Monday, May 10, 2021

Vital Viewing (May-December Hoofers Edition)


Actor, singer, and, above all else, dancer Fred Astaire was born on this day in 1899 (he died in 1987.) He had many dance partners during his long career, starting with his sister Adele when they were both still kids. Besides her, there was Eleanor Powell, Paulette Goddard, Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen, Betty Hutton, Jane Powell, Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, Audrey Hepburn, Petula Clark, and, of course, Ginger Rogers, with whom he danced with through ten films. Yet when asked in 1973 who he thought was his best partner, Astaire named none of those well-known ladies but instead a woman who may not be as famous today as she suddenly found herself to be one October night in 1958: 

"Barrie Chase is the best partner--she's the latest partner that I've had, and believe me, that girl has got it--that girl can dance."

Fred Astaire's movie career was winding down toward the end of the 1950s. The Band Wagon (1953), Funny Face (1957), and Silk Stockings (1957) are today all considered film classics, and yet lost money upon their box office releases. Part of it was these movies were very expensively-made, and couldn't just be popular but needed to be very popular to turn a profit. Another was that teenagers were making up a bigger share of the moviegoing audience, and they wanted rock 'n' roll, not the Tin Pan Alley stuff that had provided the background music for Fred's fancy footwork. Now, these teenagers' parents did still want that Tin Pan Alley stuff, but they had stopped going to the movies, preferring to stay home and watch TV.  And TV was where the 59-year-old Astaire's immediate future lie. It wasn't going to be a regularly scheduled series, though, but one of those things that occasionally replace regularly scheduled series: a special. To make sure this special wouldn't be confused with a run-of-the-mill variety show, producer-director-writer Bud Yorkin convinced Astaire that it should be him alone with no guest stars. Astaire agreed that there should be no guest stars, but he wasn't about to dance every dance solo. So he went out and got himself a partner.

The 25-year-old daughter of a Hollywood screenwriter, Barrie Chase had appeared in the chorus lines of several 1950s movie musicals, including White Christmas, Hans Christian Anderson, Brigadoon, Pal Joey, and two movies with Fred Astaire himself, the first of which was Daddy Long Legs. Astaire later professed not to have first noticed her in DDL, but, ironically, on the set of a Gene Kelly movie, Les Girls, where he spotted her through an open door at MGM. Impressed, he gave her a small, uncredited part in the aforementioned Silk Stockings, where she momentarily performs the can-can in front of three decadent Bolsheviks. It doesn't sound like much of a breakthrough, and it wasn't, but then came An Evening with Fred Astaire. Here's Fred and Barrie in Techni--no, in early color videotape, but it holds up just as well:


I love that finger-snap of resignation at the end. For all his expensively-tailored duds, Astaire had a touch of the everyman about him.

Fred has better luck with Barrie in this clip, but it's in the oddest place. Jazzman Jonah Jones explains:

Now that's the kind of "taps" I wish they'd play more often at funerals!

An Evening with Fred Astaire was one of the great television successes not just of 1958 but the 1950s as a whole. In addition to winning its time slot in the ratings, it won an unprecedented nine Emmys, including a controversial one for Astaire for Best Actor (in his defense, Fred rhetorically asked, "I'm an actor, and this Emmy is for a performance by an actor, isn't it? When I do a difficult pantomime in a dance which tells a story, what do they think it is? Tiddlywinks?") The special was much written about in its day, and when it was rerun three months later, the rerun won its time slot! Between 1959 and 1968 there were three more television specials with Astaire and Chase. Also, the two danced on the 1960s variety show Hollywood Palace, and acted and danced together on the anthology show Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater in a comedy story titled "Think Pretty." In 2017, the then-83-year-old Chase discussed her famous dance partner in a BBC interview:

An 83-year-old woman in a miniskirt and stilettoes?! In the comment section of the YouTube page from which I snagged this video, the consensus seems to be, if she still got the legs for it, why not? You can certainly see where all those years of dancing paid off.

