Top Hat & Tales: Harold Ross and the Making of ‘The New Yorker’ (DVD Review)30 Jun, 2014 By: Mike Clark
James Thurber: The Life and Hard Times
Released a year apart (2000 for Thurber and 2001 for Tales), these two bio-docs are obviously related in a New Yorker magazine kind of way — respectively celebrating one of the writers and the first in a small group of chief editors who made the publication what it still is. Of the two, the Thurber portrait is a little richer and fleshed-out, though re in terms of this assertion, you may have to factor in some amused prejudice on my part.
Even at the time when we were young, my best friend in college savored the irony that the most celebrated writer ever to have emanated out of our hometown of Columbus, Ohio, was … a humorist. This was during the late 1960s, which was when the BBC did an hour-long show on reactionary Ohio State University football coach Woody Hayes for a series called The Americans — on which the voiceover announcer intoned that in the opinion of some, blinded-by-pigskin Columbus was a city that had yet to discover America.
With collaborator and former classmate Elliott Nugent, Thurber had famously satirized the capital city’s football craziness in the Broadway hit The Male Animal, which was then filmed by the Brothers Warner with Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland. But as it turns out, there isn’t much in this documentary about Nugent’s not insignificant contribution to Thurber’s career in a portrait that concentrates on The New Yorker — one that makes the point, just as the Ross documentary does, that this most sophisticated of publications was predominantly put together by figures raised in more humble provinces like Ohio and Ross’s Colorado-Utah combo. Still, a bio of anyone as complicated as Thurber (both a brilliant writer and cartoonist) can’t ignore formative experiences, and this one doesn’t. In this case, they were a) an eccentric, borderline batty mother whose antics were apparently known all over town; and b) the childhood bow-and-arrow incident that punctured one eye and facilitated the blindness that plagued Thurber the rest of his life. Motto: don’t play William Tell with your brother.
Add to these Thurber’s serious drinking, and you have a perfect blueprint for an irascible personality — though in a priceless 1950s TV interview excerpted here conducted by Alistair Cooke himself, Thurber is polite and even charming. Part of his success has to be attributed to a second wife who was apparently just the right one for him, and the Ross profile makes note of his own three wives, at least a couple of who were stunners who probably made it a little tougher for him to concentrate on the labors at hand. Ross was a tough guy to figure out; he came from, of all possibilities, a mining background — and on paper, would seem to have been one of the last people a betting individual would have predicted to be the guy who lit the match that enabled the publication to catch fire.
And matter of fact, it was a betting individual (the magazine’s owner, in fact) who almost sank The New Yorker with his gambling debts before it really began — turning Ross into a kind of miracle man with his particular vision for the magazine, which was to appeal to the person who, though not born or raised in the city, thought of it as a dreamy concept and often even came to it from some other part of the country because he or she had to live there. Both documentaries, which inevitably overlap to a point, are full of people (Roger Angell, Thurber biographer Burton Bernstein) who can spin anecdotes, and when the anecdotal subjects include members of the Algonquin Round Table, how can a good time fail to emerge? Many of the Algonquins, in fact, ended up being magazine contributors — though the trademark New Yorker manner in which their unsigned articles were edited, it was often difficult to guess the specific writer. But with Thurber, I’m guessing it wasn’t all that difficult.