Friday November 27, 2020
Movie Review: Never Steal Anything Small (1959)
“Never Steal Anything Small” is a musical that feels ashamed to be a musical. We’re meeting Linda Cabot (Shirley Jones) for the first time, about 25 minutes in, and suddenly she starts singing. And it throws us. Oh, right, this is a musical. It’s the first song we’ve heard since the opening chorus.
How many songs do we hear overall? Five maybe? Many are consumerist. Jones’ first song is all about clothes (“I Haven’t Got a Thing to Wear”), “I’m Sorry, I want a Ferrari” takes place in a car showroom, while “It Takes Love to Make a Home” is a TV commercial for a cleaning product called “Love.” “Thing to Wear” is the cutest, “Ferrari” the most memorable, “Love” the missed opportunity. It’s supposed to satirize commercial jingles but doesn’t dig deep enough. It’s not jingly, either.
Despite all this, “Never Steal Anything Small” almost has a chance. It’s about a Damon Runyonesque figure, Jake MacIllaney (James Cagney), who runs for president of his union local, wins, then keeps the machinations going to rise further. That could’ve worked. He’s a charming scoundrel. But he goes a machination too far. He not only tries to pin his own graft on his naïve lawyer, Dan Cabot (Roger Smith, whom Cagney discovered while on vacation in Hawaii), he breaks up Cabot and his wife, too. At first I thought it was because Linda wanted Dan to steer clear of Jake, so Jake needs her out of the picture—but that’s not it. He wants Linda for himself.
Keep in mind: At the time of filming, Jones was an unblemished 23 while Cagney was a craggy 58. It’s kinda creepy.
Addressed as sir
The movie opens with Cagney at a piano, talk-singing to the camera, about advice his father gave him to never steal anything … never steal anything … small. It’s not bad. Even better, we get these lines, which probably ring truer during the Trump years than they did in the Eisenhower era:
Steal 100 dollars and they put you in stir
Steal 100 million they address you as “sir”
I liked all of this. I liked that the opening title card alludes to Cagney’s breakthrough picture a quarter-century earlier: “This picture is sympathetically dedicated to labor and its problems in coping with a new and merry type of public enemy … the charming, well-dressed gentleman who cons his way to a union throne.” Then we get a speech by Cagney on the waterfront. And it really is the waterfront. A lot of the movie was shot on location in New York City—this scene was apparently at the Fulton Street pier in lower Manhattan—and it’s so great to be outdoors in a real place with Cagney it makes you wonder what we missed with all those ’30s Cagney flicks shot in the studio.
“Anything Small” is basically a series of problems Jake solves, only to have the solution lead to another problem. At Union Local 26, he’s running against longtime president O.K. Merritt (Horace McMahon) but needs money to win. That’s the problem. So he and his boys shake down “Sleep-Out” Charlie (Jack Albertson), a penny-pinching loan shark, to get the dough. That’s the solution. Except Sleep-Out rats on him and Jake is arrested. Problem. So he gets Sleep-Out’s girlfriend to slip him a mickey and Sleep-Out wakes up in a (fake) iron lung while a (fake) doctor tells him he should go to Yuma, Ariz. for his health. And there goes that problem. Amid some strongarming, Jake then wins the election and takes over the local.
Except he finds out his newbie lawyer, Dan, is dropping him as a client because his wife objects, which means the Sleep-Out case may be delayed, which means Sleep-Out might be back in time for it. Can’t have that. So he goes to see Dan but instead finds his charming wife singing “I Haven’t Got a Thing to Wear,” and he falls for her. Now his machinations are two-fold: wooing Dan back with a big office, which takes care of the Sleep-Out case; and equipping the big office with a hot, well-appointed secretary, Winnipeg Simmons (Cara Williams), who, on instructions from Jake, seduces Dan. Which takes care of the Cabot marriage, allowing Jake to move in.
The rest of the movie is this bifurcated plotline: How to rise in the ranks while winning over Linda. Early on, he tells Winnipeg: “I like to scheme. I get a boot out of a nice, sharp scheme.” I admit: The stuff with the union, where his opponents are other sharpies, grifters, and mob bosses, is fun. But the other storyline? Just awkward. Creepy. Plus, why is Linda amenable to him? She didn’t want Dan representing him but she’ll consider dating him? No logic there.
