Another of Paul Zahl's discoveries on his recent trip to Paducah, Kentucky:

This shows the ancient, circa 1928, and original neon sign (from which the neon tubing has been removed) advertising
the Irvin S. Cobb Hotel in downtown Paducah.  It is the man himself in
mid-career silhouette.

The Hotel, now apartments, is holding on for
dear life.  It is apparently for sale, has no immediate buyer, yet
preserves a perfect Art-Deco lobby designed by the same firm that
created the famous Peabody Hotel in Memphis.  There are several Art-Deco wood sculptures in the lobby, an amazing original dining room, now
darkened and filled with junk; and a painted ceiling that calls to mind
the St. Regis Hotel in New York.  This was also the tallest building in
Paducah, once upon a time, since Cobb was its most renowned favorite son.  Yet who
reads him today?  And where dwell the ghosts of past guests at this
Twilight Zone sort of a place?

I love the sign, and I love the place.


Mattie Ross, the protagonist and narrator of Charles Portis's 1968 novel True Grit, originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, is one of the great voices in American literature — one that can stand with the voices of Ishmael, Walt Whitman, Huckleberry Finn and Bob Dylan.

Mattie embodies the contradictions and the mystery of the American character as no other figure in our literature does, quite.  How is it that a people so hard-working, tightfisted, materialistic, imbued so deeply with a fun-killing Puritan ethic, nevertheless manages to create characters and legends of such wildness, such free-spirited exuberance, such eccentric moral beauty?  There is no answer to that question, ultimately, no way of resolving the contradictions, explaining the mystery.  All we can do is observe it, as we observe Mattie, and marvel.

Mattie is 14 when her father is murdered and his murderer flees into the ungoverned Indian Territory of Oklahoma.  She hires a hard-bitten U. S. Marshall with a vicious side to go bring the fugitive back, and she determines to go along on the trek to make sure the job gets done.  Mattie is a ruthless bargainer in the negotiation, cold-blooded in her determination to see her father's murderer dead — hung by the law, if possible, but dead one way or the other, by any means necessary.

In this she is driven by the ethos of the Old rather than the New Testament — and she is a dogmatically religious person — but her passion is actually more personal than dogmatic.  She does not seem to mourn her father, or show a lot of sentiment over losing him — but this is a misdirection.  Vengeance is her way of mourning, heroic effort is her way of showing love — and on this unspoken truth the novel turns.  For she has found in the man she hires, Rooster Cogburn, a person exactly like her — a seemingly cold tracker and killer of men who has no other way of expressing his values, his profound if often misdirected decency, than by acting as an agent of the law.

In the miracle of finding each other, however, the cold abstraction of the law is overturned.  Cogburn becomes a surrogate father, one who will not leave Mattie, either by getting killed or by dereliction of duty.  She becomes a surrogate daughter, someone he can love by protecting.  They are both redeemed by their love for each other, and the climax of the novel is not the final confrontation with the murderer, but Cogburn's super-human race to save her life.

They remain tragic figures — redemption is not the same thing as satisfaction, as happiness.  They have met each other by chance in the only situation in this world in which either of them could truly love another person.  But it's enough — more than enough.  On their remarkable adventure, they live intensely enough to last a lifetime.  They create a story together that transcends their own personal limits as human beings, just as it transcends time.  In telling this story, Portis adds another episode of paradoxical grandeur to the American legend.

The novel was of course made into a famous film starring John Wayne, in 1969, which has now been remade by the Coen brothers, who reportedly have stayed more faithful to the book.  The new film will be released on Christmas Day this year.  My guess is that it will be a blessing to our culture, if only by steering people back to a magically profound novel.


On his recent trip to Paducah, Kentucky, Paul Zahl found an empty palace of dreams:

Of the two surviving movie palaces in Paducah, The Columbia is the larger and more ornate.  I saw heavy demolition equipment in
the rear and got worried.  Fortunately, I was able to consult with a
professor of regional history who knows all about
Irvin S. Cobb and more about Paducah as a riverfront city.  Dr. Robertson said
that The Columbia is not slated for demolition, although it is
derelict.  Cobb's movies, such as
Steamboat Round the Bend and the
one he made after Will Rogers was killed — in which the studio tried,
unsuccessfully, to make Cobb into Rogers's folksy successor on screen —
would have been shown here.  This theater is only six blocks from the
confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers.


Another report by Paul Zahl from his recent trip to the area around Paducah, Kentucky:

This is one of the main avenues of the ancient Oak Grove Cemetery in
Paducah.  Here Irvin S. Cobb is buried, here is where John Ford came in
1961, while shooting his section of
How the West Was Won nearby, to pay his respects to his old friend, and here is where the prototype for Cobb's (and Ford's) “Judge
Priest” (i.e. Judge William S. Bishop) is buried, right beside Silent Avenue.

This is Cobb's grave in Oak Grove Cemetery:

The inscription
reads, “Back Home”.  A dogwood tree, as per his dying request, shades the
grave.  He wanted only the Twenty-Third Psalm read at the grave,
together with the choir of a local African-American congregation to
sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Deep River”.  Cobb's wishes were

Mercy Avenue is another of the main axes of Oak Grove Cemetery.  I
got up high on some crumbling steps leading into a mausoleum in order
to get this one.  I think if we could all spend some time on “Silent
Avenue” and then perhaps forever on “Mercy Avenue”, we would be in
excellent shape.

Just a few “blocks” down Silent Ave from Cobb's grave is this one — the grave of John Scopes, the
teacher of evolution in the Tennessee public schools who was prosecuted
in the famous “Monkey Trial” of 1925:

This is the man whom Clarence Darrow (or
Spencer Tracy, for those of you who remember the movie about the trial,
Inherit the Wind) defended, and who won, after a fashion.  He was found formally guilty and
fined $100, but the judgment was regarded by everyone at the time as a
victory for free speech, and even evolution itself. 
In the film, Frederick March played William Jennings
Bryan (below), who stumbled in attacking this man, and never fully recovered from
the moral defeat which the trial was for him.

What a picture of
Twentieth Century America, in one acre of ground — Cobb, now no longer
famous, with a big grave near the entrance; his prototype for “Judge
Priest” buried nearby, on Mercy Avenue, a man who kept on getting elected
because the Confederate veterans of the county were “Yellow Dog”
Democrats — that is, people who would vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for Republican; and then, after all that, down the way, the simple memorial
to John Scopes,  “A Man of Courage”.


Contrary to the opinion of some — including Barack Obama, apparently — independent voters are not attracted to “safe”, middle-of-the road candidates.  They are attracted to candidates who can convey passion and vision in an appealing way.  This is why independents voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan — and also for Barack Obama.  These men offered strikingly different visions of America and how its government should work, but both made people feel good about America, made them feel that America belonged to them, and to the future.

Retreating from the vision he conveyed so powerfully during his campaign, trying to govern from a wishy-washy middle, with no discernible passion or convictions, Obama has totally lost independent voters and much of his base.  He is taking down the Democratic Party with him.  Meanwhile, the Tea Partiers, with an excess of passion, though a somewhat wobbly vision, are attracting the independents who put Obama into office.  The Tea Party has no coherent or rational program, but it has stolen the narrative that Obama won with — this country belongs to us, it's broken and we can fix it.

That the Tea Party can have had such success without a program is evidence that the nation is ready for a third party.  A third party of genuine vision, with the passion of the Tea Party but eschewing its uglier and nuttier aspects, could change the face of American politics.

Fully one half of American citizens today between the ages of 19 and 29 identify themselves as independents — they have no loyalty to either of the major parties.  That percentage is not likely to fall in the years ahead, given the current unattractiveness of the major parties, and new generations coming of voting age will likely swell their ranks decisively.  (Within five years, millennials will represent one third of the electorate.)  This means that one major barrier to the success of a third party, the inertia of trans-generational party loyalty, is crumbling before our eyes.

The extremism of the Tea Party fringe is creating quiet but real unease among moderate Republicans, and the Democratic Party's outright betrayal of its progressive base is creating divisions on the left that are becoming increasingly bitter.

These are the kinds of conditions that have given birth to successful and near-successful third parties in America's past.  The withering of the Whig Party and the divisions in the Democratic Party opened a way for the Republican Party in 1854.  The Republicans, with their passion and vision, put their candidate, Abraham Lincoln, into the Presidency in 1860, just six years after the party was founded.

In 1912, when the former Republican President Teddy Roosevelt felt that the current Republican President Taft had betrayed the progressive ideals of the Republican Party, TR founded the American Progressive Party, popularly called the Bull Moose Party, during the election year, and it actually outpolled the Republican Party in the elections.
  There's no telling what success TR might have had if he'd founded his party even a year earlier.

This is one reason for progressives to stop rewarding Democrats for their failure and cowardice and to start looking for an alternative immediately.  With the failure of TR's third party in 1912, common-sense trust-busting progressivism would never again be a significant force on the American right.  If the anti-slavery activists of 1854 had decided to stick with the foundering Whig Party for just a few more years, hoping it would come to its senses, there might never have been a President Abraham Lincoln.  There is a tide in the affairs of men . . .

The first tenet of TR's Progressive Party was this — “To destroy this invisible Government,
to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt
politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.”  This is a philosophy directly relevant to the crisis of our own times, a crisis in which the survival of our democracy, under assault from the organized monied interests, the “trusts”, as TR would have called them, is at stake.  It's a philosophy that, properly framed by a charismatic leader,
could draw support from the baffled but passionate Tea Partiers and from the disenchanted Democratic base.  Most importantly, it could appeal powerfully to the young, independent voters whose numbers are swelling rapidly.

The time has come.


Paul Zahl's thoughts on the episode of How the West Was Won directed by John Ford (a few spoilers here), with some photographs he took recently of the filming locations:


Right after the Intermission in How the West Was Won comes
John Ford's part.  It is his conception of the Civil War, in which Carroll
Baker bids farewell to her son forever as he marches off to war,
the Battle of Shiloh rages, during which her husband, the
Jimmy Stewart character, is killed off, then
character dies (off screen), and George Peppard comes home to find only
his brother still there, lovingly watching over the family farm and
also the family graves.  Peppard's character leaves, again, and his
brother weeps with desolation and resignation.

Above is the exact spot where John Ford filmed the bracketing scenes on the farm.  I photographed it from
the bank of the Cumberland River at Smithland, Kentucky, with Georgian and
early 19th Century houses — inns, churches, warehouses, and one “plantation” house called “Strait” — on both sides of me and behind
me.  Just beyond the trees on the spit of land across the river is
where the farm house of Carroll Baker and George Peppard and his little
brother was constructed.  That area is now farmland.  Also, just
behind the trees, they constructed the log fence along the road down
which Andy Devine rode at the beginning of scene one, and down which
George Peppard walked at the end of scene one, the family dog trying to
follow him, plaintively.

Although the river in front of the spit of land is the
Cumberland, on the other side of it, in the far left background, is
the Tennessee.  Baker and the other actors would be ferried across to
the location each morning, from the spot where this photograph was
taken.  The place is still and wonderfully quiet.

The two scenes on the farm are
distilled emotion in the classic Ford manner.  Carroll Baker carries a
black scarf as she says her dense and underplayed
farewell to Peppard and as she addresses the dead in the family
graveyard.  The second scene on the farm is like a silent movie, with
almost no dialogue, and Peppard plays this particular part — his
discovery that his mother has died — laconically and therefore
movingly.  The director's use of the Cinerama process seems
instinctive, with Ford hiding the screen lines by means of poles and
posts mostly.  I find these two short scenes on the “Rawlings” farm to be
as mighty as any he ever did.

The middle sequence of “The Civil War” represents
the Battle of Shiloh.  It includes a somewhat cynical exchange between
General Grant and General Sherman, and a contrived encounter that
George Peppard, slightly wounded on the Union side, has with Russ
Tamblyn, a Confederate soldier.  They are both quenching their burning
thirst at “Bloody Pond”, until they realize that the water has an odd color . . .

Above is Bloody Pond as it looks today.  It has changed little since the
night of April 6th, 1862, which is the night depicted in the middle section of
Ford's Civil War sequence
.  You can't
park anywhere near the place today, due to improvements being made by
the Park Service to the loop road; so you have to approach Bloody Pond
through the woods on the other side of the Pond (from this angle).  You
walk about a third of a mile through woodland, then come right out on
the clearing where the Pond is.  Now it is muddy and yellowish-brown.
 That night it was red.

Ford also depicts the battlefield surgical station, as well as the tiny Shiloh Church — above, as it is today.  This is where the fighting reached its apogee on the first day of the battle.  It is a reconstruction (but on the exact site) of Shiloh
Methodist Church, which was destroyed during the battle.  It is
depicted at the top of the frame at the beginning of the nighttime
section of Ford's Shiloh sequence.

