Friday, July 31, 2009

Licensed to Quill

With this week's issue of PREVIEWS, listing comicdom's October releases, the other "Boom!" detonated, and we learned the plans for the new Disney comics license holder's versions of DONALD DUCK AND FRIENDS and UNCLE $CROOGE. The former purports to bring us "a Donald Duck like you've never seen" – to wit, a secret agent named Double Duck. Isn't that a jump-rope trick? More to the point, isn't it exactly the same row that Launchpad McQuack hoed so memorably in the DuckTales episode "Double-O-Duck"? To say nothing of the three issues of the Gold Key MICKEY MOUSE title in which Mickey became a "Super Secret Agent"? I guess we have seen something like it, at that. The "official logo" for Double Duck, however, is something we most certainly HAVEN'T seen before:


Ponder on this for a moment: Back in the Disney Comics era, it was once considered improper to show Mickey being threatened by sword-wielding ninjas on the cover of an issue of MICKEY MOUSE ADVENTURES. (They were changed to stick-wielders instead.) Now, it's kosher for Donald to pack heat (and no, that does NOT look like a "gas gun" of the Darkwing Duck variety) as part of a logo?? This means one of two things: (1) Disney has relaxed its sensitivity standards well below the "red level" it used to employ when nixing sharp-edged Ninja gear, benevolent pygmy Indians, fleas infesting the Beagle Boys, and the like; (2) Disney simply doesn't care anymore where the comics are concerned. I'm leaning toward (2), aren't you?
UNCLE $CROOGE and the company's irregular releases, it would seem, are to be Boom!'s main sops to the collectors in the audience. The pre-release blurb for U$ #384 burbles about "an all-new direction for icon Uncle Scrooge," but then goes on to reveal that the title will feature "Scrooge on new adventures that North American audiences have never seen!" In other words, we can probably expect the same sort of material that was featured in the defunct Gemstone digests and some of the later Gemstone issues of $CROOGE. I have no problem with that, as long as whoever is doing the picking takes care to review the splendid editorial work of (or, for heaven's sake, even directly consult with) David Gerstein. As I noted previously, Boom! also plans to reissue THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SCROOGE McDUCK to complement its planned list of reprint-heavy seasonal "Classics." Since a good portion of the target audience for these "prestige-style books" will probably already own the material reprinted therein in some form, it looks as if $CROOGE will be the most likely venue for the sort of material Gemstone readers became accustomed to during that late, still-lamented company's heyday.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Book Review: PLAIN, HONEST MEN: THE MAKING OF THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION by Richard Beeman (Random House, 2009)

This highly readable, well-organized history of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 bids fair to become the new "standard one-volume history" of that momentous event, eclipsing Catherine Drinker Bowen's excellent MIRACLE AT PHILADELPHIA (1966). Beeman, a history professor at Penn, can't compare with Ms. Bowen in the realm of relating colorful anecdotes of more or less dubious authenticity, nor does he take time out during the narrative to do a quick survey of the sights and sounds of Revolutionary Era America. As one could expect of a man who is a trustee of the National Constitution Center, he is primarily focused on the preparation of the document itself, as well as the attendant drama of the state-by-state ratification process. In these areas, he is masterful.

Beeman eschews conspiracy theories about the counterrevolutionary nature of the Convention and, for the most part, follows his book's title in handling all of the players in the Convention drama as well-meaning, if fallible, men who were genuinely concerned about the shaky status of America as governed by the Articles of Confederation and wanted the central government to be more effective. He does, however, drub the "Founders" pretty badly on the issue of slavery, and not just on the notorious "three-fifths" provision. Beeman argues that, while some of the "Founders," at least, wanted to be rid of slavery, they failed to bring the moral argument to the table with sufficient force (with a notable exception being Gouverneur Morris, the same man who put the "finishing touches" on the written form of the Constitution) and, in fact, wrote certain provisos into the document that went a long way toward ensuring the perpetuation of the institution. Beeman is hardly the first author to do this, of course, but his treatment of the issue is far harsher and rawer than, say, Bowen's. Beeman also places more of an emphasis than Bowen on just how tendentious some of the Convention debates were and how close the applecart came to being upset on numerous occasions. Given the sharp clash of ideas, it is rather remarkable how well the Constitution in practice has worked out (though the cumbersome process the document specifies for electing a President and Vice-President didn't take long to show its flaws). I do wish that Beeman would have come down a bit more forcefully in favor of interpreting the Constitution in terms of its "original intent," though he does give voice to both sides of the interpretation debate. All in all, one could hardly get more even-handed than this treatment of the event that created the modern American nation.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Takes on the "Tales"

