Tag: Damon Runyon

Brainiac On Banjo: Rare Praise Indeed!

Brainiac On Banjo: Rare Praise Indeed!

“The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s how the smart money bets.” ― Damon Runyon

My all-time favorite writer — I’m volunteering because you didn’t ask — is Damon Runyon. He’s the author of about a million brilliant short stories largely concerning the mobsters and the Guys and Dolls of Broadway, inventing a whole New York City that never existed, but should have, to the point where many New Yorkers think his Manhattan leaked verisimilitude. Sadly, it was entirely created by a master craftsman who invented his own American dialect to delineate those stories.

He wrote a column for the Hearst newspaper chain and wire services during the first half of the last century, which meant his words were presented to an audience in the tens of millions. His stories have been adapted to stage and to screen — for example, the aforementioned Guys and Dolls. He has written passages that have taken away my breath.

Including the one I’m about to offer. It’s about another astonishingly gifted man, master cartoonist George Herriman, creator of the deservedly legendary daily and Sunday Krazy Kat newspaper comic strip, which also ran for decades in the Hearst newspapers and elsewhere.

That effort of Runyon’s, my friends, is rare praise indeed.

As published in the Arizona Gazette on August 13, 1921, and in dozens and dozens of other newspapers on or around that date, here is “Father of Krazy Kat Admired As Mild-Mannered Genius,” by Damon Runyon.

Charley Van Loan – peace to his ashes! – used to tell me about “The Greek.”

George Herriman and Employee

“Funny guy, the Greek.” said Charley. “You’ll have to meet him.”

It so happened that the meeting never took place until one day out in Los Angeles. I was visiting at Charley’s house, and Charley answered a ring at the door bell.

Presently I heard him whooping, and in a moment he returned dragging with what seemed to me outrageous violence, a mild-looking gentleman in impeccable attire who was plaintively submissive to Charley’s handling.

“‘This is ‘The Greek!’” roared Charley; “meet ‘The Greek.'”

So I met “The Greek.” who is not a Greek at all, but who looked like a Greek to Van Loan’s fanciful eyes. I met George Herriman, the cartoonist who draws “Krazy Kat,” and one of the sweetest, gentlest and one of the souls I have ever known.

It is my opinion that fate originally intended George Herriman to write another “Alice in Wonderland,” or some new fairy tales for the children, but inadvertently it gave him great facility for drawing pictures.

Having arrived in an era when drawing pictures was productive of more immediate returns than writing stories, Herriman began drawing. In drawing, however, he also began telling his fairy stories, probably in a ruder form than his gentile artistic sense dictates, but none the less stories. “Krazy Kat” is the quaintest conceit in what I might call cartooning history. George has invented dozens of more or less famous pen and ink characters., including “Dingbat,” and “Baron Bean,’ but none of them ever compared with “Krazy Kat” in humor.

Only Herriman could have thought of reversing the real relation of the cat and the mouse, making the cat the victim of torment by the mouse, but always enjoying the inevitable brick bouncing off its feline head. And only Herriman could write the lines that accompany the pictures. lines, It is in these pictures, I think, that he attains a higher degree of humor than even in his pictures.

Take one of Herriman’s “Krazy Kat” strips and study it well. Note the amazing character delineation in the funny little birds and animals he draws. What could be more appropriate than having the “Mock Duck” a Chinese character, the coyote a Spaniard, the doctor a stork and the cop a bull pup?

James Montgomery Flagg, Ellis Parker Butler, Charles M. Schwab, Neysa MeMein, Enrico Caruso and Percival Grenville Wodehouse are among those who have praised Herriman’s work, but I imagine, knowing George, that the finest praise to him must be the praise of his brother cartoonists.

I don’t know whether he is aware of it or not, but he is the cartoonists’ cartoonist. By that I mean he is their favorite. I have talked with many of them in my time, and I have yet to find one that did not immediately declare that George the greatest that of them all in point of humor, originality and execution.

Now cartoonists, more than any professional other men, are quick to praise a contemporary if he is doing good work.

Personally. Herriman is so modest and self-effacing that he is almost annoying. He talks very little, and then in a soft, low tone. He is full of sentiment and it leaks out through his pen.

One of these days George may take it into his head to do some writing, and when that time comes I predict that we will have a new master of tales for children such as we have not had within the memory of the present generation.

If getting a guest contributor is supposed to save the writer time and energy, I failed miserably. But to dig up and share the opinions of one of our greatest writers about one of our greatest cartoonists — well, that’s a rare privilege indeed.

George Herriman and Damon Runyon. Two creators who deepened our understanding of genius.

 

With Further Ado #147: Five and a Half Questions with Hard Agree’s Andrew Sumner

With Further Ado #147: Five and a Half Questions with Hard Agree’s Andrew Sumner

Andrew Sumner is a dynamo wrapped in a fireball with the limitless energy of a blazing supernova. I’m always fascinated by everything he’s doing and the launch of his new podcast, Hard Agree, (I’ve become a regular listener) provided a great excuse to catch up with him!

Question 1:

Ed Catto: You’ve got so much going on now and such a cool origin story, Andrew.  Can you tell us a little about who you are and how you ended up at your current position at Titan?

