Eran Trece for Dinner; or, A Spanish Lesson with Charlie Chan

Well, “gracias, muchisimas!” Thanks to some last-minute planning on my behalf, I’ll be off on a trip to sweltering Madrid, starting next Wednesday. It will be my first visit to continental Europe since I left my native Germany for New York City in 1990; and it has been even longer since last I’ve traveled to a country whose primary language I neither speak nor comprehend. Although I lived just below Spanish Harlem for many years and the majority of my students at City University colleges were Hispanic, I never picked up more than the odd word or phrase. Indolence and impatience aside, my main excuse is that I was too busy appropriating English and promoting it as a common language, the thorough knowledge of which would benefit all who choose to live in the United States.

These days, resisting such study—and missing out intellectually and economically as a result—is being celebrated as multiculturalism, I suppose. Aware that I would miss out on Spanish culture unless I made a valiant if belated effort to train my tongue linguistically as well as culinarily, I popped in a DVD last night and watched Eran Trece. What better introduction to a foreign language than a lesson delivered by a Spanish re-interpreter of an American conception of the aphorism-peppered speech of a Chinaman! Charlie Chan, that is.

Eran Trece (1931) is the Spanish version of Charlie Chan Carries On, a copy of which has not yet resurfaced. It was produced in the early days of the talkies, when recasting rather than dubbing was being explored as a means of broadening the market for English and American films after the end of the silent era threatened to fragment the movie industry and diminish the potential of major studios like 20th Century Fox to generate global box-office successes. It was a costly enterprise that dubbing soon made redundant.

For anyone who has been exposed to dubbed films and the consequent muffling of cultural differences, the advantages of recasting will be readily appreciated, even though it meant that international audiences did not get to see the well-trained stars of Hollywood or Elstree, unless these performers were multilingual. Claudette Colbert, for instance, acted in both The Big Pond and its French version Le Grand Mer (1930).

Restaging also demanded a few rewrites to make an originally American or British film more intelligible or palatable to the international audience. For instance, when remarking upon a photograph of Chan’s many-headed family, characters in the original are reminded of Birth of a Nation, whereas the Spanish commentators liken it to a soccer team; apparently, not all silent movies translate quite so easily either. Eran Trece certainly has some Spanish blood in it; and even though much of it is spilled, the scenario includes a cheerful party scene with a fiery musical interlude that does not appear to be matched by the American original.

I neglected to mention that the copy I screened did not have English subtitles; so, being only vaguely familiar with the novel I read ages ago in a German translation, I availed myself of the scenario for the missing American film version, which is being shared online by the most generous and kindly guardian of the Charlie Chan Family Home. It was one of the most curious cinematic experiences I had since attending a MoMA screening of the fragmentary British-German coproduction of The Queen Was in the Parlor (1927), a silent film (neither scored nor accompanied by piano) . . . with Danish titles.

So, did I learn any Spanish last night? Well, not really, apart from Charlie’s frequently reiterated “Gracias, muchisimas”; but I’m sure I’ll remember the folly of this odd encounter with the Oriental hombre when confronted with the task of deciphering the dinner menus next week.

Hope on the Bottom Shelf; or, What to Do When the Cable Box Seems Barren

Moving to the UK from the movie junkie heaven that is New York City meant having to find new ways of getting my cinematic fix. Gone are the nights of pre-code delights at the Film Forum; no more silent film matinees at the MoMA (which is just concluding a Gregory La Cava retrospective); and no more browsing at J&R Music World—and all just a cab ride away. And yet, judging by who is posting reviews at IMDb, it becomes obvious that cineastes are not exclusively city dwellers (a review of the rarely screened talkie The Hole in the Wall may serve as a case in point). Just don’t count on UK television.

The commercial-free BBC 2 has proven the most reliable source of classic Hollywood fare, even though the screenings of old movies are generally relegated to the after-hours or late-morning time slots. There have been a number of pleasant surprises, such as a Val Lewton series (including the literate horror of The Dead Ship), the film adaptation of the Suspense radio drama “To Find Help” (reworked, not altogether successfully, as Beware, My Lovely) and several Claudette Colbert films (including Texas Lady, which I had never seen in the US).

Silent movies are unheard of, however; nor do pre-1940s films get much airtime (the team efforts of Astaire/Rogers and Laurel/Hardy being a notable exception). Still, this beats the advertisement-riddled offerings at TCM Britain, whose one-shelf library even infrequent viewers are likely to exhaust within a few months.

