The Books: Essays of E.B. White, “The Railroad”

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Next book on my essays bookshelf:

Essays of E. B. White

Before I bought my car, I was a frequent Amtrak traveler. I didn’t really need a car, living where I live, but ever since I bought the thing, I have recognized the benefit. I can drive to the beach. I can drive to Memphis if I want. I can get the hell OUT of the Tri-State Area. But I lived in New Jersey and New York for almost 20 years before I had a vehicle. I relied on trains and busses to take me out of the area, back to Rhode Island, up to Boston, whatever. I had become a hardened veteran of the push of crowds in Penn Station, I had become a veteran in when exactly I needed to travel home for Thanksgiving, I was familiar with the race for seats, the delays, the high prices, the gross-ness of some of the train cars (my sister Siobhan and I would compare stories: “I was literally surrounded by someone else’s garbage”), the slow pace, the unreliability … I mean, anyone who takes trains with any regularity is familiar with all of this. It’s also almost as expensive as flying. So you pay just as much as a flight – and yet the trip is three times as long and 10 times as annoying. Good deal!

E.B. White writes about the history of the railroads in America, but mainly focusing on their decline, especially in Maine, where he lives. He describes certain depots closing, which then completely cut off whatever area it was from being able to get out. You would have to drive 3 hours just to get to the train. He looks back over his life of train travel, comparing speeds and service. He had many fond memories of the train and people in Maine depended on reliable service, not just for travel, but for mail delivery (perhaps the most important element of the railroads). Trains serve multiple purposes, and those purposes compete. Why should it take almost 24 hours to get from Bangor to New York City? How is that even possible? It’s interesting: E.B. White was certainly a man who valued the past. You could even call him conservative in that respect. But an institution that seemed devoted to its past so single-mindedly seemed doomed to extinction. Which, of course, is what came to pass (at least during the course of White’s essay.) Instead of modernizing and changing with the times, the railroads stagnated. People in Maine watched the depots and stations close, watched the railroads whiz by their towns.

It’s a mixed bag, as anything in life is. White loves the trains. White sees the problem with the railroads as an industry. He makes some funny comments about the old-fashioned depots, structures that haven’t been updated or modernized since 1870 or something. The depot in my home town in Rhode Island is the same way – and, like White, I have a conservative streak. I love the past. I can’t stand change, or at least, careless change. I grew up in a town, remember, where the buildings have dates on them, dates like “Built in 1741.” The “main street” is a protected street, it has not changed since the 1700s, except for one stoplight. George Washington slept in an inn on that street. He had meetings in the building that is now the public library (where I had my first job in high school). So. Consider that perspective, which is a very New England perspective. I love our late-19th-century train depot! Please don’t ever change! But lack of change comes with a price. It wasn’t until the last 10 years that my home town in RI finally built a walkway over the tracks so that you could actually get to the other side if you were boarding a train Southward. Before then, you had to wait in the damn depot unit a little shuttle bus came to take you around to the other side of the tracks. My sister and I, who were always going Southward on the train, back to New York, would SEETHE about that shuttle. Because you had to be dropped off at the depot, then stand around, then pick up your luggage again, get onto the shuttle, wait in the shuttle, and then be driven to the other side. It was unwieldy. It was silly. Why couldn’t we just be dropped off on the other side of the damn tracks and remove those 4 or 5 intervening steps? So yes, I love the old train depot with the old-fashioned wooden wagon outside, and the old lamp-posts, and the country feel of it. I am glad it has never changed. But dammit, it’s also good to have that modern walkway (with an elevator, too!) so you can get to the other side. Railroads were once THE symbol of modernity. They changed the world. They opened the continent. They changed everything. George Eliot saw it. E.M. Forster after her saw it. Such change is a mixed blessing. And the railroads, so steeped in their glorious past, seemed to stop being ABLE to change.

All of that being said, I love that Amtrak has started a Writer’s Residency program. So cool! I applied. I didn’t get in, obviously. I will apply again.

As with much of White’s stuff, the piece is part history and part memoir.

Excerpt from Essays of E. B. White, “The Railroad”

Today, as my thoughts wander affectionately back over fifty-five years of railroading, the thing that strikes me as most revealing about that first rail trip in 1905 is the running time of the train. We left new York at eight o’clock in the evening and arrived at Belgrade next morning at half past nine – a thirteen-and-a-half-hour run, a distance of four hundred and fifteen miles, a speed of thirty-one miles an hour. And what is the speed of our modern Iron Horse in this decade as he gallops through the night? I timed him from New York to Bangor not long ago, divided the mileage by the number of hours, and came up with the answer: thirty-four miles an hour. Thus, in fifty-five years, while the motorcar was lifting its road speed to the dazzling rate of seventy miles an hour on the thruways, and the airplane was becoming a jet in the sky, the railroad steadfastly maintained its accustomed gait, between thirty- and thirty-five miles an hour. This is an impressive record. It’s not every institution the can hold on to an ideal through fifty-five years of our fastest-moving century. It’s not every traveler who is content to go thirty-four, either. I am not sure that even I, who love the rails, am content. A few of us visionaries would like to see the railroad step up the pace from thirty-four to forty, so we could leave New York after dinner at night and get home in time for lunch next day. (I’ve just learned that the Maine Central has a new schedule, effective early next month. Soon I can leave New York after dinner and be home the following afternoon in time for dinner. There’s to be a four-hour layover in Portland, an eighteen-hour trip all told. Thus the speed of my Horse has just dropped from thirty-four miles an hour to twenty-eight. He’s a very sick Horse.)

The slowness of rail travel is not because the Horse is incapable of great speed but because the railroad is a gossip; all along the line it stops to chat at back porches, to exchange the latest or borrow a cup of sugar. A train on its leisurely course often reminds me of a small boy who has been sent on an errand; the train gets there eventually, and so does the boy, but after what adventures, what amusing distractions and excursions, what fruitful dawdling! A railroad has a thousand and one things on its mind, all of them worthy, many of them enchanting, but none of them conducive to swift passage for a seated customer. I think if a railroad is to profit from a passenger run, it will have to take the word “run” seriously and conquer its insatiable curiosity about what is happening along the route. Some railroads manage to do this, and I notice that when they do, their cars are usually well filled, and their pockets, too.

There are other reasons the Horse is so slow-paced. The State of Maine leaves Portland in the evening and trots along briskly till it gets to Lowell Junction, around midnight. Here it leaves the main line of the Boston & Maine and goes adventuring on a stretch of single track toward Worcester, fifty miles away. This piece of track is well known to sleepy passengers snug in their beds. It was built by a Girl Scout troop while on maneuvers. The girls felled the trees for the ties, collected gravel from abandoned guppy tanks for the fill, and for rails they got hold of some twisted I-beams from condemned buildings. Even the engine driver has a healthy respect for this remarkable section of railed; he slows the train to a walk, obeying his instinct for self-preservation as well as the strict safety rules of the railroad. For about an hour, the creeping train is contorted in the most violent way, and the patient passenger slats back and forth in his berth, drugged with sleep, fear, and pain.

Tomorrow night, the last sleeping car leaves Bangor for New York. I shall not be aboard but shall be thinking of it and wishing it well as it rolls through Etna and skirts the swamp. When, the other day, the news broke that the through sleeping car was to be dropped, the papers carried a statement from Harold J. Foster, our traffic manager: “The service was, we hoped, one which would built railroad patronage between Maine points and New York City on an overnight basis. The sleeper has been poorly patronized, although we advertised its convenience in a consistent program in newspapers and on radio.” Mr. Foster’s words are true; the sleeper was poorly patronized, except on the occasions when bad weather grounded the planes, and except by a few eccentrics like me, who enjoy railroading and patronized it well. The convenience of the service was advertised, but not, of course, its inconveniences, which the traveling public was familiar with anyway – its high tariff, its low speed, its luggage problems, and (in my case) its depot fifty miles from home.

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The Great Invisible (2014)

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My review of Margaret Brown’s new documentary The Great Invisible, about the BP oil spill, is now up over at Rogerebert.com.

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Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 4: Open Thread

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New re-cap up in the post below this one, for “The Usual Suspects,” from Season 2. I know. I’m running things weirdly here. But it suits me.

Here’s the open thread for tonight’s episode. Won’t be able to watch until tomorrow. See you all then!

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Supernatural: Season 2, Episode 7: “The Usual Suspects”

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Directed by Mike Rohl
Written by Cathryn Humphris

There are a couple of reasons why I hold “The Usual Suspects” dear.

One is obvious:

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I love the woman who starred in the movie that practically single-handedly ruined my Catholic childhood. Why wouldn’t I?

The performance is mainly remembered for the horror-movie makeup, and the horrible things the demonic creature says (voice by Mercedes McCambridge), and, of course, the following immortal moment:

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As an adult, I watch the film and worry about Linda Blair, the young girl being asked to tap into/represent all that darkness. (I still worry about kids in horror films.) I had ZERO business watching The Exorcist at age 9, 10, and was so terrified by it it was shattering.

“The Usual Suspects” gives Linda Blair a nice meaty role, with a lot to do. The episode is handed over to her. It’s not a cameo.

The second reason is that the episode is almost entirely from an outsider’s perspective. Sam and Dean are the “objects” of her attention, and it gives us an opportunity to look at them from the outside.

Continue reading

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Elvis Presley’s 2nd Ed Sullivan Appearance: October 28, 1956

58 years ago today, Elvis Presley made his second historic appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. A re-post.

On September 9, 1956, Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time. He had been booked for 3 appearances over the course of a couple of months, and his second appearance came almost 2 months later, on October 28.

Elvis had spent the summer touring, recording at RCA in New York, collecting gold records, and preparing for filming his first movie. Everywhere he performed, he caused riots. He was chased across a football field in Arkansas by a hollering mob of teenagers. He was repeatedly punched in the face by angry boyfriends and husbands after his shows. He was attacked by girls. It was exhilarating and terrifying. He never went anywhere by himself, not anymore.


Elvis backstage, showing where he got punched in the eye.

He was already living a rock star life. He was starting to define it. Graceland was in the future, but he had bought his parents a ranch house on Audobon Drive in Memphis. The neighbors were not happy about the famous neighbor moving in. There was no security, and fans just milled about on his front lawn. Elvis would go out and talk with them and sign autographs. He would escape on his motorcycle. He loved providing for his mother. If there was any desire in him, besides being famous (and that was a huge desire), it was the desire to see his mother happy and cared-for. He talked about it to everyone: rexporters, casual acquaintances, girlfriends … Gladys was a main topic. Vernon not so much.


Gladys and Elvis, Audobon Drive, 1956

He dated many people. Screwed even more. In the summer of 1956, he fell in love with a sweet girl from Biloxi named June Juanico. She took up months of his time and attention and worry. She happened to be the one in his life just as his fame broke. It is why their relationship is so interesting. He asked her to marry him but said could she wait three years? He couldn’t get married right now. She said yes. June Juanico and her mother bought a television so that they could watch Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show. Telegrams for June would come into the Biloxi telegraph (all from Elvis) and June became a celebrity in her own town.


June and Elvis

Controversy was heating up due to his explosive sexual performance on the Milton Berle show, and the controversy made Ed Sullivan gunshy. Elvis Presley found himself the flashpoint of nationwide criticism nationwide. He was baffled and hurt. The fans were fine, they loved him, they all seemed to “get” the joke. He was still a good boy. He tried to be a gentleman and always minded his manners. Why all the hate coming towards him? It hurt his mother, too, and that was the worst part of it.

He was a naturally nervous boy, fidgety and restless, he stuttered, he was shy, and yet onstage he was a fearless powerhouse. A year before he had been practically anonymous.

In September of 1956, he went out to Hollywood, staying at the Knickerbocker Hotel, to film Love Me Tender, his first movie. He made some new friends. He started dating Natalie Wood, although he still called June every night. His first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, with Charles Laughton as host, had been a triumph.

There were two more to go.

He finished Love Me Tender. He was upset that they made him sing, but he went along with everything they asked him to do. He learned quick. Everybody liked him. The movie hadn’t opened yet when he traveled to New York to do his second Ed Sullivan appearance. As a matter of fact, the movie had tested badly in previews because Elvis died in the end. A decision was made to superimpose Elvis’ smiling singing head over the tragic final scene. Elvis went to the studio in New York to film that scene, singing “Love Me Tender” from beyond the grave.

Ed Sullivan had Elvis over for dinner, and Ed was very impressed with the boy’s manners. Sullivan was still nervous about what Elvis would do on his program, and the musical numbers had been chosen with great care. Mostly ballads. This would be true of all of Elvis’ appearances on the show.

It is impossible to exaggeration the amount of criticism Elvis Presley was getting at this time, and the tone of the criticism. It was vicious, personal, and constant. Elvis was seen as directly responsible for … basically everything that was wrong with our world.

Now this second show is interesting. (It would be the third show where they chose to film Elvis only from the waist up.)

The second show displays a similar skittishness, although it is not only amazingly generous (Elvis performs three times throughout the entire program), but also set up powerfully to place Elvis at the center.

This was deliberate on Sullivan’s part. You can feel Sullivan gathering his considerable forces to throw his support and weight behind the greasy Southern boy in the loud jacket, despite Sullivan’s own personal reservations about what it would mean, despite his own reservations about the music itself. He was a pro. His own personal taste was irrelevant when faced with a juggernaut like Elvis Presley. Ignoring Elvis would be career suicide and he knew it.

Sullivan did not, as might be expected, shuffle Elvis off to the side, give him one number, perhaps – in essence burying him with the rest of the acts. Most acts on his show did only one number, although singers often did two. But Elvis’ spots on his second appearance are not only extensive, but take over the whole program.

In between Elvis’ performances, his name comes up often. Sullivan references him in introductions to other acts. It’s an extraordinary thing to witness. Not only is Elvis on all through the show (so that the scattered segments start to feel like one long segment), but he is given a chance to talk directly to the audience. It was obviously planned what he would say, but these are not highly scripted moments. They feel improvisational. He is appropriate, but not obedient. While he speaks, he pauses, he grins, he laughs up at the balcony, he makes funny gestures, but still: he gets everything out that he needs to get out. He is given a hell of a lot of air time.

Sullivan normally would talk to his guests after they performed, leading them through a short conversation. But Sullivan is nowhere to be seen during these sections when Elvis talks.

Ed Sullivan gave Elvis the stage. Gave Elvis his stage.

As the show goes on, you can feel the subtext of it pushing through: The rest of the show has become an excuse to promote Elvis Presley. Not only Elvis as a singing sensation, but everything else he is up to. The show becomes a promotional arm for Love Me Tender. Ed Sullivan has packed the audience with people friendly to Elvis Presley.

Considering the ratcheted-up rhetoric of the day when it came to Presley, this is an amazing and courageous show of force, Ed Sullivan wielding his power, reassuring the fearful American public that this boy is someone to watch, and he’s not going away soon, and there is nothing to be afraid of.

In terms of the conversation being had about Elvis at that time, Ed Sullivan firmly got out ahead of it, and created a different kind of space in which Elvis could operate. A mainstream space.

This may seem like a mixed blessing to the rock purists, but let’s not forget: Elvis had his sights set on the mainstream. He didn’t want to be playing backwoods honky-tonks and country fairs. He wanted to be famous. He wanted to be Dean Martin with maybe some James Dean thrown in. He wanted to be a worldfamous entertainer. To do so, one must fit into the televisions of the American nation. Here, he did so on his terms.

There are times during the second Ed Sullivan appearance when he still seems dangerous, unpredictable, and a couple of times a little bit bratty. Even in the midst of everything he had going on, appearing on television and all that, he still maintained that open current with the audience. He goes above the heads of the establishment, even above the head of Ed Sullivan, and communicates directly with those girls screaming for him in the balcony, and the girls he knew were screaming and sighing in front of their televisions across the land.

Basically, he did what he had been doing for almost two years straight, from the first moment he stepped onto a stage. The venue may be bigger, the platform exponentially larger, but the job remained the same.

The show begins with Ed Sullivan coming out onstage and immediately bringing up Elvis.

“We’ve got a big show tonight and I want to make sure we get it all in. I particularly want to get Elvis Presley’s full repertoire in – he’s going to appear in 3 different spots in our show …”

But first! Two songs from The Little Gaelic Singers from County Derry, an adorable group of Irish children in traditional Irish garb, singing in harmony. There are kitschy harps hanging in the background. The children are beyond sweet and they sing beautifully together.

When Ed Sullivan comes back onstage following the Irish childrens’ singing, the first thing he says is, “Some of the people have wondered if one of those little boys in the kilt is Elvis Presley … ”

Elvis hasn’t even shown up yet and he already dominates.

Next comes a commercial for Mercury (I love the commercials included in these original Ed Sullivan shows). This one is called DYNAMITE FROM DETROIT and it is a cartoon showing the development of the car, and all of the different models throughout its still-short history.

Following the car commercial, Ed Sullivan returns to the stage. Although he is clearly a kind man, and a comfortable presence, he always remained a calm and unflappable host, deftly and elegantly in charge of moving things along. But here, before he even speaks, you can see some adrenaline in him. There’s a sparkle there, a twinkle. He knows that what he is about to say is going to elicit mayhem from the balcony, and you can sense he is getting a kick out of it. It’s charming. It is also a powerful message to people out there who may have sniffed at Presley, or scorned him. Ed Sullivan getting a kick out of the mayhem gave permission to others.

Ed Sullivan shouts the introduction, laughing up at the balcony: “And now here … is Elvis Presley.” The girls go apeshit. Eardrum-piercing screams. Total havoc before he has even been seen.

The Jordannaires are there behind Elvis and off to the side. There is a slatted background behind them, and Elvis stands close to them. He is in a light-colored blazer, a tie, and darker pants. The Jordannaires are dressed in a similar fashion, although their blazers have black lapels. Elvis and the Jordannaires are clearly a unit. Gordon Stoker from The Jordannaires talks about how Elvis wanted them to be close behind him, which drove the sound guys crazy. It also meant that Elvis, when he moved, as he always moved, was sometimes stepping backwards onto their toes. But Elvis always wanted to be part of a group (ironic, considering how isolated he was in his own fame).

Later in his career, after the movies, he started to get totally paranoid (and rightly so) about engineers (and the Colonel) messing with the mixes of his recorded songs. He liked to blend in with the background singers, he didn’t want his voice pushed forward too much. If there is one thing that really distinguishes all those movie soundtrack songs, it is that Elvis’ voice is pushed so far forward that sometimes you can barely hear the instruments in the background. Elvis hated that sound. Hated it with a white-hot passion. It was against everything he believed in, musically. As long as he was slogging out the movie songs, he didn’t complain or make a fuss. But afterwards, in the 70s, it became a huge issue. Elvis would keep his masters, and then obsessively play the final tracks, side by side, shouting at Priscilla in a rage about how different they sounded, and how DARE they mess with his music? It was the beginning of a big rift with the Colonel. You can see the germ of that early on, especially here, when he is making a huge TV appearance, and he specifically wants to be standing amongst his backup singers, on top of them, essentially.

In his following numbers, they are no longer over to the side but right behind him. It really says a lot about who Elvis was, even at this young age.

Their first number is Don’t Be Cruel. They performed it in their first appearance too.

Elvis keeps things light. He cracks himself up a couple of times during the song, for who knows what reason. He always had a personal conversation going on with himself and the audience about what he was doing. If something was funny, hell, he would laugh.

Ed Sullivan comes on afterwards and shakes Elvis’ hand. Elvis is hyped up, you can tell. He manages to focus on Ed Sullivan as he shakes his hand (like Elvis’ first manager Bob Neal said: everything Elvis did onstage was right), but he’s also in that adrenaline zone of having just performed. You can hear girls screaming randomly from the balcony. There is rustling, and sudden shrieks. The polite silence of an audience has vanished.

As Ed starts to talk, Elvis cups his hands over his eyes and peers out at the audience. The gesture makes him look like he’s on a fairgrounds stage in Arkansas at mid-day. He has no sense that he should play it cool, or keep himself under control, or not do whatever the hell he feels like doing. When he was onstage, he did what he felt like doing, and it’s freeing to watch. Someone else would have toned it down, would not have peered out at the audience in that manner, trying to see them. Elvis was beyond selfconsciousness when he was in front of an audience. He never seems rude. He seems in the zone with those still-screaming girls, and he seems shy, yes, but totally comfortable at the same time.

Bizarre.

Ed Sullivan makes a long speech promoting Love Me Tender. Elvis stands there listening, his body still moving (he couldn’t be still if you paid him a million dollars). He shifts his weight, he glances out at the audience, he grins, then catches himself and looks down, listening to Sullivan. He’s slightly out of control.

I want to say one other thing: Elvis had started off the year of 1956 with 6 appearances on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show, broadcast out of the CBS Studios in New York. This was the first introduction of Elvis to a national public, although he had been tearing up the live audiences through the South and elsewhere. After the Dorsey Brothers came two appearances on the Milton Berle show, the second one being the one that exploded the controversy. Then came the debacle of the Steve Allen show, where Elvis was forced to participate in stupid skits that made fun of his country background, making a joke out of him being a hillbilly, and he was forced to wear a tuxedo while singing “Hound Dog” to an actual dog onstage. Although the Steve Allen show is miserable to watch today, at the time it buried Ed Sullivan in the ratings, which was one of the factors that made Ed Sullivan relent and book EP for his show.

But what I want to point out is that if you watch those Dorsey Brothers appearances, they could not be more different from the more calculated effort of the Ed Sullivan show. It’s hard to believe it’s in the same year. Elvis seems like a different person. In the Dorsey Brothers clip, Elvis is blonde, crazy-looking, in a big natty blazer, and Scotty and Bill are clearly visible onstage with him, tearing it up as they did in the live shows. (Scotty and Bill are nowhere to be seen in the Ed Sullivan appearances.) Elvis’ fame had already changed him, and it had only been a matter of months. He was becoming isolated. He was being pushed downstage center. That’s just the way it had to be. He became bigger than his own past, almost instantaneously, but on the Dorsey Brothers shows, you can still see that first Elvis, the raw thuggish Elvis who was wreaking such havoc at his live shows. He can barely stay in the frame he moves so much. He growls and spits and sneers. He throws his head back and wails. NOTHING like that was going on on the Ed Sullivan Show, although “Ready Teddy” on the first appearance was the closest thing.

But raw Elvis? Rough Elvis? The Elvis who was closer to “That’s All Right” than “Jailhouse Rock”? You have to go to the Dorsey Brothers clips to see that. That Elvis is already long gone by the time of the Ed Sullivan appearances. You can see some of them here. Only 8 months later, and Elvis had changed. It is not a bad thing. This is why Elvis became Elvis. Those who wish he hadn’t changed from that raw boy basically wish that Elvis had had a short-lived albeit influential career. Elvis didn’t want to be just a guy in a band. He wanted to rise to the top, a top that no one could even perceive yet, since no one had gotten there before. But that’s where he wanted to go. He learned quickly, he morphed quickly, he absorbed influences, he immediately showed his influences once he absorbed them. He moved FAST.

But it’s hard to remember just how fast. It helps to watch the Dorsey Brothers clips and then the Ed Sullivan clips. Same year.

Sullivan says, totally taking charge:

“Now Elvis is going to sing for you the theme song of his new 20th Century Fox picture and later on in the evening I want you to meet Robert Webb who directed it. Now this song as he does it in the picture is Love Me Tender is when his three brothers have come back from the Confederate Army and he’s the brother who’s been left back home and he sings this song to his mother and his young bride. This is Love Me Tender.”

Elvis then sings “Love Me Tender”.

And here is where we start to see the conscious myth-making that was going on in this particular program.

Sure, there are other acts filling up the bill, but what was really going on was a cooperation between Elvis, the Colonel, Ed Sullivan, and Hal Wallis (the producer who had Elvis under contract in Hollywood), to promote the new star, and point out his versatility, get everyone invested in what was happening with him. It feels very strategic.

The Jordannaires are no longer with him in this number. The stage goes dark, Elvis in a spotlight. He is most often filmed from above, and he looks up into the balcony. It is an odd angle, foreshortening him a bit, but also effective. Elvis is not on a bare stage with his band. He is highlighted, isolated. His hair, by this time, has been dyed black (he liked how Tony Curtis’ hair looked). His coloring in this lighting looks stark and dramatic. He is pale, with ink-black hair and dark eyebrows. He looks exotic. The Dorsey Brothers boy, with the flopping blonde hair and the pudge-ball face, is gone. This is a movie star on the rise. He is no longer one of us, as he clearly was on the Dorsey Brothers shows, even with his electric talent. Here, he is now beyond us. He is a gleaming star. It suits him. He wears it easily.

Important to remember, too, that he still lived in a modest ranch house in Memphis with his parents at this point.

He doesn’t just look handsome here. No, not at all. Lots of people are handsome. It’s more than that. He looks glamorous.

After “Love Me Tender”, Ed Sullivan re-enters the scene. The audience is going crazy and are having a difficult time settling down. Sullivan is about to say something, clearly, but Elvis’ focus is outwards. He feels the mayhem percolating through the theatre. Elvis looks out at the girls who are sighing and moaning and cackling in the room. As a joke, he jiggles his left leg, and the response is predictable. I love that moment for its brattiness and adolescent willfulness. He’s not ready to settle down and talk to Ed Sullivan yet. He is still buzzing from the performing. He’s not ready for the audience to quiet down yet. So he gives them a bit of a jiggle to get them screaming again so he can get his fix.

BRAT! LOVE IT.

Ed Sullivan takes the reins and says, “Now Elvis is gonna be back in just a couple of minutes…”

He’s reassuring his own audience. Don’t worry, he’ll be back …

Once you get to know Elvis’ sense of humor and how it operated, you can almost always perceive it. He was always in tune with the comedy of any given moment, and when he gets serious, it seems a choice. And when he does decide to be serious (a la “If I can Dream” in 1968 being the most famous example), his power blows you back 3 feet, pinning you to the wall. But Elvis has to make that choice, because otherwise he would be making goofy faces 24 hours of the day, and putting Whoopee cushions under your chair. That’s the sense I get. You hear clips of him in outtakes or alternate takes of his music, and the laughter is irrepressible. He HOWLS with laughter. He never avoided work, obviously, and did the job at hand, but his sense of humor never leaves him. You can feel it in his acting (although less so in the earlier pictures, which were more interested in presenting him as a brooding heir to James Dean), and in his concerts and also in his music.

One of the reasons why his sense of humor was such a finely tuned instrument was because he listened. This is one of the most underrated parts of being a performer, as I wrote recently in my piece about Joseph Cotten in Gaslight). Elvis was always listening for the joke. He was tuned in to comedic possibility, and a lot of that has to do with sensitivity to language and its absurdity. There’s a story about Elvis filming the abysmal Paradise Hawaiian Style, and they were filming the helicopter scene with Elvis and all the dogs. It was already an absurd situation, and Elvis was bearing up as best he could, but he was on the verge of losing it from the get-go. It’s like wanting to laugh in church. The director, Michael Moore, getting befuddled (it was a difficult scene, the dogs were not well trained), referred to a poodle as a “foodle”. And that was that. Put a fork in Elvis. He was done. Elvis started laughing and could not stop. The little girl in the movie said it was amazing to her to watch a grown man laugh so hard for so long. He was rolling around on the ground in tears. Shooting had to stop until Elvis could pull himself together which took some time. You can actually feel some of that residual hysteria in the final version. You can feel him holding on to his sanity for dear life so he can just get through the take, please God, let the laughter stop.

That kind of losing-it behavior was part of Elvis’ work process. He liked to have fun. He didn’t like to be stressed out.

All of this is to say that there, in what could be seen as a stressful situation, Ed Sullivan asks him if he will return later in the show. It is obviously a formality – of course Elvis was going to return. But there’s a joke in the moment and Elvis could feel it. What if Elvis had said, “Nah, I’m done here, thanks so much.”? And you can see that thought occur to Elvis in the moment, and when Ed asks the question, Elvis brusquely shakes his head, like, “Nah. I ain’t coming back.”

It’s funny. It’s startling because he seems so independent, so NOT in awe of Ed Sullivan (even though he was, in fact, in awe of Ed Sullivan). But there was a comedic nugget in Ed Sullivan asking him that question and Elvis went with it. Sullivan doesn’t quite seem to get it, and then says, “You will be back?”, almost anxiously, and Elvis, good boy, gives up on the joke and nods, yes, of course he will be back.

It’s an awkward strange moment, but you can feel Elvis’ humanity under it: his desire to make himself comfortable, wherever he was, even in front of millions of people. There was a joke there, dammit, so he made it. The curtain then swoops down, leaving Ed Sullivan alone on the stage.

