Monday January 18, 2021
'We Should Have a Deeper State': Michael Lewis on Trump, Presidential Transitions and the American Attitude Toward Government
One of the few podcasts I subscribe to is Michael Lewis’ “Against the Rules,” where he takes seeming dull topics (refs, coaches) and dives so deep and wide that they immediately become fascinating.
At the end of November, a special episode became available—a half-hour interview conducted by Axios’ Niala Boodhoo, in which Lewis talks about presidential transitions. His previous book, “The Fifth Risk,” is about what the incoming Trump team didn’t do in 2016, and now the topic was what the outgoing Trump folks were trying to prevent the incoming Biden team from doing. But the conversation is more than that. I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it forever: “The Fifth Risk” is the answer the Democrats never gave to Ronald Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric. It’s the conversation we need to be having.
I’d give you a link to his Axios interview but I can no longer find that full episode online. It’s no longer on his site, for example. But there is a 10-minute version here. That will do for now. If you find the longer version, let me know.
In the meantime, I took part of the weekend to transcribe the longer version—which I'd already downloaded to my phone. Feel free to pass it on.
How did you get interested in this whole idea of presidential transitions in the first place?
I got interested the day after Trump was elected and Steven Bannon announced they were going to toss all the books prepared by the Obama administration in the garbage can, and Trump fired many hundreds of persons, his transition team, carefully assembled by Chris Christie. Then I kind of asked: What is this thing they decided not to show up for?
Our government is different than the government in other democracies. Even though it gets accused of being a deep state, it’s actually quite a shallow state in some ways. That we have more than 4,000 political appointees who come in to actually run the thing. So there’s not a permanent leadership in the same way there are in other civil services. And the problem is continuity. You don’t have a continuity in management or leadership. So you’ve got new people who come in to run this whole thing. And they often have no idea what it is they’re taking charge of.
So let’s take an example. This is what really piqued my interest in writing “The Fifth Risk.”
Rick Perry had been a presidential candidate who got on stage and said, during a presidential debate, that he was going to eliminate three departments of the federal government. He couldn’t remember their names but he said he was going to do it. Afterwards he remembered their names, and one of them was the Dept. of Energy. Now Donald Trump, after he’s elected, picks Rick Perry to be in charge of the Dept. of Energy—which he said he was going to eliminate. At which point, Rick Perry admits he actually has no idea what goes on in the Dept. of Energy. And lo and behold, what goes on in the Dept. of Energy is they manage the nuclear arsenal. Among other things. I mean, things that are just critical to the society. At which point, Rick Perry backpedals furiously and says, “This place is absolutely critical and we’re going to keep it, and I’m going to run it.”
But now you see there’s a problem, right? You’ve got a guy who clearly doesn’t know what he’s running. And if he doesn’t show up to listen to what the people going out have been through for the last four or eight years, or listen to the civil service about what the problems are? You’ve got incompetence and ignorance just waiting to cause trouble.
You spent so much time talking to these people about how they were preparing for a transition [in 2016]. Can you give us a sense of what that involved?
Sure. So any place you went in the government, you could find things that were being done that if they weren’t done would be very disturbing to the American people. They just don’t pay attention to what’s going on in these places. When people think transition they think the White House. They don’t realize, “No, it’s actually the entire federal bureaucracy, the entire federal government, is being handed over.” And by law. There’s actually a law that requires the administration to prepare for this moment of handoff.
The Bush administration, for example, had been very, very diligent in preparing to hand the government over to the Obama administration and Obama was very grateful for how they did that. Obama could get up to speed on the problems they were dealing with—like, for example, a global financial crisis. The Obama administration had done the same thing for the Trump administration. So there are these briefing books—let’s say you’re taking over the nuclear arsenal. There’s a dude, in a room, who’s been managing the nuclear arsenal. It does require management. You don’t want the bombs going off when you don’t want them to go off, and you want them to be able to go off when you want them to go off. You have, among other things, billions of dollars of projects in nuclear waste cleanup underneath you. You have complicated problems you are managing. And there are these books that you’ve created to explain to the people who are going to take over from you how you’ve been doing it.
What happened four years ago that was so peculiar was that I, a journalist, could walk into any one of these departments, find something that was actually critical—like the feeding of 30 million schoolchildren every day—and be the first person to receive the briefing on how this was done. There was no interest from one side to the other. Now the situation is reversed. The outgoing administration has no interest in handing over to the incoming administration. It’s a different problem, right? And I’m watching it from a distance rather than reporting on it now, but it is a different kind of problem, and there are maybe more workarounds here than there were the last time.
I wonder if we can play some audio for you, to get you back to four years ago. And this is the moment of the handover between Pres. Obama to Donald Trump.
Obama: I’ve just had the opportunity to have an excellent conversation with president-elect Trump. It was wide-ranging. We talked about some of the organizational issues in setting up a White House. We talked about foreign policy, we talked about domestic policy. And as I said last night, my no. 1 priority in the coming two months is to try to facilitate a transition that ensures our president-elect is successful.
So that’s a different spirit, right? That’s the spirit of someone actually trying to operate in the spirit of the government and make sure that bad things don’t happen because the incoming administration wasn’t prepared by the outgoing administration.
So now we have a slightly different situation, where the president, uh, well, he doesn’t even want to acknowledge that he lost, for starters, but beyond that seems intent on withholding as much as possible. A couple of things come to mind when I’m watching this happen.
There are obviously just facts you need to know that may be classified that you can get access to. That may be a problem for the Biden administration. But there are a lot of little, practical things. I saw one the other day. The Biden administration is going to have to manage the pandemic. I was in the office of a friend over at the University of California, San Francisco, the other day; and in his office, he had, I don’t know, 10,000 of these Abbott Lab rapid Covid tests—take 15 minutes to do it. He had them because the federal government had bought the first 150 million of these things, and not knowing what to do with them had shipped them off to the states on a per-capita basis. And the states didn’t know what to do with them. They didn’t even know if they worked, so they sent them to UCSF to test them. And in fact they do work very well. Now it’s one little piece of the Covid response. There are a thousand things like this. The Biden administration probably doesn’t even know those things are out there, or where they are, or what the state of play with them is, or how they might be used. If you have 150 million rapid Covid tests, there are obviously smarter places to put it than others—places where you get more leverage out of them. But you can’t even think of them unless you have been briefed.
I wonder how much of the chaos we’re seeing now you think stems from … not just from the 2016 transition, but as you explored all this, the folks that were coming in from the Trump administration really seemed to have the attitude that the way the government is run now is just wrong, and people are doing things wrong, and it doesn’t make sense to listen to the people who have been doing it wrong for however long they’ve been doing it.
But the minute you got into any kind of specifics, it just broke down. I mean, it’s wrong how the nuclear arsenal is being managed? Please explain. And in many cases they weren’t actually proposing a different policy, they were just proposing to be more negligent in the way they managed it. Now, obviously, there were strains to this government. Yes, it was true there were things in the federal government they just wanted to shut down—like, for example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But there were other places—like, for example, managing a pandemic, or managing the nuclear arsenal, or managing nuclear waste cleanup, or distributing school lunches, which they didn’t propose to get rid of, or running the National Weather Service, or collecting taxes—that they weren’t proposing to do away with. In fact, they weren’t proposing to do anything differently. But even in those cases they showed no interest in getting briefed.
The third strain was, there were cases—and the Weather Service is an example of this—where there were private companies that had an interest in making it difficult for the government to do its job so they could extract more profit from the marketplace.
It was a hodge-podge of things, it wasn’t one ideology at work. And on top of it all, there was a president who was perfectly happen to govern in ignorance. In fact, in a funny way, he elevated it to a principle. And to the extent that he kept everyone as in the dark and confused as he was, we were all playing on the same field.
But he seemed to operate almost from a position that he already knew everything. That’s what he’d said to Chris Christie, who had managed his transition team. When Christie said, “You know, this is a big thing, Donald, it’s a 2 million-person operation you’re gonna have to run and you’ve never run anything bigger than your own company,” [Trump] said, “Chris, everything you and I need to know about running the government we can learn by taking an hour away from the victory party.”
Now if that’s your attitude, I mean, really the only way you’re going to proceed is to not pay much attention to it. Because in fact it’s an enormously complicated task. It’s not like it’s easy for anybody. In some ways, the job is undoable. You come in cold. You’ve got to appoint 4,000 people to run this whole operation—get many of them confirmed by a Senate that is hostile to you. Very hard to hire and fire people in the federal government. Everyone knows you’re there at most eight years. It’s a management challenge in the best of times. When you throw into that the people that are handing it off to you are going to obscure from your view everything you need to know to manage it well? You’re just asking for trouble—you just don’t know what the trouble is.
