May 24, 2017

“They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”


On May 24, 1995, five days after its official premiere in Los Angeles, Braveheart was released to theaters nationwide in the USA.

The movie stars Mel Gibson as the 13th century Scottish rebel leader William Wallace. He also directed it.

It was a major critical and box office success. And, it also generated a famous, oft-recycled and parodied movie quote.

It’s a line Gibson shouts to his men, just before they fight the much larger English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge:

       “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”

That line is part of the answer Gibson gives after one nervous Scottish soldier suggests out loud that it might be better to retreat and live to fight another day.

Gibson responds by saying:

      “Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And, dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!?! Alba gu bràth!”

If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t seen Braveheart, you can view a clip of this scene online.

In Scottish Gaelic, “Alba gu bràth” (sometimes spelled Alba gu bra, Alba go bragh or Alba go breá) means “Scotland forever!”

The literal meaning of gu bràth in Gaelic is “until Judgment,” meaning the final Judgment day foretold in the Bible. The Irish, who also fought for their freedom against the English, have a similar term: “Erin go bragh” (“Ireland Forever”).

The inspiring speech Mel gives in the film is fictional, but Braveheart is based on true historic events.

William Wallace was a key leader of the Scottish rebellion against the English in the 13th century, during what’s called the First War of Scottish Independence.

At the bloody Battle of Stirling Bridge, fought on September 11, 1297, Wallace succeeded in getting his outnumbered followers to defeat the much larger English army they faced.

That battle, and the legends that arose about Wallace, encouraged the Scots to continue and ultimately achieve the goal of Scottish independence.

Unfortunately, Wallace didn’t live to see it. He was caught, tortured, disemboweled and beheaded before that came to pass, as is graphically depicted in Braveheart.

History buffs have noted that some things in Braveheart stray more than a wee bit from the facts.

For example, the Lowland Scots that Wallace led didn’t wear kilts, like they do in the movie.

And, the bridge that played a major role in the Battle of Stirling Bridge — by creating a bottleneck that prevented English troops from overwhelming the Scots — was nowhere to be seen in the movie.

But somehow, whenever I rewatch Mel’s rousing speech in Braveheart, those seem like nitpicks. Alba gu bràth!

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May 18, 2017

“Never play cards with a man called Doc” — and other advice from Nelson Algren…

Nelson Algren (1909-1981)
The
copyright record for the novel A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren says it was copyrighted on May 18, 1956.

Traditionally, the copyright date is also a book’s initial publication date.

Algren’s novel might have been released sooner if not for a dispute he had with his publishing company, Doubleday.

Doubleday had published Algren’s breakthrough book of short stories, The Neon Wilderness, in 1947.

In 1949 it published his blockbuster novel The Man with the Golden Arm, which won the National Book Award in 1950 and was later made into a hit film starring Frank Sinatra.

The next novel Algren wrote was A Walk on the Wild Side.

After reviewing its story about a drifter from Texas who, among other things, rapes a woman, works in a condom factory and then in a whorehouse in New Orleans, the editorial powers that be at Doubleday decided it was a bit too risqué.

As noted by book news journalist Frederick Babcock in his column in the Chicago Tribune on February 26, 1956, they told Algren to tone it down.

Algren made a few minor token changes. Doubleday pushed for more. Algren took a walk, so to speak, and gave the novel to Farrar, Straus & Cudahy to publish. 

Newsclip about Nelson Algren, 1956Given the eventual lasting fame of the book and its title, you could say the editors at Doubleday make a big mistake. But in 1956 the novel was panned by critics and initial sales were low. Algren was so devastated he tried to commit suicide.

He survived. He continued to write and he taught writing at several universities. But he didn’t publish another book until 1962.

He didn’t write another novel until 1974. Titled The Devil’s Stocking, it wasn’t published until 1983 — two years after Algren died from a heart attack.

A Walk on the Wild Side has lived on as a book that continues to be reprinted and is now more favorably viewed by critics.

In 1962, it was adapted into a film with a star-studded cast, including Laurence Harvey, Capucine, Jane Fonda, Anne Baxter and Barbara Stanwyck.

The title song for the film, scored by Elmer Bernstein with lyrics by Mack David, was nominated for an Academy Award and is on the American Film Institute’s list of greatest film music.

In 1972, Lou Reed released his catchy song “A Walk on the Wild Side” (produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson).

By that time those words were already a common idiomatic expression meaning to do things that are risky or morally questionable.

Reed’s song made the phrase even more famous and familiar to new generations.

Algren’s novel A Walk on the Wild Side also includes his best known quote. It’s some memorable advice about certain things you should never do that shows up in many books of famous quotations:

       “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”

These rules are imparted to the novel’s central character, Dove Linkhorn, by a career criminal named “Cross-Country” Kline, while the two are spending time in jail together.

A Walk on the Wild Side, Nelson Algren Ace edition 1960Kline also shares other life lessons he’d learned with Dove.

Here’s a longer excerpt from A Walk on the Wild Side in which he recites them:

      “But blow wise to this, buddy, blow wise to this: Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. Never let nobody talk you into shaking another man’s jolt. And never you cop another man’s plea. I’ve tried ‘em all and I know. They don’t work.
       “Life is hard by the yard, son. But you don’t have to do it by the yard. By the inch it’s a cinch. And money can’t buy everything. For example: poverty.”

Not long after A Walk on the Wild Side was published, the first three rules mentioned by Cross-Country Kline in that excerpt began to be cited as a famous quote by Algren.

With slight wording changes, Algren often cited them himself in speaking engagements and interviews. He also used them in an essay titled “What Every Young man Should Know.”

Quote mavens like Ralph Keyes and Barry Popik have pointed out that Algren probably didn’t coin the three famous rules himself.

They have both noted that an actor friend of Algren named Dave Peltz claimed to have created the rules. He said he wrote them down in a letter he sent to Algren.

Algren told biographer H. E. F. Donohue he got them from “a nice old Negro lady.”

In the foreword to the 1964 book Conversations with Nelson Algren, Donohue wrote:

“He [Algren] shunts aside all rules regulations and dicta except for three laws he says a nice old Negro lady once taught him: Never play cards with any man named ‘Doc’. Never eat at any place called ‘Mom’s’. And never ever, no matter what else you do in your whole life, never sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own.”

Several years ago, in a post on his “Black Cracker” blog, writer and musician Josh Alan Friedman recorded an additional rule of life Algren once mentioned to him.

Josh is the son of the novelist and playwright Bruce Jay Friedman and brother of cartoonist Drew Friedman. (He’s also one of my co-editors on an anthology of vintage men’s adventure stories, titled Weasels Ripped My Flesh!)

In July of 1964, Nelson Algren spent a week with the Friedman family at their rented summer house on Fire Island.

Josh recalled:

“Algren went apeshit over our elderly nanny, Mrs. Sullivan (the ‘Mrs. O’Leary’ character in my book, Black Cracker). She would break into a put-on Irish brogue to his delight. For years afterward, whenever Algren called my father and Mrs. Sullivan answered the phone, he’d chat with Mrs. Sullivan for an hour...Another other thing I recall from that week with Nelson in the house: He advised us that the pot handles be turned inward on the stove, rather than sticking out where they could be knocked over.”

So, there’s one more sensible Nelson Algren rule of life to remember — while you avoid playing cards with anyone named Doc, eating at a place called Mom’s and sleeping with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own. Never turn the pot handles outward on the stove.

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May 12, 2017

“It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”



Most people prefer not to think a lot about death.

But that subject has always loomed large in the mind and works of comedian, writer, actor and director Woody Allen, even when he was a young man.

One of Allen’s quips about death is a famous quote that’s cited in hundreds of books:

   “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

This line comes from an imaginary one-act play Allen wrote in his late thirties, titled Death.

It was one of two short plays included with a collection of his short stories in the book Without Feathers, which was published on May 12, 1975.

Death is said to be Allen’s humorous homage to Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 “Theatre of the Absurd” play The Killer.

