Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The View from the Street 13

“Dog my cats!”

“Dog my cats!” David Mamet had Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon) use the phrase in the excellent The Spanish Prisoner. Mark Twain used the phrase three times in Huckleberry Finn but with the feline in singular. Melvyn Douglas uses a variation in Theodora Goes Wild. And I am told, but have not verified, that Mantan Moreland uses the phrase “Well, dog my cat” in Crime Smasher or Cosmo Jones, Crime Smasher, Monogram, 1943.

I do not recall the phrase being used in the New York region in my youth (the Forties) or thereafter. What little looking into the phrase that I have done indicates it is of southern United States origin (nineteenth century).

Click here to see the “dog my cats” exchange between Rebecca Pidgeon and Campbell Scott in David Mamet’s intriguing The Spanish Prisoner.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Words and Images 40

See also Melvyn Douglas in Theodora Goes Wild.

Click here to see the “dog my cats” exchange between Rebecca Pidgeon and Campbell Scott in David Mamet’s intriguing The Spanish Prisoner.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The View from Afar 7

We Live Again nee Resurrection aka Resurrezione

So, Sam Goldwyn wants to spice up Resurrection, a Tolstoy novel, for Anna Sten. He eventually hires a multitude of writers to adapt, rework, restructure, or retell the tale. Within that group was Preston Sturges at $1,500 a week. For a while, Goldwyn liked Sturges’s “snappy nineteenth century dialogue” but after a while asked “When can we get rid of this Sturgeon fella?”

The writers came and went, and Fredric March, though reluctant to appear second billed to somebody named Anna Sten, joined the project. It was renamed We Live Again but when released, died quickly. Goldwyn later told George Cukor “The public stayed away in droves.” (The film has rarely been resurrected.)

(Summarized from A. Scott Berg’s Goldwyn: a Biography. I love this book.)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Words and Images 38

Anna Sten … ever at sea.

So, Sam Goldwyn solicits Cole Porter to write two songs for Anna Sten in Nana. (But icebergs are not easily transformed into songbirds.) Mr. Porter regrets – but does include Ms. Sten in a refrain from Anything Goes.

A note: A. Scott Berg has an excellent account of the Goldwyn/Sten relationship in his Goldwyn: a Biography. And he covers the Porter connection. I remember singing this refrain when young -- there was a time when smart lyrics found their way into the mouths of children on the streets.

An afterword: Click here to listen to Cole Porter singing the lyrics to Anything Goes. The Anna Sten reference occurs near the end -- at about 2:17.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fire and water: a remembrance of the General Slocum on June 15, 2010

The General Slocum

It was a story once told mostly among older New Yorkers, or a select few around the globe who were interested in tragedies that occurred on the world’s waterways. There was a fascination about such events in those days before the endless tragedies of numbered wars. Peril on the water strikes fear -- there is usually no safe haven.

On a Wednesday morning in June 1904, an excursion boat (paddle steamer) carrying some thirteen hundred people on a church outing caught fire while sailing up the East River, along the eastern side of Manhattan Island. About midway up the Island, the blaze began and in minutes engulfed the vessel almost totally.

The safety equipment was in a decayed, useless state, the Captain made bad decisions, and more than one thousand passengers were drowned, killed by fire, or crushed in the ensuing conflagration: all within one half hour. The victims were mostly German-American women and children. The ship, virtually submerged, ran aground on North Brother Island at the western end of Long Island Sound, just south of the Bronx.

Yet this is an event that stays virtually ignored by most New Yorkers. Such indifference is difficult to understand, given the terrible toll it took on the city in general and specifically on the German-American neighborhood on the lower East Side. Why?

R.M.S. Titanic has since moved into legend, and R.M.S. Lusitania at least into the literature of war. Most people know The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, by name, if not in detail. September 11 became this generation’s Pearl Harbor. Yet the burning of the General Slocum stays in some backwater of the nation’s and the city’s subconsciousness. Why?

Given the magnitude of the event, the literature is sparse. There were some scattershot books and pamphlets at the time, and a brief reference by James Joyce in Ulysses. Modern times brought two good books. In 1981, Claude Rust’s The Burning of the General Slocum. Then after September 11, Edward T. O’Donnell wrote a good account in his Ship Ablaze, in some way trying to link together two of Manhattan’s deadliest tragedies. Two basic books in more than a century do not a legend make. Only two books. Why?

O’Donnell, in Ship Ablaze, falls back on a Longfellow quote to help explain: “Well it has been said that there is no grief like the grief which does not speak.” He also conjects that a number of factors removed Slocum from the national and metropolitan sensibility: the public’s interest in The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the anti-German sentiment of World War I, and the fact that the victims came from a very concentrated local area.

Manhattan Melodrama

With the advent of the Internet, Slocum information is now more readily available and moves to the forefront every June 15. And film sites and blogs understandably bring up the sequence in Manhattan Melodrama that deals with the Slocum. Otherwise, films have basically steered clear of the Slocum tragedy. So I can add little, except to cite O’Donnell’s reminder that in Manhattan Melodrama the doomed trip up the East River was changed from a German-American outing to an Irish-American outing.

I think many of today’s Manhattan Melodrama audience may not even know of the event, or if they do, consider the Slocum as a story of very long ago. While to the audience that saw Manhattan Melodrama in the Thirties, the burning of the General Slocum would have been only slightly more than a generation earlier. The event was less distant, not only in time but in significance.

My search for St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church

I first heard the story of the General Slocum as a boy, when conversations at family gatherings occasionally turned to tragic events. My grandfathers and grandmothers would have remembered when the Slocum disaster actually happened. But I have little to add to the tale of the General Slocum, except for a miniscule personal byway sometime back in the 1980s when I decided to find the church from which the doomed outing was arranged.

I worked for years on 14th Street and Third Avenue for a major public utility. During my forty years in that area, when time permitted, I wandered around the streets of lower Manhattan looking for New York past. In those days local history came mostly from out of print books and library research.

But those stories I had heard around the kitchen table and the appearance of the Rust book fascinated me. And I was particularly taken with one small illustration. It showed the church I sought. The illustration was a simple little woodcut, with the caption: “St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.” The text stated it was on Sixth Street. If it was still there, it would be easy to find.

I photocopied the picture and went down Second Avenue to Sixth Street and I found the building. The structure had hardly changed in eighty years but the Protestant church was now a Jewish synagogue. (I was unaware that the church had been sold in 1940.)

When I found the building, I was elated. No great challenge was involved in locating it. But it was easy to close my eyes for a moment and to try to hear the shouts of young children and the stern mothers attempting to control them on a June day some eighty years before. This was not only old New York. This was Jack Finney country.

Of course, I had a few persons to tell: an understanding wife, a friend with an interest in New York history, and a few other tolerant listeners. But I found great satisfaction in searching for and finding that rather small edifice. Traversing the streets of New York is always a walk of discovery, made more exhilarating when one knows the history of a site and what has happened there. It becomes one’s companion.

Today, I remembered the moment that I found that building whose congregation had long moved on. And I thought again about the doomed vessel: the General Slocum. She ran aground 106 years ago on another June 15th, in ruins and still aflame -- and no songs were sung that day at Locust Grove, her planned destination.

A note on the illustrations:

The print at the top showing the port side of the General Slocum in profile is from www.wrecksite.eu

The partial painting (in color) is from Walter M. Baumhofer’s Holocaust at Hell Gate, taken from the dust jacket of Rust’s The Burning of the General Slocum. The woodcut of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church is also from the Rust book.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Words and Images 36

Anna Dundee, formerly Anna Thompson, formerly … or nee,... unknown.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The “Blow up the Castle” Switch

On Halloween weekend 2005, Showtime was showing various episodes of the old television series The Outer Limits. Between some of the episodes a group of modern day film directors sat around and chatted about the old horror films of the 1930s and 1940s.

One of them (John Landis?) commented that many of the movies had a castle -- with a laboratory -- where they made the monster. And each laboratory invariably had a switch on the wall. The doctor, before going out, always told his assistant “Whatever you do, don’t let the monster throw that switch – it will blow up the castle”.

The "Blow up the Castle" switch.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Short Cuts 6: Thoughts on D-Day

My Sister Eileen

Although the Second World War started on the American home front with a Sunday afternoon radio broadcast -- as best I recall it did not begin for us immediately. It did not start until our uncles stopped coming over on Sunday, because they were over there or on their way over there. And over there was all kinds of places not dreamed of by George M. Cohan: Guadalcanal, Midway, Tunisia, or the Kasserine Pass to name a few.

But we were over here and continued to go to the movies at least twice a week. And the movies we saw were an odd mix of Thirties projects left in the Hollywood hopper, of non-World War Two themed movies with World War Two endings tacked on, and then the usual mix of Boston Blackies, Blondies, and Maisies, which we likely preferred. (Each of these was waiting to be brought into the global conflict that was developing.)

Within this mix, was My Sister Eileen, born in The New Yorker, and graduated from a 1940 Broadway play into this 1942 Hollywood film. (It has an interesting history beyond the scope of this posting.) I remember seeing the film sometime in my youth, but likely not at the time of issue. (Popular films in those days were frequently reissued for years and I suspect I saw Eileen on one of those iterations.)

It was a movie most of my family would have talked about, because my mother was a reader who liked movies. And she probably liked this movie because it took place in Greenwich Village, which was “just downtown” from where we lived in the Bronx (never just Bronx). It was of added interest because my Uncle Artie (my mother’s sister’s husband) had been brought up in the Village. My father, conversely, read newspapers only, disliked movies, and probably disliked the Village. Nor did he think much of Uncle Artie (who was my favorite uncle).

The charm of Hollywood’s Greenwich Village has always been steeped in a bohemian mist. Dying artists paint leaves on back yard walls to save failing beauties. And the films show the inconvenience of living, but not the reality, which is fine by me. New York apartments were not the most pleasant places in the early 1940s – particularly basement apartments. (If you do not know what I am talking about – don’t ask.) So Hollywood’s vision of Greenwich Village will do nicely thank you. One has the feeling that O’Henry slept there.

My Greenwich Village was a mixed place of schoolyards, small buildings and taverns. My Greenwich Village was artists and writers, bohemian types, and eccentric ethnics. It was little Italian restaurants with red checked table cloths. And there were candles with melted wax-filled candle holders. And very friendly trattoria owners. I am unsure how much of my memory is from actual visits and how much from the back lots of movie studios -- likely a bit of each.

Thinking of Italian restaurants, consider what is often served as a starter. An antipasto: a suitable metaphor for My Sister Eileen. Tasty tidbits in small portions. George Tobias is very good as the landlord/artist, Donald MacBride as a Hollywood cop (New York cops were quite different), and June Havoc is a bit over the top. Elizabeth Patterson is just perfect for the few minutes allotted to her as Gramma. Allyn Joslyn owned slick, but harmless. Gordon Jones does a bad Broderick Crawford (as in Larceny, Inc). I had forgotten that Jeff Donnell was in films that early and she looked good. Brian Aherne has something to do with keeping Eileen’s sister happy. And there are a half dozen Portuguese sailors cavorting around.

And if you want to see the man who was later engaged to (and directed) Kim Novak, Richard Quine makes an appearance. He’s a hard one to figure. It is said George Brent was a very exciting guy in real life and that Nelson Eddy could be a tough guy. And watching the man who would one day be engaged to Kim Novak proves the difficulty of watching movies in retrospect.

But, I still like My Sister Eileen, although the woman playing Eileen leaves me cold: Janet Blair. I have difficulty understanding what all the fuss is about. It surely cannot be about a character played by Janet Blair. And then her sister is played by Rosalind Russell -- and you know how annoying she can be without Hawks. (To be fair, my wife pointed out that Rosalind was a pretty good trouper in this, particularly in the slapstick and madcap routines.)

Yet My Sister Eileen has stood my test of time and brought me back to the streets of lower Manhattan as they may, or may not, have existed in the early years of the war. And it took me back to a place in time when my uncles were over there while I was safely over here.

By the way, that favorite uncle, whom I mentioned, took a glider ride into Normandy on June 6, 1944. (My father probably read about it in the paper.) Uncle Artie fought through the rest of the war and came home to live a full life. I wish I had been wise enough to have known him better. He was a slim, gentle man, a second generation Italian American, and his name was Arthur Giovaninni.

Note on the paintings:
Beulah R. Bettersworth, Christopher Street, Greenwich Village, Oil on canvas, 1934, Smithsonian American Art Museum

John Sloan. The City from Greenwich Village, 1922. National Gallery of Art

Normandy, 1944. HitenMistry, Texture Artist

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Thursday, June 3, 2010

From a Personal Film Library 7

“There remains a basic question about the mountain of Hollywood’s reminiscences: Are they true? Well, perhaps partly true. Remember that Hollywood people lived and still live in a world of fantasy, and they are accustomed to making things up, to fibbing and exaggerating, and to believing all their own fibs and exaggerations. Remember, too, that they all had press agents who made things up, and that fan-magazine writers made things up, and that ghostwriters still make things up, and that the celebrities who sign these concoctions no longer remember very well what really happened long ago.”

… Otto Friedrich in the Foreword to City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s

(Verbum sat sapienti est)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The View from the Street 12

(Helen Hayes on the demands of her profession.)

“My leading man was Gary Cooper, and like half the women in the world, I was, in the words of the Noel Coward song, ‘Mad About the boy.’ It was all very innocent, but Gary and I had this passionate love scene, and it didn’t take Stanislavsky or the Liebestod to get into the mood: I played it to the hilt.” … My Life in Three Acts ... by Helen Hayes.