Thursday December 31, 2020
The One Good Thing of 2020
My last post before 2020 was this one saying goodbye to the 2010s, which I called, with a nod to Garry Trudeau, “a kidney stone of a decade.”
I guess I didn't know from kidney stones.
If you'd told me on Dec. 31, 2019 that Joe Biden would defeat Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, I would've assumed a good year. I might've said, “As long as I get that, I'm good.” And on some level I am. Nothing mattered more than that, and we did it. We got rid of the fucker. Even if he's still fighting it and trying to undermine the fundamentals of American democracy. Even if his minions and would-be successors do the same. In fact, everything he and they do show the wisdom of the 81 million and the idiocy of the 74. I can't wait until he's swept away. I want to see him thrash.
But just imagine if you'd told me, a year ago today, about some of the other numbers for 2020. That the big box-office hit would be “Bad Boys for Life” at $206 million (the lowest total since 1995); the homerun leader would be Luke Voigt with 22 (the lowest since 1918); and the U.S. medal count during the Summer Olympics would be zero. I'd wonder what the hell was going on. What disaster had happened.
And it has been. But in many ways, the numbers will be worse in 2021. A bill is coming due and we don't know how large it is. At some point, the moratorium on evictions will end and we don't know what that will look like. How many stores are going away forever? How many restaurants? How many businesses will decide that the overhead of an office isn't worth it, that all their employees can work from home? What will this mean? Could we somehow turn abandoned office buildings into shelters for the homeless and the recently evicted? Walkability used to be an important measure in a home's desirability. Will that be true on the other side of the pandemic? If you can work 30 miles or 100 miles or 3,000 miles from your workplace—assuming there is a “work place”—why battle high rents and traffic jams?
Last August, for my day job, I interviewed a bankruptcy attorney out of Lexington, KY. This is part of that conversation:
What else is coming your way?
A lot more of business closures—hospitality industry and restaurants that have had to issue letters to creditors saying they had to shut down, and they didn't have the assets to even file a bankruptcy. That's been the bulk of my practice the last couple of months. It's been hotels, it's been restaurants, event venues. A couple of newspapers.
How bad is it? How screwed are we?
We are so screwed. My calls used to be talking to people about whether they should file a Chapter 11, a 7, or what would be the best relief for their business. Now, I'd say at least five clients a month come to me where I just shut their businesses down because they're beyond resuscitation.
Closure is really no different than a Chapter 7. The reason why you don't file a Chapter 7 is because, with these places I'm representing, there's a bank that has a lien on all of their assets. So I usually just call up the bank and say, “They're not going to make it. Come get your stuff at this location.” Then I send letters to all of their vendors and employees and whoever else that isn't going to get paid, and I tell them, “We had to close our doors. You're not going to get your money. The bank got everything.”
The real impact, the rash of bankruptcy filings, I think that's not going to happen until next year. There's still money out there circulating from the PPP loans, stimulus checks. Landlords were forgiving rent because they were getting their mortgages forgiven by the banks for a three-month period.
So your assumption is that there's another shoe that's going to drop, and it's going to be a big one?
Yes. That's what I've been trying to gear up for because I know it's coming.
At least we'll have a working president who will look beyond his own ego. At least we'll have that. Thank you, 2020, for that one thing.
Thursday December 31, 2020
Dawn Wells (1938-2020)
Our dreamgirl next door.
It was the great question of the second half of the 20th century. It's also a question with no wrong answer. You either went with a tall, beautiful, red-haired seductress or a supercute girl next door with a smile that brightens the room and legs to die for who somehow makes coconut cream pies on a deserted island. But if we're honest about it, the proper response is this: “They're both out of our league.”
This, however, is the answer I've tended to give: “The time Mary Ann thought she was Ginger.”
That episode, “The Second Ginger Grant” (original airdate March 6, 1967, the seventh-to-last episode of “Gilligan's Island,” thank you, IMDb), knocked me for a loop when I was a kid. And for years afterward. Probably to this day. And I don't think it's because I wanted the girl next door to act like the seductress—or maybe I did, and do—it's more the scene where Mary Ann wants to make out with Gilligan but he runs away. But then he's told, by either the Professor or the Skipper, that because they're worried about Mary Ann's pyschic state he should return. So he does. He plops his head into her lap and she plants a long one of him while the soundtrack makes that mwaa mwaa mwaa mwaa sound. I don't think I ever wanted to be someone as much I wanted to be Gilligan with his head in Dawn Wells' lap while she plants a long one on him and you hear mwaa mwaa mwaa mwaa.
Dawn Wells, everyone's not-so-secret crush, the dreamgirl next door for several generations, died yesterday from complications with COVID.
My father went out with her. I know, I'm burying the lede. in 1979, Dawn came to Minneapolis as part of a touring company for Neil Simon's “Chapter Two,” and he did a feature on her for the Star-Tribune. He also asked if he could show her around town. Just the typical journalistic graciousness, you understand. Journalism 101 stuff, really. Dad did it with everybody.
I was a little fuzzy on the details, so I asked about it when I talked to him yesterday. He thinks he bought her lunch. He doesn't remember what sites he showed her. I cut to the chase. “Did you kiss her?” “Well, at the end, she gave me a kiss,” he said. “To thank me.” From the sound of it, it was not a romantic kiss. It wasn't mwaa mwaa. Even so, my father got to first base—or halfway there—with Mary Ann. Jealousy doesn't begin to describe it.
He might've done better if he'd given her a better lede:
Dawn Wells is an alumna of two of the most ridiculed phenomena in American culture—the “Miss America” paegent and “Gilligan's Island.”
That's actually a pretty good open. And he was only beginning with the negative to accenctuate the positive: her starring role in “Chapter Two” and other theatrical productions; her artist-in-residence position at her alma mater—Stephens College in Columbia, Mo. The idea was: Dawn Wells isn't who you think she is.
It's a good piece. I learned a lot. She was a fourth-generation Nevadan, her great-grandfather drove a stagecoach, and her father was an original stockholder in the Thunderbird Hotel in Vegas. She was an extra on the set of “The Misfits,” which was filming close to where she grew up. That was her first brush with show business. She finished her B.A. with a major in drama at the University of Washington, then became Miss Nevada. She flipped a coin whether to go to NYC or LA and LA won. After “Gilligan's Island,” she had trouble overcoming the Mary Ann image and went back to theater. She retained a warm feeling for the show and stayed in touch with most of the cast members, “particularly Natalie Schafer, who vacations with her at Wells' gulfside home near St. Petersberg, Fla.” The looks they must've gotten hanging at the beach.
The piece also mentions all of her investments: another home in Nashville, land in Vegas, three oil wells. These must've fallen through because in 2018 she announced she was broke and relied on a GoFundMe to pay medical expenses and back taxes. Articles mention “an unexpected accident” and “life-threatening surgery” but not why Medicare didn't cover it. She died in a nursing home in LA.
Dad also said she was what she seemed on the show: enthusiastic, sweet, lovely. Take us out, Leonard Cohen.
Wednesday December 30, 2020
That Hayworth Chicken
In my review of “Strawberry Blonde” I used a color version of the poster even though the film itself is in black and white, and even though this b&w version is way, way fun:
I particularly like the writing. The top tagline indicates Cagney and Warners are still reaping the benefits of Mae Clark's grapefruit kisser 10 years later. “Mauve Decade” I had to look up. It's the 1890s. After William Henry Perkin's aniline dye, apparently.
The wordier stuff on the right also plays off Cagney's gangster rep: racket, mug. My favorite may be “that Hayworth chicken.” Before it was shortened to chick?
Wednesday December 30, 2020
Screen Credits: Mrs. Percy B. Shelley
I know. A long time ago, just a decade removed from women getting the vote in the U.S., so way different times. But it's still stunning to see Mary Shelley called by her husband's name in the opening credits to Universal's “Frankenstein” (1931). I guess I expect different for authors? Jane Austen, the Brontes, et al.? A quick search via newspapers.com indicates that, for the first four decades of the 20th century, “Mary Shelley,” or more likely “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,” was a much more common designation than “Mrs. Percy B.” About 200x more common by my rough estimate.
At least Peggy Webling got to keep her own name.
Tuesday December 29, 2020
Al Milgrom (1922-2020)
In his element.
Because of Al Milgrom I saw the following movies:
- My Life as a Dog
- 28 Up
- She's Gotta Have It
- When Father Was Away on Business
- Come and See
- The Tree of Wooden Clogs
They were all playing in the mid-1980s at the University Film Society, for which I volunteered every Thursday night when I was a student at the University of Minnesota. Al, who founded the U Film Society in the early 1960s, died last week at the age of 98, after suffering a stroke.
