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Monday, January 4, 2021

The Felonious Trump Phone Call: Day 2

On Sunday, I posted below outraged responses to the Trump phone call to Georgia official Brad Raffensperger demanding that he "find" about 12,000 votes to overturn Biden's win in that state--or else!  Today I will continue to cover this crime, as demands grow for some sort of Democratic or legal response that will promise more trouble for Trump sooner or if need be, later. 

4:10  Dominion overall.   Axios: “Dominion Voting Systems plans to sue attorney Sidney Powell ‘imminently’ for defamation, and is continuing to explore similar suits against President Trump and others, company founder and CEO John Poulos told the Axios Re:Cap podcast on Monday.” 

4:00 Fat chance.  Isaac Chotiner makes this funny: 
"My advice to President Trump regarding his speech tonight in Georgia: Stick to the issues, explain the governing visions of Perdue and Loeffler, and avoid personal attacks & factual inaccuracies."

3:10  GA Presser underway.   Looks like Raffersperger or Sterling will go point by point on Trump charges, as he has a Claim vs. Fact poster up already.   Update: Sterling, who ends up handling the full debunking, going out of way to tell voters to vote, overcome doubts, which clearly aimed to drive GOP turnout now.

2:40 Mini-Cooper   For those disappointed that Sarah Cooper has not yet weighed in with her treatment of the phone call, she has tweeted:    "Sorry everyone, my New Years resolution was to try to not make criminals hilarious."

2:20  The U.S. attorney in Atlanta abruptly departed his post Monday, TPM reports. The reason for U.S. Attorney Byung ‘BJay’ Pak’s change of plans are not clear. Pak cited only “unforeseen circumstances” as the reason he was leaving Monday rather than Jan. 20.

2:10 Heather Cox Richardson weighs in here.  Worries about military action.

1:40  Presser:   Raffersperger taking questions at 3 pm today, oh boy.    My old colleague and voting expert Ari Berman:  "Raffensperger has rightly been praised for defending integrity of Georgia election from Trump attacks. But he’s still backing sweeping GOP restrictions on mail voting to prevent Dems from winning future elections."

12:05  Katie does not lie:   Former Rep. Katie Hill declares: "It is completely clear that Trumpism is a cult that’s not going away any time soon. We need to figure out what to do about that, or our political system is bound for demise.

11:35  When that Schiff sailed:  Recalling Rep. Adam Schiff's closing warning back on Feb. 3 at end of Trump impeachment:  "What are the odds if left in office that he will continue trying to cheat?  I will tell you: 100 percent. A man without character or ethical compass will never find his way."

11:05  Raffersperger explains:   In new interview he says he never felt it apt to speak with Trump previously due to various litigations.   When asked what he was thinking, Raffensperger said “for the last two months, we’ve been fighting a rumor whack-a-mole. It was pretty obvious very early on that we debunked every one of those theories that have been out there, but President Trump continues to believe them.”  Asked if he intended to open up a criminal investigation into whether Trump violated state laws,  Raffensperger told ABC News this:  “I understand that the Fulton County district attorney wants to look at it. Maybe that’s the appropriate venue for it to go.”

11:00  State in play:    NY Times analysis indeed upholds idea that even if Trump selfppardons he could be prosecuted under Georgia law.  

10:50  Charlie Daniels, prophet:  From his classic song:

The Devil went down to Georgia 

He was lookin' for a soul to steal 

He was in a bind 'cause he was way behind 

And he was willin' to make a deal......

10:40    The 37 Steps:  Wash Post compiles the wackiest, or scariest, lines in the Trump phone call.  

10:10 Even scarier:   Yes, their plea came out of nowhere.  David Frum asks, "That letter from 10 former SecDefs warning against Trump using the military to hold onto power causes me to wonder: Has Trump been making calls to US generals like that he made to Georgia secretary of state, demanding/threatening they help him overturn the 2020 election?"  And Joe Lockhart asks:  "If Trump would make that call to Georgia, why do we all laugh off the idea that he would invoke the insurrection act? Mentally stable people making predictions about the mentally unstable is not something i'd bet on."

10:00  Perdue for a Loss  David Perdue on Fox calls phone call "disgusting" --well, the fact it was leaked. "Shocked."   Then  says lot of substance to what Trump and "no different from what he has said the past two months."  Claims will have no effect on the runoffs. 

9:45:  Why call was recorded:  Not a surprise, knowing the background, but this morning came this report  from Politico and a Raffensperger aide: 

It started on Saturday when Trump and his team reached out to talk to Raffensperger, who, according to an adviser, felt he would be unethically pressured by the president. Raffensperger had been here before: In November he accused Trump ally and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham of improperly exhorting him to meddle in the election to help Trump win Georgia. Graham later denied it.

