Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Book: Hope, by Richard Zoglin (2014)

If ever a performer needed reappraisal, it’s Bob Hope. His star has faded badly, the bulk of his work done on radio and television and thus not now in regular circulation. Worse, he committed the unpardonable sin of staying too long at the party. As a kid, I never missed a Hope special. Not because I found them funny; I’d watch any special that came on TV because I was obsessed with show business. Hope’s extravaganzas were a puzzlement to me, presided over by a stiff, barely ambulatory figure – Hope was in hailing distance of his 80s when I started watching – barking out lame one-liners at each member of the All-America football team and ogling the latest blonde starlet. I had no inkling of how Hope had become famous, but at least I knew who he was. Few of my friends did, and an entire subsequent generation has no sense of him at all.

Time’s Richard Zoglin aims to change that. His massive, richly entertaining biography underscores what I’ve learned in recent years – Bob Hope, at his best, was brilliantly funny. Zoglin also persuasively argues that Hope was a trailblazer fully deserving of the book’s subtitle, Entertainer of the Century. By triumphing in every medium and cannily tending a brand built largely on his role as clown jester for American troops overseas, Hope essentially invented modern stardom.

Full disclosure: Bob “I-Didn’t-Sign-Up-For-This” Hope appears as a character in Design for Dying, the classic Hollywood mystery Rosemarie and I wrote as Renee Patrick coming from Macmillan’s Tor/Forge Books in April 2016. One day Rosemarie asked how revisions went and I was able to answer, “Not bad. I wrote some new jokes for Bob Hope.”

Zoglin sets himself a tall order chronicling Hope’s career. The man was a cipher, an impersonal presence in life and in art. For all Hope’s comic prowess, Zoglin notes “his jokes never hit hard, cut deep, or betrayed any political viewpoint.” However superficial their targets, they were delivered in peerless style. Exemplifying the age-old definition of a comedian, Hope had a way of saying things funny, even when he wasn’t saying much.

A Broadway star with vaudeville training, Hope arrived in Hollywood with a pedigree uniquely suited to melding high and low. His breakthrough came in the utterly unhinged comedy The Big Broadcast of 1938, dueting with Shirley Ross on what would become his theme song “Thanks for the Memory.” (It’s astonishing how big a role music played in Hope’s career. The standards he introduced on stage or screen include “I Can’t Get Started,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Two Sleepy People” and “Silver Bells.”) If you’ve never seen the original, with Hope and Ross as a divorced couple recalling the good times in their marriage, take a moment to appreciate what Zoglin rightly calls “one of the most beautifully written and performed musical numbers in all of movies.”

Seeing the skill with which Hope puts across the song, it’s easy to agree with Zoglin’s disappointment at Hope’s callous treatment of it for the next sixty years, Leo Robin’s “delicately ironic lyrics … replaced time and again by greeting-card sentiments, syrupy tributes, and outright plugs.”

Onscreen Hope incarnated a particularly American sensibility, “brash, irreverent, upbeat,” that reached its fullest expression with his signature character: a lustful, vainglorious coward the audience could root for. Watch the films that made his name, 1939’s The Cat and the Canary and the following year’s far better The Ghost Breakers, and Hope’s breezy rhythms still have the feel of something fresh and new. His pairing with Bing Crosby in the long-running Road series not only solidified his drawing power but etched the bromance template slavishly followed in Hollywood by everyone from Martin & Lewis to Rogen & Franco: two footloose dudes more in love with each other than any of the women present. The best of the Road films are casually anarchic and self-aware, breaking the fourth wall with a brio modern movies wouldn’t attempt. (Der Bingle doesn’t come off well here. Zoglin recounts how Hope, always diligent about his fan mail, tosses letters into a hotel pillowcase while on the road so his staff can answer them. Crosby then demonstrates how he handles his fan mail: he feels envelopes until he finds a quarter included to cover return postage for a requested photograph, pockets the change, and tosses the letter into the trash unread. It’s worth catching up with the recent American Masters documentary Bing Crosby Rediscovered, which files a similar brief on the Old Groaner’s behalf for his significance in popular culture – and not just for the few weeks around Christmastime.)

While Zoglin works to restore Hope’s reputation, he doesn’t shy away from his subject’s failings. Hope was the rare box office attraction who never worked with a top director; Crosby would win an Oscar with Leo McCarey and appear in a Billy Wilder film, while Hope was content to toil with the same journeymen. Zoglin declares 1960’s The Facts of Life the last good film Hope would ever make. I caught up with the movie recently and agree. Its Oscar-nominated script by Hope mainstays Melvin Frank and Norman Panama is a tender, surprisingly realistic story of two married people (Hope and Lucille Ball) who fumble toward an affair as an escape from their middle-aged doldrums. (I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the movie also features Academy Award winning costumes co-designed by our book’s detective, Edith Head.) Hope was the first comedian to openly acknowledge his use of writers and he treated them shabbily, forcing them to pen his golf course patter with generals and gags for Spiro Agnew. Writers in Hope’s employ in the 1980s, when Zoglin nails his robotic delivery as “Mt. Rushmore with cufflinks,” had to imagine they were crafting jokes for Dave Thomas’ dead-eyed SCTV parody – which Hope naturally loved. And the book is rife with tales of Hope’s womanizing during his 69-year marriage to wife Dolores.

Hope’s impact as a cultural force must be viewed through the prism of his storied USO performances for the troops during World War II and on nearly-annual tours thereafter. Zoglin describes the military’s growing resentment over the expense of Hope’s logistically complex appearances, which tapped the meager resources set aside for entertainment. Hope came to crave the rabid response of audiences desperate for diversion. But there’s no denying the sacrifices he made to travel to far-flung bases, facing not only chronic hardships but genuine danger. Ultimately, Hope’s treasured status as jokester-in-chief of the armed forces contributed to his waning influence; he was so immersed in the role by the Vietnam era that he accepted and parroted the Nixon administration’s line without question, putting him out of step with prevailing attitudes. It’s perversely fascinating to watch a man so nimble stumble over his own feet. Zoglin, at least, captures this painful period with grace.

Hope does such a thorough job explaining the almost-unparalleled scale of its subject’s fame – he altered the shape of everything from studio contracts to the role of Academy Awards host, a gig he held a record nineteen times – that it’s disappointing when Zoglin misses a beat on Hope’s more contemporary appearances. He seems unaware that Hope’s cameo in 1985’s Spies Like Us is an explicit nod to the DNA of the Road movies, which Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase hoped to carry forward. And there’s surprisingly no mention of Hope’s truly funny turn in the Little Miss Springfield episode of The Simpsons, recorded when Hope was approaching age 90, which teased his longtime practice of having advance men provide him with local references for his act and his indefatigable work ethic (“Set me down at that boat show.”) Conan O’Brien talks about Hope’s Simpsons appearance here.