For selling/taking tickets at the Society, and keeping all the Bergman fans from getting too unruly, volunteers got to see the movies for free. If it wasn't too busy, I might watch them that night. That is, my colleague Adam L. would let me slip in as the movie started or I'd do the same for him. You could let a certain number of friends in for free, too. I seem to recall doing this with a girl I had a crush on. She was wth her boyfriend. That's how I rolled.
For all the ways he expanded my cinematic vision, I think I only saw Al a few times. He was a breeze blowing by, ever busy, but he knew me because I was the son of the movie critic for the Star-Tribune—a man who liked the movies that Al liked, and that the U Film Society exhibited. After Dad retired, he'd run into Al every so often. Late in life, Al became a documentary filmmaker, self-styled as “the world's oldest emerging filmmaker,” and he asked Dad to be a talking head for a doc about the 1970 Dinkytown riots. Al did one on Minnesota poet John Berryman, too, and only at the premiere found out Dad had been a longtime friend. He then wanted to interview Dad about Berryman—for the DVD or a recut?—and I was instructed to send along digitized photos we had of Berryman in our backyard. Don't know if anything came of that. He had a lot of plate spinning.
Something else he had in common with my father? He was also another Minnesotan name-checked by the Coens. In “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Adam Driver's character's real name is Al Milgrom. The two of them and Ron Meshbesher should've formed a club.
After I graduated, I spent a year in Taiwan, where, among other things, I became a fan of Jackie Chan movies. One day, back on the U of M campus, I saw a flyer for an upcoming U Film Society feature: Jackie Chan's “Miracles.” That made me smile. I couldn't get ahead of him. Dad has his own story about Al Milgrom and flyers. He was walking with him once, possibly for an article, when Al suddenly stopped at a telephone pole covered in flyers and ripped one of them down. It was blocking his.
Monday December 28, 2020
Phil Niekro (1939-2020)
I got the news from Joe Posnanski on Twitter, which seems appropriate. One of the great mini-bios Posnanski wrote for his “Baseball 100” series—soon to be a book—was about Phil Niekro (No. 83), and his father, and Phil's attempt to win his 300th game on the last day of the 1985 season when his father was in the hospital. Exactly. Louis B. Mayer would've killed for that story.
Here's an excerpt:
“My father was a coal miner in Eastern Ohio,” Niekro explained. “Three shifts. That thing I remember most was him coming back from the coal mine, and I wouldn't even recognize him. I mean, he was just ... black. All black. All I could see was his teeth.
”He would come home and the first thing he would do was come up to us on the front porch. Me and (my brother) Joe would be waiting for him. He'd have his lunch bucket with him, and he opened it up, and there was always something for us. There was a Twinkie in there or a banana. He would give me half. He'd give Joe half.
“And then, before anything else, we'd go into the backyard. We'd play catch, just me and my Dad. Joe would set up on the porch and watch us. We'd play catch until it got dark. Then, when it was dark, when it was over, we'd go and have dinner. Then he would go to the stove and heat some water, pour it into the tub, and he took a bath. I remember how black that water was after he was finished.
”Then my Dad would go lay down on the couch, and he'd fall asleep listening to the Cleveland Indians.“
By bWAR Niekro is one of the greatest pitchers of all time. His 97.0 would rank him the 11th greatest, just behind Christy Mathewson, and ahead of Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins and Pedro Martinez. Growing up I never would've thought it. I still don't, to be honest, and neither does Poz, since he has all those guys ahead of Phil on his list. Niekro was a five-time All-Star, never won a Cy Young, and it took him five tries to make the Hall, which, in the modern era, has to be a record for a 300-game winner. (Close. It ties him with Don Sutton.) I don't think I saw him pitch much. His team, the Braves, didn't make the postseason in the 1970s, and so weren't on TV a lot, and of course never played my Twins at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. He was just a guy on a baseball card. An old guy even then. He was a good pitcher whose younger brother Joe was good, too. They were like the Perrys, and you could have a nice argument over which pair of brothers were better. The Niekros won more games (539-529) but the Perrys got the Cys (2 for Gaylord, 1 for Jim, 0 for the Niekros). By bWAR, it's the Perrys by a nose: 131.4 to 125.7. There are other measurements.
Phil only made the postseason twice, 1969 and 1982, and got one start each time. In '69, he lost to the Mets, the eventual World Series winner, and in '82 he got a no decision in a team loss to the Cardinals, the eventual World Series winner. He was another great player who never had a chance at a ring.
Horsehide Trivia, from SABR, sent out this In Memorium quiz yesterday. For baseball fans, these aren't true quizzes, since we know the answer, but a way to honor the man.
Q: Which Hall of Famer's pitch was so effective that it actually became his nickname?
- Hint: No other pitcher won more games after the age of 40 than he did.
- Hint: He, together with his younger brother, racked up an amazing aggregates of 539 wins, the most by any two or three brothers combined in major league history.
- Hint: His brother's sole career home run came at his expense.
- Hint: His total of 24 years pitching in the majors places him in very select company and no pitcher with his specialty pitched longer or tallied more games, innings pitched or strikeouts.
- Hint: During his time in professional baseball, he witnessed the administrations of seven different U.S. presidents. In fact, he holds the record for most years pitching with one National League team.
- Hint: No slouch on defense, he won five Gold Glove awards.
- Hint: He was five times an All-Star and although he didn't win a Cy Young Award, he received consideration for the award in five separate seasons.
- Hint: He said ”Mr. Baseball“ turned his career around.
- Hint: One of his childhood friends is a Hall of Famer in another sport.
The nickname is ”Knucksie“; Bob ”Mr. Baseball" Ueker turned his career around by encouraging him to throw the knuckleball even though it made Uek, the catcher, look foolish; the childhood friend was John Havelicek.
Here's Poz's tweet. Amen to it.
Sunday December 27, 2020
Movie Review: Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
I guess Warner Bros. and DC Comics don’t need Zack Snyder to make a stupefyingly bad movie.
I’m curious how it all went down. Which Warners exec said, “Hey, we need Chris Pine for the sequel. How do we bring him back from the dead?” And instead of arguing against this inanity, instead of saying that maybe Gal Gadot can carry the fucking movie her fucking self, which hack responded, “Well, what if she just kinda wished him back?”
I don’t even know where to begin with this thing. I guess I’ll begin at the beginning.
We’re in a mall in D.C. in 1984, and some scumbags wearing Don Johnson’s castoffs rob a mall jewelry store, which is, as usual, a front for stolen antiquities. But one of the guys is a blubbery screw-up who drops his gun in the middle of the mall, and some woman screams, “GUN,” and suddenly everyone’s running every which way, including the bad guys. Then tubby panics again. This time he drops the bag of stolen antiquities in order to pick up a blonde-haired girl and dangle her over the third-floor railing, yelling “I’m not going back! I’m not going back!” Even the other crooks are like, “What are you doing?!” Dude can’t even hold onto her properly. She’s slipping. Which is when Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, xoxo) swoops in, rescues her, takes care of the bad guys, and knocks out the video cams so there’s no evidence she exists. She’ll just be a rumor that, I don’t know, a hundred people saw that day with their own eyes.
Sorry, wait, that’s not the beginning. Before that, we get a prelude on Paradise Island. Diana is a little girl competing in an X Games-like competition with grown Amazonian women, and we get this voiceover from her adult self:
Some days, my childhood feels so very far away. And others, I can almost see it. The magical land of my youth—like a beautiful dream of when the whole world felt like a promise and the lessons that lay ahead yet unseen. Looking back, I wish I’d listened. Wish I’d watched more closely and understood. But sometimes you can't see what you’re learning until you come out the other side.
Me: What’s that lesson? Don’t compete in X Games with grownups when you’re a child?
Nope. Because for most of the race, Diana is winning. (She’s the daughter of Zeus, remember?) She jumps over this, spears that, dives into the other. She’s ahead. But she keeps looking back to see if others are gaining. And one time, bam, right into a branch, which knocks her off her horse and spills her bow and arrow. The horse keeps going, while she sits there, bereft, and is passed by the others.
Me: I guess the lesson is the Satchel Paige one: Don’t look back, something might be gaining.
Nope again. Because little Diana slides down the hill, jumps back onto her horse, and rides it triumphantly into the stadium. She’s moments from wining the race, when her mother, or mentor, I mix them up (Connie Nielsen or Robin Wright), pulls her from her horse, and imparts the movie’s grand lesson: Don’t take shortcuts. Shortcuts are cheating.
As all the world in 1984 is about to find out—and then apparently forget.
Why 1984—that annus horribilis in fiction and fact? According to IMDb, director Patty Jenkins set the film in the 1980s because “it offers the opportunity to explore how Wonder Woman would deal with the types of villains that come from that era.” Meaning con men like Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who sells the American dream in his cheesy TV ads: “All you need … is to want.” OK, let’s just say it: He’s “Art of the Deal”-era Donald Trump, afraid of being called a loser, who gets rich by selling saps on their wish-fulfillment fantasies. (Cf., Hollywood.)
Wish-fulfillment is also the raison d’etre of one of those stolen antiquities, the “Dreamstone,” which winds up at the Smithsonian and in the hands of Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a recently hired, well-meaning woman everyone ignores. She’s the opposite of co-worker Diana Prince, who glides through the world tall, athletic, fashionable, gorgeous, desired. At one point, Barbara drops a folder and her papers scatter across the floor; and as she’s trying to collect them, her co-workers walk by her giving disgusted looks. The point is her haplessness, but it does make the staff at the Smithsonian seem like assholes.
Point in their favor? Barbara isn’t even good at her job. She thinks the Dreamstone is a fake, Diana suspects otherwise, and while holding it offhandedly wishes her great love from the Great War, Steve Trevor (Pine), was still alive. There’s a slight breeze, we hear chimes, and that night, at a big gala at which Diana shows up in an insane white dress with slits along the side that make the most of her long, long legs, and who is immediately pursued by every schmuck at the place, at that gala, one of her pursuers, a douchey-looking guy, says the lines that Steve Trevor said to her 60-some years before. And as the camera spins around, he suddenly turns into Steve Trevor. He’s alive again!
OK, let me pause to parse this.
So after the writers—Jenkins, Geoff Johns (DC TV) and Dave Callaham (“Godzilla”)—decided that “wishing” was the way to bring Steve back from the dead, they had to figure out how that would look. Would he claw his way out of his grave? Can’t, right? He blew up in midair. So should he take over the body of someone who recently died? Kind of like a resurrection? I’ll cut to the chase. They decided the best way for Steve to return would be for him to take over the body of someone who’s still alive. In the credits the dude is called “Handsome Man” (Kristoffer Polaha), and while everyone sees him—his face, etc.—Diana and Steve (and us) see Steve. Because it’s Steve who runs the show. His consciousness is what’s in charge. Meaning this other guy has basically been blotted out of existence. That’s what Wonder Woman’s wish did.
And she never wonders about it. Not once. She, a superhero, she snuffs out a life, then she fights the rest of the movie to keep it snuffed. Even when it becomes known that the Dreamstone also takes the wisher’s most prize possession (in WW’s case, her powers) and that you can renounce your wish at any time (which is super nice of the evil deity that set this in motion), she keeps waffling. It’s up to Steve to get her to do the right thing. And even then it’s still tied to that earlier notion that shortcuts are cheating. Of Handsome Man? Nada. Not even a: “Hey, maybe we should give this dude his life back.”
The whole movie is this. Stupidity compounding stupidity compounding stupidity.
Barbara is another unknowing wisher of the Dreamstone. Her wish it be like Diana: breeze, tinkle, poof. At first this means she dresses well, doesn’t stumble in high heels, and men notice her. Then she rips the door off the refrigerator and lifts like 1,000 pounds over her head at the local gym. In the process, she loses her humor and humanity, nearly kills a drunk rapist, and winds up despising Diana for keeping all these goodies to herself. She winds up teaming with Maxwell Lord to make sure wishes aren’t renounced; and because she also wishes to become an “apex predator,” at the 11th hour she turns into the Cheetah, a longtime Wonder Woman nemesis. Meaning, by the end, poor Kristen Wiig is dressed in a cheetah costume, tail and all. Suggestion to Warners/DC: Since Wonder Woman has the worst supervillains ever, either ignore them completely or update them smarter. This was just laughable.
Of the three principles, Max Lord is the one who knowingly wishes on the Dreamstone. His business is about to go under, investors are after him, so he steals the stone—which looks like two broken crystals welded to a rock—and does a version of the clever kid’s “I wish for a thousand more wishes” but dangerously so. He wishes to become the Dreamstone. Me: Wait, wouldn’t his soul get sucked into the rock? That would be my fear. But nope. The essence of the Dreamstone gets sucked into him and the actual Dreamstone disappears amid a cloud of dust. Which on one level might be good. The Dreamstone now has a life expectancy. On the other hand, it can now walk and talk, so it can con people into wishing for the thing it wants, or Max wants, which means more power for it/Max. And with each wish, greater havoc is created, until by the end there’s riots in the streets, the Irish are being rounded up, and both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. have started World War III.
All smiles at Bergen-Belsen
That’s the basics, but I’m still trying to fathom the stupidity. Max travels to Egypt for no real reason (oil, but c’mon; he’s wish king; that’s small potatoes now), and Diana and Steve pursue him (even though at this point they don’t know he’s become the Dreamstone). And that pursuit in itself is worth a discussion.
How can they get to Egypt?
First, Diana says they can’t fly commercial since Steve doesn’t have a passport. (But doesn’t Handsome Man? And doesn’t everyone see Steve as Handsome Man? Goes unmentioned.)
So she suggests stealing a military jet that Steve will pilot to Egypt. (Wait, she’s assuming a guy who flew Sopwith Camels can fly a 1980s military jet? Also, you’re stealing a military jet!)
But she forgets that radar can track them. (I mean she forgets. Completely. Like a bimbo.)
So she uses some bizarro Amazonian power to turn the plane invisible. (OK. All this for that.)
Even if you want to introduce the invisible plane, it would have taken about two seconds to make Wonder Woman seem like less of an idiot. One: “Don’t worry, Steve, the controls are almost the same as the planes you flew!” Two: “They can track us in the air now—it’s called radar—but I have a way around that!” Instead, she looks dreamily at him and spouts inanities.
The movie screws up even the smallest details. In the first movie, remember, Wonder Woman arrives to help fight the Great War; but in the end she decides fighting doesn’t stop hatred, only love can do that. That’s the needle the filmmakers had to thread because Zack Snyder left them in an untenable position. No one knew her at the start of “Justice League” in 2016 but he’d already placed her with doughboys in WWI. So she kept quiet for a century. And not just any century: one of world wars and cold wars and genocides. What did she do all that time? Did she just sit back and let it all happen?
“1984” gives us a clue. In her D.C. apartment, she keeps several framed photos on her designer tables. They include:
- A newspaper clipping: “THE GREAT WAR ENDS”
- A newspaper clipping: “VFW HONORS LOCAL HERO” (Steve Trevor)
- Steve Trevor next to his plane
- Diana and Etta (Lucy Davis from the first movie) escorting emaciated Holocaust victims out of extermination camps
- An older Etta with Diana in NYC circa early ’60s
First: Who frames small newspaper headlines? They’re not on the wall, they’re on her table. I’ve never seen that. And does she have no visitors? What might one of them say looking over these photos? “So … are you a world war buff or something? Is this flyboy your grandfather? Wow, this woman at the concentration camp looks just like you. But why is that other woman smiling at her? Who smiles at a concentration camp? Shouldn’t both of these women be horrified?”
We certainly should be.
A few years ago, I wrote a blog post on superhero trilogies, and how invariably they follow the same trajectory: powers revealed in I, lost in II, turned evil in III. The 2010s superhero movies got away from that, but here we are again. It’s the second movie, and Wonder Woman’s loses her powers. She doesn’t lose them completely—she can still jump like 80 feet in the air and deflect two out of three bullets—so I guess she winds up with the same power as a normal Amazonian? Maybe the movie explained it and I missed it. Anyway, a shame they’re back on this trajectory. But it’s the least of the movie’s shames.
It’s Henry Cavill’s Superman all over again. The casting is perfect, they’ve got their hero, but Warners is blowing everything else.
Friday December 25, 2020
Xmas Letter 2020
Thursday December 24, 2020
'The Public Enemy,' Starring Everyone
OK, so who didn’t have the lead role in “The Public Enemy”?
Cagney fans know Ed Woods was originally chosen to play Tom Powers, but some combination of events led to the switch—most likely: screenwriters John Bright and Kubec Glasmon pitching Cagney’s case to director William Wellman, who agreed with them after seeing the dailies.
Just took a while to get the message out. If you look over the news stories leading up to the premiere, almost everyone in the cast, at some point, was touted as the lead.
In early December you have Louella O. Parsons writing about her then-future son-in-law Ed Woods in her nationally syndicated column:
A few days later, in a short piece in The Record (an LA paper) about the sale of the screen rights, only Cagney and Donald Cook are mentioned. Nothing on Woods. Exact quote: “It probably will be released as 'The Public Enemy,' with James Cagney and Donald Cook in important roles.” Did Bright and Glasmon plant this? They’d written for The Record quite a bit that year, including a four-part series over the summer on the recent history of the Chicago gangland wars that inspired “Beer and Blood”/“Public Enemy.” Maybe they left off Woods on purpose?
Yet a few days later, again in The Record, it’s only Woods who gets mentioned: “EDWARD WOODS is getting to be the screen's boy menace,” it begins. A reaction to the earlier snub? A make-up call? A Parsons plant?
I always assumed that was the battle: Cagney or Woods? But at the end of December, Joan Blondell gets into the act. (In the final movie, she has about a dozen lines.)
In mid-January, in the San Francisco Examiner, it's 1920s icon Louise Brooks. (She’s not in the final movie at all.)
Two months later, Jean Harlow, who at least is the female lead, if not quite “the lead”:
By the time the Brooklyn Citizen writes that a print of “Enemy” arrived on March 28 (!), everyone is so confused that they, in their write-up, give Cagney third-billing—after Woods and Blondell. And even when the New York Times reviews the thing in May, they list Woods first.
Maybe this happened all the time with movies back then? Everyone’s agent is pushing their client into as many column inches as possible. It’s still amusing. I went looking for info on Cagney/Woods and everyone else got into the act.
Wednesday December 23, 2020
The Big 3: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy
From the “Motion Picture Herald,” a trade pub, heralding the release of “Frankenstein.” Great spread. Not sure why they call Dwight Frye's character “the Dwarf,” though. And while Mae Clarke's “the bride of Frankenstein” is technically correct, it will have a whole new meaning in a few years.
The week before Halloween, trying to distract myself from the potential horror of the upcoming election (which we appear to have escaped in the final reel), I watched that trifecta of great Universal Pictures horror films from the early 1930s: “Dracula,” “The Mummy” and “Frankenstein.”
I'd seen “Dracula” before but not the others—not even “Frankenstein”!—and it's interesting the similarities between them.
“Dracula” was a hit first (release date: Feb. 1931) and they wanted Bela Legosi for “Frankenstein,” too (release date: Nov. 1931), but apparently he thought himself a romantic figure now and didn't want to play the Monster. So they got Boris Karloff. Lucky for them. At that point in his career, Karloff was relegated to bit parts in gangster films but he's amazing and heart-rending in “Frankensein.” As a result, he became their go-to monster, taking a turn at “The Mummy” (release date: Dec. 1932) and many others. Lesson, kids? Check your ego.
Other similarities/continuities between the films:
- Edward Van Sloan plays the wise man in each: Van Helsing, Dr. Walding and Dr. Muller.
- Dwight Frye is lacky in both “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” doing the bidding of the Master. In the latter, he's Fritz rather than Igor. In between the two, he played Wilmer in the original “Maltese Falcon.”
- David Manners is romantic lead in both “Dracula” and “The Mummy.” The romantic lead in “Frankenstein” is basically Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive).
The story structures are similar, too. In the first reel we see the danger, as demonstrated by Frye's Renfield in “Dracula” (who is bitten) or Bramwell Fletcher in “The Mummy” (who goes mad). Second reel the danger moves closer to us, or we to it, and the authority figure (Van Sloan) arrives to help. Third reel, how we overcome it. “The Mummy” is the least interesting of the movies to me. “Frankenstein” is the best, because in “Frankenstein” we're the monster. My wife, who loves horror movies, can't even watch the windmill scene. It's like killing a helpless animal.
Some day it would be cool to check out the subsequent horror films these guys were in (“The Monkey's Paw,” “The Black Cat”), which didn't catch on with the public, and try to figure out why. And why these did.
Tuesday December 22, 2020
Movie Review: Baby Face (1933)
“Baby Face” is one of the most famous/infamous of the pre-code films, but one wonders if its scandals might be more problematic for our time than theirs.
Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of a man who runs a speakeasy, takes the advice of a Nietzsche-loving cobbler (Alphonse Ethier) and moves to New York, where she sleeps her way to the top, leaving broken hearts, ruined careers, and death in her wake.
So you see the problem: Nietzsche.
Kidding. It’s this: Is the movie playing into the stereotype/smear that women sleep their way to the top? Or is it upending it, and thus, somehow, patriarchy itself?
But sure, the Nietzsche, too.
Six floors of the Blue Angel
For a time, we see Lily’s rise literally. After each seduction, from outside the high-rise bank where she works, the camera pans up, floor by floor, and department by department. This is how it looks, top to bottom, with each seduced man referenced:
- ACCOUNTING DEPT.: Ned Stevens (Donald Cook)
- ESCROW DEPT.
- MORTGAGE DEPT.: Brody (Douglass Dumbrille)
- BUILDING & LOAN
- FILING DEPT.: Jimmy McCoy, Jr. (John Wayne)
- FOREIGN EXCHANGES
- PERSONNEL: Mr. Pratt (Maynard Holmes)
Meaning the Filing Dept. is more prestigious than Foreign Exchanges? And the Accounting Dept. is the top of the food chain? Who knew? Certainly not accountants.
Above Accounting is the bank’s vice-president, J.R. Carter (Henry Kolker), and above him is the Board of Directors and its new president, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), brought in to rehabilitate the bank’s rep in the wake of Lily’s scandals. He’s the romantic lead but doesn’t appear until we’re halfway through. So less lead than follower.
Even if all the seductions aren’t the same, there’s a sameness to the rise. Lily flirts with the beat cop to find out where the personnel dept. is, then heads behind closed doors with its pudgy secretary, Mr. Pratt of Tallapoosa, Ga., who seems as gay as the ’90s to me. We never see the best-looking (and ultimately best-known) of her seductions, a young Duke Wayne, even though he’s the one who gives her the titular nickname. Instead, his role is to encourage Brody to hire her. Brody then begins the true pattern of bosses/lovers:
- sexual interest
- can’t live without her
I get the first two. But can’t live without her? Where did that come from? I mean, I love Stanwyck, but she’s hardly Marlene Dietrich. Yet the movie is like “Six Floors of the Blue Angel”: Every dept. head becomes a Prof. Rath willing to crow for her.
The higher she climbs, the greater the fall for the men. Duke is just disappointed when she moves on, while Brody, caught in flagrante delicto, is canned. A week later, he bangs on her apartment door, overcoat wet, desperate, but she tells him to go back to his wife and three kids and leaves him stunned and bereft in the hallway. He’d be more stunned if he knew who was inside with her: Ned Stevens, the man who fired him, and whose secretaries think is a great guy (beware crappy exposition):
Secretary 1: Well, she certainly works fast.
Secretary 2: Won’t do her any good. He’s very much in love with the girl he’s engaged to.
Secretary 1: Say, I was surprised to read that in the paper. It’s a good match for him, too—marrying old Carter’s daughter.
Secretary 2: Mr. Stevens is an extraordinarily fine person. He has high ideals. He’s not like other men.
Turns out he’s worse. He not only has the affair, but, given a second chance with the boss’ daughter (Margaret Lindsay), he chooses Lily again. He even gives up his job so Lily can keep hers. And when he finds Lily and Carter together, he kills Carter in cold blood. Beware of men with high ideals, I guess.
Up to this point, she gets away with it by playing innocent. To Stevens about Brody: “What could I do—he’s my boss. Oh, I’m so ashamed!” To Carter about Stevens: “He told me I was the only one!” After the shooting she can’t play innocent, but with the Board she doesn’t need to. She’s been offered $10k by a local tabloid for her steamy story, and she uses it as leverage to extract $15k from the bank and a job with their Paris branch. The Paris gig is really just to get her out of town, and Trenholm assumes a woman like her won’t last long in the role. But that’s the new path to seduction: not innocence but gumption. Six months later, he shows up, she’s still working hard, he’s impressed, etc.
The second half of the film is a bit dull. Removed from the rise, it’s just the romance, and not a particularly interesting one. Our main question is: Is Lily faking it like with the others? They get married anyway, but on their honeymoon Trenholm discovers he’s become scapegoat for bank mismanagement, so he asks Lily to hock her jewels to help fund his defense. She bolts. She books passage on a luxury liner, and when he finds she’s gone he shoots himself. Back on the boat, she sees a rich older man and smiles. The End.
Kidding. That’d be my dream ending. Instead, between Hollywood and Hays and local censor boards, we wind up with this: Yes, she does bolt, and yes he does shoot himself. But then she’s overcome with grief and guilt. She really does love him! So she returns. And in the ambulance to the hospital, while she cries in his arms, he wakes and smiles at her. The End.
Eww. If you’re going to go there, and make her suddenly care, he should die. That’d be true comeuppance: as soon as she loves, she loses her love. That might even be powerful. But Hollywood endings.
Thus spake Zanuck
Here’s a bit of the backstory on the resurrection of “Baby Face.” In 2004, an uncensored version was recovered in a film vault in Dayton, Ohio, and a year later that version was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry. That same year, Time magazine (or Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss) named it to their top 100 movies of the last 80 years—or since Time began in March 1923.
I wouldn’t go that far. One argument against the movie upending patriarchal stereotypes is that it’s mostly dudes behind the scenes. “Baby Face” was based on a story idea by Darryl Zanuck, written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola (the lone woman), and directed by Alfred E. Green. Markey is mostly known for being a sparkling wit around Hollywood, and for his impressive string of marriages: Joan Bennett, Hedy Lamarr, Myrna Loy. Scola is mostly known for working with Markey. Green began in the silent era, directed the most racist of the early Cagneys (“Smart Money” with Edward G. Robinson), and ended his career with a series of “Story” movies: “The Jolson Story,” “The Jackie Robinson Story,” “The Eddie Cantor Story.” According to IMDb’s rating system, the best each of them did is this.
Others have lauded the film for being ahead of its time in racial matters. Throughout, Lily’s best friend is Chico, a Black woman, played by Theresa Harris. I’ve written about Harris before. In the ’30s and ’40s, she was mostly stuck in maid roles, and most of those went uncredited. This was her first screen credit and it’s a meatier part. Even so, as Lily rises, what does Chico become? Her maid.
A lot of the Nietzsche, meanwhile, sounds like ur-Ayn Rand:
Watching, I kept thinking of another Nietzsche acolyte on the rise in 1933. That cobbler must’ve gotten around.
Sunday December 20, 2020
Dreaming of Big Bird
A dream from the other night.
I was sleeping outside in a sleeping bag near my father—who never camped a day in his life—but we weren't out in the wilderness. We were by the side of a house and the house was by the sea, and I had a moment thinking, as if COVID-related, “Oh man, this is great being outside in the fresh air.” But then worries. We were outside. Animals were outside. There were birds circling above us, but now I was on a big mattress, and I was with my wife, Patricia, and my cat, Jellybean. Basically it was my real-life sleeping situation transplanted into the dreamworld, and I was thinking, “Well, at least Jellybean will keep the birds away.” But then I worried again: What if one of the birds is like a hawk? Could Jellybean take on a hawk? Just then this big bird swooped in front of Jellybean and flapped its wings in midair. Jellybean sniffed at it but I was l like, “Get away from her!” to the bird, but the bird wouldn't go away. “I need a baseball bat,” I thought, and suddenly there was one, on a shelf in this shed by the house, and I grabbed it and was ready to strike ... when the bird just laid down on the road. We were no longer by the side of the house but further along. “Does it want to die?” I asked Patricia. “I've heard about things like this,” she said, nodding. “End of life rituals.” And so I took the baseball bat and struck at its neck and severed its head. Now we needed to clean it up, and just like that there was a trash bag by the side of the road. But now the body was big and plump, and its feet were like the feet of Big Bird on “Sesame Street,” so we really had to cut it into thirds to make it fit. I managed to do it with the bat and with a minimum of blood—just a splotch on the road. Patricia held the garbage bag open for me, and then we argued about the best way to get the dead bird into the bag.
My favorite part is Big Bird's feet. Also how I wanted a thing and it was suddenly there for me. Wished that happened in more dreams. Or, you know, in life.
Friday December 18, 2020
Movie Review: The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Raoul Walsh directed two of the great Cagney flicks—“The Roaring Twenties” in 1939 and “White Heat” in 1948—and this is the one he did in-between those.
It’s a romantic comedy set in the Belle Epoch, so a bit of a departure for both men. Cagney plays Biff Grimes, a dentist forever losing fights and playing patsy to fast-talking sharpie Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson). Biff not only loses the titular girl—Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth)—but also his freedom, when he takes the fall for Hugo’s corrupt business practices. Despite all that, the movie has a happy ending. Its lesson is basically Saint Therese’s: More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.
It's surprisingly good. Well, not so surprising when you look at the talent in the room. Walsh was just coming off “High Sierra,” screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein were about to write “Casablanca,” and film editor William Holmes would win an Oscar for “Sergeant York” the following year. The cinematographer was the legendary James Wong Howe, the costumes were by the legendary Orry-Kelly, and the music was by Heniz Roemheld, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on this film.
Casts don’t get much better. Along with Carson and Hayworth, we get Olivia de Havilland as Amy, the would-be suffragette, Alan Hale as Biff’s blarney-loving father, George Tobias going Greek as Nick the barber, and George Reeves, the once and future Superman, here as a next-door collegiate with a Y on his chest rather than an S. Plus it’s one of Cagney’s better comedic performances. I’ve ragged on his comedic chops in the past but he’s great here. The way he shrugs off a hug from his father, for example, on his first day as a saloon bouncer, saying, sotto voce, “Cut it out, will ya? I’m supposed to be a tough guy.” Love that. You could begin a Cagney documentary with that.
The grape of happiness
Overall, it’s a loving tweak at a more innocent time. Men puts up their dukes like John L. Sullivan and spout turn-of-the-century locutions like “Tell it to Sweeney” (get lost, basically), “23 skidoo” (I’m gone), and “She’s all the fudge” (she’s hot)—as well as Biff’s repeated phrase, “That’s the kind of a hairpin I am!” (Apparently Cagney inserted that one himself because it’s something his father used to say. According to Douglas Harper’s Etymology Dictionary, hairpin was simply slang for “a person.” So it’s said proudly, not disparagingly. It just sounds disparaging.)
The movie opens in 1906, as Biff and Nick play horseshoes in the backyard. It’s Sunday but Biff is hardly relaxed. He’s only had two dental customers in eight months, his wife wants to go for a stroll, and the college kids next door keep playing “And the Band Played On,” with its lyric, “Casey would waltz with a strawberry blonde,” which reminds him of Virginia, the strawberry blonde who got away.
Nick: You were stuck on her, ain’t you?
Biff: [Looking around] Me? No …
Nick: Well, I was.
Biff: Oh, I liked her—in a nice way.
Nick: Yeah, I liked her too, but I forget which way.
Great line. Plus the dialogue prefigures much of the movie, since almost every character pretends to be something they’re not: Biff tough, Amy rebellious, Hugo and Virginia respectable.
At this point we get a coincidence so large they call it out. There’s an emergency tooth that needs pulling, and the sufferer turns out to be Hugo Barnstead—the man responsible for so much of Biff's misery. “What a coincidence!’ Nick cries. “He’s gonna want gas,” Biff responds bitterly. “Alright, I’ll give him gas.” And on that macabre note, we flash back 10 years earlier to the gay ’90s.
The first thing we see is a man carrying beer-filled buckets on a long pole. That’s also one of the first images we see in “The Public Enemy,” too, Cagney’s breakthrough film, and I’m curious if it was homage or just an easy turn-of-the-century trope. (Anyone know?) Then we’re introduced to Biff’s father trying to sweet-talk a neighbor lady, Mrs. Mulcahey (Una O’Connor): “You and I are no longer young, so we must grasp the grape of happiness.” He’s distracted by a Bock Beer sign, goes into a saloon, where his son is working his first day as bouncer. Biff’s first assignment? Toss his father. Which he does with the old man’s help. But then he gets into it with the saloon owner, and they put up their John L. Sullivan dukes and we cut to Nick’s barbershop, where Biff is getting a leech applied to his black eye. It’ll be a running gag.
After a good ol’ fashioned racist barbershop quartet song (“In the evening by the moonlight/ You can hear those darkies singing…”), someone shouts that the strawberry blonde is heading their way, and all the men crowd by the door to tip their hats and politely stare. Only Hugo makes a move. He gets a date, but she insists on a second so he has to find one, too. And there’s Biff. We get a good set-piece at the gas-lit park, where Amy and Virginia argue over decorum, while, nearby in a car, Hugo and Biff argue over who gets which girl. In the end, Biff winds up sitting with Amy, miserably, while Virginia, his crush, necks and giggles with Hugo in nearby bushes. So it goes.
Biff finally gets his shot thanks to Hugo’s larceny. Hugo oversells tickets to a Sunday picnic, the boat only takes so many, and the cutoff is right after Hugo and Amy board—with Biff and Virginia still on the gangplank. So the latter two make a day of it: picnic at the Statue of Liberty, evening at an outdoor beer garden, where Biff bribes the bandleader to substitute his name into the “Strawberry Blonde” song. Virginia’s so taken with it she kisses him on the cheek—and again at the end of their date. Things are looking up! Except she breaks their next date to marry Hugo.
If the first part of the flashback is how Biff loses Virginia to Hugo’s machinations, the second part is how he loses his freedom to same. Biff gets a job, a sinecure really, with Hugo’s company, but I’m not sure why. It seems at Virginia’s insistence—does she really like Biff, or does she just like the power she has over him?—but his sole job is to sign papers that make him liable for shoddy building supplies. This is when the comedy turns a little dark. One of the deaths the equipment causes is Biff’s father, who, on his deathbed, with his dying breath, says: “Biffy. See that Mrs. Mulcahey and the others … don’t take it too hard.”
Great line, and the scene is sweet and sad, prefiguring the paternal deathbed scene in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”; but it also means that Hugo is responsible for Biff’s father’s death. Except the movie kind of ignores this. Instead, it goes right into Biff’s arrest and five-year incarceration, where he finishes his dentistry schooling and practices ineptly on the warden. The dentistry bits are the weakest part of the movie to me. They’re like mother-in-law jokes. Worse. It's laughing at other people's pain. Real pain, not banana-peel pain.
Anyway, when Biff released from prison, he's startled to see a motorized vehicle (nice bit) and reunites with Amy. Thus endeth the flashback.
Dies and diminutives
So the question we’ve been waiting on: Will Biff kill Hugo with the gas? Of course not. This is a comedy. Hugo arrives in pain, sees the man he wronged and tries to get out of it. But he’s henpecked into the chair by Virginia, who’s become a harridan, bossing and humiliating Hugo at every turn. This is the St. Therese part. Biff realizes the great disappointment of his life—losing Virginia—was actually a blessing: “I’m a happy man,” he tells Nick, “and he’s not.” He realizes that being stuck with Olivia de Havilland isn’t that bad. Yes. We should all have such fallback positions.
So after a final fight with the collegiate boys next door, in which Cagney decks the once and future Superman, Biff finally goes on that Sunday stroll with Amy—even shocking her by kissing her on the street. “When I want to kiss my wife, I’ll kiss her anytime, anywhere,” he tells her. “That’s the kind of hairpin I am.” The End.
It’s tough to pick a standout in the cast, but I’d probably go Alan Hale, who’s so funny he should’ve done this role a thousand times—and maybe did for all I know. Hayworth, too, is surprisingly adept at comedy. Her early coyness is perfectly calibrated. I’d love to see the movie on the big screen rather than via Amazon’s cheap-ass, blurry version that I watched. I think it would dazzle.
Historical footnote: This is the first movie Cagney made after he was accused of being a Communist and dragged before the Dies Committee in August 1940. It’s probably not a coincidence that the four movies he made for Warners after that moment contain not a shred of left-wing controversy. He went from Belle Epoch rom-com to contemporary rom-com (“The Bride Came C.O.D.”), to patriotic Canadian war drama (“Captains of the Clouds”), to playing the Yankee Doodle Dandy himself and singing about our Grand Old Flag. Take that, Dies.
Historical footnote II: This is also the first Cagney movie where the diminutives stop. When became a star in 1931, and was touted by Warner Bros. as “Jimmy”—he hated that; he was always Jim to his friends—most of his characters’ names are either diminutives or diminutive-sounding: Jimmy, Lefty, Danny, Patsy, Jerry, Chesty, Eddie, Tommy, Rocky, et al. That stops here with Biff. Did he request it? “Look guys, I’m 40. Give me a break.” Whatever reason, they stopped. For the rest of his career, the only diminutive-sounding name he had was Cody.
Over the next few years, we would get a spate of movies set in the Belle Epoch: from “The Magnificent Ambersons” to “Meet Me in St. Louis“; from “Hello Frisco, Hello” to the Cagney production ”Johnny Come Lately." Nostalgia will always be with us, of course, but I assume there’s another reason why that era appealed then. In the midst of World War II, who wouldn’t want to go back to a time before even World War I? Before it all went wrong.
Thursday December 17, 2020
He Ain't Heard Nothing Yet
“And there's one good explanation for why we got all these light-hearted pictures. It came from the director of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers,' science fiction film, Phil Kaufman. He told me he thinks that people are simply bored with their everyday lives: with their jobs, everything, they don't want to see anything remotely related to this earth. So we get the science fiction films that take us out into space, and also 'Grease,' which comes out of nowhere. ... One thing that concerns me as a film critic, and probably you, too, is: Are we ever going to get serious pictures? Are these blockbusters going to crowd us out?”
-- Gene Siskel, during the special “A Look Back at 1978” episode of “Sneak Previews,” as he and Roger Ebert try to make sense of the silly genre films the public is suddenly embracing in the late 1970s. He nailed it. He asked the right question. “Are these blockbusters going to crowd us out?” Yes and no. Serious films will still be made, but they will be so marginal as to be nonexistent.
Wednesday December 16, 2020
Ann Reinking (1949-2020)
Embodying everything Fosse in “All That Jazz.”
I wrote this in June 2008 when Cyd Charisse died:
A few months ago Patricia and I were watching All That Jazz when that great “Everything Old is New Again” dance number came on, with Ann Reinking and little Erzsebet Foldi performing for Roy Scheider. I was stunned all over again by the effortless, long-legged grace of Ms. Reinking, who, unfortunately, came of age at a time when the movies were no longer interested in effortless, long-legged grace. “She could've been another Cyd Charisse,” I thought.
She could've been. Should've been. What we missed.
Here's how much she was born at the wrong time. She only has eight acting credits listed on IMDb. Eight. For Ann Reinking. And three of those are TV episodes: “Ellery Queen,” something called “The Andros Targets” and “The Cosby Show.” So just five movies—one of which is a TV movie.
Here's more of how much she was born at the wrong time. Of those five movies, three are set in the 1930s: “Movie Movie,” “Annie” and “A Night on the Town.” So even when they hired her, they didn't keep her contemporary. I can't help but think of what she could've done with Busby Berkeley in the '30s, or opposite Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly in the '40s and '50s. If we'd truly transported her back to the '30s—the conceit of “Night on the Town”—she would've given Jospeh Breen a heart attack.
She loomed large for me even though I never saw her on the stage and barely in the movies. I recently tried watching “Movie Movie” but even with my current predilection for '30s films I couldn't make it through it. I've only seen “Annie” on stage. “Micki and Maude”? '80s Dudley Moore. Nah. “All That Jazz,” though, I've seen at least a half dozen times. And the “Everything Old” number? Dozens and dozens. That moment at 1:10 when she does that show-horse step? Wow. Throughout, really. Wow.
She was from Seattle—i didn't know that—and died close by, in Woodinville, visiting her brother. She died in her sleep. The way to go. A tribute in The New York Times describes her as playful, refined and with legs for days.
Tuesday December 15, 2020
I was talking to my wife the other day and mentioned 538.com, Nate Silver's site about politics and its discontents, and she said, “Don't mention them to me ever again!” Me: “Huh? Why?” “Oh, they got the election so wrong.” This might've been in November when emotions were still raw. Or rawer. I paused for a moment, then said, “Actually they were pretty close. I think they only missed a couple of states.”
Here is their final prediction. I took a screenshot on Election Day.
Wrong on two: Florida and North Carolina. That's it. Everything else was right. They even had Georgia blue. They even had Pennsylvania as the state that would put Biden over the top. Doubt they thought it would be the Saturday morning after the Tuesday election, but you never know. Throughout, their watchword was caution.
Yesterday, in front-page news that is, in normal times, barely news, electors around the country all remained faithful and Joe Biden was once again elected president of the United States—for like the 12th time since Nov. 3. So much winning. Not tired of it yet.
Monday December 14, 2020
Movie Review: Mank (2020)
For a movie on such a provocative topic (who is the true author of “Citizen Kane”?), with such a provocative director (David Fincher of “Se7en,” “Fight Club,” et al.), and starring the British version of Nicolas Cage (Gary Oldman, reformed), “Mank” is a bit limp.
It’s not really about who wrote “Citizen Kane” anyway. Early on, it puts its chips on screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Oldman) to better explore the why of it. Why would Mank write a movie that disparages his old society friends William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried)? It didn’t have to be them, after all. According to The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, the movie that Mankiewicz called “American” was only one of several projects Orson Welles (Tom Burke), radio’s boy genius, was working on at the time for RKO Studios. Most intriguing among the others? An adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in which Welles would play both Marlow and Kurtz—but Marlow would never be seen. He would be the camera.
Point of view was also the point of this other film. The initial idea was to explore the life of a powerful person from different perspectives. But which powerful person? Brody writes that Welles and Mank ran through several options—including John Dillinger—before Mankiewicz. suggested Hearst. He was the one who actually knew the man and had been to his castle. “He had suffered and bitten his lip at San Simeon, trying to scrounge drinks,” writes David Thomson in “Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles.” An amusing quote for anyone who’s watched “Mank,” where lip-biting is the last thing Oldman’s Mank does.
So if not lip-biting, what reason does the movie offer for Mankiewicz’s desire to tear down Hearst? What is Mank’s “rosebud”—the thing that explains everything?
Why, the 1934 California gubernatorial race, of course.
For more on that election, see Jill Lepore’s excellent 2012 New Yorker article, “The Lie Factory,” about how political consultants Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker ended Upton Sinclair’s progressive candidacy and ushered in the age of right-wing attack ads. Worth reading and wringing your hands over. Worth making a movie about. But that’s not this movie. In “Mank,” the people we see manipulating the 1934 race for governor of California are not Baxter and Whitaker but MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and his right-hand man—and another boy genius—Irving Thalberg. They attack Sinclair with fake newsreel footage: actors playing hearty, just plain folks who calmly voice support for Republican governor Frank Merriam, while commies and Negroes talk up the radical policies of Sinclair.
All that’s apparently true. They did that. What isn’t true? That Mankiewicz gave a shit.
From Slate’s Matthew Dessem:
I couldn’t find any evidence Mankiewicz supported Sinclair, much less that he carried a grudge for years over the campaign—and it seems likely he would have opposed him on the basis of prose style alone. Still, you can’t pattern a movie after Citizen Kane unless your protagonist has an unhealable wound, so Mank seems to have made this one up.
In other words, the thing that explains everything in “Mank” explains nothing.
But that’s not the problem. It’s a film. Make up what shit you want—just make it resonate. This doesn’t.
The movie makes up more stuff. It pretends that a drunk, cynical Mank gave Thalberg the idea for the fake newsreels in the first place. “You can make the world swear King Kong is 10 stories tall and Mary Pickford a virgin at 40,” he sneers, “but you can’t convince starving voters that a turncoat socialist is a menace to everything Californians hold dear? You’re barely trying.” And the light goes on for Thalberg. It’s good scene.
The other, greater fiction is Mank’s fellow screenwriter Shelly Metcalf (Jamie McShane). Early on, we’re introduced to the writers room at Paramount, and it’s like a Who’s Who of great 1930s screenwriters: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, S.J. Perelman, Charlie Lederer, the Mankiewicz brothers, and Shelly Metcalf. My first reaction was to doubt that all those guys were ever in the same room at the same time. My second reaction was: Shelly Who? Yes. He’s the fictional creation—the guy to make the plot work. He wants to direct, see, and Thalberg finally lets him on the fake newsreels, and he’s so intent on the job he doesn’t realize the immorality of what he’s doing until Mank brings it up; and then he’s so distraught that he kills himself on election night. Shelly’s wife sends Mank to find him, and he does, at the studio, and talks him off the metaphoric ledge. Resigned, Shelly empties the bullets from his gun and hands them over. Mank then goes to the wife and proudly hands her the bullets. “But he had a whole box!” she cries. We can see it coming a mile away. It’s the stuff of melodrama. Not just not true: melodrama.
Here’s the awful thing: They made up all this and it still doesn’t fit. If Mank is angry over the ’34 election, why go after Hearst? Why not make “American” a thinly veiled takedown of Thalberg? Or, since Thalberg was dead by 1940, how about taking potshots at Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard)? Talk about a miserable SOB! Hearst and Davies are at least fun. They admire Algonquin Roundtable wit and Davies shows off some of her own. Mayer is just awful—frowning, knowing none of the talent, understanding zero jokes, and cutting MGM salaries by 50%.
So much of the movie seems just a little off. It opens in 1940 with an injured Mank being helped into bed by a nurse in a hotel in Victorville, Calif., where Orson and RKO have put him up so he can dry out and work on the screenplay. That’s fine. Then we get two flashbacks: the first is just before the crash, when he’s drunk and helped into bed by his wife; the other is the crash. That feels like a flashback—and a bedridden scene—too far. Why not go straight to the jazzy 1930 intro of Charlie Lederer (Joseph Cross), since he’s the through line: the fellow screenwriter who, as Marion Davies’ nephew, introduces Mank to that crowd. And while we’re on him, why repurpose Mank’s great telegram to Ben Hecht (“You must come out at once. There’s millions to be made and your only competition is idiots.”) as if he sent it to everyone, including Lederer, who, as a Hollywood resident, certainly didn’t need it?
Why fictionalize the secretary’s husband into an RAF pilot? So Mank can misread the room while she’s reading the MIA letter? It’s just another scene we see coming a mile away. Why pretend John Houseman (Sam Troughton) didn’t stick around and nurse the script? And why have him tell Mank: “Write hard. Aim low.” The whole point of “Kane” is that Welles had carte blanche at RKO. They could write as high as they wanted—and did. More, “Aim low” feels like the last thing John Houseman would ever say. Right, Mr.…Hart?
At least, we hear some great lines. After LB gets MGM staffers to cut their salaries by 50%—and to applaud their own disenfranchisement—Mank gives a drunken shrug: “Not even the most disgraceful thing I’ve ever seen.” I also like LB’s line on the way to the fleecing:
“This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the real magic of the movies, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
Or how about Thalberg’s line to Mank about how at least he believes what he’s doing. “But you, sir. How formidable people like you might be if they actually gave at the office.” Another line, similar in spirit, is Mank’s about his Hollywood career:
“I came for a few months. I don’t know how it is that you start working at something you don’t like, and before you know it, you’re an old man.”
That’s from Brody’s article but it should’ve been in the film. That’s the heart of it. Mank knew he’d wasted his life, “Kane” was redemption, but he’d agreed to keep his name off it; so he sued to get it back on. Because it was the moment he gave at the office. And he knew the office would never let him give that much again.
Saturday December 12, 2020
Trump Dissed by Trump Appointee
“This is an extraordinary case. A sitting president who did not prevail in his bid for re-election has asked for federal court help in setting aside the popular vote based on disputed election administration issues he plainly could have raised before the vote occurred. ...
”In his reply brief, plaintiff 'asks that the Rule of Law be followed.' It has been."
-- Federal Judge Brett H. Ludwig, Milwaukee, a Trump appointee, in dismissing yet another Trump lawsuit to try to overturn the 2020 election, as reported in The New York Times. It's one of more than 50 such lawsuits Trump has filed since Nov. 3. He keeps losing, and losing in this manner—insulted by his own appointee—but at the same time what he's doing sets a horrible precedent. Of course, his very existence sets a horrible precedent.
Friday December 11, 2020
Quote of the Day
“Texas is basically asking the Supreme Court to overturn the election for no other reason than because it has suspicions no one has been able to prove about mischief in other states. It's not just a borderline frivolous legal suit; it's an invitation to the Justices to substitute the preferences of a minority of voters for those of the clear majority.”
-- Stephen Vladeck, law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, in an email to Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent, about Texas AG Ken Paxton's lawsuit to invalidate the election results in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Michigan—four battleground states Trump lost. It's such an obvious and idiotic attempt to overturn democracy—based on zero evidence—that one wonders how anyone could take it seriously. Taking it seriously? One hundred and six Republican members of Congress who have signed on. Fuck these fuckers. They've gotten on my last nerve. And fuck Paxton—who apparently has been subpoenaed by the FBI on unrelated charges that involved abuse of power and bribery. Will be interesting to keep track of him as the months and years go on. Hope he gets what's coming to him. Hope they sell tickets.
UPDATE, TWO HOURS LATER:
I like how tired everyone is of this bullshit. Even The New York Times. And here's a good tweet on the matter from a must-follow on Twitter:
Congratulations to every Republican lickspittle who attached their name to this flaming bag of shit right before the Supreme Court dumped water all over it.— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) December 11, 2020
Enjoy your legacy, folks. You earned it.
I like “lickspittle.” Need to remember that one for these ones.
Wednesday December 09, 2020
Chuck Yeager (1923-2020)
The man who broke the sound barrier (right), and the man who portrayed him (left).
I think of Chuck Yeager every time I fly.
I'm not a pilot, by the way. I'm talking about flying commercially. As a passenger.
I think of Yeager because of something Tom Wolfe wrote in The Right Stuff that may or may not be true—I have no idea—but it certainly feels true. It's about airline pilot's voices, or voice, that singular sound we all want to hear, “with a particular drawl,” Wolfe wrote, “a particular folksiness, a paricular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself ... the voice that tells you, as the airline is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because 'it might get a little choppy.'” Wolfe said that voice, that drawl, originated in a specific place: the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia. Not that all pilots came from there; they just wanted to sound as if they came from there. They wanted “the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”
Yeager, of course, is the man who broke the sound barrier. It was a thing they didn't think could be done until he did it: 700+ miles an hour. Mach 1. It wasn't until I read The Right Stuff that I realized what Gene Roddenberry and “Star Trek” had been playing off of all that time with speed of light and Warp 1, 2, etc. I guess even Capt. Kirk wanted to be Chuck Yeager.
The Right Stuff became a great movie in 1983, and Yeager lucked out getting Sam Shepherd, whom he outlived, to play him, and everyone who's a fan will remember one of the movie's last lines. As the Mercury astronauts are being feted in Houston by MC LBJ, while Sally Rand does her famous fan dance, Yeager is testing out a new plane and loses control and crashes in the desert. Two men are riding in a jeep to the crash site, including Yeager's friend Jack Ridley, played by Levon Helm of The Band; and the other man, the driver, sees something moving up ahead, and asks, “Sir? Over there. Is that a man?” and Jack Ridley looks, smiles, and responds, “You damn right it is,” while the music wells triumphantly, and we get a close up of Yeager walking toward the jeep with his rolled-up parachute under his arm, his face half-charred, still calmly chewing his stick of Beemans. It's one of the great movie scenes. The movie should've ended there, but I think it went on a bit longer, unncessarily, returning us to the Mercury astronauts, about whose heroism the movie was ambivalent. But it was never ambivalent about Yeager's. He was the movie's true hero, the man who did the thing for the doing of it, even when attention went elsewhere.
Think of it: the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound. We did those things then for the doing of them.
Tuesday December 08, 2020
Dick Allen (1942-2020)
He was the badass of baseball when I was a kid. He held the title before Reggie, who held it for a while. I believe he was also the the highest-paid player for a time. Baseball Ref has him at $200-$250k in 1973, which seems about right for highest-paid back then. I vaguely remember my 4th grade math teacher breaking down his salary to a per-game payout, and eventually to a per-second on the field payout. How much did Dick Allen make every second he was on a baseball diamond? This. It was a math lesson but it was also a vague ethics lesson. As in, “Who could be worth so much money?” Even then, though, the ethics felt shoddy to me. We didn't do this with others, just with this man playing a boy's game. A Black man. A Loud Black man. Made me feel uneasy, though I could not articulate why.
If he was highest paid he was worth it. Look at that '72 season with the ChiSox. Led the league in HRs, RBIs, walks, slugging percentage. Led the Majors in OBP and OPS and OPS+. Nearly won the triple crown. His .308 batting average was 10 points behind Rod Carew, with Lou Piniella at .311 between them. But he wasn't a unanimous MVP. Three votes shy. One writer went with Joe Rudi of the division-winning (and eventual World Series-winning) Oakland A's as his No. 1 pick. I assume the guy thought, “Well, Rudi's team won, his batting average is close to Allen's, Rudi's the better fielder.” But that misses so much. Two other sportswriters chose pitchers, and neither was the pitcher that won the Cy Young that year—Gaylord Perry. I suppose Mickey Lolich wasn't a bad choice but he led the league in just one category: homeruns allowed. The other sportswriter went with the Yankees' Sparky Lyle, who had a good season, led the league in saves, but he was still a relief pitcher. Lyle didn't even get any first-place votes for Cy Young. He finished third for MVP and seventh for Cy. Odd.
Allen was the 1964 Rookie of the Year, the NL counterpart to my man Tony Oliva. That's a helluva rookie class, though neither man is in the Hall. Allen's advanced-numbers Hall of Fame case is about as on-the-cusp as you can get. His bWAR is a bit low (58.8 vs. 68.4 for an average HOFer) but everything else is right there. Black ink? Meaning times leading the league? Average HOFer is 27; he's 27. Gray ink, which includes top 10 appearances? Average: 144. Allen: 159. HOF Monitor? Likely HOFer: 100. Allen: 99.
I get the feeling he didn't get in before not only because they didn't break down the numbers this way, and not only because his career counting numbers weren't eye-popping (351 HRs, 1,848 hits), but because of who he was. The Loudmouth. The guy who wrote things in the dirt with his bat. I get the feeling that all of that will actually help his case now—as will his career batting line: .292/.378/.534. How many guys with a .900+ OPS over 15 seasons aren't in the Hall? Hell, maybe he should get in just for that Sports Illustrated cover. This is the badass I was talking about.
If you want more on Dick Allen's story, his turbulent career, the abuse he endured, and the horrible history of the Philadelphia Phillies when it came to integrating the game, Joe Posnanski is your man.
Saturday December 05, 2020
I recently researched Charles Lederer for my review of the James Cagney movie “Never Steal Anything Small,” which Lederer directed, but last night I realized I did a poor job of it. Directing wasn't his thing. I knew that much. “Never Steal” was his third and last and best-known attempt. No, he was a writer, and wrote some big things: “His Girl Friday,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “Ocean's 11.” I guess I thought that was enough to know. Apparently I didn't even look at his Wikipedia entry, which would've told me all.
Last night told me all. Patricia and I were watching “Mank,” the new David Fincher-directed Netflix movie about how Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) came to write “Citizen Kane,” when Charlie Lederer appears as a character. I was like, “Whoa, I know him. He directed 'Never Say Anything Small.' I didn't know he knew Herman Mankiewicz!”
That wasn't all I didn't know. In short order, I learned Charlie:
- was the nephew of Marion Davies
- introduced Mankiewicz to William Randolph Hearst
- was given an early copy of “Kane” by Mankiewicz
- was so upset by it he showed it to Davies and Hearst
In other words, Lederer was both responsible for the creation of “Kane” (by introducing Mank to Hearst) and for Hearst's attempt to kill “Kane” out of the gate (by introducing Hearst to the script).
And here I just thought he was the so-so director-writer of a late, uneven Cagney flick.
Lesson? Do your homework, kids. There's a whole world there.
Friday December 04, 2020
'This Has to Stop'
Last month—was it just last month?—a friend asked if Joseph Welch's line to Joe McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings (“Have you no sense of decency? At long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”) would have any meaning for today's GOP. I said no. I said the point of Trump from the beginning was a lack of decency. That was part of his appeal; that's why they glommed onto him. That's why they still do. So we wondered if not that, then what? What might pierce the GOP/Fox News/right-wing propaganda veil to help them finally see the monster they've created?
I don't know if Gabriel Sterling's press conference the other day is the answer to that, but it's the closest I've seen. Here it is in case you didn't see it. It's a thing of beauty. Not just what he said but the way he said it. The controlled anger. It's like his anger pressed his words into diamonds:
Good afternoon. My name is Gabriel Sterling. I'm the Voting System Implementation Manager for the state of Georgia. And just to give y'all a heads up, this is going to be sort of a two-part press conference today. At the beginning of this, I'm going to do my best to keep it together because it's all ... gone ... too ... far. All of it!
[Trump attorney] Joe diGenova today asked for Chris Krebs, a patriot who ran CISA, to be shot. A twenty-something tech in Gwinnett County today has death threats and a noose put out saying he should be hung for treason because he was transferring a report on batches from an EMS to a county computer so we could read it. It has to stop. Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language. Senators, you have not condemned this language or these actions. This has to stop. We need you to step up and if you're going to take a position of leadership, show something.
My boss, Secretary Raffensperger, his address is out there. They have people doing caravans in front of their house. They've had people come on to their property. Tricia, his wife of 40 years, is getting sexualized threats through her cell phone. It has to stop.
And a voting system implementation manager from Sandy Springs, Georgia shall lead them. Or should lead them. Instead we're stuck with Mitch.
So far, neither President nor GOP Senators have taken up Sterling's call.
Wednesday December 02, 2020
A True Big Leaguer
Joe Posnanski is doing another baseball countdown over at The Athletic. This time it's the 100 best players not in the Hall of Fame—but who maybe, possibly, could or should be. He's doing the first 70 in 10-packs and then taking 30 to 1 individually. So far he's done two 10-packs that have included the likes of ... Oh hell, here they are, in countdown order: Juan Gonzalez, Fred Lynn, Rocky Colavito, Albert Belle, Jimmy Sheckard, Quincy Trouppe, Fernando Valenzuela, Darrell Evans, Steve Garvey, Dave Parker (that's 100 through 91), Frank Howard, Al Oliver, Willie Randolph, Lance Berkman, Paul Hines, Ron Guidry, Wally Berger, Doc Gooden, Elston Howard and Orel Hershiser (that's 90-81). Fun stuff. I'm waiting to see where Tony Oliva lands.
This was part of the Hershiser bio:
Hershiser actually had a decent first year on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2006. He got 58 votes — 11.2 percent of the vote — and that's not a bad starting point. He had a good case — he had some legendary achievements, he was so good in the postseason, and everybody likes him. One of my favorite baseball stories is the one Pedro Martínez tells about the day he got sent to the minors by the Dodgers. He was literally pulled off the bus. As he stood there stewing and near tears, Hershiser walked off the bus and handed Martínez a signed baseball. On it, he had written: “You're a true big leaguer, I'll see you soon. Orel.”