Saturday, November 09, 2013

Irvin Who?

Quick now: who hosted the 1935 Academy Awards?  

You don't know, do you?  And if I tell you that the answer is Irvin S. Cobb will you still be as unenlightened as you were before?  Maybe, and that fact is interesting in itself.   It was Cobb  I was quoting (from memory) the other day in a comparison (perhaps impertinent) to the ghost of Hamlet's father.  The exact quote is 
 Kentucky rotgut] smells like gangrene starting in a mildewed silo, it tastes like the wrath to come, and when you absorb a big swig of it you have all the sensations of having swallowed a lighted kerosene lamp.  A sudden, violent jolt of it has been known to stop the victim's watch, snap his suspenders and crack his glass eye right across.
Gangrene is good; I missed that.  I find the text in an old favorite of mine, not yet discarded: The American Treasury, 1455-1955--"select, arranged, and edited" (it says here) by Clifton Fadiman, assisted by (the soon-to-be-disgraced) Charles Van Doren (at p. 254)  My copy says I acquired it in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1957, which is to say, just about the time I flamed out of Antioch College and began by unsteady foray into journalism.  

The Treasury accords Cobb two other claims to fame.  One:
There is this to be said for New York City: it is the one densely inhabited locality--with the possible exception of Hell--that has absolutely not a trace of local pride.
Id., at 73.  Well, I guess I wasn't there, but if he was writing in the time of Jimmy Waker or Grover Whelan, I suspect that as to New York City, this is flat wrong. As to Hell--well, it is good he included the qualifier, because I've read my Dante and I'd say that Hell is suffused with local pride.  

The third Cobb item in the is his supposed riposte on hearing that his boss,  Charles S. Chapin of the World was ill:

I hope it's nothing trivial.

At p. 994.  Fine again, except that I could swear I've heard it Ben Hecht, to Gene Fowler possibly to others.  You find all this somewhat less than hilarious?  Okay,  except that it's all the more interesting how these crashing banalities come from the mouth of one who was (per Wiki) the most highly paid journalist of his time.  Some compare him to Mencken, another celebrity journalist, except I suspect that  the comparison does more to highlight the differences than the similarities.  Mencken, for his part, had a way of shaking things up--of disturbing the verities in ways that may continue to matter (like my bud Dos Passos he went sour in his old age, but let that pass).

Cobb on the other hand seemed to like nothing so much as to comfort the comfortable.  It is a Cobb novel that underlies Judge Priest, the 1934 John Ford movie--Will Rogers, Hattie McDaniel and, yes, Stepin Fetchit.   David Thomson in his "personal introduction to 1,000 films" describes Judge Priest as "outrageous, shockingly racist, and serenely opposed to all forms of progress or argument.  At the same time" (Thomson continues) "it feels like a yarn spun on a porch in the late afternoon sun, and it reminds us of how closely and mysteriously allied such story-telling can be with the blunt lineaments of fascism."

Might  be a bit much to blame Ford on Cobb, but my guess is that what Thomson calls "the blunt lineaments" are right there in the original. 

Oh, and I see there is a fourth and final Cobb item in the Fadiman collection:

Epitaph: a belated advertisment for a line of goods that has been permanently discontinued.

Probably cheesy to observe that Cobb  may have wound up describing himself.

Afterthought:  Apparently not quite forgotten.  Evidently there is a bridge that bears his name someplace.  And the Paducah Wal-Mart is located on Irvin Cobb drive.

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