Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas by Jimmy Cannon

There was a game the man played with himself Christmas week a year ago in the visitor's room on that floor of the hospital which looked down on the city, southward across Central Park. The man's right eye was infected and he couldn't read or watch television for two months. His vision was obscured by the medication the nurses dropped into his eye every hour around the clock. The sedatives handled most of the pain but not all of it.

So at dusk, led there by boredom, the man would go to the visitor's room. He closed both his eyes and then, slowly, opened the bad one. It was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.

The lights of the city ran together, in a furry confusion. They didn't collide or sparkle but blended together in a glowing softness. The lights of the city were more like the petals of flowers strewn across the night which seemed to be made of silk. The colors of the night seemed to be dye that had flowed from a child's dream of Christmas.

The buildings lost their shape. They rippled and bulged, like a happy fat man's vest billowing with laughter. The sky was tender above them, more like a luminous moon-dappled sea. The stars lost their hard gleam. They shone, marvelously distorted, in fuzzy bursts, as though they were diamonds that had exploded into fluff. The moon melted into a wide bloated caricature of a man in the sky.

After a while the man strolled to the night nurse's desk to chat. They had sent most of the patients in the children's room home for Christmas. The ward was shut down. Three of the children had been brought to the floor where the man was to spend Christmas. One was Penelope.

There stood Penelope small and sedate in her maroon bathrobe. There she was, imbedded in her silence, proudly inquisitive, a child with russet hair, primly defiant. She came onto this floor of sick adults as an equal. Penelope was too stern, too poised, too serene for childhood.

This is Penelope, the nurse explained to the man, she is a little lady. She was, the nurse said, the perfect patient who had become accustomed to the routine of hospitals. It seemed logical for her to be there at Christmas time. The man thought it must be terrible for a child who has been in hospitals so much that she does not find them strange. The other children cried, the nurse said, but Penelope was brave and dignified and not even afraid of needles.

The flattery did not touch Penelope. She examined the man with a decent inquisitiveness. The dark glasses and his heavy beard did not startle her. In her childhood, spent in so many hospitals, all men had defects. No one was whole, only the doctors and the nurses. Penelope had a cleft palate. There had been a series of operations. One of the great surgeons had become interested in her case. It was slow but Penelope had been educated to wait.

Penelope, the nurse said with a sorrow that wasn't professional, refused to talk. The ridicule of other children had shut her up. The crippled voice had been imitated by bantering playmates. So Penelope spoke to no one.

The man, who is a bachelor, is clumsy with children. Always he has been an alien among them. They make him a stranger and he is uncomfortable in their presence. But this pretty child was not one of them but a tiny adult, experienced in pain and humility. The man leaned down and attempted to be casual.

My name is Jimmy, the man said. You're Penelope, aren't you? The blue eyes, clear and interested, were blank in their beauty. So the man asked about her dolls and her story books. He wanted to know what she wanted for Christmas. There was no reply, only that somberly interested look ...

He was dozing when the nurse knocked. With her was Penelope who held a picture book in one hand. The nurse said Penelope had been found wandering in the corridors, tapping on doors and calling the man's name in her tortured voice. It was, the nurse said, the first time she had heard the child speak.

The nurse left. The man, who finds all children strangers, sat on the bed and Penelope pretended to read from the book. The man will never forget that voice, struggling and grotesque, and he was very close to weeping. After that Penelope came every day and read to him. But she would not utter a sound if there was any one else in the room.

They spent part of Christmas together in his room. The man is everlastingly grateful to her. She gave him the most precious of all gifts when she allowed him to reach her. Never before had he felt the true meaning of this day until he heard Penelope say Merry Christmas.

Note: This tale appeared in a collection of articles by Jimmy Cannon in “Who Struck John?” Dial Press, 1956.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Ten random thoughts on the twentieth

--- When it comes to the sisters Bennett, I am in the Joan column.

--- Robert Ryan confronting the soldier in the bar in Odds Against Tomorrow is about as scary (and satisfying) as it gets.

--- Holmesian acquaintances wince when I tell them my favorite Sherlock Holmes on film is Robert Stephens in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

--- Rather than his directorial efforts, I prefer Martin Scorsese’s work as film enthusiast, preservationist, historian, and keeper of the flame.

--- I am investigating to find out if Dangerous Crossing with Jeanne Crain has been shown on Fox Movie Channel more times than Cunard’s original Queen Mary crossed the Atlantic.

--- Wandering around Leicester Square some years back, I heard an irate, thirtyish American wife raging at her husband “We did not travel to England to go to the movies.”

