Monthly Archives: October 2023

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Happy Halloween 2023!

Check out this post on Facebook and the “reel” videos here and here.

Orson Welles and “The War of the Worlds” 85

I have long had an enormous fascination with H. G. Wells‘s 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds and its many adaptations, from board games, video games, comic books, and musicals to six different television series and four films—including my absolute favorite, the classic George Pal-produced 1953 version starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, who make a cameo appearance at the end of the more graphic 2005 Steven Spielberg version.

But it was on this date that Orson Welles provided a shocking radio adaptation whose cultural impact has only been magnified in the 85 years since it first aired. On October 30, 1938, between the hours of 8 and 9 pm (ET), the CBS Radio Network presented a Mercury Theater on the Air dramatization of this sci-fi classic, recrafting it as a real-time broadcast with news interruptions that informed the audience of an unfolding, horrifying crisis in New Jersey. Alas, some folks tuned in a little late and didn’t realize that this was not news—fake or otherwise. They had no idea that the invasion from Mars was pure fiction.

It has been said that in the depths of the Great Depression and with an ever-present memory of the high casualties and slaughter of a World War, many Americans looked on world events with both caution and concern. In March of 1938, Hitler had annexed Austria. At the beginning of October, just days after British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had declared “Peace for Our Time,” Hitler moved into Sudetenland, Bohemia, and Czechoslovakia. Perhaps more than a few people were a bit ‘jumpy’ given the tenor of the times.

Still, there has been much debate as to how widespread the panic was to this broadcast. Newspapers hyped a nationwide meltdown the next day and the tale has been retold so many times that it has taken on a life of its own. It seems clear, however, that more than a few people were alarmed. The event has been immortalized as a demonstration of the power of a relatively new social medium. Today, as media has expanded exponentially from radio and television to streaming platforms and the Internet, we are more aware than ever of its power to provoke anger, frustration, and fear.

Whatever its impact, the broadcast itself—especially as it unfolds in its first 20-30 minutes—is quite a listen. Though Orson Welles’s introduction clearly states that this is a dramatization, you wouldn’t know it from the minutes that follow. As we’re enjoying the dance music of Ramón Raquello and His Orchestra from the Park Plaza Hotel’s Meridian Room, there’s an interruption from Intercontinental Radio News telling us of explosions on the planet Mars, with objects “moving toward Earth with enormous velocity”. Our program of dance music—that of Raquello and of Bobby Millet and His Orchestra at the Hotel Martinet in Brooklyn—is interrupted continuously by special news reports. Most concerning is the one coming out of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, where an odd-looking ‘meteor’ has slammed into a local farm. The horrors that unfold in the ‘eyewitness’ report of what is apparently a Martian attack have a similar tone to the live radio newscast of the May 1937 Hindenburg tragedy [YouTube link], as that craft, engulfed in flames, crashed to the grounds of Lakehurst, New Jersey. Boy, New Jersey, you’ve got all the luck, from a German dirigible disaster in 1937 and a Martian invasion in 1938 to Snooki on the Shore and the Real Housewives both crashing into our culture in 2009! Damn!

In any event, for those who have never heard this broadcast, try to suspend your twenty-first century sophistication for a little while and check out this iconic moment of Halloween-eve history [YouTube link].

Roman Empire Obsession?

Back in September, I’d seen all sorts of memes about men’s alleged obsession with the Roman Empire. The New York Times reported on September 15th: “The Roman Empire began in 27 B.C. and fell in A.D. 476. And in A.D. 2023, it went viral on TikTok.”

Well, I’m not on TikTok, but found the whole thing ridiculous. Then I remembered that as an 8-year old kid, I so loved the movie “The Robe“, and particularly Jay Robinson‘s insane portrait of the Emperor Caligula. Till this day, I can recite his dialogue in the final scene of that 1953 Cinemascope classic by heart! In 1968, I even dressed up as Caligula for Halloween (pic below). Passing fad!

(That photo is taken in front of the “stoop” of my Yaya’s house at the time. Currently, my Aunt Mary is still living there at the age of 101!)

But, uh, over the years, I have collected books and movies and figurines, and, uh … well …

A lively discussion can be found on Facebook here. In it, I made the following remarks ….

On the meme:

Clearly I’m poking a bit of fun at this. Fortunately, none of us is defined by any single interest. I also have a lifelong fascination with horror films, sci fi, Hitchcock, film noir, The Honeymooners, and The Godfather… but I haven’t seen any memes on all that!

And on “The Robe”:

I loved both “The Robe” and “Demetrius and the Gladiators“. The first time I saw “The Robe”, it was broadcast on Easter weekend on the ABC network (March 26, 1967), with only one commercial interruption.

