Monday, October 15, 2018

Home, Jeeves

1940: The man on the left is American journalist Angus Thuermer, an obscure figure now and an obscure figure even then but one whose career choices allowed him to become a bemused witness to history on at least two occasions (he was later a CIA spokesman during the time of Watergate.) The man on the right is not so obscure. It's P.G. Wodehouse, the celebrated author who wrote humorous stories about the British upper-class, most notably those involving the young aristocratic halfwit Bertie Wooster and his supremely capable valet Jeeves, who earned much of his pay bailing his employer out of whatever trouble he had gotten himself into. Wodehouse had been a successful writer for going on three decades now, had earned himself a lot of money, so one might expect this interview to be taking place in some country estate, maybe a penthouse, or perhaps a posh hotel suite, but no, it instead took place in... a German-run prison for enemy nationals.

So how in the world did a man who wrote stuff like this:

“Oh, Jeeves," I said. "About that check suit."
"A trifle too bizarre, sir, in my opinion."
"But lots of fellows have asked me who my tailor is."
"Doubtless in order to avoid him, sir."
"He's supposed to be one of the best men in London."
"I am saying nothing against his moral character, sir.” 

...or this:

Besides, isn't there something in the book of rules about a man may not marry his cousin? Or am I thinking of grandmothers?

...or this:

I hadn't heard the door open, but the man was on the spot once more. My private belief, as I think I have mentioned before, is that Jeeves doesn't have to open doors. He's like one of those birds in India who bung their astral bodies about--the chaps, I mean, who having gone into thin air in Bombay, reassemble the parts and appear two minutes later in Calcutta. Only some such theory will account for the fact that he's not there one moment and is there the next. He just seems to float from Spot A to Spot B like some form of gas.

...or this:

 "Goodbye, Bertie," he said, rising.
I seemed to spot an error.
"You mean 'Hullo,' don't you?"
"No, I don't. I mean goodbye. I'm off."
"Off where?"
"To the kitchen garden. To drown myself."
"Don't be an ass."
"I'm not an ass...Am I an ass, Jeeves?"
"Possibly a little injudicious, sir."
"Drowning myself, you mean?"
"Yes, sir."
"You think, on the whole, not drown myself?"
"I should not advocate it, sir."
"Very well, Jeeves. I accept your ruling. After all, it would be unpleasant for Mrs. Travers to find a swollen body floating in her pond."

...or this:

 “What ho!" I said.
"What ho!" said Motty.
"What ho! What ho!"
"What ho! What ho! What ho!"
After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.”

...or this

“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, 'Do trousers matter?'"
"The mood will pass, sir.” 

...end up under the thumb of somebody who wrote stuff like this?:

 The application of force alone, without support based on a spiritual concept, can never bring about the destruction of an idea or arrest the propagation of it, unless one is ready and able to ruthlessly to exterminate the last upholders of that idea even to a man, and also wipe out any tradition which it may tend to leave behind.

--Mein Kampf

The answer is taxation. As Wodehouse sold more and more books, and made more and more money, he despaired at seeing so much of it go to His Majesty's Government, and, as he worked on and off on Broadway and in Hollywood, the Internal Revenue Service. He thought it unfair that both the United Kingdom and the United States should claim him as a resident for tax purposes, so in 1934 he and his wife Ethel moved to Le Touquet in Northern France, and made that their permanent residence (though he remained a British subject). The two were still in Le Touquet in 1939 when France and Britain declared war on Germany. They were still there in Le Touquet in 1940 when the German army found that a shortcut through Belgium allowed them to go around that pesky Maginot Line. They were still there in Le Touquet when the British military skedaddled out of Dunkirk. And they were still there in Le Touquet when, in his own words, “I was strolling on the lawn with my wife, when she lowered her voice, and said, ‘Don’t look now, but here comes the German army.’”

For the first two months of occupation all Wodehouse and his wife had to do was report to German authorities. Then it was decided that all male enemy nationals under the age of 60 (Wodehouse was then 59) be rounded up and sent away. After short lockups in several places, Wodehouse ended up in an insane asylum-turned-prison in Tost in Upper Silesia, in what was then part of Germany (today it's in Poland.) Associated Press reporter Angus Thuermer, based in Berlin (the U.S. had not yet entered the war) got wind of all this, and, sensing a scoop, made his way to Upper Selisia. Since there had been some puzzlement outside of Nazi-occupied Europe as to what exactly had happened to the best-selling author, this was indeed a major story. Diplomatic pressure from the U.S. (where the writer had made a lot of influential friends) was put on Germany to release Wodehouse, or at least find him better accommodations. Hoping it might keep America out of the war, the Nazis chose the latter.

Wodehouse and wife Ethel (who had been allowed to stay behind in Le Touquet) were put up in one of the best hotels in Berlin, paid for through the German royalties of his book. He had been a best-selling author there, too. They also asked him to do them a little favor. Would he please do a few radio broadcasts for The Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (Goebbels' outfit) that would then be aired in the still-officially isolationist United States. Actually, I don't know if they were that polite about it, but Wodehouse agreed. The five broadcasts together were titled How to be an Internee Without Previous Training, and were made up of humorous anecdotes of POW life ("If this is Upper Silesia, I'd hate to see what Lower Silesia is like.") They were essentially non-political, and Wodehouse hardly endorsed the German war effort, but didn't denounced it either.

These didn't just end up getting broadcast in America, where everyone got a good giggle out of them, but also in Blitzed-out England, where Wodehouse's I'm-living-under-Nazi-occupation-LOL tone didn't go over very well at all. His books were removed from several libraries, and newspapers called him a "traitor, collaborator, Nazi propagandist and a coward" and he was said to have "lived luxuriously because Britain laughed with him, but when the laughter was out of his country's heart, ... [he] was not ready to share her suffering. He hadn't the guts ... even to stick it out in the internment camp." As Wodehouse himself conceded at a much later date, "Of course I ought to have had the sense to see that it was a loony thing to do to use the German radio for even the most harmless stuff, but I didn't. I suppose prison life saps the intellect."

The Wodehouses stayed in Germany until 1943, when, thanks to Allied bombing, they were allowed to move to Paris, which is where they were when that city was liberated in August of 1944. The noted British journalist Malcolm Muggerridge, who during the war worked as an intelligence officer with the M16 interrogated Wodehouse shortly thereafter, decided that he hadn't committed treason after all, and had been no more than a 60-year old Bertie Wooster, a rich kid who had gotten himself into trouble. Another intelligence officer gave a more formal interrogation that lasted four days, and came to the same conclusion. Wodehouse was free to go, but go where? To jail, because now the newly-liberated French had him arrested, possibly on the advice of those in Britain who did not agree with their own intelligence agencies' conclusions. He eventually was released in January of 1945, and allowed to leave France in June of 1946. Wodehouse didn't feel he could go back to Britain, where resentment against him still ran pretty high, so he and Ethel fled to the United States, to New York State, to Long Island, and finally, to...    


...The Hamptons (hey, a war refugee has to go somewhere.) Wodehouse became a U.S. citizen in 1955, and continued to have books published on a yearly basis until his death in 1975. Shortly before he died, the forgiving British decided to knight him, but the long trip to his native land (which he hadn't laid eyes on since the 1930s) would have been too much for a man in his 90s. In 1999, a newly released intelligence document revealed that British officials in 1946 had second thoughts about letting him go free, and it was recommended that if he ever return to the United Kingdom, he be tried for treason.

So what to make of all this? Was he secretly a Nazi sympathizer, as some have alleged, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Wodehouse wrote 71 books in his life, and gave numerous interviews, but thanks to his witty elusiveness, it's difficult to pin down how he felt about anything. He spent his life writing about the British upper-class, but the magistrate's son, despite the money he made, never actually was one of them. Did he like that upper-class, or despise it? His stories can be read either way. His work has been enjoyed by both liberals and conservatives (as well as fascists and communists.)

My best guess is that P.G. Wodehouse was both Wooster and Jeeves. He could get in trouble, but was supremely capable enough to get himself back out. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

Quips and Quotations (Theoretical Physics Edition)

Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.

--Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

That Championship Season

1990: The jubilant-looking man on the left is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The equally jubilant-looking man on the right is Nelson Mandela. What's got them in such a good mood? Well, they're old pen pals who only very recently finally got to meet face to face. It's been about a week since Mandela was released from a 27-year prison stay for championing the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa. If you don't already know, apartheid was the white-implemented policy that all blacks in the country remain second-class citizens. Now, second-class citizenry is hardly something uncommon in world (or U.S.) history, but what made apartheid even more distressingly unjust was that the blacks constituted a majority of the population. How weird is that? Whole cities became exclusive country clubs, that's how weird. Disenfranchising nine out of ten people didn't make much economic sense, either. It's as if you dismantled the Eiffel Tower and then charged to use the observation deck. Anyway, in his time behind bars, Mandela himself became part of the cause he had fought for, and an inspiration for those outside the prison walls, such as Tutu, who helped turn what initially was seen as one nation-state's internal matter into an international outrage.

Apartheid came to an end not too long after Mandela was released, and the former political prisoner ascended to the presidency. As I wrote when he died in 2013, it's up to the South African people to decide how well he did in that job, but one thing is certain, the widespread retaliatory oppression of the white minority never came to pass, as so many in that white minority had feared.

As for Desmond Tutu, he turns 87 today. In recent years he's spoken out against LGBTQ discrimination, and was in attendance when his daughter married another woman in the Netherlands in 2016. He probably figured, enough with the second-class treatment already. 

Monday, October 1, 2018

Vital Viewing (Symbiotic Relationship Edition)

The man on the right, actor Walter Matthau, was born on this day in 1920 (he died in 2000.) In 1998, he and frequent costar Jack Lemmon talked with Jay Leno:

I think Matthau was being facetious when he suggested he and Lemmon might have ended up driving or unloading a truck if not for the 1968 film version of The Odd Couple. At that point in time, Lemmon had been a pretty bankable movie star ever since winning an Oscar for playing Ensign Pulver in 1955's Mister Roberts. Matthau had a much slower start, but by his late 40s, he, too, was starting to become well-known. Not only had he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1966's The Fortune Cookie (the first film he appeared in with Lemmon)...

...but originated the role of messy Oscar Madison in the stage version of The Odd Couple, a humongous Broadway hit (that's Art Carney as tidy Felix Ungar, which reminds me, if, as Matthau said, Paramount Pictures originally wanted Jackie Gleason as Oscar, wouldn't it have made sense to pair him with the guy who played Ed Norton on The Honeymooners rather than Frank Sinatra?)

In the Leno clip, Matthau talks about how when making The Bad News Bears in 1976, the child actors he was working with knew only the sitcom version of The Odd Couple and thus Tony Randall as Felix, and Jack Klugman as Oscar

TV's most recent Oscar and Felix. Were they to remake The Bad News Bears a third time (the second was in 2005), I'm sure the child actors would recognize the names of Matthew Perry (Chandler on Friends) and Thomas Lennon (Jim Dangle on Reno 911!) before they would Klugman or Randell.

In 1982, there was an African-American Odd Couple with Ron Glass (Harris on Barney Miller) as Felix and Demond Wilson (Lamont of Sanford and Son) as Oscar. Since this TV version and the earlier one with Randall and Klugman were both produced by Garry Marshall, scripts from the first series were often used (with some black slang thrown in for authenticity's sake.) It only lasted one season.

A Saturday morning Odd Couple.

They have yet to make a movie or TV series based on it, but in the 1980s there was a female Odd Couple in another Broadway version that ran for about a year. Sally Struthers (Gloria on All in the Family) played neat freak Florence Ungar and Rita Moreno (Anita in West Si--aw, c'mon, the woman's a living legend!) portrayed sloppy Olive Madison.

Some have argued that Jon Cryer and Charlie Sheen of Two and a Half Men were really just Felix and Oscar with different names.

In 1998, Neil Simon, the man who came up with the idea in the first place, wrote a movie sequel titled The Odd Couple 2 starring Matthau and Lemmon. It flopped at the box office, but I liked it anyway.

However, I like the 1968 movie version, which DIDN'T flop at the box office, much, much more:

Altogether, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon made 10 films together. One more and they would have tied with Fred and Ginger.