Sunday July 25, 2021
Harry Rosenfeld (1929-2021)
Bradlee, Dusty, Rosenfeld at the movie premiere. I like the drinks Bradlee and Rosenfeld are sharing. I like the plate under Rosenfeld's arm.
There's a scene halfway through “All the President's Men,” a front-page meeting/city-desk meeting, in which the various editors get together and figure out what the top stories of tomorrow's edition will be. There's some disagreement, a lot of banter and humor, and a healthy dose of cynicism. In tone, dress, posture, they remind me of my father's generation at The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and thus the literal adults in the room when I was a child. Sadly, the adults in the room are leaving us.
For the film, Rosenfeld, the assistant metro editor at The Washington Post during the Watergate years, was played by Jack Warden, and he has a couple of memorable scenes—one in which he shoos away a nosy Carl Bernstein, who is asking about the burglary at the Watergate hotel. Both Bernstein and Bob Woodward were on the metro desk, a lesser beat, and they got the story because it was considered a lesser story—a “third-rate-burglary,” to quote Ron Ziegler, at a local hotel. Then their reporting, particularly tracking a check in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars directly to Nixon's re-election committee, helped turn it into a national and international story, so managing editor Ben Bradlee was considering giving the story to the National desk. It was Rosenfeld who voiced the objection: “They're hungry. Don't you remember when you were hungry?” Bradlee listened. And the rest is history. Not to mention historic.
I didn't know Rosenfeld had been born in Weimar Germany, witnessed the rise of the Nazis, experienced Kristallnacht first-hand. I like this quote from Peter Osnos. “He brought brash New York savvy to Washington before you could get a decent bagel there.” I like this quote from Rosenfeld on the theme of his journalistic career: “holding to account the accountable, the more powerful the better.” We need more adults in the room.
Saturday July 24, 2021
Young Man With a Horn, Old Man With a Harm
Here's more on Jack Warner, Warner Bros., Hollywood and race, from Alan K. Rode's recommended book Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, this time about the making of the 1950 movie “Young Man with a Horn,” starring Kirk Douglas. The movie was based on the novel by Dorothy Baker, which was based on the short, alcoholic life of the brilliant jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke:
[Screenwriter] Edmund North used most of Baker's reinterpretations of Beiderbecke's life, with the principal exceptions of changing Smoke from a young black drummer to an adult Caucasian pianist played by Hoagy Carmichael and another character, Josephine, from a black to a Caucasian singer. [She was eventually played by Doris Day.] A Wald preproduction memo noted the “elimination of the colored angle” ...
Wald got his two days of location filming in New York in much the same way Curtiz overcame an earlier wrangle with [Jack] Warner over the key scene at Art Hazzard's funeral. Curtiz attended an African American church service in Los Angeles specifically to prep for this scene, which he shot with great care. Warner, already uncomfortable with the picture's depiction of racial comity in the jazz world, sought to have the scene dropped. Curtiz insisted that the scene was crucial to the overall narrative, and it remained in the picture.
Warner also insisted on a happy ending and got it—even when everyone else, from Curtiz to Douglas to right-wing Hollywood Reporter publisher W. R. Wilkerson, thought it nonsensical. “But Jack, why that ending?” Wilkerson wrote. “It was our impression that the ending took away about 25% of the value of the picture because it was a false ending.” Rode adds: “All the entreaties simply made Warner more adamant. The film had his name on it and he would choose how it would end.”
Here's earlier notes on Jack Warner and race.
Monday July 19, 2021
- Rob Neyer making the big time! He has a The New York Times piece on the behind-the-scenes macinations to get the new Yogi Berra stamp, and which players we might see going forward. One player who goes unmentioned is Harmon Killebrew. I get that he's down on the list—Hank Aaron's got to be next—but to not even be part of the conversation? C'mon, Rob. Oh, and despite my Yankees aversion, I bought three sheets of the Yogis. Because baseball.
- Speaking of: Watched the All-Star Game over at Tim's house last week and we were all horrified that Joe Buck—the announcer who tries to dramatize the game rather than, you know, announce it—was talking to the players while they were playing. And then faux-dissing them when they did poorly. Turns out, we weren't the only ones who were horrified. Only MLB could not see that coming.
- During the game, which was Mariner-less, we counted up the ex-Mariners present and playing, and I suggested Tim write a Grand Salami column counting them up and what we got for them. Here it is. Excerpt: “At one point late in the game, an ex-Mariner was batting while another ex-Mariner tried to advance on a wild pitch, only to have an ex-Mariner throw him out at second base.” Fun to be us.
- Though former colleagues call him “a typical Minnesota family guy,” for more than a decade Sean G. Turnbull has been peddling conspiracy theories online as “SGTReports,” according to The Washington Post. Among his wares: 9/11 was a “false flag operation,” the COVID-19 pandemic was a “bioweapon” and its vaccine an “experimental, biological kill shot,” and the 2020 election, of course, was a “coup.” He is a true believer but is way more strident online. One wonders how the turn began.
- Gabriel Sherman follows the money in the Jeffrey Epstein case to Leslie Wexner, a Ohio retail billionaire. The biggest unanswered question: Did Epstein simply charm Wexner or was there more to it? From an upcoming book, I assume.
- Speaking of: In their new book “I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump's Catastrophic Final Year,” authors Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker reveal that Gen. Mark Milley, chariman of the Joint Chiefs, worried Trump would attempt a coup in 2020 and worked to make sure it didn't happen. Trump's response to these revelations includes this all-but-admission: “If I was going to do a coup, one of the last people I would want to do it with is General Mark Milley.” Jonathan Chait comments: “All these points confirm rather than refute Milley's suggestion that Trump posed a threat to the republic...” Chait says Trump was obviously not a Hitler but points to the number of times the Hitler reference comes up—and not from critics but from his inner circle: James Mattis, John Kelly, Milley.
- Leonnig and Rucker are Post reporters and the Post is excerpting the book, most of which is the usual Trumpian horror show. Then there's the Trumpian opportunism—like this laugh-out-loud graf on what Ivanka was doing the morning of Jan. 6:
- She said this? Out loud? Was anyone in the room? Was it a real room? I picture her saying this alone in a blinding white void, the sad hero of her own retroactive, opportunistic mind.
Saturday July 17, 2021
More on 'Mission to Moscow'
I'm reading Alan K. Rode's excellent biography “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film,” which includes so much backchannel Warner Bros. stuff from the 1930s and '40s, and maybe none so important as the machinations of Joseph E. Davies during the making of “Mission to Moscow” in 1943.