But here’s a cinematic footnote. When “The Robe” was filmed, it was shot in both standard ratio and Cinemascope formats. The version that I grew up with was the standard ratio. There are distinct differences not only in camera angles but also in dialogue, because most of the scenes were filmed TWICE. It’s long been said that the “flat” or standard ratio version is the better acted one. I have a VHS copy of it, which was taped off the AMC network (when George Clooney’s dad, Nick, was hosting). I subsequently transferred it to DVD.

When “The Robe” was officially released on DVD and restored for Blu-Ray, it was the Cinemascope version. I was amazed by the richness of the color, but SHOCKED at the differences in the dialogue. As I said above, I can recite that last scene in the film, practically word-for-word, down to the intonation of the actors. DRAMATICALLY DIFFERENT in the Cinemascope version. Alas, though they have a frame-within-a-frame comparison on the Blu-Ray version, they have never released the standard ratio version of the film, which is sad.

They knew the film was going to be a money-maker, because they finished filming its sequel the very month that “The Robe” was released (September 1953). They were both huge box office hits.

Here’s a link comparing the two versions of “The Robe”.

I was asked in the Facebook discussion why I didn’t identify with the Richard Burton character in “The Robe”; I replied:

Oh, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I didn’t identify with Caligula.

I definitely identified with the heroism of Burton’s character. It was a very inspiring story, and just as inspiring in its sequel, which picked up from the last frames of “The Robe.” In fact, I knew by heart all of Burton’s lines in his “trial” in the finale of “The Robe”.

While “The Robe” is of course faith-centered, there is something universally appealing about a Roman tribune who rose through the ranks due to his family’s connections, and was known as a “womanizer” and “drunkard”. He didn’t know what it was to be a “man of honor”, as his father implored him to be before he is shipped off to Jerusalem, by Caligula’s decree. “Perhaps there will be amusement in being a man of honor,” he tells his father.

Before too long, he is the tribune in charge of the crucifxion of Jesus and hammers the nails into the man to whose principles he later commits himself. His transformation into a man of honor who lives by those principles—and is willing to die for them—remains inspirational on the face of it.

It’s not without some irony that Ayn Rand alluded to the inspirational elements of “The Robe”. She wrote in a letter to Ross Baker: “A book expert in New York told me that the biggest fiction sellers of all times (and the surest recipe for a bestseller) have always been religious novels with a good story (‘Ben-Hur’, ‘Quo Vadis?’, ‘The Robe’)–and that ‘The Fountainhead’ is a religious novel [insofar as] it gives to . . . readers . . . a sense of faith, courage and moral uplift.”

Still, regarding Caligula, I was fascinated by Robinson’s unhinged rantings. At 7 years old, it was probably the most theatrical, over-the-top performance I’d ever seen. Caligula was never anyone I looked up to! Just a very colorful character who amused me, to say the least.

There have been other fine actors who have portrayed Caligula—most notably John Hurt in “I, Claudius“, who brought humor and terror to the role. Malcolm McDowell was equally unsettling in the 1979 X-rated rendering, “Caligula” (though I was barely of age to see it). But Robinson was the first to define the role on screen.

Interestingly, there was a 1937 Josef von Sternberg-directed adaptation of “I, Claudius,” which was never finished. It was the subject of a documentary called “The Epic That Never Was”, and starred Charles Laughton as Claudius and Emlyn Williams as Caligula. It had quite a cast (including Flora Robson and Merle Oberon). Some nice footage of the film can be found in that documentary, which is on YouTube for free [YouTube link]. It’s narrated by Dirk Bogarde.

Check out more information on the stillborn 1937 film.

Modernizing Aristotle’s Ethics

I want to take this opportunity to highlight a new book by Roger Bissell and Vinay Kolhatkar: Modernizing Aristotle’s Ethics: Toward a New Art and Science of Self-Actualization (Ethics Press, 2023). As I state in a promotional blurb: “This book is an accessible and well-written contribution to the neo-Aristotelian tradition, upholding the twin values of human freedom and personal flourishing. The authors present a provocative distillation of ideas drawn from a mighty array of interdisciplinary studies. Even those who disagree with any aspect of this work will find themselves challenged by the high quality of its arguments. A must read especially for fans of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Ayn Rand.”

Praise has come from others as well:

Modernizing Aristotle’s Ethics takes applied eudaimonism along roads less travelled, by way of Ayn Rand, David Norton, Chris Sciabarra, and Den Uyl and Rasmussen. With extended visits to Abraham Maslow’s humanistic psychology, Nathaniel Branden’s clinical philosophy, some varieties of evolutionary psychology, and Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory. Bissell and Kolhatkar develop an accessible account of a humane, meaningful life that is significantly different both from Positive Psychology and from previous Randian treatments. Their model of four orders of humaneness is worthy of further examination.” – Robert L. Campbell

“Roger Bissell and Vinay Kolhatkar have a great appreciation for Aristotle, which comes across clearly even as they also seek to modernize those elements of Aristotle’s work where later developments in physical or social science call for it. The book is well-researched but easily accessible to the general reader. The result gives them a plausible way to construct a theory of how to live a meaningful and humane life.” – Aeon J. Skoble

“In this ambitious and well-argued book, Bissell and Kolhatkar provide a clear and coherent framework within which they have adapted and expanded upon ideas from Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Ayn Rand, and several contemporary neo-Aristotelian thinkers. The authors have accomplished this while also marvelously and systematically integrating insights from philosophy, biology, psychology, and other social sciences and humanities.”- Edward W Younkins

“Any person seeking advice about how to live his or her life has a huge number of books to choose from, but Modernizing Aristotle’s Ethics is one of a small number that can credibly claim to build upon Aristotle’s wisdom. Roger Bissell and Vinay Kolhatkar offer a distinctly Neo-Aristotelian view of what it means to live well in the 21st century.” – Winton Bates

My congratulations to both Vinay and Roger!

An Ongoing Tragedy

Violence and warfare have been a part of the human condition for millennia. But in a world consumed by hateful tribalism and balkanization, we are robbed of the very foundation upon which any peace, freedom, and human flourishing must be built. My heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones and whose lives remain in jeopardy due to the ongoing tragedies in the Middle East.

The Charlton Heston Centenary

One hundred years ago, on October 4, 1923, actor Charlton Heston was born. This Wednesday, October 4, 2023, starting at 6 am (ET), Turner Classic Movies is celebrating that centenary with a full 24+ hours of Heston films, and will continue to highlight his filmography on Wednesday nights in October.

Here, my focus is not on Heston’s political journey, whether in his role as President of the Screen Actors Guild or in his commitment to Civil Rights (he was among those Hollywood stars who joined Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1963 March on Washington) or in his commitment to Gun Rights as NRA President (famously holding above his head a replica of a flintlock long rifle and declaring “From My Cold Dead Hands!”). I have long believed that while it’s always important to understand an artist’s creative work in the context of their life, it is both proper and necessary to evaluate the creation quite apart from the creator. As I have written:

It’s a hermeneutical truth, as Paul Ricoeur would have emphasized, that every creation is “detached from its author and develops consequences of its own. In so doing, it transcends its relevance to its initial situation and addresses an indefinite range of possible readers.” Every time any creation—be it a book, idea, or artwork—enters the world, it leaves the domain of the creator and begins to speak to countless individuals in myriad ways. And every time each of us, as “readers”, is exposed to that creation, our response to it remains deeply personal, profoundly entwined with our own emotions and life experiences. And that is as it should be.

In that spirit, here, my focus is on Heston’s creative output—his films—and what they have meant to me.

Heston has played a veritable Who’s Who of iconic figures, including El Cid, Michelangelo, John the Baptist, Sir Thomas More, Buffalo Bill, and Moses, as well as two appearances each as Andrew Jackson, Mark Antony, and Cardinal Richelieu. He appeared in a remarkable variety of film genres—Film noir: from “Dark City” to the Orson Welles classic, “Touch of Evil”; Adventure: from “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “The Naked Jungle” to “Secret of the Incas”, which served as the inspiration for “Raiders of the Lost Ark”; Westerns: from William Wyler’s “The Big Country” and Sam Peckinpah’s “Major Dundee” to “Will Penny”; Historical Epics, including Khartoum and 55 Days at Peking; Biblically-inspired Epics: “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur”; Sci-Fi: “The Omega Man,” “Soylent Green,” and the Rod Serling-penned “Planet of the Apes”; and Disaster films: “Skyjacked”, “Airport 1975”, and “Earthquake,” which I saw in theaters, in Sensuround! He also made his mark on television—from the 1949 anthology series, “Suspense”, to his tenure as Jason Colby on “Dynasty” and “The Colbys” in the 1980s … not to mention a stint as host of “Saturday Night Live” (after being parodied so well by Phil Hartman).

Heston was not a Method Actor. His style harked back to a more classical mode, lending itself to stoic, authoritative, and theatrical performances often perfectly suited to those “larger than life” characters for which he was noted. He had presence on the screen. Nevertheless, it has become quite fashionable to dismiss Heston as a “ham” and to label all his performances as “stiff”, “bellicose”, or “over the top”. Certainly, some of the films in which he’s appeared have themselves been marked by theatricality. “The Ten Commandments”, for example, features dialogue that is often archaic and scriptural, cast against a sprawling canvas. But once you’ve seen Chuck Heston part the Red Sea, can you really think of any other actors who could have lifted that staff and uttered those biblical lines with the same majesty? I’ve seen some fine actors portray Moses—Christian Bale, Burt Lancaster, Ben Kingsley—but, quite frankly, they all pale in comparison.

Whereas DeMille’s final film was his grandest, three years later, Heston would appear in the film that would bring him a Best Actor Oscar. Unlike the costume epics of yore, “Ben-Hur” (1959), directed by William Wyler, is often credited as the first contemporary “intimate epic”, insofar as it never sacrifices the development of its characters to the colossal backdrop against which their struggles play out. It’s my all-time favorite film, one that I’ve written about extensively over the years.

For Me, It’s Personal …

The first film I ever saw Heston in was “Planet of the Apes”, as an 8-year-old kid at the local “Highway Theater” in what is still my Brooklyn neighborhood—though the movie house is long gone. In later years, when I read critiques of Heston as having “overacted” in this film, I was puzzled. Given that the character he plays, an astronaut, Col. George Taylor, has crash-landed on a planet that is itself a “madhouse”—an upside down, inside out world populated by intelligent apes and non-speaking people, in an unfolding nightmare about the frightening paradoxes of human existence—well, I’m not quite sure how differently the role could have been played by any actor. In the closing moments of that film, when Taylor discovers a horrific sight on a deserted beach in the “Forbidden Zone”, he falls to his knees and pounds his fist into the sand, howling: “Damn you! Goddamn you all to hell!” I can’t help but ask: How exactly would a Method Actor have made this scene and those lines any more chilling than the way it was rendered by Heston?

All I know is that when I saw “Planet of the Apes” in 1968, the final frame was met not by applause or even whispers; the audience was stunned into complete silence. I was so shocked by that film that in 1974, I returned to the same theater to participate in a day-long marathon presentation of all five of the franchise films presented in order (“Planet of the Apes”, “Beneath the …”, “Escape from the …”, “Conquest of the …” and “Battle for the …”)—for the price of one. They don’t show ‘em like that anymore!

The second Heston film I saw on the big screen was entirely different from that sci-fi classic. I joined my family in a trek to Manhattan to the great Palace Theater, which, with its colossal 70 mm screen, preserved the Technicolor glory and full original 2.76:1 aspect ratio of a tenth anniversary re-release of the 11 Oscar Award-winning film, “Ben-Hur”.

It was the summer of 1969, in the aftermath of the death of Judy Garland—something I remember vividly since Garland’s portrait was hanging in the lobby of the theater. The presentation was like that of a Broadway play, complete with an Overture, an Intermission, and an Entr’ Acte, a prelude to the superbly filmed, climactic chariot race (in which Chuck did most of the stunt work) and a thunderous finale staged in the shadow of Christ’s crucifixion with its miraculous symbolism. For years before, I had listened to the timeless Miklos Rozsa film score, and when I finally saw the images that matched that magnificent soundtrack, I was as overwhelmed as any 9-year-old kid could be by the spectacle. But ultimately, even as a youngster, I was moved by the depth of the story, and especially the conflicts and inner struggles of its central character and his journey toward personal redemption—all brilliantly expressed in Heston’s nuanced performance.

The following year, in 1970, Heston and his co-star Tina Chen showed up at the Highway Theater, to kick off “The Hawaiians”—and I was there in person to see him. I was only 10 years old. When he walked in, he looked like a tall granite statue with a ton of freckles. But he brought levity to his remarks before the film, which I very much enjoyed.

Five years later, now a teenager, I traveled with my family during the Christmas season of 1975, to see for the first time, “The Ten Commandments”, which, in re-release, was playing at Manhattan’s famed Ziegfeld Theatre. And like “Ben-Hur”, viewing this film on the big screen was an overwhelming cinematic experience. The wondrous, eye-popping parting of the Red Sea alone was worth the price of admission.

So yes, for me, Charlton Heston’s filmography has great personal significance. By the time of his death in 2008, after years of struggling with Alzheimer’s, Heston had appeared in over 120 film and television productions. So many of these productions provided me with a sense of cinematic grandeur at such an early age. I was entertained, for sure. Some films thrilled me with their adventure and excitement, while others challenged me to think about the human condition, evoking in me a complex range of emotions. I know that this cinematic legacy is real because, as I’ve aged, I can still watch any number of Heston’s films for the umpteenth time and be affected ever more meaningfully, even as I retain the same feelings of awe I had as a child.

Indeed, because of the ways in which his work inspired my love of film, I celebrate the centenary of Charlton Heston’s birth.

(* Collage above created by … me!)

See the discussion on Facebook.