Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Anecdote: "I Was Even More Nuts Than I Generally Am." (With Bonus Links)

The holidays are upon us, and it is time for the Siren's annual rituals. These include, but are not limited to:

1. Preparing to bake, the Siren's annual substitute for baking.

2. Cleaning out rooms in a frenzy that would do the Clean House crowd proud.

3. Forgetting one key Christmas present until the very last minute.

4. Tuning in to TCM to watching holiday movies that she's already seen. This year's selections include The Man Who Came to Dinner, because Ann Sheridan steals a couple of scenes from Bette Davis, and people stole scenes from Davis about once every leap year; It Happened on Fifth Avenue, because of all the character actors and the post-war jokes about not being able to find an apartment in New York; and the really not-very-good-at-all MGM Christmas Carol, viewed because

5. Charles Dickens is the Siren's favorite novelist and everything he ever touched spells Christmas to her, a fact that TCM is acknowledging this month, although technically their tribute is tied to his birthday.

6. Getting weepy over Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," which makes the Siren think of people listening to it during World War II.

That last has particular force this year due to the Siren's new Twitter addiction, which dependency she happily passes on to you: Real Time World War II, tweets from an Oxford history graduate, Alwyn Collinson, about what was happening on that day in World War II. (You don't have to join Twitter to read it, by the way, although it's worth the trouble.) The feed made its debut on Aug. 31, on the eve of the war's beginning, so we are in 1939. In the past months, the Siren has learned about Bernard Montgomery's short-lived campaign to get his men to use condoms with hookers, an idea that did not sit well with his superiors; the birth of the Molotov cocktail during the Soviet invasion of Finland; and that the most popular Christmas dolls in London in 1939 were Hitler and Neville Chamberlain. Though there's the occasional bit of comic relief, most of the tweets are as dark as you'd expect.

Still, given that the Siren loves movies from that era so much, it's an incredible thing to see the onslaught of news that was accompanying what some say was the greatest year in Hollywood history, Gone With the Wind premiering in Atlanta even as Finland fought desperately for its life.

Naturally, all this is leading up to an anecdote, from Rosalind Russell's autobiography, Life Is a Banquet. As Christmas 1942 approached, Russell was about five months pregnant with her only child, Lance. Her brother George was in California, training to drive tanks with George S. Patton's Sixth Armored Division. Russell went to visit him earlier that month and found him eating a mixture of meat, grease and blowing sand as he sat on the ground in the freezing desert wind. Instead of indulging in the Siren's routine at five months into a pregnancy, which included strenuous activities such as reheating leftovers and elevating her feet, Russell went to her brother's commanding officer and said she wanted to organize a Christmas party for the men. She went back to RKO, where she was making Flight for Freedom, and got the money from the studio.

When I think of the logistics involved in that party, I shudder. I was even more nuts than I generally am, because you are more nuts when you're carrying a child. I hired buses. I enlisted hundreds of women--starlets, secretaries, stenographers, pals.

We had a meeting on an RKO sound stage, and I told the girls what I wanted them to wear. Flat heels and warm clothes. Not one of them paid any attention; they came with the tall spike heels and the short flimsy dresses and nearly froze to death.

We had to figure out where the buses could stop so the girls could use the facilities, and we loaded the buses with coffee and Danish pastries. We sent a truck ahead with a portable dance floor and a Christmas tree. We took a whole show with us, orchestra and all. (Red Skelton came and played Santa Claus.)

The Siren pauses to let everyone digest that last image. Informed by George's CO that she couldn't invite one division and just leave out the other, Russell found herself arranging a Christmas party for two armored divisions. George, meanwhile, had been persuaded to go to officers' training camp and departed already. The Siren ponders the fact that it's Dec. 21 and she still hasn't decided what we're having for Christmas dinner, and continues.

Arriving at the base, we got out of our buses and beheld an astonishing sight. The dance floor had been put down, and it was surrounded by great M-4 tanks. The soldiers were studded on the tanks like flies on flypaper…

We roped off the dance floor and gave the boys tickets, like movie tickets. Each fellow had four or five, good for a dance apiece. The girls all stood in the middle of the dance floor, and three or four hundred soldiers were allowed on at one time, and they and the girls jitterbugged together. Then those boys would go off and three or four hundred more boys would come on. The girls really had to dance, and they were absolutely wonderful. The boys were, too. We didn't have a single untoward incident. I'd been very worried that if we got some dingalings in there, we'd be hearing screams from underneath the cactuses, but nothing like that happened….

I was the M.C. (I wore a fur coat, party because it got so cold in the desert at night, partly because I was trying to cover my pregnancy.) We had brought spotlights with us, and in the spillover from the lights you could pick out boys sitting all over the dance floor, and other boys piled up on those tanks. Some chairs had been set down in front for the brass, and before General Woods took his, he called for a lot of the soldiers who were stuck way in back to come closer. I remember a boy plumped down right in front of him. There was the general sitting, watching the show, and this kid leaned his head right back against the general's knees. It was very sweet, and I thought, only in the good old U.S.A. A kid couldn't lean against Hermann Goering's knees in Nazi Germany, he'd get killed.

Later Santa Claus handed out surprises, and there was more music. It was a great party.

On the way home we fed the girls again, at about three o'clock in the morning, in Palm Springs. They'd worked for forty-eight hours without an ounce of sleep. And those boys had been so glad to see something dainty and pretty. They were on their way overseas, and one knew some of them would never come home again.

(In 1974, I was named 'Sweetheart of the Super Sixth' and invited to a reunion that was being held down in Disneyland. I went, and there in the convention hall I looked around at all the men with their bald heads and their paunches and their wives, and it struck me with a shock that the Christmas party had been thirty years ago. If a young man had gone into the army at thirty, he'd be sixty now; if he'd gone in at twenty-five, he'd be fifty-five…

Now the children of Patton's army smiled up at me with their shiny, untroubled faces. I told them that they must think about some of the men who hadn't come back, but I knew there was no way for them to feel what I was feeling.)


In the holiday spirit of gift-giving, the Siren now shares some of what she's been reading about the blogosphere lately.

David Cairns' Late Films blogathon was splendid, and you should read the full lineup. But the Siren is going to point out two in particular, starting with David's analysis of Roscoe Arbuckle's last film. Then, to get all the Christmas weepies out of the way, do read this beautiful post at a blog that is new to the Siren, Robert Donat, written by Gill Fraser Lee. The post is about the great actor's last role, in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

Now that she has reduced everyone's stash of Kleenex by a factor of five, the Siren turns to more cheery links...or, er, OK, this could be cheery, depending on your mood. One of Kim Morgan's festive obsessions this month is the original (in the Siren's mind, at least) madman-in-a-sorority-house epic, Black Christmas. The Siren has seen and very much liked Black Christmas, and while it doesn't exactly make you want to run out and sing Christmas carols to strangers, it could be a real pick-me-up for the day when you've been at the mall, you heard Wings' "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime" for the 217th time and you have some serious aggression to work out.

Once you are feeling better, catch up with the TCM festival coverage of the dauntless Dennis Cozzalio, at Slant Magazine's House Next Door blog. If you missed the fest, you won't feel as though you did after you read Dennis' epic tribute.

In preparation for holiday dissipation, Peter Nelhaus, at the Siren's request, posted his reminiscences about the Night He Got Drunk With Nicholas Ray. You will definitely want to read.

Raquelle of Out of the Past has a review of Piper Laurie's new autobiography that makes the Siren want to read the book, even if Ms Laurie, oddly, does not seem to hold Son of Ali Baba in the same fond regard as does the Siren.

At Silent Volume, Chris Edwards has The Wildcat (1921), from Ernst Lubitsch. Not exactly a Christmas movie, evidently, but it has snowmen, and Pola Negri, so, good enough. The Siren particularly loves Chris' description of Paul Heidemann's peculiar smile: "Think of the smile you might put on if your wife ran into your girlfriend at the king’s dinner party, and no one could really afford to look bad, and so things are a little strained, but really, you suspect, you’ll be scoring a three-way out of it later." Ah yes, we all need a specific smile for an occasion like that.

The Siren's eternal favorite screen-cap blog (and she loves them all, as a general rule) continues to be Six Martinis and the Seventh Art, from which this year's Christmas banner (any guesses as to the movie?) is shamelessly borrowed. Want some snow scenes? You got 'em.

Rachel, who graces the comments section here from time to time, has a great blog: The Girl With the White Parasol, which title alone the Siren loves for reasons she need not explain to her patient readers. Latest post is on The Wicked Lady, the number-one box office hit in 1946 Britain, because it gave the people what they wanted: "...kinky sex. Lots of kink. They wanted to see Margaret Lockwood in corsets so tight they had to be censored for U.S. audiences. They wanted to watch her do wicked, awful things like shooting people and poisoning them and sleeping with James Mason outside on the grass. They wanted to see Patricia Roc and Margaret Lockwood get into a slap-fight. They wanted to see cross-dressing and secret passages and noblewomen seducing robbers." Wait, what? Surely the great British public still wants all that? Well, the Siren does, in any event.

The delightful Caftan Woman's choice for Christmas Eve viewing is the same as the Siren's.

Finally, should you be interested, the Siren contributed a year-end Top Ten list to Indiewire. Her list is right here and the full lists from 162 critics are here.

Now, a Christmas gospel interlude, because the Siren doesn't know when her next opportunity to bring up Mahalia Jackson will arise.

This marks the Siren's sixth Christmas at her old building-and-loan-blog. May the Siren's patient readers all have a holiday season that is even merrier, and brighter, than Technicolor.


Harry K. said...

A lovely post. I would just like to point out that Eddie Cantor is the best non-sequitor Santa of all time. Ever.

VP81955 said...

Merry Christmas to you, my friend.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Mahalia Jackson and Roz. Now my day is complete. Thanks.

Yojimboen said...

Young Man With a Horn?

The Siren said...

Merry Christmas, Yojimboen. You win -- my awestruck admiration? No wait, you had that already. I'll think of something. I just loved it, sort of merry and noir at the same time.

Thanks very much, Harry, VP and Jacqueline. I'm very grateful that y'all keep reading.

Karen said...

You know, I was doing fine until I got to the part about the young soldier leaning his head back against the general's knees. That slayed me, and I'm still a little dribbly. I'm not sure I agree about it being a fundamentally American thing--I'm not sure that would happen in today's army--but it evoked the time so poignantly, somehow.

I didn't know about the Twitter feed, but there is someone--a newspaper? a blog?--that is doing a real-time history of WW2 as well, with photographs. I have tried four different searches to try to figure out where I've seen it (more than once, so a place I go regularly) but I cannot find it for the life of me.

I really REALLY need to see The Wicked Lady, by the way.

Merry Christmas to all! If I could have a Christmas wish, by the way, it would be to obliterate the Dior "J'Adore" commercial from the airways. I am so bloody sick of advertisers using computer-reanimated dead celebrities to shill for their products. And, as an astute commenter noted over at "Go Fug Yourself," "The thing that irks me the most about that Dior ad is Marilyn Monroe cooing over J’adore when we all KNOW she wore Chanel No. 5."


Vanwall said...

I'm too steeped in Mil-hist, sometimes I can't really take much more, tho I can usually find something interesting in that Twitter feed.

Not much written about Finland's Winter Wars, sadly, altho an excellent fictionalized bio by John O. Virtanen, "Molotov Cocktail", goes to the heart of darkness from that desperate clime, and I'll always have a soft spot for the Finnish Air Force, especially the 2nd division of No. 24 Squadron, whose tail emblem was the infamous "Farting Moose", based off a Disney cartoon they once watched.

I used to see the vehicle tracks from the 6th Army in the desert, still visible 20 years or so after the war - the desert takes a long time to heal.

I love the fact that Russell pulled it off, that kind of home-front experience was some thing to cling to when it came down close to the last full measure.

I prefer the Sim "Scrooge" to any others, and the Dickens have been all over TCM this holidya, which is wonderful.

Thanks for the Rachel post tip!

Happy holidays all!

Trish said...

Black Christmas was huge when it was first released. At the time I believe it was the most famous Canadian movie ever made - that is until the same director came up with Porky's and A Christmas Story.

Gill Fraser Lee said...

Thanks so much for the nod to my Late Films Blogathon entry. Have a Very Merry Christmas :)

The Siren said...

Trish, I saw it as a kid on TV (via a lax babysitter) under the title Stranger in the House.

Vanwall, Russell said the camp was "to hell and gone southeast" near the Arizona border so that sounds about right. The RealTimeWWII guy is giving a huge amount of attention to the Finns, a story I knew only the outlines of, so kudos to him.

Karen, you must find that link! And yeah, that J'Adore commercial was dopey. We need a Marilyn's Law: "As the desperation of a celebrity or product grows, the probability of appropriating Marilyn Monroe's image approaches 1." Or some such.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Thanks for the mention and the link, O Siren! Happy holidays to you, Mr. Nehme and the kids.

There a few films on your ten best list I hope to see. I did finally get around to Midnight in Paris, which made me nostalgic for . . . What's New, Pussycat?. Nonetheless, based on your enthusiasm, I will be seeing Tuesday, After Christmas on Wednesday, after Christmas.

Ned said...

Speaking of lists, I happened upon a rather bizarre one just recently.

Lists of best Christmas films can be somewhat of a moot exercise since there just aren't that many new Christmas movies being made that beat the all-time greats, kind of like the greatest car designs. I don't think there's much of a chance that the 2012 Camry is going to knock the 1965 Mustang, 1956 Thunderbird, '59 Cadillac, or that '68 Charger from Bullitt off any list of great cars.

So this year Forbes magazine’s website offers us their Best Christmas Movies list. In an attempt to be, iconoclastic, hip, psychotic? (not really sure) a lot of the standards are not there.

No White Christmas, no Holiday Inn, no Christmas in Connecticut. Neither We're No Angels nor It's a Wonderful Life make the cut. So what’s the best Christmas film of all time, according to Forbes??

Die Hard.


I mean, it takes place at Christmas, right? Isn't there a Christmas bulb somewhere in the movie?


Others in the top ten? Brazil is the second best Christmas movie of all time. Seriously. Now I like that movie. Terry Gilliam is in rare form and it's a wild, sardonic, fantasy. But the second best Christmas movie ever? No wonder these bozos destroyed the economy.

What else? Steven Spielberg's terrible, horrible, no good disaster of a student film on steroids movie, 1941, makes the list. I think I remember a scene where someone shoots a statue of Santa Claus. So that makes this the THIRD BEST Christmas movie of all time? Oh yeah, Gremlins made the list too. So on a list of the best Christmas films ever made we have: Die Hard, Gremlins, 1941, and Brazil.

Over all the stupid picks on that Forbes list, I'd pick that old, half hour Twilight Zone with Art Carney as a drunken Santa who, after being fired, finds a magic bag that actually turns him into Santa Claus and enables him to give presents to all the poor kids he meets.

I hope that wouldn't offend the Forbes geniuses who think Bruce Willis yippee-cay-aying and blowing up buildings is a better way to celebrate the holidays.

Anyway, like most others I've been working my way through my own list of great Christmas films. And Die Hard ain't on it.

And thanks, Siren for the Roz Russell story. We should all be that nuts once in a while.

Vanwall said...

Any movie with a Christmas whiff is a Christmas movie to H'wood. I wonder if 'M' has any of it? If so, it would be one, according to the tag.

X. Trapnel said...

Actually baking? People don't do such things.

Ned's comment reminded me of a recent and very annoying list of the 100 (!) greatest Jewish (criteria vague) movies that omitted Body and Soul. Was The Shop Around the Corner on the Forbes list?

The Siren said...

100...whaaaa? based on directors, themes, stars, screenwriters, what?

Peter, the Muntean is great.

Ned, I think the contrarian Christmas-movie-picking thing is done. I know I'm touting Kim's Black Christmas post, but see, the thing about Black Christmas, and I'm serious here, is that it gets the spooky aspect of being alone in a normally teeming place at the holidays. It isn't incidental to the atmosphere, as in Die Hard.

G said...

Happy holiday season everyone!

I wish more TV stations would make an annual tradition of showing "Shop Around the Corner" during the Christmas season - the perfect combination of the bitter and the sweet.

Do love the Sim "Christmas Carol" though.

X. Trapnel said...

Based on nothing I could figure out (certainly not artistic/cinematic achievement) beyond a vague thematic or sociological significance. However in our current cultural moment that may be what "greatness" means at least to the mainstream media and its muddy tributaries.

The Rosalind Russell story was beautiful. Thank you, Siren, for that.

Aubyn said...

Thanks so much for the mention, Siren, and the wonderful Roz story.

X, out of curiosity I looked up 100 Jewish films list and came up with this, which puts E.T. at the top as the greatest Jewish film ever made. Is that the one? There couldn't be two such lists.

X. Trapnel said...


That's it. Yes, ET=greatest Jewish film (gevalt). I didn't bother to read the tea kettle-chopping explanation. Maybe I should just be grateful that the trans-odious Life is Beautiful was not included. What I find distressing in all movie lists is the ever-shrinking number of pre-1960s films and the obviousness of those that are included. Perhaps this is natural.

rcocean said...

Hey X, its Forbes.

Dickens and Santa Claus don't believe in the magic of the "Free market"

To "Forbes" Scrooge was a great guy until those commie "Ghosts of Christmas" got hold of him.

To them Bob Crachit was a "looter"

rcocean said...

Agree with you "G", Shop Around the Corner is one of my favorites. Not much "Christmas" in it, except at the end, but I still love it this time of year.

X. Trapnel said...

Good point Rc. Over the past two weeks I've participated in three readings of A Christmas Carol using my Claude Raines imitation for Marley's ghost, Robert Newton for Xmas Present, and Carol Reed (yes) for the narrator. Without fail numerous audience members afterwards remarked on Scrooge's hypothetical chances in the Republican primaries.

rcocean said...

I don't know about you "X" I definitely plan to support the Scrooge-Marley (R) ticket in 2012.

We need to keep the poor,sick, and elderly from picking our pockets. We need low taxes and low wages and an honest 8 hours of work for 6 hours worth of wages.

Anything else is a Humbug sir, a Humbug.

Yojimboen said...

Best and Worst List from The Guardian:

They give a special mention to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians [full movie here]which sprang a nine-year-old Pia Zadora on the unsuspecting world.

Shamus said...


I can think of one (fairly) recent (and counter-intuitive) Christmas great: Eyes Wide Shut. If nothing else, it shares with Shop Around the Corner the quality of... what do you call it?... being depressing as hell.

Can I also add Remember the Night?

X. Trapnel said...

Marley? A flip-flopper: "Humanity was my business."

Noel Vera said...

"it doesn't exactly make you want to run out and sing Christmas carols to strangers"

I don't need Clark's movie to want to run out and do things to strangers, and I don't mean sing. Not a fan of the season.

Happy holidays, Siren, hope you enjoy your time with your family.

Trish said...

I've never thought of Black Christmas as a Christmas movie. I'm sure that's only because while I was at university, Campus Cinema always showed it during the Hallowe'en season...

Ned said...


I hope you're right about "too-hip to be serious" lists. There's nothing wrong with iconoclasm. At least be funny about it. Ironic isn't a synonym for catatonic. Or doltish.

But hey, I love the idea of 'M' as a Christmas movie. Isn't it cold outside in some of those Berlin underworld scenes? Close enough. And correct me if I'm wrong but I seem to recall some Christmas decorations in the background early in Psycho. Psycho! Christmas Movie!

But Little Shop IS a great Christmas movie even if it's not in the same vein as say, White Christmas. Plenty of Christmas gestalt.

Also like RC's idea that Scrooge might have been in the vanguard of Occupy London after being ghosted all night. Damn Victorian hippies! Another oligarch turned to the light side.

Oh, and ET the greatest Jewish film of all time? Are you Shoah?


As the ladies from Shonen Knife would say, Merry merry Christmas; happy, happy Christmas.

Ned said...


If you're going to include Remember the Night, I guess we can throw in another Sturges effort, Miracle at Morgan's Creek. Eyes Wide Shut has a sort of Christmas ending, I suppose. Tom Cruise gets a little present.

Y suggests Young Man With a Horn. Hey, why not? It has a scene set on Christmas eve. And it has a much better ending than Bix Beiderbecke's.

Eurappeal said...

Thank you so much for the Roz story. I loved it!

One of my favorite Christmas movies is The Thin Man. Then for New Year's Eve it's After the Thin Man.

Eurappeal said...

Thank you so much for the Roz story. I loved it!