I might have swallowed some of this if Cagney weren’t so much older than Jones—and obviously older rather than, say, “Cary Grant older.” But this is how apparent their age difference is: The movie acknowledges it. Yes. Even though older men with younger women is generally treated as normal in the movie, in this one Jake raises the issue: “Maybe age doesn’t make as much difference as you think,” he tells Linda over coffee. “Elderly guys and young gals—getting to be quite the fashion.” Truer words were never said in Hollywood.
As for Dan? Too much of a patsy to be interesting. He not only loses his beautiful wife, he allows Jake to use his name on some local larceny. As a result, when Jake runs against mob boss Pinelli (an excellent Nehemiah Persoff) to take over United Stevedores, and Pinelli alerts the cops to Jake’s graft, Jake simply points the finger at Dan, whose name is on everything. Interestingly, it’s the same scam played on Cagney’s character, Biff, in “The Strawberry Blonde” 20 years earlier. Maybe that’s where Jake gets his schemes—watching old Cagney flicks.
Put in stir
For a movie about a corrupt union man, there’s a real knowledge and pride in union history. While trying to woo Linda, for example, Jake says the world isn’t a garden but a jungle, where the winner is always right, and without unions “the jungle could be a whole lot crueler.” He ticks off past union heroes—Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis, Dubinsky, Meany and Reuther—and the assumption is the audience knows who most of them are. Love that. Different world.
I also like the twist at the end. Jake fingers Dan, who’s carted away by the cops, and Linda pleads for Dan’s sake. She asks Jake to take the rap for his own crimes. She says she’ll do anything Jake asks—even marry him. “You’d go that far just to keep that square out of the can?” he asks. He seems both incredulous and pissed off. Then he works himself into a lather talking up how Dan will have it made when he gets out. “He can go into union politics. When the story gets out, the member will think he stole all that money for them—for their clubhouse and their benefits. He’ll be a real vote-getter in the unions, all the unions. A very popular figure.” That’s when the light bulb goes on. “Yeah. Why should he be the popular figure?” And he does what Linda wants. Without the marriage. Or the anything.
It is a bit ridiculous that Dan is still Jake’s attorney during the final trial. One, why would Dan bother to help him? Two, can you actually represent someone whose confession to a crime got you off the hook? Either way, after the guilty verdict, Jake plants a big kiss on Linda’s lips and then happily goes to the stir—with the foreknowledge that when he gets out he’ll be running it all. It’s another ’50s movie that has to make Cagney the hero, or anti-hero, when he’s really the villain. Cf., “Love Me or Leave Me.”
“Never Steal Anything Small” was written and directed by Charles Lederer, who is mostly a writer (“His Girl Friday,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”) and rarely a director (this is his third, last and best-known). He adapted it from an unproduced play, “The Devil’s Hornpipe,” by Maxwell Anderson and Rouben Mamoulian—which apparently wasn’t a musical, although Anderson and Allie Wrubel (“Song of the South”) wound up writing 13 songs for it. Only a handful made it in. Then they kept tinkering. I guess previews were bad? The movie was filmed between October 1957 and January 1958 but not released until March 1959.
It was supposed to be a big deal. In July 1956, The New York Times wrote about it under the headline UNIVERSAL PLANS ‘BIG’ MUSICAL FILM, and in the first graph we get an unattributed insider quote saying it will be “one of the biggest pictures ever made.”
It wasn’t, but it almost had a chance.
Thursday November 26, 2020
I meant to post these two weeks ago but I've been busy with work and besides awful Republicans kept making me feel less than celebratory. But today, Thanksgiving Day, seems perfect for it. They're all tweets from Sat. Nov, 7, the day everyone but Trump and the GOP acknowledged Joe Biden won the 2020 election and will become the 46th president of the United States.
This one made me smile. Out of the chalk of babes.
Laughed out loud here:
Finally, good fucking riddance:
People keep talking about what this year has been like. They keep coming up with metaphors. To me, 2020 reminds me of a Ricky Gervais BBC comedy. We get two years of horror at the smallness of humanity; and then, for a holiday special, he gives us a happy ending—like a cherry on top of a shit sundae. That's this year. Trump and Covid are the shit, Biden/Harris and vaccine reports are the cherry. The pain is lifting. We can breathe again. After four years, we can breathe again.
If I can't be thankful for that, what am I here for?
Wednesday November 25, 2020
“I don't get it. All these other Republicans, all over the country, they all win their races. And I'm the only guy that loses?”
