This week I detailed a few memories and meditations regarding my travels to Paris last week — just one step ahead of our esteemed leader, who seems to have made it his mission to destroy every last one of our transatlantic partnerships. Interestingly, in the hotel we stayed at, Marilyn caught a glimpse of Rudolph Giuliani stepping into an elevator, apparently an advance guard for the steamroller to follow. But I’m convinced there will always be a Europe, regardless of all the attempts to raze it to the ground.
Next week our usual programming, most of which seems to be associated with Americana, will resume. But to close out today, I offer Joshua Rifkin’s cheerful, driving rendition of Scott Joplin‘s “Stoptime Rag,” composed in 1910. It’s one of Joplin’s rare ventures into the novelty rag; note Rifkin’s footstomping beat in the below recording. (Marilyn herself will be performing Joplin’s “Bethena” on a program with Charles Ives’ “Concord” sonata at St. Bart’s next season; click here and scroll down to May, but don’t miss any of the other concerts, either.)
Tonight I travel to the City of Light for a weeklong vacation from the Land of the Multitasking Moron, where so many things seem to go so wrong in such a short period of time. These brief vacations lend me a little time for reading, and when travelling overseas I like to bring books by authors of the countries I visit. Sometimes this is delightful. I carried Jaroslav Hašek with me through Czechoslovakia many years ago; Arthur Schnitzler and Karl Kraus were at my elbow in Vienna, and excellent companions they were; a few years ago I saw London in the company of Sherlock Holmes. But last year, when I went to France, the laudable project backfired. In the Loire Valley and in Paris I read Voltaire’s Candide, thinking that the French Swift was a congenial choice for the likes of myself. But despite its brevity, it was too long for me. There’s something twee about Voltaire, something in his manner (perhaps it was his prejudice for the promises of the Enlightenment) that left me stone cold. Voltaire seemed to me to lack the satiric precision of Swift, and further and more importantly, his heart didn’t seem to be in his hatred of human pretense. This you certainly couldn’t say of Swift. Voltaire’s conclusion was that, in the end, everything might be all right; Swift knew it wouldn’t. Earlier this year I turned to Balzac’s Old Man Goriot, thinking I’d find a rather blunter picture of Paris and the human condition, but I couldn’t get more than half-way through the thing, the narrator’s annoying asides becoming pestiferous before page 75, like those of an infuriating tour guide. “I can see that for myself, goddammit; you’re not helping,” I mumbled as I came across each of these authorial intrusions. The hell with Goriot and all the rest, I thought as I tossed the book aside. And, especially, the hell with Balzac.
But age brings wisdom. Last year my favorite reading in Paris was Mark Twain’s observations on the French and their history in The Innocents Abroad. This year I’ll be bringing along a few of my own countrymen I’ve been meaning to revisit; trapped in my Kindle will be Joe Heller and Henry Mencken, and I’ll be delighted to let them out again once I’m on the plane to Paris. I’ll be raising a glass to all of you from the Champs-Élysées before tomorrow is out; good luck while I’m away.
It’s been a long hard week for many people in many ways. As I mentioned a few days ago, along with outrage, grim laughter may not be out-of-place either.
The New York Times isn’t usually considered a satiric magazine, but even they’re getting into the act with the below parody of a 1943 government film called Japanese Relocation. You can watch it on C-SPAN; according to those fine ladies and gentlemen, “Milton Eisenhower hosted and narrated this 1943 film that attempts to justify the need to move Japanese Americans from their West Coast homes to internment camps in isolated areas of the west and mid-west. The film traces the process of leaving homes and businesses behind to move to various relocation centers.”
The New York Times video was produced by Taige Jensen, Leah Varjacques and Japhet Weeks. Ah, satire. I’ll be raising a glass to it at Cafe Katja this afternoon.
Television is good for two things and two things only: Shows about food and shows about travel. So I was sorry to hear of the death of Anthony Bourdain this morning, because Bourdain was a master of both. Possessed of a healthy skepticism about the human race, he nonetheless found much in our character to admire as he travelled around the world, even though, on balance, the bad may have outweighed the good. And he was as honest about himself as he was about the world he took his leave of too soon. “Maybe that’s enlightenment enough,” he once said; “To know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom is realising how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.” I’ll be raising a glass to his memory at Cafe Katja this afternoon. Brian Stelter’s obituary for CNN, Bourdain’s home network, can be found here.
Bourdain’s television career may be most remembered for a meal he shared with then-President Barack Obama in a small Vietnam restaurant in 2016. “He was funny, quick to laugh,” Bourdain wrote. “When I asked him if he ever missed being able to go out to a bar, sit down by himself and have a cold beer while listening to old songs on the juke, he smiled and said ‘in about six months.'” Bourdain went on:
When I asked him if it was OK that I get along with Ted Nugent, who has said many, many deeply offensive and hateful things about him personally, he responded “of course” — that that was exactly the sort of person we SHOULD be talking to: the people who disagree with us.
He was oddly resigned to and forgiving of his enemies. And when I asked him if — given the very likely ugly and frightening contents of the daily intelligence briefings to which he is privy — if it was “going to be OK” for my daughter as she grew up, he replied with confidence that on balance, it would.
And we all hope against hope that Obama was right. Until next week.
I attended a class taught by William Gaddis back in my undergraduate days, and although he has little in common with W.C. Fields, the two men did share a nasal drawl suggesting that they had little patience with the stupidities of the human animal. On Wednesday, June 27, the National Arts Club here in New York will present the eminently worthwhile A Celebration of Comic Genius W.C. Fields. In attendance will be Fields’ granddaughter Dr. Harriet Fields, Columbia University Prof. Rob King, and the similarly eminently worthwhile Dick Cavett. You can be in attendance too; the program, which will feature clips from Fields’ career, is open to the public, and it’s free. More information at the National Arts Club web site here.
This might be a good time to remind you that just a few months ago Kino Lorber released restored, blu-ray editions of two early, silent W.C. Fields features, neither of which has been available for some time: the 1926 It’s the Old Army Game and the 1927 Running Wild. True, they lack Fields’ inimitable verbal delivery, but on the other hand, anyone who’s seen his performance in D.W. Griffiths’ 1925 Sally of the Sawdust, based on Fields’ Broadway success Poppy, will note that Fields was an excellent physical comedian as well — and a better actor than he’s often given credit for, among the great screen comedians ranking second only to Chaplin, and even that’s arguable.
I’ll be raising a glass to the Great Man at Cafe Katja later this afternoon. I last wrote about Fields in December 2016; my essay on the comedian is below.
Christmas Day 2016 marks the 70th anniversary of W.C. Fields’ death, and to mark the occasion Metrograph will present a screening of one of his best films, the 1935 Man on the Flying Trapeze, on Thursday, December 29, at 7.00pm (with special guests to be announced). Trapeze, according to Metrograph, is “a pure poem of domestic desperation,” as are two other films that Fields made around the same period, You’re Telling Me and It’s a Gift. The latter has come to be regarded as one of Fields’ greatest films, but all three together form an informal trilogy of satires about small-town American life that must be considered Fields’ greatest achievement.
It’s hard to imagine Albert Brooks, Fawlty Towers, or Curb Your Enthusiasm without Fields. He seems to have single-handedly established the Comedy of Discomfort: a combination of muttered complaints and insults, general misanthropy, and embarrassing physical situations turned often enough against the comedian himself as well as the world. In contrast to those others, though, there’s a vein of melancholy that also runs through Fields’ work. The domestic comedies present Fields’ characters as trapped in small-town mediocrity, with unhappy personal and professional lives; every attempt that Sam Bisbee, Ambrose Wolfinger, or Harold Bissonette makes to break free of this mediocrity, even (as in Trapeze) just to play hooky from work to attend the fights one afternoon or (as in It’s a Gift) to catch just a little extra sleep before the day begins, ends in comic chaos.
There’s also a touch of tragedy associated with each of these characters. In the aftermath of a professional disaster, You’re Telling Me‘s Bisbee seriously considers suicide; Trapeze‘s Wolfinger is on his second marriage, his first having ended with his wife’s early death, leaving him with a daughter to raise on his own; and, in the penultimate scene of It’s a Gift, Bissonette is left in a landscape of astonishing devastation, abandoned by his entire family except for his dog, bereft of comfort or even a future, his dreams destroyed. After the raucous comedy of the previous 60 minutes, the scene is still something of a shock. These being comedies, there’s always a deus ex machina (in the form of a princess, a real estate speculator, or a job offer) to save the character at the end, and more often then not Fields’ failed father figures are redeemed by the love of a daughter. But in real life, deus ex machinas are all too rare, a realization that occurs only a few minutes after the credits roll.
Fields came to the movies rather late in his career, appearing in his first major film, D.W. Griffith’s Sally of the Sawdust, in 1925 at the age of 45; it wasn’t until his mid-50s, with the three films I mentioned above, that he hit his cinematic stride. Before that he had risen from vaudeville’s backwaters as a comic juggler to some considerable fame on Broadway, reaching the top of his profession as a stage comedian in 1923’s Poppy, which ran for over a year at the Apollo Theatre and provided the basis for Griffith’s film. After that, the movies came calling, and Fields appeared in a variety of silent features before his sound debut in the short The Golf Specialist, an adaptation of a sketch Fields created for the stage Follies, which was released in 1930. The rest, as they say, is history.
Fields’ films can be grouped into three different categories: the middle-class domestic comedies; the period pieces (like Poppy, remade in 1936, often set in late 19th-century or turn-of-the-century) such as The Old Fashioned Way — the best of these, in which Fields plays the leader of a theatre troupe travelling through the small towns of middle America, performing the melodrama The Drunkard; and here and there a few absurdist essays, from 1932’s Million Dollar Legs and 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. It was in the first two groups, though, that Fields really shone. While the absurdist films have their moments (and nearly all of Fields’ films have an absurdist moment or two), his comic studies of Americana retain the most interest for us now.
After 1936, Fields began to suffer from a variety of physical ailments, some of which were exacerbated by his heavy drinking, and though he returned to the Paramount studio in 1938 he was never the same. While 1940’s The Bank Dick, made for Universal, is often cited as the quintessential Fields movie, I find his performance and the comedy there somewhat forced; compared to his appearance in Trapeze, Fields looks physically bloated and slow, and the deft grace of his movements in those earlier films has deteriorated.
I’m not sure whether the work of the great comedians like Fields, Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy still appeals. While it may be thought that we live in a more cynical age, seeing Man on the Flying Trapeze may prove to you that, on the contrary, our age might not be cynical enough. Most of his best films are available on this DVD set from Universal.