LULA AND CHRISTY GO TO TAMPA
An Uber Adventure
By Shaun Costello
Friday afternoon began without any surprises. I headed for my car carrying a bag of garbage to take to the community compactor, and a grocery list for the day’s shopping. When I got behind the wheel, I tapped the Uber App on my smart phone, which would connect me, through the GPS system, with Uber’s network. I had been driving an Uber cab for about two weeks, and was anxious to get some trips because last week I had gotten no fares at all. After dropping off the trash, I got back in my car to the sound of Uber’s trip signal. On the phone’s screen a circle was flashing on the GPS map, and my little Samsung Galaxy was beeping its heart out. A trip – just what I needed. Normally, the screen on the Uber App would provide the address and name of the passenger, the destination and the distance. But my screen was too dark to see any detail in daylight. Uber’s software was not yet fully engaged. So I let the voice on Uber’s navigation system guide me to my passenger. The Uber software is pretty glitchy, and seldom works as advertised, and Uber’s tech support is defensive and relatively unhelpful. As an Uber driver you’re pretty much on your own to wrangle your way through Uber’s software jungle, and somehow make it work.
The navigator’s voice guided me over the Peace River Bridge to downtown Punta Gorda, and a few quick turns took me to the front of one of the town’s waterfront hotels. I parked under the hotel’s portico and waited. No one approached the car, and the navigator’s voice kept squawking about another left turn and one hundred feet to the destination. I slowly made my way around the parking lot, and, sure enough, there was a second entrance. As I came to a stop, my phone’s screen lit up and told me I had arrived, but there was still no passenger’s name or destination provided. Not that I cared. I had a fare, and like Travis Bickle, I was prepared to take them wherever they wanted to go.
There was a substantial pile of luggage outside the door to the hotel. Four large hard bags, with handles and wheels, and several smaller bags, including several plastic shopping bags which were overflowing with contents. Standing behind the pile of luggage were two thin women, I would guess to be in their mid-forties, puffing on cigarettes and intensly babbling at each other. I got out of my car and asked them if they had ordered an Uber cab. The luggage might mean an airport run, which meant fifty bucks in my pocket, so I’m sure I had a smile on my face. At first they were a bit baffled by the car and the luggage, and how to fit all this into my little Honda Civic, and they shuffled their feet a bit, and puffed on their cigarettes. As we began to stuff my little trunk with their baggage, I asked if they were headed to the Airport. ‘No honey”, said the taller of the two in a seriously southern accent , “We’re goin’ to Tampa. A long trip today, sugar.” Tampa – that was over a hundred miles north, good news for this eager Uber driver.
After packing my little Honda’s trunk to its absolute limit, and the girls agreeing without complaint, to not smoke in my car, they crammed themselves and their overflowing shopping bags into the back seat, as I wiped the Uber App’s ‘Begin the Trip” bar to officially start the journey. They would introduce themselves as Lula and Christy. Two southern babes who had found themselves abandoned in Punta Gorda, Florida.
As we made our way toward I75 for the trip north to Tampa, they began to tell me their story, which, of course, was obvious from the get go. Lula, the taller and older of the two was from Memphis, and young Christy was from Biloxi Mississippi. Lula said she used Uber cabs all the time because she traveled so much, but she was vague about the nature of her travels. Christy seemed to be along for the ride. It seems they met this guy, which is, of course, how all stories like this one begin. They met him in an airport, although it was difficult from their babbling to understand where exactly, in the terminal cocktail lounge, waiting for a flight to Orlando. The guy bought them drinks, and after a while, began to persuade them to skip Orlando and come with him to Punta Gorda. “Orlando’s for losers”, he told them. “Come with me. My car’s in the lot at the Fort Myers airport. We’ll fly there and I’ll drive you to Punta Gorda.” He told them he would put them up in the best hotel in town and rent them a car. They would have the time of their lives. He would pay for everything. After several drinks, their Punta Gorda adventure began sounding more and more appealing. So, they changed their flight, and joined their new and generous friend on his journey to Fort Myers.
The whole business began to unravel as they checked in to the hotel in Punta Gorda. It seems that their new friend’s credit cards were maxed out. He told them that it was no problem. He had other cards at home and he would bring them over in the morning to pay for their room and take care of that rental car he had promised them. Although they were not specific about what took place in their hotel room that night, I think it’s safe to assume that a menage et troix of some kind was the order of the evening. They awoke with hangovers, their new friend long gone, having made his escape during the night. When they attempted to call him they found that his cell phone was out of order. He had never mentioned his last name. They had no way to find him. So, here they were – a couple of southern babes with serious hangovers, out two hundred bucks for the hotel room, in a strange little town about a million miles from nowhere. Lula had been to Tampa several times and liked it. She told her hungover companion that they would go to a waterfront hotel she knew in Tampa, and just try to forget the whole unpleasant episode. How would they get there? Lula had an Uber account.
Enter yours truly, dear reader, now on I75, headed north with a packed car, and two hungover and frisky women, who had decided to forget their misfortune and seize the day. We had barely put ten miles on the odometer before two fleshy objects revealed themselves on the arm rest between the two front seats – Two bare feet, containing ten toes, and two toe rings. Lula, who was sitting behind me, had placed her right foot on the arm rest, along with Christy’s left. I have to admit that they were attractive feet, and to thinking that this was the most promising Friday I had spent in a while. After a moment or two of silent anticipation, Lula pleasantly demanded to know which of the two feet were sexier. Was I being tested? Seduced? What exactly was happening here?
“C’mon now, honey. Who’s got better feet? You know you’re gonna like one more than the other. I think mine are pretty sexy, but if you like Christy’s, I’m OK with that. C’mon honey, you pick ‘em.”
The ten toes seemed engaged in some kind of choreographed wiggle routine, perhaps to help me decide. Was there a candid camera hidden somewhere in their luggage? All I knew is that I was up a hundred bucks for the long distance Uber trip, and presently engaged in an outrageous flirtation with two whacky women who had been abandoned in my neighborhood. I tried, of course to be “Solomon-like” in making any comparison. I told the girls that each foot had a different shape and that both were attractive in different ways. I said that I found both feet to be appealing, and that, if I came upon either of them in the course of an evening’s activities, that I would certainly create an inventive and satisfying use for them. Silence now. No response from the girls until I heard Christy telling Lula no to Patty Cakes.
“I don’t want to play Patty cakes.”
“C’mon now Christy honey, you know you want to.”
“No I don’t. No Patty cakes”
“Yesterday you played. You said you loved playing Patty Cakes.”
“No, I don’t want to. You can’t make me.”
“Suit yourself, Chisty honey, but you know you want to.”
During the Patty Cake exchange, the two bare feet disappeared from comparative consideration, my carefully crafted comparison evidently ignored. But the inquisition continued. Inquiring minds wanted to know.
It was Christy this time. “What do you think makes me horny, honey?”
The acoustics in my Honda favored road noise over back seat dialogue, so Chisty’s question seemed muffled, and my response was idiotic. “Christy, you want to know what I think makes you a horny honey?”
“No, no, no….You’re the honey – I’m just horny. I asked you, ‘What do you think makes me horny, honey?’ So, what do you think? C’mon now, guess.”
Were they just messing with me? I wasn’t sure. This was now far outside my very limited Uber experience..
“Christy, I don’t know you well enough to know what makes you horny. I know that you have an attractive left foot, and that some guy played some havoc with you both. That’s about all I know.”
“Drinkin’. Drinkin’ makes me horny as hell. The more I drink the hornier I get. You like drinkin’?”
“Sure, I mean, I guess.”
“I bet I could drink you under the table.”
“I’m sure you could, Christy. At my age, I don’t really do much high-volume drinking anymore. I’m too old for that kind of thing.”
“Nonsense. You’re not old at all. Younger men are stupid. I can’t tolerate ‘em. I like older men. Wisdom comes with age, don’t you know that? Hey, what sign are you, anyway?”
This conversation peaked with the foot comparisons, and had gone steadily downhill since the introduction of the Patty Cakes. “Capricorn, Christy. I’m a Capricorn.”
“Capricorn. That’s the goat. I like that. You know, I’ve learned a lot from hangin’ with older men. Older guys know stuff. Older guys have taught me everything I know about sex. And I know a shit-load about sex, I’ll tell you. A mega shit-load. “
Lula chimed in. “She sure does. Knows everything there is to know. Christy’s a fuckin’ encyclopedia, pardon my French, in the sex department.”
Was there a hidden microphone recording all of this? Adjectivally speaking, ‘hoodwinked’ would best describe how I felt at this moment. This couldn’t really be happening, could it? We were approaching the Sunshine Bridge on I75 and there was a scenic rest stop on the water, so I exited the highway, and pulled into the parking lot. I told the girls I was giving them a bathroom and cigarette break, and they squealed with delight. They needed the trunk opened so that they could rearrange some of their luggage, and for the next half hour, all of their bags were taken out of the trunk, and emptied on the pavement. They seemed to be taking the contents of each bag and placing it in the bag next to it, which had been emptied for this purpose, the contents now spread all over the ground. They sat in the midst of this mini-mountain of their possessions, babbling incomprehensibly, and passing cell phones back and forth. Christy had two, and Lula three, and they began to send text messages to unsuspecting recipients. The babbling had stopped now, and their thumbs were ablaze, texting away – using all five cell phones at once – passing them back and forth in an orgy of tele-communication.
If I were a normal taxi driver, I think I would be concerned at this point. Had these two escaped from psychiatric incarceration somewhere? Did they really have the money to pay for this very expensive ride? But with Uber, the minute a customer requests a ride, a hold is put on their credit card for the approximate amount of the fare. There was no way that I was not getting paid for this adventure. But this was time consuming, and I had to crack the whip. I told them that if a state trooper came by, we might get a ticket for littering, and to please get all of this stuff back in the trunk. They reacted surprisingly well, like naughty children who knew they had overreached, and began to fill the trunk with their newly rearranged possessions. We had now been in this parking lot for an hour, and neither Lula nor Christy had peed or had a cigarette. It was time to do both and get on with the trip.
I took advantage of the girls’ bathroom visit by activating the navigation system on the Uber App, which immediately lit up and started squawking directions. I now knew that I was getting paid for this bizarre endeavor, and I had directions to our destination, which made me feel better, since the girls were vague about knowing how to get where they were going. As we began to ascend the towering Sunshine Bridge, Christy spoke up mournfully, “When my Mama drew her last breath, a tear trickled down her cheek, like to break my heart right then and there.” Well, this was certainly a conversational game changer. Not to be outdone in the ‘last breath’ department, Lula answered, “When my Gramma drew her last breath, it was so soft you could barely hear it, I loved my Gramma.” Without skipping a beat, Christy responded, “When my Papa drew his last breath, it sounded like the last note in a sad song.”
Lula was now fully engaged. “When my Uncle Abner drew his last breath, it was as crackly as could be. Sounded like a chain saw.”
“Last breaths can’t be crackly, Lula. The good Lord made last breaths to be soft and soothing, like angel’s feathers.”
“You never met Uncle Abner. Every time that man opened his mouth it sounded like a chain saw. Like to drive Aunt Esther to drink. Not that she needed much help.”
The ‘last breath’ competition continued for a few more minutes, before the girls remembered that I was in the car. At least Christy remembered.
“Hey there, you don’t have to go back tonight , do you? I got plans for you, mister. I’m gonna drink you under the table. Hey, you’re not married or nothin’, are you?”
I told Christy I was divorced and she squealed, “Eeeeeeehaaaa…..I bet you’re not as innocent as you look. I bet you’re a guy who’s constantly on the prowl, lookin’ to meet up with someone just like me. Aint that true? C’mon, fess up, you’re a horny bugger, aint you? I’m gonna drink your cute little ass right under that table. Then we’ll see what’s what. I don’t take no for an answer, do I, Lula?”
“Nope, she sure don’t. You’ll be stayin’ with us tonight. We’ll get a room, and when the fun starts, the sky’s the limit.”
For purpose of disclosure, I have to admit to being both amused and tempted when those two feet suddenly and playfully appeared on the arm rest. But now, that seemed so long ago. I did not feel that these girls put me in danger in any way, but we were now three and a half hours into this trip, with at least another half hour to our destination, and there was the return trip to consider. Spending the night in a hotel room with Lula and Christy was not on my bucket list. I did not say no, however. I thought it prudent to play them along, and wait for the right moment to make a graceful exit.
We were now in bumper to bumper rush hour traffic, and the navigation system’s voice was giving me different directions than Lula, who had told me she had stayed in this hotel several times. She said that she might have given Uber the wrong street address. Uber’s navigation system was extremely precise, and if she address had been off by a single digit in the street number, the directions to the address would differ substantially. Lula had said turn right when Uber said left, and since she had been there before I followed Lula. We made a few more turns until we would up in a parking lot a few hundred yards from the hotel. Lula said to stop here. That someone was meeting them here, and they would decide on where to stay when he arrived. This was a new wrinkle in their story. Someone was meeting them. The Uber App was telling me that we were 300 feet from our destination, and until that destination was reached, the trip could not be concluded, which meant of course, that I would not be paid. I had to get these girls out of my car, and their ton of luggage out of my trunk as gently as possible, and drive that 300 feet.
Lula and Christy were now sitting on the pavement next to my car, all five cell phones actively engaged in another texting orgy. I mentioned to Lula that she should call her friend rather than texting him, since he was obviously on his way, and driving a car. Christy responded that Lula didn’t talk on phones, she only texted. My Samsung kept squawking about the 300 feet to the destination, and I tried, as gently as possible, to explain that if my car did not travel the 300 feet, that Uber would not pay me. They responded well to this information, and began removing bags from the trunk, while continuing to text to God only knows whom. But as the bags were placed on the pavement, their contents began being switched, just as they had at the rest stop. Distracted by their texting, the girls were removing half the contents of the bags, leaving the stuff strewn all over the pavement. This is where Lula had said that her friend was meeting them – right here in this parking lot.
Just as they had done at the rest stop, Lula and Christy were now sitting in the midst of a mountain of clothes, various and sundry bathroom items, and odd electronic devices, texting away on all five cell phones. I announced that I was going to drive that final three hundred feet to complete the trip, so that I would be paid. They grunted a vague acknowledgement, but pretty much ignored me. So that’s where I left them, in the middle of a now-trashed parking lot, sitting on the pavement in the midst of all their worldly possessions, texting their hearts out, seemingly unaware of my leaving, or of anything else for that matter. As I got back in my car, they didn’t look up. I watched them in the rear view mirror as I drove away, hoping that they might wave, but they were in another world entirely, and quite oblivious to mine.
By the time I reached home, eight hours had elapsed since my smart phone lit up with the Tampa trip. As a purely business venture I consider these eight hours to be badly invested. The hundred and twenty miles to Tampa was a paid trip, but the hundred and twenty mile return was not. Two hundred and forty miles on my car, a lot of gas, and eight hours of my life that I’ll never get back. But everything you do in life is not measured in dollars and cents. I will be paid $99. for the trip, which is hardly enough. But the eight hours I spent in the deliciously insane company of Lula and Christy will linger in my psyche for quite some time. Was anything they told me true? I really can’t say. Were they simply toying with me? I just don’t know. But those wiggling toes, the “Last Breath” stories, “I’m gonna drink you under the table”, “C’mon, fess up – you’re a horny bugger, aint you? “The sky’s the limit.” The texting orgies. These are moments I won’t soon forget.
And where do you suppose they are now? Did their friend ever show up? Are they still sitting in that parking lot? Did some wayward cop cite them for littering, or even vagrancy? Are they attempting to explain themselves to the psychiatrist assigned to their case? Who knows. I like to think that girls like Lula and Christy just keep on keepin’ on. That, even in the midst of their apparent confusion and seemingly irrational behavior, they somehow triumph. That there will always be some guy who has a scheme that isn’t true, who will persuade them to change their plans, and follow him to paradise. That they will wind up abandoned once again in a strange hotel that they were forced to pay for. And that they will need to leave that strange hotel, and go somewhere familiar to recuperate and regroup. And how will they get there? Well, after all, Lula has an Uber Account.
© 2016 Shaun Costello
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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 10,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 17 years to get that many views.
A TALE OF TWO MOVIES
Two films I recently saw that were shot on shoestring budgets, and that took two very different paths in story telling. One I liked, and one, well………………
By Shaun Costello
Greg Harrison 2004
This low budget indie made quite a splash at the 2004 Sundance Festival, and was well received the following year at the Festivals in LA and Seattle. Considering its budget, November is visually dazzling, but there’s much less here than meets the eye. When a director on a low budget film decides to compensate for lack of funds with dizzying camera tricks, editorial gimmickry, and story telling razzle-dazzle, the result is usually disappointing, and lovely-to-look-at though it is, November is no exception. Who exactly died here? Did he die? Did she die? Did they both die? Do I really care?
This Lynchy, Shyamalanesque, neo-Roshomon attempt runs out of steam early on, and becomes unforgivably derivative and imitative. On the evening of November 7, photographer Sophie Jacobs (Courtney Cox, who does not change her facial expression once throughout the film) and her attorney boyfriend Hugh (James LeGros) go to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. As they travel home afterward, Sophie develops a craving for “something sweet” and stops their car at a convenience store. While Hugh is in the store buying some chocolate for Sophie, an armed man (Mathew Carey) arrives and holds up the store, shooting the store clerk, his son, and Hugh dead. He runs away as Sophie arrives.
Sophie sinks into a deep depression, and cannot bring herself to erase Hugh’s voice from their apartment’s answering machine. She consults her psychiatrist, Dr. Fayn (Nora Dunn), about persistent headaches that she has been suffering from since his death. She tells Dr. Fayn that the headaches started to occur before the incident at the convenience store, and that she had been having an affair with a co-worker, Jesse (Michael Ealy). After Hugh’s death Sophie has dinner with her mother, Carol Jacobs (AnneArcher), who accidentally knocks a glass over.
During a college photography class that she teaches, Sophie sets up a slide projector for the students to showcase their best photographs. One slide in the slide show depicts the exterior of the convenience store on the evening of November 7. Sophie contacts Officer Roberts (Nick Offerman), the head of the investigation into the shootings at the convenience store, who is as puzzled as she is as to who is responsible for the photos. Sophie’s headaches continue, and she begins to hear strange noises coming from within her apartment building and mysterious voices on the phone. Later, Officer Roberts discovers that the photo of the convenience store was paid for with Sophie’s credit card.
The film presents two more different versions of these events, and Sophie must figure out which is real before she loses grip on her sanity, and her life. The second version suggests that Sophie was present at the shootings and was only spared because the shooter ran out of bullets, and the third suggests both Sophie and Hugh were killed. In the words of Cox, her character “goes through three phases. First there’s denial. Then she feels guilty and sad about the situation. Then she has to learn to accept it.” According to Greg Harrison, the events in the film were Sophie’s memories as she and Hugh lay dying on the floor of the convenience store: “Each movement of this memory was her process of coming to terms with the terrible trauma, which was that she was killed for absolutely no reason, and it was some random act of violence she couldn’t confront”. He added he felt November was “open-ended” enough that he hoped viewers would “come up with the most beautiful stories themselves that are very different from how I saw it.”
Really, Greg? As each version of the story unfolds, the plot becomes almost laughably confusing, and ultimately unsatisfying. By the last shot, of the two lovers, hands extended toward one another in some cinematically sculpted mini-apocalypse, lying in pools of blood on the convenience store floor, I had long since stopped caring what had happened to whom, and why.
Oddly, I both liked and hated this movie, and am glad to have seen it, if for no other reason than Nancy Schreiber’s hypnotic visuals. Shot on mini DV at 24 FPS, the ‘look’ of November is worth the time spent watching it. If only Greg Harrison knew how to tell a story.
Nicole Holofcener 2010
I was hooked 15 seconds into the credits, which are supered over a montage of breasts being squeezed and flattened onto mammogram plates at a radiology center, scored to the Roches’ hilarious and wise song, “No Shoes”, with its litany of self-mocking complaints, “I had no shoes and I complained/Until I met a man who had no feet.” Please Give is a wonderful example of movie-making on a budget, without resorting to gimmickry.
The last words in “Please Give,” Nicole Holofcener’s latest comic drama of spiky manners, are “you’re welcome.” They’re uttered by Kate, a New York malcontent played with complex appeal by the wonderful actress Catherine Keener. Kate’s daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), a stridently truculent teenager, has in a rare instance of filial generosity just thanked her mother for agreeing to pay for a pricey pair of jeans. From the near-beatific look on Kate’s face, it seems that after struggling to make amends for some vague, unarticulated wrong — by doling out cash to homeless people, for instance — she has found her moment of grace.
Few American filmmakers create female characters as realistically funny, attractively imperfect and flat-out annoying as does Ms. Holofcener, whose features include “Friends With Money” and “Lovely & Amazing.” You may not love them, but you recognize their charms and frailties, their fears and hopes. They may remind you of your friends, your sisters or even yourself, which makes them attractive and sometimes off-putting, an unusual, complicated mix. We don’t necessarily or only go to the movies to see mirror versions of ourselves: we also want (or think we do) better, kinder, nobler, prettier and thinner images, idealized types and aspirational figures we can take pleasure in or laugh at in all their plastic unreality. The female characters in Ms. Holofcener’s films don’t live in those movies: they watch them.
“Please Give” involves a cluster of such women, including Kate and her only child, the 15-year-old Abby, and their irascible next-door neighbor, Andra (Ann Guilbert), a nonagenarian with two granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet). Kate and her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), expect to take over Andra’s apartment when she dies, a macabre objective that they compensate for with strained smiles and by running an occasional errand for her. Kate and Alex also own a store specializing in midcentury Modern furniture, lamps and the like, which they stock from the apartments of the dead. It stings when a customer calls them ambulance chasers, but there’s a touch of truth to that remark.
Given how unpleasant Andra is, you can almost understand Kate and Alex’s impatience, though I don’t think that is exactly what Ms. Holofcener had in mind when she gave her characters so many thorns. Kate and Alex want to expand their already spacious Upper West Side apartment, a desire that slightly embarrasses them and creates tension, particularly during a birthday party that Kate gives for Andra. Mary, who comes with so many spikes she could star in a “Hellraiser” sequel (as Mrs. Pinhead), and has had too much to drink (as is her habit), urges Kate to explain her renovation plans to everyone, Andra included. It’s an uncomfortable exchange, but like too many scenes, it also feels rigged for maximum outrage.
Most of Andra’s needs are met by Rebecca, who works as an X-ray technician taking mammograms. Ms. Holofcener doesn’t overdo the scenes of Rebecca tending to the patients, who might soon learn the worst. But the delicacy of Rebecca’s touch speaks a great deal about a woman who is also so depressed or repressed or something that she can’t even admit that she wants to see the leaves turn colors in the fall.
What’s eating Rebecca? What isn’t? Certainly she doesn’t have it easy. Her mother died when she and Mary were young, and their dad soon headed out the door. (Maybe he was running from Andra.) Having been raised by her grandmother, Rebecca now buys Andra’s groceries and doles out her medications, living with Mary in a dreary, sterile apartment where they eat microwave dinners and watch television amid sisterly sniping. A sloppy, mean drinker with a quiver full of insults, Mary works in a spa and spends far too much time browning in a tanning bed — she looks like a Creamsicle. Neither sister seems to have any outside friends or, initially, a love life, which strikes a false note until you get to know them.
Generationally, Abby, Mary and Andra embody the ages of woman — youth, adulthood and old age — a sort of variation on Gail Sheehy’s “Passages.” But because they’re so unmodulated, barely saying a kind word among them, they become tough to take. (Ms. Peet, nonetheless, keeps you watching and engaged.) The appeal of Ms. Holofcener’s films, which are visually unmemorable, rests almost entirely in her characters, so the lack of shading among these three throws the story off balance. Rebecca lacks a similar modulation until she meets a guy, Eugene (Thomas Ian Nicholas). Men might not make women happy here, but left to their own devices, women tend only to make one another unhappy.
The more you get to know these women, the less time you want to spend with them — they’re so full of complaint that it feels as if Ms. Holofcener were worried about making them false, turning them into movie characters. The exception is Kate, because she comes with the most dimensions and is played by Ms. Keener (a Holofcener veteran). No one in American movies does difficult women better than Ms. Keener, who’s fearless when it comes to nasty, cold roles, yet resists caricature. (At her most withering, she can recall George Sanders.) Her character in “Please Give” isn’t acerbic, but Kate has bite, along with a lot of underexamined — by her and by Ms. Holofcener — guilt, most of which appears to have something to do with being bourgeois.