Barrie Chase's time in the limelight lasted just under 15 years. In 1972, she married for a third time to a doctor and, quite voluntarily, left show biz, left fame, to raise a family. The nearly 50-year absence has taken its toll on her name recognition, I'm afraid. Her legacy is now cemented to just one phase of Fred Astaire's legendary career. It's all they asked her about in that BBC interview. That's not the case with Ginger Rogers, who died at 83 in 1995. When she gave interviews late in life, sure, she was asked about Astaire--that was unavoidable--but there were always questions left over about the many things she did on her own, such as the Oscar she won for Kitty Foyle, her appearance alongside Katherine Hepburn in Stage Door, and the classic romantic comedies Bachelor Mother and The Major and the Minor. I suspect that if Barrie Chase had hung around a little longer, like Rogers she would have been forever associated with Fred Astaire, but not exclusively so. Barrie Chase did do things on her own. As with other dancer-singers of that era, like Ann-Margaret and Joey Heatherton, she had her own nightclub act. She danced solo on a Hollywood Palace in which Astaire didn't appear. She did a few dramatic roles, most notably, and most credibly, as an unfortunate young woman who is brutally raped by Robert Mitchum in the original 1962 version of Cape Fear. If you prefer to see her in much lighter fare, she's the last surviving credited cast member of...

...this popular 1960s comedy:

Though he was a lot closer to her in age than Astaire, the dance team of Shawn and Chase just never took off.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Quips and Quotations (Flying Solo Edition)



I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo 11 seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have...This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two.

-- Michael Collins, who stayed behind on the command module Columbia as fellow astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the surface of the moon in the lunar lander Eagle. Orbiting the moon all by himself 14 times, Collins was cut off from all communications with Earth for about 45 minutes every time the Columbia entered the natural satellite's renowned dark side. Even when Collins was back in contact with Earth, he was not among the estimated 600 million television viewers who got to see Armstrong and Aldrin traipse about the Sea of Tranquility. Still, he was there to pick the two men up when the Eagle bid adieu to the moon, all three returning safely to Earth. Deke Slayton, at the time the director of Flight Crew Operations, offered to put Collins back into crew rotation afterwards, which probably would have allowed him to walk on the moon himself on the final lunar mission in 1972. But having already been in space twice--he also had been a member of Gemini 10, where he had performed a spacewalk--Collins didn't want yet another long absence from his family that training for such a mission demanded, and so resigned from NASA. In his post-astronaut life, Collins wrote a best-selling autobiography, worked as an assistant secretary for the State Department, was the first director of the National Air and Space Museum, was made a vice-president of an aerospace company, and opened his own consulting firm. Aside from all that, he basically kept out of the spotlight, as he considered  celebrityhood rather silly. Nevertheless, he had his own Twitter account, and, a little more than a week ago, left this tweet:






Friday, April 23, 2021

This Day in History


Meet Jawed Karim. I'll give you more information about him right after this very brief documentary. For now all you need to know is that on April 23, 2005, he uploaded to YouTube its first video, titled "Me at the zoo": 

Though I've since found out that this is probably the most famous YouTube video of all time, I was unaware of its existence until a week ago. Of course I've heard of YouTube, which regularly supplies this blog with its moving pictures, but never gave much thought to its origins. Not knowing anything about this video when I first saw it other than that it was the first, I assumed that young man was still in high school when it was created. I mean, he looks and even sounds like a teenager, doesn't he? In fact, Jawed Karim was 25 at the time. Admittedly, that's not too long after high school, but shouldn't he at least have, I don't know, a five o'clock shadow or something? Noting the contrast between his thoroughly Americanized speaking style and--I hope this doesn't come across as too xenophobic--foreign-sounding name, I figured he must be a first-generation American. As a matter of fact, he's a naturalized American citizen, born in a country then known as East Germany to a Bangladeshi father and German mother. Not too long after he moved with his family from East Germany to West Germany. When he was about 13, he and his family emigrated to the United States, settling in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he graduated from high school. English, then, is not his first language, as he would have spent much of his growing up years speaking either German or Bengali, though I detect no trace of an accent, evidence of the transcendent, multicultural power of the phrase "that's cool".


9, 868,404? That was years ago. It's now up to 161,518,949.  There are 11,118,151 comments, and a few of the comments themselves have many comments. For instance, the comment, "I learned more about elephants in this video than I did in 12 years of school" has 500 replies (one of which is "Not even school can tell you whether they're long or not 😔.") Then there's the thumb up/thumb down. 182 thousand viewers didn't like the video. That's a lot of people, but it's dwarfed by the 7.5 million who did like it. As for subscriptions to his YouTube channel, "jawed", they're at 1.82 million. Certainly not everybody but I imagine at least some of those subscribers have been waiting for the full 16 years for Karim to post an encore video, whereas there's one subscriber that I know of--me!--who's been waiting a whole week. Don't fret. I'm patient. In the meantime, I have to ask, how did he come to post that 16 year old video in the first place? Did he answer a help wanted ad placed in the newspaper? Or, more appropriately, in the Wired classifieds?

   In a sense, it turns out that he was the one doing the advertising. Jared Karim cofounded YouTube with Chad Hurley and Steve Chen. The three twentysomething males met while working at PayPal, an online money transfer company, a kind of  digital age version of Western Union. PayPal was acquired by eBay in 2002. The story then gets a bit hazy, but Karim, Hurley, and Chen seems to have been bought out as a result of the acquisition, and with their newfound riches (which were nothing compared to riches yet to come) decided to form their own company. How did they happen upon video sharing? Stores vary, from Hurley and Chen wanting to start an online dating service specifically focusing on attractive women to Karim frustrated that he couldn't find Janet Jackson's infamous Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction online (I guess I should emphasize that these were three twentysomething heterosexual males.) Whatever its inspiration, YouTube was founded on February 14, 2005 (though not as an online dating service after all,, despite it being Valentine's Day.) By mid-April, the three techies had worked out all the bugs, and that's when Karim uploaded his video. So his primary motivation wasn't to be the next Lester Holt or Anderson Cooper, but just to have content for his own website. His video might encourage others to use the service. And so it did. Within a year, 65,000 videos--a mixture of DIY, as was Karim's, and third-party, i.e., movie and TV clips--were being uploaded every day, and the site was receiving 100 million views a day. That's a lot of supply and demand.


I doubt if artistic considerations (or the rules of title capitalization) were uppermost in Jawed Karim's mind when he and a friend (the guy holding the camera) put together "Me at the zoo," but can we regard it as art anyway, or is it just an audio-visual post-it note, with a computer screen in place of a refrigerator? And if it's not art, why is the video so popular? Well, I didn't read all 11,118,151 comments, but the 20 or so that I did skim through would indicate that much of it has to do with simple curiosity. "2021, time to watch the first video on YouTube", as someone named Lonely Sandwich puts it. Obviously, if that video debuted today, it would be less of a sensation, and the San Diego Zoo would find little reason to feel honored. Some naysayers feel the video is of substandard quality. Well, in my opinion, it's substandard in the same way that Gertie the Dinosaur (the first widely-seen animated cartoon), the Model T Ford (the first affordable automobile) and Pong (the first video game) are substandard. Immensely popular in their respective days, those things would be met with a shrug at best were they being introduced for the very first time in 2021. What one has to do is stop obsessing about all the innovations that have since come down the pike, and accept a famous first on its own terms. Do that and the appeal becomes immediately apparent, it becomes fresh again, the sense of promise is once more there. Karim's low-key, tongue-in-cheek approach fit perfectly with the experimental nature of early YouTube. While it's no The Wizard of Oz, I personally got a kick out of "Me at the zoo" and laughed out loud when Karim concluded by wryly saying, "...and that's pretty much all there is to say." Why not laugh? I truly believe he meant to end it on a humorous note. And finally, it is cool that elephants have such long trunks. If you don't believe me, then go to the zoo and see for yourself!

