Yeah, so, it’s my fault. I’m sorry. That thing where we all went around all day Wednesday thinking it was Thursday? And a whole bunch of Thursday thinking it was Friday? That was me. I messed up somehow and took two days off my Peanuts page-a-day calendar. I don’t know how. I’m usually good about this, taking one day off per day lived. I haven’t got any excuse and I apologize for having everyone’s sense of what day it is messed up. I’d like to make it up to everyone by leaving it on Saturday/Sunday for an extra couple days but I know deep down that would just make everything worse. Best I can do is spread the word, let people know why all this is going on, and we’ll get back to normal as we can manage. I mean normal for us.
Way, way back in the day Barney Google and Snuffy Smith was a story comic. It was always funny or trying to be, but it was also doing a storyline. Comics Kingdom is reprinting strips from that time. In like 1940 or so Snuffy Smith got drafted and the strips since then have put him in a bunch of goofing-around-the-Army-camp stories. In the current one Barney Google, stationed in Australia, sent a kangaroo over to his friend. Snuffy used it first to set up boxing matches that turned into some pretty solid comedy, with the poor human begging outwitted handily by the kangaroo. And now as of September 1942 Snuffy Smith is using the kangaroo to pass messages along for money. And now we get to this comic:
And I guess I’m just stuck thinking, when this was published the Battle of Stalingrad was barely through its first month. US Marines were trying (unsuccessfully) to pass the Matanikau River on Guadalcanal. Four Royal Air Force bombers sent to Oslo on a civilian-morale-building raid failed to destroy the Gestapo headquarters but did kill something like eighty civilians, and lose one of the bombers in the process. The British destroyer Somali finally sunk in the Greenland Sea four days after being damaged by German submarine U-255. Four ships of Allied convoy QP 14 had just been sunk by U-435. Japanese forces landed on the Gilbert Island of Maiana. And the British destroyer Veteran and the United States Liberty ship Stephen Hopkins were days away from being sunk. And … Snuffy Smith’s kangaroo was dancing. And I feel like this is utterly mad and then I think, well, what am I doing, and why that? I think what I’m saying is I don’t want to feel like I need a hug just because a kangaroo’s dancing to swing music.
I was reading Robert E Conot’s Justice at Nuremberg, possibly because I was feeling too good about humanity both as a concept and in the way it was actually implemented. Conot mentions how following a series of suicides and suicide attempts:
At night the Nazi leaders were required to sleep with their hands outside their blankets, and were not permitted to turn their faces toward the wall. Whenever one rolled over in his sleep, the guard took the long pole designed for opening the high windows, pushed it through the porthole in the door, and poked and awakened the sleeper.
And so help me, this got me thinking. Sleeping with hands over the blankets? Not being able to roll over? Getting jabbed awake whenever I do roll over? I can sleep through a lot, but I’m sure the Allies could jab me with a stick enough that I woke up. At least the Americans and Soviets could. The British I suppose would if someone lent them a stick because they couldn’t afford one themselves. The French might if the other Allies would just let them in. Sleeping in those conditions? Never. I would be a lousy war criminal.
Then I remembered: oh yeah, I want to be a lousy war criminal. If there’s one field in which you should ignore the advice “always do your best even at stuff you don’t like to do”, committing the atrocities that defined “atrocity” for the 20th Century is it. So if there were any doubt in my mind about whether to be one of history’s greatest monsters — and there isn’t; I’m on the “don’t be” side and won’t even hear arguments the other way — the sleeping conditions would push me towards “don’t be”.
And this made me realize: I have found literally the worst reason imaginable to want to not be a war criminal. Besides everything else I can’t figure who would be undecided or leaning-toward-yes right up until they hear about the postwar prison conditions regarding sleeping with your arms over the blankets. I guess I’d be kind of glad-ish to hear this turned someone away from unleashing the cruelest demons of human nature on other people. It’s still a weird thing to come to, is all.
The comic writer/critic Ian Shoales (Merle Kessler) wrote once that he thought allegory was an art form that’d gone out with the Middle Ages, “except for certain episodes of The Twilight Zone”. It’s true in spirit, even if allegories lasted a bit longer than the Middle Ages. Allegorical stories are still around, although they’re not so formally structured as your classic Middle Ages/Twilight Zone structure.
The Jack Benny Program was for many years an exception. Benny’s show would do, for the New Year’s broadcast, a deliberately allegorical piece. Benny would play the Old Year, giving advice and explanations to the New Year. It makes for a curious pop-cultural filter on years of history: the sketches are stuffed full of news, hopes for the coming year, wishful thinking for the present, up-to-the-minute pop culture references. (The song Benny as Old Year sings is “Pistol Packin’ Momma”, which was everywhere in 1943. I think Jack Paar mentioned how sick USO crews got of the song, since whenever they arrived at a new base the soldiers and sailors wanted to hear it.) It can make for striking moments of understanding life in a time gone far by.
I’m not sure how many years they did this. But I wanted to share an example. This one’s from the 2nd of January, 1944. It’s dominated by war news, of course. Even there it gets strange, turning the war news of 1943 into a baseball game, with gags like how Mussolini got knocked in the head in the sixth inning. The premise feels odd, though it’s saved by earnestness and sentiment. There are some laughs that I, comfortably seventy years on, have which the original audience wouldn’t.
(There’s some racially charged jokes in this. You probably suspected that going in. I cringed most at Rochester’s segment. The character’s treatment on the show got better in time, but the show as a whole was probably at its best during World War II. I do feel bad closing out 2015, a year that saw so much celebration of white racism, with that Rochester sketch. But I don’t feel right editing it out and pretending it’s not there.)
Bit of a change for these sorts of Friday things. Rather than a video I’d like to share an old-time radio program. This is the Fibber McGee and Molly that originally aired the 17th of June, 1941. It’s titled “Amusement Park”. I don’t know whether that was the script name or just how the Fibber McGee and Molly fans chose to name it. If I have overcome archive.org’s horrible new interface, this should be a link to download an MP3 to it. If I haven’t overcome archive.org’s horrible new interface, well, you should be able to select track 21, “Amusement Park”, below and listen in your web browser, rather than your MP3 player or audio program of your actual choice. Mostly, though, archive.org’s new interface is horrible.
Anyway. Fibber McGee and Molly was a proto-sitcom. The show started as being about vagabond motorists Fibber and Molly having encounters with amusing locals. After a few years of this they won a house in a raffle (really) and settled down to what’s almost the modern format of the genre. Most episodes give Fibber some modest task to attempt, at home, while Molly comments, and comical neighbors drop in, one at a time, to riff on that.
It’s not quite the sitcom as perfected, mostly because the episodes don’t really have plots. They have themes and jokes circling around the theme. But most of the time you could scramble the appearances by the comical neighbors and have about as good a show. There’s not a running storyline; at best it’s got running jokes. Which seems really odd because the show would have stuff develop over the course of episodes. Indeed, this episode introduces something that would be picked up on the next week, their close of the 1940-41 broadcast season.
I mentioned with Rube and Mandy last week that Amusement Park movies tend toward storylessness. But for Fibber McGee and Molly that works, since the format begs for chance encounters and nothing much happening. The curious thing about this episode is that Fibber and Molly don’t actually do anything but walk around and talk and try to use a photo booth. Before the episode started Fibber apparently rode the roller coaster twelve times, but none of that’s on-microphone. That seems quite odd considering it’s a radio show, and they only need sound effects to put the cast on anything. And the show even features a comic song praising the Sound Effects Man.
The best sound effect, though, is in the voice acting. Teeny, the Little Girl who keeps nagging Fibber for food, was voiced by Marion Jordan. So was Molly McGee. In most episodes of the show, Teeny is one of the comic neighbors, who drops in for her bit and disappears after delivering a minute or two of jokes. And in most episodes Molly makes some excuse to leave the scene. This is one of the few episodes where Marion Jordan has to do both Molly’s and Teeny’s voices, repeatedly, and extendedly, in the same scenes. And, you’ll remember, live. It’s a neat bit of voice acting, one it’s easy to not realize is going on.
There are a couple of racially tinged jokes here. Most are like how funny it would be for a Zulu person to hear the Hut-Sut Song. That was a contemporary nonsense-verse novelty song you hear in a couple of Looney Tunes. (And where are the modern nonsense-verse novelty songs, by the way?) In the Sound Effects Man song there’s a reference to shooting “redskins”; I’m sure they just meant to honor the football team.
I do get a strange feeling listening to this because I know the original broadcast date. It was the 17th of June, 1941. World War II was nearly two years old. President Roosevelt had just the month before declared the Unlimited National Emergency that left the United states all but officially at war with Germany. The German invasion of the Soviet Union was less than a week away. Not a hint of this creeps into the dialogue. Japan’s terror-bombing of Chongqing had recently killed four thousand residents who were in a bomb shelter. It would be out of character (and, for Operation Barbarossa, anachronistic) for people to talk about the war while at an amusement park. (There were scattered references to the war in earlier episodes, such as the one in which Fibber McGee’s gotten his draft notice.) But there is this strange tone to hearing so much small, normal, routine things in the midst of such an epic picture.
I have a Peanuts page-a-day calendar because otherwise I’d only be reading three different Peanuts strips online every day, and on the back of every page is a miscellaneous bit of stuff, like a word puzzle or a sudoku puzzle or a note about what the day’s an anniversary of, which would be kind of useful if I saw it before I tore the page off the next day. On the back of January 27 they had this:
Corporate executives consider Tuesday the most productive day of the week. It’s the day to get down to business and start crossing off items on to-do lists.
Is this a “fun fact”? I’m not a fair judge of whether something is fun because I own multiple books which explain the history of containerized cargo, and I’ve been thinking seriously about picking up James Q Wilson’s Bureaucracy for recreational reading. I know that sounds like a joke, but I got interested in Wilson’s book because of some reading I was doing about Harry S Truman’s 1946-1949 director of the Bureau of the Budget, so you see why that all makes sense. You can tell me whether corporate productivity assessments are fun.
But is it a “fact”? People have a complicated relationship with facts. We like them, because we’re pretty sure knowledge is built out of them, but just how that building gets done is a mystery. You can check in the World Almanac and find out how many tons of steel the United States produced in 1945, if you were trying to look up when Arbor Day is and had some trouble with the index, but all that really tells you is how much steel the American Iron and Steel Institute was willing to admit was made back then. And really, all you learn is how much the World Almanac claims the American Iron and Steel Institute claims was made back then, and they’re pretty sure you aren’t going to go checking, what with Google being a much easier way to find out when Arbor Day is. Knowing what you do about American steel production rates in 1945 doesn’t give you any idea about why Arbor Day.
We want facts to be on our side, as we get ready to do cognitive battle with the world, but they’re not reliable allies. A fact can be pretty hard to dispute — that steel-production figure has got to be pretty sound if I could figure out where I left the World Almanac so I could look it up — but then it’s also too dull to enlist except on a game show; it’s got at most the power to make you go “huh” and move on. Facts that are about anything interesting are graded and qualified and have subtleties and need other facts to help them out. If we, say, want to know what made World War II happen and what we can do to prevent a recurrence we can’t really grab anything concrete and have to content ourselves to not calling that area “Prussia” anymore.
We want facts to speak for themselves, as long as they stick to our scripts. When we run across a treacherous fact that doesn’t seem to care if it supports us we could say something about how we might change our minds based on “this fact, if it’s true.” This should cause Mrs Furey to pop up from seventh-grade English class and berate our intellectual carelessness. If it isn’t true it isn’t a fact, by definition, which is a kind of fact used to divert an argument we might not win into an argument everybody will walk away from, losing and bitter. We can get away with the carelessness because it’s a big world and Mrs Furey might need years before she can get back to us.
That’s all right; only the old-fashioned try to change minds with facts anymore anyway. Now it’s all done with the right colored lighting, appropriate background music, and the vague scent of vanilla, which research into the psychology of decision-making shows will cause us to decide, never mind what we said before, we are going to buy whatever it is that’s in front of us, whether it’s a Snoopy doll, a footstool, a bowl of keychains, or a 2016 Toyota Something Limited Edition (pre-recalled for your convenience). At least that’s what the facts they report say and who are we to quibble?
If there’s a fact I am pretty sure about, it’s that the calendar company started putting this stuff on the back of their pages at the same time they stopped printing separate pages for Sundays. That’s fourteen percent of the year they’re hoping I won’t miss if they put in a sprinkling of fun facts. I bet they decided to do that on a Tuesday.
- Hits and Missiles (Paramount Cartoon Studios)
- Out Of This World (Jack Kinney Productions)
- Popeye: The Last Resort (Gerald Ray Studios)
- Popeye: Swee’Pea Soup (Rembrandt Films)
- Popeye: Crystal Ball Brawl (Larry Harmon Pictures)
- Popeye, The Ace Of Space (Famous Studios)
I mentioned last week that “Popeye, The Ace Of Space” was a partial remake of an earlier, 1946, Popeye cartoon. So why not show that cartoon? Here’s “Rocket To Mars”.
It’s closer to “The Ace Of Space” than I had remembered, although I would say it’s also superior in most regards. Some of that is surely the sound design. After a functional opening, and a couple of the Looking at Heavenly Bodies jokes you’d expect from that era, “Rocket To Mars” features bombastic music, with a driving, well, martial beat that gives real power to the scenes of Mars, Ready For War. And Bluto as the Emperor of Mars gets a deep reverberating voice that fits nicely the slight redesign that makes him tall enough to really tower over Popeye.
This cartoon has, to me, a real sense of menace behind it, and I wonder if that reflects it being made so near World War II. The cartoon was released in August 1946, but production was surely in production before V-J Day (it’s obscured in this cut, but the scene of Popeye spotting an 8-Ball in the sky originally featured a Japanese man ducking out from behind it; I understand having the scene during the war but it’s still surprising to me they bothered filming it after the Occupation began), and the slow multiplanar pans across fields of war plants feels informed by having living experience with a monstrously large war. For that matter, Jack Mercer, the normal voice of Popeye, only does the voice work for part of this cartoon; Mercer was drafted.
And I like the amusement park that Mars gets turned into, as the result of what seems like an earlier-than-average Eating Of The Spinach. It’s a shame that the premise of sending Popeye to Mars precludes giving the new place its obvious name: Luna Park.
So I’ve been reading Maury Klein’s A Call To Arms, which is about how the United States managed to produce all the stuff needed to win World War II. It’s a great story, the kind you just don’t get from picking up on flipping through the mysterious boring numbers on the cable box until you find a documentary, where apparently World War II consisted of magician Jasper Maskelyne pulling pranks on Rommel in 1940, and then the landings at Normandy.
But really important were industry’s production numbers. For example, the Philadelphia Toboggan Company — before and after the war a leading maker of roller coaster train cars — astounded the world by converting to war needs and making 12,172, which it turned over to Archibald MacLeish, head of the Office of Facts and Figures, on the 14th of May, 1942. The 12,172 toured the nation to cheering crowds, though it came under increasing fire from Republican leaders as an attempt to force the New Deal down the throats of the public and destroy even the idea of ever having an economy, a job, or any nice things ever after. To bury the controversy, seven weeks before the midterm elections the 12,172 was sent as a fact-finding expedition to Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces in China. I wonder how that expedition is going. You’d think it would have reported back by now.
But all this production couldn’t be done without some missteps and there’s one that apparently really happened that’s caught my imagination. From the chapter “Making Haste Slowly” — page 121 in the copy I have — is this:
Some of the army’s outmoded procurement efforts became a joke. One recent order called for $300,000 worth of 1917-type underwear that could not be made on 1940 machines.
And I have to trust that this happened because it’s got a citation number — 53 — and everything; Klein even figured in the back of the book to follow it up with “53. Time, December 23, 1940 (14-15), Newsweek, December 23, 1940, 31-33, 35”. If that isn’t proof the thing happened exactly as described, what is?
If that isn’t the most imagination-capturing item about the underwear of 1917 you’ve read in the past month I’m afraid you and I live in very different worlds. I mean, just think of it: what were they doing with underwear in 1917 that they could not make it anymore on the machines of 1940? That’s equivalent to saying there was underwear in 1991 that we’ve lost the ability to make today, and I can’t even think what that means. I could understand the other way around, with 1991 machinery unable to make 2014 underwear. Modern underwear includes astounding features of both technology — don’t think I’ve overlooked the USB plugs or the Bing search engine in my latest set of BVD’s — and comfort — such as the layer of plastic microbeads included just so they can leak into the water supply and finally finish choking off the fish population. But that’s the wrong way around, timewise, and besides in 1940 the Bing search engine was a spare New York Bell time-and-weather operator whose station was disconnected. If anyone had suggested linking her to men’s underwear there would have been a scandal and they’d have fired her three times over just for having anyone suggest it of her.
Clearly what we’re seeing is a side effect of the revolution in clothing after 1917, when people wore way too many things. Women’s clothing before World War I could require up to two weeks to put on or take off, and the underwear alone required the help of three friends and a horse or strong mule. Men’s clothing was less challenging, requiring at most ten days and a supportive goat, but it was still an era when people dressed more formally to ride a roller coaster than they do today when presenting their credentials as Ambassador to the Court of Saint James. But then came the 30s, when people couldn’t afford so many clothes, and besides there was the Summer of Nudity when guys who’d been watching Tarzan movies started walking out on the Jersey Shore beaches without even wearing shirts, which sounds hilarious until you realize that was Grandpop, and which you’re now going to look up and find out I didn’t even make up.
Anyway, I have to guess that what happened is underwear-makers forgot how complicated underwear could be, and this in 1940 caused the Army’s procurement division to get made fun of a little bit in Time and/or Newsweek. And for some reason the World War II channel on cable is always going on about Rommel at Tobruk and the landings in Normandy, leaving the Army’s underwear uncovered.
Somewhere along the border, the long latitudinal part anyway, there’s this remarkably charming monument to the spot where, apparently, my brain thinks in that some enormously long-running story which in the X-Men backstory started just after World War II, got started. It’s even labelled as the point where some kind of WorldPlot began, whatever that is. It’s also got a nice map showing all the nations of the world which came together — Canada, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, Australia, China, really, a whole lot of the world and 44 of the 48 United States (as I remember, Arizona, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon prominently refused to participate) — for whatever this purpose was. Made for an inspiring map of countries and states outlined in a pleasant blue.
Mind you, the historical marker maps are just offensively overpriced. I don’t know what WorldPlot is, exactly, but the park isn’t that big and there’s no way that it’s worth C$45.99 to have a pamphlet that explains it all. Maybe the park is just a big fundraising scam for whatever the WorldPlot is, I don’t know, but you’d think after nearly seventy years they’d be done with it already. Anyway, there’s lots of other things nice about Dream Canada, probably, but I had to get up.
14: the average number of minutes you have to hover around the History section of a bookstore before hearing some fully grown-up man explain in all sincerity to another fully grown-up woman that, actually, the United States was justified in getting involved in World War II. This is down one minute from the same statistic as measured last year.