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Monday, March 22, 2021

Wit and Wisdom Where I Least Expect Them


Indo-China Life is Enervating for Linguist Clark Gable Until He Meets Patricia Dane

Smart Humor Quickens a Classic Era

Settled down with Somewhere I’ll Find You (1942) to enjoy again dialogue spoke by Clark Gable. This is one of his great knowing sage parts. Who saw a looming world war but Gable? Him and Bogart (in Across The Pacific) for sure. Others up to December 7 were blind, dumb, and deaf. “Clark Gable” was another of know-the-score personas a writer wrote best for. Somewhere I’ll Find You taps a rich vein for talk. To be so clever as people in movies was an impossible dream. Who knew how many wits supported a Gable or Bogart? Like Billy Wilder said through vehicle of William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, everyone thinks actors make it all up as they go along. Lots still do. I no longer care if Somewhere I’ll Find You is a “good” picture. I just like listening to it.

Does Lana Burn When Clark Calls Her Narcissus?

Gable is a pre-war correspondent who knows shooting is imminent. He flirtates with offscreen Lana Turner (her in the shower), guessing a face and figure from articles of clothing, cosmetics, a hairbrush. He proposes she’s blonde and attractive, to which Lana accedes, Gable calling her “Narcissus” for what seems to him excess vanity. I touched brakes on that one … who was hep to Narcissus in 1942? “Gable” knows his Greek mythology, but that’s only a start. Later, at an Indo-China bar, Patricia Dane tries picking CG up on a pretense she’s from Park Avenue. “Chances are it was Brooklyn first,” he retorts. They spar, Patricia asking how he pegged her. “I’m a linguist,” says Gable. So what was hand count for ones who knew in 1942 what a linguist was? (for the record: “someone who studies language … including grammar, vocabulary, and how words evolve over time”). I suspect folks were better educated then than we are now. Gable for a finish dictates outcome of a battle he has helped win, looking over the typist’s shoulder and saying, “That’s perfidy with an “e,” not a “u,” this an offhand gag … did viewers laugh? Go further … were they familiar with the word “perfidy” (faithless or disloyal … treacherous)? I’m wondering if Clark Gable had to look it up, or have someone explain it to him. But then imagine currency the word would have after December 7. Anyone who did not know perfidy had considerable cause to learn it. (no need to delve into spelling as a lost art --- just open any Internet page, or most current books)

That's Perfidy With an "E," Not a "U"

Point of my palaver is how movies, even ordinary movies like Somewhere I’ll Find You, were smartened up by writers whose function it was to salt workmanlike dialogue. Credits were crowded, in Somewhere instance one for story (Charles Hoffman), another for adaptation (Walter Reisch), still another for the “screenplay” (Marguerite Roberts). Add to these five uncredited scribes, including Gene Fowler, Dalton Trumbo, plus the director Wesley Ruggles. Eight in all, and who knows what others might have contributed? Somewhere I’ll Find You is awash in fast-clip speech anyone could wish to apply in everyday life, but who could, or did? Here was truest magic of movies, even ones otherwise commonplace, and clearest barometer of what writers (however many) routinely brought to a studio assignment. Did movies, radio, astute daily columns, inspire us to improve verbal skill? To be articulate was to be ahead in all games, education a must to stay even with entertainers. Even cartoons expected much of their audience. I derive something new from a Bugs or Daffy each time I watch. Quiz programs listened to at home really quizzed. I’d like to think people were rewarded for heightened vocabulary, or is that wishful projection upon old days? To go see Somewhere I’ll Find You and recognize Narcissus, linguist, and perfidy had to make folks feel good about themselves, and similarly so toward the film. No one was dumb-downed to. Oh, and wait … when Patricia Dane asks Gable “why the chill?” (he isn’t coming on to her, as she, and we, expect “Clark Gable” to do), guess what he says … “must be the climate … enervating.”  Enervating! (causing one to feel drained of energy or vitality). Thank you, Classic Era, for the flattery.

Was public education simply better then, or need I ask? Took a flyer toward finding out with McGuffey’s Reader, a series of “Eclectic” texts introduced in 1836 and taught in schools for over a century after. Want to be humbled in a hurry? Explore what McGuffey expected of ten-year-olds during its primacy. I lately sifted a set, came away abashed. Does Amazon sell dunce caps? If so, place my order. McGuffey was used widely, still is by home schoolers, the books all time best-selling behind the Bible and Webster’s Dictionary. A lot of 1942’s public for Somewhere I’ll Find You were taught by McGuffey’s. Students defined themselves by which level they reached, six Readers seeing them through high school, or in some cases, completed well prior to that. “Literacy, Virtue, and Values” came courtesy stories, poems, essays, and speeches to promote “courage, honor, diligence, stewardship, independence, frugality, perseverance, and kindness.” So where do we hear such words today other than as punchlines for a joke? Youngsters then were reading Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Washington Irving, Daniel Webster, myriad others. A teacher said long ago that fundamental basis for a proper education came down to three sources: Mythology, the Bible, and Shakespeare, knowledge of Latin the cherry on top. I don’t pretend to anything like this level of learning. Who of us in 2021 could?

