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Grouch Deficit

Film industry dodges the great grumps of yesteryear

By Richard von Busack

THE SUPPORT OF philosophers is the mark of a cultured civilization. Similarly, the proliferation of grouches, scoffers and cynics is the flower of a society. The first great grouch of history is my hero Diogenes the Cynic (412-323 BCE), who believed in freedom and self-sufficiency but not social mores. As it turns out, the word "cynic" comes from the same root as the word for dog. Diogenes' writings did not survive to be crammed into humanities students over the ages, which adds even more luster to his name.

There are many stories of Diogenes trying to trip up Athenian philosophers with niggling little details. For example: Plato poses the qustion "what is man?" and begins with the definition "a featherless biped." Diogenes counters by waving a plucked chicken, saying, "Is this a man?" (Another doglike habit Diogenes supposedly had was masturbating in public. When reproached, he's claimed to have said, "Would that I could satisfy my hunger just by rubbing my stomach." William Bennett is right--today's kids need more instruction in classical virtues.)

No backward society can afford grumblers; only the most advanced and prosperous ones can. And yet the most vital art form of our society, the cinema, is now poor in the number of real grouches. These days the most damning criticism that can be flung upon a modern filmmaker is that his characters aren't sympathetic enough. While this desperation for likableness has promoted the careers of hundreds of affable nonentities from Robert Taylor to Tom Cruise, the insistance on "sympathetic" characters has even subverted the alternative film. One example: according to its director, The Daytrippers was rejected by the judges at Sundance Film Festival--the most important single showplace for alternative film--because the characters weren't pleasant enough.

In the alleged alternative film Love! Valour! Compassion!, the unlovely, unvalourous and dispassionate character played by Julian Glover is forced to see into the future to witness his own funeral, and he realizes that no one will attend. This is a shmaltzy old Hollywood threat--be mean, and your mourners will stay away in droves. Fredric March's William Jennings Bryan also predicts a bad draw at the funeral of Spencer Tracy's atheistic, grouchy Clarence Darrow in the 1960 Inherit the Wind . In real life, however, W.C. Fields' funeral drew 50 people. According to the Los Angeles Times; the mourners included cool people like the journalist Gene Fowler and the great prizefighter Jack Dempsey. Groucho Marx's small memorial service at his son Arthur Marx's house turned away lots of celebrities, George Burns and George Jessel among them. The snubbed ones duly complained to reporters about not being invited. It's not that nobody comes to a grump's funeral--it's just that nobody can get on the guest list.

Grumps do seem to be a dying breed in the movies, and you have to think back almost 50 years to find the best ones. Preston Sturges, a 1940s-era filmmaker, made sterling use of grouches, especially that prince of grouches, William Demarest. Check out the rancorous Demarest in his Grouch Trilogy: Sullivan's Travels, The Lady Eve and--most ill-tempered of them all--Demarest as Constable Kockenlocker in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Sturges also used such deathless growlers as the obese crank Eugene Pallette, Bronx honker Al Bridge and Porter Hall (who in a speech about the history of marriage says: "No man is going to jeopardize his present or poison his future with a lot of little brats hollering around the house unless he is forced to").

Old movies were a trove of raspy actors such as W.C. Fields, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, Lionel Stander, Moe Howard, Shemp Howard and Jackie Gleason (sheesh, what a grouch!)--all no longer with us. Walter Matthau and Peter Falk still live, but both invariably turn sweet in the last reel. Who else is there? Bill Murray, still occasionally sighted (very cranky in that underrated elephant movie Bigger Than Life, written by the not-ungrouchy Roy Blount Jr.)

In the movies today are fewer Grouchos and more lovable Oscar the Grouches. If you want to inherit the wisdom of raspy, sarcastic geezers with broken noses, you either have to go to the few fern-free bars left or to AA meetings. You sure won't see them in the movies. England has its new generation of screen grumblers: Robbie Coltrane, Alexei Sayle, Alan Rickman, Richard E. Grant. What do we have? Whoopi Goldberg, that's what. Jeff Goldblum, a kvetch instead of an honest grouch.

At least America boasts some of the world's crankiest politicians on the public payroll: Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond and, of course, Newt Gingrich, the youngest of cranky old men. Having them thwarted by a Democrat regime is all the better. As per the example of Diogenes, the grouch's true place is to be in the opposition. There, he can earn his keep griping about chimeras like welfare Cadillacs, stealth meteorites, diabolical Chinese with briefcases full of loot, sinister Arkansas Realtors and cultural termites gnawing the underpinnings of American civilization. The grouch's best quality is that he's seldom essentially wrong about human nature and is shocked when it turns out he is. His worst quality is also self-evident: Other people can never tell him that they're wrong, even when they are.

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From the August 7-13, 1997 issue of Metro.

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