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Paul Gallico

From Academic Kids

Paul William Gallico (July 26, 1897-July 15, 1976) was a fabulously successful author of popular short stories and novels, many of which were adapted for motion pictures. He is perhaps best remembered for the story The Snow Goose, which was his only real critical success, and for the motion picture based on his novel The Poseidon Adventure.

He first achieved notability in the 1920s as a sportswriter, sports columnist, and sports editor of the New York Daily News. His career was launched by a interview with boxer Jack Dempsey in which he asked Dempsey to spar with him, and described how it felt to be knocked out by the heavyweight champion. He followed up with accounts of catching Dizzy Dean's fastball and golfing with Bobby Jones. He became a national celebrity and one of the highest-paid sportswriters in America. He founded the Golden Gloves amateur boxing competition. His 1942 book, Lou Gehrig: Pride of the Yankees was adapted into a classic sports movie.

In the late 1930s he abandoned sportswriting for fiction, and became an extremely successful writer of short stories for magazines, many appearing in the then-premier fiction outlet, the Saturday Evening Post. Many of his novels, including The Snow Goose, are expanded versions of his magazine stories.

Gallico once told New York Magazine "I'm a rotten novelist. I'm not even literary. I just like to tell stories and all my books tell stories.... If I had lived 2,000 years ago I'd be going around to caves, and I'd say, 'Can I come in? I'm hungry. I'd like some supper. In exchange, I'll tell you a story. Once upon a time there were two apes.' And I'd tell them a story about two cavemen."

The Snow Goose was published in 1940 in The Saturday Evening Post and won an O. Henry prize for short stories in 1941. Critic Robert van Gelder called it "perhaps the most sentimental story that ever has achieved the dignity of a Borzoi [prestige imprint of publisher Knopf] imprint. It is a timeless legend that makes use of every timeless appeal that could be crowded into it." A public library puts it on a list of "tearjerkers." Gallico made no apologies, saying that in the contest between sentiment and "slime," "sentiment remains so far out in front, as it always has and always will among ordinary humans that the calamity-howlers and porn merchants have to increase the decibels of their lamentations, the hideousness of their violence and the mountainous piles of their filth to keep in the race at all."

His short novel, Love of Seven Dolls, was adapted into the 1953 motion picture Lili, which starred Leslie Caron, and then subsequently into a musical, Carnival!, with Anna Maria Alberghetti. It concerns a naive adolescent girl who is about to commit suicide, and is dissuaded when she hears kind words from puppet in a carnival puppet show.

The Silent Miaow 1964 purports to be a guide written by a cat, "translated from the feline," on how to obtain, captivate, and dominate a human family. Illustrated with photographs by Suzanne Szasz, it is considered a classic by cat lovers. Other Gallico cat books include Jennie 1950, Thomasina: The Cat Who Thought She Was God 1957 (filmed in 1964 as The Three Lives of Thomasina), and The Honorable Cat 1972.

His 1969 book, The Poseidon Adventure, about a group of passengers attempting to escape from a capsized ocean liner, attracted little attention at the time. The New York Times gave it a one-paragraph review, noting that "Mr. Gallico collects a Grand Hotel (a reference to the 1930 Vicki Baum novel) full of shipboard dossiers. These interlocking histories may be damp with sentimentality as well as brine—but the author's skill as a storyteller invests them with enough suspense to last the desperate journey." In contrast, Irwin Allen's motion picture adaptation of Gallico's book was instantly recognized as a great movie of its kind. In his article "What makes 'Poseidon' Fun?", reviewer Vincent Canby coined the term "ark movie" for the genre including Airport (movie), The High and the Mighty, A Night to Remember, and Titanic (the 1953 movie, of course). He wrote that "the Poseidon Adventure puts the Ark Movie back where God intended it to be, in the water. Not flying around in the air on one engine or with a hole in its side." The movie was enormously successful, spawned a whole decade of disaster movies, and is a cult classic today.

In his New York Times obituary, Molly Ivins said that "to say that Mr. Gallico was prolific hardly begins to describe his output." He wrote 41 books and numerous short stories Twenty theatrical movies, twelve TV movies, and a television series (The Adventures of Hiram Holliday, starring Wally Cox were adapted from his stories.)

Paul Gallico's style and themes

Gallico is a self-described "storyteller." Many of his stories are told in the apparently artless style of a folk tale or legend. Like other "storyteller" writers, the charm and power lies in something about the cumulative effect of plainly told detail after plainly told detail. A summary outline of a Gallico story sounds uninteresting, even bordering on ludicrous; an individual quotation broken out of its context falls flat; their essence exists only in their entirety.

For example, consider Molly Ivins' summary of The Snow Goose:

The Snow Goose is a tale about a crippled painter living in a lonely lighthouse on the coast of Essex County in England. One day a girl brings with him a wounded snow goose, which he nurses back to health. The goose returns each year, as does the girl, and a romance develops between the girl and the artist. But the artist is killed rescuing soldiers after the evacuation of Dunkirk, while the snow goose flies overhead.

From this summary, is it possible to believe that this is Gallico's masterpiece and a story which frequently moves readers to tears?

Andrea Park, in a review of Love of Seven Dolls, notes that Gallico's work has power only as a textural whole. "It is difficult to describe and impossible to pinpoint the tenuous, even nebulous word magic that successfully carries a reader into the world of fantasy and make-believe. It is perhaps delineated as a quality, a kind of fragile atmosphere that, once established, cannot be broken. Mr. Gallico creates this atmosphere when he writes the sequences with Mouche and the puppets."

Beginning writers are often advised to show rather than to describe. One of the mysteries of Gallico's style is its effectiveness despite his constant violation of this rule. When he wants us to know that a Peyrot is cynical, he says "Wholly cynical, he had no regard or respect for man, woman, child, or God." When he wants us to know that Mouche is innocent, he tells us of her "innocence and primitive mind." When he wants us to know that Rhayader has a warm heart in his crippled body, he says "His body was warped, but his heart was filled with love for wild and hunted things." Much of Gallico's stories are told as a string of assertions and generalities, illuminated only by touches of the particular and specific.

Gallico sometimes sets the scene by describing his stories as legends. Within the text of The Snow Goose he says that "this story... has been garnered from many sources and from many people. Some of it comes in the form of fragments from men who looked upon strange and violent scenes." Later he writes "Now the story becomes fragmentary, and one of these fragments is in the words of the men on leave who told it in the public room of the Crown and Arrow, an East Chapel pub." Given this presentation, it is hardly surprising that it has been taken to be a retelling of an actual legend; Gallico writes that "the person and character of the painter are wholly fictional as is the story itself, although I am told that in some quarters the snow goose appearing over Dunkirk has been accepted as legend and I have been compelled to reply to many correspondents that it was sheer invention."

Martin Levin wrote that "Mr. Gallico has long had a way with the quasi-human—puppets (Love of Seven Dolls), cows (Ludmila,) geese (The Snow Goose)" as well as no less that five book about cats.

Often, Gallico's point of view implies that the nonhuman character in some way really possesses a human spirit, or a portion of a human spirit. Morton Prince's work on multiple personality disorders was well known in the 1950s. In "the Love of Seven Dolls," the puppeteer's relation to his puppets suggests at least a resemblance to such a disorder. But Gallico does not even hint at such a thing. He notes that the puppeteers "primitive" Senegalese assistant "looked upon the puppets 'as living, breathing creatures.'" and that "the belief in the separate existence of these little people was even more basic with Mouche for it was a necessity to her and a refuge from the storms of life with which she had been unable to cope." One could go so far as to say that he leaves it deliberately ambiguous as to whether the relation between the puppeteer and his puppets is purely natural or whether there could be at least a trace of the supernatural in it. This ambiguity is hinted at in the close of the movie adaptation, Lili. Although the puppeteer Paul's hands are engaged in embracing Lili, the four puppets somehow peek around the puppet stage proscenium to smile their happy approval, apparently under their own power.

The treatment contrasts with the 1954 Danny Kaye vehicle, Knock On Wood, which turns on the similar theme of a ventriloquist who can express his true self only through his dummy. This movie not only hints at a psychiatric undertone, it revels in it; Kaye's character's love interest is a "lady psychiatrist" (in the phrase used by a contemporary reviewer). The pop-psychiatric point of view was prevalent during the late 1940s and 1950s, the same period that brought us the psychoanalytic musical Lady in the Dark and the book The Three Faces of Eve. Gallico's distancing of his writing from this "modern" point of view and his adoption use of the language of legend and fairy-tale seems deliberate, the literary equivalent of what painter Thomas Kinkade does today in his painting.

References

  • The New York Times, Aug 24, 1969; pg. BR26: The Poseidon Adventure
  • The New York Times, Jan 14, 1973, p. 121: What Makes 'Poseidon' Fun? (Vincent Canby)
  • The New York Times, Jul 7, 1976, p. 20: Paul Gallico, Sportswriter And Author, Is Dead at 78 by Molly Ivins
  • Madison Public Library's list of "Tearjerkers" (http://www.madisonpubliclibrary.org/booklists/tearjerkers.html)

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