Monday, August 30, 2010


“G” is for “Miss Gustafsson”

Scene: Stockholm, Sweden, a few decades ago.
I was making a tourism-promotion film for the Swedish government. Included in the list of things to show in the movie was Stockholm’s magnificent department store “NK” -- pronounced “Enkaw.” A huge mall-like place, some 12 million visitors annually, and with a staff of 1200. The client very much wanted it in the film.

So I’m standing across the street taking its picture. As I was working an employee of the store came over to me with a strange question: “You’re American? Would you like to meet an old man who was a good friend of Miss Gustafsson way back when they were both teenagers?”
Of course I would. Any friend of Miss Gustafsson would be a friend of mine.
He took me upstairs and I met the old gentleman in question. He told me how they had both been department-store employees, right around the end of World War I, a couple of kids in the same department.
Of course, he didn’t call her Miss Gustafsson; he called her by her first name, Greta.
One day an ad agency person – yes, they had ad agencies in Sweden even then, around 1920 – an ad agency guy came through their workplace. He was looking for a comely female employee they might be able to use in their newspaper advertising.

Here’s a test photo they made of her at that time.

Soon she was in their department store ads. Each of the grand ladies above, under the hats, was teenager Greta.
It could only happen in Hollywood – or in Stockholm. A movie director liked her pictures in the paper and she suddenly found herself embarked on an amazing international film career.

In her first movie, Miss Gustafsson was a bit more on the plump side than she was later, but she was a success nevertheless. It was clear that the name “Gustafsson” had to go; she became Greta Garbo.
“Anna Christie,” “Grand Hotel,” “Anna Karenina,” “Camille” and “Ninotchka,” among other film classics, turned Miss Gustafsson into one of the great legends of screen history.

“Camille” was an example of one of the huge hits of the thirties, and Greta found herself working with the biggest stars of that era: Robert Taylor and Lionel Barrymore. The movie made millions – not all that easy in the middle of the Great Depression. Here’s a still taken during the film’s production.

She later stated that she had never said “I want to be alone,” though that had become sort of her trademark. What she had said, she carefully explained, was that she wanted to be left alone, which was quite different.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Magpie 29

One of Will's sonnets:
"O, never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seem'd my flame to qualify,
As easy might I from myself depart
As from my soul which in thy breast doth lie.

This is my home of love; if I have rang'd,
Like him that travels I return again."
(Sonnet #109)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


“F” is for “The French”
Some time ago there was quite a to-do, not to mention a fuss, over the fact that it was some four hundred years ago that Henry Hudson sailed up the river of the same name.
From the local paper: “A fleet of 18 Dutch boats sailed into the New York harbor on Tuesday to begin month-long celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of New York by Dutch Captain Henry Hudson.”
“The discovery of New York”? The claim is often made that it was Henry Hudson who was the first European to discover New York; that seems to be what is taught in schools.
But it’s wrong.
The score card should read like this: Hudson second; French first.

Not many people are aware that long before Ol’ Cap’n Hudson showed up in New York in 1609, the French Navy had much earlier been there, done that.
It was in 1524 that the French arrived in what is now NYC. Think of it. That’s 85 years before Hudson!

The French, in their warship La Dauphine, were looking for China – as was just about everyone else in those days – and they ran smack into the North American continent. On their trip up the coast they sailed into a magnificently sheltered body of water…

And they anchored here, in today’s New York harbor, right about where the Verrazano Bridge is in our time.

They then proceeded to do what one did in those days; they claimed the place for their king, Francis I. The captain wrote to his sovereign: “Once we were anchored and well sheltered, we took the small boat to land, which we found densely populated. The people came to us joyfully, uttering loud cries of wonderment and showing us the safest place to beach the boat. Some thirty small boats ran to and fro across the water with innumerable people aboard who were crossing from one side to the other to see us.” New Yorkers, almost 500 years ago.

They named the beautiful land about them, what we now know as New York City, “New Angouleme” – Angouleme is a beautiful city in the southwestern part of France – because that was the king’s home town. So New York was New Angouleme long, very long, before it was New Amsterdam.

You learn almost nothing about this in our schools. Most New Yorkers have no idea that New York was once New Angouleme. But that’s okay; I’ve been to Angouleme and asked around. Most people there don’t seem to be aware of it either.
So here’s a toast of cognac (from the Angouleme region) to Henry Hudson and his trip, 400 years ago, up the river that bears his name. But as far as what the local paper recently wrote – that he discovered New York – that is simply not true.
Vive la Nouvelle Angouleme!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


"E" is for "English"
The English language, to be precise.

I guess it’s a sign that I’m getting on in years, but I miss the old grammar rules.
I always thought it was easy to determine the intelligence and education, not to mention the acumen and taste, of various people simply by reading what they wrote and how they wrote it.
If they showed they didn’t know basic English grammar -- when to use “it’s” and when to use “its,” for example – I thought I had them pretty well figured out as people, even though I had never met them.
But all this has changed. Seated at my computer and logged on to the web, I can see, along with everyone else, that an entirely new language is being created.

Thanks to younger folks, and not us old codgers, it’s a strange dialect, presumably based on English, which has taken over, and it pays no obeisance to, or even recognizes, rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling. In addition, it relies heavily on acronyms.
BRB, OMG, TTYL, LOL, BTW, CU, as examples.
And yet, the folks who write using this stripped-down texting patois seem to be able to communicate more or less effectively with their chat friends.

But surely punctuation, to take just one example, is important. You know the famous panda story, the one about the murderous gun-toting panda? Seems a wildlife book had described this creature as a “large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.” Just a misplaced comma, but it turned the peaceful panda into a wild gunslinger.

As I’m sure you’re aware, Lynne Truss wrote a book about him, a book subtitled “the zero-tolerance approach to punctuation,” and it was a huge best-seller. I thought it might make punctuation popular. But maybe not.
During my pedagogical years I was at times dismayed to find that such usages as “IIRC” and “IMO” were occasionally used by students writing their papers. So are acronyms and emoticons, accompanied by a total lack of rules of English grammar, simply a short-term, ephemeral phenomenon, specific to internet communication, or does all this represent the real future of our written English language?
(By the way, scientific research has established that “ACRONYM” stands for “A Crazy Reminder of Names You Misplaced.”)
Question is, is this where our language is headed? Will this rough-hewn internet argot become Standard English one of these days? What’s your opinion?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Magpie 27

A plumber, looking at this week’s prompt, might say to himself: “A coupling, with elbows.”
But have we not all…
Been there,
Done that?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


“D” is for “3-D”
Remember “Bwana Devil”?
Well, I don’t blame you if you don’t; it was a movie that came out over half a century ago, and not a very good movie at that.

Reason I remember it is that I knew one of its producers. And he had been convinced, back in 1952, as evidently were many others, that the three dimensions it was shot in represented the Future.

Because it was in 3D, “Bwana Devil” was called “The Miracle of the Age!!! A LION in your lap! A LOVER in your arms!” Hopefully they never got those two mixed up. 

Well, it wasn’t a miracle and it wasn’t the future. 3D sort of faded away in the years that followed. When I saw the film, years later, it was clear that it was a mediocre movie and the 3D hadn’t helped much.
Now – (drum roll) – 3D is back!!!

I take the liberty of predicting that the new, 21st-century 3D fad will go the way of the 1952 version.
L A Times: "Christopher Nolan's dim view of a Hollywood craze: 'I'm not a huge fan of 3-D'"
Roger Ebert: “Why I Hate 3-D (And You Should Too). 3-D is a waste of a perfectly good dimension. Hollywood’s current crazy stampede toward it is suicidal. It adds nothing essential to the moviegoing experience. For some, it is an annoying distraction. For others, it creates nausea and headaches. It is driven largely to sell expensive projection equipment and add a $5 to $7.50 surcharge on already expensive movie tickets. Its image is noticeably darker than standard 2-D. It is unsuitable for grown-up films of any seriousness.”

From what I’ve seen of modern 3D films, I would have to agree. What about you? Agree? Disagree?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Magpie 26

Lear's Daughters

Willow’s prompt brought forth a Shakespeare comedy last week. This week’s prompt reminds us of a tragedy – THE tragedy, the work that many scholars have described as the greatest play ever written: “King Lear.”

Two of Lear’s three daughters are revealed to be evil; they try to destroy their father so they can take over the entire kingdom.

Lear flees from them to wander on a heath during a great thunderstorm. At this later stage the King becomes completely mad, having lost all faith in any sense of order, meaning or stability in the world.

He’s wearing a crown he made himself, a crown of weeds and flowers. He can’t believe what is being done to him by his two daughters: “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?”
But, insane or not, he makes sure everyone knows that he is still the monarch. He babbles: “Ay, every inch a king! When I do stare, see how the subject quakes! What was thy cause? Fornication? Thou shalt not die. No, the wren goes to’t, and the small gilded fly does lecher in my sight. Let copulation thrive, for the Earl of Gloucester’s bastard son was kinder to his father than my daughters, got ‘tween the lawful sheets.”

Toward the end of the play, the King realizes that his third daughter, Cordelia, the one he had treated so badly, was the one of the three who truly loved him. He is overcome with sorrow and remorse.

“Why, this would make a man capable of tears to use his eyes for garden watering-cans.”

This may be Shakespeare’s greatest play, but it is not the most popular. Audiences don’t go to see “King Lear” as they might go to a musical comedy. It’s definitely not an upbeat, optimistic work; folks don’t leave the theatre humming the main theme music, or any other music. The historical situation when Will S. wrote this play – the plague that slaughtered many thousands and which no one could understand and which could easily kill you the moment you stepped outside, the constant threat of civil war – these possibly may be responsible for the playwright’s tone of extreme sadness, even the degree of hopelessness, in this work. The tone may be summed up in a famous line from the play: “Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”
Hey, I promise to be more entertaining and optimistic next week. Yours, Berowne. :-)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

For ABC Wednesday

“C” is for “Cuisine”

The first day I arrived in France, years ago, my knowledge of the language was -- 'ow you say? -- rudimentary. Later I was to work in France and live in France and I became reasonably fluent, though I still manage to make more than my share of grammatical errors I assure you.

Anyway, that first day, knowing very little French, I went to an excellent restaurant, highly recommended. I was starving. I was ready for one of those great French meals I had read about. I stared at the menu. There was nothing resembling an English word anywhere to be seen. I wanted to order something typically French but I had literally no idea what any of the dishes were that were listed on that sheet.

I decided to go with one of the items that seemed to be perhaps more French than anything else listed. It was "choucroute." It had such a Gallic feel to it. I believed I could pronounce it okay even if I didn't know what it was. I was sure it was an example of French gourmet cuisine -- a piece, as the saying goes, of resistance.
When the waiter brought it to me I nearly fell off my chair. My first day in France, my first meal in a fine, expensive French restaurant, and I had ordered…

Took a few days to get over that experience. :-)
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