Friday, May 3, 2019

FFB: THE SET-UP by Joseph Moncure March (Covici-Friede 1928) as reviewed in the NYT by James T. Farrell

The other week I saw the neat little noir film The Set-Up (1949), about Robert Ryan as an over-the-hill but not finished boxer, though his wife (played by Audrey Totter) is worried he's sticking with it too long, risking too much. And things don't go well for him, nor for a number of the other folks on the match card with him and sharing a prep and fix-up room, in the small-city athletic club where most of the boxing action is set. Reportedly this was Robert Wise's favorite of the films he directed at RKO and one of his favorites among all his films. A bit heavy-handed (or gloved), not too much, about the brutality of the sport and the milieu in which it exists. 

First edition. Iconography not the most enlightened even for the time. The film makes the protagonist a non-brutish pale Caucasian.

Not quite unrelentingly grim, but the primary trainer and "cut man" (essentially the on-site medic) gets one of the more blatant bits meant to be humorous, when, after the last boxer leaves the prep room, he opens up the issue of the romance-fiction pulp magazine Thrilling Love he's been reading and settles in for more.

Art Cohn's script is loosely based on Joseph Moncure March's narrative poem. In the FictionMags Index, March's "Lyric to Baseball" is listed as a short story...perhaps because the The New Yorker's online archive lists it as a short story...but it's actually, and unsurprisingly with that title, a 12-line filler poem, at the tail end of the theater column, perhaps an intentional transition to the sports column on the facing page (how soon after Harold Ross ceased editing did TNY lose its sports column?):

"I hereby swear--expecting sneers--
That baseball bores me to tears.
While thousands shout at home run Kings,
My yawns escape on mighty wings:
When fielders muff an easy fly
And millions groan--I wonder why:
Always the one spectacular play
Comes when I look the other way:
Last, but not least--a fatal touch!--
The women I see there aren't so much.
I therefore swear--expecting sneers--
That baseball bores me to tears."

--Not so much for his lack of baseball fandom might he expect a sneer or a shrug for the doggerel. And his relative obscurity today...perhaps the film's source poem is a bit more impressive...

James T. Farrell says it is, in his 1977 New York Times consideration of March's two most famous books in verse form: 

[...] There is one interesting exception — he is known to sportswriters as the author of “The Set‐Up,” originally published in 1928, a classic about prize‐fighting. Earlier, in 1926, he had published “The Wild Party.”

These two books, especially “The Wild Party,” had been received with enthusiasm. Among those who saw value in March's work was Edmund Wilson. But even among those who agreed with Wilson there was disagreement. Were these books poetry? They were written in verse form. There was a pattern of rhymes. The language was simple, and some of the words were spelled phonetically.

“My god, Queenie; you're looking swell!”

Quoth Queenie:

“I'm feeling slick as hell”

This from the first section of “The Wild Party.” And in “The Set‐Up”:

“Yes suh!” he said.

“This shirt sure grand!

Ah held four Aces in my hand.

Got this shirt, Got this cap.

Poker suits me

Better'n crap.”

I have selected these two examples at random.

And if that's poetry, I'll eat my hat.

Both books could be described as novelettes following the general form of poetry. There are passages that rise to a poetic level. The stories are taut. In each of them tension mounts to a conclusion of tragedy. At least, they are tragic if the killing of a human because of greed or of drunken desire and jealousy, still can be called tragic. There is a strong sense of reality although some of this reality is sordid. The organization of the work can be termed cinematic. It's as if March anticipated scenario writing for sound films. But “The Wild Party” was written before the first talking picture was publicly released. And after “The Set‐Up,” March did work as a scenario writer in the film industry. In fact, he earned a number of credits as such. His ability to convey drama powerfully and quickly and his ear for dialogue helped him carry a storyline. March was an able writer. In some of his the reader all but feel the atmosphere in which his characters move, speak and act.

The Roaring Twenties was the decade for wild parties, parties where elitist youths could become “free” by drinking too much and daring too much. (In the 20's there was bathtub gin; in the present there is cocaine.) These young people have been immortalized, their anti‐conventional and frequently bizarre conduct romanticized. Few of them had read works of Nietzsche, but this didn't stop them from trying to act out his advice—to live dangerously. The fact is, of course, that wild parties and elitists who “dare” have always existed. But, in the 20's, there were many who felt that they had invented the wild party. In his book, “The Wild Party,” March did more than reflect this attitude, he brought it before the eyes of his readers. One of the popular jazz songs of the age was “I'm Runnin' Wild.” The first two lines, as I recall, of the chorus were: “I'm runnin' wild; I've lost control.” In “The Wild Party,” March developed this idea.

More of Farrell's essay at the link: 

And the lyrics of "Runnin' Wild" run a bit closer to this:
My gal and I, we had a fight 
And I'm all by myself
I guess she thinks now that she's gone
I'll lay right on the shelf
I'm gonna show her she's all wrong
No lonesome stuff for mine
I won't sit home, all alone
She'll soon find that I'm
Runnin' wild, lost control
Runnin' wild, mighty bold
Feelin' gay, reckless too
Care free mind all the time, never blue
Always goin' don't know where
Always showin', I don't care
Don't love nobody, it's not worth while
All alone, runnin' wild. Runnin' wild
When I first met that gal of mine
It seemed just like a dream
But when she tho't she had me right
She started actin' mean
Like mary led her little lamb 
She led me all the time
Until the worm had to turn
That's the reason I'm
Runnin' wild, lost control
Runnin' wild,


Elgin Bleecker said...

I know the movie, but did not know its origins. Thanks for the post.

Todd Mason said...

Not at all! Thanks for the comment.

Jesica said...

A new edition of The Set-Up has been released. It's nicely illustrated by the Dutch artist Erik Krieg.
Amazon link

Todd Mason said...

Thanks. The Korero Press site: