Welcome, Classic Film Lovers!
Welcome to Sister Celluloid: Where Old Movies Go To Live! I’m so happy we found each other! Here, it’s all about classic films—and you! It’s a dialogue, not a monologue. Please take a look around, and jump in on every story that interests you. Stop by often, as I’ll be adding lots of great history, news, interviews, photos etc. And I’ll be running contests for fabulous prizes like vintage jewelry, great books and terrific DVDs and CDs! Please scroll through, dig in and pipe up! I’d love to hear from you!
The Buster Keaton Biopic Starring Rami Malek: All the Latest from the Man Who Wrote the Source Material!
Buster Keaton fans waited decades for the definitive biography of their silent hero, James Curtis’s bestselling Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life, which was recently named Book of the Year in a readers’ poll conducted by Silent London. But the biopic based on the book is moving along much faster, thanks in part to the passion of its lead actor: it turns out Rami Malek is a huge Buster fan and is already working with the motion coach who guided him through his Oscar-winning portrayal of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Warner Bros. is set to produce the miniseries, with Matt Reeves at the helm.
We sat down with Curtis for all the latest on the biopic and more.
So everything’s coming together for this project!
Yeah it seems to be. The final step is for someone to buy it, which could happen fairly soon.
When you were writing the book were you thinking at all about who might play Buster?
I never think about those things. I’ve got to think about putting the book across, and all the other stuff is someone else’s worry. It’s like writing a book and expecting an award. I think that’s foolish. If you enter into something like this with an expectation like that, it’s guaranteed it’s not to happen! <laughs>
I was surprised, even before the book came out, at all the inquiries we got in terms of film rights. I’ve gotten nibbles in the past but never anything like this. A lot of the inquiries come through third parties so you don’t even know who’s interested. “We have a client…” That sort of thing.
I was getting ready to go to New York to do some promotional things, and I’d been working with writer-producer David Weddle, whose current series on Apple+ is the terrific For All Mankind, He took the meetings, and it just started to get more and more solid as an idea. So I’ve just been watching with a certain amount of amazement because it seems to have taken on a life of its own. [Editor’s note: Both Curtis and Weddle are members of the Buster Keaton Society, also known as the Damfinos, so the project is in loving hands all around!]
Could you tell when you were researching and writing the book that there seems to be this sort of groundswell of interest in Buster?
Yeah, I was aware of that, and I knew there was going to be a readership for it.
What was your approach to the subject?
I always play around with a lot of ideas, and one thing I did not know if I was going to keep was the idea of having episodes of the making of The Railrodder at various points in the story. The first person to read anything I write is my wife Kim. When I get finished drafting a chapter and it’s been done and dusted to some degree, I hand it over to her. As we were going through it I said, “Do you think I should cut that structural element?” And she said, “No, it works fine!” Also, I figured my no-nonsense editor would tell me to cut it if she disliked it. So I just barreled forth with a certain amount of trepidation, and no one said, “Jeez this is awful, get rid of it!” So that’s how it stayed in.
I think it works great!
Well thank you. The thing I was trying to do was to tell the reader that Buster got through everything he faced in life, however horrible, and here he is near pretty much the end of his life and he’s back co-directing a silent comedy again. So it all comes full circle in a way.
Right, and you get rid of the sort of tragic veil over Buster, which has always kind of irritated me.
Yes, I agree. That’s the cheap, easy sort of conclusion, and I know there are certain readers who want to be led around by the nose and told what to think and what to feel, but I’m not suited to that sort of sledgehammer approach. The people who are missing that are going to say, “Well, he just didn’t ring the bell for me on that one,” and my reaction to that is, “Good!”
What kind of choices do you make as an author, writing about a life like his?
Really the research is your guide. I recently saw the documentary about Robert Caro and Bob Gottlieb, and one thing Caro said really struck me: “Writing is hard but I love the research.” I feel exactly the same way. I love doing the library work, I love talking to the people.
Often the most interesting things are not always the things you have lots of material on, so you really have to dig. Some authors might say, well, I have a lot of material on this so that gets the emphasis.
Yes and then that availability ends up being the engine that drives the whole project.
Right, right! I’ll use an example from the Spencer Tracy book: The most documented of all of his features was The Old Man and the Sea. Every major player on that film left papers behind, so there was just scads and scads of material. The problem is, it’s not a very good or significant film. And so I could not use that material to the extent that I might have. But there were other important films that deserved greater emphasis but for which I didn’t have the material I wish I did. As the great John McPhee said, “Creative nonfiction is not making things up. It’s making the most of what you have to work with.”
I’m a really tough audience for biographies anyway, and frankly I’m appalled at some of the stuff I see out there—especially the stuff that gets good reviews! There are a lot of reviewers who really don’t know what they’re talking about but they say it with authority and the authority of their medium.
How about regular readers? Have you enjoyed being out there with Buster fans?
Oh yes. My favorite environment when promoting the bio is when I’m paired with one of his films and you’ve got people there who are really serious about him. People come up to me after a film like Go West and thank me for programming it. It’s their first time seeing it on a big screen, or their first time period.
Now that you’re about to venture into the world of biopics, what are some of your favorites?
I’m a difficult audience for biographical films, but there are some I love. I tend to put them in different categories. There are some that are wildly off base factually but are very entertaining. In that category I would certainly put Yankee Doodle Dandy and maybe a few of those that Paul Muni did in the thirties. In the fifties it was a real trend for a while, and that’s when you got films like the The Buster Keaton Story with Donald O’Connor and Man of a Thousand Faces and I’ll Cry Tomorrow and The Helen Morgan Story.
The second category is for slice-of-life films where they focus on a narrow period in the person’s life, like Patton, which is one of my favorite films of all time. So it’s more of a character study that masquerades as a biography, and some of those are awfully good.
The ones that are toughest to pull off are those hat cover entire lives, or those, in other words, belonging to the cradle-to-grave category. I thought the Ray Charles movie was very good, as was the Clint Eastwood film Bird, which, in my opinion, is the best thing he’s ever done. It’s an example of a film where he’s not telling you what to feel, he’s showing you so that you can muster your own reaction, which to my way of thinking is the essence of good filmmaking.
The problem with a feature film is that you only have a hundred twenty minutes or so to put the whole life across.
Which won’t be an issue with the miniseries!
Right! In this case, we’ll probably have eight to ten hours to tell the story.
So they’ll be able to start with his childhood?
It’s not my decision to make, of course, but I think they’ve got to start with his childhood because that’s where Buster learned comedy. He was on stage from the time he was four or thereabouts.
And his childhood was fascinating! So much in the book about how successful the family act was, even though they had the Gerry Society chasing them around Manhattan.
They were one of the standard acts in vaudeville, and that’s the period of time when Joe Keaton gets to shine. Joe would be a helluva role for the right actor. And this is where Buster learns how to engage an audience, and how to fall and take tumbles without injuring himself.
And not to sort of milk scenes for sympathy, which is huge.
Right, and there’s just so much that happens there, it’s probably at least one episode, I’d guess, and it’s the sort of thing that really sets up the character so when the grown Buster appears later on, he’s got all that background informing his actions. So I really think you have to cover his whole life, and we’ve got the time to do it.
There are all sorts of great characters in the Keaton story. Imagine an actress taking on Mae Scriven. That would’ve been a Shelley Winters role at one time.
Or Gloria Grahame!
Yeah right! And Fatty Arbuckle is a great role. And Al St. John in his way. And Joe Schenk is a great character part.
How familiar are you with Rami Malek? Did you see Bohemian Rhapsody?
I did and I thought he was awfully good. That’s a good biopic.
It was almost like an old-time musical where we’re gonna form a band and put on a show!
Yeah if you go back to Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, taking over the garage or the barn or something and putting on a show.
I was really excited to find out that Rami Malek was such a big Buster fan!
It’s wonderful in that respect. He’s the perfect choice. He’s got the feeling for it, I think he’s got the intensity for it. My take on him as an actor, based upon the very little I know about him, is he’s got the same obsessive qualities as an artist that Buster had and I think he’d understand someone with that fierce dedication to his art. I think when Buster was at work, especially during his prime period, he was laser focused on that to the exclusion of all else. I think someone like Rami Malek would be able to understand and get into that very deeply and show us things that you wouldn’t necessarily expect.
It seems like this is going to be a real labor of love all around.
Yes. I think they’ve got the opportunity to do a really bang-up job with it. They’ve got the time and the wherewithal and they’ve got the right actor, they’ve got the right team. There are a lot of things that are right about this, and I’m very happy about it.
With streaming there’s so much more freedom, you’re not boxed into a two-hour format and you can really run with something if it’s a project that’s important to you.
These days in terms of streaming series like The Queen’s Gambit and Succession and the like, they really have the time to give you first-rate quality. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and I don’t know how it will all play out but for the time being we’re in a golden age of content—and a new way of experiencing it.
How involved will you be in the actual production?
I don’t know. They probably would like me to stay as far away as possible. <laughs> And I certainly wouldn’t blame them. If they do figure out there’s a role for me to some minor extent, I’d be happy to pitch in.
With a traditional film you can pretty much guess how the process is going to go when they want to option something you’ve written. Streaming hasn’t been around that long and it’s almost like they’re figuring things out as they go along. So it’s been interesting to observe how this whole process has gone down. It’s been a real education and a nice one. I think the goal is to make something that’s really good and memorable, and I’m looking forward to observing even from a respectful distance.
Well I couldn’t wait for your book to come out, and now I can’t wait for the miniseries!
STREAMING SATURDAYS! A Once-Annual Staple Returns with THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE
Welcome to another edition of Streaming Saturdays, were we embed a free, fabulous movie for you to watch right here! This week, Jason Robards, Mildred Natwick and Lisa Lucas star in The House Without a Christmas Tree.
“Did your Dad get you a tree yet?”
“We don’t want a tree.”
“They’re a waste of money. They dry up in a week. A tree’s no fun—it stands in a corner. It doesn’t do anything.”
“Yeah but you can look at it!”
“I can look at the one at school. Or at my Uncle Will’s. Like my Dad says, ‘What do I need a tree for?'”
Thus begins Addie Mills’ annual litany of excuses, this time to her new friend Carla, in The House Without a Christmas Tree.
It’s 1946 in Clear River, Nebraska, where 10-year-old Addie (Lucas) lives with her grandmother (Natwick), Sarah, and her father, James (Robards), an embittered widower who lost his wife just after Addie was born—and who’s shuttered himself away from any source of joy, including his daughter, ever since.
Ironically, using a guessing technique her father taught her, Addie wins the class Christmas tree, and trundles it home with a sense of dread that rarely accompanies such journeys. James orders the painful reminder of Christmases past out of the house, but Sarah, Addie’s only real source of warmth and comfort, fights in vain to let her keep it. Defeated, Addie spirits the tree out of the house in the middle of the night, leaving it on the doorstep of her only treeless friend.
The rest of the story, you can watch for yourself at the bottom of this post.
The House Without a Christmas Tree used to be something of an annual TV tradition, but for some reason, it disappeared under the flotsam of new Christmas specials years ago. Eleanor Perry (The Swimmer, Diary of a Mad Housewife, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing) won an Emmy for her adaptation of Gail Rock’s memoir and also wrote the sequel, The Thanksgiving Treasure, which reunited the wonderful cast a year later.
Lucas went on to roles in The Turning Point and An Unmarried Woman, and then did a bit of television before turning her hand to journalism; in the true spirit of dear, nerdly Addie, whose glasses comprised roughly half her body weight, her books include The Research Game in Academic Life, which explores “the implications of an increasingly competitive global system of higher education research.”
For some reason the onscreen text is backwards, but other than the credits, it’s not really noticeable, and this is a pretty decent print. Here’s wishing you the happiest of holidays and armloads of joy in the new year. If I could, I’d send each one of you Mildred Natwick. But short of that, I hope you enjoy this Christmas gift.
If you’re craving a few more helpings of Christmas, you’re just a click away from the full movies The Holly and the Ivy and I’ll Be Seeing You, as well as a Christmas tribute to the fabulous men of classic film and Bette Davis’s Christmas war bond message!
In the meantime, STREAMING SATURDAYS is a semi-regular feature on Sister Celluloid! You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here. And why not bookmark the page to make sure you never miss another?
HOLLYWOOD PRIEST: How Father Bud Brought God to Television—And Vice Versa
Quick! Name the longest-running anthology show in television history. The Twilight Zone? Alfred Hitchcock Presents? The Outer Limits? Nope—it was a modest, low-budget series launched by a Catholic priest, who wrangled some serious stars into working for scale. And even then, some were guilted into giving their checks back.
Created by Paulist Productions, Insight ran in syndication from October 1960 to January 1985, with guest stars such as Jack Albertson, Ed Begley Sr. and Jr., John Astin, Elizabeth Ashley, Albert Brooks, Martin Sheen, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Bill Bixby, Louis Gossett Jr., Celeste Holm, Ron Howard, June Lockhart, Joseph Campanella, Carol Burnett, Ann B. Davis, Marty Feldman, Vincent Gardenia, Peter Fonda, Michael Learned, Jack Klugman, Mark Hamill, Irene Dunne, Anne Francis, Bob Newhart, Barbara Hale, Walter Matthau, Juanita Moore, Carroll O’Connor, Ricardo Montalban, William Shatner, Cicely Tyson, Jane Wyman, Nichelle Nichols, Keenan Wynn, Marion Ross, Jane Wyman, Dick York, Tim Matheson, Ed Asner, John Amos, Brian Keith, Elisha Cook Jr., Catherine Hicks, Harvey Korman, James Cromwell, Vera Miles, Jerry Lewis, and Ann Sothern. At the helm were directors like Lamont Johnson, Arthur Hiller, Norman Lloyd, Delbert Mann, and Jay Sandrich.
