Yoo-hoo! Isn’t anybody anymore?

Remembering Gertrude Berg, that is. Having been to Fleischmanns last year (without spotting her tombstone there), I was thrilled to be catching Aviva Kempner’s much reviewed if ultimately unsatisfying documentary Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan last week. After all, it is not a film you are likely to see in Europe (or, for that matter, in any US multiplex); and I doubt whether it will ever be released in Wales, my present home. Who, after all, remembers (or ever had the opportunity of) tuning in to The Goldbergs, or The Rise of the Goldbergs, as Berg’s program was initially called in the days before television?

Kempner’s filmic memorial to Berg and her creation—heard on radio and seen on stage, television and the movies—aims at countering the oblivion to which the writer-producer-actress and her signature character have long been consigned; but, judging from the elderly, Jewish audience among which I found myself, aside from my good friend, Brian, Mrs. Goldberg is not likely to find new admirers through Kempner’s polite and downright reverent re-introduction, however deserving she may be of praise.

“Why, for all her popularity and apparent influence, is Gertrude Berg so little remembered today?” Paul Farhi of the Washington Post asked back in July 2009. It is a question Kempner does not trouble herself to answer, other than with a resounding “Why indeed?” Predating but overshadowed by I Love Lucy, The Goldbergs come across as little more than a noteworthy, ethnic curiosity, a historical footnote, the stuff of nostalgia. At least, Kempner’s documentary, which New York Post critic V. A. Musetto called “fawning and formulaic,” did little to convince me otherwise—and I don’t need convincing.

“Ulleright, ulleright!” For all its shortcomings, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is still a welcome and overdue tribute to of a long overlooked icon of American popular culture—and an enterprising, emancipated woman at that; but it is also a rather perfunctory and historically questionable piece of bio-cinematography, replete with a poorly reenacted scene from Berg’s earliest radio script.

Except for a few tantalizing clips of Edward R. Murrow’s interview with Berg on Person to Person and those seemingly random excerpts from The Goldbergs kinescopes, the documentary, like most pieces of ocular proof, is at a loss to fill the screen, resorting to images only remotely related to the subject; or, else, to talking heads like Ed Asner’s and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who recalls being addressed as Mrs. Goldberg). Meanwhile, the snippets from Berg’s radio and television broadcasts are often unintelligible, if it weren’t for the subtitles. The result is about as funny as a translated joke—and certainly not remotely as amusing or charming as Berg’s glossy autobiography Molly and Me (1961).

Here, for instance, is how autobiographer Berg made the connection between her parentage and her wireless offspring. Those watching Kempner’s documentary never get to hear about it. To them, Molly is a kindly woman leaning out of a window, chatting to her neighbors—and an audience long since dispersed—or praising the miracle of Sanka Coffee, instead of yelling “Yoo-hoo, is anybody?” into a telephonic darkness just beyond her Bronx apartment:

My father was a special fan of the dumbwaiter and when radio was invented, he gave up the shaftway only because of the better coverage. But until that time it was through the dumbwaiter that he got to know everybody, not by their names, but by their locations. He predicted divorce for Mr. and Mrs. 5-D because of their nightly arguments; he knew that Mrs. 3-A’s son was going to leave home before even Mrs. 3-A. It didn’t take second sight; all it took was a good ear and a comfortable chair near the dumbwaiter door.

Kempner’s film is so reverent and nostalgic, it sentimentalizes the already saccharine confection of Mother Goldberg, whose Jewish Amos ‘n’ Andyisms enliven the early scripts for her radio serial, extant only in print, before the series-turned-daytime serial settled for at times “soap-operaish” melodrama.

“[E]verything about The Goldbergs changed but the theme song, ‘Toselli’s Serenade,’” Berg explains in Molly and Me. Those encountering Molly in Kempner’s documentary are unlikely to see Molly as an early Lucy, or, come to think of it, as a prototype for linguistically challenged immigrant Ricky Ricardo.

“So come down a liddle after,” Mrs. Goldberg once yoo-hooed to her neighbor, Mrs. Bloom, “maybe ve’ll go to a mofie—is playing de Four Horsemen in de Apoplexies.” Well, you almost got it, Molly. Apoplexies are the kind of movie theaters that leave you angry at your lack of choices. Too bad that even the exceedingly rare art house simplexes are not likely to rescue you from the fate of being trampled to death by the pale horse of apathy.


Related writings
The House of [Broken] Glass
Wireless Women, Clueless Men: Gertrude Berg, Everybody’s Mama
On This Day in 1941: Molly Goldberg Nearly Chickens Out

The House That Jack Sat

“Frankly, I’m a little worried,” comedian Jack Paar confided in announcer Hy Averback on this day, 17 August, in 1947. He was, after all, merely a “summer replacement,” a “fellow who broadcasts during the hot weather to give the other actors time to count the money they’ve made all winter.” For the past twelve weeks, Paar had been sitting in for his first-namesake, skinflint Jack Benny, and had held warm that cozy place on the summer sun dial quite nicely at that. Still, while the reception had been far from icy, his “brief summer career” was fast coming to an end as radio was “getting ready for the winter again.”

Unintelligible as they might seem to most of today’s readers, there were tell-tale signs: Edgar Bergen “repainting Charlie McCarthy,” Fibber McGee “waxing Harlow Wilcox,” and Phil Harris switching to “antifreeze, with an olive.”

Resigned as he was to his autumnal fate, the soon-to-be displaced replacement did not go gentle into the night; instead, he took it upon himself to find his “winter replacement” by staging a talent contest.

The first applicants auditioning for Paar are a midget sister act. The sisters do not impress Paar much, even though his assessment suggests that he was not quite at home in the non-visual medium. I mean, having bags under his eyes didn’t send Fred Allen packing; nor did being a trifle wooden hurt Charlie McCarthy’s career.

PAAR.  Aren’t you a little tall for a midget?

ACT 1.  I’m standing on my sister.

PAAR.  Well, if you don’t mind, you’re not very attractive.

ACT 1.  I don’t mind.  My sister is on top this week.

The gals perform “Heartache,” after which rendition your ear won’t feel so good, either.  No greater is the Gallic prestidigitator:

PAAR.  Maybe I was listening wrong.  Did you say you do card tricks with mice?

ACT 2.  Yes.  Here.  Pick a mouse.

PAAR.  [ . . .] Don’t you do any of the conventional magician’s tricks, like, maybe, sawing a woman in half?

ACT 2.  Oh, but monsieur, I shall never saw a woman in half again.  I was never so humiliated.  I was on the stage of the Orpheum Theater, you see . . .

PAAR.  You mean, something went wrong with the trick?

ACT 2.  Oh, yes. I don’t know how it happened, but I was sawing this woman in half when, all of a sudden, I heard . . . blup, blup, blup, blip . . .

PAAR.  Poor Simone Simon.

The third act is somewhat more promising or, at any rate, more familiar. It is, don’t you know, Jack. Benny, that is, “comedian and violin virtuoso.”

“I was the original Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy,” Benny insists as he lists his spurious radio credentials. “When you were a boy, we didn’t have all of America,” Paar retorts. To prove that, until his season ended some twelve weeks ago, he was “one of the funniest men in radio,” the self-important Benny reads some lines from one of his scripts. So convinced was he of his own genius, that he did not bother to fill in the blanks left by his absentee sidekicks:

Thank you, Don.  Well, hello Mary.  Phil, you gotta do something about that band.  Sing, Dennis.  Rochester, answer the door.  Yikes.  Well, what do you know, it’s Ronnie and Benita.  But I think.  But I.  But.  But.  But.  Bu . . . we’re a little late.  So, good night, folks.

Whether boasting Benny looked in on his replacement to give the latter a boost or to let listeners know that the spot was still his, I don’t know; but rarely has a reminder of being replaceable made a comedian on hiatus sound so incomparable.

Meanwhile, just to remind myself that summer ain’t over yet, even though it sure feels like autumn here on the Welsh coast, I booked a trip to visit the old place. Yes, hold your wax, Harlow, beginning next week, I am back in New York. It’s a neat trick, considering that the new place we’ve been doing up still demandss so much of our attention and time. Displacement activity, you say? I should be scratching paint rather than scrape pennies and scram? Aw, go pick (on) a mouse!

Related recording
Jack Paar (17 August 1947)

“. . . from a civilized land called Wales”: A Puzzlement Involving The King and I

I rose before the sun, and ran on deck to catch an early glimpse of the strange land we were nearing; and as I peered eagerly, not through mist and haze, but straight into the clear, bright, many-tinted ether, there came the first faint, tremulous blush of dawn, behind her rosy veil [ . . .]. A vision of comfort and gladness, that tropical March morning, genial as a July dawn in my own less ardent clime; but the memory of two round, tender arms, and two little dimpled hands, that so lately had made themselves loving fetters round my neck, in the vain hope of holding mamma fast, blinded my outlook; and as, with a nervous tremor and a rude jerk, we came to anchor there, so with a shock and a tremor I came to my hard realities.

With those words, capturing her first impression and anticipation of a “strange land” as, on 15 March 1862, it came into partial view—the “outlook” being “blinded”—aboard the steamer Chow Phya, Anna Harriette Leonowens commenced The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), the “Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok.” The account of her experience was to be followed up by a sensational sequel, Romance of the Harem (1872), both of which volumes became the source for a bestselling novel, Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam (1944), several film and television adaptations, as well as the enduringly crowd-pleasing musical The King and I.

Conceived for musical comedy star Gertrude Lawrence, the titular “I” is currently impersonated by Shona Lindsay, who, until the end of August 2009, stars in the handsomely designed Aberystwyth Arts Centre Summer Musical Production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic.

The title of the musical personalizes the story, at once suggesting authenticity and acknowledging bias. Just as it was meant to signal the true star of the original production—until Yul Brynner stole the show—it seems to fix the perspective, assuming that we, the audience, see Siam and read its ruler through Anna’s eyes. And yet, what makes The King and I something truly wonderful—and rather more complex than a one-sided missionary’s tale—is that we get to know and understand not only the Western governess, but the proud “Lord and Master” and his daring slave Tuptim.

Instead of accepting Anna as model or guide, we can all become the “I” in this story of identity, otherness and oppression. Tuptim’s experience, in particular, resonates with anyone who, like myself, has ever been compelled, metaphorically speaking, to “kiss in a shadow,” to love without enjoying equality or protection under the law. Tuptim’s readily translatable story, which has been rejected as fictive and insensitive, is emotionally rather than culturally true.

“Truth is often stranger than fiction,” Leonowens remarked in her preface to Romance of the Harem, insisting on the veracity of her account. Truth is, truth is no stranger to fiction. All history is narrative and, as such, fiction—that is, it is made up, however authentic the fabric, and woven into logical and intelligible patterns. Whoever determines or imposes such patterns—the historian, the novelist, the reporter—is responsible for selecting, evaluating, and shaping a story that, in turn, is capable of shaping us.

Tuptim’s adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which strikes us at first strange and laughable—then uncanny and eerily interchangeable—in its inauthentic, allegorical retelling of a fiction that not only made but changed history, is an explanation of and validation for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s sentimental formula. Through the estrangement from the historically and culturally familiar, strange characters become familiar to us, just Leonowens may have been aided rather than mislead by an “outlook” that was “blinded” by the intimate knowledge of a child’s love.

Strange it was, then, to have historicity or nationality thrust upon me as Anna exclaims, in her undelivered speech to the King, that she hails “from a civilized land called Wales.” It was a claim made by Leonowens herself and propagated in accounts like Mrs. Leonowens by John MacNaughton (1915); yet, according to Susan Brown’s “Alternatives to the Missionary Position: Anna Leonowens as Victorian Travel Writer” (1995), “no evidence supports” the assertion that Leonowens was raised or educated in Wales.

Still, there was an audible if politely subdued cheer in the Aberystwyth Arts Centre auditorium as Anna revealed her fictive origins to us. Granted, I may be more suspicious of nationalism than I am of globalization; but to define Leonowens’s experience with and derive a sense of identity from a single—and rather ironic reference to home—seems strangely out of place, considering that the play encourages us to examine ourselves in the reflection or refraction of another culture, however counterfeit or vague. Beside, unlike last year’s miscast Eliza (in the Arts Centre’s production of My Fair Lady), Anna, as interpreted by Ms. Lindsay, has no trace of a Welsh accent.

As readers and theatergoers, we have been “getting to know you,” Anna Leonowens, for nearly one and a half centuries now; but the various (auto)biographical accounts are so inconclusive and diverging that it seems futile to insist on “getting to know all about you,” no matter now much the quest for verifiable truths might be our “cup of tea.” What is a “puzzlement” to the historians is also the key to the musical, mythical kingdom, an understood realm in which understanding lies beyond the finite boundaries of the factual.


Related writings
“By [David], she’s got it”; or, To Be Fair About the Lady
Delayed Exposure: A Man, a Monument, and a Musical

Related recordings
“Meet Gertrude Lawrence,” Biography in Sound (23 January 1955)
Hear It Now (25 May 1951), which includes recorded auditions for the role of Prince Chulalongkorn in The King and I

His Words, Her Voice: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and the Resonance of “Enough”

“Oh, I have seen enough and done enough and been places enough and livened my senses enough and dulled my senses enough and probed enough and laughed enough and wept more than most people would suspect.” This line, as long and plodding as a life gone wearisome, was recently uttered by screen legend Olivia de Havilland, now in her 90s. You may well think that, at her age, she had reason enough for saying as much; but Ms. de Havilland was not reminiscing about her own experiences in and beyond Hollywood. She was reciting the words of one of her most virile, dashing, and troubled contemporaries: Errol Flynn, who was born one hundred years ago, on 20 June 1909, and apparently had “enough” of it all before he turned fifty, a milestone he did not live to enjoy.

In her brief talk with BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves host Matthew Sweet, de Havilland talks candidly, yet ever so decorously, about her swash-buckled, devil-may-careworn co-star, about his temperament, his aspirations, his fears. Hers is an aged voice that has a tone of knowing in it. A mellow, benevolent voice that bespeaks understanding. A voice that comforts in its conveyance not of weariness but of awareness, a life well lived and not yet spent.

I could listen for hours to such a voice. I might not care for, learn from or morally improve by hearing what is said—but the timbre gives a meaning to “enough” that the forty-something Flynn never lived to express or have impressed upon him. It is the “enough” of serenity, the “enough” of gratitude, the “enough” of not asking for more and yet not asking less . . . or stop asking at all.

My own life is marked and marred by a certain lack of inquisitiveness, it sometimes strikes me. Being blasé is one of the first masks we don not to let on that we don’t know enough, that we know as much, but don’t know enough simply to ask. I wore such a mask of vainglory when I set out in life, the dullest of lives it seemed to me. My fellow employees had a nickname for me then. It was my moustache that inspired it. Errol Flynn they called me. Little did they know that, even at age 20, I felt that I had “enough” even though I so keenly felt that I had not had much of anything at all. I simply had enough of not even coming close to the glass of which I might one day have had my fill; but, for three long years, I did not have sense enough to leave that dulling life behind. No voice could talk me out of that barren existence but my own.

It was not easy for me to regain a sense of curiosity; it was as if the pores beneath the mask had been clogged after being concealed so long, my skin no longer alive to the breeze and its promises. I had brushed off more than I dared to absorb. One morning, I took a walk around Central Park with one of Errol Flynn’s leading ladies, and was neither startled nor thrilled; nor did I not seize the opportunity to inquire about her past or permit her to draw me into her presence as she offered me advice and assistance. Instead, I preserved the sound of her voice on the tape of my answering machine—like a butterfly beyond the magic of flight—her words saying that she had enough of me was dispensing of my humble services as her dog walker. I am left with canned breath, quite beyond the chance of living what might have been a great story.

Enough of my regrets. I can only hope that, when next I feel that I had “enough,” the word will sound as if it were uttered in what I shall henceforth refer to as a de Havilland sense, with dignity, insight and calm—and an acceptance that is not resignation.

Television and the Individual Talent

Edwin C. Hill

“What happens to these ambitious people after their first appearance? Do they go on, succeed, become famous and lead the lives they’d dreamed of living? Or, after a brief glimpse of glory, do they return, disappointed and broken, into the humdrum lives they’d led before?” Those are question many viewers feel compelled to ponder after watching common folk like Susan Boyle perform on amateur competition programs like Britain’s Got Talent. Now, Boyle did not win last night’s finale, and a chance to sing for the Queen; still, her audition turned the unassuming, middle-aged belter-weight into what we are wont to call an overnight sensation. She so captured an international audience of television viewers and YouTubers that a movie deal and a musical seem pretty much in the bag, even though a career as a recording artist strikes me as somewhat less likely for La Boyle.

The world—or a considerable part of its too readily distracted population—fell in love with a moment, not with a voice. It was an instant in which our media-forged preconceptions about appearances in relation to ability was being checked in a way that was eye-opening without being cause for contrition. Boyle was duly rewarded for dealing with our initial cynicism, with the schadenfreude with which we approached her and to whose temporary check she so greatly contributed. Watching that performance was not so much a guilty pleasure as it was pleasurable guilt.

For anyone who has seen the audition performance (I only caught up with it online, days after the original broadcast), that sudden realization that she was proving us wrong by proving we had wronged her can never be recaptured. From now on, we simply expect a boffo performance worthy of all the ballyhoo. We are accustomed to the face and, having gladly suffered the momentary loss of ours, we keep our jaundiced eyes open for another chance to snicker and sneer. After all, as T. S. Eliot famously remarked in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), “criticism is as inevitable as breathing.”

The thing is, though, that the above questions were not raised by a contemporary reviewer; rather, they were voiced on this day, 31 May, back in 1937, by American news commentator Edwin C. Hill. Hill was referring to the rise of the amateur hour, a programming format he called “[o]ne of the most interesting radio developments in recent years” and commended as a “very human, very appealing movement”—“and a worthy one.”

The comment was made on Your News Parade, ostensibly with one Helen Gleason in mind:

Well, Saturday night on the radio, Helen Gleason answered this question—at least insofar as her particular case was concerned. Winning an Amateur Night Contest was the beginning of a brilliant career for Miss Gleason . . . a career which has carried her around the vaudeville circuits, through the concert halls of Europe, to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera Company . . . and more recently to stardom in operetta.

I say “ostensibly” because that blurb about the “appealing” talent show format was only another occasion to advertise cigarettes, Lucky Strike being the sponsor of Your News Parade. The media may create “overnight” sensations; but in their exploitation of such phenomena, in the milking of the cash cows of human kindness, they foster the very attitude of doubt that they make us question.

Somehow it has only gotten worse with the advent of video. On radio, Boyle might have had a chance to show off the talent she came to display and to be judged by that ability alone. It is television that makes us look like asses by encouraging us not to believe our ears . . .

[This post came to you a day late, on account of the exceptionally fine weather we’ve been enjoying.]

The Dionne Quintuplets: The Cat’s Pajamas . . . or Katzenjammer?

“Name your favorite radio star of 1950!” an article in Radio Guide for the week ending 18 April 1936 appealed to its readership (reputedly some 400,000 strong). It wasn’t a challenge to the clairvoyant or a call for votes in one of the magazine’s popularity polls, as the implied answer stared you right in the face, a promise with five sets of peepers. “The chances are you won’t be far wrong if your list includes Cecile Dionne, or Yvonne or Annette or Emile or Marie.” The famous Dionne Quintuplets, born on this day, 28 May, in 1934, were not yet two years old. No quintuplets before them had ever lived even that long; but their future in show business was already well mapped out for them, in contracts amounting to over half a million dollars. Opposite screen veteran Jean Hersholt—the quintessence of Hippocratic fidelity—those essential quints had already starred in The Country Doctor, released in March 1936, to be followed up by Reunion later that year. Quite a life for carpetful of rug rats once described as “bluish-black in color, with bulging foreheads, small faces, wrinkled skin, soft and enlarged tummies, flaccid muscles and spider-like limbs!” However fortunate to escape life as a sideshow attraction, the medical history makers could “hardly avoid” being turned into celebrities and groomed for stardom.

“Whether they like it or not,” as the Radio Guide put it,

whether their guardians decree it, whether their parents give their permission, those five famous tots in Callander, Ontario, are the little princesses of the entire world. As such, they are already in and must remain in the public eye as long as the world demands them.

Sure, the “public eye” tears up at the sight of babies, bouncing or otherwise—but the public ear? Would audiences tune in to hear a quintet of babbling, bawling infants? And what of all those other noises, the blue notes producers did not dare to mention, let alone set free into the FCC-conditioned air? Publications like Radio Guide paid fifty bucks for a single photograph of the famous handful (even though various if not always authentic pieces of memorabilia could be had considerably more cheaply), and that at a time when you could get your hands on the President’s likeness for a mere five; but would a sponsor risk investing thousands in an act that could not hold a tune or stick to a script? As yet, there was no evidence that the media darlings could blossom into a veritable Baby Rose Marie garden.

Defending Radio Guide’s continued attention to the Dionnes, editor Curtis Mitchell declared that, while the phenomenon “had little to do with radio,” “all the great personalities of every walk of life and every continent” eventually stepped up to the microphone: “As entertainers they may not have the expertness of Eddie Cantor or Jack Benny but their gurgling and cooing will surely remind us of what a magnificent instrument for participating in the life about us young Guglielmo Marconi provided when he invented radio.”

Sure enough, radio kept the multitudes abreast of the Dionnes while gag writers worked their name into many an old routine. Baby Snooks could stay snug, though. The infantas of Quintland would not baby talk themselves into the hearts of American radio listeners. According to legend (as perpetuated by Simon Callow), it was Orson Welles whom producers called upon to supply the “gurgling and cooing” when the babies were featured on a March of Time broadcast.

Accompanied by their physician, guardian and manager, Dr. Dafoe, the Dionne girls would be paraded before the listening public on several occasions in the early 1940s, and were even heard singing on the air; but they never became the ultimate sister act that readers of Radio Guide, anno 1936, had been encouraged to anticipate. Seen rather than heard, they nonetheless remained a prominent feature on the advertising pages of the Guide and other radio-related publications. All those endorsement deals and money-making schemes make you wonder what the Million Dollar Babies might have said if only they had been permitted to get a word in . . .

Cranky Doodle Dandy: George M. Cohan Feels So Free

Jumping Jehosophat! It sure feels good to rant about our elected government—some force that, at times, appears to us (or is conveniently conceived of) as an entity we don’t have much to do with, after the fact or fiction of election, besides the imposition of carrying the burden of enduring it, albeit not without whingeing. Back on this day, 4 May, in 1941, the Columbia Broadcasting System allotted time to remind listeners of the Free Company just what it means to have such a right—the liberty to voice one’s views, the “freedom from police persecution.” The play was “Above Suspicion.” The dramatist was to be the renowned author Sherwood Anderson, who had died a few weeks before completing the script. In lieu of the finished work, The Free Company, for its tenth and final broadcast, presented its version of “Above Suspicion” as a tribute to the author.

Starred on the program, in one of his rare radio broadcasts—and perhaps his only dramatic role on the air—was the legendary George M. Cohan (whose statue in Times Square, New York City, and tomb in Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, are pictured here). Cohan, who had portrayed Franklin D. Roosevelt in I’d Rather Be Right was playing a character who fondly recalls Grover Cleveland’s second term, but is more to the right when it comes to big government.

The Free Company’s didactic play, set in New York City in the mid-1930s, deals with a complicated family reunion as the German-American wife of one Joe Smith (Cohan) welcomes her teenage nephew, Fritz (natch!), from the old country. Fritz’s American cousin, for one, is excited about the visit. Trudy tells as much to Mary, the young woman her mother hired to prepare for the big day:

Trudy.  Mary, I have a cousin.

MARY.  Yeah, I know, this Fritz.

TRUDY.  Have you a cousin?

MARY.  Sure, ten of ‘em.

TRUDY.  What are they like?

MARY.  All kinds.  One’s a bank cashier and one’s in jail.

TRUDY.  In jail! What did he do?

MARY.  He was a bank cashier, too [. . .].

Make that “executive” and it almost sounds contemporary. In “Above Suspicion,” the American characters are not exactly what the title suggests. That is, they aren’t perfect; yet they are not about to conceal either their past or their positions.

Trudy’s father is critical of the government, much to the perturbation of Fritz, who has been conditioned to obey the State unconditionally:

SMITH.  Jumping Jehosophat [chuckles].  Listen, the State’s got nothing to do with folks’s private affairs.  Nothing.

FRITZ. Please, Uncle Joe, with all respect.  If the State doesn’t control private affairs, how can the State become strong?

SMITH.  Oh, it will become strong, all right.  You know, sorry, it might become too darn strong, I’ll say.  And I also say, let the government mind its own dod-blasted business and I’ll mind mine.

To Fritz, such “radical” talk is “dangerous”; after all, his education is limited to “English, running in gas masks, and the history of [his] country.” He assumes that Mary is a spy and that anyone around him is at risk of persecution. To that, his uncle replies: “Dangerous? Well, I wish it was. The trouble is, nobody pays any attention. By gad, all I hope is that the people wake up before the country is stolen right out from under us, that’s what I hope.”

“Above Suspicion” is a fairly naïve celebration of civil liberties threatened by the ascent of a foreign, hostile nation (rather than by forces from within). Still, it is a worthwhile reminder of what is at stake today. Now that the technology is in place to eavesdrop on private conversations (the British government, most aggressive among the so-called free nations when it comes to spying on the electorate, is set to monitor all online exchanges), we can least afford to be complaisant about any change of government that would exploit the uses of such data to suppress the individual.

“Dictaphones,” Smith laughs off Fritz’s persecution anxieties.

I wish they would some of those dictaphones here.  I’d pay all the expenses to have the records sent right straight to the White House.  That’s what I’d do.  Then they’d know what was going on then.  [laughs]  They’d get some results then, hey, momma?

These days, no one is “Above Suspicion.” Just don’t blame it on Fritz.

Under That Hat: The Life and Breath of Carmen Miranda

So iconic is this technicolorful Latina that she might not strike you, on the face of it, as the ideal subject for a sound-only documentary; but there she is, the life of Russell Davies’s “Carmen Miranda: The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat.” Once you remove that hat, you will find much to tip yours to as you listen to Ruby Wax, assisted by biographers Helena Solberg and Martha Gil-Montero, unravel the story of Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, born one hundred years ago in the small town of Marco de Canaveses, Portugal. As Carmen Miranda, she came to represent not just her non-native Brazil, to which her family emigrated, but the whole of Latin America; and while what she became was larger-than-life, the “Brazilian bombshell” was not quite so large as to cover—or level—quite so much ground. It is the leveling that those proud of their origins and culture resent—and Brazilians, in particular, came to dismiss Hollywood’s All South-American girl as inauthentic, irregular, and downright ignominious.

The United States, of course, was counting on what it hoped to be a Pan-American appeal; it is what made the former milliner’s apprentice such a sought-after commodity during the Second World War. At the end of the war, she was reputedly the highest paid woman in the United States.

A romance born of hardship and ingenuity, a glittering success tarnished by rejection, an identity challenged by dislocation and enfranchisement, a glamorous life culminating in early death, the one-of-a-kind yet kind of universal story of “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” is the stuff of legend. Sure enough, that is what, according to the Internet Movie Database is what is about to come out of Hollywood any day now: Maracas: The Carmen Miranda Story.

The samba-infused first installment of this three-parter makes ample use of original recordings to highlight the performer’s early musical career. Considering that the next chapter is going to transport listeners from Rio to Hollywood, I wonder whether it is going to draw on the one source that, aside from shellac, is best suited to the medium—the sounds of Carmen Miranda’s life on the air: her samba lesson for Orson Welles; her dramatic scenes with Charlie McCarthy, or her joking with Tallulah Bankhead, Judy Holliday and Rex Harrison on The Big Show. Never mind that hat. She was the Lady with the Tutti Frutti voice, which is why she had her own radio program down south.

Carmen Miranda died on 4 August 1955, within hours after suffering a heart attack while performing on Jimmy Durante’s live television program. Could it be that our demand for visuals, our insistence to be shown what can be heard and felt more keenly in darkness, is what caused Carmen Miranda’s heart to stop its rhythmic beatings? A program like “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” offers us a chance to bring her into our presence, take her in as the voice, the breath that gave her life. We only need to make the effort to be all ears . . .


Related recordings
Hello Americans (15 November 1942)
The Charlie McCarthy Show (23 November 1947)
The Big Show (25 March 1951)

The Whole Ball of Wax: “Life With Lucy and Desi”

“She wasn’t the nicest person all the time,” biographer Tom Gilbert puts it mildly; but to say even that much apparently triggers complaints from many Lucy lovers, to whom journalist Mariella Frostrup apologizes in advance. Frostrup’s voice is enough to win anyone over, even though it might make at once forgive and forget what she is saying. Hers has been called the “sexiest female voice on [British] TV”—and the hot medium of radio only accentuates her seductive powers. So, where was I?

She wasn’t funny, and she wasn’t all that nice. That’s what those stepping behind the microphone for a new hour-long BBC radio documentary have to say about the “real” Lucille Ball, comedienne, businesswoman, and small-screen icon. Not exactly a revelation, to be sure; but you might expect less after reading the blurb on the BBC’s webpage for the program, which revises history by calling I Love Lucy “a zany television series which ran for twenty five years.” Well, let’s not heckle and jibe. The anecdotal impressions of those who can justly claim to have seen both sides of Ms. Ball make “Life With Lucy and Desi” a diverting biographical sketch, however moth-balled the gossip some twenty years after the actress’s death.

Right, “Life With Lucy and Desi.” It wasn’t all love and laughter—especially not for children. Actress Morgan Brittany recalls a scene on the set of Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) in which Ball lost her temper when one of the kids dared to laugh and ruin a difficult take. Native Americans in traditional garb and images of birds likewise irritated her, as did bodily contact. “She didn’t like people being near her,” Gilbert observes.

She seemed somewhat out of touch as well, even though she got to run the run-down RKO and signed off on Star Trek, a program she assumed, as Gilbert asserts, to be about performers entertaining the troops during the Second World War.

“Life” is further enlivened by numerous recordings from Ball’s career in television, film and radio. My Favorite Husband, I am pleased to note, has not been left out of this phono-biographic grab bag, even though the snippet from the radio forerunner to I Love Lucy airs without commentary; nor is it always clear what it is that we are hearing—no dates or episode titles are mentioned—the clip from My Favorite Husband, for instance, is not identified as being been taken from the 4 March 1949 episode—and the selections seem not merely random, but hardly representative of Ball’s finest moments in this or any medium. When you hear her sing “It’s Today” (from the stage hit turned film dud Mame), you’d wish someone would “strike the band up” to drown out the wrong notes.

The argument this documentary seems to make is that Lucy would not have been Lucy if Desi had not been Ricky. Ball had talent, Brittany concedes, but might have ended up like “Baby” June Havoc, whom Brittany portrayed in Gyspy—a fine performer who never quite reached stardom and who, though still living, is not nearly so well remembered today as to be celebrated—or critiqued—in a radio documentary of her own. She might just have remained the “Queen of the B’s.”

The inevitable Robert Osborne aside, the lineup of folks who knew or at any rate worked with Ball also includes “Little Ricky” Keith Thibodeaux, Peter Marshall (who walked out on a chance of working with Ball), Allan Rich (who played a Judge on Life with Lucy; not, as Frostrup has it, on the Lucy Show) and writer Madelyn Davis (formerly Pugh), who still gets fan mail for having created the durable caricatures that were “Lucy.”

No mention, of course, is made of Hoppla Lucy, viewings of which constitute my earliest television memories (Hoppla being the German dubbing of The Lucy Show). Long before I had breakfast with Lucy when truncated (make that mutilated) episode of her first and finest television series aired on New York’s Fox Five every weekday morning, a truncated version of myself sat down to watch Lucy bake a cake and making a mess of it. I haven’t watched it since, but can still tune in the laugh it produced. Who cares whether or not what I saw was the real Ball. I sure was having one.


Related recordings
My Favorite Husband (4 March 1949)

Related writing
“Havoc in ‘Subway’ Gives Commuters Ideas”
“‘But some people ain’t me!’: Arthur Laurents and ‘The Face’ Behind Gypsy

“Here is your forfeit”: It’s Hopkins’s Night As Colbert Goes Private

“Our guest stars might well have been tailored for the celebrated parts of Peter and Ellie,” host Orson Welles remarked as he raised the curtain on the Campbell Playhouse production of “It Happened One Night,” heard on this day, 28 January, in 1940. Quite a bold bit of barking, that. After all, the pants once worn by bare-chested Clark Gable were handed down to William Powell, who was debonair rather than brawny. “Mr. William Powell surely needs no alteration at all,” Welles insisted, even though the material required considerable trimming. Meanwhile, the part of Ellie, the “spoiled and spirited heiress” whom Peter cuts down to size until he suits her, was inherited by Miriam Hopkins. It had “certainly never been more faultlessly imagined than tonight,” Welles declared. Indeed, as I was reminded by Andre Soares’s interview with biographer Allan Ellenberger on Alternative Film Guide, Hopkins numbered among the leading ladies who had turned down the role and, no doubt, came to regret it, given the critical and commercial success of It Happened, which earned Claudette Colbert an Academy Award.

Now, Welles was prone to hyperboles; but, in light of Colbert’s memorable performance, his claim that the part had “never been more faultlessly imagined”—in a radio adaptation, no less—sounds rather spurious. As it turns out, raspy-voiced Hopkins (whom last I saw in a BFI screening of Becky Sharp) does not give the spirited performance one might expect from the seasoned comedienne. Her timing is off, her emoting out of character, all of which conspires, along with the imposed acceleration of the script, to render disingenuous what is meant to be her character’s transformation from brat to bride; and while Powell, a few fluffed lines notwithstanding, does quite well as the cocky Peter Grant (it was “Warne” when those pants were worn by Gable), the only “spirited” performance is delivered by Bernard Herrmann, the composer of the lively score.

In short, there is little to justify Welles’s introductory boast. Was the Wunderkind getting back at Colbert for standing him up two months earlier, when Madeleine Carroll filled her place in “The Garden of Allah”? What’s more, Colbert appeared to have passed on the chance to reprise her Oscar-winning role for Campbell Playhouse, something she had previously done, opposite Gable in one of his rare radio engagements, for a Lux Radio Theater reworking of the old “Night Bus” story.

That same night, 28 January 1940, Colbert was heard instead on a Screen Guild broadcast in a production of “Private Worlds,” in a role for which she had received her second Academy Award nomination. During the curtain call, Colbert was obliged to “pay a forfeit” after incorrectly replying “The Jazz Singer” to the question “What was the first full-length all-talking picture to come out of Hollywood?” For this, she was ordered to recite a tongue twister; but it wasn’t much of a forfeit, compared to the sense of loss both Colbert and Hopkins must have felt whenever they misjudged the business by rejecting important roles or by risking their careers making questionable choices.

In The Smiling Lieutenant, the two had played rivals who ended their fight over the same man by comparing the state of their undies; now, Hopkins seemed to be rummaging in Colbert’s drawers for the parts she could have had but was not likely to be offered again. Well, however you want to spin it, radio sure was the place for makeshift redressing, for castoffs and knock-offs, for quick alterations and hasty refittings. It catered to the desire of actors and audiences alike to rewrite or at any rate tweak Hollywood history. Go ahead, try it on for size.