Friday, December 30, 2011

Goodbye 2011

Turn on the TV or radio, or log onto the Internet, and you can’t avoid the numerous remembrances of 2011, including tributes to those who bid adieu to this world in the year about to end. The deaths of Steve Jobs and Elizabeth Taylor received the most attention, but I’ll miss Peter Falk the most (Hail, Columbo! And The In-Laws!). Others who passed on this year include Jerry Lieber, who with Mike Stoller wrote “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” and many other rock ‘n’ roll classics, actor Cliff Robertson, and Sidney Lumet, who directed more than his share of great movies, but who I will always remember for Network, the most prescient film of the 1970s. Christopher Hitchens discovered, as everyone does in that final moment before death, that there is a God, but the revelation came too late for him to write about. Too bad. Imagine the book that could have resulted. What title would he have given it? Maybe something on the order of Uh-Oh, God Is Great, After All or Guess Who I Met in Hell?.
Barack Obama interrupted regular programming to tell us that Osama Bin Laden, the supposed mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks (but actually the scapegoat), had been killed, but no one saw a picture of the corpse. Then there was Muammar Gaddafi, dragged through the streets of Libya and murdered by his own people, undoubtedly with an assist from the CIA which has played a role in numerous revolutions during its 64 year history, including this year's so-called Arab Spring. The CIA was the secret hand behind at least two major revolutions in Iran. In 1951, when Prime Minister Muhammed Mossadegh nationalized the oil industry, the agency, with backing from the likes of David Rockefeller, mobilized Iranians who were hostile to the ruling powers and had him overthrown. Mossadegh was replaced with Mohammed Roza Pahlavi, the Shah, who would be ousted himself in 1979. In his memoirs, the Shah expressed the belief that the CIA was involved in his overthrow, too. In his place, the Ayatollah Khomeini took charge, turning Iran into the stronghold of Islamic radicalism that it remains today. Egypt’s recent revolution brought the Muslim brotherhood to power there, and now that Quadaffi has been kicked to the curb and killed, a more extreme Muslim government will almost certainly take the reins in Libya, a guarantee that events in the Middle East will continue to make headlines in 2012 and beyond.
The year 2011 was a dismal one on all fronts with more than a few of the “birth pangs” that the Bible warns are a sign of the end-times. The events in the Middle East may have the most damaging consequences in the long run, but don’t tell that to Japan. The earthquake that rocked the country in March registered an 8.9 on the Richter scale, assuring it a place as one of the worst natural disasters in history. In Luke 21:11, Jesus warned of the last days that “There will be great earthquakes in diverse places.” Those who dismiss Bible prophecy as so much superstitious claptrap would argue that there have always been earthquakes and natural disasters, but shortly after the 8.8 earthquake in Chile on February 27, 2010, World News and Prophecy put it in frightening perspective:

“If we look at the 12 strongest earthquakes registered in the world since measurements of them began some 300 years ago, four - or a third of the list - have occurred within the last six years.”

I don’t know which of those 12 earthquakes dropped off the list following this year’s disaster, but it’s now safe to say that five of the worst earthquakes in history occurred within seven years.

What does the world have in store for 2012?

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Countdown to Christmas

Christmas is only four days away, but it doesn't seem like Christmas, and hasn't since my parents passed away more than five years ago. There's Christmas music on the radio, including that duet by Bing Crosby and David Bowie (“Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth”), but I’ve found it more of a nuisance than a pleasure. Still, I'm always amused to see the video clip of that musical odd couple standing side-by-side in front of a piano singing that medley on Crosby’s final Christmas special which aired a few months after his death. Broadcast in 1977 and titled A Merry Olde Christmas, it was the subject of much curiosity due to Bowie's appearance. Pop stars had joined Der Bingle on TV shows before, but Bowie was no ordinary hit maker. The fact that he was a bonafide rock and roll star, and, therefore, not the kind of performer then prominent on prime-time television, made his guest shot on a Crosby Christmas special unusual to begin with, but his androgynous, bi-sexual reputation made it downright bizarre.

It’s doubtful Crosby was familiar with Bowie, and the decision to recruit him for the special was made by the producers who enlisted three of the show's musical directors to write a counter melody to "The Little Drummer Boy" after Bowie made it clear he disliked the popular song. The result was "Peace on Earth," which Bowie sang while Crosby handled the more familiar "ba-bump-bump-bump-bum" of the other song.

Bowie was in the midst of his most musically experimental phase at the time, having recorded the cold, melancholy Low and its follow-up Heroes during this period (Bowie also performed the title track from the latter album on the Crosby hour). Bowie’s ethereal music was never more alienated or detached than it was in these striking albums. Singing with lovable old Bing would have shocked his audience at any time but never more so than in 1977 when he was creating some of his darkest music. And here he was, on a Christmas special no less, dueting with Bing Crosby on “The Little Drummer Boy.” Thin, somewhat effeminate, and more than a little other worldly in appearance, Bowie provided a stunning contrast to the rumpled crooner in a comfy sweater. Surprisingly, their joint venture was a success. Their styles did not clash, and the recording, though made strictly for the CBS-TV broadcast and not intended for release on vinyl (the introduction of the compact disc was still five years away), is a memorable one. Five years later, RCA (then Bowie's label) released it as a single. It's now a staple in the season of good cheer.

There's little cheery about “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the traditional Christmas carol that has no competition as my favorite yuletide song. Its richly melancholic melody has made it a favorite with some jazz musicians, but you do not find it being performed by many popular recording artists. Joan Baez offered a superb rendition on an album of Christmas songs she released in the ‘60s, but other than Peter, Paul, and Mary, I can’t think of any other mainstream performers who have attempted it. It may be too solemn, even a little depressing, certainly in comparison to "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer," two songs I positively loathe.

If you don't hear "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" much on the radio, it's still more frequently played than the selections from the Rotary Connection's 1968 album, Peace. Although it includes an electrified version of “Silent Night,” most of the material was original, but it remains one of the finest Christmas albums ever recorded. The songs are moody and contemplative, highlighted by two exceptional pieces: “Sidewalk Santa” and “Shopping Bay Menagerie.” Unfortunately, the album has been long out of print, and is hard to find on CD. If the Rotary Connection is known at all today, it's likely because its lineup included the late Minnie Riperton who had a huge hit with "Lovin' You" ("It's easy 'cause you're beautiful") back in 1975. Her daughter, Maya Rudolph, went on to fame herself on Saturday Night Live.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Err to Gore Vidal

In the February 2010 Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens cast his critical eye on Gore Vidal, a man whose “tough-mindedness” and “subversive wit” he greatly admired. When participating in a panel discussion on the life and work of Oscar Wilde, Hitchens recalled the moderator proposing that Vidal was the Oscar Wilde of our time, “and, really, once that name had been mentioned, there didn’t seem to be any obvious rival.”

If one had been looking for Gore Vidal’s successor, Hitchens didn’t have any obvious rival either, and even now, with his voice permanently stilled, no rival seems likely to emerge. Vidal himself once championed Hitchens as his heir, but then came 9/11. The attack on New York and Washington D.C. had many ramifications, the most serious of which - the shredding of the Bill of Rights and the shedding of blood in Iraq - Vidal addressed in his controversial pamphlets, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War. One of its more frivolous results was the end of the two writers’ mutual admiration society.

Suddenly, Hitchens regarded Vidal as a “crackpot” for proposing that the Bush administration had advance knowledge of the attacks and took merciless advantage of them to justify an invasion of Iraq and the suspension of many of our civil liberties. Hitchens wrote that “if it’s true even to any degree that we were all changed by September 11, 2001, it’s probably truer of Vidal that it made him more the way he already was. . .” As an example, Hitchens referred to Vidal’s previously stated belief that Franklin Roosevelt ignored warnings that an attack on Pearl Harbor was imminent, knowing that such a tragedy would rally support for America’s entry into World War II.

Prior to 9/11, Hitchens was seemingly on the political left, contributing to such progressive publications as The Nation. A closer look at some of his activities suggests that the heart of a right winger was beating in his chest years before that day in 2001. While the left marched in step, supporting Bill Clinton even as he was impeached for lying under oath in the Monica Lewinsky case, Hitchens joined the conservative choir, admirably so in my view, by condemning him, writing a book, No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton.

Hitchens didn't really change after 9/11. As he said of Vidal, “it made him more the way he already was . . .” Hitchens' words, which I replaced with an ellipsis - “and accentuated a crackpot strain that gradually asserted itself as dominant” - perfectly describe Hitchens himself who told USA Today that 9/11 was “an attack on America and its ideals.” George W. Bush had said that the terrorists “hate our freedom.” Different words expressing the same ridiculous sentiment.

Hitchens, the self-described contrarian, became an unofficial publicist for the Bush administration and its policies. Since he wasn’t on the government’s payroll, he was free to make statements that were more inflammatory, such as his description of the enemy as “Islamofascists.” Hitchens, like most Bush cheerleaders, failed to acknowledge that U.S. involvement in regions where we have no business being involved was, as Patrick Buchanan has stated, asking for trouble.

It’s a pointless argument, however, since the facts support the claim made by Vidal and others that the Bush administration had prior knowledge of the attacks. Of course, Hitchens, like others in the mainstream media, ridiculed such beliefs as unworthy of anyone but a “crackpot.”

Hitchens appears to have been something far more dangerous than a crackpot. He was a disinformation specialist. They come in all shapes and sizes, all colors and creeds, and can be found on the left, right, and in the center of every political party. Hitchens, I stated previously, “wasn’t on the government payroll,” but many journalists are secretly employed by the CIA, and have been since the days of the company’s forerunner, the OSS. In a 1977 article in The Washington Post, Carl Bernstein reported that the CIA’s “assets” included employees of virtually every major newspaper, magazine, and TV network, all of whom could be called on to do their bidding. Whether or not Hitchens was one of them, he certainly supported their agenda, something the true contrarian, Gore Vidal, never did.

In attempting to explain why Hitchens demoted him from idol to crackpot, Vidal told an audience that “I didn’t die. I just kept going on and on and on.”

And on he goes, a man without an heir, but he never really had one in Hitchens. Sure, they were both witty and had a gift for words, but Hitchens worked hard to counter Vidal’s most important message. Perhaps when Vidal called Hitchens his heir, he forgot to use the spellcheck. He may have meant “err.”

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Movie Theater

When I was a young lad, I practically lived at the movies. Correction: I lived in the movies. The real world was merely something to pass through on my way into and out of the theater. Not anymore. The movie-going experience is not what it used to be and the movies are not to blame. The culprit is the movie theater.

When I was growing up in the late Sixties, downtown Cleveland, Ohio was home to such theaters as the Hippodrome, the Allen, the Loew’s State and Ohio, and the Palace, most located in an area still known as Playhouse Square. The Palace was especially well-named because, like all of these theaters, it was fit for a king. Plush architectural wonders, they made a trip to the movies an event even when the attraction was as mediocre as Murderer’s Row, a ridiculous spy thriller starring Dean Martin as Matt Helm, a secret agent less super, and certainly less sober, than James Bond whose fantastic adventures were all the rage during that decade. Yet I clearly recall seeing this turkey during my first visit to the Hippodrome in December 1966. I recall it more vividly than many superior movies I’ve seen since precisely because of the theater in which I saw it.

The downtown movie palaces are gone forever. The State, Ohio, and Palace are still standing but not as movie houses. The Hippodrome, however, exists only in memory. After closing its doors in 1980, it became a target of the wrecking ball to make room for a parking lot. Considering the grade Z exploitation movies the Hippodrome played throughout much of the Seventies (black exploitation and kung fu flicks), its demolition was a mercy killing. The Allen, boarded up for years, reopened its doors but only for live theater, not for the beam of a 35mm projector.

That’s a shame. These were special, distinctive theaters, completely unlike the multiplexes that dominate the industry today. Seeing a movie at the Hippodrome or the State was comparable to dinner at an elegant restaurant. Today’s multiplex cinemas are closer in spirit to McDonald’s. In the past, the theater where you saw a film was almost as important as the movie itself. If you saw the James Bond thriller Thunderball at the Loew’s State, as I did in December 1965, chances are you’d remember that you saw it at the State. Today, it’s doubtful anyone can accurately say where they saw a particular movie because the theaters all look and feel the same, and the movie playing at one multiplex is usually playing at all of them.

The neighborhood theaters of the past were not as impressive as the downtown movie palaces, but they had their own individual charms. My favorite was the Garden, located at West 25th Street and Clark Avenue, since it was in its darkened auditorium that I was introduced to the glorious world of cinematic make-believe, a world in which I spent some of the happiest times of my youth.

Today’s theaters are barely worthy of the name. The old theaters that do survive have been split up into multi-screen mini theaters, while the newer models built in the past thirty years are buried inside those ghastly shopping malls that are as lacking in character as the theaters themselves. And not just one theater, but often more than a dozen under one roof, all as unimaginatively numbered as so many of the sequels that play on their screens.

Those screens are another source of irritation. In the Fifties, when television lured Americans away from the movies by offering free entertainment in the living room, the motion picture industry fought the threat by offering what could not be found on that square box. Cinemascope, Cinerama, Vista-Vision (“Motion Picture High Fidelity”), and other innovative processes that required larger and wider screens were introduced. Now that television, as well as cable and home video, has proven victorious, theater screens are smaller than ever. It’s as though theatrical releases are little more than promotional tools to hype the disc or download scheduled for release a few months later.

Even walking through the lobby of those great old theaters was more pleasurable than being anywhere in one of the shoeboxes of today. The walls were adorned with large colorful posters of the current and coming attractions. Just as the screens started shrinking, so did those posters. They’re not as eye catching as they once were either. The poster for Thunderball featured panels of exciting artwork that conveyed the action in which star Sean Connery engaged in on screen in a way that may be more memorable than the movie itself. Posters for more recent 007 films simply feature photographs of the star posing with a gun and maybe a Bond girl or two.

Well, kids, let me sum up by saying you don’t know what you missed. I may sound like an old codger drawing unfavorable comparisons between modern reality and an idealized past, but the fact is a night at the movies isn’t what it used to be. Today, you buy your overpriced ticket, see the movie and maybe a coming attraction or two, and are then rushed off the property. Considering the quality of too many of today’s films, who needs to be rushed? Chances are you’ll be hurrying out the door with no encouragement from management for fear of being locked in overnight and subjected to another viewing of The Human Centipede by a deranged projectionist.

Murderer’s Row: now that was a good movie!

PS: On a bright note, the Capitol, a grand old neighborhood theater on the west side of Cleveland, has been restored and is a full time movie house (with digital projection rather than film, which could be the subject of another nostalgic blog entry). It's a multiplex with three screens, but the two smaller theaters are upstairs. If you see a movie in the main auditorium, it's just like old times, especially on those Sunday mornings when, for five bucks, you can see everything from Citizen Kane and North by Northwest to The Pink Panther (the original with Peter Sellers) and The Bad Seed.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens Goes Forth to Meet His Maker

In the morning when I lift my tired body from my bed and go about the business of preparing for another day, I prefer absolute silence, but usually I turn on the radio even though I loathe the voices of those morning personalities. All I want is to return to the comfort of my bed, but these jokesters sound delighted to have braved the frigid autumn air to report to a workplace. I endure their cheerfulness because if an earth-shaking event - an earthquake, a terrorist attack - has occurred while I slept, I want to be aware of it. There wasn’t anything comparable in the news on Friday morning, but I did learn that Christopher Hitchens had died the day before at age 62, finally succumbing to the cancer with which he was diagnosed in June 2010.

Hitchens had been around a long time, writing for such “progressive” publications as The Nation, but he really seemed to capture the public’s attention in the past decade when his bass voice and elegant prose turned from concerns of the left to championing George W. Bush and his War on Terror. Suddenly, Hitchens, whom Gore Vidal once considered his heir, smeared Vidal as a crackpot for believing, as many do, that Bush and company were complicit in the attacks of 9/11 and that the War on Terror was really a war on us - the citizens of the United States. Hitchens was suddenly welcome to spout off on the radio shows of such conservative talkers as Dennis Prager and Michael Medved, even though both men are observant Jews and supporters of Christianity, while Hitchens was an outspoken atheist and critic of religion. It was in the latter guise that Hitchens was best known in the final years of his life, mainly owing to his best seller, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

I never read any of Hitchens’ denunciations of religion, but the title of his book could make one suspect that he wasn’t as much of an atheist as he claimed. If God does not exist, it’s irrelevant to speak of His greatness or lack thereof. That which does not exist is nothing. It has no character whatsoever. Furthermore, if there is no God, would anyone even consider the question of His existence? C. S. Lewis didn’t think so, and neither do I. No one would worship God or choose competing idols to fill the void that has existed since Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. There would be no icons in any field. We would feel no need to look up to anyone, even a parent.

Hitchens stepped into eternity unrepentant, supposedly touched by those who prayed on his behalf, but steadfast in his denial of God. He insisted that any reports of a deathbed conversion should be dismissed as a lie or the words of a “raving, terrified person whose cancer has spread to the brain.” He also expressed no regrets about the booze and particularly the cigarettes that may have played a part in the cancer that killed him. “Writing is what’s important to me, and anything that helps me do that - or enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation - is worth it to me.”

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


Friday, December 9, 2011

Classic Scrooge

Bah. Humbug. I'm tempted to utter Charles Dickens' famous expletive a lot during the Christmas season. Holiday displays featuring bears and bicycles bring out the Scrooge in me. (Bears? Bicycles? Am I missing the Christmas connection there?) Sometimes it's a version of A Christmas Carol. Have you seen the lumbering musical with Albert Finney? Or the one with Bill Murray that plays like a Saturday Night Live sketch stretched to the limit? There are versions with Mickey Mouse, the Muppets, Jim Carrey, and even the Fonz, er, Henry Winkler. Dickens' classic is in the public domain so anyone can make a movie or stage a theatrical version without requesting permission or paying the author's estate one cent. Even stingy Ebenezer would like that deal. But for my money, there are only two versions as enduring as the tale itself. One is a live action black-and-white theatrical feature. The other is a cartoon made for television.

