I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the fifth.
2— On Moonlight Bay as Time Machine
A small Midwestern town in 1916, possibly in June. Behind a succession of pink and green credits that they will never see, acknowledge, or understand—a list of names and functions that fasten themselves to a Warner Brothers release, On Moonlight Bay , dated 1951—a family is seated in the dark parlor of a Booth Tarkington house, watching slides of themselves on a screen.
Taste it if you can: 1916. Tarkington’s Penrod and Sam, a sequel to his very popular Penrod, has either just appeared in hardcover or is about to. Germany has declared war on Portugal, Russia has invaded Persia, 8,636 English and German sailors have perished in a naval battle off Jutland, and Gordon MacRae—whom we hear with Doris Day singing the title tune over the credits, but haven’t yet seen—has just completed his junior year at the University of Indiana, and is deeply shaken by all this strife in Europe.
Meanwhile, Doris Day and her family are watching slides; like time travelers, they are revisiting and sharing past moments of themselves, perhaps even redefining them in the process. Doris and Gordon in a boat On Moonlight Bay; Doris dancing by herself around a snowman; her kid brother with other boys dressed as angels, singing Christmas carols; Gordon graduating from the University of Indiana. In point of fact, these slides are projections of the future, not the past, but we don’t know that yet. Each image is complete in itself, and each could appear to the family in a different order and still be the same. Through the act of watching them on a screen, behind a list of credits that we too are persuaded to ignore, we are asked to partake of the same experience. Their screen might as well be ours.
A small Southern town in the fall of 1951, early October for sure, about 3:15 P.M. More than an hour since school’s out, not long after Jonny’s entered third grade. Somewhere behind or beyond a slab of print on a page that he will never see, acknowledge, or understand (for if and when he does, he won’t be Jonny anymore), he is seated downstairs in the Shoals Theatre in Florence, Alabama, watching this family. He recognizes a father (Leon Ames), who is showing the slides, and a wife (Rosemary DeCamp), a daughter (Doris Day), and a son (Billy Gray), who are watching them.
Daddy (Stanley Rosenbaum) helps to run the Shoals Theatre, so in a way he too is showing Jonny something on a screen—but only in a way. He’s upstairs in his office now, and he could only just hear the movie if he walked through the middle office, went out into the hall, and stood at the head of the stairs, right next to the two successive doors leading into the balcony. The Shoals opened three years ago (the opening attraction was That Lady in Ermine ), and Jonny’s favorite part of this building is the secret doors that lead from the hall outside Bo’s office to the balcony, enabling him to slip into a movie without passing the candy counter downstairs. The Princess, only a block away, used to have a secret door too—leading from Bo and Daddy’s offices to the back of the downstairs auditorium—but the route was more direct, hence less secretive.
He knows that it’s a special privilege, just like the book of fairy tales that Miss Papageorge at Kilby Training School lets him read to himself while the others read aloud from Alice and Jerry (“Run, run, run”) because he learned to read before starting first grade—asking Mommy and Daddy what billboards said, getting lessons from Bo—and gets very bored waiting for others to struggle through simple sentences about a boy, a girl, and a dog. The truth of the matter is that he doesn’t like reading at all; even with the fairy tales he usually reads more than he understands. He’s much happier listening to Daddy read to him and his brothers on Surprise Night every Monday (when he isn’t working at the theaters) and he brings home some candy surprise to go with the stories he reads aloud. He reads them the Oz books, Mark Twain, Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Kober, Octavus Roy Cohen, Kaufman and Hart, Green Pastures , Lamb’s Tales , Booth Tarkington, books about Tom Sawyer and William Green Hill and Penrod, while they curl up on the heated floor on cushions from the four toyboxes under the picture window in the playroom. At the last of these readings, he told them that On Moonlight Bay is kind of based on Penrod, even though Penrod isn’t one of its leading stars.
Early October, 1951, the second or third of the month, Tuesday or Wednesday, the middle of the afternoon. Taste it if you can. Jonny’s already seen Doris Day in Young Man with a Horn and Lullaby of Broadway (with that funny Billy De Wolfe, whom he likes to call Billy the Wolf), and he’s seen her with Gordon MacRae in Tea for Two and The West Point Story . His favorite movies are musical comedies; the summer before last he saw Annie Get Your Gun five times, not only at the Shoals but across the river at the Colbert. He likes all kinds of movies except for the ugly and scary ones, like That Lady in Ermine and Freaks .
He saw Freaks at the Majestic with David and Alvin. Daddy had advised them not to go after telling them the story of the movie; he’d even written in the Florence Times, to everybody, “If you are impressionable or your nerves are weak, we don’t recommend it.” But Daddy was away at the theaters in Athens that day, and David and Jonny and Alvin were curious, so they went without telling Mommy. Jonny liked the midget and felt like and with him all the way through—his love for the trapeze lady, his pain when she secretly gave him poison. But when it got to the part at the end, where the freaks crawl after the trapeze lady with knives and turn her into another freak in revenge, he hid his eyes, then peeked between his fingers when he heard her cawing and saw her, scarred and waddling in the sawdust like a limbless duck, and he felt strange and bad for a long time afterward.
He knows that this movie won’t make him feel strange because they’re singing, which is happy and natural. And they’re looking at pictures in the dark, just like Jonny, and remembering earlier times, just as he is.
A Jewish boys’ camp in New England, July 31, 1953, where you’re staying with all of your brothers, a friend from Florence named David Darby, and three cousins from New York while Mommy and David Darby’s mother are counselors at a girls’ camp run by the same people a few miles away. Daddy’s in Alabama, working at the Shoals Theatre. You’re watching the Friday night movie, On Moonlight Bay , in a room with benches next to the mess hall, the same place where you and Alvin take tonette lessons from Felix in the afternoons. The movie’s free, just like the ones at home, but it’s not as much fun because it isn’t a theater and you can’t lean back in your seat. It’s not as dark yet as a theater either, and you hope that it will be before the movie’s over. You don’t see any of your brothers or cousins around, and Mommy’s away at Forest Acres (she was supposed to come last night to visit but didn’t, you don’t know why). David Darby is sitting a few seats away; he won’t sit next to you because he says you complain too much about the camp.
That makes you feel bad, but the movie makes you feel good. You remember you liked it when you saw it at the Shoals, and you also liked the sequel, By the Light of the Silvery Moon , which you saw twice at the Shoals two months ago. So it’s a little bit like seeing an old friend again. You don’t sing out loud along with the theme song, but you do sing along silently, secretly, to yourself.
We were sailing along On Moonlight Bay, We could (something something some-thing), They seemed to say You have stolen her heart, Now don’t go ‘way, As we sang (a something) song On Moonlight Bay.
The second time, when the mixed chorus sings it, you get the missing words: hear the voices ringing and love’s old sweet song . It almost reminds you of some of the songs at Blue Star, the Jewish co-ed camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina where you went the two previous summers, the silly nonsense songs you used to sing at night around campfires: “Zoom Golly Golly,” “Bim Bom,” “Tzena Tzena,” “Shalom Chavarim,” “We Welcome You to Camp Blue Star,” all sounding warm and giving you something even wanner to take back to your cold cabin, regardless of what they meant or didn’t mean. That’s what you feel like now, when you know that your cabin in Maine is even colder.
A bedroom in a canyon in Del Mar, California, Sunday, December 11, 1977, 3 P.M. I’m watching On Moonlight Bay on a rented color TV while taping the soundtrack on a cassette. In different ways, the color TV, the cassette recorder, and the movie are all time machines, taking me both backward—to June 1916, October 1951, July 1953—and forward to when I’ll listen to this cassette, to when I’ll write this sentence. 1916, 1951, 1953, 1977, 1978; Indiana, Alabama, Maine, California. For all practical purposes, these dates and places are equally real, equally unreal, caught together in the same block of print on a page, just as we—Jonny, you, and I—are all trapped there, trying to make each other’s acquaintance and to meet Doris Day and her family, too. I know Jonny, but he doesn’t recognize me; we don’t know you, and you don’t know us. But maybe we can all meet at the Booth Tarkington house.
Just as the chorus sings the phrase “On Moonlight Bay” for the last time, and we all learn that Roy Del Ruth directed the movie, an old-timey car chugs across the screen—the last slide in the series come to life—and we see the father, in a three-piece grey suit with gold watchchain, walk up to a sparkling new white house and pull up a sold sign in the front yard while the music whistles a flutey, chipper, happy theme. Leon Ames looks over at a little boy with a strand of hay in his mouth who’s standing next to the white picket fence. “Hello, what’s your name?” The boy doesn’t answer. “I guess we’re going to be neighbors.” But the boy doesn’t look friendly, and even Max, the family dog, barks at Leon Ames.
Inside the house, taking a candelabrum out of a barrel, his wife Alice says in a shrill sing-song, “George Wadsworth Winfield, how could you do this to us? It’s too big—there are too many rooms, nothing fits.” George tells her that’s no tone of voice for the wife of the fortunate man who’s just bought this mansion. Only in California does this sound like exposition rather than life.
Back in the Shoals, Jonny’s wondering what any of this has to do with Penrod. He doesn’t always like the Penrod books because of all the fights and other nasty things in them—like Verman, the tongue-tied colored boy who asked his brother Herman to cut off his finger for no reason at all, or the barber cutting Penrod’s ear. But he liked the Big Show that Penrod and Sam put on in the old hayloft; it gave him, David, and Alvin the idea for their Kelly Brothers Circus, staged every year in their backyard. He hopes the Big Show will be in the movie.
At Camp Indian Acres, where you know it won’t be, you can still believe that Penrod will live in this new house across the street from Sam, despite the fact that Penrod Scofield’s name has been changed to Wesley Winfield, which sounds more refined, and he doesn’t look as dirty as he did in the books, which had illustrations, and Sam doesn’t even have a name anymore.
Things are different in the Del Mar canyon, where I now know the score and can see that the new Winfield house, like the rest of the town it’s in, is pure Disneyland wish fulfillment, and that the movie is a routine Warner Brothers musical of the early fifties, only one of the many rip-offs or spin-offs of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), such as Centennial Summer (1946) and Summer Holiday (1948), and one of the countless prototypes of TV family sit-coms like Father Knows Best and Life with Father. Roy Del Ruth directed it, and it all goes by so effortlessly that you can swear you’ve seen the whole thing before, even if you haven’t.
The unfriendly boy from across the street sneers at George through the living room window, and George says the boy makes him nervous. Alice says they were all happy and comfortable at the other place; here they feel practically like foreigners. He reminds her that it’s only a mile and a half from their old house. “A mile and a half closer to your bank, ” she says.
George admits that he wants his kids to grow up in a refined neighborhood, that he wants his daughter to become a wife, not a second baseman. “Where is she? Margie? Margie?” She appears at the front door, carrying a heavy armchair over her head. “There, see what I mean? Margie, put that chair down! Good gracious, haven’t you got enough muscles?”
There’s a moment of confusion in the Shoals when Jonny sees Margie, Doris Day, wearing a baseball cap, T-shirt, and striped trousers. In Penrod the big sister’s name is Margaret; Marjorie (this sounds more like “Margie”) is the little girl at school who hates Penrod and whom Penrod has a secret crush on. Jonny wishes he had an older sister instead of three brothers. He has a girlfriend, Helen Schneible, who looks a little bit like Doris Day, but that’s about it; he doesn’t have a sister, she doesn’t have a brother, and they can’t even pretend with each other. Helen once told him he couldn’t spend the night at her house because she asked her mother, and her mother said that boys and girls didn’t do that.
Jonny, what are you doing? Why are you getting up from your seat? Are you going out into the lobby for some popcorn or an RC Cola? You have just enough money for either one in your pocket, a prize from Bo for winning a game of Twenty Questions last night, and after you make your way back down the aisle, lit by the miniature night lights on the sides of the outer seats, under the white and yellow ceiling and wall design that looks like the fluorescent underside of a giant oval bug, what are you going to do next?
You’ve turned left in the inner lobby, crossed over to the double doors as if in a dream, gone through one of them into the sunlight and the narrow passageway between the Shoals and the next building, and turned right on your way to sunny Mobile Street. Where are you going? To Anderson’s Newsstand, two stores down, to see if any new comics have come in. You’ve liked Captain Marvel more ever since the special issue devoted to the Mid-Century World’s Fair, which told you how important, momentous, and exciting it was to be living in 1950, the precise middle of the century, a time so important that the World’s Fair in the comic made it look like the future.
And why did you leave the movie? Because you like it enough already to see some of the beginning over again, which you can do (you figure) and still leave in time to go home with Daddy when he gets off work. If you go to Anderson’s now, which is like an itch in your pocket caused by the dime from Bo (plus the thought that Mr. Anderson gets in new comics on Mondays and Tuesdays), you can (1) scratch that itch, (2) return to the movie in five minutes or less, (3) see the part you missed for the first time when you see the beginning over again, adding spice to the familiar, and (4) not have to worry about leaving in time to go to Anderson’s before you meet Daddy in his office. Ordinarily you’d have gone to Anderson’s before seeing the movie, but today you went to Daddy’s office right away instead, and watched him cut out ads and pictures from the pressbooks and paste them on pieces of paper to go with the mats, for the ads in the Florence Times .
Stella, the new maid, doesn’t like the new house either. Wesley doesn’t want to meet the new boy (“I hate him”), but George forces him to be friendly, so he and Max the dog amble over to make his acquaintance. Wesley says his old man has a real gun in the attic that Jesse James used to hold up a train with. Meanwhile, we see that the other fellows in the neighborhood are willing to let Margie play baseball with them, even though she’s a girl.
Wesley’s showing off the enormous gun to the other kid in the Winfields’ new barn when Margie arrives, tells him to put that thing away, and then tries to take it. At the same time, Gordon MacRae, who’s looking for his kid brother, finds him just as the gun goes off in Margie’s hand, and the green door of the barn collapses on top of him.
At first the kid brother thinks that Gordon’s dead, but Gordon gets up, saying, “It might be better for you if I were.” The background music turns sinister as he runs after the three guilty parties, catching Margie and giving her a sound spanking—”You little brat!”—the music! punctuating! each of his blows. Margie smiles up at him afterward, a bit awkwardly.
New scene: the music has returned to normality, and Gordon in his straw hat, all dressed up for the evening, turns the front doorbell, then introduces himself to Mr. Winfield as William Sherman. “I met your daughter—in the barn,” he gets out with difficulty.
“Oh yes,” Mr. Winfield says, remembering now. “We’ve been expecting you. Come in.” It turns out that, according to Wesley, Marjorie’s been watching for him from her bedroom window for the past half-hour.
More embarrassment, this time in Maine. It’s Marjorie, not Margie, after all, and Wesley embarrasses William Sherman by what he says. Earlier it was embarrassing when William spanked Marjorie by mistake, thinking her a boy—like Betty Hutton in her raggedy Daniel Boone suit being spanked by Howard Keel in Annie Get Your Gun , which tickles and embarrasses at the same time. And Marjorie is even more embarrassed now that she’s put on her first party dress (pink, with a white butterfly-shaped ribbon in her auburn hair), her mother having helped her to get ready, advising her not to walk like a first baseman. You’re embarrassed too, at the same time, that David Darby won’t sit next to you, but that’s a different kind of embarrassment, more dark, salty, and bitter, while the other four shades are warm and sweet and glowing.
The mother furnishes Marjorie with powder-puff falsies before she goes downstairs. “Sometimes nature needs a little help.” “Oh, Mother!” “Shhh! All’s fair in love and war.” Jonny, just back from Anderson’s without a comic—having reentered through the front lobby, where he bought an RC Cola—doesn’t get this in 1951. You ask your counselor Jerry, who’s sitting next to you on one of the long benches—a mean bastard who took away all the candy you got in the mail from Grandma Bookholtz last week because you ate a potato chip before lunch. “Shhh!” Jerry says, not turning, crouched forward, chin in hand, elbows on knees, sitting in what seems to you like a very smug New York position. “They’re called falsies .” He says it in such a way that you know you can’t ask what falsies are until after the movie’s over, and even then he might call you dumb for asking.
Now that I know the score, I find the whole thing offensive. “Sometimes nature needs a little help” indeed! That’s the American way with all kinds of merchandise, breasts and cars alike: jazz up what it looks like on the outside for the prospective buyer; never mind what’s under the hood. Which also implies that normal men can’t tolerate small breasts.
After Marjorie and William leave on their date, Mr. Winfield observes to his wife that it’s amazing what a little bit of powder and paint can do. Then, before going through the archetypal front gate of the white picket fence in front of the house (dark blue sky, a sense of distant gazebos in the hazy background), Marjorie opens it for William, and Mrs. Winfield at the window points out to her husband that she’s walking on the wrong side of the sidewalk.
Marjorie and William go out in a canoe, a beautiful spray of carnival lights and colors behind them. An indistinct male chorus on shore is softly singing the theme song. William says he’s a senior at the University of Indiana and the place is a farce; all the fellas care about there is football, baseball, and women—can you think of a bigger waste of time? “At a time like this, when civilization is crumbling beneath our feet, our generation is playing baseball.” (In Del Mar I’m beginning to wonder whether this is a remake of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons , also derived from Tarkington, with Gordon MacRae in the Tim Holt/George Minafer part; back in Maine, you’re with` William all the way because you hate baseball, and you can’t see why you have to play it at camp if you don’t want to, and Jerry says you’re just a sissy, which is why you complain to David Darby.) “And singing songs like—”
The male chorus resumes: “We were sailing along—” (Is the chorus on shore? Jonathan wonders, listening to the cassette in London in 1978. He can’t remember for sure; maybe they’re invisible and his imagination normalizes this by placing them on the distant dock, dimly lit by the multicolored lights, when they aren’t really there at all.)
“We Were Sailing Along,” William recites sarcastically, handling each word with his clipped voice like a clean hand disposing of a dirty baseball. “On, Moonlight, Bay. Isn’t that silly?” Marjorie, eating from a bag of popcorn, says she rather likes it. “Have you heard the rest of it?” William wants to know, and he begins to sing mockingly with the invisible chorus, “You Have Stolen Her Heart,” then recites, “Now Don’t Go ‘Way,” adding “Hmmph!,” then sings again, “As We Sang Love’s Old Sweet Song on Moon-light Bay.” Then he concludes, prosaically and bitterly, “That must have been written by a man with a glass of beer in one hand and a rhyming dictionary in the other.”
