Even though it’s sunny, it’s a little cloudier in the Neighborhood.
Today is a rather somber anniversary especially in light of the collective argument in this country about the role of government in people’s lives.
We can quibble all we want about how much of a role government should play in our everyday lives. Yet those who wish government had no role in society should heed the 146 ghosts who haunt the Brown building (formerly the Asch building) in Washington Square in New York.
On March 25, 1911, the greatest industrial disaster in New York’s history occurred when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at the above building. Occupying the 8th floor of the building, the immigrant workers who worked there toiled under the most miserable conditions. Fire escapes and safety procedures were nonexistent. The heaping piles of cloth and thread made the entire floor a firetrap. Exits were routinely blocked by rows of sewing machines, mostly to keep workers focused and to keep out union organizers. In 30 minutes, 146 people were dead. At least 41 of them died when, seeing that there was no hope, these women leaped from the 8th story windows to their deaths on the street below.
The fire highlighted working conditions in New York like never before. Rich and poor were equally appalled at the carnage. It was these workers, and many others, who fought for general strikes in 1909 and 1910 to organize reforms that would have saved many lives.
Yet even in this suffering, hope would rise. Progressive reformers and Tammany Hall politicians, including State Senate leader Robert Wagner and Assembly speaker Al Smith, joined forces to finally right the wrongs that killed those women. The 1912-1913 Factory Commission toured factories all over the state, and found equally wretched conditions in many of these places–if not more so. The commission’s findings resulted in important reforms in workplace safety and workers’ rights, thus paving the way for the future social reform programs of the New Deal and Great Society. A witness to the fire, Frances Perkins, who became Franklin Roosevelt‘s Secretary of Labor, recalled that the real start of the New Deal was March 25, 1911, the day the Triangle burned.
Today many people would argue that Washington is overreaching its authority in instituting programs regulating banks and large investment enterprises–and there is a point here, to an extent. When it comes to market downturns, the logical solution is to do nothing and let the natural rhythms of the market take their course. Macroeconomics 101 should have taught us that. Overregulation and overstructure, along with irrational greed, usually leads to market abberrations and speculative bubbles. So the government probably has a boundary that it shouldn’t cross.
However, government is not like the “guns and butter” charts and graphs we had to painstakingly study in college (or cram through at the last minute, in my case). The messiness of humanity, the suffering of people, and especially the fickle nature of an electorate cause government leaders to act less for the market than for the people, for good or ill. Safety laws, social welfare and poor relief do not just happen by themselves, no matter what the monetarists say. They were fought over and struggled and wrenched from a society that saw these “negative growths” as a hindrance, without seeing the long-term benefit. Abuses are there, to be sure, and welfare reform and contraction are necessary.
Nevertheless, to those that believe social reform has no place in government, I would ask them to hear what the 146 ghosts of the Triangle fire have to say. Their suffering speaks for us all.
To find out more, read David Von Drehle‘s book about the fire. My review of it is linked below:
Hollywood History: Possible Scripts to Pitch in LA
I’ve heard that everyone in Los Angeles either walks around with a headshot or a screenplay. So, when in Rome… (or West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Malibu, etc.)
Next week, I will be in the sunny confines of southern California, home of the proverbial swimming pools and movie stars. Since Mr. D is just too ravishingly handsome for the screen, he should probably have some sort of treatment with him in case he gets discovered…you never know.
In researching possible script ideas, I’ve noticed that many incredible stories from history have not gotten their proper Hollywood treatment. Some, such as Giuseppe Garibaldi and Enrico Fermi, I’ve discussed before. On this trip, however, let’s look at other stories that have been overlooked—as well as some interesting casting ideas.
1. Andrew Jackson
Why? – The guy, like so many characters in history, is custom-designed for great moviemaking. Orphaned at a young age, wounded in the Revolution as a teenager, taking revenge on the British, the Seminoles, the Creeks, the Cherokee and anyone who slandered his two-timing wife—Jackson can make up a miniseries, let alone a multi-reeler.
The Lead? – tough, but I have in mind Jon Hamm and Nick Nolte: Hamm as the younger Jackson through 1815, and Nolte as the presidential figure. Either of them could take a pistol shot and whip a man into oblivion, a necessary trait for the role.
2. DeWitt Clinton
Why? – Clinton is the complicated hero-politician that has been so overlooked by Hollywood, largely because of location. Clinton is a New York guy, doing New York things that affected the whole country. He also had an outsized reputation: any man called “Magnus Apollo” in his lifetime deserves a treatment.
The Lead? – Colin Firth, no question. Firth has the gravitas to build the Erie Canal, the height that matched Clinton’s stature, and he already did a splendid turn in Regency attire in Pride and Prejudice. He almost matches the paintings.
3. William Johnson
Why? – Dances with Wolves meets Last of the Mohicans. There’s something about Europeans going native that drives moviegoers into theaters. Furthermore, Johnson’s exploits with his Iroquois army are legendary, including Crown Point, Fort Niagara and the siege of Montreal. The subplot of his Irishness helping him win friends with the natives can also guarantee an Oscar nod.
The Lead? – At first, I thought Liam Neeson, but in retrospect it doesn’t really work with the historical Johnson. A better choice would be the crazy Irishman from Braveheart, David O’Hara. I’ve seen him in other roles, and he has a toughness and a stature that could make this a breakout role for him. Being Irish also helps.
4. James Michael Curley
Why? – Curley is the kind of outsized, megalomaniacal, controversial political kingpin that audiences love. As mayor of Boston, Congressman, governor of Massachusetts, and convicted felon, Curley was the father of modern ethnic politics. Taking cues from New York’s Tammany Hall, he created a similar apparatus in Massachusetts, mobilizing the Irish—much to the disdain of the Boston Brahmins that dominated the state until that point.
The Lead? – I really wish he got his shit together, because Tom Sizemore would be perfect to play Curley. The guy just oozes Boston tough guy, but with just enough polish that could make him give respectable speeches to demure New England citizens.
5. Victoria Woodhull
Why? – Many forget that Woodhull was the first American woman to run for President in 1872. On top of that, she was incredibly controversial, even among women suffragists—free love, labor reform (of the quasi-Marxist kind), eugenics and spiritualism were also on Woodhull’s agenda. That was enough to make Susan B. Anthony soil her bloomers.
The Lead? – Not really sure, could use some help from the Neighborhood on this one. Most of the actresses in mind are pretty long in the tooth for this role, but any ideas are welcome.
6. Al Smith
Why? – Smith was a run-of-the-mill Tammany hack until March 25, 1911. After the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he became a driving force for workplace and social reform in New York—the true father of the New Deal. The climax could be his 1928 presidential run, where he faced anti-Catholic and anti-Irish prejudice in a humiliating defeat.
The Lead? – J. K. Simmons. I first saw him in the HBO series Oz, as the neo-Nazi Vernon Schillinger. Yet even then I saw a command of the screen, coupled with a human touch, that would be just right for the role of the Happy Warrior.
7. The Healys (Patrick, Michael, and James)
Why? – The subplot alone is compelling: an Irish planter takes a mulatto enslaved woman as his common law wife. They have three sons illegally, as interracial marriage is forbidden in antebellum Georgia. To educate them, the three are sent to Catholic schools in the north, as education for blacks is forbidden. Each of the Healys is light enough to pass as white: another conflict as their exploits are shown.
The Lead? – I’m really confused here. Because the Healy boys were so light-skinned, I’m not sure whether to use white talent or Black. I’m not even sure which actors would really fit well. Again, some help from the Neighborhood would help.
8. The Culper Spy Ring
Why? – looking for a great espionage thriller, full of sex, intrigue, double-crossing, violence and plot twists? Look no further than the Culper Ring, a ring of spies in New York and Long Island that spied on the British for George Washington—even as many posed as loyal Tories. They are the ancestors of the modern CIA, and their exploits probably make them more successful, on average.
The Lead? – We have little, if any, information on the true identities, let alone the appearances, of the members of the ring: their identities were not divulged until the 1930s. Casting, then, is wide open to traditional leading men, leading ladies, action heroes, you name it.
9. Robert Moses
Why? – The Power Broker himself: for a half a century, Moses was the most powerful man in New York State without holding a single elected office. He rammed highways, bridges, tunnels, parks, beaches and housing projects all over the state—and didn’t care who got in the way. That is, until Jane Jacobs, Nelson Rockefeller, Joseph Papp and a slew of New Yorkers finally turned their pitchforks on the Master Builder.
The Lead? – If I could find an actor that’s a composite of Michael Gambon’s size and Paul Giamatti’s grit, that would be perfect. Headshots, anyone?
10. H. L. Mencken
Why? – apart from being one of my all-time favorite authors, the Sage of Baltimore’s whit and biting cynicism covered most of the first half of the 20th century. He was cosmopolitan and provincial at the same time: a thinker who fancied himself above the “booboisie” while still able to mix in the dives and gin joints of the Baltimore waterfront. Why Barry Levinson isn’t all over this I have no idea.
The Lead? – It has to be someone intelligent who can play a real asshole. Sam Neill might work, or maybe even Eddie Izzard—I’m leaning more towards the latter.
As always, these ideas are not nearly exhaustive—nor do I really have scripts ready. If anyone has any other ideas, or if they have treatments ready that I can pitch, please let me know.
Don’t worry, you’ll receive due credit—minus my percentage, which we can negotiate later.
This is Hollywood, after all 😉
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