Davies was a lawyer who had been ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938 as the Moscow trials began, and who wrote a book about his experiences there. It was published in 1941, sold well, and FDR supposedly encouraged Jack Warner and Warner Bros. to make a movie about it. They did, with Curtiz directing, and Walter Huston starring, but Davies was a problem from the get-go. He submitted 24 pages of rewrites to Curtiz and producer Robert Buckner: “Buckner attempted to finesse these issues,” Rode writes, “by inviting the ambassador to Hollywood to discuss his concerns.” That just led to additonal requests for changes. These weren't minor changes, either:
The most egregious examples concerned the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland and the characterization of the Stalinist purge trial that was the heart of the film. Davies insisted on adding dialogue indicating that Russia did not invade Finland. The final cut included Walter Huston as Davies reciting this whopper after being asked about the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939: “Russia knew she was going to be attacked by Hitler so the Soviet leaders asked Finland's permission to occupy strategic positions to defend herself against German aggression. She offered to give Finland twice as much territory in exchange, but Hitler's friend Mannheim refused and the Red Army moved in.” When Buckner challenged Davies on the veracity of this startling revisionism, the former ambassador stated that he possessed “privileged knowledge.” Buckner said that Davies was “often prone to pulling this 'mysterious knowledge' to silence us.”
Why was Davies so insistent on whitewashing Stalin's crimes? To what end? He wasn't a communist. Was it just an insistence on a worldview he assumed he knew better than anyone? Soon he and his wife relocated to Beverly Hills, where, during production, he kept nitpicking. He saw that actors were made up to look like Churchill and Stalin, and wondered why Huston wasn't made up to look like him. “That, Mr. Davies,” Curtiz responded, “is because you are not famous.” He was quoted in the trades in January 1943: “There is no man in the world I would trust more fully than Joe Stalin.” And the movie was made the way it was made.
And when it was released in April 1943, there was almost universal condemnation.
The brickbats didn't come only from those on the Right. Two noted liberals, John Dewey of Columbia University and Suzanne La Follette, niece of the famed progressive senator, castigated the film in the New York Times. Dewey had led an independent commission with La Follette that had investigated Stalin's purges. He categorized Mission to Moscow as “the first instance in our country of totalitarian propaganda for mass consumption—a propaganda which falsifies history through distortion, omission or pure invention of facts.” Dewey and La Follette enumerated most of the film's more damning attributes, including deletion of any mention of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, the whitewashing of the purge trials, the overtly negative portrayal of prewar Britain and France, and the unfavorable portrayal of the U.S. Congress, contrasted with the film's presentation of “the Soviet dictatorship as an advanced democracy.” There was the additional fiction of the Red Army Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky being portrayed as one of the defendants in the trial sequence. There had been no public trial for Tukhachevsky; Stalin had him tortured and executed in June 1937.
But Davies didn't stop. He traveled to Moscow to screen the picture for Stalin. Apparently the Soviet leadership was tickled to see itself portrayed on a Hollywood movie screen, but the falsehoods were so egregious they burst out laughing.
Many in Hollywood weren't laughing.
Sam Wood, the director of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Kings Row, and For Whom the Bell Tolls, was a right-wing zealot who viewed domestic Communism as a clear and present danger. Mission to Moscow motivated Wood to join with the screenwriters James Kevin McGuiness (described by no less than Ronald Reagan as a Red-baiter), Casey Robinson, and Morris Ryskind, along with the director-producers Victor Fleming, King Vidor, Walt Disney, Clarence Brown, and others to form the Motion Picture Alliance for Preservation of American Ideals in February 1944.
The Motion Picture Alliance led to FBI and HUAC investigations, and the Hollywood blacklist, where careers and lives were lost. Sure, there were communists in Hollywood, screenwriters mostly, but most of their attempts to get Marxist thoughts on screen never made it past front-line producers—let alone a Jack Warner or Louis B. Mayer. It took an upstanding U.S. ambassador to do that.
One wonders if the scales ever fell from Davies' eyes.
Friday July 16, 2021
Quotes of the Day
“Monday's virtual proceedings did not bode well for Team Kraken. U.S. District Court Judge Linda Parker expressed skepticism bordering on dismay about some of the evidence and experts from the original case [challenging the legitimacy of the 2020 election]. 'I don't think I've ever seen an affidavit that has made so many leaps,' she marveled at one point. 'How could any of you as officers of the court present this affidavit?'
”Generally speaking, it's not a good sign when a judge is characterizing one's evidence in terms such as 'fantastical,' 'speculative,' 'bad faith,' 'obviously questionable' and 'layers of hearsay.' Judge Parker brushed back Ms. [Sidney] Powell's assertion that the complaint's 960 pages of affidavits proved 'due diligence,' countering, 'Volume, certainly for this court, doesn't equate with legitimacy or veracity.'
-- from Trump's 'Team Kraken' Lands in Hot Water' by Michelle Cottle in The New York Times
Wednesday July 14, 2021
Movie Review: Ragtime (1981)
Do not read this review fast.
It is never right to read movie reviews fast.
— A.O. Scott Joplin
E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime”is one of my favorite novels, Milos Forman is one of my favorite directors (“Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Hair,” “Amadeus”), so it’s a shame Forman’s adaptation of Doctorow doesn’t quite work. It’s a tough ask. The novel is so sprawling in its use of fictional and historical characters, and so precise in its writerly voice, its ironic, class-conscious narrator skewering the age, that I don’t know how you’d get it all on screen.
It’s mostly historical characters that get glossed over. There’s no J.P. Morgan or Henry Ford, let alone Emma Goldman, while the Great Houdini is relegated to newsreel footage. The storyline of Father (James Olson) accompanying Perry to the Pole is completely cut, which makes sense to me, since it seems superfluous. Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern) is expanded in terms of overall real estate but she’s reduced by becoming a shallow, comic figure. In the book she’s sadder and deeper. The best of her—the love she feels for Tateh’s daughter—is ignored for comic nude scenes and catty eye rolls. The fictional Tateh (Mandy Patinkin) is also reduced. The depths of his Old Testament despair, with his hair and beard turning white, gets truncated, as does riding the trolleys to the end of the line—and there’s nothing at all on the 1912 Lawrence textile strike—so selling the picture book on an early morning in Philadelphia isn’t this glorious moment of redemption and release. It’s just sorta nice.
I like that, early on, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) plays piano to accompany newsreel footage. It’s a good way to both introduce our most important character and include some historical figures. It’s also an anachronism. Newsreels weren’t a thing in 1906.
Handsome as fuck
The movie mostly reduces Doctorow’s myriad storylines into two. The first is the real-life murder of architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer) by Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburgh (Robert Joy), which was huge news at the time. Newspapers called it the Crime of the Century, to which Doctorow reminds us “…it was only 1906 and there were ninety-four years to go.”
The murder was over a woman, of course, Nesbit, a model/chorus girl/actress who had originally been wooed by the superrich White and wound up married to Thaw, the scion of a coal and railroad baron. Neither man is an angel. White was 30 years older than Nesbit, and he possibly drugged her for their first sexual encounter, but he’s generally regarded as a kind man. Thaw was a horror show. He whipped Nesbit for sexual pleasure. Doctorow describes him as having “the face of a ventriloquist’s dummy.”
The flashpoint in the movie is that White places a statue of Diana atop Madison Square Garden (1890-1925), which he designed, and rumors swirled that a naked Nesbit was the model. This is barely mentioned by Doctorow, and historically impossible, as that particular statue of Diana, by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was unveiled in 1893, when Nesbit was 9 years old. Nevertheless, in the film, Thaw demands its removal, White ignores him, and in June 1906, on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden, Thaw shoots White three times in the head. The scene is graphic. I flashed on the JFK assassination.
The second storyline, the main one, concerns the rise and fall of Coalhouse Walker, Jr.
Shortly after we’re introduced to the family—Father, Mother (Mary Steenburgen), Mother’s Younger Brother (Brad Dourif), and the boy (Max Nichols)—basically the narrator of the novel but a nonentity here—the family maid finds a Black baby crying in their garden in New Rochelle, NY. After the police are called in, we get the racism of the day. “These niggers drop babies like rabbits,” says one official, and in the background, you can tell, they lose Mother’s Younger Brother, who is lonely, moody, and fairly progressive. They lose Mother, too, who is simply kind. In the novel, Father is away on the Perry expedition so Mother is forced to make decisions on her own. Here, she takes control in front of him, which, given the times, I don’t buy—particularly since she decides they should keep the baby. When Sarah (Debbie Allen), the half-mad mother, is discovered nearby, the family takes her in as well. And eventually Coalhouse, the father, shows up.
When I first saw “Ragtime,” I assumed Howard E. Rollins Jr. was going to be a big star. He’s handsome as fuck, with large, expressive eyes and cheekbones you could cut glass on, and he embodies the rectitude and righteous anger of Doctorow’s character. Three years later he starred in Norman Jewison’s “A Soldier’s Story,” where I thought the same thing: star. Never happened. One assumes he encountered the racism of our day. Or maybe the homophobia of our day? A cocaine addiction didn’t help. I didn’t see him again until four years later when turned up as Virgil Tibbs in the TV version of “In the Heat of the Night,” opposite Carroll O’Connor. By then, he was no longer handsome as fuck. Eight years after that, he died of AIDS-related lymphoma, age 46. It was Denzel, the villain of “Soldiers Story,” who became the star.
I do think the movie lets off Coalhouse too easily for abandoning Sarah and the baby. “I wasn’t living any kind of life I could ask a woman to share with me,” he says. Right. So he drives her to such despair she abandons the baby in a garden? In the novel, she actually buries it. Their relationship is a bit odd, too. He’s smart, she’s not; she crumbles quickly, he never does. But joy flashes in his eyes when he’s with her so we don’t question it. He plays piano for the family and they don’t question it, either. I wish Coalhouse had called out the titles of the songs, as he does in the novel, followed by “… composed by the great Scott Joplin,” but Joplin gets no such namecheck here. The scene is still great: Coalhouse gently chastising the family by telling them the piano is in need of tuning; the look of fondness in his eyes as he plays and the look of amazement in theirs; how his music is taken over by the soundtrack, which wells as he ascends to the attic room to reconcile with Sarah.
The connection between our two storylines is Mother’s Younger Brother. He winds up the unlikely paramour of Evelyn Nesbit during Thaw’s trial, and the unlikelier sixth member of Coalhouse’s gang after the firehouse incident; after he tells the gang: “I can make bombs.”
I should mention a couple of the movie’s edits—one good, one bad. Here’s the bad. After the reconciliation, Coalhouse invites the family (including Mother’s Younger Brother) to his wedding the following weekend. Then we cut to Mother’s Younger Brother making an embarrassing, last-ditch effort to see Evelyn Nesbit in New York City, which seems to take place later in the week. Then we cut to the incident with Wille Conklin (Kenneth McMillan) and The Emerald Isle Volunteer Fire Company. Except that’s in New Rochelle, Coalhouse only visits once a week, and he’s obviously returning from visiting Sarah. So wouldn’t that have been his wedding day?
It’s a horrific incident. The firetrucks are horse-drawn, Coalhouse has a brand new Model T Ford with a custom PANTASOTE top, and the firefighters resent him and it. So they block his way. When he goes to get a police officer, they defecate in the front seat. When the police officer (Jeff Daniels) arrests him instead, and he spends the night in jail, they take the time to destroy the car. His search for satisfaction—from white bureaucrats to Black lawyers—leads nowhere. Then Sarah tries to help. Teddy Roosevelt’s vice-president, Charles Fairbanks, comes through town on a whistlestop campaign tour and she tries to speak to him on Coalhouse’s behalf. She’s beaten by cops. In her attic room, wounded, Coalhouse visits and they talk quietly of their wedding, then we hear church music and cut to a church service. As the camera pans down, we see it’s not Sarah’s wedding but her funeral. That’s the good edit.
How about a shout-out for the casting director? A lot of the minor characters here went on to great stuff. Coalhouse’s gang consists of Dorsey Wright, who played Hud in Forman’s “Hair”; Calvin Levels, who has only 32 credits but seems familiar to me (that “M*A*S*H” episode, maybe?); Frankie Faison, the future Commissioner Burrell of “The Wire”; and a baby-faced Samuel L. Jackson in one of his first feature films. Among the policemen in the film we get Jeff Daniels, John Ratzenburger/Cliff Claven, and Andreas Katsulas, who became the one-armed man in “The Fugitive.”
And, of course, James Cagney.
Top of the world
Cagney had unofficially retired from the movies in 1961, after a bad experience on Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three,” and he more or less stayed that way. He did some narration in lesser stuff (“The Ballad of Smokey the Bear,” “Arizona Bushwackers”), mostly as favors for friends, but that was it. In 1974, he was feted by the American Film Institute and published his memoir around the same time. He was done. So how did Forman talk him out of retirement?
He was a neighbor of the Cagneys, and one evening during dinner he was discussing Doctorow’s novel, which he’d optioned. “As he did,” John McCabe writes in his Cagney biography, “Jim, because of growing sciatica, was sitting with his head slightly lowered, listening, and whenever especially interested, he raised his leonine head and looked intently at the speaker. Forman saw him do this several times and said to himself, ‘My God, if I could get him interested in the film…’” Cagney’s wife, Willie, was interested—she thought it would be good for her husband’s health—so eventually he signed on to play Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo. It was huge news. A last hurrah for a Hollywood legend.
“Fire.” “Sir?” “Fire.”
Is it much of a hurrah? Cagney was 81 at the time, and, along with the sciatica, suffered from diabetes and the aftereffects of several small strokes. He has trouble turning his head, some of his lines appear to be dubbed, and his sight is diminished—meaning his long-standing acting motto (“Look in the other actor’s camera eye and tell the truth”) doesn’t serve him well. Overweight, and with a handlebar moustache, I’m reminded less of the young, rat-a-tat Cagney, that firecracker of an actor, than Burl Ives’ snowman in the Rankin-Bass “Rudolph” special. There's something swaddled about him.
It was still a good idea. Not only had Cagney lived through the ragtime period, he kept returning to it in film. “The Public Enemy” began in 1909, the brunt of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” takes place in the aughts, while two of his lesser-known films—“The Strawberry Blonde” and “Johnny Come Lately”—were set in this exact year: 1906. Put it this way: Cagney read “Ragtime” less for its acclaim than because he’d actually known Evelyn Nesbit. That blows my mind.
Did they expand the role for him? Rhinelander Waldo wasn’t much of a character in the book—he’s just mentioned in passing after Coalhouse’s gang takes over the J.P. Morgan Library in Manhattan. This is after they attack the Emerald Isle Volunteer Fire Company to get Conklin. He’s not there, so he becomes part of the demand: Coalhouse’s Model T returned to him in its original condition, and the life of Conklin for the life of his Sarah. They attack other firehouses, too. Why the J.P. Morgan Library? In the novel it’s a bit of a mix-up. They plan is to hold Morgan, the richest man in the world, hostage in order to get Conklin, but they go to the wrong place—his library rather than his residence—and anyway Morgan was abroad; so instead they just hold his priceless artifacts hostage. The hostage negotiator in the novel is New York D.A. Charles S. Whitman, who has presidential ambitions and decides “he had a few minutes to take care of this matter of the mad coon.” Things don’t go well.
Neither here. Conklin is found, and brought before Waldo, red-faced and sweaty, and Waldo toys with him a bit. Other negotiators are brought in: Booker T. Washington (Moses Gunn), and Father, fresh from Atlantic City, where the family, with Coalhouse’s baby, is recovering from the press attention. Eventually Coalhouse sees there’s no out for him, so he switches demands. Forget Conklin. He wants the Model T and the life of his men. Let them go free. Waldo agrees, since he figures it won’t be hard to track five Black men in a marked Model T. He doesn’t know about Mother’s Younger Brother (now adeptly called Younger Brother by Doctorow), who, several blocks away, takes the wheel, and they give the cops the slip. It’s the best bit that’s not in the novel.
Coalhouse’s surrender to the cops resonates even more today than when it was made. Leaving the Morgan Library, unarmed, with hands raised, he’s cut down—like Charles Kinsey, Jonathan Price, Terence Crutcher, countless others. In the novel, it’s a volley of shots, a regular shooting gallery a la “Bonnie and Clyde.” Here it’s just one shot from one cop—at the command of Rhinelander Waldo. That resonates in a different way. Cagney, the original gangster shot dead in the streets in “Public Enemy” and “The Roaring Twenties,” orders the same for the century’s first black revolutionary. After the shot rings out, Coalhouse pauses, then keeps walking forward, hands still raised. For a second you wonder if he’d been hit. Then he crumples on the stairs like Cagney did in “Roaring Twenties.” He’d just been too stubborn to fall. But there’s no one there to say, as Gladys George did for Cagney, “He used to be a big shot.” Instead, we get a few notes of ragtime, played plaintively on the piano by Randy Newman.
Telling the cop “Fire” is the last line James Cagney will ever say in a feature film.
Like something closer to America
So the movie has moments but it’s not on the same level as the novel. I don’t think any cinematic depiction will ever be on the same level as the novel since you can’t capture that authorial voice on screen. The best attempt would be a miniseries. That might allow for the novel’s many interweaving storylines. I could see HBO having a go someday.
I knew about Cagney, of course, but I was surprised to see his Irish mafia pal Pat O’Brien playing Harry K. Thaw’s lead attorney. Like Cagney, it was his final film role. O’Brien and Cagney made eight movies together between 1934 and 1940, so it’s a shame they don’t get any scenes together. Cagney does have a scene with Norman Mailer’s Stanford White. At least White introduces the police commissioner to Harry K. Thaw, but it’s separate shots so one assumes they were filmed on separate days. Even so, Norman Mailer introducing James Cagney is a true colliding of my worlds. I was tickled just seeing it.
Beyond Rollins and McGovern, who were both nominated for supporting Oscars, there are standouts in smaller roles. I like Moses Gunn’s authority as Booker T. Washington, Ted Ross saying “I can’t taste it” as the Black lawyer, the privileged insanity of Robert Joy’s Harry K. Thaw, and the great, huffing, without-vanity performance of McMillan. Olson as Father is underrated: He brings a quiet humanity to the role. And it’s always a pleasure to see Brad Dourif. He had a moment when movies mattered.
Forman leaves a lot of loose ends that Doctorow ties up. In the novel, after their escape, Younger Brother travels south and becomes a revolutionary with Zapata’s army, where he’s considered brilliant but reckless. He dies within a year. During the Great War, Father is selling the armaments Younger Brother devised to Great Britain, but he’s aboard the Lusitania when it’s torpedoed by the Germans. Widowed, Mother marries Tateh, who has gone from picture-book making to film making. That’s what he’s doing in Atlantic City when he first meets the family. Doctorow has them move to Southern California, nascent Hollywood, where one day, watching Mother’s gentile son and Coalhouse’s Black son and his Jewish daughter playing together, he comes up with the idea for the “Our Gang” comedies. That’s cute but ... a bit overdone? I like that Forman and screenwriter Michael Weller let us connect the dots. Father doesn’t die, Mother simply leaves him for Tateh; and as Father watches from behind a lace curtain, we see the new family drive off—Jewish, gentile, Black. It feels like something closer to America.
Monday July 12, 2021
The 2021 Mariners Hit Parade, Singular
Yesterday I went to my fourth Mariners game of the season but I didn't stay until the end. In the 300 level, my friend Jim was bothered by the overloud sound system, which both discouraged our conversation and hurt his ears, so we left after seven with the M's down 4-1. By the time I got home, the game was done, 7-1. That top of the ninth must've been brutal: infield single, walk, single, single, sac fly, passed ball. Death by a thousand cuts. Then the M's went in order without getting the ball out of the infield, and that was that. Time for the All-Star break.
And time to access how we're doing.
Not poorly. This team of kids and second-chancers is 48-43, five games over .500, the sixth-best record in the AL. We're just 3.5 games out of the last wild card spot with no one between us and Oakland.
Also: poorly. We're last in the Majors in batting average and OBP (.216/.292), and 26th in slugging. Our run differential is -50, which indicates our winning ways probably aren't sustainable.
I haven't seen much of those winning ways in person. Of the four games I've been to, the M's are 1-3, managing a total of 5 runs on 13 hits—or an average of 1.25 runs on 3.25 hits per game. Fun. The May 5 no-hitter didn't help matters but in the other games we weren't exactly Murderers Row: 5 hits, 4 hits, 4 hits; one homerun, zero crooked numbers in any inning. Even with the lowest batting average in baseball, the M's still manage about 7 hits a game. So I guess I've just been lucky.
