Monday, December 29, 2008

The Greatest Blog of the Year!!

The New York Times is hard up these days. It is selling its Manhattan building and trying to offload its interest in the Red Sox and its cable TV network. Circulation is down, and advertising revenues are getting killed by the internet and by the recession. What’s a newspaper to do?

Well, to start with, the Times should drastically hike its advertising rates. Huh? I thought you just said the recession is murdering advertising revenue. How can you possibly suggest raising rates?

I can because of the apparently inexhaustible supply of movie ads in the Times. Full pages and junior pages, telling us that Benjamin Button “sweeps you away,” Yes Man is “the best comedy of the year,” Valkyrie is “spine-tingling,” Last Chance Harvey is “too good to resist,” Slumdog Millionaire is “movie heaven,” Doubt is “the best picture of the year,” Bedtime Stories is “hysterically funny,” The Reader is “a masterpiece!” Seven Pounds is “a gift for moviegoers,” Milk is “an American classic,” Bolt is “the perfect holiday movie,” and Gran Torino is “a movie event.”

Then there are the message ads, full-page essays telling us that Israel must be defended, that the Arab Peace Initiative must be endorsed, that unions threaten the secret ballot. The Times lets all sorts of organizations use its pages as a megaphone. Nothing wrong in that; open discourse should be encouraged. But it is obvious (to me, at least) that the Times is renting that megaphone on the cheap.

Competition? Get real. Where else are these people going to go? The Times is the national newspaper. Movies need the Times. So does any group that wants to vent about any real or perceived injustice. The Times is Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park, the paper of record that legitimizes everything. The Dolphins didn’t beat the Jets until the Times said so.

The list price for a full-page in the Times is about $142,000. There is an “advocacy” rate of about $64,000, and there was a flap over which rate the Times should have charged MoveOn for its tasteless ad in which Petraeus was headlined as “Betray Us.” But the point is, even $142,000 is laughably low for a page in the Times, which says it will hold rates steady in 2009. In my opinion, those who want that megaphone would want it just as badly at $250,000 or more.

As for the movies, even the most marginal of them seem to be eager to pony up for a full page. Maybe they’re not talking to us, but to those who give out the awards. Whatever, my hunch is that the Times could double its movie ad rates without losing a single customer. After all, how much is too much to advertise the greatest, most spine-tingling, most unforgettable, most astounding, most spellbinding masterpiece of the year?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


It’s snowing hard here today, with another storm predicted for the weekend, and still another a couple of days later. And winter hasn’t even begun yet. Last weekend we were without power, thanks to a vicious ice storm that hit Thursday night, and my son in New Hampshire still has no electricity. Most of the year, New England is a fine place to live, but from December through March the smart folks fly south with the geese. ……….The newspapers have been filled with stories about the discredited Governor of Illinois, who has become a bit of a joke. Alan Abelson of Barron’s notes that he “wore his hair in the fashion of Mamie Eisenhower or Laurence Olivier playing Henry V,” and the Economist says he “has the hair of a Kennedy and the tongue of a Soprano.”. ………On Broadway, theaters are going dark because of the recession. Gypsy, despite raves for Patti LuPone, played to 59 percent of the house last week and will close seven weeks early. Other shows (Grease, Hairspray) will close right after Christmas. Says a producer of Gypsy: “Psychologically, people feel it’s really frivolous to go to the theater at $200 a pop.” Well, of course. But it’s equally frivolous to go to a Patriots game or on a Caribbean cruise. The recession will teach people the difference between the necessities of life and the frivolities. Those unreal Goldman bonuses have disappeared from Wall Street, and it’s just a matter of time before people start asking whether a utility infielder is worth two million a year. ………Barack Obama’s first team looks pretty good so far, though I was rocked when his choice for Secretary of Education, the much-praised Arne Duncan, used his press conference to thank some benefactors “who gave my children and I” so much. Bad grammar is epidemic in Washington, but from the Secretary of Education?………… On the other hand, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sounds like my kind of guy. On the wall of his home in Washington, Admiral Mullen has, not military citations, but framed playbills from the Broadway shows he and his wife have seen. Mullen is an Annapolis man, but unlike, say, Senator McCain, he does not come from a military tradition. His Dad was a Hollywood press agent for, among others, Julie Andrews, Ann-Margret, and Dyan Canon…………The stock market continues to dive, and the talking heads on CNBC continue to advise – nay, plead – that now is the time to buy stocks. Never mind that the same people gave you the same advice six months ago. Some day they will be right, as a broken clock is eventually right, but by then all those who have taken their advice will be broke…………. A recent trip to the Maine Mall found almost all stores deserted. The Maine Mall is one of some 200 malls owned by General Growth Properties, which is trying desperately to stave off bankruptcy. Worth re-reading is my blog post “Overmalled,” dated October 29, 2007.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Twenty-Four Redux

I am not a devotee of the television series “24,” but I have seen enough episodes to know that the plot that animates the time line is based on the following premise: that there exist, in every corridor of power in the U.S. government, evil people who are spending every moment of every day trying to subvert the Constitution. Some of these people are rogue elements of the CIA or the FBI or the Secret Service. Some are holders of high offices, even the highest in the land. They will stop at nothing, not even assassination, to promote their agenda. If you buy into that theme, you will enjoy “24,” for of its type it is well done.

I never bought into it, and that is why my appreciation for its technical excellence was limited. A stray rogue organization might be credible, but to believe that our Government was so thoroughly riddled with corruption was just too much for me. The creators of The West Wing and the Bourne trilogy plowed similar ground, but “24” wanted you to believe that the bad guys in Washington outnumbered the good guys. I understood that the producers of the show needed a continuous stream of Judases within the Government to provide the drama, but I didn’t have to watch it.

Having declared my belief that the U.S. Government cannot be so radically infected as the “24” producers would have us believe, I also believe that the imminent transition from a hard-right to a leftish administration will not occur without residual rancor and, perhaps, the kinds of mischief that will give “24” another shot at credibility. The hawks and neocons will not disappear. They will retreat to save havens at the American Enterprise Institute, and they will snipe from the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. (John Bolton seems to have a long-term lease.) They will leave behind moles at Defense and State and the CIA who will feed them inside information.

Of course, sniping in the Wall Street Journal is not the same as sniping at Jack Bauer with a rifle. President Bush had his enemies, and Barack Obama will have his, and thank God for political criticism. But exiles on the left seem harmless. The louder they whine, the less effective they are (think Paul Krugman), but the zealots on the far right make much more credible villains.

Not that I’m worried about the integrity of the White House. Secretary of Defense Gates and National Security Advisor to-be Jones didn’t just drop off the turnip truck. But I do think that the scriptwriters for “24” must be licking their chops.

Monday, November 24, 2008

In Praise of Three Movies

Sydney Pollack directed some mediocre movies, some fair movies that are overrated, and a couple that are flat-out gems. One, in fact, deserves to be on anyone’s “ten best” list. It is Out of Africa, and it is so good that, despite its length, it wears well with a second or third viewing. How Pollack put it all together staggers the imagination, but one factoid illustrates his determination to get it right: Though the film was shot in Kenya, Pollack wanted animals that were not available locally, so he shipped them in by air from Europe!

Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen owns the picture, but the supporting cast is brilliant, especially Klaus Maria Brandauer as Karen’s husband. And Pollack gives us one terrific scene after another, set against the majestic African landscape. The story and script are solid, and John Barry’s score, like so many of his scores, is luscious. The tale is a sad one, ending with Blixen returning to Denmark, leaving behind her dead lover (Robert Redford) and her beloved native servants. But some sad (a better word would be “poignant”) stories leave you somehow uplifted, moved by the knowledge that you’ve just watched larger-than-life characters doing important things. Directing this movie must have been a Herculean undertaking, and off this one project Pollack ranks among the very best.

Most critics have given Out of Africa its due, and it deservedly won a Best Picture Oscar, but another Pollack film came and went without much notice, which is too bad because it, too, is Pollack at the top of his game. This was the 1995 remake of Sabrina.

Usually, I don’t see the point of remakes unless the original was a bad telling of a good story. But good movies are often recycled even though the original was just fine. I liked Judy Garland and James Mason in A Star Is Born, but I liked their predecessors, Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, at least as much. I thought Showboat with Irene Dunne was better than the later extravaganza with Katherine Grayson and everyone on the MGM lot. Marlon Brando, good as he is, couldn’t match Clark Gable in Mutiny on the Bounty, nor could the talented Steve Martin compare with Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

But the original Sabrina was a badly flawed reworking of a witty Samuel Taylor play (Sabrina Fair), and it deserved another chance. All right, the original had Audrey Hepburn, but that is all it had. Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, two excellent actors, were horribly miscast as a tycoon and his playboy kid brother – just how miscast you realize when you see Pollack’s 1995 version. (I rewatched both versions recently.) Here Harrison Ford is believable as a captain of industry, and Greg Kinnear, a TV actor making his film debut, is a more than a believable playboy; in fact, he’s perfect.

Julia Ormond is no Audrey Hepburn, but she is a fine Sabrina – pretty and vulnerable, as she should be, in this Cinderella story of the chauffeur’s daughter and the millionaire. The color cinematography is a feast for the eyes (Paris, Long Island, Martha’s Vineyard). Best of all, Pollack resisted the temptation to “sex it up” for the juveniles in the audience and played it straight. You can poke a few holes in the plot, but so what? This is a romantic comedy, where you don’t analyze, you sit back and enjoy.

Another Samuel Taylor play that must be mentioned here is Avanti!, directed not by Sydney Pollack but by Billy Wilder. In fact, this may be the best of all the Wilder movies, if the least known and the most underrated. The plot: Important Businessman Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Jack Lemmon) flies to Italy to collect the body of his father and bring it back to Baltimore for a big funeral. The old man, who died on vacation in Ischia, was head of Armbruster Industries, a major corporation, and the funeral will be sized accordingly (the Secretary of State will be among the dignitaries). En route to Ischia, Lemmon meets Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills, of the theatrical Mills family), who is headed to Ischia to claim her mother’s body. It develops, to Armbruster’s (a) disbelief and (b) horror, that the two dead people have been trysting for years in Ischia and died together in a car crash.

That much alone is a pretty good framework for a play, but there’s much more to savor. The unctuous hotel manager (played wonderfully by Clive Revill) is one of several characters who will stick with you long after you’ve seen the movie, along with a valet who is shot by a housemaid because he done her wrong, a family of farmers who steal the bodies for ransom, an officious mortuary clerk with his ever-ready rubber stamp, the restaurant maitre d’ (who, when the dieting Pamela orders an apple for dinner, asks, obsequiously, “Shall I peel it for you?”).

In fact, it’s a hugely enjoyable movie, with gorgeous scenery and evocative Neapolitan music. Unfortunately, Lemmon is as miscast as a business big wheel as Humphrey Bogart was in Sabrina. He is too edgy, sort of like the kind of irritable scold he played in The Out of Towners. Wilder should have informed Lemmon that not all successful businessmen are pathological cranks (see Ford, Harrison, in Sabrina). But that minor complaint aside, this is one delicious movie, not to be missed.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The K Plan

In 1933, a Cambridge, MA electronics company faced the challenges of a deepening economic depression. Over an 18-year history, it had recruited a formidable engineering staff, mostly out of MIT, as well as a corps of highly skilled instrument assemblers. It had built an enviable reputation as the world leader in the technology of radio (the word “electronics” was just coming into vogue in 1933), and its name – General Radio Company – symbolized the breadth and depth of its ambitions.

But now, with sales dropping, General Radio faced a dilemma familiar to companies from that day to this: How do you preserve the treasure of the company – the talent you have marshaled over the years - when the money is running out? Some day that talent will be valuable again, if you can somehow keep the ship afloat during the gathering storm. But how?

The founder and President, a young Oregonian named Melville Eastham, huddled with his Treasurer, Henry Shaw, and the two dreamed up an innovative compensation scheme, unlike any other seen in the United States. If they were forced to slash expenses, say 20 percent, they would not react in the traditional way, cutting the work force by 20 percent. Instead, they would cut the work week by 20 percent. The 40-hour week would become a 32-hour week, trimming the payroll accordingly.

There was one hitch: While the loss of factory hours could easily be justified (if booms required overtime, why not undertime during busts?), the engineering hours were needed now more than ever, for the Company desperately needed the new products that would revive sales. So Eastham and Shaw devised a scheme for professionals they called “the K Plan.”

Here’s how it worked: Engineers and other professionals would have their monthly pay pegged to a “K” factor, which would rise and fall with the tide of business. If business (sales and bookings) were half of plan in a given month, K would be 0.5, and monthly salaries would be halved. And indeed, K started out at 0.5 in 1933. That was the downside (K would have a floor of 0.5). But if and when business recovered, K could rise, to a ceiling of 1.5. (Any surplus would be stored against future shortfalls.) Professionals were invited, not forced, to participate in the K Plan. To make it more attractive, the K factor was rigged to deliver a K of 1.1 when business met quota.

As a result of General Radio’s ingenious K Plan, the Company sailed through the Depression without laying off a single employee. In fact, when a local bank failed, the Company made employee-depositors whole. With the K Plan playing a decisive role, the Company didn’t simply survive the Depression; its fortunes took off later in the 1930s and flourished for decades after that. The K Plan remained in place for 36 years, serving as a cost control in the bad times and a strong motivator in the good times. The good times vastly outnumbered the bad, and the K factor remained well above unity throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

The kind of innovative thinking that produced the K Plan has been sorely lacking lately, and most companies now react to business slumps with knee-jerk layoffs – for some reason often carried out just before Christmas. Companies show little loyalty to their employees, who show just as little loyalty to their companies. It is a world Melville Eastham and Henry Shaw wouldn’t understand and wouldn’t like. The K Plan mightn’t work today; indeed, it was scrapped by a struggling General Radio in 1979. But it did enable one company to make it through the Great Depression with its workforce, its reputation, and its financial integrity intact. There’s a lesson there somewhere, if anyone is listening.

Anyone interested in learning more about this Company should go to and search for The General Radio Story.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Paying Off Detroit

The burning issue of the day in financial circles is: Should the taxpayer subsidize Detroit’s “big three” automakers by giving them tens of billions of dollars to help them avoid bankruptcy? Put me down in the “no” column. The arguments just don’t hold water. President-elect Obama says yes, because the automobile industry “is the backbone of manufacturing.” Nonsense. It might have been that 50 years ago, but in the information age one can make a more powerful argument on behalf of the computer and semiconductor industries. Is a healthy automobile industry an essential component of our defense capability? Ask General Petraeus whether he needs Humvees more than he needs battlefield computers and communications.

My children, their spouses, my wife and I drive a total of eight automobiles. Seven of the eight were made by Japanese manufacturers. So Detroit’s share of this micro-market is 12.5 percent. It is not that we have an affinity for Japan or that we wanted to buy the cheapest cars. We thought the Japanese cars were just better than the U.S. alternatives. After driving them hundreds of thousands of miles, we still think so.

I don’t know anything about automobile manufacturing, but I do know something about the electronics industry. Today, most of our telephones, computer motherboards, television sets, DVD players, and radios are made in other countries. Does anybody care about that? Maybe they should, but globalization is a fact of life. Most of the best electronics engineers happen to be Asian. It wasn’t so 40 years ago, but it is true today. The same can be said of automotive engineers. Meanwhile, our educational machinery keeps turning out more sociologists and journalists and public-affairs specialists. And lawyers, lots of lawyers.

The clamor to bail out Detroit is wholly political. It has nothing to do with merit. It has everything to do with jobs and unions and their political allies. The worst part is that the bailout won’t work. “We just need a loan to get us through this valley” is how one industry advocate put it. But it is not a valley, but an abyss, not a loan but a political payoff. It won’t make me trade in my Accord for a Chevrolet. It will just postpone the inevitable demise of companies gone bad – and add to our staggering national debt.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Cicero for Our Time

My high school days were filled with stories of ancient Rome and Greece, written in the language of those civilizations by the likes of Caesar and Horace and Homer and Xenophon. And the writings of Cicero, said to be the greatest orator of all time. Cicero left nothing on YouTube, so we can’t judge for ourselves, but I’ll take the words of his contemporaries. His Greek model was Demosthenes, who practiced his oratory by talking with pebbles in his mouth and shouting over the roar of the waves while running along the beach.

Oratory is largely a lost art, although historians credit Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill and John Kennedy with the ability to match the challenges of their times with the power of their rhetoric. I have heard Churchill and Kennedy, and I think their reputations owe more to their writing (or that of their speechwriters) than to their speaking ability. From what I have read, Lincoln was both a great writer and a great speaker.

Last night Barack Obama, speaking in Chicago, reminded me of the enormous power of political oratory. To grasp the effect of that 17-minute speech, one must watch the audience as well as the President-Elect. Tears on cheeks, rapture on faces, hushed reverence at inspirational moments – the speaker connected with over 100,000 celebrants in Grant Park in a way that no other politician has in my lifetime. Not Kennedy, not Clinton, not Reagan. It was electric.

Politics is not just about issues. It is also about emotions, about the capacity of a good person to project that goodness to an audience by sound and sight. Barack Obama has that capacity in spades, and either he is either exactly the leader this country needs at this moment or we have all been duped by his oratorical skill. I am by nature an optimist, so I lean to the positive view.

He is the Cicero of our time. It will be fascinating to watch and listen to this truly remarkable man as he embarks on his historic journey.

Monday, October 27, 2008

I Want It All, and I Want It Now

The current financial tsunami had its roots, most people agree, in the overleveraging of the American consumers, who bought houses they couldn’t afford, vacation condos they couldn’t afford, and a lifestyle that could be supported only as long as banks flooded the market with easy credit. People may disagree on who is mostly to blame- greedy banks or greedy (or dumb) borrowers, but everyone agrees that consumers were way over their heads and that a good bucket of cold water is long overdue.

It is disheartening, therefore, to see a major credit-card issuer (Chase) advertising the joys of living high on plastic to the strains of a hard-driving jingle whose lyrics go like this:

I want it all
I want it all
And I want it now!

What are these guys thinking? Don’t they know what’s going on in the land? Where are those indignant Congressional committees, the committees that posture before the TV cameras and huff and puff about Fannie and Freddie and regulators and golden parachutes and overpaid executives? Do they watch television? Do they know that people are still being urged to borrow, borrow, borrow? I still get solicitations from credit-card issuers, some of them with checks that have my name printed on them. I should rush right out and cash these checks, they tell me, even though they don’t have the foggiest idea of my financial situation.

Today a press release announced that the Federal Government will buy $3.55 billion worth of stock plus warrants in Capital One Financial, one of the most aggressive of the credit-card pitchmen. (“What’s in your wallet?”) The Government will not buy stock in fast-food restaurants or semiconductor makers or struggling software companies, most of whom need the help, but it will buy stock in Capital One, which may use the $3.55 billion for more TV ads and more direct mailers to lure more pigeons to take out credit cards they shouldn’t have.

People were so burned up the first time the bail-out was floated that their anger caused the House to defeat the bill. A few days later, Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke frightened Congress into passing the legislation. Hank and Ben, the Great Facilitators.
We certainly don’t want to kill the credit-card economy, do we? Is this a great country or what?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I Like Ike

People tend to look back, not in anger, but in wistfulness. Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and it filters out the bad times and highlights the good. Our high-school years tend to be more sweet than bitter, because those were the years of early discovery, of awakening to life’s possibilities.

But a reading of history, when you are older, often throws a bucket of cold water on those memories. The sixties, no matter what your personal experiences, must be counted as a bad time in America (and, for that matter, in Europe). It was a decade of assassinations and pointless wars and social unrest. The forties, romanticized today by the strains of Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again,” saw unspeakable horror. The decade of the thirties was also elevated by its music. Depression? Not if you listen to the score of 42d Street. We’re in the money, ready to shuffle off to Buffalo.

But the fifties – ah, there was a time to savor. With Dwight Eisenhower looking over us, the Soviet Union a threat that had yet to materialize, Japan devastated and China still in its dark ages, we had nothing to do but enjoy life and a monopoly of economic power. The colleges were full of students (the GI bill), television offered Playhouse 90 and Sid Caesar (nothing that would offend your wife or mother), and Ted Williams and Warren Spahn delighted Boston baseball fans. There was a war in Korea, but our cause was unambiguous (the North invaded the South), and there were no protests. The fifties were not unalloyed bliss (what is?), but looking back over the sweep of the last seven-plus decades, the fifties stand out as a sort of golden age in the United States.

If you’ve been reading these blogs for a while, you know that one of my passions centers on the American musical theater, and so it must be mentioned that most aficionados believe that the fifties constituted the golden age of musicals. Guys and Dolls led the parade, followed down Broadway by The King and I, The Pajama Game, Fanny, Silk Stockings, Damn Yankees, My Fair Lady, The Most Happy Fella, West Side Story, The Music Man, The Sound of Music, and so many other evergreen shows.

Could we have another decade like it? No; it was sui generis, bookcased by a unique set of circumstances – a world war behind, Vietnam to come. But I keep coming back to the reassuring presence of Dwight Eisenhower in the White House. He is usually not numbered among the great presidents, but maybe he should be. Is there such a reassuring presence waiting in the wings today? The only person I can think of is Colin Powell. He alone has the temperament, the gravitas, the presence to be another Eisenhower, but he has declined to run.

It will be interesting to see how the country shakes out after the elections. The atmosphere is so toxic as to make national unity difficult, and a deepening recession may make it impossible. The new president will have to reach across party lines in the composition of his cabinet and in the formation of his policies – immediately and dramatically. Anything less will guarantee four years of the kind of hate-filled politics we never knew back in the good old days.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

None of the Above

I have never sat out a presidential election, not since I started voting, but this year’s selection leaves me cold. I will vote, but probably not for the top of the ticket. The problems I have with both candidates are just too serious.

For McCain: He keeps talking about “victory” in Iraq and Afghanistan, as if victory in any reasonable sense of the word was possible. The Aghans (with our aid) were able to drive the Russians out some years ago. This time it’s different, said one of the prominent neocons in an interview, because the Aghans didn’t like the Russians, but they like us(!). If McCain really intends to hang in there until we defeat the insurgents, our children and grandchildren will still be fighting in that God-forsaken place decades hence.

If that weren’t enough, there’s Sarah Palin. If placing Sarah the so-called heartbeat away from the presidency was an example of McCain’s judgment, this alone should disqualify him. Yes, she had momentary pop-star quality, but so what? We’re talking about the presidency here, not a People magazine celebrity. She can’t do much harm in Wasilla, but she can do a whole lot of harm in Washington.

Finally, I fear that McCain sees himself as a warrior, and I worry that the same hawks who brought us Iraq will counsel him to bomb or invade Iran and North Korea. We’ve tried war; it’s time to try diplomacy.

Now to Obama: He endlessly tells us that he will lower taxes for 95 percent of us, which, if people vote their pocketbooks, should guarantee a landslide. But what about the other five percent? Let’s say that the top one or two percent – the Warren Buffets and Bill Gateses – don’t care, because they’re tax-proof. Question: How many of the next three percentiles are the very people we need to dig us out of this recession? I am talking about the managers and accountants and venture capitalists whose brains and talents we so desperately need right now? I am also talking about the doctors Obama will need to implement his ambitious expansion of health care services and the scientists and engineers he will need in order to help us invent our way to energy independence.

Let's say you are flying in a jetliner that is trying to land during a storm at night, with one engine shut down because of an oil leak. Is this the time you want to start arguing that pilots are overpaid? Or do you want the very best, most overpaid pilot you can find at the controls? Right now the economy is trying to land in a storm, and it has sprung a leak.

Notwithstanding Wall Street's recent excesses, we are still a meritocracy, and the Obama tax plan takes dead aim at that notion, not just through the higher tax rates but through means-testing, vanishing exemptions and the like. If it were just another transparent ploy to win votes it would be understandable, but I am afraid Obama’s convictions are as sincere as they are misguided. If only he had spent a few years running a small company....

Obama’s protectionism (rewarding companies that keep jobs in the U.S.) is hard to understand in one whose background should engender a world view. His is a foolish plan, because it would lead to retaliation. Borrowing two billion dollars a day from overseas lenders, we obviously need to cultivate relations with China, Russia, India, etc., not antagonize them. In this respect, McCain and Obama are equally culpable.

We have had flawed candidates and flawed presidents before, and we have always muddled through, as we will this time. But I do fear the interregnum between Election Day and the January inauguration. Polarization is high in the land, and the world situation is a tinderbox. The opportunity for mischief-makers, domestic or foreign, has never been higher.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Sea Change

The ocean looks different now. The sun is lower, so that its light bounces off the water and right into your eyes as you walk along the beach, as I just did. I walked a couple of miles on the hard sand (the tide was low), sharing the morning with only a few seagulls. There was hardly a cloud to be seen, the blue sky and the bluer water creating a dazzling seascape.

The scene makes it easy to forget the turbulence that besets the country these days. The economy has begun to weather its own sea change, the most pronounced since World War 2. The ship of state was foundering in 1968, but it was nothing like this. If you are as old as I am, you may remember 1968 as the year of assassinations and Kent State and the Democratic convention in Chicago. It was a rough time, but with one crucial difference: The economy was in good shape in 1968. I know because in that year I walked away from a good job with an established company to join a small start-up. I wouldn’t be so brave in today’s economy. Viet Nam was an unpopular war, as Iraq is today, but the moral angst of voters was not matched by economic angst, and Hubert Humphrey was not willing to break sharply with his President on the War, so Nixon won.

Today, people are fed up with the mid-East war and they are also losing their jobs and their homes and their retirement nest-eggs. That’s a poisonous combination for the incumbent party, and Senator McCain has abandoned all pretense of promoting his own programs or philosophy and is directing his entire advertising budget to a single theme: his opponent is not to be trusted.

It’s a doubtful theme, but what else does he have? Like Hubert Humphrey, he cannot declare the war a bad idea from the get-go. He can no longer insist that the fundamentals of the economy are sound, because events have given free-market capitalism a bad name.

Obama is clearly ahead in the polls (if one can trust them), and experts, including some Republicans, are starting to speculate on an Obama landslide. The McCain partisans hope for a close victory; no one is predicting a McCain runaway. Indeed, some Republicans see a silver lining here: Things are so bad that the winner is doomed to failure, setting the stage for a Republican comeback in 2012. You take your solace where you find it.

Whoever wins will have to deal with an economic sea change sweeping over the nation. Times will be tough, much tougher than either candidate dares describe. We have been living beyond our means for years, and learning to live within our means will force a painful readjustment. The credit cards will have to be cut up and thrown in the garbage.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The First Presidential Debate

The presidential debates are all a matter of managing expectations. The first debate was no exception. I expected Senator McCain to stumble a lot and to lose his temper at least once. He did neither. He exceeded my expectations. I expected Barak Obama to dance verbal rings around his opponent, landing light jabs all along the way. He did not. He barely met my expectations. I agree with those who called the contest a draw.

But the fact that Obama failed to exploit McCain’s missteps does not mean the opportunities were not there. Example: Senator McCain made much of the fact that he, the proven warrior and world-affairs expect, would not leave Iraq until we could leave in victory. As he saw it, the rookie Obama wanted out, the sooner the better, no matter the conditions on the ground. An old pro like McCain knew better; he would stay in Iraq until his generals said it was safe to leave.

But, Obama could have pointed out, President Bush and Secretary Rice both tell us repeatedly that Iraq is a sovereign country, which means the exit plan is really up to them, not President McCain or his generals. Or is this too naïve?

Or take Senator McCain on Pakistan’s General Musharraf. When Obama mentioned that we seemed to support a dictator because “he was our dictator,” McCain defended the General by saying that everybody knows that Pakistan was a failed state when Musharraf took over. Leaving aside the obvious question (wouldn’t any would-be dictator simply declare his country to be a failed state?), General Musharraf remained president from 1999 to 2008. Couldn’t he have turned the country over to civilian authority sooner? But Senator Obama did not pounce here either, because, I guess, pouncing is not his style.

But there were opportunities lost on the other side, too. Senator Obama again castigated companies who moved jobs offshore and promised a tax system that would favor companies that kept jobs at home. A sharper, quicker Senator McCain might have pressed his opponent to flesh out his plan. U.S. companies have hundreds of thousands of overseas employees; will we insist that those jobs come home? Suppose there is a backlash against our exports? Or worse, against our Treasury bonds? And by the way, does Senator Obama really mean to rewrite Nafta, even if Canada and Mexico like it the way it is? How, precisely, would Senator Obama turn back the tide of globalization?

Senator McCain obviously favors a more “muscular” approach to foreign policy, particularly with respect to Russia, China, and Iran. He seems to embrace the neo-con line, and although that may play well at military posts and Legion halls, I’m not sure it’s much of a vote-getter in a national election. Senator Obama’s protectionism and Senator McCain’s hawkishness are of a piece, and neither inspires much confidence.

On style points, I think his handlers should tell McCain to lose a bit of his edge. He did not blow a gasket, but just underneath the forced smile I sensed that he was often seething. And Obama needs to add a bit of “no more mister nice-guy.” Just a bit. The man is cool, and that will be a huge advantage if he becomes president. But in debates, you win by scoring debating points.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

This Time It Is Different

Most economic commentators who parade before the CNBC cameras tell us that the market will come back because (1) recessions in the past have lasted so many months on average, and based on that we may expect a recovery in early 2010 (2) the Dow Jones Industrial average has in previous bear markets declined by such-and-such a percent, and based on that we are almost at the bottom. History is the great teacher, and history tells us that a new up cycle will soon make everything all right.

Readers of this blog know that for the past year I have been warning everyone to stay clear of the stock market. Go back, if you must, and reread The Fed Caves (8-18-07), The “What, Me Worry?” Economy (7-26-07), The Great Buying Opportunity (4-12-07), Overmalled (10-29-07), The Next Bubble (2-21-07), The End of the Game (7-14-08), and Calling a Spade a Spade (4-7-08). I am not an economist, so I got it right. Economists, almost by definition, worship economic history.

What makes this time so different? China, for one thing, makes it different. China not only as competitor, but as financier. The people who are hastily cobbling together the $700 billion bailout plan initially decreed that only U.S. banks could be bailed out. Then someone whispered that if we stiffed China and other sources of sovereign wealth they might be reluctant to lend money to us. Oops.

After years of hectoring China and Russia for an economic system that smothered innovation, they got the message. They and others decided to play the game, and they are good at it. They are not so good at human rights, so now we hector them about Tibet and Georgia. But not too loud, because we need their money (China) and oil (Russia).

A few years after Tiananmen Square, I found myself in Beijing, talking with a bright young college graduate who had been present at the student uprising. I wanted to know whether in her opinion the country could revert to the old system, stamping out entrepreneurism, “There is no chance,” she said. “There is no turning back now.”

So here we are, with China and Russia, two former communist adversaries, both racing down the capitalist track, while the United States is about to nationalize much of its financial system. They move to the right, while we abandon what is left of laissez faire and turn leftward. The Administration tells us that we have no choice, that if we don’t rescue the banks we face Armageddon. (The parallels with the “mushroom cloud” scenario that provided the rationale for invading Iraq are obvious.) High drama in Washington and New York, the stuff of action films starring Denzel Washington.

Congress will oblige, because most Congressmen accept the fact that they don’t understand the arcana of modern finance - but Paulson and Bernanke do. Hank Paulson is regarded as a financial guru, because he was once Chairman of Goldman Sachs, the largest and most successful investment banker on Wall Street. You might think, after recent events, that fact in itself would disqualify him, but you’d be wrong, unfortunately.

The situation is just as dire as Messrs Paulson and Bernanke paint it, but the solution they propose is a stake in the heart of capitalism. The United States has turned a corner, and, as my young Chinese friend said, there is no turning back. Who knows where it will lead, when retirees depending on “defined contribution” pensions find their nest eggs gone, when the government owns millions of foreclosed properties for which there are no buyers, when unemployment jumps because companies can no longer finance expansion, when hundreds of thousands of troops come home looking for jobs that aren’t there?

We are headed inevitably to a world where the government will be the employer of last resort, the financier of last resort, the health-care provider of last resort, the mortgage provider of last resort. This time it really is different.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Of Thee I Sing, Baby

In 1932 the blockbuster Broadway musical was Of Thee I Sing, with a score by George and Ira Gershwin and a libretto by George S. Kaufman. Actually, it opened at the Music Box Theater the day after Christmas, 1931 – great timing, inasmuch as it was a spoof of presidential politics, much on the national mind in 1932. It had a run of 441 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize, the first musical to do so.

The plot: If elected, presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen promises to marry the winner of a First Lady contest. A femme fatale, Diana Devereaux, walks off with the prize by sleeping with the judges, but Wintergreen nonetheless marries his true love, Mary Turner, a wholesome lass who wins Wintergreen’s heart by baking incredibly tasty corn muffins.

Wintergreen is elected and subsequently impeached (he is a lovable rogue, the Bill Clinton of his era), but Mary saves the day by declaring that she’s pregnant. Who, after all, would dare impeach an expectant father?

There’s much to love in the plot, including diplomatic squabbles with France and the bumblings of Vice-President Alexander Throttlebottom. Then there is that socko Gershwin score, featuring future standards like “Who Cares?,” “Love is Sweeping the Country,” and of course the title song. It was, all in all, a wonderful show, set, as I’ve mentioned, against the background of the FDR-Hoover presidential campaign.

It is time for another Broadway musical based on a political satire. I hereby offer the following outline:

Presidential candidate John P. Peppermint struggles to choose a running mate, the most obvious choices having various shortcomings. Then Peppermint’s brain trust suggests a contest, the winner to be the person who serves the best home-cooked meal. Several male veep wannabes do their best, but the prize goes to lovely Sara Lee, the governor of a desolate, remote, snow-covered State. Sara wins the contest by preparing a delicious caribou roast. But that’s not all; she shoots the caribou with her rifle and cleans it expertly. “That’s my kind of girl,” says John P. Peppermint.

Alas, Sara, it turns out, comes with baggage: As governor, she has used her power to fix a dog-sled race and to settle various personal scores. But, at the end of Act 2, just when it appears that all is lost, Sara announces that she will soon become both a new mother and a new grandmother. The race is over, for who can vote against such a woman? As the curtain falls, the entire cast celebrates the landslide victory by singing, “Of Thee I Sing, Sara.”

It needs work, but it has possibilities.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

"What Do We Do Now?"

Last night I was channel-hopping between the Republican convention and “The Candidate,” an old movie starring Robert Redford as a handsome young idealist (read liberal Democrat) running for a seat in the U.S. Senate against the incumbent, a much older, tradition-rooted (read conservative Republican) veteran politician. Redford starts off as a reluctant warrior, then gets the taste of the battle, then warms up to the standard political routine cooked up by his campaign manager, well played by Peter Boyle. He is shown at a series of whistle stops, spouting the same phrases – “We can no longer afford to pit black against white, young against old, poor against the less poor” – over and over, until he finds himself in the back seat of a cab, mumbling “poor against black,” “young against white,” “food against the foodless.” If winning requires inanity, then he will be inane, because he does not want to be a principled loser.

The hackneyed rhetoric could have come straight from Barak Obama’s speeches. But then, there was something eerily familiar about Sarah Palin’s lines, too. They were being mouthed in the film, not by Redford, but by Redford’s Republican opponent, Senator Jarmon, played by Don Porter. And Jarmon's audience in the movie, a sea of all-white, Rotary Club faces, looked just like the audience in St. Paul, patriotic to the core (with hints that the opposition would destroy all we hold dear). The Denver convention, on the other hand, was conspicuously multi-racial, just like the adoring audiences for Robert Redford. It was sometimes hard to tell which was the movie and which was the real convention. When Sarah Palin proudly proclaimed that “Senator McCain isn’t looking for a fight, but he’s not afraid of one, either,” the Republicans cheered wildly. Senator Jarmon delivered similar red meat, with comparable effect.

The movie and the conventions themselves have been reduced to cartoons. The virtuous young candidate, working tirelessly to save the planet from big, rapacious corporations, the heartless conservative, willing to see the poor starve in order to let the rich grow richer. The candidates try to play against type, but it is a losing battle. At least it was in the movie, for who in his right mind could vote against Robert Redford? Ah, but in 1972, the year of “The Candidate,” Richard Nixon, a cartoon conservative, defeated George McGovern, a cartoon liberal, in a landslide. You never know.

At the end of the movie, as the election returns confirm that Robert Redford has upset the incumbent senator, Redford turns to campaign manager Boyle and says, cluelessly, “What do we do now?” This November, I have a hunch that someone will say much the same thing. But I don’t know who.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Politics and Show Biz

Two extravaganzas lit up my LCD television in August. The first was the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. That one left me breathless, and the most pitiable person in the world right now must surely be the director of the 2012 Olympics in London. One e-mail correspondent had it right: “London should just stage a performance of Hamlet and send everyone off to a pub.”

The second spectacle was Obama night at Mile High Stadium. The crowd was probably the largest ever to witness a convention address – roughly, I think, as many people as were jammed into the Birdcage in Beijing. My impression was that it was de trop, that no words, no matter how well delivered, could measure up to the setting. Barak Obama is a terrific orator, maybe the best of our time, but the Mile High speech was not a mile high. The talking points were too well orchestrated – as they will be this week in Minneapolis. Maybe I’m getting too cynical, but words designed to produce hysteria among the convention faithful sound too contrived on television. It is the same old recipe: something for the teachers, something for the old folks, something for the poor, something for the uninsured, and let us not forget the women and minorities and the armed forces. Noble causes have a way of sounding prepackaged at a political convention. It’s show biz, just as Beijing was show biz, but Beijing was more honest because it didn’t pretend to be anything else.

Now, what are we to say about Governor Sarah Palin? First, she is an attractive, personal, feisty woman and will be an energetic campaigner. There is not much else to say, except that it reveals much about the state of the Republican party that it could find no better qualified running mate, no one better prepared to place within a heartbeat of the presidency. Senator McCain is 72 and has had health problems. President Sarah Palin?

Yet I am still undecided. Senator Obama has obvious leadership talent, but I wonder about his program. For instance, if you increase the number of people covered by health insurance by, say, 20 percent without increasing the supply of doctors and nurses, won’t the system break down? Or take the Senator’s promise to penalize companies that ship jobs overseas and reward those who hire U.S. workers. How, exactly, will that work? If you ship electronic products to China and hire 100 Chinese technicians to service those products, is that a no-no? If you decide to staff a call center in Bangalore instead of Bangor, will President Obama attack you? There is more than a whiff of protectionism in the air, and this is worrisome.

McCain and Obama both come with major shortcomings, and I suspect many people will hold their noses as they enter the voting booths in November. One possibility that should not be overlooked is to vote for the candidate of one party while backing the congressional slate of the other.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Georgia On My Mind

The dustup between the U.S and Russia over Georgia could not come at a worse time. In the final months of a presidential election, it is impossible to keep the candidates from sounding off on the subject, and there appear to be more votes to be harvested by “sounding tough.” So Senators McCain and Obama will both line up solidly behind Georgia and against Russia, no matter what the facts on the ground suggest. American voters instinctively back the little guy, even when the little guy may have ignited the conflict by tweaking the big guy. Also, the “hawk bloc,” which never saw a war it didn’t like, is licking its chops, venting, as usual, through the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. So we are headed for at least several months of rising tensions, with no one in the U.S. or Russia daring to appear soft.

No one in Washington wants to say it, but the days when the U.S. could call the shots everywhere on the globe are over. (Needless to say, Russia has even less clout.) Vietnam was the wake-up call, and Iraq sealed the deal. Our future lies in learning to get along with powerful countries we don’t particularly like. Bashing Russia over Georgia while simultaneously bashing China over Tibet makes no sense. “Demanding” that Russia respect the territorial integrity of Georgia sounds heroic, even noble – until one asks, “Like you respected the territorial integrity of Iraq?”

I am not trying to referee the situation in Georgia. It appears that Georgia’s President, believing he could count on Washington’s approval, decided to teach the South Ossetians a lesson, whereupon Russia decided to teach him a lesson. Maybe he miscalculated, maybe Putin overreacted (possibly borrowing Israel’s arithmetic in Palestine: you kill 10 of ours, we kill 100 of yours). But I don’t pretend to know for sure. That’s not my point. The point is, there are votes to be had – probably a majority – by sounding tough (vs Russia, vs China, vs anyone). A more nuanced position (“Let’s not blow this out of proportion. Let’s recognize that both Russia and Georgia have legitimate interests in the area”) is a sure recipe for defeat in November. Americans just aren’t ready for that.

With all our nuclear missiles, smart bombs, eyes in the skies, and armed drones, we haven’t been able to wipe out the bad guys in Iraq and Afghanistan, after five years.(Of course, the nukes don’t count, for good reason.) There are almost surely more people in that region who hate us than there were five years ago. If we bomb Iran, as many neocons urge, there will be still more. It’s a dispiriting prospect, but once the elections are over maybe common sense will break out.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Adman and the Cows

A long time ago, I was running advertising for my Company, a maker of semiconductor test systems. Other companies made similar systems, but our differentiator was reliability. Every one of our systems came with a 10-year warranty, which, when you think about it, was not that brave in a field where anything you bought would probably be obsolete in three or four years. Still, it was a brilliant marketing stroke, and enough systems were still chugging at age ten to prove the point.

But how to dramatize system longevity in an ad? Ads for electronic products were notoriously dull, featuring catalog photographs and lots of specifications (i.e. numbers). The bright, fresh ideas came from Madison Avenue (or from Rock Hudson, for the VIP account). The electronics industry would have no truck with that kind of hucksterism. But this time the ball was in my court, and I was determined not to be dull. So, at a fateful meeting of product managers, account executives, and sales management, I rolled out my undull Big Idea.

The tag line for the new series of ads and collateral would be “Till The Cows Come Home,” and the visuals would feature pictures of the new systems surrounded by cows. Applause. Adulation. One sourpuss pointed out that the cows in the picture might be thought to be coming home, which would ruin the whole idea, but he was shouted down. Most people thought it was devilishly clever.

The agency quickly lined up the site, about 30 miles south of Boston, and the schedule was set. I wrote the copy for the first ad. Space was booked in the leading trade magazines. I was on a high. I was bringing what one of my colleagues called “zonk” to our advertising.

Early on the appointed morning, we all showed up in the hired pasture. When I say “all” I mean “all” – truck with test system, a crew to set the system in the field, people (cowboys?) to manage the herd, photographers, and about a dozen others from the agency. And yours truly, to see that my Big Idea was handled right. The shoot went off without a hitch, and a few weeks later the ad campaign was launched. And then died a quick death.

The problem: “Till the Cows Come Home” sounded great in English. But it made no sense at all in Germany, as our German sales manager told me, rather indelicately. Lord knows how it sounded to Koreans or Japanese or Italians. Since a great deal of our business came from overseas, it was a monumental oversight on my part. It was no consolation to consider that the agency, product manager, and sales manager had also missed it.

We pulled the ads, but not until the first one ran. Somewhere in Bavaria, I imagine, a reader of a trade magazine looked at the headline in puzzlement and said, “was ist los mit den Kühen?”

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Brideshead Revisited Revisited

The imminent opening of a film version of Brideshead Revisited has triggered a spate of commentary, both prospective and retrospective, on attempts to film Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel. The best so far has been Ginia Bellafante’s piece in today’s New York Times, as nifty a bit of writing as you’ll see in a daily newspaper.

The gold standard, of course, is the 1981 television miniseries, which in the opinion of many (including me) is the finest dramatic endeavor ever produced on film or videotape. The casting was just about perfect, with stage legends Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom as Lord and Lady Marchmain and John Gielgud as Edward Ryder. The central role of Charles Ryder launched Jeremy Irons’s career, and supporting actors Phoebe Nicholls and Simon Jones had the roles of their lives as Cordelia and Brideshead Flyte. The weak link, in my view, was Diana Quick as Julia, but this can be overlooked in an assessment of what is, by any measure, a dazzling entertainment.

The producers of the new, filmed version, were forced to telescope a 21-hour miniseries into a 2-1/4-hour movie, and, judging from the initial reviews, they took considerable liberties with Waugh’s plot in order to do so. (For the TV production, scenarist John Mortimer was heroically faithful to the book, so much so that when I reread the novel the words and scenes sprang to life from the printed page.) Waugh addicts are likely to be infuriated at this, but I will reserve judgment until I see it – if an art film like this ever makes it to the nabes in Maine.

The renewed interest in Waugh’s work prompted me to watch the 1987 British TV production of Scoop, one of two Waugh novels dealing with the confused (to be charitable) state of African politics. Of course, Waugh’s real target is the British upper class, as personified by the people who run The Beast, a London newspaper. William Boot writes a sedate column for The Beast dealing with the crested grebe and its like. Through a mixup he is sent by his newspaper to cover an incipient war in a woebegone African country called Ishmaelia. To tell you more would be pointless (and difficult), but I can say that the sterling cast (Michael Hordern, Donald Pleasance, Denholm Elliott, and Michael Maloney as Boot) gives the film all the absurdity that Waugh could have wanted. Waugh traveled extensively in Africa, and his other novel set in that continent, Black Mischief, is even better in my opinion, but it has never been filmed. (Apparently not even the bravest producer dared tackle a novel whose heroine is eaten at the end.)

A Handful of Dust helped establish Waugh as a gifted writer in 1934, and in 1988 it was turned into an excellent movie. How could it fail, with Alec Guinness, Kristin Scott Thomas, Judi Dench, Stephen Fry, and a terrific James Wilby in the cast? The director, Charles Sturridge, was the same man who had steered the Brideshead miniseries seven years earlier, and he is co-credited with the writing.

Waugh’s trip to Hollywood resulted in a film version of The Loved One, a freakish movie featuring, if you can believe it, the likes of Jonathan Winters, Milton Berle, Liberace, John Gielgud, and Robert Morley. Plus, disastrously, Robert Morse in the lead. It was a terrible movie. As a matter of fact, most of Waugh does not translate well to film, because so much of its value lies in the printed words. Those few who understand that, as John Mortimer did, can give us something for the ages.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Alex d'Arbeloff

An old friend died yesterday, and his life was so exceptional that it deserves to be commemorated here. His name was Alex d’Arbeloff, and most people who have heard of him knew him as the cofounder and long-time CEO of Teradyne, Inc., a major manufacturer of semiconductor test systems. But that was only for openers. After retirement, he was the Chairman of MIT, a lecturer at its Sloan School, and an organizer and director of many high-tech companies. He was still going strong right to the end.

Alex was born 80 years ago in Paris of Russian émigré parents and wound up in New York in 1938, after the family spent a couple of years in South America. After high school in New York, Alex enrolled at MIT, and it was there he met Nick DeWolf, with whom he founded Teradyne in 1960. The pair launched Teradyne in a most unlikely location: not along Route 128, but in the heart of downtown Boston, and for the next three decades Teradyne’s three downtown buildings were a fixture in Boston, drawing visiting customers from all over the world and providing good jobs and benefits to thousands of workers who could commute to and from work via the “T.”

By the time Alex retired in 1997, Teradyne was a multibillion-dollar company and the leader in its field. The next time you marvel at the dependability of your TV or cell phone or the electronics in your car, you might tip your hat to the test technology, largely from Teradyne, that makes everything so bulletproof. There was more to Teradyne than semiconductor testing, because Alex’s appetite for innovation knew no bounds. There was a breakthrough test system, called 4TEL, for telephone lines. There was a connection company which grew to become a billion-dollar enterprise in its own right. Teradyne’s biggest successes grew out of in-house projects; he had little appetite for acquisitions – or, for that matter, most of the other games today’s CEOs play.

Alex succeeded so brilliantly on the strength of some qualities that are all too rare these days. First, he had an uncompromising sense of integrity. If someone violated Alex’s sense of right and wrong, he or she was gone in an instant. It happened rarely, because the hiring process was well filtered, but it happened. Second, Alex had an uncanny sense of recognizing true talent, attracting it, and retaining it. The team that Alex assembled in the early nineteen-seventies was essentially the team he built the Company around, and it was an incredible team, an all-star at every position. Third, he knew how to deal with people. A mutual friend, the CEO of another company says, “I never met anyone who was a better people person than Alex.” That’s because Alex respected people as human beings, and he never, ever belittled anyone. Fourth, he had a wonderful sense of humor. “Alex stories” are legion, and his own favorites were funny stories where the humor came at the expense of Alex himself. He would never make fun of others, but he loved it when people made fun of him.

It must be said that Alex was the consummate family man. His wife Brit and their four children were the inner circle, but the extended family also included his parents, Brit’s parents, his two brothers, and of course the growing d’Arbeloff clan. It was probably inevitable that the stroke that cut him down occurred at a family gathering last Saturday.

I was lucky enough to work closely with Alex for 27 years. They were unforgettable years, because he was an unforgettable man. We lost a giant yesterday.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Good Old Days

I was 15 years old when the first atomic bomb was dropped in anger, and the strange thing is, I don’t remember that a big deal was made of it at the time. The war was essentially over, we thought. Germany had already surrendered, and it was only a matter of time before the Pacific war was history as well. The atomic bomb that annihilated Hiroshima and the one that destroyed Nagasaki may have hastened the end, but I don’t remember that the country felt the slightest doubt about the outcome. Of course, at 15 I wasn’t exactly a student of history (in fact, it was my poorest subject), but other events – Roosevelt’s death, for instance – were well noted, even by me. Why didn’t I pay more attention to the dawning of the nuclear age?

Maybe the fault wasn’t totally mine. Maybe there was a national embarrassment about the incineration of hundreds of thousands of civilians, including women and children, and the propagation machinery was throttled back. But later the second-guessing began, and Harry Truman and everyone involved in the dropping of the bomb defended the decision as not only just but necessary. Some scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project had conscience attacks, but the politicians and military men were united in the mathematical logic that made Hiroshima and Nagasaki a slam dunk (so to speak). Without the atomic bomb, a bloody invasion of the Japan home islands would have been necessary, resulting in the inevitable death of far more people – including Americans – than were killed by the A bombs. Case closed.

It is an arguable if not compelling case, given an interesting spin by one historian, who noted that, had Truman failed to drop the bomb and an invasion caused millions of casualties, he could have been impeached or at least crucified in the court of public opinion. Then there is the case for dropping a “demonstration bomb,” showing the Japanese just how awful the thing was. We could have wiped an island (Bikini?) off the map, for instance. Then the Japanese would have surrendered. In C.P. Snow’s “Strangers and Brothers” a team of British scientists, racing the Americans to complete an atomic bomb, conclude that a demo was indeed the end game. “Surely,” one of them says, “no one would be crazy enough to actually use the thing.”

Well, here we are, 63 years later, fretting about the possibility that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. We are trying to threaten them out of their ambitions, but it’s a tough sell: Nuclear-armed Israel, Pakistan, India, and Russia are all within easy missile range of Iran. Then, of course, there is the U.S., which can project nuclear power anywhere it wants to. An Israeli military leader has said that war with Iran is inevitable. The Iranian President may be a dangerous man, but he is not an idiot.

Ah, how clear-cut the options must have seemed to Harry Truman in 1945! The photos show him beaming between Stalin and Churchill at Potsdam, and well he might; at that moment, only days away from launching the Enola Gay, he holds all the trump cards. Harry probably didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the last time an American President could dream about Pax Americana. Four years later, the Soviets tested their own atomic bomb, and the world changed forever.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert

The coming presidential election, historic as it is, has just been diminished by the sudden, tragic passing of Tim Russert, everybody’s friend, it seems, and everybody’s choice as the news giant of his time. Just as the playoff victory of your college team doesn’t seem to count until you read about it in the morning paper, viewers have come to depend on Tim Russert to certify political results, such as the fact that Hillary was essentially toast and Barack would be the Democratic nominee. Others might make educated guesses, but they usually made them through the prism of their own biases. You always knew where Chris Matthews was coming from, or Sean Hannity, or Keith Obermann, and so you made a windage correction. But with Russert no correction was needed. The man was always honest and fair, and the humility was genuine. (He would have said he had much to be humble about, because that’s the kind of guy he was.)

Professionally, he had scaled the heights of television journalism, and there were awards and honors to be proud about, but he was even prouder of his family, his Buffalo neighbors, his church, and an extended family that knew no bounds. We all felt we knew him, somehow, because we all seemed to share something with him. It could have been the experience of looking after an elderly dad or the pride of watching a son graduate from college. I like to think that he was enriched by his Jesuit education, because I know I was. Whatever your background, Tim just seemed to be the kind of fellow you’d like to down a beer with, or swap funny stories with, or sit next to on a flight from LAX to BOS.

It is the evening of his death, and tributes come from everywhere: from the media, of course, but also from academia, from The President and the Presidential wannabees, from the entertainment industry, from industry, from religious leaders. The owners of the Red Sox have just inserted their sentiments into the Sox-Reds telecast. There will be television specials tonight, with a flood tide of tributes pouring in from everywhere. All deserved.

Life isn’t fair. The untimely death of Tim Russert is a major news story, and Tim isn’t there to cover it. Even worse, he will miss the 2008 elections he looked forward to with such relish. But he will not miss them as much as the elections will miss him.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

More Lost Treasures

In the 1980s, PBS and A&E aired a number of choice British plays, some of which I videotaped for posterity – and against the time when I might live in the boonies and not have easy access to quality entertainment. Well, I now live in the boonies, sort of, and I have well over 100 cable TV channels, plus Netflix, plus an active amateur theater community nearby. But I am still glad I taped those plays, because none of them is now available commercially – no DVD, no videotape, no Netflix, and no longer shown by the TV channels, which seem to be preoccupied with dross like “American Idol.” A&E now seems to be given over almost entirely to “The Sopranos,” and even PBS has slipped noticeably in recent years.

But back to these tapes. There are five of them in my collection, and they are all keepers.

Quartermaine’s Terms

This one, written by Simon Gray, is the best of the lot. It takes place mostly in the teachers’ lounge at a British school chartered to teach the English language and culture to foreigners. The teachers are all fascinating characters, and we get to know them, their families (by reference), and their problems very well. There is the classics teacher Henry, who boasts incessantly about his daughter, studying for her “0-level” exams. There is the spinster Melanie, who regrets rejecting Henry years ago and now cares for her invalid mother, whom she despises. There is Derek, newly employed as a part-timer, who is an accident-prone sad sack. There is Mark, an aspiring novelist whose wife has just left him. There is Anita, a pregnant woman maintaining a brave front in the face of her husband’s affair. And then there is St. John (“Sinjin” in Britspeak) Quartermaine, an amiable, chronically forgetful fellow, everybody’s friend but an incompetent teacher, barely tolerated by the principal, Eddie, played brilliantly by John Gielgud. Edward Fox gives the performance of his life as Quartermaine, Eleanor Bron is the unhappy Melanie, Peter Jeffrey is an unforgettable Henry, and every other cast member is absolutely perfect.

Simon Gray has referred to his play as a “serious comedy,” and that about nails it. Certainly I know of no play in which the characters’ personalities are so fully revealed in the space of less than two hours. It is, simply, a dramatic masterpiece, and it is a crime against humanity that the BBC production appears to be lost forever.

Relatively Speaking

This is the farce that established Alan Ayckbourn as Britain’s preeminent contemporary playwright. Young Greg and Ginny have been living together for about a month in a London flat. Greg loves Ginny but is uncomfortable knowing that at least one man previously shared the apartment and the bed with Ginny. A constant stream of gifts (chocolates, flowers) and a pair of men’s slippers found under the bed don’t help. When Ginny announces that she is off for a weekend to visit her parents in the suburbs, Greg snatches what he believes to be the parents’ address and sets out by train to meet them himself and to declare his intentions. But the address is not that of Ginny’s parents, but that of Ginny’s old flame Philip, a middle-aged man leading a sedate life with his wife Sheila, whom he also suspects of having a secret liaison.

Philip enters the garden to find Sheila at breakfast, and the mistaken-identity plot is launched. Greg believes Philip and Sheila to be Ginny’s parents, Philip believes Greg is Sheila’s paramour, and Sheila doesn’t know what to think. When Ginny shows up (her intention was to make a final break from Philip), the farce turns uproarious. The far-fetched plot demands pitch-perfect performances by the actors, and it gets them. Nigel Hawthorne is Philip, Gwen Watford his dotty wife, Michael Maloney is Greg, and Ginny is played by a yummy, mini-skirted Imogen Stubbs. The four are the only characters in the play, and the two sets are simple, so the play is revived often. But the BBC’s production is still the gold standard, and, since my videotape is giving out, I would be ecstatic if someone would produce a DVD.

Waters of the Moon

This play, by N.C. Hunter, was shown as part of an A&E series called “Stage” in 1983. The setting is a stately old guest house in Devonshire, inhabited by four permanent residents living out their twilight years in quiet boredom. There are two elderly ladies, one irrepressively jolly, the other melancholy and self-pitying, a retired Army colonel, and a courtly Austrian exile, trying to adapt to English life and customs. Other characters include the housekeeper, Mrs. Daly, and her two children, a young man afflicted with “a weak chest” and a 28-year-old daughter embittered by what she sees as a dead-end life. A heavy snowstorm howls outside, and there is a knocking at the door. Thus into this sleepy environment blow the Lancasters, an upper-class British couple and their daughter. Their car is stuck in the snow, and they require shelter. The woman, played brilliantly by Penelope Keith (BBC mainstay Geoffrey Palmer plays her husband), imperiously takes over the house, its guests, the Dalys, and the play. Like “Quartermaine’s Terms,” this one classifies as a serious comedy, with the accent on the “serious.” My tape is now a quarter-century old and starting to look a bit tired. But the content is so good that one can put up with the technical imperfections.

Season’s Greetings

Another “serious comedy” by Alan Ayckbourn, with Geoffrey Palmer (who must have been the most steadily employed actor in history), Barbara Flynn (who is still going strong), Peter Vaughan, Anna Massey, and other old BBC friends, all getting together for a Christmas holiday. Palmer is busy preparing his annual puppet show for the children (dreaded by children and grown-ups alike), Vaughan is a right-wing zealot ready for whatever the new order throws at him, and Massey is a spinsterly mass of neuroses ready to take the plunge (or is she?) with a new writer friend. It’s all impossibly complicated, and before the farce ends the writer is shot (Vaughan thinks he’s a burglar), Palmer, an impossibly incompetent doctor, wrongly calls him dead, and Massey’s virginity is not an issue after all (the writer is more interested in Flynn). Well, you had to be there.

Hotel Du Lac

This one is actually available as a DVD, but it is a Region 2 DVD (for European DVD players only), and most Americans are to be deprived of this excellent production of the Anita Brookner novel, starring Anna Massey, Denholm Elliott, and a sterling supporting cast, notably including a wonderful Googy Withers. Massey plays an English novelist who leaves her intended (but unwanted) husband at the altar and escapes the ensuing shame by fleeing to Switzerland, where she puts up at the Hotel Du Lac, a posh lake retreat where she encounters several (mostly British) vacationers, including a wealthy widow (Withers) and her pampered daughter, a single woman (Patricia Hodge) bored with life and starved for companionship, and a successful electronics executive (Elliott) who attempts to sell Massey on the idea of a marriage of convenience. Most novels suffer from the compression into a two-hour TV production, but this one does not. The essential wisdom of the book comes through here, and I can’t think of a thing of real value that the telescript could have added.

There are undoubtedly many other television productions of excellent British plays that were shipped across the Atlantic in the 70s and 80s for a brief shining moment on American TV – and then seen no more. How can it be that now, when there are hundreds of channels for the asking, there is no place to find them?

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Blog Books

If you enjoy these blog postings, you should know that most of the past essays have been published in two books, titled Searching for Joan Leslie and Lines from the Beachcomber. The printed books are available for about the printing cost (10 dollars), at They are also downloadable free, and I am frankly amazed at how many people have chosen this option. Personally, I could never read a book on a computer screen; besides, the printed books have those smashing covers designed by my son Chris, who also took the cover photographs. Still, the downloaders have shown their interest, and for that I am grateful.

A third book, The General Radio Story, is also available at GR was a legendary company, both for its contributions to the technology of electronics and for its humanitarian business philosophy. It was born in 1915, died in 2001. It deserved to be rescued from obscurity, and that’s why I wrote the book.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Hobson's Choice

The drums of war have been beating more loudly lately. Our military commanders have been ramping up their accusations of Iranian mischief, and today the oil market spiked on reports that a U.S.- chartered ship in the Persian Gulf fired a shot at an Iranian patrol boat. Evidence is piling up, they say, that Iran is responsible for the deaths of American soldiers. And of course, it is received truth that Iran is developing nuclear technology not, as they say, as a potential power source but as a step on the road to a weapon of mass destruction.

Most of the politicians have taken up their own drums. John McCain’s hawkishness is well known, and now Hillary Clinton warns that, were Iran to mess with Israel, the U.S. would “obliterate” that nation. (I have no doubt that the U.S. would rush to Israel’s defense. That’s the political reality. But is there a treaty somewhere? Did I miss that?)

That brings me to the dilemma confronting some voters this fall. It is likely that the choice will be between (1) a Republican who will look for any excuse to escalate the Middle East War and (2) a Democrat whose redistributionist, populist impulses will destroy what’s left of our free-market, free-trade economy.

This is not the first time voters have faced this Hobson’s choice. The far right apparently believes that our freedom rests on our willingness to project our military power. The far left is hostile to a capitalistic, meritocratic system that creates winners and losers. And that’s where we are (again) in 2008, with candidates playing to the most hawkish and most socialistic fringes. It tells us something about ourselves that politicians can win votes, and maybe elections, by threatening other countries with obliteration or demonizing “big business.”

It’s hard to be optimistic, but there is a possibility that Barak Obama would be less likely than Hillary to launch the B-2s and less likely than his rhetoric suggests to declare war on business. The choice of running mates will tell us a lot about the candidates. And they say that, once the primaries are over and the general election campaign begins, all candidates will rush to the center. Maybe. But I am not likely to forget that back in 2000, George W. Bush convinced me that he was firmly against trying to remake other countries in our own image.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


The perfect lunch, for me, is a nice hot bowl of soup. Fortunately, my wife’s notebook is filled with recipes for scrumptious soups. Her fish chowder, among those who have dined at Chez Van Veen, is legendary, and I have already blogged about her crab bisque. She also makes soups that defy naming but that are heavy on onions and mushrooms and mysterious spices. Scraps from dinners past often wind up in Jill’s soupy concoctions, and the results are always delicious.

All this is a blessing to me. Others not so fortunate must rely on the likes of Campbell, which was once considered the gold standard of soups but which has lately decided to mail it in, depending on the familiar red and white can to keep the flywheel running, even though the product itself is tasteless at best and virtually inedible at worst.

The other day, with Jill out shopping, I was forced to search the cupboard for a can of soup. There were three choices: Cream of Mushroom, Curly Noodles, and Split Pea with Ham. I chose the pea soup, opened the can, and found a cementitious mass of sickly green – something. With some effort, I pried it out, shoveled it into a pan, and added a canful of water. The instruction suggested that I whisk the stuff now sitting in the pan. Whisk? What I needed was a jackhammer.

Eventually the green mixture was liquefied enough to heat, and I had my lunch. It was awful. I am sure the cream of mushroom and the curly noodles would have been as bad, for Campbell just doesn’t care any more.

Then why, you ask, do we even have it on the shelf? One reason is to serve in emergencies. (We also have some Spam stored in the cellar.) Reason two is that the others (Progresso, the house brands, etc.) are no better. Campbell makes some higher-priced, “Select” soups, and some of these aren’t bad. I suspect that the plan is to offer tasteless soups in the red and white cans to force customers to upgrade to the premium brand.

One of the delights on cruise ships is the assortment of creative soups on the menu. These include a number of chilled soups, often fruit-based (e.g., pear and ginger, blueberry-banana). No split pea and ham slime here; the ships’ chefs have flair, something wholly lacking in the Halls of Campbell. The cruise fare will also include a zesty French onion soup under a heavy matting of mixed cheeses. We have noticed a slight slippage in the over-all quality of cruise-ship food in recent years, but in soups, they’re still at the top of their game.

In a free-market economy, you’d expect some entrepreneur to rush to fill the vacuum left by Campbell and the other soup heavyweights. The situation cries out for someone to do for soups what Starbucks has done for coffee. It would not necessarily require exotic, expensive makings. Just a dash of imagination is all.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Calling a Spade a Spade

In The Importance of Being Earnest, two young ladies are meeting for the first time in a garden, and they are verbally jousting for position. Cecily Cardew lays down her marker by declaring,” I always believe in calling a spade a spade.” Gwendolyn Fairfax responds by saying, “I am glad to say I have never seen a spade; it is obvious our social spheres have been quite different.”

The evidence is now overwhelming that the U.S. economy is entering a recession. Jobs are disappearing, mortgages are being foreclosed, and the dollar is in free fall, sending the price of oil and other commodities skyward. But the government apparatchiks will not use the “dreaded R word.” Instead, we are told by President Bush, Secretary Paulson, and others that we have entered a “slowdown,” a “rough patch,” and “period of economic difficulty.” Fed Chairman Bernanke conceded the other day that a recession was a possibility, and that concession made headlines the next day, though in reality he was simply stating the obvious.

Having worked for many years in the field of investor relations, I know something about the drill that attends the onset of a recession. And I can tell you that, ten times out of ten, the reaction of securities analysts, the financial press, and the afflicted companies is that all will be well in six months. Not three months, because that would not be credible, not two years, because that would put recovery beyond the time horizon of most investors, but six months. If the slowdown hits early in the year, the gurus will tell you that a second-half rebound is in the cards. And thus it is right now, as the eternal bulls, forced at last to admit that the economy has soured, turn to the nearest available crutch: Yes, the economy has slowed, but the recession will be short and mild, and by Christmas we will all be filled with good cheer.

Since WW2, the six-month rule has generally worked, because, as we are repeatedly told, our economy is resilient, and recessions reduce inventories and force companies to get rid of fat, so that even a tepid recovery generates earnings growth. But this time there are wild cards – China, India, the Iraq War – and it is hard to be as sure about our economic future. One can make a case for the six-month rule, but one can also make a case for a deep, 30’s-style depression lasting years. You won’t hear the latter prediction, though, because no one wants to ignite an investor panic.

But the government has just bailed out Bear Stearns, and in the congressional testimony given by the CEOs of Bear Stearns and its white knight, JP Morgan, there were frequent allusions to what might have happened had Bear Stearns filed for bankruptcy. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that what everybody was talking about was a doomsday scenario. The terms being thrown around were euphemistic – “there could have been severe and possibly uncontrollable consequences “ – but the meaning was clear: The Fed rushed in to save Bear Stearns in order to avoid the financial equivalent of nuclear war.

What are we to make of it when we are told not to panic when the titans of Wall Street have so obviously just panicked?

In the world of finance, confidence is everything. Without it, no one lends anything to anyone, people sit on their savings, and companies don’t build plants or hire workers. That is the dilemma facing the Fed, the SEC, Congress, the banking system, and the financial press. The financial system is broken, but nobody dares say that for fear of making things worse. Instead, they all say that the economy will get back on track in six months. That’s a sliding prediction; in six months, if the economy hasn’t recovered, there will be a new six-month forecast.

Financial reporter: “When I see a recession, I call it a recession.”

Treasury Secretary Paulson: “I am glad to say I have never seen a recession. It is obvious our social spheres have been quite different.”

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Lubitsch Touch

The Wall Street Journal headlined an article on this year’s crop of Oscar nominees “Fade to Bleak,” the point being that four of the five movies were grim stories, filled with blood and gore, amplified by modern technology that lets you actually see grizzly scenes of throat-slashing and other explicitly portrayed mayhem. One of the contenders is aptly named There Will Be Blood, so you can’t say you weren’t warned. So much for the movie theater as a place to escape the hard realities of life.

Once upon a time, it was different. In the early thirties, the public’s appetite for escape via movie musicals was insatiable. Some of them were awful, but some were excellent, thanks to performers like Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette McDonald, and, from England, Jack Buchanan. On the stage, The Desert Song, The Student Prince, The New Moon, etc. were still hugely popular, so it is not surprising that the plots for many of these musicals were essentially Hollywood’s versions of European operettas. By today’s standards, they are silly stories, but then, they are no sillier than most of what’s now playing at the local Cineplex. The other night I watched, for as long as I could stand it, a recent flick called Mr. Brooks, starring Kevin Costner and William Hurt. The plot was at least as noncredible as the worst of the operettas, and there was no music to offset the stupidity.

The master of the romantic-comedy genre in the early 30s was Ernst Lubitsch, and the term “the Lubitsch touch” is still applied to the most stylish romantic comedies.

Some of the Lubitsch treasures have recently been released on DVD and are available through Netflix. I recently waded in, and I’m glad I did. Here is what I found.

The Love Parade

The first 10 minutes of this film telegraph the whimsy that is to follow. Maurice Chevalier (whose name appears above the title) is a diplomat attached to the Sylvanian embassy in Paris. (He has been there long enough to have acquired his French accent, along with a string of female companions.) As we enter the scene, we hear an argument behind closed doors. His girlfriend has found a garter, and it isn’t hers. As she and Chevalier argue about the garter, her husband enters and sizes up the situation. Disgraced, she finds a revolver, shoots herself, and falls to the floor. The grief-stricken husband takes the gun from her hand and shoots Chevalier. But Chevalier, reprising a much-practiced scene, has loaded the gun with blanks. The husband, overjoyed to find his wife unharmed, exits with her (but not before she asks Chevalier to zip up her dress).

The Sylvanian ambassador, fed up with Chevalier’s string of scandals, sends him back to Sylvania, ruled by a beautiful but lonely Queen Louise, played by Jeanette McDonald in her first movie role. The rest of the story is thoroughly predictable. Comic relief, such as it is, is provided by British vaudevillian Lupino Lane (Ida Lupino’s uncle) and, in her cutesy period, Lillian Roth. The score, by Victor Schertzinger, features one standard, “Dream Lover.” The production is amazing for 1929, and the audio and video on the DVD are not bad, considering.

My mother was a big fan of Maurice Chevalier, and it is easy to see why. His warm personality and pleasant singing voice must have been dynamite to the audiences of 1929. As a matter of fact, they were all still evident three decades later, in Gigi.

Monte Carlo

The girl is still Jeanette McDonald, but the male lead is now British song and dance man Jack Buchanan. Jeanette is a countess who runs out on her wedding to an old, dim-witted nobleman and flees to Monte Carlo, where she falls under the spell of a hairdresser named Rudolph. But we know that Rudolph is really a count who pretends to be a hairdresser in order to meet the beautiful Jeanette. She is nearly broke (though she is attended by a maid and a retinue of other servants), and a big win at the casino is her only hope. The plot unfolds as in The Love Parade. She spurns him, he spurns her, she comes to her senses, etc. The similarity with the other movie is easily explained: Lubitsch, once he found a winning formula, milked it. In The Love Parade, the climactic scene is a ballet at the royal theater, with Queen Louise and her Prince Consort in the seats of honor. In Monte Carlo, the climactic scene is an opera (a contrived “Monseur Beaucaire”) with the Countess and Rudolph attending. The score for the film (including the opera scene) was written by Richard Whiting, and it contains one standard: “Beyond the Blue Horizon.” My wife reminds me that when this song was played during WW2, the final words, “a rising sun” were replaced by “a setting sun” in a burst of Nipponophobia.

One other song is worth mention: “Always in All Ways.” It is a delightfully catchy tune, well performed by Buchanan and McDonald. And Buchanan, like Chevalier, kept rolling along, delivering a knockout performance 23 years later in one of the best musicals ever screened, The Band Wagon.

One Hour With You

If you want to find out why Maurice Chevalier was the hottest property at Paramount in the early thirties, catch this one. It is a delicious Lubitsch confection, with clever dialogue, a few good songs, and Chevalier at his comedic best, which is saying a lot. The opening is memorable: The chief of the Paris police orders his gendarmes to sweep the City’s parks of its lovers, not because he is against necking, but because the economy suffers when people are on park benches instead of spending money in nightclubs. Chevalier and McDonald are among the park bench smoochers, and they are expelled by a dutiful officer. But they are married, and they are madly in love with each other, as Chevalier tells us in one of his arch to-the-camera asides. What a setup for the bedroom farce that is to follow, when Jeanette’s best friend, the sexy Mitzi, comes to visit! The supporting cast includes Roland Young as Mitzi’s cuckolded husband and Charlie Ruggles as an old friend who has a yen for Jeanette. The writers have given them some very funny lines, and they both deliver the goods.

The music includes two songs you will recognize, if you’re old enough: the title tune and "Day After Day" (we will always be sweethearts). The music is fine, and the cast (including the lovely Genevieve Tobin as Mitzi, the blonde hypotenuse of the triangle) is first-rate. But to me the revelation was Chevalier. I knew he could put over a song, but I never knew he had such a natural talent for comedy. If you have to choose one of the Lubitsch films to watch, this should be it.

The Smiling Lieutenant

Another operetta-based musical starring Maurice Chevalier. This one, made in 1931, before the censors were at work, has a plot that is silly even by operetta standards, but it’s a lot of fun all the same. Niki (Chevalier), a lieutenant in the Austrian army, is in love with Franzi (Claudette Colbert), a violinist and the leader of a girls’ band. While on duty as an honor guard to greet the visiting king and princess of neighboring Flausenthurm, he smiles at Franzi but is thought to be making eyes at Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) and is soon forced to marry her. Thus the triangle: the smiling Niki, Franzi the violinist, and Anna of Flausenthurm. Complications follow, and Lubitsch keeps you guessing till the end whether Niki will wind up with the blonde Anna or the brunette Franzi. The only musical number worth mentioning is “Jazz Up Your Lingerie,” notable mostly for the pianos backing up Hopkins and Colbert.

The dialogue is good. The king begins his grilling of the lieutenant by demanding that he spell Flausenthurm (he has been irritated by a missing “h” in an Austrian sign), and when Chevalier spells it correctly, the ladies in waiting swoon. (“That boy knows his alphabet.”) As I said, it’s all too silly for words, but once you accept that, it’s not bad. To audiences in the depth of the Great Depression, it must have been a wonderful tonic.

Trouble in Paradise

Trouble in Paradise is a Lubitsch romantic comedy, sans music, and it is revered by movie buffs for its sophistication and pre-Code sexiness. Debonair Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins are jewel thieves, and Kay Francis is the wealthy mark. It’s all played for laughs – not belly laughs, but laughs from naughty situations, double entendres, etc. It is like an extended Cole Porter lyric turned into a movie. Today’s directors should study it, in order to learn that a movie can be very racy without showing naked couples rolling about in the hay. In fact, without the dialogue this could be a G-rated movie. It could also have been a musical, and in fact I wish it were. I don’t know whether Marshall and company could sing, but I think the Lubitsch touch is deftest when set to music.

These movies probably will not appeal to younger audiences. They are by definition “dated,” they are of course in black and white, and the appeal lies in the dialogue, the situations, and, sometimes, the music. Almost all scenes are interiors, typically within palaces. There are no car chases, airplane crashes, or murders. But for anyone, young or old, who is interested in movies as an art form, Lubitsch 101 is a must course.