Monday, March 1, 2021

King of Comedy

King of Comedy – Mack Sennett

I like Hollywood autobiographies, ghostwritten or not, because the funny stories are easy to read. The stories might even be true, but I don’t care as long as they make me laugh. Sometimes, however, there are provocative nuggets such as this, slapstick king Sennett quoting James Cagney:

It’s the naïve people who become the true artists. First, they have to be naïve enough to believe in themselves. Then, a performer – especially an actor or an actress – must be naïve enough to keep on trying, using his talent, in spite of any kind of discouragement or double-cross. He doesn’t pay attention to setbacks. In his ingenuousness he doesn’t know a setback when it smites him. Money doesn’t concern him.

Cagney was a college man for a semester, but he probably got his vocabulary – ingenuous, setback, smite – from reading.

Anyway, movie buffs, historians of comedy, and Hollywood mavens would enjoy this book, first published in 1954. It’s coarse in places, rubbing our 2013 sensibilities a bit raw, but then so are the transcendent shorts of Roscoe Arbuckle. What would be really be interesting is an edited version of this book, telling us where Sennett is misremembering, misrepresenting, mischaracterizing, and getting it plain wrong, for whatever reason.

Sad the eyewitnesses are all gone.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Back to the Classics 2021 #4

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.

Classic Travel. Once again for this category I just let fate make the selection.

 A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms – Fa Hsien (circa A.D. 399-414)


A dedicated Buddhist monk and translator, Fa Hsien, travels afoot from China through India to Ceylon, then on to Sumatra and return to China by sea. His superiors were worried about Chinese Buddhism becoming too syncretic (mixed up with other systems of belief) so they dispatched him to the source in order to obtain copies of the Sacred Books of Buddhism to educate and enlighten his fellow monks in the appropriate doctrines.

Fa Hsien describes the rituals of the monks in monasteries. The detail is frugal yet evocative. Plus, it is always fascinating to read about the diversity of beliefs human beings have. Supernatural marvels come with the territory.

Entering the valley, and keeping along the mountains on the south-east, after ascending fifteen le, (the travellers) came to mount Gridhra-kuta. Three le before you reach the top, there is a cavern in the rocks, facing the south, in which Buddha sat in meditation. Thirty paces to the north-west there is another, where Ananda was sitting in meditation, when the deva Mara Pisuna, having assumed the form of a large vulture, took his place in front of the cavern, and frightened the disciple. Then Buddha, by his mysterious, supernatural power, made a cleft in the rock, introduced his hand, and stroked Ananda's shoulder, so that his fear immediately passed away. The footprints of the bird and the cleft for (Buddha's) hand are still there, and hence comes the name of "The Hill of the Vulture Cavern."

I think in certain kinds of Buddhism, rocks and trees might become enlightened. So why not the intelligent and genial elephants?

(Afterwards), the ground all about became overgrown with vegetation, and there was nobody to sprinkle and sweep (about the tope [stupa]); but a herd of elephants came regularly, which brought water with their trunks to water the ground, and various kinds of flowers and incense, which they presented at the tope. (Once) there came from one of the kingdoms a devotee to worship at the tope. When he encountered the elephants he was greatly alarmed, and screened himself among the trees; but when he saw them go through with the offerings in the most proper manner, the thought filled him with great sadness—that there should be no monastery here, (the inmates of which) might serve the tope, but the elephants have to do the watering and sweeping.

At only about 120 pages this narrative is quite short, perhaps not up to our expectations concerning one of the most impressive journeys ever undertaken and brought to a successful end in an era when many travellers were killed by natural disaster, hardships, disease, or brigands. 

I read the Legge translation, mainly because it has in the footnotes with traditional Chinese characters, which are cool beyond belief, even if the reader  is like me and only able to read about 10 percent of them. Legge’s explanation of Buddhist tenets assumes that we readers already know something about Buddhism.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Mystery with Jazz Music

Blues for the Prince – Bart Spicer

Published in 1950, this hardboiled mystery was the second of about a dozen novels starring Philadelphia PI Carney Wilde. Wilde investigates a murder among the members of a band that still plays hot jazz (aka Dixieland) in the face of up-and-coming bebop. Admittedly, this novel has little action or detecting, but its setting, scenes and characterization make this outstanding enough to be included on many “best mystery” lists.

Spicer was a journalist so that implies he valued a clear plot and understandable language. His style is neither simple like James Cain nor showily fluent like Raymond Chandler, but he strikes a balance between concise and ornate. His dialogue is authentically hard-boiled without being cheesy (Cain’s failing, on his bad days), and his similes and metaphors are not self-conscious or over the top (Chandler’s failing, at times). The character of Wilde doesn’t crack wise nor is he given to mordant urban folk wisdom. His portrait of the weary homicide detective is realistic and humane.

Interesting to readers who like music would be the asides about Early Jazz, the kind of music that Buddy Bolden, Kid Ory, and JoeOliver played. Obviously, in a book about jazz, race is an unavoidable topic. Spicer makes clear that among the musicians, it was not an issue compared to the pitiless artistic judgments of “plays good music” versus “plays lame music.”

At the time, the critic for the New York Herald Tribune Book Review said that Spicer does an “excellent job . . . showing the relationship between whites and Negroes both in the unbiased world of jazz and the more deeply biased outside world.”

Friday, February 19, 2021

Albert Campion's First

The Black Dudley Murder by Margery Allingham

Our series hero Albert Campion makes his debut in this 1929 whodunnit. 

A reader’s response depends on the reader’s patience with tried and true customs of the Golden Age of the Mystery. Yay or nay: it is melodramatic in places, Campion is silly-simple on a Bertie Wooster level, and the detecting part of things is slighted. 

Plus or minus: the setting is a gloomy country house, characters are paper-thin, a romantic angles arises, ceremonials use a ritualistic dagger. It’s all rather over the top, but if that floats your boat….

Buenos Aries Mystery

Engaged to Murder – M.V. Heberden, 1949

This mystery is set in Buenos Aries, Argentina and concerns PI Rick Vanner’s investigation into the murder of a French diplomat and then another murder to silence one who knew too much about said killing.

The setting is so well done that one wonders if Heberden in fact had deeper experience overseas than just as a tourist. Local color seems authentic with polite servants, goofy traffic, sharp business practices, and dodgy police. The native English speakers divide into two camps, the native-born to Argentina with roots in the UK and the expatriates such as dips and business executives.

Also interesting is the backdrop of WWII. The series hero Vanner worked for Naval Intelligence during the war and turned his skills to the private sector, helping multi-national companies fix their problems in the horror of abroad. The chief suspect worked with Vanner in the Navy. Other suspects carry literal and figurative scars from living in France during the Nazi occupation. Heberden serves up serious points about resistance and collaboration which are telling without being somber or distracting from the mystery plot.

I found plot, incident, and characterization all plausible. The reveal depended on the familiar device of gathering all suspects in a room. Heberden’s readable prose is clear and concise, never perfunctory. The M.V. stands for Mary Violet so readers looking for pre-Paretsky, pre-Muller female mystery writer should check her out.

Monday, February 15, 2021

The Ides of Perry Mason 21

The 15th of every month until I don't know when I will post a review of a Perry Mason mystery. For the hell of it.

Note. This is another tribute to the actresses of Perry Mason. Previous entries covered Patricia Barry and Lisa Gaye.

Anna Navarro & Arlene Martel

In The Case of the Lonely Heiress (1958), Anna Navarro played Delores Coterro, the female partner in a scam run by con man Charlie “Country Boy” Baker. With hateful cunning, they make a living on a con game that ruthlessly exploits lonely women. Delores and Charlie are cruel to each other too. They have raging fights involving thrown dishes and deadly weapons brandished in anger. Then, to make up, they get all sweaty and pinchy and slappy and rough and – well, you get the idea. Delores calls him “My Charlie” which gives us nice folks the same creeps we got when Ron called Nancy “Mommy.”

In terms of TV stereotyping, everybody complains - quite rightfully, too - about the campy badness of the “Latina Spitfire” image here. To my mind, the over-the-top type-casting is as guilty a pleasure as VIrginia Gregg doing her wrath of god shtick. I’d argue that no ethnic group was spared by Perry Mason scriptwriters: drunken brawling Aussies, conniving French women, cold Germans, loud Danes, louder Sicilians, and the loudest theatrical Russians ever.

Famous for her part as Spock’s intended T’Pring in Star Trek, Arlene Martel (Sax) was a dark-haired beauty that called to mind her classmate in acting school Suzanne Pleshette. With an Austrian-Jewish heritage (her parents escaped to the Bronx in the early 1930s), her looks got her roles that called for striking as in spies, witches, and barbarian princesses.  In The Case of the Absent Artist (1962) she played Fiona Cregan, a beat girl who lived, of course, in an artist’s colony. With short unadorned hair, she’s hip in her straight-leg dungarees and dark plain top and even more plausible – or beatnik stereotypical, if you like – is her detached manner and unhurried grace. Her cool Vulcan mode makes this Indian want to wear a Dizzy Gillespie beret and take her out for pizza to talk about Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Her landlady, played by a wonderful Zasu Pitts, expresses concern over the rustling sounds from another apartment. Fiona tonelessly deadpans, “Maybe it’s a bat flying around.” Her boyfriend, a painter, has disappeared with his masterpiece and she tonelessly deadpans, while holding a painter's knife, “I’ll find him and, when I do, I’ll slit open his gullet.” Indeed, her ominous vow underscores the problem with passionate people. When they love you, you won’t find anybody that’ll love you more. When they hate you, change your name and move to Patagonia.

In an unfortunate move, Arlene Martel went blonde for her second, and last, appearance on Perry Mason in The Case of the Dead Ringer (1966) where she was ‘the worst secretary ever’ in a small part. On the stand, she gets to act all teary and weepy, like any other Mason weak sister. The point of interest in this one is that Burr played a double role, fulfilling the stereotype of the sardonic Cockney. Hey, it was show #267 of 271, the writers were tapped out.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Back to the Classics 2021 #3

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.

 New-to-you classic by a favorite author. I’ve read all the Dickens and Trollope I’m going to read, I think; Cal’s mushiness, long-windedness and facetiousness exhaust my patience and the mediocrity of works like the The Belton Estate makes me wary and chary of Tony when he’s not at his best. Since 2017 I’ve been reading Thackeray: Barry Lyndon, Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Cairo, Vanity Fair. But I don’t I think I went seriously hardcore until 2019 when I read Pendennis and another non-fiction work The Book of Snobs. I mean, who reads those? In the worst of the pandemic I started Esmond, which Trollope called Thackeray‘s best novel, but bailed because in the late spring of 2020 I just wasn’t in the mood for 18th century comedy in the Fielding manner. With hundreds of deaths daily, I mean, who was? Someday Esmond and its sequel The Virginians. Someday. Meanwhile, this one, the sequel of sorts to Pendennis.

The Newcomes: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family - William Makepeace Thackeray

Legend has it that Edward Blake (1833 – 1912), an Irish MP and later premier of Ontario, read this 1855 novel once every year to keep his moral compass clean. Such was the popularity of The Newcomes in the early 20th century that the main character, Colonel Thomas Newcome, became proverbial. In his autobiography Theodore Rooselvelt said his uncle was a “veritable Colonel Newcome.”  In the middle of the 20th century, many English professors thought much of The Newcomes.

However, given the inscrutable process of the waxing or waning of a work’s reputation, it has fallen off our radars in our year 2021. Despite everything we’ve been going through in the last year or so, we hardcore readers remain an optimistic bunch. And optimistic readers are not much into a 900-page novel like this one that, even more than Vanity Fair and Pendennis, is shot through with melancholy profound even for Thackeray. He’s often funny and satirical, but not for the habitually hopeful and preternaturally confident, for example, is his depiction of the treadmill of dissatisfaction, thus:

I protest the great ills of life are nothing—the loss of your fortune is a mere flea-bite; the loss of your wife—how many men have supported it and married comfortably afterwards? It is not what you lose, but what you have daily to bear that is hard. I can fancy nothing more cruel, after a long easy life of bachelorhood, than to have to sit day after day with a dull, handsome woman opposite; to have to answer her speeches about the weather, housekeeping and what not; to smile appropriately when she is disposed to be lively (that laughing at the jokes is the hardest part), and to model your conversation so as to suit her intelligence, knowing that a word used out of its downright signification will not be understood by your fair breakfast-maker.

Got bleak? To me, a reader who figures the challenge of aging gracefully is to take life as it comes with a resigned but cheerful orientation, then, this nearly plot-free story of unhappy married couples and atrocious parents is worth reading.

If you’re strong enough.  

So that he can strike a nostalgic tone, Thackeray sets the story in the late 1830s. Colonel Newcome has returned to England after 30 years of soldiering in India. Naïve, trusting, and steeped in straightforward military values, he feels perplexed and put off by the social follies and vanities of the early Victorian era. It seems to him that reputation-seeking trumps honor, shrewdness eclipses simple-heartedness, and snobbery smothers family feeling. Thackeray, to my mind, was a truth-seeker and skeptic, especially about the mysteries of human behavior, but Colonel Tom, while the stuff of a sage role model deserving of imitation, is too good to be true even amidst his series of tribulations.  

But in case reverence for Old Colonel Tom is too great a challenge, Thackeray presents a host of secondary actors who are all too believable in their mixtures of folly, ignorance, prejudice, cowardice, heartlessness and ungenerosity. Rummun Loll is an Indian merchant masquerading as a rajah. Barnes Newcome is a cold-blooded seducer, hard-hearted banker and ill-natured husband. The clergyman, Charles Honeyman, is a humbug with a “wheedling tongue.” Aunt Newcome is Consummate Virtue and accordingly overbearing and clueless. Fool and brute Lord Farintosh can't act any better because he really is feeble-minded. But the worst is Mrs. Mackenzie, as odious and unforgettable a character as the monstrous Sophie Gordeloupe in Trollope’s The Claverings.

Thackeray’s goal here was similar to that in Vanity Fair and Pendennis - to examine middle- and upper-class society and its social customs. So The Newcomes give us readers the impression of essays or long journalism instead of a tightly-constructed novel with a distinct plot. The art history, anthropological, sociological and psychological subjects are immense and the commentary digressive so the novel, like Pendennis, seems loose. While the tangents are fun and instructive, with the best scenes having a wonderful theatricality, the reader, though mightily entertained throughout,  sometimes feels there’s a high probability of story, character, theme, subject, genre, parody getting all unstrung.

Undeniably, the narrative voice of Arthur Pendennis is awkward – is he player or observer? How does he know what he knows? Does he get the inside dope from his paragon of a wife, the lively and appealing Laura? The happy ending unfortunately calls to mind the happy denouement that Dickens was persuaded to finish Great Expectations.

This is naïve and solipsistic but I persevere with Thackeray because we believe virtue is its own reward, that contentment in a flourishing life comes not out of marrying for mercenary reasons, networking in society, looking out for #1, and doing plain old chicanery but of taking care of other people and knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. “O friend,” says Thackeray:

I have said, this book is all about the world and a respectable family dwelling in it. It is not a sermon, except where it cannot help itself, and the speaker pursuing the destiny of his narrative finds such a homily before him. O friend, in your life and mine, don't we light upon such sermons daily?—don't we see at home as well as amongst our neighbours that battle betwixt Evil and Good? Here on one side is Self and Ambition and Advancement; and Right and Love on the other. Which shall we let to triumph for ourselves—which for our children?

Simply examine life as you live with family, friends, and colleagues and you’ll discern plenty of lessons. But examine it mindfully, as Socrates urged, or life won’t be worth living.

Still with me? I’d recommend this novel to that one in ten million reader who is contemplating reading Vanity Fair again.