Kate’s habit of giving money to homeless people, along with the film’s title, suggests the scope of Ms. Holofcener’s intentions. There’s so much hurt in the world, and Kate wants to help. But she’s a rotten volunteer, weepy and self-conscious, and she doesn’t seem to see the pain closer to home. She’s the definition of the guilty white (presumed) liberal and might have been a rich source of comedy and pathos. But only if we saw her working through her issues (and her narcissism) with more obvious intelligence and greater self-awareness, wrestling more thoughtfully with life the way that Ms. Holofcener herself has tried to do in this likable if frustrating film. Ms. Holofcener didn’t need to come up with answers for Kate — the ones in the movie are less than satisfying — but it would have been nice if she had let Kate ask some harder questions.
That said, I really liked this movie.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
Ten fantasy-driven films I saw on TV, while home from school, pretending to be sick in the fourth grade, that changed my life forever.
By Shaun Costello
My life-long love affair with motion pictures began, not in the cavernous movie palaces of New York City, although I regularly accompanied my parents, or my grandmother to see the latest offerings at Radio City Music Hall, The Roxy, The Loews State, and the Palace; but instead on the 15 inch screen of my family’s black and white Dumont television set, that occupied a place of honor in the finished basement of our house at 9 Elderberry Lane, in the suburban village of Valley Stream, about a 40 minute car ride to mid-town Manhattan. I was 9 years old and in the fourth grade at the local Catholic School, and for purposes of full disclosure, have to admit to taking full advantage of every trick imaginable in order to accrue more than my share of sick days, pretending to be at death’s door, in order to not be held accountable for homework not done, or book reports not finished, or maybe just giving in to chronic laziness in a Herculean attempt to keep my eyes glued to our television screen, without interruption, for, if possible, the entire day.
Daytime TV in the mid-Fifties offered a cornucopia of entertainment, beginning with NBC’c Today Show with Dave Garroway and his chimp Mr Muggs, followed by Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, featuring The McGuire Sisters, Julius LaRosa, and Hawaiian Hottie, Haleloke, who sang songs like ‘Lovely Hula Hands’. Then came a half hour watching Jack LaLane pumping iron and drinking carrot
juice, followed by an assortment of Game Shows and Soap Operas. The afternoon kicked off with Joe Franklin’s Memory Lane, which offered Franklin talking with people I’d never heard of and showing old shorts and Feature Films. There were two channels, WOR Channel Nine, and WPIX Channel Eleven that regularly showed old movies. Channel Eleven showed mostly Westerns – lots of Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix, Bob Steele, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, and Westerns were right up my alley, but Channel Nine showed a variety of movies, some of which got my attention, and had me clambering for more. Movies about the supernatural which included ghosts, goblins, fairy tale characters, outrageous swindles, outlandish inventions, mermaids, men who could walk through walls, statues that came to life when you kissed them; genies, giants, magic carpet rides, magicians, and friendly spirits who could appear and disappear at will. I was hooked. I was mesmerized. I couldn’t get enough of this newly discovered form of entertainment.
The purpose of this list, dear reader, is to share ten of these gloriously outlandish movies with you. Ten preposterously unearthly and undignified examples of fantasy cinema, that thrilled me beyond my wildest expectation, and changed my life forever. Of course, you might excuse my reaction to these movies by suggesting that I was nine years old, but here we are, a half century later, and I can still hear that haunting musical score, the sound of singing, the kind of singing that only comes from out near Key Ora, as Mr. Peabody rows his boat through that thick fog bank, following the song, and searching for his mermaid.
So, in alphabetical order:
BABES IN TOYLAND
1934 Charles Rogers and Gus Meins
Based on Victor Herbert’s popular 1903 Operetta of the same name, Babes in Toyland was later released under the titles ‘March of the Wooden Soldiers’, and ‘Wooden Soldiers’.
This is a delightfully silly fantasy amalgam of Fairy Tale characters with Laurel and Hardy at its center as Stanley Dum and Ollie Dee. The film’s story takes place in the fictional Kingdom of Toyland, inhabited by Mother Goose, Tom-Tom Piper, Mother Peep and Bo Peep, Stan and Ollie’s boss the Toymaker, and the evil Silas Barnaby, who holds Toyland in a constant threat of siege from his henchmen, the Bogey Men, who lurk just outside the gates of the city. Stan and Ollie live in a shoe, with “The Old Woman”, who turns out to be Mother Peep, her daughter Bo Peep, a mouse that is actually played by a monkey in costume, and so many children she didn’t know what to do. The mortgage on The Shoe is owned by the villainous Silas Barnaby, who has his eyes on the lovely Bo Peep. Stan and Ollie try to borrow enough money to pay off the mortgage from their boss the Toymaker, but the normally kindly gentleman is furious at our boys for mixing up an order from Santa Claus, and building one hundred Toy Soldiers six feet tall, rather that what Santa really wanted – six hundred Toy Soldiers one foot tall, so he fires them. With Stan and Ollie unemployed, and The Shoe in foreclosure, Barnaby’s got his clutches into Bo Peep, and the horrible Bogey Men are breaking down the gate to the city. All seems lost, until Stan comes up with the solution. “The Soldiers, the Toy Soldiers”, so our heroes wind up their army of one hundred six foot tall Toy Saviors, Victor Herbert’s March music begins to swell, and Toyland is saved in the nick of time.
Directed by Gus Meins and Charles Rogers (whoever they are), Produced by Hal Roach, and released through MGM. Silly, delicious fluff that I must have seen 20 times down through the years. I can still hear that ‘March Music’.
THE BARON OF ARIZONA
1950 Sam Fuller
How can a person own a whole state? That’s the question I asked myself when I first saw this Hollywood ‘land-grab’ fantasy. But the fact is, it turns out to be based on a true story, as preposterous as that might seem, and not really a fantasy at all. It’s based on the story of master forger James Reavis, who, in the late Nineteenth Century, almost got away with taking over the entire State of Arizona, forging documents claiming that the area then called Arizona had been granted to his family by the King of Spain, centuries earlier. The U.S. government recognized land grants made when the West was under Spanish rule. This inspired James Reavis to forge a chain of historical evidence that made a foundling girl the Baroness of Arizona. Reavis married the girl and pressed his claim to the entire Arizona territory. And he almost gets away with it. Makes you wonder where John McCain would be today, had this delightful bit of mischief actually succeeded. The real James Reavis (1843 – 1914) was found guilty of creating forged documents, paid a fine of five thousand dollars, and spent two year in jail.
A nice turn here by Vincent Price, as the adventurous forger, and Ellen Drew as the foundling child, who almost became the Baroness of Arizona. Solid direction by war film maven Sam Fuller, and stunning, as usual, black and white lensing by the inimitable James Wong Howe. An aside – Ed Wood does a turn here as a stunt double.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
1951 Brian Desmond Hurst
The one and only. So many movies have been produced from Dickens’ classic story (even my own), but this Alistair Sim version still holds up as the all-time champ. A wonderful story, simply told, with a bumbling, befuddled, and delighted Sim at its core. The word “humbug”, forever connected to this story and with the Scrooge character, is misunderstood by many people, which is a pity since the word provides a key insight into Scrooge’s hatred of Christmas. The word “humbug” actually describes deceitful efforts to fool people by pretending to a fake loftiness or false sincerity. So when Scrooge calls Christmas a humbug, he is claiming that people are only pretending to be charitable and kind in a scandalous effort to delude him, each other, and themselves. In Scrooge’s eyes, he is the one man honest enough to admit that no one really cares about anyone else, so for him, every wish for a Merry Christmas is one more deceitful effort to
fool him and take advantage of his good nature. This is a man who has turned to profit because he honestly believes everyone else will someday betray him or abandon him the moment he stoops to trust them.
At least, this is what he thought before that fateful Christmas Eve, when the spirit of his long-dead partner, Jacob Marley, made his ghostly appearance at Scrooge’s bedside, foretelling of the coming of three apparitions that would all appear to Scrooge that very night, in the hope of saving his soul. At the age of nine, I hadn’t read the Dickens book, and was unaware of the story, and this movie scared the bejesus out of me. Although this film is carefully directed, beautifully shot and art-directed, and a typically solid early-Fifties British Production, it’s Alistair Sim’s delicious performance, as the transformed miser, that drives the bus here.
Beyond Sim, there’s Mervyn Johns and Hermione Baddelee as the Cratchits, Michael Hordern as Marley’s ghost, George Cole as a hopeful but broken-hearted young Ebenezer Scrooge, and Glyn Dearman as Tiny Tim, who has the last word, “God bless us, everyone”.
THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR
1947 Joe Mankiewicz
In early 1900s England, a young widow, Lucy Muir (a devastatingly beautiful Gene Tierney), moves to the seaside village of Whitecliff and into Gull Cottage with her daughter Anna (Natalie Wood)) and her maid Martha (Edna Best), despite
the fierce disapproval of her mother, and sister-in-law. She rents the house despite discovering that it’s haunted. On the first night in her new digs, she is visited by the ghostly apparition of the former owner, a roguish sea captain named Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), who reluctantly promises to make himself known only to her; Anna is too young for ghosts. When Lucy’s source of investment income dries up, he dictates to her his memoirs, entitled Blood and Swash. His racy recollections make the book a bestseller, allowing Lucy to stay in the house. During the course of writing the book, they fall in love, but as both realize it is a hopeless situation, Daniel tells her she should find a real (live) man.
When she visits the publisher in London she becomes attracted to suave Miles Fairley (George Sanders), a writer of children’s stories known as “Uncle Neddy” who helps her obtain an interview. Despite a rocky beginning, the publisher agrees to publish the captain’s book. Fairley follows her back to Whitecliff and begins a whirlwind courtship. Captain Gregg, initially jealous of their relationship, decides finally to disappear and cease being an obstacle to her happiness. He ends their relationship and convinces her that his ghostly apparitions were only a dream. Shortly thereafter, while visiting her publisher in London (the book has become a bestseller), Lucy pays a surprise visit to Fairley’s home and discovers that, not only is Miles already married with two children, but that this sort of thing has happened before with other women. Lucy leaves heartbroken and returns to spend the rest of her life as a single woman in Gull Cottage with Martha to look after her.
About ten years later, Anna (Vanessa Brown) returns to the cottage with her Navy Lieutenant fiancée and tells her mother that she knew about Captain Gregg and Miles Fairley all the time, rekindling faint memories in her mother of the captain (we also learn that Miles Fairley has become fat and bald and that his wife and children finally left him).
After a long peaceful life spent at the cottage, Lucy dies. This being a movie, Captain Gregg appears before her at the moment of her death – reaching out, he lifts her young spirit free of her old dead body. The two walk out of the front door arm in arm, into the mist. Two spooks in love, and together at long last.
This movie hooked me from the very first moments, and kept my nine year-old eyes glued to that screen. Nicely directed by Joe Mankiewicz, and released by Twentieth Century Fox and Darryl Zanuck. I could spend my whole life in Gull Cottage by the sea, listening to Bernard Herrman’s fabulous music, and playing bridge with ghostly apparitions. I’m just saying………………….
THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT
1951 Alexander Mackendrick
A delightful satirical comedy from England’s ever-fabulous Ealing Studios, who brought us The Lavender Hill Mob, and The Lady Killers. It followed a consistent Ealing theme of the common man (Alec Guiness) against the establishment (everyone else). Sidney Stratton, a brilliant young research chemist and former Cambridge scholarship recipient, has been dismissed from jobs at several textile mills because of his demands for expensive facilities and his obsession to invent a long-lasting fiber. While working as a research chemist at the Birnley Mill, his daily toil accompanied by the constant, almost musical sound of bubbling liquids, he accidently invents an incredibly strong fiber which repels dirt and never wears out. From this fabric, a suit is made – which is brilliant white because it cannot absorb dye, and slightly luminous because it includes radioactive elements.
Stratton is lauded as a genius until both management and the trade unions realize the consequence of his invention – once consumers have purchased enough cloth, demand will drop precipitously and put the textile industry out of business. The managers try to trick Stratton into signing away the rights to his invention but he refuses. Managers and workers each try to lock him up, but he escapes.
The climax sees Stratton running through the streets at night in his glowing white suit, pursued by both the managers and the employees. As the crowd advances, his suit begins to fall apart as the chemical structure of the fiber breaks down with time. The mob, realizing the flaw in the process, rip pieces off his suit in evil triumph, until he is left standing in his underwear. Only Daphne Birnley, the mill-owner’s daughter, and Bertha, a Mill laborer, have sympathy for his disappointment.
The next day, Stratton is dismissed from his job. Departing, he consults his chemistry notes, and slowly, an expression of revelation overcomes him, as we hear that sound of those bubbling liquids once more. “I see!”, exclaims young Stratton. And off he goes, with another outlandish invention in his crosshairs.
As a nine year-old, what I liked most was that the white suit glowed in the dark. Guiness, as usual, is a delight, as is Joan Greenwood – she of the voice like tinkling crystal. Early, and solid black and white lensing by British cinematographer Doug Slocombe. You might find a dvd of this at your local library – mine has all the Ealing classics. Grab it, if you can.
MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID
1948 Irving Pichel
This one absolutely knocked me out. It was my first exposure to the idea that Mermaids were a possibility. This fish fantasy stars William Powell as Arthur Peabody, who is undergoing a mid-life crisis as he approaches his 50th birthday. Much of the story is shown in flashback as Peabody tells his skeptical doctor a fish tale for the ages.
Peabody had gone on vacation with his wife Polly (Irene Hervey) to a sea side resort in Bermuda. One evening, he hears singing coming from the distant Key Ora, singing, the likes of which he’s never heard before. He asks s few of the locals, and some of them have heard it too, but long ago. So, our song-smitten hero decides to do a little fishing. To his surprise, he reels in a beautiful mermaid played by Ann Blyth. He names her Lenore (shades of Poe here), and although mute, Lenore is mischievous and childlike and not just a little bit alluring – so much so that before long Peabody has taught her the art of kissing. She shows him an extraordinarily beautiful comb, made from a shell, that she wears in her hair. He hides Lenore by letting her soak in a suds-filled bathtub, then later in the resort’s fish pond. But confusion ensues as his wife thinks he has a big fish in their bathtub and later suspects him of infidelity with Cathy Livingston (Andrea King), a vacationing singer. Things get even more complicated when, after an angry Polly returns home without Peabody, police suspect him of her murder. But they’re British Police (hey, it’s Bermuda), after all, and it would be uncivilized to arrest a man in his home, even if it’s a rental.
And Peabody hears that singing again, out from somewhere near Key Ora. Out in that thick fog bank. And off he goes in his little boat, searching for the lost Lenore. A wave capsizes his craft, and while trying to survive under the water, he see’s and reaches for Lenore’s beautiful comb.
We dissolve here, ending the fishy-flashback, to his shrink’s office, back in Boston. He’s told his story to a doubting psychiatrist, who knows a mid-life crisis when he see’s one. But wait – Peabody’s got something in his hand. Something he’s been holding all the while he’s been telling his tale. “What’s that”, asks his shrink. “Oh nothing”, say’s Peabody. “Just a comb I found somewhere”. “How extraordinary”, say’s the Doctor, “I’ve never seen anything quite like it before”. And we begin to hear that singing again, like the kind of singing that only comes from that thick fog bank, somewhere out near Key Ora.
Well, this being my first mermaid experience, I was just as smitten as poor Peabody – smitten, but combless.
1951 Jean Boyer
This one also knocked me for a loop. In Paris, a simple civil servant named Léon, who has the unusual ability to walk through walls (who cares why – he can really do this), falls madly in love with a hotel thief by the name of Susan. He poses as Garou-Garou, a dangerous gangster to attempt to woo her affections, but is mistakenly arrested and sent to jail. While incarcerated, he annoys the guards by walking in and out of his cell, right through the bars, and the cell walls. It’s a bizarre, modern/fantasy/adventure/ romance. It’s boy meets girl with an walk-through twist. Leon’s friends suggest he use his odd ability to become the criminal of the century, walking through bank vaults and off with the loot. But, Leon instead, see’s his strange gift as a way to help Susan, who is being blackmailed. A very moralistic tale – love triumphs over crime. The film stars Bourvil, as Leon, who up until this effort, had been a semi-successful French lounge singer and comedian; and the delightful Joan Greenwood (that voice again) as Susan the Cat Burglar. Fantasizing about having Leon’s abilities took up a great deal of my young life. The possibilities were endless. Unlike other films on this list, I confess to only having seen this that one time, on my family’s black and white Dumont, but I never forgot this delightful French fantasy. I know it’s a one trick pony – but what a trick.
ONE TOUCH OF VENUS
1948 William A. Seiter
Kiss a statue, and it turns into Ava Gardner? Yikes! Since I’ve turned parts of this Blog into a my own private confessional, I might just as well go on record here, as having laid the smooch on countless pieces of marble and granite, in a futile attempt to recreate the aforementioned morphing, after seeing this movie, at the tender age of nine, in the confines of my basement. I even talked my puzzled parents into a trip to the Metropolitan Museum so that I could sneak up on renowned statuary and, when no one was looking, do some furtive fondling. The idea of possessing my very own Ava Gardner overwhelmed me, and probably was the beginning of my inability, throughout my life, to nurture and maintain a lengthy and lasting relationship with a member of the opposite sex. I was looking for a statue, instead. But, before I rant on about one of my favorite fantafilms, let me give you some of the surprising background for this production from Universal’s fluff department.
One Touch of Venus was a Broadway musical with the score written by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash, and book by S. J. Perelman and Nash, based on the novella The Tinted Venus by Thomas Anstey Guthrie, and very loosely spoofing the Pygmalion myth. The show satirized contemporary American suburban values, artistic fads and romantic and sexual mores. Weill had been in America for ten years by the time he wrote this musical, and his music, though retaining his early haunting power, had evolved into a very different Broadway style.
The original Broadway production opened at the Imperial Theatre on October 7, 1943 and closed on February 10, 1945 after 567 performances. The original production was directed by Elia Kazan and featured choreography by Agnes de Mille. It starred Mary Martin, Kenny Baker and Paula Laurence. Marlene Dietrich reportedly backed out of the title role during rehearsals, calling it “too sexy and profane”, which gave Martin the opportunity to establish herself as a Broadway star. The show was made into the 1948 film, directed by William A. Seiter and starring Ava Gardner and Robert Walker. The movie version omitted much of the Broadway score and received poor reviews.
OK, enough surprising background. Let’s get back to kissing a statue and getting Eva Gardner in the bargain. Wealthy department-store mogul Whitfield Savory II (Tom Conway) buys a statue of Venus for $200,000. He plans to exhibit it in the store.
Eddie Hatch (Robert Walker), a window dresser, kisses the statue on a whim. To his shock, Venus comes to life as Eva Gardner. She leaves the store and Eddie is accused of stealing the work of art.
Nobody believes the truth, including secretary Molly Stewart (the one and only Eve Arden), who is Savory’s right-hand woman, and Kerrigan (James Flavin), a detective. Venus turns up at Eddie’s apartment, forcing him to hide her from girlfriend Gloria and roommate Joe.
Entranced by Venus’s song of love, Joe falls for Eddie’s girl Gloria. At the store, meanwhile, Venus has fallen asleep on a sofa and is discovered there by Whitfield, who is instantly smitten.
Kerrigan decides it’s time for Eddie to be placed under arrest for the statue’s theft. Venus, to save Eddie, is willing to seduce Whitfield, but a threat by Molly to leave him brings Whitfield back to his senses. He realizes it’s Molly he truly loves. Aw Geeze.
Venus is called home by Jupiter and must return to Mount Olympus, so she returns to her pedestal. Whitfield can now display his work of art to the public. Eddie is the only one left alone, at least until he meets a new salesgirl who is, I’ll bet you knew this was coming, a dead ringer for the goddess of love.
I’ve spent my life trying to turn marble into flesh, only to find that the opposite usually happens.
THIEF OF BAGDAD
1940 Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, and Tim Whelan
A fantasy for all seasons! Years ahead of its time, in special effects, cinematography, and directorial vision, this movie, maybe more than any other, just plain blew my sox off. When the giant genie, all 100 feet of him, lowers his hand, allowing Sabu to climb aboard, and then flips the little fellow up onto his shoulder, telling him to take hold of the long pig tail, and with Sabu holding on for dear life, and an echoing, thunderous laughter, the Genie takes flight, I just stood up and started screaming…..screaming! I couldn’t contain my joy.
OK, I’ll calm down now, enough to explain the story. Ahmad (John Justin), the naive King of Bagdad, is convinced by the evil Grand Vizier, Jaffar (Conrad Veidt), to go out into the city disguised as a poor man to get to know his subjects (in the manner of his grandfather Harun al-Rashid). Jaffar then has Ahmad thrown into a dungeon, where he is joined by Abu the thief (Sabu), son of Abu the thief, grandson of Abu the thief. Abu arranges their escape.
They flee to Basra, where Ahmad becomes acquainted with its Princess (June Duprez). However, Jaffar also journeys to Basra, for he desires the Princess. Her father, the Sultan (Miles Malleson), is fascinated by the magical mechanical flying horse Jaffar offers and agrees to the proposed marriage. Upon hearing the news, the Princess, by now deeply in love with Ahmad, runs away. Confronted by Ahmad, Jaffar magically blinds him and turns Abu into a dog; the spell can only be broken if Jaffar holds the Princess in his arms.
The Princess is eventually captured (but not recognized) and sold in the slave market. She is bought secretly by Jaffar and taken to his mansion, but falls into a deep sleep from which he cannot rouse her. Ahmad is tricked by Jaffar’s servant Halima (Mary Morris) into awaking the Princess. Halima then lures the Princess onto Jaffar’s ship by telling her that there is a doctor aboard who can cure Ahmad’s blindness. The ship immediately sets sail. Jaffar informs the Princess about the spell; she allows herself to be embraced, whereupon Ahmad’s sight is restored and Abu is returned to human form. They chase after the ship in a small boat, but Jaffar conjures up a storm to shipwreck them.
Abu wakes up alone on a deserted beach and finds a bottle. When he opens it, an enormous djinn or genie (Rex Ingram) appears. Embittered by his long imprisonment, the genie informs Abu that he is going to kill his rescuer, but Abu tricks him back into the bottle. The genie then offers to grant Abu three wishes if he will let him out again. The hungry boy uses his first wish to ask for sausages. When Abu demands to know where Ahmad is, the genie flies Abu to the top of the highest mountain in the world. On it sits a temple, and in the temple there is an enormous statue with a large jewel, the All-Seeing Eye, set in its forehead. The genie tells Abu that the Eye will show him where to find Ahmad. Abu fights off a giant guardian spider while climbing the statue and steals the gem.
The genie then takes Abu to Ahmad. When Ahmad asks to see the Princess, Abu has him gaze into the All-Seeing Eye. Ahmad despairs when he sees Jaffar arranging for the Princess to inhale the fragrance of the Blue Rose of Forgetfulness, which makes her forget her love. In agony, Ahmad lashes out at Abu for showing him the scene. During the ensuing argument, Abu unthinkingly wishes Ahmad to Baghdad. The genie, freed after granting the last wish, departs, leaving Abu alone in the wilderness.
Ahmad appears in Jaffar’s castle and is quickly captured, but seeing him restores the Princess’s memory. The furious usurper sentences them both to death. Abu, unable to watch his friend’s impending doom, shatters the All-Seeing Eye and as a result is transported to the “land of legend,” where he is greeted by the Old King (Morton Selten) and thanked for freeing the inhabitants, who had been turned to stone. As a reward, he is given a magic crossbow and is named the king’s successor. However, in order to save Ahmad, he steals the king’s magic flying carpet and rushes to the rescue.
Abu’s marvelous aerial arrival (which fulfills a prophecy often cited in the course of the story) sparks a revolt against Jaffar. Abu kills the fleeing Jaffar with his crossbow, and Ahmad regains his kingdom and his love. However, when Abu hears (with growing alarm) Ahmad tell the people of his plan to send him to school to train to become his new Grand Vizier, Abu flies away on the carpet to find his own fun and adventure.
