Posts Tagged ‘singing’

Sing Cowboy Sing
American pop singer Dean Reed’s popularity in East Germany cannot be underestimated. He was not called the “Red Elvis” for nothing. He played to packed houses throughout the Eastern Bloc nations, especially in Russia, where he was a huge star. Although he was born in Denver, Colorado, and under contract to Capitol Records, Reed’s big break came in South America, where his song “Our Summer Romance” was a hit in spite of its lack of airplay in the States. Reed started performing in South America exclusively, where he met and became close friends with Victor Jara, the Chilean singer and political activist who was tortured and killed by Pinochet’s goons after the U.S. orchestrated coup d’etat. Later, in East Germany, Reed would direct and star in a TV movie about his murdered friend, El Cantor.

When things got too hot in South America, Reed went to Europe, where he started appearing in films, primarily spaghetti westerns such as God Made Them… I Kill Them, Twenty Paces to Death, and Adios Sabato. In 1973, he starred in his first DEFA film, Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts (The Life of a Ne’er-do-Well), but it was his next film for DEFA, Kit & Co., that brought him real attention. At that point, Reed decided to move to East Germany.

Dean Reed

This was a public relations goldmine for the GDR; up there with Angela Davis’ visit to the country a year earlier. While the U.S. government continued to paint the communist countries as hellish places that no one would want to have anything to do with, here was an American pop star living in East Germany and loving it. As a consequence, Reed was given a great deal more creative freedom than any East German filmmaker was ever allowed. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Sing, Cowboy, Sing, the western comedy that Reed starred in and directed.

Sing, Cowboy, Sing follows the adventures of Joe (Dean Reed) and his pal Beny as they travel across the American West, singing in saloons and performing in Wild West shows. It is a silly affair that would be a kids’ film if not for a few gags involving large breasts. There’s a shootout at the end, but nobody suffers anything worse than an injured hand. Occasionally the action stops so that Joe and Beny can perform a song. There’s some political content here but very little. The bad guy is, of course, a rich American, and the one town he doesn’t control is Liebenthal (literally, “Love Valley”), which was founded by Germans.

Sing, Cowboy, Sing is part of a fine old genre, the comedy western. It harks back to the silent era and includes such classics as Destry Rides Again, Along Came Jones, Cat Ballou, and Blazing Saddles; along with some very silly movies such as Ride ‘Em Cowboy, Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County, and The Apple Dumpling Gang. Sing, Cowboy, Sing falls squarely in the latter category. It is a very light and silly movie, but with touches that show an influence from Reed’s work on spaghetti westerns. Stylistically, it is all over the map. One scene will feature sped up action for comic effect, and the next will be played for high drama with scene that looks like it was shot by Gianfranco Parolini.

Dean Reed as gunfighter

The film uses an international cast, including Czechs, Romanians, and even Dean Reed’s old acting coach and TV director, Paton Price whom Reed had flown to East Germany to help him get through the production. As one might imagine, these actors were all dubbed by Germans. Reed himself was dubbed by Holger Mahlich, an actor often called on for dubbing on both sides of the wall (he left East Germany in 1982). He is often called upon to do the voices for Xander Berkeley and Ed Harris, but he has dubbed everyone from Harvel Keitel to John Candy. His is the voice of John Steed in the German release of The Avengers.

Beny is played by the Czech actor Václav Neckář, who is best known for his first feature film role—that of Milos in Jirí Menzel’s Oscar-winning classic, Closely Watched Trains. Like Reed, Neckář was a successful pop singer, with several hits in his native Czechoslovakia. Some of these songs were originals, while others were Czech cover versions of popular tunes such as “Mrs. Robinson,” “Suzanne,” and “Bungalow Bill.” Unlike Reed, Neckář started as an actor and came to singing later. He had several success singles in the sixties, then joined his brother Jan’s group Bacily (which translates to “The Germs”) in 1971.

In 2000, his named cropped up on a list of informants for the StB—Czechoslovakia’s version of the Stasi. This didn’t help his movie career any. Since the publication of that list, he’s only done one film as a voice in an animated movie, and a small part in the Czech TV show, Gympl. He continues to perform with Bacily, as several videos on YouTube can attest.

Neckar

The lead female love interests of Maria and Susann were played by Violeta Andrei and Elke Martens (née Gierth), respectively. Violeta Andrei is best remembered as the voluptuous cosmonaut Rall who dances with the snake at the party in Gottfried Kolditz’s wild East German science fiction film In the Dust of the Stars, and as Gojko Mitić’s love interest in Severino. She is a Romanian and appeared in several movies in her home country, including The Moment (Clipa) and The Pale Light of Sorrow (Lumina palidă a durerii). She was married to Ștefan Andrei, foreign minister for Nicolae Ceauşescu. She occasionally still appears in Romanian TV shows, but hasn’t done a feature film since the overthrow of Ceauşescu.

Elke Martens, appearing in this film under her maiden name, Gierth, hails from Dresden. Like Reed and Neckář, she is a singer, although she gets no chance to demonstrate it in this movie. She mostly here for cleavage gags. During the seventies and eighties, she performed in the GDR with her band, Megaphone. Occasionally, the band ran afoul of the authorities for its provocative lyrics and faced a year-and-a-half ban in 1980 because of this. More recently, Martens has made a name for herself in Schlagermusik—easily the least provocative music known to man. Martens outed herself as an IM, claiming that she was forced to sign an agreement to provide the Stasi information lest she go to prison. Reed’s original screenplay for this movie was in English. According to one source, it was Martens who created the German script for the film.

The music for the film is by Karel Svoboda, a Czech composer best known for his work on children’s films. Svoboda started out studying to be a dentist, but his love was always music. In 1963, with the burgeoning popularity of bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, he started the group, Mephisto, who later became the house band for the Rococo Theater (Divadlo Rokoko) in Prague. While the songs in Sing, Cowboy, Sing are adequate but forgettable, the score features some excellent set pieces that a clever director will some day repurpose. Along with his scores for several movies, Svoboda also wrote musicals based on popular fiction, including, Dracula, Monte Cristo, and Golem. In 2007, Svoboda committed suicide in the garden of his home in Jevany.

Critics were unkind to Sing, Cowboy, Sing. Renate Holland-Moritz, the resident film critic for East Germany’s humor magazine Eulenspiegel, found Reed’s directing unfocused and felt he was unable to tell the difference between what’s funny and what’s merely absurd, and West Germany’s Cinema magazine called the film amateurish slapstick. As is often the case with intentionally silly films, the general public found the movie more entertaining than the critics did. The film was a hit. As inane as much of the humor is, Reed’s ingratiating personality and his obvious cowboy credentials carry the movie. This would be Dean Reed’s last film for DEFA before his death.

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Most East German films received little if any distribution in the west. If you lived in Poland or Russia, you might see some of them pop up in theaters (particularly the Indianerfilme), but only a handful made it to the movie houses in New York and London. There were a few exceptions and the most of these belonged to that oddest of East German film genres: the Märchenfilm (fairy tale film). Märchenfilme started in East Germany with The Cold Heart (Das kalte Herz), made in 1950 by the West German director Paul Verhoeven. During those early days of DEFA and the two German republics, many West German filmmakers found themselves turning to the east to get their projects realized. The western authorities—and in particular, the United States—were in no hurry to get the German movie industry back on its feet. The Cold Heart was successful on both sides of the border and the East German authorities recognized the potential income that this particular film genre had for the state. With their common themes about the importance of helping others less fortunate than yourself and the humbling of the rich, fairy tales fit nicely within the confines of socialist ideology. Better yet, the west didn’t have a problem with these concepts when they were couched in the world of fantasy.

One of the DEFA films that made it west was The Golden Goose (Die goldene Gans), based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. The film tells the story of a young man who, because of his kindness to an old woman, is given a golden goose. When others lust after the goose’s golden feathers, they become stuck to each other in a long procession behind the young man who is heading to the castle to try and make a sad princess laugh. Lots of singing and general hilarity ensues.

Just as The Singing Ringing Tree had a strong impact on the children of Great Britain, The Golden Goose remains a vivid memory for American children from the same era. This is because the film was purchased for distribution in the U.S. by K. Gordon Murray. Called the “King of the Kiddie Matinee,” Murray was the oddest of exploitation producers. Exploitation film distribution is all about finding a niche that Hollywood is either ignoring or won’t touch, and then making or purchasing films to fill that void. For most producers—people such as David Friedman, Dwain Esper, Kroger Babb, and Louis Sonney—this meant sex, drugs, or both. Murray, on the other hand, sought revenues in European children’s films and Mexican horror movies. His formula was simple: buy a film cheaply, dub it badly, edit it substantially, and distribute it quickly. Most of the fairy tale films that Murray purchased hailed from West Germany, but one exception was DEFA’s The Golden Goose. Later, Murray recycled some of the footage from this film in his 1969 release, Santa’s Fantasy Fair. Eventually, Murray ran afoul of the IRS, and all his films were seized. He was in the process of getting them back when he died of a heart attack. Following Murray’s lead, New York distributor, Barry B. Yellen started Childhood Productions, a company exclusively devoted to kiddie films. Yellin brought more East German films to U.S. movie houses, including The Tinder Box (Das Feuerzeug) and The Brave Little Tailor (Das tapfere Schneiderlein).

The Golden Goose was directed by Siegfried Hartmann, who directed several Märchenfilme for DEFA. He got his start as an assistant director in the early fifties, working on, among other films, The Story of Little Muck. In 1959, he directed The Tinder Box, which was a hit and set him on his career as a Märchenfilm director. All of his fairy tale films are available on DVD through Icestorm Entertainment, although not all have been released in the United States.

The cinematographer was Karl Plintzner, who might be called the Leon Shamroy of East Germany. Had Plintzner lived in the United States, he would have been Frank Tashlin’s favorite cinematographer. His use of color in this film and his others, such as Silvesterpunsch (New Years Eve Punch) and The Singing Ringing Tree, is dazzling; almost to the point of excess. He is helped in this regard by costume designer Ingeborg Wilfert’s brightly colored outfits, and Georg Kranz’s and Hans-Jörg Mirr’s theatrical art direction.

Although he only composed the music for three feature films (all of them by Siegfried Hartmann), composer Siegfried Bethmann was a successful musician in East Germany who was better known for his march music than his film scores. His “Pauken unf Fanfaren” was a popular military march in East Germany, and, more recently, the Belgian trombone player Marc Meyers recorded Bethmann’s “Schottischer Whisky” (imagine “Scotland the Brave” reinterpreted as the theme for Hogan’s Heroes). Peter Snellinckx, conductor of the Royal Band of the Belgian Navy, also recorded two of Bethmann’s compositions: “Scandanavian Rhapsody” and “Hias.” From the available music, it seems as if Bethmann’s major influences were George Gershwin and Bavarian brass bands, an odd combination to be sure. Perhaps his strangest contribution to the music scene though is “Marsch der Fallschirmsportler,” a rousing paean to the joys of skydiving.

While there are other East German Märchenfilme that older viewers will find more entertaining (most notably The Singing, Ringing Tree), The Golden Goose is an congenial little film well suited to young audiences.

 

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