Posted in 1930s, Atlantic City books, Cinnimin, Historical fiction, holidays, Writing

WeWriWa—Holiday decorating begins

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP.

As last year, my Christmas- and Chanukah-themed snippets come from Chapter 20, “Dueling December Holidays,” of the book formerly known as The Very First (which is set during 1938). The new and improved title will finally be revealed upon its release next year!

This is the opening of the chapter, when Sparky Small (birth name Katharina Brandt) and her older brothers start realizing just how predominant all things Christmas are during December in their new country. It’s particularly hard to avoid because they live with a Methodist family.

Sparky, her brothers, the Filliard girls, and Elmira came home from school on the first day of December to a wreath on the door and Mrs. Filliard and Lucinda unpacking all the Christmas ornaments and decorations. Six crates stood in the center of the living room, while small boxes, coiled-up strings of lights and other decorations, and individually-wrapped ornaments were all over the davenport, chairs, side tables, loveseat, and Lucinda’s new turquoise velvet Ottoman. A black and dark green plaid, circular cloth was draped over the back of the davenport, and a green metal object which somewhat resembled a bell was off in a corner.

“You’re just in time to help us with decorating the tree,” Mrs. Filliard announced. “Michael should have it very soon. He was supposed to be back by now, but it’s just like him to inspect each and every tree instead of sawing down the first big tree he sees. If he ain’t back soon, Pietro might have him arrested for trespassing.”

Gary could barely disguise his horrified expression. “Kätchen, Otto, and I must respectfully decline your invitation to decorate a tree, but I’m more concerned about Michael trespassing to get your tree. Did you really send him onto someone else’s property without permission?”

Posted in 1930s, Movies

Anarchy at the circus

Though the Marx Brothers’ post-Irving Thalberg films get a rather bad rap, they’re really not as awful as their reputation. Certainly they’re not as polished, classic, and consistent as everything which came before, but they’re hardly the bottom of the barrel. At the Circus, released 20 October 1939, is my favorite of their later films.

Unfortunately, this film does have one big thing going against it—their worst pseudo-Zeppo by a very large margin, the extremely annoying, Mickey Mouse-voiced Kenny Baker. At least the only real fault of Tony Martin in The Big Store (1941) is that he takes up way too much screentime and performs the cringey “Tenement Symphony,” not that his actual character is annoying.

Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker)’s troubles go far beyond his annoying voice. Circus manager John Carter (James Burke) loaned him $10,000, which Jeff is ordered to repay before their agreed-upon Saturday deadline. If he doesn’t cough it up in time, Carter will take over.

Jeff’s wealthy aunt Suzanna Dukesbury (Margaret Dumont) disinherited him for joining the circus, which means he’s broke.

Jeff promises to give Carter the money that very night on the circus train.

Jeff’s buddy Tony Pirelli (Chico) calls lawyer J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho) to help. When Loophole arrives, Tony gives him a hard time about getting on the train, since he hasn’t a badge. The badge scene is one of the film’s classic routines.

Also in the circus is strongman Goliath (Nat Pendleton)’s lookalike understudy Punchy (Harpo), who’d love to take over the role full-time. Tony suggests Loophole might make that dream come true if Goliath and his cohorts are booted.

After Loophole performs the classic novelty song “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” Goliath knocks out Jeff by gorilla Gibraltar’s cage and steals his $10,000 for Carter.

Loophole, Punchy, and Tony set to work investigating who attacked Jeff and where the money disappeared to. They predictably, hilariously bungle everything, though they strongly suspect Goliath is behind it, and that he was aided by Little Professor Atom (Jerry Maren), the midget (to use the parlance of the era).

Tony later suggests Carter might know something about Jeff’s money, and that his girlfriend Peerless Pauline (Eve Arden), an upside-down walker, might thus have inside info too.

Loophole finds the money in Pauline’s trunk and sticks it in his pocket, but Pauline is wise to him, and sticks it in her cleavage. Loophole breaks the fourth wall to say “There must be some way of getting that money without getting in trouble with the Hays Office.”

Loophole’s prayer is answered when Pauline demonstrates ceiling-walking, but when the money falls out, she jumps off the ceiling, grabs it, and runs off, leaving Loophole stuck on the ceiling. Punchy comes to his rescue.

Loophole’s next plan of attack is to visit Jeff’s aunt Mrs. Dukesbury and beg for $10,000. Mrs. Dukesbury jumps to the serendipitous conclusion that Loophole’s an associate of conductor Jardinet, who’s soon due to arrive. She agreed to pay him $7,500, which Loophole convinces her to up to $10,000 based on the exchange rate.

Back at the circus, Tony and Punchy are still hot on Goliath’s heels, and search his wagon. They don’t exactly choose the best time, since Goliath is there, albeit asleep when they arrive.

Jeff is thrilled to get a call from Loophole, announcing his aunt will provide the money. Loophole then sets to work getting rid of Jardinet and his orchestra.

Now the stage is set for one final confrontation between Carter’s henchmen and Tony, Punchy, and Jeff, complete with lots of comedic mayhem at Mrs. Dukesbury’s party.

The name J. Cheever Loophole was inspired by financier John Cheever Cowdin, who served as president of Universal and chairman of its board of directors from 1936–46. He loaned the studio $750,000 to finance Show Boat, and when the Laemmles were unable to repay the investors before release, Cowdin took control of the studio. Had the repayment request not been made till after release of that very successful film, the Laemmles easily would’ve been able to pony up the money and retain ownership of their family business.

Buster Keaton was famously a gag writer for At the Circus. His comedy style was rather at odds with that of the Marx Brothers, which frustrated both parties. At this point, Buster’s career was deep in the toilet (thanks to being sabotaged by Louis B. Mayer, who also screwed over the Marx Brothers), and had to do whatever he could for money.

Posted in 1930s, Atlantic City books, Cinnimin, Historical fiction, holidays, Sparky, Writing

WeWriWa—Guests wanted and unwanted

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP.

As last year, my Thanksgiving-themed snippets come from Chapter 19, “Happy Thanksgiving,” of the book formerly known as The Very First (which is set during 1938). The new and improved title will finally be revealed upon its release next year!

This week’s excerpt comes about five pages after last week’s, when Cinni, her family, and the longterm guests the Smalls sat down to a joint Thanksgiving feast. Cinni’s great-grandmother Leokadia, a very unwanted guest who invited herself, spent much of the meal arguing with the other side of the family. She hates the family her son Lech married into, and never misses a chance to let them know it.

This has been slightly tweaked to fit ten lines.

To change the subject, Babs and Elmira began chattering about what they were doing in school, and Lucinda name-dropped a bunch of brand names she’d added to her ever-expanding wardrobe and accessory collection. As soon as the immense feast came to an end and the table was cleared, Leokadia threw on her shearling boots and black mink coat.  No one spoke to her as she stormed out the door.

“So many people in my family are nuts,” Cinni whispered to Sparky as Leokadia drove away in her black Model B. “When I have my own family, I ain’t gonna invite relatives for Thanksgiving just ‘cause it’s expected of me; I’ll only invite people I want at my table.”

“You’re lucky you have so many older relatives, even if one of them is a bad person. I never met anyone older than my father’s parents.”

“You won’t hafta see my Prababcia Leokadia again, I don’t think. She shows up every so often to insult us, and then leaves. I like Pra-Prababcia Tanja and Prababcia Bogda most, since they always have neat stories about our ancestors, and they knew people who were alive in the eighteenth century.”

Posted in 1930s, Atlantic City books, Food, holidays, Writing

WeWriWa—A great feast

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP.

As last year, my Thanksgiving-themed snippets come from Chapter 19, “Happy Thanksgiving,” of the book formerly known as The Very First (which is set during 1938). The new and improved title will finally be revealed upon its release next year!

I decided to skip the scene of the turkey being butchered and go right to Thanksgiving, when five generations of Cinnimin Filliard’s family gather together with the five Smalls to enjoy their immense feast. The women in Cinni’s direct maternal line are usually very long-lived. Cinni herself will live to 120.

Thursday at 4:30, Cinni sat down to a Thanksgiving feast with her extended family and the Smalls. Both sides of the table were piled high with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, cornbread, gravy, mashed potatoes, candied yams, green beans, candied carrots, applesauce, pumpkin pie, apple pie, and bread rolls. Additional foods on the Smalls’ side were chopped liver and some kind of dish made from the other turkey innards. To avoid cross-contamination, the Smalls had several layers of placemats under their tableware, and several folded-up tablecloths underneath their pots, pans, and platters.

Almost everything looked identical, since Mrs. Small had worked from Mrs. Filliard’s recipes. The only differences were that the Smalls’ gravy was made with extra flour, and without cream, butter, or milk, and that their candied yams had a rainbow of colors from the unusual flavors of marshmallows.

Tatjana Modjeska, Cinni’s 98-year-old great-great-grandmother, was petting a fluffy Persian cat in her lap. Sparky was a bit wary of animal fur getting into the food, but anyone who’d lived to almost a hundred was entitled to bring her pet to dinner. Cinni’s great-great-great-grandmother, Helga Wisowska, had passed away four years ago, so Tatjana must miss her mother at the holidays.

Posted in 1930s, Atlantic City books, Cinnimin, Historical fiction, holidays, Writing

WeWriWa—At the butcher shop

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP.

As last year, my Thanksgiving-themed snippets will be coming from Chapter 19, “Happy Thanksgiving,” of the book formerly known as The Very First (which is set during 1938). The new and improved title will finally be revealed upon its release next year!

It’s two days before Thanksgiving, and Sparky (real name Katherine), her mother, her oldest brother Gary (born Friedrich), her best friend Cinnimin, and Cinnimin’s older brother M.J. are buying food for the Smalls’ half of the joint household’s feast. They’re now at their final stop, a kosher butcher.

Cinni held back after Gary opened the butcher’s door for her. Since she didn’t live on a farm and never helped in the kitchen if she could help it, she wasn’t used to seeing animal carcasses hanging up and strewn over tables. It was bad enough when she’d seen that fish head at the Smalls’ Rosh Hashanah supper.

“We usually go to a kosher butcher in Germantown, but this is much closer,” Gary said. “It’s not practical to haul all this stuff back on the streetcar, to our regular butcher, and back onto the streetcar again. I wish we’d settled in a place like New York or Newark, where all the Jewish resources we need are within a five-block radius of our home instead of a long ride and walk, there and back.”

Mrs. Small set her baskets down and approached a small pen of live turkeys. Cinni watched in amazement as she picked several up, felt for the meat on their bones, inspected their eyes and talons, and blew on their feathers. Mrs. Small might’ve never eaten a turkey or selected one for butchering, but she sure knew what to look for in her poultry.