I was fast asleep. It was late on a billowing March night on the eve of the feast of St. Patrick when I heard my father urgently whisper up the steps to my bedroom “Jiggs!”
I was sixteen and it was 1973. There was a lot going on. The War in Vietnam still waged on even though Nixon and Kissinger would soon skillfully manage a tactical withdraw that was anything but “honorable.” Watergate would soon predominate the headlines. Roe v. Wade changed everything in January of that year and Catholics went to war with each other over the sanctity of life. No small things.
I say this because my dad sometimes woke me up in the middle of the night to bounce some ideas off me that disturbed, impressed or excited him. Sometimes he would wake me up to listen to the end of a ball game on the radio. Sometimes to watch William F. Buckley or David Susskind on channel twelve, our PBS station. More often than not, he would rouse me out of bed to watch a movie. One that he enjoyed. Say, any classic featuring Paul Muni. Or, one of his favorites, Twelve Angry Men. Certainly anything starring John Wayne. It wasn’t abusive, not even in the broadest sense of that word. It happened occasionally. And, it happened because he knew I was a thinker. That I was a born story teller. That I thought outside the box before that maxim ever came into fruition.
On this night, however (because it was a weekend and dad didn’t have to work two jobs to put food on the table and I didn’t have school the next day) it was something very special.
It would prove to be a long night.
“Jiggs,” by the way, was an Irish-Philly nickname for George or Georgie, just like “Happy” is for Harold. Why this is, I don’t know. It was just the way it was and everyone accepted it.
But, on that night so many years ago my dad and I shared something special.
When I came down the stairs I was fully awake. Well, yawning of course, but looking forward to what my father had in store for me. I was a very skinny kid. Pretty much like the cartoon ads describing the 97-pound weakling getting sand kicked in his face at the beach that were in all the boy’s magazines in the fifties and sixties. You know, Charles Atlas stuff.
That night, as he sat in front of the black and white TV, he put two bottles of porter (black beer) in front of me with a peanut butter and banana sandwich. “That’ll put meat on your bones, Jiggs,” he said. “And this movie will be something you’ll want to see.”
We lived in Levittown, just north of Philly. Yet, if you could direct your antenna sitting atop your roof the right way and the wind was just right you could pick up stations from New York. And, when you could accomplish that, you could not only get Yankee baseball but something marvelous called the “Million Dollar Movie” on WOR-TV Channel 9, just before the national anthem played and the test pattern came on.
As I ate the sandwich and downed the porter (it didn’t work, by the way. My metabolism kept me trim until I reached fifty), we watched a most remarkable movie. And, this is where our story begins.
Leprechauns and Morality Plays
There are, indeed, many great Irish movies. Sure, John Ford’s The Informer (1935) and The Quiet Man (1952) are my top two. Yet, the movie dad shared with me that night, so lovingly seared into my adolescent memory, did more than just inform and entertain. It changed me.
It’s called The Luck of the Irish (1948) and starred Tyrone Power, Anne Baxter, Cecil Kellaway, Jayne Meadows, and Lee J. Cobb. The film was directed by the legendary Henry Koster, a Jewish emigrant from Nazi Germany, who also directed The Bishop’s Wife (1947), Come to the Stable (1949), Harvey (1950), The Robe (1953), and, his last film, The Singing Nun (1966), among many other classics.
In The Luck of the Irish, Tyrone Power plays the role of an urbane newspaper man, Stephen Fitzgerald: a foreign correspondent who has traveled and seen the world but who was disgruntled and dissatisfied with making “nickels and dimes.” He wanted more. He had rubbed elbows with the rich and powerful and he yearned to become one of them. Yet, deep inside, he is not a greedy man. This becomes evident early in the film when, staying at an enchanting inn in Ireland, owned by a beautiful colleen named Nora (Anne Baxter), on a trip from the continent to America, he chases and tackles what he had been told was a leprechaun (Cecil Kellaway, nominated for best supporting actor). Although Fitzgerald forces the leprechaun (Horace) to dig up his pot of gold just for the fun of it because the reporter doesn’t really believe in fairy tales, he gives back the gold. To Fitzgerald it would have been like stealing a poor man’s savings. Horace never forgets this kindness. But, Fitzgerald forgets the whole incident, thinking it was just a bad dream.
Fitzgerald flies to New York and accepts a position as a one-man think tank and writer for a wealthy publisher (Lee J. Cobb) who is running for a U.S. Senate seat. The publisher promises Fitzgerald that he would have the freedom to keep his integrity and his high ideals. Along with a generous salary, furnished apartment and car, he is given a man-servant so that he can concentrate all his powers on the publisher’s agenda. He even gets the publisher’s daughter (a surprisingly sexy Jayne Meadows) and that seems to seal the bargain. Fame and fortune are all his. Or so it seems. The man-servant turns out to be Horace, who Fitzgerald only vaguely remembers.
Horace subtly teaches Fitzgerald a lesson in personal integrity and magically encourages a relationship with the owner of the inn, Nora, back in Ireland where the story began and just happens to be in New York on family business.
And here’s the rub. Fitzgerald is ordered by the publisher to publicly recant himself on an important policy matter. He must do this in front of his friends at the Correspondents Dinner. Now, everything hangs in the balance. Does he do as he is told? How do you give up money and power and prestige? In other words, do you give back the pot of gold?
I won’t tell you what happens next. But, trust me, you’ll be delighted to make this movie a part of your St. Patrick’s Day celebration. And, perhaps, if you watch it with a sixteen-year-old who has dreams of what lies hidden at the end of a rainbow, you’ll be planting seeds in a fertile young mind while laughing at the artful and whimsical humor that is the cornerstone of Irish wit. Oh, and have a few pints of porter too.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!