Sunday, September 26, 2010

Remembering... George Raft

Handsome, menacing George Raft - born on this day in 1895 - was one of Hollywood's most popular leading men in the 1930s; while he often played gangsters and hoods, he initially found work as a dancer - a fact wittily alluded to by Chazz Palminteri's character in Woody Allen's 1994 comedy Bullets Over Broadway.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket In fact, it was Texas Guinan who gave Raft his first big break in show business - as she'd done with so many others, such as Ruby Keeler - dancing in her 300 Club; she also gave him his break in the movies when he appeared alongside her in the 1929 lost film Queen of the Night Clubs.

Although he'd been one of the biggest stars of the 1930s, he'd also been typecast as a heavy, and an Italian one at that - despite his German heritage. By the 1940s and 1950s Raft's career was suffering from bad choice-itis; he became best known in latter years as the man who turned down most of the roles that would make Humphrey Bogart a star. Although he had a memorable turn as mob boss 'Spats' Columbo in Billy Wilder's 1959 classic Some Like it Hot it did not lead to more work*.

Which is not to say he didn't have his fun along the way... In the early Thirties he gave Tallulah Bankhead such a bad case of gonorrhea she had to have a hysterectomy; as she was being wheeled from the hospital she gave her doctor one of those quips for which she'd already become famous and on which he probably dined out for years: 'Don't think this has taught me a lesson!'

Raft's career was oddly bound up with that of Mae West; it was in his film Night After Night (1932) that West made her movie debut, stealing every scene she's in (as was her wont); nearly fifty years later he made his second-to-last appearance in her final film Sextette (1980). When they died - two days apart, in November 1980 - their bodies were both stored in the mortuary at Forest Lawn together.

In the 1991 film Bugsy, Raft was played by Joe Mantegna.

*The same fate befell Gloria Swanson, who could have parlayed her star turn in another of Wilder's classics, 1950's Sunset Boulevard
, into much more than she did; in both cases the public seemed to consider these one-time legends as mere novelties - relics of a bygone era, even - in an age long before irony alone could save a career.

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Will Will Self Self-Destruct, Or Will Will Self Self-Actualize?

Will Self, the iconoclastic British writer of such nihilistic books as Cock and Bull (1992), My Idea of Fun (1993), Great Apes (1997), How the Dead Live (2000), Dorian, an Imitation (2001), and The Book of Dave (2006), today turns 49.

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Most chroniclers of his life seem stymied how he could grow up to be a self-mutilating drug addict with a penchant for telling bizarre stories despite a comfortable childhood in a North London suburb; I figure, how could he not? I was also raised in a boring suburb, and look what I've become. The only thing that's saved me from a fate worse than cliche is my own inherent Canadian boringness.

Yet there is much to admire in Self's career: he was once removed from John Major's campaign aircraft after he was discovered doing heroin in it, which to my mind qualifies him for every honour there is; he was also fired from The Observer, which is another career goal of mine. He studied Philosophy at college rather than English, which could explain why his books have much to say about our modern world, rather than being so much navel-gazing twaddle. Quoth he:

'I want to be misunderstood. And the other thing that amuses me is: I don't particularly want to be liked. Nobody goes into the business of writing satire to be liked. Whether I am or am not a nice bloke is neither here nor there. It's not part of the task I've set myself in my art.'

Amen to that. The fact that Self is still a mid-career writer means we might expect yet more and even better from him, provided, that is, that on one of his epic walks around the English capital he isn't smited by some prat in a Ford Cortina.
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Happy Birthday Dr. Manmohan Singh

The current Prime Minister of India is the first Sikh to hold the post, which he has done since May 2004; highly respected both in India and around the world for his intellect and erudition, Dr. Singh is both a formidable politician and statesman.

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India's vast working class and burgeoning middle class has obviously taken to him as the man best equipped to bring about some closure to inter-caste and sectarian strife that has often plagued the world's largest democracy throughout its sixty-year history.

His loyalty to the Congress Party may have also saved it from oblivion; when it turned to Sonia Gandhi (an Italian by birth) for leadership during one of its periodic crises there was much discord, and the rift in the party nearly tore it apart. Likewise, while the damage to the Golden Temple in Amritsar ordered by Indira Gandhi in 1984 as part of Operation Blue Star has been repaired, the Congress Party's relationship to Sikhs has not, and so his appointment can be seen as crucial to healing that wound as well.

While in office, Dr. Singh has fostered closer ties to the United States, diligently supported the peace process with Pakistan, and done much to foster economic growth in the disputed Kashmir region. India's economy during his administration is growing at 9% per annum without neglecting social programs or minority rights as in certain neighbouring countries I won't mention whose name rhymes with 'Dinah'.

He has also eschewed corruption, and been responsible for an increase in the transparency of government.
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In Memoriam: Lewis Hine

From the moment of its very invention the artistic and documentary application of the camera was obvious; it was Lewis Hine, however, who was one of the first people to exploit photography for its sociological and progressive uses, and as such his compassion is as evident as any object or subject in the images he captured. Although he set out to use a camera merely in his work as a sociologist, the photography of Lewis Hine is today recognized for the fine art it is.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketHine spent a decade as a photojournalist on the payroll of the National Child Labor Committee, documenting the abuses inherent in child labour throughout the United States, initially publishing his findings in a social reform magazine called The Survey. Later he followed the Red Cross in America and Europe, documenting the relief work they were conducting.

His works were also instrumental in putting faces to America's industrial might; his photos of the construction of the Empire State Building are a remarkable record of a remarkable achievement in civil engineering. The images he captured throughout the American South during the Great Depression helped to personalize the serf-like plight of farm workers and migrants alike to the northern plutocrats who'd enslaved them.

Born on this day in 1874, Hine died in November 1940 aged 66 from complications following surgery at Dobb's Ferry, New York.
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"The Hollow Men" by T. S. Eliot

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.

A penny for the Old Guy


We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom


This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

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Remembering... T. S. Eliot

Clearly, there are two options open to a writer; either he may flood the market with his work in quantity or he may prefer to allow a trickle of perfection to water his fame. While I have recently much favoured the former, T. S. Eliot obviously preferred the latter. 'The only thing that matters is that these should be perfect in their kind, so that each should be an event,' he is quoted as saying, the smug bastard.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketObviously, I have never been much of a fan of Eliot's, likely because his desire for privacy hasn't allowed a persona to develop, and that's the only way I can appreciate anybody. A bed-ridden neurasthenic frequently laid low by bronchitis, a virgin 'til he was twenty-six, with only a few famous friends (most of whom were as low-key as him) doesn't exactly start a fire of curiosity in me. Then again, neither does a devout Christian responsible for the musical Cats, and yet he was both of these and more.

Still, thanks to this blog I've been given many opportunities to revisit those whom my high school prejudices had previously discounted, and T. S. Eliot is among them. His magpie approach to both language and inspiration is remarkably akin to the wholesale plunder I've been known to practice, and I could stand to develop his deftness in this regard.

Since Eliot was one of the first to open up poetry from the vise grip of form which in turn both ruled and ruined poetry, he's to be commended for popularizing the form. Likewise, the fact that C. S. Lewis considered his work 'a very great evil' does much to recommend Eliot to me, as I've always rather disliked Lewis and his myriad judgements including this one (as if any poetry could be evil). Plus, he did win the Nobel Prize (in 1948).

Now, his anti-Semitism on the other hand... As dismaying as it is, it needs to be considered in context. He certainly seemed comfortable enough with individual Jews, such as Leonard Woolf, who considered him a friend. But a hundred generations of devout Christians have excoriated the Jews (as opposed to the Romans) for putting their man on a stick (even though it was God's will that it be done) so it's perhaps understandable nonetheless. Later in life, Eliot was known to support Israel.

Eliot famously said: 'Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.' To which I can only add: 'I wish I'd said that.' Who knows? Some day I just might... It only remains to be seen if I imitate it, steal it, ruin it, or improve it when I do!
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Remembering... Paul Newman

Unlike 2009 and 2010 - with their wholesale massacres of celebrities on every list from A to Z - the Grim Reaper was somewhat more judicious in his dealings with Hollywood in 2008; among those he took from us in that year, however, was a genuine show business titan: Mr Paul Newman... In fact, such a living legend was he that it's long been something of a challenge trying to determine precisely what was the best thing about a man whose good qualities ran riot!

Photobucket There were the looks of course: a lean frame, a wry smile that ingratiated itself right through you, and the coolest blue eyes the silver screen ever saw. Then again, there were his humanist politics, which so menaced US President Richard M. Nixon that Tricky Dick ended up using the full resources of the Internal Revenge Revenue Service to hound Newman unlike few others on his so-called Enemies List. There's also the matter of his 50 year marriage to Joanne Woodward, which speaks of a consistency and loyalty which was all-too-rare in Hollywood circa 1958 and is well-nigh extinct in that company town today. Yet while Newman's acting chops were nearly as impressive as his choices, it's pretty clear that his legacy remains his charity work...

Thanks to his Newman's Own brand - and according to their website - as much as US$270 million has been donated to worthy causes, such as the annual PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award; Newman was also heavily involved in the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, as well as supporting scholarships at Ohio's Kenyon College. All of which work - like the roles he lovingly crafted for the silver screen - will continue to live on in his name.

The highlights of Paul Newman's acting career scarcely need to be gone over yet again but, in the interest of moving product (which, let's face it, is the only way I'm ever going to be able to make any money at this some day) I'mma do it anyway... Films from 1956's Somebody Up There Likes Me, 1958's The Long, Hot Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1961's The Hustler, 1962's Sweet Bird of Youth, 1963's Hud, 1967's Cool Hand Luke, 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1973's The Sting, and 1986's The Color of Money, all the way to 2002's Road to Perdition - and many more besides! - all benefited from the preponderance of this special man and his copious talents.

So on this of all days, whether it's dinner you're planning, or else an after-dinner movie, who better to nourish your body and soul than Paul Newman, who died on this day in 2008.
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Happy European Day of Languages

Be sure and celebrate the many tongues of Europe today by... Wait a minute. What was I talking about? Oh yes, the European Day of Languages!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe European Day of Languages was first proclaimed by the EU in 2001, at the end of the European Year of Languages.

They were no doubt inspired to support linguistic diversity for the same reasons I am; since I am an enthusiastic supporter of English as a universal language, in order to assuage my own guilt over assiduously undermining a layer of diversity in human culture I believe in supporting an issue like minority language rights. I figure it's the least I can do to reduce my own karma footprint.

Similarly, since the EU is looking to remove those differences that have seen most of Europe used as a battleground for the past 2000 years, it is also incumbent upon them not to assimilate Europe to the point where Belgrade is identical to Baden-Baden is identical to Birmingham.

So if you speak Gaelic or Walloon, are fluent in French or Greek or even Finnish, celebrate it. Or if you don't, enroll in classes, buy yourself a Rosetta Stone CD set, or watch a subtitled movie today; you'll be glad you did! Esto es vivire!*

*That is to say 'This is living!' in Spanish...

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"Rose Garden" by Lynn Anderson

My own performing debut was singing this song a cappella for assembled family members (with my mother on harmony) the Christmas I was five. Therefore, it's always had a special place in my heart; also included in my set that evening was Delta Dawn.

Though principally remembered for the song (I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden (written by Joe South), Lynn Anderson had a string of hits on the country charts in the 1970s, including Top of the World, which she took to Number One before The Carpenters did. But Rose Garden was her biggest hit by far on the pop charts, thanks almost entirely to music industry guru Clive Davis, who made the decision to release it as a single.

Lynn Anderson today turns 63.
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The Death of Bessie Smith

When writing about the lives - and especially the deaths - of black Americans, one runs the risk of sounding like a broken record, which is certainly an unforgivable offense in the case of Bessie Smith, if inevitable, since her death could be described as the ultimate broken record...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFrom her debut in 1923 onward, Bessie Smith made a lot of white men very wealthy; in the last 14 years of her life she worked tirelessly, both recording and performing the blues throughout the United States, only to die - it is said - because of the prevailing racism of the times.

Yet the powerful myth surrounding Smith's death - while instrumental in the creation of any legend as mighty as hers - is not more moving than the real story...

On this day in 1937, at about 3 AM, while traveling along Route 61 from Memphis to Clarksdale, Mississippi, the car Bessie Smith was in was struck by a van. Her right arm was nearly severed at the elbow in the initial impact, and the right side of her body was severely traumatized. Although the driver of the car, Richard Morgan, was uninjured, Bessie never regained consciousness.

While the driver of the van stopped, he later fled the scene; though he was later apprehended and arrested, history does not record his name. Had he used his van to take Bessie to hospital, she may well have lived. Then again, shock is a fast-moving, ruthless killer, and possibly nothing could have saved her from it.

Dr. Hugh Smith happened along with a Mr. Broughton, his fishing buddy, and while administering first aid to her, his own car was struck; its driver was likely drunk. In any event, neither he nor his female passenger were seriously hurt, although they narrowly missed hitting both the unconscious Bessie and the doctor, and they totaled the doctor's car.

Two ambulances arrived; the first one took Bessie to the blacks-only hospital in Clarksdale, the second conveyed the joyriders to the white hospital. Although the myth was that Bessie was originally taken to the whites-only hospital and refused treatment there a) her ambulance driver was a black man named Willie Miller, who would have known better than to take her to the wrong place, and b) even if he had, the two hospitals in Clarksdale were about a half-mile apart.

Unfortunately, the blacks-only G. T. Thomas Hospital was both understaffed and under-equipped. Nevertheless, it was there that Bessie Smith died, likely of shock, exacerbated by the comedy of errors which played out on Route 61. Her time of death was listed as 11:30 AM.

Though it's understandable why so much misinformation regarding the death of Bessie Smith was disseminated in the thirty years after her death, historians owe a debt of gratitude to Chris Albertson; his 1972 biography of the Empress of the Blues is still the best text available on her life and death.
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POPnews - September 26th

[Although he had previously manipulated the media successfully - 1952's Checkers speech is a marvel of double talk - Nixon's brand of sleaze was no match for the media-ready youth and suave manner of JFK.]

715 CE - Ragenfrid defeated Theudoald at the Battle of Compiègne.

1212 - Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II issued the Golden Bull of Sicily, granting the Přemyslid Dynasty's Dukes of Bohemia a hereditary royal title; the first of the Kings of Bohemia was Otakar I.

1580 - Francis Drake sailed The Golden Hind into Plymouth Harbour having completed a circumnavigation of the globe; he was knighted aboard his vessel the following year by Elizabeth I for his efforts.

1687 - The Parthenon in Athens was partially destroyed when a shell launched by Venetian forces commanded by Francesco Morosini lit an ammunition dump that the occupying Turks kept inside it. Following the damage, Morosini plundered the now semi-ruined temple, taking some of the better sculptures back to Venice with him.

1789 - Thomas Jefferson was appointed the first United States Secretary of State, John Jay the first Chief Justice of the United States, Samuel Osgood the first United States Postmaster General, and Edmund Randolph the first United States Attorney General.

1810 - A new Act of Succession was adopted by Sweden's Riksdag of the Estates and Jean Baptiste Bernadotte became heir to the throne of Charles XIII.

1907 - Both New Zealand and Newfoundland became Dominions within the British Empire, conferring upon them a semi-independent status. New Zealand became fully independent in 1947, while Newfoundland lost some of its status in 1934, only to lose the rest of it when it joined Canada in 1949.

1908 - Ed Reulbach of the Chicago Cubs became the first and only pitcher to throw two shutouts in one day, which he did against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

1914 - The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was established by the Federal Trade Commission Act.

1934 - The steamship RMS Queen Mary was launched.

1937 - The Shadow debuted on radio on the Mutual Broadcasting System, starring the golden voice of a then-unknown Orson Welles.

1957 - West Side Story - book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins - opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre and ran for 732 performances in its initial run. Its original cast featured Carol Lawrence as Maria, Chita Rivera as Anita, and Larry Kert as Tony.

1960 - In Chicago, the first televised debate took place between presidential candidates Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

1961 - Bob Dylan made his breakthrough as a performer when a show he gave at Gerde's Folk City was given a rave review in the New York Times by Robert Shelton.

1962 - The Yemen Arab Republic was proclaimed.

1966 - The Chevy Camaro first appeared as part of the 1967 model year, giving generations of insecure men a new lease on life.

Photobucket1969 - The Beatles released their last studio album, Abbey Road, in the UK; although it would be the last album recorded by them, technically the last album released before their breakup in 1970 was Let It Be. The cover of Abbey Road is, of course, most famous for creating the whole Paul is dead hoo-hah - one of the more durable urban legends going. Ironically, the album opens with a song called Come Together, yet was recorded as relations between band members had grown increasingly rancourous...

1973 - Concorde made a non-stop supersonic crossing of the Atlantic in record time; regularly scheduled flights, however, wouldn't begin until January 1976.

1983 - Soviet military officer Stanislav Petrov averted a worldwide nuclear war.
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