June 5, 2013

Light and Dark: Themes and Anthems for a European Tour

dvd revThe first real summer vacation I ever had was two and a half months in Europe with a student tour called the Golden Bear. I picked that particular tour because it was the only one that went to Vienna and Berlin, two cities that had aroused my interest because of the rich post-war atmosphere of Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s classic European thriller The Third Man starring Orson Welles in the title role.

When the Golden Bear powers-that-be cancelled the Berlin visit and feebly attempted to make up for it with a few extra days in Switzerland, I thought of the moment in The Third Man when after cynically justifying his immoral doings on the black market, Welles’s Harry Lime says: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”


The first leg of the tour was from Amsterdam to Hamburg to Copenhagen to Stockholm to Oslo, where our bipolar tour conductor — a South African anti-apartheid exile with a DPhil from Oxford in political philosophy — was hauled off screaming to a hospital by the Oslo police. We made it back to Hamburg and a new guide on our own, don’t ask me how. After stops in Heidelberg and Rothenberg, we arrived in Munich, which is where we first heard “Volare,” joy set to music, the song of the summer.

“Volare” offered a subliminal release to those of us who were still feeling the aftershock of the tour leader’s breakdown. You couldn’t just hear it, you had to sing it, as we did at a night club in Schwabing, the student quarter, where a red-jacketed band had been playing exotic items like “See You Later Alligator.” I didn’t even know what I was singing at first. I thought it was a girl’s name, “Oh Lolly.” The meaning didn’t matter. Everyone was singing this song, whether or not they knew the Italian lyrics. Soon enough we knew all you needed to know, the chorus, “Vo-lare,” sung as if your heart was soaring, followed by joy-sounds, oh-ho, then “Can-tare,” Italian for singing, drawn out to the last measure of musical devotion, then more happy, happy Oh-oh-oh-oh-ho’s, then, “Nel blue di pinto di blu” (the formal title), which I never bothered to translate, figuring, as most people did, that it refers to the blue sky you’re flying into on the wings of the song we were still singing as we walked back to the hotel from the club. It seemed to come out of nowhere, an infusion of pure melody, musical nitrous oxide, for you’re already almost laughing with the sheer exhilaration of singing it. The following night “Volare” was being sung in the beer halls, we were dancing to it, making up our own words in pidgin Italian. Every summer should have such a song. A summer anthem.

“Volare” was an international sensation, a preview of what the Beatles would accomplish on the grand scale in the sixties and ABBA in the seventies. Not until now, all these years later, do I find that a song that seemed little more than love-drunk hyperbole is about the singer painting his hands and face blue before being swept up by the wind and flying off in the infinite sky (“cielo infinito”). Like Coleridge waking from an opium dream to compose “Kubla Khan,” Franco Migliacci is said to have awakened from a wine-drunk nightmare to find his lyric in two Chagall prints on the wall of his room, one in which a yellow man is suspended in midair, another where half the painter’s face is blue. Putting the lyrics together with Dominic Modugno’s tune took several days. According to Modugno’s wife, the key word “volare” was inspired by a storm suddenly blowing open a window.

Tour in Free Fall

As the incident in Oslo suggests, my first European summer was not all about “Volare.” For some of my companions on the tour, there was Mitch Miller’s catchy, impossible-not-to-whistle-along-with “River Kwai March (Colonel Bogey)” from the then-recent film, The Bridge on the River Kwai. The first time our tall, shambling, twitchy, hyper, bird-like tour leader took his position in the front of an Amsterdam tour bus, a summer-camp-sing-along epidemic spread among us, set off when someone began singing the “River Kwai March” using his first name, “Rob-in, he makes the tour go round, Rob-in, dum-da-dum-dum-dum,” and so forth. What followed was only a spontaneous, good-natured, playful, typically American serenade that any normal, reasonably sound-of-mind-and-body person in the tour guide role would find amusing and harmless, a sign of friendly acceptance from his charges. But the summer campers of the Golden Bear sang or chanted the chorus incessantly even as it became clear, at least to those of us who had begun to know him, that Robin was an accident waiting to happen.

By the time of the overnight train from Copenhagen to Stockholm, those of us Robin had taken into his confidence were aware that he was in psychic free fall and that the jaunty ditty sung in his name had become the mocking theme song of his madness. We tried to alert the others to tone down the he’s-a-jolly-good fellow stuff. By then the situation should have been obvious if only from the way he periodically stamped his feet and shouted in his South African BBC accent, “I am NOT a tour leader! I am a courier!” This was around the time, perhaps due to the incessant singing, that he began outlining his plan for us to become traveling entertainers, a troupe to be known, what else, as The Golden Bears (“We shall sing for our supper!”). He wrote a song of his own for us that began, “We are ze Europins of ze Golden Bear, Ve haf Stars und Strawdust in R hair.”

On the night train to Oslo, using an umbrella that he called a bumbershoot, he began attacking some of the more insistent chanters of the “River Kwai March.” At the student hostel in Oslo no one was singing as we stood watching from the doorways of our rooms while the police led him down the corridor howling his “I am a courier” mantra. Fifteen years later someone in Bristol who had read Robin’s book Drop Out! told me that he had died “in a doss-house fire.”

“The Third Man Theme”

Online it’s claimed that Dominic Modugno’s recording of “Volare” spent five weeks in first place on the Billboard Top 100 chart in the summer of 1958. Nine years earlier, between April and July of 1949, the zither player Anton Karras’s Decca recording of “The Third Man Theme” spent 11 weeks atop the Billboard chart. It’s amusing to find that the mysterious, atmospheric music from the movie that led me to choose the tour for its Vienna-Berlin feature actually outsold the feel-good anthem that lifted the spirits of the shellshocked Golden Bears in the aftermath of our leader’s breakdown.

Karras’s haunting music and Third Man cinematographer Robert Krasker’s dramatically lit, mood-drenched visions of nocturnal Vienna streetscapes created the European post-war-noir excitement I found in long walks through the streets of Hamburg and Munich and above all Vienna, where our hotel, the Urania, was only 15 minutes from the Prater and the giant ferris wheel that provides the setting for the film’s most famous scene. Except for the chase through the sewers at the end, and the electric moment when we first see the mysterious back-from-the-dead “third man” discovered in a dark doorway by a brief flash of light, Orson Welles’s unforgettable performance as a charming scoundrel named Harry Lime is played out in his meeting at the Prater with his old college pal and writer of pulp westerns, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton). I was about to say the scene is among Welles’s finest hours, except that barely six minutes pass from the moment Holly spots a small dark figure approaching from the distance to the goodbye moment of the “cuckoo clock” speech, which Welles wrote himself.

Once the two men are in the closed carriage of the moving ferris wheel, Carol Reed and Graham Greene play second fiddle to the aura and ambience of Welles, actor and director and personality. While the idea that he had a hand in the direction of the picture has been laid to rest, anyone who knows his work will recognize the way the voices jar and jostle one another in a void; the play of expression on Lime’s face from sly to sinister to dyspeptic to a hollow heartiness, the breezy cynicism with which he justifies his villainy when he tells Cotton to look at the people down below, asking, “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?”

That question and the notion that evil could be charming or fascinating in itself caught me up when I first saw the film as a child and again after a recent viewing of the brilliantly remastered Criterion DVD. For all the pleasures of that long-ago summer, there’s no forgetting the screaming man in Oslo or the reality behind the aesthetic excitement of the ruined buildings, bombed out vistas, and haunted faces of the Third Man’s Vienna

Summer Romance

As the tour unfolded, Italy outshone everything else. The essence of a summer dream vacation was a mixture of the mindless joy of “Volare” with the poetry of Fellini’s La Strada, a film that eventually meant even more to me than The Third Man (for one thing, I became hopelessly infatuated with a girl on the tour who resembled Giuletta Messina’s mystic gamin, Gelsomina). The Third Man evoked wartime and intrigue, while the emotional fanfare of LaStrada complemented the sheer joy of “Volare.” But then who could imagine that Harry Lime himself would show up later that summer at a production of Puccini’s Turandot at the Baths of Carcacalla? There he was sitting five rows in front of us, no way you could miss him, Orson Welles ten years down the road from his death in the sewers of Vienna, big and bearded and surrounded by beautiful women.

Finally, any dissertation on the subject of dream summer holidays has to include at least a mention of the ultimate summer holiday romance, Before Sunrise. There’s a dream to savor, to meet Julie Delpy on a train to Vienna, to fall in love, and to have your first kiss on the ferris wheel at the Prater. And now after Before Sunset in Paris, here comes Before Midnight in Greece.

In the image from The Third Man shown above, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) is waiting at the Prater for his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles).