Margaret Dumont

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 TCM recently ran a Marx Brothers marathon.  I caught bits of “Horse Feathers,” and afterward my very favorite, “Duck Soup.”

 

 

I like so many things about the Marx Brothers’ movies: the freedom, the cleverness of the dialogue, the stupid obviousness of the slapstick bits, the bizarre/surreal quality of many of the gags, even the sudden lapses into sentimentality when they stop to sing a song.

 

 

And I am always thankful when Margaret Dumont shows up.

 

 

She is the grand dame who reigns over seven of the Marx Brothers’ movies: the hostess, the millionairess, the unlikely love-interest.  She is handsome and stately, like an ocean liner.  She has a rich plummy voice, slipping from reedy alto to fluting soprano.  She is not at all physical; she generally stands in one place and lets the Marx Brothers run around her like squirrels around an oak tree.  She was with the brothers on Broadway in “Cocoanuts” in the 1920s; when they made it into a movie a few years later, she and the brothers reprised their stage roles.  This is how Groucho described the action in 1930, in a letter to his friend Arthur Sheekman:

 

 

“I arise in the morning and before I have had my clothes on ten minutes, I am over at the theater doing the ordering scene.  Then follows thirty minutes of Harpo climbing up Dumont’s leg, and the shirt scene, and then to the dressing room for what I imagine is going to be a good long rest.  I am no more than seated with the Morning World, when the buzzer rings and I am downstairs again doing the ordering scene, and Harpo is back again at Dumont’s leg.”

 

 

Dumont is queenly and oblivious, the perfect foil.  She does reaction shots, seemingly unaware of what she’s reacting to.  Groucho later said that, after filming the “Duck Soup” scene in which Groucho shouts “We’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is more than she ever did!”, Dumont came over to him and said: “Julie [his real name was Julius], what does that line mean?”  

 

 

(I think Dumont was smarter than this.  She’d been on stage for years, after all, and she was no dummy.  Here’s one of her quotes from IMDB: “I’m not a stooge, I’m the best straight woman in Hollywood. There’s an art to playing it straight. You must build up your man, but never top him, never steal the laughs from him.”)

 

 

Film critic Cecelia Ager said it best: “Somebody somewhere should erect a statue to Margaret Dumont, with a plaque reading: “Dedicated to the woman who took an awful lot of guff from the Marx Brothers through the years, and answered it with courage and steadfastness.”

 

 

Dumont passed away in 1965, just days after doing a television reenactment (with Groucho!) of their big musical number from 1930’s “Animal Crackers”: “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.” 

 

 

Her real name was Daisy Baker.

 

 

Rest in peace, Daisy.


 

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Movie review: “The Artist”

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Partner and I have not seen very many of this year’s Academy Award nominees: only “The Descendants” and “The Help,” in fact.  We decided to remedy this by going to “The Artist” last weekend.

 

 

Hmm.

 

 

If you haven’t heard, this is a modern black-and-white silent movie (well, “silent” in that it has no spoken dialogue; there’s a lively musical background patched together from classic film scores, old songs, and some new music.)  The plot is a marriage of “Singin’ in the Rain” and “A Star is Born,” with lots of other movies thrown in.  In brief: it’s 1927.  George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a handsome leading man who absolutely refuses to do talkies.  Peppy Martin (Berenice Bejo) is a cute newcomer who becomes a talkie sensation.  His downward path crosses her upward path, and . . .

 

 

Yes, well.  It’s nice, and funny, and well-directed (which I especially appreciate after seeing the catastrophically-directed  “Iron Lady” two weeks ago).  Dujardin and Bejo are fun to watch: he’s a pastiche of Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, and Gene Kelly, with a killer smile, and she’s a combo of Joan Crawford (when she was very very very young), Carole Lombard, Clara Bow, Debbie Reynolds, and maybe some Ginger Rogers.  There’s a cute dog who does tricks and follows Dujardin everywhere.  The movie’s packed with all-star performances: John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller.

 

 

It’s also a game of Trivial Pursuit in movie form.  I caught references to at least two dozen different movies: “Citizen Kane,” “Grand Hotel,” “Dinner at Eight,” “The Band Wagon.”  I’m sure I missed two dozen others. When Dujardin and his wife have breakfast together and she digs into her grapefruit, I flinched a little.  When Dujardin clowns with his food (in tandem with his dog) – well, who else but Chaplin?

 

 

It’s charming, but not very moving.  There are melancholy moments – Dujardin’s retreat into depression as his career goes sour, Bejo’s anxious attempts to watch over him from afar – but your heart tells you that all will be well in the end, and (forgive me if I spoil the movie for you) your heart would be right about that.   “A Star Is Born” had a sad ending, remember, but “Singin’ in the Rain” did not . . .

 

 

But not every movie needs to tear your heart out.  This is a shiny little gem of a movie; maybe it ain’t a diamond, but it’s been polished to a very high luster. 

 

 

Okay.  Only six more movies to see before Oscar night . . . .


 

Ilwaco Saturday Market: our favourite photos from 2010

This is a beautiful little slideshow of photos taken on the docks of Ilwaco, Washington, where I spent some very happy days in my childhood.

Our Ilwaco

Every Saturday from May through September, I take a walk down to the Saturday market to take photos for the Discover Ilwaco page on Facebook.  With a row of restaurants, art galleries and charter fishing companies on one side and a marina full of working and pleasure craft on the other, the market teems with photo opportunities. Perhaps I post too many photos….bu I like to give each vendor a frequent showcase and I’ve found that some regular readers especially like the weekly parade of dogs.

Here, winnowed out for you, are my very favourite non-dog-centric Saturday market photo from 2010.  The parade of dogs will get its own moment of glory in a later gallery, as will my favourite photos from 2011 (perhaps divided into two entries; I didn’t expect to end up with, out of 600 photos posted in 2010,  124  that I found irresistible because of the…

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For Sunday: Neneh Cherry sings “Buffalo Stance”

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Another 1980s video!  This one grew more and more appealing as I watched it over and over again, trudging on the treadmill.   I like the goofy graphics, and the almost-serious lyrics:

 

 

No moneyman can win my love

It’s sweetness that I’m thinking of

We always hang in a Buffalo Stance

We do the dive every time we dance

I’ll give you love, baby, not romance,

I’ll make a move, nothing left to chance,

So don’t you get fresh with me!

 

 


 

SOPA, PIPA, piracy, lending, and freedom

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I wrote about SOPA and PIPA a few weeks ago.  It now looks as if Congress is going to try again to push these pieces of legislation through, in a very slightly altered format.  The corporations are pushing them, you see; they feel that they’re losing money, and that the only way to prevent this is to prevent people from posting stuff like songs, and quotes, and interviews, and video clips, and chapters from books, and maybe sometimes whole books.

 

 

I hate the idea of an author or an artist losing money.  Authors and artists deserve to be paid for their work.  However: I keep thinking of the analogy of lending.  I buy a book, and it’s good, and I want my friends to share the pleasure, so I lend it to them.  Am I violating a law?  (Last summer I read “The Hunger Games,” and enjoyed it enough to go out and buy the two sequels in hard cover.  To this date I have not read them; I’m saving them.  But I have lent them to at least five people, who have adored them.  Have I done anything wrong?)

 

 

I was delighted to read the following from an author I enjoy very much, Neil Gaiman:

 

 

“… Places where I was being pirated, particularly Russia where people were translating my stuff into Russian and spreading around into the world, I was selling more and more books. People were discovering me through being pirated. Then they were going out and buying the real books, and when a new book would come out in Russia, it would sell more and more copies. I thought this was fascinating, and I tried a few experiments. Some of them are quite hard, you know, persuading my publisher for example to take one of my books and put it out for free. We took “American Gods,” a book that was still selling and selling very well, and for a month they put it up completely free on their website. You could read it and you could download it. What happened was sales of my books, through independent bookstores, because that’s all we were measuring it through, went up the following month three hundred percent.

 

“I started to realize that actually, you’re not losing books. You’re not losing sales by having stuff out there. When I give a big talk now on these kinds of subjects and people say, “Well, what about the sales that I’m losing through having stuff copied, through having stuff floating out there?” I started asking audiences to just raise their hands for one question. Which is, I’d say, “Okay, do you have a favorite author?” They’d say, “Yes.” and I’d say, “Good. What I want is for everybody who discovered their favorite author by being lent a book, put up your hands.” And then, “Anybody who discovered your favorite author by walking into a bookstore and buying a book raise your hands.” And it’s probably about five, ten percent of the people who actually discovered an author who’s their favorite author, who is the person who they buy everything of. They buy the hardbacks and they treasure the fact that they got this author. Very few of them bought the book. They were lent it. They were given it. They did not pay for it, and that’s how they found their favorite author. And I thought, “You know, that’s really all this is. It’s people lending books. And you can’t look on that as a loss of sale. It’s not a lost sale, nobody who would have bought your book is not buying it because they can find it for free.”

 

“What you’re actually doing is advertising. You’re reaching more people, you’re raising awareness. Understanding that gave me a whole new idea of the shape of copyright and of what the web was doing. Because the biggest thing the web is doing is allowing people to hear things. Allowing people to read things. Allowing people to see things that they would never have otherwise seen. And I think, basically, that’s an incredibly good thing.”

 

 

I apologize for the long quote.  But he speaks well, doesn’t he?

 

 

I asked myself his questions.  When I was in school, how did I discover my favorite authors? 

 

 

Let’s see:

 

 

        I stupidly bought “The Two Towers” through the old Scholastic Books network (do they still exist?) and couldn’t make head or tail of it.  (It begins with the line: “Aragorn sped up the hill,” for God’s sake.  Who the hell is Aragorn?)  My eighth-grade English teacher, Mr. Lorenz, lent me his copy of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” and then it all made sense.  And then he lent me “The Return of the King.” He was a good man.

        Our school librarian, no doubt now long dead, Catherine Schwarz, was always feeding me books through the library system.  It was through her that I discovered E. B. White, and Don Marquis, and Harry Golden, and T. S. Eliot.

        In the Battle Ground Public Library, where I spent occasional evenings waiting to be picked up after school, they used to perch books up on the tops of the shelves.  Among them: “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “A Wizard of Earthsea.”  I read both, and now I am a fanatical lover of both Thomas Pynchon and Ursula LeGuin.

 

 

Do libraries pirate things?

 

 

Did Mr. Lorenz pirate Tolkien when he lent me his copies?

 

 

Do I pirate the Hunger Games books when I lend them?

 

 

I don’t think so.

 

 

Keep fighting back against these Internet-control bills, kids.

 

 

I think this may be an important battle to win.



 

The effect of Tom Brady on middle-aged women and gay men

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The day after the big Patriots-Ravens game, everyone was talking about the Patriots victory, and about Tom Brady. 

 

 

This is an approximation of the conversation between me and my workfriends Cathleen and Apollonia:

 

 

“I didn’t think he was cute before.  I’m sort of coming around to him.”

 

 

“Oh, he’s just fine.”

 

 

“Meh.  Not my type.”

 

 

“Well, but he’s growing into his looks, finally.  He used to look kind of gangling and boyish.  He’s filled out very nicely.”

 

 

I’ll say.”

 

 

“Do you remember when he hosted Saturday Night Live ten years ago? He was cute.  He did a sketch about sexual harassment, and he just wore his underwear, and none of the women in the office considered it sexual harassment.”

 

 

“What kind of underwear?”  (Okay, that was Apollonia.)

 

 

“Tighty whiteys.”  (This was me. The vision is stamped on my memory.  See the above photo if you’ve never seen the sketch itself; I couldn’t find the clip online.  NBC guards its property jealously.)

 

 

“Oh,” said Cathleen (okay, we’re all out of the closet now).  “I would have pictured something more elegantYou know.”  She gestured downward.  “Not boxers, but something really nice and form-fitting.”

 

“These were mighty form-fitting,” I said.

 

 

“Oh my God!” Apollonia burst out.  “What are we doing?  What kind of people are we?  Why are we having this conversation?”

 

 

Cathleen and I paused for a moment.  Then we both smiled.  “Because,” I said, “we find the subject fascinating.”

 

 

(And to think I spent all those years not caring about sports!)


 

Paula Deen, diabetes queen

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I have written about Paula Deen at least twice before.  She is one of those (you should pardon the expression) larger-than-life people who command your attention.

Her backstory is admirable.  She had something like agoraphobia, needed to work, started cooking and baking and selling food, and is now a small industry herself.  She is cheerful and funny.

Her recipes are atrocious.  Do I need to tell you again about her “English Peas” fiasco?  Not to mention the fist-sized balls of peanut butter and powdered sugar, or the bread pudding made with Krispy Kreme donuts. 

Paula, you see, discovered some years ago that primates like us crave sugar and fat. So: her recipes revolve around those two things.  (I will not soon forget her show on which two big muscular guys carried a huge block of butter to her on stage, as if it were a royal palanquin.  Or the recent incident in which a  muscleguy smeared butter on his abs and commanded Paula to lick it off.  And she did!  And then rode him around the stage.  But I digress.)

Paula discovered a couple of years ago that – gosh! – she had developed adult-onset (type 2) diabetes.

She did not speak of this until very recently, when she struck a deal with a drug company, Novo Nordisk, to become their spokeswoman.

Guess how she’s dealing with her (at least partially self-inflicted) disease?

She’s walking on a treadmill.  She’s not drinking sweet tea anymore.  She is (presumably) taking medication.

She continues, however, to be a spokeswoman for Bad Sugary Fatty Food.

Kids: turn away from her.  Don’t watch her show anymore.  Ignore her.  I did a few years ago, after the Krispy Kreme bread pudding.  She’s a freak.  She’s cute and winsome, but she’s not a role model.

Even Fox News agrees with me.  And how often do you suppose that happens?


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