And he is still talking about Elvis.

“He’ll be coming back in a little while to sing you some more songs and then he’s gonna make another appearance in the last part of the show ….

Sullivan stops his speech and can’t help himself. He says, “I can’t figure this darn thing out, he does this–” (shrugs his shoulder), “and everybody yells.”

It’s a very friendly moment. It accepts that there is a youth culture that is deciding what it wants to see, what it likes, and Sullivan – bringing on circus acts and singers and choirs from Ireland – is baffled, perhaps. He is not young, he is not female – but he treats it with good humor. He is not judgmental. He is also not afraid to seem square. That’s one of the most appealing and honest things about him.

To show the contrast in the culture and how vast the gap became in a matter of months, the next guy to appear on the show is a Señor Wences, a Spanish ventriloquist, who is very funny, has a talking head in a box who screams from within it, and it’s all very entertaining, but it suddenly seems like it is coming from another era. The modern era has begun. Elvis is the future. The vaudeville past was already fading by 1956, and the old-timers would start dying out. Ed Sullivan helped keep that tradition alive, and by including hot new artists – like Elvis – and then the Beatles – he made a choice to stay relevant, to reflect America as it WAS, not just as it HAD BEEN. However, there are some grating moments of transition where you can actually feel the culture try to re-adjust, try to go back to what it had been.

Like going from a jiggling sexy black-haired Elvis to a guy in a tux talking to a head in a box.

After Señor Wences leaves the stage, Ed Sullivan returns. Does he do a long monologue about Señor Wences’ work? No.

He starts talking about Elvis again.

The cumulative effect of all of this is powerful. The entire show is centered on Elvis.

Sullivan, in the following anecdote, is doing a couple of things. He is informing the audience that he had Elvis over to his house. That’s an image difficult to imagine, but Sullivan was surrounding Elvis with the comfort and support of respect and inclusion from the establishment (without ever directly saying it. He doesn’t need to.) And he ALSO wants to tell the audience something else about the song “Love Me Tender”, and additionally he wants to pass on the information that it was Elvis who gave him the facts that he now is relating to the audience.

So let’s put that in context: The press Elvis was getting at that time was that he was a dumbbell hick, a roughhouse Southerner, a sex-pot, a terrible influence, uneducated, awful, Satanic, and corrupt. White trash. Trash, in general. Here, Sullivan adds a couple of images as antidotes to that bad press. It’s quietly and elegantly done.

“You know I was just thinking about Elvis Presley because he was over at our house yesterday. It was the first time I met him because the last time he was on our show I was in the hospital. And I commented on the beautiful melody of ‘Love Me Tender’, and he said, ‘Ed, you really should be, because that was written by Stephen Foster. That was Stephen Foster’s Aura Lee.’”

Kind of a nice moment, no? Elvis putting together the pieces for Sullivan, and then Sullivan generously sharing that with the audience. You can see that Sullivan liked the fact Stephen Foster wrote the song that was Presley’s newest hit, and he was impressed with Presley’s knowing that fact as well. Again, it’s subtle, but comments like this start to surround Elvis with an impenetrable shield of acceptance. I have to believe Sullivan did it deliberately. He would be much more deliberate and overt about it in the third appearance on the show, but it’s in evidence here as well.

After another car commercial, we see an adorable dog act with this crazy dog doing unbelievable things (talking on a phone, tucking himself in, etc.)

It’s a long act. Sullivan did not skimp force his guests into skimpy spots. In today’s more rushed world, where you always feel the time ticking away, you would never see such a leisurely act unfold. It’s like time stops. You have to succumb to the act. It’s quite comforting.

After the dog act, Sullivan comes back on, and he’s got that anticipatory twinkle again, the fact that he gets to introduce the one that is making all the commotion.

He can’t even get out the entire introduction. The screams begin before Sullivan even says Presley’s name.

We’re then back with Elvis and The Jordannaires. Elvis is in charge. He is jittery, and cannot stand still. He rubs his hands together. He accepts the screaming graciously, laughing from time to time, but also clearly waiting for it to subside so he can talk. Again, he puts his hands up over his eyes as a shield and peers out into the audience. Who are you looking for, Elvis? When the screams finally die down, Elvis waits. He doesn’t just launch into what he is going to say. He waits. Then he does a little whistle to himself, which gets a predictable response of outright chaos from the girls in the seats. Elvis is having the time of his life. You don’t feel nerves. He’s awkward, but he was always awkward. You feel a strange grace, and a bubbling sense of humor. He also needs the audience to be vocal. If they’re quiet for 3 seconds, he has to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. And by this point he has learned that all he needs to do is shrug his shoulders and everyone goes apeshit. That had to be so bizarre for him, but he accepted it early (immediately), and went with it. By 1956, he was using it deliberately. He conducted audiences. He made them do what he wanted them to do. They always understood what he was about. They loved his shrugging shoulders! They loved his jiggling leg! He burped and they thought it was awwwwwwwesome.

Then he starts to speak, introducing his own song.

“Thank you very much, Mr. Sullivan. Friends, we’d like to do a number for you from our new album. It was just released by RCA Victor this week. With the help of the Jordanaires, friends, we’d like to do one called—-” Long pause. “Love Me.”

In the pause that follows, Elvis stands with his head down. The song is about to start, and then Elvis looks up and murmurs, “It’s a new one”, and then puts his head back down into the dramatic pose. He looks like a 10-year-old kid playing freeze tag and breaking his pose briefly. I believe he did it deliberately to take the edge off the drama of the moment, to let the audience know he didn’t take himself too seriously. It works like a charm. The audience starts laughing. Elvis was in a format that was already set up: The Ed Sullivan Show: and yet you don’t feel him hog-tied the way you do on the Steve Allen show. He feels free enough to break the anticipatory silence before his new number by adding one other thing that he needs to say, in a sort of rushed aside, like, “Wait, lemme just get this in before we start …”

He’s to die for. To this day.

Especially now in our culture when everything is so programmed and nothing is left to chance.

Presley is behaving himself, he is perfectly respectful and respectable, but he still seems unleashed a bit. You don’t know what he will do next. And he can’t bear over-seriousness. He can be serious, that’s fine, but he needs to lighten the mood any time he can and feels free to do that. On national television.

I’ve written about this performance before. I think it is one of the most bizarre performances Elvis ever gave on television. I have seen it hundreds of times and I am still surprised by the clutching-hair-stepping-back thing that happens at the end. There are no correlations for what Elvis is doing here (at least none that would be explicable to a mainstream American audience. The Pentecostals would get it. The bluesmen would get it.)

He had a lot of influences musically, but his performance style was all his own. Especially something like this. He looks weird. You can imagine how people stared at him like he was an alien from another planet. He is beyond classification.

He is singing a serious sexy song, and he’s vamping it up, big flashy gestures, dramatic, with deliberately theatrical moments that he obviously thinks are funny. He is having the time of his life. There is an improvisatory and almost dangerous feel to what he is doing. He forgets the damn words at one point, and then blunders along, calling out for help – “somebody!” – and then keeps going, totally unruffled by the error. This is who he was in Shreveport at his Louisiana Hayride shows, this is who he was in his live performances everywhere, this is who he was much later in Vegas. His shows were mayhem. He had a hard time getting down to business. He would make fun of entire songs. He would make up new lyrics.

His career is a continuum. There are those who see it as separate eras with giant breaks in between. The Army. The movies. I suppose I can see that but that is just the normal course of anyone’s life. You have the College Years, you have the Years of Working That Job, you have the Childbearing Years, whatever. Elvis’ life had an ebb and flow of events just like anybody else’s. But his core remained continuous. The way he expressed his talent was always the same. It developed and evolved, but there are more similarities than differences.

Here, singing “Love Me”, in what is a serious career-making moment, he keeps it together enough to get through the song, but he messes up, he makes a joke, he rolls his eyes, he makes fun of moments and then gets serious again, and then suddenly, at the end, he clutches his hair and does a giant staggering step backwards, and it’s a phenomenal performance.

Sullivan returns to the stage after Elvis takes his bow and leaves the stage, and Sullivan says, through the remaining screaming, “He’s gonna be right back again …And I want to thank all you youngsters, they made a promise that they wouldn’t yell during his songs, and you’re very very good –”

This one comment is all the permission the girls need to let it rip again, and there are screams and chaos ricocheting through the theatre.

Next up, Sullivan introduces the “great English comedienne Joyce Grenfeld”, and I have to admit: I do not get it. She is English and does a monologue where a portrait comes to life. I am not sure what is funny about it. I think what she is doing is being a British ambassador to the US, and making fun of British pretensions in order to please the Americans who kicked off the British yoke in 1776. Maybe that’s the appeal. But I just don’t understand the ‘act’. I can look at Senor Wences and say, “Well. I totally understand what I am looking at. There is a ventriloquist with a talking head in a box. Yup. That’s a genre I get.” But Joyce Grenfeld? It’s opaque.

Following her act, Ed Sullivan has her teach the US audience how to curtsey and she makes some self-deprecating (I suppose) jokes about how it’s just a rumor that all British people know how to curtsey, and she was a big galumphy girl in school, and blah blah, she then does an elegant curtsey.

Get off the stage, lady.

Sullivan then introduces the cast of the current Broadway hit Most Happy Fella. He tells the whole plot for the audience, a sweet contrivance that is common to Sullivan, but has disappeared from the world of talk shows. He wants to provide context for his audience. He does. There are a couple of scenes. It’s an extensive part of the show. There are a couple of duets, some dialogue, and then a giant production number.

After Most Happy Fella, Sullivan comes back on and I found this monologue so charming, part of a world that has gone forever. He makes America seem like a small town.

“For those of you out of town just address your orders to the box office – The Most Happy Fella, Imperial Theatre, New York City and tell them what time you’re coming up, you’ll have your tickets….”

It is wonderful that people can pay with credit cards for things, and buy tickets online over the Internet. But God, to live in a world where you address a letter to the box office, “telling them what time you’re coming up” and requesting some tickets, and then having the tickets be there? I want to live in that world.

Sullivan then says, “For those of you who tuned in ate, Elvis Presley is about to appear to sing ‘Hound Dog’–” (the number that caused so much trouble on the Milton Berle show) “But first remember: just two weeks from now you’re going to see the most advanced automobile of the year … in just two weeks you’re going to see the greatest Mercury ever built …”

The new Mercury. Coming out November 12th at your Mercury dealers!

Following the car commercial, Sullivan comes out and says, “And now ladies and gentlemen …” – and then he looks right up to the balcony, and says gently, reassuringly, “Yes, that’s right – Elvis Presley.”

Elvis comes out again, and he seems gangly and awkward, smiling, looking randomly around and up and down, the way he always did. Taking it all in. Screams are erupting like an unstoppable wave. He hasn’t even done anything yet.

For the third time, he cups his hands over his eyes and peers out at the audience. It’s compulsive. We’re in this together. I’m up here, you’re out there, but we’re together.

The audience is really getting out of hand. You can feel the event careening out of control. Elvis handles it. He speaks.

“Ladies and gentlemen, could I have your attention please. I’d like to tell you that we’re gonna do a sad song for you. This song here is one of the saddest songs we’ve ever heard. It really tells a story, friends. Beautiful lyrics … it goes something like this.”

These are words he always used to introduce “Houng Dog”, or words to that effect. Sometimes he would say, “As a great philosopher once said …” and then launch into the song. He liked the incongruity, the nonsensical quality of it. Hound Dog is not a great philosophical song. Hound Dog does not have “beautiful lyrics”. He knows that. It’s a joke. It’s setting up the audience. Elvis is doing the “ba-dum” part of the joke, and the opening chords of the song is the “ching”. It clearly tickled him because he introduced the song that way for 20 years.

After the introduction, Elvis plays a dramatic chord. Then he waits. He is in charge of everything going on. The song won’t start until he says it will start. You can feel the Jordannaires behind him, staring at him intently, waiting for their moment. They don’t jump the gun. They know Elvis is the one to get them going. But still: to behave this way on a national television program …

No other act on the show did, like, three false starts just to work the audience into a frenzy. But Elvis did.

As he waits, following his dramatic chord, the audience starts screaming. Then, he does a giant dramatic gesture that has nothing to do with anything. The song hasn’t even started yet. The audience flips its ever-loving mind, and Elvis starts laughing. You can see the Jordannaires laughing in the background. I wonder if Sullivan, backstage, was having a quiet nervous breakdown, wondering how long these false starts were going to go on. Was Elvis ever going to start the song? And no matter what he did: pause, gesture, wait, whatever – the girls went nuts, adding time to this opening section. Elvis feels no rush to get started.

But finally he does get down to business.

After the song, Sullivan comes out again to shake Elvis’ hand.

Sullivan turns to the audience to start to say something and Elvis does a wild gyration, as a joke, and then stops himself, like, “No, I’m just kidding.” Elvis was aware of the criticism he had received for his behavior on the Milton Berle show singing the same song. That gyration is a direct reference to what everyone criticized him for, and although you don’t feel that he was toned down or emasculated the way he was on the Steve Allen show, that one joking gyration, quickly stopped by himself, was a way of acknowledging the elephant in the room. “Yeah, yeah, I know, everyone’s all freaked out when I do THIS, right?”

He doesn’t do it aggressively though, or angrily. It’s goofy. He’s taking the edge off the moment, for everyone.

Sullivan leaves the stage again, leaving it to Elvis.

The audience won’t let him speak. It is up to him to do something about it. He speaks over the screams, and things calm down somewhat, but not for long.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to tell you, friends…” The girls cannot contain themselves. One of them screams like a banshee from the balcony, overcome with her emotions. Elvis gives her, whoever she is, a stern look, and makes a gesture up at her, like, “Hey you, quiet down.”

Naturally, his direct acknowledgement of one single person in the audience causes total MANIA to erupt. (OMG, he looked at me, OMG he pointed at me, OMG, he knows who I am …) Elvis starts laughing, and then manages to finish his speech, which ends on a strangely touching and vulnerable moment, famous to hard-core Elvis watchers.

He is loved for moments like this.

“I’d like to tell you please, ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to tell you that on Thanksgiving day I think that our new picture is to be released and also we’ll be back with Mr. Ed Sullivan in January. I’d like to thank all the millions of wonderful people that are watching tonight, friends, and uh, and uh … ”

Oh God. Two “and uh”s. Par for the course with Elvis, but it is nervewracking when it comes up. He is gearing up to say something sincere. It takes him a second.

“I’d like to say this. Until we meet you again … may God bless you as He’s blessed me. Thank you very much.”

He has an odd effect over the course of the show. It is three segments but it feels like twenty. It feels like we have been introduced to a strange and complex creature, who also can speak from the heart suddenly and openly, with not a goofy face in sight. And all of it seems real. It is not as though Elvis’ clowning around is a put-on, or that his sincerity is a pose. Both are sincere. He moves easily from one to the other. He does not worry about segues. He just goes where he needs to go. Everything he did onstage was right.

The audience has a hard time letting Elvis go. Sullivan tries to introduce the next act, a circus act, and people are still screaming and crying out. They aren’t ready to move on. They have been altered by what they saw. They need more. Sullivan has to ask them to quiet down a couple of times. He actually has to admonish his own audience.

New times a-coming.

The circus act that follows is death-defying and totally awesome, but Elvis haunts the show. He has left an afterimage that lingers.

Did you think we were done with Elvis just because his segments were over? Oh, no. Ed Sullivan has packed the house. He then proceeds to introduce everyone who showed up, all of the people on Elvis’ team, powerful people, all sitting out there, almost like bodyguards around Elvis against the criticism. It’s incredible. Sullivan has a couple of asides, too, which shows how excited he was about all the hoopla. It can’t be overstated how important these shows were to turning the tide in Elvis’ favor.

First, Ed Sullivan introduces Robert Webb, the director of Love Me Tender and has him stand up and take a bow. Sullivan says – “Love Me Tender, in which Elvis Presley comes out as a very top star as an actor. I’d like you to meet Robert Webb. Come on, let’s have a hand for his director.”

“His director.” No name. “His.” This is a serious industry Hollywood moment.

Sullivan then went on to introduce “a very good friend of mine”, Earl Wilson, the New York Post columnist.

When Elvis died, Earl Wilson wrote a very moving column about his experiences with the man.

Sullivan is still not done with the Elvis Presley This Is Your Life Celebratory Moment. He talks directly to Robert Webb and Earl Wilson in a chummy tone:

“The great thing about this whole thing, Earl and Bob, is that not only this excitement about Elvis Presley present in our country, there’s a whole group of people down here from Canada where RCA Records has an enormous sale, and I’d like the disc jockeys from Ottawa to stand up and take a group bow.”

Dude had disc jockeys from Canada come down to load up the audience with Elvis supporters.

Sullivan closes with an announcement about the first annual convention of the winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor. He finishes with, “I’ve been asked by the Hungarian groups of our city to call your attention to the plight of the Hungarian people who have been putting out this magnificent fight against the Commies over there. If you contact Mrs. Thomas B Watson, she’ll tell you how to help them out. And now – good night, we’ll see you next Sunday night.”

I love that. You know, just write to Mrs. Watson. But … where, Ed? What’s the address? Just put her name on an envelope and pop it in the mail?

1956 was a violent and terrible year for Hungary. Elvis was involved in a couple of relief efforts, including a fundraising concert, which will become even more apparent in his final appearance on the show in early 1957.

Elvis may have been introduced to a national audience only 9 months before on the Dorsey Brothers show. But here, there is no more visible striving.

He has arrived.

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“Do I Terrify?”

Yes, Sylvia, you do, especially when I hear you read “Lady Lazarus.”

It’s Sylvia Plath’s birthday today.

Here’s a draft of “Stings,” written in the month of October, 1962, the productive (understatement) month when she wrote many of the poems that would make her name (posthumously).

original-draft-of-sylvia-plath_s-poem-e2809cstingse2809d

She worked at a literally insane pace, and the phenomenal part of it is that she did not just toss off drafts carelessly. She worked these poems, bringing each one through multiple drafts, paring down, re-writing, re-organizing. There is a myth that it was a burst of creativity, but that is a misunderstanding of what creativity is about. Creativity really means work. She had the impulse, the inspiration, and she also had the cool-headed eye of the editor, slashing out stuff that didn’t work. She only had a couple of months left to live. There’s a beautiful and strange irony of seeing the drafts of these poems written in white-hot fury, appearing on the pink stationary of the college that tried to turn her into a nice and socially acceptable young lady.

I am a lifelong fan. I’ve gone through many phases of fandom, and so it is more than being a fan. It’s being in a relationship.

Posted in On This Day, writers | Tagged | 2 Comments

On This Day: October 25, 1415: “We Few, We Happy Few.”

Today is the feast day of Saints Crispin and Crispinian, cobblers by trade (and patron saints thereof, although Vatican II nixed them from the calendar), fierce warriors of their faith, and martyred in 286. The Battle of Agincourt in 1415 happened on the Feast Day, a victory over the French, and, coincidentally (?) there are many other important and now-mythic battles that happened to occur on that particular day. The day has great meaning and resonance in English history. Other battles: Battle of Balaklava (the Charge of the Light Brigade – memorialized by Alfred Lord Tennyson), and the WWII battle of Leyte Gulf.

The Battle of Agincourt was commemorated, unforgettably, by Shakespeare, in Henry V, “Crispinian” here becomes “Crispian”, probably to honor the demands of iambic pentameter.

Without further ado, Henry V, Act IV, scene iii:

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the Feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a-tiptoe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day and live t’old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian”:
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry V (Act IV, scene iii)

Four film versions of this magnificent speech below:

1. Henry V, Kenneth Branagh, 1989
2. Henry V, Laurence Olivier, 1944
3. Renaissance Man, Penny Marshall, 1994
4. The Hollow Crown, Tom Hiddleston, 2013

The music in the Kenneth Branagh version is brilliant. You might think it is unnecessary, the speech itself is so rousing, but they work together. Watch how he builds it. It’s symphonic.

And regards the Olivier version: I remember my acting teacher in college talking about how Olivier did this speech, especially his last vocal choice, when he says the word ‘day’ and catapults his voice up and up and up the scale. It is completely fearless and specific. It shows an actor utilizing his magnificent vocal instrument. It is inherently artificial. In the play, the King is also an “actor” at that moment, performing for his men, and he needs to make a speech in a manner that will inspire his followers. The whole thing is artificial in its setup, and it takes a bit of speechifying to get the job done. Olivier knew this. In this moment, the King IS an actor. Nobody could pull off a vocal stunt like that except Olivier. And when I say “nobody”, I actually mean nobody.

Then we have the version of the speech done in a tough Bronx accent in the 1994 film Renaissance Man, on a hopeless rainy night. Have the boys been learning anything? Has the project been at all worth while? In this moment, out flows the text, unexpected and spontaneous. It’s a terrific moment, and speaks to the power of the famous monologue, its universality, its power to bond men together (it would work before going into battle, it would work before a playoff game). The monologue speaks to something: it speaks to the universal story of a group of people who need to become one in order to complete a task, a group facing insurmountable odds and needing one another to get through it … and also it speaks to the perhaps doomed hope that even if you do fail, what you do, in this particular moment, will be remembered in future generations. What you do is important, regardless of the ultimate outcome. What matters is the honor of your intent. These things are passed on. These collective memories make the human race stronger. Don’t you want to be a part of such a moment?

Watch how the monologue unfolds in the clip below (the speech starts at around the 4 minute mark). It’s strangely moving, and, in its way, just as powerful as the other two clips.

Hiddleston finds an intimacy in his performance, as though he is speaking to well-known men, friends, comrades, a small group, men he knows well, men who look to him to lead them. He is both kingly and friendly, inspiring and quiet. No need to shout. They are all with him already. (He’s such a good actor.)

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R.I.P. Alfred Wertheimer

fotografias-elvis-presley-exposicion-05
Elvis.

R.I.P. to the great photographer Alfred Wertheimer, known mainly for the extraordinary series (weak word, there are over 3,800 photos) of photos he took of Elvis Presley during the spring and summer of 1956, right before, and just as, the national fame broke over Presley’s head.

Already a regional phenomenon, Elvis was starting to appear on national television shows in the spring of 1956, and would appear on the Ed Sullivan Show in September, which was the real Moment, if you will. But it was starting. The groundswell was building. Wertheimer did not know who Elvis was, had no investment in the new music coming out of the South, but Elvis was up in New York to appear on the Steve Allen Show, and was also about to record a couple of songs at the RCA studio in New York, and Wertheimer was sent to “cover” it as an assignment. What he found was a young man who was so open to the camera, so accessible, that Wertheimer couldn’t believe his luck. 50 years later, he still spoke of Elvis being the best “subject” he ever had. Not before and not after were photos of this nature taken of Elvis. The Colonel, who was just beginning his reign as Elvis’ manager, limited press access to the point that Elvis was rarely interviewed, never appeared on talk shows as a guest, and when the White House contacted Colonel Parker, saying that President Nixon had requested that Elvis come perform at the White House, the Colonel said sure, that would be great, and $25,000 was “our” asking price for such an appearance. The White House contact spluttered – “Colonel Parker, nobody gets paid for playing for the President!” Colonel Parker replied, “Well, I don’t know about that, son, but there’s one thing I do know. Nobody asks Elvis Presley to play for nothing.”

Alfred Wertheimer “got in” with Elvis before the Colonel’s press crackdown. Wertheimer was only supposed to follow Elvis around for his time in New York, but he found himself so captivated by Elvis that he followed him down to Richmond, via train, where Elvis had a concert, and then back up to New York, and then, even better, down to Memphis, where Wertheimer spent a couple of days at the Presley’s brand new home on Audobon Drive.

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Elvis on the train, listening to records.

Alfred Wertheimer took the photo that has been my banner for a couple of years now. That’s Elvis and his date backstage at the Mosque Theatre in Richmond. There are more where that came from, the two of them canoodling in the stairwell. It’s not that they were oblivious to the camera. It’s that there was a blend of privacy and exhibitionism in Elvis that made him such a compelling subject. He was both self-aware and unselfconscious. He allowed Wertheimer to follow him into the bathroom, take pictures of him shaving, brushing his teeth. There are photos of Elvis fallen asleep in a pile of fan mail. The only time Elvis balked was when he was going to zip up his fly while getting dressed, and he said to Wertheimer, “Don’t take a picture of that.” Wertheimer didn’t.

Wertheimer’s photos were collected in a gigantic coffee table book that I can’t recommend highly enough: Elvis (One on One). It’s Elvis as he was never seen again. Many of the photos did not emerge until after Elvis’ death.

The photos have been traveling the world in an exhibition from the Smithsonian called “Elvis at 21.” I drove down to Richmond to follow in Elvis’ footsteps, and to also see the exhibit at the museum there. It is well worth seeking out.

You can go check out a ton of Alfred Wertheimer photos on my Elvis Tumblr.

Wertheimer will be sorely missed, especially to Elvis fans, who will be grateful forever for his sensitivity towards this new young sensation with the greasy ducktail and the white bucks. Many mocked Elvis around this time. He was treated as a menace to society. He was pilloried for his seductive movements, called “vulgar.” Wertheimer saw that part of Elvis, saw the chaotic and exhilarating performance he gave in Memphis, and saw everything else: his gentleness with fans who approached him, his self-assuredness when being looked at (as though he knew it was his due, as though he quietly knew that being looked at like this and photographed like this was normal for him), his raucous laughter, his strange remote isolation from all of the mayhem around him.

I mean, look. Just look at this photograph.

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Elvis in his bunk on the train.

Some of my favorites below.

10 July 2, 1956 RCA Victor Studio 1 New York. This one was during the recording of 'Hound Dog.'
Elvis recording “Hound Dog” at RCA in New York. More Wertheimer photos of that grueling (and historic) session here.

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Elvis kissing his mother. You can’t see it, but she’s handing him a pair of underwear. White briefs. Think about what that would look like – today or any day. A young rock star with his mother ironing his underwear for him. Elvis was unembarrassed.

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Elvis crashed at the Warwick Hotel in New York, surrounded by fan mail.

Elvis On The Train Home
Elvis horsing around on the train with a new friend.

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My favorite of the bunch. Elvis back in Memphis in the new house he bought for himself and his parents, the first house they owned. One of his high school girlfriends had stopped by to say Hi. Look at Elvis, sitting there with no shirt on. Later, he tries to dance with her, and she is clearly embarrassed because, duh, it’s 1956, and he has no shirt on.

Elvis at the Warwick Hotel, NYC March 17, 1956
It took Elvis half an hour to get his hair right. This is at the Warwick Hotel.

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Elvis performing at Russwood Park in Memphis on July 4, 1956. Wertheimer calls this photo ‘the flash.” He took so many photos of that concert, all of them thrilling, but this one was the gem because of that accidental flash from the back – which made it look – in retrospect – like Elvis’ fame exploding in literal form.

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Elvis and his date (the same girl he’s tonguing up in the banner) at the coffee shop in the hotel in Richmond. He’s going over his script for the “Steve Allen Show.”

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Before the show in Richmond, he and his band members rehearse in the bathroom and the fans outside are so loud the boys can’t hear themselves at all.

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Elvis had a pool dug behind his house in Memphis but it hadn’t been filled in yet when Wertheimer visited. Elvis had pulled a garden hose over to the side and was filling the pool that way. So there are all these crazy fun shots of Elvis cavorting in a half-filled pool with his cousins. Elvis’ mom let Wertheimer borrow a pair of swimming trunks, and, worried about his camera, Wertheimer got in there anyway.

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I mean ….

RIP, sir.

And thank you.

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2014 Gotham Independent Film Award Nominations

The nominations for the 24th annual Gotham Independent Film Awards have been announced. Boyhood, not surprisingly, appears in many categories.

I was on the nominating panel (along with A.A. Dowd, Sam Adams, Ronnie Scheib, and Stephen Witty), for the category of Best Breakthrough Performance. Out of 40-something movies, we had to narrow it down to only 6 nominees! (And this is why October has been the busiest month of the year for me, thus far.)

But what a pleasure: so many good performances!

You can check out the full list of nominations for the Gothams over at Indiewire.

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The Heart Machine (2014)

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The Heart Machine is a debut feature by writer-director Zachary Wigon, and features a really unnerving performance from John Gallagher, Jr., whom I admired so much in Short Term 12. He’s fantastic.

My review of The Heart Machine is now up at The Dissolve.

For those who don’t mind spoilers, or who have already seen it, I wrote another small piece for The Dissolve where I discuss the “reveal” in the film.

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