Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Scotch Tape

Most of what I know about the Scotch comes from: Greyfriars Bobby, Scrooge McDuck, that character in Mike Meyers’ film “So I Married An Ax Murderer” who makes fun of the size of his grandson’s skull, Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, and a few little jokes and quips on BBC 4’s “The News Quiz,” one of which goes like this:

After this government (Gordon Brown) and Northern Rock, you won’t find anyone saying Scots are tight with money.

But Louis Untermeyer, bless him, includes a passel of Scotch money-themed jokes in his Treasury of Laughter. Here’s a little sampling:

A Scotchman, an Irishman and a Jew had dinner together. When the waiter came in with the bill, the Scotchman promptly said he would take it. The next day the newspaper carried a headline: “Death of a Jewish Ventriloquist.”

Angus woke early and found that his wife had passed away during the night. “Maggie! Maggie!” he cried to the servant.

“Aye sir?” she called back.

“Maggie, ye need boil only one egg the morn!”

In Edinburgh they tell the story of the two burglars who smashed a jeweler’s window and were arrested when they came back for the brick.

But what’s interesting about the collection of jokes is that they remain the sole oral storytelling tradition we have, and I included stand-up comedians and such in the mix. This is an old storytelling method, of course, which used to be implemented much more often before the advent of inexpensive printing, whether it was done on paper pulp, papyrus, or stone. So these terrible japes have more common with Beowulf than a lot of the high fantasy we read these days. Interesting, interesting . . .

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Oliver Wendell Holmes is Content You're Reading His Poetry

Are you content?

I’m not. Well, almost. Good enough for government work contentment, that’s what I’ve got. But like Mr. Burns, I’d give up all of my billions for just a little bit more.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., understands that contentment without being content about it is part of human nature. Witness this snatch from his poem of that title:

Man wants but little here below.
Little I ask; my wants are few;
I only wish a hut of stone,
(A very plain brown stone will do,)
That I may call my own; --
And close at hand is such a one,
In yonder street that fronts the sun.
Plain food is quite enough for me;
Three courses are as good as ten; --
If Nature can subsist on three,
Thank Heaven for three. Amen!
I always thought cold victuals nice; --
My choice would be vanilla-ice.
I care not much for gold or land; --
Give me a mortgage here and there, --
Some good bank-stock, some note of hand,
Or trifling railroad share, --
I only ask that Fortune send
A little more than I shall spend.

The full poem can be found here. Or, if you’re in the mood for magenta, here.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

O. Henry. Inspiration from Disney to Serling. And Beyond.

So I’m not just imagining it.

After I read O. Henry’s story “The Ransom of Red Chief,” I immediately thought of the 1976 Disney film “No Deposit, No Return,” in which Darren McGavin and Don Knotts play two unsuccessful safecrackers who inadvertently “kidnap” two kids of generally absentee parents whose grandfather revels in their absence as he toys with the kidnappers in paying the ransom.

Of course, the story is also similar to that of 1982’s “Savannah Smiles,” starring Donovan Scott and Mark Miller, though in this case it’s the parents, not the “kidnapped” kid who are the real stinkers in the story.

But that’s O. Henry for you. Before Hollywood was there churning out the “surprise” plot trists, before Rod Serling was there, banally prattling on about the odd little twists of fate that lead people from a normal life into that twilightiest of all zones, there was O. Henry.

And there’s this version, an odd Russian version of the film, which makes it clear within the first few moments that the director saw the story as a jab against the capitalist stooges who set up their whole society so that one had to get capital in order to capitalize on the whole capitalist system. Capital capital capital. (Other than that, the telling here is pretty accurate to O. Henry’s story.)

(This was filmed in 1962, per IMDB.com. Unsure on international copyright for this.)

What first catches the ear is an odd simile:

“Hey, little boy!” says Bill, “would you like to have a bag of candy and a nice ride?”

The boy catches Bill neatly in the eye with a piece of brick.

“That will cost the old man an extra five hundred dollars,” says Bill, climbing over the wheel.

That boy put up a fight like a welter-eight cinnamon bear; but, at last, we got him down in the bottom of the buggy and drove away.
Like a welter-weight cinnamon bear. I like the sound of that.

I like the sound, too, of O. Henry’s first-person telling, at which he is amazingly consistent.