The feature, produced by England's Renown Pictures in 1951, is known as Scrooge in its native U.K., but was retitled A Christmas Carol in the U.S. and elsewhere. It stars Alistair Sim, whom the late Shel Silverstein once called “the greatest comic actor. . . a genius.” Sim is also the only actor to make enough of an impression as Scrooge to claim the role as his own. The actor shows us Scrooge's hard exterior, but also gives us a glimpse of the sensitive young man he once was, a man bruised by life and determined to protect himself from further disappointment. Scrooge's transformation from cold miser to the man who "knew how to keep Christmas well" is believable because Sim creates a three dimensional figure.

The rest of the cast is also splendid with Mervyn Johns (best known for 1946's classic Dead of Night) a perfect Bob Cratchit and skeletal Ernest Thesiger, good old Dr. Pretorius from Bride of Frankenstein, as Mr. Stretch, the undertaker as cadaverous as his clients.

Since A Christmas Carol is a ghost story as much as a Christmas tale, the mood needs to be just right and director Brian Desmond Hurst captures it perfectly. The mood is what really distinguishes this film and sets it apart from other adaptations. This is no jolly sleigh ride but a fairly dark tale, often depressing until its joyous climax. When it debuted in U.S. theaters, the film was praised by The New York Times for its "somber and chilly atmosphere" while Variety panned it for being too grim. The film's lack of contrived good cheer hurt it at the box-office, but the film acquired a strong following after it began to appear on television.

Unfortunately, a colorized version that dilutes the film's power has become too prominent on television in the last decade, and the original black-and-white version can often be seen only on video.

If you really want your Scrooge in color, try Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. First aired on U.S. television on December 18, 1962, the hour long animated film is unique in that it casts a cartoon character, the bumbling, dangerously near-sighted Magoo, as Scrooge and does so without compromising the integrity of Dickens' creation. The show is well produced with many memorable songs, and, it too, has a suitably dark tone at times, although it is considerably more upbeat than the 1951 film. If this version isn’t entirely faithful to Dickens, it is nonetheless true to his spirit and is a fine way to introduce children to this beloved literary classic.

A Christmas Carol has been popular with filmmakers since the earliest days of the cinema with the earliest known version appearing in 1908. New versions will continue to be produced as long as we celebrate Christmas, but it's doubtful anyone will offer a version to challenge those of Mr. Sim or Mr. Magoo.

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal

© 2003 Brian W. Fairbanks


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

3 Forgotten Christmas Movies

The promise of peace on earth is never fulfilled at Christmas, but everything is possible in Christmas movies. George Bailey is saved from suicide every Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge always greets Christmas morning as a kinder, gentler man, and Bing Crosby rises from the dead to sing "White Christmas" in black and white (Holiday Inn) and color (White Christmas). Like the sound of reindeer on the rooftop and sleighbells in the snow, Christmas movies are a part of the holiday landscape. It wouldn't really seem like Christmas without It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, but while those classics are among the most heralded Christmas movies, there are other, less popular, but still delightful films sure to brighten your holiday season.

1940's Remember the Night is the charming tale of a prosecuting attorney who takes a shoplifter to his family's farm for Christmas because he doubts he can successfully convict her on Christmas Eve and doesn't wish to see her spend the holidays in jail. The shoplifter, a product of a broken home, experiences a Christmas unlike any she's known before. Meanwhile, the prosecutor falls in love with her, making his professional duties all but impossible. Four years later, the film's stars, Fred Macmurray and Barbara Stanwyck, made one of film noir’s most cynical couples in Double Indemnity, but in this Preston Sturges masterpiece, they display a warmth that is as endearing as the Preston Sturges screenplay.

In 1949's Holiday Affair, Janet Leigh is a widowed mother responsible for getting department store clerk Robert Mitchum fired during the Christmas season. Mitchum is soon competing with Wendell Corey for the affections of both Leigh and her son in this modest but effective Christmas romance. It's especially nice to see big, bad Bob Mitchum in such a gentle role, and his tough guy image keeps the sugar coated story from becoming too sweet.

Bob Hope is as synonymous with Christmas as Bing Crosby. In addition to starring in annual holiday TV specials and entertaining the troops, he starred in The Lemon Drop Kid, a delightful but now relatively forgotten 1951 comedy that deserves to be revived every Christmas. In this Damon Runyon story, Hope is a scam artist whose gang poses as Salvation Army sidewalk Santas in order to pay off a debt to a gangster. Like Scrooge, Hope sees the error of his ways by the time the credits roll, but not before providing some big laughs and introducing the classic Christmas carol, "Silver Bells," an Oscar nominee for best song.

All three of these films are available on video and are sure to brighten the holiday season as much as the more famous Christmas movies. Watch them, and, who knows, they may become as much a tradition in your home as It's a Wonderful Life.

© 2003 Brian W. Fairbanks

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut: And So He Went

I read Slaughterhouse Five in a college literature class. It was only then that I realized that the phrase, “And so it goes,” did not originate with Linda Ellerbee of NBC News’ Overnight, the sassy late night news hour that ran from 1982-83. I liked the book, but wasn’t impressed enough to read anything else that Kurt Vonnegut had written. Years later, I did read a few of his essays (in one, he praised Helena Blavatsky, the witch credited with introducing the occult to America, as “quite wonderful”), and a slim volume, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian (chosen because it was slim and wouldn’t require more than an hour to read). By then, he was being published by the comparatively small Seven Stories Press since the major houses had written him off as a spent force.

I always liked his hair. Like me, he had a head of thick, unruly curls, and still did when he died at age 83 in April 2007. I always liked that he was an unrepentant and unapologetic chain smoker (another trait I share, although he preferred Pall Malls while I favor Camels). Somehow, he avoided the diseases associated with the nicotine habit, although I do recall reading he had emphysema in his latter years, but a case too mild to require traveling with an oxygen tank. However, I did not like his rather smug, knee-jerk liberalism, often expressed in cheap shots like the one he took at George W. Bush on The Jon Stewart Show. I don’t remember his exact words, but then they weren’t very memorable, pretty much limited to calling Bush an “idiot.” I wasn’t a fan of Bush 43 either, but to go on TV and suck up applause for such a trite insult is unworthy of anyone, but especially of a man who made his name with words. Real clever, Kurt.

A self-professed “humanist,” a philosophy he described as promoting decency and kindness without concern for the rewards in an afterlife, Vonnegut was not always decent and kind himself, even at times when decency and kindness would not require much effort. In And So It Goes - Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, Charles J. Shields describes Vonnegut’s behavior at a 1983 speaking engagement at Oxford. Taking questions from the audience, he was asked if he kept any “tools of the trade” on his desk, perhaps a favorite dictionary. It’s as legitimate as asking a writer where he gets his ideas, but an easier one to answer. Vonnegut treated the question as an opportunity to get a cheap laugh at the expense of an admirer. As Shields writes:

“Kurt chuckled, apparently amused by such a jejune question - a favorite dictionary? The audience murmured and laughed in sympathy.”

The fan who asked the question felt humiliated. After the audience stopped chuckling, Vonnegut finally provided an answer.

“No, he said finally, he had no ‘favorite dictionary,’ dismissing the notion by shaking his curly head”

Angry that the big shot author he idolized would embarrass him publicly, the student who posed the question wrote Vonnegut the next day: “It is your prerogative to piss on everything till doomsday, Mr. Vonnegut: but why do it in public? And why do it pretending to be doing something else?”

A few weeks later, Vonnegut sent a reply, along with a check, a refund for the cost of admission to his speaking engagement, not, he insisted, as a gesture of apology. Vonnegut was angry that he had been taken him to task for his rudeness. Years later, the student, now a reporter for Newsweek, found himself having lunch with Vonnegut and several others at Rockefeller Center. Before leaving, he reminded Vonnegut of their previous correspondence, believing both could laugh it off. Vonnegut didn’t laugh. “Oh, I remember,” he said. “Funny, you don’t seem like an asshole.” Of course not. On both occasions, the asshole was Vonnegut.

Before becoming a successful novelist, one who I always assumed was highly regarded in literary circles (alas, the literati generally dismiss his work as belonging to a phase that college students go through before abandoning him for more serious writers), Vonnegut was a corporate writer (so was I for a time), a public relations man at General Electric. He got the job on the recommendation of his brother, Bernard, a chemist credited with co-inventing a process of “cloud seeding” that could manipulate the weather. (Gee, I wonder what those who chuckle at conspiracy theories involving chemtrails would say about that?)

