August 31, 2015
Johnny Mercer was going for a rhyme. Little did he know that that lyric, which he wrote around 1952, would presage an environmental phenomenon to occur six decades in the future: the vanishing firefly.
We became aware of this on a recent night when we were sitting on our backyard deck after dark, admiring the moon—a natural wonder that has suffered relatively little, so far, from human activity. There is a swath of lawn maybe thirty feet wide between the deck and a thick patch of woods; when we first moved here about 14 years ago, fireflies would flit around in that space on summer nights. As I sat there the other night, I remarked that I hadn’t seen a single firefly this summer. A little research on the iPhone turned up the fact that the firefly population all over the world has been sharply diminished. Those with knowledge of the subject speculate that the factors in this melancholy situation are overdevelopment, which destroys the firefly’s habitat and natural prey; artificial light, which interferes with the mating rituals of fireflies—that’s what those little flashes are all about; and pesticides.
There are some places in the world in which fireflies are so numerous—or have been until now—that they constitute a tourist attraction. I also read about one river in Asia on which they are considered an aid to navigation as their thousands of winking lights along the shore outline the course of the water on dark nights. And, of course, fireflies have been among the charms in the lives of uncounted children.
The firefly was an inspiration to the prominent German composer Paul Lincke, who included a song called “Das Glühwürmchen”—”The Glow Worm”—in his 1902 operetta “Lysistrata.” A lyricist named Lilla Cayley Robinson translated that song into English, and it was used in the 1907 Broadway musical “The Girl Behind the Counter.” But its permanent place in the popular songbook wasn’t sealed until Mercer got a hold of it and put his own spin on it for the Mills Brothers, who recorded it in 1952 as “Glow, Little Glow Worm.” It was the number-one song in the country for three weeks that year, and it was on the charts for twenty-one weeks.
Whoever thought that song might be all we’d have left.
You can see and hear the Mills Brothers sing this song on the “Nat King Cole Show” by clicking The Mills Brothers sing “Glow Worm” .
August 29, 2015
In the episode of the television series Taxi in which Jim Ignatowski is hired as a driver for the Sunshine Cab Company, the first scene takes place in Mario’s, the cabbie hangout. The core group of drivers on the show are there to celebrate the fact that one of them, Tony Banta, has finally won a prize fight. Their excitement isn’t dampened at all by the fact that Tony won by default when his opponent fell while climbing through the ropes and knocked himself out. After all, Tony argued, he had to make it through the same ropes. In that scene, one gets a fleeting glimpse of a framed print among the clutter behind the restaurant bar. It is a reproduction of Dempsey and Firpo, the 1924 painting by George Bellows. The painting portrays the incident a year before when 80,000 people were admitted to the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan—the baseball park had a capacity of 55,000— to watch Jack Dempsey defend his world heavyweight boxing title against the popular Argentinian Luis Firpo.
The fight lasted only into the second round, and both men took their licks. In the first round, Dempsey knocked Firpo down seven times; that was made possible by the rules that prevailed at the time, permitting a boxer to stand over a floored opponent and knock him down again as soon as he got up, and also by the fact that three knockdowns in one round were not yet considered a technical knockout. A rule adopted later required a boxer to go to a neutral corner when his opponent was knocked down.
Later in the first round, Firpo landed a right on Dempsey’s chin and knocked him through the ropes and into the ringside seats. What happened next generated one of those exquisite controversies that arise in sports. The sports writers sitting at ringside helped Dempsey back into the ring. Analysis of the film of the fight indicates that the referee had counted only to four when Dempsey was back on the canvas, but observers who were checking their watches claimed that as many as fourteen seconds had elapsed when Dempsey was ready to continue.
