WeWriWa—Unwrapping presents together

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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. This year, my Chanukah- and Christmas-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 week’s snippet comes a few pages after last week’s, as the Smalls (originally the Brandts) and their sponsors/hosts the Filliards sat down for a dinner jointly celebrating the eighth night of Chanukah and Christmas Eve, which fell on the same night in 1938. Now they’re going to unwrap some of their presents together.

Artwork by Yelena Flerova

After the table had been cleared, everyone went into the living room to unwrap presents. The Filliards had wrapped the Smalls’ gifts in innocuous, secular paper, without any Christmas symbols, not even snowflakes. Both the paper and ribbons were solid green, red, and blue. The gift tags likewise were devoid of any hint of Christmas, and could’ve easily been affixed to gifts for any occasion.

Cinni watched expectantly as the Smalls opened her gifts. She’d gotten a small, no-frills compact mirror for Mrs. Small; a tin of shoe polish for Mr. Small; a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle for Gary; a book of Heinrich Heine poetry in German for Barry; and pearl hairpins in the shape of hearts for Sparky. Barry’s earlier Chanukah present had been a dark blue and white plaid beret, so he’d have a more stylish, modern way to cover his head. Though Cinni had itched to put a more personal inscription in the book, she didn’t want Barry to suspect her true feelings. Instead she’d settled for “Dec. 24, 1938, to Barry from Cinnimin. Happy Chanukah.”

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WeWriWa—A joint holiday celebration

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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. This year, my Chanukah- and Christmas-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!

There have been a lot of religious conflicts during December 1938, as young immigrant Sparky (real name Katherine) and her family are inundated with symbolism of a holiday they don’t celebrate, and a variety of responses to their refusal to adopt Christmas as a secular holiday “everyone” celebrates. However, Sparky’s family has agreed to come together with their hosts the Filliards for a joint celebration of the eighth night of Chanukah and Christmas Eve.

This has been slightly tweaked to fit 10 lines.

Painting by Yelena Flerova

The Smalls had brought schnitzel, Kartoffelpuffer, chicken soup, brisket, candied carrots, bolussen, applesauce, and, best of all, plenty of Berliner Pfannkuchen, while on the Filliards’ side of the table sat roasted goose with stuffing; dried fruit compote; mushroom soup; gołąbki; pierogi stuffed with chopped mushrooms and mashed potatoes; kotlety; stuffed mushrooms; mazurek stuffed with dried almonds, chocolate, and apricot jam; chocolate sernik; zefiry; and several heaping platters of cookies. There’d be more than enough for everyone.

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” Mrs. Filliard said as she cut into a gołąbek. “You’ve been generous to share your food, and oughta taste some of ours in return.”

“Perhaps next year, we can cook by your recipes in our kitchen,” Mrs. Small said.

“It’s ‘with,’ not ‘by,’” Gary gently corrected her. “You’re making the mistake of directly translating a German expression into English. Sometimes being too literal results in improper English.”

“My mother and I made that mistake too, when we were learning English,” Mr. Filliard said. “That expression translates from Russian the same way it does from German, and it took a long time for me to realize I wasn’t being grammatically correct.”

Kartoffelpuffer are German latkes; bolussen are Dutch sweet rolls; Berliner Pfannkuchen are jelly doughnuts. Among the traditional Polish and Russian Christmas foods, gołąbki are cabbage leaves wrapped around a savory filling (usually including meat); kotlety are small, pan-fried meatballs; mazurek is a sweet, flat cake; sernik is cheesecake made with quark; and zefiry are similar to meringues.

WeWriWa—Thanksgiving shopping

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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. This 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 snippet comes a number of pages after last week’s. It’s now 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.

In 1938, Atlantic City had a large Jewish community, with many kosher groceries, bakeries, and candy shops.

Cinni rang the bell when Mrs. Small pointed out the approaching kosher grocery.  Though A&P had plenty of fruits and vegetables which were kosher by default, the Smalls typically bought their canned goods and bulk foods from kosher groceries.  Not everything at A&P could be trusted.

Inside the store, Cinni excitedly pointed out everything Mrs. Small needed to buy.  Since this wasn’t a fun food store like a bakery, Cinni didn’t linger over the culinary riches on display.  Within thirty minutes, they’d brought their bounty up to the counter and been rung up for $1.70.  The celery and cornbread were in the basket Gary carried, while Mrs. Small carried the baskets with yams and cranberries and Cinni held the pumpkin.

Their next stop was a candy store five blocks down.  Cinni eagerly ran inside and made a beeline for the bins and barrels of bulk candies and other sweets.  The richness of the choices overwhelmed her—chocolate-covered peanuts, rock candy, peppermints, salt water taffy, toffee, jellybeans, gumdrops, nougats, lollipops, nonpareils, peanut brittle, peppermint bark, fruit-flavored hard candies, chocolates of all kinds, fruit-flavored licorice, candybars, fudge, candied fruit slices, halvah, Jordan almonds, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, flavored stick candies, and marshmallows.

Duck Soup at 85, Part III (Legacy)

While the Marx Brothers’ MGM films were more financially successful and popular than their Paramount films during their respective original runs, today the situation has reversed. By and large, fans tend to strongly prefer the five Paramount films, and don’t think that highly of any but their first two MGM films.

In the 1960s, as interest in 1930s films grew, Duck Soup finally recovered from its initial lacklustre reception and gained classic status.

Some film critics feel it’s not only on par with other comedic, satirical send-ups of politics and wars, like The Great Dictator and Dr. Strangelove, but even more effective and unnerving because it wasn’t consciously trying to be anything but irreverent comedy.

In 1990, Duck Soup was chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry, owing to being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” On those incessant best-of lists and surveys, it’s routinely included as one of the greatest comedies and films of all time.

The film has been cited as strong inspiration for many comedians over the years, as well as some political satires and animated cartoons. The Beatles also named it as inspiration for their madcap film Help!, and other of their comedic stylings.

In 2004, the five Paramount films were released in a boxed set, along with 15 minutes of interviews and a rather shallow 40-page booklet. Many fans were deeply disappointed with the shoddy condition of the prints and audio, and the lack of bonus features.

In contrast, the MGM films (and the one-off RKO film), which show a gradual, painful decline in quality, got the deluxe DVD treatment.

Thankfully, in 2016, this disgraceful situation was finally rectified, and now we can enjoy these films properly, with pristine prints, audio commentaries, and bonus features.

I first saw Duck Soup on New Year’s Eve 1999. In 1997, I’d seen my first two Marx Brothers’ films, which I wouldn’t wish on any new fan. Of all the great films to start out with, Love Happy (1949) ain’t it! That horrible, unrepresentative first impression was followed up by another poor choice for a new fan, Room Service (1938).

I decided to give them one more chance when my father rented Duck Soup from Blockbuster. Lo and behold, it was much better than the first two films I’d seen, and significantly changed my impression. I finally understood what all the fuss was about.

The third time was the charm. While it took me awhile to fully grow in love with the Marx Brothers (vs. immediately falling in love, as I did with Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges), it ultimately created a very strong bond.

I wasn’t ready to be a true Marx Brothers fan till my mid-twenties, through no fault of theirs, or mine. I just most strongly prefer slapstick and physical comedy. Some things, like fine wine or a piano, are best when aged.

There are also books, films, and albums one always enjoys, but doesn’t have the maturity to fully appreciate and understand until going through more of life. That’s what the Marx Brothers have been to me.

Duck Soup at 85, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Though urban legend has it Duck Soup was a box office bomb and caused Paramount to drop the Marx Brothers, it was the sixth-highest-grossing film of 1933. It earned mixed reviews, despite not earning nearly as much money as Paramount hoped for.

The Marxes left Paramount because of contract disputes; deteriorated relationships between them; and a threatened walk-out. Duck Soup also fulfilled the five-film contract they’d signed, so they were free to go elsewhere.

Audiences didn’t warm to it so well because they were in the throes of the Great Depression. They sought lightweight, escapist entertainment, not cynical political satires. The subject matter wasn’t something they felt should be made into a joke.

As MGM wonder boy Irving G. Thalberg explained when they switched studios, there wasn’t enough of a solid story. Audiences needed someone to root for, not a nonstop, disconnected parade of freewheeling comedy, gags, and anarchy.

The MGM films have more tightly-plotted scripts, but they also added something else Thalberg insisted on—a romantic subplot, with the brothers helping the couple to get their happy ever after. Had Zeppo stayed, he would’ve gotten so much more screentime as the romantic lead and straightman!

Most of the characters’ names were altered from the original script. Groucho’s surname was Firestone; Harpo was Brownie; Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania was Ambassador Frankenstein of Amnesia; and Vera Marcal was June Parker. The lattermost started as Mrs. Teasdale’s niece, then became Trentino’s niece, before finally just becoming Trentino’s partner in crime.

Zeppo was also originally Groucho’s son.

Prior to filming, Paramount was near bankruptcy, and on the eve of reorganization. They thought they could use the Marx Brothers as cash cows (like Universal later used Abbott and Costello), based on the huge success of 1932’s Horse Feathers. Unfortunately, the brothers feared they’d never get paid what they were already owed, and threatened to start their own company.

They planned their first indie film as an adaptation of Of Thee I Sing, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical. There was talk of Groucho and Chico starring as the characters they played on their radio show, Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel.

In 1941, they finally played these characters, Flywheel and Ravelli, in the dreadful The Big Store. Many of the gags and routines in the final script came from the radio show.

This indie film never came to fruition, and the team of Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, and Arthur Sheekman, whom they’d worked with before, began writing a script with the working title Firecrackers. Two months later, it was changed to Cracked Ice. Several more months later, it became Grasshoppers.

The ultimate title was the same one director Leo McCarey had used for a 1927 Laurel and Hardy short. In U.S. slang of the time, duck soup referred to an easy job.

The title also continued their animal theme, after Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, and Horse Feathers.

Mussolini banned the film, taking it as a personal insult, while the city of Fredonia, NY, wanted the fictional nation’s name changed. They thought it’d hurt their reputation. The brothers fired back, telling them to change their name to avoid hurting the movie.