THE ANNUAL GEORGE R. STEWART-JIMMY STEWART CHRISTMAST POST

Annual George R. Stewart, Jimmy Stewart Christmas Post


If It’s a Wonderful Life can be a tradition at Christmas, why not this post from a year ago about the connections between that great film and George R. Stewart?  So here it is, with only minor editing to bring it up to date.

But it has a bonus at the end – a radio interview with one of the stars, who was – of course – doing charitable work in the Central Coast area when Tom Wilmer of local PBS station KCBX found him:

It’s A Wonderful Story


This is the time of year when most of us watch the classic Christmas movies.  A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sims, Miracle on 54th Street, A Child’s Christmas in Wales,   (An almost unknown gem, produced in Canada, starring Denholm Elliot); and, of course,  It’s a Wonderful Life.

Here in Arroyo Grande, the local theater,  owned by a man who loves movies, shows one of those classics each Christmas. The admission is a can of food or a toy, to be donated to those in need – in the spirit of the movie.  …To see such a film on the big screen, surrounded by local neighbors of all ages – to see how the children love the film – it is a reminder of what we’ve lost.  Now we watch movies on TV, but usually alone, and always less intently – a kind of digital sampling of the films.  Like a CD, we miss much when we do that.  But in the theater watching Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street  we missed nothing.  And – how long since you’ve experienced this? – the audience clapped and cheered when the judge decided that, yes, Kris Kringle was indeed Santa Claus.  It was a fine traditional twentieth century American Christmas experience.

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For most of the people I know, It’s a Wonderful Life   is the Christmas movie.  So those who are George R. Stewart fans should know about the connection between that classic film and GRS.

George R. Stewart was raised in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his mother’s family lived.  His maternal grandfather, Andrew Wilson,  planned to be a teacher, and even helped found a school nearby (which would become the prestigious Kiski School).  But he couldn’t earn enough to support his family; so he went into the mercantile business.  He  had a hand in a hardware store there, owned by another Stewart.  That Stewart’s son was James Stewart, also born and raised in Indiana.

George and Jimmy looked alike.  With all the similarities in family history, geography, and physiology, you’d expect they were related.  But they  shared only one possible distant relative.  And they lived in different worlds, in Indiana.  The George Stewarts went to the middle-class Presbyterian church on the flats; Jimmy Stewart and his parents went to the upper-class Presbyterian church on the hill.  GRS went to a public high school out west, Jimmy to a prestigious private school in the east.

Still, the lives paralleled in remarkable ways.  GRS and his family moved to Pasadena; he went to Princeton; and after marriage moved his family to Berkeley, California.  Jimmy went to Princeton, then moved to Pasadena; and spent his life in Southern California.  GRS wrote books, two of which were filmed.  Jimmy made films, like that grand Christmas classic we all love.   GRS worked at the Disney studios for a time, an advisor to Walt himself.  Jimmy worked at many studios, creating characters and stories that touched the hearts of millions.  Ironically, GRS did not like the media, and apparently did not attend movies often, if at all.

Their paths apparently never crossed.  GRS and his family left Indiana for California in 1905, when he was 12.  That was the year James Stewart was born. Out west, nothing in their interests or their work brought them together.  Since the film we now consider a classic failed in its initial run, it is unlikely GRS would have seen it even if he did go to the movies.

Yet, in this Christmas season, we should remember there is one thing they shared; and thanks to the film, we share it with them:  The experience of life in a small American town in the early 20th century.  Like a trip to Disneyland, a viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life enfolds us in such a place.  For a time, we walk the streets and meet the people of the town and the time where both boys grew up.

Please follow the rest of the story at: The Annual George R. Stewart, Jimmy Stewart Christmas Post

DISCOVERING SOMETHING ELSE – SERENDIPITY IN ACTION

Being a cast member on a movie set wasn’t exactly what I’d expected. I wasn’t sure what to expect since my experience with working on a film was drawn entirely from the media. Even subtracting 95% of what I thought I knew to align with reality, I thought something should be happening. I guess it was, if you were one of the stars or co-stars. Or even had a talking role.

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But extras? Which is what I was, though these days the term “extras” is out of favor and “background performer” is in. Whatever you care to call us, we got shuttled from set to set, fed lavish buffet breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Everyone chowed down with extreme prejudice.

Otherwise, we waited. And waited. Then waited some more. While we waited, we had to be silent. Don’t annoy the stars. Don’t be in the way. Don’t go anywhere — including the bathroom — without permission. Permission was from one of the dozens of assistants, those attractive young people running around with headsets and clipboards.

It was confusing, tiring, and dull. You never knew if someone might decide you or your group were needed in a scene, but even if you were never in any scene — entirely possible — you had to act as if you were about to be “up” any moment. Your presence or absence was (apparently) life or death. On a movie set, it turns out everything is treated like life or death. It’s a Hollywood thing.

It was mid-November. Night in Lowell, Massachusetts.  I hadn’t worn enough layers and I was cold. My feet hurt. Not to mention my back. I needed to pee. I was bored.

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The director was on the 128th take. Before the night was done, he would exceed 250 takes of this scene. It was the turning point of the plot. It included every member of the cast except a bunch of us “background performers.” No matter. We still had to be there. Just in case.

I wondered how much money I was going to make, just standing around. I didn’t think it was going to be enough especially since it seemed unlikely this would be the night Hollywood discovered me. I wished I’d brought a book, though in the dark I wasn’t sure if I’d have been able to read. That was when I noticed the woman. She was standing just off to my right, leaning against a street light. It looked like she was reading, but whatever it was she was holding wasn’t a book. Something else. It had a light attached.

I sidled over.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

“You’re reading? What’s that? I’ve never seen one.”

“It’s a Kindle.”

“OH,” I said, things clicking into place. “I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never seen one before.”

She looked up and smiled. “It’s wonderful. I don’t know how I lived without it. I can bring books with me everywhere, as many books as I want. See?” she said, and she began to show me all the cool stuff it could do. Like being able to bookmark passages, get definitions of words and phrases. And carry a whole library with her in just this little thing no bigger than a paperback.

I held it, turned it this way and that. “You know,” I said. “This might be exactly what I need.”

Certainly my bookcases at home were bursting at the seams. Anything that let me buy books without finding someplace to put them sounded like a really good deal. And this thing would let me take books everywhere without hauling a trunkful of paperback. It seemed a good idea. But the price was still too high for me and I wondered if I would like a book that didn’t smell like ink and paper. It was convenient, but it lacked ambiance.

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Nonetheless, that conversation stuck in my brain. Long after the movie — in which I did not appear, though I had one scene which was cut and left on the editing room floor — had faded into memory, I remembered the lady with the Kindle. When the new generation of Kindles was released and the prices dropped, I bought one.

Then I bought one for everyone in my family who reads books. And I bought another one that plays movies and audiobooks and checks email. Finally, I got an even newer one that does the same stuff, but better and faster. And bigger, lighter, and takes (and sends) pictures.

I can’t imagine life without my Kindle. I don’t want to. I’ve got hundreds of books, audiobooks, music, everything on it. It goes with me everywhere.

A week or two ago — don’t remember exactly when — I had to read a paperback. It was heavy. It was awkward. I couldn’t hold it in one hand. And where was the light?

This may sound like no big deal. Just another toy, one more electronic gadget. But it isn’t. It was a game changer. Finally, I could travel with a whole library of books. Audio and print. I would never again run out of reading material, no matter where I was in the world.

Kindle and iPad

I’ve gone through four or five iterations of the Kindle experience since. By now, all my friends have them. Many of us have several, in different sizes and styles. I can’t imagine reading without them.

And finally, after my most recent upgrade to the next to the latest version of the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″ super tablet, I gave my iPad to my granddaughter (hers was pretty beat up and mine has 64 gigs rather than 32, like hers). After I got the newest (for me, but there is an even newer version available and probably will be yet another generation shortly), I had no further interest in the iPad which had always annoyed me anyway.

So everyone is happy. Skyping and reading and listening and watching … all because I met a lady when I was briefly (very briefly) a movie extra in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Watson, the game is on!

BREAKING NEWS: SQUIRREL WOUNDED IN BATTLE!

Violence broke out this afternoon as Gibbs, determined to show his dominance of all stuffed toys, tore open the … um … butt end of Mr. Squirrel. I rescued the poor creature before Gibbs could finish him off. I need to find a needle and thread and sew him up. Meanwhile, squirrel is hiding out in my former office, now the room where the luggage is stored.

Before the battle ... the rank and file

Before the battle … the rank and file

He won’t be lonely since that room is home to at least a dozen dolls, all of whom are gracious and welcoming to wounded warrior toys from the now-turned-lethal canine wars.

About to engage ...

About to engage …

Why was Squirrel marked for violence? Was it his fuzzy tail? Why did Squirrel raise the level of competition to violence? Whatever the reason, none of the other toys have been attacked with such fierceness, so even after I repair poor Squirrel, I won’t allow him to return to the battlefield. He is being released from service and sent home on a medical discharge.

Chester Morris and Wallace Beery in The Big House

Chester Morris and Wallace Beery in The Big House

Or, to put it another way, he’s on the permanent Disabled List. Won’t be joining the team for spring training. One more act of violence and Bonnie and Gibbs are looking at serious time in The Big House (1930 MGM crime drama directed by George W. Hill, starring Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone and Robert Montgomery.)

FILM REVIEW: LA CARA OCULTA (2011) – THE HIDDEN FACE

hidden-face-posterThe Hidden Face (La Cara Oculta) is a supremely dark movie, literally and figuratively. The subject is dark and most of the movie takes place in dim light or actual darkness.

At first glance, I thought it was going to be a whodunnit and I was good with that. But early on, the plot became obvious, so what remained was a race against time. The overall story is standard thriller cum police drama “missing person” stuff.  As the movie opens, we watch a “dear john” video from a young woman leaving her boyfriend with minimal explanation (but a lot of subtext). Her boyfriend (who we will soon learn is a renowned orchestral conductor) watches the video. Apparently baffled, miserable, in despair. It’s a flashback, because the film immediately moves forward to “now” as he meets someone new and begins a relationship. The story flashes back again. Despite how it sounds, the flashing back and forth is not confusing,  just tricky to write about.

Into precisely what genre The Hidden Face fits is murky.

It’s creepy, but not a horror movie. It’s a mystery, but so briefly no detective work is required. I was surprised at how soon in the film lays the whole story out. It eliminated any element of surprise or mystery, leaving creepiness without suspense. Does that make it sort-of horror? A ghost story without a ghost? Secrets don’t stay secrets long. The film put everything out there, up front.

The film would benefit from a tighter edit. Too many beauty shots  of the stars walking on the beach, ambling along by the river, looking sad, staring into mirrors (many mirrors, lots of staring), suffering, pondering, despairing. You could trim a lot of it without compromising the story. Fewer shots of Fab walking, thinking, pondering, Adri conducting, flirting, suffering, yada yada. That much B-roll is directorial self-indulgence and it gets old quickly.

After the who-done-what is revealed, the movie becomes a race against the clock. The only remaining question is who will win the race. That’s when I started to lose interest. The situation was indeed creepy, even horrible. But very little was happening and although nothing much is happening, it takes a rather long time to not happen. Back to the editing room!

Have I seen anything like this before? Yes.

Even before they show you everything, there are plenty of tells for anyone familiar with mystery or horror stories. Moreover, the plot is classic and everyone will recognize it. Think fairy tale crossed with Edgar Allen Poe. I believe the movie’s writers assume the situation, the premise itself, will generate sufficient tension without action. No need for story. It doesn’t work for me.  I need a story. So this movie wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’m a coffee drinker. If you like tea, you might love it.

hidden-face-stillThe cinematography is moody and broody. I appreciate the artistry. The “sexy scenes” were just that. Nothing pornographic about them. Had the overall tone of the film not been so edgy, it might have been romantic, even titillating. The sense of “something wrong” overshadows all else and the foreboding short-circuits potential erotica.

My aging eyes I would have preferred more light (as in wattage). The poor quality print may have contributed to the problem because it was difficult to focus on the picture, but most of the film takes place at night or in shadow so it wasn’t brightly lit to start with. After repeated copying of the original print, there was considerable squinting involved for me. Not a movie for the weak of vision.

Did I enjoy it? I liked the beginning a lot. I like the middle, mostly. By the end, I was eager for it to be over. Would I recommend it? It depends on who’s asking. I really wanted to like it, but I couldn’t get into it or wrap my head around it. If the tale had unfolded in a normal timeline rather than flashing back and forth, that might have helped. Maybe. I wish they had saved some surprises for the second half.

The situation was eerie, but for a movie to work for me, I need more. I need a story. Characters to whom I can in some way relate. Interesting dialogue. In this case any dialogue would have helped. Maybe I’m just not artistic enough to appreciate the nuances, but from where I sit, the problem was not too much nuance. It was too little.

ME AND MY UKULELE – AND ABOUT THOSE FISH!

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Heron … with fish.

I do not fish, though obviously in a valley full of rivers and dams, other people fish. As do herons and gulls and divers (the ducks, not the Navy guys). I’m a little dubious about the quality of the water and what might be in those fish, but people assure me they’ve been eating them for years … and apparently no harm has come to them.

I, on the other hand, know what’s in that water, so I just smile weakly and wish them good luck and a pleasant dinner. I’m not that fond of trout anyhow.

Rather than fishing, I like making music. Not so much listening to it, though I do that too … but making it. Plucking strings, tinkling the (fake) ivories. Blowing my own horn. And it is in the service of making music that I now have a lovely little tenor ukulele.

Me and the ukulele have history going way back. I picked up my first soprano uke at Sam Goody in Hempstead when I was still in college. I was a piano student, but pianos are not portable. It was, after all, the folk music era and unless, as Tom Lehrer suggested you want to view the piano as an 88 string guitar, it just doesn’t make it as a folk instrument. To be fair, the ukulele isn’t entirely a folk instrument either, but it’s a lot closer than a living room grand Steinway.

I wanted a small, light, fun instrument I could take with me so I could, assuming I could tune to whatever key other more sophisticated pluckers were in, I could join.  There’s no instrument lighter, more portable, easier, and more fun than a ukulele. And what other instrument conjures dreams of diamond bright beaches and tropical sunsets? Powerful symbolism for a littler, 4-string strumming instrument.

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Around the same time, I bought a guitar and more or less learned to play it, though I was never by any definition a good player. No idea what happened to my uke. I know I sold the guitar. Afterwards, I went home to the piano. My hands felt right on the keyboard.

Years rolled on. I sold my Steinway grand. I had no instrument in Israel, except a miniature electric keyboard that was more a toy than a real music maker. Then, when we were living in the Boston townhouse, Garry and Owen bought me the Yamaha Clavinova which has been with me for the past 23 years.

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Until this past week. When I sold it to Owen’s friend, Dave, who was looking at it all dewy-eyed. He has M.S. and keyboards are the way he keeps his hands moving and useful, something I can relate to painfully (no pun intended) well. I have not been able to play my piano for a a couple of years. The arthritis in my hands has caught up with me. Unless I have further surgery — and it works, always a bit dicey — the pain of playing takes all the fun out of it. Who knew hands could hurt that much? I thought it was my wrists, that I had carpel tunnel problems, but it isn’t. It’s hands full of calcification of all those little bones.

Almost every pianist over the age of 60 has arthritic hands. Some worse than others and you can blame DNA for whether it’s completely disabling from a musical point of view, or just inconvenient. You don’t see a lot of old concert pianists … and that’s why. All that stretching and pounding from when you are just past being a toddler damages little bones and if you are, as I am, inclined to arthritis anyhow … well …

Meanwhile, the itch to get another ukulele has been growing. The uke is small enough to not put a lot of strain on me (or my budget). Nor does it require significant hand strength or dexterity — unlike the piano. A classy, hand-made solid wood ukulele is not cheap. I’ve seen some beauties that cost a couple of thousand dollars, but you can also pick up a nice little uke on which you can learn and which will sound pretty good to the less discerning ear, for around $100. Using a bit of the money from selling the piano, I found a nice, solid mahogany, tenor ukulele. It arrived a couple of days ago, and so began my ukulele adventure.

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I had also bought an electronic tuner, a book of chords for beginners, a package of picks, and a hard case. I once had a nice guitar that some guest at a party kicked in, presumably accidentally. I never found out who done it, but live and learn. I buy protective cases for instruments.

Next step was to tune it. How exactly was I supposed to use the electronic tuning device? More to the point, to what part of the uke do you clip it? The “instructions” included with it were sheer poetry, and probably a direct translations from whatever Asian tongue in which they were originally written. Poetic, but uninformative.

I knew that you are supposed to clip the tuner to some part of the ukulele, but where?


“Position the tuner by clip on the part of the musical instrument which vibrates distinctly, adjust until you can see the LCD clearly.”

How about a picture? Diagram? Name of part?

I went back to the devices listing on Austin Bazaar’s website from which I bought it. Nothing. Apparently everyone but me already knows how to use it. So I went to Amazon and kept looking at electronic tuners until someone showed a picture of a tuner in use.

ukulele-tuner

Aha! Mystery solved. I set the tuner to “U” for ukulele and began the tuning process. The tuner worked. When I get a string tuned to the correct note, the machine flashes neon green.

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Took me about 15 minutes. New strings are stretchy, but I got it. Then, I took out the book of chords. I tried a few, then started muttering to myself. “That’s weird. The chords are all upside down. ”

Something was upside down, but it wasn’t the chords. I had tuned the strings upside down.

I retuned the instrument. It was easier the second time, especially because I was tuning the correct strings to the appropriate notes.

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I learned three chords, realized I needed to clip the nails on my left hand or I wasn’t going to be able to hold the strings tight on the frets. By the time I finished that, it was time to cook dinner. The next morning, I dislocated my unhealed breastbone.

So the ukulele will have to wait awhile. A few days, anyway.

At least it’s in tune. Right-side up.

The next time I go fishing, I will bring the ukulele. If I sing to them, fish will rise to the surface and sing along. That’s what fish do, here in the valley. No, really, they do. (Not.)

FISHING AND STRUMMING| THE DAILY POST

SHORT BUT SWEET by ELLIN CURLEY

I just saw a play that was interesting, but way too long. The producers had to fill out the required time for a Broadway play, whether or not they had enough good material. A lot of movies are too long for the same reason. To me, most action movies are no more than a series of barely distinguishable scenes of violence strung together from the opening credits and beginning “premise,” and an even more spectacularly violent dénouement. As far as I’m concerned, you could cut movies of this genre in half without altering the plot (what plot?) at all. But then, you might have a 47 minute movie and no one would pay to see it.

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This is particularly painful with comedies, particularly on television. Many sit-coms have a few funny bits and that’s it. The rest of the show just isn’t funny. In a perfect world, you could air an 18 minute episode because that’s all the funny material you had. You should be able to present the material that works and then call it a day. For the most part, half-hour shows are only 21 minutes after subtracting commercial breaks. Take off another one or two for coming attraction … and you’re down to 19 minutes. So many the problem is those really bad scripts? Maybe they only feel long because they are so bad.

I worry about this with blogs too. I have good ideas but I they don’t always add up to a whole post. So I’m simply going to present a few paragraphs from a couple of interesting articles I read recently.

First, apparently babies and young children are ‘designed’, by evolution, to seem cute and winning to adults to insure kids get the maximum love and attention they need to thrive and grow. Infants’ big eyes, button noses, and chubby cheeks elicit a kind of primal bonding reaction in adults. So do the sounds the make and the way they smell. It’s a visceral, chemical, and nearly universal reaction.

Children start to lose those physically attractive ‘baby’ features around age two or three, so adults are hard-wired to respond equally strongly to the speech patterns of young children.

The way kids perceive and say things sound funny and charming to us. Their observations about the world seem irresistibly adorable. This phenomenon has a name: “Cognitive Babyness.” Studies show that between age two and seven, a child’s cute behavior replaces their cute faces in stimulating a care-giving response. Go evolution!

Ana McGuffey - 1946 - Mme. Alexander - Doll's faces are intended to embody the "adorable" factor of real toddlers.

Ana McGuffey – 1946 – Mme. Alexander – Doll’s faces are intended to embody the “adorable” factor of real toddlers.

So much for interesting factoids. I’ll move to my next mini topic.

I taught Yoga and Meditation for eight years. I know the enormous benefits to adults — increased focus, attention span, calmness, control and confidence. Also, decreased tension and stress, anger, frustration, distractibility, and fewer physical aches and pains. It never occurred to me that teaching some form of Yoga and/or Mindfulness in to schoolchildren might have the same amazing benefits. But recently, I’ve read several articles about these kinds of programs being taught in kindergarten through high school, all around the country. They have produced outstanding results.

The skills taught have reduced the symptoms in ADHD kids. Calmed children with anxiety disorders. Helped kids with learning issues, behavior problems, and social deficits. The same studies have shown improved grades, a higher degree of empathy and kindness between kids — and an enhanced enthusiasm for school.

Many schools have incorporated some form of mindfulness into the curriculum for teachers as well as students.

Way to go! Good for you! Over and out!