Friday, September 25, 2009

I bet she knows what 'condescending' means

Headline on the cover of the Summer 2009 issue of The American Scholar, the magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society:

"Why Your Waitress Might Be Smarter Than You"

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My uncle, Aristotle and Dick Tracy

It’s a summer evening in the late 1950s. My uncle and I are in the library at St. John Fisher College.

He and I are the only ones there. He runs the place and has his own office. The office includes an intercom. He has been known to open the intercom, hold a paper bag next to it and squeeze it so that it makes crunching noises that can easily be heard by his secretary, the loyal but long-suffering Dorothy Kalb.

And he also has been known to drop water balloons out the window.

I myself have not been witness to these shenanigans, but my brother Michael, who once also stayed with Unk for a few days, remembers them well.

My uncle is a Catholic priest and a published poet, and he has done a lot to build up the library’s collection through connections he has in Canada, which include Marshall McLuhan.

My uncle also has a portable TV in his office. I’ve never seen a portable TV before. It is red, and tonight its offerings include an episode of “Men Into Space” starring William Lundigan, who is from our hometown. (Michael got his autograph once at the airport.)

As impressed as I am by the TV, right now I’m probably looking at a book. I’ve been staying with Unk for a day or two. As Mrs. Kalb was driving us on the Thruway, from my hometown to Rochester, I little suspected that Unk had a Hidden Agenda.

For although I have not yet set foot in kindergarten, I already know how to read. I don’t know how I know how to read; my guess has always been that, as a sickly kid, I picked it up watching TV game shows like “Concentration.”

I am the Wonder of the Neighborhood. One neighbor lady, who suspects some kind of trickery, sometimes shoves a magazine under my nose and asks me to read an article out loud, which I do.

Because of all this, Unk thinks I’m a genius, not realizing that although I can read stuff out loud, that doesn't mean that I can understand what I'm reading, and very often I don't.

He’s aiming to indoctrinate me into the kinds of things that a 5-year-old Genius should know.

Like the works of Aristotle.

It’s not that he expects me to read the original Greek, or even a translation; he just tries to teach me some of Aristotle’s ideas. It doesn’t work then, and I still don’t do all that well years later when an ethics professor tries to do the same thing to me in college. How disappointed Unk must have felt when, later during my visit, I made him buy me a Dick Tracy comic book.

(One time, he signed me up for a kiddie book-of-the-month club which sent me a science book each month. When I showed no interest, he tried to cancel the subscription. When the books somehow kept coming anyway, my uncle, whose name was Robert H. Flood, at least bent one of the commandments and wrote a letter to the book company, posing as a a friend of R.H. Flood and relaying the sad news that Father Flood had recently dropped dead. That did the trick, though it might later have led to a week in Purgatory.)

My big interest at this point in my life is geography. Every week my parents buy the latest volume of the Golden Book Encyclopedia at the grocery store. Even now, I remember these books fondly – wonderfully well-designed, with bright colors and maps of the states and countries, with the little icons denoting cattle ranches, factories, etc.

My uncle and I are alone until a student walks in. I remember talking to him. My uncle will later say that I said, “Can I help you?”

I recall that the guy said he needed to talk to my uncle.

My uncle asks him what he wants.

The guy says something like, “I’m looking for ‘Egypt during the War.””

My uncle says, “Ask the kid.”

The student says, “Ask the kid?!”

My uncle says something like, “Mark, could you go over to that shelf over there and find the book he’s looking for?”

“Yes, Uncle Bob!”

I go over, find “Egypt during the War,” bring it over and hand it to the student.

The student says, “This kid reads?”

My uncle says, “Doesn’t everybody?”

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Bulldog Drummond'

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s latest presentation….

“Bulldog Drummond” (Samuel Goldwyn, 1929) was Ronald Colman’s first talking picture, and he’s the main reason for seeing it – right out of the box, he’s the same handsome, debonair guy that we’re used to seeing, casual and not stilted, unlike some of the folks who share the screen with him. (Or like Cary Grant in his early appearances.)

No doubt about it: For years, if you had derring that needed doing, Colman was the man who'd get it done.

His co-star in this film is Joan Bennett, who was still a teenager and looks it; in the early scenes, she seems positively prepubescent.

Colman plays Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond, who, bored after World War I (and apparently too impatient to wait around for World War II), takes out a want ad seeking excitement. He winds up rescuing a rich guy from kidnappers.

Yep, that’s the plot, pretty much. But unlike some other early talkies, “Bulldog Drummond” has much to recommend it. It’s less stagy than, say, much of what MGM was doing at the time. The action scenes aren’t bad, considering the era, and director F. Richard Jones isn’t afraid to move the camera.

Two notable co-stars: Claud Allister, who must have gotten a royalty for years whenever anyone used the word “twit,” and Lilyan Tashman, who, as the villainess, does a lot of squinting; if only her character had used her talents for good – or at least seen a decent optometrist.

Colman made a sequel, “Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back,” a few years later. I’d very much like to see it – the cast includes Loretta Young, and it’s supposed to be quite funny. (Nunnally Johnson’s name is on the script, and that’s almost always an indication of first-rate goods.)

Unfortunately, because of the kind of copyright quagmire that Hollywood seems to specialize in (the Marx Brothers’ “Animal Crackers,” which was unseen for many years, comes to mind), “Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back” cannot legally be shown in the United States.

If only we could put Colman on the case – and tell him to keep his eyes peeled for a shady, sexy copyright lawyer who squints a lot....

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Happy 90th birthday, Unk

As you have probably deduced from that headline, today is my uncle's 90th birthday.

Unfortunately, my uncle, the Rev. Robert H. Flood, died 35 years ago, a few months shy of his 55th birthday -- a milestone I myself recently reached.

In addition to being a Roman Catholic priest, my uncle was a published poet.

I've mentioned him before, here, here and here.

And I'll be writing more about him this week.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Sitting Pretty'

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s first presentation of the fall season….

“Sitting Pretty” (Fox, 1948) is the film where Clifton Webb overturns a bowl of oatmeal on a baby’s head after the tot refuses to stop flinging the cereal at him.

Then again, we never see Webb actually doing this; we just see him in a victorious two-shot with the vanquished, bowled-over, bawling boy (who, according to the Internet Movie Database, was portrayed by the aptly named Raymond C. Hair Jr.).

Having seen this movie a few times before, I’ve sometimes wondered why we never see Webb overturning the bowl. Was the scene too hard to stage? Or, perhaps more likely, would Webb’s character – Mr. Belvedere, of course – have seemed too unsympathetic if we had seen him doing the deed?

(Apparently this movie was Young Master Hair’s debut and swan song, for IMDB reports no further appearances by him. My guess is that he could have tolerated the oatmeal-shampoo bit. Or Clifton Webb. But not both.)

Mr. Belvedere, whose first name is Lynn, has been hired sight unseen as a baby sitter by a couple who thought he was a woman. Actually, he's a male know-it-all whose presence in the King household sets tongues a-wagging in the community of Hummingbird Hill.

The film holds up well for two reasons:

The script (by F. Hugh Herbert from a Gwen Davenport novel) is well-structured and witty.

The cast, mostly old pros, knows how to play this sort of almost-but-not-quite-realistic comedy so that any plot holes are pleasantly paved over. Aside from Webb, it’s hard to go wrong with Robert Young, Maureen O’Hara, Richard Haydn and Ed Begley.

Other performers worth mentioning: Betty Lynn (later Barney Fife’s girlfriend, Thelma Lou) as a teenager who has a crush on Young; John Russell, who, though fine, seems out of place in a non-western (he would later play TV’s “Lawman”); and Louise Albritton, an actress I’d never really noticed before. She was never a true star, but she was vivacious and attractive, and I’ll have to keep an eye out for her other films. (She later married CBS journalist Charles Collingwood.)

But the key to the movie is Webb’s performance. “I happen to dislike all children intently,” Belvedere says, and although the character never seems to do or say much if anything to contradict this, he is never hateful toward the three boys in his care.

In one scene, he proclaims himself to be something of a philosopher.

“Oh, I see,” Young’s character says, “you just sit and think.”

“Mr. King,” he replies, “if more people just sat and thought, the world might not be in the stinking mess that it is.”

Is there any truth to that statement? These days, who knows? But (and here’s the brilliance of Webb’s performance) when Mr. Belvedere says it, you're sure it’s true.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Happy birthday, Ivan Pavlov

Hmm. I don't know why I feel compelled to post this.

And I suppose that, considering it is Mr. Pavlov's birthday, I really should write something about him.

But at the moment I'm too busy wiping the spittle from my keyboard....

My forecast? His future is cloudy

It’s early on a recent morning, and I’m trying to figure out whether I should walk to the shopping center to get some groceries because I could use the exercise.

It’s cloudy – certainly looks as if it could rain at any moment – so I turn on the local 24-hour news station to get the forecast.

The forecaster, a young guy, says something along the lines of: “Yes, I know it’s cloudy out, but there’s only a 20 percent chance of rain, and the clouds’ bark is worse than their bite, so to speak, so go ahead, go out – you probably won’t get rained on.”

So I did. And I didn’t get rained on.

But I’m still in a state of shock. And I greatly fear for this guy’s career.

Doesn’t he know that, as a TV weather forecaster, it is his job, practically his sworn duty, to make things seem as bad as possible?

Doesn’t he know that he’s supposed to say something like this:

“Yes, there’s only a 20 percent chance of rain, but that still means you have a 1 in 5 chance of getting rained on. Poured on. Drenched. Which, as we all know, can lead to a chill, which can lead to a cold, which can lead to pneumonia and maybe even dengue fever, which I really don’t know anything about – I just like saying ‘dengue fever’!

“And what’s worse, you never know what’s above those clouds. Planes are up there all the time, hidden from view, and one of them could crash. Or one of them could be carrying a grand piano in it’s cargo hold, a cargo hold that it’s a wee bit too heavy for, and the fuselage might crack and the piano – and maybe the whole darn plane – might come crashing down on you!

“Oh, and did I mention the vultures? You never know when they’ll be circling. And you have been looking a little thin lately…..”