Imitation of iLife; or, Right Now, I’d Settle for a Copy

Well, never mind. I would have liked to conclude my week of listening; but I am preoccupied this evening. My old Mac seems to have given up the ghost last night—or at least it refuses to give up my files. I had been iRecording “The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker,” when my Mac began to act up. Clinker, indeed, to pick up a word of thoroughly pre-Victorian crudeness! As of now, my library of recordings and images seems to be irretrievably lost. It has been about two and a half years since the last blackout, and I don’t seem to have learned a thing. If only I had taken the time to burn a few DVDs. So, I am just going to share this latest addition to my collection of Claudette Colbert memorabilia, which arrived here earlier this week as a loving gesture to mark the third anniversary of my move here to Wales.

What I noticed right away when I looked at the poster was that no mention is made of Colbert’s Imitation of Life co-star Louise Beavers in this announcement of the film’s rerelease. That just takes the pancake, doesn’t it? After all, Beavers plays Colbert’s business partner on whose recipe the entire venture depends as much as on Colbert’s savvy to sell it. Promoters of the film were apparently less inclined to tackle race relations as the picture’s distributors. Sometimes, beautiful images tell an ugly story. An old story, too, of art imitating life . . .

What Makes Me Stay and Sammy Run?

Well, what a difference a day makes—at least if you are spending it installing a new router. The wireless woes of recent weeks having passed, I can continue to issue my journal without further “adieu,” this week’s return visit to the Welsh getaway of media mogul William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies excepting. As much as I enjoy being out and about, I relish staying put to share whatever crosses my mind, free to linger in the presence of kindred spirits or chat online with friends overseas to learn about their struggles and successes in show business and music publishing. I am somewhat short on ambition, I guess, safe for writing my own radio column, come hell or high definition. And, unless I allow myself to stray from the subject or find myself thwarted by technology—I am doing just that right here.

A radio column. That was what got Sammy started. You know, Sammy Glick, the title character of What Makes Sammy Run? (1941), the novelistic debut of Budd Schulberg (whose voice you may hear at the close of this mid-1950s radio documentary about his friend and colleague F. Scott Fitzgerald). Now, Sammy was just a twelve-bucks-a-week nobody running copy for a drama editor at a New York City newspaper when, one day, he announced that he “felt himself ready to conduct the paper’s radio column. Of course,” sneered the narrator (said editor), “the fact that the paper had never had a radio column didn’t seem to discourage him in the least.”

I first read this exchange when I was researching my doctoral study on so-called old-time radio, examining it in relation to other and older media in the 1930s and ’40s. What Makes Sammy Run? provided a vivid example, albeit fictional, of the doubt, dread, and disdain with which the American press eyed, tried to suppress, and pretended to ignore the commercial might of the broadcasting industry. “[W]hy should we plug a setup that’s cutting our advertising?” the editor tells Sammy, the overeager upstart who aims to please with the aim of pleasing himself:

“And just what makes you think you’re prepared to be an expert on matters Marconi?”
“What made you think you were an expert on the theater?”

To this blunt challenge, the irked authority feebly replies:

“I always liked the theater. I’ve seen lots of plays.”
“Well, I’ve listened to the radio plenty, too,” Sammy said.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” I said. “Everybody listens to the radio.”
“That’s why there oughta be a radio column,” Sammy said.

Guess what, little Sammy gets his column, and then some. He’s got plenty of nerve and few scruples. Unencumbered by the weight of a conscience and lifted instead by an inflated ego, the boy is getting far, and fast. He even passes off as his own a radio comedy by an inexperienced if gifted nobody who came to ask him for advice, barely giving credit to its original author when he sells the piece as a screen project.

What makes the Sammys of the world outrun us? What makes them run us over and run our lives as we stay put and gaze at them through the cloud of dust those windbags leave behind as they make a dash for whatever it is that is it for them? That is what I ask myself while I remain seated, long after the handfuls of dust have settled, to see the world from my virtual porch . . .

Sorry, Long Rumba

Well, this isn’t exactly the stuff of Hollywood melodrama; but being cut off from the web for weeks—and hairs—on end is likely to have anyone channelling the none too blithe spirit of Mrs. Elbert Stevenson, the telecommunications-challenged anti-heroine of Lucille Fletcher’s “Sorry, Wrong Number.” I realize that “Sorry, No Broadband,” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it; nor does it sound right to be giving you the whole song and dance about it all whenever I do get a chance to vent publicly (that is, while not at home).

Still, the thought of getting one’s dial-uppance after years of making out like a broadbandit is just about as comforting as having the aforementioned First Lady of Suspense shriek bloody murder in your ears. These days, to be sure, Mrs. Stevenson would meet her well-timed end trying to make herself understood at some call center in India. Otherwise, this outcry from the play seems to fit our latest phone bill:

“[. . .] it’s positively driving me crazy. I’ve never seen such inefficient, miserable service.”

Pardon me for turning broadcastellan into an agony column. You see, we were given to understand that repairs of our phone line, apparently requiring the digging up of precious tarmac, would be put on hold so as not to disrupt local traffic . . . until September. I never guessed that my wanting to stay home at the computer would be deemed bad for tourism. To our relief, the phone started ringing again a few days ago; but the world wide web was still being spun without us.

So, I did not get to tell you about the production of West Side Story now playing at the local Arts Centre; or the complaints launched anonymously by a squeamish audience member voicing concerns about a simulated rape scene; or how the scene was subsequently changed so as not to offend, let alone harm the impressionables who should never be left with the impression that any show could go on without them in mind.

Apparently, West Side Story, written by former radio dramatist Arthur Laurents, is now a musical about infantile delinquents. Ours are not Happy Days for social realism. As in the age of the great radio theatricals, censorship is often nothing more than the arrogance of the few speaking up to silence what is quietly appreciated by the many. The world, it seems, is full of meddlesome Mrs. (and Mr.) Stevensons, in the spirit of providing vicarious relief through an imaginary throttling of whom on behalf of us, their long-suffering contemporaries, the revenge fantasy of “Sorry, Wrong Number” was conceived.

This [I believe] I Believe

Perhaps we are becoming rather blasé about the phenomenon of web journalism (commonly known and often derided as “blogging”). Many of us still write what we wish, refusing to succumb to the urge or promise of making monetary profits by agreeing to become the mouthpieces of commerce, thereby to surrender the opportunity of sharing something about ourselves other than our apparent greed. How much is it worth to you to write freely, to display whatever you are pleased and prepared to share, what you think, think you know or believe?

It used to be a rare chance indeed to make yourself heard in a public forum comprising of more than a room full of people. The media who can spread news or opinions beyond the small circle of our communities, they always seem to be owned or run by others, be it likeminded or otherwise. That sense of being removed or apart from the media is largely a misconception, at least in democratic societies, a misconception arising from the distrust or apathy of the individual who does not participate, let alone initiate debates. And yet, what went on the air was generally prepared for the listener-turned-consumer by those who chose to enter the radio industry, whether to teach, delight, or exploit.

How exciting it must have sounded to the radio listener of 1951 when a program called This I Believe premiered on CBS, soon to be heard by American and international audiences the world over. This week, BBC Radio 4 is offering an hourlong introduction to This I Believe, its origins, its creators (among them Edward R. Murrow, pictured above), and its participants—an eclectic group of housewives and luminaries).

So, what if you were given four and a half minutes—or no more than 600 words—publicly to express your beliefs (something thousands have done since the revival of This I Believe in 2003)? What would you say? Would you find the words—and the courage—to say it?

However easy it is to say I, I believe that it should take more than a moment’s haphazarding to examine and express one’s philosophy, provided such a philosophy, which lies beyond performance and conformity, can be formulated at all. Yes, it is far easier to say “I” than it is to add “believe” and to follow it with words that truly follow . . .

Charles [Memory] Lane; or, A Case of Presentimentality

This is not a trip down memory lane. I prefer not to take such excursions. It is not that I mind the detours or the seeming futility of not arriving at anything worth my time away. It’s the roadblocks that are difficult to face. According to my map, memory lane is as serpentine as Lombard Street. Remembering means climbing it upward; and all too frequently I tumble back down before I reach the address for which I was heading.

The storage capacity of my mind seems to have been exhausted some time ago and my recall is imprecise at best. Perhaps this is why I became intrigued by audio (or radio) drama. No matter how old the recording, sound drama is the play of the moment, the moment at play. It is a time art, freed from the boundaries of space, for which reason it has been called one-dimensional. It is born of sound, and sound perishes as soon as it is produced, save for the repercussions it leaves in our minds.

Why is it that we undervalue the moment and exalt eternity? Surely, the fleeting instant is not any less precious than the constant of the forever. I do not believe in the attainability of eternity; nor do I long for it. It seems to have increased my respect for the momentary. Being forgetful, I am rather in awe of what is temporary.

No, this is not a trip down memory lane. It is an inspection of alleyways; which is to say that it is introspection rather than retrospective. Writing is a matter of choosing what is worth capturing, whether for one’s own sake or the benefit of others. I used to be more highly disciplined in the strict adherence to my self-imposed boundaries, the theme of broadcastellan. As a result, my writing began to strike me as generic; it appeared to bear little resemblance to my everyday. I still try to remain within the bounds of what this journal can hold without it bursting into some sprawling mess less defined than life itself; but I realize now that choosing requires listening, an openness to whatever might suggest itself.

Sometimes, subjects seem to choose me. Unexpected connections come to mind and I feel compelled to trace them and track down the attraction. When I wrote, for the first time, about Gloria Swanson yesterday, I neglected to say that I had just been listening to Sunset Boulevard (the only Andrew Lloyd Webber musical I can abide, chiefly due to its source of inspiration). On the lookout for a subject, a search that often begins and ends in my checking pop-cultural anniversaries, I discovered that, sixty years earlier to the day, the star of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. had made a rare appearance in a radio thriller. I already had Swanson on my mind; now, she forcefully stepped into my frame, ready for another close-up, prompting me to dig up the recording of said broadcast and share my listening experience.

Last night, something similar occurred. I was watching Frank Capra’s silent comedy Matinee Idol (1928), followed by a documentary about the director (pictured above). When I returned to my computer, I read the news that one of the players in Capra’s repertory company, Charles Lane, had died that very day, 10 July, at the age of 102. You may catch up with his remarkably long career in film and television reading this obituary by fellow web journalist Brent McKee.

Now, I have already watched a number of films featuring Mr. Lane this year, including Second Fiddle, You Can’t Take It With You, and The Lady Is Willing; but, frankly, I did not notice him, however ably he performed these small parts (in Second Fiddle, he is only heard, not seen). It seems as if Mr. Lane insisted on my attention. So, tonight, I’ll let him change my schedule, as I take in my third successive Capra film, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (duly recorded in my movie diet account to the right).

Thank you for insinuating yourself into my everyday, Mr. Lane. I’ll be watching out for you.

Digest, Please!

Well, it’s a different kind of animal. The kind that digests in the very instance of ingestion. Webjournalism, I mean. It matters little whether or not you write for a living, as long as you write what you are living while you are living it, while you experience or witness what is being stored and storied. My digestive system operates far less efficiently, I’m afraid, which is why I frequently end up with a digest of my day-to-day.

It is not that I regurgitate the past. I very much live in the moment, a skill (or nearsightedness) I developed living the United States, the empire of “now.” And yet, by the time I manage to keep up with them, those moments have lost their momentum. They are memories the writing down of which is the reheating of yesterday’s repasts. Instead of journalizing my journey as it happens, I delay the act of relaying it by sharing recollections edited, according to a Wordsworthian scheme of spontaneity, in motionless and remote tranquility.

This is what I feel compelled to do now—catching up with myself. After all, taking bites out of the Big Apple for a month left me with plenty to digest, even if some of pieces of my intake turned out to be as unpalatable as the Tony Award-winning musical Spring Awakening or as bland as the Terrence McNally’s Deuce, a sentimental exchange starring the ill-served if indefatigable Angela Lansbury.

Only a few days ago I spent an afternoon at Coney Island, walking past Nathan’s (not eating the hot dogs that once got me terribly sick) and riding the old Cyclone—whose twists and curves once caused me to break the bones of my best friend sitting beside me. Today, I am cleaning up after a sick dog that swallowed a bone far too large to be digested, hoping he will be spared an operation, hoping I am going to be spared something akin to “The Odyssey of Runyon Jones” (Norman Corwin’s radio play about a boy determined to retrieve his dead dog from “Curgatory”).

It is retrospection that saves me from exposing myself at my most vulnerable—in the in-between of everyday living. It is life tidied up and tied up neatly. It is loose ends woven into a security blanket. Digest, please!

Man of the World (Wide Web)?

Okay, so, I tend to overdramatize. I can’t help it. I was born with a hyperbole on my lips. Turns out, I am still a man of the world wide web, despite the scheduled (and currently ongoing) landline repairs I lamented previously. At least, the prospect of not having access to the internet motivated us to realize some last-minute holiday plans by booking a trip to . . . Budapest. However eager I might be to share my experience, the challenge, as always, is not to drift too far from the format and subject of this journal and yet to make it reflect my everyday life, whether I am spending An Evening with Queen Victoria (as I will be on 22 April) or going back to my old neighborhood in New York City (on 14 May). Still, it is going to be (almost) all about Budapest from now until my royal visit.

“There is no such place as Budapest. Perhaps you are thinking of Bucharest, . . . and there is no such place as Bucharest, either,” New England wit Robert Benchley once remarked. Fortunately, especially for someone with a non-refundable ticket, there is ample proof to the contrary on the birth certificates of a number of film and radio personalities; and, as much as I love goulash or views of the Danube, I shall devote subsequent entries in the broadcastellan journal to the exploration of a few Hollywood-Budapest connections, whether prominent or obscure. To director Michael Curtiz, perhaps (whose Mildred Pierce I revisited earlier this year), or matrimonially challenged Zsa Zsa Gabor, whom I spotted not too long ago in Touch of Evil.

Then there are playwright Ferenc Molnar, whose Liliom was spun into a musical Carousel, and director Géza von Bolváry, who made movies starring the glamorous Zarah Leander (recently back in the limelight, in commemorations of the 100th anniversary of her birth). Never mind character actor Paul Lukas, who became a US citizen in 1933, or (soon to be exhumed?) escape artist Harry Houdini, who denied his Budapest birthplace. How could I, as an old-time radio aficionado, resist a few half-hours with “gorgeous” Ilona Massey, whose Top Secret adventures were blurted out on US radio back in 1950.

Now, I don’t question that Ms. Massey was indeed gorgeous; the quotation marks are merely embracing the adjective to suggest that the actress was billed in this manner when she agreed to become incorporeal for the sake of starring in her own thriller series (before materializing on television in 1954, when, years after her meeting with an Invisible Agent (a 1942 comedy-thriller co-starring Austro-Hungarian Peter Lorre) she got to host a variety program named after her).

In Top Secret, the aforementioned Hollywood actress played a Baroness on perilous assignments of “international intrigue and espionage before and during the World War II.” It all began on a “Night Train to Berlin,” in a compartment of which the Baroness found herself locked up with a Gestapo officer who threatens to break more than her silence: “Your fingernails, your knuckles, your beautiful white teeth, that golden hair. I promise you, your hair will be gray as ashes before the treatment is over.”

Not exactly the Beverly Hills spa treatment. How did she get into such a pickle? And how come she carries six lumps of poisonous sugar in her handbag and a radioactive transmitter in her heels, like some “walking Geiger counter” in search of tea or uranium? “It is very simple,” the Baroness explains in an accent thicker than the plots she was dealt. “A long time ago, a man, a very wonderful, brave man,” offered her a job and she took it. Who would refuse a position that guaranteed “no credit in success, no protection in danger, no recognition even in death,” a career in which “your first mistake will be your last”? The job takes her to Berlin, where the Baroness works . . . as a manicurist. “It is surprising how much one can pick up in a beauty parlor. And I do not mean, er, tips.” A real nail salon-biter.

Massey got out of Hungary for that? I’ll have to study the travel brochures more carefully next time. Anyway. I may not be a Man of the World like debonair William Powell (whom I watched last night, opposite Carole Lombard, presuming to be one); but it sure is swell to be traveling to foreign countries now and again. I get to enjoy all those Hollywood stopovers.

Mind, Reader!

It seems like I am going to be cut off from the internet for a while. High winds wreaked havoc with the local landlines earlier this year, and keeping my date with the out-of-date has turned into an on-and-offline romance during the past three months. Finally, something amounting to more than darning is going to be done about those rotten wires; even the road to our house will be closed off for the duration. It is going to be a week of silent days, without signals and dispatches. Will broadcastellan have returned by the end of it? Can new wires improve the state of broadband? Might there be a future for carrier pigeons? I won’t ask you to tune in tomorrow to find out all about it because I won’t be able either to tell or share. Nor do I mingle with the crystal ball set who look to a psychic or Mind Reader like Warren William for answers.

What is worse, anyway, a phony medium or one beyond reach, a doubtful telepath or unreliable telecommunications?

Greek to Me: Notes on an Identity Crisis

Well, I can relate to it. That black sheep on the brow of the hill behind our house. After well over two years of living in Wales, I still feel very much like an outsider. I’m not sure whether I am too resisting of this new, old culture—which is struggling, with a mixture of self-consciousness and pride, to assert itself against or alongside England—retreating and subsequently fading into the American pop culture gone stale to which this journal is largely dedicated.

My self-confidence and sense of belonging were not bolstered any last weekend, when I accompanied my better half (just returned from London) to a dinner party whose far from rustic guests included a Deputy Private Secretary to the Prince of Wales. I did not expect to be conversing about my doctoral study on old-time radio, let alone impart my enthusiasm about the subject. I would have settled for literature, or travel, or dogs (Camilla having ditched the royal Corgies in favor of a Jack Russell like—or perhaps quite unlike—our inimitable Montague). Unfortunately, I did not get to share much of anything that evening. The guests chose, for the most part, to speak in the native tongue, which, I assure you, does not sound anything like English.

Yes, I can relate to the black sheep on the hills. And I sure can relate to the two main characters in the inaugural broadcast of Great Plays. After all, the comedy that evening was Aristophanes’s The Birds, in which two disenchanted old Athenians—Pisthetairos and Euelpides—leave their native soil in search of . . . Cloudcuckooland. A weekly radio program offering adaptations of Western drama ranging from ancient Greece to modernity, Great Plays premiered on this day, 26 February, in 1938. Undoubtedly, it is not the easiest introduction to old-time radio, although the multitude was being accommodated (or patronized) by the deletion of most Greek references.

Pardon me for failing to come up with a rara avis of a metaphor suitable to the occasion, but it sure is difficult to take off for unknown territory and expect to be surrounded there by those who are of the same proverbial plumage.

Nor do I quite understand the recent influx in visitors to this site from China, presently accounting—to me still unaccountably—for over 25 percent of my, er, readership. They are not likely to find much of interest here, aside, perhaps, from my reflections on avian flu in relation to the famed story by Daphne du Maurier. Then again, “China” and “Chinese” have been mentioned in this journal on several occasions, including these essays on The Shadow, Mr. Moto and the passing of Tokyo Rose, and Pearl S. Buck.

In a word, an admittedly somewhat tacky one in this context, I am disoriented. Perhaps, a flight to New York City is in order. A slow boat to China just won’t do.

Having Legs: The Calm After the Storm

Well, I don’t know whether hard luck can be said to have them. Legs, I mean; but this one sure lingers. So, just in case you were wondering: the violent storm mentioned in my previous post caused greater problems than the alluded to runaway trash can. I have been without phone and internet ever since and am typing these lines while sipping tea at a wireless cafe, repairs (or, at any rate, inspection and assessment of the problem) being scheduled for next week. Until the service is restored, I am biding my time watching old movies, reading even older books while broadcastellan—not designed for hurried oneliners from a cell phone or anything requiring a rushed update—remains dormant. I bet I am missing this more than any of you. . . .

My comparatively trivial “affliction” is well expressed in these lines by Walter Scott, whose Guy Mannering; or, The Astrologer (1815) I picked up to while away the hours:

Here was a country gentleman, whose most estimable quality seemed his perfect good nature, secretly fretting himself and murmuring against others for causes which, compared with any real evil in life, must weigh like dust in the balance. But such is the equal distribution of Providence. To those who lie out of the road of great afflictions, are assigned petty vexations, which answer all the purpose of disturbing their serenity [. . .].

The legs on display here, by the way, belong to Claudette Colbert; I spotted them some time ago when flicking through an issue of the British Picture Post from December 1938. Ah, the joys of lagging behind the times . . .