The Front Page

The Dastardly Past:  The Front Page.

Front Page DJ

On August 14, 1928, a new kind of play debuted at the Time Square Theatre in Manhattan.  Called The Front Page, it was a raucous comedy about unscrupulous pressmen and crooked politicians, set against the impending execution of a wrongly convicted criminal.  The playwrights, Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, drew from their own days as journalists in the Chicago of the 1910s and 1920s.  While some critics complained of the play’s coarseness and cynicism, it was nevertheless a smash hit.  It has been revived successfully on Broadway numerous times and made into successful films, including Howard Hawks’ deft adaptation entitled His Girl Friday (1940), with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in the lead roles.

Mein Kampf

The Dastardly Past:  Mein Kampf.

July 18, 1925 marks the publication of the first volume of Mein Kampf, a semi-autobiographical book by Adolph Hitler that addresses his political ideology, at great length.  He wrote it in 1924 in Landsberg Prison (Bavaria) while serving time for treason after his failed Beer Hall Putsch.  During his rise to power, copies of the book sold so successfully that he had accumulated a tax debt equivalent in 2015 dollars to $1.5 million.  Conveniently, this obligation was waived as soon as he became Chancellor of Germany in 1933.  Throughout the duration of the Third Reich, Hitler decreed that the German government give complimentary copies of Mein Kampf to all newlyweds and all serving soldiers—with the royalties from government expenditures on these books going straight into his own pockets.  The magnitude of evil he unleashed on the world tends to obscure the fact that, in addition to achieving almost total European domination, Adolph Hitler also became a very wealthy man.

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E. C. Bentley

The Dastardly Past:  E. C. Bentley.

On July 10, in 1875, E. C. Bentley was born.  Bentley was the author of Trent’s Last Case, frequently listed as one of the all-time greats of mystery fiction and praised by G. K. Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers, alike.  Chesterton even dedicated his own mystery novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, to Bentley.  Bentley was also the inventor of the clerihew—his middle name—humorous verse in irregular meters highlighting historical and popular figures—rather like the poems of Ogden Nash but with a biographical twist.

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Background to Danger (1943)

The Dastardly Past:  Background to Danger (1943).

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On July 3, 1943, Warner Bros. released espionage thriller Background to Danger, starring George Raft, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre.  Critics agreed that it was an above-average World War II adventure.  Eric Ambler’s novel Uncommon Danger provided the basis for the script, which was another of the Warner screenplays to which William Faulkner contributed during his time as a contract writer in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s.

Robert Traver

The Dastardly Past:  Robert Traver.

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June 29 marks the birth–1903–of attorney John D. Voelker, pen name Robert Traver.  Traver’s best-known work is Anatomy of a Murder, which producer/director Otto Preminger promptly adapted for the screen (starring a scruffy James Stewart and sultry Lee Remick).  The book is as riveting as the movie.  Noir author James M. Cain, reviewing it for the New York Times in 1958 condemned the writing as naive, the subject as stale, and the organization as “jackleg” (???).  “Nevertheless, however, and yet,” Cain continued, “it held me as few books have.  I couldn’t put it down.”   The public agreed.  Anatomy of a Murder, both book and movie, have remained classics for nearly 60 years.

The Death of Sherlock Holmes

The Dastardly Past:  the Death of Sherlock Holmes.

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Forget Star Wars.  The true importance of May the 4th is that it’s the day Sherlock Holmes died.  In Arthur Conan-Doyle’s story “The Final Problem,” set in 1891, Holmes and Moriarty meet at the Riechenbach Falls in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland.  They glare at one another.  They charge.  They fight.  They plunge into the torrent, locked in battle, and fall to their deaths. Finis.

The reading public, however, rejected this (or any) end to their analytical hero.  Conan Doyle, who had wanted to pursue other projects, held out from 1893, when the story was published, to 1901, when he relented and produced The Hound of the Baskervilles, set prior to 1891.  Aficionados refer to this period as The Great Hiatus.  A year later Holmes came back for good in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” Set in 1894, it details his remarkable escape from the clutches of Moriarty and his henchmen.  Holmes stories appeared regularly after that and no more thought was given to a permanent end to the immortal detective.

BigReichenbachJ. W. Turner’s view of the Reichenbach Falls.

In Praise of Persephone Books

The Dastardly Past: In Praise of Persephone Books.

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There is little of a dastardly nature is today’s post, mostly because I have been sick and not doing much research.  Instead, I’d like to praise Persephone Books of London.  If you are unfamiliar with them, rejoice in the lacunae about to be filled in your life and library.  Persephone specializes in reprinting neglected twentieth-century books, mostly by women writers.  They produce visually and tactilely pleasing volumes at reasonable prices.  If you enjoyed the film adaptation of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, for example, you’ll be delighted with the novel on which it was based, by Winifred Watson.  In addition to humor, Persephone’s list encompasses a wide variety of categories, fiction and non-fiction, basically something for everyone.  I cannot praise them too highly, but I leave it to you to discover them for yourself.  You will not be disappointed.

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