Saturday, August 08, 2009

Budd Schulberg, 1914-2009

Movies are a visual medium, we repeat in unison, yet when old-movie buffs get together to discuss the objects of their affection what they do, as often as not, is quote dialogue. When the Siren sees a recent movie, what she often misses is the verve and crackle of glorious midcentury American speech.

When it came to using that speech for film, Budd Schulberg, who died this week age 95, was one of the best. In On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd, his characters speak in a way that is always recognizably and believably American, yet what power of observation and expression he gives them.

Their dialogue is heavily peppered with slang, they describe themselves as bums or indeed, they really are bums. But even the most hateful or least educated characters in a Schulberg screenplay have an uncommon ability to speak their minds. From On the Waterfront we remember tender, heroic Terry Malloy and Father Barry, but Lee J. Cobb as Johnny Friendly, as unregenerate a villain as 1950s cinema gave us, has his reasons:

When I was sixteen, I had to beg for work in the hold. I didn't work my way up out of there for nuthin'. You know, takin' over this local took a little doin'. There's some pretty rough fellas in the way. They gave me this [he displays an ugly scar on his neck] to remember them by. I got two thousand dues-payin' members in this local. That's $72,000 a year legitimate and when each one of 'em puts in a couple of bucks a day just to make sure they work steady--well, you figure it out. And that's just for openers. We got the fattest piers in the fattest harbor in the world. Everything moves in and out. We take our cut. You don't suppose I can afford to be boxed out of a deal like this, do ya? A deal I sweated and bled for, on account of one lousy little cheese-eater, that Doyle bum, who thinks he can go squealin' to the Crime Commission? Do ya? [pause] Well, DO YA?

Here's Walter Matthau, with Patricia Neal the conscience of in A Face in the Crowd, describing the role of writers in television, a subject that often brings out the bitter best in a screenwriter: "Here you see the lepers of the great television industry. Men without faces. Why, they even slide our paychecks under the door so they can pretend we're not here." But here also is Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhoades, rotten to the marrow, but bearing a poison-tipped truth:

Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers, everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don't know it yet, but they're all gonna be Fighters for Fuller. They're mine! I own 'em! They think like I do. Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I'm gonna be the power behind the president--and you'll be the power behind me!

"Write what you know," goes the advice to writers. Where does that leave us with Schulberg? His life as the son of Paramount head B.P. Schulberg was covered in gold-leaf. At the height of the Depression his father was earning about $11,000 a week. Certainly Schulberg used what he knew for What Makes Sammy Run?, the little bottle of cyanide he uncorked for his Hollywood paisanos. Long before Robert Altman gave us the jaw-dropping story meeting in The Player, here was Sammy Glick, yelling, "Wait a minute! I got an angle!" And boy did he.

All you gotta do to that story is give it the switcheroo. Instead of the minister you got a young dame missionary, see, Dorothy Lamour. Her old man kicked off with tropical fever and she's carrying on the good work. You know, a Nice Girl. Then instead of Sadie Thompson you got a louse racketeer who comes to the Island to hide out. Dorothy Lamour and George Raft in Monsoon! Does that sound terrific? So, Dotty goes out to save George's soul and he starts feeding her the old oil. Of course, all he's out for is a good lay, but before long he finds himself watching the sun rise without even thinking of making a pass at her. The soul crap is beginning to get to him, see? He tells her she's the first dame he ever met he didnt' think about that way. Now give me a second to dope this out...

As this splendid little glossary of "Glickisms" shows, Schulberg was a human Babelfish when it came to Hollywood double-talk.

For Waterfront, Schulberg spent three years doing research alongside a priest who ministered to the workers, as this lovely tribute from writer and professor James T. Fisher describes. (Hat tip: Glenn Kenny.) But did Schulberg load and unload ships day after backbreaking day, with that as his sole means of survival? Had he ever strummed a guitar and plotted his way out of poverty and the drunk tank? Only in imagination. That, and Schulberg knew how to listen, as Fisher notes: "Budd was an amazingly gifted listener; perhaps the result of a lifelong if highly manageable speech impediment, but more likely because listening was simply his supreme gift."

And if you are going to have one supreme gift as a writer, that's the one to have. RIP, Mr. Schulberg.


Spare some good thoughts for the Siren today. She is leaving for Paris for two weeks, with three kids in tow. Posting will continue at her usual snail's pace.


DavidEhrenstein said...

While On the Waterfront is canonical, A Face in the Crowd is The One. In light of today's news it's practically a documentary.

Schulberg sparred with Nick Ray over Wind Across the Everglades but accordign to Gypsy Rose Lee they were both drunk, and the whole thing fell apart during production. She foudn their lack of professionalism appalling.

Yojimboen said...

I remember at the WGA 1988 strike meetings, an odd tradition seemed to emerge unplanned (during the nearly five months of the stoppage, there were many – largely fruitless – ‘update’ meetings of membership and negotiators): an open mike was set up and members took turns at it, expressing opinions and frustrations.
And Budd Schulberg always spoke last.

His words were always encouraging, never harsh or condescending (though there was often cause to be), mature and civilized.

It was strange to observe, sometimes as many as ten or twelve members waited at the mike, but when Budd got up and took his place at the end of the line, that was it; no one ever got up to wait behind him. As with any organization there were many levels of intelligence at those gatherings, but somehow everyone in the room was smart enough to know you don’t try to follow Budd Schulberg.

Vanwall said...

I found some of his dialog to be a bit farcical and un-human in cadences at times, but his best work was for the bitter and the downtrodden, and the evil and manipulative - the former I believe from acute observation, the latter certainly from experience, a sad commentary. He had a nice time either inventing a second language, like Le Carré and espionage protocols, or just passing on what he heard over martinis and whiskey, neat - people really do have their class and social slang and relish the insider-ness of it, and if he added to our love of the sneaking peak at it, or the imitation thereof, I'm glad he wrote it so well, and thanks, very much. His lingo was, IMHO, second only to the other initials wordsmith, W.R. Burnett, who shared an interest in criminal elements of the English langwidge.

Schulberg's another H'wood conundrum for me, tho - one must separate his fictions from his facts, much like a Menjou or Coburn or Bennett, and hope his intentions were well-meant overall, and not predatory in the natural manner of the territorial imperative in eliminating rivals. Fingers crossed, here.

Bon Voyage, La Sirene, and have a meal at La Taverne du Sergeant Recruteur, a more pleasant eve could not be had.

Yojimboen said...

You raise the interesting point, M VW, that Schulberg didn’t – at least to my knowledge - suffer the public opprobrium that others did. One wonders if his excuse for naming names (that these people didn’t support him when he tried to leave the Party and were therefore not “his friends”), though a touch acerbic, was perhaps more plausible and reasonable than the poisonous jingoism of Menjou, Taylor, Cooper, Coburn; and even the self-service of Kazan and Dmytryk.

At the WGA meetings I describe above, another constant presence was Ring Lardner Jr. He never spoke, but paid close attention when others (including Schulberg) did. The biggest reaction I ever observed was a slight sagging of the shoulders or a drooping of the head at some outlandish betise. But barring some miraculous rehabilitation of Joseph McCarthy, history seems to be carved in granite that to people like Ring Lardner, and Lillian Hellman, and even that tortured soul, Sterling Hayden (but not to Budd Schulberg), will forever belong any claim to the moral high-ground.

Frank Conniff said...

Thanks for the lovely tribute to a terrific writer, Siren (and to the idea of the importance of good movie dialogue writing in general). Schulberg wrote one timeless movie that never gets old, "On The Waterfront," and another that gets more relevant with each passing year, "A Face In The Crowd.' Plus, two enduring works of fiction, "What Makes Sammy Run," and "The Disenchanted." How many writers even come close to such a legacy?

X. Trapnel said...

Y, rest assured that Clio, muse of history and a most instructive and benign goddess will never vindicate McCarthy, but she knows as well that Lillian Hellman's so-called conscience was always cut to the double breast-pocketed Stalinist pattern. She was a always a denizen of the moral mudflats.

Buttermilk Sky said...

So, if Sarah Palin were a little more self-aware and a lot more articulate, she'd be Lonesome Rhoades. That is scary.

Paris. I am envious.

X. Trapnel said...

George Bush WAS L. Rhodes for a while, up to and including the self-serving cynicism, cf. the relentless insistence that he was a regular guy who "we" wanted to have a beer with. The interesting thing is that Bush and Palin are mush mouthed and incoherent, lacking Rhodes' roaring eloquence (A Face in the Crowd has got to be the highest decible movie that does not actually contain explosions).

Vanwall said...

Schulberg was self-effacingly convincing enough to be tacitly forgiven by a lot of folks, including myself, and his body of work, interpret however ye may, was well-crafted enough to be cozening in the progressive direction - the victors write their own versions of accepted history anyway.

The dichotomy of Hollywood has never been better illustrated than by Budd and B.P., avowed liberals looking into the abyss and drinking in the returned gaze avidly on certain levels, as long as it's convenient, then of course, the definition of evil is subtly, or not so, redefined in a situational way. Sure, throw away a Clara here and there, the Studio has its priorities regarding the real director/editor - Cold Hard Cash; tough choices for loyalties and friendships are mutable if ya really think about it, and so what if it stinks sometimes? Cast stones only if pure, BTW.

Andy Griffith was an amazing Face in the Crowd, braying loud, yes indeed, M. X, and gleefully wicked, and grinning with more teeth than an ocean full of Great Whites - hell, even his eyes were grinning, too, just looking at the suckers and main-chancers he was gonna fleece. Jeezus, was there ever a better example of pure Murican bullshit parlayed into political evil? Not yet - and now that Schulberg and his like are gone, prolly never will be, W and Palin being rather poor attempts, regardless of how high they climbed.

This was a career high for Griffith, sadly, the brilliant performance folded and put away, while he sadly helped lay the foundations of hick-think as he roamed the vast wasteland, which bedevils us to this day. I saw flashes of Lonesome in the late Adrienne Shelly's "Waitress", where he had a bit of a nasty edge, and the Lonesome Rhodes-flavored grin popped out here there.

BTW, the secret code word is "fucts", take that how you please.

Yojimboen said...

Stalinist, Schmalinist, she was kind to animals, and to the thin man who begat the Thin Man.

I meant, X, that my hat is ever off to Lily (and Dash) and to Ring et al, if only for the style(s) with which they told HUAC to go fuck itself.

X. Trapnel said...

I wonder if anyone has ever pointed out the parallels between A Face in the Crowd and Network (Paddy Chayevsky's style is not unlike Schulberg's) if only to show the way media manipulation and demagoguery transform themselves as the society changes. An interesting point in Network is that William Holden's character is fully implicated in the seeping corruption of tv culture, that is, not allowed to be the rueful raisonneur kibbitzing from the sidelines like Walter Matthau. A Face in the Crowd is a terrific picture, but I think Network let's no one off the hook.

Noel Vera said...

I like Network, and that's a good point, but there's nothing in Network quite like Lonesome.

Karen said...

I think there has to be a balance between writing what you know and the power of imagination.

I remember reading (watching? can't remember!) an interview with Lillian Gish years ago, in which she was being asked about her approach to acting. Midway through, she was asked about Method actors, and their insistence on drawing on lived experience in order to ask. Innocently she replied, "Well, then, how on earth could they ever play a death scene?"

Again, I remember when Harold Bloom wrote The Book of J back in 1990, positing that the J-version of the Hebrew Bible must have been written by a woman because of the strongly-delineated female characters in it. Critics raked him over the coals, often bringing up Flaubert's Madame Bovary as an example of a man capable of depicting a believable and richly-imagined female character.

And of course there's the people who question how the poorly-educated Shakespeare wrote, well, anything at all.

I guess I'm just a strong believer in the power of imagination and the impulse of genius.

Now, I'm not saying that I think a corrupt union boss would ever be as eloquent as Lee J Cobb, or that a backwoods con-man would be able to convey his goals like Dusty Rhodes. Schulberg created a kind of hyperreal version of real Americans and real American speech. And that's nothing to sneeze at.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

"When the Siren sees a recent movie, what she often misses is the verve and crackle of glorious midcentury American speech."

Indeed. We may debate about quick cut editing and special effects, but this is the biggest change in film over the decades. It had to change, this was inevitable, but we've lost something special, something artistic.

Have a great trip.

Edward Copeland said...

Well said. When I heard the news, I really wanted to write something, but my energy was sapped that day and I just knew I wouldn't have been able to do him justice. I'm glad you were since everyone else seems preoccupied with saluting John Hughes.

Arthur S. said...

Schulberg is interesting because he was a screenwriter who became respected in his profession as an independent rather than working under producers. In that sense he's a predecessor to William Goldman and Charlie Kauffmann and all the big star screenwriters.

He wrote a piece for The Guardian a while back on his days working with Kazan and he mentioned that what attracted the two minds was their interest in research. That is going out and physically meeting people in real life and witnessing their experience first hand. For On The Waterfront he befriended the real life crusader priest and befriended many of the longshoreman. For A FACE IN THE CROWD, he and Kazan talked to up and coming politicos and Madison Avenue Media companies and were shocked to find that a TV studio existed in the Congress to prepare and fabricate the politician's PR image. That puts him heads and shoulders above today's screenwriting 101 fools. It also gives those films a journalistic quality.

His dialogue is interesting to me because it is very gritty and very practical but it can get preachy. Especially with regards to Walter Mathau in AFITC who comes across as a puritan more than as a voice of morality. His final speech to Lonesome Rhodes is really supercilious and condescending.

As for where he is in the grand screenwriter's pantheon of Dudley Nichols, Frank Nugent, Samson Raphaelson, Ernest Lehman, Emeric Pressburger, Philip Yordan, Jean Gruault...I'd say he'd sit pretty for the two Kazan films, THE HARDER THEY FALL and of course for the huge influence these films had over the years.

Arthur S. said...

Personally I think NETWORK buys into the same demagoguery that propels Rhodes into stardom.

The scary part of A FACE IN THE CROWD as Truffaut pointed out is that Rhodes's rise is corrupted by Patricia Neal herself when she dubs him "Lonesome". Truffat said that "The girl is honest and sensitive; nevertheless all the fraudulence of the journalistic world is expressed in that little trick : His name is Lonesome." Truffaut said that this made it impossible forus to wholly condemn Andy Griffith because she is the one who started the fall of the bum(and then herself kills him off metaphorically speaking). The film is interesting for the relationship between the two characters, it's really disturbing.

Kazan said in an interview that he felt all demagogues like Huey Long or Goldwater deep down genuinely believed in the populism they preached but through a combination of structured populism and media machinery, they eventually became mutants and take lives of their own. Of course that is a film of the Pre-Vietnam age.

THE KING OF COMEDY is the real successor of AFITC, where demagoguery takes on a more dangerous scary form. Rupert Pupkin is the true ancestor of George Bush II. Only Rupert is much nicer.

Rhodes is interesting because he's a genuine populist/entertainer at heart and for him the politicians and the media and the girls are distractions. He'd actually have been better off he stayed with the radio but his fame destroys him.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Latest FaBlog: Beck and Call

Exiled in NJ said...

Lonesome was probably the only Rhodes who wasn't "Dusty",0,5154499.story

Odd that about the time that screenplay was being conceived, good ole boy Dusty should come along.

X. Trapnel said...

Exactly right, Karen. A male writer who couldn't imagine and find words for anything as elementally human as a woman's point of view would hardly be equipped to describe anything. As for "writing about what you know," too many people forget that it's verbal power invention, and exuberance--as in Shakespeare, so in Schulberg--that makes a piece
of writing moving and memorable. Verisimilitude, "just the facts," never made for art. Shakespeare wrote of "the coast of Bohemia."

As for the sensitive inarticulacy of method acting, we remember Brando best when he had good lines to speak by Schulberg and T. Williams.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

As long as we're talking about Schulberg ... is there anything to be said for the Schulberg-written "Harder They Fall"? I've never seen it, myself. I'm not noticing a lot of mention of it, though, in the obits ...
[Pause to check IMDb for verification.]
Okay, I now see that it was Philip Yordan adapting Budd Schulberg. But I'm still curious if there's much of Schulberg to the film. The fact that it has Jan Sterling has to speak in its favor, in any case.

Yojimboen said...

Browsing distant reaches of my bookshelves, I tripped over this:

What Makes Sammy Run? remains the definitive novel about Hollywood and some of its characters. It was done as a two-hour two-parter, shot on tape and shown on consecutive Sunday nights in 1959 on NBC. This dramatization was by the author, Budd Schulberg, and his brother, Stuart. I produced and directed for the Sunday Showcase series for which Robert Alan Aurther served as executive producer. Larry Blyden gave what may have been his best performance as Sammy Glick, heel par excellence. Doing the show on tape, I tried very hard to maintain as much of feel of live as possible. We achieved it to a modest degree…”

“Delbert Mann - Looking Back

Obvious questions:
a)Anyone heard of this version?
(I hadn't, but I'm a foreigner.)
b)Anyone seen it?
c)Anyone know if it still exists?

(Chère Madame: bon vacances avec les parents!)

Yojimboen said...

Ignore the previous questions. The 1959 NBC version of What Makes Sammy Run? is available at Amazon. I’ve already ordered a copy.

Karen said...

Gosh, Siren, I'm a heel for not wishing you and the Sirenettes a bon voyage! Have a wonderful trip, and grab a crepe avec jambon et fromage from one of those trucks, in my honor.

Vanwall said...

Karen, surely crêpes suzette is in order, with Grand Marnier, of course - the best thing ever as a lad.

X. Trapnel said...

And don't leave out les soirs au balcon et les voiles de vapeurs roses. They go perfectly with the crepes and the Grand Marnier.

bon voyage, Sirene, and spare a thought for those of us in the U.S. of Murka

Vanwall said...

M. X - Isn't this a family trip?

X. Trapnel said...

True, V, but this is Baudelaire town, the best place in the world to go native.

Vanwall said...

Well, they could always play Debussy at dinner, and kill two birds with one stone, I s'pose.

X. Trapnel said...

V, you are clearly a man of exquisite sensibility. Debussy for certain, but let me also add the music D's friend and mentor Ernest Chausson. His Symphony in B and Soir de fete are the aural equivalents of Pissarro's Paris, shimmering dawn over the Seine, crystalline lamps flickering in the Bois de B. on an autumn evening, a sweet, cool shower bringing the aroma of meadows and seashore to the streaming boulevards. Why am I in New Jersey?

Vanwall said...

I'll remember that, and have some music with me next time I'm eating a saucisson with an epi and some boursin for lunch on top of the Arc de Triomphe - make sure you try that some time when you escape from New Joisey. I always liked the fact you have to go down to get up there.

Karen said...

Yes, Vanwall, crepes Suzette with Grand Marnier would be preferable, but I confess I don't have them in Paris as often as I have a crepe avec jambon et fromage from one of those trucks, so they have the quality of familiarity and....terroir to me. When I think of meals in Paris, since I tend to travel on a budget, I think less Tour d'Argent and more crepe trucks and salads with mache. So that's what I feel nostalgic for.

Our hostess is welcome to have crepes Suzette for herself, but the truck crepe is for me!

Vanwall said...

Karen -
I love those little trucks, too, and believe me, my trips involve lots of walking and le Metro - I think Paris, and most of France, is best seen on shank's mare.

Karen said...

Heh. I love how commenting grinds to a halt whenever our hostess leaves us unsupervised....

Yojimboen said...

Yeah... So how 'bout them Mets?

Vanwall said...

"I still say 16 inch guns aren't the answer to naval supremacy." Does a forward flip.

Karen said...

Read any good books lately...?

Hey, to our UK friends, I have a question: are the Doctor films really supposed to be funny? Are they beloved? Guilty pleasures like the Carry On... franchise?

I ask because I had the opportunity to watch Doctor in the House and a couple of its sequels yesterday. I turned off Doctor in the House midway through out of sheer boredom and deleted the other two from my DVR unwatched. They weren't even vulgar--they just weren't particularly funny. They were...predictable. Is it me? Have I see so many medical comedies that the material isn't fresh anymore?

X. Trapnel said...

V, I agree and what's more we should never have eliminated the rank of commodore (shies a cumcumber at a passing autogyro)

Gareth said...

Irish rather than UK, but I would say that the Doctor films are supposed to be amusing, yes, but in a far more character-based, observational way than, say, the Carry On... films.

That said, when I was growing up (1970s/1980s) the Carry On... films were a far more ubiquitous screen presence and I only discovered the Doctor films, of which my father was a big fan, much later.

To me what's striking about the films is the way that the portrait of hospital life still rings true for anyone familiar with the UK system of medicine: scenes where students work under the eye of a pompous upper-class surgeon have recognizable counterparts in documentaries about the NHS, and it's extraordinary to me how similar the hospital/learning experiences are to the factual Doctors To Be series that the BBC broadcast in 1992 (I think), with occasional updates since.

These sequences are - to me at least - so distinctively British (something I didn't appreciate until I lived in England) that they may not resonate as well with viewers who've experienced a different medical system.

Yojimboen said...

May I field this one, Karen? I’ll open tritely with “You kinda had to be there.” Ralph Thomas and Betty Box’s Doctor films grew out of an immensely popular series of books by Richard Gordon; so there was a huge built-in potential audience – always a plus for producers. Mainly they were aimed – by the bible-thumping J. Arthur Rank - at emulating the success of the Ealing comedies; and more exactly the almost-Ealing comedy (that somehow finished up at Pinewood), Genevieve - the most successful British comedy to date.

Current hotties (to UK shop girls) like Dirk Bogarde, Kenneth More, Donald Sinden and Donald Houston were all vastly over-aged to play medical students. Bogarde was 33; More, almost 40, but no one seemed to care. (Incidentally, the best of the series IMO Doctor at Sea which introduced Brigitte Bardot to the English-speaking world wasn’t, sadly, part of the TCM Bogarde-fest)

Mood was the key. They were light-hearted, irreverent (by Rank’s standards), and in Technicolor – a welcome relief from black & white wartime austerity efforts like In Which We Serve; This Happy Breed; Brief Encounter et al; noble and inspiring all, but Jesus H. Dulles were they depressing!

The Doctor series slaked the long-suffered thirst of the British cinemagoer: viz, these were home-grown British films(!); they were breezy, upbeat and filled to the gunwales with penny-dreadful puns, gay (the old definition) student-rags and pomposity-puncturing japes: the basis for pretty-much all British humour being anti-authoritarianism, as in your basic Punch magazine “collapse of stout party” philosophy.

Though they don’t work now, they did then. For a society recovering from the big double-ewe double-ewe (only 8 years before and sweets were still rationed) they were fresh oxygen.

Re the Carry On series, the phenomenology is as much a mystery to some Brits as it is to the rest of the world. As with Benny Hill, your guess would be as good as mine.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Daddy Nostalgie wasn't on either. And worst of all, neither was Provience or Modesty Blaise!

X. Trapnel said...

Mr. Y, could we now draw upon your native knowledge for an explanation of George Formby? (And why the term "gormless" is inevitably deployed regarding same. Is it ever applied to anyone else? Is it an ancient Northumbrian term denoting virtuosity on the ukelele?)

Vanwall said...

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

The NYT online regarding M. Schulberg - Julie London's "Perfidia" plays in the background.....

But wait, there's more, said Billy Mays: Schulberg is seeming deliberately obtuse regarding The Righteous Dockworker Exposé, and What's it All About, Budd-y? - a larmoyant arrangement of that Bacharach & David tune sounds meekly in the back ground.....

"It goes on! It goes on, Judah!"

Yojimboen said...

“Gormless”: from middle-to-old German ‘gaum’ = knowledge.
The ‘r’ crept in by usage; ‘gaum-less’ became ‘gormless’.
Colloquialism mostly popular in North of England and Scotland, where it is still commonly used to indicate naive stupidity.
Closest modern American equivalent would be ‘clueless’.

A 2nd generation Music Hall star (George Formby Sr. was as successful in his day), George Formby Jr.was gormless like a fox.

Britain’s top entertainer for decades (he shared that pinnacle with another Lancashire native, Gracie Fields); he was vastly successful playing the ‘gormless’ working-class “Lancashire Lad”. His impossibly nasal, whiney voice was perfect for the silly, sometimes racy ditties he sang ‘on the boards’ and then ‘in the flickers’.
His most famous song, “Leaning on a Lamppost” is here.

He made scores of films, or more correctly made the same film scores of times, with the basic story of the little man beating the odds and getting the girl (via a song or three) in the end.

Not remotely handsome – his buckteeth only served to make him even more horse-faced - but he was beloved by all classes. And what was really special about him, sort of in same the way that W.C Fields was incidentally the world’s best juggler, so Formby was probably the world’s greatest banjo/ukulele player, with a unique broken-strum technique of his own invention, which many tried – and failed – to duplicate. Check this out.

Formby had his imitators in the Brit world of ‘gormless’ comedians, Norman Wisdom the most notable example; but he was pale by comparison.

Formby died in 1961. At his Liverpool funeral, 100,000 people followed his coffin.

Karen said...

Many MANY thanks to Gareth (love that name) and Yojimboen for the Doctor disquisition. It all makes sense to me now! I may even watch it all the way through next time, given this new info on context.

I confess I'm rather fond of the Carry On films that I've seen (Up the Khyber and Camping) as they embody that cheeky music-hall humor I have a sneaking fondness for. Ah, guilty pleasures!

And speaking of music halls, there's some wonderful background on George Formby in Bryan Talbot's brilliant, mold-breaking graphic novel Alice in Sunderland. I don't have any images of the Formby matter, but if you want a sense of how Sunderland works, and you don't mind my tooting my own horn, you're welcome to read my recent column about it;

Why is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

(If you click on the thumbnails, they take you to an image of the full pages.)

Yojimboen said...

Dear me, Karen, what a terrible story! No, not your review (I am happily familiar with Dr. Talbot’s work – I have a sister in Sunderland), I mean your 7th grade trauma.

Though I presently reside under the H’Wood sign, I still have some friends back east in the Borough of Churches. One phone call and a coupla boys from Union Street will pay a visit to Mrs. Pantuso of Fort effin’ Lee NJ and clean her blackboard.
Just say the word!

Karen said...

My utter inability to let it go is evidence of just how much Mrs Pantuso scarred me....bless you for your support, Yojimboen!

Karen said...

On a different note, tho' not to nitpick--shouldn't the headline of this piece read "1914-2009"? Schulberg died this month, right? I just looked at the NYTimes obit and it seemed to indicate he'd died last Wednesday.

When I first saw the headline, I thought it was odd, but I wondered if it was one of those cases where the family sits on the death date for a while before talking about it. So I looked up the Times obit, and he certainly seems to have died in 2009!

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The Siren said...

The date is definitely wrong and somebody already flagged it for me -- just a case of typing in haste before a flight and forgetting what year it was. Loving the comments but it is hard to contribute due to limited Web access; small post coming however. Warm greetings to all!

Karen said...

We miss you, Siren! But have a wonderful vacation and don't give us a second thought!

Yojimboen said...

Second that emotion, Madame Sirène! BTW that strange grinding sound you hear is the noise of coast-to-coast teeth gnashing from your loyal but envious constituents, jealous that you're in Paris and we're not!

Vanwall said...

Holy Carp! "The Cobweb", the greatest movie ever made about drapes, (!!!) is on TCM!! It's all about colors, colors and more colors! (Oh, that's the cinematography, sorry - the rest of the film elements are thin as gruel, and you won't want any more, sir.) And psychotherapy! Not far removed from trepanning with stone tools! And drapes! In a building fulla crazy people! With drapes!

Gloria Grahame is a reddish-brunette, and this is during her upper lip version 'X' period, the rather pouty bird-like one, but she still has 'It' in oodles - the scene where she's sweating in a phone booth could exite even eunuchal things, such as a granite boulder, or a tree. She hates certain drapes.

Lillian Gish with atrociously dyed hair is given the thankless role of cranky old bag, and Charles Boyer is a drunken Frenchy roué, a role he could play in his sleep, which he evidently is. They don't like a lotta thing, and drapes are on the their lists.

John Kerr is a suicidal, flaky, whiney, incredibly wordy art weinie, having taken the wrong door on his way from one TV guest role to another - mebbe looking for the oolong, or a room at the Bali Hai - anyway, Susan Strasberg, (you remember her, Marilyn's substitute for a kind of mental incest, and Burton's object de sade?) and Kerr have some kind of creaky, pure and clean relationship as madfolk, altho David and Lisa woulda kicked their asses like red-headed stepchildren. And made better drapes, too, I've no doubt.

Lauren Bacall is some sort of lust interest for Richard Widmark, but they talk too much to really do anything feral and nasty. And they have some kind of thing for drapes, I'm sure a shrink could figure out if it means they loved their fathers and hated their mothers, whatever. Oh, yeah, they're the doctors, it's hard to tell, and they prescribe liquor for their own and their patient's problems more than a mountebank patent medicine barker, so they're all too impaired for good judgment, anyway.

Why Widmark's doc wasn't banging Grahame's lusciousness (she plays his little round heels of a wife) like a screen door in a hurricane is beyond belief, and proof positive he's crazy. Unless it's the drapes - menacing, semiotic, and brightly colored, the ur-drapes of all that followed in the pantheon of drapery films. They have so many meanings in this film, they're...they're...just hanging there, drape-like!

I won't go into the score. No, sorry, I ain't going there.

And Oscar Levant as Jo-Jo the Dog-faced Boy.

Yojimboen said...

Hear, bloody hear, M. VW! A splendid analyis! The Cobweb, like a half-dozen other Minellis I won’t name, is just so thrillingly, deliciously BAD, it’s way, way beyond guilty pleasure, an absolute must-see for every self-respecting Sirèniste.

But spare a thought for little Sandy Descher (the child who SCREAMS in Them!) as Widmark and Grahame’s 10-year-old daughter, Rosemary. What the hell was Minnelli thinking? Widmark comes home from work and sweeps this poor child up into his arms like a bendy toy, swinging and slithering her around his waist and shoulders and face like some desperately hopeful audition for America’s got Talent; finally, mercifully, with the upside-down child’s split thighs wrapped around his head, he carries her away upstairs – to what purpose I shudder to imagine.

Re the score. I’ll go there. To be fair to poor Lenny Rosenman, I think he was ill-served by the music editor - it’s mostly out-of-synch, the musical emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble. This, remember, was only his second score – he had just finished his first, East of Eden (his next would be Rebel Without a Cause), reportedly to Warners’ satisfaction when they rushed him into this. I won’t swear to it, but I’m reasonably certain Warners’ used some Eden outtakes in The Cobweb. They did that sort of thing even then. Lenny may have been Warners’ most cannibalized composer – a few years later, they lifted the complete Rebel score and dropped it unchanged into The Bramble Bush.

The greatest sadness of this movie for me is that Minnelli didn’t get his first choice for the Steven Holte (John Kerr) part: James Dean.
That, I suspect, would have been the sugar and whipped cream icing on this tooth-enamel-dissolving confection.

Vanwall said...

Yeah, every time Widmark picked up the phone, I expected him to bark into it, "Get me the Commissioner!", or some such, and sadly, all he would do would blather on about drapes - no kidding! And no wheelchairs and convenient stairways to correct any superfluous characters, darn it. The whole Doc's family was kinda weird, too, M. Yo - but damned if everything wasn't amazingly rich in hue and shadow; if the rest of the film had any sand in it and could stand long enough on its own, this film might be much better remembered, as few films ever looked as sumptuous, evidenced by the skin tones that made even Gish look red-blooded and almost alive.

The dialog was atrociously arch in an unconscious manner, and in non-human cadences - at one point Kerr is channeling what must be Minnelli's vision of James Dean, and is stalking, emoting, running in lurches and rambling on in something resembling Method-ic jabber, and for life of me, no matter good-looking this film was, scenes like that make me question where the finances came from almost as much as a I wonder the same about any Judd Apatow or Diablo Cody retch-fest.

This is possibly the most egregious example of wasted talent from the Studios, and the direction: stagy, flat and unimaginative, plus the execrable script, just doomed it to curiosity hell. The potential was there, the setting was ripe with possibilities, and some of the actors were at the top of their game, and they wasted it all. It would be interesting as a completely overdubbed film, ala "What's Up Tiger Lily?", and you could go dramatic or comedic. Too bad Schulberg never had a crack at this one.

I had read about Lenny Rosenman's score some time after seeing this so many years ago, and it must've bothered me unconsciously all that time - as son as I read it, I remembered with crystal clarity acting and scenes I'd rather have forgotten - is that a measure of success? Or just suck-ness?

Turn the sound off if you watch this one, you won't miss a thing important, and it looks very pretty, like Bacall and Grahame deserved.

I wasn't half kidding about Levant, either.

Antonio Manetti said...

Did Budd Schulberg have anything to do with Leni Riefenstahl's unsuccessful attempt to find work in the American film industry?