Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Hooray for Pete Hamill

Pete Hamill's long literary and journalistic career includes at least one crime novel that crosses borders (The Guns of Heaven, Northern Ireland), but that's not what gets him mentioned here.

He makes it because his introduction to the Penguin Classics Damon Runyon collection, Guys and Dolls and Other Writings, contains in the space of two paragraphs three salient attributes of Runyon's work that I noticed in his story "Sense of Humor":
  • "Sometimes we can hear Runyon's people talking above their stations, playing social roles that are lies, but we certainly don't mistake them for characters out of Edith Wharton, who do the same thing."

  • "This is, of course, a fictional world. The gangsters don't speak the way real gangsters spoke in that era, or in ours."

  • "Runyon is often accused of sentimentalizing his gangsters, and is sometimes guilty as charged. But a close reading of most of these stories shows us a clear darker side. His people often do terrible things to each other, and out of base motives."
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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14 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Damon Runyon just sort of passed me by like John Dos Passos and Thomas Wolfe. Tried 'em and they didn't really get me going.

GUys and Dolls has entered my consciousness for three reasons: 1) I vaguely remember Marlon Brandon singing, 2) When Mark Hammill did a cameo in the Simpsons he was in Guys and Dolls but singing a song called "Guys and dolls we're just a bunch of crazy guys and dolls" to the Hooray for Hollywood tune and 3) in the Seinfeld episode where Jerry is trying to appear straight George gets him a gift of two tickets to Guys and Dolls and Jerry is appalled.

March 02, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In other words, how many people who know the word "Runyonesque" have ever read Runyon?

"Guys and Dolls" entered your consciousness for the same reason it entered everyone else's: Runyon is just part of America. You could almost picture two rubes abroad thinking that everyone in America is a singing gangster rather than, as in the old saw, cowboys and Indians.

All I'm saying is that, with all that buildup, some of his stuff just might be a surprise, as the ending to "Sense of Humor" was for me.

March 02, 2011  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

Peter,

I can think of two other films that are "Runyonesque" in the sense that the film makers used a Damon Runyon story and his characters, if not the language.

Frank Capra's 1961 "Pocket Full of Miracles starred Glen Ford as "Dave the Dude" and Bette Davis as "Apples Annie."

I think Peter Falk was great as a hood who told Ford's girlfriend, "If you wasn't a broad, I'd kick you right in the stomach."

In this film, a comedy, and "Murder, Inc," which was not so funny, Falk was a short, violent hoodlum. He was Joe Pesci before Joe Pesci.

"Pocket Full of Miracles" was based on Runyon's short story "Madam La Gimp."

The other film was "The Lemon Drop Kid," starring Bob Hope. The film was based on Runyon's short story of the same name.

Hope was great as a hopeless gambler. The film also introduced the Christmas classic song "Silver Bells."

I saw the films and liked them before I read Runyon's stories.

Also, have you read Jimmy Breslin's bio of Runyon? My complaint is the book was more about Breslin (who thinks he is a Runyon character) than Runyon.

Paul

March 02, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, I read that twenty movies had been made from Runyon's stories. And you made a brilliant call with the qualification that moviemakers used Runyon's stories, "if not the language."

The second part of that Peter Falk line is clearly un-Runyonesque: "If you wasn't a broad, I'd kick you right in the stomach." No Runyon character would ever get that anatomically explicit, as far as I can tell.

I have not read the Runyon biography, but I can well believe Breslin thought himself a Runyon character.

March 02, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I haven't read Runyon either, though I'd like to give him a shot.

My own memory of Guys and Dolls is rather a nostalgic one, as my dad, who liked to sing, and I think in his heart of hearts would have liked to be involved in the theater world rather than commercial real estate, did, towards the end of his life, get involved in a community theater production of Guys and Dolls. He was just in the chorus and had a few lines, but he loved being in the behind the scenes world of the theatre. He'd hang out with the cast afterwards and was always fascinated with the life of the non-professional actor. It's too bad he wasn't a writer.

March 02, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My appropriate v-word is auctr.

Your father's involvement in Guys and Dolls, not to mention his fascination with actors, would make him a perfect Runyon reader.

What I can say off my reading of Runyon is that he could tell stories and, while nostalgia is a big part of his appeal today, it's not all there is to him. He was a capable representative of his era's taste for twist endings in short fiction, for one thing -- as was Dashiell Hammett. (See Runyon's "Dream Street Rosie" and Hammett's "Night Shade.")

March 03, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Damon Runyon is wonderful.

Without characters like Nicely-Nicely and venues like "Good Time Charleys" the world would be a much duller place.

"http://www.answers.com/topic/damon-runyon"

"http://www.familychristmasonline.com/stories_other/runyon/dancing_dans_christmas.htm"

(Apologies for untidy post... pressed for time to get to an exhibition.)

March 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Interesting that the Damon Runyon Theater production censors out the wonderful drinking of "a few hot Tom and Jerrys" and replaces it with eating cheesecake.

March 03, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I think my dad probably found the inner workings of commercial real estate Runyonesque enough.

March 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, so real-estate people stab you in the back but with raffish grins and syntax, do they?

March 03, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I'm not sure about the syntax, but yeah, it's kind of like that.

March 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I learned just a few days ago that Runyon was from out West -- Pueblo, Colo., which I'd previously known only as the place one writes to for government pamphlets. But I naturally now assume that he was dazzled by the glamor of the people he found in New York, even if he had no illusions about what they did.

March 03, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

The humour in Runyon is correcive and humane, not satirical and biting.

In fact his work seems quite sentimental when compared with contemporary writers.

I think, from the evidence of his style and ability to create an almost lyrical discourse among thieves and criminals, that Runyon had a relatively sophisticated mind.

He certainly is a writer of his time. In "Little Miss Marker" one of the characters actually prays for the child to survive, which is a rare event nowadays ... at least in the books I have chanced upon.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's a gentle, sentimental humor, all right, and Runyon occasionally used it to good effect. Some of his tough guys act with astounding brutality. Others are always willing to help out someone less fortunate, as in "Dancing Dan's Christmas."

I wonder what Runyon's background contributed to his stories. On the one hand, I think he grew up in a rough town, which might have familiarized him with rough characters. On the other hand, that town was in Colorado, which might have left him hungry for the sights and sounds and characters of New York.

March 04, 2011  

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