Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Novel, The Movie, The Writer

On a recent trip from St. Louis to Bentonville, Ark., I decided to bring some books on CD with me. I checked out several, not being sure which one would carry me for the 5-hour drive each way. The first one I slipped in was a book I had read many years ago when it was first published: "A Death in the Family."

At the time, I knew James Agee only from his landmark book on the Depression, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," accompanied by the stark black and white photographs of Walker Evans. Even now, decades later, the images and narrative are still with me.

Hollywood had taken a shot at "A Death..." which they called "All the Way Home." I remember two things about the film: Robert Preston as the boy's father,and the opening scenes which included a visit to the movie house for a Chaplin film. So the trip to a Chaplin event at Crystal Bridges seemed like a good reason to revisit his novel.

I listened to maybe an hour of the book, tired of the heavy subject, replaced it with CD's of an Elmore Leonard novel ("Tishomingo Blues" read by Frank Muller, one of the most compelling readers I've ever heard), and continued my journey.

I checked out Agee's novel when I returned home, a few days later, just to read the opening pages. Here they are.
Agee won the Pulitzer in 1958 for this, and the book was listed in 2005 in Time's Best 100 American novels written since 1928. "A Death in the Family" at Amazon

At supper that night, as many times before, his father said, "Well, s'pose we go to the picture show."
"Oh, Jay!" his mother said. "That horrid little man!"
"What's wrong with him," his father asked, not because he didn't know what she would say, but so she would say it.
"He's so nasty!" she said, as she always did. "So vulgar! With his nasty little cane; hooking up skirts and things, and that nasty little walk!"
His father laughed, as he always did, and Rufus felt that it had become rather an empty joke; but as always his laughter also cheered him; he felt that the laughter enclosed him with his father.

They walked downtown in the light of mother-of-pearl, to the Majestic, and found their way to seats by the light of the screen, in the exhilarating smell of stale tobacco, rank sweat, perfume and dirty drawers, while the piano played fast music and galloping horses raised a grandiose flag of dust. and there was William S. Hart with both guns blazing and his long, horse face and his long, hard lip, and the great country rode away behind him as wide as the world. Then he made a bashful face at a girl and his horse raised its upper lip and everybody laughed, and then the screen was filled with a city and with the sidewalk of a side street of a city, and a long line of palms and there was Charlie; everyone laughed the minute they saw him squattily walking with his toes out and his knees wide apart, as if he were chafed; Rufus' father laughed, and Rufus laughed too. This time Charlie stole a whole bag of eggs and when a cop came along he hid them in the seat of his pants. Then he caught sight of a pretty woman and he began to squat and twirl his cane and make silly faces. She tossed her head and walked away with her chin up high and her dark mouth as small as she could make it and he followed her very busily, doing all sorts of things with his cane that made everybody laugh, but she paid no attention."

Agee goes on for another page about the Chaplin movie. He completes that scene like this:

"Then he whipped out his cane from under his armpit and took command of it again, and with a final look at everybody, still sickly but at the same time cheerful, shrugged his shoulders and turned his back and scraped backward with his big shoes at the broken shells and the slimy bag, just like a dog, and looked back at the mess (everybody laughed again at that) and started to walk away, bending his cane deep with every shuffle, and squatting deeper, with his knees wider apart, than ever before, constantly picking at the seat of his pants with his left hand, and shaking one foot, and then the other, and once gouging deep into his seat and then pausing and shaking his whole body, like a wet dog, and then walking on; while the screen shut over his small image a sudden circle of darkness: then the player-piano changed its tune, and the ads came in motionless color."

Agee was connected with Chaplin in other ways. He had written a piece for Life Magazine in 1949 on the silent film comedians which, of course, included Chaplin. I posted a blog about that in January of this year.

Two years before that Life article, he had come to the defense of Chaplin when the public and critics lambasted him for "Monsieur Verdoux," his black comedy released in 1947. Agee used three consecutive columns in The Nation for this. Agee, I believe, was the only literary figure of note to defend Chaplin. He also wrote a screenplay that he intended for Chaplin to star in. John Wranovics wrote a book about that relationship and screenplay. Agee, Chaplin, & the Screenplay

So somehow it feels appropriate that Agee would win the Pulitzer several years later with his novel that begins with a visit to the theater to see a Chaplin film. Poetic justice, on behalf of two great artists.