Not bad. I’m watching this on TV with a joint in one hand, a felt-tip pen in the other, a cigarette in the ashtray, and an old writing book labeled “Record: Stories of All Kinds about people Of All Kinds by Jonny Rosenbaum ,” dated 1954, in my lap, where I’m writing, as Day and MacRae go dancing at the carnival, “Carnival set is pure Disneyland—wonderful,” just before the first commercial break.
The Shoals Theatre.
***Opened October 21, 1948, with 1350 seats, a 110-ton Carrier airconditioning system, heavy carpeting, and luxurious gold curtains. (I counted the seats one summer morning, with a friend, when the theater was closed and we could roam at will in its entrails. I made many such expeditions, freely marking off different trails and terrains each time. Once, after crawling across part of the catwalk between the roof and the ceiling, I was severely reprimanded by Daddy and Bo alike.)
***Constructed entirely of steel and reinforced concrete.
***The fourth largest theater in the state and the largest in any town with a population under 100,000.
***First theater in the South to install Ideal Slide-Back Seats, possessed at the time by only four other theaters in the world. “This chair, by a simple movement of the body, retracts a full six inches, allowing anyone to pass without your having to rise.” Without your having to touch or be touched either, unless Bo was sitting next to you, squeezing your hand.
***Outside done with light brick, Virginia Greenstone marble, and corrugated aluminum.
***Owned by —Louis Rosenbaum. Designed by –Marr & Holman of Nashville (the same folks who drew up the Ritz in Athens twenty years earlier). Built by —Daniel Construction Company of Birmingham.
[Shoals Theatre, Florence, Alabama, October 1948]
Here’s a picture of the Shoals the week it opened. During construction it had been blocked off from view by a high fence, and even I (at age five) didn’t know what it looked like until a sketch drawn by Bobby Stewart, the Shoals manager, appeared in the Florence Times on the day of the opening. If you look down Mobile Street, on the right side of the building, you’ll find the colored entrance (just below the vertical Shoals sign on the marquee) and, much further down, behind the Coca-Cola sign, Anderson’s Newsstand. The Shoals sign had lights that flickered downward in sequence, a rippling movement meant to suggest the flow of water from one of the spillways in nearby Wilson Dam. Starting from the left side of the marquee and reading from right to left (as in Hebrew) across the front of the building, the upstairs windows over the four shops on Seminary Street (which opened the same day as the Shoals) belonged to (1) Bo’s office; (2) reception—the office belonging to Dot, Bo and Daddy’s secretary; (3) Daddy’s office, just over Crump Camera Shop (Lacanian film theorists, make of it what you will); (4 and 5) the bookkeeping department, where I liked to bother Beulah and look through the stack of pressbooks; (6 and 7) rest rooms, appropriately right over the Brother & Sister Shop; and (8 and 9) over an entrance leading to the theater’s backstage, a workshop and storage room used by Bobby Stewart, mainly for signs and posters.
The Shoals sure looked big then, and so did Wilson Dam, along with the TVA electrical plant standing on the other side of the Tennessee River. The electricity comes from generators turned by the spillways, supplying what is said to be the cheapest electricity in the country, which in turn supplies a number of industrial plants, including a government compound surrounded by wire fences, guards, and secrecy during much of my childhood. (Later we learned that it manufactured poison gas.)
One inadvertent overtone of certain Dziga Vertov films for me today is that their smokestacks invariably remind me of the smokestacks I used to see across the river from the front or back of my house, smoking, smoldering, and glowing at night like one of Bo’s cigars, painting one little patch of the horizon a pale pinkish yellow. At the time it seemed like part of God, or at least part of His Plan. Another part of the plan, which I prayed for regularly, called for a chorus of singing voices to resound from the clouds, just like the
choruses in movies, angelic and heartfelt, showering everyone with light and surrounding the whole world with happiness, singing people off to school and work, sailing them home, sighing us all to sleep. That was more real, in a way, than the Florence I actually knew, real in the same way that temple and praying were real. I felt that it was always almost about to happen, a burst of song whenever I went outside on a pretty day, nearly as imminent as flying was when, in my Superman suit, I took a leaping run off the hill in my backyard. (Even if it didn’t work this time, faith said that with a little more hope, energy, and luck maybe next time it would.)
I wanted there to be singing and music in the air in the same way, and with the same intensity, that I wanted there to be a movie of my life, a movie that moved where I moved, showed what I saw, spoke and sang what I heard, said, or wanted to hear. Like a camera, I would record this movie faithfully as I walked down the hall from my room to the front of the house or back; a movie that didn’t stop, that recorded whatever I saw from the toilet or in the bathroom mirror and carried everything that happened to me along with a softly flowing rhythm, each thing leading to another. This is the pleasure of the flashy transitions in Citizen Kane , like the cut from Joseph Cotten addressing a street crowd about Charles Foster Kane (“who entered upon this campaign . . . “) to Orson Welles speaking at an enormous rally (” . . . with one purpose only”), a bumpless slide from one thing to another that carries all life and history along for the ride—a delirious, nonstop express train.
We’re back from the commercial break, and something embarrassing happens when Marjorie and William go dancing, but I don’t quite catch what it is. Do her falsies fall out? (Yes, they do, Jonathan learns at a later viewing, and each of two men on the dance floor finds one and presents it to a bewildered William before and after Margie has rushed off in mortification to the ladies’ room.) We next see the couple at a carnival booth, where William tries unsuccessfully to knock down three bottles and win Marjorie a kewpie doll. The pitchman, who calls himself Sunny Jim (“Well, well, well—the first news tiday”) and wears arm garters and a straw hat just like William’s, sounds a lot like Yosemite Sam and other Warner employees with gruff nasal deliveries (Frank Lovejoy, Steve Cochran, the guy who narrates the trailers). “You got lead in the bottom of those bottles,” William mutters resentfully. “It’s a fake! Just like everything else in this world.” Jonny’s reminded of The Big Carnival, which he saw at the Shoals earlier this week.
To show that he’s a good sport, Sunny Jim gives Marjorie three throws for free, and she knocks down all the milk bottles. But he won’t give her the kewpie doll until William has linked him with the downfall of civilization and compared him to Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.
They’re back at the front gate of Marjorie’s house again, 3:20 P.M. Del Mar time, and something archetypal is clicking into place for all of us: white fence, bluish light, and shadows in the rich blue haze of Warner Technicolor. Both say they had a wonderful time, and Marjorie invites William in for a “nice cool glass of buttermilk,” summoning up an image that seems to go with the white fence, the dark bluish lawn, the yellow light on the porch, the buttermilk dress that Marjorie is wearing (less pink now under the moon, at least on my TV), the spun flaxen quality of her hair.
As they walk up to the porch, Marjorie is humming the theme song, but then the background music starts to get serious. Martha Rosier, a future artist and critic who’s seeing this movie at age seven or eight around the same time in 1951 at the Rogers Theatre on Rogers Avenue in Brooklyn—long before it was turned into a black church—is getting entranced by the moonlight, to which the serious music gives a rather solemn context. William confesses that he doesn’t believe in marriage. “But I just asked you in for some buttermilk, ” Marjorie protests in a buttermilky way. “Well,” says William grimly, “I didn’t want to drink it under false pretenses.” “Well, my goodness”—a Doris Dayish phrase if ever there was one, I muse in 1977—”maybe I don’t believe in marriage either.”
The lights go out in the living room as they enter, and William explains that it’s because of the new power plant. They smooch a bit in near-silhouette, their features outlined in yellow, and then Marjorie lights a blue-headed match, giving them a neat spotlight against the blue-black darkness, buttermilky blue moonlight coming in through the window. She keeps lighting matches as he tells her how much he likes her, until she says she’s run out. Smooch. Then the lights come on again, and he sees that she does have a lot more matches. And she admits, “We don’t really have any buttermilk either.” Smooch. He doesn’t see her place the matches in a silver tray as they embrace, or shove her cap and baseball off the table as they smooch again.
Jonny doesn’t quite get this, having missed her rendezvous with baseball while looking for Captain Marvel at Anderson’s, but he still feels the magic of the mood. The audience around him is somber, spelled by the smooching and the blue moonlight. In Maine there is hooting boys’ laughter all around you, maybe just to show that they really don’t care, that they know this is only a sappy movie. Perhaps because the audience around me in southern California is invisible and unknowable, hence neither somber nor derisive—in fact, nonexistent—it becomes easier for me to think about the lighting, the colors, the specter of buttermilk, or the interactions between these elements. But now I can only think about them; once I was part of them. Raymond Durgnat, a future film critic who in his late teens is watching this movie in early 1953 on a British army ship somewhere between Southampton and Singapore, is less lucky in grasping all these elements because he’s seeing a black and white 16mm print, a drabber version that converts this yellow and blue romance into something closer to film noir.
“Pretty Baby” is playing in the background of the next scene, on an old-fashioned victrola on the porch, while inside the house George is expressing to Alice his worries about William’s intentions. Jonny knows the song because he saw the movie of that title, with Dennis Morgan, at the Princess last year; it has the sort of title that makes the back of his neck feel all tingly—a bit like the song “Cuddle Up a Little Closer” that William’s singing now to Marjorie on the swing of the front porch, along with the flip side of the record. (It isn’t a picture record, Jonny notes with some regret, while chewing the wax of his Dixie cup. An enthusiastic fan of those 78s with colored magazinelike illustrations on both sides, he concludes that they probably weren’t even invented when this movie takes place.) Marjorie’s wearing a navy blue dress that makes her look like Donald Duck, its bright red ribbon perfectly matching William’s University of Indiana sweater.
Suddenly the mood is shattered by Wesley’s screeching out phrases from the song: “Cliiiinggg—inggg—viiiiine—” Where is he? Under the porch, amid cobwebs and dust. Marjorie explains that the lattice is loose and Wesley likes to crawl in there, coming out “all bugs.” The weight of Doris Day’s disgust, her nose wrinkled in a shock of nausea, is felt behind those two words, which come out a bit like “aw buuhgs.” It’s just the kind of thing Jonny likes to do (canceling out cobwebs, dust, bugs, and nausea); ever since he and his brothers moved into the playroom in the new wing of their house, they have been draping blankets and quilts over chairs, ottomans, and tables in the big room to create dark passageways and secret underground mazes. He wishes that their house had a porch.
He wishes he had a big sister, too. How nice it would be to sit under a porch when she was up there, to be (and maybe to see) under her skirts, to be sheltered by the warmth of her legs. He chews more of the wax of his Dixie cup, unraveling the curled rim with his teeth, which causes bits of wax and/or glue to flake off on his red and white checkered shirt. All too soon, Marjorie makes Wesley come out, and William gives him some money so that he’ll go away.
William starts the song a second time, but this time he’s interrupted by Mr. Winfield, who wants to have a little talk with him about his future. What sort of profession is he interested in? What does he think of banking? “Frankly, sir, I feel that every bank in the country should be blown up.”
Emotional storm clouds are gathering; Marjorie asks if anyone would like some iced tea. “What did you say, young man?” William explains that banks are “parasites on society” and asks Mr. Winfield if he has any money on him so he can prove it. George offers a $5 bill, and William promptly tears it to shreds. “Has anything really been lost? Is there any less clothing, less food, less love in the world now?” “Young man!” “William, Father is vice-president of First National Bank—” “Hunk? Holy cow !”—he stoops to pick up the shreds—”Did I do this?”
“Father, it’s nothing serious. It’s just what they may teach William in college—” Which scriptwriter was it, I wonder in 1978, Jack Rose or Melville Shavelson, who had the scruple to insert “may” in that sentence, even though it makes for an awkward line, thereby skirting by the thinnest of hairs a reds-in-the-woodpile note of pre-McCarthy cold war suspicions? Think of 1951 (taste it if you can): the period of the “dangerous” intellectual, the perverse radical in everything from Hitchcock’s Rope to The Thing , from My Son John to the masochism of a liberal movie like Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place , with Humphrey Bogart. This was when they were calling Adlai Stevenson an egghead, hounding Charlie Chaplin out of the country, and showing episodes from the hard-hitting TV series I Led Three Lives (with Richard Carlson as Herbert Philbrick, fearless anti-Commie double agent for the FBI, a True Life story) at my Sunday school—in the new reform Jewish temple in Florence that Bo helped to build—to keep us all on the right track.
Anyway, Mr. Winfield is adamant: “Until they teach him to support a wife, I suggest you find another man.” And somehow, at this moment, I realize I’m no longer watching a movie. I can’t be, because movies in that sense don’t exist anymore. On Moonlight Bay was once like a family, a whole country watching slides of itself in a dark cozy parlor or people singing nonsense songs around a campfire; now it’s a crippled, slightly crazed old man ranting and chortling about radical youth on TV, amid advertisements and other distractions (maybe he’s there only for an instant, but he’s there all right). What the movie was no longer exists; what it did is done. So what we have to do now is to use this old man, to ply him for his secrets, to get him to tell us what it used to be like. Even if we all wind up meeting at the Shoals instead of at the Booth Tarkington house.
To some degree, that’s what this book is about: something that no longer exists. Most people would say that film is undergoing a profound transformation. Maybe it is, but where do you draw the line between profound transformation and extinction? What appears to be the survival of movies, at least in this part of the world, is an illusion created by advertising, “distinguished critics” whom you can read in magazines sold in supermarkets enacting their weekly rounds of slavery, and a few lonely theaters in shopping malls that already seem haunted on the day they open—places to buy expensive buttered popcorn whose empty tublike containers rattle under the seats afterward. When the Salk polio vaccine was invented in 1953, shots were administered to children at the Princess. And when Rosenbaum Theatres was sold in 1960, one of the first steps taken by Martin Theatres—apart from raising the ticket prices (an issue on which Bo had refused to budge) and firing most of the employees (including nearly all the black cleaning ladies, who used to come in every morning)—was to remove all the pay phones from the lobbies. No wonder that the lobby at the Shoals today feels neither public nor private.
Not movies or audiences but ghosts of each convening in dark rooms that are now given over entirely to séances, hollow shells that are no longer churches or temples but stale civic auditoriums with secular, synthetic smells. I went to one of them last night, a mile or so from my house in Del Mar, where they were running something called I Never Promised You a Rose Garden . Theaters today seldom promise you rose gardens. This one promised a neurotic love story and delivered female wrestler versions of Marat/Sade crazies, becoming hysterical and raising pandemonium at roughly ten-minute intervals. (“Depressing but good is what I hear,” said the hostess at the restaurant in the shopping mall, just before I went in.)
Two Very Fancy Quotes
The nature found in gardens is not the country meadow but an evocation, an artifice, a dream; it should be added that the dream develops only on condition that the person strolling through it moves as though conducted by music.
—Jurgis Baltrusaitis and Jean Starobinski, cited by André Téchiné in a review of Dreyer’s Gertrud
This used to be a business of showmen. Today in the United States there is more razzle-dazzle in a supermarket than there is in a theatre.
—Samuel Z. Arkoff, founder and president of American International Pictures, 1977
Circa 1951 or 1952, a future American scriptwriter of eight or nine named Lorenzo Mans went to see On Moonlight Bay in Santiago, Cuba, with a girl about three years older who was in the same grade because she had flunked three years in a row. Lorenzo’s English was a lot better than hers, so he didn’t have to follow the Spanish subtitles as closely, and after the movie they bought a record of the theme song so he could teach her the words. Sitting next to her on a bench in the garden of her house, conducting their English lesson with the record, he had one of his first erections.
February 9, 1978, 5:08 P.M. For some reason, I like to melt into my writing routines, to seep into my subjects and let them seep into me, rather than confront a blank page like a Conquistador faced with virgin territory. Why regard the work as a duty, an obstacle, a target to attack? How can my subject be solid when half of it is me, the other half an external object, and memory has intervened to confuse any firm notion of barriers between us? How can the movie and I be regarded as discrete entities—the implied presumption of most criticism—when each of us is undergoing constant fluctuations, perpetual shifts of mood and tone and focus, both individually and collectively, with each unreeling?
So I try to make myself as liquid as the movie is to me, and get to work by letting myself melt through several layers of other activities, carrying some of the residue with me. Today, for instance, trips to the bank, post office, and supermarket, reading and scanning magazines while watching a few Bugs Bunnys on TV, all eventually edge me into writing about On Moonlight Bay again, even if I’ve started doing so by an indirect route. A garden stroll through a supermarket: this describes Hollywood’s activity and my own with equal precision, whether it’s scanning an aisle of breakfast cereals, waiting for a free bank teller, following a narrative, or pursuing a line of thought—all these activities preferably performed as though conducted by music. How could I have guessed in the early fifties that Muzak would answer my constant prayer for God’s own chorus singing down to earth and swelling the air, fulfilling the dream so perfectly that I’m not even aware of its daily effects on me? Who would have guessed that making life into a musical would deaden the senses rather than exalt them?
In the movie the camera is moving from the memory-laden kewpie doll on Marjorie’s writing desk to Marjorie herself, writing a letter to William at college. Max Steiner’s score reprises the theme song again, this time in a tearful, wistful version. The song is carried mainly by a chorus of strings, sobbing sisters to console Marjorie in her lonesomeness, while the camera approaches the letter she’s writing and almost caresses certain fragments of it. (“I tried to go out On Moonlight Bay again, but I—” is all I can make out on the TV screen, part of a fragmentary verbal mosaic that oddly resembles the diaries in Muriel and Pierrot Le Fou , the letter in Yvonne Rainer’s Kristina Talking Pictures —but maybe it’s my distance from the TV that makes Marjorie’s letter elusive and avant-gardeish.) At the end a solo violin seems to weep the final phrase, or all but the last note of it. “As, we, sang, love’s, old, sweet, song, on, Moon, light” is followed by Marjorie’s commencing a new song, “Tell me, why nights are lonesome; tell me, why days are blue . . . “
At the Shoals Jonny is bored, which is only reasonable: the song is the dullest one in the movie by any standard. But rather than recognize that he’s bored, he uses his disengagement as a lever into thoughts about (1) Captain Marvel, (2) the hideous Speaking of Animals short that preceded the movie, (3) Doris Day’s freckles, (4) his girlfriend Helen Schneible. At Indian Acres, however, you’re all eyes and ears, not because of the song but because Marjorie’s sadness as she addresses the doll, gazing forlornly out the window, is reminding you of the sadness of Mrs. Thomas, your fourth-grade teacher last spring—a sadness that was expressed, interestingly enough, in response to an encounter of Helen Schneible with Doris Day.
(It’s sharing period in the fourth grade at Kilby Training School, early April 1953, the day after Helen saw April in Paris , a Warner Brothers musical with Doris Day and Ray Bolger [“Good for whatever ails you,” wrote Stanley Rosenbaum in the Florence Times ], during a midweek run at the Shoals. Helen is giggling as she stands in front of the blackboard, twisting her hands shyly behind her back and reciting the movie’s plot. It’s something about Doris Day, a chorus girl mistakenly invited to Paris by the American government, and Ray Bolger, the man in the government who sent the invitation, getting on the same ship for Paris, getting drunk together, and then deciding to get married so that they can sleep in the same room, but they wind up being married by a waiter who’s been stealing whisky from the captain’s cabin, pretends that he’s the captain a-and . . .
Helen goes on recounting the plot, tittering at various junctures. Mrs. Thomas doesn’t interrupt her, but every kid in the class has become aware that Mrs. Thomas is nervous and upset as all get-out and is waiting for Helen to finish her sharing and sit down so that she can speak. Helen sees this too; after a bit her voice trails off, and she concludes that, anyway, that’s what she and Joanne saw yesterday at the Shoals, and she sits down.
Then Mrs. Thomas steps forward and launches into a speech about how dangerous, wicked, and stomach-turning silly movies like that can be. She really means it: they’re not only trash, they make life look simple and easy when it isn’t simple or easy at all. Some kids get married because they think they’ll be cute like Doris Day, they wreck their whole lives as a consequence, and then it’s too late to do anything about it. It’s downright disgusting what movies like that make people think, and how miserable it makes them feel when they discover that life isn’t really funny and cute.
The long speech is delivered in an unbroken current of anger and distress, upset that’s so palpable that the entire class seems frozen in apprehension, afraid that she might break into tears at any second. It’s never happened before, and it makes me think that she really must be unhappy, that maybe she once even did something like this and wrecked her whole life because of it. I have to admit, though, that I don’t like Mrs. Thomas. She gave me more unsatisfactories on my last report card than any teacher has ever done, so many that Daddy decided to punish me by forbidding me to see any movies or buy any comics until I showed some improvement. And this meant living through a desolate month or so, hearing about movies and not being able to see them, seeing new comics at Anderson’s and not being able to buy them, until one day, on the way home from Sunday school, I told Daddy that maybe Mrs. Thomas gave me so many unsatisfactories because she didn’t like me. That night, after supper, Daddy called me to his study to say that he had decided that maybe I was right and that I wouldn’t be punished any more. This made me cry a luxurious torrent—I still remember the spasms, the warm, wet tears of gratitude and self-righteousness, of self-pity and pleasure—and I cast a suspicious eye on Mrs. Thomas for the remainder of the time that I spent in her classroom.
I remember, too, how she once asked me if I was the Jonny who had phoned WJOI radio the previous night to request that they play the Spike Jones version of “The Tennessee Waltz.” When I said yes, she smiled to herself and said, “Ah suspected as much,” and when I asked her how she liked the record, she laughed and said, “It sounds jus lak the sort of thang you’d request.” In Alabama around that time, this was a sure method of cutting someone dead; I suppose it still is.)
Compress the last five paragraphs into a composite memory that lasts about twenty seconds, and you’ll see how at Indian Acres the sad song that Doris Day is singing becomes a lament for Mrs. Thomas—and at the same time an expression of her unhappy wisdom. Marjorie and William thought they’d be real cute, that everything would work out just right, but now William’s back in college, Marjorie’s father won’t let him in the house, and her life is in ashes; she’s so lonesome she could die. “Why do I hate to go, dear?” she sings, “and hate to say goodbye? Somehow, it’s always so, dear, and if you know, dear, please tell me why.”
Wesley turns up to say that her singing is giving him a headache, which must make her pain that much more acute. Then Stella the maid calls both of them to breakfast (in Penrod, Jonny notes, she’s a colored maid called Della, and she doesn’t order everybody around the way that Stella does). “How many times do I have to call you? Miss Marjorie, your breakfast is ready .” “All right, Stella. I just want to finish this letter.” “Finish it later! We’re not serving à la carte, y’know.”
In the dining room the mother is chiding Wesley, “You eat every bit of that cereal. You’re a growing boy, and you need it.” “I hate it!” “Stella,” Marjorie says, “dust off the piano. Hubert Winkley’s coming to call again.” Stella remarks wryly, “Men a-been buzzin around here like flies ever since you gave up baseball. This place is beginnin’ to look like the YMCA on a rainy afternoon.”
Mother: “Your father seems to think very highly of Mr. Winkley.”
Marjorie: “Why wouldn’t he? Hubert is steady—reliable—has a fine job teaching music . . . and he’s just as stuffy as Father.”
“Well, he is!”
Wesley’s friend from across the street calls for him to go to school, and Wesley runs into Stella on the way out, upsetting a trayful of dishes and silver. “I wonder what you get for manslaughter in this state?” Stella mutters under her breath, sounding a bit like Eve Arden.
Outside the house Wesley says, “Hi, Jim.” “Got your letter?” “What letter is that?” “You know what old Miss Stevens said. A model letter to a friend on a subject of general interest.” “Oh no!” “Well,” Jim says philosophically, “she’ll only keep ya in after school two or three hours, I guess.”
Music flares up suddenly, the aural equivalent of a light bulb’s appearing above a character’s head in a cartoon. “Oh no she won’t,” Wesley says, “I just remembered! I got a letter all written up.” To the sound of scampering music, he runs back into the house, crashes into Stella and a tray a second time, and continues up the stairs, heading for Marjorie’s letter.
At this point there’s an instrumental reprise of Marjorie’s lonesome lament, a solo trombone taking most of the melody, that lasts about thirty seconds. And this time—at least in Florence and Del Mar—it’s rather more affecting than it was when Doris sang it; perhaps this is the consequence of simple repetition, a fluke of psychochemistry rather than the result of any intrinsic quality in the music itself, a collaboration between the structure of a Pavlovian emotional cue (an idiot card flashed at the audience that says something like “feel wistful”) and the structure of a nervous system.
But what’s being shown over this music? I ask myself in early February 1978, listening to the cassette. Jonny and you, both looking with some degree of attention at the images, can answer that question, but I have to construct an image track of my own to accompany it, set-decorated by memory and scripted and directed in part by an imagination that’s lost any close touch with the particulars—memory and imagination communicating only by postcard and with formal niceties now, forsaking letters and thereby leaving large sections of the screen vague and undefined.
My plot sense, leading me from Wesley’s conversation with Jim to the following scene in a classroom, invariably takes me and Wesley on an erotic-exotic journey into Marjorie’s bedroom to steal her letter. Yet for all I know the camera might be lingering now on Marjorie (whom I imagine to be downstairs somewhere in the house, looking wistful, perhaps assisting Stella after the second collision or still having breakfast) rather than on Wesley, say, or on a close-up of either the kewpie doll or the letter. Indeed, considering the emotional cues to memory supplied by the music, any of these four fetish objects could serve the proper narrative function of this invisible half-minute, which is to create an immediate sense of nostalgia for Marjorie and William’s love through one of these objects: (1) Doris Day’s saddened expression, a pure emotional conduit; (2) the music itself, while Wesley’s taking the letter is played out as a narrative counterline; (3) a kewpie doll, the perfect emblem for the movie’s cross-eyed attitude toward Marjorie, at once a memory token of her innate superiority to William (her ability to knock down all the bottles—white milk bottles—suggests her superiority as athlete, potential mother, practical thinker, and all-around achiever, her status as “normal” being easy to accept because, unlike William, she has no rivals) and a vulgar identification of Marjorie herself with this gaudy trophy, ironically kept by her, who is “possessed” in turn by her father, her brother, her boyfriend, and even that Hubert Winkley whom we haven’t met yet, possessed or at any rate claimed (as William claimed the kewpie doll from Sunny Jim—not Marjorie, who only won it) by each of them; (4) a mute Bressonian surface, a folded, unreadable letter, a “tactful” form of ellipsis whose resonance is ultimately determined by music and memory; (5) an unfolded, legible letter (or fragments thereof) resting on Marjorie’s desk, whose words spin out another illusionist layer of images.
Nor is this the only blank visual patch in the film on February 11; the particulars of other sequences are vanishing from conscious memory, more of them every day. When can I see the film again and reactivate certain memory circuits, check my errors, and recover those missing images? At 5 P.M. I’m awaiting a call from a friend in L.A. to learn whether I’ll be able to see a print of the film at her birthday party in a week or so, before I fly to a film theory conference in Milwaukee and then on to New Orleans, Florence, Washington, and New York, visiting members of my family and gathering what other material I can for this book. If I’m able to see the film, it will help me to close some of the breaches with accuracy in my fictions; it will also oblige me to insert another temporal vantage point, another layer in this text.
But let’s set aside our uncertainty about visual detail.[*] Miss Stevens (or Stephens), an archetypal old maid schoolteacher played by Ellen Corby, is calling the class to order like a courtroom by rhythmically striking one object against another (chalk or stick? against board or desk?). “Now children, it is time for English Composition. I know how hard you all must have worked on your letters for this morning—” (Her tone is so phony that I can’t believe in her for a minute; I wonder whether I possibly could have believed in her in 1951 or 1953.) “So I have a little surprise for you. Now, won’t that be nice? . . . Cora Claypool, you may read yours.”
But just as all streams must eventually wind their way to sea, every account of On Moonlight Bay ultimately has to spill back into the story line, Cora Claypool or no Cora Claypool; and the dubious focus of this story line at the moment is Wesley, caught dreaming by Miss Stevens, who wakes us all up: “Wesley Winfield! You may read your letter .” After a bit of testy baiting from the teacher, who doubts that he even has a letter, and a string of yes’m s from Wesley, he fumbles for, finds, and unfolds the letter and reads at breakneck pace: “Dear Friend, You call me beautiful, but I’m not really beautiful, and at times I doubt if I’m even pretty; though my hair may be beautiful and if it is true that my eyes are like the blue stars—in—heav-en—” He finally catches on, gulps, and the class laughs; Miss Stevens raps her whatever against the whatever and sadistically commands, “Go on . . . pro-ceed.”
Another Archie-like gulp, and Wesley continues. “A tree-mor thrills my bean when I re-call, your last words, to me, that last—that last—” “Go on.” “—that, that last—evening—in the moonlight—when you—you—” “Wesley. You will go on. And you will stop that stammering .” “Y-you—kissed my shoulder and—and said that you would like to love me for—ever—and—ever—and—” “Wesley.” “—a-and then if you believed in marriage you would—want me to. Yours respectfully, Wesley Winfield.” More laughs from the class. “May I leave the room?” Wesley whimpers. His embarrassment is so acute that he might as well have been caught naked, masturbating, in the middle of a jerky seminal flow, by everyone in the room.
“Bring me that letter, ” Miss Stevens orders. He shamefacedly obeys and is banished to the dunce’s stool. “You will sit there until no more tree-mors thrill your bean.” More laughs, more brittle raps for order; fade-out.
Jonny’s embarrassed—for Wesley, not for Marjorie, whose letter is ignored here almost as much as Cora’s was, functioning as a comic expedient, a text made funny by Wesley’s unthinking (and then faltering) reading of it. Its contents scarcely register, except under the general rubric “love letter.” There’s no pleasure at all in witnessing this kind of embarrassment (unlike Marjorie’s being spanked by William), only the sting of sheer cruelty; it’s the kind of cruel embarrassment that Jonny hates so much in Penrod . (He doesn’t think about this later, as Jonathan does, but cruelty is meted out by this maneuver to Marjorie as well as to Wesley, by both Tarkington and the filmmakers.)
In Maine you’re probably just as embarrassed, but you laugh along with the other boys even if it makes you a little queasy. In California I’m so shocked by the sadism of the teacher—which is as transparent as the letters of Cora and Marjorie, just another detail designed to make Wesley squirm and to narrow our focus on the squirm—that I can scarcely believe what I’m seeing and hearing. Look at this worm squirm, the movie says maliciously, with everything it has, in every way it knows; watch it squirm while it’s nailed to the floor, and laugh . The Conquistador rides again, and—would you believe it?—we all help to drive in the nail.
Which almost makes me grateful for the third commercial break, forty minutes into the film, despite the fact that I know these interruptions are being spaced to serve the Conquistador in much the same way that a bubble serves a bubble dancer. (Insidious logic: show a lot of flesh at first, then keep the bubbles coming more and more often, giving the customers progressively less—a surefire method for keeping them in their seats.) ” . . . The greatest storybook album of all time. With voices and sound effects from the original soundtrack. Relive and give the story of Star Wars with two soundtrack LPs, Star Wars and The Story ofStar Wars , from Twentieth Century-Fox [laser beams heard in background] records and tapes.” New voice: “LP includes a sixteen-color-page-photo-booklet from Twentieth Century-Fox records and ta—” Another new voice: “Available at all Licorice Pizza Stores!” Another new voice, female: “Oh, oh my goodness, Christmas can be so hectic! Running here for the trees, there for the ornaments [laughing, half out of breath], someplace else for the last few gifts—” Male voice: “Christmas doesn’t have to be a hassle when you shop at Lucky’s [twangy, quasi-musical laser beam takes over, recedes]. Compare Lucky’s discount prices on fresh-cut trees and ornaments. And you’ll also find a wide variety of holiday fruit baskets—perfect gifts filled with fresh fruits and nuts. Come to Lucky’s for one-stop holiday shopping. We’re what discount is awwl about.”
Poor Hubert Winkley (Jack Smith) is playing and singing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” at the piano in the Winfield parlor. A politely bored Marjorie is wearing a green Scotch plaid dress and biting into an apple. It’s clear that this is “poor” Hubert because he’s wearing glasses, he looks puny, and, as Marjorie’s already told her mother, he’s “just as stuffy as Father.” But Marjorie is sweet and tactful, and when he finishes his performance, she glows with forced enthusiasm and offers him his hat. “Oh, that was won derful, Hubert, just won derful! You must come again soon—”
“Oh,” he says, “I’m in no hurry, Princess.” The dolt can’t take a hint. “As Shakespeare once said, ‘Ah! Music be the food of love, play on.”‘ (Who forgot the if? Scriptwriter, actor, sound recordist?) That clinches it; the guy’s a dehydrated turnip, an intellectual to boot, and Jonny’s not quite sure how he feels about this (even though it’s a good two years before he will wear his own first pair of glasses).
“I have an idea!” Hubert says in his Caspar Milquetoast voice, on his feet now with a ukulele. “Let’s sing something together.” She demurs. “I would like to very much, Hubert, but I—I—I have an appointment at the dentist.” Next thing you know, Hubert’s launched into a bouncy tune, “Love ya, love ya, honey,” four strums to the bar, with Max Steiner’s full support (along with Leroy Prinz’s staging), and good old Marjorie takes the next phrase, “Love ya, love ya, honey,” then back to Hubert, “Love ya, love ya, honey,” then both together, in staggered harmony: “Ewww, if you only knew.”
They go on like this (Hubert: “When I’m with ya, honey”; Marjorie: “All my days are sunny”), and what’s amazing to me (but not to Jonny, you, or Jonathan, who know better) is the instant transformation of both characters that the song apparently brings about. Suddenly they’re in a musical! Hubert is relaxed, suave, and graceful; Marjorie is cheerful, compliant, and affectionate. Together they’re cute as bugs, and the whole audience—in Alabama, in Maine, in my head, all around the world—is tapping its feet, hippity hopping along with this spry song and the strums of the ukulele. Even Steiner’s strings are being plucked to the same rhythm, reinforcing the joy like spirited hand-claps. Alas, seeing the scene on a larger screen in L.A. three months later, Jonathan realizes that this analysis is largely false, having been provoked in part by the dope that he was smoking in December and a giddy imagination; in fact, Marjorie is subtly hiding grimaces every time she turns away from Hubert; her smiles keep coming and going in waves.
As soon as they’re finished—back from a tangent that seems almost as anomalous as unheralded fucking would be to stiff parlor conversation—Max the dog is seen barking outside, heard over a taunt from a male classmate of Wesley’s, passing on a bicycle: “Hey Wesley! How’s your bee-youti-ful hair?” Wesley is intercepted by Mr. Winfield on his way to the parlor, told that his sister is entertaining a caller and that he must keep away. With a crack about “the blue stars in heaven” that elicits raised eyebrows from his father, Wesley swears to himself that he’ll “get even on that Marjorie.”
In the living room Hubert is offering “Miss Winfield” one apple while she’s munching on another, recalling “the immortal words of Tennyson,” and trying clumsily to make love to her—the poor klutz has reverted to his pre-musical persona—when Wesley enters, ostensibly looking for Max and sitting down when he can’t find him, crossing his legs and flashing the black socks he wears with his knickers, picking up the ukulele and essaying a few honest-to-God chords. Hubert tries to get rid of him. What dull stuff this is in 1978; I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, you can’t go on, I’ll go on.
You saw this scene in Florence, you’re finding the bench uncomfortable, and you’re thinking about the comics you could buy in nearby Conway—if only you could leave the campgrounds to go there. But you’re trapped here for two whole months, except for special trips (the dance at Forest Acres two nights ago, the walk up Mount Pleasant that gave you blisters three weekends ago). True, you got to go to Conway once, over two weeks ago; you had your first bottled drink in three weeks, a Cott cola, welcome relief after all the red “bug juice” served at the camp (it tastes almost like Kool-Aid), and you did buy a few comics, including (a special treat) the new issue of Mad, with a parody of King Kong called “Ping Pong.” But when will you have a chance to get back there again? Your brother David gets to leave camp practically every day, to play golf, but that’s because he’s in the Junior Division where you can do things like that.
So you give up on new comics and think instead about the carton of old comics that you keep under your bed, carefully filed, beginning with the Archies and continuing alphabetically through the Classics Illustrated, the Jerry Lewis, the rare Jughead, and the even rarer Reggie (you hadn’t even known it existed when you found it in Atlanta last spring—the day before you saw the special demonstration of CinemaScope for theater owners with Mommy and Daddy—in the largest newsstand you ever saw in your life, a place that makes you happy whenever you just think about it).
In Del Mar Jonathan is undergoing a similar experience of deprivation in relation to movies he wants to see—particularly Robert Bresson’s Le Diable, Probablement , which was shown at the New York Film Festival two months ago, as he was beginning to teach his last quarter at the University of California, San Diego, and is not likely to turn up in his neighborhood for years, if at all. The fall quarter ended yesterday, and he’s very, very glad, fantasizing about the movies he’ll be able to see in London and Paris over Christmas, just as you’re fantasizing about the comics you’ll be able to buy in New York on the way back home from camp a month from now. And to complete a parallel, Jonathan’s been complaining incessantly to his friends about UCSD and San Diego, just as you’ve been annoying David Darby about Indian Acres.
Jonathan’s sore at UCSD, not only because he wasn’t rehired but also because the campus reminds him of a shopping mall the size of the Disneyland parking lot—filled with “fortress architecture,” as J. described it last summer—and because his (former) department has just run an ad for its graduate school in Artforum that includes his name and cutely describes itself as being located “halfway between New York and Vietnam.” Over eighteen weeks later, in mid-April, while writing this sentence in Del Mar, he’s feeling much cooler about his environment, having seen the Bresson film twice in London and knowing that he’ll be moving to New York (where he hasn’t lived since 1969) in early summer. The only deprivation he’s feeling now is sexual, but (1) unfortunately, unlike esoteric comics and movies, sex isn’t an itch he can count on scratching whenever he gets to a city and (2) fortunately, there’s statistically more chance of his getting laid in San Diego than there is of Le Diable, Probablement turning up at the University Towne Center shopping mall or, in 1953, of Jughead or Reggie turning up at Anderson’s.
A narrative pivot provided by a fragment from On Moonlight Bay should theoretically come here so that Jonathan can turn to the dance at Forest Acres that you attended two nights ago. It doesn’t because Jonathan is temporarily bored with this technique. He couldn’t care less about the erotic frustration that Wesley causes Hubert by tagging along after him and Marjorie when they go for a walk; he wants to proceed directly to the dance.
The Forest Acres girls invited the Indian Acres boys to the dance individually, as dates—a refreshing innovation that you welcomed wholeheartedly. Madeline Nussbaum, a blonde who was rehearsing the part of Mustardseed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, picked David Darby; you, rehearsing the part of one of the Supreme Court judges in Of Thee I Sing, were chosen by Wanda. Why can’t I remember Wanda’s last name, or even be sure that Wanda was her first name? In my mind’s eye she’s ravishing. Somehow the word was out that she had a crush on you, a fact that was both privately fascinating and publicly embarrassing. She suggested that the two of you dance cheek to cheek, and her soft skin felt as comfortable as warm silk, while her perfume almost made you drunk. But when she started to drag you into the cloakroom for a kiss, the suddenness of her passion startled you and you tried to hold back.
She was just on the verge of kissing you full on the lips when your brother David happened along, with a couple of friends from his cabin. Seeing them, you started to break away from Wanda, but her reflexes were faster, surer, and the kiss was accomplished at virtually the same moment that David and his friends, witnessing the spectacle, burst into gleeful laughter. Just as quickly, Wanda fled, from cloakroom and dance (to tell her friends, or out of grief provoked by your reluctance and the others’ laughter? You’ll never know), abandoning you to ridicule. You haven’t seen her since. News of the incident spread so swiftly that even Mommy, who was Wanda’s counselor, kidded you about it later that evening. (Was Wanda kidded too? Probably; and the sad thing is that this makes you more wary of her, not less.)
At this point in the movie, Hubert, a wreck, is returning from his exhausting jog around the green neighborhood with Marjorie and Wesley. It’s night now, both in the movie and in the room where you’re watching. Sweating profusely, his jacket over one arm, his tie fluffed out, Hubert bids Marjorie a bitter good evening. As soon as he’s gone, Marjorie laughs gleefully, kisses her brother with passionate gratitude, and says, “You’re an angel,” before leaving him stunned on the porch steps—provoking an erotic rush that links 1951, 1953, 1977, and 1978 into one simultaneous current of blissful energy. It brings you back to the nice part of Wanda’s kiss, the warm and cozy part that you’d been forced to forget when David teased you yesterday about how frightened you’d been; and your ego transfers with no effort at all from Hubert to Wesley, even though Wesley is closer to David in age and temperament than he is to you. It’s no wonder that On Moonlight Bay Suits Jonathan’s purposes so well. Life in the early fifties was often little more than a string of excruciating embarrassments, and the movie offers an unending supply of such moments, neatly boxed and framed, as if under glass.
3:49 P.M. in Del Mar, shortly after 4 P.M. at the Shoals, and conceivably around the same time in Milburn, Indiana, there’s a close-up of a brown sign that says
Professor Barson’s School of Dancing
Then we see the professor himself conducting his class, “One two three, valtz two three, dip two three.” An older, faded Hans Conreid type with a German accent, dressed in a black suit that resembles a tux, the professor coaches a group of young dancing couples while Marjorie, wearing another Donald Duck suit, sits, watches, and smiles. Wesley, looking uncomfortable in a Buster Brown suit, is dancing with an equally awkward girl when Professor Barson blows the whistle on him—literally—to chide him for scratching his back. “In hafen’s name, vy must you always itch?” This reminds you of the 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., which you saw on Times Square the week before you arrived at camp (along with This Is Cinerama , and It Came From Outer Space in 3-D), a movie that you adore because it’s pure fantasy and satire, like a strange combination of the Oz books and Mad .
Barson dismisses the class, and the kids cheer and rush out of the room, followed by mothers and chaperones. Marjorie tells Wesley to hurry on home. “I have to stay here and talk to Professor Barson about something.” “Again?” he protests, but she shushes him and sends him off, closing the door after him. Some girls outside in the snow knock on a window pane to catch her attention; miffed, she closes all the window curtains. “Professor, I’m all ready now.”
“Margie”—a bit of Old World wisdom glossing over his fond gaze—”you must luf that boy very much to come here every Friday for a month, to dance with an old man.” She laughs nervously. “Am I doing any better?” “Oh, much better! Well: what’s left for today?” “The Turkey Trot.”
He says he understands vy she should vant to learn such a dance in secret; but vy can’t he teach her a nice Viennese valtz instead? “Professor, nobody waltzes anymore. And if I’m asking a young man to come all the way from college to take me to the Charity Ball, I wanta be sure that I can dance whatever the orchestra plays.”
“Such dances they play now! The Grizzly Bear, the Bunny Hug, the Kangaroo Dip! Am I a dance teacher or an animal trainer? . . . All tight. Adolf”—motioning to his pianist, seen only from behind, a presence even more spectral than that of Cora Claypool—”you should excuse the expression: the Turkey Trot.” Adolf begins to play, and they dance together.
Dissolve to Marjorie on her way home, wrapped neatly in a Scotch plaid scarf, the sound of strings and sleigh bells rising over the piano music. She drifts through a snow-filled park fronted by a low brick wall, humming a dance step to the tune of “Love ya, love ya, honey” (so Hubert’s claim on her lives on in a way, subliminally, in spite of himself). She dances around various snowmen, almost flirting with them, “One and two and three-ee (glide), one and two and three-ee (glide),” and Jonny in the Shoals is enraptured by this demonstration of the joys and ecstasies that are possible when you’re all alone.
A sudden interruption shows that she isn’t alone. A boy at the wall mocks her voice; another jeers, “Old Marjorie can’t find no dancing partner!” Six boys laugh. “Come on, hit her,” somebody says, and she gets into an angry snowball fight with the brutal louts, boys as bad as the stupid jerks in Maine who cheer them on (“Hit her in the pussy,” one kid yells, and this makes Jerry laugh). Running after the boys, she climbs the wall to take better aim with her snowballs, then falls, loud and hard, onto a garbage can and moans in pain, “Oh my leg . . . oh my leg”—a litany of misery that Jonny almost cherishes, nursing the memory of certain of his old hurts (Daddy likes to call him an injustice collector”).
“We’ll return to Gordon MacRae in On Moonlight Bay after these messages,” a voice says in Del Mar. Apparently the announcer isn’t watching the movie; maybe I’m the only one who is.
Gordon MacRae, a Pisces like Jonny, is speaking on the wall phone in his fraternity house. (Fraternity house?, I wonder in Del Mar. Some radical.) “—give me one sensible reason. Quiet, fellas! Long distance!” He shuts a door. “But why don’t you want me to come? You’re not going with anybody else, are you?”
“Oh no, William!” Doris Day, an Aries, says from her end, quite distressed. “It’s—just that I don’t feel like dancing with anyone . . . when all of Europe is in flames—” (A cute joke; almost as good as “halfway between New York and Vietnam.”)
“What’s Europe got to do with us?” William’s tinny voice asks reasonably from the receiver in her hands. “Anyway, it’s a charity ball, it’s”—cut back to William, his voice normal now—”for war relief, so you don’t have to feel guilty. I’ll be there Christmas Eve. Gosh, Marjorie, after all the trouble I went to to square things with your father—”
“But I-I-I-I,” Marjorie, terribly flustered, sounds like a Gatling gun. “I don’t think it’s right, William, with poor little Belgium and all and—” How sweet. A pan to the floor reveals her true motive: she’s standing on crutches, one leg in a cast. So all Europe in flames and poor little Belgium have nothing to do with it, any more than swinging countries like Vietnam have anything to do with Visual Arts at UCSD. Useful little buggers to have around, though, when you need them.
As if to bear out one of Marjorie’s exclamations, she and her mother and Stella are dressing Wesley as an angel, a complex maneuver that is accompanied by a cacophony of voices: “Give me your arm will you please hold still now where’s his head tie it up nice and tight just one second it’s gotta be long enough hey you’re choking me.” Wesley is impatient because he wants to go to the picture show, and Jonny is sympathetic. It reminds him of being made up for his part in a Father’s Day skit in the Tri-Cities Follies last spring—a simpler costume, just a dress suit, but the sultan’s luxury of being catered to by several women brings the moment back. He complained then just as Wesley is complaining, only he’s sure that Wesley likes it, too. They’re fitting him up so that he can join Hubert Winkley’s little group of carolers on Christmas Eve, and his mother promises that he can take off the costume and go to his picture show as soon as they’re finished.
Their work completed, Mrs. Winfield remarks on how wonderful he looks—”There’s something almost spiritual about him”—and Marjorie, still on crutches, adds, “You’d never know it was our Wesley.” But when his mother gets him to look at himself in the mirror, the background music grows dark with buzzing cellos and runs a sinister chromatic trip up the scale as recognition slowly dawns: “Marjorie’s old petticoat! “
Pandemonium breaks loose. Jonny laughs, knowing just how Wesley feels, even though he envies him a little, remembering how nice it was to have a sexy older sister in the Father’s Day skit at the Follies. “I wouldn’t be an angel if you killed me,” Wesley howls.
We next see Wesley enter the Gem Theatre, where the curse of drink is playing. A silent movie, it’s one of the few that Jonny has seen, apart from Charlie Chaplin in one A.M. and The Kid at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1950, the summer before last. What he doesn’t know, and what you in Maine are only beginning to surmise, is that it isn’t a real silent movie of the period but a pastiche of one.
Dainty, decorative, out-of-tune piano music with lots of trills and runs is heard as Wesley munches popcorn and Jonny chews on the remaining strip of his shredded Dixie cup. Beneath the screen a female pianist is seen from behind, a spectral presence even more anonymous than that of Professor Barson’s Adolf. On the screen a happy patriarch is identified by a title: “He leaves for work, a faithful husband and father.”
You already know the rest of it, even if Jonny and Wesley do not. Accosted on his way home by drinking men, our hero is soon consorting with a loose, painted woman in a crowded saloon recalling Greed , to the piano strains of “Oh, You Beautiful Doll!” Before long the music has shifted to a melodramatic chase accompaniment and then to a tearful lament as father sends wife and daughter out of the house and into the driven snow, taking a mad swig from his pocket flask (boos from the audience) and falling onto his knees in animal abjection. In short, a Hyde to George Winfield’s upstanding Dr. Jekyll, equally smug and boring.
So much for the movies. Wesley’s back at school, mulling something over at his desk, pencil in hand. Miss Stevens, tapping chalk to get his attention—a ritual gesture as formal, in a way, as the three coups that precede a French classical theater performance—chastises him for not paying attention to a demonstration of the difference between a proper and an improper fraction, then returns to the lesson.
But Wesley’s mind cannot focus on the abstract patter. His head droops, he dozes off, and in overlit double exposure we see him split into twins. One of him, full-bodied in soft focus, remains snoozing at the desk; the other, sharp yet transparent, flaps his arms and slowly levitates, visibly pleased with himself and his newfound talent. To make sure that we appreciate the abnormality of the event, discordant music (Saturday afternoon Princess serial deathray music) accompanies the pan that follows Wesley’s buoyant ascent to the ceiling.
A curly-haired boy sees the miracle, points at Wesley, and laughs gleefully, joined immediately by all the other kids—a raucous, demonic mob of pointers and laughers whose hysteria (“Hahahahahahahahahahaha”) floods the classroom. Miss Stevens, unamused, is hysterical too, climbing on top of her desk and clutching upward in an effort to reach him. “Wesley Winfield, you come down here this instant! You hear me? Come down here! . . . If you don’t come down, I’ll get you down!” But she can’t; she can only grow hoarse above the howling students’ laughter as her arms flail helplessly. “Wesley! Wesley! Wesley Winfield! . . . “
But our hero remains happily beyond her reach, poised overhead like a devilish angel, like Jonny crawling on the catwalk between the roof and the ceiling of the Shoals last summer, giddy and free and powerful enough to snap back, sweet as you please, “Oh my goodness!”—his sister Marjorie’s favorite line—”Can’t you keep still for a minute, you old crow?”
“What did/you say? ” Within the space of a cut, halfway through her sentence, the impotent Miss Stevens of Wesley’s dream has become the threatening real Miss Stevens, her voice surrounded now by silence and underlined with implacable sternness: “What did you say? “
Like the potato chip you ate in Jerry’s presence before lunch at Indian Acres, it’s a crime that can’t be undone or wished away, however unconscious its execution might have been. The stain is indelible, and innocence is Wesley’s only alibi: “What did I say?”
“You know very well what you said. Now stand up! March!” And in Del Mar there is another commercial break.
After school, or perhaps during recess, Wesley is perched on a stool to the left of Miss Stevens’s desk, and she’s asking him, “What excuse do you have to offer before I report your case to the principal?”
“Well—I-I was just thinking—”
“That won’t do, Wesley Winfield.” Alas, it never does, Jonathan reflects glumly in California. “If that is your only excuse, I shall report your case this instant! Now come with me.”
“Well, I have got an excuse.”
“Well, what is it?”
“Well, it’s ’cause I didn’t get any sleep last night,” Wesley says, trying to exude pathos. With a blackboard bearing fractions, a window framing a snow-covered schoolyard, and a Christmas tree in the corner all behind them, this isn’t quite as hard as it sounds.
“Were you ill?”
“No ma’m, it wasn’t illness. It was lots worse than being sick. It was—oh, it was just aw ful.”
“It’s about Father.”
“And Mother—but the trouble was mainly Father.”
“Now Wesley, I’ve never heard any such rumors about your family!” Any such rumors? What rumors? You and Jonny swallow her line as though it were molasses, relegating any hint of obscurity to the vagaries of grown-up babble; but Jonathan and I, both grown up, recognize the lousy scriptwriting, the cart-before-the-horse mechanics that would make sense only if the scene were played backward. “I’ve heard them about plenty of others,” Miss Stevens says, “but—well, your father has always struck me as a, a quiet and charming man.”
“Well, he was until last year,” Wesley says, “when he took to running with them traveling men.”
“What? . . . I don’t want to hear another word of this.” But curiosity gets the better of her, and after a pause she adds, “Continue.”
To make sure that we all know what Wesley is doing, the tinkling out-of-tune piano of the Gem Theatre begins quietly behind Wesley’s reply, growing a little louder as the conversation proceeds. “Yes’m. That was what started it. At first, he was a good, kind husband. But those traveling men’d coax him into a saloon on his way home from work. And they started him drinkin’ beer and then ales and wines and liquors and cigars—”
“I don’t want to hear an-y further about your family’s private affairs. Now, I’m asking you if you have any-thing to say that could possibly excuse—”
“That’s just what I’m trying to tell you, Miss Stevens, if you’d just only let me. You see, after we bandaged Marjorie—”
“Yes’m. Y’see, her leg was all bruised up and mauled “—he twists his features together for emphasis—”where he’d been hittin’ her with his cane—”
“I knew Marjorie had hurt her ankle—but I didn’t know your father had—”
“Yes’m. So I had to sit up with her. And Mother. She had some pretty big bruises too.”
“But, well, why didn’t you send for the doctor?”
“Oh, they didn’t want any doctor. We don’t want anybody to hear about it. Y’see, Father might reform and then where’d he be if everybody knew he’d been a drunkard and whipped his wife and daughter?”
Miss Stevens gasps; Jonny giggles; you yawn and begin to puzzle a bit about why Wesley is trying to make a case against the reform of his father’s alcoholism, and I decide that once again scriptwriters Rose and Shavelson are to blame. “See, he used to be as upright as anyone. It all begun—”
“It began, Wesley,” Miss Stevens says as a cascading harp and a flurry of strings lead the way into an eerie flashback mood.
Wesley continues, “It all commenced when the first day he let them traveling men coax him into that saloon . . . ” Against more weird and wavering strings, a solo pizzicato spells out a downhill chromatic march toward destiny. The hands of the clock on the classroom wall, in medium-shot, move from 12:05 to 12:25.
To Jonny the dreamy compression of time suggests that it’s about two hours earlier than he gets out of school (at 2 P.M.), which means that Wesley has at least two hours less of school each day than he has—unless Wesley’s school starts before 8, or it’s only during recess.
To you in Maine it is an instant metaphor for and counterpart to that familiar movie device, the calendar whose pages drift off successively, and it reminds you (1) that it’s the end of July, not shortly before Christmas, a full month yet before camp is over and Daddy returns, so that you can all drive back to Florence together in the station wagon (by way of New York, where you can buy more comics), and (2) of your diary, a black book bearing the inscription
Johnson & Johnson Established 1907 Insurance—Surety Bonds 115 East Mobile Street Florence, Alabama Telephone: 503
and given to you by Bo and started on April 27, 1953, Bo offering you ten cents for each day that you keep it up in order to encourage your writing, Daddy counting up the entries every month or so (except at camp) and marking “pd thru here” at the end so that Bo could pay you at intervals, a diary that you’ll have to write in tonight, after the movie’s over and before taps.
To me in Del Mar at about 4 P.M. (I check my watch) the classroom clock is a reminder to look again at the July 31, 1953, entry in that diary, now lying beside me on the bed. Because of the wording, I realize this time that the entry must have been written the following day, August 1: “We aired our mattress[es]. I got my laundry. I saw ‘On Moonlight Bay’ that night.” Curious; on July 27, 1978, while typing this sentence in New York, three weeks after my move from California, the entry raises two separate queries in my mind: (1) Why didn’t I have time to write the entry the night before? Had I forgotten to do it? (2) Why was airing the mattresses in the cabin represented as a communal event, while picking up laundry and seeing a movie were described as solitary activities?
To all five of us, including Jonathan in L.A. on February 19, 1978, the passing of time is an intimation that the movie itself is a magical sort of time machine, compressing or expanding certain moments at will and jumping from one time to another in a way that we clearly cannot. If we had the right levers to turn, maybe we wouldn’t need the movie’s time abridgments: Jonny could speed up the movie on his own, inside his head, landing him safely and squarely in the next scene; you could be out of camp and on your way back to Florence via New York, I could be back at Indian Acres, and perhaps Jonathan could be back at the Shoals. In the course of professing to take us back to December 1916, and shrinking the time between noon and 12:30 to a matter of seconds, the movie seems to offer the possibility of all these rites of passage. But who is the servant of this time machine, and who is the master? Who is pulling all the levers?
With the music still enmeshed in weird waverings, Wesley and Miss Stevens fade back into view, Wesley’s voice regaining volume and pursuing a maudlin soliloquy about his mother’s tears. Miss Stevens is more than impressed; there are traces of genuine loving affection in her voice and her eyes as she considers Wesley’s plight: “You brave little boy.” She suggests that he take the afternoon off “and forget about the Whole Thing”—implying that this is during recess after all.
There’s a pause on my cassette, then a stray line of Marjorie’s that abruptly ends side one: “All right, Hubert, I’ll tell him—” Tell whom? Tell him what? Is she addressing Hubert on the phone or in person? My voluminous notes offer not a clue, except to mention that she walks on crutches to the dinner table, her purple dress the color of grape sherbet.
Side two commences with Father’s sharp command to Wesley, “Eat your soup, it’s good.” The two phrases are uttered as though they were syntactically equivalent, foreshadowing the TV sit-coms of the late fifties (Leon Ames himself in Life with Father ; Rosemary DeCamp on The Bob Cummings Show ; Billy Gray on Father Knows Best ; even Mary Wickes—Stella the maid—on I Love Lucy ), as well as their accompanying commercials. Wesley sits with a spoon poised over his bowl, trapped behind a glass of milk, while Mother, dressed in pink, asks Marjorie if she has spoken to Mary Stevens lately. It seems she’s, uh, a little “queer” these days, has acquired a very “odd” manner—”least she seemed odd to me. I met her in the store this afternoon, and after we said how d’ya do to each other, she kept hold of my hand and looked as though she were going to cry.” There’s a gruff, messy cough from Wesley and laughter in the Shoals, though not from Jonny.
“I don’t think it’s so odd, Mother.” Marjorie can see or extrapolate the good health that’s implicit in anything. “I think she’s just very emotional. You know, she has relations living in England, and what with the war and everything going on—” Another bit of stray information that the movie offers but never verifies or develops; for all we know, Mary Stevens is as concerned about her English kinfolk as Marjorie is torn up about those poor little Belgians. Yet from the recent evidence on screen, all we can surmise is that this lonely, deprived woman is dying to get Wesley into bed with her, and maybe his mother too, for an amorous, tearful rollaround of commiseration. The Conquistador, interested only in the setup of a rickety gag structure, blithely looks the other way.
Mrs. Winfield doesn’t seem to pick up on this possibility either; instead she interrupts Marjorie with, “Wait. She stood there squeezing my hand and struggling to get her voice—really, I was embarrassed—and then finally she said, in a kind of tearful whisper, ‘Be of good cheer, this trial will pass—'”
“How queer!” Marjorie says.
“Maybe she’d been drinking,” Father says, following this with a forced laugh that Wesley echoes hollowly—a signal to the audience to do the same, and the kids at Indian Acres (you included) comply.
Then Mother reveals that Miss Stevens said something even “queerer”: “‘I know that Wesley is a great, great comfort to you!'”
Stella, standing beside Mother, drops the soup serving bowl on the table with a clatter. Father muses, “I’m afraid she’s a goner,” and Stella chimes in with, “Crazy as a bedbug.” Wesley sighs with relief and asks for more soup, apparently impervious to the insult just laid at his feet.
Jonny bristles at this indifference or insensitivity, remembering the small hurts that have come from his own parents’ teasing him. Usually they kid him about how much he likes to talk, calling him Mighty Mouth a few years back or, just before their summer trip in 1950, writing a song that the whole family (Jonny included) sang together on the road, to the tune of “We’re Off to See the Wizard.”
We’rrrrre off to see the Smokies, it’s Washington and New York, We’ll really have a wonderful time if Jonny refrains from talk, If David and Alvin don’t whine and fuss, a wonderful trip’s in store for us, We’re off to see the Smokies—it’s Washington and New York!
At the local railroad depot William, looking somewhat older in a raccoon coat and a grey hat, steps off the arriving train and immediately runs into Miss Stevens, all gussied up in a broad-brimmed hat decorated with fake yellow flowers. (And what is she doing at the station, apart from sparing the scriptwriters the necessity of another scene? We’ll never know.) “William Sherman! What are you doing in town? Jim said you were staying at the University this Christmas.”
“Well, I came down to take Marjorie to the Charity Ball. It’s a surprise.”
“Marjorie Winfield?” She sighs mournfully. “Ohh, you poor, poor boy.” The woman clearly has funds of sympathy for everyone; why can’t the movie afford her any in return?
“What’s the matter, Miss Stevens?”
“You mean she didn’t write you about—Her Father? . . . You come with me. C’mon—” They exit together.
In the parlor of the Winfield house Stella is giving Marjorie an alcohol rub while Father lies stretched out blissfully on the sofa. Mother addresses him gingerly, “George—George.” She smiles. “Sleeping like a baby. He’s been working too hard lately.”
“Is the light shining in his eyes, Mother?” Marjorie asks.
“Oh—well, I’ll fix that.” She picks up a newspaper, unfolds it, and spreads it over his face like a coverlet. “Oh, isn’t it cozy, ” she exclaims, surveying the scene (Christmas tree, pulsing fireplace, snoozing Father), getting us to do the same, to say the same, “A perfect Christmas Eve.” On cue, the doorbell is turned five frantic times.
“Someone wants in,” Stella says redundantly, going to answer the bell as it rings three times more. A Christmas wreath appears on the outside of the door as she opens it to reveal a glaring William Sherman. “Marjorie!”
“Bill! . . . Oh Bill, I’m so glad to see you,” she cries girlishly, ecstatically, as he rushes to embrace her and sees her broken leg, the Christmas tree behind them.
“It’s true!” he says. “Look what he’s done to you—that monster! Marjorie, I’ll take you away from all this—”
“William,” Mother says loudly, indicating Father supine, “will you please be quiet?”
“Don’t you worry, Mrs. Winfield, I’m not afraid of him.”
“William!” Mother says.
“So this is what the institution of marriage has done—forced you to live with that drunken beast! “
“Wha-at,” she says.
Bill sniffs ostentatiously. “Why, this place reeks with alcohol!”
“That’s rubbing alcohol.” Marjorie indicates the bottle.
“Oh no,” Bill groans. “How low can a man sink?” Or a movie, for that matter? He throws the bottle into the fireplace, and it explodes with a Faustian blast.
“What’s the matter with you?” Mother asks.
“Look at him,” Bill says, pointing at Father. “Lying there in a drunken stupor! I’ll sober him up—” He lifts a conveniently placed pitcher of water and empties it passionately on Father. The shrieks of distress from Marjorie and Mother are accompanied by lots of laughs from the folks in Alabama and Maine, who also catch glimpses of Wesley watching from the front stairway, then running upstairs as pandemonium ensues. (“Ah bet somebahdy’s gonna tan his hide, ” chuckles a lady in the Shoals a few rows behind Jonny, addressing her kids.) “And if you ever lay a little finger on either of them again,” Bill shouts, clutching his victim, “I’ll—” “Take your hands off me!” Father roars, and everyone else is screaming at once.
Father: “Get this madman out of this house.”
Marjorie: “William Sherman, I never want to see you again as long as I live!”
“I’m sorry, Marjorie,” the rechristened William says, exasperated, his voice cracking a little like Andy Hardy’s, “but they said he’d taken to drink and was beat ing you—”
“Who’s they? ” Mother wants to know, jeering the words like a New Yorker.
“Miss Stevens—Wesley’s teacher. I met her at the station.”
Marjorie is livid. “How could you believe for one minute that My Father —”
“Young man, ” Father says forcefully, “never step foot inside this door again —” Apparently he means “set foot,” but let’s give Leon Ames a break. “But sir,” William protests, “she said that Wesley said that.” Slam! goes the door in his face.
Thursday, August 24, 1978, 6:35 P.M., New York, a very hot day when it’s hard to think, hard to recall precisely how William is maneuvered out of the house. My notes say only that Stella holds a mop near the front door and Father’s hair is still wet. But no one watching the movie is concerned about this, so let’s give ourselves a break, too. The essential fact is that William is nonviolently but forcibly ejected.
“I knew it was a mistake,” Father says to no one in particular, “moving into this neighborhood .”
Marjorie, with a girlish gasp: “I’ve never seen him like this before!”
Mother, thoughtfully: “Maybe he’s been studying too hard.”
Father, on cue: “His mind must have snapped!”
And Stella, fourth voice in the fugue: “What was that he was saying about Mr. Wesley?”
The strings shoot out a cold musical dart that betokens recognition, a fluttering suspension that wavers under Marjorie’s voice: “Wesley! Oh my goodness—” She rushes out the door, cheeks aflush, calling, “William! . . . William! . . . William!” leaving her parents to round off the incantation over a trill from the reeds, passing from Mother’s question to Father’s direct summons—”Wesley?” “Wesley !”—syllables that are answered by two low, confirming thuds from the orchestra.
We’re at the front gate again, the same tableau that framed William and Marjorie’s first date, with the same hazy blue background, but with Marjorie and William now on opposite sides of the white picket fence, which supports an even line of snow. The theme song returns to solace the pathos vibrating in Marjorie’s voice, and the memory of their love drifts back, even though the winter setting makes the buttermilky moonlight harder and bluer than it was last summer—a bit reminiscent of the snow ice cream that Jonny sampled last winter.
“Oh William, I’m awfully sorry. If only I had told you how I sprained my ankle—”
“I’m not interested.”
“William, please listen to me.” She takes a breath. “I was throwing snowballs and I fell. And I didn’t want to tell you because—because you’d think I’m so feminine.” Breath. “There’s nothing I wanted more than to go to the dance with you.” Breath. “I even practiced the Grizzly Bear and the Crab Step and all those dances. Won’t you please come back?”
It’s a confession that borders on self-humiliation: there’s no apparent reason why William might think Marjorie “so feminine” for falling while she was throwing snowballs, and it is not clear why she would have minded if he did, yet she says this with such tender abjection, with such an emotional abdication of logic, that Jonny can’t help but sniffle a little along with her, feeling a warm glow rise in the back of his head. But William holds back, his own dignity at stake. “I only make a fool of myself once a night.”
A pause while she takes this in. “Well, you pompous old—” She reaches angrily for a handful of snow, packs it, tosses it at William (a glissando of strings spells out the snowball’s trajectory), and hits him up side the head, as they say in Alabama. He comes back, grabs her, and they kiss and embrace to the rippling of a harp that concludes the statement of the title theme.
There’s something sad as well as sweet about their embrace, but as the song in Lili says, “A song of love is a sad song.” And the song in Lili, a song of love, was sweet and sad too. You saw the movie with your whole family in Washington back in June, on your way up to camp, and the song that Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer sang with an accordion—as good as any campfire nonsense song—has stayed with you all summer.
It was a song that poor, orphaned Leslie Caron used to sing with her father, and the puppets (Mel Ferrer) got her to sing it again to cheer her up. You could still hear it after the movie, when you all went into a crowded, clanging cafeteria for supper and, standing in line, you saw a newspaper headline that you asked Daddy about: Rosenbergs Electrocuted . Were they related at all to the Rosenbaums? And why were they electrocuted?
Daddy explained to you, Alvin, David, and Michael, about the atomic secrets the Rosenbergs had given away, about the electric chair, and about the two little Rosenberg boys. “But that means that they’re orphans now,” you said, suddenly realizing the fact, and after you all sat down at a table with your trays, the tears started in your eyes as the Lili song played on in your head. You started to eat your chicken à la king, and thought about the poor little boys who didn’t do anything wrong and who lost their parents. “Why did they have to be killed?” you asked Daddy, and Mommy said to lower your voice. Daddy lowered his own voice and said, “Yes, I think it really is unfair to those kids. But we shouldn’t talk about it here at the table. People can hear us, and maybe they wouldn’t like to hear about electric chairs while they’re eating.” So you and Alvin talked instead about the puppets in the movie, but the sad song about the Rosenberg boys played on, silently, secretly, “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo, Hi-Lo,” and it made you sad whenever you thought about it. How funny that was—how happy and sweet it made you feel about being sad, and how that made you feel less alone.
During the commercial break, as I go to take a leak, I can hear Melina Mercouri in a trailer for Never On Sunday (to be shown when On Moonlight Bay is over) admitting to an American tourist that she’s learned French, English, Greek, Italian, and a leetle Spanish “in bed” and exclaiming excitedly, “I like my life! I like my work! I theenk, therefore I am! Descartes! French philosopher!” Cal Stereo announces a holiday sale (as I return to my bed), an entire system for just $256; Suzy Chapstick declares, “This is real chapstick weather—so Chapstick is the only name for me”; and Bern Schaeffer, owner of Colton Piano and Organ Supermarts, says Hi, points out that he has over 400 grand pianos ranging from $14.95 to $55,600, “and of course everything in between,” and lists the freeways—Colton, Carson, and Santa Ana—where his supermarts are located.
Father is storming around with his razor strop, looking for Wesley. “I hope he’s all right,” Mother says maternally. “So do I,” Father replies smartly, “because I want him to be in good condition when I catch up with him! Wesley! . . . Wesley! . . . Wesley!” He goes out onto the porch, where Marjorie and Bill are, and they see a team of kids dressed in white robes with wings and halos marching toward the house, singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” The carolers suggest, at least to Jonny at the Shoals, the kids from the Our Gang comedies dressed up for Halloween, only with wings and halos, and in color. Jonathan thinks vaguely of a religious procession out of Eisenstein, or perhaps the Ku Klux Klan.
Father is flanked now by Mother and Stella as he watches in stupefaction. “Mother,” he intones slowly and quietly, “I need a drink.” “I’ll have one with ya,” Stella snaps back with her customary smirk.
Wispy oooohs ooze from the carolers (or, rather, from an offscreen chorus that is much too heavenly to match the children on screen), accompanied by poor Hubert Winkley on a portable organ near the bushes, miffed and bereft (a dab of cute contrast to make the coziness feel even cozier), the kids occupying the front lawn. It’s the sort of sound that goes with pink clouds at sunset, baby Disney animals snuggling up to their mothers, and benign patriarchs like the wise old owl in So Dear To My Heart . As Stella and the senior Winfields reenter the house and William takes off his raccoon coat to drape it around Marjorie, she sings over the celestial choir, looking dreamily at nothing in particular. William, sitting calmly on the porch railing, joins in, and he and Marjorie croon over the chorus alternate lines of a variation of “Silent Night.”
“Merry Christmas, Marjorie,” Bill says, looking at Marjorie. “Merry Christmas, Bill,” Marjorie says, looking at Bill while Mother and Father and Hubert and Wesley and the other kids watch Bill and Marjorie. What a nice, tender, icky moment; for sheer snuggleness, sweetness, and warmth, Jonny can recall little to compete with it (perhaps Betty Garrett singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” to Red Skelton in Neptune’s Daughter —a memory he has managed to preserve for twenty-seven months, along with that of Ricardo Montalban singing the same song to Esther Williams in the same picture. He already confuses this a little with the Sun Valley setting of Duchess Of Idaho, another Esther Williams musical; his mind combines the snugness of the former with the snow of the latter to synthesize an ideal mixture. Other details will fade too, but the warmth will stay with him for decades to come).
A close-up of an invitation to William’s graduation from the University of Indiana, June 3, 1917, accompanied by a male chorus’s robust rendition of “Alma Mater,” tells us that the movie has leapt forward more than five months. A staggering assumption, which all the subsequent action will subtly reinforce: that nothing essential has happened to anyone for 163 days, as though a wave of mass amnesia has swept across the movie’s population, leaving all as we last saw them only seconds ago. Whatever surprises may be in store for us, they are made possible by our own moviegoer’s credulity, not by the capriciousness of the characters—static figurines who remain forever the same, whether we see them whole or not.
And how can we see them whole when our view is necessarily one-sided, able to see only the camera’s side of the props, never the reverse side, where a well-to-do Midwestern neighborhood in 1916 becomes a complex network of unembellished scaffolding and wooden supports?
How can we see anyone or anything whole? Tonight, for instance, September 6, 1978, New York, West Greenwich Village, a little before 8 P.M., at a newsstand on Sixth Avenue near Eighth Street, Jonathan purchased copies of TV Guide and the New York Review of Books and a pack of cigarettes, and the newsdealer swore, fumed, and shouted as he added and readded the three prices, 35 cents, 85 cents, and 70 cents. He was steamed that the New York Review cost 85 cents instead of a dollar. “Goddamn bastards can’t make it an even dollar, has to be eighty-five, eighty-five! Those fucking son of-a-bitching bastards have to be fancy!” That’s not exactly what he said, but whatever Jonathan heard—not more than a third of which seemed to be addressed to him, or to anyone else—is infinitely less retrievable than the soundtrack of a movie he taped nine months ago, even though Jonathan is recalling this incident only four hours later, in his SoHo apartment shortly before midnight.
Another obstacle to seeing (or hearing) the newsdealer whole was the counter the man stood behind, and Jonathan’s lack of access to a reverse angle: the newsdealer’s view of him, the magazines, the pedestrians, the trafficon Sixth Avenue, the buildings across the street—all seen from behind and thus framed by the cramped and closeted cubbyhole in which the man was standing.
Jonathan can’t get any closer to William or Marjorie or Wesley or Mr. and Mrs. Winfield or Hubert or Miss Stevens because he can’t see their own frames as they look through the camera at him—neither the frames of the characters in the Indiana of 1916 and 1917 nor the frames of the actors on a Warner Brothers sound stage at mid-century. The worlds that circumscribe their gazes into his world are as invisible to him as the Shoals Theatre, the Indian Acres mess hall, a Del Mar bedroom, an L.A. living room, and a New York foam mattress (where he’s writing this) are to them.
This is a long digression, harping on what may appear to be obvious, but it introduces a significant slant on an important scene that is about to take place. We’re only a few shots away from an image that will round off the collection of slides that was flashed on a screen in the Winfield parlor some time ago, behind the credits of this movie. Think back now, and recall those five tableaux if you can: Doris and Gordon in a boat On Moonlight Bay; Doris dancing around a snowman; Billy Gray and company singing Christmas carols before the Winfield house; Gordon’s college graduation; and the Winfields’ new neighborhood, as the action of the movie begins. With all but one of these spatiotemporal coordinates firmly staked out and the movie less than three-quarters over, what can the remaining twenty-odd minutes offer? Nothing, apparently, that warrants a place in the ideal scrapbook that was projected into the Winfield parlor—not to mention millions of other architectural and cranial enclosures, rooms and brains, throughout the Western world (and perhaps even further, toward the East: Ray Durgnat no longer recalls how far from Singapore his army ship was stationed when this divertissement was projected for the troops). Which suggests that the privileged models of timeless fulfillment proposed at the beginning of this film are about to become exhausted, bypassed, leaving us with something else entirely. A volcano, perhaps, to threaten the serenity of a paradisiacal island?
First of all, only a university tower clock, announcing that it’s shortly after 11 on a crisp spring morning. Then William, in his black cap and gown (a curious negative image of the white angel dress worn by Wesley and his fellow carolers), standing on a tree-lined path with Marjorie, who’s wearing a yellow outfit of matching buttermilk dress, gloves, purse, and broad-brimmed hat with yellow sash. William sounds a mite portentous when he says, “You know, it just occurred to me that after today, I won’t belong here anymore.” Disturbing prophecy; once this movie is over, we won’t belong in it anymore, either.
“Why, William Sherman,” Marjorie exclaims, “I didn’t know that college meant so much to you. You used to laugh at it, you know.”
“I was just going through a phase.” William shrugs.
“Were you goin’ through one about me, too?”
“Nooooh,” he says gently, almost paternally. “That wasn’t a phase.” He kisses her to prove it, as other graduating students walk past.
“Oh Bill,” she sighs, “we’re gonna have a wonderful time this summer.” She notices his troubled air. “What’s wrong?”
“Marjorie, there’s s-something very important I’ve got to tell you—” The tower bell rings repeatedly.
“What’s wrong?” she repeats. Two other gowned students walk briskly by, saying, “Come on, Bill, you wanna graduate, don’t you?” and “Or do you wanna wait till next year?”
Bill says, “Holy smokes, I gotta make a speech. Come on—”
“But what were you gonna tell me?” Marjorie asks.
“You’ll know soon enough.”
As if to prove him right, the movie cuts to an outdoor platform and the camera dollies back from the red-draped rostrum to take in Bill with his cap in his hands, the rostrum before him, a giant red and white banner, CLASS OF 1917, that stretches across stage and screen, other gowned figures on the stage, and then part of the audience as well. Bill is speaking:
“During our four years at college, many of us have changed our ideas as often as our wardrobes. And I think it’s a wise thing; a good student should have an open and inquiring mind. As freshmen, we were radicals. As sophomores, we were freethinkers. As juniors, we were intellectuals . . . In those years past, it had become fashionable to us to sneer at established institutions”—he stumbles slightly over the last word, omitting the first “n,” reminding Jonny of the way he often hears the word pronounced at temple—”but now we must outgrow our callow philosophies and face the realities of a troubled and changing world.”
In the audience Marjorie is whispering to Mother, “Doesn’t William look distinguished in his cap and gown?” “Someday,” Mother whispers back, “Wesley will look just as distinguished, ” and Stella, in the row behind them, murmurs, “Yeah, but it’ll take more’n a cap-n-gown.” Meanwhile, William continues, less audibly, “In the words of that great American Thomas Paine . . . “
Speaking of Wesley, he’s sitting to the right of Father—who’s sitting to the right of Marjorie, who’s sitting to the right of Mother—and he stealthily removes a peashooter from his vest pocket.
“I say to you that we must awaken to our responsibilities”—William’s voice is louder again, the camera is on the podium in reverse angle, and bam! goes a pellet from the peashooter, hitting him up side the neck—”as students and citizens, and remember that we are men and women, not dreamers in an ivory tower.” Bam! another pellet strikes his neck, but he keeps his cool—or almost, because he pauses, and his next sentence omits another consonant (William’s slip or Gordon MacRae’s?): “These are the times that try men’s soul. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot must do everything in their power—”
Cut to Father taking away Wesley’s peashooter before he can get off a third pellet, Wesley coughing loudly and disgustingly to cover his exposure.
“Well,” William says primly, “we are not summer soldiers or sunshine patriots. Many of you have come to think of college students as frivolous young men and women.”
Pandemonium. A heretofore invisible brass band breaks into a rousing version of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” applause and loud cheers rise from the ecstatic audience, and black caps fly through the air above the stage. Marjorie stares, dumbfounded and brokenhearted, at William, transformed miraculously into a cute little doughboy.
For Jonny the unveiling creates something of a pang: he sympathizes with Marjorie’s plight, yet he feels some of Bill’s excitement, too. For you in 1953, the pang is a lot sharper, making you wince at the virtual betrayal on Bill’s part, a form of deception that takes you back to the emotional shock of an even greater betrayal in Wait ‘Til The Sun Shines Nellie, a movie that was your Madame Bovary at age nine, your definitive honor story about life in the provinces.
That was a betrayal you could never forgive: 1895, a small town in Illinois, and David Wayne promising Jean Peters on their honeymoon that they’ll move to Chicago soon, but meanwhile he’s setting up a barber shop in town, secretly purchasing the property that it’s on, ignoring her in order to spend time with his cronies, and even paying in advance for her tombstone in the local cemetery. The years go by, he keeps promising she’ll get to Chicago, and then he goes off to the same war that Bill has just enlisted in. While he’s away Jean Peters discovers all his lies and deceptions, and in mad, vengeful desperation she boards a train for Chicago, 110 miles away. Hugh Marlowe, a married man who has been trying to woo her for several reels, hops aboard, too. Overseas, Wayne gets the news that the two have been killed in a railway accident en route to Chicago. And that’s it; the remainder of the movie carries Wayne and his two kids to the present day. That was the shock, the betrayal—the unexpected annihilation of Jean Peters and “Chicago” (never seen) from the narrative, as though a storyteller, addressing you alone, were suddenly, in mid-sentence and without warning, to turn to everybody else in the room and continue the tale, leaving you out in the cold.
So you hated the audience when they accepted Wayne and his dirty lies and blandly forgot about Jean Peters, Hugh Marlowe, and Chicago, just as you hate the kids at camp for accepting Bill and his classmates and their underhanded sneakiness—which looks to me in Del Mar like closet misogyny of the first order.
Yet all these responses miss the essential point: the war that causes this fanfare isn’t World War I but the one in Korea. After all, the movie was made not long after Truman ordered American troops to Korea in June 1950, and the cease-fire and armistice talks didn’t come about until July 1953, two years after On Moonlight Bay received its national release (Legion of Decency rating, A-1; Motion Picture Herald rating, very good). The armistice is signed, in fact, only five days before you see the movie at Indian Acres.
So the epiphany of this scene—the grand revelation that surely has an effect on the distinct sense of loss that both Jonny and you are experiencing—is the sudden collapse of wishful history into the ugly present, the imperceptible modulation of mystical nostalgia into aggressive patriotism. Yet the specter of Korea remains felt rather than understood, by all three of you in your scattered respective lairs, thousands of miles and many years apart.
Mother remarks on the heat and suggests that George take off his jacket as they and Wesley sit down to the dinner table, which bears such homey items as a plateful of donuts and a catsup bottle. George removes his jacket and checks his pocket-watch: “7:30.”
“She’s probably mooning around somewhere,” Mother says with a touch of tenderness. “She has been since you-know-what”—the last three words half-sung in an ascending scale.
“Someday,” George says decisively, “Marjorie’s going to thank me for what I’ve done . . . I was talking to Hubert Wakeley—” (Isn’t it Winkley? Or does the pronounciation vary in keeping with the vagueness and insubstantiality of the character?)
“She doesn’t like him, George.”
“And why not, I’d like to know. He’s reliable, settled, makes a good living, and he won’t have to go into the army! This morning he told me he had a punctured eardrum.” At the graduation ceremony? Is it still the same day?
“He punctured it last night,” says Stella, serving dinner.
“Stella, ” Mother says with a reproving stare. It’s a curious tribal tactic that people use in this movie: reproving someone by reciting his or her name as if bestowing a minor curse. Miss Stevens does it with “Wesley Winfield,” Marjorie does it with “William Sherman” (when she pointedly doesn’t call him Bill), and Mother does it with “George Wadsworth Winfield,” a castrating operation in each case. Nobody tries it on Mother, whose first name, Alice, is rarely spoken. But what does Stella’s wisecrack mean? That Hubert is a sniveling draft dodger who deliberately mutilated himself last night? “Last night” conjures up the caroling in the snow, but that was more than five months ago. What could have happened last night? How could Stella know about it? Is a scene missing from the release prints? Needless to say, none of this bothers Jonny, you, or me, all of whom blithely slide past the wisecrack like greased pigs, shoved along by the Conquistador so that the comment is immediately wrapped and labeled “Stella wisecrack” before anyone can worry about its contents. Only Jonathan, who has time on his hands, is concerned with these matters. September 8, 1978, 8:15 P.M., he listens once more to Stella’s phrase on the cassette, only to discover that she actually says, “I punctured it last night,” which sets off a fresh wave of enigma. By this time, one should note, Stella has returned to the kitchen.
“Hey, Wesley!” Jim calls from across the street. Wesley raises the window. “Ya comin’ ?”
“Be right there!” Wesley hollers back, then turns around. “Mom, I’m not hungry. Can I go with Jim?”
“Where are you going, dear?”
“Well, there’s a troop train comin’ in and—we thought we’d go down to the station, ’cause Bill’s gonna be on it.”
“Sit down and eat your dinner, young man,” Father says. “You’re not going anywhere.
“Wesley sits down again with a scowl. “Seems t’me if Margie can go, I oughta be able to,” he mumbles.
“Margie knows better than to do anything like that.”
“Well, she was packin’ her bag, ” Wesley whines, “and I ast her whur she was goin’ and—”
“Packing her bag?” Mother asks with alarm. “George!” “Wesley tattles on Marjorie,” I write in my old writing book in Del Mar. “Did I learn to tattle from movies?” I used to tattle a lot on my brothers, David especially.
A spoon or fork drops from George’s hand onto the table. “Weh -ell,” he says, his anger rising. “I’ll take care of this —” He heads through the kitchen door, which crashes into Stella bearing a tray offscreen, and Mother screams amid the clatter. After a dead space for audience laughter (appropriate in Florence and Indian Acres, if not in Del Mar) Stella emerges with empty tray to announce, “Well, it’s a little too hot for dessert, wasn’t it?” Considering that the main course was served less than a minute ago, she may be right.
Apparently the same brass band that we heard at the graduation ceremony is now at the train station, playing the same tune. A long right-to-left pan moves past a stationary green train labeled “Rockport” that is packed with brown-uniformed troops, and a sign that identifies the name of the town, for the first time in the movie, as Milburn.
No wonder Margie wants to leave. She appears in an all-blue outfit, a suit-case in each hand, looking about frenetically. One soldier helps her to climb aboard the train. “I’m looking for a soldier,” she tells him. “You came to the right source,” he responds with a leer. “Hey, how do I know you’re not a German spy?” “Oh, I’m not!” she assures him. “Or maybe I better search you for secret papers—” She flees down the soldier-clogged corridor, working her way through diverse entanglements like Marlene Dietrich in her nun’s getup in The Devil Is A Woman, while the boys hoot, whistle, and holler at her as if she were a burlesque queen.
Meanwhile, in another car, Bill is leading his buddies in a cheerful rendition of “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag.” The image will be echoed symmetrically in the sequel, By The Light Of The Silvery Moon (which Jonathan resees in 35mm on a Steenbeck at the British Film Institute in London, January 6, 1978, after discovering that the BBC’s print of On Moonlight Bay has been sold to Holland and the sequel booked as a last-minute replacement), when Bill returns from the war with his buddies and leads them in a cheerful rendition of “My Home Town Is a One-Horse Town, But It’s Good Enough for Me.” This time the song is comparably rousing.
Propitiously, Marjorie reaches him at the conclusion of the first chorus; the invisible brass band carries on with the second. “Marjorie, what are you doing here?”
“I’m going with you!” she says frantically.
“But this is a troop train —”
“I don’t care what it is or where it’s going. Just so we can be together.”
“Well, it’s gonna be mighty crowded in that pup tent,” a buddy remarks, and the other men laugh.
“We’re pulling out any minute,” Bill says. “You’ve got to get off—”
“I’m not leaving you! Until you ship out, I’m never gonna be any farther away from you than this —” She gives him a hug and a squeeze that prompts another buddy to quip, “Hey, maybe this is that bonus that Congress has been promisin’ us,” greeted by more laughs.
“You’ve got to get out of here!” Bill says.
The next five seconds on the cassette have been accidentally erased; my notes allude to a quarrel between them. ” . . . I’ve got it all figured out,” Bill continues. “You get off—” He edges her toward the car’s exit.
“But I may never see you again. And if there’s any way I can—”
“Young lady, will you listen to me—”
“Please, William, I know what I’m doing. I’ve thought about this for a long time—”
“Will you marry me?”
“I can get a place to stay near the campus—” Campus? Poor Doris; she’s in the wrong scene.
“I’m asking you to be my wife.”
It finally sinks in. “Your married wife? . . . Oh, Bill!” she squeals. They embrace to the sound of a march that the band has been playing since it concluded the previous tune. When they break away, Marjorie says, “But you don’t believe in marriage!”
“Right this minute I don’t know anything I believe in more—” Not even killing Krauts? Good old Bill; we all knew he’d get over the remnants of his petty radicalism. “Now look, Margie. You get the next train. I’ll meet you in Chicago. We’ll be married as soon as you get there.”
No, they won’t; George Winfield appears suddenly between them, almost magically, practically spouting smoke like a dragon. “Marjorie Winfield, you get off this train!”
“And as for you, young man, I oughta have you thrown in prison—”
“But Mr. Winfield—I just asked Marjorie to marry me.”
“Yes, I expected you to say that . . . now ” To Marjorie: “You’re coming home to grow up!” and he pulls her off the train with him while the band plays on. Cut to a reverse angle, he leading her off to the left, along the platform, the camera panning with them. The train whistle blows and the train starts to move as Mr. Winfield continues to kvetch. “Running away with a soldier; how could you let him influence you into doing such a thing!”
“But it was all my idea,” she protests.
“Ohhh—” he fumes. “Why didn’t you stick to baseball?
“He leads her out of the frame, and it’s time for another commercial break.
Remember the lonesome lament that Marjorie sang in her bedroom in late October 1916, while writing Bill a love letter? The song that Jonny found so boring and that made you feel sad about Mrs. Thomas? We heard it again, played by a trombone, later that morning as Wesley sneaked into Marjorie’s room to sign his name to her letter and take it away. Now, in Marjorie’s bedroom again, we hear the strings reprise that lament while Margie lies sobbing on her bed. On the other side of the dark bed, in the shadowy blue background, Wesley, looking repentant, opens the door and speaks softly. “Margie?”
A pronounced mood of incestual intimacy (but not so blatant as the obvious lust in Spencer Tracy’s eyes for his daughter Elizabeth Taylor in Father Of The Bride, made the previous year) makes this scene a lot more erotic in its emotional coloring than the previous one. Part of it relates to the unusually close empathy that can exist between siblings; for Jonny it happens when he or Alvin is spanked and both cry with equal intensity, experiencing virtually the same pain. This has been suggested, too, however obliquely, by Wesley’s signing Margie’s letter, thereby affixing to it his own identity, an identity that is mocked and scorned as soon as it escapes the private language of their unconscious incestuous bond and becomes shamefully public in the classroom.
If in retrospect we posit a subterranean relationship throughout the movie between Wesley and Bill (remember, they became rivals when the one aped the other’s singing of “Cuddle Up a Little Closer” from under the porch), it would seem that the public humiliation of Wesley, after his witting or unwitting identification with Marjorie had been exposed, created a trauma in the movie’s emotional balance that has had many consequences, above all the humiliation of Margie herself. The revenge of the male ego threatened by its own traces of femininity is to make that femininity—as embodied by Marjorie—look as weak, stupid, and ineffectual as possible. In practical terms, this revenge hasn’t been wreaked by the movie alone (the boys’ mocking of her happiness and throwing snowballs, Wesley’s fib about her broken leg, Bill’s deceit about his enlistment, her father’s imperious contempt for her feelings); it has also been implemented by Jonny, you, me, Jonathan, and millions of others, all working together through the movie. Which is why Margie is crying on her bed now, and why Wesley and the rest of us, male and female alike, feel pretty lousy about it. In one way or another, we’ve all been partially responsible.
Wesley approaches the bed and addresses her gingerly. “Yes, Wesley?” She looks up at him, her face streaked with tears, as he sits beside her on the bed. He’s wearing a tie, which makes him look even more like a pint-sized version of Bill or George, and a closer shot of them shows their faces bathed in light against the room’s dark shadows.
“I’m sor-ry,” he says contritely. “It was a secret about you going to the train, and I told.” At 4:34 P.M. in Del Mar I note the precise time of his apology for tattling. Some 314 months earlier, at about the same time of day at the Shoals, Jonny’s remorse over his own tattling is superseded and submerged by memories of recriminations for it, from his parents, teachers, or brothers, recriminations which have sometimes led to tears as mournful as Marjorie’s. At Indian Acres, feeling a refined variant of this, you can only hanker after the voluptuous luxury of crying on your bed, something you’re too embarrassed to do at camp—except for some nights after taps, when the cabin is dark and you can do it very quietly, facing the pillow.
“It’s all right,” Margie says.
“Well, no it isn’t,” Wesley counters firmly. “Here I am gonna be twelve years old tomorrow”—two years older than you are at Indian Acres—”and I’m acting like I was a child.”
“We all act like children sometimes, Wesley,” she says affectionately, her voice clogged with tears. Then she starts to cry again, her body shaking. Jonny remembers Helen Schneible crying once after she fell down, and that sounded almost as bad. Lingering over Margie’s last remark, you recall her playing baseball and Bill’s spanking her, thinking she was Wesley; to Jonathan these events imply that the transferral of identities between the siblings has been reciprocal and equal.
“Gee,” Wesley says, preparing to leave, “it must be tough bein’ a girl.” After he closes the door softly behind him, she continues to cry, disconsolately.
The following day, bright and cheery, a horse-drawn buggy trots up to the front of the Winfield residence and stops; the music is the same flutey, chipper, happy theme that accompanied George when he approached the house at the beginning of the movie.
“Hello, Mrs. Robertson,” Stella says, stepping down from the porch as an imposing matron, dressed to kill in a bright blue dress and green hat, stands in the carriage and reaches for her cane. “Hello, Stella.”
“Well, it’s good to see you. Here, let me help you—”
“If I needed any help,” Mrs. Robertson says robustly, “I wouldn’t have come.”
“Aunt Martha!” cries Mother, appearing at the front door, dressed in light brown. She turns and calls into the house, “Wes-ley! Aunt Martha’s here!” then crosses the porch to hug Martha, who has descended from the carriage with her cane and a bag and mounted the front steps. “Oh, it’s good to see you! You’re looking younger every day.”
“Well,” says Martha, “I feel younger every day.”
“Hello, Aunt Martha!” Wesley, on the porch, seems equally pleased at her arrival.
“Wesley! My, how you’ve grown! Why, I hardly know you with your face all washed and your hair combed.”
She laughs. Mother suggests, “Can’t we all go inside?”
“No, I’ll only stay a few minutes,” Aunt Martha says, sitting down in the rocker on the sunny, light-green porch. “I just came to bring Wesley some cookies and give him his birthday present. I guess that’s all you’re interested in, isn’t it, Wesley?” There’s a twinkle in her eyes that seems serene and cynical at the same time.
“Yes’m,” he says, sitting on the porch swing while she laughs again.
“Well,” she says to Mother, unwrapping the cookies and handing them over to Wesley, “I hear that George real-ly made a spectacle of himself last night at the railway station.”
“Shhh,” goes Mother, sitting in a chair beside her.
“Oh shush yourself, Alice,” Martha says, her voice a somewhat more ladylike version of Ma Kettle’s plain talking. “One prude in the family is enough. Marjorie wants to get married—why doesn’t he let her?” In Del Mar I wonder how Martha could know so much, but something about her, slightly regal and even faintly deified, suggests that she automatically knows everything.
“Well, George feels the boy isn’t sincere. Y’see, William doesn’t believe in the institu tion of marr iage!”
“Fiddlesticks! No man believes in marriage—until a woman traps him into it. Remember how you got George?” Allowing this pithy wisdom to sink in, she turns back to her nephew, who’s busy eating cookies. “Well, Wesley, how’re you makin’ out?”
“Just fine,” he says with his mouth full. Both the cookies and the shadows on the lime-colored porch remind Jonny of Bo and Grandma’s house on North Wood Avenue and the upstairs terrace where they all go out and sit some summer evenings, listening to the cicadas, drinking Coke floats with their cookies, and playing Twenty Questions.
“Happy birthday!” Aunt Martha presents him with a small package.
“Gee, thanks, Aunt Martha.” He eagerly opens it, and we see the loot in close-up: a fancy jackknife with so many accessories that a couple of boys at Indian Acres whistle with envy. Wesley pulls out the main blade, and we cut to Alice in medium shot, gasping with a sharp intake of breath; Stella, on the sidelines, responds with a low whistle.
“Oh no, ” Alice says, her voice cracking, “not tha-at!”
“Oh, let him keep it!” Martha commands cheerfully. “I suppose he will do something horrible with it—I’d be disappointed if he didn’t.” (Like disembowel Stella? Jonathan wonders.)
Alice says, “Wesley, be careful! You’ll cut yourself!”
“And here’s something else,” declares Martha (“friend of Jesus, sister of Mary and Lazarus of Bethany,” sez The Columbia Encyclopedia, which Jonathan has consulted in a delirium of interpretation. “In medieval Christian literature, Martha was a symbol of the active, as opposed to the contemplative, life”). She takes another small parcel from her bottomless bag and hands it to Wesley.
“Gee, thanks again!”
“That isn’t for you, but go ahead and open it. I want you to give it back to your father. I think it’s time. You tell him I sent it to him be-cause I believe I can trust him with it now.” Wesley tears through the wrapping and pulls out an old-fashioned slingshot with a large rubber band. “I took that contraption away from your father thir-ty-five years ago, one day after he killed mah best hen with it—ac-ci-dentally.”
“I think if you give him that from me, he’ll remember. You look like your father, Wesley. He was anything but a handsome boy.”
“He’ll grow out of it, Aunt Martha,” Mother remarks hopefully. The insult, like the preceding one, provokes laughter all around you in Maine, and you laugh too, for Wesley’s toughness reminds you of your brother David, who’s the same age. In Alabama the jackknife and slingshot finally persuade Jonny—long after he’s given up practically every hope in this direction—that maybe this movie is about Penrod after all, but the insults lead him to reflect that they made fun of Red Skelton, too, when he invented the automobile in Excuse My Dust —a movie whose autumnal brownish MGM hues were as sweet and gay as this movie’s liquid blue Warner ones.
“There’s one more cookie left,” Martha reminds Wesley, her eyes twinkling up a storm. “Aren’t you going to eat it?”
“Well, I guess I’d better,” Wesley says.
“Go ahead and stuff yourself!” Aunt Martha says happily, improbably reminding Jonathan of Ma Joad at the end of The Grapes of Wrath . “You’re twelve years old today, and you oughta be happy if you’re nothing else. It’s taken over nineteen hundred years of Christianity, and some hundreds of thousands of years of other things, to produce you. And there you sit!”
“Ma’m?” Jonny and you are just as baffled as Wesley is by this explosion of profundity; in Del Mar I ruminate grumpily about some callow fusion of Master Race genetics and fifties irony; Jonathan, typing his hundredth page about On Moonlight Bay , is struck by the degree to which this platitude seems to sum up the movie’s persistent message: boys will be boys, and girls will be girls; they’ll all grow up to be Georges and Alices and Marthas, anyway, so who gives a shit whether they cut a few capers?
“It’ll be your turn to struggle and muss things up for the betterment of prosperity soon enough,” Aunt Martha concludes with a peaceful sigh of resignation. “Eat your cookie.”
Birthdays are occasions for definitions and recognitions, and Aunt Martha has just stepped in out of nowhere to speak for the movie in its penultimate sequence, putting every one of the Winfields precisely in his or her place, as though to rid us all of any lingering doubts. (Excluded from this final reckoning are Stella the maid and Max the dog, who already represent summations of a kind; in fact Max has been absent for quite some time, an animal victim of the Cora Claypool policy in the Conquistador’s Final Solution.)
So there it is, writ large: Beneath her fragile and troubled exterior, Marjorie is a wily little bitch who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it, just as Alice (and presumably Martha) were when they snared their own male carcasses. George was once an ugly, destructive brat like Wesley, and Wesley will someday grow up to be an insensitive stuffed shirt like George. William, by implication, is going through one of those difficult in-between stages when he’s as ugly and destructive as Wesley and as insensitive and prudish as George. (By the time he throws the rubbing alcohol into the fire, his “radicalness” has become indistinguishable from Calvinist rectitude; Mary Stevens, his informant, is a true sister under the skin.) The moral? Grow old enough, and anyone can trust you with a slingshot. All of this is at once inevitable and proper, awesome and indescribably cute. Martha, who alone perceives the truth, gets younger every day, while everyone else, including Bill and Marjorie, grows progressively older. Ain’t it the dickens?
In point of fact, Aunt Martha’s certainty has a lot in common with Dr. Gesell’s. His Child Development II: The Child from Five to Ten observes that at eight years, “Boys like action pictures: Westerns, baseball, war. Girls like musicals,” and “Both like animal and adventure stories and those about children. All dislike love stories.” An incredible volume, this book, which predicts and confirms behavior as effectively as a Mayan calendar: they say it happens that way at such-and-such a time, and sure enough, by golly, in most cases it actually does happen that way: the thing is uncanny. And the more that parents expect it to happen, the more it winds up happening—a nifty little control system that Aunt Martha seems to know all about, back in 1917.
In Maine, however, you aren’t so sure. Indeed, if you stopped to think about it (and you don’t, for the tickling tip of the Conquistador’s sword edges you forward, keeps the movie moving), you’d probably discover that you would prefer Aunt Martha as a hag, as she would look if she were a character in Mad comics . . . What was nifty about Mad in those days was that it sneered at and spat upon things that grownups did and honored—icons such as Life magazine, Picasso, racing forms, the Mona Lisa, furniture ads, and even items like those ugly school “composition” notebooks that adults imposed on helpless kids, smooth, black hardcover slabs with little blobs and strands of sickly white confetti particles floating in a sea of sticky tar.
It’s no wonder that adults were suspicious of and hostile toward Mad, just as Mrs. Thomas hated Spike Jones and Mommy felt icky about Jerry Lewis. Come to think of it (and Jonathan does), it was just this sort of giddy crassness—also found in movies like A Night At The Opera , It’s In The Bag , Tex Avery cartoons, Skipalong Rosenbloom , and The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T. —that comprised Jonny’s foretaste of avant-garde art in the early fifties.
Perhaps his first big whiff of it came on Sunday afternoon, March 18, 1951, when he saw Spike Jones live at the Sheffield Community Center after Sunday school. He regretted that Mommy and Daddy wouldn’t let him meet Spike at the Sheffield railroad station at 12:30, as the Florence Times ad had suggested, but when he turned up for the show at 3:30, he was treated to his first happening, mixed-media event (including a short movie), and bicycle-horn raspberry for respectable culture, all rolled into one glorious aggression. And this was only five days after he saw At War With The Army , which had Jerry Lewis jeering about how the navy got the gravy but the army got the beans—a song he sang at Camp Blue Star later that summer to Eddie Siegel, his wonderful counselor who looked like Jerry Lewis.
Daddy could never understand why Jonny and Alvin were so enthusiastic about Skipalong Rosenbloom . Here was a movie that spoke to them directly, without pretension or condescension, a movie you’re not likely to find listed in many reference books but one that nevertheless sashayed its way through the Princess for two midweek days (the “weaker” half of a program whose principal “draw” was an impoverished Edgar G. Ulmer sci-fi meller with a couple of eerie moments) and then disappeared forever, apart from brief acknowledgments in Variety and Monthly Film Bulletin , until a week before Christmas 1977, when Jonathan came across a copy of the film’s script in the Information Department at the British Film Institute.
The joy of this movie in 1951 was its brutal sense of parody, starting with its title taken from the name of its star, “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom, whose last name already sounded like a parody of Rosenbaum. The movie began with Father watching his favorite TV show, Round Table for Square Heads , whose guest speaker was Senator Redwood (“He’s presidential timber”), and quarreling with Mother, who wants to see “a big style show,” Nellie Nylon’s Latest Creations . Daughter’s preference isn’t stated (remember, this is 1951), but Junior charges into the room dressed in a cowboy suit and orders Father at gunpoint to turn to Channel 7 and Skipalong Rosenbloom . Then come the credits, followed by a commercial for Sloppo Tea:
Ladies, buy a dozen Sloppo Tea bags today. Sloppo Tea bags not only come in bags, it comes in suitcases, satchels . . . trunks . . . you can also find Sloppo Tea in cans—ash cans, garbage cans . . . If you have a large family, get the large two thousand pound economy can, it not only saves money, it helps you make money. After you’re all through with the tea, you just cut the can in half, you’ll have two quonset huts . . . you can live in one and rent the other . . .
Something silly and wonderful about Sloppo Tea reminded Jonny of Bo, but he couldn’t get Bo to see the movie. Just as well, perhaps; surely Bo would have been offended by Skipalong’s Wild West adventures with Max “Butcher” Baer in Buttonhole Bend, not to mention a subsequent ad for Grit Soap, “safe for washing silk, wool, and nylon. It’s also safe for baby’s skin. But don’t leave it on the drainboard—it eats through the tile.” That’s the kind of wisdom that you and Jonny prefer to Aunt Martha’s—which, all things considered, isn’t so very different from Grit Soap.
Offscreen, Hubert Winkley is playing the piano in the parlor and singing “Every Little Movement Has a Meaning All Its Own,” and in the kitchen Stella is lighting the twelve candles on Wesley’s birthday cake. Mother appears: “Oh, we aren’t ready for the cake yet. Mr. Winkley is still singing.” “I thought if I took it in, he’d stop ,” Stella growls, then blows out the candles petulantly.
Cut to Hubert at the piano, aiming occasional stupid grins at Margie as he lumbers through his wretched song. Wesley, dressed up in a grey suit with a striped shirt and a yellow and grey striped tie, looks very bored; Margie, in a lime sherbet dress with a bright yellow sash, dully eats a grape. Several kids of Wesley’s age sit awkwardly in the parlor, waiting for this torture to end.
Fourteen-year-old future art and film critic Carrie Rickey feels a bit the same way about the movie at a slumber party on Amalfi Drive in Pacific Palisades, two doors down from Ronald Reagan’s house, fall 1967. The party is a “Bunk 7 Reunion” of friends from summer camp, and they are half-watching On Moonlight Bay after midnight on the large color TV in Nancy Linden’s parents’ bedroom. At 9 they had all given their serious attention to Moment To Moment , a sophisticated Jean Seberg film about adultery, set on the Riviera, but during this silly, old-fashioned musical they’ve been talking, ignoring all but a few snatches of it, occasionally responding with “Ugh” or “Ewww” to something especially mushy. Like the kids at Wesley’s party, like all of us, they’re essentially waiting for this dubious entertainment to end. (“This is One of the Most Popular Pictures of the Year,” Stanley Rosenbaum advised at the bottom of the Florence Times ad on October 1, 1951. “Please Attend Matinee If Possible.” “The result is close to what the arty critics might call corn,” the Product Digest in Motion Picture Herald had warned the previous July, “but it is a prime example of the family picture exhibitors have been asking for. If simple and enduring values are corn, then this is it. But it’s also proven box office.”)
When the song is over, there’s some polite applause, and dreamy-eyed Hubert says, “Thank you, thank you. I know you would like me to go on and on , but”—a little gesture with his hand—”I really must stop. And now, if the little gentlemen will take the little ladies by the hand, we shall put a record on the phonograph, and you may all trip the light fantastic.” Margie puts on the record, an old-fashioned waltz, and several kids dance stiffly to it. Hubert’s unctuousness is so appalling that it strains credulity that Mr. Winfield can think so highly of him; we can’t easily imagine the two of them having man-to-man talks about Marjorie.
Wesley’s sitting at the foot of the stairway in the front hall, bored out of his wits, and Mother asks him why he isn’t dancing. “I don’t wanna dance. It’s my birthday, so I don’t have to.”
“Well, whose party is this, Hubert Winkley’s or mine?”
“Why it’s yours, dear—”
“Then why doesn’t he stop singin’ and go home?” We understand the animosity immediately; that both he and Marjorie recognize Hubert as a drip is one of the strongest links in their incestual bond—and who likes those sissy, stuffy songs anyway?
In the parlor Hubert asks Marjorie to dance. She demurs. “Oh, come, come,” he says, “this is no time to be coy.” “Look,” Wesley says to Mother, “he’s tryin’ to make Margie dance with him. Why dudn’t he leave her alone?”
“Shhh,” says Mother, “don’t worry about it.”
Cut to Hubert saying, “Your Father and I had a long talk last night, and with your approval, it’s full speed ahead!”
Ugh, thinks everyone, including me. When did this long talk take place? Was it after Father returned from the train station? Jonathan, fatigued, wonders if most movies, examined closely, are as vague as this one. Wesley arrives in the nick of time to announce, “Excuse me, but Marjorie promised this dance to me ,” sounding almost as formal as his old man. “I did?” Margie asks. “Sure,” Wesley says, eying her with real intimacy. “Guess I can dance with my own sister at my own birthday party, can’t I?”
“Oh, but Princess—” Hubert objects.
“Well, I guess I can dance with my own brother.” Margie picks up on Wesley’s gambit but handles it more sweetly. “Would you excuse us, Hubert?”
Whatever love talk may ensue between the siblings, we are deprived of it for the sake of another lousy collision gag: Stella heads toward the kitchen door with a tray bearing a bowl of fruit, stops, considers, then makes a point of opening the door first; but George enters through the side door, ke-bam! upsetting bowl and fruit. “Stella, you should be more careful.” “Careful,” she echoes, and in Del Mar a familiar voice ushers in a suite of four more commercials.
“Well,” says Father to Mother in the kitchen, gazing contentedly at the birthday cake, “it looks like I’m not such a bad father af-ter all. Wesley’s behaving like a perfect little gentleman. Even Marjorie seems to be enjoying herself. Everything is calm once more.”
Glowering at Father’s insensitivity, you feel somehow that because of this stuffed shirt the Winfield family doesn’t feel warm. Maybe they’re all too embarrassed; they never sing or go on trips together (a brittle contrast to the swimming family in Dangerous When Wet , seen at Radio City Music Hall five Fridays ago, a boisterous crew that trooped out of the house and off to the lake, in suits and with bath towels, singing, “I got outta bed on the right side”—a glorious Technicolor parade that your whole family saw).
And four Fridays ago at Indian Acres, the show business family in Look For The Silver Lining felt pretty snug, too. Rosemary DeCamp was more warm as June Haver’s mother than she is as Doris Day’s, and even people who weren’t related or engaged got close and cuddly. You think of chubby S. Z. Sakall—an actor who, like Charles Coburn and Charles Laughton, can express the jellylike fun of Bo when he isn’t mad—dressed in a Swiss yodeler suit and cheering up June Haver. And later, when she sang the theme song, she stroked his head and his neck and kissed him and hugged him. (“It was sad but it was very good,” you wrote in your diary that night, July 3, just before lights out, during taps. “It was a cold night,” you added hurriedly, trying hard to push the present into the past with your pencil as you huddled under the icy sheet, feeling the scratchy blanket behind it.)
Meanwhile, Father remarks how calm everything is once more.
“Cyclone weather,” snaps Stella. To prove her right, the kitchen doorbell rings loudly. “Stella, get that,” says Mother. “I hope it’s the ice cream.” Faint applause can be heard from the parlor at the end of a nondescript dance tune, followed promptly by “Cuddle Up a Little Closer.”
“It ain’t the ice cream,” Stella observes as she opens the door. “Come right in.”
It’s Bill, of course, in his soldier suit. He strides into the kitchen and says, “Mr. Winfield, I’ve got to talk to you.”
“I thought we were well rid of you,” Mr. Winfield replies peevishly.
“I have a twenty-four-hour pass and the only train back leaves in half an hour,” Bill declares firmly. “Sir, I’m in love with your daughter and I want to marry her.”
“And how long would that last? Until you get some other crackpot ideas?”
Margie breezes into the kitchen.”Bill!”
She rushes into his arms and gasps, “Oh! Hold me tight! Don’t let me go this time—”
“I don’t want to . . . but it’s up to your father.” They form a neat tableau, standing in front of a lime-colored boiler, Bill in brown and Marjorie in lime (her hair ribbon looks like pure lime on TV in Del Mar; in Alabama and Maine it is streaked with yellow). She looks so vibrant to Jonny that he would dearly love to crawl into her pampered lime-colored lap and feel the life and light of her pulse warmly against his head; he’s thinking not of the plot now, but of Marjorie’s passion, which renders it irrelevant.
Father tells Bill to leave the house at once. “George ,” Mother chides softly.
“Father,” Marjorie says with determination, “Bill and I are going to be married right now. And you couldn’t stop us with an act of Congress.” To Bill she adds, “I’ll get my things.”
“Wait a minute, Marjorie,” Bill says. “Let’s be sensible about this . . . I couldn’t ask you to give up your family for—for one week with a soldier who’s shipping out. It wouldn’t be fair to you.” (One week? Didn’t he just say twenty-four hours?)
“But how can you be sensible at a time like this?” Marjorie asks, accusing me as well as him.
“One of us has to be! It may be a long time before I get back,” he says darkly. “You’re gonna have to live with them “—he nods at her parents—”and not with me. So I guess we better wait.” What a responsible young lad he’s become; he seems as solemn as a priest.
“Is it all right if I walk him to the gate?” Marjorie asks her parents tearfully, all but defeated. It’s clear that no act of Congress will be necessary; the one ushering Bill into the U.S. Army is more than enough.
“Cer tainly you can, darling,” says Mother, like a nurse soothing an invalid. “You go right ahead.” When they have left, she turns to Father. “Sometimes I don’t understand you!”
“Well, whadja want me to do, let my daughter become a—camp follower?” Maybe that’s what I am, I reflect glumly in Del Mar, lighting a cigarette: a follower of camp.
“George Wadsworth Winfield, you listen to me!” Mother says, following him into the parlor.
But we can’t listen to her because there’s a cut to the Winfields’ front gate, Bill and Margie beside it, the theme song resuming in the background. “And I’ll write to you every day I’m gone,” Bill says. “And I’ll knit you some socks,” Marjorie says mournfully. “I can’t knit, but—I’ll knit you some socks.”
“Well, if I get my shoes on over ’em, I’ll wear ’em,” Bill says helpfully, as the theme song modulates into another melody.
“Oh, I know I’m supposed to be brave, William,” she half-sobs, “but—but you’re gonna be so far away.”
“Oh, come on, it’s not as bad as all that. You know the song all the doughboys are singing. ‘Smile awhile, I kiss you fond adieu.'”
“‘Say, I do,'” she forces herself to reply, her voice choked, smiling through her tears.
“‘When the clouds roll by,'” he continues; “‘I’ll come to you,'” she says; and then he starts to sing in a throbbing, deep-throated baritone, “Then the skiiiies will seeeem more bluuuue, dowwwwn in Lovers Lane, my deeear-y,” and so on, ad nauseam, about wedding bells that will ring so merrily and tears that will be memories. Like a zombie in Invasion of the Body Snatchers , Margie is taken over entirely by this silliness and starts to sing too, after he places his black bowler hat on a gatepost. They look at one another romantically, he places his cheek briefly against her forehead, and they stand cheek to cheek and sing to the camera, occasionally turning to give each other penetrating looks.
In Maine two or three kids start to boo, and for once you sympathize, because you can’t stand this guck either. (Jonny, on the other hand, is tolerant but mildly bored.) Bill and Marjorie fall into a duet for the last two lines, Bill moving up to tenor harmony against her alto melody. At 2:40 A.M., February 19, 1978, drunk, stoned, and tired in a living room in Pacific Palisades—the same L.A. suburb where Carrie Rickey half-watched this movie more than ten years ago—I’m following a 16mm print with a few friends and acquaintances, trying to record in a blue notebook all the body and eye contacts between Marjorie and Bill. Barely able to see what I’m writing in the glare of the screen, and semiconscious along with everyone else, I’m nearly as fed up as the kids at Indian Acres.
Seven months later—9:55 P.M., September 13, 1978—thirty-one-year-old film analyst and theorist Sandy Flitterman watches this scene on her portable black and white TV in Berkeley, California, and agrees it’s pretty sappy. She’s watching the film because she read the first fifty-odd pages of this chapter back in June, when Jonathan was visiting (they’d met at a film theory conference in Milwaukee late last February, less than a week after that screening in Pacific Palisades, and he’d already flown up to visit her once before), and wants to see what the movie looks like. She agrees with Jonathan that the only real sexual intensity in the movie is between the brother and sister. By contrast, the total lack of sexual energy between Gordon MacRae and Doris Day irritates her; she finds Doris Day’s “sexuality” as cloying as marshmallow creme.
Bill and Margie break apart to look at each other longingly, the blue-green hues of house and shrubs in the late afternoon light behind them. He tries to kiss her, but she breaks away and runs toward the house.
Mr. and Mrs. Winfield watch silently and shrug at each other as Marjorie enters, slams the front door, and runs upstairs. In the parlor we glimpse an awkward little girl in a pink dress playing “There’s a Long, Long Trail Awinding” on an accordion. Could it actually be Cora Claypool, resurrected on a whim of the Conquistador? The image is too fleeting, my memory too imperfect, for me to be certain, but I’d like to think that it is. “Margie!” Mother calls after her daughter.
“Don’t take it so seriously,” Father says. “She’ll get over it.”
“George, were you ever a young man? I can’t even remember,” she concludes with a half-laugh.
“Alice, ” he protests, visibly stung. They walk toward the stairway while Cora’s nostalgic lament whines on in the adjoining room.
“After all, no man really wants to get married,” Mother explains patiently. “William is just more honest than most.” Aunt Martha rides again, reflects Jonathan shortly after midnight on October 2, 1978—the day that most likely marks the twenty-seventh anniversary of his first acquaintance with this rotten movie—and he resolves to finish this chapter tonight.
“Now I suppose I didn’t want to get married to you, ” Father says.
‘Of course you didn’t. If you had any id-ea of the lengths I had to go to force you to propose—”
Father pauses, brooding in his banker’s black suit, then replies aghast, “But what do you mean?”
Mother sighs philosophically as they seat themselves on the stairs. “Y’know, it’s hard to realize you once were exactly like William Sherman.”
“I—was—not,” Father says indignantly, almost like a petulant little boy. By contrast, Mother seems quite relaxed and fully in control.
“Oh, George! You remember the day we got engaged—you took me for a walk in the woods, near Aunt Martha’s farm? We got lost; oh, it was hours before we got back! You knew the way home all the time.” Curious, how much in common her nostalgic evocation has with a family in a parlor, leafing through a scrapbook, or watching slides of themselves on a screen.
“How can you say such a thing?”
Mother laughs delightedly. “Because I knew it too—”
“I don’t recall the incident at all.”
“Of course you don’t,” she says, her voice and expression becoming firmer, more stern and judgmental. “Because you refuse to remember anything that indicates you might have human failings.” Applause for the accordion performance is heard from the parlor. “But they’re the reasons I married you!” Mother says.
Outside the house, we find Wesley in the front yard and hear the twitter of a bird, the flapping of wings, the snap of a slingshot, and crash! the sound of the frosted glass pane in the front door breaking. A loud, discordant gong sounds at the same time, to make sure we don’t miss it, and we glimpse Father through the broken glass in the oval frame.
“Wesley!” he shouts, rushing through the door and grabbing the culprit to a menacing strain in the background music. “See what you did to that window! You incorrigible brat! I don’t know what we’re going to do with you! What do you mean? Just ten minutes ago I was telling your mother how proud I was of you, and you have to go throw a rock at me through the window!”
“I didn’t!” Wesley protests. “I was shooting at a bird, and, well, the sun got in my eyes, and—the sling broke.”
“This’n.” He hands over the outsized weapon.
“Where’d you get this devilish thing? Haven’t I told you a thousand times—”
“It isn’t mine, it’s yours!”
“Yes, sir. Aunt Martha gave it to me. She told me to give it back to you.” A cheerful, celestelike instrument is rung in Max Steiner’s band to signal recognition. “She said she took it away from you thirty-five years ago. You killed her best hen with it, she said.” The flutey, chipper theme of the film’s opening scene resumes. “She told me some more to tell you, but—I forgot . . . Sorry, Pop.”
“It’s all right, Son,” Father says with calm understanding, a smile forming on his lips. “Forget all about it. A broken window isn’t too important anyway.” He puts his arm around Wesley’s shoulder and pats it before turning away, lost in reverie as he grasps the slingshot.
Then Wesley goes off with a barking Max, and we hear Hubert, at the piano in the parlor, play and sing “On Moonlight Bay,” adding lots of fancy fill-ins on the keys between the phrases, as Father stands alone, regarding his ancient toy. Something tells us that this movie is winding to a close as Father walks back into the house, the faraway look in his eyes indicating clearly that he is in another time (1882, if the dates are right).
Standing alone by the front stairway, he examines the slingshot wistfully, playing with it a little. Then he steps to the telephone, lingers a bit, and lifts the receiver. Hubert has begun a second chorus of the theme song. “Hello, Operator. Would you please get the Shermans in the 400 block on Elm Street? Thank you.” Marjorie comes down the stairs now and pauses, her hands on the bannister, to take in the momentous event.
Strings start up behind Hubert’s warbling voice. “Hello,” Father says, “is Bill there? Tell him it’s the neighbor across the street, who just remembered he was young once, too.”
With a burst of energy, Marjorie runs down the remaining stairs, kisses Father, and heaves an ecstatic sigh. Voices, predominantly male, are ooohing, aahing, and humming the theme song in place of Hubert’s on the soundtrack. Marjorie hurries out the front door.
She and Bill appear on their respective porches, then rush to embrace in the center of the street. A disgruntled Hubert appears on the Winfield porch, and Wesley offers him his white straw hat. “Here’s your hat,” Wesley says brightly. “Keep your head up, and breathe through your nose.”
Hubert puts on the hat in a huff, and the brim breaks, provoking assorted guffaws in Alabama and Maine, but none at all in New York or Del Mar, where Jonathan and I are alone and find ourselves identifying uncomfortably with this twerp. Disgusted and humiliated, Hubert throws away the round center of the hat and strides off into the deepening dusk. A grinning Wesley is seen polishing the blade of his jackknife on his jacket.
It’s all so wonderful: George as a boy killed Martha’s best hen, Wesley just tried to shoot the brains out of another bird, and now Bill in his uniform is going off to shoot some prime European game—simple, mischievous kid stuff that never changes; and Wesley castrates Hubert as an encore, just to prove that it’s all in fun. Jonny feels reconciled with Penrod and the movie at the same time; you, charmed by the music, feel momentarily reconciled with life; I feel a sense of relief; and Jonathan reflects that he’d rather smash frosted windows than birds, Germans, or straw hats, if he had to make a choice.
“I guess in summation, I think it’s really a film about a little boy,” Sandy writes to Jonathan on September 20 or 21, “but in order to sell it they had to make it a Doris Day-Gordon MacRae film. There’s all this stuff about slingshots, boyhood chums, mischief, while the big enigma is really the female figure. Actually, her being a tomboy is only part of the whole little boy constellation that’s the main interest of the film. I can really tell what motivated you to choose this film, being a little boy an’ all . . . “
She’s right, of course; and the psychic equations that are made between the males in this movie couldn’t be simpler. Up to now, Father hasn’t wanted Marjorie to marry William because he’s wanted her for himself. We know that William has balls because he’s going off to fight World War I (or to save America from Communism), just as we know that Hubert has no balls (“punctured eardrum” is the movie’s euphemism), which is why Father doesn’t regard him as a threat. (And the audience accepts Wesley’s last prank as something less than a castration because you can’t castrate someone who is already a eunuch.)
Up to now Father’s problem has simply been that he doesn’t identify with Bill and therefore won’t admit him into the family (and the family romance that this entails). Wesley provides the missing link. Father realizes that just as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are three versions/stages/variations of the same Being, he, Wesley, and William all add up to one narcissistic male. And now that this bond is recognized, all three of them can have Marjorie at once—each can use a separate orifice, penetrate the marshmallow at a different angle—and thus share an exalted sense of their collective identity and common triumph. Perhaps we can even say that what the three males really want is to fuck each other, and that Marjorie serves as the love object only because she makes this possible.
To put it a bit differently, you might just call her an amplifier for three speakers to be plugged into. And if the turntable in this component system is only the Conquistador in disguise—the nervous twitch of narrative that keeps the record spinning, at whatever speeds—who is the record that is playing through this complex system and into our hearts and minds but little Jonny Rosenbaum himself, or any other human platter one might choose to listen to?
We all see a long shot of the neighborhood intersection where Bill and Marjorie are embracing, a proud church steeple looming like an affirming erection in the background, and we hear a mixed offscreen chorus sing out the words of the theme song one last time—repeating the final three words, the title, in a climactic reach up the scale toward ecstasy—while pink and green letters spell out The End (above the Warners logo) over this synthesis of plenitude and platitude. At the Shoals in Florence, Jonny bathes happily in the afterglow, sticking around for the trailers, a short, and the beginning of the movie again. My contentment in Del Mar, now that I have the subject of this chapter before me, is such that I don’t even bother to shut off my cassette recorder and rented TV until after two announcers have invited me to watch The Sam Yorty Show,Never On Sunday , and The Rookies .
At camp, you’re already experiencing a pang of acute withdrawal and irritation as lights flicker on in the room before the final image has left the screen. The loud, irreverent voices and the shuffle of feet as the kids get up to return to their cabins are a woeful reminder that you still have another month to go before camp is over, Daddy arrives, and you have the chance to buy some more hard-to-get comics in New York. Blinking against this rude awakening and getting up slowly from your bench, trying to ignore the admonition of Jerry that you head back for the cabin on the double, you reconcile yourself to the reality of the harsh overhead lights when you discover that your eight-year-old brother Alvin has been sitting behind you during the entire movie—which suggests somehow that for the last ninety-five minutes you haven’t really been alone after all. And even though you don’t much look forward to the coldness of your cabin, David Darby, or Jerry, the triumphant, soaring end of the movie and your sudden glimpse of Alvin conspire to give you something warm to take back with you (or so Jonathan imagines in New York, a quarter of a century later)—something small, warm, glowing, and at least momentarily precious that, you firmly swear to yourself, you’ll never forget, relinquish, or deny, so that it will never go away. As we sang, love’s, old, sweet, song, on Moon-light Bay.