Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was
released in October of 1969, at which time there was a particularly
syrupy movie song which was played several times per hour on all Top 40
radio stations throughout the United States. In fact, although it was
not a rock or R&B song, but a sappy love poem set to insipid music, it
actually rose to #2 on the record charts, and stayed on the charts for
12 weeks, alongside The Rolling Stones, The Temptations, and Sly & the
Can you guess what it was? If you guessed
"Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head", you get no points. My Butch Cassidy
reference, which seemed to be a senile rambling, was in fact a senile red herring!
answer is "Jean," the theme song from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,
as sung by some sap named Oliver, and written by the even sappier
would-be poet, Rod McKuen. Needless to say, if you were into real music
at the time, the appearance of "Jean" on a radio was an occasion to
throw your beer at the offending device, since the song consisted of the
perfect combination of syrupy music which would cause any
self-respecting elevator to eject its MUZAK cartridge, and lyrics which
could have been written by a 12 year old girl. Except of course that a
12 year old girl could have written "Jean", but would have thrown the
poem away once she re-read it. Rod McKuen never had that much sense.
As Dave Barry once wrote, the lyrics to
"Jean" should have been:
You're young and alive
(which beats being old and/or
Mr Oliver and Mr McKuen, by the way,
probably contributed as much to bad music as any two men in the 20th
century. I suppose that the two songs which most often appear on
All-Time Bad Lyrics lists are "Seasons in the Sun" and "Good Morning
Starshine". McKuen actually wrote the awful lyrics to "Seasons in the
Sun" ("skinned our hearts and skinned our knees"), and Oliver had a big
hit singing the even worse lyrics to "Good Morning Starshine". (Actual
lyrics: "Gliddy glub gloopy nibby nabby noopy, La la la lo lo, Sabba
sibby sabba nooby abba nabba, Le le lo lo, Tooby ooby walla nooby abba
For these two giants of bad music to team
together on one song was a serendipitous concatenation of circumstances
which may never be re-created, so we who were there can only marvel at
Oliver had two or three more truly awful
hits, then disappeared for two decades, but his name came into the
public eye again in the '90s when he became one of only three groups or
artists (along with Paul Anka and the Captain and Tennille) to have more
than one song named among the notorious "Worst 100 Singles of the Last
25 Years," by David Browne and David Hinckley for The New York Daily
News. Both "Jean" and "Good Morning Starshine" made the list.
You go, girl!
Oliver passed away of cancer in 2000,
aged only 54.
Rod McKuen, on the other hand, may live
forever, and is still writing, although it has been about 20 years since
anyone published any of his books, and nearly thirty years since he has
had a music credit listed at IMDb. If you want to read his unpublished
stuff, here is his home page.
Getting back to the narrative for a
moment, "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" doesn't usually make the
Worst 100 lists, but the competition is incredibly stiff. It ain't easy
to top Mack Davis and Richard Harris, not to mention McKuen and Oliver.
"Raindrops," however, did go on to be an even bigger hit than "Jean",
reaching number one at one point, and appearing on the charts for
nineteen weeks. While not quite as sappy and irritating as "Jean," it
became even more intrusive.
One thing that fascinated me about this
quaint movie is the character of Miss Jean Brodie, because I knew a
woman exactly like this. I mean EXACTLY like this. She was a teacher at
an private women's college in upstate New York in the late 60's. She
talked exactly as Maggie Smith did in this film - the same pompous and
commanding pronouncements, the same diva persona and egocentricity, the
same mannered and affected grande dame style. Precisely the same
except for Jean Brodie's Scottish accent. They both rattled on and on
about Florence, Italy and Dante when it was irrelevant to their subject
matter. In the main, they were both quite well loved by their students.
They both had repeated catch-phrases. The woman I knew preferred
hyphenated Homeric epithets as her personal catch phrases, like "the
great white-walled city of Florence." She was just as eccentric and
passionate and "progressive" as Jean Brodie. Her name was Francesca Guli.
Francesca was just as certain of her convictions as Jean Brodie.
Thankfully she had much less malevolent convictions, and was teaching
university students. By the way, Francesca was semi-famous, in that she
had a few books of poetry published in limited editions (I have one of
her books, signed by her - it's a children's book about Dante as a child
- what else?), and you can probably find some references to her
somewhere on the internet.
What is my point? I'm getting there.
If I had never met Francesca, I would say
that Miss Jean Brodie is an unrealistic over-the-top character. But I
know, or knew, a woman exactly like her. I therefore conclude that one
of two things must be true. Either (1) this actually is a realistic
portrayal of a certain type of woman who existed in the middle 20th
century, or (2) Muriel Spark's novel, the source of the character, must
actually have been based on Francesca. I do not think the second could
be true, which leads me to conclude that the first is correct. There
were others like Francesca. Perhaps many others.
The essence of the character of Jean
Brodie is that she has strong, passionate opinions about everything, and
they are usually wrong. She has contempt for any Catholic. She is an
ardent supporter of Fascism. She encourages one young girl to die for
Franco. When she's not screwing up the girls with Fascism and bigotry,
she's leading them into having sex with older married men. She leads the
girls with such certainty, delivers her pronouncements with such a
complete absence of self-doubt, that many students seem to follow her
willingly and unquestioningly, however silly her causes.
This creates an atypical film. In certain
ways, it is preaching anarchy to the "caring teacher" genre. On the
surface, it is one of those films where the renegade teacher fights
against the repressive system to bring her students more enrichment and
to give their lives more value. Beneath the surface, however, it
subverts all of our expectations. This is no "To Sir With Love," because
in this case the system is acting in the best interests of the students,
and the caring, renegade teacher is screwing the kids up.
To use the old cliché, Jean Brodie is a
teacher who really cares. The problem is she cares about all the wrong
things, and has all the wrong attitudes toward those things!
The film, by the way, is essentially a
talky stage play that was brought to the screen with no particular
cinematic flair. It is a good, solid play, typical of the times in
British drama, but it has very little plot development and far too
little humor, and is only for those of you who are really into the
theater and in-depth character studies.