Minnesota driver's licenses expire on your birthday, which is why I’m sitting in the DMV right now. It’s a pleasant place, brisk and efficient; I’ll be done in fifteen minutes, I bet. I’m taking this opportunity to get out a Bleat, because we’re having a few folks over for a little birthday dinner. I didn’t want one; I don’t want any gifts, and would be content to sit in the corner with a bag of microwave popcorn and chew on a whiskey-soaked flannel. But I have no control over those things. Just like I have no control over my reaction to a gag gift that contains a tombstone or a large adult diaper. Bang! Right in the kisser.
Usually my dad calls me in the morning at the time of my birth – 8:24 AM. That used to be my mom’s job. He would have called today but he made the call yesterday – got the date wrong. But he got the time right! This morning, however, the phone call was different: the sound on the other end was noisy and happy, like there was already a grand party going on, and soon Army Rangers would swing through the window, hook me up to a rope, yank me up to a helicopter and drop me off at the celebration. But it was a restaurant in Sydney Australia, where Tim Blair was having dinner with a Special Guest. Tim didn’t know it was my birthday – I assume my wife told him when she answered the phone. Mind you, I’d had about five hours of sleep. Stayed up late, as usual, working on a column, then decompressing with the standard inanities hovered up by the TiVo. So I was not exactly at the top of my game.
Happy Birthday, Tim says, and then he puts Mark Steyn on the phone. So now I’m shouting over Strine bar noise at the world’s greatest columnist on a transcontinental line. After that I decided the birthday wasn’t going to get any better, so I needed worry whether what sort of day it would be; I had my answer. And then I had breakfast! Heaps of eggs with pepper cheese, crisp smoked bacon and a cinnamon roll. Dang.
But I can’t leave the Bleat with that, so here’s this week’s Noir. Note: not really Noir. It’s from Warner Brother’s “Tough Guy” set, which follow the same concept as the other WB boxed productions: each disk has a cartoon, a newsreel, a short subject notable for diminished production values and severely dated humor. This one had a color short, which must have really popped off the screen in 1940:
It was essentially a long enlistment public-service announcement, complete with four Regular Joes who enter the service, where they are molded into good citizens by a crusty sarge and a benevolent captain. One of the soldiers, however, is a malcontent. He just signed up for three square a day, after all, and after he tires of getting’ told what to do and when to do it, he goes AWOL.
However, his version of AWOL consists of hiding behind the bushes and observing the other recruits while they do construction work, and that gives him a chance to save them – and of course himself. It’s deadly dull, but it’s interesting; even in 1940, the nation wasn’t in a martial mood.
We also learn about state-of-the-art public address systems:
Then there’s a coming attraction. It’s an army picture. By now anyone in the theater can sense the change in the historical temperature. I had to smile when I saw the gruff-but-lovable drill instructor. Familiar? Remember, this is 1940.
Would it help if he called a gangly stoner recruit “Little Buddy” and hit him with a wadded up sailor’s cap?
Yes, that’s Alan Hale, father of the skipper of the minnow.
Now the main feature:
It’s an odd duck. It stars Cagney, which is enough for me; I’d pay to watch him peel potatoes for two hours. He’s a boxer:
But that’s just a hobby. He’s really a truck driver. He’s content to be a truck driver. He doesn’t have many dreams or hopes; he’s a happy guy with a great gal. Unfortunately, she meets a smooth character at a dance hall:
One look and you know he’s trouble. Slim, brillcreamed, conceited and contemptuous. Even worse for Cagney, he’s an excellent dancer. He gets Jimmy’s Best Gal to join him in dancing competitions, at which point the movie makes one of its peculiar shifts; it’s a boxing film, a dancing film, a guy film, a chick film. At least the bad guy’s truly bad. And nuts:
Recognize him? No? How about now?
Let me digress for a moment, and study the lesser actors, because I’m always fascinated by the guys who have 27 seconds of screen time. Here’s a guy who looks like Dave Barry after he had his face redesigned by an electric juicer:
That’s Kit Guard, Bit Player. He plays a rummy boxer here; his other roles, according to imdb, were roles like Barfly, Bum, Squint Eye,” Drunk, Mug, and Newspaper Office Janitor. He appeared in 21 movies in 1927 alone. Raise a glass, if you will, for Kit. Then raise another for Sam Hayes:
He played the radio announcer. Then again, he always played the radio announcer. One role; seventy movies.
Introducing a fight, it’s a guy straight from palookaville; I checked his bio to see if he was a former fighter.
Nope. He was an actual actor, feller by the name of Lee Phelps. It would be interesting to see a Lee Phelps film festival some time, but you’d have to set aside a fortnight. He made 587 films. Five hundred and eighty seven films – in 36 years. What was his secret? Occupy the role as fully as possible without leaving an impression that lasts beyond your appearance. He hit his stride in the thirties, making 40 pictures in ’37 and 37 in ’36, including “After the Thin Man.” His first movie was in 1917; his co-star was Texas Guinan. So you’re looking at a fellow whose first co-star was the inspiration for the name of a Whoopi Goldberg character.
Between the boxing there’s longhair stuff. By which I mean “classical” music. Jimmy Cagney’s brother is a struggling composer:
That’s Arthur Kennedy. A quarter century and 37 pounds later, he’d be Dr. Duval on “Fantastic Voyage,” but for now he’s a tortured wannabe symphonist. If only he had the money to complete his work! But how? No, don’t say you’ll go back to the ring, scrappy brother Cagney; you’ll end up like Squint McBarfly, the Newspaper Janitor! Aw, I can take care of myself.