Did you get all that? Just checking. And every frame is gorgeous and thrilling. Nominated for four Oscars, it won three: Best Cinematography, Special Effects, and Art Direction. Shooting began in England, but with the outbreak of WWII, the picture was finished in Hollywood. Produced by Alexander Korda, it took three directors to make this happen; Michael Powell (later to dazzle with The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and many more), Ludwig Berger, and Tim Whelan. Absolutely dazzling, from beginning to end.
1937 Norman McLeod
Well, we’ve come down to it – ghosts, fun loving, hard drinking, practical joking ghosts. Appearing and disappearing at will. What could be better? Those funloving Kerbys, George (Cary Grant) and Marion (Constance Bennett), stockholders in the bank of which henpecked, stuffy Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) is president, drive recklessly once too often and become ghosts. In limbo because they’ve never done either good or bad deeds, they decide to try a good one now; rehabilitating Topper. Lovely, flirtatious Marion takes a keen personal interest in the job. Will Topper survive the wrath of jealous ghost George? Will Mrs. Topper (Billie Burke) find that a scandalous husband isn’t all bad?
“Topper”, a delightful and original film directed by Norman Z McLeod, should be on everybody’s ‘must see’ list. It is one of the best films Hollywood produced, at the height of the madcap comedy craze of the thirties. Just to watch Roland Young, Constance Bennett and Cary Grant in the same film is pretty delicious.
Constance Bennett and Cary Grant made a fabulous couple. Ms. Bennett had the uncanny gift of blending with all her leading men well. She was a charming actress with such a sense of style and an amazing figure to boot that made her an irresistible presence on the screen. Cary Grant is also seen at his best in the film as the carefree and fun loving George Kerby.
But it’s Roland Young who steals the show! He plays the staid banker Cosmo Topper, who is all business until he starts being made the object of the Kerby’s antics. Cosmo Topper’s wife is the incomparable Billie Burke, the Queen of Ditz.
Produced (uncredited, for some reason) by Hal Roach, shot by Norbert Brodine, and music by Marvin Hatley, Topper, referred to as ‘Toppie’ by Ms Bennett, makes me happy every time I see it. Delicious fluff!
© 2011 Shaun Costello
THE TEN BEST PRIVATE EYE MOVIES
Ten rainy day whodunits that have stood the test of time.
By Shaun Costello
Just exactly who was the best cinematic Private Eye, anyway? For my money, Phillip Marlowe is tough to beat, even though he was beaten up fairly often, staggering to his feet after being cold-cocked with a heavy object (usually a gun butt) held in the hand of a beguiling femme fatale who had gotten the drop on him. Marlowe leads the chase in three of the titles I’m listing here, and is played by three different actors. Two of these films were adapted from the same book, Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely. The first, Murder My Sweet (1944) was renamed as box office strategy, which I suppose worked, to a degree. And, the 1975 remake with the original Farewell My Lovely title intact. The third Marlowe caper, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, had maybe the greatest writing team ever assembled, even though the audience had a tough time figuring out what, in God’s name, this movie was about. Sam Spade, a Dashiell Hammett creation, and a Marlowe contemporary is of course, the chief sleuth in The Maltese Falcon, which has Bogie and Huston and the fabulous Warner Bothers repertory company, and lines like, “You’re good. You’re very good”.
But, what about Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles and their clue-finding pup Asta, Mike Hammer, Jake Gittes – snappy snoops all; tough, relentless, with a curiosity that won’t quit. These guys will stop at nothing in getting to the bottom of things, sorting out the details, finding out exactly who killed whom, and why.
In alphabetical order:
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Alfred L. Werker 1939
The best of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Holmes/Watson capers, from Fox and Darryl Zanuck. Holmes and Watson again do battle with that criminal genius, Professor Moriarty, nicely played here by George Zucco. And, this one’s got the fabulous Ida Lupino to add a bit of heat.
Moriarty has a plan to make off with the Crown Jewels, but Holmes stands in his way. Juicy Holmesian dialogue like:
Holmes, “You’ve a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I’d like to present it pickled in alcohol to the London Medical Society.”
Moriarty, “That would make an interesting exhibit. Holmes, you’ve only now barely missed sending me to the gallows. You’re the one man in England clever enough to defeat me. The situation has become impossible.”
Holmes, “Have you any suggestions?”
Moriarty, “I’m going to break you Holmes. I’m going to bring off right under your nose the most incredible crime of the century, and you’ll never suspect it until it’s too late. That will be the end of you Mr. Sherlock Holmes. And when I’ve beaten and ruined you then I can retire in peace. I’d like to retire; crime no longer amuses me. I’d like to devote my remaining years to abstract science.”
Crafty direction by Alfred Werker, and a solid screenplay by Edwin Blum and William Drake. And, lovely black and white cinematography by Leon Shamroy.
The Big Sleep
Howard Hawks 1946
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe finds himself in a nest of vipers, as usual, in this brilliant, if a bit confusing, film noir. Howard Hawks, probably Hollywood’s best dialogue director, has
a field day, juggling juicy lingo penned by an incredible writing team that included William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, and Hawks himself. The problem is, the story makes no sense. But, who cares, with Bogie as Marlowe, and Betty Bacall as a devious femme fatale. The now-famous jockey/horse-Bogie/Betty scene, filled with hilarious sexual innuendo, was added to the troubled production over a year later to spice things up. A solid cast, including a surprisingly sprite Dorothy Malone, makes this movie work, even if you may have trouble understanding what’s going on. Nice black and white lensing by Sidney Hickox, and a haunting, if sometimes abrupt, musical score by Max Steiner. I’ve seen this picture an embarrassing number of times, but for you, once should be enough – but see it!
Best scene: Bogie and Malone in the book store.
Roman Polanski 1974
“C’mon Jake, it’s Chinatown”, pleads Gittes’s friend, attempting to drag him away from the horrific car scene at the very end of the film. “Chinatown” means what you think, but it’s also an old expression meaning crazy, upside-down, or meshuganah – something best left alone. This is may be the best period film ever
made, and Polanski does it without the usual cheap tricks like historical references. He does it instead, with a fabulous cast, John Alonzo’s scorched cinematography, Jerry Goldsmith’s luscious score, Anthea Sylbert’s glamorous costumes, and Robert Towne’s Oscar winning screenplay. It’s all about water – Los Angeles doesn’t have any. And the Hollis Mulwray character is based on William Mulholland, the brilliant head of LA’s water department, who turned this parched patch of Southern California into the metropolis it was to become.
Jack Nicholson, as Jake Gittes, a private eye who makes a living on matrimonial cases, is sucked into a noirish whirlpool, where virtually nothing is as it seems. Polanski does a masterful job of slowing down Nicholson’s usually manic delivery, turning the performance into something more sensual and cunning. Faye Dunawaye is elegantly deceitful, and Polanski himself, plays a murderous knife wielding midget. But it’s John Huston’s Noah Cross that steals the show.
One of my all-time fave films. If anyone reading this hasn’t seen it, you’ll probably find a disc at your local library. Delicious sleuthing.
Best scene: Anything with John Huston, and “My sister – my daughter, my sister-my daughter, my sister AND my daughter.”
Farewell My Lovely
Dick Richards 1975
This is the third and, in my opinion, best movie made from Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel. As I’ve previously stated, Philip Marlowe is my favorite Private Eye and, although Bogie was near-perfect in The Big Sleep, Robert Mitchum is even better, as a big, hulking Marlowe, who seems constantly recovering from a whack on the noggin, or the woozy effect of the knock-out drops that some swell dame slipped in his drink. Unlike Polanski’s Chinatown, director Dick Richards uses the historical reference of Joe Dimaggio’s 57 game hitting streak throughout the movie to maintain a feel for 1940 period. OK, so it’s a gimmick, but a forgivable one – it works. Come to think of it, just about everything in this movie works. Great Chandler narration like, “I’d hardly reached the corner, when a hand so big I could of sat in it, landed on my shoulder”. Besides a wonderfully effective Mitchum, Charlotte Rampling provides the heat in a cast rounded out by John Ireland and Sylvia Miles. There’s even a quick glimpse of Sly Stallone in one of his first movie roles. Dark and sultry lensing, once again by John Alonzo, and a delicious musical score by David Shire make this recreation of 1940 Los Angeles believable. If you can find a DVD of this – pounce.
Kiss Me Deadly
Robert Aldrich 1955
No more Mr. Nice Guy – not with Mickey Spillane’s brutal, tough, take-no-prisoners Mike Hammer on the case, and in this case, the case is a box – Pandora’s Box, filled with nuclear material ready to go off. Ah, the Fifties, when every right-thinking American had the A-Bomb on his mind, 24 hours a day. An apocalyptic murder mystery? You bet, and Mike Hammer’s the right guy to put the pieces together. A nice turn here by Ralph Meeker, as the Private Eye with an attitude problem. And the movie debuts of Cloris Leachman, and Maxine Cooper
On a lonely country road, Hammer gives a ride to Christina (Cloris Leachman), an attractive hitchhiker wearing nothing but a trench coat. She has escaped from a nearby mental institution. Thugs waylay them and Hammer awakens in some unknown location where he hears Christina screaming and being tortured to death. The thugs then push Hammer’s car off a cliff with Christina’s body and an unconscious Hammer inside. Hammer next awakens in a hospital with Velda (Maxine Copper) at his bedside. He decides to pursue the case, both for vengeance and because, “She (Christina) must be connected with something big”.
“The great whatsit”, as Velda calls it, at the center of Hammer’s quest, is a small, mysterious valise that is hot to the touch and contains a dangerous, glowing substance. It represents, of course, the 1950s Cold War fear and nuclear paranoia about the atomic bomb that was all the rage back then.
A dark, noirish nightmare, deftly handled by director Aldrich. Murky, night time Los Angeles locations, made to shine by cinematographer Ernst Laszlo. This is a low budget ($400,000), no nonsense, first rate film noir, with a game cast, and a savvy director. A film not to miss.
Otto Preminger 1944
OK, I know, I know – it’s not a private eye movie, it’s a cop caper, but it’s Laura, the one and only, and this is MY list so it’s just tough. We have to get past this. Good.
A detective (Dana Andrews) investigating the grisly murder of a famous actress (Gene Tierney) falls in love with her painting. The more he hears about her, the deeper his spell. (I’d do the same thing if that music followed me around all the time) Everyone Andrews interviews seem to be in love with her too. Venomous gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) seems to be the late Laura’s biggest booster. Her grief stricken fiancé Shelby (Vincent Price) is beside himself. Just who would kill such a beloved creature? Just when the audience settles in to accepting lovely Laura’s demise, plot twist of plot twists, the door to her apartment opens, and in walks, you guessed it, Laura, live and lovelier than ever. Andrews, who had fallen asleep on the couch under Laura’s portrait, is awaked to find his obsession, alive and kicking, and wondering what this stranger is doing in her apartment. As Andrews adjusts to this new situation, he finds the living Laura to be everything he’d hoped. But, who was the disfigured corpse, who everyone mistook for Laura? It turns out that Lydecker’s obsession with our leading lady got the better of him. If he couldn’t have her, he’d kill her instead. But he shot the wrong woman, and she was too disfigured to identify, so everyone assumed it was Laura’s body. A living Laura is just too much for Lydecker to accept, so he tries once again to kill her. Andrews intercedes, shooting the murderous Lydecker in the knick of time. As Waldo lies dying on Laura’s carpet, and of course under the portrait, his last words are, “Goodbye. Laura. Goodbye, my love.”
It sounds pretty silly, but it works. Tierney is simply too beautiful to believe, and a game cast does wonders with this material. But, maybe the most important element, the glue that binds this classic together, is David Raskin’s haunting, memorable musical score – one of the real champs. I wonder what happened to the portrait?
The Maltese Falcon
John Huston 1941
This 1941 Warner Brothers release is the third movie version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel. The first, released in 1931, starred Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, while the second, Satan Met a Lady, was a loose adaptation that was a bit more comedic. It was released in 1936, with Warren William, and a very young Bette Davis in the leading roles. Warner Brothers had been prevented from re-releasing the 1931 version by the Hays Office censors, because of its “lewd” content, so they went into production in 1941, on a new, cleaned up version, which is the beauty we all know and love.
First-time director John Huston wanted Bogie to play Sam Spade, but producer Hal Wallis wanted veteran leading man George Raft, who rejected it because he didn’t want to work with a first-time director. Raft also turned down the lead in Raoul Walsh’s “High Sierra”, the film that launched Bogie’s career as a leading man.
So, is The Maltese Falcon the ultimate private eye caper? You be the judge, but if it’s not, then it’s certainly close. Warner’s had the best ensemble of character actors in Hollywood, and most of them strut their stuff here. Beyond Bogey and Mary Astor, there’s Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Sidney Greenstreet as Gutman, Barton MacClane and Ward Bond as Spade’s detective buddies, and Lee Patrick as Effie, who Spade addresses as “Precious” and “Darlin”. Huston even hired his father Walter, to play the ship’s Captain.
Whose got the bird, is the game played here. What exactly IS this Maltese Falcon, anyway? And why is it worth so many murders? Astor wants it, Greenstreet wants it, Lorre wants it, and the body count is mounting. Juicy, nest of vipers stuff here, and Huston is up to the task of getting the most out of this remarkable cast. A solid, tangy screenplay, written by the first-time director, nice dark lensing by Arthur Edeson, and a warm musical score by Arthur Deutsch. A bird for all seasons.
“You’re good. You’re very good”, say’s Bogie to Astor, and who among us could argue?
Murder, My Sweet
Edward Dmytryk 1944
This is the second movie made from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely novel, and has a very different feel from the 1975, and third remake, above. The powers that be at RKO thought that changing the title to Murder, My Sweet would add some zip the film’s box office. Who knows, but the film did well.
Casting crooner Dick Powell in the Marlowe role was a gamble, but he’s an effective, if different gumshoe. With a small budget to work with, and 1944’s censorship problems to overcome, Dmytryk does an admirable job creating a dark, violent world for Marlowe and his cronies to inhabit. Nice turns by Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, and Otto Kruger. And, solid black and white camerawork by Harry Wild, plus a low-key musical score by Roy Webb rounds out the production. Powell is surprising here, and worth a look. Like Alec Guinness as George Smiley, when I read Chandler, I hear Mitchum’s voice, but Powell gives us an alternative.
Murder on the Orient Express
Sidney Lumet 1974
Agatha Chistie had been quite displeased with some film adaptations of her works made in the 1960s, and accordingly, was unwilling to sell any more film rights. When Nat Cohen, chairman of EMI Films, and producer John Brabourne attempted to get her approval for this film, they felt it necessary to have Lord Mountbatten of Burma (of the British Royal Family and also Brabourne’s father-in-law) help them broach the subject.
In the end, according to Christie’s husband Max Mallowan, “Agatha herself has always been allergic to the adaptation of her books by the cinema, but was persuaded to give a rather grudging appreciation to this one.” Christie’s biographer, Gwen Robyns, quoted her as saying, “It was well made except for one mistake. It was Albert Finney, as my detective Hercule Poirot. I wrote that he had the finest moustache in England — and he didn’t in the film. I thought that a pity — why shouldn’t he?”
Hey, Finney’s waxed lip-rug worked for me, but so did everything else in this dazzling film. I’m not the biggest fan of star vehicles, but Sidney Lumet somehow coaxed, cajoled, persuaded, and probably black-mailed this extraordinary ensemble of show business luminaries into one remarkable performance after another. Finney is a fastidious, almost effeminate Poirot, surrounded by a passenger list that includes (I’m going to name them all because it’s just such an amazing group) Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Michael York, Vanessa Redgrave, Jacqueline Bisset, Richard Widmark, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Rachel Roberts, Wendy Hiller, Denis Quilley, Colin Blakely, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and George Coulouris. And, their performances are all uniquely effective, and totally entertaining.
A complex Agatha Christie mystery, in the hands of a neurotic, self-involved detective, on the world’s greatest train, with a trainload of odd characters as suspects. Top notch lensing here by the masterful Geoffrey Unsworth, a lovely, waltzy score by Richard Rodney Bennett, and Lumet’s crafty direction make this memorable.
A throaty Finney, “Touch notheeeeeeng”
John Gielgud as a British valet, “It all started in a fracas in the mess, over a desert called “Spotted Dick”
Igrid Bergman as a Swedish missionary to Africa, “I vont to, um, help little brown babies, who, um, are less fortunate than, um, myself”
The Thin Man
W. S. Van Dyke 1934
Dashiell Hammett’s crafty couple Nick and Nora Charles are on the case here, in the original of, what would become, a series of detective capers. They’ve even got a snoopy, clue-fetching dog, Asta – played by a wire haired fox terrier named Skippy. Nick (William Powell), a retired detective, and his wife Nora (Myrna Loy) are attempting to settle in to retirement when the disappearance of a friend pulls him back into professional snooping. Nick decides he’ll solve the case, much to the amusement of his socialite wife. The dead bodies, and empty martini glasses pile up, as an ever-tipsy Nick and Nora, endlessly clever banter at the ready, roll up their sleeves, along with their pup, and do some slippery sleuthing.
All of the suspects are invited to a hilarious dinner party, where Nick and Nora, in a series of brilliant, if tipsy, deductions, solve the mystery. Clever dialogue, written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, and deftly delivered by two pros, drives this unique, comedic mystery. Sparkling black and white lensing by James Wong Howe, and strong ensemble work by Metro’s talent pool make this a movie not to miss. Funny doings.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
She had breasts the size of basketballs.
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from my childhood memoir:
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
My new friend Jimmy’s family had recently moved to the Gardens from Brooklyn. His father was a famous theatrical photographer who took pictures of movie stars. They lived in an enormous Tudor house on Greenway South, one on the nicest streets in the Gardens where I began to spend a great deal of time. One day Jimmy asked me if I had ever touched a breast. Other than the pictures I saw of Eddie Mann’s mom, I had never even seen one. He told me that he had touched a breast, and if I was interested, he could arrange for me to touch one too. Jimmy had a neighbor named Salvatore, who lived just down the street, and Salvatore’s family had a black maid named Jessie who, for fifty cents would let you fondle her breasts for five minutes. “And they’re really big too”, Jimmy added. This was a shocking revelation. Breasts. Actual breasts. You could touch them and even kiss them, and all for fifty cents. I was nervous but game, and Jimmy made the arrangements.
“What do you do with them?”, I asked. “Anything you want”, said Jimmy. “But why do I want to touch them?” I’m nervous now. “Because they’re beasts, stupid”.
Salvatore lived in a big brick house just down the street from Jimmy. Jessie, the maid lived in a room over the garage, and Salvatore, with Dolphy Maggiore in tow, met us outside. We hid our bikes in the bushes behind the house. Salvatore was very concerned that everyone had their money in their hands because Jessie could get ornery and make a fuss. As Salvatore opened the outside door to the stairway that led to Jessie’s room there was a horrible smell, something I had never smelled before, and it became worse as we climbed the stairs. A smell of something burning. A pungent, rancid smell. Salvatore knocked on the door. “Who?”, came from the other side. “It’s me”, said Salvatore. “Well c’mon honey, I ain’t got all day”. The door opened, and inside, sitting in front of a large mirror, applying hot irons to straighten her hair, was the biggest, fattest black woman I had ever seen. She spoke to us through the mirror. “You chilluns got my jingle?” she asked. Salvatore made a gesture that suggested giving her the money, so we did. At this point she let the robe she was wearing slip to her waste revealing huge brown breasts the size of basketballs, to the amazement and delight of the white chilluns. “C’mon now, don’t be shy. You got five minutes. Love’m up. C’mon now, love’m up”. With hesitation, fearing the unknown but mesmerized by the possibilities, the little fingers of the white chilluns
reached for the huge, soft, brown basketballs, while Jessie applied the hot irons to her singed hair, creating an unbearable smell, and Symphony Sid’s radio theme song wafted through the smoke, and all I could think of was how I could tell this in confession on Saturday.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
IN SHERMAN’S GARAGE
She Looked So Peaceful
By Shaun Costello
Excerpted from the manuscript of my childhood memoir:
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
The Kew Forest School was located right on the border between the Forest Hills Gardens, and Kew Gardens, the next community to the East. Their student body was made up of a pretty even smattering of Protestants and Jews, with a few recovering Catholics thrown in for good measure. It was a small, secular, private school, attended by students from all over the borough of Queens. My friend Jimmy went there, and the Bullock twins, the Baxter brothers, Jeff McGann, Frank Sperandeo, and several other kids I knew from the Gardens. It was the kind of institution that was completely outside my experience. There was no hitting, no statues with internal organs showing, no threats, no Sousa marches, no praying, no music room/punishment chamber, and no promise of the eternal agony of roasting in the fires of hell for the egregious crime of talking on line. I don’t think they even had a line. A very mysterious place.
Knowing their route home from school, I would sometimes intercept Stuart and Stephen Bullock, and the three of us would cruise the Gardens on our bikes for a while before winding up at their house for a snack. I liked the Bullocks. They were my size, had the same coloring, were totally unchallenging, and were even worse at sports than I was. Sometimes it was comforting to wallow in the company of compatible mediocrity. My friend Jimmy, on the other hand, who was a constant mental challenge, was good at everything. He was the best natural athlete I had ever seen, the best tennis player his age in the borough. The first time he ever picked up a basketball in his life I saw him make six shots in a row from the foul line. Six shots. It took me a year of daily practice before I even came close to that. He was just better than I was at everything, and probably always would be. He was my best friend, but sometimes I needed a short respite from constantly coming in second, and the Bullock twins were just what the Doctor ordered. The boys were funny, their parents were welcoming and friendly, and the whole after school experience at their house was pretty positive. When it was time for me to return home, we said our good-byes, and made plans for a repeat performance the next day.
It was about a five-minute bike ride from their house to mine, and riding a bicycle around the Gardens was one of the best things about living there. There was very little traffic, and after a while you got to know most of the residents, so that people would wave to you as you cruised by. After collecting waves from Mrs. Watson, and Doctor Kauer, I passed by Sherman Becker’s house, and there was old Sherm, sitting on a bench next to his garage. The word on Sherman Becker was that he was some kind of genius. He went to a special school in Manhattan for kids with extremely high IQ’s and, although a bit strange, he was a nice enough kid to be around. Sometimes in the middle of a sentence Sherman would drift off to some place far away, and just stare at nothing that was visible to anyone else. I never saw it, but kids told me than Sherman had seizures, where his whole body would shake, and he would fall on the floor and try to swallow his tongue. He had an illness called Epilepsy, and had to take medication that sometimes made him moody. “Hey Sherm”, I yelled, as I cruised by, but he didn’t seem to notice me, and I continued on down the street. After a few blocks I stopped. Something was wrong. Sherman looked like he was doing one of his, “staring into oblivion” routines, and if his parents weren’t home maybe it was dangerous, so I turned abound and headed back to his house.
He was sitting on the bench next to his garage, and just staring into space. I had seen him do this many times and, sooner or later, he would just snap out of it. I tried talking with him, but got no response. Sherman was somewhere far away, and I’m sure he had no idea that I was even there. It was at this point that I became aware of a noise. A humming, mechanical sound, like a car motor, but very quiet, like it was far away. But it wasn’t far away. It was in Sherm’s garage, and with the doors closed you could hardly hear it. The Sisters had shown us safety films at school about the dangers of running a car inside a garage. There was some kind of gas that put you to sleep, and you never woke up. So the logical thing seemed to be for me to open the garage doors and somehow turn the car off. I opened both of the large front doors, and the smoke inside was a silvery color, and had a gasoline smell. There was a small back door to the building so I ran around and opened it, thinking that the breeze would blow the poisonous fumes from the garage.
I stood there, waiting for the fumes to clear so that I could somehow shut the car off, when I saw it. There was something or someone in the car, behind the steering wheel. I froze. As the breeze blew the silver smoke past me I could see that it was a person. All I knew was that I had to turn the car off, so I covered my nose and mouth and ran for the front door on the driver’s side. I opened the door to reach for the keys when I came face to face with Mrs. Becker. I gasped and flew backwards, crashing into the garage wall. My lungs were expanding and contracting with such force that I could hear my breath over the din of the motor, and I could barely see through the tears. I was violently crying, not from sadness, but from shock and fear. I had to turn that car off, no matter what, so I opened the door again and reached across Mrs. Becker’s lap and fumbled with key, which was on the right of the steering column. Doing this bought my face inches from hers, and my whole body was trembling so violently that I couldn’t seem to turn the key. But then I did, and the motor stopped, and I was still only inches from Mrs. Becker, and I could hear myself gasping for air. I wanted to say something to her. Maybe she was only asleep. She looked so peaceful. But my mouth wouldn’t move. The words wouldn’t come. Maybe she would open her eyes, and stretch her arms the way people do when they wake up, and look down at me and invite me to dinner. But she didn’t. She didn’t move. I realized that Sherm was still outside so I backed slowly out of the garage, never taking my eyes off Mrs. Becker.
Sherm hadn’t moved a muscle. His mind was occupying another world altogether, either because be was steeped in the denial of this horrible event, or because that’s just what his mind sometimes did. There was no 911 back in the fifties. Emergencies were reported to the telephone operator, who then forwarded the information to the appropriate authorities, so I dialed “O”. When she answered I said that my name was Sherman Becker, told her the address, and that there had been a terrible accident, and I hung up. Outside I tried to communicate with Sherm, but had no success. He had no idea that I was there. I had done what I could do. I had tuned off the motor, and reported the tragedy, and the best thing for me to do was to get out of there before the police came. No one would ever know that I had been there. They would simply assume that Sherman turned off the car motor, called the operator, and then flipped out, which was pretty understandable under the circumstances. I just didn’t want to be involved in this.
I raced toward home as fast my legs could peddle, but after a while I came to a stop, dropped my bike, sat down on the curb and started sobbing, completely overwhelmed by the events of the past few minutes. Or was it longer? I had lost track of time. My lungs seemed near exploding, my breath gushing in and out, wheezing like an asthmatic gasping for air. I had seen dead people before on Wayne Baxter’s cadaver tour, but this was different. I knew Mrs. Becker. She had always been nice to me, and now she was dead. She wanted to be dead so she closed her garage doors, slid behind the wheel, turned on the motor, fell asleep, and then died, just like in the safety film we saw in school. But she didn’t look dead. Not like the translucent cadavers at the Fox Funeral Home. She looked like she was asleep. She looked so peaceful.
© 2009 Shaun Costello
Drowning Satan with Holy Water-boarding
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from the manuscript of my childhood memoir;
“The Last Time I Saw Jesus”
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
Children, like sharks with blood in the water, or wild dogs who smell fear, can spot weakness a mile away, and will bide their time until the moment is right to pounce. Sister Lenore showed up one day at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, and became our teacher. She replaced Sister Saint Gerald, who was ill and had to be sent to convalesce wherever nuns went to do that sort of thing. Nuns never talked about themselves so, other than being our teachers, having incredibly clean fingernails, wearing rimless spectacles, enjoying hitting children with inanimate objects, and seldom smiling, we knew little about them. We knew that their order, The Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, came from Scranton Pennsylvania, but that’s all. I’m not even sure how we knew that, but somehow we did. So when Sister Lenore showed up that morning, the occasion was ripe for supposition.
Maybe she had been a missionary in darkest Africa, and was laid low with jungle fever, to be sent back to the States as a teacher. Maybe she toiled for many years in a convent dedicated to the glory of cleaning the toilets of the poor, and as a reward for always producing the cleanest bowl she was sent to our wonderful Parish. Maybe she worked as the personal assistant to the Pope himself, right there in Rome, but was caught with her fingers in the poor box, and was sent to teach at our school as punishment for her sins. We’d never really know for sure, but it was fun to pretend.
Anyway, here she was, so we’d just have to make the best of it. She seemed nice enough. Certainly nicer than that cranky Sister Saint Gerald, who was always coughing into a handkerchief, and swatting kids on the hands with rulers. She seemed friendly, eager to please, even helpful, but something was wrong. It was hard to put your finger on just what, but something was wrong with Sister Lenore.
The exorcisms began when, one morning, we found a Holy Water Fountain just inside the door to our classroom. Sister instructed us to dip our fingers in the sacred waters and cross ourselves before entering the classroom, a common practice when entering or leaving a church. She told us that little children have tiny demons inside them that cause bad behavior, and demons just could not abide the sacred, soul-cleansing waters. This level of demon control lasted for only a few weeks, before she began sprinkling Holy Water directly from a bottle onto the heads of the unruly little perps, whose behavioral irregularities were obviously a direct result of Satanic possession.
During playground conversations over the next few weeks among the core group of class troublemakers, of which I was certainly a part, we came to the conclusion that the woman was a fruitcake, and if pushed far enough, she was bound to crack. Since we knew that she was the only nun in the school who sprinkled water on misbehaving kids rather than swatting them with yardsticks, we figured it was safe to go on the attack.
So it began. Spitball wars, paper plane dog fights, strange messages from Satan that somehow wound up on the blackboard, demonic drawings left in her desk drawers, and the odd behavior of Jim Freeny, the class arch-criminal, whose whole body sometimes shook as a direct result of Satanic possession. For our new teacher, this was the beginning of the end. Sister would walk up and down the aisles spraying her students with Holy Water chanting, “You’re possessed, possessed by devils, possessed by Satan, possessed, possessed. It started as a muffled giggle, but Jim Freeny started laughing and couldn’t seem to stop. The more he laughed, the wetter he became, as sister had singled him out as Satan’s host. She kept dousing him with the sacred fluids, and the wetter he got the louder he laughed, and the more she kept screaming at the devil to leave this child, until finally, frustrated to a point of holy rage, she cold-cocked Freeny with the Holy Water bottle.
So, Sister Lenore stood above Jim Freeny’s unconscious form, now lying in the aisle next to his desk, as fifty-nine little mouths silently hung open, stunned at what they had just witnessed, and wondering what would happen next, and she began to scream. She screamed out the classroom door, and screamed down the stairwell, and screamed all the way back to the convent, intensely watched by fifty nine sets of little eyes pressed against the classroom windows. Freeny was taken to the hospital with a concussion, and never admitted whether he was really unconscious, or just pretending, a subject of discussion for years afterward. The next day someone saw Sister Lenore, suitcase in hand, being helped into a sedan with Pennsylvania license plates. She was never seen again. Maybe she should have stayed in Africa. Accidentally wondering into a pride of lions had to be safer than teaching fourth grade at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.
© 2009 Shaun Costello
THE THIRD HAND
by Shaun Costello
Excerpted from the “Seventies” manuscript:
Sex, Gangsters, and Deception in the time of ‘Groovy’
By the middle of 1974, my time was pretty evenly divided between CBS Sports, and Star Distributors, the porn unit of the Gambino Crime Family. Out in Hunterdon County, my girlfriend Jane had quickly outgrown my birthday gift to her the previous year, a little chestnut gelding called Applejack. She was an athletic and natural rider, and wound up buying an open jumper who nobody except Jane seemed able to ride. She called him Bojangles and did wonders with him. I tried riding him only once, and was so terrified by the experience that I almost quit riding altogether. I sold little Applejack to a local teenager, and started riding school horses during lessons, which never lasts long. Show Barns make their money on lessons and on selling expensive horses to horseless riding students like me. After a few weeks of taking lessons on their school horses the sales routine began. “Shaun, what can I say? You’ve outgrown the school horses, and if you’re really serious about riding then it’s time to find you a nice thoroughbred.” Essentially they were saying, “Either you’re going to own an expensive, fine tuned jumping machine, or you’re going to remain a horseless slob, looked down upon by all concerned.” So within a few weeks, not wanting to remain a horseless slob, I forked over the money for a stunning bay thoroughbred gelding who I called Dawn Patrol. The problem was that Dawn Patrol was a five year old and only a year off the track, so he was completely green. This meant that I could only ride him under professional supervision, which wound up costing quite a bit of money. If I wanted to go hacking with Jane off in the woods and fields I had to rent a school horse from the barn, while my difficult-to-ride thoroughbred remained in his stall eating me out of house and home. I was now in way over my head.
August passed into September, and my porn production output continued at a frantic pace while I still spent weekends trying not to look foolish attempting to ride my fine tuned jumping machine, and watching Jane tear over Jump courses on her
chestnut monster with the reckless abandon of the fine rider she had become. She had risen to a full level above me, but I was happy with our situation. My life seemed to work. I was maxed-out, but as long no surprises came my way I could manage this level of activity. It was at this point that my mother called to tell me she was getting re-married.
This matrimonial announcement immediately put Jane into wedding-present mode. So, with our gift perfectly wrapped, we jumped on the Metroliner and headed to Washington DC, where the event was to take place. Both the ceremony and the reception were to be held at the townhouse of Michael Gill, a close friend of my mother’s new victim, and a man who had made a
lifetime career out of being the nephew of Mamie Eisenhower. He was one of those Washington political parasites who lived on the perks when his party was in power. The republicans still held the Whitehouse so Michael Gill was on the dole. It was never made clear to me exactly what Gill did, but from the look of him, I was certain that not all of it was legal.
The ceremony was to be presided over by a Seventh Circuit Appellate Judge, and attended by a collection of Washington’s best and worst characters. My mother’s new husband had owned restaurants in the Washington area for years, and seemed well liked. Bob Dole was there, as was Dick Cheney, Ed Musky, and what seemed like every lobbyist in the capital.
On the other side of the reception was a delegation of boys from the Bonnano family in New York, some of whom looked familiar. What an amazing gathering. Some of them had gone to law school to learn how to defend criminals, and some of them had attended “The University of the Streets” to learn the subtle nuances of the import/export business, but all of them were gangsters. I hadn’t seen this many republicans in one room since the televised coverage of the 1972 Convention.
I introduced Jane to the happy couple, who really did seem like a happy couple, and who in turn, introduced us to our host. Michael Gill took Jane in tow, “Young lady, before the ceremony begins, let me introduce you to our guests”, and off they went. While Jane was glad-handing the guest list, I decided to explore Gill’s house. The main floor contained the cavernous living room, its walls decorated with many photographs of Ike and Mamie, and where the wedding guests were milling about. Just down the hall was an equally large formal dining room with more photographs of the Eisenhowers, a chefs kitchen where the caterers were busy
prepping the banquet, and various and sundry pantries and storage cabinets. The floors above contained bedroom after bedroom, each one with walls covered with more Ike and Mamie pictures, that seem to go on forever. Next to the kitchen was a door that led to the stairway to the basement. I decided that Gill’s basement might be worth exploring, and I was right.
Michael Gill’s secret subterranean playground was a wood paneled wonderland of adult entertainment. A screening room, with couches instead of chairs, where guests could watch adult films while stretching out together in total comfort. The next room was decorated in a kind of cruise ship motif, with port-holes painted on the walls, round life-preservers hanging everywhere, and deck chairs for the comfort of the ship’s passengers. In the
center of the room was the biggest hot tub I had ever seen, accommodating maybe ten to twelve wet revelers at one time. As in the previous room, there was a large movie screen, and through one of the port-holes I noticed an 16MM movie projector.
The shelves in the projection room contained 16MM prints of feature films, all pornographic. As I went through the titles I was horrified to find several little movies that I had made for Sid Levine the previous year, and I was in about half of them. So Michael Gill had seen me in action. But how could he have gotten his hands on theatrical films that I had made for the DeCavalcante crime family? Then I remembered the boys from the Bonnano family who were upstairs for the wedding. The wedding! I made a bee-line for the stairway and arrived just in time. Jane was furious whispering, “Where have you been? Everybody’s been waiting for you.” I just said, “Don’t ask.”
The ceremony passed without a hitch, my sisters cried, and the reception began. Michael Gill hadn’t taken his eyes off Jane since we arrived, and it was making her uncomfortable. Gill, who’s constantly filling my glass, was telling me a series of bizarre stories about the sexual capabilities of his insatiable, nymphomaniac girlfriend. She was a mousy little thing, who I’m sure no one at the reception suspected of having a third hand located in her vagina, yet Gill maintained that this was the case. Now I knew that he recognized me from the movies. Why else would he be constantly whispering in my ear about his girlfriend’s sexual exploits? If he knew, did his pal who was in the midst of marrying my mother also know? Did Cheney? Dole? Musky? Just how many members of the United States Senate had watched, in the comfy confines of Michael Gill’s underground pleasure chamber, the movies I had made for the Mob? Gill was still relentlessly whispering. “I guarantee you young man, the slippery grasp, the velvety fingers, your zorch will be the happiest little guy on planet Earth.” Zorch? I hadn’t heard that word since I was twelve. At this point Gill decided that I should meet his pal Dick Cheney who, for the past few months, had been running Gerry Ford’s transition team, working just under his buddy Don Rumsfeld. “Dick, I’d like you meet the bride’s son Shaun. He’s a film maker you know.” Cheney turned with an outstretched hand, “A real pleasure Shaun. They make quite a handsome couple. A film maker, huh. Not a member of the press are you?” “No sir, not at all.” Cheney was sizing me up. “What kind of films do you make?” He was peering at me over the top of his glasses. “Golf sir, my last film was about the British Open.” Cheney smiled, “Golf. That’s the ticket. The great American common denominator. Everybody loves golf. Did you know that President Ford is quite an accomplished golfer? Plays with the pros all the time.”
So here we were at my mother’s wedding reception. Michael Gill was standing between Bob Dole, who was endlessly telling great jokes, and Dick Cheney, who was explaining how his friend Gerry Ford would save the GOP from ruin; and in between Dole’s Jokes and Cheney’s explanations, Gill was whispering in my ear about how it would feel when his girlfriend got that third hand in her vagina around my zorch. The only improvement that I could see on the theatricality of this moment might be the addition of a little acid, but I guess you can’t have everything.
The reception began to wind down and, before I could tell Jane about Gill’s subterranean amusement park, he was already telling her about his new gazillion gallon hot tub which, he proudly told her, was big enough for the whole neighborhood. He was having an intimate get together after the reception ended. Just a few couples would be there. Fun, open-minded couples, and we were invited. How could I have been so stupid? Gill was selling me on the sexual talents of his mousy girlfriend, while my mother was saying “I do”, in order to get his hands on Jane. This was truly hilarious. So my mother and her new hubby went over Niagara Falls in a barrel, and Jane and I took the short walk to Union Station, leaving Michael Gill and his three-handed girlfriend to swim laps in their hot tub.
Back in New York, I had stopped by Sid’s office to pick up a couple of checks from Star, and their office had a different feel. The young guys who did the grunt work, carrying boxes of film cans from one floor to the next, were all wearing suits. Normally these guys wore tee shirts, so I asked them what was going on. Paulie, who was the youngest, and always joking around, seemed strangely serious. “We’re in the banking business now”, he said. “Got to look good.” The banking business?
So I took Star’s checks down to the Franklin National Bank, like I always did, and a change had been made. The Franklin sign above the building had been replaced by one that read European American Bank. Inside all seemed as usual, with the exception ofsome of the bank’s personnel. Sitting at desks formerly occupied by the branch’s officers were employees of Star Distributors, wearing suits and looking a bit out of place. Charlie, the manager who had worked for Franklin, was still there and greeted me. “Hi Shaun, what have you got today?” “Just a few checks, Charlie.” He smiled. “No problem. Come on in the back.” As we walked toward the back of the bank, some of the “officers” winked or gave me the high-sign. In the bank’s back room four long tables had been set up, and they were covered with cash in various denominations, some of it stacked, and some of it just in piles. There were five or six men, all wearing suits, and all recognizable to me as employees of Star, sitting at the tables, counting the money, and putting the cash in large corrugated cardboard boxes. I gave the checks to Charlie, who reached into one of the boxes and handed me an enormous stack of freshly laundered hundred dollar bills. “Things are going to be easier from now on”, he said while counting out the last of my cash. It took a few of these odd transactions before the scandal hit the papers.
The Sicilian Mafia, fronted by an Italian businessman named Michele Sindona, had bought out the failing Franklin National Bank, renaming it EAB. The administration of the bank’s branches was to be the responsibility of New York’s Gambino crime family, along with the DeCavalcantes. So that’s what happened. I wondered why they didn’t just call it the Mafia National Bank and get it over with, but of course I never suggested this idea to the boys. So the European American Bank went about doing business with most of its employees bearing a strange resemblance to the cast of Mean Streets.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
WALKING IN A WICCA WONDERLAND
Original music by Felix Bernard
New lyrics by Shaun Costello.
Just sing these lyrics to the melody of that old Christmas Classic:
WALKING IN A WINTER WONDERLAND
Casting spells must be thrilling,
to ensure off-shore drilling.
I can’t wait to see,
that dear GOP
Walking in a Wicca Wonderland
In the meadow we will build a pyre,
Witchy ones will watch us with a frown.
I’ll say grab those logs and pile them higher,
‘cause which hunts are the biggest game in town.
Turning Newts into toadstools,
While Gulf oil fills our tide pools.
She’ll just grab her broom,
while singin’ that tune,
Walking in a Wicca Wonderland
While in Congress Dems are really freaking,
wondering how long we’ll be in town.
Sarah Palin’s hope chest she’s been tweaking,
with Bachmann and O’Donnell still around.
Will that coven conspire,
making healthcare costs higher?
And howl at the moon,
while humming that tune,
Walking in a Wicca Wonderland.
Walking in a Wicca Wonderland,
Walking in a Wicca Wonderland,
Walking in a Wicca Wonderland.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
RED SKY AT MORNING
By 1982 my downward spiral was well under way,
not that I wasn’t enjoying myself.
By Shaun Costello
The sun was an hour from rising, and the sky was a fiery red when we drove the trailer over the Mid Hudson Bridge on our way to Rhinebeck. Skies like this always reminded me of the old sea shanty that began:
“Red sky at morning, sailor’s warning.
Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”
There were three of us riding in the cab of my truck; myself, Harriett, and Becky, a local high-schooler who was working as our groom for the day. The lights in the barn had burned late the night before. There were coats to be washed and brushed, manes and tails to be pulled and braided, hoofs to be polished, tack to be soaped and scrubbed, and everything, other than our two now-immaculate horses, packed into the trailer for the next day’s competition. Then home to try to get some sleep, which never happened because I was too terrified of my dressage test. If only I could get through the dressage test, the next two phases of the competition would be a breeze. I could always get horses over fences. But the dressage test.
I would lie awake staring at the ceiling, going through the test over and over. Enter at “A” at a working trot. Keep it straight, keep it straight. Collect and halt at “X”. Settle. Be still. Salute the judge. Be still. Wait for the nod. Pray to God that somebody’s truck doesn’t backfire. Exhale. Proceed to “C” at a working walk. What a nightmare. If I could just get through the dressage test.
In the back of the trailer were two one-thousand-pound animals; primped, polished, and ready to show their stuff. In the front was a changing compartment that contained our freshly cleaned tack, our riding clothes, our boots and helmets, and the various tools and horsey gadgets that would see us through the event. In my tack trunk hung my custom tailored riding jacket, and in the inside pocket of that jacket were four tiny glass one-gram bottles of Peruvian flake. It would be a four-gram day.
My dressage test was a blank. I entered the ring, I left the ring, and I couldn’t remember a thing. Probably better that way. When I looked at the scores that were posted outside the judge’s tent I was 58th, out of 65 riders. There were actually seven riders who were worse than I was. Not bad. Maybe the coke helped. I had already gone through the first gram. And, unknown to Harriett, my tiny coke spoon was secretly finding its way to Becky’s willing little nostrils throughout the morning. There’s a sexual dynamic to the shared cocaine experience. You do a line, and first there’s the exhilaration – the heightened awareness followed, only moments later, by the glow of sensuality, and sense of well being. Then she does a line, and you know what she’s experiencing, and you want her to know that you know, and you want to kiss her, and hold her, and touch her everywhere. You want to join her experience. Of course, this could be embarrassing if she’s only sixteen, and the two of you are standing in the middle of three hundred other people, so you keep your hands to yourself. And as the day progressed, and we kept up the coke consumption, the heightened sexuality between us became more intense. I worried that Harriett would notice the amount of time I was spending with Becky in the dressing compartment of the trailer, but she was preoccupied with her own riding and didn’t seem to pay attention.
I did well in the cross-country phase, and was now 20th, out of the 65 competitors. I was also now half way through my third gram, with the help of my loyal groom, who was assisting me through the obligatory wardrobe changes that happen before each phase in the competition, her young hands brushing dangerously close to places where they should never have been. I was second in stadium Jumping, the third and last phase of the competition, and wound up sixth overall, getting a green ribbon for my efforts.
It was after nine by the time we dropped Harriett off at the house, and drove around to the barn to unload the trailer and feed the horses. Becky insisted that I drop her at the beginning of the long driveway to her parent’s house. There was an awkward moment, the two of us standing beside my truck, when I handed her twenty dollars, which was her groom’s fee for the day. I told her it should
be more and she said, “Are you kidding? I’d do it for nothing. I’d do anything for you. Have you got another hit?” And suddenly it happened. It had to. The kissing, and groping, and tearing of clothes, and the coldness of the metal bed of the pickup truck against my skin, and she was so willing to please me, and she was so young and delicious, and I’m not sure how long it lasted, and then there was nothing but the loud breathing, and then the cold. I don’t think we said another word to each other. There was nothing really to say. I dropped her off further up the driveway, closer to her parent’s house, and then drove home.
Harriett was still up, and she was bristling. When I asked her if she wanted me to fix a late supper she refused to talk to me. I guess my flirtation with Becky must have been obvious, and it had happened within full view of most of our friends. Harriett was livid. So I had a glass of port, and went upstairs to finally get some sleep. All in all, Harriett’s objections not withstanding, it had been a good day. A green ribbon day. A four gram day. That’s the way I saw it. That’s the way my mind worked. It was the logic of the coke spoon. Harriett’s taking exception to my behavior was simply an annoyance. A small bump in my road to self-satisfaction. A minor glitch. And what was she objecting to? Just, my ingesting enough cocaine hydrochloride over the last fourteen hours to give a normal person a seizure. And sharing a good deal of it with an underage girl, with whom I had a felonious sexual encounter in the back of a pick-up truck. And, in my coked-out haze, I thought it had been a good day. Just how many more ‘good days’ like this one could I survive? How many could the people around me survive? The collateral damage was mounting.
My journey towards oblivion was gaining momentum now. I was riding a runaway train. I was out of control, and it didn’t scare me a bit. ‘Out of control’ was delicious. ‘Out of control’ was a safe haven from responsibility. ‘Out of control’ was my excuse-of-choice for all my sins. ‘Out of control’ was my last alias. It was the outfit I wore to the costume party that my life had become. Maybe ‘out of control’ had been my intended destination all along. Since, taking advantage of the youth-fare, and boarding the train as a
twelve-year-old, while negotiating with God about masturbation. Since hiding behind my first pseudonym. Since becoming comfortable with duplicity. Since telling my first lie. I had lied to Jane, and Jane had lied to her parents, and her parents had lied to themselves. All aboard. Next stop self-destruction.
I was spending more than I was earning, and funds were becoming dangerously low. My ability to generate income through producing pornography, something I had always taken for granted, was now seriously impaired by the cognitive congestion in my coked-out brain. Spending money was seductive. Another ounce. A new thoroughbred. “How much? Sure, I’ll take it. No, give me two. Hey everybody, I’ve got more
coke, have some. Want some quaaludes? Sure, I’ve got plenty. And have some more coke. Hey, lets go to Jamaica for the weekend, my treat. Let’s call a limo. I can charge it. But please like me, OK? I just want everyone to like me. Please”. I needed compensation for my own self-loathing.
Harriett was fed-up with my charade, and I was spending more and more time in the city. I had been abandoned by Mark Silverman, who had gone off to Texas to help Joel and Ethan Coen make “Blood Simple”. Mark gave me his assistant Kevin, who took his place, and I drove him crazy. All night bacchanal’s at the Hellfire Club and three day drug/sex binges at Steve Tucker’s had taken their toll on my cognitive abilities. Where Mark, knowing what I needed, and where I had been the night before, made decisions without needing my approval, Kevin simply walked through the offices at 505 muttering to himself that I had lost my ability to focus on anything. He was right. I could barely focus on the meter to figure out the taxi fare from Steve Tucker’s to The Hellfire Club – my home away from home.
