Saturday, December 31, 2011

"Let's Celebrake" with Popeye the Sailor (1937)

I just wanted to end the year out on a fun note, so here's Popeye going out to celebrate New Year's Eve with Olive's grandmother in tow. This is one of Max Fleischer's solo efforts, although his brother Dave did direct it. They are among the best of the Popeye cartoons, with their brief, but barbed statements, always delivered in such a tone as to make the viewer need listen more carefully, lest he miss the joke. Have a safe New Year's Eve, whatever you are doing. See you tomorrow, or next year, if you prefer!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Frank "Sugar Chile" Robinson

I ran across this while looking for something else. Frank Robinson is often mistakenly identified as a young Little Richard Penniman. He is not. But his story is unique.

Frank Robinson was born in 1938 in Detroit. He was a child prodigy by age two, later working with such luminaries as Lionel Hampton and Frankie Carle, who were master pianists themselves. He performed for President Truman at age seven and also appeared in the movie "No Leave, No Love" with Keenan Wynn the following year in 1946 when he was eight years old. This clip is from that film.

He is most remembered for his versions of "Numbers Boogie", which shot to #4, and the classic blues number "Caledonia", which reached #14. By 1952, at the age of 14, he stopped playing professionally to concentrate on his schoolwork. He is quoted in Wikipedia as having said in later years, "I wanted to go to school... I wanted some school background in me and I asked my Dad if I could stop, and I went to school because I honestly wanted my college diploma."

He went on to earn his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Michigan, before returning briefly to the music business, setting up new labels in Detroit during the 1960's.

Still very much alive, Mr. Robinson made an appearance promoting Detroit music in 2002, and later, in 2009, he traveled to England to appear in a rock and roll revival concert.

Monday, December 26, 2011

"Sybil Exposed" by Debbie Nathan

I was never a big fan of, or believer in, the story of "Sybil", the blockbuster psychological bestseller about Sybil, a woman with multiple personality disorders. Her case spawned several decades of psycho-babble, and, as it all turns out, was largely the end product of gross manipulation by professionals looking to make names for themselves. It is also the story of a very disturbed woman who may never really have gotten the help she needed. As a matter of fact, she was probably damaged, more than helped, by a team of quacks.

Ms. Nathan writes a compelling book, detailing the use of LSD, truth serums, and "recovered memories", as tools which were employed to diagnose the patient. The results of these “experiments” were used to prove a pre-conceived notion of what was wrong, rather than first diagnosing the ailment and then treating it. It is so much more convenient to make the illness up first, and then create the symptoms to prove the diagnosis, rather than the other way around. She also delves into the cultural pressures of the times, as well as the media's share of the blame for this amazing, but true, story.

A "must read" book about something we all have been fooled into believing, this book will have you looking at mental health issues in a new light. It should be required reading for all who work in the mental health profession.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Santa's Going Home

Santa has finished his rounds here on the East Coast and as soon as he has finished with the rest of the country he's headed home to take a few well deserved days off. Then it's back to work for the bearded one, getting ready for next Christmas. The reindeer will all be vacationing for a few days at an undisclosed location in the Pacific Northwest, along with the elves. We wish them all the best. See you guys next year!

As for me, it's a day off. Well, it's really one big day off, only today I get presents. I'll also be getting back to reviewing books and movies, as well. I've just been enjoying the holiday season this year, which is unlike me, and I decided to just "go with it."

So, here’s a heartfelt "Merry Christmas" to all of the people in 59 countries who read this blog daily in 83 languages/dialects. You continue to amaze me simply by stopping in, let alone e-mailing me! May your holiday be filled with all that is good. Talk at you tomorrow!

Friday, December 23, 2011

"Christmas Eve" with Randolph Scott, Joan Blondell and George Raft (1947)

This is one of the all-time greatest of Christmas movies, and also one of the most overlooked. It involves a wealthy widow who lives in Manhattan during the late 1940's, which is when the film was made. Aunt Matilda Reid's nephew is seeking to have her judged incompetent in order to become the sole trustee of her wealth. Her three wayward adopted sons have been gone for years, with not a word from any of them. One is a bankrupt playboy (George Brent), the other a rodeo rider (Randolph Scott), and the third son (George Raft), is a very mysterious man involved with hunting Nazi war criminals in South America.

Aunt Matilda has drawn just one concession from the lawyers and judge who are administering her case; if her sons show up before midnight on Christmas Eve, she wins. If not, she becomes the ward of her greedy nephew.

The film received tepid reviews in 1947 when it was released in late October. It was eventually re-released as "Sinner's Holiday", in an effort to attract a wider audience. I first ran across this gem in 1961, or so, while watching WOR-TV, Channel 9, in New York City. All the good old movies were on that channel.

As a matter of fact, "It's A Wonderful Life", with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, got it's second life from that station. That film was originally released in 1942, at a time when we were not winning the war. The film flopped. And then, around 1960, WOR-TV was looking for something to throw on the air Christmas Eve that wouldn't cost them anything. So they turned to "It's A Wonderful Life", a film whose copyright had just run out, enabling them to air the film for nothing. The switchboards lit up and another classic Christmas film was "discovered."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"A Christmas Carol" with Alistair Sim (1951)

As we ramp our way up towards Christmas, I always take the time to pause and really enjoy this old film. I have reviewed it here before, so any other words would be superfluous on my part. Here is my review from last year;

This is the cream of the Christmas movie crop. The one I look forward to every year. The 1951 British version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" will stand the test of time as the penultimate version of this tale. With flawless direction by Brian Desmond Hurst, this well known story of a miserly Counting House owner, and the effects his mean spirit have on all those around him, come alive with the incredible acting of Alistair Sim. No one comes close to portraying the mean spiritness of Scrooge, as well as his unbounded joy upon his redemption, as well as Mr. Sim.

Noel Langley did a wonderful job of turning one of the very best Christmas books into a faithful adaptation for the screen. The 1935 British version, as well as the later American version, both lacked that indefineable something which makes any artistic endeavor worth the effort in the first place. And the movie has been done several times since, but this is the version I would choose over any other.

Britain, at the time this movie was filmed, was still in the throes of the aftermath of the Second World War. They were still using ration books for food and sweets, as well as gasoline. Remember, the British took a hell of a hit before we joined the war in December of 1941. I mention this only as a possible explanation for the remaking of this film in the first place.

When I watch this film I tend to think of the Three Spirits as being allegories for what Britain had been before the war, what she endured during that war, and her hopes for a better future. Simplistic? Maybe.

I also watch this film with a copy of the book by my side. It's so loyal to the original prose, that there are whole pages where you can read along with the movie. It's then that you see, and feel, the brilliance of Mr. Sim's remarkable performance. To have the ability to act out the words, just as the author intended, is a joy to watch. I have to wonder what Charles Dickens would have thought of Mr. Sim's giddy version of Scrooge on Christmas morning. I suspect that he would deem it perfect.

Of course, no version of "A Christmas Carol" would be complete without a good Jacob Marley, and to that end this film gives us Michael Hordern as Scrooge's deceased partner. And he does a credible job as the Ghost of Marley. This scene used to scare the hell out of me when I was a kid. Now, I am more focused on what he is saying, "Mankind WAS our business!", as he shakes the shackles that bind him. Here is that scene, courtesy of good ol' You Tube;

If I had only one holiday movie to choose from, this would be it. The lessons penned by Dickens so many years ago, still resonate today, when the world is still full of Ignorance and Want, mankinds two worst enemies. I didn't say it - Dickens did. I just happen to agree.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Christmas Tree from "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" by Betty Smith

This is from my favorite book ever written, "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" by Betty Smith. I actually keep extra copies on hand to give away. This text is from the 1943 Harper & Brothers 5th Edition. To me, this portion of the book represents something which lies beyond each of our exteriors; the true essence of who we are as individuals; in this case it is the "tree man", who is emblematic of us all; both wanting to give more, yet keenly aware of our own need to survive what is, indeed at times, “...a God-damned, rotten, lousy world!” All the more reason to give what you can to those in need during this holiday season.

There was a cruel custom in the neighborhood. It was about the trees still unsold when midnight of Christmas Eve approached. There was a saying that if you waited until then, you wouldn’t have to buy a tree; that “they’d chuck ‘em at you.” This was literally true.

At midnight on the Eve of our dear Saviour's birth, the kids gathered where there were unsold trees. The man threw each tree in turn, starting with the biggest. Kids volunteered to stand up against the throwing. If a boy didn’t fall down under the impact, the tree was his. If he fell, he forfeited his chance at winning a tree. Only the roughest boys and some of the young men elected to be hit by the big trees. The others waited shrewdly until a tree came up that they could stand against. The littlest kids waited for the tiny, foot-high trees and shrieked in delight when they won one.

On the Christmas Eve when Francie was ten and Neely nine, mama consented to let them go down and have their first try for a tree. Francie had picked out her tree earlier in the day. She had stood near it all afternoon and evening praying that no one would buy it. To her joy it was still there at midnight. It was the biggest tree in the neighborhood and its price was so high that no one could afford to buy it. It was ten feet high. Its branches were bound with new white rope and it came to a sure pure point at the top.

The man took this tree out first. Before Francie could speak up, a neighborhood bully, a boy of eighteen known as Punky Perkins, stepped forward and ordered the man to chuck the tree at him. The man hated the the way Punky was so confident. He looked around and asked;

”Anybody else wanna take a chanct on it?”

Francie stepped forward. “Me, Mister.”

A spurt of derisive laughter came from the tree man. The kids snickered. A few adults who had gathered to watch the fun, guffawed.

“Aw g’wan. You’re too little,” the tree man objected.

“Me and my brother — we’re not too little together.”

She pulled Neely forward. The man looked at them — a thin girl of ten with starveling hollows in her cheeks but with the chin still baby-round. He looked at the little boy with his fair hair and round blue eyes - Neeley Nolan, all innocence and trust.

"Two ain't fair," yelped Punky.

"Shut your lousy trap," advised the man who held all the power in that hour. “These here kids is got nerve. Stand back, the rest of youse. These kids is goin’ to have a show at this tree.”

The others made a wavering lane. Francie and Neeley stood at one end of it and the big man with the big tree at the other. It was a human funnel with Francie and her brother making the small end of it. The man flexed his great arms to throw the great tree. He noticed how tiny the children looked at the end of the short lane. For the split part of a moment, the tree thrower went through a kind of Gethsemane.

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” his soul agonized, “why don’t I just give ‘em the tree, say Merry Christmas and let ‘em go. What’s the tree to me? I can’t sell it no more this year and it won’t keep till next year." The kids watched him solemnly as he stood there in his moment of thought. "But then," he rationalized, if I did that, all the others would expect to get 'em handed to 'em. And next year nobody a-tall would buy a tree off of me. They’d all wait to get ‘em handed to ‘em on a silver plate. I ain’t a big enough man to give this tree away for nothin’. No, I ain't big enough. I ain't big enough to do a thing like that. I gotta think of myself and my own kids." He finally came to his conclusion. "Oh, what the hell! Them two kids is gotta live is this world. They got to get used to it. They got to learn to give and take punishment. And by Jesus, it ain’t give but take, take, take all the time in this God-damned world.” As he threw the tree with all his strength, his heart wailed out, “It’s a God-damned, rotten, lousy world!”

Francie saw the tree leave his hands. There was a split bit of being when time and space had no meaning. The whole world stood dark and still as something dark and monstrous came through the air. The tree came towards her blotting out all memory of her having lived. There was nothing – nothing but pungent darkness and something that grew and grew as it rushed at her. She staggered as the tree hit them. Neeley went down to his knees but she pulled him up fiercely before he could go down. There was a mighty swishing sound as the tree settled. Everything was dark, green and prickly. Then she felt a sharp pain at the side of her head where the trunk of the tree had hit her. She felt Neeley trembling.

When some of the older boys pulled the tree away, they found Francie and her brother standing upright, hand in hand. Blood was coming from scratches on Neeley’s face. He looked more like a baby than ever with his bewildered blue eyes and the fairness of his skin made more noticeable because of the clear red blood. But they were smiling. Had they not won the biggest tree in the neighborhood? Some of the boys hollered “Hooray!” A few adults clapped. The tree man eulogized them by screaming,

“And now get the hell out of here with your tree, you lousy bastards.”

Francie had heard swearing since she had heard words. Obscenity and profanity had no meaning as such among those people. They were emotional expressions of inarticulate people with small vocabularies; they made a kind of dialect. The phrases could mean many things according to the expression and tone used in saying them. So now, when Francie heard themselves called lousy bastards, she smiled tremulously at the kind man. She knew that he was really saying, Goodbye – God bless you.”

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy Chanukah!

Happy Chanukah! Tonight is the first of eight nights of celebration commemorating the Miracle of the Lights. Literally, Chanukah means a re-dedication. This always takes place on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. The story behind the holiday is, of course, like Christmas, biblical in it's origins. The actual events took place over 2,000 years ago in Judea amongst the Hebrew people of the time.

The Jews were the first mono-theists, that is, they were the first to believe in one God. To honor him they built a temple on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem. Inside were the scrolls of the Torah, which were housed in an Ark. That Ark stood on an Altar which also held a lamp of oil burning in God's honor. This was a symbol of the special relationship the Jews felt with their Creator.

At the same time as the Hebrew people were worshipping their God, Alexander the Great was busy conquering the entire Persian Empire, an area that includes present day Iran, Iraq and the surrounding states. Wherever Alexander the Great went he erected huge statues of the Greek idols. He also placed statues of himself in every important place to show that these countries were under his rule.

At first Alexander allowed the Jews to worship their God with little interference, but that soon came to an end. When the Jews were ordered to place a statue of Alexander the Great on Mt. Moriah, they were horrified! Alexander understood this and allowed the Jews an exemption to this rule, and grateful Jews everywhere named their first born sons Alexander in his honor.

When Alexander died, Antiochus came into power. He was an unforgiving and determined man, hell bent on putting the Jews in their place. He forbid the Jews to worship in their own way and outlawed the Sabbath. Things might have gone on in this way for a while longer had Antiochus not made one crucial mistake.

On the 25th of Kislev, he ordered his troops to bring a statue of Zeus to Mt. Moriah for placement inside of the temple. And then he did the unthinkable - he slaughtered a pig on the Altar, spraying the Torah with the blood of the animal as he did. He then set out in the countryside, erecting more statues and demanding that the people worship them. This was not to be.

A local villager named Mattathias, knocked the statues down and formed his 5 sons into a band of rebels he named the "Maccabees", which means hammer in Hebrew. Soon, more Jews joined Mattathias and his sons, attacking the soldiers and destroying the idols. Antiochus was in a full blown rage at this affront to his supremacy and gathered his army outside of Jerusalem, intent on destroying the Jews once and for all.

At dawn his troops attacked, and were ambushed by the waiting "Maccabees." The people took refuge in the Temple atop Mt. Moriah and repaired all the damage that Antiochus had done to the Altar. Three years later, on the same date, the 25th of Kislev, the Temple was re-dedicated to God. The only problem was, of course, a shortage of oil for the lamp. With a prayer, the Holy Priest poured one days oil into the lamp, and then prayed for the light to last until new oil could be obtained.

That one day's worth of oil burned for 8 days, sustaining the faith of a battered people. And that is why we commemorate this event every 25th of Kislev. There is miracle in light, as well as light in every miracle. Happy Chanukah to all!

Monday, December 19, 2011

"Holiday Affair" with Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh

This is another of those wonderful films which never gets the credit it deserves. It's also a repeat of last year's post on the same film.

In this Christmas tale, which takes place in the Manhattan of 1949, Janet Leigh plays a widowed mother of a 6 year old boy. She is a comparison shopper for a major department store. When she buys and then returns a set of trains, as part of her job, just before Christmas, she ignites a chain of events which involves not only her son, but also her impending marriage to a well to do attorney, whom she does not really love. In addition, when Steve, played by Robert Mitchum, does not report her covert activities to his boss, he is fired.

Finding himself homeless, and without any prospects, just in time for Christmas, he spends his last money, before leaving for the West Coast, to buy the trains for the boy. This causes some friction between the boy's mother and her fiancée, which threatens their relationship. The boy, knowing that Steve is broke, returns the trains in order to provide him with some money before he leaves New York.

The fiancée senses the feelings that have arisen between Steve and his intended bride, and graciously backs off, but Steve is unwilling to claim the love which he has won. He feels that he has been battling not only the fiancée for her affections, but also the memory of her deceased husband, a battle he cannot hope to win unless she is willing to let go of the past.

Robert Mitchum is in rare form in this romantic holiday film. Fans of Janet Leigh will be surprised at just how young she was in 1949, when this film was made. Yet within 5 years she would be one of the hottest "properties" in Hollywood, starring in several Alfred Hitchcock films, and married to Tony Curtis, a union which would give birth to actress Jamie Lee Curtis.

With many uncredited character actors to round out the cast, smart direction and a witty script give this film the momentum it needs to push it through. The storyline is ably written and still applicable to today's relationships involving "non-traditional" families. A good holiday film on several levels, yet often forgotten amongst the myriad of films available at this time of year, I dust this one off each Christmas for inspiration.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

"The Thin Man" with William Powell and Myrna Loy

This was first posted last December - can you tell I'm taking it easy this month?

Looking for a good Christmas movie with a little bit of a twist? Look no further than this one. "The Thin Man" is one of those "whodunits" that seldom get made these days. William Powell, impeccably dressed, as always, plays Nick Charles, a former playboy-detective who marries Myrna Loy, who plays Nora Charles, his wife. He has retired from the "detecting" business in order to "keep an eye on my wife's money."

When Mr. and Mrs. Charles arrive in New York just in time for the holidays, the last thing on their minds is to become involved in solving the murder of an old friend, Professor Wynatt. But with the press hounding him, and a wife who wants to see her famous husband in action, there is not much hope in evading the inevitable, as Mr. Charles drinks his way to solving the crime.

Loaded with character actors, the faces of whom you will instantly recognize, the film is fast paced and the dialogue witty. Nick and Nora are perfect as they romp their way through the holidays, culminating their investigation with an elegant dinner party, during which the killer is finally exposed. With the case wrapped up in time for New Years Eve, the couple happily boards the train for the return trip to San Francisco, and their next escapade.

Long the most admired of the many duos who have played the part of Nick and Nora, both in Hollywood and on TV, William Powell and Myrna Loy have that certain screen chemistry that will make you think they are really married. And with a script based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, what more could you ask for.

Here's one of the early scenes in the film;

Friday, December 16, 2011

Two Degrees - One Night

Sarah Ruth Hoffman received her hard earned Master's Degree in Human Nutrition last evening. The ceremony took place at Winthrop University in South Carolina, where Sarah has been studying for over 5 years. Both Sue and I are very proud of her, and her brother Shane, as well, who also received his degree in Applied Physics this evening in Texas. So, it was kind of like when the kids were in Little League in 2 different counties. Sue and I would pass one another when we got home from work and then go separate ways to separate games.

These two degrees made me think of that part in "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn", when Katie realizes that her children will go further than she has. It's a milestone moment when you realize that your children are now better educated than yourself.

Sue and I had to do a little bit of "family planning", so to speak, to pull it off. Sue got to go to Texas and be with Shane for his graduation, as well as see the grandkids, while I got to stay home and be here for Sarah's ceremony. It was a pretty good night either way, and we are tremendously proud of both the kids for going the "distance."

On the way home I compared my own life, as well as Sue's, at their ages, 24 and 34, respectively. It would appear that they now have more options than Sue and I did at those same times in our lives. And that's a good thing, as it means they are moving in the right direction. Sometimes you get to live your own dreams through the accomplishments of your children. Thanks, Sarah and Shane, for making our dreams a reality.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Gift Wrapped" with Tweety and Sylvester (1951)

This cartoon is a perfect example of the change that came to animation in the 1950's. Aside from the cheaper cost of production, the subject matter became cheaper as well. If you watch any of the older cartoons from Christmas in the 1930's, and then compare them to the ones from the 1950's, it's impossible to ignore the changes. This is actually a Christmas cartoon, yet Tweety and Sylvester are kicking the crap out of one another! Don't get me wrong, I find the cartoon amusing, or I wouldn't be posting it. But you can't help but wonder how these cartoons affected society in general, as a whole generation grew up; me included; for the first time, in front of TV's, watching cartoons like this. Joy to the World!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Howard Fast On Ebooks - Into the Digital Age

I don't usually endorse any sort of product on this site. I generally stick to reviews of books, movies, and music, as well as telling some stories. But today's release of Howard Fast in e-book fashion by Open Road Media is an exception to the rule. Why? Because Howard Fast is an icon of American literature. If you are unfamiliar with Howard Fast, and his work, here is your chance to correct that oversight.

Although I am, by nature, and age, a devotee of the printed word, it gives me such pleasure to see that many of our greatest American classics are beginning to find their way into the digital age. Written works, by authors such as Mr. Fast, define who we are, and where we have been. Each book is its own lesson. What a pity it would be to have lost all of Mr. Fast's work to technological changes. I still have a paperback copy of "April Morning", which I treasure as a link to my childhood, and the wonderful teacher who opened my eyes to the artistry of Howard Fast. Her name was Mrs. Denslow. I can't help but wonder what she would have thought about e-books.

