The Girl With the Novocaine Lip

When I was a kid in the ‘60s there was a science-fiction horror show called THE OUTER LIMITS (Stephen King has since called it “the best show of its kind ever on TV”).  One of the episodes was entitled “The Guests.”  It was about a drifter who stumbles into an old Victorian house where the residents never grow old.  If they try to leave, they age rapidly and turn to dust.  One of the “guests” is a Norma Desmond-like silent film actress who pathetically clings to the idea she’s still a star.  In one particular scene, she slithers over to the drifter, gives him a peck on the lips, and says, “I had to do that.  It was my madcap heart.”  There’s a slight pause.  Then, “’My Madcap Heart’ was the name of my first bad picture.  Did you think I was sincere?”  At that moment I became smitten with Gloria Grahame.

Going back a few more years, to the late ‘40s and ‘50s: a style of film emerged in Hollywood that is today called “film noir” (“noir” being French for “dark”).  These films were much more downbeat and cynical than the buoyant adventures, musicals, and romances that proliferated until the end of WW2.  They were B&W crime pictures that usually featured a hard-boiled detective and a tough, sassy “dame.”  The cameras made heavy use of shadows, cigarette smoke, rain-soaked city streets, and train yards.  Most film noirs were low-budget ‘B’ movies featuring actors generally unrecognized today except by hardcore film buffs.  A few ‘A’ movies included DOUBLE INDEMNITY (Barbara Stanwyck), THE BIG SLEEP (Bogart and Bacall), and TOUCH OF EVIL (Orson Welles).  If you’ve ever seen Leslie Nielsen in the hilarious NAKED GUN series, well, film noir is what those comedies are spoofing.

Mention the name Gloria Grahame to any male film noir buff and he’ll hyperventilate and gush “Ahhh yes…the girl with the novocaine lip!”  Grahame is today considered one of the queens of film noir.  She only made about eight noirs, but they are some of the best and most beloved of the genre.  Grahame was somewhat ahead of her time.  Her looks and acting had a sleaziness closer to today’s femme fatales.  There was always a hint of the forbidden about her.  I’ll put it bluntly: she oozed sex.

She also made a number of movies outside of film noir.  Her most visible roles were as town flirt Violet Bick in the Christmas classic IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE starring Jimmy Stewart; and as plucky Ado Annie Carnes in the film version of OKLAHOMA!  The last-named was made in 1955 and is responsible for driving Grahame’s movie career to a halt.  Not so much because she was tone deaf, couldn’t sing, and was miscast in a family musical, but because her truculent behavior (she crushed the cowboy hat of a co-star) pissed off everyone on the set.  The word went out that Grahame was “difficult,” and producers and directors stayed away.

But there were a couple other reasons her career dried up.  One was her boisterous private life.  She had four stormy marriages and divorces.  She is also rumored to have slept with her 14-year-old stepson (they later married and had two kids – after he turned 21!).  She also had a series of surgeries on her mouth and chin to make herself look sexier – long before plastic surgery became fashionable.  During one operation in Germany, the doctor accidentally severed a nerve, rendering her upper lip immobile and earning her the sobriquet that titles this essay.  Needless to say, Hollywood distanced itself even further from her.

In the ‘60s and early ‘70s Grahame popped up occasionally on popular television shows – like THE OUTER LIMITS – usually portraying a washed-up actress or conniving stepmother.  She had some cameo film roles in the ‘70s, as well as leading roles in drive-in exploitation trash with titles like MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS and MANSION OF THE DOOMED.  She also did a lot of stage work (her first love).  Grahame died in 1981 from complications due to breast cancer.

November 28 (tomorrow) is her birthday, and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is honoring her by showing a bunch of her movies.  So those of you unfamiliar with Gloria Grahame, and who can access TCM, can see why longitudes is making such a fuss.  If you can only see a few movies, on TCM or elsewhere, I recommend CROSSFIRE (Robert Mitchum), IN A LONELY PLACE (Humphrey Bogart), and THE BIG HEAT (Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin).  All three are not only excellent examples of film noir, but my girlfriend Gloria is at her absolute best.  I’ll allow you to feast your eyes for a while.  Just don’t get too close.

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The First Thanksgiving

This Thursday, November 22, Americans will get together with family and friends to celebrate the national holiday Thanksgiving.  It’s a day associated with a feast of roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.  Oh yes, and televised football games.  American schoolchildren will learn about the Pilgrims, religious dissenters from England who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, and who shared a table with friendly, benevolent Native Americans.

Thanksgiving is many Americans’ favorite holiday, because it’s all about family, food, and football (not necessarily in that order).  But there are not surprisingly a lot of myths about the Plymouth colonists and the original day of thanks in 1621.  This is my feeble attempt to “set the record straight.”  My sources are the book “The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony” by James and Patricia Deetz; and a 1621 letter written by Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow to a friend in England.  His letter is the only contemporary eyewitness description of what took place that first Thanksgiving:

  • Although the colonists originally came from England, most had been living in religiously tolerant Leiden, Holland for 12 years before arriving in Plymouth on the Mayflower.
  • The Mayflower made first landing on the northern tip of Cape Cod in November 1620.  The passengers didn’t transfer to the mainland (eventual Plymouth Colony) until a month later.
  • The original feast took place over three days, and probably occurred during harvest time, which would have been September, or early October at the latest.
  • Over 90 Wampanoag Indians and about 50 Pilgrims attended the feast, including Chief Massasoit, and Governor William Bradford.
  • Turkey was undoubtedly not the main course.  It was more likely ducks or geese killed by the Pilgrims, and later on venison shared by the Indians.
  • There is no evidence in Winslow’s account that the Pilgrims offered a formal “thanks.”  He merely mentions that “by the goodness of God” they were “far from want.”  The feast was more likely continuation of an English custom of celebrating harvest time.
  • The descriptor “pilgrim” for the colonists was first used in a sermon delivered in Plymouth in the 1790s.  And until the early 20th century, the term was used in a generic sense and spelled with a lowercase “p.”  The Plymouth settlers called themselves “Separatists” or “Saints” (religious dissenters), “Strangers” (those unmotivated by religion but seeking a new life), “Old Comers,” “Old Planters,” and “Planters.”
  • Thanksgiving as a holiday wasn’t established until 1863, when President Lincoln designated the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.  In 1941 Congress changed this to the last Thursday of the month.
  • The Plymouth colonists were not the first English to settle in the New World.  That would be the Jamestown settlers of 1607, who were driven by mercantilism rather than religion.
  • The Plymouth colonists were not immune to those vices quite familiar to modern-day Americans: rape, incest, buggery, bigamy, domestic abuse, adultery, and murder are described in detail in original colonial records.

Oh, and one other thing: the colonists did not watch American football on television on the first Thanksgiving.  If they had, however, they would have certainly cheered for Detroit to win and Dallas to lose.

Have a Happy and Healthy Thanksgiving!

90-Year-Old Marathon Man

Last weekend I ran the Marshall University Marathon in Huntington, West Virginia.  Competing in marathons is a fun hobby that I’ve been doing for years.  Running distances makes me feel good about myself, mentally and physically, and I also enjoy traveling and meeting interesting people.

In Huntington I was lucky enough to hear a talk by Mike Fremont of Cincinnati, Ohio.  Believe it or not, Mike is 90 years old and is still running marathons! (to put this into perspective for those who may not know, a full running “marathon” is 26.2 miles, or 42.2 kilometers).  Mike started running to deal with stress and depression after being widowed with three kids when he was 35.  Then when he was 69 he contracted colon and rectal cancer.  Facing a death sentence, he switched to an all-plant diet.  His cancer eventually disappeared and hasn’t returned.  And he hasn’t had a cold in 10 years (he takes no vitamin or mineral supplements).  Though long-retired, Mike does a lot of volunteering, including starting a foundation to clean Ohio’s rivers.

Last August Mike set a world record in the half-marathon.  At Huntington, he finished the full marathon in approximately 6 hours and 30 minutes, setting an American record (really, how many other 90-year-old marathoners are there?!).  Congratulations Mike!

Mike attributes his longevity and athleticism to his vegan diet.  There’s nothing wrong with golf or fishing or bridge.  But Mike defies the idea that retirement means low or no-aerobic activities.  He’s fit, mentally sharp, and happy.  He’s a pretty inspiring guy.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get to vegan stage.  But after meeting Mike Fremont, I’ll be eating even more bean soup and leaf spinach!

U.S. Election 2012

The results of the 2012 U.S. presidential election are in.  Just a few thoughts before moving on to a more subdued topic.

This was the most expensive election in history.  According to the non-partisan Center for Responsible Politics, the presidential and congressional campaigns raised a total of $6 billion – $700 million more than the previous record in 2008.  This thanks in part to an abominable Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that said that government restriction of political expenditures from individuals, corporations, and labor unions was a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (popularly known as the “right to free speech”).  Why Super PACS (Political Action Committees) being allowed to dump millions into the candidate of their choice is considered “speech” is a question for the ages.  Regardless, all that money shifted just a few seats in the House and Senate.

President Barack Obama won election to a second four-year term, while Democrats gained some seats in the Senate, which they control, and also in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.  Obama was handed an awful mess in 2008, and in four years he did an extraordinary job of putting the U.S. back on track, while facing unrelenting hostility and vitriol.  The housing market is stabilizing; unemployment is still high but down to the level of when he took office; the Iraq debacle is over; we’re winding down in Afghanistan.  His signature achievements were killing Osama Bin Laden and stifling terrorism, rescuing the U.S. auto industry, and the historic passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), designed to enable countless Americans access to quality, affordable health care (and is not the “government takeover” claimed by his critics – there’s not even a “public option”).  And we finally have a leader who isn’t timid about pushing for green energy.

But America is still at roughly 8 percent unemployment, there is still a large budget deficit, and there are still tax and immigration dilemmas.  The president needs to find a way to bridge the gap with stubborn Republican House members, who have signed a “pledge” not to raise taxes – even on the wealthiest Americans.  And Republicans will want Dems to address entitlements.  House majority leader John Boehner has promised his GOP members will work with the president to somehow find compromise, which is a good sign.  We’ll see.

The election was a resounding victory for Democrats and a thundering disappointment to Republicans.  If the GOP is going to maintain viability in the 21st century, it will need to embrace a changing demographic, one that includes blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, gays, young voters, and women.  It will also need to re-examine its ideologies.  Is active government necessarily “big government,” or can it improve the lives of Americans?  Is regulation of business and industry such a dirty word?

If the economy continues to improve and the president can somehow find common ground with an intransigent Congress – and this country can stay out of another war – I think history will view Obama’s presidency with kindness. 

Forward.