Popular Culture

Florence Foster Jenkins

 

One of the more curious cultural artifacts in the history of this country is the very odd musical career of Florence Foster Jenkins.  A rich heiress, she loved music.  She was a talented pianist in her youth but stopped taking lessons when she married in 1885 at age 18 Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins.  The marriage was a rocky one, characterized by her contracting syphilis from him.  They parted after three years.  He passed away in 1917, but she retained her married name for the remainder of her life.  Moving to New York with her mother in 1900, she founded the Verdi Club in 1917, to share her love of music.  It was through this venue that she embarked upon her career as a singer, giving recitals to small groups of fans, with musical critics carefully excluded.  Jenkins was convinced she was a great singer.  In truth she was an an appallingly bad singer, with virtually no sense of rhythm or pitch.  She was a generous patron of various causes, most of them musical, and her audiences treated her with kindness, any titters being drowned by applause.

She would be forgotten today but for a memorable concert she gave for charity at Carnegie Hall on October 25, 1944.  The tickets for the event sold out immediately and about 2000 people were turned away the night of the performance.  Ticket prices were $20.00, the equivalent of $274.00 today.  (Privates in the US Army, with combat pay, earned $50.00 per month in 1944.)  Many celebrities attended.  As in her past outings, her fans covered over laughter during her performance with applause.  Alas music critics were among the crowd and their reviews were scathing.  She passed away a month and a day later of a heart attack.  She had been crushed by the bad reviews but, considering that she was in the tertiary stages of syphilis her death may well have had nothing to do with her reaction to the reviews.

Remarkably, in the past two years there have been two films about Jenkins, one in French and the other in English, Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep in the title role.  I saw this film last Saturday with my family and the Godmother of my children and my review is below the fold.  The usual caveat as to spoilers is in full effect. Continue reading

Alfred Hitchcock and the Jesuit

(Yesterday was the 117th birthday of Alfred Hitchcock.  That gives me an excuse to rerun this post from 2012 with new video attachments.)

 

 

When I was a kid I loved watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents, known in its last four years as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  His sardonic wit and macabre sense of humor I found vastly appealing and no doubt had an impact on my own developing sense of humor.  Hitchcock was a Catholic, although some have claimed that he became estranged from the Faith later in life.  Father Mark Henninger in The Wall Street Journal relates his own encounter with Hitchcock shortly before his death.

At the time, I was a graduate student in philosophy at UCLA, and I was (and remain) a Jesuit priest. A fellow priest, Tom Sullivan, who knew Hitchcock, said one Thursday that the next day he was going over to hear Hitchcock’s confession. Tom asked whether on Saturday afternoon I would accompany him to celebrate a Mass in Hitchcock’s house.

I was dumbfounded, but of course said yes. On that Saturday, when we found Hitchcock asleep in the living room, Tom gently shook him. Hitchcock awoke, looked up and kissed Tom’s hand, thanking him.

Tom said, “Hitch, this is Mark Henninger, a young priest from Cleveland.”

“Cleveland?” Hitchcock said. “Disgraceful!”

After we chatted for a while, we all crossed from the living room through a breezeway to his study, and there, with his wife, Alma, we celebrated a quiet Mass. Across from me were the bound volumes of his movie scripts, “The Birds,” “Psycho,” “North by Northwest” and others—a great distraction. Hitchcock had been away from the church for some time, and he answered the responses in Latin the old way. But the most remarkable sight was that after receiving communion, he silently cried, tears rolling down his huge cheeks. Continue reading

Hills Are For Heroes

 

My favorite TV show when I was a boy was Combat!  In 152 grittily realistic episodes from 1962-1967, the experiences of an American infantry squad fighting in France in World War II were detailed.  Most of the cast members had served in the military, several in World War II.  The men were not portrayed as supermen, but ordinary men trying to survive while doing a necessary, dirty job.  The series won accolades from World War II combat veterans for its unsparing look at what fighting had been like for them.  The series hit its artistic peak on March 1, and March 8, 1966 with the two part episode Hills Are For Heroes.  Directed by Vic Morrow who starred in the series as Sergeant Chip Saunders, the episodes detail the battle of the squad and the platoon of which it was a part to take a vital hill.  At the end of episode two, after incurring heavy losses, they succeed, only to heartbreakingly having to abandon the hill due to a German breakthrough.  As they march away from the hill, Second Lieutenant Gil Hanley grimly tells his men to remember every feature of the hill for next time.  Television does not get any better than Combat! Continue reading

John Wayne Films For the Fourth of July

 

This Fourth of July long weekend is made for a trip down American history courtesy of John Wayne films.  Wayne was an American original.  Thirty seven years after his death, in the annual Harris poll of favorite actors, he ranks number four overall, and number one among men voting.  In his day he was never shy about declaring his love of country, and he did so when patriotism was fashionable and when it was unfashionable.  An American icon, the deathbed convert to the Catholic Church is a symbol of this nation, instantly recognizable around the globe.  Here are some of his films set in the history of this land.

 

 

 

 

  1. Allegheny Uprising (1939)-The film tells the true story of the Black Boys Rebellion against the British in 1765, with Wayne portraying James Smith the leader of this proto-American Revolution.

 

 

 

2.  The Fighting Kentuckian (1949)-John Wayne costars with Oliver Hardy, yeah, that Oliver Hardy, in a tale of veterans of the War of 1812 helping French settlers battle land swindlers in Alabama.   Very loosely based on actual events.  In one scene Wayne explains that his family never had money due to his father’s health being ruined after he spent a winter at a place called Valley Forge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.  The Alamo (1960)-The epic story of the battle for Texan Independence.  Wayne’s love note to America and freedom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4.  The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958)-One of the more successful American diplomats of the Nineteenth Century, Townsend Harris, a native of New York City, became wealthy in the China trade in the early part of the century.  He then turned to public service, serving as the President of the New York City Board of Education from 1846-1848.  He founded the Free Academy of the City of New York, later renamed as the City College of New York, in order to provide college educations to low income people in New York.

In July 1856, Franklin Pierce named him the first American consul general to the Empire of Japan.  He opened the first American consulate in Japan in the city of Shimoda.  Overcoming enormous difficulties, in two years he negotiated what has become known as the Harris Treaty, which established full diplomatic and trade relations between Japan and the US.

On the hundredth anniversary of the treaty in 1958, John Wayne, in one of the oddest films of his career, starred as Townsend Harris in the film The Barbarian and the Geisha.  Few men could have been more unlike John Wayne than Harris, and Wayne appears uncomfortable in the role of the diplomat to me.  The film played up an alleged romance between Harris and Okichi, a 17 year old housekeeper, which has long been a tale told in Japan.  Unfortunately, this aspect of the story is untrue.  Harris fired Okichi after she worked for him for three days due to the fact that he considered her to be an incompetent housekeeper.  However, the look of the film is splendid, even if the film is the usual Hollywood mix of lies and half-truths.

 

 

 

5.  The Horse Soldiers (1959)-In 1959 John Ford and John Wayne, in the last of their “cavalry collaborations”, made The Horse Soldiers, a film based on Harold Sinclair’s novel of the same name published in 1956, which is a wonderful fictionalized account of Grierson’s Raid.

Perhaps the most daring and successful Union cavaly raid of the war, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher and band leader from Jacksonville, Illinois, who, after being bitten by a horse at a young age, hated horses, led from April 17-May 2, 1863 1700 Illinois and Iowa troopers through 600 miles of Confederate territory from southern Tennessee to the Union held Baton Rouge in Louisiana.  Grierson and his men ripped up railroads, burned Confederate supplies and tied down many times their number of Confederate troops and succeeded in giving Grant a valuable diversion as he began his movement against Vicksburg.

John Wayne gives a fine, if surly, performance as Colonel Marlowe, the leader of the Union cavalry brigade.  William Holden as a Union surgeon serves as a foil for Wayne.  Constance Towers, as a captured Southern belle, supplies the obligatory Hollywood love interest.

Overall the film isn’t a bad treatment of the raid, and the period.  I especially appreciated two scenes.  John Wayne refers to his pre-war activities as “Before this present insanity” and Constance Towers gives the following impassioned speech:

Well, you Yankees and your holy principle about savin’ the Union. You’re plunderin’ pirates that’s what. Well, you think there’s no Confederate army where you’re goin’. You think our boys are asleep down here. Well, they’ll catch up to you and they’ll cut you to pieces you, you nameless, fatherless scum. I wish I could be there to see it.

Both scenes ring home with authenticity.  Not a bad effort from the usual history manglers of Hollywood.(Although there are still errors enough, including Union soldiers worrying about being captured and sent to Andersonville prior to the POW camp being constructed by the Confederates in 1864.)

 

 

 

6.  The Searchers (1956)-Set in Reconstruction Texas, John Wayne gives the performance of his career as embittered Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards and his vengeance ride against Comanches who slaughtered his family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7.  True Grit (1969)-Set in Reconstruction Arkansas, True Grit is the only film for which Wayne won an Oscar.  An accomplished actor, Wayne throughout his career made it all look so easy that he was always badly underestimated.  In this film, a skillful mixture of comedy and drama, Wayne was able to give life to Rooster Cogburn, one of the great literary creations of the last century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

8.  Rio Grande (1950)-The final installment in Ford and Wayne’s cavalry trilogy was picked for inclusion due to the above rendition of Down by the Glenside.  The song of course would not be written until 1916, but any viewer with a drop of Irish blood will forgive the historical anachronism. Continue reading

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

 

The movie 13 Hours:  The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is being released tomorrow.  From what I have been hearing from people who have had access to advance screenings, it is a gripping tribute to the CIA operatives, former members of special forces units, who during the attack on the American consulate on 9/11/12 in Benghazi, Libya, on their own initiative and against orders from higher ups, rescued 32 Americans from the consulate and then stood off the terrorists at the CIA compound until the people they rescued could be evacuated.  Their urgent requests for air support went unanswered, the Obama administration, paralyzed due to the attack spoiling the mendacious campaign slogan of the Obama campaign that Al-Qaida was finished, was unwilling to make the story larger by sending military units to support the brave men holding the compound.  In the fighting, two former Seals, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, were slain. It is outrageous that the effort to award each of these heroes the Congressional Gold Medal has been stalled in Congress, but that pales to insignificance in that the villains who left these two men to die have incurred no penalties for the betrayal of  the fundamental duty owed by a government to those who fight our enemies:  to render them every assistance possible.

Happy New Year 1958

Something for the weekend.  Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians playing Auld Lang Syne.  The first year I spent on this globe was in 1957.  The above is the New Year’s Eve broadcast on CBS by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians on December 31, 1957.  Born in Canada, Lombardo became a naturalized American citizen in 1938.  For 48 years, until his death in 1977, Guy Lombardo and his band ushered in the New Year with broadcasts, first on CBS radio and then on CBS television.  The first televised broadcast was in 1956.  Guy Lombardo and his band managed the feat of remaining popular, and highly profitable, for half a century, a difficult feat in as fickle an enterprise as the entertainment industry.  Lombardo was the heart and soul of the operation, his band surviving his death only by two years.

Star Wars-Part 375!

 

Well at least that is the way I felt about the series half-way through the mid-point of the misbegotten second trilogy.  Leaving aside the fact that it created the most annoying fictional character, runner up Dobby the House Elf, Steppin Fetchit Jar Jar Binks in the past half century, (Oh Dobby, Jar Jar!   The woodchipper is jammed again.   Could you please use your remaining hands to unjam it once more?), the writing was terrible, the plots puerile and the acting very bad.  A major disappointment for me after the magic of the first trilogy.

Tomorrow the family will be picking up my son at the train station, fresh from the finals of his third semester in law school, eat a nice meal and then go to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  A review will doubtless follow unless I am arrested for assaulting someone attending the film dressed as Jar Jar.  For your amusement, here is the classic parody of the series from 1978, Hardware Wars: Continue reading

Twas a Dark and Stormy Cthulhu

Something for a Halloween weekend. Hey there Cthulhu.  A minor vice of mine is a love for old pulp science fiction and fantasy.  One of the authors I treasure is H.P. Lovecraft, best known for his cycle of horror science fiction\fantasy stories centering around the Old Ones, evil supernatural entities that lurk in dark dimensions, waiting to unleash unspeakable horror on unsuspecting humanity.  The best known of these demonic creatures is Cthulhu.  I have always found these stories gut-bustingly funny due to the fact that Lovecraft, in these stories, has to be the worst writer of fiction, at least fiction that does not contain phrases like “Love’s Savage Unending Fury”, “The Davinci Code”, “Based On A True Story”, and “Stephen King”, since Bulwer-Lytton shuffled off to the world beyond.  Some things are so spectactularly bad that I find myself liking them due to how hair-raisingly inept they are.

Continue reading

September 10, 1945: Mike the Headless Chicken

History relates many a strange event, but few stranger than Mike the Headless Chicken.  Intending a five month old Rooster for dinner, farmer Lloyd Olsen of Fruita , Colorado cut off the bird’s head on September 10, 1945.  Much to his surprise, the chicken did not die, but continued to walk around.  (Scientists examining Mike would later find that the jugular vein had been missed and  that a quick forming blood clot prevented him from bleeding to death.  Mike’s brain stem was intact, which controlled most of his reflexive behavior.)

Olsen, stunned by all this, did not finish his job of putting Mike to death, but instead fed and watered the bird by squeezing water mixed with powdered chick feed down the esophagus of Mike.  It was inevitable that Mike would end up on the freak show circuit, earning the equivalent of approximately $47, 500  in today’s currency.  Thought by many to be a hoax, at least until scientists of the University of Utah verified that he was a living headless chicken, he was photographed thousands of times including by such major publications of the day as Time and Life.

After 18 months of a headless existence, during which he gained 2.5 pounds, Mike departed this Vale of Tears while on tour, choking to death at a motel in Phoenix during the night.  Continue reading

The Man in the High Castle

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:

Ecclesiastes 12:5

 

The late Philip K. Dick, paranoid, left-leaning, mentally ill and drug abuser, was nevertheless a science fiction writer of pure genius.  His book The Man in the High Castle (1962) introduced me as a boy to the genre of alternate history, with his unforgettable evocation of a United States divided by the victorious Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  One of the main plot devices in the book is a novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which posits an alternate reality in which the Allies won World War II.  Like most of Dick’s work, the book suggests that the dividing line between alternate realities can be very thin. Continue reading

Of Mockingbirds and Consciences

They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.

Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

 

As I slave away in the law mines, I take my flashes of amusement where I can find them.  One thing that has often amused me is the bizarre names that people these days often curse their children with.  I often find when questioning the mother that the name was from some television show, film, video or song, often with a spelling variant to ensure that the child will be a special little snowflake and have his or her name misspelled for the remainder of the time God allots the child in this Vale of Tears.

Naming kids after a fictional character has always struck me as bizarre:  real people always being so much more interesting than two-dimensional fictional puppets.

An example of the drawbacks of naming a child after a fictional character has been illustrated this week by an interesting little literary-morality tempest being played out this week.  Harper Lee, a one book wonder, To Kill a Mockingbird, has released another book, Go Set a Watchman.  The story behind this book is perhaps more interesting than the tome itself.  Ms. Lee, 89 years old, lives in an assisted living facility, and is perhaps in her dotage.  Go Set a Watchman was written in 1957, the year of my birth, before To Kill a Mockingbird.  It was rejected by a publisher at the time as showing promise but not ready for publication, an accurate assessment I think.  That the book is now being published 58 years later might cause some to suspect the motivations of those now in control of Ms. Lee’s affairs, since for more than a half century she made no effort to have this early work published.  No doubt a book about the behind the scenes machinations that led to the publication of Go Set a Watchman will be forthcoming eventually, doubtless not written by Ms. Lee, alas.  More on this below the fold, with spoilers in regard to Go Set a Watchman. Continue reading

Inside Out

Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men’s belief that they “own” their bodies — those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another!

CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

 

 

My family and I went to see the new Pixar movie Inside Out on Saturday, and I heartily endorse it.  It is a very funny family comedy which gives a humorous fictional account of how people think and interact with others.  Personifications of our emotions run the show for each person, and the story conceit is well developed.  On one level it can be enjoyed as a kid’s movie, and on another level it is a pretty profound meditation on how complex human thoughts and emotions are, as we attempt to interact with others while barely understanding, at times, the complex factors within us determining our reactions to the outside world.  As usual for Pixar, stay for the ending credits, where you will see funny vignettes.  A good film for the forthcoming holiday weekend. Continue reading

Murder and Redemption

Trafton

 

 

When I was a kid I watched way too much TV.  How little of those hours I can recall now!  However there is one television show that I watched that has always stayed with me.  On October 25, 1971, when I was a freshman in high school, a Gunsmoke episode aired entitled Trafton.  The guest star of the episode was character actor Victor French, who would make twenty-three appearances on Gunsmoke, usually portraying a villain.  The Trafton episode was no exception.  He portrayed a gunman known simply as Trafton.  A murderer, Trafton had learned the gunman’s trade while riding with Confederate raider “Bloody Bill” Anderson during the War.  The episode opens with Trafton and his gang shooting up a town in New Mexico.  They attempt to rob the bank, only to find that the vault contains no money.  Frustrated, on his way out of town Trafton sees a Catholic Church.  He enters the Church and goes up to the altar, and takes a gold cross, a gold communion chalice and a gold paten.  The priest appears and tries to stop him,  Trafton unhesitatingly gunning down the priest.  Seeing a gold cross about the neck of the dying priest, Trafton stoops down to remove the cross.  As he does so the priest with his last strength, to the utter astonishment of Trafton, says, “I forgive you.” and with his bloody right hand traces a cross on the forehead of Trafton just before he dies.  Trafton uneasily touches his forehead, and then leaves the Church and rides off. Continue reading

Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings

 

 

I went into this film assuming it was going to be bad based on what I had heard about it.  In that assumption I was mistaken.  Although not a film I would recommend, I can’t call it a bad film.  My review is below with the usual caveat as to spoilers. Continue reading

Cover Me! I’m Going In!

I think the man was likely schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.

Chistian Bale, star of Exodus:  Gods and Kings, in reference to Moses, who he is portraying in the film.

One of the many services that TAC has provided to its readers over the years is me going to see bad films so you don’t have to.  My bride and I are picking up our daughter on Friday from college and on Saturday our son will arrive by train, fresh from the rigors of first semester law school finals.  We will eat after he arrives and then the family will go off to see Exodus:  Gods and Kings.  I suspect it will be a bad film from everything I have read about it.  I hope it will be so bad that it may be a cult classic in the making rather like Dune (1984).  Whatever it is, I will review it for the blog.

The Messiah on Mott Street

Every now and then, God remembers the tenements.

Buckner, The Messiah on Mott Street

 

 

In my early teen years I was a fan of Rod Serling’s anthology series Night Gallery.  Usually consisting of tales of  horror, on December 15, 1971 something different was broadcast for Christmas.  Edward G. Robinson gives a moving performance of the eternal Jewish longing for the Messiah, and how, whether we realize it or not, we are always in God’s hands.  The episode may be viewed here.

 

Who’s the Messiah? He’s the messenger from God. Any moment he will appear, looming big and black against the sky, striking down our enemies and lifting us up to health and wealth and Heavenly contentment… and fix our digestions, too. And supply me with a new set of teeth.

Abraham Goldman (Edward G. Robinson), The Messiah on Mott Street

Noah: A Review

 

 

Well, I finally got around to seeing Noah.  We picked up a $9.00 Blu-ray copy at a Black Friday special, and I think I was overcharged at least $8.99.  Follow me below the fold for why I think this is one grand buzzard of a flick.  The usual caveats regarding spoilers apply: Continue reading

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