The photograph above was taken in May of 1939 in Los Angeles. A bit ironic that should be the location as the man in the middle with his eyes seemingly closed (probably the camera just caught him at an odd moment--we've all experienced that) was more well known as a New Yorker. In fact, he wrote for The New Yorker. That's Robert Benchley, the magazine's theater critic and a renowned wit (back in the 1920s and '30s, "theater critic" and "renowned wit" were practically synonyms.) So what's he doing in LA? In the last two decades of his life, Benchley was a movie star of sorts, best known for a series of comic shorts where he explained various facets of modern life--modern life as experienced in the 1930s and '40s. And, as a movie star, Benchley naturally got to hang around with other movie stars. The star closest to him on the left in the above picture is Herbert Marshall, who today is mostly forgotten. The closest star to Benchley on the right is debonair David Niven, perhaps not quite as forgotten as Marshall. On the far left is a man who was more a star of stage than screen, though one of the few movies he did appear in went on to become a classic. Don't recognize him yet? Imagine him with a mane and whiskers. That's right, it's Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, the debut of which was still about three months away. The man on the far right tried to be a star in vaudeville but had far more success as a Hollywood restaurateur. That's David Chasen, at whose eponymous eatery this top-hatted wingding is taking place.
Today happens to be Robert Benchley's birthday, one which he unfortunately won't be able to celebrate (he died in 1945 at the age of 56.) We the living have other options, but first the question must be asked, where exactly is he on the forgotten-remembered spectrum? Lately, when I've come across his name in print, it's usually as one of the wits (and critics) at the legendary Algonquin Round Table. His many essays--he had a wonderfully droll style--can be found in various collections of pre-World War II humor writings, but back when he was still among the living, it was the film shorts as well as supporting roles in full-length motion pictures that eventually drowned everything else out (The New Yorker ultimately fired him because he spent so much time making movies he was missing all the Broadway openings.) Today the best of those film shorts can be found on the internet, proving that he still has a following. As you'll see in this example snagged from YouTube, that following even extends to those who do not speak Benchley's native tongue:
I bet all those subtitles would keep Donald Trump awake at night.
The 1970s good ol' boy heir to such dashing Old Hollywood screen idols as Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, and Cary Grant. In the era of the Brooding Method Actor--Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman--his smile, his laugh, his reckless driving, made him stand out. Reynold's own method of acting was to never venture too far outside his comfort zone, and he certainly never expected us audience members to venture outside of ours. No, all he ever asked of us as we sat there in that darkened theater, or even in the comfort of our own home (he was on Carson a lot) was to simply take in the charisma, of which he had a limitless supply. Of course, the 1970s is now as old as Old Hollywood once was (if not quite a myth-laden), and that begs the question, who today is the heir to Burt Reynolds?
Johnny Depp? Dwayne Johnson? Vin Diesel? Robert Downing Jr?
You don't have to answer that if you don't want to. Instead, you can just enjoy this updating of the Robin Hood legend. I'm serious. Burt is Robin, Sally Field is Maid Marian, Jackie Gleason is the Sheriff of Nottingham, and...
...the National Highway System is Sherwood Forest.
Writing is an escape from a world that crowds me. I like being alone in a
room. It's almost a form of medication--an investigation of my own
life. It has nothing to do with "I've got to get another play”
Simon grew up in Upper Manhattan in the 1930s. It wasn't an easy childhood, as his parents marriage was anything but idyllic:
To this day I never really knew what the reason for all the fights and
battles were about between the two of them ... She'd hate him and be
very angry, but he would come back and she would take him back. She
really loved him.
Simon often took refuge in the movies. He especially liked comedies. Simon also spent time at the library, reading the works of famous humorists, such as Mark Twain, S.J. Perelman, and Robert Benchley, as well as, and this I suspect may have had a particular influence on him...
...the plays of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.
After a stint in the Army Reserves, Simon and his older brother Danny became writers for Robert Q. Lewis, a popular radio star of the postwar period.
The two brothers were hired by television producer Max Liebman to write for this man...
They weren't Caesar's only writers. The TV comedian had the best in the business. This is just some of the writing staff for Your Show of Shows. That's Danny Simon of the far left, standing. On the fa r left sitting and jotting down something on a notepad is Mel Brooks. Immediately to the left of Caesar is head writer Mel Tolkin. And Neil? Why, he's looking right at you!
In 1954, Your Show of Shows went under a kind of reorganization and became Caesar's Hour. Neil Simon wrote for that, too. That's him standing on the left. Standing on the far right is Larry Gelbart, who would go on to create the long-running military comedy MASH.
Though it was far less life-and-death than Gelbart's series, Simon also wrote for a military comedy, The Phil Silvers Show (informally known as Sgt Bilko.)
The final season of Silver was filmed in Los Angeles, a town Simon never liked very much. The problem was, it was rapidly becoming the center of the TV industry. What was Simon to do?
The answer: Simon would switch from television to the theater. After all, his home town had a rather famous theater district called Broadway.
Come Blow Your Horn, a 1961 comedy about a young man's clumsy attempts at the playboy lifestyle was Simon's first Broadway hit, running for 678 performances.
Premiering in 1963, Barefoot in the Park, starring a young Robert Redford as a frazzled newlywed, was an even bigger hit, in fact, it eventually became Simon's longest running play. It was 1967 when the show finally ended. Today it stands as Broadway's 10th longest running non-musical production.
My divorce! When do I get my divorce?
Paul: How should I know? The marriage license hasn't even come in yet!
I had to park the car three blocks away. Then it started to rain so I
ran the last two blocks. Then my heel got caught in a subway grating.
When I pulled my foot out, I stepped in a puddle. Then a cab went by and
splashed my stockings. If the hardware store downstairs was open, I was
going to buy a knife and kill myself.
[Dropping newspaper on pile of unread ones outside the door]
How long they been in there? Maid:5 days. Bellboy:
That must be a hotel record. Maid:
For a political convention. Honeymoon record's 9 days.
The Odd Couple, Simon's best-known play (thanks in large part to the subsequent TV series), which premiered in 1965. A recently divorced man named Felix Ungar moves in with his friend, another divorced man named Oscar Madison. The two get on each other's nerves, resentments and jealousies flourish, as they themselves begin to resemble a married couple (albeit one where the honeymoon is long since over.)
Walter Matthau, left, played sloppy Oscar, a role he repeated in the 1968 film (and which finally made him a movie star after years of supporting roles.) Art Carney portrayed neat freak Felix. Those of you (and this includes me) who know him as laid-back, somewhat slovenly Ed Norton of The Honeymooners may have hard time envisioning him as Simon's neurotic, lachrymose divorcee. Yet his performance got rave reviews in its day. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have been captured on film or tape, and is thus lost forever. We'll never know how Carney stacks up against Jack Lemmon or Tony Randell.
Felix:Who the hell do you think I am, the Magic Chef? I'm lucky I got it to come out at eight o'clock. Wh-wh-what am I gonna do? Oscar: I dunno, keep pouring gravy on it. Felix: Gravy? What gravy? Oscar: Don't you have any gravy? Felix: Where the hell am I gonna get gravy at eight o'clock? Oscar:
I dunno, I though it comes when you cook the meat. Felix:
[under his breath]
Comes when you cook the meat.
[stares at him for a moment]
You don't know what you're talking about, Oscar. You just don't know, because you have to MAKE gravy, it doesn't come! Oscar: Well, you asked my advice... Felix:
Your advice? You didn't even know where this kitchen was until I came hear and showed it to you. Oscar:
Listen buddy, if you're going to argue with me, put down that spoon. Felix: Spoon? Haha, you dumb ignoramus, that is a ladle! You did not know that's a ladle! Oscar:
Get a hold of yourself, will ya? Felix:
You think it's so easy? Go ahead, kitchen's yours, all yours, you make a
meatloaf for four people who come a half-hour late. Go on. Oscar:
I can't believe I'm arguing with him over gravy. Felix: [doorbell rings]
They're here - the dinner guests. I'll get a saw and cut the meat!
Here's Simon with the man who directed the last two of the above three plays, Mike Nichols. Some more hits from Simon:
The Eugene trilogy:
Many, many others. As well as books for musicals (Sweet Charity). And screenplays (The Out-of-Towners, Murder by Death, The GoodbyeGirl,) I've just scratched the surface. But I'm going to be away from the computer for the next couple of days, and can't really do the man justice, so let me just try to sum things up.
In the comment section of a previous post, I jokingly held up television as the highest achievement of Western Civilization. Then less jokingly took it back. I realize TV is looked down upon. Yet that's what spawned Neil Simon. He took the best of sketch and situation comedy writing and left the worst behind. What was that worst? Jokes, no matter how well-written, that exist only for themselves that neither advance plot nor help explain character. Simon plays avoid those pitfalls. The humor comes naturally, the characters don't even realize they're telling jokes. They DO know they're being sarcastic, but in real life, sarcasm is used less to make people laugh than to piss them off. Simon's plays shows how hilarious those pissing matches can be to a third party: We, the audience.
Though they liked him when he first came on the scene, theater critics eventually became the poison pen in Simon's side. As a response he used this time-honored comeback: They hate me because I'm popular. They're might be some truth to that. Critics loath giving in to the mob, which is what mass popularity can come to seem like. But are any of their complaints about Simon legitimate?
Critics have found fault with Simon's worldview. He didn't seem to have one. Simon was no George Bernard Shaw, offering a critique of the larger society that his characters operated in. True, urban angst was Simon's great theme, but in the end that urbanity was mainly a set up for the angst-ridden punch line. Simon occasionally acknowledged that there may be socials forces at work that batted his characters around, but seemed to regard those forces as Mark Twain regarded the weather, which everyone complains but nobody ever does anything about. Civilization is something people clumsily adapt to, but never (clumsily or otherwise) bring about. Instead, the characters in his plays love and argue within it boundaries. Oh, well, maybe that IS a way if critiquing the larger society
One complaint is that Simon's plays sort of peter out, that there's no third act. It's certainly true his third acts are often the LEAST funniest parts of his plays. He doesn't try to top his own jokes as he nears the finish line. In addition, I personally have noticed a kind of ambiguity. The characters may achieve a truce of sort, but the play's central conflict remains basically unresolved. Oscar and Felix remain pretty much the same at the end of The Odd Couple as the beginning. You can't imagine Oscar ever straightening up, either his life or his apartment, and seems doomed to one day asphyxiate under his own debris. Felix may end up with the Pigeon Sisters at the end of the play, but they'll eventually tire of him. It certainly won't turn into a ménage à trois; that would be too untidy for him. There's a resolution of sorts in The Sunshine Boys. The two elderly vaudevillians finally admit they don't like each other! But I don't really have a problem with any of that. As is the case with many, many humorists, Mark Twain and James Thurber included, Simon's jokes may mask a more basic pessimism. Simon himself once said:
I think part of what made me a comedy writer is the blocking out of some
of the really ugly, painful things in my childhood and covering it up
with a humorous attitude...do something to laugh until I was able to
forget what was hurting.
In the comment section of a recent post of mine, I said someone I've long admired had died and I would be doing an obit on him. Just so as there's no misunderstanding, the Vietnam vet pictured above is NOT that person. Nevertheless, I am not unmoved by his passing, and admit that both during his military service (including his stay at a "Hilton"), and his long political career afterwards, he could at times rise to the occasion. None of which means I think he would have made a good president (though he would have made a much better one than a certain casino mogul I can think of.) So, yes, I have mixed feelings about him. As did this writer for The Nation. His opinions don't completely match up with mine (though it's tempting, I wouldn't quite call myself a pacifist--blame that on Hitler) but they come close. If you have the time, you might want to give it a read:
Comic book artist Russ Heath worked for Timely (now Marvel) Comics on their Western line and for a while assisted Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder on Little Annie Fanny for Playboy, but is best known for the war comics he drew for DC in the 1960s. Take a look (but first make sure you're wearing your flak jacket):
I'm not sure Mahatma Gandhi would approve, but you have to admit this is some pretty lively comic art.
Need to cool off after all that combat? Let's go for a swim:
Where's the Coast Guard when you need it?
Where's the game warden when you need him?
Though his career spanned a major revival of superhero comics (today referred to as the "Silver Age"), Heath surprisingly drew very few of those, but here's one he did do:
I knew she was a tease. On an assignment for Mad, Heath parodied a superhero...
...who was pretty much a parody to begin with (comics history buffs will note a certain alligator, a certain cat, a certain phantom, a certain sandwich gourmand, and a certain hyena--there might be others I can't identify, so if you can, please let me know in the comments section.)
Anyone out there care to hum a few bars of the William Tell Overture? It would be a great way to introduce...
...The Lone Ranger! Heath drew the comic strip version of the famous Western hero (I'd say his Tonto is more Jay Silverheels than Johnny Depp.)
In recent years, Heath drew pretty girls for Glamourpuss, a satirical black-and-white comic book in Canada.
I must have missed the bondage episode, because I don't recall Marlo Thomas ever looking like that. "Oh, Donald!" Probably the Russ Heath art that was seen by the most eyeballs was not anything on the front or on the inside or a comic book but on the back cover:
Let's move on to another historical period:
Suppose you plunked down a buck ninety-eight for those Revolutionary War soldiers, what would you actually get?
Bluecoats vs Redcoats. Literally. It's a far cry from that Russ Heath drawing, but I suppose it's just as well. If gunpowder actually did burst forth from those muskets and cannons, it might make a mess of the rec room, and then what would Mom say?
In 1962, this panel drawn by Heath appeared in the DC comic book All American Men at War. A short time later...
...Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein produced this painting:
Look a bit alike, don't they?
Now, you can go back and forth on this (as I have to myself.) You can argue Lichtenstein, a very well-known artist in his day and certainly not forgotten now, was nothing more than a plagiarist, who achieved fame by ripping off work that at the time was looked down upon and deemed to be more a mass-produced product than actual art, or you can argue he was actually making a statement about America's militaristic culture in much the same way that fellow pop artist Andy Warhol was making a statement about America's consumerist culture with his Campbell soup cans. It's hard to say which, but I do know one thing. The money that changed hands between Lichtenstein and the people (or institution) that bought his painting was much, much greater than the money that exchanged hands between work-for-hire artist Russ Heath and DC comics. Here's what Heath himself had to say about it in 2014:
I'm afraid the then-84 year old Heaths's memory was a bit off concerning his own work. The "Whaam!" painting he refers to was actually ANOTHER Lichtenstein work based on a comic panel drawn by Irv Novick that also appeared in a 1960s DC war comic. Nevertheless, the point is well-made. Heath and Novick unwittingly helped advance Lichtenstein's career without getting any compensation in return. If case you're wondering about the Hero Initiative that Heath mentions, it's an organization that helps aging comic book artists, many who spent their careers as benefits-deficient freelancers, help make ends meet. And, as you just read, not only did it make Heath's ends meet, he even got a bottle of wine. Speaking of wine: