The Vestigial: It Seems Past – But Remains & Misleads

I’d like to note some minor irritations. Few lead as voyeuristic a life as I do, often using pop culture as a gauge to my reality. I know that betokens superficiality. Well, so be it. I’ve wasted much life in front of television sets and reading murder mysteries. And Humphrey Bogart’s image moved through that life.

So I followed ALDaily’s link to an LRB review of Stefan Kanfer’s Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart. Apparently, for Jenny Diski, as for many of us, Humphrey Bogart was bigger than life. He died before I became a teen, but his old movies reran constantly on fifties’ television; when I started college, French directors, as Diski notes, led us back to him. I watched many yet again at Chicago’s Clark in the late sixties. Bogart merged with the heroes of hard boiled thrillers and then Camus as we started to take our intellectual lives more seriously.

Those movies, bigger than life, remain true in many ways. But that world tended, like the news of the eighties, to be partial. And part of me kept back. Growing up in fly-over territory and being patronized did that. Knowing Cuban, Latvian and Czech refugees did, too. In the Platte Valley, a respect for internationalism was interwoven with my parents’ strong allegiance to American exceptionalism. Rebellious and irritating as daughter, I never doubted my parents’ vision. It wasn’t that that drove me crazy.

So, I immersed myself in and enjoyed one world – The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books were joys, NPR’s morning and evening themes were welcomed. But I retained a sense of another place, another culture. Pat Schroeder’s willingness to destroy reputations after Tail Hook bothered me. I’d known male predators and Clarence Thomas in no way resembled them. Nina Totenberg lost credibility – as plagiarist, as victim of harassment, as objective reporter. And, then, Clinton looked into the camera and lied. Lying is human nature. But I don’t like it. And allegiance to “the women’s rights movement” disappeared when those who condemned Thomas cheered Clinton and Teddy Kennedy. Then came 9/11. This is a long way around, perhaps, but I wanted to try to explain why some of us were immersed in a world that referred to the Red Scare as an immense evil and we didn’t argue. We knew better. But no one wanted to defend McCarthy and our sympathies were stretched & theoretical when it came to the gulags. They wouldn’t touch the strongest, most luxurious, most free nation – we felt secure. And, we lived in a fog.

Reading Diski, though, I had a moment of irritation at myself as well as at her. Her experience was not exactly mine. She sees Casablanca as an example of nostalgia but I’ve always seen it as fitting well in 1943. Kanfer’s is perhaps more so. I, too, am constantly surprised by what passes for a leading man in modern movies – indeed, what passes for a man. Mark Harmon, now there’s a man. The small screen seems to me to “grow” men in a way that few modern movies do. But, fun as this kind of talk can be, that isn’t where I want to direct our attention – though it shows how distracting pop culture can be. Here is a paragraph that bothers her from Kanfer:

To be sure, if Humphrey and other First Amendment Committee members, and the studio heads, and the principal Wall Street investors in those studios had stood together in opposition to the so-called Inquisition in Eden, there might have been a chance to save the industry from the predators. That coalition never developed, however, and it is folly to assume that Humphrey Bogart should have sacrificed his reputation, standing mutely and obediently by as the Nineteen manipulated him for their own purposes.

Bogart took a stand – in many ways attractive, in many ways naïve. Diski quotes Kanfer (quoting Alistair Cooke – this is a pop culture rave, not scholarship): “Bogart was aghast to discover [that many of the protestors] were down-the-line communists coolly exploiting the protection of the First and Fifth amendments to the Constitution. He had thought they were just freewheeling anarchists like himself.” Diski observes that that was where he differed from a character such as Harry Morgan, who would never have been “aghast” and that his later Photoplay article “I’m No Communist” tells us much that is not good about the period and the man. But why was such repulsion on his part wrong – should he have found that dishonesty attractive? She observes, “What is very strange is that Kanfer shrugs off one of the darkest and most disturbing episodes in American history.” She implies that Bogart blinked, but did he or does she today?

With historical perspective, the stranger attitude might be that that time of carefully vetted scripts, of dishonesty with one another and before those committees, of subtle and not so subtle propaganda was dark in a way (post Venona for instance) we now understand. A sense of the truth – who was using it and who abusing it – appears to be understood better by Bogart then than Diski now. It is no defense of McCarthy to note many lied and continued to lie, even while setting hounds on Elia Kazan until he died. And Hollywood, given to the grandiose gesture and inflated ego, argued they were for the “little people” with a narcissism that bleeds into hubris. This hubris, of course, undercuts the universalization and internalization, intrinsic to the beliefs that define the American experience. Our founders were more humble – a humility hard to find in those that mock them for the more particular characteristics then of their class and now of their race & sex. (Sentimentality may appear as sympathy, but it isn’t. And, indeed, it is often patronizing.)

And Diski, well, that’s the norm. Nora Ephron’s work is light, but who am I to belittle that? I may prefer the lightness of a different genre, but light has its virtues. And Ephron entertains. A few months ago, one of my husband’s colleagues, distressed at my cavalier dismissal of McCarthyism (in his world, that may well signal the loss of my soul), recommended Julie and Julia. That charming movie, he said, demonstrates how deeply McCarthyism reached into America: someone as benign as Paul Child was suspect. I dvred it and was not sorry. Julia Child was also larger than life – full of adventure and zest, as cook and as spy. And Julie – well, she too is beguiling. The movie demonstrates, as a friend observed, that the good-humored way to a man’s heart is through his stomach – two happy couples. Cooking and eating together – Child might be of more aid to marriage counselors than Freud.

Yes, Paul was hauled back to America for an ugly interrogation. We sympathize. How could we not? But I also dvred Jennet Conant on C-Span. Her talk, A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS

Conant argues Foster’s disaffection after the war had to do with the way the American state department treated post-war Asia (and accepted our Allies’ mistreatment of these countries). Still, Haynes and Klehr note that the Venona documents place her as a Party member and conduit of information from the Dutch bureau in 1942 and 1943.

The Childs’ affection for this vivacious young woman, who served as a model for Julia as she broke through the shell of her conventional past and attracted Paul, was understandable and real. That they were not implicated but were accused is quite likely true as well. Nonetheless, such suspicion was not the result of McCarthyism run amuck. Her presence would have altered the focus the movie has on Julia as wife and as cook; it complicates if not undercuts the central love story. Aesthetically such editing was probably a wise choice. But it also, conveniently, slants the “witchhunt” in much simpler terms: ones our friend too easily accepted as ‘truth.” And it is not surprising that the daughter of two screenwriters, the wife of Carl Bernstein, would prefer history (and thus Hollywood) was seen as victim rather than enforcer.

These moments in pop culture seem distant from an acceptance of the science of Lysenko and the killing fields of Pol Pot and the Cultural Revolution of Mao. But it isn’t just the hundred million or so dead. It is life as well. One of my friends, an avid bridge player, noted that Stalin outlawed bridge. Ignoring that vision – the politicization on a scale we can’t imagine – accepts with insufficient sympathy wasted lives and minds, but may also lead to such policies here. That these unquestioned assumptions softened us for weak arguments has slowly come home to me.

Ignoring evil, real evil, leads to disproportion. Our inheritance is in danger. That, as much as the money gone that may bankrupt our country and burden our children, has been squandered. To appreciate the gift we have to understand the importance of universalization – the belief that all men possess inalienable rights, given by God, and intrinsic in our nature. We have to accept the freedom and burden of internalization – responsibility is a matter of guilt and not shame, of individual choice and not the pressures of others or of our society.

This summer I will try to make arguments that these values can be best preached in and absorbed by entering the wolds of the great English realists with their mundane communities in which individual choice looms large even when the choices themselves are small. And these values are argued and explained and considered in our own great and greatly self-conscious literature of that period.

13 thoughts on “The Vestigial: It Seems Past – But Remains & Misleads”

  1. I tend to see things as concrete many times. A friend of mine was Bogart’s doctor. Maynard Brandsma was a fighter pilot in the Dutch air force during World War II and then had Bogart get the esophagram that found the cancer that killed him. Another friend, Burt Meyers did the surgery and said he would never operate on another cancer of the esophagus because the one that killed Bogart was the smallest he had ever seen. When Bogart was in the hospital, his cough was so bad that he would cough the water out of the bottle attached to his chest tube but he didn’t complain. He took his lousy luck like a man. At his funeral, he had a scale model of his sailboat, Santana, take the place of the casket. Santana is still sailing and he would be pleased at that. My son sailed on her after the latest restoration.

    A classmate of mine did the pre-op physical on John Wayne before his surgery for cancer of the lung. Again, he was unperturbed by the hand life had dealt him and survived that only to die years later of cancer of the stomach.

    I don’t see those men in movies anymore. Sorry but I watch classics on my TV.

  2. Thanks Michael – it is nice to hear that someone we always thought of as so iconic was. It is touching when the heroism we saw portrayed on the screen – that became a model for so many of us in so many ways – had another, real dimension. And your stories here, as with your history essays, bring a roundedness I’m really enjoying. I loved Bogart; Wayne not so much. But last night we watched The Horse Soldiers; I’m not sure if I’ve learned to love Wayne or John Ford. But the beauty of those horses weaving through the water, the economy of the preparation for battle, and Wayne’s quiet mastery – that was art.

    My point, of course, was I fear emphasizing martyrs to McCarthyism has made us, in the 21st century, less resistant to the 20th century plague which remains virulent and may, if given a chance, appear here.

    I went back to try to make it clearer. Bogart apparently was irreverent; he thought others were, too. Anarchic was the word Kanfer used. He appears honest himself; he assumed others were. Communism was not illegal; the level of its subversive nature, however, was implied by the depth of denials. He seemed to come to understand; Diski not so much. Those who lied to their friends, who pretended to be what they weren’t – they were the manipulators, the bullies. Those were people who, in choosing between their friends and their ideology, chose their ideology. And even today, that is not how blame is apportioned nor is this what Diski allows herself to think through. She would rather criticize Kanfer and imply Bogart merely lent his name, the Photoplay article merely a pubicist’s idea. Why should we assume that he was false, not noting he may have valued integrity more than those who lied to the committee, their friends, and continued to do so until, long dead, Soviet records made their confessions?

  3. in general, the less i know about an actor’s personal life, the better i am able to enjoy their work.

  4. Bogart’s personal life was a big part of his image at the time he was making movies. It wasn’t just in movie magazines. I think a lot of male actors at the time felt it necessary to get away from the set and do male things like hunting and riding or sailing. Sterling Hayden wrote a book about it. There was a lot alcoholism for similar reasons. The straight actors felt it unmanly to be having makeup put on and their hair being done and the other things that go with acting, especially in movies. I think it was less of an issue for stage actors.

    Gay actors had less of a problem with all the stuff that they had to go through, or at least it seems so. Maybe that has something to do with all the gays in the business. Nowadays, the movie producers have to go out of the country to find masculine male actors like Russell Crowe. Schwartzenegger is a similar case although he was an immigrant.

    Anyway, the personal life may be less of an issue now because social standards have changed. Having a child out of wedlock ended Ingrid Bergman’s career. Now, it is the standard.

  5. I did find it ironic when, in her article, Dist referred to “what can happen to democracy when it is highjacked by ideological thugs”.

    I guess she wasn’t talking about under-informed MSM hacks and useful idiots; not to mention actual conscious fellow travelers. The MSM portrayal of McCarthyism was and is that influential people were persecuted unjustly…end of story. Personally, I wonder if the HUAC didn’t retard the general social drift we’re in by one or two decades.

    You’re quite right Ginny, the guarantee of personal liberty, not the guarantee of personal safety or comfort tends toward stronger people. Hemmingway’s Harry Morgan, that extreme free-marketeer, reaps the rewards and pays the prices, all the while trying to be free and live up to his code. Most of the well-known parts that Bogart played shared these characteristics (sometimes to unpleasant extremes) and that’s why we enjoy them so much.

  6. “Harry Morgan” Is that “Henry Morgan?” The first is the Dragnet and MASH actor; the second the comedienne and game-show regular. I recall Henry Morgan had some communist relatives.

  7. Hero of Hemingway novel turned into movie (with Faulkner as one of the writers) starring Bogart, introducing Bacall: To Have and Have Not.

  8. The other Bogart/ Bacall movie I really like is “The Big Sleep.” The plot makes almost no sense and Howard Hawks later told Peter Bogdanevich that they made the script up every day and didn’t try to make it make sense. The basic plot issue is about pornography which, of course, they could not mention although anybody with sense would see that was it. The rest of it was just random subplots but it moves along so fast that you don’t notice. “To Have and Have Not” was somewhat similar. It was put together from Hemingway short stories and such. One aspect of Bogart’s small size. Walter Brennan was very tall. He was as tall as John Wayne but you don’t notice in To Have and Have Not.

    So many actors were short that the few who were tall, like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, had great action careers. I always wondered why Jim Arness didn’t have a bigger career, His brother (Peter Graves) had more movie credits. Maybe Arness liked TV better.

  9. Ginny – that seen in Julie and Julia (a completely charming film) stood out for me, too. I like Nora Ephron. She’s reponsible for many of my favorite late 80s-90s romantic comedies – before they became all Jud Apatow-ed and lost the sweetness that linked them to the earlier age of American cinema.

    I suppose a way to handle it would be to do just what you did – include the scene, include the Childs hurt, but make some mention of the larger context and the fact that influence agents existed.

    Lovely, ruminative style to your post, as always.

    – Madhu

  10. BTW – you can still look up the blog that the film is based on. It seems very strange to look at it, but there it is….

    – Madhu

  11. MK,

    I was just kidding about The Big Sleep being about narcotics; it pretty much has every kind of bad behaviour in it :) The narcotics use was really only implied, as was the homosexuality. The pornographic elements of the plot were more clearly portrayed, making them seem more significant than the other stuff.

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