jim knipfel

NYC has seen its share of riots, but none quite like this.

Jim Knipfel on the Straw Hat Riots of 1922

The history of New York City has been peppered with more than its share of memorable riots. If you take folk historian Herbert Ashbury at his word, the Five Points section of the Lower East Side was host to a continuous, bloody, multi-fronted riot which rolled on for some thirty years in the latter half of the 19th century. Tribes of newly-arrived Irish, Italian, and German immigrants battled each other, American-born gangs, and the police and firemen for control of the area. The devastating Draft Riots in the summer of 1863 raged for four days and remain the deadliest riots in U.S. history. There were the riots and looting that accompanied the 1977 blackout, the ethnically-charged riots in Howard Beach in 1986 and Crown Heights in 1991, and even the drunken riots that erupted outside Madison Square Garden following the New York Rangers’ Stanley Cup victory in 1994. For sheer, mind-boggling foolishness, however, none of them can touch the Straw Hat Riots of 1922.

Fashon has always been taken perhaps a bit too seriously in New York, a town where proper or improper attire can in an instant establish or destroy your social standing. A woman gauche enough to wear white shoes after Labor Day, for example, could quickly find herself shunned not only by strangers, but co-workers, friends, and family. In the first half of the 20th century, everyday fashion was as much a concern for men as it was for women. But in the case of men, the focus was much more on proper headgear.

Straw hats came into vogue and established themselves as the standard male fashion accessory of the Jazz Age, and an arbitrary but strictly-enforced rule went into effect. The rule dictated that on September 15th of every year, men switch out their summer straw hats for much more practical felt hats. The felt hats would then be worn exclusively through the fall and winter until the straw hats came out again the following spring. As with the accepted and appropriate color of women’s shoes, the rule could not be easily ignored.

But unlike women who dared to wear white shoes after Labor Day, the repercussions faced by men who wore the incorrect hat were much more severe than mere shunning. Men brazen enough to ignore the straw hat rule might find themselves confronted by roving bands of college-aged fashionistas, who expressed their displeasure with this particular cultural faux-pas in fairly direct terms.

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Who Will Think of the Children?

Jim Knipfel on Satire and Children’s Books

This past September, the Abrams’ imprint Image, which specializes in illustrated and reference works, published a novelty book entitled Bad Little Children’s Books by the pseudonymous Arthur Gackley. The small hardcover, which itself quite deliberately resembled a little golden book, featured carefully-rendered and patently offensive parodies of classic children’s book covers. Instead of happy, apple-cheeked tykes doing pleasant wholesome things, Gackley’s covers featured kids farting, puking, and using drugs. Others included children with dildoes and racially inflammatory portrayals of Middle Eastern, Asian, and Native American youngsters. The book was clearly labeled a work of satire aimed at adults, and adults with a certain tolerance for bad taste and crass jokes.

Upon its initial release it received positive reviews and sold fairly well. Then in early December, a former librarian named Kelly Jensen posted an entry on Bookriot entitled “It’s Not Funny. It’s Racist.”  

“This kind of ‘humor’ is never acceptable,” Ms. Jensen wrote. “It’s deadly.”

Jensen’s rant circulated quickly across social media, and Abrams suddenly found itself besieged by attacks from the outraged and offended, who assailed Gackley for creating the book in the first place, and the Abrams editorial board for agreeing to publish it.

“There is a difference between ‘hate speech’ and free speech,” one outraged member of the kidlit comunity wrote on Facebook. “In the same way, you cannot yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater just because you feel like it. This book was in very bad, insulting, racist taste, and designed to look like a children’s book. How is that a good idea? Children are too young to understand this as parody. If it’s for adults, why is that even funny? Oh, I guess if you are a racist you would think it’s funny.”

Another tweeted, “Sounds like something that should’ve been completely ignored and removed before it hit the shelves. Just because we have the freedom of speech, it can be taken way too far.”

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Ruining it for everybody

“Whenever I hear the word "spiritual,” I reach for my revolver. So I do my best to avoid people who speak or think in spiritual terms. Folks like that make me a little queasy and nervous. They seem a bit too disconnected, too smug, too naive, too brainwashed, too dull-witted. Still, there’s no denying it’s something an awful lot of people talk and think about.“

- Jim Knipfel

Columnist, New York Press.

I’m reading his book now. Goodbye world in the meantime. LOL


Making a list of the great films in which he appeared would be pointless. It would go on too long and you know them all anyway.

He was a small, mousy little fellow with pinched features beneath a high forehead, wide, watery eyes, a mouth that could not smile and a voice pitched slightly too high. He was factory-made to play nebbishes, henpecked husbands, elevator operators, front desk clerks, twitchy sidekicks, newsboys, the unjustly accused, informers, and the doomed would-be tough. Even as he aged, he was like a puny kid who always wanted to be bigger so he could show all those other kids. He was the Eternal Small-Timer. In short, he was Everyman, and  a character actor’s character actor.

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Gerry said something that cemented a change of attitude in me. It saved my life time and again over the next few years - and almost ended it just as often.

‘Jim,’ he said, grinding out his last cigarette as we wrapped up, 'you are not a terrible person. But the world is a terrible, horrible place. What you’ve got to do is take all that rage and all that hatred that’s inside of you and turn it around. You’ve got to stop trying to destroy yourself. Turn that rage outward, go out and try to destroy the world instead.’

Something in me, some high brick wall, crumbled at that moment, some heavy force floated out of me. On the way back to my apartment that bitter cold January evening, I balled up my gloved fist and punched it through a series of windows in an abandoned warehouse. I was starting to feel much better. 'Die at the right time,’ Nietzsche wrote. At that moment, I did.

—  Jim Knipfel, Slackjaw
[Y]ou are not a terrible person. But the world is a terrible, horrible place. What you’ve got to do is take all that rage and all that hatred that’s inside of you and turn it around. You’ve got to stop trying to destroy yourself. Turn that rage outward, go out and try to destroy the world instead.
—  Jim Knipfel, “Slackjaw”

Among his countless other achievements as host of The Tonight Show, Steve Allen is credited with introducing radical innovations to the standard talk show mix like comedy sketches, interacting with the crew and audience, taking the camera outside the studio, and interviewing common people on the street—all things that went on to become standard for the form. Well, good for him, I say. He was a very smart and creative fellow.

Unfortunately for the sake of the accepted history, Allen didn’t start hosting The Tonight Show until 1953, a year after Ernie Kovacs was already doing all those things (and much, much more) on his show at New York’s WCBS, and two years after he first introduced them as a regular part of his local morning show in Philadelphia.

Kovacs was raised in Trenton, NJ, the son of Hungarian immigrants. His father was a cop turned bootlegger and saloon- keeper who made much more money as a bootlegger than he had as a cop, and moved the family into a lavish 20-room mansion. With the end of Prohibition, the family’s wealth deteriorated quickly, the houses got smaller again, and his parents split.

Kovacs was a big, boisterous, funny kid who earned a reputation in school as a wiseacre and practical joker. With the encouragement of his high school drama teacher, he attended the American Academy of dramatic Arts and in the late ’30s began acting in local theater and doing summer stock. In ’39 he came down with a case of TB that left him hospitalized in New York for months and disqualified him from enlisting when WWII broke out. He returned to Trenton once again after leaving the hospital and, along with continuing to act and direct in local theater, took a job as a cigar salesman.

