January 2, 2019

New Year’s 2019 — From Times Square to the Wild West, Starring Jean Arthur and J.D. Salinger

By Stuart Mitchner

Movies and Times Square is the combination I usually go for when I toss the dice for a New Year’s subject. Right now I’m thinking of the January 4, 2012 column, “A Times Square Fantasia With Harpo Marx, Charlie Parker, and the 1911 Club,” which features an image of Harpo swinging on the neon pendulum of the animated Gruen watch sign, a still from the 1950 film Love Happy. I still hold with my unprovable claim that the majority of first-run movies made between 1920 and 1950 are set in New York City, and that more than half of them open with a shot of Times Square at night.

The 1911 club refers to some 26 centenary celebrities who were all packed into a Times Square night spot called the Royal Roost on December 31, 1948 watching Charlie Parker and his All Stars. The challenge for me was to do cameos of everyone, all age 37 that night, from Big Joe Turner and Hank Greenberg to Roy Rogers and Gypsy Rose Lee. The column ends at the stroke of midnight with Charlie Parker shouting “If music be the food of love, play on!” while Mahalia Jackson leads everyone singing “Auld Lang Syne.”

Taking a Chance

As for rolling the dice, it’s become a ritual this time of year for me to mine the DVD bins at the Princeton Record Exchange for gems to watch on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Prex always comes through with something worth seeing, though there are occasional disappointments. Not this year. The golden oldie from 1937 I found is appropriately titled A Lady Takes a Chance, a wild and wooly romantic western screwball comedy road movie starring Jean Arthur and John Wayne. Though it would have been perfect for New Year’s Eve, with its madcap saloon scene, my wife and I saw it on Christmas night. Since I’m writing four days in advance of New Year’s Eve, I don’t know what else I’ll find at the Record Exchange this year, but chances are it will be a romantic comedy like Theodora Goes Wild, the one my parents saw in Hutchinson Kansas on New Year’s Day 1937. Thanks to The New Yorker’s online archive, I can tell you that Irene Dunne’s Theodora was going wild on the screen at Loew’s State as the crowds filled Times Square on December 31, 1936.

Being There

The first New Year’s Eve I remember happened when my parents and I were living in Manhattan. It was also the only one I experienced in the thick of the Times Square crowd. Riding the subway to school every weekday morning, I was a seasoned survivor of morning mob scenes, but Times Square at midnight was like being caught up in ten thousand roaring rush hour crushes at once. I had to hold tight to my father, watching, helpless and amazed, as my mother was wrenched away from me and out of sight on the human tide. Thanks to the New Yorker archive, I can describe the geography of the moment according to movie theaters. I figure we were packed in somewhere between the Astor, where Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight was playing, and the Victoria, which was showing the aptly titled Come Back, Little Sheba. The festive tide was carrying my mother southward toward the Paramount, whose elaborate marquee spelled out April in Paris. We found her under the marquee, out of breath and smiling. We’d expected her to look battered and frazzled. Instead her cheeks were rosy and she was smiling, dazed but happy, as if she’d been to Paris and back, hoisted and paraded like a star on the shoulders of the crowd.

A Very Dull Party

I found out about my parents seeing Theodora Goes Wild thanks to the only journal my father ever kept. On January 1, 1937, he wrote: “At midnight Anne and I were at Convention Hall sitting on the steps leading to the platform sadly passing a sack of confetti back and forth and throwing it on each other. The party was very dull. One couple danced with foreheads together hunching up their shoulders on the off beat. They looked exactly as if they were weeping.”

My parents were still dating at the time. According to the journal, they were tired that night, having just finished their second one-act play, And Silently Steal Away, which they eventually sold to Samuel French. Of their date to see Theodora Goes Wild, my father calls it “a cute show about a writer of love novels, the kind of a show we can write.” They were married on Christmas Day that same year. Thirty years later, January 1, 1967, my wife and I spent our first New Year’s Eve watching, you’ll never guess, a romantic comedy from the same period, something like Theodora or Easy Living, one of the all-time great screwball sprees, with a Preston Sturges screenplay and Jean Arthur in the middle of another melee, this time at an automat. With Jean Arthur’s all-out performance in A Lady Takes a Chance still fresh in my mind, it was nice to see J. Hoberman’s review of Easy Living in Friday’s New York Times. How great to be able to say of something made in 1937, “You can see it now,” at the Film Forum, where it’s on through January 3. 

A Salinger Centenary

It’s perversely fitting that the most reclusive of American novelists was born on the first of January, a day associated with Auld Lang Syne togetherness. More important, J.D. Salinger’s birth year was 1919, which makes 2019 his centenary, an occasion Little Brown plans to celebrate in November by reissuing all his published books. Meanwhile, everything he wrote in the last 45 years of his life remains unpublished, notably the rest of the Glass family saga, which includes a “long short story about a particular party, a very consequential party” mentioned in the preface to his underrated and little read tour de force “Hapworth 16, 1924,” still entombed in the June 19, 1965 New Yorker. According to Salinger’s fictional alter ego, Buddy Glass, the party was attended by Buddy and his brother Seymour and their parents Bessie and Les “one night in 1926.” Presumably this is the party for “nearly sixty people … at the old Hotel Almanac” referred to in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). Although the occasion is the parents’ “official retirement from vaudeville,” Salinger apparently conceived of it as an event of New Year’s Eve magnitude, for which Seymour and Buddy, who were eight and six at the time, “were allowed to get out of bed around eleven or so, and come in and have a look.” In fact, they “stayed up and watched” (and when requested, “sang and danced”) until people began leaving around two in the morning. That’s when Seymour begged his mother to let him bring everyone their coats, “which were hung, draped, tossed, piled all over the small apartment.” Simply from watching the festivities “for some three hours,” Seymour was able to bring “very nearly all the guests, one or two at a time, and without any mistakes, their own true coats, and all the men involved their hats. (The women’s hats he had some trouble with.)” Buddy sees the feat in the context of Seymour’s precocious attraction to Chinese and Japanese poetry, which “stands a remarkably slim chance of ever ripening,” if written by a poet “who doesn’t know whose coat is whose.”

Molly Goes Wild

Contrary to his character Holden Caulfield’s vividly expressed contempt for movies, J.D. Salinger liked nothing better than watching old favorites like Alfred Hitchcock’s 39 Steps and the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera, both of which he was known to screen for guests, along with heaps of popcorn. While I have no proof, I’m sure Salinger would have enjoyed A Lady Takes a Chance, in which Jean Arthur gamely gives her all to playing a girl from New York City named Molly J. Truesdale, while John Wayne is just right as a totally amoral rodeo cowboy named Duke, who sees Molly through the saloon free-for-all that film critic James Agee thinks “gets down the crowded, deafening glamor which unforeseen daylight drunkeness can have” better than he has “ever seen it before.” While Holden might have shared Agee’s impatience with Jean Arthur’s “moues,” I believe he’d have admired the full, unphoney abandon of her agonized efforts to find a comfortable sleeping position, whether on a 14-day coast to coast bus ride or curled up in a borrowed horse blanket outdoors on a freezing desert night. For a great New Year’s Eve moment, there’s her explosive response to a shot of cactus milk, a concoction of tequila, applejack, and gin. Her eyes bulging with the impact, she gives a screech that silences the rollicking dancing gambling crowd as she careens in all directions, so wildly that even Duke is scared, “shaking like a leaf.” When she comes down to earth, out of breath, all she can manage to say is “Jeepers, what was that?” and then “Jeepers, what was in it?” When she hears the contents, she says it again, and no one, not even Barbara Stanwyck, can say “Jeepers” like Jean Arthur. Holden would love it. I can almost hear him: “That kills me!” Same here. Happy New Year!