So…What Do I Get for my Income Tax?

A scene from the 1938 Frank Capra classic (pardon my repetition) You Can’t Take it With You. 

The sad thing is, the things listed here would actually be worth paying for. I’d kill to have my income tax only go to pay for battleships and government salaries.

The clip is also interesting for featuring a really incredible set of star-power packed into five minutes of film. That the legendary Lionel Barrymore as Grandpa Vanderhof, the all-but-immortal Charles Lane (who was still making films in the 1990s) as the IRS man, James Stewart as young Kirby, and the inimitable Jean Arthur as Alice. Meanwhile, in the background, you can see character actors Ann Miller, Spring Byington, Samuel S. Hinds, and Halliwell Hobbs.

Amazingly enough, that doesn’t even come close to exhausting the familiar faces in this film: Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (most famous for the Jack Benny Program, and probably the premier Black comedian of the time) is on hand as the shiftless boyfriend of the family maid, hamtastic character actor Mischa Auer is a mad Russian ballet teacher, Edward Arnold is Kirby senior (giving the stand-out performance of the film), Donald Meek is another house guest, and H.B. Warner (one day to be Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life) shows up as a ruined businessman. And all directed by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

Of course, the real point of the above scene is that Grandpa doesn’t need anything from the government. In fact, they don’t need anything from anyone. Interestingly, part of the reason they don’t need anything is because they have the right to private property; Grandpa owns the house in New York City that they live in (truly the past is another country) and can basically do what he likes with it. If he wants to invite any interesting stranger to come and stay, and if they happen to stay for decades on end, well, what of it? It’s his house.

This is a frequent theme in Capra’s works; skepticism of the rich is blended with a strong regard for property rights, because, in Capra’s view, the right to own property ensures individual liberty. The Vanderhof family can do as they like and ask nothing from anyone because they own their own house.

Owning their own property also allows them to be charitable and contribute to society. The Vanderhof’s aren’t idle bums; they (in Grandpa’s words) “Toil a little, spin a little, and have a barrel of laughs.” Everyone produces something, and no one asks for charity (well, except for Rochester’s character, who’s a lovable bum…but so is Micha Auer’s character).

This calls to mind Ephesians 4:28 “He that stole, let him now steal no more; but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have something to give to him that suffereth need,” which brings me to the other reason the Vanderhof’s don’t need anything from the government: faith and family. They support each other, and God supports all of them. Grandpa makes this explicit right off the bat when asked who takes care of them; “The same one who takes care of the lilies of the field,” and further emphasized by the scenes of him offering grace that bookend the story.

Personally, I’m very skeptical of Chesterton’s notion of ‘Distributism.’ Brilliant as he was, he had a glaring blind spot as far as economics were concerned (something he shared with many other brilliant men, including Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. It seems the qualities that make for philosophical genius tend to create gaps as far as economics are concerned). However, as an ideal for individuals, a self-sufficient household that asks nothing and produces worthwhile goods to support itself is something worth striving for. It is a very Christian and Biblical notion; each family supporting itself and providing charity to those in need from its own property, bound together by shared faith and love.

Property, faith, and family are the trinity that allows for individual liberty. In our world, we’ve largely lost all three to the extent that we hardly know what we have lost.

Reagan vs. Dean

Here’s something cool: very rare footage from a “General Electric Theater” play that pits Ronald Reagan (playing an upright doctor) against James Dean (playing a crazed delinquent). This was just after Reagan left the movies for television and just before James Dean took Hollywood by storm. Dean’s mesmerizing performance here reminds you why he remains a legend to this day. Though personally, I was more wowed by the awesome image of the future President showing a nihilistic punk exactly why and how he sucks as human being.

How many Presidents have footage of themselves staring down a gun barrel, coolly assessing the weapon’s stopping power, and warning the other guy that he’d better hope it kills him? Damn, the fifties were awesome!

Speech by Archbishop John Ireland to the New York Commandery of the Loyal League, April 4, 1894

I just found this beautiful and stirring speech by Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, MN. With the Fourth of July approaching, it seems an appropriate time to present it before the public.

