Books postsSaturday September 02, 2017
“That's funny ... but it's not Noel Coward funny.”
After finishing David Thomson's new book on the Warner Bros. (much recommended), I've been having fun with Frank Langella's 2012 memoir, “Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them,” in which each short chapter is a famous person and he describes his encounter(s) with them. It's like candy. Lee Strasberg is a dick, Yul Brynner is imperious (and a dick), Rita Hayworth is touching (and touched), Dolores Del Rio remains untouched. This is from his “John F. Kennedy” chapter, whom he met unexpectedly at a friend's house as he was just starting out. It makes me long for a real president. But then, almost everything does these days:
As the afternoon progressed our napkins would grow increasingly damp with tears of laughter as Noel Coward reached into his bottomless hamper of stories, jokes, one-liners, and character assassinations. And the sight of my President pounding on the table with one hand and holding the other out, palm up, to Coward, begging him to wait while he caught his breath, has never left my memory. To see the leader of the free world so hopelessly convulsed with laughter, wiping his eyes continuously, and to watch his wife genuinely delighted to see him so happy, made a profound impression on me. How glorious it must have been for him. Not a single subject of importance discussed all afternoon. No current affairs, political views, or social commentary. ...
We all trouped out to the lawn to say our good-byes, and before boarding the helicopter the President said to me: “What do you think, Frank? Should I keep my day job?”
JFK also asked Langella, then in his early 20s, if he was going to attempt to make a living as an actor. Imagine if he could've seen what happened: Langella not only would do just that, but he would wind up playing JFK's 1960 presidential rival in the 2008 movie “Frost/Nixon.” “You see, Mr. President, you'll get assassinated next year, Nixon will win in '68, then he'll discredit himself with the cover-up of a burglarly at Democratic National Headquarters, all of which was inspired in part by his political fear of your brother. No, not Bobby. Teddy. Bobby will be assassinated in June '68, paving the way for Nixon.”
Yeah, it really did go south about the time I was born, didn't it?
'The Hots for Uncle Hymie'
Even though he wasn't highlighted, I thought about Philip Roth as I walked through the first room at the newly created American Writers Museum in Chicago on Saturday. It was because of this photo—a portrait of Arthur Miller as a young playwright:
Quite the looker. And it made me recall a passage in Roth's “Portnoy's Complaint,” but I recalled it wrong. It's where Portnoy is talking about his lust for “the bland blond exotics called shikses” and his corresponding observation that these exotic creatures actually craved them—the nice Jewish boys who underneath it all weren't so nice. Miller and Monroe are mentioned, yes, but only in passing:
...for every Eddie yearning for a Debbie, there is a Debbie yearning for an Eddie — a Marilyn Monroe yearning for her Arthur Miller...
No, the punchline is about another '50s celebrity couple:
Who knew, you see, who knew back when we were watching National Velvet, that this stupendous purple-eyed girl who had the supreme goyische gift of all, the courage and know-how to get up and ride around on a horse (as opposed to having one pull your wagon, like the rag-seller for whom I am named) — who would have believed that this girl on the horse with the riding breeches and the perfect enunciation was lusting for our kind no less than we for hers? Because you know what Mike Todd was — a cheap facsimile of my Uncle Hymie upstairs! And who in his right mind would ever have believed that Elizabeth Taylor had the hots for Uncle Hymie?
That's the line that made me laugh out loud when I first read “Portnoy's Complaint” all those years ago. On Saturday, some part of me was thinking Roth linked Miller to Uncle Hymie, but Roth knew better. So did Monroe, apparently. Miller weren't no Uncle Hymie, that's for sure.
The last few days I was in Chicago to see “Hamilton” at the PrivateBank Theater (more later, obviously), and yesterday, at the recommendation of a family friend, and before the CTA slog to the airport (and it was a slog), I visited the American Writers Museum on Michigan Avenue. Haven't heard of it? It's relatively new. “One month and one day old,” the woman at the reception desk told me, as she was taking my money and checking my bag.
How was it? A bit small but very interactive and very, very diverse. I'd probably say it's diverse to a fault. In the first room you go into, there's a long line of writers, including statesmen from the founding of the republic such as Franklin and Jefferson (but not the man who wrote “like he was running out of time”), and up to the present day. But my wheelhouse is post-WWII Jewish-American writers, and while there were individual posts for Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, there was nothing in that room for Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth or E.L. Doctorow. Was Salinger there? He must've been. But I don't recall seeing him.
The exhibit is constructed on a circle, and halfway through there's a room where, among other interactive options, you can choose your five favorite works. It's a way for the museum to gather information: not only what people like but who they are and where they live. (If you want a bookmark decorated with your favorites, you include your email address.) For my top 5, I went with books that amazed and that I kept returning to. The five I came up with are to the right: “The Great Gatsby,” “My Antonia,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “The World According to Garp” and The Ghost Writer.“ No, I don't know why they don't have a book cover yet for ”My Antonia,“ other than the fact that the museum is, you know, just one month and one day old.
The bigger problem was when I tried to include one of E.L. Doctorow's novels on my list. You do this by typing the name of the author into the computer terminal and then go from there.
This is what it looked like:
I think I stared at that final screen for a while, wondering what I was doing wrong. Do I include, ”E.L.“ at the end? I tried that. Nothing. I backed up, tried it again. I kept thinking, ”It's not getting me to...“
Then it hit me. They didn't have E.L. Doctorow in their database. They had Cory, who, I'm sure is a fine upstanding citizen of the world, and poet Maureen Doallas, as well as Muriel Dobbin and all of those Doanes. And you certainly can't open a museum to American writers without Margo Dockendorf. But the author of ”Book of Daniel,“ ”Ragtime“ or ”World's Fair“? The National Book Award winner, PEN/Faulkner award winner, three-time National Book Critics Circle Award winner, as well as Library of Congress prize winner? Bupkis.
At this point, some part of me assumed that maybe the Doctorow estate didn't want to be included. You know how you couldn't get his books for the longest time on Kindle? Like that. But when I brought up the glitch with the receptionist, she said, no, that's probably not it. They're just missing some. But they are making a list of writers they need to add, so she took down his name.
”Doctorow,“ I said, ”E.L. He's kind of a big deal."
'You're getting on that plane with Victor Larsen!'
Noah Isenberg's book, “We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie,” has some interesting stuff on the censorship battles between Warner Bros. and Joseph Breen's Motion Picture Production Code. But the most intriguing examples of censorship are actually foreign:
When the film was released a year later in [Ingrid] Bergman's native Sweden, officially a neutral nation but one with lingering trade and diplomatic ties to Germany, it wasn't so much the sex that concerned the censors as it was the defamation of the Nazis (Rick's shooting of Strasser and Renault's kicking of the Vichy bottle were removed, as was Renault's wry comment on trashing Rick's Café after its doors are closed for business, “You know how that impresses Germans.”)
Of course, that was nothing compared to what happened when the film was released in West Germany after the war:
In West Germany, the initial release of the film in 1952 was a heavily edited, dubbed version (also shown during the early years in postwar Austria), stripped of all scenes that might disturb the delicate, halfhearted process of de-Nazification—Major Strasser is completely cut out, as are all references to the Third Reich, creating a film that's some twenty-five minutes shorter. Gone is the singing of the “Marseillaise”; gone, too, all anti-Nazi jokes and dialogue. The old Czech partisan Victor Laszlo becomes Victor Larsen, a Norwegian atomic physicist hunted by Interpol.
Would be fascinating to see this West German version one day.
How Casablanca's Villain is a Hero
I'm reading Noah Isenberg's new book, “We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie,” and while it's not great, the third chapter is. That's when he recounts the number of refugees who helped make this movie about refugees:
Nearly all of the some seventy-five actors and actresses cast in Casablanca were immigrants. .... Hailing from more than thirty different nations, the majority of refugee actors in the film served merely as day players, performing small parts—generally either as Nazis or as refugees fleeing the Nazis—most without significant dialogue. Among them, however, were many distinguished European artists with illustrious pasts on stage and screen.
The one who intrigues me most is Carl the waiter, S.Z. Sakall, who was born in 1883 under the Austria-Hungary Empire and died in L.A. in 1955 at the age of 72. Think of all he lived through. He wrote a memoir with a great title, “The Story of Cuddles: My life under the Emperor Francis Joseph, Adolf Hitler and the Warner Brothers,” which could be great to read, but it's going for $120 on Amazon. Somebody needs to get that book back in print. Among the “trivia” about him on IMDb is this sobering note: “All three of his sisters perished in Nazi concentration camps.”
Then there's this note about Conrad Veidt, the distinguished German actor (“Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “The Man Who Laughs”), who played the movie's villain, Maj. Heinrich Strasser:
Even an actor like Conrad Veidt, who left Germany of his own accord in 1933 (the same year he married the Jewish-Hungarian Lily Prager), was essentially a refugee by the time of the production. To express his opposition to the regime, the non-Jewish actor is said to have listed “JEW” in large block letters for his religion on a form he was required to submit with National Socialist authorities. The Nazis responded in kind, keeping his films from being shown anywhere in the Third Reich.
In his way, Veidt was braver than the actor who played the hero. When it was Humphrey Bogart's turn to face up to fascism—the right-wing, blacklist kind—he began to do the right thing, then folded. Maybe it's the character actors who have the character.