Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip: Movies, Memory, and World War II

Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip: Movies, Memory, and World War II

by Richard Schickel

World War II-era Hollywood showed us fantastic possibilities and made them plausible, but in so doing it profoundly misled us about the nature of the war, our soldiers, our government, and the home front. Here Mr. Schickel, the film critic and biographer, sets the record straight about that view of the war, and he does it by illuminating the meaning of wartime films… See more details below


World War II-era Hollywood showed us fantastic possibilities and made them plausible, but in so doing it profoundly misled us about the nature of the war, our soldiers, our government, and the home front. Here Mr. Schickel, the film critic and biographer, sets the record straight about that view of the war, and he does it by illuminating the meaning of wartime films set against the background of his own growing up. "An engaging and entirely original anti-memoir...A wonderful, provocative book."–John Dunne.

Editorial Reviews

Indianapolis Star
Film critics memoir of growing up during the war and his lifelong passion for movies.
Globe and Mail
Having written a small library of film biographies, not to mention countless reviews for Time magazine, Schickel turns to the story of his own life in Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip. In addition to explaining his lifelong passion for film, Schickel explores how Hollywood myth-making industry misled us—profoundly—about the nature of war, security and government.
Buffalo News
Schickel's moving and trenchant memior of growing up and going to the movies during the war in Wauwatosa, Wis., is a strange and, in its way, quite remarkable book—a story about what movies meant in America when, arguably, they meant the most as well as a story about a Mid-Western WASP family ensnared by failures and secrets "right in the middle, socially as well as geographically" of its middle-class community.
Los Angeles Times
Discussion of "the stars" of mass entertainment still conveys, even if one deplores it, an undeniable thrill, and Schickel is a master at interpreting the mystery.
Chicago Tribune
Intelligent.... These films inspire some of Schickel's most entertaining writing.
Review Of Higher Education
Through all these years, he has been a consistently sturdy, perceptive and when necessary dissenting observer of American culture as revealed in the movies. Now, in this fine memoir, he performs the same service while looking back on his own life.
The Weekly Standard
Schickel's movie critiques are admirably comprehensive.... He goes beyond the surface analysis of action to nuances of cinematography and production.
The New York Times
A welcome antidote...refreshingly down to earth... a pleasure to insightful critique...brilliant.
The New Yorker - Andrea Thompson
Recalls the many movies written by the soon to be black lissted that offered romanticized visions of American and Russian societies during the Second World War.
Courier Post - Kevin Riordan
His account of his obession with Hedy Lamarr's legendary nude swim in Ecstasy is pungent fun.
Starred Review Booklist
His childhood memoir counterpoints recollections of family and milieu with those of the movies he saw.
Robert Towne
One brilliant insight after another.
Phillip Lopate
This astute film critic takes the measure of his own life, with a calm, probing honesty, a hard-won modesty and dignity that are rare and touching qualities in contemporary memoirs.
Jonathan Schwartz
Charming and evocative...a testimony to joy...a wise volume, lacking menace.
Eric Lax
Stylish and insightful.... Told with a beguiling writer's grace and a critic's unflinching directness...a marvelous memoir.
Daphne Merkin
He knows the psychological landscape of the movies better than almost anyone. A sagacious and fiercely independent-minded observer.
Molly Haskell
A fascinatingly well-researched and resonant film history, an invaluable remembrance of things and movies past, and an exhilarating debunking of Tom Brokaw's nostalgic idealization of the World War II generation.
Richard F. Snow
Wonderfully successful...a fascinating—and often hilarious—meditation on what nobody at the time recognized as our great national art form.
John Dunne
An engaging and entirely original anti-memoir.... A wonderful, provocative book.
Martin Scorsese
Brutally honest and gracefully important book and a necessary one.
His analysis of the [films] inspire some of Schickel's most entertaining writing.
The New Yorker
In a scene straight out of a screwball comedy, Norma Barzman shoved a pie in her future husband's face on the day they met. In The Red and the Blacklist, Barzman recounts other zany moments among Communist-sympathizer screenwriters during the time of the blacklist. A young Norma Jean Baker tips off Barzman and her husband to police surveillance. They dodge subpoenas by swapping houses with another couple; later they find that a rented house in France is filled with hoarded Nazi gold. Even their political beliefs have a Hollywood glow: Barzman writes, "Communist couples had a romantic notion of themselves as the ideal young man and young woman surging forward with the Red flag, the logo of Artkino (Soviet films)."

Richard Schickel's childhood in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, was never so glamorous, but in Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip, he recalls the many movies written by the soon-to-be-blacklisted that offered romanticized visions of American and Russian societies during the Second World War. "You can't really tell the difference between those written by Communists and those written by liberals," Schickel notes. "All you can say of this lot is that if their political sins were minimal, their rhetorical ones were heinous."

Hollywood in the fifties was filled with sinners: as Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair recount in The Bad and the Beautiful, those in the entertainment industry survived everything from sex scandals to murder cases. Yet some, like the screenwriter Alvah Bessie, never recovered from political persecution: "People say it's now pretty fashionable to say you were blacklisted, but if that's fashionable, I haven't gotten any offers from Hollywood yet,"he told an interviewer in 1977.

(Andrea Thompson)
The Washington Post
Through all these years, [Schickel] has been a consistently sturdy, perceptive and when necessary dissenting observer of American culture as revealed in the movies. Now, in this fine memoir, he performs the same service while looking back on his own life. — Jonathan Yardley
The Los Angeles Times
Instead of gags, Schickel offers a combined memoir and historical analysis of the morale-sustaining American movies released during World War II. In his leisurely projection of this dual plot, Schickel writes wonderfully readable prose, and it's a rare page that fails to fascinate. — Paul Fussell
[Schickel's] childhood memoir counterpoints recollections of family and milieu with those of the movies he saw.
Publishers Weekly
Shickel's movie critiques are admirably comprehensive.
Library Journal
When asked why she had never written her autobiography, the late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael pointed to her volumes of film criticism and replied, "I think I have." Schickel, former movie critic for Time and author of more than a dozen film books, could do the same, but he attempts to add dimension to his considerable oeuvre with his memoirs. On "the cusp of old age," he discusses the "shimmer and sheen" of movies in his youth, weaving through a narrative of his coming of age in Milwaukee before and during World War II. He includes anecdotes about simple pleasures like going to the public library, sexual awakenings, and the round of family and explains how he stumbled on to his life's calling as a film historian and critic. His love of movies is evident in mini-essays on such diverse films as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, My Friend Flicka, and World War II propaganda films like Bataan and Mission to Moscow. All in all, Schickel's criticism is more engaging and insightful than his attempts at autobiography, which are pedestrian at best (James Agee's and Kael's were much more spirited). Although a good expression of an important critic's personal and professional credo, this is a marginal choice for large film history collections in academic libraries.-Stephen Rees, Levittown Regional Lib., PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In his memoir-cum-career-retrospective, Time film critic Schickel (Matinee Idylls, 1999, etc.) compares his feelings about war movies he saw as a boy with his take on those flicks today. The author has re-seen most of those works he first viewed while growing up in small, WASPy, spankingly American Wauwatosa, a city bordering Milwaukee, and his general sense is that war movies lied to him and to the country. Even the most lauded WWII film, Robert E. Sherwood�s and William Wyler�s postwar The Best Years of Our Lives, he finds fake and intractably apolitical. Granted, it showed the trials of three servicemen returning home and adjusting to a bad marriage, a bad job, and a physical disability, but it avoided all ideological thought or discussion and belied its air of reality by timidly resolving into a fantasia of good feelings. The least lie-filled war flicks, in Schickel�s judgment, are Howard Hawks�s Air Force and William A. Wellman�s The Story of G.I. Joe. Diluting the cinema addict�s prime interest, he also surveys other forms of entertainment from his boyhood years and is quite good about the Lux Radio Theater, although his tone here is like Woody Allen�s Radio Days without the jokes. That highlights Schickel�s main failing: he informs, but he does not lift. There�s not a page here one would care to go back to for its wild humors or the pleasures of its language. And when he states that he retains his childhood preference for the service comedies of Abbott and Costello over Chaplin�s films, film buffs can only wince. Schickel was once told by a jaundiced John Gregory Dunne, "Movie reviewing is not something you aim for; it�s a place you end up." Indeed, the critic asks himself, "Whocares what anyone thinks about old movies? Or, for that matter, last week�s movies?" Readers won�t get any answers here. Warm but wooden.