I think in many ways “The Fifth Risk” is kind of like this love letter to bureaucracy and the federal government. There’s so many stories of relationships of people that you met. I think that people don’t think that the National Weather Service is there to provide tornado warnings or hurricane warnings.
They take the progress for granted. Your weather forecasts are so much better than they were a generation ago, and they’re better than they were a generation before that. And there’s a reason for that. And the effect of that is huge. The effect on commerce, the effect on human life, the ability to pinpoint where the hurricane is going to hit land. This is a relatively recent phenomena. And it’s driven entirely, or almost entirely, by the government’s work in the area.
Now there’s been help from the private sector, but the government is the center of the collection and analysis of the weather data that led to the progress in weather prediction. And we just take it for granted. We don’t think, “Huh, who did that? Who were the people who threw themselves into that enterprise?” And when you dig into it, you find it was the woman who, as a 10-year-old girl, was traumatized because in a hurricane a tree fell on her house and she said “I want to make sure that doesn’t happen to other people. I’m going to learn how to predict the weather.” You find these very curious characters who were drawn to the mission. And sometimes the stories are quite moving.
There’s a guy in the book named Arthur Allen, who was laid off during the government shutdown, who was in the Coast Guard, who basically invented a way to predict the way objects drift at sea—depending on the object: if you’re on a life raft or a life preserver or an 18-foot sailboat. And this enabled the Coast Guard to find thousands of people who were lost at sea that they never would’ve found otherwise. This is a guy who saved thousands of lives, and he did it without anyone asking him to do it, just because he got an interest in it while working at a government job. And he got laid off as an unnecessary worker during the government shutdown.
There’s story after story that doesn’t get out there, because the government isn’t allowed to market itself. It doesn’t promote itself—unlike every other sector of society. The book? Yes, it is a bit of a love letter. It didn’t start that way. It started with me just wondering: What happens if people who are going to run this place don’t show up to learn what happens inside of it? And I was shocked by the caliber and the passion of the people I met. A side effect of [the current transition], and a side effect of the entire Trump administration, is to send a signal to those people: You stuck your neck out for this society and we’re going to chop your head off. Or: We don’t honor what you did for us. And that to me is a great shame. That, to me, is the biggest shame of the Trump administration.
Do you think that is reflected in the fact that he lost the election? If you look at polling, how people felt about the way coronavirus has been handled, that was a significant factor in how people voted.
I was betting when I was working on the book that his managerial ineptitude was much more important than people were crediting, and that something would happen. I didn’t know what it was. But one way to frame the federal government is a manager of a portfolio of risks—and some of these risks are existential risks. Something always happens, right? You never know what it is. The presidents don’t get to sit there and coast for four years. Something happens. And when it happens, [Trump] would be unprepared to manage it because of his approach to the enterprise—and because his approach to the enterprise is reflective of deeper problems.
But: Yes, I think he lost the election because of his approach to government. People might not quite put it that way, but put it another way: Let’s say he was a Mussolini who could actually make the trains run on time; that he actually had management ability. Along with everything else he’s got—anti-democratic impulses, all that—that he could make the trains run on time, that he could actually a pandemic effectively. He’d still be president. He’d have won. So, yes, it wound up being his Achilles heel: not paying attention to the enterprise he was supposed to manage.
Now we’re in this in-between period and we’re also seeing a lot of firings: the Defense Secretary … these are important roles. I wonder just sort of what implications you think this period has—not just thinking about President Trump obstructing President-Elect Biden—but also the people who are here.
Well, I don’t know what it means for Trump to fire someone right now. I don’t know if they’re really fired. They’re fired for two months? I don’t know. They could come back. What effect would it have on me if I was in one of these enterprises? It would be just to lay low until the guy is gone. Because why attract attention to yourself? You might be the next one to be fired. But I don’t think it would stop me from having the conversations I’d need to have with the Biden administration—the stuff I felt they needed to know. So I assume a lot of people feel that way. Seems like the natural way to feel. I could be wrong about this. I think of these kind of managerial moves he’s making now as farce and theater. They’re not going to make much of a difference. You’re removing people from jobs for a couple of months. It just seems like noise and distraction.
