Saturday, December 7, 2019

Theatrum Mundi


Perhaps I should start by explaining what a phonebook is.  They are still around—I think—but I am willing to bet that a sizable portion of the population has no idea what they are used for.  Come to think of it, I’m not sure there is still one in my house.

In any case, back in the dark ages, if you wanted to call your blacksmith, the local alchemist, or call Wells Fargo to see if the stage was running on time, you had to look up the telephone number in one of two books the phone company annually threw into a puddle in your driveway.  The “yellow pages” were a listing of the local businesses, while the “white pages” were an alphabetical listing of people.  If you lived in a large city, the phone books were divided into two large volumes, one white and one yellow.  If you lived in a small town (as I did growing up in Texas), the phonebook for the entire county was a small, little pamphlet that could almost never be located when you needed it, so you called “Information” and a nice lady would look up the phone number for you for free.

Note.  I just checked, and you can still call information.  Instead of a nice lady, you get a computer that charges you $1.99 while not understanding anything you say.  This is progress.

While I was a student at the University of Houston, I was fascinated by the heavy tome that made up the yellow pages.  (It was fairly difficult to find a copy of the white pages on campus, since the flimsy paper the phonebook was printed on was frequently used as roller paper.  For some reason, it was believed that inhaling the fumes from burning the yellow pages was bad for you.  Not, of course, that I would know.)

While it was interesting to scan the various strange and exotic businesses located in Houston, the real attraction of the yellow pages was the cover.  Starting in the 1950’s and lasting for roughly three decades, the cover was a detailed drawing of a bird’s eye view of a popular location in the city, frequently the downtown area.  While the drawing was skillfully done and no doubt a minor work of art, it was only after you closely examined the drawing that you were aware of the incredible minutiae the drawing contained.

There was a U.F.O. parked at the fast food restaurant.  Someone was skiing behind a Volkswagen on the freeway while King Kong climbed the bank building.  Wild animals walked down the street followed by a policeman on stilts.  And there was always a momma cat with kittens somewhere, usually doing something inexplicable.  It would take hours and a good magnifying glass to locate all the absurdities carefully concealed within the drawing. 

Unknown to me at the time, the tradition of artistic phone books had started in Dallas back in the early 1950’s.  A local artist, Karly Hoefle, was hired to produce cover art by Southwestern Bell for the annual phone book.  In 1957, probably just for the fun of it, in the bottom right hand corner of the drawing, he sketched a cat chasing a dog.  At the time, he probably thought that few would notice.

Hoefle was wrong.  The cat was a hit and so many people wrote the phone company in appreciation, that for the next year’s cover, Hoefle added a few more small caricatures, including a Momma cat shepherding her kittens across a street.  That phone book cover was so popular that, from then on, Hoefle added an average of a hundred little drawings on the annual covers, which now included a unique cover for the Houston phone book. 

Hoefle’s masterpiece was the 1967 Dallas cover depicting the Texas State Fair.  It is pretty hard to satirize an event where you can buy a deep fried Twinkie on a stick, but Hoefle succeeded.  I remember a bird’s nest in the outstretched hand of Big Tex, the state fair’s symbol.  (For the Yankees among you, Big Tex is a 10 ton, 55 foot tall statue of a cowboy wearing blue jeans (size 324W/264L) and a 95 gallon hat.)

When Hoefle died, Norman Baxter was hired to continue the tradition of the phonebook covers in the 1980’s.  Unfortunately, with the breakup of Ma Bell, and the various Baby Bell companies starting to play musical chairs with territories, some board of directors decided that profits were better than whimsy and stopped the tradition of artistic covers.  Maybe the phone books got so popular that people started stealing them, I know we had that problem at the Shamrock Hotel in Houston.

Today, those artistic phone book covers are all but forgotten, not even appreciated for their artistic merit.  I checked with the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, and while they do have the covers, they are simply listed as” These prints portray bird’s eye views of Dallas and Houston” that contain “intricate anomalies”. 

These should be, and evidently isn’t, a website where you could view all of these drawings.  It is a shame that the phone companies today are no more interested in history than they are in art.

What should we call this type of artwork?  In my retirement, I have returned to the university as a student—I’m now working on a degree in Art History.  This week in class, we were discussing Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs, a painting where the inhabitants of a Flemish town are acting out at least a hundred proverbs and folk sayings of the day.  Not only is the work remarkable for the number of proverbs we still use, but it immediately reminded me of those marvelous phone book covers.