--- While my wife and I watched The Keys of the Kingdom last week, I thought of an English film critic, when reviewing a new film, stating that he could feel his fingernails growing.

--- Billy Wilder is my favorite (émigré) American director, but his delirium tremens scene in The Lost Weekend pales compared to that in Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge.

--- Where Danger Lives has astutely commented that Ella Raines’s beauty was rarely captured on film posters -- and it appears to me somewhat the same with her publicity stills.

--- Just once have I been the only person in a theatre -- a noon showing of the fiftieth anniversary edition of Casablanca at a downtown New York theatre toward the end of the run.

Note: “Random thoughts” pieces bring to mind the great Jimmy Cannon, whose “Nobody Asked Me, But” set the form. Any similarity stops there.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Patti LuPone, Steven Sondheim and Susan from Seattle

Once upon a time, my wife and I were acquired by Susan from Seattle in a legal matter resolved in a different galaxy in a bygone era. Susan is fond of saying that my wife and I “were part of the settlement.” But that is a tale best left for another day.

Before Seattle, Susan had lived in a diverse series of locations from the coal regions of Wilkes Barre (where we met), to Houston, to places certainly made no brighter by her departure. In recent times she has settled in Seattle.

Susan is a woman of exquisite taste, both in food and in wine. She has a curious mind, an appreciation of special films, good books and beguiling music. She is longtime aficionado of Steven Sondheim, and a fervent admirer of Patti LuPone (as are legions of others). Susan is currently relishing a passion for Mr. Sondheim's and James Lapine's Passion, with Donna Murphy.

The King’s spies being everywhere, I recently learned that, in distant Seattle, Susan has new Internet capabilities installed at her home. So it occurred to me to brighten her Sunday morning with an image that would please -- and which might lead her down whichever meandering path she chooses to follow today in her new environment.

Into the woods,
It's time to go,
I hate to leave,
I have to, though.
Into the woods --
It's time, and so
I must begin my journey.
Into the woods.

(Lyrics, of course, by Mr. Sondheim -- and they have been known to be used as a header phrase for the slumbering Poconotions.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Like Unto 14

Gladys Cooper

Elisabeth Risdon

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Film Makers 6: Louis B. Mayer

Louis B. Mayer’s puritanical streak manifested itself in many aspects of his personal life and in the nature of his films at MGM. Scott Eyman in his Lion of Hollywood: the Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer uses a well-known comment to describe how L.B. reconciled his moral code with the flamboyant sexual conduct of some of his early stars. John Gilbert was a notorious womanizer; William Haines liked men and boys.

Eyman tells us: "Mayer’s feelings about sex were similar to those of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who made the famous remark about not caring what people did -- as long as they 'didn’t scare the horses'.”

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ten random thoughts on the tenth

--- I am frequently torn between my adoration of Julie Harris and my disregard of James Dean -- because of the conundrum of Julie having a high regard for Dean’s work.

--- I would relish an article on how the Turner Classic Movies monthly schedule is constructed. From one who knows. What is included? Which films play when and why?

--- Neither my wife nor I are overly committed fans of Olivia de Havilland, but every time The Heiress is televised (TCM this past Wednesday) we are hooked. Richardson is glorious; the property is foolproof. And Olivia is excellent.

--- It seems many of our female bloggers (particularly the younger) are partial to the suave: e.g., Franchot Tone, William Powell, and Warren William. Might this have to do with the look and style of the younger males to whom these bloggers come into everyday contact?

--- Finished reading Todd McCarthy’s Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. A very good book, which understandably seems to tail off as the author discusses Hawks’s later work.

--- My wife and I watched Ruth Chattterton in Female and spent the better part discussing who might have been a more appropriate lead (ignoring studio restrictions): Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell or Mary Astor?

--- How good was Virginia Weidler? Very. She seems to be omnipresent on Turner Classic Movies lately.

--- My wife and I finished watching the complete series of The Wire together (it took us about two months for the sixty episodes). It was her first viewing -- my fourth or fifth. She was taken with it.

--- Because it appears on television with some regularity, we watched a bit of Three Came Home again. It is a decent film with an aging star, later in her career, but it has such a cramped look. I know it is prison based -- but?

--- The anniversary of the shooting of John Lennon seems to have received much more Internet and television coverage this week than the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Note: “Random thoughts” pieces bring to mind the great Jimmy Cannon, whose “Nobody Asked Me, But” set the form. Any similarity stops there.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Pearl Harbor

December 7, 1941

“We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this important bulletin from the United Press. Flash. Washington. The White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor …”

Pearl Harbor: The War Against Mrs. Hadley

Mrs. Stella Livingstone Hadley, a well-to-do Washington widow, was celebrating her birthday on Sunday, December 7, 1941. An unwelcome singing telegram started the festivities, her birthday cake told us the date; the radio brought her birthday gathering news of the attack. And her children, household staff, social circle and world were never again the same.

The War intruded on Mrs. Hadley’s life. It started with a broken teacup and culminated with a son in battle. She resisted and resented, but she ultimately repented. Without benefit of nocturnal ghostly visits, this somewhat softened stylish harridan has her moment of truth, sees the light and joins the war effort.

She is finally drawn to the cause by her unselfish children, her patriotic household staff and the firm patient goodness of Elliott Fulton, a long time ex-suitor played by Edward Arnold. Spring Byington, Connie Gilchrist and Sara Allgood ably support the conversion. Fay Bainter is Stella Hadley.

Pearl Harbor: Fay Okell Bainter Venable

Andrew Sarris has reflected on parallels between actors and the roles they play. Consider Fay Bainter in 1943, playing Stella Hadley living in 1941. Consider Fay Bainter playing the birthday scene when the radio brings news of war. If ever an actress lived a flashback, such a stage was set. Remembrance would have been inevitable. Less than two years had passed since Pearl Harbor, and she was of a generation which carried memories of that day to their graves.

Remember the day. Fay Bainter was likely in California. It was her birthday as well as Mrs. Hadley's, so there was probably a cake in the wings. Was there a calendar on the wall? There was certainly a radio: and then the broadcast. Her husband was Navy, so the family would know a bit about our Naval Station in Hawaii. Pearl Harbor. December 7, 1941. Nothing would be quite the same thereafter: for Fay Bainter Venable, for Mrs. Stella Hadley or for the better part of one hundred and thirty three million Americans.

An afterword

Fay Bainter’s career lasted into 1961 with her role in The Children’s Hour, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. Fay Bainter Venable died in April 1968. She rests at Arlington National Cemetery with her husband.


The calendar is reproduced from the C.E. Daniel Collection

The broadcast text is that heard in New York on WOR at approximately 2:26 p.m., interrupting a football game. It is not the broadcast used in The War Against Mrs. Hadley.

An earlier version of this posting appeared on this site in January 2010 as Once Young 1.

Laura reviewed this film at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings on January 21, 2008.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Celebrating Julie Harris at 85 (Voices redux)

Some people hear voices when no one is there. In April 1972, I saw Voices, and there was certainly someone there: Julie Harris. The play ran for only eight performances at The Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. It was poorly reviewed but I enjoyed it.

The primary characters are a troubled couple caught in an old dark house trapped by a snowstorm. They hear voices, a ball bounces down a stairway, and ghosts may or may not be in attendance. I recall a plot twist at play’s end indicating that the two are actually the ghosts, having been killed in an automobile accident prior to their appearance at the house. Modern day summaries on theatre websites indicate otherwise.

Voices featured Julie Harris, a national treasure, and Richard Kiley some seven years after his success in jousting at Broadway windmills.

As to Julie Harris, I was enthralled. I could watch her play cards for three hours -- which I did some 25 years later in the Broadway revival of The Gin Game. As to Richard Kiley, windmills to the contrary notwithstanding, I carried a grudge. I could never, ever, forgive him for killing Moe in Pickup on South Street. Being a communist? Yes. Killing Moe? No.

But there is an epilogue to this story of Voices. One Miss Lisa Essary appeared as a child in the play. She was the stepdaughter of Mafia gangster Joey Gallo. After the April 6 performance, a Gallo entourage collected Lisa at the theatre, celebrated at the Copacabana, and in the wee hours of morning, went to Umberto’s Clam House for a repast. They were joined after a while by a group of assassins from a rival Mafia gang with weapons drawn. Some twenty shots were fired, and Joey Gallo’s life and celebrity ended under a restaurant table. It is said that revenge is a dish best served cold.

Young Lisa Essary and her newly widowed mother survived. It was the morning of April 7. After the April 8 performance, Voices closed. As far as I know, the play’s demise was not related to that of Mr. Gallo’s.

Voices. Voices and ghosts. Some from a stage, some from a restaurant in Little Italy, all from long ago.

Julie is at Cape Cod these days, but Richard Kiley died in 1999. Ms. Lisa Essary is a successful casting director.

An afterword: This, first posted in January 2010, is reissued in commemoration of Julie Harris's 85th birthday.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Miss Otis Regrets 6

She's unable to lunch today ...