Monday, May 31, 2010

Thoughts on Memorial Day 2010

Decoration Day Parades in the 1940s

My grand uncle Bill was alive when I was a boy. He was my paternal grandfather’s brother. My father was named after him, as was my brother after my father. I remember grand uncle Bill reasonably well. (We called him “Uncle Bill”.)

He lived with my grandfather’s family -- a bachelor brother taken in somewhere along the way and watched over. His immediate family called him “Tootoo” because he occasionally went on “toots”, which was a word used for binges in those days. He drank infrequently, but when he did, the bout lasted for days.

Uncle Bill was usually unshaven, smelled of cigarettes, and often sat in a corner in a chair and complained about ill behaved children. However, like so many older forgotten men, he had a past. And that past was linked with Cuba. Uncle Bill was a Spanish American War veteran, a distant war even then. And I know virtually nothing of what he had done in that conflict.

I was a boy during World War II and lived in an apartment house one half block from the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, the borough’s major north-south artery. I was aged seven when the war began and ten when it ended. Living near the Concourse had one advantage: a proximity to its parades. And by far the best Bronx parade at that time was the rather large Decoration Day Parade, as it was then so called. The war had increased the parade’s size and significance I am sure. This was the early 1940s, our nation was at peril and the military was revered.

I remember those parades vividly and the excitement when we first heard the music from far away marching bands working their way up from the south Bronx on their way to the Veterans Hospital some forty blocks north. I remember that far away music hastening my pace to reach a place from which to watch the spectacle.

And I have a distinct memory of Uncle Bill marching with a small group of what seemed like very old men up the Grand Concourse in the Decoration Day Parade. The men were what remained of a small local group of Spanish American War veterans. They wore suits, I think, with appropriate medals pinned on and some sort of quasi-military headgear –- perhaps American Legion hats. And as Uncle Bill marched, he was far removed from the tired old man who sat in the corner for the rest of the year.

One might reflect on Uncle Bill walking with those men while another war was going on. They might have been remembering parades gone by. As now, I remember parades gone by. And Uncle Bill had a tale to tell I am sure, but it was not told to me or to anyone else of which I am aware. So time has washed away his story as the years have washed away Decoration Day and renamed it Memorial Day. And the size of, and the enthusiasm for, such parades -- in too many places, alas, has diminished.

A note on the photograph:

The photograph is from Flickr and is listed as “1940s - The Bronx, Grand Concourse, 4th of July Parade”, submitted by Straatis. But neither my wife nor I remember such a Bronx parade in 1940s. I suspect the photograph might be that of a Decoration Day Parade. (Google Maps shows us that the location is 169th Street.)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Words and Images 34

Katharine Hepburn quoted in The House of Barrymore by Margot Peters

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Short Cuts 5: A good part and a simple question

Michael Powell has said that there is no such thing as a small part in a film. There are good parts and bad. Never was there a better manifestation than Harriet Bird in The Natural: a special part about a woman who asks a simple question. “Will you be the best there ever was in the game?”

The Natural is a film about baseball as myth. It centers on Roy Hobbs, a baseball phenom destined to be the best there ever was. But Roy first has to undergo a series of forging fires. And Harriet Bird provides the first of those conflagrations.

Barbara Hershey plays Harriet with the stillness of Mrs. Danvers and the quiet destructive manner of Julie Kohler. Harriet is a modern day demented Morgan le Fay, perhaps. She brings down lords of lesser fiefdoms. (We learn offhandedly that she has, off camera, stalked the greatest in sports other than baseball and killed them with a silver bullet.)

Sexy temptress? One understands why Scorsese chose Barbara Hershey to play Mary Magdalene.

Harriet Bird is on a train stalking The Whammer, the essence of Babe Ruth, and currently believed to be the best there is. Roy Hobbs is also on the train. An old baseball hand introduces the reigning lord and the lowly aspirant. Later, while the train is at rest at a water stop, an argument ends in a test of manliness at a fairground. The age old baseball showdown takes place: pitcher vs. hitter (Sir Lancelot vs. Sir Turquine). Three pitches will decide all.

