Friday, January 31, 2014

A Century of Charlie Chaplin

"Soldiers!!! Don't give yourselves to these brutes - men who despise you - enslave you - who regiment your lives - tell you what to do - what to think and what to feel! Who drill you - diet you - treat you like cattle and use you as cannon fodder! Don't give yourselves to these unnatural men - machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! With the love of humanity in your hearts! Don't hate! Only the unloved hate - the unloved and the unnatural!"

Charles Spencer Chaplin
Concluding speech of The Great Dictator 

Charlie Chaplin was one of the the bravest men who ever lived. That speech, more than anything else I can think of, was my political awakening. Think about it: The greatest speech in all recorded human history was not made by a politician. It was not made by a king. It was not made by a queen. It was not made by a prince or a princess. It was not made by a preacher. It was not made by a businessman or woman. It was not made by an old soldier or a young one. It was not made by a billionaire. It was not made by a potentate. It was not made by a senator or a congressman. It was not made by a president....

The greatest speech in all recorded human history was made by a little tramp. Go figure.

In January of 1914 - one-hundred years ago this month - an obscure, twenty-four-year-old English music hall comedian named Charles Chaplin walked through the entrance of the Keystone Film Company in Eden, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. He had been offered one-hundred-and-fifty dollars a week by producer Mack Sennett to have a go at the infant movie industry. By year's end he would be one of the most famous men on the planet.

With Eric Campbell in "The Rink"
My discovery of Charlie Chaplin can be traced to Christmas Day 1968. At a get-together at the home of a Notre Dame classmate of my father's, a bunch of us kids were getting ice-skating lessons on a small pond that adjoined the house. When it became apparent that I utterly lacked any aptitude for the ice, I wondered inside and spied a small television set on a bookshelf. When I turned it on, by accident or destiny, the channel was set to public television - Channel Thirteen. On the screen a little man was wrecking havoc on a pair of skates - this time of the roller variety. What I was watching was a short from 1916 called "The Rink". That was all I needed to see, I've been hooked ever since. 

There wasn't much substance to film comedy prior to the moment Charlie Chaplin entered the international consciousness one-hundred years ago. He proved that it could be viewed as great art - something to be taken seriously by audiences and critics alike. By 1917 he (and his Little Tramp) had evolved from the fast-paced, knockabout mayhem of his early Keystone films, to a more subtle and sympathetic character. The tramp by this time was funnier than he had ever been, but there was a passion and soul that had not revealed itself in his earliest films. Each of the twelve films he made for the Mutual Film Corporation in the years 1916-1917 are the cinematic equivalent of precious gems; twelve mini-masterpieces. 

Toward the end of the silent era, while the quantity declined, the quality of his films was nearly universally agreed upon. All these decades later serious film critics are still in agreement. Chaplin was an artist. One of the greatest of the twentieth century.

The Great Dictator (1940)
The political persecution of Charles Chaplin began in 1940 when he released the bravest film ever made. "The Great Dictator" depicted the story of two very different people (both played by Chaplin) who could be (but are not) identical twins: A timid little Jewish barber and Adenoid Hinkle, the dictator of a fictional country called Ptomainia. The film was a satirical attack on Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. Toward the movie's end, the two men are mistaken for one another and the little barber is taken to speak at a massive rally that the dictator had called for on the eve of the invasion of an entire continent. The speech he gives, which is really Chaplin's plea to the world for peace and understanding, still resonates across the decades:

"Let us fight for a new world - a decent world that will give men a chance to work - that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people."

On trial, 1942
This was Communistic stuff - at least according to the jackasses on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The official forces of darkness went after Charlie in a way that reminds one of the persecution of another comedian, Lenny Bruce, a generation later. Chaplin's FBI file is encyclopedic. Although Al Capone was never a priority for J. Edgar Hoover, Charlie Chaplin was somehow seen as a threat to the peace and security of the free world. Although he was not a Communist, his views on matters social, economic and racial were decidedly left-of-center. In other words, this was a man decades ahead of his time.

No part of his private life was off-limits. When a blood test ordered for a paternity suit proved that he could not be the father of the child he was accused of siring, he was ordered to pay for her maintenance until she reached adulthood nonetheless. On another occasion he was prosecuted for a violation of the "Mann Act". His crime was the fact that he took a grown woman across state lines for the purpose of sex. As Walter Matthau said of the incident many years later, "It was that kind of time in America." 

His 1947 film, Monsieur Verdoux, only added to his problems. Henri Verdoux is a former employee of a bank whose job has been eliminated by a faceless bureaucracy. In order to care for his crippled wife and son, he goes into the "business". of marrying rich widows and murdering them for their money. At the film's conclusion, Verdoux is to be executed for murder. As he offers his final words, Chaplin the humanist emerges from behind the mask of Henri Verdoux:

Monsieur Verdoux
"However remiss the prosecutor has been in complimenting me, he at least admits that I have brains. Thank you, Monsieur, I have; and for thirty-five years I used them honestly. After that, nobody wanted them. So I was forced to go into business for myself. As for being a mass-killer? Does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically! Ha! As a mass-killer, I'm an amateur by comparison." 

I'll say it again: Charlie Chaplin was one of the bravest men who ever lived.

In September of 1952 he sailed with his family to England for the premiere of his film, "Limelight". While on board the ship he was informed by wire that he would not be allowed back into the United States. Said one nitwit on HUAC, he had yet to prove his "moral worth". Charlie Chaplin became an exile.

Charlie and wife Oona, 1972
Twenty years later, in April of 1972, Chaplin was invited back to the states to receive a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. Before traveling to Hollywood for the reward ceremonies, there was a gala celebration for him at Lincoln Center in New York City. My brother Pete and I were there for it. We saw Charles Spencer Chaplin in the flesh - and up close - making eye contact with him and even getting a kiss blown at us for good measure. Forty-two years later and that night is as clear as yesterday. It was one of those mountaintop moments that doesn't go away very easily, you know? "Moral worth" indeed.

I always associate Charlie Chaplin with Christmas Day. It was on Christmas Day 1968 that I discovered him. Nine years later, on Christmas Day 1977, it was a bittersweet thing to hear that he had passed away - peacefully and with his family by his side.

In addition to being the centennial of his screen debut, April 16 of this year will also mark the one-hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of his birth. The legacy he leaves us should be treasured and celebrated. We're indeed lucky that he came our way. He's not coming back.

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY


My Autobiography
by Charles Chaplin

The best show business memoir ever written. Future scholarship on the man's life would reveal that this book was very accurate and not as self-serving as most autobiographies. A great read - in fact I just might read it again now.


The final scene from The Great Dictator (1940)

In my opinion, the greatest speech of all time. Charles Spencer Chaplin on the mountaintop - at the conclusion of The Great Dictator.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Our Three Party System

Call them "Republicans" no more.

The nice folks over at the McClatchy News Service announced yesterday that some imbecile named Mike Lee, a senator from Utah, will be delivering the Tea Party's response to Barack Obama's State of the Union Address on January 28. There will be two different counterpoints from two different political parties.

Anyone who is still in denial regarding the future of the Grand Old Party should take note. It's becoming clearer-by-the-day that if the Republican nominee in 2016 is not the mentally ill extremist of the Tea Party's liking they will mount a third party uprising - which is what they have effectively already done. Their argument is that defeating that evil, KNEE-GROW Marxist should have been a foregone conclusion. They failed to take back the Executive Mansion because (GET THIS!) Mitt Romney was too Liberal. That's right, boys and girls! The man who accused forty-seven percent of the American people of being a conspiracy of Communists, beggars and thieves was too much of a bomb-throwing lefty for these assholes. Life is good. 

What is happening is that the conservatives are virtually guaranteeing that on Inauguration Day 2017 - for the first time since 1857 - one Democratic administration will hand over the reigns of power to another Democratic administration. Although preferable to the alternative scenario, this is not necessarily "good" news. While there is still a molecule of hope for the Dems, there is still too much corruption and incompetence within the structure of that party too make any of us comfortable. Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown are the happy exceptions to a very nasty rule. They used to be the party of Franklin Roosevelt. Today it is hard not to think of them as the party of Chuck Schumer. Bad vibes abound. 

But the essential fact is that the GOP has become virtually unelectable on a national scale. George W. Bush is the last Republican who will ever call the White House "home". How could it have possibly come to this? How could a political party founded by the generation of Abraham Lincoln have fallen this low? What the hell happened?

The mortal wound was self-inflicted. In the mid-sixties they began to court the overtly racist Dixiecrats who fled the Democrats en masse after the passage of the Voting and Civil Rights Acts. Fifteen years later, after the nomination of Ronald Reagan, they started to woo the terminally brain-damaged. That is why that disgusting party today finds itself festering in an ideological sewer. They were bound to end up in a bad place. It's such an amusing thing to watch the spectacle of people like Karl Rove trying desperately to kill this Frankenstein monster that they helped create. These really are interesting times.

What we are facing is the dawn of a three-party age: One party is right/center/left, the other leans far to the right (there are no more "moderate" Republicans), and the third leans so extremely to the right that it is in danger of falling off the face of the earth. This bodes well, obviously, for the Democrats. Although the Republicans may survive for a few years in the congress and in Statehouses here and there, as a national party they're through - finis - KAPUT.


I almost sympathize with them for the run of bad luck they've been having lately...."almost", mind you. Two months ago, New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, was looked upon as the political messiah who would lead the Republicans out of the desert and onto the mountaintop. Kiss that dream goodbye. As it turns out, "Bridge-gate" was only the tip of an even naughtier political iceberg. The governor is being revealed as a common thug. When it came out that his administration denied funds to the city of Hoboken that were supposed to be spent on the cleanup in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy - for political reasons - his presidential aspirations (real or imagined) went into the toilet. His only consolation at this point is the stark fact that he never had a chance of getting nominated. The freaks and fools who now control his party would have seen to that. Interesting times indeed.

Randy and Teddy
And the 64 IQ question is this: Whom will they nominate in 2016? I have learned that even attempting to predict something like that this far in advance is an exercise in utter futility. But hear me out: I'm praying that they give it to Ted Cruz - or Rand Paul - or better still: A CRUZ/PAUL (or PAUL/CRUZ) TICKET!!! Wouldn't that be sick??? And as I said before, it's not too far out of the realm of possibility to see either one of them trying to pull a "Strom Thurmond" on their party. 

At their 1948 convention, when the liberal wing of the Democratic party dared to demand that a comprehensive Civil Rights amendment be included in the party's platform, Old Strom and the racist Dixiecrats who used to control that party walked out and ran Thurmond as the "States' Rights" candidate. Don't be too surprised if something similar occurs in 2016.

Whatever happens in two years, I am certain of this: As delightfully twisted as the 2012 Republican primaries were, 2016 is going to be the icing on the cake. If I never live to see another campaign season I just want to make it to that one. Watching that disgusting party destroy itself these past ten years has been more fun than I think I've ever had in my life. 

Sometimes I've got to pinch myself. I really do!

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY


Sorry for the long pause, folks. We've been just a tad distracted recently. Thank you to Linda Madon for inspiring me to come out of dreamland and write something.


I'm a little melancholy on this chilly January morning. Our neighbor across the river, Pete Seeger, has died. In a little over three months he would have turned ninety-five. A good run - a very good run - and a life nobly and beautifully lived.

This Land Is Your Land

As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me....

If anyone is looking for me today, cup your ear and follow the sound of Pete's voice. That's where you'll find me.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Malice in Blunderland

 "I am not a bully."

-Chris Christie

The Chris Christie scandal has me perplexed. He is many things - good and bad. Here is one thing he is not: Stupid. As you may know by now, I am not in the habit of coming to the defense of Republican politicians, but I need to say something here: If this were Governor Rick Perry or Governor Rick Scott or Governor Sarah Palin (before she walked out of the job) - or most Republican governors across this country - I would have no problem believing this. I find it almost impossible to comprehend that someone as politically astute as he seems to be would involve himself in something as petty as this. Time will tell.

Watching him during that press conference the other day, adamantly denying that he had anything to do with the closing of the lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey had me thinking that either this man has all the facts on his side - or he is the most reckless liar to come down the pike since Dick Nixon forty years ago. At this point in time I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. If there is even a slither of tangible evidence linking him to this - be it in the form of emails or the testimony of his staff - it's only a matter of time before it comes out. I cannot believe that he would be this dumb. We shall see what we shall see.

What amuses me more than anything about this entire affair is how the talking heads are speculating that this incident might very well mean the end of his alleged  quest for the White House. Are these people paying any attention? Chris Christie's chances at winning the GOP nomination in two years are about as good as mine. There is no way that the halfwits in the South and Midwest who now control that party are ever going to give the nod to a Northeastern Catholic/moderate with a vowel at the end of his name. Just put it out of your mind.

We'll know more as the weeks transpire. If I were a resident of the Garden State I would not have voted for Chris Christie either time he ran for the governor's mansion. I would never cast my vote for him if he made a run for the White House. But if this Republican - one of the very last living members of that disgusting party for whom I have even a modicum of respect and admiration - could stupidly let himself get involved in something this cheap and vindictive, then abandon all hope for them.

Isn't politics just oodles of fun?
 Tom Degan
Goshen, NY

Oscar Hammerstein II
 You'll Never Walk Alone
Oscar Hammerstein was the greatest lyricist in the history of American musical theater. The man was a poet who spoke to the soul. Here is Frank Sinatra's 1963 cover of the song he composed with Richard Rodgers from the musical Carousel:

I'm sending this little gem out to four cherished friends whom I love very much.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Francis is Driving Them Nuts

Even today we raise our hand against our brother... We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal we continue to sow destruction, pain, death. Violence and war lead only to death.
Even today we raise our hand against our brother... We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal we continue to sow destruction, pain, death. Violence and war lead only to death.
Even today we raise our hand against our brother... We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal we continue to sow destruction, pain, death. Violence and war lead only to death.
"Even as we today raise our hand against our brother....We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal we continue to sow destruction, pain, death. Violence and war only lead to death."

Pope Francis

It sure is an amusing thing to watch these Tea-partiers and their ongoing, massive FREAK OUT with respect to the philosophy of Pope Francis. Some, like noted scatterbrain, Rush Limbaugh, have gone as far as calling him a "Marxist". Sarah Palin has expressed her disapproval by saying the pope sounds "pretty liberal". What's up with that? All the pontiff is doing is passing on to his flock the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth - the Prince of Peace. How could they possibly take issue with that? Isn't that the line that a Christian would be expected to take? What gives?  

The dirty little secret is out: Jesus' teachings in the New Testament are anathema to the ideology of the right wing.  Why do you think they hardly ever quote Him? Francis is forcing all Catholics - and by extension, all Christians - to come face-to-face with the reality of what He was all about. I am not a theologian. The totality of my religious education comprises what I learned in Sunday School as a little boy and Catholic grammar school (grades six through eight). But as sparse as my instruction might be, I at least understand that Christ's whole purpose on this earth didn't involve catering to the status quo. There was a wee bit more substance to it. He was about love, and forgiving - and giving.

Jesus does not approve.

Okay, I'm gonna go out on a limb here. Call me a reckless heathen if you like but this is how I see it: 

Tax cuts for a class of people who already have more money than they know what to do with? This one is such a no-brainer that I'm embarrassed to even mention it. Jesus does not approve.

A bloated military that expends its might by roaming the world and killing a lot of people with dark skin (of which He was one by the way)? Jesus does not approve. 

Building privately owned prisons for profit and then passing more-and-more harshly punitive laws that will ensure that those prisons are packed to capacity forever? Jesus does not approve.

Placing the extreme burden of taxation on the backs of the poor and middle classes while some multi-billion-dollar corporations pay zero? Jesus does not approve. 

Passing legislation that will prevent the most vulnerable of those among us to take part in their democracy? Jesus does not approve. 

Forcing those who educate our children and serve our infrastructure to accept cruel cuts in their paychecks while the coffers of the rich and powerful runneth over? Jesus does not approve. 

A health care industry that sends people who get desperately ill spiraling into poverty? Jesus does not approve.  

A culture that labels people as "the deserving poor"? Jesus does not approve. 

A legal system that allows the financial industry to bankrupt millions of innocent people while that same system's highest legal officers admit that these criminals are too big to prosecute? Jesus does not approve.

A political party that claims to have an inside line to the Almighty Himself while consistently suffocating the lives of the meekest of us? Jesus most definitely does not approve.

Them plutocratic emperors ain't got not threads, baby!

What Pope Francis is doing is holding up a mirror - and there are many among us who are recoiling in horror at the reflection. Human society stands at the precipice of spiritual annihilation. We're either - all of us - going to care for and nurture one another, or we're going to hurdle into the abyss.

 Now if you'll excuse me I have a needle's eye and and a camel that I'm conducting and experiment with.

These are delicious times in which to be alive. They really are!

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY


Christ vs. Conservatism - A SERIOUS Conflict
from "The Rant", 21 July 2006

I wrote this little ditty way back at the beginning.


Here is a message I sent to Pope Francis''s Twitter account on December 1:

"@Pontifex: Your Holiness, you are driving the right wing in America nuts. Thank you."

Dear Lord, I love this pope!