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Rant (Sort of) May 2006

I am no stranger to obsession. In one of my earlier instances of fragile mental health, I woke in the middle of the night with an absolute need to put up my new Lionel train set NOW! I not only roused my parents with the urgency of this quest, but called my older brother at his home demanding his help. I should have been on Prozac. (Wait! There wasn’t any Prozac in the mid-50’s. Okay. Miltown. Or Cutty Sark. Or Mary Jane. Or heroin. Any of them, alone or in combination, would have been a blessing to my parents)

Another obsession. In 1979 I was introduced to the cast album of a musical called "Working". Based on a book by Studs Turkel it included several songs I liked. By the mid 80’s I was working in Washington State and was searching for a copy of the cast album. This was before the internet and it wasn’t easy then. I became obsessed. I actually worried I would die without hearing that album again. When I, at last, got my copy of the CD a few years later I wasn’t sure what the big deal had been.

That’s the way of most obsessions. Turns out they aren’t a big deal after all.

So, now to bore you with my life-long obsession. A movie. A movie I saw once and hope to see at least once more before I die. For more than 40 years I wondered and fretted over this movie. It has been an obsession.

In the 1950’s the Duluth CBS television affiliate was Channel 3 KDAL Television. (Changed call-letters later because of FCC rules re: multiple ownership) The nightly news with Earl Henton was at 10:00PM followed about 15 minutes later by weird programming and then the Late Show. Usually, I was fast asleep by the time the Late Show began, but on this fateful night I started watching. A couple of hours later, the movie ended, the tears rolled down my cheeks, and I began the over 40 year obsession.

IN the ensuing years I didn’t think about the movie often except for the niggling feeling that I wanted to remember more about it. By the early 70’s, I was thinking about it more and more. What was the name? Who directed it? When was it produced? I didn’t have any of the answers. A couple of times in the 70’s I made a half-hearted attempt to find out the title of the movie. I wrote a letter to the organization that awards the Oscars. No reply. In 1980 I wrote a letter to Bill Tush at WTBS in Atlanta. At the time, he hosted the old movies on the SuperStation. No reply. I bought several of the books listing ALL the movies and read them page by page looking for a synopsis that sounded familiar. No luck. On a trip back to Minnesota, I spent some time in the library looking at microfilm of the TV listings from the 50’s hoping to see my movie listed. Nope.

In the mid 80’s, while staying at Don Bleu’s home in California I told them about my search for THE movie! At that time I was already 20 years into my obsession.

"The movie begins with a patriarchal father and his family at breakfast. His three children and wife love him while at the same time cower before him. His word is his bond and doing the right thing is the only thing. This means his oldest son practices the violin, his younger children obey without question, and his wife knows she has married a GOOD man. Trusted by his employer to transfer some bearer bonds to the ‘big city’ he is delayed through no fault of his own and arrives at the bank after closing. Banks closed at 3PM in the 40’s, I think. Realizing he must stay over to deliver the bonds the next morning, he mistakenly looks for dinner in a low-down joint where he is slipped a mickey by a b-girl. The woman and her accomplices not only steal his briefcase with the bonds, but they also take his clothes and wallet. He awakens from his drugged stupor in time to realize what has happened and to give chase. Eventually, he catches up with the fleeing thief in a railroad yard next to the flea-bag hotel. During a struggle over the briefcase, the bad-guy falls in front of a speeding train, his body mangled beyond description, while the ‘hero’ of the story is knocked into momentary amnesia and wanders off. He comes to his senses several days later to find out a series of horrible mistakes have been made. The mangled body of the thief, wearing his suit and carrying his identification has been identified by the authorities as our hero. The bonds have been recovered and he is being honored for giving his life in an attempt to prevent the bond theft. Overcome with guilt and shame because HE was late to the bank, HE went into a sleazy bar. HE allowed a woman of low morals to ‘chat him up’. HE got slipped a mickey and worst of all, HE fought with a man who lost his life. He is so ashamed he cannot face the bosses at the bank OR his family and vows not to tell them he is still alive. He becomes a hobo, riding the rails, begging in the street, and in typical movie fashion, the pages of the calendar fly off to show the passage of years until a fateful Christmas eve when, now, a disheveled old street-person, he passes a theater and notices the play-bill outside announcing the final performance that afternoon by the rising star, young violinist, his son. Somehow he scrounges enough coins to give him a seat in the highest balcony where he watches his son play, with incredible virtuosity, the classics and the traditional songs his father so loved so many years before. At the end of the concert the son thanks the audience and relates how he is taking the train that evening to his home town to be with his mother and siblings on Christmas Eve. He also says he wishes his father could be with them and how desperately he misses him. His last song is the same song he was practicing at the breakfast table, that fateful morning years before. Overcome with memories and grief, the tears fall as the father listens to his now grown son play. After the concert, the old man travels by freight train to the home town he hadn’t been back to in years and walks through the Christmas snow to his old family house. His family is inside aglow with the Christmas spirit, enjoying each other and remembering their father and Christmases past. The mother says she would give anything to have him with them on this night. Suddenly, a scream as one of the party goers notices the grizzled face staring in the window. They run to the door, angry at the window peeper, and see this old man scuttling down the front walk toward the front gate, his back to them. At first they are angry, but the mother reminds them it IS Christmas and a little kindness and charity is in order. She invites him to join their little party.

At this moment if you are watching the movie, you know, he will turn around….they will recognize him…..the will be overcome with shock and happiness and everything will end wonderfully. A wonderful happy ending.

The old man pauses at the invitation, his head still hidden from those on the porch. A moment. A decision. He opens the gate and walks into the street. The mother looks helpless and disappointed as her children hustled her back inside and out of the cold. The old man turns and looks toward the house one more time as the caroling resumes and the snow begins to fall. His shoulders droop indicating a slow sigh. The camera shot widens and rises as he turns and begins his slow walk away down the street into the gently falling snow.

The End


The tears were streaming down my face on that night in the 50’s and thinking about it now, my eyes moisten. I am a sucker for 1940’s movie schmaltz. I hope Don Bleu’s family enjoyed my rendition of the movie as much as I enjoyed it the only time I saw it. Through the 90’s the quest to find the title of the movie continued. Another stab at Leonard Maltin’s bible of movies. No luck. Several letters. Several more recitations of the entire story for movie aficionados. Still, no luck. In 2004, I was sitting at the computer in San Francisco and found a yahoo ‘movie fan’ group. I joined and in my first thread asked about the movie. I included the story-line. Ten minutes later, someone added to my thread ALL the information I have searched for all these years.

The name of the movie? The Way Of All Flesh (Made twice…as a silent in 1929 and the one I saw 13 or so years later) Starring Akim Tamiroff. And yes….listed in the Leonard Maltin movie book.

AND!!!!

Out of print and currently not available. There must be some copies of it out there somewhere. KDAL had one in the 50’s, didn’t they? Leonard Maltin saw it and he is about my age, isn’t he? Oh, God, please don’t let it be one of the thousands of movies lost forever. Ted Turner, check your vaults, restore it, re-release it. I watch TCM devoutly with that wish. Let me see it one more time before I die. It is one of my last obsessions.





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