Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

   

 

 

 

My Father and Me Too

 

  

My father sexually harassed Mamie Van Doren. He did so in Guns Girls and Gangsters, a crime movie released in January 1959, the month Alaska became a state, the year Mattel launched the Barbie doll. I was a sixth-grader.

 

In the scene where they first meet, Mamie Van Doren has returned to her dressing room after a Las Vegas nightclub performance only to find my father, Gerald Mohr, an ex-con just out of San Quentin, waiting with a message from her husband, who’s still in prison and from whom she wants a divorce. My father slaps her face. Her husband’s way of saying no.

 

“Are you through?” Mamie asks.

 

“No,” says my father. “I have a message for you too.” He places his hands on Mamie’s bare shoulders.

 

Mamie pulls away, crosses the room, and sits at her vanity. My father follows her and, from behind, puts his hands back on Mamie’s shoulders. He starts rubbing them. “No wonder Mike can’t get you out of his mind. That picture he has of you in his cell doesn’t even come close.” Two minutes later, my father forces her to kiss him. All this without creasing his suit or disturbing his one-point pocket square.

 

I’ve lived almost two decades beyond fifty-four, my father’s age when he died, but each time I see him on the screen, I realize he’s more suave than I’ll ever be. One producer compared him to Humphrey Bogart. Growing up, I sat with my father through several of his B movies, my gaze shifting between the man next to me and his forty-foot image on the screen. The script writers fed him wonderful come-on lines. To his costar on a spaceship in The Angry Red Planet: “You’re the first scientist I’ve known with lovely, long red hair.” To his leading lady during Invasion USA: “The last time I met a girl like you, they bombed Pearl Harbor.” Always spoken in silky baritone, a voice I still miss since his death half a century ago. My dad seemed to be having fun up there on the screen while, a yard away, his real face froze in thought as he watched himself, treating his scenes as teachable moments, pondering, I’m sure now, how to improve his craft. He probably didn’t notice this fusion of reality and fantasy, so typical of Los Angeles.

 

Despite seeing my father on screens large and small, I learned next to nothing about women. I guess I was still too young. The first time I called a girl -- okay, the first through tenth times -- all I could get out were questions like, “How’d you do on the science test?” I stumbled through these conversations, remembering not a word from my father’s shows, let alone the throwaway charm that made him catnip to women.

 

My father never suggested I imitate him, but many cultural cues did. Three years after Guns Girls and Gangsters came out, singer Joanie Sommers released “Johnny Get Angry.” Whenever KFWB played that bouncy song, I put down my homework. Something caught my attention, a combination of Ms. Sommers’ voice—“the voice of the sixties” one pundit labeled it, a California accent, which is to say she had no accent at all—and then the lyrics. Joanie Sommers wanted “a brave man…a caveman.” Hearing those words alarmed me, shook my confidence. Did I have to act like a Neanderthal to land a girlfriend? Apparently, Joanie Sommers thought so, but I couldn’t even emulate a Cro-Magnon. I was unable to fathom why this singer would urge her boyfriend to get mad at her, let alone “give me the biggest lecture I ever had.” How could that prove he “care[d], really care[d]”? I tried to imagine castigating Jill, a girl in my ninth-grade English class whom I was too scared to ask to go steady, but the reverie ended with her laughing at me and skipping away. Joanie Sommers wanted her boyfriend to let her know he was “the boss.” I kowtowed for nothing more than a smile.

 

My father and I never saw Guns Girls and Gangsters together, and now we can’t, because he’s gone. I didn’t watch the film until 2018, but as I did, I felt as though I was staring at an artifact from an age when women wore bullet bras and studios advertised Mamie Van Doren as “every inch a teasing, taunting, ‘come-on’ blonde… And she made every inch pay off.” Some of the traditional roles between men and women are, thankfully, no longer in play, a welcome relief. I didn’t have to become a caveman to persuade my wife to marry me.

 

***

 

Late in 2018, my hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times, ran a column by one of its former television reporters to the effect that as society adjusts “in the wake of #MeToo, there will be cultural casualties.” Among them, movies, songs, and books. “It is the price we pay for a better world,” the author wrote in diction suggestive of Soviet commissars.

 

I’m sure the writer would find Guns Girls and Gangsters repulsive, and that’s fine. But  does the “cancel culture” include my father as well as his film? I don’t approve of the way my father’s characters treated women, but scenes like his with Mamie Van Doren contain more than memories. They’re part of an era that, like all eras, had, as Jean Stein, author of West of Eden, said, “its own personality…its own set of circumstances. And you can’t have a historical perspective if you look back at the past with the values of the contemporary era.”

 

***

 

It was a Saturday afternoon, late in 1962, with my father reminiscing about romantic scenes he’d played over the years. He was giving me a perfect opportunity to learn how to court Jill, but, embarrassed, I asked for the opposite. “Dad, what do you say if you don’t want to act romantic with a girl?”

 

My father crossed to the other side of the room. He looked at me, and as he did so, I could swear his mouth and eyes expanded into giant ovals. He flailed his arms. If he had a tail, he would have wagged it. “Oh!” he said in a tremulous voice. “Darling!” Then he minced toward me.

 

After laughing, I swallowed hard and said, “Now how do you act romantic?”

 

The telephone rang. My father ignored it. He fixed me with a steady gaze. He walked toward me. Slowly. He took my hand. Never had he held it more gently. He tilted his head. All without a word. If I could have duplicated his urbane style with Jill, I’m sure she’d have donned my identification bracelet. But I was too shy, afraid she’d laugh if I tried. I never tried. I didn’t think about it then, but my father’s lesson didn’t include any trace of caveman behavior.

 

***

 

My father got his comeuppance, once. He told me about it over brunch at the Carolina Pines, a coffee shop with Googie architecture—a wavy roof—at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and La Brea Avenue. Lighting a Virginia Round cigarette, he mentioned a picture (he didn’t name it) in which the script had called for his leading lady (he didn’t say who) to slap him in the face. The instant she did, she gasped and said, “Oh, Gerry!”

 

“Cut,” yelled the director. She’d ruined the scene.

 

Take two. She said it again. “Oh, Gerry!”

 

The director hollered, “Cut.”

 

As my father related this incident, I touched my cheek with my hand.

 

After the third “Oh, Gerry!” my father took his leading lady aside. “That’s it,” he said. His cheek had turned red. “I know you don’t want to slap me, but dammit, quit saying you’re sorry. Play the goddamned scene.”

 

“Print,” the director called after the fourth take.

 

 

 

 

 

Anthony J. Mohr’s work has appeared in or is upcoming in, among other places, DIAGRAM, Hippocampus Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, Saint Ann's Review, Superstition Review, ZYZZYVA, and several anthologies. He has been nominated five times for the Pushcart Prize, received honorable mention in Sequestrum's 2016 Editor's Reprint Award, and was a finalist in Living Springs Publishers' Stories Through the Ages contest. He has been a guest writer on several blogs, including Brevity, and is an assistant editor of Evening Street Review. Once upon a time he performed with the L.A. Connection, an improv comedy theater.