Two of the 20th century’s greatest magicians had a birthday on this day. The first is Harry Blackstone who was born in 1885. He was the last of the long line of the big magic shows. These were huge touring companies with large scale illusions. People like Harry Kellar and Harry Houdini. You can see how at the time, they were really something. They were grand. Houdini did a vanishing elephant. Kellar decapitated himself and made the head float around the stage. But with the advent of movies they became less relevant. How can sawing a woman in half compare to King Kong climbing the Empire State Building? Now, I think magic is coming back to some extent—precisely because it only really works live. Literally anything can be rendered on a movie screen and so it now has all the romance of the computer program it is. But there really is something special about a guy moving around holes on a business card a couple of inches in front of your eyes.
Anyway, here is Blackstone doing a pretty typical transformation from his show. It isn’t very exciting, but it’s short:
The second is the great comedy magician Carl Ballantine who was born in 1917. Regardless of whether you love or hate magic, he is hysterical. “This takes a lot out of an artist! Of course it doesn’t bother me much.”
The great jazz pianist Bud Powell was born in 1924. He was an amazing talent. It is better to think of him as a classical musician. I think that is why he is still largely a specialized taste. You can hear it in this great version of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Anthropology.” The rhythm is really difficult and the implied harmony is challenging. But if you can get past that it is a fun and swinging performance:
Other birthdays: composer Cyril Scott (1879); the great psychologist Albert Ellis (1913); film director Arthur Penn (1922); idiot climate denier Fred Singer (89); singer Meat Loaf (66); and actor Gwyneth Paltrow (41);
The day, however, belongs to the great pulp novelist Jim Thompson who was born on this day in 1906. Ever since he died, Hollywood has been in love with him. Typical. And I’m not all that fond of what they’ve done with him. A good example of this is with his novel The Grifters. It is a great tragedy. In it, whenever Roy tries to do the right thing, it goes bad. He is cursed to be only good at being bad. Throughout the novel, he struggles to connect with humans as something other than marks. And just as he reaches a transformative moment, he is killed. None of that is in the film.
Most of his novels are really dark—far too dark for me ever to have allowed myself to read. One of them, The Killer Inside Me still haunts me. But Thompson was at his best when he let his sense of humor fly. Pop. 1280 is a wonderful dark comedy. If you only read one of his books, it is the one to read. But I will warn you: it’s easy to get addicted to his books. They transcend the pulp genre, and Pop. 1280 is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.
Happy birthday Jim Thompson!