Not too long after YouTube was launched, Jawed Karim decided to go back to school, as a graduate student in--you would have thought he would have known enough about this subject by now but I guess not-- computer science at Stanford University. So while Chad Hurley and Steve Chen served as co-CEOs of the new internet startup, Karim was only an informal advisor, with a somewhat smaller share of the company's stock. When Google  purchased YouTube about a year and a half later, Hurley and Chen (still in their 20s) walked away from the sale billionaires, while all Karim got was a measly $64 million.

Still, he made do.

Jawed Karim was an early investor in Airbnb, the online houses-for-rent vacation booking company, and thanks to the success of that, in addition to his YouTube shares, he now has a net worth of around $190 million. Obviously, he's no longer anybody's idea of what was once known in the vernacular as the "common man". Nevertheless, he struck a populist blow against Big Tech a while back when Google, the motto of which is "Don't be evil", in the eyes of many seemed to be just that when it launched Google+  in 2011 as an alternative to Facebook. Rather than let the superiority of the product speak for itself--well, let's not go there--it decided to use strongarm tactics to attract subscribers, namely people already subscribing to such Google subsidiary services as Blogger and the aforementioned YouTube. Basically, if you wanted to partake in some or all of those services, you had to subscribe to Google+ and waste an hour or so giving a lot of detailed information about yourself, and deciding what portion of that detailed information you want under virtual lock and key and what you want out there for the whole world to see. Google+ came to an inglorious end in 2019, but not before Jawed Karim made his opinion known:

 "why the fuck do i need a Google+ account to comment on a video"

And that's pretty much all there is to say.  



Saturday, April 17, 2021

Quips and Quotations (Workplace Safety Edition)


All the guys on the set smoked. They just dropped their butts and stepped on them. The producers worried that I might step on a smoldering cigarette and go up in flames...They gave me synthetic hair, which was flame-retardant.

--Felix Silla, stuntman and actor, Cousin Itt on TV's The Addams Family

Numerous obituaries are reporting that Cousin Itt was the only television Addams Family character to not have appeared first in a Charles Addams New Yorker cartoon, but as someone who as a kid used to check out Addams' cartoon collections from the library, that didn't sound right to me. Not much googling transpired before I found the above, though in the interest of fairness, I will note "Itt" is both not capitalized and spelled differently--Kirk


Sunday, April 11, 2021

Vital Viewing (Weimar Republic Edition)

Actor-singer-dancer Joel Grey was born on this day in 1932. Diana Ross and James Coburn invite the Cleveland native up on stage in this clip from the 45th Academy Awards (held in 1973 for movies made in 1972):

It was an unusual Oscars presentation that year. There was Native-American activist Sacheen Littlefeather famously, or, in the subsequent onstage opinions of Raquel Welch and Clint Eastwood, infamously, turning down the Best Actor award on behalf of no-show Marlon Brando. Eastwood himself was on stage twice that night, planned and unplanned. Planned was his reading of the Best Picture nominees (The Godfather, starring Brando, won.) Unplanned, Eastwood was pressed into service earlier that night when it looked like Charlton Heston might not show up to read the voting rules because of a flat tire on his way to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (after a few Ten Commandment jokes obviously not written with Eastwood in mind, Heston showed up and took over.) Of course, neither Littlefeather or Eastwood is in the above clip. So what I find unusual is that year's Oscars set direction. I don't mean who won for Best Set Direction. I mean Diana Ross' and James Coburn's immediate surroundings. They look like they're backstage or in the wings or something, don't they? That was kind of the idea. The opening musical number had a plainly-dressed Angela Lansbury informing us, via song and dance, that moviemaking is really just another job and the stars are merely working stiffs. It's actually an entertaining little number, and I might show it here sometime, that ends with Lansbury, now all gussied up in a glamorous gown, singing "make a little magic." Except once she's finished, we're stuck with the nonmagical faux-backstage set, and have to rely on occasional shots of the star-studded audience for gussied-up glamour. Unless those stars come up on stage to accept or hand out awards. And just how glamorously gussied-up do you find Ross (who had hoped to both accept and hand out but ended up only doing the latter) in that tuxedo? I have absolutely nothing against unisex fashions but the normally super-femme Miss Ross is the last person who I would expect to see take up crossdressing. But Ross is no Marlene Dietrich. Rather than provocative, she comes across as merely a cute curiosity. Still, it's appropriate that she would be dressed such a way when presenting an Oscar to Joel Grey, who himself was both provocative and unisexual in the film that won a whole bevy of Oscars that night.

Another one of those Oscars went to Liza Minnelli (she beat out the aforementioned Ross, nominated for Lady Sings the Blues), allowing her to finally, and deservedly, emerge from the shadow of her famous mother. I'll examine her signature performance at some later date. For now the man of the hour (or for however long it takes you to peruse this post) is Grey. A mainstay of the New York stage for about 20 years at that point (despite looking like he was still in his 20s), the Cabaret win made him, for a time, a household name, though the character he played, the nameless Master of Ceremonies of a between-the-world-wars Berlin nightclub, isn't one you would have found hanging around very many American households. Watch:


The movie does not exploit decadence; rather, it gives it its due.

--Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

Before it was a movie musical, Cabaret was a stage musical (and before that a stage play and before that a book of interrelated short stories by Christopher Isherwood.) Among its feature players was a woman who a few years earlier tried but failed to kill James Bond in From Russia with Love, a man who at the same time he was appearing in hit Broadway musicals also appeared in a series of Cracker Jack commercials on TV, a woman who spent the 1970s appearing in British-made horror films and doing guest shots on American TV crime shows like Baretta and Vega$, and a man who later hosted the game show Tattletales (I admit to being fascinated by performers career arcs.) And then there's Joel Grey, the only one to appear in both the stage and film versions. And for good reason. Though on the original Broadway poster his name appears below the actors I just mentioned, the critics of the day praised his performance, which brought audiences into the theater, and he was and is seen as the main reason the stage version became a hit in the first place.

Here's a blurry clip from the 21st Tony Awards (held in 1967 for productions that debuted in 1966.) That's Larry Hagman's mom who introduces a legendary husband-and-wife dance team (though not so legendary they didn't eventually divorce), who in turn have come up on stage the then-35-going-on-19 Grey:

Joel Grey more-or-less reprised his Master of Ceremonies role for television in 1976. The atmosphere is much less decadent, but, to paraphrase Ms. Kael, it gives whimsy its due:


I have a sudden craving for a Kit Kat bar.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Selling Your Sole to the Devil

 Have you heard the latest controversy? Last week,  as a promotional tie-in to his new video,  rapper Lil Nas X put on sale 665 satanically-modified Nike sneak--oops, I'm dating myself--athletic shoes, with a drop of human blood in each and every one, at $1,018 a pop. If all you Iron Maiden fans out there are wondering about the 666th, that's to be raffled off in the near future (so, in order to pull this off, did 666 different people get pricked with a needle, or did one person just get pricked 666 times? I can't help but wonder about these things.) As evidence that capitalism is still very much with us despite some devastating blows of late, all 665 pairs sold out in less than a minute. Not that every single customer that ordered one got it delivered to their door via Amazon or whoever, as Nike Inc.--which didn't authorize either the modification or the sale and certainly not the raffle--has won a temporary restraining order halting the delivery of the fallen angel footwear. The multinational corporation--headquartered in 14% Catholic, 30% Protestant, and 27% religiously unaffiliated Oregon but with most of its factories in Buddhist East Asia--is planning other legal action as well. I guess I can see where Nike is coming from. Nobody likes having their brand coopted, especially without their permission. That said, Nike should be careful about (as numerous biblical quotes put it) reaping what they sow, or (as Hesiod by the way of Edith Hamilton puts it) opening up a Pandora's box, or (as 1001 Arabian Nights by way of Sidney Sheldon puts it) letting the genie out of the bottle. After all...

...a certain Greek goddess might complain that it was originally her brand that was coopted.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Peter's Poultry


Easter may be on its way, but whatever happened to hippity-hoppiting down the bunny trail?

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Quips and Quotations (Prepubescent Publishing Edition)


Quite often somebody will say, 'What year do your books take place?' and the only answer I can give is, in childhood.

--Beverly Cleary


Friday, March 26, 2021

Vital Viewing (Naked Light Bulbs, Rude Remarks, and Vulgar Actions Edition)


Playwright Tennessee Williams was born on this day in 1911 (he died in 1983.) Williams was about 63 when he sat down for an interview with talk show host Dick Cavett in a leafy courtyard of an antebellum era New Orleans hotel. As his plays were an unusual blend of tragedy, comedy, poetry, social commentary, sex, violence, and local color, you might expect the man himself to be somewhat unusual, and Williams certainly doesn't disappoint, but he's unusual in the most charming, wonderfully Southern twangy way possible. Though any careful, or even sloppy, reading of his work would indicate a rather dark nature, he seems to be in good humor here. Watch and listen:

It took me a bit of googling to find out who the hell this pirate was that Cavett was talking about. As Williams suggested, Jean Lafitte was an obvious choice, as he was the most famous pirate in New Orleans, having helped Andrew Jackson defend the city against the British during the War of 1812 in exchange for a pardon (what none of the local combatants on either side knew is that a peace treaty had been signed in Belgium a few weeks earlier. Life before the telegraph.) But he wasn't involved with any plot to bring Napoleon to America. 

Turns out it was a friend of Laffite's named Dominique You. A wealthy New Orleanian and former mayor by the name of Nicholas Girod sponsored a plan to have You rescue Napoleon Bonaparte from his second exile on St. Helena (Elba was the first), bring him to America, and set him up in a guest room in Girod's home, where the Little Corporal would presumably live rent-free. This was a popular scheme in New Orleans, which at the time had a heavily ethnic French presence, and, who knows, had Napoleon not died before You had even set sail, it might have gotten Girod another term as mayor. The house is still in existence, and is now a restaurant called The Napoleon House. So Cavett knew what he was talking about, even if it was a bit of a digression from anything having to do with Tennessee Williams. But look at me, I'm digressing myself! So lets get back to the playwright.

He was born Thomas Lanier Williams III, but thought Tom was a rather "dull name" for a writer, and so started calling himself "Tennessee" when he was about 27 years old and his playwriting career began in earnest. According to John Lahr's acclaimed 2014 biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which right now is sitting to the left of the computer I'm writing this on, he lived in the actual state of Tennessee for just two separate years of his life, the first time when he was still a toddler, and the second time when he had been sent there to recover from a nervous breakdown after--I mean no disrespect but for personal reasons I can't help but smile--working in a shoe warehouse. However, Williams' father, though not particularly distinguished himself (an alcoholic who gambled away his middle-management earnings, he once got part of his ear bit off in a poker fight), came from a distinguished line of Tennesseans including that state's first senator, and so by giving himself that nickname, young Tom Williams figured he could claim a piece of that linage for himself. As for where he did live in his life, until he was eight he lived mostly in Mississippi in the house of his maternal grandfather, an Episcopal minister from Illinois, just enough time for him to acquire that Southern accent. After his father, who had been a traveling shoe salesman, was transferred to the shoe company's home office in St. Louis, Williams, his prim and proper mother Edwina, mentally troubled sister Rose (the model for Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie), and younger brother Dakin (often depicted in Williams biographies as the most normal one of the bunch, later in life he was seen as a bit of a character himself) were packed off to the hustle and the bustle and the Northern accents of a major Midwestern industrial city. The difference between the two environments would pop up again and again in his plays (as did just about every other facet of Williams life with the notable exception of his homosexuality, and even that was there, though thinly camouflaged.) Jumping ahead to the last thirty years of his life, Williams mostly divided his time between Manhattan, the home of Broadway where his plays were produced, and Key West, the bohemian island and city just off of Florida's southernmost tip. And there were extended trips abroad where he palled around with the likes of Gore Vidal and Truman Capote (at first the three of them together, and then, once Vidal and Capote had a falling-out, separately.) In-between and interspersed and intertwined with all of that were residencies in the aforementioned New Orleans, the setting of a number of his plays, including one of his most famous. If you were listening to that Cavett interview carefully, you would have heard a line read from one of those plays. If you weren't listening carefully (and shame on you for not doing so), I'll repeat it here:  

"They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!"

Obviously that line is packed with allegorical meaning, but that's not the only thing. It's also packed with...


...literal meaning.

(There's a River Styx Road that runs through Cleveland's southern exurbs. I wonder if I could turn that into a play.)

A Streetcar Named Desire wasn't Tennessee William's first Broadway hit. That would have been the St. Louis "memory play" The Glass Menagerie, which came out in 1945, two years earlier. But the success of Streetcar did prove Williams was no one-hit-wonder (in fact, he eventually became a seven-hit wonder, nine-hit wonder if you throw in off-Broadway, ten-hit wonder if you add an original screenplay, eleven-hit wonder if you count a best-selling memoir, a sixteen-hit-wonder if you throw in the movie adaptations, and I think that's it--Oh, wait, there were several highly-rated TV adaptations, and some of his Broadway flops did quite well when performed by regional companies, but I can't count them as hits because my pocket calculator just upped and died on me.) 

In 1951, A Streetcar Named Desire was turned into a movie, starring Vivien Leigh as Blanche, Marlon Brando as Stanley, Kim Hunter as Stella, and--I'm going to let you guess the last one..................That's right, Karl Malden as Mitch, not looking all that much different than he did when he played opposite Michael Douglas in The Streets of San Francisco some twenty years later. Brando, Hunter, and Malden all were in the original 1947 Broadway production (I've gone online and looked at pictures from that production, and Malden STILL looks like he did in The Streets of San Francisco!) 

Here's the trailer: 

If the above doesn't convince you that this movie might not be a bad way to kill 125 minutes, here's a couple of more reasons:

Stanley Kowalski, widely considered to be the villain of the piece (though some literary scholars would consider that an oversimplification.) Was Marlon Brando's hiring an oversimplification? As Williams described it after hearing him read for the part, Brando was "God-sent". Except God hadn't read the play's own instructions, which states Stanley is about 30 years old, the same age as Mitch. Brando was 23, 12 years younger than Malden, and a whopping 15 years younger than Jessica Tandy, who originated the role of Blanche, Stanley's sister-in-law. Even Kim Hunter, who played Blanche's sister and Stanley's wife Stella, was two years older. Director Elia Kazan (who also helmed the film version) privately thought Williams was turned on by Brando. Williams did admit that "he was just about the best-looking young man I've ever seen", but the wily wordsmith also offered this explanation and/or rationalization:  "It had not occurred to me before what an excellent value would come through casting a very young actor in this part. It humanizes the character of Stanley in that it becomes the brutality and callousness of youth rather than a vicious old man ... A new value came out of Brando's reading which was by far the best reading I have ever heard." Whether he said this before or after the cold shower, I can't say, but Brando got the part, got up on stage, and turned on theatergoers. Then he got the film role, went before the camera, and once the prints went out to the nation's movie palaces, turned on moviegoers. In fact, he became a movie star and kept on turning on moviegoers right through the 1950s, and into the 1960s, until his steady diet of Mallomars, cinnamon buns, and jars of peanut butter finally caught up to him (fortunately for him, he had genuine acting talent to fall back on, thus allowing him to make potentially no-longer-turned-on audiences an offer they could not refuse.) Here's Brando in, if not necessarily the best, then at least the most famous scene in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire:    

Lust means never having to say you're sorry.

Charlton Heston and (in make-up) Kim Hunter. No matter her appearance, Hunter seems to have no problem attracting shirtless males.

As I said earlier, Jessica Tandy (right) originated the role of Blanche DuBois on stage, and the theater critics of the day thought she did a superb job, something we have to partially take their word for as the performance was never captured on film (however, we do have the audio .) Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden, at the time all relatively unknown outside New York City, got to repeat their roles in front of a Hollywood camera. Elia Kazan, who got to repeat his role behind a Hollywood camera, also wanted Tandy for the film version, but the studio execs didn't. Although Tandy finally became a household name in her senior years (thanks to such 1980s movies as Cocoon and, especially, Driving Miss Daisy), she wasn't one in 1951. What the execs wanted was an actress with a national following, i.e., a movie star. Vivien Leigh (above) had some prior experience playing a Southern belle, and had also portrayed Blanche on the London stage (husband Larry was the director), so she got the gig. Nothing against Jessica Tandy--I have fond memories of her and Morgan Freeman's humorous exchanges as they motored about the Jim Crow South--but I don't see how Blanche DuBois can get much better than this:   

Tomorrow is another day. At least it is for that paperboy.