I wonder if we can end by cutting through that noise and distraction by you just sharing what are the most important things you’d like to be seeing happening. Even if they’re not happening, what should be happening?
I think if we back away from this? And asked “What should we all learn?” We really shouldn’t be at the mercy of one man like this. And there shouldn’t be 4500 people to be appointed by the president to run the civil service—we should have a deeper state. We should have upper-level management positions at all of these agencies that are permanent civil service. We should convert a lot of political positions to civil service positions. So that the transition is less critical; that the expertise at the top stays—much of it; and every department has its Tony Fauci. So the handoff is just not as big a deal.
Think of what the Biden administration is having to do. How much easier it would be if it was 200 people they needed to put in. And only at the very top. And underneath the very top, you had these people who actually knew what was going on in the enterprise; who were actually managing it. My takeaway is we need to reform the government so it would be easier to manage; and it looks more like other enterprises in society that are successfully run.
I think Trump supporters—people who voted for him because they said he’s a businessman and knows how to run a company, and he will clean up the swamp—would agree with you. So what would you say to those people about the government has been run, not just for the past four years, but needs to be reformed in the way that you’re talking about?
You just explain it. You know, the problem is: It’s not explained. If you look very broadly at Trump’s support, what’s the first two things you notice about it—aside from race and gender. You notice where they live. It’s rural. Rural America is the most dependent on the American government of any part of America. Rural America, above all, would welcome a better-run federal government because they’re at the mercy of it. You just explain how. It’s a civics and public education problem. We don’t have that conversation. We shout at each other a lot. I think someone willing to teach, and lead by teaching, absolutely can deliver this message.
So you wrote the book a few years ago: I’m wondering what stories have stayed with you. You mentioned a few. Are there any more?
The person of whom I would think “You would need one of him in every department”: John Mcwilliams, who is the first person I go to see at the Dept. of Energy. He’s just out of the Dept. of Energy when I started this book. And he was a private sector guy. He was a guy that lots of people who hate the government would still find ways to admire him. He made millions of dollars as a private equity person. He knew the energy sector really well. He was a successful investor and money manager. And he was brought in as a risk manager in the Dept. of Energy. His job was to run around the whole place and figure out what are the risks we’re managing. And he stopped at 138. Every one of them seemed terrifying when you sat down and talked to him. He knew nothing about the government when he came into the job. He came away shocked—shocked—by the talent that was inside the Dept. of Energy, and by the energy and ambition, which was just directed at something other than making money. But also shocked by the fact that no one had put names to these risks. Some of the risks are quite slow-moving—like the risk of underinvesting in science and technology. Long-term science projects are being funded by the Dept. of Energy that won’t be funded by the private sector. The future of the economy is being funded, in part, by the Dept. of Energy.
He’s interesting as a person. But that character intrigues me as someone who we could use everywhere in the government. And then have that person explain, publicly, what it is we need to be thinking about and worrying about.
What’s at the top of the risk list?
The top of the list is whatever you’re not thinking about. Because you never know what’s going to happen. I promise you, you and I sit down in four years, some things will have happened that we could never have imagined. But someone in the government is in charge of imagining it and thinking about it and preparing for it, and making a slightly better response to it.
We should’ve been able to guess that we would be crippled by a bug. Right? Some people said some things about it, but it wasn’t at the top of mind four years ago—that we’re all going to be cowering in our homes because there’s this new cold virus going around. There’s a similar unimaginable thing on the horizon. We would do well to buttress the people in the government whose job it is to prepare us for those things.
We didn’t do it in this case. Quite clearly, we didn’t do it in this case. Beyond that, we didn’t empower them after the fact. Trump did things that gutted our ability to respond to this thing, but it was much more what he did after this thing was upon us that was so disturbing. Even now, we’re arguing if government is a solution to the problem. Even now, we alone, in the world—think about this—we alone in the world are fighting about whether or not we should wear masks or congregate in large numbers.
This is the thing to me that’s unbelievably bewildering and telling. We are the inventors of pandemic planning. The Center for Disease Control was in effect the World Health Organization. We have the leading scientists, we’re leaders in medicine, we should be the A team in responding to a pandemic. That we have four-and-something percentage of the world’s population and 20-and-something percentage of the world’s deaths is a spectacular indictment of our relationship to our government. There’s no other explanation than that for our failure. We should be winning the pandemic and we’re losing it.
