With the recent passing of that sublime and absolutely natural Westerner James Arness, who will live in perpetuity as the forever able and Zen-master-with-a -six-gun Matt Dillon in endless reels of, Gunsmoke episodes ( all truly worth seeing), I thought of one of Matt’s few kindred spirits, Festus, played quite iconically by Ken Curtis.
In the Kitty-Doc-Festus triangle that serves the great independent spirit of the perpetual flinty and eternally taciturn Dillon, Doc (Milburn Stone) functioned as Matt’s most intellectual companion, an equal to ruefully discuss philosophy and occasionally plan strategy with, and of course, just like the Marshall, an ever astute judge of character.
Kitty (Amanda Blake), the red-haired proprietor of The Long Branch, the town’s saloon and elegant (and unsaid) whorehouse, was Matt’s only channel for overt emotion, passion, or sexuality, and she also exists as the foremost manifestation of burgeoning civilization, while she also coexisted as the triangle’s most emotive, hardened but still given to concrete measures of gentility, and—as all bar owners are—a quick interpreter of character.
Forget the burgeoning baseball season, forget rereading Raymond Chandler or keep reading Steve Erickson, forget the Boston Globe sports page, forget continually listening to Little Steven’s Underground Garage, forget obsessively filling the backlog of my unseen Gunsmoke episodes, forget making lists of the top ten Warren Oates’ character names, forget buying every single ripped-off, repetitive, and badly recorded Johnny Thunders recording evah, forget checking a few more outré film noirs off the grand list, forget finishing that piece about the stony greatness of Pynchon’ s last book, forget about finally beginning that new David Foster Wallace kinda-last-maybe-baby novel. Fuggedabouit, I’ve acquired a new hobby, another fresh and fertile landscape to explore, somehow a totally new (and astonishingly original) slab of pop cult meat to vulture on.
Obviously, once upon a time there were no Kardashian sisters, no up skirt websites, no mass produced semi-celebrity sex tapes, and no instantly publishable photographs of the glitterati sans underwear. Way back in the not-so-long-ago 1940 and 50’s, except deep under the furtive shadows of the deviant underground and the back room demi-monde, overt sexuality on display was unheard of. Unlike today, it was about suggestion, aura, dress style, costume, pose-- all of it artful artifice--with the exception of the somewhat innocent concentration on the one lowest-common-dominator feminine psychical characteristic commonly referred to as “curves”. Jane Russell, perhaps one of the greatest of all Hollywood Va-Va-Voom girls, had every ingredient listed in that last sentence, and she had ‘em spades.
Leslie Buck passed away, at the ripe old age of 87, during 2010, and inexplicably enough, not that many paid much attention to his passing.
Born Lazlo Buch in Khust, Czechoslovakia (now part of the Ukraine), he was a Holocaust survivor who made good in the US, first starting up a paper-cup manufacturing company in Mt Vernon, New York called Premier Cup. It was during the 1960’s that Buck joined the Sherri Cup Co. of Kensington, Conn, and he created one of the most iconic delineation’s of everyday American life, particularly the East Coast version, the exquisitely appealing Anthora paper coffee cup (Buck couldn’t quite pronounce “amphora” correctly), the design adorning coffees served at diners, deli’s, construction sights, factory yards and food carts, sales which peaked at 30 million pieces a year in the 1990’s.
Buck’s coffee cup became an instantly recognizable American artifact, a fairly improbable accomplishment considering its creator was both an immigrant, and artistically untrained. The cup, with its above-and-below border of Greek urns framing a bill boarded white background with a slightly ornate outline, three images of piping coffee cups and the phrase “WE Are Happy To Serve You” etched in a font meant to resemble ancient Greek, remains a totemistic likeness of the highest order.
Yessir there’s plenty of Christmas pop and rockers, do-wop-a-doers, and soul twisters. They never stop coming, every year brings more remakes and holiday pastiches and original turns, a few good uns too; the rock and pop Christmas tune never going out of sight or out of style. Had a million different favorites myself, liked ‘em serious, solemn, sexy, soulful, antic, blasphemous, tawny, jazzy, woeful, sarcastic, folkifized, solo Beatle, real Beatle, Beatle-like, corny, powerpoppish, reflective, heartfelt, satirical, rebellious, preachy, old school, trad, subversive, and even sweet.
Right now, today, this December, my current absolute fave rave, the one spinning repeatedly on my internal holiday season turntable, the current Tops of the Christmas Pops is The Sonics 1965 “Santa Claus.” It’s a propulsive and molten stomp all over the still ruddy cheeked Santa archetype, a plaintive holiday yelp with a backbeat (signaling “Farmer John”) where the lead vocalist (with a truly glorious garage rock guttural howl) asks Santa for no more than “a brand new car, a twangy guitar and a cute little honey with lots of money.” The cool daddy holiday surprise is that this early 60’s version of Santa lays the shattering truth on the entitled-mondo- boot-wearing-rebel-with-a-bleat–it’s-always-about-me-shaking-my-hair-budding-protest –kid with a stark indifference, as the dumbfounded singer exclaims in the chorus:
“And he just say nothing,
RIP Dennis Hopper, 1936-2010
(This piece originally appeared in Providence Monthly’s July edition, albeit in an altered, shortened form.)
In the long, ever strange history of Hollywood, Dennis Hopper shall stand fast as one of the most vivid flesh-and-blood parameters of an American industry turned inside out and eventually splintered and rendered all too soporific. Born in Dodge City, Kansas he was a pure-bred farm boy whose family eventually moved to San Diego in the late 1940s. He apprenticed at that city’s well-known Old Globe Theatre and became a very young contract player at Warner Brothers, building a budding career until a now apocryphal 1958 showdown with one of the then movie industry’s most macho despots, director Henry Hathaway, wherein the rebellious and cocksure young actor refused to give into Hathaway’s direction and faced him off in a widely viewed and reported public showdown that supposedly went on for some 80 takes, which resulted in a newfound status as a Tinseltown pariah.
It’s easy to see why the legend of Robin Hood lives on and on as an essential big screen vehicle, as it allows for pungent flourishes of pageantry, romance, violence, and the eternally appealing defense of the common man, and it’s rebel-with-a-cause (plus a bow and arrow) central figure must be as appealing to a big name actor as it might be intoxicating to his director to provide said actor with the aforementioned ornamentations.
It’s equally easy to understand why long time collaborators Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott (American Gangster, A Good Year, Body of Lies, and, most pertinent to this outing, Gladiator) would leap at the undertaking of revisiting the Robin Hood mythology. Crowe has the unarguable presence for such a spotlight role, and Scott has both the pedigree and the mentality to deliver his star to some greater cinematic glories. Their new film, Robin Hood, is muscular and sinewy, impeccably burnished and floridly filmed, totally flowing with populist ideology. Crowe stands erect throughout, emanating his particular brawny brand of minimalism, yet the movie seems devoid of passion or warmth and absolutely lacks any sense of the dashing tomfoolery that usually part and parcel of the landscape. It’s a ponderously gloomy origins tale, and after two and a half bombastic hours you’ll be zapped of both interest and energy.
It’s been a hell of a fertile period for the Grim Reaper, Pop Cult Dept, (in my movie, that part is played by Larry Blyden), with a run that included Alex Chilton, T-Bone Wolk, and Johnny Maestro along with Dixie Carter, Fess Parker, Robert Culp, and John Forsyth, never mind Meinhardt Rabbe, the munchkin coroner from The Wizard of Oz, and Malcolm McLaren, that genuine force of nature. Wow, knock ‘em down and drag ‘em out. Yet, when the brimstone stench dissipated, the semi-celeb’s loss I felt most tenderly was a sports figure from my baseball-crazed pre-adolescence, pitcher Mike Cuellar of the Baltimore Orioles.
As an eleven-year old in the summer of 1967, I made the full transformation into rabid Red Sox fan, following the ups down of that “Impossible Dream” season, all the while transfixed by the day-to-day heroics of Carl Yastrzemski, the one and only Yaz. Like most baseball obsessives, I also underwent a quickie education about the sport, reading dusty book after book about the glories of baseball past, and digging into the sports page as soon as my father put the paper down each evening, and even going out and buying the up-to-date baseball guides available at the local newsstands. Eventually familiarizing myself with the starting line-ups of nearly every major league team, I also learned that it was acceptable, at least for the sophisticated fan, to root for other cool daddy ballplayers that didn’t necessarily play for the home team.
Well before Harrison Ford was jumping into waterfalls and trying to stay one step ahead of Tommy Lee Jones terrifying case of lockjaw there was The Fugitive as a television series. What a strangely downbeat and moody bit of television this inexplicably popular series was. It ran for 120 episodes from 1963-67, was created by Roy Huggins (The Rockford Files), starred Richard Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble, the falsely accused title figure, and the last episode remains one of the highest rated in TV history.
Having recently hitchhiked through the full first season (Paramount DVD, 4 discs, $38.99), my dim memories of the series needed a serious recharging. The TV show was neither a cut-and-run suspense machine as I thought, and Janssen’s central figure was far more complex and decidedly less heroic than I recalled. What actually attracted me to this show as a Beaver Cleaveresque pre-teen? It depicts a monumentally grim world, with the truly laconic Janssen sleepwalking from one location to the next, all the while pursued by his equally tortured nemesis, the visually drained and dogged Barry Morse’s Lieutenant Phillip Gerard. The show allows for no reoccurring characters outside of the intertwined duo (a twosome that were decidedly weird for primetime—-both twitchingly neurotic, hollow and haunted), as Kimble stays on the road and on the run, backing himself into the deep shadows of America’s backwaters, stumbling into the briefest friendships and quickly doomed romances.
Somebody get to the contempo philosopher King known as Sting and inform him that I owe him one. (You know, synchronicity and all that.) Recently sick at home and determinedly trawling through a batch of Wagon Train episodes I wound up continually spying one of the grittier character guys in Hollywoodland, Robert Wilke, in a number of different appearances. At the same time, I also spotted the one and only Ernie B (born Ermes Effron Borgnino in Hamden, CT in 1917, better known as Ernest Borgnine) boarding that ol’ prairie train a few times too. Being a natural born, dyed-in-the-wool, genuine A#1 pop cult shamus, I couldn’t help but contemplate what exactly what the non-transferable magic quality that allowed a barrel-chested, bug-eyed, salt-of-the-earther like Ernie B to climb into starring roles on television and in the movies and sustain one hell of a lengthy career (199 movie and television credits since 1951) on top of it. (A career that recently included a top-billed performance in the recent Hallmark Channel’s original movie Wishing Well at the tender age of 92.)
Why Ernie B and not the always dead on Wilke? Why not another abjectly coarse minor icon of big and small screen masculine characterizations like Ted DeCorsica, M. Emmet Walsh, Bert Remsem, Adam Williams, Jack Elam, Claude Akins, Don Stroud, Strother Martin, Robert Webber, or James Gammon and dozens more? Did Ernie B, a few more of his ilk (Jack Palance, Warren Oates, and certainly Lee Marvin), have better acting chops, greater career circumstances, or simply all out more significant mojo?