Sunday, August 31, 2014

Berowne's 235

(Also for ABC Wednesday: "H" is for "Hearst")
 
I’ll begin this with an apology: Sorry, Marion!

Now, to get on with my post, if you go back to when Berowne was a little kid – and that’s going way back – there came a time when my family decided to do something adventurous.

We decided to visit Santa Monica.

There were, of course, no freeways in Southern California in those days.  Santa Monica was quite a trip from where we lived in Los Angeles, and you made it with little winding roads.  It was like driving to a different state. 

I remember my mother pointing out to me a huge residence on the beach there.  “That’s Marion Davies’ place,” she said. 

I was a more or less innocent tyke at the time; I had heard of the early film star but I was completely unaware that she was the mistress of William Randolph Hearst or that the famous newspaper magnate had built this incredible “beach cottage” for her. 
Incredible it was: a massive three-story Georgian mansion with thirty-four bedrooms and three guest houses.  In it Davies and Hearst threw some of the most elaborate social functions Hollywood had ever seen.

When Hearst had met the 19-year-old Marion Davies she was a dancer; he fell madly in love with her and he wanted to turn her into a film actress and, ultimately, make her a great star.  And he had the power to tell the studios what to do.

Movie-goers would see Marion’s pictures, but they often suspected that she was in a given film because Hearst had put her there; she didn’t get there by herself.

As I’m sure you know, the motion picture “Citizen Kane,” produced in 1941 by Orson Welles, told the story of a power-mad character named Kane who greatly resembled Hearst.

In addition, the film shows Kane meeting a performer, an attractive young girl, and how he tries to take over her career.

The girl is a mediocre singer, but Kane decides he will turn her into a star – not just a talented singer of songs but an international star of grand opera.  It’s hopeless and the girl knows it, but Kane persists.

The movie audiences usually assumed this was not just the story of Hearst but also of his petite amie, the actress of dubious talent named Marion Davies.
But over the years there has been a reevaluation, a new, closer look at the actress.  It is now clear that the fictional girl in “Citizen Kane” wasn’t like Marion at all.  Commentaters and critics have studied the body of her work and have come to the conclusion that Marion Davies was indeed a fine actress and, especially, a gifted comedienne.

Hearst wanted her to perform in filmed epics, classic costume dramas, but what she wanted, what she was good at, was romantic comedy.  His patronage turned out to do more harm than good for her career.

I have to admit I used to be one of those who felt that Marion Davies was a performer of slight talent.  But I later checked out a few of her best films and I certainly changed my mind, so I’ll take this opportunity to offer her an apology.

(A bit late, I know; she died in 1961.)    

Sunday, August 24, 2014

234 Quiz Answer

In the book of Genesis, Jacob lived in the land of Canaan.  When Jacob’s son Joseph was seventeen years old, he took care of the sheep with his brothers.  Jacob loved Joseph more than he did any of his other sons, because Joseph was born after Jacob was very old. Jacob had given Joseph a fancy coat to show that he was his favorite son, and so Joseph’s brothers hated him and would not be friendly to him.
(Also for Three Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday: "G" is for "Genesis")

I wrote the following scenelet, thinking it might remind you of a well-known story from the Bible.  Which story?

“So it seems you didn’t really get along well with your family, especially not with your brothers.”

“Right; there was a lot of squabbling going on.”

“Evidently one of the reasons was, you had some new clothes - a special jacket, a very colorful coat - and the rest of the family was jealous.”

“Hey, man, I was a teenager, I had to have some special threads!  Naturally the other kids were jealous; they knew the old man liked me better than any of ‘em.”

“So somehow they managed to get you sent off to work.”

“In a way I was glad to get away from them – all the jealousy and backbiting and whatever.  I was hired by an export-import outfit.  I thought it’d be something to have a job and some money and be able to do my own things.”

“But I gather the job wasn’t all that great.”

“No, it was god-awful.  It was a kind of death, a lot of boring stuff dealing with accounting and bills of lading and ten-hour days – and the salary!  That was a shock.  It was so little it was as though they thought I was a slave.”

“What did you do – quit?”

“No, I just put the old brain to work and came up with a plan.  I would perform my job real good and the boss would soon see he had hired somebody special.  I could then move right on up in the export-import business.”

“How’d that work out?”

“Actually, great.   I moved up to head of the department and before too long I was made the boss’s right-hand man.  And I began making some real dough.”

“Sounds like a good situation.  But it seems something bad happened?”

“Right.  And the something bad that happened was the boss’s wife.  I realize I’m not the one who’s supposed to say it, but fact is, there was this good-looking young dude around the place and she began to get ideas.”

“Oh, that could be trouble.”

“And it was.  I wanted to have nothing to do with her; she was the boss’s wife, for God’s sake.  I didn’t want any entanglement, nothing that would get me fired.”

“So what happened?”

“She was sore because I wasn’t interested in any of her reindeer games so she set out to get me.  She was heartless, accused me of doing all kinds of stuff – none of it true – and she managed to get me tossed into the slammer.”

“Incredible.  Yet obviously you managed to get out. “

“Yeah.  I just had to put the old brain to work again.  But that’s pretty well been the story of my life, one humongous problem after another.”

(The answer will be posted Saturday.)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Berowne's 233

(Also for Three Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday: "F" is for France)

Here’s another in the series titled “Berowne’s Mediocre Adventures.”


A few decades ago I was working as a film-maker and I received a wonderful assignment: to make a brief movie on Paris.

 
One item I certainly wanted in the film was some special footage of the famous Place de la Concorde, known, surely, to every tourist.


This place is possibly the most beautiful public square in what generations have claimed is the most beautiful city in the world.
 

It wasn’t always beautiful.  A few centuries ago it was called the Place de la Revolution.  The unfortunate French king had to mount the stairs to keep his appointment with Mme la Guillotine...

And the executioner impulsively showed the result of his work to the cheering crowd.  The equally unfortunate Marie Antoinette had to make the same trip.


But “concorde” suggests reconciliation, so no one gets beheaded there these days. 
 

At one end of the famous public square was a building I found fascinating.  It was the National Assembly, home of the French Parliament, and if I could get up there on top of it I would be able to get sensational footage of the entire Place de la Concorde.

However, I was told that no commercial photographer or cameraman had ever been given that permission.  They told me in the French version of our phrase, “Fuggedaboutit.”

But I persisted.  I emphasized that I was no commercial photog or paparazzo; I was working for the French Government Tourist Office.

Ergo, or ipso facto, or whatever, I was one of them; we were all working for the same boss, the gouvernement of France.

But there seemed to be some morose person in that building who was sure, once I got up on top, I’d whip out a home-made bomb and blow the whole place to the French equivalent of smithereens.

It took quite a while, but finally the word came through that, okay, even though they didn’t think it was a great idea, they’d give me the permission.

 
They assigned me two gendarmes, a sparse quasi-military unit that was to make sure I wouldn’t pull any funny stuff. 

The two cops were prepared for this assignment as though it was a platoon of Wehrmacht troops they were supposed to watch over.  They each had a mitrailleuse – machine gun – hung from a sling over the shoulder. You have not experienced the thrill of movie-making until you try to shoot a film with two machine guns pointed at you.



Anyway, I set up my tripod and camera and went to work.  Looking through the viewfinder I saw a beautiful sunlit view of the entire Place de la Concorde.  I got medium shots, wide angles, closeups, the works.

When I notified my two chaperons I was finished, I thought they seemed a bit disappointed that I hadn’t done anything unacceptable that would have allowed them to use their popguns.

The sequence later proved an important part of the finished film, a featurette titled “One Man’s Paris.”  The movie was distributed by Universal-International and I was proud to invite the entire staff of the French Gov’t Tourist Office in New York to see it playing at the Palace Theater on Broadway. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

232 Quiz Answer


 Don't forget, before the American Revolution we Americans were British.  And that includes the British colonel mentioned in this post, whose name was (drum roll) George Washington!

