There is generally nothing that affects me less than a celebrity death. Other than a knowing cluck of the tongue at the “oh-too-soon” expiration of another Hollywood wastrel, most of them pass me by with nary a notice. But in the almost-a-celebrity, or the once-a-celebrity, there I find something of interest, and particularly for those whose efforts long, long ago occupy some shadowy corner of my memory, I feel a sense of loss – not necessarily for the person, for as much as we kid ourselves, these people are unknown to us, but for some little piece of the past that has gone by, a way the world was that won’t be seen again.
Arnold Stang, whom I believe Drew Friedman once referred to as a “high priest of horn-rimmed humor,” represented a time that is now lost to us. He was one of those entertainers who bridged the gap between the early days of radio, the middle years of film, and the dawn of television, seemingly ubiquitous and always playing some variation of the same character. He came from the black-and-white world of late-night movies and TV re-runs, and it seems especially fitting to me that I best remember him for something he didn’t really appear in, a comic page (again Drew Friedman) that paired his nebbishy character with Robot Monster. Who else out there still represents that school of humor? There was a time when humor wasn’t so snarky.
And then there was Jennifer Jones, who appeared in a number of prominent movies and even won an Oscar, but who is forever emblazoned in my memory, in brilliant black-and-white, as the scheming, ditzy Mrs. Harry Chelm in the offbeat and severely underappreciated John Huston film “Beat The Devil.” Other than Gina Lollobrigida, whom Jones outplayed with her charming portrayal of a certain kind of woman who rationalizes her mercurial loyalties, I think she was the last of that interesting cast still alive.
We used to interact with films and television in a different way, and I think their hold over us was different then. If you wanted to see a movie, you had to see it when it was out, or wait years for it to reappear on TV. Our three television stations padded their schedules with forgotten black-and-white movies that, for the most part, few would watch today, but which built my impressions of the world that had gone by, the world my parents and grandparents had grown up in. What I knew of the urban jungle came from Dead End Kids (and East End Kids, and Bowery Boys) movies; what I knew of good guys who took a wrong turn came from John Garfield pictures. And because they weren’t there on demand, on a convenient tape or disc, at the press of a button, there was something somewhat magical about that late-night peek into a world that, while it was Hollywood magic, was still an interpretation of the world just before I came along, a world I’m endlessly fascinated with.