Posted in 1930s, 1940s, Atlantic City books, Food, Historical fiction, Writing

The perils of pinning down every historical detail

While every good historical writer obviously needs to do a lot of research and get as many facts as possible right, there are inevitably times where we can’t find any information, the known existing information is scarce and sketchy, or it’s so difficult and time-consuming to locate information that it’s not really worth the effort. When that happens, we need to weigh the need for historical accuracy against how likely it is anyone will actually notice or care if some details aren’t 100% correct.

One of those scenarios is what was on the menu at real restaurants.

I’ve spent the past week working on my World’s Fair chapter in the book formerly known as The Very Last, and part of my research includes finding out what was served at the restaurants. I found several great New York Times articles in the archives (which I can search for free through my local library), along with the information at this awesome repository and some other sources.

However, one thing I didn’t count on was that some of those restaurants didn’t exist during the Fair’s second season in 1940, since almost a dozen foreign pavilions in the Government Zone were closed due to WWII. Other restaurants offered different menu items in 1940.

Above is the original menu of the Iraqi café, which sounds totally awesome, but which wasn’t the same during the second season. After I wrote a scene of Cinni and some of her friends having lunch there during their first day at the Fair, I discovered the café expanded to a full restaurant and added savoury Middle Eastern food. I can’t discount the possibility that they still offered those sweet date-based dishes, but that was no longer the entirety of their menu in 1940.

Historical menus absolutely can be found if you know where to look. Some major restaurants will mention the evolution of their menu and food offerings over the years in the history section of their websites. The New York Public Library has a huge free online treasure trove of archived menus. I’ve found numerous websites and serious blog posts about Brooklyn’s sadly closed Gage and Tollner restaurant (which was kind of like Delmonico’s).

But sometimes, it’s just too time-consuming and difficult, or even downright impossible, to track down certain details. Yeah, I could fly up to NYC and spend a few days looking through archives, or pay an archivist or librarian to do the research for me and send me the relevant information. But is that really worth the effort when the World’s Fair only occupies a single chapter? It’s not like the entire book or an entire part of the book is about the Fair!

In the absence of 100% proof, we should err on the side of plausibility. E.g., a seafood restaurant probably wouldn’t serve hamburgers. Vegetarian and vegan options just weren’t a thing until fairly recently. A French café wouldn’t offer Thai food.

Using a fictional restaurant eliminates the possibility of inadvertent error entirely.

Plus, how many people are going to notice or care if you include a menu item that may not have really been available on that date at that restaurant? I highly doubt that’ll pull anyone normal out of the story like a blatant anachronism would. You shouldn’t stress over a tiny detail that’s not important to the overall book. All that matters is doing the best you could with the information available.

Another little detail you may not always be able to find is makeup colours. There are plenty of vintage makeup ads to be found, and vintage beauty bloggers, but not all makeup comes from major name brands. Many makeup companies also like to give their colours creative names, beyond simple designators like red, pink, and green.

Also, makeup colours were a lot more conservative decades ago. The kind of lipsticks I like to wear (black, dark blue, dark green, purple) didn’t exist, and while nailpolish had a somewhat larger range, it also generally didn’t include colours like black, orange, and purple.

Do you notice or care if a few minor historical details aren’t 100% accurate? Do you appreciate an author’s note explaining the reasons for such decisions?

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

WeWriWa—A promise of hope in the coming year


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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. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

Happy New Year! To mark the holiday, I’m sharing the middle of the three sections in the last chapter of Movements in the Symphony of 1939, “Farewell, Nineteen-Thirties!” In Part II of the book, we’re introduced to a subplot with a Polish family Cinni’s father has been trying to bring to America. Though most of them managed to escape before the borders closed, the five people left behind were sent to Stutthof in the early days of the occupation.

Hans, the one who wrote this letter, is a mysterious young Luftwaffe pilot who provided many of them with travel visas and got them onto trains permitted to leave Poland before the country officially surrendered. He has a secret crush on Emma.

In the bitter cold of Stutthof, Emma shuddered under the thin wool coat she’d come with. The cold season had already begun creeping up on Poland at the end of September, but it hadn’t been cold enough to merit fur. Emma, her aunt, and her three uncles had left their best clothes hanging in their closets and wardrobes back in Warsaw, along with their best boots, all their Judaica, their fine linens, the beautiful tableware they’d entertained with a lifetime ago, all their books, their family photographs, and all their other personal mementos. Emma wondered if they’d ever see their home again, if any of their dear ones had gotten out of Poland safely, and if the Robleńskis were still alive. Most of all, she wondered where Dawida was.

