NOTES ON A COWARDLY LION BY JOHN LAHR — GARRY ARMSTRONG

It’s been a while since I finished reading the Bert Lahr biography, “Notes on a Cowardly Lion“, written by his son, John. I am still emotionally involved.

Why does a book written more than 40 years ago about a show business figure who peaked more than 70 years ago still sit front and center in my mind? I’m a retired TV and radio news reporter with more than 40 years in “the business”. The “news biz” is journalism, but it’s also performance, even for those of us who strive for objectivity.

Part of the job is celebrity too. When you appear on television five or six days a week for more than four decades, you become a household face. People ask for your autograph. You receive special treatment in stores and restaurants. Twelve years into retirement, folks still recognize me, tell how they grew up watching me on TV and ask for autographs. Mine is a regional celebrity although I’ve encountered fans almost everywhere I’ve traveled in the United States and overseas. I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated my celebrity. Yes, I miss it a bit when I’m not recognized but I don’t get depressed if I go unnoticed. I needed to share a little of my life because it puts my feelings about the story of Bert Lahr’s life into perspective. I really understood in a very personal way where the man was coming from.

Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in Wizard of Oz...

I enjoyed the biographical side of the book. It speaks to history, the history of vaudeville and burlesque, show business venues that are frequently misrepresented. As a self-proclaimed trivia maven, I received a little education. Case in point: Clifton Webb, long perceived as a middle-aged effete, film actor actually was a well-received song and dance man in vaudeville. I learned the difference between vaudeville and burlesque. I came to appreciate the art form of what I used to perceive as Bert Lahr’s overly broad slapstick comedy. I understood how Lahr’s art form suffered at the hands of Hollywood film directors who tried to minimize his well honed craft and squeeze it into their movie concept of musical comedy.

Lahr’s comic genius never really had a chance  to shine in Hollywood. “The Wizard of Oz” was the exception. But that success also spelled disaster in Tinseltown because Lahr never again received a film role like the Cowardly Lion. Years later, he would find similar frustration with television which tried to restrict his comedic moves in variety shows. Lahr didn’t think much of TV comic legends like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. Ironically, both Berle and Caesar spoke highly of Lahr in lengthy interviews with me — even as they lamented the fading of their celebrity. But that’s another story. Back to Bert Lahr.  Born into poverty, Lahr was always very conscious about being financially secure.

BertLahrEven when he returned to Broadway where he found his greatest success over the years, Lahr never felt financially secure even though he was earning top star salaries. In later years, as a TV pitchman for Potato Chips, Lahr earned more money for a thirty-second commercial than he ever did for starring in a play, movie or TV special. He still didn’t feel financially secure.

Bert Lahr did find some unexpected late professional success with surprising turns in work like “Waiting For Godot” co-starring with the likes of E.G. Marshall. Lahr savored critical acclaim, but was never satisfied even when he received it. For all of his professional and financial success, he was an unhappy man. He was insecure as an aspiring comedian/actor seeking stardom. He was insecure as a star thinking others were always trying to undermine him. He was insecure as an aging, respected legend believing people had forgotten him even though he was recognized everywhere he went. Lahr was miserable as a husband and father — demanding but not giving. Lahr desperately needed the audience — the laughter, the applause — throughout his life. Sadly,  he never appreciated the love and admiration he got from his family.

As the curtain closed on his life — with his loved ones gathered around him — Lahr still longed for his audience and their laughter and applause. He couldn’t let it go and move on, nor appreciate the good things life offered him. Lahr’s loneliness haunted me. The deeper I got into the book, the more painful I found reading his biography. I know first-hand how intoxicating and addictive celebrity is, especially when you fail to appreciate real life. Bert Lahr was never able to see the joys and sorrows of family and friends as “the real thing” that makes it all worthwhile. It’s the celebrity that is unreal and ephemeral.

It’s the people who love you who will sustain you after the curtain closes and the audience departs the theatre. That Lahr was never able to recognize what he had and accept the love that was there for him was his personal tragedy.

It’s a fine biography, but not a joyful reading experience. It is in many ways a cautionary tale, a reminder of how important it is to keep ones perspective and ones feet on the ground.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Marilyn Armstrong:

Written by me, with input from Garry, published on HEAD IN A VICE. A movie review for you.

Originally posted on Head In A Vice:

movie blogathon poster

Today we have my favourite husband & wife blogging team offering us their thoughts on a movie for the ‘Recommended By‘ blogathon. Marilyn & Garry Armstrong have been visiting my site since pretty much its inception, and since they don’t like the horror genre, I always appreciate them visiting. Marilyn runs her blog Serendipity and Garry helps her out when he fancies it, and since he has worked with more famous people than the rest of us could ever dream of meeting, when they offer to join in my projects I am always delighted to have them. Without further ado, offering their thoughts on one of the most popular movies of recent times (and great to see them go against the general consensus!) are Marilyn & Garry from Serendipity.

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LACHRYMOSE

DAILY POST: MOVED TO TEARS — Do movies, songs, or other forms of artistic expression easily make you cry? Tell us about a recent tear-jerking experience!


lachrymose

I’m a total sucker for animal stories. If there’s a dog, a cat, a horse, a dolphin, a whale, a goose … feathered, finned, hoofed, or scaly, I’ll choke up. It doesn’t have to be sad. It can be perfectly happy. I just have a thing for animals.

And small children.

Plus pretty much everything else. Too. Except music doesn’t make me cry. It entrances me, sweeps me away, captures my heart, and disengages my brain. If I listen to classical music while driving, it tries to kill me. But it will not produce tears. I save my over-productive tear ducts for the movies and reruns of Flipper.

I am — to put it succinctly — lachrymose.

THE PELLET WITH THE POISON IS … WHERE?

It’s either in the chalice from the palace … or the vessel with the pestle … or possibly, the flagon with the dragon. One of them has the brew that is true, but if you mistakenly drink the wrong one? Then you’ve consumed the pellet with the poison. And your goose, so to speak, is cooked.

I don’t have a line of music to add because although I’ve read lots of books recently and listened to a bunch of audiobooks, I have not a single line of music to offer here. I haven’t heard music on the radio, on CD, in a movie, or anywhere else.

But I can give you words that are almost music and I’m pretty sure will make you laugh.

Herein I praise some of the funniest movie dialog ever to grace a screen. This particular “bit” has been going through my head since yesterday. Lacking music, I’m going to suggest this as Very Early Rap or maybe Hip Hop — from the days of yore.

I defy you to memorize the words and keep them in order. I’ve been trying to remember them in order for decades, to no avail. I always lose track eventually.

Maybe you’ll have better luck (but I doubt it)!

It isn’t on Netflix any more, but it is available on Amazon Prime: The Court Jester.

Opening Line – The Daily Prompt

HOLLYWOOD FANTASIES, GARRY ARMSTRONG

I love movies. Old movies  Movies from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. I grew up watching these films. They were movies from Hollywood’s golden age when fantasy really trumped reality. These were films seen in theaters. First, second and the beloved third run or neighborhood movies houses.

old hollywood glamor shots

This was before television. The movie theater experience was as much fun as seeing the film. That’s where the fantasy began.

I saw my first movie in 1946. I was four years old. The movie was “The Best Years Of Our Lives”. My Mom and Dad took me to see the film in a big glittery theater in Manhattan. New York. The city that never sleeps. My Dad, in his Army dress uniform with ribbons and medals, had just returned from Europe. World War Two had ended less than a year earlier. I vaguely remembered the headlines. My Dad seemed ten feet tall in his uniform. My Mom was more beautiful than I could ever recall. She looked like a movie actress in one of those popular magazines of the day. I felt as if we were in a movie that evening. It was magical!

I remember some of the scenes from the movie. The returning GIs, looking down on their hometown from the air. The family reunions. The men looked like my father and yet they didn’t. I was bothered, but didn’t understand. I dreamed about the movie that night. My Dad was the star. My Mom was Myrna Loy. I was the son receiving souvenirs from my Dad. I could see myself in the movie.

astair and rogers

That fantasy would replay itself many times over ensuing decades. It grew with the films of my youth. The westerns, especially. I adored westerns. I liked seeing the good guys always beat the bad guys. I liked the way the good guys dressed and the horses they rode. Curiously, none of the guys — good or bad — looked like anyone in my family but that didn’t matter to me. Didn’t think much about it. I was  all of those good guys! Most of all, I was John Wayne. Later, I was so much John Wayne I enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school. Another story.

As my fantasy grew, I also discovered I was a romantic. This is a guy secret. I liked romantic movies with happy endings. I was Joseph Cotten pursuing Jennifer Jones in “Love Letters” and “Portrait of Jennie”. I was Spencer Tracy, the underdog to Clark Gable, vying for the affections of Myrna Loy and Claudette Colbert.

Somewhere, stashed away, I have an old notebook. One of those notebooks with lined pages used for compositions in grade school. I used to write imaginary castings for movies with myself as the star opposite Hollywood legends. Actually, I added some reality. I worked my way up from “and introducing Garry Armstrong”, to co-star, and finally star. Fortunately, that notebook was never discovered in class.

Marilyn and I have been watching (again) a series, “MGM – WHEN THE LION ROARED”. It’s a fascinating look at the rise and fall of Hollywood’s most prestigious studio. As we look at the series, I fantasize again, now at age 72, about being there in Hollywood during its golden age.

MGM_backlot

Fantasy dissolved into a dream last night. I was in 1930’s Hollywood. I was at MGM. I saw the legends. Gable, Tracy, Garbo, Crawford and all the others. The dream unfolded rather skillfully. I was a freelance writer working under a pseudonym in separate quarters. This is how I, a man of color, could exist in that world. It was perfectly splendid. My work was excellent. Others took credit but all knew who I was, especially Louis B. Mayer. I never asked for a raise. My scripts all had the MGM touch.

In real life, I’ve had the chance to meet many of those legends who’ve been part of my dreams. As a TV news reporter, I’ve actually had the opportunity to socialize with some of them. You’ve read about some of them in other posts. It’s funny when reality meets your dreams and fantasies.

I’ve done some extra or background acting. It’s been interesting but the hours are too long, like those I logged for almost 40 years in television. I don’t like getting up early anymore. I haven’t quite closed the door, mind you. I hang onto the fantasy I’ll get “the call” for a lead role in a major movie.

And, the Oscar goes to …

DESERT ISLAND CLASSICS – Marilyn and Garry Armstrong

Marilyn Armstrong:

An oldie, but a goodie. Garry wrote it, Head In A Vice published and republished it — and now, I’m reblogging it. What goes around comes around, and around.

Originally posted on Head In A Vice:

Desert-Island-Classics

Whilst I eagerly await your blogathon entries (7 DAYS LEFT PEOPLE!!) (please feel free to join in, click HERE for details), I wanted to shine some light on my long running Desert Island Films series, and more importantly the people who joined in and made it so much fun to do. I am therefore randomly visiting the archives and re-posting a few of the lists with some added kind words. I present to you; Desert Island Classics…… You may have read all of the lists so far, but I hope you won’t mind seeing a few of them again, and who knows, you may even find some new blogs to read.

Two people that have no interest in horror yet somehow found my blog are Marilyn & Garry Armstrong. It makes me so happy to see them both still visiting my blog and so today I want…

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REVISIONIST HISTORY AND RACISM – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Three Bad Men: John Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond

by Scott Allen Nollen

Three Bad Men

As big a fan of these three men as I am, there is a level of revisionist history that is impossible for me to accept.

I had to stop reading the book. At least for a while. It’s a temporary interruption I’m sure, but I needed to back off from Three Bad Men. I need to take a few deep breaths and calm down before continuing.

This book chronicles the lives and friendships of John Ford, John Wayne and Ward Bond. Two great actors and one extraordinary director. It’s an interesting read. I have been reading, as is my habit, slowly, savoring. I was enjoying it.

Until I got to the section in which the author claims Ford used Stepin Fetchit and other minorities to “slyly mock America’s racism”.

That’s absolutely untrue.

What I see — and have always seen — is the perpetuation of racism by Pappy. As much as I love John Ford’s westerns, there’s no escaping the racism in his films.

They were still calling Woody Strode “boy” as late as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Even considering his belated attempt to make reparations with Cheyenne Autumn, it was much too little, way too late.

I’ll get back to the book in a while, when I have calmed down a bit. Right now, I’m sorry. I simply can’t continue reading it.