Though I have searched, there does not seem to be a name for this kind of artwork, and simply saying they contain “intricate anomalies” is an inadequate description.  We need something better, something that will inspire future artists to….create a phone book cover I can contemplate while on interminable hold with customer service.

Allow me to suggest, ‘Theatrum Mundi’.  The term is already in use in literature where it signifies that the world is a stage wherein people are characters and their actions form a drama.  Yes, think Shakespeare, or as Omar Khayam said, “The world is a chess game.”  Same difference.

Theatrum Mundi:  A drawing showing the drama of life at its most absurd through intricate anomalies.  How else could you describe a cat chasing a dog?

Friday, November 29, 2019

Everyone Comes to Rick's

It is not the best movie ever made, but it is certainly one of the best.  And it is one of those movies that can be watched over and over again...a cinematic best friend.

Casablanca is a movie that everyone "knows", but as fascinating as the movie is, the camera never recorded the more interesting stories that happened behind the scenes or just off the set.  And like many movies, it spawned its fair share of myths.  For example, it is commonly believed that Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan were almost cast as the leads.  While that makes a nice story, it is the lingering effect of a deliberate hoax by Warner Brothers, who routinely make such bogus announcements about up and coming "B" actors in their stable to boost their popularity.

There were, however, some real casting issues.  For example, the part of Sam--the singing piano player at the center of most of the film--was almost given to Ella Fitzgerald or Lena Horne.  Only at the last minute was Dooley Wilson (the only member of the cast to have actually visited Casablanca) given the part—despite the fact that he cannot play the piano.  (If you carefully re-watch the movie, the movement of Wilson's fingers on the piano keys makes absolutely no sense.)

It seems impossible to imagine the movie without Ingrid Bergman, but a still readable memo from the Epstein Brothers, who shared an Oscar for best screenplay, says that the part should either be given to "a European girl or an American girl with big tits."  (Evidently, the part called for either a great accent or a great chest).

That the movie was even made is something of a fluke.  The script did not fall into any of the accepted genres of movies that Hollywood was making at the time...And, it still doesn't fit the mold.  In 1982, a journalist and aspiring scriptwriter, Chuck Ross, sent around a freshly typed copy of the script under the original tittle,  Everyone Comes to Rick's.  Of the 217 agencies who received a copy, only 41 recognized the story or believed it was too similar to the movie.  Fewer than a dozen showed any tentative interest and the majority refused the script that in 2006, was chosen by the Writer's Guild of America as the best screenplay of all time.

One rejection letter even suggested that the author would profit from reading Screenplay, by Syd Field.  The book is an excellent textbook on how to write a screenplay.  Should you read it, you will especially enjoy the chapters that use Casablanca as an example.

The movie was fortuitously timed:  the script hit the desk of Warner Brothers the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Had it arrived a week earlier, it might have been rejected simply because Hollywood was under pressure from Washington not to produce any movie that might prejudice Americans against the policy of neutrality.  In addition, when the movie was released, American forces had just landed in North Africa—a bit of serendipity that Hollywood publicists exploited in their advertisements..

It is easy to dismiss the movie as just another jingoistic Hollywood product of a war time assembly line the tailored to the needs of the Office of Wartime Information, as much a part of the strategic mobilization as the .45 pistols manufactured by the Singer Sewing Machine Company.  The movie is, however, much, much more.  In reality, the film is about the idea that when people lose faith in their ideals, they are beaten before they start to fight.  The story is about how Rick (and eventually, even Captain Louis Renault) rediscover the ideals worth believing in, whether they win or not.

The second theme of the movie—and perhaps why I have been thinking about it so much lately—is the plight of refugees.  Not only are the refugees gathering in Casablanca awaiting safe passage away from the Nazi menace, but the set of Casablanca was also full of emigres.  All but three of the cast were immigrants.  Even the director, Michael Curtiz, had fled Europe.

One group of actors in particular had only recently been forced to leave Europe by the Germans.  All of the “Nazi soldiers” were German Jews who had only recently arrived in the U.S.  Conrad Veidt, who played Major Strasser, had fled Germany because his wife was Jewish.

Warner Brothers would later boast that the cast of the movie represented 34 different countries—a fact that is easily demonstrated by watching the movie.  In the first few minutes of the film, you can hear snatches of dialog in at least a dozen different languages.  In the scene in which the bar patrons sing La Marseillaise, the tears on the faces of the actors--and often of the audience--are real.  During production, filming was frequently halted by the weeping of overcome refugee-actors.

Language barriers were frequently a problem, despite the number of bilingual people present.  It was also occasionally a problem for anyone to understand the director, Michael Curtiz, who once ordered a group of extras to  "Separate together in a bunch."

Another time, Curtiz told one of the prop men to put a poodle on one of the bar tables.  It took quite a while for the man to locate one, but he finally deposited the dog on the table.  Curtiz roared at the man, "Not a poodle, a poodle of water!"

S. Z. Sakall, who played the lovable waiter Carl, said, “Those who tell tales here in America about Mike's English should have heard him speak German."  Sakall, himself an Austrian who had only narrowly escaped Germany in 1939, lost all three of his sisters, who perished in concentration camps.  (I highly recommend reading his difficult to obtain memoir, My Life Under the Emperor Francis Joseph, Adolf Hitler, and the Warner Brothers.)

English was far from the first language of the actors:  German was far more common among the cast.  Quite a few of the actors were forced learn their lines phonetically.  Even Ingrid Bergman played poker between takes in an effort to improve her English.  (Bogart whiled away the time playing chess, his favorite game.  The first glimpse of Bogart in the film is of him playing a game of chess in the bar, an actual game he was playing with a friend.)

The movie enjoyed a strange afterlife, too.  In America, by 1970, it had become the most frequently replayed movie on American television, and one of the movies most frequently shown in film festivals.

For years, the version released in Europe was so heavily edited that Americans would not be able to recognize it.  Almost a half hour shorter, Victor Lazlo is transformed from being a member of the Czech underground to being a Norwegian nuclear scientist.  Any scene that would upset Germans--such as the singing of the Marseillaise or the death of the Major Strasser--was cut from the movie.  The war had been over for more than thirty years before an uncut version was finally released in West Germany.

In Hungary, the movie became an annual Christmas tradition, shown on the country's single television channel each year for decades.  In France, a French dubbed version is nearly always available at a cinema somewhere in the country.

You can find a Rick's Bar just about anywhere you look.  There is one in almost every state, as well as in London, in Paris, and of course, in Casablanca.  I've also drunk a beer in one in Guatemala, though I was probably the only patron in the establishment at the time who knew the significance of the name.

Earlier today, as I rewatched the movie, I couldn't help but to wonder how the movie stays so popular while the country grows increasingly anti-immigrant.  If we no longer welcome the refugee, what is in the movie worth watching?  As I write this at Thanksgiving, I wonder:  If we stop being a nation of pilgrims, who are we?

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Greatest Art Museum that Never Was

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Finding a great art museum in Europe is not exactly difficult, there is one in almost every major city in Europe.  But there is one museum that just never quite came together, the magnificent Museo Josefino.

Immediately, of course, you are thinking:  “Joe who?”

If you are a regular reader, you probably know that I am referring to Joseph Napoleon.  After all, I’ve written about damn near every member of the family.  (Except Jerome-Napoleon Patterson Bonaparte, the great-grandnephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.  The last of the American branch of the Bonaparte line was walking his dog in Central Park in 1943, when he tripped over the leash, cracked his skull open on the ground and died. Now, I’ve collected the entire set.)

There must have been something in the Bonaparte genes that just compelled them to gather art.  Of course, it was much easier since there is no proof that anyone in the family ever actually paid for the pieces in their collections.  Art is much, much cheaper on the midnight market after you apply the five-fingered discount.

Joseph was no exception, wherever he went, people just happily gave him priceless works of art, while the French Army just stood behind him cleaning their weapons.  After his younger brother had made him the French Ambassador to Rome, Joseph had quickly “borrowed” artworks from the Pope and had shipped them home to France.  Unfortunately, the ship sank and all that art was lost.  Joseph was good at collecting art, and spectacularly bad at holding onto it.