Would that we had more pastors today who possessed his power of words, clarity of ideas, and confidence of convictions.  Of course, His Grace was a veteran of the War Between the States, where he had distributed both ammunition and the Sacraments to men under fire so presumably he wasn’t especially worried about offending anyone. Not to mention this was a time when most people didn’t consider a man speaking the truth to be a personal insult.

But I digress. Without further adieu, I present His Grace, the Archbishop of St. Paul.

Patriotism is love of country, and loyalty to its life and weal—love tender and strong, tender as the love of son for mother, strong as the pillars of death; loyalty generous and disinterested, shrinking from no sacrifice, seeking no reward save country’s honor and country’s triumph.

  Patriotism! There is magic in the word. It is bliss to repeat it. Through ages the human race burnt the incense of admiration and reverence at the shrines of patriotism. The most beautiful pages of history are those which recount its deeds. Fireside tales, the outpourings of the memories of peoples, borrow from it their warmest glow.
Poets are sweetest when they re-echo its whisperings; orators are most potent when they thrill its chords to music.

Pagan nations were wrong when they made gods of their noblest patriots. But the error was the excess of a great truth, that heaven unites with earth in approving and blessing patriotism; that patriotism is one of earth’s highest virtues, worthy to have come down from the atmosphere of the skies.

  The exalted patriotism of the exiled Hebrew exhaled itself in a canticle of religion which Jehovah inspired, and which has been transmitted, as the inheritance of God’s people to the Christian Church:

“Upon the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept, when we remembered Sion.—If I forget thee, 0 Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten. Let my tongue cleave to my jaws, if I do not remember thee, if I do not make Jerusalem the beginning of my joy.”

The human race pays homage to patriotism because of its supreme value. The value of patriotism to a people is above gold and precious stones, above commerce and industry, above citadels and warships. Patriotism is the vital spark of national honor; it is the fount of the nation’s prosperity, the shield of the nation’s safety. Take patriotism away, the nation’s soul has fled, bloom and beauty have vanished from the nation’s countenance.

The human race pays homage to patriotism because of its supreme loveliness. Patriotism goes out to what is among earth’s possessions the most precious, the first and best and dearest—country—and its effusion is the fragrant flowering of the purest and noblest sentiments of the heart.

Patriotism is innate in all men; the absence of it betokens a perversion of human nature; but it grows its full growth only where thoughts are elevated and heart-beatings are generous.

Next to God is country, and next to religion is patriotism. No praise goes beyond its deserts. It is sublime in its heroic oblation upon the field of battle. “Oh glorious is he,” exclaims in Homer the Trojan warrior, “who for his country falls!” It is sublime in the oft-repeated toil of dutiful citizenship. “Of all human doings,” writes Cicero, “none is more honorable and more estimable than to merit well of the commonwealth.”

Countries are of divine appointment. The Most High “divided the nations, separated the sons of Adam, and appointed the bounds of peoples.” The physical and moral necessities of God’s creatures are revelations of his will and laws. Man is born a social being. A condition of his existence and of his growth of mature age is the family. Nor does the family suffice to itself. A larger social organism is needed, into which families gather, so as to obtain from one another security to life and property and aid in the development of the faculties and powers with which nature has endowed the children of men.

The whole human race is too extensive and too diversified in interests to serve those ends: hence its subdivisions into countries or peoples. Countries have their providential limits—the waters of a sea, a mountain range, the lines of similarity of requirements or of methods of living. The limits widen in space according to the measure of the destinies which the great Ruler allots to peoples, and the importance of their parts in the mighty work of the cycles of years, the ever-advancing tide of humanity’s evolution.

The Lord is the God of nations because he is the God of men. No nation is born into life or vanishes back into nothingness without his bidding. I believe in the providence of God over countries as I believe in his wisdom and his love, and my patriotism to my country rises within my soul invested with the halo of my religion to my God.

 

More than a century ago a trans-Atlantic poet and philosopher, reading well the signs, wrote:

“Westward the course of empire takes its way.
The first four acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.”

Berkeley’s prophetic eye had descried America. What shall I say, in a brief discourse of my country’s value and beauty, of her claims to my love and loyalty? I will pass by in silence her fields and forests, her rivers and seas, the boundless riches hidden beneath her soil and amid the rocks of her mountains, her pure and health-giving air, her transcendent wealth of nature’s fairest and most precious gifts. I will not speak of the noble qualities and robust deeds of her sons, skilled in commerce and industry, valorous in war, prosperous in peace. In all these things America is opulent and great: but beyond them and above them in her singular grandeur, to which her material splendor is only the fitting circumstance.

America born into the family of nations in these latter times is the highest billow in humanity’s evolution, the crowning effort of ages in the aggrandizement of man. Unless we take her in this altitude, we do not comprehend her; we belittle her towering stature and conceal the singular design of Providence in her creation.

When the fathers of the republic declared “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” a cardinal principle was enunciated which in its truth was as old as the race, but in practical realization almost unknown.

Slowly, amid sufferings and revolutions, humanity had been reaching out toward a reign of the rights of man. Ante-Christian paganism had utterly denied such rights. It allowed nothing to man as man; he was what wealth, place, or power made him. Even the wise Aristotle taught that some men were intended by nature to be slaves and chattels. The sweet religion of Christ proclaimed aloud the doctrine of the common fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of men.

Eighteen hundred years, however, went by, and the civilized world had not yet put its civil and political institutions in accord with its spiritual faith. The Christian Church was all this time leavening human society and patiently awaiting the promised fermentation. This came at last, and it came in America. It came in a first manifestation through the Declaration of Independence; it came in a second and final manifestation through President Lincoln’s Proclamation of Emancipation.

In America all men are civilly and politically equal; all have the same rights; all wield the same arm of defense and of conquest, the suffrage; and the sole condition of rights and of power is simple manhood.

Liberty is the exemption from all restraint save that of the laws of justice and order; the exemption from submission to other men, except as they represent and enforce those laws. The divine gift of liberty to man is God’s recognition of his greatness and his dignity. The sweetness of man’s life and the power of growth lie in liberty. The loss of liberty is the loss of light and sunshine, the loss of life’s best portion. Humanity, under the spell of heavenly memories, never ceased to dream of liberty and to aspire to its possession. Now and then, here and there, its refreshing breezes caressed humanity’s brow. But not until the republic of the West was born, not until the Star-Spangled Banner rose toward the skies, was liberty caught up in humanity’s embrace and embodied in a great and abiding nation.

In America the government takes from the liberty of the citizen only so much as is necessary for the weal of the nation, which the citizen by his own act freely concedes. In America there are no masters, who govern in their own rights, for their own interests, or at their own will. We have over us no Louis XIV, saying: “L’etat, c’est moi;” no Hohenzollern, announcing that in his acts as sovereign he is responsible only to his conscience and to God.

Ours is the government of the people, by the people, for the people. The government is our organized will.

There is no state above or apart from the people. Rights begin with and go upward from the people. In other countries, even those apparently the most free, rights begin with and come downward from the state; the rights of citizens, the rights of the people, are concessions which have been painfully wrenched from the governing powers.

With Americans, whenever the organized government does not prove its grant, the liberty of the individual citizen is sacred and inviolable. Elsewhere there are governments called republics; universal suffrage constitutes the state; but, once constituted, the state is tyrannous and arbitrary, invades at will private rights, and curtails at will individual liberty. One republic is liberty’s native home—America.

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TCM Remembers and a Tribute to Two Lost Masters

I always enjoy TCM’s in memoriam videos. Well, enjoy might not be the right word, but they’re fitting tributes to those lost in the entertainment world. Retrospectives like this are important: they help us to remember both the achievements of those who’ve gone before us and deserve our respect, and they also remind us of our own mortality and the remorseless march of time, forcing us to consider what our legacy shall be. In memoriam are necessarily memento mori.

Watch and pay respects to those professionals in their field who have departed this vale of tears.

This year we lost some great ones. Leonard Nimoy, of course, received much fitting tribute after his passing in February. Maureen O’Hara marked the passing of one of the last stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. If I’m not mistaken, her death leaves only Olivia de Havilland left of that generation. Christopher Lee, meanwhile, was the last of the classic horror stars to pass on, following Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine. Wes Craven, past master of horror, likewise departed.