Howard Fast, as you will learn from the video, was one of the most prolific of American writers. In 1950 he was sentenced to 3 months in prison for refusing to answer questions during the McCarthy hearings. Rather than waste his time in jail, he wrote "Spatacus." That should tell you a whole lot about Howard Fast, and why it is so important that his works be preserved. The following materials, as well as the video, were provided by Ms. Laura DeSilva at Open Road Media in marking this special ocassion.

Sixty-three Titles by New York Times Bestselling Author Howard
Fast Launching as Ebooks from Open Road Media

"The only thing that infuriates me, is that I have more unwritten stories in me than I can conceivably write in a lifetime." —Howard Fast

Sixty-three titles by Howard Fast (1914­­–2003), one of the most prolific American writers of the twentieth century, will be released as ebooks by Open Road Integrated Media in December. Open Road will publish both fiction and nonfiction during a three-stage rollout.

Howard Fast, the best selling author of more than eighty works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and screenplays, grew up in New York City and published his first novel upon finishing high school in 1933. In 1950, his refusal to provide the United States Congress with a list of possible Communist associates earned him a three-month prison sentence, along with a place on the blacklist of several major publishers. During his incarceration, Fast wrote one of his best-known novels, Spartacus (1951), and went on to found his own press, Blue Heron, in order to release the work. Throughout his long career, Fast matched his commitment to championing social justice in his writing with a deft, lively storytelling style. His collection of bestselling novels such as Conceived in Liberty, Citizen Tom Paine, April Morning, and The Legacy illustrate themes of freedom and human rights in a time of turbulence and global war.

On December 13, 2011, nineteen titles—including April Morning—will be released. In April Morning, on the eve of the American Revolution, the Battle of Lexington and Concord changes a boy’s life—and a nation’s history—forever. Sweeping in scope and masterful in execution, this novel is a classic of American fiction and an unforgettable story of one community’s fateful struggle for freedom. The Incredible Tito, Fast’s fascinating biography of Joseph Broz, known to the world as Tito, including his rise to power and his remarkable stand against fascism, will be offered to readers as a free download.

On December 20, nineteen mysteries by Howard Fast writing as E. V. Cunningham will be released as ebooks. These include the Masao Masuto mysteries, beginning with The Case of the Angry Actress, starring detective Masuto, a second-generation Japanese-American, Buddhist homicide detective. Other titles include such female-centered works as Phyllis, Sally, and others.

On December 27, twenty-five titles will complete Open Road Media's Howard Fast ebook collection. Three of these are from Fast's much-loved Immigrants series, an immensely popular saga that spanned six novels and over a century of the Lavette family’s story. Of this series, Open Road will release The Legacy, The Immigrant's Daughter, and An Independent Woman. Two of the nonfiction titles—The Art of Zen Meditation, in which Fast offers readers a simple, straightforward introduction to Zen meditation, which had a profound influence on his writing and personal philosophy; and Spain and Peace, a 1951 pamphlet that contains a powerful denunciation of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco—will be offered as free downloads.

Extra content includes:

• Behind-the-scenes author commentary and videos at
• An illustrated biography in each ebook, including previously unseen photographs and documents from Fast’s personal life and distinguished career.

Monday, December 12, 2011

"Murder In the First Class Carriage" by Kate Colquhoun

If you have ever read a British "whodunit" by Agatha Christie, or if you enjoy movies such as "The Lady Vanishes", then this is the book for you. Painstakingly researched, and written in the manner of a good murder-mystery, this book grabs your attention on page one, and keeps you reading, looking for the one clue that will solve the mystery of just who murdered Thomas Briggs, an elderly banker travelling alone on the North London Railway in 1864. Mr. Briggs was a punctual man, bankers generally are, and when he did not return home at the expected time, his family knew that something was wrong. How right they were.

There had never been a murder on a British train before July 9th, 1864, and the crime galvanized the nation. Scotland Yard sent their best detectives to solve the case, as well as assuage the public's concern. This was a new type of crime, one that would affect even the wealthiest of citizens. Travelling in First Class was not as safe as one would suppose. British trains back then did not have a common interior passageway, you boarded from the outside and the conductor locked the door from the outside. You were, in effect, in solitary confinement for the distance between stations. That is where Mr. Briggs was killed, between stations.

With no real forensics to go by; fingerprinting and blood typing were still a bit in the future; the case is baffling to the police, while the public clamors for the murderer to be brought to justice. At this point, Inspector Tanner of the Metropolitan Police Force is placed in charge of the case and quickly has a suspect. The alleged killer turns out to be a German man named Franz Muller. Employed as a tailor, Mr. Muller made his living by travelling from country to country, plying his trade. This was not unusual at the time. The sewing machine had just been invented a little over a decade earlier, and tailors were in great demand.

What really makes this book is the fact that it marks the first time a killer is pursued across the ocean, by ship, to America. Making it even better is the technology that came into play in order to make the arrest. Muller left for America within a few days of the murder. During that time he pawned a watch chain which had belonged to the victim. He used the proceeds to purchase a different chain and a ring, which he proceeded to show off. He then sailed for America aboard a sailing vessel. Detective Tanner, after developing his case, set sail on a steam powered vessel, intending to beat him to New York, where he would be awaiting Müller’s' arrival with Extradition papers in hand. Against the backdrop of the American Civil War, he was able to obtain the necessary documents to bring Muller back to England for trial.

Back in England, with the suspect on trial for murder, the Prosecution relied on mostly circumstantial evidence to convict, and then execute, Franz Muller for the murder of Thomas Briggs. The verdict was mainly reached due to an indentation on the victim’s hat, by a thumb, which kind of matched that of the accused.

Was Mr. Muller really guilty? I'm not sure; you will have to decide for yourself. Full of high drama and suspense, this book will have you wondering about progress, and its effect upon justice, both then, and now.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bugs Bunny - "A Christmas Carol"

I wanted to do something a bit different for Christmas season this year, and so I've been running some old cartoons, here and there, throughout the month. They're all related to Christmas is some way, and you may recognize one or two from when you were a kid and the magic of Christmas was still real. In other words; before you had to pay for it!

Cynicism aside, this cartoon is, of course, based upon the Charles Dickens novel "A Christmas Carol", and so we present this version, courtesy of You Tube, with our apologies to Mr. Dickens. At the same time, these old cartoons did send some us in search of the real thing at the library. If you've got a grandkid around for the holidays, sit down and watch this with them. They'll remember it long after you're gone. And, in the bargain, they just might find their way to reading the book later on.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"All I Want For Christmas Is You" by Vince Vance and the Valiants

This is one of the great contemporary Christmas songs. There aren't too many out there, this one is from 1993. It's a bit reminiscent of "Blue Christmas" by Elvis, but with horns. It's also the first original Christmas song that Sue and I were able to share after we were married that held no connection to the past. That kinda makes it our Christmas song. I don't think the group lasted as long as we have, but I'll have to check on that. Here is a link to the group's website;

Friday, December 9, 2011

"Peace On Earth" (1939)

Okay, getting back, as promised, to some seasonal cartoons, this one was released around the time that Germany invaded Poland, which marked the beginning of World War Two. The memory of the First World War was still fresh in everyone's minds in 1939, and this cartoon carried a very clear message about the ravages of war and the associated consequences. Beautiful animation, and clear, crisp sound quality make this cartoon a real pleasure to watch. From it's opening number, "Peace On Earth", this is a perfect cartoon for the season. Grab the grandkids for this one!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"Dirty Old Town" by Ewan MacColl (1949) as Performed by The Pougues

I first heard of this group while watching an episode of "Rescue Me". The video is stunning, in that it reflects the Ireland we have all read about in the McCourt brother's books, from "Angela's Ashes" and "Teacher Man" by Frank McCourt, to Malachy McCourt's "A Monk Swimming". The Ireland depicted in those books is evident in this wonderfully poignant song about resignation and rebellion. The visual effect of the lead singer, lends credence to the hard life which the McCourt Brothers both reference in their respective memoirs.

The song speaks of a working class youngster enamored of his true love and the town in which they met. He finds beauty in both. Yet, another part of him longs for something better; not only for himself, but also for his true love.

The song was made popular by The Dubliners, and most people tend to think of the song in regards to Ireland. In fact, though, the song was written by Mr. MacColl in reference to the Northern English industrial town of Salford, which is located in Lancashire. The line "Smelled a spring on the smoky wind" was originally written as "..a Salford wind", which did little to endear the song to the town council, who then persuaded Mr. MacColl to change the lyric.

In Ireland the song is thought to be about Dublin. Most listeners, particularly those in England, are surprised to hear that the song was written by a man from Lancashire, who was also of Scottish descent. Reminiscent in a way of "Factory Girl", by the Rolling Stones, this is a truly moving song.

"Dirty Old Town" by Ewan MacColl (1949)

I met my love by the gas works wall
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
I Kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town
Dirty old town

Clouds are drifting across the moon
Cats are prowling on their beat
Spring's a girl from the streets at night
Dirty old town
Dirty old town

I Heard a siren from the docks
Saw a train set the night on fire
I Smelled the spring on the smoky wind
Dirty old town
Dirty old town

I'm gonna make me a big sharp axe
Shining steel tempered in the fire
I'll chop you down like an old dead tree
Dirty old town
Dirty old town

I met my love by the gas works wall
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
I kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town
Dirty old town
Dirty old town
Dirty old town

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Rosanne Cash in Charlotte

Sue and I went to see, and hear, Rosanne Cash last night in Charlotte. This performance was not part of a tour, she was in Asheville to speak at a Women's Conference and has never played Charlotte before. She was very well received, and a bit surprised at the warm reception. I have been a fan since 1981, and her work has never failed to leave me inspired, and also somewhat introspective. This is not just Johnny Cash's daughter; Rosanne Cash is an artist in her own right. Since having hit the charts with "Seven Year Ache" in 1981, Ms. Cash has had quite a career, inspiring her listeners with such gems as the album "Kings Record Shop", as well as 2009's release of "The List", which was inspired by her father’s making a list of the most important 100 songs in American music.

The video of "Seven Year Ache", above, is taken from her appearance, along with Lacey J. Dalton, Emmylou Harris, Gail Davies, and Pam Rose for a PBS broadcast in 1986. Below is a recent performance of the same song at Harro East in Rochester, N.Y. on September 16th of this year. That's Ms. Cash's husband John Leventhal on guitar, just as he was last night for the entire performance, helping to turn every song into a new experience, and playing a very varied playlist of songs from her past few albums, "Black Cadillac" and "The List".

Opening for Ms. Cash was the bluegrass duo from Chapel Hill, "Mandolin Orange", composed of singer-songwriter Andrew Marlin, and violinist/vocalist/guitarist Emily Frantz. They were a tremendous surprise, with Mr. Marlin pulling forth vocals that even had Ms. Cash amazed.

When they were through, Ms. Cash took the stage and promptly got right down to business, regaling the audience with all of their favorites, such as the 1985 Grammy winning "I Don't Know Why You Don't Want Me", "My Baby Thinks He's A Train", and of course "Seven Year Ache". With 11 # 1 singles to her credit as well as 21 Top 40 hits and 2 Gold Records, she is well established as an entertainer.

Accompanied throughout by her husband, John Leventhal, she proved, once again last night, that she still has the grace and charm to beguile an audience. Of course she did "Tennessee Flat Top Box", one of her father's signature songs, to the delight of all the fans in attendance. With some special treatment on the guitar by Mr. Levanthal, that song was one of the many highlights of the evening’s performance.

Another show stopper was Ms. Cash and Mr. Leventhal's treatment of Bobby Gentry's 1967 hit recording "Ode to Billie Joe", which they turned into something hot and sultry, while still retaining the integrity of the original recording. "Motherless Children" and "I'm Moving On" were both equally surprising in their presentations.

The entire show lasted several hours or so. For an encore Ms. Cash returned to the stage and did "Girl From the North Country", referencing her Dad's version from his iconic album, "Nashville Skyline". Nobody left disappointed. With her wry sense of humor, and crystal clear voice containing all of the strength of her father, while still conveying her own unique style; how could they?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Andy Griffith Show - "A Christmas Story" (1960)

This is one of my favorite TV Christmas "episodes". It's from the Andy Griffith Show and was aired during the first season in 1960. It's really worth the time to watch. The story is not unlike Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" in some ways, while also reminiscent of O.Henry's "The Cop and the Anthem", in which the main character, "Soapy", tries everything in his power to get arrested in order to avoid spending the winter on the streets. Ironically, he is finally arrested and sent to prison for something he did not do.

In this wonderful Christmas episode, Sam, a local family man, played by Samuel Muggins, is caught by a local businessman, Ben Weaver, played by Will Wright, making moonshine for Christmas Eve. Just as Andy and Barney have paroled all the prisoners and are getting ready to close the Courthouse for the holiday, Ben comes in with Sam, and the evidence, in tow, forcing Andy and Barney to keep the Courthouse open over Christmas. But there is more than one way to skin a cat, and Ben finds himself outside, looking in, until he comes up with a plan of his own. Though it may mean spending time in jail himself, he does manage to learn the meaning of the Christmas Spirit.

Monday, December 5, 2011

"Christmas Comes But Once A Year" by Max Fleischer (1936)

I thought I would post a few cartoons from Christmas past in the weeks leading up to the holiday. I always loved these old classic cartoons, and this one is a great example of the quality of the animation being produced in the 1930's. Max and Dave Fleischer were two of the best. They often worked separately on various projects, though their best works are probably the collaborations they produced with the Popeye cartoons. But this is a wonderful little story about an orphanage on Christmas morning. I hope that you enjoy it.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas

It's officially Christmas at our house. The tree is up, all credit, as usual, to Sue. The outside will get done tomorrow. Christmas is really special for us this year; like so many Americans, we're thankful for simply having gotten through the year intact. We're grateful for all that we have, and need, while mindful of the difference between "needing" and "wanting."

The tree, due to my allergies, is artificial. But the joy that Sue takes in putting it up, and then then the joy of seeing it lit up, are all very real to me. Let the festivities begin...

Saturday, December 3, 2011

"Kearny's March" by Winston Groom

Where do you start to review a book as expansive in its scope as this one? Winston Groom has taken 4 seemingly different events, and then woven them seamlessly together, presenting a full view of some of the events which eventually lead to the Civil War. It is, as a matter of fact, his contention that the Civil War began with the acquisition of Texas, and California, from Mexico at the end of the War with Mexico. The acquisition of these lands, including Oregon and Washington State, gave urgency to the resolution of the Abolitionist Movement sweeping America at the time. With the new territories the South would be larger and thus have more representation in Congress and the Senate. It was feared that slavery, often called "that peculiar institution", would go on forever.

James Polk was the first of our Presidents to really act on the idea of "Manifest Destiny", which is the belief that this continent was somehow reserved for Americans to settle. And we have; from "sea to shining sea"; done just that. But the remarkable story of how we got there is worth knowing.

In 1846 General Kearny set out for California from Kansas with two thousand soldiers. Their mission was to secure the borders of Oregon against any incursion by the British. The original line of demarcation was 54 degrees and 40 minutes North latitude. Eventually, without going to war with England, the line was set at 49 degrees North latitude, which allowed the British to keep Vancouver. It also secured the Northern half of California, which was too far from Mexico City to be governed effectively by the Mexican Government. At the same time, Mexico was broke after obtaining her freedom from Spain. She was not too concerned with Northern California. But she was very serious about not losing Texas to the United States. And she was prepared to fight for it.

It isn't too often that an author can make history come alive, but that is just what Mr. Groom has done in this sweeping saga of America's growth in the days before the Civil War. Readers of this book, who are students of that conflict, will come away with a much greater understanding of how we were unable to avoid that war, largely due to the acquisition of the new territories and all of the political jockeying which accompanied it. In an effort, on each side, to have it their way, these new territories became focal points of division, as well as examples of our growing power as a nation. To quote Dickens’, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

Peopled with such luminary characters such as Kit Carson, Daniel Boone, General Santa Anna, General Fremont, Brigham Young, the Donner Party, Zachary Taylor, and Jefferson Davis, this book delivers something new with the turn of each page. And though we all know the outcome before we even begin to read the book, Mr. Groom has pieced all the facts together in a lively and even entertaining way.

A good book compels the reader to stay up a few minutes more to read "just one more page." This book has you staying awake to "read just one more chapter." High praise, indeed.

Friday, December 2, 2011

"Stalag 17" with William Holden, Otto Preminger

This is a film that I associate with Christmas. It's not the warm and fuzzy type of Christmas movie you would normally expect. While I enjoy those types of films, and will be reviewing some of the classic ones as we near the holiday, I prefer the more unusual Christmas movies, the ones which explore the human condition more than the tinsel on the tree.

In this film the entire story takes place around the time of the holidays, only this time in a German POW Camp, Stalag 17. The time is less than 2 weeks before Christmas of 1944. In this 1953 film directed by Billy Wilder, fellow Director Otto Preminger plays Commandant Klink of Stalag 17, a POW Camp located somewhere in Germany. He is pure Nazi, right to the bone. They couldn't have picked a better actor. The film is based entirely upon the Broadway play of the same name, in which Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck, who play the roles of Harry Shapiro and "Animal", appeared. They are both excellent in this screen adaptation.

Someone in the barracks at Stalag 17 is a stoolie. Several men have already died attempting escapes. No one knows who it is, but everyone suspects it to be Sgt. Sefton, played by William Holden, a shrewd black market trader who has fresh eggs for breakfast while his fellow prisoners subsist on gruel. He is not very well liked. He flouts his wealth, mocking the others as "saps."

Overseeing the entire barracks is Sgt. Schultz, (if you're thinking of "Hogan's Hero's", forget it. In this film, Klink and Schultz are both real Nazi's, with no shred of honor, or humor. This is a drama.) He is a cruel and calculating man who masquerades as the men's "friend", but his real purposes are sinister and without merit.

When the men in the barracks gang up on Sefton, and beat him, thinking he is the stoolie, they set off a chain of events which leads to the discovery of the real mole, on Christmas Eve, just in time for a planned escape by several of the prisoners. With the holiday only hours away, someone is about to pay for those who have died, while others are on their way to freedom.

A real surprise twist at the end makes this an excellent film at any time of the year. But now, as Christmas approaches,, the film is somehow more poignant, as we watch these men struggle with their burdens, each one bearing their individual cross, during a time of year which normally holds joy for most.

This film won the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in 1954 for William Holden, who initially refused the part. In addition it also won Nominations for Best Supporting Actor for Robert Strauss, as well as a Nomination for Best Director for Billy Wilder. If you've never seen this one, check it out. Here is a clip from one of the lighter moments in the film;

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Richard's Coffee Shop - Mooresville

When I first came to live in North Carolina, about 13 years ago, I got a job working in the town of Mooresville as an Estimator for a local construction company, which was my stock in trade at the time. The office in which I worked was located around the corner from Pat's Gourmet Coffee Shop, where I would sometimes stop in and get something to drink. I noticed that there were always groups of Veterans hanging around the place. Kind of like the malt shop in "Happy Days", only with an older crowd. There was a guest book to sign identifying all of the Veterans in the area who had passed through the shop. I gladly added my name to the list. The place was a mixture between a coffee house and a museum. The history of Pat's Coffee Shop is all on this card to the left. When Richard passed away a few years ago, I naturally thought that this was the end of a very unique place. Quietly, I mourned its passing.

But that was before this year’s 67th Annual Town of Mooresville Thanksgiving Day Parade. I was perambulating down Main Street, kind of walking the parade route, when I spotted a shop I had not seen before. It was like a cross between an antique store and a coffee shop. I was intrigued enough to walk in, and very pleased at what I saw. The whole place is filled to bursting with old uniforms, medals, and the walls are covered with photographs from every conflict since World War One through the current conflicts in the Middle East. All age groups are represented here, and there is a sense of brotherhood in the air as you walk about. It's like coming home.

Apparently, after Richard moved on to his next assignment, his friends and acquaintances from the coffee shop, decided to do what most Veterans do best; carry on. So, they opened a new place, across the street, about 1 block down, naming it "Welcome Home Veterans". It's not a coffee shop anymore, but instead it has been lovingly transformed into a place for the area's Veterans to come and talk, read, and drink coffee. There is always a fresh pot on. Mornings are the busiest, it seems that most of the guys still hear Reveille and respond accordingly. And, as stated on the hand out, the shop also serves as a place for local music on Saturdays, featuring Veterans, and non- Veterans alike, picking and grinnin'. It didn't take too much courage on my part to join the Navy so many years ago. I wasn't doing much else worthwhile. And joining the service opened up the entire world to me. I spent the better part of 10 years roaming around, seeing all the things I had only read of previously. As far as I'm concerned, they did me a favor letting me in. Now, if I can just muster up the courage to haul one of my guitars down there next Saturday.....