Years later, he used Death as the basis for his 1992 film Shadows and Fog.

The title of Allen’s book Without Feathers is a satiric twist on words written by Emily Dickinson.

It’s a take-off on the first line of Dickinson’s poem “Hope,” published posthumously in 1891, five years after her death:

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune – without the words,
And never stops at all.”

By titling his book Without Feathers, Allen was making a sardonic literary joke.

It encapsulated the contrast between his own fatalistic, dark-humored view of life and the more uplifting thoughts expressed by Dickinson in “Hope.”

Allen’s quote about death from Without Feathers has been immortalized by it’s inclusion in many books of famous quotations, as have a number of lines from his movies and his early stand-up comedy routines.

I don’t know if Woody Allen will end up being as popular after his death for as long as Emily Dickinson has been since hers in 1886.

But I suspect Woody’s reaction to that possibility might be another famous line he used back in the days when he did stand-up:

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”

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Related reading: books by and about Woody Allen…

May 02, 2017

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game”


On May 2, 1908, Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer registered the copyright for the new song about baseball they’d written together.

Naturally, they hoped it would become popular. But they could never have imagined that it would go on to become one of America’s three most frequently-played songs, along with “Happy Birthday” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Norworth wrote the lyrics for the song while riding on a subway train in New York. Von Tilzer wrote the music.

They took the title from a line in the chorus: “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

The story of how this famous song was written has been told in many books and on many websites.

According to Norworth’s account, the inspiration for the song came to him while riding the subway in Manhattan. At one of the stops, he saw a sign advertising that day’s baseball game at the Polo Grounds, where the New York Giants played.

At the time, Norworth was a popular performer for the Ziegfeld Follies and an ambitious lyricist. He wasn’t a baseball fan and had never been to a major league game.

However, he knew baseball fans were excited that year about the pennant race between the Giants, the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

When he saw the sign advertising the game at the Polo Grounds, he suddenly realized that it might be good timing for a song about baseball.

While still on the train, Norworth took out a pencil and a piece of paper and rapidly scribbled the lyrics that came to his mind. (That piece of paper is now part of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Library’s collection.)

Norworth took his lyrics to Tin Pan Alley music publisher and songwriter Albert Von Tilzer. Von Tilzer set the lyrics to a waltz tune he’d been writing and on May 2, 1908, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was copyrighted by Von Tilzer’s York Music Company.

That year, several versions of the song were recorded, including one by Norworth and his wife, singer and actress Nora Bayes.

The best selling version was by Billy Murray and the Haydn Quartet. It became a huge hit (the biggest of Murray’s career) and gave the song its initial nationwide fame.

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” remained a highly popular song for the next several decades, but its even wider modern fame began in the 1970s, when the beloved baseball sportscaster Harry Caray made it a tradition to sing the song during the seventh inning stretch.

Today, most Americans know the chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” even if they’re not baseball fans:

“Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.”

If you’re not familiar with the verses of the song, you may not know that the story they tell is about a female baseball fan who insists on having her boyfriend take to her a ball game on their weekend date.

In the 1908 version, Norworth named this “baseball mad” bachelorette Katie Casey. Here’s the original first verse:

“Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou
[sou is an old slang term for a coin]
Katie blew.
On a Saturday her young beau
Called to see if she'd like to go
To see a show, but Miss Kate said “No,
I’ll tell you what you can do…’”
[which she explains in the famous chorus]

In 1927, Norworth updated the lyrics of the song and renamed the young lady Nelly Kelley.

You can see the full lyrics of the 1908 and 1927 versions side-by-side in the Baseball Wiki entry about “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

If you want to know all the facts and trivia about this grand old song, there’s a book for that. In fact, there are two: Baseball’s Greatest Hit: The Story of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (2008), by Andy Strasberg, Robert Thompson and Tim Wiles and Take Me Out to the Ball Game: The Story of the Sensational Baseball Song (2009), by Amy Whorf McGuiggan.

There are also several books for children that feature the song, including one by Carly Simon that includes a CD album of classic baseball songs 

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