Friday September 25, 2020
'Given Mr. Carlson's Reputation...'
What Tucker called her doesn't matter because Tucker doesn't matter: legal ruling.
Amid the news insanity of the week—No. 1 being the refusal of the president of the United States to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, which should've been the biggest news story of the year but hardly made a peep among the usual legit-media suspects—there was, last night, not necessarily good news, but it did make me smile for a moment.
On the surface, no. On the surface, it was bad. Judge rules in favor of Fox News/Tucker Carlson in defamation lawsuit brought by Karen McDougal. I'd rather the opposite. And: Trump legal team to argue in Second Circuit in year-long subpoena of Trump's financial records by Manhattan DA. I'd rather we get the financial records finally. The financial records Trump promised to reveal when he won the 2016 presidential election, and which, ever since, he's fought in court to keep private.
But dig a little and the stories get amusing.
Trump's lawyers will argue before the Second Circuit that Trump's financial records are outside the purview of the DA Cyrus Vance Jr. and Vance should stick to the issue at hand: the involvement of the president of the United States in hush-money payments to porn stars and others prior to the 2016 election. That's what the president's lawyers want the case to be limited to. And the payments aren't even alleged. It's just a matter of how involved Trump was. So that's kind of amusing when you think about it.
And then Tucker. Oh, Tucker.
Backstory. Playboy playmate Karen McDougal has claimed a year-long affair with Donald Trump from 2006 to 2007, and it came up during the 2016 election. She sold that story for $150,000 to The National Enquirer, which, rather than publish the salacious details, squelched the story. Ronan Farrow wrote about those details years later for The New Yorker. The tabloid practice is called “catch and kill,” and it was done here, apparently, because the owner of the Enquirer, American Media, Inc., ws run by the aptly-named David Pecker, who is a friend of Trump's. That's the backstory.
Anyway, in 2018, after the Farrow article appeared, and I guess after McDougal told her story to Anderson Cooper on CNN, Tucker Carlson attacked her on his Fox News show. He accused her of extortion, which is the opposite of what happened. So she sued him for defamation.
Yesterday, Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil dismissed the lawsuit. She agreed with the Fox News lawyers. That McDougal was an extortionist? No, that wasn't the argument. The argument, brought by Fox News lawyers, is that Tucker Carlson shouldn't be taken seriously. From the New York Times story:
In reaching her decision, Judge Vyskocil relied in part on an argument made by Fox News lawyers: that the “general tenor” of Mr. Carlson's program signals to viewers that the host is “engaging in 'exaggeration' and 'nonliteral commentary.'” The judge added: “Given Mr. Carlson's reputation, any reasonable viewer 'arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism'” about the host's on-air comments.
So that's kind of amusing.
And not. There's still no accountability. Fox gets to call itself “News” and escape traps like this by saying, in effect, “Who are we? Nobody. We're just bullshitting. We're just a billion-dollar industry that attacks who we want for partisan reasons and gets away with it.” In effect, the judge just gave Tucker Carlson a license to lie.
Sincere follow-up for Judge Vyskocil: Would any “reasonable viewer” be watching Tucker Carlson's show in the first place?
Thursday September 24, 2020
Gale Sayers (1943-2020)
A couple of times a year I'll think the following:
The Lord is first
My friends are second
And I am third
That's a quote from the back cover of the dog-eared autobiography of Gale Sayers, “I Am Third,” that my older brother owned. I was a huge fan of baseball biographies but I never got into this one for some reason. I don't know if I finished it. But I always liked the title. And though I'm basically agnostic I always liked the sentiment.
My older brother did a good imitation of Sayers, too. OK, not Sayers. Billy Dee Williams as Sayers in the TV movie “Brian's Song,” which was based on some portion of “I Am Third.” Every boy I knew saw that movie. Every boy I knew cried at that movie. Whenever some kid claimed he never cried, that's the thing you'd bring up.
“Never? Not even at 'Brian's Song'?”
I certainly cried at “Brian's Song.” The theme song alone could make me tear up. But the scene that killed me was when Billy Dee as Sayers breaks down in the locker room talking about his friend Brian Piccolo, who had been diagnosed with cancer. One of the lines in that speech is the line my brother spoke when imitating Billy Dee/Sayers: “Brian Piccolo is sick, very sick.” I think about that line a couple of times a year, too.
Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo became roommates and friends at a time of civil rights and civil strife, so it was a story, a news story, before it ever became a memoir and a TV-movie. They were roommates and numerically adjacent—Sayers #40, Piccolo #41—but opposites every other way. White, black. Brash, shy. Journeyman, superstar. Who couldn't write that story? And then the tragedy. Brian Piccolo was 26 years old when he died of cancer in 1970. Gale Sayers was 77 when he died yesterday of complications from dementia and Alzheimer's. That's a whole other tragedy, and probably football-related. He was diagnosed with it in 2013. Imagine if it were you. A doctor saying you will lose your mind before you lose your life. You will lose your self. Everything you think is you. But you'll still be there.
When I was a kid, Gale Sayers was the standard. I came in at that time. Jim Brown had already been making movies for six years when I began to pay attention to the NFL, and I thought of him the way I thought of someone like Y.A. Tittle: Someone from the dark ages: BSB—Before Super Bowl. But if you look at the numbers it's not even close. Brown dominated for a decade and then left on top with the most rushing yards ever, while Sayers dominated for four years basically and was gone. But he was beautiful in a way few football players ever were. He was already a college legend when he arrived in the NFL in 1965—the Kansas Comet—and he quickly became a football legend. “Give me 18 inches of daylight, that's all I need,” he was famous for saying, and he wasn't wrong. In his rookie season, in the mud of Chicago, he scored six touchdowns against the San Francisco 49ers in a 61-20 romp; nobody's done that since. The next season, he led the league in rushing yards and yards per game. Then he got injured. Knee. But he came back in 1969 and led the league in yards and yards per game. Then he injured the other knee and that was that. To be honest, I don't think I ever saw him play live. I saw him on “NFL Films” and on “Brian's Song.” My father repeated his name with reverence. He did an intake of breath and shook his head sadly and reverentially.
In his tribute, Joe Posnanski compares Sayers to Clemente in terms of beauty and impact, and it's not a bad comparison. Except Clemente actually had a full career; he played 18 seasons. Poz also suggests Sandy Koufax, another comet streaking across the sky, someone who blazed for a glorious moment and was gone. Again: not bad. Let me add another: Tony Oliva: showed up in the mid-60s and dominated: two batting titles in his first two years, a beautiful swing, a gorgeous player. Then knee troubles. Then another batting title. Then more knee troubles. Sayers showed up after Tony-O and left before him because football is that much more brutal, but he also got in the Hall almost immediately. Baseball's Hall still hasn't let Tony in. Maybe because he never quite had that cache. Or maybe because football knows its careers are short and brutish, and so, more than baseball, they appreciate the clean, clear leap of the salmon that has disappeared.
Friday September 18, 2020
Is This Why—Dare I Say It—Trump Will Lose?
“Demagogues become popular because they talk about things that matter to people. In 2016, Trump talked about immigration, the opioid crisis and political correctness — things that no one else was talking about. This year, he's talking about things that no one cares about: Confederate flags, Goodyear tires and his Twitter account. He's a demagogue increasingly disconnected from the demos.
”Unlike in 2016, Trump can't afford to talk about the country's biggest problems because he's primarily responsible for them. When he talks about problems, he denies they're problems. He tells sick people they're healthy and unemployed people that the economy is booming. To appeal to voters, he has to lie to them, and on Tuesday he lied to their masked faces. ...
“Campaigns are not about plans. They're about connecting with voters, which Trump so far has failed to do. He has no health care plan and no empathy. Rather than feeling your pain, Trump wants you to feel his.”
-- Windsor Mann, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, and a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, in the opinion piece “Donald Trump's supervillain ABC town hall made Joe Biden appear almost superhuman,” in USA TODAY
Thursday September 17, 2020
My Summer of Looking at Bar Graphs
If 2020 were a movie, what would you call it?