Because of the count, and because Dempsey didn’t get back into the ring under his own steam, the argument arose and has persisted that Firpo should have been awarded a knockout and crowned heavyweight champion of the world. If Dempsey had been out of the ring for twenty seconds, the rule in place at the time would have resulted in a TKO. As it turned out, Dempsey knocked out Firpo in fifty-seven seconds of the second round, and Firpo never did win the title. Dempsey who was a wild and wooly character, often involved in controversy, earned enormous amounts of money as a fighter. He later operated a popular restaurant in Manhattan. Firpo became an automobile dealer and a large-scale rancher. He and Dempsey later jointly managed an Argentinian boxer named Abel Cestac who became the heavyweight champion of South America.
I don’t follow boxing any more, but when I was younger I had a conflicted relationship with the sport. I enjoyed its history, its characters, and its ritual, and I admired boxers such as Archie Moore, Carmen Basilio, Rocky Marciano, Ray Robinson, and Floyd Patterson. On the other hand, I thought, and still do, that boxing is fundamentally barbaric.
Boxing was a subject that interested George Bellows, who did a number of works that portrayed amateur fights. He may be best known for his scenes of New York City life. He promoted American intervention in World War I and the war, including atrocities attributed to German troops, provided him with some riveting subject matter. When he was criticized for painting images of a war he did not witness, he asked rhetorically if Leonardo had attended The Last Supper.
August 22, 2015
We were at the American Museum of Natural History in New York recently, and I asked a uniformed employee of the museum how to get to the Imax theater.
He said something like the following: “So you go through that door to your left, turn left again and walk all the way through the gift shop and through the exit at the other end, and you’ll come right to the theater.”
He started that sentence with “so.”
It wasn’t “so” as a conjunction introducing a dependent clause: “So that we’re not late for the theater, we’re catching the 9:30 train.”
It wasn’t “so” implying prior knowledge of the subject about to be introduced: “So, how was your trip to Peoria?”
And it wasn’t “so” used as an adverb: “So many people declined the invitation that we had to cancel the party.
In this usage, “so” may be best identified as an interjection that conveys no meaning of its own. I have seen the usage defined as a “linguistic pause.”
In that sense, it is similar to the words “say” and “why,” which one hears in the films noir of the 1940s: “Say, for two cents I’d knock your block off!”
I first noticed this usage of “so” while listening to an interview on NPR perhaps seven or eight years ago, but I find that it has been around much longer than that and is the topic of conversation on a lot of web sites devoted to language.
Some folks are quite passionate in their demands that the usage be stopped.
A writer on one business-oriented web site argued that using “so” in that way while engaged in commerce insults your listener, undermines your credibility, and signals that you are not altogether comfortable with what you’re about to say. (I thought there was something suspicious about that museum guide, and we did get lost on the way to the Imax.)
One person responding to that writer pointed out something that hadn’t occurred to me—that comedians for generations have used that construction: “So a priest, a minister, and a rabbi walked into a bar ….”
For me, whose life is all about the English language, this is an interesting example of how our manner of speech evolves over time. Often, change occurs without us noticing it. When did movie tough guys stop using “say”? But in this case it’s a specimen that we can observe and that probably is harming no one except linguistic fussbudgets, and that probably will fade away just as innocently as it came.
Incidentally, the bartender looked up and said, “So what is this—some kind of a joke?”
August 1, 2015
There is a double meaning to the title of this book, which was published in 2010. This is the memoir of Bill Marx, oldest of the four children of Harpo Marx, so the book is, in a sense, Harpo’s son speaking. The title also is an allusion to Harpo Speaks, the 1961 autobiography of the silent comedian, written “with Rowland Barber.”
Harpo Speaks may be the best of the many books about this family, due in part to the detailed memories of Harpo Marx and the writing skills of Rowland Barber, who also wrote The Night they Raided Minsky’s and co-wrote Somebody Up There Likes Me with boxer Rocky Graziano. Son of Harpo Speaks is not in the same class. It’s not that Bill Marx didn’t have a story to tell, or even that he didn’t tell it. It’s that he told it without focus or precision. The grammatical and spelling errors, while trivial as individual faux pas, are distracting in the aggregate. The absence of a professional co-author and a rigorous editor is evident on every page.
Nevertheless, I’m grateful that Bill Marx wrote this book, because it preserves facts and insights about his parents and the rest of the Marx family that might otherwise have been lost. That’s important to me, because I have been a student of the Marx clan since I was about 13 years old and someone gave me a copy of The Marx Brothers by Kyle Crichton, which was published in 1950. I use the word “student” rather than “fan” because I have always been less interested in the Marx Brothers as entertainers than in the Marx family as a phenomenon of the American experience in the twentieth century. I have read most of the other books about them and I have interviewed Miriam Marx, the eldest child of Groucho Marx; Maxine Marx, the daughter of Chico Marx; and Gregg Marx, the grandson of Gummo Marx.
Bill Marx was the first of four children adopted by Harpo and Susan Fleming Marx, and he made his career as a Julliard-trained pianist, composer, and arranger. His account of his relationship with his adoptive parents confirms what one reads in every account of their lives, namely that they were genuinely nice people. Bill Marx unabashedly admired both of them, and he revels in the fact that for many years he served as Harpo’s props manager: “I had to see that the coat he wore was properly prepared for all of his sight gags; the carrot goes into the upper right inside pocket, the telescope must be in the lower left inside pocket, the scissors for immediate availability in the small middle right inside pocket, the rubber chicken accessible in the large left inside pocket, and on and on.”
Once Bill Marx got his sea legs as a musician, he collaborated with his father on several projects, including two albums of Harpo’s performances on the complicated instrument he mastered without a lesson and without the ability to read music. He also wrote arrangements for Harpo’s live performances and TV guest spots.
Bill Marx also devotes considerable space in this meandering book to his personal emotional and psychic history, including his struggle to find and understand his own identity, and the personalities that influenced him, including such icons as Buddy Rich and Margaret Hamilton. He also includes a fascinating account of how he learned the names and sad histories of his birth parents through a chance acquaintance he made at Dino’s, a club in Los Angeles where he was playing piano.
I’m glad to have read this book; my only regret is that I wasn’t the editor.
(Bill Marx presides over an informative and entertaining web site, The Official Arthur Harpo Marx Family Online Collection.)
July 24, 2015
Sammy Cahn and Julie Stein wrote six songs for the 1947 movie It Happened in Brooklyn,including “The Song’s Gotta Come from the Heart,” which was performed as a duet by Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante. Durante later recorded the song on the RCA Red Seal label with the dramatic soprano Helen Traubel as his partner.
It doesn’t have to be classic or rock / Just as long as it comes from the heart / Just put more heart into you voice / And you’ll become the people’s choice
I thought of that song the other day when my son, Christian, pointed out that Meryl Streep is to star in a movie about Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944). Chris wasn’t aware of this, but in 2007 I reviewed a play, Souvenir, by Stephen Temperley, in which Liz McCartney played Mrs. Jenkins and Jim Walton played her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. There are at least three other plays about her.
Before I saw Souvenir, I had never heard of Mrs. Jenkins, who was born to a wealthy family in Wilkes-Barre and became an accomplished pianist while still child, even playing at the White House during the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes. When her father refused to finance a European musical education, she eloped and moved to Philadelphia where she taught piano until she injured her arm and, her marriage having ended, was reduced to poverty until her mother came to her assistance.
Around 1900 she and her mother moved to New York City together, and there Mrs. Jenkins entered into another marriage that would last until she died. When her father died in 1908, she inherited enough money to become a prominent Manhattan socialite and to undertake voice lessons. She became even wealthier when her mother died in 1912.
Mrs. Jenkins was under the impression that she was a talented soprano, but the fact was that she couldn’t sing at all. She had no command of tone, pitch, rhythm, or diction. But she continued to study voice, and she gave periodic invitation-only recitals attended by friends who would not have told her the truth. She dressed in elaborate costumes that she had designed herself and engaged in such melodramatic gestures as throwing flower petals to the audience. Because these recitals were private, there were usually no professional critics present. Mrs. Jenkins, who was widely ridiculed, would at times detect laughter during her performance, but she attributed that to the agents of rivals who wanted to discredit her.
When she was 76 years old, Florence Foster Jenkins finally gave a public concert at Carnegie Hall, and tickets sold out weeks in advance. Because it was a public event, critics attended, and they were merciless in their accounts of the performance. Mrs. Jenkins was badly shaken by what was written and said about her; she died of a heart attack two days later, appropriately while shopping for sheet music at G. Schirmer’s music store.
One of the consequences of Mrs. Jenkins’ first marriage was that she contracted syphilis from her husband, a disease for which there was no effective treatment before the discovery of penicillin. The disease itself and the treatments, which commonly employed mercury and arsenic, gradually ravaged her brain and her auditory and central nervous systems.
Temperley’s play, which does not broach the subject of venereal disease, is, on balance, gentle with Mrs. Jenkins. I suspect a movie treatment will more deeply explore the woman’s background. Still, I find myself hoping that the filmmaker will find something sympathetic, if not admirable, about a woman who so doggedly pursued her ambition and didn’t have to die with the regret that comes with never having tried.
Mrs. Jenkins herself summed up what I’m feeling: “People can say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.”
July 19, 2015
We recently watched The Great Dictator, Charles Chaplin’s slap at Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, a movie that evoked the question of whether that subject matter could be treated appropriately in a humorous setting. Although the film was well received, Chaplin himself later said that if he had been aware in 1939 of the full scope of fascist atrocities in Europe, he would not have made it. The question of depicting Nazi atrocities in a comic milieu without minimizing the crimes themselves also arose with respect to Life is Beautiful (La vita é bella), the 1997 quadruple Oscar winner in which a Jewish book-shop owner and his young son are caught up in the Holocaust in Italy and sent to a death camp, and the father sacrifices his life in order to shield his boy.
The unlikely mix of comedy and Nazi brutality also was the basis for The Secret of Santa Vittoria, a 1969 film based on Robert Crichton’s novel by the same name. The film, which was directed by Stanley Kramer, starred Anthony Quinn, Anna Magnani, Virna Lisi, Hardy Kruger, and Sergio Franchi.
This story takes place in the summer of 1943. The government of Benito Mussolini has collapsed and the German army is in the process of occupying most of Italy. The people of Santa Vittoria learn that their town is soon to fall under German rule and one result will be that the Germans will confiscate more than a million bottles of wine that have been produced by the local co-operative. In the power vacuum that ensues because the local fascist government has been discredited and some officials arrested, the town fool, Italo Bombolini (Quinn), is declared mayor by acclamation. Under the guidance of a more sober character named Tufa, played by the tenor, Sergio Franchi, Bombolini devises a scheme to hide all but 300,000 bottles of the wine in tunnels that date from the age of the Roman Empire.
When a small contingent of German army personnel, under the command of Capt. Sepp Von Prum (Kruger), take charge of the town, a cat-and-mouse game begins in which Bombolini patronizes the Germans but insists that the wine in the storage cavern is all there is. Kruger is under pressure from the SS to find the wine the Germans are sure is hidden nearby, but he eventually convinces the SS commander that the townspeople are telling the truth. In his heart of hearts, however, Kruger knows better, and as he and his men are about to vacate the town, there is a tense episode in which, in the presence of the whole village, he puts a handgun to Bombolini’s head and threatens to fire if someone doesn’t tell him what he wants to know. He is met with grim silence and, because he really doesn’t have the steel will expected of Hitler’s cohorts, leaves without further incident.
Magnani plays Bombolini’s wife, Rosa, the stereotypical Italian firebrand who badgers her husband about his indolence and drunkenness. Virna Lisi appears as a peripheral character, Caterina Malatesta, who is a love interest of Tufa and the object of Kruger’s rather courtly advances.
The Secret of Santa Vittoria was nominated for Academy Awards for film editing and best musical score (Ernest Gold); it won the Golden Globe Award as best motion picture comedy and was nominated for best director, best actor in a comedy (Quinn), best actress in a comedy (Magnani), best original score and best original song (“Stay,” which was written by Gold and Norman Gimbel).
This movie wasn’t nearly as popular as Crichton’s novel, and it was a loser at the box office. It is in many ways superficial, implausible, and obvious. And yet, for the price of an Amazon rental fee, it is worth watching for its entertainment value, including the arch but earthy performances by Quinn and Magnani and the charm of blue-eyed Hardy Kruger. The movie, entirely an American production, was shot in Anticoli Corrado in the province of Rome, with hundreds of local residents acting as extras.
July 1, 2015
During the 22 days that David Sweat and Richard Matt were on the loose, I had occasion to mention to an acquaintance the name Willie Sutton. I was dismayed by the blank expression that name inspired. This happens to me more and more often as I get older and older. There was a time when, just as the name Enrico Caruso could be used interchangeably with the phrase “great singer,” the name Willie Sutton could be used interchangeably with the phrases “bank robber,” “prison escapee,” and “master of disguise.”
Sutton, who was born in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn in 1901, was a bank robber and prison-escape artist. Because of his use of disguises, he was known as “The Actor.” At various times in his career, he posed as such things as a mailman, a telegraph messenger, a police officer, a window cleaner, a prison guard, and a maintenance man.
After a series of robberies and a prison term for safe cracking, Sutton was sent to 30 years in Sing Sing in 1931. He got his hands on a firearm, took a guard hostage, and escaped on December 11, 1932, using a makeshift extended ladder to get over the prison wall.
He moved to Philadelphia and resumed his vocation until he was arrested again and spent about 15 years as a guest of the commonwealth. On April 3, 1945, Sutton and eleven other inmates escaped from the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia by crawling through a tunnel — Sutton’s fifth attempt to break out of this prison — but he was arrested the same day by city police.
Because he was a four-time loser, Sutton was sentenced to life in prison and sent to the Philadelphia County Prison in Homesburg. On February 10, 1947, he and other inmates, dressed as prison guards, carried two ladders across the prison yard to the wall after dark. The story goes that the watchtower searchlights found the men, but Sutton yelled, “It’s okay,” and no one interfered with the escape.
That escapade earned Sutton a place on the FBI’s list of ten most-wanted fugitives.
Sutton was said to have good manners, and he dressed to go along with his demeanor. In a wry coincidence, that turned out to be his undoing. Police, knowing of Sutton’s penchant for fine clothes, distributed his photograph to tailors and haberdashers. A clothing salesman — 24-year-old Arnold Schuster — saw that photograph in his father’s store. On February 18, 1952, the young man recognized Sutton on a subway in Brooklyn and followed him to a gas station where Sutton intended to buy a car battery. The young man called the police, and Sutton was arrested yet again. Less than a month later, Schuster was shot to death in what was presumed to be a mob hit against a squealer. No one was ever charged with the crime. In an autobiography published in 1976, Sutton wrote, ”Throughout my career I had plotted and planned my jobs to make sure that I would not have to hurt anybody, and now, after it was over and I was sitting in jail, a good-looking, promising young man had been killed because of me. The laughter of the gods.”
Sutton already had a life sentence plus 105 years hanging over his head, but he was tried again for a bank robbery in Queens and had his lease extended another 30 years, this time at the Attica State Prison.
Because of his failing health, however, he was released on December 24, 1969. The following year, he did a television commercial promoting a new credit-card program offered by the New Britain, Connecticut, Bank and Trust Company.
Sutton was reputed to have said, when he was asked why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.” Sutton, however, denied having said that although, he added, if someone had asked him that question that might have been his reply.
“Why did I rob banks?” he wrote toward the end of his life. “Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I’d be out looking for the next job. But to me the money was the chips, that’s all. Go where the money is…and go there often.”
June 25, 2015
The title of this movie originates in a conversation between a junior high school teacher, Mr. Simon, and a student, Andy Nichols, who is long on caution and short on self-confidence. Mr. Simon (Ed Harris) thinks the observant and analytical Andy has potential as a writer, and Andy (Chase Ellison), who has no grasp of spelling or grammar, thinks otherwise. Mr. Simon makes him promise to tell himself every day, “I am a writer. That’s what I am.”
The story, which is narrated in retrospect by Andy ala The Wonder Years, takes place in California in 1965. Andy, despite his linguistic challenges, is a solid student who likes to keep a low profile so as not to attract scorn, or worse, from kids who think more of themselves than the facts warrant. Mr. Simon, who keeps a close eye on the dynamics among his students, is creating teams to work on a term project, and he matches Andy with a tall, awkward kid named Stanley (Alexander Walters)–“Big G” for short–who is an outcast, the butt of ridicule and abuse from those in the main stream.
Andy is keenly aware of the potential consequences for him if he spends time in Stanley’s company, but he develops a kind of frustrated fascination with Stanley’s passive demeanor in the face of the treatment he receives from his peers. But when Stanley faces up to a habitual bully–on behalf of someone else, not himself–and volunteers for a school talent show (“I am a singer. That’s what I am”) regardless of the hilarity this will inspire in some quarters, Andy learns a few things about self-awareness and dignity.
Meanwhile, a perennial rumor among students about the sexuality of Mr. Simon–a widower–migrates to a group of parents and spins out of control, compromising Simon’s position at the school and that of his principal and mentor, played by Amy Madigan.
This movie, a product of WWE Studios, was released to only about ten theaters in 2011 and made a little over $6,000 in three days. The film offers nothing new in the way of themes, so it depends on the writing and the acting, both of which make it worth watching, especially for the cost an Amazon rental rather than box office prices. The subject matter is also relevant to the current preoccupation with bullying among teenagers. Although it tends toward the sentimental, the story is realistic in the sense that it does not suggest that there was a satisfactory outcome either to Mr. Simon’s predicament or to Stanley’s isolation.
June 4, 2015
I don’t know how John Wilkes Booth thought his journey was going to end, but I’m sure Boston Corbett didn’t figure in his plans.
Booth made a sincere effort to get away with murdering Abraham Lincoln. With one of his accomplices, David Herold, he was heading south, hoping to get deep into the former Confederacy where folks might see what he did–sneaking up on a man and shooting him in the back of the head–as something more than an act of cowardice. Like many criminals, however, Booth left a trail, and federal detectives and troops tracked him down to a Virginia farm, cornered him and Herold in a barn, and set fire to the structure. Herold gave up and eventually hanged, but Booth, who was armed, stayed in the burning building. Corbett, an army sergeant, watched the assassin through an opening in the wall of the barn and–as he later said–thinking that Booth was about to fire on the soldiers outside, shot him in almost the same place that Booth’s bullet had struck Lincoln. Booth fell, paralyzed, and died after being removed to the farmhouse porch.
Thomas “Boston” Corbett, the man who killed Booth, is the subject of this engrossing book by Scott Martelle. It’s an important contribution to the history of the epoch surrounding the end of the Civil War and the murder of Lincoln; relatively little has been written about Corbett and some of what has been written has been incorrect. By Martelle’s account, Corbett was a complicated and eccentric character. He frequently worked as a hatter — specifically as a finisher — and that meant that he was exposed to a great deal of mercury. That has led to speculation that mercury poisoning led to Corbett’s peculiarities as it led to the odd behavior of many others. His lifelong vocation, however, was not as a hatter but as a Christian preacher. He was deeply religious in his own way, so much so that Martelle reports that Corbett castrated himself while still a young man in order to spare himself the inclination to sexual sin. His overriding goal was to live as a Christian — as he understood that term — every hour of every day. Whatever his foibles, he performed many acts of kindness in his pursuit of that ideal.
He served four separate hitches in the Union Army during the Civil War, and a colleague later wrote of him, “He was a very religious man, faithful at his post of duty, a good speaker, and a skillful and helpful nurse to those who were ill or in distress, and [he] knew no fear.” Still, he was once court-martialed for walking off his post, and he threatened to kill a fellow soldier in order to dissuade him from picking blackberries on the Sabbath. Corbett thought the war was justified and reportedly had no qualms about killing enemy soldiers, although he prayed for them before pulling the trigger.
At one point, Corbett was an inmate at the notorious prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia. The conditions there were so heinous that they permanently damaged Corbett’s health. He did survive, however, and returned to service, and so was available when a cavalry detachment was sent to hunt down Booth and Herold.
In the wake of Booth’s death, some people regarded Corbett as a hero, and some condemned him. Although there were claims to that effect at the time, Martelle determined that there was no order to take Booth alive. Corbett was in demand as a speaker and, one imagines, as a curiosity, but in the long run he had a difficult time sustaining himself. In desperation, he moved to Kansas and tried his hand at raising livestock and selling the wool from his sheep.
Eventually, he became unglued, was confined to a asylum, escaped, and vanished from history.
If Corbett hadn’t shot Booth, Booth would have hanged anyway. Whether he would have revealed anything to assuage the doubts, which still linger, about the culpability of Mary Surratt and Dr. Samuel Mudd, we can only conjecture. As it is, Mrs. Surratt hanged and Dr. Mudd was sent to the federal prison in the Dry Tortugas Islands off Key West but pardoned after he helped stem a yellow-fever epidemic among the inmates.
But Corbett did shoot Booth, and, like Jack Ruby after him, became a key if shadowy player in a great drama. Martelle, a diligent reporter and a skillful writer, has done us a service by recreating the life of this strange man.
June 3, 2015
It may not have been the worst movie we ever saw, but Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys was no bargain at the three dollars and change we paid to watch it on Amazon.
In retrospect, I might have known better from the plot summary and from the presence in the cast of Tuesday Weld, Dwayne “Dobie Gillis” Hickman, Gale Gordon, and Jack Carson. But the top of the bill consisted of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, the director was Leo McCarey, and the film was based on a novel by the same title written by Max Shulman.
Newman plays Harry Bannerman, the owner of a Manhattan PR firm. He commutes by train from an upstate suburb. He and his wife, Grace (Woodward) have two little boys. Harry feels neglected, because Grace is over-committed to civic life in the town. The Bannermans’ glamorous neighbor, Angela Hoffa (Joan Collins) also feels neglected by her husband, who is a network television executive, and she thinks Harry might be the remedy for her loneliness. Harry is close to convincing Grace to leave her committees behind long enough for the two of them to spend a romantic night or two at the St. Regis.
This plan is disrupted by the revelation that the U.S. Army has bought property just outside the town and plans to put a top-secret installation there. Grace is chosen to lead the public opposition to this plan, and she volunteers Harry to handle the public-relations aspects. Meanwhile, Angela makes a play for Harry and, although Harry has no intention of having an affair with her, she manipulates him into a compromising situation that leads to a breakup of the Bannerman household. At the same time, Harry is co-opted by the Army general (Gale Gordon) in charge of the secret project, and forced into taking the government’s side of the argument.
McCarey, a writer-director whose projects included An Affair to Remember, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Going My Way, and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, was at the end of his career when he made this film in 1958. He made only one more movie—Satan Never Sleeps in 1962.
The movie begins on a crowded northbound commuter train, and there is a fleeting hint that this is going to be a satire on suburban life. In fact, however, it is one, long, heavy-handed slapstick gag. Virtually none of it is funny, and much of it is painful. A drunk scene in which Newman and Collins pretend to laugh uncontrollably goes on much too long to be effective. The nuance of Newman swinging from a chandelier adds nothing. Weld is simply annoying as a girl who has just discovered that she has hormones, and Hickman is ludicrous—not amusing, ludicrous—as a crude leather-jacketed greaser who has his sights on her. Gordon is remarkably restrained, for him, in the role of the general, but Carson, as a boorish and inept Army captain is repulsive.
Farce works only when the audience can accept the premises on which it is built, and that isn’t possible with this film. For example, we are expected to believe that the Army could construct a missile-launching site—complete with a missile and a chimpanzee passenger—without the knowledge of the people who live nearby.
I don’t know what else three dollars and change will buy, but spend it almost anything but this movie and you’re bound to come out ahead.