Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Are the Movies Dying?

Are the Movies Dying?

(c) Copyright (2017) by Kathleen Spaltro

All Rights Reserved.
It used to be common to enjoy reciting or memorizing poetry. Working-class Italian-American men used to attend operas or listen to recordings as a favorite pastime. Will cinema, the twentieth-century art form embraced by the multitude, go the way of poetry and opera and become an esoteric interest for only a few?

Two Cheers for Hollywood: Joseph McBride on Movies, a thematically organized collection of 64 articles, worries that cinema as a popular art form is dying. Poetry, opera, and film all appealed to the popular audience at the same time as they scaled the heights of artistic achievement. There is no opposition between popular movies of quality and films of great cinematic achievement. They coexist along a continuum of artistic effort and achievement that allows for multiple kinds of appreciation and understanding.
The opposition that is killing cinema, according to McBride, is not between classic popular movies and films of the highest artistic quality. The opposition is between popular and great art, on the one hand, and movies damaged by the interference of political and social views and the control by financiers. The enemies of art are government, ideology, and commerce. Just as with the book publishing industry, the lust for immediate and certain high profit prevents the creation of high-quality films of artistic merit.

The Magnificent Ambersons, McBride's favorite film, exemplifies the damage done by corporate control of a cinematic project with both popular appeal and artistic merit. Orson Welles's most likeable movie, The Magnificent Ambersons depicts the effect of the coming of the automobile on a Midwest community's inhabitants. McBride asserts that Ambersons (1942) could have been the greatest film ever made. Instead, studio producers who prematurely feared a commercial failure butchered its ending. But even the mutiliated Ambersons retains immense appeal and charm. Welles expressed a passionate faith in the general audience's capacity to enjoy his work. "Nothing has ever been too good for the public," Welles noted to himself in the early 1940s, "Nothing has ever been good enough for the public." McBride agrees with Welles about how wrongly the industry has underestimated the public's intelligence and capacity to appreciate art.

Great art presents multiple layers of meaning. Not all of these layers need to be understood immediately for art to be enjoyable. Alfred Hitchcock, another director discussed by McBride, created a body of work from which viewers can derive multiple meanings and different kinds of gratification. Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchcock's favorite of his own films, can be enjoyed as the suspenseful discovery of a murderer's guilt by his favorite niece; as an orchestration of Hitchcock's recurrent themes of sin, guilt, and redemption, of the porous boundaries between good and evil, of the difference between innocence and goodness; or as an example of Hitchcock's obsessive and masterful manipulation of images.

McBride's book records at length his own lover's quarrel with the medium of film by expressing his disappointment about how corporate control, the difficulty of finding adequate financing, and the emphasis on immediate high profit have wasted the vast potential of cinema. Pointedly, the title gives two, not three, cheers for Hollywood. Nevertheless, McBride, like a disappointed yet still smitten lover, still portrays the beauties of his lost beloved.

He does so by adding to our ability to understand the great films and high-quality popular movies of the American past, especially the two golden ages of the 1930s-1940s and then the 1960s-1970s. By writing book-length studies of Frank Capra, Stephen Spielberg, John Ford, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and Ernst Lubitsch, as well as the articles reprinted in this collection about such figures as Capra, Ford, John Huston, and Billy Wilder, McBride helps us to appreciate many kinds of cinematic achievement.

He does so, not by overemphasizing the film director as the sole author/auteur of a body of work, but by depicting the medium as a collaborative art and respecting the contributions of screenwriters, cinematographers, editors, and producers. The first section concerns some important screenwriters, such as Robert Riskin, directly responsible for the content and tone of Capra's characteristic films. In a subsequent section, McBride discusses the integral importance of Hitchcock's wife and artistic partner, Alma Reville, to Hitchcock's achievement. Actors, of course, are also essential collaborators in the joint effort to create a film. McBride's interviews vividly portray Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and Peter O'Toole. Every discussion mentions films that I want to see for the first time, now plan to see again, or regret never being able to see, like Hitchcock's never-made Mary Rose.

"My nature is subdued," Shakespeare reveals in a sonnet, "To what it works in, like the dyer's hand." McBride's mind, deeply dyed with the knowledge he has acquired of American films, culture, and history, offers us broader, deeper, and more varied perspectives on the films we thought we knew.

Two Cheers for Hollywood: Joseph McBride on Movies is available only from at

first published in The Woodstock Independent

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

As Good as Bread

As Good as Bread

Kathleen Spaltro

(c) Copyright 2017.  All Rights Reserved.


One of the funniest episodes of I Love Lucy depicts Lucy Ricardo baking bread dough mixed with a monstrous amount of yeast. When Lucy opens the oven door, a yard-long loaf slams her into the opposite wall of her apartment kitchen. My own adventures in bread baking don't rise to this Ricardian standard. Nevertheless, my many adventures with ingredients and recipes have entertained me, instructed me, and fed me usually good and occasionally great bread.

Sometimes the ingredients intrigue me; sometimes the recipes; sometimes the bread pans or clay pots. A relic of the 1970s that I began using only in the 21st century, the Romertopf clay pot, introduced in Germany in 1967, is wonderful for braising or stewing and for baking yeast breads. Soaking the clay halves for 15 minutes before putting the pot in a cold oven and then cooking the ingredients at a very high temperature develops a beautiful bread crust.

For years, I had wanted to try baking a Pullman loaf in the requisite lidded bread pan. Pullman luxury train cars used to serve Pullman loaves; the perfectly rectangular shape of the bread meant that a small train kitchen could store more loaves of bread. So I finally bought 2 Pullman pans--9 inches and 13 inches long, and I started looking for recipes for whole-grain Pullman loaves. 

Both of my Pullman bread pans make beautiful, perfectly rectangular loaves. I used my shorter Pullman pan to bake whole-wheat raisin bread and the longer pan to bake whole-wheat bread--both made with 100% "white-whole-wheat" flour ground from a variety of white wheat that does not have the bitterness associated with traditional red wheat.

I started baking yeast bread almost 40 years ago precisely because I wanted more whole-grain breads in my daily diet. Many store-bought loaves were not very tasty, or the loaves were marketed as whole-grain, but their labels libeled the concept. I went in search of whole-grain bread recipes. Older cookbooks often contained only "quick bread" recipes, but yeast bread was coming back into favor then.

My first pumpernickel sat like a fat black rock and never rose to the occasion. Like many other baking virgins, I either killed my yeast or failed to activate the yeast at all by adding other ingredients that were either too cold or too hot. 

Now, instead of using "active dry yeast," "fresh yeast" that looks like a rectangular eraser in a foil wrapper, or "rapid-rise yeast," I use "instant yeast."  Manufactured with a different process that leaves alive many more yeast cells, "instant yeast" does not require pampering beyond being mixed with room-temperature ingredients. I simply mix the other dry ingredients with the yeast and then add all of the wet ingredients. 

Because raisins, candied fruit, and chopped nuts retard the rise of bread dough, I hold off on adding them until after the dough has risen once. I soak raisins in water or even hard liquor while the dough is rising to keep the raisins from turning into black bullets during baking.

To feed the yeast during rising, I always add potato flour (1 tablespoon per cup of wheat flour); this also extends the shelf life of the baked bread. Another trick adds diastatic malt powder (1 tablespoon per recipe) to encourage the yeast.

Very curious about ingredients, I enjoy trying out unfamiliar breads that incorporate them. From what I understand, wild rice is not a rice at all but a grass. Like saffron, it is expensive because it is difficult to harvest. I cooked some wild rice to use as an ingredient in wild rice and pumpkin seed bread. This excellent yeast bread uses molasses as its sweetener, and its grain is white-whole-wheat flour. It was the last of several recipes that I had selected from a whole-grain bread baking book. All of the recipes were good; some were excellent. 

Another excellent recipe from this book uses cooked brown rice as well as brown rice flour. Most of the flour called for by the recipe is "bread flour," but I substituted "white-whole-wheat flour." This "harvest bread" was a good match for leftover Thanksgiving turkey and some Edam or gouda cheese.

I like pearl barley and have baked with barley flour, but barley flakes were a new ingredient to me. I was interested to see that they look like rolled oats, so I assume that they are produced via a similar manufacturing process. I bought some barley flakes because I wanted to bake a cinnamon-raisin-barley bread with whole-wheat flour and honey, and I was very pleased with the bread's great flavor.

I finally used up my rye flour by baking 2 loaves of limpa. A previous recipe for limpa had disappointed me, but this one produced delicious rye bread. So now I have three good recipes for sweet rye bread: one made with molasses and mashed potatoes; one made with espresso powder, orange oil, and honey; and this one, made with molasses and brown sugar, as well as orange oil and dark beer/porter. All are excellent with cheese.

Besides being interested in ingredients and pans, I become curious about a recipe's novel (to me) technique. Many years ago, I first tried steaming breads and puddings. Steaming bread is a very interesting alternative to baking bread. Recently, I tried a variation of steamed Boston Brown Bread that uses maple syrup instead of molasses and soaks the raisins in rum. In the case of steamed harvest bread (cooking apples or pumpkin) and Boston Brown Bread, steaming adds moisture to a low-fat or fat-free recipe.

My recipes often come from James Beard's Beard on Bread, one of my two favorite bread baking books. My other favorite is The Book of Bread by Judith and Evan Jones. King Arthur Flour's Whole Grain Baking is very good, too. 

Baking yeast bread truly is a pursuit of happiness. No other aroma evokes feelings of well-being as much as the odor of baking bread does. No other form of human happiness surpasses the satisfaction felt after baking or eating a good loaf of bread. The Italians have a phrase for it--buono come il pane--as good as bread. In the end, we come back to simple, reliable pleasures: to our bread and butter.

first published in The Woodstock Independent


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Woodstock's Atticus Finch

Woodstock's Atticus Finch

Copyright (c) (2017) by Kathleen Spaltro

All Rights Reserved

"The farmers of McHenry County protested even against my being imprisoned there, and it was reported that they would meet the train on which I was to arrive and that a lynching might follow. Heavily guarded, I was thus delivered to George Eckert, sheriff of McHenry County, who met the train at the station and took me into custody. The farmers were there with their threats and mutterings, and with some other sheriff than George Eckert in charge might have attempted their cowardly program. But George Eckert was a man as well as a sheriff, and he told them, in words they did not fail to understand, that I was his prisoner, and that it was his duty to protect as well as to jail me, and that he proposed to do it. The would-be lynchers knew George Eckert, and slunk away in the darkness. They knew he would protect me — if necessary with his own life."

Mourning his recently deceased friend George  Eckert in 1923, Eugene V. Debs with these words remembered the beginning of their friendship in Woodstock's McHenry County Jail in 1895. Eckert and Debs agreed on few political issues, but the bond they forged endured for almost 30 years. Each knew the other to be a good man worthy of trust and respect.

"This was my introduction to George Eckert," Debs remembered. "He had read and heard all about me that was false and slanderous and had been led to believe that I was a desperate and dangerous criminal and that I should be treated accordingly. But this did not alter his determination to accord to me the treatment due to any other prisoner in his custody. That night I slept in a clean cell. The following morning the sheriff came to see me and I had a friendly chat and soon came to a perfect mutual understanding which was never once violated on either side. From that hour George Eckert was my friend and I was his, and though 27 years have passed, not one of them brought its holidays without the exchange of mutual greetings and remembrances."

Debs respected and admired his jailer. Eckert recognized Debs as a man of integrity and courage, and he understood that Debs was not a criminal but a political prisoner.

As A.C. Cantley reported for the "St. Louis Post-Dispatch," Eckert trusted in Debs's sense of honor:  "[Eckert] allows his distinguished prisoners all the liberty possible under the circumstances. They were allowed to walk into the yard and take exercise. No handcuffs and no balls and chains and no guards have been considered necessary." While incarcerated in McHenry County Jail, Debs led his six fellow prisoners in rigorous daily exercise, in studies of history and economics, and in evening debates. The prisoners played football behind the neighboring McHenry County Court House, sunned themselves on the grounds, and dined with Eckert’s family. Eckert allowed Debs to use his jail time to study and ponder the plight of working-class Americans. Debs hired a secretary to assist with his mail, and  Eckert set aside an old jail cell in the Court House basement for the production of Deb’s union publication, the Railway Times

Eckert even trusted Debs with a gun. A visitor to Debs in McHenry County Jail learned of Debs's absence because "the prisoner is out hunting with the Sheriff." Much later, other wardens would trust in Debs's integrity. After Debs began serving time in federal prison in 1919 because he had protested against American participation in World War One, he travelled from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., to discuss his case with President Harding's Attorney General. Debs went by train to Washington without an escort, and Debs returned to federal prison in Atlanta without an escort.

Others besides Debs recognized Eckert as a man of principle and honor. Upon Eckert's death in 1923 at his home (340 S. Madison Street), the "Woodstock Sentinel" eulogized him as "a manly man, a considerate, kind and thoughtful husband and father. A good neighbor, a devoted citizen of this commonwealth, and a worthy veteran." He had served as Sheriff of McHenry County for 8 years, as an Alderman in Woodstock for 16 years, as Collector for Dorr Township for 2 terms, as Captain of Company G of the state guard, and as Commander of the Woodstock Post of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Eckert was buried in Woodstock's Oakland Cemetery. His grave, his house, and Old McHenry County Jail survive to remind us of George Eckert.

After Debs left Woodstock in 1895, Eckert's daughter, Georgie, as president of the women's auxiliary to the GAR Post, arranged for Debs to speak to an audience in Woodstock's City Hall. After Debs left federal prison in 1921, both father and daughter visited him as he tried to recover his shattered health in an Elmhurst sanitarium. "Mr. Eckert and his daughter Georgie drove 50 miles on a cold, gusty day to pay me a visit and to comfort me with their sympathy and companionship. The visit was to be the last with my loyal old friend, and I shall never forget how touched I was at the parting. George Eckert had been a true friend to me when friendship is possible only in the heart and soul and conscience of a genuine human being."

Agreeing on little, these very different friends nevertheless recognized and respected each other as men of quality. If we are not able to emulate them, we have lost something valuable.

First published in The Woodstock Independent


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Jack Benny

Jack Benny
Copyright (c) (2017) by Kathleen Spaltro
All Rights Reserved

Jack Benny built a good living and a solid career on the flimsy foundation of sheer pretense. He pretended to be vain, miserly, and ornery, and he pretended to be oblivious about these failings. The character "Jack Benny," our self-absorbed Uncle Jack, enlarged our own traits in a mirror turned on ourselves. His embodiment so exaggerated our faults into absurdity that, by laughing at Benny, we also laughed at our own silliness.

Benny mastered the humor of self-deprecation. If he played the violin, his butler Rochester van Jones (Eddie Anderson) cautioned that rope should not be nearby to tempt any listeners. If Benny invited guests to his home, they put coins in his vending machines, such as the lamp that sold penny candy. If Benny reluctantly dragged out some coins in payment, suction in his pocket held the coins back. If Benny went out of town for 10 days, he pawned his parrot to get free room and board for the bird. If Benny boasted about his cleverness in buying a beautifully tailored suit in Hong Kong for $17, the lapels, pockets, and sleeves fell off as he demonstrated his mastery of the violin.

Oblivious to his own orneriness, Benny maddened a department store clerk whom he badgered into repeatedly rewrapping an uncharacteristically generous Christmas gift. In the "Christmas Shopping Show," Mel Blanc hilariously conveyed the growing despair of the clerk. (The voice of many Warner Brothers cartoon characters, Blanc also impersonated Benny's parrot and "the Maxwell," Benny's elderly—manufactured no later than 1925—and barely functioning car, as it coughed itself into starting.) 

While Blanc's clerk submitted to Benny despairingly, more frequently Benny got no respect from store clerks, phone operators, or plumbers. With a pained look at the audience, a "put-upon" expression, and the drawn-out, indignant exclamation "Well!," Benny would fold his arms, place his hand on his chin, and eventually saunter away with his trademark swaying, mincing walk, "like Theda Bara," the "vamp" of American silent movies.

The audience expected "Jack Benny" to be cheap, vain, fussy, bad at violin playing, and oblivious, and the audience never tired of Benny's re-enactments of these faults. Forever 39 years old, Benny locked his savings in a vault located in a dungeon guarded by a crocodile and a Confederate soldier who had never learned of the end of the Civil War. Most famously, he prolonged a hesitating response to a hold-up demanding "Your money or your life!" Several minutes of "dead air time" later, the audience was speechless with hilarity.

Benny recycled this durable material from vaudeville and radio into the movies and then into television. Born as Benny Kubelsky, he had begun his entertainment career in vaudeville with violin playing; his childhood violin lessons got him a job in ninth grade as a violinist for the orchestra of  the vaudeville house in his Waukegan neighborhood. (His lifelong friendship with the Marx Brothers began there in 1911.) In the Navy during World War One, Benny entertained his fellow sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Waukegan with comedy routines. By 1921, he was focusing on his vaudeville career as comedian "Jack Benny."

An advertising account executive for Canada Dry who had heard Benny perform during a 1932 appearance on a 15-minute radio program hosted by "New York Daily News" Broadway columnist Ed Sullivan recruited Benny to be the emcee of the CBS Radio "Canada Dry Ginger Ale Program." By the end of 1932, he was voted "Most Popular Comedian on the Air." Other sponsored radio shows followed on CBS and NBC: "Chevrolet Program,"  "General Tire Revue," General Foods's "Jell-O Program" and "Grape Nuts Flakes Program," and American Tobacco's "Lucky Strike Program." 

Benny still did radio programs while he was trying out television on a local affiliate station in 1949-50 and on his first network TV show on 28 October 1950. His last new radio program (for Lucky Strike) aired in 1955. With his concentration now on his CBS TV show, Benny won a 1957 Emmy Award, and his program in 1958 won the Emmy for Best Comedy Series. TV sponsors included American Tobacco's Lucky Strike (1950–59), Lever Brothers' Lux (1959–60), State Farm Insurance (1960–65), Lipton Tea (1960–62), General Foods's Jell-O (1962–64), and Miles Laboratories (1964–65). 

With his ratings slipping in the 1960s, CBS did not renew Benny's contract at the end of the 1963-64 season, and he went to NBC on a 1-year contract. His last regular TV program aired in 1965; TV specials and guest appearances followed during his last decade of life.

A kindly and gentle, not oblivious man, Benny was actually not cheap but very generous. The benefit concerts that he did with orchestras raised $6 million for orchestras worldwide. (He also gave $1 million to an actors' retirement home.) Concert audiences came for the "Jack Benny" that they half-knew was a fiction but wanted to laugh at anyway. Benny joked that, during these benefit concerts, the more expensive seats were the furthest from the stage on which he played his violin: "When I give concerts, the tickets sell for $5  to $100, but for my concerts the $5 seats are down in front . . . the further back you go, the more you have to pay. The $100 seats are the last 2 rows, and those tickets go like hotcakes! In fact, if you pay $200 you don't have to come at all." 

First published in The Woodstock Independent