TCM Terror

Turner Classic Movies returns to October programming with a knockout schedule.  Below are a few recommendations to which I’m most looking forward.  Tweet along all month with the hashtag #TCMTerror and, as always, #TCMParty.

*All times EST.

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TCM Star of the Month: David Niven

October promises to be a busy and exciting month for fans of Turner Classic Movies.  Each Tuesday and Thursday night Illeana Douglas will host “Trailblazing Women in Film,” a showcase and celebration of women behind the camera that will profile 47 women directors in all.  Friday night programming delivers some of the horror classics we’ve come to expect of this spooky month, including films based on classic literary thrillers on the 23rd.  “Treasures from the Disney Vault” is the theme for the 28th, featuring The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad at 8:45 pm est.  I had the VHS and Bing Crosby’s deep, dulcet narration of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” remains a thrilling memory from my childhood.  The great Tod Browning’s Freaks sneaks into the schedule on the 29th at 7:45 am est then the party starts early, with a full slate of Hammer Horror during the day, on the 30th and continues into Halloween with a variety of Horror classics.  I’m looking forward to all these and more, but I must confess I was most giddy to learn a certain Brit had been chosen as Star of the Month.

ca. 1958 --- Image by John Springer

David Niven ca. 1958 — Image by John Springer

“Keep the circus going inside you, keep it going.  Don’t take anything too seriously.  It’ll all work out in the end.”

– David Niven

David Niven has become a particular favorite of mine though he only entered my movie-watching consciousness about four years ago.  If Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart and James Dean were the Founding Fathers to my discovery of classic film, David Niven and William Powell were the mustachioed sophisticates who ushered in a new era of enlightenment.  That I happened upon them both around Christmas of 2011 was an unexpected gift, just a couple more TCM Discoveries for which I am eternally grateful.

…..

“Now that’s what I call a really charming man.”

So says Lady Melrose to her fellow party-goers of title character Raffles, star cricketer by day and gentleman thief by night, as played by David Niven in the 1939 film.  It is a line that could just have aptly described the actor himself, and it came to typify the man’s persona both onscreen and off.

By his own account, Niven’s early days in Hollywood were inauspicious.  On arrival at Central Casting he was greeted at the front door by a large banner which read: DON’T TRY TO BECOME AN ACTOR. FOR EVERY ONE WE EMPLOY WE TURN AWAY A THOUSAND.  He registered anyway.  Classified as Anglo Saxon Type 2008 his first “role” as an extra was naturally that of a Mexican peasant, outfitted with a sombrero, false mustache, and some makeup mixture out of a spray gun that would today be called Brownface.  His first day’s work as an actor netted him $2.50.  Through a series of happy accidents, chance meetings, and no small amount of charm, Niven somehow parlayed that discouraging start into legitimate Hollywood success.  He made more than 80 films in a career that spanned five decades, winning an Oscar, a New York Film Critics Circle Award,  two Golden Globes, and not a few hearts along the way.

Off screen Niven was just as interesting as on, probably more so.  He was a Sandhurst (Royal Military Academy) man who served in Malta and Dover with the Highland Light Infantry before heading to the States.  He dabbled in all manner of rackets while awaiting his break in Hollywood, spending time as an organizer of indoor horse races and a deck hand on a fishing boat.  His acting career was finally taking off in 1939 but just then Hitler invaded Poland and Niven returned to serve his country in WWII, first with the Rifle Brigade and eventually the Commandos.  During his service he met Winston Churchill who said to him, “Young man, you did a fine thing to give up your film career to fight for your country.  Mark you, had you not done so — it would have been despicable.”

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Lt. Col. Niven in Normandy 1944.  (Photo via Comet Over Hollywood)

As a star Niven made the rounds, and you get the sense that people genuinely liked having him around.  He hobnobbed with British royalty and went shooting with JFK.  He played golf with Douglas Fairbanks, tennis with Charlie Chaplin and polo with Daryl Zanuck.  He sailed aboard Santana with Bogie and Bacall.  Early in their careers he shared a residence with Errol Flynn at 601 North Linden Drive, aptly called “Cirrhosis by the Sea.”  The man had some stories.  His ability to artfully unfold them may have been his greatest talent.

A gifted raconteur, Niven converted his skill for storytelling into two novels and two memoirs.  I’m not familiar with the novels but I have listened to an abridged version of The Moon’s a Balloon–Niven’s story from birth through his ascension in Hollywood–and own a copy of Bring on the Empty Horses, which functions more as a series of vignettes about his time in Hollywood and those he met there.  He moves about in language as gracefully as he did around a movie set.  Honest–if given to embellish–and effortlessly entertaining, his books give an idea of what it may have been like to sit with Niven and listen to him regale a rapt audience.  His voice shines through and even when he shares details about his pals and acquaintances (Gable, Grant, Bogart, Flynn, Chaplin and Goldwyn among them), doesn’t become judgmental or exploitative.  Both books are highly recommended.  I can think of no better guide through the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Empty Horses

My worn copy, a Christmas gift and prized possession.

A quick compilation of David Niven trivia reads like the transcript of ideas pitched for the Most Interesting Man in the World commercials:

  • According to IMDb, his 23 minutes and 39 seconds of screen time as Major Pollock in Separate Tables were the shortest to earn an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role until Hopkins’ 16 minutes as Lector.  (His explanation?  “They gave me very good lines and then cut to Deborah Kerr while I was saying them.”)
  • He may have been the only person ever to NOT be upstaged by a streaker.  Possessed of a sharp wit and unflappable aplomb, watch as he owns this moment at the 1974 Academy Awards with a memorable quip.
  • While skiing in the Italian Alps he lost feeling in a particularly sensitive area and revived it by placing the affected appendage in a whiskey glass full of alcohol.
  • He apparently judged a Neptune’s Daughter contest.  I don’ t know what that means either but it looks like an excuse to ogle beautiful young women in their swimsuits.
  • He was sought by author Ian Fleming to portray James Bond, but turned down the role because he felt he was too old to play it.
  • He has an album available on iTunes and Amazon.  It’s just him reading the “world’s most famous love letters.”  That’s correct, when Roulette Records execs asked themselves who they should get to read the world’s greatest love letters, they came up with the answer of David Niven.  Naturally.
  • He basically admitted to being Peter Pan: “This isn’t work.  It’s fun.  The whole thing is fun.  I hear actors say, “I have to go to work tomorrow.”  Nonsense.  Work is eight hours in a coal mine or a government office.  Getting up in the morning and putting on a funny mustache, and dressing up and showing off in front of the grown-ups, that’s play, and for which we’re beautifully overpaid.  I’ve always felt that way.  After all, how many people in the world are doing things that they like to do?”
  • He is the subject of an excellent villanelle poem by Peter Swanson.
  • His face (which he once described as “a cross between two pounds of halibut and an explosion in an old clothes closet”) is the visual inspiration for Green Lantern villain Sinestro, and there’s totally a character in “Star Wars Rebels” (2014) based on him too.
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Sinestro               Niven               Gall Trayvis

Niven Reads

Look at this boss.

