Archive for July, 2016

More Than Munchkins: An Illustrated History of Performing Little People

Posted in BROOKLYN, Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Little People, ME, My Shows with tags , , , , , on July 27, 2016 by travsd


Today happens to be the birthday of both Fleming W. Ackerman (a.k.a “Colonel Speck”) and Major Edward Newell (a.k.a. “General Grant, Jr.”). (Click on the links to learn more about these illustrious Little People.

If the odds of a Little Person being born are small, and the odds of a performing Little Person even smaller, think how small the odds of TWO performing Little People being born on the same day! Seems to me an auspicious time to announce here my upcoming talk at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, entitled More Than Munchkins: An Illustrated History of Performing Little People. 


For centuries Little People have been a mainstay of popular entertainment. In this illustrated talk, I will trace the historical ups and downs of very short-statured entertainers from medieval times through the era of P.T. Barnum and dime museums, to side shows and circuses, to vaudeville, to movies and television. Along the way, we trace the evolution of the Little Person’s image in popular culture, from one of cruel derision in the age of the court jester…to one of glamour, as personified by sex symbol and Emmy-winning actor Peter Dinklage…to a virtual return to carny days on reality tv.

The talk will take place Monday August 22, 2016 at 7pm at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, 424 Third Ave, Brooklyn. Tickets are $8

More info and tickets are here:

Tomorrow: Dawn to Dusk Westerns #8

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Westerns with tags , on July 26, 2016 by travsd

Even as we speak we are in the midst of  Day #7 of Turner Classic Movies month long salute to the Hollywood western (see yesterday’s post here). Every Tuesday and Wednesday in July Turner Classic Movies will  be showing westerns the entire day, for a total of 100 movies in all. Here is tomorrow’s line-up.  The times below are all Eastern Standard Time, and beware that I always include spoilers.


6am: Quantrill’s Raiders (1958)

The umpteenth telling (and spelling) of the deeds of these marauding Confederate villains. Hollywood needs to do a job of work to make heroes out of this bunch, and for some reason, they have, countless times! Readers of this blog may known star Steve Cochran (a real life cow puncher) best from his role as club owner “Steve” in the Groucho solo film Copacabana). 


7:30am: Billy the Kid (1941)

Good-looking non-entity Robert Taylor plays a character half his age, but I guess it’s better than calling the picture “Billy, the Middle-Aged Man”. Clad all in black, riding a black horse, Billy is hired by a ruthless cattle baron to help him take over the territory, principally by running a decent fellow rancher out of business. His childhood friend (Brian Donlevy) works for the good guy. Eventually, Billy goes to work for the good guy, too. When his Mexican sidekick and then his decent boss are murdered, Billy goes after vigilante justice. Donlevy has to stop him, shooting him fatally in the process (his name is not Pat Garret though for some reason).


9:30am: Annie Get Your Gun (1950)

As much as I love Betty Hutton (which is a considerable lot), it’s hard not to hold some kind of inward grudge against her for playing a role that once belonged to Ethel Merman (star of the Broadway production) and then to Judy Garland (who suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after filming began). Still, she makes a better Annie Oakley  than she did a Texas Guinan. She’s especially funny in the early scenes as a dirty, barefoot hillbilly girl. This (as we all know) is a musical, so holding it up to scholarly standards as a biography would be even more preposterous than usual. It succeeds brilliantly as entertainment. Also in the cast are Howard Keel as Oakley’s rival/husband Frank Butler, Louis Calhern as Buffalo Bill, Edward Arnold (as his rival Pawnee Bill), Keenan Wynn as the manager of the wild west show, and J. Carroll Naish as Sitting Bull.


1:30pm: Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Less a western than a “mid-western” for most of the film. A most revealing movie, about Bloody Kansas for the most part largely taking the pro-slavery side. The hero is J.E.B. Stuart (Errol Flynn), the villain is John Brown (Raymond Massey)! To be fair, as presented, it’s the apolitical U.S. army vs. insurrectionists. Stuart’s circle of buddies and colleagues is half composed of future Confederate leaders and half future Union leaders. His buddy is George Armstrong Custer, played by Ronald Reagan with nary a hint of long hair, mustache or pointy beard. The love interest is Olivia de Havilland, and Van Helfin plays a former West Point colleague who has joined John Brown. The movie is often gorgeous to look at. Massey, with his crazy eyes and Biblical beard IS John Brown. Other than that, despite its important historical subject matter, it’s pretty routine adventure: a series of skirmishes. And it really does manage to seem not-so-subtly pro-South, putting halos over Jeff Davis and Robert E. Lee, making John Brown a simple villain, and presenting blacks as goggle-eyed darkies who would be just as happy remaining slaves. The title is rather misleading but technically justified. Apparently Fort Leavenworth was the last outpost before Santa Fe and the wilderness beyond. The railway stopped at Leavenworth. After that, the Santa Fe trail was the main way west. Three quarters of the film happens in that vicinity, but the rest happens at Harper’s Ferry!


3:30pm: They Died with Their Boots On (1941)

A preposterous concoction purportedly telling the life of George Custer but taking so many liberties as to be nearly completely fictional. The script is pretty awful, though Raoul Walsh’s direction is terrific. Errol Flynn plays Custer, but of course he plays him as Errol Flynn. He hits his marks, he says his lines, and he looks good. The script misinterprets Custer from every angle, making him a guy who loves to drink and fight, but simultaneously has all the military virtues and is full of honor. Custer was indeed brave, and did win several Civil War battles, but he was also vain, a publicity seeker and a careerist. The movie tweaks the vanity, but makes him out to be the opposite as far as the other foibles go. (In the end, as we know, his arrogance and self-delusion resulted in the blunders that resulted in the death of himself and his troops, dividing the troops and refusing extra men and weapons).

In real life, while Custer curried favor with many officers, the movies boils them all down to one: General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet) whom in reality was only in charge of the Union army during its early months. Olivia de Haviland plays Custer’s wife (and the romantic subplot bogs the movie’s progress down – its nearly two and a half hours in the unfolding). Gene Lockhart plays her disapproving father. Arthur Kennedy plays the fictitious villain, a guy who miraculously pops up to bedevil Custer at every stage of his career—hilariously so. Custer arranges to get his revenge by forcing Kennedy to die with him at Little Big Horn. (In the film, Custer knows he will die at Little Big Horn, but he is being “sacrificed by the army and war profiteers”. In real life, as we said, Custer rather foolishly thought he could easily whip the Indians.) Crazy Horse is played by Anthony Quinn – all the Indians that the real-life Custer had to deal with are boiled down to him. (in the movie Custer treats Crazy Horse with respect but heartily approves of his own mission of “clearing the plains of Indians”. It’s hard to watch that aspect now, a bit horrifying. It’s genocide).

And though Little Big Horn is on the grassy plains of Montana, the location looks arid and rocky, like Arizona. Bad history but a well-made film.


6:00pm: The Left Handed Gun (1958)

Arthur Penn’s directorial debut, shot with all the gloomy seriousness of late 50s black and white.  Paul Newman plays a very “methody” (i.e. Strasbergian) Billy the Kid.  He’s sort of a moody misunderstood youth — Hamlet with more resolve.  Having been in some trouble in Texas (shot some guys for insulting his mother!) he takes up with a cow punching outfit outside Lincoln, New Mexico. His boss becomes a father figure. Doesn’t believe in guns, teaches him how to read. The surrogate father is assassinated by a quartet of crooks in the pay of a rival beef baron, one of whom is the sheriff. Billy makes it a point of hunting them down for revenge. Doing so takes him deeper and deeper into trouble. After killing a couple of them he goes into hiding for awhile, where he gets to become friends with Pat Garrett (John Dehner). At some point he violates a general amnesty by killing another of the guys, getting back into trouble. Then he alienates Garrett by killing the last one on his wedding day (and also despoiling the bride). Garrett becomes sheriff just to pursue him. Billy decides to go completely bad. In the end, he allows Garrett to shoot him just to end it all.


8:00pm: The Shooting (1967)

Directed by this Monte Hellman, the Roger Corman of westerns (although it must be said that Roger Corman was almost the Roger Corman of westerns). In this one Warren Oates and Will Hutchins are two men hired by a woman (Millie Perkins, best known for playing Anne Frank) to go cross country on a manhunt. They are joined by Jack Nicholson as a gunslinger. They have an ordeal across the desert. Nicholson and Millie Perkins kill the other two. Hellman also made Ride the Whirlwind, and later films with Oates like Two Lane Blacktop and Cockfight. It’s been an interesting revelation to see his films. You see what a budget means to a western: a larger cast, sets, etc. The only special feature the Hellman films have are the locations. The casts are very small and there is very little by way of sets. Like I say, an interesting film.


9:30pm: Little Big Man (1970)

Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid this is one I thought highly of in my youth but has sunk a little in my estimation since.  I first saw Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man as a child, and watched it many times thereafter. Looking at it now I realize there is a certain odd inconsistency of tone to the movie. It keeps shifting back and forth between a picaresque satire with slapstick elements to genuine tragedy. As a kid that didn’t bother me but now I am able to look at it with some clarity. In and of themselves, the scenes where the Indians are massacred are completely moving and alarming, shot with a cruel fidelity, benefiting from Dustin Hoffman’s terrific acting. Likewise, the intimate scenes with Hoffman and his adopted Indian grandfather (Chief Dan George) are touching and real, sometimes sad, if occasionally gently humorous. These scenes clearly seem influenced by the book “Black Elk Speaks”.

But one is in a quandary as to how to fit it into the rest of the film, which is a silly tall-tale about a guy who appears to have been everywhere and done everything connected with the legends of the Old West. Hoffman’s Jack Crabbe is rescued from a Crow Indian massacre and raised by the Cheyenne. When his tribe is attacked by soldiers he rather cravenly reveals himself as white and is brought to live with a preacher and his hot, oversexed wife (Faye Dunaway). Disillusioned, he takes up with a snake oil salesman (a somewhat miscast Martin Balsam) who progressively keeps losing body parts. Meeting his sister he becomes a gunfighter, and comes to know Wild Bill Hickok. At various points he is a muleskinner for Custer, who is played by Richard Mulligan (Soap) for broad comedy as a vain, delusional madman. At a certain point Crabbe runs a store with a Swedish wife. Between these interludes he keeps going back to the Cheyenne. There is even broad comedy with some of the Indian segments—a gay Indian, and a rival brave who goes insane with the many inadvertent insults Little Big Man commits against him. He also amasses four wives — screwing three of them in a row as the fourth bears his child. Even Custer’s Last Stand is played for broad, slapstick comedy. (Yet the shooting of Hickok, whom we’ve only spent about two minutes of screentime with, is played for unearned pathos).

Is Little Big Man a tragedy about the destruction of the Indians? A comedy about American myth-making? It can’t be both but it tries to, as though Penn had intercut two different movies together.


12 midnight: McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

One of my favorite movies. I first saw Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller when I was about twenty and I went into raptures over it. It doesn’t feel like a movie, it feels like a window into the past. As he always does, Altman increases the apparent verisimilitude by an order of magnitude. There is an aura of melancholy over the whole thing, aided by the sepia-tinted cinematography and the Leonard Cohen songs that really, REALLY appeal to my aesthetic sensibilities. Altman built a whole town to film the movie in–it’s not just a bunch of facades on a street like in a traditional Hollywood studio western. We get right in the middle of frontier existence: we see the food on the tin plate, we hear the omnipresent fiddler tune his fiddle, or a chicken cluck in the background. We see the mess that characterizes the way most people live (as opposed to the spare, idealistic cleanliness of a Hollywood set).

Another interesting aspect is that it’s one of the very few westerns set in the Pacific Northwest. Instead of it being dry all the time, it’s constantly raining or snowing, with the constant sound of moaning wind over the soundtrack, reinforcing the feeling of solitude and melancholy.

The film begins like Shane: a man rides up alone on a horse. McCabe (Warren Beatty), in his fur coat and derby, makes a huge impression on the tiny (almost nonexistent) town of Presbyterian Church. He is a bullshitter and not too bright, but since everyone else in town is fairly dim, no one notices. Most of the town is composed of members of the Altman stock company from M*A*S*H: Rene Auberjunois as Sheehan, who owns the saloon, John Schuck, Bert Remsen, Corey Fischer. (Michael Murphy steps in as well a little later). They are impressed with McCabe and falsely ascribe to him a “rep” as someone who has killed a man in a gunfight. McCabe is vague on the subject. It seems to serve his purpose to have that reputation so he doesn’t clarify anything. Being an enterprising man, he goes to the nearest large town and buys three prostitutes to bring back to Presbyterian Church, hiring the local men to build the whorehouse. The three whores are bottom-of-the-barrel: one is rather fat, one is toothless, and one is a terrified child (as she demonstrates when she stabs one of her customers).

Onto the scene comes Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), and her stable of high class ladies of the evening. She proposes to go into business with McCabe. She is about ten times smarter than him (and they both know it) and quickly secures his acquiescence despite his reservations. The town and the whorehouse begin to thrive. The relationship between Mrs Miller and McCabe is ambiguous. It is mutually rewarding. Something like love seems to be brewing (particularly on his part, for her) but the fact that she charges him $5 for his visits keeps it at a business level. How real  is it? Also, we learn that Mrs. Miller smokes opium. At those moments when she is nice to him, she is high. Again, how real?

Then Michael Murphy and another man , representing a mining interest come into town to buy McCabe out. He is drunk, cocky and stupid, and insults them, holding out for more money. Mrs. Miller warns him that the company is ruthless, they hire gunmen to kill people who are in their way. They come back to McCabe with a higher offer. He continues to be stupid. They give up on him and call in a gun man. We see another side of McCabe when a mysterious stranger (Keith Carradine) rides into town. McCabe goes out to meet him, fairly courageously, and looking like he’s been in a gunfight before. But is it one of his bluffs? It is moot for the moment; the kid is only a cowboy looking for female company. When the three gunmen (including an enormous Englishman and a kid of about fourteen) do come into town, we see that McCabe is frightened — he’s got nothing. He tries to negotiate, but that is not what they are there for. He goes to town and consults a lawyer (William Devane) who is more full shit than McCabe is, promising to try the mining company in the court of public opinion. He tells McCabe he won’t even need marshals, because the company “won’t be able to do a thing.” McCabe returns to town and Mrs Miller quickly disabuses him of the notion. She knows he is going to be killed.

We see what the gunmen are all about when the 14 year old kid kills the Keith Carradine character in cold blood just for the sport of it as a sort of warm-up to the big event. The climax of the film is the real meat of the picture. A western shoot-out with almost no dialogue, we suddenly realize that themes and relationships Altman has been carefully building throughout the picture were there for a reason. The chickens are coming home to roost. McCabe hasn’t got a friend in this town. He never made one. He has built a business here. He has customers. With some, such as Sheehan he has been downright insulting most of the time. When he needs help, he doesn’t ask anyone to back him up, and no one does. Furthermore, oddly, rather than seek comfort by being in plain view in front of everyone, he skulks about the fringes, he actually SEEKS to deal with these men on his own, like some sort of cornered animal, which he doesn’t HAVE to be. This is individualism to a fatal fault.

Interestingly, the other isolated individual in the town is the apparently insane preacher. The preacher takes McCabe’s rifle from him when he leaves it in the church, braying that it’s  a “House of God”, but ironically cocking it to shoot McCabe as he tries to take it from him. Almost immediately, one of the bad guys shoots the preacher’s arm off. Unfortunately, the other arm is holding a lantern and the church begins to burn. And here Altman clearly shows us his message. Though they continue to squabble, the rest of the town comes together as a community, banding together in a bucket brigade to put out the fire. That is civilization. That is how a community acts. McCabe has built something, but what he built was hollow by comparison, a house of cards. There is no mechanism in the town for keeping peace.

While the community works on the problem at hand, McCabe is on his own, running from place to place, taking on the bad guys on his own. He kills all three of the bad guys but is fatally wounded in the process. He dies ignominiously on his own in the snow, no differently from an animal. Meanwhile, Altman’s other point: Mrs. McCabe is in Chinatown, smoking her opium, tuning out the pain. (“Money and pain, money and pain” has been McCabe’s refrain throughout the picture). We end on a shot of her, stoned, examining a beautiful vase: clearly some kind of comment on American consumerism and self-indulgence. She is artificially contenting herself while someone with whom she has had a close relationship is in the worst trouble of his life. Neither McCabe nor Mrs. Miller represent an appealing alternative to the rapacious mining company. Our only hope is in that bucket brigade.


2:15am: Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Film director Michael Cimino passed away yesterday at the age of 77, but as is well known for all intents and purposes we lost him 36 years ago. That was when he (fresh off the career high of 1978’s The Deer Hunter) released Heaven’s Gate, perhaps the most maligned (and most unjustly maligned) film in history.

There ought to be a law against reviewing films on the basis of their balance sheets.  After years of knowing only its reputation (even Cimino’s obituaries are tainted by the words “financial disaster” — who cares?), when you finally watch this film, to me it seems a near-masterpiece. I’ll concede that the there are many shots and even scenes that might not be injured by (might even benefit from) the discipline of the scissors. On the other hand, it’s one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. Practically every shot is breathtaking. When confronted with the task, I could see the difficulty of cutting it. Anyway, dismissing this movie as a “bomb” because of how it did at the box office without weighing its actual merits as a movie is shallow and stupid in the extreme. It’s a great movie. If you don’t have patience for movies like this, go back to kindergarten.

