“Really, Most Sincerely,” Wizard of Oz Munchkin is Dead

Back when I was a kid in the 1960s, in the days before DVDs, video cassette recordings, and the multitude of cable television stations we enjoy today, the annual showing of the classic movie The Wizard of Oz (1939) was an anxiously awaited TV event.  

So much of the film has been impressed upon my memory:  the feet of the Wicked Witch of the East, protruding from underneath Dorothy’s house; the tapping of the magical ruby slippers; the silhouettes of the flying monkies against a full moon; the melting of the Wicked Witch of the West after Dorothy tosses water upon her (intended for her burning broom); and last, but not least, the high-pitched voices of the wonderful munchkins as they point Dorothy down the yellow brick road. 

And of these last characters, the muchkins, we are saddened to hear today of the death, at age 94, of the diminutive coroner who pronounced the Wicked Witch of the East dead.  His name was Meinhardt Raabe, and he was a twenty-two year old midget performer when the movie was filmed in 1938. 

If you’re interested, Greensboro Public Library has Raabe’s memoir, Memories of a Munchkin:  An Illustrated Walk Down the Yellow Brick Road (2005), which Library Journal calls “an essential read for anyone interested in munchkin lore and The Wizard of Oz.”  Mickey Rooney did the forward for the book, by the way. 

I know there are plenty of other folks who have fond memories of this American classic, and if you want to learn still more about the movie as well as L. Frank Baum’s famous book, try some of these:  Finding Oz:  How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story by Evan I. Schwartz; The Road to Oz:  Twists, Turns, Bumps, and Triumphs in the Life of L. Frank Baum by Kathleen Krull (juvenile); Oz:  The Hundredth Anniversary Celebration, edited by Peter Glassman (juvenile); The Wizard of Oz:  Selections from the Original Motion Picture (sound recording); and The Wizard of Oz:  The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History by John Fricke, Jay Scarfone, and William Stillman.


Yes, Slumdog, a Film Well-named

I have to admit I wasn’t too impressed by this year’s Oscar winner for best picture. 

Though the director’s craftsmanship was evident and admirable, Slumdog Millionaire came across to me as a work which was contrived for appeal to an American audience.  The Taj Mahal, call centers, beggars, filth everywhere, when the average American thinks of India these are the images which come to mind — and the movie was rife with them; what’s more, superimposed upon all these stereotypes, we find an American-style game show! 

India is an ancient country with a rich cultural fabric, and we would do well to learn more about it.  Surely it is more than urban squalor with an overlay of “Coca-Cola colonialism” as portrayed in this film.

But don’t take my word for it.   For more reviews, which are mostly very positive, take a look at Slumdog’s Yahoo Movies page.

If you’d like to learn more about India, Greensboro Public Library may have some books for you.  Try some of these recent titles:  Imagining India:  The Idea of a Nation Renewed by Nandan Nilekani (on order); In Spite of the Gods:  The Strange Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce; India by Nicki Grihault; The Argumentative Indian:  Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity by Amartya Sen; Sacred Waters:  A Pilgrimage up the Ganges River to the Source of Hindu Culture by Stephen Alter; The Light Within:  A Travel Log of India by Joseph L Anderson; and The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone:  Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st-century Power by Shashi Tharoor.

Death of James Whitmore

This is just a quick post noticing the death of actor James Whitmore (1921-2009).  He had such a distinctive face and voice — it almost seems like I grew up watching him in the movies and on television. 

For most folks, his most memorable role was probably as Harry Truman in the one-man play later made into the film Give ‘Em Hell, Harry — he received an Oscar nomination for best actor for that one.  Greensboro Public Library has a copy of the drama, written by Samuel Gallu.

But I think I’ll best remember him as the prison librarian, Brooks Hatlen, in director Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption — adapted from a novella by Stephen King.  Tragically, Brooks had been institutionalized for so long that when he was finally released — after approximately 50 years behind bars — he was unable to cope with the outside world.  Brooks’ fate was similar to that which awaited Morgan Freeman’s character, “Red” Redding, . . . but, I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen the film!

You can find a brief biography of Whitmore in Biography Reference Bank.

Anyway, he will be missed.

The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke’s impressive performance in The Wrestler received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for best actor; I can not imagine better casting for the role of the aging, down-on-his-luck professional wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson.  But I think it’s unfortunate that the film wasn’t also nominated for best picture.

Why, you may ask?  It is, after all, merely another sentimental tale, peppered with a little sex — and an ample helping of gore for good measure.     

Well, I may be going out on a limb here, but what I saw in The Wrestler was an allegory about America and so much of what we have become.  Some reviewers have suggested Christ-like parallels in Rourke’s character (for example, here and here), but I rather see representations of contemporary American issues, such as the economic crisis and a war on terror gone wrong; and, on a broader plain, perhaps a more general, uneasy feeling that America, like Randy, now well into middle age and bereft of its youthful vigor, is quite simply past its prime.

I don’t want to spoil the film for others, so let me try to justify only one of these:  the symbolic parallels with our economy.  For we see economic decline almost everywhere in the film:  in the run-down trailer park and decaying urban environment where Randy lives; in the menial jobs he takes to supplement the wages he earns in his chosen profession; in the often disappointing, even depressing turnouts for his matches and autograph signings; and, in the “quiet desperation” of his would-be, exotic dancer girlfriend (played by Marisa Tomei) to escape a world of $60 lap dances.    

Virtually all of us must feel a similar sort of economic angst as we watch the current financial crisis and recession unfold — and I suppose I may be projecting my own feelings of despair upon the film. 

However, the economic milieu of The Wrestler (and I should mention here that Randy has quite a few problems which are unrelated to his material circumstances, namely health and relationship issues) is in fact more particularly that of the “working poor,” i.e., people who just barely get by, often by working two or more jobs.  And the growth of this class is something our economy has been going through for at least a couple of decades as we’ve seen manufacturing give way to the service economy and Kevin Phillips’ “financialization.”  

The book in our collection which comes to my mind as dealing most directly with the problems of the working poor is Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed:  On (Not) Getting By In Boom-time America.  Check it out sometime if you have a chance.  Some other good books on this or similar topics include:  Strapped:  Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead by Tamara Draut; The Missing Class:  Portraits of the Near Poor in America by Katherine S. Newman and Victor Tan Chen; Traveling Light:  On the Road with America’s Poor by Kath Weston; Scratch Beginnings:  Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream by Adam Shepard; Ending Poverty in America:  How to Restore the American Dream, edited by Senator John Edwards, Marion Crain, and Arne L. Kalleberg; One Nation, Underprivileged:  Why American Poverty Affects Us All by Mark Robert Rank; The Betrayal of Work:  How Low-wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans and Their Families by Beth Shulman; A Working Stiff’s Manifesto:  A Memoir by Iain Levison; and Just Generosity:  A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America by Ronald J. Sider.

At any rate, I highly recommend this film with this one warning:  there is quite a lot of blood, especially in what I’ll call, with good reason, the “Passion of the Christ” wrestling scene.


If you haven’t had a chance yet, be sure to see Frost/Nixon, the film recreation of British talk show host David Frost‘s historic interviews with former President Richard M. Nixon in 1977.  The first of these interviews, in which Watergate was discussed, is still considered the most watched news interview in television history.  The movie, directed by Ron Howard, is an adaptation of a play written by Peter Morgan, first performed in London in 2006.  

Actor Frank Langella‘s portrayal of Nixon is dead-on, evincing both the former president’s political acumen as well as his neuroses.  Michael Sheen‘s performance as the glib, jet-setting Frost is equally convincing.  No doubt the film will help to introduce yet another, younger generation to Watergate, Nixon and all the political pathos of that era.

If you’d like to read more about Richard Nixon, we’ve probably got a book or two which you’ll enjoy.  Our more recent titles include:  Nixonland:  The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein; Richard Nixon:  A Life in Full by Conrad Black; Very Strange Bedfellows:  The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew by Jules Witcover; Nixon and Mao:  The Week That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan; The First Modern Campaign:  Kennedy-Nixon and the Election of 1960 by Gary A. Donaldson; Richard M. Nixon by Elizabeth Drew; President Nixon:  Alone in the White House by Richard Reeves; and No Peace, No Honor:  Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam by Larry Berman.

We also have The Conviction of Richard Nixon:  The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews by James Reston, Jr.  Reston, who was a Morehead scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill and taught creative writing there during the 1970s, was a consultant to Frost during the interviews. 

And of course, you can also search Facts on File for articles about the original Frost-Nixon interviews.