-- Pres. Donald Trump during a meeting with Michigan lawmakers last week, as reported in Tim Alberta's must-read piece, “The Inside Story of Michigan's Fake Voter Fraud Scandal,” on Politico. The subtitle is “How a state that was never in doubt became a 'national embarrassment' and a symbol of the Republican Party's fealty to Donald Trump,” and that's exactly it, and it is an embarassment; and we only escaped a more extended constitutional crisis because one GOP official, Aaron Van Langevelde, had the guts to do his job and essentially tell Donald Trump he had no clothes. The others? Pretending his evidence-less charges of voter fraud had validity, and that he won in a landslide an election he lost by 6 million votes. (More on Van Langeveld via Charles Pierce.)
Alberta writes: “Republicans here—from Ronna Romney McDaniel to Laura Cox to federal and local lawmakers—knew it was a lie. But they didn't lift a finger in protest as the president disparaged Michigan and subverted America's democratic norms. Why?” The short answer is “career ambition.” If you had it, and you wanted to stay with the GOP, you went along with the crazy.
How much? This part about Ronna McDaniel is stunning. I had no idea. “Born into Michigan royalty—granddaughter of the beloved former governor, George Romney, and niece of former presidential nominee Mitt Romney—she knows the state's politics as well as anyone. Working for her uncle's campaign here, and then as a national committeewoman and state party chair, McDaniel earned respect for her canny, studied approach. She spun and exaggerated and played the game, but she was generally viewed as being above board. That changed after Trump's 2016 victory. Tapped by the president-elect to take over the Republican National Committee—on the not-so-subtle condition that she remove 'Romney' from her professional name—McDaniel morphed into an archetype of the Trump-era GOP sycophant. There was no lie too outlandish to parrot, no behavior too unbecoming to justify, no abuse of power too flagrant to enable.”
It's that not-so-subtle condition. That she went along with? Wow. These people. These absolutely worthless people.
Tuesday November 24, 2020
'Democracy Has a Fundamental Assumption'
What is the awful consequence of the War in Iraq as you see it?
Well, let me say I think it's not soluble. That it's not even a bad war, it's not even a dreadful war, it's a war that it may have repurcussions that will go on and on forever. It's like the sort of hideous, obsessive experience you never get out from under.
I won't be fancy about it. It's a lose-lose situation. Because we will never succeed in turning Iraq into a democracy—which I think is immensely difficult for a very simple reason: You don't take democracy and put it in a hypodermic and inject it into a country. Democracy is a grace. For religious people—not fundamentalists, who are in my mind not nearly so much religious as totalitarian, because you've got to do it their way—but for people who have religious spirit, democracy is a grace. In other words, it's something that you can abuse.
Democracy has a fundamental assumption: that if you allow the mass of people to express their will, more good will come out of that than bad. That means that democracy can always fail. And the best of democracies can fail. We have probably the greatest democracy that ever existed: We can go down the tubes; we can turn into a totalitarian country, too.
-- Norman Mailer talking to Charlie Rose, Nov. 6, 2003. This snippet begins at 15:37. Norman was always a great, underrated prognosticator, which I mentioned in my obit for him in 2007 and in this 2017 blog post. To be a great prognosticator, you just need to know human nature and keep a clear mind. Or at least keep it free of the noise; of the bullshit. God, I miss him. I feel like re-reading him. At the moment, I'm re-reading Joyce.
Monday November 23, 2020
Suspended from Twitter for 12 Hours
Last week, former Bush speechwriter and current senior editor at The Atlantic David Frum tweeted that Congress was unprecedentedly approving more conservative judges during this lame-duck session, and my anger at Mitch McConnell was stoked anew. I dashed off this response before I went for a walk:
When I returned and logged onto Twitter, I found, instead of the usual feed, a message telling me I'd been suspended from the site for 12 hours for violating its rules against abuse and harassment. “You may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so. This includes wishing or hoping that someone experiences physical harm.”
They had a link where you could argue your case, and I certainly had one: It was obvouosly a joke, or a metaphor, and anyway the harm Mitch McConnell is visiting upon our country is a million times worse than my little tweet. But then I thought: No. I really do mean it. I want Mitch McConnell kicked in the nuts. On some level, it's unfathomable to me that the man is able to walk around D.C. without at least three people a day taking a shot. So I didn't argue my case. I took the punishment. If it was punishment. It was kind of freeing, to be honest. I had to delete the tweet, but I could still scroll through Twitter; I just couldn't tweet, retweet, like, or comment on anything. Sometimes I forgot and tried to like something, but mostly the 12 hours, half of which were sleeping hours, went like that. I spent more time on legit news sites. I spent more time reading.
I'm glad they're policing. I just wish they did it better. Mis/disinformation is the battle and we're losing it every day on all of these social media platforms.
Sunday November 22, 2020
'Strained Legal Arguments Without Merit'
The best thing about our courts is you can't just blab on as you can before the press; the court won't take it. Remember David Boies' line about eviscerating an anti-marriage equality proponent during the Prop 8 case? “In speeches, no one got to cross-examine him.” But Boies did. And there went that guy's argument.
Last week, Donald Trump's personal $20k-a-day lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who's been busy spouting theories of voter fraud, went back into the courtroom for the first time in decades. It didn't go well.
Asked what standard of review should be applied, Giuliani responded “the normal one.” He said he didn't understand what “strict scrutiny” meant. He said he didn't understand what “opacity” meant, then guessed it meant “you can see.” U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann responded: “It means you can't.”
My favorite line from Judge Brann?
“You're alleging that the two individual plaintiffs were denied the right to vote. But at bottom, you're asking this court to invalidate more than 6.8 million votes, thereby disenfranchising every single voter in the commonwealth. Can you tell me how this result can possibly be justified?”
Man, why can't journalists do this?
Cut to the chase. Yesterday, Brann ruled on a request to dismiss Giuliani's/Trum's case. His ruling was basically “Fuck, yeah.” It was “Get this shit out of my court.” Here's his intro:
In this action, the Trump Campaign and the Individual Plaintiffs (collectively, the “Plaintiffs”) seek to discard millions of votes legally cast by Pennsylvanians from all corners – from Greene County to Pike County, and everywhere in between. In other words, Plaintiffs ask this Court to disenfranchise almost seven million voters. This Court has been unable to find any case in which a plaintiff has sought such a drastic remedy in the contest of an election, in terms of the sheer volume of votes asked to be invalidated. One might expect that when seeking such a startling outcome, a plaintiff would come formidably armed with compelling legal arguments and factual proof of rampant corruption, such that this Court would have no option but to regrettably grant the proposed injunctive relief despite the impact it would have on such a large group of citizens.
That has not happened. Instead, this Court has been presented with strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations, unpled in the operative complaint and unsupported by evidence. In the United States of America, this cannot justify the disenfranchisement of a single voter, let alone all the voters of its sixth most populated state. Our people, laws, and institutions demand more.
P.S. Brann is a Republican.
Trump won't go away on Jan. 20 but he will be removed from holding the levers of power; and we'll be a better country and a better world for it.
Saturday November 21, 2020
“Consider just how openly racist and undemocratic the Michigan debacle was. Two white Republican canvassers refused to certify the results of the state's most populous Democratic county, which contains Black-majority Detroit. Was there evidence of fraud? No. ... One of those canvassers, Monica Palmer, suggested that the white-majority areas of the county could be certified, while the Black-majority city of Detroit could not. ...
”This was a racial disenfranchisement move so blatant it would make Jim Crow blush. Michigan Republican leaders applauded this, and Trump tweeted, “Flip Michigan back to TRUMP.” Among the national Republican leaders, those with a conscience—a group that could fit in a broom closet—have been quiet.“
-- Timothy Egan, ”Donald Trump Is Leaving Behind Blueprints to End Democracy," The New York Times
Saturday November 21, 2020
Dreaming of Jeff Bezos
Here's a dream from last night—or early this morning.
I was working at Amazon and heading to some event with Jeff Bezos. Was it planned that we would go together or were we just leaving together the office at the same time? The office was on the second floor and to get to the street level you had to walk down a long wooden outdoor staircase. That's what we were doing, but every other step there was a giant object, like a huge iMac computer, that we had to step over. Was there also snow? We were going to a movie premiere or event like SIFF, and Bezos was talking about how he hadn't been to a movie in years. I said “Really?” and was going to mention seeing him at Seattle movie theaters over the years—like at that Ricky Gervais movie—when he added he'd been to see “Our Miss Brooks” and some other film. I couldn't hear him. We were reaching the bottom of the staircase, and I was like, “What did you say again? 'Our Miss Brooks' and what movie?” He got frustrated. No, he insisted. It wasn't “Our Miss Brooks” but “Our Miss Brooke.” It was a festival dedicated to the life and career of Brooke Shields.