Of course, the brick in the eye isn’t the only first-person telling we get of this little brat’s impudence. There’s also this:

Just at daybreak, I was awakened by a series of awful screams from Bill. They weren’t yells, or howls, or shouts, or whoops, or yawps, such as you’d expect from a manly set of vocal organs – they were simply indecent, terrifying, humiliating screams, such as women emit when they see ghosts or caterpillars. It’s an awful thing to hear a strong, desperate, fat man scream incontinently in a cave at daybreak.

I jumped up to see what the matter was. Red Chief [the kid] was sitting on Bill’s chest, with one hand twined in Bill’s hair. In the other had had the sharp case-knife we used for slicing bacon; and he was industriously and realistically trying to take Bill’s scalp, according to the sentence that had been pronounced upon him the evening before.

Of course, in true Hollywood or Disney fashion, the kidnappers can’t get rid of the kid until they pay the imp’s father $250 for his return – and have to do so under cover of darkness besides, so the neighbors won’t know who to blame when the kid returns.

O. Henry is a wonderful practitioner of the short story, a lost art in America, and as well a chronicler of the unchronicled, choosing rather than the socialite, the war profiteer, the politician or the industry mogul, to write of the ordinary, from two-bit kidnappers in a tiny town in Alabama to their obnoxious prey. And while most folksa re more familiar with the Oprah-like shmaltz of O' Henry's pieces such as "The Gift," this piece shows that while hes tuck with the short story genre, he wasn't all shmaltz.

Full text of the story can be found here.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Boldly Taking on the Tar Baby

This drawing is in the public domain in the United States.

 A commonly-accepted definition of the term “tar baby” today is a “sticky situation that is only aggravated by additional contact.” Ironically, race relations in the United States is such a tar baby. Dare to make any kind of comment on the subject and you’ll find a thousand willing to parse what you said, for both good and ill.

Thus the Treasury of Laughter enters the world of Joel Chandler Harris. And this is the last and only equivocation you’ll hear from us on the subject.

And for good reason. For good or ill, Joel Chandler Harris’ recordings of the “Uncle Remus” story introduced traditional American folklore to an appreciative world, and not just an appreciative world both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line. Per Wikipedia:

The tales, 185 in sum, became immensely popular among both black and white readers in the North and South. Few outside of the South had ever heard accents like those spoken in the tales, and no one had ever seen the dialect legitimately and faithfully recorded in print. To the North and those abroad, the stories were a "revelation of the unknown." Mark Twain noted in 1883, "in the matter of writing [the African-American dialect], he is the only master the country has produced."

The stories introduced international readers to the American South. Rudyard Kipling wrote in a letter to Harris that the tales "ran like wild fire through an English Public school.... [We] found ourselves quoting whole pages of Uncle Remus that had got mixed in with the fabric of the old school life.” The Uncle Remus tales have since been translated into more than forty languages.

James Weldon Johnson called the collection "the greatest body of folklore America has produced.”

So let’s have some fun.

First, we see the wily Brer Rabbit using his own fleabaggishness to keep Brer Fox at bay:

“Hol’ on dar, Brer Rabbit,” sez Brer Fox, sezee.

“I ain’t got time, Brer Fox,” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, sorter mendin’ his licks.

“I wanter have some confab wid you, Brer Rabbit,” sez Brer Fox, sezee.

“All right, Brer Fox, but you better holler fum whar you stan’. I’m monstus full ur fleas dis mawnin,” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee.

Here we hear Harris’ wonderful ear for the dialect of the south, precursor, perhaps, to today’s Ebonics. Coming from a linguistically bland corner of the nation, I’ve got to say that reading Harris’ transcription is a challenging delight.

Harris’ story, of course, is familiar. Less familiar is that on an annual basis starting in 1888, Harris wrote seven Uncle Remus collection, cataloging for the world the vast imagination of the African-American south.
And maybe I’m full of hot air. But I’ll always enjoy Brer Rabbit’s reverse psychology, his quick with that outwits even after he’s been outwitted:

“I don’t keer w’at you do wid me, Brer Fox,” sezee, “so you don’t fling me in dat brier-patch. Roas’ me, Brer Fox,” sezee, “but don’t fling me in dat brier patch,” sezee.

“Hit’s so much trouble fer ter kindle a fier,” sez Brer Fox, sezee, “dat I speck I’ll hatter hang you,” sezee.

