Category Archives: American Culture

Posts to do with American culture, places, and history excluding WW2 history

FORGOTTEN HOLLYWOOD: Three Came Home (1950)

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20th Century Fox / Public Domain

It’s difficult to judge a performance, to articulate why some expressions or intonations worked while others do not. For me, the best performance I’ve ever seen on film was Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Tatsuji Suga in the 1950 war film Three Came Home. The movie follows Agnes Keith (Claudette Colbert), an American writer being held in a Japanese POW camp run by Col. Suga.  Their interactions are cordial (he’s a fan of hers), but Agnes never forgets that he’s dangerous.

In this regard, the character is reminiscent of other roles Hayakawa played after World War II. He became typecast as the honourable Japanese officer, seen most famously in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). However, in most of those films, Hayakawa’s character rarely exists as separate from the American protagonist. In Three Came Home, he is allowed one final heartbreaker of a scene.

If you haven’t already seen the film, you might want to skip this paragraph. Japan has surrendered. Suga receives news of Hiroshima, where his family was staying. He gathers up all the children from the camp (including Agnes’ son) and drives them to his estate for a tea party. As the young ones gleefully devour the sweets, the camera holds on Suga, sitting off to the side, not participating in festivities. As the sounds of happy children play in the background, his façade slowly crumbles with sorrow. The real-life Suga committed suicide shortly after being captured by Australian troops.

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Sessue Hayakawa as Col. Tatsuji Suga │ 20th Century Fox / Public Domain

Ever since Hayakawa’s rise to stardom in the 1910s (he was the original Rudolph Valentino), he stood apart from his acting peers. Instead of continuing the theatrical excesses of the stage, he recognized the power of a closeup and how subtle changes to his expression could carry substantial weight. In my opinion, the level of control that he had over his face has only ever been matched by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. Those talents would continue into Hayakawa’s post-war “rediscovery.” For example, in Hell to Eternity (1960), he delivered an emotionally powerful speech entirely in un-subtitled Japanese. But, here, in Three Came Home, especially in that final scene, I believe that his talents saw their best implementation. For a few seconds, a man’s entire life passed across his face, wordlessly conveying more pathos than an entire monologue.

If you want more stories about surviving a Japanese POW camp, be sure to check out Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand, 2011) from the 2AD Memorial Library. You can also reserve a copy of Agnes Keith’s original account of these events: Three Came Home: A Woman’s Ordeal in a Japanese Prison Camp (Agnes Newton Keith, 1948). The film is in the public domain and can be watched for free on the Internet Archive:

-Francis

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Filed under American Culture, Uncategorized, World War 2

America’s Answer to Pratchett

Today I’d like to talk about one of my favorite new American authors, A. Lee Martinez. For any who like the insightful satire Terry Pratchett used when dealing with matters of high fantasy Martinez does in stories taking place in the modern. Able to poke fun at the subject matter while simultaneously writing a love letter to monsters, elves, rogue gods, and animal side kicks the likes of which entertained so many when they were young.

He wrote his first book, Gil’s All Fright Diner, while taking a creative writing class and with its success it seems he has never looked back. What I perhaps enjoy and admire most deeply about his writing is that each of his novels is stand-alone requiring him to create a new world with each story told. While most authors create one world and then expand it I find it truly remarkable to time and again create engrossing and novel takes on fantasy tropes and create literary worlds which suck the reader in.

Whether you want to read about hillbilly vampires and werewolves unwittingly saving the day, an employee for the cryptozoological animal control service, or a dating-service-like process for choosing a deity I highly recommend any and all of his works.

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FORGOTTEN HOLLYWOOD: I’ll Be Seeing You (1944)

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Kino Classics

There are few World War II films that I am as quick to recommend as I’ll Be Seeing You, a 1944 drama directed by William Dieterle and written by Marion Parsonnet. Zachary Morgan (Joseph Cotton) and Mary Marshall (Ginger Rogers, never better) are both on furlough for the Christmas holiday, he from a military hospital and she from prison. The two pass each other, ships in the night, weighed down by their respective past traumas.

Unlike most of its contemporaries, I’ll Be Seeing You doesn’t offer a massive hoorah morale boost. There is a sadness here absent from the home front films of this era. Although, as Mary’s cousin, a teenage Shirley Temple is a bright spot. For me, the quintessential scene for the film takes place during a date between the two leads, after they have seen a war film. “Is the war really like that?” Mary asks, somewhat incredulously. “I guess so,” replies Zach. No one could understand what has happened to either of them.

Like those two proverbial ships, Mary and Zach must eventually part ways. He will return to the warfront and likely be killed. She will return to prison, as her dreams of having a normal life continue to wither. But for now, these two souls without a future can embrace each other, even if it’s only for one night. It’s a note of melancholia rare for films of this era, one that allows I’ll Be Seeing You to age far more gracefully than many of its contemporaries.

If you want to learn more about actress Ginger Rogers, be sure to check out the following books from the 2AD Memorial Library:

  • Shall We Dance: The Life of Ginger Rogers (Sheridan Morley, 1995)
  • Astaire and Rogers (Edward Gallafent, 2002)

-Francis

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Filed under American Culture, Uncategorized, World War 2

Midwestern Christmas

Hello Everyone, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

I wanted to take my time today to share some of the interesting Christmas traditions which pop up around the Midwest. Since this is an area settled overwhelmingly by Scandinavians and Germans in relatively large, and often isolated, communities many old traditions have survived into the current generation that might otherwise have disappeared in the melting pot of America. This creates a very vibrant and unique season to the upper Midwest which I wanted to share with you all.

First I’ll tell you about some of the traditions which come from the Swedish and Norwegian immigrants, which make up part of my personal ethnic background as well. As with any good holiday tradition these mostly revolve around food and the making/giving of traditional Christmas baked goods. No Christmas dinner would be complete without a smorgasbord containing at bare minimum some lutefisk (jellied whitefish preserved in lye), lefse (a thin potato based pancake often rolled with butter and sugar), and of course Swedish meatballs. As you can probably guess some of these are there because they’re beloved and some appear because tradition sometimes dictates communal suffering…

The cookies and baked goods which are shared and gifted during the Christmas season however are without exception phenomenal. Sandbakkel, krumkake, and pepperkakor are staples and eagerly awaited every year.

Those with German heritage, the other puzzle piece of my personal background, also have traditions which revolve around food however many also revolve around decorations. You may know that Christmas trees were a tradition in Germany and spread through the west by German immigrants or, famously, the British royal family in the 1800s. One such decorating tradition of supposed German origin, no one is able to actually confirm or deny it, is the hiding of a small pickle ornament within the Christmas tree. Tradition dictates that the first child to find the pickle on Christmas gets an extra small present to open. Mistletoe is also much in evidence throughout Germanic households as it is another Christmas decorating tradition with its origins in German mythos.

But, let us not overlook the german traditional foods. While Germany is not often held up as a paragon of the culinary arts their Christmas baking is second to none. Whether it be springerle (pillowy cookies flavoured with anise seed), lebkuchen, pfeffernus, or the ubiquitous gingerbread these Christmas baked goods make the season for me.

The most fascinating traditions to my mind within the Midwest however, come from those enclaves of immigrants from Denmark; especially those found within Southwest Minnesota. These communities are still mostly purely Danish and their traditions reflect this continuity of identity. Whereas other traditions may be modernized versions of food or decorating the Danish community traditions are about events, mostly on the family level.

When my sister married a man from a Danish family it was the first I’d heard of these wonderful traditions and I’d love to share my favorite. This is Jula Butiker (pronounced yoo-luh buh-tick-er) a celebration in early December after the erection and decoration of the Christmas tree. This celebration seems like something from Dr. Seuss in which the whole family gathers around the tree, holding hands, and sings carols to the tree.

And if you hadn’t guessed, no discussion of traditions would be complete without a mention of the wonderful foods made in celebration of the season. While the Danes share many traditional foods with the rest of Scandinavia, although they usually wisely avoid lutefisk, they do have one extra special dish. Æbleskiver are made when the whole family gathers as a family event and are small pancaky doughballs with bits of seasoned apple inside. You may have even seen them attempt to make these on Bake Off with varying success although any Danish grandma would have put them all to shame. These warm soft treats truly have the taste of the holidays.

Every culture and area in the world has their own special traditions for any holidays they observe but I find it fascinating the blending of traditions which we are seeing in my home area. The combination of what were even 20-30 years ago largely individual ethnic enclaves means many families get to take the best of everything and create their own traditions for the generations to come.

 

Thanks for reading! Share some of your own holiday traditions below and keep the spirit going.

-Mike

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Filed under American Culture, american food, Uncategorized