My great-grandfather, his brother-in-law…and The Three Stooges?

This coming October 15 would have been my great-grandfather David Louis Berger’s 150th birthday.

David Louis Berger (1869-1919)

Eight days later, I will mourn the 100th anniversary of his passing, under bizarre circumstances, but that is a tale I reserve for my book.

“Louis,” as he preferred to be called (like my own father David Louis Berger liked to be called “Lou”) was almost certainly born in the town of Przasnysz (pronounced “pruhzh-nitz”). His father was named Shmuel Meyer (Berger); I have yet to learn his mother’s name.

Around 1891, Louis Berger married Ida Rugowitz, with whom he would have five children, including my father’s father Morris (born in Przasnysz on August 5, 1893), for whom I was named[1]. Well, we share identical Hebrew names: Moshe ben Dahvid Laib. My mother Anglicized “Moshe” to “Matthew,” which she preferred to “Michael” for some reason.

Morris and Rae Berger

I have no clue where my middle name—Darin—came from.

And the above photograph of my grandparents Morris and Rae (Caesar) Berger was probably taken in Atlantic City, NJ around 1949.

My great-grandfather Louis set sail for Quebec from Liverpool, England on the S.S. Tongariro with his wife and children on May 6, 1899[2]. The ship arrived in Quebec City on May 16 and in Montreal—its final stop—on May 17. I do not know in which city they disembarked—though his United States of America Petition for Naturalization states that he arrived in the port of “Philadelphia via Quebec,” suggesting it was Quebec City.

While I cannot definitively place Louis, Ida or any of their children in the United States until December 2, 1902[3], I do not think they tarried long in Canada. Rather, my working hypothesis is that they immediately boarded a train (or series of trains) for the 500+-mile trek south to Philadelphia[4].

Which begs the question: why Philadelphia?

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My great-grandmother Ida Rugowitz (born June 12, 1870, most likely also in Przasnysz) had at least two siblings. One was a brother named Charles (Anglicized from Tzadik) who was born in July 1862, and the other was a brother Daniel born in April 1882; the latter was unequivocally born in Przasnysz, meaning the former almost certainly was.

My great-great-uncle Charles married Rebecca Pearl Berman in 1880, then they moved to Philadelphia in 1886 (or, at least, they arrived in the United States that year—the earliest I can definitively place them in Philadelphia is March 14, 1889, when their son Emmanuel was born). His brother Daniel would not arrive until May 1903.

As I continue to research my book, tentatively titled Interrogating Memory: Film Noir and My Search for Identity, I have spent many mostly-happy hours diving down the rabbit hole of Philadelphia City Directories from 1880 forward, as well as more generally on Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com. United States Census records can tell me which relatives were living where on a decennial basis, but the city directories (to the extent they are complete—inclusion does not appear to have been as automatic as it would become in the age of telephone-number-based directories) can do so on an annual basis.

This is how I discovered that my great-grandfather Louis (along with his wife and four, soon-to-be-five children) were very likely living at 105 Kenilworth Street, approximately the length of a football field west from the Delaware River, as of 1902; no “Louis Berger” is listed in the 1899, 1900 or 1901 directories. This South Philadelphia address was barely a block east of 712 S. 2nd Street.

From 1899 to 1908, that was the residence and bakery of Louis Berger’s brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz—and I presume my great-grandfather was simply moving to the same American city as his successful brother-in-law—which is to say, his wife’s brother.[5]

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Just bear with me while I briefly outline some of the street topography of Philadelphia.

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The section of the city known as “Center City” is bounded to the east by the Delaware River and to the west by the Schuylkill (pronounced skool-kill) River; West Philadelphia extends some 33 blocks west of the Schuylkill (and is primarily where my parents were raised, especially my father, who was born at the end of 1935).

The primary east-west thoroughfare in Center City Philadelphia is Market Street (originally High Street), and the primary north-south thoroughfare is Broad Street, exactly as William Penn planned in 1682, when he designed the grid of streets in his new city of Philadelphia. In 1871, construction began on Philadelphia’s City Hall at the intersection of Broad and Market, the rough geographic center of Penn’s original city.

The north-south streets are numbered, moving west from Front Street roughly to 27th Street (the curvature of the Schuylkill makes this somewhat imprecise), with the numbering resuming on the west side of the Schuylkill; “Broad Street” is what would otherwise be called “14th Street.” I-95 actually runs parallel to the Delaware River through Center City—meaning Front Street is no longer the easternmost street in Center City (Christopher Columbus Boulevard is).