The Hellfire Club had been built as a working set for an Al Pacino movie called Cruising. In the film, it was supposed to be a gay sex club. The producers left it intact when they struck the production, and the owner of the building opened it as The Hellfire Club. It was gay, it was straight, it was rough, it was smooth, it was all things to all people, and there’s never been anything like it. As the hour grew later, and Donna Summer grew louder moaning, “Ooooooooooooo love to love ya baby”, and the dancers grew sweatier, and the sound of a distant whip crack grew more frequent, the night was just beginning. Jerzy Kozinski was in the corner practicing the art of manipulation, convincing unsuspecting girls into doing unthinkable things. Mickey Rourke seemed everywhere, groping and caressing ever-available flesh. Huntington Hartford, who was eating Quaaludes like candy, leaned against a wall trying to focus on the activities happening in front of him. Recognizable fashion models were strutting through the “Maze” in the back of the club, hands outstretched, stoking the hard cocks, sometimes twenty at a time, protruding through the glory holes on either side. If you had to take a leak, the only bathroom had a trough, about six feet long, containing a piss soaked guy in fatigues chanting, “Faggot, faggot, piss here, piss here, I’m a faggot, got some poppers?” Jamie Gillis, had leash in hand, connected to the collar on the throat
of Gael Green, a well known restaurant critic for New York Magazine, who was on her knees servicing a line of twenty guys waiting to be sucked off. “Oooooooooooooo love to love ya baby.” I just loved this place.
And when I got tired of the crowd at Hellfire I could always head back up to Steve Tucker’s apartment, which was a constant drug/sex binge. Cocaine, both snorted and free based, ecstasy, mushrooms, Ketamine (Special K), which made you feel like you had just been shot out of a cannon, and willing young girls in a quaalude haze, ready to do anything. It was a pharmaceutical phantasmagoria.
And I had a movie to do. I had to pay for all this. I sat in my office trying to write a script, and the sirens at Steve Tucker’s were sweetly singing. So I did another line of coke. It couldn’t hurt. I had two more pictures to do for Leisure Time, and I’d become a messy commodity. I hired an old friend, Ron Dorfman, to shoot both films. He was doing as much cocaine as I was, so my paranoia level was assuaged. I did the pictures. What a mess.
© 2009 Shaun Costello
From Stage to Screen
Ten Broadway Musicals that, when adapted
to the screen, held their own as Motion Pictures.
By Shaun Costello
I had the good fortune to have grown up in New York City, the son of parents who enjoyed Broadway Theater, particularly musicals. On my mother’s side, there was a history going all the way back to Vaudeville, where, as a child, along with her older brother (My Uncle Tommy), she danced with her parents in an act billed as The Dancing Dowlings. They played theaters, mainly in the South, and shared the playbill with such Vaudeville luminaries as; Buck and Bubbles, The Nicholas Brothers, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fanny Bryce, and many others. Years later, my mother and uncle wound up as contract players for Twentieth Century Fox, dancing in Fox musicals like “Down Argentine Way” with Don Ameche and Betty Grable. In those days, movie musicals had specialty acts, who would perform as either background or foreground to the film’s principals. Down Argentine Way’s specialty acts included my mother and uncle who did an improvised Conga number, The Nicholas Brothers (Yes, the same guys they performed with as kids), who did their dazzling tap thing, and Carmen Miranda, who sang tongue twisters in Portuguese, and always appeared with fruit on her head.
So, starting at the tender age of five or six, I was dragged along by my parents to Broadway Musicals, and loved every moment. My first Broadway memory was Peter Pan. Not the 1954 Mary Martin/Cyril Ritchard/Jule Styne/Comden and Green Peter Pan, which became the accepted standard bearer for the title. And, not the original either, which played back in the Twenties. No, I’m talking about the 1950 Leonard Bernstein (both music and lyrics) Peter Pan, with
Jean Arthur as the dauntless leader of the lost boys, and Boris Karloff as his nemesis, Captain Hook. Unlike the foppish Cyril Ritchard, Karloff’s Captain Hook was terrifying, and scared the hell out of me. To say that Pater Pan, even at that tender age, got me hooked on musicals, would be shamelessly opportunistic, but, none the less – true. Throughout the Fifties and Sixties, I don’t think there was an important show that I missed, not one.
I went to high School in Manhattan, and learned the trick of ‘second acting’ Broadway Shows. It’s simple, and I’m sure would still work today. On Wednesdays, Matinee day on Broadway, a few of us at Rhodes Prep would cut our last class or two, and head over to the theater district. There is security at Broadway theaters only at the beginning of the show. When the audience begins to file back in after the intermission, no one checks their tickets. The trick is to mingle with the crowd, pretend to belong, and be the last ones in. With everyone else seated, any empty seats would be ours for the taking, and the second act of the show was seen, free of charge. I must have sat through the second act of Gypsy twenty times.
In 1957, at the Winter Garden Theater, I saw Leonard Bernstein conduct the Pit Orchestra for the overture, on the opening night of West Side Story. I was too young to have understood the significance of that moment, but never forgot it. So, I guess what I’m saying here, is that I’ve been blessed to have been exposed to musical theater from a very young age, and might as well put all this history to some practical use. I know most of you are thinking ‘Oh no, not another list’. But lists are useful, for me anyhow, and this is something I’ve given a great deal of thought to.
Not that long ago, I had a Facebook discussion with my old friend Mal Worob, about the film version of the Broadway Musical “Cabaret”, and how it was probably the best film adaptation of a Broadway Musical, ever. That got me to thinking. If Cabaret was the best, and if the inevitable Top Ten treatment were given to film adaptations of stage musicals, just what exactly would the other nine be? The single most important criterion would have to be, film adaptations of Broadway musicals, that, even if there had been no stage original to compare them to, would stand on their own as Motion Picture Musicals, marvelous entertainment vehicles in their own right.
I also realize that we’re back to the old subjectivity shenanigans again – my list will probably not match yours, but it’s a start, and that’s really all I’m after here.
So, in alphabetical order:
From Christopher Isherwood’s ‘I Am a Camera’ stories of 1920’s and 1930’s Berlin. Bob Fosse, who made his bones as a stage choreographer, dazzles as few have, as a film director. From the
very opening shot, Cabaret is startlingly fresh and different than anything seen before. I think you could blissfully sit through it, even if it had no story, which it has. Sally, an entertainer at Berlin’s Kit-Kat Klub, has affairs with Brian (Michael York), and Maximilian (Helmut Griem), both of whom are bi-sexual, and having a boy-boy thing with each other. Sally becomes pregnant, Brian offers to do the right thing, and none of it matters – the show’s the thing. And Kit-Kat’s MC, Joel Grey mesmerizes here for the camera as much as he did on the stage. Under Fosse’s keen, energetic direction, Kander and Ebb’s score still shines, some songs better in filmed close-up. And if the number at the gasthaus, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” doesn’t put 1930’s Germany into perspective, then you need time at the Reality Resumptive Institute.
Beautifully shot by Geoffrey Unsworth, and edited by David Bretherton, Cabaret is like nothing before or since.
Death Row Musicals are few and far between. The stage production was designed in 1975 by Bob Fosse as a dance-driven vehicle for wife Gwen Verdon, and sassy Chita Rivera, and, while
Kander and Ebb’s (Yes, those two again) songs shined, it was Fosse’s inventive choreography that drove the bus, in one number – literally.
But Rob Marshall’s 2002 adaptation, without attempting to imitate, absolutely glows, and with a surprising cast, including Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah, and Richard Gere – and, yes they sing their own numbers, and yes, they’re terrific. Marshall wisely chose to accurately recreate Fosse’s original choreography, but on film, Kander and Ebb’s score is given a more intimate performance, keeping pace
with Fosse’s dance numbers. Solid Cinematography by Dion Beebe, and slick editing by Martin Walsh keep things moving. Nice to see modern film technique used to make a good show even better. So, Mr. Marshall, why not do it again? There’s a long list of wonderful shows, just waiting for this kind of transformation.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF 1971
Just who is this Topol guy, and why isn’t Zero Mostel in this movie? This troubled many back in 1971 who, like myself, had seen the show’s protagonist Tevye played by Zero Mostel on the
stage, and would accept no substitute. But Director Norman Jewison had seen an Israeli actor named Chaim Topol do the part on the London stage, and saw him as a more realistic Tevye, more in keeping with his vision for this film. It took about fifteen minutes for Topol to win me over, and I’m a major Mostel fan.
About Jewison’s vision – never has a Movie Musical contained such striking visuals, reminiscent of early Chagall Paintings, and some Van Gogh, as well. Cinematographer Oswald Morris, on Jewison’s suggestion, shot much of the footage through a nylon stocking, in order to achieve just the right diffusion.
So, from the Jewish Mark Twain, Sholom Aleichem, come the Tevye stories. Tales of a milkman named Tevye, in the tiny shtetl
of Anatevka, somewhere in the wilds of nineteenth century Czarist Russia. The name Fiddler on the Roof came from the
image in a Chagall painting. The Bock and Harnick score is given lush visual treatment here, along with Jerome Robbins’ original choreography. Fiddler is a big, expensive, long (3 hours), elaborately produced film, and Jewison’s vision paid off in spades – just the right amount of realism, mixed with absurdity. A lovely, emotionally satisfying three hours of cinema, really done to perfection. I found no faults with it, truly.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM 1966
I guess you can call this Zero’s revenge for his exclusion from the aforementioned title, although this movie was shot five years
earlier than Fiddler. But on this list, it comes alphabetically after Fiddler, so we’ll call it Zero’s revenge and be done with it.
In ancient Rome, the Empire’s laziest slave Pseudolus (Mostel) wants his freedom if it kills him, which it might. Steven Sondheim’s music and lyrics, and Larry Gelbart, and Burt Shrevelove’s book make for some funny doings.
I saw this on Broadway with both Zero Mostel, and Dick Shawn as Pseudolus, and it was a smart, riotously funny show. Handing this Material to film director Dick Lester however, added an element of frenzied energy, that makes it even funnier. And Lester added some spice to the cast with the addition of Phil Silvers, Jack Gilford, and Buster Keaton.
Wonderful, clever, frantic banter (Thank you Gelbart/Shevelove), and zany musical numbers make for a satisfying, if unusual, movie musical.
Best number – Captain Gloriosus enters the city.
GUYS AND DOLLS 1955
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
So, would Damon Runyan have gotten a kick out of the song and dance treatment given his eccentric Broadway caricatures; Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Nathan Detroit, Sky Masterson, Harry the
Horse, Big Jule, and Benny Southstreet? I’d like to think so. How could anyone not fall in love with Frank Loesser’s take on Runyan’s happy-go-lucky gang? Loesser’s Guys and Dolls is one of the all-time great Broadway shows, and Joe Mankiewicz, along with writers Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows, Runyan, and an uncredited Ben Hecht, turn it into screen gold for Goldwyn. The big risk here, was hiring box office draw Marlon Brando. Marlon Brando? Could he sing? Could
he dance? The answer is, well, sort of – enough to get by, anyway. But, with lyrics like “Luck, if you’ve ever been a Lady to begin with, luck be a Lady tonight”, the song can carry the singer, and here, it does.
The plot is simple, Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) is in charge of setting up “The Oldest Established Permanent Floating
Crap Game in New York”. But he needs a thousand bucks to fund the game. So he bets gambler Sky Masterson (Brando) a thousand clams that Sky can’t persuade Sister Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) to abandon her Times Square Mission and fly to Havana with him. Sky hands Nathan his “Marker”, and the game is on. Two Vets from the Broadway original, Vivian Blaine as Miss Adelaide, and the remarkable Stubby Kaye as Nicely-Nicely, whose show stopper, “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” is pure joy on the screen, as well.
And Loesser’s glorious lyrics; “I got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere”, and “And the Devil will drag you under, by the sharp lapel on your checkered coat”, still delight the senses of the otherwise sensible.
I think we all know the story here. Incorrigible stage mother Mama Rose Hovick (Rosalind Russel) bets the ranch on daughter
Baby June (Morgan Btittany) becoming a Vaudeville star. But when June flees the theatrical nest, Mama Rose is forced to turn her questionable attentions to older, and less obviously talented sister Louise (Natalie Wood) who winds up becoming Gypsy Rose Lee, a famous stripper at Minsky’s Burlesque. The Styne/Sondheim Musical, starring the indomitable Ethel Merman, is one of Broadways real champs, and the switch from Merman to Rosalind Russell in the movie was risky, but paid off. Russell, while not as powerful in the musical numbers, created a far more complex and compelling Mama
Rose on the screen. And, the addition of Karl Malden as Mama Rose’s relentless beau Herbie, rounds out a nice cast of principals.
The book for the show, written by Arthur Laurents, was based on gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs. Unlike the predecessors on this list, Gypsy is stagey, but forgivably so. The delicious and familiar score, and a game cast make this memorably entertaining. Give Gypsy a chance. Let her entertain you.
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS 1986
I’ll bet I scared you with this one, but believe me, it belongs here. An unusual theatrical ancestry – The Off Broadway (So, sue me) Musical was based on Roger Corman’s 1960 absurdist
horror/comedy (that’s how it wound up, anyway) that featured a very young Jack Nicholson. The Off Broadway production was a very dark musical indeed, but hilariously so. And, unlike others on this list, the movie wound up quite different from its theatrical parent, with several songs deleted and new ones added.
Nerdy florist Seymour (Rick Morainis) works in a flower shop, and has a crush on co-worker Audrey (Ellen Greene). Seymour finds that he has an unusual plant on his hands, an ever-growing carnivorous cactus with a hunger for human blood. He names his thirsty succulent Audrey II, after his love interest, and winds up feeding Audrey’s sadistic Dentist boyfriend (Steve Martin) to his plant-pal. Seymour’s boss, who witnessed the dentist’s demise, is the next man on the menu. Where will it end? The plant keeps growing larger, and has Seymour’s girlfriend Audrey in its crosshairs. The insatiable succulent has only one oft-repeated line, “FEED ME”.
Ridiculous, I know, but outrageously funny stuff here, and some catchy tunes as well. If you haven’t seen this, what’s stopping you?
Adapted from the London, then Broadway stage, and of course based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Oliver was filmed at England’s Shepperton Studios. Lionel Bart’s (music and lyrics)
Oliver was one of my very favorite stage musicals, featuring an inventive staging unlike anything I’ve seen before or since. Carol Reed’s movie version recreates a dark, somber, Dickensian London – a perfect background for the story at hand.
Young Oliver escapes a cruel orphanage, and winds up recruited by a band of Dickensian London’s homeless boys, and their greedy mentor Fagin, who
teaches him, “You’ve got to pick a pocket or two”, in one of the production’s memorable musical numbers. Legend has it that over five thousand boys were auditioned before Reed settled on young Mark Lester for the title role.
Fagin’s character in the Dickens book, as well as subsequent movie versions (David Lean’s memorable film with a young, huge-nosed Alec Guiness as Fagin, comes to mind) had strong anti-Semitic overtones, but Lionel Bart, himself Jewish) softened the miser’s character to make him almost likeable.
“Food, glorious food”, sing the boys at the orphanage, and a glorious musical score this is, with songs expertly staged to match the story, with more dark lensing from
cinematographer Oswald Morris, Production Design by John Box, Art Direction by Terence Marsh, and costumes by Phyllis Dalton. And, a tasty cast including Ron Moody as Fagin, Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes, Shani Wallace as Nancy, Harry Secombe as Mr. Bumble, and old Hugh Griffith as the Magistrate.
A lush, luscious feast for the eyes and ears.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC 1965
Once upon a time, in a pre-Star Wars world, before Steven Spielberg and George Lucas rewrote the game plan for box office bonanzas, there was one movie that broke all attendance records
world-wide, and ruled the box office roost for many, many years. It had no special effects to speak of, no space ships or cute and fuzzy aliens, no super heroes saving mankind from dark misadventure. It was simply, the world’s favorite movie. All it had was a simple story of good triumphing over ignorance and impending evil, Rogers and Hammerstein’s
magnificent music, and the visual splendor of Alpine Austria. And, that incredible opening sequence.
It was based on the true story (with the appropriate liberties taken) of the Trapp family, in late 1930’s Austria, and the nanny
Maria (Julie Andrews), a failed nun, who would change their lives forever. A family of musical prodigies, tutored by Maria, and led by their smitten (with Maria, that is) father Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), they would use their musical performances to escape their Nazi-occupied homeland. Most of them wound up in Vermont, where their descendents still operate the Trapp Family Lodge.
Hard to imagine film producers attempting such a thing today, but The Sound of Music was shot by Ted McCord in 70MM Anamorphic Panavision, and is visually glorious to behold. The production was designed by Boris Leven, Costume Design by Dorothy Jeakins, and seamlessly edited by Bill Reynolds. Kudos to a top-flight crew.
If there’s anyone reading this who has not seen The Sound of Music, go find it. It’s out there. Probably Rogers and Hammerstein’s best all around score, and that’s saying something. You don’t have to tell anyone. Keep it a secret, if you like, but see it.
WEST SIDE STORY 1961
Shakespeare invades Hell’s Kitchen. Instead of the feuding Montagues and Capulets, we have the Sharks and the Jets. Instead of Romeo and Juliet, we have Tony and Maria. Different names
and situations, but star-crossed, ill-fated lovers, just the same. And to bring it all about, we are blessed with the sheer genius of two men, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, who would each do their best work here.
In New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, competing gangs vie for supremacy, and there is no love lost, or room for negotiation. The lyrics say so:
“When you’re a Jet,
you’re a Jet all the way,
from your first cigarette,
to your last dying day”
Riff leads the white Jets, and Bernardo the Puerto Rican Sharks, and there’s no room for intermingling. But, at a dance, while Jets and Sharks compete through ethnically-driven dance routines, Riff’s cousin Tony and Bernardo’s sister Maria suddenly notice each other across the gym, and, for this ill-fated couple, the world simply disappears. Sounds corny, I know, but it works, and you’re hooked.
Jerome Robbins creates original, high energy choreography, as the Sharks and Jets dance across streets and playgrounds singing Leonard Bernstein’s unprecedented score, all along headed toward the tragic conclusion that we all know is coming. During a gang fight, Tony, while trying to stop the violence, accidently stabs Bernardo, and the Sharks and the Jets go to the mattresses. Regardless of the lyrics, there is no place for the love between Tony and Maria, who, like that couple in Verona, succumb to the hatred and prejudice of their peers.
Natalie Wood is a compelling Maria. You know her voice is dubbed in the songs, but somehow it doesn’t matter. Richard Beymer however, is a questionable, even effeminate Tony, the only real casting mistake. Russ Tamblyn is a bouncy Riff, and his Sharks counterpart, Bernardo, is well turned by George Chakiris. But the show is stolen by a vivacious Rita Moreno, whose spicy Anita steals every shot she’s in.
Robert Wise steers the ship with a quietly firm directorial hand, leaving Robbins to do the brilliant grunt work. New York City postponed the early construction of Linclon Center, while the troupe cavorted about on the center’s future location. Steven
Sondheim’s first adult job here, as lyricist. He’s said in recent interviews that he finds his work on West Side Story to be mostly embarrassingly bad. Hardly – but certainly much simpler stuff than his later shows.
A story by Shakespeare, Bernstein and Robbins’ best work, and a bunch of pros, singing and dancing their heads off – what could be better?
© 2011 Shaun Costello
Ten films (and they’re not the only ten) that, for reasons unknown to me, I have seen at least ten times.
By Shaun Costello
I’ve seen a lot of bad movies, and willingly confess to having enjoyed most of them. Like their better brethren, some bad movies are just likeable. This whole movie thing is so subjective, like books, I guess. What makes us prefer one over another? What is it about certain films, that strikes a chord in us, creating the need to see them again? Is any movie really worth seeing ten times? I have no answers to any of these questions, and readily admit that the aforementioned behavior sounds symptomatic of some kind of psychiatric anomaly. Furthermore, as long as I’m in the confessional, back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, I unashamedly admit to having spent a preposterous amount of time, sitting in the balcony of the old Elgin Cinema (Now the Joyce Theater of Dance) on Eighth Avenue and 19th Street, eyes glued to the screen, absorbing one movie after another, becoming hungrier and hungrier for more of the same. And, to add some full-disclosure here, I readily confess to having had intimate knowledge of the interiors of every movie house in Manhattan, from Fourteenth Street to Eighty Sixth – and river to river. From the trendy, East Side, cup of espresso before the credits venues – to the grunge palaces of 42nd Street, where you could see three action pictures for a buck, and where the predominantly black audience threw empty soda cans at the screen, to warn the hero that a bad guy was sneaking up behind him. If movie addiction were a crime, I’d be doing life without parole, as a permanent guest of the state.
Does anyone know the name of an affordable shrink?
Where was I? Oh, the over and over thing. Thanks to Blogging, I can share part of my addiction with you, ten examples at a time. While there are probably hundreds of movies that I have seen at least ten times, I have selected the following ten, ten being the magic number of which lists seem to be constructed.
Although some films on my previously blogged lists could easily have been included here, I’ll limit this to as yet unlisted titles.
So, in alphabetical order:
Terry Malick’s hypnotic dramatization of the 1958 Starkweather/Fugate murder spree, across the prairie. The whole movie has an other-worldly feel to it, thanks to Sissy Spacek’s detached, child-like narration, and Malick’s use of Karl Orff’s children’s music. Spacek witnesses Sheen’s sudden, unexpected murder of her parents, and reacts as though the event was an episode of Ozzie and Harriet on television. They set fire to the house and hit the road, as we see Sissy’s life, in a series of close-ups of burning photographs and toys, go up in flames, scored to Orff’s rhythmic syncopation. Her detached narration becomes more bizarre with each of Sheen’s subsequent murders, as they kill their way through the Dakota badlands. Growing more and more paranoid, Sheen creates a hideout in the sagebrush, complete with deadly booby traps to deter their pursuers. Out of nowhere, a Sheen/Spacek desert dance begins to Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange”, and ends just as abruptly as it began. Strange and deadly doings, out on the prairie.
Dogs of War 1980
“Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war” Shakespeare/Julius Caesar
My Favorite Frederick Forsyth book, and definitely a film worth seeing. I have no idea why I like this film so much, but Christopher Walken’s both vulnerable, and dangerous persona, makes this thing work. Mercenaries are hired to depose a dictator in a fictional and failed African state. Forsyth’s elaborate detail, and great ensemble work keeps the action entertaining. Cast includes: Tom Berenger, Paul Freeman, Jean Francois Stevenin, and JoBeth Williams.
From Larry McMurty’s novel, Hud is Paul Newman’s cranky cowboy caper. A disappointment to his stalwart, principled father (Melvyn Douglas), and a hero to his younger brother ( Brandon De Wilde), Hud’s just waiting for his Dad to die so he can inherit the ranch. Patricia Neal is hired to help with the chores, creating some lust amongst the longhorns. And have a listen to Elmer Bernstein’s subtly effective score – sometimes using just one guitar. Newman is one nasty cowpoke, but Douglas and Neal steal the show, and win their Oscars. A Best Cinematography Oscar also went to James Wong Howe for some beautiful work in Black and White.
Alan Pakula 1971
Klute was the first installment of what would become known as director Alan Pakula’s “Paranoia Trilogy”. The other two films are “The Parallax View” (1974) and “All the President’s Men” (1976). But, I think most people remember it for Jane Fonda’s once-in-a-lifetime performance (and her Oscar) as the jittery hooker with someone on her roof.
The film begins with the disappearance of Pennsylvania executive Tom Gruneman. The police reveal that an obscene letter was found in Gruneman’s office. It was addressed to a prostitute in New York City named Bree Daniels (Fonda), who had received several similar letters from Gruneman. Much to the surprise of the police, Peter Cable (Cioffi), an executive at Gruneman’s company, hires family friend John Klute (Sutherland) to investigate Gruneman’s disappearance.
Klute rents an apartment in the basement of Daniels’ building, taps her phone, and follows her as she turns tricks. Initially, Daniels appears to be liberated by the freedom of freelancing as a call girl. In visits with a psychiatrist throughout the film, however, she reveals that she feels empty inside and wants to quit. Klute asks Daniels to answer some of his questions, but she refuses. He approaches her again, revealing that he has been watching her. She assumes that he will turn her in if she does not cooperate, but does not recall Gruneman at all. She reveals that she was beaten by one of her ‘johns’ two years earlier, but after seeing a photo of Gruneman, she says she cannot say for sure one way or the other. She is only certain that the john “was serious” about the attack.