And so the film lurches into its boxing period, interspersed with the old gal Peg dancing with the Latin smoothy as they climb up the glamourous world of Dance. In the end, of course, the symphony is premiered. Where? Do I have to tell you? Carnegie Hall. Kennedy conducts, and does so in that style that can only be described as “Air Orchestra,” as it has little to do with actual conducting. That’s right: a boxing movie with a symphony. This one really has it all, and I’m surprised it’s relatively unknown. The budget was huge, and the script aimed to hit every single possible demographic target. Not jut a typical Warner Brothers gritty thriller, at all – it even had a living framing device in the form of a wise vagrant, who delivered spontaneous poetry about the glories and horrors of Gotham in a style best described as “That Barton Fink Feeling.”
I’ve provided two excerpts from the movie – a speech the brother gives about his composition, and a clip from the symphony, composed by Max Steiner.
Oh, there's a bonus actor:
Elia Kazan. And he's good.
Now it’s later, and the birthday party is over. Quite delightful. My wife made an excellent Planked Fish; the mother / sis / bro in law were over. Gnat played with her half-French cousin again, and they ended the night dancing to In-Grid. My wife’s gift was perfect: a 1940s cracker tin from my favorite ancient Americana store. The color matches the Jasperwood scheme, too. “This could go – nah.”
“What?” she asked.
“This could go in the china thing,” I said. “Instead of a bunch of plates we could fill it with quality retro food items. Plus some plates,” I added.
“I thought the same thing,” she said.
Whereupon I had the same reaction as Tim Curry in “Legend,” where, as the demon, he hears that young maiden wants to kill the unicorn herself, and tosses his head back to cackle his unholy delight. CORRUPTION COMPLETE. When first we married, the idea that a 60 year old cracker tin might belong in a china-thing would have brought consternation; now she sees it before I do.
I didn’t open a single present; since there were two little girls present, they ripped everything open. Reminded me of my Grandfather’s birthday; the kids opened all his gifts, too. I can see him as clear as if it was yesterday, sitting in the bright farmhouse kitchen, a can of beer on the table, an Old Gold idling by his hand, the grandkids thrusting packages into his lap. Old and slow and stooped, grinning, feigning dismay at the number of gifts. I played the same role tonight. On the other hand, I leaped up the retaining wall after taking out the garbage and took the steps three at a time. And there are many steps.
Close to midnight. Last ration of the birthday day. The iTunes just kicked up “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” by Harry James. I guess it has. I used that as my answering machine message 22 years ago; it had been a month of bad news, and I said (digression: for many years I regarded the outgoing message as an art form; proto-podcasting, if you want. Every week was a different 30-second show. Once I capitalized on a running joke in my social circle and did a message as a victim of Al Jolson’s Disease: “I can’t stop droppin’ to my knees and singin’ ‘ bout Mammy! MAMMY!” The reasons are lost in the mists of time, but for some reason I could Lisa – one of the Valli regulars, a long blonde drink with dry-ice wit – regarded my Al Jolson impersonation as comedy gold, and all I had to do was say MAMMY and she’d lose it. The week the Al Jolson Disease message ran I got a call from an editor from an “alternative weekly,” whose cool shocked tone indicated I had crossed a line. Because, you see, it wasn’t entirely clear whether or not I was condemning the racist underpinnings of blackface)
Reset: I used that as my answering machine message 22 years ago; it had been a month of bad news, and I said “Hi, this is James, and I think we all need some Harry James right now.” Then I played a few bars of “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” Every message left on the machine was happy and grateful. I can see why; the song bleeds love and joy and boundless relief. War’s over, let’s have sex and buy a house and make kids.
In the time it took my to write that, of course, the music changed; the moving playlist, having written, moves on. Now it’s “It’s For You,” by Pat Metheny / Lyle Mays, which of course fits the pre-midnight mood perfectly. Because I’m looking at the phone. The new phones have an on-screen alert that tells you when you have a new answering machine message. Must have missed it during the party. Birthday greetings, perhaps.
We used to call each other on one another’s birthdays. Mind you, for years, we were always present at one another’s parties – I was Number Nine, she checked in on the Tenth. We’re about the same age. She has two kids, one by the choleric bearded poolshark famed in Valli days for his profane staredown of the Drunk Older Arsehole Poet Everyone Hated, but that’s another novel. (The poolshark’s a well-off insurance salesman now, I understand.) But over the years she moved off and away, and the one member of the Valli group who bridged our world and hers stopped showing up at the Summer Tentpole Reunions. (The Tentpoles being Memorial, July 4, and Labor Day.) But last year she called on my birthday.
“You’re so old,” she said. The same conspiratorial laughter. “Can you believe how old we are.” I was having a party at the time, but went into a quiet room to laugh and yell and tweak and cuss. I thought of her today, wondering if she’d call. No matter if she didn’t – I’d call her tomorrow. If I can find her number.
So let’s pick up the phone and see who called.
Nope. Even better. I cannot tell you how this makes my day. It was my father, calling from . . . well, from here. He drove to Sturgis. Today. On his Harley. At age 80.
“Happy Birthday,” he shouted. I could hear the engines in the background, thousands of grand American motors.
Midnight. Best Birthday Ever.
New Screedblog, re: castro. I am well aware that the conceit of an interrogating ghost is nothing new. Just so you know.