Friday, November 27, 2015

Book Review: Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, by Tom Wolfe (1976)

Tom Wolfe, resplendent in his white suit, on the cover of a re-issue of his 1976 essay collection, Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine.

Tom Wolfe’s 1976 book Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, is a collection of short essays of the sort that had made Wolfe famous a decade earlier. The contents are quite varied, ranging from the illustrated story “The Man Who Always Peaked Too Soon,” to Wolfe’s first venture into fiction, the short story “The Commercial,” and including one of Wolfe’s classic capturing-the-zeitgeist pieces, “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening.” Mauve Gloves & Madmen features excellent writing from Wolfe, although the book is somewhat uneven.

The title piece is an odd, fictional fragment of an author’s reckoning of his personal finances. The seemingly inscrutable title is clarified, as the author looks through his receipts for a recent dinner party, which was catered by Mauve Gloves & Madmen, and the flowers to dress up the apartment for the party came from the florist Clutter & Vine. Is this piece, about a successful author who needs still more money to retain his current status, meant to be a self-portrait of Wolfe? I didn’t really think so, but then I came across a 1981 interview of Wolfe by Joshua Gilder, which was reprinted in the book Conversations with Tom Wolfe.  During the interview, Wolfe talks about the period where he wrote The Right Stuff, and he says “I even got to the point where I wore clothes in which I couldn’t go out into the street. Such as khaki pants; you know, I think it’s demeaning. I can’t go out into the street in khaki pants or jeans.” Gilder then asks the question most of us would ask next, “You own a pair of jeans?” Wolfe answers, “I have one pair of ‘Double X’ Levis, which I bought in La Porte, Texas, in a place that I was told was an authentic Texas cowboy store, just before I started working on The Right Stuff. I’ve had them on, but I’ve never worn them below the third floor. So I put on a pair of khaki pants and a turtleneck sweater, a heavy sweater.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.161)

This is the same outfit the author in “Mauve Gloves & Madmen” wears! “Meeting his sideburns at mid-jowl is the neck of his turtleneck sweater, an authentic Navy turtleneck, and the sweater tucks into his Levi’s, which are the authentic Original XX Levi’s, the original straight stovepipes made for wearing over boots. He got them in a bona fide cowhand’s store in La Porte, Texas, during his trip to Houston to be the keynote speaker in a lecture series on ‘The American Dream: Myth and Reality.’ No small part of the latter was a fee of two thousand dollars plus expenses. This outfit, the Navy turtleneck and the double-X Levi’s, means work & discipline. Discipline! as he says to himself every day. When he puts on these clothes, it means that he intends to write, and do nothing else, for at least four hours.” (Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, p.2-3) 

Ironically, I had first thought that this description of the way the author was dressed was one reason why the piece wasn’t meant to be a self-portrait of Wolfe. That can’t be Tom Wolfe! Tom Wolfe doesn’t wear jeans!

“The Man Who Always Peaked Too Soon” is an illustrated story. Wolfe is a good illustrator, but I don’t really care for his style. It reminds me too much of the cluttered grotesquerie of Ronald Searle. 

“The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie,” about fighter pilots in Vietnam, is kind of a tune-up for Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff. Pilots! The heroes of the skies! Defying death with every trip! They have ice water running through their veins! Was Tom Wolfe actually up there on the flight deck with them? In his white suit? What if it got dirty, full of oil and grease stains? Skkkkreeeowww! A fighter jet roars past! You can feel it, actually FEEL the vibrations in your bones! Tom Wolfe gets INSIDE the heads of these fighter pilots…knowing how they think…you are there for every minute of their flight over North Vietnam…scanning the skies…looking out for Charlie, or the SAMs, the surface to air missiles…trying to stay above the flak…lookout, SAM at one o’clock!!! And then it comes over the radio, “No more parodies of Tom Wolfe’s writing style!” WHAT??? How can I review this book without resorting to multiple exclamation points!!! It’s NOT possible…okay, fine…back to boring normal review writing…

Wolfe even comes close to coining the phrase “the right stuff” in this piece:

“Within the fraternity of men who did this sort of thing day in and day out-within the flying fraternity, that is-mankind appeared to be sheerly divided into those who have it and those who don’t-although just what it was…was never explained.” (p.45) 

“The Truest Sport” is a superb piece of writing. Originally published in Esquire in October, 1975, it is a favorite of Wolfe’s, as he once called it, “one of the magazine pieces I’m proudest of.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.162) 

“The Commercial: A Short Story,” is an excellent piece of fiction, told from the point of view of an African-American baseball player filming a television commercial. Wolfe is able to capture the voice of someone totally unlike himself. However, Wolfe was a good enough baseball player to earn a tryout with the New York Giants as a pitcher in 1953. Wolfe once said in a 1976 interview, “This country really is made up of half failed athletes and half women. That’s what America is.” In the same interview, Wolfe described his pitching talents, “I had a great assortment of junk screwballs, sliders, and even a forkball. I lacked a fastball, though. It was my tragic flaw.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.99) 

“The Intelligent Co-Ed’s Guide to America” is a good short piece about the nature of the intellectual class in America to be depressed and always think that the rise of fascism is imminent. 

“The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening” is the most famous piece in the book. (The book really should have been called The Me Decade, which would have been a much better title than the too verbose and cumbersome Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine.) It’s a fascinating look at America at the midpoint of the 1970’s. Wolfe has clearly been thinking about the issues in the essay a lot, and many different strands of thought come together in this piece of writing. Wolfe writes that unrivaled prosperity in the post-World War II United States has led to people having all of this time on their hands to discover their “true selves.” I would agree with this thesis. It’s only when people’s basic human needs are being met that they have the time to, say, undergo psychoanalysis. 

“The Perfect Crime” discusses how hostage taking has become the ultimate crime of the 1970’s. Again, this fits in with Wolfe’s idea that the 1970’s have become a narcissistic decade. A hostage situation puts all of the focus and attention on the hostage taker, which is exactly what they wanted. It’s all about ME.

“Pornoviolence” described media sensationalism about sex and violence. It starts at a conference for stringers for The National Enquirer, and then Wolfe broadens his lens to look at TV Westerns, James Bond, and Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. 

“The Boiler Room and the Computer” is a short essay about how Freud was wrong about how our bodies operate. Probably the least interesting piece in the book.

“Funky Chic” demonstrates how in tune Wolfe is to people’s clothes, and what our clothes tell other people about our statuses. We are in John O’Hara territory of describing social minutiae here, as Wolfe writes about how twenty years ago, “Five out of every seven Yale undergraduates could tell whether the button-down Oxford cloth shirt you had on was from Fenn-Feinstein, J. Press, or Brooks Brothers from a single glance at your shirt front; Fenn-Feinstein: plain breast pocket; J. Press: breast pocket with buttoned flap; Brooks Brothers: no breast pocket at all.” (p.181) You might find that to be too much information, or you might find it fascinating. 

“Honks and Wonks” details east coast regional accents, and what status they denote to other people. It’s moderately interesting. But I have to quibble with Wolfe’s assertion that “Bobby Kennedy, like his brother John, had great difficulty in conventional oratory from a rostrum.” (p.205) So the President who delivered one of the greatest inaugural addresses ever wasn’t a good speaker? That’s just false. Bobby Kennedy was also a great speaker. If you need evidence, just listen to his “ripple of hope” speech, delivered in South Africa in 1966, or his moving words, delivered extemporaneously, the night that Martin Luther King was assassinated. 

“The Street Fighters” is a short piece, a sort of easy dessert to end the book, about how quick people in New York City are to insult each other. 

The second half of Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine is not quite as good as the first half, as some of those later essays are a little inconsequential. But overall, the book is an excellent example of Wolfe’s sharp eye for detail as he chronicled the “me decade” of the 1970’s.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Book Review: Quartet, by Jean Rhys (1929)

Jean Rhys' first novel, Quartet, published in 1929.

Ella Williams, who wrote under the pen name Jean Rhys, 1890-1979.
I first encountered the writing of Jean Rhys when I read her excellent novel Good Morning, Midnight in college. I thought it was a superb book, and I’ve always had it in my head to read something else of hers, but for whatever reason it didn’t happen until I recently picked up her first novel, Quartet, published in 1929.

Quartet tells the tale of Marya Zelli, an English woman living with her husband in Paris. When her husband is sentenced to a year in jail for theft, she drifts aimlessly, before being taken in by an English couple, H.J. and Lois Heidler. The Heidlers seem nice enough, but suddenly one day H.J. confesses his love for Marya to her. They start an affair, which does not seem to bring Marya any joy.

Quartet is a rather depressing little novel. Marya is a character who is amazingly aimless, and she seems to have no ambition in life. I kind of wanted to shake her and say, “Hey, Marya, maybe you should get a job or something, rather than just drinking yourself into a stupor all of the time.” That being said, Rhys does a good job of bringing to life the sordid underbelly of Paris.

Rhys was an excellent writer, and Quartet is sprinkled with great lines. Two of my favorite quotes are:

“Of course he was a clever young man, but how clever, that was the question. Clever enough to recognize the truth when he heard it? Hardly anybody was clever enough for that.” (p.92) 

“Love was a terrible thing. You poisoned it and stabbed at it and knocked it down into the mud-well down-and it got up and staggered on, bleeding and muddy and awful. Like-like Rasputin.” (p.122-3) 

Rhys sometimes enters the minds of minor characters for a moment, and we briefly get to hear what they are really thinking, and how that doesn’t match what they actually say. It’s an interesting technique, and I think it works quite nicely.

Quartet was loosely based on Rhys’ relationship with the modernist British author Ford Madox Ford, author of The Good Soldier, (which I reviewed here) and the Parade’s End tetralogy. Ford was an early patron of Rhys and encouraged her writing. He chose Jean Rhys as her pen name. (Her real name was Ella Williams.) Ford also had an affair with Rhys, and he’s the inspiration for the character of H.J. Heidler. (Ford’s real name was Ford Hueffer.) If Ford was anything like Heidler’s character, he was not a very nice guy.

If you’re looking for a bleak portrayal of 1920’s Paris, read Quartet. You’ll discover the brilliance of Jean Rhys, one of the 20th century’s most unjustly overlooked writers.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Movie Review: Bombers B-52, starring Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (1957)

Poster for Bombers B-52. The poster says it's Natalie Wood's "most exciting role!" It's lying.

Natalie Wood and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. make a cute couple in Bombers B-52, even if he is twice her age.

Natalie Wood and Karl Malden as father and daughter in Bombers B-52, 1957.
Natalie Wood’s only movie release of 1957 was Bombers B-52, a movie in which she received top billing, but played a supporting role to the Air Force’s latest long-range bomber. Wood stars along with the always excellent Karl Malden as her father, an Air Force engineer, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., as a flashy pilot. It takes a while for Bombers B-52 to figure out exactly what kind of movie it’s going to be. At first it seems like an elongated sitcom episode, as the plot involves Malden’s character going on a television quiz show and winning $4,000 by answering questions about baseball. (He buys his daughter a beautiful yellow Ford convertible with the winnings.) There’s conflict between Wood and Malden, as she tries to convince him to take a job in the private sector. Then Zimbalist shows up and gets put in charge of the base where Malden works. Malden is not happy about this. Malden and Zimbalist encountered each other in Korea, and Malden thinks Zimbalist is just a glory-seeking hot shot. But Zimbalist keeps Malden from resigning by showing him the new B-52 Stratofortress planes that the base will get. That’s enough to keep Malden happy. But he’s less happy once Zimbalist starts dating Wood. There’s some drama about test flights of the B-52, but it all ends well. Unfortunately, Bombers B-52 just isn’t a very exciting movie, although it does feature some great aerial photography of the B-52. The unintentional comedic highlights of the film are the mid-air refueling scenes, which just made me think of the opening credits for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, in which the sexual symbolism is played up as a B-52 is refueled to the romantic strains of “Try a Little Tenderness.” The most unintentionally funny line of dialogue in the movie is at the end of the refueling scene, when someone says, “Tanker to receiver-you’ve got it all.” Wink wink, nudge nudge. 

I would guess that Bombers B-52 was not a fun movie for Natalie Wood to make, as her character really doesn’t have much to do. Wood was trying to become a serious actress, and Bombers B-52 did not put any strain on her acting talents. It must have been a letdown for her after making great dramas like Rebel Without a Cause and The Searchers. Wood certainly looks beautiful in Bombers B-52, but she’s just window dressing.

We don’t see enough of the romance between Wood and Zimbalist to really care about it, or be invested in their relationship. And while Efrem Zimbalist certainly looks more than capable of piloting a B-52, he’s a little old to be romancing an 18 or 19 year old Natalie Wood. Zimbalist was 19 years older than Wood! A more age appropriate love interest would have been Tab Hunter, who had already made two movies with Wood, but Hunter turned the role down. 

Zimbalist does a fine job in one of his early movie roles. Zimbalist is most well-known for his television work in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s, on the long running series 77 Sunset Strip and The FBI. He was a handsome man, with good hair, a strong jaw, and an air of authority. You’d trust him to pilot a B-52. Zimbalist’s father, Efrem Zimbalist Sr., was a classical violinist, and his mother, Alma Gluck, was a soprano who made several popular records in the 1910’s. Both Efrem Zimbalist Sr. and Jr. lived to be 95 years old. Karl Malden made it to 97 years old, which means that Bombers B-52 starred two of the longest-lived leading actors ever. 

Karl Malden was one of the great film actors, as even in a potboiler like this, he gives every line his complete dedication as an actor. Malden’s rather ordinary looks, and his formidable talent, allowed him the versatility of moving between leading roles and character roles. Malden later starred with Wood in two more movies, 1962’s Gypsy and the 1979 disaster flick Meteor. Malden got along well with Natalie Wood, and Wood biographer Suzanne Finstad writes about an interesting anecdote during the filming of Bombers B-52: “Malden glimpsed the loneliness underneath Natalie’s surface gaiety when he discovered she had never been on a family picnic, and arranged to take her on one. She told him, afterward, that it was one of the happiest days of her life, which Malden found desperately sad.” (Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, by Suzanne Finstad, p.237) Like many child stars, Natalie really didn’t have much of a childhood, and thus she missed out on a lot of life experiences. 

The screenplay for Bombers B-52 was written by Irving Wallace, who wrote many popular novels, and was also one of the editors for The Book of Lists, which makes him a hero in my eyes, since that was my favorite book when I was 13 years old. Yay for books of random trivia!

Bombers B-52 was directed by Gordon Douglas, who has a lot of “second movies in a series” among his credits. He did 1967’s In Like Flint, the second Flint spy movie with James Coburn, and the second movie in which Sidney Poitier played detective Virgil Tibbs, 1970’s They Call Me Mister Tibbs! He also directed Frank Sinatra in five movies. 

Perhaps the best summation of Bombers B-52 was written at the time it was released in November, 1957, when Time magazine called it a “$1,400,000 want ad for Air Force technicians.” It’s no surprise when at the end of the movie there’s a credit expressing the filmmaker’s thanks towards the Air Force. Without the cooperation of the Air Force, there wouldn’t have been a movie.  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Reflections on Allen Toussaint, 1938-2015

Allen Toussaint, 1938-2015.

Me, my wife Pondie, and the great Allen Toussaint, November 9, 2013.
I was greatly saddened to hear that one of my favorite musicians, the warm and brilliant Allen Toussaint, passed away today. He was a truly gifted songwriter, piano player, and ambassador of New Orleans music. Toussaint worked with many great artists, from The Band to Paul McCartney. Toussaint's album with Elvis Costello, "The River in Reverse," is a classic. Allen Toussaint had tons of style and class. He dressed impeccably, but he was always humble and self-effacing. I was lucky enough to see Allen Toussaint live three times at the Dakota Jazz Club, in 2009, 2011, and 2013. I met him after his 2013 concert, and he was a really nice, sweet guy to talk to. I told him that I had seen him three times in concert, and he said he was glad I kept coming back. I'm glad I kept coming back too and that I got to see a giant of American music live. RIP, Mr. Toussaint.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Book Review: The Studio, by John Gregory Dunne (1969)

Paperback cover of The Studio, by John Gregory Dunne, 1969. I took this photo because I couldn't find any decent pictures of the cover of the book. On my bookshelf you can see Lana Turner and Natalie Wood making cameos. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor.)

Rex Harrison as Doctor Dolittle, 1967. Dr. Dolittle lost 20th Century Fox a huge amount of money. By all accounts, Rex Harrison was not overly fond of his human co-stars, one can only imagine what he thought about making a movie with so many animals.
John Gregory Dunne’s 1969 book The Studio is a fascinating achievement in writing about the movies. Dunne asked for, and was granted, full access to the Twentieth Century Fox studio for a year. Dunne shows the reader many vignettes, but the main plotline that we follow in The Studio is the publicity campaign for Doctor Dolittle, the 1967 musical starring Rex Harrison as the doctor who can talk to the animals. Fox was hoping that Dolittle would follow the path of the studio’s earlier musical success, The Sound of Music. Unfortunately for Fox, Dolittle flopped, grossing just $9 million, which was half of its swollen $18 million budget. ($18 million in 1967 dollars is about $130 million in 2015 dollars.) 

Throughout The Studio a certain desperation creeps in, as everyone is fervently hoping that Doctor Dolittle will become a huge hit. What they should have spent more time worrying about was whether or not it was a good movie. (It wasn’t.) Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck told Dunne, “We’ve got $50 million tied up in these three musicals, Dolittle, Star!, and Hello, Dolly!, and quite frankly, if we hadn’t made such an enormous success with The Sound of Music, I’d be petrified.” (p.240-1) Zanuck should have been petrified, as all three of those movies lost a lot of money for Fox. 

Where Lilian Ross’ book Picture featured a father and son-like relationship between MGM executives Louis B. Mayer and Dore Schary, The Studio features an actual father and son relationship between Darryl F. Zanuck, president of Fox, and Richard D. Zanuck, executive vice president of Fox. Darryl had been ousted as president of Fox in 1956, and then returned in 1962 to save the studio, as it was sinking under the massive cost overruns on Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The Sound of Music had made Fox flush once again, but the failures of the massive musicals that followed in its wake led to Darryl firing Richard in 1970. The next year Darryl Zanuck was fired by the Fox board of directors, thus ending the career of the last of the great movie moguls. Richard Zanuck went on to a very successful career as an independent producer, producing huge hits like The Sting, Jaws, Cocoon, Driving Miss Daisy, and eventually entering into a very successful partnership with director Tim Burton. 

The Studio features cameos from stars like Tony Curtis, Julie Andrews, Charlton Heston, and Gene Kelly, but Dunne doesn’t dish any dirt on them. Dunne doesn’t really get close enough to any of the stars to get a sense of their personalities. Although I did learn that Gene Kelly wore a toupee, which really surprised me. Of course, it took me a long time to figure out that Liberace wore a toupee too, so I guess I’m easily fooled. 

Dunne’s book owes a debt to Lillian Ross’ 1952 book Picture, and in the 1997 introduction to The Studio Dunne acknowledges her influence, and says that Picture, The Studio, and Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy are the three best books written by outsiders about how Hollywood movies are made. An interesting fact is that Reggie Callow, an assistant director, appears in both Picture and The Studio, as he was the assistant director for The Red Badge of Courage, the making of which is chronicled in Picture, and 1968’s Star! 

In the 1985 foreword to the book, Dunne admits that once he finished The Studio, he didn’t read it for ten years. He didn’t read it in galleys, and he didn’t read it in manuscript form. Because of this, I’m blaming Dunne, and a very lackadaisical proofreading team, for the small errors that should not have made it into the book. Quotation marks open but never close, or they open twice. And, most egregiously of all, on page 185 Minneapolis is referred to as the capital of Minnesota, when the capital is actually Saint Paul. For a Minnesotan and Saint Paul resident such as myself, this counts as heresy. These small errors should have been corrected over the years, as there’s no reason for the 1998 edition of a book that was originally published in 1969 to still be plagued by a sloppy proof job.

But, those quibbles aside, The Studio is an excellent look at the craziness of a major Hollywood studio at a time of great transition in the movies.