Sunday, November 28, 2010

Going and Coming: Eleven Days in 1941

Shanghai, China: November 28, 1941

Sixty-nine years ago today, members of the United States Marine Corps, Fourth Marine Regiment Band (with accompanying troops) left the International Settlement at Shanghai. This photo captures the moment. It was but ten days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into World War II.

Shanghai, China: 8 December 1941

Ten days later, on December 8, the Japanese occupied the International Settlement. In a Hollywood retelling, an English boy is lost in the confusion in a harrowing scene from my favorite Steven Spielberg film.

Note: Fourth Marine Regiment Band photo courtesy of China Marines website.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Short Cuts 9: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

The Mystery of Edwin Drood: the book

In 1870, Charles Dickens lay dead; The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished. The secret of Edwin Drood had died with Dickens. The incomplete book on Drood was published posthumously. And "the most intricate literary problem in the English language" required a solution.

So it came to pass that a divergent group of scholars set about pondering the puzzle of Dickens's last plot. And for 140 years thereafter, scholars have discussed the deviltry or devotion of John Jasper, the identity of Dick Datchery, and the fate of Edwin Drood.

If, as we were taught in our early Latin classes, “All Gaul is divided into three parts;” then all Charles Dickens likely divides more-so. And within those divisions, that which relates to Drood is particularly susceptible to sub-sectioning. There are Dickensians, and among them Droodians or Droodists, or Drood-hunters, or as Chesterton was wont to call them: Druids. And within this sect there are Bazzardites, Landlessites and Tartarites, among others; the latter a minor sect we're told.

Those scholars were a boon to the Dickens fellowship, to the publishing industry, and to book collectors who extended a branch of the Dickensian tree to one of rather lengthy proportion. And so went this literary game for some sixty years until the Great Depression, when scholarly concentration on the criminous occurrence in the shadow of the cathedral appeared to ebb.

Yet evidence of the quest still surfaced occasionally and, in the heart of that Depression, in 1935, Universal Pictures produced a film version titled Mystery of Edwin Drood, directed by Stuart Walker. I remembered seeing the film on television long along but details had faded from memory.

Mystery of Edwin Drood: the film

I was reminded of the 1935 version this week as I came across Heather Angel playing a maid in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. In Mystery of Edwin Drood, she plays Rosa Bud. The next day, I sought and watched the film on You Tube. Claude Rains stars as John Jasper and Valerie Hobson as Helena Landless. (In an early scene, Rosa Bud tells Helena Landless to call her "Rosebud” -- which I mention for those film purists inclined to stray off subject.)

Douglass Montgomery plays Neville Landless and David Manners is Edwin, called Ned. A fine sampling of Dickensian types supports, such as a reasonably slim Francis L. Sullivan, Walter Kingsford, and Forrester Harvey as Durdles. Oddly, as if escaped from some wagon train gone far astray, there are brief appearances by Walter Brennan and Will Geer.

The single propeller plane flies around the globe and the Universal Pictures logo lets us know we are in for Universal Studio atmospherics. From an opium den in London we move to the County of Kent, within which lies the cathedral town of Cloisterham (nee Rochester). European sets, more often reserved for vampires and other creatures of the night, serve as the mews, closes, and alleys surrounding the English cathedral. A perfect setting for a mid-Victorian malfeasance. And all because of “Rosebud.”

Three men are involved in the affections of one girl. One kills, and another dies, leaving the third to marry. There is an abundance of cobblestoned streets, church steeples, bells, tombs, crypts, graveyards and bedposts, that in dreams, morph into church spires. And the villagers gossip and suspect the wrong fellow for a while, but they are not the usual rambunctious European contingent with torches -- the English being masters of good form.

John Jasper is the obvious dispatcher of Edwin Drood, who sleeps with the quicklime. And the tempestuous Neville Landless’s return from Ceylon is rewarded as those cathedral bells ring. The film is a moody piece as was the unfinished original novel. The cast, and the source, and the Universal Studios look make the trip to Cloisterham in Kent worthwhile.

An afterthought on You Tube

You Tube is often the court of last resort. I recently purchased a 26 inch personal computer monitor for just such contingency (and for Netflix downloads). As of November 23, You Tube had the complete film in six sections and I watched it immediately. (One must do so with scarce materials in that environment.) Alas, the second half of the film has You Tube synchronization problems. But one suspects Claude Rains out of sync is clearer to the ear than most anyone else then, or now.

And an afterthought on wagon trains going astray

My friend Bob Wyatt of Wokingham once showed me the place where the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show played in Wokingham (Berkshire) but that was some thirty five years after poor Edwin went to rest in the quicklime. The show also played in Chatham, near Rochester, on August 28, 1903.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Like Unto 12

Patricia Morison on the right

Gail Patrick on the left

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Short Cuts 8: Around the World in Eighty Days: 53 years later

Around the World in Eighty Days: 53 years later.

It was a “big ticket” date -- a bit difficult to comprehend in these times, perhaps, but Around the World in Eighty Days at New York’s Rivoli Theater in early 1957 was a big ticket date -- and an event. It had opened in late 1956, yet tickets were still hard come by, particularly at a working class salary. But there were ways.

My date and I lived in the Bronx. I do not recall, but we certainly would have taken the Independent Line “D” train at Tremont Avenue downtown to the Times Square area. And we probably had something to eat – maybe at Al Muller’s German restaurant over by the old Madison Square Garden. Or, perhaps, the Howard Johnson’s in the photograph. And then the movie. We were young and in love.

Last night, more than nineteen thousand days after that date, my wife (she of the date) and I had the film on Turner Classic Movies in our kitchen while preparing a simple Saturday night supper. (We are accustomed to using overly familiar movies as kitchen background music as we go about our culinary endeavors.)

Occasionally, she or I would remark “there’s Melville Cooper” or “there’s Buster Keaton” and as I turned the oven to broil, and moved our plates to table: “there’s Marlene Dietrich.” (Thank heaven for small kindnesses when George Raft appears only in a cameo.)

The film made a nice travelogue in spots. We sat and ate somewhere between Shirley MacLaine and the elephants. And we finished the simple repast around the time that Phileas Fogg returned to the Reform Club (with Princess Aouda in tow), entered those sacred premises, and the Empire was announced to have fallen.

Last evening, we could not remember the theatre where we originally had seen Around the World in Eighty Days. An Internet search this morning turned up the Rivoli, stately as it was around the time we saw the film. Note the Lindy’s (famous as Runyon’s Mindy’s) to the left of the theatre, as well as the men in fedoras, and a New York policeman, of course. The Rivoli is long defunct, having succumbed to modern moviedom in 1984.

Last night was November 13, 2010. So it was Around the World in Eighty Days -- 53 years later. The movie has not held up. Nor did it have a chance in a kitchen with a humming refrigerator, the sounds of supper, and on a 26 inch television screen in lieu of that on which we first saw it: some 75 by 30 feet.

So, the memory of the “big ticket event” is cast in an odd mix of mental granite and smoke. The film was not nearly as good this time as the first time, nor was it likely very good then -- but that was long ago and far away -- and films seen in our distant past are often steeped in the magic of yesterdays.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day 2010


Veterans seemed omnipresent in my youth, in my teen years and well into my twenties and thirties. They are still among us but less in evidence, certainly less celebrated. As Rear Admiral Tarrant notably once said: “Where do we get such men?” The answer is as simple as it is complex: from our families, from those with whom we have worked and played, and from those with whom we may have served.

Veterans were my uncles: quiet men from Greenwich Village, Saugerties, and Catskill, who spent some time in the nineteen forties in North Africa, in Southern Italy and one of them -- just beyond the beach at Normandy in June 1944. (Gliders could land anywhere.)

Seven years after Al Stephenson, Fred Derry and Homer Parrish came home to Boone City after World War II, I went to work for a public utility in New York City as a messenger. After a year, I was moved to our IBM Tab Machine installation where I learned to operate the devices that preceded mainframe and personal computers (You often see Tab machines in forties movies showing FBI installations.)

I was trained by men some ten or more years older than I -- many were veterans of World War II. They had survived the war, some of them serving more than five years, where they helped save a nation at peril. (Arthur Hunt was a cook in the Ardennes when the Germans coveted Bastogne; Charlie Montag spent Easter Sunday 1945 off the coast of Okinawa.)

Most of these men came home unceremoniously, but at least, to a G.I. Bill that offered an education and the opportunity to buy modest homes on Long Island or other suburban areas. They were a good honest lot, with an occasional oddball. They were veterans.

Although I worked in Manhattan, I lived in the Bronx, the borough directly to the north. On evenings and weekends, I spent time at a lacklustre Bronx neighborhood bar – a poor American version of the Englishman’s local. A goodly number of its habitués were also veterans, who like those at work, had been similarly engaged during World War II. And they had formed a social group (The Mickey Jones Club) named after a neighborhood friend who had fallen in the Pacific. They were veterans.

In 1958 and 1959, because of the requirements of the Selective Service System, I found myself in Germany, a private in an Armor Group, a neophyte serving under men who had seen war in all its aspects.

Our Group Commander was Colonel Kane, a decorated hero of the Second World War. My section leader was Major Prichard -- who once whimsically reminisced that he had served under Patton in World War II and had, on occasion, told the General that he was going the wrong way.

Our officers were all armor men who had fought in World War II and in Korea and each had a subdued, fragmented tale to tell. S-3 was Operations. We had three captains: Leroy Lafayette Schaefer and two others. Sergeant First Class Campbell, my immediate superior, had been a prisoner of war in Germany. He told me of his experiences only once. These men, too, were veterans -- but still serving.

These warriors knew from reality and experience what we in the lower ranks knew only in the abstract, but could not truly comprehend. The situation is best summarized in the following, extracted from the American Cold War Veterans Internet site:

“No headlines, but just honest and faithful service — peacekeepers who stayed combat ready and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. NATO had 21 divisions facing 175 soviet and Warsaw Pact divisions in 1955. Our troops stayed on alert, with their basic load of ammunition ready for war. Those troops in the Fulda gap had no illusions about their role — they would buy time for a counterstrike if and when war began.”

Those at work, those in my family, those in that neighborhood bar, and those under whom I served in Germany are all gone now. But I will think about them for a while today on Veterans Day -- close to sixty nine years after Japanese squadrons flew from the west, the north and the east -- past Diamond Head -- on their way to Pearl Harbor.

Where did we get such men?

An afterthought:

The tone of this reverie reflects days past and conflicts fading from modern sensibility. Yet each new generation produces its own veterans who move into that brotherhood.


Artwork at the top is Barse Miller’s Waving Goodbye and Good Luck. Small town artwork is a Saugerties street (Partition at Montrose) by Edward Lazansky. Okinawa LST photograph is from The soldier in the Fulda Gap region is from the Blackhorse Trooper website. The famed return to Boone City still is etched in most of our memories.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Short Cuts 7: "Stranglers’ Day"

Short Cuts 7: "Stranglers’ Day" at Fox Movie Channel and Turner Classic Movies (Saturday, November 6, 2010)

Yesterday might have been billed as “Stranglers’ Day” on Fox Movie Channel and Turner Classic Movies as my wife and I first watched The Boston Strangler (again), followed by Dial M for Murder (yet again) and finally Marlon Brando in Lewis Milestone’s Mutiny on the Bounty (never again).

The first had an excellent underplayed performance by Tony Curtis, who oddly does not appear for almost the first hour of the film. It was shot using a plethora of those unusual two, three and four segment split screens, a vogue which was popular in the 1960s and which revisits us sporadically. The Boston Strangler was directed by Richard Fleischer -- rightfully known for his terrific The Narrow Margin. We had not seen The Boston Strangler in some time, but Mr. Curtis was fresh in mind and a phrase Matthew Coniam recently used lingered: “fine work, in a wearily frenetic movie.” Matthew’s comment certainly well describes Curtis’s portrayal as well as that first non-Curtisian hour.

The second film was Hitchcock, but not really Hitchcock, rather a filmed play, rich in color. Both Hitchcock and Truffaut virtually ignore it on the Hitchcock/Truffaut tapes. (See the Charlie Parker site on Hitchcock/Truffaut if you have some 25 hours to spare.) Dial M is not quite a strangle movie, but a beautiful neck does come into play (endangered twice as it turns out), as does a pair of scissors, a Scotland Yard inspector, and some endless business about latchkeys. Truffaut and Hitchcock did not much care for the “too colorful” Inspector – but then again, Hitchcock did not care for Kim Novak in Vertigo either. But my wife and I enjoyed Dial M again none-the-less.

Finally, came Marlon Brando strangling (both on screen and off, reportedly) the oxygen, the warm Tahitian air and the credibility out of a sure-fire property. (The film, at least, looks very good.) I never thought I would feel sorry for Captain Bligh, but soon into the first reel, I was hoping someone would keelhaul Brando somewhere off the Isle of Wight. Never have I appreciated Clark Gable more.

“Strangler’s Day.” Saturday afternoon and evening on Fox Movie Channel and Turner Classic Movies.

Dial M photo by Icône

Friday, November 5, 2010

Monday, November 1, 2010