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“The Fog Horn” and “The Murderer” – two short stories by Ray Bradbury

Classic_stories_1The Fog Horn

When Ray Harryhausen and his producers were working on the story for The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, they discovered that their story was very similar to Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Fog Horn,” published in 1952There seems to be some confusion about exactly how this happened. Bradbury said they had been inspired by his story, but forgotten that it was his story that inspired them. When he pointed this out, they promptly bought the rights to “The Fog Horn” and marketed the film as being based on his story. However, Ray Harryhausen said that while they were working on the story, they saw an image of a dinosaur attacking a lighthouse and they thought it would be a good idea to incorporate that into their script, and so bought the rights to Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn.”

However it happened, there is only one scene in the movie that is based on the short story, which only consists of one main event. I’m afraid Ray Bradbury’s story sounds a bit silly in a dry retelling, but there is nothing silly in the actual reading. It’s actually rather poignant.

Two men work in a lighthouse, one a younger man, Johnny, new at the job and another old-timer, McDunn, who is given to musing about the mysteries of the deep sea. As the fog horn of their lighthouse mournfully calls out one night, McDunn talks about how ancient the bottom of the ocean is compared to the land.

For all our engines and so-called submarines, it’ll be ten thousand centuries before we set foot on the real bottom of the sunken lands, in the fairy kingdom there, and know real terror. Think of it, it’s still the year 300,000. Before Christ down under there. While we’ve paraded around with trumpets, lopping off each other’s countries and heads, they have been living beneath the sea twelve miles deep and cold in a time as old as the beard if a comet.

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scene from the movie

But in some way, the fog horn has an affinity with that ancient world, with its mournful call and a creature (the last of its kind?) responds by visiting each year and calling back to the lighthouse as if it was its long-lost love.

A cry came across a million years of water and mist. A cry so anguished and alone that it shuddered in my head and my body. The monster cried out at the tower. The Fog Horn blew. The monster roared again. The Fog Horn blew. The monster opened its great toothed mouth and the sound that came from it was the sound of the Fog Horn itself. Lonely and vast and far away. The sound of isolation, a viewless sea, a cold night, apartness. That was the sound.

Not even Harryhausen’s monster was that sad! And when the fog horn is turned off briefly, the monster destroys the lighthouse in a fit of rage. Fortunately, Johnny and McDunn escape alive. But the monster is never seen again.

I’m not sure if I would have made the connection between the movie and the short story if I hadn’t known they were connected. The tone is completely different. The short story admirably calls up a sense of vastness, ancientness and loneliness. This was my first time reading Bradbury and his ability to create an atmosphere that hangs heavy over a mere nine pages is remarkable. I can sometimes have trouble focusing on a book when there is other noise or people around, but even in a waiting room I still felt like I was set amidst that vast loneliness and hearing that monster call – no mean feat.

The Murderer 

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Bradbury

After I read “The Fog Horn,” I was flipping through the collection – Classic Stories 1: From The Golden Apples of the Sun and R Is For Rocket – and read a few more short stories, including one that tickled my fancy. “The Murderer” was written in 1953, but is set in some distant time where radios are ubiquitous, including the wrist radio (used like a cellphone), and tell you what to do (rather like a GPS devise) and music is playing constantly in offices and on buses and houses remind you to wipe your feet. The noise is incessant, but most people hardly notice. They are too busy on their wrist radios, calling others to remind them about something or tell them about every trivial little thing.

Hmm….sounds familiar.

The story encompasses an encounter between a psychiatrist and a man under arrest who is being evaluated. The man, Albert Brock, was arrested for the “murder” of electronic objects…anything that made noise. His first crime was committed against his telephone, which he sent down the “insinkerator.” Next he “shot the television set.” He goes on to pour French chocolate ice cream into the radio transmitter of his car. He then goes to work on his house, which is

one of those talking, singing, humming, weather-reporting, poetry-reading, novel-reciting, jingle-jangling, rockaby-crooning-when-you-go-to-bed houses. A house that screams opera to you in the shower and teaches you Spanish in your sleep…with stoves that say, “I’m apricot pie, and I’m done,’ or ‘I’m prime roast beef, so baste me!”…With beds that rock you to sleep and shake you awake. A house that barely tolerates humans…A front door that barks: ‘You’ve mud on your feet,sir!” And an electronic vacuum hound that snuffle around after you from room to room, inhaling every fingernail or ash you drop.

Brock systematically went through the house and killed everything that made a sound. The trouble is that he was only renting all these things.

