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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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The M1 Garand, the JCS, Luzon and National Clean Off Your Desk Day

It’s a new year, it’s Monday, and your redoubtable correspondent is once again hard at work bringing you….aw, you know all that.  This week there was the coronation of Philip V (the Tall) as King of france in 1317, France declaring war on Spain once again in 1718, the Ft Robinson revolt in 1879, and the end of the Gallipoli mess in 1916, but we’re going to explore three interconnected events in US military history, and the bane of office life: desk cleaning.

For the next seventeen years the Garand was the main issue rifle of all the American services, producing somewhat over five and a half million units at four different plants.

By the 1920s, the venerable M1903 bolt-action Springfield rifle was reaching the end of its useful life, by American lights anyway. Though reliable and accurate, American infantry  tactical doctrine was headed in a different direction, towards using more support weapons –machine guns and artillery–to do a bulk of the work while the soldiers maneuvered.  To that end John C. Garand (rhymes with errand) a Canadian born weapons designer at the Springfield Arsenal, developed a gas-operated rifle that used the same 30-06 Springfield ammunition as the M1903 Springfield and the standard M1919 machine gun.  This satisfied the parsimonious among the Army purchasing boards and the then chief of staff, Douglas MacArthur.  On 9 January 1937, after fifteen years of development and trials, the weapon was adopted by the Army, and designated the M1.  The rifle went into mass production after the fall of France in 1940. For the next seventeen years the Garand was the main issue rifle of all the American services, producing somewhat over five and a half million units at four different plants. Springfield and Winchester made M1s during WWII, Harrington and Richardson and International Harvester also made them from 1953 onwards.  Called by George Patton “the greatest battle implement ever devised,” the diversity and number of weapons in service was exceeded only by the Kalashnikov in the 1970s.

By 1942, with America just getting organized for WWII, military planners and their civilian counterparts realized that there was no true joint command of the US military like the British had, and it became difficult to even talk to their counterparts without some unified planning structure.

The US Army was late in coming to the idea of a general staff.  Both the Army and the Navy were run for decades by peculiar creatures called the Bureau System that, since before the Civil War, didn’t even answer to the Army’s top officer, the Commanding General, and the Navy’s senior commander was the Secretary of the Navy until 1915.  All that changed for the Army in 1903 when the last Commanding General of the Army, Nelson A. Miles, retired and Samuel BM Young stepped into office as the first Army Chief of Staff.  (Technically, Henry W. Halleck stepped into the role as Chief of Staff to Ulysses S. Grant in 1864, when Grant was promoted to LTG, and that role died when he retired in 1865). The Navy created the Chief of Naval Operations in January 1915 by regulation. From 1903 to 1942, the Army Chief of staff was the senior service’s senior officer. By 1942, with America just getting organized for WWII, military planners and their civilian counterparts realized that there was no true joint command of the US military like the British had, and it became difficult to even talk to their counterparts without some unified planning structure.  While William Leahy was Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief, he lacked both seniority and structure for any combined planning with the Army or the Air Forces.  To that end, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were formed on 9 January, 1942 as the head advisory body to the chief executive.  The first members were Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, Navy Chief of Naval Operations Harold R. Stark, Chief of the Army Air Forces Henry H. Arnold, and Commander in Chief of the US Fleet Ernest J. King.   While Leahy technically presided, and Stark was posted to London, the body was not in the US chain of command.  This changed in 1986 with the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which turned the US military into a far more combined force than it had ever been before.  The all-powerful bureaus were finally dead.

By 1944, the Joint Chiefs had come far from the early days of confusion and building, and the M1 Garand had gotten American forces to the front yard of the Japanese empire. 

On 11 March 1942, Douglas MacArthur committed the US to retaking the Philippines with his grandiose “I shall return” phrase to a group of Australian reporters.  The phrase, so hopeful and full of meaning from America’s senior officer, was flashed all over the world as a beacon of hope.  If asked, however, American planners would have bypassed the Philippines in favor of Formosa and the Pescadores off the China coast, but politically they were stuck with the Philippines.  By 1944, the Joint Chiefs had come far from the early days of confusion and building, and the M1 Garand had gotten American forces to the front yard of the Japanese empire. On 20 October 1944 MacArthur fulfilled his promise by stepping ashore on Leyte.  On 13 December 1944, American forces landed on Mindoro, within easy fighter cover range of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippine Archipelago. On 9 January 1945, American forces under Walter Krueger landed at Lingayen Gulf on the west coast of the island.  While the fighting in the Philippines would last until the very end of the war and even beyond, the Japanese defenders would fight beyond all hope of success.

In the words of that forever-anonymous wiseguy who made the first sign that read: “A cluttered desk is a sign of genius,” topped only by “A clean desk is a sign of a timid mind.”

And, since this is the second Monday in January, we get to celebrate/commemorate/ observe/ignore National Clean Off Your Desk Day! Legions of experts in business organization, industrial psychology and  website creation agree with the other blowhards meddling about among the real workers that a clean desk provides a sense of serenity and improves productivity.  However, as Einstein once quipped: “if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then is an empty desk a sign?” In the words of that forever-anonymous wiseguy who made the first sign that read: “A cluttered desk is a sign of genius,” topped only by “A clean desk is a sign of a timid mind.”  Words to live by, indeed.  But, ultimately, who has the time to come up with these things?

But last Friday was National Cuddle-Up Day, and no one knows where that came from, either, other than it got to a high of 9 degrees above here in the Great Lakes, and it seemed like a good idea.