Movie Night: An American Tragedy

“Basically, amoral social climber from poor background seduces poor factory girl, gets her pregnant, wants to marry a rich socialite and so kills poor factory girl by smashing her in the head with his tennis racket and dumping her body in a lake, fakes a canoe accident, trips self up by being basically an idiot, dies in electric chair after mercy is refused by Governor Charles Evans Hughes.”

[Phillips Holmes in An American Tragedy, realizing he really does hate that grasping little factory girl and would be much happier drowning her.]

FourStars
FourStars

From 1931: «An American Tragedy» with Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney and Frances Dee. The first cinematic adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel of the same name, it was eventually remade as a more famous film in 1951 starring Montgomery Clift, Shirley Winters and Elizabeth Taylor: A Place in the Sun.

But this version has much to recommend it. Except the sound. The sound is like what Singin’ in the Rain was parodying. Sound in motion pictures wasn’t yet refined, so everything in the pic, especially background noise, is loud and excruciating. In the courtroom scene when the D.A. pounds his fist on the bannister in front of the accused, the resounding thuds shook the walls. Meanwhile, whole sections of dialogue were hard to pick up. Just a quibble.

The synopsis:

“A social climber charms a debutante, seduces a factory worker and commits murder.”

TMDb

It’s hard to find reviews for films of this age, but fortunately «Richard Cross of 20/20 Movie Reviews» came through, writing in 2013 and comparing the two film versions:

“An American Tragedy was remade in 1951 with Montgomery Clift in the role played here by Holmes but, while this version isn’t without its faults (which are due more to its age rather than any inherent flaws). it’s far superior to the Clift version, even though Griffith (or Eastman, as he was called in the later version), is a much more sympathetic character in the second movie. Holmes’s version is selfish and manipulative, and yet we never entirely lose some level of sympathy for him. Deep down he’s not a bad person, but he falls victim—like Roberta—to his own cowardice and weakness of character. These character flaws are gradually and painfully exposed during the trial, a lengthy sequence which was once one of the film’s strengths but which appears a little far-fetched and overacted today. The grandstanding acting style of Charles Middleton (Flash Gordon’s nemesis, Ming the Merciless) and Irving Pichel is a real drawback which isn’t helped by the way Samuel Hoffenstein’s screenplay call upon them to almost engage in fisticuffs. Overall though, An American Tragedy stands up well for its age.”

Richard Cross

Dreiser’s work, and therefore the two films, was based on the real life murder of «Grace Brown by Chester Gillette» in an upper New York lake on 11-Jul-1906. Basically, amoral social climber from poor background seduces poor factory girl, gets her pregnant, wants to marry a rich socialite and so kills poor factory girl by smashing her in the head with his tennis racket and dumping her body in a lake, fakes a canoe accident, trips self up by being basically an idiot, dies in electric chair after mercy is refused by Governor Charles Evans Hughes.

Both movie versions were faithful to the book and real life, as far as these things go. The real life event could stand the Erik Larson deep dive nonfiction treatment, to see how and where Dreiser departed from events. For the 1931 film, Holmes manages to make you want to both hug him and strangle him. Sadly, Holmes’ extensive career, including an appearance in the Our Gange feature General Spanky, came to an end thanks to World War II. He had just completed flight training in the Royal Canadian Air Force and was being transferred from Winnipeg to Ottawa, when the transport he was riding in collided in mid air with another aircraft over Ontario. He was only 35.

An American Tragedy Poster
[Including this poster from An American Tragedy because it’s too awesome and Art Deco for words. Now THAT’S a movie poster!]

Best quotes:

Well, there’s not any from the movie, really. These are from the book:

“Clyde had a soul that was not destined to grow up. He lacked decidedly that mental clarity and inner directing application that in so many permits them to sort out from the facts and avenues of life the particular thing or things that make for their direct advancement.” “

An American Tragedy (book)

“And they were always testifying as to how God or Christ or Divine Grace had rescued them from this or that predicament—never how they had rescued any one else.”

Ibid

“For in some blind, dualistic way both she and Asa insisted, as do all religionists, in disassociating God from harm and error and misery, while granting Him nevertheless supreme control. They would seek for something else—some malign, treacherous, deceiving power which, in the face of God’s omniscience and omnipotence, still beguiles and betrays—and find it eventually in the error and perverseness of the human heart, which God has made, yet which He does not control, because He does not want to control it.”

Ibid

FourStars
4 Stars! (Because sound. Ow.)

An American Tragedy. 1931. TCM. English. Josef von Sternberg, Hans Dreier (d). Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney, Frances Dee, Irving Pichel, Frederick Burton, Clair McDowell, Charles Middleton, Arnold Korff. (p). John Leipold, Ralph Rainger (m). Lee Garmes (c).


Movie Night: Desk Set

“Not only is it hilarious, it has fabulous midcentury (ugh, that word) interiors, jokes only librarian/book/research nerds understand, an awesome supporting cast including EMERAC and Kate gets to get blotto and talk about the “Mexican Avenue Bus” (the Lexington Avenue Bus, that is).”

["Curfew shall not ring tonight!" Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Desk Set. A RomCom about 30somethings played by 50somethings falling in love under the benevolent gaze of EMERAC.]

Four.75.Stars
4 ¾ Stars!

From 1957: «Desk Set», my personal favorite among the nine Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy films. Not only is it hilarious, it has fabulous midcentury (ugh, that word) interiors, jokes only librarian/book/research nerds understand, an awesome supporting cast including EMERAC and Kate gets to get blotto and talk about the “Mexican Avenue Bus” (the Lexington Avenue Bus, that is).

The synopsis:

“A computer expert tries to prove his electronic brain can replace a television network’s research staff.” TMDb

TMDb

I’m beginning to think The MovieDb folks need better synopsis writers.

Movie Metropolis‘ James Plath «wrote this review» in 2013:

“Desk Set catches them 15 years into their affair and 10 years before Tracy’s death. You can sense their level of comfort with each other—something that actually works against them in a romantic comedy in which opposites and antagonists are supposed to eventually attract. Tracy plays Mr. Sumner, an efficiency expert hired by the Federal Broadcasting Company to find departments in which his new-fangled computers (the size of a room, by the way) might save work-hours. Hepburn is Bunny Watson, who runs the research department rather than the always-absent boss (Gig Young) with whom she’s been having a seven-year relationship … waiting for a ring and running out of patience. … “The formula is pretty basic, but it’s the characters (and the actors) that make “Desk Set” fun to watch. It might also be one of the best films to document those legendary wild office parties from the ‘50s and ‘60s, with everyone imbibing so much Christmas cheer that they all start to get a bit of a Rudolph nose. “Desk Set” weaves machines vs. humans and gender-role themes into a pleasant battle-of-the-sexes film that feels more leisurely than most gender bender scripts that come out of Hollywood. This adapted screenplay, interestingly enough, comes from the pens of Henry and Phoebe Ephron, whose daughter, Nora, would receive Oscar nominations for her own work (“Silkwood,” When Harry Met Sally…,” “Sleepless in Seattle”). The script gives Tracy and Hepburn just enough to work with, and whatever charm that “Desk Set” has comes from the two stars and their interaction with each other and a decent supporting cast. Joan Blondell is particularly funny as Bunny’s sometimes abrasive co-worker, with Dina Merrill and Sue Randall also cutting up in the research department.”

James Plath, Movie Metropolis

Joan Blondell is fabulous as always and the film marks an appearance by Sue Randall, who would later play Beaver’s teacher on Leave It to Beaver. Neva Patterson is awesomely uptight and Dina Merrill is far too glamorous to be a research assistant, but it works. The would-be pairing of Gig Young and Katharine Hepburn is a bit far-fetched, and both Kate and Spencer seemed just a little long in the tooth for a RomCom, but those are quibbles. It works and works raucously well.

A short bit about a rainstorm and a guy from legal and his wife, kids and mother-in-law is hilarious and reminds you of I Love Lucy. But the best bit is a silent one by Ida Moore, an unnamed “Old Lady” who wanders in from time-to-time, checking out a book or enjoying the spiked punch at the office Christmas party. Supposedly, she was, way back in the day, the original model for the giant sculpture which is Federal’s logo, and she has had the run of the place ever since. Ida Moore does this with such aplomb and excellence that even Kate seems to be in her shade.


Best quotes:

Besides the “Mexican Avenue Bus,” there are many great lines/bits:

Bunny Watson: “Have some tequila, Peg.”

Peg Costello: “I don’t think I should. There are 85 calories in a glass of champagne.”

Bunny Watson: “I have a little place in my neighborhood where I can get it for 65.”

Desk Set

Richard Sumner: “Hello? Santa Claus’s reindeer? Uh, why yes I can… let’s see, there’s Dopey, Sneezy, Grouchy, Happy, Sleepy, uh Rudolph, and Blitzen! You’re welcome!”

Ibid

Bunny Watson: “Just for kicks. You don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to. I mean, don’t dwell on the question, but I warn you there’s a trick in it: If six Chinamen get off a train at Las Vegas, and two of them are found floating face down in a goldfish bowl, and the only thing they can find to identify them are two telephone numbers – one, Plaza Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh, and the other, Columbus Oh-1492 – what time did the train get to Palm Springs?”

Richard Sumner: “Nine o’clock.”

Bunny Watson: “Now, would you mind telling me how you happened to get that?”

Richard Sumner: “Well, there are eleven letters in Palm Springs. You take away two Chinamen, that leaves nine.”

Bunny Watson: “You’re a sketch, Mr. Sumner.”

Richard Sumner: “You’re not so bad yourself.”

Ibid

Bunny Watson: “I don’t smoke, I only drink champagne when I’m lucky enough to get it, my hair is naturally natural, I live alone… and so do you.”

Richard Sumner: “How do you know that?”

Bunny Watson: “Because you’re wearing one brown sock and one black sock.”

Ibid

And of course my personal favorite, Curfew Shall Not a-Ring Tonight!:

Richard Sumner: [Watching the computer result on “Corfu”, which is mistaken as “curfew”] What the devil is this?

Bunny Watson: [Also having a look] It’s the poem, “Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight.” Isn’t that nice? [reciting] “Cromwell will not come till sunset, and her lips grew strangely white… as she breathed the husky whisper, curfew must not a-ring tonight.”

Miss Warriner: [while Bunny goes on] Mr. Sumner, what can I do?

Richard Sumner: Nothing. You know you can’t interrupt her [the computer] in the middle of a sequence.

Miss Warriner: Yes, but, Mr. Sumner…

Richard Sumner: Quiet! Just listen.

Bunny Watson: “She had listened while the judges read, without a tear or sigh, at the ringing of the curfew, Basil Underwood must die.”

Richard Sumner: Uh, how long does this go on?

Bunny Watson: That old poem has about 80 stanzas to it.

Richard Sumner: Where are we now?

Bunny Watson: “She has reached the topmost ladder. O’er her hangs the great dark bell, awful is the gloom beneath her like the pathway down to hell. Lo, the ponderous tongue is swinging. ‘Tis the hour of curfew now, and the sight has chilled her bosom, stopped her breath and paled her brow.”

[telephone rings]

Bunny Watson: “Shall she let it ring? No, never! Flash her eyes with sudden light, as she springs and grasps it firmly…

[answers the phone]

Bunny Watson: …curfew shall not ring tonight!”

[audible click]

Bunny Watson: They hung up. And I know another one! “Out she swung, far out, the city seemed a speck of light…”

Ibid

Four.75.Stars
My rating: 4 3/4 stars for, ironically, casting.

Desk Set. 1957. TCM. English. Walter Lang (d); Phoebe Ephron, Henry Ephron, William Marchant (w) Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Gig Young, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, Sue Randall, Neva Patterson, Henry Ellerbe, Nicholas Joy, Diane Jergens, Merry Anders, Ida Moore, Rachel Stephens, Don Porter, Sammy Ogg (p). Cyril J. Mockridge (m). Leon Shamroy (c).


On Crime and Punishment This Fourth of July

“It’s well worth a challenging read-and-think on everyone’s part at this particular moment in the country and society.”

As the gigantic Fascist Cult of Nationalistic Personality Display takes over formerly democratic, non-partisan American space/time in Washington DC tomorrow, it’s worth looking back at some of the (quickly forgotten) roots of the democracy. « This one is about Marquis Cesare Beccaria radical ideas on crime and punishmen».

“‘On Crimes and Punishments‘ was the first attempt to apply principles of political economy to the practice of punishment so as to humanise and rationalise the use of coercion by the state. After all, arbitrary and cruel punishment was the most immediate instrument that the state had to terrorise the people into submission, so as to avoid rebellion against the hierarchical structure of the society. The problem that Beccaria faced, then, was the simple fact that the elite had complete control of the law, which was a family business and a highly esoteric language that only the initiated could master. The path leading to the rational reform of penal law required a fundamental philosophical rethinking of the role and place of law in society.”

Aeon

«The full treatise has been translated for English and is available here». It’s well worth a challenging read-and-think on everyone’s part at this particular moment in the country and society.

[Image: «Ben Jennings in the Guardian» He’s fabulous! So is the Guardian! Go read them (and donate if you can) now!]

Pocket Guide to France, or, Onward to Parisian Mademoiselles

“You are a member of the best dressed, best fed, best equipped liberating Army now on earth. You are going in among the people of a former Ally of your country. They are still your kind of people who happen to speak democracy in a different language.”

As they moved off the beaches after 6-Jun-44, U.S. service personnel read this. Here are some particularly important excerpts.

Pocket Guide to France
Prepared by Army Information Branch, Army Services Forces, Information and Education Division, United States Army
War and Navy Departments, Washington, D.C.
1944

“Why You’re Going to France
“You are about to play a personal part in pushing the Germans out of France. Whatever part you take—rifleman, hospital orderly, mechanic, pilot, clerk, gunner, truck driver—you will be an essential factor in a great effort which will have two results: first, France will be liberated from the Nazi mob and the Allied armies will be that much nearer Virtory, and second, the enemy will be deprived of coal, steel, manpower, machinery, food, bases, seacoast and a long list of other essentials which have enabled him to carry on the war at the expense of the French.
“The Allied offensive you are taking part in is based upon a hard-boiled fact. It’s this. We democracies aren’t just doing favors in fighting for each other when history gets tough. We’re all in the same boat. Take a look around you as you move into France and you’ll see what the Nazis to to a democracy when they can get it down by itself.”

“A Few Pages of French History
“Not only French ideas but French guns helped us to become a nation. Don’t forget that liberty loving Lafayette and his friends risked their lives and fortunes to come to the aid of General George Washington at a moment in our opening history when nearly all the world was against us. In the War for Independence which our ragged army was fighting, every man and each bullet counted. Frenchmen gave us their arms and their blood when they counted most. Some 45,000 Frenchmen crossed the Atlantic to help us. They came in cramped little ships of two or three hundred tons requiring two months or more for the crossing. We had no military engineers; French engineers designed and built our fortifications. We had little money; the French lent us over six million dollars and gave us over three million more.
“In the same fighting spirit we acted as France’s alliy in 1917 and 1918 when our A.E.F. went into action. In that war, France, which is about a fourteenth of our size, lost nearly eighteen times more men than we did, fought twice as long and had an eighth of her country devastated.”

“In Parting
“We are friends of the French and they are friends of ours.
“The Germans are our enemies and we are theirs.
“Some of the secret agents who have been spying on the French will no doubt remain to spy on you. Keep a close mouth. No bragging about anything.
‘No belittling either. Be generous; it won’t hurt.
“Eat what is given you in your own unit. Don’t go foraging among the French. They can’t afford it.
‘Boil all drinking water unless it has been approved by a Medical Officer.
‘You are a member of the best dressed, best fed, best equipped liberating Army now on earth. You are going in among the people of a former Ally of your country. They are still your kind of people who happen to speak democracy in a different language. Americans among Frenchmen, let us remember our likenesses, not our differences. The Nazi slogan for destroying us both was “Divide and Conquer.” Our American answer is “In Union There Is Strength.””

Pocket Guide to France, US Army

“No bragging or belittling.” “Remember our likenesses, not our differences.” “In Union There is Strength.”

How refreshing.

Corporate Power

“Many states whose sovereignty is threatened are now finally waking up to the danger. But is it perhaps already too late to do anything about the seemingly over-mighty corporations?”

Is corporate power absolute yet? Or just overwhelming? Maybe … it’s just … mestastizing? There’s a fascinating documentary over at Deutsche Welle:

“The Wallonia region in Belgium triggered a Europe-wide crisis in the fall of 2016 by refusing to sign the CETA free trade agreement with Canada, as millions of EU citizens took to the streets to protest against the agreement. The CETA negotiations had turned the spotlight on the system of private arbitration courts. … Many states whose sovereignty is threatened are now finally waking up to the danger. But is it perhaps already too late to do anything about the seemingly over-mighty corporations?”

Deutsche Welle

Where Are the Bodies? We Have an App for That.

“The information presented is stark and perhaps unsettling.”

Find the human (not migrants, not immigrants, not aliens, certainly not illegals. Just human. Human.) bodies. There are plenty to look for all over the Arizona Open GIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants map:

“Since January of 2001, over 3,000 undocumented migrants have died within the Pima County OME jurisdiction. The information presented is stark and perhaps unsettling. However, both Humane Borders and the Pima County OME believe that the availability of this information will contribute to fulfilling our common vision.”

AOGISIDM

No Slope, No False Equivalency. Just the Same. Damn. Thing.

Immoral, indecent, inhumane. … We are running concentration camps and human beings are dying.

Immoral, indecent, inhumane. There is no slippery slope; this country is on a well-trodden path dating back at least to 1492. There is also no false equivalency. We are running concentration camps and human beings are dying. [Full Stop]

Details are in the OIG report to DHS. Full report is here.

The Wages of Sin, America, is …

“It is impossible to engage in intellectual discourse with National Socialist Philosophy. For if there were such an entity, one would have to try by means of analysis and discussion either to prove its validity or to combat it. …”

And then Primo Levi pegged the inevitable results of such greed, hypocrisy, selfishness … and our addiction to those three destructive forces:

“Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea.”

Primo Levi

And the college students of the White Rose in Munich, 1942, in a pamphlet that would lead to their executions, also outlined how it’s impossible to have rational, intellectual discourse with those who have devoted themselves to irrational, anti-intellectual rot:

“It is impossible to engage in intellectual discourse with National Socialist Philosophy. For if there were such an entity, one would have to try by means of analysis and discussion either to prove its validity or to combat it. In actuality we face a [different] situation. At its very inception this movement depended on the deception and betrayal of one’s fellow man.”

The White Rose Society, 1942

No. You cannot argue with Fascists or Nazis or ignorant nationalists. Rational arguments won’t win over irrational people.

Random American Notes

“An American gentleman . . . likewise stuck his hands deep into his pockets, and walked the deck with his nostrils dilated, as already inhaling the air of Freedom which carries death to all tyrants, and can never (under any circumstances worth mentioning) be breathed by slaves.”

Another in a series of random notes of things I want to remember:

Charles Dickens had this country pegged from the beginning—our addictions (tobacco and greed, hypocrisy and selfishness):

“Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars.

“Schools may be erected, East, West, North, and South; pupils be taught, and masters reared, by scores upon scores of thousands; colleges may thrive, churches may be crammed, temperance may be diffused, and advancing knowledge in all other forms walk through the land with giant strides: but while the newspaper press of America is in, or near, its present abject state, high moral improvement in that country is hopeless.

“As Washington may be called the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva, the time is come when I must confess, without any disguise, that the prevalence of those two odious practices of chewing and expectorating began about this time to be anything but agreeable, and soon became most offensive and sickening. In all the public places of America, this filthy custom is recognised. In the courts of law, the judge has his spittoon, the crier his, the witness his, and the prisoner his; while the jurymen and spectators are provided for, as so many men who in the course of nature must desire to spit incessantly.

“An American gentleman . . . likewise stuck his hands deep into his pockets, and walked the deck with his nostrils dilated, as already inhaling the air of Freedom which carries death to all tyrants, and can never (under any circumstances worth mentioning) be breathed by slaves.

“Here’s the rule for bargains. ‘Do other men, for they would do you.’ That’s the true business precept.”

Charles Dickens, American Notes

Finally Entering the Public Domain

We’re finally getting some « spectacular stuff » released into the public domain on New Year’s Day (screw you Disney!).

We’re finally getting some « spectacular stuff » released into the public domain on New Year’s Day (screw you Disney!).