lenses and sketch pads, the 1930s was a golden age for documentarians. Courtesy of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the government actually hired unemployed artists and writers to make sure future generations would understand the human cost of the economic crisis. The only other silver lining in all of this is that women made their mark in ways they might not have otherwise. Dorothea Lange took what is arguably the most famous photograph in American history: “Migrant Mother,” an image reproduced so often there is no need to describe it. Is it even possible to discuss the Depression without seeing it? The SCMA has a print, but it’s not the center of Dust Bowl of Dog Soup.
The bulk of the photos at the SCMA are from Arthur Rothstein (1915-85). He was/is highly regarded, but generally takes a backseat to more famous colleagues such as Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Russell Lee. There is no point to comparisons, but few photojournalists were as active as Rothstein. Nor did many surpass his sensitivity to his subjects.

Rothstein was an unlikely recorder of rural woes. Who could have imagined that the son of Jewish immigrants who grew up and lived in New York City would be comfortable tramping through the American backwaters? Or that one who had never turned a spade of dirt would relate to farmers and migrants, or feel their despair over silted over fields, toiling in mines, and being forced onto the road in jalopies held together with bailing wire?

By featuring Rothstein photos from its collections, the SCMA show encourages us to look deeply into his images. In a way, Depression Era photo shows are often akin to the permanent collections at big museums. By this I mean that visitors tend to give short shrift to artists with big talent but little fame. Can you name another work at the Louvre that’s in the same room as the Mona Lisa? Rothstein was a great photographer and seeing his work out of the shadow of his more celebrated peers drives this home. Check out his images from Gee’s Bend, that African-American enclave of Alabama that would later win renown for its quilters.

Rothstein isn’t the only artist in the show, nor is photography the only medium presented. Henry Sternberg gives us a slice of urban life in his 1930 etching “Subway Car.” Peggy Bacon used pastels in “Hectic Life” to capture the pulse of the street, and Riva Helfond used lithography in her “Custom Made” to depict a seamstress toiling at home. You can be assured it was for a pittance. Irwin Hoffman turned to etching for strong images of work in “The Stoker” (1935) and of those relying on charity in “Soup Kitchen” (1934).  

The SCMA exhibition also shows another side of the Depression. With just a few carefully curated examples from magazines and popular publications, we see that not even indescribable poverty slowed the pace of commercial advertising. Think it’s difficult to flog soap, lurid fiction, or over-the-counter remedies during the Depression? Think again.

Hats off to the SCMA for a small show that screams social significance in ways that splashy blockbusters seldom do. Hie thee hence to this thoughtful exhibit.

Rob Weir


Some Like It Hot and Annie Hall: Not Weathering Well

Some Like It Hot (1959)
Directed by Billy Wilder
United Artists, 121 minutes, Not Rated (mild sexual references)

Annie Hall (1977)
Directed by Woody Allen
United Artists, 93 minutes, PG* (sexual references and situations)
            * PG-13 ratings did not exist in 1977

Film history exists independently from social history. Some films that strike modern viewers as trite or problematic were beheld quite differently in their own time period. Witness two films, Some Like It Hot and Annie Hall. Today, neither goes down easily or weathers well. The American Film Institute reworked its 100 Greatest Films list in 2007–long before MeToo#–hence Some Like It Hot currently checks in as #22 and Annie Hall as #35. The only way to make sense of this is to view each as an artifact rather than a manifesto. Still, one wonders if either film will survive the AFI’s next update.

Billy Wilder, a Hollywood legend, directed Some Like It Hot. As was still the case of numerous films in 1959, it is in black and white (though badly colorized versions exist). It’s set in 1929, the year of the Stock Market Crash, and follows two musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis), a saxophone player, and Jerry (Jack Lemon), who wields a double bass. Jobs are drying up and they’re reduced to performing in a dodgy Chicago speakeasy. They barely manage to join the corpses when they accidentally wander in on a gangland slaying–patterned after the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. (Mobsters don’t like witnesses.) Joe and Jerry need to blow town tout de suite and they need jobs and disguises.

Thus begins a comic caper in which the two dress in drag, board a train for Miami and–as Josephine and Daphne–join Sweet Sue and the Society Syncopators [sic], an all-female band. All manner of silly and awkward situations ensue, including Joe-as-Josephine crammed into a sleeping birth for a giggly “girls” drinking session with Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), the band’s lead singer who fears she’ll be kicked out of the band because she likes to take a toot. (Booze is off-limits during Prohibition.) Of course, Joe is attracted to Sugar, but he can’t blow his cover as the Mob is searching for him. For his part, Jerry-as-Daphne must fend off the roaming hands of a leering rich man, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). As you might imagine, Miami isn’t exactly the best place to hide from organized crime figures! (You can spot both George Raft and Edward G. Robinson among the sanguinary tough guys.)

Some Like It Hot is basically a romp with high heels, girdles, flapper garb, and machine guns. Modern viewers need to remember that the film’s innuendos and sexist jokes were considered hilarious in 1959; patriarchy was a barely contested given. Actually, the film’s historical take on the battle of the sexes is its primary virtue. The comedy is of the broad in a mile-wide-inch-deep variety. Curtis and Lemon chew the scenes with appropriate histrionics, and the dough-faced Joe E. Brown is a riot. Brown is forgotten figure, but he was one of the great hangdog comics of his era. But let’s be frank: Marilyn Monroe had but two outstanding features, neither of which was her acting or vocal prowess. (She whisper/warbles four songs and no one will ever call her take on “I Wanna Be Loved By You” as definitive.) Watching Some Like It Hot now is akin to re-reading a novel you loved years ago. You discover a few sublime moments, but mostly you wonder why you once loved it.

Keaton yes; Allen no
Annie Hall is even more difficult to swallow. The only way you can watch it is to put aside what you think of Woody Allen, its director and star. In 1977, Allen was considered an auteur and Annie Hall was hailed as a masterpiece. Unlike Some Like It Hot, which won only a design Oscar, Annie Hall carried off statues for Best Picture, Best Director (Allen), Best Actress (Diane Keaton), and Best Original Screenplay (Allen and Marshall Brickman). These days, Annie Hall is a glimpse into the social and economic wreckage of the late 1970s.

Like many Allen films, it’s a confessional. It opens with Alvy Singer (Allen) recounting his breakup with Annie (Keaton) a year earlier. It involves numerous flashback sequences, perhaps the finest of which are Alvy’s memories of growing up in a dysfunctional Brooklyn Jewish family that lived beneath a Coney Island rollercoaster. We also flash back to Alvy’s two failed marriages, but much of the film is shtick in which Allen/Alvy riffs on his neuroses, his intolerance of intellectual phonies, his preferences for decaying New York over sunny California, and his own sexual virulence. If the last of these makes you cringe, it’s supposed to, the “joke” being that the nebbish Alvy can’t be a sex machine. Alvy refuses to follow his best (and perhaps only) friend Rob (Tony Roberts), a producer, to Los Angeles. After all, he’s the kind of guy whose idea of a first date movie is The Sorrow and the Pity, a 4 ½  hour documentary about the Nazi occupation of France and the roundup of Jews.

Call the film “When Alvy Met Annie.” Their relationship is recapped episodically because we already know it’s over. Annie is a cabaret singer and a ditzy klutz who also has neuroses to spare. Unlike Alvy, Annie grows, including a move to LA, where Tony Lacey (singer Paul Simon) promises to help her musical career. (Alvy, true to form, thinks Lacey is a phony and flies to LA to try to convince Annie to come back to New York.) Most of the scenes in which Alvy and Annie actually interact–as opposed to material from Allen’s standup act–fall into the category of being edgy cute. There’s a classic sequence involving lobsters.

Keaton is a bubbly delight as Annie. Back in 1977, she actually touched off a fashion craze with her quirky Boho duds, and she absolutely made trendy the phrase la di da. Unlike Monroe, Keaton is a competent (though not outstanding) vocalist who imbued “Seems Like Old Times” and “It Had to Be You” with the proper amount of atmosphere demanded by the script. There are also small roles and cameos for Truman Capote, Beverly D’Angelo, Colleen Dewhurst, Shelly Duval, Jeff Goldblum, Carol Kane, Janet Margolin, Christopher Walken, and Sigourney Weaver–most of whom were little known at the time. As for Allen, his material simply doesn’t seem very funny anymore.

Ironically, what resonates most for the present are Allen’s rants about anti-Semitism. Despite what you might hear on college campuses, the number of anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2018 alone is triple the total number of anti-Muslim incidents for the entire period between 2012-18. Allen folded anti-Semitism into Alvy’s anxieties, but that’s not funny anymore either. I won’t ride the anti-Allen tidal wave–I happen to find Mia Farrow as untruthful as Allen and even crazier–but I will say that several Allen films are far superior to Annie Hall. It seems as out of place today as a double-knit leisure suit.

Rob Weir