Now Paulist’s founder, Father Ellwood “Bud” Kieser, is the subject of a fascinating new documentary by the company he launched: Hollywood Priest airs on PBS stations August 8 and 9 and streams at frbudfilm.com/bustedhalo through January 6.
In the film, those who knew Father Bud attest to his good-natured tenacity. “He was fearless—he knew how to ask for things he had no business asking for,” recalls Father Eric Andrews, CSP, president of the Paulist Fathers. “People were afraid when they saw his name on their call sheets in Hollywood!”
“Ed Asner had forewarned me,” laughs John Amos. “I said I got a call from a Father Kieser, and he said ‘Oh, he’s got you!’”
Father Bud seized on the FCC’s requirement for public-interest programming to gain a coast-to-coast foothold for Insight, which featured half-hour plays centering on love, compassion and the search for meaning through drama, comedy and even fantasy. But the message went down gently. “He didn’t beat people over the head with how they should react or how they ought to feel,” recalled Martin Sheen.
“Insight was wonderful because they had none of the problems the major studios had—they could write about what was important, universal topics that are still relevant today,” said Christine Avila, who starred in three episodes covering issues such as immigration, the treatment of rape victims, and the loss of a child. “And everyone really cared about the show—there was a great desire for quality actors, writers, and directors. They gave creative people free rein, without having the burden of producers or the corporate world on their backs.”
Father Bud saw writers as the driving creative force behind both television and film, and in 1973, he galvanized a group of artists and producers to launch the Humanitas Prizes, honoring writers whose work inspired and enhanced the lives of viewers. “Whatever we can do to empower, enrich, and support writers, we should do because it is writers who show us where we’ve been and where we are going as a culture,” he said.
But as the 1980s closed in, the television landscape became harder to navigate. During the Reagan era, FCC public-access rules were decimated, and in many markets, huckster-style TV evangelists paid for airtime that had previously been donated to Insight. By the time the show folded in 1985, Father Bud was already using his media clout to shine a light on global issues such as the starvation crisis in Central Africa, making numerous trips to the region and reporting widely on the horrors he found. “He was a trailblazer in efforts that culminated in worldwide efforts like USA for Africa,” said Father Tom Gibbons, co-producer of Hollywood Priest, who ministers to Father Bud’s old parish in Los Angeles. “He understood that we serve the Church by serving those outside the Church.”
That included the plight of those living under a violent military regime in El Salvador, which would ultimately take the lives of more than 75,000 people. In 1980, agents of the government assassinated Cardinal Oscar Romero, who had led peaceful protests against the brutality. As a priest with strong ties to the entertainment community, Father Bud was in a unique position to tell the cardinal’s story and call attention to the cause he gave his life for. In 1989, Paulist became the first Catholic company ever to co-produce a major film when it released Romero, starring Raul Julia in the title role.
“Father Bud’s life seemed to be one of those perfect confluences of the right person for the right era, to help open up the Church and use his natural curiosity and passion to inspire that in others,” said Father Gibbons. “It was very much a case of a seeker and a church that was open to seeking, and they pushed each other further.”
Having explored the life of this much-loved priest, Paulist Productions is now taking on a more controversial one: Statue of Limitations will examine the issues surrounding the canonization of Father Junipero Serra. “People on all sides feel very passionate about it, and we’re going to really dig deeply,” said Maria-Elena Pineda, who also co-produced Hollywood Priest. “It think Father Bud would approve of that approach.”
In the meantime, if you’d like to delve further into Insight, here’s the archive.
It’s Christmas in July! Cool Off with Frederic March and Basil Rathbone in Several Takes on the Dickens Classic
If you knew there was a 1954 version of A Christmas Carol starring Frederic March and Basil Rathbone, you’re a better man than I am, Tiny Tim. Originally presented by Chrysler’s Shower of Stars, this was the first color adaptation (though a black and white Kinescope is all we have left) and also the first musical version. And did I mention it was scripted by Maxwell Anderson and scored by Bernard Hermann? The two even collaborated on a few original songs!
The episode was nominated for four Emmys and won for art direction. And it’s the perfect tonic for our current molten state of
Shower of Stars was hosted by William Lundigan, who also did the commercials, dashing through the “snow” in a knit pompom cap and toggle coat. (I thought the idea of giving your loved one a car for Christmas was dreamed up by the creeps over at Lexus—every year when I see those ads I have to break it to hubs that he’s not getting one, and he seems fine with it—but apparently that trope goes back to at least the 1950s! Oh and this year I’m asking for the 1956 Town and Country station wagon, which is fecking awesome.)
In this version of the Dickens tale, March plays Scrooge to Rathbone’s Marley, but Basil went on to play Scrooge two years later in another musical take, The Stingiest Man in Town, on The Alcoa Hour (with Vic Damone as young Scrooge!). He reprised the role in 1959 for a British show narrated by March; for fans of Cliff’s Notes, that one clocked in at a brisk 24 minutes.
All three shows, starting with the 1954 version, are embedded below. So crank up the A/C, break out the flaming plum pudding, and may God bless us, every one!
STREAMING SATURDAYS! Dan Duryea Shows His Tender Side in BLACK ANGEL
Welcome to another edition of Streaming Saturdays, where we embed a free, fabulous movie for you to watch right here!
This week: Black Angel, a terrific little noir—and one of the far-too-few shots at a romantic lead given to Dan Duryea, who was an absolute peach in real life. Soulfully playing the piano in a white dinner jacket. Gently guiding his lady around the dance floor. And absolutely breaking your heart as a down-and-out composer clawing his way out of the bottle and grasping hard at one last chance for redemption and happiness.
Marty Blair (Duryea) is shaking off his latest bender when Cathy Bennett (June Vincent) comes knocking at the door of his shabby room in a ramshackle boardinghouse. Her husband Kirk (John Phillips) has been wrongfully convicted of murdering his mistresss, torch singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling), who was also Marty’s ex-wife. And for some reason that frankly escapes me entirely, Cathy is eager to track down evidence that will save him. (Whereas some of us—cough, cough—would take one look at Marty in the person of Dan Duryea, all rumply with his hair lazily falling into his eyes, and decide on the spot that he was a much worthier rescue mission than the straying hubby.)
Marty eventually agrees to help the desperate wife, and their investigation leads them to a nightclub owned by the shady Mr. Marko (Peter Lorre, menacing and wryly hilarious as usual) and guarded by his loyal bouncer, Lucky (former boxer Freddie Steele, everyone’s favorite henchman). Convinced that Marko is their man, the amateur sleuths offer themselves up as a lounge act, with Cathy singing and Marty backing her up. (Vincent’s singing is dubbed, but yes, that really is Duryea playing the piano!) When they’re not making music or dancing thisclose, they’re dodging the suspicious glances of Lucky, breaking into locked offices, risking their lives for each other, and growing ever closer. Somehow through it all, Cathy remains true to her faithless blob of a husband, who’s eventually cleared… but how? Sadly, it’s an ending only the Production Code could love.
Black Angel was directed by the criminally undersung Roy William Neill, who, with his masterful play of light and shadow, was doing noir long before anyone called it that. Best known for directing most of the Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone (who affectionately nicknamed him “Dear Mousie”), Neill was a diehard Holmsian, bringing as much authenticity as he could to the look and feel of the films, considering they’d been hijacked to wartime London to aid the morale effort. He also co-wrote The Scarlet Claw, one of the best offerings in the series.
Ironically, Neill’s first “official” noir was his last film. In 1946, shortly after completing Black Angel, he succumbed to a heart attack at age 59, during a family visit to London.
Based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, Black Angel was brought to the screen by Roy Chanslor, who went on to adapt Johnny Guitar and Cat Ballou. Woolrich was underwhelmed by the results: “I was so ashamed when I came out of there, it took me two or three days to get over it. All I could keep thinking of in the dark was: Is that what I wasted my whole life at?”
Funny. All I kept thinking of in the dark was Dan Duryea.
STREAMING SATURDAYS is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid! You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here! And why not bookmark the page to make sure you never miss another?
Busting Myths About Buster: A Talk with the Author of the Definitive Keaton Bio We’ve All Been Waiting For
I’ve been in love with Buster Keaton since the third grade and feel like I’ve been waiting just about that long for a definitive bio to come out—and I’m guessing lots of other Buster lovers share that frustration. The three so far have all had their merits: Tom Dardis’s The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down had great research; Marion Meade’s Cut to the Chase had some interesting insights, and of course Rudi Blesh’s Keaton had the benefit of input from Buster himself.
But all of them felt massively incomplete in some way. Enter James Curtis—a Buster fan since childhood and author of terrific biographies of Spencer Tracy, W.C. Fields, William Cameron Menzies and Preston Sturges—to finally give Buster the biography he deserves. No surprise that the legendary Kevin Brownlow—whose brilliant three-part documentary A Hard Act to Follow helped stoke more interest in Buster—called Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life “brilliant! I was totally absorbed, couldn’t stop reading it, and I was sorry when it ended.” So was I.
Reading this beautiful book, you feel like you’re going along on Buster’s journey, from the rough and tumble vaudeville years to his early interest in film, his stardom, his lost years, and his rediscovery. Curtis also recounts, with clear-eyed compassion, Buster’s struggles with alcoholism and depression, and well as his troubled relationships before meeting Eleanor. And he never gets in the way of his subject: I don’t really need anyone to tell me why I love Buster Keaton, or to give me dime-store sociology lessons on his place in the societal and cultural pantheon.
Where other authors might fill in factual gaps by inserting their own opinions, Curtis does the real work. His research is nothing short of awe-inspiring: In addition to deeply mining every available source out there, he also tracked down all the research Dardis had gathered from MGM, which is no longer available to archivists, while Brownlow gave him access to all the unedited interviews from his documentary series.
The result is as complete a portrait of Buster’s life, as an artist as a man, as we will ever see. Finally.
I recently sat down with Curtis—or rather we sat down 3,000 miles apart for an audio call—to talk about Buster and the book. At some point soon I hope to have a podcast—because honestly I don’t feel like elevendy zillion podcasts are quite enough—but in the meantime, click below for a listen. (The first minute or so consists hubs and me setting up the audio—which may explain why I haven’t figured out podcasting yet—but then the actual conversation with Curtis is terrific, and offers a lot of new info for Buster fans!)
Streaming Saturdays! Linda Darnell Courts Danger in HANGOVER SQUARE
Welcome to another edition of Streaming Saturdays, where we embed a free, fabulous movie for you to watch right here!
I’ve been on something of a Linda Darnell binge lately, prepping for my first-ever podcast appearance with the lovely Grace Collins of True Stories of Tinseltown, who got in touch after reading my story on Linda’s short, unhappy life.
This week, we bring you John Brahm’s Hangover Square, based (a bit too loosely based for the author’s taste) on a 1941 novel by Patrick Hamilton.
Hoping to capitalize on the success of The Lodger, released the previous year, Fox reteamed Laird Cregar and George Sanders with Brahm for another bit of Victorian horror, this time about a brilliant composer who suffers from unfortunate blackouts during which he embarks on murderous rampages. (Every genius has his quirks, after all.) Livening things up considerably is the addition of Linda Darnell, who had just begun to shed her ingenue image by tackling bad-girl roles. (None of them fared very well, though; by the tender age of 23, she’d been killed onscreen six times.)
Cregar, who aspired to be a leading man, initially rejected the role of the mad composer, but relented after Fox put him on suspension. However, in an attempt to land more romantic roles, he persisted in what would prove to be a disastrous, drug-fueled effort to lose weight.
Clashes on the unhappy set were loud and frequent; Sanders loathed the script and actually punched producer Robert Bassler in the face in a tussle over the film’s final line. (George was right, and the line was changed. To say more about it would amount to a spoiler, but I’ve explained in Comments.)
Brahm, meanwhile, was frustrated that the film had to be shot entirely in sequence as Cregar grew thinner over the course of the shoot, and the normally genial actor’s reliance on amphetamines shredded his fragile nerves. Finally, in an act of supreme cruelty, Brahm strongarmed the cast and crew into signing a document saying they sided with him. When the movie wrapped, he told the distraught Cregar, “Well, I think we’ve worked together long enough to know we never want to work together again.”
Tragically, that would not be an issue: his heart weakened by the strain of drugs and crash-dieting (and no small amount of emotional distress), Cregar succumbed to cardiac arrest in December 1944, at the age of 31.
To some extent, though, Cregar’s wish was realized; in the film’s musical sequences, he is lushly romantic, thanks in part to the gorgeous Bernard Herrmann score—which so impressed a teenage Stephen Sondheim that it later inspired much of his music for Sweeney Todd.
Now dim the lights and settle in for Hangover Square!
STREAMING SATURDAYS is a semi-regular feature on Sister Celluloid. You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here! And why not bookmark the page to make sure you never miss another?
Streaming Saturdays! THE TRESPASSER Heralds Gloria Swanson’s Sound Debut
Welcome to another edition of Streaming Saturdays, where we embed a free, fun movie for you to watch right here!
This week, Gloria Swanson in the groundbreaking role that netted her an Oscar nod! I’m talking of course, about The Trespasser.
Originally released as a silent, the film was such a smash that writer-director Edmund Goulding reshot it in sound, marking the first time moviegoers would hear Gloria’s lovely, lilting voice.
When we first meet Marion Donnell (Swanson), she’s flitting around the office, scampering in and out of her boss’s suite with her steno pad. Sure, she likes the old boy well enough, but he wants all these niggling little revisions! (As she loiters behind him impatiently, she mimics him with the kind of pantomime she used lavishly in silents and impishly revived in Sunset Boulevard). And she’s eager to leave for the day—in fact for good—to elope with her fiance, Jack Merrick (Robert Ames), scion of the town’s wealthiest tycoon (William Holden—no, not that one—who, you guessed it, is going to be big trouble for poor Marion).
When I say the plot thickens, I mean we’re talking quicksand here. Accusing Marion of fortune-hunting, Jack’s father tries to get the marriage annulled, and honestly Jack is a bit of a simp about the whole thing. A fed-up Marion finally storms out—later giving birth to their son, whom she provides for in decidedly pre-Code fashion. But wait—there’s more! A lot more! But half the fun is in finding out, so I’ll leave things there.
If the plot of The Trespasser sounds familiar to you, it could be because Goulding went on to remake (and sanitize) the film as That Certain Woman, pairing Bette Davis and Henry Fonda a year before their equally fraught romance in Jezebel. (It could also be because in the long history of film, pretty much every plucky working girl who marries a rich boy is set upon by one or both of his beastly parents.)
Goulding would go on to direct a slew of classics, including Dark Victory, The Old Maid, The Great Lie, The Constant Nymph, The Razor’s Edge, and Nightmare Alley.
But after an astonishing career in silents, Swanson would make just one more hit film, in 1950, with a director who’d been spellbound by her as a young writer at Paramount and never forgot her.
Now, let’s sit back and see why Billy Wilder fell so hard.
STREAMING SATURDAYS is a semi-regular feature on Sister Celluloid. You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here! And why not bookmark the page to make sure you never miss another?
When You Meet Don Ameche, Heaven Can Wait
Sometimes I feel like your crazy Aunt Janet with the stories, like oh my God here she goes with another one. But yes, here I go.
Today’s is about Don Ameche—elegant, sexy, with that deep, resonant voice you can feel right down to the tips of your pumps, and a wonderful sense of the just plain goofy. There was nothing, from the wayward husband in Heaven Can Wait to the lovestruck cab driver in Midnight, that he couldn’t do. (And if you’re looking for a good sleeper film, check out So Goes My Love, in which he drives the genteel Myrna Loy cheerfully insane.)
I was extraordinarily lucky to meet him when I was working for a nonprofit PR firm right out of college and he came to New York to work on behalf of the Diabetes Association. Our company had to set up a meeting with him concerning his appearance at a fundraising dinner, and I volunteered to be the one to go. (Okay fine I bound and gagged all my colleagues in the coat closet and bolted the door. Let’s not nitpick.)
He showed up at the hotel restaurant in a gorgeous, perfectly rumpled white linen suit, setting off his gently tanned face, which highlighted his beautiful, still mischievous eyes. He was absolutely swoon-inducing, in his 80s. When he asked if I had any questions, I almost blurted out, “Yes. WILL YOU MARRY ME?!? REALLY, WE CAN MAKE THIS WORK!!”
First we talked about his movies, because really, he wasn’t getting away without doing that. After we went over the classic ones, and his Oscar for a brilliant turn in Cocoon, I mentioned that I always found Lillian Russell unintentionally hilarious, since his character, a frail composer, is suffering from a weak heart and Alice Faye is constantly plying him with buttermilk. We learn he’s finally succumbed to dairy overload when we hear him plunk his head on the piano keys offscreen. At the memory of this, he let loose that wonderful, rolling laugh and had that twinkle in his eyes, and I felt that “whoosh” you feel when a rollercoaster takes a sharp, heady plunge. I could feel my heart go baBUMP, baBUMP, and then flutterflutter.
But at some point, alas, I vaguely remembered that this was the boring old 1990s, not the 1940s, and I had an actual job to do, so we talked about the fundraiser for a while. I dragged out the meeting as long as humanly possible (“What color do you think the tablecloths should be? How about the napkins? Where do you stand on centerpieces?”), but eventually his assistant cast a rheumy eye over me and said they had to go. As he was leaving, I said, “Thank you so much, Mr. Ameche! I think I have everything I need.” And he turned and said, incredibly elegantly, “You certainly do.” Oh my God. I staggered back to the office dreaming I was Alice Faye. But without the lethal buttermilk.
To Norm Macdonald, with Love (and lots of clips)
Sometime in the spring of 1991, I was on a date I should never have been on. I’d just gone through a nightmarishly long, drawn-out breakup with the man who’d been the love of my life. (We had decided to try to help each other through it and please for the love of God don’t ever, ever do that.) My mother, who was not big on looking back or long goodbyes, thought two or three weeks was enough mourning for two or three years, so she set me up with a lawyer she knew. A zoning lawyer. He spent the evening regaling me with tales of his victories over exactly the kind of people I would have been out on the sidewalk picketing with.
At dinner, he wolfed down shrimp after shrimp as he bragged with his mouth full, sending bits of fishy pulp flying across the table. Then he stuffed the last dinner roll in his overcoat pocket, which was hanging over the back of the chair; he’d confided he didn’t want to tip the coat check guy because that whole thing is a just a big moneymaking racket. (I’m sure we all remember that runaway best seller, Checking Coats: Your Ticket to Easy Street!) After the meal, he snapped his fingers repeatedly to summon our waiter, insisting he fill his coffee cup over and over again. They’d already taken away the dinner knives, so I was left to wonder how much damage I could do to my carotid artery with the sharp edge of a spoon.
We wound up being the last people in the restaurant, as pretty much the entire wait staff began circling us like we were wounded antelope. Finally the manager tapped my date’s shoulder—hard, much to my delight—and said “Bud, we’re closing.”
When I got home, I began to cry. Is this what it’s like out there? Had I forgotten how horrible it was? Should I call my ex-boyfriend and say maybe we should try again, or at least drag out our breakup a little longer? But having spent most of the previous few weeks sobbing, I cried myself out pretty quickly. Then I grabbed the remote and searched for something funny, landing on HBO’s One Night Stand.
That was the first time I ever saw Norm Macdonald. And I’ve been seeking him out ever since.
And yes, this is officially the one zillionth article about how wonderful Norm Macdonald was. But I’ve put in lots of links and pictures, so there’s that.
“You know how many comics out there don’t give a fuck but they still kinda do, you kinda have to still do?” comedian Jay Mohr once said. “That guy Norm, he doesn’t.”
After the HBO special, I’d scour the TV Guide (no really) for his other appearances on comedy specials and talk shows. And then in 1993, he landed on Saturday Night Live. While much of the recent talk has been about his brilliance on Weekend Update, he was also fabulous in sketches—which he often said he sucked at—like the West Side Story parody and his takeoff on Andy Rooney, where he perfectly captured his faux-folksiness and rambling self-indulgence. (Pretending to be Andy going through his mail, Norm cheekily ran through pretty much every state in the fecking union as the audience murmured restlessly, seemingly ready to storm the stage if he didn’t stop soon. But one guy, bless him, could be heard laughing his ass off.)
But as 1998 dawned, the axe fell in notorious fashion, reportedly because NBC chief Don Ohlmeyer was, for some reason, best friends with a double murderer Norm had gleefully skewered for years. (The oafish executive had even thrown a party for the jurors who set the killer free.) Eventually, Norm came to believe there was more to it than that, though his theory doesn’t make ol’ Don sound like any less of a boob. “We were doing experimental stuff, non sequiturs,” he told The New York Times in 2018. “Ohlmeyer would watch Leno kill every night for 15 minutes. Every joke, huge laughs, and then I’d do 10 minutes a week and sometimes not get laughs.” (Years later, Norm’s SNL writing partner, Jim Downey, also revealed that the producers told Norm he could stay if he’d cut Downey loose and tone down his act but he refused.)
In an astonishing show of grace and good humor, Norm talked about his firing on the Letterman show right after it happened.
Luckily, his first starring role in a feature film lay just ahead. Bob Saget’s hilarious Dirty Work, which Norm co-wrote, should have given him the breakout success he deserved, and the movie’s central theme, revenge, seemed almost too perfect. But while it has since gained cult status, it fizzled from screens pretty quickly. (Norm once said that cult followings are great if you’re an actual cult leader, but if you’re a comedian “it just means that a lot of people hate you.”)
One of the huge frustrations about Norm’s career was the sporadic-ness of it. To paraphrase Dorothy in the land of Oz, “Things come and go so quickly here!” His first sitcom The Norm Show, which he co-wrote, got off to great start, with two highly rated seasons before ABC doomed it to Friday night oblivion in the third. Fox’s underloved A Minute with Stan Hooper (which Norm had originally written for Jason Bateman, who decamped for Arrested Development) was never given a chance to find its audience, and was pulled after just a few episodes (depriving us of both Norm and Fred Willard), while Comedy Central’s fabulous Sports Show with Norm Macdonald, which was kind of like hanging out with Norm in a bar, was yanked in a matter of months.
“It’s very hard for me to do roles in sitcoms and movies because I’m not a great actor, so if the material isn’t good I’m in torment while I do it,” Norm told The New York Times in 2010. “I like to do talk show appearances where I get to just be myself, and I do stand-up where I can completely be myself. That’s what I’ve always loved the most, of anything.”
Years later, on his Netflix series, he said, “Actors look on me the way vampires look on Count Chocula.”
These words are like a knife in the heart to those of us who loved his acting, and wish he could’ve seen himself as we did.
I remember watching The Norm Show and thinking a film career as a comedic leading man was sure to follow. Take a look at this episode, for instance—where he crashes the wedding of the woman he loves—and tell me I’m wrong.
Since it seems every truly original talent has to be compared to someone we’re already comfortable with—no matter how inadequate the comparison—couldn’t he have been promoted as Tom Hanks with an edge? But maybe folks only like their Tom Hankses without edges, like the little crustless sandwiches Norm once joked were the only thing he liked about parties. Still, when you see these huge stars—some of whom were former colleagues—without a molecule of his talent (or looks, if you want to get shallow), it makes you crazy.
Maybe he really did just prefer to do stand-up, which, as recently as 2017, he was doing for more than 40 weeks a year. But I have to think there must have been at least some disappointment at seeing so many hacks with bigger, more varied careers.
Still, what he did do was cherce.
His anti-roast of Bob Saget is one of the most viewed and talked about comedy bits of all time. Apparently the producer of the show had told Norm to “really go for it”—to just be as brutal and filthy as possible. Which seems to have triggered two impulses: nobody tells Norm how to do his set, and no way was Norm going to be cruel to a dear friend.
Here he is just before he begins. Look at that face. That’s the confidence of a gunslinger. A gunslinger with a 1942 joke book.
And not only does he tell the incredibly corny jokes, he explains them. Some in the audience seem confused or even embarrassed, but the comedians on the dais are in tears. It’s easy to forget, too, that he ends by sincerely telling Bob how much he loves him.
Looking back on the roast, Norm revealed that his father had given him the old joke book, which he’d had for years, when Norm told him he wanted to be a comedian: “It was really very touching.”
Then there are the talk show stints, and you could easily spend days on YouTube going down that rabbit hole. At several points in my life I have, and believe me there are far worse ways to spend your time than just drowning in Norm for days on end.
Two nights with Conan O’Brien, one of Norm’s best foils, slipped quickly into legend. One was his teasing Courtney Thorne-Smith about her upcoming movie with Carrot Top. (“It’s like Nine and a Half Weeks, but Carrot Top.” “Is it called Nine and a Half Seconds?”) Early on in the segment, Conan tells him, “You’re the biggest ass I know, and I love you for it.”
“That was one of my favorite moments of my life,” Thorne-Smith recently told Vanity Fair. “Teased by Norm Macdonald? Are you kidding?
“I’ve always been a fan of Norm Macdonald, which made it extra super thrilling. Yeah, I loved his take on things,” she went on. “When you’re a fan of a comedian and they make fun of you, is there anything better? You know those great nights you go out with your friends and you start laughing and you can’t stop, and you have that satiated feeling? That’s how I felt. I didn’t expect to have an amazing time, and I had an amazing time. That’s what I walked away with; just giddy with how much fun it was. I had a ball.”
The other mythical moment was, of course, the moth joke, which starts out as an angst-ridden Russian novel (the kind Norm devoured in real life) and winds up somewhere deep in the Borscht Belt.
That bit almost never happened, though. Norm wasn’t orginally scheduled to come back after the break, but, as Conan recalled, “I always wanted more Norm,” so the producer asked him to stick around for another segment. Norm remembered a quick, corny joke Colin Quinn had told him, and turned it into an epic.
I also love this appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which I paused at points just to capture Norm’s fleeting expressions, as I sometimes do when I watch his clips. (You might have noticed there are quite a few screencaps in here.)
Norm appeared most often with his hero, David Letterman, and was hand-picked by Dave to do the final stand-up on his farewell show. And he absolutely killed. “Mr. Letterman is not for the mawkish, and he has no truck for the sentimental,” he said after his set, steadying himself as his voice began to break and tears welled. “If something is true, it is not sentimental. And I say in truth, I love you.”
“If we could have, we would have had Norm on every damn week,” Dave told The Washington Post in 2016. “He is funny in a way that some people inhale and exhale. With others, you can tell the comedy, the humor is considered. With Norm, he exudes it. It’s sort of a furnace in him because he’s so effortless. The combination of the delivery and his appearance and his intelligence. There may be people as funny as Norm, but I don’t know anybody who is funnier.”
Other memorable appearances included the time Jay Leno tried to teach him to drive (which Norm was always reluctant to do) and his half-million-dollar victory on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on behalf of Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for seriously ill children, where his dumb-guy persona fell away by necessity. (And by the way he knew the answer to the million-dollar question too, but Regis made him second-guess himself, and afterward, Norm kind of looked like he wanted to strangle him. Newman later invited Norm to his home in Connecticut, but he was too nervous to go.)