They weren't able to
have church that Sunday morning April 6, 1862 . . .
but . . . the day I was
there, a couple of weeks ago, I went into the current United Methodist
Church of Shiloh, which is the active church, located to the right of what you
see in the photograph, and peered through its glass doors.  Behold!: a
dead woman was there.  There had been a “viewing” the night before, and
there, right below the altar, in an open casket surrounded by bouquets
of flowers and waiting for a late morning church service, was a
peaceful person of middle years, lying in death, for all to see.  It
was as if the entire scene were crying, “This is not abstract, what you
are seeing.  It's not re-enactment time.  These things really
happened.  And they still do.”

Ford's Shiloh sequence feels “staged” to me, and I've felt
this ever since the days when Lloyd Fonvielle and I saw this movie in
its first run at the Uptown Theater on Connecticut Avenue, not so many
blocks from the Obama White House.

For me the summit of How the West Was Won is reached during John Ford's “Civil War”.  But it's the home front that moves you, and moves you mightily.

[See my thoughts on the rest of the film here.]


How the West Was Won is not really the frontier epic it aspires to be but a curious sort of Western-themed variety spectacle, a cavalcade of “attractions”, something like Buffalo Bill's Wild West.  On its original release, the central attraction was the Cinerama process in which it was presented — a three-projector system which wrapped a super-widescreen image nearly halfway around a theater for a grandly immersive experience.

It was genuinely enthralling, as I can attest from having seen it in that process twice, once as a kid when it came out and once nearly forty years later as an adult.  On both occasions I got lost in the hallucinatory beauty of the images, and didn't think too much about the intertwined narratives they served.

The vertical seams between the three strips of film which made up the Cinerama image were apparent in the original process, although one tended to ignore them after a while.  Recently, though, the film has been transferred to DVD with the seams digitally removed, more or less completely, which allows one to experience the images in a new way.  Of course on a TV screen they don't have the visceral impact they did in the theatrical Cinerama presentation, but one can still appreciate how beautifully they are composed, and the film's narrative content assumes a new prominence.

The film is episodic, covering a wide range of locales and time periods, but the episodes are all linked by characters established in the opening section (above) whose descendants carry on the drama through time.  The script, which won an Academy Award, is very skillfully constructed in this regard, so that the sweep of the narrative never feels chaotic.  It does fall apart at the end, though, in the final of the five major episodes, “The Outlaws”.

This section of the film had script problems and was revised and re-shot in parts during production.  What's left is a halfhearted reprise of High Noon, culminating in a shoot-out on a moving train, which mixes stunning location work with crappy backscreens in which the principal actors do daring things in a studio.

It's an unfortunately underwhelming end to the big show.

The film has an all-star cast, with actors that are often not really suited to their roles, chosen instead for their iconic stature as stars of the Western genre.  Jimmy Stewart is way too old for the role he plays as Carroll Baker's love interest, and Gregory Peck is way too staid for his role as a feckless gambler.  But it doesn't matter — these stars are just being paraded before us for nostalgic purposes, the way an aging Buffalo Bill was driven around the arena at his shows in a carriage when he was no longer able to sit a horse comfortably.

Debbie Reynolds is given several song and dance numbers which are stylistically closer to scenes in a musical than to musical interludes in a Western drama — but again, it doesn't matter.  This is, as I say, a variety show, not a coherent epic.

The biggest problem with the casting is that George Peppard, bland and unconvincing as a man of action, must take the baton for the final dash to the film's finish line, and he's not up to it.  He is asked to carry the anti-climactic climax — something a star of real charisma might have done — but instead only contributes more mediocrity to the perfunctory conclusion.

Still, all in all, it's a most unusual and entertaining variety show, elevated often to a higher level by the stunning images of classic Western iconography — river rafts and steamboats, wagon trains, Indian attacks and a buffalo stampede, steam locomotives and galloping bandits — all brilliantly shot in the real wide-open spaces of the real American West.  In those rare moments when the drama works on its own terms, the combination of spectacle and emotion is thrilling.

[In a follow-up post, here, Paul Zahl reflects on one of those rare moments, in the John Ford-directed section of the film, with photographs of the location where it was filmed, which Paul recently visited.]


Paul Zahl writes of more mysteries explored on his recent trip to Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee:

This was taken from the northwest edge of the lake.  I asked my guide Jeff Earp if
this were where the evil deed recounted in Irvin S. Cobb's 1937 mystery entitled
“Judge Priest Turns Detective” was done.  He had not read the story,
but when I told him the mechanism of Cobb's plot, he suggested that it
would have occurred in the one spot on the Lake where the depth is down
to 60 feet, where even now it is possible to drive a boat fast.  Cobb
accepted the 100-year-old local story that in that spot, which Cobb
called “Big Hole”, great prehistoric fish lived at depth and in
tunnels, tunnels by which they could escape into the Tennessee River if
Reelfoot Lake were ever drained.

When the murderer strangled his
victim in “Judge Priest Turns Detective”, the criminal pushed the body
into Big Hole.  The body did not surface for weeks, and by then . . . the
catfish had got it.


If you are, like me, a fanatical admirer of the much mocked and despised 19th-Century academic painter William Bouguereau, you will want to save your pennies for an extraordinary new work devoted to his art, the Catalog Raisonné On William Bouguereau.  It's a massive, and very expensive, two-volume biography and catalog raisonné listing and reproducing all his known paintings.  Beautifully printed and bound, with hundreds and hundreds of mostly excellent color reproductions, it will take your breath away.

Devoting this much attention to Bouguereau is almost an act of defiance — a way of asserting his importance in the face of decades of scholarly scorn.  His popularity has never needed defending, despite the unwillingness of museums to show his work throughout most of the 20th Century.  People have always loved his images.  Now, prices for his paintings are escalating at an astonishing rate, and the Musée d'Orsay has recently acquired five new works by him, including L'Assault, pictured above, and Compassion, pictured below, which will hang on permanent display with the two the museum already owned.

I pre-ordered a copy of the Catalog ages ago, at a greatly reduced price, and waited patiently as its deadline for publication was constantly pushed back.  I confess there were times when I wondered if the project was all a fantasy.  But the set arrived a couple of days ago, and it was worth the wait.

Today, post-publication, the set will cost you $350 — from the Art Renewal Center, which co-sponsored the project — and many months of your time to browse and read.  (If the price is too daunting, the Art Renewal Center plans to donate copies to libraries, so you'll be able to get your hands on one for free eventually.)  The Catalog may spark a reappraisal of Bouguereau's work in the art world, or not — that hardly matters.  It will certainly expose many new people to the work, and promote a consequent suspicion of the judgments of the art world.

Bouguereau's visions are meticulously conceived and executed, and often quite mad.  They are endlessly astonishing and entertaining, and sometimes moving.  They have a regard for sentiment and a connection to popular taste that most painting lost in the 20th Century, but will reclaim someday.  Bouguereau is not about the past — he's about the future.  Get to know his work and you'll see why.  Virtuosity combined with pleasure and surprise never goes out of style, at least not for too long.


Dancer and filmmaker Celia Rowlson-Hall (website here) was in Las Vegas briefly this week — we managed to make it to the Liberace Museum just before its imminent closing.

Above, Celia channels the spirit of the Las Vegas showgirl.


Paul writes, of his recent trip to the area around Paducah, Kentucky:

Two Bald Eagles surveying the scene over their Winter
flyway and nesting ground, Reelfoot Lake, in northwestern Tennessee.   I saw four Bald Eagles that morning.
  They are noble birds — all four of them took flight after this photograph
was taken, slicing through the air.  They circled us and then took up
new sentinel positions to the left, on the shore.

I can't believe how big they look . . .


Indefatigable pilgrim Paul Zahl recently traveled to the area around Paducah, Kentucky to visit a few places enchanted in his imagination.  Reelfoot Lake has associations with Irvin S. Cobb, a once celebrated American author on whose stories John Ford based two films.  Paul writes of the picture above:

I took this in the early morning — Bald Cypresses standing out
of Reelfoot Lake in western
Tennessee near the Kentucky border.  The “umbrella” root-balls are growing on top of the thousands of original
cypresses that were submerged in a single night during one of the “New Madrid” earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 — a series of three massive temblors that probably exceeded 7 points on the Richter Scale.  John James Audubon witnessed one of the quakes, during
which he said the earth “rolled” in waves.

Irvin S. Cobb set his famous horror story
“Fishhead”, which is believed to have influenced H. P. Lovecraft
directly, on Reelfoot Lake, conjecturing a school of human-sized
catfish that drag the two villains to their deaths at the end of the

For more on Irvin S. Cobb, check out Paul's podcast on the writer here.