In 1941, a 22-year-old Kovacs, at the urging of a friend, auditioned for a job as a disc jockey at Trenton’s WMMT radio station. For the audition, he tore a raw wire story off the teletype and began reading it, adding commentary and cracking wise as he did. According to the station manager, he was given the job on the spot.

On air, and in sharp contrast to his contemporaries, Kovacs was a wild man, playing records backwards, running insane contests, pulling on-air stunts, joking his way through the news reports, conducting interviews with nobodies. In many ways he presaged the deejays and talk radio hosts two and three decades down the line.  He drove his engineer a little mad, but was hugely popular. So much so that in 1945 he was given a column at a local paper in which he rambled about anything that might be on his mind, from the condition of the city’s taxi fleet to the menu at a nearby deli and beyond: He was in the habit of giving away the storylines of the comic strips on the opposite page, and offered up general observations about Trentonian minutiae:

“The albino fish in the middle aquarium in Hunter’s looks blind and yet we’ve never seen him pass up a peek at the cute guppie in the tank.”

According to friends, when televisions first hit the consumer market in the mid-’40s Kovacs was skeptical, considering them merely toys for the very rich. When he bought his own first set in 1948, however, he became fascinated with the possibilities of the medium. (As he would quip many years later, they called television a medium “because it was neither rare nor well-done”). Television was nevertheless the future, he decided, and became determined to be a part of it.

The following year he made a recording of himself doing color commentary at a wrestling match in Trenton and sent it as an audition reel to NBC affiliate WPTZ in Philadelphia. He was invited for an interview, and reportedly showed up wearing a barrel suit. Once again he was hired.

He made his television debut in 1950 as host of Deadline for Dinner, a cooking show in which local chefs (professional and otherwise) were brought on to prepare their favorite meals. As with Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life (which debuted that same year), the attraction of the show was less the techniques or dishes on display, but Kovacs off the cuff banter with the visiting chefs, and the occasional frozen turkey. For one episode, the scheduled chef never showed so Kovacs had to take over himself, throwing together an ad hoc recipe for “Eggs Scavok”. The experience may well have inspired a later (and much copied) Kovacs sketch involving a cooking record.

In 1951 Kovacs moved up the ladder from a cooking show to his own morning program. Three to Get Ready aired weekdays from 7 to 9 a.m. It was to be your standard news/weather/sports program aimed at the local Philly audience.

On the downside, at the time no one thought anyone would be turning on their televisions that early in the morning to watch a damn local news show. Everyone was too busy getting ready for work. On the upside though, since the assumption was no one would be watching, Kovacs was given free reign. Almost immediately that dusty old “news/weather/sports” format was dumped in the alley behind the studio, and Kovacs began chipping away not only at the fourth wall, but the third and second as well. He chatted with the crew and members of the small live audience. He added comedy sketches, insane and incongruous sound effects, musical numbers, and genre parodies. He introduced characters like outrageously swishy poet Percy Dovetonsils, drunken and incompetent magician Matzoh Hepplewhite, and Howard, the World’s Strongest Ant (though he was never seen, Howard received an estimated 30,000 gifts mailed in by obsessive fans). He brought the camera inside the control room to show the audience what was going on in there. He took the camera outside the studio to pull ridiculous stunts (like running through a restaurant in a gorilla suit), and sometimes he dragged people off the street back on the set to be interviewed. Most important of all, he began experimenting with early video tricks like split screen, fades, and washes for comic effect.

A few months after the show began, comedian and singer Edie Adams joined the cast, taking part in sketches, offering up regular musical interludes, and in general playing a sharp foil to Kovacs, whom she would later marry.

In a much later interview, she would recall it was a no-budget operation in which everyone had to do a little bit of everything, like sewing costumes and building sets. She also recalled one show when a drunk wandered in off the street and onto the set as the cameras were rolling. Instead of calling security, Ernie let the bum crash on an on-camera couch, where he slept through the entire show with Ernie introducing him after every station break.

Much to everyone’s dismay, the show was a hit. So much so that the networks in New York started paying attention. More than that, seeing that people were willing to turn on their sets at 7 in the morning after all, NBC started developing their own morning show, this one aimed at a national audience.

In May of ’51, Kovacs was given his own first national exposure with It’s Time for Ernie, which was filmed in Philly, but sent out over the network. It was a remarkable thing, really. The show ran a mere 15 minutes and was broadcast in the middle of the afternoon. It was just a one-camera job without much of anything you might call a “set.” So what it boiled down to was this: every day at 3, you could turn on NBC and watch Ernie Kovacs fuck around for a few minutes. He joked around with the small crew, pulled some small visual gags, told pointless stories, promised sketches that never arrived, and sometimes wandered off the set.

It was all very strange, but good enough for network purposes, and once it finished its six-week run, he was hired to do Ernie in Kovacsland, a half-hour prime-time summer replacement for of all things Kukla, Fran & Ollie. In many ways it was like a condensed version of the morning show with the same cast of characters, songs from Edie, and sketches that screwed around with the form. As one episode opens, the cast is fretting because Kovacs is late. They point the camera out the window to see if he’s on his way, and eventually spot him. In a splendidly off-balance silent routine, Kovacs wanders down the street dragging a mannequin. He stops by a baker selling rolls on the sidewalk, haggles with him, then beats him up. Still dragging the mannequin, he then wanders into and out of a diner. Finally someone runs up to him and points out the time.

In another running gag across the series, a man with a gun bursts onto the set at random times and shouts “All righty, hold it! Nobody move!” The cast freezes until the gunman eventually says “Re-sume,” and backs away.

Ernie in Kovacsland ran for two months, but with Three to Get Ready still doing so well, WPTZ gave Kovacs another show, which premiered in January of ’52. Kovacs on the Corner came on at 10:30, an hour and a half after Three to Get Ready wrapped. The new show focused on Kovacs wandering the streets of an artificial neighborhood, chatting wit the “locals”—a cop, a barber, a bum, a shopkeeper, whoever else might wander through. Combined with plenty of visual gags the show, while not as freewheeling as the early morning show, still offered plenty of comic possibilities. But after only a few weeks Kovacs lost creative control.  In his later career he would be known as a man who did not suffer executives and their “suggestions” gladly, so usually simply ignored them or found a way to undermine them. In this case though, as unhappy as he was with the interference, he continued making the show.

Then in March of ’52, NBC announced their upcoming premiere of The Today Show, asking their local affiliates to make room in the schedule.

Given the success of Three to Get Ready, and considering that The Today Show’s time slot conflicted directly with the Kovacs show, KPTZ said initially they had no plans to air The Today Show. Under ongoing pressure from the network, however, it vecame clear they had little choice and cancelled both Three to Get Ready and Kovacs on the Corner.

Having already made a name for himself among TV bigwigs in New York by that time, Kovacs simply picked up and moved north to WCBS where he was again given a morning show, Kovacs Unlimited, which began airing in April of ’52. Here’s the kicker. Despite his popularity among audiences in Philly, when he got up to New York network executives suddenly couldn’t make head or tails of his oddball characters, surreal non-sequiturs, or video shenanigans. It apparently made their heads hurt, and Kovacs Unlimited was cancelled after a few months. For the next decade he bounced from network to network, doing brief runs here, brief runs there on what was usually called simply The Ernie Kovacs Show, evolving a vision quite unlike anything ever seen on television, playing with the technology as it itself continued to evolve. Along the way he also did a What’s My Line-style game show called Take a Good Look that was at heart merely an excuse to shoot more sketches but in practice confused the hell out of people. In the late ’50s he moved to Hollywood where he appeared in a few pictures, usually playing swarthy foreigners. There was also some trouble with the IRS and a two- year stretch he spent looking for his young daughters, who’d been kidnapped by his ex-wife. But he always returned to the TV shows where he was given complete creative control, where he could smoke his cigar underwater, where a tiny woman could perch on his shoulder for no reason at all, and where gorillas could dance swan Lake.

Kovacs died in a car accident in January of 1962, shortly after finishing the eighth in a series of still-groundbreaking and brilliant specials for ABC. It would take a quarter century (and longer if you were Steve Allen) for Kovacs to be recognized as the madcap genius he was, and longer still for people to recall the germ of it all began a decade earlier when a little station in Philly let him run wild with a show and timeslot nobody thought could possibly work.

by Jim Knipfel

Say hi to my new reading companion, Sadie! She (yes, it’s a she just for the fun of it) will be accompanying me in leafing through pages of adventure and you’ll be seeing more of her in the future. The first book that Sadie and I ventured to was Ruining It For Everybody by Jim Knipfel. It’s a wonderfully written book about the life of the author himself. Knipfel is a writer in New York who, as a child, had developed a sort of sense of satisfaction from inflicting meaningless damage to other people. He was not sadistic. He simply had urges to make other people’s lives miserable regardless of who they were. Knipfel and his ultimate sociopathic friend he calls Grinch did petty crimes starting from vandalizing church doors, disturbing an entire neighborhood during unholy hours to pretty serious stuff such as a failed attempt to torch an administration building. He believed and did not believe in many things (e.g. religion, social interactions and norms) which he highlighted with wit, sound opinions and dark humor (which really works for me). The author did not intend for his book to be one of those self-help books. Knipfel merely laid out his story of what it was like to slowly lose vision and be slightly sociopathic and misanthropic. But because I’m an existentialist I found his work very enlightening. What I just told you does not even justify the breadth and depth of what he shared in his book. I’d recommend this to anyone who wants to take a tour inside a brilliant sociopath’s mind.


I don’t know exactly when it was that I first took serious note of character actress Susan Tyrrell. My first impulse is to say it came when she narrated the Ralph Bakshi animated feature Wizards. But that can’t be right. I was 13 at the time, and I recall being pleased and surprised to see her name in the credits. By that point already her face and voice were unmistakable and ubiquitous to me, playing small and unforgettable roles in so many films.

It was after 1980’s Tales of Ordinary Madness—an Italian feature based on the works of Charles Bukowsky—that my interest in Tyrrell became a serious, almost obsessive crush. And I can blame it all on a single line of dialogue: “I’ll make us some… steak an’ eggs.” It didn’t matter that she was playing a bleach blonde hooker in a black lace push-up bra and garters. No, it was just the way “shhteak an’ ayygs” slid out in that husky voice of hers, that little shift in her heavy jaw,  that hooked me. I was well aware of her before that, but it was then that I consciously decided that I needed to see everything she’d appeared in.   

This was no easy task, given the number of things she’d been in, big films and independent features alike, since 1970’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like UPpto Me.    

She rarely played leads, but she was hard to miss. With her almond eyes and oddly  beautiful yet haggard features, as well as that ragged voice, she was often cast to play drunks, derelicts, hookers, and other misbegotten characters, which lead to an early Oscar nomination for her brilliant performance as Stacy Keach’s sort-of girlfriend and fellow barfly in John Huston’s Fat City.  

In the ‘80s and early ‘90s she began to play bigger roles in smaller films, including cult favorites like the musical/comedy/fantasy Forbidden Zone (in which she plays the Queen) and Angel (in which she plays the aging hooker/madame/mother figure).   

After a series of health problems cost her both legs, Tyrrell appeared less and less often on-screen, and usually with some kind of barrier to mask the fact that she had no legs (playing a bartender, for instance). She did, however, stage a popular one-woman show in Los Angeles in which she talked about her difficult life and less-than-ordinary career.   

I came to use Susan Tyrrell as a kind of barometer when I met people—especially those who were interested or involved in films. In 2000 I had a meeting with a man who said he wanted to turn one of my books into a movie.   

“My only stipulation,” I told him, “is that you cast Susan Tyrrell.”   

He seemed confused, then said, “Well, we’ll consider your friends, but they’ll need to come down and try out like everyone else.”

I knew immediately that he was not the man for the job, and further negotiations ceased. Six years later I was approached by someone else who wanted to make a movie based on another book, and I offered the same stipulation. He was well aware of who she was, and knew immediately what role she would play. We signed a contract two weeks later.

On June 18th, it was announced that the great Susan Tyrrell had died at age 67. She was the last of her breed—a gutsy, maverick actress with a face, voice, style and presence all her own. She wasn’t afraid to allow herself to look less than poised and glamorous and perfect on the screen. In many ways she was a throwback to the character actresses from the ‘40s, and we’ll likely never see her kind again.

The film I mentioned above is still a few years away, and now I can’t help but wonder just who the hell they’re going to get who could possibly play a role written specifically for the absolutely unique Susan Tyrrell. No one on this earth has ever said “steak and eggs” quite the same way she did.

by Jim Knipfel


I nearly killed Lou Reed once, but I swear it was an accident. This was about ten or twelve years back now. My girlfriend and I were having lunch at an East Village restaurant. After paying the bill and getting ourselves together to leave she said, “Lou Reed is sitting right behind you.” I turned to take a look, and stumbled. Now, there are two things to keep in mind here. First, my turning to look in the first place was pointless, as I’m blind and wouldn’t have been able to see him anyway. Second, by “sitting right behind you,” she really meant “sitting in the sidewalk cafe outside, on the other side of the giant plate glass window.”

So I stumbled and hit the window, which rattled violently, but did not smash. If it had, though, hoo boy, the special for the rest of the day would’ve been Shredded Reed.

“If you’d killed him,” my girlfriend said as we were leaving, “everyone in this city would’ve hated you.”

“Maybe,” I replied. “But it still would’ve been worth it.”

Let’s just say I was much more deeply saddened at the news Don Ho had died than I was upon learning Lou Reed had died. Maybe it’s sacreligious, but I was never that impressed. Oh, there’s no denying the kind of influence he had as a seminal member of the Velvet Underground. I do love the Velvets, and without them, The Stooges, the MC5, and all those garage bands from the mid-60s, what would later be known as alternative music would have been a very different and far less interesting animal.

Although Reed will ultimately and deservedly be remembered as a member of the Velvets, my problems with him come later. As a solo artist he proved time and time again that he was nothing without John Cale (who for some reason has not earned the same sort of iconic status), but no one seemed to notice.  Berlin, his one truly great and cohesive album, was despised, ignored, and dismissed at the time, and still is among many of the true believers. Apart from that he recorded a smattering of some half-decent songs here and there, but most of his output consisted of immediately forgettable rock’n’roll numbers, tepid love songs, and  some soft-peddled punkabilly Velvets retreads people took to be “transgressive.”  I’m sorry, but “Walk on the Wild Side” ain’t no “Venus in Furs”—it’s a chirpy bit of MOR titillation designed to make middlebrows in Duluth giggle.

