Friday, July 31, 2015

Larry Blyden

[This little project started when I thought to make a recommendation at The Blackboard, where old television is often a topic of discussion.]

There is a memorable two-part version of Budd Schulberg's ultra-cynical Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run?, directed by Delbert Mann and starring the Broadway-seasoned Larry Blyden as Sammy Glick, that was shown on NBC Sunday Showcase in 1958. Blyden positively scorches the screen in this one, and co-stars John Forsythe, Barbara Rush, and Dina Merrill are darn good too. Great stuff, and readily available on DVD. Treat yourself.

What Makes Sammy Run (DVD Verdict)

What Makes Sammy Run (DVD Talk)

Blyden died under mysterious circumstances in Morocco in 1975, aged 49.

[In a subsequent post, I started to go deeper.]

I basically knew Blyden as the host of What's My Line? in the post-John Charles Daly era. He had a lot of interesting theater credits:

The lead in the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song (1958), in "yellowface," opposite Pat Suzuki, Miyoshi Umeki, and Keye Luke, directed by Gene Kelly; Blyden was Tony-nominated (Lead Actor in a Musical).

Co-starring with Bert Lahr in an unsuccessful David Merrick musical, Foxy (1964), which transposed Ben Jonson's Volpone to the Yukon during the Gold Rush (seriously).

The Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick three-vignette musical The Apple Tree (1966), with Alan Alda, Barbara Harris, and Robert Klein (Ken Kercheval was a standby).

A revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1972), for which Blyden won a Tony as Best Featured Actor in a Musical; Phil Silvers played the lead of Pseudolus made famous by Zero Mostel.

The Broadway premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular (1974), with Sandy Dennis, Richard Kiley, Geraldine Page, Tony Roberts, and Carole Shelley; Blyden was Tony-nominated (Featured Actor in a Play).

The premiere of Sondheim's The Frogs (1974), also starring Carmen de Lavallade, staged by the Yale Repertory Theatre in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, with Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep in the chorus (ironically, Blyden had played a small role in the first Broadway musical to feature a swimming pool on stage, Wish You Were Here in 1952).

'Frogs' They Would A-Swimming Go

Foxy, by the way, was an interesting failure in several respects. It was mounted for Lahr, who did win a Tony for it despite the show only reaching 72 performances. No cast album was issued, although RCA held the rights. Most bizarrely, the tryouts were held in the Yukon itself! - at the Palace Grand Theatre in Dawson City for seven weeks in the summer of 1962, with the Canadian government as co-investor, and playing to nearly empty houses night after night. I'm not sure if Blyden was in that cast. The Broadway premiere was delayed by Lahr's starring in S.J. Perelman's The Beauty Part, a magnificent comic play and another show with a fascinating history, its relative failure (85 performances) due more to its opening (and closing) within the 114-day New York newspaper strike of 1962-1963 than to any deficiency in the script or production. In fact, its run has become something of a legend.

Blyden was a fairly regular replacement cast performer in shows such as Mister Roberts (as Ensign Pulver) and Murray Schisgal's Luv.

He tried directing for Broadway twice, neither time successfully. Harold, a play by Herman Raucher (Summer of '42) with Anthony Perkins and Don Adams in the leads, ran for only 20 performances in 1962. Then Blyden had the dreaded one-night flop with The Mother Lover in 1969, a play by Jerome Weisman with Blyden himself, Valerie French, and Eileen Heckart as the three-person cast. The Mother Lover was produced in association with AVCO Embassy Pictures which clearly had movie hopes for it, not to be realized.

[Then I just kept on researching. I love doing credits crawls.]

Larry Blyden got to make just three feature films. He had small parts in support of Cary Grant and Jayne Mansfield in Kiss Them for Me (1957), and of Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand in Vincente Minnelli’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) (along with Bob Newhart and Jack Nicholson). I recall seeing On a Clear Day chopped up, cut, and panned-and-scanned on commercial TV many years ago – it did not strike me as much of a movie, and its reputation does not contradict that. (However, the original cast album of the Broadway show with Barbara Harris and John Cullum is terrific, and the Lerner & Lane title song is great for singing in the shower.)

Blyden’s best film credit is as a member of Paddy Chayefsky’s The Bachelor Party (1957) under his What Makes Sammy Run? director Delbert Mann. Blyden’s co-stars in the party are Don Murray, Jack Warden, E.G. Marshall, and Philip Abbott.

Blyden was very active in Golden Age television from his New York base in the Fifties and early Sixties, as so many Broadway actors were, and he continued going strong in episodic television until the early Seventies. He also headlined two series of his own. Harry’s Girls, a sitcom which ran for 15 episodes on NBC in 1963-1964, sounds offbeat. The only IMDB comment is worth quoting:

Watching Les Girls a couple of days ago put me in mind of a short lived series that seemed to have borrowed liberally from that Gene Kelly film in the creation. The series is Harry's Girls and like Les Girls it starred three shapely young ladies Susan Silo, Denise Nickerson, and Diahn Willliams. They are the girls and their problems and the morale of the troupe at large are of concern to Harry, played by Larry Blyden.

Take a look at the continental cast list of Harry's Girls. Appearing in some of the episodes are such players as Dennis Price and Claude Dauphin whom you would not be normally seeing except on the small screen. The series only ran for [15] episodes and the expense of shooting in Europe outran the ratings. Sadly the show did not catch on. A pity because I do remember the wonderful location photography of the series.

Blyden had an earlier sitcom on CBS in 1956, Joe & Mabel, described thus:

Joe's a big city cab driver, and Mabel is his steady gal. Joe plans on marrying Mabel "someday", but Mabel is looking for something a little sooner. Mabel and her mother spend their time thinking of schemes to trick Joe into walking down the aisle.

This was a television version of an old 1941-1942 radio property; Blyden’s co-stars were Nita Talbot, Shirl Conway, and Norman Fell. The Television Obscurities website ran a piece on the show’s interesting production history, which involved completed episodes being discarded, the planned September 1955 premiere being postponed at the last minute, and the entire series being “burned off” during the summer of 1956:

Joe and Mabel (Television Obscurities)

Episodes of this show are apparently available on the gray market.

Among Blyden’s other interesting television credits:

A turn as Bugsy Siegel in a 1960 episode of The Witness – this could have some of that Sammy Glick energy.

An adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s horror novel Conjure Wife for the anthology series Moment of Fear (1960), co-starring Janice Rule – sounds intriguing, but at a half-hour length, it can’t have had much room to breathe.

The premiere entry in The Chevy Mystery Show of 1960, “The Machine Calls It Murder.” Another IMDB comment worth sharing:

The idea behind "The Machine Calls it Murder" is very interesting. A computer expert who does actuarial work for an insurance company has noticed a statistical impossibility. A bunch of young and healthy young women have died--all by accidents. However, the more he digs, the more he sees so many similarities that the cases MUST be connected. In other words, some evil guy marries them, heavily insures them and then arranges 'accidents'--and there is a definite pattern to it.

When it comes to what happens next, it occasionally made little sense--but the show was still interesting. Despite having VERY compelling evidence, his boss and the authorities don't seem very concerned(??). And so, he goes to one of the women who he thinks will be next and begins to investigate himself. This doesn't make any sense, though fortunately for the plot eventually he gets a cop to notice (Everett Sloane). What happens next? Well, it is pretty exciting BUT the production values are so low that it really doesn't work as well as it could. Worth seeing but clearly flawed.

Two classic Twilight Zone episodes, “A Nice Place to Visit”and “Showdown with Rance McGrew” (Blyden also did episodes of Thriller and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour).

A 1965 Kraft Suspense Theatre episode, “Twixt the Cup and the Lip,” with Charles McGraw, and Ethel Merman in a serious role.

An original hour-long musical for ABC Stage 67, Olympus 7-000, which appears to have been sort of a football version of Damn Yankees by the same creative team (Richard Adler and Jerry Ross), with Donald O’Connor, Fred Clark, Lou Jacobi, Eddie Foy Jr., Phyllis Newman, and Joe Namath! A soundtrack album was issued on the Command label.

A 1974 entry in ABC’s late-night anthology series The Wide World of Mystery, The Satan Murders, with Salome Jens and Susan Sarandon (“A woman enters into a pact with the devil to murder her husband”).

Other Larry Blyden facts:

He married Carol Haney, who became famous for dancing for Bob Fosse in The Pajama Game (another Adler and Ross musical), on Broadway (where she won a Tony) and on film. Developing a severe tendency toward stage fright, she never made another film, and only appeared in one more, non-musical Broadway show, William Inge’s A Loss of Roses in 1959, directed by that other Mann, Daniel, and co-starring Betty Field, Warren Beatty, Robert Webber, and – wait for it – Michael J. Pollard. One suspects that the joint participation of Beatty and Pollard in Bonnie and Clyde had its pre-history here. This play was not a success on Broadway, reaching only 25 performances, but was later filmed as The Stripper (1963), with Joanne Woodward in the Haney role. (A few years later, Inge would have the same bad luck as S.J. Perelman did with The Beauty Part, when his play Natural Affection, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Kim Stanley, opened and closed during the 62-63 newspaper strike.)

Haney went on to a second career as a multiply Tony-nominated Broadway choreographer, for Flower Drum Song, Bravo Giovanni (1962), She Loves Me (1963, with Barbara Cook, based on the same Hungarian source play as the James Stewart-Margaret Sullavan movie The Shop Around the Corner), and Funny Girl (1964). Could Blyden have come into his lead role in Flower Drum Song through Haney? – he replaced Larry Storch in out-of-town try-outs, so it is more than possible. They had a tempestuous seven-year marriage ending in divorce in 1962, and Haney died just two years later at age 39, six weeks after Funny Girl opened, of “pneumonia, complicated by diabetes and alcoholism,” leaving two young children for Blyden to raise on his own.

During their marriage, Blyden and Haney lived in a historic 1757 house in Saddle River, New Jersey, which was rumored (by them!) to be haunted. It burned down in 2004.

I mentioned Gig Young’s murder-suicide in a [Blackboard] post the other day; as it happens, Blyden and Young acted together in Edward Chodorov’s hit play Oh, Men! Oh, Women! on Broadway in 1953 (with Franchot Tone and Anne Jackson). This became a Ginger Rogers-Dan Dailey film in 1957.

Blyden grew up in Texas as Ivan Lawrence Blieden (pronounced blee-den). He was a boyhood buddy of Rip Torn, six years his junior. They were jokingly called Torn and Bleedin’, in unwitting macabre anticipation of the infamous final scene of Norman Mailer’s 1970 film Maidstone, in which Torn assaults Mailer with a hammer to the noggin (for real) and Mailer bites off part of one of Torn’s earlobes (for real). The Sixties were something else, weren’t they?

Blyden was an enthusiastic collector of antiquities and traveled widely in pursuit of them. That was apparently what brought him to Morocco in 1975. Depending on who’s doing the telling, he (a) died in an auto accident, or (b) was carjacked and killed (the theory believed by co-stars Dina Merrill, Barbara Rush, and Robert Klein). In either case, his body lacked identification when it was discovered, and his death was not known to friends and family for some days.

It must have been brutally sad for the son and daughter, around 18 and 15 at the time, to have been orphaned so young. Joshua Blyden died tragically young himself, at age 42 in 2000, apparently after being beaten by a street gang and losing his eyesight. Ellen Blyden is still alive.

POSTSCRIPT: This is interesting. When this piece first appeared in November 2012 at my earlier blog, Patrick Murtha's Diary (where it turned out to be one of the most popular posts), I had a couple of angry comments from a person who claims (and I have no reason to doubt it) to have been a friend of Joshua Blyden. This commenter informs me that "Josh [Blyden]'s mugging and death were weeks apart and unrelated." Well, it is good to have more accurate information, and I am happy to pass it along. However, when the same commenter goes on to say that "the tragedies of his family are not something to sensationalize and fictionalize to make your blog more interesting," I have to reply, frankly, fiddlesticks. I was doing nothing of the kind. I took what sketchy information I could find - the website flatly lists "Beating" as the "Cause of Death" for Joshua Blyden, and the loss of eyesight was referred to in an online forum - and flagged it with the adverb "apparently," which indicates a level of uncertainty as to the ultimate accuracy of the details. I never used the word "because," so what the sentence expresses is a possible but unconfirmed connection between the discrete bits of information that it contains. In other words, the sentence is not misleading as stated, if read with the same care that it was written.