As I went back through Bring on the Empty Horses in search of anecdotes for this post, I happened by a few lines that stood out to me.  To borrow from the author:

“This, of course, is not intended to be a portrait of Samuel Goldwyn.  At most, it is a few hesitant lines of a preliminary drawing, because in spite of many years of close association with him, I was never able to see him clearly” (p. 133).

I suppose it’s never easy to write about another human being–if you ask Willa Cather, “The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own”–but I feel that keenly as I sit here trying to wrap up these words about a man with whom I had no close association, but who died before I was born.  David Niven is a most difficult subject to sketch because he was so many things in his 73 years:  actor, author, soldier.  Father, husband, friend.  Flawed, like the rest of us.  Rebellious and roguish at times, but characterized by politeness and professionalism–“They pay me enough – so the least I can do is arrive sober, be on time and know all the jokes.”  Owning the posture and pronunciation befitting an officer and a gentleman.  Well-dressed and debonair with his trademark slick hair, blue eyes and pencil-thin mustache above a beaming smile.  For all that we know about him, all that remains of him through his work and his words, the quality that made him stand out remains hardest to define.  He had that something you can’t quite put your finger on, but somehow recognize as special.

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A self-aware Niven as David Slater in Otto Preminger’s The Moon is Blue. (screenshot of this original gif.)

When Gregory Peck asked David Niven how he it was that he seemed so incredibly cheerful all the time, Niven is said to have responded, “Well, old bean, life is really so bloody awful that I feel it’s my absolute duty to be chirpy and try and make everybody else happy too.”  The sentiment in that quote may be his most admirable trait.  Through all the pain he suffered and all the success he enjoyed, and both were considerable, he endeavored to keep his spirit, courage, kindness, and that self-deprecating sense of humor.  Even if they waned momentarily, he seems largely to have succeeded.  According to a nephew who was with Niven as he neared the end of his battle with ALS, “His last gesture a few minutes before he died had been to give the thumbs-up sign.”  Film critic Barry Norman theorized that people would continue to see Niven’s films “simply because the very presence of Niven makes them feel better.”  Norman was right, as I and the TCM Party crowd can attest.

David Niven once said, “I see my purpose in life as making the world a happier place to be in.”  Along with so many other accomplishments, he truly lived out that purpose and continues to fulfill it still.

Star of the Month Guide
Of his more than 80 films, TCM is airing 38 on Monday nights and Tuesday mornings in October, plus The King’s Thief on the 21st, a Wednesday.  Notably absent are The Pink Panther, Guns of Navarone, and the film for which he won his Oscar, Separate Tables.  The first two show pretty routinely on TCM, though the latter seems to appear less often.  If you’re planning to join the SOTM celebration, the complete list of films scheduled will follow below (and can always be found on TCM.com).  But first, here are three films I consider essential in the Niven lexicon:

Bachelor Mother (1939)
This is one of Niven’s earliest leading man roles, pairing him with longtime Fred Astaire partner Ginger Rogers.  Producer Samuel Goldwyn, with whom Niven was under contract, advised the actor, “Everyone’s going to expect you to dance. Show them you can act instead.”   The story kicks off with Polly Parrish (Rogers) receiving notice that her holiday employment at John B Merlin & Son will be coming to an end.  On her way to lunch she picks up a baby that has been left on a foundling home stoop and is mistakenly presumed to be the child’s mother.  Hi-jinks ensue.  Niven stars as playboy David Merlin, the son in Merlin & Son.  Charles Coburn does a marvelous turn as Niven’s father.  It’s a delightful romantic comedy that has become required viewing each December in my home.
Airing Oct. 5 at 9:30 pm eastern.

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Niven and Rogers are fashionably late to the party in Bachelor Mother.

The Dawn Patrol (1938)
If you’re like me, The Dawn Patrol needs no further recommendation than that it offers the opportunity to see Basil Rathbone, Errol Flynn and our aforementioned Star of the Month sharing the screen.  On the off chance that you’re not already sold, it also happens to be a fine film.  Flynn and Niven play WWI pilots; Rathbone is their commanding officer, forced too often to send inexperienced young fliers into perilous battle.  Directed by Edmund Goulding, an early champion of Niven’s, it was the actor’s first big success.
Airing Oct. 5 at 11 pm eastern.

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Niven, Flynn and Rathbone look skyward in The Dawn Patrol.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
A picture by director Michael Powell and writer Emeric Pressburger, known collectively as The Archers.  Produced on the heels of WWII, it is an ambitious film, the setting of which spans heaven and earth.  Full of poetry and high ideals, with a nod to the past and an eye to the future.  A fascinating blend of fantasy and reality.  It is arguably the finest film Niven ever made, though that is matter of taste.  I feel it’s best to go into entirely cold, if possible, but I will say this: it will win you–capture your attention, heart, and all–within the first ten minutes.  It is beautifully shot in both monochromatic black and white and glorious Technicolor by the legendary Jack Cardiff.
Airing Oct. 12 at 8 pm eastern.

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Niven as Squadron Leader Peter Carter in A Matter of Life and Death.

As promised, here is the schedule in full.  Underneath each block I’ll share a brief synopsis and background information of those films I’ve seen.  I’ve been steadily working on my David Niven collection but I’m excited to say there are 10 films showing that will be new to me.  (*  —  Denotes films that I have not seen.)

October 5
Raffles (1939)
Bachelor Mother (1939)
The Dawn Patrol (1938)
Wuthering Heights (1939)
Splendor (1935)*
Eternally Yours (1939)

Raffles stars Niven as a gentleman thief opposite Olivia de Havilland.  Wuthering Heights sees him in the thankless role of Edgar Linton alongside Merle Oberon’s Cathy and Olivier’s Heathcliff.  In Eternally Yours he plays a magician and wife Loretta Young grows tired of his act.

October 6
Dodsworth (1936)
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)
The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)
Rose Marie (1936)*
A Feather in Her Hat (1935)*

Some early roles for Niven, including a few of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him variety.  Notable is Charge of the Light Brigade with Errol Flynn, based on a fateful charge made by British light cavalry in the Crimean War that was also memorialized in poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  I’ve yet to see A Feather in Her Hat but I think it’s fair to call it a turning point for Niven.  His role as Leo offered him the first big scene of his career and he recalled the story of his disastrous first take, and the surprising response of those on set,  in his autobiography, The Moon’s a Balloon.  I know I can’t tell it better than Niven and you can hear him do so here.  Alfred Santell’s direction (and the cooperation of those on set) calmed Niven’s nerves, allowing his natural ability to make its first appearance in front of the camera.  This is where it all began.

October 12
A Matter of Life and Death (1947)
The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
The First of the Few (1942)*
The Way Ahead (1944)*
Enchantment (1948)
A Kiss in the Dark (1949)
A Kiss for Corliss (1949)

The Bishop’s Wife, starring Cary Grant as an angel who comes to the aid of Bishop Niven and wife Loretta Young, is a beloved holiday tradition for many.  Initially Niven was set to play the angel but he and Cary swapped roles and a Christmas classic was born.  Airing after that are the two films Niven made during WWII.  The first, alternatively known as Spitfire, was directed by and also starred Leslie Howard (in his last onscreen appearance before his untimely death in 1943) as RJ Mitchell, the designer of the aforementioned Spitfire aircraft.  My father–a history major and a pilot–has extolled the virtues of this agile British bird and her Rolls-Royce engine, which figured prominently in the Battle of Britain.  Second is essentially an expanded Army training film that was in fact used for officer training at Sandhurst and in Australia for many years.  In Enchantment Niven and Teresa Wright are unlucky in love as the former plays Sir Roland Dane at the ages of 25 and 70.  In Bring on the Empty Horses he alleges that he donned 60 pounds of lead to slow his youthful gait and dyed his hair white for the final scenes at Sam Goldwyn’s insistence.  A failed attempt to dye it “back to normal” after wrapping resulted in a shiny magenta color that Niven claims to have been stuck with for about a year.  After all, the Los Angeles Examiner‘s reviewer wrote that it was  “a pity Goldwyn allowed Niven to ruin his performance by wearing an appalling wig.”

October 19
Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
My Man Godfrey (1957)
The Moon is Blue (1953)
Bonjour Tristesse (1957)
The Toast of New Orleans (1950)

The first film of the night is of course based on the Jules Verne classic adventure novel.  It was a massive undertaking that popularized the cameo, used the most animals and the most costumes in a single film to that time, and ultimately won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Phileas Fogg was a favorite role of Niven’s.  My Man Godfrey (1957) exists as a contradiction to anyone who thinks unnecessary remakes are a new trend in Hollywood.  I still like it.  It boasts a couple performers I’m fond of (June Allyson stars opposite Niven) and it’s a sweet bit of fluff.  If you want anything more, or doubt your ability to enjoy it without comparing its every scene to the original, it probably isn’t for you.  Niven was nominated for a Golden Globe for his take on Godfrey.  Next are a couple movies by Otto Preminger; The Moon is Blue, in which Niven and William Holden vie for the attentions of innocent Maggie McNamara, is tame by today’s standards but was considered controversial on release and even banned in some states for its utterances of the words “virgin” and “pregnant” among other such shockers.  Niven is in his element as the roguish David Slater and won a Golden Globe for his performance.  Bonjour Tristesse (meaning “hello sadness”) lives up to its title, but Raymond is a good role for Niven and he plays the character’s carefree facade and the insecurity it masks with equal prowess.  Jean Seberg stars as Raymond’s daughter and partner in frivolity and Deborah Kerr as his late wife’s friend who comes for a visit.

October 20
Happy Go Lovely (1951)
Happy Anniversary (1959)
The Little Hut (1957)
Tonight’s the Night (1954)
Soldiers Three (1957)*

Happy Go Lovely stars the talented dancer Vera-Ellen as a dancer (what else?) who becomes the subject of rumor after she receives a ride from a rich bachelor’s chauffeur and is seen exiting the millionaire’s car.  She decides not to correct the rumor that she and B.G. Bruno, the millionaire, are an item in part because she hopes it will interest potential investors in her struggling show.  Complications arise when B.G. shows up.  The Little Hut is a silly stranded-on-a-desert-isle tale of three people: Stewart Granger and Ava Gardner as husband and wife and Niven as Gardner’s ex.

October 26
Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960)
The Impossible Years (1968)
55 Days at Peking (1963)
The Best of Enemies (1961)*
Murder by Death (1976)

Niven wears middle-aged domesticity well in Please Don’t Eat the Daises, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream Home meets Cheaper by the Dozen.  He tries to manage his commute and his job as a drama critic while corralling the four young boys he shares with Doris Day, and their giant sheepdog.  In the second film of the night he graduates from four young boys to father of two teenage daughters, the eldest of whom keeps him busy chasing her revolving door of would-be lovers.  In my experience people love Murder by Death, a parody of famous literary detectives and murder mysteries at large.  I confess it’s not quite a favorite of mine, though I do enjoy it.  I think my unabashed fanaticism for Clue (1985)–I watched it often enough I could probably do the whole thing as a one woman show, verbatim–keeps me from loving Murder by Death.  To be fair, it probably helped that I was familiar with the Clue board game whereas I’ve never read any of the mystery novels that MbD references, and I only know a few of the characters from their appearances on film.  Personal preference aside, it’s a fun movie that is absolutely worth watching for its outstanding ensemble cast featuring Eileen Brennan, Peter Falk, Elsa Lanchester, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, and Alec Guinness, among others.

October 27
Eye of the Devil (1966)
Where the Spies Are (1965)*
Guns of Darkness (1962)*
Lady L (1965)
Before Winter Comes (1968)*

I can’t offer much on these titles, three of which are completely new to me.  I found Eye of the Devil to be a strange stab at Horror, but it’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of Sharon Tate.

TCM Discoveries Blogathon: The Crowd (1928)

The Crowd had every excuse to escape my notice.

We happened to cross paths a few years ago, as I was surrounded by a cloud of dust and annoyed.  I had made up my mind to do some thorough cleaning on that day: dusting, vacuuming, laundering.  The motivation for such an undertaking is, at least for me, rare and fleeting, and must be acted upon immediately.  So I grabbed a dust rag and a bottle of Pledge, flipped on TCM as I often do, and settled in for the long haul.

Since most of my attention would be on the task at hand, I hoped merely for something to cut into the silence of such mundane work. Some witty dialogue–perhaps Cary Grant sparring with Katherine Hepburn, or Rosalind Russell or anyone, really–would’ve served me well in assuaging the monotony of dusting shelves and desktops.  No doubt I was mildly crestfallen to be met instead by a silent film.  A lot of good that would do me.  I paid it little mind and pressed on, glancing up only occasionally.  I’m almost certain I tuned in too late to catch the very beginning, and I couldn’t have told you anything that happens until about an hour in.  At that point I looked up from my work to a scene of a family having a picnic at the shore.  The children ran around in the sand making tight circles around the blanket, the little boy coming perilously closer to kicking the cake with each pass.  Amid the chaos, Mom tried to put a meal together–over an open flame, no less.  No basket full of sandwiches here.  Dad’s contribution of ukulele-playing was immensely helpful.  It’s a pleasant enough scene and it did nothing to upset my very shallow notions of silent film at the time: heartfelt but mostly lighthearted, a little slapstick-y, a literal day at the beach.

What followed surprised me.  crowd eI’ll never forget it because I made an offhand comment to myself about the real world implications of the actions in the scene, but I never expected to see it play out the way it did onscreen.  It got real.  It got real, fast.  And somehow I was sitting in the rocking chair in front of the TV, all pretense of cleaning abandoned.  It pulled me in entirely and by the time the movie ended I knew I couldn’t let it just slip out of my life never to be heard from again.  I had to discover its name and learn more about it.

The Crowd had every excuse to never make it to the screen.

It broke every rule for Hollywood success; it features no movie stars, no glamour, no escapism, almost no plot.  It challenged social mores of the time.  Characters drink casually during Prohibition.  A wife tells her husband she’s pregnant, even if you have to read her lips to get the message.  The film had the nerve to depict the reality that life in the land of opportunity can absolutely be a struggle.  It even had the gall to show a toilet, earning the distinction as the first film to stoop to such base and commonness.  To top it all, The Crowd ended up going more than $200,000 over budget.  If not for another silent great that came before, it may never have seen the light of day.

Director King Vidor was fresh off The Big Parade (1925), a WWI epic that became MGM’s most profitable film, a title it held until a little flick called Gone with the Wind came along.  It was a profit that largely passed the director by.  MGM downplayed potential returns and talked Vidor into forfeiting his 20% interest in the film in favor of a large payment.  Vidor recounted, “I thus spared myself from becoming a millionaire instead of a struggling young director trying to do something interesting and better with a camera.”  Try he would.

Rather than making him a rich man, The Big Parade’s success allowed Vidor the opportunity for a passion project.  As Vidor told Jordan Young, author of King Vidor’s The Crowd: The Making of a Silent Classic, in a 1978 interview, “I made pictures as a good employee and pictures that came out of my own insides.  This is one that came out of my guts.  There was a lot of hypocrisy in early films and I wanted to get away from it.”  Whether as a reward for proven ability and return or perhaps as a way of atoning for screwing him out of his percentage, MGM and producer Irving Thalberg gave Vidor their full support.

The director responded with a story of the average man, here named John Sims. From unceremonious beginning–

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–to adulthood, we follow John as he tries to forge an identity in the wide world.  Along the way we see many of the major events of his life: a move to the city, marriage, fatherhood, triumph, loss.  But The Crowd is as much about the minutiae that make up living as it is the major events.  Faced with the task of following an incredibly successful war picture, Vidor set out to show “there must be other interesting environments which are dramatic for the average man.  The average fellow walks through life and sees quite a lot of drama taking place around him.  Objectively, life is like a battle, isn’t it?”

Johnny Sims does battle in New York City, to which he arrives with the nonspecific dream of being “somebody big” and naivete in his eyes.  All he wants is an opportunity.  He frequently says things like, “When I get my big job…” or “When my ship comes in…”

Your Ship

In the meantime he works as a clerk and waits for the clock to strike five each day.  Vidor does some wonderful visual work in his introduction to New York City and John’s place in it, using a combination of work with miniatures and candid location filming to great effect.

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From TCM host Ben Mankiewicz’s intro to the film, “The movie was shot on location in New York City and the city basically was unaware a movie was being made all around. Director King Vidor and his cinematographer (Henry Sharp) hid cameras in the back of delivery trucks and behind packing crates so the crowds would be captured candidly on film.”

The introduction ends with a God shot of a towering skyscraper.

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Inside one of its windows, at one of its many desks, sits John Sims–Employee No. 137.  Vidor’s camera scales the building’s great side, passing row by row of windows until it eventually ducks inside one, taking us to John’s floor before panning directly to his desk.

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The resulting scene firmly and beautifully establishes the enormity of the great city, as well as the implication of how easily it could swallow up a little clerk.  The film would be worth viewing for that 1:33 of its run time (which is available to view on YouTube through the link above) alone.

Despite the sheer number of others working, striving and competing around him, John is undaunted.  On his first date with his future wife they take a ride on what looks like an early double-decker bus.  John quite literally looks down on the crowd below.
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He’s still green and above it all, but time has a way of humbling us.  Before long John settles in to life as a married man with little money.  He argues with his wife, is scrutinized by his in-laws, complains about the broken appliances in his apartment and laments his lack of progress at work.  He is every bit the average man he so believed he’d be bigger than.

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But this is no more cautionary tale about the perils of wanting more than it is propaganda for the American Dream.  It is very simply, and just as complexly, Vidor’s artful yet honest depiction of life as he saw it, life as it is: The unexpected joys and the unrelenting sorrows.  The achievements you hope to figure out how to duplicate and the failures you only hope will be followed by the resolve to carry on and try again.  As John’s story continues to unfold, he and his wife, Mary, experience it all.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie that better captures what it is to be human.  Or, for that matter, that comes closer to portraying reality–even with its intertitle cards, pantomiming and all.

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Even with the support of Thalberg and MGM it wasn’t all smooth sailing for The Crowd.  The film was held up for a year before being released; the studio didn’t know what to do with it and all parties concerned found it difficult to agree on an ending.  According to Young’s book, at least seven different endings were written, and an undetermined number of those filmed.  Vidor recollects MGM making him send out two different endings to give the exhibitor the choice of a more typical Hollywood finale, though it seems that ending was almost never shown and not well-received on the rare occasion when it did play.

On release, audiences didn’t quite know what to make of a movie that was perhaps a little too close to home.  However, The Crowd did amass a worldwide take of $996,000.  Not bad at about 90 cents a pop.  The film was widely critically acclaimed.  In the trade paper from February 26, 1928, the reviewer called The Crowd “an almost great film,” saying, “It’s so true to life… it clutches the heart, dims the eye and plays on every emotion.”  Gilbert Seldes of The New Republic called it “the most interesting development in the American movie in years.”  It was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Director and Most Unique and Artistic Picture (the only year that category existed—FW Murnau’s Sunrise won).

The cast is led by James Murray as John and Eleanor Boardman, Vidor’s then-wife, as Mary.  Vidor picked virtual unknowns to ground his film, and they give worthy performances.

Boardman, formerly the “Kodak Girl” in a popular Eastman Kodak advertisement she modeled for as a teen, had planned on doing costume design and somehow became and actress instead.  She worked frequently throughout the silent period and made several talkies, leaving the business some time after her divorce from Vidor to focus on her children.  I look forward to tracking down Souls for Sale (1923), an early precursor to films like What Price, Hollywood? (1932), in which Boardman stars as… essentially herself: a girl who lands in Hollywood and makes it in pictures.

Murray had spent time in all manner of occupations, boxing, bill collecting and dish washing before he found acting.  His performance as Sims is particularly moving and natural.  Sadly, he battled alcoholism and was found dead in the Hudson River just eight years after the release of this, his greatest triumph.  Apparently Vidor attempted to make a movie about Murray called The Actor, but it never came to fruition.  I can’t imagine anyone could have handled Murray’s story with as much care and I dearly wish Vidor had made that film, or better still, that Murray had not gotten lost in the crowd.

Where to watch?  Unfortunately, The Crowd is not currently available to own on DVD or Blu-ray in the US, which is a crying shame.  From what I understand, it has been available to stream on Warner Archive Instant, but it is not part of their streaming library at this time.  That pretty much leaves your pal and mine, TCM.  And you’re in luck!  TCM will be airing The Crowd on November 1 at 11 pm central time.  Watch it, record it, guard it with your life.  It deserves to be seen, shared and savored, and it doesn’t play especially often.  Last time it aired on TCM I took the precaution of recording it on two different VHS tapes–as if VHS isn’t a technology with nine-and-a-half toes in the grave.  Good thing, too, because as I was re-watching the movie in preparation to write about it, my VCR chewed the tape.  It was a great adventure.

Though I have no inside information on the subject it seems unlikely this great silent will get a proper DVD or Blu release.  It is now 87-years-old, unconventional and uncommercial as ever.  But I wouldn’t bet against this movie’s chances of beating the odds.  For all that it’s overcome, finding its way onto a disc doesn’t seem too tough.  After all, on an afternoon more than eight decades after its release, when I was supposed to be cleaning–and with an assist from TCM–I saw it.

**This post is part of the TCM Discoveries Blogathon, hosted by Nitrate Diva.  You can click the poster below to check out entries from other participants.  Also, as cited in a quote above, some of the information in this post comes from Jordan R. Young’s book King Vidor’s The Crowd: The Making of a Silent Classic.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about this film.**

TCMDiscoveriesBlogathonyoungthecrowd

5 Reasons to Watch EuroBasket

FIBA’s Oceania and AfroBasket championships have already been decided. The Tournament of the Americas is winding down and the Asia championship is still two weeks away. However, EuroBasket is just a few days old and will feature a slew of meaningful basketball games to be played in the coming days. Here are a few reasons to follow along.

The Presentation

Initially known as the European Basketball Championship, EuroBasket has been around since 1935. It has taken place every two years since that inaugural tournament save a few cancellations during WWII, and it exists as a demonstration of goodwill and world-class, competitive basketball between European nations. Before each game, the national anthems of both participating teams are played, followed by an exchange of tokens between players and coaches. I never skip the anthems when watching the recorded replays and if I happen to start my live stream a little late and miss them, I’m genuinely disappointed. Watching these adult men put their arms around each other and sing their national anthem is the perfect prelude to competition. I defy you to watch it and not experience an increase in heart rate. The enthusiasm of every anthem is infectious. Maybe I’ve seen Casablanca one too many times but La Marseillaise is particularly stirring. Every time the final note plays I am Madeleine LeBeau.

I’m not even the least bit French but let’s face it, everyone is French when La Marseillaise plays. After the anthems it’s down to the business of basketball and there are few distractions from it. On the ESPN3 broadcast there are no commercials except the occasional FIBA spot. During timeouts the camera behind each team’s bench puts you directly in the huddle. Halftime entertainment is literally just a wide shot of the court from somewhere up in the rafters while the commentators and crew take five. Until they return there is only the faint sound of sneakers squealing on hardwood as players begin to return to the court for warm ups. The commentary is generally knowledgeable and enthusiastic (though I’ve had some trouble hearing it over the in-arena noise this year). Slow motion highlight compilations with limited sound play like some sort of basketball silent film immediately after the first half and game’s end. The simplicity is endearing. I won’t oversell EuroBasket as the last bastion of basketball innocence and purity, but it’s fair to say these players do risk lucrative professional contracts and sacrifice their limited vacation time to represent their country in the sport they love. Often times they have been together since they were teenagers. Something about that and the no-frills presentation of their performance makes it feel not so far from the tournaments of my youth. It’s just basketball, and if you love that you’ll find something to love in EuroBasket.

The Fans

I’ll just leave these here.

No more really need be said. I can’t decide who I want to hang out with more: the Lithuanian drumline, the Spanish “basketbeer” team, or the French fans who wear Gallic Rooster hats. [Full disclosure: it took me years of googling variations of “French chicken head fans” in vain before I was able to sniff out the story behind those hats. I’m still not sure of the reasoning behind the headpiece of the gentleman in the unitard above. Is that supposed to be a cooked Gallic Rooster? Because it seems like that might not be a good thing. Maybe it’s just a regular old turkey. I’m at a loss.]

The Storylines

EuroBasket is replete with fascinating stories and following the tournament is worthwhile simply for the chance to experience the latest chapter in the saga of Spain and France, La Roja and Les Bleus. Spain emerged as a world power in basketball by winning the FIBA World Cup–then called the FIBA World Championship–in 2006. They went on to win two Olympic silver medals, one EuroBasket silver medal and two EuroBasket championships over the next six years. Anchored in the paint by brothers Pau and Marc Gasol and led by strong guard play from Juan Carlos Navarro, Jose Calderon and Sergio Rodriguez, Spain were consistently ranked the top team in Europe and second only to the United States in the world during that time.

SAITAMA, JAPAN - SEPTEMBER 3: Spain celebrates against Greece during the 2006 FIBA World Championship Final Round on September 3, 2006 at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. Spain defeated Greece 70-47 to win the championship. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2006 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

Copyright 2006 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, their French counterparts were trying to establish themselves in FIBA competition. In 2000 a couple of young players from France’s National Institute of Sport and Physical Education (INSEP) helped the junior national team win the FIBA Europe Under-18 Championship. As Tony Parker and Boris Diaw graduated to the senior level, Les Bleus became a team on the rise. For a solid decade they toiled with the dream of being the top team in Europe. In several instances they may well have been but for the shadow of La Roja. In EuroBasket 2009 Les Bleus went 8-1. Their lone loss? An 86-66 drubbing by Spain. It was enough to send them reeling to a fifth-place finish. In 2011 they inched closer still, climbing all the way to the championship game where they were again met by Spain. This time they fell 98-85, capturing the silver medal. It seemed as though Les Bleus could take no more by the time Spain beat them in the 2012 Olympics. Then, in EuroBasket 2013, France finally broke through against their longtime nemesis in an appropriately dramatic overtime thriller. It’s difficult to summarize the complicated and multi-layered recent basketball history of these two nations, but this picture of the French faces when they finally beat Spain does well enough:

francecelebratesThis was not the championship game, mind you. France still had to defeat a talented Lithuanian team to secure the first EuroBasket championship in their history, but it’s clear what finally getting past Spain meant to them. Their relief is palpable. The momentum continued to swing in France’s favor as a Parker-less Les Bleus beat Spain 65-52 in Madrid during last year’s World Cup. France took home the bronze while host nation Spain finished a disappointing fifth. Now, for the first time in four years, Spain enters EuroBasket without the crown. And for the first time ever, France enters as defending champion. Can they repeat? Will Spain reclaim the title? Will they meet again head to head? We’ll have the answers soon enough, but there is much more to EuroBasket than just Spain and France.

The Competition

EuroBasket has its share of blowouts. That said, the tournament has a way of producing some very closely contested games. Of the first 30 games of EuroBasket 2015, twelve have been decided by four points or less, not including the Day One overtime thriller between France and Finland that ended with a final score of 97-87. Just ten of the 30 have been decided by more than ten points. Conventional wisdom still lists Spain and France as favorites due to their recent accomplishments and the deep pool of talent each team brings to the tournament. Pau, Sergio Rodriguez, Rudy Fernandez and speedy Sergio Llull return for Spain with newcomer Nikola Mirotic of the Chicago Bulls. Parker and Diaw still lead France and are joined by Nico Batum, Nando De Colo, Mickael Gelabale and veteran workhorse Florent Pietrus. They also boast young Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, a 7-footer with a penchant for blocking shots who is appropriately nicknamed The Stifle Tower. Both teams are legitimate contenders but it’s hardly a guarantee they’ll meet again for the championship.

Despite the exceptional talent of the last two champions, this EuroBasket is shaping up to be the best contended in a while. Perhaps feeling the absence of Marc Gasol and Ricky Rubio, Spain has already dropped two of their four games in the vaunted Group B. France is 4-0 but only one of those victories was especially comfortable. Serbia and Greece are thus far undefeated. Croatia and Lithuania have just one loss each. All are very good teams with proud basketball traditions. Italy, two years removed from falling just one win short of qualification for the 2014 World Cup, are healthier than they have been in years and poised to make a statement. Since dropping their first contest 89-87 to Turkey they have been a team possessed. There are many skilled teams tournament schedule presents its own challenges that humble all participants. EuroBasket is a war of attrition. Teams play five games in just six days in the Group Stage. There is no time to heal and barely any to recover. Every team is forced to fight tired legs and momentary lapses or suffer the consequences. It’s March Madness with Euroleague and NBA players, fewer days off, better basketball, and–with a European title and two Olympic qualifying spots up for grabs–just as much drama.

The Basketball

What

More

Do

You

Need?

It’s damn good, fun basketball. The NBA season doesn’t return for another 47 days. What else are you doing with your life? All games stream live on espn3 and if you are unable to watch live they post replays for you to watch at your convenience (I’d suggest looking up Spain vs Italy and Italy vs Germany for a start, but hurry–the game replays only stay up for a week after the games were played). Happy EuroBasket!

The Bloomsburg Fair, a Taste of Columbia County

Pumpkin BarOctober flew by and I can’t quite believe it. I’m still eating pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting and sipping apple cider, mourning the end of my October-long horror movie marathon and pretending the thermometer hasn’t dipped to its lowest point since last year. So, in an effort to hang on to the kinder, gentler fall and stave off the looming shadow of winter, I will revisit one of my favorite fall offerings from a state that is known for them.

The Bloomsburg Fair, held annually in the college town of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, is a celebration of all things Columbia County. Conceived as a one-day agricultural display in October and eventually expanded to cover an entire week starting on the third Saturday after Labor Day, it is now the largest agricultural fair in the state. In all its manifestations, the Bloomsburg Fair has been a harbinger of fall in PA since 1855.

I’ve never lived near The Fair*—my father’s job sent us all over and never near Bloomsburg—but its proximity to my parents’ hometown and extended family ensured its presence in my life. My father still talks wistfully of stopping by the Fair for a hearty pancake breakfast before high school football practice. In my adolescence, when we lived a mere 1,000 miles from Bloomsburg, we’d jump in the Ford Explorer and go. After a quick 17-hour jaunt there we were, walking through the 5th street gate to its colored lights and cornucopia of smells. To me it was better than walking into the Chocolate Room in Willy Wonka’s factory. We couldn’t make it every year, but we made it often enough to enrich my memory with a treasure trove of Fair triumphs that span my youth.

Motordrome cellAs a child I mined for gems in a flume and won a vial of the tiniest gold flakes to take home to my rock collection. At some point in the late 90s—I must’ve been around 10—I rode the Himalaya. I distinctly remember Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba” blaring as I tried in vain to peel myself from the inside wall of the circling ride, uncertain whether or not I was actually having fun. My cousins and I paid the extra admission that privileged us to climb the steps to the Motordrome, an experience that guaranteed Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines would enamor me from the opening scene. Another year, after successfully recovering from a particularly unfortunate misstep that left me dangling by one arm from the rock wall, my cousin graced me with perhaps the greatest compliment he’s ever given me. “That was awesome,” he whisper-yelled, “You looked like Cliffhanger!” I bought Pokémon cards from a carny to feed my preteen addiction. I pretended to be tipsy from my Birch Beer in a Fair Mug. I ate, and ate, and ate.

The summer before I started 8th grade we moved 1,000 miles further away, and the Fair trips dried up. As I completed high school in Texas the Fair became a distant dream. Then, midway through college, my parents surprised me with airline tickets for my birthday. They even hid clues around the house as if they were telling a toddler she’d be making her first trip to Disneyland. I played the part well by turning into a blubbering mess of tears and awed disbelief. I returned in 2010 and 2012 with fresh eyes that allowed me to count the ways I love the Fair.

For one, the Bloomsburg Fair has everything you’ve come to expect from fair entertainment. At one end of the fairgrounds is a midway replete with rides and games. Somewhere in the middle are the racetrack—home to favorites such as the demolition derby and tractor pull—and the Grandstand, booked each night with well-known musical acts from the Country, Rock and Pop genres. Underneath the Grandstand infomercial Freak Showsgurus pitch steamvacs and knives that could cut through the Rock of Gibraltar in one fell swoop. 4-H students show off their prize animals in the barns along the outer fence. Near the other end of the fairgrounds the “freak shows” lure curious kids with the opportunity to see Tiny Tim, the smallest horse, Porky, the world’s largest pig, and sometimes even a snake with a woman’s head. Or is it a woman with a snake’s body? The recently added Skyride, in the same vein as a ski-lift, provides fairgoers a bird’s-eye view while shuttling them from end to end.

Sky Ride Avenue A

The Skyride carries fairgoers by the exhibit buildings along Avenue A.

Where the Bloom Fair starts to become special is in the red brick exhibit buildings that line Avenue A. For all the growth it has experienced over its 158 years, the Bloomsburg Fair has remained true to its roots as a showcase for local products. The fruits of Keystone State soil and toil adorn the exhibition halls in beautiful and comprehensive array, punctuated throughout by the blues, reds and whites of award ribbons. Vibrant flowers, bonsai trees, table arrangements, wreaths and Christmas Sunflowertrees brighten the Horticultural Building. The Arts & Crafts Building boasts photographs, paintings, needlework, clothing, afghans and quilts, as well as a section for hobbies. The “hobbies” displayed usually manifest in the form of extensive collections, from baseball cards to Hess trucks. The Education Building acts as a kind of science fair wherein kids from area schools can share their projects, to include studies of local wildlife and agriculture. One could easily lose the better part of a day discovering the work in any one of these buildings. Corn 1st

I enjoy perusing all of the aforementioned but my absolute favorite is the Agriculture Building. The long building is lined on both sides and down the middle by every kind of nut, fruit, egg, vegetable, herb, hay, grain, honey, jam, jelly, marmalade and preserve you can think of, and some you can’t. For instance, there are 14 types of tomato listed in the rules and regulations. Can you think of 14 types of tomato? If not, get thee to the Fair and learn a thing or two! As I walk up and down the aisles I am struck not only by the skill required to coax these gifts from the Earth, but the artistry involved in displaying them. Just five stalks of rhubarb tied together, please, and ten ears of corn stacked in a pyramid and bound just so. The utmost care and attention to detail must be paid before seed even hits soil until the entry meets the judge’s eye. It’s a marvel.

The grand prize pumpkin, king of the court of champions.

The grand prize pumpkin, king of the court of champions. This one is 986 lbs.

Acting as bookends in the building are the Court of Champions—the best and biggest of the group—in the front, and the baked goods contest in the back. The special award pumpkins, sometimes topping out at a thousand pounds, are always a big hit while the contest pies and cakes make me wish I were a judge.

The main attraction for me, however, is the canning exhibit. I am always charmed by the clear jars and their colorful contents. When I was a child I discovered my late great-grandmother’s canned wax beans and beet pickled eggs on the shelf of a dark closet in the corner of the cellar. They may very well still be there. Though I wouldn’t venture a bite of them at this point, I’ve been fascinated by the process ever since. Again there is the skill of preserving and the subtle artistry of the Canningsimple yet attractive display. Surveying that exhibit highlights the reasons I fell in love with the Fair: the opportunity to learn about life different from my own, to feel more connected to my country, to understand it better.  Now that the word “apple” more commonly refers to a brand of electronics than the fruit in our everyday lives it is easy to believe that Americans on the whole are cut off from the land. But here are people holding to the old ways, benefitting from ingenuity passed down by our pioneering forebears. I aspire to learn from them.

Now, let’s get down to it. Much as I value the educational aspects of the Fair we all know the true lure of any fair worth its salt is the food. Please my palate and we’ll be friends forever, and the Bloomsburg Fair has never let me down. The requisite cotton candy, caramel apples and fried everything—vegetables to candy bars—are present, but here again it is the local gems that shine. Church groups and hunt clubs peddle pillowy potato and cheese-filled pierogies and cabbage and noodle-based haluski, both NEPA** staples with eastern European roots. Comforting warm bowls of hearty ham and bean soup and Pennsylvania Dutch pot pie call to fairgoers in the brisk fall air. The Pennsylvania Dutch stand near the Grandstand offers whoopie pies, pumpkin rolls and creamy sharp cheddar. Near Gate 3 is a stand with a beef ‘n cheddar served on thick slices of bread from a local bakery, a sandwich that would send Arby’s home in shame. All of these are distinct local flavors.

Beef 'N Cheddar

Beef ‘N Cheddar

The same can be said for most of my personal favorites. The BBQ sandwich as served in Columbia County, Pennsylvania is not what most people associate with the acronym. Rather, it begins with warm sliced ham, turkey, pork or chicken and is topped with varying types of relish or chow-chow, depending on the restaurant. My go-to is May’s ham BBQ.

May's Ham BBQ

May’s Ham BBQ

My favorite pizza at the Fair is a rare breed that hails from a no kidding blink-and-you’ll-miss-it roadside joint in Nescopeck, PA. I would walk a country mile for this semi-sweet, soft-crusted pizza. There are several locations around the Fair and as long as the sign says Polock’s or Denny & Pearl’s, you’re okay.

Denny and Pearl's Pizza

Denny and Pearl’s Pizza

The first potato pancake stand you come to after passing underneath or behind the Grandstand has the best potato pancakes I’ve tasted. I spotted large buckets of Lonczynski’s potato pancake batter, a T & L Pierogies product, in the fridge. Some potato pancakes are too bland or too near hashbrowns for me, but these are the perfect blend of potato and onion and salt and pepper and like nothing I’ve had before or since. A word to the wise though: moderation. Last year I was so excited to have a plateful in front of me again that I endeavored to take down my order of five in one sitting, not caring to even attempt to sop up some of the grease. I took a seat on one of the benches in front of the pig barn to finish off the last now cold pancake, and I could have sworn for a moment that I could actually feel my arteries hardening. As I sat there with the smell of the pig barn in my nostrils, my mouth and windpipe coated in grease, convinced I could actually feel my body giving up, I thought, What a way to go.

Potato Pancakes

Potato Pancakes

My estimation of Vince’s Cheesesteaks, based in Allentown, has changed somewhat over the years. It’s not quite what you’d find in Philly. In my opinion, a Philadelphia cheesesteak is best enjoyed simply: meat, cheese and perhaps some onions, if that’s your thing. On the other hand, Vince’s steaks—made with finely chopped knuckle steak that is unspectacular on its own—seem to be enhanced by the plethora of toppings offered. The more the merrier. Many of the people who form the lines in front of Vince’s seem to go all in for onions, peppers, sauce, and even pickles. I still can’t bring myself to sully the glorious cheese. When I was a kid a palpable buzz about Vince’s sent me on a quest across this fair that to short legs seemed to stretch on forever in an unknowable arrangement. Finally stumbling across the busy stand was like finding a lost treasure, a treasure of cascading melted cheese. Truly, the melted white American cheese is the calling card and highlight of a Vince’s cheesesteak. If you think you can get on board with that, Vince’s might be for you. I was in love at first bite. Back then I’d eat anything with the right amount of cheese on it. My tastes have matured… and I don’t know who I’m kidding, I’ll still eat just about anything with cheese. I’m ambivalent about Vince’s these days, but I still check up on my old love from time to time.

Cheesesteak from Vince's

Vince’s Cheesesteak

The desserts of the Fair are nearly as prolific and just as tempting as breakfast, lunch and dinner. Apple dumpling stands abound but I personally gravitate to Bissinger’s, famous for apple or peach dumplings and cinnamon ice cream, though you may of course order plain vanilla ice cream if you prefer. The line usually wraps around the tent, but it moves quickly.

Bissinger's Apple Dumpling with Cinnamon Ice Cream

Bissinger’s Apple Dumpling with Cinnamon Ice Cream

Just last year I discovered that my favorite donuts from the Hometown Farmer’s Market, Plain ‘N Fancy Donuts of Schuylkill Haven, are not only present at the Fair but have two stands! I nearly cried at the discovery, multipurpose tears of joy, desperation for my stomach that would have to find room for yet another treat, and despair at the thought of my past self walking by these very same stands for years with no idea of the wonders within. Come for a powdered donut so soft, so light, so generously cream-filled, that it converted me from donut indifference to dedicated disciple.

Cream-Filled Powdered Donut

Cream-Filled Powdered Donut

For refreshment the many Kohr’s orangeade stands are unparalleled, although the Benton Cider Mill is a bona fide favorite as well. Starr’s Cider of Millville serves a refreshing cider slush if you’re not already too cold. Birch beer is also readily available throughout though I usually stick to Fair Mug stand. As a kid I was partial to it because they serve a golden variety of birch beer. I suppose its appearance held the same kitschy appeal as candy cigarettes. As an adult I’m thankful for the keepsake of a unique Bloomsburg Fair mug for each year, and the birch is quite good.

Kohr's Orangeade

Kohr’s Orangeade

What I love about the Bloomsburg Fair are the things that make it uniquely Pennsylvania, uniquely Columbia County. The Fair’s history is mine too, and it runs deeper than our shared experience of my childhood memories. I get a charge from seeing large cauldrons of ham and bean soup behind hand-painted signs. Although I’ve moved around a lot, this is what I come from. It feels like home. Beyond satisfying through the comfort of flavors I grew up with, the local dishes evoke the hard working, dollar stretching perseverance of the immigrants who settled in this region and made it great. Being surrounded by haluski and pierogies makes me proud, as well as hungry. Leave it to me to get all sentimental about food.

I didn’t make it to the Fair this year. I’m not entirely sure when I’ll get back again, but I’m always on my way. If you decide to visit, and I certainly hope you do, have a mug of birch beer for me.

* – So-called in my family because the Bloom Fair is all the fair you’ll ever need.

** – Northeast Pennsylvania region