Corey Allen: Two scenes and immortality

And now all the principal characters of “Rebel Without a Cause” are gone.  Corey Allen, who played the ill-fated Buzz Gunderson, died Sunday, the 27th, in Hollywood.  Born Alan Cohen in Cleveland, Ohio, his name was changed to sound less Jewish.  He was two days shy of  his 76th birthday.  The Los Angeles Times reported Allen suffered from Parkinson’s the last two decades.

The demise of the main actors came quickly in a 1-2 punch of less than a month.  Dennis Hopper, who played Goon, died on May 29.   I wrote about Hopper’s death and the dwindling cast of `Rebel,’ the survivors the dead and the dates of death,  on that same day in May.

In two riveting scenes — The Knife Fight and The Chicken Run — Allen hit the jackpot.  It was his role of a lifetime,, and he became to the initiates as immortal as any actor can be.   Allen as Buzz was tall, dark and handsome with a distinctive way of speaking.  He carried as much charisma as the film’s star, James Dean, if not the great talent.  .

`Rebel’ was released in October 1955 .  It was the most eagerly-anticipated movie of my lifetime.  That Dean died in a car accident a month before its release only added to the luster.  It became THE film of my era and the movie that defined the youth of those times, the Silent Generation, those born during the Great Depression and who came of age shortly after the end of World War II.   

Here are some excerpts and scraps taken from the film’s excellent and detailed history by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel,  “Live Fast, Die Young:  The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without A Cause,” (Simon & Schuster, 2005):

Corey Allen

  • Director Nicholas Ray spotted Cohen as a bad guy in the play, Pretty Girl, had him tryout through a rigorous “games” competition with 150 others before giving him the part of Buzz.
  • Allen’s father, Carl Cohen, was casino manager at Howard Hughes’s Sands in Las Vegas when he punched out a petulant Frank Sinatra in 1967.  (Sinatra suffered split lips and lost two teeth, it was reported elsewhere).
  • A graduate of UCLA the year before `Rebel,’ Allen was named the Fine Arts department’s Best Actor.
  • Allen and Frank Mazzola (Crunch, one of the gang members) feuded during the entire shoot, almost coming to blows once.  Mazzola had been a real gang leader at Hollywood High and probably resented the self-described “book nerd” Allen for getting the part.  They became friendly later.
  • Allen had a bizarre ritual that he performed before each scene of `Rebel.’  He roared as loud as he could.  “I always hated my voice,” he was quoted as saying.  “I always felt it was childish.  That was my way of giving myself the franchise to do what I wanted.”
  • He later played another gang-leader in the movie, “Juvenile Jungle.”

The Knife Fight

[The Dean character, Jim Stark, has just moved to Los Angeles.  He wants to fit in with his high school classmates but hits a cold wall with Buzz and his gang.   He is attracted to a neighbor who just happens to be Buzz’s girlfriend, Judy (Natalie Wood).  After a show in the planetarium at Griffith Observatory, Stark is confronted by the gang.  Stark watches as a tire on his parked ’49 Mercury is flattened by a switchblade.  A knife fight ensues between Buzz and Jim around a small telescope with L.A. spread out in the background.  Buzz gets careless switching his knife from hand to hand.  Stark wins by knocking the knife away, but refuses to cut Buzz.  In lieu of blood, the two opt for a “chickie run”  at a nearby cliff.]

  • An industry watchdog, the Hays Office, wanted the scene cut as too violent.  As a concession, Ray agreed to chop a scene where Buzz is kicking Stark’s new friend, Plato (Sal Mineo), on the ground.  Ray also agreed to change the line, “No killing,” to “no sticking.”  Also Ray scrapped some shots in which Stark becomes more aggressive and nicks Buzz several times. 
  • Dean objected to using fake knives for the scene and got his way.  The two switchblades had dulled edges but retained their sharp points. 
  • The two actors wore metal chest protectors under their shirts.
  • Allen dreaded the scene.  “I was so fucking nervous,” he was quoted as saying years later, “We did take after take and it was all awful.”  But after a break, both actors became more aggressive.
  • Dean became irate with the director, Ray, after Allen nicked his ear, causing blood to flow.  Ray stopped shooting immediately and called for medical aid.  “Goddamn it, Nick!” Dean shouted. “What the fuck are you doing?  Can’t you see this is a real moment?  Don’t you ever cut a scene while I’m having a real moment!  That’s what I’m here for!”
  • Dean allowed his stuntman, Rod Amateau, to do a few of the shots.  Allen said he was unaware that he could use a double and did all the shots himself.

 The Chickie Run

[The game of “chicken” between Buzz and Stark was filmed on a Warners Studios lot and at  the Warner Ranch in Calabasas, northwest of L.A.   This scene stemmed from The Knife Fight.  Buzz’s gang steals a couple of cars for the occasion.  The game is this.  The cars are to be driven by Buzz and Stark at high speed toward a steep cliff that drops into the ocean.  The first one to jump out before the cars go sailing into oblivion is the “chicken.”   Before they get in their cars, Buzz and Stark peer over the cliff in one of the film’s most memorable scenes.   A somber mood over-takes them.  “I like you, you know,” Buzz says.  “What are we doing this for?” Stark asks.  “You got to do something,” Buzz replies.    Judy gives an arm signal for the cars to head toward the cliff.  She is exhilarated.  Starks jumps nimbly from his auto, but Buzz’s jacket sleeve gets caught in the door handle.  He goes over the cliff to a fiery end below, setting the stage for the last part of the film.  Buzz’s crushed gang members blame Stark and set on a course to kill him.]

  • Allen thought his line, “You got to do something,” was special.  “It was the best line in the picture,” he was quoted as saying.  “It was one of the first times in my acting career that I had a chance to do something that truthful.”   Allen saw the line as the question that confronts every generation of adolescents:  “Here we are, what do we do?  The answer may have been different but the question was always there.  Kids in the (1950s) didn’t have any cause.  What are we going to do?”
  • As Buzz goes over the cliff to his death, Ray wanted him to scream.  But Allen couldn’t do it.  He just opened his mouth.  He told Ray  a scream wasn’t truthful.  Ray seemed to go along with Allen.  But later the director dubbed in the scream using another actor’s voice. 

 And so it’s mostly over for the cast.  Some bit players are believed to survive.  Mazzola, now 76, and two other gang members, Beverly Long (Helen) and Jack Grinnage (Moose). 

Dean once said he had the goal of bridging life and death.  He wanted to be remembered after he was gone, to become immortal in a way.  Corey Allen continued working for many years as an actor, director and teacher.  But it was two brief scenes when he was just 21 years old that led to his own immortality.   Thanks, Corey, for an indelible portrait of my generation. 



Slumming with Lee Child and `The Enemy’

To understand my reading habits you have to know this.  I had never heard of the best-selling thriller writer Lee Child until a few weeks ago.  Never.

I am what you might call a semi-serious reader.  I like the meatier stuff, books that make you mull over your life and the human condition.   If those books are entertaining, so much the better.  But about once a year I go slumming.  I venture into a book world of pure entertainment, the mystery thriller.  I do it for a couple of reasons. 

One, my brain turns to mush, or more mushier than usual.  I want to read and turn off critical thought.  And two, I fall behind in my yearly goal of reading one book a month and seek a quick fix.   A “slum” book is the antidote.  It can be read in a week or less.  I have gone to this remedy in each of the last three  years.

In 2007, it was Jon Fasman’s `The Geographer’s Library,” followed in 2008 by Robert B. Parker’s “The Godwulf Manuscript.” Last year, it was David Baldacci’s “The Whole Truth.”   I can not to save me recount the plot of any of them.  I can’t even remember if I enjoyed them.  They were no more than reading practice and a little escape from the tedium that is my life anymore.  So enter Lee Child.

I was seated at one of my favorite buffets here in Phoenix, poring through Darwin’s “The Voyage of the Beagle,” as I ate.  Then I heard a man’s voice from behind me.  

“Do you like to read?” 

I craned my neck uncomfortably to see a tall man of about 60 sitting in the booth behind me.   His hair was long, neatly cut and graying.  He had kind eyes with dark bags underneath.  He was an avid reader of mysteries and thrillers.  He gave me three authors I should try.  Lee Child, John Sandford and a third I was familiar with, Dan Brown.  A few weeks passed and, while shopping for a T-shirt at a second-hand store, I came across by accident a pristine copy of Child’s eighth book, “The Enemy.”   It was only $1.  I thought I’d give it a shot.

“Lee Child,” I learned, is a pseudonym used by the British author Jim Grant for his Jack Reacher novels.  Reacher in “The Enemy”  is a major in the U.S. military, a commanding officer of a special MP unit and stationed at the fictitious Fort Bird in Virginia.  And he is god-like.  Six-foot-five, 240 pounds, smart, reflective, violent, idealistic and with a bent for deductive reasoning that would make Sherlock proud.  The story takes place in 1989-90 with the capture of Noriega in Panama as backdrop.

“Enemy” opens at rat-a-tat speed.  A two-star general is found dead in a sleazy motel room, victim of a heart attack, and his wife is brutally murdered miles away in her home the same night.   Two more murders follow.  The key is the general’s missing brief case containing a secret agenda for a meeting of high-up Armored officers at Fort Irwin, California.  A conspiracy within the military leads Reacher and his beautiful black female assistant, Capt. Summer, deeper and deeper into a pit where both of their careers are at stake.  And, as a sidebar, Reacher’s French mother is dying of cancer in Paris with her own secrets.

Child’s staccato sentences, crisp dialogue and the budding romance between Reacher and Summer carried me along for a while.  But only for a while.  Somewhere toward the middle of “Enemy” I lost the thread.  Reacher was taking action based on wild assumptions.  And everything was too easy.   One does not live long in this life to understand the rules.  Begin asking dangerous questions and doors start slamming hard on you.  For Reacher everyone seemed to buy in to his program, his investigation.  Also Child struggles with the romantic segments.  In a book where characters are truly fleshed out, the love affair would impede the investigaton.  But here of course it does not.

The ending too was unbelievable.  I’m all for idealism, but Reacher’s ultimate decision regarding his career seemed beyond the pale of modern man.  

The best scene of “Enemy” came late.  When Child sticks to action, he is really good.  Reacher goes out on the gunnery range at Fort Irwin in search of the last of the villain-soldiers, Marshall.    Shots are fired between the two.  A stand-off looms.  Marshall finally orders far-off tanks under his command to fire on his own location.  He may die, but he’ll take Reacher with him.

I remember the man in the buffet booth telling me how Reacher has left the military and is wandering America, finding trouble as he goes.  I like that idea.  I may go slumming again soon and give Lee Child another stab.

Summer solstice

Looking southeast at the Phoenix sky at the time of the Solstice

The Summer Solstice arrived in Phoenix, Arizona, at 4:28 a.m.  The temperature was 73 F, the sky was clear, just beginning to lighten with the rising sun, and the air was calm, not  a tree branch sitrring.

Jupiter dominates the sky, shining like a minor moon, 45 degrees up in the southeasst.  Three of the planet’s four Gallilean moons are visible in my telescope, all on the left, or Jupiter’s east.  They form an uneven line in the sky, Io and Europa up close and Callisto far out.  Ganymede in its orbit is hidden behind the planet.

Just west of zenith, the Summer Triangle is clearly visible, even in this light-polluted city and the coming morn.  The brightest of the three stars, Vega, lies about 50 degrees up from the western horizon, with Altair and Deneb to the east and south.

It is at this point, at the start of the longest day of the year, that the sun shines on this planet’s Northern Hemisphere at its farthest point north.  And it is at this point that the sun’s imprint on Earth begins to retreat south.  And it was at this point, the ancients fell into distress, fearing the light might not return.

Slave labor and the gender issue

Nebra is down on her knees, bent over in the dirt.  She is dragging loose soil from the holes I’m digging for a trellis at the entrance of our backyard gate.   The holes need to be about 12 inches deep and six inches wide for the cement footings.   She scoops the dirt out by hand.  Her fingers are dirty, her brow drips with sweat.  It is midmorning and already the Phoenix temperature is 94.  Nebra is not having fun.

It would be no problem for me to drop down and do the grunt work myself.  Or I suppose I could hand Nebra the spade.  But I don’t.  The trellis was her idea.  And I have had to interrupt  my morning routine.  I’ve put the newspapers aside along with the coffee cup.  I’m not having fun either.  But I know the trellis is important to her.

“Why is it,”  Nebra says suddenly as she scoops away, “that I feel like a slave?”

“Do you mean that?” I ask.

“A little bit.”

I can understand her point in a way.  While we are both doing manual labor, I am probably doing the skillful part if you can call digging a hole requiring skill.  Yes, I am using a tool.  She isn’t.  And it is I who also does the skillful job of placing the measuring tape at the bottom of the hole and reading it. 

 There are four holes, and after I dig another, I get down on my hands and knees, bent over, and do the dirt-scooping myself. 

“Look,” I say to Nebra.  “See what I’m doing?”  She is unimpressed.

The slave labor of doing mindless, repetitive work is always an issue when Nebra and I tackle projects together.  

For example.  When we recently spread 14 tons of gravel over the yards, Nebra was mildly resentful of doing the raking while I did most of the transporting with a wheelbarrow.   Again, she saw it in a different light.  I was doing the hardest and most important work and she was doing mindless slave labor. 

On other projects there have been even more pronounced differences in the division of our labor.  If the work requires precise measurement, plumbing to level, technique with tools or an overall strategy, I usually bust in and do it.  I don’t trust Nebra to do “a good job” and I am too impatient to teach her.  Like many women her age who were raised in the city, she grew up not understanding the principles of construction and mechanics.  Or gardening.  When she plants seeds, for instance, it drives me nuts when she does not smooth the soil first to make sure there is even drainage. 

I don’t know what the answer is.  She has learned a lot since I have known her.  But still.  I probably should stand aside and let her make mistakes and hopefully learn from them.  Although very intelligent, she is a multitasker and not always focused.  And she is usually in a hurry to move on to the next thing.  She can get many things done in a day, but I fear the concept of “a good job” may forever be lost on her.

I do know one thing.  Nebra picked out a beautiful cedar trellis for the back gate.  We stained it a light brown and it will greatly enhance the visual aspect of an otherwise drab area.  It will, anyway, if we can set aside our labor differences and get the job done.

The new library: A cafe and other sad changes

Food amongst the books.

I once was a library junkie.  I used to visit Phoenix’s main library almost everyday.   My addiction began about 22 years ago and it lasted about a decade.   

It ended the day I bought a PC and went online for the first time.  Almost everything the library had I could get on the computer.  And with the search engines I could get it easier and faster.  I still go back to the library to read microfilm of old newspapers and borrow books about a half-dozen times a year. 

I made a rare appearance there late last week to check out a biography of the mystery writer, Jim Thompson.  But I also wanted to see one of the many other changes that have occurred since the library moved from its warm and friendly confines many years ago to the larger and colder facility two blocks south.  

A recent look inside the Open Book Cafe

I wanted to visit the Open Book Cafe.  That it opened last December should give a hint how infrequently I step into the library anymore.  

 The cafe is located on the first floor inside the west entrance, near the large bins where the homeless are required to leave their heavy bags. 

The Open Book is not my idea of a cafe.  It is more like a buffet, strictly self-serve.  You walk down a long line of soda dispensers and cases filled with candy and deli sandwiches and take your choices to a cash register. 

The cafe's patio a desolate place in summer

I did not expect much.  But still I was disappointed.  It was a small uninviting place with uncomfortable plastic chairs and glass tables.  There is a glass window door at one end leading outside to a patio.  It was hot, June in the desert, and therefore no one sat out there. 

I purchased a cup of tasteless regular coffee for $1.50.  That’s a dime more than I pay at the Starbucks down the street.  I couldn’t get out of there soon enough. 

On the way up on the elevator to the fifth floor where the biographies are shelved,  I looked out through the glass enclosure and the rising landscape.  It saddened me to see it and be reminded of the changes libraries have undergone in less than a quarter of a century.  

Public computers line up in rows and usually with a waiting list

Libraries serve a younger crowd now and where shelves of books once stood there are rows of computers.  There is a place strictly for teens on the fourth floor.  Years ago I wanted to just take a peek inside but was turned back.   And the place is noisier.  I can actually remember when a librarian had the nerve to whisper, “ssssh.”

The big reading room on the top floor was nearly vacant as usual.  Some days I’ve seen only one librarian up there.  I’m sure the long rows of empty desks will soon be replaced by more computers. 

I once knew by name almost every librarian here but mostly they are all gone, moved out to the branches or jobs phased out by the computer.   Those who saw it coming have switched to other careers I suppose. 

Now when I visit, I do not linger.  I’m in and out.  This place looks less and less like the traditional library each time I enter. 

The main Phoenix Library, as far as I’m concerned, is nothing more than an ugly monument to the death of reading books and doing research.  But I admit the young and newer generations may find it a wonderful place.

Number of steps in a lifetime?

How many steps will you walk in a lifetime? 

No one knows for sure.  That’s because of course no one counts them.  I myself was remiss.  I failed as a parent when I did not have a pedometer implanted in the waists of my infant children.  I could have made history that way, maybe even made Ripley’s Believe It or Not.  

But having used a digital pedometer now for nine months, I have at last become an expert at something.  I can now estimate the number of steps the average American will take in a lifetime of 78.4 years, and I can do that without fear of contradiction, largely because no one but me would spend a few minutes figuring it out.

 I will start by paring off three years.  A year and a half before we learn to walk, and another year and a half at the end when we don’t or can’t move a single muscle.  That leaves the average American’s walking life at 75 years.  Ah, a walking life.  I just invented a statistical term. 

 Anyway, by deep introspection and mulling over my experiences, I believe the average American will average, and I’m being generous here, 7,500 steps a day.   That’s not much activity.  But we do have our priorities.  TV and the car for starters.  And for the few of us who still do it, book reading.  Anyway that totals 2.735 million steps a year.

Now multiply it times the 75 years of walking life and you reach roughly 205 million steps during your life.  Now that is a statistic you don’t see everyday.  Of course you must figure out the tricky part:  Are you an average American?

Bang-bang at first base

Someway, somehow umpire Jim Joyce made a decision last night even before the final pitch of the spoiled perfect game by the Detroit Tigers pitcher, Armando Galarraga.  As a consequence, Joyce blew the call at first base that marred a terrific performance.

He had a mindset.

Knowing a perfect game was on the line and a close, bang-bang play at first base might be the deciding moment, Joyce like all umpires had to decide what kind of call to make.  Would he consider the situation, the perfect game?  Or would he try to make the perfect call, to be too fine? 

Most such calls at first base are easy.   And this one should have been. 

Mindset separates umpires no matter at what level they work.  You have the idealistic hardcore umpires on one side and the situational, more common sense kind on the other.   In political parlance, conservatives v. liberals. 

The hardcore believes the baseball rulebook is a Bible.  The common-sense umpires believe the rulebook is only a guide.   Those in the middle often come across as inconsistent and indecisive and are the bane of players and managers. 

In short, the umpire either tries to follow the letter of the rules or he fudges a bit.

It is my view that Jim Joyce’s mindset was hardcore.  Even had the play been closer he was going to try to make the perfect call.  He was going to clear his mind of the situation, that Galaragga was on the verge of a great moment.   Joyce admirably wanted to uphold the highest standards of the game, to make sure Galarraga earned his page in history.

So even though replay cameras show Joyce’s call should have been routine, an out, and a perfecto for Galarraga, you have to fault the umpire’s mindset.  For even if the play had been closer, a perceived tie even, why call Donald safe?

 Though the Indians were not out of the game, most umpires had to be thinking this.  Galarraga had pitched a great game and made a good pitch that induced Donald to hit a weak ball on the infield.  Galarraga deserved a perfect game unless Donald clearly beat the throw.  Why reward the baserunner on a play like that? 

Donald, through his own baseball experiences, knew the likely outcome at first base.  He was quoted as saying, “I don’t know if I beat the throw or not.  But given the circumstances, I thought for sure I’d be called out.”

His comments, I think, reveal the realities of Major League Baseball.  It is the liberal umpires that govern the game, that situations are important.  This is what players have come to expect.  Situations do make a difference. Donald in the minds of most umpires was was going to be out unless he was clearly, clearly safe.