These Machines Kill Fascists
Your Kids Will Always Be Embarrassed of You
“I was incredibly flattered. It was very cool. It was a little embarrassing at times. You know, carpool with the kids and the song comes on and my son's like... [imitates him shrinking back into his seat].”
Michelle Pfeiffer on being namechecked in the Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars hit, “Uptown Funk.”
Superman on the Radio: Ep, 1: Baby from Krypton
Superman debuted in Action Comics No. 1 in June 1938, but by Feb. 12, 1940 he was already all over the place. His daily comic strip began on Jan. 16, 1939 and it was soon in 300 dailies and 90 Sunday newspapers across the country. He crowded out the rest of the Action Comics heroes so after Nov. 1939 he was always the feature on the cover. He got his own quarterly comic, “Superman,” in summer ’39. Talk of a live-action movie serial with Republic Studios fell apart but Max Fleischer began developing his classic collection of Superman cartoons, which would debut in Sept. 1941. Plus a live version of Superman did appear. In June 1940, actor Ray Middleton appeared as The Man of Tomorrow for “Superman Day” at the New York World’s Fair.
Then there was this.
The Superman radio series ran thrice weekly for 15 minutes, and it introduced kids to patter that would be soon be familiar to everyone across the globe—if, here, in slightly different fashion:
Boy and girls, your attention, please! Presenting a new and exciting radio program, featuring the thrilling adventures of an amazing and incredible personality!
Faster than an airplane!
More powerful than a locomotive!
Impervious to bullets!
Up in the sky, look!
It’s a bird, it’s a plane
I love the differences: “Up in the sky, look!” When did they reverse it? And when did they change the “faster” to a speeding bullet? Which would, of course, necessitate a change in the third stranza, right? You can’t have bullets twice.
I also love that they call him a “personality.” Plus they‘re polite when asking for your attention.
Believe it or not, this kind of patter continues. Apparently they had a lot to explain about the guy:
And now Superman. A being no larger than an ordinary man, but possessed of powers and abilities never before realized on Earth. Able to leap into the air an eighth of a mile in a single bound. Hurdle a 20-story building with ease. Race a high-powered bullet to its target. Lift tremendous weights and rend solid steel in his bare hands, as though it were paper.
The first episode, no surprise, is about the last days of Krypton. Most of the storyline is familiar to anyone familiar with Superman. Jor-El is Krypton’s “foremost man of science.” He warns everyone of doom. They laugh. He tries to build a rocket to take himself, his wife and his baby, away from Krypton, but ... too late! So they just send the baby.
Some differences from the canon:
- Superman gets his abilities not from a yellow sun but because Kryptonians are “advanced to the absolute peak of human perfection.” They are a race of supermen. Nazism soon made this a little unpalatable.
- Krypton is breaking up because it’s being pulled closer to its sun. (Or is that canon?)
- Jor-El actually wants to send Lara to Earth: “If one of us must go, it should be you!” It’s Lara’s idea to send the baby. Some dad.
We don’t come off well, by the way. Humans are described by Jor-El as “weak and helpless and with all their faculties extremely limited.”
Lara: And that’s where we're going? Oh, how dreadful!
Jor-El: My dear, which would you rather do? Go to Earth and live or stay on Krypton and die?
“Earth: Better than dying.”
Anyway, the baby gets away to Earth. Tune in next time.
The One Way Trump is Jeffersonian
“In 1806, [Pres.] Jefferson secured the passage of a Non-Importation Act, banning certain British imports and, in 1807, an Embargo Act, banning all American exports. During the ongoing war between Britain and France, the British had been seizing American ships and impressing American seamen. Jefferson believed that banning all trade was the only way to remain neutral. No Americans ships were to sail to foreign ports. He insisted that all the goods Americans needed they could produce in their own homes. ...
”The embargo devastated the American economy. Jeffersonian agrarianism was not only backward-looking but also largely a fantasy.“
from Jill Lepore's ”These Truths: A History of the United States"
Movie Review: The Mayor of Hell (1933)
Some kids are sent to a reform school that’s run like a corrupt prison, but two well-meaning adults—including a former gangster from the neighborhood—help save them.
Believe it or not, Warner Bros. made this movie three times in the 1930s—each time with their star of the moment. Here, it’s Cagney. In 1938, it was “Crime School” with Humphrey Bogart. A year later, Warners made “Hell’s Kitchen” with Ronald Reagan.
Wait, Ronald Reagan? As a former gangster?
Yeah, not quite. More on that another time.
The star isn’t really the star anyway—the kids are. Here, they’re somewhere between Our Gang and the Dead End Kids. They’re teenagers like the latter but diverse like the former. It’s a rainbow coalition of early 20th-century stereotypes: emotional Italian, money-conscious Jew, bug-eyed black kid.
This last is played by Allen Hoskins, who played “Farina” in the Our Gang comedies. The Jewish kid, Izzy (Sidney Miller), is just as outré but feels less problematic. Sure, he winds up running the company store, but his lines are the lines Jewish authors would give their characters decades later. “What I’m making in here I can put in my right eye” he says. “I’ll fix you, ya gonif,” he says. It’s a type produced from within rather than imposed from without.
You know what I liked about this one? The kids aren’t the only ones who start out on the wrong side of the law.
As Patsy Gargan, the new deputy commissioner, Cagney doesn’t show up until 25 minutes in. He rolls into the reformatory with his drunk pal Mike (Cagney foil Allen Jenkins) and Mike’s blonde moll (Sheila Terry), offers a drink to the movie’s villain, Superintendent Thompson (Duddley Digges), then wonders how “to make things look regular.” He asks Thompson to turn in his reports for him. He’s a crook—a cheap ward heeler, as someone calls him. His job is a sinecure in a corrupt administration.
What changes him? For starters, he runs into a younger version of himself, Jimmy (Frankie Darro of “Wild Boys of the Road,” who played the young Cagney in “Public Enemy”). He’s on the lam, gets caught, is whipped and ordered back into solitary.
But what really changes him, of course, is a woman, Miss Griffith (Madge Evans), the school’s pretty nurse. She insists Jimmy gets medical attention. Patsy agrees. She insists what’s truly needed in the school is self-government. Patsy agrees. Then he makes a pass at her.
Here are the books she owns:
- Fundamental Principles of the Juvenile Republic
- Self-Government for Juvenile Correction
Immediate thought: Was the screenwriter...? Yes. Edward Chodorov was a member of the Communist party. In 1953, he was fingered by Jerome Robbins and wound up blacklisted after he refused to cooperate with HUAC.
Delayed thought: Wait, self-government? Why does Patsy think this is a good idea? Isn’t he part of a corrupt government machine himself? I guess the key is the “self.”
Anyway, it works. The kids get real food, they clean the joint up, and even elect our titular mayor (Jimmy, of course). One kid, Pete, gets hungry and steals a chocolate bar from the company store. He winds up in front of the “Supreme Court.” Farina is his defense attorney and another tough mug is the judge. Justice is dispensed. It’s all super-cutesy.
Of course, the forces of corruption try to fight back but the kids are too strong. Patsy is the one who screws it up. One of his men, Joe, tries to take over his racket back in town, so he shows up to reclaim it. A gun goes off, Joe winds up in the hospital, Patsy’s on the lam. At the school, Thompson takes back the reins and it’s back to pig slop for the kids. Even Nurse Griffith resigns.
The ending is fascinating and menacing. Thompson forces Johnny (Raymond Borzage), a kid with a croup-like cough, into solitary after he doesn’t squeal; he dies there. When Thompson gets the news, he’s stunned, and rushes to the infirmary ... where all the kids are waiting. From director Archie Mayo (or Michael Curtiz, who did uncredited work) we get like a minute-long silent sequence in which Thompson stares at the kids faces—who are, by turns, sad, then increasingly angry—and, realizing his predicament, he struggles to get out as if fighting against the current. He makes it, but the kids know the tide has turned. It’s the tsar all over again.
If that scene reminded me of some part of “The Blue Angel”—the nightmarish quality of trying to move and being locked into place—the rest recalled “Frankenstein.” The kids, wielding torches, chase Thompson onto a barn roof, then light the barn on fire. Trapped, screaming, he jumps, hits a wire fence, bounces in the air, and lands in the slop of a pig sty—dead. I actually laughed out loud. Those commie writers don’t fuck around.
And where’s Cagney in all this? Hiding out. But he shows up at the end to convince the kids to put out the fire and face the authorities—who, in ultimate bow-tie neatness, declare it was Thompson’s own fault that he died. Meanwhile, Joe lives, Patsy gives him his racket, and he and the pretty nurse return to run the school. Ain’t life swell?
Come back to the five and dime, Frankie Darro, Frankie Darro
One of my favorite things about watching these movies is finding out about the players.
Frankie Darro is so good in this, so graceful and present, one wonders why he wasn’t bigger. Was it the fact that he never grew tall? Fifteen years later, he was still playing a newsboy in “The Babe Ruth Story.” But he kept acting, and he’s the subject of a biography published in 2008.
The villain? Dudley Digges? He not only played the original Casper Gutman in the 1931 version of “Maltese Falcon,” he directed “Alexander Hamilton” on Broadway in 1917. It was the biggest Hamilton play of all time ... until recently.
I think I got most lost in Sidney Miller’s story. In 1938 he played opposite Mickey Rooney in “Boys Town,” they became friends, and Miller wrote songs for him. (He’s got 28 soundtrack credits.) In the 1950s he helped revamp the first iteration of “The Mickey Mouse Club” and in the ’60s became a regular director of sitcoms: “My Favorite Martian,” “Get Smart,” “The Monkees.” (He’s got 38 directing credits.) He also kept acting (146 credits). I once saw him in an episode of “Barney Miller” in the mid-70s. He’s also the father of Barry Miller, who played the gay kid in “Fame,” and one of Travolta’s friends in “Saturday Night Fever.” IMDb can be such a rabbit hole.
At 90 minutes, “The Mayor of Hell” is longer than most of the early ’30s Cagney movies, but then Cagney isn’t in it much. But his ethos is. It’s the Warner Bros. ethos: Never rat on your friends. Sadly, it’s a lesson that Jack Warner, one of the first and loudest to testify before HUAC, never learned.
Thank God for David Simon
What booger-eating moron would stumble out onto the internet to attempt a thoughtless but-Obama moment and not remember that 1) That president accurately assessed Kanye as a “jackass” and 2) invited Common to the White House, whereupon white America squibbed shit in its undies? https://t.co/BEcnnOgm1v— David Simon (@AoDespair) October 12, 2018
What's Missing from ‘Fear’
I should probably write more about Bob Woodward's book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” because at this point I doubt I‘ll finish it. I’m about halfway through but I'm not a fan.
I don't doubt a lot of what happens in it. But I know I'm getting a skewed perspective that is being presented by Woodward as the perspective.
Woodward uses sources on deep background—as he did with Deep Throat during the Watergate investigations—but writes the book in the third-person omniscient. Everything is presented as fact, as “this is how it happened,” but it‘s, at best, a few people’s perspective, and at worst one person's perspective. It should be, “According to Steve Bannon...” etc. etc., but it isn‘t. Woodward seems to be putting us in the room where it happens but he’s actually putting us in Bannon's idea of that room—and without telling us. That's actually dangerous.
BTW: Between Bannon being a source for Woodward, and being a source for Michael Wolff in “Fire and Fury,” it's a wonder he gets anything done.
You know when I had to put the book down? It was post-Charlottesville, when Trump's tepid response to Nazis marching in America led to the resignation of Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, an African American, from Trump's American Manufacturing Council. Here's what Frazier said about why he resigned:
America's leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy. . . . As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.
The presidential response?
Within an hour, Trump attacked Frazier on Twitter. Now that Frazier had resigned, Trump wrote, “he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!” The CEOs of Under Armour and Intel followed Frazier, resigning from the council as well. Still stewing, in a second Twitter swipe at Frazier, Trump wrote that Merck should “Bring jobs back & LOWER PRICES!” On Tuesday, August 15, Trump tweeted, “For every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place.” He called those who had resigned “grandstanders.”
And my reaction to that? “Oh right, he's an asshole.”
That's actually what's missing from the book: Trump's horrible voice. He's an idiot, sure, he doesn't know what he's doing, yes, he has no real structure to decision-making in the presidency, OK, and god he watches way too much fucking TV—and propaganda TV at that—but we don't hear what an awful bombastic bully he truly is. And that's the thing we hear every day. In a way, through all of these sources telling Woodward their story, and via Woodward's own toneless prose, Trump is insulated. He's muted. As awful as he comes across in the book, he comes across much worse in our daily lives.
Lost and Foundations
“It's not just that the megaphones operated by 501(c)(3) groups and financed by a sliver of rich donors have gotten louder and louder, making it harder for ordinary citizens to be heard. It's that these citizens are helping foot the bill.”
David Callahan, the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, a website focusing on the good, bad and ugly of high-end giving. He's quoted in Elizabeth Kolbert's New Yorker article on the history of foundations and modern philanthropy. Worth reading. Worth thinking about. Much in this country has gotten twisted—even giving.