During last month’s Bouchercon in Long Beach, Rosemarie and I spent a morning visiting the Queen Mary. The ship is currently hosting the exhibit Bob Hope: An American Treasure. Only fitting, considering Hope gave an impromptu performance onboard 75 years ago as it steamed back from Europe after war had been declared. It was thrilling to see Hope’s handwritten additions to some of his Oscar scripts (one namechecking Long Beach), and there’s a collection of his novelty golf clubs. But there are way too many alternate versions of “Thanks for the Memory” on display.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Books: Recent Reading Roundup

December is winding to a close, and I’m all too conscious of how infrequently I’ve updated the blog this year. 2014 has been hectic if fantastic, what with the sale of the mystery novel Rosemarie and I wrote, and my becoming co-managing editor of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine Noir City, and a host of other assignments, not to mention my thriving mail-order decorative soap business. Order by today if you want your Christmas orders fulfilled!

ASIDE: The annual Noir City Xmas show was last night, at which the program for the 13th annual film festival was revealed. The theme is marriage and I have something of a proprietary interest in it, considering the idea was hatched by Eddie Muller and me at a late-night dinner in Seattle several years ago. You’ve gotta love that poster. Here’s its sordid backstory. You’ll also notice on the Noir City page a sneak peek of the cover of the next issue of the magazine. Trust me when I tell you it’s a doozy. Support the Film Noir Foundation to have it delivered to your inbox come January.

But as the days dwindle down, I realize that I miss posting. In 2015, I’m going to strive to update the blog on a semi-regular basis. No better time to get started than now, with a whip round of new crime fiction I commend to your attention.

Land of Shadows, by Rachel Howzell Hall. Rosemarie and I had the pleasure of meeting our Tor/Forge labelmate at Bouchercon in Long Beach. Rachel’s novel is a taut L.A. crime story with a tremendous sense of place. Detective Elouise ‘Lou’ Norton’s latest case lands her in all-too-familiar territory. A young woman is found dead on a condo construction site abutting the Jungle, the neighborhood where Lou grew up. More to the point, the site is being developed by the local businessman who might have murdered Lou’s sister decades earlier. As if those old wounds reopening weren’t enough for Lou to handle, her marriage is collapsing, too, and this time a “‘Sorry, baby’ Porsche” won’t cover the damage. You want a strong female character, in the authentic and not buzzword sense? Spend some time in Lou’s company.

The Big Ugly, by Jake Hinkson. Brother Hinkson is a familiar name to Noir City subscribers, one of our constant and most valued contributors. He also writes take-no-prisoners noir novels with a Deep South flavor and a taste of that old-time religion. In his latest, Ellie Bennett walks out at the end of her sentence at Eastgate Penitentiary after years of walking in as a guard. She’s still trying to get her head on straight when a job falls into her lap: find a fellow ex-con who disappeared – and who has ties to both sides in a hotly contested election. A rabbit punch of a book, doing its dirty work in short order.

The Great Pretender, by Craig McDonald. I’ve been a fan of McDonald’s sprawling, wildly ambitious series about Hector Lassiter, the two-fisted novelist who trucks with twentieth century luminaries, from the outset. Pretender finds Hector in pursuit of the Spear of Destiny, last seen in Hellboy and Constantine, and tangling with Nazis, witches and, most contentious of all, Orson Welles. McDonald cagily splits up the action, with Welles in full enfant terrible mode in the first half of the book – much of the story unfolds on the night of the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 – while the second takes place in the late 1940s as the filmmaker’s star is already burning out. Another entire Lassiter novel, Roll the Credits, slots in between, and I’ll be tackling that one soon enough.

Angels of the North, by Ray Banks. The publication date says 2014, but yours truly was lucky enough to clap eyes on this book last year. Damn thing left marks that haven’t faded. Now you have the chance to partake of its majesty. A big, bruising tale of Thatcher’s England, about street-level politics and petty power. You know, the kind that matters. Ray weaves three stories together effortlessly, as always finding sympathy for the devil and humor in the darkest of corners. It’s the best thing Ray’s written, which is saying something, and one of the finest novels of the year. Even if I read it in 2013.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Keenan's Klassics: It's a Shane Black Christmas

Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum. From December 2009.

There I am at my favorite watering hole, talking with the staff, when the subject of Christmas movies is raised.

First suggestion, not made by me: the traditional double-bill of Die Hard and Die Hard II: Die Harder.

Thus giving me the tenor of the conversation. This is not the time, perhaps, to mention Remember the Night and Holiday Affair, two overlooked films (with noir connections!) that Turner Classic Movies has labored to turn into Yuletide staples. Although a mention of Blast of Silence, full of Wenceslas wetwork, might not be out of the question.

So I lobby for my own Christmas favorite, The Ref. And then observe, not for the first time, that the entire oeuvre of Shane Black – Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – is set at the most wonderful time of the year. (Editor's note, 2013: You can now add IRON MAN 3 to that roster.)

Therefore, as you venture out for that last round of shopping, I offer, by popular demand, what has become a VKDC tradition. (“By popular demand” meaning Rosemarie asked, “Why haven’t you posted this yet?” And she did write most of it.) Here, once again, is Shane Black’s 12 Days of Christmas. Record your church group performing this and we’ll post the video here!

Twelve cars exploding
Eleven extras running
Ten tankers skidding
Nine strippers pole-ing
Eight Uzis firing
Seven henchmen scowling
Six choppers crashing

Five silver Glocks

Four ticking bombs
Three hand grenades
Two mortar shells
And a suitcase full of C-4

God bless us, everyone. Or else.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Me Elsewhere: Pop That Cork

Another new issue of Eat Drink Films, and another new Down the Hatch column. This installment is about making use of all that holiday champagne in a trio of classic cocktails, some more classic than others. Featuring appearances by the American Expeditionary Forces, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a bevy of chorus girls. Don’t miss it.

While you’re there, why not sign up for the magazine’s mailing list? You’ll get a weekly email detailing each issue’s contents – and you’ll have a chance to win cookbooks and DVDs. Eat Drink Films publisher Gary Meyer explains all.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Me Elsewhere: A Tour of Tinseltown Tippling

While I was away having a fantastic time at Bouchercon, a new issue of Eat Drink Films went live featuring November’s installment of my Down the Hatch cocktail column. I review the new book Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling through Hollywood History, written by Mark Bailey and illustrated by Edward Hemingway, and prepare a trio of forgotten drinks from its pages. Plenty more to see there, so why not swing on by?

Monday, November 03, 2014

Me Elsewhere: Hooray for Hollywood

All right, kids. Time to release some news that Rosemarie and I have been keeping under wraps for a few months now. Good news. Big news.

Drumroll, please!

Seriously? That’s the best drumroll we can – you know what, forget it. We’re forging ahead.

Rosemarie and I are hugely excited to announce that our mystery novel Design for Dying, which we wrote under the pen name Renee Patrick, will be published by Macmillan’s Tor/Forge Books in April 2016, with a sequel to follow in April 2017.

An early Paramount promotional photo of Edith
Design is set in 1937 Los Angeles and introduces Lillian Frost, an aspiring actress who has traded in her dreams of stardom for security as a department store salesgirl. When her former roommate is murdered, Lillian is drawn into the investigation – and the orbit of Edith Head, the famed costume designer at Paramount Pictures then in the early days of her legendary career. With assists from a host of silver screen luminaries, the two ladies join forces to track down a killer hiding in the shadows around the Klieg lights of Hollywood.

