Saturday, August 23, 2014

Tyrone Power, Forgotten Movie Star

Tyrone Power, 1914-1958.

Tyrone Power at the beginning of his movie career, mid 1930's.

Charles Laughton and Tyrone Power in Witness for the Prosecution, 1957.
Billy Wilder’s 1957 film Witness for the Prosecution, based on the play by Agatha Christie, was the last movie the popular matinee idol Tyrone Power completed before his death the following year. Witness for the Prosecution starred Power as a man on trial for murder, Charles Laughton as his defense attorney, and Marlene Dietrich as his wife. It’s an interesting movie, with especially good performances from Laughton and Power. Laughton plays Sir Wilfred Robarts, a defense attorney who is recovering from a heart attack, and his nurse Miss Plimsoll, (played by Laughton’s real-life wife Elsa Lanchester) is eager for Sir Wilfred to not take any new cases that might cause him to overexert himself. Then in walks Leonard Vole (Power) a man who is about to be arrested for the murder of an older widow who recently changed her will to make Vole the beneficiary of her estate. Vole protests his innocence, and Sir Wilfred, highly intrigued, agrees to take the case. Power is very effective because the actor playing Leonard Vole needs to be sympathetic and likable, and Power was both of those things. Since the end of the movie expressly told me not to reveal all of the surprises of the plot, I won’t say anything more about what happens. No spoiler alerts for 57 year old movies here!

I’m using Witness for the Prosecution as an excuse to write a short piece about Tyrone Power’s film career. I don’t claim to be an expert on Power’s career, as I’ve only seen three of his movies: Witness for the Prosecution, The Black Swan, and the excellent film noir Nightmare Alley. Power had an interesting, and highly successful, career. He was an extremely popular movie star for more than 20 years, from the mid 1930’s until his untimely death from a heart attack at the age of 44 in 1958.
Power was under contract to 20th Century Fox for the majority of his career. Power’s striking good looks assured him of a substantial female fan base, and he quickly became one of the most popular matinee idols of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Power was an amazingly handsome man who won the genetic lottery big time with his thick dark hair, lively eyes, chiseled features, high cheekbones, dramatically arched eyebrows, and winning smile. Power acted in a great variety of movies, and he found success in many different film genres, including period dramas, light comedies, westerns, war movies, and swashbuckling action films. 

Although Power was an extremely popular movie star for a long time, I would wager that few people under the age of 50 today know who he was. Power’s long filmography is unfortunately not terribly distinguished. His movies, for whatever reason, have not made it into the canon of “great movies.” Power never won an Oscar. Indeed, he was never even nominated for an Oscar. He doesn’t have one signature performance that every movie fan has seen.

Power’s career is similar to that of his swashbuckling contemporary, Errol Flynn. Flynn was also a highly popular actor who might not be that well known today, but his turn as Robin Hood in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood has entered the canon of “great movies” and probably remains his most well-known performance. Another actor who was similar to Power and Flynn was Robert Taylor-who was to MGM what Power was to 20th Century Fox-namely, their handsome leading man who could also handle action films. Like Power, neither Flynn nor Taylor were ever nominated for an Oscar. 

Despite not receiving a lot of acclaim for his acting skills, Power actually was a fine film actor, and his performance in the gritty 1947 film noir Nightmare Alley is excellent. Unfortunately, because it was such a departure from his usual screen image, Nightmare Alley was not heavily promoted by Fox and flopped at the box office. Power had worked very hard to get Nightmare Alley made, and it was no doubt a great disappointment to him that Fox didn’t promote it whole-heartedly. It was difficult for Power to find roles that didn’t rely only on his good looks. During the 1950’s Power became more dissatisfied with the kind of movies he was offered, so he acted in plays more and more frequently.
Director Billy Wilder had extremely high praise for Power’s work in Witness for the Prosecution. He said of Power:

“He was one of those rare occurrences in Hollywood, he was an absolutely totally gentleman….He was excellent and professional and prepared and intelligent…totally impeccable in his professional life…The picture we did together was one of the few joys of my professional life.” (The Secret Life of Tyrone Power, by Hector Arce, p.269) 

In his personal life, Power was an excellent pilot, a skill that served him well during his World War II service in the Marines. Power flew missions carrying wounded troops out of Iwo Jima and Okinawa during 1945. Like many men of his generation, Power never bragged about his military service, but he was proud of it. After World War II ended, Power dated Lana Turner. According to Turner’s daughter Cheryl, Power was the love of Turner’s life. Unfortunately, they never married and split up. I think it’s unfortunate they didn’t have any kids together, because those children would have been amazingly good looking. 

