Category Archives: Books

The Thin Man and the Little Erection, or How to Imagine Myrna Loy Talkin’ Dirty

I’ve been intimate with the Thin Man films since I was 13. And “intimate” is a good way to put it: it’s easy to feel close to such a hip couple as Nick and Nora Charles, as vividly portrayed by William Powell and Myrna Loy. They’re funny, smart and incredibly sexy (especially Ms. Loy. Whoa). The series of films is considered to be one of Hollywood’s strongest and most consistently entertaining. Still I’m surprised how few people I’ve met who’ve also read the book, written by Dashiell Hammett and published in 1934 (a mere five months before the first Thin Man film was released).

The book was Hammett’s fifth crime novel in as many years and was an instant bestseller (more below on the reasons why). There are many similarities between the book and the film, although mainstream literature of the day was even spicier than pre-code cinema. For example, although Nick and Nora drink heavily in the film, it’s a drop in the (ice) bucket compared to the book: with over 20 references to cocktails in the first 7 pages alone, Hammett’s prose is enough to make Don Draper order a Shirley Temple.

The book is more of a mystery with comic undertones, whereas the film plays more like a comedy with a mystery attached to it. (Well, not exactly, but I’m always surprised how The Thin Man tends to be referred to as one of the great screwball comedies of the 30s.) Like the film, the witty repartee between Nick and Nora is the key to its charm. 1   Screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich take that sexy banter as written by Hammett and run with it. For example, here’s Nick and Nora’s first conversation in the book…

Dorothy Wynant said she had to go back to her table. She…patted the dog’s head and left us.
        We found a table. Nora said: “She’s pretty.”
        “If you like them like that.”
        She grinned at me. “You got types?”
        “Only you, darling—lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”
        “And how about the red-head you wandered off with at the Quinns’ last night?”
        “That’s silly,” I said. “She just wanted to show me some French etchings.”

Which Hackett and Goodrich stretched out to this…

And this is why I urge fans of the Thin Man films to read the book: thanks to the wonderful chemistry between its lead actors, when you read the book, you can hear Powell and Loy saying the lines, even the racier ones that were removed or watered down for the film. Here some examples of the book’s more unusual exchanges, most the kind you wouldn’t hear even in pre-code films:

NICK: How about a drop of something to cut the phlegm?
NORA: Why don’t you stay sober today?
NICK: We didn’t come to New York to stay sober. Want to see a hockey game tonight?

NORA: (tasting a speakeasy drink and shuddering) Do you suppose this could be the ‘bitter vetch’ they used to put in cross-word puzzles? [Google it.]

NICK: Do you mind putting the gun away? My wife doesn’t care, but I’m pregnant and I don’t want the child to be born with—(he gets interrupted)

NORA: Tell me something, Nick. Tell me the truth: when you were wrestling with Mimi, didn’t you have an erection?
NICK: Oh, a little.
NORA: (laughing) If you aren’t a disgusting old lecher.

Even with a broad-minded reading public, this last exchange was over the top. The attention it received helped the book become a bestseller. To fan those flames, publisher Alfred Knopf placed this ad in the New York Times, on January 30, 1934, even signing it:

(It also helped the book get banned in Canada.) Most subsequent editions—those not published by Knopf–altered the passage to “…when you were wrestling Mimi, didn’t you get excited?” 2

Do I think these risqué passages make Hammett’s final novel worth reading? Not exactly. (Though it makes for a hell of blog post title!) But I think the book as a whole is an excellent compliment to the film, we’ll say the R-rated version to the film’s PG-13. Nick and Nora in print-form are a little looser, a littler drunker, and a little dirtier.

So if you ever pick up a copy of the book—and I highly recommend any and all Hammett—you should first check out the conclusion to Chapter 25. If it makes you blush then you know you’re holding something Hammett-approved.


BACK TO POST 1 Hammett supposedly based Nick and Nora on himself and his lover, author Lillian Hellman. He dedicated the book to her and told her she was Nora. “It was nice to be Nora,” Hellman wrote in 1965, “married to Nick Charles, maybe one of the few marriages in modern literature where the man and woman like each other and have a fine time together. But I was soon put back in place—Hammett said I was also the silly girl in the book and the villainess.”

BACK TO POST 2 As I’ve only read the Knopf edition, this alteration was news to me. Once I met someone who’d recently read the book; I said, “How about that ‘erection’ line?’ which created much confusion in the ensuing conversation.


Filed under Books, Film, Humor

When Film Imitates Art

The Last Supper (1495-98, Leonardo da Vinci) & M*A*S*H (1970, Robert Altman)

One art form “borrowing” from another is nothing new, whether it be an homage or a rip-off. In film, for example, a filmmaker might mime something from another visual art (typically painting) to make a point. Here’s some examples (which are interesting in their own right but really a set-up for an obscure one)…

Robert Altman did it in M*A*S*H (above) for the sake of irony. An army dentist prepares to kill himself and his buddies have a send-off dinner. They ask the army priest to deliver the last rites, and he arrives just in time to see the party inadvertently strike a famous pose. (By the way, his reaction shot is the icing on the cake.) 1

Terry Gilliam was both funny and literal in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: the dinner-time arrival of the goddess Venus recreates Botticelli’s painting, the humorous implication being that this is how she comes to dinner daily.

The Birth of Venus (c. 1486, Sandro Botticelli) & The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988, Terry Gilliam)

Ken Russell’s recurring theme of blurring fantasy and reality is key to his use of Fuseli’s The Nightmare in Gothic, his version of the circumstances behind the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In real life, she claimed that her book was born out of a nightmare she had. Russell visually represents it, asking, in a sense, was that nightmare caused by the demon on her chest? 2

The Nightmare (1781, Henry Fuseli) & Gothic (1986, Ken Russell)

Director Herbert Ross and writer Dennis Potter’s depression-era Pennies from Heaven has a mood so similar to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, it made perfect sense to see Potter’s characters momentarily become the painting. (I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve yet to see if this homage is in the original BBC version.)

Nighthawks (1942, Edward Hopper) & Pennies from Heaven (1981, Herbert Ross)

The source materials for all the images above are very famous to begin with, common images in the popular consciousness. Sometimes, however, the filmmaker doesn’t hit you over the head with the reference; sometimes the inspiration is not as well known. For example, George Cukor had keen appreciation for the grace of Degas’s Dancers Lace Their Shoes, which he used as the inspiration for a Cinemascope tableau early in A Star is Born, throwing in a gruff stagehand to modernize it. This shot does little more than establish the backstage mood at a live event, but it sure looks gorgeous on the big screen.

Dancers Lace Their Shoes (c. 1970, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas) & A Star is Born (1954, George Cukor)

Here’s my favorite reference in a film. I came to this backward, meaning when I saw the film I had no idea what it was referencing. However, in this post I’ll unfold the information in real chronological order.

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was published in 1937, and his tale of the doomed Lennie and George immediately entered the popular consciousness. Meanwhile, photographer Dorothea Lange was in the midst of documenting the day-to-day plight of migrant workers and other victims of the Depression (her most famous photograph is Migrant Mother) and took this picture, which she called Toward Los Angeles, California.

Two years later, Lewis Milestone directed the first film based on Of Mice and Men, starring Burgess Meredith as George and Lon Chaney, Jr. as Lennie. This scene is very early in the film; in fact, it isn’t in the book (it occurs a few hours before Steinbeck’s first chapter). George and Lennie, on their way to a workranch, get off of a bus, being told by a dismissive driver that their destination is “just a stretch down the road.”

Like I said, I came to this in reverse: I saw the film in grade school and a few times after that on TV, and then, about ten years later, in some trendy boutique in the Village, I came across Lange’s picture on a rack of postcards. I experienced major déjà vu, and it took me months to recollect where I had first seen it.

I think Milestone’s allusion to Lange is way more sophisticated than the others listed above. All the others have their merits and fit into the filmmakers’ purpose, so they’re perfectly fine (Hell, this isn’t a competition). But Milestone referenced a largely-unknown photo that was only two years old. (As opposed to the others who were sometimes reaching across centuries.)

The film uses Lange’s image as a way of infusing some topical documentary into the narrative, but I think it runs deeper, a kind of mixed-media mind meld. Even though Steinbeck and Lange were contemporaries using their respective skills to chronicle the times, in 1937 Steinbeck was the more famous of the two. It isn’t a far reach to think that Lange imagined Lennie and George when she took her picture a month after the book’s publication. (That’s the cover to the first edition to the left, with artwork depicting–you guessed it–two guys walking down a road.) And then Milestone’s appropriation posits a possible back story to Lange’s photograph (especially since he staged it so the scene/shot would resolve with the recreation of her Toward Los Angeles, California).

I’m spelling this out explicitly because in 1940 when John Ford directed his film of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, he and Director of Photography Gregg Toland also borrowed imagery from Lange and photographs taken by the WPA—and that artistic give-and-take has been fastidiously chronicled. You can’t read five sentences about Ford’s film without the writer going on about that. Look, I dig it and all, but I’ve never read anywhere that director Lewis Milestone did it, too—a year before John Ford did!

Of Mice and Men 1st edition dustjacket (1937, artist unknown), Towards Los Angeles, California (1937, Dorothea Lange) & Of Mice and Men (1939, Lewis Milestone)

Yeah, I’ll admit it: as much as I love Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, I’ve always had a soft spot for Milestone’s Of Mice and Men. The cast is exceptional; the filmmaking both technically sophisticated 3  and elegantly simple; and Aaron Copeland’s original score is pretty damn brilliant. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and Netflix it. (And fer Christ’s sake, stay clear of the 1992 Sinise/Malkovich version, unless you want to see the oxymoron of all oxymorons: Malkovich’s thinking man’s Lennie. Yeesh…)


BACK TO POST 1 Thanks to Altman’s love of gritty cinematography, it’s hard to truly appreciate the amount of detail in this frame grab—and all of its humor. This production still, although from a slightly different angle, reveals two particularly nice touches: the shape of the tent’s wall-of-gauze creates a marvelous frame-within-the frame, and the red cross on the top of the tent is an extra allusion to religion.

BACK TO POST 2 Ken Russell’s work does not lend itself to extreme simplification, and odds are I’ve misrepresented his intent with his use of Fuseli’s painting. My apologies to the Russell fans out there, especially to Michael Worrall, an old friend who helped me considerably with this post.

BACK TO POST 3 If you want to see something really cool, check out this clip, which is a slightly longer version of the clip above. It includes George’s conversation with the bus driver, half of which is shot on a soundstage. After the insert shot of the bus driver’s foot on the brake, it cuts back to the conversation, only now the actors are in a real bus. It’s really cool; in fact, if I hadn’t pointed it out, I wonder if you would have noticed it?


Filed under Books, Film

A Peanuts Week

Beginning in 2007, Fantagraphics Books began an ambitious series: The Complete Peanuts, a 25 volume collection of every Peanuts comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, from 1950 to 2000. Releasing three volumes a year—each covering a two-year span–it won’t be finished until 2014; currently, they’re at Volume 13 (1975-1976).

It’s an impressive undertaking for Fantagraphics, but nowhere near as impressive as Schulz’s numbers. As their website puts it, “The first Peanuts daily appeared October 2, 1950. Charles Schulz died on February 13, 2000, the day before his last strip was published, having completed 17,897 daily and Sunday strips, each and every one fully written, drawn, and lettered entirely by his own hand.” Sweet Jesus!

A few years back, when the 700 page Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography was published, a couple of friends asked me if I planned to read it, I thought, nah, I’m in the middle of his autobiography. Y’see, I’ve kept up with the Fantagraphics series (those are my books in the photo above), and simply reading all of Schulz’s work is a massive undertaking.

But what an illuminating undertaking it has been. Like most of us over 35, we grew up in a Peanuts-heavy world, what with the TV specials, the product endorsements, the toys, the greeting cards, and so on.1 (I never went anywhere without my trusty Snoopy doll, as you can see to the left.) With all this exposure on so many fronts, Schulz’s daily strip—the aspect of the Peanuts world he cared about the most—went underappreciated. By me at least. One black-and-white strip a day was too meager for my pre-teen hunger, and I turned instead to the paperback collections. What I didn’t know was that many times these collections were incomplete and typically not in chronological order. They were a mess, really, relics of a time when comic strips were considered low-rent distractions. Disposable.

So, when I began reading these volumes of the Complete Peanuts, I was pleasantly shocked to find out how quickly Schulz found his stride, how the characters developed over the years, and how stories were told in a daily form, what I like to call a Peanuts Week.2

(Although those story arcs are the point of this post, here’s some background about the Peanuts daily strip, a fact which makes Schulz’s accomplishments all the more impressive. He and all of his peers at United Feature Syndicate had to keep their strips four panels of equal size, no more, no less, so the newspapers could print them horizontally, vertically, or in a block.3 And even with Peanuts’s popularity, Schulz followed this strict policy for decades before using his clout to construct his daily strip as he liked.)

What’s a Peanuts Week? For starters, it’s Monday through Saturday.4 During a Peanuts week, time is either very real or incredibly not real.

Here’s an example of the former, when Schulz uses a real-time method of storytelling. Linus Van Pelt’s crush on his teacher Miss Othmar had him in a tizzy for years (decades?). Here’s one such week. As you read it, try to put yourself in the shoes of a contemporary reader, with Charlie Brown as our surrogate, witnessing his friend’s anxiety mount with each day…

Before long, Schulz stretched story arcs even longer than a week. For instance, in early 1961, Lucy decided to cure Linus’s attachment to his blanket by stealing it…

…and burying it. Linus’s withdrawal lasted 3 weeks, going through Hell the whole time. Here he is at bedtime…

It must have been equally traumatic for children and adults alike, getting four-panel doses each day, the comic strip having become their own form of security blanket.

And when Schulz used the daily strip to warp time, he becomes a cartoonist version of Sam Peckinpah (10 years before Peckinpah did it!). These typically happen during the baseball games, at a crucial moment in Charlie Brown’s life—a defining moment—when the pressure is on. And Schulz makes the moment last for six days

If you’ve ever played little league and been in this situation, stealing a base can feel like six days worth of suspense. Its’ worth noting that Charlie Brown was still laying on the ground well into the next week:

Now, reading a Peanuts Week here, in a few minutes, doesn’t do it justice. So, here’s what I’m going to do: beginning next Monday, I’m going to run another one of Schulz’s baseball-themed slo-mo storylines, one a day, in my banner, so we can experience the tension just like Joe Sixpack did in 1958. (In fact, it will be a series that, coincidentally, ran 52 years ago this week. Lest we forget that suspense, insecurity and failure are all timeless!)

Add’l reading in subsequent posts:
       • Peanuts Week Begins
       • Peanuts Week: The Aftermath


BACK TO POST 1 Sadly, the world is no longer Snoopy-dominated. In fact, he’s fading fast, which is commented upon in a recent episode of The Office. 36-year old Andy gives a Peanuts Valentine’s card to Erin, his girlfriend, who’s in her mid-20s:
Erin: [opening card] Aw, a bird and a dog!
Andy: Yeah, well it’s Snoopy and Woodstock.
Erin: You named them?

BACK TO POST 2 DISCLAIMER: I’ve never been an avid comic strip reader and therefore I’m unfamiliar with the tradition of comic strip story arcs found in the classics like Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy. The whole notion of unfolding a story in slight increments, day after day, is foreign to me. I do know Schulz was following in that tradition, but doing a humorous strip, he wasn’t bound to that convention.

BACK TO POST 3 Also noteworthy: The Sunday strips were three rows, but the artist had to make the top row “optional,” since some newspapers wouldn’t use it. This is why, for example, The Wizard of Id always has a two-panel joke at the beginning of its Sunday strips.

BACK TO POST 4 The color Sunday strip was not run in connection with the daily strip, so Schulz would make them free-standing entities.


Filed under Books

My Dream Room: T.E. Lawrence’s Book Room in Clouds Hill

(Here’s the first of my clip-free posts. Gratefully, I have a backlog of topics about music and books that will allow me to keep things feeling business-as-usual, until this YouTube mess is sorted out. I’ll keep you posted on my progress, but at this point, I’m definitely looking to post my clips elsewhere. If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.)

I love books, and I love collecting them. I don’t know how many I own, probably 900. All shapes and sizes. As you can imagine, a lot are about film and music. And comedy. Nonfiction books about What is Funny. In fact, most of these books are nonfiction, with an alarming amount about the contributions of gay, black or Jewish people to 20th century American popular culture, aka what they didn’t teach us in school. (I’m prone to lose myself in a reverie, staring at some of my shelves. I’ll sigh and say, “I have so many good books.”)

Currently, I have around the house stacks of recently-acquired books (mostly used), waiting for some shelf-space, which sadly, won’t happen. My daydream is to one day own a used bookstore; until then, I’ll be content to live in one.

My wife used to be in publishing and she, too, loves books. (The centerpieces at our wedding were stacks of used books from our collection, bound in a blue ribbon. One of my happiest moments that day was seeing all of our friends and family holding and talking about books, books, books, divvying them up.) I was very proud to build in our kitchen a library for Debbie’s cookbooks. It’s great to see her study the spines, like an artist in motion, concocting another great meal.

Gratefully, our son is following suit, and frequently I’ll see Harry Mose sitting in his rocking chair, perusing a book like some miniature Alistair Cooke.

Anyway, the photograph below is the book room of T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. He also loved books, and later in his short life, in the 1920s, he bought a cottage in Dorset, England, a cottage he named Clouds Hill. It had only four rooms, very sparsely furnished. A couple of chairs, a fireplace to heat tin cans of food, a few sleeping bags.1 On the other hand, one of the downstairs rooms was devoted entirely to books, 1,250 of them, from floor to ceiling, with little else except a big-ass bed on which to read them.

Yep, this is my dream room. There will come a time, down the road, when I’ll own a home, hire a carpenter, give him a print out of this picture, and say, “Go to town.” Until then, my family will just have to live with stacks of books around the house.

(That’s the end of the post proper. But if you want to read how I got the picture, keep reading. Consider it a bonus post.)


In 2005, I found this picture of Lawrence’s book room, in a small library in an even smaller town in Maine (yeah, the town was smaller than its library). The town is St. George, and the library is the quaint Jackson Memorial Library.

Debbie and I were vacationing in a nearby cabin, and we’d frequent the library to use their internet. While one was on the computer, the other would comb the shelves. I found the book–T.E. Lawrence by His Friends, published in 1937, first edition–and while thumbing through it, stumbled across this picture (page 333). I swooned.

I photocopied the picture and posted it next to my desk at home, a kind of carrot on a stick, my idea of domestic tranquility.

When I began this blog, anything that I consider interesting or rare became fodder for a post, including this picture. But my photocopy was weak in detail. So I tracked down a copy of the book at the ginormous New York Public Library, on 42nd St. I wouldn’t be allowed to check it out, but I planned to sneak a picture of it with my phone.

I went to the library, which is very stiff and serious. Austere, I guess they’d call it. There’s millions of books and a heavy atmosphere of history and enforced respect. Intimidating and, sadly, condescending. In order to look at this seventy-year old book, I had to stand in three different lines, fill out two forms, and wait almost an hour. By the time they had posted my call number, I felt like they’d be handing me a Guttenberg Bible. Instead they handed me a line of bullshit…

They’d lost the book. In fact, they could tell me only one thing with certainty: Among the branch’s 15 million books, scrolls, newspapers, etc., they only knew where it wasn’t, that is the shelf it was supposed to be on. I left in a huff, giving the literate finger to the cement lions guarding the legendary building.

I went home and immediately called the modest Jackson Memorial Public Library of St. George, Maine. A very nice lady took the call. I asked her if she still had the T.E. Lawrence book. She put down the phone, and picked it up about 40 seconds later, saying, “I’m holding it right now.” I described the picture and it’s relative location within the book.

Ten seconds later, tops: “Yes. Found it.”

I asked her if she could scan it for me.

“I’m sorry, we don’t have a scanner.”

“Oh, um, let’s see…” My mind was racing through the most complicated solutions imaginable, i.e. find someone local with a scanner and get him or her involved to do Lord knows what–but it didn’t matter because the librarian cut me off.

“Why don’t I just mail it to you?”

“…You’d do that?!”

“Sure. You’ll take care of it, right?” She said this matter-of-factly, not in an accusatory manner.

“Hey,” I said, “Just look at that picture. That’s my dream room. Do I sound like someone who’d disrespect a book?”

“Of course not. Just give me your address and I’ll send it out today.”

And that was it. The wonderful and trusting Yvonne (the library’s director) kept her word, and I kept mine. When I received the book, I noticed the inside back cover had one of those wonderful, old school library pockets, the one for the card that would keep track of when it was due back. (So, I guess I do mean “old school” and not “ol’ skool”!) There’s where I got an idea why Yvonne felt she could live without the book for a week or so: T.E. Lawrence by His Friends had been checked out only 14 times in 63 years. (So cool of them to keep it on their shelves! I guess it had been waiting for me all those years.)

Anyway, if you ever get to St. George, Maine (on a peninsula off the mid-coast of Maine, just south of Rockland), be sure to check out the local library. You’d be surprised what you might find!

BACK TO POST 1 Yep, a couple of sleeping bags. One was embroidered with the word “tuum” (Latin for “yours”) and was for guests (such as authors George Bernard Shaw, EM Forster and Robert Graves); the other sleepiing bag was labeled “meum,” (Latin for “mine”) which was the one Lawrence would use. Also, plumbing was installed only after his mother said she was going to visit. This guy liked it lean.


Filed under Books, Plucked from Obscurity

All the President’s Cast & Crew

In 1980 I got a great little book called Who’s Who in American Film Now, by James Monaco, which can be best described as My First IMDB. It was a (semi-)comprehensive reference book with chapters devoted to actors, directors, writers, producers, etc., each with an alphabetical list of names and the work they’ve done (see sample here). Between that book and  this one, I was in a constant state of cross-referencing in my teen years. As indispensible then as the internet is now.

As you can imagine, it’s a dry book, occasionally peppered with captioned photographs. For example, in the Actors’ section, there’s a picture of John Lithgow, captioned as “John Lithgow”; in the Writers’ section, there’s a picture of Paul Schrader that says “Paul Schrader” below it; and so on. Out of nowhere, however, in the Directors’ section, there’s one that’s the Coolest Cast & Crew Picture Ever, with the Coolest Caption Ever:

Even at 11 years old, I got it, since, man, even though this pictue was for All the President’s Men, those guys were everywhere in the 70s. I think at least one of those actors was in every film made between 1965 and 1979. (Jack Warden was in 19 films in 1972 alone. Crazy.)


Filed under Books, Film, Plucked from Obscurity

Alex Haley: Master of All Media, Pt. 3

Over the last couple of posts I’ve elaborated on Roots the book and Roots the miniseries, both worthwhile on their own merits but, let’s face it, each is a real time-suck. So, for our hectic times, I recommend–and offer to you–the 1977 double LP, Alex Haley Tells the Story of His Search for Roots.

During the last few years Haley worked on his book, he supplemented his income with speaking engagements, mostly at colleges, where he did exactly what the LPs title describes: told his story. After the book and miniseries broke big (the miniseries was watched by an estimated 130 million viewers total), Warner Bros. decided to cash in with a recording of one of Haley’s recent engagements at the University of Pennsylvania.

I forget how I heard about this LP. There isn’t a lot of info out there about it, and it’s not on CD. For all intents and purposes, it never existed (when compared to the book’s constant reprinting and the multiple VHS and DVD releases of the miniseries). I found a copy on eBay—sealed!–for only $13, and a friend with a turntable transferred it to CD for me.

And after all the time I’d spent with his story in other mediums, I found this to be the most accessible, entertaining and inspirational.

It’s two hours of Haley telling you his life story. The most logical contemporary equivalent would be a lengthy NPR interview: insightful, intelligent, with humor. The fact that he had probably written the lecture—yet said it so many times—gives his delivery a strange feel, somewhere between a reading and recitation, but I got used to that pretty quickly. The advantage is that is that it’s tight; it’s a dense two hours.

Haley in the Coast Guard

Instead of the fictitious prose of book or the mainstream embellishments in the miniseries, we have Haley literally preserving the oral tradition that is the basis of his book. (Clearly the irony is not lost on him.) Beginning with his childhood in Henning, Tennessee, where he sat on his grandmother’s porch and overheard his elders tell their stories, he tells his own. This includes:

            • his time in the Coast Guard where he learned to write (he would ghostwrite love letters for his shipmates)

            • being Playboy magazine’s first interviewer

            • his experiences co-writing Malcolm X’s autobiography

            • the 12-year-long journey to write Roots

Here are two excerpts. The first describes the difficulties of interviewing Miles Davis. In the second he describes the precise moment he got bit by the genealogy bug. If you like what you hear, you’ll love the LP.

Miles Cooks (1:08)

Discovering Genealogy (9:45)

But wait, there’s more!

The double LP is a classic of its kind: a gatefold cover with an 8-page booklet, full of pictures, deeds, ship manifests, etc. Seeing a photo of the real Chicken George, after all these decades of intimacy with his story, was such a pleasant shock. I’m sure if Roots came out now, there would also be the requisite companion coffee table book, replete with details of Haley’s research. This booklet is a sample of what that could be. (It’s hard to imagine the original book did not include a section for these pictures.)

a sample of the artwork in the LP's booklet

So, between the middle of 1976 and the middle of 1977, Alex Haley’s work covered print, film and audio—hence the title of my posts—only this LP has been out of circulation for over 30 years.

Until today.

If you have any interest in hearing this lost LP, click the link below. I think this recording is too damn compelling to disappear. And, hey, isn’t preserving this stuff what Haley’s point was all about?

Click this link to get the LP. It’ll take you to the Rapidshare site. Click “Free User.” Wait through the countdown and you’ll get a download button. Click that and it will download a 165mb ZIP file. This includes the LP (as mp3s) and the booklet (as a PDF and as individual jpgs). (Be forewarned: I’ve never compiled so many hi-res stills into a single PDF; you’ll have to do a lot of re-sizing to get all the detail, read the captions, etc. Sorry!)

NOTE: I feel obligated to point out that controversy surrounded Alex Haley after Roots was published, with many experts doubting the book’s veracity. Likewise, there was a claim of plagiarism, which resulted in a trial and financial settlement on Haley’s part. To be clear: I don’t want to defend Haley on any of this; I’m most interested in discussing his work’s impact on my life and on popular culture.


Filed under Books, Plucked from Obscurity

Alex Haley: Master of All Media, Pt. 2

Chicken George for real (left) and as seen on TV (right)

Yesterday I gave you an earful about Alex Haley’s Roots, published in August, 1976. True, it was an instant bestseller, but that was chump change compared to the mania that happened the next January. When the Roots miniseries aired, it was crazy. It was Kunta this and Kizzy that, and no one could get enough of Chicken George.

In 2004, shortly after reading Haley’s book, I watched all of Roots for the first time since 1977. How has it aged? Well, it’s a TV movie that’s for sure: very overlit; too much headroom in most shots; and too much music. But those are facile issues.

The good news is that what had impact on me as a child still affected me (which I think is no small feat): Kunta Kinte getting whipped; Kizzy being taken from her parents; Chicken George jumping a fence; and a few others. (The slave auction scene is a highlight, and you can see it here.) But most of all, both in 1977 and in 2004, it was the cast that struck me.

Let’s put aside LeVar Burton, Ben Vereen and Leslie Uggams, who collectively carry the whole production. No, I’m talking about the rest of the cast, which seems to be virtually somebody from every TV show ever. 60s and 70s television perennials such as Ed “Lou Grant” Asner, John “Gordy” Amos, Sandy “Glass Eye” Duncan become major players in the drama. For me, it’s incredibly distracting. My attention was interrupted by:

        •Did I just hear John Walton say the N-word?

        •Oh shit! Talk show host Gary Collins just chopped off Kunta Kinte’s foot!

        •Sweet Jesus, look at Mike Brady’s sideburns. Carol’s not going to like those.

Naturally, this cast wouldn’t confuse a contemporary audience, but as far as the middle America of 1977 was concerned, this was a masterstroke. The bottom line is that viewers felt at ease because of these familiar faces. Producer David Wolper has always said the secret of the show was making it as accessible as possible to the viewing public, both black and white.

And that’s the difference between the book and the film: instant accessibility. In lieu of Haley’s sophisticated literary devices (such as the lack of English dialog for a few hundred pages), the miniseries goes to the other extreme: the viewer gets a sense of all sides, all emotions. Humanizing the white characters, beginning nine minutes into the first episode, certainly gives them more of an equal footing and makes the whole narrative more palatable to a large audience.

I said yesterday that in the book when a character leaves the narrative, they’re gone forever, mirroring the African-American experience of frequent and permanent separation from family members. The miniseries doesn’t have as many characters nor does it adhere to Haley’s device. For example, on TV, Kizzy does get closure with her father: later in her life she returns to the plantation; learns how her father died; crosses out the name “Toby” on his tombstone; and etches in “Kunta Kinte” with a rock. The average TV viewer wants—needs—closure, so the TV Kizzy gets it.

(It makes me wonder: what if HBO made Roots today? With their tendency to have smart scripts with sizeable budgets and to use mostly unknown actors, a new visual interpretation of the book might be incredibly powerful—and closer to the source material.)

So, the miniseries is more digestible than the book, and takes only a fraction of the time to watch. But let’s just say that still you don’t have 9-and-a-half hours to spare, especially to re-watch something that has O.J. Simpson running around dressed like this, yet you still want to get a sense of Alex Haley’s opus. Well, tune in tomorrow, and I’ll have an answer to your problems! (Because I’m sure you’re losing sleep over budgeting your Roots time.)

And if anyone has their own memories of watching Roots back in the blizzardy winter of ’77, let us know!

NOTE: I feel obligated to point out that controversy surrounded Alex Haley after Roots was published, with many experts doubting the book’s veracity. Likewise, there was a claim of plagiarism, which resulted in a trial and financial settlement on Haley’s part. To be clear: I don’t want to defend Haley on any of this; I’m most interested in discussing his work’s impact on my life and on popular culture.


Filed under Books, Film

Alex Haley: Master of All Media, Pt. 1

Last summer I had the good fortune to work on the PBS miniseries Faces of America, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which itself was an offshoot of the very popular African American Lives series. All of these trace the family trees of several celebrities, and working this closely on with genealogy reminded me of my intense Alex Haley jag of the late 90s. Over this and subsequent posts, I’ll fill you in on why I think he is such a noteworthy writer. (Trust me on this one; I’m building up to something pretty cool.)

Ever finish a book and think, “Damn, I wish everyone could read this book”? Well, that’s the rush I had the entire time I read Alex Haley’s Roots. Like so many people who lived through the 70s, I’m well aware of the story, the characters and the significance of the book—but exclusively because of the landmark TV miniseries. And even though millions at the time also read the book, I wasn’t one of them. (Hey, gimme a break–I was only 8!)

Then in the late 90s, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley), When I finished, my immediate thought was, “Damn, I wish everyone could read this book.” My very next thought was, “OK. Time to read Roots.”

Epic in scope and length (the current edition is 900 pages), it’s an awesome read. Haley’s acknowledged it’s primarily a work of fiction, and I’d like to zero in on a few literary aspects that were particularly resonant for me, devices that render it unique from the television experience.

1. When Kunta doesn’t understand, we don’t understand. Like the miniseries, the book begins with Kunta Kinte in Africa, where he is captured and brought to America. This covers the first couple hundred pages of the book, and until Kunta understands English, there is NO English dialog. (In fact, this extends to his inability to understand fellow prisoners on the slave ship who come from different villages, and therefore speak a different language). This may be a literary device, but it’s certainly not a gimmick. It definitely keeps the focus on Kunta Kinte’s experience.

2. When a character leaves the narrative, that’s it. No more. Kaput. This is another of Haley’s frustrating-yet-historically-accurate devices. When you think it through, if Kunta’s daughter Kizzy was separated from her parents and she never saw them again, then none of her descendants would know what became of them either, right? So, when Kizzy is ruthlessly sold from her parents, we never learn what became of Kunta. The author ignores the fact that we’ve spent hundreds of pages with Kunta—his entire life—and ends that character’s storyline in a few paragraphs. Since there was no closure for Kizzy, Haley decides there will be no closure for us. This is a painful recurring incident in the history of African-Americans in this country, and when it happens in Haley’s book, we as readers feel an intense drop of it. (It’s worth noting, too, that when Kizzy is sold off, there’s only a chapter break; there is none of that “End of Part 1: Kunta Kinte/a few white pages/beginning of Part 2: Kizzy” malarkey. It’s so underplayed that it took me a few chapters to realize, “Hey, I’m never gonna know what happened to Kunta…Damn!”)

Alex Haley, 1921

3. He brilliantly shifts from speculative biography to autobiography. Towards the end of the book, Haley himself enters the narrative, and instead of writing about himself in the third person, he switches to the first person…in one sentence. I’ll neither diminish its impact nor spoil anything by including that sentence here, but trust me: if you read 800+ pages in the omniscient voice and the writer painstakingly brings you to a place where he shifts that voice in a single line, it splits your mind wide open. (This is the face I made when I read it.) I’m grateful the book didn’t pander and do something more conventional (i.e. end the third-person narrative and write a first-person epilogue).

So maybe this book’s already on your One-of-These-Days list but finding the time for 900 pages is a tall order in our current media-swamped world. Well, in future posts, I’ll suggest a couple of ways you can absorb Alex Haley’s culture-altering tale in a less time-consuming manor. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, if you’ve read the book, let me know what you thought of it. Honestly, I’ve never had a conversation about that book with someone who’s read it.

NOTE: I feel obligated to point out that controversy surrounded Alex Haley after Roots was published, with many experts doubting the book’s veracity. Likewise, there was a claim of plagiarism, which resulted in a trial and financial settlement on Haley’s part. To be clear: I don’t want to defend Haley on any of this; I’m most interested in discussing his work’s impact on my life and on popular culture.


Filed under Books