David M. Riley


My Favorite Christmas Movie

I’ve been through them all.  Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas in ConnecticutHoliday Affair, The Lemon Drop Kid, White Christmas, Bad Santa , and Die Hard 2 (Bruce Willis fighting some terrorists taking over air traffic control at a Washington DC airport on Christmas eve, what more could you ask for?), and I’ve loved them all.  Something about Christmas movies that touches my sentimental heart.

I was an early convert to It’s A Wonderful Life.  The movie was a flop when it was released in 1946 and forgotten until the mid-70’s when PBS discovered it was in the public domain and began showing it each holiday season. I think I watched that first year, and since I am a fan of both Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra, and because it’s a great film, it became a favorite.

My favorite these days, though, is Remember the Night is a little gem of a romantic comedy that lingered in obscurity until Turner Classic Movies started showing it a few years ago.  A wonderful Christmas movie.

From 1940 with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, just four years before the two stars would team up again to play illicit lovers who kill Stanwyck’s husband in the film noir classic, Double Indemnity, this movie, written by Preston Sturges, is as traditional and sentimental as you can get.  And great fun.

The story involves Stanwyck getting arrested during the Christmas holidays for shoplifting.  MacMurray, the Assistant District Attorney, prosecutes her.  The trial starts just before Christmas, but is postponed and MacMurray posts Stanwyck’s bail so she won’t spend Christmas in jail.  He’s going back home to Indiana for the holiday, and when he learns that she is a fellow Hoosier, he offers give her a lift . . . the rest is pure 1940’s hokum at its best, elevated to, in my opinion, classic status owing to the talent and watchability of the two stars.  Also in the film is  is Beulah Bondi (aka Ma Bailey), and Sterling Holloway.

A word or two about Mr. Sterling Price Holloway Jr. (1905 – 1992):  He was an American character actor and voice over actor who appeared in over 100 films and 40 television shows.  He known for his distinctive tenor voice, and was the original voice of the title character in Walt Disney’s Winnie the Pooh.  He also had a wonderful singing voice that you’ll hear in the clip below.

Do yourself a favor and catch this delightful warm-hearted movie when TCM airs it on Dec. 22 at 10PM Eastern, 7PM Pacific,

Here is a clip from Remember the Night, with Stanwyck, Biondi, and Holloway who sings a very old song very beautifully.

Best Book I’ve Read in a While

James Fenimore Cooper (1789 –1851) was the first major novelist of the 19th century.  A prolific author, he wrote the first espionage novel (The Spy), along with sea stories, and a series of novels about the early American frontier known collectively as the Leatherstocking Tales; the second in the series, The Last of the Mohicans, is considered Cooper’s masterpiece.

I had never read Cooper, put off I suppose by Mark Twain’s description of his “literary offenses” in a famous article.   But I was intrigued by things I’ve read lately, particularly that the hero of the Tales, Natty Bumppo, was the prototypical America hero, the forerunner to Huck Finn, The Continental Op, Philip Marlowe, and so many others.  Besides, I was looking for some pure escapist fare and Mohicans, I thought, would hit the spot.

It was perfect.  I read The Last of the Mohicans quickly and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.  Written in 1826 and set in the 1750’s when England and France were at war on American soil, the plot is basically about Bumppo, a frontier scout, rescuing the two daughters of a British commander from renegade Indians.

One thing I have always had difficulty with in novels from this period is the discursiveness.  Perhaps the most famous of these is Les Misérables where Hugo goes into long asides about politics, religion, The Battle of Waterloo, and the Paris sewer system.  I understand why authors did that.  Readers in that age knew very little about the world beyond their visual horizon.  They did not have a modern education system, or cable with so many channels devoted to learning and discovery.  Readers probably expected to learn as well as be entertained.  Today, we have little patience for that.  We want action, movement.  Fenimore has his own excursions and in this  book, they’re short and pertinent to the story, about interesting Indian lore, the political and military climate of the time, and descriptions of the land around upstate New York.

Natty Bumppo was born of white parents but he grew up among the Delaware Indians.  In the Tales, he is often joined by his Mohican companion Chingachgook.  In each book, Bumppo is known by an ‘alias”: “Pathfinder” in The Pathfinder, “Leatherstocking” in The Pioneers,”the trapper” in The Prairie, “Hawkeye” and “La Longue Carabine” (The Long Carbine) in The Last of the Mohicans.  This latter nickname refers to his prowess with the long rifle.

In Studies in Classical American Literature D.H. Lawrence (Lady Chatterley Lover) wrote,

“And Natty, what sort of a white man is he? Why, he is a man with a gun. He is a killer, a slayer. Patient and gentle as he is, he is a slayer. Self-effacing, self-forgetting, still he is a killer.

Twice, in the book, he brings an enemy down hurtling in death through the air, downwards. Once it is the beautiful, wicked Magua — shot from a height, and hurtling down ghastly through space, into death.

This is Natty, the white forerunner. A killer. As in Deerslayer, he shoots the bird that flies in the high, high sky so that the bird falls out of the invisible into the visible, dead, he symbolizes himself. He will bring the bird of the spirit out of the high air. He is the stoic American killer of the old great life. But he kills, as he says, only to live.”

Yes, he is a killer.  He kills not out of evil, he kills because it is a job that must be done.  Judging from this book and what I’ve read about the others, it seems that Natty spends a great deal of his time trying to help others.  The iconic American hero, an adventurer, a man devoted to justice because for him it’s the only thing to do.  To protect himself, he acts dispassionate, but inside he cares.  From this we can see Philip Marlowe, James Bond, Jack Reacher, Shane, John Wayne’s character in The Searchers. So many others.

Lawrence notes that Bummpo is a moral man, but that his morality is from a practical point of view, not from philosophy.  Bummpo’s motto is “Hurt nothing unless you’re forced to.”

There are some good reasons to read this American classic.  It’s fun, perhaps the chief one.  And never mind what Twain said.  You will be so engrossed in this rousing adventure that you won’t notice any of Cooper’s alleged literary offenses.

The Last of the Mohicians – best book I’ve read in a while.

Bob the Crooner

I’ve been a Bob Dylan fan since… well, since way back when.  And one of the main things I’ve allways  liked about Bob was his voice, that ragged, scratchy, sometimes off-key voice.  Someone once said Dylan sang like he was sitting on a barbwire fence.  The first Dylan album I bought was Highway 61 Revisited. His voice sounded timeless, not young, not old, but eternal, with lots of wisdom.

By the middle of the 00s, though, I really could not stand to listen to him sing anymore.  That voice had deteriorated so much that, for me, it was hard to bear.  In the last couple of live shows I attended, he did a lot of what I call the “dreaded upsinging.”  That’s when Bob lifts his voice at the end of each line.  It’s how he sings when he gets lazy about singing.  I find it annoying.

I haven’t cared for the material he’s put since Time Out of Mind (1997) either.  That was an excellent album.  Everything after that has been crap.  I think Bob has recycled enough old blues riffs for one career.

In 2015 he started bringing out the standards, Frank Sinatra kind of stuff.  I am a Sinatra fan, but I was about as interested in hearing Bob sing from those old songbooks as I was hearing Bob sing Christmas songs.  I don’t begrudge him recording what he wants to record, but I don’t have to like it.

Then, just a few months ago, I tuned in to a TV special celebrating the 90th birthday of Tony Bennett.  It featured some good performances by Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Diana Krall, Celine Dion, Lady Gaga, and one Bob Dylan.

Bob was on tour somewhere as usual, so he submitted a tape of he and his band playing live.  It was very good!  The clip is a single shot with no cuts, and Bob sings well and is wonderfully Dylanesque.  Now, I’m listening to Triplicate, the latest album, and enjoying most of it.  There are a few songs and vocals that Bob doesn’t work out too well, but that’s always been the case with Mr. D.  I’m diggin’ it.  Great arrangements and the use of a pedal steel guitar on these standards is innovative.

The song is “Once Upon a Time,” with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams from the 1962 musical All American.  Watch this performance from the Tony Bennett special and see what you think.

Photo of the Day

How National Geographic got this photo of my old girlfriend, I’ll never know.

Anyway NG says: “A crested black macaque hangs out beachside in a nature reserve on Sulawesi. In studying these intriguing monkeys, known locally as yaki, scientists are learning how their social structure illuminates human behavior.”

Photographer: Stefano Unterthiner

Cool Cover

I love this book cover.  It has nothing to do with the novel, as I recall, but it’s cool.  The artist Tom Adams, one of the most accomplished cover artists of the past 50 years, did a number of other Chandler covers for Ballantine in the early 1970s.

Click on the cover view full size.

Visit Tom Adams’ site.