A higher, liberal plane

I like my Pandora radio, and was sufficiently curious about one of the repeating ads for a new TV show, Eli Stone, to track it down. At the website, I discovered that if you’re an evil corporate attorney, but have a brain aneurysm that causes you to become a prophet, you magically transform into a radical liberal who goes after big drugs. Who knew?

UPDATE: I’ve switched to a new server, so you can feel free to look around here or check out my new site, which not only has the old stuff, but also will move forward into the future with all my new material.

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How Hollywood thinks — and how it doesn’t think

Robert Avrech, who blogs at Seraphic Secret, understands Hollywood.  Although he is an openly observant Jew, a Zionist, and a conservative, he nevertheless lives, writes and works in that town.  For that reason, when he writes about the increasingly famous intersection at Hollywood and Politics, it’s definitely worth reading what he has to say.  Here he talks about the reasoning behind Hollywood voting.  It’s not a pretty picture he paints, but as we are all consumers of Hollywood products, and as Hollywood has become one of the reliable funders for the Democratic party, it’s something we all should read (and it’s written so beautifully).

Good immigrant, bad immigrant

I’ve been re-reading a wonderful book that I first read when it was published a little more than a decade ago: As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, by Laurence Bergreen. As anyone who enjoys popular music knows, Irving Berlin was one of the most extraordinary composers on the popular music scene, able to convey through simple melodies and clever, vernacular lyrics, a huge range of emotions. Listen to the song below, sung by Mr. Berlin himself, and enjoy such lyrics as

Some day, I’m going to murder the bugler,
Some day, they’re going to find him dead,
I’ll amputate his reveille,
And step upon it heavily,
And spend the rest of my life in bed.

What most people also know about Irving Berlin is that he was an immigrant. He arrived in the United States in 1893, as part of one of the largest mass immigration movements the US has seen. As Bergreen says, “At the time of the Rhynland’s arrival [Berlin’s ship], immigrants were pouring into New York at the rate of thousands a day, and the immigrant authorities were struggling to process them all.” (p. 4.) People came from everywhere: Russia, Italy, Germany, France, Ireland, with the largest group being the Russian (and Polish) Jews escaping the deadly pogroms that presaged the Holocaust. When they arrived, they spread out over the United States. (Golda Meir, for example, started in Milwaukee, Wisconson and ended up in Denver, Colorado, before her historic immigration to Palestine.)

The vast majority of new immigrants, however, ended up in New York’s Lower East Side. Census figures for this time indicate that the Lower East Side had more people per square foot than Calcutta. If you find yourself in New York and want to get a sense of the overwhelmingly claustrophobic, poverty-stricken existence these immigrants experienced, check out the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which ranks as one of the best museums I’ve ever seen. It’s narrow, dark hallways, minuscule apartments (that housed as many as ten people), and almost non-existent sanitary facilities, give you a sense of what immigrants to America experienced — and this was high class living compared to where the Baline family ended up. Their apartment was located in the most squalid part of the Lower East Side, a block from the East River. These are just buildings, though. The day-to-day sufferings these immigrants experienced is best recounted in a contemporary book, Jack Riis’ 1901 classic How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. Suffice to say, you wouldn’t want to live that way and, in modern America, no one does.

Despite the horrors of the tenements, Bergreen describes Berlin as being peculiarly cheerful about his slum childhood:

“Everyone should have a Lower East Side in their lives,” he was fond of saying in years to come, when success had dulled the sharper edges of his memories of the neighborhood. Still, he was sincere. [snip] “You never miss luxury until you’ve had it,” he said. “I never felt poverty because I’d never known anything else. I was a boy with poor parents, but let’s be realistic about it: I didn’t starve; I wasn’t cold or hungry. There was always bread and butter and hot tea.” (p. 8.)

This sunny outlook persisted despite the fact that, at 13, after his father died, he left home to live on his own so as not to be a financial burden to the family. This was no sunny, Huck Finn, picaresque adventure. As Bergreen writes:

He was now a foot soldier in the city’s ragged army of immigrants. Along the Bowery and nearby side streets an entire subindustry of loding houses had sprung up to shelter the thousands of homeless boys choking the Lower East Side streets. They were not settlement houses or charitable institutions: rather, they were Dickensian in their meanness, filth, and insensitivity to ordinary human needs. They were, in effect, warehouses for unwanted human beings. [snip] Fifteen cents bought Izzy a night’s stay; a set of filthy yellow sheets cost twenty-five cents extra. The bed on which he slept often crawled with lice. (p. 15.)

(You can get a sense of this existence if you read Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick, an absolutely wonderful historic document and quite an uplifting read on its own terms — and that’s despite the wooden, often unintentionally funny prose.)

Bergreen doesn’t limit this almost bizarrely sunny outlook to Berlin alone. Although many immigrants, especially the elderly, were simply swallowed up in the maw of New York’s slum communities, and all immigrants suffered what we would consider unendurable work and living conditions, to most of them it was still a step up from where they’d been before:

Izzy’s [Irving’s] acceptance of the harsh living conditions in the New World was echoed by many of his neighbors, for as bad as things were on Cherry Street, the situation had been far more desperate in Russia, especially for Jews. On March 1, 1881, seven years before Izzy was born, revolutionary terrorists assassinated Czar Alexander II. Under his reign Jews had managed to eke out a precarious existence in Russia, but restrictions crippled their lives.

[snip]

After the assassination the new czar, Alexander III, abolished even the limited freedoms granted to Jews. His aggressive brand of anti-Semitism gave rise to a wave of pogroms throughout the Pale. Inflamed by fantastic tales of evil Jewish rites, government agents destroyed and burned Jewish settlements, eventually driving much of their population beyond the borders of Russia. (p. 9.)

In other words, a dirty, crowded, disease-ridden community is pretty darn good when one is safe from the government and the neighbors. Despite the horrific living conditions, the immigrants felt that America was good. This feeling was reflected in the fierce patriotism they felt and in their intense desire to assimilate. They never forgot at home that they were Russian Jews, or Irish and Italian Catholics, or German Lutherans but, first and foremost, they were Americans. Irving Berlin exemplified these strong feelings the immigrants of yore had for their new home. Writing about the (mostly forgettable) patriotic songs Irving Berlin started cranking out as America hovered on the brink of WWI, Bergreen has this to say:

It would seem that Berlin’s patriotism was merely a commercial ploy to sell songs, but, in fact, it was only now that he began to see himself as more of an American than an immigrant. His patriotism was a genuine belief, one of the few he ever held outside the values of Tin Pan Alley. His first marriage had failed him [his wife died five months after their honeymoon], his homeland had destroyed his family, his parents had provided little comfort; in his exceedingly uncertain world, the United States offered a sanctuary and made him rich. In comparison with foreign governments, it was incredibly benign, especially in its attitude toward Jews and other immigrants. These values made a genuine impression on him, and he took them as seriously as he did the copyright laws that permitted him to grow rich. (p. 128.)

This attitude was not limited to Irving Berlin. Indeed, I think it has a lot to do with the hyper-patriotism Hollywood showed during the war. While the writers may have been Communist sympathizers who leapt at the opportunity WWII offered to churn out Communist claptrap, the studio bosses were straightforward in the patriotism. They churned out dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of movies lauding the war effort and encouraging ordinary Americans to get involved, whether in the military or on the home front. And think who these studio bosses were: Louie B. Mayer, of MGM, born in Minsk; the Warner Brothers, born in Belarus; and Adolph Zukor, of Paramount, born in Hungary. All saw America as a golden, promised land, an image they vigorously promoted in their movies.

In other words, it’s not just the misty distance of time that makes these people look like “good immigrants.” That is, their place as part of American history isn’t established simply because they’re dead and can do no harm. Instead, these were people who viewed America with tremendous gratitude, and throughout their careers did everything in their power to assimilate themselves to American values and to advance American goals.

I think these immigrants stand in stark contrast to the immigration ethos that now exists. I’m sure that there are millions among the rank and file immigrants who want to take advantage of America’s myriad benefits, in the process, to become real Americans. However, today’s immigration leadership, whether it comes from liberals at home or the immigrants themselves, sings a different song. As the failed immigration reform last year showed, the loudest immigrant voices today do not speak of a yearning to assimilate and do not hope for America’s well-being. They want America’s benefits to fall into their laps, without their having to make the effort to ally themselves with American values or goals. This picture of a flag that Hispanic students at Southern California high schools hoisted pretty much tells the tail:

These high school students didn’t spring up in a vacuum. They are the product of what they are taught, and they are taught to revile America by their and our community leaders. A hundred years ago, immigrants understood that America was the land of opportunity because, if you worked hard and embraced American values you or, at least, your children, could succeed.  Instead, the shrieking voices of immigration leadership (and I exempt many in the rank and file from this charge) understand America as a land of opportunity because you can arrive, claim benefits, demand that you and your children be taught and treated as if you were still in Mexico, and that’s the end of it.

Sadly, what this new generation of immigrants doesn’t realize is that their leaders’ approach is a zero sum game. While the old attitude allowed people to hang onto their culture at home, but to leap into the mainstream outside of their home and thrive (or, at least, let their children thrive), the new attitude is a recipe for perpetual social isolation, poverty, and racial hatred. As long as they don’t jump into American culture, current Americans will not regard them as nascent Americans, and that holds true even if they are hard workers. Instead, they will be viewed as alien parasites, coming to America to drain its resources, without adding their vigor and identity to the great American tapestry. They also will never be able to tap America’s economic potential, because their insistence on rejecting broader American culture also ensures that they will be barred from greater economic opportunities.

All of this means that, until the new immigrants make “God Bless America” part of their mental furniture, they will never be Americans, nor will their children, and we will be right to regard them with suspicion, as a perpetual Fifth Column on American soil:

A post I think you ought to read

I was going to try to build up my own post around Big Lizard’s The Best Years of their Lives : Hollywood and Franklin’s War, but I can’t.  It’s a complete package, and I don’t have anything to add that wouldn’t be idle twittering.  It’s a really stellar post in which BL takes on the difference between Hollywood’s approach to WWII and the current War.  The only issue where I’d part ways with BL — so I’m giving you one little twitter — is that I think he focuses too much on the Hollywood Left as the movers and shakers of pro-War movies and doesn’t give enough credit to the studio bosses who, though they may have been thuggish businessmen, were also genuine patriots who truly believed in America.  Twittering now done.  Read the post and see what you think.

Good news for those sick of movie sleaze

The conservative side of the internet has been enjoying the fact that Americans have rather consistently been rejecting the anti-War films oozing out of Hollywood.  There’s a flip-side to this story, which is that Hollywood is slowly figuring out the wholesomeness sells:

The family values era is dead – with Britney Spears and her little sister doing their best to ensure that it isn’t coming back soon. But there’s at least one arena in popular culture where parents have been receiving a world free of drug use, sexual shenanigans and strong profanity: the movie theater.

Last weekend’s release of “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” which made more than $88 million during its first seven days in theaters, is the latest PG-rated film to find success this year. If the trend continues over the next few weeks, seven PG movies could end up among the 20 highest-grossing films released in 2007 – the most since 1989, when Ronald Reagan left office and eight studio offerings including “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “Driving Miss Daisy” were on the list.

Next year looks even more geared toward 10-year-olds, with family-friendly releases including “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” “Where the Wild Things Are” and the latest “Chronicles of Narnia” film, “Prince Caspian.” Even the Wachowskis – best known for their violent and R-rated “Matrix” movies – are working on the colorful and kid-accessible “Speed Racer,” which could end up with a G rating.

The change comes as more parents are making their voices heard, especially online, about children’s movies. Common Sense Media founder Jim Steyer thinks the studios are listening; Steyer says he even heard “Kill Bill Vol. 1” producer Harvey Weinstein say at a conference this year that he wants to make PG films.

“The bottom line is, it definitely seems like a trend, and I think that’s good,” said Steyer, who founded Bay Area-based Commonsensemedia.org , which offers family reviews and ratings of media and entertainment, in 2003. “It almost seems as if there’s a hunger out there for quality media for children.”  (Emphasis mine.)

You can read the rest of the story about this trend here.  As for me, I’m completely excited about the next Narnia moving, having enjoyed the first one tremendously.

Michael Kidd, RIP *UPDATED*

He died at 92, and he’d retired long ago, but I still feel a sense of loss that Michael Kidd, the brilliant choreographer, has died:

Michael Kidd, the award-winning choreographer of exuberant dance numbers for Broadway shows like “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Guys and Dolls” and Hollywood musicals including “The Band Wagon” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” died on Sunday at his home in Los Angeles.

The cause was cancer, said his nephew Robert Greenwald. Biographical sources generally give Mr. Kidd’s age as 88, but Mr. Greenwald said his uncle was actually 92.

On Broadway, Mr. Kidd won five Tony Awards: for “Finian’s Rainbow” in 1947, “Guys and Dolls” in 1951, “Can-Can” in 1954, “Li’l Abner” in 1957, and “Destry Rides Again” in 1960. In Hollywood, he received a special 1997 Academy Award “in recognition of his services to the art of dance in the art of the screen.”

Perhaps his best-known film work was “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” a 1954 musical of the American frontier whose dances, which he created for ballet dancers, were not supposed to appear balletic. He had them perform what he called “work movements,” like wielding axes.

“I always use real-life gestures, and most of my dancing is based on real life,” Mr. Kidd said in an interview. He defined his choreography as “human behavior and people’s manners, stylized into musical rhythmic forms.”

Anna Kisselgoff, the former chief dance critic of The New York Times, wrote that Mr. Kidd’s signature was “characterization through energy, epitomized by a lovesick male clan going courting with an acrobatic challenge dance” in “Seven Brides.”

Michael Kidd was born in Brooklyn, the son of an immigrant barber, Abraham Greenwald, and his wife, Lillian. While still at New Utrecht High School, he attended a modern-dance performance, was hooked, and began to study with Blanche Evan.

You can read the rest of the very nice NT Times obit here.

UPDATESoccer Dad asked in the comments if I’d seen the post at Seraphic Secret about Michael Kidd’s death.  I hadn’t when he asked that question, but I have now and I can highly recommend it.

Irving Berlin and Churchill

Did you hear the story about Irving Berlin’s lunch with Winston Churchill during WWII? It’s a very funny story, it’s true, and it’s part of the larger and very wonderful story of Irving Berlin’s musical This is the Army. Berlin wrote This is the Army both to boost American morale and to raise money (which it did, in spades). Although originally intended for a short Broadway run, it ended up touring America, being made into a movie, and being performed in England, as well as the European and Pacific theaters of War. The English tour was the occasion for this great story:

For prominent Americans wartime London was remarkable for the easy access they enjoyed to the highest echelons of British society. Berlin received an invitation to have lunch with Winston Churchill at 10 Downing Street. Throughout the course of the war, Churchill had been entertained by dispatches written by the celebrated Oxford don Isaiah Berlin, who was assigned to the British Embassy in Washington. On hearing that the writer he so admired was visiting London, Churchill hastened to invite Isaiah Berlin to lunch. Through a bureaucratic mixup, however, the invitation went out to the songwriter rather than the political commentator.

On the appointed day, Irving Berlin presented himself at the prime minister’s residence, where he was escorted to a comfortable room and given a cigar and a glass of brandy. In time, Churchill appeared, still under the impression that his guest was Isaiah Berlin. The prime minister wasted little time on pleasantries. “How is war production in the United States?” he demanded.

Berlin was taken aback by the question. He was a composer and performer, not a war correspondent. “Oh, we’re doing fine,” he hesitantly answered.

“What do you think Roosevelt’s chances of reelection are?”

Uncomfortable at being called on to play political pundit, he gave the obvious answer. “I think he’ll win again.”

“Good,” Churchill replied. “Good.”

“But if he won’t run again,” Irving offered, “I don’t think I’ll vote at all.”

For the first time, he had Churchill’s interest, not that he welcomed it. “You mean you think you’ll have a vote?” Churchill asked, a note of wonder–or was it British irony?–creeping into his voice.

“I sincerely hope so,” Irving said.

“That would be wonderful,” Churchill replied, appearing to sum up. “If only Anglo-American cooperation reached such a point that we could vote in each other’s elections. Professor, you have my admiration. You must stay for lunch.”

Throughout lunch at 10 Downing Street, Irving was haunted by the feeling that he was well out of his depth. Why had Churchill addressed him as “professor”? He stopped trying to reply to Churchill’s probing questions and fell silent. Eventually Churchill turned his back on his taciturn guest. The awkward lunch finally came to a conclusion, and as Churchill left the room, he whispered loudly to an aide, “Berlin’s just like most bureaucrats. Wonderful on paper but disappointing when you meet them face to face.”

If you’d like a sense of the show, I’ve included a couple of clips below, one lauding the Air Force, the other the Navy. All the performers you see in the clips, incidentally, are real members of the Armed Forces (most with performance backgrounds, of course), rather than Hollywood stars and extras. Who you don’t see in the clips is Ronald Reagan, who was then a Lieutenant working in Hollywood on morale boosting projects, and who had a role in this movie too. Aside from Reagan, who served at the Army’s behest, there were other actual Warner Brother stars in the movie as well but, with the exception of a couple of George Murphy and Frances Langford numbers, they did not provide the musical content, which was left to the real troops.

And here’s a nice piece of trivia from the movie:

This film is the only one to star a U.S. President, a U.S. Senator, a state governor and two Presidents of the Screen Actors Guild. Ronald Reagan was President of the U.S. from 1981-1989, Governor of California from 1967-1975 and President of SAG from 1947-1952 and 1959-1960; George Murphy was Senator from California 1965-1971 and President of SAG 1944-1946. They filmed the movie prior to having been elected to any of the offices mentioned.

UPDATE: Perhaps because I’ve spent the last 30 minutes mentally back in WWII (an era that pre-dates my birth), when our country cared about the military and its fight to defend freedom, I somehow found startling the results of the gala for “CNN Heroes.” All the “heroes” sound like great people, creative and hard working, but I did find it a bit peculiar that, while our country is at war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the heroes did not include (and, indeed, the roster did not even contemplate) people whose heroism includes actually putting their lives on the line so that others can live free.