Saturday, May 26, 2012

Memorial Day: The Best Years of Our Lives

Harold Russell (Homer), Dana Andrews (Fred), Frederic March (Al)

The Best Years of Our Lives: Director William Wellman’s story of returning war veterans swept all the Academy Awards in 1946, and remains a film classic today. The film has everything you could ask for. It is an emotional heart-rending story of three veterans returning to the families and to their lives that will never be the same. 

It contains a great cast that includes stars like Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and Virginia Mayo backed up by a superb supporting cast who steal some of the best scenes. The film also featured Harold Russell, a real sailor whose two hands had actually been amputated during the war. It is at once heartbreaking and inspirational to see him manipulate the hooks that serve as replacements.

Frederic March won the Best Actor award that year playing Al Stevenson, an army sergeant, returning to his respectable family and banking career. Actually, that year the Academy Award should have gone to Jimmy Stewart for his performance as a banker in Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life."  It was a real sign of the times that both films featured bankers as heroes. In my opinion Dana Andrews also outdid March with his portrayal of Fred Derry, troubled Air Force bombadier. Naturally, Harold Russell won Best Supporting Actor as well an an unprecedented special award for his performance as the wounded sailor, Homer.

However, it is the women in the film that steal the show. Feminist historians would do well to note the powerful women portrayed in this film. Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and even Kathy O'Donnell are all towers of strength . Beautiful Virginia Mayo played a floozy but gave the best performance of her career. Ironically, she gets to utter the most famous line in the film when she complains to husband, Fred Derry, that she gave him the best years of her life.

The supporting cast is equally fine, and again it's the women who shine. One of the most emotional scenes in the film occurs at the beginning.  I will never forget the look on the face of Homer's mother when she first sees his hooks. Toward the end of the film after a dejected and out of work Fred Derry bitterly discards his wartime citations, his father then reads them to his step-mother, played by Gladys George, in a deeply moving scene.

The film is augmented by brilliant photography, and a wonderful musical score. Both come together in the pivotal scene where Fred finally has an epiphany in the nose of a bomber about to be demolished for parts. In this scene the camera almost becomes an actor. The musical score is also abetted by Hoagy Carmichael, who plays Homer's Uncle Butch, the piano playing owner of the neighborhood bar. ###

Monday, May 14, 2012

Stratford Fire Chief

Can there be a better job than Assistant Fire Chief in the town of Stratford, Connecticut? Buried inside the Connecticut Sunday Post yesterday was a very well researched article by Brittany Lyte on the recent retirement of Stratford’s Assistant Fire Chief, Thomas S. Murray, whose pension will be $122, 850 per year for the rest of his life.

Incredibly, Murray is only 48 years old and the pension represents a 36% increase over his annual salary of $90,598. Pensions were originally intended to provide income for employees when they were no longer able to work. Murray is retiring at the prime of life almost 20 years before most of the taxpayers of Stratford will be able to collect their Social Security benefits.

A pension plan that would enable an employee to retire at age 48 on half pay is generous enough, but to take early retirement on more than 100% of pay boggles the mind. Moreover, the cost to the Town of Stratford is enormous. To get an idea just consider that at 4% interest it would take about three Million dollars to provide an annual income of $122000. Of course, this does not take into consideration the present value of future cost of living increases.

The article went on to note that Murray’s case was just one of many. Murray’s wife, former Assistant Fire Chief Ellen Murray, had retired two years earlier with a pension of $92050 per year, also in excess of her $87959 final salary. She currently serves in Naugatuck as Deputy Fire Chief at an annual salary of $68000. A police captain retired in 2008 with a pension of $134525 per year, about 160% of his final salary. More than half of the 71 town employees who retired in the past 5 years “are earning more or nearly the same amount of money in retirement than they did from their former base pay.”

How could this happen? Obviously, the firefighter’s pension plan allows top ranking employees to load up on overtime in their last years of service in order to increase their pension benefits. One wonders if the Town’s negotiators were just stupid, or whether they were shrewd enough to realize that every perk they gave to firemen and policemen would also go to them and their families.

In any event, the Town of Stratford is now contractually burdened by these overly generous pension provisions. Currently, it would appear that the Town is fighting the attempt of former Assistant Chief Murray to increase his pension even further through a Workman’s Compensation claim. The Town might also want to investigate the overtime allocation policies of its Police and Fire departments.

Finally, the first step in Pension reform throughout the State would be to remove all elected officials and political appointees from participation in these Pension plans. Otherwise, they will have no incentive to reform the system. ###

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Titian and the Borghese Gallery

My wife and I first saw Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love on a visit to the famed Borghese Gallery in Rome in the spring of 2010. We were in Rome for a few days at the end of a journey that had begun in Venice where I delivered my paper on Giorgione’s Tempest at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America.

Titian: Sacred and Profane Love

After the conference we visited Florence and Orvieto and wound up in Rome to complete our journey. However, once in Rome we discovered that we were among the multitude stranded there because an eruption of a volcano in Iceland had shut down most air travel from Europe. It was a nerve-wracking experience but we were in a lovely hotel not far from the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon. We had no choice but to enjoy a few extra days in Rome.

So one day my wife suggested we visit the Borghese, a site that due to my ignorance we had never visited before. The Villa Borghese is located in a huge beautiful park right across the street from the fashionable Via Veneto. Even though a sign at the door said sold out, we entered and had no trouble gaining admission.

In 1909 Edward Hutton, an Englishman who would go on to spend most of his life in Italy, introduced the Borghese in this fashion.*

The Villa was built in the early years of the seventeenth century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese…and was bought, with its magnificent collection of pictures, and beautiful gardens and parks, by the Italian government for 144000 lira, much less than its real value, in 1901.

Fifty years later Giorgina Masson gave this overview.**

the chief glory of the villa, however, lies in its park and gardens, which have a circumference of nearly four miles and contain a riding school, an amphitheatre, a lake, an aviary and fountains. ‘Classical’ temples and ruins are dotted here and there among the shady walks of the great boschi of ilex. In assembling so many diverse buildings within the compass of one vast part it is tempting to think that perhaps Cardinal Scipione intended to create a villa on the lines of that of the Emperor Hadrian at Tivoli.**

Walking through the park was a beautiful experience but we had come to see the collection within the Gallery. We were not disappointed. The collection of statuary on the first floor was incredible including famous works by Bernini and Canova. However, it was the second floor that blew us away. I share the feelings of Edward Hutton expressed over a 100 years ago.

But it is really the Gallery of Pictures which calls for our wonder and admiration, since it is, perhaps, the finest private collection of the Italian masterpieces of the sixteenth century anywhere to be found…. 
the true glory of the gallery consists not only, or even chiefly, in the work of Raphael, but in three works by the greatest master of that or any other period, Titian, who is represented by three pictures, the first belonging to his youth, the others to his old age. 
The Sacred and Porfane Love, painted about 1512 for Niccolo Aurelio, Grand Chancellor of Venice, is the highest achievement of Titian’s art at the end of his Giorgionesque period. It has been in this collection since 1613, when it was called…’Beauty unadorned and Beauty adorned.’ In fact, the name it now bears, which has so puzzled the world, does not occur till the end of the eighteenth century, when it seems to have been given it by the Germans. For us, at least, it can have no authority, the subject of the picture being merely a moment of beauty,--a moment gone, but for Titian’s genius, while we try to apprehend, in the golden summer heat, under the trees by a fountain of water….

No photograph or digital image can do justice to the Sacred and Profane Love. It is over nine feet long and seems to take up almost an entire wall in one of the largest rooms. I think that Hutton was right on when he described the subject of the painting as a “moment of beauty.” That is certainly the first impression when looking at the two beautiful female figures in the equally beautiful landscape. Titian’s coloration is also overwhelming. 

However, I distinctly recall turning to my wife and saying, “It’s Mary Magdalen.” Why? I still don’t know. Nevertheless, after we finally got home, I began to think more and more of the iconographic symbols in the painting, and to do a little research on the Magdalen. I discovered that as in the case of the Tempest, there was no agreement among scholars about the subject of the famous painting. Moreover, recent scholarly studies of Mary Magdalen in history and art provided much material for a Magdalen interpretation.

Sometimes I worry that interpreting beautiful paintings like the Tempest and the Sacred and Profane Love as “sacred” or “religious” subjects might lessen the reverence that these paintings have enjoyed in both the scholarly world and in the popular imagination. For years people have loved these paintings. Part of the allure has been the mystery and enigma that has always surrounded them. Moreover, in today’s secular society would a “sacred” subject turn people off?
I hope not. To me it is the mark of genius to be able to produce beauty that will be admired even by those who don’t see the paintings in the same way that devout contemporary Venetians might have. I know that the Sacred and Profane Love was not originally meant to be hung in the Borghese Gallery but seeing it there in that magnificent setting will always be an unforgettable experience.

As a young man Edward Hutton summed up the experience in 1909 and fifty years later in the seventh edition of his “Rome” his opinion was the same.

But, after all, what we have come here to see is the Sacred and Profane Love, by Titian, and that will lead us, not from picture to picture in a sudden enthusiasm for painting, but most certainly back again into the gardens, where the world is so sleepily golden in the heat, and the shade so cool and grateful. There we shall linger till, from the faraway city, the Ave Mary rings from all the cupolas, and we must return down the long alleys in the softly fading light, stealing softly, half reluctantly, out of the world of dreams back into the streets and the ways of men.###

*Edward Hutton, “Rome”, New York, 1909, pp. 330-333.
**Giorgina Masson, “Italian Villas and Palaces,” London, 1966, pp. 248-9.