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End of January Blog

End of January Blog


The American Broadway Musical vs. Hollywood. This one is inspired by my watching, over the past few months, a PBS hour-long special on the American Musical Theater, and also encountering by chance the movie versions of some of those great musicals as they appear on odd channels of my TV. And by remembering back to the musicals I’ve seen over the decades on stage and in films. In a previous blog (the “New Year’s Blog” for the end of 2012) I wrote about my early fondness for the musical comedies of Victor Herbert, Sigmund Romberg, and Jerome Kern. Few of these were made into films, at least memorable films--Kern’s “Showboat” was made twice, but that’s a special case. (The earlier, 1936 version features singing by Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan, which makes it, for me, the “true” version.)

Beginning with the 1949 Rogers and Hammerstein “South Pacific,” the best of the Broadway musicals were mostly made into films.  But--and here is the core of my complaint--the great gap, geographical and cultural and financial, between Broadway and Hollywood meant that we too often failed to get original-cast movies of the great ones.  (Original-cast recordings we have, but that’s not remotely the same.) The great operatic baritone Ezio Pinza (whom I remember well as Don Giovanni) famously sang opposite Mary Martin in the 1949  Broadway “South Pacific,” but when a Hollywood studio bought the rights to it, they chose to cast Rossano Brazzi (augh--fine actor, bad singer) in place of Pinza, and Mitzi Gaynor instead of Mary Martin. Similarly for the 1959 Lerner and Loewe “Camelot”: to see and hear Richard Burton standing on stage and speaking/singing the title song was memorable and moving in a way that those of us (West-coasters) who didn’t see the original will never know, except through reports and the recording. By the time it reached the film, it was Richard Harris, a big drop downward.

A fine singer-actor who has lost out several times is Julie Andrews. Yes, we have her “Mary Poppins” (which my daughter Sarah saw 8-1/2 times, mostly with her father sitting beside her--push the button and I can still say That Word, or sing most of the songs) and “The Sound of Music,” in both of which Andrews is terrific. But when Hollywood got around to making a film of “My Fair Lady,” in the original Broadway production of which Julie Andrews had been Eliza Doolittle--she wasn’t a big enough “name,” and in went Audrey Hepburn. (No one admires Hepburn more than myself, but…) So we miss having the performance that Julie Andrews gave on Broadway.  (If you want to hear the greatest Eliza Doolittle ever, in the original ”Pygmalion” play without music, watch the old film of that with Wendy Hiller--the transformation of her speech under the tutelage of Leslie Howard as Henry Higgins is one of the supreme verbal triumphs ever captured on film. This is, moreover, the original version authorized by the playwright, George Bernard Shaw.)

Think of the great films we might have if Hollywood had been closer to Broadway. Kurt Weill’s “Knickerbocker Holiday” with Walter Huston singing “September Song.” The Gershwins’ “Of Thee I Sing” with the original cast. “Porgy and Bess” with Todd Duncan and Ann Brown. (I saw and heard them in an S.F. production of it.) Frank Loesser’s great “Guys and Dolls,” one of the masterworks of the American musical, comes through mostly OK, with Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin. But then they needed a big “star,” and there is Marlon Brando trying to talk and sing like a Damon Runyon gangster and act like one, and looking and sounding terribly out of place and pulling down, for me, the whole production.

I have the impression--as a non-specialist--that the stage and the film come together better in England, where the London theater, the BBC, and the film industry work more easily together, and we have such triumphs as the great Olivier Shakespeare performances. The Shaw plays are made into films that follow the scripts closely, and star major actors. The Angry Young Men plays and novels of the 1960s are turned into films without bad distortion. A fine short story by one of them becomes a fine movie: “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” with Tom Courtenay and Michael Redgrave. (How I would love to see again “A Taste of Honey” with Rita Tushingham!) And so forth. A different economic basis for the arts, with stronger government support through the BBC etc.? I suppose some difference of that kind lies behind it.

Double Negatives

In conveying to people these days, in speech or written messages, why I can’t locate a certain old document or file, I often find myself talking or writing about the wrapped boxes of files etc. that were shipped from my old study in Vancouver and still sit in piles on the floor in the adjoining room, not unpacked. And in talking or writing about them I begin by thinking: “unpacked boxes,” and then think: “No, that’s not right, it’s un-unpacked boxes.” But we don’t say or write that, too awkward, so: Not yet unpacked boxes. But there must be a shorter way to say it or write it?  This raises the big question of constructions in English involving double negatives. Some are well established and emerge easily, ones like “not without consequences” or “didn’t go unnoticed.” Others still sound awkward, such as “still not unpacked boxes.”  (Later report: my helper Katie and I unpacked most of them today, and distributed the contents to appropriate places, so that most of them are no longer un-un--uh, I mean Not yet un--Well, you know what I mean.)

A related matter: the new prevalence of “both --- as well as ---.” I still wince inwardly when I read it, although it’s become so common that we oldsters should just accept it, as we accepted the once-wrong usage of “hopefully” and others that we used to red-pencil in students’ papers. (I used to imagine myself responding, when the airline stewardess said “We will land momentarily in New York,” by saying: No, I don’t want to land momentarily--that means we will be taking off again almost immediately--I want to stay there.)

And I used to write this in the margins:

OK: Both A and B

OK: A as well as B

Not OK, wrong, tautological: Both A as well as B.

But then I gave up. These are all lost causes, based in memories of another age when popular songs had singable tunes and intelligent, sometimes poetic lyrics, and when other standards of English prose style prevailed. I’ve brought down some old books from my upstairs library and have been browsing in them, books by Hilaire Belloc, Max Beerbohm, Kenneth Grahame and others. Read ‘em and weep.

The Lateness of European Culture


Reading Stephen Greenblatt’s new book “Swerve,” about the re-discovery of Lucretius’s poem De rerum naturum and its profound effect on later European culture, I find myself thinking, often: How late these Europeans were in arriving at basic truths and discoveries! Gutenberg? for China, he’s a Ming person, late in their history of printing. And there they are still writing on parchment, thin animal  hides, etc. long after paper has been developed into a major craft in itself in China.  A book printed before the beginning of the sixteenth century in Europe is classified as “incunabula” and treated as a rare treasure. I have in my library upstairs a number of late Ming books, original editions of the classical writings on painting etc., bought in Japan long ago--there may well be one or another among them that would be “incunabula” in Europe. I am reminded of the story (which I told once in a banquet talk in China--see CLP 196 on this website) about how Yuan Shih-k’ai, when he was president of China and visited the U.S., was taken to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell, the symbol of our founding, and he gazed at it and said: “Hm, Qianlong!”  A put-down for China, although not intended as that. Needham’s Question Revisited.”

The third lecture in our series for the U.C. Berkeley Retirement Center (I gave the first, two weeks ago, and David Johnson the second, last week) will be by Eugene Wong, Emeritus Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and titled The Tradition of Science and Technology of China: Needham’s Question Revisited.”  Needham’s Question is, of course, the one about: Why did China, after being far ahead of the rest of the world for some centuries in technological progress and invention, decide collectively (it would seem) early in the Ming not to go any further? We’ll see what Wong proposes. David Johnson used to have a lecture titled “Why China Didn’t Invent the Steam Engine, “ and I have used this as one of my examples of practices that China originates, develops to a very high point, and then--as if by some grand collective decision--decides to stop doing. And I have often enough followed up this account of the Needham Problem with the obvious observation: Looking at the world today and the factors that threaten the very continuity of human civilization--global warming, pollution of air and land and sea, the extinction of so many species, all the rest--we might well consider the Chinese to have been wise to stop when they did. And that can serve as our final observation for today, one that is profoundly true and will lead, if one continues thinking in that direction, to some deeply disturbing thoughts.

Leaving you to pursue those on your own, unassisted, I remain

James Cahill , Jan. 27th, 2013.


Add-on, Next Day:

Nicholas Cahill in a Sardis Excavation

I can’t really close this without adding a Happy Birthday wish to my great son Nicholas, who was born on this day, I won’t say how many years ago.  (This was the holiest day of the year for the Kiyoshi Kôjin, the temple near Takarazuka where we used to spend so much time, and they always made this into an auspicious connection, more than coincidence.) Nick is a professor of Ancient and Medieval Art and Archaeology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, but is right now at Sardis in central Turkey with his wife Kay and three of their five daughters. Recently one of these daughters, his wife Kay, Sarah and I have been reminiscing on Facebook and elsewhere about how, as a boy, Nick would be captured for long periods by some obsession: he was, for instance (after I read him a children’s “Moby Dick”), Queequeg the harpooner for weeks, and I built him a whaling ship in the backyard (out of old lumber and doors etc. from the basement) so he could stand on the deck and harpoon whales; we read about a mermaid in “Father Bear Comes Home” (one of the  “Little Bear” books by Elsie Minarik with pictures by Maurice Sendak), and for weeks he was a mermaid, wearing a tail of green colored and sequined cloth made for him by my mother, elastic at the waits and ankles; he could never watch the underseas TV program without having his scuba-diving mask on. And so forth. My point in recounting these is to observe, as I have in the reminiscences, that this trait of character has carried over into his later life: when he sets his mind to something and commits himself to it, he doesn’t quickly let go or give up. For a dissertation project he spent two years at his MacIntosh computer feeding in a huge amount of information from eight thick volumes (never published) of excavation reports on the dig at Sardis, the most completely excavated of Greek cities, making this huge program searchable by many criteria; and the book he published, based on his dissertation, was properly hailed as the first example of using computer technology in this way for analysis of archaeological data. As director of Project Perseus for a time Nick worked on making the information and images of archaeology accessible to everybody. He has accomplished a lot in many seasons at Sardis, the directorship of which he took on with the recent death of Crawford Greenwalt, and he has devoted his sabbatical year to digging there, with results still to be revealed and published.  I wish him, with lots of fatherly love, a great 2013, with intact and richly-furnished early tombs down there waiting for him to find them!

Best again, James Cahill (now also, proudly, Dad.)

My Three Sons: Benedict, Nicholas, and Julian at Sardis


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