Andrew Sumner: My grandfather and best friend, Pops Smythe, served with an American unit in Normandy in WWII, and when he came back to Liverpool, England in 1947 (after spending two years as an MP on clean-up duty in post-Nazi-occupied Paris), he came back with a great love of America, Americans and American popular culture – as personified by movies, big band music and the comic books he’d received as part of his US Army rations. He transferred all of those passions to me – when I was three, he bought me my first US comic (Batman #184) and I was hooked for life. Continue reading “With Further Ado #147: Five and a Half Questions with Hard Agree’s Andrew Sumner”

Brainiac On Banjo: New York, Naked

“It trails me and it tails me down to Central Park. Even after dark, New York is my home. New York is calling me, and now I find the city never sleeps… it’s my state of mind.” New York Is My Home, written by Dion Di Mucci, Scott Kempner, and Mike Acquilina, 2016

Like many pop culture enthusiasts – we used to be called “fans” before cosplay became a big deal — my “top ten favorite movies” list runs a bit heavy. I recently took to creating an actual written-down list and, as of this typing, this effort has engorged to 66 films. I’m sure it will lengthen.

Among those works on film to which I am most endeared is a 1948 flick called “The Naked City,” directed by Jules Dassin and starring Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, and Dorothy Hart. Despite its title, this brilliant and authentic action movie is not the least bit salacious. It most certainly is naked, in the sense that The Naked City is the most poignant portrait of New York City I have seen.

This is the New York City of legend, filmed on location. Well, 80% of it was filmed on location, and that certainly fits the definition of unique. No other movie had so much Manhattan footage, and the performers and crew were not limited to the types of cover shots we are used to seeing on shows like N.Y.P.D. Blue.

We are thrust into the real, heroic city of legend that is no longer with us, but unlike Camelot or Brigadoon this place was real and that is the stuff of this movie. It was the town many of our ancestors first saw when they came to America, the portal to a new world that offered the promise of fair play, opportunity, equality, and democracy. Those values may be fading rapidly as well, but that’s for another time.

As much as I love the work of Damon Runyon, the New York City seen in this movie is the real thing. There are no singing and dancing gangsters in this production. You can almost smell the sidewalk hot dogs, the sweat of the workers, and the stench of the tenements on a hot summer day — The Naked City was filmed in the very, very hot summer of 1947, and it shows.

Long gone are the Manhattan elevated trains and the Essex Street Market, the old Staten Island Ferry terminal and the real Penn Station, the ramshackle and often dangerous subdivided apartment buildings for those who dream, and the mom-n-pop stores that met their needs. Big-box chain stores and franchise fast food were almost unheard of. It was America’s portal to the rest of the world and, more important, it was the portal from the rest of the world.

The movie most certainly suffers from some of the constraints and attitudes of its time. There’s plenty of white ethnic diversity, and that’s about it. New York City is and always been a lot more than that, but in 1948 I suspect a lot of people wondered why they ever would be interested in seeing a movie about a bunch of Irish, Italians, and Ashkenazi… let alone about New Yorkers. The Naked City does not portray a lot of high falutin’ swells living in the vertical gated communities that line Central Park; this is the people of New York whose heads would explode at the thought of paying today’s $3,500 a month rent.

The original The Naked City movie, later remade as several television series and movies, is a breathtaking, highly detailed and emotionally appropriate record of the city that defined America. It is a 96-minute time machine that nails down the roots of our cultural heritage.

It’s also a damn good cop movie.

The Naked City is on HBO Max and, better still, the 23-minute Criterion documentary Uncovering The Naked City is there as well, although I do not know how long either will be streaming from that venue. Talk about Brigadoon… Of course, both are available from Criterion on home video and on the Criterion Channel. I say “better still” because The Naked City is shown on TCM with some regularity but the documentary is a mere seventeen months old and not quite as accessible. It’s a love letter to both the movie and to the city that made it… and, of course, to the people who made it as well.

As they said in this movie and its subsequent adaptations, “There are eight million stories in the naked city.” This has been the best of them.

The author dedicates this column to Howard V. Chaykin, the source of several of those eight million stories.

Brainiac On Banjo #062: Rock Is Here To Stay After All

Brainiac On Banjo #062: Rock Is Here To Stay After All

We can argue when rock ’n’ roll started. The term goes back at least 85 years, but the roots of rock go back to our ancestors pounding rocks together. Perhaps that’s the real origin of the term.

I grew up with rock playing in the apartment. That’s probably true for most people reading this, but I’m older than many of you. I’m older than shit, to be sure, and I’m not always thrilled with that. But my sister was almost seven years older than me, and she was seven when Jackie Brenston, Ike Turner, and Sam Phillips made “Rocket 88”, arguably the first rock record released commercially. I was one year old; so, I’m not able to say she was listening to rock way back then. But she was so into rock that I clearly remember her collection of singles and her choice of radio stations. There was no other form of music dominating within the confines of Sunnyside and Kimball apartment 3-A, in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood.

It had a major impact on me. I grew up a rocker. I love rock in all its forms, some more than others, but damn near everything that we refer to as American roots music (rock, blues, country, bluegrass, folk, rap, and even a bit of pop) remains close to my heart.

When I turned 11 years old, my sister gave me my very first record album, Runaround Sue by Dion DiMucci. Shortly thereafter, I scrapped together the $3.14 I needed to purchase Dion’s first solo album, Alone With Dion. I bought it at the old Harmony Hall record store in a strip mall that was founded the year “Rocket 88” was released.

Dion, you see, was my first favorite rock artist. I grew up listening to Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran, and so many others (including Dion and the Belmonts), but Dion was my favorite. And you never forget your first. Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo #062: Rock Is Here To Stay After All”