We were thrilled when Design won the 2013 William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers. (Reminder: you have until November 15 to submit your application for this year.) We are beside ourselves that the book has found a home with the great people at Tor/Forge, and that Renee Patrick will have the opportunity to write another mystery featuring Lillian and Edith. Rosemarie and I have always envisioned this as a series drawing on real Hollywood history and the astonishing legacy of Edith Head, an enormous talent who dressed everyone, knew everyone, and blazed a trail for women in show business.

Word of Design’s sale broke on Halloween in this post we wrote for the Boucheron 2014 blog. We’ll be in Long Beach for this year’s convention and participating in a Tor/Forge author event at Bouchercon on Friday, November 14. If you see us, come say hi. We’ll be the couple standing around looking dumbstruck at our good fortune.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Me Elsewhere: Brooklyn Revisited

Over at Eat Drink Films, the latest of my Down The Hatch columns is up. Last month I considered three cocktails created to honor the Brooklyn. This go-round I take a look at the often-imitated-never-duplicated original and its return to prominence thanks to the advent of Bigallet’s China-China Amer. Also included is bartending legend Murray Stenson’s take on the Liberal using that same ingredient. This week’s issue of EDF is packed with goodness, like DC Comics veteran Steve Englehart’s inside take on Batman and how it relates to the new film Birdman. Check it out.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Words of Wisdom: Tales From The Circular File

Then there is the marvelous story about William Faulkner – which I never bothered to ask him about, because we used to talk of other things whenever I visited his office or we had dinner with my wife at Musso Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard.

The story had it that once, early in Faulkner’s Hollywood career, he sat in his office for several weeks doing nothing (sometimes he played dominos, sometimes he played chess). And there came a day when the producer, tired of waiting for “pages,” came to his office in person (which was really a breach of Hollywood protocol) and wanted to know how he was getting on.

Faulkner, who had not written a single line, reached for an old screenplay he had found in his desk and said, “Ah’m not satisfied with it.” Then he slowly tore it up, page by page, and dropped it into the wastebasket.

The producer reported back to his own boss, “That fellow Faulkner’s great! Tore up a whole screenplay because it didn’t satisfy him. Conscientious. I wish we had more writers like him. See that he’s not disturbed.”

From Alvah Bessie’s 1965 memoir Inquisition in Eden

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

I say this every time a new issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine hits in-boxes around the globe. So I’ll quote FNF jefe Eddie Muller: this latest edition of Noir City is “the best written film journal in the world – certainly the most entertaining.”

Want proof? I thought my word was good enough for you. I thought we were friends.

Fine. Here’s proof. Inside the Fall 2014 issue:

- Imogen Sara Smith’s expansive survey of noir westerns

- Your friend and mine Christa Faust sizes up noir vixens of recent vintage

- Michael Connelly names his five favorite noir films

- Wallace Stroby on the real life origins of the neo-noir classic Thief

- Profiles of Mike Mazurki and William Castle

- Muller mulls the question of the definitive heist film: The Asphalt Jungle or Rififi?

I’m particularly proud of the sidebar to that piece which I helped assemble, in which we ask a rogues gallery of crime writers to single out their favorite cinematic caper. Faust and Stroby chime in, along with the likes of Duane Swierczynski, Laura Lippman, Ken Bruen, Roger Hobbs and Ray Banks.

Plus plenty more. I contribute a few film reviews and my usual Cocktails & Crime column … and eagle-eyed readers may spot breaking news about what I’ve been up to lately.

Don’t have a copy? Never fear. Simply make a contribution to the Film Noir Foundation and ninety-four pages of majesty will be winging their way toward you. Don’t miss out.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Words of Wisdom: Dateline Venice

From Joseph Cotten's 1987 autobiography Vanity Will Get You Somewhere:

The following day Orson and I had a date for lunch with two gentlemen (not from Verona, I fear). They were two tough and exceedingly wealthy businessmen. The reason for our meeting was simple; Orson needed money for his next film and he intended to acquire some of theirs.

Walking into the restaurant I saw Winston Churchill seated quite close to our table. As we passed the great man, Orson said to my horror, “Winston, how nice to see you again.” Churchill made no response at all. Our lunch was a fiasco. Orson made some lame excuse about, “Winston’s not feeling well.” He mentioned other big names, big money, which almost caused me to say, “Big deal.” Actually it was no deal, for our money men asked if we could postpone our discussion until dinnertime, as they were expecting several overseas telephone calls.

Late that afternoon, we spotted Churchill swimming in the Lido. In a flash, Orson had his swimming trunks on and was in the water beside him. He was talking, but thank heavens I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Apparently neither could Churchill, for he just turned and swam in the other direction.

Later I asked Orson, “What did you dare say to him this time?”

“I apologized for being fresh,” he said, “but I told him I just wanted to impress two gentlemen whose money I needed for a film.”

Rather unnecessarily I asked, “Did he reply?”

“No,” said Orson.

That evening, we walked into the dining room, our two prospective backers following gloomily. As we reached Churchill’s table, he stood up, looked directly at Orson, and bowed slowly and deeply.

We got the money.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Down The Hatch: Anniversary Blowout!

Exactly one year ago Sunday my book Down The Hatch: One Man’s One Year Odyssey Through Classic Cocktail Recipes and Lore came kicking and screaming into the world. Such an occasion must be marked, and in that most American of fashions: savings!

Amazon is running a Kindle Countdown Sale on Down The Hatch from noon PST today to noon PST on Monday. For 72 glorious hours, pick up the book for a mere 99 cents! More than fifty cocktail recipes for less than a buck! Endorsed by experts like New York Times Magazine columnist Rosie Schaap, who called it “a terrific guide through the classic cocktail repertoire.” The Joy of Mixology author gaz regan dubbed it “a great compilation of fine drinks.”

What are you waiting for? Operators are standing by. Metaphorically, of course.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Books: Around The Horn

I’ve had my reasons for not updating the blog lately. (On the bright side, they’re good reasons. Very good.) Time to surface and recommend several recent books that span the decades. Two decades, anyway.

Joseph Koenig’s Really The Blues plays out in Paris, 1941. The Nazis have claimed the city, not that ex-pat jazzman Eddie Piron cares. His combo Eddie et Ses Anges performs every night at La Caverne Negre, and “as long as he had a steady gig, the world could keep going straight to hell.” He doesn’t even mind that the SS officers who are supposed to be stamping out the devil music he plays are now his steadiest customers. But when Eddie’s regular drummer turns up dead, the crime draws the attention of a particularly cunning Nazi officer new to the City of Light, one willing to squeeze Eddie to ferret out the truth. It’s Eddie’s bad luck that a fellow American abroad who knows the reason why the musician is in no hurry to return Stateside puts the screws to him at the same time. Eddie’s either going to have to stick his neck out for somebody, or stick it in a noose. The third act may lean on Inglourious Basterds-style heroics too much, but the book crackles with mood and energy throughout. Eddie Piron is a compelling protagonist, an aptly fractured guide to a fractured place.