Since I am not an online shopper and still enjoy hunting trips per pedes, I have been checking out the DVD sections of the major music/video retailers here in the UK. Virgin is least attractive, stocking mainly recent titles at largely unacceptable prices. It is little more than a snazzy second-run theater where all the so-called blockbusters are dumped and repackaged as soon as they are pulled from the movie houses. Rather better are HMV and MVC. With some luck, DVDs of classics like All About Eve, Sunset Blvd., or The Third Man can be had for under £10, while lesser-known titles may be spotted (and left behind) sporting higher price tags bespeaking their exclusivity. At HMV, for instance, Tod Browning’s Freaks bears the label “An HMV Exclusive.”

And then there is FOPP. A smarter store with a larger number of classic or literary films, it boasts £5 and £7 DVD shelves. It’s a good place to set out from for anyone interested in setting up a library of essential Hollywood films. Many Hitchcock features can be had here for £5, and most DVDs are authorized studio releases, rather than the cheap transfers that end up in supermarket bargain bins. These copies are so washed out that it often difficult to distinguish the features of the players; even the rugged male leads seem to be getting the Doris Day treatment, as if shot through layers of gauze. The problem is exacerbated if the DVD image is projected onto a screen, as I am wont to enjoy my movies whenever possible.

Well, to FOPP I went last weekend; and, once again, hope lay on the bottom shelf: a copy of G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box. So, tonight is going to be spent looking at Lulu, our decidedly other Miss Brooks.

The Caterpillar and the Butterfly: Fantasy Metamorphosed, from Corwin’s “Curley” to Burton’s “Charlie”

When I dipped my toe into the cool Irish Sea yesterday afternoon, I thought to myself “How detached I am from the enveloping present, how remote from the surrounding world.” Sure, I dip into the currents of culture now and again, but little of what is current seems to have any grip on me. I just shake my mind like that wet toe and retreat. Not that the beach was any more comforting for being terra firma. I was chilled by a feeling of rootlessness, intensified, no doubt, by my relatively recent transplantation to the west of Britain. And yet, here I am, nowhere and anywhere, tending to my journal. Well, according to Technorati, there is one born every second.

Not permitting myself to become wistful, I slipped into the darkness of a movie theater to take on the latter-day mongrel that is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  What a reassuring experience it turned out to be. Once again, I know where I am—and why I am there and loving it. The “there,” of course, is nothing but the sanctuary of my confirmed biases.

Tim Burton’s re-adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1964 story is a mongrel indeed. It is a cautionary tale for children playing itself out as a computer game. Curb your greed, your arrogance, and your precociousness, it tells children, or you will suffer the fate of obnoxious brats like Augustus, Violet, Veruca and Mike. Obey your elders, even a deranged manchild like Willy Wonka, and your humility will be amply rewarded. The eponymous kid is too much of a goody-two-shoes to make a compelling hero (and, given the lesson learned by Wonka himself, retaining the title of the 1971 adaptation would have made more sense).

The trouble with Charlie is not its muddled message about innocence and purity, however; it is that, in its now treacly, now quirky delivery, in its very conception, there is too much of Augustus Gloop and Mike Teavee to render it sincere.  Charlie is a self-conscious if diverting botch. It is eye candy with a cavity built in; it is at once a celebration and a negation of fantasy. Does not Dahl’s description of Augustus Gloop sound like a critique of Hollywood blockbusters, of the spirit of Disneyfication? Listen:

How long could we allow this beast

To gorge and guzzle, feed and feast

On everything he wanted to?

Great Scott! It simply wouldn’t do!

However long this pig might live,

We’re positive he’d never give

Even the smallest bit of fun

Or happiness to anyone.

So what we do in cases such

As this, we use the gentle touch,

And carefully we take the brat

And turn him into something that

Will give great pleasure to us all . . .

It is telling that Burton’s movie very nearly drowns out these words in its lavish production numbers. In time it will metamorphose into DVDs and computer games, into the videodorous playthings of Mike Teavee. Conveying the warning about being a guy like Burton’s movie once again drowns the message by dreamcoating it in Technicolor:

The most important thing we’ve learned,


So far as children are concerned,


Is never, NEVER, NEVER let


Them near your television set—


Or better still, just don’t install


The idiotic thing at all.

In almost every house we’ve been,


We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.


They loll and slop and lounge about,


And stare until their eyes pop out.


(Last week in someone’s place we saw


A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)


They sit and stare and stare and sit


Until they’re hypnotised by it,


Until they’re absolutely drunk


With all the shocking ghastly junk. . . .



IT ROTS THE SENSES IN THE HEAD!


IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!


IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!


IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND


HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND


A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!


HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!


HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!


HE CANNOT THINK–HE ONLY SEES!

And what else, other than reading, “used the darling ones to do?” in the days “[b]efore this monster was invented?” Well (you may have guessed it, coming from me), they listened to the radio, that forgotten generator and amplifier of fantasy. Long before colorful butterflies like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory dazzled kids with a flutter of images, there was “My Client Curley,” Norman Corwin’s madcap adventures of a boy, Stinky, and his dancing caterpillar.

Stinky has to learn what Charlie seems to know and Burton doesn’t quite remember: money talks so loudly at times, it threatens to mute happiness and muffle the imagination. Unlike Burton, who clutters his film with pointless references to popular culture (Busby Berkeley, Psycho, the Beatles), Corwin offers a poignant mass media satire, of a world of commerce, sensationalism, and mediocracy.

Throughout it all, the dancing caterpillar comes vividly alive without uttering nary a syllable. There he is, in all his terpsichorean splendor. I’m there, too, knowing why I love old-time radio. Not because it is past, but precisely because it is present whenever I put my mind to it. So, to appropriate Dahl’s words for a plea for the theater of the mind, “please, oh please, we beg, we pray, / Go throw your TV set away, / And in its place you can install /A lovely [radio] on the wall.” Well, okay, keep the TV—but do give Corwin’s “My Client Curley” a try.

The Eyes Have It: A Case of Overruled Aurality

Mary Pickford, from silent screen to radio

Eye or ear—which sense organ do you value more? Which one would you more willingly relinquish? Do we rate or trust our perceptions according to a hierarchy of the senses? I frequently ask myself these questions as I lie there listening in the dark, as I set out to get lost in an imaginary landscape only to switch on the light once more in order to return to what is real and to focus my mind’s eye on the screen of my computer. Ours is such a visually conceived, mapped, and organized world—a world demanding and indeed dependent on “ocular proof”—that I gather most of us would rather part with our hearing than with our sight.

Our lexicon provides clear signs of how we “see” ourselves and “look” at our world; it makes plain, “at a glance,” that we have more “regard” for the icon than for the echo. We say “I hear you” when, in commiseration, we find a mirror image of our thoughts in the words of another; we say “I see what you mean” to signal that we have gained understanding, to show that we have gleaned “insight” from such communications. The ear merely confirms what the eye alone can truly demonstrate; and the ability to see clearly is of such significance to us that we tend to believe that a picture is worth more than a thousand words. Were the radio listeners of the pre-TV era—audiences in the true sense of the word—more likely to give up their eyes and to lend an ear?

To be sure, in the 1930s and ’40s, radio listening was America’s favorite pastime; according to one survey, more Americans were willing to forgo moviegoing and reading than go without their radios. The ways in which Hollywood attempted to catch up with or cash in on radio—after a decade of distrust, rivalry, and neglect—seem to attest to radio’s formerly central role in American culture.

The other night I was watching Look Who’s Laughing, a 1941 trifle starring a number of well-known radio players including ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, his puppet Charlie McCarthy, Jim and Marion Jordan (of Fibber McGee and Molly fame), Harold Peary (the Great Gildersleeve), as well as radio announcer Harlow Wilcox. Although carelessly tossed together, this production proved to be RKO’s most profitable production that year.

Radio personalities sure could sell a picture. And yet, rather than showing how powerful broadcasting was at the time, films like these suggest instead how dependent on visuals American audiences truly were. Not satisfied to imagine, they wanted images of the voices on the air. They bought radio magazines, flocked to studio broadcasts, and paid money to find on the big screen what the radio promised to deliver free of charge. Radio only delivered promises. It teased listeners with messages like “if you could only see us now” or “come and get it,” titillations ideally suited to commerce: to have means to behold.

Movies turned radio performers into stars or prevented former vaudevillians like Edgar Bergen from becoming invisible. Many movie stars (like Mary Pickford, above) stepped up to the microphone and were paid handsomely to address or perform for the masses. Radio—live entertainment for the living room—kept many an actor alive during the depression; but it was screen and press exposure that assured a larger-than-life star status. Hollywood’s supplementality, its ability to augment or substitute reality, to make us see and believe, tells us much about the tyranny of vision. Now excuse me while I close my eyes . . .

“War of the Worlds”: A Report from the Sensorial Battlefield

We know that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.  We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.  With infinite complacence people went to and fro over the earth about there little affairs, serene in the assurance of their dominion over this small spinning fragment of solar driftwood which by chance or design man has inherited out of the dark mystery of Time and Space.  Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that are to our minds as ours to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.  In the thirty-eighth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. . . .

This 1950s paperback from my collection includes the script of the 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast.

With these ominous lines, read by Renaissance ham Orson Welles, opened what is now the best-remembered and most widely discussed of all US radio plays—Howard Koch’s adaptation of H. G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” (30 October 1938).  Apart from this introduction, a slightly tweaked passage of Wells’s original narrative, the infamous Mercury Theater production took great liberties with its source.  It was an infidelity that proved most felicitous; for rarely has any story been transferred from one medium to another with greater ingenuity and with such sensational results.

Steven Spielberg’s cinematic update, which I experienced yesterday, pays homage to both Wells and Welles by quoting these words, by delivering them in a sonorous, Wellesian voice (Morgan Freeman’s), and by employing them as a literary bookend for an episodic melodrama that unfold as a series of more or less stupendous set pieces.  Freeman’s voice-over narration notwithstanding, Spielberg’s conventional sci-fi thriller—some kind of intergalactic Jurassic Park—has none of the qualities that made the radio play such an engaging and provocative experiment in adaptation.

Like all filmic reworkings, Spielberg’s spectacle struggles with and falters under the pressure of making terror visible, of equating the evocative with manifest dread.  The opening montage sums up the war to be fought by zooming in on the sources of threat and salvation, cosmos and microcosm.  Neither infinite outer space nor infinitesimal innerspace remains hidden from view.

The camera soon assumes the role of the terrorizing invader alluded to in Wells’s introductory remarks, as the menaced protagonists are being “watched closely,” “scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”  As in our daily lives, captured by infiltrating webcams and ubiquitous close-circuit security equipment, vigilance and violence coincide; the act of surveillance has become the art of assailants.  And still, the demand for ocular proof has to be satisfied at all costs.

Throughout the movie, the hero’s daughter is cautioned not to look as camera and special effects expose the audience to the horrors of alien warfare and the consequences of human frailty.  In one scene, she is being blindfolded by her father in an attempt to shelter her from the murder he feels compelled to commit.  For one brief moment, the audience is spared a graphic scene.  As the crime is being perpetrated behind closed doors, a close-up of the girl’s face reveals that her mind’s eye creates an image no less terrifying than the atrocities she had witnessed before.  The father, like most western adults, has become too dependent on visuals to recall the power of suggestion and the thrills produced by the insinuating ear.  The movie thus manages to disclose his failings—and our sensorial loss—but cannot combat the empire of the eye to which it is beholden.

However futile, the radio artists of the 1930s and ‘40s were among the last dramatists to wage war against the dominion of the visual world.  Howard Koch’s adaptation proved to be one of the last victorious battles, dealing such a blow as to put censors on guard against the forgotten force of non-visual stimulation.  Then, “in the thirty-eighth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. . . .”

Related writings

“Thousands Panic When Nelson Eddy Begins to Sing”
“‘War of the Worlds’: The Election Edition”

Charlie’s Chance; or, How Not to Blog

Blog like hothouse flower: Must blossom for anyone. That is how the incomparable Charlie Chan might have expressed my present dilemma. I am not at all pleased with the previous entry into this journal. Rather than sharing what I love, I exhausted myself, and, no doubt, the good will of others in a tiresome, impersonal rant. I had wanted to make that in which I delight relevant to those unfamiliar or reluctant to catch on to it by availing myself of a prominent, topical hook; but instead of writing about the wit of satirist Fred Allen, my favorite US radio writer-comedian of the 1940s, I ended up going on about the latest foray into UK television by Jerry Springer, whom I despise.

It is quite easy to write a diary (if you have learned how to be honest with yourself and have come to terms with the level of intimacy you can handle when writing about your innermost thoughts); but once they are being made public, those private thoughts are expected to matter to others. They must have a purpose other than self-indulgent expression.

What I am still struggling to reconcile in this journal is the public and the private, being at once intimate and out there. That is, I have not yet assumed a persona I can trust at the microphone as I broadcast these thoughts from home. Those who seek fame or monetary gain are generally quite sure of themselves and their chosen medium. I, who have nothing to lose but face am less self-assured. Only of this I am certain: I want to write what I know best and love most. Do I care whether anyone else shares whatever views I express? Would I like any of those anyones to let me know? Sure I would. Still, the telling must come first.

“Little things tell story,” as Chan reassuringly put it. I am very fond of the man, whom I first encountered on German television when I was in my early teens. Back then, I felt envious of his No. 1 son (and all his numerous offspring). I did not have a close relationship with my father; so, the sleuthing, world-travelled “Oriental” with the gentle touch and a houseful of kids became a guardian to fantasize about.

Today, in this politically corrected and lawsuit-controlled climate, Chan doesn’t have much of a chance as hero and model. role model or heroic figure (a talked-about Lucy Lui project notwithstanding). In his prime, he was loved even by the Chinese, although no fellow countryman portrayed him on the screen. His wisdom, delivered in what is known as Chanograms, blossomed for anyone. Yes, Chan was once again on my mind this week when I came across and purchased the Chantology DVD set (pictured)—which is what makes my reference to him topical and relevant to me. Whether it matters to anyone else—whether anyone cares to know or share—is another matter, a mystery as yet unsolved.

I think I now know how not to blog. I am just not sure yet how . . .