Archive for the Crackers Category

Of Folk and White Folk (Forward Back to Babylon)

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, CULTURE & POLITICS, My Family History with tags , , , , on February 24, 2017 by travsd

16864640_10210990227245439_3162907828892315130_n

I saw this bar graph on social media this morning and found it very telling. It explains a lot.  The chart shows Democrats and Republicans differing wildly in their perceptions of whether the Trump administration is “uniting” or “dividing” the nation. How can that be? They’re looking at the same phenomenon.

The answer, of course, is that the two factions don’t define the concepts the same way. One side acknowledges America’s diversity and asks whether the various components coexist in harmony and mutual respect. And that’s “unity”.  The other approach attempts to impose cultural uniformity by stifling dissent and punishing difference. And that’s their idea of “unity”. The liberal way attempts to achieve unity by rational agreement and consensus. The conservative way is to force compliance to an approved norm. One asks only, “Are you a person?” The other, “Are you a white, male, Christian heterosexual person of property?”

Theoretically, superficially, I am of the traditionally dominant culture. As we’ve blogged ad nauseam over the past couple of years, my American roots go back 400 years. Yet I find myself unutterably opposed to the Trumpian agenda. Not just for emotional reasons (so many of the people I love or have learned from don’t fit into the approved category), but for reasons of science and logic. I want the world to be a better place. You don’t create the conditions for that by limiting exposure to information, including the countless varieties and manifestations of human culture you get in a free and diverse society.

So the irony is, at the very time I’m discovering how “American” my pedigree is, I find myself far, far away from the contemporary American poster boy with similar roots. I’m about the roots themselves, and maintain that I remain truer to those roots than the millions of angry, red-faced people who go around waving flags and demanding conformity to their values. I am forever seeking out the old, the fecund and the folkish. I prefer that quality even over fealty to my own ethnic subculture. I have no use, for example, for most contemporary country music. I’m into TRADITIONAL music, rough hewn antique folk music, bluegrass, and country music from the golden age. I have no use for modern commercial rubbish, whether it comes from Nashville (a town founded by some of my ancestors) or the Bubble Gum Factory.  I likewise adore the stately old poetry of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer; I have no liking for modern language translations which boil out all the interesting parts of speech, leaving only the bare information. And if you tell me I’m not a Christian, Fundamentalist, I’ll have to spit in your eye. Then I’ll wipe off the spit and apologize because, ya know, I’m a Christian. 

And the beauty of the love of the traditional is that its qualities of richness are shared in common across cultures, national boundaries and religious divides. In plenty of ways I feel more of a kinship with an old black man in South Carolina, or the Italian peasants who lived across the street from me when I was growing up, than I do with some guy who has my last name and looks just like me, but thinks it’s duty as an American to remain ignorant of anyone or any way else. 

In recent months I’ve felt like I was really beginning to understand the ideological underpinnings of the American folk movement of the mid-twentieth century for the first time, and WHY there was such an uproar and feelings of betrayal when Dylan went electric and “commercial”. I’ve always had misgivings about corporate control of popular culture, especially mainstream Hollywood films since the 1980s (for their violence, materialism, and encouragement of conformism). And also the video experience, which happens alone, dispassionately, less empathetically. The danger becomes more apparent when you see corporate forces so closely allied with government power as they now are. In the age of corporate media, the message is disseminated from the top down. It is controlled and it is designed to condition spectators to conform. Whereas folk culture: rich, ancient and organic, is intrinsically subversive to those aims. It works from the bottom up. It is presented from many perspectives, it sings with many voices. You get the truth from all sides, you get eternal truths. There is precious little support for folk culture in America that operates outside the corporate cookie-cutter. With the promised shut down of the National Endowment for the Arts, there will be even less support (and that is by design). Trump aims at a monolithic autocracy that talks with one voice, the voice of white Christians. But we also know that white males are only 31% of the population, and white male, heterosexual, conservative Christians is some number substantially smaller than that.

But this attempt to force the other two thirds of the country to bend to their will is like trying to tie up a lion in pretty pink ribbon. It might hold for a minute, but no more. Then the lion is going to burst its bonds — and it will be complaining loudly. I’ve been saying this more and more. It’s likely to be a miserable time for artists, but a good time for art. Nothing motivates people to shout loudly like being told to shut up.

Stars of Vaudeville #1026: Max Terhune

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd

1118full-max-terhune

MAX TERHUNE: WESTERN VENTRILOQUIST

Today is the birthday of Max Terhune (1891-1973). Originally from Indiana, Terhune was a ventriloquist, whistler, animal imitator, juggler and magician in the last days of vaudeville (early 1930s), occasionally performing with the Hoosier Hot Shots. But the most astounding thing he was, was a movie actor. Friendships with guys like Kermit Maynard (Ken’s younger brother) and Gene Autry got Terhune picture work, notably in the Republic and Monagram western serials  The Three Mesquiteers and The Range Busters. 

These films were where I first became aware of Terhune, and not just aware, but entranced, dumbfounded, slack-jawed. For in these movies, he is never to be seen without his ventriloquial dummy “Elmer”. The reality in which this situation takes place is MOST ambiguous, to say the least. Is Terhune’s cowboy character also an amateur ventriloquist? A professional one? Is it just completely meta, and he is just an actor, not a cowboy? Or is it the opposite, as it often seems? In other words is Elmer a sentient entity with his own action and volition, an actual character? I’ve seen episodes where Elmer gets kidnapped and cries for help with no ventriloquist around! (Warning: do not watch if that is your idea of nightmarish horror). The other characters talk directly to Elmer, laugh at his jokes, and never acknowledge that Terhune is the ventriloquist making him talk (except for the occasional films where Terhune plays a literal ventriloquist).

Terhune continued to be featured in B movie westerns through 1949, usually with the character name “Lullaby” or “Alibi”. Through the first half of the ’50s he got some work in TV westerns and bit parts in films (his last was Giant, 1954). After this, he continued to perform ventriloquism and magic live for a number of year in Hollywood area venues like the Magic Castle and the Corriganville Movie Ranch. 

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

White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Crackers, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , , on February 5, 2017 by travsd

white_trash

I find myself much disappointed in Nancy Isenberg’s much hyped White Trash: The 400 Year Untold Story of Class in America. If anything, as far as I can tell this particular “untold story” happens to be WELL KNOWN to anyone whose head is attached.

While the book is impressive in scope and exhaustive in detail, it is also shallow in useful insight. Once again, we come upon a cultural product that treats of those at the bottom from the perspective of a great height. This is another book “about” poor whites, without perceptively being “by”, “of” or “for” them. It is essentially a sequential chronicle of how the powerful in America (planters, politicians, presidents, the ruling class and later the media) have dealt with the masses beneath them, culturally, socially, legally and politically. We learn (if we didn’t already know) that large numbers first came to America as convicts or indentured servants, and were kept down. Then we learn that they were scorned in polite society and depicted derogatorily in pop culture. What we don’t learn is who they are, how they think and feel, or what they’ve ever made or accomplished. In fact, it’s rather difficult to tell from the tone of this book if the author feels differently from the elites in her opinion of the titular “rubbish”. Since, let’s be frank, those very elites are the very people who’ve been reading this book and touting it as some sort of lodestone of understanding into the mind of the Trump voter, I am not particularly heartened by the book’s success. It bridges no gaps, blazes no trails, brokers no new understanding. What it does do is provide us with an alarming revelation: if the elites take this book’s self-evident truisms for insights, it means that they hadn’t even thought that much about poor white people.

