Margaret Dumont


 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.


Movie review: “The Artist”


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.






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”


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


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


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


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?

Joe Paterno


I watched ESPN’s SportsCenter the other night while I was on the treadmill at the health club.  (The mere fact that I am watching sports programming should be taken as a sign that 2012 is definitely going to be the end of the world.)



I can’t endure listening to sportscasters, for the most part; they do nothing but spout empty clichés.  Before the game, they pretend to know what’s going to happen; after the game, they take all the credit if they were right, and make excuses for the losers if they were wrong.



But then you have the special features.



Joe Paterno died this past weekend, and one of his former players came on to reminisce about him.  This went relatively well until we got to the end.  This is a paraphrase: “Of course he was very frail, and naturally he was also very ill.  But I think it’s fair to say that he died, at least partly, of a broken heart.  And I hold the Board of Trustees, and the media, responsible for that.”



A little later he said: “Joe was very generous.  He always thought of others first: his team, his family, his friends.”



To her credit, the newscaster interviewing him did not react (actually, she was extraordinarily neutral, which I think spoke for itself).  She thanked him, and gave him her condolences.



I am nowhere near as calm or as classy as that.



I would have added something like: “Of course, Joe didn’t think too much about the children who might have been abused by Jerry Sandusky. Maybe they were being abused and maybe they weren’t.  So who cares, right?”



Or: “Man, I know what you mean.  You’re a saint, and you lead a perfect life, and then you just protect one child abuser from prosecution, and all of a sudden you’re a bad guy.” 






Tact will never be my long suit.


Tim Thomas, Barack Obama, and free speech


 I was checking my BlackBerry yesterday when I was brought up with an “Urk!” by the following Providence Journal newsbrief:



 Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, the biggest hero of the team’s Stanley Cup championship run of last year, declined to join his teammates during today’s visit to the White House. Team officials indicated that the decision had to do with political differences.



Partner is a big hockey fan.  I have a hard time watching the game with him: too fast, too violent, and I can’t even see the damned puck most of the time.  But I rejoiced with him when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup last year, and enjoyed watching the local victory celebrations.



Thomas was certainly the team hero: he’s widely considered to be the main reason they won the Cup.



But he cannot meet the President, or be seen at the White House, because he does not agree with him.




I could not stop thinking about this.  I investigated a bit further, and found that he is not only a far-right true believer, but a follower of Glenn Beck. 






I would have gladly forgiven him his beliefs, however, given that he’s such an excellent player.



But then he had to go thumb his nose at the White House.



Some questions:

  • What if it had been me and a president I detested – like, let’s say, George W. Bush?  It would have been tempting to snub him.  But, then again, it would have depended largely upon the reason for the invitation.  If it were for a personal achievement, like winning the Nobel Prize, I’d have told him to go stuff himself.  If it were this kind of honor – a team being celebrated as a group – I might well have swallowed my pride and gone, for the sake of my teammates.  Because – really – what would I have to lose by standing alongside someone with whom I disagreed?
  • Does Tim Thomas agree politically with all of his teammates?  I certainly hope so.  If he should ever learn that they don’t agree with him, he might not agree to appear on the same ice with them.
  • Does Tim Thomas think that President Obama is trying to make political points by appearing with a popular sports team?  Really, think about that one. If you stand alongside the President, which one of you will people notice first?  And (last I looked), New England / Boston athletes are generally detested by the rest of the country.  Obama’s doing the Bruins a favor, not vice versa.





Greg Wyshynski, a hockey blogger for Yahoo!, wrote a comment about this on Monday.  He makes the point that the team general manager and team president both tried to talk Thomas into going – in fact, they could have compelled his attendance – but in the end they gave up and respected his wishes.  He’s an American; he can do any damn fool thing he likes.



(Wyshynski makes a false comparison of Thomas’s no-show at the White House to Rangers player Sean Avery’s public support for gay marriage, and says that both are governed by free speech.  This is not an excellent comparison.  Thomas can say what he likes, and hold whatever beliefs he likes; that’s free speech.  Snubbing a White House invitation because you don’t like the current occupant is bad manners.)



And Wyshynski ends by pointing out that free speech has consequences.  This is his very well-written conclusion: “This is the moment when Tim Thomas, the most valuable player to his team last June, did something that detracted from his teammates’ celebration. This is the moment when, for better or worse, he becomes something more than the blue-collar hockey player from Flint with the great backstory and the sterling save percentage. And as long as he’s willing to accept that his absence from an event that even Tomas Kaberle attended has overshadowed this day and changed his profile as an athlete, then like Cam Neely I’ll respect the decision.”



Same here.



Thomas may be a great hockey player, but he ain’t no hero around these parts no more.







As a citizen of the Internet, I assume you’re aware of SOPA/PIPA.  It looks as if both houses of Congress have tabled the original versions of the legislation (largely because of the huge anti-SOPA/PIPA movement here on the Net), and are rewriting them to be more specific.



I am uninformed, and can only tell you my feelings on these pieces of legislation.



Very simply: I was alarmed by them. 



Supposedly they were all about stopping piracy, and that’s fine.  But the corporations pushing the legislation were playing a double game: they were pretending that it was all about cracking down on websites (mostly outside the USA) that illegally distribute movies and music and such, while they were really thinking of the law’s very real application within the USA as well.



Did you notice the word “corporations” in the above paragraph?






“Piracy” can be very broadly defined.  “Piracy” could be something as innocent as a Tumblr blogger posting Disney images.  “Piracy” could be posting a link to a song you like, or a video clip. 



Which means that almost all of us out here posting our favorite quotes and links and clips on our blogs and on Facebook are pirates!



Not so, not so, croon the pro-legislation people.  We’re only after the real pirates.  David Pogue, who alternates between intelligence and toadydom, decided that the Google / Wikipedia approach – to black out their websites in protest – was an overreaction, and that they were siding with the pirates.



Well, yes, David, they were.  This is because we are all part of a big incestuous system called the Internet, and it’s all about trading information.  And Google, and Wikipedia, and all the rest, were perfectly aware that, once the legislation was in place, it would not be used merely to go after Swedish and Korean and Russian sites, but to go after sites here in the USA too.  Sites like mine and yours and everyone’s.



How much of a pirate am I?  Not very much.  Last summer I watched the “Thor” preview on a probably-pirate Russian website, but – hey – a two-minute trailer?  If I go to Hell, or prison, it will not be for that particular transgression.  And sometimes I scoop up images to use in my blogs or on Facebook, and I do not always inquire about their copyrights.  And sometimes I quote books and poems and all kinds of things, and I do not add complete copyright information (though I try hard to credit the authors).



But I suspect that I too would be in violation at some point down the road if SOPA/PIPA in their original forms were enacted.



Because that’s what corporations do.  They restrict access



The Internet is a zoo. I love the depictions of it on shows like “Futurama” and “The Simpsons,” with people actually entering it as if it were a place, flying around among buildings marked GOOGLE and FACEBOOK and ONLINE GAMBLING and NAPSTER.  And that’s exactly what it’s like. 



Frankly, it has always seemed to me that I have the right to share media with my friends.  It’s like handing a newspaper or magazine to another person so that they can read something.  I paid for it; am I the only person who can read it?  Really?  And how exactly are you going to enforce that?



I didn’t call my congressmen this time.  But if this legislation comes up again, in anything like its current form, I will.



So there, David Pogue.




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