Monday, April 27, 2009

The Tell-Tale Walt

An open letter to Mr. Neal Gabler:

Over the past few weeks I have been reading your biography of Walt Disney.

Having read some of your other work, including “An Empire of Your Own,” I expected that this book would be just as good, and I am happy to say that it is. It offers a lot of information that I hadn’t known, even though I’ve read a lot about Mr. Disney and the history of animation over the years.

But I do have one major problem with the book, and it has nothing to do with your scholarship or writing ability.

It’s that picture on the cover.

Yes, I know, if you’re going to publish a biography of someone, it’s practically de rigueur that you run a picture of the person on the cover as opposed to, say, a ham sandwich. (And, come to think of it, wouldn’t Dee Rigueur be a great name for a dominatrix?)

But this particular picture….

I don’t mean that it’s out of focus or anything. God knows I’m no expert on photography, but it basically looks fine to me.

But it’s those eyes that bother me.

Walt’s eyes.

I don’t like the way he’s looking at me, and, what’s worse, his eyes almost seem to, well, follow me a little.

Which is kind of embarrassing, given that the book is in my bedroom, where I get dressed, and it often seems as if Walt is trying to say, “You’re not going out in that?

I realize it could be worse. I mean, I don’t read the book in the bathroom. It’s way too fancy a book for that, and I don’t read in the bathroom anymore anyway, so I no longer have to deal with the TV Guide in the Toilet Room Syndrome.

Oh, you don’t know what I mean? Surely you remember when TV Guide was a much smaller magazine – easier to take to the john – and featured more interesting articles, along with that yellow TV Teletype page at the end with the latest news. Not to mention Cleveland Amory’s reviews. (I learned a lot about writing from that guy.)

Anyway, years ago I would take the more compact TV Guide into the bathroom with me. Then, inevitably, it would be time for me to, um, prepare for my exit, and I’d have to put it down, only to find that the person on the cover was smiling up at me. This could be at best embarrassing (I had a big crush on Liz Montgomery, and it was unsettling to have her see me that way, although her smile was sweetly tolerant) and at worst off-putting (Bob Crane, with that supercilious smirk of his, never suspecting that one day Paul Schrader and Greg Kinnear would make quick work of him).

Now I suppose, Mr. Gabler, that you could argue that if I don’t want Walt to give me the evil eye I should just simply turn the book over.

I suppose I could do that. I suppose I could just keep remembering to turn the book over.

But I have so many things to remember these days.

And it is a heavy book.

Then again, I could just take the front cover off and stow it somewhere.

But I am a “Twilight Zone” fan, and I know how these things work.

Eventually, maybe not today or tomorrow or the next day, the cover would mysteriously find its way back to the book.

And I’d only have to deal with the problem all over again.

Not to mention that low, dull, quick sound that keeps coming from underneath the floorboards … and it's getting louder ….

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'I'm No Angel'

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

Although I’m a movie buff, and especially an old-movie buff, I’m not proud to admit that before the other night I had never sat through an entire Mae West movie, unless you count “My Little Chickadee.” But that's really a Mae West-W.C. Fields movie, and though it has its moments, it's ultimately a draw between two combative stars.

I’ve also seen parts of “She Done Him Wrong,” but it always seemed too slow.

In “I’m No Angel” (Paramount, 1933), which followed “She Done Him Wrong” and seems to move a little faster, West plays a circus performer whose past catches up with her after she gets involved with a well-heeled Cary Grant.

One could argue that the movie is flawed because a) the plot is a mess and b) Ms. West is something of a one-trick pony. But the plots of a couple of the early Marx Brothers movies don’t make much sense either, and if you’ve seen one Chico Marx piano solo, you’ve maybe seen more than enough. And how many times did W.C. Fields recycle that henpecked-husband-who-finally-wins-respect routine? (Never mind that, compared with the plot of Fields' “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break,” the story line of “I’m No Angel” is a model of Aristotelian perfection.)

It’s just that I really like the Marx Brothers (mainly Groucho), and I really like Fields. But although I don’t dislike Mae West, I somehow can't seem to muster the same enthusiasm for her.

But she deserves respect for knowing who she was, being who she was and getting what she wanted. She’s credited with writing the story, screenplay and dialogue for “I’m No Angel.” (Someone named Lowell Brentano is credited with making “suggestions.”) Did any other female performer in 1930s Hollywood have this kind of clout?

And if the plot of “I’m No Angel” is a mess, it does lead to a dilly of a courtroom scene in which West hilariously attacks her accusers’ hypocrisy while scoring points with the judge (played by Walter Walker, who shamefully receives no screen credit even though he shamelessly steals part of the scene).

West was also smart enough to realize the potential of Cary Grant, here billed below the title, but even at this early stage possessing enough star wattage so that you feel sorry for any featured Paramount player who tries to share a scene with him. In one scene with Grant, B-movie perennial Kent Taylor practically disappears from the screen; he’s literally there, but somehow he isn’t. But you can’t blame Grant for this, any more than you can blame the sun for shining.

Before the movie, a short subject: “Never Kick a Woman” (Paramount/Max Fleischer, 1936), in which Popeye takes Olive Oyl to a gym, where a Mae West-like instructor sets her cap for Popeye, sailor cap and all, and beats the crap out of Olive Oyl, who then eats some of Popeye’s spinach and then beats the crap out of her. (Anger management was never these cartoons’ strong suit.)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Maybe, Doc, it was just one of those things....

Last month I had one of those procedures where somebody sticks a tube down your throat and takes pictures – the somebody in this case being someone I’ll call Dr. Livingstone (if I’m not presuming too much).

I’m happy to say that I received a clean bill of health from the doctor. I’m a little less happy to say that this month I received another kind of bill from the doctor, but one must expect this kind of unavoidable side effect. (Given the amount, one might also call it “collateral damage.”)

As I prepared to write the check, I noticed that the bill, in itemizing the charges, referred to an “encounter with Dr. Livingstone.”


The American Heritage Dictionary lists several definitions for “encounter” as a noun: “a meeting, especially one that is unplanned, unexpected or brief; a hostile or adversarial confrontation; a contest; an often violent meeting; a clash.”

Aside from raising the small point of whether the folks who made that classic star-crossed-love movie “Brief Encounter” were being redundant, these definitions make me wonder whether the good doctor’s practice was using the word correctly.

For one thing, my procedure was not unplanned or unexpected, though I suppose you could argue that it was brief. (And I could argue that it wasn't brief enough.) Was it hostile or adversarial? Geez, it didn’t seem so. I was in a fairly good mood at the time, all things considered, but did I unknowingly breach some kind of patient protocol, and did this tick the good doctor off? Maybe I should have brought a bottle of wine to the operating room.

A contest? Didn’t seem that way, either, though I could easily envision someone making a reality-game show out of it. (“You Bet Your Gullet!”)

A clash? Again, from my own, somewhat drugged side of the gurney, it didn’t seem so. But next time a bottle of wine – and, just to be safe, a box of Whitman’s Samplers – might be in order.

An often violent meeting? Now, that comes a bit closer to the mark, if one defines “gagging” as a violent action. And I recall feeling a bit sore afterward. Could it be that Dr. Livingstone was in a particularly bad mood, angry at someone, or something, and I just happened to be handy?

That certainly seems like unprofessional behavior to me, and perhaps I should consider bringing him up on charges before the state medical board.

But then again, he is basically a good doctor, and I am scheduled to see him again next year for a different kind of procedure, and, heck, anyone can have a bad day once in a while.

So next year I will bring the wine. And the box of candy.

And, just to be extra safe, a copy of the Marquess of Queensbury rules.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

At the (old) movies: Holmes and Watson

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

The main feature: “Sherlock Holmes Faces Death” (but not taxes – then again, that would be not so much a mystery movie as a horror picture), preceded by a short film from 1927 in which Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, addresses the audience – his only appearance on sound film.

Conan Doyle seems to be a pretty affable guy as he patiently discusses – doubtless for the umpty-umph time – the origins of his most famous character. “I’ve written a good deal more about him than I ever intended to,” he says with a good humor that, if I remember correctly, was not always present when someone mentioned the great detective in his presence – indeed, he’d unsuccessfully tried to kill Holmes off many years before this short film was made.

