Saturday, December 13, 2014

Accordions, Inside and Out

 I have too many accordions.  Eight altogether.  Two are in excellent condition.  One is a toy.  The other five are in various needs of repair.  

 Here is a full sized black accordion ("George") that's about 60 years old.  It was given to me by a friend who wanted to repair it for his father, but decided it was too far gone to repair completely. 

 The bellows are in okay shape, and so are the keys.  But the wax holding the reed blocks in place has completely dried out!  Most of the blocks therefore have fallen into the body of the accordion.  Setting them back into place would be quite a chore.  I may save the reeds to keep as extra parts for other accordions, although I don't know how to check them for pitch without installing them into an accordion first!

 The other accordion ("Piccoletta") is a child's beginner accordion I picked up at an estate sale.  It had one faulty keyboard reed, and one faulty bass valve.  I fixed the bad reed block by resetting it, but I can't figure out why the valve is blocked.  I need to rip it open again. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Video Diary 12.9.14

I'm starting a video diary series.  I'll film what's interesting to me and give my thoughts.  Here's the first one!
"Christkindlmarket, Atheism, and the Big Bang"

A Visit to Our New Park

Swings! A choo-choo train! And slides! We have a great new playground in the neighborhood. Here are the highlights of our trip.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Five Leading Men

Errol Flynn, "The Dawn Patrol," 1938.

James Garner, "The Americanization of Emily," 1964.

Rock Hudson, "All That Heaven Allows" 1955.

Albert Prejean, "Sous le toits de Paris," 1930.

John Wayne, "Stagecoach," 1939.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Three Stars from Raymond Chandler Films

Lauren Bacall "The Big Sleep" 1946.
I think I finally got Lauren Bacall in this drawing.  This is from early in the film, when she's sizing up Bogart's Phillip Marlowe.  She's got her own agenda that she's hiding from him, but she sees he might be able to help her.  I love her in this film.

Dick Powell "Murder, My Sweet" 1944
Powell's take on Marlowe is a little different than Bogart's.  He always seems a little bit more at the end of his rope, and he wears his bitterness on his sleeve.  He also gets beat up worse than Bogart, which I think is essential in films noir! 
Claire Trevor "Murder, My Sweet" 1944.
You couldn't cast a better Velma than Claire Trevor.  She's great at being a society lady with a secret past. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Eight Leading Ladies

Claudette Colbert, "Skylark," 1941.
Claudette is funny in Skylark, a somewhat forgettable film from 1941.  She plays a woman thinking about leaving her workaholic, inattentive husband, played by Ray Milland, and flirts with the idea of having a fling with the lawyer handling her divorce, played by Brian Aherne.   But her husband makes an attempt to woo her back, promising to work less, and she stays with him, even though she had gone through with the divorce.  In the real world I picture the husband making the same mistakes and she eventually leaves him for good, but not in this saccharine story.

Catherine Deneuve, "Belle de Jour," 1967.
Luis Bunuel's surreal Belle du Jour is a puzzle to me.  I can't figure out if Deneuve, as the frigid housewife by night, prostitute in a high class brothel by day, is a repressed woman finding freedom in her alter ego, or just another objectified woman at the mercy of her misogynistic customers.  I guess that's Bunuel's point!
Faye Dunaway "Bonnie and Clyde" 1967.
I'm always impressed with the subtle way Dunaway, as Bonnie Parker, pushes Clyde to bigger and not-so-better things.  Bonnie is the one who wants the fame; Clyde seems to enjoy the thrill of living on the edge, and he likes his notoriety.  But Bonnie writes the poem that "tells their story."  She's the movie star.  Nowadays I imagine her finding her fame on a reality TV show.

