Neil Simon Often Had the Touch
NEIL SIMON, the famous playwright, died on August 25, age 91. The day before, I stumbled on a Youtube video that noted that 40 of the most famous current working screenwriters were asked in 2017 to name the 100 best screenwriters of all-time and they selected BILLY WILDER (1906-2002) as #1. Wilder wrote and directed films in all genres. A sampler: “Some Like it Hot”, “Double Indemnity,” and “The Apartment.”
Wilder, the video explained, sought to bring the “Lubitsch touch” to all his films. It was reference to director/writer ERNST LUBITSCH (1892-1947). Like Wilder, Lubitsch worked in all genres. The touch was defined as wringing from the material as much as possible—a multi-layered approach where a comedy had true-to-life drama in it and vice-versa.
In his best work, Simon did not overlook the opportunity to bring “true-to-the characters” comedy into a dramatic scene or have a realistic dramatic moment in an otherwise comedic scene. That’s why, for example, “The Odd Couple” still stands-up 53 years after its stage premiere.
There is a scene in “Odd Couple” in which Oscar lists all the things that his roommate, Felix Unger, does to drive him crazy. This includes leaving “to-do” notes on Oscar’s pillow signed “F.U.”. It is a largely dramatic scene, but ends in a big laugh when Oscar says: “It took me three hours to figure out that 'F.U.' was Felix Unger!”
Several times, Simon explained that he didn’t give Felix Unger that name anticipating the joke line he later wrote. Rather, it occurred to him as he wrote the scene it appeared in. Simon had “the touch” to add that something extra.
“The Big Lebowski” has attracted quite a bit of attention recently because 2018 is the 20th anniversary of a COEN brothers’ film that has become a cult classic. It is ultimately a buddy film, featuring Jeff Lebowski (“The Dude”) and his “Sancho Panza”, Walter Sobchak (played by John Goodman). Walter, a salty combat veteran, is improbably a devout convert to Orthodox Judaism. There’s one “Walter/Jewish” scene that always made me laugh. When told a bowling tournament is set for Saturday, Walter replies: “I told that kraut a f-g thousand times that I don't roll on Shabbos!”
Sobchak was only referring to rolling a bowling bowl. But the quote could have a much larger meaning today. Yes, the word “roll” has long been used to go along with something. However, in the last five years or so it has become much more expansive and widespread in meaning and use (as in “rolling with my friends”, or “that’s not the way I roll”).
A cool gift High Holidays T-Shirt or cup could say: “I don’t roll on Shabbos.”
An Odd Connection
Few remember WILLIAM FOX (1979-1952), a major figure in the creation of the American film industry. But his name lives on via the Fox media outlets (Fox broadcast network, Fox films, and Fox News Network). Wm. Fox lost control of his company in 1930, five years before it merged with the 20th Century film company. However, when Rupert Murdoch purchased 20th Century Fox in 1985, only the “Fox” part of its name was retained for most uses.
Fox, the son of poor Hungarian immigrants, is the subject of his first full-scale biography, “The Man Who Made the Movies” (2017) by Vanda Krefft. I learned from Krefft that Fox produced great silent and early talkie movies (most haven’t survived), built great movie palaces, and turned Cincinnati native THEDA BARA (yes, Jewish) into a great silent star. I was also startled to learn that Fox spent a year in jail (1942-43) in jail for bribing a federal judge.This (non-Jewish) judge was a broke gambling addict. He had a Jewish bagman lawyer solicit a payment from Fox to rule in his favor. Fox was arrested for conspiracy and agreed to plead guilty and testify against the judge and the lawyer. It’s likely that the jury was tampered with and the pair was acquitted. Only Fox went to jail. Government lawyers were upset at this turn-of-events and supported Fox when he applied for and got a pardon from President Truman in 1947. (By the way, Fox, who died wealthy, became a practicing Jew again after his jailing.)
I thought it ironic that the news network named after Wm. Fox has, by any objective measure, been the most favorable cable news network towards President Trump’s past pardons and those he hints might come. The presence of a Jewish lawyer “fixer” in Fox’s troubles also makes one think of current events.