It may be countered that this is the very point: spending all our time in the heads of the aristocrat Thomas Jefferson or the eugenics-friendly Teddy Roosevelt points up the aloof, cold distance between those at the top and those whom they pay lip service to admiring, even as they take steps to keep them culturally quarantined. And there are clues that that may be the strategy. I came across a perceptive quote in the book from an Australian observer to the effect that in America we place great stock in adopting democratic manners without actually being democratic. The supreme example of this of course is Donald Trump, born with a silver spoon in his mouth and eats a thousand poor people every morning for breakfast, but somehow won the allegiance of millions of them merely on the strength of being coarse and crass and thus “authentic.” Another great quote I found in the book and must always remember, “It’s better to be a Corleone than a Loud” (i.e. of a genuine, human folk culture than part of the antisepctic, vapid, modern American suburban middle class). And I walked away from the book with an enhanced and renewed respect for Lyndon Johnson, a problematic figure to be admitted, but the sort of man I would vastly prefer to the present autocrat in the oval office. Johnson of course, may have done the poor some good. Trump’s plan seems to be to wipe them out.

My stake in this of course is that I am of the benighted class and care about them, even as I have moved away from the majority of them in how I look at things politically. It pains me to see them duped for the millionth time and once again politically disempowered. It seems right now America’s only hope as a nation is for some kind of conversation to happen between its starkly polarized halves. This book won’t break the ice.

Stars of Vaudeville #1007: Clem Bevans

Posted in Broadway, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2016 by travsd

imgres

COUNTRY CLEM

Today is the birthday of character actor Clem Bevans (1879-1963). 

I’d undoubtedly seen Bevans in dozens of movies and tv shows, but didn’t finally become aware of him until a few months ago when the indomitable explorer Mr. Pinnock, sent me a link to a remarkable 1950 tv movie called Hurricane at Pilgrim Hill, produced by Hal Roach JrOriginally presented as an episode of Magnavox Theatre, the plot of this bizarre romantic comedy is based on a magazine story by James Charles Lynch. It concerns the culture clash when a Western codger comes to visit his granddaughter in an old Massachusetts town. When his fiance’s snooty family don’t approve of the marriage, the old man uses a Native American spell to conjure a hurricane that puts the boy’s father out of the way for a while. Then he rescues the guy and everyone kisses and makes up. It’s not exactly a “good” movie, but I was especially intrigued by Bevans’ performance, which I found oddly detailed, realistic and just plain weird. And so I investigated…

Bevans was born in Cozzadale, Ohio. He started out in vaudeville around the turn of the last century with a boy and girl act with Grace Emmett. From here he went onto burlesque, and three roles on Broadway, in the shows The Errand Boy (1904), Patsy in Politics (1907) and Monte Cristo Jr. (1919). He was 55 years old when he made his film debut in the 1935 remake of Way Down East. From here he worked constantly in film and television for the next 27 years. He amassed scores and scores of credits. Some notable films he appeared in include: Zenobia (1939), Dodge City (1939), Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), Sergeant York (1941), The Yearling (1946), The Paleface (1948), Portrait of Jennie (1948), and Harvey (1950), and the Disney miniseries Davy Crockett as well as the movie Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956). He was almost always typecast as a rural old geezer, but one notable departure was his casting as a Nazi in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942).

He was closely related (either the brother or cousin of, I’ve seen both online) of character actress Merie Earle, also always cast as an old codger, and when I show a photo, you’ll know her too in an instant:

imgres

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

Fess Parker: American Icon

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), ME, Movies, My Family History, Television, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2016 by travsd

fess-parker-feat

Today is the birthday of Fess Parker (1924-2010 — how did I not notice that he died so recently?)

I would have been thrilled as a child to have known that I am distantly related to this film and tv actor through my grandmother Flora Parker. He is best known for playing frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett (1955-56), Daniel Boone (1964-1970) and the dad in Old Yeller (1957). Though these were all before my time, they were still shown frequently on tv when I was a kid, and I was encouraged to embrace them (and did). Our family has strong historical connections to Crockett (whom I’ll be blogging about some more tomorrow) and Boone, and like the hero of Old Yeller I am named “Travis”.

Given his rustic and rough-hewn persona, one is surprised to learn that at the time Parker began finding employment as a movie extra in 1951 he was working on a master’s degree in theatre history. His undergrad major at the University of Texas had been in history, a background that would stand him in good stead when he began to be cast in westerns and frontier stories. His Texas accent and imposing height (6′ 6″) were even bigger assets.

images

Parker’s progress was rapid. Based on his appearance in several minor roles in westerns and guest appearances on television, Walt Disney himself cast Parker as Davy Crockett in the titular mini-series in 1956, which was so popular it set off a national craze for coonskin caps among American schoolchildren. The kid in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom sports one in homage to that fad.

images

il_570xN.398361148_easr

Parker and coon-clad fans

Parker and coon-clad fans

 

63da11cbc7d6822d9b9d93b3d0a2c705

Sure! He won’t grow up to be a tower shooter or anything!

It was during his time as a contract player for Disney that he appeared in Old Yeller, but he grew dissatisfied with being typecast and with repeatedly being asked to take small, non-starring roles, so he left Disney in 1958.

One of his notable roles during this period was the title part in a 1962 series based on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This is wonderfully fortuitous casting. If Parker’s acting chops aren’t up to Jimmy Stewart’s, he is without a doubt the right type to a T. (Interestingly, Davy Crockett had been a Congressman. The concept of playing a simple, honest country man who must confront the cynical sophisticates in Washington was not a new one to Parker).

Parker as Daniel Boone. Notice the difference?

Parker as Daniel Boone. Notice the difference?

Ironically, his next iconic role was to be so similar to his first one that he may just as well have remained working for Disney. In 1964 he was cast as the title character in the series Daniel Boone, attired in nearly the same costume, and put in the same setting, log cabins in the Tennessee/Kentucky frontier. I was in the first grade when the series went off the air in 1970; I still remember the theme song after all that time. It was a very popular show, as its six year run testifies.

images

But by 1970, tastes were rapidly changing. In the late Vietnam era, westerns were dying faster than the buffalo. Parker would have to reinvent himself if he wanted to remain in the game. Astoundingly, he turned down a perfect chance to do just that. In 1970 he was the first choice to play the title character in McCloud, the NBC police drama about the culture clash that arises when a New Mexico marshal is loaned to the New York City police department. Along with Columbo and McMillan and Wife it was one of the shows presented in rotation on the NBC Sunday Mystery series, which would prove a blockbuster success, and the role of McCloud would have been perfect for Parker, casting him as a rustic type thrust into the modern world. But Parker passed, and the role went to Dennis Weaver, who had earlier achieved stardom on Gunsmoke. 

In 1974, he made a pilot for The Fess Parker Show, in which he played the harried dad of “three feisty daughters.” It was not picked up. He retired from show business after that. He went on to found the Fess Parker Winery (and Coonskin Cap Store), which was used as a location in the movie Sideways. And he invented that new soft drink: “Fess Up” (kiddin’!)

Trav S.D.’s Guide to the “Ma and Pa Kettle” Films

Posted in AMERICANA, Comedy, Crackers, Hollywood (History) with tags , , , , , on February 24, 2016 by travsd

This being the birthday of the great Marjorie Main, we thought we’d take the opportunity to publish a little guide to the comedy film series she starred in with Percy Kilbride, Ma and Pa Kettle. This is that interesting period in Hollywood (mostly the 1940s) when television had yet to conquer the American living room and yet (thanks to radio) the tv sit-com was desperately striving to be born. I’ll be blogging more about this period in future — there were many such B movie comedy series at the time.

The premise is that the Kettles are a poor but hilarious hillbilly couple with too many children to count (it’s essentially an elaboration on “The Little Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe.” Both Kilbride and Main were essentially playing types they often played in other films. Kilbride’s “Pa” was lazy, slow moving, and droll. Ma was hard-working, and always fussing and yelling. Like the later Beverly Hillbillies a lot of humor is derived from culture clash: the Kettles will luck into some money or some other good fortune and suddenly be thrust up against the modern world.

A strange quirk of the series is that it is off-type in one way. Instead of being set in the traditional hillbilly country of the Smokies or the Ozarks, it takes place in Washington State. This was the setting of the original novel on which the series was based The Egg and I (1945) by Betty MacDonald. 

f3f6e24723350ce53b4644585b429ae2

The Egg and I (1947)

The Kettles are not the stars of The Egg and I, but they stole the show and that’s how they got their own spin-off series. The Egg and I is one of those tedious “darnedest house ever” comedies, where a couple of city folk (Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert) decide to try their hand at chicken farming. How do you think it works out? The hilarious Kettles are their neighbors.

images

Ma and Pa Kettle (1949)

As he had in The Egg and I, Richard Long plays the Kettle’s fancy son who went off to college. He also meets and falls in love with a lady reporter – she becomes his wife in the series. Much class-based conflict, an important anchor for both the comedy and the drama. Pa Kettle wins a contest by devising an advertising slogan for a brand of tobacco. The prize is a fancy new house . Culture clash! Tv interviews! Meddlesome town women conspire to unseat Pa by saying he stole the idea for the slogan. It all comes crashing down. Then Pa wins another house in another contest.

For some reason, though it is set in contemporary America, the series features “How, Ugh” Indians, which is not just politically incorrect but factually incorrect. And there is a funny running gag where Pa makes the radio work by tapping the floor with his rocking chair.

6a00d8341d6d8d53ef01a3fbe0fde2970b

Ma and Pa Kettle Go To Town (1950)

The Kettles are still ensconced in a fancy, modern new house.  They win a trip to New York.   A gangster gets a flat tire and stays at their place and volunteers to babysit so he can hide out (then the kids make life hell for the gangster). Meanwhile Ma and Pa Kettle take their trip to the Big Apple unwittingly carrying the gangster’s loot. Jim Backus is in it as a crook. The suitcase with the loot is accidentally taken by a millionaire, so the Kettles keep buying replacements, which in turn keep getting stolen. Later they attend a fancy party at the millionaire’s home. Pa leads a square dance. The son (Long) and his wife live in New York and are part of the plot. A subplot concerns Long’ss efforts to raise money for a chick incubator he has invented.

Ma_and_Pa_Kettle_theatrical_release_poster

Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm (1951)

In this one , the son (Long) and his wife come back to stay with the Kettles because she is going to have a baby. (There is a funny bit where, through a misunderstanding Pa thinks Ma is the one who has had the baby). The rich in-laws show up. The wife puts on airs, and chases the family out – they go back to the farm and leave their modern house to the in-laws.  The father in law (Ray Collins) is down to earth however. A former mining engineer, he discovers that there is uranium on the Kettle property. Some schemers briefly swindle them out of the property but then it turns out there’s no uranium ore…it’s just radioactive dust on the son’s old army uniform from atomic tests! Meanwhile the couple breaks up. First their friend Billy Reed the peddler tries to steal the baby, but he steals the wrong one Then the daughter and her mother head back east—but the kettles head them off in a big chase sequence and they reconcile.

Ma_and_Pa_Kettle_at_the_Fair

Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952)

Ma and Pa Kettle go to the county fair, where they try to win contests to put their daughter through college. That’s it!

Ma_and_Pa_Kettle_on_Vacation_poster

Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation (1953)

This one mixes elements of Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town and Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm. Their millionaire in-laws take them on a trip to Gay Paree. Meanwhile they are carrying a secret envelope that some spies want!

Ma_and_Pa_Kettle_at_Home_FilmPoster

Ma and Pa Kettle at Home (1954):

The Kettle’s young son wins an essay contest describing life on the farm. Unfortunately the picture it paints is dishonest. So they must go back to their farm and pretend it is as idyllic and efficient as his description, as the contest judge, a publisher (Alan Mowbry) is coming west to see for himself. Very sit commy. Lots of slapstick business with a stand-in for Main, and undercranking. The publisher is an irritable hypochondriac. Everything goes wrong. Pa has jerry-rigged the whole place. Everything falls apart. Their most mischievous kid (Richard Eyer—a child star, recognizable from many movies of the time) plays practical jokes. The inevitable Mary Wickes plays the local librarian.

51qJ1ZA7MnL._SY445_

Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1955)

This was Percy Kilbride’s last performance as Pa Kettle and perhaps you can see why. He hated being typecast as rural characters to begin with. And with this one, the franchise has perhaps jumped the shark, stretched even farther than they were originally stretching for the sake of novelty. The Kettles go to Hawaii to help relatives with their pineapple ranch. It’s funny, because, well, look at that poster. But think how great it would hgave been if Elvis Presley had joined them in the cast.

1282463152_1

The Kettles in the Ozarks (1956)

Kudoes to them for keeping the franchise going without Kilbride! I would have thought it unthinkable! At any rate, in this one the Kettles go to help Pa’s brother (Arthur Hunnicutt) with his Ozarks farm (haven’t they belonged in the Ozarks all along?) While there, they get mixed up with moonshiners! Una Merkel is in the cast.

220px-Thekettles1

The Kettles on Old McDonald’s Farm (1957)

The last in the franchise. Believe it or not it was one of the top grossing films of 1957! Here they return to the original set-up, with Parker Fennelly playing Pa. I’ve not yet seen this one, but the plot is one of the most depressing things I’ve ever heard: “Ma and Pa help out Brad Johnson to turn his girlfriend Sally into a good farm wife”. Why don’t you just take that double barreled shotgun and shoot me, Kettles?

The presence of Claude Akins in the cast is to me a kind of clue about why the series ended here. We are getting awfully close to modern times. As I said above, Elvis Presley was a movie star by now. This was a hoary brand of comedy to begin (though I happen to love it) but now they were repeating themselves. But that wouldn’t stop The Beverly Hillbillies from being a monster hit on television just a few years later.

 

Stars of Vaudeville #955: Marjorie Main

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Crackers, Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2016 by travsd

662_1012540650

Today is the birthday of the great Marjorie Main (Mary Tomlinson, 1890-1975). The daughter of an Indiana minister, Main started out in vaudeville, on the Chautauqua and Orpheum circuits.

She broke into films and Broadway at around the same time, with extra roles in the 1928 play Salvation and the 1929 film short Harry Fox and His American Beauties. Throughout the 1930s she alternated her time between Broadway and movie roles. Her large size, matronly carriage and distinctive voice (which would have been excellent for cartoon voiceovers), made her eminently castable, and she worked constantly until she retired. She was often cast as rich dowagers in her early years, but she was especially adept at plain-spoken, fussy, earthier types so she eventually specialized in playing ill-tempered domestics and landladies, and (because of her country accent) especially frontier women in musicals and westerns, almost invariably comical ones.

She is in Stella Dallas (1937), both the stage and screen versions of Dead End (1935-1937), and both the stage and screen versions of The Women (1936-1939), five films with Wallace Beery starting with Barnacle Bill (1941), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Harvey Girls (1946), Summer Stock (1950), Friendly Persuasion (1956), and of course the film series she became best known for, Ma and Pa Kettle (1947-1957) (read more about that series here). And this is just the tip of the iceberg; she gave memorable turns in dozens more movies than this.

While she was briefly married, Main admitted in an interview to having had lesbian affairs, one of which is widely believed to have been with Spring Byington. Her last performance was in a 1958 episode of Wagon Train. Her last public appearance was the year before she died, at the world premiere of the MGM compilation film That’s Entertainment. 

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

safe_image

%d bloggers like this: