SERIOUSLY AMUSING: Entertained by The Girl With the Lemonade Stand!

THURSDAY, AUGUST 4, 2022

"It really happened that way:" Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated film, The Post, appeared in December 2017. 

When the well-received film hit the multiplex, major critics accurately said that it was built around a treatment of two major societal issues.

Most explicitly, it provided a history of the Washington Post's decision to publish the so-called Pentagon Papers all the way back in The Summer of 71. 

Also, it offered a look at the ubiquitous sexism of that earlier era, as seen in the way Katharine Graham, the Post's owner and publisher, was treated by the many men who surrounded her—by the many men on her board of directors, on her legal team, among the top figures at the Post, even among her closest friends.

Beyond that, critics tended to say that the film offered a warning about American president Donald J. Trump, who was nearing the end of his first year in the Oval Office. 

What Nixon did in 1971, Trump would be prepared to do again! Critics agreed that Spielberg's film was offering as a bit of a warning in this general regard. 

On its face, the film was dealing with deeply serious issues. Arguably, this might have made it seem a bit strange to see the way Spielberg decided to make his film "thoroughly entertaining"—to see the way the film provided "a rollicking, enjoyable time at the movies," possibly even a “rock-’em-sock-’em two hours of grab-yer-ass entertainment."  

(For citations, see yesterday's report.)

The year was 2017. For some reason,  Spielberg's film about these vital matters was being sold to us the people as "grab-yer-ass entertainment." 

Had we the people possibly been "amusing ourselves to [intellectual] death" in the 46 years since Graham made the decision to publish the Papers? More specifically, had we the average people succumbed to this intellectual malady? Or had it possibly been happening on the Hollywood end—perhaps among the nation's "elites" more than among the mere people?

Such questions are hard to answer. That said, we suspect that someone may have been asking some such questions after watching Spielberg's slapstick-riddled film. We base that upon a passage from the 3-and-a-half star review the film received from Ann Hornaday in that very same Washington Post.

As we've noted in the past, we've known Ann a little these many long years, and we like her a lot. At one point in her review, she offered a bit of a protest:

HORNADAY (12/7/17): Those tense couple of weeks in June [1971] form the spine of "The Post," a fleet, stirring, thoroughly entertaining movie in which Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks play Graham and Bradlee with just the right balance of modesty, gusto and expertly deployed star power. Directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, "The Post" canters along with crisp pacing and straightforward, unfussy clarity...

[...]

[His] instinctive sense of what it takes to connect with a mass audience—so often snobbily dismissed as “middlebrow”—is precisely what distinguishes Spielberg as an artist, and it allows “The Post” to go for broke with such unselfconscious energy, feeling and, every so often, sheer beauty. And in fairness, sometimes what seems like overkill is backed up by the facts: If Bradlee’s young daughter Marina setting up a lemonade stand at a crucial juncture strikes some filmgoers as folksy to a fault, they should know that it really happened that way.

In Hornaday's rendering, Spielberg was "connect[ing] with a mass audience" through the various insertions which made his film so entertaining. 

Did those entertaining insertions sometimes "seem like overkill?" If so, readers should know that they were (sometimes) "backed up by the facts," Hornaday said. 

As her example, she cited the case of The Girl With the Lemonade Stand.

To our ear, this passage suggests the possibility that there may have been murmurs about Spielberg's constant use of a type of "middlebrow" comic relief. When we watched the film last weekend, the (wise-cracking) Girl With the Lemonade Stand provided one of many such examples—but yes, the girl can be said to be (very loosely) "based on a true story," or at least on one fleeting report of same.

The background:

Midway through the film, the Washington Post's Ben Bagdikian has been dispatched to a motel near Boston to retrieve the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg. At the time, Bagdikian—a highly respected figure—was the Post's assistant managing editor for national news.

Bagdikian is played by Bob Odenkirk, one of the three "funnymen" Spielberg employs to "lighten the heaviness with physical comedy," specifically through their "fumbling and stumbling." He's portrayed as a major figure inside the Post, which he actually was. 

That said:

By the time he heads for Boston, we've already seen Bagdikian clumsily surrender control of a pay phone as fumbles for the pencil and paper he neglected to have available as he's given the phone number at which Ellsberg can be reached.

After losing control of the phone, he starts frantically repeating the number to himself—the number he failed to write down due to his fumbling lack of preparation. He then spills a fistful of pocket change all over the sidewalk as he attempts to dial the number has has struggled to get.

(As one of our analysts said, "If that's the way the Washington Post was gathering information back then, it's no wonder they were constantly getting outplayed by the New York Times.") 

Back to Bagdikian's struggles:

After fumbling away control of the pay phone and spilling his change all over the sidewalk, he has somehow managed to get to Boston—and he has acquired the Papers. 

We now see him on the plane as he flies back to D.C. He's shown haplessly trying to fasten a seatbelt around a large carton on the seat beside him, the carton containing the Papers. A stewardess looks on in amusement as his fumbling and stumbling continues.

Eventually, Bagdikian arrives in D.C. with the Papers. He heads straight for Bradlee's house, where the Papers will be reviewed—and when he arrives, the aforementioned Girl With the Lemonade Stand is perched out front on the sidewalk.

As Hornaday notes in her review, it's possible that "it really happened that way." In his 1995 memoir, A Good Life, Bradlee pens this fleeting remark on page 303:

At 10:30 A.M., Thursday, June 17, Bagdikian rushed past Marina Bradlee, age 10, tending her lemonade stand outside our house in Georgetown, and we were back in business.

For the next twelve hours, the Bradlee library on N Street served as a remote newsroom, where editors and reporters started sorting, reading and annotating 4,400 pages, and the Bradlee living room served as a legal office, where lawyers and newspaper editors started the most basic discussions about the duty and right of a newspaper to publish...

According to Bradlee's book, the adorable girl with the lemonade stand was actually there on the sidewalk that morning. Two pages later, he pens a second fleeting remark in which he says that Marina wandered through the house during the day, attempting to sell her product.

In this sense, the presence of The Adorable Girl in Spielberg's film is actually "based on a true story," or at least on one published report of same. That said, Spielberg takes Bradlee's fleeting reference to his daughter and runs. 

We see the youngster again and again in the ensuing scene. We see her as she brings her large LEMONADE sign indoors, then as she brings the components of her stand indoors. We see her as she wanders around, selling her lemonade to a mob of Post personnel, as her mother flies about, offering everyone sandwiches. 

In its presentation of this chaos, the film creates an adaptation of the famous scene involving the Marx Brothers in the fantastically overcrowded stateroom in A Night at the Opera. Inevitably, the girl is scripted with a wisecrack at the expense of her clueless elders:

MARINA: Do you want lemonade?

POST EMPLOYEE: It's a little early for me.

SECOND POST EMPLOYEE: Ah, loosen up, I'm buying. What kind of lemonade you have there?

MARINA (sarcastically): Uh, it's the one with the lemons in it?

In this thoroughly entertaining film, Post employees frequently tend to fumble and stumble. Inevitably, the adorable 10-year-old girl with the stand is sarcastically cracking wise. 

This structure comes straight out of sitcom land. Does it hail from a dying culture?

Based upon Ben Bradlee's report, his daughter Marina really was there when the Pentagon Papers arrived. Spielberg took that brief citation and ran. From that point on, the way "it really happened" came straight out of Hollywood's brain.

In this Oscar-nominated film, Hollywood took serious topics and rendered them thoroughly entertaining. That doesn't have to be a bad thing, until such time as it is.

Tomorrow: Portrait of a reporter. Portrait of an age?


54 comments:

  1. Anyone who isn’t a bigot, or isn’t perfectly fine with bigotry, left the Republican Party in the 20th century.

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  2. “Also, it offered a look at the ubiquitous sexism of that earlier era, as seen in the way Katharine Graham, the Post's owner and publisher, was treated by the many men who surrounded her—“

    ‘“…to see the way the film provided "a rollicking, enjoyable time at the movies," possibly even a “rock-’em-sock-’em two hours of grab-yer-ass entertainment."’

    Surely this wasn’t a scene in the movie?

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    1. Sexism involves disparate power relationships. Surely you are not arguing that Katharine Graham ceded any of her power to her male employees?

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    2. No, I was just making a joke, dear Inquisitioner.

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    3. Another lame joke that may have been appreciated on a conservative blog but is just stupid.

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    4. Well, you don’t appreciate the blog either.

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    5. That joke is almost as funny as when you’re trying to be serious.

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  3. I'm amused by the reference to Trump by some reviewers, even though Trump had nothing to do with the Pentagon Papers or the Vietnamese War. Trump is not mentioned because of something he did, but for something they imagine Trump might do or might have done. Evidently Trump has captured some people's minds.

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    1. Almost as funny as the media’s joke about Republican voters being “economically anxious”.
      Although, that some fool believed it, is even funnier.

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    2. "Beyond that, critics tended to say that the film offered a warning about American president Donald J. Trump, who was nearing the end of his first year in the Oval Office. "

      It is ridiculous to say that Trump "captured minds" when he was so in-your-face during his first term. If anything, the makers of the film may have intended to remind today's press of its responsibilities to the public during a time when they were softballing Trump's lies and bad behavior. The film about Trump's term in office will not be kind to the press, I predict.

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    3. “The film about Trump's term in office will not be kind to the press, I predict.”

      Shouldn’t you be hoping that such a movie entertainingly shows the media as regular joe slubs, like you and me?

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    4. Don’t you understand that it will probably be about Liz Cheney’s conscience or how the truth about the insurrection was uncovered? Trump will not be the protagonist, just as Nixon was ignored.

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    5. Yes, this would be a great movie of how honorable public servants went up against a corrupt president and insurrectionists wearing maga hats.

      Will they have scenes of Liz Cheney delightfully losing her glasses during every session and congressional aides hilariously fluffing their hair upon seeing themselves on camera?

      Riotous Entertainment!!”

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    6. Remember “Life is Beautiful”? Beside it, Somerby should have no complaint about serious subjects demanding serious treatment. No normal person can tolerate his level of doom/gloom without being clinically depressed. He is not a good role model. How could he ever succeed as a comedian without valuing humor?

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    7. “Riotous Entertainment!!”

      Yup, the establishment operatives are adorable. As oppose to the working stiffs; those are deplorable.

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    8. Anonymouse1:47pm, could someone be a “good role model” by showing some tolerance to an opinion that some subjects deserve a more serious accounting in the mass market, rather than being an anonymouse putz by launching into personal character assassinations.

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    9. Mao, they’re all about authority.

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    10. Cecilia, When Mao says “ establishment operatives” and you say “they”, do you include the Koch brothers? Rupert Murdoch? Or do you mean “they” as a synonym for “liberals?”

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    11. mh, I don’t know about Mao. I do know that I have a watchful eye toward everyone classified as “establishment operatives”.

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    12. “this would be a great movie of how honorable public servants went up against a corrupt president and insurrectionists wearing maga hats.”

      That sounds about right to me. Why wouldn’t public servants go up against a corrupt president and insurrectionists, regardless of what kind of hats they were wearing? The fact that they were wearing maga hats, well, that’s true, as it turns out.

      Whether the public servants were honorable is not exactly the point. The point is whether they did the honorable thing. That’s an important distinction that Spielberg makes in his film.

      Unless you think corrupt presidents and insurrectionists shouldn’t be opposed, or that the government should have gotten away with lying to us about the Vietnam War.

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    13. No, I don’t think the government should have gotten away with lying about a war that cost lives in several countries.

      That’s why I think it’s inexplicable to vehemently insult Somerby (who may have known some of the fallen) for voicing an oppositional opinion on Spielberg’s treatment of the subject.

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    14. This movie isn’t about the Vietnam war. It’s about the attempt by reporters to publicize the Pentagon papers. That isolated incident is the sole subject of this movie.

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    15. mh, what do you think the Pentagon Papers were about?

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    16. I somewhat agree with Cecelia. Ridiculing Somerby for repeating nonsense Right-wing memes is a better use of our time.

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    17. 1. Everyone Somerby’s age knew someone who was in the war — me too, but I don’t agree with Somerby at all.
      2. The film isn’t about the war. It is about journalism, about whether govt leaks can be published, and about personal courage in the face of threats.

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  4. "It really happened that way:"

    No, this is a work of fiction about an historical event. That makes it historical fiction and a movie (not a documentary) intended to entertain. Somerby blames it for being entertaining, which is unreasonable. It also makes him sound like someone incapable of being entertained, which makes him not serious but morose.

    Why has this discussion been going on for days when any interest in it was exhausted hours after his first post on this topic? Sure there are things Somerby could be discussing, such as the 52 senators Nate Silver's 538 blog is now projecting that the Democrats will win. Or the messages how missing from the Army and DOD. Or even the Tonga volcano eruption.

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  5. “The Irishman” got me interested in the old Union Drama of the Hoffa era. Compared to David Mamet’s script for “Hoffa”, “The Post” is a documentary.
    Whatever, more and more on the Post please! It’s just so timely and relevant.

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  6. "Based upon Ben Bradlee's report, his daughter Marina really was there when the Pentagon Papers arrived. Spielberg took that brief citation and ran. "

    Somerby really really wants to blame Spielberg for that character. After earlier stating that she wandered in and out of the house all day, Somerby says that it was Spielberg who placed her in the living room with those lines. It seems to me that Spielberg executed her character close to Bradlee's memoir. We might even find the interchange between the reporter and the girl in which she supposedly spoke sarcastically, right there in Bradlee's memoir too. Somerby has a way of leaving such things out when he quotes, to shade the interpretation in his own direction. But I don't care enough about this film to go back and check Bradlee's memoir about it.

    It just seems like an entirely trivial complaint invented to accuse Spielberg of some heinous crimes, such as trying to entertain people. The horror!

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    1. Kids generally learn sarcasm around age 12 not 10. It requires monitoring two information streams at once, the meaning of the words distinct from the tone of voice. This is why they teach symbolism and imagery in middle school not elementary school. It is when kids learn to be better liars too. These also require monitoring multiple information streams at once.

      So Bradlee may have put the girl on the scene while Spielberg made her precociously sarcastic.

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  7. “critics tended to say that the film offered a warning about American president Donald J. Trump, who was nearing the end of his first year in the Oval Office. “

    Maybe they said that, but no critics were quoted here saying that.

    The movie is more about the press doing what they are supposed to be doing, particularly in the face of legal threats.

    I think Spielberg sees the movie as a reminder that this is what the press should be doing, and that a free press is important. That is tangentially related to Trump, since he kept threatening to expand the libel laws and go after the media. But Spielberg’s point is more universal than Trump.

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  8. So, the girl with the lemonade stand was really there. Somerby accuses Spielberg of inflating that incident in order to entertain the audience.

    That may be true, since Spielberg likes to try to entertain his audiences.

    But being entertaining is not incompatible with having a serious intent.

    Spielberg uses this incident, recounted by Bradlee himself, to show how momentous events were taking place in the midst of everyday life. The reporters frantically assembling the papers in Bradlee’s house weren’t superheroes hatching a plot to save the world in their superhero lair. They were mostly regular people doing what they could where they could in order to tell the truth to the American people.

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    1. mh, was the truth the journos were trying to tell just one more movie story of some manipulative powerful entity and the little guy [the free press] if not triumphing, still doing the job and holding his own?

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    2. Obviously not. Google it if you don’t know what happened.

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    3. Cecelia, just go away.

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    4. Cecelia, The outcomes shown in the movie were the real outcomes: the papers were published and the Post was not shut down. They successfully told the truth to the American public in the face of serious personal risk. That this somewhat (if imperfectly) fits the pattern of “little guy succeeds against big guy” doesn’t detract from the overall truth of the film. You could find innumerable stories that seem to illustrate that pattern. But that is not the theme of this movie, it isn’t Spielberg’s principal reason for telling this particular story, and it doesn’t automatically render the movie trivial or hackneyed.

      I’ve said before that Spielberg likes to show people doing good things, so he seeks that out. That was the point of Amistad. Not a great film, but the idea is that American institutions come to the right decision because Americans by and large are fair, or at least the ones we entrust with responsibility, who are not, in Spielberg’s worldview, out of touch elitists. In the case of Amistad, it was lawyers and judges. In the Post, it’s reporters. It’s a very old fashioned view, and possibly outmoded. That’s one reason I think the Post was Spielberg’s reminder that this is how things ought to be, and maybe we’re once, 50 years ago, and may not be today.

      One of the more interesting aspects of Jaws was the rivalry Spielberg set up between the Robert Shaw and the Richard Dreyfuss character. One was a grizzled seaman with experience, the other a university-educated marine biologist. Spielberg liked both characters and presented the solution as a synthesis of these two people. He doesn’t look down on anyone.

      Spielberg’s own biography illustrates the “rags to riches” type story. He’s one of the most successful movie directors ever and he came from a humble background.

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    5. mh, if Spielberg made a movie about the Civil War and fleshed it out with scenes of wise-talking urchins, humorous close calls, and comedically bumbling abolitionists, would it call for the opprobrium shown toward this blogger if someone voiced an opinion that this was not a good approach to the content?

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    6. Cecelia, publishing the Pentagon Papers is a far cry from the horrid of slavery and the Civil War. Perhaps you can discern the difference.

      In fact, Spielberg made a movie about a horrible subject: the Holocaust. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s called “Schindler’s List.” He did not include comical scenes.

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    7. Also, Cecelia, in fact, Spielberg made a movie about Lincoln (called “Lincoln”). It takes place during the Civil War.

      Did you know that Lincoln was fond of telling entertaining stories and telling jokes, even while the Civil War was raging?

      Does that make him unserious, and would a movie that depicted this aspect of Lincoln (among others) be unserious?

      It’s clear that Somerby and Spielberg share the same hero.

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    8. Wouldn’t make Lincoln unserious to me, mh, and perhaps you should learn about Cambodia.

      However, I don’t think there would be a movie made about the Civil War that ran with an undercurrent of comically blumbling humans rising to a challenge.

      Flawed humans, yes, but not comic characters, in comical situation, not that they can’t be found in the most dire of situations.

      If there ever is such a movie, I can’t say that it is impossible that I could enjoy it. I don’t know.

      What I can categorically say, is that I wouldn’t castigate anyone else for disliking that approach.

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    9. That’s what the media does when they slant their stories to make it look like Republicans aren’t fascists.

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    10. It is called “comic relief”. What do you suppose it is relief from? Horror movies and thrillers got better when they incorporated some comedy. Serious movies need not be unrelieved and still tell a serious story.

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    11. Anonymouse 3:22pm, no serious movies about serious events can have some comic relief.

      It may be the rolling comic devices of the lemonade kid and the cabs-vs-couriers that bothered Bob. I can’t fault him for that. Especially in light of the ass-grabbing entertainment blurb.

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    12. "publishing the Pentagon Papers is a far cry from the horrid of slavery and the Civil War."

      Millions of people were killed in the Vietnam war, dear mh. Bombs, napalm, agent orange. Some call it genocide, y'know.

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    13. Some guy uses a phrase in a review and Cecelia blames Spielberg. That’s ludicrous.

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    14. Mao, the movie was not about the war.

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  9. Judge in Alex Jones case reminds him claiming belief in unsupportable notions is no defense. Hope Bob is taking notes….

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  10. Why is that corporations don’t want to pay a higher tax rate, so we can budget enough to protect the integrity of elections. Is there more to it, than just the idea they hate the USA?

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    1. Mao,
      Can you check with your Establishment bosses, and get back to us on 2:45's question?
      Thanks in advance.

      Delete
  11. This is off topic but just wanted to report that I'm no longer getting emails of the posts from this site. Has that been discontinued?

    ReplyDelete
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