Or is it that I've only gone to day games? Do the M's do worse in those?
Not really: .215 BA during the day, .217 at night. We're not even the worst in the Majors in day games. The Yankees, of all teams, are beneath us with a shocking .212/.251 day/night split. Not sure what to make of that—other than to yet again lobby MLB to play more postseason games during the day.
No, the truly stark split for the M's is home/away games. Away from Seattle, we hit .230, 19th-best. In Seattle it's .203, which is not only the worst home batting average, it's the worst by 13 points. Yet somehow we having a winning record at Mariners Park: 29-20.
Seeing that, I wondered if we did particularly bad during home games during the day—like the ones I go to—but ... nah. There's nothing really there, either. Home day games, M's average 3.3 runs per game on 5.08 hits. It's worse than what they normally do but better than what I've seen.
So maybe the problem is just ... me? I'm like William H. Macy's character in the 2003 indie hit, “The Cooler,” in which he's hired by a Vegas casino to bring bad luck to its patrons. (Macy also played a Lundegaard, remember.) So maybe the M's should hire me not to go to its games? Or they could just keep blasting the 300-level patrons with their overloud sound system. That might keep me away, too.
Anyway, here's to the kids and the second-chancers in the second half. Given what we've done, I'm amazed at where we are. “Ya gotta believe” has been taken as a slogan but we could go with something similar. The 2021 Seattle Mariners: Ya never know.
Friday July 09, 2021
'Fergie Jenkins Liked Your Reply'
Is this the best part of social media? Or maybe the only good part of social media?
The other day, Fergie Jenkins, the great Ferguson Jenkins, the Hall of Fame pitcher for the Cubs and Rangers who was the first pitcher to retire with > 3,000 Ks and < 1,000 BBs, posted this on Twitter, with video of him pitching to Harmon Killebrew in the 1971 All-Star Game:
I watched the video knowing what I know—Killebrew went deep on him. This is that All-Star game when Reggie Jackson took Dock Ellis so deep it nearly tore off the transom on the top of Tigers Stadium, and at the end of the day six future Hall of Famers hit homeruns: Jackson, Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson, Johnny Bench, Roberto Clemente, and Killebrew. That's 3,106 career homeruns between them—or an average of 500+. The wind was blowing strongly to right field, which is where Jackson and most of them hit it. Clemente went center. Only Killebrew hit it into the wind.
Anyway, I expected someone to mention that the video cut out too quickly—before Killer's homer—but nobody had. So I did.
Woke up to this:
Wednesday July 07, 2021
What's the Matter with Kansas? Evelyn Nesbit
I spent July 4 weekend rereading E.L. Doctorow's “Ragtime,” as is my patriotic duty, and this passage stuck out for me in a way it hadn't before. It's about Evelyn Nesbit, whom you can consider a through line for sex, movies, even Internet ads. It's also about why working class people vote the way they vote. Doctorow voiced it in 1975, before they truly began to vote that way.
Her testimony created the first sex goddess in American History. Two elements of the society realized this. The first was the business community, specifically a group of accountants and cloak and suit manufactures who also dabbled in the exhibition of moving pictures, or picture shows as they were called. Some of these men saw the way Evelyn's face on the front page of a newspaper sold out editions. They realized that there was a process of magnification by which news events established certain individuals in the public consciousness as larger than life. There were the individuals who represented on desirable human characteristic to the exclusion of all others. The businessmen wondered if they could create such individuals not from accidents of news events but from the deliberate manufactures of their own medium. If they could, more people would pay money for the picture shows. Thus did Evelyn provide the inspiration for the concept of the movie star system and the model for every sex goddess from Theda Bara to Marilyn Monroe. The second group of people to perceive Evelyn's importance was made up of various trade union leaders, anarchists and socialists, who correctly prophesied that she would in the long run be a greater threat to the workingman's interests than mine owners or steel manufactures. In Seattle, for instance, Emma Goldman spoke to an I.W.W. local and cited Evelyn Nesbit as a daughter of the working class whose life lesson in the way of all daughters and sisters of poor men were used for the pleasure of the wealthy. The men in her audience guffawed and shouted out lewd remarks and broke into laughter. There were militant worker, too, unionists with a radical awareness of their situation. Goldman sent off a letter to Evelyn: I am often asked the question How can the masses permit themselves to be exploited by the few. The answer is by being persuaded to identify with them. Carrying his newspaper with your picture the laborer goes home to his wife, an exhausted workhorse with the veins standing out in her legs, and he dreams not of justice but of being rich.“
What's the matter with Kansas? Evelyn Nesbit.
I'm curious about the first part, actually, the movie stuff, the idea that stars were manufactured by would-be moguls rather than by audiences. So much of what I've read about the nascent days of the industry make it seem the producers were caught unaware, too. Oh, they like the actors? They want to know who they are? They'll go back if we promote their names? Let's get on that. A pretty face launches more than a new movie these days. She's in all those Internet ads, too, and on social media avatars. Even journalism. For the latest tragic event, see if you can't get a shot of a pretty girl on the scene crying about it. I see this over and over again. She's there to catch your eye. And it works—over and over again.
Anyway, everyone should read ”Ragtime."
Sunday July 04, 2021
Movie Review: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Do we have Martin Dies and the aptly named John L. Leech to thank for “Yankee Doodle Dandy”?
Dies (pronounced “Dees”) was a U.S. congressman from Texas, who, from 1937 to 1944, chaired the Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, also known as the Dies Committee, which was the predecessor to HUAC. Leech was a government witness for Dies who accused James Cagney and more than 40 Hollywood artists and artisans of being communists. His accusations made the front page of The New York Times in mid-August 1940. A week later, the stars were cleared … on pg. 21 of the Times.
So who exactly was John L. Leech and why did he say these terrible things about Jimmy Cagney? I spent a recent weekend doing a deep dive on newspapers.com trying to figure it out. It’s quite the journey.
In the early ’30s, Leech twice ran for political office in Los Angeles on the communist ticket, got swamped both times, then showed up a few years later in Portland, Ore., working as a house painter while acting as a government witness in the deportation hearing of west coast labor leader Harry Bridges, whom Leech accused of being a communist. It was a huge story in the summer of 1939. In the end, Bridges won the case, while the dean who adjudicated, James M. Landis, had strong words about Leech:
“It is impossible accurately even to summarize this day and a half of testimony by Leech. In evasion, qualification, and contradiction it is almost unique. Its flavor cannot be conveyed by a few scattered abstracts from the record, for the evasions are truly labyrinthine in nature.”
