Monday, May 23, 2022

Movie Quote of the Day (The Three Stooges, in a Typical Moment)

Moe [played by Moe Howard]: “Now then, gentlemen: Remember your etiquette.”

[Slaps Larry and Curly]

Larry [played by Larry Fine]: “What's that for?”

Curly [played by Moe Howard]: “We didn't do nothin'!”

Moe: “That's in case you do when I'm not around.”— Hoi Polloi (1935 short starring The Three Stooges), screenplay by Felix Adler, based on a story by Adler and Helen Howard, directed by Del Lord

Moe Howard: The guy who truly put the "slap" in "slapstick."

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Soren Kierkegaard, on Human and Divine Justice)

“Human justice is very prolix, and yet at times quite mediocre; divine justice is more concise and needs no information from the prosecution, no legal papers, no interrogation of witnesses, but makes the guilty one his own informer and helps him with eternity’s memory.” — Danish Christian theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), “Against Cowardliness,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses (1843)

Saturday, May 21, 2022

This Day in Film History (John Garfield Dies, KO’d by Blacklist)

May 21, 1952—No longer able to land a film role in Hollywood despite box-office success for the prior 13 years, back in the New York theater scene close to his heart, John Garfield died at age 39 of a heart attack.

Assigning causes of death can be difficult, and in Garfield’s case it was certainly problematic: 

*Did he die as a result of the rheumatic fever he had contracted almost 20 years before, maybe worsened by his smoking habit? 

*Had the middle-aged star absorbed more punishment than he could stand in an attempt to portray a young boxer in a revival of the Clifford Odets drama Golden Boy

*Had his coronary incident occurred during a romantic interlude with the female friend he was visiting at the time of his death, as some salacious gossips had it?

But there is another factor that underlies all of these theories: the stress of lingering questions about alleged Communist associations that, after nine years, had resulted in his blacklisting from Hollywood.

In perhaps his signature movie role, as an ambitious boxer struggling to win a title and maintain his integrity in Body and Soul, Garfield received his second Oscar nomination. When he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1951, he found himself in the uncomfortable position of life imitating art.

Like his character Charlie Davis, Garfield was reluctant to give up the position in his profession he had worked so intensely to achieve, including creature comforts. Like Davis, he did his share of bobbing and weaving when faced with his moral dilemma, including releasing a ghostwritten article for Look Magazine, “I Was a Sucker for a Left Hook,” claiming he had been duped by Communist ideology, in a futile try at compromising with investigators.

But in the end, again like Davis, he found one demand too many to stomach, in this case violating the moral code of the Lower East Side and the Bronx of his childhood: Don’t be a snitch. His bottom line was that he refused to name names.

It may be so hard to assess all that Garfield lost by making his stand because we have lost a sense of his place in movie history. He opened doors to others (Ben Gazzara cited him, in an interview with Lillian and Helen Ross in The Player: A Profile of an Art, "the first actor I had seen in the movies who felt close enough to my own life to be reachable"), but at the same time his reputation was so Himalayan that it could intimidate those who hoped to follow. (For the same book, Kim Hunter recalled how, in rehearsals for A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon  Brando kept saying, "They should have got John  Garfield for Stanley, not me; Garfield was right for the part, not me.")

*He was the first film “Method Actor”. Before Brando, Clift and James Dean became famous for using this naturalistic style of portraying characters, Garfield got there first.  He learned it originally as a member of the ensemble Group Theatre in New York, then brought the style to Hollywood. As author Isaac Butler described it in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Garfield made a crucial adaptation for his first film, Four Daughters in 1938: “He couldn't just do a stage performance on camera. If you've ever seen someone just give a stage-size performance on camera, it's really too much because the camera picks up so much that an audience at the theater will not see. It can really see you think or people talk about it reading your mind. ... So he really had to learn how to do much less and much less and much less, and to strip away and to learn how to perform with a new kind of ease and spontaneity that the camera would kind of pick up and enjoy.”

*He was "the first Jewish film sex symbol," according to Gil Troy's 2018 "Daily Beast" article. The actor’s given name was Jacob Julius Garfinkle, but his friends nicknamed him “Julie.” He was more than handsome; his intensity gave a palpable erotic surge to his scenes with Lana Turner, for instance, in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

*He was crucial in the development of film noir. Other actors—Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum come to mind—are more indelibly associated with the genre. But Garfield not only brought a rebellious persona, but also what TCM “Noir Alley” host Eddie Muller called, in Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, “a fiery desire to Make a Difference,” leading to “a caravan of writers, directors, and actors from the New York stage.”

*He pioneered the movement of movie stars into independent production. So chafing at the largely “B” movies to which he was relegated at Warner Brothers that he was suspended 11 times during his nine years at the studio, Garfield started his own production company, Enterprise Studios. A decade later, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas would follow suit with their own companies.

Ironically, the creative freedom that Garfield won through this daring move also helped lead to his blacklisting, according to his daughter Julie in this YouTube clip.  Hollywood studios resented the challenge to their ironclad control that his new venture represented. When HUAC approached them, looking for a liberal Jewish star that they could make an example of, they had three men in mind: Edward G. Robinson, Danny Kaye, and Garfield. Now on his own, Garfield had the least protection.

The actor had first appeared on a list of names of Hollywood actors with suspicious associations in the early 1940s, but within a few years—especially through the attention of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover—he came under heightened scrutiny. Garfield was not and had never been a Communist, but he knew people who were: his associates at the Group Theatre and his wife Roberta Seidman.

Additionally, Garfield was vulnerable because of his habit of signing petitions and joining organizations without questioning who might be behind them. A self-described "Democratic liberal," he did it all "without giving it a second thought, almost as if he were autographing for a friend," observed Robert Nott, author of a 2003 biography of the actor, He Ran All the Way.

Eventually Garfield’s phone would be tapped and he would be subjected to surveillance—even when he went to Harlem to visit his dying friend, blacklisted actor Canada Lee. He told HUAC that he would gladly testify about himself but not his wife or his friends. Though he thought this deal had gotten him through his trouble, he learned that HUAC investigators were poring over his testimony for possible perjury charges.

At this point, he was brought into an FBI office and told that the agency already had paperwork showing his wife’s membership in the party, so all he had to do was confirm it and he would be cleared. Instead, he told them what they could do in unprintable terms and walked out.

Altogether, Garfield went 18 months without work. Under the strain of the investigation, he drank more heavily and separated from his wife.

On the day of Garfield’s death, his friend, playwright Clifford Odets, confirmed, in his own HUAC testimony, what the committee knew already: that the actor had never been a Communist.

Garfield's penultimate screen appearance was in The Breaking Point, a Warner Brothers adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not. Like a Hemingway hero, Garfield was, in the end, a proud loser, someone willing to experience grievous sacrifice--even the loss of his life--rather than break with the code by which he lived. 

You can sense something of this bloodied yet unbowed attitude in this still from Body and Soul. He didn't have a chance to make enough such classics (his early death precluded him from the chance to make On the Waterfront and The Man With the Golden Arm), but he put all of himself into his work, and film watchers discovering his less-famous films for the first time are in for a treat.

Quote of the Day (Helen Lawrenson, on the Unheralded Merchant Seamen of WWII)

“There is no doubt about it, the merchant seamen took it on the chin during the first half of this year —with no guns, no patrols, antiquated lifebelts, and practically no safety precautions. They were sent out as helpless targets for the subs; but their morale was as magnificent as it was unheralded. That precautions are now being taken to protect them doesn't detract from their courage….

“Those who have been torpedoed and rescued ship right out again as soon as they can get out of the hospital.  That takes plenty of nerve, but the merchant seamen have it. They don't get much publicity, and you seldom hear anyone making speeches about them. They don't get free passes to the theater or the movies, and no one gives dances for them, with pretty young actresses and debutantes to entertain them. No one ever thinks much about their "morale" or how to keep it up.  It was only recently that a bill was passed to give them medals.  And because they wear no uniforms they don't even have the satisfaction of having people in the streets and subways look at them with respect when they go by.”— American editor, writer and socialite Helen Lawrenson (1907-1982), “ ‘Damn the Torpedoes!’”, originally published in Harper’s Magazine, July 1942, reprinted in Reporting World War II: Part One: American Journalism, 1938-1944 (Library of America anthology, 1994)

Perhaps because of husband Jack Lawrenson, the charismatic co-founder and leader of the National Maritime Union, Helen Lawrenson—previously known for her writing about New York society in the 1930s—wrote with marvelous empathy for the sacrifices and heroism of the American merchant marine in WWII.

At the time Lawrenson reported on these sailors for Harper’s in May 1942, U.S. merchant vessels had, through the first four months of the year, endured more than 100 attacks by German U-boats off American coasts. Nearly 1,000 seamen were killed during this time. Even after precautions were finally taken, an average of five or six of these boats were sunk in April alone.

The image accompanying this post—a recruitment poster from 1944—illustrates these men’s grim determination in the face of all hazards.

Much has been written over the years about the “The Greatest Generation” who served in the armed forces during WWII, and I hope to blog more about them myself in the future.

But the merchant seamen in the war faced their own perils in hauling vital cargo in the conflict, and for years their bravery went comparatively unrecognized (the likes of Lawrenson excepted).

Estimates for the number of these men who lost their lives in the war ranged from 6,000 to 9,000, and the survivors of these attacks would not soon forget the fire, explosions, runs for their lives, circling sharks, and floating in open water after their boats were hit.

They couldn’t forget all that—and neither should we. While Lawrenson’s article gives an excellent contemporary account of their dangers and courage, William Geroux’s May 2016 piece for Smithsonian Magazine offers a longer-term perspective on what we owe them.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Quote of the Day (Dashiell Hammett, on a Curious Episode in His Time as a Pinkerton Detective)

“The chief of police of a Southern city once gave me a description of a man, complete even to the mole on his neck, but neglected to mention that he had only one arm.”—American crime novelist and former Pinkerton operative Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective,” originally published in The Smart Set, March 1923, reprinted in Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories and Other Writings (Library of America anthology, 2001)

TV Quote of the Day (‘Modern Family,’ As Jay Makes a Logical Deduction About a Case of Exhaustion)

Manny Delgado [played by Rico Rodriguez]: “For whatever it's worth, my eyes have stopped itching, I can taste my food, and I have a lot more energy.”

Jay Pritchett [played by Ed O'Neill]: “You took a three-hour nap yesterday!”

Manny: “I was tired from the marathon.”

Jay: “The Downton Abbey marathon?” — Modern Family, Season 6, Episode 13, “Rash Decisions,” original air date Feb. 4, 2015, teleplay by Daisy Gardner, directed by James Alan Hensz

Off and on for the first half-century of its existence, I have been something of an aficionado of Masterpiece (or, as it known earlier in its younger days, Masterpiece Theatre). By my count, I’ve taken in about 30 different mini-series under the umbrella of the British import—not just acclaimed entries like The Jewel in the Crown, Prime Suspect, and The Forsyte Saga, but even the likes of Strangers and Brothers, The First Churchills and The Last of the Mohicans. 

But Downton Abbey? I’ve seen only about three episodes from its first season. It wasn’t that I hated it, mind you. But it was never really “appointment TV” for me.

And so, while the Crawleys became something of a cash cow for the PBS system, tried out almost as much as those musical specials for nostalgic baby boomers during those fundraising marathons, I’ve been largely content to sit on the sidelines.

That’s been nothing like the case for a pair of male relatives of mine. While I, comparatively speaking, have watched everything on Masterpiece but Downton Abbey, they have watched nothing but that show. The wonder of it is that these guys normally are neither Anglophiles nor culture vultures, but more than happy to spend several hours a night watching one sports event or other.

It was a sad day indeed in those two households when those relatives and their wives watched the last of the original 52 episodes of the show after six seasons. Then came the movie version in 2019, and—wouldn’t you know it?—they were among its troop of fans out for opening weekend.

This weekend, when each of these relatives will be otherwise engaged, that won’t be quite the case with the premiere of Downtown Abbey: A New Era. But you can take it to the bank that the first chance they get, they’re going to catch up to the latest adventures of the Earl of Grantham, Lady Cora and Crew.

And, beyond that, the next time there’s a PBS Downton Abbey marathon, they’ll be taking it very seriously indeed, unlike Modern Family’s Jay.

(For those of my readers who can’t get enough of the show, you’ll want to check out the Downtown Abbey Online blog.)

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Quote of the World (Derek Walcott, on the Poet Falling ‘In Love With the World, In Spite of History’)


“For every poet it is always morning in the world. History a forgotten, insomniac night; History and elemental awe are always our early beginning, because the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History.”— Saint Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott (1930-2017), “Nobel Prize Lecture,” December 7, 1992

(Picture of Derek Walcott taken at his honorary dinner, Amsterdam, May 20, 2008; permission is granted by Michiel van Kempen, secretary and treasurer of the Werkgroep Caraibische Letteren, The Netherlands; by courtesy of the photographer Bert Nienhuis.)