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Max Smart demonstrates a wristwatch phone

His reasons for these crimes? He wants to “deliver” man from “conveniences” and the incessant noise. The demands that technology seemingly makes on people. The feeling that because there is a phone, therefore it must be used. The sudden need people feel to share every little thing, so that they can feel “in touch.” How people sit on the bus and give updates on their location. How music plays nonstop.

In touch! There’s a slimy phrase. Touch, hell. Gripped! Pawed, rather. Mauled and massaged and pounded…

It was only 1953 when Bradbury was writing, but he perfectly describes the social media/cellphone revolution.

My brother noticed it especially in 2007, when the iPhone became ubiquitous on the college campus When he first went to university, he had to take a bus and everyone on the bus either read or talked to their neighbor. In 2007, that all changed. Suddenly, everyone on the bus had an iPhone and would sit with head bowed over it. Almost like homage payed to a deity.

By the end of the story, one can’t help but feel that it is the psychiatrist – and everyone else – who is sick and that Brock is the only sane man around. The doctor says Brock “refuses to accept the simplest realities of his environment and work with them,” but perhaps Brock has a point that such things ought to be fought against. Maybe we should all turn into Luddites and run around murdering technology.

Except then I couldn’t blog…

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2016 in Books

 

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: James Thurber and Danny Kaye

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James Thurber

When James Thurber’s short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” was adapted into a movie starring Danny Kaye in 1947, Thurber was not pleased with the results. The story had become a Danny Kaye vehicle and he loathed the tongue-twisting patter scat songs Kaye sang. Some of Thurber’s fans complained, too. But the film did well and was one of Danny Kaye’s biggest hits.

James Thurber was a humorist and cartoonist who mostly wrote for The New Yorker. The most famous of his short stories is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which I was somewhat surprised to discover is only seven pages long (approximately 200 times shorter than Tolstoy’s War and Peace). I was also surprised to discover that for being a humorist, his most famous short story is actually faintly depressing.

Appearing in The New Yorker in 1939 and anthologized in My World and Welcome To It in 1942, Thurber’s story is less a story and more a snapshot illustrating the life of a middle-class man. Absent-minded, ineffectual (can’t even put chains on his car), under his wife’s thumb, he’s on the dreaded weekly shopping trip with his wife to buy things he doesn’t care about (like overshoes). His wife is there to have her hair done.

Walter Mitty is also a daydreamer and the short story opens with him imagining that he is a daring pilot, until his wife chides him for driving too fast. As the day goes by, he continues to drift in and out of heroic dreams, incorporating what he sees in passing until he is jolted back into reality by some person. He is at turns a surgeon, a man on trial, and a bomber pilot.

A little bit of the short story does make it into the movie. Danny Kaye’s Mitty imagines he’s a surgeon (also a cowboy, a Mississippi River gambler, a fighter pilot, a ship’s captain in a hurricane). Several of James Thurber’s nonsense words (he liked to make up words; his fairy tale, The Thirteen Clocks, is brimming with them) make it into the movie, too. Whenever Mitty is dreaming, in the background can be heard ta-pocketa-pocketa and he uses other made-up words like coreopsis during the surgeon dream sequence. That’s one thing Danny Kaye and James Thurber did have in common, whether they realized it or not, though it manifested itself differently. They both made up words. Actually, it was Danny Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine, who made up words for many of Kaye’s nonsense songs, which provide a dazzling display of wordplay, made up words, rhymes and nonsense. The difference is irony. Both are whimsical, but Thurber is ironic and Kaye is exuberantly silly (I don’t mean that negatively).

Poster - Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The_08And so Danny Kaye’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is fundamentally different. Instead of being ineffectual (he’s actually very good at his job working for a pulp magazine, though his boss steals all his ideas), he is a meek man who must learn to assert himself. Instead of a wife, he has a bossy mother and a fiance with a bossy mother. But in all his daydreams, he always sees the same woman (played by Virginia Mayo) and after having dreamed so much, even when a real conspiracy does fall in his lap, he can hardly tell if it’s real or not. It doesn’t help that the woman of his dreams is the same woman in the real conspiracy.

As a side note, there is a small role in the film for Boris Karloff, who plays a villainous psychiatrist and I only wish he could have been in the film more. He’s trying to convince Mitty that everything that happened was just another dream and he leans over him and asks, “Now why don’t you like me?” Mitty emerges from behind the sofa to tell him: “because you tried to push me out a window.” It’s unanswerable and cracks me up every time. If my psychiatrist looked like Boris Karloff, I’d be hiding behind the sofa, too.

