Hungary to Hollywood; or, "seven maids with seven mops"

Well, this is it. My last entry into the broadcastellan journal before I’m off to Budapest, from which spot I hope to be reporting back on 12 April with a snapshot of Roosevelt Square, in commemoration of FDR’s death in 1945. Supposedly, our hotel room has wireless access; so I might not have to share my impressions retrospectively (as I have done on almost every previous occasion, after trips to London and Madrid, Istanbul and Scotland, Cornwall and New York City). This time, perhaps, I won’t have to catch up with myself as well as our pop cultural past.

Preparing for my trip, in an experiment you might call method blogging, I devoted the last few posts to connections between broadcasting and Budapest, between Hollywood and Hungary. Today’s association was not so much forged but found; and it is rather more remarkable for that. You’ve probably experienced it too from time to time: the feeling that, once you begin to engage with something you haven’t much thought of before, everything seems to point or relate to it. Suddenly, life is just a bowl of goulash.

Let me give you a for instance. Last night I watched a Hollywood non-classic I assumed to be entirely unrelated to our Hungarian adventure: the Ginger Rogers-starring fantasy romance It Had to Be You (1947), one of the fifty-odd movies I’ve been taking in so far this year (all listed on the right). It is a daft romance about a gal who can’t say “yes” (leaving three guys at the altar) because she cannot get her dream lover out of her head—until said dream enters her life to tell her how to lead it. Her dream lover, whose waking double eventually turns into her true love, is played by Cornel Wilde, who spends much of the picture walking around dressed like a Hollywood Indian. Anyway . . .

I generally follow up my viewings by checking out the filmographies compiled on the Internet Movie Database, which is how I came to speculate about Mr. Wilde (pictured above). Is he, or ain’t he? Hungarian, I mean. It would never have occurred to me, considering that, unlike Paul Lukas or Peter Lorre, Wilde does not have a readily distinguishable accent. Whereas most other online sources will tell you that the actor was born in New York City to Czech-Hungarian immigrants, the Database claims that he not only studied in Budapest and spoke Hungarian, but was indeed Hungarian by birth. Apparently, there are census reports confirming the former.

Wilde’s early screen name was Clark Wales. That alias does not make him Welsh, of course, but might have been chosen to suggest the foreign and rebellious. What would make him Hungarian, though? What is left of your national identity after Hollywood, like an Ellis Island checkpoint for Tinseltown hopefuls, changes your name or compels you do so? Hungarian, of course, was not a highly valued heritage in 1940s Hollywood, given the country’s suspicious proximity to the volatile Balkans, and, as the 1944 propaganda play “Headquarters Budapest” drove home, its alliance with Nazi Germany (“Admiral Horthy of Hungary, or people like him, will help to start World War III in the Balkans”).

I have long tried to get away from such a past (and, after seventeen years, am running still); but I could not hide my national origins, as much as I resent being defined by them. In stubborn grains of truth, the fatherland keeps sticking to my tongue (as you might have gathered from my podcasts). No matter how loudly I declare my past to be water under the proverbial bridge, it won’t wash. It is too prominent to be swept away or brushed aside:

“If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose,” the Walrus said,
“That they could get it clear?”
“I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.”

Those lines, from Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” were recited by Mr. Wilde—in a broad Southern accent, no less—as he played an innocent American falling through the looking-glass in “Allen in Wonderland” (27 October 1952), a Suspense thriller involving an assassination plot, a crisis in the Balkans, and a case of mistaken identity. Earlier, in the same series, Wilde attempted an Eastern European accent playing the villain in “A Ring for Marya” (28 December 1950). It must be wonderful to have a tongue that can be twisted as readily as a broom handle.

Cleaning up the inconvenient pasts of their most valued players, Hollywood swung a lot of mops back then. It was left to the journalists to inspect the buckets. I envy those who get to sweep for themselves or learn to live with the sand.

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