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Edmond O’Brian and National TV Dinner Day

The second week in September, and the weather should be cooling off in the Great Lakes by now. Could even spend a few days with the windows open just to get some air in the building, as long as the neighbors keep it down.

10 September, a momentous day in China (before they knew it was even September) in 210 BC, when Qin Shi Huang died; this was the founder of the Qin dynasty and first emperor of a unified state that could be called China. It was he who brought the warring states under central control and secured most of modern China.  On this day in 1897 in London was the first drunk driving arrest–gotta wonder what that field sobriety test looked like. George Smith, a 25-year-old London cab driver, was arrested after ramming a building; he pled guilty and paid a 25 shilling fine.  Finally, on 10 September 1977, the guillotine was last used in public. Hamida Djandoubi was a Tunisian-born farm laborer who kidnapped and murdered his former girlfriend in 1972. He was convicted and sentenced to death, the last time the guillotine was used in public, and the last capital sentence to be carried out in the European Union. Today is also National Swap Ideas Day, dreamed up by Robert L. Birch (no, really). But today we talk about the hardest working man in Hollywood, and convenience under tin foil.

His first film contract with RKO brought him in contact with Eve Arden and Deanna Durbin at Universal, but his first really big part was with James Cagney in White Heat (1949).

Eamon Joseph O’Brien was born on 10 September 1915 in Brooklyn, New York, the last of seven children. He did street magic as a child and learned the acting trade early in his life, at the feet of Harry Houdini and Sanford Meisner. His fellow students included Lillian Gish and Burgess Meridith in summer stock and Shakespeare road shows.  His first film contract with RKO brought him in contact with Eve Arden and Deanna Durbin at Universal, but his first really big part was with James Cagney in White Heat (1949).

220px-EdmondOBrien. Wiki Commons
Edmund O’Brien as Frank Bigelow in “DOA” (1950)

But his best-known role was in DOA (1950), where O’Brien played a notary public who spent the last hours of his life investigating his own murder. That got him enough notoriety to land a role in The Barefoot Contessa (1954) as Oscar Muldoon, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe. He would be nominated for the same awards for his role as a boozing senator in Seven Days in May (1964), winning the Golden Globe and another Oscar nomination. He also won the Western Heritage Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture for his role as yet-another lush in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962). As many awards as O’Brien won, however, did not compensate for his health challenges: his weight swung drastically, and he suffered from arthritis in his hips.

As an independent actor, O’Brien showed a business acumen and creative talent all his own, earning him the moniker “the hardest working man in Hollywood.”

O’Brien also landed leading roles, notably in Sheild for Murder (1954), 1984 and A Cry in the Night (1956).  But he’s undoubtedly best known for his characters, which he always thought were more natural to play than lead because an actor “could always fill in white space with a wisecrack.” His cinematic work was matched by his television roles, making him one of the few actors who could and did play both mediums with relative ease. O’Brien was best known on TV for Johnny Midnight (syndication, 1960) and Sam Benedict (NBC, 1962-63), and for literally hundreds of character roles on scores of programs. As an independent actor without permanent contracts in an age when contracts were the only route to steady work, O’Brien showed a business acumen and creative talent all his own, earning him the moniker “the hardest working man in Hollywood.”

Legend has it that O’Brien was to have been awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 1986, but he passed before a vote was held.

O’Brien’s last roles on the big screen or small were in 1974 when he was 59. But his weight and his hips were getting the better of him, his memory seemed to be failing and so was his heart. So was his bank account. For all the work he did, his finances were never sterling, he was divorced twice, and the father of three children, all of whom ended up in television. Edmund O’Brien died in Inglewood, California of Alzheimer’s Disease on 9 May 1985. Legend has it that O’Brien was to have been awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 1986, but he passed before a vote was held.


Now, today is National TV Dinner day because on 10 September 1953 the first TV dinners (turkey with all the trimmings) were made commercially available in the US by Swanson. The food was pre-cooked and came in aluminum trays, and the meals were meant to be heated in the oven at home. They were intended for convenience like so many things in the ’50s were, and just having a TV was a status symbol: the scene above was promotional for the televisions, not the non-packaged meals.

TV dinners have gone through many transitions since their origins. Swanson wasn’t the first and was hardly the last, but Swanson was the first to make it a commercial success. In my youth, TV dinners were common about once a week when Dad was out-of-town on business. They were generally OK but tended towards the bland, and in the ’60s there wasn’t a great deal of variety: chicken, roast beef, turkey, repeat. When the brownies started in the mid-60s, this was something, and there were hot dogs with buns and beans and franks. Then, as ever, life changed, and I didn’t see another TV dinner until I saw the Army’s version–the T-Rations–only once, sometime around 1975. They were about the same except on a cardboard tray and slightly larger.

In my bachelor days I tried some TV dinners again, but either I had outgrown them, or the industry had just stopped trying, as I found them bordering on the disgusting–even my cooking was better. I don’t think I’ve had a TV dinner since the early ’80s.

