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.

 

 

 

 

TAKE THIS JOB AND CAN IT!

And to think that you can turn on the television any hour of any day and find a politician railing against the outsourcing of these manufacturing jobs, as if this is any great loss at all. The outsourcing hasn’t gone nearly far enough if you ask me; we should be outsourcing these factories to the ninth circle of hell, outsourcing them into oblivion! It’s not work fit for a human being….  —Franklin Schneider

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If you think my last post featured jobs that stink — stink again. Franklin Schneider, author of CANNED (subtitled How I Lost Ten Jobs in Ten Years and Learned to Love Unemployment) has held every type of job — briefly. He’s detasseled corn in Iowa, served time at a doomed Internet start-up, and for one shining moment became the “Most Successful Telemarketer in America.” But his search for a fairly compensated, fulfilling position free of pointless drudgery taught him one thing: Such a job does not exist. And if it did, his boss would  probably be an a**hole [quoted from back cover].

CANNED is a book with an attitude you’ll probably either loathe or relate to. As I read it, I found myself doing a bit of both, because, although Schneider tells it like he sees it, I was left feeling — well, more or less like a combination of these reviews/reviewers:

“For the majority of you reading Canned, a feeling of contempt will wash over you toward the writer for exemplifying the worst in Americans. Others will read these words and show some form of remorse for the author and his ill-conceived notions as to what he is ‘entitled’ [collecting unemployment benefits while deliberately ducking work]. In either respect, I am sure that every one who is not a Marxist can agree, Franklin Schneider is the type of person this country can do without.” –Charles Signorile

“[It’s] a caustic celebration of the loser life, a ranting jeremiad against the working world and all its slavish pieties. It’s like watching Thoreau hand out tokens at the mall arcade, Melville grind his teeth in an Aeron chair at a media portal startup, or Bukowski lose his mind in an MCI telemarketing carrel: a twisted kind of fun.” –Tom Lutz

“Franklin Schneider’s writing is smart, energetic, funny, illuminating, outrageous, painful (in the best possible way), quirky, distinctive and wildly entertaining.” –Josh Emmons

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I view CANNED in the broader context of a roiling world of differing individuals, groups and classes who can’t put themselves in the other guy’s place, unable (or averse) to consider there may be a happier way to run a steamboat. The late comedienne Joan Rivers put it like this: “Can we talk?” The answer: Apparently not really (unless by “talk,” is meant moving our lips and making sounds). No wonder many of us just don’t “get it.” Sometimes it seems that only kids make allowances.

Like fellow lost-soul Schneider, I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was young. Unlike him, I wound up falling into a thirty year career with one company while I “found myself.” It was a career in which I take neither great pride nor lasting prejudice (in other words, I worked to live, not lived to work), from which I was able to retire early and end up doing what I came to want to do. Was it worth putting up with all the “slavish pieties” one must observe along the way? Given the cards we’re dealt, I never felt as if I had a choice.

It’s easy to envy those who have the good fortune to earn a living doing what they love to do, but even some of them go off the deep end, unable to cope. For the everyone else of us, Franklin Schneider cites this quote: This is how the hero of our time must be. He will be characterized either by decisive inaction, or else by futile activity.* Perhaps so. In any case, I rest his case.

*from A Hero of Our Time, by Mikhail Lermontov

P.S. And what was it “I came to want to do?” Well, since you asked:

http://www.gocomics.com/pearlsbeforeswine/2016/01/24

 

ME(ET) MR. RIGHT

To err is human, but it feels divine. –Mae West

To err is human – to blame it on a computer is even more so. –Robert Orben

To err is human; to blame someone else is politics. –Hubert Humphrey

To err is human, but when the eraser wears out before the pencil, you’re overdoing it. –-Josh Jenkins

I recently chanced upon a book titled BEING WRONG — which, of course, is a concept completely foreign to where I’m coming from (and I’m not even a politician) — but I decided to read the book anyway in the hope of learning why other people are so prone to being wrong.

It turns out that people are often wrong because they’re human….an attribute I was fairly certain that I possess (naturally, I can’t speak for some of the elephants and jackasses in Congress), so to be sure, I checked my birth certificate. Sure enough, “human” was written in the space after where it says “Genus” (or maybe it says “Genius” — the small print is hard to read). In any case, birth certificates don’t lie (I don’t care what Tea Party Republicans say). Make no mistake: mistermuse IS human — and possibly a genius as well, which could account for my never being wrong.

Now that that’s settled, let us turn to BEING WRONG, the book. Written by Kathryn Schulz, journalist, writer and “wrongologist,” this book should be required reading for anyone who thinks they’re always right, because (says Schulz) “the need to be always right simply keeps us from growing.” I can take that to heart (though my stomach may not be so easily deterred), and so can anyone at the point of “realizing halfway through an argument that you are mistaken, or halfway through a lifetime that you were wrong about your faith, your politics, yourself, your loved one, or your life’s work.”

But. of course, many people never (says I) “get” to that halfway point….and even if they do, refuse to admit — even to themselves — that they could be mistaken about anything (think Donald Trump, the poster child for this type, who, unlike yours truly, doesn’t have the excuse of being born a genius). You don’t really want to be like Donald Trump, do you? You do want much food for thought, don’t you? Then read this book….or at least, for starters, give its author a listen:

THE END
(but will it be the end, for long,
of my denying BEING RONG?)