"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: Mike Fox

More than Somewhat (Raymond Onion)

From my dear friend Mike Fox in London comes this on Damon Runyon:

“Raymond Onion”

I was about ten or eleven-years-old when I read my first book by Damon Runyon. It was called Johnny One-Eye. I’ve only just learned that it was a short-story first published in Colliers Magazine in 1941. The book that I read in the late Forties, titled Johnny One-Eye, was a one-inch thick hard-cover in black rexine, and I have always thought it was complete novel. However, the facts being the facts, it must have been a compilation of Runyon’s work.

Normally, at that time of my life, I rarely read books. I blame my school for that: stuffing young kids’ heads full of Shakespeare, George Eliot, and the Brontës. Whenever I tried a book, I put it aside after a few boring chapters, thinking that I just didn’t like books (rather than comics and magazines). I was yet to realise that, simply, I hadn’t yet read anything of personal interest to me written in everyday language that I could understand.

Johnny One-Eye, I remember, had sat on my bedroom mantelpiece over the fireplace for many months. It was my mother’s book, taken out from Boots the Chemists Lending Library at probably sixpence (5c) per week. Obviously, being above such things, my mother never bothered to return it. Again, I seem to remember, I may have had a dose of the ‘flu at the time, enough to keep me in bed for a day or two, and it was then most likely that I reached for the book and read it – and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I can honestly say that it was Johnny One-Eye, and later, Tomboy, a junk paperback about New York City street gangs (then controversial but of some note as a ‘first’ today), that my older sister had just finished, which set me to reading to the extent that reading is something I’m almost addicted to today. I became a dedicated reader as a young teenager.

Last week, on researching Johnny One-Eye, I found that more than a few of its present day book reviewers are disseminating an error in describing its plot. They state that Johnny One-Eye was a dog, when in fact it (he) was a kitten. They have mistakenly taken as their source the eponymous 1950 Pat O’Brien film, whose producers made the change from cat to dog for reasons known only to them and Damon Runyon, who was duly screen-credited for Story.

For me, the remarkable thing about Runyon was that his all-American characters pretty much described my father, his friends, and cohorts from the large community of Jewish spielers in the East End of London, where my father was born. A course bookmaker, my dad would take me along to visit his friends on the other side of town on occasional Sundays, to watch him and them all sitting round a blanket-covered table, drinking whisky and smoking havanas, playing rummy for money with a double-deck of cards. Better than that, my dad would take me for lunch at any one of a dozen fine kosher delis and restaurants where I wolfed down dishes of lockshen soup, plates of salt-beef and latkes, chrane, pickled cucumbers and rye bread – and we’d carry home cholas and hot beigels and the greatest cheese-cake I’ve ever tasted in my life. (Note: British Jews say ‘byegul’ unlike the American ‘baygul’. Why? I couldn’t tell you. Similarly: shmairil and schlemiel; shmock and schmuk; salt-beef and corned beef; smoked salmon and lox.)

So, I actually knew Harry the Horse, Benny the Blond Jew, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, the Lemon Drop Kid, et al, long before I introduced myself to Runyon.

Why I loved Runyon on my first reading was much more about his language, his scrupulous use of the present tense, and his characters rather than his plots. In fact I didn’t care for his ‘normally’ written work about non-Broadway subjects much at all. But I’m sure that if I read them now, as an adult, I’d like them; probably very much. Sadly, I learned not too long ago that Runyon was a noted anti-Semite. I’m sure that was a hard thing to be in a Jewish town like New York peopled by characters he wrote about that were almost certainly and mainly Jewish. How could they not be? Never mind all that, I love Runyon and his Broadway, and like The Pat Hobby Stories, I go back to them again and again when I feel enough time has passed for me to enjoy them anew.

So, to answer your question: with Runyon (and Pat Hobby) I have no favourites. The whole of them, taken together, is my favourite, just like my kids.

From your ever-lovin’

Oink!

PS: A poignant little story about my pre-teen reading.

When I was about nine-years-old I somehow came into possession of a Bugs Bunny comic. This was rare because in the immediate post-war period Britain was pretty much bankrupt and anything imported was severely restricted to the necessities. Every dollar was needed to pay our huge war-debt to the United States. I loved Warner Bros. cartoons because they were the very best, and because they had Mel Blanc. At the end of the Bugs Bunny comic was a little ad offering a year’s subscription for a dollar (if I remember right). Now, it happens I actually had a US dollar coin that a very kind Canadian serviceman lodging in one of our flats had given me. So I cut out the ad, filled in my address, dropped in the dollar coin and posted it off to an address in Poughkeepsie (I’ve never forgotten the name). Sure enough, weeks later, a copy of Bugs Bunny dropped through our letter-box and continued doing so for one year. Only as an adult did I realise what a very kind gesture this was. The air mail costs must have eaten up any profit to the publishers after just a couple of weeks. I find that very, very touching, and now you know why I love America.

 

Par Avion

I got a package in the mail a few days ago from my friend in London. He sent books. And a letter.

I mean, talk about making my week. How cool is it to get an actual letter never mind British editions of American books? Hot damn.

Million Dollar Movie

Over at 70mm, please check out this piece on the shooting of Lawrence of Arabia by my dear friend Mike Fox.

The Goon Show: A Love Story

 

Mike Fox on "The Africa Project," 1966

In the fall of 1984, my brother, sister and I met Mike Fox, one of my dad’s old friends. My sister and I were thirteen. A few months later, Mike and I started a correspondence that continues to this day. Here’s his first letter to me.

ll

Million Dollar Movie

Check out this appreciation of Lumet from my friend Mike Fox, a British cameraman who worked on the second unit of “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Lord Jim,” was was the camera operator on “Hope and Glory” and “Dangerous Liasons”:

I never had the privilege of working with Sidney Luemt, though close friends of mine did (on “The Deadly Affair”) when he was making films here. They liked him a lot.

I find it very difficult to place Lumet into any kind of genre, his films were so varied in content and technique. But his early brilliance was beyond the merest shadow of a doubt. “12 Angry Men” still stands even after all these years as the faultless paradigm for a one-set movie. (Hitchcock’s “Rope”, years before, failed miserably trying this.) How to analyse the success of “12 Angry Men”? God knows. Reginald Rose’s faultless screenplay; incredible casting; immaculate direction; atmospherics; credibility… I could go on. (One of the film’s many claims to distinction, according to Henry Fonda in various talk shows, was that it never returned its negative cost. In fact, I don’t believe this. United Artists – who bankrolled Woody Allen for years purely for the prestige it gave them – were one of the better regarded distributors, but they still used Hollywood’s notoriously bent accounting methods. On paper, distributors there could prove with ease, and did, that pictures like “Avatar” and “Titanic” actually lost them a great deal of money – thus relieving them of having to pay out contracted royalties to all and sundry.)

“Dog Day Afternoon” also broke new ground. Wonderfully made, and introducing Al Pacino as a young and remarkable actor (Marty Bregman’s protégée), whose performance was outstanding. (Pity he’s become a parody of himself, today much more a star than he was once an actor. It’s what Hollywood hype and big money does to talented actors.) And “Serpico” also deserves, at least, an honourable mention. But what always amazed me was “The Hill”. This subject was so British and Lumet’s direction so insightful, so perceptive, of all too typical British mores and class prejudices – embedded, double-distilled, into the British army – that I could barely believe that an American director could zero-in so accurately to their many British and very subtle dysfunctions. But Lumet did, and brilliantly so.

Having said all that: how can one pontificate on the work of a director who was so prolific; whose works were sometimes so great and sometimes so disappointing (“The Wiz”; “Gloria”–why a remake of a Cassavetes original done so well?; “Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots”). Of course, great creators must be allowed to fail. Even so, one always expected more and better from Lumet. And yet his better always tended to be of a type: New York, crime, cops, corruption, injustice, human weakness. So what. I know of directors pretending to greater talent who would give a kidney to have Lumet’s list of credits.

I guess if one had to sum up Sidney Lumet, one could do so by looking at the record: the film of his that was, run-away, the most deserving of 1958’s Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director was “12 Angry Men”. But it came up against David Lean and his “The Bridge On the River Kwai”, and they pissed it. Uncompromising art against hard-headed commercialism (gratuitously casting an almost redundant William Holden for American audiences). Lumet never ‘won’ and Academy Award, though he was honoured with one for his lifetime achievements.

It was great to have known Sidney Lumet – even if, personally, at second-hand. Without doubt, the movie industry was made a far better place for his presence.

[Picture by Gary Roberts]

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver