Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Political Minefield

State of the Union (1948, black & white)

After a long and somewhat unjustified hiatus, which I won’t waste your time with here, I’m back. And I’m going to change my format a bit. Instead of writing about three movies at a time, I’m whittling that down to just one. And, I will no longer ignore the cast members of these films. My reasons for the change will, hopefully, be obvious by my choice of the movie that was chosen for my return ─ State of the Union.

Let me begin by saying that the current political discourse in this country is extremely troubling to me and, I’m sure, many other Americans. The us-versus-them mentality that dominates our politics is childish, embarrassing and ─ more important ─ ultimately self destructive. And it occurs for one reason: to elect people who will promote laws that only reflect one set of beliefs and restrict laws that reflect all other beliefs. This equation too often ignores promoting laws that are for the good of the country as a whole ─ although politicians of all stripes will claim that is what they are doing. But I have to question, for instance, why is it that when some politicians call universal health care an entitlement program, they make it sound like it is evil to believe that health care is something to which all people should be entitled? But I fear I may be getting too far afield.

State of the Union, which has a star-studded cast that gives exceptional performances, is about the short-lived political career of self-made business magnate ─ and apparent philanderer ─ Grant Matthews [played by Spencer Tracy]. The other woman, Kay Thorndyke [Angela Lansbury], runs a newspaper empire and aspires to be America’s king maker and Grant Matthews is her would-be king. But the wild card in the deck is Grant’s wife, Mary [Katherine Hepburn], who is aware of the philandering but believes her husband still loves her and is waiting for him to come to that realization. (This movie parallels today’s American politics is oh so many ways.)

The initial political overtures to Grant are made at the office of a political advisor named Jim Conover [Adolphe Menjou], who uses his Washington home as a boarding house for visiting politicians and citizens of note. The meeting is also attended by Kay Thorndyke and one of her political reporters, the wise-cracking Spike MacManus [Van Johnson]. But Grant is skeptical. He is not sure that politics is for him. He doesn’t particularly trust politicians and dislikes the way they run things. He is told that he could change that once he is in office. He worries that he would be forced to say and do things that he doesn’t believe in, and he warns them that he would speak his own mind without interference from others. He is told that he will be able to be his own man.

Then the subject of Grant’s relationship to Kay arises ─ after all, a presidential candidate should be beyond reproach. They agree not to see each other and Grant then calls Mary to ask her if she would join him on a speaking tour he had already scheduled in cities where he had business interests. Mary would not be told of the political side until she arrived in Washington. Grant makes it clear that he would not run without Mary’s support.

In the next scene, which is my favorite in this movie except for the climax, Grant stops in front of the White House as he considers the proposition. A man approaches and asks him what he thinks of it, to which Grant replies, “It needs a coat of paint.” The man is incredulous and questions Grant about what he thinks about the people who have lived there and what the White House represents. Grant then goes on for what seemed like ten minutes (I know it was shorter, it just seem that long.) naming all the people who made the White House what it is. Included in those names are people from all over the world ─ philosophers, religious leaders, scientists, writers, painters, sculptures, explorers and, of course, American presidents and others who have fought for liberty in this country and elsewhere. The most interesting of this final group was a name that I hadn’t heard during the previous times I had seen this movie, a name I’m sure few people have ever heard of at all, and a name that made me marvel at the fact that someone from that period of American history would think to include it in this scene. That name is Crispus Atticks, the first man who died fighting for America’s independence. The inclusion of the name of this black man reinforced something that I had noticed during my earlier viewings of this movie: In this scene, Grant Matthews seems to be implying that although the United States (as symbolized by the White House) is a wonderful thing to behold, it still needs some sprucing up (like a fresh coat of paint) that would make it a better place in which to live.

When Mary arrives at Conover’s house, she is told by her host of the possibility of Grant embarking on a campaign for the presidency. She thinks it’s a wonderful idea and the two (Mary and Grant) seem to be getting along just fine until Mary finds Kay’s glasses on Grant’s night table. Kay had gone out of her way to covertly place them there so that Mary would find them. While this creates some friction (Grant winds up sleeping on the floor), it does not derail the campaign. And as Mary and Grant discuss their relationship, Grant tells her, truthfully, that he doesn’t know how Kay’s glasses would up in his room. When the conversation ends, Mary, who anyone can plainly see loves her husband, comes to believe that their marriage is still salvageable.

On the campaign trail, the couple seems to grow closer and Grant is making a big hit with his speeches. Conover, in the meantime, is meeting in smoke-filled rooms with political operatives plotting strategy and promising political payoffs for their support. Grant’s next to last speech on the tour, however, raises a red flag for Conover and Kay. Instead of pandering to the labor crowd to which he was speaking, he apparently told them that they need to do more to get along with management and to stop being so combative. This has apparently displeased the labor leaders, although the rank and file union members seem to approve of the tone of the speech. And knowing Grant, Conover and Kay worry that in his next speech to business leaders Grant will alienate them as well by telling them they also have to clean up their act.

Another interesting point about this movie: There is a scene when Mary and Grant are discussing politics with a waiter. The waiter tells them that his wife says the country would be better off with a woman as president. Both Grant and Mary laugh about it and ask why the waiter’s wife feels that way. The waiter tells them that men are like roosters who always fight and accomplish little. Women, on the other hand, are like hens ─ not nearly as aggressive, with more of a tendency to try to get along, and they’re the ones who produce the eggs. Interesting analogy, huh?

I have to admit that although I have never been surprised that Katherine Hepburn would accept a role where her character would be tolerant of a husband’s infidelity ─ after all, in real life she was the other woman in Spencer Tracy’s marriage ─ but the idea that she would pooh-pooh the notion that a woman could be president of the United States seems to go against her feminist grain. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, considering that the movie takes place in 1948 and the feminist movement didn’t come to full bloom until the 1960s.

Anyway, MacManus, now Grant’s campaign manager, and Conover try to get Grant to deliver a speech to the business community that has been written for him. But Grant, with Mary’s encouragement, refuses. They produce letters and telegrams from “the people” that praised Grant’s speeches. Conover tells them to forget about the little guys because they aren’t the ones who deliver the delegates at the state and national conventions that nominate the candidates. But Grant remains steadfast ─ that is until he is called into a closed-door meeting without Mary and with Kay, who convinces him to follow Conover’s advice. After the speech, letters and telegrams of support pour in from people pledging money and delegates and Grant sees the logic to Conover’s strategy.

Mary, however, becomes unhappy with the new tack Grant has taken. Earlier in the movie, she had warned Conover that playing the traditional political game would figuratively kill the real Grant and turn him into something that he would come to despise. Now she is watching that happen. And on top of that, MacManus tells Mary the plans that have been made for a radio and TV address to announce Grant’s candidacy for president of the United States have to include a photo op of Mary, Grant and Kay together. The reason: to dispel any doubt that there is anything untoward going on between her husband and the media czarina. Mary reluctantly agrees.

On the night of the big shebang, after everything has been set up and the speakers have begun addressing the nation, Mary learns of Grant’s meeting with Kay ─ the meeting after which he changed strategy. Then she hears Conover and Kay wrangling with the political operatives over the deals that have been made in her husband’s name. Disgusted, she sends her children, who were both supposed say something on air about their father, to bed. Then, she refuses to give the speech introducing her husband. When Grant learns about Mary’s change, he, Conover and Kay plot a damage-control strategy, with Kay introducing Grant. But MacManus, who has grown fond of Grant and Mary, talks her into giving the speech.

When Mary steps to the microphone and begins to talk, Conover and Kay are elated, but Grant is furious. He realizes that Mary is going against her own conscience to help him out ─ and while he allowed himself to sell his soul to the devil for the chance of fame and glory, he knew he could not allow the woman he loved to do the same. He took the microphone away from Mary and confessed his sins ─ the back-room deals, the insincerity of his speeches, his greed for political power. Then, after telling his audience that he didn’t deserve to be president, he told them what he really believed ─ that all the nation’s citizens should be entitled to whatever medical treatment was necessary to sustain their good health, that we should be willing to share our good fortune with our neighbors and the rest of the world, that we should embrace the idea of a global government, that we should not let fear divide us and keep us from being the kind of nation that we can be.

It is powerful stuff ─ and it is a movie that should be required viewing for all politicians and everyone who considers a career in politics.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Love: The Gift Money Can't Buy

Citizen Kane
The Baron of Arizona
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Love: The condition of the heart that can bring so much joy and so much misery. And with all the people who misuse the word, you’d think that somewhere there would be a school or a teacher that can show us not only what the word really means, but also how to bring it into our lives. Well, actually, there are people who can show us how to attain – and maintain – it. Those people are our parents. Unfortunately, many of our parents never learned the lessons themselves – and what those badly educated parents taught us often falls woefully short of our expectations.

It is all too obvious that the result of some of their teachings have focused on hate – usually of themselves – and the lessons that were learned caused their students to do mean, violent and often deadly things. But that is not what I wish to talk about here. Rather, I would like to discuss how the good intentions of parents who love their children can fail to produce the desired result – the happiness and sense of fulfillment that love gives life. The movies selected for this posting are Citizen Kane, released in 1941 in black and white; The Baron of Arizona, 1950 in b&w; and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1958 in color.

Charles Foster Kane, the title character in Citizen Kane (which I believe is the best movie ever made), was plucked from the love of a drunken father and an overbearing mother when she, thinking she was doing what was best for her son, decided to let a rich banker take charge of the child’s upbringing after the family struck it rich by finding a silver mine in the 19th-century American West. The mother apparently didn’t want her son to be the influenced by his father’s drinking. As far as we can tell from the movie, the child never saw his parents again.

“Charlie” Kane grew up to inherit a fortune and immediately began to use it in his search for love. He took over the management of a newspaper and used it, ostensibly, to defend the rights of the working class and the downtrodden. But in reality, as noted by Jedediah Leland, Kane’s “best friend” and employee of the newspaper, what Charlie really wanted was for his readers to love him.

Kane then marries Emily Monroe Norton, the niece of the president of the United States. They go on a whirlwind tour of Europe, where he begins buying all types of symbols of prosperity, with an emphasis on statues. But it becomes clear that this marriage provides a way to get a foot into the door of politics. So, he decides to run for governor – after all, winning an election could be seen as a sign that he is loved by the voters of the state. However, as most of us often feel at certain times in our lives, Kane comes to believe that he is so important that he has become invulnerable. His particular invulnerability, he believes, is to political scandal. But when on the eve of the election he is found in the apartment of a woman other that his wife, despite there being no indication of sexual dalliance between the two, he winds up destroying his political aspirations and his marriage.

In an attempt to demonstrate his love for the woman who wrecked his political career, a third-rate torch singer named Susan Alexander, he marries her. He then sets about the futile task of trying to mold her into a great opera singer. He even buys an opera house where she will make her professional debut. But she is a complete flop and when Leland, his newspaper’s music critic, falls asleep in the middle of writing the review of the performance after drinking himself into a stupor, Kane completes the article. And in an attempt to demonstrate his integrity, Kane sticks to Leland’s theme – that his wife gave a terrible performance. And of course, this strains their marriage.

Kane eventually buys a large estate called Xanadu, where he and his wife can be sheltered from a world hostile to them – him, in particular. They apparently never leave the grounds and constantly invite friends to visit them. But Susan, who spends hours upon hours putting together jigsaw puzzles, finally tires of the isolation and complains to her husband that all he has ever done was try to buy her love. Then, much to Charlie’s shock, she leaves him. Her departure sets off an emotional explosion where Kane destroys much of the furnishings in their living quarters. The destruction ends when Kane comes upon a snow globe that encases a tiny cabin – like the cabin he lived in with his parents. As he walks down the corridor holding the snow globe, he mutters the word “Rosebud.”

That utterance set off a journalistic search for what it meant to one of the most powerful men of his times. The journalists never find out – but the audience does. It turns out that Rosebud was the name of the sled he had as a child when he still lived with his parents.

The Baron of Arizona is based on a true story about a chapter of American history that I had never heard of before. It is about a forger, James Addison Reavis, who recruits the help of an old man, Pepito Alvarez, who is the guardian of a young girl, Sofia, to swindle the United States out of its claim to the territory of Arizona. Reavis tells Alvarez that Sofia is the long-lost descendant of a person named de Peralta who was given a land grant for the territory by the King of Spain several centuries earlier. But there never was a de Peralta, so Reavis has to forge the documents that would support his story.

Before beginning his quest to replace the original documents with forgeries Reavis hires a nanny, Loma Morales, for Sofia. He also carves a statement in stone that is designed to prove that de Peralta did lay claim to the territory. With these two things accomplished, Reavis travels to Spain and joins the monastery when documents involving Spain’s colonization of the New World are kept. He eventually manages to get assigned to the library where the documents are kept and completes his work there, but there is another hurdle to navigate – one of the king’s officials has a copy of the original in the library of his home in Madrid. Reavis makes his way to the new destination with the help of a band of gypsies, seduces the wife of the king’s official and sneaks into the library to alter the copy so that it matches the original.

This process took several years, and by the time Reavis reconnects with Sofia in Paris, she has grown into a beautiful woman. The two marry and return to the United States to claim their land. It must be pointed out that Sofia believes that she is the descendant of the de Peraltas, as does her nanny. Alvarez, on the other hand knows this is false because she knows that Sofia’s mother was a Native American who left Sofia with him before she died. He swore to never reveal that she was of Native America stock, so he willing played along with Reavis, who doesn’t find out about this until very late in the game.

The claim creates an uproar in the territory of Arizona and John Griff, a government agent who specializes in forgeries, is assigned to investigate the case. Eventually Griff gathers the evidence, but before he presents the evidence, Reavis confesses. But the citizens of Arizona are so angry they nearly hang Reavis, who manages to convice the mob that hanging him would actually hurt their claims to land that they had bought before Reavis showed up. The mob backs down and Reavis is sentenced to six years in prison.

Now to the part that relates to the theme of this posting: While we are not told anything about Reavis’ upbringing or his parents, we do learn what was missing from his life that led him to embark on his fraudulent endeavor. After Reavis confesses the forgery scheme to Sofia, she tells him that in spite of deception she still loves him and she is willing to suffer the punishment for his crime. He then replies, “I’ve finally figured out what I was looking for my whole life: a woman who would love me for myself.” From this statement, I deduced that Reavis’ childhood did not include parents who sufficiently reassured him that he was totally and unconditionally loved.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a pertinent story to this posting on many levels. It touches on the marital relationships; sibling rivalries; in-law rivalries; homosexuality, though not overtly; impending death; mendacity (which is my singularly favorite word in this movie); and most importantly for this discussion, parents’ love for their children. But instead of going through all of these subjects, I’m going to try to cut to the chase.

Brick Pollitt, who is married to “Maggie the cat,” comes from a wealthy Southern family whose patriarch, Big Daddy, is dying from cancer. However, Big Daddy’s condition is being kept from both him and his wife, Big Mama. Brick’s older brother, Goober, is a lawyer who is trying to get the estate settled before his father’s death and – goaded on by his wife, Mae, who is pregnant with their sixth child – is seeking to take over the family business. Brick, who once owned and quarterbacked a semi-professional football team cares little about taking over the business. He has become somewhat of a drunk, has a broken leg and suspects that Maggie once slept with his best friend, Skipper, who is hinted to be gay. This suspicion, which is apparently unfounded, contributes to the couple’s lack of intimacy – which is often brought up by Mae, who tells everyone that she cannot hear sounds of lovemaking through the thin walls that separate their bedrooms.

Big Daddy, who has returned home to celebrate his birthday, learns the truth about his condition from Brick – who in a pique of frustration lets it slip out. With the cat out of the bag, the family doctor provides Big Daddy with morphine to deal with the pain – and Goober and Mae approach Big Mama to discuss Big Daddy’s estate. But Big Mama doesn’t want to believe or talk about Big Daddy’s impending death and turns the discussion to her concern for Brick’s condition. As Maggie comforts her mother-in-law and Goober and Mae press their case, Brick goes down to the basement, where his father has retreated to after learning he doesn’t have long to live.

In the basement, Big Daddy rummages through the expensive mementos his has accumulated throughout his life while questioning Brick about the son’s problems. During the rummaging, Big Daddy comes across an old suitcase that belonged to his father, a drifter who took his son everywhere he went, often hopping freight trains to travel. Big Daddy called his father “that old bum.” Then, Big Daddy tells Brick that he (Big Daddy) has given his son (Brick) everything that a man could want. But Brick disagrees and tells Big Daddy that although he gave him lots of physical, expensive things, the only thing he (Brick) never felt he got from his father was love. Brick then points out that Big Daddy’s father left him more than just an old suitcase and hat – he left him fond memories of a parent who loved him. This statement brings Big Daddy out of his bout of self-pity and he goes up stairs and then goes for a walk with his wife, who he had described in scornful terms up to that point.

As the movie ends, Brick and Goober actually show affection for each other. Then Brick summons Maggie – who has lied about being pregnant and told her father-in-law that her pregnancy was her birthday gift to him (Big Daddy) – to go upstairs with him so they can make her lie become truth.

These stories tell us that the key to happiness is love and that the love shown by our parents often shapes our lives – for better or for worse. Sometimes, like the case of Charlie Kane, parents do what they think is best without realizing the harm they are doing to their child by removing the signs of their love from that child’s life. Other times, as Big Daddy demonstrated, a parent will misinterpret what he or she was taught and try to provide their child with the material things that the parent thought he or she missed out on during their own childhood. And while there is no “hard evidence” of Reavis’s treatment by his parents, I think it’s fair to say that if it had been made clear that he was loved as a child, he might not have felt the need to use his considerable skills in such a devious manner.

Additionally, the unmistakable link of between these three movies is the erroneous belief that money – lots and lots of money – will buy happiness. These films tell us that is not the case and suggest that had the people in these movies received demonstrable expressions of love from their parents – or understood those expressions when they did receive them – they might have lived happier lives.

Of course, you can always point to cases where overindulgence by a doting parent can be just as harmful to the child. But that’s for another posting. The lesson I am trying to share here is that we should always try to let our children know that they are loved – and that begins by telling them so.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Suicide of Global Proportions: The Ultimate Game of Chicken

On the Beach
Fail Safe
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

As you can tell from the title of this posting, I have returned to seriousness – albeit with a film that is rather hilarious, considering the subject matter. But I thought it an appropriate topic with the concerns our world is currently facing – hostile nations seemingly determined to create their own nuclear arsenals and the fear that nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of global, or homegrown, terrorists who will have little compunction about using them.

To me, the whole idea of having a nuclear deterrent is stupidly misguided. It first began during World War II, when the Allies were concerned that Hitler’s Nazi regime would develop some kind of super weapon. Thus the birth of the United States’ Manhattan Project, which produced the nuclear devices that were used on Japan – twice – and ended that global conflict. Then after the world witnessed the power of such devices, the communism-inspired Soviet Union just had to develop its own nuclear weapons to ensure that the western capitalists wouldn’t attack without fear of retaliation. Thus the world began to engage in the ultimate game of chicken – a game which neither side could win and a game that was being played by unbending idealists who would be willing to destroy the entire human race to prove their ideological superiority. It was an idiotic idea then and it is still an idiotic idea today – especially when you consider the current crop of idiots who would like to possess these weapons.

It is very fitting that all the films in this posting (On the Beach, released in 1959; Fail Safe, 1964; and Dr. Strangelove, 1964) are black-and-white movies. This medium is perfect for the subject matter, with its genetic trait of an us-against-them mentality that sees, metaphorically, only black and white. I also want to add that I will not be discussing these films in chronological order, as I usually do.

In Fail Safe, a computer glitch leads to the deployment of a U.S. squadron of nuclear-armed jet fighters against the Soviet Union. The squadron’s target is Moscow and, according to the regulations built into the military’s nuclear defense strategy, after the squadron passes a certain point on the map, the pilots are instructed not to accept any countermanding orders from anyone – including the president of the United States. Fearful of starting a nuclear war, the U.S. president contacts the Russian premier and convinces his soviet counterpart that the attack is a mistake – a mistake that was helped along by soviet chicanery that was not intended to create the problem that it did.

The president, in a show of good faith, then orders his own military to provide information that would help the soviets shoot down the bombers. However, it eventually becomes apparent that at least one bomber will make it through the soviet defenses. In a last ditch effort to prevent all-out war, the president tells the soviet premier that he will order the nuclear destruction of New York City – where the president’s wife is shopping and the family of the pilot ordered to drop the sacrificial bomb lives.

Although two cities are destroyed and tens of millions of innocent people die, the movie shows sworn enemies cooperating to try to prevent a conflict that could get out of control and lead to the destruction of the planet. This is the one hopeful aspect of the film.

Dr. Strangelove is patterned after the previous movie but the apparent intent is to show the stupidity of the philosophy of nuclear deterrence. This time the problem is caused by the base commander of a U.S. Strategic Air Command post who takes it upon himself to rid the world of communism because he is convinced that the soviets have tainted the U.S. water supply with fluoride in an attempt to sap Americans of their bodily essences. He then kills himself to prevent anyone from finding the codes that will recall the bombers.

This story is filled with off-the-wall characters such as: the head of the U.S. nuclear research program, who is a former Nazi who is confined to a wheel chair and when he gets excited, he cannot prevent his arm from rising for a “seig heil” salute; an army general who promotes a limited nuclear war and is obsessed about some kind of strategic gap that will give the soviets a tactical advantage; a British military liaison who destroys a soda machine to get change to call the U.S. President; and an air force officer who warns the Brit that he will have to answer to the soda manufacturer for the destruction of the vending machine.

But my favorite character of this farce is the pilot of the bomber, a Texan who wears a cowboy hat. When the bomb gets stuck as the plane's crew is trying to drop it on the target, the pilot dislodges it by jumping on it and riding the weapon like it is a bronco in a rodeo show while he swings his hat and lets out of celebratory whoop on the way to his, and the world’s, destruction. This cowboy offers the perfect end for this movie – a stupid ideologue gleefully helping to destroy mankind.

On the Beach tells the story of the crew of a U.S. submarine that was submerged during a nuclear conflict that wiped out civilization, except for the inhabitants of Australia. With no place else to go because of the radiation levels, the submariners head for this last outpost of civilization. Although everyone remaining is aware that the deadly radiation will eventually consume their oasis, they continue to live their lives to the fullest measure that they can. And in the end, though the world is left completely depopulated, the final inhabitants leave a message for the audience – a banner hanging from a building in a town square that reads, if I recall correctly, “IT’S NOT TOO LATE.”

And that banner is why I wanted to make this movie the final one of this posting – because if we don’t get a grip on our nuclear proclivities and our self-righteous desires to insist that everyone adheres to the same ideological, philosophical, religious or whatever doctrines, it will be too late for all of us.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Irreverent Revelry

A Night at the Opera
A Day at the Races
A Night in Casablanca

First, let me apologize for being away for so long. My wife and I recently moved back to Washington, D.C., and as any anyone who has moved knows, that was a very time-consuming task – not just the packing in Miami but also the unpacking and resetting the phones and computers in D.C.

Now to the subject at hand. My wife has suggested that I’ve been a little too intense in my subject matter of late. Additionally, she has hinted that perhaps I should redirect all the zaniness – which is my natural state of being – that I have been inflicting on her to someone else. And I can think of no better examples of the type of zaniness that floats my boat than The Marx Brothers.

These siblings (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo, who is not in any of the films in this discussion) embody everything I admire about comedy – their lack of respect for authority; their crazy antics; their witty and often sexually oriented repartee, and this includes the always mute Harpo; and their exceptional musical talent. While I will attempt to not get carried away with all the hilarious details in the movies I am examining here – A Night at the Opera (released in 1935 in black and white), A Day at the Races (1937, b&w) and A Night in Casablanca (1946, b&w) – I do want to point out those specific scenes that bust my gut every time I see them.

A Night at the Opera mingles social climbing with romance and illegal immigration. Mrs. Claypool wants to join high society and hires Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) to assist her endeavor. Driftwood’s idea is to bring an opera company from Milan, Italy, to Mrs. Claypool’s Long Island home for a performance. However, Driftwood also has a contract with a tenor named Ricardo, who had been a member of the opera company until he was edged out by another tenor named Rudolfo. The main incentive for the new tenor is to woo Rosa, the company’s lead soprano who is in love with Ricardo. Assisting Driftwood are two off-the-wall friends of Ricardo's – Tomasso (Harpo) and Fiorello (Chico).

The story takes place during a time when trans-Atlantic crossing were made by ocean liners. So to keep the romantic angle alive, Tomasso, Fiorello and Ricardo stow away on the ship and hope to enter the United States illegally. This brings me to my favorite scene of the movie, which has become a sort of iconic symbol of the hilarity of the Marx Brothers. As Driftwood settles into his rather small cabin, Tomasso and Fiorello show up. To Driftwood’s chagrin, they begin ordering and accepting all kinds of services – including food and personal grooming, to name a couple – that are provided by the ship’s crew. And of course, all these service providers turn up at about the same time with all them stuffing themselves into the room until finally some one opens the door and they all tumble out like a closet overstuffed with sports gear and other seldom-used items.

Naturally, by movie’s end and with the help of the constant insanity of Driftwood, Tomasso and Fiorello, the lovers are reunited, the show is a success, the immigration problems are overlooked, Mrs. Claypool achieves her goal and Driftwood appears to have become successful in his primary motivation – getting into Mrs. Claypool’s financial good graces.

A Day at the Races is about a horse doctor named Hackenbush (Groucho) who is asked to join the staff of a sanitarium in an attempt to keep the hospital open. The owner of the sanitarium is a young woman named Judy, who is being threatened by a banker named Morgan, who wants to close the facility. Judy’s richest patient, Mrs. Upjohn, has also become critical of her care at the sanitarium and threatens to return to her personal physician. That physician is Hackenbush, who has tricked Mrs. Upjohn into believing that he is a regular medical doctor. Tony (Chico), an employee at the sanitarium, then contacts Hackenbush and convinces the horse doctor to join the facility’s staff – thus mollifying Mrs. Upjohn.

But Morgan continues his campaign to close the institution and Judy only hope of keeping it open rests with a horse that Gil, her boyfriend, owns and its chances of winning a high-stakes steeplechase. The jockey who is to ride Gil’s horse, which is named Hi-Hat, is Stuffy (Harpo).

I have two favorite scenes in this film. The first is when Hackenbush, Tony and Stuffy are joined by a large group of black actors and actresses (both adults and children) who sing and dance their way through a musical number that is heavily influenced by gospel music. It is a wonderfully engrossing scene that forces a smile onto your face – and don’t be surprised if you find your foot tapping along with the music. I especially love it when the chorus urges “Gabriel” to blow his horn and Stuffy obliges by playing a flute.

The other scene is the race. We find out that Hi-Hat hates Morgan and the sight of the banker’s face or the sound of his voice is like a jolt of adrenaline that makes the horse run faster. Stuffy begins the race by carrying a picture of Morgan, but a gust of wind blows it out of his hand. Hackenbush and Tony then steal the race course’s microphone and alternately antagonize Morgan, who is in the stands rooting against Hi-Hat. Each time Morgan is pestered, he yells at his foils. The yelling is picked up by the microphone and spurs Hi-Hat to run faster. Of course, there is a mix-up in the race when Hi-Hat and another horse both stumble while going over one of the jumps. The two jockeys remount their muddied horses and when the race ends, it appears that Hi-Hat has lost. However, when the winning horse reacts to Morgan’s voice, Stuffy rushes over to wipe the mud off the winning horse’s head and low and behold, the horse in the winner’s circle is Hi-Hat.

In A Night in Casablanca, the bad guys are post-war Nazis who are trying to smuggle stolen art and other valuables to South America. The stolen treasure is hidden in the hotel being managed by a Mr. Kornblow (Groucho). He was elevated to the position after the three previous managers were killed by the Nazis to keep their secret safe. But as always with the Marx brothers, these bad guys are no match for the crazy antics of Kornblow and his assistants Corbaccio (Chico) and Rusty (Harpo).

My favorite part of this film is when the Nazi leader concocts a plan to kill Kornblow by arranging a tryst between the hotel manager and a woman who is pretending to be the Nazi’s fiancée. The idea is that the jealous Nazi will burst into her room, feign indignation and then shoot Kornblow. But Rusty and Corbaccio get wind of the plan and a hilarious game of “musical rooms” ensues. The game works like this. Kornblow enters the woman’s room with his arms filled with flowers and champagne. As the wooing is about to commence, Rusty and Corbaccio chase the never-gonna-happen lovers out of the room. As Kornblow collects his instruments of romance – the flowers and champagne – the woman leaves a note telling the head Nazi which room they are supposed to be in. The Nazi enters the empty room, finds the note and heads for the new location. But Rusty and Corbaccio are one step ahead of him and Kornblow and the woman are relocated again. This futile chase – futile for both the Nazi and Kornblow – continues from room to room until it becomes obvious that the tryst is never going to happen.

I can’t imagine that anyone who claims to be a fan of classic films could have missed seeing at least one Marx Brothers movie. I’m not exactly sure that you will come away from any of their films thinking you actually learned something – although one might glean from them that the purpose of life is to snub your nose at authority, which at times is an understandable reaction to the real-life tomfoolery which is often forced upon us. But I am sure that these guys will make you laugh out loud. And laughter can be a great remedy for many of life’s problems – especially those that are beyond our ability to control.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Faith: A Matter of Conviction

The Miracle Woman
Elmer Gantry
The Night of the Iguana

Let me begin by saying that I believe there is a Supreme Being and that he or she is known by many different names and worshiped in many different ways. My wife also believes in God but is convinced that the Supreme Being is a man because she says a woman wouldn’t put up with the mess that mankind has made of “Her” garden that we call Earth. As a child, I attended an Episcopal church in New York and a Baptist church in North Carolina when I visited by grandmother during the summer; my wife was raised a Catholic. And while we both believe that Christ did exist and his teachings are words that we all should live by, we are very critical of religion – although I am more tolerant of churchgoers because I enjoy the feeling of community I get while sitting in a pew.

However, we both have a problem with religion – a problem that stems from all the pain, suffering, intolerance and violence that have been sanctioned by the different religions in the name of their God. Also, we have seen more than a few self-righteous religious hypocrites who preach piety and then engage in what they themselves claim are sinful acts.