(Also for Three Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday; "E" is for "epic")
Who was this British soldier?

Speaking of history – (which nobody was) – I’ve always been interested in the conflict known as the French and Indian War, because it seemed to me that it wasn’t covered much in school.

Way back decades before the American Revolution, a large portion of the American continent belonged to the British but a much larger portion belonged to the French.

In fact, the French possessed two to three times as much American land as the British.

So there was – what else? – a war.

The French, who had Indians on their side, built a great fort in what they regarded as the center of the American continent: Fort Duquesne.






They thought of it as the center because it was where three major rivers got together.  Fort Duquesne was built right smack on what is now, in a more mercenary age, downtown Pittsburgh.



The British fought the French and Indian War successfully.  It was a large part of the reason why the French decided to cash in their chips and check out.  They left their vast territory east of the Mississippi, and their even vaster territory west, to the British.  The French influence was pretty well eradicated in those areas.
The end result of that war was the beginning of modern America.



The French and Indian War started as a sort of local war story, but it turned into an epic; numbers of countries in Europe were involved in the squeamish fight, a massive international conflict that came to be known as the Seven Years’ War.




But to get back to our French and our Indians, here’s what always interested me about that struggle. One of the most important people involved was a young red-coated British lieutenant-colonel, who led his British red-coat troops when fighting in that war.

 

Here’s a picture of that British colonel, proudly wearing the red-coat uniform in which he had served his monarch, King George.  He certainly played an important part in the formation of modern America.

What was his name?

(The answer will be posted Friday)

 

 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Berowne's 231

Also for Three Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday: "D" is for "deep fat fryer" :-)
This week's prompt reminds me of the past.  But then, everything reminds me of the past.  So here’s another episode in the series titled “Berowne’s Mediocre Adventures.”

Come back with me, if you will, to the early days of television.  I was making a poor but meager living as a radio announcer, but I wanted to get on this New Thing – tv – because that was where the big money was.

People were making fifty to a hundred dollars a week, or so I heard.

However, there seemed to be some sort of conspiracy – I’d have called it a vicious cabal but I wasn’t sure what that was – to keep me from the visual medium.  But the big day finally arrived.

Seems a new television station had recently opened in Philadelphia,WFIL-TV, and a sponsor sent me down there to do commercials.

The show I worked on was an example of how to produce tv programs when you don’t have money to produce tv programs.



They just invited in kids, high-school types, to come to the tv studio and dance, with an emcee playing music, while a camera panned around among the happy teeners.

The show was quite successful, at least to the standards of the day.

One day when I showed up the atmosphere at the studio was funereal; they had lost their emcee.  He had been charged with doing something emcees weren’t supposed to do so he had to be let go.  The new host was a bit strange, in my opinion, because he looked so young.  It was as though the producers has just brought up one of the kids from among the dancers and put him in charge.

But no, young as he was he had a background as a professional announcer and soon took over the show, which was named “Bandstand,” and made it his.  His name was Dick Clark, as some of you have already surmised, and Dick had been blessed with the DNA or genes or whatever it was that would permit him to look pretty much like a teenager for the rest of his life.

It was on that same station that I had my first great problem as a video announcer.  A problem indeed; I was persona au gratin, told to leave and not come back.  This came about because the station was very new; some things worked, some didn’t.

What I was guilty of was “laughing on the air.”

As an announcer you could laugh as an expression of joviality and good humor, but you couldn’t laugh at the tv station itself.  Yet, because it was so new, things happened there that were funny.



One day I was doing a commercial for a deep-fat fryer.  The device, filled with oil of some kind, rested on a table and I stood behind it extolling its virtues: “You’ll bless the day you brought it into your home and kitchen.”

I poured in a plateful of chopped-up potatoes and plugged it in.  What happened next was weird.  The sound system in the studio continued working, but the device had blown out all the lights.  We, the whole building, were in total darkness.   

The camera guy and the floor manager began to laugh.  It became too much for them; they fled the studio and started to roll around in the dark outside corridor, laughing hysterically.

I decided to try to soldier on.  I got to the bit where I was speaking about the fryer’s amazing low price and the easy-payment plan that was available, well aware of the surreal situation that the item I was so persuasively selling couldn’t be seen by anyone, not even me, so I soon couldn’t continue.  The noise from outside started me laughing too.  I went out and joined the studio staff in the corridor.

I may have been laughing on the outside but on the inside I was wondering just how this muddy situation was going to be for my future, how it would look on my resume: “Performed highly effectively as tv announcer, in one instance so effectively as to blast the whole station into total darkness.”  Who would hire such an individual?

Well, as things turned out so many people laughed on the air at that new tv station it got me off the hook.  I was liberated.  It was decided that the incident had not been my fault and I was allowed to continue working there.  I didn’t try to fry any more potatoes, however.  

Sunday, July 27, 2014

230 Quiz Answer

Puck flies around the earth in 40 minutes; the astronaut takes more than twice that, about 90.

(Also for Three Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday: "c" is for "conniver")
The prompt this week reminded me that nations and clans of all kinds have a tendency to create long stories of their history, legends of their glistening, glorious past.

These sagas usually tell the story of an early leader, a hero of supernatural power.  Sometimes such a legend will include a sidekick of the ruler, a character known as the “trickster,” an imp or sprite who enjoys fooling around.
 
In Shakespeare’s day, this sprite was Puck, well known in British folklore.  When a farmwife came down in the morning and learned that the milk had soured long before it should have, it was natural for her to think that some sort of creature, some mischievous elf – Puck, in other words – had been responsible.

In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Puck plays an important part.  The best description of him would be: he's a conniver, always conniving, scheming, manipulating.  Officially he’s jester to the king, but he enjoys his remarkable powers for farce by screwing things up for people.

In the play there are several couples of young lovers; Puck gets a charge out of scrambling the arrangement so that the guys and the gals are no longer sure just who loves whom.  

Of course, one of Puck’s most famous achievements has to do with what he does to Nick Bottom, the weaver.  For Bottom it isn’t a fun job anyway - weaving stuff can be awful tedious – but it’s worse when a weird elfish prankster gives him the head of a jassack.


But he turns out to be lucky; the fact that this change somehow makes beautiful women fall madly in love with him makes up for it a bit.

 

Puck, as you might expect, brags a lot.  He claims he can fly around the world in a certain number of minutes.

Well, the folks over at NASA thought about this.  They had had astronauts circling the globe for years.  They knew, to a minute or so, just how long it took.  They wondered, would their guy win such a race, or would Puck?

So here’s your chance to win the huge cash award.  (Assuming I can find somebody to put up some cash – which doesn’t look likely.)

The question is, who would win, who would circumnavigate the globe faster?  Puck or the astronaut?

(The answer will be posted Friday)

 
:

        

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Berowne's 229


(also for three word wednesday and abc wednesday; "b" is for berowne's adventures)
No quiz this week.  Folks have been generous and liberal enough to show interest in my occasional personal history notes, so here’s another chapter in...
Berowne’s Mediocre Adventures!


Ah, those were the days.

Air travel was different, to say the least, in the days of pre-jet flight.

If you ever traveled in a 4-engine piston airliner in that era, you know all about its vibration and noise during a 12-hour flight.  You know about the jolly bouncing around you got in your seat because a prop plane couldn’t fly above the weather.

And perhaps you know that those magnificent piston engines had a small problem folks didn’t like to talk about too much.  They caught fire on takeoff.

Not every time, you understand, just once in a while.

Like when I was on board.

One summer day I was heading out to California and I was excited to be making the very first non-stop flight from La Guardia to Los Angeles.  (Previously, you had to make a stop in Chicago.)

There was no such thing as jet flight for passengers.

I had purchased an expensive home movie camera for the occasion.  It was magnificent, complete with a three-lens turret.  I was very proud of that li’l apparatus.

The takeoff seemed uneventful, except that of a sudden the plane appeared to be coming to a stop.  One of the engines was on fire.  The cockpit door opened and the pilot came into our area.  In an elaborately calm voice, he said: “We’re going to get everyone off this airplane about now.”

The fact that he was making such an effort to be calm somehow made it more alarming.  (Though I suppose it wouldn’t have been better if he had shouted something profane to the passengers, and added “We’re on fire!”)

He pointed at me and said, “You – go down the rope.”



Here I should pause to explain the emergency system for that particular aircraft.  Today evacuation slides are impressive, beautifully made and highly effective.  Well, in those days for that airline company such a slide seemed to be a sort of afterthought.

It consisted of just a large-area canvas like a tarpaulin that you tossed out and it hung there like a wet dishrag.  A heroic volunteer among the passengers had to go down a rope hand over hand and then stretch the canvas out so it could be a slide.

Since I was seated closest to him, the pilot volunteered me to go down the rope.  I wanted to point out that I was holding in my right hand an expensive movie camera, so hand over hand would be sort of out of the question, but what with the plane on fire I figured this was no time to be quarrelsome or for lengthy discussion.

I took the rope in my left hand and went whoosh! down to the tarmac in about one second.  I checked my hand; the skin was shredded and it was bleeding.  I carefully put down my camera out of harm’s way and stretched out the canvas.  It worked fine; folks began zipping down.  Everyone got off with no problems.

I went to a clinic there and they bandaged my hand up good, even gave me a sling, which I thought was overdoing it a little.  Everyone waiting in the La Guardia airport knew that a flight had caught fire on takeoff and they were all buzzing about it.  They turned to stare at me as I, heavily bandaged, strolled in. 

I felt that maybe I should just gather everyone around and say, “I’m not a poor victim of the airplane fire.  I’ve just been sliding down a rope!” 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

228 Quiz Answer


Shakespeare wrote:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes…
A fathom is six feet.  Five times six equals 30 feet.
(Also for Three Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday: "A" is for "Accident")

 
It was a tough way to travel, to sail from Europe to America four or five hundred years ago.

 
Not only did hurricanes spring up from the Caribbean with winds that could tear a sailing ship apart, but the trip was fraught with perilous islands along the way that were every bit as dangerous.

One of the islands that you had to get past to get to the American mainland was called by the sailors of the day “The Isle of Devils” because it was surrounded by menacing rocks.

It was in July, 1609, that a vessel named the Sea Venture was sailing to bring supplies to Jamestown, Virginia, and had a famous nocturnal accident: in the middle of the night it was caught up in a storm that battered the ship and caused it to run on the rocks of the Isle of Devils.


What the survivors were to learn was that the place wasn’t devilish at all.  In fact, the island they had smacked into we know today was Bermuda, and as many vacationers in later centuries discovered, it was an honorable and pleasant place to spend the winter - if you could afford it.

At any rate, when the news of the accident and the storm got back to England, Will Shakespeare sat down and wrote a play titled “The Tempest.”

It’s a very interesting work: the experts didn’t know what to call it – comedy, drama, history, tragicomedy.  They seem to have settled upon “romance” as its specific genre.  The reason for the confusion is that there a number of sub-plots in the play, peopled by actors who range from ordinary folks to fantastic characters of heavy-duty weirdness.

However, to get around to our weekly quiz, there’s a sequence where a man’s father has drowned and his body has begun to decompose as it lies in the water.

Shakespeare handles this rather ghoulish topic as you might expect – it’s ghoulish enough for anyone, but he can’t help but write of it in poetic style.

“Of his bones are coral made,

Those are pearls that were his eyes.

Nothing of him that can fade

But has suffered a sea change

Into something rich and strange.”

Now here’s the question.  The poor drowned guy is lying in how many feet of water?  (Do the math.)

(The answer will be posted Friday.)  

 
 
 
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