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Ninety-Five Theses, The Last Judgement, The Spanish Flu, Reuben James, and Halloween

31 October has been a very auspicious day for many things. When Davey patented the miner’s safety lamp on this day in 1815, and Dunlop patented the pneumatic bicycle tire on this day in 1888 those were the beginnings of great things.  So was the completion of the first coast to coast paved highway in America, the Lincoln Highway, in 1913.  And, LBJ ordered the bombing of North Vietnam halted on 31 October 1968, more to help Hubert Humphrey beat Richard Nixon in the upcoming election than to help the Vietnamese.  But that didn’t help his vice-president, and Nixon won anyway.  But many auspicious other things happened on 31 October.

By the beginning of the 16th Century, the European world was divided into two realms: The Church and Everyone Else.  The Church held sway over most civil matters, and everyone else could do whatever it was that they wanted to do that the Church told them they could do.  A large source of revenue for Rome was the sale of indulgences.  These were pieces of paper run out on that new printing press gadget which, blessed by the Holy See,  were intended to reduce a sinner’s punishment after death.  Great if one could afford it, but very few could.  This was an age when most people wouldn’t see more than a handful of copper coins in a lifetime, and the Church was charging sacks of gold for them.  Martin Luther argued that the sale of indulgences was, to put it mildly, wrong, that the Pope had no influence over the amelioration of sins. There were other issues as well, notably the foundation of the merits of saints, that he included in an academic argument called the Ninety-Five Theses that he sent to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz (his earthly boss), on 31 October 1517. This began what is now called the Protestant Reformation, which was the beginning of the end of the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in temporal matters.

Martin Luther argued that the sale of indulgences was, to put it mildly, wrong, that the Pope had no influence over the amelioration of sins.

While the sale of indulgences was lucrative, it enabled the Church to be a great patron of the arts.  Some of the best known works of Renaissance art were created at the behest of churchmen while the Reformation raged.  Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo Buonarroti to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, but the work was unfinished until the Last Judgement was finished a quarter century later, on 31 October 1541 on a commission  from Paul III. As High Renaissance art goes the Sistine gets no higher, and for an artist who preferred sculpture the work is all the more remarkable.  The Last Judgement depicts the Second Coming of Christ and the judgement of all of humanity, as was then current Church doctrine. A figurative end of the world, if nothing else.

Some of the best known works of Renaissance art were created at the behest of churchmen while the Reformation raged.

But it was much later, on the other side of the world, that leading scholars were calculating the end of humanity   By 31 October 1918, the Great Influenza, the “Spanish Flu,” had killed at least 21,000 people in the United States alone—that month alone, and most in the last half.  Worldwide deaths numbered in the millions.  Raging from sometime in 1917 to about 1922 in several different waves, the plague could kill in hours, with the victims literally drowning in the detritus of their own immune systems. There were clinicians who were calculating that, at the rate the disease was killing its victims, humanity would become extinct within four to six months.  The wave receded at the end of November, only to flare again at the end of 1919, and again in 1922.  One in four humans on Earth were affected either directly or indirectly.  Unofficial death tolls today are at about one hundred million. This exceeds the death toll from all causes in WWI, even by the most pessimistic scholars, by a factor of five.

Raging from sometime in 1917 to about 1922 in several different waves, the plague could kill in hours, with the victims literally drowning in the detritus of their own immune systems.

And it wasn’t much after that, humanity having survived the flu, that the United States inched closer to war once again. By 1941, the US Navy was performing “neutrality patrols” over half the Atlantic Ocean.  USS Reuben James (DD-245), a Clemson class four-stack destroyer commissioned in 1920 that was a part of Patrol Three out of Iceland, was escorting eastbound convoy HX 156 out of Halifax on the morning of 31 October 1941 when she was struck by a torpedo from U-552 that was meant for an ammunition ship in the convoy. A forward magazine exploded on Reuben James, blowing her bow off.  The rest of the ship managed to survive another five minutes before it sank, claiming all but 44 enlisted men. The issue with Reuben James was less that the United States was not yet at war or the loss of over a hundred men, but that the vessel was escorting a convoy of a nation that was at war, arguably providing material assistance to a belligerent in violation not only of international conventions but also of US law.  While the press reported the sinking, President Roosevelt didn’t make much of an issue of it as he might have, given the legal ambiguities of the “Neutrality Patrol.”

The issue with Reuben James was that the vessel was escorting a convoy of a nation that was at war, providing assistance to a belligerent in violation  of US law.  

Today also marks the “holiday” of Halloween, that day when people of all ages dress up in costumes and disguises from the sublime to the ridiculous, the crude to the superb, to indulge themselves in merriment, garage-burning (especially in Detroit), candy-begging, and other things that, at any other time, would be viewed as either criminal or just plain nuts. While your intrepid researcher did indulge in the past, it has been some years since he felt compelled to take part personally in the “festivities,” other than to put up some decorations (discontinued some years ago) and hand out candy (discontinued this year).  While OK for many, this correspondent is done with it. While the roots of Halloween are unclear, it is the eve of the All Hallows Day observance in the liturgical year for remembering the dead. Of late the harmless holiday has been associated with paganism, Satan-worship, and other tortured non-connections.  And on some college campuses, costumes must be pre-approved by committees of oh-so-sensitive persons who need to make certain that no one is offended, and no cultures are appropriated, and no one is demeaned–essentially that no one enjoys themselves.  At last report, there were very few costumes (other than perhaps simple sheets that could be construed as KKK garb and thus even they were being nixed) that were being approved.

Leave it to academics to suck the joy out of everything.