In addition to being gorgeously photographed, it’s thought-provoking. It concern a little-known U.S. atrocity, the Johnson County War, in which (according to this film) the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, with the full sign-off of the Wyoming Governor and the President of the United States, hired a small army of thugs (backed up by the National Guard) to summarily execute a list of 125 supposed “cattle thieves and anarchists”, essentially wiping out a whole town of immigrant farmers. The farmers fight back, in a bloody horrific shooting battle in which dozens of men and women are slaughtered. (The film differs widely from the history of what actually happened but it is a more compelling story for doing so).

The film begins with an elaborate prologue depicting the Harvard graduation ceremony of 1870, where we meet Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt as young men, and Joseph Cotten (in one of hi last performances) gives a graduation speech. I love this way of getting us into it; too few westerns show where those who went west initially CAME FROM, and so they lack a certain context. Here, we have it.

Both Kristofferson and Hurt head west, and meet up 20 years later in Wyoming. Kristofferson actually becomes a sheriff, protecting people against the thugs of the Cattlemen’s Association. Hurt is in the Cattlemen’s Association, and though he is initially appalled at the “List of 125” (the Association’s hit list), he drinks his reservations away. He is weak, and a bit of a philosophical buffoon. In the end, he even winds up accompanying the thugs as they shoot the farmers, watching fascinatedly. How many like him enabled the Nazis?

That would be enough for any film, tracing the divergent paths of these two men. But Hurt’s story actually gets lost and somewhat swallowed up. The bulk of the film is a love triangle. Kristofferson vs. Christopher Walken as one of the Association’s thugs vie for the affections of a Swedish madam (Isabelle Huppert). Her choices are admirably ambiguous in that 1970s way. In the old Hollywood, Kristofferson would be the good guy, Walken the bad guy. Here those edges are softened and blurred. The former never says much to her, never opens up, never gives her any assurances of a future together, and a typical compliment is “I like you because you don’t think too much.”

Walken is a local. He is an “Enforcer” because he needs the job. People consider him a traitor for persecuting his own people for money. But as he reminds us, Kristofferson inherited his own money; he has the luxury of being moral. It is Walken who asks the girl to marry him, who makes touching gestures of trying to “domesticate”, and in the end turns against the Association, a move that proves suicidal, thus heroic. And it is Kristofferson who sits on the List of 125, quits being a sheriff, and waits entirely too long to help the people defend themselves, thus enabling a massacre. In an epilogue he is on his yacht, looking disaffected and full of ennui. Is he/ was he a hero?

Lots of other great people in the cast: Jeff Bridges as a bartender, Brad Dourif as a class agitator of some sort, Mickey Rourke as one of Walken’s men, and lots of other familiar character actors. Michael Christensen of Big Apple Circus is even in it!

What especially galls me about the Heaven’s Gate debacle is what MIGHT have been. Go to his Wiki biography and look at the section called “Unrealized Projects”. How much better would the world have been in these films had gotten made instead of the half a dozen schlocky pieces of junk which were all he was entrusted with post-1980? Why on earth does it work that way? He had been responsible for hits before — don’t producers want hits instead of guaranteed failures?

So anyway…I believe this caps the month of 100 westerns. Saving the best for last, eh?

Summering in Newport

Posted in AMERICANA, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, ME, My Family History, Travel/ Tourism, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2016 by travsd

OK, here’s our latest vacation slide show post! By now, it’s become a regular content stream here.  We’ve done Ireland (Galway & Dublin), New Orleans (a 5 part series), Salem, Burlington, Providence, and too many staycation destinations here in NYC to list. This past week was the Mad Marchioness’s birthday, but my time was somewhat limited by the fact that I am in rehearsals for The Iron Heel. So our trip needed to be close and the time spent getting there needed to be short. Our solution was to do what New Yorkers (of a class far more exalted than ours)  did back in the Gilded Age — make for the shores of nearby Newport, Rhode Island. We both had special childhood memories of visiting the mansions there. And in addition to loving art and history and the beauty of nature, the Marchioness loves restaurants, and there is a very high number of good ones there.

And of course the place has some personal connections for me. I’m from the area. I have some ancestors among the town’s founders (see below) and I spent a very crucial summer there 30 years ago saving up the money that would get me (partway) through theatre school, which then launched me to New York.  As I blogged here, I worked for a man named Michael Shorrock in the summer of 1986, making and hawking tee shirts in Rhode Island’s two principal resorts of Block Island and Newport. These are the only known photos of me during that time. I was 20 and working some party at a Newport mansion (giving away custom tee shirts as party favors):


The visor says “Tall Ships, ’86” — it makes sense that there would be another tall ship display a decade after the Bicentennial.


Bellevue manor sign

At any rate, we went into the Belly of the Sea-Beast last week, and I do believe we managed to sample each of Newport’s “Nine Cities” which Thornton Wilder wrote about in his novel Theophilus North.

We stayed at a highly eccentric complex called the Inns on Bellevue, in a charming 19th century guest house.  “Charming” is our customary euphemism for no shampoo, unlaundered towels, a loud upstairs neighbor, a tv at a 90 degree angle to the bed (not the first time we’ve encountered this quirk) and a leaky toilet. The latter was the worst problem (use your imagination) and so we requested a move to a different room. We liked the new space better, with the one exception being the fact that the shower was in the bedroom! It was only mildly perturbing, mostly just surreal. It’s very disorienting to look over from bed and see a shower stall with no wall or curtain in between. The line between “New England charm” and “mental illness” can sometimes be very fine.

Benedict Arnold windmill

But we were in the perfect location, one of the reasons I chose the place. For one thing, we were about half a block from one of Newport’s best known landmarks, the Newport Tower. For many years, there was a spurious but popular theory abroad that the structure had been built by Vikings before the time of Columbus. On the other hand, locals have pretty much always known what it always was, a stone windmill built by Rhode Island’s first colonial governor Benedict Arnold, great-grandfather of the eponymously named traitor, and a distant relation of mine. The fact that the tower is located on Mill Road might give some clue. Still it wasn’t until carbon dating by some killjoys in the 1990s that the Viking theory was officially disproved. Still, this tower is the reason so many businesses in the area have the name Viking. (Our guest house was across from the Viking Hotel, for example).

We were pretty wiped out when we arrived, but we were also starving and eager to site-see, so we headed down the hill to Bowen’s Wharf and grabbed some seafood at the Wharf Pub, which was having a promotion for? Brooklyn Brewery. There’s no escape!

Then we roamed around the docks, where it became necessary to take this photo:


Somehow we got a second wind and took a LONG walk down Thames Street, past  countless seafood joints and watering holes, both fancy and divey, heard countless bad cover musicians, passed many a boat-yard, and roamed around an antique shop in an old armory.

Trav at breakfast

Complimentary breakfast at the inn. For once, the Marchioness was up and at ’em and eager to get started long before me. That never happens! This picture illustrates my slow attempts to attain her energy level.

Our inn was just a short bus ride from all of the mansions, with the vast majority of them literally located on the same street, Bellevue Ave. We headed first for the Breakers, which was the farthest away, and the one we had both visited previously in our childhoods. Built as the summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1895, it’s the largest and most garish and gaudy of the mansions, built in an Italian Renaissance style, but with interiors that are a sort of vulgar mish-mash of whatever European plunder from whatever time period that Vanderbilt could get his hands on. This was intimated to us by our teachers as schoolchildren, but I’m sure most of us still just went, “I want a house like THIS some day!” I know I did. But this time I felt myself more interested in the butler’s pantry and kitchen. A changed perspective.

Anyway, for this reason and others, if at all possible I would recommend that travelers see this house LAST, so that you can see the smaller and simpler houses for context and comprehend what you’re even looking at. The Breakers was designed to be the last word in conspicuous opulence, in Newport, at least, so it is better to see all the other houses it attempts to outdo FIRST.

Ironically, one of the most gorgeous things about the Breakers is the view from the inside looking OUT:

Breakers ocean view

And the house’s exterior is tasteful if imposing. It was designed by Richard Morris Hunt.

Breakers from lawn

I was much more enamored of Marble House, built by Cornelius’s brother William K. Vanderbilt in 1892, just a few years prior. It was also designed by Richard Morris Hunt in the Beaux-Arts style.  Its name comes from the marble used on the building’s exterior, which was inspired by Versailles. My favorite spot was the nautical trophy room, full of souvenirs from William’s yachting activities. Apparently lots of Frenchmen like to come there and put their grubby hands on things:

vanderbilt ship wheel

Some other interesting features include a spectacular staircase that was used in the 1974 film version of The Great Gatsby (in which one of the teachers at my high school was an extra), the Chinese Tea House on the back lawn, and the dark, atmospheric Gothic Room which has the atmosphere of a church.

Interestingly, three years after it opened, the Vanderbilts divorced. The mansion was already in Alva Vanderbilt’s name — she’d been given the house as a birthday present. She went on to marry Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont (to whom I am distantly related on his mother’s side) and became the mistress of Belcourt, another Richard Morris Hunt mansion. Belcourt was still open as a museum until recently. In 2012, it was sold to private owners(!) This struck me as a startling tipoff as to where wealth equality is headed in this country. In similar news, that same year Beechwood, the Astor’s Newport Mansion which was also long a living history museum, was sold to billionaire Larry Ellison but he reportedly intends to turn it into an art museum.

From here we went to Rosecliff  which opened in 1902 and was designed by McKim, Mead and White. I definitely recognized some of the interiors in this house from that same movie of The Great Gatsby (e.g., the scene where they are sitting in a sun room at Tom and Daisy’s and the sea breeze is wafting the curtains). At Rosecliff we heard tales of decadent parties with the likes of Houdini as entertainment, and scandalous guests such as a chimpanzee who swung from the chandeliers. These bashes were intended to compete with the annual balls thrown by Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish at her Newport mansion Crossways, a house which still stands but now houses condominiums.

By now, we were footsore and starved so we went and had seafood at a place called The Landing on Bowen Wharf

Carolyn at restaurant (2)

From here we stayed closer to the old town waterfront. We visited the modest Museum of Newport History, located in an Old Brick Market built in the 1760s.

Gardiner Thurston

There I found this portrait of Rev. Gardner Thurston (1728-1802), pastor of Newport’s Second Baptist Church, and a distant relative. Our mutual ancestor is Edward Thurston (1620-1707) one of Newport’s founders (see below)

James franklin's press

This is apropos of nothing except that I thought it was cool. It is an actual printing press used by James Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s older brother. Ben had been apprenticed to him as a printer in his youth, acquiring skills that allowed him to achieve international prominence as newspaper editor and publisher, and author.

One thing you’ll hear about at this museum (and very few other places in town) is Newport’s past as a slave trading center. Prior to the American Revolution, Newport was America’s fifth largest city, and its wealth came largely from its participation in the Triangle Trade. The city was occupied for a time by the British; a large portion of its population fled and never returned. While Rhode Island had the North’s highest per capita concentration of slaves of any New England colony or state, it was gradually banned by legislation in 1784 (an effort driven largely by local Quakers). In the 19th century, after the last of the slaves had died, the town’s connection to the hated practice continued when the first millionaires who made their summer homes here were Southern slaveholders who came North for the cool breezes. This ceased with the advent of the Civil War. Thereafter Newport would be the playground of the rich from New York and Boston. At any rate, I’ll be blogging more about my home state’s complicity in the slave trade as a follow up to this broader one about the North. 


Photo by Marchioness

Drinks were in order at this stage; we had them at the colonially themed Clarke Cooke House on Bannister’s Wharf. where we sat and listened to some exceedingly cheesy preppies bleat loudly about the things they bought and owned — a vital part of the Newport experience.

Then we took the first of our two boat rides, this time the 55 minute loop on the Newport Harbor Shuttle. We shared the boat most of the way with three giggling drunk ladies and received interesting information from the vessel’s pilot/ tour guide Paul. The coolest sight we saw on this trip was the tall ship Oliver Hazard Perry which was moored just outside Fort Adams. 

Oliver Hazard Perry tall ship 2

It’s not so visible in my photo but there was a crew of student sailors aloft in the mast; the ship is used for training — in the unlikely event you will be able able to secure a job as a crew member of a 19th century sailing ship.

After this we stopped at the historic Black Pearl on Bannister’s Wharf. I sampled their famous chowder, my third portion of chowder since arriving, I wanted to compare and contrast. Their chowder was okay, but I was more knocked out by their hot buttered rolls — and by the fact that they served hot buttered rolls. 


While it may look like we did a lot on our first full day, we enjoyed the second day even more. It began with a little rubbernecking at some places close to our hotel.

We were  startled to stumble upon something called Audrain, a storefront automobile museum. This place (founded 2014) is so new it wasn’t in my guidebook. That’s okay, I can live without visiting an automobile museum (and why do they have one in Newport?) but we ended up seeing it anyway. The entire display (it’s an admittedly gorgeous and impressive collection) is visible from the street through the windows for free. Someone should tell these novice exhibitors to invest in some curtains and some very good signs or they’ll lose a lot of potential admission fees.

We also looked at the famous Newport Casino, designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1880, the site of the first U.S. Opens and, since 1954 the home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. We had a peek around back and caught a glimpse of the charming, impressive tennis stadium, which you’d never dream exists from the modest looking streetfront (undoubtedly by design, for it started out as a private club):


From thence we went to nearby Kingscote, which we absolutely loved. Without reservation, I would recommend this as the FIRST stop in any tour of Newport mansions. It provides a crucial foundation for the history of all that came after. Originally built in 1839 by Southern plantation owner George Noble Jones, it was acquired during the Civil War by China Trade merchant William Henry King and remained in his family for nearly a century. The primary style is Gothic revival; the main house was designed by Richard Upjohn, with more modern additions later by McKim, Mead and White (one of their first commissions). Among the pleasures (besides the Gothic atmosphere we so deeply love) is the fact that the house was acquired by preservationists when its last private owner died with great suddenness in 1973. This meant that all of the family belongings (books, china, art, silver, etc) were still inside and were acquired along with the house. It looks and feels like a home that somebody lived in…and that is a major part of the context it’s hard to get a feel for in those later, larger mansions.


Then came what I can safely say was the highlight of our trip, a visit to the too-little known National Museum of American Illustration. I can’t say enough good things about this experience — our jaws were dropping. The experience is a double whammy. First, it is located in the gorgeous 1898 mansion Vernon Court, designed by the firm of Carrere and Hastings (who also designed the Frick), so at its base level it’s yet another house tour (of an extremely tasteful and beautiful house). But…on top of that, it’s full to the rafters with original paintings and drawings by so many of the American illustrators the Marchioness and I both love: Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, Norman Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker, Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg, John Clymer, and many others.  And also, there were countless John Rogers sculptures, a not entirely dissimilar artistic phenomenon. Our eyes were popping out of our heads. This place deserves to be better known. It’s relatively new — founded in 1998, by polymath collectors Laurence and Judy Cutler. We don’t just want to go back, we want to live there. Not so much for the mansion as for the art. I declare the National Museum of American Illustration the most significant museum of Rhode Island, more important in its way than the RISD museum.  The benchmark for this bold statement being, “What museum has the sort of collection that you HAVE to go to this particular museum to see? And WOULD you travel to this museum to see it?” Not to pick on the RISD Museum, I love it, but it is the sort of place I might pop into if I happened to be in town. But I might easily be persuaded to travel 180 miles JUST to see the Illustration Museum.

But we had places to see and…places to see.

The last (and my favorite) of the big mansions we saw was The Elms, built by coal magnate Edward Julius Berwind in 1901, designed by Horace Traumbauer in the style of a French chateau. A bit slavishly perhaps. It seems a very faithful copy to my untutored eye, and that was what I liked about it. There seems to be more taste in its conception and very little monkey business. The house is full of art, prints, paintings, sculpture, tapestry, but it all seems appropriate, it seems to fit organically. (Although the Marchioness was amused by the bust of Caesar presiding over the dining room table from a nearby mantelpiece. As she observed, these houses seem designed to intimidate one’s enemies as much as anything else). Here she is surveying the grounds in her new birthday sun hat.


After a quick and cheap lunch at Griswold’s Tavern (the meaning of whose name we wouldn’t learn until the next next day), it was on to the day’s next big event: a harbor sail on the schooner Aquidneck. 

schooner Aquidneck

This was just a pleasant 90 minute excursion around the harbor, scheduled at dusk for maximum beauty. The crew of three not only manned the sails, but kept topping off our complimentary cups of champagne. It’s the only way to travel. I had never actually sailed before (not even on a sunfish), so it was a wonderful experience for me when the canvas was unfurled and the vessel began to move ahead silently, with the engines cut. It was quite magical.

aquidneck sail

A view of the Newport bridge from Narragansett Bay:

newport bridge from bay

The birthday girl in restful repose:

Carolyn on sail boat

A lousy photo of Fort Adams State Park: (So close and yet so far! The Newport Folk Festival was opening the next day, featuring a pair of our favorite entertainers Flight of the Conchords, but we had to get back to the city, and it was sold out anyway):

fort adams

Hammersmith Farm, the family home of Jackie Bouvier (Kennedy Onassis). It was formerly opened to visitors…but now is not. Interestingly, it’s virtually next door to a house that Eisenhower used as a summer White House.

Hammersmith Farm

We capped off the evening with the Marchioness’s birthday dinner at the historic White Horse Tavern, established in 1673. It was easily the best food I ate during our stay, and the unseemly faces I made while I consumed it hopefully communicated my appreciation.



Amusingly, while were were surrounded by pewter and stoneware and colonial antique furniture, the music being piped in was Sinatra and Tony Bennett — the combination felt very Rhode Island.


Last day! And for once I woke up early enough to spend a couple of hours taking some history snaps around the city while the Marchioness slept in. I basically had the town to myself, the only sounds were me and the sea gulls. It was lovely.

Touro synagogue

This is Touro Synagogue, a source of pride for any Rhode Islander with half a brain. It is the oldest synagogue in the country; and America’s second oldest Jewish congregation. It eventually dawned on us why we saw the occasional Orthodox families running around this still-WASP-ish enclave. They were making a pilgrimage!

WASP or no WASP, I feel a close affinity to this congregation, for its founders and my own ancestors came to this place for the very same reason. As I blogged here, Rhode Island is one of the first places to make true freedom of worship the law of the land.

Because I am descended from colonial Newport Quakers like Christopher Holder and Edward Thurston, and am related to the Hopkins family (you may recall the Quaker Stephen Hopkins from the musical 1776), I took great interest in this:

Quaker mtg house 4

The Freinds’ Meeting House was interesting:  huge and barn-like, unlike any other buildings in the area, reminding me of places much farther afield like Pennsylvania (which makes sense) or the South.

Quaker mtg house 3


quaker mtg house 1

In surroundings such as these, one might be forgiven for mistaking Quakers for Houyhnhnms (look it up).

Also, there is this. Newport’s United Baptist Church is essentially the second Baptist church in America. The oldest, in Providence was of course the one founded by Roger Williams, my (10th) great grandfather who fled persecution not only in England but also in Massachusetts and Plymouth. My (9th) great grandfather Obadiah Holmes was one of the first pastors at the Newport branch.

Baptist Church 1


Baptist Church 2

After this I managed to locate the remains of one of my ancestors in tiny Coddington Cemetery:

Coddington cemetery (edward thurston)

Here is the marker for my (10th) great grandfather Edward Thurston:

Edward Thurston grave

It is amazing how much maintenance these markers require. Thurston’s is covered with lichen at the moment. But here is a photo of the same stone someone took a few years ago:


I also walked to the outskirts of town to the Common Burying Ground where I know many of my relatives are interred. But there are 5,000 graves there, and no time to sort through them all. So after a brief sweep, I pressed on.

It seems like almost every house in Newport has a sign telling its age and its original inhabitants, and the surnames are more often than not names from my family tree. In most cases I’ll go out on a limb and say I and those people will be related, with earlier colonial ancestors in common. (Most of these historical houses are from the 18th or early 19th century. The common ancestors would be from the 17th century.) I photographed a couple, but quickly realized it was silly…there were too many. But this one is particularly interesting:

Wantan Lyman Hazard 2

The Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House is the oldest house in Newport (built c. 1697). I am related both to its original builder and owner Stephen Mumford, and to a later owner Daniel Lyman, a Revolutionary War soldier and Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court.


Wantan Lyman Hazard 3

And, just becuz, here’s St. Mary’s Church, where JFK married Jackie. It is the first Catholic parish in the now heavily Catholic State of Rhode Island, dating from the early 19th century (more evidence of Rhode Island’s religious tolerance):


St Marys

This is the tee shirt shop I mentioned above, where I worked to earn the money to go to theatre school. I had to hunt for ages to find this place. It had been 30 years!  It’s a pretty crucial piece of my life. If only I’d known about my family history in the area at that time — I only dug out these facts about a year ago.

tee shirt shop

Okay! Now the Marchioness was up, and so we squeezed in a couple of additional museums before we catch our train. Both were practically next door to our hotel.

The first was the WONDERFUL Redwood Library and Athenaeum, established in 1747. This is just the kind of quirky local institution  I can’t get enough of. A private membership library and club, and public museum. Its merits are too many to name: the building itself was designed by America’s first architect Peter Harrison, and there are the library’s original collection of centuries-old books, and antique clocks, and 18th century portraits by local artists with national reputations like Charles Bird King (from Newport) and Gilbert Stuart (who is from just across the bay in Saunderstown). And there was a traveling exhibition in the space, about mid 20th century futuristic car design, on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. But because of the weird multipurpose nature of the institution, the place had a sort of tension which I relished. There was a very funny portrait on the wall of a minister with crossed-eyes. I wanted to show it to my girlfriend so we could laugh together about it, but there were two club members sitting in high backed chairs, scowling, reading the newspaper and clearing their throats.

The last place we visited was sadly the least impressive. The Newport Art Museum may have enjoyed the early support and involvement of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and may have shown many important artists over the years, but its mission may be said to be more artist-friendly than visitor-friendly. Its mission seems to be to support work by contemporary local artists. And we did see some interesting work. But we were in town for the history. Maybe if we lived there, we’d find it more engaging. By the way, this museum is located in the John N.A. Griswold House, designed by Richard Morris Hunt (which is reason the pub we mentioned above bears the name — it is across the street). the Griswold House and Redwood Library feel of a piece and of a time with nearby Kingscote, an earlier era than the monster mansions up the way.

At any rate, shortly after this we came down off our cloud and boarded the bus for home. And if there is anything that will bring you down to earth, it’s taking the bus.




Tomorrow on TCM: Dawn to Dusk Westerns #7

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Westerns with tags , , , , on July 25, 2016 by travsd

Every Tuesday and Wednesday in July Turner Classic Movies will  be showing westerns the entire day, for a total of 100 movies in all. Here is tomorrow’s line-up.  The times below are all Eastern Standard Time, and beware that I always include spoilers. The day launches with several western comedies:



6:00am: Go West (1925)

Though it’s one of Buster Keaton ‘s more personal films, aspects of Go West feel more like Chaplin or Lloyd. In this western comedy, Buster plays a drifter named “Friendless” who takes a job on a ranch, where he must prove himself amongst a bunch of mean and manly guys. His main attachment is to a cow named “Brown Eyes”. Yet certain aspects of the film are strongly Keatonesque. He takes the period detail very seriously. Unlike many comedy westerns, for example, Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1938) or the Marx Brothers’ Go West (1940), Keaton makes a real effort to make the location look and feel accurate, which gives the film an entirely different sort of feeling. And the climax, a cattle stampede in the middle of downtown Los Angeles is quite typical of the man who had given us a hundred running policemen in Cops (1922) and dozens of brides in Seven Chances (1925).


7:15am: Way Out West (1937)

Laurel and Hardy ‘s charming genre spoof has Stan and Ollie delivering the deed to a mine to a young girl (Rosina Lawrence), only to be swindled out of it by an unscrupulous saloon keeper played by Jimmy Finlayson, and his cohort the dance hall girl Lola (Sharon Lynn).

The movie contains one of my favorite moments of cinema, and (as an abject lesson) it has nothing to do whatever with the plot. The boys are passing by the front of the saloon, hear some music (sung by the Avalan Boys), and just start dancing. Sometimes this little scene makes me laugh; sometimes the beauty of it just shakes me. The moment evolves so organically and naturally, as if it were the most logical thing in the world. Then they go about it with a kind of dignity and majesty, with steps both simple and beautiful, yet ridiculously elaborate for something that is theoretically improvised (in the context of the story). And it is important enough to them that they do every last step, even as the world is going about its business on the street around them. That is how we must do all our dances — as though they were the most important thing in the world, and with a proud little smile.


8:30am: Bowery Buckaroos (1947)

A Bowery Boys comedy. The fact that Sach (Huntz Hall) is reading a western comic at the top of the film should be the tip-off that all that follows will be a dream — but me, I can be a little slow on the up-take. While the guys are sitting around the soda shop Louie (Bernard Gorcey) sings a western song called “Louie the Lout” and the suddenly a sheriff rides in on a horse and says that Louie is wanted for a murder committed 20 years ago. The guys decide to head west to clear his name. It’s a good thing this was made by Monogram Pictures – they’re all set up to turn this into a Monogram western! The plot all has to with a gold map etc. They draw the map (which is on Louie’s back) onto Sach’s back. This is the last of the Bowery Boys films to feature Bobby Jordan who got tired of having only a half a dozen lines per movie.


9:45am: Two Guys from Texas (1948)

One of many sequels to Two Guys from Milwaukee starring Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, very much in the vein of Hope and Crosby pictures. In this one, the boys’ car breaks down in the desert, causing them to work at a local dude ranch. When their car is stolen as a getaway vehicle for a robbery, they must clear their names. The picture also features Dorothy Malone, Forest Tucker and Fred Clark.


11:15am: Callaway Went Thataway (1951)

Capra-esque comedy by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, in which an ordinary Joe (Howard Keel) is forced to impersonate a popular Hopalong Cassidy style star of tv westerns (also Keel). Fred MacMurray and Dorothy Maguire play a pair of ad executives who have engineered the fraud and have to wrangle their plain-spoken honest substitute. An interesting glimpse into mid 20th century American culture, but not the world’s most hilarious satire.


12:45pm: Mail Order Bride (1963)

A rare starring vehicle for Buddy Ebsen, written and directed by Burt Kennedy.. A very common Burt Kennedy scenario –  a more seasoned outdoorsman (Ebsen) meets up with young Keir Dullea near a stream, in what looks to be Colorado or thereabouts. They argue when Ebsen calls the young man “Sonny” and advises him to cross stream at a certain place. He does and falls in a drop off (Kennedy re-uses this business a lot. It would later reappear in 1969’s Young Billy Young ).    Western perennial Paul Fix plays the sheriff and we have a bunch more from the Burt Kennedy stock company: Warren Oates, Denver Pyle, Marie Windsor, Kathleen Freeman, Doodles Weaver. Dullea turns out to be the son of a friend of his, recently deceased, whom he must now make a man out of. Thus we get a card game, followed by a corny saloon brawl accompanied by that intolerable  “wacky” music (in this case, adapted from “Old Dan Tucker”). Ebsen brings the unconscious boy home. It turns out that Ebsen has inherited the boy’s pa’s place, with the understanding that he’ll turn it over to the boy once he’s ready. The boy’s a card playing hellion – the father wanted him straightened out. A very young Warren Oates is his friend. He decides to get the boy a bride in order to domesticate him (it had worked with his father). Kathleen Freeman plays a salvation army lady—one of the bridal candidates btw, but instantly ruled out. Various other candidates get struck from the list. Finally he gets smitten by a girl who’s a cleaning lady at whorehouse. Denver Pyle  plays the preacher. From here it becomes a domestic comedy, with an emphasis on domestication.


2:15pm: Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)

This and the Over the Hill Gang are good examples of the western form in its decadence, apparently quite exhausted. The Over the Hill Gang at least has a good original angle, the idea of senior citizen cowboys. This one has the same light Sherwood Shwartz level tone, but no angle at all, just a vehicle for James Garner, a tribute to Walter Brennan, and a handful of feeble comical ideas. Garner seems to be reviving his Maverick persona, a very likable, laconic, cheerful and cool character, who delivers even insults affably. That is the germ of an idea that could be quite funny with a stronger script. It’s a sort of variation of Gary Cooper’s character, although Garner’s character travesties “innocence”, whereas Cooper’s is actually innocent.

The story begins with a terrific idea, wasted in this story because superfluous: a funeral which breaks out in a melee when gold is discovered in the freshly dug hole. A wild boomtown results (cheesy art direction — looks like a toy town). Town fathers are led by Harry Morgan as Mayor. They need a sheriff and Garner rides into town and takes the job. He keeps claiming that he’s just passing through on the way to Australia, and he demonstrates that he is such a good shot that he can shoot a hole through a thrown washer (a small metal ring, ya damn fool, not a washing machine). He also coolly dispatches any bad guys he needs to.

Such a character is usually given a backstory. None here. why does he have these skills? We don’t know. He’s just some perfect guy. The main force of evil in the town is Walter Brennan, who reprises his Old Man Clanton persona from My Darling Clementine: he has a gang of wild sons, one of whom is Bruce Dern. The bulk of the film centers around Garner arresting Dern for murder and placing him in a jail with no bars (they haven’t arrived from the store yet) and guarding him from several onslaughts of Brennan’s people. (This is what I think of as the Rio Bravo plot. Another Hawks tribute is a reference Brennan makes to his false teeth, which reminds us of Red River). Also, Garner makes Jack Elam, the “town character” a deputy, another Hawks gimmick. He romances Joan Hackett, Morgan’s daughter, an extremely crazy, accident prone, feisty girl, perhaps the script’s most interesting and promising idea, also squandered. (Note: Hackett had also been in the western Will Penny.) It ends with garner dispatching about 15 bad guys, and an epilogue about him marrying the girl and becoming governor.

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

4:00pm: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)

This is a very interesting artifact, very much of a piece with the other new westerns of its time. Like Jeremiah Johnson and Little Big Man and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (the latter of which had also starred Paul Newman) it plays with the idea of the tall tale and the opposite idea that this story just might be true.  Texas Hanging Judge Roy Bean was a real historical figure, but he was also the stuff of legend.  (Like those aforementioned movies, Roy Bean gives its legendary story a tragic dimension. There is this idea of a flaw in the American character leading to unhappiness. For the most part Bean plays like a silly comedy, but there’s more to it. Also like other movies of the time, such as The King of Marvin Gardens or The Last Detail, it feels plotless and randomly episodic — experimental. Usually such films were rooted in verite though, whereas this one is outlandish.

We also see that, in the wake of Butch Cassidy,  Paul Newman got the mistaken idea that he had a flair for comedy. That film also showcases Newman as another western legend, also wearing a derby hat. In this one, they blatantly copy the Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head sequence, with a montage scene cut to a terrible song called Honeysuckle, Molasses and Honey sung by Andy Williams. Fast forward over this! Newman plays Judge Bean, “the Only Law West of the Pecos”. A wanted bank robber, he walks out of the desert into a godforsaken frontier saloon one day, and is attacked by all the dirty people within. They cold cock him, drag him from a horse and leave him for dead. A girl gives him a gun and he returns to kill everyone in the bar. (The first tall tale of the film: he single handedly kills about 20 people). He finds a law book on the table, and sets himself up to be a judge. His main character trait is an obsession with the actress Lillie Langtry. He names the bar “The Jersey Lily”  in her honor, and calls the town that will grow there Langtry.

Bean’s idea of justice is cruel and capricious. He shoots and hangs bad guys. He makes a bunch of low-lifes his marshals, and a bunch of prostitutes their wives. This is the core of his new town. John Huston himself plays Grizzly Adams, who gives Bean a big, beer drinking grizzly bear, who becomes his best friend. Stacy Keach plays a hilarious character called Bad Bob, a flamboyant albino who comes to town to cause trouble, and whom Bean literally shoots a hole through. Roddy McDowell plays a back east lawyer who ends up taking over the whole town. With some more shaping, this could have been a better movie. When we start to get interested it’s too late in the picture. The real meat of it should be Bean’s relationship with the Mexican girl who becomes his wife (Jacquelyn Bisset). He is an eccentric, too weird and ornery to show love. But then the girl dies in his arms from childbirth just as he has gotten back from a misguided quest to see Lily Langtry perform. Obsessed with someone he doesn’t even know, he has lost the only woman he’ll ever love who’s right in front of him. The last act happens 20 years later — 1919. The town is now an oil boom town run by McDowell. His daughter (Victoria Principal) is the ward of Bean’s bartender Ned Beatty. But McDowell is forcing them out. Bean returns and blows up the whole town, returning it to desert. In the end, his bar becomes a museum, and Langtry (Ava Gardner) finally comes to visit. An interesting, if flawed film, and a worthy double feature with William Wyler’s 1940 The Westerner. 


6:15pm: Hearts of the West (1975)

Jeff Bridges, Andy Griffith, Donald Pleasance, Blithe Danner, Alan Arkin. This is a movie ABOUT westerns and an excellent deconstruction of the genre. Bridges is a young farm boy named Louis Tater who dreams of being a western writer. He takes a correspondence course then goes to visit the college. It turns out to be a swindle. He flees after a run-in with one of the con men and winds up in the desert, where he accidentally stumbles across a western film shoot. It is an early talkie serial; this is set in the Depression era. He gets hired as an extra. He gets ahead by agreeing to do a tricky stunt (jumping off a roof onto a horse). Arkin, the director/producer fires the difficult star and hires Bridges to replace him. Then he gets fired when talked into asking for too much money. He uses the money he accidentally stole from the from correspondence school to leverage a meeting with a publisher of western books (Pleasance). Then Bridges’ hero, a western writer (Griffith) takes credit for his novel. He is disillusioned. And all this time the correspondence school swindlers have been tracking him to get their money back. In the end end they attack Bridges, and Griffith rescues him and his girl (Danner).

Now we head into prime time, including several liberal “problem westerns”. 


8:00pm: Shane (1953)

TCM is using this George Stevens film as the keystone for their 100-film series, and it’s as well they should. It is perhaps the best western of all time, and certainly in the top five. It was my father’s favorite movie. I first saw it as a child. And I have seen it about half a dozen times since then.  Like all the best ones, it is a simple parable containing big ideas. The film is set in Wyoming, so gorgeously photographed it as unbelievable as a fairy tale. A handful of small farmers are being terrorized by a large scale rancher and his lackeys. Van Heflin and Jean Arthur are one couple, living on their farm with their small boy, Joey. Alan Ladd is the wandering gunfighter who comes and stays with them and gets involved with their fight. Jack Palance is the gunfighter the rancher has hired to terrorize the sodbusters. It’s full of great character actors. Elisha Cook is a southern farmer, and one of my favorite Edgar Buchanan are also in the cast.

The film is framed by an aesthetic idea, almost Hitchcockian. We experience the whole movie from the perspective of the child, Little Joey. At every crucial juncture he is always there, watching. But he is no mere voyeur. This whole thing is happening for him somehow. Repeatedly the fact that Joey is watching changes the results of the action. Either Shane modifies his behavior or, as in the end, Joey actually warns him about a sneak attack. While the conflict between the two forces is always at the forefront, there is a terrific compelling subplot, the little boy and the wife are pulled to Shane. Van Hefflin is kindly, almost saintly. They never stop loving him too. But he’s not sexy or exciting. The boy comes right out and says it many times. But most compellingly, Stevens arranges it so the wife never does. It’s all shown through looks. Extremely powerful. But Shane is as decent as the farmers around him. He shows it with every gesture.  It is a moral parable. And one for all times. Responsibility is thrust upon these men. There are evil, destructive forces at work and there is no one else but YOU to take the matter in hand, if you have enough courage and don’t flinch from a job that may kill you.

Shane says: “ A gun is a tool, Marion. No better and no worse than the man wearing it.” This question is also at the heart of Angel and the Badman and High Noon. It was nagging for some reason in the 1950s. Could it have been the H bomb? I think it could.


10:15pm: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

An amazingly progressive film for its day, directed by William Wellman. Feels more like it was made in 1963 than 20 years earlier. It tells the story of a lynching of three innocent men for an alleged cattle rustling and murder in Arizona in the 1880s. Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan are a pair of drifters who go along with the posse so as not to be mistaken for suspects and find themselves sticking with a minority among the group who are reluctant to hang the three men they DO pick up for the crime (includes Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn). The crowd is blood thirsty and won’t listen to reason and finally they hang the men. Then they learn that the men were innocent. A great movie. a good, instructive one to show kids


11:45pm: Broken Arrow (1950)

A classic of its kind, based on real events, and told very economically and movingly. The title refers to a Native American symbol for peace. It’s Arizona in the 1870s. Jimmy Stewart plays real life Tom Jeffords who has the audacious idea to go alone and speak to the Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise (Jeff Chandler) to stop the war that has been raging for ten years. To do so, he approaches a “half-breed” to get him to teach him the Apache language and customs. He goes alone and proposes to Cochise that he let the mail through (it hasn’t gone through in 7 weeks.). Arthur Hunnicut plays the guy in charge of the mails. As a second stage in the diplomacy, Jeffords brings in a General and they establish a 3 month trial peace treaty. Will Geer plays a white settler who heads up efforts to undermine the peace efforts. The core of the story is Jeffords’ love affair and marriage to a pretty Indian girl who is then killed by whites. Jeffords now finds himself eager for war and revenge. Ironically, it is Cochise who urges patience: a great and timely lesson. Jay Silverheels portrays the great leader Geronimo. 


1:30am: Wild Rovers (1971)

I am not a Blake Edwards fan, but I do find some of his films interesting in conception, and so I am eager to finally get to see this one, which flopped at the box office and is seldom shown. William Holden and Ryan O ‘Neal play a couple of cowboys who decide to rob a bank to solve their money woes, with tragic results. The first rate caste also includes Karl Malden, Tom Skerrit, and James Olson, among others. To me, it reads like an effort to replicate the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with what was at the time a very hot cast: Holden had just come off The Wild Bunch, and O’Neal from Love Story and Skerrit from M*A*S*H. It is said that the studio didn’t like the downbeat ending…but what has more downbeat endings than hits like Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? So it will be interesting to see firsthand where and how it may run aground. Who knows? I may love it, as I often do when it comes to movies others dislike!


4:00am: The Hanging Tree (1959)

Late Gary Cooper film, directed by Delmer Daves. Set on the Gold Trail, in Montata, 1873. Cooper rides up through a town (past the titular hanging tree)  and buys a claim along with a cabin from a prospector. When we first meet villain Karl Malden he is shooting at a “sluice robber”. The whole town chases the guy, a young man. Cooper, a doctor, saves him.  Cooper makes the boy be his servant, and hangs out his shingle as a doctor. A local crazy “healer” (George C. Scott) hates the competition, and preaches against him. It turns out they know each other. Cooper chases him off with a gun. The town rescues a Swiss girl from a robbed stage coach. She is blinded, sunburnt and dehydrated. The doctor cares for her. Interestingly although he is a sort of benefactor to the young man and the Swiss girl, they are both sort of his prisoners. When Cooper is out, Malden comes sniffing around, asks the lady for money and then seems about to try more (i.e., rape her)–but Cooper stops him. He beats him in a fistfight. The woman gets her eyesight back . She and Cooper have a brief romantic interlude but then Cooper sends the woman and the boy away., The latter two start mining, with the assistance of Malden. Cooper is secretly bankrolling the effort however. For a long it doesn’t pay off. Then a tree knocks over and they find the gold beneath it. There is a riot. The doctor catches Malden raping the girl again, and kills him. The town starts to lynch him. The woman offers the town her whole fortune in order to save him. Terrific movie.


Your Guide to Gildersleeve

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television with tags , , , , , , on July 25, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of radio and screen comedian and voice-over artist Harold “Hal” Peary (1908-1985)

Peary is best known for creating the popular radio character Throckmorton Gildersleeve on the Fibber McGee and Molly Show in 1939. The big blowhard was so popular he got his own spin-off radio show from 1941 to 1957 (though Peary left in ’50) and he starred as Gildersleeve in several movies. You know Peary’s work whether you know his name or not — after the various incarnations of Gildersleeve went off the air he was a constant presence as a character actor on tv sit coms and a voice over actor for cartoons for decades. And I swear he was at least a partial inspiration for Don Messick’s characterization as Scooby Doo (that deep throated horse whinny type thing he does). At any rate, the fad for Gildersleeve movies was short. Here’s my take on the handful that got made.


The Great Gildersleeve (1942)

Peary’s breakout starring picture (though he’d been in a couple of Fibber McGee and Molly pictures). He was a huge star in radio with this character, but frankly it’s a bit strange and underwhelming to see him in movies. He looks appropriate with his ample girth, toothy smile, and vanity in groom and dress, but his voice is just so good and strange and over the top that the visuals still don’t come up the mark. He’s more of a voice than a full fledged character. Gildersleeve has traits…he’s pretentious and gets flustered…but he’s not a person.

Add to this the fact that, like so many movies of the period, the scripts are just disposably weak. Peary carries over all his signature catch phrases from radio (“You’re a harrrrrrd man”, and “Everything always happens to me”, etc as well as his friend Peavy the druggist’s”I wouldn’t say that”). By the time this film premiered , Fibber McGee and Molly mysteriously don’t exist. Gildersleeve is guardian of his nephew Leroy and his teenage niece Margie, with frequent visits from his Aunt Emma and the steadying presence of Amanda Randolph as the maid.

In this, the first of the series, a scrawny crone wants to marry Gildersleeve but he rejects her. Her brother the Judge (another regular character) is going to take away custody of the kids as revenge. The kids have a plan:  they mount a huge popularity p.r. campaign. At the same time, the governor of their (unidentified) state is sick and ends up convalescing at Gildersleeve’s house. Gildersleeve becomes so popular in town the judge can’t very well take the kids away. Also the judge is humiliated when he plays practical jokes on the governor, thinking he is an imposter. All in all, this is a sit com episode stretched past its limits to fill the big screen.


Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943)

Maybe the weakest of the four Gildersleeve films. It stretches credibility to the breaking point. Gildersleeve is called for jury duty (along with all his other friends. This town is so small, why aren’t they always on jury duty?) Some crooks attempt to bribe Gildersleeve but he doesn’t receive their message. Then it turns out Gildersleeve is the lone holdout on the jury so it seems like a mistrial is expected anyway. (There is a lengthy segment, the most implausible part, where the judge makes Gildersleeve feed and house the jury at his own home while they deliberate). Meanwhile the kids keep trying to get a message to him. Then the crooks rob the judge in order to pay Gildersleeve for the seemingly faked verdict. Then Gildersleeve mistakes the cash for a donation to the “canteen” to raise money for the soldiers (this is the middle of WWII). Gildersleeve gives the money to the judge. Then the crooks steal it again. At the same time, Gildersleeve is trying to steal it himself so can return it to the judge. And then he is caught. The crooks kidnap him in a cop car, but he flips the two way radio on so the authorities can hear the truth about the crime. Zany? Wacky? Nah, sleepy.


Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943)

Well that was quick! The shark has already jumped after only two films. This one violates the sit-com’s situation by transplanting the entire cast to the night clubs and hotels of New York City. Gildersleeve follows Margie’s fiancé to NYC to keep tabs on him, because he thinks he’s playing around. So he follows Peavy to a druggists convention in the big city. Unfortunately he gets tangled up with women, incriminating himself (he has a fiancé of his own). One of the women Gildersleeve keeps running into is Billie Burke, the dotty (as always) present of a pharmaceutical supply company. Another is a gold digging woman who thinks he’s rich (because he’s pretending to be). Some mishigas happens with a fur coat, Then the kids and his fiancé show up, causing a brouhaha. And it turns out that the boyfriend wasn’t even screwing around. There is one funny bit with Gildersleeve encountering Jack Norton as a drunk on a window ledge.


Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944)

This is the first one I saw in the series and it’s my favorite. Because it is a spook comedy and it has a gorilla. It’s kind of less boring than the other three. It starts out with Peary as two of Gildersleeve’s ghostly ancestors, who set up the story. Then they disappear and never come back, causing me to scratch my head about the title. It’s straight up formula stuff. Gildersleeve is running for water commissioner, making it important that he not appear insane. Unfortunately a gorilla comes into his kitchen one night….and he keeps seeing things no one else does. The trail leads him to a haunted house where mad scientists are experimenting on an invisibility drug. Their two subjects are the gorilla and a beautiful burlesque chick. There is also a beautiful French maid. Ooh la la, I hardly know which way to turn! Of course all the other cast members show up (including Nick Stewart as the obligatory terrified black chauffeur) and they all have to spend the night in the haunted house because because there is a bad thunderstorm. Eventually….the truth comes out so they don’t have to bring Gildersleeve to an insane asylum.

* *********

That was the end of the Gildersleeve films, but the character thrived for another 13 years on radio. Peary left the series in 1950. After that, it was the occasional TV guest appearance — folks my age may remember his as Mr. Goodbody on the “Amateur Night” episode of The Brady Bunch!

To learn out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc

Alison Skipworth: Frequent Foil of Fields

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams, Women with tags , , , , , , on July 25, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Alison Skipworth (Alison Mary Elliot Margaret Groom, 1863-1952).

London born Skipworth was best known for playing big-boned, hearty grand dames in Hollywood, most notably opposite W.C. Fields in four films: If I Had a Million (1932), Tillie and Gus (1933), Alice in Wonderland (1933 — they appear in separate scenes in that one), and Six of a Kind (1934). Other notable films she appeared in include the murder mystery Raffles (1930) with Ronald Colman, Night After Night (1932) with George Raft and Mae West, The Casino Murder Case (1935), The Devil is a Woman (1935), Becky Sharp (1935) and Satan Met a Lady (1936).

Given her distinctive countenance in these later films it is surprising to learn that when she began her career she was considered a great beauty. She started out at a Gaiety Girl in the eponymous West End revue at Daly’s Theatre in 1894. Working as an artist’s model for painter Frank Markham Skipworth led to their marriage. Alison Skipworth appeared in musical comedies and classics in London, New York and on tour from the 1890s through the end of the 1920s. While she had made a half dozen films during the silent era, she made the definitive move to Hollywood after her husband died in 1929. Her last film was Ladies in Distress (1938) with Polly Moran.

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

William Gillette: The Original Sherlock Holmes

Posted in Broadway, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Playwrights, Silent Film, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , on July 24, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of playwright-actor-director-producer William Gillette (William Hooker Gillette, 1853-1937). I am proud to say that I am distantly related to this important man of the American stage a couple of different ways, the most salient way through our mutual relative Rev. Thomas Hooker, the founder of Hartford, CT,  where Gillette was born.

Much like Joseph Jefferson (who made a career of playing Rip Van Winkle), Gillette is best known to theatre buffs for playing a single role from literature; he originated the first stage characterization of Sherlock Holmes. Prior to Basil Rathbone, Gillette’s name was synonymous with Holmes’. Now that there has been an explosion of film and television adaptations, the unthinkable has happened — the character is no longer automatically associated with Rathbone either! But Gillette was the first to play the character on stage, and performed as Holmes more than 1,300 times between 1899 and 1932, and also performed Holmes on film (his only movie as actor, 1916) and radio.  (Footnote:, the character of “Billy Buttons” was played by a young Charlie Chaplin during the hit London run of the play — that notable connection was one of the first places I ever heard about Gillette.) Here he is in that role:


Gillette would have been a notable figure in American theatrical history even if his career had not been associated with the galvanizing character of Holmes. In addition to his innate talent as an actor, which was legendary, he was fortunate in his birth. His father was the influential U.S. Senator and activist  Francis Gillette. William was helped in his early career by family friend Mark Twain, who secured a role for him in a Boston production of The Gilded Age in 1875. Against his father’s wishes, Gillette had been acting in stock companies since 1873; his father’s death in 1878 removed that element of tension from his life. I am VERY interested to learn that Gillette wrote an unproduced play called The Twins of Siam in 1879 — surely it is about the conjoined twins of Siam who worked for P.T. Barnum! Interestingly, Twain had also written a story inspired by these twins This must be looked into.

In 1879, he debuted his play The Professor in Columbus, Ohio. In 1881, Daniel and Gustave Frohman brought it to New York, where it was a moderate success and his career was assured. That year he also helped Frances Hodgson Burnett (Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, The Secret Garden) adapt her story Esmerelda for the stage. In 1887 he wrote and starred in his Civil War drama Held by the Enemy, which was such a hit in New York that Charles Frohman helped him transfer it to London, where it was the first American show with an American author and star to gain widespread approval from the English public.

In 1887, Gillette adapted H. Rider Haggard’s science fiction novel She for the stage. (This is the same source for Merian C. Cooper’s eponymous 1935 film, made as a follow up to his King Kong pictures.) In 1893, he wrote a nine-scene patriotic pageant for the Barnum and Bailey Circus called The War of the American Revolution. In 1894, there was his farce Too Much Johnson, also legendary, for it was the source for Orson Welles’ first film, made in 1938 for a stage production and now lost). In 1895, his play Secret Service became another smash. The American production starred Maurice Barrymore; the London production starred Gillette and further cemented his reputation with the British public.

It was after this that he was hired to adapt Holmes for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with Charles Frohman as intermediary. You will note that Gillette had already been in the theatre for over a quarter of a century by this point. Holmes was a cash machine, and without a doubt it would dominate his life going forward. But it wasn’t all that Gillette did, even in his remaining decades. In 1903 he starred as the title character in the American premiere of J.M. Barrie’s The Admiral Crichton. There were countless other premieres and revivals of his own plays on Broadway over the next three decades. Starting in 1915, silent films began to be made of his plays: Esmerelda (1915), starring Mary PickfordSherlock Holmes (1916) starring Gillette himself, Secret Service (1919), Too Much Johnson (1919), and Held by the Enemy (1920). A talkie version of Secret Service starring Richard Dix was released in 1931.


We haven’t even touched on Gillette the actor. Contemporary descriptions of him remind me of my feelings about Patrick McGoohan. He was said to be mesmerizing, that he could compel your attention with the tiniest and most minimal of gestures. But it was also said that he was also somewhat affectless, that it wasn’t about “romance” or “heart”. I was thrilled to see the recent screening of his 1916 screen version on TCM. That event was nothing short of miraculous. Not only had the long-lost film been discovered, but it had been discovered (in a French archive) in 2014 — just in time for the film’s centennial! While it was thrilling to watch the actual Gillette in action, something I had assumed I’d never get to do, the crudity of the production made it difficult to properly make any sort of fair assessment. 1916 was still early in film history. The Birth of a Nation had been released only a few months before, and the director of this version of Sherlock Holmes was no D.W. Griffith. Most of the film is shot from wide angles, making it hard to see actors faces, at least on TV — it would be much better to see it screened in a theatre (here’s hoping!). And Gillette was 63 at this stage, although he would continue to play the part for almost another two decades. Gillette’s adaptation is also not QUITE what fans of the Holmes’ fiction and movies are expecting. It’s very “drawing room”…it contains much less of Holmes the intellect, sniffing the universe like a bloodhound perceiving what the rest of us poor mortals can’t. He is much more the conventional “inspector”. STILL! Gillette is the first guy to wear the deerstalker and cape, the first to smoke the Meerschaum, and abstractly scrape his violin while he thinks. And, as I think we’ve amply demonstrated, he is significant for so much more besides.

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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