Destinées Imagined: Film Stills and Storylines

The most recent additions to my collection of movie memorabilia – and of images featuring the likeness of stage and screen actress Claudette Colbert (1903 – 1996) in particular – are stills for the 1954 motion picture Destinées.  The French-language film, released in Britain as Love, Soldiers and Women and in the United States as Daughters of Destiny, is one of the few works in the Colbert canon that I have not yet seen.  Rather than relying entirely on plot synopses provided by Colbert biographers William K. Everson, Lawrence Quirk, and Bernard F. Dick, I am imaging and imagining the film’s story, or, rather, the story told in one of the three vignettes that constitute Destinées.

Even before I determined on an order for the five film stills, what came across is that this is a story about absent men and relationships between the women they left behind.  From the image I chose to begin my stills-inspired version of the story, I can tell that Destinées is as much about the future as it is about the past: fate, fatality and a fatalism to be challenged.  The number of aligned grave markers, impersonal yet collectively inspiring awe, distinguish this site as a war memorial.  This woman might be a war widow.

What stands out in the field of Christian crosses is the prominently positioned star of David behind her, suggesting a memorial to those who were killed during the Second World War.  Either the narrative of this mid-1950s film is set in the recent past or Colbert’s character, for whatever reason, is only belatedly coming to terms with her loss.  She may have come to bury the past, or else to uncover it.  

Yet this is not the story of her loss and of her past only.  The flowers on the ground are not placed there by her hand, at least not at that moment.  They are dry and withered.  Someone else may have been at the site before her – someone else may be mourning the loss she is experiencing.

A sense of probing into a dark past is communicated by the still of Colbert holding a lamp.  Light of day makes way for dead of night, the open field for the enclosed space.  The rough and worn interior contrasts with the sophistication of the woman’s clothing but corresponds with her careworn expression.  The scratches on the wall suggest that smooth surfaces are being challenged: anger and despair are on display in this place.

The image that continues my version of the story is of Colbert and the boy.  In a dark and seemingly cheerless place, she comes face to face with innocence.  Colbert’s character seems to be reaching for the child’s hand; but they are not touching.  Her hands are encased in gloves.

The boy staring at her is clutching a toy.  At first I thought it was she who placed it in his hand; but the apparently hand-crafted object – a cheerful fantasy figure, not a mass-produced toy soldier – is too singular to suggest that she has bought it for him.  More likely, she has just learned of the child’s existence.

The image I chose to come next in this sequence is of Colbert sitting on the bed opposite a woman (played by Eleonora Rossi Drago) who is younger and plainly dressed.  What they have in common is grief, as their facial expressions and postures tell me.  Are they grieving for the same person? Are they sitting on a bed that was once shared by a man whom they both loved? This might be the site where the child was conceived.  These women are joined in yet separated by more than grief. 

The image to complete my story suggests reconciliation.  The two women are breaking bread, and the lamp on the table is the same light that, in the other image, communicated a desire for clarity that is now being achieved.  Colbert’s character remains reserved, even skeptical.  The clenched hand, with its wedding band on display, suggests her clinging to the claim of legitimacy, even though that legal right seems to provide no comfort besides financial security.

But the woman sitting next to her is so lacking in guile that she might ultimately convince her unannounced visitor that theirs is not a destiny of contest but a bond of love: the war that has separated one woman from her husband has created another love that, in turn, begot what used to be called a love child.

Close to the battlefield, a life was created, while far from the war zone – in the cosmopolitan setting of a remote metropolis, New York rather than Paris, suggested by the affluence, and the affront, even, of Colbert’s designer clothing – a woman being left by a husband-turned-soldier could only see loss.

Initially, my story unfolded somewhat differently.  I had Colbert’s character confront the lover of her husband first, then learn about the child and change her attitude as a result.  Then I noticed the gloves, which have not yet come off when Colbert’s character meets the boy that might be her dead husband’s son; and, looking again at that other image, I noticed the rough, barn-like setting of their encounter, which more closely corresponds with the scratched wall and the lamp shedding light on the issue of a heretofore hidden love.

However inconsequential Destinées might have been, in terms of box office or impact on Colbert’s waning career in film, these images are remarkable in their ability to make readable what matters about this common story – a story told without Sirkian melodrama but with the neorealism of post-Second World War European filmmaking.  

French-born Colbert who, years earlier on US radio, had proudly and publicly exclaimed “I Am an American,” may have embraced this assignment as an opportunity to return to her roots.  Instead, cast as a visitor in Destinées, she was obliged to rehearse her estrangement and uneasy reintroduction.  France and cinema were moving on, away from the Hollywood paradigm of It Happened One Night; this is not the ersatz old world of Colbert’s I Met Him in Paris or Midnight.  And yet, the destiny that the new Europe was forging in the 1950s remained inextricably intertwined with the United States.  As the dresses of the two women make plain on one side and up-to-date on the other, there were destined to be clashes in style as well as in substance.

Forecasts in Hindsight: Wrongly Predicting the 1948 Presidential Election

As my motto ‘Keeping up with the out-of-date’ is meant to suggest, I tend to look toward the past; and yet, I resist retreat.  Retrospection is not retrogressive; nor need it be it a way of reverencing what is presumably lost or of gaining belated control over what back at a certain time of ‘then’ was the uncertainty of life in progress. I am interested in finding the ‘now’ – my ‘now’ – in the ‘then,’ or vice versa, and in wresting currency from recurrences.

Many articles in Crosby’s column made it into this 1952 volume, which is on my bookshelf. The item discussed here did not.