Because he had the fools fooled he was treated like some kind of fucking streetwise genius poet royalty in New York, and he took it all (and himself) very seriously. I know plenty of people, from journalists to musicians to cab drivers to people who accidentally ended up in the same yoga class with him, who can boast of having had Lou Reed encounters over the years, and not a one has the slightest positive thing to say about it. Even William Burroughs seemed a little embarrassed and irked after his own unfortunate meeting with Reed.  By all accounts he was a snotty, arrogant, humorless,  spoiled little asshole who over the four and a half decades since leaving the Velvet Underground wrote and recorded mostly bland, generic, deeply uninteresting pop songs.

I guess I’ve always been a little baffled and annoyed by the reputation he carried with him and the flood of misty-eyed coverage his death has received, while so many others who were just as influential and far more talented (though perhaps less image conscious) live and die unnoticed and unheralded.

And then there’s Don Ho. Lou Reed couldn’t hold a fucking candle to Don Ho.

by Jim Knipfel

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

"I'll Bust Ya Right in the Nose!"

It’s a pity, really, that nowadays William Demarest is best remembered by most people as “Uncle Charlie” on the television sit-com My Three Sons (or perhaps to a lesser degree as the handyman in the made-for-TV horror film Don’t be Afraid of the Dark), because over a period of some fifty years, Demarest played his patented “gruff-but-lovable” character in every movie ever made.Demarest was born in Minnesota in 1892. Soon thereafter his family moved to Jersey, where he grew up. He served in World War I, after which he  began performing on the vaudeville stage. From that point, he would spend the rest of his life on one stage or another. He soon moved on to Broadway, and then in the mid-20s, it was off to Hollywood. Beginning with 1926’s When the Wife is Away and continuing without a break until the mid-‘70s, Demarest was in, yes, every movie ever made. Or at least all those films that Elisha Cook wasn’t in. He also appeared in short subjects, television series, and onstage. It’s strange—Demarest was so busy as an actor it seems to have left him with no biography apart from the roles he played.

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As the story goes, W. C. Fields once stood up during a screening of a Charlie Chaplin film and angrily announced to the screen and the rest of the audience, “He’s not an actor—he’s a goddamn ballet dancer!”

There’s something to that, of course. Through all his antics and pratfalls, Chaplin’s movements were always delicate and graceful. He was always in control, and the well-rehearsed and careful choreography that was behind those pratfalls was right up there on the screen, clear as day. By contrast, the magic of Buster Keaton was that he could take sophisticated  stunts that were just as well-rehearsed and carefully choreographed and make them seem clumsy, awkward, and accidental.

And while Chaplin’s characters, though often downtrodden, were still clever enough to use their wits to get out of most any scrape and win the girl in the end, Keaton’s were just, well, hapless. They stumbled out of trouble the same way they stumbled into it—by happenstance and sheer dumb luck. And if he did happen to win the girl in the end it was more likely an accident than the result of any endearing charms he might possess.

As with so many silent stars, the introduction of talkies was a very tumultuous period for Keaton, but not for the usual reasons.

His laconic Kansan twang fit his face and his characters perfectly, with its natural blend of naive, straightforward sincerity and befuddlement. It served the Stoneface well, and added yet another layer to his performances. Or would have, had the studios chosen to capitalize on it.

As the talkie era got underway, Keaton signed a contract with MGM. It kept him working, but in much smaller roles in smaller and weaker films, and without the level of creative control he once enjoyed. A number of personal problems began cropping up as well, and that didn’t help matters.

Then in 1934, he signed with Earl W. Hammond’s Educational Pictures. It seems an odd and unlikely move at first, an iconic comic actor of Keaton’s stature leaving MGM for an industrial house, until you learn that Educational’s real bread and butter at the time was their comic short subjects. The move also once again gave Keaton the creative control he’d been missing, and allowed him to return to the smaller, tighter format where he’d started, and take it in some new directions.

Over the next three years, mostly working with director Charles Lamont (the prolific filmmaker best known for his Abbot & Costello films from a decade later), Keaton would slam out sixteen two-reelers, one after another. While his trademark form of hapless slapstick remained front and center, the addition of sound gave him a new toy. Along with the expected crashis and smashing glass, Keaton also began to play around with the musical and comic potential of natural sounds.

The first half of 1935’s One-Run Elmer, for instance—in which Keaton runs a dilapidated gas station in the middle of nowhere—is played in near silence, save for the squeak of a rocking chair, a cowbell, some dropped change, and the clinking of a gas pump. Somehow, though, through a combination of timing and gesture, he’s able to turn it all into a brilliant and hilarious (if discordant) symphony. In the years that followed, it’s a routine that would be adapted by everyone from Ernie Kovacs to Ennio Morricone.

Then there’s Elmer. With the exception of two of the sixteen films (1934’s The Gold Ghost and 1935’s Palooka from Paducah), Keaton’s on-screen persona throughout the series was Elmer, the wide-eyed, naive, always helpful, always hopeful, and perhaps too-polite Midwestern lad with a bad habit of innocently fumbling his way into trouble and falling in love with every pretty girl he sees.  Elmer actually first appeared in 1932’s The Passionate Plumber, but in these shorts Keaton had the space and the freedom to develop him more fully.

Here once again sound becomes an invaluable addition. Not only is Keaton’s voice perfect for the character, but he also reveals himself to have perfect, low-key verbal timing.

In 1935’s Hazed Romance, he arrives at a farmhouse in answer to a newspaper ad. The large and severe woman who runs the farm tells him, “I’d offer you something to eat, but we’ve already had dinner.”


“But you can wash most of the dishes if you like.”

He waits just the briefest of beats before saying, “Thanks!” 

It’s a quick exchange that could easily slip past some viewers and certainly wouldn’t translate well as an intertitle, and the Elmer shorts are full of subtle bits like that. Quiet, off the cuff remarks that likely never would have cut it in the silents. (When Elmer stops at a drive-in restaurant wearing a boy scout uniform, a waitress asks him in passing, “So what are you, a big game hunter or just giving your knees an airing?”)

Oh, the mayhem and misadventures and hijinx  are there as well in spades—he had a knack for cramming an awful lot of material into a very small space—and as time went on he ratcheted up both the verbal and physical humor a few notches.  While maintaining a solid base of the comedy that made him a legend of the silent era, he used sound in new ways to push it in some very interesting directions. It was the last great period of his career, and you have to wonder where he might have gone with it had he been able to continue. Sadly, the films he made for Educational were lost and all but forgotten until 2010, when Kino released their Lost Keaton set, which collected together all sixteen educational shorts. So the films have been saved for us, but it does little to help Keaton.  After the Elmer films came a long and slow slide into the bottle and smaller roles and cameos, mostly for people who wanted him to just do sad pratfalls and keep his damn mouth shut.

By Jim Knipfel

THE BROOKLYN CAJUN: Timothy Carey in "Poor White Trash"

Probably the most unusual (and to many, disappointing) thing you can say about the American National film Poor White Trash is that it’s not an exploitation movie. The word “sleazy” comes up a great deal whenever people talk about it,  but I get the feeling the people who are bandying the term about have never actually seen it.

Yes, there’s an implied off-screen rape, a fistfight at a funeral, some vaguely arty sex (images of a hurricane superimposed over two clutching hands), and the marriage of a much older man to  a fifteen-year-old. But that’s it, really. Filmed on location in Louisiana, Poor White Trash is at heart an authentic, straightforward, even sensitive portrayal of daily life in a Cajun fishing village. There are no Daisy Maes here, and nothing is played for cheap yuks at the locals’ expense.

Upon its original release in 1957, in fact, the film was called simply Bayou. It was directed by Harold Daniels (whose primary background had been in Westerns) and written by Edward Fessler. This was the only thing Fessler wrote, which seems to hint that he was writing from personal experience of one kind or another. He clearly knew what he was talking about—his characters aren’t the usual hicks tending their stills in the swamp.

 Bayou concerns a New York-based architect (Peter Graves), who finds himself in Louisiana because he’s competing for a big job in New Orleans. While in the fishing village to meet with the project’s contractor, he encounters Marie (Lita Milan), a beautiful young woman who is  fighting off the persistent advances of Ulysses (Timothy Carey), the local shopkeeper. Even though Marie makes it clear she’s not interested in him, Ulysses still doesn’t much care for the fact that she’s paying so much attention to this Yankee interloper.

So there’s the love triangle that drives the story, which was necessary to prevent Bayou from simply becoming a documentary about Cajun life. When those relationships aren’t the focus, we’re shown the local customs, learn the language and the history, get some insight into the local economy, even receive a quick lesson in proper crab fishing techniques.

When the film was first distributed by United Artists in ‘57, nobody went to see it . The reason was simple. That title made it sound like, yes, a documentary about Cajuns. Either that or a nature film. Who wants to pay good money to see something like that? The film quickly disappeared.

Then in 1960 Bayou was picked up by the much less reputable Cinema Distributors of America, who promptly changed the title, re-edited the film, and added a scene or two—including a banjo number under the opening credits (written by Fessler and performed by Dick Noel). They also spiced up the ad campaign: “Somewhere a 15 year-old girl may be a teenager…In the Cajun country, she’s a woman full grown!…and every Bayou man knows it.”

Yes, well. Overlong and semi-literate or not, it seemed to do the trick. CDA re-released the film to drive-ins as Poor White Trash in ’61 and suddenly lots and lots of people wanted to see it.

People are still itching to see the film today, and they can generally be broken into two groups. The first are the sleazehounds, all aflutter because, the picture has a mythic reputation for being unbelievably sordid. ( “Just get a load of that title and tagline! It sounds like a Russ Meyer film, only nastier! Man, that’s something I gotta see!”)

When these people finally do see the film, they tend to be extremely disappointed, even if  they do come away having learned something about Cajun culture.

The second group consists of  obsessive Timothy Carey fans. For years, Poor White Trash has remained a very difficult film to track down. In general, rabid Carey fans aren’t disappointed. Ulysses represents one of the strangest roles Carey ever took on (apart from those he wrote for himself). Yet it remains unclear why he was offered the role in the first place, let alone why he took it.

After he’d already appeared in classics like The Wild One, Crime Wave, East of Eden, The Killing, and Paths of Glory, this low-budget number seemed like a good idea. Maybe he just wanted to spend some time in Louisiana, or maybe after two Kubrick pictures, he wanted to do something simple. Who knows? In any case, he is unforgettable here playing a burly, arrogant, lovelorn, proud, and quite possibly psychotic Cajun shop owner.

It was not unusual for Carey to play burly psychotics. It was his stock in trade, and there was always  something magnetic about his performances. Much of it had to do with his unmistakable delivery, that slurred Brooklyn accent and those bared upper teeth. But when you take that same delivery, that same slurred Brooklyn accent, and add to it a heavy French accent and Cajun sentence structure, something strange happens. It’s so patently artificial that you simply have to accept it because it somehow makes sense. There’s no reason why it should, but it does.

Although Peter Graves gets top billing and is presented as the film’s civilized protagonist, few who have seen it would deny that it’s Carey’s picture. The architect portrayed by Graves is a whiny, self-righteous asshole who went to Cornell and looks at the Cajuns like some kind of interesting primitive tribe. Carey may well be playing an asshole as well, but at least he’s an interesting one. You never know what he’s going to do next—whether it’s chase Marie through the Bayou (in a particularly frightening scene), or pick a fight at a funeral.

There’s a scene that gets me every time. Carey and Graves are competing in a boat race during a local carnival, and as the camera cuts from one to the other as they paddle furiously, Carey begins screaming for no logical reason—but again, it still makes perfect sense.

And then there’s his solo dance routine at a local wedding reception.

He plays the role like a confused teenage gorilla, awash with too much adrenaline and too many mysterious hormones. A gorilla with a Brooklyn-Cajun accent.

Poor White Trash is neither a great film nor the sleazy one it’s been made out to be, but for Carey’s performance as well as the film’s portrayal of Cajun culture, it is an endlessly fascinating one. Even if that asshole Peter Graves gets the girl in the end.

by Jim Knipfel

Salamis are but minor manifestations of Knipfel.

When we came home, there was a salami hanging from the doorknob. This kind of thing only happens when Jim  Knipfel’s around.

I first met Jim in the summer of 1988, when he came shuffling up the stairs to the Welco, black hat and black trenchcoat, but not looking like a statement, just like somebody off the street who happened to be wearing these things, cigarette hanging like a dejected thought, speaking so softly I couldn’t make out whether it was his name or a request for mercy, internally stepping backwards, half there but very much present, not what I expected from someone who’d sent me a piece of screaming, strident prose that I very much wanted for the paper.

A couple months after this, he told me he and his wife-to-be Laura had been walking across the Walnut Street bridge and saw the river cops fishing a body out of the Schuylkill. Jim had been telling me some weird and wacky tales about his life in Minneapolis and Chicago and Madison, and I’d believed them, because they had the right feel and sense of detail and because I always believe anything that anybody I like tells me, but when he talked about that body I began to wonder.

I’d lived in Philadelphia for 40 years and never seen a dead man – except the time I was doing a story about the city morgue and that one time earlier, in fourth grade, when the monsignor died and the nuns sent us in to kneel around his candlelit bier. I started wondering – did these things really happen to Jim or was it, umm, an excess of creative imagination? But when I looked in the Inquirer the next morning, there it was, in one of those two-paragraph items that dribble down the side of the second Metro page. Body found in Schuylkill, pulled out near the Walnut Street bridge.

When Knipfel was around, the dead crawled out of the river, geysers erupted from the earth and people of all sorts flew into verbal convulsions. Jim wrote about them for his  weekly “Slackjaw” column, which continued, after his move to Brooklyn, in the New York Press – their most popular feature.

By contrast, nothing ever happens to me. In 57 years, the nearest thing to a significant event was a pigeon plummeting from the sky and dying at my feet in Syracuse in 1967. People don’t discover bodies in my presence, agents of doom ignore me, and most of my relatives die of old age, in perfect peace.

After I drove Jim down from New York so he could hang out here for a couple days, there was that salami – well, I suppose it was a salami. It says “Thuringer” and “Smoke Haus Meats,” so maybe it’s more correctly a German sausage, but what else can you call a warty something the size, color and shape of one of Paul Bunyan’s turds hanging from your doorknob by a hempen cord?

When I picked up the mail, it contained a letter from John McCormick, who ran a weekly cartoon in the Welco that offended just about everyone; I hadn’t heard from him in 18 months. Later, while I was out, Jim took a call for me from a writer who had done work for me four years ago, then took off for parts unknown. The message noted that he would be in New York for the weekend – though what I should do about that fact was beyond me.

Jim’s was going blind then. This isn’t to dredge up tears, because I think going blind might almost have done him good. He settled into himself in some weird way, not talking of suicide any more. Instead, he seems ravenously interested in the whole process, collecting advisors to show him how to navigate his apartment, how to get around New York with his cane (“You hold it firmly in your hand and you go tap, tap tap, tap tap tap”), how to meet bureaucratic standards for non-seeing once he’d lost the last of his always marginal vision to retinitis pigmentosa.

That Friday, Linda, Jim and I went to an opening of a “tattoo art” exhibit at the New Arts Salon in Old City down near Second St. that turned out to be a bust: We couldn’t find the supposed tattoo artists or the “demonstrations,” just framed dragons and skulls and “Moms” on the walls. On the way back to the car, I grumbled that I’d planned to do a column on the tattooery, and now I had nothing to write about.

“How may words?” asked Jim.

“Around a thousand.”

“Oh, you should be able to get a thousand words out of that.”

Of course, he was right. There’s a thousand words hidden around every corner. So I started writing the thousand, which ended up as an open homage to Jim.

Jim credited me with being the first to publish him professionally (true) and with editing him into the writer he is today (no, I just peered into the computer in awe). For my part, he opened up a world I’d been looking for but couldn’t identify, showing me the excitement I’d missed in the odd nooks and crannies of human behavior.

His daily visits to the Welcomat defined my day back then, just as his utter loyalty still defines the very concept of friendship: Jim gives without stint to his friends, not in pointless sacrifice, but in recognition of their individual human spirits, something I’d gladly emulate if I had the strength and Jim’s decency.

So I ate that salami and enjoyed it (a little bland, but fine with a slather of Chinese mustard). I still have no idea where it came from, but I’m certain, beyond fact or reason, that it appeared because Knipfel was in town.

by Derek Davis

FORGET UNCLE BILL: Brian Keith, 1954-1961

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the careers of several aging character actors were miraculously salvaged, thanks to a slew of tepid, excruciating (and therefore hugely popular) family-friendly television sitcoms. In some cases these unbearable shows were so popular they completely eclipsed the actor’s previous career in the ‘30s, ’40s or ’50s. So today more people know Fred MacMurray and William Demarest for My Three Sons instead of, say, Double Indemnity or all those Preston Sturges pictures. Likewise, Sebastian Cabot and Brian Keith will forever be remembered as the stars of the heartfelt and  execrable Family Affair. Young as I was at the time and knowing nothing at all about him, Brian Keith in particular seemed wholly out of place and uncomfortable with the soft-serve shenanigans around him. He struck me as bored, distracted, maybe a little depressed, as if he had no idea why he was there or who these three monstrous, insufferable little brats were. The very idea of “acting” seemed alien to him.

Keith was a hulking, broad-shouldered man with curly blond hair and a square, beaten face. He was less reminiscent of your standard sitcom star than an aging football player or one of those enormous, semi-retarded orange tabby cats you see sometimes. He moved slowly, spoke his lines in a gruff half-mumble, half-growl, and his smile always seemed forced and false and sinister. It wasn’t until many years later, after catching up with his early film career that I finally understood.

Keith was raised in New Jersey, the latest addition to a minor acting dynasty, and made his screen debut at age three with his father in the 1924 silent Pied Piper Malone. As he got older, he did a lot of acting on stage and radio, then, after graduating from high school he enlisted in the Marines and was a tailgunner during WWII. Upon returning home, he continued working the East Coast stages for a few years before venturing out to Hollywood.

Following a smattering of uncredited film roles in the late ’40s and a few stints on television, in 1953 he was signed as a contract player at Paramount, and things got mighty interesting there for awhile. 

Although he would concentrate primarily on television work (including becoming the first actor to play Mike Hammer in the Blake Edwards-directed 1954 TV movie Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer), over the second half of the decade he still found the time to appear in several intriguing pictures.

It was in that brief stretch between 1954 and 1961 that his true greatness became apparent, his subtlety and range, as he played equal number complex heroes and villains, lawyers and thugs and nutjobs, fishermen and cowboys and cops. He quickly became a top-billed B film fixture, co-starring with Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, Robert Ryan, Kim Novak, Jan Sterling, Timothy Carey, Maureen O’Hara and Strother Martin in noir films, melodramas, half-comedies, adventure pictures, message films and Westerns.

In Jerry Hopper’s 1954 crime adventure Alaska Seas, Keith plays Jm Kimmerly, a salmon fisherman and owner of a cannery along the Alaskan coast who’s organized the local fisherman to fight off a gang of illegal fish poachers. When his old ex-con buddy Robert Ryan shows up one day, the upstanding and faithful Kimmerly doesn’t hesitate to give him a job. Little does he realize that not only would they soon be battling for the affections of Jan Sterling, but that his old pal would also be pulling double duty with the poachers. There are more than a few hints of Clash By Night here, but without that overly self-conscious Odetts dialogue. Keith is splendid as the trusting sort who is at last forced to recognize his friend’s deeply treacherous nature. That Keith naturally just looked so much the part of a rugged Alaska fisherman (more so than Robert Ryan or that villainous Timothy Carey) only made things easier.

That same year’s Five Against the House presented more of a stretch, with Keith playing Brick, a returning Korean War vet and wisecracking law student. Phil Karlson’s picture, which co-starred Guy Madison, Kerwin Matthews, and Kim Novak (with William Conrad in a small supporting role) is a schizophrenic number. It begins as a high-spirited college romp, with a group of buddies on a road trip back to school after the summer break. They stop by a roadside casino in Reno and witness a failed heist attempt. But the spirits remain high, the zingers keep flying, and those wacky college hijinx ensue. Then it becomes a serious romantic melodrama. Then it becomes a crime picture as the boys decide  to do the impossible and pull a casino heist themselves. Then it takes a dark turn. Despite the ensemble cast, Keith is the real standout here as it’s slowly revealed the war vet-turned-zany college student is not merely troubled, but profoundly insane. His ability to turn on a dime, from deadpan jokery to murderous rage in an instant is simply remarkable, and dramatically increases the film’s tension level, as you never can tell when it might happen next.

He found himself working with Karlson again on the following year’s Tight Spot, with Edward G. Robinson, Ginger Rogers, and that oily Lorne Greene. This time around he plays a young but already cynical cop who’s assigned to guard a mob kingpin’s sharp-tongued ex-moll (Rogers) in a claustrophobic hotel room. Meanwhile  the DA (Robinson) tries to convince her to testify against Lorne Greene despite the fact that everyone else who’d agreed to do such a thing has been bumped off.

What begins as a standard witness protection movie (if more lighthearted thanks to Rogers’ endless wisecracks and a hilariously bad telethon on the TV) soon devolves into a romantic comedy as Rogers falls for Keith. But then it takes another turn when we learn Keith is on Lorne Greene’s payroll. Based on a play, it remains a very stagey and talky picture with mostly one-dimensional characters, but Keith once again is the standout here, a seemingly minor role at first that becomes the fulcrum around which the film’s final third turns.
He then co-starred with Bette Davis, Kim hunter, and Paul Kelly in writer/director Daniel Taradash ’s hamfisted but necessary anti-Red Scare melodrama Storm Center (1956). Davis, the librarian in a small provincial town, becomes the victim of a witch hunt when despite mountains of public and political pressure, she (being the adamant free-thinking sort) refuses to pull a book called The Communist Dream off the shelves. Keith keeps it low-key and humorless here as  the young, ambitious member of the town council who spearheads the drive to destroy the librarian, though the focus is on the metaphorical vector of a 10 year old boy. Once a voracious reader who adored the librarian, see, the kid becomes a little madman after his lunkheaded bullneck of a father fills his head with hate and lies not only about the librarian, but about books in general.

A direct and undisguised response to the McCarthy Era and the prevailing stupid paranoia of the times, the mostly-forgotten film, as heavy handed and overbaked as it can be, remains an important little volley against mobthink, which may help explain why it’s so forgotten.

But Keith was never so terrifying, never exuded as much cool and deadly menace as he did in Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 noir standout Nightfall, based on the David Goodis novel. It’s a complex story, beautifully told through a mesh of present time and flashback, but for our purposes here let’s just say Keith plays a cold and sadistic bank robber who, together with his less cool and even more sadistic partner Red (Rudy Bond) pursues unassuming commercial artist Aldo Ray (who is also being pursued by insurance investigator James Gregory), in the hopes he’ll  lead them to that $350,000 they took in on their last job, but have since misplaced. The whole cast here is stellar, but Keith, in a very low-key take on another psycho role, is magnetic.

Later that same year he once more stepped bak to the side of righteousness and goodness in the fairly standard Chicago Confidential. The generally undistinguished Sidney Salkow didn’t do much to change that reputation here, despite a cast that includes Elisha Cook, Jr., Beverly Garland, and the great Douglas Kennedy. In the lead, Keith is still fun to watch but strangely miscast as the serious, straight-arrow crusading district attorney out to clear an innocent man wrongly convicted of killing a union  boss, while simultaneously trying to nab the mobsters behind it.

In another minor part-crime drama/part-message film also from ’57, Appointment With a Shadow, he plays a gruff detective staking out the most notorious crook in the city. At his sister’s urging, he reluctantly agrees to let her drunken, washed-up reporter of a boyfriend (George Nader) tag along, hoping if he can just stay sover for one day, just long enough to nab the biggest scoop of his career, he’d be right back on his feet again. Well, it ain’t exactly Lost Weekend, but few actors can pull off detectives of the gruff and world-weary variety quite like Keith.

Then in 1958 he was an arrogant but fearless cad of a freelance trucker in Violent Road, Howard Koch’s remake of the French adventure classic The Wages of Fear from five years earlier. Reluctant as he is, the president of a troubled rocket plant has little choice but to hire Mitch Barton (Keith) to do a little job. See, there was this little accident, and now the entire plant has to move to a new location a couple hundred miles away. They’re under a tight deadline, and part of that move involves three tanker trucks filled with highly unstable and explosive rocket fuel. No other trucking company would take the job because their insurance wouldn’t cover it. Asshole that he is, Barton, being a man with no insurance, is their only hope.

Oh, there is this one little thing, though. See, for silly legal reasons, even though the new site is a pretty simple quick jaunt down the highway, the only way for the tankers to get there is over an extremely narrow, twisty, and bumpy mountain pass. Oh, and the other little thing is, on account of the deadline on this big government contract, all three trucks have to show up at the same time or, y’know, you don’t get paid. And if you let those chemicals just sit like that too long? Well, they might just go right ahead and explode anyway.
like the fisherman in Alaska Seas, Keith perfectly embodies the rugged, self assured renegade trucker. Despite a laundry list of typical adventure film contrivances, an irksome and confusing framing device, a tiny budget and a mostly no-name cast, Koch’s picture remains a taut and memorably solid B film, and a fine addition to the Trucker Noir subgenre.  

After appearing in Sam Peckinpah’s TV series a few years earlier, in 1961 Peckinpah again  cast Keith to star in his first feature, The Deadly Companions. But then along came Disney’s light family comedy The parent Trap, in which he co-starred with Haley Mills and Haley Mills, and that was pretty much it.
Later telling interviewers he much preferred family friendly projects, he spent much of the next 30-plus years working in television, both as a series lead (Family Affair, The Brian Keith Show, Hardcastle and McCormick), and in an endless string of guest spots, usually playing uncles, colonels, or judges. Oh, there were a few interesting features dropped in here and there, like Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye with Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, a couple John Milius films, a couple Burt Reynolds vehicles, the all-star comedy The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!, and the disastrous all-star disaster film Meteor, in which he spoke Russian exclusively—but there was never another run like the one he had in the late ’50s.

Then in 1997, after being diagnosed with emphysema and lung cancer, and still mourning the suicide of his oldest daughter, and after making his plans clear to several interviewers, he shot himself in the head.

Jim Knipfel


It’s one of the oldest games in the book when it comes to maintaining power. When a figure or a group appears seemingly out of nowhere, espousing a radical new philosophy that not only runs counter to the prevailing mainstream world view, but might possibly undermine that world view should enough people actually listen, it’s imperative that those in power take immediate steps to discredit these miscreants by whatever means necessary. If you don’t, you could find yourself out of a job or worse, find yourself adrift in a new world that no longer makes any sense to you.   

Now, simple assassination is tricky because there’s a slim chance you’ll  create martyrs, and if you have martyrs you run the risk that their ideas will continue to spread even after they’re dead and gone  (Case in point: Jesus). You can simply dismiss these ne’er-do-wells as  dumb thugs not worth worrying about, and while that usually works — the trusting masses follow your lead and the threat soon dwindles away — if you’re not paying close enough attention it could backfire on you (Case in point: the National Socialists).

There is, however one technique that is foolproof, especially if you get the media on your side. Before the general public has a chance to actually hear or read what this figure or group is saying, make an offhand comment (preferably with a slightly confused shrug) that this new so-called “philosophy” is gibberish, incoherent, and just plain crazy talk. If you can get the news commentators, the bloggers, and the late night talk show hosts to parrot that sentiment, you’re halfway there. What citizen in his or her right mind would want to waste their time on incoherent crazy talk when there are so many sane things in the world to absorb? Besides, if they read the gibberish and it made sense to them, would it mean they were crazy too? That nice couple next door might certainly think so.

On top of that, if you can somehow connect the figure or group in question to a crime—whether or not they actually committed it is irrelevant—then all your worries are over. You have a demon on your hands, and an insane one to boot. History’s full of them, from the Marquis de Sade to Louis-Ferdinand Celine to John Wilkes Booth.

Consider a few case histories.

It seems every time you turned around in the 1920s or ‘30s, some anarchist was doing something bad even if they weren’t. They were killing cops or shooting at presidents or throwing bombs. It got so out of hand that these anarchists not only prompted America’s first Red Scare, but the very term “anarchist” itself was used as both an insult and a threat. It didn’t matter that most citizens wouldn’t have been able to define the word if called upon to do so — they knew all they needed to, namely that those darn anarchists were up to no good. They obviously had to be crazy, too. Who else but a crazy person would do things like that? Throwing bombs and such.    

Conveniently the term also served double duty, given that most of the anarchists hanged for being rotten and murderous were Italian immigrants. Now, no one much cared for or trusted Italian immigrants at the time, but the government couldn’t very well just deport all Italians. That would look bad. They could, however, deport anarchists, given that they represented a threat to our security. They could also refuse to allow any immigrants claiming to be anarchists into the country, given they were just going to blow shit up. And given that most every Italian was apparently also an anarchist, well, there you go.

The demonization worked so well that it continues to this very day. Whenever a protest march—be it in New York, Chicago, Greece — turns violent, news readers are quick to point out that the violence was the work of a small anarchist (or better still “so-called” or “self-proclaimed” anarchist) faction. We seem to be okay with Italians though, so long as they aren’t Muslims.

In one of the clearest examples of demonization in modern times, Charles Manson is today considered America’s unchallenged king of the mass murderers, despite the fact that he was never convicted of murdering anyone. 