Some of Norm’s best interviews took place during his book tour for Based on a True Story: A Memoir, published in 2016. None provide any clues about how much of the book is actually true (he wanted it categorized as Fiction), though “The Final Chapter” feels very real. (But the title is fake. Two more chapters follow.) And we’ll always be left to wonder about the bone-chilling conclusion of Chapter Four, but to love Norm was to take him on his own terms, and he said as much as he wanted to say.
While Larry King has been roundly mocked as facile (including by Norm), their interview covered a lot of serious ground, touching on the origins of the book as well as faith, mortality, and assisted suicide. (As they went to commercial after the first segment, Norm said, “This has been hysterical so far…”) At the end of the show, he seized on a viewer’s question to clarify a common misconception about his politics: “I have opinions that don’t fit into either party, and sometimes they call you conservative because they like to say things like that. But I am not conservative.”
Norm’s Facebook chat was a bit lighter, as he sipped on a giant frappucino while sending up the whole format—dramatically repeating each question before answering it—pausing occasionally to point out what a huge waste of time Facebook is.
And he did a terrific book reading and Q&A in D.C. with Washington Post reporter Geoff Edgers, who also gave us this “A Day in the Life of Norm Macdonald” video (though come on, a day? It was less than five minutes)—with Norm’s wonderful Mom, Ferne, doling out tomato sandwiches on rye and, in the tradition of all great Moms, rarely sitting down.
In his Conan appearance, he alluded to “juicy bits” that weren’t in the book—and somehow seamelessly topped off a series of 1930s-style “take my wife” jokes with one about oral sex in a hospital room.
“Norm invented this amazing thing… it’s kind of like he split the atom, it’s that revolutionary,” said Conan, who honored Norm in his podcast last month. “Instead of telling a real story about something that happened in your life, Norm tells old jokes as if they happened to him… and I mean really old jokes, from like the 1920s… I’m laughing that he has the balls to do this. I’m laughing at the audacity. I mean ‘I don’t even care if this joke lands or not’. He doesn’t care in a way that is exhilarating and scary at the same time.”
One of the clips I’ve viewed most often over the years has nothing to do with comedy: it’s Norm in his living room, reading “How Bateese Came Home”—a 28-stanza poem by William Henry Drummond—in flawless Quebecois, with an occasional growling nod to Chevalier. The only thing that matches his brilliant performance, as he shifts nimbly back and forth between the two friends in the poem, is the pure, undiluted joy on his face and in his voice. I’ve often watched it just before going to sleep, as a kind of bedtime story.
Norm also left us with countless hours of radio, since, like Conan, the hosts always “wanted more Norm.” Dennis Miller could never get enough of him; one of my favorite spots was Norm calling in to talk about his newfound love of ventriloquism—or puppets, as Dennis insisted on calling them. “They’re not puppets, they’re ventriloquist dummies, and even that is a little epithetic,” says Norm, wounded. “I call them my friends. My friends in the bag.” During the call, Dennis is often just gasping for air and making little squeaky sounds. “Norm is so funny and so smart I can’t even predict he’ll ever assume his rightful position at the top of the medal stand,” he once mused all too accurately. “It’s sort of like Galileo or something of comedy, he’s not for his times in a real way.”
Howard Stern, of course, also loved him. “Many times when I’m feeling down I go on YouTube and I watch you,” he told Norm during a guest spot. “You are the man, you are my comedy choice, whenever I’m looking for something on YouTube or wherever it is, you’re my first comedy choice.” I love this clip where he hilariously laces into a Rolling Stone reporter who ambushed his friend Artie Lange; Norm came by his skepticism of the media the hard way, and years later it would once again prove to be well founded.
I also loved Norm’s appearance on The Best of Our Knowledge radio show, where they talked about menefreghismo, which is more or less the art of not giving a rat’s ass, using Dean Martin, one of Norm’s heroes, as an example. And Norm got to interview another of his idols, Robert Duvall, in a fabulous half-hour conversation. (More than once, Norm had cajoled a radio host into riffing on one of his favorite movie scenes, the one in The Godfather where a dryly menacing Tom Hagen is asking producer Jack Woltz to give Johnny Fontaine a plum part in his new film. Norm always took the Duvall role.)
As a guest, one of his best interviews was on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in 2011, where he touched on a huge range of topics, including his own mortality and his quest to strengthen his faith: “That’s what I’m trying to get to is God… I read lots of literature, Tolstoy, Faulkner, and faith keeps coming up… why are all these guys, it all comes down to faith, you know? It seems like every great fuckin’ novel I read, it seems like faith is the only salvation…”
Norm was always a seeker. He didn’t settle on some comfortable bit of dogma and say, “Okay I’m done.” So when he continued to talk about issues like faith and mortality in recent years, it seemed a natural extension of his soul searching rather than cause for alarm. If he had made his illness public, it would have colored everything he said and did; instead of really hearing him, a lot of people would’ve just nodded and said, “Well of course he’s talking about that now”. And it would have killed his unique style of take-no-prisoners comedy.
In fact he was appalled by celebrities discussing their illnesses—or even, in some cases, making it the cornerstone of their acts: “It’s almost, like, the height of narcissism when you think you’re going to be so brave as to talk about it in person when all you’re doing is garnering sympathy for yourself,” he told Chris Hardwick on the Nerdist podcast. “I mean, how is that brave? It seems cowardly.”
Given how fearlessly he tackled every topic, podcasting seemed a natural progression, and in March 2013 he launched Norm Macdonald Live, with guests including David Letterman, Bill Hader, Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Carrey. A steady dose of Norm, for thirteen episodes! It was like heaven. He even threw himself hilariously into the ads for his sponsors, saying with a straight face how he couldn’t wait to get home and listen to, say, Wynonna Judd’s new book on audible.com. The only one he couldn’t deadpan his way through was the ad for the Mangrate, a big ol’ manly set of cast iron grilling grates, which Norm and his guests ridiculed mercilessly until, as Norm recalled, he and the company parted ways “without amicability.”
Norm was a great host, because he devoured everything he could find out about his guests beforehand and then really listened to them as they told their stories, so it was more of a conversation than an interview. There was no formulaic road map, so he always took you somewhere interesting. Sometimes, as with Carl Reiner, the talk turned to old movies, which Norm loved and which make up about ninety percent of my bloodstream. When he recognized a photo of June Allyson in Reiner’s book, I felt my heart quicken. It didn’t surprise me when he talked about people like Buster Keaton or Robert Ryan but Jesus Christ, he even knows June fecking Allyson!
Norm’s friends often fretted over their host. Super Dave Osborne kicked the series off with a rant: “I love you. A man as brilliant as you is doing a podcast for 18 people. And Kim Kardashian’s mother has a talk show.” Kevin Nealon asked what he was doing with himself, and if he had a publicist. And Bob Saget said over and over again how good it was to see him.
But after 26 episodes across two years, his podcast was offline for all of 2015 and most of 2016, before one last season appeared that fall. Then he was gone again.
In 2018, Norm was set to resume his podcasting career, this time on the mega-platform of Netflix, when an interview with The Hollywood Reporter went off the rails. Norm mentioned that he had put two dear friends, Roseanne and Louis CK, in touch with each other after both had been cancelled into oblivion for their wretched behavior; he felt they were each in a unique position to understand what the other was going through. His comments were taken to mean that he thought their ordeal was worse than that of victims—something he never said or even implied. In fact his actions were prompted, in part, by concern that Roseanne—a loyal friend who had given him his first big writing job in Hollywood—sounded so distraught he feared she might harm herself.
The Twitterverse, which feeds on outrage the way vampire bats feed on blood, went wild. Trump hair-tousler Jimmy Fallon even cancelled Norm’s Tonight Show appearance because some of his staffers “were crying” over it.
Wow, drama queen much? If you come that unglued because of a misinterpreted comment from a complete stranger, what would you do if something genuinely horrible happened to you in real life? Would you have to go straight into a care home? Meanwhile, of course, Norm was coping with something truly catastrophic, and doing so with incredible grace. You can only imagine what was going through his mind having to deal with this petty, narcissistic crap.
This would sort of be a non-celebrity version of what happened to Norm:
You: “I’m going to the hospital to visit my best friend. He was stupidly speeding and hit another car.”
Everyone on Twitter: “But what about the people in the other car?!? Do you not care about them at all?!? I am literally shaking right now.”
In response to the drummed-up outrage, Norm tweeted, “Roseanne and Louis have both been very good friends of mine for many years. They both made terrible mistakes and I would never defend their actions. If my words sound like I was minimizing the pain their victims feel to this day, I am deeply sorry.”
“Your heart can break for more than one person at the same time, you know, and a person can do a bad thing and you feel sorry for that person, while feeling worse for the person who had the bad thing done to them,” he told Ron Bennington on the Unmasked podcast, wrapping it up as only he could: “This is all so self-evident it’s hard for me to unpack but I wanted to use the word unpack…”
Norm went on The View to further clarify what he meant in the THR interview: “I said that not many of us have gone through this and so you should talk to each other because you’ve… you’ve… and then the guy said well what about the victims and I said well the victims haven’t gone through this. I was talking about this particular event. Of course the victims have gone through worse than that, but I’m gonna get a victim to phone Roseanne?”
The idea of being lumped in with predators clearly horrified this genuinely decent man. But while he never minimized the victims’ pain, he somehow managed to make light of his own: “I don’t want to be tossed in with people who did… not crimes but sins… I barely have consensual sex, let alone…”
Watching him go through all this, I swung back and forth between welling up with tears and vibrating with rage. And then at the end, one of the hosts said something like, “So are you going to watch everything you say from now on?” And he smiled politely, but sort of crinkled his eyes like, “Wow, really?” And I thought Thank God!
The only thing stronger than Norm’s reputation for brilliance was his rep among his friends as a truly good person. And that spilled out publicly too. I remember hearing a radio interview where a woman from Hawaii called in to say she saw him at the airport and wanted to talk to him but he was rude. (Norm took his extended family to Hawaii every Thanksgiving.) And he seemed surprised and distressed: “Did you come up and say hello?” It turned out she hadn’t, but was discouraged when they “made eye contact” and he didn’t seem happy. Which is shocking, cause, you know, most of us skip giddily through airports, especially when we’re shlepping our entire family in tow. He apologized profusely (for having done nothing wrong) and said when people do come up to him, he usually talks to them “endlessly.”
Then there’s this amazing clip. How many heckling exchanges begin like this?
Heckler: “Hey you’re not very funny!”
Comedian: “Pardon me?”
At any rate, once the internet jackals had their bellies full—or grew bored and moved on to fresh prey—the Netflix series Norm Macdonald Has a Show hit the air, with guests including David Letterman, Michael Keaton, Jane Fonda, Jerry Seinfeld and one of Norm’s musical heroes, outlaw-country singer Billy Joe Shaver (the original “Old Chunk of Coal”). “I’ve watched it and I’ve talked to other people who find it compelling… you can’t take your eyes off,” said Dave. And it’s true. It wasn’t a talk show you had on in the background while were you doing other things. You wanted to sit down and watch it. They were great conversations because he was great company.
It should’ve been renewed for another season, but it wasn’t; apparently there weren’t a sufficient number of clicks for the suits in the suites. But Jesus, at a zillion-dollar behemoth like Netflix, does everything have to do blockbuster numbers? Whatever happened to quality niche programming?
Watch the 10 episodes before they’re pulled down; some of the content on there has the shelf life of buttermilk in a shorted-out fridge. (Though perversely, now that Norm is gone, the clicks are probably up exponentially.)
When Covid-19 took hold in the spring of last year, Norm hosted a few brief, fabulous shows from his sofa, Quarantined with Norm Macdonald, with guests including Bob Saget and Roseanne. Norm first met Bob when he saw him at a comedy club in Ottawa as a teenager.
“You made fun of me and I had weird hair and you said, uh, take the ribbon from your hair and you kept coming back to me,” Norm recalled. “And then I afterwards like an idiot went up to you at the bar, like people do, like as if they’re part of the act and I was like, hey should we talk? And you were just trying to get ladies, you know…”
“Well I think it’s the way you said shall we talk. It was almost like saying get in the car…”
The videos lasted just a few episodes, and not a lot was heard from Norm for a while. Still, that was pretty much true of the whole country, the whole world even. But this summer, when he went silent on social media, it got scary.
When David Letterman guested on Norm’s podcast, he told him, “We always worry a little about you because we regard you as the top of the heap, the best of the best, the funniest of the funny, the guy who has it in every fiber of his being, not conjured, the real thing.”
A lot of us who never knew him worried about him too. He seemed like he was carrying a lot around inside him. Was he depressed? Was he taking care of himself? Was he okay?
I feel like Norm should have had so much more, you know? Mostly a lot more years. But more everything. And damn whatever forces held him back. But I’m so grateful he pushed through, especially these past nine years, and gave us everything he did.
Six years into the illness that would claim his life, Norm posted this:
At times, the joy that life attacks me with is unbearable and leads to gasping hysterical laughter. I find myself completely out of control and wonder how could life could surprise me again and again and again, so completely. How could a man be a cynic? It is a sin.
I could go on and on (you may have already suspected that), but I’ll close with a couple of things. First, a compilation from a while ago, of fellow comedians talking about how incredible he is. Thank you for loving him and for letting him know you did.
And finally, Bob Saget’s beautiful tribute to the friend he held so dear.
Love and safe journeys, Norm. I hope all the answers you searched for, and everything you yearned for, were waiting for you on the other side.