Like the character she played, Leigh eventually succumbed to mental illness. In fact, she even blamed that character, claiming Blanche had "tipped me over into madness." 

I still haven't convinced you to watch this movie? You find the whole Southern Gothic thing too off-putting? All that black-and-white drama with now-dead actors is something you just can't relate to? And what's with all the jazz music? Aren't they supposed to listen to the Grand Ole Opry in the South?

Perhaps this charming young woman can help make it more accessible for you:

I love how, after she tells of Stella returning to Stanley, she can't help but blurt out a hushed "stupid". And dig that shocked Mickey Mouse on her jacket. That says it all.

Tennessee Williams father was a southerner who spent spent so much time in the North that it's said he eventually lost his southern accent. Tennessee Williams mother was a northerner who spent so much time in the South that it's said she eventually gained a southern accent. Somehow in transit they hooked up with each other, opposites attracted while going in opposite directions. Cornelius Coffin "C.C." Williams and the former Edwina Dakin never divorced, but it's telling that I'm forced to use separate pictures because I couldn't find one online with both of them in it. Obviously, there were conflicts there. So be it. As any lit professor worth his tenure will tell you, conflict fuels the best fiction, and it fueled Tennessee's plays. There's the conflict between rural calm and urban restlessness, the conflict between cultural enrichment and industrial efficiency, the conflict between the religious and the secular, the conflict between tradition and originality, the conflict between uniformity and individuality, the conflict between homogeneity and multiculturalism, the conflict between nonconformity and economic survival, the conflict between self-actualization and a social life, the conflict between free will and chromosomes,  the conflict between the head and the heart, the conflict between the head and the loins, the conflict between the heart and the loins, the conflict between boy-meets-girl and (as Williams' generation viewed it)  the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, and, as every bit as pronounced in his work as anything sexual, the conflict between upward mobility and downward mobility. Finally, there's the conflict between the Mason and the Dixon, a line Williams spent his entire life straddling. The Dixon part is what gets everybody's attention, but Williams also had things to say about the Mason. Y'all just have to get past the regional dialects and regional colloquialisms to know what they are. Ultimately, his writing was universal, as all art strives to be. And all artists, be they painters, writers, or actors. Take Vivien Leigh. When she wasn't playing Southern belles, she talked with an English accent!  


"Mom, Elvis. Elvis, Mom."

Actually, by the time rock 'n' roll arrived on the scene, Tennessee Williams was about 45 years old, not exactly its target audience, and so probably didn't listen to too much of it. However, he does seem to have been a fan of at least one of its musical antecedents:

 In that interview with Dick Cavett, Williams mentions that during one of his stays, perhaps his first stay, in New Orleans, he'd head to the bar after a full day of writing and listen on the jukebox to the proto-doo wop group The Ink Spots. Here's their biggest hit (which Williams and Cavett try but fail to sing), "If I Didn't Care".  Give it a listen. Who knows? Maybe it will inspire you to write your own Streetcar Named Desire.

Now get back to your typewriters, er, keyboards.

Hey, I hope you enjoyed this trip into the heart of Tennessee (the man, not the state.) I guess that's a bit of hyperbole as I got nowhere near his heart, and, to mix a metaphor, barely scratched the surface of his career (though that's not much of a mixture given the trenchant nature of his work.) As long as this post was, I never got around to Big Daddy, or Carroll Baker in her short nightie in a crib, or Anna Magnani and her tattooed friends, or those hungry little kids that drove Liz Taylor to a shrink. Maybe next time. For now, so long, and remember... kind to strangers. They depend on it.