The Austin Chronicle

Greener Pastures

Youth, Joy, and Jean Arthur

By Raoul Hernandez, May 10, 2002, Features

I don't want to learn solemn things. No one's going to catch me and make me a man. I just want to be a little boy and have fun.

-- Peter Pan

Oh wretched misery! Inexorable fate! Emissary of despair! Why hast thou cast me into the pit of ultimate darkness, weeping, wailing, sulking. Was it the lying, the stealing, the time I destroyed a brand-new pair of soft leather hiking boots in my quest for the cow graveyard? Take my parents (please!) ... my friends ... the world supply of squash. Anything but the TV. Please, Lord ... not that. Not the Six Million Dollar Man. Everyone at school watches WKRP in Cincinnati.

But that's the way it was at my house. No TV. Along with the generous amounts of bread and water, I did get a little blue suitcase stereo, though. Crack it open, pull down the turntable, and you were in business; Aesop's Fables, The Three Little Pigs, Snoopy & the Red Baron -- all the hits. No. 1 favorite, the 'Witchdoctor Song' ("oo-ee-oo-ahah, ting-tang, walla-walla bing-bang"), received the broken record treatment 'til my father screamed like he was the tiny tribal chieftain with the tack sticking out of his big toe. Woulda served him right, too.

While they luxuriated in the TV room with All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Masterpiece Theatre, Oliver Twist lay on the floor of his dungeon and listened to Androcles & the Lion. When clock radios became all the rage, it was AM frequencies pitting the Clash, Marvin Gaye, and Barry Manilow against Abbott & Costello, Bob & Ray, and Bill Cosby on The Comedy Hour, and the King Biscuit Flower Hour concerts vs. seasonal baseball broadcasts, and every Sunday night, The Mystery Hour. In retrospect, 60 Minutes might've been more suitable for junior than some hair-raising re-enactment of The Pit & the Pendulum. Lights out, imagination overload.

There was an exception to the (despotic) rule, however. On weekends, if young Rabinal hadn't been punted into the great outdoors, every so often his mother would appear in the doorway to his bedroom, smile, and crook a finger. That meant one thing: old movies, black & white preferred. Classics only -- Sabrina, Dark Passage, Topper. The ultimate escape, where glamour, sophistication, and wit were yin to the yang of gangsters, guns, and a prehistoric island where natives sacrificed blondes to a giant ape. Mulholland Drive had nothing on a girl named Norma Jean, and Sunset Blvd. belonged to Norma Desmond. A king to rule them all: Bogey.

Over time, that walk-in closet of a room -- where my crib once entertained little chance for escape -- became the window to another reality. A place where lean Leslie Howard was both professorial and petrified, and Mrs. Miniver was one housewife the postman best not call upon. Greta Garbo was Anna Karenina, Camile, and Ninotchka all in one. Just as my great-grandmother was my mother's conduit to a cinematic utopia, and my father had once been a theatre manager, I too, gained passage into this magic kingdom.


Obesity and Bunions

"The Neverland is a very compact little island," intones the long-nosed English narrator. "Not large and sprawling with tedious distances, but nicely crammed. The sun, one of Peter's servants, has begun to bestir himself. The mermaids basking in the lagoon are carefully combing their long hair. Those flickering, white-ish dots are probably some fairies of the commoner sort hurrying home from some all-night party."

The oboes arch a collective eyebrow. And not just any oboes, Leonard Bernstein's oboes! Woodwinds are the fairy dust animating this particular Peter Pan. Opening on Broadway April 24, 1950, songs and lyrics by the maestro, this singular production was immediately notable for its expense ($100K), marquee (Jean Arthur, Boris Karloff), and the fact that it was the first serious staging of J.M. Barrie's youth parable in nearly 20 years. Already the subject of at least one silent film and countless theatrical revivals, Peter Pan had been modern folklore since its 1904 London birth. A 12-year-old boy who could fly and had legs.

"When I came into this room tonight, I saw a face at the window!" gasps Mary Darling to her shocked husband.

"A face at the window?" huffs Karloff, as both George Darling and Capt. Hook. "Three floors up? Nonsense."

"It was the face of a little boy," insists Wendy's mother in a conspiratorial tone. "He was trying to get in! George, this is not the first time I have seen that boy."

The moment Peter throws open the window to the children's room that same dark, windy night in order to retrieve his shadow, is when the play literally takes flight. The "record adaptation," anyway. A vinyl artifact that, by all rights, should have been a useless score full of syrupy songs amid snippets of dialogue, instead compresses the entire Broadway spectacle into a 60-minute, full-cast rendition for the child in all of us. A Fifties radio hour with no sponsor.

Tinkerbell, "a flame of light, not much larger than a finger," flutters via the flute, yet is voiced by vibes. Nana, the children's dog nanny, is barked by Norman Shelly. Arthur does her own barking as Peter, while her co-star gobbles ham; Karloff is almost Pythonesque. His pirate crew, meanwhile, "a more villainous looking brotherhood never hung on any gallows," is baritoned by the pint: "You can all have as malicious a look as the meanest of all, Captain Hook." Last but not luggage, the crocodile that facilitated Hook's hook has a bad case of Timex in his soft white underbelly. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick ...

"Odds, bobs, hammer and tongs!" cries Karloff every time he hears the time tick-tick-tickin' in his head. "The croc-o-dile!"

When his henchman Smee devises a plan to kidnap Wendy and make the Lost Boys walk the plank, Karloff clucks with Grinchy-glee.

"Obesity and bunions!" he cries. "'Tis a princely scheme."

Fortunately, like Maude Adams before her and Sandy Duncan after, this Peter Pan was no prince.

Only Angels Have Wings

Gladys Georgiana Greene was born with the century, 1900, in what was still more or less the great American frontier, upstate New York. Her father was a photographer and alcoholic. Her mother was a stronghold against abandonment and tenderness. By all accounts, as an adult, Gladys was almost pathologically neurotic, with a proclivity toward drink. Determined, independent, her inheritance included a frontiersman's ballast, the kind that defined her last film, Shane.

A high school dropout, she was a successful Manhattan model bound for Hollywood the summer of '23. In more than 40 silent films and another 20 talkies, the dark-haired doll kept three steps ahead of obscurity until John Ford cast her opposite Edward G. Robinson in The Whole Town's Talking, by which point she was platinum blond. She was also 35. The stage name she had been using all along finally became worth remembering: Jean Arthur.

As legend has it, Frank Capra happened upon her spritely talents in a screening room on the Columbia lot and fought to team her with Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. His tenacity made her a star and revived Capra's career after the slump that followed It Happened One Night. Arthur's work with the writer/directors of legend (Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, George Stevens) in hallmark comedies like Easy Living, Talk of the Town, and The More the Merrier ceased in 1953 when a blood feud with Columbia boss Harry Cohn exiled her into reclusion.

"In some ways she is the most original of all the screwball women," posits James Harvey via 1987's genre-worthy Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, "if only because she did away with so much of the equipment, the ingenuity and the subversion and the gags. She offered what she was, so to speak: smart and resilient and generous, with a killing smile, at once reluctant and adventurous, candid and quizzical at the same time. In a way she completes the cycle of screwball heroines, confirming the tendency to move their glamour closer to ordinary life."

And then, of course, there is Arthur's voice, one of the most distinct in all filmdom. Here's another stab at its fairy essence: Betty Boop as voiced by Eleanor Roosevelt. A sharp, grating voice on the LP to Peter Pan. A voice miscast perhaps, but as with Arthur's disarming turn in Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings, when she cries "I'm youth, I'm joy, I'm free-dom!" as Peter Pan, her surrender to the role is absolute. Out of the estimated 90 films Arthur made, only 10 or so are available on video, with maybe another 10 in the AMC/TCM film library. Peter Pan is a piece of celluloid that exists only on vinyl.

"All her life, Arthur had wanted to play Peter Pan," attests John Oller's definitive Jean Arthur, the Actress Nobody Knew (1997), "and when she finally got the chance -- at the age of almost 50 -- she enjoyed a Broadway run that broke all previous records for any production of the play, and indeed ran longer than the later and better-known version starring her friend Mary Martin. Not only did Arthur achieve her greatest triumph in Peter Pan, she also found, in the whimsical and androgynous title character, her true kindred spirit."

As an adult, I watch almost no TV. Film, mostly. And late at night, as a star filter lens glints white light from the eyes of Jean Arthur, Fredric March, Myrna Loy -- any of the greats -- I know that light to be a reflection of my eternal childhood.

If you can hang onto your individuality, hold tight to your freedom, and not get squiggled-out as you grow older, then and only then are you mature.

-- Jean Arthur end story

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