Wednesday, December 31, 2008

This Day in Theater History (Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate” Becomes Toast of the Town)

December 31, 1948—Once again, Broadway discovered that it was “So In Love” with Cole Porter, as the veteran tunesmith rebounded from a pair of flops and devastating health problems with Kiss Me, Kate.

New Yorkers picked up their newspapers on New Year’s Eve to find that the critics were hailing the musical, which had opened the night before at the New Century Theatre, as a witty send-up of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew—except that this time, the Bard’s knockdown battle-of-the-sexes became a play-within-a-play featuring divorced and feuding co-stars. Brooks Atkinson’s review in The New York Times, for instance—then, as now, the paper with the make-or-break authority on a production’s chances—pronounced it “a blissfully enjoyable musical show.”

Porter had not had a bona fide hit since Mexican Hayride in 1944. His next two, Seven Lively Arts and Around the World, led some to wonder if his heyday was over.

Far worse than these blows to his ego were the blows to his body and spirit he’d sustained after an accident in 1937. In the 1950s, a distant cousin of mine, an accomplished Irish soccer player and equestrian, died after being thrown from an unruly horse.

Tragic as it was, his death might have been a blessing compared with the hell that Porter went through following his similar catastrophe. By the time of his death in 1964, Porter had become a recluse following amputation of a leg and electroshock therapy that only temporarily relieved his depression. In all, he endured 30 operations in the quarter century following the riding accident that left him crippled for life.

Far more than the undeniable wit and sophistication of his lyrics, I find the most compelling part of Porter’s life to be the gallantry he displayed after the accident. I can only shake my head, in wonder and awe, when I think that he wrote Kiss Me, Kate while recuperating after the 21st of his post-accident operations.

Maybe the challenge of writing the musical diverted him, if only momentarily, from his mounting depression. The story of Kiss Me, Kate can be likened to a mirror reflecting a mirror reflecting yet a third. The book was written by the husband-and-wife team of Sam and Bella Spewack. If Porter had hoped for an experience working with the pair as pleasurable as it had been during Leave It to Me 10 years before, however, he was quickly disabused of the notion.

At the time they were contacted about doing the show, the couple had been separated for a few years. How on earth they managed to turn out one of the great musicals of the postwar period, I’ll never know.

In those days, the workshop method of ironing out problems with a production, conceived by Michael Bennett for A Chorus Line, was not the norm. Instead, productions would be drastically reworked out of town before a Broadway opening, in places like New Haven and Boston. Sometimes, such out-of-town reworkings led to triumph, the kind recounted in Moss Hart’s marvelous memoir Act One about his first collaboration with George S. Kaufman, Once in a Lifetime. In other instances, such unrelenting, concentrated pressure could only have led to nervous breakdowns.

Incredibly, in a case of life imitating art (imitating, of course, more art), the battling Spewacks decided they were still “So In Love,” and reunited.

Kiss Me, Kate was a triumph for all concerned, going on for 1,077 performances—the only one Porter musical ever to go over 1,000. Yes, the quartet of stars—Alfred Drake, Patricia Morrison, Lisa Kirk, and Harold Lang—was top-notch. And yes, the Spewacks provided Porter plenty of great material in their libretto.

But the real star of the show was Porter’s score. It simultaneously combined songs so specific to the show that they can’t be wrenched out of their original context (e.g., “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua”) with others that have entered the Great American Songbook, such as “So In Love,” “Always True to You in My Fashion,” and “Too Darn Hot.”

My favorite song of the bunch, however—one that has made it onto my iPod, as a matter of fact—is “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” The script lists the two characters who sing this as “First Man” and “Second Man,” but, we soon learn, they are two gentlemen from the underworld who offer, in Porter’s hilarious parody of mob patois, advice on how to woo a woman through culture (“If she says your behavior is heinous/Kick her right in the Coriolanus”).

The original male lead of Kiss Me, Kate, Alfred Drake, is reputed to have been blessed with an incredible voice and comic talent to go along with his matinee-idol looks. If so, he had a very worthy successor in his role as the egomaniacal Fred Graham/Petruchio in Brian Stokes Mitchell, who co-starred with Marin Mazzie in a 1999 revival that I was lucky to see.

But my favorite part of the show came after the cast took their final bows, and it involved not so much the estimable Mitchell but the two actors playing the gangsters, Michael Mulheren and Lee Wilkof. Mitchell came out, just before the audience was ready to leave, to urge us to contribute to one of Broadway’s traditional charities (I believe that this one involved AIDS).

“When you leave the theater, we’ll have two members of the cast collecting”—whereupon Mulheren and Wilkof stepped forward, with their hands noticeably thrust forward in their characters’ dark suit pockets—“and, as you can see, they can be very convincing and I’m afraid won’t take no for an answer!” Mitchell chuckled.

Quote of the Year (My Brother on our Contemporary Version of Egyptian Hieroglyphics)

“My handwriting is illegible; yours is… indescribable.”—John T., my oldest brother, setting out succinctly the distinction between us.

(This might be the only quote from our family that deserves inclusion in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Recipients of my handwritten postcards from vacation can attest to its truth!)

Quote of the Day (William Barrett, on the Decline of Religion)

“Religion to medieval man was not so much a theological system as a solid psychological matrix surrounding the individual's life from birth to death, sanctifying and enclosing all its ordinary and extraordinary occasions in sacrament and ritual. The loss of the Church was the loss of a whole system of symbols, images, dogmas, and rites which had the psychological validity of immediate experience, and within which hitherto the whole psychic life of Western man had been safely contained. In losing religion, man lost the concrete connection with a transcendent realm of being; he was set free to deal with this world in all its brute objectivity. But he was bound to feel homeless in such a world, which no longer answered the needs of his spirit.”—William Barrett, Irrational Man (1958)

(Late in life, philosopher-critic William Barrett (1913-1992) wrote The Truants: Adventures Among the Intellectuals, a memoir containing vivid portraits of mid-century figures such as Philip Rahv, William Phillips, Dwight Macdonald, and Delmore Schwartz. He landed on the literary map, however in 1958 with Irrational Man, in which he explained the origins and meaning of existentialism to a primarily American audience.

I came upon a chapter from the latter book on “The Decline of Religion” in a cheap paperback I picked up called Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society, a 1962 anthology edited by Eric and Mary Josephson. I remember reading somewhere that Barrett was a lapsed Catholic; nevertheless, in describing how Protestantism had “fitted in very well” with the scientific movement that brought an end to the Middle Ages, you can almost sense a kind of wistfulness over a world empty of symbols and images—the kind of essay you might expect from the same decade in which David Riesman’s sociological grappling with meaninglessness in modern America, The Lonely Crowd, had appeared.)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Quote of the Day (William Randolph Hearst, on His “Little Paper”)

“I have begun to have a strange fondness for our little paper (the San Francisco Examiner] -a tenderness like unto that which a mother feels for a puny or deformed offspring, and I should hate to see it die now after it had battled so long and so nobly for existence; in fact, to tell the truth, I am possessed of the weakness, which at some time or other of their lives, pervades most men; I am convinced that I could run a newspaper successfully.”—William Randolph Hearst to his father, California Senator George Hearst, 1885, quoted in A Treasury of the World's Great Letters: From Ancient Days to Our Own Time, edited by M. Lincoln Schuster (1940)

(In a time of declining circulation and increased staff layoffs for newspapers—indeed, for “old media” in general—the letter from which I’ve just quoted fills one with nostalgia for the days when print not only mattered but flourished. Oddly enough, the person nowadays who comes closest to Hearst’s passion for newspapers is his contemporary counterpart in yellow journalism, Rupert Murdoch.

Reading this passage reminds one of brash Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ scandalous cinematic takedown of Hearst, Citizen Kane, except that the real-life events behind this letter are probably even more extraordinary. Hearst’s father, a geologist who had lucked into a goldmine that had made him a multimillionaire, harbored, as his son would after him, political ambitions. To that end, he had bought the struggling San Francisco Examiner as a mouthpiece for his opinions. Nevertheless, he didn’t see much future in the money-losing rag.

William begged to differ. You can see here traces of the scamp who’d been expelled from Harvard for such pranks as sending engraved silver chamber pots—you know, in those days, the kind of receptacles used for relieving one’s self—to professors. But, as the letter goes on, you can also see a keen intelligence that knew how to market to a new age (a change in layout, he observed, could produce “a much cleaner and neater appearance”) and what types of people would be best to staff the paper (“active, intelligent and energetic young men”—not unlike himself, one suspects).

Monday, December 29, 2008

Theater Review: “Pal Joey,” from the Roundabout Theatre Co.

Billy Wilder once told underemployed Hollywood director Erich von Stroheim that as a filmmaker he was 10 years ahead of his time. "Twenty years, Mr. Wilder,” von Stroheim replied. “Twenty.”

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart could have related to the dilemma of “The Man You Love to Hate.” When Pal Joey premiered on Broadway on Christmas Day 1940, audiences didn’t know how to take this sardonic gift from the songwriting pair. Hart died three years later, believing a show whose seedy milieu he knew intimately had failed.

Rodgers, at least, had the dubious comfort of seeing later entertainment artists succeed with the same risky subject matter he and his troubled partner had pioneered. An older woman keeping a gigolo in high style (Wilder’s film Sunset Boulevard, with von Stroheim in a flashy supporting role)? Rodgers and Hart’s show predated it by 10 years. An emcee of subpar talent, in a louche big-city nightclub during the economically desperate 1930s (Kander and Ebb’s 1966 musical Cabaret)? Again, check for Rodgers and Hart—a quarter century before.

Since its premiere, the success of Pal Joey has been hit or miss. The show demands far more of both audience and cast than Rodger’s subsequent successes with later lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. All the way to the end, it doesn’t compromise in the slightest in its jaundiced view of the love triangle at its heart, giving theatergoers little to root for. (When New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson analyzed the original show, he asked: ''Can you draw sweet water from a foul well?'' As you might have guessed by now, his answer was no.)

Consequently, so much—everything, really—depends on how the show is cast. It needs performers that will make listener sit up, pay attention, marvel, and salute, despite revulsion against actions onstage that are at best stupid and self-defeating and that at worst are deceitful or abusive. In an ordinary theater environment marked by high ticket prices, this can be a dicey proposition.

In the current one, when theatergoers look askance at any production that doesn’t reach superiority in every way—well, if you want someone willing to overlook and even forgive the usual human imperfections, seek out those guys in white collars who head up certain houses of worship.

I can’t tell you how much I wanted the current revival—or, as it happens, “revisal”—of Pal Joey at the Roundabout Theatre Co.’s Studio 54 to succeed. Countless pop and jazz renditions of several of its better-known numbers over the years left me curious as to how they worked in their original theatrical context.

As a fan of John O’Hara, the author of the musical’s original source (an epistolary novel in the manner of Ring Lardner’s You Know Me, Al) as well as its unusually hard-hitting book, I’d also like the show to help revive interest in a novelist and short-story writer who, partly through his own fault (he was a class-conscious, often misanthropic SOB), has never received the critical acclaim he deserves.

You may wonder why I called this production a “revisal” of the musical. The reason lies in the Roundabout’s decision to commission Richard Greenberg to rewrite O’Hara’s book.

Revising the “books” of old musicals has become the fashion in recent years on Broadway. You can imagine the thinking behind this: “Everybody is coming for the glorious old songs, anyway. Why not just cut to the chase and eliminate the between-songs patter that now sounds hopelessly sentimental or politically incorrect?”

But we’re not talking about something like the early, pre-Of Thee I Sing Gershwin musicals, for instance, in which plots were unapologetic pieces of fluff. We’re not even talking about something like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song, which undoubtedly would raise hackles with its then-current stereotypes about Asian-Americans.

No, O’Hara’s plot was and is crucial in providing a springboard for the character-driven songs here. The novelist’s view of human nature is shorn of illusion (Joey on his parents: “They were real close—his fist and her face”), as likely now as in 1940 to put off theatergoers craving escapism. Furthermore, much of Joey’s rough-around-the-edges lingo remains intact from O’Hara’s original script, including “mouse” (Joey’s term for Linda English, the innocent new girl in the city who first catches his eye before he tosses her aside in favor of rich Vera), “nose candy,” and even “crib” (a place to sleep)

At the post-show “talk-back” I attended, I learned Greenberg’s contribution consisted of ginning up elements already inherent in O’Hara’s book, including hints of a major character’s homosexuality. As far as I can tell, Greenberg did no real violence to the original. It’s just hard to see why the Roundabout felt the need to tinker with something that didn’t require fixing.

A Tough Break in Previews
While still in previews, the show was dealt a sharp, if not crippling, blow: Christian Hoff, a Tony Award-winner for Jersey Boys and the actor chosen to play Rodgers and Hart’s heel protagonist, Joey Evans, severely injured his ankle. Given that the role requires considerable fancy footwork, Hoff would have risked a far more severe and lasting injury if he came back too soon (though the scuttlebutt in the blogosphere is that the injury made for a nice cover story for sidelining a performer who wasn’t working out as envisioned).

With his decision to withdraw, the Roundabout decided to replace him permanently with understudy Matthew Risch, and pushed back the official press opening night one week, to December 18.

The problems of replacing a lead just before an opening—especially adjusting to an actor with a different take on a character—are considerable. Those difficulties are multiplied in this case, since Hoff brought with him a devoted and growing audience from his Jersey Boys stint and his indefatigable humanitarian work.

Let’s be charitable: given the terrible break the show (and, of course, Hoff) experienced, the company—very much including Risch—has acquitted itself as well as can be expected.

No, I’m afraid that this production of Pal Joey limps along not because of Mr. Hoff’s injury, but because of a fundamental flaw that would have remained in place even had he been unhurt: If you’re going to cast a musical, make sure all your principals can sing and dance. Don’t count on a musical director or choreographer performing miracles with a performer with years of inexperience (not to mention ingrained habits and the all-but-inevitable fears).

Assessing Blame Where It Belongs
I didn’t have a problem with Scott Pask’s set design (the nightclub of Joey’s dreams, “Chez Joey,” is particularly snazzy), nor with Graciela Daniele’s choreography.

If you want to cast blame for the failings of this show, look no further than director Joe Mantello, who was also responsible for two of my least-favorite Roundabout productions during my nearly dozen years as a subscriber: The Mineola Twins and Design for Living. (Memo to Roundabout artistic director Todd Haines: Ever hear of three strikes and you’re out? Mantello offers excellent justification for applying the old adage in your company.)

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Stockard Channing admitted to occasional concern that her character, socialite-of-a-certain-age Vera Simpson, could “be arrested for robbing the cradle” by taking up with Joey. That maturity gap now appears even wider with the title-role recasting of Risch, who is even younger than Hoff.

Most theatergoers at the preview I attended would, I think, agree with me, however, that Ms. Channing should have worried far more about her ability to carry a tune than her character’s romp with a youngster (who, for the record, appears to be in his twenties). It’s been a long time since the marvelous actress played Rizzo in the film version of Grease, and the layoff shows.

When she finished her post-coital musing on the lover who has unexpectedly gotten under her skin, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” Ms. Channing received only tepid applause for her talk-singing (more like uncertain warbling) of this standard.

Look, I don’t blame Ms. Channing in the slightest for wanting to tackle a new theatrical challenge late in her career.

But I’m afraid that The Roundabout has erred on the side of comfort, choosing someone with whom it worked successfully before (Ms. Channing aced the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the company’s 1999 production of The Lion in Winter) instead of someone far more up to the vocal demands of the role, such as Patti Lupone (who earned considerable acclaim in the role of Vera in the 1995 Encores! Production) or Donna Murphy.

The company acted similarly several years ago, when it cast the almost-always-reliable Blythe Danner more for her straight-line readings as the willowy, witchy former chorus girl in Follies than for her singing. This does nobody a service, however.

Somewhat more successful is Martha Plimpton as the felicitously named ecdysiast Gladys Bumps. As longtime readers of this blog might remember from my review of Cymbeline last year, I yield to nobody in admiring her ability to transform herself into almost anything. I bet she could even wring untold pathos and comedy out of reading George W. Bush’s two inaugural addresses!

At times, though, this production made me seriously reevaluate that opinion. Ms. Plimpton is at a particularly serious disadvantage in Act I, when she pales considerably next to Mr. Risch and the chorus line in “You Mustn’t Kick It Around.” She does somewhat better with the Follies parody “The Flower Garden of My Heart,” and performs creditably indeed with Hart’s send-up of Gypsy Rose Lee’s intellectual pretensions, “Zip.” (I can’t imagine her topping Elaine Stritch’s show-stopping version of the song in the 1952 revival, but then again, who could?)

As for Mr. Risch: he does quite well with his dance numbers (a fairly demanding load, actually, compared with the decreasing norm for non-Fosse musicals these days). Neither is his singing or acting bad. It’s just that he doesn’t have the kind of electricity that can make you sympathize, in spite of yourself, with the raw, unremitting hunger that animates his character.

Saving Graces
No matter how misconceived a show might be, it will still likely possess at least some saving grace that, several years down the road, a theatergoer will remember fondly. In 2003, the Roundabout’s revue of Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs, The Look of Love—as misbegotten a production as can be concocted by a troupe of Broadway veterans—still contained a marvelous tap dance version of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” featuring Eugene Fleming and Desmond Richardson.

And so it proved with Pal Joey. Watching the Irish Repertory Theater’s fine version of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple a year ago, I wondered about the actress playing the flighty young minister’s wife, Jenny Fellner. Was my annoyance with her really dictated by her thankless role instead of by her acting ability.

I’m now prepared to think it was. As Linda English, the “mouse” Joe discards, Ms. Fellner displays the strongest, truest voice of any of the lead actors here. More important, she rescues a character that even one of the show’s creators, Rodgers, had written off as an idiot.

In her final number, “I Still Believe in You,” Ms. Fellner brings to the fore the dignity of a woman who sees every one of the faults of the man she loves but also notices what others (including himself) can’t glimpse in him. That’s not the perception of a Pollyanna, but of someone who bravely dares to hope. Fellner’s interpretation goes a long way toward making Joe’s play-ending dilemma much more suspenseful than it should be—and helps re-orient, if only momentarily, a production that veered off course.

A final word about another saving grace: I recommend to my readers that if they ever watch a Roundabout show, they bought tickets for one of the Saturday afternoon post-show lecture series.

This time, Peter Filichia, theater critic for Theatermania, held forth on the show’s origins. It was amusing to hear him hold forth on top-selling songs from the 1940s vs. today, as well as the origin of “I Could Write a Book” (it was Hart’s inside joke directed against O’Hara, who, having dashed off the book, didn’t attend the rehearsals—leaving rewrites in the hands of Hart, who joked, thinking of O’Hara, “If I wanted, I could write a book…”

Quote of the Day (Martial, on Gullibility)

“Friend Gullible, so often taken in,
Lacks our familiarity with sin.”—Martial (C. 40-c. 102 C.E.), the Spanish-born Roman poet, quoted in Garry Wills, “Rome’s Gossip Columnist: Introduction to Martial’s Epigrams” (also printed in The American Scholar, Spring 2008)

(Wills was known earlier in his career for his political commentary and histories, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg. His Ph.D. is in the classics, however, and over the last few years he has translated St. Augustine. While using his linguistic training, his work on Martial has taken him about as far away from Augustine as one can get. Much of Martial’s verse, far raunchier than the sample included here, can be found in the link above. The two-line structure enables the poet to lance his victims with compressed force. You really can see here, in a bent satiric way, the vast sexual corruption depicted in the HBO mini-series Rome.)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

This Day in Sports History (Colts Beat Giants in “Greatest Game”)

December 28, 1958—With the former head football coach of my high school, Vince Lombardi, serving as offensive coordinator, the New York Giants lost the first “sudden-death” overtime game in the history of the National Football League to the Baltimore Costs, 23-17.

A number of people have called this “the greatest game ever played.” Giants running back Frank Gifford, who fumbled twice in the game, remembers it as sloppily played, pointing to seven turnovers altogether on that blustery winter day. Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, who broke down a “coaches’ film” of the game this past spring for Atlantic Monthly writer Mark Bowden, would probably agree. So, I bet, would the notoriously perfectionist Lombardi.

Nevertheless, there’s no doubting the attention given this NFL championship game, especially when you consider the following:

* Approximately 45 million people watched the broadcast of the game, ratifying the NFL as a major TV draw 19 years after NBC became the first network to televise a contest.
* Among the people in attendance was Vice-President Richard Nixon.
* The Giants may have had the most talented assistant coaching staff in the history of the game—Lombardi as offensive coordinator and Tom Landry directing the defense.
* Besides Lombardi and Landry, 14 other people associated with the game would enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including Colts coach Week Ewbank and Giants owner Wellington Mara.

I am a longtime Giants fan and, as a graduate of St. Cecilia, a Lombardi aficionado. But I have to admit that one of the most inspiring stories of this game was the crucial partnership of Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry. The pair—nothing at all like the mastodons that now roam the gridiron—would never have even stepped foot on a football field if their naysayers could have helped it.

That they could have succeeded at all was due to a blue-collar work ethic, tireless craft and undaunted grit. Two years before “the greatest game,” Unitas had been picked up off the slag heap, so to speak, by the Colts, who had found him playing in a semipro sandlot league after he’d been cut by the Steelers.

Even before that, when he was a college hopeful, Notre Dame had ignored him, never believing he could bulk up. In a way, they were right—Unitas finished up his NFL career with the San Diego Chargers, a team that, exactly a decade before, had introduced steroids into the game, and the proud old quarterback was distinctly out of place in that overgrown lockerroom. In his prime, it didn’t matter—no field general could move his forces at will and attack the enemy at the exact point where it hurt when everything depended on it like Unitas.

Likewise, those paid to know about those things discounted Berry as lacking speed. They overlooked his big hands and an obsession with detail that made the wide receiver what writer Mark Bowden, in an excerpt from his book The Best Game Ever in Sports Illustrated, called “the prototype of the modern football player.” Not only did he study 25 pages of game notes in preparation for the confrontation with the Giants, but before the fans trooped into the stadium that day he minutely inspected the turf, examining which spots he could exploit—preparation that aided him in his playoff-record 12 catches that afternoon.

Two last points and I’m out of here:

* Lombardi was halfway through his post-St. Cecilia High School life—and at a career crossroads—during the game. He badly wanted the head coaching job of the Giants, but the Mara family made too much of a fetish out of personal loyalty. They didn’t want to push out the door current head coach Jim Lee Howell, even though he cheerfully admitted his penchant for delegating to Lombardi and Landry with the one-liner, “I just blow up the footballs and keep order." In short order, Lombardi and Landry left for head coaching posts with the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys, where they forged the records that put them in the Football Hall of Fame—and even Howell had decided to hang it up after the 1960 season.

* Colts running back Alan “The Horse” Ameche, whose one-yard plunge into the endzone decided the contest, was the subject of one of the funniest scenes in the great 1982 Barry Levinson comedy Diner. You might remember the scene when a sports-fanatic groom decides that his prospective bride needs to pass a trivia test before the ceremony. “Alan Ameche” was the answer she had on the tip of her tongue when her fiance’s friend blurted it out. The capper of the scene: The groom emerging to tell his buddies that the wedding was off! As Paul Reiser’s character Modell sums it up: “We all know most marriages depend on a firm grasp of football trivia.”

Quote of the Day (Archaeologist Ehud Netzer, on Herod the Great as Urban Planner)

“Herodium was built according to a comprehensive master plan, which, Netzer believes, Herod himself probably conceived. ‘Herodium may well have represented the ideal city in Herod's mind,’ he told me, ‘whose orderliness, palatial buildings, colonnades, and splashing water created an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity that he probably yearned for elsewhere.’ All this beauty from a man who killed his wife and sons, tortured courtiers, and spent long months in stammering madness.”—Ehud Netzer quoted in Tom Mueller, “King Herod Revealed: The Holy Land’s Visionary Builder,” National Geographic, December 2008

(The discoveries of Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer focus on Herodium, the civic project closest to the heart of Herod the Great, King of Judaea at the time of the birth of Christ. The recovered world of Herodium serves as an usual springboard into the psychology and history surrounding a legendary ruler that, Mueller claims, was “almost certainly innocent” of the crime of which he is accused in the Gospel of Matthew: the slaughter of every male infant in Bethlehem, in an unsuccessful effort to destroy the prophesied Messiah. Mueller offers no proof of his assertion and, indeed, there is much throughout the rest of the piece about the many deaths for which this cruel ruler was responsible.

Nevertheless, this article sheds much light on how one ancient king sought to put his imprint on the physical landscape of his time, even as he struggled to survive the lethal political environment in which he found himself. In the process, it demonstrates the desperate longing of ancient Jews for a more ethical ruler—and of the profoundly fallen world that Christ came to redeem.)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

This Day in Religious History (Followers of Doomsday Prophet Await—for Naught—the Destruction of the World)

December 27, 1908—Followers of Lee Spangler, a modern-day visionary, climbed to the top of Hook Mountain in the upstate village of Nyack, N.Y., in anticipation of the end of the world. The would-be prophet, however, perhaps coming to his senses, decamped at the last minute to his wife and grocery store business back in York, Pa., leaving his acolytes literally and figuratively out in the cold.

Spangler had been haunted by a vision he had had after coming out of a trance at age 12, of the destruction of the world by fire. His ramblings about it soon entranced the notice of newspapermen, who, once they got wind of it and spread the word, brought out the faithful and fearful.

Spangler had set this particular Sunday as the day of doom. Why he thought Nyack would be the best place to observe Armageddon, I have no idea. The Tappan Zee Bridge had not been built at the time. It simply was not a busy burg.

Those inclined to look for signs of end times might have been better advised to look across the Atlantic. On the very same day, major earthquakes struck Sicily and the Italian mainland, taking 85,000 lives. Another earthquake followed the next day, around the Straits of Messina.

Instead, Spangler’s disciples had to put up with a lot of discomfort. Many were so anxious to be present at the destruction, so to speak, that they went without sleep, afraid that they’d miss the first blast at the trumpet that would sound the world’s doom.

The female followers of Spangler, donning white dresses “specially made for the occasion,” according to the subsequent droll account the next day in the The New York Times, proceeded to the railway station. That’s where, they were told, they would meet saints coming at the head of the mighty conflagration.

No such luck—instead, they found themselves taunted by 150 citizens--many, it was rumored, up from New York City and armed with eggs—who followed them to a cemetery before a policeman, not liking what he saw or heard, drove the whole kit ‘n’ caboodle out. They then made one last trip to South Mountain, but again nothing happened.

At the end of all of that, the Times reported, there was a “feeling of strong indignation” in Nyack against Spangler for having made a laughingstock of the town. But by this time, Spangler had escaped under cover of darkness.

Quote of the Day (Robert Mulligan, on His Affinity for Scripts With Southern Locales)

“Coming from Bronx Irish is hardly Southern. But there was that sense of the Irish storytellers, the fairy tales.”—Robert Mulligan (1925-2008), director of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Man in the Moon, explaining the shared passion of Southerners and Irish-Americans for telling tales, quoted in Margalit Fox, “Robert Mulligan, Director, Is Dead at 83,” The New York Times, Dec. 23, 2008

(I had never even thought of it, but as I researched the background of Mulligan, I realized that I had an affinity, too: with his Bronx Irish-Catholic background. Though my family moved to the suburbs when I was only a year old, I think the connection has lingered through my DNA and the tales that my mother and her siblings related to us of growing up there.

Mulligan came from their generation, attending St. Anne’s Academy in the borough, but his vistas widened after he went to Fordham University. He graduated from there with a bachelor of arts degree, with a concentration in radio, in 1948, one year after the school had started broadcasting from WFUV-FM, which is now my favorite radio station.

Like many young people starting out in those days, Mulligan transitioned out of radio into TV, where he learned the ropes of directing. Once he moved over to the big screen, he seldom if ever impressed the critics with flashy camera angles. No, he displayed the instinct that any good tale-teller has: get out of the way of your story.

Mulligan had the distinction of directing Gregory Peck in perhaps his iconic screen role and Reese Witherspoon in her formative one. Both To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and The Man in the Moon (1991) are coming-of-age movies set in small Southern towns. Under Mulligan’s sure hand, Peck won his only Academy Award as the upright attorney Atticus Finch in the former movie, while future Oscar winner Witherspoon had her first major on-screen role in the latter.

The collaboration with Witherspoon proved to be Mulligan’s last. May flights of angels sing him to his rest.)

Friday, December 26, 2008

This Day in Presidential History (Clay Introduces Censure Resolutions Against Jackson)

December 26, 1833—The stakes in Andrew Jackson’s struggle against the Second Bank of the United States escalated, as Senator Henry Clay, a longtime enemy of the President, introduced two resolutions censuring him for his conduct in the affair. The occasion marked the first—and even until today, the only—occasion in which Congress has censured a Chief Executive for his conduct while in office.

“I was born for a storm and a calm does not suit me,” Jackson once told a visitor, and seldom did he prove it more than in the controversy over the bank—a private enterprise in which the U.S. government held stock.

The bank had been re-chartered in 1816 after its temporary absence had severely handicapped the nation during the War of 1812. Since then, it had been instrumental in keeping the nation on an even financial keel.

The problem with the bank was twofold: 1) As operated by its head, Nicholas Biddle, a Philadelphia aristocrat, the bank had quickly become deeply elitist; and 2) Biddle, a child genius who had attended the University of Pennsylvania at age 10, was too clever by half, and had offered financial inducements to numerous lawmakers on Capitol Hill to retain support. As Arthur M. Schlesinger noted in The Age of Jackson: “It enjoyed a virtual monopoly of the currency and practically complete control over credit and the price level.”

Having run into problems with banks early in his career because of speculation issues, Jackson was predisposed anyway against powerful financial interests. He found ready political support for his position among debtor interests of the West, local banking interests of the East who resented Biddle’s heavy-handed domination, Eastern workingmen and traditional Jeffersonians. The bank’s bid to have its charter renewed brought Jackson into battle.

Aligned against him in the Senate were “The Great Triumvirate”—Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun. Like just about every Senator before or since—and certainly including the two nominees in this past year’s Presidential race—they took a look at the incumbent and swore that they could do a better job. But each had his own reasons for supporting the bank and/or opposing Jackson.

Let’s deal with Calhoun first. Coincidentally—and uncomfortably for the South Carolinian—that would have been the preference of Jackson, too, who had gone from having him as a running mate to expressing a desire to hang him from the nearest tree. The President did not appreciate his advocacy of nullification, which Jackson correctly believed to be a threat to the Union. Additionally, in the Peggy Eaton affair, Calhoun, by siding with his wife and other spouses of Cabinet members, made himself persona non grata with a President who had resolved to defend the honor of a woman he believed had been sullied, like his beloved, deceased wife Rachel, with baseless accusations of sexual misconduct. Isolated, Calhoun had become the first and (aside from Spiro Agnew) only Vice President in our nation’s history to resign.

Like Calhoun, Webster very much wanted to become President; unlike him, the Massachusetts senator was one of the people who had accepted retainers from Biddle. He believed firmly in a strong national government, but he was still not above reminding Biddle that if he wanted his continued eloquent support, he’d better make sure he was paid, and promptly.

But the prime mover in the censure resolution was Clay, seen by Jackson in the 1824 Presidential election as the man who, through a “corrupt bargain” with John Quincy Adams, had become Secretary of State—unlike now, a steppingstone to the Presidency—by throwing his support in the House of Representatives to the New Englander. The two men also courted the same electoral base in the West. Clay, in turn, despised Jackson as a “military chieftain.”

Jackson’s decision to withdraw the government’s deposits from the Bank—and even to accept to replace one Secretary of the Treasury, William Duane, with a more compliant man, Roger B. Taney—led the opposing party, the Whigs, to ponder their options. They couldn’t do anything in the House of Republicans, still under the control of Democrats. But the Senate, in which they had a majority, afforded possibilities.

Clay’s speech in support of censuring the President was so vitriolic that even Adams (now distinguishing himself in the House of Representatives) thought Clay had pushed it too far (though Adams believed that his former opponent and successor in the Oval Office had it coming).

The resolution passed, but by the end of his second term the President’s friend and ally in the Senate, Thomas Hart Benton, was finally able to have it expunged from the Senate records (a prospect that did not at all please Jackson).

In his colorful history Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989, Michael Beschloss included a chapter on the bank fight. While Jackson did defeat an institution growing increasingly corrupt, he left no comparable structure once he destroyed it. Partly as a result, the nation had no major banking institution to help it through bad economic times when the charter was allowed to lapse. The U.S. had to endure several panics, occurring every 20 years or so, before the Federal Reserve System was created in the Progressive Era under Woodrow Wilson.

The bank war figured in Presidential history in other ways through the years. In his autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt hailed the "Jackson-Lincoln theory of the Presidency" that promoted strong executive action. FDR regarded the bank fight as an early example of how the President as tribune of the people could take on what he termed "economic royalists."

More ominously, Jackson's defiance of Clay's request for communications with his Cabinet on the Bank was the opening salvo in the ongoing Presidential-Congressional struggle over executive privilege.

The censure option also came up in the struggle to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998. While Jackson had claimed that the censure resolution named offenses that were impeachable and that, thus, the Senate had no constitutional place in resorting to censure, Democrats during the Clinton impeachment trial brought out a censure as an alternative. After Clinton survived the impeachment vote, his party brought forward a censure resolution, which was defeated by Republicans on a nearly straight-line party vote..

Quote of the Day (Caitlin Flanagan and Benjamin Schwarz, on Growing Black-Gay Tensions)

“Comparing the infringement on civil rights that gays are experiencing to that suffered by black Americans is to begin a game of ‘top my oppression’ that you’re not going to win. The struggle for equality — beginning with freedom from human bondage (see: references to the book of Exodus at the Gospel Brunch) — has been so central to African-American identity that many blacks find homosexual claims of a commensurate level of injustice frivolous, and even offensive.”-- Caitlin Flanagan and Benjamin Schwarz, “Showdown in the Big Tent,” The New York Times, Dec. 7, 2008

Flanagan and Schwarz’s op-ed article in the Times more than two weeks ago is one of the first in the mainstream media to discuss openly what many progressives noted privately with dismay: the overwhelming support of African-Americans for California’s Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

For all its pretensions to objectivity and disdain for PR and marketing, the media Powers That Be have long operated under the same mantra as Madison Avenue: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

If journalists had done their jobs all these years, they might have examined a number of stray incidents—Protestant African-American ministers who lent crucial support to the Bush Administration in the closing days of the 2004 Presidential campaign in the election-deciding state of Ohio, anti-gay statements by black athletes such as Tim Hardaway and the late Reggie White—and begun to notice a pattern. Instead, they concentrated on simpler, more seemingly conservative targets on which to pin the label of homophobia: the Mormon and Roman Catholic Churches.

That’s why, when the results came in for Proposition 8, many media mavens (except for the astute Samuel G. Freedman) were surprised by the seeming disparity between a single group’s economic and “lifestyle” views. They scratched their heads over exit poll results showing that seven in 10 African-American voters voted in favor of the measure.

Though the Times and other media outlets continued to lash the Mormons for their economic support of Proposition 8, responses on many progressive blogs featured a common lament by gays against African-American colleagues in the Rainbow Coalition: How could you, after all we did for you?

Though supporters of same-sex marriage, Flanagan and Schwarz offer some advice that gays might want to heed: Get over it, lest you divide the liberal community before it has a chance to accomplish something under President Obama. Along the way, the media should rethink the notion of why resort to judicial rulings without a majority voting consensus in favor of same-sex marriage is okay, but pro-lifers’ similar resort on behalf of even the mildest curbs on abortion (limits on partial-birth abortion, calls for brief waiting periods) constitutes litmus-test politics.

History happens to be on the side of Flanagan and Schwarz about the dangers of secularists picking fights with religiously inclined members of liberal coalitions. As Garry Wills pointed out in his history of religion and politics in the U.S., Under God, the caricature of William Jennings Bryan created by Clarence Darrow and H.L. Mencken in the Scopes “Monkey” trial did nothing to make born-again Christians feel welcome by liberals, even though Bryan was and remained a genuine radical when it came to opposing the mandarins of Wall Street.

More recently, Democrats suffered for two decades because of the growing political homelessness of Roman Catholics. Formerly among the most reliable shock troops of the New Deal coalition (actually, given landmark legislation passed by Alfred E. Smith and Robert Wagner after the Triangle factory fire, practically the inventors of the New Deal itself), Catholics found themselves marginalized because of the veto power of pro-choicers over party nominees (a phenomenon much less discussed in the media than the similar primacy of pro-lifers in the GOP).

Just as disastrously, the “Dutton Rules”—named after a prominent party activist from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s who helped rewrite delegate selection rules before the convention of 1972—shifted the longtime ideological focus away from income inequality and toward issues with greater appeal to a more affluent and secular base. That led to nearly 40 years of Democratic handwringing over the rise of the “Reagan Democrats,” and even the spectacle of Roman Catholics rejecting one of their co-religionists in the 2004 Presidential race.

If you want to understand just how disastrous that slippage was, just recall this: it took not just a mismanaged war, a united Democratic Party, and an opposing Vice-Presidential selection with little experience, but more important, the worst economic downtown since the Great Depression to ensure that Democrats regained the White House in 2008.

Don’t bet that eight years of being out of the White House will be enough to prevent gays and African-Americans from going toe to toe. Already, the lesbian director of People for the American Way, Kathryn Kolbert, had to warn against the “appallingly racist” reaction of some in the gay community to African-Americans following Proposition 8.

Blogger Andrew Sullivan, who wrote an Atlantic Monthly cover story (“Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters”) a year ago with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of positive adjectives toward Barack Obama, noticed after the election that the President-elect “has always opposed marriage equality, even splitting with his own church on the issue.” (

This is going to be interesting to watch. Early in the Bush Presidency, he could not say enough good things about the President and his conduct of the war on terror. Bush’s support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between heterosexuals seems to have led the blogger to support Kerry in ’04. Are we about to watch Sullivan execute a similarly motivated shift?)

Outrage over African-American rejection’s of Proposition 8—and now over Obama’s invitation to Rick Warren to speak at the inauguration—can only be counterproductive. Recall what happened to Bill Clinton at the start of his Presidency, when he fell into a silly controversy over gays in the military instead of, as he promised, “focusing like a laser beam” on the economy (or, for that matter, terrorism--remember that the first World Trade Center bombing occurred only a little more than a month after he took office). Don’t think the GOP isn’t panting over a possible repeat of this divisiveness and diffuse focus.

Moreover, “bigots” is not the best term to apply to a group such as African-Americans that is still acutely—and often justifiably—aware of racial snubs.

And while we’re on the subject, other terms about yourself (e.g., “the reality-based community”) or others (“theocracy,” “the Christian industrial complex” or Sullivan’s ridiculous formulation, “Christianist”) that reek of condescension also don’t offer gays the possibility of How to Gain Friends and Influence People.

If gays think the results of Proposition 8 were wrong, they should remember the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s prescription for what to do when the Supreme Court is wrong: debate, litigate, legislate. Somehow, they forgot the third leg of that triad.

As a way of reversing the results, gays might try talking to religiously minded voters on their own terms. Discuss the original biblical injunctions against homosexuality and why they are wrong. Detail the reason why civil unions are an inadequate substitute for gay marriage.

In other words, do anything but shout derogatory names and bandy about stereotypes, which only gets people’s backs up—and which, come to think of it, was part of what gay activists long told us they ostensibly were fighting against all along.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

“It‘s a Wonderful Life”: Two Perspectives on “The American Christmas Carol”

Upteenth viewings (or, for that matter, readings) need not dim our fascination with a classic: In fact, it might add to it. Case in point: It’s a Wonderful Life.

Critically well-regarded at the time of its release in the 1940s, the movie was still not embraced wholeheartedly by TV audiences until the mid-1970s, when an expired copyright thrust it into the public domain—i.e., it could be broadcast repeatedly without the original copyright holder being paid. That’s how I came to watch it, when, urged on by my brother John, I sat down and became more intoxicated than I ever could with the most potent eggnog as I watched the vintage entertainment then playing on Channel 5 (WNEW) in the New York City area.

I’ve just referred to the Frank Capra classic as “The American Christmas Carol.” The most obvious similarities between Dickens’s novel and Capra’s film are that they concern a spiritual regeneration of a lost soul on Christmas Eve and that they prominently feature a conniving miser.

Lionel Barrymore, in fact, had supplied the voice of Ebenezer Scrooge on the radio for years, but had to pass up the opportunity to play him on the big screen because arthritis and a hip injury increasingly confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Yet, eight years later, as greedy banker Mr. Potter, that same disability provided him with an invaluable prop. As George Bailey notes, Mr. Potter “sits there like a spider” plotting stratagems, and Barrymore’s hands tighten on the wheelchair as much as his eye sockets do. Yet, while seemingly immobile, he can, whenever occasion requires it—such as when Uncle Billy’s misplaced money falls into his hands—move the wheelchair—and the plot—rapidly enough.

If you’re like myself, you felt in September a sudden astonished identification with at least one element in the plot: the scene with the run on the bank. I never thought I’d love to see the day when that all-too-common Depression scenario would ever replay in real life.

For readers who might not have come across these, I thought I’d highlight two newspaper pieces with different perspectives on the film.

The first, from USA Today, concerns the town that might have inspired it: Seneca Falls in upstate New York. American history buffs and feminists are likely to know of this village for another reason: it is often considered the birthplace of the American women’s rights movement, the site of an 1848 meeting in which Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a group of close friends produced a “Declaration of Sentiments” patterned after the Declaration of Independence.

It would be ironic indeed if tourism to this town increased more for a film not based on real events than for a real-life event of crucial importance to American history. But I’m sure the town fathers wouldn’t mind any boost it could get, particularly in this crushing recession.

The second article, printed in The New York Times within the last week, is a somewhat curmudgeonly piece by Wendell Jamieson on George Bailey’s “Pitiful, Dreadful” life. I say “curmudgeonly,” though, to be sure, Jamieson performs the same kind of useful function that Lionel Trilling did when observing Robert Frost as a “terrifying poet” with more in common with Sophocles than with Longfellow: that is, reclaiming from accusations of empty sentimentality an artist who plunges to the depths of the human heart.

I really must draw the line, however, at Jamieson’s suggestion that Pottersville is a cooler place—and a more economically viable one to boot—than Bedford Falls…

This Day in Music History (“Silent Night” Played for First Time)

December 25, 1818—One of the most glorious of Christmas carols, “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”), was sung for the first time at St. Nicholas Church in Obendorf, Austria. The lyrics were written by the assistant pastor of the church, Fr. Joseph Mohr, who had taken them to choir director Franz Gruber (pictured), who composed the music the night before.

Countless myths have encrusted the creation and reception of this song, as recounted by Bill Egan. One wishes there was somewhat more documentation on this—the song, after all, was not composed in the time of Shakespeare, when records were kept and preserved indifferently—but then again, I suppose we are lucky to know even what we do about it.

Mohr and Gruber were not, after all, Mozart, Beethoven, or Josef or Michael Haydn, who were all variously believed to be the composers in the first half-century or so after it was created. They had nothing elaborate with which to work—just Mohr’s guitar and the voices of the choir. They never became rich off of a song that people began singing and playing the world over within their own lifetimes. They were simply officials at a village church, with a job to do.

For those of us who work and wonder at the products of our minds, the two men represent a welcome reminder that even ordinary people can create the most extraordinary works.

It’s hard to believe, but the story of these simple, pious men figured in the life of a writer far more famous and far more complicated: Christopher Isherwood, friend of W.H. Auden and author of the “Berlin Stories” that inspired Cabaret. The Weimar Era decadence depicted in that musical certainly described that period in the life of the writer, who early on rejected not only the Anglican faith into which he was baptized but also Christianity and the message of Jesus as a whole.

Throughout his late 40s into his 60s, Isherwood supplemented income from novels with scripts for film and television. None of the latter, oddly enough for someone whose novels burst with colorful detail and insinuating dialogue (for an example, see Mr. Norris Changes Trains), turned out to be particularly memorable.

Except, perhaps, in one small instance, for one small boy: me.

At age eight or nine, I watched one Christmas, on network TV, an hour-long primetime special on how “Silent Night” was composed. From a distance of 40 years, I can’t recall many details about it, aside from the fact that it was a biopic about Franz Gruber.

But a few years ago, while reading the long but often fascinating biography of Isherwood by Peter Parker, I noticed that it mentioned one of his later credits as an expatriate writer-for-hire in Hollywood: a 1968 network special, The Legend of "Silent Night". This must have been the same one I saw. It was shown on TV exactly 150 years to the day when the song was first performed.

At first glance, this struck me as the most incongruous pairing of a religious skeptic and a religious themed script this side of Gore Vidal coming aboard to work on the epic Ben-Hur. It could only have been a job, no more.

On second thought, however, I wondered. True, Isherwood never re-embraced the faith of his childhood. But after he came to the United States with Auden, he experienced a search for meaning that led him to convert to Hinduism, a spiritual journey he chronicled in My Guru and His Disciple. (The “guru” of the title was Swami Prabhavanda.)

That experience, I think, gave him an entrée, a point of sympathy between himself and Gruber, that would not have been possible otherwise—for Isherwood eventually came to translate several Hindu texts into English, including Bhagavad Gita: The Song of God. He had now become intimately familiar with the struggle that the creative artist faces in explaining to others not similarly gifted nor religiously inclined how the deity he embraces has altered his life.

I did not find any tape of this 1968 special in the catalog of the Paley Center for Media. Too bad: the credits (including Isherwood’s) meant little or nothing to me at the time, but nowadays any such array of talent, no matter how seemingly modest the project, would have to be regarded as all-star: narration by Kirk Douglas, music by Alex North (the scores for A Streetcar Named Desire and Spartacus), directed by Daniel Mann (Come Back, Little Sheba), teleplay by Isherwood and Harry Rasky, based on “The Story of Silent Night” by Paul Gallico, and starring James Mason as Gruber.

The Paul Gallico source material raises an interesting question. The sportswriter-turned-popular-novelist retailed a story that had little if any relation to fact: i.e., that “Silent Night” was originally performed with a guitar because the vital parts of the organ at St. Nicholas had been eaten away by mice! A great anecdote, certainly lending itself to the kind of dramatic detail Isherwood would have relished. Did the Hindu convert put this detail in his script?

I don’t know, but it’s certainly worth finding out—something that would be easier to do if those in Hollywood wake up to the interesting creative property they undoubtedly have buried in some vault.

Quote of the Day (G.K. Chesterton, on St. Francis and the Nativity)

“For that is the full and final spirit in which we should turn to Saint Francis; in the spirit of thanks for what he has done. He was above all things a great giver; and he cared chiefly for the best kind of giving which is called thanksgiving….He knew that we can best measure the towering miracle of the mere fact of existence if we realise that but for some strange mercy we should not even exist…. From him came a whole awakening of the world and a dawn in which all shapes and colours could be seen anew…. It is said that when Saint Francis staged in his own simple fashion a Nativity Play of Bethlehem, with kings and angels in the stiff and gay mediaeval garments and the golden wigs that stood for haloes, a miracle was wrought full of the Franciscan glory. The Holy Child was a wooden doll or bambino, and it was said that he embraced it and that the image came to life in his arms.” – English man of letters G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), St. Francis of Assisi (1923)

On this date in 1223, in the town of Greccio, St. Francis of Assisi displayed the first known three-dimensional presepio or crèche. It wasn’t the type of elaborate Nativity scene found in some suburb. No, he worked through Christmas Eve on a simpler but more fascinating recreation of Christ's birth. 

And, Francis being Francis, he used one of the things he loved the most—Nature—to bring it to life in a visceral way, using merely a straw-filled manger set between a real ox and donkey.

According to this post I found from the “Atonement Parish” blog, people from the vicinity of Greccio began arriving with torches and candles once they got wind of this. 

They were greeted by something perhaps equally extraordinary: Francis reading from the Gospel about the birth of Jesus, then elaborating, in his sermon, how Christ assumed the reality of poverty so that those who believed would find wealth in the love of God.

I find this account powerfully moving, not just as a Roman Catholic but as someone who believes in the power of creativity. 

St. Francis not only commemorated the creation of a redeemed world, but also, through the visual arts and spoken word, reminded people of the extraordinary miracles present in their own world when they took joy in nature and extended love to one another. May we all do the same.

(The image accompanying this post shows a nativity scene with mangers and angels. It’s on the door of the “Duomo,” or cathedral, in Milan, Italy.)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

This Day in Film History (NYC Mayor McClellan Revokes Theater Licenses)

December 24, 1908—Following a tempestuous public hearing, New York Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. revoked the license of all 550 movie theaters in the city—taking Progressivism in an unlikely new direction and prompting the motion-picture industry to make one of its early efforts to censor itself.

That name, McClellan—why does it sound so familiar? Yes, you’ve got it—he was the son of the “Young Napoleon” who was great at organizing but not so good at taking the measure of Robert E. Lee. McClellan Sr. ran against the President who had named him, then relieved him as commander of the Army of the Potomac, Abraham Lincoln. More than a decade after the Civil War, the former general found politics curiously congenial, serving as the governor of New Jersey.

McClellan Jr. inherited his father’s Democratic Party leanings—and, much, much more unfortunately, his high opinion of himself. What he really should have been all along was an academic, which would have allowed him to pontificate to his heart’s content while satisfying his vast interest in art and history. But he didn’t come to that until far later in his career, after he had found law a bore and politics not quite enough for someone of his talents. (But it seems as if no McClellan ever found a spot in life suitable for his estimation of his worth.)

After 14 years with Tammany Hall, young McClellan was tapped by the organization’s boss, Charlie Murphy, to run for mayor against Seth Low, the Republican incumbent, in 1903. (Low would be followed as Columbia University President by Nicholas Murray Butler, who would run for Vice-President, unsuccessfully, under William Howard Taft in the 1912 election. Hard as it might be to believe now, the GOP was not an endangered species on Morningside Heights in those years.)

After the 1905 election (when he campaigned against William Randolph Hearst, running as an independent), McClellan broke with Murphy—not unlike what a future governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, would do in a few years. McClellan’s luck was not as good as Wilson’s, however. By 1909, his break with Murphy had left him a spent force with no future in politics. He now fancied himself a reformer, and to that end he paid heed to something that he shouldn’t have even bothered with.

From high school, most of us remember some of the fruits of the Progressive movement—including conservation (under Theodore Roosevelt) and electoral measures such as direct election of senators, recall, referendums, and the like.

But, as Richard Hofstadter noted in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Reform, it was also dominated in the cities by a native-born middle class that was revolted by the waves of immigrants coming to the U.S. and quickly becoming part of political machines such as Tammany. They saw Prohibition, for instance, as a means of restraining Catholic immigrants, who, they claimed, in an outrageous application of eugenics, had smaller brains because of drinking from an early age.

The ostensible cause for Progressive wrath about theaters, as film historian and cultural commentator Neal Gabler has noted, was public health—i.e., these dirty, cramped movie spaces could spread disease and fires. But more lay beneath the surface.

Among the most devoted habitués of theaters were the city’s Jews. On Christmas, to alleviate some of the profound alienation they felt in an overwhelmingly predominant Protestant society that allowed them into the nation under sufferance, they thronged the more than 40 nicklelodeons then extant in the city.

Christian ministers were none too pleased about this, and lobbied hard against it. “These men who run these shows have no moral scruples whatever," argued Canon William Chase, a New York Episcopalian clergyman. "They are simply in the business for the money there is in it."

McClellan went along with these ministers as he issued this revocation order to the police. Not that it mattered, for the move would be rescinded before long. But it sure scared the Motion Picture Patents Co. enough to ally with the People’s Institute, a New York-based Progressive group, to form the National Board of Censorship (which later ditched that name for the much more user-friendly name of the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures).

The National Board of Review in effect put the “good housekeeping” seal of approval on new films. If you watched movies from 1916 until the 1950s, you were likely to see “Passed by the National Board of Review” in a main title. It was an early industry effort to police itself—an effort that, in our time, has resulted in the much-disputed movie ratings system

Song Lyric of the Day (Irving Berlin and the Melancholy of “White Christmas”)

“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know…”—Irving Berlin, “White Christmas,” originally composed for the 1942 film Holiday Inn, later the centerpiece for White Christmas (1954)

(Yesterday, “The Leonard Lopate Show” on the local public radio station, WNYC-FM, featured Kerry O’Malley and Stephen Bogardus, co-stars of the musical adaptation of the Berlin film that’s now playing on Broadway. What made Berlin’s songs so special? Lopate asked.

Ms. O’Malley answered that they were so “emotional,” pointing to the vein of melancholy that ran through his songs as well as his life.

Melancholy? Berlin, the composer of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Doing What Comes Nat’rally,” “God Bless America,” and other uptempo tunes too numerous to mention? I wouldn’t have believed it about his most famous song, “White Christmas,” especially if I’d been listening to the version I heard while passing through the Port Authority Bus Station this morning—Darlene Love’s rendition, from
A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector --which had its 45th anniversary this year, incidentally.

But then I looked at the lyrics to “White Christmas.” And you know what? Ms. O’Malley is right.

To start with, “White Christmas” is not about present reality. It evokes “the ones I used to know.” It’s an exercise in nostalgia by an adult remembering a world of innocence he or she can never recapture. The speaker may wish for that childlike innocence, that whiteness, but such a vision is, at best, achieved through the eyes of the young.

Even the first line of the song is indicative. The speaker is “dreaming” of a white Christmas—it is not reality. The song had its premiere in WWII, as did “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” the Buck Ram-Kim Gannon-Walter Kent song which, you might remember, saved its best line for last: “if only in my dreams.”

For American service personnel in a titanic conflict, the Currier & Ives scenes brought to mind by both these songs held a simple but powerful resonance, even if it was far removed from the bloody scenes they were witnessing day by day.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Quotes of the Day (“A Visit From St. Nicholas”—and A Small But Significant Variation)

"'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”—“A Visit From St. Nicholas,” published anonymously in the Troy (N.Y.) Sentinel on December 23, 1823, later attributed to the Rev. Clement Clark Moore

“'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring... nothin'... no action... dullsville!” —The soused Mrs. Margie MacDougall (played by Hope Holiday), speaking to a similarly polluted C.C. Baxter (played by Jack Lemmon), two lonely souls in a bar on Christmas Eve, in The Apartment (1960), written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, directed by Wilder

“A Visit From St. Nicholas” has, of course, become one of the most beloved traditions of the holiday season. With Moore being a fellow Columbia College grad and all--and his father even being the President of the school--I’d love to think of this wonderfully imaginative poem as coming from his hand. But it just doesn’t sound a lot like the work he did through much of his life.

One version of the poem’s conception is that it came to him while out sleigh-riding with his children in 1822; another, that he was inspired by Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker History.

But think of it—Moore, a professor of Oriental and Greek literature at Columbia who also compiled a two-volume Hebrew dictionary, was not known for his sense of playfulness. 

In fact, if you subtract his productivity and his children, he sounds like a soulmate of the Rev. Edward Casaubon, the stodgy scholar of George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

In recent years, a more likely candidate has risen. Don Foster of Vassar College has proposed as the author Henry Livingston Jr., a gentleman-poet of Dutch descent. That sounds more like it, if you ask me.

In addition to popularizing a number of notions about St. Nicholas, "A Visit From St. Nicholas" has also inspired countless parodies. My favorite short one is what I just quoted above, from Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning The Apartment

The center of its plot—the willingness of businessmen to fool around with female underlings in the office—would now invite sexual harassment lawsuits. But the film’s abundant wit and heart haven’t aged one iota.

If you’re tiring of It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, or holiday films that pour on the sentimentality far more egregiously and far less skillfully, watch Wilder’s classic.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Quote of the Day (Burt Ross, on the Mafia and Bernard Madoff)

"’The Mafia guy was carrying a gun," Mr. [Burt] Ross says of the 1974 incident, which led to several convictions. With Mr. Madoff, ‘it was something very different. But I have more respect for the Mafia. At least they didn't pretend to be anything more than what they are.’" – Former Fort Lee (N.J.) Mayor Burt Ross, on being bilked by New York financier Bernard Madoff, quoted by Susan Pulliam, “Former Mayor, Millions Lost, Describes How He Was Lulled,” The Wall Street Journal, December 20-21, 2008 (Behind WSJ firewall)

(Ross became briefly famous in the 1970s when, as mayor of Fort Lee, he rejected a $500,000 bribe from a group linked to organized crime, then risked his life to expose it. Now, as this article discusses, the bulk of his net worth has been put at risk by Madoff.

It would take a Dickens or a Trollope—or, perhaps nowadays, Tom Wolfe—to invent a Madoff. Even that surname—it rhymes, don’t you know, with “made off”—has a Dickensian flavor. What this particular article does well, however, is keep in focus what’s really important about his sordid life of crime: his victims—not just the wealthy ones such as Mets owner Fred Wilpon or film director Steven Spielberg, but those like Ross and his wife Joan who are far closer to the likes of you and me—and, it turns out, far more financially vulnerable to the fallout from his machinations.

My questions are these: How many more Madoffs are out there right now? How many—many more—victims of these charlatans are there? How many more such outrages will have to be endured before we act, as America did in the Great Depression, to put obstacles in the way of such massive, heartrending crimes?)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

This Day in Sports History (Hobey Baker, Beau Ideal of Athletes and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Killed in Accident)

December 21, 1918—Hobey Baker, a legendary collegiate football and hockey star of the early 20th century who was celebrated for his personal and athletic grace by F. Scott Fitzgerald and other writers, died test-flying a plane in France, on the same day that he received orders to return home from his WWI squadron.

Faithful reader, I must confess: If a month, even a fortnight, elapses without my mentioning Fitzgerald, I fear that something is…missing…in this blog. Baker figured at most tangentially in the life of the great writer, but he loomed with extraordinary power in his imagination. Indeed, nobody who saw this athlete-pilot could ever forget his natural charisma.

How strongly did Baker figure in Fitzgerald’s consciousness? Well, consider this: Fitzgerald paid tribute to Baker not in one, but two characters in his first novel, This Side of Paradise. The surname of the protagonist of this academic bildungsroman, Amory Blaine, derives from Baker’s full name: Hobart Amory Hare Baker.

Fitzgerald depicted him in even greater detail as a character named Allenby, “the football captain, slim and defiant, as if aware that this year the hopes of the college rested on him, that his hundred-and-sixty pounds were expected to dodge to victory through the heavy blue and crimson lines."

Football obsessed Fitzgerald. He preserved a ticket stub from the 1911 Yale-Princeton game in his scrapbook; he tried out for the Princeton squad as a freshman but was cut within a week; and in the midcareer short story, “Basil and Cleopatra,” his male fictional alter ego stars in the Yale-Princeton game. It’s not surprising that he would so admire Baker, any more than that he would feel the same toward Irving Thalberg, the Hollywood studio head who inspired his last unfinished work, The Last Tycoon.

Fitzgerald and Baker lived in probably the first American generation that could view football as something other than a crunching death sport. (College football had enacted new rules in 1906, after President Theodore Roosevelt had invited representatives of the three most important school powers at the time—Harvard, Yale and Princeton—and jawboned them into eliminating much of the foul play and brutality that had hitherto marked the sport.)

But when you read the physical descriptions of Baker and Fitzgerald (or, come to think of it, look at the picture accompanying this post), it’s hard not to think that the nonpareil novelist saw in the nonpareil athlete—whom he’d met briefly when the two attended Princeton University--the fulfillment of what he longed to be but couldn’t. Both were not considered tall in their own time, let alone ours; both were blondes; and both were regarded as exceedingly attractive, with soft eyes that concealed considerable melancholy.

You can almost see the wheels of Fitzgerald’s mind move on this point: God, if I were only five feet nine like Hobey and weighed as much as he does, I’d be the toast of Princeton. Every woman would want to sleep with me, and every man want to drink with me. What a cruel world!

(Incidentally, Baker was not the only athlete-pilot transformed into an indelible Fitzgerald character. The other, Tommy Hitchcock, a star polo player, inspired the creation of Tommy Barban, the lover of Nicole Diver, in Tender Is the Night, and, even more memorably, Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. Ironically enough, Hitchcock, like Baker, was a former member of the World War I squadron, the Lafayette Escadrille, who died while test-flying a plane.)

Though Fitzgerald was the most significant writer to remember Baker in his work, he was by no means the only one. Mark Goodman wrote of the athlete as a symbol of his time in the 1985 novel, Hurrah for the Next Man Who Dies. Geoffrey Wolff briefly summed up his impact in the 1990 novel, The Final Club. I doubt very much if he’s in much demand with young male readers, but as a pup I sought out such midcentury juvenile athletic novels by John R. Tunis as The Kid From Tompkinsville and Highpockets. Well, wouldn’t you know that the figure who inspired his clean-cut athletes was Baker?

Aside from Fitzgerald, though, the most memorable description of Baker might have been provided by Boston Globe columnist George Frazier, who recalled the athlete—in terms redolent, of course, of Fitzgerald—as the epitome of a world where “all of a sudden you see the gallantry of a world long since gone—a world of all the sad young men, a world in which handsome young officers spent their leaves tea-dancing at the Plaza to the strains of the season; a world in which poets sang of their rendezvous with death when spring came round with rusting shade and apple blossoms filled the air."

Among Baker’s athletic accomplishments at Princeton University were:

* He played baseball, football and hockey.
* He led Princeton to one national championship in football in 1911 and two in hockey (1912 and 1914).
( He became the only athlete elected to both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Hockey Hall of Fame—and, in the latter, was the first American-born player inducted.
* Collegiate hockey’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy is named in his honor.

That list, however, gives only the faintest of ideas of why Baker came to be associated with a quality that Frazier styled duende—i.e., the ability to attract others through spellbinding personal magnetism.

Baker set the standard for a code of behavior on the athletic field that couldn’t seem more foreign to our current world of big-bucks glory, trash-talking, and taunting opponents. He adhered to the rules; acted modesty in victory, crediting teammates for his achievements; and drew no attention to himself by conduct or appearance. He was penalized only once during his entire hockey career at Princeton. If you want the essence of this code, think of the advice of the great football coach Paul Brown to his players on displays in the end zone after scoring a touchdown: “Act like you’ve been there before.”

It seems to me that there’s a kind of WASP reserve to this behavior. Perhaps it’s one that Baker learned at St. Paul’s prep school in Concord, N.H., which, according to New Yorker writer Ben McGrath, is “the cradle of American hockey,” since many credit the school as the site of the first U.S. hockey game back in 1883. (Though, come to think of it, a later hockey-playing product of that school, former Presidential candidate—and recent shameless Cabinet post-seeker—John Kerry strikes me far more as the type to hog the puck.)

After graduating from Princeton, Baker briefly worked at J. P. Morgan, but his heart wasn’t in it. It was with something like relief that he jumped at the chance to prove his mettle in a new arena: as a pilot in World War I. Another part of Baker’s full name, “Hare,” could apply to the lightning-fast reflexes he brought to both athletics and aviation.

During the war, he served with the Lafayette Escadrille, where he was credited with three confirmed kills to his name. (His Spad XIII was painted orange and black in honor of Princeton.)

Recent writers, such as Sports Illustrated’s Rom Fimrite and biographer Emil Salvini, have suggested a disappointment and restlessness at the war’s conclusion that led Baker to go up in the plane one last, completely unnecessary time. How else to explain why he would do so:

* after receiving orders to return home;

* after disregarding the vociferous protests of his own men, who feared that Baker’s stated rationale—that he would take “one last flight in the old Spad”—would prove to be exactly that;

* after being told that the carburetor of the plane he would test had failed in flight only a few days before;

* or why, instead of conducting a crash landing—something the plane could easily have handled—Baker tried to maneuver the stalled plane back to the air base.

The world of Baker, like that of the Jazz Age that Fitzgerald was fortunate enough to live and chronicle in his short life, is gone now. You can recover something of Fitzgerald’s world from reading his magical prose. The essence of Baker, however, remains far more quicksilver, like the man himself—a faint, darting shadow who lived before the rise of newsreels or TV, now only recalled from memorial plaques and awards for sports whose spirit has departed drastically from the gentleman’s sportsman image conveyed so powerfully by the Princeton legend.

Quote of the Day (Cackie Upchurch, on the Bible as Source of Comfort, Courage—And More)

“It should also disturb us. It should also stir us into action. And if it’s not doing those things, and if it’s just in our heads, then I do not think we’re doing justice to the living Word of God.... If you read this stuff and really believe it, you might have to change how you live.”—Cackie Upchurch, director of the Little Rock Scripture Study (LRSS), quoted in David Gibson, “A Literate Church: The State of Catholic Bible Study Today,” America, Dec. 8, 2008

(With considerable historical perspective and contemporary insight, Gibson’s article examines how the old stereotype about how Roman Catholics “don’t read the Bible” has been changing—both at the grass-roots level, where groups such as LRSS have been making a difference in the close readings offered in small-group study, and at the highest level, where, like Catholic social teaching, Gibson reports, some are wondering whether the Scriptural scholarship might be “becoming one of the Church’s best-kept secrets.”)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

This Day in CIA History (U.S. Misses Out on Chance to Eliminate bin Laden)

December 20, 1998—In the second of three documented chances from May 1998 to February 1999, U.S. intelligence reported that it had positively identified the whereabouts of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and that the terrorist mastermind could be killed if authorities acted quickly. President Bill Clinton, however, decided to pass, fearful of “collateral damage” – i.e., the number of innocent bystanders who might be killed or wounded--to a nearby mosque.

Following 9/11, the question of responsibility for the disaster became a political football. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats wanted to be tagged as the party responsible for the nearly 3,000 lives lost in the suicide attacks.

But, as Noel Sheppard has noted in the blog “American Thinker”, the 9/11 Commission produced “a purely political report that tap-danced around specifics to protect both presidential Administrations involved from embarrassment. As a result, we ended up with more questions than answers, wasting a lot of time and taxpayer money in the process.”

The Bush administration has rightly come in for criticism for failing to pursue the threat posed by al Qaeda both in the nine months leading up to 9/11 and especially in the 30 last urgent days before the attacks. Hillary Clinton noted that if her husband had received a classified report entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside United States,” he would have paid it far more urgent attention than the Bush administration did.

One problem, though: Bill Clinton had received an urgent warning in his Presidential Daily Brief on December 4, 1998, entitled: “Bin Laden Preparing to Hijack US Aircraft and Other Attacks.” That report, as well as the Aug. 7, 1998 al Qaeda truck bombings against U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 247 people and wounded 5,000 more, formed the backdrop to the events of December 20.

One of the principals involved in the planning of the December 20 operation on bin Laden was Michael Scheuer, a 22-year-veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who headed up the bin Laden unit of the Counterterrorism Center from 1996 through 1999. As soon as he received the report that bin Laden would be spending the night at the Haji Habash House, part of the governor’s residence in Kandahar, Afghanistan, he relayed the message to CIA Director George Tenet and his deputy, John Gordon.

A teleconference was immediately arranged to consider the feasibility of a cruise missile strike to take out bin Laden. The principal question that came before the principals in the teleconference was the potential for collateral damage.

A sharp division of opinion developed over this. General Anthony Zinni, who had been busy that month organizing air strikes against Iraq to degrade its weapons of mass destruction program, insisted that collateral damage could amount to more than 200 people, as well as the mosque.

A senior intelligence officer on the Joint Chiefs of Staff thought the mosque wouldn’t be touched and that collateral damage would amount to no more than 100 people. By the end of the meeting, the parties involved agreed to recommend to President Clinton that he not order a strike on this occasion.

Conservative critics of Clinton have seized on the results of this meeting to claim that the President missed a golden opportunity to take out bin Laden. They found some support in Scheuer himself (who, it happens, is a stringent critic of George W. Bush as well as Bill Clinton), who claimed afterward that he could not sleep after the decision.

I don’t think that claim is quite the “slam-dunk” it appears. With the hindsight of 20/20, it may seem obvious that we shouldn’t have passed up the chance to seize the terrorist who was fast becoming a mortal enemy of the U.S. But seven years after the U.S. struck back against the Taliban in Afghanistan, collateral damage remains a controversial issue in the country. General Zinni was rightly worried about the disastrous effect this could have on public opinion in that country.

Passing up three occasions to strike against bin Laden in a nine-month period, however, is excessive. It is, in fact, illustrative of a larger pattern of the past 40 years.

As I argued in a prior post, American authorities had been blind for more than 30 years, dating back to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy by Sirhan Sirhan, to the grave threat to America posed by Islamic extremism. With each passing year, that threat came closer and closer.

Both parties were distracted in fighting it, their minds consumed by more immediate threats (in the Reagan years, as suicide bombing manifested itself as a serious threat in Lebanon, the Republicans were obsessed by Soviet relations; in December 1998, Clinton and the Democrats were not only juggling bin Laden and the attacks on Iraq, but the impeachment of Clinton—the President had declared his intention to fight his ouster only the day before the urgent teleconference on bin Laden).