Phone Booth Friday: Telling Super Stories

This week Warner Brothers announced a slew of upcoming films based on characters from the DC Comics universe, which will take us through 2020; Marvel Comics have already announced their future lineup.  The offerings from DC include stand-alone superhero movies based on Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Shazam, Green Lantern, and Cyborg, as well as ensemble films such as the in-production “Batman v. Superman”, and the interesting sounding “Suicide Squad”, which will be something like “The Dirty Dozen”, only with supervillains.  The really BIG event will be the first-ever “Justice League” film, split into two parts, which should bring together all of the major characters from the DC universe.  Anyone who watched “Super Friends” on Saturday morning cartoons when they were little will probably be looking forward to that one.

If this seems like a lot of spandex to deal with on the big screen, not to mention the host of superhero-themed television shows now appearing on the small screen, it may be worth stopping to consider how repeated storytelling about heroes and their adventures is a common practice within Western culture.

There is no one, single definitive version of the stories of the ancient gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters from Greek and Roman mythology.  Over many centuries, the same stories were told in different ways, sometimes adding or taking away elements, depending on the times or the tastes of the audience. The basic legends surrounding Heracles/Hercules for example, were pretty much the same in both Greece and Rome, but when the Romans adopted the Greek hero as their own, they changed his story in places to make him a more Roman figure, even transferring some of his famous “Labors” to a Roman setting.

We can see the same adaptation of well-known characters over time in the legends surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. King Arthur lived – if he did at all – in what is now Northern England during the 5th or 6th century, and legends about him fluttered about in popular storytelling until a Welsh writer wrote a chronicle of these tales in the 1100’s with many of the now-familiar aspects of the Arthurian legend.  However, a century later a French writer expanded upon these stories, adding both the quest for the Holy Grail and the character of Sir Lancelot.  As a result, today a modern audience could not imagine telling the story of King Arthur without the adultery of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, even though at one time this plot device would not have been considered canonical.

Both Hercules and King Arthur have had their stories told by many different storytellers.  While certain details may change, depending on who is doing the telling, as subjects for sharing ideas and ideals, they have never ceased to fire the imaginations of writers, artists, and performers.  So rather than be surprised that the characters from comic books continue to be revisited and reshaped, both for existing audiences and for new audiences coming to learn the stories of these heroes, we can see them as part of a continuum in Western literature.

Because they are more recent in time, having appeared in the 20th century, superheroes are more easily adaptable to the present age than figures from the very distant past, like Hercules and King Arthur.  Sure, we still create entertainment around these earlier figures as we tell their stories, but there is always going to be some level of distance between us and them.  Hercules is not going to be taking creatine and whey powder while powerlifting boulders, and King Arthur is not going to be receiving suggestive snapchats on his iPhone from Morgana la Fay.  Superman, however, can have a meeting with Batman on a space station orbiting the Earth, and we think nothing of it.

Our appetite for mythology, tales of adventure, and acts of heroism seems to be fairly insatiable in Western culture.  With the release of so much superhero material, perhaps the studios and publishers are over-estimating the public’s appetite for market saturation when it comes to this particular genre, as some have argued.  Yet in seizing the zeitgeist of this moment, these storytellers are not only being very smart from a financial standpoint, they are also tapping into a long history of storytelling, one which laid the building blocks of the culture which we enjoy today.

TSDSUFR EC004

Falling for Bacall

Recently some Twitter friends and I were recalling a few of our favorite old Bugs Bunny cartoons from the ’40’s and ’50’s, the kind they used to show on Saturday morning television but which, sadly, most kids today do not know.  For example there was the one where Bugs stood in for his colleague the Easter Bunny, with the bratty kid loudly and incessantly demanding, “I wanna Easter Egg, I wanna Easter Egg!”  Another classic involved Bugs playing the fiddle and calling a hoedown for two barefoot and clueless backwoods brothers intent on shooting him, with the pair ending up going off a cliff, as Bugs’ opponents often did.

And then there was the one that introduced a very young Billy Boy to the mystique of Lauren Bacall, who died yesterday at the age of 89.

In “Slick Hare”, a cartoon short from 1947, Humphrey Bogart comes to a supper club in Los Angeles run by Elmer Fudd, and insists on being served rabbit, “or else.”  Hilarity ensures, with Bugs Bunny dashing about the restaurant avoiding capture, along the way running into a number of recognizable Hollywood stars of the era, and at one point even doing a superb Carmen Miranda impression.  At the end, when Elmer admits that the rabbit cannot be caught, Bogie relents and says, “Baby will just have to have a ham sandwich instead.”  Realizing that Lauren Bacall – a.k.a. “Baby”, Bogart’s nickname for her – was the one asking for rabbit, Bugs immediately changes his mind and offers himself up to her on a platter.

When I first saw this cartoon I must have been about 5 or 6 years old.  I had no idea who “Baby” was, only that she must have been a very beautiful woman indeed, to make Bugs act the way he did.  As I grew older and saw films like “To Have and Have Not”, “The Big Sleep”, and “Key Largo”, I came to understand why not only the rabbit from Brooklyn could fall head over heels for the girl from The Bronx, but so could a future President of the United States from Missouri.

There are a few famous 1945 photographs of Harry Truman playing the piano at The National Press Club here in Washington, D.C., with Lauren Bacall perched atop the piano.  It was both a publicity stunt for the new star, and something to bring Truman more into the national and international public eye, shortly after having becoming Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth Vice President.  In the pictures, Bacall’s long legs are draped seductively over the side of the piano, with Truman smiling and looking somewhat nervous.  Understandably, when the photos came out Bess Truman was furious, but two months later FDR was dead, and the Trumans had other matters to concern them; meanwhile, men still went on falling for Lauren Bacall, wartime or not.

Because indeed, who could not fall for her?  The former model with the sharp wit created a kind of archetypal relationship with Bogart, which even today my friends talk about, longingly.  Beyond the obvious physical attraction going on, there was a snappy, clever back-and-forth between the two of them that many of us, I daresay myself included, would love to have in our own relationships.  It might not always be sweetness and light, but my goodness it would be great fun.

Despite her long career in Hollywood, compared to many of her contemporaries Bacall did not make as many films as she might have done.  She was picky about the roles she took, and made it a point to try to raise her children as best she could.  She also viewed the theatre as the natural home for the serious actor, and succeeded as much on the boards as she did on the silver screen.  As a result, there is not a huge back catalogue of Lauren Bacall films for you to study, and truthfully most of her best roles were shot many decades ago.

Yet I think that rather than any single performance, Lauren Bacall’s legacy is the epitome of a kind of sexuality which differed significantly from the “bombshell” variety, which so often leaves little to the imagination.  If one may use such a phrase in connection with a great performer, Lauren Bacall was the definition of “smoking hot”.  From the first time she slinks onscreen in “To Have and Have Not”, asks, “Anybody got a match?”, and lights a cigarette, if you were a thinking man, or even just a man with a pulse, she had you hooked.

Lauren Bacall was beautiful, she was sassy, and she had a voice like a purring lioness – a generation later she would have made a great Catwoman –  but she was also smart.  She was a woman who was not going to let you get away with anything, just because you happened to be a man and she happened to be at a loose end at the moment.  She expected you not to take her or yourself for granted, but to be the best part of yourself, knowing when to be a man and take charge, and when to hold back and give her some room.

With Bacall’s passing, there are very few actresses left from the old studio system days: Olivia de Haviland, Maureen O’Hara, and a few others are still with us, but they have not acted in years.  Bacall however, was working almost up until the end, her husky voice still possessing the ability to set men’s hearts a-flutter.  She was probably the last of the great, smoldering film seductresses from the era of our grandparents to leave us.

So henceforth it will be our duty, gentlemen, to not only show the kids things like Bugs Bunny cartoons, since no one else will, but also to explain to them that they’ll find out who “Baby” was…when they’re a little bit older.

Lauren Bacall in "To Have and Have Not" (1944)

Lauren Bacall in “To Have and Have Not” (1944)

 

You Must Remember This: Meaning and Pop Culture Relics

The recent re-discovery of a Hollywood treasure once presumed lost, and an item up for sale in an upcoming auction of movieland memorabilia, have set the film world a-buzz.  Tara, the mythical home of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind”, was not a real place, but the stage set that was built for the 1939 film certainly was: in fact, it has been sitting in pieces in a barn in Georgia for decades, awaiting restoration.  Meanwhile, this November Bonham’s auction house in New York will be selling off a private collection of Hollywood history, which includes the piano on which Dooley Wilson played “As Time Goes By” in the 1942 classic “Casablanca” for Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart.

It may seem curious that these pop culture objects of little intrinsic value carry such excitement, when they come to light in news stories or auction catalogues.  After all, hundreds of movies, concerts, and sporting events take place every year, and the vast majority of them are quickly forgotten, the detritus of their production disappearing into basements or scrap heaps.  There is no museum containing the cast-off socks of basketball players from the 1982 Philadelphia 76’ers, so far as I am aware.  And even if such a thing still exists, I cannot imagine that there is a huge market for anyone to own something like Robin Williams’ furry hat from 1982’s “Moscow on the Hudson”.

The survival of any pop culture item often depends on who is entrusted with its care.  Somewhere in one of her jewelry boxes my mother has an old, yellowed lace handkerchief of her mother’s.  Back in the 1940’s, grandmother had gone to see the legendary Spanish bullfighter Manolete work his blood-stained magic in Barcelona.  Manolete was a handsome, hugely popular figure in Spain after the Civil War, who drew crowds of admirers because of his very reserved technique and persona, in which he never made a show of himself to the crowds, as had many bullfighters both before and after him.

My grandmother, being a very elegant and beautiful lady, happened to draw the matador’s gaze when he entered the ring, and she gave him her handkerchief to carry during the fight, an echo of the Medieval tradition of courtly love and carrying your lady’s favor into battle.  After his successful dispatch of the bull that day, he returned the handkerchief to my grandmother, who of course kept it as a relic afterwards.  It was an object which became the more precious after Manolete was killed in 1947 at the age of 30, when he was gored by a bull during a fight in Andalusia.

Why do we hold on to these relics of past popular entertainments?   One very obvious reason is that of trying to preserve our memories.  As we grow older, to be able to draw out some piece of ephemera which reminds us of another time, is to have a bittersweet way of remembering who we are and where we came from.  This is something which human beings seem particularly keen on doing: one does not see birds flying about carrying bits of previous nests, or snakes dragging their old skins along with them as they slither through the underbrush, each reflecting back to a time when they were just hatchlings.

However that sense of a personal, infused meaning which encapsulates part of who a person was at a particular point in their life does not last forever.  Grandmother could pull out that old, stained handkerchief in her declining years, and remember back to a time when she was the belle of the ball.  After her death, her daughter could do the same, calling to mind her glamorous mother and telling the story of that handkerchief to her own children.

Yet the significance of such an object changes, as it goes forward in time.  Today Manolete is merely a name, the bullring where he fought has been converted into a shopping mall, and long-departed grandmother is the haughty grand dame whose portrait gazes confidently back at the viewer above the piano in her daughter’s living room.  The relic of the lady and the bullfighter will retain a personal value for the descendants of the lady who owned it, only for so long as an interest in her life remains.  After that, the value will either disappear entirely, or it will change to become that which may be ascribed to something once touched by a famous person.

At that point, grandmother’s handkerchief becomes no different from Scarlett’s home or Sam’s piano.  The people who lived through the experience of that particular entertainment are no longer around to provide context or personal meaning for these objects.  Vivien Leigh and Dooley Wilson have been gone for decades, and as each year passes, fewer and fewer people directly connected to the making of either “Gone With the Wind” or “Casablanca” remain.  So while we may admire the achievements of those who made and worked with such things, we are rapidly reaching a point where we will not have any personal connection with them.

This is why pop culture relics often survive to go on into a kind of materialist afterlife.  Long after the people who are associated with them have shuffled off this mortal coil, we can tell the stories of who they were and what they meant to our culture, by looking to those objects which once meant something to them.  Thus, while there may be no significant monetary value in something like an old, upright piano, appreciation of that piano’s significance to popular culture far outweighs the monetary worth of the object.  Whatever becomes of grandmother’s handkerchief, I certainly hope we may yet get to see Tara rebuilt, and Sam’s piano sitting in pride of place at a public institution.

Sam Dooley, Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from "Casablanca" (1942)

Dooley Wilson, Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from “Casablanca” (1942)