So why not record the call with the president, Raffensperger’s advisers thought, if nothing else for fact-checking purposes. “This is a man who has a history of reinventing history as it occurs,” one of them told Playbook. “So if he’s going to try to dispute anything on the call, it’s nice to have something like this, hard evidence, to dispute whatever he’s claiming about the secretary. Lindsey Graham asked us to throw out legally cast ballots. So yeah, after that call, we decided maybe we should do this.”

9:30  Just Eighteen    Peter Alexander reports that the Saturday call came after the WH made 18 earlier  attempts  over last two months.   So this was the first time Trump & Raffensperger spoke directly.



Sunday, January 3, 2021

Outrage Over Trump Phone Call: Response Here

It's the story of the day--recording of insane Trump call to Georgia Secretary of State Raffensperger begging him to "find" the votes to overturn Biden win in the state and repeating numerous conspiracy theories, while promising actions if this does not happen.  Surely a felony in there somewhere.  While the Wash Post story is getting most of the links, others now also have the tape.  

Shades of the Ukraine phone call: "So look. All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state.”   This guarantees Trump must self-pardon within next two weeks. Easily an impeachable offense if happened earlier.

Michael Bromwich, former Justice Dept. IG:   "Unless there are portions of the tape that somehow negate criminal intent, 'I just want to find 11,780 votes' and his threats against Raffensperger and his counsel violate 52 U.S. Code § 20511. His best defense would be insanity."

Imagine the dozens of similar calls we know nothing about.  Preet Bahara"Everyone who has a tape of Trump abusing his power should release it now."   Even the far from hot-wired Sen. Tim Kaine“This is fundamentally an effort to overthrow the government of the United States.”  Carl Bernstein:  "worse than Watergate...the ultimate smoking gun tape" and Trump must resign.  "A real threat."

GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger:  "This is absolutely appalling. To every member of Congress considering objecting to the election results, you cannot--in light of this-- do so with a clean conscience."

Alexander Vindman:   "I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. ⁦@realDonaldTrump is corrupt and this call fits a pattern of corruption. In time investigators will uncover a series of 'perfect' calls. Priority 1 will be uncovering corruption and protecting democracy."

Jake Tapper"The president in this audio issues all sorts of veiled and not-so-veiled threats against the Georgia Secretary of State to submit what would be a false vote count and reverse the election result. It is sickening."  Joy Reid:  "...sounding like a deteriorating, mad dictator."  CNN's Brian Stelter"They've turned the English language upside down. They say they're trying to save democracy while undermining democracy. They say 'Stop the Steal' while starting the steal."  Nick Kristof:  "It's a historical documentation of a president trying to steal an election."  Neal Kaytel:  "Sore (criminal) loser."  Howard Fineman:  "This is sick, criminal and dangerous. We have seen NOTHING like this from a president in our history! There has to be some punishment besides losing."

James Fallows:   "To underscore the obvious, this tape is incomparably more disqualifying than 1974 tapes, whose court-ordered release led to Nixon’s resignation.  Which also led to a delegation of senior GOP Sens/Reps to tell Nixon he must step down. Contrast that w current situation."  Lawrence O'Donnell:  "Trump got on the phone in the White House yesterday with the intention of committing a federal crime & the intention of pardoning himself for that crime. He'll also probably pardon everyone in the room who conspired with him in committing that crime."  Michael Beschloss"May God bless American public servants who stand up to illicit secret pressure from an American President." Daniel Goldman:  It’s gonna be costly to you. I’ve charged extortion in mob cases with similar language."

Mike Birbiglia:  "That taped phone call feels like a single cockroach on the rug that indicates there are a lot more in the walls."

From the right:  Even Byron York:   "Trump steps way over the line in call to Georgia Secretary of State Raffensperger. Will be interesting to see if story causes some House & Senate Republicans to re-think their effort on his behalf."  Even Ari Fleischer:  "Pretty much everything the President said on this call was wrong, factually and morally. And good for Georgia Secretary of State Raffensperger." Jonah Goldberg:  "This tape of the Trump phone call is amazing. Unless you’re drunk on the Kool Aid, it’s glaringly obvious they just want to cheat. That’s it. Nothing clever. Nothing about patriotism or some higher calling. They’re just trying to cheat.Bill Kristol"If we had two responsible parties, there'd be a statement now from Pelosi, McCarthy, McConnell and Schumer stating that--whatever Donald Trump says--all public officials should obey the law and Congress will ensure a peaceful and lawful transfer of power to President-elect Biden."   

Andrew Sullivan:  "It’s still hard to absorb a president openly seeking to destroy the heart of our democracy. But listen to this delusional madman. Impeach him again."  Eric Boehlert:   "we’ve had a sociopath as president for 4 yrs and every newsroom in America was too afraid to say so."

 Sarah Cooper, get right on this! Especially the parts where Trump twice calls himself a "schmuck" (for endorsing Gov. Kemp).    George Takei:  "Georgia knows, you can’t spell impeach without peach."

Saturday, January 2, 2021

My Biggest Movie Role

Sad to see that Joan Micklin Silver, one of the few female movie directors back in the day, has died.   She was perhaps best known for directing Crossing Delancey and Chilly Scenes of Winter.  Among other accomplishments she gave me my first break in movies....of a kind. 

It was back in the mid-1970s, and the set photographer for a film called Between the Lines, directed by Joan Micklin Silver--a rare female director at the time--called me at Crawdaddy to ask if I could round up a few other vanishing longhairs to appear in the movie, which was set at a Boston alt-paper, similar to The Real Paper or the Phoenix.   Sort of a "give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair" order. The photog was Lorey Sebastian, ex-wife of John Sebastian (she was the "you" in "you and me and rain on the roof" etc.).   Among those I rounded up was one of my staffers, Mitch Glazer, later a Hollywood screenwriter himself.

My appearance would amount to this:  Lorey would take a picture of Jeff, other stars (Lindsay Crouse, John Heard, Bruno Kirby, Michael J. Pollard, Stephen Collins), and the folks I could gather,  in front of a loft building in Soho,  looking like we were all back in 1970.  It was summer but we had to wear winter clothes for some reason. The picture would then appear in the movie as some of the characters gazed at it and reflected on the good old days before the paper got kind of corporate.  Yes.  Even back then.

Goldblum played the smart-ass record reviewer. (We later had lunch a couple of times and I got him to write a review of a Natalie Cole album for Crawdaddy.)  So, if you watch the film, you will see me--with the rest of the "staff."  For a few seconds.  R.I.P. my film career.

Sunday, December 27, 2020


The crucial, Senate-defining runoffs in Georgia just 9 days away now so I have re-started my daily blog devoted to this, update throughout the day.  


Thursday, December 24, 2020

Ten (?) Best Movie List 2020

Not that anyone cares, but every year at this time for the past decade and longer I have released a Best Films list.  I see a lot of movies, but my first pre-Xmas release list always comes with the caveat that it will be updated with several films that I have not yet seen.  This year is no different, except it's the weakest year as far back as I can remember--which can change when I get to the year's end crowd--and recent years were nothing to shout about.  So here is the tentative list, and I am only going as far as seven as virtually certain to compete for the top ten are  Nomadland, Minari, The Mayor, News of the World, Sorry We Missed You, Bacarau,  Martin Eden, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, and One Night in Miami, at the least.  



The Assistant

Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint

Never Rarely Sometimes Always 

The Outpost

Very Interesting if flawedThe Sound of Metal, Let Him Go,  First Cow, Red White and Blue, Time, Totally Under Control, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Mr. Jones, The Forty-Year-Old Version, Athlete A,  Mank,   David Copperfield,  Once Were Brothers, Billie, Zappa.

Overrated:  The Painter and the Thief, Gunda, Palm Springs,  The Vast of Night, etc. and etc. 

Highlight but ineligibleHamilton

No interest now or ever:   Any cartoony/super-hero/Marvel type movie, or Star Wars derivatives...

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Greatest Concert Ever

This month  marks the 212th anniversary of The Greatest Concert Ever. Fellow geezers: Forget the Beatles at Shea Stadium, Dylan in Manchester, the Stones at Altamont, Springsteen at the Bottom Line (I was even there) — and you youngsters pick your fave from the past three decades.

On December 22, 1808, Beethoven himself rented a hall in Vienna and promoted the concert to end all concerts: the debut, over four hours, of three of the greatest works in the history of music: his Fifth Symphony, the Sixth (“Pastoral”) Symphony, and the astounding Piano Concerto No. 4, plus selections from his amazing Mass in C Major, and in closing, the wonderful Choral Fantasia (forerunner to his Ninth Symphony). A bonus: improvisations by the maestro.

This was mid-period Beethoven. He was 38 at the time and would live another 19 fitful years. He had been losing his hearing for almost ten years and would soon be completely deaf. In fact, he would play piano in concert for virtually the last time at this epic 1808 program, as hearing himself play would eventually cease. That wouldn’t stop him, a few years later, from producing his most astounding writing of all: the late piano sonatas and string quartets, the Ninth Symphony, and much more.  (See the book I co-wrote and the film that I co-produced.)

If you know Beethoven only from his symphonies you are truly missing nearly all of his most amazing, moving, and profound work. I won’t go into all of the details on the 1808 concert here, but in a nutshell: The hall in Vienna was freezing cold. Beethoven, as a taskmaster conductor, had alienated the musicians, rehearsals were inadequate, he finished one piece on the morning of the concert with (reportedly) the ink still wet that night. Parts of the program went off very well; on the other hand, he stopped the Choral Fantasia after a few minutes and made the orchestra start over. In any case, the show went on, and on. In that era, it was hard enough for any audience to appreciate and/or grasp the unprecedented length — and revolutionary nature — of Beethoven’s compositions, and now they were cold and tired. The key newspaper review at the time noted the genius of Beethoven’s new compositions but also the demands on the audience (“It is known that, with respect to Vienna, it holds even more true than with respect to most other cities, what is written in the scriptures, namely that the prophet does not count for anything in his own country”).

 I will leave off here with the invitation for you to consider my argument that Beethoven was the greatest composer in the history of Western culture.  Yes, I am in deeper than most--not long ago I co-produced an acclaimed film and co-authored a book about Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.  But in these tough times, you really might find (as I did) that a little Beethoven will help you make it through your week, and maybe even the Trump era.

Roll Over, Beethoven, and Happy 250th: Latest on Our Film and Book!

With Beethoven's 250th birthday this week, there is, naturally, renewed interest in the book that I co-wrote and the acclaimed film that it is based on that I co-produced.  Below you will find links to the book, to NPR and Bill Moyers coverage, and the film trailer.  

The film, Following the Ninth, directed by Kerry Candaele,  follows the the Ninth Symphony and its enormous cultural and political influence around the world.  So we travel from Chile during the Pinochet years, to China's Tiananmen Square uprising,  to Japan (for the annual ultra-mass singing of the "Ode to Joy" at this time of year) and to Germany with Leonard Bernstein for the fall of the Wall, plus Billy Bragg re-writing the "Ode to Joy"--and playing it for the Queen.  The book, Journeys With Beethoven,  explores all of this, plus recounting my own Beethoven obsession from New York to Tanglewood, and a lively Q & A with the great pianist Jeremy Denk.  

The film is streaming and  DVD for our film finally available via Amazon,  and just in time for the holidays!    

And, of course, our companion updated book and ebook still a great choice, order via Amazon. It's just $3.99 for the e-book and $12.95 for print.Meanwhile, screenings have continued, most recently in....Beirut, Lebanon.   

The NPR "All Things Considered"  segment on the film was terrific.  Listen to it here.  And here's Bill Moyers' segment on the film on PBS--nine minutes long--and he even presents the entire  trailer. 

Reviews of film include very positive review from New York Times:  "Thrilling... all the film’s segments are smartly assembled and gracefully paced. Oh, and the score’s pretty good, too." From the Village Voice  "A majestic sonic travelogue... that rarest of films: a documentary as ineffable and transformative in its reach as it sets out to be."Another good review at Film Journal: "Stirring documentary."  Hollywood Reporter: "Persuasive feel-good movie doc.... offers enough spirit-lifting moments to prove its thesis and leave viewers inspired!"

You can write me at:  epic1934@aol.com.    And here's Kerry's terrific trailer:

Monday, December 7, 2020

The Real, vs. Fincher's Reel, Upton Sinclair

The new David Fincher movie, Mank, just now streaming on Netflix, has brought new attention to muckraking author Upton Sinclair — and only partly because he is (briefly) portrayed by Bill Nye, “the Science Guy.” The film shows how Sinclair’s left-wing run for governor of California in 1934 inspired MGM’s Irving Thalberg and newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst to take drastic actions to stop him. This in turn — and this is the fictional part — inspired Herman Mankiewicz to write Citizen Kane, with the title character based on Hearst.

See my New York Times piece on all this and more this week.

Mank has sent many to asking, So who was this Upton Sinclair character?  Or: Paging Bernie Sanders. There’s a good deal about all that, and more, in my award-winning book on the 1934 race, The Campaign of the Century. It was recently picked by the Wall Street Journal as one of the five greatest ever on an American election and you can read more or order here. But here’s a brief primer on "Uppie."


One of the original muckrakers, Sinclair is remembered mainly for just a single book, The Jungle, the classic expose of Chicago meat-packing, of which the author said: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” He gained some renewed attention not long ago thanks to the major movie There Will Be Blood, based on his book Oil! Frequently he is confused, as he was during his lifetime, with another writer, Sinclair Lewis, often to comical effect.

The Jungle was published in 1906 when Uppie, as he was known to friends, was still in his twenties, and he wrote dozens of popular and influential books thereafter, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1943. Sinclair may not have been a literary stylist, but in his day he was a prominent figure indeed. For most of his career, he was one of this country’s foremost socialists and, according to H. L. Mencken, by far the most widely translated American author abroad. “When people ask me what has happened in my lifetime,” George Bernard Shaw told Sinclair in 1941, “I do not refer them to the newspaper files or to the authorities, but to your novels.”

Few public figures jumped from so many frying pans into so many fires, and “none has ever managed to keep so sunny and buoyant while the flames were leaping around him,” Robert Cantwell commented. No American writer converted more young people to socialism. “Upton Sinclair first got to me when I was fourteen or so,” Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., confessed, in explaining how he became a lifelong socialist. Saul Bellow told a Sinclair biographer that the muckraker’s books made a strong impression on him as a youth, even though he understood right from the start that the author was “something of a crank — one of the grand American cranks who enriched our lives.”

Like Norman Mailer circa 1968, Upton Sinclair was often in the news for reasons that had little to do with writing: getting arrested (on several occasions), running for office (he lost two previous races for governor on the Socialist line), or financing films (just one, but it was for Sergei Eisenstein, and what a fiasco). His engine was forever racing. Ezra Pound called him a “polymaniac.” Accused of having a Jesus complex, Sinclair cheerfully pointed out that the world needed a Jesus more than it needed anything else.

Practically alone among the writers of his generation, Upton Sinclair “put to the American public the fundamental questions raised by capitalism in such a way that they could not escape them,” Edmund Wilson observed. In this regard, Sinclair’s career reached its climax with his EPIC crusade in 1934, and Hollywood, Democrats in California, and the American political campaign would never be the same.

Naturally he launched that campaign with yet another book: I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty.

Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books. More on, or order, The Campaign of the Century.


Friday, December 4, 2020

Those Thalberg 'Newsreels' and 'Mank'

If you've watched, or are about to watch, David Fincher's new film Mank on Netflix, which dropped today, you will probably want to watch at least one of crucial plot points in real life:  the movie shorts ordered by the hallowed Irving Thalberg to destroyed front-running candidate for governor, leftwing author Upton Sinclair.  I was first to expose the full story in my book, The Campaign of the Century, recently named by the Wall Street Journal as one of the five greatest books ever on a campaign.  I was also chief consultant for one episode of the PBS Great Depression series, directed by Lyn Goldfarb.  

See my New York Times piece on all this and more this week.

Below you can watch the first two of the three newsreels as MGM's "Inquiring Reporter" (Carey Wilson) interview "typical" voters, many of them actors working off scripts.   You can read more about the campaign here or order book here.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

"Mank" and Me

The new David Fincher film Mank, which just arrived on Netflix this month--and already touted as a likely "Best Picture" nominee at next year's Oscars--pivots around a key story line in one of my  books, The Campaign of the Centurythe wild 1934 race for governor by leftwing muckraker Upton Sinclair on an End Poverty in California (EPIC) platform.

That book was recently picked by the Wall St. Journal as one of the five greatest books ever on any campaign (you can order print oe e-book edition here).  Earlier it won the Goldsmith Book Prize.  Jill Lepore at The New Yorker called it "a compelling account not long ago" and Charles P. Pierce this week hailed it as "magnificent."   

See my New York Times piece on all this and more this week.

Amazingly,  Sinclair swept the Democratic primary, after inspiring an astounding mass movement, known as EPIC for End Poverty in California.  (By the way, my only email address ever:  Epic1934@aol.com).   He seemed headed for victory when Republicans, moderate Democrats, and big business types rallied to defeat him.  In the process they invented the modern political campaign as we know it, dominated by massive funding, outside consultants, attack ads on the small screen and "spin doctors."  

In the forefront in 1934:  Hollywood, then quite conservative, as studio bosses enacted forced donations from all employees.  Notably, MGM, under orders from the hallowed Irving Thalberg and rightwinger Louis B. Mayer, produced a series of bogus newsreels--the first use of the screen to destroy a candidate--that scuttled Sinclair for good. (See below for MGM's phony Inquiring Reporter shorts with some of the "typical" voters played by actors working off scripts.)

Now Fincher in exploring how Herman "Mank" Mankiewicz came to write Citizen Kane (while worried that he will never get the credit he deserves), concentrates on his relationship not with Welles but with the man who served as the model for the title character, William Randolph Hearst, who also played a key role vs. Sinclair.   Along the way, Sinclair looms large, with Mank ultimately deciding to devote his limited energy to Kane after being appalled by the actions of MGM and Hearst in that campaign.  It's a true "pivot point" and resonant today in this time of charges of "fake news" not to mention candidates being maligned as "socialists."

Fincher has said, "Mank depicts their alliance with Hearst to bring down Sinclair as a major motive for the disgust that spurred Mankiewicz to write Citizen Kane.  Once the Sinclair story was grafted on, we found a middle ground where we felt we had a more accurate portrayal of what really happened."

Many will chuckle when you see who very briefly appears as Sinclair--he's not in the credits--although some will not recognize him, as shot from the side at a distance.  It's Bill Nye, "The Science Guy."   You can order the book or ebook here.

My Nearly 40-Year Saga: from EPIC to "Mank"

David Fincher's heralded new movie, Mank, drops on Netlfix tomorrow, December 4, and as I have written previously, its main plot point--to my surprise!--finds Herman Mankiewicz inspired to co-write Citizen Kane because of the outrages of Hollywood and Hearst in destroying Upton Sinclair's leftwing race for governor of California in 1934.  Sinclair led the massive EPIC movement--for End Poverty in California. As I have also noted, this subject is of special interest to me, as author of the Random House book The Campaign of the Century--which explores that race and those outrages--which was recently picked by the Wall Street Journal as one of the five greatest ever on an American election, and earlier won the Goldsmith Book Prize.

So now: How did this happen?  I'll sketch this briefly and if you'd like to know more--write me at my email address, the only one I've ever had, yes:  Epic1934@aol.com.   Order book or ebook here.  See my New York Times piece on all this and more this week.

I first read about the then-obscure campaign in the late 1970s after Michael Medved of all people (he later became quite conservative) wrote an entry about it in the original People's Almanac.  By 1982, I had gotten an assignment from Bob Kuttner at Working Papers magazine to write a feature on the campaign, and made my first research trip to California.  I dug out so much new stuff it resulted in a massive, and much-hailed,  feature spread over two issues.  A few years later, I returned to the subject, with feature pieces at both American Heritage (for Byron Dobell) and American Film (for Peter Biskind).   I even met Upton's son, David, among dozens of other key figures.

Then I wrote a book proposal, snatched up by a top editor, Ann Godoff, then at Atlantic Monthly Press.  Just a few months from publication, she jumped to Random House and took the book with her.  It was published in April 1992, and drew wide praise, and was excerpted in numerous outlets, including The New York Times and Newsweek.   It would win the Goldsmith Book Prize and was named one of five finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.  It also led to my involvement as chief adviser to one program on the campaign for PBS's much-admired Great Depression series in 1993.  

Several movie producers expressed interest but an option never quite happened.  However, it was developed with my support into, of all things, a musical which had major "concert" versions presented in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles, and seemed headed for Broadway around 2012 when the two writers--who had just won the Tony for Best Musical for another project--parted ways.  

This led to a fairly quiet period--when a new paperback edition arrived I did appear with everyone from Chuck Todd to Laura Flanders--but it always drew interest and sales and now it has gained new attention thanks to Mank.  I've written a piece for The New York Times slated for next week and it appears that it is headed for a movie option at last.    So check out Mank then check back here for more!

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Ten Best (That I Managed to Hear)

I'm with those who say that everyone's "Ten Best" music or movie lists should include the qualifier "....that I heard or watched." By January I can always do a pretty good movie list because I do see a high number of the better films but with music--once my niche--I am hopelessly on the fringe. So in that spirit I will merely do "ten greatest songs--not necessarily new--that I was first exposed to this year." Here they are, and all can be found at YouTube or Spotify or wherever fine streams are sold or given away.  I will add links soon.  In no order:

1. "A Case of You," Diana Krall--the live in Paris version, please, stellar version of Joni and one of best songs of our era. I still say it's mainly about Leonard, but for even more re: Mr. Cohen see equally great  "Rainy Night House."  Or for Herr Beethoven for his 250th birthday, "Judgment of the Moon and Stars."

1A.  "Coyote," which emerged again this year in the Rolling Thunder doc, as Joni blows mind of Dylan, McGuinn and Lightfoot singing it live at Gordo's home in Toronto after a gig.

