I have a friend who, as a matter of principle, refuses to watch any movie made before 1995. To me, this is the height of eccentricity, depriving oneself of countless wonders and treats. No Pagnol trilogy --- Marius, Fanny and Cesar --- from the 1930s, that superb series that illuminates so perfectly the between-the-wars life of Marseilles; no Rene Clair, whose Sous Les Toits de Paris, made in 1930, struck me when I saw it in the 1950s as being so fine it could possibly have been made the day before; no early Alain Resnais, no early Jean-Luc Godard; no Breathless with Belmondo and Jean Seberg, no Key Largo, no My Darling Clementine; no Treasure of Sierra Madre... And so, on and on.
This week I saw two movies starring young new actors, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. They were made in 1931, were about gangsters --- probably the first of many gangster movies starring these two great screen stars --- and the Cagney movie had an unforgettable final shot. Cagney’s character had been wounded in a gunfight, and had been in hospital with his head all bandaged up. His adoring mother and disapproving, non-criminal young brother, Mike, both attended him in the hospital, and it seemed that a reconciliation had occurred between the brother, and the gangster.
Back home, they received a telephone call to say Cagney had been discharged from hospital, and was on his way home. When the doorbell rang, Mike hurried to open the door, eager to greet his reformed brother. What confronted him when he opened the door was the trust-up, bound figure of his brother, who wavered back and forth before falling into the house, flat on his face, dead as a dodo. So, the message was clear, crime doesn’t pay.
One might as well put a prescription against reading any books written before 1995, as against movies. I have to confess, however, that sometimes on re-reading I have been disappointed in books that I have revered since first reading them as a youth. For example, I loved a book called Epitaph for a Small Winner by Machado de Assis. But in later years I have tried to get through it two or three times, without success. Similarly, for many years, since I first read them as a young man, I have revered the early satirical novels of Evelyn Waugh, and of them I think my favorite has always been Scoop, in which he mercilessly satirized the newspaper business. I re-read it this week, and, as has happened for me in regard to many other books whose memory I had carried with me affectionately for more than half my life, I was slightly disappointed.
The story is of a retiring, nature-loving fellow, William Boot, who has lived all his life deep in the English countryside, and contributed articles about the nature that surrounds him, and that he so much loves, to the Daily Beast, Lord Copper’s flagship. Unknown to him, a second-rate novelist called John Boot, an assiduous cultivator of the upper class, has applied to his high-bred friend Mrs. Stitch for some help in publicizing his new book. She promises to do something for him, and she mentions him to her friend Lord Copper who says he will do what he can. Lord Copper hands the problem over to one of his supernumeraries, Salter, with a request that he might find a spot for that fellow Boot. Coincidentally, Lord Copper is demanding they send someone to cover the upheaval in Ismaelia, on the boot of east Africa, and suggests maybe they could send that fellow Boot. So suddenly, Boot is assigned to go to Africa, although he has never been out of his village, and once he gets there he joins a phalanx of foreign correspondents who have all responded to the fact that the opposition is, for unclear reasons, sending their man there to cover the events, always supposing there are events.
Of course, it transpires that Ismaelia is a satrapy of a single family, the Jacksons, who have everything under control, except that one member of the family has recently kicked over the traces and established alternative consulates around the world. That has made it necessary for visitors to get stamps from competing embassies, and when the second embassy notices that the first one has already stamped the passport, he demands the correspondents get new passports so that his stamp of approval stands alone. On this kind of evidence, the press lords have concluded that a vicious civil war is underway.
Such ridiculous occurrences litter William Boot’s first days as a foreign correspondent. Eventually, through sheer luck, he hears from a woman staying in the same pension an unsubstantiated rumour of a Soviet arrival, and this story, just as Salter is about to fire Boot for inactivity, catapults the innocent fellow into the front rank of correspondents, among those who receive multiple congratulations by cable from home office.
All this is close enough to the reality of what happens in this kind of situation as to make the book occasionally very funny. The climax comes when Boot returns home, and Lord Copper insists on holding a banquet to celebrate his immense achievements, a banquet that Boot declines to attend. Part of the celebration was to have been for William’s knighthood that, unfortunately through another mixup, has been granted instead to John Boot. Salter is despatched to Boot's home to make sure he has not signed up with the opposition Daily Brute, and his adventures among these failed and failing gentry make some of the funniest passages in the book.
Much of this is so funny that from time to time I laughed out loud: but I confess it took a long time to set it all up, and I had a slightly sinking feeling that the book wasn’t as dazzling as I had remembered.
As to its fidelity to real life, I remember on one occasion, when I was assigned to cover the arrival of Canadian troops in Cyprus, how we used to sit around in the bar of the Ledra Palace hotel exchanging notes on the cables most of the reporters --- but not me --- received from headquarters, congratulating them on their work. These were worthy of Evelyn Waugh. One young reporter from a Toronto paper handed around his dispatch recording how “two heads, each head holding two red-rimmed eyes” had been spotted peering around a corner during a firefight. It caused immense hilarity --- but rather less so when the young reporter, apparently deeply humilated by everyone’s hearty laughter, suddenly disappeared, and was not heard of again in the newspaper business until resurfacing some years later.
One of the favorite stories about Cyprus --- also recalled by William Boot’s flirtation with a married German lady --- was that many British correspondents struck up friendships with passionate Greek Cypriot women, who, as the correspondent was leaving for home, had the habit of turning up at the airport to insist on accompanying him. This was unfortunate, since most of these correspondents were happily married men, with cheerful British families awaiting their return.
While I have been writing this a 1931 film called Friends and Lovers, starring Laurence Olivier and Adolph Menjou as French Foreign Legion officers, has been grinding away on the TV. It must have been one of the first films of Olivier, who was competing with Menjou for the favours of an actress called Lili Damita, whose main claim to fame later in life was to have been married for seven years to Errol Flynn. I wouldn't have known this valuable information if I had followed my friend's absurd 1995 rule.