Sunday January 17, 2021
Fatty Arbuckle and the Original Cancel Culture
Recently I finished a rare read for me: a true-life crime thriller. It's also a not-so-rare read since it's set in the early days of Hollywood—my metier.
William J. Mann's Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood is about the unsolved 1922 murder of William Desmond Taylor, a director at Famous Players-Lasky, which became Paramount Pictures. Some of the key figures Mann writes about include:
- Adolph Zukor, Famous Players' head honcho and the most powerful man in the motion picture industry at the time
- Will Hays, the Kennesaw Mountain Landis of the movies, brought in to save the industry and assuage the blue noses amid sex- and drug-related scandals
- comic movie queen Mabel Normand
- up-and-coming ingenue Mary Miles Minter
- shady lost soul Margaret “Gibby” Gibson aka Patricia Palmer
The last three are friends and acquaintances of Taylor—and suspects in his murder.
(Typing out the above, I suddenly wondered if the writers of “Sunset Blvd.”—Charles Bracket, Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman Jr.—got the name “Norma Desmond” from some combo of Desmond Taylor and Mabel Normand. According to IMDb, that's half correct. Yes to Desmond but Norma was after Norma Talmadge, whom IMDb claims was romantically invovled with Taylor. That would be news to William Mann, who says Taylor was a closeted homosexual.)
The Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal is peripheral to the main storyline but it's the part that felt disturbingly contemporary. A girl, Virginia Rappé, died at one of Arbuckle's parties, and he was eventually charged with manslaughter. The gossip against him was frequent and lurid while the evidence against him was so nonexistent his lawyer asked the judge to dismiss the case altogether. But the judge didn't—and in the worst way. “We are not trying Roscoe Arbuckle alone,” Judge Lazarus declared. “In a large sense, we are trying ourselves. We are trying present-day morals, our present-day social conditions, our present-day looseness of thought and lack of social balance.”
Good god, what a pompous, unjudicious declaration. As a result of such grandstanding, Arbuckle was forced to sit through three trials—two ended in hung juries—while his career dissolved. Mann writes:
Overnight, Arbuckle vanished from the screen. At the Manhattan Opera House, a rerelease of one of his shorts with Mabel, Fatty and Mabel Adrift, was scrapped at the last minute. When a title card announced that “in view of public feeling due to the San Francisco affair, it was deemed advisable to substitute another subject,” the audience erupted in applause. That broke Mabel's heart. It also terrified her. Because if they were gunning for Fatty today, she might be in their crosshairs tomorrow.
And that's the part that felt disturbingly contemporary to me. The terror Mabel Normand felt. I flashed on the #MeToo movement and cancel culture. These later movements are more legit, of course, and have led to a much-needed recalibration in Hollywood and elsewhere; but as #MeToo gained in power it widened its reach and ensnared and ruined the lives of those it shouldn't have: Al Franken, Aziz Ansari, maybe Garrison Keillor. One accuation was often enough—or several vague ones. Many people still assume—vehemently so, brooking no opposition, caring about no evidence—that Woody Allen is guilty even though he's the one who's been proven not so, and even though his son, Moses, has written eloquently in his defense.
Even after Arbuckle was acquitted, the media noise against him stayed strong. The New York Times editorialized: “Arbuckle was acquitted by a jury, but an odor still clings to him.” Will Hays compared the outrage to the Dreyfus affair but he hoped it would dissipate. He didn't want to be a censor; he believed in both the free market and that whole “innocent until proven guilty” proviso. And most people, according to Mann, were ready to welcome him back:
Every time working people, young people, blacks, and immigrants were offered a say in the matter, Fatty triumphed. The Kansas City Journal polled its readers, and the results came back ten to one in favor of the comedian. The same thing happened when the Blackstone Theatre in Detroit asked its audiences to vote. Yet Arbuckle's fate didn't rest with the entire public. It was decided in white, middle-class drawing rooms where the Federation of Women's Clubs took their votes, and in church halls where ministers whipped their flocks into outrages over Hollywood.