“Hand me des ez high as you plase, Brer Fox,” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, “but to fer de Lord’s sake don’t fling me in dat brier patch,” sezee.

“I ain’t got no string,” sez Brer Fox, sezee, “en now I speck I’ll ahtter drown you,” sezee.

“Drown me des ez deep ez you please, Brer Fox,” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, “but do don’t fling me in dat brier-patch,” sezee.

“Der ain’t no water nigh,” sez Brer Fox, sezee, “en ow I speck I’ll hatter skin you,” sezee.

“Skin me,” Brer Fox, sezee, “snatch out my eye-balls, t’ar out my years by de roots, en cut off my legs,” Sezee, “but do please, Brer Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch,” sezee.

Okay. So maybe Harris carries the dialect thing a bit too far.

Of course we know what happens. Brer Fox throws him in the brier patch, a patch similar to the one Brer Rabbit was born in. Brer Rabbit escapes to live to outfox Fox another day, much like another literary rabbit would do once he escaped from Mr. MacGregor’s garden. And my world is richer for having read Brer Rabbit do the outfoxing, political correctness be hanged. Or drowned. Or whatever.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Two Heavy Hitters

Next up at the Treasury of Laughter: A writer whose name inspires instant recognition and another writer whose name, for most folks, conjures up no recognition whatsoever, until you realize what characters he created.

First Joel Chandler Harris.

Who, you may ask?

Well, he created these guys:

(Sound of machetes, lucky and not, being unsheathed.)

Yes, the characters of Uncle Remus, Brer Rabbit, and the Tar Baby elicit only two responses: RACIST SLOP and Why hasn’t Disney ever released this movie on DVD? I’m inclined to be in the latter camp. I’ve read Chandler’s stories; he himself wrote he didn’t intend racism when he wrote them, but rather wanted to collect southern folk tales under the guise of Uncle Remus, whom he envisioned as an American Aesop. Harris worked with Henry W. Grady, a fellow journalist who worked to reintegrate the South into the Union after the Civil War and worked to ease racial tension in the South as well. But the haters probably don’t know or dismiss this legacy. No matter.

Then we go on to O. Henry, who, among other things, brought us this:

O. Henry, like Harris, celebrated the uncelebrated: The ordinary folk for O. Henry were the denizens of New York City who never made the papers, never did much more than live and work and raise children and try to get along, much as did the ordinary folk Harris wrote about in his collected folk tales. Both in their way capture the essence of what is good in America and in Americans. For that. I honor them both.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Beating Edward Gorey to the Macabre Punch

Edward Gorey is an Intertubes darling for his macabre ABC book, the Gashlycrumb Tinies.

But he wasn’t the first to pen such nasty little rhymes as

A is for Amy who fell down the stairs,
B is for Basil assaulted by bears.
C is for Clara who wasted away,
D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh.

And Jocelyn Henry Clive Graham probably wasn’t the first, either, but he certainly preceded Gorey and his tinies with his own strain of black humor. Witness:

In the drinking well
Which the plumber built her,
Aunt Eliza fell.
We must buy a filter.

Witness further:

Weep not for little Leonie,
Abducted by a French marquis.
Though loss of honor was a wrench,
Just think how it improved her French.

And finally:

Billy, in one of his nice new sashes,
Fell in the grate and was burnt to ashes.
Now, although the room grows chilly,
I haven’t the heart to poke up Billy.

And that’s only the surface of Graham’s odd little world, which belies the saintly look on his face.

His Little Willie rhymes are even worse:

Willie poisoned his father’s tea;
Father died in agony.
Mother came and look quite vexed:
“Really, Will,” she said, “what next?”

Willie fell down the elevator –
Wasn’t found till six days later.
Then the neighbors sniffed, “Gee whizz!
What a spoiled child Willie is!”

Little Willie on the track.
Heard the engines squeal.
Now the engine’s coming back;
They’re scraping Willie off the wheel.

Willie saw some dynamite,
Couldn’t understand it quite;
Curiosity never pays;
It rained Willie seven days.

And here’s his most succinct, and my favorite:

Little Willie;
Pair of skates;
Hole in the ice;
Golden gates.

Edward Gorey better put his runnin' pants on.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Good Committee Writing

Generally, I deplore writing by committee.

I don’t mind good collaboration, which you can see works wonderfully well in the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, and Disney’s Sherman Brothers:

And let’s face it – just about everything you read out there has been written by more than one person, for every writer has an editor guiding the way. It’s easy to pick out, for example, where JK Rowling’s editors stepped in to guide her in her earlier books, though she found her own way afterward. JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis shared their works with each other and with others, seeking and getting plenty of input. I’m seeking input on my own writing (though, it seems, so is everyone else).

So it’s with this kind of baggage that I approach Jack Alan, an amalgam of Jack Goodman and Alan Green, both advertising men, who worked together on a series of humorous pieces that skewered the popular How-To books of their era.

They echo their skewering of the genre in the short piece “From Pillar to Post,” in which Jack Alan describes the early days of owning a Great Dane. Here, they describe what happens when Jack is called on to punish the misbehaving pup:

I now change my approach, deciding to try the Great Big Playmate tactic. Crouching on all fours, I advance on him, barking several times with mock ferocity. He decides to humor me by pretending he thinks I'm a huge, dangerous dog. With a happy yelp, he flashes around a chair and dashes upon me from behind. Since he weighs roughly eighty-two pounds at the moment, I am now flat on the floor with him on top of me. He wants to pretend he is shaking me by the neck. This is too difficult unless he actually does shake me by the back of the neck. So he does.

I get up and brush myself off. I brush him off me, too, several times. I have now succeeded in gaining his confidence and showing him that I am a regular fellow who doesn't mind a good, clean romp, so I am through. But he isn't. He likes it too well to quit. He gets my tie in his teeth and hangs from it. It is some time before I get my breath.

He still refuses to stop. It is therefore time for me to Punish Him. I decide to lock him in the bathroom. This consists of the following steps:

1. He instantly senses my purpose and scrambles into the bedroom under the bed.
2. I rush after him and say, “Come out from under there this minute!”
3. He doesn't.
4. I get down on the floor and look under the bed. We face each other silently for a moment, each trying to outstare the other. I blink, which gives him the round.
5. I mutter several dire threats. So does he.
6. I hold out my handkerchief, hoping he will grab it and pull, thereby enabling me to drag him out.
7. He grabs it and pulls.
8. We are now both under the bed.
9. I seize him firmly and wriggle out.
10. A head bumps severely against the box spring. It is not his.
11. I shove and pull him into the bathroom and back out, closing the door.
12. I stop closing the door to avoid catching his nose in it.
13. I shove him back and close the door, catching my hand in it.
14. We both howl simultaneously.

Returning to the living room, tired but victorious (look up Pyrrhic in any good encyclopedia), I now proceed to describe my dog to you. He is still a puppy, seven months old. He is a good dog to have for a case history because, although a thoroughbred, he has a character which is practically a cross section of that of America's dogs.

Full text of their funny tale is found here.

Here, Jack Alan shows the secret of committee writing: The whole is better than the sum of its parts. While the writers may work together on ideas and word choice, they keep in mind that the end goal is a good, readable story, not that they win every argument.

Now maybe I’m reading these two wrong. Some teams have an idea man and a writer. Others do a bit of both. I’m putting on rose-tinted glasses here, imagining how the process works. However they do it, those pulling Jack Alan’s strings do it well.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Half of Gilbert and Sullivan

I never knew much of W. S. Gilbert – half of the famed Gilbert and Sullivan – outside of this:

Which we’ve seen on this blog before.

But Louis Untermeyer opened my eyes a bit, especially with this Gilbert quotation:

When I was a lad I served a term
As office boy to an attorney’s firm.
I cleaned the windows and I swept the floor,
And I polished up the handle of the big front door.

A bit which any student of Chuck Jones will immediately recognize from this (starts at about 4:50):

But my favorite has to be Gilbert’s “Etiquette,” a comic tale of two souls on a desert island who don’t interact or share the food they find because they haven’t been properly introduced.

How they wished an introduction to each other they had had
When on board The Ballyshannon! And it drove them nearly mad
To think how very friendly with each other they might get,
If it wasn't for the arbitrary rule of etiquette!

One day, when out a-hunting for the mus ridiculus,
GRAY overheard his fellow-man soliloquising thus:
"I wonder how the playmates of my youth are getting on,

These simple words made PETER as delighted as could be,
Old chummies at the Charterhouse were ROBINSON and he!
He walked straight up to SOMERS, then he turned extremely red,
Hesitated, hummed and hawed a bit, then cleared his throat, and said:

"I beg your pardon--pray forgive me if I seem too bold,
But you have breathed a name I knew familiarly of old.
You spoke aloud of ROBINSON — I happened to be by--
You know him?" "Yes, extremely well." "Allow me — so do I!"

It was enough: they felt they could more sociably get on,
For (ah, the magic of the fact!) they each knew ROBINSON!
And MR. SOMERS' turtle was at PETER'S service quite,
And MR. SOMERS punished PETER'S oyster-beds all night.

Of course, they have a falling out over this very mutual acquaintance, as when a prison ship arrives, they think they are saved until they see the poor Mr. Robinson at the oars, punished for seven years for “misappropriating stock.” They reject their rescue and remain on the island, hostile towards one another for each knowing such a blackguard as Robinson. Full text of the poem is here.

I admire Gilbert’s erudite rhyming and tight poetic structure. It's highly recitable, easy to memorize -- as long as you're not stumbling over the big words -- and tells a good story.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Master Thespian

When I was at the University of Idaho earning my bachelor's degree, the wife of a friend convinced me to participate in a community production of "Beauty and the Beast of Loreland." She had a particular part in mind for me and sought to take advantage of my tremendous bulk to play the part of the jailer, who was supposed to be a menacing, if only briefly seen, minor character in the Beast's household.

As the friend's wife was the director, she directed us. The direction I heard most often was this: "You're supposed to be a jailer, yet you're walking like a ballerina. I want to see some stomping."

So I stomped with wanton abandon and had to be told to draw it in.

That was my first and last experience with community theater, though I had a narrow escape shortly after I got married and my wife got sucked into a production of "The Good, the Bad, and the Broccoli."

So I understand how Wolcott Gibbs felt as he retold the tale of his first appearance in a play as a very young man playing Puck in William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." He got directions from the director as well:

Our director was a man who had strong opinions about how Shakespeare should be played, and Puck was one of his favorite characters. It was his theory that Puck, being "the incarnation of mischief," never ought to be still a minute, so I had been coached to bound onto the stage, and once there to dance up and down, cocking my head and waving my arms.

"I want you to be a little whirlwind," the man said.

However, the director neglected to remember that Puck's costume included a large number of bells. Wolcott goes on:

To a blind man, it must have sounded as thought I had recklessly decided to accompany myself on a xylophone. A maturer actor would probably have made up his mind that an emergency existed, and abandoned his gestures as impracticable under the circumstances. I was thirteen, and incapable of innovations. I had been told by responsible authorities that gestures went with this part, and I continue to make them. I also continued to ring -- a silvery music, festive and horrible.

Oh, Wolcott knows kids, at least the kind of milquetoast kid I was: I, too, remember countless times being told to do something and doing it, even though the results weren't as expected. I was also incapable of innovation.

The bells went on to cause mayhem, as they distracted the other actors:

All this had a very bad effect on the fairy, who by this time had many symptoms of a complete nervous colapse. However, he began his next speech:

"Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call'd Robin Goodfellow: are you not he
That . . .

At this point I forgot that the rules had been changed and I was supposed to leave out the gestures. There was a furious jingling, and the fairy gulped.

"Are you not he that, that . . . "

He looked miserably at the wings, and the director supplied the next line, but the tumult was too much for him. The unhappy child simply shook his head.

"Say anything!" shouted the director desperately. "Anything at all!"

The fairy only shut his eyes and shuddered.

"All right!" shouted the director desperately. "All right, Puck. You begin your next speech."

By some miracle, I actually did remember my next lines, and had opened my mouth to begin on them when suddenly the fairy spoke. His voice was a high, thin monotone, and there seemed to be madness in it, but it was perfectly clear.

"Fourscore and seven years ago," he began, "our father brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived. . . "

He said it right through to the end, and it was certainly the most successful speech ever made on any stage. I don't remember if I over knew, how the rest of us ever picked up the dull, normal thread of the play after that extraordinary performance, but we must have, because I know it went on. I only remember that in the next intermission the director cut off my bells with his penknife, and after that things quieted down and got dull.

Oh yeah. I can see that happening. That's exactly why I stay out of the theater. And it's the kind of acting brilliance that Master Thespian would appreciate. Probably something along the lines of this: