Archive for James Thurber

Pg.17 #15

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on August 17, 2020 by dcairns

Thus was constituted that terrible trinity whose names are indissolubly associated for all time in the annals of crime. The fate of the three assistants was happier: they were in after life to become those distinguished surgeons, Sir William Fergusson, Thomas Wharton Jones, and Alexander Miller, whose names are yet eminent in the temple of science. It is a strange world.

*

They were all-but forgotten people: the breed that was remembered with a start, or with the unreality of a recrudescent dream. The day of carvings alone brought them into the sunlight and reawakened the memory of former times. For as far back as even Nettel, the octogenarian who lived in the tower above the rusting armoury, could remember, the ceremony had been held. Innumerable carvings had smouldered to ashes in obedience of the law, but the choices were still housed in the Hall of the Bright Carvings.

*

Before then, I’d never been aware of social classes. Suddenly they hit me smack in the face. We lived only a few blocks from some elegant apartment buildings on the Hudson where doormen stood day and night in front of covered entrances helping well-dressed people in and out of their big cars. It struck me for the first time that theirs was a different universe from that of the people who rented cheap rooms or that of my brothers and sisters scurrying to our jobs along with other working-class people.

*

Save existence, they had nothing in common,–came in touch on no single point. Weatherbee was a clerk who had known naught but checking all his life; Cuthfert was a master of arts, a dabbler in oils, and had written not a little. The one was a lower-class man who considered himself a gentleman, and the other was a gentleman who knew himself to be such. From this it may be remarked that a man can be a gentleman without possessing the first instinct of true comradeship. The clerk was as sensuous as the other was aesthetic, and his love adventures, told at great length and chiefly coined from his imagination, affected the supersensitive master of arts in the same way as so many whiffs of sewer gas. He deemed the clerk a filty, uncultured brute, whose place was in the muck with the swine, and told him so; and he was reciprocally informed that he was a milk-and-water sissy and a cad. Weatherbee could not have defined “cad” for his life; but it satisfied its purpose, which after all seems the main point in life.

*

He announces who we are. As he talks I amuse myself thinking of the unprecedented shock in his mind. A short while ago he was Professor Jacobi, a famed and aged man still playing like a fanatic child in his laboratory. He wore a skull cap and occasionally addressed an auditorium filled with dignified and obsequious colleagues. The world paused now and then in its Saturnalia of greed to turn its ears to his voice–a voice that promised calmly and authoritatively that new secrets were being wrested from nature; that science was fashioning new toys from life.

*

Two men in shiny brown coats hovered close to Isaac looking for pigeons to feed. Isaac watched the play of their hands. Their pursuit of birds seemed elaborate to him (Isaac couldn’t locate a smear of pigeon shit in the Place des Etats-Unis). The shiny coats belonged to a dip artist and his squire. Isaac appraised this pickpocket team with a cool turn of his mind. They can’t be from South America. The Guzmanns (a tribe of pickpockets out of Peru) would never wear shiny coats. These are locals from Algeria, or Sicily. Starving kids with the soft, beautiful fingers of a girl.

*

From where I am sitting now I can look out the window and see a pigeon being a pigeon on the roof of the Harvard Club. No other thing can be less what it is not than a pigeon can, and Miss Stein, of all people, should understand that simple fact. Behind the pigeon I am looking at, a blank wall or tired grey bricks is stolidly trying to sleep off oblivion; underneath the pigeon the cloistered windows of the Harvard Club are staring in horrified bewilderment at something they have seen across the street. The pigeon is just there on the roof being a pigeon, having been, and being, a pigeon and, what is more, always going to be, too. Nothing could be simpler than that. If you read that sentence aloud you will instantly see what I mean. It is a simple description of a pigeon on a roof. It is only with an effort that I am conscious of the pigeon, but I am acutely aware of a great sulky red iron pipe that is creeping up the side of the building intent on sneaking up on a slightly tipsy chimney which is shouting its head off.

*

Seven bits of page seventeens. There! I knew there had to be a quicker way to say it.

Classic Crimes, by William Roughead; Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake; A Third Face, by Samuel Fuller; The Portable Jack London, edited by Earle Labor, from the story In a Far Country; The Kingdom of Evil by Ben Hecht; Marilyn the Wild, by Jerome Charyn; The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze, by James Thurber, from the essay There’s an Owl in My Room.

My City #5

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 5, 2010 by dcairns

Princes Street (screen right). The word “Directed” is slapped on top of Edinburgh Castle.

THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES is one of a trio of post-Ealing comedies directed by Charles Crichton, which sought to replicate, perhaps a little self-consciously, the “gentle humour” associated with that studio’s output. Crichton’s cinema career rather sputtered out over the course of these productions (THE LOVE LOTTERY, LAW AND DISORDER), although he remained active in television. It took the injection of some Monty Python acidity to give Crichton a sudden boost — A FISH CALLED WANDA ended his  career on a high.

In TBOTS, Peter Sellers gets to demonstrate his celebrated versatility as an elderly Scotsman, whose tweed company is threatened with modernization by American businesswoman Constance Cummings. I don’t know how faithful the treatment is to James Thurber’s source story, The Catbird Seat, but the action largely plays in Edinburgh, which is where I come in.

This is one of those productions that snatch a few set-ups in Edinburgh then decamp to an English studio (in this case, Independent Artists Studios, Beaconsfield, now the National Film School). Crichton chooses some prime tourist spots, cramming Edinburgh Castle into the background whenever he can swing it ~

The columns screen left are part of the National Gallery, an eighteenth-century neoclassical affair. The castle is arrayed along the horizon. Robert Morley is meant to be in the cab but I’m not sure he is.

However, the stars of the film did make it up here, so we get a nice “and did these feet in ancient times” feeling from seeing Sellers and Cummings in situ.

Here’s Sellers on the High Street, with the law courts and St Giles Cathedral behind him, where, exactly forty years later, we’ll film the hanging of William Burke in BURKE AND HARE: THE MUSICAL. I think the little side-street (or “close”) Sellers has just emerged from was also used in that short.

The street is Castle Wynd, the Castle is silhouetted at screen top courtesy of a graded filter, and the building with all the windows at screen left is Edinburgh College of Art, where you’ll find me on teaching days. But not in 1959, when I was minus eight years old.

This one really looks like a glimpse into another time. Yet only the traffic has really changed today. The building screen left was the North British Hotel and is now the Balmoral, otherwise unaltered. In the far distance is the volcanic jut of Salisbury Crags, which hasn’t moved about for tens of thousands of years, at least. The bridge leads up to shops which are still shops and newspaper offices which are now a hotel. Oh, I guess that nice lamppost has gone. If I were really ambitious I’d go up town and take a snap from the same spot, but the zoom’s broken on my camera so I might not be able to match the framing.

Here’s an odd one. To save money, when Sellers and Cummings head north to visit the crofters who make the tweed his company deals in, the scenes are actually shot in around Arthur’s Seat, the big volcanic hill in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Park. Essentially the same crags seen in the distance in image 4.

The movie itself is mildly funny, sinisterly sexist, and suffers from the unadventurous spirit of much 1950s British filmmaking. The burst of energy released during wartime, which lasted to some extent into the early 50s, boosting the ambitions of modest talents and allowing great ones like Powell & Pressburger to attain amazing heights, has now largely dissipated. In a few years, a whole new energy will be unleashed, in which Sellers’ former TV collaborator, Richard Lester will play a major role…

UK Shadowplayers can buy BATTLE here:
Battle Of The Sexes [1959] [DVD]

And Crichton’s more interesting wartime opus, POINTED BOATS, here:
Painted Boats [DVD] [1945]