February 5 in History

A movie reviewer for the Los Angeles Times wrote that the new film “drags terribly with a long and tiresome chase of one [train] engine by another.” The film under review was Buster Keaton’s The General, which debuted in the Capitol Theater in New York City 90 years ago today.

The film flopped. Up to this point, Keaton possessed complete creative control over his film comedies, and Metro and United Artists gave him a $750,000 budget to make the Civil War-era film, which tells a true story in a mode that Hollywood―and its audiences―was not yet accustomed to: action-adventure-comedy. The film earned back less than $500,000 at the box office. Keaton’s next contract with MGM restricted him to comedies and did not allow him to direct. He descended into alcoholism.

It took a few decades before Hollywood and film audiences came to understand Keaton’s ambitious, hybrid-style of film and their embrace of his film became total: in his lifetime (he died in 1966) he saw it (and his career) re-evaluated and The General start to appear on lists of classic silent comedies.

The film:

 
In 1927, some audiences felt that it was “too soon,” as the expression now in common use has it, for a Civil War comedy. Also, audiences were not accustomed to film performers who changed their appearance from movie to movie; Keaton does not wear his familiar pork pie hat in the film and his hair is shoulder-length.

* * * *
On this date in 1850, Du Bois Parmelee of New Paltz, New York, (my old home town) was awarded US patent № 7074, for a single-column, key-driven adding machine. It was the first adding machine with keys that the user pushed down to make calculations. The keys went from 1 to 9.

* * * *
The Cabaret Voltaire was founded on this date in 1916 by Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp, and several others in Zurich, Switzerland. A press release announced the opening: “The young artists of Zurich, whatever their orientation, are invited to come along with suggestions and contributions of all kinds.”

The cabaret was an instant sensation, at least among the artists of Zurich that season, and by July one of its founders, Hugo Ball, published a summary that declared what the artists were in the process of inventing/discovering: the Dada Manifesto: “A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language, as if put there by stockbrokers’ hands, hands worn smooth by coins. I want the word where it ends and begins. Dada is the heart of words,” he wrote.

* * * *
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour debuted on CBS 50 years ago tonight.

* * * *
Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn died on this date in 1897, but he Tweets on to this day. Ambassador Pamela Harriman died 20 years ago today. Brian Jacques died six years ago today.

* * * *
William S. Burroughs was born in 1914 on this date. Red Buttons was born on this date in 1919.

* * * *
Bernard Kalb is 95 today.

Henry Aaron is 83 today. A story: Years ago, I saw Hank Aaron at a baseball card show, where, for a fee, patrons could stand on line and have something autographed. I did not have the money to pay a fee, so I stood and simply gawped at the hero from a-near. He was scheduled to sign from noon till five o’clock, and at five, he stood, pulled on his camel overcoat, said a thank you and shook hands with some official-looking people, started to walk out of the venue. Not three steps away from the table where he had been sitting, a dad and a kid walked up to him—and he signed autographs for them. For free. A couple other people approached, tentatively, and he signed things for them, too. For free. That is why whenever I see the name “Hank Aaron,” I’m a little boy watching baseball for the first time all over again.

Don Cherry is 83. John Guare is 79 today. Jane Bryant Quinn is 78. Roger Staubach is 75. Charlotte Rampling is 71. Darrell Waltrip is 70. Barbara Hershey is 69 today. Christopher Guest, 5th Baron Haden-Guest, is 69 today. Thus, Nigel Tufnel is 69 today. From This Is Spinal Tap:

 
Governor Jennifer Granholm is 58. Tim Meadows is 56 today. José María Olazábal is 51. Chris Parnell is 50 today. Cristiano Ronaldo is 32.

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One comment

  1. loisajay · February 5

    Cannot wipe the smile off my face from the Hank Aaron story. Wonderful, Mark.

    Like

Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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