Ladykillers Instinct; or, Marcia Warren’s Profession

“What’s your great online discovery,” an interviewer asked Marcia Warren, star of the current West End production of Ladykillers.  To this, the veteran of stage, screen and radio replied, “What does online mean?” It is just the kind of answer most of us expect—and want to hear—from someone past middle age, which makes hers such a sly response.  Warren remains in character, as Mrs. Wilberforce, kindly old landlady to the killers, giving us what we find so reassuring and endearing about the senescence we otherwise dread.  She may or may not be joking—but she sure has earned the right neither to know nor to care.  Looked at it that way, being past it becomes a shelter, a retreat beyond trends, updates and upgrades whose seeming simplicity appeals to those who cannot afford to be quite so nonchalant about technology, who feel the pressure of performing in and conforming to the construct of the present as a digital age.  Not to know or willfully to ignore—what luxury! Young and not-so-young alike find comfort in this deflecting mirror image of our future selves.  It’s a Betty White lie we use to kid ourselves .

We enjoy making light of old age; and those of us who have half a conscience enjoy it even more to be presented with elderly people or characters who are not simply the brunt of yet another ageist joke but are in on it—and cashing in on it as well.  We laugh all the way as they take our laughter to the bank.

We want older folks to be feisty because it comforts us to know that, even in our declining years, there are weapons left with which to fight, however futile the fighting.  The middle aged, by comparison, are past the prime against which the standard their looks and performances are measured; it is their struggle to conceal or deny this obsolescence that makes them the stuff of deflationary humor.  We don’t laugh at Mrs. Wilberforce; we laugh at the bumbling crooks whose willfulness is no match for her force shield of insuperable antiquity.

It is this nod to nostalgia as a weapon against the onslaught of modernity that makes Ladykillers such a charmer of a story.  And what makes it work on the stage just as it works on the screen is that the 1955 original requires no update: the Ladykillers was born nostalgic.  It hit the screens—in fabulous Technicolor, no less—at a time when, after years of postwar austerity, the British were ready to look back in amusement at their wants and desires and all those surreptitious attempts to meet them.  Sneers turned to smiles again as greed was finally being catered to once more.

Eluding those who try to will it by force, fortune winks at those who wait like Mrs. Wilberforce, a senior citizen yet hale, clearheaded and driven enough to enjoy a sudden windfall.  It is a conservative fantasy that appealed then as it appeals now, especially to middleclass, middle-aged theatergoers eager to distract themselves from banking woes and pension fears, from cybercrime and urban riots.

Familiar to me from radio dramatics, Warren’s name was the only one on the marquee I recognized as I decided whether or not take in what I assumed to be another one of those makeshift theatricals that too often take the place of real theater these days—stage adaptations of popular movies, books and cartoons like Shrek, Spider-Man, or Addams Family with which the theater world is trying rather desperately to augment its aging audience base. Written by Graham Linehan and directed by Sean Foley, this new production of The Ladykillers fully justified its staging.  There is much for the eye to take in; indeed, it owing to an able cast—and the lovely, lively Ms. Warren above all— to prevent the ingenious set and special effects from stealing this caper.

In the real, honest-to-goodness make-believe beyond the online trappings of which she claims to be ignorant, Warren gives us just what we want.  After all, acting for our pleasure and acting out our desires is her business.  It’s the oldest profession in the world.

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.

“. . . in fire and blood and anguish”: An Inspector Calls Repeatedly

As I was saying: what is wanting here is continuity, some sort of story on the go, a sense of goings-on ongoing, of the so on and so on and so on. It would be laziest to claim, as I have done, that what prevents me from turning a seemingly random clipbook into the attraction that is the yet-to-come is largely owing to the kind of clippings for which this (mis)nominal journal is reserved. Instead of looking ahead, I keep on hearkening back. As I recall, which is what my kind of introspective retrospection calls for, my life always seemed to unfold in hindsight, not so much enveloped as developing. I know better than to regard history as a series of acts perpetrated rather than ideas perpetuated—but that knowledge does not prevent me from living ahistorically. According to J. B. Priestley, I am bound to regret this.

For the most part, mine has been a life apart; many are the instances, momentous events even, in which I just was not in the moment. What was I feeling when the Berlin Wall fell? My diary won’t tell you. It only refers to the event in passing—and with detachment—as something that would have been “noch vor kurzem undenkbar” (unthinkable even a short time ago). “Undenkbar,” perhaps, since I had never given it much Gedanke.

I recall being revolted by David Hasselhoff’s “Looking for Freedom,” a 1989 chart topper all over Europe, but was not aware that the song’s popularity was owing to political events then in the making, let alone that Hasselhoff was part of the revolution (as claimed, with tongue firmly in cheek, in a current BBC Radio 2 retrospective). I never made the connection. Nothing seemed to connect, least of all with me. My existence, as I saw it, was coincidental and inconsequential.

It is not for nothing that my generation was known as the “no future” generation. Life in the Western middle of Europe was, to many, solely dependent on the whim or disposition of two world leaders, on a red telephone, and a scientist’s finger on a long-range missile switch.

I came briefly into contact with my past self when, on a recent weekend in London, I looked into the fresh faces of my nieces, whom I had not seen in over twelve years since I steadfastly refuse to set foot again on German soil. I never did make peace with my native country, and, as much as I enjoy a good Schlachtplatte (literally, a battle or slaughter platter, which is a dish of assorted meats), I’d much rather rely on German exports than return to the scene of inner turmoil.

The belated realization that, growing up in the Rhineland, I had never witnessed a celebration of Armistice Day, seen a World War I memorial (of which there is one in nearly every village here in Britain) or witnessed the annual spectacle of lapels sprouting poppies, only deepened my suspicion that it was the shame of defeat that rendered causality ineffective in a post-1918 German construct of history, and that what was being commemorated elsewhere was victory rather than the failure to insure it.

As the fatalism expressed in the grating conclusion of the most recent installment in The Final Destination series of disaster horror suggested to me, causality without social or moral responsibility is a mere exercise in predictability. “We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and glood and anguish.” J. B. Priestley keeps saying as much in An Inspector Calls, the previously maligned 1990s production of which I caught again on said trip to London a few weeks ago.

“You’ve a lot to learn yet,” pragmatic and presumably self-made Mr. Birling advises the younger generation, anno 1912.

And I’m talking as a hard-headed, practical man of business.  And I say there isn’t a chance of war.  The world’s developing so fast that it’ll make war impossible. Look at the progress we’re making [. . .].  Why, a friend of mine went over this new liner last week—the Titanic—she sails next week—forty-six thousand eight hundred tons—and every luxury—and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable.  That what you’ve got to keep your eye on, facts like that, progress like that—and not a few German officers talking nonsense and a few scaremongers here making a fuss about nothing.  Now you three young people, just listen to this—and remember what I’m telling you now.  In twenty or thirty years’ time—let’s say in 1940, you mighty be giving a little party like this—your son or daughter might be getting engaged—and I tell you by that time you’ll be living in a world that’ll have forgotten all these Capital versus Labour agitations and all these silly little war scares.  There’ll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere—except of course in Russia, which will always be behindhand, naturally.

Mr. Birling is blind not only to the signs of the time but also to his responsibilities in designing the future while consigning the present to waste and ruin. Even when given the chance in Priestley’s fantastic setup, he is incapable of turning hindsight into insight. Knowledge, after all, is not synonymous with understanding. As much as I keep rejoicing in Mr. Birling’s fall—a delight dimmed by the knowledge that his is our downfall by proxy—logic dictates that I fall well short of understanding the consequences of my own ahistorical ways.

So to Speke

When not at work on our new old house—where the floorboards are up in anticipation of central heating—we are on the road and down narrow country lanes to get our calloused hands on the pieces of antique furniture that we acquired, in 21st-century style, by way of online auction. In order to create the illusion that we are getting out of the house, rather than just something into it, and to put our own restoration project into a perspective from which it looks more dollhouse than madhouse, we make stopovers at nearby National Trust properties like Chirk Castle or Speke Hall.

The latter (pictured here) is a Tudor mansion that, like some superannuated craft, sits sidelined along Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport, formerly known as RAF Speke. The architecture of the Hall, from the openings under the eaves that allowed those within to spy on the potentially hostile droppers-in without to the hole into which a Catholic priest could be lowered to escape Protestant persecution, bespeaks a history of keeping mum.

Situated though it is far from Speke, and being fictional besides, what came to mind was Audley Court, a mystery house with a Tudor past and Victorian interior that served as the setting of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensational crime novel Lady Audley’s Secret. The hugely popular thriller was first serialized beginning in 1861 and subsequently adapted for the stage. Resuscitated for a ten-part serial currently aired on BBC Radio 4, the eponymous “lady”—a gold digger, bigamist, and arsonist whose ambitions are famously diagnosed as the mark of “latent insanity”—can now be eavesdropped on as she, sounding rather more demure than she appeared to my mind’s ear when reading the novel, attempts to keep up appearances, even if it means having to make her first husband, a gold digger in his own right, disappear down a well.

As if the house, Audley Court, did not have a checkered past of its own—

a house in which you incontinently lost yourself if ever you were so rash as to attempt to penetrate its mysteries alone; a house in which no one room had any sympathy with another, every chamber running off at a tangent into an inner chamber, and through that down some narrow staircase leading to a door which, in its turn, led back into that very part of the house from which you thought yourself the furthest; a house that could never have been planned by any mortal architect, but must have been the handiwork of that good old builder, Time, who, adding a room one year, and knocking down a room another year, [ … ] had contrived, in some eleven centuries, to run up such a mansion as was not elsewhere to be met with throughout the county […].

“Of course,” the narrator insists,

in such a house there were secret chambers; the little daughter of the present owner, Sir Michael Audley, had fallen by accident upon the discovery of one.  A board had rattled under her feet in the great nursery where she played, and on attention being drawn to it, it was found to be loose, and so removed, revealed a ladder, leading to a hiding-place between the floor of the nursery and the ceiling of the room below—a hiding-place so small that he who had hid there must have crouched on his hands and knees or lain at full length, and yet large enough to contain a quaint old carved oak chest, half filled with priests’ vestments, which had been hidden away, no doubt, in those cruel days when the life of a man was in danger if he was discovered to have harbored a Roman Catholic priest, or to have mass said in his house.

Loose floorboards we’ve got plenty in our own domicile, and room enough for a holy manhole below. It being a late-Victorian townhouse, though, the hidden story we laid bare is that of the upstairs-downstairs variety. At the back, in the part of the house where the servants labored and lived, there once was a separate staircase, long since dismantled. It was by way of those steep steps that the maid, having performed her chores out of the family’s sight and earshot, withdrew, latently insane or otherwise, into the modest quarters allotted to her.

I wonder whether she read Lady Audley’s Secret, if indeed she found time to read at all, and whether she read it as a cautionary tale or an inspirational one—as the story of a woman who dared to rewrite her own destiny:

No more dependency, no more drudgery, no more humiliations,” Lucy exclaimed secretly, “every trace of the old life melted away—every clue to identity buried and forgotten—except […]

… that wedding ring, wrapped in paper.  It’s enough to make a priest turn in his hole.

Return to Radio Street

Writing this journal, I often think of myself as being on the verge of extinction. A sense of pastness pervades my present, delayed responses to the supposedly bygone, with modern technology determining (and potentially terminating) my virtual presence. In my largely inconsequential musings on popular culture, I am perched on the edge of both nostalgia and history, dreading the irresponsibility and the impossible responsibilities of such territories foreign to me. At best, I can represent myself—and that but feebly, squeezed in as I am by the marginalia, the marginality of my interests, intellect, and imagination.

A quest of self between the nowhere of nostalgia and the distinct there—and therefores—of history? Somehow, that is not unlike riding the retro tram that takes visitors to Latvia through the nation’s capital, Riga. No wonder. I recently returned from there.

The “Retro Tram” takes you to the Jugendstil district, where you will find the largest accumulation of art nouveau architecture in the world (a designated World Heritage site); it also takes you to Riga’s garden city, Mezapark and its nouveau riche . . . past the Latvian National Opera, the Riga Latvian Society, the National Library of Latvia, past and through a series of cemeteries, all the way to the Riga National Zoological Garden. National! That elusive, loathsome, longing-inspiring notion.

Even though it numbers among the world’s less-than-happy countries, if a recent survey is to be believed, Latvia strikes one—or struck me—as a young nation eager to find and define itself. Wars, occupations, repressions of native culture and language, and now the surge (or scourge) of Western commercialism have made this a difficult and perhaps impossible project. One such commercial enterprise, the Retro Tram, takes you—the tourist—past sites revealing German influences and bygone splendor, while much of the old town seems like a theme park—or the construction site for one—featuring new buildings meant to reflect one past while obscuring a more recent, the horrors of which are reenacted or displayed in some of the city’s museums (the Occupation Museum, for instance). Are these places representative of the nation or placeholders for a national identity lost in (or to) the spirit of European unity?

It seemed appropriate that the tram is departing from and returning to a street whose name bespeaks or proclaims the quest for such solidarity, for union and the voicing of uniting ideas in a language that unites: Radio, McLuhan’s “tribal drum.” As I am returning now to Radio Street, to the subject that is right up mine, I struggle once more to make the past my present while steering clear of both the headlongevity of nostalgia and the impossible burden—the hubris—of history. All I can offer is a splash in the shallow puddles of my own reflections as I make my way down what, to me, is anything but Memory Lane . . .

A Slice of Bacon . . . to Go

Stained glass likeness of Francis Bacon in our home

It seems I am going back to school.  If I take Francis Bacon literally, that is. Considering that his stained glass likeness greets me whenever I turn on the boiler or am induced by allergies to reach for the vacuum cleaner, it is high time I start quoting him now. According to the aforementioned essayist, “He that travelleth into a country before he hath some entrance into the language, goeth to school, and not to travel.” A timely reminder, as we are off tomorrow on a last-minute trip to Riga, Latvia.

Es nerunāju latviski.  That is to say, I am a stranger to the native tongue (related to Sanskrit); and, having just gotten my hands on a couple of guidebooks, of much of the culture and history of the Baltic nation, even though German influences are pronounced—being that Riga was founded by Albrecht von Buxthoeven, a German bishop, and rarely enjoyed independence for long—and English, as in most larger Western cities nowadays, is widely understood.

Much could be gleaned, no doubt, from the journal of a local, that is Latvian, Francis, expatriate Renaissance man Francis Rudolph or Rudolf (1921-2005), some of whose paintings, drawings and diaries (shown below) were gifted a few years ago to the university here in Aberystwyth, the town where I currently reside. ‘Expatriate’ is too clinical a term: the latterly eccentric was forced to migrate during his youth, when Latvia was being invaded by the Nazis and the Red Army.  There he is, sticking his tongue out to us who are still largely ignorant of his world; yet it was he who put Latvia on the map for us and got us intrigued about Riga.

Richard Wagner and Sergei Eisenstein aside, there are few names in the Riga travel guides to which a journal devoted to US radio dramatics can readily relate.  Determined not to stoop to the sharing of random snapshots, I shan’t continue broadcastellan until the conclusion of my “scholarly” outing, which is preceded and followed by sojourns in familiar destinations in Wales (Cardiff), England (Manchester), and the Netherlands (Amsterdam). Technology permitting, I might file the occasional report.

It rather irks me to be silenced by the marginal character of my chosen subject.  What a failure of self-expression, what a missed opportunity a journal like this is if it cannot accommodate whatever its keeper happens upon, sees and undergoes; yet such is the curse of the concept blog.

“Let him keep [. . . ] a diary,” Bacon rightly advises.  I often regret my own strictures in this respect, as I imagine that my experiences may be rather more relatable to some than the dramatics of radio are to most.  Besides, an online diary is ideally suited to the recording of everyday observations.  As has been demonstrated rather conclusively by the dead air I left behind on past travels, I seem incapable of reconciling the peripatetic with the armchair reflective.  Still, I hope my experiences are going to enter into this journal somehow.  As Bacon recommends,

[w]hen a traveller returneth home, let him not leave the countries, where he hath travelled, altogether behind him [. . .].  And let his travel appear rather in his discourse, than his apparel or gesture; and in his discourse, let him be rather advised in his answers, than forward to tell stories; and let it appear that he doth not change his country manners, for those of foreign parts; but only prick in [that is, plant] some flowers, of that he hath learned abroad, into the customs of his own country.

Now, I have long been confused as to what “his own country” might mean, being that I have not lived in what is presumably and legally “home” to me for nearly two decades; but, in lieu of on-the-spot reports, I shall endeavor to gather and display such “flowers” as may withstand the airwaves or can be securely propped against a microphone . . .

A Fine Kettle of Fish

My visit to Canajoharie

These past few days, I’ve been trying to keep my eyes shut—as if the medication had not already made it well-nigh impossible to keep them open. The more they are watering, the more inflamed they get. And what with all this gasping for air, I hardly feel in my element. Allergies. My mother used tell me they are just a state of mind as she insisted that I mow the lawn—which is one reason I have not laid eyes on her in about two decades. State of mind, my bloodshot eye! Anyway. If I am not reaching for tissues or fishing for the inhaler, I am digging into my library of radio recordings, which I am spending an inordinate amount of time cataloguing. Otherwise, I would simply lose sight of what I have yet to hear.

Our Freedom’s Blessings was one of the titles to which I never gave a thought, let alone lend an ear. Lending a hand in its return to the air—or its turning up on the internet—turned out to be somewhat of a headache. So be it. After all, there is little use and less joy in going on about something without giving anyone else at least half a chance to follow.

My visit to Canajoharie

Little is known about Our Freedom’s Blessings, other than that it was produced by the New York State Department of Commerce. No recordings of it are currently available online. So, I set up a new site for the sharing of programs [now defunct]. Since the crash of my last Mac back in November 2007, I have been unable to edit my old pages; and, itchy eyes notwithstanding, it is only now that I can face the prospect of starting from scratch. You might well argue that an episode of Our Freedom’s Blessings titled “The Little Jars of Canajoharie” was not worth all this effort. Ah, but have you been to Canajoharie?

As Uncle York, the narrator of Our Freedom’s Blessings tells us, Canajoharie is an Indian name meaning “the kettle that washes itself.” The “little town with the funny name,” we learn,

lies smack in the middle of the Mohawk valley.  In 1890, Canajoharie was hardly more than a crossroads, still half country.  Well, it was a leisurely kind of life, quiet days of wagon wheels on dirt streets, the tingling smell of hickory smoke in a cow crossing in the main part of the town.  But Canajoharie folks wasn’t asleep.  Far from it.  Couple of fellas that smoked their own hams and bacon started to sell them to other folk.  And before you knew it, there was a full-fledged little company operating, one that took for itself a homespun kind of name: Beechnut.

Well, we did not listen to Uncle York on our travels through upstate New York when we happened upon Canajoharie—after an unwelcome detour—and that despite the fact that the Mac on which the recording is stored went along for the ride. Had we done so, we might have learned a little something about the fortunes of the town. We did insist on seeing the “kettle,” not heeding the warnings of a local that it was little more than a hole in the ground.

Equipped though we were with hand-drawn map handed to us at a tourist information booth that suggested we were not the only ones eager to seize the opportunity to gawk at a pothole, we did not encounter anyone else on along the way on that warm June morning. We got lost, passing derelict factory buildings and warehouses that bespeak the town’s heyday, the days of which Uncle York speaks.

When I came across the name of “Canajoharie” in my recordings library, I just had to tune in. Never mind that “Little Jars” turned out to be little more than a juvenile infomercial about the makers of baby food. Somehow, whatever flotsam drifts toward me on the airwaves seems to belong in my life. It is never an altogether different kettle of fish.

Secondary Childhood; or, Pandas to Ponder

Wili and Wali at Penrhyn Castle

It is not dotage but a momentary state of doting. Not the reliving of one’s own youth, however romanticized, but an imagining—or experiencing—of what it means to be very young while looking at objects or confronted with performances not created with me in mind. Not reverie, in short, but empathy. That is what I call “secondary childhood”—the state of being elsewhere in time and space, being young there while being here and quite otherwise. Listening to so-called old time radio programs produced in the US, for instance, I am keenly aware that I am entering worlds once inhabited by millions of children born in a country other than my German birthplace, past generations whose reflections are lost to us and, all too frequently, even to them—worlds the passage to which might have been blocked and obscured over time, but that might nonetheless be recoverable.

This recovery effort is quite distinct from the nostalgia of which I am so wary, the attempt of forcing oneself back through that passage and, failing to do so, creating one through which one may yet squeeze wistfully into a niche of one’s own making. It is quite another thing, to me, to set out to gain access to the worlds of other people’s childhoods, to tune in with one’s child’s mind open. I try not to make assumptions about audiences and their responses; instead, I try to become that audience by permitting myself to be played with so as to figure out how a game or play works.

Penrhyn Castle

As I have had previously occasion to share after a trip to Prague, I enjoy looking at old toys. Visiting the grand and rather austere neo-Norman castle of Penrhyn last weekend, on an excursion to the north of Wales, I was surprised to find, housed in that forbidding fantasy fortress, a corner devoted to a collection of dolls. Now, it seems perverse to be so drawn to the two stuffed animals pictured above, stuffed as Penrhyn is with exquisite furniture and impressive works of art (a Rembrandt, no less). I gather it was the bathos of it, the relief after having had greatness thrust upon me to be surprised by these unassuming and, by comparison, prematurely timeworn objects.

Turns out, the twin pandas in the straw hats are Wili and Wali, marionettes who co-starred in a long-running Welsh children’s program titled Lili Lon (1959-75). Upon returning to mid-Wales, where I now live, I immediately went online in search of the two; but, aside from a history of their creators, little can be found about them. I have become so accustomed to YouTubing the past that I was surprised to find no trace of Wili and Wali. No doubt, they still dwell in the memories of thousands who shared their adventures. I was not among them; yet, as is often the case when I come across titles of lost radio programs or fragments thereof, I imagine myself enjoying what is beyond my reach . . .

Night Bus; or, What Nearly Didn’t Happen

”Go where the hell ever you want. But get that word ‘bus’ outta the title. It’s poison.” That is what Harry Cohn told Frank Capra when the director declared that his next picture would be Night Bus, the comedy we now know as It Happened One Night. I have to agree with Mr. Cohn as to the toxicity of said vocable. After my recent trip to Budapest, “bus” has become a four-letter word in my lexicon, spelling b-u-s-t. The night bus that was supposed to transport us from Wales to England never even turned up. There we stood, in the wind and the rain, wondering how on earth we would get to Luton (about four and a half hours eastward) to catch the early morning flight to the Hungarian capital.

There were about fifty of us, waiting not only for the chartered vehicle but also anticipating the violent storm that was to batter the coastline and move, along with us, to the continent. It was well past 11 PM when we somehow—and, quite miraculously, given our remote location—managed to hire an alternative coach. Little did we know that, when we finally got underway around 0:30 AM, that that heaven-sent conveyance would end up sputtering along at 10 mph—on the highway, no less—and give up the ghost in its machine halfway through the journey. We missed our flight and spent five hours at a truck stop making twelfth-hour arrangements to get all of us to Budapest. Amazingly, we did secure another flight from another airport, to which the bus, now repaired, transported us. We arrived at our destination some ten hours behind schedule—too late to enjoy the boat trip on the Danube planned for the afternoon. Our hotel, we discovered, was a converted psychiatric hospital; the folks in charge of making the building fit for its new purpose needn’t have gone through what didn’t look to have been all that much trouble. I, for one, was ready to be institutionalized.

Riding a bus—or missing and waiting for same—is about as enchanting as the prospect of digging a plastic fork into a fast food dinner. Hollywood caught on quick, romancing the railroad instead. As I took time to explore in an undergraduate essay “Ladies in Loco-motion: The Train Motif in the Romantic Comedies of Claudette Colbert” (previously mentioned here), that romance commenced as early as 1895—merely a quarter of a century after the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in America—when the Lumière Brothers, showing their “Arrival of a Train at Ciotat Station” at the first public movie theater in Paris, discovered that the tracks and the camera were indeed made for each other. Sure, some spectators left screaming—but most came back for more.

In 1903, motion picture pioneer Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery revolutionized American film, since it led to the discovery that, as Ian Hamilton put it, “movies were not just ‘motion photographs’: they could indeed tell stories, defy the unities, move compellingly from A to B.” Bound and gagged beauties left to expire on the tracks, inexorable engines speedily approaching, and courageous heroes dashing to the rescue are quintessential images and sequences of both silent-screen melodrama and comedy.

As moviemaking and film narrative became more sophisticated, the plot-propelling and symbolic potentialities of the Iron Horse—from the far-off soundings of its prophetic whistle to close-ups of its powerful wheels—were explored and exploited in virtually every emerging genre, in mystery (Strangers on a Train) and musical (The Harvey Girls), in film noir (Double Indemnity) and war actioner (The Train), in Western (Union Pacific) and weeper (Brief Encounter).

To Hollywood’s romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s, train rides, from the daily commute on the el to adventurous journeys on the Twentieth Century, proved vital as well, with trains and stations serving as unstable, mobile communities or pervious social settings in which relationships are as readily forged as foreshortened, as easily enhanced as escaped. At once liberating and restricting in their scheduled, track-shackled predictability, distinctly modern, pragmatic and everyday, yet steeped in pre-automotive nostalgia, episodes in transit seem ideally suited to a comic rendering of the primal and perpetual boy-meets-girl plot, in which the lovers’ temporary separation, emotionally as well as physically, is an essential device. Consequently, Hollywood’s romantic comedy and its wilder, wackier subgenre, the Hays Office dodging screwball, make ample use of departures, arrivals, and escapades en route.

For all its influence on screwball, It Happened One Night did little to get the bus rolling again; perhaps, the crammed coach began to smell too much of a New Deal gone sour. Bus travel wasn’t so much democratic as socialist, the freedom of the road curtailed by the invisible tracks that are the prescribed route. On the train, at least, the classes could be compartmentalized, and there was ample room for glamour as well as hobo nonconformity. According to Emanuel Levy’s And the Winner Is . . ., even the success story of Capra’s Night Bus concludes with a real-life train incident. Claudette Colbert, not having expected to pick up a trophy for her role as Ellie Andrews,

was boarding the Santa Fe train to New York when she was announced winner. The Santa Fe officials held up the train and she was taken by taxi to the ceremonies at the Biltmore Hotel. “I’m happy enough to cry,” she said, ‘but I can’t take the time to do so. A taxi is waiting outside with the engine running.”

The bus driver did not wait for Miss Andrews. And he drove his vehicle into a muddy ditch, too. Is it any wonder the runaway heiress was such an expert hitchhiker? Buses! Imagine the joys of our shaky return trip, during which the coach’s anti-roll bar fell off and dragged noisily on the road like so many cans proclaiming “Just Married.” Hardly a marriage of convenience, it certainly was no romance . . .

Alexander Technique: A Matter of Queer Posture

Well, it’s been a few decades since my first (and only) toga party. Last night, I felt as if I were crashing one. A friend of mine took me to a way-off Broadway production of a play called A Kiss from Alexander (book and lyrics by Stephan de Ghelder; music by Brad Simmons). Billed as a “musical fantasy,” it is essentially a backstage stabbing farce—say, All About Abs—wrapped in romance and sentiment. Its tone is considerably less even than the spray tan on the cast’s collective hide.

Borrowing from the Rita Hayworth vehicle Down to Earth, which it references, this gay Band Wagon rolls along merrily enough, confident in attracting an audience steeped in Hollywood myth, in Broadway lore as well as lingo. “Alexander technique,” for instance, which served as a pun in the play, is a way of learning how to rid the body of tension. Alternative culture has been doing just that by leaning on traditions that produce anxieties, irreverence being the release.

Art not quite sure of its standing tends to be self-conscious. Witnessing the return of Alexander the Great in his mission to sabotage a bawdy, low-fidelity account of his private life (in a production called “Alexander Was Great!”), I was reminded of Norman Corwin’s radio fantasy “A Descent of the Gods.” In it, the god of Trivia recalls how Venus, Mars, and Apollo visited Earth, and how they were embraced and degraded by the media, the least respected and most prominent of which being the one in which poet-journalist Corwin operated.

By now, the god of Trivia has been knocked off his throne by the god of Camp. And while I am not a worshipper of either, it is difficult to deny the force of the latter.