Words of Wisdom from a Cartoon Character–Or, Reminders of the Meaning of the Season

Sometimes we just need to be reminded.  Sometimes world events, presidential elections, and our far-too-often harried personal lives threaten to throw us for a king-sized and ever-expanding loop.  The weather this time of year doesn’t help.  Daylight Savings is more than a fortnight in the rearview mirror; it’s dark when you go to work in the morning, and dark when you come back home.  And what little light there is, especially here in northern New England, is often muted by brooding thick gray clouds that hang low and bloated over the land, like dirty laundry concealing the blue beyond.



For me, the reminders begin with the little things, the homey things, the kinds of things Truman Capote writes about at the beginning of his gem of a short story “A Christmas Memory” . . .

“Imagine a morning in late November.  A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.  Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town.  A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it.  Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.”



Every year, early on Thanksgiving morning, when the house is dark and the sunrise is yet a rumor, I flip through some of the old classic comic books I’ve had since I was a kid, when I began a lifelong hobby of collecting comics.  Many of the issues I have tucked away in closets and boxes were printed decades before I was born.  Their pages, musty and faded with age, never fail to bring a smile.  There are old ads in those pages, tempting the children of sixty years ago with baseball gloves and magic tricks, radio sets and sea monkeys.





And then there are the stories, of course–simple, far too often devoid of any real character or nuance, distilled to the most rudimentary of plot devices.  But for all that, they are brilliant, ingenious, and, perhaps most important of all, fun.  They offer a break from the stresses and strains of daily living, an escape from the next doctor appointment or set of bills, while simultaneously laying out a bridge to an imaginary world that is always there, only a thought away, ready and willing to amuse and cheer and revitalize us, if only we take the time to visit it.

On Thanksgiving morning, I spend fifteen, maybe twenty minutes with these old issues, these relics from a bygone era, these simple reminders of childhood . . .






In the 1965 musical The Sound of Music–based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway classic of the same name–Julie Andrews’s character, Maria, sings about some of her favorite things:



“Raindrops on roses/And whiskers on kittens/Bright copper kettles/And warm woolen mittens . . . Cream-colored ponies/And crisp apple strudels/Doorbells and sleigh bells/And schnitzel with noodles . . . Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes/Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes/Silver white winters that melt into springs . . .”  These are a few of her favorite things!



It’s a basic list, simple and everyday; it echoes the sentiments of Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.”

But perhaps it was everyone’s favorite bookworm, Marcie, who said it best in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving:



“But Thanksgiving is more than eating, Chuck. . . . We should just be thankful for being together.  I think that’s what they mean by Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown.”

Thanks so much for reading!


The Quest for Archibald Leach

Cary Grant just wasn’t getting it.  He’d signed on to be the star of the film, was being paid handsomely for his efforts, and he was working with the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, no less.  What could possibly go wrong?

North by Northwest seemed destined to be a box-office smash when it debuted in 1959.



Indeed, prior to the start of shooting, screenwriter Ernest Lehman was quoted as saying he wanted to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” He held nothing back, and created a melange of suspense, lighthearted fun, intrigue, and nonstop action.  There’s even a fight-to-the-death sequence that takes place on the face of Mt. Rushmore, not to mention arguably the most famous scene in Hitchcock’s long, storied career–the crop-duster attack!



And, of course, and above all else, the film features Cary Grant.



During filming, though, Grant wasn’t thrilled with the direction North by Northwest was taking. One day, he pulled Hitchcock aside, and said, “It’s a terrible script.  We’ve already done a third of the picture and I still can’t make head or tail of it!”  Hitchcock assured his leading man that things were going well.  The film is designed to be confusing, with myriad twists and turns, so if his lead actor was finding the story line hard to follow, all the better!



All Hitchcock said to Grant was to be himself.  Don’t even worry about the acting.  Don’t worry about the script.  Just be Cary Grant.  The rest would take care of itself.

And it did.

Hitchcock understood a fundamental truth, and used it to his advantage–people just liked Cary Grant.  He’d been Hollywood’s most luminous star for decades, the epitome of charisma, debonair charm, and cool.  Indeed, Grant himself once famously said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant.  Even I want to be Cary Grant.”



Grant’s on-screen persona was larger-than-life.  If you wanted to see raw emotion, vulnerability, weakness, you weren’t going to find that here.  His roles were designed to match his never-let-them-see-you-sweat mystique.  He was made out to be more icon than actor, more romantic ideal than flesh-and-blood person.  Grant’s public image surely wouldn’t have been so spotless if he were acting today, but in Old Hollywood, he was lifted up to stratospheric heights, and for the duration of his career, he never came down from his perch.  Well on into his fifties and early sixties, Grant played the lead opposite actresses such as Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Audrey Hepburn, and Sophia Loren–all two or three decades his junior.






Then, abruptly, in the mid-1960s, at the age of sixty-two, Grant retired from the cinema.  Hollywood’s quintessential leading man would not go on to play the sage, grandfatherly roles that would surely have come his way if he’d pressed forward with his career.  He would simply walk away and preserve the image, the concept, the legend that was Cary Grant.

It hadn’t always been that way.  During his growing-up years in the suburbs of Bristol, in southwest England, Cary Grant wasn’t known as Cary Grant.  He was born Archibald Leach, and his hardscrabble childhood bore little resemblance to the fame and prestige that would materialize decades later.  His father struggled with alcoholism and his mother was clinically depressed, sent to a mental institution when Grant was just nine years old.  His father simply told him that his mother had gone on a “long holiday,” and later, when she failed to come home, said she had died.  Grant didn’t learn of the lie for over two decades, and at that time, arranged to meet his mother just as his movie career was taking off.  But in his childhood, Archibald Leach, the future hero of the Silver Screen, was antsy, on edge, uncomfortable around others, nervous and awkward in his interactions with girls.  Described by a classmate as a “scruffy little boy” and by his teacher as “the naughty little boy who was always making a noise in the back row and would never do his homework,” Leach was expelled from school when he was fourteen.



Over a decade later, after honing his craft onstage and in vaudeville, and on the doorstep of Hollywood superstardom, Archibald Leach was advised to change his name to Cary Grant.

If you were to choose between “scruffy” Archie Leach and his later, more celebrated alter ego, and select the winner to serve as the main character for a novel you wanted to write, the choice would seem to be obvious.



And it is.


The four primary protagonists in The Eye-Dancers each struggle with their own personal hang-ups, outlooks, inner demons, and shaky self-esteem.  None of them are what anyone would call popular in school.  They don’t hang out with the “in” crowd, they’re not the trendsetters or movers-and-shakers of their peer group.  Mitchell Brant feels the need to fabricate and invent stories about himself, as he’s not confident that he’s “good enough” as he is.  Joe Marma lives in the shadow of his high-achieving older brother, and as the shortest boy in his grade, he has a king-sized chip on his shoulder.  Ryan Swinton doesn’t want to rock the boat; he likes to go along with the crowd and tell jokes to make people laugh.  Marc Kuslanski never met an equation he didn’t like; he closes his mind to the mysterious, the unexplained, the supernatural.  In his logical, rational worldview, everything, no matter how extraordinary, has a commonsense explanation.



As the novel progresses, each character is confronted with circumstances that challenge his perspective, threaten to erode his already fragile sense of self, and even sabotage his ability to survive.  The boys can either be swept away and swallowed up by their own insecurities and weaknesses, or they can rise to the occasion to learn, grow, and adapt.

It strikes me that any character, really, needs to have the motivation, ability, and impetus to change over the course of a story.  If Character X begins a novel one way and ends the novel exactly the same way, we as readers might pause and ask ourselves, “What was the point of it all?”  Then again, maybe “character” isn’t the best word to use.



“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people,” Ernest Hemingway once said.  “People, not characters.  A character is a caricature.”



Real people are flawed.  They have moles and in-grown toenails, regrets and long-held secrets, wistful memories and would-be dreams that, through lost opportunity and the inexorable march of time, are now irretrievably lost.  The Cary Grant that the world saw, and thought they knew, was, in the words of Hemingway, a caricature–a glittering creation of Hollywood and the movies.  Archibald Leach was in there somewhere.  We just couldn’t see him.



If a literary character is Cary Grant-perfect right from the first page, there is no room for growth, no way for readers to relate.  The plot may wind through hills and valleys, wander through wooded ravines and turn sharply around sudden hairpin curves, but the protagonist will remain static.  The story will not engage.



If I were a producer or a director in Hollywood sixty years ago, the choice would be a no-brainer.  I’d take Cary Grant in the proverbial heartbeat.  But as an author, looking for a character to build a novel around?

Give me Archibald Leach.



Thanks so much for reading!


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