Posted in Baseball, Books, Movie Reviews, Music

Brain Bits on a Summer Sunday

Urban Shocker (Photo by Charles Conlon)

We’re in the midst of our second heat wave of this still-young summer, but the iced tea is flowing and the baseball is plentiful. It’s a great time to delve into a wonderful new book, “The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon’s Golden Age Baseball Photographs” by Neal McCabe and Constance McCabe. Conlon was a newspaper printer and proofreader whose photography yielded some of the most memorable baseball images ever created. Not just that iconic photo of Ty Cobb sliding into third, dirt spraying from his spikes, that we’ve all seen, but portraits and action poses of the famous and the forgotten—and in many cases, the “never wases”. As you turn the pages, you’re constantly reminded of Norma Desmond’s line in “Sunset Boulevard”—“We had faces then!”—and these players surely did. Neal McCabe, baseball historian, supplies the accompanying text discussing each player’s career and personality; his sister Constance, head of the Photograph Conservation Department at the National Gallery of Art, saw to the arresting appearance of these images in printed form. Covering the years from the turn of the century to the early 1940’s, “The Big Show” reminds us how hard baseball life used to be. Many of the players Conlon photographed lasted only a season or two in the majors before blowing their arms out, ruining themselves with booze, or just turning out to be one-note wonders. Although a surprising number of these players were college men, for the majority this was still a time when their baseball pay was awful and an off-season job, no matter how dangerous, was essential to feed themselves and their families. In an age of multi-year, multimillion dollar contracts, it’s good to remember how things once were. Whether as baseball history or photography collection, “The Big Show” is a wonderful experience—I can’t recommend it more highly.

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Gentleman’s Agreement

I treated myself to a 20th Century Fox Studio Classics multi-pack from my local Costco this week in order to enjoy several films I hadn’t seen in a very long time—“Gentleman’s Agreement”, “Anastasia”, “The Ox-Bow Incident” and “The Snake Pit”. I’ve already revisited the first two and they’re both still worth watching.

“Gentleman’s Agreement”, based on the novel by Laura Z. Hobson, was one of the great message movies of the 1940’s. It won Oscars in 1947 for Best Picture, Director (Elia Kazan) and Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm), yet the mechanism by which the plot turned (journalist Gregory Peck masquerades as a Jew for eight weeks to expose antisemitism) makes the story creak. Nevertheless, despite the Nuremberg Trials and the death camps, it was the one non-Jewish studio boss, Darryl Zanuck, who insisted on making the picture.  Yes, it’s preachy as all get-out, but there’s a surprising amount of meat on those bones. John Garfield can’t be better as Gregory Peck’s boyhood friend, who finds himself on the verge of losing the civilian job of a lifetime because restricted housing makes it impossible for him to relocate. The restaurant scene where he’s insulted by a drunk (“I can’t stand officers…’specially when they’re Yids”) brings some welcome heat to the film, as does the classic sequence at the oh-so tony Flume Inn, where Peck, confronting the resort’s manager, demands to know whether the place is restricted. June Havoc absolutely knocks it out of the park as Peck’s secretary, Miss Wales, the former Estelle Wilensky, who pridefully passes herself off as a WASP.  While Dorothy McGuire has the thankless job of playing Peck’s continually preached-to fiancée, Jane Wyatt fortunately gets the leeway to give a wonderfully subtle performance as her politely bigoted sister.  It’s fun to see some vintage New York location shots, accompanied by Alfred Newman’s “Street Scene” theme, and to recognize a young Gene Nelson, sans tap shoes, as the antisemitic drunk’s pal. For the fashion-conscious, the New Look is in full bloom here—Celeste Holm wears the most alarming shoulder pads I’ve ever seen in my life (check the photo). And the manners! People were polite in 1947. They actually addressed each other as  “Mr.” and “Miss”. All the time! At present, when every phone solicitor and 10-year-old routinely first-names even the oldest senior citizens, this alone makes “Gentleman’s Agreement” refreshing indeed.

“Anastasia” is still the height of movie romance, even after the discovery of Romanov remains and the discrediting of Anna Anderson as the surviving Grand Duchess. A woman who doesn’t know who she is is rescued by a shady bunch of White Russians eager to find someone whom they can pass off as the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II in order to obtain a piece of the £10 million Romanov inheritance. While Anna Anderson is the springboard of the story, the liveliest aspects of the film are pure invention—Yul Brynner’s commanding Bounine; Akim Tamiroff and Sacha Pitoeff as his committee of “investors”; and Martita Hunt as the giddy lady-in-waiting, Baroness von Livenbaum. I had forgotten that Arthur Laurents did the script, based on a play by Marcelle Maurette; only he could have written one of the best put-downs in screen history, when the Dowager Empress (wonderfully played by Helen Hayes) rebukes her lady-in-waiting’s too-obvious fancy of Bounine with “Livenbaum, at your age sex should mean nothing more than gender.” But this is Ingrid Bergman’s show (her performance won the 1956 Best Actress Oscar), and she brilliantly plays the ambiguity of her character’s identity. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor display a mix of emotions as convincingly as she does when she ends this scene with “And I’m the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicolaevna!”

