What Music Would You Take to a Desert Island?

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Toward the end of Woody Allen’s wonderful movie Manhattan, the character he plays asks himself “Why is life worth living?”

His answer?

Well, there are certain things, I guess, that make it worthwhile.

Like what?

For me, I would say, Groucho Marx, to name one thing… Willie Mays and the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony (by Mozart) and Louis Armstrong’s recording of Potato Head Blues… Swedish movies, naturally… Sentimental Education by Flaubert… Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, incredible apples and pears by Cezanne, the crabs at Sam Wo’s… Tracy’s face…

Humor then, followed by the art of a gifted baseball player, music, movies, a work of fiction, visual art, food, and the young woman he realizes he loves, almost too late.

Your list would be different, mine would too. But isn’t it interesting how prominent music is on lists such as this, how often people find that an interest in music binds them to lovers, friends, and the joy of living?

A popular radio program on the BBC since 1942 has been asking what music you’d take with you if you were a castaway. It is called Desert Island Discs and it has hosted interviews of nearly 3000 prominent people in that time, trying to find out what tunes would be essential if they were marooned on the proverbial desert island.

On their website Desert Island Discs you can hear a number of these programs and discover the musical choices of folks like Martin Sheen, Alice Cooper, Tom Jones, Tim Robbins, Emma Thompson, Jerry Springer, Barry Manilow, Whoopi Goldberg, J K Rowling, Stephen King, Simon Cowell, Colin Firth, Patrick Stewart, Kim Cattrall, Kiri Te Kanawa, Luciano Pavarotti, and many others from the world of science, philosophy, literature, and government.

Back to Woody Allen’s question, what makes life worthwhile for me?

My wife and children, my friends and my brothers… Brahms’s Symphony #4, Beethoven’s Symphony #3, Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, and I’ll Be Seeing You… Judy Collins… Alfred Stieglitz’s photo The Steerage and Van Gogh… The Lives of Others, The Best Years of Our Lives, Lost Horizon, and The Prizoner of Zenda (the last two movies with Ronald Coleman)… getting to know (really know) people…

Anna Karenina, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving… baseball and the Zeolite Scholarship Fund… Shakespeare… Chocolate… Dim Sum, Superdawg (a Chicago area hot dog drive-in), and almost anything cooked by my wife Aleta… Precious and Peanut (family dogs)… listening to and telling stories… the satisfaction of doing something difficult and well… a good cup of coffee and the singing of the birds on a spring morning.

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And if you asked me what would I want in any heaven worth the name?

All that plus my father in middle-age and my mother before life defeated her.

Put another way, I guess I am living in something pretty close to heaven on earth.

Not bad at all.

Since, for most of us, food is one of the joys of living, you might want to take a look at an interesting and recently initiated blog on that subject: Adventures in Food.

The top photo is Brown sisters Melody, Deondra, and Desirae performing on a Steinway grand piano at CBC Radio Studios in Ottawa, Canada as part of the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival on September 12, 2006. Photo by Mike (Binary Rhyme) Heffernan. The bottom photo is The Steerage taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1907. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Classic Movies: Three to Treasure

Ronald Colman

I don’t go to a great many films and, perhaps unfortunately, don’t rent many either. But this wasn’t always he case. As a result, I can recommend three very old films that continue to move me every time I watch them:

1. The Best Years of Our Lives

On most every list of the 100 best films ever made. A 1946 film starring Myrna Loy, Frederick March, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, Theresa Wright, Harold Russell, and Roman Bohnen, among others. The film won seven Academy Awards. It tells the story of three WWII vets returning to home to their small town. One, a banker turned infantryman. Another, a “soda jerk” (someone who worked behind the counter making milk shakes and the like) turned bombardier; and the third man, a star high school quarterback engaged (literally) to the girl next door, turned into a sailor who did not quite go down with his ship, but lost both his arms in surviving.

The movie is touching and heart breaking in its effort to present a frank appraisal (for the time) of the costs of even a just war, as these three good men struggle to readjust to civilian life.

The newly returned banker (Frederick March) drinks too much and discovers that dollars and cents don’t have the same meaning to him as they did before he fought beside less well-to-do men of courage, loyalty, and integrity.

Dana Andrews, the Air Force captain, finds that the beautiful wife he impulsively married isn’t a good match for him now that he suffers from “combat fatigue,” a disorder that would be labeled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) today. Moreover, he must contend with the fact that the heroism that he displayed during the war doesn’t guarantee him a good job after his service has ended.

Harold Russell, a non-actor, gives an earnest performance as someone who cannot bear to be a burden on others now that he has primitive prosthetic arms, and does his best to discourage the young woman who still loves him, because he believes that her feelings are based only on pity.

For me, there are many extraordinarily touching moments in this film. I will mention only two: the moment that Frederick March first reunites with his wife after years away from home overseas, and Roman Bohnen’s understated, but oh so sensitive reading of the citation that his son (the Air Force Captain played by Dana Andrews) received for his heroism. That brief scene says all one need ever know about a parent’s pride in his child.

The film is long and slow-moving by contemporary standards, but the moderate pace allows more character development than usual. If you have the patience you will be rewarded.

2. The Prisoner of Zenda

First, a disclaimer. I love Ronald Colman. He was a now largely forgotten matinée idol of the ’30s and ’40s, as elegant, suave, and handsome (but in a more refined, cultured way) than the male stars of today. I forgive him the fact that he was not a great actor. But then Gary Cooper, John Wayne, James Stewart, Tyrone Power, and Alan Ladd, all contemporaries, were much, much worse.

Colman stars as a British citizen on holiday in a fictitious Eastern European country, who accidentally stumbles upon a cousin who is the crown prince. The catch? They look like identical twins (Colman played both parts, of course). And when the Prince’s evil step-brother Michael poisons his favored sibling so that he can assume the throne himself, the British cousin is asked to substitute for the king-to-be at the Coronation, until the real prince can recover and take the throne.

Things don’t go as planned and the charade continues on, long enough, in fact, for our British cousin to fall in love with the woman who is betrothed to the new king. This is an old style 1937 swash-buckler starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Raymond Massey, David Niven, Madeleine Carroll, C. Aubrey Smith, and Mary Astor (of Maltese Falcon fame). And, it too will touch you, as its ending is bitter-sweet.

The film is based on the popular novel of the same name by Anthony Hope. If you’ve already seen the movie or read the book, know that Hope wrote a less impressive sequel called Rupert of Hentzau (named after the character played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr).

Do avoid the much inferior color remake with Stewart Grainger and Deborah Kerr, as well as the later comedy adaptation starring Peter Sellers.

3. Lost Horizon

Another 1937 classic, this one based on a James Hilton novel, again starring Ronald Colman, along with Sam Jaffe and a very young Jane Wyatt (best known for her role as the mom in the ’50s TV series Father Knows Best, which also featured Robert Young).

This time Colman plays a disillusioned British diplomat who is kidnapped along with his brother and several recently rescued Brits and Americans, to be taken to a place called Shangri-La, a community situated in a temperate valley within the otherwise bitter cold of the Himalayan Mountains. Colman discovers something unbelievable there, a utopian community where people are not only tolerant and understanding, but are rumored to live unusually long lives.

Remember that this film was made on the verge of World War II and the character played by Colman reflects the contemporary sense of discouragement about continents on a collision-course, as well as a “this is  too good to be true” response to his new home. Of course, there would be no story unless Colman’s adjustment was less than perfect. He falls in love with Jane Wyatt, but also feels duty-bound to get on with the work in the outside world that is required by his career in His Majesty’s diplomatic corps.

To further complicate matters, Colman’s younger brother (played by John Howard) has fallen in love too, but with a woman who can’t wait to leave Shangri-La. What will Colman do? And if he leaves, will he ever return to take over administration of the community, as this was the reason he was kidnapped in the first place?

The movie is interesting for another reason. Some of the footage in the original version of this film was cut because it was thought that there was too much anti-war and women’s liberation sentiment. Indeed, the character played by Jane Wyatt is an astonishingly independent and intelligent female for her time, when most actresses where docile and deferential by today’s standards. Unfortunately, the seven minutes of the cut film were never recovered, but the sound track of that portion of the movie remained in tact. Thus, the videocassette and DVD releases have used “still” and publicity photos, cleverly manipulated to simulate some action, to replace the minutes where no movie film remains. But be careful not to confuse this classic with a 1970s remake in the form of a musical.

In any case, the feature remains a worthy one. Its portrayal of a better world, not on heaven, but heaven on earth, is attractive. To paraphrase one of the lines in the movie, let us hope that we all find our own Shangri-La.

The photo above is of Ronald Colman, sourced from http://www.meredy.com/