Vonnegut, like many another liberal, would later rail against corporations like GE. But, like many another liberal - Bella Abzug, are you listening from beyond the grave? - he owned stock in them, fattening his bank account on profits from, among others, “Dow Chemical, the sole maker of napalm during the Vietnam War: and Multitrust Real Estate Fund, a development of apartment complexes and shopping centers in six cities.”

Shields claims these investments were not really inconsistent with Vonnegut’s beliefs. “He believed in free enterprise,” he writes. “It had made his forebears rich. And he recognized that many ideas of Western freedom are intrinsically tied to capitalism.”

I guess if you’re going to devote a chunk of your life to writing a 513 page bio (including the index, etc), you’re tempted to make excuses for your subject, but for Vonnegut to profit from a war he publicly opposed, which he certainly did by investing in Dow, is hypocrisy. Even investing in a company that built shopping malls and had to mow down nature to do it should raise eyebrows. Vonnegut was an environmentalist, after all, who said, “I think the earth’s immune system is trying to get rid of us . . . we are a disease on the face of this planet.”

It was only after he achieved literary success that Vonnegut even began to think about a political stance. Since the audience for his work was primarily young and liberal, he adapted a pose that would appeal to that demographic. He let his close-cropped hair grow into an unruly mop and grew a mustache. But he continued to favor suits, ties, and black wingtips, attire that, if favored by anyone under 30 in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, could only mean they were flag waving, Nixon supporting republicans. That wouldn’t describe Jefferson Airplane, the psychedelic rock band responsible for “White Rabbit” whose lead singer, Grace Slick, once claimed to have dropped LSD into Tricia Nixon’s drink during a visit to the White House. As a “hero of the counterculture,” Vonnegut received an invitation from the band to brainstorm ideas for their next album. “The vibrations were just awful,” he remembered. “I wanted out as fast as possible.. . . They may have had funny ideas about who I am on the basis of my books, and I turned out not to be that way at all.”

Some fans who never met him personally saw through the facade. After receiving a “fill in the blanks” form after requesting Vonnegut for a personal appearance, a fan wrote an angry letter to his agent. “Maybe I’m silly but I thought he’d be different. I thought he’d care just a little. How wrong I was. He’s just a capitalist like everyone else. No time for someone truly interested, for someone who truly cares.”

To hear others tell it, Vonnegut gave Hal Holbrook a run for his money by consciously playing Mark Twain in public. Critics had first pointed out Vonnegut’s resemblance to Twain in appearance (the hair, mostly, and the mustache), and the fact that they shared a birthplace and a sense of humor encouraged Vonnegut to play up the similarities, and pattern himself after the former Samuel Clemens. Much in demand for public speaking engagements, Vonnegut did his Mark Twain schtick, an act he also trotted out for fellow writers. At a party for PEN, an organization claiming to promote free speech but actually designed to further a liberal political agenda, novelist Hilary Masters recalled Vonnegut “doing his Mark Twain imitation, baggy white suit, bushy hair, and flowing mustache. He was standing a little apart, maybe aloof, like an icon of some kind . . . My attitude toward Vonnegut was that he was something of a poseur and that his impersonation of Twain was almost a theatrical device.”

Poseur. My thoughts exactly. And so it goes.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Nick Adams was a rebel

“Johnny Yuma was a rebel. He roamed through the West.”

Those words were sung over the credits of The Rebel, a half-hour western drama from the early 1960s that is probably familiar to most baby boomers. It doesn’t resonate as strongly as a Beatles song, but it resonates. In an episode of Seinfeld, Kramer absent-mindedly sings the theme on the phone after he's put on hold. It might have been scripted, but it could have just been a bit of improv by Michael Richards, an actor old enough to remember when the show starring Nick Adams originally aired. It helps that the theme was sung by Johnny Cash, a bonafide music legend whose death in 2002 was marked with all the hoopla one expects post-Elvis.

The Rebel's star died in February 1968 at age 36, and though his passing was not a media event, it was front page news, certainly in Cleveland, Ohio. The Plain Dealer ran the headline, “Actor Nick Adams Found Dead,” near the bottom of its front page. A few days later, The Cleveland Press’ "Showtime," an entertainment tabloid included in the Friday edition, featured a eulogy by a showbiz columnist titled “Then His Star Began to Fade,” detailing Adams’ struggle to achieve stardom in Hollywood and of how he fell short of realizing his ambition while still coming closer than most to grabbing the brass ring.

As a poor kid growing up in Pennsylvania, Adams escaped at the movies, idolizing John Wayne and James Cagney in whose footsteps he hoped to follow. In Hollywood, he hooked up with another wannabe star, James Dean. If the more sensational accounts of their history are accurate, the two survived by hustling gay men on the streets of Hollywood and Vine. In Hollywood Babylon Revisited, author Darwin Porter claims Adams used his rumored “well hung” status to land auditions and movie roles. However he went about realizing his dream, he succeeded in being cast in Mister Roberts with Cagney and Henry Fonda, though he’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him presence. He was a little more prominent, though not by much, in Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean’s follow-up to East of Eden which rocketed him to stardom in early 1955. By the time Rebel was released later that same year, Dean was dead and about to be reborn as the object of one of the first celebrity death cults.

A born hustler, Adams exploited his Dean connection to work his way into the shadow of Elvis Presley, who admired Dean and inherited his place as the misunderstood rebel whose sneer was but a cover for a sensitive, wounded heart. It is primarily through his association with these two legends that Adams is known today, but he had a few memorable roles in such films as Picnic, Pillow Talk, and The Last Wagon. His finest moment came in a comedic part, that of Private Ben Whitledge, Andy Griffith’s bespectacled pal in the hilarious No Time for Sergeants. But such a role wasn’t compatible with the image that Adams wanted to project, that of the tight-jawed hero like those he worshiped in his movie-going youth. If casting directors didn’t see the 5'7" actor in the Duke Wayne mold, he’d have to take matters into his own hands, and did, by co-creating The Rebel with Andrew J. Fenady, and successfully selling the idea to ABC.

Popular for a time, The Rebel survived only two seasons (1959-1961) on the then struggling network, but Adams wasn’t through. After landing a minor supporting role in Twilight of Honor, a 1963 courtroom drama dashed off to cash in on Richard Chamberlain’s popularity as TV’s Dr. Kildare, Adams seized the opportunity to position himself for an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. He hustled - buying $8,000 worth of trade ads to promote himself and successfully bought a nomination. It was a classic example of chutzpah, all the more remarkable since Adams’ role in the film wound up on the cutting room floor. Melvyn Douglas won for Hud. If Douglas hadn’t triumphed, singer Bobby Darin would likely have won for an impressive turn as a traumatized soldier in Captain Newman, M.D.

With Hollywood concerned that so many productions were now being filmed on foreign soil, Adams made some noise by telling reporters he would only accept parts in movies made at home. Trouble is, he wasn’t receiving offers in the States, so he did an about face, and went to England to co-star with Boris Karloff in Die, Monster, Die, an above average adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story released by American International in 1965, the same year Allied Artists tossed out Young Dillinger, with Adams in the title role, as one half of a drive-in double bill.

His co-star in the latter film was a young actor for whom Adams was a mentor: Robert Conrad, already popular due to his role on TV’s Hawaiian Eye, and about to win more fans as James T. West, the secret service agent of The Wild, Wild, West. Conrad managed to squeeze Adams in as a guest star on a pair of episodes at a time when his only other options were such made-in-Japan atrocities as Frankenstein Conquers the World and Monster Zero. By then, Adams was more familiar to TV audiences as a celebrity contestant on PDQ, a game show hosted by Dennis James.

The circumstances of Adams’ death in February 1968 remain a subject of debate with some mystery aficionados suggesting he was knocked off, perhaps by someone intent on covering some shady business practices. He was found slumped against the wall of his bedroom, eyes open and staring. An autopsy found a combination of drugs in his system, usually a sign of either an accidental overdose or suicide.

Before his death, he managed two more film roles. Mission Mars, a shoddy space travel flick with Darren McGavin, may not have been released theatrically (it never arrived in my hometown, anyway), but Fever Heat, a racing drama for Paramount, was unloaded at drive-ins four months after his death, supported by a re-issue of The Sons of Katie Elder.

Adams comes to mind because The Rebel is being revived on Me TV (Memorable Television), a network whose programming is a sort of Greatest Hits from TV’s past (look for it on one of the many sub-stations that popped up after the switch from analog to digital broadcasting). Nick Adams may be little more than a blip on the radar screen of pop culture today, but there was a time when, for a half-hour of network prime time each week, he was the brave, somewhat surly, hero he always wanted to be. And now, thanks to reruns, he is sneering heroically again.

POSTSCRIPT: Allyson Adams, daughter of the late Nick Adams, recently found a diary written by her father during the eight days he accompanied Elvis Presley when the latter was being celebrated by his hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi. Titled The Rebel and the King, you can find more information about the book (and pre-order a copy) at the following link:

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks