Field Trip

Last Wednesday, I opened my basement chest freezer.  I had to reach all the way to the bottom for a package of frozen chicken breasts.

I pulled out the chicken, surveyed the empty freezer, and rejoiced.

I could finally go back to the grocery store.

I’d made myself a rule, you see—I couldn’t shop again until I’d eaten everything in the freezer.  This rule had a dual purpose—to reduce grocery store trips, and to make sure that five years from now I didn’t find a bag of freezer-burned soup that had to be tossed.

I’d spent all last summer cooking and freezing, so now was the time to finish it off.

Finally ate it all…

But I finally made it to the end—gallons of soup, frozen berries, zucchini muffins, chicken stock.  I ate every last bit of it.

And now, after 4 weeks without entering a store, it was time for a field trip.

In 2020 BC (Before Corona), I shopped for groceries every weekend, often with a mid-week trip to supplement my supply of fresh fruits and veggies.  I’d cavalierly drop in for one (one!) item, or leisurely browse the aisles musing over what to make for dinner.  I’d make separate trips to Giant Eagle, Target, and Sam’s Club.  My list was a general guide.  It was the Age of Innocence.

In 2020 AD (After Discovery of the virus), I plan my shopping trips like a Navy Seal on an extraction mission.

I spent days making my list to ensure I wouldn’t forget anything, then categorized all the items together based on store placement—there is no backtracking in 2020 AD.  If I missed it the first time through, I would have to leave it behind.

I chose my time to strike—7:00 am Saturday morning, just as the store was reopening.  It would be maximally (if not fully) stocked, recently sanitized, and uncrowded.

I donned my mask and gloves, and tucked my credit card and list in my back pocket.  I left my phone and purse in the trunk, as I didn’t want to touch either inside the store.

When I entered the produce section, I felt like Dorothy walking into Oz, going from black and white to brilliant technicolor.  There was fresh food everyone—green lettuce, red peppers, mushrooms not from a can!  My old friends bananas and strawberries were there.

I wanted to take them all home with me.  The main mission—which I fear I did not complete—was not to buy more fresh produce than I could eat before it spoiled.

Which is why I’m having a tomato and mushroom salad over butter lettuce for my Sunday breakfast.

I couldn’t be happier.

I missed you, Giant Eagle.  See you next month!

More Stars Than There Are In Heaven

#5 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Before 1932, movies usually had only one or two stars to anchor the film and draw an audience.

But MGM—as we’ve discussed and they once boasted—had “more stars than there are in heaven,” so they came up with a simple but brilliant idea—instead of having one or two leads, what if they stuffed a movie full of stars and let them play off one other?

The experiment produced Grand Hotel—the first ensemble film and a precursor to modern films like Ocean’s 11 and Boogie Nights.

MGM pulled out all the stops for Grand Hotel.  They started with the grandest sets ever constructed.  The lobby was the film’s crown jewel, complete with a circular check-in desk and a dizzying spiral staircase.  The entirety of the film takes place inside this luxurious Berlin hotel, temporary home of the rich and famous.

Then they studded the cast with the highest quality stars from their stable.

John Barrymore plays Baron Felix von Geigern, an amiable thief who steals a necklace from Greta Garbo’s Grusinskaya, a temperamental Russian ballerina whose inevitable aging is impacting her career.

After disappearing and missing one of her performances without explanation, Grusinskaya shows up at her room and Garbo utters her most famous line:

“I want to be alone.”

Garbo wants, as always, to be alone

The Baron and Grusinskaya ultimately fall in love, but before they do, the Baron engages in some surprisingly sexy flirting with Joan Crawford’s Flaemmchen.  

Upon learning she is a stenographer, he asks:

“I don’t suppose you’d take some… dictation from me sometime.”

And yes, he means exactly what your dirty mind thinks he means.

John Barrymore to Joan Crawford: “Are you reducing?”

Though Flaemmchen likes the Baron very much, it turns out she is more than just a stenographer for Preysing, a lying and ruthless businessman played by Wallace Berry.

Berry makes Flaemmchen a rather indecent proposal, but as a working girl who can only afford one meal a day, she grudgingly accepts.

Meanwhile, Lionel Barrymore is Otto Kringelein, a poor factory worker who is dying.  He decides to spend what time and money he has left in the grandest hotel in the world.

Kringelein befriends both the Baron and Flaemmchen before discovering Presysing’s presence, and denouncing the businessman who has abused Kringelein and all the other workers in his factory.

If you can’t follow all that, suffice it to say that these great actors play off one another brilliantly in scene after scene as their lives intersect in surprising ways.

This was the first film starring both Barrymore brothers.  The Barrymores are an acting dynasty. John, Lionel, and their sister Ethel were all actors.  Their father and mother, Maurice and Georgia Drew Barrymore, acted on the stage in the late nineteenth century.  

Both of John’s children, John Jr. and Diana Barrymore, also became actors.

By the time John Barrymore’s seven-year-old granddaughter Drew showed up in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), she was the fourth generation of actors in the Barrymore family.

But back to Grand Hotel.

Grand Hotel Premiere

Just in case the “greatest cast ever assembled” and gem-filled script weren’t enough, MGM staged a lavish premiere party at Grauman’s Chinese theater.  While hoards of fans watched, all of MGM’s stars—whether they were in the film or not—dressed up in their finest and paraded down the carpet.

The studio recreated the film’s circular lobby desk for the premiere and had each star sign a huge hotel register book.  Each then gave a sound bite to the press and their adoring public.

Everyone who was anyone was there.

Except Garbo, of course.

It worked.  Grand Hotel was an exceptionally good movie, a box office smash and Best Picture Winner.  Interestingly, it remains the only Best Picture Winner with no other nominations. All those stars and no acting nominations.  Perhaps it makes sense, because they were so good that none shined brighter than the others.

Grand Hotel is my favorite of the films I’ve reported on thus far for this project.  It teeters just on the edge—but doesn’t quite make—a “Timeless- Watch It Tonight” rating.

But we’re all still stuck at home and if you’ve blown through Tiger King, you might want to give it a shot.

It Doesn’t Have To Be Pretty

corona mask

I’m not a craft person.

I can’t crochet, I’m allergic to knitting.  Pinterest holds no allure for me.

As a kid, I made the requisite macaroni necklaces and glued googly eyes on felt, but it was always clear my talents lie elsewhere.

So why did I spend my Saturday searching my home for fabrics and stretchy bands?

Because of coronavirus, of course, the puppet master of 2020 pulling all our strings.

By the order of Governor Tom Wolf, all Pennsylvanians must wear masks when entering grocery stores.  (I’m pretty sure the actual order lists more than grocery stores, but as that’s the only place I go these days, that’s all I need to know.)

In the pre-coronavirus world, of course, this would be a snap.  I’d log onto Amazon and order a box of surgical masks, or head out to Home Depot and buy as many as I wanted.

But as anyone not in a coma knows, there aren’t enough masks to go around, and nurses, doctors, and essential workers get dibs.

No argument from me.

If I’m honest, I’m not thrilled at the idea of wearing a mask.  I’m not complaining—I know how good I have it right now, and I’m not criticizing the order—it makes sense that if we don’t breathe and sneeze on each other, the disease is much less likely to spread.

But it’s jarring not to see people’s faces.  The masks are a constant slap in the face that life as we know it is over for a while.

Also, it feels defensive.  I like the protective measures that feel like I’m going on the offensive against the virus.

Take cooking, for example.  I’m trying to stretch my grocery store trips out as far apart as possible.  This means using up all the things that have been in my pantry and at the bottom of my freezer for ages.  I’ve gotten creative, learning to make substitutions and cook new things.

Trying to lure to me the store because I’ve run out of bread?  I’ll make my own.  I’m still eating the frozen potato soup I made months ago when I was suckered into buying ten pounds of potatoes buy one get on free.

Take that virus!

Stay home all the time?  I’m reading my way through a huge stack of books and watching classic films.  You’re practically doing me a favor!

And the cleaning, the cleaning is my favorite.  I feel like a gangster pumping my enemy full of lead.

I run around the house spraying Lysol yelling, “Say hello to my little friend, corona!”

But the mask, the mask feels like hiding under the bed.

But I’ll do it, because to not do it is just plain stupid.  And it puts others at risk, and there’s no way I’m doing that.

So Saturday was craft day.

I’m a millennial (albeit it a very old one) so when proposed with a new challenge, I immediately consulted Dr. Google.  And because I’m not crafty, I was immediately intrigued by the “no sewing required” options.

Loathe to cut up any of my t-shirts, as that’s the only thing I wear these days, I opted for using a bandanna.

The video made it seem easy enough—a few folds, tuck in some hair bands, and you’re good to go.

The folding went smoothly.  But the hairbands were too tight against my ears.  Same with rubber bands.  I scoured the house for materials—my yoga headband made it too much like a gag, and a regular headband just straight up didn’t work.

I read some articles suggesting cutting up shoelaces, but I didn’t have any I was willing to sacrifice.

Finally, I pulled out my gift wrapping supplies and found some Christmas ribbon.  The first one I tried was a little too thick, but I hit paydirt with some decorative string I bought at Target last Christmas.

Is it pretty?  Definitely not.

Do I feel silly wearing it?  Obviously.

Does is get the job done?  Yes.

And right now, that’s all that matters.  The job is keeping ourselves and each other safe.

Let’s get it done.

The King of Hollywood

#4 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

If you were a baseball player in the 1930’s, you wanted to play for the New York Yankees.  And if you were an actor or an actress, you wanted to work for MGM.

Both the Yankees and MGM had all the money, all the power, and most importantly, all the stars.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was the first to perfect what is now called the star system.  

In this system, the studios identified young actors and actresses with potential and signed them to long term contracts in which the studios had near total control of their career.  

MGM was looking for more than talent, more than beauty.  They were looking for blank canvases on which they could paint, raw clay that they could mold.

They wanted to make stars.

The studio managed their parts and their personal lives.  Actresses were required to always appear in public smartly dressed and in full makeup—no tabloid photographs in yoga pants with a Big Gulp.  Affairs and assorted bad behavior were covered up. Fake dates were set up to encourage the press to speculate on potential pairings.

Twitter would’ve been strictly off-limits.

Think Taylor Swift and her carefully cultivated reinventions—from curly-haired teenager singing her diary, to constantly jilted lover (did she really date all those boys?), to squad goals feminist pushing back against The Man.

Each MGM star had a designated persona—Garbo the ice queen, Jean Harlow the blonde sexpot, Jimmy Stewart the everyman.

And then you had Clark Gable.  Dubbed The King of Hollywood, Clark Gable was the finest leading man to ever grace the silver screen.  By the end of his life, he’d made more than sixty movies over nearly forty years. And if that wasn’t enough, he put his career on hold to serve in the Air Force during World War II and fly active combat missions.  Hollywood would never be the same without him.  

He was debonair, with a rakish grin and a glint in his eyes.  He oozed sex, charm, and charisma.  

All of which were on full display in the 1935 Best Picture Academy Award winner Mutiny On The Bounty.  And I couldn’t help but also notice the devilishly handsome lock of hair that is always perfectly out of place.

Another fascinating true story, Mutiny is a tale of adventure as the British Navy starts a two-year voyage to the West Indies on the HMS Bounty under the leadership of William Bligh, a brilliant but cruel captain.

Gable plays Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, who enforces Bligh’s strict discipline on the sailors with compassion and good humor.

The crew, several of whom have been unwillingly pressed into service via a British Law that allows the captain to effectively kidnap British subjects and force them into the Navy, are filled with unease when Captain Bligh orders the flogging of a sailor, and insists the punishment continue even after the soldier is dead.

Captain Bligh imposes increasingly severe punishments for minor rule infractions, and the crew—Christian included—are relieved when they drop anchor in Tahiti and are granted furloughs.

After a taste of freedom, the men chafe even more beneath Captain Bligh’s thumb.

The movie’s tension increases with each unjustified punishment.  The Captain has men flogged, he orders them on dangerous unnecessary tasks, he cuts their water rations to prioritize the precious plants he is hauling as cargo.

We know the men will turn on Captain Bligh—the mutiny is in the title of the film.  The question is which straw will break Christian’s back—for the men will not mutiny without his leadership.  

When Christian finds one of Bligh’s men kicking the starved and shackled prisoners for asking for water, he’s had enough.  

In a tear of rage, he changes the fate of every man on the ship when he raises his fist in the air and bellows, “Bligh, you’ve given your last command on this ship! We’ll be men again if we hang for it!”  

And make no mistake, they will hang for it.

A British Navy Captain must be obeyed, regardless of his cruelty.

But only if he lives to tell the tale.

Christian casts Bligh and a handful of his supporters adrift on a small boat with barely enough water to survive.  It’s tantamount to murder as they are 3,500 miles from any port.

But they can never go home, and Christian knows that if Captain Bligh finds a way to survive, he and the other mutineers will indeed hang, “from the highest yardarm in the British Fleet.”

In the third and most thrilling act of the film, Bligh fights to survive so that he may one day have his vengeance, as Christian and the mutineers look for a place where Bligh and the British Navy can never find them.

If you want to find out if the King of Hollywood can outrun one of the most persistent and ruthless villains in film history, you’ll have to watch this 1935 Best Picture winner and find out for yourself.

March Madness

Contestants on Big Brother learn of Covid-19

One of the minor covid-19 storylines I’ve been semi-following is the plight of the television show Big Brother Canada 8.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show, it’s a reality tv show where sixteen to twenty people are locked into a house for seventy days.  Contestants periodically vote to evict people, until a winner is crowned.

It’s Survivor in a house, with one major difference:  it happens in real time.

In addition to traditional network episodes, the contestants are live-streamed twenty-four hours a day, and viewers can watch their every move on their computers. 

For a few weeks, these contestants were blissfully unaware of covid-19 and the havoc it has wreaked on the world.

It presented an interesting moral quandary I couldn’t stop thinking about, despite the fact that we can’t actually watch Big Brother Canada in the U.S. and so I could only keep up with it through online reports and You Tube videos.  (There is a U.S. version that begins in the summer and thus didn’t run into the covid-19 issue.)

On the one hand, the contestants were as safe—possibly safer—than anyone else.  They are by design quarantined in a house with no contact with the outside world.  (In the show, the host communicates by talking over a loud speaker or on a television screen.  She never enters the house.)

On the other hand, there was something deeply uncomfortable about watching people bickering on a game show while unaware that the world burned around them.

Eventually, Big Brother told them of the crisis and assured them that all their family members were safe.  Big Brother gave them a second update a week later.  And ultimately, Big Brother Canada pulled the plug on the show and sent all the contestants home this week for their safety and the safety of the production crew.

You can find the videos of Big Brother telling the contestants about covid-19 on YouTube, and they are mesmerizing.  We’ve all been trying to process the waterfall of information that has pummeled us in the last five weeks.  Watching the contestants go through the same process over the span of a few minutes in real time is fascinating.

In the video when the contestants are first told, you can practically hear what they’re thinking by the looks on their faces—Is this a big deal?  It must be, of course, or they wouldn’t be telling us.  But is this a big deal, big deal?  Or is this just happening somewhere else?  This isn’t happening to me, right?  This isn’t happening to my family?

Once they were assured that their families are safe, they visibly relaxed.

And how many of us were playing a similar loop of thoughts in our head?

For these contestants, the covid-19 update was just words.  They were wrapped up in the politics of a stressful game of interpersonal relationships.  Their families were fine.  They weren’t seeing empty shelves at grocery stores, or worried politicians on their televisions.

It couldn’t really be that bad, you could see them thinking, if we’re allowed to continue the game.

Five weeks ago, when we were all at work and school, weren’t we thinking the same thing?

In the second update, production gives them more information.  You can see the contestants trying to work out the question we all were—is this a big deal?

And one of the contestants asked, “Are major sports events still taking place?”

The devastating answer from the voice in the sky: “Every major sports league has now been shut down or postponed.”

That got their attention.  It sure got ours, didn’t it?

Weeks ago when the NBA shut down, followed by the NHL and the cancelling of March Madness, we too got our answer.

This is a big deal.

Garbo As Garbo

#3 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

For Greta Garbo, Anna Christie was only the beginning.  She followed it up with a string of talking hits, and became the most powerful movie star in the world.  Her success at the box office gave her unprecedented power over her contract, her roles, and her co-stars.

It wasn’t just her movies that fascinated her public—it was Garbo herself.

Dubbed the “Swedish Sphinx” by the media, Garbo shunned publicity.  More than shunned—she had absolutely no desire to interact with fans or the press.  She didn’t answer fan mail, rarely gave interviews, and never attended an Oscars event.  It wasn’t just fans—Garbo didn’t really like people. She didn’t attend parties, didn’t socialize with Hollywood regulars, and kept to herself on set.

While there are some current stars who shy away from the spotlight, there is really no modern equivalent to Garbo’s reclusiveness.

And as is the way of the world, her want of privacy made her the most elusive and desirable woman in the world.

While her solitary nature was undoubtedly sincere, the studio heads soon realized that playing hard to get was always a winning strategy for attention when you’re young and beautiful.  Thus, they leaned in and cast her in movie after movie where she played a version of her public persona.

In the three films I watched this week, she plays a series of beautiful, unknowable Ice Queens whose hearts are finally melted by the love of a good man.

Let’s start with Mata Hari, where Garbo plays the real-life World War I exotic dancer and spy who is ultimately executed by a French firing squad.  We are introduced to Mata Hari as she is dancing seductively on the stage for a group of soldiers.  While watching, I couldn’t help but think how this same scene has echoed throughout movie history. A powerful woman using her sexuality to seduce and destroy men.  Most recently, we see a version of this scene in Hustlers, when Jennifer Lopez’s character is introduced doing an extremely athletic strip tease.  (Even if you didn’t see the film, you got a taste of it during this year’s Superbowl Halftime Show.  Huge sporting events…remember those?)

The more things change….
…the more they stay the same.

Garbo as Mata Hari uses and discards men, until she falls in love with a soldier whose purity cuts through her cynicism and pierces her heart.  

But as Mata Hari’s boss reminds her, “A spy in love is a tool that has outlived its usefulness.”

Mata Hari’s love for her soldier ultimately has disastrous consequences for them both.

In Queen Christina, Garbo plays another historical figure:  Queen Christina of Sweden, who took the throne at the age of six and ruled during a long war.

Though Camille is often considered her best performance, Queen Christina was my favorite of the Garbo films.  It is the sad tale of a woman who has more interest in literature, art, and sculpture than war.  Queen Christina longs to escape her endless duties and impulsively dresses as a boy and takes off for a few days.

She meets a man, Antonino, who first believes her to be a man.  He soon discovers she is a woman and they share a passionate night together.  He is a Spanish Ambassador, and does not know he has spent the night with the Queen he is on a diplomatic mission to meet.

In one of my favorite old movie scenes, after they spend the night together, Queen Christina knows (as he does not) that they can never be together.  She walks around the room, longingly touching the desk and the walls. She lays on the bed and puts her head on the pillow. Then she gets up, studies the painting on the wall and finally presses her face into the bed post.

“What are you doing?” Antonio asks, amused.

“I have been memorizing this room,” she says.  “In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.”

After she returns to her palace and Antonio learns of her true identity, they cannot deny their love.  But as Queen, Christina is not free to follow her heart. Her people desire her to marry her cousin Charles, a war hero, and to continue fighting for the glory of Sweden.

But Christina is tired of war and duty.  She longs for peace and love.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, indeed.

In a scene that truly shocked me, instead of doing her duty, Christina abdicates her throne and dramatically places her crown on Charles’ head, giving up her kingdom for Antonio.

For love.

And if that doesn’t melt your heart, you probably aren’t going to enjoy this series.  The Golden Age of Hollywood is nothing if not melodramatic.

Finally, I watched Camille, Garbo’s last great film.  Garbo plays Marguerite Gautier, a woman who hides her frail health, poverty, and desire for love as she charms and laughs her way through society on the arms of rich men.

(Old movies can be tricky for modern audiences.  We’re used to having everything spelled out for us, and they’re often quite subtle.  I was about three quarters of the way through the movie before I understood Marguerite was a courtesan—a prostitute with wealthy clients—and not just a woman who had pulled herself up by her bootstraps.)

Armand Duval sees through Marguerite’s masks and the two fall deeply in love.  But the circumstances of her position in society make it impossible for his family to accept her, and she sacrifices her love for him at great personal cost.

All three of these movies end in the tragic death of one of the leads.  So while each Ice Queen is melted by love, she never gets her happy ending.

Greta Garbo’s heart never melted—she never married, never had children, and lived most of her life alone.  She had a romance with her Queen Christina co-star John Gilbert but refused his marriage proposal. 

Garbo retired abruptly in 1941.  She was only thirty-five, and had made twenty-eight successful films.  She spent the rest of her life—nearly fifty more years—without any occupation.  She disguised herself and took long walks in New York City, and spoke in letters discovered after her death of long periods of melancholy.

But she remains an object of public fascination, nearly eighty years after her last film.  Like James Dean, we’re left to mourn all the films she never made. Though unlike Dean it was not death but her own reticence that cut her career painfully short.

It is unclear if she got her happy ending—she did often say she wanted to be alone, so perhaps she did.

But we’ll never stop wondering.

Working From Home

I haven’t gone into my office for three weeks.  It occurs to me that I haven’t gone three weeks without walking inside a corporate office building since June 2003. 

Maybe that’s why it feels a bit strange.

I’m lucky enough to still be working, albeit from home.  And my company is as busy as ever during this crisis.

The best parts of working from home are obvious.  The commute from my bedroom to the kitchen table is a dream.  So is the dress code.  We do Skype calls with the cameras off, so jeans and t-shirts have become my standard uniform.

Three weeks without the hassles of make-up and Lady Clairol don’t quite make up for a global pandemic, but it’s close.

There’s no birthday cake in the breakroom tempting me.

My boss can’t casually stop by my cubicle to remind me to put cover sheets on the TPS reports.

In fact, nobody causally stops by my cubicle.

I don’t even have to sit in a cubicle, that soul-sucking skeleton formerly know as an office.

I don’t have to look at pictures of my coworker’s daughter looking cute.  Or hear the boring details of anyone’s weekend.  No one is loudly smacking their gum while I’m trying to concentrate.

No one bothers me and ignores my I’m really busy body language.

No one steals my lunch out of the fridge.  I heat it up in a sparkling clean microwave instead of one where someone exploded a burrito and slinked away without cleaning it up.  I don’t have to smell anyone’s leftover fish.

I never start a fresh pot of coffee only to come back and find it all gone before I pour a cup.

I don’t have to pretend not to be falling asleep while watching someone diagram our new planning program on a giant white board.

There are no weird smells in my bathroom.

No more pesky coworkers!  I work alone.  I eat lunch alone.  I take a mid-afternoon walk alone.

There’s no one to listen to the boring details of my weekend.  Or to show the picture I took of Blinker looking cute.  No one to surreptitiously roll my eyes at when the boss lectures us—again—on the TPS report cover sheets.

I’ve never gotten more accomplished in a day.

The corporate office, it seems, is hell on productivity. 

And my coworkers are even more annoying than I thought.

I can’t wait to get back.

February 21, 1930: Garbo Talks!

#2 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

1930: Crowds outside the Capitol Theatre in New York for the premiere of ‘Anna Christie’, Swedish born American actress Greta Garbo’s first talking picture. (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

Part I: Birth of the Talkies

Today’s movie stars are overexposed.  We see what they ate for breakfast on Instagram, glossy photographs of their multimillion dollar homes in magazines, watch them dance with Ellen and sing in the car with James Corden.  And they talk, and talk, and talk–on talk shows, on social media videos, on Saturday Night Live.  And if you missed them talking the first time, you can always catch clips of it the next day on You Tube.

Close your eyes and imagine it’s 1930.  Greta Garbo is the most recognized actress in America, star of eleven successful films for MGM Studios.

Yet audiences have never heard her speak.

As silent films gave way to early talkies, the new technology made casualties of some of the best actors and actresses of the day.  They faded into obscurity almost overnight, because they could not remember their lines, or they were uncomfortable with the new style of acting, or had accents inscrutable to the American ear.

Greta Garbo’s silent films had printed money hand over fist for MGM, and the studio hesitated to ruin her on-screen mystique by exposing audiences to her Swedish accent.  They didn’t want to lose their cash machine.  They hemmed and hawed, and Garbo made more silent films.

But talkies were here to stay.

So on February 21, 1930, America went to the movies to hear Garbo talk in Anna Christie.

The movie opens on a drunken old Swedish sailor who’s received a letter from the twenty-year old daughter he hasn’t seen in fifteen years.  Believing the sea was no place to raise a girl, he brought her to America and left her with relatives on a Minnesota farm.

A few minutes later, Garbo enters the film.  It’s immediately clear she hasn’t had the wholesome upbringing her father imagined.  Her clothes are shabby and a bit risqué, and she knows her way around a dive bar.

This is not the girl next door.

The director made the audience wait sixteen agonizing minutes before giving them what they came for–Garbo looks at the bar tender and utters the first timeless line in film history:

“Giv me a whisky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.”

The accent and the husky delivery only added to her mystery and sent audiences wild.

It would take more than talking pictures to fell Greta Garbo.  

The MGM studio heads must’ve sighed with relief before laughing with delight.  Anna Christie was the top grossing film of 1930.  Despite their worries, a talking Garbo put more money in their pockets than a silent one.

Anna Christie is a faithful adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s 1921 play of the same name.  Anna reconnects with her father and falls in love with a sailor.

When Matt proposes marriage, Anna is forced to admit to him and her father that she was raped by a cousin on the farm and has spent the last two years as a prostitute, shattering their vision of her as an innocent even as she finds redemption in the sea and their love.

Anna Christie is really a filmed play.  The shots are long, and the actors don’t move around much, partially because the primitive sound recording equipment picked up background rustling.

The themes of Anna Christie are relevant to modern times–how men often abuse women then blame them for a lack of purity.  It’s enjoyable to watch Garbo transition from cynical prostitute to redeemed woman.  Yet beneath that cool exterior she harbors a simmering rage that occasionally boils over. The movie shines brightest in the third act when Anna lets that rage loose, throwing her past in the faces of the two men who’ve put her on a pedestal, and then breaking apart as she hopes against all experience that they will forgive her past transgressions.

The movie is best enjoyed as a historical artifact, a memory of a time when movies rested squarely on the star’s shoulders, and one woman delivered when the whole world was listening as well as watching.

Soap Slivers

When I was a kid, an old man named Joe Shevick lived next door.  He had to be in his nineties, wrinkled and bent over, but he lived alone and on his own terms.

My Dad used to cut Joe’s grass.  Afterward, Joe and Dad would sit on ancient Adirondack chairs in the yard and survey the freshly-cut lawn.  Sometimes I would go over too, because Joe always gave us Cokes from glass bottles with metal caps that you had to pry off with a bottle opener.

I don’t know where Joe bought those Cokes.  This was the eighties, and by then cans and plastic bottles dominated the grocery store shelves.

For a kid it was a thrill and a novelty to drink from a glass bottle.

Yesterday I thought of old Joe Shevick for the first time in at least twenty-five years.

It was when I picked up a sliver of bar soap.  It was hardly worth saving, and I started to pitch it in the trash and unwrap a new bar.

Joe used to save all his slivers of soap, and he bound them together with rubber bands to mold them into a new bar of soap.

As a kid, I just thought he was an eccentric old man.  But he wasn’t.

Capital “H” History—the kind we read about in books—is a poor teacher.  We consume stories of World War II like they are adventure novels, with Captain American as the big winner.  We study the Holocaust, never believing something like that could happen again.  We say that such-and-such will cause “another Civil War” but we don’t mean we’re going to start bayoneting each other.  We entertain ourselves with movies and novels about pandemics, wrapped in the protective cocoon of modern medicine.

But the Great Depression wasn’t capital “H” History for Joe Shevick.  It was part of his personal history, and personal history is a great teacher.  He learned not to waste anything.

Not even soap slivers.

He learned that the world could turn on a dime, that no one is as safe or as in control as modernity would have us believe.

But I’d like to think that not every lesson Joe learned in the Great Depression was about fear or scarcity.  I like to imagine that he and others uncovered an unexpected resilience in the face of adversity.  He used his wits, his grit, and creativity to make his way through.

I think he learned that he would have enough if he didn’t waste, that he could get by on less than he thought, that he could re-learn the skills of his ancestors if necessary to feed and clothe himself.

That he could take care of himself.  That we could take care of each other.

And that sort of knowledge is a hard-won gift.

Covid-19 is part of our personal history now.  It will leave its mark on us, in ways we don’t yet understand. 

It makes me wonder what we’ll learn from it.

There are things we will not take for granted again.  There are things we will lose and won’t get back again.

The world has a way of smacking us around every so often, reminding us that we’re not in charge, even if we have iPhones, and Amazon Free Delivery, and antibiotics.

And we have a way of standing back up.

We’ve done it before.  We’ll do it now.

If we’re lucky, we’ll gain some hard-won wisdom, along with a few eccentricities of our own.

And fifty years from, some neighborhood kid cutting my grass will wonder why I have eighty rolls of toilet paper and a turn-of-the-century ventilator squirreled away in my basement.

The Golden Age of Hollywood Project: The Beginning and The End

#1 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

I’ve always wanted to write a series about the Golden Age of Hollywood.  With the conclusion of my Ultimate Playlist and a worldwide pandemic keeping us all at home, it’s now or never.

In addition to my Sunday morning musings, I’m going to add a Wednesday morning post about classic movies.

Each week I’ll watch a classic film (or a few on a theme) and report my thoughts and observations on the movie as both a historical object and a piece of entertainment to be enjoyed by modern audiences.  I’ll talk about the significance of the film, gossip about the actors and actresses, and sprinkle in some movie history along the way.  

The widest definition of the Golden Age of Hollywood encompasses the first movies through 1960.  This was the most prolific period of movie-making in history, filled with technical achievements and unencumbered by competition from television.  This is where Hollywood’s greatest stars were made–Garbo, Gable, Davis, Bogart, Hepburns Katharine and Audrey, Stewart, Crawford, Olivier, and Leigh.  It was also a time of censorship, cut-throat studios with nearly unlimited power, and the ever-present perils of fame for those who shone brightest on the silver screen.

The first thing we need to decide is where, exactly, should our journey through movie history begin?We could start at the absolute beginning, back in 1888 with the Roundhay Garden Scene.  The 2.11 second film is believed to be the oldest surviving film shot with a single camera.

Perhaps we should fast-forward to 1905, when the first Nickelodeon opened on–get this–Smithfield Street in good old Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  It was a storefront theater with ninety-six seats and charged a nickel for shows that included live vaudeville acts and short films.  As nickelodeons spread across the country, people could view films on large screens rather than previously as peep shows.

Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh, PA – 1905

Or perhaps we should start in 1915 with Charlie Chaplin, bumbling across a silent screen as The Tramp.

Or in the 1920s, when the movie-making industry had consolidated to Hollywood, where the light was always good and rain rarely interrupted the production schedule.

What about 1929, when the newly established Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handed out its first awards?

I’m teasing you, reader.  The truth is, I know exactly where we’re going to start.

And end.

For me, the Golden Age of Hollywood began on February 21, 1930, and ended on November 16, 1960.

What happened on those dates?

You’ll find out what happened in 1930 next week when The Golden Age of Hollywood blog series officially kicks off.

As for November 16, 1960, you’ll have to hang with me until the end.