Blacklist by Jerry Ludwig unspools in 1959 on the other side of the world, where shadows from the war still fall. David Weaver returns to Los Angeles after growing up in exile to bury his father, a screenwriter destroyed by the Communist witch hunt. David doesn’t expect a hero’s welcome, but he would appreciate work in the only business he knows. Opportunity comes courtesy of an unlikely source – Leo Vardian, his late father’s partner, who named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee and is now a successful director. A suspicious David takes the job mainly to return to the good graces of Leo’s daughter Jana, the only woman he’s ever loved. Hounding David’s chance at happiness is Brian McKenna, an FBI agent chafing at his Tinseltown tenure now that the Reds have been rounded up and agitating to serve at the right hand of J. Edgar Hoover. His potential ticket out comes in the form of a series of murders, every victim somehow tied to the blacklist – with David Weaver as likely avenging angel. Veteran TV writer Ludwig paints a vivid portrait of Los Angeles as a company town and smartly conveys the costs of the Red scare on an intimate level. He also creates some fascinating false history, like a choice cameo by Sterling Hayden and a description of “the only full-scale comedy John Garfield ever did” that sounds completely believable.

Linking both the 1940s and ‘50s is The 101 Best Film Noir Posters by Mark Fertig. Mark is a colleague at Noir City, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation, and I had the pleasure of meeting him and his wife Josie at a signing and reception this past weekend at Fantagraphics Books here in Seattle. For years Mark has curated the finest examples of the noir poster form at his blog Where Danger Lives, and he and Fantagraphics have turned that work into a stunning book. The posters are reproduced in all their lurid, breathtaking glory. My personal favorite may be Force of Evil, which abandons the fool’s errand of attempting to capture Marie Windsor’s sensuality in painted form and just shoehorns a photograph of her into the corner. Mark’s shrewd assessments of every film don’t shy away from controversy; he expresses his doubts about including Leave Her To Heaven, and (correctly, I think) calls D.O.A. “more noteworthy than good.” Clear shelf space, noir fans, because this book is an essential.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Me Elsewhere: Not Only The Dead Know Brooklyn

Another issue of Eat Drink Films, another of my Down The Hatch cocktail columns. In this one, I take you on a spiritual tour of Brooklyn, touching on three variations of the borough’s classic namesake drink that you can make when you don’t have one essential ingredient on hand. Whip one up – I suggest the Red Hook – then peruse the rest of this week’s magazine, which includes an overview of this year’s Telluride Film Festival and part one of a look at one of the best movies of the year, Pawel Pawlikowski’s astonishing Ida. But seriously, start with my column.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Me Elsewhere: Drink Like The Stars

The new issue of Eat Drink Films features my latest Down The Hatch cocktail column. I turn a Klieg light on a pair of drinks named for storied nightspots of yesteryear, the Stork Club and the Brown Derby. Plus notes on chocolate hazelnut porter, Yul Brynner’s baked potatoes, and more. Go read it!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Words of Wisdom: That’s One Way to Look at It

Furthermore, practically all the Hollywood film-making of today is stooping to cheap salacious pornography in a crazy bastardization of a great art to compete for the ‘patronage’ of deviates and masturbators. If that isn’t a slide, it’ll do until a real avalanche hits our film Mecca.

- Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title (1971)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Words of Wisdom: ‘Twas Ever Thus

“Why shouldn’t we be able to do as well as any Hollywood hack?”

“Because what the producers want is an original but familiar, unusual but popular, moralistic but sexy, true but improbable, tender but violent, slick but highbrow masterpiece. When they have that, then they can ‘work on it’ and make it ‘commercial,’ to justify their high salaries.”

- A 1945 conversation between Bertolt Brecht and Salka Viertel, recounted in Viertel’s 1969 memoir The Kindness of Strangers

Monday, July 28, 2014

Words of Wisdom: Preston Sturges

A man in possession of many bolts of woolen cloth, quantities of lining and interlining, buttons, thread, needles, and padding is not, of necessity, a tailor. A man in possession of many characters, many situations, many startling and dramatic events, and many gags is not, of necessity, a storyteller.

The crafts of the tailor and the storyteller are not dissimilar, however, for out of a mass of unrelated material, each contrives to fashion a complete and well-balanced unit. Many stories are too heavy in the shoulders and too short in the pants, with the design of the material running upside-down …

The customer walking home in his new suit is razzed by small boys as he passes. I thought I knew how to put a story together, but it might turn out I was meant to be a tailor.

- From Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges (1990). Sturges’ first hit play Strictly Dishonorable is back on stage in New York City, revived by the Attic Theater.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Me Elsewhere: The United Artists Cocktails

This week’s issue of Eat Drink Films is out, featuring my latest Down The Hatch cocktail column. In it, I make the drinks named after three of the four founders of United Artists. Who’s the odd man (or woman) out? Read the column and see. While you’re there check out the rest of the issue, which includes Vincent Price’s recipe for blueberry muffins and a look at the festivities planned for the centenary year of Orson Welles’ birth.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

It’s a big day, kids. The latest issue of the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation is out – and the first issue on which I’ve served as managing editor, alongside the estimable Steve Kronenberg and under the stewardship of the man himself, El Jefe, Eddie Muller. It is with all due modesty that I say we’ve delivered quite the feast. Among the courses for your delectation:

  • FNF advisory council member Dennis Lehane names his five favorite noirs
  • An interview with Barry Gifford, novelist and impresario behind Black Lizard Books
  • An extensive survey of “rubble noir,” the rarely-seen films made in Germany after the end of World War II
  • Duane Swierczynski’s sensational, highly personal appreciation of the neglected noir Cisco Pike
  • Bob Hoskins remembered by the Saturday Boy his-own-self, Ray Banks
And so much more. I’m not kidding. I’m only scratching the surface of what’s in this issue, all of it beautifully assembled by ace designer Michael Kronenberg working his usual magic.

As for me, I’m all over this one. I’ve got an overview of the mixed-media stage production Helen Lawrence, recently mounted in Vancouver, B.C. and currently touring the globe; reviews of the Blu-Ray of The Counselor, the festival favorite Blue Ruin and the extraordinary slice of Hollywood history Five Came Back by Mark Harris; plus the debut of my new column Cocktails & Crime, rat-a-tatting noir news and notes.

My primary contribution is a look back at season one of True Detective, featuring spectacular illustrations inspired by the HBO show from Eisner Award-winning graphic artist Francesco Francavilla. Honestly, you’re going to want to read this article for the pictures.

So how do you get the magazine? Simple. Swing by the Film Noir Foundation website, make a donation to help preserve one of America’s greatest artistic legacies, then tuck in. You won’t believe what we’ve got cooking for the next issue.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Culross

First, some news. I’m pleased to report I’ve joined the merry band of writers at online magazine EatDrinkFilms as cocktail columnist. Food, booze, and movies? Those are three of my favorite things! “Down the Hatch” – hey, like my book! – will be a monthly feature. My maiden effort honors the magazine’s Northern California roots by looking at the Meyer Lemon Whiskey Sour and the Frisco. Go read it and the rest of the issue while you’re at it.

Whenever I encounter an unfamiliar drink recipe and realize I already have the required ingredients, it’s something of an effort not to cry out “To the bar!”. I stumbled across one the other day while paging through The Savoy Cocktail Book – yes, I do spend my valuable downtime paging through cocktail books, usually in front of a roaring fire with a (rented) dog at my feet, and what’s it to you? – and decided such a voyage of discovery would make the ideal subject for the one hundredth Cocktail of the Week post. Champion, the loaner Labrador nestled by my slippers, barked his assent.

I’m going to repeat that. The ONE HUNDREDTH post. Surely that calls for a drink.

Why not the Culross? I’m not saying this cocktail is unknown. If it’s in Savoy, it’s on a menu somewhere. I’m saying that up to now it’s managed to miss me.

Its Savoy appearance seems to be its debut. No one knows where the name came from, although the Scottish village on the Firth of Forth would be a safe bet. The original recipe called for one-third each Bacardi rum, Kina Lillet and apricot brandy, along with the “juice of ¼ lemon.” Bastardized versions turn up in a handful of later books, often with a heavier pour of rum.

The ratio that was good enough for Harry Craddock would suffice for me. I made my usual substitution of Cocchi Americano for Kina Lillet, the additional snap of cinchona in the Americano a better match for what Harry poured in his day.

As for the juice of one-fourth of a lemon, who has the time to make such calculations in our hectic modern age? A few contemporary recipes upped the lemon juice to full partner, so in went three-quarters of an ounce like the other ingredients.

Drinking the Culross raised another question: Why isn’t this cocktail a perennial favorite? It’s woefully underrated, offering a lovely balance of sweet (brandy), sour (lemon juice), and bitter (Americano), with the rum as stabilizer. Some experts endorse making the drink with apricot eau de vie and I have no doubt it’s splendid in its drier way, but I remain an unabashed brandy partisan. And a Culross convert.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to return this dog while I can still get my deposit back.

The Culross

¾ oz. light rum
¾ oz. Cocchi Americano
¾ oz. apricot brandy
¾ oz. lemon juice

Shake. Strain. No garnish.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Sloe Gin Fizz

How bad had sloe gin’s reputation gotten? Bartenders stopped using it as the principal ingredient in the drink named after it.

Which was unfortunate, because in addition to that evocative handle – one of my favorites in the canon – the sloe gin fizz has some history behind it. How do I know? Because it’s a Mad Men cocktail. According to Dinah Sanders’ recent book The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Cocktails to Keep You Level, the recipe first appeared in Sunset magazine in 1898. It was once known as a morning drink, which didn’t necessarily mean it was something to order along with your eggs Benedict whenever Aunt Martha visited (although it would certainly suit that occasion). It was fabled far and wide in workingman’s saloons as a hangover remedy.

It would have tasted a damn sight better than the decades’ worth of sloe gin fizzes poured during Spring Breaks from South Padre to Myrtle Beach. The sloe gin of 1898 was not the sloe gin of more recent vintage. As recounted in the epic post about the Millionaire (read it, it’s funny), sloe berries are small, plum-like fruits with a taste that is aggressively, almost brutally tart. Most contemporary sloe gins were over-sweetened to compensate, rendering the liqueur suitable only for the most cloying of cocktails. Recipes for the sloe gin fizz took this sad state of affairs into account, recommending that the drink contain equal parts sloe and traditional gin. Should you somehow acquire authentic sloe gin, you’re advised, by all means use it on its own. But good luck making that happen.

Luck is no longer required. (OK, maybe a little is. Read the Millionaire post.) Plymouth has made a sloe gin commercially available that is true to the spirit’s spirit. Long-forgotten libations like the Charlie Chaplin are once again viable. What does it do for its namesake cocktail?

I prepared the drink both ways, because we here at Keenan Labs are nothing if not thorough. The solo sloe gin version was, as the title of Ms. Sanders’ book indicates, lower in proof. The berries’ distinctive taste was more pronounced, the drink itself light, crisp, and refreshing.

For the more modern version, I paired Plymouth Sloe Gin with the company’s signature gin. Smooth, drier than most London gins and lighter on botanicals, it’s fantastic in martinis and Gibsons. To no one’s surprise, I preferred this version, and not (just) because it’s boozier. The sloe berries still make their presence felt, but the addition of gin gives the drink a stronger foundation. Both have ample charms. Either will banish poorly made poolside sloe gin fizzes from memory.

One last note: the few sloe gin fizz recipes that still call for egg white note that this ingredient is optional. I opted out. I’ve made enough egg white drinks lately, and this one works better as a summer cooler without it. Technically, including the egg white makes it a silver sloe gin fizz. Use this tidbit to impress your bartender!

The Sloe Gin Fizz

1 oz. Plymouth sloe gin
1 oz. gin
¾ oz. lemon juice
¼ oz. simple syrup
several ozs. club soda

Combine the first four ingredients. Shake. Strain into a chilled Collins glass. Top with club soda. For a more traditional version, omit the gin and use 2 oz. Plymouth sloe gin.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Book: Five Came Back, by Mark Harris (2014)

Let’s dole out the superlatives early. Five Came Back is an essential for students of Hollywood and history, easily the best book I’ve read so far this year. In recounting the role of studio filmmakers in the Allied war effort, it represents the rare combination of a story that demands to be told and a writer who is more than up to the challenge.

The directors who chronicled World War II would not only shape how that conflict would be perceived by future generations, but how combat itself would be portrayed thereafter. Mark Harris (Pictures at a Revolution) wisely keeps the focus on a quintet of individuals, weaving their narratives together as he follows them before, during and immediately after the war. It’s still an epic tale, touching on all branches of the service and every theater of operations. It helps that each of the five men is a larger-than-life figure, entering the military with, as Harris notes, the experience of a private but the attitude of a general.

Frank Capra, who won three Best Director Oscars in the 1930s, didn’t go to war so much as to Washington, his stint as a bureaucrat only underscoring the muddiness of his personal politics. John Ford, who joined the Navy and led the photographic unit of the OSS, would do some of the best work of his career in the heat of battle only to be sent back to Hollywood in disgrace. John Huston had scored his first triumph with The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and initially regarded the war as an inconvenience to his rapid ascent. He blithely staged recreations for his “documentary” The Battle of San Pietro to get the footage he wanted, but the truths he told about the psychological traumas suffered by veterans in his long-censored Let There Be Light proved too hard for the government to hear. William Wyler welcomed these years as “an escape into reality.” His insistence on putting himself in harm’s way to follow aviators on their missions led to permanent injury, material he would then mine for the greatest film about the post-war period The Best Years of Our Lives. And the urbane George Stevens would be unable to return to his métier of comedy after being one of the first American officers to provide an eyewitness account of Nazi atrocities in the wake of the liberation of Dachau; he would go on to compile photograph evidence for the Nuremberg trials.

If the book has a hero it’s Lowell Mellett, the ex-newspaperman appointed as liaison between Washington and Hollywood for the Office of War Information. He played a long game, concerned about maintaining accuracy in what he acknowledged to be propaganda films and bearing the Allies’ eventual victory in mind when addressing issues of racism in how the Japanese were depicted.