The superstar, The Whammer, strikes out on three pitches. Harriet Bird witnesses the sandlot strikeout and with a turn of a glance moves an unpublished death notice from major league superstar to promising phenom. Roy Hobbs becomes a hero, having taken the first symbolic step toward being the best there ever was.

Harriett watches as Roy does that little skip of joy not realizing he has half danced his way into sixteen years of ignominy. The chilling Miss Bird’s eye has shifted now from second best to first. To ensure her quest is on target, she later meets Roy on the train and asks him that question. “Will you be the best there ever was in the game?” Roy affirms.

Next -- a scene in a hotel. Roy is called to another room. Harriet, like some celestial messenger in a mourning dress and veil, asks the fateful question once more. Roy assures her – once more. A gunshot. Roy lays bleeding on the floor. A curtain rustles by an open window. The angel of death was without wings. Roy Hobbs is without a career.

The film in essence begins but its very best part is behind us.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Jazz Boat: a face on the cutting room floor

Jazz Boat sailed without me. In 1959, circumstances led me to London and consequently to believe that I might have made a brief appearance in a crowd scene in the 1960 Anthony Newley film. Part of Jazz Boat was filmed on the south bank of the Thames. I searched for the film for fifty years but to no avail.

I eventually told the story this year in a February posting called My Film Career (Offstage). Enter the good Matthew Coniam (Movietone News) of London, who read the posting, told me he had a copy of Jazz Boat, and sent a Region 2 DVD copy to me. (I have thanked him separately, and do so here again.)

In late spring of 2010, circumstances again led me to London and provided me the where-with-all to play the DVD. Came the scene, came the one frame at a time, step by step, came the dawning. A lifetime of watching films, with nary an appearance within one, remained unsullied. Jazz Boat sailed without me.

I informed Matthew, who, not surprisingly, summed up my absence perfectly. He told me in a comment:

“So sorry your fifty year quest for Jazz Boat ended up with the disappointing view of the underside of the editor's table from the vantage of the cutting room floor, but hopefully the scene itself brought back some memories, and remember that the camera does not catch all, merely that which fate casts within its four walls - you are still 'there', even if the lens is not sharp enough to spot you.”

Who could add to that?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Vertigo in Garmisch-Partenkirchen

It has long been noted that most generations have moments when one can remember exactly where one was when an important (often tragic) event occurred. For me as a little boy it was Pearl Harbor, as a young married man it was the assassination of John Kennedy, and as a retired older man it was the day in September when the towers fell.

But there was at least one other time, this one not tragic, that I vividly remember a half century later. In early winter of 1959, I found myself with two friends in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, surely the most beautiful place I have ever been. We were probably full of fine lager and Ochsenschwanzsuppe when we decided to see a flick, which was what soldiers of my time called motion pictures. The director was Alfred Hitchcock; the film was Vertigo. And I knew even then what I still know now. This was one of those films.

We had all seen Kim Novak as Molly O and all knew the great score from The Man With the Golden Arm because we were jazz fans. But we had never seen Kim Novak like this. And Shorty Rogers was no match for Bernard Herrmann. And Otto Preminger never worked in Angel, Islington …

When we left the theater, still somewhat stunned by the ending, my friend, Earl Jordan from Lewistown, Pennsylvania, was shaking his head and still talking about the nun: the nun who came out of the dark in the bell tower. It was a clear cold winter night and I saw a deer cross the road. And yes, it had started to snow. An enthralling sight. I was a city boy, watching a deer amble across a road in the snow, in a mountain town in Germany, somewhere in the clouds: the night I saw Vertigo, 9 November 1959.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Vertigo -- yet again

Early this morning, at sea, somewhere off the Isles of Scilly, I watched Vertigo yet again. It was broadcast on our shipboard television network. We are tucked away in a small cabin, well forward, in a great ship. There are fewer passengers than I thought there might be. This voyage started at Hamburg, sailed through the North Sea, then down the English Channel to the great maritime port of Southampton. We embarked there some 3000 miles from New York, our final destination.

The initial port being a German one, the greater proportion of our shipmates are German born. We have been surrounded by the sounds of their language since we boarded yesterday. Its rhythms brought back a yesterday more than fifty years earlier when I saw Vertigo for the first time: not in a theatre in New York, but in Garmisch Partinkirchen.

I would like to say that last night I dreamed again of Garmisch Partinkirchen. But I did not. Magic needs no exaggeration. But this morning I thought again of that beautiful small town situated among great mountain peaks. And I thought again of Scottie Ferguson and Midge, and of a mystical woman who roamed San Francisco fraudulently seeking her past but unknowingly awaiting her death from a bell tower.

(I will reflect on my initial viewing in my next post.)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Short Cuts 4

In the Meantime Darling. 1944. Directed by Otto Preminger.
Twentieth Century Fox.

I have a friend in Berkshire, England, a retired colonel who married late in life. He told me once that he kept holding out -- hoping that Jeanne Crain might turn up. She did not.

While a boy, he was shuttled around the countryside to keep him from harm’s way during World War II. Jeanne, meanwhile, was applying her craft to making films, one of which is this, a quasi-comedy with a “support the war effort” message.

The Crain character comes to a boarding house outside a military camp where wives are billeted while their husbands train for war. Jeanne is rich, spoiled and does obnoxious things. She does not fit in. She ruffles feathers in this nest of comely young ladies, wives trying to survive the crises of clogged sinks and cramped living quarters (and forebodings of early widowhood, perhaps).

Jeanne’s character is a problem and must, of course, be brought to see the light. Thank God, the cat lady’s nemesis is on hand; a mature character and a mature actress: Jane Randolph. As hotelkeeper/housemother she brings some semblance of stability and guidance for the wives. Slowly, the Crain character learns about the better good and does her part -- to be honest, I lost track after a while and started thinking about State Fair. Casting Jeanne Crain against type was not a good idea.

Except for Ms. Randolph, the women are all pretty boring. The men are worse -- and also stupid. Even the skilled hand of Otto Preminger and the presence of Eugene Pallette and Clarence Muse cannot help this script or this lot. Jeanne’s husband is played by one Frank Latimore (be thankful there were not two). Comic relief by Stanley Prager is not funny.

It is axiomatic that, at the time, the better elements of the male acting legion were off to war. What remained was “either too young or too old, either too gray or too grassy green.” But could they not have done better? This is definitely not one for the ages. Nor “for the duration” I might add -- for those who remember that phrase, omnipresent in the early forties.

Minus the supposed comedic accoutrements, it was all done before and much better. The War Against Mrs. Hadley was released two years earlier and Meantime is like unto its predecessor in message only. It is but a shadow of the substance. Mrs. Hadley had the great Fay Bainter, Sara Algood, Spring Byington, Connie Gilchrist and Edward Arnold. But that is a Short Cut for another day.

Pick of the litter: Jane Randolph

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Foot in hat disease

On a BBC morning program Monday, May 10, an entertainment segment was devoted to the most recent film version of Robin Hood. Within it, Russell Crowe – after assuring us of the significance of the film's message – dismissively referred to Errol Flynn as wearing green baggy woolen tights and "a stupid hat".

Monday, May 10, 2010

Like Unto 7

Germaine Raynal and Marie Magdalene Dietrich

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Words and Images 29

Quote is from Goldwyn: a Biography by A. Scott Berg (an excellent book). Middle image from Bifurcaciones.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Words and Images 28

An empty arena. The crowds, the bulls, the horses and the players are gone.

A fading phrase reminds us of long ago. Rouben Mamoulian had set the scene. Was it Twentieth Century Fox or was it Spain? Tyrone Power or Juan Gallardo? Laird Cregar, or Natalio Curro? Curro the critic, larger than the moment, is surrounded by sycophants. He gestures to the beautiful Dona Sol, who is in the stands applauding the spectacle. He speaks of death in the afternoon and death in the evening. But that was long ago -- seventy years ago. Now the arena is quiet and the players are no longer with us (an untimely death took a number of them). Only the film remains: Blood and Sand.