I also tend to look at the ephemeral and everyday, the disposable objects or throwaway remarks we think or rather do not think of at all and dismiss as immaterial and obsolete, as too flimsy to carry any weight for any length of time.  Take an old syndicated newspaper column such as John Crosby’s “Radio in Review,” for instance.  Back in November 1948, Crosby, whose writing was generally concerned with programs and personalities then on the air, commented on a US presidential election that apparently no one, at least no one in the news media, had predicted accurately.  “Dewey Defeats Truman,” the headline of the Chicago Daily Tribune erroneously read on 3 November that year. Having listened to the words dispensed over the airwave on that day after – or, depending on your politics, in the aftermath of an election that paved the way for another term for President Harry S. Truman – Crosby noted:

‘Perhaps never before have such handsome admissions of error reverb[e]rated from so many lips with such a degree of humility as they did on the air last week.’  Truman had been in office since the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945; but in 1948, he had confirmation at last that the public – or the majority of those who made their views public and official – agreed that he belonged there.  As Crosby pointed out, even seasoned political commentators had predicted a Republican victory.

‘[T]here probably never has been an election post-mortem in which the words “I told you so” were not heard at all,’ the columnist remarked, adding that ‘if they were said, [he] didn’t hear them.’  To his knowledge, ‘[n]o professional commentators … told anyone so.’

Among those who, according to Crosby, got it more wrong than others was the ultra-conservative broadcaster Fulton Lewis Jr., an opportunist and influencer who, Crosby remarked, had gone ‘far beyond’ his fellow commentators by predicting ‘Republican victories in states where most observers foresaw a seesaw battle.’  

Speaking from the secular pulpit that was his radio program, Lewis ‘fully admitted his wrongness’ after the fact, Crosby noted, reading aloud the messages he received from listeners who ‘invited him to drop dead,’ to ‘throw himself’ into Chesapeake Bay, or to ‘go soak his head in a vinegar barrel.’  Far from remorseful or self-deprecating, such revelling in controversy is representative of right-wing provocation as we experience it to this day.  

A question not posed by Crosby is whether future Barry Goldwater supporter Lewis simply got it wrong – or whether he predicted wrongly to demoralise Truman’s supporters by suggesting that a Republican landslide was a foregone conclusion. Given Lewis’s known bias, the miscalculation was obviously not calculated to rattle Truman supporters out of complacency. So, a question worth asking now not how commentators got it so wrong, but why.

Lowell Thomas, a conservative commentator courting an audience of both major parties, insisted that he had not predicted the election but that he had merely ‘passed along the opinions of others.’  Thomas added, however, that, had he made a prediction, ‘he’d have been as wrong as everyone else.’  Unlike Lewis, this statement suggests, Thomas distinguished between reportage and commentary, the line between which was drawn no more clearly in 1948 broadcasting than it is in today’s mass media, discredited though they are as ‘legacy’ and presumably obsolete by the social media weaponizing political right.

Reporter Elmer Davis who, also unlike Lewis, was critical of then on-the-rise Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Democrat who turned Republican and opposed the Truman presidency for being soft on Communism,  provided this statement to his listeners: ‘Any of us,’ he said, ‘who analyze news on the radio or in the papers must hesitate to try to offer any explanation to a public which remembers too well the lucid and convicing explanations we all offered day before yesterday of why Dewey had it in the bag.’  Commentators had ‘beaten’ their ‘breasts’ and ‘heaped ashes’ on their heads since the election, Davis told his audience; but they still looked ‘pretty foolish’ and should probably wait some time before sticking their ‘necks’ out again.

‘Cheer up, you losers,’ veteran newscaster H. V. Kaltenborn declared on his radio program, ‘It isn’t so bad as you think.’  The peculiar mash-up of scoffing, commiserating, mind-reading and prognosticating did not escape Crosby, who wondered just what went on in the ‘mind’ of someone who, more than having misjudged who lost, might himself have lost it.

The ‘explanations as to why President Truman won were almost as identical as the pre-election prediction that he wouldn’t,’ Crosby observed, namely that the nation ‘liked an underdog.’  Just how much of an ‘underdog’ can a presidential incumbent be? Playing one on TV would prove a winning formula for Donald Trump, at least, and the kind of doghouse he managed to furnish for himself, which is so unlike the residence some of us envision as rightfully his, provides support of that theory.

Summing up the state of desperation among commentators, Crosby stated that ‘many’ of them derived rather ‘odd comfort’ from the fact that US ally turned adversary Josef Stalin, who likewise incorrectly predicted a win for Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, ‘had been just as wrong as they were.’

Sure, there is momentary relief in Schadenfreude, seeing those who got it wrong having to admit – or trying to avoid admitting – the fact that, in hindsight, they were demonstrably wrong, and, being wrong, on the wrong side of the future.  And yet, getting it wrong may also be evidence of wrongdoing, of deceit and deviousness.  As someone relegated to the sidelines, I can offer only one reasonable piece of advice to those who prefer a Truman over a Trump: pay attention to but do not trust folks who are determined to convince you that your vote does not matter much by declaring the game to be over when it is still afoot.

Believing in Labels; or Long-distance Travel, Hands On

I am somewhat of a ‘jacket potato,’ as my mother-in-law recently labelled a certain garden-variety of vegetables, soi-disant, that ostensibly thrive in domestic interiors.  A book-jacket potato, perhaps; but straitjacket comes to mind as well in these sport-jackets-are-for-hangers days of sitting none-too-pretty.  