I would like to draw particular attention, however, to two actors whose work I only know from a few projects, but who were especially talented and entertaining performers not well known to modern audiences.

The first is Louis Jourdan, a splendid French actor possessed of a tremendously entertaining style. He excelled at playing smug, upper-class villains. I’m most familiar with him from an episode of Columbo in which he played a corrupt food critic who poisons a chef who threatened to expose him. Jourdan is deliciously disgusting in the role; he’s a repulsively smug bastard, but he’s just so exuberant in being a smug bastard that you can’t help being entertained by him. He rattles off complicated dishes with evident relish at his own knowledge and prances and gestures theatrically across the screen at every opportunity. Yet the hamminess fits the role: you feel like this is the kind of guy who would act at all times as if he were part of a stage melodrama. I also love his final confrontation with Columbo as the two collaborate on a meal while the detective lays out how he solved the case. Jourdan’s more restrained here as the noose tightens around his neck, and his exit line is one of the best of any Columbo episode, and perfectly delivered. “Lieutenant,” he sighs after tasting Columbo’s cooking. “I wish you’d been a chef.”

Jourdan had long and distinguished career, most of which was spent trying to avoid being typecast as a ‘continental lover.’ He commented that he much preferred character parts, and it certainly shows. His best known role is probably in the musical Gigi, which I haven’t seen myself, but he’s also famous for playing a Bond villain in Octopussy. It’s not one of the better entries, and it’s been too long since I’ve seen it to comment on his performance, though he does get at least one particularly great line: “You seem to have a nasty habit of surviving.”

The other actor was also a veteran of Columbo (there are few high-class actors of the time who weren’t): Theodore Bikel, a burly, incredibly energetic performer, one of those actor’s actors who could melt into any role and make it work. He had small roles in a number of classic films (notably My Fair Lady and The African Queen), but was best known for his stage and television work (he apparently played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof over 2,000 times). Like Jourdan, I most remember him from Columbo. In his episode, he played a member of a ‘Mensa’ like group of geniuses who concocts a brilliantly executed murder to cover up his embezzlements.

Columbo episodes generally come in two flavors: there are the classic mystery episodes, where the point is to catch the killer and the character study episodes, which are more about exploring the murderer’s character and personality. Jourdan’s episode was an example of the former, Bikel’s the latter. We get to know his character very well indeed by the end; he’s brilliant, but he’s emotionally stunted for just that reason, always reaching out to the childhood he lost as “an imitation adult.” He claims the man he killed was his best friend, but from what we see the relationship appears to have been rather one-sided. He’s married to an absolutely vapid woman who is only interested in sex and whom he seems to have married for that reason. In fact, he’s a profoundly lonely man. Even his so-called intellectual peers don’t interest him (“I find them eccentric bores”). Somehow or other, he just doesn’t fit in to any of the boxes society tries to put him in, even the one seemingly tailor made for him. You don’t dislike the man; you feel sorry for him.

Personally, I really relate to this character. I know what it’s like to feel alienated and lonely both in the ordinary day-to-day world and in the sheltered, ‘selected’ world set aside for people ‘like you.’ It’s a marvelous performance by Bikel, one that sticks with you long after the episode ends.

The other performance I remember by Bikel (I haven’t seen many, unfortunately) was an episode of The Twilight Zone in which he plays a paranoid fanatic who occupies his time spying on people, cataloguing what he considers their undesirable traits and seeking to make them pay for it (one of his victims was a doctor who failed to save a patient). Overwhelmed by the task before him, he decides to destroy all ‘evil people’ by sheer will at the stroke of four.

The twist to this one is as predictable as it gets, and it’s not one of the great Twilight Zone episodes, but the sheer force of Bikel’s performance makes it enjoyable nonetheless. To this day I can’t hear the words “four o’clock” without recalling the particular inflection he gives them. I also love his response to an FBI Agent (whom he’s trying to give ‘information’ to) tactfully asking whether he’d ever seen a psychiatrist: “Why?” he giggles. “I’m not evil!”

Every year marks the end of thousands of lives. Some of those lives were masters in their particular craft, giants in their field, or simply hard-working professionals who did their jobs well. Lous Jourdan and Theodore Bikel were both great performers and they, together with all those TCM Remembers, will be missed.

 

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace.

Ross’s Game Dungeon

I have a fondness for the obscure and original, which is something I seem to share with Ross of Ross’s Game Dungeon, which is one of the reasons why it’s one of my favorite YouTube series.

Ross was introduced to me through his hilarious Freeman’s Mind series, which was just a play-through of the original Half-Life with him voicing the silent protagonist’s thoughts. It’s creative, dark, consistently funny, and it features one of my absolute favorite games, so I love Freeman’s Mind.

Once that series ended, Ross started a new series called Ross’s Game Dungeon in which he delivers fairly in-depth reviews of usually quite obscure or just plain odd games. For instance, one of the reviews deals with Helious: an arcade puzzle game, which, according to the developer, was created by aliens who left it on his computer following a close encounter. Said developer seems to have vanished off the face of the earth in the intervening years. Another game, Nyet III, is a German-made, Tetris-based survival horror game. How does that work? You have to watch the video to find out (warning: contains nudity. It’s…an unusual Tetris game).

It’s not strictly a comedy series, though Ross’s personality is often very entertaining, and I especially love the occasional random thoughts, accompanied by appropriate footage, that interrupt the regular flow of the narration (i.e. in the very first episode, for the top-down flight-shooter game Tyrian, includes the line “I have a ship that’s a carrot”).

The appeal of the series, for me, is a combination of the obscurity of the games themselves (like I said, I like off-the-beaten-track works and obscure bits of history) and the genuinely intelligent things Ross has to say about them. I mean, he’s obviously not especially intellectual (which is not at all the same thing as being intelligent), but he makes solid points about the writing and game design. There’s a surprising amount of rewatch value (though I generally rewatch things more than most). There’s a balance of humor and sincerity that I find very appealing.

A lot of this comes from Ross’s personality, which is refreshingly down-to-earth and likable. Freeman’s Mind presents the title character as a neurotic sociopath, which was funny, but you wouldn’t want to spend any real time with him, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that his actual personality goes down much easier. This makes his videos a lot more enjoyable to watch than someone like, say, the Nostalgia Critic, who is so over-the-top and profane that his reviews often leave a bad taste in the mouth.

Ross is entertaining more because of his personality than because of cheap gimmicks like profanity or shouting, though he does do that sometimes as well. His comments and the things that he singles out as appealing to him are refreshingly, well, honest. It feels like he is actually expressing his personal likes and dislikes, rather than going along with what he thinks he ought to like, if you know what I mean. He comes across just as a normal person talking about a topic that interests him, which is enjoyable. He swears a fair amount, but not as if he’s trying to get a cheap laugh, but because that’s just he talks, and he’s not vulgar. A lot of internet reviewers sound like they’re trying to shock their audience into laughter (i.e. Zero Punctuation), and I definitely don’t get that here. Ross sound’s more like he’s chatting with friends over drinks. As a bonus, he sounds like John Ratzenberger, so it’s like listening to Ham the Piggy Bank reviewing video games.

As for his reviews, Ross is thorough without being overly pedantic or boring, and has some solid standards. He talks about the graphics, the gameplay, the writing, the music, and anything else that comes up. He especially seems interested in the music, a relatively rare subject in game reviews. One of the main things he looks for is whether the games have personality. Almost all the games he reviews, good or bad, have a lot of personality, and one of the games he came down hardest on, Wolfenstein, was because the game was so patently soulless and committee-designed that he eventually gave up half-way through. In that review he comments that a game can have a lot wrong with it, but still be worth playing if it feels like the makers actually cared about it. That’s a standard I whole heartedly endorse for all art forms.

I’m pretty omnivorous in my interests. With very few exceptions (i.e. evil things), I think that anything that humans choose to devote their talents to is worth learning about. Ross’s Game Dungeon is all about showcasing the skill and art that goes into making a game. I find that sort of thing fascinating, and it’s presented with humor and personality. Check it out!