Here’s to Auter

Each calendar year gives me three months to look forward to the most:  October, November, December.   I call it my “Auter” since it includes parts of autumn and winter.

There are three main reasons I love Auter:  the temperatures get cooler, the holiday season is in full swing, and strangers reveal their humanity.

Out here in too sunny Southern California where I have lived my entire life, sunshine and warm/hot temperatures are monotonous.  I like variety.

I live for the seven-day forecast that shows a daytime temperature in the 60’s and a low reading in the 30’s.  Those days, unfortunately are rare, as are rainy days.

I feel revitalized when the weather is cold during the day, brand new oxygen, clean and fresh.  On those few brisk days, I feel that I can finally write that book.

Have you ever noticed how as you grow older the holidays seem more precious due to how few you have left in front of you?

As a child, there was nothing better than Christmas morning.  Waking up to presents and eating a huge breakfast feast.  That was Christmas. 

However, as I’ve aged, it is the days leading up to any holiday that resonate with me more.  That excitement of what’s to come, the anticipation of putting up certain decorations, shopping at stores that have somehow remained open throughout your lifetime, visiting particular restaurants dressed up for the holidays—those are my favorite days now.

By the time Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day arrives, it is anti-climatic.  As soon as I wake up on Christmas, I no longer want to hear another carol or eat another cookie.  It’s over.  Gone for another 365 days.

As December melts into January, I hold on to a profound yet naive hope that people are nicer, kinder, more decent. 

Stories abound about the generosity of people who give time or money to those less fortunate.  Secret Santas who hand out $100 bills to strangers.   Removing a paper ornament off a Christmas day with the name of a foster child who asks for a modest toy.  Maybe that driver who never stops at a stop sign will finally do so for the safety of the stray dog or the mother with a stroller.  Finally smiling at the grocery clerk you see all the time and letting her know how much her service means to you not just during the holidays but any old days.

The most confounded thing about Auter is how quickly the days go by.  Why can’t the triple-digit days fly by and the chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open-fire nights go on forever?

That is why I cherish these days and reflect on them when the August heat waves melt my mind.

As much as I can’t wait for the holiday season to return, I don’t really want January through September to go quickly because that would mean losing most of a year from one’s limited bank account of years, an account that no one knows the remaining balance.

“The Best Years of Our Lives”

Some films are so well made that it makes you feel as if you are eavesdropping on people’s real lives.

Such is the case with the 1946 classic “The Best Years of Our Lives” produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by William Wyler.  

Released before Thanksgiving a year after the end of World War II, the film focuses on three soldiers—Al Stephenson (Fredric March), Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell)—who return home and struggle re-entering society.

Every time I come across the film airing on TCM, I’m hypnotized and end up watching it again no matter how much I may have missed.

Whenever a film seems as real as this one, credit goes to all the principals in front and in back of the camera:  the writer, the director, the cinematographer, the actors, the music composer, and the art and set decorators.  You need all of these elements to be working on all cylinders to pull off such a feat.

The film ended up winning seven of eight Academy Award nominations:  Best Picture, Best Director (Wyler), Best Actor (March), Best Supporting Actor (Russell), Best Screenplay (Robert E. Sherwood), Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell), Best Music (Hugo Friedhofer); the only nomination unawarded was Best Sound.

Interestingly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Russell a special Oscar not expecting him to win the Best Supporting Actor award—which he did.  Years later, he auctioned that Oscar, but kept the special one.

The two most overlooked individuals not even nominated whose contributions must be acknowledged are cinematographer Gregg Toland and Dana Andrews.

Toland, best known for his cutting-edge deep-focus photography which aided to the monumental stature of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” does a marvelous job of using both focus and framing to deepen the emotional nature of the characters and their situations.

While March was deserving of his second Best Actor Oscar, Andrews had the most challenging role and should have won.  In fact, Andrews never earned a nomination in his entire career.

Andrews captures the complexities of a man who was the highest ranking officer of the three returning soldiers during his time in the army’s air force, but now faces grim prospects in terms of employment and his marriage.

Though they married hurriedly before his deployment, her love gave him faith to endure horrors knowing that at least he had a woman back home waiting for him.  Sad then when he learns she has not been faithful to him.

He accepts a low-paying job at a drugstore where he used to work as a soda jerk, settling for a sales position that requires helping out with the ice cream orders.

Derry finds himself falling in love with Stephenson’s daughter (Teresa Wright) which leads to Stephenson giving him an ultimatum to call the affair off.

All the humiliation boils over in a scene where Russell sits at the counter along with a man who is critical of the war effort.  In defending Russell’s honor by slugging the man, he loses his job; however, he gains self-respect.

What truly elevates the film is first-time actor Russell portraying a soldier with hooks for hands.  In real life, Russell was an army instructor teaching soldiers how to handle explosives when an accident happened leading to the loss of both hands.

Wyler does not shy away from showing Parrish’s hooks.  The most poignant scene is when Parrish asks his girlfriend to see what she will have to deal with if they were to get married.  In real time, we watch the methodical removal of the hooks to reveal his shortened limbs.  She tenderly buttons his pajama top. 

One of the most amazing scenes ever filmed comes near the climax of the movie when Derry visits a boneyard of de-commissioned B-17s like the one he flew during the way.  There he climbs into the cockpit of a plane and relieves nightmares of his days as a bombardier.

Younger audiences viewing this scene may not appreciate the scope and majesty of the shot as the camera’s fluid crane reveals the graveyard of endless planes that were actually there.  No CGI or special effects.  It was shot in Ontario, California where 2,000 airplanes were dismantled after the war.  Sometimes movies have moments like this one which has a dual purpose:  furthering the narrative at the same time documenting the real thing.

“The Best Years of Our Lives” may be the best film about the aftermath of war for soldiers returning home.  For those like me who never experienced that period of history firsthand it is as close as we can get to the feelings of those who actually lived during that tumultuous time.

Wonderful, Wonderful Johnny Mathis

Bing Crosby is one of the few great singers that even young people have heard of due to his recording of “White Christmas” that is heard every holiday season; however, few know of Johnny Mathis, the last of the classic male pop singers of the 20th century, who has recorded six Christmas albums of his own.  And he still performs at age 87.

Born in Gilmer, Texas in 1935, Johnny Mathis grew up in San Francisco where he developed into an impressive athlete and singer.

In 1954, Mathis attended San Francisco State College and set a high jump record that was just two inches short of the Olympic record at the time.

In 1955, Mathis began singing in nightclubs and in the audience for one performance was George Avakian who was a top executive for Columbia Records.  After hearing Mathis sing, he sent the following telegram to his company:  “have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way.”

One year later in 1956, Mathis had to make a major decision.  He was invited to the Olympic trials and, at the same time, Columbia Records invited him to record his first song.  His father helped him make the decision(No, his father did not recommend the Olympics.)

Known for imbuing lush romantic ballads with his rich, velvety-smooth voice, Mathis had so many hit records in his first two years as a recording artist that in 1958 Columbia Records released an album called Johnny’s Greatest Hits, which was the very first time a record company compiled any singer or group’s most popular songs.   This Greatest Hits collection spent 490 continuous weeks on Billboard’s albums chart (that’s nearly 10 straight years), a record that still stands to this day.

Keep in mind that at this point in music history, all of Johnny Mathis’s peers such as Elvis Presley were recording rock ‘n’ roll music so for him to successfully record love ballads was quite unusual.

His most famous records include“Wonderful, Wonderful,” “Misty,” and “Maria.”

One song not as well known that he recorded was “Never Never Land” from the famous Broadway musical Peter Pan.  Full of haunting emotion, Mathis’s phrasing and octave range make this recording a treasure that any aspiring singer should study.  Mathis’s amazing breath control allows him to sing without taking a breath for long passages, one lasting 19 seconds.

However, if you were to ever just listen to one song by Mathis, go to YouTube and watch his 1978 performance of “Pieces of Dreams” on the Johnny Carson show.  At the end, he holds one note for nearly ½-minute.   At age 43, Mathis was only halfway through his life at that point, yet at the peak of his singing powers.

I have been fortunate to have hear Mathis perform several times.  He is such a gracious man and is still able to carry a tune.

This December he will give five Christmas concerts at five different venues from Ohio to California.  There is even a December date already set in Illinois for 2023 when he will be 88 years old.

If you have never seen him live, don’t overlook the opportunity to see and hear an icon.