“There’s a package for the blonde,” one of the guards announced, throwing a lump at Emma. “Happy New Year.”

Emma pulled off the thick outer layer of paper and found several slices of bread, smoked meat, some kind of crackers, a few cooked potatoes, and sliced raw carrots. Before September, she would’ve laughed at the thought of this feeding five people for more than one pathetic meal, but now it was a veritable holiday feast. At the bottom of the package, she found a handwritten note.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

Dear Emma, Zofia, Aleksander, Borys, and Paweł,

Happy New Year. I can’t promise anything certain, let alone so far in advance, but you must believe I’m coming to get you, not all at once, but as fast as I can. I haven’t forgotten you, nor the necessity of rescuing you from the terrible things I see coming. Never lose hope. By next year at this time, you’ll be in freedom again, maybe in your own home, and with as many of your former possessions as possible. Please believe I’m your friend and have your best interests at heart. Your redemption and rescue can’t come overnight, but they will happen. Hope never dies, even when it seems impossible.

Your unlikely friend,

Hans

Posted in 1930s, Movies

The Shame of a Nation (Scarface at 90, Part II: Plot summary)

Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), a gangster in Chicago, works as a bodyguard for crime lord Big Louis Costillo until being contracted by his buddy Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) to kill Costillo. Though the cops bring Tony in for questioning, he quickly walks free, and Johnny takes over Costillo’s former territory on the South Side. Tony becomes his second-in-command.

Now that he’s gotten a taste of a bigger salary and more power, Tony is eager to expand the empire even farther, into the North Side. This is a bridge too far for Johnny, who pleads with Tony to leave the North Side in the control of Irish gangster O’Hara.

That doesn’t deter Tony in the least. He’s confident his gang will someday take over the North Side and dethrone O’Hara’s gang. Not only that, he believes he’ll succeed Johnny as the head honcho, and starts getting flirtatious with Johnny’s girlfriend Poppy (Karen Morley).

Because Prohibition has just come in, Tony also wants to increase their crime empire and earn more easy money through bootlegging. Johnny is also keen to do this, but insists on waiting until after Costillo’s funeral to discuss the matter.

We then meet Tony’s kid sister Francesca (Cesca) (Ann Dvorak). He’s furious to discover she’s in the entry hallway kissing some guy instead of eating dinner at home. After Tony chases away her date, he insists he doesn’t want any men touching her, and gives her money to have fun without guys.

Mrs. Camonte (Inez Palange) highly disapproves of her accepting dirty money, but Cesca is determined to live her own life as she sees fit.

Johnny takes over Costillo’s former club without any difficulty, and his gang’s control over the South Side increases even more. Tony and some of his buddies set up a bootlegging operation and begin overselling their beer to every local speakeasy. They also start putting out a lot of hits on rivals and people standing in their way.

One of these shootouts is at The Shamrock, run by O’Hara’s gang. With their rival’s top men permanently out of the picture, it seems as though the North Side is theirs. There’s a little snag when the newspaper reports one of the gangsters survived and is in hospital, so Tony and his guys pay him a little visit to take care of this problem.

Tony tries to put the moves on Poppy again, but she refuses his advances, despite feeling some attraction to him. Johnny is also angry to learn he put out a hit on the North Side, since O’Hara will now be out for blood. As they’re all arguing, a car speeds down the street and throws out a dead body, with a note pinned to him:

STAY OUT OF THE NORTH SIDE

Soon afterwards, Poppy calls Tony multiple times to arrange a meeting. The message doesn’t get through the first time on account of Tony’s dimwitted secretary Angelo (Vince Barnett), a great bit of comic relief. Finally, Tony answers the phone himself, and to his great delight learns Poppy is right outside.

Poppy brings the news that O’Hara was taken out that morning in a flower shop, which explains why a fellow gangster just brought a carnation. While she and Tony are getting friendly in his place upstairs, the cops appear outside. Tony sends her to safety down the stairs through a back door and arranges a date that night.

Enter rival crime lord Tom Gaffney (Boris Karloff), who’s just received a fine shipment of sub-machine guns. When he’s tipped off that he’s being trailed, he figures out a way to get his precious new weapons to safety.

Tony has gotten out of legal trouble the same way he did earlier, by having his lawyer cite habeas corpus to the cops. With that matter easily settled, he goes to meet Poppy at the restaurant.

Alas, their date is interrupted by a big shootout. Angelo once against provides great comic relief by being completely unharmed as he talks on the phone right in the middle of the violence.

Tony is thrilled to discover an abandoned machine gun, particularly since it’s portable. This isn’t the kind of machine gun you have to operate in a stationary position. You can take it on the go with you.

Tony demonstrates the use of this magical weapon to Johnny, whom he has another fight with, and starts putting out hits on North Side rivals.

The violence continues fast and furious, leading cops to beg a newspaper editor to quit glorifying gangsters or even giving them any coverage at all. The editor says he can’t change anything unless the laws change first. That’s politicians’ responsibility, not his.

Tony is shocked and angry to see Cesca wearing a sexy dress and dancing with his buddy Guino “Little Boy” Rinaldo (George Raft) at a nightclub. This completely distracts him from his and Johnny’s rivalry for Poppy’s attentions, and he drags Cesca home, breaks a strap of her dress, and hits her. Once again, he insists no man can ever have her.

Then the power struggle between Tony and Johnny starts intensifying, with the stakes increasingly higher. Even more trouble appears when Tony returns from a month-long Florida vacation with Poppy and learns Cesca moved out. Tony storms over to her new home and flips out to see Guino is living with her.

Now the stage is set for one final confrontation between Tony and the law, with the highest stakes ever.

Posted in 1930s, Movies

The Shame of a Nation (Scarface at 90, Part I: Behind the scenes, reception, legacy)

Released 9 April 1932, Scarface: The Shame of a Nation was loosely based on Armitage Trail’s 1929 novel of the same name, which in turn was inspired by Al Capone. Since gangster films were a hot property in the early Thirties, Howard Hughes bought the film rights. Warner Brothers was quickly proven wrong in their pessimistic prediction that the genre was already worn-out and oversaturated!

Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay in eleven days in January 1931. Later additions were made by W.R. Burnett (author of the novel Little Caesar) and Fred Pasley. The script was rewritten for dialogue and continuity by Seton I. Miller and John Lee Mahin.

Ultimately, the film has almost nothing in common with the book, outside of the same major characters, major plot points, and creepy incestuous undertones between Tony and his sister Cesca. Sadly, some of the changes were made because of censorship fears.

Howard Hughes wanted a grand première in NYC, but censorship boards vetoed it. The film was also banned in Detroit, Chicago, Portland, Seattle, Ohio, Kansas, Maryland, and Virginia. The New York Herald Tribune was delighted when Hughes threatened to sue these Puritanical nitwits for attempting to block the release of his film.

Finally, Jason Joy convinced them to permit the film’s screening, since the equally-Puritanical Hays Office had approved all of the many, many, many changes made to appease censors’ warped sense of morality (e.g., making Tony less sympathetic and intelligent, adding scenes to explicitly condemn gangsterism, removing crime-friendly cops and politicians, making Tony’s mother against his lifestyle instead of hugely supportive of it).

Eventually, Scarface was approved for release everywhere.

Though most people liked the film (even Al Capone himself!), and the National Board of Review listed Scarface as one of 1932’s best films, box office receipts were negatively affected by general public disapproval of gangsterism, crime, and violence. Some critics wrote brutal reviews.

In addition to blasting the criminal subject, some critics also zoomed in on Boris Karloff’s British accent, which they felt was really out of place in a gangster film. However, other critics thought his role was one of the best aspects.

The fraternal Order Sons of Italy in America, the Italian Embassy, and many other Italian–American organisations and people also condemned the film for following the trend of associating Italian–Americans with crime. Will Hays tried to do damage control by claiming the film was delayed in production for two years and didn’t reflect the current censorship laws he oversaw.

Scarface was also banned in Nazi Germany, Ireland, and some cities in England, and despite Jason Joy’s victory over Puritanical U.S. censorship boards, some cities and states still refused to screen the film. It wasn’t shown in Chicago until 20 November 1941, when it broke box office records at the Woods Theatre.

Upon its initial release, Scarface earned $600,000 ($13,038,438 in 2022). Though this made it a bigger financial success than Hughes’s other films, it still probably only broke even instead of turning a profit. Hughes was known for spending a lot of money on his productions.

Hughes scrapped his plans to direct a sequel in 1933, thanks to increasingly stricter censorship demands. Eventually he removed Scarface from circulation due to not making enough money from it.

Despite its initial bombing at the box office, Scarface has gone on to become a classic, highly regarded by critics and regular viewers alike. In autumn 1946, it was translated and dubbed into Italian, with the characters’ names Americanised, and a few other changes made to appear less of a negative reflection on Italians.

In 1976, it was redubbed into Italian, with the changes reverted and the original Italian names and references restored.

In 1994, Scarface was chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Over the years, it’s frequently appeared on those incessant best-of lists.

Scarface is also considered one of the Big Three of early 1930s gangster films, the other two being The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. However, it was also the final major gangster film for some time, as the ridiculously restrictive Hays Code came crashing down on 1 July 1934 and made the subject matter impossible to depict properly.

In 1979, three years after Hughes’s death, the holding company Summa Corporation, which controlled his estate, released Scarface and seven other films from his vaults and sold their film rights to Universal. This led to a 1983 remake starring Al Pacino.

Since all events are linked together in this best of all possible worlds, Pacino said he was very inspired by Paul Muni, both as an actor in general and his work in Scarface in particular. It was also thanks to Scarface that Muni’s star began rapidly rising.

Additionally, Scarface launched the long leading man career of second lead George Raft, and it was Ann Dvorak’s best-known film.

In 2011, Universal announced plans for a new version, neither a remake or sequel, but rather with elements from both previous films. As of the last update in 2020, the current slated director is Luca Guadagnino, and the Coen brothers are the screenwriters.

Posted in 1930s, Movies

The gripping story of an innocent fugitive (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang at 90, Part II: Behind the scenes, reception, legacy)

Robert Elliott Burns, a shellshocked WWI veteran, was in the wrong place at the wrong time in 1921 Atlanta, and under the cruel judicial system of the 1920s, he was unfairly judged as guilty and sentenced to six to ten years in a hard-labor chain gang in Georgia. He escaped with help from a fellow prisoner, found refuge in Chicago, and started a successful new life.

Sadly, his marital troubles later led to him being extradited back to Georgia, despite fierce attempts to keep him in Chicago, and he went back into the South’s bestial prison system. In 1930, he escaped again, and in 1931, his memoirs were serialized in True Detective Mysteries magazine.

His story came out as a book in January 1932, I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! Knowing a hot commodity when they saw one, Warner Brothers purchased film rights soon afterwards.

The studio’s story department originally voted against adapting the book to the silver screen, since “all the strong and vivid points in the story are certain to be eliminated by the present censorship board.” However, Jack Warner and Darryl F. Zanuck overrode them and went ahead with the project.

Roy Del Ruth, the studio’s highest-paid director, was assigned to the film, but he backed out for similar reasons to the story department. He thought it was too morbid and heavy, since God forbid a film not be all happy-clappy rainbows, glitter, daisies, puppies, and kittens. He also thought it would be box office poison and the last thing Depression audiences would want to see.

Mervyn LeRoy left his film in progress, 42nd Street, and took over directing duties. Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes wrote the screenplay.

Lead actor Paul Muni (né Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund) met with Robert Elliott Burns several times to get a raw, authentic feel for the real-life character he was playing. Not only did Muni want to learn how Burns walked, talked, and acted, he also wanted to acquire the smell of fear. As he said, “I don’t want to imitate you; I want to be you.”

Muni’s intensive research didn’t end there. He asked the studio to get its hands on every last newspaper and magazine article, book, and other media about the South’s horrific penal system. Muni also met a few California prison guards, one of whom had labored in a Southern chain gang.

Warner Brothers wouldn’t allow Muni to go all the way by meeting wardens and guards still in Georgia.

Film critics highly praised I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which was released 20 November 1932. It was the studio’s third-biggest film of 1932, earning $650,000 in the U.S. ($14,139,255 in 2022) and $949,000 abroad ($20,643,313 in 2022).

Audiences loved the film too, both as a gripping story and as a damning indictment of chain gangs. Many people hadn’t been aware of this cruel practice or how harsh the judicial system could be. As a result of this public outrage, Burns and many other prisoners successfully won their appeals and were released in January 1933.

J. Harold Hardy, a Georgia chain gang warden who appears as as character, sued Warner Brothers for a million dollars for “vicious, brutal, and false attacks.”

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards—Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Sound Recording. The National Board of Review also gave it the 1932 award for Best Picture, and in 1991, it was added to the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

In 1987, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was remade as The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains, starring Val Kilmer in the leading role.