Monday, August 18, 2014

Lisle A. Rose: In an Age of Multiple Truths

Farewell to Prosperity: Wealth, Identity, and Conflict in Postwar America by Lisle A. Rose is a provocative, in-depth study of the Liberal and Conservative forces that fought each other to shape American political culture and character during the nation’s most prosperous years. The work’s central theme is the bitter struggle to fashion post–World War II society between a historic Protestant Ethic that equated free-market economics and money-making with Godliness and a new, secular Liberal temperament that emerged from the twin ordeals of depression and world war to stress social justice and security. 

As the author explains here, Farewell to Prosperity is no partisan screed enlisting recent history to support one side or another. Although absurdity abounds, it knows no home, affecting Conservative and Liberal actors and thinkers alike

            The audacity of writing the history of your own time is self-evident. Like many such efforts, Farewell to Prosperity contains more than a slight element of memoir. I was a young schoolboy when World War II ended and with millions of others have lived through all the storms, dramas, excitements, triumphs, tragedies, and follies that have marked national life ever since. Age does bring a certain measure of detachment and tranquility--an appreciation of experience for its own sake that, hopefully, can transcend narrow partisanship. That such a perspective is badly needed today hardly merits mention.
            Liberalism and Conservatism, the two great movements that have lashed our postwar polity, have each in its own way overreached; neither has been able to bring a lasting measure of domestic peace and satisfaction to our always turbulent and ever-changing society. Why and how this has happened has preoccupied me for many decades and is the subject of the book.
            My intellectual debt is clearly traceable. One rainy Berkeley evening in 1962, I read Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform in one sitting. In setting forth his theory of reform politics as a reaction to social displacement, Hofstadter grounded his story in a generous consideration not only of traditional sources of explanation--economics and politics--but also in the hitherto largely unexplored realms of sociology and literary criticism. His aim was to understand, not advocate. Hofstadter’s approach was, and remains, a heady mix, and it was taken up by a talented crew of acolytes including Marvin Meyers and Leo Marx. Tragically, their promising line of inquiry was soon steamrollered by a “New Left” school who returned to the ways of crude and unimaginative Marxist economic determinism overlain with a patina of equally crude social criticism based on the writings of Che Guevara and Herbert Marcuse. While such partisan advocacy scholarship (Conservatives have their own doctrinaire practitioners) may be personally and collectively comforting to those who pursue it, it has done little to advance a sophisticated understanding of our lives and times.
            We have reached the point where the received academic wisdom demands reconsiderations that will enable us to escape from the dead end of meaningful explanation. Now, as always, the central conflict in national life has been the struggle to define what this country is and means. With few interruptions, that conflict has been as fierce since 1945 as at any time in our past.
            For all its many faults and failures, the liberalism that has been in and out of power since 1933 has successfully advanced an agenda of mass economic well-being and social betterment through government action. The ways and means have often been abrasive and in the late sixties and early seventies shaded into an extremism that, coupled with new and divisive forms of cultural expression, brought the entire enterprise into disrepute.
            The conservative experience has been no less fascinating. Throughout American history, those more or less excluded from power have been adept at expressing their opposition in code words.  Modern conservatism has been no exception.  Liberalism’s steady empowerment in the early postwar years led to the virulent and irrational anti-communism of the fifties and sixties; its later excesses in pursuit of legitimate ends deflected conservative criticism into the realm of “states’ rights,” “family values,” and a renewed defense of religion-sanctioned “free market individualism” that had been the hallmark of conservative thought and practice throughout our national past.
            Since 1933 and particularly throughout the postwar era, the great themes underlying conservative thought and conversation have been those of dispossession and loss. Despite the evident decline of liberalism over the past forty years and the emergence of Reagan Republicanism, conservatives are united in the sense that the country is no longer theirs. This perception--both right and wrong--charges their policies and practices with a striking urgency. We need not mount a mournful epitaph for Dixie or defend heterosexual male supremacy to add a dash of pity to our cup of condemnation. Millions of Americans are hurting because reality has passed them by.
            I suspect many thinkers and scholars will dismiss such a view as un-progressive and wimpish hand-wringing. Caring about the losers is, after all, un-American, as Vince Lombardi and a host of college and professional coaches will tell you. But contemporary conservatism continues to clog the gears of national life. If we seek the wellsprings of its beliefs and practices, they can be found in the discoveries of Robert and Helen Merrill Lynd eighty and ninety years ago when they probed the social dynamics of one typical “Middletown.” The political culture of Muncie, Indiana, which the two sociologists uncovered during visits in 1925 and 1936 continues to resonate throughout Red State America, shaping its response to the host of issues confronting the country today; race relations, feminism, gay rights, immigration, national health care, and the like.
            But seeking out the dynamics of conservatism and its often venomous interplay with the liberal opposition does more than illuminate our current national paralysis and malaise. It rounds out the picture of what this nation is and was--and how the was has become the is. The search for answers to questions such as these constitutes the real meaning and challenge of history, which now, as ever, is practically preoccupied with the basic question: “What happened and why?”

