Archive for David Wayne

Star-Craving Mad

Posted in literature, MUSIC, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2020 by dcairns

I went down a rabbit hole investigating The Jet-Propelled Couch, a chapter of the book The Fifty-Minute Hour by Robert Mitchell Lindner, a celebrated collection of psychiatric case histories.

In The Jet-Propelled Couch, Lindner tells of successfully treating a “government scientist” seemingly involved in the atomic bomb project, who had gone partway off his rocker reading sci-fi novels in Polynesia as a child, and was spending increasingly long periods of mental estrangement when he believed himself to be away in the future, battling in distant galaxies. Lindner boldly combatted the obsession by going into it himself, identifying with his patient’s mania until he reckoned himself to be at some risk of getting lost in it. Fortunately, there wasn’t room in this particular constructed universe for two, and Lindner’s elbowing his way in helped “Kirk Allen” escape.

Lindner disguised his patient’s identity so carefully that we still can’t be sure who “Kirk Allen” really was. The best guess to date has been that he was science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith, real name Paul Linebarger. If this is so, it kind of suggests that “Allen” wasn’t wholly cured of his obsession, since Smith was to construct an entire future history spanning tens of thousands of years, lovingly piecing together whole civilisations that rose and fell, spawning new species (the underpeople! a very appealing character in A Planet Named Sheol has been assembled from bits of cow) and leading to “the Rediscovery of Mankind.” His stuff is absolutely nuts, and it’s easy to find yourself believing the author had mental issues. But maybe he was just really good?

Harry Harrison, sf scribe, on British TV was asked if you needed a special mind to write sci-fi. “No, just talent.”

Linebarger was remarkable in all kinds of ways. As a China expert, Linebarger’s proudest achievement was aiding in the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops in Korea. Cordwainer Smith expert John J. Pierce writes that the troops were averse to surrendering, considering it shameful. Linebarger had leaflets printed explaining that the men could come forward shouting the Chinese words for “love,” “duty,” “humanity” and “virtue.” Say these words in Chinese in that order, and you have phonetically said “I surrender in English.” Smith’s stories are pun-happy too.

I came across the Linebarger-Lindner story in Brian Aldiss’s critical history of science fiction, The Billion-Year Spree. He got his info from one Leon Stover, who was subsequently very cagey about how he’d supposedly heard it from Lindsay. The Linebarger-Lindner connection is tenuous at best, though we know Lindner knew other sf writers including Theodore Sturgeon, and we know Linebarger spent a lot of time in analysis. In Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch, Alan C. Elms, at work since forever on a Cordwainer Linebarger bio, examines the evidence in detail.

Since Linebarger was a cultural expert on China for the Pentagon, not a nuclear physicist working at Los Alamos, we can see that Lindner must have disguised him pretty thoroughly, but a lot of the biographical facts do add up, or find equivalents in Linebarger’s lonely and dislocated upbringing. (Loneliness has been remarked upon as a recurring theme in his fiction, from the astonishing Scanners Live in Vain — “I need to kranch!” — right through to his final published works at the end of his short life.)

Remarkably enough, Lindner’s chapter was televized as an episode of Playhouse 90 in the fities, under the direction or Burgess Meredith and James B. Clark (the combined talents behind THE YIN AND YANG OF MR. GO and A DOG OF FLANDERS. The show starred David Wayne as “Kirk Allen,” Donald O’Connor as “Dr. Robert Harrison” (so Lindner gets his own pseudonym), and featuring Peter Lorre and Maila Nurmi in her Vampira guise. I’d love to see it. It sounds dreadful and/or wonderful. A live broadcast, it doesn’t seem to have been preserved.

The TV play evidently interested Stephen Sondheim, who planned to make a musical out of it, but this never materialized. I would be interested! One can imagine a more serious WALTER MITTY affair, and it would be best if the sci-fi elements had some real clout and conviction, instead of the more usual Flash Gordon parody stuff. If one had access to Cordwainer Smith’s work and knew of the rumoured connection… it’s not too late! Paging Mr. Sondheim!

Other plausible candidates have been proposed as the real Kirk Allen. “Kiko” Harrison, a scientist who really was at Los Alamos, and who also had similarities in his personal history to the case file recounted by Lindner, could be the man. Nobody had managed to find a series of sci-fi stories starring a character called Paul Linebarger or even just “Paul” which would fit the description Lindner gives of his patient discovering a hero with his own name. Other investigators have looked for a physicist called John Carter, assuming that the most famous sci-fi hero in print at the time was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian adventurer. Aldiss suggests E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series as a likelier fit to K.A.’s intergalactic romps. Which would, with a bit of shoehorning, fit — the Lensman books don’t have heroes with usefully similar names to any of our protagonists, but Linebarger did later adopt the name Smith for his sf writing.

Saul-Paul Sirag, championing the “Kiko” Harrison hypothesis, does find a sci-fi hero called Harrison, star of two stories by Stanley G. Weinbaum which appeared in Wonder Stories, a 1930s pulp magazine. It’s not a long series of books, but at least there’s a name-match. I don’t know how likely it would be for “Kiko” to find a US pulp mag in England, France or Scotland, where he was living as a kid in 1934 (going by how impossible it was to find Famous Monsters of Filmland in Scotland in the seventies, I’d say not very likely), but per Lindner Kirk Allen discovered his namesake in a crate of imported literature on a Pacific island, so “Kiko” Harrison could have done the same thing when his family moved to the Philippines.

(I’ve read one of Weinbaum’s Captain Harrison stories, The Valley of Dreams, and it’s terrific. Hawksian sf adventure with alien ecology and plenty of mystery.)

It would be an exaggeration to say you could go mad thinking about this. But I’m getting a bit obsessed. I do think Cordwainer Smith/Paul Linebarger makes the most poetically beautiful candidate, because if it’s him, he OBVIOUSLY WASN’T CURED. Which is fine, because the tall tale Dr. Lindner span about “Kirk Allen” is wildly implausible and the techniques he describes would be highly unlikely to “cure” anyone suffering from a psychotic break. Still, schizophrenia, for instance, can come and go for no obvious reason, so maybe “Kirk” (the name suggests another, later space captain) just got better on his own? Or maybe he was never ill? He had a responsible position, but his bosses became concerned about his space fantasy obsession, his doodling on official documents using alien pictograms of his own devising, and sent him to a shrink? Lindner’s account of his therapy ends with K.A. saying that he’s realised for some time that all this futuristic stuff is “just nonsense,” but he didn’t want to admit it and disappoint Lindner, who seemed so into it. How much is Lindner distorting here? Obviously, he was duty bound to disguise his patient’s identity, falsifying details in the process. This of course means that we can’t fact check him.

Alan Elms points out that Linebarger/Smith’s working title for his only novel was Star-Craving Mad, which doesn’t work at all for the book that became Norstrilia (about a planet named after Northern Australia — Linebarger had an Australian friend so he got the vowels right), but would fit perfectly as an alternative title for The Jet-Propelled Couch.

Which ends with Lindner wondering about Kirk Allen and his apparently abandoned universe…

“How goes it with the Crystopeds? How are things in Seraneb?”

(Seraneb is Benares backwards. But that doesn’t seem to be a clue to anything.)


Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2019 by dcairns

WAIT TILL THE SUN SHINES, NELLIE stars Bensinger; Lena Lamont; Dr. Cyclops; Dr. Russell A. Marvin; Phoebe Dinsmore; and Lt. ‘Doc’ Ostrow.

Missed this in Bologna — the Leon Shamroy Technicolor would have been worthwhile — Youtube’s copy, though good by Youtube standards, is terribly dark at times.

But I don’t know what the film’s thesis is — what it’s trying to demonstrate, explicate or make us feel, except on a scene-by-scene basis. David Wayne’s small-town barber is from the “variations on an asshole school of characterisation, but to what end? The final line, after fifty years of story have been covered, celebrates the virtues of a good shave, and that does seem to be the chief lesson imparted. Actually, I kind of liked that bit.

We do, however, get to view the second and third most terrifying shaves in screen history (after THE COLOR PURPLE), one where Wayne is so drunk he can’t walk, and one where he’s contemplating murdering the man in the chair.

King is celebrated for his Americana, the nearest thing to a personal interest displayed in his cinema. There’s more of it in ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND (1938).

King claimed his staging of the musical numbers in IN OLD CHICAGO got him this gig, which reunites stars Power, Faye and Ameche from the earlier quake-fest, but his song-and-dance stuff here is far, far better. IOC basically observed Faye in three shot sizes as she transmitted a bunch of oldy-time standards from her big face. This one has proper PRODUCTION NUMBERS and I became a fan of capering imp Wally Vernon.

You also get a chance to contrast the performing styles of Alice Faye and Ethel Merman. Merman at this point is not an actor, but she speaks her lines with an appealing and convincing simplicity. And she sings the same way, only of course she has that powerhouse voice. Faye, giving the best performance in the best role I’ve seen her in, can do a lot more with inflection and phrasing and meaning, but lacks the ability to vibrate an iron bridge to pieces with her vocal cords.

The IMDb promised us cameos by Rondo Hatton (memorable in IN OLD CHICAGO in the role of “Rondo”) as a barfly, and Lon Chaney Jr as “photographer on stage,” but the on-stage photographer we see clearly ain’t Chaney and Hatton’ s barfly does not appear (how could you miss him?) so it’s left to John Carradine to bring the horror (which no fantasy about the birth of a musical movement should be without). John does not disappoint.

Carradine’s role is officially that of cabbie, but his plot function is to play Cupid, and who better? Picture him nude with a little bow and arrow. Charm itself! Hired by Power, he basically abducts Faye to bring her to his Carnegie Hall concert. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You let John Carradine kidnap you.

JC’ s laidback manner is terrifying: the more relaxed he gets, the more death seems imminent, and preferable to his company. His Dracula was never this alarming. He was really a fine actor, but needed to be aimed in the right direction. King appears to have launched him straight up, to land wherever he may.

At first, we suspected John was probably going to drive Alice Faye to a lock-up somewhere and torture her to death with pliers.

But, as the sequence went on, we became sure of it. An improbable end to a musical, but the only thing that would have made sense of his performance.

The actual ending is quite a bit happier than that. But as for the history of ragtime, its origins and purpose are still a total mystery.

ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND stars Leonard Vole; June Mills; Mortimer Duke; Lieutenant Hurwitz; The Tin Man; Dr. Paul Christian; Parthy Ann Hawks; Maj. Cassius Starbuckle; Larry Talbot and the Hoxton Creeper.

The Sunday Intertitle: Adam, Ribbed

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2018 by dcairns

The first kind of intertitle in this film is odd, since this was never a play. But LIFE is a play, if you’re George Cukor, so that’s okay.

The second kind comes in the home movie sequence, one of the more convincing examples of its kind. Hand-held shots and hand-drawn cards.

Picked up ADAM’S RIB for cheap in a charity shop, just when this urgent Cukor job landed on me, so it seemed like a valuable bit of research. The Kanin-Gordon script is, I think, about one-third successful beyond all measure, one-third adequate/shaky, and one-third just weird, which is a pretty good set of proportions — things are never going to be dull with that kind of unevenness.

Examples: well, the brilliance is impossible to miss, with Cukor’s genius for casting evidenced not so much by the pairing of Tracy & Hepburn, in roles ideally suited to exploit their talent and their real-life relationship, which was likely the starting point, present in everyone’s mind as soon as the married lawyers idea emerged, but by Judy Holliday in an early role, Tom Ewell as a repellant slug, and Jean Hagen (how to explain Ewell’s success with the ladies?). And Marvin “Choo-Choo” Kaplan. Etc.

Things that are less successful? Well, I think there’s a slight sense in the Kanin-Gordon-Cukor films that when they take on the subject of women’s rights, gender roles etc, the late-forties/early-fifties version of normal is so extreme that arguing against it can seem redundant to a modern sensibility — Aldo Ray’s insistence that his wife not work in THE MARRYING KIND, for instance, is just obviously wrong, selfish and neurotic. Which doesn’t mean the filmmakers were wrong to tackle it — it clearly NEEDED tackling — it’s just that the argument can seem a little, well, obvious. And ADAM’S RIB is all about the double standard in crime passionel cases — on the case itself, the film is mercilessly funny and clever, but the development of the argument leads to some more standard stuff: the underlying issue of a thing is never as exciting as a good specific example.

Then there’s what seems to me a structural mistake, with the movie continuing a good twenty minutes after the conclusion of the trial. Developing the marital crisis in concert with the criminal case has been so successful, this seems like madness, but the writers and director, with all their experience, have decided that the verdict is merely the second-act climax, precipitating the crisis in the marriage, which will now take centre stage, with all those entertaining supporting characters shunted aside. Very well, but I think you’re making a mistake, guys.

Glenn & Claire Kenny have been doing excellent work on the Tracy-Hepburn films and unpick some of the pleasures and peculiarities of this one here. A lot of the weirdness centres on David Wayne, positioned simultaneously as gay best friend for Hepburn and love rival for Tracy. Which arguably makes us much sense as anything else about that mysterious pairing. But means that Tracy has to be at once/alternately jealous of Wayne’s attentions to his wife, and homophobic about him. The cognitive dissonance alone would kill a lesser actor. I have to think that Tracy’s Catholicism would come in handy, allowing him to compartmentalize all the contradictory elements. There are no connecting doors in the conservative mind.

Lacking those abilities, I’m forced to try to achieve some kind of wretched synthesis. Let’s dismiss any suspicion that Cukor simply didn’t notice how gay Wayne was coming across. It does sometimes look like that, but that would be (a) out of character for everyone and (b) flatly contradicted by all the clearly conscious gay coding that didn’t just happen, you know. That Buddha didn’t just walk into Wayne’s apartment and set itself down. Why having a colossal stone Buddha makes you gay I can’t answer, it just does, OK? In 1949. You don’t get to have actual sex, this is the nearest allowable equivalent, seemingly. Decor = sexuality.

So maybe having Wayne actually proposing to Hepburn is just plausible deniability for the censor. With no credible in-the-film motive. Or maybe he’s shopping for a beard — he mentions half-heartedly proposing to some other woman when we first meet him. Could the film be making the case that there are men who seem gay, but aren’t? Or is Tracy meant to be too masculine to notice that the man hanging around his wife is not a serious sexual competitor? Or has he seen through the fey act and spotted the seducer within? (Ambiguity is usually supposed to be either-this-or-that, not this-or-that-or-that-or-that-or-what?)

It’s odd to me that the role, which has to serve as a complicating factor in the marital comedy, developed this way. “Let’s make the love rival gay!” just doesn’t seem like an obvious way to up the stakes. And since it’s the comic trope that dare not speak its name, it has to go sort of unresolved.

But it is part of the film’s strategy of questioning gender norms. Seems brave of Cukor to have taken on this subject in this way —


Transgender phantasms of the supporting cast — Holliday and Hagen seem curiously alluring, then everyone shrinks back in horror from a dragged-up Ewell.

Thank God there was no formal HUAC for homosexuality! If you started looking in Hollywood films for a secret queer conspiracy to normalize the reversal of societal norms, you’d find it (almost) everywhere.

At the end, the movie teases us with a sequel where the heroes compete for a judgeship, he as a Republican and she as a Dem. My God, they should have made that!