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January 18, 2010

Catching Up With a Childhood Playmate

At the urging of a friend, I finally watched the 1953 Dr. Seuss cult classic, "The 5,000 Fingers of Doctor T," all the way through. I had seen bits and pieces of it on TV, and my overall impression of it from those viewings was unchanged from seeing the whole thing via Netflix DVD: wildly uneven, alternating between the delightful, the off-putting and the '50s-style didactic. But one part I remembered as brilliant seemed even more so this time: the sublime Dr. Seuss-Frederick Hollander song, "Do-Me-Do Duds," sung by the eponymous Doctor T with gusto and aplomb as a retinue of valets dresses him in a hilariously, Seussically elaborate uniform. Visually and musically, the song is a stunner, but best of all is the actor playing Doctor T: the great, unique, too-little-remembered Hans Conried.

I was an odd, anti-social child, given to long flights of fantasy. Various cartoon characters and TV actors were more intimate childhood companions to me than any of the neighborhood kids. My playmates included all pre-Scooby-Doo Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, especially Huckleberry Hound; Dennis the Menace, both the cartoon character and as embodied by Jay North; Agnes Moorehead (Endora on "Bewitched"); Donna Douglas (Elly May on "The Beverly Hillbillies"); and Fess Parker (I was too young for Davy Crockett, but old enough for Daniel Boone). But one of the most important, with his sardonic expression and grandiloquent voice, was Hans Conried.

Conried of course was one of the busiest voice-over artists in the business; he was Captain Hook in Disney's "Peter Pan" and Snidely Whiplash in "Dudley Do-Right," among many, many others. He also appeared on many TV programs, mostly sitcoms. He was Danny Thomas' crazy Uncle Tonoose on "Make Room for Daddy;" he was the overbearing diction teacher on "I Love Lucy" who forced Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel to sing a flowery madrigal of his own composition; he was the pixilated aviator on "Gilligan's Island" who just couldn't believe Gilligan, the Skipper, Thurston Howell III, etc., actually wanted off their island paradise. But I knew him best from "Fractured Flickers," the Jay Ward-produced show he hosted, which presented fragments of silent films with comic voice-overs, anticipating Woody Allen and "What's Up, Tiger Lily?" "Fractured Flickers," when it's remembered at all, is condemned for cutting up and trivializing great silent films, including comedies by Buster Keaton and others that were incomparably greater than what Jay Ward came up with. I probably would agree with that assessment today; but when I was eight years old, I ate it up. It was torture for me, because "Fractured Flickers" aired in my home town at 11:30 Sunday mornings, which was about the time church let out. I remember running home to catch the last few minutes of the show, and gnashing my teeth when the sermon ran over or the pastor called a congregational meeting after the service. But that's beside the point; I realize, now as then, that Hans Conried was all-important to the show. His slightly superior air and painfully crisp diction preserved perfectly the line between tortured seriousness and being totally in on the joke. Some latter-day comedians could take lessons from Conried.

Conried was one of those ever-elegant, all-purpose actors who could be convincing in virtually any role and never, ever, took himself too seriously. Like Vincent Price, he excelled at comic villainy; like Tony Randall (whose father he played on a short-lived sitcom), he cultivated a fussy, self-mocking elegance. Reading up on Conried's life on the Internet, it is no surprise that Conried's father was a Viennese Jewish immigrant and his mother a Connecticut Yankee who traced her ancestry to the Mayflower. Conried's whole persona could best be described as a combination of Middle European scholar and authoritarian WASP fussbudget.

Although Conried has been gone nearly thirty years, he was an actor whose witty and singular presence was always welcome, and deserves to be remembered. I still think I could have done much, much worse for a childhood playmate. Meanwhile, I have placed all three DVDs of "Fractured Flickers" on my Netflix queue. It will be interesting to see if I can go home again.

January 30, 2010

An Elegy for J.S. (But Not the J.S. You're Thinking)

The passing of J.D. Salinger has caused readers from 17 to 75 to moan for their lost youth, and literary agents from New York to Nanking to salivate over the putative unpublished (and undestroyed) manuscripts that must, they assume, be lying in lovely and squalid piles all across Cornish, N.H. I too have read "The Catcher in the Rye," and of course I read it at 16, the same age as its protagonist, Holden Caulfield. Holden will always be 16, whereas I am nearly 55; on the other hand, unlike Holden, so far I have eluded the shrinks.

I liked "The Catcher in the Rye," but it wasn't a life-changing experience for me. Holden moved me in some ways, but his experiences did not particularly resonate with me. I can't really explain why; they just didn't. I disliked "Franny and Zooey," the only other book by Salinger (not that there are that many) that I have ever read. I read the rather charming interview in the Washington Post with Roger Lathbury, proprietor of the tiny Orchises Press in my current home town of Alexandria, Va., about how he almost became Salinger's last publisher. Salinger dropped Lathbury the way he dropped everyone else in his life, without apology or explanation. I look at the one picture of Salinger the author ever allowed to be released to the public, and see an unpleasant, Mailereseque combination of physical and intellectual bully--the kind of guy who'd beat you up in the parking lot and add a few withering insults from La Rouchefoucauld for good measure.

Personally I was much more affected by the news of the death of Jean Simmons, who would have turned 81 tomorrow. Whereas Salinger for me was The Catcher in the Rye, Jean Simmons was Black Narcissus, Elmer Gantry, Spartacus, Young Bess, David Lean's Great Expectations, and Olivier's Hamlet (to which, of course, Holden Caulfield famously and dismissively refers). Although I was never exactly a rabid fan of Jean Simmons, she was much more a part of my mental landscape than J.D. Salinger ever was. Simmons was the last of the breathtaking trio of beauties who graced Black Narcissus (the other two, Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron, have already been eulogized on this blog). Of the three, Simmons possessed the most delicate and heartbreaking beauty; with her sloe eyes, high English cheekbones and delicate creamy skin, she had a face on which men could write whatever fantasy they chose. It was her great misfortune that one of those men was Howard Hughes, who repaid her rebuff of his sexual advances by hobbling her career. She was never quite as famous as she deserved to be, partly because of Hughes' treachery but also partly because she did not have the sort of talent that called attention to itself. She was not a diva, just an actress of great sensitivity, nuance and charm. As one critic said, Simmons was so good from such a young age that audiences took her excellence for granted.

I have no particular thoughts to sum up this entry, just an image: a crew-cut teenager in raincoat and deerstalker cap, huddled in an Upper East Side moviehouse, watching a girl in blonde pigtails as she floats in a stream near Elsinore, the water soaking her long velvet dress.

About January 2010

This page contains all entries posted to MDM in January 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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