“The Party” (1968)

The year 2020 has ended and it’s time to turn over a new leaf (and president…assuming our democracy remains intact).  Time to party!

Most of us will still be barricaded in our domiciles, either alone or surrounded by a few virus-free loved ones.  But that’s no reason not to celebrate, even if only vicariously.  And if you want a fun New Year’s movie, you can’t do better than The Party, directed by Blake Edwards and starring Peter Sellers.

Blake Edwards had flirted with the comedic possibilities of upscale dinner and cocktail parties in previous films, notably Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In The Party he pulls out all the stops. This is one of my favorite flicks and one of a very few that our whole family enjoys.  The story is refreshingly simple:

A clumsy but well-meaning Asian-Indian actor named Hrundi V. Bakshi (Sellers) is fired from a production of Gunga Din after he accidentally blows up the movie set.  Cigar-chomping studio mogul General Clutterbuck (J. Edward McKinley) receives the awful news while in his office.  To guarantee Bakshi “never works again in this town,” he brusquely scribbles his name on a sheet of paper before storming out the door.  But the paper is a list of people that the General’s wife had invited to a swanky party she’s planned.  Clutterbuck’s secretary arrives, sees Bakshi’s name on the paper, calls directory assistance for Bakshi’s address, and mistakenly sends him a party invitation.

Bakshi arrives early.  Nobody knows who he is, although the Gunga Din producer (Gavin McLeod) swears he “know(s) him from someplace.”  The rest of the movie follows Bakshi around the party.  He becomes a one-man wrecking ball while trying to fit in with self-important Hollywood bigshots, oily agents, bimbo starlets, egotistical actors, and one drunken waiter, played to perfection by Steve Franken.  The party (and movie) climax with a wild bubble bath in the home’s indoor swimming pool.  The producer finally remembers Bakshi, but Bakshi escapes just in time in his three-wheeler Morgan with the producer’s date, an aspiring chanteuse played by Claudine Longet.

That’s the story. The behind-the-scenes story is that Sellers and Edwards, who teamed so successfully in the Pink Panther movies, weren’t speaking to each other, and all communication between the two was delivered by proxy.  Also, many of Sellers’ lines and some scenes weren’t even scripted: he improvised outrageously.  The movie, with its free-form structure and numerous sight gags, has the feel of a silent film.  One of the onlookers during filming was young writer/director Paul Mazursky, who used Sellers later in the year in his acclaimed social satire I Love You, Alice B. Toklas.

This movie is Peter Sellers at his very best, with a typically spot-on soundtrack by Edwards mainstay Henry Mancini. I’ve seen it over a dozen times, and every viewing reveals some new detail I missed.  Here’s just one of many choice moments:

Bakshi approaches Clutterbuck, Clutterbuck’s stuffy congressman friend, and a couple Hollywood sycophants and overhears the words “took everything, even the gold watch my daddy left me.”  Trying to fit in, he starts laughing and says “It’s wonderful, wonderful!  Tonight is one big round of laughter!”  To which Clutterbuck gruffly responds “The congressman was telling us about the time he was robbed.”  Bakshi stops laughing and crawls away in embarrassment.  The congressman then sternly asks “Who’s the foreigner?” and Clutterbuck replies “I don’t know, someone my mixed-up wife invited.”

As with the Pink Panther movies, one of the highlights of The Party is Sellers’ ability to completely become the character he’s portraying.  There’s also the irony that while Bakshi is utterly polite, dignified, and ingratiating, he nonetheless inadvertently turns this snobbish party on its head.  He’s an innocent who is surrounded by pomposity and fakery, so it’s completely apropos that, after blowing up a movie set and turning a Hollywood mansion into a disaster area, he drives into the sunset (actually, sunrise) with a beautiful woman next to him.

POSTSCRIPT: while poking around the internet, I was surprised to see The Party being criticized by some for its use of “brownface” and for negatively portraying Asian Indians.  While I try to put myself in the shoes of the victimized group whenever these identity battles surface, I find this charge fairly ludicrous, for several reasons. But if any Asian Indians are reading this and wish to chime in, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Till then, let us ponder the words of Hrundi V. Bakshi: 

Wisdom is the province of the aged;

But the heart of a child is pure.

“The Lighthouse” (2019)

I’d intended to piggyback my last essay with reasons why American democracy is on the skids. But after Joe Biden’s narrow victory, I feel we’ve nudged just a bit closer to sanity, despite the yawning political, cultural, and racial divide that will continue to exist. We’ll see more attempts to subvert the democratic process while King of the Birthers, as everyone anticipated, gathers his Morlocks together to contest the results of perhaps the cleanest election in history. But to say anything more, right now, would be bad form.  

Instead, I’ll review a movie I recently watched. Movies can offer great escapism during these surreal times. They’re almost as effective as getting drunk, and there’s no hangover.

Those who know me know I prefer older things: older movies, music, novels, gas pump kiosks, et cetera. So it’s unusual for me to watch a recent film, like, one made in the last thirty years. The dear departed Sean Connery summed it up: those making Hollywood movies today are, quite frankly, “idiots.”

But while scrolling through Roku or one of those other bullshit TV toys, I saw the title, promo pic, and sea imagery for The Lighthouse and said “Cor blimey, greenpete, live dangerously!” I also admire Willem Dafoe’s acting. I saw him in Mississippi Burning, Platoon, and Born on the Fourth of July and, although these flicks have some flaws, I consider Dafoe a highlight. He’s a little weird, like Christopher Walken with human blood, so he’s always fun to watch.

With The Lighthouse, I looked forward to getting mentally entangled in a complex psychological drama. I didn’t expect to get stuck in simplistic psychological horror.

Here’s the “story”: two New Englanders from the 19th century (I think) convene at an island lighthouse for a four-week shift duty. Dafoe plays a crusty, veteran sea salt. Robert Pattinson is a younger, green-around-the-gills landlubber. Despite some minor cultural squabbles at the start, they seem to be handling the eerie isolation and crappy weather. Then, Salty Dog’s behavior takes on a sadistic turn, and Greenhorn begins hallucinating.

You may be thinking The Shining transferred to the seacoast. I thought so, too. But The Shining benefited from the cinematic genius of Stanley Kubrick. This film is actually closer in spirit to the one-note Shutter Island, but without a gimmick ending. While the B&W cinematography deserved its Oscar nomination, that’s the only good thing here, other than Dafoe’s entertaining Ahab shtick. There’s no backstory…or story proper. The whole film is a celebration of depravity. Here are some lowlights:

  • Greenhorn fucks a mermaid. (Or is he hallucinating?) And this is a 21st-century-styled mermaid, so she’s actually just a topless, thick-lipped runway model with a tailfin costume
  • Greenhorn violently masturbates to a toy figurine of his favorite mermaid
  • Greenhorn angrily flails a seagull against a wall for five minutes until the bird looks like a bloody rag. (Seriously, someone needs to contact PETA.)
  • Salty Dog farts loudly
  • While drunk, Salty Dog and Greenhorn dance cheek-to-cheek and nearly have homosexual sex. This scene is almost as nauseating as the seagull scene
  • Greenhorn makes Salty Dog bark and crawl on all fours with a rope leash around his neck
  • Greenhorn splits Salty Dog’s head in two with an axe. SPOILER ALERT (oops, sorry, too late).

I’m beyond my self-imposed space limit, so I’ll close. If you want to see how a skilled filmmaker handles gradual descents into madness, watch Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). Don’t bother with this bilge water, which is, like our Demagogue-in-Chief, truly repulsive. Sean Connery was right.

Well, I’m headed back to TCM. And to watch our petulant child-president do what he does so well.

Movie Review: “First Men in the Moon”

50 years

men in moon2

Just returned from a pleasant hiatus in Scotland.  Scotland isn’t the Moon, but the hobbits and elves made it exotic nonetheless, and I’ll be writing about Middle Earth soon. But I want to at least offer a nod to Apollo 11. I feel a kinship with moonwalkers Armstrong and Aldrin.

Armstrong lived only nine miles from our place here in Ohio, and I briefly attended college with his son, Rick, who hosted a campus radio show. (He played a lot of…what else?…progressive rock.) And Aldrin was born in the same town as me: Glen Ridge, New Jersey. In fact, we were born in the same hospital, 28 years apart. I’ve been called “Buzz” myself, though probably for reasons other than Aldrin.

Others know more about space exploration than me, so I’ll stick with what I know and offer a short review of a favorite Moon-related movie. I saw it with my dad when I was six years old, the first flick I ever saw at the theatre…not long before Mary Poppins. It’s a cinema version of H.G. Wells’ science-fiction classic, First Men in the Moon.

Year of release: 1964
Country: United Kingdom
Director: Nathan Juran
Starring: Lionel Jeffries, Edward Judd, Martha Hyer
Special Effects: Ray Harryhausen

Partial Plot: an international crew lands on the Moon and discovers a tattered Union Jack flag. A handwritten note with the flag says the Moon was claimed for Queen Victoria in 1899 in honor of Katherine Callender (Martha Hyer). The world press rushes to England to locate Callender. Although dead, her husband Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd) lives in a nursing home. The staff at the home say that Bedford is crazy, since for years he’s been raving about being on the Moon. He then relates to the press his actual experience traveling to the Moon 65 years earlier with Katherine and an eccentric inventor named Professor Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries). This reminiscence provides a flashback for the bulk of the movie (which I won’t give away).

Aside from being my first theatre movie, this flick is special for many reasons:

  1. The storyline is adapted from Wells’ 1901 novel, so the source material is impeccable
  2. Features Oscar-winner Harryhausen’s stop-motion “DynaMation” effects for the Moon monsters. Harryhausen had recently become famous for his work in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts
  3. Enhanced by gorgeous Technicolor and imaginative set designs for the Victorian cottage scenes
  4. Lionel Jeffries, a well-regarded English comic actor, is hilarious as the frenetic, absent-minded Prof. Cavor
  5. American actress Martha Hyer is gorgeous in a somewhat offbeat role for her
  6. Released during the Gemini program and just after President Kennedy’s vow to get to the Moon by the end of the 1960s
  7. Peter Finch makes an uncredited cameo appearance as a bailiff. He was visiting the  set, and the original actor had failed to show up
  8. There are some great lines, such as the conversation about war between Cavor and the Selenite ruler, and Cavor’s remark to Callender, after she brings a rifle onboard the ship: “Madam, the chances of bagging an elephant on the Moon are remote.” And the last line of the movie is a gem.

This film was recently shown on Turner Classic Movies to honor the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing, so it may be awhile before it returns. But if you have NetFlix or other, check out this under-appreciated film, enjoyable for both children and adults.

***

Neil Armstrong: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Translation: “That’s one small step for mankind, one giant leap for mankind.”  Did the Selenites understand his verbal gaffe?

armstrong

Doris Day: On the Sunny Side of the Street

Day in 1973

The day that Doris Day died, I did something irrational. Instead of driving straight home from work, I went out of my way and visited her childhood home.

Maybe I was half-expecting a small crowd of mourners. Elderly men and women in overcoats on a damp, overcast evening, sharing their grief over the passing of another icon from their youth.

Of course, no one was there but me. The red-brick house appeared shuttered, as did the entire neighborhood. I wondered, Do the current residents know they are living in Doris Day’s house? It’s a much different neighborhood now than in 1922, when she was born. An interstate highway rips through the center of Evanston, Ohio, now part of downtown Cincinnati. You can see the semi trucks from her front yard. Most of the residents are African-American, not German-American.

Perhaps I was the only visitor all day. But I like to think that my sentimental journey provided a smile for the girl christened Doris Mary Anne von Kappelhoff, wherever she might be right now while tossing pastel pillows back and forth with Rock Hudson.

Doris Day birthplace

The former Kappelhoff home, Cincinnati, Ohio

I was only a year old in 1959 when the movie Pillow Talk was released. As the 1960s progressed, I knew little about what was happening in the world. I received news of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam War, Haight-Ashbury, and the Watts riots via “trickle down” effect. The Cold War, for me, was Boris and Natasha from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends. I’m not really a child of the Sixties. Much as I often hate to admit, I’m a child of the Silent Majority.

Doris Day was a Silent Majority cultural icon. She was conservative 1950s who spilled into the 1960s before they became “The Sixties.” She was middle-class, nuclear-family, Caucasian America; traditional, familial, uncomplicated, and safe. With her ever-present smile, twinkling eyes, golden-blonde bob haircut and California tan, she was sunshine and, in my imagination, is always clothed in canary yellow. The ending of her film Move Over, Darling says everything: she jumps in the backyard swimming pool—fully clothed—to join her husband (James Garner) and two kids. Their laughter and splashing, after finally being reunited, are as good an antidote to late 20th and early 21st century anxiety and cynicism as you’re likely to find.

pool scene 2

The nuclear family in Move Over, Darling (1963)

Day’s close friends called her “Clara Bixby.” Rock Hudson, her romantic co-star in three of her most well-known films, called her “Eunice.” To her parents she was Doris Kappelhoff, and to everyone else, Doris Day. Names that are simple, non-glitz, and (though she hated the term) girl-next-door. And despite her great beauty, difficult personal life, and professed dislike of her chaste image, that’s how she presented herself in her movies.  It’s telling that she turned down the juicy role of “Mrs. Robinson” in Mike Nichols’  The Graduate because she found the script “vulgar and offensive.”

Doris’s father was a philanderer who walked out on the family when she was young. (One night, in her bedroom, little Doris was a traumatized earwitness to her father’s sexual relations with a party guest in the next room.) She was married four times. Her first husband, a jazz trombonist, tried to force her to abort their unborn child, then beat her when she was eight months pregnant. She divorced her second husband, a saxophonist, because he was jealous of her success. She was married to her third husband, Martin Melcher, for 17 years. But despite producing some of her best films, his blind faith in a fraudulent attorney left her bankrupt when he died. (She fought for years to finally obtain a $6 million decision.) Her fourth husband divorced her because he was jealous of her “animal friends.”

There was the tragedy of Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS. They were good friends offscreen, and his last public appearance was in 1985 when, looking extremely frail and telling her he had no appetite, he visited “Eunice” at her home and was filmed for the short-lived cable show, Doris Day’s Best Friends.

man who knew

Dramatic turn in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Her biggest sorrow was the death of her only child, Terry Melcher, from melanoma in 2004. They were only 20 years apart and like brother and sister. Melcher was a talented music producer, working with the Byrds, Beach Boys, and Paul Revere and the Raiders, assisting with music for his mother’s movies, and producing the 1968-73 sitcom The Doris Day Show. He came close to producing songs by Charles Manson, but backed out after visiting The Family at their ranch. The house Melcher had earlier shared with actress Candice Bergen was the site of the 1969 Tate murders (although Manson denied he was targeting Melcher).

By the mid-1970s, Day had had her fill of Hollywood. She moved up the California coast to Carmel Valley, taking in stray pets and establishing the Doris Day Animal Foundation. She was also part-owner of the pet-friendly Cypress Inn. In the last few decades, she politely but steadfastly refused requests for appearances, even after receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

That’s the private Day. Doris Day the entertainer took her alliterative stage name in 1939 after a song, “Day After Day.”

Doris Day Posing with Hand on Chin

“Clara,” in 1949 (Bettman Archive/Getty Images)

She became a popular ballad singer with Les Brown and His Band of Renown, scoring a huge hit with the WWII homecoming theme, “Sentimental Journey.” She had a confident and clean singing style, modeling herself after Ella Fitzgerald. She was a natural. In a rare audio interview with Turner Classic Movies, she said she never experienced stage fright, either while singing or acting.

As great a recording artist as she was, though, it is her 1950s musicals and 1960s romantic comedies that she is remembered for, especially the latter. They’re G-rated, but sophisticated; light and fluffy confections, with upbeat music, colorful clothing, and animated opening graphics, maybe a little Day singing, and lots of playful romance. (Called “sex comedies” when they were filmed, the word “sex” referred more to gender than physical lovemaking.) The plots generally revolve around a trite and temporary misunderstanding between Day and her partner.

Doris Day - Lover Come Back

Classic Day expression from Lover Come Back (1961)

These innocent predicaments allow Day to skillfully shift emotions between domestic contentedness and exasperation or outrage. The humor comes because you know what will transpire before Day’s character does. Then, when the revelation hits, you get to see her puff her cheeks, swivel her head sideways, plant her hands on her hips, and stomp away briskly, her back stiff as a board.

While Day is the undisputed focal point in these movies, a key humorous element is her leading men. As a foil for her, they had to be handsome, but in a warm, non-threatening way. Rock Hudson (Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, and Send Me No Flowers), James Garner (The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling), and Rod Taylor (Do Not Disturb and The Glass Bottom Boat) all fit the bill, because they have a puckish playfulness, especially Hudson, who was extremely adept at light comedy.

But it is Doris Day who carries these films. The great Steve Allen called her “one of the very best comedy actresses of all time” but one who “hasn’t gotten the critical appreciation to which she is entitled.” Steve, you are correct on both counts.  And longitudes predicts she will ultimately get this recognition.

Since her recent death at age 97, some male writers have grappled with just how sexy was this “World’s Oldest Virgin,” as she was mockingly labeled (though she actually advocated living together before marriage…four marriages might have something to do with that). Sex and sexuality are an obsession in our post-sexual revolution age, when mere pillow “talk” is considered boring. I won’t dwell on this topic, other than to assure the aforesaid writers that—while I never knew Day before she was a virgin—in my testosterone-soaked eyes she was hot, in both looks and personality, and she got hotter as she got older. Anne Bancroft is talented and beautiful, but it’s a shame adolescent males couldn’t enjoy Clara as “Mrs. Robinson.” And if you writers don’t agree, you can click this.

glass bottom boat

One of Day’s most fun flicks, The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)

***

As with The Lawrence Welk Show and Petticoat Junction, which I’ve also profiled on longitudes, Doris Day’s films are a safe harbor for me. They carry me back to a time of innocence, to family and fireside. It’s not because I’m a “male animal” who pines for the days when women were merely Pollyannaish partners to the “stronger sex.” (My career-minded wife and liberated daughter also love her films and introduced me to several. My macho son, on the other hand, is a different story.) It’s more because they are uncomplicated, wholesome, funny, and fun. They are a shelter from the storm, and we all need shelter, especially in these turbulent, less rational times.

While I’m thankful for the “The Sixties” and the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., Grateful Dead, détente, civil rights, equal rights, gay rights, copyrights, etc., I’m also thankful for animal rights and Doris Kappelhoff of Greenlawn Avenue in Evanston, Ohio for the safe harbor she’s given us.

Que será, será!

***

After retiring from the spotlight in the 1970s, Doris Day devoted herself to the cause of animal welfare. I gave a small donation. If you’d also like to help, here’s the link: Doris Day Animal Foundation.

silver screen collection_moviepix_getty

(Silver Screen Collection/Moviepix/Getty)

United States of Entertainment

amendment

Just an update to my previous article on 102-year-old actress Olivia de Havilland’s petition to the Supreme Court (see Speaking Truth to Power in Tinseltown): Our less-than-Supreme Court has decided it will not hear her case. This means that companies like FX Networks are permitted to transform living people in an untruthful manner in their pursuit of profit, under First Amendment freedom protection. Essentially, Miss de Havilland’s fight for her freedom from character slander is trumped by the right of the people to be entertained, and the right of corporations to profit off that entertainment.

I wonder what James Madison is thinking.

cartoon

(Tony Auth, Philadelphia Inquirer)

Melting Pots and Swamps

President Obama sits down for beer with Harvard scholar Gates, police Sergeant Crowley and Vice President Biden in Rose Garden

A few weeks ago, I was bouncing around WordPress, which is my social medium of choice these days…my internet coffee klatch. I plopped “old movies” into the search box. I like old movies, even the black-and-white ones that have newspaper headlines spinning toward you, and where women are “dames” and the actors use cigarettes as fashion accessories.

Several article titles came up, and one in particular caught my eye: reviews of the 1937 and 1954 film versions of the acclaimed A Star is Born (also filmed in 1976, and again this year).

“Cool! Gotta read this,” I thought.

I’d seen the 1954 version starring Judy Garland and James Mason. It’s about a young singer-actress whose star is rising, and whose actor-husband is descending into alcoholism, career suicide, and eventual real suicide. It’s a wrenching story, as well as an awesome musical.

And the WordPress article was also great. This reviewer didn’t just fling around the adjectives “awesome” and “great” …like I did above. She had a robust vocabulary, which is saying something in these days of tweets, texts, emails, and emoticons. She also went into revealing detail about infrequently discussed film topics, like the importance of supporting actors and the use of Technicolor.

She also stated that the 1954 film used “blackface.” Blackface is a popular topic now, ever since the firing of TV personality Megyn Kelly. For younger readers, or those who might live in Indiana, blackface was the practice of white entertainers painting their faces black and pretending to be African-American. The 1920s Jazz Age entertainer Al Jolson was the most well-known practitioner. By the latter 20th century, the practice had fallen out of favor, and is today considered insensitive, with many calling it racist.

jolson

Al Jolson

Anyway, the WordPress reviewer accused the film of having—and I quote verbatim—an “appalling display of racism.” Pretty severe accusation. I’d seen the 1954 version of A Star is Born, and I didn’t remember anything approaching racism. So, I clicked the hyperlink she conveniently provided, which took me to a YouTube clip of Dorothy (Judy Garland) dancing to and singing George Gershwin’s classic “Swanee,” which Jolson had made famous. Although Garland had a chorus of African-American dancers behind her, she was not wearing blackface. Neither was anyone else in the clip…at least, that my strained, macular-degenerative eyes could make out. I didn’t see anything that might remotely be construed as being racist.

I thought, How can a scene with a singer-actress (Garland), portraying a singer-actress (Vicki Lester), who performs a legendary 1950s rendition of a popular song, written in 1919, that was loosely based on a song from the 1850s, be considered an “appalling display of racism”? Is it because the song was once done by a white cat wearing blackface? Isn’t that a sociological and chronological leap? Would Rosa Parks have considered Garland’s innocent dance number racist?

garland

Judy Garland, singing and dancing in “A Star is Born”

Controversy is catnip. So, I submitted a reader comment at the bottom of the article. First, I praised the reviewer for her perceptive and well-written piece. Then, I politely took issue with her claim that inclusion of “Swanee” in the movie was racist, and that the movie included blackface. I went into some junk about Al Jolson, which was probably too much information. But I think I stayed close to topic, and was respectful. In other words, I wasn’t my usual arrogant prick.

I’m guessing that the writer, who looked fairly young, felt compelled to join the “shaming” chorus that inevitably accompanies our confused country’s frequent identity crises. Although, it’s possible I’m wrong on all this. Maybe I’m a throwback dance number myself, and displaying my own racial insensitivity. Could be I’m a flip-flopper. After all, I’m one who despises the football team nickname “Redskins” (at one time a derogatory term for Native Americans) and supports warehousing of certain inanimate Confederates. But I was anxious to at least hear her viewpoint.

However…she didn’t publish my comment. I was bummed.

Which brings me to this essay’s title. While there are a lot of negatives to instant communication and social media—silliness, egotism, stupidity, rudeness, hostility, encouragement of sloth, real “fake news,” fake “fake news,” bad English, five-letter words beginning with ‘T’—there are a few positives. One of them is strangers of different backgrounds—our vaunted “melting pot”—being able to share an ecosystem of different ideas, which is a characteristic of democracies. Diversity doesn’t just imply race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality, it also means diversity of thoughts and opinions. But if one party decides there will be lotsa give, but no take, then the melting pot becomes a putrid swamp. Nobody changes, nobody grows.

I’m used to this roaring silence from my elected representatives. But not from a real person.

I would have loved to hash it out with this writer…to participate in a sort of internet “beer summit,” and eventually arrive at a safe haven of consensus after running up the bar tab with ex-President Obama. Perhaps she’d have revealed to me my “whiteness” or “maleness.” Maybe she could have explained to this vintage man what she meant by her being an unapologetic “SJW.” (Does anyone know what an SJW is? I’m assuming it’s an acronym describing her marital status, race, and gender. Like I said, I’m a vintage man, and acronyms trouble me.)

Maybe I could have explained my liberal proclivities, to assure her that, despite our disagreement on this subject, I’m still not one of them. A few pejoratives directed at the hemorrhoid currently in the White House would surely have had us clinking our beer glasses (to Obama’s and sub-bartender Joe Biden’s delight).

Maybe I could have politely explained my theory of pulling back too far on the bowstring, which causes the archer to not only miss the bullseye, but overshoot the entire target. Which can create an ugly backlash like what occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, or at the polls in November 2016.

Alas, I didn’t get the opportunity. No beer summit with Obama and Biden. So much for the free exchange of ideas I anticipated.

Speaking of free exchange of ideas, does anyone care to, um, add ripples to my putrid swamp with a comment? As tough-guy actor Robert Conrad used to say in those battery commercials: “C’mon. I dare ya.”

Beer_summit_cheers

Peace, brother.

A Hollywood Legend Shares Her Wisdom

Olivia_de_Havilland_in_The_Adventures_of_Robin_Hood_trailer_2

Last month, I wrote about 102-year-old actress Olivia de Havilland’s lawsuit against FX Networks for defamation of character, instigated by that network’s unflattering and unauthorized depiction of her in the first-season installment of its pay-television series,  Feud.

As often happens when I write something, my curiosity led me deeper into the subject. I did some internet clicking, and discovered a 2 ½-hour interview with de Havilland from October 5, 2006 (back when she was a mere 90 years old). The interview was conducted by the Academy of Achievement, of which de Havilland is an inducted member. Most of the interview consists of her reminiscences of her childhood, family, and acting career. It’s a fascinating overview of a life well-lived, possessing great cultural value.

The Snake Pit

De Havilland in Oscar-nominated role in 1948 film “The Snake Pit” (Getty Images)

But at the tail end, she holds forth on subjects more expansive and contemporary: the importance of experiencing foreign cultures; literacy and book reading; the lessons of warfare; the European Union; and the American Dream. Her views on these subjects resonated with me.

However, (obviously), de Havilland has more street cred than longitudes. She’s been around a bit longer and experienced a bit more. She was born in Japan to British parents, raised in the U.S., where she became a citizen and had a long movie career, and she’s lived in France for many years. Her words carry slightly more weight than this author’s.

So, here, I’m doing something a little unusual: I’m going to shut up and let someone else talk. I’m re-printing that conclusion of the Academy of Achievement interview. (To view the entire interview, click here, or to read the transcript, click here.)

Please note: this interview occurred a year before the iPhone became embedded in global culture…and ten years before the election of Donald Trump.

___________

“The Last Belle of Cinema,” Washington, D.C., October 5, 2006 (original source: Academy of Achievement)

Academy of Achievement: You’ve said that in addition to going to college, you believe that American young people should travel abroad.

Olivia de Havilland: I think it is terribly important for this country that the young have at least one year of university in some foreign country. It’s extremely important to understand another culture, another people. Here we are isolated, this huge continent, isolated from the rest of the world by two great oceans. passportWe don’t understand other peoples. It’s so ironic, because we are made up of people of every race whose origin—origins were other countries. We are almost completely ignorant, and we are rather arrogant in our ignorance, and we are going to make terrible blunders that are injurious to other peoples abroad, and in the end, to ourselves. It’s imperative.

Otherwise, we will be a retrogressive nation…and we are on our way. I know three university students: one is going to do postgraduate work, a brilliant girl; another, who I think will also do postgraduate work; another who is 19, a sophomore. The 19-year-old has a capacity for analysis which would be counted as absolutely brilliant in a 45-year-old woman. (But) she can’t spell. She knows her way around a laptop with these mechanisms that spell for you, but she can’t spell, didn’t think it was necessary. Neither can these other two girls. Top students they were. Can’t spell. Now, that’s retrogressive. I’ll bet you anything they can’t add either, because they’ve got the calculator. Also, one of the reasons they can’t spell is they will watch television, you see, instead of reading books. They won’t look up anything in their dictionary even. It is all done by pressing buttons.

girl readingReading! Think of what the brain goes through! It is a very, very special function. When you read, you visualize. You imagine the characters. When you go and watch television, it is not only physically passive—reading is physically passive, certainly—but it is all done for you. It does arouse your interest, your full attention, and your emotions, but by a different process. The other process, the capacity to envision yourself, is very important to develop. If you do that, you are apt to learn to spell anyway, because you will see the difference between words that sound the same, like “manor,” m-a-n-or, and “manner,” m-a-n-n-e-r, and how they are used, how they are spelled differently. Oh, it is imperative, and I think something has to be done to encourage them to learn to spell, to read, to add and subtract.

Academy of Achievement: You’ve lived in France for many years now. You speak French, and you have written very charmingly about life in France. Do you think that living there has changed your perspective?

Olivia de Havilland: It’s been an extraordinary experience, absolutely extraordinary to learn about another culture and other people. It is an immense privilege and an exciting adventure. Not only that, but just living in Europe has been an extraordinary experience, because I have been living in a culture of peace. Those 19-year-old American boys—Omaha Beach, and up and down that coast—they didn’t die for nothing. Think of it. Europe, with all these different countries, each country separate from the other in terms of history, culture, language, all of them, for 2,000 years and more, at war with each other, generation after generation. And all of a sudden, after World War II, they didn’t want to kill each other anymore, and we now have the European Union. It is a miracle. And the culture there is, indeed, a culture of peace, and the thought of solving a problem, a disagreement through war…unthinkable. Unthinkable.

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Cemetery near Omaha Beach, Normandy, France (site of 1944 D-Day invasion)

Imagine if the United States had been created 2,000 years ago and from then until now, Nevada had declared war on California regularly all through those centuries. If Florida had been at war with Alabama, North Dakota with South Dakota, Oregon with Washington and Idaho and Montana and the rest of them, Nebraska, Mississippi, all at war with each other for 2,000 years, and suddenly, one day, they decide they don’t want to kill each other anymore. That’s what’s happened in Europe. War is a very stupid way to settle a disagreement. Unthinkable. Won’t do. And in Europe, you have the feeling that the whole human race has been raised to another level by what has happened there.

Academy of Achievement: What is your sense of the American Dream? Does it still hold true for you?

Olivia de Havilland: I think we have abandoned our dream, and we must get back to it. We must. We absolutely must.

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(AP photo)

Speaking Truth to Power in Tinseltown

Olivia de Havilland portrait

She is 102 years old. Her first screen appearance was in 1935 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 1939 she co-starred in one of the most popular films of all time, Gone with the Wind. She was romantically linked with billionaire Howard Hughes, actor Jimmy Stewart, and director John Huston. She has won two Academy Awards for Best Actress, been nominated for three other Oscars, and been awarded or nominated for multiple other acting trophies.

She changed the face of Hollywood in the mid-1940s with the De Havilland Law, which helped terminate the oppressive “studio system” by freeing artists from tyrannical labor contracts.

She was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II. She received the highest order of merit in France, the Légion d’Honneur, from Nicolas Sarkozy. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts by George W. Bush. Since 1956, she has lived in the same three-story house in Paris.

Olivia de Havilland is the last surviving actor of 1930s Hollywood, and one of the last of its Golden Age. She’s also the last person one would think would be compelled to file another lawsuit, this one an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. But in these surreal days of infantile tweets by U.S. presidents, when up is down and down is up…anything is possible.

***

In 2017, a mini-series called Feud: Bette and Joan came out on FX Networks. It concerns actress Bette Davis, who was supposedly very feisty, and actress Joan Crawford, supposedly extremely vain (even for Hollywood). The two notoriously clashed during and after the 1962 production of the macabre film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The recent Feud stars Susan Sarandon as Davis, and Jessica Lange as Crawford.

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Movie still from Baby Jane.  Crawford is on left, Davis is on right.

Olivia de Havilland knew and worked with both Davis and Crawford. Her character, portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones, narrates Feud. However, de Havilland was never consulted before or during the making of the series.  

I have not seen Feud, so I can’t comment on its artistic merits. But judging from the subject matter, it sounds not unlike most of the glossy soap-opera trash that Hollywood often promotes as serious “drama” today. (According to de Havilland’s 112-page petition, the mini-series is devoted to “the theme of women actors cat-fighting, using vulgar language, and backstabbing one another.”)

Miss de Havilland’s lawsuit argues that Feud and executive producer Ryan Murphy (previous credit: The People v. O.J. Simpson), take considerable liberties with the truth, to put it politely. But this isn’t unusual in Hollywood (or anywhere else, for that matter). Ever since D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1915, which depicts the Ku Klux Klan as heroic, historical truth has been a malleable commodity in moving pictures. Usually, the factual acrobatics are for artistic and commercial benefit. Sometimes there’s a political or social agenda involved, as with Griffith’s film.

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Davis and de Havilland during the Baby Jane follow-up, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). De Havilland replaced Crawford early on. (Joe Farrington/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

But sometimes these artistic liberties cross a threshold and create false impressions that have a deleterious effect on peoples’ character. Such is the claim of Miss de Havilland and her legal team.

Specifically, and related directly to her, de Havilland objects to a scene where she refers to her late sister, actress Joan Fontaine (with whom de Havilland had a cold relationship), as a “bitch.” She also objects to a scene where she makes snide remarks about Frank Sinatra’s alcohol use. The fact that Feud is presented as semi-documentary lends additional weight to de Havilland’s grievance.

Now, these Tinseltown skirmishes may seem petty and inconsequential to most of us. We’ve been raised in an age of constant media diversion, where fact and fantasy often coexist and overlap, and where manners are seemingly…well… “gone with the wind.” We live in a much cruder time. But Olivia de Havilland is from an earlier era. A time when unwritten codes of conduct were adhered to, and not everything—whether fact or fantasy—was splashed onto a screen. Freedom of speech and artistic license are one thing. But libeling someone in the name of art is another.

“Tens of millions of people* viewed “Feud,” and for a new generation, most likely all they know of Petitioner is found in the unauthorized lies and mischaracterization of her life, her work, and her nature as put forward in that series…This false portrayal has damaged Petitioner’s reputation.” (from Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, Oliva de Havilland, DBE, Petitioner v. FX Networks, LLC and Pacific 2.1 Entertainment Group, Inc.).

The Supreme Court appeal was filed in September. It follows an original petition in March 2017, which was struck down by two appeals courts, including the California Supreme Court. In both cases, Murphy and FX Networks successfully used the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to justify their “artistic license” to reputedly stretch the truth and stain the character of both living and dead persons.

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De Havilland, circa 1940 (Photofest)

In earlier essays, longitudes has touched on issues related to the First Amendment, which protects Americans’ freedom of speech, religion, press, and right to peaceably assemble. Television stars and their supporters have flaunted the Constitution to defend the right to employment after employer termination for vulgar, bigoted remarks (Duck Dynasty vs. U.S. Constitution). Armed political activists have clumsily brandished the Constitution while illegally occupying federal land (This Land is Your Land: Domestic Terrorism in Oregon).

We’ve also seen the U.S. Supreme Court misinterpret the First Amendment in order to protect corporations and enable them to donate unlimited amounts of money to the political candidates they hope will serve their purposes (Citizens United v. FEC).

Longitudes is an enthusiastic fan of Olivia de Havilland. Anyone who has seen either The Heiress or The Snake Pit is aware of her immense talent, not to mention her beauty. But that’s not why this blog supports her in her campaign for truth and decency. It’s because the First Amendment was not intended by the Founders to protect businesses like FX Networks from fictionalizing, in a negative manner, the words and actions of people in the pursuit of commerce, and in the guise of “art.”

Unfortunately, judging from certain recent court decisions where the First Amendment is involved, and the unprecedented clout of U.S. industry today, longitudes doesn’t hold out much hope for Miss de Havilland.

Then again—like a rubber ball bouncing between walls in a closed room—American laws have never been fixed, and their trajectories are purely determined by whomever is doing the bouncing at any given time.

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Promo card of de Havilland in play Alice in Wonderland, 1933.

* Variety magazine reported that 5.1 million people total watched Feud when first broadcast.

(Header photo: Laura Stevens, Variety)

Halloween Movie Review: THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS

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Three years ago around Halloween, I published a list of five psychological horror films that I considered some of the best in the genre (Do NOT Watch Alone…). These are films about the mind that will keep you awake at night.

The film I’m reviewing this time isn’t disturbing like the others. But it has wonderful atmosphere, and I can’t think of another film like it. Critic Leonard Maltin calls it a “near-brilliant mixture of humor and horror.” It is Roman Polanski’s 1967 satire The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (known as Dance of the Vampires in Europe). *

No matter what you think of Roman Polanski’s sexual imbroglios, as with the great Woody Allen, it’s beyond dispute he’s one of cinema’s most talented writers-producers-directors. His 1965 British movie Repulsion is a tour-de-force of psychological horror (and made my aforesaid list). Two years after Repulsion, he made this more lighthearted film.

Since Tod Browning’s classic 1931 film Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, vampire films had become progressively stale. The bottom came with the asinine Billy the Kid Versus Dracula in 1966. (Don’t watch this unless you have a large supply of alcohol on hand…enough to drink yourself into stupefaction.) So it was about time someone knocked the stuffing out of the vampire genre.

(Has anyone yet knocked the stuffing out of ubiquitous vampire books??)

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The movie plot is simple: in the mid-19th century, a scatterbrained German researcher named Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his bewildered assistant Alfred (Polanski) travel through the snowy Transylvanian mountains to a small village in search of a vampire who supposedly lives nearby. While Abronsius is obsessed with tracking down and killing the bloodsucker, Alfred is more dazzled by the lasses in the local inn, including the lovely redheaded Sarah (Polanski’s future wife, Sharon Tate), whom he encounters while she’s soaping herself in a bubble bath.

The vampire, Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne), disrupts Alfred’s attempt at courtship when he kidnaps Sarah one night. Abronsius and Alfred then track him through the snow to his castle perched on the mountaintop. Bag of vampire-slaying tricks in hand, Abronsius is determined to destroy von Krolock, and Alfred is equally determined to rescue his damsel before she turns into a hollow-eyed blood bank. Without giving anything away, Abronsius and Alfred undergo various nail-biting (and neck-biting) escapades at the castle.

Expressive Irish actor MacGowran is perfect as Abronsius, with his faux pedagogy reminiscent of the standup comic “Professor” Irwin Corey (the “World’s Foremost Authority”). Instead of scientific jargon and Pyrex tubes, though, Abronsius speaks vampire clichés and wields garlic (“GAR-leek”), a wooden stake and mallet, and various crucifixes. Polanski makes a good shell-shocked stumblebum assistant. Tate, one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood at the time, doesn’t act much, or well, but she’s a visual delight. (Her horrific fate only two years later lends this film a tragic edge).

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Bathtub scene with Tate and Polanski (photo Turner Classic Movies)

In addition, Ferdy Mayne as Count von Krolock gives veteran vampire actor Christopher Lee a run for his money, with his murky, imposing stature and ominous, throaty voice.

But the minor characters provide most of the funny moments. There’s the hunchback who serves as von Krolock’s personal “Igor,” with his gargantuan buck teeth and Beatle hairstyle. In an inspired move, Polanski gives von Krolock ’s creepy son Herbert (Iain Quarrier) a homosexual spin; Herbert is as sexually attracted to Alfred as he is thirsty for his blood. Best of all is actor Alfie Bass, who is Sarah’s father, and the innkeeper.  After turning vampire, he struggles to locate a comfortable place in the castle in which to situate his coffin. His exaggerated Yiddishness is hilarious.

The movie is filled with many moments of visual humor. The moonlit snowy landscape, courtesy of the Italian Alps, is another attractive feature. As is the shimmering music, particularly the psychedelic-Gothic score that accompanies the opening credits, created by the same person, European jazz musician Christopher Komeda, who later composed the score for Polanski’s universally acclaimed Rosemary’s Baby.

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If you’re like me, you’ll get an adrenaline rush every time the doorbell rings on Halloween night. And if you’re really like me, after the doorbell stops ringing, you’ll plop yourself in your armchair and get a rush from a good horror flick. My suggestion this year is Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers.

And if you one day find yourself in Transylvania… beware of isolated mountain villages that have inns with “gar-leek” hanging over the front door!

(* Originally released in the U.K., The Fearless Vampire Killers was butchered by MGM when released in the U.S. Twelve minutes of the film were deleted, a cartoonish opening sequence was added, and MacGowran’s voice was given a deliberately comical and ill-suited dubbing. Polanski was understandably outraged, and campaigned to have the original version restored, which didn’t happen until the early 1980s.)

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A Boy and a Raccoon

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“It was in May 1918 that a new friend and companion came into my life: a character, a personality, and a ring-tailed wonder.”

Among other neuroses, I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It may have started in 1968 when I was 10 and became obsessed with having a wild animal as a pet. A therapist might deduce that I craved attention. Having a wild animal as a pet, instead of a dog or cat, draws attention and makes a young person special.

My favorite wild animal was the raccoon (Procyon lotor). I became a child expert on raccoons, and I’ve always remembered the Latin name that I just tried to impress you with.

It started in fifth grade when I read a children’s book called Little Rascal, about a boy and his pet raccoon. A few months later, I graduated to the full novel, Rascal. The novel was a 1963 bestseller, Newbery Honor book, and the first Dutton Animal Book Award winner. It was popular enough that it became a 1969 Disney movie starring Bill Mumy and Steve Forrest (critic Leonard Maltin gives the film two-and-a-half out of four stars, which I might agree with… movies are seldom as good as the books they’re based on).

I read Rascal several times and saw the movie in the theatre the first week of its release. Eventually, my obsession with raccoons became so strong that in 1970 I captured my own baby raccoon in a box trap and made him a pet, with my dad building a 10-foot-tall cage at the side of our house. Rascal II and I became the talk of the neighborhood. My chatterbox friend used to perch on my scrawny shoulders, his black mask like a pair of racing goggles, while we tooled around the streets on my red Schwinn Sting-Ray. For a short time in 1970, before Rascal felt the call and disappeared to locate a mate, I was a minor celebrity.

But enough about my OCD. May 2018 is 100 years since author Sterling North became acquainted with an animal that changed his life, so I’d like to talk about him, his pet raccoon, and his special book.

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Sterling North House (photo public domain)

Sterling North was raised in the small town of Edgerton in southern Wisconsin, on the banks of Rock River near shallow Lake Koshkonong. In 1918, Lake Koshkonong was a wild and scenic lake rimmed by dark forest. But a dam was built in 1932, creating an enlarged reservoir that is now studded with public beaches and boat landings, and an interstate now cuts along the western shore, so much of the lake’s wildness is gone (in the 1970s, the lake came perilously close to hosting a nuclear power plant). In 1918, North was age 11 and spent many hours both on the lake and in the woods surrounding it. He lived alone with his often-absent father, his mother having died when he was only 7, his two older sisters having moved away, and his older brother, Herschel, was far away in France, fighting to end the war to end all wars.

One evening in May, he and his friend Oscar venture into Wentworth’s Woods, where Sterling’s devoted St. Bernard, Wowser, digs up a den of raccoons. The mother and babies hightail it into the brush, but Oscar scoops one of the babes into his cap. He knows his tyrannical father won’t let him keep it, so he gives it to Sterling. Over the next year, Sterling and Rascal have numerous adventures together.

On the surface, Rascal appears to be just a children’s story about a boy frolicking with a wild animal. But it’s a book equally appealing to grownups. I read it again 9 years ago and discovered layers I didn’t know existed. North’s relationship with the lovable, intelligent Rascal is a friendship as tangible as that between people. In the book, he instills human characteristics in his furry hero, but without stretching credulity or sounding trite. He also captures a bygone time of innocent rural Americana, when hickory and walnut hunting, whippoorwill sighting, pie-eating contests, and trotter races are small treasures, and not corny anachronisms.

Sterling North Society

Sterling North and friends (photo Sterling North Society)

In Rascal, North makes plain that his childhood is unorthodox. His father allows him to keep numerous wild and domestic pets, wander deep into the woods, sleep alone outdoors, skip school, etc. The entire living room is cloaked in sawdust from a canoe that Sterling is building by himself. While Sterling’s martinet eldest sister, Theo, scolds their father for creating an unhealthy household environment, his other sister, Jessica—a surrogate mother for Sterling—is more tender and understanding. She realizes that Sterling’s world of flora and fauna is a way of coping with their mother’s death.

And Sterling’s father indulges their self-sufficiency, knowing that being “different” and not trotting after the pack are a healthy thing.

Sterling’s pet raccoon introduces humor and sunlight into the boy’s life. Rascal also brings about a jarring awakening. After seeing a picture of a trapped raccoon on the cover of his fur catalogue, the sensitive boy pictures Rascal’s soft, inquisitive hand clamped in a jaw trap, and he decides to give up trapping. He declares a “peace” with nature on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. North concludes this chapter with the memorable sentence: “It is perhaps the only peace treaty that was ever kept.”

John R. Sill

Lake Koshkonong (photo John R. Sill)

***

North grew up to be a successful reporter and editor and wrote a children’s book that became a 1949 feature film, So Dear to My Heart, featuring Burl Ives. But Rascal is the book he’s most known for. In Japan, the book became a cartoon series in 1977, and the raccoon character is still very popular there, supposedly bigger than Mickey Mouse.

When he retired, North and his wife moved to Morristown, New Jersey, choosing the location specifically because there were lots of woods and wild animals, including raccoons.

During this time, my aunt and cousin lived in nearby Millington, New Jersey. When my family visited in the early ‘70s, my aunt found out about my interest, and telephoned the North home to see if I could stop by to meet my favorite author (I was too shy to call myself). But Mrs. North said her husband was suffering from a long illness and was unable to have visitors. She said he’d be pleased to hear that I’d called, though.

In January 1975, while a sophomore at boarding school, I read in the back pages of Newsweek that Sterling North had passed away at age 68. It was like another piece of my childhood had passed away.

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(Author photo)