Forever Modern: 2023 Begins with a Double Feature
By Stuart Mitchner
Just gently jam the jivin’, drum boogie, the cat is rockin’ with a solid eight, I tell you it’s more to gait, the joint is jumpin’…
—Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O’Shea
I was told that upon being asked to name his favorite among his books, Charles Dickens answered, “I love them all, but in my heart-of-hearts, I have a favorite child and his name is David Copperfield.” Well, though I love all the films I made with Fred Astaire, I, too, have a favorite child, and it is Swing Time.
—Ginger Rogers (1911-1995)
I’ve been reading Bob Dylan’s Philosophy of Modern Song (Simon & Schuster 2022), which could serve as volume two of his 2004 memoir, Chronicles, or else as a solid place-holder until the next one comes along. In the chapter “Saturday Night at the Movies,” he says “People will tell you they don’t watch old movies for a bunch of reasons — because they are in black and white or maybe there’s a two-minute sequence that changing times have rendered politically incorrect. These people lack imagination and are fine throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”
Four days into the new year, the time is right for a closer look at two terms — “modern” in the context of Dylan’s new book and “dated” relative to the 1941 screwball comedy romance Ball of Fire, which is about, among other things, New York City, night clubs, gangsters, love, art, jazz, sex, and a group of scholars at work on the “encyclopedia of all human knowledge,” with a New Jersey denouement in an imaginary inn near Kingston. Also about New York and night clubs, the 1937 Astaire-Rogers musical Swing Time’s screwball comedy of a plot is patched together around dance sequences that prove time and again that charm is never dated. In both films, which are a treat for the eye, ear, and spirit in any season, not least on New Year’s Eve, the standout “songs” are spectacles — “Drum Boogie,” a word-jazz jam, and “Never Gonna Dance,” a sublime lament.
In Ball of Fire, Professor Bertram Potts, a onetime boy genius who graduated from Princeton at the age of 13, is responsible for the section on English in the encyclopedia he and seven fellow scholars are striving to complete. The professor’s interest in the term “modern” is less about philosophy than the slang of the day, like moolah, smackeroo, smooch, gams, hoytoytoy, yum-yum, and drum boogie. The moment of truth wherein the professor realizes that his concept of the common vernacular is seriously out of date occurs during an exchange about money with a garbage man, who tells him “I could use a bundle of scratch right now on account of I met me a mouse last week.” As the conversation continues, Potts, who finds grammatical chaos like “on account of” offensive, is busy scribbling in his notepad: a smackeroo is a dollar, the mouse is the dish the garbage man needs the moolah for (“We’ll be stepping, me and the smooch, I mean the mouse, you know, hit the jiggles for a little drum boogie”).
Professor Potts takes his study of slang from the Central Park museum neighborhood to Times Square, picking up fresh samples of lingo from newspaper boys and cab drivers along the way. In a night club where drummer Gene Krupa (1909-1973) is pounding spectacularly away on a floodlit pinnacle above the roaring of his band, the professor has his first glimpse of the female “ball of fire” who will eventually knock him assover backwards while defining yum-yum (“yum” the first brief kiss, “yum” the less brief second one, “yum-yum” the long one that literally floors him). The actor playing Professor Potts is Gary Cooper (1901-1961), the top male box office star in America in 1941, winner of that year’s Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Sergeant York, the subject of a TIME cover story and of rumors concerning his wildly promiscuous private life. Readers who went “Gary who?” can type “Ball of Fire Drum Boogie” on YouTube to see him, notepad in hand, a stunned witness to the glittering entrance of Katherine “Sugarpuss” O’Shea, played with earthy, wickedly endearing humanity by Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990). To see Stanwyck in action, take YouTube to “Ball of Fire: Yum Yum Time.”
All you see of Stanwyck at first is a hand, fingers with painted nails tapping the beat seconds before she pushes the curtain aside and swings into view, all legs, a stylish move similar to the sinuous entrance of Alexandria Octavia Cortez (1989 — ) twirling into action, sheer joy, in the Boston University Breakfast Club video that went viral online after she became a member of the House’s class of 2019.
The New York Post headline dated January 3, 2019 reads, “Attempt to Shame Octavio-Cortez for ‘Breakfast Club’ Dance Backfires.” The video of AOC swinging into action can also be seen on YouTube even as mid-20th century Stanwyck sings, sways, and struts a mouse-click away. In the New York Times review headed “a Delightful Comedy” and dated January 16, 1942, Bosley Crowther observes that Ball of Fire is “so comprehensive in its handling of the modern vernacular and so altogether winning … that it had the customers jumping with enjoyment at the Music Hall yesterday” — which was January 15, a month and a week after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America declared war.
Times Square Timing
Playing fast and loose with time has become something of a New Year’s Eve ritual in this column, which now and again brings together a group of famous personalities of the past, stars, character actors, dignitaries, in a Times Square night club. Eleven years ago, January 4, 2012, the venue was the Royal Roost at 1580 Broadway, dubbed “the Metropolitan Bopera House” by WMCA DJ Symphony Sid. That night, December 31, 1948-January 1, 1949, the show was headed by alto saxophonist Charlie Yardbird Parker, and the celebrities on hand all had in common the fact that they had been born in 1911. For the pre-pandemic New Year celebration of 2019, the headliner was drummer Buddy Rich, who, like the stars at the tables, was a 1919 centenarian.
Since the pattern I’ve been following runs contrary to the custom of remembering those who were lost in the old year, why not celebrate the folks born in 1922 in the same venue with those who died in 2022? Given the realities of newspaper space and a deadline, the best I can offer is a snapshot of the possibilities. With then-33-year-old Krupa already beating the drums, while then-35-year-old Stanwyck is singing and dancing, why not imagine 20-year-olds Jack Kerouac and Kurt Vonnegut on the scene, Kerouac covering the event for the Columbia Daily Spectator, unaware that future novelist Vonnegut is down from Ithaca taking notes for a story in the Cornell Daily Sun?
Other 1922ers in the audience could include already active comedian/musician Sid Caesar, in town on his way to joining the Coast Guard, and trumpeter Ray Anthony, soon to leave the Glenn Miller band to enlist in the Navy. As for adding a sample of those who left the stage in 2022, you’d have to make room for personalities the size of Jerry Lee “Great Balls of Fire” Lewis and New Wave director Jean Luc-Godard, while sitting Tony Sirico’s inimitable Paulie Walnuts at the same table with James Caan’s Sonny Corleone, a few steps away from a booth occupied by film critic/director Peter Bogdanovich and actor Sidney Poitier, who both died in L.A. on the same day in January. And where would Queen Elizabeth sit? Being only 15 in 1942, the then-princess would have been legally under age, but no doubt she and sister Margaret would be allowed entrance as long as they drank nothing stronger than lemonade.
This New Year’s Eve my wife and I were doing what we did in 2011-2012, watching Swing Time, which ends as Astaire and Rogers step slowly, beautifully, into “Never Gonna Dance,” which really means “Always, Always Gonna Dance.”
In the weeks leading up to 2023, we watched a dozen old movies, from too-funny-to-be-dated comic wonders like Rage of Paris and Crystal Ball on Amazon Prime to a slew of screwball comedies on the Criterion channel, including Ball of Fire, and some wild ones that had eluded even aficionados like ourselves, notably Murder, He Says (you won’t believe your eyes), Love Is News, Theodora Goes Wild (a forever modern title), and Raoul Walsh’s Me and My Gal, where you can see Spencer Tracy in his prime 30 years before The Old Man and the Sea and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In Walsh’s rollicking film, life is earnest, life is real, or, in the lingo of love shared by Tracy’s cop and Joan Bennett’s barmaid, “everything’s jake.”
Next week it’s time for The Philosophy of Modern Song, in which Bob Dylan ends the “Saturday Night at the Movies” chapter with this challenge: “People keep talking about making America great again. Maybe they should start with the movies.”