2. "Overseas"--new this year from our best current songwriter, Jason Isbell, but a couple other candidates on same album as well.  His "Yvette" still one of the great songs of this century.

3. "Look at Miss Ohio": from years ago, which I somehow missed though an early fan of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings.  The pair just came out with about 40 new sides of old songs not recorded until now.  And I'd highly recommend their previous one with alt-takes and outtakes from their classic debut album.

4. "Save Yourself": another oldie from still-youngish Sharon Van Etten, whose longtime singing partner always meshes with her voice like a sister might. "Know you're balding still / you're older than you feel." Ouch!  Check out her live version of "Seventeen" with Norah Jones also.

5. "Song for Sam Cooke" by Dion, new, and about one of my all-time favorite singers and writers, It's, autobiographical, and Dion's fellow olde doo-wopper Paul Simon joins in, and a little "Chain Gang" to boot. Also look for Sam later this month in what should be great new drama "One Night in Miami" directed by Regina King.

6. "Burnin' Train": My "up" new song of year, sexy, and Bruce's best rocker in quite some time--would fit on "Born to Run" without that album missing a beat. Couple other candidates on same album, too but not, oddly, the three songs from 1972 that I was among the few to hear way back then.   Last year Bruce's "Stones" made my top ten.  (While we're at it, here's my post on meeting Bruce in 1972--in Sing Sing Prison and years after etc.)

7. "Heiliger Dankgesang"--one of Beethoven's greatest moment or movements, live by the Danish String Quartet (a great version on You Tube)--we caught them in what many considered the concert series of the year in NYC but not for their rendering of this high peak.

8. "Percy's Song": I've long known this Dylan song from the early '60s--though never on a proper album--but finally came upon the amazing Sandy Denny version with Fairport. New appreciation for her as one of the best singers of our time. Also: check out her Joni cover, "I Don't Know Where I Stand."

9. "Strangers" by Norah Jones--this is the 50th anniversary of the Kinks' "Lola" album and while I was a Ray Davies fan boy (and interviewed him twice) his brother Dave for the same album came up with a tuneful classic beloved by many, especially Wes Anderson.

10. "Why Not Your Baby": Flop single from the great Gene Clark in late 1960s included on a re-issue of the 2nd and last Dillard & Clark album. Arranged by Leon Russell no less. This led me to a fetching if obscure version by a Baltic band via YouTube.  Also from Gene:  New package for his his classic No Other album with alt versions.  "Strength of Strings" still in league of its own.  Also caught up with his fine if obscure live album with Carla Olson.
Bubbling under:  Dylan's "I've Made Up My Mind To Give Myself to You." 

When Cagney and Hepburn Resisted GOP Strong-Arm Tactics

My book The Campaign of the Century (which won the Goldsmith Book Prize), focuses on the wild response in Hollywood--then controlled by conservative Republicans--to leftwing author Upton Sinclair winning the Democratic primary for governor, leading a mass movement, in 1934.  This included the creation of the first use of the screen for "attack ads"--thanks to MGM's Irving Thalberg.  The right-wing attack was so outrageous it sparked liberals to organize and Hollywood has tilted left ever since. (See my new New York Times article.)

Here's an excerpt re: one of the most notorious aspects--almost all the studio chiefs docked their employees, from low-level to top stars, one day's pay to go for the slush fund of the Republican candidate, Frank Merriam.  This angle is featured in the new Netflix drama, Mank, with writer Herman Mankiewicz the only holdout at his studio (this is pure fiction in his case).  One of those who protested but lacked the clout to resist was the young screenwriter Billy Wilder, who had arrived in the U.S. just recently.  Jimmy Cagney and Kate Hepburn, already top stars, did fight back.

Another Hollywood figure rebelling against the so-called Merriam
tax was that "professional againster" James Cagney. He was back in Los
Angeles after shooting Devil Dogs of the Air in San Diego. Politically,
Jimmy was still skating on thin ice thanks to the flap over his alleged
role in last summer's Communist uprising, so it behooved him to go
along with Jack Warner's request for money for Merriam. But Cagney
wouldn't sign the studio's check.
At least that's what he told Frank Scully, head of the writers' committee
for Upton Sinclair, when they met, for secrecy's sake, just outside the
Warner Brothers' gate. Scully found it amusing that two solid Americans
were huddling on the street, speaking in whispers, as if they were
plotting a revolution. Cagney told Scully not only that he had refused
to sign the check delivering one day's wage to Merriam but that if the
studio forced him, he would donate one week's salary to Sinclair. Since
that represented a six-to-one advantage for EPIC, Jimmy figured that
would stop them.

Unlike the writers, Hollywood's acting talent, with the exception of
Jimmy Cagney and a handful of others, seemed to go along with the
Merriam tax without much of a fuss. Early reports that Jean Harlow
planned to buck the system proved premature. But the name of another
young star supposedly fighting the Merriam tax had surfaced in Holly-
wood. It raised eyebrows, for the actress, Katharine Hepburn, had much
to lose, having just won an Academy Award. While Jean Harlow's
career, in the Production Code "decency" era, appeared to be imperiled,
Hepburn had clear sailing.

But 1934, by and large, was not kind to Kate. With her career stalled,
after a flop or two, criticism of Hepburn's cool manner and
unconventional dress mounted. Gossip columnists referred to her as La
. One writer dryly commented that she "occasionally has
human impulses and she is not all snobbery and self-satisfaction." On
October 7, Louella Parsons revealed that "photographers have agreed
not to take a single pix of her because she's been so rude."
Yet, if anything, Hepburn took herself less seriously than others did.
When her habit of wearing men's pants caused a stir in Paris, she
commented, "I couldn't be dignified if I tried." She hated reading refer-
ences to Kit Hepburn as the mother of Katharine Hepburn. "My
mother is important," she explained, "I am not." Kate wished she could
paint, play music, or write books instead of act, but "alas, I'm not
talented at all." With her friend Laura Harding she lived in an isolated
home in Coldwater Canyon.
As the California governor's race heated up this autumn, Hepburn
was filming The Little Minister, based on the J. M. Barrie play, for
RKO. It was a big-budget production, and the studio expected the film
to put Hepburn's career back on track. With that much invested, RKO
executives could not have been pleased when rumors circulated that
Kate Hepburn favored Upton Sinclair or would not pay the "Merriam
tax," or both. Now the Los Angeles district attorney had sent an investi-
gator to find out what Hepburn really believed—and whether RKO had
threatened to punish her for those beliefs.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Yes, FDR Did Doom Democratic Candidate Upton Sinclair

Near the close of the new David Fincher film, Mank, writer Herman Mankiewicz tries to console a MGM director that the bogus newsreels he made for Irving Thalberg were not the primary factors in destroying Upton Sinclair's race for governor of California in 1934.   Rather, it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's failure to come out for Sinclair, the unlikely Democrat leading a popular leftwing mass movement.   That director, nevertheless, assumes the guilt and soon commits suicide.

It was a fictional conversation, but the movie Mankiewicz was not far wrong.  Sinclair had met with FDR two months before election day and an endorsement seemed certain.  They even chatted about Teddy Roosevelt's response to Upton's The Jungle 30 years back.  Then Roosevelt and his top aides got scared about embracing a former Socialist, and cut a deal with Sinclair's dullard GOP opponent.  The story--and much more--was told in full for the first time in my award-winning book, The Campaign of the Century.  (Learn more or order here.  And see my new New York Times article about Mank and Sinclair.)

Franklin's activist wife Eleanor had backed Sinclair in epic race--but FDR instructed aides to tell her to remain silent, and she did.  Sinclair wrote her a key private letter after meeting with the president, but she was away when it arrived, and the aides opened it and informed the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover, no less.

And the dirtiest, and one of the most influential, campaigns in USA history--it virtually created the modern campaign--emerged to defeat him.  Hollywood took its first all-out plunge into politics and the saintly Irving Thalberg created the very attack ads for the screen.  See a trailer below for my book on what led to all this:

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Brothers Four

Movie I am perhaps looking forward to most is One Night in Miami, coming around Xmas, as directing debut by Regina King.   I've read the play and it is a story of an evening I've been fascinated by for decades, given my fandom, going back to early '60s, of the four "all-time greats"  at the center:  Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, and Jim Brown.   

Yes, the meeting actually happened, after Ali won the title in Miami with Malcolm in attendance, Jim adding color on the closed-circuit, and Sam climbing into the ring at the end at Ali's demand.  (Earlier that week, Ali had met the Beatles, in town for one of their fabled Ed Sullivan shows.) And then: the after-party, with the four giants, which was not so much of a party thanks to Malcolm.  Ali was about to become a Muslim, Sam was about to record "A Change Is Gonna Come" and Jim was not far from becoming a movie star after being the greatest pro football player ever.   But that late-night was dominated more by politics than anything else.  Here's a vid on Jim Brown returning to the scene, a segregated hotel.  Trailer: