by Greg Carlson
(In this column, I go through the high volume of movie-related collectables that I’ve acquired over the decades, and revisit (or view for the first time) the film(s) associated with the used VHS tape, promotional T-shirt, scratchy vinyl soundtrack album, etc., that have filled my shelves and storage boxes.)
Mae West, “Way Out West” and “The Best of Marlene Dietrich” vinyl LPs.
It’s a sad fact: actors and actresses who venture into the world of music generally don’t get the acclaim, respect, or additional fans they were looking for, and the results wind up looking like one big self-indulgent vanity project. It’s an entertainment-based scenario that’s been around for decades, from Anthony Quinn to Zooey Deschanel.
As a vinyl enthusiast who prefers searching via yard sales and the dusty racks of thrift stores to online bargaining and boutique record labels, I encounter the recorded output of several stars of yesteryear, and weigh the pros and cons of adding their works to my collection. So far, I have resisted the recorded works of Ed Ames and John Travolta, and have come to the conclusion that you only need one Jim Nabors and Jackie Gleason and His Orchestra LP in your collection.
With the quality and quantity of thespian-turned-singer vinyl albums being so few and far between, I felt like I hit the jackpot when I came upon mint condition copies of Mae West and Marlene Dietrich’s records, found at a Goodwill in small-town Washington and at an estate sale two blocks from my house, respectively. Up until now, I was not well-versed in the filmography of either actress (I had only seen Dietrich’s great supporting role in Touch of Evil, and West via the first hour of Myra Breckinridge – the less said about that film, the better), yet I felt that these would be intriguing works that could display some vocal prowess that I was initially unaware of. Plus, the price was right (99 cents each.)
Released in 1966, when Mae was seventy-two years old, “Way Out West” has one of those album covers that gets spoofed in every comedy about musical acts, and attempts to connect with the youth of today via then-current cover songs. The content veers from Shatner-esque dramatic monologues with a backing band to Vegas lounge renditions of pop hits, punctuated by an assortment of purrs and moans, as well as The Catchphrase (indeed, you could play a drinking game where a shot is downed every time Mrs. West inserts “Come on up and see me” at the end of a verse.) The two Beatles covers don’t make much of an impression, but after listening to the Bob Dylan cover (“If You Gotta Go, Go Now”) several times, I feel like I’ve stumbled upon an unintentional pop masterpiece (full disclosure: I’m a fan of those early ‘70s “AM Gold” singles, which her version closely resembles.) The blues and soul cover songs fare the best (“Boom Boom”, “Shakin’ All Over”), where she easily taps into the raw energy and innuendos of the originals and delivers them without going into exaggerated caricature. The album ends with the apparently original tune “Mae Day”, which sounds like a very, very, tame garage rock nugget.
When an album begins with Noel Coward reciting an introductory poem, you know that you’re in for a classy affair. Released in 1973 as a pieced-together “live” album, “The Best of Marlene Dietrich” showcases her later career as a successful cabaret artist. Although she later covered a Pete Seeger song, Mrs. Dietrich isn’t looking to get with the changing times or find a new audience; we are treated to her well-tested cabaret performance featuring a series of standards and tunes made famous by her filmography.
The album kicks off with the triple threat of “The Boys in the Back Room” (from Destry Rides Again), “The Laziest Gal in Town” (from Stage Fright) , and “Lola” (from The Blue Angel), her low, slightly-accented, sultry voice on full display, and her screen-into-stage persona doesn’t extend into parody; you can tell that this is serious business for her. Her renditions of the standards “I Wish You Love”, “Honeysuckle Rose”, and “La Vie En Rose” are top-notch, and the monaural recording adds to the charm; I couldn’t imagine listening to this album on a cleaned-up, digital version stored up in the Cloud. Although promoted as a “Greatest Hits” album, it feels like a cohesive unit in the vein of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, where every song is part of a unifying theme, in this case Mrs. Dietrich looking back at her rollercoaster life and career, and sharing it with us in an intimate smoke-filled club setting.
After repeat listenings on my turntable, these two albums continue to rank high on my “vinyl finds” list, and will remain in my permanent collection. I’ll also be adding more Mae West and Marlene Dietrich films to my video rental queue. Most importantly, now that the bar has been raised, I will never be tempted to add a used Telly Savalas or Don Johnson LP to my collection.
About Greg Carlson: I’m a huge movie fan who frequents Scarecrow Video on a regular basis. My top three films are (in random order): “Time Bandits”, “Repo Man”, and “Taxi Driver.” In my spare time, I like to hunt for vinyl records and kitschy items old-school-style, via thrift stores and estate sales – eBay and Craigslist are not part of the strategery.