If Conan Doyle wasn’t too enthusiastic about Holmes’ life-after-supposed death, it’s obvious that he’s rarin’ to talk about the second focus of his brief talk: his interest in whether non-fictional characters live on after death and his belief that they do and his efforts to document this. Spiritualism was his chief interest near the end of his life, a topic that led to tension between him and Harry Houdini, who was just as convinced that spiritualism, at best, is hokum. But both sides in this debate can agree on one thing: Conan Doyle created two characters who remain immortal.

(And if you’re interested, you can watch the Conan Doyle featurette here.)

“Sherlock Holmes Faces Death” (Universal, 1943) stars – who else? – Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Rathbone’s Holmes was an adroit mixture of hauteur and humaneness – and was capable of making a mistake once in a while. And while some have criticized Bruce’s Watson as too much of a bumbler, Conan Doyle, in the featurette, does say that the good doctor is “rather stupid.” Even so, in the Universal films the scriptwriters occasionally throw Watson a bone – in one film literally, as Watson explains to Holmes that a skeleton is not that of a boy but a midget. (Or was it the other way around? Either way, you’d think Holmes would be at least as much of an expert on human anatomy as he is on footprints.)

Universal’s Rathbone-Holmes films (Fox had made two before the characters changed studios) were usually loosely based on a Conan Doyle story – in this case, “The Musgrave Ritual.” The original story, though good, wasn’t very cinematic, so the moviemakers took several elements of the story – a mysterious family ritual, a butler and a hidden treasure – and fashioned one of the better Holmes films.

It’s more than obvious that all is not well at Musgrave Manor – an abode that, even from the outside, makes that mansion from “Rebecca” look like Disneyland. Inside the manor, young Sally Musgrave is upset because her crabby brother, Geoffrey, doesn’t want her to marry an American airman. Old stick in the mud that he is, Geoffrey might have something of the point: The airman is played by a young Milburn Stone, and perhaps Geoffrey realizes that as Milburn ages he’ll eventually become the equally crotchety Doc on “Gunsmoke.” (It takes a crab to know a crab.)

Sally is played by the lovely Hillary Brooke, who would eventually move on to TV, where she not only never became Mrs. Doc but was perpetually pursued by, of all people, Lou Costello on "The Abbott and Costello Show." (The poor girl just couldn’t get a break.)

Musgrave Manor is very big place – not only does it also house another Musgrave brother, a housekeeper and a butler named Brunton (quite a ladies’ man in the original story but an old drunk here), but it’s also the temporary residence of a group of convalescing war veterans who are being looked after by Dr. Watson. (It seems odd that such a gloomy place would be chosen to house such patients, but apparently there was a housing shortage at home and the Black Hole of Calcutta was full up.)

Geoffrey and a couple of other people are murdered and Milburn is hauled off to jail before Holmes, elementarily enough, sets things straight.

Universal’s Holmes films often end with the Great Detective delivering a stirring little speech that is meant to improve wartime morale and accompanied by appropriately stirring music. It’s worth noting, in these times, that the audience at this particular showing laughed its collective derriere off at this film's last scene, in which Holmes tells Watson of “a new spirit abroad in the land. The old days of grab and greed are on their way out. We're beginning to think of what we ‘owe’ the other fellow, not just what we're compelled to give him.”

“You may be right, Holmes.... I hope you are,” Watson says.

“And God willing,” Holmes responds, “we’ll live to see that day, Watson.”

Well … he did know a lot about footprints.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

"Easter '51"

Watch for him
walking in the dawn
along the silver lawn.

Hail him hushedly

A surging
rising of joyousness
be gracefully yours.

- The Rev. Robert H. Flood, C.S.B. (1919-1974)
(my uncle)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'China Seas'

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

To look at the list of actors in “China Seas” (1935), you might suspect that the MGM casting director merely stuck his head into the studio commissary and ordered everyone who happened to be there at that very moment to put down their bowls of L.B. Mayer’s mother’s chicken soup and follow him to Stage 19. And what followers: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Rosalind Russell, Lewis Stone, Robert Benchley....

From its title you won’t be shocked to learn that “China Seas” is about a voyage from Hong Kong to Singapore. You might be a mite surprised to learn that the skipper is Clark Gable -- not that he’s not up to the job, but after all, he did seem to have some, um, issues with authority in “Mutiny on the Bounty,” and now, wonder of wonders, he’s the big cheese himself. It might have been interesting to find Charles Laughton skulking aboard this ship and plotting some sort of revenge, but apparently Laughton was lunching at the Paramount commissary that day.