Not to say people were smarter in 1942, and certainly won’t argue we are smarter now. But I submit they had greater vocabulary, read more ... otherwise they might be insulted by “Clark Gable” bandying such words as Narcissus, linguist, enervating, and perfidy. MGM certainly was not for making their audience feel stupid. Writers may hue to formula, balk at same old stories they were obliged to tell and re-tell, but mischief could be made with dialogue incidental to all that, so long as words raised a laugh, or better, an ongoing air of amused contentment. This was where wits in the workshop applied their gifts. We know too few by name, these who came late to a script for purpose of whipping cream. They were quipsters by commissary reckoning, the sort never to lose verbal advantage, “consultants” to extent of lifting weight off melodrama or making romance less mushy. Gloom lift did for dialogue what Buster Keaton achieved with visual gags he dreamed up for every sort of MGM endeavor. These people were MVP’s on any studio team. How did they begin? As class clowns? Maybe with vaudeville, or radio … many had done squibs for college gazettes, assorted student japery. I knew a man, long departed, whose backstory ran gamut from early achievement to ultimate ruin. He had gone to UNC-Chapel Hill, became a literary lion via short stories everyone said was equal to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, him reliable for piercing riposte to any remark. Trouble was, he also drank, putting paid to promise. Died in a housefire, cigarette in bed, him in cups. If gift of writing has a leveler, it is alcohol.

Remember Laird Doyle of Cain and Mabel fame? He came of campus cleverness, and like talented others could smarten up a script. His kind tended to work anonymous, like so many on studio payroll. Some never got a screen credit, such a thing meaningless in any event. Working wit Donald Ogden Stewart played the system by volunteering service where work was mostly done, him to wave a wand over that which a half-dozen others had labored over. For being last to the party, he was a cinch for on-screen acknowledgement. Such was maneuvering among industry wags. Talkies put talent like Stewart’s in a driving seat. Nat Perrin also was a gag man, “script doctor” if you will, pollinating flowers yet to bloom. Perrin got $300 a week to enhance Sidewalks of New York, a Buster Keaton for MGM, his a verbal baggage Keaton did not need, though bosses were convinced otherwise, words very much coin of the realm with speech still a novelty. Visual comedy was a past decade’s fashion. Few apart from Keaton would argue that. His vehicles were where cleverness with chat sunk like stone, grafted upon Keaton to render him less old hat. What was sense of adding comic relief to what was already a comedy? The policy made sense at the time, however, Metro money well spent to put Perrin, and undoubted others, on deck, plus loud or louder clown support to keep Keaton relevant. To this commission came Durante, Polly Moran, Ed Brophy, Cliff Edwards … Keaton features more a roast for the putative star than assist to his style of humor.

Not to knock these support players, or writing talent behind them. Nothing seemed so fresh and sassy as humor cut loose where it could thrive best, the early 30’s a banquet for ones who could bandy words best. Nat Perrin was such a prodigy (his first industry job at age 25), being quick to observe how rapid-fired jokes might cancel each other out, toppers toppling ones before. Perrin worked on 
Duck Soup, was satisfied with what Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman, and himself put on paper. Trouble was others trying to out-do the writing team for funny. “Leo McCarey was the director of the picture … But one of the problems that I found with McCarey was that … If you’ve been around a comedy script for a long time, by the time you’re filming --- I don’t care what’s in there --- it starts seeming very stale. And if you have someone on the set trying to be creative --- and he is, to a degree --- and his is the newest and freshest idea to come along, by comparison to what you’ve already got in the script, then you might say, Yeah, let’s do that instead. And it’s altogether possible what you’ve suggested may be amusing, but it isn’t one-tenth as good as what’s in the script. But when you hear it for the first time, you’re giggling. You’re not giggling at the stuff you’ve already heard for three months … So they were improvising, McCarey and Groucho, and they went so far overboard …” (This from a fine interview Lee Server conducted with Perrin for Screenwriter: Words Become Pictures, published in 1987). Does an original script for Duck Soup survive, one to fairly represent what Kalmar, Ruby, Sheekman, and Perrin put down in words, then saw changed by McCarey, Groucho, whoever else? I have read of other instances where humor got thrown out after weeks honing it, over which time funny stopped seeming funny, the last jokes heard being ones that got used. If nothing else, I would like to read Duck Soup and stack it up against the finished movie we have known for 88 years.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer unleashes his inner curmudgeon:

Clever the screen writers were, bored also, looking to put some “oomph” in their work. Some were also “specialists,” like Chic Sale in his celebrated story. Between college and law school, I worked as a stock boy in a local drugstore. Such were my ambitions, then, but the keen blade of my talent was dulled by the ordinary routines of job. Sometimes, when re-pricing shelf goods, I wouldn’t use the rotary stamper that produced the price tags, but would write them by hand. And sometimes I would write the price out in words or Roman numerals. I am sure that “enervating” and “Narcissus” went over a lot better with its audience than my shenanigans did with mine, not excepting the management.

I would agree with you, though, that the generations of those earlier times were more literate than ours or the ones succeeding, and certainly more so than those who have an amazing facility with their thumbs but also an innate appreciation that nothing produced through that medium has room for depth of thought or subtlety. As for “smartness,” though, the brain becomes what it does. No doubt the brains of today are more attuned to the patterns and relationships of our times than would the brains of earlier generations, but perhaps some of us—myself especially—prefer what passed for wit and wisdom then, or for the style and ways that reflected an underlying sense of reality now increasingly obscured by an electronic smog.

1:19 PM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

“Literacy, Virtue, and Values” came courtesy stories, poems, essays, and speeches to promote “courage, honor, diligence, stewardship, independence, frugality, perseverance, and kindness.” So where do we hear such words today other than as punchlines for a joke?

That has got to be the saddest observation I've ever read on our Post-Sixties Cultural Revolution selves that I have ever read.

1:43 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Saw a quote attributed to Lubitsch. Recall it as "Let your audience put two and two together. They'll love you for it." While he was probably referring to plot points (especially winking clues to romantic mischief), I'll venture it also applies to unfamiliar words used in a way that strongly hints at their meaning. Especially if the word has the right sound: Perfidy sounds unpleasant, and enervating sounds draining. Recall a sitcom line: "He'll be hoist by his own petard, and I really hope that means what it sounds like!"

A running joke in the original Sherlock Holmes stories -- and most adaptations thereof -- is that once the detective explains his deductions, somebody says something like, "I thought that was clever, until you explained it." Whodunits flatter us by letting us laugh at those guys, while we're thinking we could have and should have figured it out ourselves, because we're that bright.

What makes “courage, honor, diligence, stewardship, independence, frugality, perseverance, and kindness" punchlines is that we've seen them all pasted on every brand of snake oil, even as those who peddle them are conspicuously and shamelessly deficient of those qualities by any accepted definition. My current peeve is people abusing the word "liberty", using it to cloak selfishness and irresponsibility in a fraudulent patriotism.

3:21 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Sometimes, studios shape audiences' tastes; at others, tastes change on their own. Laurel & Hardy give way to Abbott & Costello. Joe E. Brown steps aside for Bob Hope. There's a reason why "The Big Store" was allegedly the Marx Brothers' highest grossing picture -- it was the kind of musical audiences demanded in 1941. It still surprises me how popular Preston Sturges was in the 1940s. And even then, audiences started drifting away from him after "Hail the Conquering Hero".

Peter Bogdanovich tried reviving the screwball comedy genre. Other than "What's Up Doc?", audiences didn't respond. You can see what he was going for in "She's Funny That Way", and he almost succeeded. But today's actors, no matter how good, are utterly lost when it comes to that kind of comedy -- Owen Wilson is no William Powell.

It's said the pendulum swings both ways. When it comes to witty movies, I think the pendulum broke a long time ag and was tossed away.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Michael Johnson said...

If you want to hear some alternate dialog/jokes for 'Duck Soup' find a copy of an LP called 'Marx Movie Madness (on the Radio!)' from 1979. It is a collection of Paramount and MGM produced radio promos for the Marx Brothers' movies. On side A are two recordings of 'The Paramount Movies on Parade, 1933 Duck Soup.' There is some extra music from 'The Laws of My Administration' that was cut out of the finished film as well as alternate dialog in Groucho and Margaret Dumont's first scene. Later there is completely different dialog when, during Groucho's meeting with his cabinet, sees Chico selling peanuts out the window. There are a lot of other subtle differences and a few jokes that were cut out of the final version throughout. It's a really great LP if you can find it. Check Ebay!

12:52 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

The Duck Soup promos can be found here:

10:16 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

"...I would agree with you, though, that the generations of those earlier times were more literate than ours or the ones succeeding..."
Can't be entirely so, for far fewer Americans as a percent of the population are illiterate today, compared to the mid-Twentieth Century. In 1930, four percent of all Americans were illiterate. Nowadays, it's difficult to find any adult American who cannot read. In old movies, I've seen the fact that a character signs their name with a "mark", like an 'X', enough times to think that that wasn't so very rare an occurrence in the daily life of the times back then.
Perhaps they were more "literate" back then - but it is certain that we are far less illiterate today.

11:58 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

People know how to read, but they don't.

4:07 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon considers literacy in movies:

I liked your piece examining the high degree of literacy and sophistication even in popular stories and entertainments back in the '30s and '40s. You do indeed wonder if people were more intelligent or better educated then, to have been approached by filmmakers at this level. It does make a dramatic and rather embarrassing contrast with the content and the low level of intelligence or at least complexity of interaction and conversation and plotting in many films today. I for one don't feel this entitles you to be branded a fuddy-duddy. And you have to be what I am today, 68, to even use that term without almost automatically being branded a fuddy-duddy! So let's say a reactionary. No. I think I'm always open to something smart and bright and able to engage my higher faculties such as they are, and if today I find this to be more difficult than it evidently was in those days, on the basis of the best product, well, it's fair to call it out, and you did.

Keep on trucking, John!

5:06 PM  

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