Saturday, September 30, 2017

Photo of the Day: ‘Pondering Jesus,’ Stockbridge, MA

In a blog post a few weeks ago, I took note of the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in the Berkshires town of Stockbridge, MA. When I visited this shrine a month ago, I was also struck by this outdoor sculpture of “Pondering Jesus.” All the sorrows of the world seem to have settled on him—perhaps one of the reasons why I took this photo.

Quote of the Day (Bernard Malamud, on the Awesome Power of ‘The Natural’)

“Wonderboy flashed in the sun. It caught the sphere where it was biggest. A noise like a twenty-one gun salute cracked the sky. There was a straining, ripping sound and a few drops of rain spattered to the ground. The ball screamed toward the pitcher and seemed suddenly to dive down at his feet. He grabbed it to throw to first and realized to his horror that he held only the cover. The rest of it, unraveling cotton thread as it rode, was headed into the outfield.”— Bernard Malamud, The Natural (1952)

This past summer marked the 65th anniversary of the first novel by Bernard Malamud. When it was turned into a vehicle for Robert Redford in 1984, The Natural was given a happy ending.

I’m normally a stickler for staying as close to original source material as possible, but I didn’t mind in this case. At the time, baseball had been hit with a series of drug scandals. No, not performance-enhancing drugs, but a performance-detracting one: cocaine, which afflicted several members of the Kansas City Royals in the early 1980s and, in 1985, burst out, in even more spectacular fashion, at the Pittsburgh Drug Trials, which ensnared such stars as Keith Hernandez, Tim Raines, and Dale Berra.

So, I was in an acquiescent mood in the 1980s when Malamud’s dark warning of the corruption of innocence was turned into the kind of optimistic, life-affirming film that Frank Capra once made. Since then, it has become not only one of my two favorite baseball films (vying with Bull Durham), but also one of my favorite movies, period.

I was surprised, then, as I began to write this post, to discover that, in nearly an entire decade of blogging, I had written only glancingly about The Natural before. One day, perhaps on the 35th anniversary of its release, I may well write about the movie at the length it deserves.

But the book itself weaves its own magic, and one of the ways it does so, as seen in the quote I used here, is in evoking the mythological aspects of baseball. 

“Wonderboy”— the bat of Roy Hobbs, desperate to make the most of perhaps his only shot at the big leagues—endows the improbable 35-year-old rookie with the same kind of astonishing power that Excalibur afforded King Arthur.  He has, to his team’s amazement, obeyed the offhand command of his manager Pop to “rip the cover off the ball.” Through one swing of the bat, he has changed the entire climate of the game—even the New York “Knights” miserable season to date—with his Thor-like presence.

I thought of Hobbs’ amazing highs and lows in the ensuing season as I followed the fortunes of Aaron Judge (pictured) this year. It’s appropriate that the New York Yankee rookie occupies right field, once the domain of Babe Ruth—perhaps as close to a mythological figure as baseball has ever produced. 

As of this writing, Judge has not only surpassed the major league rookie record for home runs, but also The Bambino’s mark for the most HRs in franchise history at home for a single season. Judge has even been heavily associated with a phrase evocative of the Thor-like Hobbs: “exit velocity.”

Slumping is another way that Judge resembles Hobbs. Malamud is very shrewd on the utter helplessness that the best baseball minds feel in the wake of a slugger’s doldrums, which can consume a contender as much as a power surge can lift them. Judge had his own epic meltdown after the All-Star Game, when Yankee fans such as myself worried that pitchers had discovered and exploited a fatal flaw at the plate.

More recently, Judge has righted himself, resuming something like his home run pace of the first half. It’s going to be interesting to see if he can keep carrying the team (like Hollywood’s Hobbs) or if he will falter in the end (like Malamud’s). Baseball prodigies, like Greek deities, sometimes prove all too humanly fallible in the end.

(Photo of Aaron Judge in a Yankee game against the Baltimore Orioles, taken Sept. 7, 2017, by Keith Allison from Hanover, Md.)

Friday, September 29, 2017

Photo of the Day: ‘Monster Chair,’ Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA

No, this outdoor sculpture on the grounds of the Norman Rockwell Museum is not by the great Saturday Evening Post artist (though it does have, if you think about it, the whimsicality he often displayed).  No, this is by his son, Peter Rockwell, a noted sculptor in his own right. “Monster Chair,” in fiberglass resin, was created in 2014.

Quote of the Day (Ian Frazier, on That Romantic Triangle, Post-‘Casablanca’)

“December 10. Mrs. Laszlo still does not seem to be her old self—I’m not sure why. Last night in her sleep, she kept saying something like ‘Looking at you kids’ over and over. Once, I heard her say, distinctly, ‘Here’s looking at Yul, kid!’ Who could that be? Yul Brynner? How does she know him? Then she woke up, saw me, and burst into tears.”— Ian Frazier, “Shouts and Murmurs: Victor Laszlo’s Blog,The New Yorker, Sept. 18, 2017

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Flashback, September 1957: ‘Perry Mason,’ TV Noir Classic, Premieres

Erle Stanley Gardner was displeased by what Hollywood had done to his most famous character in several films of the 1930s. But he reached a far more positive verdict about the series Perry Mason, which premiered this month 60 years ago on CBS. In fact, in the show’s final episode nine seasons later, the bestselling mystery writer made a cameo appearance as a judge.

Many would say that Gardner should have been pleased. After all, the astonishingly prolific and bestselling whodunnit writer had formed his own production company, Paisano Productions, to create the series; each episode had to go through his hands for approval; and he earned a reputation as a demanding though grateful creative supervisor.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, from my boyhood to tweens, I tried never to miss an episode of the series when the New York syndicated channel WPIX aired reruns. Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, William Tallman, William Hopper, and Ray Collins may have been a more familiar cast than any other I could think of then. 

At the time, I was simply intrigued by the question of how lawyer-sleuth Mason would unmask the real killer. All these years later, I remain fascinated, but for additional reasons.

One is simply that the series is one of the best examples of television noir, the new medium’s attempt to graft the stark black-and-white images of the film noir genre spotlighting crime and punishment. I couldn’t have told you this at the time, but I sensed very dark things going on in the adult world through all the murders occurring in the series. Millions of other viewers watched similar images, from the late Fifties to mid Sixties, in shows like Peter Gunn, The Twilight Zone, and The Naked City (which I’ve only started to watch and appreciate now, through season DVD sets).

Several reasons made Perry Mason a particularly striking example of television noir:

*Innocent people fell into the clutches of evil week after week, with law enforcement invariably picking the wrong man or woman, with the real killer often pulling the strings;

*Double-dealing femme fatales, almost a requirement of the genre, were a frequent plot element of the show;

*Actors familiar from film noir—the likes of Elisha Cook Jr. (the “gunsel” from The Maltese Falcon), Marie Windsor, Steve Brodie, Marvin Miller and Audrey Totter—appeared as guests;

* Black and white images, an original limitation of the first TV sets, lent themselves to stark cinematography by the likes of the series’ Frank Redman, a 40-year industry veteran who had worked on a number of B-movie film noirs;

*The distinctive opening theme music by Fred Steiner, shot through with a sophisticated urban sensibility,courtesy of swaggering jazz notes, also, through its propulsive piano, evoked a mood of dark desperation—perfectly appropriate for cases that, at that time in the U.S., involved the gas chamber. (By the way, the theme is formally known as "Park Avenue Beat"--a bit of an anomaly, given that the series is set in California.)

*One man was called on, again and again, to make matters right, Mason—the courtroom version of Philip Marlowe, whose creator, Raymond Chandler, noted that “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.”

Particularly when I watched Season 1 episodes on DVD, I was struck even more strongly by how, with scripts stretched a bit longer, an episode could easily have made for a B-movie noir. Consider:

*Outdoor locations, such as Red's Reef Bar and Grill and Plummer Park in West Hollywood, were used quite a bit in the first seasons, giving the series an authentic grittiness (later, to cut costs, such location shooting became somewhat less frequent—as did Mason’s appearances before full juries, which required paying 12 extras a full day’s salary for not doing anything, and which were reduced courtesy of preliminary or “evidentiary” hearings);

*Sgt. Holcomb, a ruthless cop—the kind of officer who invariably threatened to throw the book at private eyes in film noir—opposed Mason in the Season 1 episode, “The Case of the Fan-Dancer’s Horse”;

* Mason himself was less likely to be smooth with police or clients early in the series, and more willing to employ tricks that barely stayed on the right side of the law.

I would be remiss in writing about the show without discussing the part played by Gail Patrick Jackson in its success. An actress in classic 1930s and 1940s films such as My Man Godfrey (1936), Stage Door (1937), and My Favorite Wife (1940), Jackson—the wife of Gardner’s literary agent, Cornwell Jackson—impressed the author so much with her efficiency that he urged her to take on the role of Mason’s devoted secretary, Della Street. Instead, she turned down this high-profile, on-camera role for a less conspicuous but more important offscreen one as executive producer. 

Ms. Jackson was the indispensable intermediary between Gardner on the one hand and the cast, crew, and network “suits” on the other. “She was a dynamic young woman who not only knew Hollywood inside and out, but who had purpose, energy, charm, and as indefatigable a devotion to work as Gardner himself,” observed Dorothy B. Hughes (herself a mystery writer of great distinction) in her biography of Gardner, The Case of the Real Perry Mason (1978).

Having been sidelined from law school by a screen test that led to her Hollywood career, Ms. Jackson had enough intelligence and interest in legal matters to understand the point of view of Gardner (himself a practicing attorney for two decades before he began writing about Mason). It was great practice for her job, which involved, as Gardner put it in a letter, “battling with all sorts of people who are arrogant and conceited, using tact, ingenuity and stamina…carrying all the responsibility of getting Perry Mason on the air.”

During the show’s run, Ms. Jackson was the only female executive producer of a primetime TV series. Modern female "showrunners" such as Marta Kauffman (Friends), Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls) and Shonda Rimes (Scandal) owe her an immense amount for clearing a space for women in the "Mad Men" era.
The influence of the show was widespread. Although it left audiences with unreal expectations that real killers would be exposed in the end, it also reminded them that defendants were innocent until proven guilty and that they had the right to an attorney. And it presented an image of the U.S. legal system as a place where even the lowliest could obtain justice. One young listener especially absorbed this message: Sonia Sotomayor, the future Supreme Court Justice.

At her confirmation hearing in 2009, she recalled an exchange when Mason consoled D.A. Hamilton Burger for losing a case (something the latter did in all but three cases on the show—and even in two of those, they were reversed on appeal):

"No, my job as a prosecutor is to do justice, and justice is served when a guilty man is convicted and an innocent man is not," she quoted the prosecutor as saying.

"That TV character said something that motivated my choices in life," Sotomayor recalled.