Not that, in my case, being pomme-de-terrestrial is a recent development.  When I was a child, my mother-by-law used to admonish me for being what in my native tongue is called a Stubenhocker: someone not readily dissuaded from following an inclination not to venture beyond the threshold.

I was that all right; but persuading in other than laid hands-on ways was complicated by the fact that I grew up in one of the most unappealing and polluted parts of flat-as-tarmac North Rhine-Westphalia.  There’s a pre-industrial reference to that region in the opening paragraph of Candide, which the editors of Norton’s explain thus to the reader: ‘Westphalia is a province of western Germany, near Holland, and the lower Rhineland.  Flat, boggy, and drab, it is noted chiefly for its excellent ham.’  Voltaire himself, so the editors note, described the region as ‘vast, sad, sterile, detestable countryside.’  A frank enough assessment to cure any ham of homesickness.

Creating a new virtual home for myself was one of the projects this summer; and my Sitzfleisch (buttocks to you) was sorely tested as I was scanning items from my ephemera collection for online display.  Take these luggage labels, for instance, which I exhibited as part of my (Im)memorabilia exhibition back in 2014 and reserved another spot for in Travelling Through in 2018.  Their erstwhile collector, whose Latvia-to-London history of wartime displacement is still waiting to be told, probably did not visit most of these places and ‘palaces,’ but the labels may well have been a source of vicarious enjoyment as the trading of Glanzbilder – glossy pictures sold in sheets at the local kiosk for trading among pocket-money possessed youngsters – was for my former self in bleak Westphalia.

But I am in danger of veering off-topic, self-imposed and accommodating as it is.  I was speaking travel – a language that’s beginning to sound a lot like Latin.  There is so little of it this year that the aforementioned outing to Hay-on-Wye seemed like an exploratory mission to a Shangri-La of normalcy.  To think that, in 2019, I started out in Sydney and ended up in Lisbon, with extended visits to my old neighborhood in Manhattan and trips to Amsterdam, London, and Florence in between.  It’s the Stubenhocker in me that shall pull me through the pandemic; that, and lexical acrobatics.

I picked up some examples of these former suitcase adornments and searched online for the places they advertise.  Are any of them still operating, I wondered? Or might this year have dealt a final blow to yet another pile of real and conceptual bricks in the service of an industry that, for decades, naturalised and solidified our bourgeois divisions of home and abroad, work and leisure, of holiday and everyday?

Luggage label, Excelsior Hotel Ernst, Cologne, Germany

Cologne Cathedral caught my eye – natch – and brought back memories of countless walks past that sooty Gothic spire rising next to the main train station that was my terminal for entering and exiting the ancient city of Köln.  It’s a sight that, decades later, became a lingering presence in my Gothic Imagination lectures – the cathedral, I mean, not the station, although, come to think of it, the back then equally sooty and rather more mysteries-filled and fantasy-fueling Hauptbahnhof haunts my teaching as well.

The Excelsior Hotel Ernst was – and is – about as likely a place for me to flop as is the Tomb of the Three Magi that is housed in the cathedral nearby.  The only five-star hotel in the old part of the city, it is so close to Dom, in fact, as to warrant its domination of the label design.  On its booking website, the establishment claims to have been privately owned since 1863; but the original building, which predates the 1880 completion of the permanent construction site that is the cathedral, was torn down in 1909.   Two decades later, the rebuilt hotel was reserved for the British army, which occupied it and much else besides until 1926.  Another two decades after that, it was still standing, albeit not without damage, having survived, like the battered Dom, the air raids of the Second World War.  And, yes, it weathered the economic fallout of COVID-19, opening again in May 2020 after a brief shutdown.  The fragile label, meanwhile, has lost little of its gloss.

Luggage label, Hotel Viking (now Hotel Royal Christiania), Oslo, Norway

Resisting my cultural conditioning – the notion of vacationing, in my German childhood, being associated with going down south – I picked up the label promoting the Hotel Viking in Oslo.  It opened in 1951, an influx of visitors being expected in 1952, the year Oslo hosted the Winter Olympics; it was the first year in which Germany (both East and West) were permitted to participate since Berlin hosted in 1936.  Norwegians were not likely to relish the idea of uniformed German delegates and their concomitant supporters invading their capital.  The label design frames the new site in a traditional context, suggesting that, even when viewed from more venerable landmarks, it is a sight to behold. The hotel, now called the Royal Christiania – thus declaring itself traditional by referencing the erstwhile name of the city – is still open for business. The label drives home that the hotel was modern by declaring it to be approachable by car; these days, advertisers are less likely to turn the parking space into a feature.

Luggage label, Hotel Wittebrug, Den Haag, Netherlands

Now, I have never been to Oslo; but on one of my most recent trips to the continent – if ‘recent’ is the word – my husband and I took the train from Amsterdam to spent a few hours in Den Haag, where I had never been until then.  I now lecture in landscape art, so seeing paintings of that genre right where they were created in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic was as thrilling to me as the fantasy of time travel, dismissed as such pictures were by eighteenth-century academics, and many now still under their influence, as prosaic.  However, I would have looked in vain for the Hotel Wittebrug, which was torn down in 1972.

The labels are the stuff of daydreams for me at the moment; but they certainly invite further research.  Who designed them, and when? How does the design correspond with, or misrepresent, the site depicted? It is a project for someone who, like me, does not believe in the label ‘fine art’ and is not dismissive of products of culture that, like seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes, were commodities sold and bought on the market long before they ended up, removed from our everyday, in pay-to-enter venues set apart for our veneration of them and of the collections that now hold them.  

Handling these flimsy pieces of paper now, I am reminded most of all of what I am missing while the world is a world away.  Being out of touch does not quite feel as joyous when the sense of touch cannot be exercised occasionally by hugging an old friend or holding onto what seems more echt, or genuine, if it can be had, momentarily, for the holding …

Little Lady Hee-Haw; or, A Temple Fit for Goebbels

On my only trip requiring an overnight bag during this stay-at-home summer, my husband and I drove from our patch on the west coast of Britain to the thoroughly overcrowded Cotswolds and, upon my urging, made a stop-over at the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, an internationally renowned haven for second-hand book lovers.  Now, musty old volumes and COVID-19 do not quite go together – or so I thought – considering that retail spaces generally set aside for them are rarely supermarket-sized.  However, Hay, which depends on the trade, managed to make it work; and, meeting the moment by donning a mask, I got to enjoy an afternoon of socially distanced and sanitized hands-on browsing.

Not that I walked away with any tomes of consequence.  While at the Cinema bookstore – a shop not limited to publications related to motion pictures – I discovered a nook stacked with a curious assortment of ephemera: German movie programs of the 1930s.  I am not sure how they ended up in a Welsh bookshop – but that dislocation may well have extended their shelf life … until a German such as I came along and took an Augenblick to sift through them.

The program pictured above, dating from 1937, left me puzzled for a while.  I am familiar with many of Shirley Temple’s features – but I did not recall any among them bearing a title remotely like “Shirley auf Welle 303,” or “Shirley over Station 303.” So, I picked up this fragile brochure, and a few others besides, if mainly to tap their potential as pop cultural conversation pieces.

The film being deemed worthy of commemoration is Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, a DVD of which is gathering dust in my video library.  The title refers to an early twentieth-century children’s literature classic, although the movie version bears so little resemblance to it that it could hardly be considered an adaptation.  Not that the title of the novel would have resonated with German audiences. Meeting this challenge, the marketing people at Fox came up with a new one that might sound more relatable.

I suspect that the servants of the Nazi regime would have objected to the name of the titular character as well, being that Rebecca is Hebrew in origin, meaning “servant of God.” Shirley, on the other hand, was a household name, Ms. Temple having charmed audiences around the world since at least 1934. Like the titles of several other Shirley Temple vehicles released in 1930s Germany, the German version of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm therefore bears the first name of its star. Only Heidi stayed Heidi, rather than being translated into “Little Swiss Miss Shirley.”

A contemporary British program for the same film, also in my collection.

And yet, the effort to make the film seem more relatable to Nazi Germany’s picture-goers nonetheless resulted in a title that was out of touch with Fascist reality. In 1938, when the film was released in German cinemas, the idea of using radio transmitters for your purposes – or for the purpose of exploiting a child for your own purposes – was inimical to state-controlled broadcasting. On the air, it was always “Germany Calling,” a phrase famously used by the aforementioned Lord Haw-Haw beginning in 1939.

Germans would have struggled in vain to twist the dial and hit on a broadcast like Shirley’s, or they would have paid a price for such twisting.  Many of them listened via the Volksempfänger, a mass-produced receiver that was always tuned in to the Führer’s voice.  Imagine staying tuned to Fox News all day.  Then again, so many who do have the choice not to still do nonetheless, not unlike those who were complaisant during the rise of Fascism in Germany.

The change in title – and the recontextualization it achieves – is peculiar, and only a performer as innocuous as Shirley Temple could have gotten away with what otherwise would have been downright seditious: seizing the microphone and taking to the airwaves in a makeshift studio set up in a remote farmhouse.  Perhaps, the titular bandwidth – 303 – was to signal that Shirley’s broadcast had been sanctioned after all, 30 January 1933 being the date Hitler came to power. In the Third Reich, three was heralded as the charm.

For decades, the German film industry did wonders – or, rather, wilful damage – to international films with its dubbing of their soundtracks; voicing over and voiding the content of the source, there were many opportunities to ready a film more substantive than Rebecca for consumption in Nazi Germany.  I do not recall seeing this movie in my native language, although I do remember a festival of her films airing on West German television in the late 1970s.  Not that watching Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm in the original is an experience I am eager to repeat, clobbered together a vehicle for an overhyped and overworked child star about to wear out her welcome that it is. Variety dismissed the film at the time as a “weak story,” “indifferently acted and directed,” while claiming its lead to be “at her best.”

The German program does little more than summarize the plot as well as state the principal actors and main players behind the scene of the production; I am sure someone checked whether producer Darryl F. Zanuck was Jewish, which he was not. What struck me about the program was that it mentions the word ‘propaganda’ twice in the first paragraph, where it was used as a substitute for advertising (in German, “Werbung” or “Reklame”).  Sending up the excesses of US consumerism while promoting the ostensible virtues of country living, this trifle of a film – distributed in Nazi Germany by the enterprising and accommodating “Deutsche” Fox – could serve as a vehicle for anti-American propaganda at a time when increasingly few US films were granted a release in Germany.

By making such trifles, and by marketing them for distribution in Nazi Germany, the US film industry contributed to the rise of Fascism, which, only after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hollywood films began to confront with a suitably glossy vengeance. By that time, US films were banned in Germany, and Shirley Temple ceased to be a leading lady – at least in motion pictures.

The Touchables

The folks who proved that they had made their mark in Hollywood by leaving it in the cement slabs in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre had one thing in common. Besides having the stature of a movie star or Tinseltown personality, I mean. They could all stand up, bend down, and exert whatever pressure is required to produce those imprints. Even Charlie McCarthy, apparently. I always thought that it might please the supposed untouchables to be commemorated in a medium that is not as telltale about our inescapable senescence as a photograph or moving image. Many of us can stand up far longer than we can stand looking in the mirror.

Then again, the moving hands of time are readable in our footprints. Shirley Temple’s tiny imprint reminds us that, on 14 March 1935, she was at the height of a career that diminished as she increased in size. Still, the prints are meant to bespeak immortality. We don’t get to see the tracks of Christopher Reeve’s wheelchair, for instance. Nor is Zsa Zsa likely to be given the honor now to join those ladies in cement. These prints are all solid, no matter how much the concrete crumbles. The stars have bodies—and they are able and sound . . .

There is something reassuring in that solidity—if it weren’t for those cracks, and the puzzled looks I come across in the crowd gathered here to take pictures, mainly of themselves in front of a Hollywood landmark. Who was Rudy “My Time Is Your Time” Vallee, anyway? Norma Talmadge, who’s she? What were the Ritz Brothers all about? And who was that Sid fellow for whom they left those cryptic messages?

I got the space to myself as I have my picture taken with Marion Davies’s dainty indentations (dated 1929), my palm covering the hollow. No one is likely to pull a Lucy now; the Duke is still standing. Most walk right past—no, over—Ezio Pinza, whose block of concrete has become a mere steppingstone. Not a soul stoops to Monty Woolley. He’s the actor to whom my dog owes his name (I’m telling no one). I, too, I am out of touch.

There is one imprint, though, that keeps impressing after nearly sixty years. You can tell from the grime in the handprints of Marilyn Monroe just how many visitors have bowed down to approximate her posture, crouching over to show that they still look up to her. Screen partner Jane Russell’s palms are eloquently untainted by comparison. Marilyn—and we call her by her first name in recognition of her vulnerability—would be dead within ten years after being immortalized at Grauman’s. Our reaching out to her now is a belated, selfish gesture. You can’t expect rectitude from a crowd bent on lowering themselves for a photo opportunity. Remaining upright here means to be indifferent.

“Wipe your mucky paws,” I want to cry out. Yet these cultural touchstones are unlike other memorials to the untouchables. Here, we touch what we deem worth preserving. We bestow genuine stature with our own hands. We grasp at the chance to grease the Hollywood machine with our grubby palms, to fashion destinies with our filthy fingers. Since greatness does not rub off, most of us leave little more than a smudge. There is humanity in the residue of perspiration.

“The terror of the unforeseen”; or, Missing The Plot

While not entirely lacking in fancy or imagination, I generally avoid speculating about roads not taken, avoid taking in prospects retrospectively by asking “What if . . . ?” What if I had never gone to America? What if I had not left again some fifteen years later? What if what I had left had not been a country whose majority had just re-elected George W. Bush? While I would not go so far or sink so low as to substitute that “What if” with a nonchalant “So what,” I much rather ask “What now?” or justify whatever decision I made with a defiant “So there!”

I suppose dismissing the value of such speculations by arguing that any alternate of myself would not be myself at all is a way to avoid accusing myself of not always having chosen the best or most sensible path. Perhaps, a little foresight might have worked wonders greater than could ever be performed by getting myself worked up wondering, in hindsight, what I might have been; but to compound the failure to see the future with the failure of facing up to the past as is strikes me as perversely self-destructive . . .

Now, this is not about me sighing for what might have been. Since I don’t ask “What if,” such regrets rarely present themselves—itself ample justification for not indulging in morosely remorseful constructions of alternate biographies. This is about the alternate history I took with me on that trip back in early November 2004, when I left America for a new life in a part of the old world I had never seen let alone set foot on. The book in my hand luggage was Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America—which, I thought, was just the volume for the occasion, just right for the moment of leaving behind what had been home to me and what, owing to the hysterical war-on-terror politics in the shaping of which I had no right to take part, had felt increasingly less like the freest, the friendliest, much less the only place to be.

In The Plot Against America, Roth considers what might have happened if Charles A. Lindbergh had defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to become President, largely on the strength of a persuasive if false—and unfulfillable—promise of “an independent destiny for America.”

Roth conceives of an alternate 22 June 1941, five months after Lindbergh’s inauguration, while yet adhering to the historical fact that it was the day on which the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union was broken when the former nation embarked upon Operation Barbarossa in an attempt to conquer the latter.

On that 22 June in AR (Anno Roth) 1941, Lindbergh, as President, addresses his countrymen and women by expressing himself “grateful” that Hitler was waging a war against “Soviet Bolshevism,” a war that “would otherwise have had to be fought by American troops.” Listening with dread to that address over the radio are the central characters of Roth’s nightmarish revision, a Jewish family from New Jersey who are terrorized by the thought that the pursuit of an ostensibly “independent destiny for America” means the alignment with a regime engaged in the Holocaust, that putting America first means putting an end to their civil liberties, which means “destroying everything that America stands for.”

“The terror of the unforeseen,” Roth writes, “is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.” Good histories, including alternate ones, may yet provoke terror by not swaddling in the paper logic of hindsight causalities what, however palpable, is yet uncertain and unascertainable as events unfold, and by reminding us not to mistake the unforeseen with the unforeseeable.

I remember opening The Plot sitting at a New York airport named after another American president and finding myself distracted by a German family visibly disquieted by the book’s cover art. There, staring at them was a swastika, the symbol of the terror that could have been foreseen. I was so self-conscious of this act of provocation that I was unable to read on; and once I had arrived in Wales, I was too absorbed in my own altered state—the detachment from what I had known and been—to have much use for any engagement with any alternate past one.

This week, for no particular reason, I picked up the book anew, and I read it as a commentary on two historical pasts—1941 and a 2004 (mis)informed by 11 September 2001—that somehow seems too comfortably remote, the anxieties that had given rise to its creation and my purchase of it being past as well. I can now amuse myself by pointing out that the day I read the abovementioned passage in Roth’s book coincided not only with the anniversary of that imaginary radio address but also with the birthday of Lindbergh’s spouse Anne; I can appreciate references to popular radio programs (“You should be on Information Please”) and personalities like Walter Winchell that render The Plot verisimilitudinous, conveniently to extract them for the sake of yet another cursory entry into this essentially escapist journal whose raison d’être was the sense of homelessness and estrangement I felt when I arrived in Britain on the eve of Guy Fawkes, that celebrated plot against King and Parliament.

What if I had not mislaid—and not even missed—The Plot all these years? What if I had avoided the impulse of discontinuity, of creating for myself a virtual space and time capsule of extra-historic hence fictitious isolation and had made more of an effort instead to participate in the real debates that are shaping my future? By refusing to ask myself “What if . . .?” as I belatedly re-enter The Plot I seem to be defusing Roth’s argument, fully aware that, by doing so, I may well expose myself to—rather than becoming exempt from—that certain “terror” of not foreseeing.

Cinegram No. 21 (Because It’s Some Holiday or Other)

It’s one of those days. I am reaching into my box of memorabilia, building paper bridges between the now and then. As I turn away from this little blue box—and from the scanner that transforms a printed image into a digital one—my eye catches another image, a framed poster on the wall of my study. And, once again, I become carried away, absorbed in the thoughts these two collector’s items—one British, one American—help to conjure, rather than in the appreciation of either. Besides, I have since retreated into our backyard to bask in the sunlight of a glorious spring afternoon. There’s time for all that, today. It is, after all, a holiday. Just what kind, though, I begin to wonder and allow the question to irritate me like ants running away with the picnic.

Now, you might say that a holiday by any other name smells just as sweet; but, if you ask me, “Bank Holiday” stinks. That is what the British insist on calling—or at any rate, are reduced to calling—some of their red letter days, including this one. Granted, considering the state of our financial system or individual finances, we might well be sitting round in a brown study, ruminating on our latter days in the red; but aren’t there any cultural cornerstones, historical milestones, or ancestral gravestones we ought to have our mind’s eye on?

We receive little encouragement from the dates as marked in our calendars. Here in Britain, we’ve got May Bank Holidays, and Spring Bank Holidays, and August Bank Holidays—and none of us are exactly laughing all the way to the nearest money-lending institution. Sure, we are not being pestered with notices demanding our immediate attention, but we don’t express our gratitude for not getting any bills by calling this a Post Office Holiday.

Not that all holidays are mere occasions for slipping into something comfortable or taking it off again at the beach; but we wouldn’t go so far, surely, as to declare Black Tuesday a day of observance by marking the anniversary of Wall Street laying an egg with a leisurely pancake breakfast. Sure, the banks are closed today; but is that what we are asked to celebrate?

How fortunate are those across the pond who can do as they please on Memorial Day. They may be decorating cakes instead of graves, but at least there is enough of a clue in the name to invite contemplation, encourage research or inspire gratitude. There is far more of a chance of drawing a blank if you’ve got nothing but “Bank” to draw on. If no consensus can be arrived at, if no joining of hands or thoughts is to be imposed, let any Bank Holiday become a blank one—and place on each celebrant the burden of making it meaningful . . .

Blind Justice; or, ‘1000 for Verdicts’

“It does not matter whether your verdict is ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty.’ If your reasons for it are good enough you will share in the prizes.” With this peculiar invitation, millions of Americans were lured to their radios, tuned in to WJZ, for a trial in which they, the listening public, were called upon to act as jurors. As previously mentioned here, it all began on this day, 25 November, in 1930. The judge in the case was none other than New York Senator Robert F. Wagner, lending gravitas to a spectacle that was, in more sense than one, a trial broadcast: Would the listeners find society beauty Vivienne Ware guilty of the murder of millionaire architect Damon Fenwicke, a crime for which she could be sentenced to the electric chair? And would they leap out of their armchairs to boost not only their own circulation but that of their local paper be rereading what they heard on the air?

“It is no part of your duty to decide whether or not she shall die,” Senator Wagner insisted. That, he told the listeners,

is the function of the Court and the Law. But you must remember that in endeavoring to secure a conviction of this young and beautiful defendant the District Attorney is but pursuing the business to which you, the people of this State, have set him. You will consider carefully all the evidence as it is presented for you from the witness stand.

Whether or not their voices could kill, those tuning in nevertheless derived their thrills from the importance of the interactive role granted to them. Tune in, have your say, all for a chance to win a substantial amount of dough—what’s not to love!

Leave it to a Hearst paper to conceive of a reality show like The Trial of Vivienne Ware—a trial that sold papers and bought the jury. Those who caught up with the daily broadcasts from the courtroom and read transcripts and analyses in their daily Hearst paper were rewarded for being informed enough to arrive at the verdict they were invited to mail in. No attendance, no deliberations with fellow jurors required. All that was needed, aside from a radio set and a few cents for daily tabloids, was curiosity, rhetoric, and greed.

You might say it was just fiction, this fictional call for justice; but the Hearst press, known to have started a war with mere words, was doing its utmost to make the trial seem as real the joined media of radio and the press could make it, all with the aim at a very real boost in sales through a cleverly manipulative marketing campaign.

More than a radio serial, The Trial of Vivienne Ware is one of the most fascinating media events ever staged. All that remains of it now are a number of newspaper articles and a book touted as “an innovation in both the radio and publishing worlds”—the “first radio novel.”

To be sure, Kenneth M. Ellis’s “novel”—a combination of faux news reportage and courtroom dialogue—has none of the thrills of the original experience. Its failure to excite and convince convincingly argues the power of the media to create a sense of reality through the realities we glean from sensation.

Not Every Tome, Dick, and Harry; or, How to Approach Claudette Colbert

It had been two decades since last a biographer was given the chance to shed light on the life of a woman whose name was written in the bright lights of Broadway and whose radiant presence lit up the silver screen. Considering that the radiant one is my favorite actress, I was eager to clap eyes on Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty (University Press of Mississippi, 2008), a promisingly scholarly tome by Bernard F. Dick. Not that the title inspires clapping, Byronic, bastardized, and bromidic that it is. It sure gave me the first clue, though: whatever it was that Colbert walked in—beauty, grace, wit—was being thoroughly trampled in a clumsy and inept performance that brings out the lambastard in me.

As I advised students attending my seminar in Effective Academic Writing yesterday, a gaffe can be so distracting as to drown out an argument in guffaws and undermine a reader’s trust in a professional writer. Dick’s editors left us with ample occasions to titter and groan. I put down the book often enough just to get some fresh air; but I had not gotten past page two when I was confronted with “the Prince of Whales.” That’s a fine kettle of mammals, I thought.

Not that the royalty thus referred to has anything to do with Colbert; Edward VII, along with Oscar Wilde and Theodore Roosevelt, is merely listed as one of the admirers of Lily Langtry after whom Colbert may have been named. Cumbersomely piled up, trivia like this slows the plodding, meandering account of how She Walked down to a crawl. However thorough a detective, Dick is unable to fashion the evidence he compiled into any cohesive—let alone compelling—narrative. Instead, he rehearses the biographer’s role of examining data:

Without school records, it is impossible to verify whether Claudette was still at Washington Irving in February 1919 [ . . .]. Although she told Rex Reed that she appeared in Grammar in December 1918, she could have graduated at the end of the fall term, in January 1919. Initially, Washington Irving, which opened its doors in February 1913, did not observe the traditional September-June school year. Then, too, there was the matter of Claudette’s missing at least four months of school, and possibly more, in 1916, which would also have affected her graduation date.

The “matter” in question was an accident that very nearly crippled his subject. It is commendable that Dick resists being melodramatic; but his idea of bringing an event like Colbert’s immigration to life for us is to check the records revealing that, “for the end of November, the temperature was a comfortable 45 degrees.” It is difficult to warm to such storytelling.

Fortunate for those who have not burned the book to beat the chill, She Walked gathers momentum once Colbert makes the move from stage to screen. Having watched virtually all of her films, Dick can fill in many of the blanks people are likely to draw when they try to remember any of the films in which Colbert starred before or after It Happened One Night. Most of these movies are not classics; and Dick does not pretend that they are. He nonetheless succeeds in offering a thorough overview of a career that might have been brighter had Colbert not been such a shrewd businesswoman. One of the highest paid actresses, she generally chose projects based on their financial worth to her rather than on their artistic value to us.

Demonstrating that her film career declined in the late 1940s, Dick is faced with an anticlimax that cannot be countered by references to stage performances to which we no longer have access. So, he holds back with the gossip some might have expected from him: was Colbert a lesbian or what? Once again, her biographer lays out the facts with admirable restraint. There is no evidence, besides her childless marriages, the fact that she did not so much as share a house with her first husband, that she had female live-in companions, and that she enjoyed being around gay people. No evidence, in short.

Dick confuses our desire to speculate about an artist’s gender orientation with untoward curiosity. Does it matter whether Colbert (whom Dick refers to as Claudette throughout, while according last names to her male co-stars) ever derived sexual pleasure from the company of another woman? Are those who, like me, are not born heterosexuals, inappropriately trying to appropriate another luminary by pushing her into the dark corner of our longings?

I have often wondered just what attracts me to Colbert, to whose Academy Award-winning performance I was introduced by my grandmother. Even as the pre-adolescent I was then, I sensed that I was gay. It would take nearly two decades more to make me feel cheerful about it. During that time, I rejected most of the gay icons to come out of Hollywood. In the dignified, understated performances of Claudette Colbert I seemed to detect something understood. Her sexuality was not threatening to a boy troubled by the realization that he could not get aroused at the sight of feminine beauty. To me, Colbert was a woman who charmed when others seemed to chide.

When I speculate about Colbert’s intimate life, I do so not with the intention of outing her, but in the hope of learning something about myself. She Walked is designed to put such speculations to rest. Yet no matter how many facts we can gather about others, even those close to us, we never stop wondering about them and our love for them. Once we have people all figured out, they tend to be more dead to us than alive. Such is the effect of setting a queer record straight.

Writing a speech about Colbert in college, I concentrated on her career, of which my fellow students knew little and for which they could not have cared less. That I mentioned the mystique in which her sexuality was shrouded did not seem to have bothered either Colbert or her secretary/companion much. Weeks after sending the only copy of my speech to Colbert’s home in Barbados, I received the autographed image shown here. While I would have liked to engage in conjecture, it was mainly to come out to my own audience, an autobiographical act I ultimately rejected as self-indulgent. A biographer’s predilections and prejudices must not get in the way of the project.

This, I felt, was precisely what kept She Walked from taking flight. Never mind the fanciful title with which Dick tries to evoke the romance he never found or instilled in his subject. Approaching biography with the mind of a bureaucrat, the scholar falls short of meeting the creative challenge at which he balked in duty.

As a failed opportunity to revive interest in someone who, to my great relief, is alive and well in films like the aforementioned Midnight and The Palm Beach Story, She Walked may well put an end to future studies. Yet even if an open-minded publisher can prevent this from being the last word on Colbert, Dick’s eulogy stands out as an act of unpardonable bumbling. Just how graceless a performance it is can be demonstrated by these two consecutive paragraphs, which I have mercifully abridged:

The end came on 30 July. Claudette, barely breathing, said, “I want to go home,” pointing upwards. O’Hagan stayed with her until the end [. . .]

Claudette was fortunate to have a friend in Helen O’Hagan, a celebrity in her own right. Widely known as the voice of Saks, she numbered the leading designers among her circle. In 2000, she hosted a retirement party for Bill Blass at the Waldorf, where she presented a slide show of his career, followed by a luncheon consisting of his favorite foods: meat loaf and oat meal cookies.

Not even if such culinary treats had been served at Colbert’s wake do I want to hear about them, especially not in the wake of the deathbed scene. If “The end came on 20 July” brought a tear to my eye, “oat meal cookies” made me choke—an unpleasant sensation that even the imminent conclusion of book could not alleviate. “A film actor’s life is a palimpsest,” Dick remarks in his Preface; She Walked in Beauty qualifies as an effacement I would like to see overwritten.

Bookshelf Cowboy

Well, howdy. His handsome mug is before me whenever I grab a book from my shelves. Randolph Scott, Series two, Number 385 of Zuban’s “Bunte Filmbilder” (a German line of cigarette cards, issued in 1937). I caught a glimpse of Scott this afternoon when I turned on TV, switching channels for an update on the stock market, the Heath Ledger autopsy, and whatever else made news today. Rage at Dawn (1955) was playing on Channel 4. Checking the Internet Movie Database, I realized that it might have been shown in commemoration of Scott’s birth, on this day, back in 1898. Now, my frequent encounters with him in my library notwithstanding, I rarely come across his appealing phizog. This is mainly because I don’t care much for the genre in which Scott made his mark. Stagecoach aside, which to me is more of a small-scale Grand Hotel on wheels, I rarely watch Westerns (even though a certain—if unlikely—Texas Lady is prominently displayed in my bedroom). True, Scott co-starred in My Favorite Wife and played opposite Marlene Dietrich on two occasions; but otherwise, there isn’t much on his extensive resume that appeals to me. So, I am once again twisting the dial, the ether being Hollywood’s parallel universe.

Sure enough, apart from recreating his roles in Pittsburgh and Belle of the Yukon, Scott can be heard co-starring aforementioned Texas Lady, Claudette Colbert, in an adaptation of Preston Sturges’s ”Palm Beach Story” (15 March 1943), filling the shoes of Joel McCrea. He was to do so again, a few months later, when McCrea did not appear, as scheduled, on the Cavalcade of America program, starring in the propaganda drama ”Vengeance of Torpedo 8” (20 September 1943).

While he did not get much to do or say in the rather dull rehash of Palm Beach Story, Scott was given a chance to prove his comedy skills on a number of occasions. Opposite Gene Tierney, for instance, he was cast in “A Lady Takes a Chance” on the Harold Lloyd hosted Old Gold Comedy Hour (unfortunately no longer available in the Internet Archive). For more laughs, Scott joined Paulette Goddard for a parodic “Saga of the Old West” on Command Performance (21 June 1945). Assigning the parts, Goddard declared: “Randy, you play yourself. A real, two-gun cowboy.”

Turns out that Scott got a chance to play the Ringo Kid, after all. On 4 May 1946, he took on John Wayne’s role in the Academy Award production of Stagecoach. Sharing the microphone with him to reprise the role of Dallas was Claire Trevor, radio’s original Lorelei Kilbourne of Big Town (whom I recently saw in Born to Kill).

To me, the more intriguing performances were Scott’s curtain calls, during which he got to address the audience. Having delivered his lines in the digest of “Palm Beach Story,” the actor was called upon to put his southern charm to work for the war effort, reminding the women on the home front that

it’s men like your own sons and brothers, your husband or sweetheart whom the Red Cross is serving. This year, don’t measure by ordinary standards. Make your contribution to the Red Cross War Fund just as generous as possible.

“For most of us the war is a distant terror,” he told listeners of the Cavalcade broadcast, “until it is brought forcefully home by those very close to our own lives. Let’s match their effort at the front with ours at home. Back the attack with War Bonds.”

Of course, Scott’s commitment to the war effort went further than those appeals; he was, after all, a veteran of the first World War. And, like many of his fellow actors, he went on tour with the USO (an experience he shared with listeners of Hollywood Star Time).

Meanwhile, the gentleman from Virginia has gone back on the shelf. I shall see him again soon enough, as I reach for another volume on old-time radio. For this spur-of-the-moment tribute to him, Scott made me round up Cavalcade of America and Radio Drama by Martin Grams, as well as John Dunning’s On the Air.