The film critic Jeanine Basinger is a huge Tyrone Power fan, and she has a full chapter about Power’s life and career in her 2007 history of the Hollywood studio system, The Star Machine. Basinger thinks that Power was the best-looking man ever, and, tellingly, the section in the index with the most entries for Power is “physical beauty of.” Actress Alice Faye, who co-starred with Power in three movies, said of him, “All my life, I was asked what it was like to kiss Tyrone Power.” 

Tyrone Power would have turned 100 in May 2014. His good looks and charisma still jump off the screen, and he’s a movie star who should be better remembered today.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Review: "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?" Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country by Kevin Mattson

Cover of "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?" by Kevin Mattson, 2009.

President Jimmy Carter.

Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office. As you can see in this photo, they had an awkward relationship. When asked about the possibility of Kennedy running against him in 1980, Carter said, "If Kennedy runs, I'll whip his ass."
Jimmy Carter had a difficult presidency. During his four years in office, he battled rising unemployment and rising inflation at the same time, an economic oddity called stagflation. He suffered through the Iran hostage crisis, and while he was ultimately able to secure the release of the hostages, they weren’t freed until minutes after Ronald Reagan had taken the oath of office, as a final “fuck you” from Iran to Carter. He had to deal with the 1979 energy crisis, which caused long lines at the gas pump for many Americans. To top it all off, he once collapsed while jogging, and was attackedby a vicious swimming rabbit

Historian Kevin Mattson takes us back to those difficult days during the summer of 1979 in his 2009 book, “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” Jimmy Carter, America’s “Malaise,” and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country. In the book, Mattson chronicles one of the many odd events of the Carter presidency, Carter’s famous “crisis of confidence” speech of July 15, 1979. 
The July 15th speech would forever after be branded the “malaise” speech by the press, even though Carter never used the word “malaise” in the speech. Malaise is a general feeling of being unwell, often as a first sign of illness. It can also mean “a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being,” according to Webster’s.

The days leading up to Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech were highly unusual in the annals of the presidency. After returning from a global summit in Tokyo, Carter canceled a speech on energy that was scheduled for July 5th, and holed up at Camp David with his closest advisors for ten days. While at Camp David, Carter invited many prominent Americans to visit with him and figure out how he could get the country back on track. When Carter re-emerged, he delivered the “crisis of confidence” speech in a nationwide address on July 15th.

Carter’s speech was a remarkably honest assessment of the United States at the time. Carter spoke of a “crisis of confidence” in America. In one of the best moments of the speech, Carter said, “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” Carter also spoke honestly about how the nation still hadn’t healed from the shock of Vietnam and Watergate. “We were taught that our armies were always invincible and our causes were always just, only to suffer the agony of Vietnam. We respected the presidency as a place of honor until the shock of Watergate.” In the second half of the speech, Carter laid out an ambitious energy agenda to combat the growing energy crisis. Carter said, “There are no short-term solutions to our long-range problems. There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice.” 

Although today Carter’s speech is remembered as a flop, at the time it was very positively reviewed by the press and the public. The good news for Carter was that his approval rating went up 11 points overnight. The bad news was that his approval rating went from 26% to 37%. Carter’s mistake wasn’t in giving the speech; his mistake was following it up two days later with demanding the resignation of his entire cabinet. That shook people’s confidence in the Carter presidency and made people forget the speech. Carter’s presidency looked like a mess. 

While the “crisis of confidence” speech was indeed a great speech, it ultimately wasn’t what people wanted to hear from their president. Carter’s speech forced Americans to reexamine their way of life and it didn’t give them any easy answers as to how they could fix the crisis in America. The American public was much happier with Ronald Reagan’s shallow, confident patriotism. There was no crisis of confidence within Ronald Reagan’s soul. 

Another reason that Carter’s speech isn’t as well remembered today is that the gas crisis of 1979 ended soon after Carter’s speech. Most of the policy recommendations that Carter made never had to be put into place because gas and oil were abundant once again.

In his book, Mattson focuses only on the few months leading up to Carter’s July 15th speech. Mattson paints a vivid portrait of the Carter White House and America during the summer of 1979. He brings little-known incidents to the forefront to show how the gas crisis seriously affected parts of America. Mattson gives us a glimpse of the varied personalities operating inside the Carter White House, and shows how Carter was pulled in different directions by different staffers. Mattson also tells of Vice President Walter Mondale’s existential crisis during May of 1979, as Mondale briefly considered resigning. Mondale realized that his resignation would only be more fodder for the press to attack Carter’s presidency, and so he stayed on. 

Mattson’s writing style is for the most part clear and easy to read, but it occasionally becomes awkward and in need of a better editor. Here’s one example: “It was especially eerie to note how Ted Kennedy’s life followed that of his brother Robert: They had both been mediocre undergraduates at Harvard and law students at the University of Virginia.” (p.77) So Bobby and Ted going to the same colleges 8 years apart is eerie? Not really, especially when you consider that the Kennedy brothers were pre-ordained from birth to go to Harvard. It’s an example of sloppy writing that should have been fixed.

Speaking of Ted Kennedy, he was another headache for Jimmy Carter during 1979, as it became evident that Kennedy was going to challenge Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination. Another challenge that Carter faced during his presidency was that he didn’t really understand how Congress worked. One of the reasons that Carter was elected in 1976 was that he was a Washington outsider. Which was an advantage during the campaign, but once he was president it became a problem as he tried to get legislation through Congress. And even though Carter had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress during his presidency, some liberals like Ted Kennedy thought Carter was too much of a centrist, and much of Carter’s legislative agenda was blocked in Congress. When asked in 1979 if he was worried about Kennedy running against him, Carter replied, "If Kennedy runs, I'll whip his ass." Well, at least Carter was confident about something.

Kennedy’s campaign against Carter in the 1980 Democratic primaries is probably best described as pointless. Kennedy didn’t have a real chance of wresting the nominated away from Carter, but he didn’t concede until the Democratic convention, and even then he tried to change the rules of the convention to allow delegates to break away from their chosen candidate after the first ballot. Kennedy’s campaign suffered from a lack of clarity, as even Ted himself didn’t seem to know why he was running, besides the fact that everyone expected him to run for president at some point. 

Carter was hurt by Kennedy’s campaign and the split within the Democratic party, but he was hurt more by the sluggish economy, and the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis. The United States turned away from Carter and towards the muscular vision of Ronald Reagan, a man who had unlimited optimism in America’s future, and an unlimited storage of Hollywood anecdotes. Carter was both smarter and a harder worker than Reagan, and yet as president Reagan was able to press more of his agenda through Congress.

Jimmy Carter is a great man, and his post-presidential career has easily been the most successful of any former president. During his presidency, Carter worked relentlessly to solve intractable problems to which there were no easy solutions. He was a smart and gifted man who very well could have been a successful president under different circumstances. Carter’s genuine humility is always on display in Kevin Mattson’s book, and Mattson shows us why Jimmy Carter was such a unique president, if not a very successful one.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Concert Review: Paul McCartney at Target Field

The logo for Paul McCartney's Out There tour.

Last night Paul McCartney brought his “Out There” tour to Target Field in Minneapolis. It was a fantastic show from a musical legend. Paul played 39 songs over two hours and 45 minutes! I’m amazed at his energy and stamina. I saw Paul live in Milwaukee last summer, and although the set list was nearly identical, it’s always a pleasure to see him in person. I took my parents and my wife to last night’s show, and it was great to share Paul’s music with the people who are most important to me. My Mom introduced me to The Beatles’ music, and this is the third time I’ve seen Paul live with her, which is pretty cool. 

McCartney’s catalogue of songs is second to no one in rock music. He’s created so many wonderful songs over more than 50 years in the music business. When you go to a Paul McCartney concert you have to remind yourself sometimes, “Oh yeah, he actually WROTE all of these songs!” His discography is so deep that he could play another three hour show filled with the hits that he doesn’t play in his normal set list. 

McCartney’s voice still sounds terrific. After he sang “And I Love Her,” from 1964’s “A Hard Day’s Night,” I turned to my Mom and said, “He still sounds pretty good 50 years later, doesn’t he?” She said, “He sounds the same. It’s amazing.” 

Paul’s backing band is fantastic; they’re able to replicate the sound of The Beatles almost perfectly. Keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens handles all of the odd instruments, from accordion on “We Can Work It Out” to kazoo on “Lovely Rita.” Guitarists Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray are both extremely skilled at replicating George Harrison’s guitar sound, but they also make the songs their own. And drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr. holds down the backbeat and has a blast doing it. 

McCartney played Beatles songs that he had never played live before last year, like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” It was a treat to hear some of those Beatles songs from the group’s studio days that they never performed live. And it was interesting to hear Paul sing “Mr. Kite,” because John sang the lead vocal on “Sgt. Pepper.” The only new additions to the set this year were four songs from Macca’s latest album, the aptly titled “New,” which came out in October 2013. The songs from “New” all sounded great; he still has his gift for creating beautiful, melodic songs. 

One of the highlights of the show for me was hearing Paul play an extended ending on “Paperback Writer.” That’s one of my favorite Beatles songs, and it was nice to hear a little bit more of it. Paul played the same Epiphone Casino guitar that he had played when The Beatles recorded “Paperback Writer” in the studio, which was a fun bit of history for a Beatlemanic like myself.

As usual in concert, McCartney displayed his instrumental virtuosity, switching effortlessly between piano, guitar, and bass. Some of the emotional highlights of the show were the sing-alongs to “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude.” It’s pretty amazing to go to a concert and have 30,000 or 40,000 people singing along to a song. Other highlights for me were Paul’s tributes to John Lennon and George Harrison. Paul’s beautiful song “Here Today,” which he wrote after Lennon’s murder, is a tender and touching imaginary conversation with his friend and songwriting partner. As a tribute to George, Paul got out his ukulele and told the story of jamming with George and telling him “I’ve learned one of your songs on ukulele.” Paul then started to play “Something” solo on the ukulele. Even though I’ve seen Paul sing “Something” as a tribute to George before, last night it was very emotional. Halfway through the song the rest of the band came in and played it in the traditional Beatles style. It was beautiful to hear, and moving to see Paul pay tribute to his fellow bandmates. 

I’ve been lucky enough to have seen Paul McCartney in concert four times now. I can vividly remember every time I’ve seen him, as it’s not very often you get to see one of the greatest songwriters and musicians ever in person. The Beatles have been my favorite band since I was 11 years old, which is more than 20 years ago now. So seeing Paul in concert is always a special and emotional moment for me, as I’m sure it was for everyone else at Target Field last night.

Paul McCartney set list at Target Field:
Eight Days a Week
Save Us
All My Loving
Listen to What the Man Said
Let Me Roll It/Foxy Lady
Paperback Writer
My Valentine
Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five
The Long and Winding Road
Maybe I’m Amazed
I’ve Just Seen a Face
We Can Work it Out
Another Day
And I Love Her
Here Today
Queenie Eye
Lady Madonna
All Together Now
Lovely Rita
Everybody Out There
Eleanor Rigby
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Band on the Run
Back in the U.S.S.R.
Let it Be
Live and Let Die
Hey Jude

First encore:
Day Tripper
Hi, Hi, Hi
Get Back

Second encore:
Helter Skelter
Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Book Review: Ike's Bluff, by Evan Thomas (2012)

Ike's Bluff, by Evan Thomas, 2012.

President Dwight Eisenhower.
Evan Thomas’s 2012 book Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World, completely refutes the stereotype of Dwight Eisenhower as a caretaker president who only cared about his golf handicap. Thomas focuses his book exclusively on Eisenhower’s foreign policy, and he paints a portrait of an engaged leader who was extremely skilled at using psychology to get what he wanted. 

The central thesis of Thomas’s book is that Eisenhower was determined to keep the United States out of war during his Presidency. As Thomas writes in the introduction to his book, “Having done as much as any man to win World War II, Ike devoted the rest of his public service to keeping America and the world out of World War III.” (p.16) Eisenhower was successful in his goal, as he avoided confrontations with both the Russians and the Chinese during his two terms. Eisenhower disliked war, and he wrote in his diary on Memorial Day 1951: “Another Decoration Day finds us still adding to the number of graves that will be decorated in future years. Men are stupid.” (p.11)

Despite his reputation as a genial grandfatherly figure, Eisenhower was someone who played his cards very close to the vest. His son John Eisenhower told Thomas, “I don’t envy you trying to figure Dad out. I can’t figure him out.” (p.38) Thomas takes on the tricky task of parsing Eisenhower’s often garbled syntax to figure out what was really on his mind, or what his true intentions were. Eisenhower was an excellent card player, adapt at both poker and bridge. He was good enough at poker that he eventually stopped playing, because he was beating his fellow officers too often. He shared this skill at poker with his Vice President, Richard Nixon, who won a significant amount of money playing poker while in the Navy during World War II. However, I don’t think that Eisenhower and Nixon ever played cards together, since they had a relationship that was awkward at best. One of my favorite quotes from Ike’s Bluff is from the diary of Ann Whitman, Eisenhower’s White House secretary, as she wrote about Richard Nixon, “the Vice President sometimes seems like a man who is acting like a nice man rather than being one.” (p.389) 

Eisenhower was an excellent bridge player. As Thomas writes, “He was always thinking several moves ahead, trying to read his opponent and figuring out how to lead him on or trump him.” (p.41) This skill would serve him well during the gamesmanship of the Cold War. Complimenting his skills as a card player, Eisenhower didn’t like to use the telephone to conduct business. According to Thomas, “He wanted to see people face-to-face, the better to read them.” (p.42) Golf and cards, Eisenhower’s two main forms of recreation, also taught him patience, which was something that served him well throughout his Presidency. In a crisis, Eisenhower time and again was unwilling to make a rash snap decision that could have provoked war. 

Thomas does an excellent job throughout the book of articulating Eisenhower’s strengths and weaknesses as a leader. Ike was someone who trusted his subordinates; he was not a micromanager, which was both a strength and a weakness. Eisenhower was someone who was willing to share credit and take the blame alone. Because he didn’t need to always take credit to feed his ego, many people underestimated Eisenhower’s intelligence. Thomas is not uncritical of Ike, as he thinks that Eisenhower could have done more to calm the Cold War fears of the American public. 

Eisenhower’s ability to get inside the head of his opponents allowed him to analyze the leaders of the Soviet Union, and he used face-to-face summit meetings to help him figure out the contradictory Nikita Khrushchev. But Eisenhower’s trust of his subordinates made him look like a fool during the U-2 incident in 1960, when a U-2 CIA spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. This incident soured the Paris summit held shortly afterwards, as Khrushchev demanded an apology from Eisenhower and stormed out of the summit when Ike didn’t offer one. Eisenhower had always been cautious about the U-2 spy plane, even as it delivered photographic confirmation that the United States was well ahead of the Soviet Union in the race to build nuclear weapons. Richard Bissell was the CIA man in charge of the U-2 flights, and he assured Eisenhower that it would be impossible for the Russians to detect the high altitude plane. Bissell was incorrect. The Russians detected the very first flight of the U-2 in 1956. Russians planes couldn’t fly as high as the U-2, so they couldn’t shoot it down, but it was only a matter of time before they could. Unfortunately, Bissell didn’t tell Eisenhower that the plane was detected, and he instead carried on with the lie that the plane was impervious to Soviet radar. After the U-2 was shot down in 1960, the White House, thinking that the pilot of the plane was dead, put out cover stories that it was a high-altitude “weather plane” that had strayed off course. When Khrushchev revealed that the pilot was in fact alive, the White House had to change their story. Of course, Eisenhower had been assured by the CIA that there was no way a U-2 pilot could survive a crash of the plane. The U-2 incident destroyed the trust that had slowly built up between Eisenhower and Khrushchev, and it put to rest Eisenhower’s hopes of negotiating an arms limitation settlement between the United States and the Soviet Union. After the U-2 incident, Eisenhower should have demanded Bissell’s resignation, and probably that of complacent CIA director Allen Dulles as well, but true to his hands off management style, he didn’t. (Bissell and Dulles would later be forced to resign by JFK after another CIA foul-up with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961.)

President Eisenhower’s main nuclear strategy was “massive retaliation,” which meant that the United States might use nuclear weapons during any confrontation, and that we would not hesitate to, well, massively retaliate against our enemies. The policy’s main proponent was Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, the solemn and humorless John Foster Dulles. While massive retaliation might sound insane to us today, Thomas illustrates how the strategy worked for Eisenhower during his Presidency. Because no one besides Eisenhower really knew when, or if, he would use nuclear weapons in a confrontation, our opponents backed down from escalating international crises. Thomas makes the point that Eisenhower’s personal history, and his lifelong service in the military, gave him the standing necessary to back up the policy. No one really wanted to mess with the man who had masterminded the D-Day invasion and won World War II on the Western front in Europe. Had a president with a different background attempted the policy of massive retaliation, it might have backfired disastrously. 

Throughout Ike’s Bluff, Thomas is incisive about Eisenhower’s complex personality, using excerpts from the medical diary of Howard Snyder, Eisenhower’s doctor, to shed light on Ike’s mood swings. Despite his seemingly endless patience at the bridge table, Ike had a terrible temper which he struggled to keep under control, and he once hurled a golf club at Dr. Snyder. Thomas also illuminates Ike’s health issues, as he suffered a heart attack in 1955 and a stroke in 1957. After his heart attack, Eisenhower was out of the public eye for about six weeks as he recovered. It’s difficult to imagine that a president now would be able to stay out of the public eye for so long in our over-saturated media culture and still win a resounding re-election victory the following year.

Ike’s Bluff is an excellent book that I would recommend to anyone who wants to get a better idea of what kind of President Dwight Eisenhower was. Evan Thomas is a skilled writer who creates a compelling narrative about a fascinating man and the global challenges he faced as president.