Even without Laughton’s presence, the film’s voyage is a stormy one. Gable has to put up with an “entertainer” from his past, played by Harlow, while falling for Rosalind Russell, who plays the widow of an old friend. For some reason, the Connecticut-born Russell is cast as a British woman, and her accent is so plummy that it's a wonder she isn't stalked by Little Jack Horner.

But the storms on this ship aren’t just emotional: The plot also includes a typhoon and an attempted takeover by Malay pirates. (I suppose they could have worked in an invasion of locusts, but MGM was probably hoarding all the insects for its upcoming production of “The Good Earth.”)

As I watched “China Seas” (which I’d seen once before, many years ago on TV), it occurred to me that it’s the best Howard Hawks film ever made by someone who wasn’t Howard Hawks – in this case, Tay Garnett, hardly a household name, though film buffs rightly remember him for the original American film version of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and for “One-Way Passage.”

Although Hawks’ name isn’t on the movie, and although I have no reason to believe he was associated with it, there are a few tropes or motifs (or whatever pretentious term you want to use) that are typical of him: the scrappy relationship between the male lead and the “entertainer” (think Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in Hawks’ “Only Angels Have Wings”); the coward who wants to redeem himself (the type of role Richard Barthelmess pretty much owned, though this time it’s Lewis Stone, a few years before he became Judge Hardy); the young pup trying to learn from the master (played here by William Henry and played years later, in Hawks’ “Rio Bravo,” by Ricky Nelson).

Then again, a closer look at the credits perhaps reveals the real reason for the similarities to Hawks’ movies: Jules Furthman, who co-wrote the screenplay, also worked on “Only Angels Have Wings” and “Rio Bravo.” (And “Rio Bravo,” come to think of it, also features Dean Martin in a role that’s similar to the Barthelmess-Stone parts, though unlike his predecessors, Martin’s character gets to survive to the final fadeout.)

Putting auteurist speculations aside (often a very good idea), you have to admit that in “China Seas” the dull moments are few and far between, if they exist at all. And aside from the melodrama, there are such delights as C. Aubrey Smith (for once cast not as a stuffed shirt or blowhard but as a fairly witty guy) and the always welcome Benchley, who, as a drunken novelist, provides my favorite moment: ”See that chess game over there? When I was four years old, I played 10 people all at once. Blindfolded. Lost every game."

Monday, April 6, 2009

A sad spin on an all-too-recurring story

More than 40 years later, I remember this:

I’m on a field trip with my eighth-grade class. We’re watching a woman, seated at a table, as she places a coffee cup upside down on a device that spins it.

As the cup spins, she takes a paintbrush – the kind an artist uses – and places the brush end of it maybe half an inch above the cup’s upside-down rim.

Before we know it, the cup has stopped spinning and now has a colored stripe – a perfectly straight line – around it.

The woman smiles. As I recall, it’s not a smart-alecky grin; it’s a sign of pride in a job well done with a skill she knows she has been blessed with.

A skill that I – possessed of a nerve whose steadiness makes Don Knotts look like the Rock of Gibraltar – know I shall never have. A skill that fills me with wonder.

That’s the main thing I remember from the tour we took at our town’s pottery factory, which began making things in 1871.

And stopped making them today.

Over the years, the factory’s pottery was distributed all over the country. When folks from my town ate out of town, they often turned over their plates to see if they were from the hometown plant. (My Aunt Dorothy was particularly shameless about this, but, possessed of a doctorate, she did have the good sense not to do this while there was food on the plate.)

Over the past few decades, the factory, like so many factories in so many hometowns, changed hands more often than a softball during a particularly energetic triple play. The most recent owner, a company in Toledo, Ohio, announced late last year that it would be closing the plant, saying the factory, despite “considerable efforts,” had fallen short of “strategic expectations.”

(I suppose you could argue that the Maginot Line fell short of “strategic expectations.” But a place that made cups and plates?)

The owner did say that products with the plant’s brand name – which includes the name of my hometown – would be stamped on products imported from plants in other countries.

Which, of course, makes us all feel a lot better.