Another Fad

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Before the existence of the association of clubs (1857), and when [baseball] was to be learned only from witnessing the practice and match games at Hoboken, the prejudice which existed against the game could scarcely be imagined. The favor with which it was regarded may be judged from the observation used by an accidental witness of a game who, after looking for a while, with unfeigned astonishment exclaimed: ‘I can’t see what fun such great, big men can find in hitting a little ball with a big stick and run away like mad, and kick at a sand bag.’

DeWitt Baseball Guide, 1868

Dangerous Years

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Arthur Miller’s first impressions of Marilyn Monroe, on the set of As Young As You Feel, 1950:

We had just arrived on a nightclub set when Marilyn, in a black open-work lace dress, was directed to walk across the floor, attracting the worn gaze of the bearded [Monty] Woolley. She was being shot from the rear to set off the swivelling of her hips, a motion fluid enough to seem comic. It was, in fact, her natural walk: her footprints on a beach would be in a straight line, the heel descending exactly before the last toeprint, throwing her pelvis into motion.

When the shot was finished she came over to [Elia] Kazan, who had met her with [agent Johnny] Hyde on another visit some time before. From where I stood, yards away, I saw her in profile against a white light, with her hair coiled atop her head; she was weeping under a veil of black lace that she lifted now and then to dab her eyes. When we shook hands the shock of her body’s motion sped through me, a sensation at odds with her sadness amid all this glamour and technology and the busy confusion of a new shot being set up. She had been weeping, she would explain later, while telling Kazan that Hyde had died calling her name in a hospital room she had been forbidden by his family to enter. She had heard him from the corridor, and had left, as always, alone.

Bird Watching

When director George Pal first came to the United States from Hungary, animator Walter Lantz helped him obtain U.S. citizenship. As a tribute to their friendship, Pal inserted Woody Woodpecker into most of his films:

  • In Destination Moon (1950), a Woody Woodpecker cartoon explains the principles of space travel.
  • In When Worlds Collide (1951), Woody is visible in an airport scene at the beginning of the film.
  • In War of the Worlds (1953), Woody’s figure is visible among the branches of a tree as the Martian spacecraft first fly over.
  • In Tom Thumb (1958), Woody’s laugh can be heard during a Russ Tamblyn dance sequence.
  • In The Time Machine (1960), a little girl drops a Woody Woodpecker doll.
  • In The Power (1968), George Hamilton looks in a store window and sees a mechanical Woody.

In Doc Savage (1975), Pal’s last film, the reference is subtle. No woodpeckers appear in the film, but near the end an elderly woman is helped across the street by a Boy Scout. The woman is Grace Stafford, Lantz’s wife — and the voice of Woody Woodpecker.

Turn, Turn, Turn

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The hedge maze at Hampton Court has been entertaining visitors since 1695, occasionally belying its reputation for ease. In Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889), Harris says, “We’ll just go in here, so that you can say you’ve been, but it’s very simple. It’s absurd to call it a maze.” Then, after two miles of wandering:

‘The map may be all right enough,’ said one of the party, ‘if you know whereabouts in it we are now.’

Harris didn’t know, and suggested that the best thing to do would be to go back to the entrance, and begin again. For the beginning again part of it there was not much enthusiasm; but with regard to the advisability of going back to the entrance there was complete unanimity, and so they turned, and trailed after Harris again, in the opposite direction. About ten minutes more passed, and then they found themselves in the centre.

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Mazes have exercised a peculiar fascination for the mathematically minded. The young Lewis Carroll composed this one for a family magazine — the object is to make your way from the outside to the central space; it’s acceptable to pass over or under another path, but a single line means your way is blocked.

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Cambridge University mathematician W.W. Rouse Ball constructed this maze in his garden. He notes that unless a loop surrounds the goal, the wanderer can defeat any maze by trailing one hand along a wall, and “no labyrinth is worthy of the name of a puzzle which can be threaded in this way.”

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Hampton Court is modest in comparison to the modern hedge maze at Longleat, a stately home in Somerset. Its 16,000 English yews enclose 1.75 miles of paths that require an hour and a half to traverse; the course includes six wooden bridges from which to plot a path to the goal, an observation tower.

And Tennessee’s Odyssey mirror maze covers 5,000 square feet with a field of eight-foot mirrors set at 60-degree angles to create the illusion of an enormous vaulted crypt:

In solving any of these, as Harris discovered, the chief danger is overconfidence:

Said a boastful young student from Hayes,
As he entered the Hampton Court maze:
“There’s nothing in it.
I won’t be a minute.”
He’s been missing for forty-one days.

— Frank Richards

Express

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Buster Keaton’s 1926 comedy The General is based on a real event. In April 1862 a group of Union volunteers hijacked a Confederate train in Georgia and led the rebels on an 88-mile, six-hour chase through the state, tearing up tracks and cutting telegraph lines as they went and releasing cars behind them to slow their pursuers. The conspirators ran out of fuel just short of Chattanooga, their goal, but the Union awarded a Medal of Honor to most of them for the exploit.

Keaton turned this into the story of Johnnie Gray, a hapless Georgia engineer who proves his mettle by chasing a stolen Confederate locomotive across Tennessee in order to rescue his beloved. The film’s central train chase is a masterpiece of mechanical slapstick, essentially a live-action cartoon showcasing the actor’s hair-raising stunts with locomotives, cannon, fire, and dynamite as the trains roll through the Southern countryside.

“I was more proud of that picture than any I ever made,” Keaton said in 1963. “Because I took an actual happening out of the … history books, and I told the story in detail, too.”

A Few Words

At the climax of the 1934 film The Black Cat, Boris Karloff recites a “black mass” over a swooning Jacqueline Wells:

Cum grano salis. Fortis cadere cedere non potest. Humanum est errare. Lupis pilum mutat, non mentem. Magna est veritas et praevalebit. Acta exteriora indicant interiora secreta. Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem. Amissum quod nescitur non amittitur. Brutum fulmen. Cum grano salis. Fortis cadere cedere non potest. Fructu, non foliis arborem aestima. Insanus omnes furere credit ceteros. Quem paenitet peccasse paene est innocens.

This sounds marvelous in Karloff’s portentous baritone, but it’s weaker in translation:

With a grain of salt. A brave man may fall, but he cannot yield. To err is human. The wolf may change his skin, but not his nature. Truth is mighty, and will prevail. External actions show internal secrets. Remember when life’s path is steep to keep your mind even. The loss that is not known is no loss at all. Heavy thunder. With a grain of salt. A brave man may fall, but he cannot yield. By fruit, not by leaves, judge a tree. Every madman thinks everybody mad. Who repents from sinning is almost innocent.

He might have added Omnia dicta fortiora si dicta Latina: “Everything sounds more impressive in Latin.”

Yankee Panky

The New York Yankees saw an unusual trade in 1972: Pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson traded families. Kekich traded his wife, Susan, two children, and a Bedlington terrier for Marilyn Peterson, the two Peterson children, and a poodle. “We didn’t trade wives, we traded lives,” Kekich said.

“They were really close, and their families were close,” remembered Yankees catcher Jake Gibbs, who had played with both men. “I guess we just didn’t know how close. Of course, they were both left-handers. You can never tell about lefties.”

The storm of attention that accompanied the trade began to erode the players’ friendship — Yankees executive Dan Topping quipped, “We may have to call off Family Day this season” — and Kekich was traded to the Indians later that year.

Marilyn Peterson and Mike Kekich eventually ended their relationship, but Fritz Peterson married Susanne Kekich in 1974 and raised four children with her.

The two friends were never close again. “All four of us had agreed in the beginning that if anyone wasn’t happy, the thing would be called off,” Kekich said. “But when Marilyn and I decided to call it off, the other couple already had gone off with each other.”

Wave Function

From a description of Hawaiian amusements by first lieutenant James King on James Cook’s third expedition to the Pacific, 1779:

But a diversion the most common is upon the Water, where there is a very great Sea, & surf breaking on the Shore. The Men sometimes 20 or 30 go without the Swell of the Surf, & lay themselves flat upon an oval piece of plank about their Size & breadth, they keep their legs close on top of it, & their Arms are us’d to guide the plank, they wait the time of the greatest Swell that sets on Shore, & altogether push forward with their Arms to keep on its top, it sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity, & the great art is to guide the plank so as always to keep it in a proper direction on the top of the Swell, & as it alters its directs. If the Swell drives him close to the rocks before he is overtaken by its break, he is much prais’d. On first seeing this very dangerous diversion I did not conceive it possible but that some of them must be dashed to mummy against the sharp rocks, but just before they reach the shore, if they are very near, they quit their plank, & dive under till the Surf is broke, when the piece of plank is sent many yards by the force of the Surf from the beach. The greatest number are generally overtaken by the break of the swell, the force of which they avoid, diving & swimming under the water out of its impulse. By such like excercises, these men may be said to be almost amphibious. The Women could swim off to the Ship, & continue half a day in the Water, & afterwards return. The above diversion is only intended as an amusement, not a tryal of Skill, & in a gentle swell that sets on must I conceive be very pleasant, at least they seem to feel a great pleasure in the motion which this Exercise gives.

This is believed to be the first written account of surfing.

Road Rules

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Guidelines adopted by director Chuck Jones in making Warner Bros.’ Road Runner-Wile E. Coyote cartoons, from Jones’ 1999 memoir Chuck Amuck:

  1. The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going “beep-beep!”
  2. No outside force can harm the Coyote — only his own ineptitude or the failure of the Acme products.
  3. The Coyote could stop anytime — if he were not a fanatic. (Repeat: “A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.” — George Santayana)
  4. No dialogue ever, except “beep-beep!”
  5. The Road Runner must stay on the road — otherwise, logically, he would not be called road runner.
  6. All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters — the southwest American desert.
  7. All materials, tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.
  8. Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy.
  9. The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.

“The Road Runner and Coyote cartoons are known and accepted throughout the world,” Jones wrote. “Perhaps the lack of dialogue is one reason. If you want to laugh, you can do so at any time, whether in Danish, French, Japanese, Urdu, Navajo, Eskimo, Portuguese, or Hindi. ‘Beep-Beep!’ is the Esperanto of comedy.”

Pro Tips

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“Dancing is a sweat job. … When you’re experimenting you have to try so many things before you choose what you want, that you may go days getting nothing but exhaustion. This search for what you want is like tracking something that doesn’t want to be tracked. It takes time to get a dance right, to create something memorable. There must be a certain amount of polish to it. I don’t want it to look anything but accomplished, and if I can’t make it look that way, then I’m not ready yet. I always try to get to know my routine so well that I don’t have to think, ‘What comes next?’ Everything should fall right into line, and then I know I’ve got control of the bloody floor.” — Fred Astaire

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“How to hit home runs: I swing as hard as I can, and I try to swing right through the ball. In boxing, your fist usually stops when you hit a man, but it’s possible to hit so hard that your fist doesn’t stop. I try to follow through in the same way. The harder you grip the bat, the more you can swing it through the ball, and the farther the ball will go. I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.” — Babe Ruth

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“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. … I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. … The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he has read but something that has happened to himself. That’s the true test of writing.” — Ernest Hemingway