Harris strips away any “Greatest Generation” sanctimony, honoring the accomplishments of these individuals while reveling in their humanity, their cantankerousness and foibles. American filmmakers coerced their British counterparts into a lopsided collaboration because U.K. efforts like Desert Victory far surpassed their own. Some things never change: audiences spurned most of these films in favor of newsreels because they craved immediacy and quickly grew bored with a steady diet of war dramas, craving the lighter fare no one felt comfortable making. While the directors lobbied to have their government-bankrolled productions considered for Academy Awards, fearful their careers would be in jeopardy once hostilities ended.

An astonishing array of talent participated in the propaganda campaign, names like Irwin Shaw and Eric Ambler popping up with regularity. Capra’s greatest contribution was an afterthought, approving the “Private Snafu” cartoons spearheaded by Chuck Jones and Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel. I knew Louis Hayward as a serviceable player in lesser noirs like Repeat Performance and Walk a Crooked Mile; I had no inkling he won an Academy Award and the Bronze Star for making the harrowing With the Marines at Tarawa.

But the focus remains on these five men and their films. Even under extreme conditions, they brought their personalities to bear on their work. Ford captured riveting footage for 1942’s The Battle of Midway, but couldn’t resist adding a folksy voiceover by his Grapes of Wrath stars Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell. Wyler’s instinct for drama compelled him to shape The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress around a single B-17’s crew. The impact of those years transformed each of the directors, altering their subsequent films. Capra lost his way in the industry, Ford retreated to westerns, Huston gave vent to his innate cynicism. Five Came Back is a sprawling yet fleet book, compulsively readable and endlessly fascinating.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Douglas Fairbanks

“You can talk about your stars and their talents … but Douglas Fairbanks had something none of the rest ever possessed. It was a combination of good manners, looks, athletic skill, and extroverted charm. Doug loved everybody, and his infectious grin and easy way made everybody love him.”

So wrote Hedda Hopper in her 1952 autobiography From Under My Hat. (Examples of other stars and their talents cited by La Hopper: “Jack Gilbert’s poetic love-making, Wally Reid’s boyishness.” It’s a one-of-a-kind book.) The man crowned King of Hollywood and the movies’ first great action hero – he played Zorro, Robin Hood, D’Artagnan – deserved to have a cocktail named in his honor, like two of his fellow co-founders of United Artists Mary Pickford, aka Mrs. Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin. Douglas Fairbanks (born Douglas Ullman) may have been a teetotaler, but Hollywood never lets facts get in the way of a story.

The question is: which drink is Douglas’s? Page through The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock or Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual and you’ll find the Fairbanks numbers 1 and 2, neither bearing a Christian name. The Fairbanks #2 is a martini variation with Crème de Noyaux, the pinkish liqueur made from apricot kernels yet tasting of almonds. This drink started in the 1920s as the Fairbank, but somewhere along the way an ‘s’ was appended. Clouding matters was an entry in Robert Vermiere’s Cocktails: How to Mix Them (1922), which claimed the drink was so called “after Senator Fairbank, a personal friend of the late President Roosevelt, of America.” Said Senator was actually Charles W. Fairbanks, not just Teddy Roosevelt’s personal friend but his Vice President. Considering Vermiere got both name and title wrong, it’s unclear how reliable a source he is, and anyway that’s not the drink I’m making. (By complete coincidence I had a riff on this Fairbanks courtesy of Ben Perri at the Zig Zag Café this week. With the addition of Cocchi Americano, it was terrific.)

More Hedda on Fairbanks: The actor famously had a steam room built at the studio he and Pickford owned. “That steam room was the great leveler. When he’s mother-naked, you can’t tell whether a man’s a duke, a masseur or a producer.” This fulfills my longtime dream of using the term “mother-naked” in one of these posts.

It’s more likely the Fairbanks #1 was named for the actor. The recipe originally appeared in the Sloppy Joe’s Cocktail Manuals published throughout the 1930s in Cuba, the land that sired Mary Pickford’s namesake drink. Craddock and Duffy prescribe an equal parts ratio of gin, apricot brandy and citrus juice (originally lemon, now lime), while Sloppy Joe and contemporary experts prefer a spirit-forward version. While grenadine is no longer included, the sometimes-vexing egg white called for by Sloppy Joe still is. I now follow the lead of the experts and use one egg white for two drinks. The Douglas Fairbanks proves such a sterling showcase for the derring-do of apricot brandy that although the egg white adds its usual silky mouthfeel, the cocktail would taste just fine without it.

One last tidbit from Hedda Hopper. When Douglas Fairbanks died, a coterie of pals led by actor/wrestler Bull Montana conspired at Hollywood’s Brown Derby to swipe the actor’s body, prop it under a favorite tree, and give him a more private sendoff. A busboy must have overheard the plan, because when Bull and the boys arrived at the mortuary the guard had been doubled. The ceremony proceeded at the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather without incident.

The Douglas Fairbanks

1 ½ oz. gin
1 oz. apricot brandy
½ oz. fresh lime juice
½ egg white (just use one egg white and make two drinks, it’s easier)

Shake the ingredients without ice, then with. Strain. No garnish.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Rob Roy

At one of my many desk jobs, I’d to listen to NPR to pass the time. (I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the sports talk station. It made me “too excitable,” to hear Human Resources tell it.) One Friday afternoon a regular program turned itself into “a cocktail party on the air” – Jesus, just typing those words depressed me – with one of the co-hosts serving as bartender. Reaching deep into his dusty bag of tricks, he told a guest, “I think I’m going to make you a Gibson.”

“A Gibson?” said the main host with a scorn I assumed NPR’s mics wouldn’t register. “Why don’t you make her a Rob Roy?”

It was a few years ago, obviously. The cocktail renaissance has since rehabilitated both drinks. (Who are we kidding? It’s buffed the reputation of every drink.) But for decades the Rob Roy was seen as archaic, the kind of tipple your grandfather might have favored. It didn’t help that the Rob Roy lived permanently in the shadow of a titan, regularly referred to as a Scotch Manhattan. (Even I did it.) But the Rob Roy has its own pleasures, and so deserves a turn in the spotlight.

Which is only appropriate, considering how the drink got its name. It was created at New York’s Waldorf Hotel, which given its proximity to Broadway would regularly dub cocktails after shows. 1894’s Rob Roy featured music by Reginald DeKoven and a libretto by future Ziegfeld Follies mainstay Harry B. Smith. Who among us can forget such staple songs as “Who’s For the Chase, My Bonnie Hearts?” and “My Name is Where the Heather Blooms”? Rob Roy wasn’t a smash like DeKoven & Smith’s other tuneful telling of a Celtic hero, Robin Hood, which introduced “Oh Promise Me” (lyric by Clement Scott); it was revived on Broadway only once, for two weeks in 1913.

The name would continue to be an issue for the Rob Roy. I can’t think of another cocktail that has a moniker for each minor variation. Some purists insist that the Rob Roy is equal parts Scotch and sweet vermouth, with the now-accepted addition of bitters transforming it into a second drink known as, well, the Scotch Manhattan. Choose orange bitters, according to David Embury, and you’ve prepared a Highland, a Highland Fling, or an Express, the exact designation apparently depending on which glen you happen to be downing it in. Add a dram of Bénédictine or Drambuie and it’s the Bobby Burns. Make it perfect, with equal parts sweet and dry vermouth, and it’s the Affinity, while dry alone is the Beadlestone. No wonder the poor wee bairn developed a complex. And then Kingsley Amis comes along and dismisses the entire clan of cocktails by saying they’re “bearable, but quite unrewarding.”

But use the right blended Scotch like my new favorite Bank Note, with its higher single malt content, and you’ll find sustained notes that a Manhattan won’t play. The bitters remain a point of controversy. Many recipes specify Angostura, while some authorities like gaz regan say they’re never to be used here. Others suggest the more floral Peychaud’s pairs well with Scotch. I opt for orange, as called for in my copy of The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book. You can garnish with a cherry as you would a Manhattan, but a lemon twist adds a few subtle flourishes.

And remember, when in Seattle, visit the cocktail bar of the same name. Ye’ll find no confusion there.

The Rob Roy

2 oz. blended Scotch whisky
¾ oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Jungle Bird

Strange how a creature with such beautiful plumage can hide in plain sight.

When Seattle’s Rob Roy changed its menu, we stopped by at the earliest opportunity to sample the latest wonders from Anu Apte and her team. Rosemarie’s eye was immediately drawn to the Jungle Bird. “It sounds like a tiki drink,” she said, “but it has Campari in it.” As we were leaving, she informed me, “We’ll be coming back for more of those.”

A short time later, this Robert Simonson piece in the New York Times offered an update on the Jungle Bird’s migratory pattern. It was coming home to roost at cocktail bars all over the country. The drink is no spring chicken; created at the Kuala Lumpur Hilton in Malaysia, it’s been around since 1978. The recipe was recorded in John J. Poister’s New American Bartender’s Guide (1989), where it was largely ignored. Only when tiki authority Jeff “Beachbum” Berry unearthed it for his 2002 book Intoxica! did its popularity begin to hatch.

What gulls galls me – all right, I’ll lay off the puns – is that I have Poister’s book on my shelf, yet unlike everybody else, I’d never heard about the Bird*. Poister’s recipe calls for a veritable flotilla of garnishes: a maraschino cherry, an orange slice, a lime slice, and an orchid (listed as optional, and thank our lucky stars for that). He also recommends you “serve in a special ceramic bird container or use a chilled hurricane glass.” You’ll take a basic rocks glass, Poister, and you’ll like it. Most bars now pour the cocktail over a single large ice cube.

I freely confess I am not typically a fan of tiki drinks. More often than not you can only taste the fruit, the rum not hitting you until you wake up in Laughlin with yet another showgirl wife to explain to the uptight authorities. As Rosemarie suspected and Berry confirms in the Simonson article, it’s the presence of Campari that accounts for its success in the contemporary bar scene, its bitterness corkscrewing through the drink and preventing the entire enterprise from floating away on a cloud of sweetness.

While Simonson is correct in saying rare rums aren’t required here, you’ll want a darker one that will bear up to the Campari. I followed the advice of esteemed New York bartender Giuseppe Gonzalez and used Cruzan Black Strap, the more intense (and, yes, bitter) version made from blackstrap molasses. The complex taste and texture of this spirit leave no doubt who’s in charge here. I appreciated the result more having tried a different variety first – I believe Rob Roy’s fine Jungle Bird is prepared with Amrut Old Port Rum – and would suggest doing likewise in order to understand the drink’s nuances. Perhaps a flight of Jungle Birds? OK, seriously, I’ll stop now.

*Technically not a pun, but a dated musical reference.

The Jungle Bird

1 ½ oz. dark rum (blackstrap when you’re ready for it)
1 ½ oz. pineapple juice (canned is fine, fresh is infinitely better)
¾ oz. Campari
½ oz. fresh lime juice
½ oz. simple syrup

Shake. Strain. No garnish necessary, but feel free to go nuts. (NOTE: do not garnish with nuts.)

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: Remember The Maine

From 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

Madam of a house of ill-repute: All right, you two. I want you at my party.
Butch: What party?
Madam: I’m losing my piano player. He’s going off to fight the war.
Sundance: What war?
Madam: The war with the Spanish.
Butch: Remember the Maine!
Sundance: Who can forget it?

Right after this exchange we catch a glimpse of said party, a handmade sign bearing the American flag and that rallying cry hanging over the piano. Butch and Sundance decide to enlist and bring their, ahem, leadership and maturity to the war effort. They toast their new commitment. With beer, not with this cocktail. It wasn’t around then. They don’t join up, either. They have trains to rob, and the war doesn’t last that long, anyway.

The U.S.S. Maine sank in Havana harbor in February 1898, blown up by a mine. The incident was seized on by the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers, then in their yellow journalism heyday, and used to fan the flames of public outrage. That simple three-word call to arms helped enormously.

All of which is only distantly related to the cocktail of the same name. It is canonized in Charles H. Baker, Jr.’s The Gentleman’s Companion, and he lays out its provenance in his usual idiosyncratic fashion, calling it “a HAZY MEMORY of a NIGHT in HAVANA during the UNPLEASANTNESSES of 1933, when EACH SWALLOW WAS PUNCTUATED WITH BOMBS GOING off on the PRADO, or the SOUND of 3” SHELLS BEING FIRED at the HOTEL NACIONAL, then HAVEN for CERTAIN ANTI -REVOLUTIONARY OFFICERS.” You’d think an incident that dramatic would prompt the christening of a cocktail for the Hotel Nacional. Oh, right. It did.

“Treat this one with the respect it deserves, gentlemen,” Baker continued. An order easy to follow considering the Remember the Maine is a distant relation of the Manhattan featuring the bright sweetness of Cherry Heering and the unruly kick of absinthe (or a pastis substitute). The drink is a staple offering in craft cocktail bars, although I doubt bartenders follow Baker’s instructions while making it to the letter and “stir briskly in clock-wise fashion – this makes it sea-going, presumably!”

But innovation continues with this concoction. Barrel aged cocktails are a more recent trend, entire mixtures being placed in barrels for weeks to alter the character. Recently at Seattle’s Radiator Whiskey I sampled a Remember the Maine made months earlier. Bartender Justin told me they used Old Overholt rye because it has some spiciness while being soft enough to change in the barrel. I’ve been dubious about barrel-aging cocktails, but this one, mellow and contemplative, might make me a believer.

You can prepare this drink with a few dashes of bitters or garnish it with a cherry. I adhered to Baker’s prescription as best I could, switching in Pernod for absinthe. I threw in the merest hint with the other ingredients per the master’s orders; feel free to rinse the glass with it instead.

Still, the drink has nothing to do with the actual sinking of the Maine. And if I’m poking holes in illusions here, I might as well go all out and observe that in his essential book Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman said one of the weaknesses of his Butch and Sundance script was too much smart-ass dialogue, citing Sundance’s jibe about the Maine as an example: “I guess there’s a joke in that thought somewhere, but I sure as hell didn’t find it.” I thought it was funny. But we’re none of us perfect.

Remember the Maine

2 oz. rye
¾ oz. sweet vermouth
½ oz. Cherry Heering
1 teaspoon absinthe or Pernod

Stir in whatever direction you prefer. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Book: John Wayne: The Life and Legend, by Scott Eyman (2014)

At the heart of this mammoth biography lies a simple piece of psychology that explains what may be the greatest career in movie history. John Wayne, born Marion Morrison, insisted that everybody call him Duke for a reason. Here’s the man himself making the point:

“I know (John Wayne) well. I’m one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.”

And here’s Scott Eyman’s version: “In Wayne’s own mind, he was Duke Morrison. John Wayne was to him what the Tramp was to Charlie Chaplin – a character that overlapped his own personality, but not to the point of subsuming it.”

That tension animates Eyman’s opus, almost elevating it to the level of case study. Duke wasn’t merely a nickname, it was a boundary. Or, in the Duke’s parlance, a frontier. He was forever conscious of crossing it, and patrolled it rigorously. It chafed when other actors didn’t do likewise; he was disturbed by Robert Montgomery’s acclaimed turn as a killer in Night Must Fall (1937), feeling Montgomery betrayed the audience’s trust, and told Kirk Douglas (who goaded Wayne by insisting on calling him “John”) after a screening of Lust for Life, “We got to play strong, tough characters. Not these weak queers.” But like a veteran scout Duke knew every inch of that frontier’s terrain, sensing where the shadows were darkest and tapping into them to enrich performances like Red River and The Searchers. (If only he’d taken that offer to co-star with Clint Eastwood in a western written by my hero Larry Cohen.)

This constant tending to his alter ego led to a lot of lousy movies, and Eyman watched them all. (He even made it the end of both The Alamo and The Green Berets.) He pays particular attention to the run of middling Poverty Row oaters Wayne made following the failure of 1930’s The Big Trail, those low-budget years honing his chops, forging his persona – and building an audience in what’s now dismissed as flyover country. His return to prominence in John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach surprised only the critical establishment; as Eyman notes, “Wayne may not have been a star in New York, but he was assuredly a star in Waco and Rockville and Atlanta.” Ron Howard, who appeared in Wayne’s final film The Shootist, said the actor “respected the fact that I had come out of TV. Early on, he said to me, ‘I came out of cheap westerns, and that was the TV of our time.’ He liked the unpretentious work ethic of television, where you have to finish it by Friday.”

Wayne is still remembered and even caricatured for his conservative politics. As he did with his previous book on Cecil B. DeMille, Eyman humanizes an imposing, almost monolithic figure without pulling punches. Wayne was a member of the John Birch Society (although he didn’t buy their fears about fluoridation and the “horseshit” charge Ike was a Red) who uttered cringe-worthy comments about race in a notorious 1971 Playboy interview. But the same man who offered that unwanted advice to Kirk Douglas also said of Rock Hudson’s sexual orientation, “It never bothered me. Life’s too short. Who the hell cares if he’s queer? The man plays great chess.” His Rooster Cogburn co-star Katherine Hepburn had the poor-boy-made-good’s number when she said, “He suffers from a point of view based entirely on his own experience.”

Duke Morrison was generous and loyal to a fault, famously democratic to cast and crew. He relished debate while respecting others’ opinions. Before work started on In Harm’s Way, Otto Preminger told Wayne anyone over thirty has their mind made up about politics and suggested they not try to convert each other. Wayne happily agreed, and the director found him “the most cooperative actor.” Eyman spends considerable time on a series of elegiac commercials Wayne made at the end of his career with the staunchly liberal Haskell Wexler – the man made Medium Cool, for Christ’s sake – recounting how some retrograde views the actor voiced early in production upset a female crew member. Wayne was crushed to have hurt her feelings and eventually won her over; decades later she calls him “a charming chauvinist” while Wexler dubs him “a principled reactionary.” French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier tweaks his leftist friends by praising Wayne over the more politically simpatico Marlon Brando, saying Wayne was the more intelligent film actor and while Brando at his apex “specialized in terrible movies and ridiculous accents,” Wayne used his power to make the best work of his career.

Much of Wayne’s legacy is based on the films he made with John Ford, and Eyman digs deep into the truly perverse collaboration between the actor and the director he called “Coach.” Ford regularly humiliated the actor in front of the company, even after they’d worked together for decades, and Wayne gamely took it. But the results of that tortured relationship played out on TCM all of last week. You may disagree with John Wayne’s views, but by the end of Eyman’s book you’ll like Duke Morrison. (Ward Bond, on the other hand? Total shitheel.)

In 1970, Wayne produced and hosted a TV special called Swing Out, Sweet Land. Eyman calls this vaudeville-style history of America “a time capsule of a special kind of show business hell.” With Dean Martin as Eli Whitney, and the Doodletown Pipers singing the entire Declaration of Independence. Naturally, the whole thing’s on YouTube.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Charlie Chaplin

There’s no business like show business. It is truly dissimilar to any other enterprise with which I am familiar, as the old song says. For that reason, the Charlie Chaplin – the first cocktail named for a movie star – has always fascinated me, even though I’ve never seen it on a menu and have yet to hear anyone even order one. I knew when I started this quixotic quest that the Charlie Chaplin lay near the end of it. Considering this is the centenary year of his film debut, I should have featured it around Charlie’s birthday on April 16. But I’d already promised to make you a Millionaire in honor of tax day. As it happens, the two drinks are mighty similar.

Chaplin was at the apex of his popularity when the cocktail was created at New York’s Waldorf Hotel sometime prior to 1920. As Albert Stevens Crockett wrote in the 1935 edition of The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book, show biz sired many a libation. “The stage, whether or not it drove men to drink in those days, certainly inspired much drinking, and successful plays often stood godfather for bartenders’ conceptions ... Charlie Chaplin had a cocktail named in his honor when he began to make the screen public laugh.” Odds are slim that the Tramp himself tried this tipple. Chaplin’s father Charlie Sr., a music hall performer whom Charlie later wrote he was “hardly aware of,” was an alcoholic who died of cirrhosis at age 37. Early exposure to the consequences of excess was likely a factor in Chaplin’s limited drinking; he resisted the theatrical tradition of buying rounds for the company, which contributed to his reputation for being tight with a buck. Still, it was a drunk act that first brought him fame and led him to America and the movies. Exhibit A: his classic “One A.M.” (1916).

The recipe as cited in Crockett’s book is equal parts lime juice, sloe gin and apricot brandy. Throw in rum and you’ve got the Millionaire. Well, one of the Millionaires, anyway. Surprisingly, I preferred the Charlie Chaplin to its boozier cousin. The lime and apricot brandy are paired to better effect, and the sloe gin gracefully takes center stage. It bears repeating: use Plymouth Sloe Gin when making this drink. You want the refreshing, astringent tartness of sloe berries to be unfettered by sweeteners and buttressed by an undercurrent of sour. The Charlie Chaplin makes a fine spring drink. I’ve seen variations that call for lemon juice. In light of our ongoing lime crisis, that may not be a bad idea.

With the Mary Pickford and the Charlie Chaplin done, only the Douglas Fairbanks remains on my mission to sample every cocktail named for the original founders of United Artists.

The Charlie Chaplin

¾ oz. Plymouth Sloe gin
¾ oz. apricot brandy
¾ oz. lime juice

Shake. Strain. No garnish.

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