March 5, 2014
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have been eavesdropping on Jim Beckerman’s telephone conversation. We were colleagues in newspaper journalism; we worked in a newsroom and we were accustomed to shutting out the phone chatter going on all around us. But every once in a while, a phrase or a clause would penetrate the shield. If a person within earshot were to say, “Was it a homicide?”, for example, we would notice that.
Something like that happened one day when I was standing near Jim’s desk, but he didn’t get my attention by mentioning a homicide or a fire or an FBI raid on yet another mayor’s office in New Jersey. I don’t recall now exactly what he said. It could have been, “Never mind Norman’s skates!” or “I didn’t know oranges were bad for the heart,” or “Mr. Abernathy here has to get his commission.” I don’t know exactly what it was, but I do know that it was a line from the 1939 movie It’s A Gift.
In this film, W.C. Fields plays Harold Bissonette (pronounced, his nagging wife, Amelia, insists, “Biss-uh-NAY). Harold is a grocer in the fictional town of Wappingers Falls, New Jersey, but when he unexpectedly inherits some money he sells his corner store and buys an orange ranch in California. His wife, brilliantly played by Kathleen Howard, and his daughter, Mildred, are outraged. Only his hyperactive son, Norman, is enthusiastic about the move. Moreover, Mildred’s boyfriend, John Durston, who sold the orange grove to Harold, knows that the property is worthless but can’t convince Harold of that. After an eventful trip across country, Harold finds that John Durston was correct — at least to the extent that the land won’t support an orange grove — but Harold also learns from a nearby farmer, Mr. Abernathy, that developers need the place to complete a racetrack project. “You’re an old fool,” Amelia tells Harold after learning that the family is going to be rich, “but I can’t help loving you.”
It’s a Gift is regarded by many film critics as one of the funniest movies ever made. We didn’t know that when we became addicted to it at our house. We just knew that we thought it was funny enough to watch again and again, and eventually we began to recite the dialogue. I don’t mean that we repeated certain lines, such as “Yes, Mrs. Casterini, I would love some oatmeal” from Moonstruck or “I’m givin’ you pearls here, son,” from Scent of a Woman. No, I mean that we recited whole speeches, such as Amelia’s rant to her beleaguered husband:
“I don’t know how you expect anybody to get any sleep, hopping in and out of bed all night, tinkering around the house, waiting up for telephone calls. You have absolutely no consideration for anybody but yourself. I have to get UP in the morning, get breakfast for YOU and the children. I have no MAID, you know. Probably never shall have.”
And we recited scenes, sometimes to the consternation or confusion of others who were waiting for a table at a restaurant or riding on the same ferry in the North Atlantic. One such was a conversation between the Bissonettes’ upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Dunk (Josephine Whittell), and her daughter, Abby (Diana Lewis), who has been dispatched to buy something to settle the stomach of Baby Dunk. Harold, escaping from Amelia’s nagging, is trying to sleep on the back porch of his second-floor apartment. Mrs. Dunk is on the porch above him, and Abby is already in the back yard:
Mrs. Dunk: Don’t forget the ipecac!
Abby: I thought you said syrup of squill.
Mrs. Dunk: I can’t hear you, talk louder!
Abby: I thought you said syrup of squill.
Mrs. Dunk: All right, syrup of squill. I don’t care.
Abby: I don’t care either. I’ll get ipecac if you want me to.
Mrs. Dunk: Well, ipecac or syrup of squill. I don’t care which.
Abby: I don’t care either. You tell me what to get and I’ll get it.
Mrs. Dunk: Get whichever one you want. I don’t care. Whatever they have handy. It’s just the same to me.
Abby: It’s just the same to me, too. I hate ‘em both. Oh, where will I go? To Jones’s?
Mrs. Dunk: Use your own judgment.
Abby: No, you tell me where to go.
Harold (muttering): I’d like tell both of you where to go.
Enter Amelia, who overhears this dialogue and comes out onto the porch:
Amelia: Who were those women you were talking to?
Harold: Mrs. Dunk upstairs.
Amelia: Seems to me you’re getting pretty familiar with Mrs. Dunk — upstairs!
Harold: They were talking to me, I wasn’t talking to them.
It wasn’t until I overheard Jim’s end of a telephone conversation that I realized that my family and I weren’t the only ones who at will could perform large chunks of dialogue from It’s a Gift. Recently I have seen several strings on Facebook in which one user posted a line from the film and a stream of “friends” immediately started chiming in with others.
Why is this true? One reason may be that this script wasn’t turned out by a team of college-educated writers who were handed a premise and ordered to be funny within the limitations of the budget. This was the combined work of Fields himself, who had been seasoned by years on the stage, J.P. McEvoy, a veteran magazine writer, and Jack Cunningham, who had been writing screenplays since 1917. McEvoy, by the way, created the newspaper comic strip Dixie Dugan, which ran from 1929 to 1966.
It’s probably because of the combined experience of these men that there is scarcely a line or exchange in It’s a Gift that isn’t funny. The script is hard to match on that account, and the fact that it was assigned to a brilliantly wackadoodle cast of characters completes the package.
One of the most famous scenes from this movie involves a salesman who is pitching annuity policies. This character was played by T. Roy Barnes (pictured above in the gray fedora), who died at the age of 56 less than three years after It’s a Gift was released but achieved film immortality with his search for a potential client, Carl LaFong. The salesman’s conversation with Harold takes place during the “porch scene,” and you can see that whole sequence at THIS LINK.
March 2, 2014
I had a phone conversation with Sally Struthers a few years ago when she was touring with a production of Annie.The fact that she was touring with that show was a reflection of an experience that she and may other actors have had: she appeared in a hit television series and never quite matched that in her later career. It’s no disgrace; it has happened to many others through no fault of theirs. It’s just the nature of the television industry.
Sally Struthers certainly isn’t absent from television because she isn’t a good actress.We were reminded of that the other night when we watched a 1979 Hallmark movie, And Your Name is Jonah, in which she plays a woman whose deaf son has been misdiagnosed as mentally handicapped.When the mistake is discovered the boy is released from the institution he has been living in. But his dad, although he tries, cannot understand the boy’s needs, and the marriage is strained to the breaking point.
Sally Struthers gave a strong performance as a loving mother who will not be diverted from her mission to help her son live as a member of the community. Jonah was played with great effect by nine-year-old Jeffrey Bravin, who was the fourth generation of his family to be born deaf. He is now an administrator at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, Connecticut. He and his wife have two children who, I believe, are hearing. Titos Vandis is a sympathetic figure as Jonah’s grandfather, who sells produce in an open-air market.
This movie touches on sensitive issues related to deafness, including the question of whether deaf people should rely on sign language or learn to lip read and speak. I was ignorant of that issue until I read Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, which was published in 1989 by the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks. This movie also treats the overarching theme of the need and right of deaf people to be treated not as pitiable victims but as the whole human beings they are.
January 10, 2014
A former newspaper colleague of mine was recalling on Facebook the other day that on the occasion of Kurt Cobain’s suicide an editor approached and asked, in effect, “Is that a big story for your generation?” I know the feeling. In 1967, when I was 25 and Otis Redding was 26, Redding was killed in a plane crash and I had to convince my managing editor that that was front-page news.
The Facebook conversation reminded me of an incident that occurred about 20 years later when my wife and I and another couple were visiting Nevis, a tiny island in the Leeward group in the Caribbean. Shortly after we arrived, a Nevitian fellow we knew only as Ralph was driving us to the house we would be occupying that week. Ralph took us by surprise by asking this question: “Who were the two greatest American singers?” Considering the size of the field, and the fact that we didn’t know the consequences of answering wrong, we kept our counsel. So Ralph answered his own question: “Otis Redding and Jim Reeves.” Discretion being the better part of whaddyacallit, we feebly agreed with that assessment, but Ralph seemed to detect a lack of passion. His voice ticked up a bit in both pitch and volume: “Don’t tell anyone here that Otis Redding and Jim Reeves weren’t the greatest singers!” Having already made mental notes about the ubiquitous machetes on the island, we promised to do no such thing.
I have always enjoyed the fact that one of the songs most identified with Redding, “Try a Little Tenderness,” originated in such an unlikely milieu.That song, a favorite of mine, was written in 1932 by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly, and Harry M. Woods and it was recorded many times, including by such as Jimmy Durante, Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé, and Frankie Laine, but also by Etta James, Tina Turner, and Three Dog Night. When Otis Redding wanted to record it in his own style in 1966, the publishers were reticent, but that turned out to be the best known and most enduring version. To see and hear Redding singing “Try a Little Tenderness” the day before he died click HERE. To hear a far more conventional rendition by Frank Sinatra, click HERE.
While Ralph’s question in itself took us by surprise, we were even more baffled by the reference to Jim Reeves, who I wouldn’t have expected to hold iconic status in the western Caribbean. Moreover, Reeves had died, also in a plane crash, even earlier than Redding — on July 31, 1964. I had painful memories of that, because I had been a big fan of Jim Reeves, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Kitty Wells, and that whole crowd. I still have lots of their vinyl and a turntable to play it on.
