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Substantially Similar--A Blog on IP Issues, Writing and Film

Leading Actors as They Grow Old

by John Aquino on 01/12/19

I have long been fascinated by the decisions leading men in films must make as they grow older. More recent examples are Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis, both of whom have evidently decided to continue to play action heroes, albeit older ones, in sequels and remakes. Two who had to make the same decisions 40 years ago are, in my opinion, great actors: Marlon Brando and Richard Burton. And I also want to address an experience of viewing films performances by older actors--specifically Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper--who had delivered wonderful comedy performances when they were younger, abandoned comedy in mid-life, and tackled it again, however briefly, when they were older.

Brando and Burton were born a year apart. By 1968, the 43-year-old Burton was in the midst of a string of successful and critically well received films--The V.I.P.s (1963), Becket (1964), The Night of the Iguana (1964), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), Who''s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), and Where Eagles Dare (1968)--for which he received three Academy Award nominations, while the 44-year-old Brando, who had had a similar number of successes in the 1950s, was struggling with middle age and an uneven series of recent films--Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), The Ugly American (1962), Bedtime Story (1964), Morituri (1965), The Chase (1966) The Appaloosa (1966), A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). 

In 1968, both actors appeared eager to deliberately break away from their younger roles. In 1968, they both appeared, in separate segments, in Candy, a film version of Terry Southern's satiric novel of a young woman encountering a series of male lovers. Brando, who had just appeared with Burton's wife, Elizabeth Taylor, in Reflections, agreed to make the film as a favor to the director and asked Burton to do it too. It was an all-star effort and, in a way, much like the 1960s tv series Batman in which stars took on brief cameos just to be part of a satiric hit. Brando parodied himself, playing a lascivious guru, and Burton parodied both himself and his late friend, the poet Dylan Thomas, as a drunken poet on the prowl. Candy was critically savaged, but made $16 million against a $3 mllion production budget. Brando went from Candy to three unusual and unsuccessful films. In The Night of the Following Day (1969), an eccentric kidnapping film, Brando disparaged it during and after filming and it was heavily censored on release. Today, it has a quirky energy, and Brando, who later in life would get quite fat, appears remarkably think and even lithe as one of the kidnappers. In his next film, Burn! (1969), Brando took on the part of the real-life mercenary Sir William Walker, who instigates a slave revolt on the Caribbean island of Queimada in order to improve British sugar trade. It was an unglamorous role. The socially-conscious Brando accepted the part because the U.S. was in the midst of the Vietnam war, and he saw the film as a commentary on involvements in the affairs of other countries. The director, Gillo Pontecorvo, was Italian, and the film was released in a U.S. and a longer Italian version. It was a troubled shoot, and United Artists heavily edited the film for U.S. distribution. Burn! wasn't a success, but Brando later said it contained the best acting he had ever done on film. He followed Burn! with The Nightcomers (1971), another unusual choice in that it was a prequel to Henry James' ghost story "The Turn of the Screw" that took on the task of telling the tale of where the ghosts in James' story came from. Portraying a brutish man named Quint who seduces a prim schoolteacher, distracting her from the precocious children in her care with tragic results, the film failed at the box office, although, once again, Brando liked it. The next year, the 48-year old Brando finally regained success by playing a middle-aged Mafia don in The Godfather. He sought out the role and auditioned, and the film was a mammoth hit. He garnered generally excellent reviews and won the Academy Award for best actor, although he declined the award.  He next shook up his image even more by appearing as a man in his 40s who is having an affair with a younger woman in the sexually-explicit and extremely controversial Last Tango in Paris (1972).

For his part, after Candy, Burton in 1969 took on the lead in Tony Richardson's film version of Vladmir Nabokov's novel Laughter in the Dark. Richardson had directed Burton to great acclaim in Look Back in Anger (1959) and the 1960 BBC television drama A Subject of Scandal and Concern. Much in demand, Burton was often late to the set. After two weeks, Richardson, who had won the Academy Award as best director for Tom Jones (1963), fired Burton on Burton's yacht after an argument about the actor's tardiness and then had to beg Burton to have someone take him back to shore. The recast film received mixed reviews, was not a success, and was the start of Richardson's critical decline as a director. Burton then went to an unconventional role: this well-known cinematic and actual Casanova played a prissy homosexual lover of the more flamboyant  Rex Harrison, also a well-publicized lothario, in Staircase. Regarded as a stunt, the film bombed at the box office and Harrison is said to have hated it. But it was critically well received. I remember to this day a review in the New Yorker in which the critic said that if any student actor wanted to know what a subtext is he or she should see Burton's performance in Staircase. The basis for this critical observation is that Burton was an actor who actually listened when other actors spoke. You can see it in his eyes. I read a recollection by the director of King John at the Stratford Playhouse in England in which Burton played Faulconbridge, the bastard son of Richard the Lionhearted. The director thought it would be interesting to have Burton remain on the stage throughout the play and serve as a choric figure, the audience's eyes and ears, its surrogate. The director found out very quickly that the audience was looking at Burton and not the other actors. Burton wasn't doing anything to upstage them. He was listening to them, and he was such a riveting presence that the audience couldn't take its eyes off him. The director decided to abandon this approach and bring Burton onstage only when the script required. Although it was daring and controversial then, Staircase today is a dated and even stereotypical look at homosexuality. But it's an example of Burton trying to break the mold and push the acting envelope.

Burton quickly reverted to the more conventional, for him, playing Henry VIII in Anne of a Thousand Days (1969). It was relatively undemanding, again, for him, but his performance won him his sixth Academy Award nomination. He lost to John Wayne for his performance as a one-eyed western fat man in True Grit. Wayne. The pair had a bet that the loser would buy drinks, and the two went on a legendary bar hop afterwards at Wayne's expense. In 1970, Burton tried comedy with a turn on Lucille Ball's tv show Here's Lucy playing himself and was surprisingly funny. Burton then alternated several serviceable war movies with three film that pushed the envelope, one that returned to what was conventional for him, and two that pushed the envelope backwards. He played a cockney gangster in Villain (1971), a bloody British crime movie in the same vein as Get Carter. For those who sometimes complained Burton relied on his remarkable voice too much, here he employs a rasping, snarling cockney accent throughout, and it's startling not to hear his melodic tones. He stays in character, he envelopes the character. The film was very successful in Europe but had limited release in the U.S. He reverted to type again with a film version of his friend Dylan Thomas' radio play Under Milk Wood in which he had participated for the BBC. As a play for voices, it really didn't need to be filmed, but Burton read the First Voice and also financed the movie so that his friend's legacy could reach a wider audience. He then worked for two famous directors in atypical parts. He starred in Joseph Losey's The Assassination of Trotsky (1972). It seemed like a good bet. The film had Losey, an all-star cast, and a sensational subject--the murder of Leon Trotsky, Stalin's rival who was living in exile in Mexico. But Trotsky is a passive figure whose main task is to be assassinated. Burton tempered his great voice and brimming emotion, which only seemed to cause Alain Delon, playing his assassin, to overact. Losey didn't push the movie forward, and it's really dull. The same year, Burton appeared in Hammersmith Is Out (1972) directed by the multi-talented Peter Ustinov that's a modern update of the Faust story with Burton playing the devil-figure. Burton seems on board in this black comedy just he had been with the farce of Here's Lucy. At a barbeque in a chef's outfit, he answers the question, "What's for dinner?" as the devil would: "Little baby pigs." But it's Ustinov who, like Losey, seems held back for some reason as if he's uncomfortable with the subject matter. For his third film in 1972, Bluebeard, Burton tried the horror genre, which turned out to be a giant step backward. He admitted that he pretty much tried to do an impersonation of horror-film-king Vincent Price. The idea of putting a charismatic romantic lead in a film with Raquel Welch, Virni Lisi, and other actresses that his character would kill off may have seemed an idea made in movie mogul heaven, but it quickly was assigned to the other place. In 1974, Burton reached the nadir, playing a southerner with a sporadic accent opposite Lee Marvin in The Klansman, directed by Terrence Young of James Bond fame. It was one of a string of 70's films dealing with race that was dated before it was released. Burton and Marvin, both heavy drinkers, claimed later that they had never met each other.

And so, this period, in which these middle-aged actors tried to find new types of roles, ended with Burton down and Brando up. But Brando, who decided to work infrequently, made just 13 films over 30 years, from 1973 until his 2004 death, with only Superman (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), the comedies The Freshman (1990) and Don Juan DeMarco (1994), and his last film The Score (2001) standing out, along with a short segment in the tv series Roots: The Next Generation (1979) as the neo-Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell. Burton returned to the stage in Equus and a reprise of his 1960 hit Camelot, did a handful of movies including Equus (1978), which earned him his seventh and last Academy Award nomination with no wins, and died in 1984 after having completed a well-received performance in a credible movie version of George Orwell's novel 1984.

Both actors struggled to find new types of roles as they aged. They failed sometimes, and they succeeded sometimes. But saw the reason to try.

A Coda on Comedy. Brando essayed a few comedies in his career, successfully--Guys and Dolls, The Teahouse of the August Moon, and the two 1990s films listed earlier--and unsuccessfully--Bedtime Story and Countess from Hong Kong. Burton had fewer opportunities--just Green Grow the Rushes (1952) with future Bond girl Honor Blackman, the Here's Lucy episode, and Hammersmith. Two actors who started in films in the 1930s proved to be adept farceurs: Gary Cooper (Design for Living, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Bluebeard's Tenth Honeymoon, Ball of Fire) and Henry Fonda (The Mad Miss Marton, The Lady Eve, The Magnificent Dope, The Male Animal). They stopped making full-blown comedies after the war but had brief re-entries late in their careers.

Cooper at the age of 56 played an aging lothario who falls in love with a young cellist portrayed by Audrey Hepburn, who was 28, in Love in the Afternoon. The film made a profit, albeit a small one, and was nominated for a Golden Globe as best comedy. Cooper said afterwards that he was disappointed that all the reviews commented on the age discrepancy between the two leads because he had worked very hard on his performance and had enjoyed returning to comedy. I had the opportunity to talk to a Cooper family member and commented about his perfect comedic timing in the film. The relative said I was right about his timing but noted that Cooper's wife, agreeing with the critics, said he came across as a dirty old goat. It was Cooper's last comedy before he died in 1961. 

The issue of older actors having love scenes with significantly younger actresses came up often after World War II. Joel McCrea, who had starred in some classic screwball comedies in the 1940s, including Sullivan's Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and The More the Merrier (1943), stopped making comedies after 1944 because he felt he was too cold to play a romantic lead. He focused on westerns. Cary Grant kept making comedies through his 50s and got away with it because of his still youthful appearance. By Charade (1963), however, as he was turning 60, he insisted that Hepburn chase him rather than he her.  The 55-year old Humphrey Bogart received criticism similar to Cooper's for his role opposite Hepburn in Sabrina (1954) as did the 59-yer old Clark Gable for playing opposite Sophia Loren in It Started in Naples.  But Bogart evidenced expert comic timing comparable to Cooper's, Sabrina was a huge hit, and It Started in Naples received a Golden Globe nomination for best comedy. So the public liked what it saw.

Henry Fonda returned to films in 1955 and took roles in a series of dramas in which he mostly played men of stature and integrity. In 1962, he was a nominee for Secretary of State in Advise and Consent and Brig. General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. in The Longest Day. In 1964, he played the U.S. president in Fail Safe and a presidential nominee in The Best Man. The same year, he returned to comedy in Sex in the Single Girl.  The film was based on just the title of Helen Gurley Brown's advice book, with a satiric plot spun out of nothing by David R. Schwartz and Joseph Heller, who had written the great satiric novel Catch-22 three years earlier. Fonda later said he had accepted the part for the money and that it was the worst movie he had ever made. It's easy to see why he thought that. It's an atypical role from those Fonda had been taking. He plays a beaten-down, henpecked owner of a hosiery company whose devotion to his business has driven his wife to rage. His performance is effortless and assured. There's a scene where he leaves his house after a fight with his wife and interrupts a tete-a-tete between his neighbor Tony Curtis and his girlfriend. Fonda plops himself down distractedly in a chair. Concerned about his friend, Curtis asks his girlfriend to leave and gives her $20 for a cab, and she walks over to Fonda to say goodbye. "I gave," he says, looking blankly ahead. He bemoans how his competition is "slicing me up like a salami." At the end, Fonda joins the rest of the cast in a car chase on the Los Angeles freeway that puts the screwball comedies of the 1930s on wheels. The film itself may be a trifle, and Fonda evidently felt uncomfortable with his role, but he is the best thing in the movie. 

The life span at the time may have been the problem for Cooper, Bogart, McCrea, and Fonda. At the age of 60, Cooper looked like an old man. In 1999, at the age of 69, Sean Connery was a credible romantic lead opposte Catherine Zeta Jones, who was 39 years his junior, in Entrapment (1999), benefitting from the longer life span.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

Public Domain Faucet Is Open Again--But It's Just a Trickle

by John Aquino on 01/09/19

As of Jan. 1, 2019, works that were published in 1923 and protected by copyright are now in the public domain, which saw no activity for 20 years. This is good news,  but it really only accentuates the mistake that was made 20 years ago that shut the public domain faucet in the first place.

The U.S. Constitution grants authors the exclusive right to copy, publish, and derive income from their works for a "limited time" as established by Congress. After that time, those works fall into the public domain, which means the public, anyone, can publish or otherwise use the work without securing permission or having to pay a fee. This is why the novels of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Victor Hugo, and countless other celebrated authors whose copyrights have expired have been republished, posted on the Internet, and made into films, plays, and musicals so easily and freely. They became part of the world's culture. This cultural benefit might not have happened had authors been required to get the permission from and pay fees to the Dickens, Austen, and Hugo descendants or those to whom these families had sold copyrights that had lasted so long.

And yet, in 1998, as a result of intensive lobbying by the Disney Corporation and other companies and estates holding copyrights that were facing expiration, Congress passed the Sony Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, named after the late congressman and entertainer who had backed similar legislation. The act, basically, added 20 years to copyrights that had not yet expired. As a result, no copyrighted works passed into the public domain for 20 years. This benefitted some copyright owners whose works were still in print and continued to bring them revenue. It also kept works that had long been out of print and could have been reprinted and widely disseminated once again to remain forgotten and prevented an unknown number of works based on books, stories, films, and plays whose copyrights would otherwise have expired from being created.

I remember speaking at a meeting panel on copyrght a dozen years ago in which I said things similar to what I have just written. An attorney for a media corporation insisted that the 1998 legislation was necessary to make the U.S. copyright law consistent with that of other countries like the UK in that it changed the basic copyright term in the U.S. from the life of the author plus 50 years to the life of the author plus 70 years. The problem was, I responded, and is, that Congress added the 20 years not just to copyrights for new works but to works whose copyrights were due to expire. This shoved the concept of the public domain into limbo.

Twenty-years after the copyright term extension act was enacted, works published in print or film in 1923 have finally entered the public domain. The media has noted these incuded efforts by great authors, playwrights, and filmmakers that can now be used without permission of fees. There are indeed a few major works in this lot--Virginia Woolf's Jacob Room and Harold Lloyd's film Safety Last in which Lloyd iconically hangs from the hands of a tall building's clock. But there are more lesser works than great ones. Cecil B. DeMille's film The Ten Commandments is also now in the public domain, but it's the 1923 silent version and not the 1956 remake starring Charlton Heston, even though some media published a photo of Heston as Moses with their story about the opening of the public domain.  In fact, all of the films that entered the public domain on Jan. 1, 2019 are silent ones. Without the 1998 legislation, sound films once protected by copyright would have started enterting the public domain 13 years ago. We'll have to wait two years for F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and a few more years for major works by Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner to go into the public domain.  What is clear is that each year for the next 19 years a few more major works will be available for free use by the public, but they all could now be being used and reused and rethought if Congress hand't reacted to the needs of the few at the expense of the needs of the many 20 years ago.

Some things that have happened in the past two decades while the public domain remained frozen will widen public use of public domain material. For example, recent court action concerning the copyright of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels and stories suggest that once works enter the public domain, so, mostly, do the characters that were created for those works.

