Thursday, May 29, 2008

This Is Not a Film Blog

...because I couldn't hope to compete with the thousand of movie blogs, much less the dozens of good ones, already established here in Blogenheim. Many with swell pictures and video clips, too. But I'm in a mood because I just read the May 26 issue of The New Yorker, which has a funny parody of S.J. Perelman by Woody Allen. The magazine shamefully ignored Perelman's centenary in 2004, or maybe they were too busy marking the centenary of A.J. Liebling that year, or maybe they just got confused by the initials. Anyway, Allen is still giving props to the master parodist as he did years ago with "A Little Louder, Please" in his first collection, Getting Even (1978).

Which led me to thinking about the Marx Brothers. Perelman contributed dialogue to several of their Paramount films, but he seems most present in Monkey Business (1931), which gets surprisingly little commentary from the movie lovers. (Consulting the IMDB, I see that Ben Hecht and Herman Mankewicz worked on it, too, without screen credit.) I want to suggest that Monkey Business is in fact a surreal examination of the immigrant experience, never very remote for the first- and second-generation Americans who dominated the film industry in its early years.

It's the only film where Groucho does not occupy some position of authority or renown (hotel manager, college president, famous explorer, etc.). In fact, the four brothers play characters who don't even have names, like the thousands who arrived on Ellis Island with complicated names from Eastern Europe and left with names like Harris and Jones. On the ocean liner where most of the movie is set, they aren't even steerage passengers -- they're stowaways. This doesn't stop them from writing insulting notes to the captain and otherwise running amok -- clearly anarchists. Not yet on American soil, they're already being offered employment by organized crime: there are two rival bootleggers on board who, improbably, try to recruit the brothers as bodyguards. In one lovely scene, one of the gangsters hands loaded pistols to Groucho and Zeppo. As soon as he turns away, they exchange a meaningful look -- What kind of crazy violent country are we going to? -- and drop the guns into a bucket of water. Harpo, meanwhile, when not frantically chasing women, has discovered a future in show business; he imitates a puppet in a Punch & Judy performance for the ship's children. The new Americans will work their way into the mainstream through talent and guile -- watch Chico and Harpo take a chess game away from two important-looking men before they know what is happening.

Adding to the movie's crazy energy, Margaret Dumont has missed the boat. In her place is the fabulous Hot Toddie -- Thelma Todd, the blonde comedienne with the wide eyes and endless energy. She plays the neglected wife of one of the bootleggers, mirroring her real life. (She may have been murdered on orders from Lucky Luciano, her business partner and sometime lover.) Where Groucho bounced off Dumont, he melds with Todd, popping in and out of her closet, dancing a wild tango and peppering her with Perelman zingers: "You must have been married in rompers -- mighty pretty country around there." "You're a girl who's had nothing but dirty breaks. We can clean and tighten those brakes, but you'll have to stay in the garage overnight." "Come, let us lodge with my fleas in the hills -- I mean, flee to my lodge in the hills."

When the ship reaches New York, the four illegals try to enter the country with a passport they've stolen from Maurice Chevalier. Why not? Foreign celebrities are always welcome -- it's the wretched refuse who are chased and deported. For some reason, their renditions of "You Brought a New Kind of Love To Me" fail to convince the authorities, but a passenger faints, giving Groucho an opportunity to impersonate a doctor, while Harpo scatters the immigration documents and rubberstamps everything and everyone within reach. Soon they're crashing a high-society costume party, where Groucho tells a guest dressed as a Native American, "If you don't like our country, why don't you go back where you came from?" Before long Groucho is perched in the hayloft of an old barn, giving radio-style commentary on a fight as if it were a baseball game, and Zeppo will further assimilate by rescuing and marrying the bootlegger's kidnapped daughter. Four more "undesirables" have battered their way into the United States, only seven years after the Immigration Act of 1924 was supposed to make it impossible. How can you not love this movie?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Mann for all seasons

While doing research in an old journal -- those things we wrote in before blogging was invented -- I came across an intriguing quotation from Thomas Mann:

"Human wickedness deserves a visitation -- and this civilization of grabbers, fools and
gangsters deserves to perish."

Does it sound more intriguing if I add that he wrote it while living in Los Angeles in 1951?

Sydney Pollack

I scanned the obituaries of Sydney Pollack and came across references to Tootsie (ugh), Out of Africa, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (which should be packaged with half a dozen Prozac) and the work for which he is best know, alas, an occasional role on Will & Grace. My favorite among Pollack's films is Absence of Malice, a forever-timely story of how government and news media use each other for their own ends, with no concern for mere individuals caught in the middle. (At this point I'm supposed to say SPOILER ALERT, even though it came out in 1981 and you should damn well have seen it by now.)

The strangest scene in the picture, and so naturally the one I wait for, comes halfway through, when the reporter, Megan Carter, is typing at night in the deserted city room. (This may be the last newspaper movie to feature typewriters.) The gruff but kindly editor, Mac, comes by with some liquor and says, "It might be time for you to come on the desk." At this point, her stories have driven one innocent person to suicide and caused another to lose his business. Is he trying to cheer her up, or does he seriously think she's editor material? It's never made clear. Is the screenwriter, Kurt Luedtke, also a reporter, that cynical? The little scene comes and goes, soon swept aside by Paul Newman's revenge and the showy performance of Wilford Brimley that everybody remembers. (Everybody but the Academy, which nominated Newman and Melinda Dillon but not Brimley -- I guess they didn't think he was as good as James Coco in Marsha Mason's Gay Best Friend or whatever it was called.)

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Bum me out at the ballgame

For years, baseball has relied on special promotions to fill the seats eighty-odd times a year. Some of them are delightful -- I'd go to St. Louis for a Tony LaRussa Bobblehead Doll, complete with sunglasses. Others have not worked so well. What genius in the Yankee organization came up with Bat Day, or, as it is still known in Bronx emergency rooms, Blunt Force Trauma Day? Then there was Ten-Cent Beer Night -- ten beers for a dollar, yay! Only someone forgot that vendors lack the authority to cut customers off and take away their car keys. That one disappeared at the request of the police.

Last Sunday was Mother's Day, which major league baseball marked with the worst promotion of all time, Breast Cancer Awareness Day. My mother died of breast cancer and even I was offended. Nothing wrong with increasing awareness and early detection, nothing at all, but not at the old ball game. This should be a day for big hulking players to grin awkwardly into the camera and say, "Uh, happy Mother's Day, Mom, OK? I love you, OK?" Maybe take Mom to lunch and then to a game, if she's a fan. Instead, players had to wear pink ribbons on their uniforms (which means the equipment guy had to sew them on and remove them the next day), sport pink wristbands and swing pink bats. Sports, silliness and sanctimony rolled into one. Can we have one day a week without being nagged?

Next month is Father's Day. I understand ticket-holders will receive a giant foam-rubber finger, to remind Dad to schedule that annual prostate exam. Good grief.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Rules of engagement

In the next six months, you may find yourself in the company of John McCain as he campaigns for president. Here are some suggestions for making this experience as pleasant as possible in the circumstances:

1. Do not use the phrase "one hundred years." The Senator has not said he hopes the war in Iraq will continue for a hundred years. What he said was, he's fine with American troops occupying the country until the oil runs out -- fifty years, sixty at the outside. Do not under any circumstances clink glasses and yell "Cent'anni!" which means something completely different.

2. I wouldn't mention the fire on the USS Forrestal, or the fact that it started when a bomb fell off McCain's plane. He probably wasn't responsible. Don't believe everything you read on (under construction). The Navy was never able to prove anything. Just don't bring it up, OK?

3. And no sneaking up on him and shouting in Vietnamese. Tacky. He probably won't respond anyway, what with all the medications.

4. With so many pressing issues to discuss (flag lapel pins, Rev. Wright, the "death tax," gay marriage, the Iran menace, the impending switch to all-digital TV), it would be irresponsible to waste time raking up the past. Charles Keating? Who's he?

5. Whatever you do, don't stare at his hair or mention baldness drugs. Or weaves. Or those Joe Biden hair plugs. His wife used the word "thinning" and he called her a cunt. Anything but the hair. I'm begging you.

Chickens on the grass, alas

In the May 4 New York Times, Frank Rich wrote a column called "The All-White Elephant In the Room," a cogent discussion of the double standard which the mainstream media apply to political candidates and their embarrassing spiritual advisers. Citing some of the anti-Catholic and anti-gay antics of John Hagee, a supporter of John McCain, Rich observes, "Mr. Hagee's videos have never had the same circulation on television as [Jeremiah] Wright's. A sonorous white preacher spouting venom just doesn't have the telegenic zing of a theatrical black man. Perhaps that's why virtually no one has rebroadcast the highly relevant prototype for Mr. Wright's fiery claim that 9/11 was America's chickens "coming home to roost." That would be the September 13, 2001, televised exchange between Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who blamed the attacks on America's abortionists, feminists, gays and A.C.L.U. lawyers."

Well, not entirely. Recall Senator Obama's remarkable speech in Philadelphia, in which he observed that his former pastor came out of an earlier era. So do I, and I remember that phrase. In November 1963, shortly after the assassination of John Kennedy, Malcolm X observed, "Chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad." He was talking about centuries of violence against black Americans, then escalating in response to the civil rights movement (Medgar Evers had been murdered a few weeks earlier). White Americans not actively engaged in the violence tended to view it with indifference. Now violence had claimed the most powerful white man in the country, and Malcolm was nauseated at the outpouring of anger and grief. "Violence is as American as cherry pie," he also noted, and no sane person could disagree. Had cable news existed in 1963, Malcolm's roosting chickens would have been more ubiquitous than Ruby shooting Oswald. Black men's violence is more...violent than white men's, their racism more deplorable, this religious extremism more extreme. I don't know why, but that's how it is.

Rev. Wright's analysis of 9/11 as a response to American foreign policy is more reality-based than that of the two ghouls on The 700 Club, but in the realm of religion, irrationality is never far beneath the surface. Politicians cannot afford to fall under its spell, lest they create regimes as pious, delusional, and morally bankrupt as the present one. And that we cannot afford.