Daniels takes Klute to meet her former pimp, Frank Ligourin (Scheider). Ligourin reveals that one of his prostitutes passed off the abusive client to Bree and another woman named Arlyn Page (Dorothy Tristan). The original prostitute committed suicide, and Page became a junkieand disappeared. Klute gives his surveillance tapes to Daniels, telling her he is finished with her part of the case. But, realizing that he cannot continue the investigation without her, he re-enlists her help to track down Page.
Klute is one of the great New York Location movies. Others that come to mind are “Serpico”, “The French Connection”, and “Three Days of the Condor”. From the very first credit, Michael Small’s tingly, eerie musical score sets the mood. Alan Pakula went for dark and gritty, shooting in tight locations where entire scenes were lit exclusively with ‘inkies’. The result is a feeling of intimacy that resonates throughout the film, amplifying a sense of impending danger.
Beyond Fonda’s astounding performance, Donald Southerland’s John Klute has a hound dog-like persistence. Roy Scheider does a creepy turn as Fonda’s pimp, and Charles Cioffi is effectively dangerous as the serial hooker-killer. But, it’s Vivian Nathan, as Fonda’s shrink, who steals the show.
The Prince of Darkness, Gordon Willis, shines here, creating luster in the shadows. Seemless editing by Carl Lerner, and Michael Small’s relentlessly eerie score make this memorable. Maybe you have to be a New Yorker to love this film, but I don’t think so. One of my all time favorites.
Best scenes: Fonda with her ‘trick’ in the hotel room – “Oh, my angel. My angel”. And Jane tells old Mr Goldfarb about her recent erotic adventure. “No, he was an older man, not unlike yourself. Young men can be so…..silly”.
Lost Horizon 1937
It was the mid Thirties, and the Faschisti were marching across an ever-darkening Europe. James Hilton’s novel described a better place, a place of peaceful solutions, and escape from the
jack boot – somewhere over the rainbow, or in this case over the Himalaya’s, was the secret valley of the Blue Moon, and at its center – Shangri La, where dreams came true and life was eternal, well almost. In my opinion, Lost Horizon is Frank Capra’s masterpiece, and a joy for anyone to see.
The director didn’t like the early dailies – something just wasn’t right in those snow scenes. And it dawned on Capra, that there was no steaming breath from the mouths of his actors. So he packed up and reshot in a gigantic meat freezer, somewhere in Brentwood.
Tragically, about fifteen minutes of the original negative has been lost. The producers of the now-available DVD offer two versions; one with the existing picture, and another (thank God) with the screenplay intact, and a black picture over the dialogue scenes where the original picture was lost. I found the latter to be preferable, hearing the entire script, for me anyway, was much more satisfying.
A delicious Fairy Tale beautifully delivered by Capra with: Ronald Coleman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton, Thomas Mitchell, and Sam Jaffe as The High Lama. And, Dmitri Tiomkin’s luscious musical score.
Officer Serpico’s best friend on the police force tells him, “Frankie, no one trusts a cop, don’t take money”. From Peter Mass’ book on New York City’s police corruption, and the true story of the cop who went on record against it. It takes almost the entire film for Serpico to persuade New York’s political establishment to accept the evidence he’s been trying to give them all along – evidence that leads to the Knapp Commission hearings. Director Lumet is
at home, shooting on location, in the city he knows so well, and the film looks it. Dark and luscious lensing by Arthur Ornitz, and strong ensemble work by an familiar cast, filled with Lumet’s favorite actors. But, in my opinion, the smartest decision Sidney Lumet made was hiring Mikis Theodorakis to do the musical score, music that seems to support every image, with lyrical simplicity. One of the all-time great New York location movies, with: Al Pacino as Officer Frank Serpico, surrounded by the Sidney Lumet repertory company.
George Roy Hill
Oddly enough I never saw Slapshot in a movie theater. My buddy Mal Worob had a tape of it in his Manhattan loft. This was even before VHS – it was probably a Betamax. Mal was the first person I knew who had copies of movies at home.
Anyway, I can remember Paul Newman, in an interview saying, “We got more out of less on Slapshot that any movie I was involved in”.
Newman plays the Player/Coach of a failed minor league Hockey Team, that’s being sold behind his back. So, with nothing to lose, he hires the Hanson brothers (real life hockey players), who are notoriously violent and dirty players, and the Chiefs go on a tear. Slapshot has the look of a film that was obviously fun for the actors involved, and it shows, the cast seemingly in on every gag. And that cast includes Newman, Lindsay Crouse, Strother Mortin, Michael Ontkean, and those effervescent Hanson brothers.
The Professionals 1966
Another Seven Samurai spin-off, but this one’s got Lee Marvin, and Burt Lancaster, and Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode, and Jack Palance and Claudia Cardinale, and some of the sauciest, machismo, cowpoke dialogue ever delivered. Richard Brooks’ crusty screenplay constantly parodies itself, and the boys are up to the task. Lee and Burt play tired adventurers, hired for one last mission – bring back the kidnapped wife of a wealthy railroad mogul. They had both fought in Mexico with
Pancho Villa, and are not eager to ride back south of the border but, what the hell, ten thousand dollars a man buys a lot of tamales. Every actor is given quotable dialogue to deliver, and deliver they do. This movie could have been just silly, but director, script, and cast come together here, and the result is a thoroughly entertaining film. Beautiful cinematography by Conrad Hall, and the musical score, by Maurice Jarre, is unexpectedly spicey. Grab this, if you can.
The Thomas Crown Affair 1968
No, not that silly sequel with Pierce Brosnan. I’m talking about the 1968 original with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. A big bank heist, simply for the thrill of it. A wealthy and bored McQueen robs the biggest bank in Boston, for fun. And insurance investigator Faye Dunaway is hired to crack the case. Of course, this is a movie, so they become romantically and competitively involved. She tells him she’s going to win, and get her man. He takes the challenge, and goes out and robs another bank, basically telling her, “I’m going to do it, and you can’t stop me, or catch me”.
Sexy, slickly entertaining suds, with two stars in their prime. And, unlike the silly sequel, someone has to win, and someone has to
lose. The chase becomes a chess match, figuratively, and literally. Great use of split-screen, and Michel Legrand’s Oscar winning score, with a great song, “Windmills of your Mind” woven through it. Bank heists, Polo, Glider planes, and Chess for sex. Ah, the Sixties.
Three Day’s of the Condor 1975
Is there a second CIA, inside the CIA? A question Turner (Robert Redford), a bookish, reader/researcher who works for the CIA asks himself, after returning from lunch to find everyone in his New York office has been assassinated. The Agency thinks he’s involved, and unknown forces are out to silence him. He needs time to sort it all out, and somewhere to hide. He kidnaps Faye Dunawaye, and uses her apartment – a place to think things through. Everyone is after him. Atwood (Addison Powell) whose secret network Turner accidently uncovered. Higgins (Cliff Robertson), the CIA’s Deputy Director who’s trying to bring him in. Wabash (John Houseman), a CIA Mandarin who orders him killed. Joubert (Max von Sydow) a hired assassin who befriends him. With the help of his kidnap victim Kathy (Faye Dunaway), he tries to solve the puzzle.
Condor is a fast paced, top notch CIA spy caper, with a clever, ever-twisting plot, and game cast. Pollock’s second best effort, I think. (Tootsie is hard to beat) Lorenzo Semple’s intelligent screenplay is smart and juicy. Slick cinematography by Owen Roizman, with good use of New York locales. Great stuff.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
KNOWING MORE THAN GOD
By Shaun Costello
In scanning the overwhelming response, in newspapers across the country to the death of Barbaro, I am stunned by the idiotic sentimentality displayed by an ignorant public that, not once, seems to have taken the ordeal of this horse into consideration. On the third Sunday of May 2006, in front of a horrified public, a thoroughbred horse known as Barbaro suffered a fatal injury while running in the Preakness Stakes, a race he was favored to win. I have owned horses a good part of my life and can tell you that no horse recovers from this serious an injury.
A combination of this preposterous sentimentality, and a veterinary team looking to make a name for itself, (no matter how sincere they appear) caused this horse to endure an agonizing and needless eight months in hopeless recovery-limbo, instead of the quick, painless, and humane end it deserved.
The great filly “Ruffian”, who suffered a similar injury, in a similar situation, was euthanized on the spot at Belmont Park, back in the Seventies which, I guess, was a more merciful and sensible decade.
Barbaro endured a shameful eight months, during which ruthless cottage industries sprang up all over the country, making scandalous profits on the agony of an animal. The greeting card industry pitched in with, “Get Well Soon Barbaro” cards, bought by parents, signed by children, and sent where, exactly? To the veterinary barn, where a suffering thoroughbred adjusted his reading glasses and scanned the literary endeavors of his fans? Dishes, statuettes, framed photographs, were all adorned with a likeness of the suffering animal, and displayed in the bedrooms of little girls across America. And where did the profits go? To the relentless bottom feeders, who are willing to make a killing on anything, even a killing itself. America has turned into a culture of crazed sentimentalists who, to feed their need for romantic fantasy, seem to have distanced themselves from reality.
British philosopher Bertrand Russell defined sentimentality as, “Placing more importance on something than God does”. Think about it.
And on pages of newspapers everywhere, Barbaro’s adjectival army, sitting in front of their computers, surrounded by their dying horse trinkets, had their say:
“We love you Barbaro”
“Do horses go to heaven?”
Does anyone wonder how many of the thoroughbred colts and fillies foaled each year in the breeding facilities of Kentucky, and Maryland, and California ever get to a race track? The answer is a miniscule percentage. Another equally miniscule percentage wind up as sport horses, to be ridden in equestrian competitions. So do any of you sentimentalist out there want to know what happens to the rest? They are bought by, what is known in the horse world as, “the killer trucks”, and shipped to Canada, where they are slaughtered, and then sent on to the kitchens of France, where horse meat sells at the local butcher shop for 10 Euros a pound.
But sentimental America wants to close its eyes to that kind of reality, and instead to gather in droves to sign petitions, demanding that the remains of the once proud horse know as Barbaro, be stuffed like Trigger, and put on display in Disneyworld. Maybe this crazed army of sentimentalists will then get what it always wanted, Barbaro, as a stuffed animal.
© 2007 Shaun Costello
I WISH I’D SAID THAT
By Shaun Costello
I’ve always envied those few whose witty weaponry enabled them to defuse an impossible moment with the turn of a phrase.
Sherwood Anderson when reviewing cowboy hero Tom Mix: “They say he rides as if he’s part of the horse, but they didn’t say which part.”
Dorothy Parker: “That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.”
George S Kaufman: Once asked by a press agent, “How do I get my leading lady’s name into your newspaper?” Kaufman replied, “Shoot her.”
I wish I’d said that, but of course no one asked me. Of all the great verbal kick-turns I’ve read, my favorite happened at a Beverly Hills dinner party back in 1940.
Arthur Hornblow Jr. was one of Hollywood’s most successful producers. From 1933 to 1942 he had a hand in the production of some of Paramount’s biggest hits, before moving on to a stellar career at MGM, producing for luminaries like George Cukor and Billy Wilder. Hornblow’s fame as a producer was equaled however, by his legendary reputation as a party host. His dinner parties were storied events, and making his guest list meant you had “arrived” in the motion picture community.
The massive dining table was set according to the measurements and procedures followed by the staff of the Royal Family for state dinners at Windsor Castle. Each dinner guest was provided with their own personal
servant, who stood at attention behind each chair awaiting the call to the most menial of tasks. The wines served were of the great vintages from the finest Chateau’s of Bordeaux and Burgundy. The guest list read like the who’s who of Hollywood Royalty: Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Robert Taylor, Claire Trevor, Spencer Tracy, Kate Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby, Olivia DeHaviland, Bob Hope, Cary Grant. All dressed to the “Nines”. At their peak. Walking on air.
On this particular evening the name of Herman Mankiewicz had been added to the guest list. Manky, as he was universally known, was one of Hollywood’s mercurial talents, responsible for the screenplays for Citizen Kane, The Enchanted Cottage,
Dinner at Eight, and many others. He was also one of Hollywood’s most notorious drunks, leaving a disgruntled and embarrassed list of dinner hosts in his wake. Arthur Hornblow Jr. had avoided inviting Manky to one of his extravaganzas, fearing bad behavior, and the possibility of an unfortunate incident. But Manky, whose barbed wit and scintillating conversation made him popular on Tinseltown’s party circuit, could not be put off forever. So on this particular evening a nervous Arthur Hornblow Jr. could do nothing more than hope for good behavior from his mercurial guest. He gave strict instructions to the staff to limit Manky’s wine service at dinner and to watch for signs of unusual behavior. That done, Hornblow continued fussing over details he felt necessary in order to present a fabulous evening to his fabulous guests.
The pre-dinner cocktail reception out on the terrace was accompanied by a string quartet, while Hollywood’s finest chattered amongst themselves, totally oblivious to possibility of the existence of anything unglamorous in or out of their own perfect little world. Manky held court with a raconteur’s glib concoction of facts and fables, and his audience loved every moment. Hornblow gazed at the assembly through the window and smiled.
The crystal bell tinkled the announcement of a dinner at the ready, and the guest list with the grace born of celebrity and assurance glided through the huge doorway into the dining chamber, the epicenter of Hornblow’s mansion. Everyone found their appropriate places with Hornblow at the head of the enormous table, and his wife Myrna Loy sitting opposite. The wines were greeted with ooohs and ahhhs, and each course served was a tour de force in epicurean perfection. Arthur Hornblow Jr, surveyed his table with a sense of satisfaction thinking to himself. “Well Arthur, you’ve done it again. Everything is as it should be.”
Gone unnoticed amidst all this perfection was an unusually quiet Herman Mankiewicz. Although his wine flow had been curtailed at the dinner table, he had consumed seven or eight martinis during the pre dinner festivities and was plastered. He sat staring straight ahead, weaving ever so slightly to his left and then his right, then slightly forward and suddenly vomited into his soup.
What followed was the longest pause in the history of Tinseltown. No one moved. No one made eye contact with anyone else. Fifty dinner guests sat silent and motionless, perhaps hoping on the off chance, that God might appear and, in his benevolence somehow make things right. But God went unneeded on this particular evening. Manky, seemingly recovered from his trance-like stupor looked down at the evidence of his mischief, then slowly lifted his head and turned in the direction of his horrified host and said, “Not to worry Arthur. The white wine came up with the fish.”
I wish I’d said that. I wish I’d been there.
© 2006 Shaun Costello/New York Times Sunday Magazine
I think Jimmy Toback sucks, and so should you.
By Shaun Costello
Every once in a great while, an opportunity presents itself to right a great wrong, to set the record straight, to win one for the Gipper. Permit me to give you an example of how I obnoxiously and joyfully behaved when I got the worst of all film directors accidentally in my cross hairs. Some time in 1983, I paid seven dollars to see, arguably, the worst film ever made. It was “Exposed”, starring Nastassia Kinsky (she of the snake pic) and Rudolph Nureyev (I’m not making this up). Anyway, about half way through this excruciatingly putrid film, and just before I walked out of the theater, Nureyev, who plays a violinist, approaches Nasty Kinsky from behind and, while fingering her face like frets on a fiddle, he begins to run his bow across her bare breasts, as she moans in ecstasy, “Oh yes, play me, play me”.
Well, that was just about my limit, and I swore to myself that if I ever ran across that talentless, gambling addicted, over-achiever Jimmy Toback, who directed this piece of drek, that vengeance would be mine.
OK, fast forward to about 1988. I’m sitting with a few friends watching a movie; I don’t remember which one, at the Ziegfeld Theater, which was then Manhattan’s best film venue. After the tail credits, the house lights come up and, as we’re putting on our coats, one of my friends say’s, “Hey, isn’t that Jimmy Toback?” It was one of those Marlon Brando diamond bullet in the forehead moments that come all too infrequently in a man’s life, but I was up to it. At just about the top of my lungs, I screamed across the crowded theater, “Hey Toback, I sat through half an hour of EXPOSED, and you owe me seven bucks, now pay up!” Toback, slime that he was (and I’m sure still is), bolted, running for one of the side doors of the theater, leaving behind the girl he was with. What a toad. Anyway, I’m sure everyone within earshot thought I was nuts, but I felt like a million bucks. Vengeance was finally mine, and the cowardly behavior of Toback just about made my year. The moral of this tale, if there is one, is the next time opportunity knocks – open the door.
© 2007 Shaun Costello
The ten best American films I can think of that
were produced by Hollywood’s studio system.
A moment here, to talk about criteria. My selection process was based on those films, whose existence depended on the creative conveyor belt of Hollywood’s film factories, that began with the Silents of the Twenties, and peaked with the well organized, and marvelous output of the Thirties and Forties. The major studios were run by hard nosed businessmen with names like Mayer, and Zanuck, and Warner, and Cohn; whose methods for getting a product to market varied little from their cousins back East, in New York’s Garment Center. Everyone who worked in movies back then was under contract; writers, directors, producers, scenic artists, technicians, and of course, movie stars. The production schedules were tight, and the objective was to get the maximum amount of product to the marketplace, with the minimum amount of time and cost. Scratch a Movie Mogul, and find a Garmento? Sure, why not – the system worked. And, every so often, the right elements fell into place, usually by happenstance, and resulted in memorable motion pictures. The appropriate writer for the script, the right actor for the part, a crew that knew its business, a savvy producer to crack a whip, and the right director, with the vision and stamina to see the project through. And the result was the everlasting language of movies, woven forever into the fabric of the American syllabus. Those lines that live forever: “Of all the gin joints, in all the world”………. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”……….. “Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt”………. “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli’s”………… “I’m on toppa the world, Ma”………. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”………… “Badges? We don’ need no stinkin’ badges”……….“I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody”. American films, produced through the Hollywood Studio System.
I struggled with this, and many of you will find fault with my choices but, for better or worse, here they are:
Red River 1948
As American as it gets. Hawks’ memorable tapestry of the blazing of the Chisholm Trail. The cattle were in Texas, but the Rail Head was in Abilene Kansas. And driving a huge and ornery herd of cattle, for the very first time, across the Red River, over mountain ranges, through hostile Indian territory, risking misadventure with nature and bands of rustlers, was no easy business.
Hawks, probably Hollywood’s best dialogue director, made John Wayne almost believable. Lots of crusty, spicy cowpoke dialogue, that might be corny in the hands of another director, but Hawks pulls it off.
It’s dawn on the range, and the men and the cattle are ready. Hawks’ camera does a slow, minute-long, 360 pan across the faces of cowboy after cowboy, beginning and ending on Wayne, who looks to Montgomery Clift and finally say’s, “Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt”. Clift raises his hat and whoops the first of many, and the next cowboy does the same, and in quick cuts now, face after face, whoop after whoop, until, finally driven by the drama of the moment, the music swells, and the herd begins to move. It’s one of the great moments in movie history and, if you haven’t experienced it – shame on you.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre 1948
Greed and paranoia in the Mexican Mountains. Huston’s masterpiece, and an Oscar for his Dad. Huston wrote the part for his father, Walter, to play. What gold does to men’s lives. Howard (Houston) foretells of the possibilities of sudden wealth turning men against each other, but Dobbs (Bogart) say’s not him. He’d take only what he needed, and not a bit more. And of course, it’s Dobbs who turns rotten.
Absolutely perfect from beginning to end, and as good as movies get
The Best Years of Our Lives 1946
The War over, three men meet on the transport plane taking them home to Boone City. A middle-aged Army Sargeant (Fredric March), a decorated Flyboy (Dana Andrews), and a Sailor with hooks for hands (Harold Russell – a real-life vet amputee, who gives a startlingly believable performance). This film was shot in the time which it depicts, and the language, which might seem corny and dated now, is how people spoke back then. The right cast, particularly March and Myrna Loy, the right story, and a savvy director turn this into one of the real champs. Best moment: Dana Andrews in the bomber shell.
On the Waterfront 1954
So, you have to ask yourself, “Were there really commies in Hollywood, after WWII, and what message were they sending?” Here, Director Elia Kazan, ever embittered by the McCarthy-driven witch hunt that victimized him, certainly serves up a leftist theme, but who cares. Scorching drama, delivered by Brando’s ex pug, Malden’s stalwart Priest, and Cobb’s gangster brother, all delivering Budd Schulberg’s crisp, believable dialogue make this one memorable. Also great ensemble work by Kazan’s bit players, some of whom were ex prize fighters and looked it. Overlooked often, is Leonard Bernstein’s simple and haunting score, and Boris Kaufman’s all-to-real, black and white cinematography. If you’ve seen it, see it again. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?
Citizen Kane 1941
The one and only. Movies would never be the same again. The story goes, that it was Nelson Rockefeller (Just who did you think the ‘R” in RKO was, anyway?), who heard the Mercury Theater of the Air’s now-infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, and called the Studio to suggest bringing this young radio guy, Welles, out to Hollywood for a look. So, Welles’ Mercury Theater of the Air troupe moved out to Los Angeles, and the rest is history.
“Rosebud” – what was it, anyway. From the opening Newsreel, to the screening room scene, to a life revealed, every moment dazzles. Innovations, one after the other – from Greg Toland’s mesmerizing lens, to the rapid fire editing, to Welles’ brilliant direction, to the debut of all those newbie’s from radio – it was all so new and fresh. The screenplay, by Welles and Herman Mankiewicz, has two camps; critic Pauline Kael whose expository essay “Raising Kane”, suggests Manky to be the prime mover, with Welles making additions here and there. Peter Bogdanovich, whose response to Kael was his own essay, “Kane Mutiny”, published in Esquire, refuted Kael’s claims. Years later, it was revealed that Bogdanovich’s piece was actually penned by Welles. Who cares, really? The film’s the thing, and there’s just nothing like it.
The Wizard of Oz 1939
Well, because! Because of the wonderful things he does. I wanted to include a musical, and no other Hollywood Musical matches Dorothy’s magical tornado-assisted journey from Kansas to Oz, and back again. Nothing even comes close. It’s as fresh and appealing to children today, as it was when it first opened seventy years ago. Seventy years – hard to imagine. Garland, and Bolger, and Lahr, and Haley, and Frank Morgan’s Wizard, and Magaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witchiness, and Billie Burke’s Glinda. And all those Munchkins, who live Somewhere, Over the Rainbow. It’s just all so perfect, and it made the world a better place.
I’ll bet I surprised you with this one. Altman’s scathingly hilarious take on Country Music, and the shrine it lives in. The word got out, Robert Altman was on location shooting some kind of musical, and he was letting the cast members write their own songs. Well, that’s about all it took for actors from Altman’s older films to start showing up on the set. And Altman wrote them in, playing themselves, and they improvised their scenes with other cast members. Julie Christie and Elliot Gould were among them. It was a chaotically joyful atmosphere.
OK, during a political campaign in the city of Nashville, the story drifts lazily through the lives of several of its citizens – some musicians, some wannabe’s, and some just plain folks. The vignettes are so absorbing, and the music so great, that it doesn’t seem to matter that the movie seems to have no central theme – but it does. Incredible performances by an insane Barbara Harris, and far too many actors to name. Just about the time when you begin wondering what this thing is all about (we’re now almost two hours into it with no apparent story in sight), all of the characters converge at the site of a political rally. And then it happens – someone we’ve known all along, unexpectedly pulls out a gun and starts shooting. And cast members start falling. And in the midst of chaos, the craziest member in the cast, Barbara Harris, a wannabe lounge singer with no voice, picks up the microphone and begins to sing, somehow calming the terrified onlookers. Nashville Is an eyeful and an earful, but most of all, it’s joyfully entertaining.
“I’m mad as hell, and I ‘m not going to take it any more”. So say’s Howard Beale, former Mandarin of television, and currently the madman of the airwaves. Lumet’s crafty direction, pretty much letting his cast do their thing, comes in second here, to what may be the greatest screenplay ever written. Paddy Chayevsky’s brilliantly prophetic script foresaw the future of television. In painting a picture of a television network gone mad, he basically created Fox News, long before Rupert Murdoch ever wrote the check. A sexy cast, including William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, and Ned Beatty in a scene you’ll never forget.
The Godfather 1972
Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather Part Two
Francis Ford Coppola
Ok, I know I’m cheating here, but I’m going to combine them as one movie. I didn’t want the Godfather Saga taking up twenty percent of the list. Find forgiveness in your heart. Vito Corleone’s clan seems to take up more than its share of space in the American psyche. Part Two may be an even better movie than its predecessor. From Clemenza’s “Leave the gun, Take the cannoli’s”, to Hyman Roth’s “Michael, we’re bigger than US Steel”, it’s a marvelous narrative of two generations of a Mafia crime family. Really, picture perfect in every way. Coppola’s all-seeing eye seems everywhere, in every detail, no matter how small. He brought the A-Team to this one, from Gordon Willis’ dark images to Nino Rota’s music. Splendid!
You must remember this. Hollywood’s greatest accident, and maybe the all-time most perfect script. Just a production number on Jack Warner’s long list of propaganda projects for Washington, but somehow, everything fell into place. Bogart and Bergman, who seldom spoke to each other off-camera, and never struck up a friendship, came off as perhaps the most romantic couple in the history of movies. Warner’s stock company filled out the cast perfectly, and that song – As Time Goes By. Assigned to write the screenplay, totally by happenstance, were those happy go lucky Epstein twins, Julius and Philip, who would pen perfection, much to their own surprise. From top to bottom, no one had any idea that this little propaganda vehicle would wind up to be one of Hollywood’s greatest classics.
But there was a problem. The edited film made no sense. Jack Warner hated it, and said it was unfixable. Editor Owen Marks sat there with Director Michael Curtiz trying every trick he could think of. It was the ending. Bogart sends Bergman off with Henreid to the waiting plane. Major Strasser shows up and is shot by Claude Raines, much to Bogey’s surprise. But it doesn’t seem to make any sense. Warner drags the Epstein boys off their tennis court and orders them into the editing room. When they see the ending they’re stunned. “What have you done to our script?”, they ask Curtiz and Marks. Julius Epstein tells Marks to reverse the order of two close-up reaction takes during the end of the scene. Voila, a classic is born. And the Epsteins return to their tennis game. The Fundamental things apply, as time goes by.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
MY TEN FAVORITE EUROPEAN FILMS
(This morning, anyway)
8 and 1/2 1963
Probably my all-time fave film, period. Responsibility visited, and avoided at all cost. Oh, that Guido.
Grand Illusion 1937
When asked to name his ten favorite movies, Orson Welles replied. “Oh, that’s easy, Grand Illusion, and nine others”.
The Bicycle Thief 1948
DeSica’s poignant look at a father and son in ravaged post-war Rome.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie 1972
Bunuel’s love affair with, and hilarious take on the Bourgeoisie – what they do, what they say, how they think – If they do, if they say, if they think. A surreal comedy – the Bunuel way.
Belmondo and Seberg, on the run. Sometimes silly, often dazzling. Godard’s best, I think. And, the best of the French New Wave.
Gilligan’s Island for grown-ups.
Beauty and the Beast 1946
Well, you know the story. Cocteau’s masterpiece, and lovely to look at. Say, is that wall moving?
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday 1953
The hapless Hulot heads for the seashore. A delightful comedy in mime, with an elastic Tati surviving one catastrophic situation after another. My two fave scenes are The Train Station, and that Taffy that never quite reaches the sand.
Claire’s Knee 1970
At an alpine lake resort, a 35 year old Jerome is struck dumb by teenage Claire. If he could just touch her knee, maybe that would be enough. Sensually photographed by Nestor Almendros, this is Rohmer’s best effort, I think. An intelligent film, meant for an intelligent audience.
Lang’s silent sci-fi dazzler. Hard to imagine now, the audience’s reaction in 1927, to these visionary images. Many have not scene this – don’t be one of them.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
SIC SEMPER TYRANNUS
Surviving Catholic Education
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from my childhood memoir
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
I suppose I could blame all subsequent events, and ill advised decisions I made in my life on the eight years I spent as a victim of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, but I don’t. I sensed, even as a child, that they were no more or less than a necessary evil (at least my parents thought they were necessary) placed in my path to overcome by what whatever means was at my disposal. Back then little thought was given by Catholic families regarding their participation in the selection process available to them in choosing a primary school for their children. They just found the nearest Catholic school, packed a lunch, and off we went. Off to the welcoming arms of a sociopathetic cult of psychological misfits who had been cloistered away from the evils of an all too real world that, even on their best days, they seemed powerless to inhabit. During my eight years of ecclesiastical incarceration I never saw anyone who remotely resembled Ingrid Bergman, not to mention Father Crosby.
Early on, I came to the conclusion that the two most important elements in a Catholic education were penmanship, and lining up in silence. Ball point pens were strictly forbidden, because only a true fountain pen could produce the perfect script demanded by the good sisters. As for the silent line up, the merry cacophony of lunchtime playground mischief came to an abrupt halt the moment the dour penguin shook her hand bell. The shuffle of feet was the only sound as the children found their classmates and silently lined up, awaiting the signal to march off to an afternoon’s lesson in history, which probably included the torture and martyrdom of Saint Isaac Jogues at the hands of the evil Huron Indians. They pulled out his fingernails, and he would not renounce his faith. They pulled out his toenails, and he would not renounce his faith. They gouged out his eyes, and he still would not renounce his faith. Finally, an exasperated Big Chief Huron, fed up with Isaac’s saintliness, cut out his heart and ate it, hoping to ingest some of the holy man’s courage. And old Isaac stood there, bound and gagged, without fingernails or toenails, a big hole in his chest where his heart used to be, and Big Chief Huron, picking pieces of Isaac’s aorta from between his teeth, again demanded spiritual surrender. Not this time Tonto. The old man simply shook his head in a bold expression of saintly triumph over the heathen redskin. Tears in her eyes, Sister Immaculata stopped reading and put down the third grade American History text from which she had read this lesson in God’s victory over the great unwashed.
It was at this point that she noticed the behavior of three arch criminals; myself, Jim Freeney, and Joe Arrico, who had obviously paid no attention to this valuable lesson and instead, had been engaged in spitball wars in the back row. With these three felons in tow, Sister Immaculata made haste for the music room, where every afternoon the Fur Elise was played badly for hours. The music room doubled as punishment chamber during school hours, and was the only room in the building where nuns noticeably smiled. The young hooligans were instructed to lean against the wall with the backs of their legs extended, awaiting Sister’s caress. Reaching into the closet, Sister Immaculata took out a pointer. It was 36 inches long, round, and pointed at the tip, resembling almost exactly the canes used to administer corporal punishment in the third world, much to the horror of self righteous Americana. It came down with a loud whack on the back of poor Joe Arrico’s thigh, as he screamed in pain and begged her to stop. She ignored his screaming pleas and promises of good behavior, and the pointer came down again. I’m not sure how many times she hit him, but it was several, and all the time she smiled. Her screaming, pleading victim was nine years old. Jim Freeney was next with the same result. When it came my turn I was half way to the door before she caught on to the fact that I was not going to be this woman’s pointer fodder. Safely through the door I ran down the hall and all the way home.
Out of breath, I told my mother what had happened, and her reaction was puzzling. She told me that Sister was always right, and that I must have done something to deserve the punishment I had escaped, and that the only course open to me was to go right back to school, lean on that music room wall and take my punishment like the little criminal I undoubtedly was. I refused. This resulted in a tumultuous few days between my family and the school which, after some posturing, was legally bound to take me back, even though I had not behaved up to the standard of the church’s willing martyrs. Isaac, eat your heart out, or someone else will.
The daily routine at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs school began at 8:30AM, as children began assembling in the school’s playground. At precisely 8:45, each and every morning, Sister’s hand bell would announce the end of playground hi-jinks, and the beginning of the serious business of lining up in silence. The children lined up by class, and began the silent shuffle into the school building, with the little ones entering first, and the eighth graders bringing up the rear.
There was a uniform dress code at the school. Boys wore navy blue trousers, a white long sleeved shirt, and a navy blue tie, usually restrained by a tie clasp. Competition for the coolest tie clasp was intense. Girls wore blue jumpers, a white short sleeved blouse, and navy blue knee socks. The supreme beings at the school, the eighth graders, were distinguished from the rest of the lower flotsam by the addition of blue blazers for the boys, and some kind of pin, probably something like “The Order of the Eternal Virgin” for the girls. Eighth graders were looked up to by the rest of us as perfect examples of children who, through diligence and prayer, walked in lock step with the Holy Trinity. They were also bigger than we were and stole our baseball cards and lunch money, but I guess that’s another issue.
Children at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs were divided into three separate and distinct groups. The first were God’s favorites. These kids all had 98 academic averages, spotless uniforms, heavenly singing voices, inkless fingers, wrote in perfect script, got the best parts in the school play, made speeches at school assemblies, and were generally thought of by the faculty as, “Saints of the Future.” The second group were the kids that God tolerated. They were probably not heaven bound but, through hard work and sacrifice, they might just make it to the next level; even though they had ink stained fingers, couldn’t remember latin lyrics, spent too much time looking out the window, wrote illegibly, occasionally suffered from “ring around the collar”, were easily confused by the rituals of the Catholic Liturgy, and would probably wind up mowing the lawns of the “Saints of the Future.” Then there was the third group. These were the kids to whom God’s back was turned. The lepers of the Liturgy. They had no shot whatsoever at salvation, and were destined for the big barbeque, to burn in the fires of hell for all eternity. They had dirty finger nails, unkempt hair, ink stains covering their hands and clothes, had close relatives who spoke a foreign languge, ate paste in art class, threw up in hallways, had no reverence for the sainthood, and were to be generally pitied as hopeless creatures, destined for a life outside of God’s plan.
I guess that I was a member of group number two; tolerated by God, a distant possibility for salvation, a perpetrator of the ink stain, a barely average student, and a liturgical numbskull, but if I played my cards right I just might make it to the next level, wherever that was.
As kids filtered into their classrooms, the first stop was the Cloak Room. This was a large closet in the back, the full width of the classroom (about thirty feet) and about six feet deep, lined with shelves, under which were coat hooks, and plenty of space to deposit lunch boxes, galoshes, and whatever else kids brought to school. No one wore cloaks of course, but that’s what the sisters called it, so we did too. The hanging up of hats and coats was followed by a short but robust period of hair pulling, name calling, tripping, strangling, head locking, eye gouging, and general mayhem, after which the little innocents would emerge from the cloak room ready for a morning of inspiration and enlightenment, much to the delight of the good sisters.
The school building, a kind of quasi American gothic structure, had eight classrooms of identical size and layout. The classrooms were large, about 60×30, with three walls covered with blackboards and one with windows. About six rows of desks, ten deep, all faced Sister’s large wooden desk, which was centered in front of the class. A student/teacher ratio of 60 to 1. Tough numbers. The student’s desks had hinged tops, allowing for storage inside, an indentation at the front where pencils and pens could lie undisturbed, and a working inkwell. No one really used the inkwells, other than for pranks, but they had always been there, so there they would stay. Until the day when Petey Cataldo, a kid who didn’t talk much and threw up a lot, pissed in each and every inkwell in our class. Sixty inkwells is a lot of piss, and there were many versions of Petey’s triumph. One had Petey sneaking in after school and actually pissing in all our inkwells. The other, and generally accepted version, had Petey peeing in a container for a week. Then when he felt he had enough for the job at hand, he slipped into school after closing, and filled all the inkwells with the product of his efforts. Anyway, no one ever saw Petey again. The rumor was that he had been sent to some kind of special school for kids who threw up a lot. Another rumor had him incarcerated in an institution for recalcitrant Catholics, but no one really believed that. His image lived on in the folklore of the school as a revered personage, a crusader, the boy who had an answer. Of course none of us knew what the question had been, but that didn’t matter. Petey had guts, and for us that was enough.
Throughout the morning the subjects taught by Sister would change at Sister’s whim. In the middle of a History lesson, Sister would suddenly announce,” We will now take out our Arithmetic textbooks.” And this was sister’s segue to the world of mathematics. As the big institutional clock on the classroom wall neared 12 noon all eyes followed the second hand, until that magical moment that happened each and every school day at exactly noon, when the opening chords of the most famous of all John Philip Sousa Marches would play at a decible level that could have awakened the Saints from their eternal sleep, the classroom doors were thrown open and the lunchtime march of the children would begin. Three hundred little kiddies for Christ would stomp down the stairwells and hallways of the school until they were deposited, music still playing, outside the huge front doors, to the delight and chagrin of the terrified lunch counters of Austin Street.
Austin Street was the main commercial drag in Forest Hills. Supermarkets, clothing stores, Woolworths Five and Dime, the Cameo Bowling Alley, drug stores, florists, Pinsky’s Stationary, a travel agency, Glindermann’s German Delicatessen, Vincent’s Shoe Repair, and various spots where lunch could be had cheaply, if you knew what to order. Most kids brought their own lunch to school in little metal lunch boxes. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a banana, or maybe a few cookies, was pretty typical. The school provided half pint containers of milk, free of charge, to kids who brought their own lunch. If you had some money in your pocket, Austin Street’s menu was varied. The Sutton Hall Pharmacy offered an order of rye toast for 10 cents which could be washed down with a lemon coke, also priced at 10 cents. The newly opened Pizza Prince offered a slice for 20 cents, but kids were still suspicious of pizza. The various lunch counters along the Street offered a variety of cheap filler. An order of french fries was 20 cents, cream cheese on date nut bread could be had for as much as 40 cents, a burger with a hole in the middle from White Tower was a quarter, and various other offerings were priced accordingly. If you were really flush, and I’m talking over a dollar here, and you were up for some serious adventure, Austin Street offered “Hamburger Express”. A huge success from the day it opened, “Hamburger Express” delivered your Burger DeLux Platter right to your hungry little face on the flatbed rolling stock of Lionel model trains. The walls were covered with train posters and train photographs, and along the inside part of the counter ran the tracks themselves. The tracks that carried the trains that towed the flatbed cars that brought your lunch. The waitresses wore little train engineer caps that said “Hamburger Express” across the brim, and train whistles and bells and authentic trainlike noises of all sorts could be heard throughout the place. If you could afford it “Hamburger Express” was definitely the lunchtime venue of choice.
The boys at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs knew about trains. They knew from their earlier days in The Painted Mountains, where they buried their compadres in the Cemetery of unnamed men. They lived without food and water, and became tempered like steel; sinewy leathery boys, whose sole purpose in life was blowing up trains for Pancho Villa, and the glory of the revolution. They knew just how many sticks of dynamite it took to blow a munitions train to hell and gone. And just how many toothpicks it took to cause a derailment that would dump a Cheeseburger DeLuxe into some unsuspecting woman’s lap. These boys knew about trains. And how to stop them.
Finally, “Hamburger Express”, in an effort to keep their trains on the tracks, and to put a stop to the mischief of the boys from the Painted Mountains, hired its own security guard. They dressed him up as a train engineer, and although he greeted customers as they came in, and his demeanor was friendly, even jovial, he was definitely railroad security. This new addition created a more challenging atmosphere. And if that wasn’t enough, possible anti railroad weaponry; ketchup, mustard, toothpicks, pickles, were all removed from the counter until the arrival of your meal, and scooped up the minute they were used. These, and other counter-revolutionary tactics were employed by management in an all-out effort to put a stop to the work of Pancho Villa’s little heros. Additional security didn’t stop Butch and Sundance, and by God it wouldn’t stop Villa’s boys. So, like their days back in the Painted Mountains, they simply brought their own stuff. Toothpicks, gum, silly putty, pencils were all imported from home. And with the advent of watchful railroad security, diversionary tactics were required, usually in the form of a vomiting boy. A kid throwing up in a restaurant was very bad for business, so the boy who was assigned the job of “Diversion Puker” was picked up by the railroad security guy the minute he pretended to throw up on the counter, and carried outside to the sidewalk. With security outside, the bedlam of the entire revolution was free to take place right there inside “Hamburger Express”. Four to five derailments could happen in a matter of seconds, with burgers, milkshakes, banana Splits, and lemon cokes all flying helter-skelter, from their respective flatbeds to the laps of unsuspecting and shrieking customers, as total chaos reigned supreme in the little restaurant. Villa’s vigilantes had struck again.
With the revolution going well, it was time to return to Our Lady Queen of Martyrs for an afternoon of guessing just how many arrows Saint Sebastian was stuck with, and what it all meant anyway. At exactly 3 PM the Sousa march would begin, the classroom doors would be thrown open and the afternoon version of “The March of the Children” would take place. The daily schedule at OLQM was identical except for Wednesdays. On Wednesdays class would end at 2:30 and the entire student body would be marched a short distance to the church, where something mysterious called Benediction took place. This was a wealthy parish and the church looked it. The building was a kind of neo gothic mini-cathedral, with pictures and statues of people with their internal organs revealed, and candles burning everywhere. The shared public Catholic ritual is a theatrical assault on the senses, and Benediction was a perfect example. The church’s altar was fronted by a large proscenium, pretty much like the stage at Radio City Music Hall, where men wearing colorful satin outfits spoke, chanted, and sang in a dead language, and shook ornate little balls filled with incense (usually frankincense or myrrh), as the organ began the prelude to yet another hymn in Latin. I have no more clue today, than I did back then, as to the meaning or significance of Benediction, but I never forgot the music. The main hymn was something called “Tantum Ergo” and, although, at the time, I have no idea what it meant, it was a catchy tune that seemed to go well with the accompanying visuals and incense. In Latin (the only way I ever heard it) it went like this:
“Tantum ergo Sacramentum Ve-ne-remur cernu-I
Et antiquum documentum Novo cedat ri-tu-I
Praestat fi-des supplementum sensu-um de fectu-I”
(exotically entertaining in a dead language kind of way)
The English translation of this stanza goes like this:
“So great a sacrament, therefore let us worship
Bowed down; And let the ancient example give way
To a new rite; Let faith bestow a support
To the defect of the senses.”
Not much better in English, is it? Anyway that was Benediction, and when it was over we silently filed out of the church and back into the community.
I want to go on record here as having hated Richard O’Leary. I hated him then and I probably still do. In between the end of the afternoon March of the Children and the beginning of whatever came next, there was a certain amount of after school lingering. I was never privy to what girls talked about, but boys talked about gory stuff like beheadings and general human dismemberment, fights they had heard about that were really bloody, movie star suicides they learned about listening to their parents, local gossip like somebody’s mother who was arrested for shoplifting, and when they ran out of the juicy stuff there was always sports. Richard O’Leary was one of these kids who wanted you to think that no matter what you knew, he knew more. He always knew more, and it really didn’t matter about what. I liked sports. I liked to watch sports on TV. I liked to go Yankee games. But I was just not one of these kids who memorized stats. I knew that Whitey Ford was a good pitcher, but I didn’t know his lifetime record against lefty hitting. And, for the record, I have to confess to not caring. But Richard O’Leary knew, or at least pretended he did. Anyway, on this particular afternoon I had been accidentally equipped with a valuable statistic, Willie Mays’ career batting average. I read it in a magazine the day before, and knew that it was 321. Valuable information to have at my disposal, in between beheadings and shop lifting arrests. So when the opportunity presented itself, and I spoke right up, “Mays has got to be the best pure hitter in baseball, his career batting average is 321.” And without skipping a beat that rotten Richard O’Leary jumped right in. “Not against right handed pitching it’s not. Against righties he only hits 289. The man is a loser.” I had suffered a moment of psychological castration. I went from a kid who knew something to a kid who knew nothing. And not only that, but Willie Mays was now a loser. By the time I was wondering if I had anything in my pocket sharp enough to gouge out O’leary’s eyes he was already correcting some other kid on some other statistic. Another psychological castration. Another disappointed kid. Another triumph for that little weasel. Later that night, in between the light’s going out in my room and falling asleep, I fantasized about a proper vengeance. About an appropriate fate for that little know it all. About justice.
Death Row at Sing Sing Prison is in a separate and cloistered part of the facility. A long dark hallway where only one cell is lit. Outside the cell is the head guard and Father Spinelli, the prison Chaplain. Inside that one lit cell is a kid in striped prison garb, shackled hands and feet, and a terrified look on his face. It’s Richard O’Leary.
The guard speaks as he puts a key in the door, “Its Time son. Get a hold of yourself. Father Spinelli is here to hear your confession.”
“Son, are you sorry for all the sins of your past life and……”
“What confession? I’m not confessing anything. This is someboby’s dream. I’m a kid. You can’t execute kids. You can’t do anything to me.”
“Et ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine…..”
“Te absolvo a peccatis tuis….”
“I’m a kid, you jerk. You can’t do anything to me.”
“Ordinarily I’d agree with you son, but not after what you said in court.”
“Deus Pater misericordiarum…..”
“What do you mean? What are you talking about? What did I say in court?”
“About Willie Mays.”
“In nomine Patris, et filii………”
The guard, the Priest, and O’Leary are now slowly walking down the long dark hallway toward the brightly lit execution chamber, where the Warden stands, with a paper in his hand.
“About Willie Mays being a loser. About his average against right handed pitching.”
“ego te absolvo a peccatis….”
“So?….I’m right. He IS a loser.”
“You forgot about the judge son. Big Giants fan. Huge. Big Mays fan. You shouldn’t have said that son.”
“In deus Pater nostrum tuum…….”
“I’m a kid. I can say anything I want.”
“The Warden will ask you if you want your head shaved, son. I’d do it. The last kid, Old Sparky set his hair on fire. That was just before his head melted. What a stink. Two of the witnesses puked.”
“In Nomine Patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti……..”
The threesome is now passing the Tombstone Shop on their way to the Execution Chamber, and O’Leary’s eyes are as big as half dollars as he sees the worker carving an epitaph on a Tombstone that reads; “HERE LIES RICHARD O’LEARY WHO KNEW WILLIE MAYS’ BATTING AVERAGE AGAINST RIGHT HANDED PITCHING. LOOK WHERE IT GOT HIM.”
“Te absolvo a peccatis….”
“Mommie……I want my Mommie………Mommieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee..”
“You Richard O’Leary, having been found guilty of crimes beyond the pale, are heretofore to be put to death by means of electrocution, on this day……
In excelsis deo ordo paenitintiae…..”
“Get a hold of yourself son……..Ohhhhhh, he pooped his pants, What a stink…….”
As the clock strikes midnight the Warden nods to the Executioner, who throws the switch that sends the room into a tumult of buzzes and screams and shrieks and stinking hair, while outside house lights all over Dutchess County dim slightly as the life is fried out of Richard O’Leary’s melting body, leaving his lifeless form hanging, suspended by “Old Sparky’s” leather straps. Dead, and finally silent.
My bedroom ceiling never looked so good. Smiling, I could feel my lips moving before I heard the words. Those appropriate words. Those final words – “Sic semper tyrannus”.
© 2008 Shaun Costello
THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from my childhood memoir
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
My mother’s side of my family had been dancers for two generations at least, and dancers, by the nature of their art, are athletes. In order to do what they do they must have balance, and rhythm, and reflexes, and timing; the very same qualifications as any good athlete. Hang time was as important for Fred Astaire as it was for Michael Jordan. My father, on the other hand, danced with the grace of a cinder block. In the great genetic crap shoot, even though I longed for the life of an athlete; to wear a uniform, to score the winning run, to enjoy the camaraderie and admiration of my team mates, to be accepted as a boy of achievement on my own terms, I sadly wound up with the grace and élan of a cinder block. So when the athletic opportunities at The Community House presented themselves, I pounced. Basketball, baseball, swimming, boxing, lacrosse, field hockey, badminton; I tried them all. My strategy was to find a sport at which I could excel, somehow compensating for my physical shortcomings. I tried sport after sport with disappointing results. I couldn’t hit, I couldn’t throw, I couldn’t rebound, I couldn’t dribble, I couldn’t punch but, but for a reason known only in heaven, God decided to cut me some slack. I could shoot a basketball.
I wasn’t Jerry West, but I wasn’t embarrassing either, so I worked on it. Day after day, week after week, I practiced shooting basketballs. When the three o’clock bell rang at school, I would race over to The Community House, hoping to be the first one in the gym. So one afternoon, out of breath from running the five blocks from school carrying all my schoolbooks, I arrived at the empty Community House. It seemed like I had achieved my goal of being the first to arrive, but something made me stop outside the front door. Whoever opened the building for the afternoon session had left the keys in the door. There were maybe thirty keys on a huge metal ring, probably the keys to every door inside the building. Without a moment’s hesitation, looking both ways to make sure no one saw me do it, I snatched the keys from the front door and slipped them into my pocket. I had no idea what I would do with them, but something told me that having these keys was to my benefit.
The Community House was open from 3 to 5 in the afternoons, and 7 to 9 in the evenings. From 5 to 7, with Mr. Wonderly, who was the manager, and the colored custodian both out having dinner, the building would be empty, and available for solitary exploration. I hung around in the park across the street, and saw Mr. Wonderly and the custodian make their meal-time exits. It was now or never, so I slipped the key into the front door, and entered the empty building. One by one I began opening all the inside doors using my new set of keys: the office, the equipment room which was filled with basketballs, baseball bats, catcher’s masks, badminton racquets, and every imaginable form of sports apparatus, the trophy cabinet, the storage room, the boxing gym, the swimming pool, and finally the locker rooms. I hesitated outside the girl’s locker room, wondering whether this act was a matter for the confessional, and rationalized to myself that I was not a sinner, I was an explorer. So I opened the door. It was pretty much the same as the boy’s locker room. There were lockers, benches, a bathroom, a shower room, and the same combined odors of disinfectant, and chlorine from the pool. Above one row of lockers were six casement windows, each about three feet wide and six feet high, and covered with many layers of paint to insure privacy. I wondered where these windows were relative to the outside of the building, so I slipped out the back door and reconnoitered. There was a kind of drainage or ventilation pit with cement walls about six feet deep along the side of the building and inside this pit were all six windows, painted over and ignored. It occurred to me that an enterprising young man who scraped tiny viewing holes in the paint on the inside of the windows might gain visual access to the entire girl’s locker room from the privacy of this drainage pit. Yikes.
So back inside, I climbed up on the row of lockers and did just that. Using the borrowed keys I scraped small slits, maybe an inch by a quarter inch in each one of the windows. There were now six viewing stations from which a commensurate number of anatomically curious young men could hopefully view the naked bodies of the girl’s swimming team. By the time I got home I was ten feet tall. I had just successfully completed a monumental achievement, and would be known from here on as a boy with guts and vision; a boy with the entrepreneurial foresight to use an opportunity to its greatest advantage. If there were a category of Nobel Prize for felonious mischief, King Gustav himself would be handing me the trophy, and shaking my hand. Maybe I should write him a letter explaining my triumph. My next step would be to select five friends who could keep a secret.
The next day I gathered together a carefully selected group and explained the situation. Jimmy, Chipps Page, Billy Beggs, and the Bullock twins, (Stephen and Stuart) seemed the likeliest candidates so, after discussing strategy, we agreed to meet in the drainage pit at 7pm. There was to be no verbal communication in the pit. Absolute quiet was necessary for success. All discussion was to done by hand signals. At the appointed hour, like little ninjas on a mission, the six of us silently dropped down into the drainage pit, and slowly approached the tiny holes in the paint. And there they were. To our almost uncontrollable joy, the entire girls swimming team was walking around in varying degrees of undress. Diane Montgomery, Betty Welsh, Joan Roberts, Peggy Wainwright, all naked and, since the six of us were hidden in our subterranean vantage point, we could look at them as long as we wanted. And I did this. This remarkable achievement was all mine. I would be a king among boys. I could feel the tension in the great hall in Stockholm, as King Gustav opened the envelope. “And for achievement in felonious mischief, this year’s award goes to……”, the room is hushed. “…..Shaun Costello, the young man from Forest Hills, whose keen interest in anatomy, and willingness to share his discoveries with his peers has changed the outlook of the young men of his community”. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Before going home, the six of us swore an oath of absolute secrecy. If word were to get out, it would be the end of the greatest opportunity any of us had experienced. No one could know what we did tonight. We agreed to meet the next night at the same time, and went home.
A little before seven, the next evening, I noticed Jimmy and Billy Beggs sitting on the Community House Lawn, under a tree. They seemed sad and disoriented, and wouldn’t respond when I asked them what was wrong, so I slipped through the bushes and approached our sacred viewing site. About fifty feet from the pit I noticed a huge cloud of blue/gray smoke, and as I came closer I could hear the giggling and guffawing of a crowd of boys, and to my absolute horror, there in our blessed pit, where the tender nakedness of our female neighbors had been so generously revealed only 24 hours before, were about twenty of the teenage jerks who hung out at the Sutton Hall Pharmacy; Howie Clary, Brian McKenna, Bill Conroy, and some kids I had never seen before. The same morons who beat each other up for amusement, not to mention laying the whup on kids they referred to as kike mother fuckers because they couldn’t think of anything else to do with themselves. And here they were, defiling this hallowed ground, where I had experienced my greatest achievement as a human being; moaning and laughing and smoking Lucky’s and making way too much noise to go undetected for very long. I was shattered. In my short time on earth I had never experienced such disappointment. What about King Gustav? What about my Nobel Prize? What about our oath of secrecy? Somebody had obviously squealed. Chipps Page was always sucking up to the older guys, but I couldn’t accuse him because I had no proof. So I got out of there before the situation turned to disaster and, as I turned the corner onto Greenway North, I could see the flashing red lights from the approaching police cars. Six or seven of the teenage morons were apprehended and returned by the police to the welcoming arms of their angry parents for familial disposition, which I suppose was some small compensation for my loss. But for that one fateful night I was a King among my peers. I had achieved something never thought possible. For the first time in my childhood I had experienced success beyond my wildest dream, followed by crushing disappointment.
© 2007 Shaun Costello
WAKING THE DEAD
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from my childhood memoir
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
Promotion to the Fifth Grade at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs School produced no noticeable changes in my day-to-day life, other than having a new teacher, and being a year older. The school, the kids, and the neighborhood seemed to go on as before. I was sitting in a booth at the Sutton Hall Pharmacy, sipping cokes after school with Beth Neilsen, Soomi Esses, Kevin James, and that know-it-all weasel Richard O’Leary. I had no money so Beth generously offered to share her lemon coke with me. Beth was the smartest and prettiest girl in school and, for a reason totally beyond my comprehension, treated me like I was human. At this point in my little life puberty was still only a rumor. Boys and girls rarely socialized, and paid little attention to each other, but Beth was different. She always said hello when our paths crossed, and made small talk that I never attempted to avoid.
Anyway, probably as punishment for sins of past lifetimes, the four of us sat there listening to O’Leary’s insufferable diatribe on traitors in America. It seemed that President Eisenhower was a card carrying member of the communist party. So was J. Edgar Hoover. O’Leary knew this to be a fact because his father told him, and his father was always right. Not only that, but Douglas Mac Arthur, the hero of the Philippines in WWII, was now living in Moscow teaching the Russians how to destroy America in WWIII, which would begin in the Fall of 1956. “Real Americans”, claimed O’Leary, “knew about this stuff”.
Just before I was ready to kill myself, I looked out the window and saw two kids being chased down the Street by an old man who was swinging his cane at them. They stopped, turned, and shot him with their Weegee water pistols, and the chase resumed. Finally the old man gave up and headed for the front door of the drug store. This was Mr. Nocky, the neighborhood lunatic. No one knew where he came from or where he lived. He was just there, and was often the victim of the cruelty of children. As he passed our booth I spoke up, “Hello Mr. Nocky”. He stopped, scanning the occupants of our booth. “Sasay, sasay, it’s not nice to fool Mr. Nocky’ he replied, as I knew he would. “Just saying hello Mr. Nocky”. “Well, that’s different then. Sasay, sasay, Mr. Nocky went to the Staunton Military Academy, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Not everyone went to Staunton, but Mr. Nocky did. And Mr. Nocky always used a Trojan. There are many brands of rubbers, but science has proven Trojan to be the most effective”. He wandered over to the counter mumbling, “Sasay, sasay” to himself, and by the time he took a stool his daily cup of tea was waiting for him.
Mr. Nocky’s interruption blessedly put the kibosh on O’Leary’s oration and, taking advantage of this event, the group happily disbanded. I lingered outside for a few minutes talking with Kevin James, who invited me to come over to his house the following Saturday, and then made my way home. The next day Kevin James was not in school. There was immediate speculation as to the cause of his absence. Mumps, measles, strep throat, flu, anything was possible. Grim and depressing as always, Vincent Averna was sure it was polio. Suddenly, Mother Superior appeared at the door to our classroom and the kids jumped to their feet chirping in unison, “Good morning Mother Superior”. She addressed the class. “Children, you’ve probably noticed that Mr. James is absent this morning. It is my sad duty to inform you that last night his father was called to God’s bosom”. The whispers began:
“What does that mean?”
“Kevin’s dad, stupid”
“Kevin’s dad’s dead?”
“What did he die of?”
“How do I know?”
“What’s this bosom thing?”
‘That’s how nuns say people are dead”
“But what’s a bosom?”
Mother Superior continued, “On Thursday Sister Innocent will lead this entire class over to the funeral home, where Mr. James will lie in repose. You will say a rosary for the salvation of his immortal soul”. And she left.
So on Thursday afternoon, Sister Innocent marched her flock, all washed and dressed for the occasion, the nine or ten blocks to the Fox Funeral Home. The place was owned by the Baxter family whose sons, Noel and Wayne, I had gotten to know playing basketball at the Community house. We were led into a large room with chairs arranged in rows facing the front where a large wooden casket sat on some kind of platform. The lid was open and, in the distance, you could see the pink, waxy looking face of Kevin’s dead father. Sister Innocent led the class in a rosary, after which we were to stand, in threes, at the side of the coffin, to view the body and pray that the soul of Mr. James would enjoy an eternity of happiness at the right side of God Almighty. Heaven was a very exclusive club. You had to be Catholic, and you had to be good, otherwise you spent eternity in an unpleasant alternative, roasting in the fires of hell. Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists, regardless of their goodness, had no shot at salvation whatsoever, and were destined for the big barbecue. Heaven was a “Catholics only” venue. You had to be Protestant to be President, but you had to Catholic to rate heaven. Papal vengeance, I suppose.
When it was my turn to stand next to the coffin, I was totally spooked. I had never seen a dead guy before, and was both terrified and fascinated. His skin was waxy and translucent and, although I had no experience at viewing the deceased, I can honestly say that he looked very life-like. I wondered what would happen if he suddenly sat up and started talking. Sixty kids would probably pee in their pants. When our respects had been properly paid, Sister marched us all back to school, and we went home from there.
I stopped off at my friend Jimmy’s house to tell him about seeing the dead guy. It turned out that he had never seen one, but knew Wayne Baxter really well, and Wayne had once promised him that he would sneak him into the funeral home after hours and show him dead people. When confronted with his death-tour promise Baxter wanted a buck each for corpse viewing, which I thought was highway robbery, but Jimmy said he would lend me the dollar so we agreed. We rounded up Tommy Welstead and the Bullock twins, who agreed to the price, and the five of us were led by Wayne into the basement door of the funeral home.
The place was closed from five to seven so that the employees could eat dinner, so we were alone with the deceased. After walking us through all the viewing rooms, where waxy bodies were displayed in open coffins, Wayne took us downstairs where he said they did the dirty work. There was a large tiled room where three naked bodies were lying on metal tables. All were elderly, two men and one woman. Their eyes were closed, and their mouths were open, and they had rubber tubes sticking into holes in their skin. There was an overwhelming smell of chemicals, but the bodies themselves had no odor. Wayne told us that they were in the process of being embalmed, and that there wasn’t anything left inside them that could smell. Tommy Welstead started poking one of them with his finger, and Wayne shouted, “Hey, no touching”. Suddenly Stephen Bullock ran for the bathroom to puke his guts out. Wayne, still in tour guide mode, showed us the prep room, where bodies were put when they arrived, but before they were embalmed. The room was refrigerated and locked with a huge latch on the outside of the door, and smelled so badly that it didn’t seem like you could be in there more than thirty seconds without losing your lunch. Wayne told us that the bodies smelled awful before they were embalmed.
Our tour was now over and, out on the street, we parted company with Wayne. The five of us walked in silence for a few minutes before we realized that there were only four. Tommy was missing. Stephen suggested that he probably ran home to puke, and didn’t want any of us to know. It sounded reasonable and, along with Jimmy, I stopped by the Welstead house to tease him about throwing up, but his mother said she hadn’t seen him in a few hours. I suddenly had a terrible feeling that somehow we had left Tommy inside the funeral home. Mrs. Welstead let us use her phone, so Jimmy looked up Baxter in the directory, and got Wayne on the phone. He told him what had happened and Wayne agreed to meet us at the basement door to the funeral home right away. The three of us looked all over the place and there was no sign of Tommy. We wandered around the basement for a while and suddenly Wayne turned white as a sheet and said, “Oh Jesus, did we lock him in the prep room?” We approached the prep room door, the one with the huge latch that could only be opened from the outside. Wayne opened the enormous door, and there was Tommy Welstead, his skin all blue from the cold, and the whole front of his shirt covered with vomit, breathing heavily with his mouth wide open, and his eyes as big as quarters. He ran past us and out the basement door, leaving pukey footprints as he went. We looked inside the prep room, and most of the floor was covered with the last few meals that Tommy had eaten. What a mess. Wayne said we’d better clean this up before his father found it, and Jimmy turned to him and said, “You made five bucks. You clean it up”. So the two of us left our tour guide to clean up the mess. We didn’t talk much on the way home. Dead people. Very creepy.
© 2007 Shaun Costello
LOOKING FOR THE SHIT
How I parlayed my annoying but tolerable sex addiction into an unexpected career move through the smut biz, providing however, that I could ever find anyone crazy enough to give me a part in one of those movies I had been watching from the safety of my seat in the balcony.
by Shaun Costello
First things first. In 1968, Otis Redding was sittin’ on the dock of the bay, Marvin Gaye heard it through the grapevine, and The Rolling Stones had sympathy for the devil. America lost first, Martin Luther King, then Bobby Kennedy. Richard Millhouse Nixon won the Whitehouse, and the Tet offensive shocked the Pentagon and turned Vietnam into the quagmire that it was to remain. America’s favorite doctor, Benjamin Spock, was indicted on charges of conspiracy to encourage violation of the draft laws. At the Mexico City Olympic Games, two track athletes had to return their medals for giving the Black Power salute, and Yale went coed.
In 1968 I was 24 years old, living in Manhattan, unemployed, without direction, pretty much adrift. I had gotten a job editing a small, controlled circulation magazine called “Careers for the College Man” when I got out of school, but after two years I became bored with it and quit. With no office destination in my daily schedule, I found myself spending an ever increasing amount of time sitting in the balconies of sleazy movie theaters looking at the bodies of naked women. This was before hard core porno was legally shown in theaters, and the available smut was anything from volley ball games in nudist camps, to exploitation sagas which included some minor nudity, to travelogues showing the breasts of Massai maidens in Kenya. As far as I was concerned any breast was better than no breast, whether it was a bouncing volley baller in a nudist camp, or a maiden in Nairobi. Then came the soft core sex movie, which presented a vast improvement over bouncing boobs. Partial nudity, simulated sex, and occasionally girls actually kissing each other. I was in heaven. I was in the balcony.
I suppose I could blame my sex addiction on my Irish Catholic upbringing, or on every girl who denied me bare tit during adolescence, which was every girl I knew, but the fact is that, for as far back as I can remember, I just wanted to have sex with everyone I met, and was disappointed when reciprocity did not present itself. I’m not even sure what a sexual addiction is exactly, except to say that, for most of my life, my libido got in my way. For most kids puberty is the beginning of an exciting life long adventure, for me it was the end of reason. Sexual fantasy became my religion, masturbation became my delight, and the balcony of the sexploitation house became my home. I was a willing slave to my own carnality, and that was just fine with me.
Having always suspected myself of possessing larger than life sexual proclivities, not that I understood the alternative, or even wanted to, I had no problem accepting my questionable daily routine, prowling the caverns of Manhattan’s West Forties looking for the shit. My problem was paying for it. With no income to support my ever-expanding sexual adventures, it was only a matter of time before I ran out of box office resources. I needed a job that would pay enough to support my smut habit, while leaving me enough free time to indulge in it.
Thank God for old friends. Joe was the only holdover from my high school days in Forest Hills, and I became reacquainted with him purely by accident, while dropping off the photo-mechanicals for an ad in “Careers” at Grey Advertising, where our production work was done. Joe had taken a job at Grey as a junior Account Exec, and it didn’t take me long to remember how much I liked him. Knowing that I hadn’t saved a nickel from my magazine salary, he had strongly advised me not to quit until I found an alternative income, advice which I completely ignored. So, when I quit the magazine Joe had an idea. He had a friend who was an up and coming fashion photographer. The guy had potential, but was shooting more tests than jobs and needed a good sales rep. A photographer’s rep is someone who pounds the pavement, from one advertising agency to the next, carrying the photographer’s portfolio, hoping to show it to agency art directors, whose responsibility it was to select the appropriate photographer to shoot an ad that the agency had created for a particular client. Sounds simple, but the competition was fierce. For every ad created there were a thousand photographers hoping to shoot it, and a thousand reps hoping to make the deal. I didn’t really know that much about photography, but during my time at the magazine I had accumulated a sizable number of contacts at most at the bigger agencies. It seemed reasonable to me that I could parlay those contacts into a successful career as one of the thousand reps hoping to make the deal.
His name was Peter and his studio was a few blocks from Gramercy Park. A large second floor loft with a decent size reception area filled by several girls with portfolios on their laps, hoping to have Peter shoot test shots of them, a brick walled shooting studio, and an apartment in the back where Peter lived. His portfolio seemed surprisingly good. Black and white photographs, mostly tests, but nice, crisp, appealing stuff. I liked the feel of the place. It was a glamorous space in an entry level kind of way, Credence Clearwater or NRBQ was playing really loud, and there were always models around, hopeful and willing. I could do this. The problem was there would be no salary. I would make a twenty five percent commission on any jobs I brought in, but that might take a while. Peter and I shook hands on a pretty loose arrangement, and I was now a photographer’s rep.
The studio turned out to be a great daily destination. I would arrive each day between nine and ten, drink coffee, make sales calls to art directors at advertising agencies, and canoodle with modeling hopefuls. After lunch I would trek uptown, portfolio under my arm, hoping to make the deal. Advertising was in it’s golden age, and the agencies still had those romantic and almost musical names, now abandoned, and long since replaced by initials: Batton Barton Durstein and Osborn, Sullivan Stauffer Colwell and Bayles, Doyle Dane Bernbach, Benton and Boles, Foote Cone and Belding, J Walter Thomson, McCann Ericson. And I took Peter’s portfolio to each and every one of them, glad-handing as many art directors as I could manage, undaunted by rejection, hoping to make the deal.
By the late sixties the Ted Bates Agency had moved into the new Astor Plaza Tower, at Broadway and Forty Fifth Street, the beginning of the alleged gentrification of Times Square. The Ted Bates Agency became a favorite target for my sales efforts, not because of its size, which was large, or its client list, which was substantial, but because of its location. It was only a block away from my balconies of choice, the sleazy movie houses of Eighth Avenue. An enthusiastic and impassioned sales pitch to a Bates art director on why Peter should photograph their new Schweppes advertising campaign, followed by two hours in the balcony watching exploitation films that probably included the nude initiation ritual of a coven of witches in Denmark.
There was a popular fantasy at the time, that my girlfriend of the moment explained to her shrink three times a week, and me whenever I would let her, which involved living in the cast of “Hair”. Spending the rest of your life dancing the dances, singing the songs, giving, and loving, and caring, and naked, and free. Let the sun shine in. There are worse ideas, I guess, but that just didn’t work for me. For me, being in the cast of “Sexual Customs in Latvia” was more like it. Being naked with flaxen haired maidens, dancing around Maypoles, and participating in strange sexual initiation rituals, while some guy with a camera keeps saying, “That’s right, keep smiling, keep dancing, that’s it. Now….everybody kiss….that’s it…more kissing”. After all, there were people in these strange movies. Why couldn’t I be one of them?
Before Al Goldstein started publishing Screw, there was an alternative weekly called The East Village Other which, because of its highly sexual content, was a must-read for any self loathing sex addict. The classifieds in the “Other” were particularly amusing, and a good place to find cheap entertainment. Swingers Clubs, Encounter Groups, Rap Sessions, Naked Bhudism – hey, it was 1968 and people DID these things. As I perused the assortment of opportunities something stopped me dead in my tracks. Right there, in between INGRID’S ENCOUNTERS, and RAP LIKE YOU MEAN IT, was the ad I had been looking for all my life. The answer to every question. The remedy to every ailment. Better than finding the Holy Grail. Right there in capital letters, printed for all to see:
MALE AND FEMALE MODELS WANTED, NUDITY REQUIRED.
I gasped. I tingled. There was a phone number to call at the bottom of the ad. My prayers had been answered. Flaxen haired nakedness, and Maypoles, and kissing, and dancing, and more kissing, and more nakedness………Latvia, here I come.
It was early February on 42nd Street, cold and bleak like it’s supposed to be. At the huge news stand on the corner of Broadway all the newspapers carried the same photograph on their front page. It was Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize winning pic of the South Vietnamese general holding a pistol to some poor guy’s head and blowing his brains out. A major offensive had just begun by the North Vietnamese army on a holiday called Tet, and there was pretty universal grumbling about where this whole mess was going. As I stood there in a crowd of equally disturbed gawkers, looking for brain particles coming out of the guy’s head, the speaker over the record store on the corner was blaring out the Beatles’ Happiness Is a Warm Gun. I hesitated, savoring the irony of a not easily forgettable moment, and then began to work my way east toward Sixth Avenue. Happiness Is a Warm Gun. Not for the guy on every front page in the city getting his brains splattered all over downtown Saigon, it wasn’t.
The north side of 42nd Street was mostly two and three story buildings, cheap retail or fast food on the street level with a stairway to the floors above, inhabited by temporary tenants, occupying the space until the long promised demolition began. I took the index card out of my pocket. I knew the address by heart, but somehow having it on a card was like having the written invitation to a party. The studio was on the second floor over a cheap electronics store that occupied the street level. The kind of electronics store that’s been going out of business since the day it opened, with large banners covering most of the windows that read: LAST DAYS…….EVERYTHING MUST GO……..LOST OUR LEASE……….MAKE AN OFFER. I guess somebody must have believed the signs, because there were customers going in and out. There was a doorway to the right of the store, and inside a stairway to the second floor. I started getting nervous as I climbed the stairs. Would there be flaxen haired peasant-girls awaiting my nude caress? Would there be nakedness and kissing? Would they like me? Or would they simply say that there’s been a big mistake. What nude models? What the hell are you talking about? Nude Models? You better get the fuck outta here. Get out. Get out before I call the cops, do you hear me. Get the fuck outta here.
I sheepishly opened the door because no one responded to my knock. It was a big, empty, dirty space, with dark paper covering the picture windows to the street. A heavy-set man came through a door with the sound of a just-flushed toilet behind him. “You the guy?” he asks me. I tell him I called from the ad in the paper, and that somebody gave me the address and told me to come on over, and that I was sorry if I was late. “Don’t worry about it. The girls are in the back. My name’s Aaron”. The place was owned by a guy named Teddy Snyder, who had a camera store in Queens, and was making extra money selling nude photographs to cheap sexploit magazines. His Igor-like, toilet flushing assistant Aaron led me to the back where Teddy was busy, taking pictures of two seriously ugly biker babes. He was an affable but business-like guy who was there to take nude photographs of myself and the two ugly girls that would be published in masturbatory magazines, and he would pay us $25 dollars each for the session.
So we start. I’m relieved to find that there’s no kissing. Not even any touching. Teddy took photographs of semi-naked people almost, but not quite touching. The girls were both stoned on the same thing, whatever that was, and were ugly. They had gnawed fingernails and horrible feet, and never stopped giggling. None of this mattered to Ted, who probably got paid the same amount for the pictures whether the feet were ugly or not. So I posed with the girls, almost, but not quite kissing their breasts, and they giggled and continued acting stupid. I don’t think they actually ever acknowledged my presence in the room. Where was my flaxen haired maiden, with her kissing and nakedness? I don’t think Teddy Snyder knew any flaxen haired maidens, but what the hell, I had twenty-five bucks more than I came in with, and Ted’s assurance of more of the same.