“You ain't the smartest ************ in the world, you know. Even though you is the ugliest. Oh yeah, you ugly, ************. Why you don’t get your teeth fixed, ******? ...That **** hanging all out your mouth. Why you don’t get you an orthodontist? That's a dentist, you know, ha, ha...This is 1975, boy; get your **** together. What’s wrong with your natural? Got that dirt all in the back of your neck. You's a filthy little ************, too....You got to be home 'fore the sun come up? You ain’t lyin', ************. See your *** during the day, you liable to get arrested.”--Richard Pryor, That ------’s Crazy(1974)
“What is divine deserves our respect because it is good; what is human deserves our affection because it is like us. And our pity too, sometimes, for its inability to tell good from bad - as terrible a blindness as the kind that can't tell white from black."—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book Two
The heck with Snowtober. I want an October like the ones I used to know, with plenty of pumpkins wherever I turn--such as the accompanying scene I encountered two weeks ago at Waldwick Gardens in Bergen County, N.J.
This weekend, I thought that the operative tune would be “The Monster Mash.” Little did I know it would turn out to be “Winter Wonderland.”
Snow has come much, much too early this year. I say let’s give it a loud “boo!” and scare it away for at least another two months!
“You just put your rejection slips in a shoebox and tell yourself one day you’re going to autograph them and sell them at auction.”--James Lee Burke, quoted in Lindsey O‘Connor, “James Lee Burke: The Art and Craft of Perseverance,” The Writer’s Digest, November/December 2011
“As former New York Times columnist Frank Rich’s average word count has increased, his writing has steadily become more predictable. From breathless diatribes on the Tea Party (over the course of two years, nearly 40 of his weekly columns touched on the unsavory patriots) to his fascination with the president’s placid demeanor, Rich writes cultural and political criticism with yesterday’s CNN headlines as his starting point. Rich, now a writer for New York magazine, has never been a brilliant political thinker; he is, in fact, an utterly conventional pundit of the old salon liberal variety. In his radical stance, he reminds us of Paul Krugman, except that Krugman is a scholar whose authority about his subject (economics, not politics) is unimpeachable, whereas Rich only knows what he’s learned from the media this past week. He is a clicker-intellectual.”—“Over-Rated Thinkers,” in “The List Issue,” The New Republic,November 3, 2011
Rich stopped having any original insight a long, long time ago. His stay as a Times political pundit was so enduring because his default position—everything traces back to the Culture Wars!—appealed to this by-no-means-inconsiderable reading niche at the Gray Lady. When he left that comfortable perch, theTimes’gain instantly became New York’s loss. The magazine that had once published the young, original Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin and Nora Ephron had now settled for the worst kind of gasbag.
The most visible musicians (and I use the term about as loosely as you can get) in Times Square are the Naked Cowboy and the Naked Cowgirl. This young violinist I snapped yesterday behind the statue of George M. Cohan might not have attracted the crowds that the two barely clothed ones just mentioned have garnered (just one fellow sitting down, munching on some food—presumably someone close to her), but she could actually play her instrument reasonably well.
You take your small pleasures whenever you can get them in the big city.
“The novel can't be compared to the epic, or to the monuments of poetic drama. But it is the best we can do just now. It is a sort of latter-day lean-to, a hovel in which the spirit takes shelter. A novel is balanced between a few true impressions and the multitude of false ones that make up most of what we call life. It tells us that for every human being there is a diversity of existences, that the single existence is itself an illusion in part, that these many existences signify something, tend to something, fulfill something; it promises us meaning, harmony and even justice. What Conrad said was true, art attempts to find in the universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what is fundamental, enduring, essential.”—Saul Bellow, Nobel Prize Lecture, delivered on December 12, 1976
On this day 35 years ago, the news came from Sweden that Saul Bellow had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The lecture from which I just quoted featured much of the intellectual pugnacity of his novels, but--except for this passage--it did not show what readers of his fiction came to know over the years: just how flashing, memorable--or, as his conclusion states, “fundamental, enduring, essential”--even a sentence could be in his hands.
Here is yet another photo I took this past Sunday from the James A. McFaul Environmental Center, in Wyckoff, NJ, about a half-hour drive from my home in Bergen County, NJ. It still didn’t quite feel like fall, but as you can see from the landscape, it was getting there. The weather from this past week should bring the scene a good deal closer to a classic fall foliage scene.
This being October, the month of Halloween and all, “creeps” is the operative word in the headline, I suppose.
Jimmy Rabbitte (played by Robert Arkins): “Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud.”--The Commitments(1991), adapted by Roddy Doyle from his novel, directed by Alan Parker
“The banks have gotten away with privatizing profits and socializing risks, and that’s just another form of bank robbery.”—
Nicholas Kristof, “America’s ‘Primal Scream,’” The New York Times, October 16, 2011
That’s how I felt this past Sunday while walking around the James A. McFaul Environmental Center, in Wyckoff, NJ, about a half-hour drive from my home in Bergen County. I’d never even heard of this park, let alone seen it, until I read a Bergen Record roundup about several parks within driving distance in the area.
One of the delights of this 81-acre parking is the 2.5-acre waterfowl pond in the background of this photo I took. This short was taken from an observation deck overlooking the pond.
(Thanks to my friend Emil for the photo suggestion.)
Nuke LaLoosh (played by Tim Robbins) (singing softly as he strums his guitar on the bus) “Oh she may get wooly, women do get wooly, because of all the stress…”--Bull Durham(1988), written and directed by Ron Shelton
Nuke’s teammate Crash Davis (played by Kevin Costner) does not approve of this--er, unique--version of the lyrics of “Try a Little Tenderness” at all, and he proceeds to dress down his wooly-minded pitcher about the real words. For the sour but smart “player to be named later,” it’s all a matter of R-E-S-P-E-C-T--for a classic soul song, for the unspoken rules of a beautiful game, and for “long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days” with a beautiful woman.
“Try a Little Tenderness” appeared on the soul singer’s Dictionary of SoulLP, released this week 45 years ago. Bing Crosby had sung this tune 30 years before, but by the time Redding was through, he owned it.
When Alan Parker directed his 1991 film about an Irish “soul” band, The Commitments, he correctly chose “Try a Little Tenderness” for the soundtrack. The song is played with all force possible, but it still doesn’t come close to Redding’s--which you can hear, in all its raw, incendiary live power, on the soundtrack for the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.
A few years ago, I heard, Cuba Gooding Jr. had become attached to a biopic about the great soul singer whose life tragically ended in a plane crash less than two years after “Try a Little Tenderness.” Then…nothing. If screenwriter Joe Esterhaz is to be believed (a big if), it appears that Gooding couldn’t believe the script from the Basic Instinctand Showgirls scribe didn’t have enough sex.
Well, maybe Esterhaz wasn’t the best person for this project. But can you name a good film that Gooding’s made in, oh, the last five years?
It would be a shame if this project were in Hollywood Development Hell now. A new generation could be reminded of the magnificent talent that the music industry lost 43 years ago, but that some new Crash Davis, somewhere, will always find a way to revere.
“Take Five” was, in fact, the tune being played by this street musician--part of a longstanding tradition in the Big Apple--when I happened to be in Times Square the other day. Anyone with enough taste to play the Dave Brubeck classic deserves to be honored, even if only in a photograph by the likes of me.
Walking through Times Square in the last week, I was immediately struck by the billboard juxtaposing two ABC series, and I just had to take this picture.
The “tart” part of the headline above refers to Jane Lynch of Glee. Her wicked lines as gym coach Sue Sylvester have to be easily the most quotable ones on that series. Take them away, and you’re left with the old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland routine, “Hey, let’s put on a show!”, updated with trendy messages about the importance of tolerance. Hers is the one character whom you can’t wait to hear. (Sample line: “"Hello, William. I thought I smelled cookies wafting from the ovens of the little elves who live in your hair.")
The “sweet” part of the headline refers to Zooey Deschanel of the breakout comedy, New Girl.Have you seen this show, faithful reader? Have you seen any part of the rest of her extensive film and TV work? I confess to only having seen one of her films, Almost Famous, and I forgot (though I shouldn’t have) her marvelous role in it: the rebellious elder sister for the Cameron Crowe stand-in, William Miller. (Sample line, hurled at her mom: “This song explains why I'm leaving home to become a stewardess.”)
Well, anyway, ABC’s publicity machine calls her character in New Girl “adorable.” But a friend of mine (and he knows who he is!!!) might have a different term for her. It’s one he once applied to Jenna Elfmanof Dharma and Greg: “Goofy cute.”
Before he betrayed his country, Benedict Arnold, America’s most notorious traitor, saved it twice in hours of maximum peril. The second time occurred at Saratoga, where his impetuous charge turned the tide of battle and brought the French into the American Revolution against the British. The earlier time when Arnold kept the patriot cause alive did not bring a victory, but it foiled the redcoats’ plans to split the Northern colonies in two.
From first to last, the Battle of Valcour Islandbore all the distinctive characteristics of Arnold: intelligence, energy, daring and valor. Arnold’s engagement with the British on this island on Lake Champlain, from October 11 to 13, 1776, pitted his hopelessly outmanned and outgunned force against Sir Guy Carleton, Governor-General of Canada. Against all odds, Arnold managed to check the advance of the larger fleet, delaying the redcoats’ attempt to divide the Middle Colonies from New England for another year--long enough to buy the colonials precious time.
The odd thing about this battle, considering the other operations where Arnold made (and, at West Point, unmade) his reputation, is that it was naval. Yet Arnold was one of the few, if not only, American commanders who could have led a fleet as credibly as a land force, since he had been a shipmaster in Connecticut before the revolution.
With no long roads existing in the upstate, frontier area of New York, Carleton was ready to follow up on his successful defense of Canada that winter and spring by traversing Lake Champlain on boats built and operated by the Royal Navy. Guessing his plans, with no time to waste, Arnold embarked on a breathless campaign in the summer of 1776 to put to work every woodsman, carpenter, armorer, and crewman he could find.
The makeshift flotilla, thus put together on a wing and a prayer, consisted of 15 galleys, schooners and gunboats--hardly anything to speak of against Carleton’s five boats armed with 18 12-pound cannon, along with 20 gunboats and 28 barges containing troops and Indian allies.
Arnold hardly had a chance (his one advantage, during September: heavily wooded Valcour Island allowed him to keep the British under surveillance without them detecting him in turn), and he knew it. But this campaign wasn’t about his forces standing a chance, but about giving the other Americans downstate the opportunity to have one. That led him to disregard a member of his council of war who advised that the Americans shouuld slip away before the British fleet spotted them.
Carleton’s fleet finally encountered Arnold’s on October 11. The Americans fought desperately and well for seven hours, even severely damaging several British ships, until the leading redcoat vessel, Inflexible, found Continental boats in range and blew gaping, damaging holes in them.
Arnold’s council of war that night was grim, as losses and options were assessed. But the general now presented and put into action one of his best--certainly most daring--ideas of the war. With muffled oars, the battered American ships that night slipped in single file past the British line, with lanterns hung in the stern the only guides through the darkness and fog.
By the next morning, Carleton found that the man the Indians would call “Dark Eagle” had escaped. Most of Arnold’s ships made it to Fort Ticonderoga. But a light wind left some idling in the lake, and Carleton at last intercepted these lagging vessels on the 13th.
Rather than let the ships or his men fall into enemy hands, Arnold acted as he had at the conclusion of his heroic but failed campaign against Montreal earlier that year: he was among the last group of soldiers to guard the getaway of his remaining men. Once assured of that, he ran his remaining ships aground on the shore of Lake Champlain, burned them, and made his way toward Crown Point.
Arnold had lost his motley fleet but prevented most of his men from falling into enemy hands. More important, as Nathanael Greene would demonstrate anew in the final year of the war, he had proven that even a loss could have beneficial effects, if it meant the frustration of enemy war movements and aims. In this case, the capable but cautious-to-a-fault Carleton decided he had lost too many days already and that, rather than leave his troops vulnerable to a wilderness winter in a country they didn’t know, it was better to head back to Montreal.
The next year, Arnold would use equally stunning craftiness in the Saratoga campaign. (My favorite gambit of his: sending a half-wit to convince Indians surrounding a patriot-held fort that he was coming with a relief force “as numerous as the leaves on the trees,” inducing the Indians to retreat and leave the pleasantly surprised garrison alone.) Until he fell, painfully wounded, at his great Saratoga charge, Arnold had shown repeatedly that he was, as Willard Sterne Randall claimed in his excellent biography, Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, “the best field commander in the war on either side.”
A prior post of mine discussed the war profiteering and infatuation with his beautiful young wife, a Tory sympathizer, that led Arnold fatally astray—and, of course, into his infamous turn to the British he had once fought so resolutely.
In fact, it might be argued, the anger and despair of his Continental colleagues about his betrayal ran so deeply because Arnold shone the brightest of the entire group. If he could go over to the enemy, who among them could be trusted?
“The phone requires you to converse, to say things like hello and good-bye, to pretend to some semblance of interest in the person on the other end of the line. Worst of all, the phone occasionally forces you to make actual plans with the people you talk to—to suggest lunch or dinner—even if you have no desire whatsoever to see them.
“No danger of that with email. E-mail is a whole new way of being friends with people: intimate but not, chatty but not, communicative but not; in short, friends but not.” --Nora Ephron, “The Six Stages of Email,” The New York Times, July 1, 2007
" ‘They're trying to kill me,’ Yossarian told him
‘No one's trying to
kill you,’ Clevinger cried.
‘Then why are they
shooting at me?’ Yossarian asked.
‘They're shooting at everyone,’
Clevinger answered. ‘They're trying to kill everyone.’
‘And what difference
does that make?’ "—Joseph Heller,Catch-22(1961)
This week 50 years ago, the classic anti-war satire by Joseph Heller (pictured here) was
published by Simon & Schuster. Though it dealt with a pilot’s attempts to
escape flying more deadly bombing missions in WWII by being termed insane, the novel would be
especially embraced by the generation
that would be faced with the Vietnam War.
Along the way, the novel’s title would come to epitomize the
ultimate bureaucratic absurdity. It came about not because there was any
significance to that number, but because the book’s publishers feared that
Heller’s title would be confused with Leon Uris’ novel Mila 18.
The August issue of Vanity Fair contains a fascinating article by Tracy Daugherty, adapted
from his biography of Heller, on the process that broughtCatch-22 into being—from how
the opening sentence first came to the novelist through how the book was shepherded through
to completion by Simon & Schuster.
“My working relationship became even more strained when Judge [Clarence] Thomas began to use work situations to discuss sex. On these occasions, he would call me into his office for reports on education issues and projects, or he might suggest that, because of the time pressures of his schedule, we go to lunch to a government cafeteria. After a brief discussion of work, he would turn the conversation to a discussion of sexual matters.”—Anita Hill, in her opening statement at the Senate confirmation hearings on Judge Clarence Thomas, October 11, 1991
Anita Hill then proceeded to catalog, in sometimes graphic detail, what those “sexual matters” were, transfixing—and revolting—Americans as they sat in front of their TV sets, watching the Senate Judiciary Committee reconvene its hearings on Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court, this time to consider Hill’s charges that her former boss had pressed for dates when she worked for him a decade before.
At the time of the hearings, individual political leanings largely determined whether you believed Thomas or Hill. Not much has changed in the two decades since, at least in that respect.
I should hasten to stress, in that respect only. The high-profile case gave greater prominence than ever before to the nature of sexual-harassment law as it had been developing over the last decade of litigation and decisions.
Out at lunch one day during the hearings, I heard a boyfriend and girlfriend discuss what constituted sexual harassment:
HE: “Okay, so you work for me and I say, ‘That’s a pretty dress you’re wearing.’ Is that sexual harassment?”
SHE: “No, because it’s the dress, not me.”
HE: “Okay. Now what if I say, ‘You look pretty’?”
SHE: “Hmmmm…still okay, I guess.”
HE: "Okay. How about, 'You look good enough to eat'?"
I suppose conversations such as this, in one form or another, occurred all over America at this time. The same thing happened, with considerably higher stakes, in the business world. An attorney friend of mine told myself and a couple of other college friends that his large company had decided to settle a couple of cases in the immediate aftermath of the Thomas-Hill controversy. In the wake of the hearings, the mere fact that a male boss had slept with a female subordinate, he said, had made these sexual-harassment lawsuits harder to defend.
The case had repercussions in the political arena as well. Senator Bob Packwood was driven from office for improper advances on at least 10 women. Most famously, by the end of the decade, Bill Clinton would face impeachment, brought about partly as a result of sexual-harassment legislation he himself had signed into law.
Ironically, a boomerang from the case may have upended the career of one of those who expressed disbelief about Hill’s story. Finding that GOP primary voters now considered him a RINO (Republican in Name Only), Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter sought refuge as a Democrat. But last year, Democratic primary voters cast him out. For feminists who loathed how he had grilled Hill nearly 20 years before, revenge was all the sweeter for the long delay.
October 9, 1946—Premiering at Broadway’s Martin Beck Theater, The Iceman Comethlasted nearly 4½ hours, featuring drunks in a desperate dive, an implicit challenge to America’s sense of optimism following victory in World War II, a continuation of its playwright’s decades-long argument with God, and a leading man who kept forgetting his lines. The only wonder is that the Theater Guild production made it to 136 performances rather than two.
Eugene O'Neill had finished his tragedy in the 1930s, but held it back from production not only until after the war was finished, but—seemingly just to be on the safe side—for another year on top of that. Evidently, he feared the work would fail.
There were, of course, ways, then and now, to assure that would not happen: notably, compromise with the audience. This O’Neill simply refused to do. He could, for instance, have trimmed any of the innumerable references to “pipe dreams” that fill the play, thereby assuring that suburban playgoers got home at a human hour, but he steadfastly refused to do so.
The playwright who had opened the American stage to more than just melodrama in the 1920s had been largely absent from Broadway since then. Part of the reason was the extraordinarily ambitious project on which the playwright had embarked in the late 1930s, an 11-play, multi-generational cycle on an American family that had occupied him until a devastating neurological disease prevented him from even holding a pencil. But he also feared critical and popular reaction to his projects.
Not surprisingly given its subject matter, the first reviews of Iceman were mixed, with the voice of the opposition summed up most sardonically and memorably by novelist-critic Mary McCarthy: “To audiences accustomed to the oil virtuosity of George Kaufman, George Abbott, Lillian Hellman, Odets, Saroyan, the return of a playwright who—to be frank—cannot write is a solemn and sentimental occasion.”
Whatever benefit the playwright received from Eddie Dowling, another old theater hand of Irish-American descent unafraid of tackling heavy metaphysical themes (he had previously helmed Philip Barry’s 1938 Here Come the Clowns) was dissipated by the performance of James Barton as traveling salesman Theodore (“Hickey”) Hickman. Barton was not only thrown off by the rhythms of his character’s lines, but also, more basically, by an inability to recall them. The latter turned out to be a huge liability when Barton had to recite Hickey’s climatic, extraordinarily long monologue.
Barton’s subpar performance prematurely convinced many that the role of Hickey was essentially unplayable. It took another decade, with an Off-Broadway revival directed by Jose Quintero and directed by Jason Robards, before critics changed their minds. That production, along with the Broadway premiere of the posthumously published and produced Long Day’s Journey Into Night, led to a more positive reconsideration of O’Neill’s career.
For the purposes of Iceman, many observers came to see that the show was not a mess, but in actuality an acting challenge on the order of King Lear and Hamlet. In the years since, several other actors have taken a crack at Hickey, including James Earl Jones in the 1970s, Jason Roberts (again) in the 1980s, and Kevin Spacey in 1999. (Nathan Lane has been slated to assume the role in a 2012 production at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, with Brian Dennehy as the cynical old anarchist—and O’Neill’s stand-in—Larry Slade.)
Perhaps as no other O’Neill play, Iceman blended immersion in the playwright’s dark past with far wider sociological and theological considerations. America’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright, as critic Harold Bloom has noted, flew directly against the optimistic Emersonian-Whitmanesque spirit that had long dominated American literature. America’s “main idea,” he noted, just before the opening of his show, “is that everlasting game of trying to possess your own soul by the possession of something outside it.”
In a way, Hickey can be thought of as a kind of counterpart to Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Both fulfill what O’Neill sees as America’s “main idea” by exerting their considerable charisma on polyglot Americans in what amounts to a death mission. Ahab, vowing that he’d “strike the sun if it insulted me,” enlists his crew in his quest to hunt and destroy the white whale that maimed him; Hickey, a reformed alcoholic, seeks to strip each man at Henry Hope’s bar of the illusions or “pipe dreams” that allow them to continue living.
Both O’Neill and Melville make explicit their versions of these uniquely American quests with flag imagery. John Frankenheimer’s 1973 filmed version of the play begins by focusing on the American flag, gradually pulling away to reveal campaign memorabilia. (The year in which the play is set--1912--featured a four-way race among Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt and Eugene V. Debs.) The major action of Moby Dick concludes with the Pequod slipping beneath the waves as the American Indian Tashtego, obeying Ahab’s final command, is caught in “the act of nailing the flag faster and faster to the subsiding spar.”
One last point. “The thing that explains more than anything about me is the fact that I’m Irish,” O’Neill once told his son Shane. “And strangely enough, it is something that all the writers who have attempted to explain me and my work have overlooked.” Perhaps in no instance did his ethnicity come into play more than in his tortured relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.
As Yale critic Harold Bloom observes, the playwright, coming from a strict, Jansenist background, went on to have a long, lifelong battle with God. O’Neill may have launched his most sustained, if symbolic, assault on the Church with his carefully worked out structure of the characters in Iceman. It’s easy to see the drama as a kind of parody of the Last Supper, with Hickey as a false messiah.
Consider the following points:
• The 12 male figures waiting for Hickey correspond in number to the twelve apostles.
• Hickey, like Christ, attempts to bring about a new order, only to cause consternation among his old friends.
• Don Parritt, the son of Larry Slade’s lover, is the Judas figure in the play, killing himself for betraying his mother, a member of a radical movement.
• Slade, at play’s end, has become the one true convert in the group to Hickey’s unillusioned but hopeless philosophy—like St. Peter, “the rock” upon which Hickey’s/Christ’s vision will remain.
• The three female hookers correspond in number to the three women standing at the foot of the cross for Christ.
Creating The Iceman Cometh was terrifying for O’Neill, since it required him to relive the events of 1912, when, mired in alcoholism, he had attempted to take his own life while helplessly drunk, day after day, at a New York bar called Jimmy the Priest’s. Out of his own personal anguish, he crafted a play with enormous metaphysical implications.
Tony Kushner, probably the one major current American playwright whose theatrical ambition matches O’Neill’s, took note of the theological significance of O’Neill’s work when interviewed several years ago for a PBS documentary of his great theater forebear: “In O'Neill, there's this absolute, sort of God-ordained mission, which is to keep searching, even if in the process he discovers that there is no God. It's a terrifying sort of mandate, but it also I think should be the mandate of all artists, and in a way, of all people."
“A new scourge threatens—indeed, it has already in large measure smitten—the flock entrusted to Us. It strikes most heavily at those who are the most tender and are Our most dearly beloved; upon the children, the proletariat, the artisans and the ‘have-nots.’ We are speaking of the grave financial crisis which weighs down the peoples and is accelerating in every land the frightful increase of Unemployment. We behold multitudes of honest workers condemned to idleness and want, when all they desire is opportunity to earn for themselves and their families that daily bread which the divine command bids them ask of their Father Who is in heaven. Their cry is in Our ears; and it moves Us to repeat, with the same tenderness and pity, those words which broke from the most loving Heart of the Divine Master when He beheld the crowd fainting with hunger: ‘I have compassion on the multitude’ (Mark viii, 2).”—Pope Pius XI, Nova Impendet ("On the Economic Crisis"), October 2, 1931
Last Sunday marked the 80th anniversary of Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on the Great Depression descending on both sides of the Atlantic. He had already commented earlier in the year, at greater length and with greater specificity, on the responsibility of government and the faithful to lift the downtrodden in Quadragesimo Anno (“On Reconstruction of the Social Order”), an encyclical marking the 40th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s landmark in Catholic social thought, Rerum Novarum.
But, with events taking on a life of their own, Pius felt obliged to reiterate his themes. Events—notably, the rise of Fascism and the world war that followed--would bear out just how correct he was to feel concern.
A year or so ago, a colleague of mine wondered about how quiescent Americans seemed about the Great Recession: “In Europe, they’d be in the streets by now.” It took awhile, but now, with the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement, that day may be here.
Nobody should be under any illusions about just how dangerous the current moment is. The Depression made masses vulnerable to simple—and wrong—explanations for “the frightful increase of Unemployment” that alarmed the pontiff. A failure to investigate responsibility for the multinational collapse of the economy this time—not to mention a rebuilding of the regulatory framework frayed here in the United States—is an absolute necessity.
Above all, blind adherence to laissez-faire capitalism, as Pius—the son of a silk manufacturer—understood deeply, is no way to show “tenderness and pity” for the least among us.
“The strange thing about speaking is that you only know for
sure that you've made a point with an audience when you say something funny and
they laugh. If you make what you hope is a good, serious point, there's no way
for them to let you know.”—Pieces of My Mind, by Andy Rooney
Somehow, his listening audience found enough in Andy Rooney’s short, on-air essays to
want the longtime 60 Minutes mainstay around for more than three decades. It might
have taken longer than the instant response the network curmudgeon craved, but
eventually they certainly did let him know what they thought.
It’s hard to believe that, after so much time, the
92-year-old journalist has stepped down from his regular perch. He strikes me
as the type who values short, unsentimental expression, so here it is: Thanks
for the years of laughter, Andy.
“Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight for ever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade....
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)”--G.K. Chesterton, “Lepanto” (1915)
Even in the snippet quoted here from the considerably longer work by G.K. Chesterton, you can sense that this is the kind of old-fashioned poetry that, as the cliché goes, they don’t write anymore. There’s the rhyme, for instance (increasingly, 20th and 21st century major poets don’t go in for this the way they used to). There’s the wider perspective, not exclusively on the poet and his troubles (whatever they might be) but on world players and the weight of history. And then there’s the completely unapologetic, politically incorrect designation of good and evil, including the acclamation of a hero.
The Battle of Lepanto, which Chesterton is commemorating, took place on this date in 1571. It was a double watershed moment in world history: not only the last major naval engagement involving galleys in the West, but the point at which the Christian European decisively checked the advance of militant Islam into its own territory.
It shocked me—though thinking about it now, in light of the last point, it shouldn’t have—that Britain’s WWI “Tommies” could recite this poem, and take it to heart as they entered battle. Did they think of these verses on the beaches at Gallipoli, another encounter with men from the Mideast professing a different faith?
I had heard of this poem previously, but had never encountered it until I read it online. I can’t think of any poetry anthology I ever came across that contained it, and I suspect that, with the passing years, it will be even harder to find.
Part of the problem, I think, is this old-fashioned element. In his essays and Father Brown detective stories, Chesterton’s religious certainties are complemented by a genial sense of paradox not unlike his friend and frequent debate foil, George Bernard Shaw.
Not here. It all sounds terribly inconvenient to think about: Moslem ships bearing down on Mediterranean coasts, engaging in mass enslavement, putting the men to work rowing in galleys. (In fact, many of the galley rowers straining at the oars of Moslem galleys at Lepanto were Christian slaves.)
The above lines come near the end of Chesterton’s poem. Many of us feel intense sympathy for the 24-year-old soldier Miguel de Cervantes, knowing that his searing experience of being wounded (losing the use of a his left hand) would lead him down the road of disillusion to create one of the masterpieces of Western literature, Don Quixote.
But Chesterton thinks there’s an important place, too, for the likes of Don John of Austria, who, at the time of battle, was the 25-year-old illegitimate son of the late Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and half-brother of the present king of Spain, Philip II. Don John’s backing did not owe simply to his privileged position, however, as much as to his ardent backing of Pope Pius V’s call for a trans-European Holy League that would mount a last-ditch defense against the Ottoman Empire.
History depends more than a bit on contingency. In 1588, the Spanish Armada that met disaster in an encounter with the fleet of Queen Elizabeth I of England was without the services of Don John, who had died 10 years before. But in 1571, he was still around to command the fleet of the Holy League at Lepanto.
The history that got me interested in Don John was The Galleys at Lepanto, by Jack Beeching, in which the lead-ups and consequences of the battle got much more ink than the naval encounter itself. Over the last decade, however, several other histories have also considered the battle, including Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, The Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World, by Roger Crowley; Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto, by Niccolò Capponi; and a chapter in Victor David Hanson’s Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.
There is a reason for this, I suspect. I think it has much to do with the legacy of 9/11 and historians’ need to revisit the past to see how Western Europe once reacted to a prior wave of fear generated by Moslems who claimed to be doing Allah’s will in battling the West.
Lepanto, to be sure, did not end the Moslem threat, anymore than the overthrow of the Taliban, or even the death of Osama bin Laden, has done so now. But it is equally false to claim that the results of the 1571 encounter were negligible.
For years, Europeans were living amid the growing fear that Moslem navy might would sweep all before it. Lepanto punctured the myth of Moslem invincibility. That victory, owing heavily to the Holy League’s material advantage and training in gunpowder (the Turks’ advantage in number of men and ships was undermined by their reliance on bows rather than cannon), did not come without a price, however, just as the West’s War on Terror has not been filled with mistakes and casualties.
Though the Ottoman Empire was left with only a third of its original fleet and it lost 18,000 out of 30,000 men--as well as the battle--it still inflicted terrible losses on the West: 20 ships sunk, 7,000 dead out of 20,000. By the end of the day’s fighting, according to Crowley’s Empire of the Sea, the Holy League could barely sail away because the Ionian Sea was so filled with corpses from the battle.
There were also divisions among those who should have been allies. (The French, bitterly opposed to Spanish gains on the continent and elsewhere, not only refused to join the Holy League but helped finance the Turks.) Even at its best, the alliance could barely be held together.
Holding it all together was Don John, as charismatic as his half-brother Philip was ascetic. While detailing the climate of fear on the brink of this epic naval clash, Chesterton makes clear that help is on the way: “Don John of Austria is going to the war.”
Okay, okay…Sort of rapid transit. If this
conveyance has the light in its favor. If traffic is light. If you don’t have
anywhere particularly far to go. And if time isn’t really a factor in your
plans, since you’re in this back seat with the one you love and you can take in
the Big Apple in all its charms.
I don’t know if this is the result of Mayor Mike Bloomberg
and his transportation commissioner, but I’m seeing more and more of these
vehicles around Times Square in the last year or so. Wouldn’t you know it—Woody
Allen, for all effects and purposes, stops filming in New York at just the
point when one of these contraptions might have provided the kind of picturesque
scene he used to put in such cinematic valentines to Gotham as Hannah
and Her Sisters and, of course, Manhattan.
As I write this, my New York Yankees have just fallen short of their annual goal: a World Series championship. Even in this case, however, the season won’t be wholly lost. The Bronx Bombers were awarded a consolation prize at the end of the season: the failure of their eternal enemies, the Boston Red Sox, even to make the postseason.
Faithful reader, do you, like me, feel that “Cowboy Up” was the most annoying neologism of the past decade? Yes, I know it was first baseman Kevin Millar’s rallying cry to his 2003 Red Sox teammates to show some grit and determination. But the phrase was so meaningless, so idiotic.
But then again, what other baseball team--especially what other World Series championship team, as the 2004 Bosox became--could not only embrace the term “Idiots” to describe themselves, but even come up with the word?
For most of this past decade, Red Sox Nation was full of itself. Intellectuals had romanticized their prior 80-plus years without a championship as a kind of Sisyphean struggle, an existential mismatch against the curse of a baseball deity (The Bambino) rather than the natural result of decades of mismanagement and worse. (To its shame, Boston was not only the last major-league ball club to sign an African-American--Pumpsie Green in 1959, a dozen years after Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers--but then took another decade and a half before it finally embraced its first homegrown African-American star, Jim Rice.)
But winning championships in 2004 and 2007 made the faithful insufferable. A populace mad with glee that they’d finally broken “The Curse” became as demanding as the Notre Dame alumni when they couldn’t repeat the successes of the Rockne and Leahy eras.
Red Sox Nation received its first jolt in 2009, when the name of David Ortiz (pictured here) appeared on a list of those who had tested positive for performing enhancing drugs (PEDs)--a seismic event I noted in a post from the time, “Red Sox Nation on Mass Suicide Watch.” Back then, I warned of an “end of the innocence” for Fenway fans, but few believed me. (A few die-hards even hoped against all reason and logic that his former teammate, proven heavy PEDder Manny Ramirez, only started using the stuff when he left town.) Without someone turning Big Papi’s life upside down ransacking for past and current misdeeds, as Selena Roberts did with the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, the Bosox slugger's denial of PED use was taken at face value by the powers that be in major league baseball.
By spring training of this year, the Red Sox were regarded as a virtual lock for another American League pennant, if not a World Series title.
The latter claims were a bit rich. For all the sniping by Red Sox President Larry Lucchino about the Yankees' “evil empire," by the end of last year the team from Beantown had taken a page from the Bronx Bombers’ playbook by signing the most high-profile players for mega contracts. They had the third-highest payroll in major-league baseball, after the Phillies and, of course, the Yankees.
Perversely, Bosox fans wanted their team to be credited as underdogs even though it had been a very, very long time since they had been. All that stockpiling of talent and all that money were seductively whispering other things. The sports media listened to the sirens, and swooned.
Even in the closing week of this season, blissfully unaware of the train wreck then in full steam, Sports Illustrated, highlighting the new film adaptation of Michael Lewis’ bestseller Moneyball, with a cover story on its star, Brad Pitt, noted that A’s GM Billy Beane’s revolutionary thinking had been co-opted.
The perfect purloiners? “No team better defines the state of the art than the Red Sox,” helpfully explained writer Tom Verducci—the same on-air personality who, during the Yankee-Tiger series, did not pipe up about what had happened to the “state of the art” less than two weeks after his gushing article appeared on the newsstands.
As soon as I heard the news about the Red Sox losing the last, decisive game of the season—their 20th loss in the final 27 games of the season—I knew that I had to check out The Boston Globe to witness the reaction of the faithful.
A journalism legend held that in April 1982, 73-year-old Jessie Bancroft Cox, from the family that owned The Wall Street Journal and other Dow Jones publications, had snapped, "What the hell's the matter with my Red Sox?" (perhaps more bluntly stated than that) before collapsing from a heart attack at New York's 21 Club. If Ms. Cox had reacted that way early in the season, what would today's faithful do about a late-season collapse invariably described with adjectives such as “epic,” “record-setting” and “monumental”?
Once I powered up my Kindle and downloaded that day’s issue of Boston’s equivalent of “All the News That Fits, We Print,” I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I hadn’t witnessed so much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth since I read Dante’s Inferno in college.
I sensed that Red Sox Nation was taking their team’s inexplicable squandering of their lead with typical rationality when I read the following level-headed analysis by Globe columnist Bob Ryan of what ailed this season’s much-vaunted free-agent acquisition, Carl Crawford: “The idea that the real Carl Crawford, the one who arrived here as a tough-out, run-scoring triple machine who also played a Gold Glove left field, had been kidnapped by space invaders and replaced with a look-alike might be the only conceivable explanation for his unrelentingly wretched performance this season.”
It got worse. The team that was supposed to have had a pitching staff surpassed only by the Philadelphia Phillies had seen it exposed pitilessly. Even the minor-league system that GM Theo Epstein had bragged about to Verducci was so thin that the GM desperately investigated a deal for another pitcher on the brink of the sudden-death playoff between the Sox and the Rays that never came off.
The team that couldn’t be beat was now discovered to have been fatally flawed: not just out of condition, but fielding a bunch of laggards and crybabies. Reflecting the swing in opinion was Globewriter Nick Cafardo, who took Red Sox management to task for its “kid-gloves treatment” of injured pitcher Clay Buckholz, then dared to criticize the once near-certain MVP Adrian Gonzalez for jogging down to first base, and even the once-untouchable Big Papi for the same sin.
“The hunger has to return,” Cafardo summed up the situation, “but how do you do that with the current band of slugs on the team?”
In the wake of all this sturm und drung, the departure of manager Terry Francona became foreordained, even if absurd and unjust. The parting of the ways was described as mutual, but Epstein’s bloody fingerprints could be found all over the ugly final scene. Someone needed to take the fall for this unprecedented failure, and it wasn’t going to be the aging boy genius in the front office.
How sad this all is! After all the Red Sox have given the Yankees over the years--Babe Ruth, Red Ruffing and other pitchers of the Golden Age, Sparky Lyle--it’s a shame nothing has been done in return.
I say we rectify the situation, starting with the conditioning issue that has so many in Boston so hepped up. I have just the guy in mind for the Red Sox, someone who, in fact, worked four years ago for the Bombers.
“A quarter century of playing rock music—all variations on an aggressive, highly amplified strain found in the post-hardcore American underground of the ’80s and ’90s—is permanently inscribed in my inner ear. For me, it stays loud when things are quiet. When I wake up and shut down the white-noise machine, I hear one everlasting tone, which generally hovers around A. One recent morning, a different note—fainter than the root note, but easily discernible—pealed distinctly in the middle of my right ear, a lone stalactite hanging in a cave.”--Jon Fine, “I Gave My Ears to Rock and Roll,” The Atlantic, October 2011
October 5, 1961—As she had done since her Oscar-winning film debut eight years before in Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn proved positively larcenous on the big screen, stealing into the hearts of critics and audiences in what became one of the best-loved romantic comedies in American film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, premiering on this date at New York's Radio City Music Hall.
Few actors have proven so impervious to the perils of miscasting as Hepburn. It wasn’t simply that she was magnificently talented or that she was thin enough to be a costume designer’s dream. No, audiences sensed—rightly so—that her warmth of heart onscreen was no act. It made them willing to give her a pass on even the most unlikely roles.
If her miscasting was truly misbegotten, as in her portrayal of a half-breed Indian in John Huston’s fascinating but wrongheaded 1960 western The Unforgiven, audiences would blame the director, the producer—anyone but her, even though she had the box-office clout to work with whomever she wanted and, to that extent, control her fate. If the miscasting was mild, as was Jack L. Warner’s idea of replacing the songstress Tony-winning songstress Julie Andrews with the nonsinging Hepburn in My Fair Lady, filmgoers were more than ready to make allowances.
Breakfast at Tiffany's belonged more to the second category. The 1958 Truman Capote novella on which it was based made no bones about the jagged edges of protagonist Holly Golightly: her profession (the world’s oldest), her substance abuse, her abortion, even, in those far more buttoned-up times, her flirtation with bisexuality. Capote had Marilyn Monroe in mind for the role, and he was not thrilled when the gamine Hepburn was offered it instead of Hollywood’s prototypical blond bombshell.
Audiences might not have had the chance to see Hepburn at all in the now-famous Givenchy little black dress. Time Magazine’s quick summary of Holly Golightly—an “expense-account tramp”—crystallized Hepburn's fears of how her acceptance of such a role would fly into audience’s perceptions of her. When the idea was first pitched, neither she nor her husband at the time, the puritanical, controlling Mel Ferrer, wanted any part of it. “You have such a wonderful script,” she said simply, “but I can’t play a hooker.” The line that changed her mind came from producer Marty Jurow: “We don’t want to make a movie about a hooker; we want to make a movie about a dreamer of dreams.”
That anecdote, and dozens of other fascinating and delightful ones, comes from a slim little book that came out last year: Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, by Sam Wasson. If you can overlook the book’s inexplicable, even infuriating lack of an index, you’ll consistently learn something new and unexpected about a movie that, for all its surface fun, was no day at the beach to get filmed, especially because of the revolutionary way it depicted sex in a romantic comedy.
Jurow was able to produce his film about “a dreamer of dreams” by slipping its more risqué aspects past the censors. In those last years before today's ratings system, Hollywood's Production Code Administration,though increasingly challenged by filmmakers, still held considerable sway over what could be shown or even implied onscreen. And so, screenwriter George Axelrod employed a trick that had worked like a charm for Alfred Hitchcock,among others: the art of indirection.
Here’s how it worked: you kept the censor’s eye off the scene you really wanted in the picture by offering up a dummy target, another scene you had no intention at all of filming. John Michael Hayes’ script for To Catch a Thief included a scene in which male characters gawk over one of those naughty French postcards. It distracted the attention of Hollywood’s censorship office from the scene that Hitchcock knew would really get people talking about his film: the passionate clinch between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, set against a background of nocturnal fireworks—a visual metaphor for sex if there ever was one.
Similarly, Axelrod knew that the censors would be primed to look out for anything involving Holly Golightly. The movie, after all, revolved around her. Even the famous opening scene, with her looking in the windows of Tiffany’s just around sunrise, could raise eyebrows: What could a woman be doing in a dress like that at that ungodly hour?
So Axelrod had the censors, as it were, take their eyes off the ball by directing their attention to the character of Paul, Holly's homosexual friend in the novella but her eventual lover in the film. Axelrod invented a character not in the book—a rich, middle-aged woman nicknamed 2E (for her apartment number), played by Patricia Neal—who employed Paul as her gigolo.
The filmmakers--including director Blake Edwards, making his first important movie--also got the censors and the public not to think too much about the implications of, say, Holly constantly going around, at all hours of the night, with a lot of strange men, by stressing that she was “a kook.” With Hepburn in the role, that became lovablekook.
The chapter on Audrey Hepburn in director-critic Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Hell's in It: Portraits and Conversations reads like an extended love letter to this star of his film They All Laughed. What may be the best and truest line in this section is: “in the final full decade of the golden age of movies, Audrey Hepburn became the last true innocent of the American screen.” It echoes a quote in Wasson's book from Edwards, gently putting off any questions about a relationship between himself and his star: “In those days, everyone fell in love with Audrey.”
Back to that Jurow quote about Holly being a “dreamer of dreams.” It’s reinforced onscreen, unforgettably, in the Oscar-winning song “Moon River.” Henry Mancini’s music establishes the wistful tone, but it’s Johnny Mercer’slyrics that bring this to concise but certain life.
Among the select group of men (and even fewer women) behind the Great American Songbook, only Mercer had the rural background to help him identify with the runaway from Tulip, Texas. A transplant from Savannah, he stood a bit apart from urban natives such as the Gershwins, Arlen, Rodgers, Hart and Hammerstein. “Moon River” could easily complement “Skylark” in a cabaret act, as both, in conveying intense, wistful longing, evoke the country: a “meadow in a mist” in “Skylark,” “my huckleberry friend” in “Moon River.” (After toying with the names of other rivers, Mercer came up with the name of this one by finding it on a map.)
Amazingly enough, after a preview which seemed to indicate the film was running too long, a studio head broached the idea of cutting the song. Jurow's producing partner, Richard Shepherd, vowed that it would be over his dead body. The tune stayed, allowing everyone concerned to bask in its glow on Oscar night, when it won Best Song for Mancini and Mercer.
There is one blemish on the film: Mickey Rooney’s ridiculous, cartoonish portrayal of Holly’s Japanese neighbor. But nothing and nobody is perfect, and movie fans like myself love Breakfast at Tiffany’s despite that. In fact, we’re hooked from the opening credits, as you will be, too, if you watch this YouTube clip.
I’ve stressed a great deal here the ways in which Hollywood’s Holly differed from Capote’s. But in one special way, it stayed true to an important theme not only of the novella, but also of Capote’s entire work: in the words of A Separate Peace author John Knowles, when interviewed for George Plimpton’s oral history of Capote, that “there are special, strange, gifted people in the world and they have to be treated with understanding.”
It might be a bit odd to end a post about a classic movie by writing about its literary source, but I have no compunction about doing so. The Holly Golightly of Hepburn, Edwards and Axelrod is so engraved in our memories that reading the original will not dislodge the cinematic version in any manner. The following passage from Capote’s small gem modulates skillfully from a beautiful description of an October day in Central Park to the author’s forever-melancholy recognition that rootless dreamers and free spirits are prone to what Holly calls “the mean reds”--i.e., depression:
We ate lunch at the cafeteria in the park. Afterwards, avoiding the zoo (Holly said she couldn’t bear to see anything in a cage), we giggled, ran, sang along the paths towards the old wooden boathouse, now gone. Leaves floated on the lake; on the shore, a park-man was fanning a bonfire of them, and the smoke, rising like Indian signals, was the only smudge on the quivering air. Aprils have never meant much to me, autumns seem that season of beginning, spring; which is how I felt sitting with Holly on the railings of the boathouse porch. I thought of the future, and spoke of the past. Because Holly wanted to know about my childhood. She talked of her own, too; but it was elusive, nameless, placeless, an impressionistic recital, though the impression received was contrary to what one expected, for she gave an almost voluptuous account of swimming and summer, Christmas trees, pretty cousins, and parties: in short, happy in a way that she was not, and never, certainly, the background of a child who had run away.
“Dr. [Lewis] Thomas and I had our business lunch. He was erudite, charming and gracious. Not, as I recall, a great enthusiast of stuffed grape leaves or mutton kebab. The good news was that he didn't drink at lunch. If memory serves, he declined dessert (could it have been the baklava?). This much I do remember: He never wrote a single word for us, probably out of fear that his fee would be a voucher at the Balkan Armenian. Thus did I learn at an early age Business Lunch Lesson No. 1: You get what you paid for.”—Christopher Buckley, recalling the Spartan business-lunch account permitted him as a “tadpole editor” by an unnamed national magazine, in “Etiquette: What’s the Golden Rule of a Business Lunch?”, The New York Times Magazine, October 2, 2011 (Food and Drink issue)
"The word 'millionaire' was like the clap—you didn't talk about it. When money is everything, charm goes out the window."--Seven-times married, 81-year-old film producer Robert Evans, quoted in Steve Garbarino, “The Shift: Death of a Playboy,” WSJ Magazine, October 2011
Charm schmarm, sez I. Evans (left, with probably the most famous of his exes, Ali McGraw) is right on only one point: After awhile, when a playboy has enough money, there’s no need to yak about it. It’s obvious he's got it, for God’s sake!
Unlike what Evans would have you believe, money doesn’t lurk in the background of charm, like some wallflower at a wild party; it bestows charm.
Case in point: celebrity financial advisor Ken Starr (no, not Bill Clinton‘s nemesis). Take a look at his picture on the upper right. A bit like a svelte Wallace Shawn, wouldn‘t you say? Not physically prepossessing. But, as a recent New York Magazine piece noted, one woman smitten with him (or, rather, with the wealth created by his famous clients) was Scores exotic dancer Diane Passage (in the picture with him), who managed to lure Starr away from his third wife.
Then came Starr’s indictment for running a Ponzi scheme, and faster than you can say “Fast-Buck Frieda,” Ms. Passage was leaving him high and dry in jail as she sought a divorce.
You might, in a way, read the article as a not-so-veiled attack on capitalism. Not only did Ms. Passage, while being wined, dined and won, see her new sugar daddy as a fellow hustler, but she sized up his entire environment in a similar light: “The majority of women on Park Avenue are probably up to worse stuff than I ever was,” she said.
Money is, for Starr and his ilk, a kind of steroid, endowing them with capabilities they wouldn’t ordinarily have. No, the realplayboy--and most of us have known one or two in our lifetimes--needs no such artificial enhancements. He can do more with a gleam in the eye than a dream-obsessed money manager on a Starr-crossed Passage ever could manage by waving dollar bills in the air in front of fleetingly willing women.
October 3, 1941—For once, Hollywood got a remake right, as John Huston, noticing the potential in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon that two prior directors missed, turned this seminal hard-boiled detective novel into cinematic gold.
The film, which premiered in New York City on this date, marked the film debut of Huston, a screenwriter who, after seeing how star Paul Muni altered his script for Juarez, vowed to have more control over his work in the future.
Here’s the ironic thing, though: the property that made his career was not really his. It’s not simply that this was an adaptation of a novel by someone else, but that his script changed nary a thing in it.
Huston followed the advice of director Howard Hawks--"Film the book"--so closely that he had his secretary simply type the novel out as a screenplay before submitting it at Warner Brothers. It ended up filmed substantially in that manner. In fact, the neophyte screenwriter might have spent more time on storyboarding (two days) than he did on the script.
I haven’t seen the two prior versions of the film from 1931 and 1936. According to Roger Dooley’s encyclopedia survey of American film in the 1930s, From Scarlett to Scarface, the first was fine but the second (Satan Met a Lady) execrable--so bad that Bette Davis, one of the stars, went into one of her epic pitched battles with Warner Bros. over it.
To provide something of a good-luck charm for the remake, the director’s father, Walter Huston, transitioning from leading man to character actor, made an uncredited cameo appearance as Captain Jacoby. Seven years later, the son would return the favor to his father with a more substantial role, an aging miner in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which netted Walter a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Aside from brilliance on its own terms, the movie also began a fruitful collaboration between the director and star Humphrey Bogart. Indeed, it is crucial in the evolution of this icon of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
High Sierra, released earlier in the year, tweaked the gangster stereotype in which Bogie had been imprisoned, allowing audiences to see his character as human for a change. The Maltese Falcon provided the actor with a forum to show that he could play more than just gangsters. For those audiences who still had a hard time imagining Bogart on the side of the angels, though, The Maltese Falcon made his character, Sam Spade, rough-edged, cynical, and willing to lie while staying barely within the law. Without the box-office credibility that The Maltese Falcon provided, it’s difficult to imagine Bogart getting the chance to play the romantic lead in Casablanca—or, indeed, to ring the many subtle inflections in his characters that would mark his career frmo then on up to his untimely demise from cancer in 1957.
Huston and Bogart were kindred spirits, men who liked their whiskey and their women even as they tried to live by their own code of honesty. In all, they would make six films—not just hugely popular classics such as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen, but one of the great offbeat films that it would take later generations to appreciate, Beat the Devil (1954).
Somehow, though, this post wouldn’t be complete without considering the film’s femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and the actress who played her, Mary Astor.
The first thing to consider is the character’s name: About as Irish as you can get, which fascinates me because of my own family background. None of the films made from Hammett’s books really beats you over the head with an Irish character’s ethnicity. But two Irish-American women played roles in his early life and career: Josephine Dolan, a young nurse whom he married in 1921, and Peggy O’Toole, his secretary-lover later in the decade, and often rumored to have at least partly inspired the creation of Brigid O’Shaughnessy.
In the first two versions of the novel, the character’s name was changed, but Huston insisted on retaining it in his version. When it came time for casting, the part almost went to an actress with an equally Irish name, Geraldine Fitzgerald. It’s interesting to think of what stamp she might have put on the role, but she rejected it, and it then went to Astor.
Both actresses already had rather checkered lives offscreen--Fitzgerald was rumored (and we know it now it for a fact, thanks to her son’s new memoir) that she bore a child out of wedlock to Orson Welles, and Astor was the subject of a headline-making divorce case in 1936 when, it was revealed, her diary went into lavish detail about her lovers. But both actresses were highly talented, and Astor would win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year for The Great Lie.
Astor’s tremendous skill didn’t shield her from the agonies of aging in Hollywood, and by the late 1950s she had cratered into a mire of alcoholism and depression. As I learned from a fascinating post on the blog Neglected Books, a Catholic priest counseling her on her treatment suggested that she write for therapy. The result was not just one memoir, but two, along with several novels that, according to this post, deserve to be reprinted.
I'm a librarian (no, NOT a "cybrarian" or "information scientist" or any of the other trendy terms the profession has come up with), as well as a freelance writer/researcher; my political leanings are contrarian, much to the dismay of friends on the left and right, and so I will give anyone looking for my vote exactly what they deserve -- the back of my hand