"Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can abolish memory... In this war, we know, books are weapons. And it is a part of your dedication always to make them weapons for man's freedom." - Franklin D. Roosevelt
'Home From The Vinyl Cafe' is a collection of Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe stories, from every season of the year. This collection of his work was published in 1998, though of course the stories were originally told on his radio program, 'The Vinyl Cafe'. In 1999, this book won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. His books have won this award three times. Chances are, if you're not Canadian, you aren't familiar with Stuart McLean or the Vinyl Cafe. We Canucks, however, have been hooked ever since his radio show debuted in 1994. Originally intended to be a summer replacement show, it's still going strong today. 'The Vinyl Cafe' could best be described as an old-style variety show. It has readings, music, and most of all , stories told by Stuart McLean. These stories all revolve around a married couple, Dave and Morley, their two kids, Stephanie and Sam, and their various friends and relations. Dave owns and runs a music store called The Vinyl Cafe.
Stuart McLean is a natural-born story teller, able to keep you raptly hanging on his every casually drawled word. McLean's live shows play to sell out audiences. The musical numbers are generally pretty good, but what everyone comes for is to listen to McLean, perched on a simple stool, spinning tales of Dave and Morley and the rest. His stories are not ones of fantastical happenings, but rather of the events which occur in lives and families which are of little significance to anyone but those involved... the little things which make up life. His tales are always funny- hence the humour award- but also tinged with nostalgia, able to tug the heartstrings. It's not uncommon to be wiping away a tear of laughter, and then suddenly find yourself blinking back a tear of quite a different sort. CDs of his stories have whiled away many a long car ride... I remember once I was going somewhere with my brother, and we arrived at our destination in the middle of a story about Dave's mother in Cape Breton. We parked and sat in the car, listening until the end, unwilling to miss anything.
Every year at Christmas, I put on my CD of Stuart McLean's 1996 Vinyl Cafe Christmas Concert. Among all the great Christmas music, there are two stories which are actually included in 'Home From The Vinyl Cafe': 'Dave on the Roof' and 'Dave Cooks A Turkey'. The latter is probably the most well known of McLean's stories. It is the tale of one dark, Christmas Eve night, when Dave, happily snuggled in bed next to his sleeping wife, comes to the horrible realization that, having promised Morley that he'd cook the turkey while she took the kids to work at the Food Bank, he had forgotten to buy one. The prospect of breaking the news to his family on Christmas Day that there was no dinner was not an attractive one: "He was still awake at 2:00 am, but at least he had a plan. He would wait until they left for the Food Bank. Then he would take off to some deserted Newfoundland outport and live under an assumed name. At Sam's graduation one of his friends would ask, "Why isn't your father here?" and Sam would have to explain that, "One Christmas he forgot to buy the turkey and he had to leave." Dave's frantic attempts to find a turkey and hide the entire fiasco from Morley result in his riding about in a taxi at 4 am in search of a 24 hour grocery store. He manages to find the last turkey left in the city, but it's frozen solid. He ends up at home, thawing it out with the help of an electric blanket and hair dryer. As it thaws, Dave realizes why this turkey had remained unsold: "The skin on its right drumstick was ripped. Dave's turkey looked like it had made a break from the slaughterhouse and dragged itself a block or two before it was captured and beaten to death. Dave poured another Scotch and began to refer to his bird as Butch. He turned Butch over and found another slash in the carcass. Perhaps, he thought, Butch died in a knife fight."
Bedraggled bird aside, Dave thinks he's home free, until the next day when, his wife and kids gone to the Food Bank, he realizes that Morley set the oven timer for her squash casserole the day before, and he has no idea how to turn it off, and the oven on. Unwilling to admit defeat- or face Morley- Dave once again hits the road with Butch, in search of an oven to cook the turkey. Further shenanigans ensue.