But in the movie, the daydreaming is partially the source of Mitty’s creativity and what makes him so good at his job. It could be seen as an escape from being so henpecked, but not necessarily. But in the short story, Mitty’s daydreaming has an entirely different cause. He really is daydreaming as an escape from life, where he’s dismissed and not taken seriously. It’s interesting that Thurber wrote “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in 1939. There is even a reference in the story to a coming war. But Mitty doesn’t seem like he’ll have much part in it.

“Doesn’t it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?” he asks his wife at one point, when she interrupts him. Her reply? “I’m going to take your temperature when I get home.”

MSDSELI EC017The ending is particularly ambiguous. The final daydream that Thurber records happens when Mitty is assumed, again, not to have any individuality outside of his wife. He stands beside a wall and lights a cigarette, which then morphs into a fantasy about how he is bravely facing a firing squad, “Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.” You almost wonder if he’s contemplating suicide, but I suspect it is more a symbolic death. His personality or individuality has been shot (by society, by his wife, by his own ineffectuality?), but he can retain a shred of it through his dreams.

I don’t think I’ve properly dwelt on how humorously the story is written, though I found it a bit of a downer. But Thurber’s tone is light, which makes a serious story much more pointed, in some ways. If you are interested in reading Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” it can be found here. I have not seen Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but I would be interested in knowing what his take on Thurber’s story is. Was it inspired by the movie or the short story or a completely new creation?

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2015 in Books, Movies

 

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Damon Runyon – His Broadway Stories: Guys and Dolls

Damon Runyon

Damon Runyon

There are not too many authors that I can think of who have had more of their stories adapted to screen than Damon Runyon (1880-1946). He has had at least sixteen movies based on his short stories (and one based on a play). The most famous are Lady For A Day (1933 – directed by Frank Capra), Little Miss Marker (1934 – the film that made Shirley Temple a star), A Slight Case of Murder (1938 – based on a play, stars Edward G. Robinson) The Lemon Drop Kid (1951 – with Bob Hope), the musical and movie adaptation of the musical Guys and Dolls (musical premiered in 1950 and the movie, with Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, was released in 1955), and A Pocketful of Miracles (1961 – Capra’s remake of A Lady for a Day), though I think it is unfair to judge Runyon by the movies. Although his plots could be sentimental – though sometimes they’re quite serious and sad despite the lighthearted narration – he was also an extremely cynical writer with a surprising amount of death, violence, larceny, poverty and tragedy that, if included in a film, would probably turn the film into a serious gangster noir. And without that cynical and disengaged tone of the narrator, all that gets left in the movies is the sentiment (though Capra’s Lady for a Day comes the closest to being Runyonesque – a sentimental fairy tale mixed with gangsters and the underlying tragedy and hopelessness of the depression, all treated with a light touch; it’s a very good film).

But I recently read Guys and Dolls and Other Writings, a collection of many of his short stories, some of his trial reporting and a few essays, and found Runyon a delight to read. He was a reporter and short story writer, well-known for his reports on baseball and on certain trials. He was actually a friend of people like Al Capone, and he made his name immortal by writing what has become known as his Broadway stories, those stories that are noted for his colorful characters and his prose. And he would always have that little twist at the end of a story, much in the way that O. Henry would have a twist.

Lady for a Day - Frank Capra's Depression Era, Prohibition Era Cinderella tale - Pictured is Ned Sparks, Warren William as Dave the Dude and May Robson as Apple Annie - the movie is based on Runyon's short story "Madame La Gimp"

Lady for a Day – Frank Capra’s Depression Era, Prohibition Era, Cinderella tale – Pictured is Ned Sparks, Warren William as Dave the Dude and May Robson as Apple Annie – the movie is based on Runyon’s short story “Madame La Gimp”

The Broadway stories are those tales, narrated by an unnamed man who is presumably Runyon himself, about the guys and dolls who inhabit Broadway (though certain of these Broadway characters occasionally leave their environs and visit other parts of the world, always bringing their Broadway ethos with them). He wrote his first story in 1929 and most of his good ones occur during Prohibition and the Great Depression. Runyon is not necessarily considered a very accurate recorder of real gangsters and the criminal underworld; it all came out of his imagination. But he set the tone for what can be called “gangster chic.” His world almost seems like fun (if it wasn’t so dangerous).

Runyon’s world is full of reappearing characters and locations (some of which are based on real people and places) and he had a gift for unbelievably colorful, almost poetic, and unforgettable character names. “Big Nig” Skalsky is a crap shooter and owns a road house who always seems to be hanging around. There is Harry the Horse, Little Isadore and Spanish John, who are from Brooklyn and generally engaged in some larcenous activity, like snatching people for ransom or breaking into a safe. Dave the Dude is a gangster boss. Nathan Detroit is the guy who runs the craps games in various locations. Sam the Gonoph is always hawking tickets to sundry sports events. There is Big Jules, Liverlips, Regret the racetrack gambler, Waldo Winchester the newspaperman (based on the real Walter Winchell). Good Time Charley owns a bar, but never gives his friends any of the awful liquor he sells there; he gives them some of his private stash. And they often seem to hang out at Mindy’s (based on Lindy’s), often eating a meal at four in the morning. In fact, this is often where the narrator hears the stories that he tells. There are various women, dolls, who always seem to be making some guy cry for love, but this is really a man’s world. His dolls are generally smart dolls, though.

Shirley Temple and Adolphe Menjou in Little Miss Marker - the movie was a Temple vehicle and ironically is not especially close to Runyon's original story. The premise, that a man leaves his daughter at Sorrowful's place as a marker for a bet he wishes to place, but never comes back to claim her. Sorrowful is aptly named, but the child steals his heart and the hearts of all the gangsters on the street and soon Sorrowful is

Shirley Temple and Adolphe Menjou in Little Miss Marker – the movie was a Temple vehicle and not especially close to the tone of Runyon’s original story. The premise, that a man leaves his daughter at Sorrowfull Jones’ place as a marker for a bet he wishes to place, but never comes back to claim her is roughly the same. But in the short story, although Sorrowful’s life is transformed by her, everything ends in tragedy

Damon Runyon had a style all his own. He wrote in present tense, never used contractions, and would repeat certain words, creating an energy and flow that mirrors the rush and noise of Broadway. When a guy is rich, he is said to have plenty of potatoes or cucumbers or coconuts. He even invented some words, like ackamarackus and phedinkus. Somebody’s face is their “kisser” and guys get punched in the “snoot.”Here is an example of his style from his first Broadway story, “Romance in the Roaring Forties” (the forties referred to a street, as opposed to the actual 1940s – it was written in 1929).

Only a rank sucker will think of taking two peeks at Dave the Dude’s doll, because while Dave may stand for the first peek, figuring it is a mistake, it is a sure thing he will get sored up at the second peek, and Dave the Dude is certainly not a man to have sored up at you.

But this Waldo Winchester is one hundred percent sucker, which is why he takes quite a few peeks at Dave’s doll. And what is more, she takes quite a number of peeks right back at him. And there you are. When a guy and a doll get to taking peeks back and forth at each other, why there you are indeed.

The short story, “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” is one of the stories that the musical “Guys and Dolls” is based on about a high-flying gambler named Sky Masterson who falls in love with a mission worker named Sarah Brown and tries to win some souls for her by betting his money against the souls of other gamblers.

Well, when word goes around that The Sky is up at Nathan Detroit’s crap game trying to win Brandy Bottle Bates’ soul for Miss Sarah Brown, the excitement is practically intense. Somebody telephones Mindy’s, where a large number of citizens are sitting around arguing about this and that, and telling one another how much they will bet in support of their arguments, if only they have something to bet, and Mindy himself is almost killed in the rush for the door.

Bob Hope in disguise in The Lemon Drop Kid - this scene does not occur in the short story

Bob Hope in disguise in The Lemon Drop Kid – this scene does not occur in the short story, as indeed, do none of the scenes

Bob Hope’s The Lemon Drop Kid from 1951 has absolutely nothing to do with the short story, except that there is a character called the Lemon Drop Kid because of his habit of eating lemon drops and who is a racetrack tout. The movie is a usual Bob Hope vehicle and a Christmas story, though the short story is not a Christmas story and is quite dark, with a bitter, ironic twist at the end. The Lemon Drop Kid almost achieves a wholesome American dream of clean work and wife, only to have it blow up in his face.

The musical Guys and Dolls is a reasonably close adaptation of several of Runyon’s stories and is generally considered to be Runyonesque, though I feel that Runyon is worth reading for his own sake, if only for that narration. I love how he constructs his sentences. They seem loose and run along without appearing to go in a direct line, filled with slang and casual asides, but there’s nothing lazy about his writing. And the irony is that no matter how sentimental the story might be, the narrator is never in the least impressed by it. He always maintains a certain emotional distance from what is going on around him. But the result is almost like poetry.

 

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2015 in Fiction

 

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