Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I'm almost sorry I solved it

A few weeks ago, the local cable TV company announced plans to upgrade everyone’s service by downloading new software to everyone’s boxes.

Fearing the worst (a not unreasonable strategy to adopt when any company announces plans to “improve” anything), I got on the company’s website and printed out the manual that goes with the new software.

With all these preparations, it only follows naturally that the downloading went off without a hitch and as yet there have been no “issues.”

So I put the manual aside.

And then, yesterday, I began to wonder where it was.

And I couldn’t find it.

I was sure it was around my work area somewhere, so I spent a few minutes looking for it in case I might need it sometime.

It was then that I came across a mysterious receipt.

No company’s name was printed on the receipt. No order number, either. Just the date, last March 26; a scrawled word that I took to mean “Kim”; the initials “NW”; and the abbreviation “Pd.”

Apparently I “Pd” a total of $40 for two items at $20 each.

What were these items?

According to the handwriting, I am now the proud possessor of a “Doll” and an “Oyster.”

Problem is, I didn’t remember buying a “Doll” or an “Oyster.” I have a niece who’s still young enough to play with dolls, but last I heard, she didn’t play with oysters.

Heck, I myself don’t play with oysters. I can’t recall ever eating one. Or seeing one in real life.

Besides, what kind of a place sells dolls and oysters?

And who is “NW”? Nero Wolfe was my first thought, but he’s a fictional character, though he’s so corpulent that he’s probably seen more oysters than anyone has a right to see.

I finally consulted my desk calendar, and the answer came to me.

On March 26 I was attending a film festival run by the local cinephile society, and in the dealer’s room I bought DVDs of two silent films Ernst Lubitsch made while he was still in his native Germany: “The Doll” and “The Oyster Princess.” “Kim” was actually Kino, the company that made the videos.

“NW” must have been the guy who sold them to me.

So the mystery is solved, though the solution is something of a letdown, as sometimes happens with mysteries and magic tricks.

Then again, it’s not as if this was one of life’s bigger mysteries.

Such as, is there a God? Is there life after death?

And what the hell happened to that cable TV manual?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

At the (old) movies: 'The Bank Dick'

Some notes from a recent presentation by the local cinephile society:

Agatha Sousé and her little daughter, Elsie Mae Adele Brunch Sousé, are watching Egbert Sousé make a fool of himself in public.

Elsie Mae: Shall I bounce a rock off his head?
Agatha: Respect your father, darling. (Pause.) What kind of a rock?

W.C. Fields' movie characters tend to fall into one of two categories: the incorrigible, smooth-talking con man (The Great McGonigle in "The Old-Fashioned Way" and Eustace McGargle in "Poppy" are prime examples) and the family man who can't get a break from anyone, including (and sometimes especially) his family, although his older daughter might be on his side, especially if she's from a previous marriage.

"The Bank Dick" (Universal, 1940) is kind of a hybrid. Egbert Sousé doesn't get respect from anyone in his family, and he doesn't necessarily deserve it, because as lovable as he is (at least to Fields fans), he's a little bit like the other kind of Fields character.

Although Edward F. Cline directed the movie, Fields wrote it under the name of Mahatma Kane Jeeves.

I won't go as far as to say that the plot defies description, but I will say that it defies common sense, and, given the star, I might be sorely disappointed if it didn't. Let's just say that Egbert accidentally foils a bank robbery, is hired as a guard at the bank (where his older daughter's boyfriend works), becomes the target of a conman selling shares in a "beefsteak mine," talks the boyfriend into embezzling money to buy shares, and then the bank examiner comes to town.

But, again, in this kind of movie the plot plays second fiddle to the memorable (perhaps even immortal) bits and set pieces.

Who, after having seen "The Bank Dick," will ever forget the bank president's "hearty handclasp"? Or Shemp Howard as the bartender?

My favorite scenes involve Franklin Pangborn as J. Pinkerton Snoopington, the bank examiner. Pangborn appeared in scores of movies, always playing basically the same fussy, officious character. In terms of range, he was about as one-note as an actor could be. But nobody played that one note better, and his scenes with Fields are quite possibly the best work he ever did.

I have no understanding of the art of ballet, but, at the risk of sounding blasphemous to any balletomanes out there, I can't help suspecting that watching Fields and Pangborn work together makes me feel the way dance fans felt when they watched Nureyev and Fonteyn.

My mouth almost waters as I think of Shemp drugging Pangborn's drink; Fields trying to get Pangborn into his hotel room; Fields telling the severely nauseated Pangborn that he could arrange for him to have a coconut cream pie -- and Pangborn's reaction; later, at the bank, Fields trying to fend off Pangborn's audit by smashing Pangborn's hand and breaking his glasses.

With all the logic of the kind of dream that you yourself might have if Shemp were your mixologist, the Pangborn subplot (and Pangborn himself) go by the wayside as the bank is robbed again, leading to the endearingly hokey climax and the last scene, in which Egbert (like Fields fathers before him) is vindicated.

It's true that Fields is an acquired taste -- several people walked out at intermission -- and I wouldn't want to watch one Fields film after another. But an occasional visit can be at least as restorative as anything Eustace McGargle ever peddled.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ode to The Chicago Manual of Style

(To the tune of -- what else? -- the 1922 song by Fred Fisher)

Chicago! Chicago!
A heck of a book!
For wannabe wordsmiths,
It's well worth a look!

Bet your bottom dollar you'll soon get lost in its pages --
What sages!
The book that Billy Sunday liked second best!

Chicago! Chicago!
Nirvana for nerds!
Hawaii? Tahiti? Who needs them?
Word geeks and mavens flock there and roam!
Serial commas call it their home!
Oh, Chicago!
How I really like your style!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Hmm ... should I have it shaken or stirred?

Baltimore Sun language guru John McIntyre recently ran a contest in which contestants had to come up with a food-related book title that includes a literary allusion and write a one-sentence jacket description of it.

The prize: a martini mixed by Mr. McIntyre, whose blog, "You Don't Say," can be found on the blogroll at right.

The results can be found here.