You wouldn’t think, at first glance, that Albert Brooks and Cary Grant were soul mates. Cary Grant was the epitome of urbanity and screwball aplomb, and has been stated by no less than David Thomson to be the best film actor of the 20th Century. Brooks is a poodle-haired multi-talent with the demeanor of an anxious suburbanite and the eyebrows of an off-duty drag queen. He’s not really in my time-period of expertise, but his tweet this week got me thinking about Twentieth Century tweets: Telegrams. And made me realize that both Grant and Brooks are masters at epigrammatic blasts of comic retort.
In case you haven’t heard, Brooks tweeted a response to the lack of a 2012 Oscar nomination for his celebrated performance in Drive, referencing the most mocked acceptance speech in the Academy’s history. Brooks tweeted, “You don’t like me. You really don’t like me.”
I so enjoyed Brooks’ wry message that it made me want to see all his movies again. I did not, however, see Drive. Mainly because too much of the publicity campaign seemed to be based on the director’s first meeting with Ryan Gosling, which ended with said director weeping whilst listening to REO Speedwagon (I feel strongly that that kind of nonsense shouldn’t be encouraged). Also, I used to co-run a short film series in Times Sq., where I was wearied by the amount of films we’d get in, usually from Jersey guys, about Jersey guys who were always in the bucket seat of their morose vehicles. These commuting gents would end up to be monosyllabic hit men, and I’d have the fun of watching them kill someone—usually a Jersey girl, usually shot in the head while talking—in the car. As Scarlett O’Hara would say, Fiddle dee-dee-pressing.
Brooks’ tweet made me remember some famous epigrammatic telegrams from the film and literary communities, the best of which came from Cary Grant himself. Since the telegram spanned the industrial age to the age of information—Western Union began in 1861 and the last telegram was sent in 2006—everyone sent telegrams, and those who sent them often became very good at the incisive and limited format. Call them the Haikus of Hollywood. The tropes of Tinsel Town.
The first known telegram about Hollywood is from founders of the picture business, and reveals the combination of daring and dumb blind luck that would represent the industry in its early days. In 1913, Samuel Goldfish—later Goldwyn, producer of malapropisms and also of truly excellent films—sent Cecil B. DeMille to Flagstaff, Arizona to see how it’d work for the set of a film called The Squaw Man, De Mille was unimpressed with Arizona and came up with a pretty good alternative idea:
FLAGSTAFF NO GOOD FOR OUR PURPOSE. HAVE PROCEEDED TO CALIFORNIA. WANT AUTHORITY TO RENT BARN IN PLACE CALLED HOLLYWOOD FOR $75 A MONTH.
AUTHORIZE YOU TO RENT BARN BUT ON MONTH-TO-MONTH BASIS. DON’T MAKE ANY LONG COMMITMENT.
The Hollywood telegram was off to the races and would later become a staple for pivotal moments in films, a deus-ex-messenger boy, if you will. Oh, and for you kids out there who haven’t seen moments like this—telegrams cost by the word. So people tended to get to the point pretty quickly. Again, like twitter. The more I began to look at telegrams, the more I realize that their entertainment value—and those of tweets—usually depends on how well the sender knows and uses their persona. Just that taste leaves you wanting more.
Here’s a partial list of some of the most famous Hollywood/Broadway Telegrams—later I will cover literary ones, which can be surprisingly more earthy and macho (and that’s just from Dorothy Parker alone!). You’ll probably have heard some of these, but dammit—the classics are here to teach us, in this coarse age, about style. These people had it.
5. When George S. Kaufman was watching a performance of his 1932 Pulitzer-winning play, Of Thee I Sing, he was so underwhelmed by an actor’s tepid performance that during a break he sent a telegram to the actor’s dressing room:
WATCHING YOUR PERFORMANCE FROM THE BACK ROW; WISH YOU WERE HERE.
4. Gloria Swanson was the most fabulously glamorous, clothes-horsiest, sex-bombiest star in DeMille’s 1920s films. She wore the absurd clothes of the era with an air of dignified hauteur, but in film she could do it all, from slapstick to pathos. And, in addition to spending money, she liked the men—Oh boy, did she ever. She even allowed old Joe Kennedy to fumble around her regal haunches, neglecting to notice that he was also quietly fleecing her of every dime she had. She did better in Europe, though, marrying the Marquis de La Falaise in 1925. At that time, everything Swanson did was bigger and splashier than anyone had been yet in Hollywood–so it’s no wonder that she was the first star to land an aristo and drag that big fish back to California. And didn’t she just know it. This is her modest little telegram to the publicity department:
ARRIVING WITH THE MARQUIS TOMORROW MORNING. STOP. PLEASE ARRANGE OVATION.
3. Here is the telegram that writers dream of receiving—the one that’ll keep you in lexapro and lap-tops, ensure you a home in your old age, and pay for holidays in balmy locales with sweet-scented natives who help you forget your pink-skinned Celtic melancholy for a while. It’s from Herman Mankiewicz (future writer of Citizen Kane) in Hollywood, to Ben Hecht (future writer of The Front Page, Wuthering Heights, and Nothing Sacred) in New York, 1926.
WILL YOU ACCEPT THREE HUNDRED PER WEEK TO WORK FOR PARAMOUNT PICTURES? ALL EXPENSES PAID. THREE HUNDRED IS PEANUTS. MILLIONS ARE TO BE GRABBED OUT HERE AND YOUR ONLY COMPETITION IS IDIOTS. DON’T LET THIS GET AROUND.
2. In the 30s, Noel Coward and his old pal Gertie Lawrence had been riffing on the hot gossip in town—namely, that bisexual Tallulah Bankhead had the hots for Bette Davis, and was pursuing her elusive (and profoundly uninterested) prey through a series of not-too ambiguous telegrams. Not to be beaten, Coward produced a double-entendre of his own, sent on the first night of Lawrence’s new production:
A WARM HAND ON YOUR OPENING.
1. And now for the master. Late in Cary Grant’s career, when a publicist sent him a rather personal request for information, the old Silver Fox knew just how to respond.
Publicist’s Telegram: HOW OLD CARY GRANT?
Cary Grant’s reply: OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?
(Oh lord, how I adore that man. I just. . .sigh. I’ll need a moment. Ok.)
Telegrams and tweets—I never sent or received a telegram, but I tweeted for the first time this week. The earth remains the same, firmly spinning on its axis. But then, I haven’t found my twitter persona and don’t know that I ever will. I bet the greats, like Grant and Coward, would’ve blown our androids wide open with their 140 characters. . .but at least we can learn from them and their Morse messages of the past. And I really do like Albert Brooks.
Coming soon—the Literary and Political world in telegrams. Come back if you want to hear what Nabokov had to say to Playboy magazine. Churchill and FDR on their allure en francais. And if you know any good telegrams or tweets, please tell me!