Tag Archives: Tammany Hall

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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Lords of Lilliput: History’s Greatest Tiny Tyrants

“Short people got no reason to live.” ~ from “Short People” (1977) by Randy Newman

History has proven Randy Newman dead right: short people are the scourge of civilization.

Though many of our most terrible rulers could tower over us, some humanity’s greatest horrors were perpetrated by those whose size gave them a serious chip on their shoulder. One less elf or Oompah-Loompah crack could’ve made the difference between prosperity and despair.

Wars, revolutions, famine, mass genocide, executions, murder, torture, destruction, rape, pillage—its amazing what can be accomplished by someone no bigger than a garden gnome with a serious ax to grind.

We all know the guy who has a complex named after him (more on him later), but here is some other historical tyrants whose small stature belied a fearsome cruelty:

Alexander the Great

Conquer Persia, Egypt, the Near East up to India—what else can a little prince with serious parenting issues do? Alexander had serious problems as a kid: a dad that wouldn’t accept him as an heir, and a mom that could put Gypsy Rose Lee to shame. Little Alex (we know he was short, exactly how short is uncertain) decided to channel his aggression by crushing the Persian army, leading his Macedonians to the Indus River valley, and spreading Greek culture and values along the way. It was a lot to pack in 33 short years.

Genghis Khan

At 5’ 1”, Genghis Khan was lucky he could even get on a horse. Once he got on, though, Genghis laid a path of rape, murder, pillage and destruction almost unparalleled in history. Probably starting with the fellow Mongols who kept with the short jokes, Genghis attacked anyone who got in his way: Chinese, Indians, Turks, Persians, Pashtuns, you name it. He never had trouble getting on the horse again—the pile of dead bodies gave him a boost.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Yep, the guy with the complex. Napoleon (5’ 6”), funny enough, was something of an international celebrity when he took over the French government in a coup in 1799. The honeymoon ended quickly, however, as his megalomanical zeal led him to crown himself Emperor of the French in 1804. It took a continent-wide coalition to finally bring down the pint-sized general—twice. After the first exile in 1814, Napoleon just didn’t understand enough was enough, and created another army only to be crushed at Waterloo in 1815. He would die in exile in 1821, and a psychotic condition was born.

Josef Stalin

Cruel from an early age, Josef Stalin grew (not much, only 5’ 6”) to be responsible for the deaths of at least 50 million people, mostly his own. First came his bloody path to power, isolating and murdering almost all the former cohorts of his predecessor, Vladimir Lenin. Then came a forced collectivization that caused a catastrophic famine, killing millions. The purges would send most perceived opponents either to a merciful death with a bullet or a miserable death in the gulags of Siberia. He treated women like garbage, his children like street dogs, his own cabinet like farm animals (I think Lavrentii Beria actually was one) and was still feared even through his death in 1953.

Fiorello La Guardia

You may have expected another New York City mayor here (don’t worry, he’s coming) but even our greatest leaders sometimes act in a tyrannical fashion. Legendary mini-mayor Fiorello La Guardia (5’ 0”) was no exception. Much of the sweeping reforms under his administration were done largely arbitrarily, and with good reason: the city council and Board of Estimate was still populated by Tammany Hall minions. He had a penchant for a violent temper and a tyrannical rule over his staffers. By the time he stepped down in 1945, many of his policies would lead to the budget crisis of 1975, when the city declared bankruptcy—proving that a little tyrant can do both good or ill.

Francisco Franco

In 1931, Spain kicked out its king and declared itself a republic. Francisco Franco (5’ 4”), an army officer in Spanish Morocco, was not cool with having people overshadow him, literally. Along with senior officers, he led a rebellion in 1936, and took over Spain in 1939 following a bloody civil war. Then Franco went buck wild on his enemies: concentration camps, forced labor, mass executions, persecution of leftists, intellectuals, Freemasons, ethnic minorities. He even had a fully-equipped Masonic temple built in his house just to fire him up! By his death in 1975, the new king, Juan Carlos, knew where the wind was blowing and worked to undo all the damage.

Kim Jong-Il

The current despot dictator of the paranoid police state of North Korea (5’3”) is descended from rather tall stock: the founder of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung, who was over 6 feet tall. Despite that height, Kim the elder made up for it in spades with his totalitarian control, lavish lifestyle and fanatical cult of personality. Young Kim had a wonderful example, and he took Daddy’s example to new heights: developing nuclear weapons while his people starved, alleged booze-fests and orgies with multiple women, continued totalitarian control with lots of surveillance, summary executions and a cult that might even rival his Daddy’s. NOTE: I think his official height also counts his hair.

Michael Bloomberg

No discussion of minute dictators can be complete without the current Lord Protector of the Big Apple. (By the way, his official height is 5’ 8”: that’s bullshit. I’m 5’9” and I tower over him.) Michael Bloomberg took over as New York City’s mayor in 2002, promising to continue the reform policies begun by his predecessor Rudolph Giuliani. He then proceeded to cut police patrols and city services (reversing a key part of Giuliani’s agenda), flood the government with consultants at exorbitant prices, neuter the City Council and rule the school system with an iron fist. The results are noticeably mixed, and no one can doubt Bloomberg’s nasty attitude and lust for power—a lust that culminated in changing the City’s charter allowing him to run for a third term in 2009. In his last term, Bloomberg has become even more tyrannical, especially as more accounts of malfeasance and fraud continue to surface. It’s a path of destruction that’s difficult to reverse.

There are many other diminutive terrors I probably neglected to menton…as well as those who can become tomorrow’s Stalin or Franco at any moment.

It just goes to show that a short joke can be a dangerous thing.

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Review of “Triangle Fire” from PBS’ American Experience

Brown building (New York University).

Brown Building (Asch Building in 1911), where the fire took place. Image via Wikipedia

There is a rare time when any PBS documentary disappoints me.  Unfortunately, this is one of those times.

One of the first pieces posted here at the Neighborhood centered around one of the most tragic, and important, industrial accidents in history.  On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at Washington Square in New York.  146 people died in the horror, mostly trapped by the locked exits, due to bosses who wanted to keep union organizers out of their shop.  The Triangle Fire brought workers’ rights to national attention, and led to the first workplace safety laws in US history.

This month will mark the centennial anniversary of that tragic event–thus, a PBS documentary is in order, and none better than from the folks at the American Experience series.  This has to be among the best series of documentary films ever: it brought Ken BurnsThe Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The War, etc., as well as his brother Ric BurnsNew York: A Documentary Film.  Every Monday at 9, I forego any normal television–to the consternation of my better half–in order to enrich myself on another unknown tidbit of American history.

“Triangle Fire,” a short film about the disaster, left me a bit unfulfilled.

To those who have little knowledge of the events of 1911, this film offers a good primer.  It highlights the miserable conditions in the garment industry at the turn of the century, as well as the attempts to unionize and change their lot through general strikes in 1909-1910.  The film even highlights the struggles between the workers and the society matrons that support them, especially with regards to unionization.

Many of the “talking head” segments with historians and experts actually take place in the newly-renovated Brown building, which will be a museum to the 1911 fire.  The 8th, 9th and 10th floors of this building (which used to be known as the Asch Building) was where the Triangle factory was and where the fire raged.  It’s a nice touch–yet very unutilized.  To us, it looked like a cavernous loft, not the cramped, fetid workshop with piles of clothes and thread everywhere.

The dramatized pieces, usually involving actresses as garment workers toiling over sewing machines, didn’t give much of a sense of reality.  These scenes were shot almost in a haze, as if everything was a silent movie.  It may be nifty moviemaking, but it leaves the viewer with little sense of how the Triangle shop really worked.

Yet these imperfections can be overlooked if it weren’t for the worst sin of all: the filmmakers forgot to tell the rest of the story.

After the memorial to the dead, the film fades into tributes and concludes that the fire changed our lives forever.

How?

It was criminal that no mention was made of the 1912-1912 factory commission, headed by Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner, that investigated workplace conditions in the wake of Triangle.  Tammany Hall‘s connivance at the time was given scant attention.  Neither was there any note of Tammany’s boss, “Silent” Charlie Murphy, whose acquiescence, if not complicity, was required for real reform to be possible.  Nor was there any reference to the reformers who came out of the Triangle investigations and the factory commission–people like Frances Perkins, Belle Moskowitz, and even Robert Moses (as much as it pains me to say).

The story of the Triangle Fire, as told by PBS, was woefully incomplete.  So although this film may work for classrooms as an introduction to the disaster, many diehards of the subject will find little, if any, new material to absorb.

PS: On a positive note, PBS provides a nice website for the film, linked here.  The whole film is found here to stream to your classes, as well as supplementary articles, background information, teacher resources and primary documents.

 

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Obama of Tammany Hall: Presidential Meddling in State Politics

William M. Boss Tweed, Boss of Tammany Hall 1858-1871

William M. "Boss" Tweed, Boss of Tammany Hall 1858-1871

“He that blows the coals in quarrels that he has nothing to do with, has no right to complain if the sparks fly in his face.” – Benjamin Franklin

We hate to admit it, but local politics still carries the cigar odors and whiskey stains of generations past.

In 1868, the Democratic National Convention was held in the New York Democratic Party’s extravagant new building on 14th Street—Tammany Hall.  Tammany Hall was also the name of a fraternal society and political machine that dominated Democratic politics in New York City from the early 1800s to the 1960s.  The Hall itself was built with ill-gotten gains from extorting contracts to build the city’s new courthouse—the same place where New York’s Department of Education is housed. 

William Tweed, then boss of Tammany Hall, basically summoned the regional bosses to the Hall, ushered them into a room, and closed the door.   They left with their presidential candidate, Horatio Seymour, and that was that.  Such was the politics of the 19th Century—backroom deals, stuffing of pockets, and treacherous double-dealing.

Sometimes those old habits die hard. 

As much as our current President advocates bipartisanship and a return to principled government, the bare-knuckle brawls of the local ward heelers are never far from his mind.

Such was the case on Monday, when Barack Obama culminated weeks of machinations to pressure the widely unpopular governor of New York, David Paterson, from running in the 2010 gubernatorial election.  En route to a speech on the economy in Troy, New York, Obama gave Paterson a chilly reception at the local airport, whispering words in Dave’s ears that seemed to knock him senseless.

He then met with state Democratic leaders behind closed doors.  Paterson was not invited.  Yet what happened at the speech made me cringe.

At the speech at Troy Community College, Obama lavished praise on New York’s Attorney General—and potential 2010 candidate—Andrew Cuomo, saluting and giving praises to the presumptive candidate to the cheers of the honchos present.  It was almost like a coronation, and it happened in front of the crestfallen governor.

This display, I’m sorry to say, was petty, vulgar, tasteless and a stain on Obama’s high office.

President Obama crowning Cuomo yesterday.  Wouldnt the Boss be proud?

President Obama crowning Cuomo yesterday. Wouldn't the "Boss" be proud?

There is no doubt that the chief executive has often found itself embroiled in local politics, particularly with midterm elections around the corner.  Such was this case, where New York’s gubernatorial seat was up for grabs.  He may even need to ruffle a few feathers in the smoke-filled room to make sure his demands are met.

But insulting a sitting governor in public is an unforgivable sin and a shameful act.

No matter what the dispute, no matter how contentious the politics, the institutions of power demand respect.  I don’t agree with David Paterson.  I often don’t agree with Barack Obama.  Yet both are worthy of my respect because of the offices they hold.

David Paterson, like it or not, is the governor of the State of New York.  Andrew Cuomo is the Attorney General.   David outranks him.  Period.  End of discussion.  Paterson’s snub offends not only his person, but the state as a whole.  Woe to any other state of the Union that dares defy Obama’s plans.

Barack Obama’s actions are even more insulting given his reputation and vision for government.  In an age where transparency, legality and institutional order are necessary, Obama has reverted to the arbitrary, often brutal tactics of Chicago bosses and Tammany ward heelers. 

These are not the actions of a President of the United States.  These are the acts of William Tweed, Richard Croker, James Michael Curley, Tom Pendergast, Edwin Edwards, and Richard Daley—bosses whose actions forever haunt our democratic process.    

Regardless of your opinion on any of the principals in this affair, the office of the Presidency is not an ax used to decapitate dead weight in local elections.  It is a national bulwark that must transcend the guttural minutia of local politics. 

Mr. President, please leave the glad-handing and the ballot-stuffing to the ward bosses.  You’re too important to be mixed up in this mess.

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This Day in History 3/25: The 1911 Triangle Fire

trianglefireengine

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:

http://flakmag.com/books/triangle.html

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