This inability of messengers of God to practice what they preach and their inner conflicts caused by their shortcomings are what I will examine in this posting’s triple feature – The Miracle Woman (released in 1931 in black and white), Elmer Gantry (1960, color) and The Night of the Iguana (1964, b&w).

Florence Fallon, the main character in The Miracle Woman, is the daughter of a reverend who has died after learning that his congregation is having him replaced. Florence blames her father’s death on the congregation and tells them so during what was supposed to be her father’s last sermon, pointing out their scandalous behavior and emptying the church with her ranting. However, one person, a man passing through the town named Hornsby, stays behind and talks Florence into using her knowledge of the Bible to become an evangelical. Thus, Sister Fallon is born.

They establish a tabernacle that employs a band and college cheerleader-like choir that opens the show, which has the feeling of a circus and draws standing-room crowds to listen to Sister Fallon preach and watch her cure the ailments and deformities of people in her audience with her touch and her prayers. These invalids, however, are just shills paid to pretend that they have been healed. The show really begins with Sister Florence entering a cage filled with lions and asking someone from the audience to join her. But the shill has fallen asleep in the front row and no one else seems willing to enter the cage with the lions until a blind man named John Carson stands. John was an aviator during World War I, when he was wounded and lost his sight. He was brought to the tabernacle by his landlady, is amused by the theatrics and agrees to join Sister Fallon in the lions’ cage so that the show can continue. Although John is not cured by the evangelical, the crowd loves it – and so does Hornsby, who is Sister Fallon’s manager.

After her performances, however, Hornsby tries to keep a tight rein on Sister Fallon. His reasoning for this is that he is concerned that she is might do something that would damage her reputation. However, he and his staff spend the rest of the night partying – and Hornsby, who wants to be more that just her partner, asks Sister Fallon to join him in the revelry. She declines.

But wanting to get some fresh air, Sister Fallon leaves the tabernacle and runs into John, who has been waiting for her at the back door. Sister Fallon offers to take John home in her chauffer-driven car and then goes upstairs with him to his apartment, where he entertains her with some toys – including a puppet named Al. Sister Fallon enjoys the visit but is confronted by an angry Hornsby when she returns to the tabernacle. Hornsby, who is responsible for the death of a shill who had threatened to go to the police with evidence of embezzlement of funds supposedly collected to improve the tabernacle, says he will see that Sister Fallon takes the fall for the murder. Nevertheless, Sister Fallon defies Hornsby and continues seeing John. The evangelical and the blind aviator fall in love and she confesses what he already knows – that she is a fraud.

One night, Sister Fallon and John are interrupted at the beach by Hornsby. To keep Hornsby from hurting John, Sister Fallon agrees to leave with her manager and has her chauffer take the blind man home. John then enlists the help of his landlady and they break into the tabernacle and go up to Sister Fallon’s office, where he has the landlady describe the room to him in detail. The next night, just before Sister Fallon is scheduled to go on stage, John enters Sister Fallon’s office and pretends that he has been cured by her prayers. But Sister Fallon sees through the ruse. Then Hornsby barges in and, thinking John can in fact see, the manager knocks out the blind man and ushers her out of the room and leads her to the stage.

But by now, Sister Fallon has had a change of heart and decides to confess her sins to the audience. Hornsby doesn’t catch on until she is on stage and in his frantic effort to bring down the curtain, he accidentally starts a fire. As the crowd rushes out, Sister Fallon, remaining on stage with the fire raging around her and gets them to calm down by singing as they exit the building. John recovers consciousness and makes his way down to the stage and calls out to Sister Fallon. She answers just before fainting from the smoke. John, responding to her voice, finds her passed out on the stage, picks her up and carries her to safety.

The next time we see Florence, she has given up her lucrative scam and joined The Salvation Army. As the movie ends, she is happily reading a telegram from John in which he proclaims his love over and over. He also tells her he is about to go into surgery, hoping to have his sight restored.

Elmer Gantry tells a similar story. The title character had once attended a seminary, studying to become a reverend. However, his affair with (if I remember correctly) a preacher’s daughter leads to his dismissal from the seminary. When the movie begins, the unemployed Gantry – who works as a traveling salesman, when he can find work – hustles drinks in a bar by telling racy stories to whoever will listen – and many do. But Gantry’s love of God remains strong, as is demonstrated by a passionate sermon he delivers to his benefactors and his visit to a black church where he surprises the congregation when he enthusiastically joins them in singing praises to the Lord.

Gantry’s wanderings lead him to a revival meeting being led by Sister Sharon Falconer. After initially being rebuffed by Sister Sharon, he manages to charm his way into the good graces of Sister Rachel, a rather shy member of the evangelist’s entourage who in turn helps pave the way for Gantry to join the evangelical crusade. Soon thereafter, Gantry becomes Sister Sharon’s opening act, enthralling the audience with his charisma and powerful style of preaching. His success emboldens him to make romantic advances toward Sister Sharon, who tells him she is not interested in men who partake in alcohol, tobacco and woman chasing.

Until Gantry joined Sister Sharon, her crusade had targeted only small rural communities. But Gantry convinces Sister Sharon and her manager to take their crusade to a big city. During negotiations with community leaders, Gantry convinces them that Sister Sharon’s ministry will be a financial boon for the city. But after the crusade enters the city and things appear to be going well, a reporter traveling with the entourage named Jim Lefferts, writes a scathing article calling Sister Sharon and Gantry frauds and questioning where the money they have collected goes. This is enough to scare one of the city’s businessmen who had backed the crusade. He threatens to withdraw his support, but Gantry digs up some dirt on him and the businessman relents. Then Gantry tries to offset the effect of the newspaper article by leading raids on brothels. Unfortunately for him, though, one of the women in one of the brothels is the girl who Gantry seduced when he was in the seminary. Gantry then does a quick about face and convinces the police not to arrest the girls.

But Lulu Bains, the woman from Gantry’s past, has revenge on her mind. She arranges for Gantry to meet her in her hotel room, where a photographer waits outside her window to take pictures of their dalliance. Gantry, however, refuses to play along because he is in love with Sister Sharon. But Lulu does manage to maneuver the in-this-case-innocent Gantry into seemingly provocative positions which are captured on camera. When the newspaper prints the photos, the public turns against Gantry, which in turn tarnished Sister Sharon’s crusade. Any hope that Gantry had about Sister Sharon being able to love him is now dead. On top of that, the photos instigate a riot at the next revival meeting – which is attended by Lulu, who was there to extract blackmail from Sister Sharon. But after watching Sister Sharon calm the crowd, Lulu finds that she cannot bring herself to carry out her mission and runs from the revival tent. Gantry follows but by the time she catches up to her, Lulu has been beaten by her pimp for not getting the money. After Gantry comforts her, Lulu goes to the newspaper and recants her previous claim that she was having an affair with Gantry.

Vindicated, Gantry returns to the revival tent for the next meeting and watches Sister Sharon, apparently for the first time in her evangelical career, remove a person’s disability by her touch and prayers – restoring the gift of hearing to a previously deaf follower. Unlike the phony faith healer in the previous movie, Sister Sharon had never before tried to heal anyone. However, just before the “miracle” she suddenly began to believe that she really was an instrument of God – and that belief was justified by her “miracle.” Sister Sharon’s success sets off a joyous celebration inside the tent, but one of the celebrants carelessly discards a lit cigarette. The ensuing fire quickly rages out of control, and while everyone else under the tent is trying to get out, Gantry fights his way into it. Unfortunately, he is unable to reach Sister Sharon before she is engulfed by the flames.

The next day, Gantry and Lefferts are sitting just outside the burned tent when a crowd of Sister Sharon’s followers gather around them and ask Gantry to forgive them for Sister Sharon’s death. After Gantry prays with them, Sister Sharon’s manager asks Gantry if he would like to take over the ministry. Gantry turns him down and (again, if I remember correctly) suggests that Sister Rachel take charge of the ministry. Gantry leaves the scene, presumably returning to his previous life before he joined Sister Sharon’s entourage.

The Night of the Iguana is about a defrocked minister named T. Lawrence Shannon who now works in Mexico as a guide for busloads of tourists. The bus is driven by a young American named Hank. On this particular trip, the tourists are a group of schoolteachers led by a decidedly priggish woman named Judith Fellows. Also along for the ride is Judith’s 18-year-old niece Charlotte, who is smitten by Shannon. The former reverend, who was defrocked for amorous adventures and whose current love affair is with alcohol, is completely uninterested in Charlotte’s advances. But being the hormone-charged teenager that she is, Charlotte sneaks into Shannon’s hotel room, where she is discovered by her aunt. And although nothing happened, Judith informs Shannon that she is going to have him fired just as soon as she gets to a telephone.

In an attempt to avoid the inevitable, Shannon hijacks the bus and bypasses the hotel where the tour is scheduled to stay, taking them instead to the rundown seaside resort (for lack of a better word) owned by Shannon’s friend Maxine. Originally, Shannon was the friend of Maxine’s husband, but he has been dead for several years. Maxine is kind of sweet on Shannon, however, and he knows that when things in his life are going downhill, he can always rely on Maxine to help him regain his composure.

After the tourists arrive, Maxine welcomes another pair of guests – Hannah Jelkes and her grandfather Nonno. Hannah is a sketch artist and Nonno a poet who is working on another poem. They eke out a living by selling their artwork. Also at the resort are three young Mexican men who work for Maxine. Aside from their jobs, Maxine also flirts, dances and occasionally sleeps with them.

Judith finally gets to a phone and complains to the tour company about Shannon, who is fired. Meanwhile, Charlotte goes down to the bar on the beach and shakes her groove thing at Maxine’s employees. They in turn begin to take liberties with Charlotte before Hank comes to the rescue. However, Hank’s talents as a white knight are negligible and he finds himself embarrassed and injured – slightly – by the resort’s hired help. Charlotte rushes to succor her newfound Prince Charming and when he has sufficiently recovered, he gathers the tour group together and they leave Maxine’s.

After they have gone, Shannon’s downward spiral continues and he has to be restrained. Hannah sits with him while Shannon is tied up in a hammock. Seeing Hannah with Shannon, Maxine assumes that the two will become more than just friends. But all Hannah is interested in is helping Shannon regain his sanity. Nonno, meanwhile, finally completes his poem just before he dies. Shannon is then asked to say a few words over Hannah’s dead grandfather. After Maxine sees how Hannah has helped Shannon, she offers to give the resort to them and leave. But Hannah is no more interested in being Shannon’s lover than he is interested in being hers. Hannah then leaves the resort and Shannon and Maxine decide that the best thing for both of them is to stay together.

In case you haven’t noticed, the main characters in all three stories are seriously spiritually flawed – their faith suffers from a crisis of conviction. Florence Fallon grief over her father’s death turns her into the kind of religious hypocrite she denounces when the film begins. And, like Sister Sharon, she uses religion primarily as a money maker. Elmer Gantry and T. Lawrence Shannon have both been ousted from the church because of their weaknesses for women – and have added the use of alcohol to their shortcomings. But try as you might, I believe that after watching these movies you will find that these characters elicit feelings of sympathy from their audience.

There is no doubt that these characters believe deeply in their God and that they are seeking a path that will lead to redemption – and with it, peace of mind. And despite their mercenary use of religion, the two sisters and Gantry actually provide a kind of solace to those who attend their revival meetings. Their followers have faith in them – and that feeds their (the followers) faith in God. Shannon, on the other hand, has a much harder time reconciling his love of God with his love of worldly temptations. But nonetheless, you get a chance to look deeper into his psyche through his relationships with Hannah and Maxine. And in the end, you get the feeling that Shannon – and Gantry – will come to terms with their shortcomings as Sister Fallon did by finding love and joining The Salvation Army, and as Sister Sharon did by “healing” the deaf man just before she dies in the fire.

And to my mind, that is the message these films have for all of us. Whether we believe in God or not, we all have demons with which we must contend. And though we may not always conquer those demons, the fight is worthwhile. It makes us better people by allowing us to better appreciate our fellow human beings and giving us more tolerance for their shortcomings – two traits that are sorely needed in today’s world.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Tortured Logic

The Purple Heart
The Hill
The Crucible

A discussion of “enhanced interrogation techniques” – a euphemistic expression that essentially means torture – has taken center stage in the current political theater in the United States. It is said by some who fear another terrorist attack on the scale of September 11, 2001, that this is a useful tool that will help prevent such an event from happening again. However, I have my doubts about its effectiveness – doubts that are based on history that includes testimony before a U.S. Senate committee on May 13, 2009, by FBI interrogator Ali Soufan, who said he extracted crucial information from a captured al Qaeda operative without the use of torture. Soufan also testified that when CIA contractors began using the enhanced interrogation techniques against the terrorist, the prisoner "shut down" and refused to provide more information. I will point out similar refusals to cooperate in the movies examined in this posting.

Additionally, while I also have serious doubts about the legality of its usage, I have no doubt that it diminishes our moral standing as a nation and as human beings – and that it is an act of fear-based cowardice that makes a mockery of the line in our national anthem that declares the United States to be “the home of the brave.”

In a movie that I watched over and over again as a child, The Purple Heart (released in 1944 in black and white) tells the story of eight captured American airmen who are placed on trial – before an international group of journalists – in a Japanese civilian court. They are accused of killing civilians and targeting nonmilitary sites with their bombs. The Americans deny the charges and one of them, Lt. Wayne Greenbaum, challenges the validity of the trial, claiming that according to the Geneva Conventions civil courts cannot try military personnel in a time of war. The challenge is ignored and the court is shown film footage of destruction allegedly caused by the raid. One of the journalists, however, recognizes the film as a depiction of air raid drills made by the Japanese.

The trial, we come to learn, has another purpose – to determine exactly where the U.S. planes began their bombing run. The Japanese army general believes the bombers came from American aircraft carriers and blames the Japanese navy for not adequately protecting Japan from the U.S. ships. The Japanese admiral, however, claims that their enemy doesn’t have carriers large enough to launch the bombers.

When it becomes obvious that the airmen are not going to cooperate with their inquisitors, the Americans are then introduced to Japan’s version of enhanced interrogation techniques. Sgt. Jan Skvoznik is the first to be tortured. After a night separated from the cell where his fellow captives are kept, he is left in an extremely mentally challenged state. Others tortured include Lt. Angelo Canelli, who had his arm broken; Lt. Peter Vincent, who is returned to the cell on a stretcher; Sgt. Howard Clinton, who loses his ability to talk; and Lt. Kenneth Bayforth, whose hands are crushed.

But the trial continues and the speechless Clinton is called on to testify. Clinton writes a defiant note that Greenbaum reads to the court. The Japanese judge then offers to dismiss the charges against the airmen send them to a prisoner of war camp if they cooperate. Implicit in that offer, as I saw it, is that a failure to cooperate would lead to their deaths. Capt. Harvey Ross, the crew’s commanding officer, asks the judge if they can have some time to discuss the offer. The men then go into the judge’s chambers and decide to vote on it by placing their insignia wings in a small-mouthed vase. If even just one set of wings is broken, they will accept the offer.

When they return to the courtroom, Ross hands the judge the vase and explains that their answer is in the vase. One by one, the judge shakes the wings out of the vase – and none of them are broken. This answer leads the Japanese general to shoot himself in the courtroom. As the prisoners are lead out, they hold their heads high, proud of their refusal to talk in spite of the torture inflicted upon them and the death that awaits them.

The Hill (1965, b&w) is a movie I just discovered within the past year. It also takes place during World War II, but the torturers and the tortured are members of the same army. The story takes place in a British military prison in North Africa that is run by an extremely tough Master Sgt. Bert Wilson and his sadistic second-in-command, Staff Sgt. Charlie Harris. Although the camp commandant and medical officer technically outrank Wilson, they are both weak-kneed officers who allow the master sergeant full control of the camp’s operations.

The primary form of punishment for prisoners who misbehave – meaning doing anything that offends the apparently fragile sensibilities of the prison staff – is a run, in full military gear, over the hill. The hill is a prisoner-made elevation in the middle of the compound composed of sand and stone. As near as I could estimate, the hill is at least 30 feet high with an angle that looked to be at least forty-five degrees.

As the movie begins, five new prisoners – Joe Roberts, a former warrant officer who struck a superior officer; Jacko King, a Jamaican who stole booze from the officer’s mess; George Stevens, who went AWOL when his wife died; Jock McGrath, who is tall and muscular; and Monty Bartlett, who is short, fat and whiny – are indoctrinated into the ways in which the camp is run. While they are all given physicals to verify that they are fit for punishment – physicals that are nothing more than a quick strip in front of the medical officer – Harris lets Roberts know that he can expect special attention. Then, the five new prisoners are made to go over the hill six times and then taken to the cell they will all share.

Aside from the excursions on the hill, other means of discipline include having the prisoners “walk” in quick step (double time in American parlance) everywhere they go, even to mess and then back to their cells while carrying their meals; having their bunks constantly overturned by the staff sergeants; and having the light in the cells turned off and on repeatedly during the night.

As the movie progresses, Harris notices that Stevens is the weakest of the lot and continually makes him run up and down the hill. The exhaustion gets to Stevens and keeps him from sleeping. One night, Bartlett takes advantage of Stevens by barking orders to his off-his-rocker cellmate. While the rest of the cellmates laugh at Stevens’ manic obedience to Bartlett’s teasing, Stevens drops dead. The cellmates, led by Roberts, blame Stevens’ condition and death on Harris’s treatment. Initially, the only person to back Roberts is King, who has also been receiving “special treatment” because of his race. Eventually all the prisoners in the cellblock join in a vocal protest of Stevens’ death.

After Wilson quells the uprising, Harris challenges Roberts to a man-to-man fight to settle their grievances. But Harris brings two other guards with him and when Roberts is returned to his cell, he has a broken foot. Staff Sgt. Williams, who has been warning Wilson during the entire movie about Harris’ behavior, takes Roberts to the medical officer. In the presence of both Wilson and Harris, the medical officer decides to place Roberts on the unfit for duty list. Harris threatens the medical officer by saying that it was the MO who said Stevens was fit for punishment. But the MO stands his ground, and after Wilson leaves the cell exasperated and aware that his fiefdom is about to crumble, Harris goes to beat up the injured Roberts. But King, who protests his treatment and the racist insults that have been hurled at him by quitting the British army and then stripping down to his underpants, and McGrath step between Harris and Roberts and begin to beat the staff sergeant while Roberts pleads for them to stop.

The Crucible (1996, color) was one of the plays I truly enjoyed studying when I was in high school. Written by Arthur Miller during the 1950s as an allegory for Sen. Joe McCarthy’s “witch hunt” that was carried on by the House Un-American Activities Committee, it is a story about the witch trials that took place at the end of the 1600s in the Puritan town of Salem, Mass.

The trouble begins when a group of girls are caught dancing in the woods with a black slave girl named Tituba. One of the girls found reveling in the “unholy” activity in Betty Parris, the daughter of the Puritan pastor, Reverend Parris, who had witnessed the “profane” behavior. The leader of the girls is Rev. Parris’ niece and ward, Abigail. When the girls return home, Betty, who is well aware of the community’s superstitions, pretends to fall into a trance and acts as though she is possessed. As news of the event spreads, the town sends for Reverend Hale, who is an “expert” on witchcraft. Tituba, who is blamed for the “blasphemous” behavior, eventually admits to being in league with the devil.

Meanwhile, Abigail decides to take advantage of the situation. A farmer named John Proctor, who has been having an affair with Abigail and is upset by the hornets’ nest the girls have stirred up, tries to get her to convince the girls to stop their lying. But Abigail, who would like to get rid of Proctor’s wife, decides to let it be known that Elizabeth Proctor is a witch. Additionally, it strikes certain members of the town that declaring their neighbors to also be in league with the devil it could improve their economic circumstances.

Now, things begin to get completely out of hand. Proctor convinces Mary, one of the girls involved in the original incident, to tell the court that the other girls are pretending. But when confronted by the court, the other girls go into their demonic-possession act and claim that Mary is bewitching them. The court also begins questioning the other alleged witches and their families, urging them to confess their sins. When the innocent neighbors deny the charges, torture ensues. In what is my favorite part of the story, Giles Corey is brought before the court to provide evidence that his wife is a witch. When he refuses, he is placed on his back in a prone position while heavy stones are put on his chest. As the court demands that he bear witness against his wife, Giles replies, “More weight.”

John Proctor is also charged as being a witch. The court convinces Elizabeth to get him to confess, and he agrees to in order to save his life. But then the court demands that he implicate the other alleged witches. This he cannot do and in the end, all the suspected witches are hung.

It is interesting to note that in all these films that those who were tortured failed to provide their torturers the answers and satisfaction that were expected. The tortured preferred to die rather than give in. This should tell us something about the effectiveness of these techniques.

Also in the first two films – stories that dealt with torture during times of conflict – torturers ended up dead themselves. In The Purple Heart, the Japanese general, disgraced by his inability to break the American airmen, commits suicide. In The Hill, the tortured prisoners took out their anger about their treatment on their torturer, presumably beating him to death. This should tell us something about how well torture “protects” those who use it.

But three more points need to be made about this debate – points that I will explain with historical facts. First a legal one. In 1901, according to an ABC News report on November 19, 2009, an American Army major was sentenced to ten years of hard labor after being tried for waterboarding an insurgent during the Spanish American War. Additionally, in 1983 a Texas sheriff and three deputies were convicted and sent to prison for four years for waterboarding a prisoner. These incidents show that the United States has considered waterboarding to be an illegal interrogation technique and a prosecutable offense for more than a hundred years.

Now, the moral point. Many of our fellow Americans who support the torture techniques such as waterboarding profess to be Christians. Yet, as television commentator Keith Olbermann pointed out recently, they ignore the fact that the primary symbol of Christianity is the Crucifix, which depicts the son of God being tortured to death. And why was he crucified? Because he wouldn’t give in to the demands of those who wanted him to denounce his faith. When we use waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques we are not serving God, we are insulting God. And remember, the tortured Christ wound up being the founder of the largest religion on our planet. Should we risk elevating those who would do us harm to the level of the Christ. I would hope not.

Finally, the political point. Another American officer, this one an army general, was court-martialed for allowing waterboarding by those under his command during the Spanish American War, according to a Politico article by amateur historian Daniel A. Rezneck, who is a former president of the District of Columbia’s bar association. Although the general was cleared of the allegations, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the general dismissed from the army. Said Roosevelt at the time: “Great as the provocation has been in dealing with foes who habitually resort to treachery, murder and torture against our men, nothing can justify or will be held to justify the use of torture or inhuman conduct of any kind on the part of the American Army.” Rezneck goes on to say that according to Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris, the president’s “decision ‘won universal praise’ from Democrats, who congratulated him for acknowledging cruelty in the Philippine campaign, and from Republicans, who said that he had ‘upheld the national honor.’ ”

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Power of the (Written) Press

Deadline USA
All the President’s Men
The Soloist

As you may know from my previous postings, I’ve spent most of my working life as a print journalist – reporting, copy editing and designing pages for newspapers and magazines. Although I have loved reading newspapers since I was a kid, I wound up in journalism kind of by accident: I thought I wanted to be a politician but discovered that journalism was a better fit. In my estimation, a feeling that goes back to my childhood, journalism is among the noblest of professions – ranking up there with the practice of medicine, classroom education, firefighters and police officers. I should add a caveat to that last statement: If doctors, educators, firefighters, police officers, journalists or any other public servants place more importance on accumulating wealth and/or power than on selflessly serving their communities, then they are tarnishing both their professions and their personal integrity.

The three movies to be discussed in this posting – Deadline USA (released in 1952 in black and white), All the President’s Men (1976, color) and The Soloist (2009, color) – provide excellent examples of why I hold print journalism in such high regard.

In a personally uncomfortable similarity to both the loss of my previous job as an editor at The Miami Herald and the demise of newspapers across the country over the past decade, Deadline USA is the story of The Day and its crusade to expose a vicious criminal enterprise in the closing days of the newspaper’s existence. The Day is run by managing editor Ed Hutcheson and owned by Margaret Garrison, who doesn’t want to sell the paper, and her two daughters, who are the majority shareholders and want the money being offered by the owner of The Day’s rival, Lawrence White, who plans on shutting down the well-respected newspaper. But Ed’s fight to keep The Day alive is just one of his battles.

The movie begins with leader of the criminal enterprise, Tomas Rienzi, testifying before a state Senate committee, and the discovery of a dead woman floating in the river wearing nothing but a fur coat. While Ed focuses on the Rienzi hearings, sending a reporter to look into the crime tsar’s business, he refuses to run a picture of the dead woman because he considers it the kind of prurient sensationalism that is used by profit-hungry tabloids like the one owned by White. After the reporter is roughed up by Rienzi’s goons, Ed kicks the investigation into high gear. He learns that the woman found in the water was Rienzi’s mistress and that she had a brother who is a boxer managed by Rienzi’s organization. Ed sends one of his sports reporters to find the boxer and bring him into the office. After obtaining Ed’s promise to protect him from Rienzi, the boxer tells the managing editor about a large sum of money Rienzi had given his sister, who spent part of it before hiding the rest. Then while Ed is at court trying to fight the sale of the newspaper, two police officers go to The Day to arrest the boxer. But the police officers are really Rienzi’s men and the boxer dies as he tries to escape while leaving the newspaper building.

But although Ed can’t stop the sale of the newspaper, all is not lost as far as the crusade against Rienzi is concerned. The mother of the dead woman and the boxer, who expressed great respect for the integrity of The Day, goes to the newspaper with her daughter’s diary and the rest of Rienzi’s ill-gotten money. Ignoring a death threat from Rienzi, Ed uses the final edition of The Day to run a front page exposé on Rienzi’s operations.

I have a slightly personal connection with the movie All the President’s Men, which tells the story of how Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon with their investigative reporting during the Watergate affair. Although I was working at now-defunct The Washington Star during the scandal, I was working at The Washington Post when the movie’s cast and crew visited its newsroom to research the environment in which Woodward and Bernstein worked.

The Watergate scandal began in 1972, when a group political operatives, known as plumbers and working for Republican President Nixon’s reelection committee, was caught after they broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee. Those offices were located near the Potomac River in the residential and commercial complex – in Washington, D.C.’s, tony neighborhood of Foggy Bottom – called The Watergate. The work of Woodward and Bernstein, with the help of an unidentified source known as Deep Throat, not only uncovered the reasons for the break-in but also the plot orchestrated from the White House – with the knowledge of the president – to cover up the plumbers’ connection with Nixon’s reelection committee.

Despite the scandal, Nixon won reelection. But as Woodward and Bernstein continued their investigation and the scope of the malfeasance became public, calls for Nixon’s impeachment increased on Capitol Hill. But rather than becoming the first president to be removed from office, Nixon decided to resign. While many of his administration’s officials were prosecuted and jailed for their roles in the scandal, Nixon avoided that fate when he was pardoned by President Gerald Ford – who was Nixon’s successor and had been his vice president.

The Soloist is also based on a true story – one that I first learned about from television’s 60 Minutes news magazine program. That report piqued the interest of me and my wife and we anxiously awaited the release of the movie. The film is about an Hispanic Los Angeles Times columnist named Steve Lopez who gets caught up in the fascinating story of a black, homeless, mentally disturbed, exceptionally talented, Beethoven-loving musician named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, Jr. – who, when they first met, was playing beautiful music on a two-string violin.

Mr. Ayers’ talent first became apparent when he was a child – information Mr. Lopez got when he contacted the musician’s sister, who was living in another state. With encouragement from his cello teacher and after hours upon hours on practice, Nathaniel was accepted to Julliard, the country’s premier high school academy for talented performing artists. The film showed that as a child, the young Nathaniel possessed a kind of obsession that was negatively affecting his life. This possession burst to the foreground while he was at Julliard, where voices in his head scared him, filled him with self-doubt and ended his studies. Over time, he drifted to Los Angeles and began living on the street because he felt uncomfortable living under a roof.

The plight of Mr. Ayers touched Mr. Lopez so much that after his first column on the homeless musician, he continued to inform his readers with updates on Mr. Ayers’ life. One of his readers, an octogenarian cellist who no longer played because she suffered from arthritis, donated her cello to Mr. Ayers. But Mr. Lopez wouldn’t allow Mr. Ayers to keep the expensive cello with him on the street. It took a bit of doing, but Mr. Lopez managed to get Mr. Ayers go to a community center that focused on the homeless to play the instrument. The reason for this demand was that the community center could ensure the safety of the instrument.

Mr. Lopez then arranged to take Mr. Ayers to a rehearsal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra after the Beethoven fan had refused to attend a concert that will be attended by other people. While watching Mr. Ayers listen to the rehearsal, Mr. Lopez was able to witness the depth of the homeless man’s love for music. Mr. Lopez – who would later express envy for the depth of the mentally disturbed man’s ability to love – then arranged for one of the orchestra’s cellist to give Mr. Ayers lessons. But there was another caveat: The lessons had to take place in an apartment in which Mr. Ayers could sleep. The community center provided the apartment and Mr. Ayers began taking the lessons in his new home. Then the music teacher set up a recital for Mr. Ayers. However, the voices in his head sabotaged the event and Mr. Ayers attacked, but didn’t harm, his music teacher while on stage before the audience.

The next item on Mr. Lopez’s agenda was to cure Mr. Ayers of his mental instability, but he was rebuffed by the manager of the community center. Nonetheless, Mr. Lopez pressed on and tried to get Mr. Ayers to commit himself to a psychiatric hospital to get some help. This backfired when Mr. Ayers began beating on Mr. Lopez and threatened his life. Disillusioned by the incident, Mr. Lopez went to talk with his ex-wife. She essentially told Mr. Lopez the same thing the community center manager did – that instead of trying to cure Mr. Ayers, he should just accept the musician as he was.

Apparently taking the advice to heart, Mr. Lopez arranged for Mr. Ayers sister to come to Los Angeles for a visit. After the siblings met, a contrite Mr. Ayers went to Mr. Lopez to apologize for his violent behavior. Mr. Lopez responded by telling Mr. Ayers that sometimes friends have disagreements. The two men shook hands and then, with Mr. Ayers’ sister and Mr. Lopez’s ex-wife, they attend a Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra concert – with Mr. Ayers enjoying, loving, the music while surrounded by a concert hall full of strangers.

The importance of newspapers’ reports on crime and political corruption are among their more worthy attributes – as shown by Deadline USA and All the President’s Men. However, I believe that the most worthy attribute of newspapers, and other forms of journalism, is their ability to help people connect on an emotional level with other people – as shown by The Soloist. Mr. Lopez’s columns moved an elderly white woman to reach out to a homeless black man with a gift whose value was greater than monetary. They also moved Los Angeles politicians to make a huge financial commitment to the community center that was helping care for the city’s homeless population – which is said to be around 90,000 individuals. Additionally, the interaction between the columnist and his subject benefited both of them. Mr. Ayers discovered that he could control the impact his voices had on him. My Lopez learned that love – be it for someone or something – can indeed be a thing of joy and wonder. And, both Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ayers learned that true friends – and by extension, true lovers – do not, should not and need not always try to impose conditions on their love.

God, I hope that newspapers never die.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

What’s Mine Is Yours

Mr. Deeds Comes to Town
A Christmas Carol
It Could Happen to You

These days, you hear a lot of negative talk about an economic system called socialism and anger about the idea of a redistribution of wealth. To my ears, such complaints contain a double irony. First, the majority of people who are making these complaints are likely to benefit from them. Second, most of these people consider themselves Christians – a religion whose founder taught that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and it is our duty to take care of those less fortunate than ourselves. These teachings are at the core of the three movies I will discuss in this posting.

I begin with the Great Depression-era film Mr. Deeds Comes to Town (released in 1936 in black and white), the story of Mandrake Falls, Vermont, resident Longfellow Deeds who comes into a $20 million fortune when his uncle, Martin Semple, dies and makes the tuba playing, greeting-card poet his sole beneficiary. The uncle’s lawyer, John Cedar, takes the nephew to New York City, where Longfellow becomes embroiled in a lot of high-society shenanigans and meets an award-winning reporter named Babe Bennett.

Unfortunately for Longfellow, these two characters do not have his best interests at heart. Cedar has been embezzling money from the Semple estate and plans to trick Longfellow into letting him handle the money from the inheritance. Meanwhile, Babe pretends to be a poor woman who wants to be his friend so that she can gather information for a series of newspaper articles. As can be expected, Longfellow is willing to trust Cedar, up to a point, and falls in love with Babe. And adding to the plot, Mr. and Mrs. Semple, Longfellow’s cousin and his wife, show up with the intention of contesting the will.

But the stories of Longfellow’s misadventures reach a farmer friend of his from Vermont. The farmer comes to New York to chastise Longfellow for allowing the foolishness to get the better of him. The farmer then convinces Longfellow that there are better ways to use his money than on frivolity. So Longfellow comes up with the idea to take $18 million of his inheritance and use it to buy farms and give them to needy families. When Cedar finds out, he begins legal proceedings to have Longfellow committed to a mental institution. The reason? Anyone willing to give away $18 million must be crazy.

At the trial, Cedar’s main witnesses are two sisters who live together in Mandrake Falls and testify that they consider Longfellow “pixilated.” Babe, who by now has revealed her charade, is also called on to attest to Longfellow’s eccentricities – and although her testimony is damaging, she confesses on the stand that she is in love with him.

This admission stirs Longfellow, who has remained completely silent during the proceedings, to finally defend himself. He does this by pointing out the idiosyncrasies of many of the people in the courtroom – including Cedar, Mr. Semple and the judge – and then questioning the sisters from Mandrake Falls. Longfellow asks the sisters if they still think that he is pixilated, to which they reply, “Yes.” He then asks them who else in Mandrake Falls is pixilated. They answer, “Why everyone, of course, except us.” Longfellow then explains why he wants to make the generous gesture that Cedar and the Semples oppose. He uses a metaphor involving a man in a row boat who sees another man in a row boat and a man who is drowning in the water. He asks the judge who deserves his help more, the drowning man or the man in the row boat who is too lazy to use his oars. After due deliberation, the judge tells Longfellow that he is the sanest man who has ever been in his courtroom.

In the film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1938, b&w), miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge – a man who has nothing but disdain for his soon-to-be-married nephew; his underpaid employee and his family, which includes a young crippled son; and mankind in general, which he proves by saying that the poor should be relegated to jails and poor houses and don’t deserve any monetary assistance from him – learns to change his stingy ways with the help of a ghost and three spirits who visit him on Christmas Eve.

After being guided by the spirits on visits to his past, the present and the future, Scrooge rediscovers the merry feelings of Christmas that he enjoyed while he was young and before he became jaded by the disappointments he had experienced. He is especially moved by the forewarned death of his employee’s son. Then on Christmas morning, a cheerful Scrooge promises to donate a large sum of money to help the poor and amasses an armful of presents that he gives to the nephew and his fiancée and his employee’s family. He also gives his employee a raise and promises to help with the lame child's medical expenses.

This story has been cinematically produced many times with both human and cartoon characterizations. I’ve watched this particular version every Christmas season since I was a child. Back then in New York, this version and a 1951 version of the story were played back-to-back all night long on Christmas Eve – and I would be glued to the television set the entire night, not worried that Santa might find me awake. The other movie that I watch every Christmas season is It’s a Wonderful Life, which I could have included in this posting. However, I’m saving that for another time because I consider the next film It’s a Wonderful Life’s cinematic progeny.

It Could Happen to You (1994, color) is the story of an exceptionally kind-hearted, married, New York City policeman named Charley Lang who tips a waitress $2 million dollars. Perhaps I should explain how this happened.

Charlie’s wife Muriel, who works in a beauty salon and is obsessed with acquiring as much money as she can, had a dream that she took as a sign that she would win the lottery. Muriel sent Charlie to purchase the lottery ticket, which he did while on duty. Charlie and his partner, Bo Williams, then stopped in a diner to get lunch. Their waitress, Yvonne Biasi – who is separated from her no-good husband and earlier that day had been officially declared bankrupt – served them coffee and then went to fill their order. But they were interrupted by a call on their police radio and had to leave before they got served. When Charlie went to pay the bill for his coffee, he discovered that he didn’t have enough money for a tip, so he promised Yvonne that he would return the next day to either share his lottery winnings or give Yvonne double the tip. Of course, Charlie never expected to win the lottery and Yvonne never expected to see him again.

That night, Muriel and Charlie find out that they have, indeed, hit the jackpot. Naturally, Muriel is upset when she learns that her husband had promised to share their winnings with a waitress. But Charlie eventually manages to calm Muriel down by telling her that she will become known as “the woman with the heart of gold” and her fame will earn her commercial endorsements that will increase her newfound wealth. The next day, Charlie returns to the diner to and gives the good news to Yvonne.

After receiving their money, Muriel goes on a spending spree, buying furs, jewelry and knocking out walls to expand the size of their apartment. Yvonne, on the other hand, goes to the grocery store and treats herself with a jar of Macadamia nuts. She also buys the diner where she worked and sets up a table that is reserved for free meals for homeless people.

You might think that Charlie would retire from the police force after his windfall – but not this guy. He believes that being a cop is the noblest profession there is. But he gets slightly wounded while preventing a robbery and, unfortunately from his point of view, is given time off. Then, he and Muriel attend a party cruise for lottery winners. Muriel, now in her element, leaves Charlie and goes off to mingle with the others partygoers – and meets a man who seemed to me to be way too interested in the flashy beautician. Charlie, who is obviously uncomfortable at the event, goes up on deck to be alone. While there, he sees Yvonne arrive in a taxi and goes to meet her on the dock. But by the time they head to the gangplank, the party is pulling away from the pier and Charlie and Yvonne have missed the boat.

Charlie and Yvonne then go out to dinner, do a little dancing and – since Charlie has so much time off because of his recovery – agree to get together again just to hang out. Their hanging out involves things like buying bags of tokens to pay for subway rides for working people and renting out a professional baseball park so they can give groups of kids the opportunity to actually play the game in the kind of place where many of their sports idols would play.

But Muriel is unhappy with the way Charlie is spending their money and jealous of his relationship with Yvonne. So, she kicks him out. Meanwhile, Yvonne’s husband has returned and wants some of her windfall. Yvonne packs a bag and walks out. And as fate (the plot, actually) would have it, Charlie and Yvonne – unaware of what is going on in each other’s personal life – check into the Plaza Hotel at just about the same time. And of course, the love that has been simmering beneath the surface fully blossoms. The next day, Yvonne returns to her apartment and finds her husband has gone, and Charlie goes to stay with Bo and his family.

Then, Muriel sues for divorce and not only wants Charlie’s share of the lottery winnings, which he gladly is willing to fork over, but also the money that was given to Yvonne. Calling it unfair, Charlie decides to fight the demand and they all end up in court. During the proceedings, Yvonne is made to look like a gold digger and Charlie a philanderer who is having an affair with another man’s wife. When Muriel wins the case, Yvonne runs out of the courthouse in tears before Charlie can catch up with her.

Charlie eventually finds Yvonne at the diner, which is no longer hers, on a rainy night. She tells Charlie to leave her alone because she feels responsible for ruining his life. But Charlie refuses to go and gets her to admit that she does love him.

Now we come to the part that ties this movie to It’s a Wonderful Life. This film has been narrated by a person named Angel, who is actually more than just the narrator. Angel, disguised as a homeless person seeking a meal, shows up at the diner while Charlie and Yvonne are licking their wounds inflicted by the trial. After setting up their visitor with a plate of food, Charlie and Yvonne go back to consoling each other while Angel, who is actually a newspaper reporter, stealthily takes pictures of two people dealing with their grief. The next day, the paper runs a romantic story about the tribulations that has left these two wonderfully generous people emotionally scarred and financially bankrupt. And, Angel suggests that his readers do something to help alleviate their misery.

When Charlie and Yvonne go to clean out the diner, they find a stack of mail just inside the door. Inside the mail, Angel’s readers, touched by their story, are sending them money – five dollars here, a ten-dollar check there. The mail keeps coming and it takes several days to open and read all of it – and count up the $600,000 that the letters contained.

In the end, Charlie and Yvonne get married and presumably live happily ever after. As for Muriel, she loses all the money after she marries the sleazebag from the party cruise, who then empties their bank account disappears. Muriel ends up going to live at her mother’s apartment in the Bronx.

Granted, these stories are fairytales. But they do teach us valuable lessons – the most important being that generosity is its own reward. Sharing their fortunes brought satisfaction and joy to Longfellow Deeds, Ebenezer Scrooge and Charlie and Yvonne – who said while paying for people’s subway rides that she was having the best day of her life.

But if you need concrete proof that generosity can improve the fabric of your life, just ask the students in Florida’s Broward County public school system. These kids collectively raised $93,450.14 – enough money to build eleven schools for children living in Kenya. The words of these Florida schoolchildren eloquently echo the message of these movies.

Thirteen-year-old seventh-grader Santiago Vazquez, III, told The Miami Herald: “We have a lot, and I guess you could say they have nothing.”

Said 18-year-old FaraAnn Gonzalez: The children in Kenya are “saying how much they appreciate us. We appreciate them so much more. I’ll be able to tell my kids and my grandkids about that.”

These are things this country would do well in considering when the subject of redistributing wealth arises.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Irony and the Bigotry

Gentleman’s Agreement
The Merchant of Venice

Bigotry is full of irony. For instance, the first American to die in the Revolutionary War was a black man named Crispus Atticks – but blacks were held as slaves for more than 80 years after that war, suffered through a peculiar brand of apartheid for another 100 years and only recently were recognized as being able to politically lead a nation that they have led in so many other fields (culture, agriculture, medicine and science, to name a few) since its inception. Another case in point involves Adolph Hitler, the man who is considered by many to be the worst anti-Semite who ever lived – despite the fact that his family tree contained Jewish people.

The movies that will be examined in this posting (Gentleman’s Agreement, released in 1947 in black and white; Crossfire, 1947, b&w; and The Merchant of Venice, 2004, color) offer many excellent examples the cruelty, the stupidity, the smugness, the evil and the irony that anti-Semitism spawns. I should note that I intentionally ignored films about World War II because I wanted to highlight anti-Semitism in this country – but I included the Shakespearean take on the subject because . . . well . . . I love Shakespeare.

Perhaps the greatest irony about Gentleman’s Agreement is that with all the Jewish movie moguls of the early and mid 20th Century, it was a Gentile – Darryl F. Zanuck – who made the film. Some of the reason’s behind the reluctance of Jewish film makers to engage in the project are discussed in the movie.

The film is about a Gentile magazine reporter named Philip Schuyler Green who is given the assignment by a Gentile publisher named John Minify to write a series about anti-Semitism. Phil, a widower who lives with his mother and son, initially is not enthused by the assignment. He changes his mind, however, after discussing the subject over the breakfast table with his family and answering his son Tommy’s questions. While searching for the proper angle from which to attack the subject, it suddenly dawns on him that he should pass himself off as a Jew and report on how he is treated.

Phil tells Minify about the strategy and they agree not to tell anyone that Phil’s claim of being Jewish is false. The only people who are to know besides the publisher and the reporter are Phil’s family and Kathy Lacy, the publisher’s divorced niece who originally suggested the assignment and who becomes romantically involved with Phil – so much so that they become engaged. But, ironically, when Kathy learns about Phil’s strategy, the romance begins to run into trouble. Part of the trouble revolves around a house Kathy owns in an area of Connecticut that discourages Jewish families from living there – but more about this later.

It should be noted that Phil’s mother wholeheartedly supports the idea and Tommy agrees to go along with the plan without hesitation – allowing his friends, schoolmates and teachers to think that he is Jewish.

There is another important character in this tale – Dave Goldman, a Jewish army officer who has been Phil’s best friend since they were kids. Dave has been offered a job in Connecticut but is having a problem finding a place to live. He gives Phil advice on what to expect during his charade. He also gives advice to Kathy about what a husband expects from a wife – advice that my wife said was the best explanation of what a wife should be that she has ever heard.

Then there is Phil’s secretary, Ethel Wales, who has changed her name and is passing for a Gentile. She explains that when she applied for work using her Jewish name, her applications were always rejected – even at the magazine for which she now works. Phil then informs Minify of what happened to her and the publisher immediately calls in his hiring manager and tells him that all future help-wanted ads were to include a line that says an applicant’s religion will not be a consideration for a job. When Miss Wales finds out, she warns Phil that the new advertisement is liable to attract the kind of Jews who wouldn’t be suitable for working at the magazine. Phil replies that her thinking is a form of anti-Semitism and that he doesn’t expect to hear anything like that from her again.

Another important character is Anne Dettrey, a Gentile reporter at the paper who falls in love with Phil even though he is, so she thinks, Jewish. She invites Phil to a party and introduces him to Professor Lieberman, a famous scientist of the Jewish persuasion. She also becomes good friends with Dave and the three of them – Phil, Anne and Dave – start hanging out together.

During his deception, Phil learns first-hand what it is like to be denied admittance to an exclusive hotel; how it feels when the superintendent of the building where he lives tries to discourage him from putting his “Jewish” surname on his mailbox; and, most disheartening, the bigotry his son faces from his schoolmates. When Tommy comes home crying one day about his mistreatment, Kathy tries to console him by telling the child that he should try to understand that the deception is a “horrible lie.” Phil is incensed – probably because by her choice of words, she has implied that Jews are “horrible” people. Thus, the engagement is broken.

When Dave finds out what happened to Tommy, he tells Phil that his assignment is complete because he has now experienced the worst things about anti-Semitism – seeing what it does to Jewish children and feeling the helplessness of their parents.

When Dave turns in the series of articles, his secretary is stunned to learn that a Gentile would willing accept anti-Semitic mistreatment. But everyone involved with Phil and the magazine, especially his mother and Anne, are proud of what he has done and produced.

Then there is Kathy. She meets with Dave and tells him a story about a dinner she attended where a man got up a told a joke that denigrated Jewish people, adding that she and many other attendees didn’t laugh at the joke and felt anger towards the joke teller. Dave responded by telling Kathy that by just sitting there and doing nothing, she was telling this guy that it was alright to be bigoted. Dave said she should have stood up and called him on it, and that confronting people about their bigotry was the only way to really fight against it. Then, Dave gave the speech that my wife loved.

When Dave reports back to Phil about his meeting with Kathy, Dave tells his friend that Kathy has agreed to let Dave and his family rent the previously mentioned Connecticut house – and that she will live in the area to help Dave’s family deal with their Gentile neighbors. I’ll leave it to you to figure out whether Phil and Kathy get back together.

My discussion about Crossfire will be very brief. This film was released several months earlier than the previously discussed movie. But unlike Gentleman’s Agreement, this film looks at the more violent side of anti-Semitism.

The irony – maybe hypocrisy is a better word – of Crossfire is that a soldier who has just returned from World War II, where he fought against Hitler’s Germany and its attempt to annihilate Jews, kills a man simply because that man is Jewish. The soldier expresses disdain for Jews throughout the film and is proud of the murder he has committed. But in the end, the murderer gets what he deserves.

This tightly written film offers an extremely accurate depiction of many of the U.S. military men who returned to the United States after The Second World War. After fighting against the malevolence of Hitler’s Final Solution – which was the extermination of all Jews and all other “inferior” races – these soldiers, sailors and marines continued to consider themselves superior to Jews, blacks, Catholics and others – and often showed no compunction for inflicting bodily, sometimes lethal, harm.

Which brings me to The Merchant of Venice, a story that takes place during the 16th century. The part of the tale that speaks to my current subject revolves around a Jewish money lender named Shylock, who carries deep-seeded resentment about the way Jews are treated, and a merchant named Antonio, who loathes the usury practices he attributes to Shylock. But Antonio, who has taken business away from Shylock by providing loans without interest, becomes beholding to Jew when he agrees to support his friend Bassanio’s desire to wed “the fair” Portia.

However, Portia has many suitors and her father’s blessing is needed before a match can be made. So Portia’s father requires that the suitors raise a certain amount of money and then answer a riddle, which is irrelevant to this discussion. Bassanio asks Antonio help him raise the money and Antonio finds he has to turn to Shylock for a loan. But instead of asking his normal interest rate, Shylock – seeing a way to get revenge on the man he considers an enemy – demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the loan cannot be repaid.

As can be expected, Bassanio’s attempt to raise money to give to Antonio, which in turn, will pay off the debt to Shylock, falls flat. And on top of that, Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, elopes with Bassanio’s friend, Lorenzo. Now, with a sense of betrayal added to his resentment, Shylock demands repayment of the loan. Being unable to meet the loan’s conditions, Shylock demands his pound of flesh. Naturally, the case winds up in court.

When it is pointed out that he is being harsh in his demands, Shylock defends himself by essentially saying that he is only acting in the same harsh manner that Christians have treated him. Then Shylock case gets upended by a law of which he was not aware. That law states that it is illegal for a noncitizen, which Jews are considered, to seek physical harm against a citizen of Venice, and the punishment is the harm that is being sought – in this case, a pound of Shylock’s flesh. But Antonio, Bassanio and Portia – apparently coming to understand Shylock’s anger during the course of the trial – plead with the magistrate not to condemn Shylock to the penalty prescribed by law.

The ironies in this story are Shylock’s willingness to act like a Christian in order to exact his revenge, and then having his sentence commuted with the help of the Christians on whom he was trying to exact that revenge.

So, the three films show us that the main ironies of anti-Semitism and all other forms of prejudice: When you think that you and those like you are superior to those from a different community – be that community religious, racial, geographic, or whatever – you tend to prove by you own actions that you are not. In fact, you often prove that you are worse than those “other” people. And this can apply to the victims, as well: When you seek revenge against those who are persecuting you, more likely than not, you will act as badly, or worse, than the persecutors.

One final thought: Gregory Peck, who portrayed Phil Green in Gentleman’s Agreement, is at the top of my favorite-actor list because of his roles as a defender of American ideals. In this movie, he gives a speech that connects anti-Semitism with anti-Americanism. And he reinforced that belief by playing Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, where he defends a black man against a false charge of raping a white woman in the Jim Crow-era American South. Mr. Peck obviously believed that being an American meant being tolerant of others regardless of their religion, race, or ethnicity – a belief that we all should hold.