DuckTales fans, be advised that Gregory Weagle, who's been doing reviews (he calls them "rants") of Disney Afternoon series episodes for quite some time, has just started reviewing DT eps. You can find them at his "Rant Shack." I mention this because DT material on the Internet is rather thin on the ground compared to the massive amounts of stuff that can be found regarding other DAft series. Greg invites responses on his LiveJournal page, and that's where I'll be posting mine.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Last Full Measure

On the heels of our attendance at Hippiefest 2009, Nicky, her uncle Jeff, and I spent most of Friday at the Gettysburg National Military Park. Nicky and I had gone there once before with one of Nicky's former co-workers, only to be inundated by (1) heavy rain and (2) a platoon or three of Civil War "reenactors." Yesterday, the weather, though a bit on the warm side, was excellent and the "reenactors" absent. The number of visitors, even given that we came on a Friday in mid-Summer, was most impressive -- and the vast majority of them appeared to be non-foreigners. There's definitely a very healthy appetite out there for learning more about American history (the red-meat stuff, as opposed to the sometimes fringe-y overemphasis on hitherto "underrepresented groups"), and the "Gettysburg experience" has undergone a major transformation in response.

The last time Nicky and I went to Gettysburg, the slightly dowdy, somewhat down-at-the-heels visitor's center still featured the 40-year-old electric map that displayed the armies' movements during the three-day battle. The map has since been put in storage and a completely new visitor's center constructed. The new center, which opened in 2008, is a clever mixture: a building with all the modern accoutrements (full-service "refreshment saloon," big gift shop, etc.) inside, yet resembling a period building (in this case, a large barn and farmhouse complex) when viewed from the outside. The famous Gettysburg Cyclorama, showing a 360-degree panorama of the battlefield, has been spruced up and made the centerpiece of a son-et-lumiere show that tries to put the viewer in the middle of the action. Visitors can watch a History Channel-style film narrated by Morgan Freeman that describes the background and aftereffects of the battle, or browse at length in a well-appointed museum that includes such artifacts as General Lee's personal desk, cot, and medical chest and the jail door behind which John Brown awaited trial following his raid on Harper's Ferry. Thankfully, "tack" is kept to a minimum (apart from the magnetic finger-puppet Abe Lincolns in the gift shop), and there are ample opportunities for hands-on exploration, e.g., lifting a mock knapsack to "feel" how much a typical soldier had to carry on his back.

Little Round Top (Big Round Top in background), 1863

The Gettysburg battlefield itself is so huge that one really needs several days to do the whole thing justice. We decided to splurge on a two-hour, guided bus tour that would show us the high points. The guide turned out to know his stuff inside and out and did a fine job. We stopped to get out only once, but at a key place: the summit of Little Round Top, where one could see major features in a glance and get an idea of the ground on which the soldiers were fighting. Jeff and I discussed how the soldiers on both sides could possibly have braved it all given the fighting techniques of the day. We agreed that one key was that many units consisted of neighbors from individual towns and counties. When you're walking slowly forward while enemy soldiers are keeping up a steady frontal fire, you're not thinking about how you're doing all this to save the Union or free the slaves; you're simply focused on keeping your buddies as safe as possible. Such is true of all armies, I suppose, but it was especially true at that time, when soldiers literally did stand "shoulder to shoulder" and fight for one another.

A large number of people have claimed to have seen ghosts on Civil War battlefields, especially at Gettysburg. In his book RIGHT TURNS, Michael Medved tells how he and a college buddy once camped out at Gettysburg and saw a series of apparitions similar to the one shown above. I don't know where I stand on this issue, but I will say that if any battlefield in America should have ghosts, it should be Gettysburg. We're still dealing with the consequences of what those men did, so it only stands to reason that some of the departed should remain behind to keep an eye on our progress -- or lack thereof.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Fit to be Tie-Dyed

I can count the number of pop-and-rock concerts I've attended in my life on some of the fingers of one hand. On Thursday night, one more digit (not the middle one -- I'm not that crude) flipped over as I accompanied Nicky and Nicky's uncle Jeff to Hippiefest 2009 at Pier 6 Pavilion at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I'm as far from being a true "hippie type" as just about anyone you could name... and yet, I do enjoy a lot of the music from that era, so this was a fairly easy sell for me.

The weather for the concert was fine, aside from a brief (and heavy) shower. Luckily, Nicky had gotten tickets under the "big tent" where most of the audience sat. (Numerous freeloaders, meanwhile, took up residence across the water by the Marriott Hotel on the other side of the pier.) Not so luckily, our seats were right in front of one of the main speakers. Pre-concert, piped-in "genre music" didn't prepare me for the blast of noise that assailed our eardrums once our "genial hosts" -- Flo and Eddie of The Turtles -- flounced in and commenced with what would prove to be a steady, evening-long string of lame attempts at contemporary pop-culture references. Then Joe Molland of Badfinger took the mike and (joined by a generic back-up band that would accompany virtually all of the remaining performers) proceeded to power through several of that band's old standards. By the time Molland got to "No Matter What," I knew that I HAD to get out of the direct line of fire... no matter what! Nicky agreed with me and we moved to two empty seats off to the side where the assault on our senses would be a bit more indirect. Jeff, having apparently built up a certain amount of immunity over the years (he's a bit older than Nicky), stayed where he was.

Next came Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals, whose obeisance to the past was a bit less cut-and-dried than Molland's. He created several medleys intertwining Rascals' hits like "Groovin'" and "A Girl Like You" with Motown standards such as "My Girl" and "Midnight Hour." It was fairly imaginative and well accompanied by Cavaliere on a Korg electronic keyboard wheeled out for the occasion. Both Nicky and I greatly appreciated his salute to the troops overseas before he did "People Everywhere Just Got To Be Free." He wound up with -- yep -- "Good Lovin'", and Nicky, remembering that we'd played that song at our wedding reception, got up and started dancing, then roped me into it as well. Cavaliere, like Molland, was in excellent voice for someone who's been getting reduced prices on menu items and museum admissions for some time.



Flo and Eddie's non-"comedic" contribution to the festivities was... how shall I put this... something more than a put-on, yet something less than a serious effort. It was already hard for me to take a guy (Flo) who looked a little like Henry Kissinger wearing a Larry Fine wig seriously as an entertainer (even one well past his sell-by date). The fact that he spoke as if under chemical influences, did a joke about grabbing his crotch, and made unfunny references to The Jonas Brothers and American Idol were several more steps down the ladder. The subsequent renditions of Turtles hits like "Happy Together" and "It Ain't Me, Babe" were accompanied by arm-flailing, leg-kicking, and other nyuck-nyuck-nyuck routines that made F&E seem like little more than a senior version of some of the kiddie rock bands on Nickelodeon, or something like that. It was borderline embarrassing, actually. Maybe these guys should stick to patter and let the other bands involved in Hippiefest parrot their past platters.

Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night is older than most of the other worthies in the Hippiefest lineup, but that didn't prevent some actual groupies from clustering near the stage and doing the arm-waving, come-hither bit as he performed. He, too, sounded good as he did such hits as "One," "Joy to the World," and "Mama Told Me (Not to Come)." At the very least, he looked about as good as Chuck Norris (I figured a reference to another famous "Chuck" was appropriate).

The final act on the bill was Mountain, which, I'm not ashamed to admit, I'd never heard of. I've heard their one pseudo-hit, "Mississippi Queen," but didn't connect it with them until I looked it up once I got home. Unlike the other performers, Mountain dispensed with the backup "tornshirts" and came out with their own guitars, drum set... and EXTREMELY LOUD ancillary amplifiers. They're still operating as a going concern, it seems... and evidently, they believe that everyone who listened to them in the old days has long since lost his or her hearing, so what's a few additional decibels between friends? The resulting cacophony was all the more irritating to listen to because I had no frame of reference for the band's work. At least I'd known how Badfinger's songs sounded before Joe Molland laid siege to my auditory faculties. Nicky and I finally gave it up and stationed ourselves by the exit just as "Mississippi Queen" (which I at first though the band was merely covering) was being cranked out. That made it easier for us to escape once the air settled down and the cheering stopped.
In a concession to the physical needs of their original fans, the Hippiefest acts took breaks between performances to allow folks who needed to "go urgently" to do so. Many people in the audience, as you might imagine, dressed and looked as if they resented the fact that the 60s were over, but I'm sure they appreciated the lavatory-based lacunae. I'm resigned to the fact that some members of the "Baby Boom" generation will continue "playing pretend" to their graves. At least a good deal of that generation's music still repays repeated reairing today. Can one confidently say the same of The Jonas Brothers or Hannah Montana? I didn't think so.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Movie Review: HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (Warner Bros., 2009)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) Poster

Actually, given the lack of true excitement in the sixth book in the HARRY POTTER series, the movie-makers could have been excused if they'd seen fit to rename this film ...The Bloodless Prince. Though the running length of 2 1/2 hours is on the seriously unconscionable side, the movie version turns out to be not that bad. One could argue that too much time is spent on the vital matter of "who's snogging whom and why," but then, the book chewed on that particular bone for a good long while. The identity of the "Half-Blood Prince" is dispensed with in toss-off fashion -- even more so than in the book -- but it's really fairly irrelevant to the story. The movie does deliver nicely during the climactic scenes in the seaside cave and at the top of the Hogwarts tower, and British actor Jim Broadbent makes a wholly believable Professor Horace Slughorn, the ultimate "Charlie Mingle" type (and if you can identify to whom I'm referring in quotes, you're GOOD, I'll say that much!). Needless to say, it would be madness to see the movie without being familiar with the Harry Potter universe.
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Speaking of magic, Tom Watson's finally ran out at the worst possible moment yesterday. Still, it was a great run and will probably be remembered for far longer than will the identity of the British Open's eventual winner.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

French Dip

So Tom Watson -- who was winning major golf championships when I was in junior high and high school and "Fruit Stripe Gum" pants were all the rage on the links -- is leading the British Open with 18 holes to play. If he manages to pull it off, it would definitely be one of the all-time great stories in sports.

Ten years ago today, a very different sort of story was written in the remote hills and dales of Scotland. This is the tenth anniversary of the worst individual (as opposed to team) collapse I've ever personally witnessed in sports, that of the French golfer Jean Van de Velde at the 1999 British Open in Carnoustie. The completely obscure Van de Velde had come from out of nowhere to lead the tournament by three shots with one hole to play. That hole, however, was one of the hardest holes on an exceptionally difficult course that had been made even rougher by what can only be described as a sadistic groundskeeper.  Granted, Van de Velde was unlucky on where that second shot bounced and landed, but the silliness in the water is still comical today.  No wonder several commentators lambasted him for it right there on the spot.


Though Van de Velde was given high marks by press and fans for the grace with which he took his defeat, he has not been heard from since.

I certainly hope that Watson can avoid such a fate tomorrow and defy the pull of time's gravity for one more day. If he falls apart, however, it's unlikely to be in so extravagantly melodramatic a fashion as this.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Book Review: WORTH THE WAIT: TALES FROM THE 2008 PHILLIES by Jayson Stark (Triumph Books, 2009)

This is a pretty decent summary of the Phillies' run to the 2008 World Series title, in very much the same spirit as similar books published by Triumph about other championship teams. Stark (of ESPN -- but I remember when he was just starting out in the local Philly media back when I was in high school) basically "retrofits" several of his columns from the season and knits them into a game-by-game narrative of the NLDS, NLCS, and World Series. There is a drawback to this approach, in that we don't get adequate background on how the team was built or sufficient detail on the progression of the 2008 regular season. Stark touches upon a few "key turning points" of the latter, such as the benching of Jimmy Rollins and Brett Myers' trip to the minors, but, absent a more substantial narrative of the season, you don't get to witness these events in full perspective. Stark is also enamored of arcane baseball trivia (which he tongue-in-cheekily headlines "Useless Information"), some of which is literally trivial and some of which is not (e.g., the Phillies' 24-6 finish in '08 is among the hottest finishes in baseball history, comparable to that of the 1914 "Miracle" Boston Braves). Unfortunately, he doesn't always distinguish clearly between the two. Still, this is an enjoyable read for Phillies fans; though not as detailed as THE TEAM THAT WOULDN'T DIE, Hal Bodley's book about the 1980 Phillies, it is better-written, and the seams aren't nearly as visible. I'd have to rate it behind Frank Fitzpatrick's book on the '80 team, however, due to the aforementioned lack of background detail.

Monday, July 13, 2009

DVD Review: PEANUTS 1960s COLLECTION (Warner Home Video)

I know that Warner HV has already released several of the 1960s PEANUTS specials under separate cover -- and I have both A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown in my collection -- but I couldn't pass up this reasonably-priced compilation of all six PEANUTS specials released in that decade. These are the bumpy, lumpy, crude, yet utterly winning half-hours that made the reputation of the Bill Melendez Studios and ensured a long, happy life on the small screen (and, later, the big screen) for Charlie Brown and the gang.

Along with the evergreen specials mentioned above -- which are still regularly run on TV to this day -- the set includes Charlie Brown's All-Stars, You're In Love, Charlie Brown, He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown, and It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown. The last-named of these was produced during the ramp-up to the first full-length feature film starring the PEANUTS characters, so we get a clear picture of how Melendez' "graphic blandishment facilitators" polished their skills in preparation for that step up in class. The Disney Studio's progression from Steamboat Willie to Snow White it ain't, but the animation and draftsmanship in Short Summer is a considerable improvement over that of CB Christmas, while preserving many of the quirky facial expressions and other oddities that make these early efforts so charming.


It's important to remember how "cutting-edge" these cartoons were at the time they were made. Conventional wisdom held that professionally trained adults were needed to voice children, but Schulz and Melendez insisted on using real kids. (Peter Robbins as Charlie Brown, Chris Shea as Linus, Gai DeFaria as Peppermint Patty -- and, needless to say, Melendez as Snoopy, who, it's amazing to think now, some folks wanted to have an actual voice, rather than the howls, snickers, and hoots we're all familiar with -- still rank, in my mind, as the canonical voices for their respective characters.) The jazz tracks of Vince Guaraldi sounded nothing like any other contemporary "cartoon music," yet they've become synonymous with the specials and have birthed several best-selling records, to boot. Needless to say, the decision to climax CB Christmas with Linus' simple recital of the Nativity Story from Luke's Gospel flew in the face of the "trend towards cultural homogenization" favored in the era of the "Big Three" networks. In the 1970s and beyond, the PEANUTS specials certainly looked slicker than these efforts, but they were a little hollow and formulaic at times, a little too quick to hop on trends (It's Flashbeagle, anyone? Anyone?...), and lacked such memorable moments as, for example, the wrist-wrestling match between Snoopy and Lucy in Short Summer, the World War I Flying Ace dogfight in Great Pumpkin (which Melendez reused in He's Your Dog and A Boy Named Charlie Brown), and Charlie's agonized efforts to meet the Little Red-Haired Girl in You're In Love -- to say nothing of Linus' Gospel reading. Schulz gradually unbent himself a bit on the issue of "selling out" -- allowing Charlie Brown to kiss the Red-Haired Girl in 1977's It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown, permitting adult voices and characters to appear in the This is America mini-series and elsewhere -- but here we get the animated PEANUTS in its purest, most authentic form.

The "remastered" cartoons look reasonably good, though I did notice some streakiness in scenes with dark, full-color backgrounds (e.g. the scene in CB Christmas where Charlie Brown is looking up at the blue, star-spangled night sky). The only extra is a lengthy and intermittently interesting documentary about Vince Guaraldi that occasionally strays a bit too far into "jazz insider" territory. The previous releases of CB Christmas and Great Pumpkin had mini-docs that detailed the stories of the cartoons' creation, but they are not included here for some reason. Perhaps Warners thought that those purchasing this set would probably also have the earlier releases, but the omission still strikes me as a bit strange... and why not have a commentary or two with surviving animators as an alternative voice track to several of these? Irritatingly, You're in Love is specified as being on Disc 1 on the DVD cover, but is on Disc 2 inside. Not even the notoriously desultory Disney DVD would have made that big of a mistake, I think.

Hopefully, Warners will follow this up with a 1970s collection. Beyond that, I think I'll stick to YouTube. Something went out of the cartoons for me when Guaraldi passed and Melendez et al. started playing havoc with "canon." These cartoons, however, are definite keepers for anyone with an interest in the PEANUTS phenomenon or 1960s pop culture in general.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

When Saturday Comes... Again

Warner Home Video has announced Volume 2 of its 1960s and 1970s Saturday morning cartoon collections. Not being a big fan of many of the series included, I passed on the first go-round. Those interested in reading a review of Volume 1 of the 1960s collection can read a good one here. It looks as if Warners has made many of the same questionable decisions for Volume 2 that it did for Volume 1, and added a few new ones:

1. The 1960s volume features an ep of a syndicated Japanese cartoon, in this case, Johnny Cypher in Dimension Zero.

2. Though Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm does get a shout-out on the 1970s set, its parent series, The Flintstones, once again takes up some space on the 1960s set, as does The Jetsons. (The Flintstones episode included is, in fact, "The Flintstone Flyer" -- the very first one aired!) We then get one of each of the older series on the 1970s volume, as well. Both of these series have long since been collected, so this is basically wasted space.

3. The 1975 Tom and Jerry Show is included... on the 1960s set!

4. Two eps of Filmation's 1966 series, The New Adventures of Superman, are included... one in the 1960s volume, one in the 1970s volume. This is particularly strange because the Wikipedia episode list lists these two eps as #1 and #2.

5. The 1970s volume includes an episode of The Banana Splits with parts #1 and #2 of the live-action serial Danger Island. I don't know how long that bizarre production ran, but I'm sure it's not completed on this set. Surely there must be some Danger Island fans out there who would have preferred to see the serial collected all by itself?

Verdict: Pass.

Boom! Throws a Bone

A subscriber to the Disney Comics Mailing List has just reported -- and I've independently confirmed -- that Boom! Studios intends to supplement its kid-focused Disney comics line with some collections targeted at adult collectors. To wit:

November 2009: Walt Disney's Christmas Classics Volume 1 (Carl Barks, Floyd Gottfredson, Walt Kelly, and Daan Jippes)
January 2010: Walt Disney's Valentine's Classics Volume 1 (Barks, Kelly, and Jippes)
Feburary 2010: Mickey Mouse Classics: Mouse Tails
March 2010: Donald Duck Classics: Quack Up (Barks)

These will be supplemented by re-releases of Don Rosa's LIFE AND TIMES OF SCROOGE McDUCK in two parts (February and April).

Here's the x factor: These collections will be hardbound volumes, rather than trade paperbacks, and retail for $24.99. That's pretty pricey for a set of material that includes a large number of Barks reprints. The Kelly, Gottfredson, and Jippes material will determine whether or not I get these.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Book Review: CECIL B. DeMILLE, A LIFE IN ART by Simon Louvish (Thomas Dunne, 2007)

The name of Cecil B. DeMille has long since become a synonym for "movie director." Indeed, many of the stereotypical attributes of a director -- folding chair, megaphone, sunglasses, imperious aura, the whole bit -- can be directly traced to DeMille. Oddly enough, very few books have been written about DeMille and his films. Louvish's bio-slash-filmography broadens the conventional view of DeMille as a hokey huckster, describing in detail the wide variety of films he made during the silent era -- not just the well-known King of Kings and the original version of The Ten Commandments, but quasi-realistic social dramas and incisive portraits of marital relations. Unfortunately, Louvish's patience with DeMille begins to run out once the actors' voices begin to be heard. Yes, he does give DeMille good marks for such fine sound films as Reap the Wild Wind, The Greatest Show on Earth, and the 1956 version of The Ten C's, but most of the others receive back-handed slaps, and all of DeMille's talking pictures get much skimpier -- and snarkier -- synopses than the silent ones. Perhaps Louvish assumed that people were already familiar with the later DeMille classics, but, apart from The Ten C's, they don't appear on TV that often these days. The sour asperity that scars the last few chapters of this book may stem from Louvish's feelings about what he terms the director's "loathsome and offensive" attacks on Communism and labor unions later in his career. In one respect, DeMille was lucky; he was too powerful and respected a figure to be directly "reverse-blacklisted" for his opinions after his death. The critics focused on tearing down his later movies instead. While Louvish does reinforce some of the standard stereotypes about DeMille, it is clear from this book that C.B. was a far more substantial auteur than many movie fans give him credit for being.

Book Review: RIGHT TIME, RIGHT PLACE by Richard Brookhiser (Basic Books, 2009)

Best-selling author -- and former NATIONAL REVIEW wunderkind -- Brookhiser tells, in his usual engaging fashion, the story of how he came to work for NR (starting with a piece he wrote as a 14-year-old that turned into a cover story) and his relationships with the NR crew, above all, William F. Buckley, Jr. The story of NR's rise has been told by others (e.g. Jeffrey Hart) but rarely has it been sketched with such deftness and humor. Brookhiser uses the book to "work out" some lingering "issues" with NR's founder -- namely, the fact that Buckley promised him the job of editor-in-chief after WFB retired but later changed his mind. The overall portrait of Buckley, however, remains quite positive, albeit with some wry overtones. This is a quick and entertaining read that anyone interested in the history of the conservative movement should enjoy.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Book Review: THE REBELLION OF RONALD REAGAN: A HISTORY OF THE END OF THE COLD WAR by James Mann (Viking, 2009)

So, which "flavor" of Ronald Reagan the Cold Warrior do you prefer? The master manipulator who unspooled a systematic, carefully-planned strategy to first weaken, then take down, the Soviet Union? Or the genial, clueless bystander who just happened to be "on duty" when Mikhail Gorbachev broke the ice with glasnost and perestroika and allowed subsequent events to take their natural course? With Reagan's "official" White House biographer having long since plunged off the deep end, the second volume of Stephen Hayward's AGE OF REAGAN, to be released late next month, will probably reign as the default "standard pro-Reagan story" of how the Cold War came to an end. In the meantime, here's a very interesting, thought-provoking book that avoids falling into either camp and sounds a very loud ring of truth in numerous places.

Mann, author of RISE OF THE VULCANS, which walked a similarly thin line in describing the foreign policy of George W. Bush, gives Gorbachev most of the credit for relaxing tensions between the USA and the USSR, but argues that Reagan "helped create the climate in which the Cold War could end." Reagan did so in the face of strong opposition from the foreign-policy establishment, including fellow anti-Communists Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who were alarmed at what they perceived to be Reagan's naivete in taking Gorbachev's new direction seriously. Fellow conservatives also strongly protested the summitry of Reagan's last several years in office, with one going so far as to label Reagan a "useful idiot for Soviet propaganda." I can affirm that this is true because I was one of them. Back in 1987-88, I was halfway convinced that Gorbachev was manipulating Reagan and taking advantage of Reagan's desire for a peace-loving "legacy." Reagan's successor George H.W. Bush, in fact, took a harder line on trusting Gorbachev during his 1988 Presidential campaign than Reagan did. Here is one instance in which Reagan's "first-class temperament" served him well. He was able to spot and exploit an opportunity to "defang" the Soviets without war by challenging them to live up to Gorbachev's professed desire for a freer USSR. The famed "tear down this wall!" speech in Berlin, the development of which is sketched out in considerable detail here, was just such a "practice what you preach" moment. Reagan was also known to place great stock in personal relationships as a tool of diplomacy, and Mann describes how Reagan received a great deal of assistance from Suzanne Massie, a lady who had written a history of Russia and served as a sort of informal adviser as Reagan hashed out his relationship with the Soviets during the Gorbachev era.

Mann's book is split into four parts, running on parallel tracks: (1) Reagan's disputes with Nixon, (2) Reagan's interactions with Massie, (3) the Berlin Wall speech, (4) the summits of the last several years of the Reagan Presidency. I understand the reasoning behind this approach, but it does lead to some annoying sloppiness, e.g. Mann "introduces" certain supporting characters in multiple places with pretty much the same language. Despite the clumsiness, the book is fair to all parties and, as the numerous blurbs on the back cover say, avoids falling into cliches of either the left or the right. While (if?) you're waiting for Hayward's saga to be completed, this book is a good way to while away the time and whet your appetite.