Jane Fonda "Klute" 1971.
I had never seen thw detective film Klute before.  Fonda plays Bree, a neurotic prostitute at the center of a missing person case being investigated by Private Eye John Klute, played by Donald Sutherland.  Fonda won an Oscar for her performance, and she's pretty good at playing a call girl who seems to relish the seeming power she has over her clients, but underneath feels unfulfilled and lonely.
Some of her fellow prostitutes wind up murdered, and Fonda's bravado and strength seems to wither away as the danger gets closer and closer to her.  I think we are supposed to get the idea that Bree maybe isn't the personification of liberated feminism she pretends to be.  It's a fitting film for the ambivelent feelings people had towards Women's Liberation in the early 1970s.
Zsa Zsa Gabor, "Queen of Outer Space," 1958.
Zsa Zsa's performance is as stiff as a board in this schlocky '50s sci-fi picture made in the wake of "Forbidden Planet."  But the plot is interesting as an example of how "powerful" women were portrayed pre-Women's Lib.  A crew of male astronauts crash land on Venus.  They discover women control the planet, and there are no men.  (No old women or children, either, but for some reason that goes unexplained.)  The leader of the women wears a mask, although she seems quite lovely.  She's an authoritarian ruler, and it's discovered by the astronauts that she is in position of a death ray aimed at Earth to stop future aggression by men from that planet.  Zsa Zsa is the leader of a small resistance group intent on overthrowing their autocratic ruler.  She depends on the help of the men to overthrow the leader, whose face is revealed to be horribly disfigured from a previous war with men. 
I guess pretty girls can get the guys, but ugly girls are bitter and crazy!

Greer Garson "Random Harvest" 1942.
Random Harvest is one of my favorite romantic films.  Ronald Coleman plays a soldier with amnesia; he wanders out of the hospital in which he's being kept, and is nursed back to health by Greer Garson.  They marry, have a child, and create a life together.  He never remembers who he is.  Then one day on a business trip he gets hit by a car, and his memories come rushing back.  He's the scion of a wealthy family.  But he forgets his life with Garson!  He takes over the families' business interests.  She learns to forget him, until she applies for a job with his business.  She ends up his secretary!  He never remembers her, until he ends up in the town where he first met her, and his memories come rushing back.  It's a beautiful film.

Maureen O'Hara, "Do You Love Me," 1946.
Maureen plays a mousy music school dean who, upon meeting a charismatic band leader, takes off her glasses and becomes a glamorous gal, torn between the band leader and his lead singer.  It's a silly film, and Maureen is somewhat miscast.  But some of the musical numbers are fun.

Barbara Stanwyck, "There's Always Tomorrow," 1956.

My goodness, what a great, but depressing, film.  Fred MacMurray is a toy manufacturer, whose wife and three children take for granted.  Stanwyck is an old employee he once flirted with.  She looks him up when visiting town, and he thinks he might find with her what's lacking at home.  Stanwyck is interested in his work, and seems genuinely interested in his well being.  She pays him attention.  But she's a career gal, and has no interest in stealing him from his family, especially after she's confronted by MacMurray's teenaged son and daughter.  Ultimately she moves home, leaving Fred to his meddling, ungrateful children and a wife who still doesn't seem to care for him. 
I think Sirk pulls all the right melodramatic strings in this film.  MacMurray is truly put upon, although I wonder if he could be happy with his home life if he made more of an effort.  And I understand why Stanwyck bails.  MacMurray comes with too much baggage! 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Terribly Sad

Robin Williams, "The World According to Garp," 1982.

"You know, everybody dies.  My parents died, your father died, everybody dies.  I'm gonna die too.  So will you.  The thing is to have a life before we die.  It can be a real adventure, having a life." - Glenn Close as Jenny Fields, to the young TS (Terribly Sexy, Terribly Shy, Terribly Sad) Garp.  

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Two "Good" Germans

An entry in my continuing examination of the changing portrayal of Germans and German-Americans in Hollywood films during and after World War II.

The German Underground

Poldli Dur, “They Came to Blow Up America,” 1943.
     Poldi Dur, the screen name of Austrian born actress Elisabeth Reisch (nee Handl), has a small but interesting role in this B-film.  George Sanders stars as Carl Steelman, the German-American son of German immigrants living in Milwaukee.  Unbeknownst to his fiercely patriotic parents, loyal to America, their new country, Carl is working as an FBI spy investigating the German-American bund groups accused of supporting the Nazis.  The FBI sends Carl to Germany to impersonate a German named Ernst Reiter who is learning how to be an expert saboteur.

     Once in Germany Carl/Ernst meets Helga Lorenz, played by Dur, when she tries to buy stockings in a shop.  He uses his ration card to buy her the stockings.  After a few dates he discovers that she is working for the German underground, leaving anti-Nazi propaganda around the city.  One note reads “GERMANS!  The Nazis are plundering the Father-land to its doom!  Vast fortunes are deposited in Swiss and Italian banks by Nazi leaders!”

     He suggests that she stop her activities before she is caught, even hinting that her work isn’t significant enough to make the risk worthwhile.  Of course she refuses to quit.  Carl/Ernst is cautioned by his Gestapo colleagues to stop associating with known trouble-makers.  When she is eventually brought in for questioning, to her surprise he testifies against her.  

     But Carl/Ernst has a plan to free her.  He stops the car she is being transported in by blocking the road, then knocks out the two Nazi agents that had been guarding her.  He then gets back in his car and drives away with Helga, letting the Nazis chase them.  (Inexplicably he uses one of his bombs from saboteur class to blow up the Nazi’s car - it’s triggered to blow-up when it hits 70 MPH.  I wonder, wouldn’t the Nazis figure out that he blew up the car, as he is a known saboteur, and a known acquaintance of Helga’s??)

     Anyway, he gets her safely to a boat piloted by the German underground and she escapes.  He promises to see her again - but he never does!  This happens about halfway through the film, and Helga, with her interesting story of being a “good” German fighting the Nazis, at risk of her life, is left unexplored.  I was reminded of the terrible risks the Berlin protagonists of Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone take, as they leave notes decrying the Nazis around the city for people to discover.  They feel they must do something to fight the Nazis, and all the can do in protest is leave notes - which eventually gets them killed.  Helga’s plight is real - it would have been interesting to explore it in another kind of film.  I’m not sure Americans were aware of how terrible Nazi Germany was, even to it’s own German citizens, until well after the war.

     After Helga escapes. Carl/Ernst’s real wife appears, and tries to turn him in to the Gestapo as a spy, but Carl convinces the bumbling Gestapo head that she is mentally ill.  Eventually the Gestapo figures out they have been had.  It turns out that Carl’s dad, ill because of his son’s disloyalty to America, is told by the FBI that Carl is on a secret mission, and his father blabs to his friend, who is secretly an American Bund member loyal to the Nazis.  But by then Carl is on an U-Boat headed back to America, with the other newly minted saboteurs, with plans to “blow up America.”  Carl manages to keep his identity a secret, and he arrives in time to stop his fellow saboteurs and see his proud, loyal, German-American parents.

     So there are a number of “good” Germans in this film, including the folksy immigrant parents, Carl himself, as a first-generation American, and of course Helga, who has the most to risk in this film.  In a more realistic story she would not have escaped, and her resistance would have been in vain - but I think her insistence to carry on, despite Carl’s warnings, is interesting.  She is loyal to a country that is betraying her.  That takes courage.

     And it's also quite surprising for an American film, made during the war, to show any German with sympathy.  I think the filmmakers get away with it because the Helga character is so innocent.  There are also some comedic elements in this film (the oddest moment is when the Gestapo head throws darts at a photo of Winston Churchill), so this isn't a "serious" film.  Maybe that made it easier to show some elements of the enemy in a positive light.

     Poldi Dur had a brief career in Hollywood, mainly playing German accented supporting characters.  Her Austrian born husband was “Ninotchka” writer Walter Reisch, who also wrote “Gaslight,” “Comrade X,” and “Niagara.”   Surprising couple.

Sources:  Poldi Dur biography:
Walter Reisch filmography:

Shared Guilt and the German Character

Marlon Brando, "The Young Lions," 1958.

     The Young Lions (1958) is an interesting film.  Directed by Edward Dmytryk, it reveals the experiences of three different soldiers in World War II.  Dean Martin is an entertainer, hesitant to join the war and face combat.  He’s loyal and patriotic, but he’s worried more about his own safety than the fate of his country.  Montgomery Clift is a soft-spoken Jewish kid, shy around women.  After he enlists he encounters prejudice from his fellow soldiers, and even his superiors, at boot camp.  He wants to defend America, at risk of his own life, but his fellow Americans stand in his way.  Both Martin and Clift have romantic interests that develop their characters.  Martin has a girlfriend who wants to marry him before he gets drafted, but he has cold feet.  She eventually helps encourage him to leave his soft assignment behind the lines and get sent to the front.  Clift falls in love with a girl who isn’t Jewish - but he gets accepted by her family and they marry. 

     Marlon Brando plays a German soldier who excels at his job.  He’s a good officer, and a good tactician.  But he’s ultimately not a “good” German, as far as his more ideological colleagues are concerned.  He meets and falls in love with a French girl, after the occupation of Paris.  Brando’s character has a friend who also falls for a French girl, and near the end of the war his friend deserts the German army to live with the girl.  His friend doesn’t understand why he’s fighting, and is basically apolitical.  He cares more about his own pleasure - and his own life - than any bigger ideas about country.  But his friend doesn’t see that this stance is actually political.  If anything his friend is a clueless existentialist.

     Brando, on the other hand, feels a duty to his country.  His idea of being a good German is following orders and doing his job.  He ends up as a subordinate to a cruel Captain played by Maximillian Schell.  Schell recognizes that being a “good” German during the war isn’t just following orders, but embracing the harsh ideology of Nazism.  Brando rejects Schell’s ideas, but he can’t see that staying in the war, even as something of an outsider, still makes him complicit in the Nazi’s crimes.

     It takes a visit to a death camp to change his mind.  Near the end of the war, separated from his unit, he wanders into a concentration camp looking for food.  At the camp he meets the camp commandant, who reveals to Brando that he’s got to get the executions moving before the Americans arrive.  Brando is sickened by the idea that he is eating bread while the camp inmates are starving to death and soon to be murdered; and he finally sees that this is what the Captain meant about being a good German. 

     There’s an interesting scene after the Americans - including Martin and Clift - liberate the camp.  The Jewish prisoners want to perform a religious service, but the local burgermeister and other officials are afraid it will get the local people worked up, and they want to deny the service - as if it’s the fault of the Jewish prisoners the local people will be offended.  The American Army officer in charge is appalled and throws the locals out.  I think this is shown to reinforce the idea not that Germans didn’t know about the camps, but that they continued to blame their victims for their fate, instead of seeing the problem was in themselves.

     Unfortunately Brando’s character is killed when he is caught by an American patrol (Clift and Martin, conveniently) in the woods near the camp.  Apparently the author of the original novel on which the film was based was displeased with Brando’s character.  In the novel he never has the epiphany Brando has.  Instead the audience must come to the conclusion about the German national character that Brando instead reveals to us.  But I think that’s the difference between film and novels.  In film we try and reveal change through a character, and that’s what happens in The Young Lions.  What we don’t get, though, is some kind of resolution for Brando.  He learns something but he doesn’t get to have any experiences afterwards - there no real closure.  Maybe that’s another point of the film, though.   People don’t always get a second chance to be good. 

     Also, in Hollywood in the 1950s, perhaps the studios were trying to find a way to deal with collective German guilt over the war and the Holocaust in particular.  Brando's character must suffer a fate that meets the weight the of Germany's crimes.  He's the sacrificial lamb, made even more sympathetic, perhaps, because of his earlier epiphany.

All drawings by J. Betke

Monday, June 2, 2014

Third Coast Comics Promo

Here's a short video I did promoting Chicago's Third Coast Comics.

See more about Third Coast here:

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Three Stars in Films About Class

Jean Arthur, If You Could Only Cook

"If You Could Only Cook" (1935) was a new film for me.  Jean Arthur is out of work; she meets Herbert Marshall while sitting on a park bench going through the want ads.  She mistakes him for someone also looking for a job, but he's really an auto magnate.  She finds an ad looking for a married cook and butler couple, and intrigued, he agrees to pretend to be her husband so she can get the job. 

Jean Arthur, "If You Could Only Cook," 1935.
There's comedy in the fact that he's wealthy, and pretending to be a butler; and the fact the guy they work for is actually a mobster.  As in many of these comedies there are a few cliched complications that would be easily solved if the characters just talked to each other.  When he shows her some of his drawings of experimental cars, she tries to get him a job at a rival auto company, who immediately recognize the drawings and arrest her for theft!  And Marshall also keeps secret his pending marriage to a boring socialite.  Eventually it takes the meddling of the mobster they work for to force them together. 

Ultimately this isn't really a movie about class; there is little commentary on the reasons for Arthur's plight, or how poorly the down and out are treated.  It's interesting, though, that the mobster is accepted as a member of the upper class, despite his criminal background.  Old money, new money, it doesn't really matter in America in the 1930s.  As long as you had it!

Carol Lombard, My Man Godfrey

Carol Lombard "My Man Godfrey," 1936.
I love how Carol Lombard is something of a mess in "My Man Godfrey" (1936) trying to prove herself to her more sophisticated sister.  It's clear she has the bigger heart, but she also has misconceptions about why people suffer and what they need to get out of "Skid Row."  I'm glad she gets reunited with William Powell at the end of the film and she gets to see that "forgotten men" just want to work - they just need the opportunity to do so.

Comparing this role to what she did in films like "To Be or Not To Be" we can see what a great actress she was, especially in comedies.

Katherine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story

Katherine Hepburn, "The Philadelphia Story," 1940.

I was aiming for Tracy Lord, Goddess in this sketch from "The Philadelphia Story" (1940).  She's so perfect as a representative of the upper class who needs to see that flaws in people aren't a sign of a flawed soul, a common misconception among those who were born to comfort.  

Monday, April 21, 2014

Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney and Men of Boys Town, 1941

Turner Classic Movies ran a full day of Mickey Rooney films last week to honor his long career.  I caught a few scenes from an Andy Hardy film, and watched some fun moments in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."   I've seen many of these films before and I'm always impressed by the energy and honesty Rooney brought to all of his roles, both serious and slapstick.
Mickey Rooney
New to me on this day of otherwise familiar films was "Men of Boys Town," a 1941 sequel to the hugely popular and quite well known "Boys Town" from 1938.  
Rooney reprises his role of Whitey Marsh, the tough kid who eventually comes around to Father Flanagan's (Spencer Tracy) idea that "there are no bad boys."  Whitey turns a new leaf at Boys Town, winning Father Flanagan's respect and the friendship of his peers.

"Men of Boys Town" takes place a few years after the original.  The home for boys is under financial pressure, and Father Flanagan is being asked to relinquish control to some well-heeled patrons.  One of those patrons takes Whitey under their wing; Whitey then goes to live with the family, providing some comic scenes where the rough-and-tumble young man tries to keep up in his new world.  He stumbles through a formal dance, pulling at the collar on his tux, and he struggles at golf, which he calls a sissy game.  I think it's a little cruel that Whitey's new dad makes fun of Whitey as he struggles at the tough sport, but it's a sign of things to come.

When Whitey tries to help a young boy in trouble with a gang, Whitey ends up in jail; and his new family let's Whitey get sent back to a masochistic reform school.  Whitey's new patron, it seems, doesn't agree with Father Flanagan's philosophy that there is no "bad boy."  Some people are just born bad and can't be helped, he tells Whitey.  Whitey refuses to agree - so Whitey gets sent off to reform school.

It's the scenes in the reform school that are the most striking.  Boys are harshly, physically punished, forced to walk in lines like crabs, beaten by the guards, even isolated in solitary confinement.  When another boy dies in his cell, Father Flanagan comes to investigate, and it's only through the Father's strong will that he gets past the bullying guards and cruel warden.  These are great scenes, showing that all it takes to get past a bully is often just strength of character.

Father Flanagan finds Whitey and hears his story, and is proud that Whitey tried to help another boy; instead of being ashamed, the Father is proud; he would have been ashamed if Whitey hadn't tried to help.  He then works to free Whitey and the other boy, and then to get the reform school system investigated.

The subplot eventually gets sorted out, Whitey's patrons give money to the school and his new dad turns a new leaf, learning something from Whitey about kindness and forgiveness.  It's a very typical, if slightly cliched, ending, but expected with this genre.  Again, what makes this film stand out are the scenes of the harsh reform school, and how Whitey tries desperately maintain his morals in such a terrible environment.  It reminded me what a great actor Mickey Rooney was, and that there are still many of his films I have yet to enjoy!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Two Favorite Parodies

Sleeper, 1973

Woody Allen, "Sleeper," 1973.

I forget, sometimes, that when I was first introduced to Woody Allen's "early, funny films" as a teenager in the 1980s that his films were barely 10 years old.  Watching them now they seem not dated, but definitely reflective of a certain time. 
I loved "Sleeper" when I first saw it.  It's a great send-up of the sci-fi genre as well as 1970s counter culture.  And I love when Diane Keaton does a Marlon Brando impersonation.

The Princess Bride, 1987

Cary Elwes, "The Princess Bride," 1987.
I dressed as The Dread Pirate Roberts for Halloween one year.  "The Princess Bride" is easily one of the best films from the 1980s.  Great script with memorable, funny dialogue; enchanting performances from a huge cast of supporting characters; and one of the best sword fights ever caught on screen.  Did I mention my date the year I was The Man in Black, my date went as The Princess Bride?   

Monday, March 10, 2014

"Going My Way" (1944)

Ingrid Bergman, "Going My Way," 1944.
 I've been really interested lately in comedies from the 1940s.  While rarely as funny as the liberating screwball films of the 1930s, they often have a sly social aspect that make them more than just escapist fantasies.

"Going My Way," from 1944, is one of those films.  It deals with a number of social issues, including the beginning of the "teenager problem" that came after World War II; it also asks a lot of the wealthier members of society at a time when everyone was already making big sacrifices for the war effort.
Bing Crosby, "Going My Way," 1944.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Four Beauties

Tallulah Bankhead

"Faithless," 1932.
Tallulah Bankhead had a much bigger career on stage than on film.  I had only really known her from Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" (1944).  Hollywood tried to make her a star in the early thirties, but they had a difficult time casting her.  I think she's actually well cast in "Faithless" as a society girl who blows her fortune, then mooches off her friends until they tire of her.  She ends up a kept woman of a crass, married businessman.  When she runs into an old flame, noble but now penniless and unemployed, she takes a chance and marries him.  They struggle to find work, living in cheap hotels, going without meals.  Tallulah, desperate, thinks about turning tricks; a kind-hearted cop gets her a job. 

I was impressed with the way she goes from being a shallow, spoiled socialite, to hardened, bitter mistress.   And the later scenes with her husband, Robert Montgomery, are quite touching as they struggle to find work and they move from one cheap boarding house to another.  They seem really desperate as they get work and lose it, and can't afford food or doctors.

Joan Crawford

"Grand Hotel," 1932
Joan Crawford had already appeared in over thirty films when she appeared in the ensemble film "Grand Hotel" in 1932.  She's great in a cast that includes two Barrymores, Greta Garbo, and Wally Beery.  I like the way she plays businessman Beery into getting him to pay through the nose for her secretarial services; her playful banter with John Barrymore is pretty funny; and her final scenes with the old man Lionel Barrymore are very touching.

Rita Hayworth 

"You'll Never Get Rich," 1941.
I couldn't get into this film.  Not enough dancing or singing, considering it stars Fred Astaire along with Rita.  Showgirl Rita is being chased by an impresario; when his wife finds out Fred has to step in and pretend to be one the guy who's really interested in Rita.  But what man wouldn't be?  The characters go through great lengths to avoid connecting with each other; the contrived plot gets in the way of the people actually pursuing realistic goals.

But there are some nice comedic scenes, especially featuring Astaire and Hayworth.

Veronica Lake

"Sullivan's Travels" 1941.
Here's Veronica Lake in one of my favorite films, from one of my favorite Depression era directors, Preston Sturges.  Veronica Lake had such a promising start to her career, it saddens me she didn't make more noteworthy films.  She's also wonderful in "I Married a Witch," "This Gun for Hire," "The Blue Dahlia" and "The Glass Key."  Looking at her bio there are a few films of hers I need to see, including "Ramrod" (also with Joel McCrea).  But too many of her films were of lesser quality and I don't think they made the most of her talents. 

(all sketches by J. Betke)

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Backyard Sledding!

Augie describes the hill he made in his backyard for sledding!

"Good hill!"