This is the kind of humour found in 'Home From The Vinyl Cafe', deriving from situations that are funny, and don't seem that far fetched. Also, Dave and Morley and their kids feel like a real family, one we care about and root for through all their trials and triumphs. The book is separated into five sections: Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter Again, each containing multiple short stories set in these seasons. One of the tales I particularly enjoy is 'Sourdough' in which an acquaintance asks Dave to look after his sourdough starter, which has been in his family for generations, and the genealogy for which he has framed on his wall. As someone who managed to kill the sourdough starter a friend gave me, I feel Dave's pain and panic as things go terribly wrong. 'Home From The Vinyl Cafe' isn't the first collection of Dave and Morley tales, but it is perfectly fine to read it if you haven't experienced 'Vinyl Cafe' before- all the stories stand up well on their own, and the book also includes 'Holland', the story of how Dave and Morley met and married. 'Vinyl Cafe' is a bit like comfort food: familiar, feel-good, and heartwarming. It's also really funny. If you've never read- or listened to- it, do yourself a favour and look it up. Here's Stuart McLean recounting Dave and Morley's romance:
'Bachelor Mother' is a charming, funny romp which is surprisingly little known today. This may be in part because it came out in 1939, a year that remains renowned for the number of great and classic movies released, as I mentioned in my review of Gunga Din. Some of the titles from that year included the fore-mentioned Gunga Din, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind, Babes In Arms, Good-bye Mr. Chips, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington... to name a few. It's not surprising that a light, feel-good comedy like 'Bachelor Mother' might get overlooked.
The humour of the plot is based in mistaken identities and false assumptions. Of course, at this time the Hays Code was in effect, so having Ginger Roger's character actually be an unwed mother with an illegitimate child was a big no-no. The makers of 'Bachelor Mother' however, make this limitation work to their advantage, with the false assumptions about Polly- and eventually, David- providing most of the laughs. This is rather ironic, as the underlying premise could just as easily provide the basis for a rather dark drama: child abandonment and the (then) social stigma of unwed motherhood... issues which lend themselves more to tragedy than comedy.
Despite this,'Bachelor Mother' is a delightfully amusing movie, thanks in no small part to Ginger Rogers, who is really great in the starring role of Polly Parrish. Her character's position in life isn't a particularly funny one- she is alone with no family, and has just lost her job, and then she's saddled with a baby which everyone assumes is hers. Ginger Rogers doesn't play the victim, though, and skillfully navigates the various plot points with the same style and grace she shows on the dance floor. And her comedic timing is spot-on as well. Though in a tough spot, Ginger's Polly muddles through her troubles with determination and grit- and an ability to laugh at the situation, which keeps the plot from ever slipping into schmaltz or excessive sentimentality. Whether it's losing her job, finding herself in possession of an unexpected and unwelcome baby, or even passing herself off as a Swedish heiress, Polly handles it all without losing her sense of humour.
Equally amusing and heartwarming, we see Polly go from considering the baby an inconvenience to be gotten rid of as soon as possible, to becoming attached to him, even getting fired up when another mother in the park suggests that her child is more advanced than little Johnny. And in the end, she is ready to sacrifice her job and leave her home to keep the baby.
David Niven is also really good in the role of David Merlin. He plays the carefree man-about-town very well, being what lamentably few- if any- actors are today: debonaire. We also get to see a bit of growth in his character over the course of the movie. At the beginning of the film, David laughs off his father's stern lectures about settling down and not gadding about every night. Then, saddled with baby John while waiting for Polly to come home from a night out dancing, he resembles nothing more than a disapproving father himself as he lectures her on her maternal responsibilities. As he attempts to awaken Polly to her duty as a (he thinks) mother, he actually becomes more responsible himself. As well, Polly's sarcastic humour punctures his somewhat inflated ego, and her down-to-earth common sense and plain speaking shake his rather privileged views of the world and society. Of course, he doesn't change overnight... although attracted to Polly and concerned for Johnny's welfare, he is unused to having to take the needs of a baby into consideration when making social plans, which is why he attempts to distance himself from Polly. He comes around, however, and if I have any slight criticism of the plot, it's that this wraps up a little too quickly and neatly. This, however, is a mere quibble.
'Bachelor Mother' is a whole lot of fun, Ginger Rogers and David Niven have good chemistry together, and their verbal sparring sparkles with wit and humour. Rogers in particular is great in this role, and anyone who is only familiar with her pictures with Fred Astaire should definitely give this film a look. It's a perfect movie for New Years- or any other time, for that matter.