Though he had yet to speak in public,  Manson apparently presented enough of a threat that President Nixon (who  was in dire need of a national distraction at that point) declared him guilty while the trial was still underway. And when Manson was finally allowed to take the stand and speak in his own defense, the jury was ushered from the courtroom out of fear that Manson’s supposedly magical hypnotic powers would sway them.

Afterwards, Manson’s statement in his own defense was described as, yes, “long, rambling, and incoherent.”

In the decades following the trial, the   perception (driven home repeatedly by chief prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi)  stuck that he was a raving bloodthirsty killer. During televised interviews in the ‘70s and ‘80s with the likes of Tom Snyder, Geraldo Rivera, and Diane Sawyer, the interviewers make a great deal out of the fact that Manson “makes no sense” when he speaks. That he’s just babbling a bunch of hippie nonsense.  But going back and listening to what Manson actually says, it makes perfect sense. It’s always been the highly-paid interviewers who’ve struck me as the deranged ones.  For a man with no formal education who has spent some 90 percent of his life behind bars, he is deeply perceptive about the nature of the country, while insisting that his only real concerns are for the environment.

Here’s a brief and famous selection from his “rambling and incoherent” statement to the court in August of 1970:

“I have stayed a child while I’ve watched your world grow up, and then I look at the things you do and I don’t understand. You people, you’re just a reflection. You aren’t the good guys. You’re worse than we are. You can’t fake on me, and you can’t fake on me because I am your children. I’m what you made of then. These children who come at you with knives—they’re your children. I didn’t teach them — you taught them. I just tried to help them stand up. These people out in the desert—these people you call my ‘family’ — they’re jyst people you didn’t want, people I found alongside the road people that their parents had kicked out, so I did the best I could and I told them that in love there is no wrong.  But these are just a few. There are a lot more coming right at you.”

I’m apparently not the only one who was thinking Manson may not be as crazy as we’ve always been told. For years his televised interviews had always drawn record ratings, so in order to prevent the rest of the country from being drawn under his magical super-hypnotic spell, Manson is no longer allowed to give interviews to TV reporters. That’s one way of shutting him up.

Then there was the case of Ted Kaczynsky, more popularly known as The Unabomber.

When he was merely a Mad Bomber the press had a great deal of fun. What’s better than having a real live comic book supervillain in our midst? Where was his secret lair? Where would he strike next? It led to some delightful speculations over his identity and goals. Better still, it provided yet another much-needed distraction from the other things that were happening nationwide.

When The Unabomber announced that he not only had a message, but that he’d written it out and wanted it published, the mechanisms of demonization went into overdrive. When after a good deal of soul-searching (well, not that much, really) the FBI and several major newspapers agreed to run the manifesto,, (Lesson: terrorism works), assorted media outlets and political figures were already calling him a “madman.” And before the manifesto hit the streets in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and virtually every other major paper in the country, commentators were already describing it (yet again) as rambling, incoherent, and boring. “It’s apparently some kind of anti-technology” message” most of them said.

And that’s all they needed to say. Who was going to read a boring, rambling essay by a madman? And who was about to let some madman tell them their TV and cell phones were bad things? So no one read it, and the powers that be breathed another sigh of relief.

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It’s very easy—perhaps even preferable—to look at Tex Avery’s 1936 short The Blow Out as nothing more than another one of Porky Pig’s wacky and lighthearted escapades. But if you’re so inclined, it’s also fairly easy to see it as a metaphor for the First Red Scare of some two decades earlier, or on a broader scale as a parable about the struggle between capitalism and anarchism in the 1930s.

The plot of what was one of Avery’s darker pre-war outings is quite simple. A Mad Bomber is terrorizing the city. Meanwhile, a young Porky waddles into an ice cream parlor and orders a sundae. Informed that he doesn’t have enough money, he’s forced back out onto the street. He quickly discovers, however, that small acts of helpful kindness—picking up and returning a dropped purse for instance—will often result in a small reward. As the pennies add up and he draws closer to earning enough to buy that sundae, his helpfulness  becomes insistent, almost frantic. When he spots the Mad Bomber leaving a time bomb behind in a building, he scoops it up and attempts to return it to its rightful owner. No matter how many times the Mad Bomber makes it clear he doesn’t want it back, the maniacally helpful Porky insists.

Well, his persistence eventually leads to the capture of the Mad Bomber, and Porky is given a $2000 reward, which he uses to buy himself the world’s largest ice cream sundae.

This was only Avery’s second animated short for Warner Brothers, but most of his cartoons across his career were so off-kilter that they left themselves open for academic interpretations of all kinds (see Plane Dippy or Page Missing from that same year). In this instance the first sign that something more is going on is the hissing, cackling Mad Bomber himself. Dressed in a long dark coat, his face concealed by a low-slung, wide-brimmed hat, he’s the traditional caricature of a bomb-throwing anarchist. It was, recall, a bomb-throwing anarchist (or rather a bomb-mailing anarchist) much more than American intellectuals’ infatuation with the Bolshevik Revolution that prompted the First Red Scare of 1919-1920. Along with labor strikes in Seattle and Boston, it was the anarchist bomb campaign against government and business officials in New York that prompted the Attorney General to begin a serious investigation.

So here we have the traditional short, shadowy (and swarthy) anarchist planting bombs around a major American city, while the honest, good-hearted Porky, representing the Attorney General here…

Well okay, so the historical analogy can’t be pushed very far. But looking at things more generally, you have on the one hand the Anarchist—this evil force of violence and chaos without purpose spreading fear among the citizenry. Then on the other you have Porky, a common citizen who finds he doesn’t have the money to buy what he wants (not that unusual a situation during the Depression). He doesn’t turn to crime, he doesn’t steal the purse to buy the sundae; instead he learns that if he works, he’ll be paid. Even if he’s not paid much, if he works hard enough he’ll eventually earn enough to buy things he wants. And it’s this relentless, tireless pursuit of that next penny—the unstoppable steamroller of capitalism, if you will—that eventually crushes the monstrous and cowardly anarchist.

But consider this as well. Is he even trying to stop the anarchist? No, Porky the capitalist is so wrapped up in his own world that he’s not even aware there’s an anarchist out there blowing up buildings. He just wants to make more money. So long as the anarchist doesn’t blow up the ice cream parlor, he doesn’t care. And how does he defeat the anarchist in the end? By using the anarchist’s own technique—he repeatedly hands him a bomb. That’s when he gains his true goal—not stopping an anarchist, but making a lot more money. And what does he do with it? He uses it all for an excessive exercise in pointless capitalist decadence. Now that he got what he wanted out of people he no longer seems the least interested in helping them.

A bit heavy-handed but perhaps this is why it’s so often a good idea to just let cartoons be cartoons. For a pro-anarchist message coming out of the Warner Brothers vault, check out the early career of Daffy Duck.

by Jim Knipfel

"IDIOTS, HALF-WITS, AND LUNATICS": The Mark of Dwight Frye

The collective consciousness is a funny animal.

Take James Whale’s 1931 film version of  Frankenstein, for instance. Most people know the story of Frankenstein through the film, not  Mary Shelley’s novel. The film is not just a cinematic icon, but a cultural one as well. Everybody recognizes it.   Boris Karloff’s monster has even appeared on a U.S. postage stamp, for godsakes. Yet in spite of its stature, it seems people don’t know very much about the movie.

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