Believe me, I get that it is painful to be reminded of the death of a friend, and the closing sentences about Larry Blyden's offspring are of minor import within the entire piece - but not of no interest whatsoever. In writing a biographical/career sketch of a public figure, the subject's personal life and family connections are fair game. The whole point of writing this sort of biographical "first draft" (which is bound to have a few inaccuracies, because sources are often inaccurate) was to draw attention to Larry Blyden's versatility and his underrated career. I won't apologize for that.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Field Niggas (dir. Khalik Allah, 2015)

Khalik Allah's 60-minute documentary Field Niggas has more in common with street photography, of which it is an extension, with urban poetry, and with ethnographic participant-observation research, than with most conventional documentary film-making. The word "documentary" is a fair one - Allah has said that "Photography to me is a form of documentation" - but could set up the wrong expectation. This is not like other films you've seen.

Allah (above) is a young artist, in his late 20s when this film was shot, who is clearly bursting with passionate energy. He "pitched his tent" at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street in Harlem - an area that does not, to put it mildly, have the best reputation - at night-time during the summer of 2014. He and his sound man Josh Furey captured image and audio separately, and they are used that way in the film, which could put off some viewers puzzled by the non-synchronization. Better to look at it as having two overlapping experiences simultaneously, I think.

The denizens of this corner of New York City are mostly down on their luck - homeless, drifters, addicts, mentally ill, ex-cons. Allah won their trust by being completely non-judgmental and winningly relatable. This becomes more apparent as you watch because Allah becomes more of a presence (very deliberately) as the film progresses - you begin to see his reflection in glass, you start to be aware of his voice, and by the time the movie is over, it has become an interlocutory piece instead of just a Dziga Vertov-style "camera eye" exercise.

So, although a positive review at the Hollywood Reporter guessed that Field Niggas might work just as well as an installation, I think it gains from being viewed as a film. The subject comes into focus, Allah and his philosophy come into focus. And make no mistake, this is a deeply philosophical film. Allah has referred to the example of Christ (as an ethical philosopher rather than as the "son of God," I think) as showing that one needs to go commune with the people that polite society shuns. In part, because they are you - ultimately, there is no differentiation.

You gotta see yourself in every single brother in the world. Because that’s the understanding that everything is connected in the universe. It’s not one thing that’s disconnected from the next thing, everything is connected, especially us as humans, through the mind. We’re indebted to one another. 

That is from a print interview, but Allah says very similar words in the film. It has a Buddhist feeling, of course, as well as a clear similarity to Spinoza and Schopenhauer, and is a moving and persuasive statement. After I watched the film, I looked up my own class notes on Schopenhauer - I teach the history of philosophy - and found the passage that Allah's testimony reminded me of: "Other people are us."

Some might wonder why, in the hyper-sensitive environment we find ourselves in these days, for good reasons and bad, Allah would take the risk of using an "offensive" word in his title. Well, for one thing, he's clearly not afraid of words! But the "house nigga" / "field nigga" dichotomy, memorably evoked by Malcolm X in his speech "Message to the Grassroots," is core to Allah's analysis. The house nigga is a step above the field nigga, and can look down upon him; everybody can look down upon him. From a small-c christian ethical perspective, this makes the field nigga especially crucial to commune with and to listen to. And the people at the corner of Lexington and 125th are clearly field niggas in that sense: They are the avoided.

[The use of the terminology] has a historical implication, but it was more an aesthetic, artistic decision.Like you notice, I’m saying “field niggas,” but I’m not talking shit about “house niggas.” In the film, you don’t hear me coming at Barack Obama or Colin Powell or like any politician, or any black person. I’m not really doing that. What I intended was “field niggas,” meaning those who are in the back, those who are in the field who never get to voice their opinion. Like, just to give them the microphone.

Allah has said "I'm definitely a certified field nigga," and that is true in two senses: He has to become one with his subjects from an aesthetic as well as an ethical point of view in order to make an honest and engaging film, and as a good ethnographer he has to spend as much time as possible "in the field."

The positioning of the police in Field Niggas is exceptionally interesting. Allah says to his subjects that he loves and identifies with the police, too - a monist ethics can't pick and choose. But practically speaking, he can't do ethnography with street corner citizens AND the police at one and the same time. So although the police are seen constantly throughout the film, they are seen from the outside, a little scarily, and are not given a voice. This is consistent with keeping to the main subjects' POV. But the film is an implicit invitation to another filmmaker to do thou likewise for the police on this corner, and that would definitely make a compelling film too. 

There is a surprisingly rich body of material about Allah's work online; I think he is an exceedingly skilled self-promoter, and I say that with admiration. He wants people to see his film, which is currently on the festival circuit. I hope a DVD or Blu-ray will be made available; Allah's color photography is exquisite and deserves to be seen under the best possible technical conditions.

Filmmaker/Photographer Khalik Allah Captures Harlem Nighttime Street Life in 'Field Niggas' (Preview)

I recommend watching the five-minute preview video at this link, in which Allah speaks about his intentions in making Field Niggas.

Khalik Allah's 'Field Niggas' gleans wisdom from the kind of people Bloomberg, SRB, and others don't think have any

Great interview with Allah at this link.

Khalik Allah’s Movie Captures Harlem Faces and Voices by Moonlight



...that’s the thesis of the whole film. That there’s nothing to fear. I could come into this neighborhood, which is looked upon as dangerous, even disgusting, at night and show beauty. And in fact feel that in my heart and say that to them, too.

It Ain't Easy (Kesia Alexandra)

Kesia Alexandra has Washington, D.C., in her bones - the "real" Washington where people live their whole lives, not the Washington of transient careerists. Washington is a majority African-American city, although just barely these days (as recently as 1970, the African-American population was 70%). Therefore, you might expect that Alexandra's collection of short stories, It Ain't Easy, would be a lot about race. Well, it is and it isn't. It reflects race, certainly, but is not especially hung up on op-ed-worthy racial issues; it is much more matter-of-fact than that.

I love the line in the story "Felt Like You Held Me" when the teenage girl narrator says of herself and her best friend, "We have no experience with being minorities." The attitude is very like Zora Neale Hurston's: Racism is real, but people go on living their lives anyway. They don't think about racism every minute - and if they did, that would probably be hobbling, just as over-dwelling on "micro-aggressions" can play right into the hands of the aggressor, who wanted to get a rise out of you.

Alexandra's protagonists are diverse in personality, but you could not say of any of them that they are hobbled. Quite the contrary, they've got the spunk and energy to make things happen and to get their way a lot of the time. They are preoccupied in most of the stories with their personal relationships (although in the first story, "Taxes," the narrator is focussed more on money). But I would not say that the stories are "about" young love in the most primary sense. Instead, they are about personal power, and how relationships have an affect on and are affected by that.

Alexandra's stories are not all set in the same social milieu by any means. African-American life in Washington, just as anywhere, has many socio-economic levels and layers. Two of the stories here, "Triangular Truth" and "Fulfilled," are set in prep schools (in each, one key male character is on a scholarship). The first of these stories focuses on what might have been a date rape from several points of view. The second abounds in marvelously sharp sociological observations:

...the thing about expectations, as Robbie was coming to realize, was that very few people met them. Most people in Wellcourt [Prep] weren't quite Wellcourt. The image was based upon a small percentage of the school's actual population. Then there were the wannabes, the almosts, and finally the scholarships.

[Eliza's mother] seemed like the type of woman who had to be partially medicated just to be functional, though what her function was remained unclear. 

"Taxes" and "It Ain't Easy, Girl, It Ain't Easy" take place in what people might think of as the 'hood, where kids often live with adults other than their biological parents and face challenges in getting to functional adulthood themselves because of a lack of guidance. The girl Aneesha in the latter story has to decide whether or not to take her pregnancy to term, and gets the low-down from a friend's savvy and concerned mother: "This isn't a matter of intelligence. What I'm talking about is resources."

The last story in the book, "Felt Like You Held Me," cannily brings the street world and the aspirational world into tension with each other, as the narrator Natasha comes to realize that her plan of attending Howard University is not compatible with holding onto her old boyfriend who's done prison time: "...the distance between our places in life will only keep growing."

Natasha has been homeless, and a lesson that one might take away from this book, beyond simply enjoying Alexandra's fictional craft, is that education is simply so important in allowing young people to find an optimal path for themselves despite unfavorable early circumstances. We might disagree about means - public schools, charter schools, private schools, Head Start, etc. - but we had better not disagree about ends. Education really does represent hope and is nothing to be cynical about.

I get the sense throughout It Ain't Easy that Alexandra is warming up for what could eventually be her version of James Joyce's Dubliners set in Washington. And since Dubliners is possibly the best collections of short stories in the language, and one of the best books about a city, you can tell that I think highly of her potential.

It Ain't Easy

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Plot Fiction like the Masters (Terry Richard Bazes)

The title of this small, valuable book immediately suggests its intended audience - aspiring fiction writers - although intense fiction readers would also find it worth their time. It is pitched closer to literary criticism than a "how to" manual, so it is not like one of those screenwriting guides that tells you that you must concoct a sub-crisis on page 46 of your script. (And thank heaven for that, because those screenwriting books are a scourge against creativity in Hollywood. If you ever wonder why all the big-budget movies you see seem vaguely the same no matter what their genre, it's because they are.)

Terry Richard Bazes, a novelist himself, and the holder of a PhD in English Literature, is more sensitive than that, and less prescriptive. He is putting forward neither a General Theory of Fiction (again, thank heaven) nor a writing formula. Rather, he is looking at three acknowledged classics of their genres - Ian Fleming's Dr. No, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust - and extrapolating certain similarities of approach in their plotting, which center on the notion of plotting backward from climaxes so that each step that leads up to them is effective, and false ends that do not lead up to them are eliminated.

Now, this analysis would not work for every good novel, or at least not in so bald a way. Since this is a book about plotting, it privileges plot as the key element in fiction-writing: "A great plot is a page-turning machine." That is true as far as it goes, but readers whose interests in fiction go beyond plot may feel that Bazes is giving short shrift to characterization, atmosphere, prose, and so on. I felt this specifically when Bazes discussed "minor characters," whom he tends to see as purely functional. I don' think that the minor characters in Austen, for one, read quite so mechanistically as that.

Still, one can't complain that a short book is focussed on what its title says it will be focussed on, especially when there is such abundant good sense and sharp close-reading technique along the way. A lot of the basic ideas here go back to Aristotle's Poetics, although Bazes relies more heavily on Gustav Freytag's famous pyramid of plot structure. I have always had an issue with how Freytag's ideas are diagrammed, which I wish that Bazes had dealt with. A typical Freytag pyramid is drawn like this:

The problem is that this diagram makes it look as if the climax of a story occurs at the mid-point, and that the rising action and falling action are given equal amounts of space. But this is very seldom the case. An accurate diagram would usually be shaped more like this one for "Little Red Riding Hood":

That is more like it! The rising action is gradual and takes up 75% of the story or more; the falling action is precipitous and swift and takes up 25% of the story or less. The tendency in movies especially - and now popular novels follow movies' lead - is to compress post-climactic action ruthlessly.

A particular strength of Bazes' essay is the deliberate disparity among the three texts he analyzes. You can't get much more different than Dr. No and Pride and Prejudice! Bazes wants that strong contrast between an action-oriented text with virtually no internal characterization and a psychologically-oriented text with deep characterization, in order to demonstrate that notwithstanding their immense differences, the two novels use plenty of the same plotting techniques. The contrast is indeed an effective one, although it must be said that although it is easy to follow Bazes' analysis of Dr. No whether you have read the book or not, it is much less easy to follow the discussion of Pride and Prejudice if you have not gotten that book under your belt (and recently at that).

Tossing in A Handful of Dust, a comic novel with a cruel edge and a nasty resolution, is a cheeky move and also works to the book's benefit. As with Dr. No, the discussion of this book is crystalline whether you have read it or not (and if you haven't, you'll want to afterwards).

Plot Fiction like the Masters deserves a place in the budding novelist's arsenal.

Plot Fiction like the Masters: Ian Fleming, Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Story-Building

Monday, July 20, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Media: Counterspy (1958)

I well remember when the first edition of Tim Brooks’s and Earle Marsh’s The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows appeared in 1979, opening up new vistas for those of us interested in television history. But of course, not all shows were in prime time, and not all were on networks; until Alex McNeil’s Total Television came out in 1985, I had no idea just how many syndicated and odd time-slot series there were, right from the beginning. In 1990, Lee Goldberg’s researches into unsold television pilots first manifested as a volume from the predictable publisher for such material, McFarland (and has continued to appear in various permutations since). But as far as I can make out, even Goldberg has never heard of the unsold 1958 pilot, Counterspy, which had it landed would likely have been another series on the syndication market. It doesn’t have the feel of a network property.

It’s there at the IMDB, though, and now it’s up on YouTube. The Counterspy pilot was the latest (and I believe last) manifestation of a property that had, in the familiar manner of the era, already bounced between radio and feature films. Counterspy (aka David Harding, Counterspy), created by Phillips H. Lord (1902-1975), began its life on the radio early during America’s participation in World War II, in May 1942, and continued airing until 1957, although it is not clear to me if there were any new original episodes past 1953. Plenty of detail about the show and its creator can be found here:

The David Harding - Counterspy Radio Program

Counterspy came to the movies in 1950 with two low-budget features starring Howard St. John, David Harding, Counterspy and Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard; the second is reputed to be better than the first.

Arriving on television (although not for long), Counterspy followed the Dragnet semi-documentary template of familiarizing the audience with the procedures of a protective institution. The stories are said to be “based on actual facts taken from documented records of Intelligence Operations Unit C, your United States Counterspies!” – I think that’s just boilerplate language, I doubt there was any cooperation from a real agency. There is a classic text crawl at the show’s opening:

Today, as never before, the defense frontiers of this nation have been extended to the far reaches of the globe. To preserve American security, our institutions, and way of life, is the inflexible purpose of men your counterspy unit – and it is to these selfless heroes whose constant vigilance insures the independent existence of you, the people, that this series is dedicated.

Our narrator-guide is Don Megowan, a big man who played a lot of small roles but did have an important featured part on the short-lived Cameron Mitchell syndicated series The Beachcomber. At first, though, we see more of his operative Keller, played by Brad Johnson (who was the male love interest in the syndicated Annie Oakley from 1954 to 1957). We are taken through the backstory behind the “tragic peacetime death of a Navy frogman” that is revealed in the shock opening, set on a beach in Brighton, England. A former British diver is recruited to take underwater photos of the hull of a Russian vessel that has been demonstrating unusual navigational abilities. But of course, if he is discovered in this mission, the U.K. and U.S. will officially deny knowing him.

Since the script works out rather cleverly, I think I should refrain from saying exactly how, in order not to decrease your viewing pleasure. The closing lines of the narration are nifty. I will note that I was amused to see writer Jack Anson Finke make good use of a problem that critic Danny Peary once flagged with respect, I think, to Thunderball – that underwater fight scenes are kind of a waste because the equipment worn by the combatants prevents you from telling who’s who. The underwater sequence in Counterspy was filmed, the credits tell us, at Silver Springs, Florida, and is totally Sea Hunt (also partially shot at Silver Springs).

Agent Keller gets to do some fast driving in a cool-looking roadster which I’d appreciate help identifying – sort of Jaguar XK-style? There is some second-unit or stock footage of British roads (including the predictable appearance of a double-decker bus) to preserve the illusion that we’re in the U.K. The interiors and the portside scenes were probably filmed in Southern California, so we’ve got the blending of film from three separate locations, not too badly done. The director of the half-hour was Ralph Murphy, who worked in low-budget features from 1931 to 1954, and then moved into television helming. Bernard Schubert was the hopeful producer.

Why the show wasn’t picked up, I’m not sure, but maybe the Cold War paranoia was ebbing a bit, post-McCarthy and all, so the timing wasn’t quite right.

The Violators (dir. Helen Walsh, 2015)

Let's start with a couple of maps (which will appear larger if you click on them). The novelist, screenwriter, and film director Helen Walsh grew up in Warrington, midway between Liverpool and Manchester, and now lives in Birkenhead, opposite Liverpool where the River Mersey widens to join the Irish Sea. I will bet anything that most Americans, even though they have heard of Liverpool as the home of the Beatles, haven't really got a clue about this part of Britain geographically (or otherwise).

Walsh has written feelingly of her attachment to Birkenhead, and has said that her first feature film, The Violators, "was born out of its landscape":

I always – and only ever – conceived it as a film. The rusting cranes, the dirge of seagulls, the scuffed baby pink of Shelly’s nails – this is a lonely but hugely cinematic world I’m depicting...In my head, I had already set the story in the post-industrialised wasteland of Birkenhead. When people hear ‘Cheshire’ they immediately think money, but the area upriver from Runcorn – Barton, Partington – is a real forsaken hinterland. The Violators is set in a housing estate near the Ship Canal. I shot the entire film within a seven-mile radius of Birkenhead docks, so that the landscape would have a truth to it.

The Violators is an intensely visually-driven movie, beautifully shot by cinematographer Tobin Jones, not the word-intoxicated one that you might expect from a four-time novelist. Nuances of language do not come easily to its characters, in fact, and this has nothing to do with their poverty; not all of them are poor. They feel intensely, but they do not go on about it.

Because the core family in The Violators lives in subsidized housing, is serviced by a social worker, has a dangerous father in prison, and several missing mothers - because the 15-year-old girl who holds the family together is forced to compromise herself - there might be a tendency to characterize the film as "miserabilist." I respect films that merit that designation, but this is not one of them. The girl Shelly, played wonderfully by Lauren McQueen, is a survivor, who won't be kept down for long. She has a cherishable younger brother, also a survivor (as well as a wastrel older brother), and a male friend across the way who truly cares for her, and proves himself in the pinch. The movie ends on a very hopeful note. It is gritty and realistic, but I found it cheering rather than sad.

Although she does not try for it, Shelly attracts attention; that is the mainspring of the plot. Two other characters fix their eyes on her early on: a sleazy local businessman (pawning and debt collection), Mikey (Steven Lord), and an upper-middle-class teen girl of about the same age, Rachel (Brogan Ellis, who could be Chloe Sevigny's sister). The motivations of these two in pursuing Shelly turn out to be intertwined - which is all I'll say about it.

Per the thought-provoking title, who is being violating, and who is doing the violating? Well, to share my thoughts on that would be decidedly spoiler-ish, and I have no desire to go there. I urge you instead to seek the film out. It has been playing at festivals, and should show up on DVD and VOD before long.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Die Laughing (Louis K. Lowy)

The time is the fall of 1956. Sam E. Lakeside is an up-and-coming Vegas stand-up comic who has landed a possibly career-changing gig on The Steve Allen Show. And for good reason: the guy is funny.

Nothing is less possible to fake than laugh-out-loud humor. I'm not sure what percentage of Sam E.'s jokes are old chestnuts and how many were concocted by novelist Louis K. Lowy, but they were all new to me, and I kept laughing throughout the book. Sam E. (as we will know him) got me chuckling on the very first page:

"A couple of spacemen went to a Mars nightclub, but they left because it had no atmosphere."

My favorite is a terrific off-color Donald Duck story that I am now springing on all my friends.

So Sam E. has got it made, except that he's been sleeping with a gangster's girlfriend, which is kind of an unhealthy thing to do, and his dreams would end with him splattered in front of a Napoleon-type hitman and his looking-for-kicks gal pal, except that we all know that the sky above the Nevada desert was just swarming with UFOs in the mid-Fifties, and one of them decides to come in for a landing at just the moment when -

Lowy's unusual science-fiction comedy is off and running at that point, and so, shortly, are Sam E. and the gal pal, Cricket, soon joined on their cross-country dash by a bespectacled, bow-tie-wearing comic book writer who survived a grilling at the anti-comics Congressional hearings in '54. Meanwhile, the hitman, Francis, has thrown in his lot with unsettlingly childish shape-shifting aliens who have a one-track obsession with refined oil, which they chug like bootleg hootch, and who plan to conquer the world so as to keep up their supply.

Die Laughing is a feat of sustained tone. It is not pure burlesque in the style of a movie like Mars Attacks!; it is darker and more literary than that (quite a lot of the book takes place in the recesses of Sam E.'s mind). Maybe a better cinematic parallel would be the surprisingly soulful Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The characters in Die Laughing are poised midway between being cutouts and rounded figures, which allows Lowy a lot of operating space; he can be hilarious or grim, as need be.

The edginess is incarnated with particular effectiveness in the complex person of Cricket, who is a brainy fan of science-fiction movies, a lethal wielder of switchblades, and a seriously sexy woman - but who, we do not forget and neither does Lowy, tagged along on Francis's planned hit for the fun of it:

...all she wanted was the thrill, the exhilaration, the sexual charge of seeing his life end in a soiled, point-blank heap. She wanted a giggle.

The comic book writer, Lee, who gets involved after picking up the hitch-hiking Sam E. and Cricket, adds another set of uncertainties, proving both valuable for his intellectual resources and annoying for his superior attitude:

[Sam E.] wasn't sure if he liked Lee or not, but there was something about the stocky man that made him uneasy, as if Lee's presence had altered the path they were on. He just didn't know if it was for better or worse.

But probably the most unexpected element in the novel's mix doesn't even have much to do directly with the plot: it's the verb-driven energy and visual precision of the prose:

All of Sam E.'s years on the road hadn't prepared him for the cavernous backstage of the Hudson Theatre. The room, so tall it looked ceiling-less, was shouldered with a labyrinth of corridors, overhangs, backdrops, wardrobe, make-up, and writer rooms. The floor stage was ant-farmed by grips, camera operators, stage-hands, gaffers, sound engineers, and others who Sam E. wasn't sure what they did.
Sam E. cruised slowly along downtown Kansas City, passing old-fashioned brick sky-scrapers, dark-suited men and long-skirted women with Mamie Eisenhower bangs, hopping off and on green-and-white trolleys; black-skinned and white-skinned kids clustered around storefront windows watching flickering televisions; people going about their lives.
Roy smiled that goofy smile he knew people liked, and said, "Thanks, Rog." The strawberry sun's final pink rays rippling across the Oklahoma plain added a warmth to the gesture that would have been lost in the earlier, blazing-white afternoon heat.

All in all, the novel kills, like one of Sam E. Lakeside's best routines.

Die Laughing

Monday, July 13, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: The Last Hurrah (dir. John Ford, 1958)

The John Ford of the 1950s was looking for new subjects. Between Rio Grande (1950) and The Horse Soldiers (1959), he made only one Western, The Searchers, but ten non-Westerns - and because he is so stereotypically associated with Westerns, many of these are neglected and underrated films.

Ford was feeling the call of Ireland strongly, making The Quiet Man and The Rising of the Moon on location there, and taking up Irish-American themes in his wonderful political drama The Last Hurrah, based on Edwin O’Connor’s best-selling 1956 roman a clef about Boston Mayor James Michael Curley. 

The Last Hurrah is a big, rich, yeasty film. It is said that Ford wanted his friend Orson Welles to play the lead, but I think he was better off with the actual casting of Spencer Tracy. To say that the role of Frank Skeffington is in Tracy’s wheelhouse is an understatement: He owns it. I can’t imagine anyone else so well embodying a larger-than-life figure with a common touch, and his sheer pleasure in politicking. Like a Bill Clinton, Skeffington seems to be a scoundrel and a decent relatable guy simultaneously. Since in both these cases, the man’s demonizers focus on the first quality and miss or underrate the second, it’s no wonder they can’t get a real handle on him.

Curley served four non-consecutive terms as Mayor of Boston, plus a few as a U.S. Representative and one as Governor of Massachusetts. Like his real-life counterpart, an aging Skeffington goes for a fifth term as Mayor – his “last hurrah,” a phrase that Edwin O’Connor contributed to the language – but is done in, as Curley was in his 1950 bid, because his old-school style of ward politics is no longer adequate to new postwar realities.

As in All the King’s Men or The Great Gatsby, there is an observer figure whose role is to register the sheer spectacle of personality – in this case Skeffington’s nephew, played by Jeffrey Hunter, whom the Mayor invites to watch the last hurrah unfold (but also to be the son his own frivolous grown boy cannot be). Hunter works well as a fringe figure here because he is so unobtrusively acceptable wherever he goes – the late Fifties model of the handsome, charming, altogether regular young man who is bound to make a success of himself, but will never become the “character” his uncle is.

Ford surrounds Tracy with a wonderful crew of actors – among Skeffington’s supporters, Pat O’Brien (oddly, the only time that O’Brien and Ford worked together), James Gleason, and Ricardo Cortez; among his enemies, John Carradine, Basil Rathbone, and Willis Bouchey; as local clerics, Donald Crisp and Basil Ruysdael. Jane Darwell gets a hoot of a single-scene role at a funeral. The atmosphere of backslapping and back rooms, rallies and election night tallies, is perfectly conveyed, and does indeed capture an older style on its way out.

The most poignant of the minor characters is the man who has lost his name, Skeffington’s somewhat dim-witted but eminently useful operative “Ditto” (Edward Brophy), who tries to copy his boss’s lead in everything down to his choice of hat, and doesn’t even realize that his nickname is a cut. (An obvious although seldom-mentioned source for Rush Limbaugh’s Dittoheads!)

Ford follows O’Connor’s lead in ending the narrative not just with Skeffington’s political defeat, but with his protracted actual death following a heart attack. Some commenters on the film have felt this 20-minute coda to be labored, but although it has a few forced moments, I rather like Ford’s characteristic fearlessness with respect to sentiment (and its displays). The key point of this final sequence, I feel, is that the men who have worked for Skeffington are going to be deader than he is, after he dies – his memory will continue to throb strongly, at least for a while, but they will have no function.

The final shots remind me of the ending of Ford’s great World War II picture They Were Expendable (one of the least sentimental titles ever). The last plane with John Wayne and Robert Montgomery has taken off from the Philippines, and we know that the men left behind are doomed (not just to death, but in all likelihood to the Bataan Death March). We see them walking away from us along a twilit beach, their long shadows falling on the sand – the sort of signature shot that Ford was so brilliant at.

In The Last Hurrah, the team waiting downstairs in Skeffington’s mansion has gotten the word from upstairs that he has passed, and as they trudge up the majestic curved staircase to pay their respects, their shadows fall on the wall to the right. They are goners. Last of all, slower than the rest, is the pitiable Ditto, a shadow casting a shadow. The era is over.

The Last Hurrah

1947 Blogathon: The October Man (dir. Roy Ward Baker, 1947)

Crime is the Trojan Horse by which observant realistic stories often make it into the movies and onto bookstore shelves. If it can be packaged as a thriller, it can be promoted. The enthusiastic audience for observant realistic stories per se is not very large.

The 1947 British thriller The October Man, written and produced by Eric Ambler, who knew a thing or two about thrillers, and directed by Roy (Ward) Baker, who apprenticed as an assistant director under Hitchcock on The Lady Vanishes, is a film with just such a split personality. Given Ambler's and Baker's credits, you might guess that the thriller angles would be sharper than the quiet realistic material, but you would guess wrong. The movie is beautifully observed and rather unusual when it is not bothering about being a thriller, and becomes rather routine when it does.

John Mills, fresh off a triumph as Pip in David Lean's 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations, does exceptional work as Jim Ackland, an industrial chemist whose life utterly changes when he is involved in a horrible bus crash - a bravura opening scene for the film. A young girl he was taking care of for a friend dies in the accident, and he himself suffers a severe brain injury. During his protracted convalescence, overcome by guilt and the effects of the injury, he tries suicide twice, and in fact remains in a state of suicidal ideation for the entirety of the film.

Now this is unusual. I can recall few films, and none as early as 1947, in which the protagonist is so situated. Ambler's writing and Mills' performance together do a marvelous job of limning such an experience. It is clear from the beginning that even if the story achieves a "happy ending," it will be a qualified one because Jim Ackland will always struggle with the effects of brain trauma (he is apologetic when he explains this to others)  and will always live under the shadow of that child's death. No plot resolution can take these away.

When he is finally released from hospital, Ackland starts a new chemistry job and takes up residence in a rooming house where, despite his disinclination to socialize, he will brush up against both ordinaries and eccentrics (in the grand British tradition). The rooming house is across from a commons that is wonderfully atmospheric, and a trifle sinister by night.

Ackland slowly resumes some semblance of a "normal life," begins dating the sister of a colleague, but can't shake the worry that things will never be quite right for him. These scenes are wonderful, and form the real contribution of the movie.

When the thriller gears are set in motion, Ackland is circumstantially caught up in a murder investigation and can't be privately sure that he wasn't involved - maybe he had an episode? This is the hook, but of course we can see what will develop from it. Ackland will have a hard time exonerating himself, but finally will be able to do so.

Some Hitchcock scenarios are predictable in that way, too - Saboteur, The Wrong Man, North by Northwest. (I understand full well why Hitch wanted to have Cary Grant be proven the villain in Suspicion, because it would have broken the usual pattern.) But Hitchcock was a master at building unforgettable set-pieces within the movement to an inevitable finish, and at keeping the tension level very high.

The October Man does not try for that intensity or memorability as it moves towards the finish. The strengths of the later scenes are exactly the same as those of the early scenes - the interplay among the residents of the rooming house (including one busybody who gets a memorable comeuppance) and the self-doubts that nag at Jim Ackland, now resulting in a deepening of his suicidal impulses.

So as a thriller, rather ho-hum. But as a character study and social study, first-rate. Put it all together, and that amounts to a solid positive recommendation. The October Man fails in areas where other films excel, and excels in areas where most other films don't bother to go.

1947 Blogathon

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Developing Minds: An American Ghost Story (Jonathan LaPoma)

There are at least two competing ways of sizing up Jonathan LaPoma's very entertaining novel Developing Minds: An American Ghost Story, and both have merit.

(1) It is a scathing comic novel about the failures of American urban education, sort of a M*A*S*H for Miami schoolteachers.

(2) It is a Bildungsroman about the personal growth of a young man who happens to be a Miami schoolteacher for a year.

Complicating matters is that subtitle, to which only a handful of passages in the actual text directly or obviously relate. Who or what are the ghosts here?

If we go with interpretation (2), it helps explain the bagginess of the novel. If it was being edited as a novel with a purer school focus, a lot of episodes would go.

Our 24-year-old protagonist, Luke Entelechy, is a refugee from the Arctic chill of Buffalo, New York, who, despite his ambivalence about the teaching career he has apparently trained for, decides to pursue a job in the Miami, Florida, public school system (which, about ten years ago, was always recruiting, along with every other school system in Florida. That has pretty much ground to a halt). He persuades his buddy Billy, who has been teaching in the New York City system and who has recently come out of the closet, to join him on this adventure, but this has the drawback that Billy is way more ambivalent about the whole thing than Luke, even, and remains so throughout the novel.

Luke narrates, and LaPoma doesn't quite avoid the pitfall that many a first-person novel stumbles into, which is that Luke depicts himself as slightly superior to everyone else. Just slightly, mind, but in a way that could be more annoying than mere braggadocio. We quickly learn that he is better-looking than the people around him, a better teacher than most, way less messed-up than Billy and his new Miami friends (which wouldn't be hard), etc.

At the recruitment fair they attend, Billy winds up getting a job at a pretty decent elementary school; Luke walks into a pit, a low-performing middle school (and middle schools tend to be excruciating to begin with). Of course, just how bad a pit it is provides the substance of a chunk of the novel, although after the first half, the point having been made, the story drifts more into the area of Luke's personal life and extracurricular debaucheries, which grow increasingly frenzied. Here is where an editor looking for the school focus might have started cutting; on the other hand, the crazed M*A*S*H-like episodes do develop a rhythm of their own. (I'm less sure about the side chapters about Luke's Mexican girlfriend and an older Lebanese woman from Buffalo that he gets to consummate his crush on.)

Part of what makes Developing Minds entertaining, but potentially controversial too, is that it is gleefully politically incorrect from the get-go, and grows more and more raunchy as it goes along. Copious amounts of drugs and alcohol are consumed, off-color and quasi-racist talk abounds, and then when Luke and Co. fall in with a couple of players, a telenovela actor and his bodybuilding friend, the sexual action gets explicit and even somewhat nasty. Some readers are going to be put off by the book veering into these extremities.

I didn't mind, but although I'm a teacher myself and have worked under some stressful conditions, and am not entirely unacquainted with partying, I couldn't see myself hanging out with Luke and his friends. The reasons boil down to one, really. It is very striking that the conversations of the young teachers (and the older ones too, for that matter) are almost entirely lacking in intellectual, cultural, and political substance - even pop-cultural substance. That wouldn't cut it for me in real life. When one of the older teachers (significantly called "the Professor" because he moonlights as a college adjunct) drops a mention of the great jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius, that was the only glimmer of the kind of conversation I've had with fellow teachers my entire career.

Maybe there is a bit of troubling social revelation here. Although I don't recall any references to reality television in the book, Luke and friends certainly carry on just exactly as they might have learned to do from watching too much of The Real World and similar shows. They enact cultural scripts that are supposed to be typical of twentysomethings, especially in a hedonistic semi-tropical milieu such as Miami. This could be taken as depressing.

Luke's school life is depressing too, of course, as well as disturbingly funny, and the descriptions of it seem pretty spot-on to me. Luke is an empathetic guy, and eventually makes some nice connections with his students - but none of it leads to actual content being learned.

Most urban teaching isn't teaching; it's a species of social work. And teachers are not trained as social workers. I discovered early in my career that I simply don't like teaching under "challenging" conditions. You spend mostly every entire class period trying to get to the Square One from which you could begin teaching. Occasionally the students let you arrive there, but, I always noticed, only as the period was coming to an end. And it's not as if you then start on Square One the next day; you have to go through the whole rigmarole again. Unwilling urban students are virtuosi at wasting time, and LaPoma captures that to a tee, although I think he intends for us to take some hope from the scattered warm moments. I don't, having been there.

As for the "ghost" of the subtitle - my favored take is that we're talking the ghost of the education process, because in Luke's middle school, that's all you're going to find.

Although Developing Minds is all over the map, I found it thoroughly absorbing, and it definitely gives one a lot to think about.   

Developing Minds: An American Ghost Story

Friday, July 10, 2015

Poem of the Day

Isaac Rosenberg's "Expression," written in the years just prior to World War I, is to my mind one of the best of all poems about artistic expression, and is also relevant to a discussion of what we mean when we say "one of the best of."

When we appeal to greatness, interestingness, levels of stimulation and satisfaction derived from the arts, obviously we are appealing to notions that have something in common with chimeras, because there are no truly objective standards in these areas, and every individual's sense of them will be slightly or vastly different. It is difficult to construct an objective aesthetic that covers Michelangelo, Henry Darger, and Andy Warhol.

But that doesn't mean we should stop talking about them in those ways - only that we should recognize the difficulties. I got into an an argument with a philosopher once who said that we should not call John Coltrane "great" because the word "great" has no objective philosophical content.

But not having sharp-cut, definite-edged content is not the same as having no content at all, especially for us noticeably less than sharp and definite human beings.

Rosenberg penetrates into this question:

And in might our song shall roam 

Life's heart, a blossoming fire 
Blown bright by thought, 
While gleams and fades the infinite desire, 
Phantasmed naught. 

Can this be caught and caged? 
Wings can be clipt 
Of eagles, the sun's gaudy measure gauged, 
But no sense dipt 

In the mystery of sense.

Can greatness (one way of thinking of "the infinite desire, / phantasmed naught") be caught and caged, defined objectively in a way that would satisfy my philosopher friend? Of course not; but we can still all admire the flight of the eagle from our individual perspectives (or not admire it, if we choose). There is no sense in trying to clip the eagle's wings, or in spending too much time gauging the sun's gaudy measure. Or, to go for another metaphor, a butterfly pinned to a board is not as beautiful as a butterfly in flight, even though it is easier to inspect.

Attempts to make assessment of the arts more objective or consensus-based - canons, syllabi, awards, Ten Best Lists - are sometimes fun and can be useful in drawing our attention to worthy objects, but they can never really succeed in achieving the hoped-for objectivity.

Using the language of admiration to try the capture the tingle we feel on watching the eagle is perfectly human. Going beyond that to provide superior descriptions of what are necessarily somewhat subjective impressions - as Rosenberg does in this, ahem, great poem - is even better, and is what good critics do.

Call - call - and bruise the air: 
Shatter dumb space! 
Yea! We will fling this passion everywhere; 
Leaving no place 

For the superb and grave 
Magnificent throng, 
The pregnant queens of quietness that brave 
And edge our song 

Of wonder at the light 
(Our life-leased home), 
Of greeting to our housemates. 
And in might our song shall roam 

Life's heart, a blossoming fire 
Blown bright by thought, 
While gleams and fades the infinite desire, 
Phantasmed naught. 

Can this be caught and caged? 
Wings can be clipt 
Of eagles, the sun's gaudy measure gauged, 
But no sense dipt 

In the mystery of sense. The troubled throng 
Of words break out like smothered fire through 
And smouldering wrong.  

The Collected Works of Isaac Rosenberg: Poetry, Prose, Letters, Paintings, and Drawings