Apparently to Martin Dies, this meant someone he could work with. Just a year later came the headlines accusing Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Frederic March, Franchot Tone, Jean Muir, Fritz Lang, Clifford Odets, and many others of being communists. In his testimony, Leech said that Cagney was both a Communist Party member and contributor, who, since 1934, was so important he dealt directly with the central committee. Leech also said Bogie attended communist study groups and contributed $150 a month. The reaction from the stars was swift. “I have never contributed money to a political organization of any form,” Bogart said. “That includes Republican, Democratic, Hollywood Anti-Nazi League or the Communist party.” He then asked for the chance to face his accuser. Frederic March said the same. “Mr. Leech is an unmitigated liar. … I will welcome the opportunity to meet Mr. Leech face to face and call him a liar.”
William Cagney spoke for Jimmy:
“As his brother and manager I say that Jimmy is not a Communist, never was a Communist, and never will be a Communist. Neither is he in sympathy with the Communist cause in any way whatsoever. … He did give a donation six years ago for food and clothing to the starving women and children who were the innocent victims of the San Joaquin Valley cotton strike. This was purely a humanitarian gesture, as are his contributions to the Community Chest, the Red Cross, the Motion-Picture Relief Fund and other deserving groups.”
Bogie was the first to get his name cleared, followed by March. A few days later, despite a lifelong fear of flying, Cagney made a cross-country planetrip to meet Dies in San Francisco and get the all-clear sign. In all, everyone Leech accused but one (Lionel Stander) was cleared. Think of that. There were communists in Hollywood, particularly among screenwriters, but Leech’s scattershot accusations only managed to net one. Leech was not just a rat, he was a dirty rat. He accusations were filled with lies.
And he kept doing it! That’s the amazing thing. In a 1944 congressional race, some of Leech’s previous testimony—accusing U.S. Rep. Franck R. Havenner of communist ties—surfaced. Havenner still won his election but it smarted, and in office he denounced Leech’s testimony as “malicious perjury,” called the now-defunct Dies Committee a “star chamber,” and demanded Leech be subpoenaed for questioning. Didn’t happen. Instead, HUAC was formed, and in a few years it would make the Dies committee look like pikers.
Meanwhile, Leech kept going. In May 1949, his name surfaced as a government witness in deportation hearings in LA. Two months later, he’s the government witness in deportation hearings in Seattle. A year after that, it’s back to LA for more scare headlines and deportation hearings. Almost no newspaper mentioned his previous discredited testimony.
But someone finally called him on his shit. On May 9, 1951, the Spokesman-Review printed a small AP story about Jacob Kaufmann of Spokane, Wash., who had been ousted from the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers of America for alleged communist ties. He was now suing his union for libel, and one member, John L. Leech, for slander. The following year, Kaufmann was publicly cleared of all allegations, and Leech was forced to sign an affidavit stating that Kaufmann was not a communist “and statements made linking him to Moscow were due to mistaken identity.” Then this:
Kaufman, whose slander suit against John L. Leech as the outgrowth of the charges was settled out of court after the plaintiff’s testimony was completed in a Superior Court trial last month, also is to receive a nominal sum for damages.
John L. Leech spent more than a decade accusing powerful labor leaders, politicians and Hollywood stars of having communist ties, and he kept getting away with it and getting away with it. And then a house painter brought him down.
Anyway, back to “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
In 1940, Bill Cagney was rattled enough by the bad publicity surrounding Leech’s accusations that he went looking for vehicles to wash away the taint from his brother. And along came this biopic about the flag-wavingest song-and-dance man to ever hit the Great White Way. And he was Irish to boot.
For a time, the biopic property was with Samuel Goldwyn Co., with Fred Astaire—Cohan’s choice—considered for the lead. After Astaire passed, and the project went to Warner Bros., Cagney was suggested. “Cagney? The gangster guy?” Cohan supposedly said. “Can he dance?” Told he could, he asked if he could sing. “Not much, but neither could you.”
Believe it or not, Cagney had his problems with the project, too. He was a strong union man—a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild, its president in 1942—while Cohan had refused to join Actors Equity, and as a producer opposed a 1919 strike by the group. When Cagney got past that, he had a problem with the original screenplay by Robert Buckner—not funny enough, he said—and demanded that the Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip, who had done such good work on “The Strawberry Blonde,” punch it up.
Eventually, with Warners pushing, and brother Bill pulling, Cagney agreed to star in what he’d always wanted to star in: a big-budget musical. It was one of the highest-grossing movies of the year, won him his only Oscar, and in 2007 was voted by the American Film Institute as the 98th greatest Hollywood film of all time.
And all because of a dirty rat.
Such, such are the joys
I’m curious how the original script ended. In the final version, FDR gives George M. Cohan the Congressional Medal of Honor—“the first person of your profession to receive this honor”—Cohan does a jaunty wing-step down the White House stairs, then walks out into the D.C. night, where a parade is going by: new recruits for World War II singing Cohan’s WWI hit “Over There.” He joins the marching but not the singing. One soldier, calling him “Old Timer,” asks if he doesn’t remember the song. “Seems to me I do,” Cohan replies. “Well, I don’t hear anything,” the guy responds. So Cohan starts singing, tears in his eyes. And ours.
But this couldn’t have been the ending in the original script. Production began Dec. 3, 1941, four days before Pearl Harbor, and five days before we declared war on Japan. Warner Bros. was the first studio to pull out of Germany and the first to make real anti-Nazi movies, but even with that pedigree I can’t imagine they’d end a movie with contemporary U.S. soldiers singing “Over There!” if we weren’t already at war.
I admit I have trouble being impartial about “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” I saw it as a kid on TV some weekend afternoon in the ’70s and fell in love. I wasn’t the only one. When he was 5, John Travolta watched it on “The Million-Dollar Movie” on local New York TV, and became so enamored of the film and its star that his mother used to get him to do his chores by telling him Jimmy Cagney was on the phone telling him to do them.
That said, the movie is a little cornball. I have less trouble with the flag-waving than with all the talk about “the people” and their wisdom: “I’m an ordinary guy who knows what ordinary guys like” kind of stuff. The female lead, Joan Leslie, all of 16 when production began, is so sweet it makes your cheeks hurt, while the FDR portrayal is overdone and stentorian. Then there’s the racial matters: the Cohans doing a number in blackface; the quiet black servants constantly waiting on the white stars; and the Negro spiritual during the superpatriotic “George Washington Jr.” None of it has aged well.
But it’s got Cagney in Cohan numbers, and that makes it worth it. The centerpiece of the film, the “Little Johnny Jones” production on Broadway in 1904, which made a huge star out of Cohan, kills me every time. I get such joy watching it. Watching him. Cagney lights up and lights us up. Most people assume the way Cagney dances here is the way he normally danced, but it’s not. He’s imitating Cohan. He’s acting the dance.
It is amusing to think about the story told in “Little Johnny Jones.” An American jockey goes to London to win the English Derby Cup but loses so badly everyone assumes he threw the race. Eventually he’s cleared, which is another light-up moment, and the play’s happy ending. But doesn’t that mean he was just … bad? Our happy ending is that Little Johnny Jones isn’t a cheat, he’s just overrated.