But there are also unknowns. There are no indications that Congress would consider another copyright extension and, given all that is going on in Congress now, there is no evident appetite for such a move. But, who knows? And then there's the issue of trademarks. Disney's lobbying for the 1998 legislation was primarily designed to keep Disney's character of Mickey Mouse protected by copyright until at least 2024, at which time the copyrights of Mickey Mouse cartoons will start expiring and anyone can, argulably, show those cartoons and use the character's image without permission or fee. I say arguably because Disney owns trademarks in the words and some of the images of "Mickey Mouse,"  and trademarks, as long as they are used, do not expire. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels have largely entered the public domain, but the Burroughs' estate trademarked the name "Tarzan" and in such litigation as Burroughs v. Mann Theatres (C.D. Cal. 1976) has prevented the distribution of works using the Tarzan trademark. The Arthur Conan Doyle Estate did not emerge victorious in the litigation concerning whether the character of Holmes portrayed in Conan Doyle's pre-1923 stories and novels is protected by copyright.  But the estate has several trademarks in the name "Sherlock Holmes." Admittedly, the characters of Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, and Mickey Mouse are likely the exception in that not all ficitional characters will qualify for trademark status. But if nothing else they are examples of how the influence that froze the public domain for 20 years could continue while copyrighted works once again enter the public domain, but only at a dribble.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino. This article is intended for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

Great Films vs. Favorite Ones

by John Aquino on 12/28/18

I am sometimes asked--because friends and relatives know I love movies and talk about them a lot--what my picks are for the top 10 films of all time. It's then that I have to distinguish, if only to myself, between films that I think are masterpieces--Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958); Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Touch of Evil (1958), and Chimes at Midnight (1964);  Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949); Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1956); Michael Carne's Les Enfant de Paradis (Children of Paradise) (1945); Jean Cocteau's La Belle and La Bete (Beauty and the Beast) (1946); Jean Renoir's Le Regle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) (1939); and Frederico Fellini's La Strada (1954)--which, having seen once or twice and admired, I can no longer sit through, and films that I have seen again and again and, when they are shown on television, can dip into even if they are have way done and stay with until the end: John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941); Michael Curtis' Casablanca (1943) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942); Otto Preminger's Laura (1944) and In Harm's Way (1964); Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (1946); John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven (1960); J. Lee Thompson's The Guns of Navarone (1961); Vittorio de Sica's Leri, Oggi,and Domani (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow) (1963); and, as I experienced recently during Christmastime, Mark Sandrich's Holiday Inn (1942) and Curtis' White Christmas (1954).

The 12 "great" films show a consistent and imaginative vision, an incredible use of the camera, magnificent performances, and shifting or unusual perspectives. With the exception of The Third Man, they tend to be slow or at least studied; all of them end sadly and are frequently moody. When Citizen Kane comes on television, there are no longer any surprises for me--even Everett Sloane no longer surprises, and the innovative camera angles, the dizzying camera angles, the sharp dialogue ("[Are you] A sentimental fellow?" "Yes and no")--are taken for granted.  We are locked into the path to "Rosebud" just as Kane is locked up in his own hell known as Xanadu and the movie's frames are locked in by the ceilings that Welles and his cameraman Gregg took the pains to show us.

My favorite films tend to be adventures or musicals. They have large casts of characters or, in the case of the musicals, a lot of musical numbers. When Casablanca comes on, I can find myself appreciating the subtleties of Peter Lorre's brief appearance, or Conrad Veidt's unabashed Nazi, or S.Z. Sakall's Jiminy Cricket-like conscience for Rick, or I can notice little moments such as the scene where Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henried, instructs the band at Rick's cafe to play "Le Marseillaise" in defiance of the Nazis and the bandleader turns to the I-stick-my-neck-out-for-nobody Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart, who takes a second and then nods for the bandleader to start the band playing, silently joining in the act defiance. When The Magnificent Seven comes on, I can discover moments such as when the then-six, who have agreed to help a Mexican town against bandits, tire of keeping track of the young Mexican who wants to join them and is following them. Chris Adams, played by Yul Brynner, says, "It's a free country." Bernardo O'Reilly, played by Charles Bronson, adds, "And it's his."

White Christmas is a big musical. It has older songs by Irving Berlin that are reprised--the title song, "Mandy," "Abraham," "Heat Wave," "Blue Skies"--and new ones by Berlin, including "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep," "Snow," which was actually a "trunk" song of Berlin's to which he added new lyrics, "Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army," "The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing," "(We'll Follow) The Old Man," and "What Do You Do With a General?," which was another Berlin trunk song written for an abandoned musical about a general and which the film writer Leonard Maltin dubbed the worst song Irving Berlin ever wrote." Again, I can dip in the middle and discover something. Most recently, it was "Abraham," for which the instrumental only from Holiday Inn was reused and danced to by Vera-Ellen and John Bascia. I knew Vera-Ellen had danced with and kept up with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, but I amazed at her dancing in this, so fast and limber and yet so natural. Like two other film master dancers Cyd Charisse and Rita Hayworth, Vera-Ellen's singing was always dubbed, and yet she sings, briefly, for the only time on screen in this film. She's dubbed when her character, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney sing "Snow." But when the four of them get off the train in Vermont and find no snow, Crosby and Kaye, a capella, start the number which begins with each of the four singing the word "snow," Vera-Ellen sings her one note clearly and on key, suggesting, as has been suggested about Charisse and Hayworth, that she could have sung her songs if she had been given the training and the chance. A Washington Post writer this month stated that Vera-Ellen and Kaye's dancing to "The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing" is the best musical number ever filmed. I re-watched the number with this in mind. While I wouldn't say it's better than Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire's "Begin the Beguine" in Broadway Melody of 1940 or several Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' dances from their movies together, Kaye and Vera-Ellen's dancing is athletic, captures a variety of styles, and is prolonged. Kaye, who was a last minute substitution for an ailing Donald O'Connor, proved himself a surprisingly adept dance partner for Vera-Ellen. He is reported to have had a camera-like memory, and he accordingly captures all the different styles in the number easily. In his own movies, in which, with the exception of The Court Jester (1956) and Merry Andrew (1958) he often comes across as a more sophisticated Jerry Lewis, his musical numbers tend to the frenetic. White Christmas was, I believe, his most successful, although an atypical, film.

In re-watching, "What Do You Do with a General?", I felt Matlin was probably right, although Berlin wrote so many songs there might be competition. I re-watched "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me," after I heard Clooney say on the DVD special track that it was "her" song in that it was her only solo. It's a catchy melody, and she sings this torch song well. The number also has a young George Chakiris, seven years before he won the Academy Award for West Side Story, as one of the male dancers. The lyrics of the song amused me. She sings, "My one love affair didn't get anywhere from the start./To send me a Joe with winter and snow in his heart wasn't smart." I said to my wife, making believe I was Clooney's addressee, Love, "Oh, my gosh, he had winter and snow in his heart! And I missed that! I'll have to look at hearts more carefully. It'll never happen again." Berlin was 66 at the time, and White Christmas was his last movie or stage musical until Mr. President in 1962, of which I have written in these blogs. Most of the new songs for White Christmas were pretty good. "Count Your Blessings" was a big hit. And Berlin could pull off rhymes that were worthy of Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim. I've always been fond of one in "Shaking the Blues Away": "Telling the blues to go/They may refuse to go/But as a rule they'll go/If you'll shake 'em away." In White Christmas, there's "A soldier out of luck/Was never really stuck/There's always someone higher up/Where you can pass the buck/Oh gee, I wish I was back in the army." I especially like Crosby's jazz riff in "Snow": "I'd love to stay up with ya but I recommend a little shuteye/Go to sleep/And dream/ Of snow." 

White Christmas may have been Berlin's last successful effort. It has lots of different moments that bear re-watching. And those types of movies are my favorites.

Copyright 2018 by John T. Aquino

When Was "Baby It's Cold Outside" Ever a Holiday Song?

by John Aquino on 12/07/18

A California radio station has banned Frank Loesser's "Baby, It's Cold Outside" from its Christmas/holiday programming because its lyrics are inappropriate in light of the #MeToo movement. Some, including CBS Morning News anchor Gayle King, have supported the song as did a recent radio poll. One local D.C. anchor said, "Keep your hands off our Christmas songs!"

I actually support removing it from Christmas/holiday playlists, first, because it's not a Christmas/holiday song. 

It never was. Loesser wrote the song in 1944 for him and his wife to sing at parties. It's about a woman in a man's apartment and the man who tries to stop her from leaving by telling her it's cold outside. M-G-M bought the song and placed it in its 1949 Esther Williams musical Neptune's Daughter. The musical was released in June, not December, and the lyrics have nothing to do with the holidays, or goodwill, or peace, or even love. The only reasons for considering it a Christmas song is the man telling the woman that the it's cold outside and that the snow is "up to your knees out there." (The movie was set in South America and filmed in California and Florida, but M-G-M just wanted the song in the movie, ignored the inconsistency between the lyrics and the setting, and the studio was rewarded with an Academy Award for best song.) Even other weather songs that are sung at Christmas--"Let It Snow" and "Winter Wonderland"--are at least about love, which is not what "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is all about.

The situation reminds me of a Judy Garland Christmas album my wife and I bought some time ago. Garland didn't really make a lot of recordings. Her records are mostly the soundtracks for her films and tapings of her stage shows. She did sing one of the most famous of all Christmas songs--"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"--in the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis. And so, in assembling this Christmas album, in addition to including "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the assemblers picked from songs she had sung on radio shows. They gathered up some weather-related holiday songs such as "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and then had to really stretch to include the very sad "After the Holidays" ("Please stay with me/ Till after the holidays, That's when I need you so"), and such inspirational, non-holiday songs as Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone," and the Spiritual songs "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" to fill out the album. I always feel that, when trying to create a Christmas/holiday playlist, programmers grab any song they can find, including those that just mention cold weather, like "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

The other reason for not including "Baby, It's Cold Outside" on Christmas/holiday playlists is that its lyrics really are inappropriate for the holidays. It's about lust for an unwilling woman. It's about a man on the make. Loesser made this clear himself. When he and his wife sang the song at parties in the 1940s, he would say before singing the male part that he was "the evil one of the Loessers." The lyrics do raise all the flags for inappropriate behavior by a man against a woman. She says up front, "The answer is no," and he responds by telling her, "Baby, it's cold outside." She wonders if he put something in her drink. When she keeps saying she has to leave, he finally shows that his male pride is at stake when he says, "How can you do this thing to me!"

There's no denying that it's a catchy song, and Loesser's lyrics, as always, are clever and yet colloquial. When it's on the radio, I sing along. Some who have argued for keeping it on Christmas/holiday playlists have said that it is necessary to consider the context of the song and take into account that it was written 70 years ago. Absolutely! I'm not saying to ban it from being performed, not that I would ever urge prohibiting free speech. I'm just saying don't include it on Christmas/holiday playlists because the text doesn't reflect the holidays. Songs on those playlists are played over and over in stores or on the radio, and people have little choice but to hear them. 

And when the song is performed apart from the Christmas/holiday season, those who hear it can react in the same way that those who watch old movies do when Al Jolson, a white man, performs in blackface; when characters refer to "women's intuition" and say that women are meant be housewives; when a police officer tells a concerned neighbor that when a man beats his wife "that is his right," and when characters say other things that treat people as property and/or as inferior. They can accept the film as a period piece and try and disregard old- and bad-fashioned language and ideas, or they can not watch it. 

Copyright 2018 by John T. Aquino

Definitions That Perplex: Catholic and Fascism

by John Aquino on 12/01/18

I was reading the November 16, 2018 issue of the (London) Times Literary Supplement (I'm a little behind in my reading) and was struck about how definitions of terms was a topic in a good number of the articles. The issue wasn't on definitions, but the topic was raised in unrelated essays, in general and specifically on the meaning of what is fascism and what it means to be Catholic. The fact that these are the terms that require a discussion of their meaning tells you a lot about the times we live in.

For example, in a back page essay, "J.C." notes that Ambrose Bierce's 1911 The Devil's Dictionary has been issued in a new edition. Some of Bierce's cynical definitions include "Egoist: A person of low taste more interested in himself than in me"; "Misfortune: The kind of fortune that never misses"; "Kilt: A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland"; "Lawyer: One skilled in the circumvention of the law"; and "Distress: "A disease incurred by exposure to the prosperity of a friend." Bierce's definitions may be cynical, but his targets are still recognizable. 

In a forum of essays convened by TLS to accompany a review of books on President Donald Trump, TLS asked a number of writers to address the questions, mostly at a distance of 4,300 miles from the U.S., what is fascism and is Trump a fascist? The very raising of the questions, and so bluntly, shocked me. While I can imagine some people I know asking themselves these things in their minds, I have never seen them in print on this side of the Atlantic. The writers write at length, seriously, and, seemingly, objectively. Mary Beard, an author and TLS editor, writes that the word "fascist" is used indiscriminately and obscures rather than reveals. Richard J. Evans, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Cambridge, notes similarities between Hitler and Mussolini and Trump--intemperate language that fosters prejudice and violence and a lack or regard for the democratic process--and differences--the two dictators mobilized troops for conquest while Trump uses the internet. Mary Fulbrook, a professor of German history at the University College London, also notes similarities but concludes that fascism isn't just about the personality of the leader but about the circumstances under which power can be gained and sustained. On this side of the pond, Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University,  writes that Trump uses far-right slogans from the 1930s ("America First") and Nazi slogans such as "fake news" or the "lying press," which in German is "l├╝ggenpresse," a word that Trump supporters shouted during October 2016 rallies. Hopefully, they did not know they were quoting the Nazis. I emerged from this exercise still shaken. But if the terms are being tossed about, it's good to have considered them objectively.

As Lewis Carroll playfully suggested in Alice in Wonderland, words are living things. They have they their own histories and personalities, they can hurt or help other living things, and it takes effort to understand them. 

What it means to be a Catholic is also in the minds of many in these days where we are focused on the scandal concerning pedophile priests and the coverup. In a TLS article in that issue on the existence (or non-existence) of hell, Joseph Farrell raises the question of what makes someone a "lapsed Catholic," something he considers himself to be. I always thought a lapsed Catholic was someone raised in the faith who, for whatever reason, no longer goes to church regularly, often because of issues with the church hierarchy. Many today say they are disillusioned in the church because of the pedophile scandal and coverup. Farrell defines a lapsed Catholic as neither an atheist nor an agnostic but as someone with the lingering doubt that there may indeed be a grand system of order in the universe with God at the top and Satan at the bottom, someone who can't shake off the fear of hell and who, when he or she is at death's door, "would call a priest as an insurance policy." That's an interesting, lingering thought.

In that essay on the last page of the TLS, J.C. asks the question, where are the Catholic writers of the 21st century, noting, in contrast, these of the 20th: Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Sparks, and Anthony Burgess. This brings up the question, what is a Catholic writer? J.C. doesn't mention that Greene hated the label because he felt it discouraged over half of the book-buying public from purchasing his books. I think that being a Catholic doesn't make a writer a Catholic writer. Greene was a Catholic convert, but what may make people think of him as a Catholic writer is that many of his characters are riddled by what some would call Catholic guilt at what they consider their own imperfection. Farrell in that  separate article on the belief (or lack of it) that hell exists discusses the character Scobie in Greene's novel The Heart of the Matter who out of guilt about his adulterous affair kills himself, something he said earlier he couldn't imagine doing because it would mean he would go to hell. Farrell notes that, when Scobie is finally driven to take his own life and dies, he utters the words, "My God, I love...", but Greene wouldn't let him finish the sentence, leaving it unclear as to whether he would have said, "My God, I love you," which would suggest he would go to heaven, or "I love Helen," his mistress, which would mean that he was unrepentant about his sin of adultery and he would go to hell. I fondly remember Greene's novel The Comedians and the 1967 film version with Richard Burton and Alec Guinness, particularly the scene where the character Jones, having become an enemy of the Haitian state, is being brought out of the country by Brown. The scene between Burton and Guinness in the movie has them waiting until dawn in a cemetery with its crosses looming and Jones (Guinness) confessing how he is a braggart and a military fraud while Jones (Burton), a man who has become disillusioned and who says he has "no faith in faith," finds himself playing father-confessor to Jones and even speaks the priest's words of absolution as if in a confession. Some of Greene's works strongly evidence his Catholicism, some less so. Like Greene, I'm leery about labeling author as "Catholic" or "Jewish" because it limits them. In answer to J.C.'s question of where are the Catholic writers of today, it could well be that the lesser emphasis on Catholic rituals as a result of the 1963-64 Vatican Council and perhaps now the recent scandal may have diluted that identification.

Ambrose Bierce defined "learning" as "The kind of ignorance that distinguishes the studious." I hope he's wrong and that we spend more time on the meaning of  words before we use them and when we read others who use them.

Copyright 2018 by John T. Aquino