One of my favorite Christmas movies is The Thin Man. Then for New Year's Eve it's After the Thin Man.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I'm just starting to bake. That's the easy part. Figuring out what to show my guests for Christmas is the hard part. I'll muddle through, probably quoting some of Scrooge's choicer lines. "Are there no prisons? No workhouses?" I love this time of year.

Anyway, Merry Christmas to you and congrats on the Criterion gig.

Shamus said...

Ned, Ah yes: an adult Christmas present promised at a kid's store- Kubrick's final joke. (I'd forgotten about the Sturges Miracle though)

Rachel, Thank you for that wonderful link to ET. It really is a masterpiece of the kind of review which is impossible to characterize except in scatological terms. But it chokes me up that it concludes on this meditation of the kind of the transcendent "Jewish lesson" (not my words) ET offers:

"Sometimes, art and schmaltz can be one and the same."

There is a lesson to be learned in all of that surely. Just not certain what that is.

Trish said...

I LOVE Young Man with a Horn despite the bizarre casting of Doris Day and Lauren Bacall as good friends. As usual, Kirk Douglas sells this movie for me, although I really wish the movie had ended with his crash to the pavement.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Merry Christmas Siren!

X. Trapnel said...

The rationale for ET as a Jewish movie could make it a black movie as well. A very silly excercise.

The Shop Around the Corner is actually the greatest Jewish movie since it's about making money out of Xmas, with the cash register chiming a carillon of pengos and filler.

Karen said...

Making money out of Christmas? But...but...we're FAR too busy eating Chinese food and going to the movies!

X. Trapnel said...

That's true. Ok then, it's Jewish because it's about intellectual oneupsmanship: "Have you read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment? Well I have."

Shamus said...

Excellent point, XT. As the reviewer itself (I'm too lazy to re-check gender) put it, ET is one of the (gasp) biggest grossing movie of all time. Even more than Star Wars (gasp).

It's like a ton of viewers were fed a Spielbergian religious experience, which is also the last word on "Jewish art/philosophy/child-care".

Question: Would anyone make such a big (religious) deal out of a rather derivative movie if it were not neatly commodified and sold to millions?

Question: Why am I getting worked up over something so elementary as religion's dirty little liaison with money (and probably vice-versa)?

As to the last one, I have no idea...but I'm not for watching It's a Wonderful Life this season: rather, The Miracle Woman, if it has to be Capra.

Ned said...

X, you might be right about Little Shop. Besides Christians shouldn't be the only ones to make money out of Christmas. And let's not forget all that shtupping of Mrs. Matuschek on the side.

She's one of those characters, like Addie Ross in Letter to Three Wives, who are never seen but have significant impact on the story.

And if I can turn back to the subject of Christmas movies, has anyone mentioned The Man Who Came to Dinner? Another in the 'not really a Christmas movie, but...' category.

DavidEhrenstein said...

E.T. wasn't commodified and sold until AFTER the All-Media Screening.

Spielberg made the film in secrecy and Universal (which allowed him to do so because they "owed him one") knew nothing about it. They were exceptionally nevrvous. I was invited to the very first press screenign on the Universal lot. It wasn't held in the Big theater, but rather in one of the small screening rooms we all call "The Bates Motel" (cause they look quite like it.)

Well we were totally gobsmacked. Couldn't wait to tell,one and all. Finally the All-Media at the Academy came (about a week later I recall) and the theater simply levitated. Say what you like about Spielberg but when he's on his game as he was here the results are awe-inspiring.

DavidEhrenstein said...

In this case Spielberg's secret weapon wasn't the "special effects" but rather Drew Barrymore (seen here with yours truly) She, more than any other element of production, made the damned thing work.

X. Trapnel said...

"biggest grossing" or just plain gross.

My tetchy attitude toward Spielberg has to with his absurd status as cultural giant, the idiot's idea of genius based on techincal accomplishment, bigness, and a smug and simple moral certitude. Capra's muddle has so much more vitality. I love IAWL any time of the year.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Merry Christmas, dear Siren, and thanks for the mention. This post did more to get me in the Christmas spirit than Black Christmas and A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas combined, and I mean that as the highest praise. Tonight it's Christmas in Connecticut which, as a huge Barbara Stanwyck fan, I am ashamed to admit I've never seen. I shall think of you and your last-minute menu problems (which I share) while enjoying it!

Karen said...

I'm with you, X. I loathe Spielberg. I watched E.T. when it came out and felt it was cheezy and manipulative. I just don't get the genuflection (to mix religions) towards him. If it were just about grosses, wouldn't James Cameron be revered even higher?

WV: "ouncism"--a form of discrimination with which I'm unfamiliar, but which seems unnecessarily weight-obsessed.

X. Trapnel said...


The core of Spielbergery is a misbegotten notion of "childlike wonder" meant to colonize the youthful imagination (much stranger territory than anything to be found in ET) and reassure their elders that moral ambiguity and complexity do not exist and innocence is all. Philip Larkin, as for so many other things, provides a corrective: "It was the verse about becoming again as a little child that caused the first sharp waning of my Christian sympathies..."

Shamus said...

David, Point taken although, I'd say that it makes no difference so far as these "cultural journalists" who write for Toilet Mag are concerned. Also, wasn't the movie made with a tie-up to a certain cereal. (More than anything, this indicates Spielberg's mala fides- he may be talented but he generally seems to be concerned about more, ah, religious things.)

XT, Larkin's expression of his unapologetic, uncompromising atheism is one of the consistent delights of his poetry (especially around this season which brings out one's cantankerousness). But it's intriguing the speculate (based solely upon their poetry) about a poet's religious beliefs: for instance, it may be fair to say Wallace Stevens doesn't believe in God or the supernatural. Larkin most certainly does not. Elizabeth Bishop?- Probably not. But what about Yeats? Frost?

Ned said...


Any discussion of Larkin is excuse enough for me to trot out one of my favorites from that old curmudgeon:

This be the Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

Not a likely storyline for E.T. era Spielberg I wouldn't think.

Shamus said...

I've got that poem memorized, Ned: it's brutal and liberating and it's a thrill to re-read over and over (Poetry Of Departures is another such poem). My favorite Larkin poems are probably Lines On A Young Lady's Photograph Album, The Trees and especially, Church Going:

...peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
'Here endeth' much more loudly than I'd meant.

It's weirdly cathartic to read some of Larkin poems, to read someone who relentlessly mocks and tears apart all the assumptions and evasions that pop culture (and by extension, most people) sets store by.

X. Trapnel said...


Now you know this is going way off topic and I'm cudgeling my brain for a way to swing from Wallace Stevens back to Rosalind Russell or even, mind of winterwise, to Finland's Winter Wars (cut to Mission to Moscow: "What about little Finland??" "I'm glad you asked me that, blah, blah, blah, blah Hitler's man Mannerheim refused; the Red Army moved in." "Why weren't we TOLD about this!!??"). Or perhaps Eddie Cantor=The Comedian as the Letter C. Anyhow I don't think any of these poets were theists; religion and faith or its absence were not the basis of their poetics. To go out a bit on a limb I wonder if Stevens and Yeats were even transcendental poets. Yeats' private mythology is so tied to the cultural/social values he thought conducive to art that it's ultimately worldly/political however daft it is as history. I can't think of any other poet in the English tradition so lacking in any Christian frame of reference. Stevens' exaltation of the creative imagination is ultimately an invidualist poetics of art for art's sake which places him at a distance from the expats Eliot (royalist) and Pound (fascist) and links him as a democratic existentialist to his fellow stay at home Frost.

I agree that Remember the Night is a great Xmas movie. There's something very real in Fred McM's piano playing and creepy-real in Sterling Holloway crooning "The End of a Perfect Day."

Shamus said...

Ahem. It's Barbara Stanwyck who plays the piano for the "End of the Perfect Day" recital. (I'm tempted to say- Dude! How could you confuse the two?) That passage in the movie never fails to move me although I haven't the slightest idea why. Leisen's magic touch, I think.

I'm not sure if Yeats lacks a Christian frame of reference but he surely made for that with a lot of fairies if that were the case. And Eliot and Pound also piled on a lot of Greek mythology pretty thick: "Paint me a cavernous waste shore/Cast in the unstilled Cyclades"- yeah, right, sure. Funnily enough I recall reading something by Ellmann that the poet who actually had read the classics in their original languages was not either of those two aristocrats (read: poseurs). It was Robert Frost. Which makes sense in retrospect.

I completely agree that any theism or other such peccadilloes on their part is totally irrelevant to their poetry but it is still fascinating to try and guess what beliefs they might have subscribed to (in moments of terror).

As for Stevens, I am still awaiting his great poem on film noir: "Say that it is a crude effect.../Noir is atmosphere, not genre". Ahem.

Shamus said...

I think Harold Bloom (who has a spent a few spare minutes thinking about poetic influences) indicates that Frost is in the Emersonian tradition (since you had brought up transcendentalism- Yeats, a Senator and smiling public man, makes for an odd inclusion in this category) but was also a nihilist; a sentiment Trilling seemed to share- so that would conclusively answer any question of Frost's beliefs.

Okay. To steer the thread back into the perilous topical swamps, surely there is some great Christmas movie that takes place in a village or a cave in the desert. No snow, just stars in the great open sky. Life of Brian, maybe?

X. Trapnel said...

My usual problem is mixing up Sterling Holloway, Sterling Hayden, and Stanley Holloway. Are you QUITE SURE it's Stanwyck at the piano? Leisen is the most underrated of golden age directors. I think I've already voiced my belief that B. Wilder's hostility was based on the fact that Leisen had something approximating the Lubitsch touch (as against the Wilder thump). His films have a terrific romantic effulgence.

Larkin scorned all classical referencing as "dipping into the myth kitty." Eliot and Pound were of course selective classicists, constructing a "tradition" that conformed gratifyingly with their own psycho-political predispositions. Frost, on the other hand, is the true kin of Hesiod/Works and Days and Virgil/Georgics.

Check out "Loneliness in Jersey City" for noir-atheist Stevens.

X. Trapnel said...

And Frost's "Acquainted with the Night" is the veritable invention of noir.

Vanwall said...

"3 Godfathers" is a desert Christmas film. One of the few JW films I'll watch. Last year about this time, Our Siren mused brilliantly about this very film.

X. Trapnel said...

I haven't read Trilling's Frost essay in some time, but I recall that he used the word "terrifying" (referencing "Design" and "Neither Out Far Nor in Deep") and argued for a tragic rather than nihilist reading of Frost. The essay caused quite a public ruckus. Those were the days.

Shamus said...

Quite, quite sure. I have a copy of the movie and have seen it only about a dozen times. But I wasn't quite being fair: Fred McM play a song on the piano- Swanee River, I think. Gotta check anyway (what better time to do it than now?).

Yes, I remember your Leisen admiration vis-a-vis your Wilder hostility. And I did suggest a movie as a corrective back then: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Do see it- it's marvelous (and its disfiguration is tragic).

Stevens poem (gratefully) noted- haven't read it yet. And the Frost poem duly seconded.

Shamus said...

It was a toast for his eightieth; and Frost himself said that he was uncomfortable with and intimidated by Trilling's observations. He was being too modest. I found this little piece on the subject by Adam Kirsch, here

X. Trapnel said...

Yes, I remember that Frost was rather non-plussed. I also recall J. Donald Adams, a Bosley Crowther of literary criticism exclaiming re Trilling: "Holy mackerel!...Frost sees the universe as it is and accepts it. He is not terrified and neither should we be." Or words to that effect.

Ned said...

I'm a bit late to this colloquy but if I can turn back a few pages I'd add that one only need dip into Stevens' "High-Toned Old Christian Woman" to get a sense of his relative religiosity. His opening line about poetry being the supreme fiction is a pretty clear indication that he considers it superior even to religious fictions.

One other item struck me with a burst of momentary whimsy, X's problem of mixing up Sterling Holloway, Sterling Hayden, and Stanley Holloway.

I can't help picturing Sterling Holloway in place of Sterling Hayden in the Asphalt Jungle trying to shoot Brad Dexter when Louis Calhern tries the double-cross two-step. Equally funny is the image of Sterling Hayden singing "I'm Getting Married in the Morning" in a cockney accent.

As for Shamus' musing of a Christmas movie set in the desert, isn't there a reference to the birth of Christ somewhere near the beginning of Ben-Hur? Okay, so it's not really a Christmas movie, but it's the best I can come up with on short notice.

The Siren said...

I share XT's problem of thinking of one name while typing another, the most embarrassing manifestation being when I typed the words "Gail Russell" during a discussion of My Man Godfrey. And I love Gail Patrick.

James Wolcott has a lovely discussion of Metropolitan as a Christmas movie which is well worth seeing. I am a big, big Whit Stillman fan and he shares our love of 30s cinema. So I'm majorly looking forward to Damsels in Distress in 2012. (Also, it apparently has a big perfume angle.)

Remember the Night I wrote up a while back, and it's wonderful. The Shop Around the Corner is probably my own favorite but the problem is, I have seen it a lot in the past few years. So I am on Shop hiatus. This way I can go back and remember its perfection, in a couple of years.

Also, TCM alert: The utterly charming, and criminally un-seeable, Margie airs on Christmas Eve at 10 pm. I am cracking up, however, at it's being tagged "crime" on their schedule on the site. I supposed losing your bloomers IS a crime in some states...

DavidEhrenstein said...

It asn't a cereal. It was "Reese's Pieces" candy -- a plot point that dpubled as "Product Placement." A familair phenom (Jerry Lewis and Alfred Htichcock excelled at this sort of thing) but it would have meant nothing had the film bombed.

Trish said...

I must be Scrooge because I cannot stand It's a Wonderful Life, and every year I have to go out of my way to avoid it. I'd much rather watch Christmas in Connecticut, or ET.

shahn said...

Thank you for the mention of sixmartinis.
Merry Christmas to you!

Shamus said...

David, Yes, I did make a mix up there, but not being American myself, that product meant nothing to me. But Spielberg was apparently careful enough to ensure that no kid watching the movie would have made a similar mistake, and then later of course made sure the candy had ET on the cover and so on.

Since you take Spielberg's craft as a given, it wouldn't have mattered one way or the other: for me he is a more problematic filmmaker (nearer Lucas than Hitchcock), so I tend to look for any, um, extra-curricular activities that would bear out my impression.

XT, re Frost and Trilling:

[Frost] attends dinner in honor of his 85th birthday at Waldorf-Astoria Hotel at which he hears Lionel Trilling deliver an assessment of his work. Before reciting his poems after dinner, Frost admits to nervousness caused by Trilling's speech. (Trilling had remarked: "The universe that he conceives is a terrifying universe... Read 'Neither Out Far Nor In Deep', which often seems to me the most perfect poem of our time, and see if you are warmed by anything in it except the energy in which emptiness is conceived."

That's as close as one can come to calling Frost a nihilist at a dinner in the Waldorf on his 85th birthday.

Shamus said...

Ah, and XT, while we're on the subject:

"Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)"
(1851) (uncredited)
Written by Stephen Foster
Performed by Fred MacMurray (piano and vocal)

"A Perfect Day"
(1910) (uncredited)
Music and Lyrics by Carrie Jacobs Bond
Played on piano by Barbara Stanwyck and sung by Sterling Holloway, with Fred MacMurray,
Elizabeth Patterson and Beulah Bondi joining in

Courtesy, the good folks at IMDB.

X. Trapnel said...

The terror in this poem is akin to Pascal's (no nihilist he) before the trackless void. The same criticism has been leveled at Larkin's Aubade by many including Seamus Heaney who is perplexed by Larkin's lack of Christian feeling and offers Yeats' (!) "The Cold Heaven" as a rebuke, a poem I don't find any more comforting.

Frost was discomfited because Trilling blew his cover.

Shamus said...

That's very interesting what you say about Heaney and Larkin, XT. Any references?

If Larkin seem such a modern poet, it's precisely because of that "post-death of God" sensibilty (such a stupid phrase if you ask me)- that "Life is a slow dying..." But I don't find that Yeats is so easily bracketed (or Frost for that matter; which brings me back to my original point).

Although, something like Yeats' The Choice (or Road Not Taken for that matter) is as bleak as anything written by Larkin.

X. Trapnel said...

must address this later.

My copy of The Constant Nymph just arrived.

Yojimboen said...

Dear me, all this larking about Larkin; I like him, s’truth, but whenever I get knee-deep I tend to hurl and a hurler “Cheer the f—k UP, dude! And reach for my Betjeman.

(Ten minutes later I feel better and pick up Larkin again.)

Seriously, gents, Larkin, Frost, Trillin and the rest of Cato’s Disciples, cared deeply and reverently about the human condition, all of their works manifest a none-too-subtle desperate quest for the meaning of existence – which, by dictionary definition, is the opposite of Nihilism.

To paraphrase Mr. Chayefsky (via Ned Beatty’s Arthur Jensen):
You have sought to meddle with the primal forces of philosophic discourse, and you... will... ATONE!

C’mon, X., don’t you just want to cuddle young P. Larkin and say, “There, there now, it’s all right, just you have a good cry, and everything’ll be rosy”?

You may now resume your conversations;-)

P.S. Chère Madame – can it really be three years since I first bleated about We’re No Angels, my forever favourite Xmas Movie?
Dear me, where does a life go?

Ned said...

What, no love for Ogden Nash?

I don't mind eels
except as meals.

If we're going to lighten things up, might as well have some fun.

And Y, you are right on the money about We're No Angels. C'est le meilleur!

As the Humphrey Bogart character says "In the immortal words of somebody or other, "well done Adolphe."

X. Trapnel said...

"C’mon, X., don’t you just want to cuddle young P. Larkin..."

Not half as much as I'd like to tickle T.S. Eliot.

Very curious about We're No Angels as I'm always hopeful for some good late Bogart (or Walsh). My metaphorical descending scale for the collapse of American civilization is late Bogart (uneven, but not too bad), late Gable (sad, slow decline), late Flynn (catastrophe). Right now we're at Mara Maru and Cuban Rebel Girls is within sight.

Shamus said...

Y, if anything, in their poems, Frost and Larkin seem to be on an even more desperate quest to elude death, oh, unlike Donne's magnificent 10th (in many ways, religion simplifies matters so). Since they knew they could not resort to Donne's mighty solution, they did, yes, show some tendency toward nihilism.

On the other hand, my favorite Frost poem is one of his warmest and most hopeful: Birches:

...Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.

XT, since you mention Pascal, I suddenly reminded of the existence of one of the most beautiful (Christmas) movies ever made with Pascal at its focal point: Ma Nuit Chez Maud

theduckthief said...

Wowee, that was a doozy of a post to read through. I too have been sucked into the twitter account relating wwii to the masses. I've heard from several people on their twitter feed that they have to remind themselves it happened in the past and that Russia isn't really invading Finland. I love how the focus isn't just on the war but also creates an atmosphere of the time.

Yojimboen said...

Dear lady, thanks for the banner. You just know whoever lit that face [Joseph LaShelle] also absolutely adored Miss Kubelik.

Here it is in all its corny magnificence; and with it the wish for the happiest of new years to you and yours and to the rest of our cockeyed caravaners.
G-d bless us, every one!

Ned said...

Y, thanks for that wonderful clip. I was reminded of another favorite film with a New Year's eve scene, Holiday.

So Happy New Year to all former, current, and future members of the Fifth Avenue Anti-Stuffed Shirt and Flying Trapeze Club.

cgeye said...

I know you're a shy, retiring type, Ms. SSS -- but could you have given an girl a heads-up about your talking head star turn in "These Amazing Shadows"?

I might have missed your post, but dang it, it was nice to see your face, whilst taking a break from Love Crazy -- 'twould've been nice, tho, if they had the bank to front for more of the films' music rights.....

verif: emine -- what the Internet these days gives a gal, instead of a mink.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Thanks for the link Yojim! When Billy does a very fast la-dissolve (note: not a cut) from the empty table to Shirley running down the stret smiling from ear-to-ear as the music rises I burst out crying.

It's Billy's City Lights (and Woody copped it for Manhattan)

And speaking of New Year's Eve Herer's a couple I utterly adore.

surly hack said...

A belated Merry Christmas and happy holidays, Siren! Lovely seeing you (looking lovely) last night on These Amazing Shadows. Cheers!

Shamus said...

David, Never thought to connect the two (three) but you make it sound so obvious!

Wilder really packs the party, doesn't he? It looks like Death came right out of The Tarnished Angels and carried Miss Kubelik away.

Yojimboen said...

Thanks, David, Miss Zooey and Master Joseph are, in the immortal words of Moose Malloy, cute as lace pants.

cgeye said...
This comment has been removed by the author.