Academic journal article Criticism

A History of Failure

Academic journal article Criticism

A History of Failure

Article excerpt

Blonde Cobra begins with silence and a still black-and-white image. After several seconds, a voice asks, "What are your favorite Gershwin songs?" This voice seems to prompt movement within the image, as well as the sound of a second voice quickly rattling off a list of songs in response: "I've Got Rhythm," "Liza," "S'Wonderful," . . . and "Of Thee I Sing."1 The first voice interrupts the second's recitation with the observation that most of these songs are in the movies as the second voice continues to suggest a few more songs. Then the conversation turns to Victor Moore, an actor in the Broadway musical Of Thee I Sing (director George S. Kaufman, 1931).

First voice: "And Victor Moore is dead."

Second voice: "Yeah. I'm sorry."

First: "Who'd he play? What was the part he played?" "Ta ta tum ta tuttlebaum . . . Tuttlebaum. Tuttlebaum. Throttlebottom."

Second: "What? What was Throttlebottom's first name?"

First: "How did the song go?"

Second: "What was his first name, Throttlebottom? Faster, Robert faster."

First: "I give up."

Second: "Alexander."

First: "Alexander Throttlebottom."

Second: "What part, position did he have, did he play in?"

First: "The Vice President."

Second: "Correct Robert."

This rapid exchange continues for a few more seconds with the two voices asking and answering questions or offering each other additional bits of information about Of Thee I Sing, including its date-1931-and the fact that it "won the Pulitzer Prize, didn't it?" Then, after repeating an earlier question-"How did the songs in it go?"-the second voice begins to whistle, and both voices then vocalize the tune and ultimately some of the lyrics to one of the songs from the musical: "Bum bum bum bum bumbabum . . . Wintergreen for President, da dada dadadada." And then the first voice asks, "What's the other one?" The voice of Ginger Rogers singing the title line from "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" provides a response, the figure on the screen moves toward the camera and quickly fades out of focus, handwritten numbers indicating the end of a reel appear, and then the screen goes black for quite a while, long enough to tempt uninitiated viewers into thinking that maybe this "last line" was meant to signal the end of the film or at least to potentially describe an attitude toward the film project as a whole: a collaboration doomed to failure.2

Blonde Cobra did not, in fact, come easily. At a number of points, it came dangerously close to being abandoned because of severely strained personal relationships among its collaborators. Bob Fleischner shot the footage for what he and Jack Smith initially intended to be two light monster comedies during the winter of 1959. Soon afterward, a fire in Smith's apartment destroyed some raw stock that Fleischner had been storing there. Fleischner insisted that Smith repay him for the ruined stock, which was an unrealistic demand since the cause of the fire, Smith's cat knocking over a candle, was indicative of the fact that Smith had no money. Con Edison had already turned off his electricity for nonpayment. Smith and Fleischner had a falling out, and Fleischner gave the unedited footage-one color and ten black-and-white, silent, hundred-foot 16-mm rolls-to another filmmaker, Ken Jacobs, in the hopes that he could salvage something from it.3 Jacobs claimed that his ignorance of Smith and Fleischner's original intentions for the project provided a distinct advantage: "Having no idea of the original story plans I was able to view the material, not as exquisite fragments of a failure, of two failures, but as the makings of a new entity. Bob gave over the footage to me and with it the freedom to develop it as I saw fit."4 Jacobs edited the footage, adding some short color sequences that he had previously shot of Fleischner, Smith, and Jerry Sims, who also appears in the original Blonde Cobra footage, and a soundtrack, completing the film in 1963. …

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