(The real Cohan musical was more complicated and melodramatic, involving a girlfriend, a San Francisco gambler, and kidnapping. Cohan based it on Tod Sloan, a flashy, well-dressed—thus: “dandy”—American jockey who popularized the modern forward-riding style, became an international celebrity, and was invited to England to race for the stable of the Prince of Wales—eventually Edward VII. A year later, Sloan was accused of betting on his own races, there was no flare exonerating him, and despite scant evidence he was banned from the sport in both Britain and the U.S. for life. Secondary careers, including in Hollywood, never took off. He went broke in the 1910s and died in 1933, age 59.)
I’m also amused by the framing device for the film. Cohan, long retired to the family farm, has returned to the stage as FDR in the triumphant Rodgers, Hart and Kaufman musical “I’d Rather Be Right,” which debuted in 1937 though the movie makes it contemporary. Amid post-show banter he gets a telegram from the big man himself, asking him to the White House, and he assumes he’s in trouble. Of course not. It’s the Congressional Medal of Honor. But he doesn’t get that until the end of the movie. First, he tells the president—who, remember, is presiding over a country that’s just entered a world war—his entire life story. One can’t help but wonder if FDR ever snuck a glance at his watch.
We see Cohan’s birth on the Fourth of July (in reality, a day earlier), then his early, bratty days. He performs the song his father, Jerry (Walter Huston) has sung, an Irish ditty called “Keep Your Eyes Upon Me,“ at age 7, played by Henry Blair. Better is when he progresses to pre-teen world and is played by curly-haired Douglas Croft. Neither boy tries to do a Cagney the way Frankie Burke did in “Angels with Dirty Faces” (and, to a lesser extent, the way Frankie Darro managed in “The Public Enemy” before the roles were switched), but Croft is excellent both on stage in “Peck’s Bad Boy” and backstage as the little diva who gets a licking from the Brooklyn kids, then from his father after his vanity ruins a high-paying vaudeville gig.
(Croft is his own sad story. In 1942 alone, he played boyhood versions of Gary Cooper (“Pride of the Yankees”), Ronald Reagan (“Kings Row”), Glenn Ford (“Flight Lieutenant”) and Cagney. A year later, he became the first cinematic Robin, the Boy Wonder, in the Columbia movie serial “Batman.” Then he served in WWII, technician 5th grade, suffered a motorcycle accident in 1947, and doesn’t have a credit after that. He died in 1963, from acute alcohol intoxication and liver disease, age 37.)
That spanking from his dad is supposed to set Georgie right but it never does. Cohan remains cocky—but now with the Cagney twinkle—and his ego keeps losing the family gigs. He’s basically Dustin Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey from “Tootsie” but suffering from vanity rather than perfectionism. At their boarding house, overhearing he’s a liability, he pretends he’s just sold a musical and urges mom, dad and sis (Jeanne Cagney) to go on the road themselves. It all works out because he keeps meeting cute: his future wife, Mary, who thinks he’s the old man he’s been playing onstage; and his future partner, Sam Harris (Richard Whorf), when the two scam Schwab (S.Z. Sakall) into backing “Little Johnny Jones.” It’s an odd scam. Harris is pitching a play Schwab isn’t interested in, Cohan interrupts, pretends to be Harris’ partner, and pretends they have a meeting with another money-man about his play—which is exactly the kind of thing Schwab is looking for. So wouldn’t it make more sense for Cohan to pitch “Little Johnny Jones” himself? Without the subterfuge? As a kid, I always enjoyed their friendship but as an adult I keep thinking, “What does Sam Harris do exactly?”
For the record
Should we talk about the songs? As a kid, I always loved the “Harrigan” number he and Mary perform, to no avail, before Dietz and Gotz. It’s an Irish song, about an Irish man, with Cagney turning the Irish up to 11. I just remember being thrilled. I loved “Mary,” too, and often helplessly sing it in my head when I meet a Mary. I like the rhythms and rhymes in the opening stanza of “Yankee Doodle,” and I like how Cagney comes in a beat behind for the first chorus. “Over There” is rousing but “Grand Old Flag” was never my bag—although “emblem of/land I love” scans well. And the song has obviously lasted.
The brunt of the movie contains three big musicals from Cohan’s heyday: “Little Johnny Jones” (which includes “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway”); “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway” (the title song, “Mary Is a Grand Old Name”); and “George Washington Jr.” (“Grand Old Flag”). Between the first and second musical we get Cohan’s marriage to Mary and the wooing of actress Fay Templeton (Irene Manning), and between the second and third we get the comic back-and-forth between Cohan and theatrical rival Eddie Foy (Eddie Foy Jr.). Warners was grooming Manning to be a star, so she gets a lot of screen time, but I’m not sure “Yankee Doodle” served her well. We wind up not liking her much. Cohan, the biggest thing on Broadway, has to come hat-in-hand to her? And she turns him down and insults him? Then she insists on singing “Mary,” which he’d written for his wife? Plus the ”Forty-Five Minutes" musical flags a bit without Cagney on stage. Manning just doesn’t have that Warners vibe. She’s more MGM.
Cohan is considered the father of the American musical so it would’ve been nice to see more of what he was displacing, and why he was considered so fresh. And shouldn’t he also be considered the father of American sampling? Many of his songs contain snatches of earlier songs. In the “Grand Old Flag” sequence alone, we hear snippets of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Auld Lang Syne,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Was he the first to do this or was it a common practice back then?
The movie gives us a sense of why he ended, though. After WWI, there’s a nice montage—by Warners’ montage master Don Siegel—with the camera wandering around the Broadway lights in the late teens and ’20s, and landing on different Cohan musicals, from which we hear a few lines. It’s supposed to demonstrate his ubiquity but it also demonstrates his lack of range: “Nellie Kelly” sounds a bit like “Molly Malone,” which sounds a bit like “Billie,” which sounds a lot like “Mary Is a Grand Old Name.” Cohan is becoming derivative. Of himself.
If the first third of the movie is his struggle and rise, and the second third is his ascendance, the movie falters a bit with the final third, when things fall away. Sister Josie gets married and decides to leave the act, and mom and dad do the same. We get a sappy bit where Georgie makes Dad his equal partner. We get another bit where Cohan tries to write a drama and fails. Mom and Josie die off camera, the father famously on camera. (The scene brought director Michael Curtiz to tears.) Cohan and Harris part company, Cohan and Mary travel the globe, then there’s a restless retirement on the farm. Those damn kids in their jalopy stop by, like a Paleolithic version of Archie’s gang, and don’t know who he is. That’s about when Sam Harris needs help, so Cohan returns in “I’d Rather Be Right.”
As a kid I was confused by a dancing FDR—“Didn’t they know he had polio?” I asked my father—but the number we see, Rodgers and Hart’s “Off the Record,” totally works. I particularly like the verse they added for WWII:
And for my friends in Washington who complain about the taxes
Who cares as long as we can knock the axe out of the Axis?
Don't print it—strictly off the record
I can’t forget how Lafayette helped give us our first chance
To win our fight for liberty, and now they’ve taken France
We’ll take it back from Hitler and put ants in his Japants
And that’s for the record!
On the last two lines, Cagney breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to the camera as if he’s calling out Hitler and Tojo. I get chills watching it now. Can’t imagine how thrilling it must’ve been when the movie was released in the early, dark days of the war, when we were still slightly staggered from the sucker punch. There he was, our favorite movie tough guy, dressed as our longtime president, laying down the law. It’s moments like these that help me forgive the movie its shortcomings, and urge me to return to it again and again.
A pretty good part
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” premiered on May 29, 1942, about a week before the Battle of Midway, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Picture, Director and Supporting Actor for Huston. It won three: Sound Recording, Musical Score, and Actor. Cagney’s acceptance speech was, like him, short and modest.
I’ve always had the feeling ever since coming into it, that you can only be as good as the other fellow thinks you are—or, I might add, as bad. And it seems that quite a number of people have thought a good job has been done, and that makes me very happy. And just one added thought: I might say it was a pretty good part. Thank you.
Some irony. Cagney had finally gotten the type of role he’d longed for at the Warners factory: not another gangster or hot-shot pilot but what he was: a song and dance man. Ever since 1938, though, he’d had an out clause in his contract. At the conclusion of any film, if he felt his relationship with the studio had become toxic, he could walk. This is what he and brother Bill did after “Yankee Doodle,” just when he and Warners had begun making beautiful music together. Shame. For five years, and four undistinguished pictures, the Cagneys were on their own. They only returned when they ran into financial trouble. His first movie back? “White Heat.” One can’t help but wonder what else they might’ve made if he’d stuck around.
“Yankee Doodle” presages Cagney’s own retirement to his farm on Martha’s Vineyard in 1961—though I doubt, like Cohan, he was reading Variety there. Eventually Cagney was persuaded to return to work, too, for a small part in Milos Foreman’s “Ragtime.” Like Cohan’s, this return took place exactly five years before his death. “Ragtime” was 1981, Cagney died in ’86. “I’d Rather Be Right” was 1937, Cohan died on Nov. 5, 1942, age 64.
Cohan did get to see the picture before he passed. He’d long fought with Warners over what parts of his life to portray—Mary, for example, is an attempt to gloss over the fact that he had two wives, neither named Mary—but after watching the film in in his home in Monroe, New York, he cabled Cagney this simple message: “How’s my double? Thanks for a wonderful job. Sincerely, George M. Cohan.”
Saturday July 03, 2021
Should've Been 29 Down
Saw this with some chagrin in today's NY Times Crossword:
On the other hand, it was an easy get. Thanks in part to the pandemic, and in part to Rex Parker, Patricia and I are currently on a 447-day streak.
For more on the hapless answer, see here.
Saturday July 03, 2021
Bialystock + Bloom = Blumenstock?
Came across this in the Motion Picture Herald, the one-time movie exhibitors trade pub, which often included helpful promo hints for enterprising theater managers. This is from the spring/summer of 1942:
I like the WANTED poster of Hitler to promote the rerelease of the 1939 film “Hitler, Beast of Berlin,” which played with both the Three Stooges' “You Nazty Spy,” and the Marx Bros. in “Horse Feathers” (not “Duck Soup”?). Not a bad triple feature. MPH calls Hitler “Herr Schickelgruber” as an allusion to his suspect ancestry.
The “Yankee Doodle” one is more hifalutin, delving into theatrical history and using the public libary to bring in customers. I'm struck by the genius behind it: Mort Blumenstock. He became head of Warner Bros.' publicity dept. in 1945 and died of a heart attack in 1956, age 55. I guess I'm just curious if Mel Brooks ever met him. Blumenstock? Bialystock and Bloom? Just tossing out.
Thursday July 01, 2021
Donald Rumsfeld (1932-2021)
Deflecting the truth with aren't-I-clever grins.
The most recent wave of horrific Republicans has made me all-but-forget just how awful the previous generation of horrific Republicans were, but the death of Donald Rumsfeld yesterday, at age 88, reopened some of those wounds. I don't know if Rumsfeld was the worst of the bunch, but his CV is pretty good: secretary of defense under George W. Bush, who, within hours of the 9/11 attack, was turning his eye not toward the attackers but toward his own foreign policy to-do list, which began with Saddam Hussein and Iraq. You might have heard how that one ended.
George Packer has a good obit on the man on the Atlantic site. He's less kind than me. Excerpt:
Rumsfeld was the worst secretary of defense in American history. Being newly dead shouldn't spare him this distinction. He was worse than the closest contender, Robert McNamara ... Rumsfeld was the chief advocate of every disaster in the years after September 11. Wherever the United States government contemplated a wrong turn, Rumsfeld was there first with his hard smile—squinting, mocking the cautious, shoving his country deeper into a hole. His fatal judgment was equaled only by his absolute self-assurance. He lacked the courage to doubt himself. He lacked the wisdom to change his mind. ...
Rumsfeld started being wrong within hours of the attacks and never stopped. He argued that the attacks proved the need for the missile-defense shield that he'd long advocated. He thought that the American war in Afghanistan meant the end of the Taliban. He thought that the new Afghan government didn't need the U.S. to stick around for security and support. He thought that the United States should stiff the United Nations, brush off allies, and go it alone. He insisted that al-Qaeda couldn't operate without a strongman like Saddam. He thought that all the intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was wrong, except the dire reports that he'd ordered up himself. He reserved his greatest confidence for intelligence obtained through torture. He thought that the State Department and the CIA were full of timorous, ignorant bureaucrats. He thought that America could win wars with computerized weaponry and awesome displays of force.
I had my own Rumsfeld-McNamara comparison after viewing Errol Morris' underappreciated doc, “The Unknown Known,” which was a kind of national follow-up to his Acadamy Award-winning doc on McNamara, “The Fog of War.” Two defense secretaries, two disastrous American wars, but at least McNamara was willing to glimpse himself in the mirror and see the horror. If Rumsfeld glimpsed himself, he was too enamored with what he saw. “Indeed,” I wrote back in 2014, “Rumsfeld, with his nitpicky, overly semantic arguments and pleased-with-himself 'aren't I clever?' grins, makes McNamara, the numbers cruncher and company man, seem like the most soulful person who ever lived.”
Morris' title, of course, comes from Rumsfeld's famous quote about what we know/don't know:
- known knowns: things we know we know
- known unknowns: things we know we don't know
- unknown unknowns: things we don't know that we don't know
- unknown knowns: things we think we know but don't
Rumsfeld was a master of unknown knowns to the end. And now he's left us for the great known unknown. If there's anything to know there, now he knows.