LIKE WISE

Noble goal like chasing rainbow — beautiful while it lasts.

If the above quote sounds familiar, you have the memory of an elephant. It — the quote, not you or the elephant — appeared in my previous post as a Charlie Chanism which I made up after a trip to the latest local library book sale where my returns are becoming re-nowned and their books are becoming re-owned….and one of my new buys was titled CHARLIE CHAN — The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, by Yunte Huang.

If you’re an old movie buff like me, you’ve probably seen a number of 1930s-40s Charlie Chan films (based on the 1920-3os novels by Earl Derr Biggers) in which Charlie chanted such gems of wisdom as these:

Hasty deduction, like ancient egg, look good from outside.
Mind, like parachute, only function when open.
Trouble, like first love, teach many lessons.
Facts like photographic film — must be exposed before developing.
Advice after mistake like medicine after funeral.

You will find these, and many more, Chanisms in Appendix I of the book. But that’s just a bonus — the real story of this book is “The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective”…. a story I can’t tell you because either I would have to kill you (leaving no clues), or it would spoil the story and leave you without a motive to buy the book. But I will tell you that the fictional Honolulu detective Charlie Chan was based on real-life Honolulu detective Chang Apana, who was a character in his own right and whose career included jobs ranging from gardener to gumshoe. So get the book, plant yourself in your favorite chair, and enjoy the read.

Speaking of flowery characters, Earl Derr Biggers was no shrinking violet. Before turning novelist, Biggers (a Harvard grad)) was an outspoken newspaper columnist and drama critic. In one of his columns, he wrote of “a citizen of Mingo, Okla., [who] whipped out his trusty six-shooter the other day and shot the mustache off another citizen. We sincerely hope that the gentleman who lost the mustache appreciated the fact that he had a mighty close shave.” Shades of such baldfaced punsters as Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde and mistermuse! (The latter includes himself in such company on the grounds that the dead can’t object.)

But enough about me. Here’s Charlie!

 

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A LAUGH AND A SONG AND DANCE

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. –Sir Isaac Newton

Comedian Sid Caesar, in his autobiography, CAESAR’S HOURS, quotes the above and adds, “I too stand on the shoulders of giants. Nobody does anything alone.”

To me, to call Sid Caesar (born 9/8/22) a comedian is akin to calling Newton a physicist — accurate, yes, but hardly adequate. In a down-to-earth way, I might even say that what Newton was to gravity in the 1680s, Caesar was to levity in the 1950s. The bottom line is, I was in my teens then (the 1950s, not the 1680s), and still reasonably sentient at the time; thus I can bear witness to the comic genius that I, as a geezer, still see in Caesar.

And just who were those giants on whose shoulders Caesar stood? He tells us in his book: “I always wanted to be Charlie Chaplin. He was one of my earliest comedic heroes, along with Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and W.C. Fields. Most of their comedy came from their character. They each believed in what they did, and I believed them.”

Caesar was an up-and-coming comic performing mainly in the so-called Borscht Belt in New York’s Catskill Mountains when this opportunity arose in the infancy of network TV:

It was called YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS, and what an innovative show it was. It premiered live on 2/25/50 with writers like Mel Brooks, Max Liebman (who also produced) and (later) Woody Allen. Said Caesar: “For nine years, I presided over what was arguably the best collection of comedy writers ever assembled in the history of television, and possibly in the history of the written word — unless you think the U.S. Constitution is funny.”

Add co-stars Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris, and the show was both a commercial and artistic success from Hour One. Here, they show you why:

Again quoting Caesar: “Until that time, the only big things on television were bowling, wrestling and Charlie Chan. [Max Liebman] wasn’t interested in the American public’s lowest common denominator. He wasn’t going to dumb down. His goal was that the quality of the show would drive its popularity and ultimately elevate taste.”

As Charlie Chan might say: Noble goal like chasing rainbow — beautiful while it lasts.

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Originally, I came to this post with the idea of making it a birthday (9/8/1896) tribute to Howard Dietz, one of my favorite lyricists, whose autobiography (titled DANCING IN THE DARK) I also commend. Then I learned that Sept. 8 is the birthday of Sid Caesar as well as Howard Dietz, and I thought I GUESS I’LL HAVE TO CHANGE MY PLAN.

Hold on — it wouldn’t be right not to dance with the dude what brung me, so rather than ditch Dietz, I’ll sing his praises here too….starting with his first big hit (above), then an excerpt from early in the book, closing with a realization of the song which titles his story.

The following is quoted from the book’s forward by Alan Jay Lerner: As for that quality of life known as charm, I can only shrug sadly and chalk it up as another victim of that creeping nastiness called modern civilization. I think about the man whose reminiscences are contained in this book. They come to mind because of that special gift of charm that is so characteristic of his lyrics. Howard [Dietz]  is the Fred Astaire, the Chevalier, the Molnar, the Lubitsch of lyric writers.

Dancing in the dark
Till the tune ends
We’re dancing in the dark
And it soon ends
We’re waltzing in the wonder
Of why we’re here
Time hurries by we’re here
And gone

GANGSTER WRAP

I trust that you remember my March 30 post titled HOLLYWOOD, DEAD LEFT ON VINE. If not, maybe you could use a nudge from Police Lt. Frank Drebin to refresh your memory:

Maybe now you remember: my March 30 opus delicti distinguished between film noir (theme of that post) and gangster movies (this post’s theme), while allowing for crossover in films like WHITE HEAT (classified as film noir in one book, and gangster film in another). To anyone not ‘into’ such films, these thorny details may strike one as nothing more than a distinction without a difference….but I’ll assume you aren’t “anyone,” because I’ve got a job to pull — I mean, a post to write — and the subject ain’t roses.

That’s odd. I could have sworn the subject was not roses.

Wait a shrouded minute! Now I remember — the subject was supposed to be gangster movies. My bad. Sorry for the hold up.

In the introduction to his book CLASSIC GANGSTER FILMS, by (appropriately enough) Robert Bookbinder, he writes: “The gangster film has always been one of the staples of the American cinema. Though there were several motion pictures with a gangster theme produced as far back as the silent era, the genre did not really begin to flourish until the thirties, when it reigned throughout the decade as one of the public’s favorite kinds of “escapist” entertainment. Depression-era audiences responded strongly to all the action, violence and romance, and were more than willing to get caught up in the on-screen exploits of Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. In a sense, the movie gangster, with his rebellious breaking of society’s rules and regulations, and his aggressive drive to “get somewhere” regardless of consequences, became something of a hero to filmgoers of the period.”

It is worth noting that, although the gangster film by no means passed completely out of the picture, its most productive period (1930 to 1941-42) led to the era of classic film noir (1941-59)….which began with THE (never-surpassed) MALTESE FALCON. The above three stars were equally without rival in both genres.

Bookbinder’s book binds together the above transition, providing a fascinating look back at 45 gangster films (several overlapping into film noir), complete with credits, cast, commentary, photos and synopsis for each film, ranging from LITTLE CAESAR in 1930 to BONNIE AND CLYDE in 1967 and THE BROTHERHOOD in 1969. Of the latter, Bookbinder states: “It was not especially successful, and it has been almost completely overshadowed in film history by the more expensive and elaborate Godfather films of the early seventies. The picture deserves a better fate….what a truly entertaining gem it is.”

Now, I will admit that, in general, I am not as big a fan of gangster films as I am of film noir. I have an affinity for the more tangled and convoluted plots (in most cases) of the latter, compared to the more macho and less sophisticated gangster films….but then, “sophisticated” is not a term one normally associates with gangsters — so, by Sam, let’s call a spade a Spade. It’s not a bum rap.

But there is one bailiwick in which gangster films win hands down — I mean, hands up! (ha ha) — and that is in gangster film spoofs such as the all-time classic, SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), which lost out to (would you believe?) BEN-HUR in practically every Academy Award category for that year. Oh, well — nobody’s perfect. 😦

And that’s a wrap.

 

 

HOLLYWOOD, DEAD LEFT ON VINE*

The film noir of the classic period (1941-59) is normally associated with the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood and its aftermath. In truth, the creative impetus for its most influential literary content dates back a full century.
In April 1841, Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia published the first detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe and thus, mystery fiction was born. –
-Lawrence Bassoff, CRIME SCENES

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In my 11/30/16 post titled BOOKS RIGHT DOWN MY ALLEY, I wrote of finding a large cache of old movie books at a local library’s used book sale. One of those books was CRIME SCENES (subtitled Movie Poster Art of the Film Noir), from which the above quote is taken. How could I resist buying such a book, given that Film Noir has long been one of my favorite film genres, which includes such classics as THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), MURDER MY SWEET (1943), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), LAURA (1944), THE BIG SLEEP (1946), SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951). The introduction states it “is the first genre retrospective collection of movie poster art on the topic ever published in book form.”

Bassoff writes that in the summer of 1946, ten American films whose French releases had been blocked by WW II (including the first five of the above) arrived in Paris theaters to be viewed by “new product-starved French filmgoers”….films based on American novels the French called “Serie Noire” by such authors as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The term “film noir” (first attributed to Frenchman Nino Frank in 1946) literally means “black film” for the “often low key, black and white visual style of the films themselves.”

And what great films they are! Even after having seen some of these films more than once, I could return to the scene of the crime once again;  no doubt you could too — assuming you’re a film noir buff, which it would be a crime if you’re not. The test? Can you name at least half of the directors and stars of the above films? Answers (directors in CAPS):

THE MALTESE FALCON — JOHN HUSTON (making his directorial debut), Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet
MURDER MY SWEET — EDWARD DYMTRYK, Dick Powell
DOUBLE INDEMNITY — BILLY WILDER, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
LAURA — OTTO PREMINGER, Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price
THE BIG SLEEP — HOWARD HAWKS, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall
SUNSET BOULEVARD — BILLY WILDER, William Holden, Gloria Swanson
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN — ALFRED HITCHCOCK, Farley Granger, Robert Walker

Moving on: if Basssoff’s book were not confined to Hollywood film noir, no such list would be complete without THE THIRD MAN (1949), a British-made classic directed by Carol Reed, starring Orson Wells and Joseph Cotton. And of course there are many other Hollywood tour de force classics worthy of being kept alive, including such killer-dillers as:

WHITE HEAT is considered by some to be in the gangster film realm rather than film noir, but there’s no law against crossover — in fact, WHITE HEAT is classified as film noir in CRIME SCENES and gangster film in CLASSIC GANGSTER FILMS (the latter being another used book sale find, which I may review in a future post). Meanwhile, I highly recommend the former — as Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) said of the bogus Maltese Falcon: It’s “the stuff dreams are made of.” And nightmares.

*HOLLYWOOD, DEAD LEFT ON VINE is a play on the famous intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. I heard on the grapevine that the site was a ranch, and then a lemon grove, until 1903.

20161005_Hollywood_and_Vine_historical_marker

 

GROUCHO AND M(US)E

Although it is generally known, I think it’s about time to announce that I was born at a very early age. –Groucho Marx, Chapter I, GROUCHO AND ME

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As long-time readers of my blog know, I’m a big fan of Groucho Marx/The Marx Brothers, so it should come as no surprise that one of the first books I read from my used book sale haul (see previous post) was Groucho’s autobiography, GROUCHO AND ME. And who, you ask, is the ME in that title? (Hint: it’s not me).  It’s none other (says the back cover) than “a comparatively unknown Marx named Julius, who, under the nom de plume of Groucho, enjoyed a sensational career on Broadway and in Hollywood with such comedy classics as Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup [and] A Night at the Opera.”

Julius Groucho Marx (1895-1977) wasn’t just a comedian — he was a wit who appreciated wit in others and “Gratefully Dedicated This Book To These Six Masters Without Whose Wise and Witty Words My Life Would Have Been Even Duller: Robert Benchley / George S. Kaufman / Ring Lardner / S. J. Perelman / James Thurber / E. B. White.”

I already owned several Marx Brothers books (written by others) and had at least a whit of an impression of Groucho’s résumé before sinking my teeth into this book….but there’s nothing like an autobio for getting it straight from the Horse’s mouth (Feathers and all). At least, that’s what I thought until I got to page 11, where Groucho wrote:

“This opus started out as an autobiography, but before I was aware of it, I realized it would be nothing of the kind. It is almost impossible to write a truthful autobiography. Maybe Proust, Gide and a few others did it, but most autobiographies take good care to conceal the author from the public.”

Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. This is a different kettle of soup. You pay coal hard cash for an autobiography, and what do you get? A bit of Cash back, another day older and deeper in debt.

Well, two can play that game. This opus began as a book review of GROUCHO AND ME, but Groucho’s bait-and-switch gives me no choice but to turn it into a GROUCHO AND me thing (sorry, readers, no refunds) by invoking the Sanity Clause in my contract….

As I started to say before me was so rudely interrupted, you will have to be satisfied with some suitable quotes from Groucho’s book, which left me in stitches:

My Pop was a tailor, and sometimes he made as much as $18 a week. But he was no ordinary tailor. His record as the most inept tailor that Yorkville ever produced has never been approached. This could even include parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx. The notion that Pop was a tailor was an opinion held only by him. To his customers he was known as “Misfit Sam.”

They say that every man has a book in him. This is about as accurate as most generalizations. Take, for example, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man you-know-what.” Most wealthy people I know like to sleep late, and will fire the help if they are disturbed before three in the afternoon. You don’t see Marilyn Monroe getting up at six in the morning. The truth is, I don’t see Marilyn getting up at any hour, more’s the pity.

Recognition didn’t come overnight in the old days. We bounced around for many years before we made it. We played towns I would refuse to be buried in today, even if the funeral were free and they tossed in a tombstone.

After we hit the big time on Broadway, naturally our lives changed. Each member of the family reacted differently. Chico stopped going to poolrooms and started to patronize the more prosperous race tracks. After he got through with them, they were even more prosperous. Zeppo bought a forty-foot cruiser and tore up Long Island Sound as though to the manner born. Harpo, a shy and silent fellow, was taken up by the Algonquin crowd, at that time probably the most famous and brilliant conversational group in America. The quips flew thick, fast and deadly, and God help you if you were a dullard!

I am not sure how I got to be a comedian or a comic. As a lad, I don’t remember knocking anyone over with my wit. I’m a pretty wary fellow, and have neither the desire nor the equipment to know what makes one man funny to another man. My guess is that there aren’t a hundred top-flight professional comedians, male and female, in the whole world. But because we are laughed at, I don’t think people really understand how essential we are to their sanity. If it weren’t for the brief respite we give the world with our foolishness, the world would see mass suicide in numbers that compare with the death rate of the lemmings.

And so ( just between Groucho and us) it seems that there is a Sanity Clause after all. 🙂

 

 

 

 

DO IT…BUY THE BOOK

Among the books I’ve owned for some time and not found time (until now) to read is one which convincingly illuminates how America has evolved (some might say retrogressed, in the case of our politicians) over the years.

When I say “evolved,” most people (at least, those who don’t regard it as a dirty word) think of it in the Darwinian sense as gradual development from primitive to more adaptive or advanced stages….as, to take a human example, from very brutish to veddy British — or, from restive barbarians to festive Bavarians. But one would have to be blind not to see that human evolution isn’t a straight forward, rising-tide-lifts-all-boats proposition. In other words, what you sea is what you get (even my puns have their ups and downs).

Then there’s the history of rights withheld, an early example being what American colonists determined to address. The British, loathe to let go, weren’t there yet…and neither are many of us there yet when it comes to the rights of others — speaking of which (for illustrative purposes), here’s a clip with reference to California’s 2008 ballot Proposition 8 denying same-sex couples the right to marry (an issue of no concern to me whatsoever except as it pertains to ‘affairs’ which some people — especially religious conservatives — can’t bear the thought of, even though it’s no skin off their nose):

Coincidentally, 2008 is the same year the book I referred to at the start (THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON by Susan Jacoby) was published. Here is a review of that book:

http://www.dialoginternational.com/dialog_international/2008/05/i-admired-susan.html

Though I’m in tune with that review for the most part, I take issue with the reviewer’s belief that “Jacoby is overestimating the role of religion in America in the decline of Enlightenment rationalism.” Furthermore, the reviewer states that “the number of true fundamentalists is probably not that significant: she [Jacoby] conflates fundamentalism with evangelism” — a contention which leads me to question whether the reviewer did more than skim through Chapter 8 (THE NEW OLD-TIME RELIGION), which takes pains to differentiate between the two — including such distinctions as The main difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals….is that not all evangelicals regard the Bible as literally true but all fundamentalists do. That chapter, detailing the role of evangelism and fundamentalism in America past and present, is alone worth the price of erudition….eminently readable erudition, I might add.

If you want to add to your understanding of the forces and factors that have created THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON, do it….buy the book.

 

 

TRIBES AND TRIBULATIONS

tribal, adj. Of the nature of, or relating to, a tribe.
tribe, n. 1. A unit of sociopolitical organization. 2. A political, ethnic, or ancestral division of ancient states and cultures [such as] a. the three divisions of the ancient Romans. b. the 12 divisions of ancient Israel.
–Webster’s New College Dictionary

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If anything seems clear from the seemingly endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, it is that tribalism and religion are at the heart of the madness. This is not to suggest that tribalism is confined to the Middle East (far from it), or that other forces haven’t played a part. But buried beneath the overlay of foreign intervention in the region (or meddling, if you prefer) are roots with a “history as old or nearly so as that of humanity itself” –Edward O. Wilson, biologist, naturalist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.

In his book THE MEANING OF HUMAN EXISTENCE, Wilson posits that tribalism and religion are inextricably bound together by what he calls “the instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity. People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular.” In a chapter titled simply “RELIGION,” Wilson states:

The great religions are inspired by belief in an incorruptible deity–or multiple deities. Their priests bring solemnity to rites of passage through the cycle of life and death. They sacralize basic tenets of civil and moral law, comfort the afflicted, and take care of the desperately poor. Followers strive to be righteous in the sight of man and God. The churches are centers of community life [and] ultimate refuges against the inequities and tragedies of secular life. They and their ministers make more bearable tyranny, war, starvation, and the worst of natural catastrophes.
The great religions are also, and tragically, sources of ceaseless and unnecessary suffering. They are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world. Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism. It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things.
Unfortunately, a religious group defines itself foremost by its creation myths, the supernatural narrative that explains how humans came into existence. This story is also the heart of tribalism. No matter how subtly explained, the core belief assures its members that God favors them above all others. It teaches that members of other religions worship the wrong gods, use wrong rituals, follow false prophets….

Food for thought — but thought that leaves questions to chew on: if “love makes fools of us all” (to quote Thackeray), does it follow that tribalism makes blind fools of us all? Are we unwitting tribalists to the siren song of political/religious saviors, some of us to the extent of becoming tribal or religious fanatics? Are tribal/religious fanatics born or made (nature vs. nurture)? And, given that all religions are invented by man, does that entitle Wilson to tar them all with the same brush?

For example, Wilson regards it as a mistake to fold believers of particular religious and dogmatic ideologies into two piles (moderate versus extremist), because “The true cause of hatred and violence is faith versus faith, an outward expression of the ancient instinct of tribalism.”  While that may be true, I question the notion that all religions/tribes wash out equally. For example, in pre-colonial times in North America, there were both peaceful and warlike Native American tribes. And so it is elsewhere. Aren’t secular humanists equally guilty of bad faith who don’t recognize/won’t separate the wheat from the chaff/laissez-faire from doctrinaire? Who and what have incited and fed religious wars and persecutions throughout history? It’s not the likes of the Quakers, nor is it directives from the heavens.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.