Tuesday, March 29, 2016

New Bedford

If you have been gripped by the history of whaling or by reading Herman Melville’s unforgettable novel Moby Dick, then at some point you owe yourself a trip to New Bedford, Massachusetts, which was the Capital of Whaling in the 19th Century and is still America’s busiest fishing port. Trust me, one day will not be enough; you will need at least a weekend, and if you and your family really like going deep into history, three or four days would not be excessive.

Its favorable location and excellent harbor made New Bedford a natural for the whaling and fishing industries from its start. It vied with Nantucket for domination of whaling but eventually won out, thanks in part to technical innovations; the toggle iron harpoon, which became the standard, was invented by African-American blacksmith and New Bedford resident Lewis Temple in 1848.
Portuguese immigrants already familiar with whaling from their bases in the Azores and other Atlantic islands began to come to New Bedford in large numbers in the early 19th Century, and this is still home to the largest Portuguese-American community in the United States. Which also means that if you have a taste for traditional Iberian seafood dishes such as paella, the city’s restaurants will not disappoint!

There are nine historic districts in New Bedford – few cities have so many – and two of them, the New Bedford Historic District and the Merrill’s Wharf Historic District, are part of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. There is so much to see in this area, although there are also many New Bedford attractions beyond it.

Readers of Moby Dick will know that the novel opens in New Bedford, and that one of the early scenes takes place at the Seamen’s Bethel (which Melville calls the “Whaleman’s Chapel,” and which was built in 1832), where the character Father Mapple gives a powerful sermon. (This part was played in director John Huston’s 1956 film version by Orson Welles, and exteriors were shot at the actual Bethel.)

Visiting the Bethel and sitting in its pews is an intensely moving experience. All sailors traditionally did so before going to sea. The walls are covered with the names of New Bedford whalers and fisherman who died in their work. The Bethel is still actively used for religious services, weddings, and funerals.

Just a few blocks away, in front of the main branch of the New Bedford Public Library, is the famous Whaleman Statue.

Elsewhere in the area are the Mariners’ Home, which the Waterfront Historic Area League (WHALE) is working on turning into a Fishermen’s Museum; the 1834 U.S. Customhouse, the oldest such building still in active use by the U.S. Government; the 1848 Durant Sail Loft on Merrill’s Wharf…

…the 1834 Rotch-Jones-Duff House, home to three prominent whaling business families over the years…

…and (usually) the 1894 fishing schooner Ernestina, one of the oldest ships of its kind still afloat (currently under restoration offsite in order to keep it seaworthy).

But the centerpiece of the Whaling National Historic Park is the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which occupies several historic buildings and boasts a diverse group of collections, as well as a research library and film theater. These collections include the world’s largest assemblages of scrimshaw (ivory pieces carved by whalers) and whaling log books; paintings by great artists such as Albert Bierstadt and Albert Pinkham Ryder; a large array of historic glass; five complete whale skeletons…

…and the world’s largest ship model, the Lagoda, built in 1916, which at 89 feet is half the size of the original ship, and which may be boarded by visitors.

All in all, you certainly won’t regret a trip to New Bedford!

Monday, March 28, 2016

Peter Gunn vs. Michael Shayne

Despite their similarities on many points, Peter Gunn (1958-1961) strikes me as more noir than Michael Shayne (1960-1961).

Peter Gunn was the more popular and longer-lasting show. Created by Blake Edwards and famous for its Henry Mancini theme music, Peter Gunn was a half-hour series that ran for three seasons, with a total of 114 episodes produced. 

Played by Craig Stevens, who was 40 when the show premiered, Peter Gunn is a private eye in an unnamed Western city with a waterfront. His home base is a bar called Mother’s, presided over by Hope Emerson. He has no secretary, no assistants, no operatives, and, crucially, no formal office; when asked about his office in one episode, he gestures around Mother's and says, "This is it."

The bar features excellent West coast-style jazz of the era, as do other clubs that Gunn visits in the course of his work; music is a very prominent feature of this series (and rightly contributes to its cult status today). Peter Gunn’s girlfriend Edie Hart, played by the amazingly good actress Lola Albright, is the sultry regular singer at Mother’s. 

The other series regular is Gunn’s contact on the police force, Lieutenant Jacoby, also played very well by Herschel Bernardi. Gunn and Jacoby have the typical push-pull, grudging-mutual-admiration relationship that is typical of private eyes and cops in this sort of narrative set-up. Jacoby tolerates far more from Gunn than he would from another independent.

Peter Gunn is a very suave guy, impeccably well-dressed (wardrobe coordinator Sydney LaVine – love the name! – gets a prominent end credit). He’s really Dapper Hall of Fame material. He is quite deliberate in his speech and movements, not remotely a hothead. His only vulnerability is that, operating alone as he does, he can be outmanned, and is sometimes conked on the head or otherwise roughed up. (I’ve never understood why fictional private detectives don’t operate in pairs, with one out of sight but ready to swoop in. It would save a lot of trouble!) 

Gunn’s relationship with Edie Hart is very bold for the television of its day; they are unquestionably sexually involved, very happy in their arrangement, and don’t talk of marriage. The many close shots of the two are erotically charged and satisfying in a way that doesn’t even call for any historical allowances; they come off as equal in intelligence and equals in their relationship.

At 25 minutes in length, the episodes are very brisk in their set-ups, even more so in their denouements, and frequently rely on a sort of genre shorthand because there simply isn’t time to spell much out. One early episode, “The Chinese Hangman,” is an unofficial abbreviated remake of Out of the Past that is positively whirlwind in its effect. A standard feature of the episodes is an opening teaser that cuts to the credits from a “shocker” – a body being discovered, say. (This technique was used many years later for comic and ironic as well as melodramatic effects on Hill Street Blues.)

The world that Peter Gunn operates in is decidedly nocturnal – day-lit scenes are few, and there is no sense of 9-5 normalcy at all, even around the show’s edges. Peter, Edie, the cops, the crooks – all come out at night. The show is hermetic in that particular sense that soundstage shooting and night lighting can conspire to create. 

Michael Shayne premiered two years after Peter Gunn, and might have been catching its tailwind. It only lasted one season, for a total of 32 hour-long episodes. Like Peter Gunn, Michael Shayne was shot in black-and-white, standard for television at that time.

Shayne, of course, was already a popular character – in the many novels and short stories by Brett Halliday (and, after 1958, his ghost-writers), on radio, in film adaptations starring Lloyd Nolan and Hugh Beaumont.  The Shayne I’ll be describing is the Shayne of the television show only; there are inevitable variations when you’re dealing with a character incarnated in so many media. 

Played by Richard Denning, who was 46 when the show premiered, Michael Shayne is a Miami-based detective with far more “apparatus” at his disposal than Peter Gunn. He has an office; he has a secretary, Lucy Hamilton (played first by Patricia Donahue and then replaced mid-season by Margie Regan); he has a buddy on the local paper, Tim Rourke (Jerry Paris) –their trading of information and favors seems pretty unethical from the journalistic side! Lucy’s bongo-playing brother Dick (Gary Clarke, in for the youth appeal) also hangs out and does some operative work. Shayne has about the same relationship with the local gendarme Lieutenant Gentry (Herbert Rudley, of Decoy fame) as Peter Gunn has with Lieutenant Jacoby.

Like Gunn, Shayne is tall, self-possessed, quite well-dressed – both these guys are charter members of the cufflinks-and-pocket-squares brigade. Shayne wears lighter-colored suits sometimes, in keeping with the Miami locale. He’s got a quicker smile than Gunn, and his manner is less ironic. He, too, is prone to being conked on the head; also, undesirables are frequently waiting in his apartment when he opens the door – he ought to get on the building management about that. 

There is a strong hint that Shayne is carrying on with his secretary Lucy, but they never make out on screen and the show is not remotely as titillating as Peter Gunn. Again in keeping with the locale, the well-built Denning gets to take his shirt off fairly often, something we never see Gunn do (although I imagine Stevens would have looked fine). Michael Shayne is not the heavy smoker that Peter Gunn is (Craig Stevens’s handling of the cigarette as masculine prop was expert), but he loves his cognac – put some in his coffee, please! 

There are fairly frequent jazz club scenes in Michael Shayne, but they are not as flavorful as the corresponding Peter Gunn scenes, and seem to be there mainly so Gary Clarke can annoyingly trot out his bongos.

Since Michael Shayne is an hour show, the plotting can be and is far more elaborate than in Peter Gunn. Only about half the scenes are set at night. There appears to have been more actual outdoor shooting - probably with Los Angeles doubling for Miami, since I don’t believe this was a location-produced show. (That became the norm later, with Hawaii Five-O - on which Denning played the Governor - and The Streets of San Francisco.) There is definitely a normal 9-5 world on display in Michael Shayne, and Shayne knows very well how to operate in it (although his secretary won’t make appointments for him before 10:00 AM; he does put in some late nights).

Why does Peter Gunn impress me as more noir than Michael Shayne? They pair up well enough in most aspects so that there really shouldn’t be much to choose between them in that way. But a few significant differences tell the tale. As a half-hour show, Peter Gunn is less explicit in its narrative style. It is darker, more nocturnal. It is moodier. It is sexier. It is unlinked to quotidian reality. The city is unnamed. Add it all up, and the show is just more “mysterious” than Michael Shayne

Also more classic – both series are enjoyable, but only Gunn is iconic. Michael Shayne adheres to a TV formula in which all tensions are resolved by episode’s end; but Peter Gunn, even when it appears to do the same thing, stays edgy. Since an uneasy emotional residue seems to me to be basic to the appeal of noir, Peter Gunn qualifies as a noir detective series. Michael Shayne is a breezy detective show out of a slightly distinct tradition. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Stylish 60s TV Commercial

Stanley Kubrick's enthusiasm for the technique of certain television commercials, such as the early 1970s "The Night Belongs to Michelob" series, is well-known. I wonder what he would have made of this stylish early 1960s spot for Tiparillos mini-cigars? The restless panning captures the swanky nightclub energy perfectly. We never really get a good look at anyone except the vending girl; it all just slides by. The footage would not be out of place in an American knock-off of La dolce vita or La notte. It also demonstrates decisively that the Mad Men stylistic is not merely a retro imposition, but is part of the way the era felt about itself.