I was asked that recently, and, remembering a 1985 coming-of-age Yugoslav film, “When Father Was Away on Business,” which I saw at the U Film Society on the University of Minnesota campus, and whose title is a kind of bland missing of the point—the father was sent away to labor camp for anti-Stalinist rhetoric—I went with this: “The Year I Let My Hair Grow Long.”
Our windows have been closed since then. Open windows is normally my thing in the morning. Making coffee, and listening to George Harrison's “All Things Must Pass” album, which has become my pandemic staple, I open the kitchen window for the morning briskness and freshness. When I take the coffee into my office, and before settling down before the computer, I open the horizontal window there, and lean out to take in the day. Is traffic heavy? Are people walking dogs? Is a crazy person cursing passersby? I haven't been able to do that since Labor Day. I miss it.
The bar graphs have a similar kind of sad sameness. For Covid cases in the U.S., it's a quick rise and slow fall (March-early June), then a steeper quick rise and slower fall (June-present). For the Seattle AQI, it's a quick rise 10 days ago at 10 PM, and then a kind of stasis. Despite various predictions otherwise, our AQI only dropped below 150 for a few hours last Thursday. Sometimes it shoots up into the 200s (Hazardous), but mostly it fluctuates between 170 and 190 (Unhealthy). Yesterday was a little better: mostly in the 150s. This morning I was up early at 4 AM, wrote for a bit, then refreshed the page after 5 AM and knew hope: 137! Not that horrible red but a hopeful orange! Unhealthy only for people like me with respiratory issues! Yay! Then I did the coffee routine with George but without opening any windows, came back to my office with my coffee but without opening any windows, refreshed the page and ... 151 again. So it goes.
I could also title my 2020 movie “Mornings in the Plague with George.” I've relied on him a lot. From the title song:
Sunrise doesn't last all morning
A cloudburst doesn't last all day
Seems my love is up
And has left you with no warning
But it's not always going
To be this grey
“All things must pass,” yes, but the problem with the smoke is it keeps returning every late summer now. We got it bad two summers ago, mild last year, bad again this year. And it's all the west coast. That conversation needs to happen. The climate-change conversation needs to happen. Because it's happening. This time of year, it might always be this grey.
Tuesday September 15, 2020
Movie Review: Johnny Come Lately (1943)
I couldn’t help but think of “Bob Dylan’s Blues” with this one:
The Lone Ranger and Tonto
They are riding down the line
Fixing everybody’s troubles
Everybody’s except mine
Someone musta told them that I was doing fine
Cagney’s Tom Richards is the Lone Ranger here, but without the mask, horse, or Indian sidekick. He’s a journalist-poet-hobo who shows up in town, fixes troubles, leaves. I guess you could call him “a faraway fellow”—Pat O’Brien’s nickname for Cagney, who tended to avoid the Hollywood scrum. Like Danny Kenny in “City for Conquest,” he's another Cagney character who’s actually a bit like Cagney.
The movie also made me think of “Don’t Let’s Start” by They Might Be Giants:
No one in the world ever gets what they want
And that is beautiful
Everybody dies frustrated and sad
And that is beautiful
Not for the characters; for the star. “Johnny Come Lately” was Cagney’s first film after the huge success of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (box-office smash, AA for best actor, etc.) and the first film he and his brother William produced independently (with United Artists distributing). For about the first time in his successful career, Cagney didn’t have to take what Jack Warner dished; he could play whoever he wanted. And he chose this gentle soul in this gentle period piece set in a small American town in 1906. And the response was a yawn. The box office was OK, but it’s a movie that was quickly forgotten and not at all treasured. And the critics were brutal:
- “A backward shot for Cagney Productions, indicating if anything that Warner Brothers old studio knew lots better than William Cagney what was good for brother James.” — John T. McManus, PM
- “[The film] is not dreadful—Cagney is still the unique Cagney—but it is far below his standard. To put it bluntly, it is an old-fashioned story told in a very old-fashioned way. Please, Mr. Cagney, for the benefit of the public, yourself and Warners, go back where you made pictures like Yankee Doodle Dandy.” — Archer Winsten, New York Post
Imagine you’re Cagney. You finally get away from the effin’ Warners, and you have to hear this shit over and over.
I do agree with the criticism—and don’t. I think Warners often knew what was better for Cagney than Cagney. At the same time, “Johnny Come Lately” isn’t a bad movie. It’s an atypical Cagney picture, sure, but mostly it suffered as a follow-up to “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” If it had been released after “Torrid Zone” or “The Bride Came C.O.D.,” I doubt the reviews would’ve been this scathing.
“Johnny” has one thing in common with “Yankee Doodle Dandy”: It resurrects a storied name from earlier in the century. Not one of the characters; one of the stars.
Grace George was an early 20th-century stage actress “whose style of high comedy charmed Broadway audiences for fifty years,” according to her 1961 New York Times obit. But she never really made the jump to movies. She was in a 1915 silent film and that’s it. Until this. Her credit is charming:
Introducing to the screen
Miss Grace George
Initially, the movie is all about her. Two hobos show up in a small town and the knowledgeable one leads another to the basement of a big house, where they’ll be fed hotcakes.
Hobo 2: I thought you said it was a tough town.
Hobo 1: Sure, it’s tough. The lady here is different. Got a good heart. About the only one in town that has. Runs a newspaper. See that. [Points to masthead: “Vinnie McLeod, Editor”] That’s her.
Except she’s on hard times. Keeps hocking silver candlesticks and the like to stay afloat. She’s got two problems. One is the town’s own Mr. Potter, W.M. Dougherty (Edward McNamara), who runs a rival newspaper and has got everyone, including judges, in his pocket. She also owes him money and might lose her house. Not good. The other problem, which the movie doesn't acknowledge, is that she’s too nice. Her only reporter for 35 years has been her drunk brother, her receptionist is literally the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), and her society page editor, her niece, Jane (Marjorie Lord), is dating the enemy: Dougherty’s son. She’s might lose everything to keep afloat a newspaper that probably isn’t worth it.
Enter Cagney. She finds him unshaven and reading “The Pickwick Papers” beneath a statue in the town square, and talks to him about literature. “I met Charles Dickens when he was here in ’67,” she says. That one makes your head spin but the math adds up. Mostly she’s there to warn him that the town is tough on vagrants: “They rope them in and put them to work on the road gangs and treat them brutally.” He listens but doesn’t; he keeps reading.
Next time she sees him, he’s before the judge as a vagrant. Except while the other vagrants are docile, he’s bemused and keeps quietly arguing his points. Last night? He was wandering around. Isn't he destitute? Nah, he’s got two bucks. But the judge is still putting him on the chain gang until she intervenes and hires him as a reporter—his previous occupation.
Initially he urges her away from reform:
Richards: You haven’t got a chance. I tried it myself once on a newspaper and had the boss slip out from under me when the going got too hot for him. Left me holding the bag. I’m not a crusader anymore. You can’t win. So why do you try?”
McLeod: Because you’ve got to try.
So they do. They close down the newspaper for three days and come back revamped. Earlier, Dougherty demanded she print editorials he had written, and they do, but with his lies pointed out in italics. Richards, a caricaturist, puts his drawings of Dougherty on the front page next to demands for why Dougherty hired an ex-con for a campaign manager. It gets noticed, particularly by Dougherty, who offers to double Richards’ salary if he’ll work for him. “Negative.” The he demands the rest of his editorials back. “Oh, I’m sorry, we’ve accepted them.” When the ex-con, Dudley Hirsch (Norman Willis), makes threatening remarks about Mrs. McLeod, Richards throws a chair at him.
In his memoir, Cagney said the greatest accomplishment of “Johnny Come Lately” was hiring good supporting players, which is is true—to a point. McNamara as Dougherty, for example, is a bland villain, while Willis’ Dudley is stock. It’s the women who are memorable. Not just Grace George, but Hattie McDaniel as Aida, the maid, and Marjorie Main as “Gashouse” Mary, the Hays-Code madam, whom Richards tries to recruit to the cause. Richards’ most interesting conversations are with these women.
OK, so the McDaniel stuff can be problematic. She was three years removed from winning an Oscar for “Gone with the Wind,” and her Aida here is a bit like Mammy there: the tough maid who thinks she runs the house—and kind of does—but is also treated like comic relief. She’s a bad cook, thinks herself married even though her husband left her 15 years ago, etc. But the conversation she has with Richards in the kitchen isn’t bad. She’s the one who tells Tom about “Gas House” Mary running a straight place and warns him about “cutting up” in there. When he plays innocent, she responds. “You a man, ain’tcha? That bouncer of hers will cut your head wide open.”
The stuff with “Gas House” Mary is even better. Main plays her big, like a post-sexual Mae West. She hates Dougherty, too, but has to pay him protection to survive. We also get this conversation, which resonates in an America with the idiot brat Donald Trump in charge:
Tom: What are you going to do about it?
Mary: Suppose you tell me. I’d kinda like to hear some fresh ideas.
Tom: I had the idea that we might get the honest citizens together and give ‘em the facts.
Mary: Yeah? Well, I’ve found it’s no good depending on honest citizens for a fight.
Independent production or not, it's a movie in the Production Code era, so we need our happy ending. Dougherty overplays his hand by sending goons to attack Mrs. McLeod, “Gas House” Mary agrees to go on the record, Dougherty’s police toss her in jail. This upsets Bill Swain (Robert Barrat), a Democratic leader who’s had a thing for Mary since forever, so he gets involved. Now the town is up in arms, hanging Dougherty in effigy. So he brokers a deal to skip town if they'll let his son stay. That's pretty much it. Not much justice but sorta.
I like the ways it diverges from a traditional movie. It looks like the star will get the girl, as usual, and Dougherty’s son, Pete (William Henry), even challenges Richards to a fight. But he loses. Except Jane runs to help the fallen Pete rather than the victorious Tom, and in Cagney's eyes you see the realization, “Oh. I guess it won't be me.” All of which is necessary for our Lone Ranger ending. Everything fixed, Mrs. McLeod assumes he’ll be on the road again soon. She even does a variant of “Who was that masked man?”
Mrs. McLeod: It’s strange. How little I know about you. Where you come from, where you’re going. Anything. Have you no one belonging to you anywhere? Haven’t you even got a girl someplace?
Richards: Sure. Sure I have. You’re my girl. [kisses her cheek]
Then a train sounds in the distance, and soon he’s on one, riding the boxcars, returning to life on the open road. Free.
Open roads never stay open
That’s also Cagney, right? Free of Warners. On the open road at a time when most stars were still bound to their contracts. He never did much with it, though: a WWII actioner; an OSS actioner. Then he tried to get hifalutin with William Saroyan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Time of Your Life,” and it lost so much money he was forced to return to Warners and the gangster role he was always running from (“White Heat”). Open roads don’t stay open long. Not if you want to keep the farm.
The movie was helmed by a lot of Cagney one-timers: directed by William K. Howard (his third-to-last), and written by John Van Druten (who wrote the play “Cabaret” is based on), from a novel, “McLeod’s Folly,” by Louis Bromfield. Bromfield’s interesting. A novelist who hung out with Hemingway and Stein in the 1920s, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for “Early Autumn.” He was hugely popular as well, selling millions of copies of his books, and in Hollywood did uncredited work in both “Dracula” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” He was best man at the wedding of Bogart and Bacall, and good friends with Cagney, with whom he shared an interest in farming. From John McCabe’s “Cagney”:
When Cagney Productions began to search out literary properties, it was inevitable that Jim would think of Bromfield. He selected one of the novelist’s gentlest stories, McLeod’s Folly, featuring a protagonist as unlike the standard Cagney screen persona as it was possible to be short of a hermit. The Cagneys obtained the services of the London and Broadway playwright John Van Druten to transmute a mild little novel into what unfortunately turned out to be a mild little movie, Johnny Come Lately.
Mild, sure. But not bad.
Anyway, all of this seems so Cagney. He dismissed what he did while idolizing the Gladys Georges and Louis Bromfields of the world. Now they’re mostly remembered for work they did with him.
Monday September 14, 2020
Fire and Virus
I've been refreshing two website pages every hour on the hour today. The first is the Air Quality Index for Seattle; the second is Amazon's “track package” page for the air purifier I bought last week. It's scheduled to arrive “before 8 PM,” while Seattle's AQI was scheduled to get better by 11 AM, so for a time it seemed like a race. I was rooting for both. OK, mostly for the AQI. Sadly, it looks like the winds and rains were less than anticipated and now they're saying it'll be Friday before Seattle sees, or smells, some relief. Fuck.
We woke up to it last week, Tuesday morning, the day after Labor Day, with the apartment smelling like a campfire. It shot up the previous night: from good (below 50), to unhealthy for people with conditions (101-150) to unhealthy for everyone (151-200). It toyed with us for a few days, and managed to get below 100 for a few hours on Thursday, allowing me to open the windows during that time, but then it went back up again. At times, it's gotten over 200 but mostly it's just hovered in the 170-190 range. Current: 183. Current mood: shitty.
First Trump, then Covid, now this. A reprise of those horrible weeks back in 2018. It's like this every late summer now.
Glad I got my exercise in the weekend before it all went bad but wish I'd known to close the windows Monday night. Either way, in air-conditioner-less Seattle, the stuff seeps in. You feel it in your throat and eyes. My wife has been coughing a bit, has a bit of a sore throat. That's worrisome in the middle of a pandemic but oddly less so in the middle of a pandemic and wildfire season. “Well, it's probably just the smoke,” you say. It's the other thing. How many ways are they trying to kill us? We need an update of Frost: “Some say the world will end in fire/ Some say in virus.”
I joke, but it's no joke when the air feels like your enemy. It's one thing you can't get away from.
Current AQI: 177. Current mood: shitty.
I'll let you know who wins.
UPDATE, 8:06 PM: Refreshed the Amazon page for about the 30th time today and it now says the purifier will be delivered Tuesday or Wednesday. “We're very sorry your delivery is late. Most late packages arrive in a day. If you have not received your package by September 16, you can come back here the next day for a refund or replacement.” Right. Or worse. This isn't like a shirt or a book, boys. It's to help breathe.
Current AQI: 185. Current mood: a little pissed off.
Saturday September 12, 2020
Quote of the Day
In a dictatorship, the state media tells you the sky is green. In a failing democracy, the free press tells you that one candidate says the sky is blue and the other candidate says the sky is green, without mentioning which is correct. https://t.co/pXFE7oUB6a— Garry Kasparov (@Kasparov63) September 7, 2020
Friday September 11, 2020
Movie Review: Trapped By Television (1936)
In the 1920s and ‘30s, as inventors were trying to create a visual version of radio called “television,” the film industry was already exploiting the concept in low-budget movies. Has someone done a study on this? It’s a major plot point in “International House” (1933) starring W.C. Fields, in which various people bid on the invention in a Chinese hotel; “The Big Broadcast of 1936” (1935), where TV is called “the Radio Eye”; a 1935 Bela Lugosi horror film called “Murder by Television”; and this, whose working title was “Caught by Television.”
I was caught anyway. I watched because I was intrigued by the title. And? It’s not much, a low-budget quickie, but it has moments.
Sweeping the country
Rocky (Nat Pendleton, the future Goliath in “At the Circus”) is good-natured muscle for the Acme Collection Agency (“If they’ve got it, we’ll get it”), but in his spare time he likes reading “Popular Science,” which his boss, Greggs (Wade Boteler), calls “machinery magazines.” Berated for not pulling his weight, Rocky is given a new assignment: a guy named Fred Dennis (Lyle Talbot, the future Lex Luthor in “Atom Man vs. Superman”), who is working on a beta version of television.
Rather than strong-arm him, though, Rocky becomes intrigued. He thinks Dennis is onto something and wants to help make it happen. So not only does he not take his equipment, he gets Dennis a job as a debt collector for the agency so he can pay back his debt.
Dennis’ first assignment? Blake Enterprises, Inc., a down-on-its-luck sales/promotion firm run by Bobby Blake (Mary Astor, the future femme fatale in “Maltese Falcon”). That debt isn’t collected, either, of course. Instead, he tells her about his television and she promises to help sell it. Per “Maltese,” she doesn’t really believe in his invention; she believes in the money she might bilk for it.
Mae: [Joyce Compton, Bobby’s wise-crackin’ secretary] Say, you don’t think that machine is any good, do you?
Bobby: I don’t think it can squeeze orange juice. What difference does it make? It looks complicated enough to fool anybody. … Television is sweeping the country. Everybody is interested in it and practically nobody knows the first thing about it. That’s where the chumps come in. Curtis would fall for it like a ton of bricks.
Curtis is the president of the Paragon Broadcasting Company (Thurston Hall), and he doesn’t believe in it, either, but he basically gives her a $200 check to get rid of her. Two-hundred bucks! Bobby and Mae celebrate. Except after visiting Dennis, and seeing the commitment he has to the project, and maybe being a little stuck on him, Bobby, against her better, cynical instincts, gives him the dough.
And he makes it work. Then they demo it for Paragon at a football game with Rocky filming and broadcasting, and … it doesn’t work. Paragon was working on its own version of television until its chief engineer Paul Turner (Wyrley Birch), and his assistant Frank Griffin (Marc Lawrence), went missing. Turns out Turner was kidnapped, and later murdered, by Griffin, who’s working with Paragon executive Standish (Robert Strange). I guess they think they can sell Curtis his own product? Main point is they sabotage Dennis’ demonstration by mucking with the cathode-ray tube. But Dennis figures it out, Bobby sells her prize fur coat to get him a new cathode-ray tube, and, even as the bad guys converge, the new Paragon demo works.
The first thing broadcast? A dull fight scene, blows continually exchanged, between mobster Griffin and scientist Dennis. Prescient.
Whatever happened to…?
“Television” is directed by Del Lord, who seems worthy of a movie himself. He started as a stuntman and a member of the Keystone Kops. Apparently he was adept at crazy, perilous driving. Eventually he became the director of stunt scenes and then Mack Sennett shorts. But when the Depression ruined Sennett, he was let go. A Columbia Pictures executive found him selling used cars. At this point, Columbia had just signed the Three Stooges and they figured the former Keystone Kop/director would be perfect for them. Apparently he was. Over the next 10+ years, he directed more than three dozen Stooges shorts, their best stuff, apparently, and was so revered a New York band named themselves the Del-Lords in his honor.
What he didn’t do much? Feature-length films. IMDb lists 220 directing credits for him, and all but 15 are shorts. He did three features in the ’20s: “Lost at the Front,” a WWI comedy; “Topsy and Eva,” a farce based on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (you can see a clip here, if you dare); and “Barnum was Right,” about a down-on-his-luck hotel owner who drums up business with rumors of hidden treasure. This is his first talkie feature. Don't know why they didn't give him a comedy, but that’s Hollywood.
So is there anything of value in it—other than an early look at the medium that usurped the movies as the preeminent storyteller of American lives? Yes, a few things.
Pendleton’s got good comic timing. He played a similar role in “Manhattan Melodrama”—the not-bright muscle with a heart of gold—and of course he made a great comic foil for the Marx Brothers. Born in 1895, the son of a lawyer, he took to wrestling, and was good enough to win a silver medal in the 1920 Olympics. He kept acting into the ’40s; he died of a heart attack in 1967, age 72.
There’s also a great scene after the Paragon engineer has been kidnapped. They’re in a cabin, the engineer is locked in a closet and banging on the door, while Griffin, the mobster, lays on the bed shooting darts at a dartboard with a blowgun. Splat! Splat! There’s something both indolent and menacing in Lawrence’s movements. He’s another story: Group Theater, good friend of John Garfield, gangster roles, blacklisted, European films, returning to the U.S. for TV and movie roles. He kept acting into the 21st century (take that, HUAC!) before dying in 2005 at the age of 95.
Finally, in “Television,” there’s this early line from Bobby Blake about the titular subject: “Well, if it does what you say it will, the entire industry will be affected.” They had no idea.
* The above photo is taken from the Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record, Bradford, Penn., July 11, 1936, Saturday evening edition. “Trapped” is a B-picture from a minor-major studio, Columbia, so hardly any posters were created for it. Even in the newspaper ads back then it was usually listed as an “Also” or “Plus”; it was the other feature you could see when you saw the one everyone was talking about.