Sunday, January 19, 2020

January 18: Start All Over Again, W. C. Fields, Puppy Breaths

Merton talks about his grandfather:

Pop's office always seemed to me a fine place.  The smell of typewriters and glue and office stationery had something clean and stimulating about it.  The whole atmosphere was bright and active, and everybody was especially friendly, because Pop was very well liked.  The term "live wire" was singularly appropriate for him.  He was always bristling with nervous energy, and most people were happy when he came shouting through their departments, snapping his fingers and whacking all the desks with a tolled-up copy of the Evening Telegram.  

Pop worked for Grosset and Dunlap, publishers who specialized in cheap reprints of popular novels, and in children's books of an adventurous cast.  They were the ones who gave the world Tom Swift and all his electrical contrivances, together with the Rover Boys and Jerry Todd and all the rest.  And there were several big showrooms full of these books, where I could go and curl up in a leather armchair and read all day without being disturbed until Pop came along to take me down to Childs and eat chicken a la king.

This was 1923 and Grosset and Dunlap were at a peak of prosperity.  As a matter of fact, it was just about this time that Pop had carried off the one great stroke of his career.  He had sold his employers the notion of printing the books of popular movies illustrated with stills from the film, to be sold in connection with the publicity given to the picture itself.  This idea took on very quickly and remained popular all through the twenties, and made a lot of money for the company, and it was to be the cornerstone of Pop's own economic stability and, in fact, of the whole family's for fifteen years to come.

And so, Black Oxen and the Ten Commandments and the Eternal City and I forget what else went forth into all the drugstores and bookstores in all the small towns from Boston to San Francisco, full of pictures of Pola Negri and others stars of the time.

In those days movies were still occasionally made on Long Island, and more than once, my brother and I and all our friends in the neighborhood would hear they were taking some scene or other down at Alley Pond.  Once, under the trees, we witnessed what was supposed to be a gypsy wedding between Gloria Swanson and some forgotten hero.  The idea was that the two of them allowed their wrists to be slashed, and bound together, so that their blood would mingle:  that was the gypsy wedding, according to the ideas of whoever was producing this immortal masterpiece.  Frankly, however, we were not very much interested in all this.  As children, we had enough sense to find the whole concept extremely heavy.  We were much more excited when W. C. Fields came to Alley Pond to make part of a short comedy.  First they set up the cameras in front of an old tumbledown house.  I don't remember whether our hero was supposed to be drunk or scared, but the door to the house would fly open, and W. C. Fields would come hurtling out and go careering down the steps in a way that made you wonder how he got to the bottom of them without breaking both legs and all of his ribs.  After he had done this over and over again innumerable times, with a singular patience and philosophical tenacity, the men moved their cameras up on top of a big pile of old lumber that was standing by, and filmed what was evidently part of the same sequence.  There was a steep wooded slope, full of trees and bushes, ending in a sheer drop of about six feet.  At the bottom of this, they planted a couple of extremely tame cows.  Then W. C. Fields came blundering through the bushes, in his same hysterical, stumbling flight from some unseen menace,  Looking behind him, he failed to see the drop, and went plunging over, landing on top of the two tame cows, which were supposed to run madly away with him on their backs.  However, they just let Fields land on top of them with a heavy thud, and then stood there, chewing on the grass, and looking bored, until he fell off, and climbed stoically back up the hill to start all over again.  

Merton seems pretty enamored of Pop, his grandfather.  Gregarious and accomplished, Pop is liked by everyone and makes a lot of money selling books.  Perhaps this is Merton's first experience with the publishing field.  I imagine he could have gotten bitten by the writing bug at his grandfather's office, since it is lined with hundreds and hundreds of books.  And then there's Merton's connection to Hollywood and the movie industry.  Brushes with famous people seem pretty common for him.  Gloria Swanson.  W. C. Fields.  Two of the most popular stars of the 1920s and '30s.

Pardon for the lateness of this post.  I have been preoccupied for most of the day with shoveling snow and cleaning churches and eating pizza.  And, of course, taking care of our new puppy.  W. C. Fields once said, "Never work with animals and children."  I currently have an eight-week-old miniature Australian shepherd sitting on my lap as I type this post.  I'm having no problem working with this animal, and she seems to have no problem falling asleep as I grapple for inspiration.

Merton and his pals don't have a problem spending an entire day watching movie stars do ridiculous things.  W. C. Fields doing the same bit of physical comedy over and over and over.  Gloria Swanson performing a "gypsy wedding" with her costar.  Me?  I am fascinated with this puppy.  Watching her romp in snow.  Pick up a top and shake it.  Drink from her water dish.  Crunch down her food.  Pee and poop.  And now, sleeping in my lap, breathing deep puppy breaths.  I can't seem to get enough of it.

What I have noticed most about having Juno (that's the name my daughter picked out for her about two months ago) is that all my worries seem reduced, even trivial, when she's dozing in my lap.  I've heard there are medical studies documenting how pets help with mental health.  Lessen anxiety and depression.  Calm fears.

I am sitting at my kitchen table right now.  It's 12:45 a.m.  Now, this is not unusual for me.  I am a night owl.  (Interestingly enough, I'm also an early bird.)  In the past three months, I've been in this same chair at this same table quite frequently, worrying about bills, the future, addiction, climate change, and, of course, the current person sitting behind in the desk in the Oval Office.  My life breeds insomnia.

Tonight, I am calm.  I'm not going over bills.  Instead, I'm holding a puppy,  I feel content, just looking at her sleeping, head in the crook of my arm.

Saint Marty has always believed in love at first sight.  It happened with his wife, daughter, son.  It has happened again--this time with a one-pound bundle of furry energy, who currently doesn't want to sleep in her kennel.

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