Before Joe had time to “borrow” a new boatload, his brother gave him a couple of small promotions, making his big brother, first, the King of Naples, then, King of Spain (this latter over the objections of almost no one—except the people of Spain, who were a little upset at having a Frenchman sitting on the Spanish throne.  They were also a little concerned that for some reason, the Pope had excommunicated Joseph.   (Maybe his Holiness was a little pissed at all the vacant walls around the Vatican?)

In Spain, Joseph began amassing his new collection, and none too soon, as Napoleon immediately ordered his older brother to promptly ship “50 masterpieces” to Paris. Napoleon was planning to completely revamp the Louvre, making it the new, larger, grander, and more magnificent Museé Napoléon.

Whereas Joseph could only steal art from one country at a time, his little brother (pun intended) could steal from multiple continents.  He had already looted Egypt, grabbing treasures like the Rosetta Stone.  (Which of course, the British promptly captured and took to England; museum building was a highly competitive international sport.)

As soon as he arrived in Spain, Joseph eagerly began gathering the art, but he had no intention of shipping any of the treasures north of the Pyrenees.  Stalling his brother repeatedly, Joseph was planning his own museum, the Museo Josefino.  To that end, he began gathering the art from the Escorial, from various churches and from the homes of the wealthy, storing his plunder in a damp, moldy warehouse near The Prado, which Joseph intended to rebuild and remake into his own future museum.

No one wanted the French in Spain, so it didn’t take long for the Spanish people, the Portuguese Army and the British Army to combine to move against the French Army in Spain.  By January, 1813, Napoleon, realizing that Madrid was lost, blamed the failure on his brother and ordered Joseph to retreat to Valladolid in order to hold on to Northern Spain.  Joseph—predictably—waited too late to retreat, in part because it took awhile to cut  the canvases from their wooden frames and pile them on top of carts.  One soldier reported that the supply train of the retreating army resembled a mobile brothel. 

The entire supply train was captured by the British, with most of the art becoming the property of the lucky soldiers who grabbed them.  Priceless treasures were smuggled out of Spain and found their way to the art market, where they sold for handsome prices.  The Rokeby Venus and the Arnolfini Portrait, ended up in England even though the British Army’s brass tried its best to find and return as many pieces of art to the Spanish government as possible.

There is clear evidence that some military units may not have tried very hard to return the artwork, however.  To this day, the 14th Light Dragoons entertain visitors at mess dinners with champagne served in King Joseph’s silver chamber pot.  As the inscription says the vessel was a gift from Napoleon, the unit proudly call themselves the Emperor’s Chambermaids.

Poor Joseph was able to flee with only the barest of necessities, abandoning all the artwork that was supposed to be the foundation of his museum.  Luckily, though, the “barest of necessities” included the crown jewels of Spain.  Diamonds—don’t leave home without them.

Several pockets full of jewels came in real handy for Joseph after his brother lost at Waterloo.  For some reason, the job market for ex-kings was rather limited.  Joseph even took out an ad in the London Times:  Position wanted.  King.  Can furnish my own crown.

So, where do ex-kings end up living?  In New Jersey.  On a large estate just north of Philadelphia, the former monarch lived a luxurious life, occasionally selling off the odd loose jewel or painting to gather enough cash to continue to live like….well, royalty.

Calling himself Comte de Survilliers, though his neighbors called him Mr. Bonaparte, the former king of Naples and Spain lived rather large.  He built a simple country mansion, complete with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, a wine cellar, marble fireplace, crystal chandeliers, and long sweeping staircases.  The library was the largest in the nation, containing more volumes than the Library of Congress.

The grounds were just as elaborate.  An artificial lake stocked with imported swans, fountains, gazebos, and ten miles of landscaped carriage paths.  You know, s simple cabin in the country.

Joseph had managed to bring a surprising amount of treasure with him, but somehow forgot to bring his wife.  After twenty-five years in America, as his health declined, Joseph returned to Europe.  It was probably the shock of being reunited with his wife that killed him.

Though the Museo Josefino never quite got built, there are a few traces of it left.  When King Ferdinand was restored to the throne, he had piles of artwork to deal with, so he went ahead and used the building that Joseph had selected for his museum, The Prado.

Although Joseph’s 50,000 acre estate in New Jersey was eventually sold, along with most of the art in the interior, it was at the time of the sale, the largest collection of fine art in America—sort of an American version of the Museo Josefino.  Today, many of the works that formerly were displayed in his house are now part of the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.