Hays did remove the ban against Fatty but outrage erupted again. In an attempt to repair the damage, he held a meeting with, among others, James West of the Boy Scouts, and Mrs. Oliver Harriman of the Camp Fire Girls (who were on his side), and Mrs. Herbert Hoover, a national representative of the Girl Scouts, and Charles A. McMahon, of the National Catholic Welfare Council (who weren't). A “compromise” was reached. Arbuckle could work as a writer or director but was banned as an actor. Bad enough. But Mann says that Hays knew the compromise was empty:
The Federation of Women's Clubs was still vowing to boycott any film he made, whether he was in front of the camera or behind it. The National Board of Review announced that it would exclude any film directed by Arbuckle from its list of recommended films, which many communities used to decide what to show in local theaters.
Arbuckle worked sparingly over the next 10 years and died in 1933, age 46.
What is Aziz Ansari up to these days? Anyone know?
Friday January 15, 2021
T Minus 114 Hours
Friday January 15, 2021
'The Bill is Coming Due'
“If this were still 2015, Trump could fall back on his tried-and-true income generators: money laundering and tax fraud. The problem is that his business model relied on chronically lax enforcement of those financial crimes. And now he is under investigation by two different prosecutors in New York State for what appear to be black-letter violations of tax law. At minimum, these probes will make it impossible for him to stay afloat by stealing more money. At maximum, he faces the serious risk of millions of dollars in fines or a criminal prosecution that could send him to prison.
”Trump reportedly plans to pardon himself along with a very broad swath of his hangers-on. But ... a pardon might constitute an admission of guilt, which could open up Trump to more private lawsuits. Remember how O. J. Simpson was ordered to pay $34 million to the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, even after he beat the murder rap? The families of victims of the January 6 riot might well sue Trump for his role in inciting the violence. Trump might try pardoning himself to make sure he can't be charged with criminal incitement, but admitting the crime makes it even easier to bring a civil suit against him. ...
“At noon on January 20, Trump will be in desperate shape. His business is floundering, his partners are fleeing, his loans are delinquent, prosecutors will be coming after him, and the legal impunity he enjoyed through his office will be gone. He will be walking naked into a cold and friendless world. What appeared to be a brilliant strategy for escaping consequences was merely a tactic for putting them off. The bill is coming due.”
-- Jonathan Chait, “Trump Is on the Verge of Losing Everything,” New York magazine
Thursday January 14, 2021
Hoyden (n.): A boisterous girl
“I saw a kid playing baseball on the street with some other kids—it was next door to a friend of mine who was a Paramount executive. She was a cute-looking little tomboy—about twelve—a hoyden, out there knocking hell out of the other kids, playing better baseball than they were. And I needed someone of her type for this picture [A Perfect Crime, 1921]. She'd never acted, so we talked to her parents and they let her do it and she was very good. Her name was Jane Peters; she later changed it to Carole Lombard.”
-- Allan Dwan, “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors,” by Peter Bogdanovich
Thursday January 14, 2021
More IMDb Disconnect
When Michael Apted died last week, most headlines referenced two of his acclaimed movies/projects: “Coal Miner's Daughter” from 1980, and the “Up” series, which began in 1964 and continued into 2019. It's what people who care about cinema think of when they think of Apted. It's what I would've thought of.
Meanwhile, over at IMDb, now owned and operated by Amazon, this is what its algorithms say Apted is known for:
“Rome” is a good, truncated HBO series. “The World is Not Enough” is lesser, lesser Bond. Haven't seen the others.
I remember a time when IMDb felt like it was a place for people who cared about cinema.
Wednesday January 13, 2021
Movie Review: Mister Roberts (1955)
So were there any competent Navy captains in the Pacific during World War II? It’s a wonder we won.
At first blush, “Mister Roberts” seems like a lighter, breezier, Cinemascope and Technicolor (sorry: Warnercolor) version of “The Caine Mutiny,” with its incompetent captain obsessed with fruit (oranges rather than strawberries) and played by a 1930s Warner Bros. gangster (James Cagney instead of Humphrey Bogart). But that’s kind of backwards. “Mister Roberts” came first. It was a best-selling novel in 1946 and a smash Broadway play in 1948, while Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny” wasn’t published until 1951. Many of its reviews even invoked “Roberts”:
- “‘The Caine Mutiny’ is a sort of serious ‘Mister Roberts’… — Des Moines Register
- “His Captain Queeg [is] … somewhat reminiscent of the commanding officer in the play, ‘Mister Roberts’…” — Hutchinson News
“Caine,” however, did beat “Roberts” to the screen by a year, which is par for the course for later Cagney. He made his WWII movie (“Blood on the Sun”) at the tail end of WWII, his O.S.S. movie (“13 Rue Madeleine”) a year after the officially sanctioned “O.S.S.,” and his Huey Long movie, “A Lion Is In the Streets,” four years after “All the King’s Men” won best picture. “Come Fill the Cup,” his movie about alcoholism, showed up six years after “Lost Weekend.”
America to me
Cagney gets second billing here—he’s next to Henry Fonda on the title card—but it’s not a meaty role. It’s small and one-note. The Captain’s wartime goals seem to be: 1) prevent his men from going on leave; 2) prevent Lt. Roberts from being transferred; 3) don’t share fresh fruit. He’s a petty asshole who barely gets a name.
What’s his inner life? His backstory? Lt. Barney Greenwald salutes Queeg’s earlier career—“Who was standing guard over this fat, dumb, happy country of ours?”—but the only one defending the Captain is the Captain. During an argument with Roberts, he gives his raison d’etre: class resentment.
I’ve been seeing your kind around since I was 10 years old—working as a busboy. “Oh busboy, it seems my friend has thrown up on the table. Clean up that mess, boy, will ya?” And then when I went to sea as a steward—people poking at you with umbrellas. “Oh, boy! You, boy! Careful with that luggage, boy!” And I took it. I took it for years! But I don't have to take it any more. There’s a war on, and I’m captain of this vessel, and now you can take it for a change!
That’s only vaguely interesting, probably because it’s so vague. Not to mention incomplete. It may explain his pettiness toward Roberts but not to the mostly working-class boys on his ship. He’s awful to them, too.
On Broadway, the role of the Captain was actually darker. He was played by William Harrigan, a longtime character actor in Hollywood, whose roles included “Mac” McKay, Cagney’s gangster benefactor in “G-Men.” He was also the real-life son of Edward Harrigan, a 19th-century Irish playwright/actor for whom George M. Cohan wrote the song “Harrigan,” which, of course, Cagney sang with such gusto in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Amazing the connections when you dig a little.
Joshua Logan, who co-wrote both play and film, criticized the way John Ford directed the Captain character. “In Christ’s name, what has Ford made Cagney do [but] play the Captain like an old New England bumbler, without any hatred, without darkness, without threat? He’s all Down East accent—and comic at that.” Logan also complained how the atmosphere on the ship changed from “prison-like” in the play to “boys camp“ in the movie. But apparently that was necessary to get the cooperation of the U.S. Navy.
All of which created a mess behind the scenes. I’ll try to untangle it.
Because he was 49 years old and hadn’t starred in a movie in eight years, Warner Bros. didn’t even want Henry Fonda, one of the biggest movie stars in the world, to star in the movie version of a play for which he’d already won a Tony. They wanted Marlon Brando or William Holden. But Ford fought for him. Then he fought with him. Fonda hated the lighter, breezier tone and at one point the two men came to blows.
Ford also fought for Cagney and then with Cagney. Apparently on the first day of shooting, Cagney was slightly late, Ford went into a tirade, but Cagney cut it short: “When I started this picture, you said we would tangle asses before this was over. I’m ready now. Are you?” Ford wasn’t, and eventually his excessive drinking got him canned. The irony is he was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy, whom Cagney hated. Cagney did one movie with him, ”Hard to Handle" in 1933, and pegged him as a brown-noser who took too much credit on too little talent. LeRoy’s autobiography seems to bear this out. Among other things, he claims credit for directing Cagney in one of his first films, “Hot Stuff” in 1929. The problem? Cagney wasn’t in “Hot Stuff.” He wasn't even in Hollywood until 1930.
Another irony: That “boys camp” atmosphere Ford fought for is the part of the movie that’s actually aged the worst. The crew seems both gay dream team (young, fit, shirtless, sweaty) and #MeToo scandal waiting to happen (voyeurism; literally tearing the clothes off women during shore leave). They're also, per every Hollywood WWII movie, a melting-pot vision of America—except more melted than usual. Sure, we get a Rodrigues (Perry Lopez) and a Stefanowski (Harry Carey Jr.), but they hardly register. It’s mostly bland, randy white guys who come from nowhere specific. The one time anyone brings up a state back home, it’s the Shore Patrol Officer with the bad southern accent (Martin Milner), who tells Roberts that six of his men razed the home of a French colonial governor. An Army private brought them there as a joke:
Shore Patrol Officer: He told them it was, uh... well, what we call in Alabama … uh…
Mr. Roberts: Yeah, we call it the same thing in Nebraska.
I like that they use Fonda’s home state for Mister Roberts’ home state.
Fonda makes the movie. His goal is noble. The Reluctant is a cargo supply ship drifting in a chain of islands in the Pacific, far from the war, and Roberts wants to be where the war is—he recognizes the historical moment—but his transfer is continually denied by the Captain. Since Roberts can’t get what he wants, he at least tries to get the men what they need. Sure, men, you can take your shirts off in these hellish conditions. Sure, I’ll sacrifice any attempt at transfer and follow all the Captain’s orders forevermore so you guys can have this one shore leave. It’s another of Fonda’s noble men—from Abe Lincoln to Wyatt Earp; from Tom Joad to Juror 8. For the ways Ford screwed up the movie, he couldn’t have fought for a better actor.
He humanizes what is otherwise a fairly cartoonish group. Just that opening, looking out at the open water, the yearning and hurt on his face. He obsesses over his latest transfer letter like he’s an upbeat Joseph K., giving Doc (William Powell) a boyish grin at his new turn of the phrase—the thing that he hopes will finally get him transferred. And that Fonda voice: slow, measured, stretching out his words: “Carriers so big they blacked out half the sky. Battlewagons sliiiding along, dead quiet.” You know the song lyric, “What is America to me?” Henry Fonda isn’t a bad answer.
Even with this great open, though, you sense the movie’s behind-the-scenes schism. Roberts walks out on deck on a sunny day, surveys the horizon with the water bright blue, then sits down with a pencil in his mouth—like a dog with a bone—to go over the letter again. Then it’s a reverse angle for the intro of Doc and … Where did the sun go? We don’t really see anything but the metal of the ship. I assume it was shot on a sound stage in LA rather than off the coast of Hawaii. It’s a disconnect. It’s Ford vs. LeRoy.
A quick synopsis. In the first act, the men admire Roberts. In the second act, not knowing his sacrifice, they turn on him, think he’s bucking for promotion. Third act? After he tosses the Captain’s prize palm tree overboard, and the men learn about his sacrifice through a kind of loudspeaker ex machina, they work to get him the transfer he’s always wanted. And they do! And they shower him with gifts and send him on his way.
And on that battleship, he dies in the waning days of the war.
Oddly, there’s no mea culpa from the men, no thought of, “Gee, if we hadn’t have gotten him that transfer …” Instead, Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon, in an Oscar-winning role), who is now a lieutenant and in Roberts’ role, and who never had the guts to finish one thing, finally does. He does what Roberts might’ve done—but with Pulver’s bluster. Over the loudspeaker, they hear that the night’s movie has been canceled, and, in a sudden rage, Pulver a secondary palm tree overboard and busts into the Captain’s quarters:
Captain, it is I, Ensign Pulver, and I just threw your stinkin’ palm tree overboard! Now what’s all this crud about no movie tonight?
Roberts is dead; Roberts lives.
Sadly, Cagney’s reaction is a comic wuh-wuh. It’s “Not this again?” as he buries his face in his hands. It feels off, considering what we’ve just learned about Roberts.
I like all the loudspeaker announcements we hear in the movie—spoken in that bored military cadence of an amateur draftee. “Attention! Attention!” Then some stupid annoying thing. Then: “That is all.” Fifteen years later, the movie “M*A*S*H” would use these to great comic effect.
“Mister Roberts” was nominated for three Academy Awards—picture, sound, supporting—and won for Lemmon. Don’t quite see it. His character is only mildly amusing, with that classic Lemmon jitteriness that never appealed to me. I like the calm guys. The opening scene, in the morning on the deck, where Doc and Roberts talk? That could’ve been the movie for me. But Fonda didn’t even get nominated. He got nomed for “Grapes of Wrath” in 1940 and not again until “On Golden Pond” in 1981. It’s one of the great travesties of the Academy.
Monday January 11, 2021
Impeachment Now — Part II
“As [the attack on the U.S. Capitol] was unfolding on television, Donald Trump was walking around the White House confused about why other people on his team weren't as excited as he was as you had rioters pushing against Capitol Police trying to get into the building. ... He was delighted.”
-- Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), via Vox