This space is dedicated to the proposition that we need to know the history of the struggles on the left and of earlier progressive movements here and world-wide. If we can learn from the mistakes made in the past (as well as what went right) we can move forward in the future to create a more just and equitable society. We will be reviewing books, CDs, and movies we believe everyone needs to read, hear and look at as well as making commentary from time to time. Greg Green, site manager
The 82nd Anniversary Of The Founding Of The Leon Trotsky- Fourth
International-We Need A Socialist International More Than Ever
I am a behind the scenes guy dishing out anniversary dates and other facts and
figures to site manager Greg Green and/or the recently created Editorial Board
but I felt compelled to write a little something about the anniversary, the 80th
anniversary this month of September, of the Fourth International that will be
forever linked to the name of the great Russian Bolshevik revolutionary Leon
Trotsky. In accordance with the seemingly obligatory notice of transparency
that accompanies anything today greater that what you had for breakfast at one
time I was close to those who were carrying on the wilted tradition of the
Fourth International after Trotsky was assassinated by a Stalinist agent down
in Mexico in the summer of 1940. Aside from that though, as the headline to
this introduction telegraphs, we are still in need of an international that
will lead the way forward for humankind’s hopefully more equitable future. Such
progress as we are now painfully aware does not happen automatically but must
be planned and led by people committed to such aims. The same is true for those
who want to revive the night of the long knives that was the hallmark of the 20th
century and now the first couple of decades of the 21st century. So
the die is cast.
is a short primer for those legions who do not have the foggiest notion of a
what an International, Fourth or otherwise, is or was. These institutions are
associated with various historical epochs of the socialist movement in all its
struggles-victories and defeats. The first short-lived International was
associated directly with the personages of the socialist revolutionaries Karl
Marx and Friedrich Engels, the founders of the Marxist wing of socialism back
in the middle of the 19th century. The two important events beyond
the fact of creating the first international devoted to the struggle for
socialism were the support for the Northern side led by Abraham Lincoln in the
American Civil War and the stalwart defense of the Paris Commune, the first
workers republic, of 1871 which was drowned in blood by Thiers and his
mercenaries. The Second International before it became a “mail drop,” before it
dropped the ball in not opposing World War I on any side, an event we are
commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armistice this year as
well, was the first mass organization of international socialism toward the end
of the 19th century. With the rapid rise of industrialization under
late capitalism working people swarmed to this organization to defend them. In
1914 with the aforementioned failure to oppose the bloody war which decimated
the flower of the working classes of all European nations its historic
important as a serious force for social change much less socialism was finished
even if the shell lingered, still lingers on today.
Third International, Communist International, Comintern, and the Fourth share
not only the personage of Leon Trotsky but purported to have the same aims at
various points up to World War II. The Comintern was created as a direct result
of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 by leaders Vladimir Lenin
and Trotsky among others for the direct purpose of leading the world socialist
revolution. When that task was abandoned in practice under the Stalin regime in
Russia Trotsky in exile and with not enough resources called for and
established the Fourth International we are commemorating.
of that Fourth International like the Second still exist but unlike the first
three Internationals it was essentially still-born in a time of defeats,
serious defeats for the working classes especially with the rise of Hitler in
Germany. So why beside nostalgia for an old International associated with the
name of an honest revolutionary do I write this short piece today. Like I said
the headline has telegraphed what is needed, what I think is needed
today-another International, a fifth International if you like to lead the
fight against the one-sided class struggle that is being waged by the
international capitalist classes. While Trotsky’s organization for many reasons
including the decimation of its cadre in Europe during World War II never got
off the ground some of its programmatic points in the key document that came
out of the conference which established the organization-the Transitional
Program- read like they could have been written today.
the program though cadre, new cadre are needed to continue the forlorn fight
against the greedy vultures who control the means of production and finance and
that is where Leon Trotsky’s desperate and usually lonely fight to bring the 4th
International to the light of day can still serve as a model going forward. He,
Trotsky, a man who has led the Russian Revolution of 1905, has subsequently been
exiled and escaped the Czarist prisons when that revolution was crushed, had
been central to the seizure of power in the October Revolution in Russia in
1917, had been Commissar of War during the bloody civil war against the
counter-revolutionary Whites and their international imperialist allies, and
had led the fight to save the revolution when the dark hand of Stalin and his
henchmen pulled the hammer down stated unequivocally at the time in 1938 that
establishing a new international to fight the dark clouds coming over Europe
was the most important task he had done in his life. In our own epoch we are
looking for such men and women to continue the task. They will have to read
about and look at these 1938 documents and that very uneven struggle along the
Workers Vanguard No. 1139
7 September 2018
Reforge the Fourth International!
(Quote of the Week)
Eighty years ago, on 3 September 1938, the Fourth International was established under the leadership of Leon Trotsky. In opposition to the reformism of the social-democratic Second International and the Stalinized Communist International (Comintern), its founding document, excerpted below, provided the framework for building a new world party of socialist revolution. It is the task of the International Communist League to reforge the Fourth International, which was destroyed by a revisionist current under Michel Pablo in the early 1950s that renounced the need to build Trotskyist parties.
It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.
Classical Social Democracy, functioning in an epoch of progressive capitalism, divided its program into two parts independent of each other: the minimum program, which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum program, which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future. Between the minimum and the maximum program no bridge existed. And indeed Social Democracy has no need of such a bridge, since the word socialism is used only for holiday speechifying. The Comintern has set out to follow the path of Social Democracy in an epoch of decaying capitalism: when, in general, there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses’ living standards; when every serious demand of the proletariat and even every serious demand of the petty bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and of the bourgeois state.
The strategical task of the Fourth International lies not in reforming capitalism but in its overthrow. Its political aim is the conquest of power by the proletariat for the purpose of expropriating the bourgeoisie.
—Leon Trotsky, “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the
Fourth International,” commonly known as the Transitional Program (1938)
She Came Out Of The Karoo-The Music Of Tony Bird-A Review
By Zack James
Sorry Africa, Tony Bird, 1986
During the 1980s Seth Garth had been taking on more and more purely political assignments for the New Times Gazette, a successor newspaper to the old alternative The Eye for which he had gotten his first jumps in journalism as the film and music critic. It wasn’t that he had lost interest in covering the happenings in the world of independent cinema and the edges of popular music but that in that period there were political trends around the struggles for liberation in Central and South America and Southern Africa that for the first time since the slowdown of the Vietnam War back in the early 1970s required attention. And so Benny Gold, his editor from back in The Eye days who had moved on with the Gazette assigned him more and more of those political assignments with the idea that he would weave those in with some off-beat cultural pieces.
One night he had been in the Open Space, a new music club in the Village [Greenwich Village]that had previous been a coffeehouse, a popular one, the Unicorn, to hear a new guy out of Africa who Seth was told had an interesting beat, had combined the sounds of Mother Africa with more popular Western music. This was the kind of off-beat combination that he was sure Benny Gold would go for. As the MC for the evening announced the performer, Tony Bird, he was surprised that out came on the stage a young white man backed up by an all black group of sidemen. Seth had known that there were some, not enough, white youth who were supporting the various black liberation struggles in Southern Africa, particularly in South Africa but he was not prepared for a white musician to surface who supported those struggles although he should have known that fact going in.
Tony Bird let everybody in the place know where he was coming from when he started singing a very heartfelt and upbeat song, Sorry Africa, taking on the burden on his shoulders of expressing sorrow at the way the white man, the way his people had treated the ones they had conquered one way or another. Very moving.
What had gotten to Seth that night though and he was as surprised at this as he was that Tony Bird was a white African man was a song that he finished up with, She Came From The Karoo. The Karoo being the outback in the country he came from. What was strange about the song was that except that the locale was Africa it could have been a song of love and lost in America. More to the point was the vision that Seth had of the woman Tony was speaking of, a woman who came out of the mist with a red sundress on and effected all around her with her bright Botticelli smile and demeanor. Seth thought that little idea, the idea that a woman could spark such imagination out in the bush was the hook that he would use in his article. That and that Tony Bird, a black liberation struggle fighter in his own right had no apology to give to Africa.
“You never know where music, the muse of music if that is the right way to say it, if it is not redundant” Seth Garth said to his old friend Bartlett Webber one night when they were discussing various musical trends and commitments over a few drinks at Friday’s in downtown Boston. Seth had just been commenting on the hard fact that the guys and gals who were holding up the blues traditions of that quintessentially black musical form were mostly then younger whites who had gotten their baptisms of fire back in the early 1960s maybe the 1970s when as part of the British invasion of rock groups (the Beatles and Stones mostly) who worshiped at the feet of the old bluesmen and as part of the folk revival of the early 1960s when the young were looking for roots music and hit upon some old time country blues singers they got hooked on this genre.(That worship at the feet was no mere expression since as august a group as the Rolling Stones made their way to Chicago, made their way to legendary blues label Chess Records, made their way to meet Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.)
Seth went on, “You know with very few exceptions, maybe in the old days guys like Taj Majal and more recently Keb ‘Mo young blacks were running away from their “blues is dues” contributions, except the hip-hop artists who were savoring those blues as backdrop to their new language experiences.” Bart nodded his head not so much because he was as knowledgeable as Seth about musical trends, he wasn’t, but because ever since Seth had turned him on to various non-rock and roll forms of music such as these blues and folk music he had deferred to him on such subjects.
That deference to Seth had not been happenstance since for early in his journalistic career starting with the American Folk Gazette when he was still in college he had been a music critic most frequently and profitably before it folded long ago when the ebb tide of the 1960s faded the prestigious The Eye. Moreover although Bart was a true aficionado Seth would be the one to lead the way forward musically ever since the old days back in Riverdale when Seth had been the guy who turned the crowd they hung around with to that folk music that was coming over the horizon. He would take the lead here as well ever since both men had attended a concert at the Garden by Big Bill Bloom, the legendary folksinger from the 1960s. Both men had agreed to walk out of the performance before the encore as a protest to the hard fact that Big Bill could no longer sing, was practically talking the lyrics through. That experience got Seth onto the trail of an idea. He wanted to check out all the singers still standing from back in the day who were still performing and rate them on the question of whether they still had “it.” As it turned out some did like David Bromberg and his band who burned up the joint one night downtown. The late Etta James didn’t, didn’t have it. And so the quest.
That quest was now centered more particularly on the fading fast few blues masters still around. That is where Seth began to see that break in the black blues tradition as two generations or more removed from Southern country life or hard inner city industrial madness which had brought a couple of generations north in search of a better life and the music needed to pick up the pace as well bringing forth the whole electric blues scene that hummed cities like Chicago and Detroit in the early 1950s. That brought them to this-B.B. King and Eric Clapton CD. Clapton, one of those British invasion guys who was crazy for the blues (and classic rock, now classic rock, with the likes of Chuck Berry who Clapton to this day swears he does not know how Berry did what he did with a guitar as hard as he looked to find out what the master was doing) and the King were going to perform together at the Garden in a week or so.
At the concert Seth and Bart had been apprehensive when they saw ancient B.B. and his latest version of Lucille being escorted to a seat on center stage with Eric Clapton to the side. Not to worry though the work they did was a great success. Seth mentioned to Bart though that he was not sure where the new generation would get their blues from since they would never go away, the blues, the causes for the blues, whiskey. Women, work, and a wad of dough just like rock and roll once guys like Eric passed away. This CD was their work to insure the future whatever may come-okay.
Films To While The Class Struggle By- With Serge Eisenstein’s "Strike" (1925) In Mind
By Frank Jackman
Strike, starring a cast of hundreds of working people and others, directed by Serge Eisenstein, 1925
No question, no question at all that some political films whether they were intended as propaganda for a certain viewpoint as with the film under review, Russian mad man filmmaker Serge Eisenstein’s 1925 Strike, or because as the story line developed everybody was compelled to think through the implications of the cover-up and preclude to figure out the coup in a film like Costa-Garvas’ Z. Here is the beauty of Eisenstein’s work whether with Strike or an effort like Potemkin, the one with the famous baby carriage scene on the Odessa Steps. The medium is the message to steal a phrase from an old-time social media commentator (okay, okay I will give the attribution-Marshall McLuhan). The whole thing is done, powerfully done, with nothing but absolutely stunning cinematography, a few signboards (in Russian with English subtitles), and some very interesting and varied mood music which if I am not mistaken included some jazz theme stuff from Duke Ellington, and if not him then definitely some jazz riffs along with that inevitable classic music that one would have expected from a Russian filmmaker who grabbed what he could from the Russian Five.
Now the question of who a film is directed at is usually pretty much just to lure in general audiences, maybe if it is cartoonish then kids but usually general audiences. Eisenstein in this film though is directing his efforts to working people in order for them to draw some important lessons about the class struggle. Of course Eisenstein was working shortly after the October Revolution of 1917 in his own country and so he probably was more or less committed to this type of film in the interests of the Soviet government and of the world revolution that was still formally what the Bolsheviks and their international allies, through the Communist International, were all about. (I might add though that a later film about Ivan the Terrible had the same fine cinematic qualities and that was not particularly directed at the world’s working classes but to ancient Russian patriotic fervor.) That drawing of lessons about what happened during the strike is what drives the force of the film.
Here is how this one played out in all its glory and infamy. The workers at a Russian factory of unknown location and for that matter of unknown production had been beaten down by the greedy capitalists and stockholders, had had no say in what they made and how much dough they made. (The scenes with the greedy capitalists are a treasure, something out of any leftist’s caricature of the old time robber barons complete with fat bellies, cigars and top hats). Like any situation where tensions are strung out to the limit it did not take a lot to produce a reason for a strike for a better shake in this wicked old world. Here it was an honest workman’s being accused of a theft which he couldn’t defend himself against and so in shame he committed suicide. After have previously spent several weeks talking about taking an action to better their conditions the leaders of the underground “strike committee” decided to have everybody “down tools.” (The scene of this action with a rolling shutdown as section after section left their benches was breathtaking.)
Of course in turn of the century (20th century) Russia (and elsewhere) the capitalists were as vicious as one would expect of a new class of exploiters dealing here with people, men and women, just off the farm and so in no mood to grant such things as an eight-hour day (a struggle that we in America are very familiar with from the Haymarket Martyrs whose chief demand a few decades before the time of this film was for that same eight hour day) and a big wage increase. So the committee of capitalists and their hangers-on gave a blanket “no.” Said the hell with you to the strikers.
The aftermath of this refusal is where the real lessons of this film are to drawn. Needless to say the capitalists were willing, more than willing to starve the workers into submission (the scenes of some workers pawning off their worldly possession for food for the kids, for themselves are quite moving).But not only were they willing to starve the mass of workers back to the factory but did everything in their power to break the strike by other means. First and foremost to send spies out to stir up trouble in order to get the class unity broken, then tried to get some weak-links to betray the movement from within, and if that didn’t work then try might and main to round up by any way possible the leaders of the strike in order to behead the movement. In the end though they were not above using their “Pharaohs,” their mounted cops and troops to suppress the whole thing. In the final scene after the cops and troops have done their murderous assaults on unarmed strikers the corpses spread out widely on the massacre field tell anybody who wasn’t sure about the role of the cops and troops all they need to know about the way the strike was defeated.
From what I could gather from the last signboard (one which mentioned the Lena gold strike which was I believe was suppressed in 1912) the time period of this strike was between the 1905 revolution that went down in flames and the victorious revolution in 1917. The implications of the failure of the strike, of the need to take the state power, were thus through Eisenstein’s big lenses there for all to see. Hey, even if you don’t draw any political conclusions from this film just watch to see what they mean when they say a picture sometimes is worth a thousand words. Eisenstein has a thousand such pictures that will fascinate and repel you.
The Hour Of The Wolf-With Mad Monk Bluesman Howlin’ Wolf In Mind
By Zack James
Howlin’ Wolf, The Hour Of The Wolf,
Jack Callahan made his old high school corner boy from in front of Jimmy Jack’s Diner in growing up town Riverdale west of Boston Seth Garth laugh one night when they were tossing down a couple of high shelf scotches, with water chasers after having just seen one James Montgomery, the famous blues harmonica player who had learned his trade at the feet of Little Walter and Junior Dean, perform at the Shell and prove once and for all that he still had “it.” That “it” not just some far-fetched idea that Seth had as an old-time music critic when he had first started out in journalism, started first when he was still in college throwing small pieces into the American Folk Gazette before he got his big break with The Eye in the days when guys like Trick Stearn and Bones Bennett made names for themselves and dragged the newspaper along with them before the big ebb tide of the 1970s washed away the glad tidings of the 1960s that everybody had pinned their hopes on.
No this “it” had some spunk, some substance to its core and Jack had gone along with Seth on this one. See one night Jack and Seth had gone to a Big Bill Bloom concert at the Garden and had come away angry, angry that they had spent their good money on expensive tickets when Big Bill could no longer carry a tune, Back in the day that had not mattered as much because the power of his lyrics carried the day. But that night he was not producing new lyrics, hadn’t done so in ages and was living off old time nostalgia from the AARP-worthy demographic that still followed him essentially uncritically. And the fools had clapped their hands off giving him yet another false life. Jesus. Seth had written a scathing article in the prestigious American Folk Review about the event and had hell rain down on him from the editor. (Old biddy editors he had called them. After that blast Seth resolved to check out as many of the old time folk and blues singers who were still standing to see if they still had “it” and let people know what was what (he did not bother to check out the old time rock and rollers that had started the great jail break-out of the 1950s since all that were left except Jerry Lee were one hit wonders who didn’t make the cut).
So James Montgomery got his thumbs up. Funny some guys, guys like David Bromberg still had it, Jim Kweskin too but before he passed away Utah Phillips was doddering and the late Etta James was in different planet. Sad.
Now that you know the score, know what the old corner boys were up to we can get back to what Jack said that made Seth laugh. Simple. He just said, “You know as good as James is Howlin’ Wolf would have had him for lunch and had time for a nap.” And of course Seth had to agree. Agree for no other reason that he and Jack had been present in a little side room in Newport, at the big Folk Festival back in 1965 when the Wolf practically blew the walls of Jericho down when he played How Many More Years practically devouring the harmonica. Now the Wolf always claimed that he was not a drinking man (had taken the legendary country blues guys, guys like Son House, his “father,” to task for showing up drunk and giving the race a bad name) and wasn’t a dope fiend (his term one time when Seth interviewed him after he had come back from London after playing on an album with the Stones and Seth had joked that he probably had been stoned all the time and the Wolf looked at him with evil eyes like don’t go there sonny boy). But Seth was convinced that that whiff he smelled was not from some other workshop, the one with the white kids as Howlin’ Wolf put it. (Jim Kweskin and his jug band as it turned out which was entirely possible as well). But no way that a living breathing man, a big burly hunk of a man could put that much energy, that much air, that much bloody sweat (wringing out his handkerchief drawing torrents when he was done) without some “help.”
So while Seth and Jack would never know for sure whether the Wolf man was high that famous Newport afternoon they knew one thing, one laugh making thing, the Wolf would have had James Montgomery for lunch. And James still had “it.” So you can bet six two and even the Wolf had it at the end too. If you don’t believe Seth then listen to this CD and weep for your not having been there back in the day when the Wolf mopped up the blues floor, made his bones.
On The Wild Side Of Life Minute-With Mister Jerry Jeff Walker’s Music In Mind
By Zack James
Great Gonzos, Mister Jerry Jeff Walker,
The 1980s, the early 1980s, were a tough time to try and weather the financial doldrums of the alternative newspaper industry (much like today, in 2017, the whole print press and journal industry is going down with the ship in the digital age). That was the age of Ronald Reagan, a time when the night-takers took their revenge in big gobs, those bastards who almost got kicked in the ass for good back in the 1960s except we forget the first rule of a power struggle whether down on the corner boy block or in order to take state power-if you are going to take on the big guys you had better be ready to go all the way down and dirty or just back off. The blow-back for the past forty some years is graphic testament to that failure, to our defeat.
As if to put paid to that night-taker “victory” those who would in earlier times have come through and supported such ventures as truth-teller alternative media took a dive, waved the white flag and fell into line (a straight and narrow line that even the latest polls have shown they never have backed away from, have passed on that “keeping their heads down” to their kids, hell, their grandkids, Jesus) the money dried up and the publication that Seth Garth had been the film critic for in good times and bad for over a decade The Eye had put him on short rations, had almost reduced him to the free-lancer status he had started out in the business doing. To alleviate their dilemma, maybe to draw one last breathe would have been a better way to put it Benny Gold the long time editor had begged Seth to take a long swig at the then emerging outlaw country music scene that was starting to bust out of Nashville, started getting up a head of steam in Texas, Austin, really and places like Colorado, Iowa and the like.
Seth Garth, for those who don’t remember the name from when what he had to say about some song, album (tapes in those days really), or a performer carried weight via the distribution of The Eye on the coasts and with some strongholds in the center of the country too or were too young to know who he was could give, to use and expression from his corner boy days which he had really never given up, a rat’s ass about country music, the Nashville Grand Ole Opry stuff. Held his nose whenever anybody mentioned that George Jones had not shown up at a concert for the millionth time since he was in a drunken stupor out in Wyoming when he was supposed to be right there in Georgia or that Loretta Lynn, a coalminer’s daughter had the vapors or something and was a “no show” at one of her performances. Yeah Seth could give a rat’s ass about this incestuous country scene no question.
Moreover having just started the process of divorcing his third wife (three wives and a brood of kids, all young fueling up alimony, child support and future earnings college tuitions) he was in a sullen funk about starting all over like some rookie chasing ambulances and cop cars for a fucking story. Was trying, seriously trying, to decide whether he might link up with his old corner boy Johnny Blade who was now out of stir after doing a nickel for his last armed robbery and start pulling a few quick haul bank robberies. That larcenous heart of his that he had held in check for a number of years now was beginning to come to the fore. He after all was the guy back in the day who had perfected the “clip,” had designed the neighborhood midnight creep into Mayfair swell houses that kept the boys in clover through high school.
In the end though, at least for the public prints, Seth decided that he would give the outlaw country scene a quick run through to see if circulation would rise and The Eye would stop bleeding away financially. So he held his nose and headed to Austin (he refused to go to Nashville where some of the guys he was supposed to check out still had connections enough to draw work if the “outlaw” thing was running a little to the lean side). He first ran into a guy named Townes Van Zandt who was a true outlaw, could have given a fuck about Nashville and just wanted to write his lonesome life road lyrics, drown his sorrows in liquor and chase young honeys, the younger the better. But Townes with his downer lyrics, his lusts and his short-handed way of talking when he was not singing was not going to help Seth out of his miseries never mind a left-leaning newspaper in need of a big circulation jump.
So he pushed on, had a nice interview with Willie Nelson but the guy was almost too big by then, hell, he was playing Northern venues to sell-out crowds, radio stations were ready to switch formats if they could get a hook from him. Same with Kris Kristofferson who was getting acting jobs as well as drinking the state of California dry. Then Big Bill Bloom who had made a career out of big bang folk lyrics that everybody in the 1960s was chewing on (or chewing on partially because while everybody knew maybe three verses of his stuff they could not go the distance on the whole song, half the time Seth couldn’t either and he wrote about the whole scene) called Seth to tell him that he had heard that The Eye was on the ropes (The Eye always gave Big Bill great build-up reviews although a couple of times Seth had nixed his work but Benny had nixed his nix) and that he was working the outlaw country racket. Did Seth know about a guy, Jerry Jeff Walker, who just then was out of jail but who was a great performer, wrote great lyrics and had a pal, a guy named Guy Clark, who wrote stuff for him too?
Seth told Big Bill that he had never heard of the guy, was moreover worried about that “just out of jail” bit even if he was an outlaw but when Big Bill said he could make the connections Seth in desperation said he would go for it. And strangely enough they connected, connected when Seth was able to see that Jerry Jeff was just another larcenous corner boy except down Texas way and out West they called them good old boys instead of up North in growing up Riverdale. Seth was the guy who gave Jerry Jeff’s first concert out of jail a big play. Got him a connection to a big record producer and even got him his first gig north of the Mason-Dixon line. Got him into Harvard Square for crying out loud. The crowd almost all old folkies and raw college kids with dates went crazy for a real outlaw country singer. For a while, maybe a year, The Eye got by but the Reagan era was in deep throttle by then and once Jerry Jeff became old news everybody went back to keeping their heads down as the newspaper sank into its dreams. And Seth became once again a freaking free-lancer with no place to go but down.
The Nighttime Is The
Right Time-With Fritz Lang’s Film Adaptation Of Clifford Odets’ “Clash By
Night” In Mind
By Film Critic Emeritus
No, I am not here to
look over somebody’s, some other reviewer’s shoulder now that Greg Green, the
moderator on this site has let the cat out of the bag and told one and all that
with my review of 1956’s Giant I was,
as he put it, putting myself to pasture. Although I would not have put it that
way a few more or less serious medical problems have required me to back off a
little on reviewing films, a task I have done now for over forty years-and will
continue periodically to do. (I should
add beyond the medical problems, or rather in conjunction with those medical
problems my long-time companion Laura Perkins who graces this publication with
her occasional reviews had raised holy hell if I don’t slow down and back
off-you know that is definitive then.)
Today though I am here
to comment on a review of Clash By Night
by one of the in-coming reviewers, Sandy Salmon, whom I have known for at least
thirty year and have respected for his work at the American Film Gazette almost as long. That is saying something in
this cutthroat film critic business where it seems the only real hearing you
get is if you plummet some other reviewer’s take, which after all is just a
subjective take, and draw blood. As fitting commentary to that respect is that
I have freely “stolen” plenty of stuff from his pithy reviews over years
(another “trick of the trade” when you don’t have anything bright to say or
were hung-over or otherwise indisposed). So enough said about that.
After reading Sandy’s
review I also realized that I was not familiar with the film under review
although as the regular readers know I live for film noir, or variations of it
which I think is closer to the nut in Clash.
So naturally I called him up to ask to borrow his copy of the DVD which he
sent me a few days later and which I viewed a couple of days after that. No
question as Sandy pointed out Clash
is a little hidden gem of a film with the standout cast of Barbara Stanwyck,
Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan, and a pre-iconic Marilyn Monroe. With top notch
direction by Fritz Lang, the exiled German filmmaker who first drew my
attention with his magnificent Metropolis.
Lang knew to the marrow of his bones how to set a mood in black and white from
the beginning of a film to the end here with a close up look at the shoreline
of Monterey setting us up for the clashing waves to come-human clashing waves
and with a screenplay by my old friend Artie Hayes from the hot pen of
playwright Clifford Odets who before he turned 1950s red scare fink, snitch,
sell-out did some very good work (interesting that most of the finks and slinkers
like Elia Kazan, Langston Hughes, Josh White and a million others never did
produce that much good work after theywent down on their knees to McCarthy or the HUAC and guys like Dalton
Trumbo, Dashiell Hammett and Howard Fast who carried their toothbrushes ready
to face the stinking bastinado with them into the House Un-American Activities
Committee’s witch-hunt tribunals lived to do some good work after the red scare
blew away like dust.
No question this film
had a good pedigree, had the stuff that kept things moving along in the funny
little human drama being played out among ordinary folk with ordinary dreams
which got smashed up againstthe real
world. Sandy made some good points as he summarized the ploy-line for the
reader.I have no quarrel with that but
what I want to do is highlight some things that Sandy, the soul of discretion,
kind of fluffed. (Remember every good film critic, maybe the whole freaking
journalism profession such as it is, depends on some bloody spilling, giving
that praise with one hand AND bombshells with the other already mentioned in
this damn cutthroat profession-the lord (or lady) giveth and taketh away.) My
take on what was going on with all that high-end dialogue that Artie produced
to throw in the main character’s mouths.
For openers let’s call
things by their right name, this Mae Doyle, the role played by Barbara
Stanwyck, was nothing but a tramp, a drifter and nighty-taker, nightery of any
handy warm bed if it came to that. Sure Mae had some femme fatale qualities,
Sandy was right to make a comparison with Phyllis, the wanton femme and man
trap who put Walter Neff through the wringer in Double Indemnity also played by Ms. Stanwyck, but she was strictly
from the wrong side of the tracks. That Phyllis had a certain style-a fatal
style like all the beautiful femmes have as well as some handy pocketbook gun
and a handy back-up guy waiting in the wings to bail her out when jam time
came. Mae, and here Sandy and I will not disagree or if we do he is wrong since
he is young at the film nori wars, was bound to let some guy who just wanted a
good-looking woman to fill his house with kids take the gaff. Mae had come home to working class Monterrey
after having been out in the big wide world and gotten her younger years dreams
crushed. She was now world weary and wary looking for a safe port. Call me
politically incorrect or culturally insensitive but once a tramp always a
Here’s the play- Mae returns
to her small family home where her brother, a commercial fisherman, remember
old-time Monterey was the sardine capital of the world, Cannery Row now a shopping
mall on the bay, made famous by John Steinbeck, is enthralled by Peggy, played
by Marilyn Monroe, who is a lot more forgiving about the fate of a lost sister
than her brother who nevertheless lets her stay. While keeping a low profile as
something of a home body her brother’s boat captain, Jerry, played by gruff and
throaty Paul Douglas, a regular sea dog working stiff comes a-courting. After a
while, succumbing to a strong desire to have somebody take care of her, to be
settled she accepts Jerry’s offer of marriage. Even in accepting Jerry’s
proposal though she warned him that she was spoiled goods.
Things go along for a
while with Jerry and Mae, about a year, during which they have a child, a baby
girl, but Mae begins to get the wanderlust, begins to get antsy around the very
ordinary and plebian Jerry. Enter Earl, or rather re-enter Earl, Jerry’s
friend, who had been interested in Mae from day one when Jerry introduced them.
He, in the meantime, was now divorced and takes dead aim at Mae. And she takes
the bait, falls hard for the fast-talking cynical Earl. They plan for Mae to
fly the coop with the baby and a new life. Not so fast though once they
confront Jerry with their affair, with his being cuckolded. This is where the
dialogue gets right down to basics. Mae gives Jerry what’s what about her and
Earl, about her needs. Jerry, blinders off, builds up a head of steam and in
another scene almost kills Earl before he realized what he was doing.
This is the “pivot.” Jerry
takes the baby on his boat. Mae suddenly realizes that the baby means more to
her than Earl who as it turned out didn’t give a rat’s ass about the child.
Having been once bitten though when Mae goes to Jerry to seek reconciliation he
is lukewarm but as she turns to leave he relents. Maybe they can work things
out, or at least that is the look on Mae’s face when she is brought back into
the fold at the end of the film.You
really have to see this film to get a sense of the raw emotions on display, and
on the contrary feelings each character has about his or her place in the sun.
Nicely done Fritz and crew, nicely done.
Mae knew it, knew it all
the time she was leading poor sap Jerry, the role played by Paul Douglas. She
took a supposed tough guy, a guy who had been hardened by the sea and twisted
him around in and out in two second flat once she got her hooks into him. Earl
knew that, Earl played by Robert Ryan, knew from minute one that whatever play
Jerry was making for Mae he, Earl, was going to go down and dirty under the
silky sheets with her before he was done-wedding ring or no wedding ring. And
guess what as you already know she, when she got bored with the frankly boring
Jerry and his fucking fish smells, his goddam sardine aura, she was ready to
blow town with the hunky Earl. Didn’t think twice about it even with a little
child in the way. Yeah, Jerry was made for the role of cuckold, maybe deserved
it for having, what did Sandy call him, oh yeah, the blinders on way before he
found some silky negligees and come hither perfumes hidden in her bureau drawer
(courtesy of Earl or who knows who when she was “going to the movies” every
Then he man’s up, man’s
up when it is too late as they, Mae and Earl are ready to take a hike with that
little baby in tow. Then Mae got cold feet, supposedly was mother-hungry for
the child and was ready to do penance for her indiscretions. Earl had it right
though, had Mae pegged as a tramp, as someone looking for the next adventure.
That is what makes the end of the film run false as she practically begs Jerry
to take her back now that she had seen the light. Jesus what a sap. Earl said
it best. If she didn’t go away with him then it would only be a matter of time
before she got bored again and took a walk, maybe came running back to him, him
and the wild side of life. I bet six, two and even and will take on all-comers
that she blows town before the next year is out. You heard it here first- a
tramp is always a tramp-end of discussion. Nice first review here Sandy even if
you didn’t get it all right, babbled the ball in a couple of places, good