Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Rest is Silents

A Certain Tramp in Niles Canyon
You’ll be pleased, maybe relieved, to learn that I not only got out of the house last Saturday, but I even escaped Emeryville. The occasion was a weekend celebration of number 53 in my march through life. The destination was a place that only a few of you have probably ever heard of: Niles, California.
Not named after Frasier Crane’s brother, Niles is a pleasing, sun-baked neighborhood nestled at the foot of the golden East Bay hills, northeast of San Jose, near the south end of San Francisco Bay. It was established as part of the Washington Township in the late 1840s. Its first brush with history came when the final tracks in the Transcontinental Railroad were laid there in about 1869 (for railroad buffs, Niles also has a reputable train museum and that particular line of track through lovely Niles Canyon is still in use.). Niles joined the city of Fremont in 1956.

From its railroad days, Niles napped peacefully in the back pages of history until 1912. That was when a Chicago-based film studio, The Essanay Motion Picture Manufacturing Company, was drawn by our monotonously pleasant weather to build a West Coast studio production facility in downtown Niles.

Essanay (the name comes from the last-name initials of the company’s founders, George K. Spoor and G.M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson) produced, according to David Kiehn of the Essanay’s Silent Film Museum Essanay Chronicle, up to 2,000 movies during their ten-year history. Among these films (unless someone’s pranked the Wikipedia entry) are the first Sherlock Holmes movie, the first
A Christmas Carol adaptation and the first movie about Jesse James (in fact, Westerns seem to have been their bread-and-butter; their "Broncho Billy" western movies alone total around 376 movies.) Among their stars: Keanu Reeves, Brittany Spears, Vin Diesel—oops, sorry . . . darn that Wikipedia! Start over!

Among the Essanay stars who sparkled in the company’s firmament were cross-eyed Ben Turpin, burly Wallace Beery, Francis X. Bushman, Tom Mix, the “A” in the Essanay “Broncho Billy” Anderson (also the movies' first cowboy star), and one Really Really Famous Guy I’ll discuss down page.

Of Essanay’s 2,000 films, only about 200 seem to have survived time’s relentless wheel (or, to make it hurt even more, about 1800 Essanay films have been lost; in fact, it has been said, about 90% of all silent era films have gone to Buddha).

Elizabeth and I first visited Niles and the Essanay Film Museum, located right on Niles’ Main Street, early this year. The museum is located in the old Edison Theater, the neighborhood movie house where Anderson and company would come by to watch the films released by their competition. (The production company itself, located a block away in what’s now a vacant lot, had its own screening room.) It still has the original fire-proofed (with tin) projection booth. Their display cases contain various costume artifacts—like all glimpses of the past, they were tantalizing, frustrating, and poignant.

The staff is warm and friendly and, like all of us geeks everywhere, they rained down upon us all manner of fascinating and endearing trivia. Their enthusiastic docent marched us through their nooks and crannies. Before I could stop her, Elizabeth drew her checkbook and fired off a year’s worth of membership for the both of us. (Like many similar nonprofits, the museum is in a perpetual and cash-strapped state of restoration.) My favorite part was the large library of hardcover photoplay editions of famous novels made into films, including The Maltese Falcon. I had to sew my hands inside my pockets as we explored the gift shop.

Buster Keaton in full dress

The first program we attended was a showing of Buster Keaton’s astounding (an adjective that glues well to so much of his work)
Steamboat Bill, Jr., plus a very funny short by the Keaton’s close friend, the amazingly light-footed and tragic Fatty Arbuckle. Both movies were accompanied by an excellent live pianist and the Edison Theater, which seats around 130, was packed.

It felt not so much like a night at the movies, as a night at a community center. Not everyone knew everyone, but it felt like it did. The screenings were conducted with a pleasing informality, right down to emcees Tommy Andrew and former MPAA archivist Sam Gill. A drawing was held giving away various gift shop items. My normally icy heart was further warmed by the presence of quite a few youngsters, none of whom seemed to think their parents were trying to turn them into old people by making them watch old movies. We took home a warm glow and left a promise to come again.

Promise kept: last weekend we attended the Edison Theater’s showing of a movie by that Really Really Famous Guy, name of Charlie Chaplin.
The Adventurer (1917) was produced a couple of years after Chaplin concluded his rather unhappy five-film contract with Essanay, a period that produced his signature classic The Tramp with its iconic image of the title character walking alone through Niles Canyon. Chaplin never took to Niles’ isolation and small town ways. Worse, George K. Spoor had never heard of the world-famous Chaplin. Learning of the huge fees they were paying the Master, Spoor demanded that Broncho Billy, who hired Chaplin, get rid of him. It’s said that this disagreement alone led to Essanay’s end a short time later.

Again we were emceed by Tommy Andrew and Sam Gill (plus a woman whose name unfortunately escapes me), with vigorous piano accompaniment this time by the estimable Frederick Hodges. And, as before, a drawing was held to give away various prizes, with a special section for the kids in attendance, who again, didn’t look like they wished they were home swinging their Wiis around the living room. Attendance was announced to be 129.

Harold Lloyd in trouble
The screenings continued with Harold Lloyd’s Number Please (1922) and Buster Keaton’s Hard Luck (1921), the print of which is, unfortunately, in bad shape, though the movie is still funny and ingenious in the way only Keaton can be.

To my mind, the best was saved for last as we were paid a visit by the always welcome Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy in one of their classic extravaganzas of tit-for-tat destruction,
Two Tars (1928). I can think of no other performers who better leave their audiences in an affectionate glow.

Laurel and Hardy in full destructive mode
The Niles Essanay Film Museum is located at 37417 Niles Boulevard in Fremont and their website is here, though it is still under construction in spots. Program are usually held each Saturday, though this coming weekend is their international film weekend which runs Friday, November 2, through Sunday, November 4, and features such classics as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger and Fritz Lang’s Spies.

Go! And if you cannot, then weep!

Thanks to Dorothy Bradley of the Essanay Silent Film Museum for her help.)

(re-edited 3/19/13)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Charlie, Not Jackie

Chang Apana: The Real-Life Charlie Chan

Humble apologies for going missing last week, but a major editing project turned out to be harder than expected: a 600-page book about Jesuit missionaries that was a whole lot more interesting than, say, The Mission, but burdened with 84 pages of bibliography and over a hundred pages of footnotes that had to be cross-referenced, line by line: By the time I was done, my brain felt like a bag of crushed peanuts.

But now you may all doff your sackcloth and ashes and rest your hoarse and sorrowful cries. I have returned to once more guide you to my snug—maybe a little too snug--cozy den of iniquitous vintage literature.

I finished reading that Charlie Chan mystery novel, The Black Camel by Earl Derr Biggers, I alluded to in a recent posting on the differences between reading literary and genre fiction. Verdict: Not bad. Not bad at all.

Most of us remember Charlie Chan from the forty-four movies that were produced during the 1930s and 1940s. You may also be aware of the modern controversy over their racism, most of it, as I see it, due to the failure of the studios to cast a Chinese-American actor in the role. (Come now: would that have been so hard?)

One main effect of the Charlie Chan movies seems to have been to bury the original novels in obscurity. This may be too bad. I read one of them, Behind That Curtain, too many years ago to reveal without embarrassment and now remember nothing about it. But The Black Camel does a much better job of sticking in the memory.

The Black Camel was published in 1931, and is set in late-1920s Honolulu, Hawaii. Taking a third-person point of view, Biggers sets the stage by gracefully introducing readers to the murder victim—a fading Hollywood star—and the large cast of suspects, most of whom have one motive or another for fading out her career even faster.

As in all mystery fiction, it’s the character of the problem solver who’s the draw, and problem solver Mr. Charlie Chan enters the mystery early on, fortunately. Said to be inspired by the real-life Chang Apana, (pictured above) a legendary detective in the Honolulu Police Department, the literary Chan is a true pip and stands favorably apart from the somewhat mummified Mandarin screen persona.

The literary Charlie Chan is as witty as he is wise and a little bit edgy, too. “By heaven,” one character melodramatically swears. “I’ll get him if it’s the last act of my life!” “I have similar ambition,” Chan drolly tells him, “though I trust the accomplishment will not finish off my existence.” The humor cuts others cruelly: “If you return with a pretty picture,” he seethes at a hapless assistant, “I will personally escort you back to private life.”

He’s also a man upon whose large shoulders the world hangs heavy. There’s no stereotypical serenity about him; his famous sense of humility also arises from his own errors—more literary detectives need to screw up from time to time--and his lot in life, as it comes from ideas about Chinese cultural tradition. Unlike a lot of fictional detectives, Charles Chan has a home life, but not necessarily a happy one: he's overwhelmed patriarch of a noisy, self-absorbed brood of a dozen-plus offspring that anyone who’s parented in the last eighty years might recognize. Like the fount of them all, Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan finds true happiness only when he’s on the hunt.

Biggers creates a portrait of a brilliant man who is beset by serious anxiety attacks and doubts about his own considerable skills. Clearly, Charlie Chan is the smartest man in the Hawaiian Islands, but Biggers wisely makes sure that Chan himself doesn’t absolutely share that opinion and so keeps him human, rather than having him floats Buddha-like over everything. His humility, of course, also serves as a tool to dupe his quarry, who is revealed in a reasonably satisfying and surprising ending.

Biggers is not a racist. A remark about “a heathen race” inspires Charlie to sneer, “Yes, a heathen race that was inventing the art of printing at moment when gentlemen in Great Britain were beating one another over head with spike clubs.” I did look in vain for any allusions to American colonialism (In fact, significantly, Native Hawaiians seem hardly to appear at all).

Well-crafted and entertaining as it is, The Black Camel doesn’t transcend its genre origins, though Chan’s character has more to him than most other fictional gumshoes of the era. The author’s description of 1920s Honolulu are aromatic, but he occasionally strains to gild those Hawaiian blossoms and it’s not a pretty sight. The dialogue, at times, is dated and execrable: True, Asian people may very well have spoken in pidgin English, but it still makes contemporary reading ears cringe. The story’s romantic leads are an annoying and cloying couple of white-bread gee-whizzers I hoped would either turn up dead . . . or turn out to be the bad guys.

Earl Derr Biggers wrote only six Charlie Chan novels before dying of a heart attack in 1933. The Black Camel is said to be among the best of them. But the most surprising aspect of this Grosset & Dunlap edition for me was this volume's its back pages. As it turns out, The Black Camel was not quite the rare first edition I’d hoped I’d snapped up cheap, but a reprint: the back matter catalogs many other books that were for sale, including the subsequent Chan novels. Most of the catalog listed writers long and profoundly forgotten—the Western novels for sale back then are mind-boggling: How could any bibliophile pass on William MacLeod Raine’s Oh, You Tex! and Chip of the Flying U by B. M. Bower? Hey! According to Albris Books, the second of those two lost classics is available for purchase! Now . . . how do I explain this one to Elizabeth?

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Watch the Light!

I love the Fall. I love the Autumn.

My love is challenged these days, but I do not blame the season; it is not a fickle lover. I do not jab an accusing finger as this time of year like a seething, resentful, heart-shattered idealist: “You did it! It’s your fault! You have betrayed ME! You have failed to live up to my High Standards! You’re responsible for disappointing me! Away with Thee and never throw Thy Shadow ‘Crost my doorstep agayn!”

No, my low love-levels for this turning of the season have more to do with my current location and monkish life-style. Both darling Elizabeth’s and my employment keep us tethered to Emeryville, which jealously throws a cloak of dusty concrete over any beauty that foolishly shows its face. Already its ugliness crowds my rear window, greedily slurping its chops at this last tiny redoubt of green trees and gardens that surround me, whispering to The Master Planners: “We’ve driven away all those annoying twittering birds . . . now if we can kill all those green trees, we can construct a shopping mall to service all the Lovely Condos we are a-building. It will be the Most Beautiful Thing That Ever Was! Bwa-ha-ha-ha!!”

Back to reverie: My love for fall starts with Fall’s light—the only thing Emeryville cannot suppress, no matter how much money it throws at the problem—the sharp and limpid tone, actually musical, brought in part by the Sun’s passing to the North on its East to West sweep as it grows lower and lower toward the horizon. It is as though the air has been drained and cleansed by the impurities brought by the heavier air of summer. My soul grows lighter. Like a spring that follows an especially leaden winter, I feel wings swelling from within my shoulder bones and muscles and I pretend to see the earth sweep away from beneath my feet, with its streaming sweet yellow and umber colors.

But I cannot fly and this is the West Coast of California. Its temperate climate mutes all four Seasons, turning the climate in something like Goldilocks’s porridge: safe and almost flavorless with only small variations in temperature, precipitation and, yes, light and air. For many, probably the near-total majority, this is what makes the Bay Area so worthwhile: no blistering sweltering Summers; no grim, depressing mid- to late-Winters. (Want flavor? You’ll have to drive all the way to Eastern Sierras for the aspens, per this favorite writer’s cheerful guidance.)

Yes, the Seasons of Earth’s higher latitudes can be very bad, I do remember distinctly. But nothing, not even the taste of a favorite food, sparks memories in me like the Seasons, in all their faces. I hail from where the Summers could be like sleeping under wet, heated wool and the Winters, after the first magic, became cold, granite,sunless caves, where we shrieked our prayers for escape. But the Springs and the Falls were as I’ve described them above: full of both radical delight and subtle tones; the extreme bad led to extreme ecstasy and a deeper awareness of birth, death and time.

Pretentious? OK, so, sigh, shoot me and cremate me in a pile of burning leaves. I still say Spring tastes like sap oozing from a maple tree, while Fall tastes like cold, sweet stream water. In Mohegan Lake, New York, and even in dreary Oshkosh, Wisconsin—one of the Emeryvilles of that otherwise underestimated United State, I could feel that taste in my skin. It was like synesthesia: one sense swimming with another. The bright, sun-kissed orange of the turning maple and elm leaves made the world indoors feel cozier. The smells of rotting leaves or roasted turkey and pumpkin pie, or the sight of grinning candled pumpkins under a full, screaming orange moon, does make a brain turn inward to its soul where I sometimes find, as the poet Keats describes it, a “mellow fruitfulness.” The city makes Death fall like a trowel and seem like the End of Everything, but, when woven inevitably into the tapestry of nature, Death seems like a miraculous turn of a Great Wheel. Autumn warns that things will get worse for a time, but nevertheless Life will come around again, be worth celebrating.

Under this circumstance, nostalgia is not a bad thing. As my youth draws further into the past and the sad memory of what is lost—in the sense of the experiences I missed, passed on, or failed to be attentive to—brings into sharp relief those sadly few experiences that stay with me. On me, at least, it actually has the opposite effect of what happens to a lot of folks: instead of grim, bitter resignation to aging and mortality, a sharp, even angry, and great hunger arises. The seasons remind me that yeah, times passes but much in this rounded ball of awareness called life remains to be done. Spring will come. I’d better be ready.


In other matters: one of my oldest friends and enthusiastic reader of these feuilletons, famous knock-'em-dead, banned-in-Oshkosh (we're both proud to say), stage hypnotist John-Ivan Palmer is unable to sign on to the Comments section of this service, and so e-mails his responses to me. One of them, in response to last week’s posting on Ken Burn’s The War, provides a different, important perspective as follows. (As you will see, John's not a bad writer himself):

“When I was recovering from my operation, I spent a week listening to a series of lectures on World War II by Thomas Childers (University of Pennsylvania). It was more a study of the strategic causes and effects, rather than a "people's history." One thing Childers pointed out was that WWII was largely a war of racism on all sides. The Germans looked down on everyone not Aryan, the Japanese looked down on everyone not Japanese, and the Americans didn't want their colonial sphere of influence in Asia taken over by Yellow People. Hardships and personal stories notwithstanding, this was the emotional fuel behind the largest event in human history, with 50 million dead. Some older people still refer to the "Japs" or "Jap cars," even in front of Harue, [John’s Japanese wife] not realizing they are parroting 60-year-old racist propaganda. And as a reading of Tom Bradley will readily show, a significant number of Japanese today aren't much different.”

[And an Apology: I forgot to "BLIND COPY" my reminder of last week's posting
to many of you. My deep apologies to any of you who were inconvenienced and annoyed. I will strive to see that it does not happen again!]