Our server went down some time Sunday morning and returned to life a few minutes ago. We don’t know what went wrong, but we’re glad to be back!
Archives for February 13, 2006
I went down to Broadway on Saturday night to see a press preview of the new revival of Barefoot in the Park. It had only just started to snow when I left, and cabs were still easy to find. By the time the play was over, though, the night sky was full of swirling clouds of moist white flakes, and it was snowing furiously when I got up the next morning, having been awakened by the sounds of cheery children and crunching snow shovels. New York City had ground as close to a halt as it ever gets, which isn’t very close. The first thing I saw when I looked out my third-floor window was a bundled-up fellow walking his dog.
It was still snowing when I headed back down to Broadway in the afternoon to see the new cast of Doubt. Broadway theaters don’t shut down for anything short of a 9/11-magnitude disaster, and the biggest snowstorm ever to hit New York didn’t make the cut, so I wrapped myself up tight and hit the road, giving myself an extra twenty minutes just in case.
Blizzards mean different things to different people at different times in their lives. To a fifty-year-old drama critic recovering from congestive heart failure who has to make his way to and from the theater district in two feet of blowing snow, a blizzard can be a fearful nuisance, depending on his schedule and his frame of mind. Fortunately, I live a block away from the subway and wasn’t in any great hurry. The streets and sidewalks were slippery but passable, and everyone I saw between my front door and the subway station was smiling. Most New Yorkers, however grumpy they may be on an ordinary day, respond festively to the short-lived chaos of a snowstorm. So did I, in part because I remembered the last time I’d been to a Broadway play in really cold weather, pausing every ten yards or so to catch my breath, wheezing and gasping and wondering whether I’d ever see the Great White Way again. Now I was strolling briskly down the street like everyone else.
No sooner did I reach the subway platform than a Broadway-bound train pulled into the station and whisked me away. I got to the theater district a half-hour ahead of schedule and took temporary shelter in a pizza joint, where I read M.F.K. Fisher’s Serve It Forth as I sipped a ginger ale. I looked out at the half-empty streets of the theater district and pondered her wise words:
An early evening meal—a long evening. A long evening—what to do with it? There is a fairly good play, a passable movie, a game of bridge—surely some way to kill a few hours.
But an evening killed is murder of a kind, criminal like any disease, and like disease a thorough-going crime. If Time, so fleeting, must like humans die, let it be filled with good food and good talk, and then embalmed in the perfumes of conviviality.
Though there were more than a few empty seats in the Walter Kerr Theatre, most of the ticketholders had chosen to brave the storm and were clearly in a mood to be wooed. After the last curtain call, Ron Eldred, who recently replaced Brían F. O’Byrne as Father Flynn, the priest suspected of molesting a child in his care, stepped forward to the rim of the stage. “We’re all really glad you came out today!” he told us, smiling broadly.
On the way home I stopped at the corner deli to pick up some paper towels. I stood in line at the counter behind a young man and his son. “How can you not like snow on a day like this?” the man said to me. Then I went home to my nice warm apartment, stripped off my wet socks, heated up a plate of leftovers, and settled myself on the couch to watch a little early-evening TV, reveling in the simple pleasure of venturing forth into a blizzard and coming back alive.
I spent the second night of the Blizzard of ’06 watching two black-and-white movies. The first, On Dangerous Ground, is one of Nicholas Ray’s very best films, and the only film noir to have been scored by Bernard Herrmann (it has yet to turn up on DVD, alas, but the original soundtrack is available on CD). The second, Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire, is a screwball comedy that contains more familiar faces per foot than any other film I know. Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett in their pre-Double Indemnity days, it stars Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, features the young Dana Andrews and Dan Duryea in supporting roles, and contains a nightclub scene in which Gene Krupa’s big band can be seen playing “Drum Boogie” with Roy Eldridge seated proudly in the trumpet section. As if that weren’t glory enough, the cast also includes such celebrated character actors as S.Z. “Cuddles” Zakall, the glutinous-voiced Richard Haydn, Leonid Kinskey
(he’s the bartender in Casablanca), Charles Lane
(who played Homer Bedloe in Petticoat Junction and recently turned 101), Henry Travers
(now best remembered as Clarence, the wingless angel of It’s a Wonderful Life), and Mary Field, everybody’s favorite cinematic spinster, who made more movies than I can count.
To top it all off in the highest possible style, the immortal Elisha Cook, Jr., has a walk-on as a waiter. You probably won’t know his name unless you have your film trivia down pat, but the chances are very, very good that you’ll recognize his face, for Cook, who died in 1995, made his first film in 1930 and his last TV episode in 1988, in between which he played small but splendidly vivid parts in such movies as The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Shane, The Killing, One-Eyed Jacks, and Rosemary’s Baby.
I was going to pay tribute to Cook’s decidedly weird on-screen persona, but it seems that David Thomson beat me to it:
There are big stars in the movies who pass by, leaving us uninterested. And there are supporting actors whose faces will stop you dead as you flip through an album history. Who really wants to know more about Robert Taylor, say? But who wouldn’t want to read a good biography of Elisha Cook Jr.? He was small, scrawny; he was losing his hair, and he had a high-pitched voice; he had eyes screwed into his head with all the desperate resolve of wanting to be taken seriously….Put him in a bad picture, and he made it watchable for ten minutes. Put him in something good and he was a metaphor for glue, or the medium itself. He could make you trust a film.
You could do a whole lot worse than that, posterity-wise.
I don’t much feel like arguing about whether old movies are better than new ones–it’s a meaningless exercise–but I do think that one of the best things about studio-system Hollywood movies was the omnipresence of such gloriously characterful supporting actors as the ones seen in Ball of Fire. A few journeymen of genius managed to make their mark in the Sixties–Strother Martin and John Vernon
come immediately to mind–and the breed is not quite extinct today, as any paid-up member of the M. Emmet and J.T. Walsh fan clubs can tell you. But the old studios specialized in making resourceful use of these scene-stealing wizards, and it was their idiosyncratic presence that added a special richness of texture to the casts of the movies I’m most inclined to watch when there’s two feet of snow on the ground and I feel like staying home and keeping myself company.
I bless their memory!
“A fresh performance of a ‘classic’ is only like a new edition of an established masterpiece of literature. And the literary critics do not have to review new editions at any length; they merely publish a paragraph drawing attention to the blue buckram, the gilt-edges, and the bold lettering. They are not expected to sit up late on a chilly night writing a column about nothing new at all. It is a pleasant task sometimes to do this writing about nothing new; it is a challenge to ingenuity, a sort of Chardin problem of setting whites in the foreground against whites in a background that is not far back enough; but the task and the pleasure need not be carried too far–certainly not beyond the extent of a column, with the midnight hour at hand, and the temperature falling, and a distance to cover before the weary scribe gets to his pillow, resigned to the thought that whatever he has written will not be read, ever again, after twelve o’clock the next day, but will go down slowly and unobserved into the general dust.”
Neville Cardus, review of a concert by Sir Thomas Beecham and the Hall
If anyone reading this blog knows an especially good restaurant in Cape May, New Jersey, kindly send me an e-mail containing mouthwatering details.