Monday, August 11, 2014

Author Spotlight: Colum Kenny

An Irish-American Odyssey: The Remarkable Riseof the O’Shaughnessy Brothers provides an account of one Irish-American family’s contribution to U.S. life in the twentieth century. It is set against a backdrop of cultural, political and social developments. Its author, Colum Kenny of Dublin City University, believes that his book’s themes of immigration and assimilation give it a sharp contemporary relevance. Here he reflects on how he came to write the book.

The first Irish-American immigrant I met was by then an old woman living frugally in South Boston. That was 1970, and Nellie Kenny, a distant relative, told me of being rebuffed by “NO IRISH OR BLACKS NEED APPLY” signs when she first went looking for work as a young emigrant from Ireland landed in Massachusetts.
In 1970 and again in 1972 I visited the USA on a J-1 student visa, working as a waiter in an old New Hampshire resort hotel to make money for college in Dublin. My friend and I bought a ’63 Rambler, paying just $200 to a Rhode Island car dealer to get us motoring in America.
These were the first of more than a dozen visits to the United States between then and now, for both work and pleasure. My trips have taken me from coast to coast, making good American friends but also learning to appreciate the complexity of Irish-America. My new book for the University of Missouri Press is a way of coming to terms with that experience. In it, I tell a story about the trials and opportunities of immigration that resonate beyond the Irish-American community. For immigration today is a complex global phenomenon.
So how did I stumble on the O’Shaughnessys from Missouri? Well I had discovered that James O’Shaughnessy met my grandfather in Dublin in the 1920s. Both were leading admen in their own countries, with TIME magazine describing James as “the best in the business.” This whetted my appetite to learn more.
How had James done so well for himself, given his background as the son of an impoverished victim of famine in Ireland? Before becoming an adman at the age of forty, he had been regarded as a “star reporter” on the Chicago Tribune. His brothers too made their marks. Thomas was the leading Gaelic Revival artist in North America. Martin was captain of the first official basketball team at Notre Dame. Lawyer Frank O’Shaughnessy was the first graduate of Notre Dame invited back to give a commencement address there. Frank’s brother and legal partner John successfully defended a young Irish Presbyterian girl accused of theft when she made allegations in an infamous “white slavery” case.
In writing their story I have moved from individual events to the collective and social contexts in order to locate the O’Shaughnessys and their achievements in a broader landscape. This allows readers who have an interest in art, advertising, journalism, Irish studies, or politics to assess more fully than would be possible with a purely chronological approach the significance of contributions made in those areas by any single O’Shaughnessy—while not losing sight of the overarching familial and other networks. And it allows people who are interested principally in the story of an immigrant family to see its members in a wider way.
While the life of each O’Shaughnessy brother had unique and engaging characteristics, the rise of the family as a whole—emerging into public view— reflects the broader experiences of generations of immigrants.
My personal knowledge or experiences of Irish-American immigrants has been somewhat random, but also at times poignant. In Denver, for example, I tried dialing nine numbers I found in the phone book opposite the married name of my wife’s grand-aunt, last heard from fifty years earlier living in Colorado. The final number led eventually to the aunt’s aging son, and renewed family relationships.
On another occasion I was vacationing in rural New York with my wife and children, staying at the house of a recently deceased uncle of an Irish-American friend. Surrounded by his Irish books and Waterford cut glass and other items from the old country, I was struck by the force of objects that can speak eloquently of roots that connect people long after space separates them.
In 2010 I lived for a month with Trappist monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky, completing a study of silence and communications for a London publisher. I met Brother Alan, whose parents had held him in their arms at the Eucharist Congress in Dublin in 1932, before leaving for America. In a nonsilent interlude he told me stories that his father had told him, and I could hear his father’s Mayo voice and immigrant experiences echo in the way Alan spoke.
Two years ago my wife and I happened upon an unfinished rail tunnel in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We were with one of our sons, then working in South Carolina, who took us to the Isaqueena Falls on a hot day. As we left the area, we saw a historic marker and stopped to investigate. It told of 1,500 Irish itinerant miners who cut through the blue granite with hand drills, hammers, and chisels. This was the unfinished Stumphouse Tunnel, part of a railway project of the 1850s that ground to a halt and never made it as far as Tennessee. So much hard work for so little. Not all Irish immigrants rose high.
James O’Shaughnessy, an impoverished orphan emigrant from Galway and future father of the adman, married the daughter of a railroad supervisor farther north, in Missouri. In my new book, I tell his story and that of his sons.
Through its cultural, social, and political contexts, the siblings’ story becomes the story of many first-generation families. It is the fruit of my meetings with Irish-Americans across the USA and of research sparked by those encounters.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Author Spotlight: Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar

The Cinematic Voyage of The Pirate: Kelly, Garland, and Minnelli at Work follows the model of Hess and Dabholkar’s previous study of Singin’ in the Rain. Drawing on exhaustive research in archives, memoirs, interviews, and newspaper coverage, it takes the reader from the original conception of the story in the mind of a German playwright named Ludwig Fulda, through S. N. Behrman’s Broadway production starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, to the arduous task of crafting a suitable screenplay at MGM. Behind-the-scenes issues such as Garland’s personal problems during the making of the film and the shaping of the film by Minnelli and Kelly are among the many subjects detailed here.


Among the many products of the Arthur Freed Unit at M-G-M, The Pirate has garnered a great deal of attention from viewers and critics alike as one of the most interesting film musicals of all time. Although not as universally acclaimed as Singin’ in the Rain, The Pirate is an important film musical to study for a number of reasons. It represents the start of Gene Kelly’s glory period as actor, choreographer, and dancer. It is a highlight of Vincente Minnelli’s directorial career, especially in the use of color, camera angles, and vivid depictions of sets and people. It shows Judy Garland at her best in a unique role that showcases her comedic talents. It is a superb case study of the difficult process of creating a film from a stage play and also a wonderful case study of the complexities involved in making a film under difficult circumstances. It was the first film musical to show a white man dancing with black men as equals and to show ethnically mixed crowd scenes in a natural way.

In addition, there are secondary reasons to pick The Pirate over other popular musicals as a subject deserving careful study. It is not merely a musical with an appealing story and songs such as Minnelli and Garland’s Meet Me in St. Louis or many of Garland’s other films, but it also has vibrant and superbly executed dances. Moreover, whereas other film musicals with good stories and vibrant dances, such as Kelly’s On the Town, have several weak segments that repeat viewers tend to skip in order to focus on the better parts, there is no weak segment in The Pirate—the entire film is delightfully watchable.

It is not that scholars have ignored The Pirate. It was a controversial film in several ways and has attracted considerable commentary, negative as well as positive, over the years. Arguments about its plot, acting, sets, and dances, as well as the place it holds in the creative work of director Vincente Minnelli, and stars Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, have raged since its initial release in 1948. Those arguments continue today, more than sixty-five years later, with some scholars calling the film a classic failure despite much merit and others extolling it as one of M-G-M’s brightest accomplishments. Nevertheless, we believe The Pirate has not received the acclaim it deserves in scholarly literature. The remarkable ways in which the film helped the careers of Kelly, Minnelli, and Garland, its pioneering depiction of race relations in musicals, and the mastery displayed in the staging, filming, and choreography of Kelly’s dances lead us to conclude that The Pirate is an underappreciated masterpiece.

It is often said that The Pirate became a cult classic soon after its release, rather than a general favorite among fans of film musicals, but that is only partially true. The Pirate did appeal to gay audiences soon after its release but it was appreciated by mainstream audiences as well. The film has been a hit with many college students since the 1970s, and a decade later, it began to be a popular topic of analysis for scholars who deal with gay theory and the cinema. At the same time, the film has won high praise from many viewers, critics, and scholars who savor the particular aesthetics of dance on film, with appreciation for the movie growing over the years. In fact, many fans of the film musical rank it as their favorite. In addition, devotees of the more than 300 films that have been made about pirates have often included the Kelly-Minnelli-Garland product among the top ten.

The Pirate is consistently ranked as among the best products of the Freed Unit, but there has not been an extensive study of the film to date. This book, The Cinematic Voyage of The Pirate: Kelly, Garland, and Minnelli at Work, provides a rich and detailed history of this highly acclaimed motion picture. It is a follow-up to our book entitled Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece, which is a comprehensive history of the most famous film musical of all time. Following the model for that book, we based our study of The Pirate on definitive research, including extant interviews conducted with participants and archival material held in repositories across the United States. Moreover, similar to our approach for Singin’ in the Rain, this study offers a comprehensive look at The Pirate by discussing all aspects of the film’s history: from the development of the initial idea for the movie through preproduction, filming, initial release, and marketing to its legacy in the writings of film scholars and critics well into the twenty-first century.

Although many viewers enjoyed The Pirate when it was first released, it was not universally appreciated by audiences at that time. Actually, musicals made shortly after World War II that emphasized fantasy and spectacle had a chance of doing very well. A likely reason The Pirate did not live up to its merit, despite its emphasis on fantasy and spectacle, is that audiences of the day simply did not get Minnelli and Kelly’s tongue-in-cheek humor underlying Kelly’s role as Serafin.

In contrast, critical reviews on the film’s initial release were mostly positive. Contrary to much commentary in books on the film musical, our extensive research in primary materials shows that The Pirate was not panned by critics when released in 1948. In fact, most critics went into raptures about the film, while others wrote negatively about only some aspects of it. Some reviewers since 1948, such as David Vaughan and Douglas McVay, have gone so far as to proclaim The Pirate the best film musical of all time. Nor was it a financial loss for M-G-M, as scholars have claimed. The movie actually made a profit, although not as great as it might have been.

The majority of commentators and critics between 1948 and 2010 have, at least, ranked it as a pivotal project in the careers of Minnelli (in terms of his use of color, boom camera work, and stylized setting) and Kelly (in terms of the development of his athletic dance choreography and the creation of “star” qualities). It also was the project where Minnelli and Kelly began their successful collaboration on films, and in which Garland began to experience the full impact of years of drug addiction and troubled relationships with her husband and mother. This book highlights the film’s role in the careers of Kelly, Minnelli, and Garland.

Kelly probably gained more than any single individual from his experience in working on The Pirate. Not only was the film the true beginning of his postwar fame as a dancer on the big screen, but he worked more intimately on choreography in this movie than on any previous film, and he played an important part in character development. His acting in an unusual role received much praise despite some criticism from those who missed or disliked the tongue-incheek quality of his portrayal. Kelly also learned a good deal about camera work and direction from Minnelli that he later employed very successfully in his own career as a director, starting with On the Town (1949) and proceeding all the way to Hello, Dolly! (1969).

For Minnelli, The Pirate was a landmark film. It exemplified his fascination with colorful locale, exotic costumes, and strongly defined characters, especially women. The director used his trademark boom camera work to full effect as cinematographer Harry Stradling shot a beautiful film. Minnelli also worked extensively to revise the final screenplay, imprinting his own vision on it. He worked closely with the Technicolor Corporation to create a richer product than the company had tended to produce. The Pirate is one of Minnelli’s most effective creations, displaying verve, irony, and a sardonic gusto that is unique among his films. It is Minnelli at his best.

Garland’s career hit a watershed with The Pirate. Her personal problems with drugs and her troubled relationship with her husband, Minnelli, came to a head during the filming of this movie. She missed many days of production, costing M-G-M a good deal of money and wasted time, but she turned in a stellar performance in a role that was unusual for her. Our history of The Pirate discusses Garland’s contributions as well as her problems.

The Pirate became, among other things, a gay cult movie, and Garland’s presence in the film helped to start that process. Gay audiences also appreciated Minnelli’s aesthetics and Kelly’s virile dancing. The book explains how The Pirate grew into an icon of gay studies scholarship.

In offering readers many opportunities to examine important aspects of filmmaking, this book starts with the development of the plot and script. The Pirate was based on a successful Broadway comedy of the same name that ran for 177 performances beginning in November 1942. It was written by Samuel N. Behrman and starred the famous Broadway actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. That production in turn was based on the 1911 play by German author Ludwig Fulda. After M-G-M purchased the rights to the Behrman play, the studio had some difficulty turning it into a film. Eight writers worked on the screenplay from 1943 to 1946 before Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett were assigned to it and came up with a suitable script, with help from Minnelli and Freed. But even this was not the final version of the screenplay. Minnelli and Freed, with the help of three assistants, heavily revised the screenplay during preproduction, making a total of thirteen writers, not counting the director and producer. This complex genealogy of the movie offers many opportunities to understand how film scripts evolved from previous works during M-G-M’s golden era and who among the many people working for the studio played a role in shaping the scripts.

The topic of plot and character development becomes even more complex when discussing a dance film, because the numbers are the highlights of the screen experience and their development takes place in the studio or in the mind of the choreographer, rather than on paper. The dance numbers may appear in places other than where the screenplay indicates, and the way the dances develop characters or plot can significantly modify the script. Although scholars tend to think of The Pirate as Minnelli’s project, Kelly played a huge role in planning and executing the film. As mentioned earlier, this was the start of their wonderful collaboration, and in his memoirs, Minnelli gave full credit to Kelly for his contributions. The Pirate was anything but an example of the auteur in action; it was a highly collaborative project, not only for Minnelli and Kelly but stretching from Ludwig Fulda to the most obscure technician on the sound
stage of M-G-M.

Another contribution of this study to film history involves a detailed analysis of the movie’s “film ballet,” an extended dance number with balletic aspects. The Pirate contains one of the most elaborate and impressive examples of film ballet in the genre. The purpose of this ballet was to represent important emotions and character developments portrayed thus far in the film. Dance director Robert Alton initially proposed a pedantic, literal scheme for the ballet in an extensive scenario that we found in the Vincente Minnelli Collection. But Minnelli and Kelly preferred a psychologically charged, surrealistic framework for the ballet that worked much better than Alton’s idea in extending the storyline and the characterizations. Ballets had become all the rage in dance films by the later 1940s, and both Minnelli and Kelly worked hard on this one. It involved impressive pyrotechnic displays and feats of dancing by Kelly that are noted by even those who do not particularly like the overall film. In subsequent movies, Kelly elaborated on the ballet concept, building on his work in The Pirate to produce classic examples of this type of dance in On the Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951), and Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

The creation of the songs in this musical and Cole Porter’s contributions are also discussed in detail. However, Porter took little interest in the film itself and did not work to shape the movie. Arthur Freed, however, did play a prominent role as producer, not just in casting but in authorizing complex sets and costumes as well as in working with Minnelli to guide script revision and editing.

Our book also discusses the role of The Pirate in depicting race relations on film. Minnelli staged crowd scenes that were ethnically and racially mixed in ways that were unusual for the time. Kelly insisted on dancing with the Nicholas Brothers, a black dancing team, in a spectacular number. This is something no other film musical had done to date. Dances in films were segregated by race, and many musicals of that era even showed white dancers in blackface. Kelly’s dancing with the Nicholas Brothers as equals was a daring challenge to the segregated world of America in the late 1940s. Theater managers in many southern cities refused to show the film or requested the deletion of “Be a Clown,” the brothers’ dance number with Kelly, from the release prints. The Lunt-Fontanne stage version of The Pirate also included racial mixing, but it had no dancing in it, and the play was booked only in northern cities.

As a study in filmmaking, this book deals with the many goofs and gaffes to be seen in the release print of The Pirate, which the movie’s fans tend to find endearing rather than targets for criticism. We also discuss the censorship issues involving the script and lyrics in The Pirate, explaining why they arose and how they were resolved. Thematic, stylistic, and other types of links between this film and others are highlighted, so the reader can appreciate such connections.

As in Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece, we draw on a wide range of primary and secondary research sources. Archival and published primary materials are at the heart of our study. Reactions to The Pirate in the secondary literature are used to offer insights about the film’s long-range reception. We recognize that many online sources might not be fully reliable. Therefore, we use information from online sites in a sparing and critical way, and if no other source is available. For example, factual information from the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) is used in compiling the list of technical crew members who worked on the film. For that matter, we have critically evaluated the reliability of all material used in the preparation of this study, including archival and scholarly sources. Having studied the film and its history in great detail, we include our own analysis and scholarly opinions wherever relevant.

Although movie audiences were less enthusiastic than film critics when The Pirate was first released, enthusiasm for the film certainly grew with the passage of time. Freed may well have been right when he said this motion picture was at least twenty years ahead of its time when it was released in 1948. Our book includes a full discussion of critical and scholarly commentary over the years (including commentary by gay studies scholars) to help readers appreciate diverse views about the film as well as how perspectives changed over time.

British commentator John Cutts called The Pirate “a masterpiece of extravagant entertainment, a boisterous rococo romp” that continued to grow in stature as “a rich and rare musical experiment.” “There is no denying that this is a weird movie,” Victoria Large wrote nearly sixty years after its release, “one that comes by its status as a cult classic honestly. It’s loopy, knowingly camp, brightly colored, ambitious, and absolutely unique.” Adherents of the cult built around the film had all along proclaimed it a masterpiece, but the appeal of The Pirate extends beyond cult boundaries. David Vaughan thought the movie had come “very near to achieving one’s ideal of a dance film—that is, a film which dances all the time, and not merely in its spectacular set-pieces.” As Douglas McVay put it, bringing all the elements together accounted for Minnelli’s success in The Pirate. “If one is going to try to blend words, music, movement, dance sets, costumes, props, color photography and camera fluency into a total, effortless harmony, then this, surely, is the way to do it.” And yet, as film historians John Russell Taylor and Arthur Jackson have bemoaned, The Pirate “has never really had its due.”

Our book sets out to correct this situation and give this classic film its full credit. In addition to discussing all the issues mentioned in this preface, Appendix A includes our synopses and analyses of all the discarded screenplays so that interested readers can follow the twists and turns in creating the perfect screenplay for The Pirate. Appendix B catalogs something that scholars have missed in consistently praising the Goodrich-Hackett script over Behrman’s—namely, the huge number of lines from Behrman’s stage play that appear in the Goodrich-Hackett screenplay. Finally, we include short biographies of the major players wherever relevant in the book and also include Appendix C, which contains mini-biographies of everyone involved in the making of The Pirate—in order to give some credit to all the people who were part of this underappreciated masterpiece.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Author Spotlight: Dennis Okerstrom

Project 9: The Birth of the Air Commandos in World War II by Dennis R. Okerstrom 

Project 9 is a thoroughly researched narrative of the Allied joint project to invade Burma by air. Beginning with its inception at the Quebec Conference of 1943 and continuing through Operation Thursday until the death of the brilliant British General Orde Wingate in March 1944, less than a month after the successful invasion of Burma, Project 9 details all aspects of this covert mission, including the selection of the American airmen, the procurement of the aircraft, the joint training with British troops, and the dangerous nighttime assault behind Japanese lines by glider.  

The release of the book coincides with the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Burma. In a presentation at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, Okerstrom shared the story of Project 9 with the assistance of World War II veteran Dick Cole, age 98. Cole was with the 1st Air Commando Group, a forerunner to modern special operations units such as SEAL Team Six and Delta Force. Dick Cole served as Jimmy Doolittle's copilot during the Tokyo Raid and is one of only four surviving Doolittle Tokyo Raiders. Cole and Okerstrom are also joined by two other Air Commandos, Patt Meara and Bill Cartwright.

Dennis Okerstrom's The Final Mission of Bottoms Up: A World War II Pilot's Story is also published by the University of Missouri Press.