Unfortunately, “Gentleman’s Agreement” does not have a commentary track. But the “Anastasia” DVD does, and it’s terrific— Arthur Laurents; James MacArthur; John Burlingame on Alfred Newman’s wonderful score and the source music in the film; and Sylvia Stoddard on Anna Anderson, Romanov history and the production of the movie. One thing to keep in mind: the commentary was apparently recorded between the discovery of the first and second graves containing the remains of the Tsar’s family. Since then DNA testing has accounted for all four Grand Duchesses, the Tsarevich and their parents. Somehow, though, the world seems poorer with this bit of romance gone and the mystery solved.

Posted in Books, Movie Reviews

Sarah’s Key: The False Comfort of Forgetting

Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia Jarmond

One of the hard truths of life is that there’s never enough time to read all the books you want to read, or to see all the films that pique your interest. So it wasn’t until the last two weeks that I caught up with “Sarah’s Key”, the multi-layered novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, and its movie version, starring Kristin Scott Thomas.

“Sarah’s Key” tells two stories simultaneously. We follow Sarah, a 10-year-old Jewish girl in Occupied Paris, as she and her parents fall victim to the infamous Vel d’Hiv Roundup conducted not by the SS, but by the French authorities. Before leaving their apartment, Sarah tries to save her 4-year-old brother Michel by locking him in a secret cupboard, promising him, “I’ll come back for you”, as she pockets the key. The second story is that of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist, who comes to learn the role her French husband’s family played in Sarah’s story after Vel d’Hiv and her later escape from a detainment camp in Drancy.

De Rosnay fits a number of considerable issues into her compact book. Let’s start with the theme common to both stories—the varying degrees of culpability displayed by the characters. We first see the outright collaboration of the French authorities, who eagerly exceeded what the SS ordered by including over 4,000 Jewish children in the Vel d’Hiv Roundup. Collaboration shades into complicity as we watch the behavior of the landlady at Sarah’s apartment building, as well as that of various characters who see and do nothing. And then there’s the Tézac family, Julia’s in-laws, who passively benefit from the situation by moving into the large and suddenly vacant apartment of Sarah’s family only a few days after the Roundup. They suspect, but choose to ignore until confronted by Sarah’s return. And finally, there are Julia’s husband and his aged grandmother, who simply bury the past altogether and hope everyone will forget.

De Rosnay’s story forces us to consider other, yet equally important questions. What is identity? Is it right to confront someone with the fact that a parent was not who she says she was, and by extension, you as her child are not who you think you are? This happens twice in “Sarah’s Key”, the first, with a happy outcome, when Julia’s father-in-law learns that his own father, despite all appearances, never forgot Sarah. And then because of Julia’s compulsion to learn Sarah’s fate, she meets her son, who is shocked to learn of his mother’s experiences. He almost nastily denies what Julia’s investigation has uncovered, but after the passage of time, comes to embrace it, as well as the woman who brought him this knowledge. Though it’s easy to foresee, the tribute Julia ultimately pays Sarah is a fitting end to both stories.

The historic background of de Rosnay’s novel is little known in the U.S., where the myth persists that all of France fought in the Resistance during World War II down to the last man, woman and child. I already knew about the Vel d’Hiv Roundup—oddly enough, not because I had been a college history major, but through another excellent novel I had read in high school, “An Infinity of Mirrors” by Richard Condon, the author of “The Manchurian Candidate”. The shades of gray involved in the story of France during World War II can’t be described in a 30-second sound bite; the post-war sweeping of this history under the rug by the French themselves is another reason why we know so little about it. In fact it wasn’t until 1995 that a French official, in this case President Jacques Chirac, publicly acknowledged the nation’s complicity in the Vel d’Hiv Roundup and other similar actions during the Occupation.

Whether as novel or film, “Sarah’s Key” is a haunting experience. The movie follows the book version of Sarah’s story very closely, but Julia’s story loses some key elements in the translation to film—her background and marriage, the role her daughter plays in uncovering Sarah’s fate, and most prominently, the elimination of several of Julia’s in-laws and friends whose views and experiences illustrate a fascinating range of reactions to her investigation. There are also some subtle but important differences in the details. Both book and film contain a scene in which the Dufaures, the older couple who shelter Sarah, offer a bribe to a French official to refrain from demanding identity papers for the child they’re hiding in plain sight. Tellingly, in the novel he pockets the cash without further question; in the film he sees the bills, yet nobly declines the money, letting Sarah pass as the couple’s grandchild. I don’t think I’m being overly cynical by saying that the scene as related in the novel is closer to reality.

The film features some excellent performances by Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia, Niels Arestrup and Dominique Frot as the Dufaures, and especially Mélusine Mayance as Sarah. The DVD version has a lengthy and engrossing “Making of…” that adds to the experience in important ways. Both the movie and the book are well worth your time.