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Product Details

Dee, Ivan R. Publisher
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
7.02(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.27(d)

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Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip


Ivan R. Dee

Copyright © 2003 Richard Schickel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1566634911

Chapter One

WE LIVED, during the war (and for many years thereafter) in a place called Wauwatosa.

Wauwatosa. Something inescapably comic in that soft tumble of vowels. But it was a serious place: a suburb of Milwaukee where many of the people who soberly, responsibly tended the larger city's business lived.

The name is a corruption of a word borrowed from some local Indian dialect. I don't know its literal meaning. In high school the joke was that it meant "strong middle class with delusions of grandeur." Delusions of stability would be more like it-a dream of seamless continuity between past, present, and future. Writing brilliantly about another kind of suburb-newer, rawer, Californian-D. J. Waldie observed, "The necessary illusion is predictability."

In our case this was based in part on the fact that, unlike other suburbs, this little city had not been created whole cloth out of some developer's dream. It had a history of organic growth that appeared to be logically extensible into the future. It had been founded as a rural trading center in the nineteenth century. Whittaker Chambers's grandmother was born there in its early days-to my mind one of the most interesting facts about Wauwatosa. Its whole point was not to produce, or have any truck with, characters like Whittaker Chambers, to pretend that impassioned figures of his sort-tortured souls desperately certain that history was a tragic drama-did not exist. "Well, he certainly didn't get that from his grandmother," people would have said had they known of his roots.

Eventually the little city grew to a point at which it and Milwaukee shared a border-the big city ended on the east side of Sixtieth Street, the smaller one on its west side. Along this street (and on other major thoroughfares leading in and out of it) the town had erected signboards. They were fashioned of metal and hung from weathered wooden posts. The top was a cutout silhouette of little trees and houses. Below them you were welcomed with these words:

After which the current population (around 25,000 in those days) was noted. All those boasts were as reliable as the census figures that followed.

IT WAS NEVER explained to me why my mother and father decided to move to Wauwatosa from Milwaukee's East Side in 1937 or '38. It was one of those matters that people in those days did not feel a need to discuss with their children.

I'm sure "Good Schools" had a lot to do with it, since I was arriving at kindergarten age. And "Artesian Water" was not to be entirely overlooked. Milwaukee's drinking water, drawn from Lake Michigan, had to be treated chemically and tasted distinctly unfresh. But it was, I think, that "City of Homes" slogan that sealed their bargain.

For this was a town that believed in free-standing dwellings and serious zoning. Our house was a swollen, yellow stucco bungalow, more spacious than it looked from the outside. It had a second floor we never knew quite what to do with and a garage under the house, which kept the car warm on cold winter nights, though the extra long curve of the driveway required to reach it demanded prodigies of shoveling in a blizzard's aftermath.

Our address was 1721 North 68th Street. This was in the historic heart of the town, a grid of streets running five long blocks north and south, something like twenty blocks east and west, all of them richly canopied by elms and maples. The houses, set well back from the street, seemed as deeply rooted as the trees. They were the products, I suppose, of the first intensive wave of suburban building that began around the turn of the century, predominantly colonial in design, generously proportioned, often with a side porch or sunroom added.

These were sober houses, not built to create an overwhelming first impression but to endure. The last time I looked, in the fall of 2001, when I returned for my fiftieth high school reunion, they were all still there. There were other districts in town, of course, one or two richer than ours, one or two poorer. We were right in the middle, socially as well as geographically, of this middle-class community.

OUR TOWN'S CENTER was called "The Village." It nestled in a curve of the Menominee River, where several streets, running on downhill diagonals, came together near the railroad station. The weekly newspaper's office was there, also the volunteer fire department (which sounded a noon whistle every workday, a shriek that carried for miles) and a police station (at my grandfather's urging, the chief, a Masonic lodge brother, once opened his coat to reveal his holstered gun).

The major building, located on a triangular plot where all the streets converged, was an old-fashioned dry goods emporium, dark and musty. It was called Lefeber's. Its toy department, in the basement, was nearly always closed-a slat with a bit of mournful black oilcloth tacked to it barring your way. If you wanted to examine its rather good stock of lead soldiers, you had to apply to a clerk, usually a middle-aged spinsterish woman, who would grudgingly precede you down the stairs, flip on the light switches, and impatiently await your selection. On the store's second floor the city rented a large room where the town council met.

Among The Village's other shops were a dime store, a hardware store, two drugstores, each with a marble soda counter, and a shoe store with an x-ray fitter, in which you could observe your own wiggling toe bones as you tried on your new footwear while your mother and the salesman peered through other viewers, judging the fit. Everyone was unaware of the carcinogenic danger to which they were being exposed.

All these buildings were flat-faced and functional. But as you climbed the hill you passed the little-used bandstand; St. Bernard's, the Catholic grade school; and the Underwood Hotel, where my grandparents lived, and came, three blocks from Lefeber's, to the library. It stood on another triangular plot, a stone building, steeply eaved, whimsical in design-like a fairytale building, I thought. It had a children's alcove with a long cushioned seat beneath a large stained-glass window. My mother would take me there on rainy summer afternoons when I was small, and I would spend a sweet hour in that hushed, cozy place, leafing through the picture books, trying to puzzle out the few words they contained.

Later the library, which was just six blocks from our house, was the savior of many a restless summer day. It could always be relied on for the latest from F. Van Wyck Mason, a now forgotten fictioneer, who wrote a series of spy novels featuring a James Bond precursor called Colonel North as well as seafaring historical novels that seemed to me racy-lots of girls in piratical jeopardy. The library also offered the collected works of P. G. Wodehouse, which somehow made me laugh out loud despite the fact that I knew nothing of the lost Edwardian world he was satirizing.

ABOUT THE VILLAGE there was something of a country town improbably clinging to life in the midst of a heavily industrialized metropolis. It wasn't self-consciously quaint; preservationism had not yet been invented. Neither did it exert quite the centrifugal force of a main street in a rural county seat; downtown Milwaukee was too near. But it hinted at something about the character of our community-a sort of unexamined traditionalism, a passive but weighty resistance to change.

Sinclair Lewis just two decades earlier had described an old-fashioned American main street as "the climax of civilization," and something of that sense of unimprovable completion had now passed to suburbs like ours.

Sober civic-mindedness was a shared value-men who wished the community's respect were expected to join the service clubs, teach Sunday school, participate in organizations like the PTA. Women were supposed to be Cub Scout den mothers and run white elephant sales at the church.

Every six weeks on winter Saturday nights there was "Minuet." This was a dancing club that met at the Women's Club ballroom, the men in tuxes, the women in long dresses. There were always cocktail parties before the dance. On Sunday morning my father was sometimes hung over, and there was talk of others observed "feeling no pain." Liquor excused the flirtatiousness of these occasions, observable (if not nameable) by me when my parents hosted one of the predance parties. Everyone was just a little more sparkly than usual.

Wauwatosa voted Republican overwhelmingly. In 1940, in a straw vote in my classroom, only three or four of us raised our hands for Roosevelt. Four years later I raised a solitary hand for Norman Thomas and was greeted with cries of outrage-justifiably so, since it was a reaction I was seeking, not a principle I was advancing.

Everyone went to church dutifully-the Protestant denominations mainly, though there was a substantial Catholic minority. There were to my knowledge only two Jewish families in town: the Feldmans, who ran a somewhat deracinated delicatessen where we bought cold cuts and rye bread for our Saturday soup and sandwich dinners; and the Grosses, who were rumored to have a background in raffish show business, though no one ever discovered its details. They possessed the town's only private swimming pool and kept rather to themselves.

These families were tolerated but not embraced. I went to school with children from both of them and often met Larry Gross-a soft-spoken, self-contained boy-on the way to school and walked with him. But I was only rarely invited to his home, and vice versa.

Needless to say, there were no black residents. In fact, there was an ordinance on the books that prohibited blacks from being on our streets after 10 p.m. Most people did not know of this law. It came to light sometime in the fifties when a black man, a chef in a local restaurant, was arrested for breaking it as he waited for a streetcar to take him home after work. A scandal arose, and the law was rescinded. But I cannot honestly say that in the thirties or forties, had we known of this ordinance, we would have thought it untoward.

I cannot say, either, that my parents were not in some corner of their souls attracted to living in this essentially WASP enclave, so free of disturbing othernesses. They had their prejudices. Everyone I encountered growing up did. These were not virulent. They were expressed as muttered distrust, mild patronization. But never, of course, to anyone's face. That would have been a violation of the politesse on which the town relied for its smooth functioning.

IT WAS THE SAME with money. Those who had it were expected not to flaunt it. Of those who seemed to be doing well, we said only, "They're comfortable." It was a nice, vague, all-encompassing term that embraced virtually everyone we knew, and people worked hard to attain and maintain that state of things.

In the winter you would start clearing your sidewalk as soon as the snow stopped falling. In the spring the bare patches in the lawns were always reseeded as soon as the threat of freezing was over. In the summer the grass was cut and watered once a week. In the autumn the leaves were raked into neat piles on the same schedule.

You were allowed to jump into the leaves if you promised not to scatter them. Eventually they would be gathered in bushel baskets for collection by the trash men. But sometimes they would be burned. No reason not to; in those days the greenhouse effect was, like x-ray shoe fitters, one of a thousand perils as yet unknown. We were entirely free to enjoy the minor drama of the flame struggling to catch in leaves that were often wet, the cloud of gray smoke curling upward, your father warning you to stay a safe distance upwind.

There was something ritualistic about all the puttering, tidying, sprucing-up chores with which little boys were encouraged to assist (we were all equipped with child-sized rakes and shovels). They were repayment on the unspoken obligation we owed to the masculine enigma. Pestering, yet quickly bored, we were learning the tricks of the grown-up trade, certain deftnesses and patiences that were not taught in books. In the process we were also discovering and paying the interest on the other unspoken debt that could never be fully discharged-the upkeep we owed to the city of homes and the social compact our parents had made with it.

The little city was perhaps less socially homogenous in truth than it is in memory. Just south of our house, where the land sloped down to the river valley, was a working-class district-neat little bungalows in carefully tended yards. North of us were other such areas, while further west were sections of newer homes, spacious enough but not yet fully settled into their landscapes of newly sodded lawns and young trees.

Across the street from us, the Highlands began. These were a set of low hills with curving streets following their contours. Many of the houses there were quite grand, several of them near to showy. There the "rich" (as we judged them to be) lived. It seems to me that the people there were less neighborly and mixed less in the life of the town than others did, which may be, come to think of it, why the Grosses, in their mysterious, faintly glamorous prosperity, abided there.

Whatever he did, Mr. Gross at least did not sell real estate or life insurance, which is what everyone else's father seemed to do. I exaggerate. Those of them who did not work in white collars in Milwaukee's factories were in the professions or had small businesses of their own. But no one was an airline pilot. Or an FBI agent. No one went off to the war, when it came, in some heroic or secretive capacity.

Our mothers, for the most part, did not hold jobs. Mainly they shopped, made dinner, kept house, and tended their children. They were alert to our needs, but-my own nervous mother aside-not oppressive in their concerns. They didn't need to be, for we were entirely unthreatened. There were no bad neighborhoods in Wauwatosa, few latchkey children, and, of course, no drugs and no guns other than hunting weapons, which were handled by adults with a great show of respect.

"Juvenile delinquency" was a postwar concept and concern. I suppose there must have been "dysfunctional" families pretending to function in this benign environment, but divorce and alcoholism were rare. Spousal and child abuse were virtually unheard of.

Virtually. A friend of my mother's, someone with one of those plain, sensible names-Esther or Margaret or Clara-did separate from her husband. Then one night her home was invaded by an unidentified intruder and she was severely beaten.


Excerpted from Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip by RICHARD SCHICKEL Copyright © 2003 by Richard Schickel
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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What People are saying about this

Weekly Standard
Shickel's movie critiques are admirably comprehensive.
Belles Lettres
Schickel insists on truth-telling: no sugared lies or nostalgic sentiment, no filigreed scrim obscuring a clean window on the past...
A Literary Review

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