Original Dixieland Jass Band, 1917.

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In February 1917, jazz was recorded for arguably the first time when the Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded Dixieland Jass Band One Step and Livery Stable Blues.   I say “arguably” because it depends on your definition of what jazz music is.  For example, thirteen tracks (mostly ragtime) precede these recordings on the masterful Le Grande Histoire du Jazz, a collection of 100 CDs released in four boxed sets that almost singlehandedly made the case for the EU public domain fifty-year rule for recorded music.  In other words, buy them now if you don’t already have them – the prices have already started rising.

But I digress.  This modest post takes a look at advertisements and reactions in the press to those early recordings by the Original Dixieland Jass Band.  We start with the New York Times, and an advertisement for an appearance by the band less than one month before they made recorded music history.

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The Scranton Republican, April 17, 1917.

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The Decatur Daily Review, April 21, 1917.

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The Hutchinson Gazette, April 25, 1917.

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El Paso Herald, April 28, 1917.

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The Wassau Daily Herald, May 1, 1917.

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The Sandusky Star Journal, August 14, 1917.The_Sandusky_Star_Journal_Tue__Aug_14__1917_p5

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Should academics and writers be opting out or butting heads?

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Five years ago, when the Viva for my PhD was approaching, I was worried about it and was told to look at it in a different way – that someone had bothered to read my work from beginning to end, they had engaged with it, and they wanted to debate it. In other words, it was a compliment, not something to worry about. In hindsight, that is a good way of looking at  it – although it doesn’t stop the stress at the time.

But I am getting concerned how some academics and other writers not only run away in fright of someone reading and challenging and debating their work, but view it as an act of aggression. It seems that it is believed that it is a God-given right that they/we can write something, advertise on social media that they/we have written it and thus draw attention to it, and then not want people to do anything but provide unequivocal praise.

We should not be turning into an academic equivalent of the Memphis Mafia – saying “that’s right” to every utterance, and unable to question ideas, theories and, yes, supposed facts. If people publish something, and/or draw attention to their work, then they should expect it to be debated in a rigorous fashion.  Are we really heading to a position where a conference panel ends not with questions from the audience but with compliments from the audience in case the questions are a tad awkward and draw attention to something we haven’t considered?

Academia and academic writing cannot and should not be a place inhabited by those who want to type away in an office with a closed door and the phone off the hook, who then go to the door and shove their latest article out into the public domain through the gap at the bottom, before running back to their chair ready to don blindfolds and earplugs so they can’t see any negative or challenging reactions to it.

Anyone happy and confident with their work and their research would not be fearing debate. And how boring it would be if this became the norm. I could never imagine Pauline Kael disagreeing with Andrew Sarris but keeping quiet about it in case she hurt his feelings.  While that kind of academic jousting might not be for all, hiding away from dissenting voices must not be the way forward.

Sadly, as so much debate is now done on social media, hiding away is much easier.  We can block anyone on Facebook or Twitter who is asking awkward questions and debating our ideas.  But we need to remember that there is a world outside our offices, or bedrooms, or wherever we write and think.  And perhaps if we as writers and, indeed, as human beings, ventured out there a bit more often and spoke to people other than those who we know will agree with us, we might learn something, and most definitely might be more rigorous in our own ideas.

And, of course, I write this at the same time as it is announced that next year will see the formation of a new academic journal for controversial ideas, where academics can publish anonymously if they are worried they might receive a backlash to their work.  Jeff McMahan, one of the organisers of the journal, has been quoted as saying, “it would enable people whose ideas might get them in trouble either with the left or with the right or with their own university administration, to publish under a pseudonym.”  How the hell did we come to THIS?  Surely, part of the reason why the country is so divided is because people can hide behind anonymous Twitter accounts and spout as much drivel as they want without any fear of reprisals?  Do we want an academic world that works in the same way? Haixin Dang and Joshua Habgood-Coate recently wrote in a piece about the formation of the journal:

When it is working well, academic inquiry is a conversation. Researchers make claims and counterclaims, exchange reasons, and work together to open up new fields of inquiry. A conversation needs speakers: we need to keep track of who is talking, what they have said before, and who they are talking to. Pseudonymous authorship is an opt-out from the conversation, and the academic community will be worse off if its members no longer want to engage in intellectual conversation.
https://theconversation.com/the-journal-of-controversial-ideas-its-academic-freedom-without-responsibility-and-thats-recklessness-107106

If we have ideas, theories, plans, or arguments, then it is our duty to own them and be confident enough in them to be able to argue our position – and there is nothing wrong with hearing what others have to say about those ideas and then changing our own minds.  That’s not a weakness, it’s a strength.

I recently read an article that said the following:

There is (on occasion) a little too much saccharine camaraderie, perpetuating an old-school sort of club that I’d rather watch die than thrive. While rivalries and debates are often more romantic in retrospect — the great one-liners and the heightened emotions enduring more than the petty squabbles and bruised egos — they not only add colour but scrutinize critical discourse. Art and criticism might not be a race, but sometimes a little head-butting forces us to be more firm and more resolute in our hot takes — or even better, open to the idea that those who disagree with you might be onto something.
https://vaguevisages.com/2016/05/03/why-criticism-sarris-vs-kael/

Amen to that.

And yes, I realise that not all authors or academics (and it should be reiterated that this goes beyond academia) are the head-butting, argumentative type, but that does not mean that anyone should be hiding behind the sofa in case a negative response or difficult question is aimed towards them.  Debate doesn’t have to be confrontational – but it is likely to become more confrontational when you start being defensive or simply run away from it!

I should, of course, say that comments are welcome 😉

 

 

“With Heart and With Voice” – National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company Review

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For the last two evenings, I have been at the Norwich Theatre Royal watching the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company’s productions of Trial by Jury, The Sorcerer, and Ruddigore.

It has been rather a long while since I took the time to see some G&S at the theatre, partly because the same old operas get performed time and time again, and sometimes I think I can recite the Modern Major General’s song as reliably as those in the cast.  (Please don’t ask me to; I’m exaggerating).

I was very much “into” G&S when I was a teenager – ah yes, I was that popular kid at school.  In fact, school was to blame as my first school production was of the The Mikado.  It got me investigating the other operas, too, borrowing copies of them from the local library.  And then in 1989, the BBC broadcast the complete G&S on Radio 2 and I dutifully taped them each week and listened to some of them repeatedly.  (As a side note:  Does anyone have copies of these performances?  I would so much like to get hold of them again as they are, bizarrely a key part of my teenage years).  Perhaps understandably as a fifteen year old teenager, the two “supernatural” works grabbed my attention most of all at that time.  However, they were never performed by touring companies coming to Norwich, so the nearest I got were those often-dry TV productions from the early 1980s.   As I grew older, my tastes changed, and G&S got put on the back burner in favour of Elvis, Sinatra, Johnny Cash, and jazz.  And then, this year, I saw that The Sorcerer and Ruddigore are finally being performed in the Theatre Royal, which is literally outside my front door.  Finally seeing them live was an offer I was not going to refuse.  I re-familiarised myself with the music, and then expected to be disappointed.

The Sorcerer was preceded by Trial by Jury as a curtain-raiser last night – although The Sorcerer is quite long enough by itself for an evening’s entertainment, but Trial is always good fun, so who’s complaining?  What is interesting after seeing Ruddigore tonight is that it highlights the problems with The Sorcerer – and I’m not talking about the performance, but the source material – and those problems aren’t apparent when watched separately.

There is probably a good reason why The Sorcerer is not done very much, as there really isn’t a great deal of plot and the characters aren’t particularly likeable on the whole.  And yet the music is often some of the most beautiful in the G&S operas (something I remember from that BBC production from 1989), and luckily most of the best songs are in the first act which, to say the least, has a meandering libretto.   Constance’s “When He Is Here” is a lovely ballad, as is Dr. Daly’s “Time Was When Love and I Were Well Acquainted.”  But the opera doesn’t really come alive until J. W. Wells appears about fifty minutes into the proceedings.

This isn’t really noticed in the current production, which is transported to (I’m estimating) the 1930s.  That in itself is enough to grab our interest while Gilbert finally gets around to providing us with a plot.  The opening chorus, presented to us as a choir rehearsal, is performed with so much zest and energy that it’s hard not to be sucked in.  In fact, it’s true to say that I have rarely seen the chorus in an opera provide as much joy to the audience as the soloists.  They throw themselves so much into their individual characters, over-acting their socks off (intentionally, I might add), that it’s hard not to fall in love with them and wait intently for them to return to the stage, which, I’m pleased to say, they often do in The Sorcerer.  It’s this sense that the performers are having a ball that made the last two evenings so enjoyable.   The soloists also share the same enthusiasm, although, oddly, they have less to work with in their parts than the chorus.  Richard Gauntlett provides us with a spiv of a John Wellington Wells (which works very well), and Ellen Angharad Williams shines as Aline.

Ruddigore is, rather bizarrely, a reversal of The Sorcerer:  the plot comes thick and fast from the very beginning, the main characters are much more interesting, but the male chorus in particular have much less to do – which is a shame as they were great fun on the previous evening.  Seeing the two operas side by side, there’s little doubt that Ruddigore is a much better work on the whole.  Again, I’m talking about the source material here and not the production.  The first half of the production is a lengthy eighty minutes, but it seems to zip along at quite a pace, helped, perhaps by the episodic nature of it and the split into three seamless scenes.  Another big bonus here is that it gets off to a strong start through Gaynor Keeble’s impressive “Sir Rupert Murgatroyd” (what a wonderful voice she has).  And then there comes the huge shock – Bradley Travis who is playing Robin/Ruthven is under fifty!  Actually, under forty.  Possibly under thirty.  Of course that IS the intention, but anyone who has seen G&S in the past will know that the leading male and female roles are often NOT played by age-appropriate cast members.  Robin is meant to be in his twenties, I believe, but on the Malcolm Sergeant recording from the 1960s is played by a 78 year old.  You see where I’m coming from here?  This makes a massive difference to the performance – not least by the amount of physicality that can then be brought to the role – although Travis spends much of the second act writhing around on the floor (as you do).

This youth element is what enlivens these productions more than anything.  When I was singing G&S at an amateur level, I’m sure no-one else was under sixty.  Ian Smith, Chairman of the company, boasts in the programme: “I don’t know of any other Opera Company in Britain that takes as many graduates from the leading Music Colleges as we do.  Young enthusiasts with splendid voices embarking on their professional career in the very safe hands of Gilbert and Sullivan.”  And he is right to boast about this.  Not only is this giving young performers a chance that they otherwise wouldn’t have had, but it also pays dividends for the company in giving the productions more energy and vitality than they otherwise would have had – and if you want proof of that check out the chorus work in Trial/Sorcerer (there are some members of the chorus who grab your attention despite not having a single line of their own) and the young cast of Ruddigore.

Both of these operas must be very difficult for a company on such a tight budget as this one – they almost beg for special effects and clever sets. They don’t get either here (and at one point, The Sorcerer pokes fun at itself over that), but don’t let that put you off.  Also don’t let it put you off that you might not know these particular works.  Ruddigore, in particular, provides the tried and tested G&S formula – indeed, compare the finale to Act I of The Mikado to the finale of Act I of Ruddigore and, dramatically, it’s pretty identical – just replace Katisha with Despard and you’re almost there.   I really do wish that audiences would be more daring with the choices they make – these performances were far from full houses, and it’s such a shame with so much to enjoy.   I hope that this doesn’t mean that the company resorts to bringing us The Mikado and Pirates instead next year, as it’s really nice to see these other works performed.

What you get with these two productions (and I’m guessing the others on the current tour) is a damned good evening of entertainment – and that, really, is exactly what G&S should be about.   I’m not going to pretend that these are the most polished productions you will ever see (although it might be the ONLY production of The Sorcerer you ever see), or that the sets are the most exciting in the world, but that is more than made up for by what else is being offered – fun.  That is what the evening is all about, and these fresh, sometimes intriguing productions, certainly provide that in abundance.

I’d like to make another comment about the programme note from Ian Smith, in which he states the company receives just £21,000 combined in grants and donations compared to the millions of other opera companies centred in London (he mentions the ENO).  We have to start realising the worth of the arts in this country.  Funding has been cut for the arts subjects at university level, there has been discouragement of taking arts subjects at schools, and funding has been cut for companies such as this one.  The government can try to drum it into our heads that we need scientists more than musicians, but there’s not much point in finding cures for deadly diseases if we don’t have music and the arts to enjoy during those extra years we gain by these cures.  And that goes for whatever areas of the arts provide your enjoyment.  Companies such as this HAVE to survive, as do our orchestras, our independent film makers, and so on.  If our country really is going to continue with this hair-brained political suicide, we’re going to need something to take our mind off it – and I very much doubt that most of those spouting the nationalistic twaddle on Twitter have ever seen a single opera written by two of our country’s national institutions in their lives.  And that’s an irony that Gilbert himself might well have appreciated.

I’d like to conclude by saying health has thrown quite a bit of crap my way over the last couple of months – but for six hours this weekend I forgot about it completely and did a great deal of smiling, and what more can you ask of a theatre trip?

No More Tears: A Response

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I have great respect for Charles Epting – one of the most knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and certainly energetic young silent film enthusiasts around.  He is at the helm of The Silent Film Quarterly magazine, and has today made a post on the publication’s blog claiming that the 90% or so of silent films that no longer survive are, basically, no big loss (I admit I paraphrase).  My respect for Mr. Epting notwithstanding, on this occasion he has missed the mark by a long way.  Before reading my response, take yourself over to the original article (and check out some of the other great blog posts while you’re there):

No More Tears article on Silent Film Quarterly’s blog

The problem with Epting’s view is clear from the start, where he writes: “If all we have is 10% of the silent films ever made, what brilliant, ground-breaking, revolutionary pieces of art are we missing out on?”  This would suggest that the only important films are the ones that were brilliant, ground-breaking, revolutionary, or even works of art.  But is this really true?  Are the films that have shaped our cultural history really all brilliant movies?  Of course they’re not.

He goes on to try to tell us that everything is actually OK because most of the works of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Griffith, von Stroheim, and DeMille still survive, as do most of the movies nominated at the first Oscar ceremony.  And they do mostly exist, that is true.   But let’s take a step away from thinking that film is all about big name stars and directors and Oscar-nominations, and look at it from another point of view.  To do this, I shall take you into a niche area of silent movies.

My PhD and subsequent book (still available if you don’t mind remortgaging your house to buy it thanks to the wonders of academic publishing) was about “male-male intimacy” in early film.  In other words, it looked at gay characters, homosocial environments, homoeroticism, sissies, fops, romantic friendships, and the like.  The films give us an insight into how homosexuality and homoeroticism were viewed in the first three decades of the 20th Century.  These primary sources help us to piece together an important part of our cultural history.  Now, you might be thinking that you haven’t seen many such characters or narratives in silent film – and that’s because they rarely occurred in the films made by the major directors and stars listed by Epting, and in many cases we only know about these movies at all because comments on them exist in old copies of VarietyFilm DailyMotion Picture World, and other such publications, which we are able to access thanks to the wonders of the Media History Digital Library.

Let me take you back to the early 1910s, when there was a whole flurry of films made in Hollywood containing the stock character of the “sissy” – and yet probably the only film anyone will have seen from the period with this stock character is Algie the Miner from 1912.  Why?  Because most of the others have been lost.  But can we actually presume that Algie is representative of all of the films containing the sissy character from the pre-war period?  Of course not.  For that we would need to see the likes of A Cave Man Wooing (presumed lost), Just a Boy (presumed lost), Hilda Wakes (presumed lost), Sissybelle (presumed lost), The Pay-as-You-Enter Man (presumed lost), and He Became a Regular Fellow (presumed lost).  What the trade publications tell us through their reviews is that the character of the sissy changed drastically from Algie in 1912 through to Keep Moving in 1915.  In 1912, he is treated as a sympathetic character, by 1913 he is, according to Moving Picture World, an “abomination,” and by 1916, Musty Suffer is so disgusted at the sissy that he puts a lighted firecracker in a package and then gives it to him.

Charles Epting, in his piece this morning, would argue that these films are not important, and that their loss is no big deal.  They would not have been great films, and they would not have had great direction or acting, and so why spill tears over them?  But the reality is far from that, as these four years of short, probably not very good, comedies would demonstrate to us just how Hollywood and the public at large changed its view of gay/effeminate/queer (we don’t know which, as we can’t see them) men during the years directly prior and during the First World War, and we can only presume that the advent of WWI caused a shift in how masculinity (or lack of) was treated in film.

Let’s also think about the issue of genre, as well.  It is well-documented that “horror” was not used as a genre description before 1931 (there is evidence to counter that now, but by-and-large this is true).  So, how were what we now call the horror films of the 1910s and 1920s described or viewed by audiences?  How did their content change in the run up to Dracula in 1931?  Sure, we can view Lon Chaney films, The Cat and the Canary and Caligari and presume that we can judge from those movies if we want, but we would be foolish to do so.

Today the majority of horror films we watch are not big productions and, instead, medium-budget films with lesser (often unknown) actors.  In fact, the majority of horror films made today are straight-to-DVD/streaming affairs.   According to the scenario laid out by Epting’s piece, as long as It and The Conjuring survive in a hundred year’s time, everything will be fine because the horror genre in the 2010s can be judged from those big productions.  But that clearly isn’t true.  There are hundreds of horror films that aren’t big productions, but they are as much part of the genre as It and The Conjuring, and tell us just as much about film-viewing in 2018 (not to mention how they might comment on the political situation).

The idea that only films that received positive reviews and praise at the time of release are worth worrying about when it comes to lost films is flawed, and always has been flawed.  What if we applied this idea to classical music?  We would assume that a great deal of music written by Wagner, Brahms, and Beethoven was bloody awful.  “I believe that I could write tomorrow something similar inspired by my cat walking down the keyboard of the piano” wrote a critic – of Tannhauser!  What if THAT was a lost work?According to Epting’s premise, it would be no great loss.  In the world of film, we can learn just as much about cinematic and/or cultural history from Ben Model’s release of Whispering Shadows on DVD as we can from Phantom of the Opera.  

Every lost film and TV programme is a gap in our cultural history.  It doesn’t matter whether the item in question was great art or a trashy horror movie – unless we can see what we are missing, we are not in a position to judge its cultural worth. 

 

Revisiting Dorian Gray (2009)

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Perhaps the biggest reason why the 2009 film of Dorian Gray is so disappointing is that Ben Barnes is probably the most suitable actor to play the role since Hurd Hatfield in the 1945 MGM version.  Barnes might have been twenty-seven at the time of filming, but he looks younger and, perhaps more importantly, is both beautiful and contains a childlike innocence during much of the first half of the movie.  If Hatfield had come across at fragile with his porcelain-like features, Barnes portrays Dorian as naïve – something I could never believe Hatfield to be, he seemed far too wicked for that.  And in both versions of the story, the lead actor was relatively unknown – Hatfield particularly so, but the public was only aware of Barnes through his role as Prince Caspian in the Narnia series, and a jolly jape misfire of a Noel Coward play.  And the public’s lack of familiarity with the lead actor can help with something like Dorian Gray.  By the time Helmut Berger was cast in the 1970 film, he had already appeared in Visconti’s The Damned, and, after that, who could ever believe that Berger could be an innocent?

Unfortunately, the 2009 movie falls down in so many places that the potentially perfect casting of Barnes becomes almost immaterial.  The opening of the film is a case in point, unable to convey through its CGI-laden visuals whether the audience should prepare for a horror movie or a fairy story.  This is an issue that continues throughout the film, with even some of the acting (particularly Rachel Hurd-Wood as Sybil Vane) making audiences wonder if they are watching a Wilde adaptation or a Tim Burton movie.  Ironically, a Burton take on Dorian Gray might be an interesting venture if Burton was feeling inspired that day, but here the visuals are too pretty, too clean (even in the sordid moments) and without the underlying wickedness that Burton is capable of bringing to such seemingly-innocent images.

But the film fails mostly because it dares to show us, repeatedly, just what Dorian’s sins are.  We know very little of them in the book, or, indeed, in the Hatfield film, but here they take place before our very eyes.  The issue here is that this is a mainstream film and, because of that, none of the sins appear particularly sinful – especially to a modern audience.  I very much doubt that anyone watching the film is likely to faint with shock that Dorian has a threesome, or has sex with another man, or that he doesn’t mind a bit of S&M even if it means roughing up that pretty little face of his (albeit temporarily).  Sure, he commits a murder too, but you only have to tune in to ITV3 every night to see half a dozen of those thanks to Midsummer Murders, Foyle’s War, and Poirot.  Trying to shock audiences (or even to titillate them) in a 15-certificate movie through some images of fetishist sex is hardly going to make us realise just what an horrific fellow Gray has become, especially when Fifty Shade of Grey is more likely to make one giggle than get aroused.

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It might work if it was a movie made by an independent filmmaker, with an appetite to come up with something more genuinely shocking, explicit or, at least, visually stimulating.  But Ben Barnes with his shirt off kissing two women at the same time is hardly a startling, hedonistic existence in a world where you can do a search on Google and be shown all kinds of sexual activities that you never knew existed – and all because you were looking for the amount of calories in a bowl of corn flakes.

Hinting at Dorian’s sins would have made for a somewhat more mysterious, maybe more eerie, film.  Even the decaying picture itself gets shown far too often for the changes to be remotely shocking – quite unlike the 1945 version where the colour insert of the decaying picture is in itself quite a jolt for the viewer near the end of the black and white film.   The script itself is formulaic for the most part, and the special effects really not very special – check out the explosion at the end of the film.  There are parts of the movie where it looks like an ITV Sunday night two-part adaptation, only with Colin Firth as Lord Henry instead of Jim Nettles.

Going by online reviews, many blame the film’s failings on Ben Barnes, but I would suggest that the film is bland and disappointing despite of him, rather than because of him.  You can’t make a good film with a bad script, and that is exactly what this film has – from the underdeveloped characters to the pointless changes to the source text, including the introduction of a back story where Dorian was the victim of child abuse, which seemingly has no purpose in the narrative and no influence on the character.

Dorian Gray is, unfortunately, a highly frustrating if somewhat watchable mess, but with a TV series in development and another film version out this year, perhaps someone will get an adaptation of Wilde’s own novel right at some point in the near future.

Robert Harron: Griffith’s Boy Bobby

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This is a rather poignant interview with Robert Harron from 1918, and first published in Photoplay in April of that year.   This vintage article is included in Silent Voices: Vintage Interviews with Silent Film Personalities, available in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon.

Griffith’s Boy – Bobby

Harron, the Screen’s Premier Juvenile.  “The Boy” in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance

Author: Elizabeth Peltret

 (Photoplay: April, 1918)

One of the most effective scenes in The Birth of a Nation is a quiet one; a scene without a trace of “dramatic punch,” but it remains vividly in your memory after many a more spectacular scene is forgotten.[1]  It is the meeting of the two boy chums in a sleepy little Southern town before the war.  They poke each other in the ribs, chase into the house, dodge around the furniture in the big hallway, and run upstairs, their arms around each other’s shoulders.  “Everyone” says of this scene that it doesn’t look a bit like acting.  Then, too, the light-heartedness of it, and the peacefulness of the little town, are in poignant contrast to the battle scene where the two boys meet again only to die in each other’s arms.  The Southern boy (Bobby Harron) crawls over to his Northern chum, and puts his arm about him.  It looks as if they are tired from too much play and are just going to sleep for a while.

Since the making of the Griffith masterpiece, Bobby Harron has seen a great deal of battle and sudden death.  Last year he was in Europe with D. W. Griffith, and Lillian and Dorothy Gish, making war scenes for the great director’s next picture.[2]  One can only surmise the number of times he must have been called upon to die, or nearly die – the story may have a happy ending – but it is possible that he is killed or wounded in this war, counting rehearsals, innumerable times.  Also, he has seen real danger, and real history in the making – among other things the arrival of General Pershing and his staff in Europe, for the Griffith party went over on the same ship – and yet with all this, he seems just the same fun-loving boy he looks to be in The Birth of a Nation.  But underneath is a keen knowledge of human nature and an equally keen sympathy.  He seems more interested in people than in events.  In discussing the war, he said more about the effect it would have on individuals than about anything else concerning it.  For example, soldiers themselves:

“It’s going to be just as hard for a lot of the fellows to come home from the war as it was for them to go,” he said.  “They’ve changed a lot, of course, the fellows who used to work in stores, and offices, and factories.  They’ve made new friends; they’re heroes – members of the military caste, you know.”  He mentioned Service’s poem, The Revelation:[3]

The same old sprint in the morning, boys, to the same old din and smut,

Chained all day to the same old desk, down in the same old rut;

Posting the same old greasy books, catching the same old train:

Oh, how will I manage to stick it all, if I ever get back again?

Don’t you guess that the things we’re seeing now will haunt us through all the years;

Heaven and hell rolled into one, glory and blood and tears;

Life’s pattern picked with a scarlet thread, where once we wove with a grey,

To remind us all how we played our part in the shock of an epic day?

 “But that won’t apply so much to the moving picture actor.  We’re funny people!  We have plenty of time evenings and between scenes, and yet we hardly ever learn anything outside our work.  Most of the fellows who go from the film will have to begin all over again, when they come back, even if they aren’t maimed or crippled.  There are quite a few moving picture actors and it’s not a bit hard to forget them.”

Probably very few persons have thought of this phase of the subject.  If there were only a few of the “thin red ’eroes” it would not make so much of a difference.  But in this war the individual is lost in the great throng of men who, while their praises are sung today, will have to come back later when the tumult and the shouting has died and people are speaking in prose again.  Nearly every young man who goes to war sacrifices something in a business or professional way, but there is before him the chance to win, in a brief time, a degree of fame that otherwise it would take him years to gain, and, whether he wins distinctive military honors or not, his war record will give him preferment and a sort of distinction.  But the motion picture actor who has won any marked degree of success is known the world over.  If war takes him away for a year or two, he must look forward to the probability that when he comes back his name will have been virtually forgotten, not only by the public but by managers as well.

Although he did not mention the fact himself, the war will possibly cost Bobby Harron much in those things everybody wants – success, income, material security and a foothold on the ladder that leads to fame.  For he has been drafted, too, and is only on leave of absence.  Although so serious a matter to him, he turned it off with a characteristic story.

“I heard of a fellow who went to a dentist and had all his teeth pulled before going up for examination.  The examining officer looked him over and said, ‘You’re exempt; you have flat feet.’

“I tell you what,” Harron said with quiet sincerity, “I’d rather leave my family, my friends, my work and my club forever – I’d rather die right now – than to be told I wasn’t wanted because my health was not good enough.  To know – absolutely know – that you are not physically fit would be worse than to go through a hundred wars.”

Although he is very slight, his clear eyes and skin and the impression he gives of buoyant vitality would seem to indicate perfect health.

“It’s a case of sooner or later with me,” he said.  “I am going when we finish this picture.  The other day, Mr. Griffith said, ‘Well, Bobby, I guess you’ll be glad when we finish these scenes,’  ‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘get them right, if it takes ten years.’”

Bobby laughed heartily at the recollection.  It seems that the unexpected answer so surprised Mr. Griffith that he looked almost petrified, but presently a light dawned.  “I gotcha,” said the great director, “the longer we take on these scenes, the longer you live.”

“That wasn’t what you might call an especially encouraging remark to make, now was it?” remarked Bobby.

Bobby Harron has been in the pictures since 1907, when he was fourteen years old.  He started in with the old Biograph company in New York.

“I was going to a parochial school,” he said, “and one day, I asked the Brother to let me know the next time he heard of a place for a boy.  A little later the Brother sent me around to the Biograph studio.  The man in charge was named McCutcheon; his son, Wallie, is now a major in the English army.[4]  He asked the usual questions, and the upshot of it was that I went to work in the cutting room at a salary of five dollars a week.  After I had been working in the cutting room about two months, he took me out and gave me a small part in a picture.  It was a comedy named Dr Skinnum (sic).[5] Anthony O’Sullivan was in it, I remember, the same Tony O’Sullivan who is now in charge of the “lot” over at Mack Sennett’s.  I remember thinking at the time that there was no future in that kind of work for a young fellow, and that as soon as I could I’d go and get another job.  But I never did.  I kept on when Mr. Griffith took charge; came with him to California, and have been with him ever since.”

His first leading part was in a picture called Bobby’s Kodak.[6]

“This picture gave me my first big joy in life, because it gave me the chance to be the kind of kid I had wanted to be in my dreams, but had never had the chance to be in real life.  My oldest brother and I had always had it in us to be little devils, but we lacked the teamwork of the Katzenjammers.  We always took it out in fighting to see which one was going to play the lead.  For instance, I’d come to him and propose that I play hookey and fix up a nice little story for him to tell the Brother, but he’d say, ‘Well, I don’t see why I can’t play hookey and you tell the story to the Brother,’ and so it would end by neither of us playing hookey.  It was that way with every bit of mischief we tried to do – we were great chums” there was no pause but a hurrying on of speech – “he’s dead, now – killed two years ago in an automobile accident.”

Bobby comes from a family of ten children and is the oldest of seven living; five sisters and one brother, all in school but one sister.  One brother, aged 14, has appeared in a picture with Louise Huff.

“Oh, he’s a comer, all right!” said Bobby.

Speaking of his trip to Europe, one of the first things he mentioned, referring to it with an air of tremendous pride, was that they went over with General Pershing and his staff, “taking the same high place in French history that is given to Lafayette in American history.”

“Of course the fact that the general and his staff were to accompany us was supposed to be a deep and dark secret of state.  It was quite some secret.  The first I knew of it was two days before we sailed.  I was walking down a New York street, when a fellow I knew stopped me, took me aside, and looking around to be sure there was no one who could overhear him, whispered, ‘I’ll tell you something if you’ll promise me not to tell anyone.’ Of course, I promised, and he said in a slightly lower whisper, ‘You’re going over with General Pershing and his staff.’

A little later I met a man who had booked with us for passage.  ‘Heard the news?’ he asked.  ‘No,’ I said.  ‘What is it?’ ‘General Pershing is to sail with us, but for goodness sake, don’t tell anybody.’

“After that, knowing it would make Mother feel easier to know that every care would be taken of General Pershing, I decided to tell her that he would be with us.  I knew she wouldn’t say anything about it, but nevertheless my conscience troubled me a little until just as we were going aboard, with a lot of dock hands within easy hearing distance, someone yelled at the top of his voice to a friend at the foot of the gang-plank, ‘Hey, who do you think’s on board – General Pershing!’

“Yes, it was quite some secret.”

For Bobby seasickness was not one of the horrors of war.  “I didn’t get really seasick at all,” he said, “because every time I felt there was any danger of it, I went to bed and stayed there until I felt right again.  I didn’t get up at all for the first three days out – not because I was really sick, but because the roll of the ship bothered me a little and I wasn’t taking chances.”

Speaking of taking chances, he had only been back in Los Angeles about a week when he went with a party on a little two-hour trip to Catalina Island; a trip that is nearly always disagreeable and choppy.  Everyone on board was sick – everyone, that is, with the exception of three passengers, and he was not one of those three.  He admitted that he was so sick he wanted to die and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, he has been kidded to death about it ever since.

“A lot depends on what you happen to be in,” he said in explanation.  “We went over to Catalina in a launch.  And when it’s choppy on the li’l old Pacific and you’re in a launch, you know it.  There may be more roll on the Atlantic, but then the ship we went on was as big as this –” his gesture embraced the whole Los Angeles Athletic Club where he lives.

“Not to change the subject at all,” he went on, “we landed at Liverpool and I, for one, went through a regular third degree.  And I knew that one wrong answer would result in my being shipped right back again.  Most of the questions were posers.  For instance, I was asked if I had been invited to come or had come of my own accord.  I took a chance and answered that Mr. Griffith had send for me.  It turned out to be the right answer.  If I’d said that I had come of my own accord, they would have ended the interrogation right there.  Then I was asked why Mr. Griffith had sent for me and not for someone else?  Was I, then, absolutely indispensable to Mr. Griffith, and, if so, why?  Couldn’t someone already in England do the same work I was brought over to do?  Why not – it was awful.

“Of course, I knew that women were doing everything in England.  But one thing that gave me a shock, was that, just as we stepped off the train in London, a young woman ran up to me and, touching the little visored cap she wore, said, ‘Carry your grip, Sir?’

“Coming back, the ship we were on was camouflaged – painted in green and grey blotches to make it indistinct – and exactly the same secrecy was observed as we had going over.  For instance, whenever we mentioned the name of the ship, even to each other, it was always in a whisper.  We didn’t even know exactly when we were to sail until almost the last minute.  When I went to see about my passport, the room was full of people, so when the official asked me the name of the ship I was going to sail on, I leaned across his desk and whispered, ‘Adriatic.’ ‘ADRIATIC’ he bawled in a voice loud enough to carry a block.  ‘When does she sail?’”

He made a valiant attempt to curl the ends of a very diminutive moustache.  He was able to get hold of it, and that was about all.

“How do you like my moustache?” he asked.  “I’ll tell you what I was going to do:  I was going to get a lot of English clothes, with a cane and a monocle and all that stuff, and walk into the club here just as I’ve seen other fellows do after a trip ‘Abroad,’” he put on a very supercilious expression to illustrate – “and I was going to keep it up, accent and all, for about three days until I had everybody saying ‘Well, will you look at that?’ and ‘What do you think he thinks he is?” but I couldn’t do it.  The first person I met was Jack Pickford and we’ve been chums for so long that it was too much for me.  Perhaps I’ll do it next time only a little differently.  I’ll miss this club when I go to war, but it would be fun to walk in here with a waxed up military moustache and a long beard. That’s exactly what I’m going to do to!” With a flash of inspiration, “Just after peace is declared – no, better still – I’ll have the ruling powers inform me of that even in advance so I’ll have plenty of time; I’m going to grow a beard.  Then I’ll strut in here with a good long one, to say nothing of the moustache, a member of the ‘military caste,’ don’t you know?”

He wore his own moustache in Intolerance.[7]

“It’s the only way to do,” he said.  There was just a suggestion of pride that he was able to grow one at that time.  “Not even actors – fellows who ought to have known better – thought it was my own.  There’s a man up here who can make such good ones.  But any kind of a false moustache is hard to get on, and if you don’t take it off at lunch time, you’re always eating hair.”

The little moustache evidently brought out a resemblance to his father none of the family had noticed before.

“I had always thought that I looked a little like both my parents.  It was a big surprise to me when my father told me that a woman had stopped him on the street – that was in New York – and said ‘I beg your pardon, but aren’t you Mr. Harron?’ He admitted that he was, and she explained, ‘I recognize you by your son on the screen.’

“Do people often come up and speak to you on the street?” he was asked.

“Oh, no, not often,” he answered.  “Those who do are mostly middle-aged women.  It’s different with Chaplin, though.  Everybody recognises him.  We used to run around quite a bit together and wherever we’d go someone would be sure to say ‘Oh, look, there’s Charlie Chaplin,’ and kids would run up to him and say ‘Hello, Charlie.’

“I’d like to be a comedian – wouldn’t you?”

[1] The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915)

[2] Hearts of the World (D. W. Griffith, 1918)

[3] The Revelation by Robert William Service (1874-1958)

[4] Wallace McCutcheon Sr (1858-1918) and Wallace McCutcheon Jr (1884-1928)

[5] Dr Skinum (Wallace McCutcheon, 1907)

[6] Bobby’s Kodak (Wallace McCutcheon, 1908)

[7] Intolerance (D. W. Griffith, 1916)

In Defence of 13 Reasons Why

13 reasons

I have already written in a previous blog post about how uncomfortable I am about the adult critic responses to the second season of 13 Reasons Why (Netflix), and that post can be found here: https://silentmovieblog.wordpress.com/2018/05/19/a-bunch-of-self-obsessed-teens-adult-responses-to-13-reasons-why/.   This post, however, is essentially a review of the second season itself.

**contains spoilers**

I have never had any doubt that the series has its heart in the right place, and that it intends to be both entertaining and a frank discussion of the issues that affect teenagers in schools today, not just in America, but elsewhere as well.   I have yet to see a wholly positive review of the second season – the knives were already sharpened and out, so that the critics could jump on the bandwagon of bashing the series, say how shocked they are, and what harm the series will do our kids.  But it seems to me that the reasons that adults have a problem with the series is that it paints them in a worse light than anything that the teenagers do.

The opening episode of the second season is a disaster – and I don’t mean by that that it is irresponsible, but that dramatically it is a mess.  Most people watching last saw these characters a year ago – and it’s not like this is a small cast.  Season two presumes that we remember who all these people are, that we remember what stories were told about them on the tapes, and that we can put together for ourselves what happened to Jessica and Alex in the months between the two series.  The narrative jumps around, trying to be sophisticated enough to show rather than tell us what has happened and what is going on, but fails miserably.  Thankfully, from episode two onwards, this is no longer a problem, and the series finds its feet once again.

The majority of the series uses the trial against the school over Hannah’s death as a kind of hook for each character’s story, thus allowing the same structure as series one, with each episode featuring current day scenes and flashbacks.  Sometimes the viewer isn’t sure of which of the flashbacks are real, and which are distorted tellings of the story as told by the witnesses.  Only when Bryce takes to the stand do the writers go out of their way to tell us he was lying, by giving us the real flashbacks at the end.  The writing of episodes two to twelve is, by and large, very good.  Sure, it flags a bit in the middle, and most episodes could have been better off with five or ten minutes shaved off their running times, but beyond that, for the most part, this is dark, and yet realistic, gripping drama.

Contrary to what most reviews will tell you, there are not a huge number on inflammatory scenes.  Other than flashbacks lasting a couple of seconds, there is actually no reliving of Hannah’s suicide.  Yes, there are scenes of sexual assault but, for the most part, they are milder than you would see in a film that deals with the same topic – especially one that carries an 18 rating, as the series does in the UK.  But it’s not like Netflix doesn’t warn viewers in advance.  And it’s not like Netflix don’t remind us that this is for mature audiences.  That does not mean letting your fourteen year old watch this unaccompanied and then going on twitter and saying how awful Netflix are for making such a series.  Parents are responsible for what their kids do – and if your teenager isn’t ready to watch this, don’t let them, just as you wouldn’t let them watch your porn collection.  Two different things, but same principle.  The intended audience is key.

If anything, the second series has less shocking content than the first (with the exception of the final episode), and the writing is surprisingly nuanced.  The characters are well-drawn and, while I agree it’s unlikely that all of these issues would exist within a group of a dozen kids in one school, these are very real issues for our teenagers.  What is interesting here is that very few of the characters are all-good or all-bad.  With the exception of Bryce and some of the minor characters, they aren’t painted with broad brush strokes.  Good kids do bad things.  Bad kids do good things.  That’s life.   But we tend to find that hard to deal with.  When I wrote a novel about homophobic bullying a few years back, the biggest criticism was that one of the “good” kids kept doing bad things.  We all do bad things, no matter where our moral compass lies.  13 Reasons Why doesn’t shy away from that.

Like many, I have a problem with the final episode, which is, I think, as much of a mess and a misstep as the first episode – but not necessarily for the same reasons as many reviewers suggest.  Yes, the assault mid-way through is unexpected (unless you have read reviews) and brutal, but it is briefer than many would have us believe, and actually less graphic that I was led to believe it was going to be.  Sure, you see enough, but the violence is more shocking than the sexual element for the simple reason that it is on screen, whereas the sexual element is actually implied through various camera angles.   It’s hard to know what to make of it.  There is no real build-up to it, and it does come out of nowhere, and the sexual element of the assault seems almost random.  Yes, it probably is a misstep by the programme makers – whether dramatically or as a matter of taste.

Also problematic for reviewers is the whole school-shooting section.  Some have said that we should not portray school shooters as just a victim, and that makes me wonder if they have actually watched just the final episode or the whole series.  Tyler isn’t just a victim.  He’s exposed as a stalker in the first series, clearly has mental health issues, and spends much of the second series blackmailing people, exposing their bad deeds, and vandalising school property.  To characterise him as “just a victim” of bullying  who goes on the rampage is ridiculous.  Life is more complicated than that.   The whole point here, surely, is that adults should have done more to help Tyler earlier on.

However, much more troubling for me, given the target audience, is the fact that Bryce is seen effectively getting away with his rapes, and Justin ends up with a longer sentence than him despite his crime not being as great (although bad enough).  This is perhaps where the writers have been irresponsible, and not with the sexual assault.  Throughout the series, the kids have fought to expose a rapist, and when they do, he escapes with three month’s probation.  What message is that giving out?  Or perhaps it is just reflecting the screwed-up justice system.

This is one of many times throughout both series where adults fail the teenagers.  They fail them in court.  They fail them as parents (particularly Justin’s, but others too).  They fail them as teachers.  They fail them as a sports coach.  They fail them as counsellors.  And perhaps that is why critics hate the series so much – not because of content that is troubling to teenagers, but because of content that is troubling to adults.  It’s a long, hard look in the mirror.  Society does fail its children.  And if that isn’t enough, the controversial near-school shooting at the end of the series throws one more punch in society’s face, with Clay telling Tyler that shooting the kids in the school will make no impact – adults will talk about it for a week and then forget it.   And how true is that?

Beyond this, there are elements of the show that are clumsy.  The final episode has far too many such moments, most notably the shoehorning in of the “suicide isn’t the answer, kids,” message during the “13 reasons why not” sequence.  Well-intentioned, I’m sure, but horrendously done – as is Clay’s talk with the minister at the end of the memorial service.  Oh dear.  And the jury’s out on the device of using Hannah’s ghost – although her leaving the memorial service and walking out into a bright white light never to be seen again as she wafts up to heaven (presumably) is, unfortunately, laughable.  And these moments are unfortunate in a series that is mostly well-written and well-intentioned

Most of the cast shine – even more so than the first series.  Dylan Minnette seems to spend the first two episodes taking his shirt off, and the rest of the time crying, shouting, or being beaten up.  And yet, despite all of this, he makes the character utterly believable.  Alisha Boe probably had one of the most difficult roles of the season as Jessica – switching between vulnerable, fallible, and headstrong throughout, and, again, she pulls off the difficult role extremely well.  But perhaps the real acting honours go to Brandon Flynn, who is stunning as Justin, managing to make him almost an entirely different character from who we see in much of the first season, and yet being most convincing as the vulnerable, fragile, difficult teenager he has become.   But there really isn’t a weak link in the ensemble cast.

Will there be a third season?  My own guess is that Netflix will decide against it, if only to avoid more accusations of being inflammatory by adults who are uncomfortable with kids watching something that accurately describes what they see at school.  But I certainly wouldn’t object to finding out what happens next to these characters.  Only time will tell – and it’s almost certain that the cliffhanger ending suggests that a third season was planned even if it never materialises.