I don’t know how well known it is, but Reeves was very athletic and had his eye on professional baseball. He played for three years in the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system before an injury to his sciatic nerve ended his career.
He could hardly have done better in baseball than he did in music; he was an international star. Once he adopted the easygoing Nashville sound, he became one of my favorites. His hits included “Bimbo,” ”Welcome to My World,” “Blue Christmas,” and “Make the World Go Away.” I was always stuck on “I Love You Because,” and you can see and hear him singing it at a 1964 concert in Oslo by clicking HERE.
January 5, 2014
My best friend was up in Nantucket at one of those places where you leave things you have no further use for and other folks take them home. Lou spotted a set of CDs containing dozens of vintage recordings of operatic arias. Being my best friend, he brought them back for me. One of the singers who was well represented on the discs was the American baritone Leonard Warren, whose voice I hadn’t heard in many years.
Just seeing Warren’s name in the play list evoked for me a vivid memory of a Friday night — March 4, 1960 — when I was watching television and heard a bulletin announcing that Warren had died that night on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan while performing the role of Don Carlo in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Forza del Destino. Warren, 48, collapsed after singing the aria “Urna fatale del mio destino” which is introduced with the words “Morir: tremenda cosa” — “to die: a momentous thing.”
I was 17 when Leonard Warren died, and I was already an opera fan, so learning of his passing in that abrupt fashion made a strong impression on me. I was disappointed, but the dramatic aspects of Warren’s death — with his boots on, as it were — weren’t lost on me. I have a recurring daydream of one day slumping over my keyboard, though I have had to amend it over time from a bulky steel Royal to an IBM Selectric to a variety of front-end terminals and PCs. When those who still remember my name hear how I cashed out, they’ll purse their lips, nod, and mutter, “Of course. How else would he go?”
If I ever do join Warren in that exclusive society, he won’t be the only entertainer I find among those with club-room privileges. Harry Parke, for example, could hardly have picked a more auspicious context for his final bow. Parke, who is largely forgotten, was a former newspaper man who more or less wandered into comedy by way of Eddie Cantor’s radio show. Parke developed a character he called Parkyakarkus and did a schtick in which he spoke in a garbled form of Greek. He eventually had his own radio show, and he appeared in nearly a dozen movies from 1936 to 1945. He also made a lot of money in real estate.
On November 24, 1958, Parke was appearing at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills at a roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. He had just finished what reportedly was a very successful riff on the honorees when he slumped over onto Milton Berle. Berle asked if there were a doctor in the house and the line — understandably in that context — got a big laugh until folks realized that Parke was really ill. Five physicians who were among the Friars worked hard to save Parke, but he died after about two hours at the age of 54. His sons include the comics Albert Brooks and Bob Einstein (Super Dave Osborne) and the versatile writer Charles Einstein.
Many years ago, I met a man who eventually would fall into this rarefied category: the comedian Dick Shawn. I met Shawn while he was appearing in a play in a regional theater, but his career for more than 35 years was principally as a stand-up comic. He did appear in some movies, including the iconic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, and the Springtime for Hitler segment in The Producers, and he was a familiar figure on television as a comedian and as an actor.
On April 17, 1987, Shawn performed at the University of California at San Diego. During a routine in which he was talking about he and the audience surviving a nuclear war, he collapsed on the stage, the victim of a massive heart attack. The audience thought his fall was part of the act and didn’t leave even when they were told to after someone had gone onto the stage to examine Shawn. He was 63.
If you click HERE, you can see and hear Leonard Warren, in a television performance, singing the prologue from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci.
January 3, 2014
It’s all about Bill, an unpublished poet, whose dream is to sell vegetarian lunches in a park in Austin, Texas. He buys a hot dog cart — on monthly payments — and starts whipping up the hummus and babba gannounj. He calls his business Happy Poet, but whether he is happy or not is a matter of conjecture since the central joke of this deft little 2010 comedy is the poker face on Paul Gordon, who wrote and directed the film and plays the title role.
Bill has no business sense and his enterprise gets off to a slow start, but he gets help and moral support of sorts from two underemployed hangers-on and a young woman who not only likes the vegetarian fare but takes a shine to Bill himself.
The most helpful, seemingly, is Donny (played by Jonny Mars), a charismatic hustler who has a motorcycle and an idea: he will print and distribute flyers promoting the Happy Poet all over downtown Austin and then deliver lunch orders called in to Bill’s cell phone. This might be a workable if limited business model — if it weren’t for Donny’s sideline.
Curtis, played by Chris Doubek, shows up around four and helps Bill close up — even consuming some unsold victuals, giving what turns out to be a misleading impression of indolence. And Agnes, played by Liz Fisher, is a willing customer, because she eats healthy, who finds Bill more intriguing in a way that most people can’t perceive.
Bill’s foray into the culinary trade would have ended in failure but for an unexpected reversal of fortune. Sad to say, the resolution is giddily contrived and out of character in this film. It appears to be a clumsy attempt to create a contrasting background for Gordon’s poker face, which remains unmoved by events until everything goes black. But the movie was a game effort by Gordon, and it got some positive attention when it made the rounds of festivals. The casting and the performances and the effective use of the Austin locations add up to an engaging experience.
December 19, 2013
Every year at this time, and during the run-up to Valentine’s Day, the public-radio station I listen to runs sponsorship announcements from an outfit known as Pajamagram. Their deal is that you can contact them and have pajamas delivered to someone in the same manner in which you might send flowers if flowers didn’t require a second mortgage. I’ve being hearing these seasonal announcements for years, but today for the first time the information that Pajamagram can provide footie pjs reminded me of a name I haven’t thought of in decades: Dr. Denton. When I was a kid, “Dr. Denton” was a euphemism for pajamas with feet. My brother and I wore them, and that’s what we called them. These “blanket sleepers,” as they were more formally known, were manufactured by the Dr. Denton Sleeping Garment Mills of Centreville, Michigan. The company was founded in 1865 as the Michigan Central Woolen Company and operated through the first half of the twentieth century.
It wasn’t just in our household that footed pajamas were called Dr. Dentons. In fact, the usage was so common that the brand name became the generic term for the garment, what is technically known as a “genericized trade mark.” The design was patented by Whitley Denton, an employee of Michigan Central. His patent application emphasized that the garment, including the feet but sans the soles and arms, would be made in one piece with a minimum of cutting and stitching and seams, rendering the sleepers more economical to manufacture and more comfortable for wearers. Like the classic “union suit” the sleeper had a “trap door” in back so the user could go to the bathroom without having to disrobe.
You can see Denton’s patent application, including the drawings of the original design, by clicking HERE. Denton took on the honorary doctorate, at least for purposes of the brand name, to create the impression that there was some medical wisdom behind the pajamas. Although the original manufacturer is gone, other companies have used the trade mark, including Simplicity, which for a while was selling Dr. Denton patterns to what I imagine was a limited market.
December 7, 2013
We saw the movie Philomena last night, and I was intrigued by the reference to Jane Russell. I think it’s well known by now that the movie deals with the practice of some convents and other institutions in Europe to force single young women to surrender their children for adoption and to require a large donation from American couples to take those children to the United States. The movie has to do with a particular instance in which a woman named Philomena Lee, whose child was taken from her in that manner, attempts decades later to find out what became of the boy.
In the more or less true account, Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena, who — in the company of a freelance writer — visits the convent where she was left by her father after becoming pregnant at the age of 18. The reporter notices among the photographs hanging in the reception room at the convent an autographed, provocative photo of Jane Russell. He asks a nun about the photo, and the clear implication is that Jane Russell was among the wealthy Americans who “bought” a child at this convent. That caught my interest because I met Jane Russell in 1971 when she was appearing here in New Jersey in a production of Catch Me If You Can. In fact, I had coffee with her in Manhattan and one of the topics of our conversation was adoption.
Jane Russell told me that during her first marriage, which was to Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield, she visited orphanages and similar institutions in five countries in Europe and was frustrated to find that it was nearly impossible for an American couple to adopt the children who were languishing there. She eventually did adopt three children, but her experience in Europe also inspired her in 1952 to found the World Adoption International Fund which eventually facilitated tens of thousands of adoptions. She became an advocate for adoptive parents and children, testifying before Congress in 1953 in favor of the Federal Orphan Adoption Bill which allowed American parents to adopt children fathered by American troops overseas. And in 1980 she lobbied for the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act which provides financial assistance based on the particular circumstances of foster and adoptive parents and adoptive children.
From what I have read so far, I deduce that Jane Russell did not adopt a child from the convent that is the focus of Philomena. I did read an account of an interview in which she told a reporter that after having failed to adopt a child in England, she was going to try her luck in Ireland. Whether any of her eventual adoptions amounted to “buying” babies, I cannot tell. I do notice that news stories that refer to her as one of the wealthy Americans alluded to in Philomena do not go on to report her work on behalf of adoptive parents and children.
November 30, 2013
Having just watched an Angelica Huston movie, we felt that logic dictated that we watch a Jack Nicholson movie; the first one we were willing to subject ourselves to was Heartburn, a 1986 film directed by Mike Nichols and based on Nora Ephron’s fictionalized account of her ill-fated marriage to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein. Nicholson plays a D.C. journalist named Mark Forman and Meryl Streep plays a food writer named Rachel Samstat. These two meet at party, do the “why don’t we go somewhere else” routine, stretch “somewhere else” to mean Forman’s bed, and get married. Even if you didn’t know Ephron’s story, you’d know in the first few minutes of this film where the relationship is headed.
Mark seems to be an enthusiastic husband and, as nature takes its course, a doting father. The only stress on the marriage at first is the incompetence of the contractor the couple hired to renovate the wreck of a house they bought in D.C. But behind the scenes Mark is having friendly doings with an awkwardly tall Washington hostess, and this comes to light when Rachel is almost ready to give birth to their second child. Rachel reacts to the revelation by rushing back to her father’s home in New York, but she succumbs to Mark’s entreaty that she return to him. That turns out to be a bad decision. The messy outcome involves a key lime pie.
I don’t know how literally this story reflects what went on between Ephron and Bernstein (he had an affair with the wife of the British ambassador to the United States) but it doesn’t make clear what either of these characters really wants out of life. Rachel’s decision to marry Mark — after mutual acquaintances urge her not to, and after she holds up the ceremony for hours while she has a panic attack — is hard to absorb, and Mark’s passionate insistence on remaining in a marriage that clearly cramps his style is no more understandable. One conclusion I came to: It is possible to grow tired of Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson within 108 minutes. It is.
By the way, Heartburn marked the film debut of Kevin Spacey, who plays an armed robber who relieves Rachel of her wedding ring. The cast also includes Maureen Stapleton, Richard Masur, Miloš Forman, and Stockard Channing.
November 30, 2013
I never thought of Tom Jones as a deus ex machina, but in the movies all things are possible. To wit, Agnes Browne, which was co-produced and directed by Angelica Huston, who, apparently to prove that she is no shrinking violet, also played the title role. This movie, filmed in Dublin and released in 1999, was based on the novel The Mammy by Brendan O’Carroll, who appears several times in the film as a derelict townsman.
At the beginning of the film, set in 1967, we learn that Agnes Browne’s husband has been killed in a motor vehicle accident, leaving her with seven children to raise. This is quite a challenge inasmuch as, unless she can collect on her husband’s union pension, her only means of support will be selling fruits and vegetables in an open-air market. She doesn’t even have enough to cover the costs of her husband’s funeral and burial, so she borrows money from neighborhood loan shark Mr. Billy, played by Ray Winstone. When, after a few months, a stroke of luck enables Agnes to pay off the balance of the loan and avoid the usurious interest, Mr. Billy is irritated and he finds a way to get even by strong-arming one of Agnes’s young sons.
On the block where the open-air market is located, a French baker named Pierre, played by Arno Chervrier, has opened a shop, and although he is very courteous, he doesn’t hide the fact that he has eyes for Agnes. Agnes is too preoccupied to respond at first, but eventually she agrees to what turns out to be a very elegant date. But Agnes gets most of her personal support during this period from her fellow street merchant Marion Monks (Marion O’Dwyer) who is full of joie de vivre and sexual insights. Marion is so solicitous of her friend that she manages to buy tickets to a Tom Jones concert that she knows Agnes yearns to attend. Tragedy will eventually deprive Agnes of Marion’s friendship, and it’s a loss that Agnes can scarcely afford.
Because of the debt incurred by one of her sons, Agnes finds herself hours away from losing her furniture to Mr. Billy, although a viewer would hardly believe that such a blow will actually fall on this heroine.
This movie held our interest until the last few minutes despite the fact that we found the dialogue hard to follow in places because of the strong Irish accents and the tendency of some of the actors to mutter. We were absorbed mostly in the characters themselves and in the environment; the story line wasn’t very durable. It was difficult to follow Agnes’s reactions and motivations, beginning with her matter-of-fact response to her husband’s sudden death. But the real weak spot in this movie is the denouement, the resolution of the Mr. Billy crisis, which primarily involves the children, draws in Tom Jones — in person —under improbable circumstances, and is just childish in general.
This movie wasn’t received well in the United States, but it seems to have done much better in Europe.