The River. Jean Renoir’s 1951 screen version of Rumer Godden’s autobiographical novel about expatriate life in India is one of the permanent masterpieces of adolescence, a gentle tale of innocence and experience filled with lush Technicolor images of a land of lost content. Renoir summed it up like this: “The discovery of love by small girls, the death of a little boy who was too fond of snakes, the rather foolish dignity of an English family living on India like a plum on a peach-tree: above all, India itself.” David Thomson captured the essence of The River in eleven words: “So little happens, yet you feel the wheel of the world” (TT).
Archives for November 2008
Road House. Ida Lupino was never sexier than in this crisp 1948 thriller about a nightclub owner (Richard Widmark at his craziest) who falls for a hard-edged dame from the big city, then jumps off the deep end when she prefers his best friend (Cornel Wilde). A wonderful, insufficiently appreciated film noir, long overdue for transfer to DVD. This is the one where Lupino sings “One for My Baby” in a hoarse little voice (yes, it’s hers) that sounds as though its owner had just downed a double Drano on the rocks (TT).
I gave thumbs-up reviews to a pair of New York shows in today’s Wall Street Journal, one a Broadway musical (Irving Berlin’s White Christmas) and one an off-Broadway play (Itamar Moses’ Back Back Back). Here’s an excerpt.
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Now that playgoers and producers are feeling the financial pinch, the market for super-safe no-brainer shows is soaring. Escapism looks especially good between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and so Broadway is saying hello to “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” a sure-fire seasonal musical that’s been road-tested in Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto. This stage version of the Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye movie is pure, unadulterated commodity theater, right down to the inclusion of Berlin’s name in the title of the show–but the ingredients are costly and the craftsmanship immaculate, and only the Scroogiest of Scrooges will turn up their noses at its sleek charm.
Michael Curtiz’ original 1954 film was itself a commodity, a Technicolor variation on “Holiday Inn” in which Kaye replaced Fred Astaire and the whole film took place at Christmastime. It’s long been a seasonal staple, but I never liked it as much as “Holiday Inn,” and the stage version of “White Christmas” is a definite improvement on its cinematic source. The reason for this is twofold: David Ives, that wittiest of playwrights, has joined forces with Paul Blake to spruce up the script, while Walter Bobbie, the justly celebrated director of the Broadway revival of “Chicago,” has put the show on stage with his customary comedic skill. The result is a streamlined valentine to the Eisenhower era that’s packed with period references, some obvious (the heroes appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show”) and others subtle (there’s an Eames chair in their dressing room). The songs have even been orchestrated by Larry Blank in the smoothly jazzy style of Nelson Riddle, the “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” man….
Itamar Moses is having himself a time. Two of his plays, “Back Back Back” and “Yellowjackets,” had high-profile premieres in San Diego and Berkeley earlier this year, while “The Four of Us” transferred from San Diego to New York for a successful Off-Broadway run. Meanwhile, “Bach in Leipzig,” the play that put Mr. Moses on the map in 2005, was revived to brilliant effect by Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Not bad for a 31-year-old phenom.
Now “Back Back Back” has made its way to the Manhattan Theatre Club in a new production directed by Daniel Aukin, and I am delighted to report that it is a very superior piece of work, one of the best new American plays to come my way in 2008. This is all the more surprising given the unpromising fact that “Back Back Back” is issue-driven–and that the issue in question is the use of steroids by major-league baseball players…
I know nothing about baseball beyond what I learned from watching “Bull Durham” and “Eight Men Out,” but I had no difficulty grasping what was going on in “Back Back Back.” As a precaution, though, I brought along a baseball fan who assured me at evening’s end that Mr. Moses had gotten everything right–and that the play closely tracks the real-life events on which it is based. Yet “Back Back Back” never feels like a docudrama, much less a polemic. Instead Mr. Moses has given us a taut, touchingly elegiac study of friendship and betrayal…
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Read the whole thing here.
This is a fascinating article about Back Back Back by a writer with personal knowledge of the major-league-baseball steroid scandal. (Incidentally, he liked the play as much as I did.)
“THANKSGIVING DAY. A day devoted by persons with inflammatory rheumatism to thanking a loving Father that it is not hydrophobia.”
H.L. Mencken, A Book of Burlesques
It’s not exactly a secret that I stay pretty busy, but even by my extreme standards, 2008 has been a bit on the hectic side. According to my records, I reviewed or will be reviewing a total of one hundred and fourteen shows for The Wall Street Journal in 2008, fifty-six of which took place outside New York City. (To put it another way, I reviewed shows in fourteen states and the District of Columbia.) During that time I knocked out roughly ninety columns and other pieces for the Journal and Commentary, plus a dozen or so articles that were published elsewhere, and finished writing A Cluster of Sunlight: The Life of Louis Armstrong and the libretto for The Letter.
I also made four new friends and mourned the deaths of two old ones, read a couple of hundred books and looked at a like number of paintings, saw eighteen performances of fourteen Shakespeare plays (not counting Falstaff and Kiss Me, Kate), bought three pieces of art, stayed in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, visited the grave of Willa Cather, had lunch at the Supreme Court Building, hugged Leontyne Price, posted to this blog with reasonable regularity, and spent as much time as possible in the company of Mrs. T.
I’ve been known to complain from time to time about being overworked, but for most of these things–especially the last–I am profoundly grateful. May you be as grateful for at least as many different and wondrous things on this Thanksgiving Day.
Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
• Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (comedy, G, suitable for bright children, reviewed here)
• August: Osage County (drama, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Boeing-Boeing (comedy, PG-13, cartoonishly sexy, reviewed here)
• Dividing the Estate (black comedy, G, far too serious for children, reviewed here)
• Equus (drama, R, nudity and adult subject matter, closes Feb. 8, reviewed here)
• Gypsy (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter, closes Mar. 1, reviewed here)
• The Little Mermaid (musical, G, entirely suitable for children, reviewed here)
• A Man for All Seasons * (drama, G, too intellectually demanding for children of any age, closes Dec. 14, reviewed here)
• South Pacific * (musical, G/PG-13, some sexual content, brilliantly staged but unsuitable for viewers acutely allergic to preachiness, reviewed here)
“Sir, gratitude is a fruit of great cultivation; you do not find it among gross people.”
Samuel Johnson (quoted in James Boswell, A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides)
Fred Astaire performs “One for My Baby” in the 1943 film The Sky’s the Limit:
(This is the latest in a weekly series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Wednesday.)
“A turkey is more occult and awful than all the angels and archangels. In so far as God has partly revealed to us an angelic world, he has partly told us what an angel means. But God has never told us what a turkey means. And if you go and stare at a live turkey for an hour or two, you will find by the end of it that the enigma has rather increased than diminished.”
G.K. Chesterton, “Christmas” (in All Things Considered)
A few months ago I wrote a “Sightings” column for The Wall Street Journal called “Hearing Is Believing” in which I took note of the release by the British Library of a series of CDs devoted to talks by and interviews with W.H. Auden, Graham Greene, George Bernard Shaw, Evelyn Waugh, and H.G. Wells that were originally broadcast over the BBC. Now comes a pair of three-disc samplers devoted to archival recordings of broadcasts by other writers, most of whom who didn’t make it into the studio often enough to fill up a full CD.
The Spoken Word: American Writers contains recordings by James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Pearl Buck, William S. Burroughs, Raymond Chandler, Ralph Ellison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, Patricia Highsmith, Sinclair Lewis, Anita Loos, Mary McCarthy, James Michener, Arthur Miller, Henry Miller, Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov, Eugene O’Neill, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Gertrude Stein, John Steinbeck, William Styron, James Thurber, Gore Vidal, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and Thornton Wilder.
The Spoken Word: British Writers contains recordings by J.G. Ballard, Algernon Blackwood, Anthony Burgess, John le Carré, G.K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Noël Coward, Ian Fleming, E.M. Forster, William Golding, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, Rudyard Kipling, Doris Lessing, Arthur Machen (who he?), Somerset Maugham, Daphne du Maurier, Nancy Mitford, the Baroness Orczy (she wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel), Joe Orton, Harold Pinter, J.B. Priestley, C.P. Snow, Muriel Spark, J.R.R. Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, Rebecca West, Angus Wilson, P.G. Wodehouse, and Virginia Woolf.
(1) Where the hell is Max Beerbohm?
(2) What are you waiting for? Place your order!
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Incidentally, iTunes offers downloads of some interesting spoken-word recordings by famous writers of the past:
• For Kingsley Amis, search for “A Song of Experience/Nocturne.”
• For John Betjeman, search for “The Church’s Restoration/The Olympic Girl.”
• For G.K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Leo Tolstoy, and W.B. Yeats, search for “The Very Best Historic Voices.” (This album also contains a counterfeit recording that purports to be the voice of Oscar Wilde.)
• For T.S. Eliot, search for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
• For Robert Frost, search for “Robert Frost Two Poems.”
• For Rudyard Kipling, search for “Reflections on War.”
• For Philip Larkin, search for “An Arundel Tomb/Mr. Bleaney.”
• For George Bernard Shaw, search for “Public Address on His Ninetieth Birthday.”