Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tony Curtis

Remembering Tony Curtis and the Loew’s Paradise

I never thought much about Tony Curtis during my formative years, although we were both denizens of the Bronx, he preceding me by a decade. He was of Hungarian Jewish background, brought up in the Bronx during the Great Depression on the eve of World War Two. The borough was about fifty percent Jewish at that time and although I was a Gentile, a young boy takes on many of the trappings of his surroundings -- I have always been comfortable in that milieu. And I have always had a fond appreciation of those who came out of that culture -- having myself been so enveloped by it. So, perhaps, there was a subconscious link. Shared experiences.

Tony Curtis has told us about going to the Loew’s Paradise, a movie mecca in the Bronx, long ensconced on the Grand Concourse – our major boulevard. It was our Broadway. The Paradise, built in 1929, was the 23rd largest movie theatre ever to be built in the United States and had a seating capacity of close to four thousand. Perhaps our paths crossed there once or twice as this was a palace for the people and the young attended the palace rituals with some regularity.

After the war, Tony Curtis moved from the seats of the Loew's Paradise to the screen -- initially in a famous moment, dancing with Yvonne De Carlo in Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross. It is a heated scene which introduces us to Yvonne De Carlo (Anna) on the point of combustion, dancing with the handsome Tony Curtis.

He moves quickly in and out of the frame as we listen to the pulsating music of Esy Morales. It was De Carlo’s showcase, but I am sure the girls noticed Tony Curtis. And, I suspect, I might have seen that screen debut more often than most, because my wife and I are great admirers of Robert Siodmak, particularly his Criss Cross.

Then came Trapeze, Sweet Smell of Success, the Wilder film, The Boston Strangler, and sundry others. But this is not the best venue for a Curtis obituary. Yet, as I trawled the Internet earlier today visiting what are usually good sources for obituaries (e.g., The Guardian, The London Telegraph) those found were rather lackluster.

But I will continue to seek and perhaps find. I would like to see two of my favorite Davids weigh in: Mamet and Thomson. Mamet has stated in his Bambi meets Godzilla that Tony Curtis was a better film actor than Laurence Olivier. And the distinguished playwright and director makes a good case. My appreciation of Tony Curtis grew over the years as I saw his films again and again, saw and read interviews with him, and listened and read carefully when those whom I consider knowledgeable spoke and wrote of him. I have come to respect Tony Curtis and appreciate his work.

So farewell to a fellow Bronxite on a bleak rainy day about one hundred miles from the Bronx and about seventy years from a brief period when we were both there at the same time. And as films and actors throw shadows in the most unexpected places, this morning I thought about the old Bronx, the sound of Klezmer, a landmark theatre on the Grand Concourse and of all the boys met and passed on city streets -- any of whom might have been a handsome kid from those streets who got to dance with Yvonne De Carlo – and then some.

Photo from The Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Omar Little

Omar Little (The Wire)

Recent tides have washed up on the cable shores Boardwalk Empire, which is being touted as the best show produced for television since The Sopranos.

I spend little time watching cable television series and when I do, I watch a full season, or a completed series, in protracted viewing sessions. (Netflix accommodates.) But out of curiosity, and affection for Steve Buscemi, I watched Episode One of Boardwalk Empire.

It was an enjoyable hour with excellent production values and a very good cast, but one episode does not a series make, so only clocks and calendars will tell. (My admiration for Mr. Buscemi goes back to a little film called Trees Lounge issued just before he became well known as a hyperactive miscreant in Fargo.)

As for “the best show produced for television since The Sopranos,” I have heard a similar call before – but from a distant shore. Yet some great Atlantic barrier seems to have kept a sufficient number in the United States from embracing a series which originated here, crossed that wicked ocean to England, found great favor in certain quarters but could never find its way back to welcome shores. That series, comparably, has been called "the best TV show of the last 20 years.” It is The Wire.

Comparisons are beyond my ken because my universe of modern television series seen is limited -- actually beyond scant. To further complicate categorical assessment, the source of films begins to blur.

At this stage of life I watch most films at home. In recent years, I find the distinction between computer monitors and television screens has almost disappeared. And as the receiving media blurs, so does the original format of that which I watch, particularly in modern productions. Was that a cable mini-series, a made for television movie, or a Hollywood movie – itself one of a franchise series? And does it matter anymore?

The Sopranos is obviously the gold standard against which all series are currently compared. I do not doubt the credentials of The Sopranos , which seemed to fill a need in a viewing public ever searching for Godfather IV, but which has been confronted in theatres with the next installment of Harry Potter or some Bourne entity.

No less a film purist than David Thomson has said: “ ... you've got to face the fact that these days television frequently beats out what you see at the movies. And 'The Sopranos' and 'The Wire' and a few other things are just extraordinary achievements … Much as I love the 'Godfather' films, I really do, I think you can make an argument that "The Sopranos" was a greater achievement.”

I have watched random episodes of The Sopranos and the characters and situations seem real to this native northeasterner who has lived deep in city streets, later in suburban sites and spent the better part of my adult life in the company of police. But I never stayed the viewing course. So as commenting on selected components of an antipasto does not comprise a restaurant review, I will refrain. But The Wire is a different matter.

The vast literature of articulate writing about The Wire needs no copying and pasting here, when it is easily available with routine search criteria. Seek and find. Or better yet watch the first three episodes and you might succumb.

I will say only that I watched the entire series through Netflix, then purchased the entire series and watched it again, and I have currently started the journey to the mean streets of Baltimore yet again.

“Down these mean streets a man must go ...” Raymond Chandler told us. I need not go, but I do so willingly. I seek to renew my acquaintance with the good, the bad and the ugly of a fictional Baltimore that probably too closely approximates reality. And on some shambolic city street in that region where good and bad converge, I will be seeking to renew my acquaintance with one Omar Little. Once met, long remembered.

Omar Little.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Words and Images 53

"Man Wanted" photo from Cinema de Merde

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Friday, September 17, 2010


"But you're not out of the woods yet Baxter, because most of them try it again" ... Dr. Dreyfuss

A species present in such small numbers that it is at risk of extinction.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Off the Lot 4: Jimmy Cannon

Jimmy Cannon

Jimmy Cannon was one of our finest writers but is little known today because he wrote mostly about sports. Born in New York City; he died there some sixty years later. He was a newspaper guy. In appearance, anyway, he was along the lines of those we see in the films of the thirties and forties. He looked world weary, yet wise in the ways of city streets and foreign wars.

I did not know Jimmy Cannon, but met a few who did. They told me that he was a loner: a lifelong bachelor who haunted the baseball stadia by day, the fight arenas by night, and the saloons after the fights. He was New York Irish was Jimmy Cannon, with all that entailed. He stopped drinking along the way for reasons unknown to us.

Jimmy Cannon spent his lifetime probing the mysteries behind Who Struck John? and used that old barroom conundrum as a compass. There was lot of Damon Runyon about him. They were only about a generation apart but Cannon was the better writer. There was a sadder streak throughout his work, and blood in his ink.

Although he focussed on sports, he wrote one of the most moving Christmas pieces I have ever read. The setting is a New York hospital on a Christmas Eve when Jimmy Cannon and a little girl with a cleft palate were brought together. It is a tale O’Henry might have told. And Cannon called it “Merry Christmas.”

Jimmy Cannon came out of the city and lived in the city and died in the city. He loved New York and understood it. He was raised in the old Greenwich Village. His descriptions of the city are urban poetry -- if you were there when guys wore fedoras in the bars all day. If you were there when the only sports that mattered were baseball, boxing and horses. Or if you were there during the August heat waves when there was no air conditioning. Or if you were there when the movie houses were full, the features were double, and the stars no longer in the skies -- but on the screens.

Jimmy Cannon lived sometimes in an apartment and sometimes in a hotel, but always in Manhattan. He cut no grass; he owned no golf clubs. He left his city only to go to war, as did so many of his generation. He was at the liberation of Paris as a reporter for The Stars and Stripes. He was in Korea in that wicked winter of a place in that wicked winter of a war. He came home from each war and wrote for the New York papers.

Jimmy Cannon wrote with an uncanny understanding of his subjects, a number of whom counted him as a friend. Joe DiMaggio was among them. Ernest Hemingway had a high regard for Cannon’s writing. And Frank Sinatra had Cannon’s stuff sent to him wherever he was. Joan Blondell was seen in his company. Dietrich read him poetry in Paris during the war. Woody Allen did not know him, but was influenced by him. Allen has told us that his image of New York City as a black and white Gershwin town comes from reading Jimmy Cannon.

And those of us who lived in the buildings about which Cannon wrote, and who watched the teams about which he wrote, and who watched the athletes about whom he wrote – those of us also read Jimmy Cannon. We were New Yorkers. He read us; we read him.

I delivered newspapers in the Bronx in the Claremont Park section in the late forties and early fifties. I had about fifteen or twenty apartment houses. Only the last one had an elevator. The paper was the New York Post, then in the hands of Dorothy Schiff. But most of my customers read it not for politics but because it had subsumed The Bronx Home News and had good coverage of local events. And it had Jimmy Cannon. And when I reached that last building I would rest young legs made tired by a hundred storeys of stairs and I would sit in a lighted area near the roof -- and under a skylight, I would read Jimmy Cannon.

A sordid postscript:

In recent times, lesser lights have tried to copy Jimmy Cannon’s writing format or emulate his style. But such pretenders rarely acknowledge their source. Now most are journalism majors, from good colleges, who wear expensive suits and play golf, and some of them consort with what now passes for glitterati. At night, they go home to the suburbs or upstate to their million dollar homes. At night, after the fights and the saloons, Cannon was more likely to be found roaming the streets of the city he loved.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Remembering a False Alarm

Sixty years before September 11, 2001, on December 9, 1941 there was a false air raid warning in New York City. It was two days after Pearl Harbor. In some places schools were closed and children sent home. I distinctly remember the event although reported details vary from my recollection. Some accounts say that children were sent home around noon. I recall being interrupted by an air raid warden on the way to school and told to return home. But the years encroach and memories are suspect.

Apparently on the same day, one of our great local writers, Jimmy Cannon, was stationed in Fort Dix and wrote about the event in a piece that later appeared in The Sergeant Says by Jimmy Cannon, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York in 1943.

I remembered the Cannon piece when September 11 occurred and I think about it again on each anniversary. Because of the parallels. Because of the parallels between what New Yorkers thought, said and did on that day nine years ago and how much those attitudes were similarly reflected in the words of that lifelong New Yorker, Jimmy Cannon, more than a half century earlier. (New Yorkers are a difficult lot, but a special breed.)

Excerpts from False Alarm by Jimmy Cannon

The voice talked about the city. It was a radio announcer's voice and I resented its clean diction and its wheedling salesmanship. The voice of warning spoke to the people of the city as though it were trying to sell them a laxative, a tube of tooth paste, a cake of soap, or a pack of cigarettes. It was a cold voice, aloof and precise, and I knew the announcer had spent a lot of time with vocal teachers.

The voice told the people of the city to stay off the streets, to be calm, to remain in their homes until the all-clear had sounded. The voice said unidentified planes had been spotted beating toward the city. Those planes, I thought, are coming to bomb my family and my friends to try to destroy the city that I love. We sat there in the barracks, waiting to go on guard, and we cursed the planes and I felt angry and helpless.

It was a false alarm. The planes never came. But that polite radio announcer's voice pronouncing the warning made me hate the enemies of democracy more than anything else ever will. I'd always thought of war as being fought in strange lands, in parched fields or in far-away mud. I thought of it as something that happened to remote cities where other peoples lived. Although I have always thought our life and our property were in jeopardy, I never imagined New York under fire. I do now. I think of my family and friends and the city I love every time I take a rifle in my hands and every time I fix my bayonet.

Poster’s Note: Jimmy Cannon served in World War Two covering the war in Europe for The Stars and Stripes.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The View from Afar 8

Elia Kazanjoglou. Born this day: September 7, 1909