The main east-west streets are usually named for trees or other vegetation. Thus, beginning from Market and moving south are Chestnut, Walnut, Locust, Spruce, Pine, Lombard and South; an alphabet soup of smaller streets and alleys exist within this primary grid. North from Market, meanwhile you find Arch, Race, Vine, Callowhill and Spring Garden.

South Street marks the boundary with South Philadelphia, while Spring Garden marks the boundary with North Philadelphia. There are other neighborhoods (like the “Greater Northeast,” where I spent a lot of time in high school because a close cousin lived there), but they do not concern us here.

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When I was growing up in the suburbs just west of Philadelphia, South Street between Front and about 8th Streets was the center of Philadelphia’s punk and new wave culture, making it the flame to which all us suburban moths were drawn; it has since become more gentrified.

At the turn of the previous century, however, the easternmost-blocks of South Street were the mercantile center of a thriving Jewish community, a roughly 50-block area (bounded by the Delaware River to the east, 6th Street to the west, Spruce Street to the north and Christian Street to the south) where Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement were settling after arriving on the steamships from Liverpool (or, apparently, by train from Canada).

If you walk south on 2nd Street from South Street, the first major street you cross is Bainbridge. One-half block down on the western side of the street is #712, which sits directly across the western end of a one-block stretch of Kenilworth Street[6]. Just one block to the west is 105 Kenilworth Street.

As I noted above, a Louis Berger—variously described as “grocery” and “varieties”—lived at 105 Kenilworth from 1902 to 1905. My great-grandfather was, in fact, a purveyor of “meats” from 1906 (when he is first listed in city directories residing at 2241 Callowhill, as close to the Schuylkill as I hypothesize he had been to the Delaware[7]) until about 1915. Around 1914, he operated his meat business (what I suspect we would now call a delicatessen) out of a store at 2313 Fairmount Street, less than two blocks west of Eastern State Penitentiary.

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I took this photograph inside the penitentiary walls in July 2013. It is every bit as creepy as it appears.

Starting in 1915 (as seen in this section of page 2023 of that year’s Philadelphia city directory), however, the family shifted away from “meats” to the moving/storage/used furniture business that would occupy my grandfather Morris (then just 21, but the emerging English-speaking face of the family) and, later, his brother Jules until they died in the 1950s (when my father took over…but that is also a story for another day).

Berger Storage Company 1915.jpg

And this is where we leave my great-grandfather (who, as I noted, would die just four years later) and his wife and children.

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The first appearance of Louis’ Berger’s brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz as a baker was in 1895, fully nine years after he arrived in the United States, when he is recorded living at 752 S.  7th Street (one block west of the western edge of the Jewish Quarter described above). This address is literally just around the corner from where his brother-in-law’s first cousin’s widow Lena Berger would be living as of 1899, and possibly as early as 1895 (see footnote 5). In fact, the buildings shared exterior walls.

By the following year, Charles  Rugowitz had moved to 929 South Street, where “Rugowitz and Berman”—variously described as “bakers,” “cakes” and “crackers” would be situated until 1898. Clearly, my great-great-uncle was pushing the boundaries of Philadelphia’s “Jewish Quarter.”

“Berman,” by the way, was Harry Berman, the younger brother of Rebecca Pearl Berman[8], who had married Charles Rugowitz back in 1880. The two men lived together—presumably above their bakery—from 1896 to 1909. I do not know when Harry Berman first arrived in Philadelphia.

Harry Berman was also one of two witnesses to Louis Berger’s naturalization petition in October 1906. The other witness was Max Rugowitz, the first cousin of Charles, Daniel and Ida Rugowitz (and thus my first cousin, three times removed). Max Rugowitz had been born in 1872; let’s posit he was born in Przasnysz as well. United States Census records say he arrived in the United States in 1896 or 1897. The first official record of Max Rugowitz is as a grocer (misspelled “Rugwitz”) living in 1903 at 109 Naudain St—a very narrow brick-paved road running between Front and 2nd Streets, just one short block north of South Street. By 1905, he is selling cigars and living at 533 S. Front Street—the northeast corner of the intersection of Front and South Streets (now a parking lot)[9]. In 1910, he moved to 345 South Street (just off the northeast corner of the intersection of 4th and South Streets—diagonally across from where the legendary Jim’s Steaks would open in 1976). Here, Max Rugowitz would live until his death on April 9, 1929, at the age of 57.

As for Charles Rugowitz, the bakery he co-owned with Harry Berman had moved to 712 S. 2nd Street as of 1899 (this is where Louis Berger came into the story originally), where it would remain until 1910. The bakery was apparently successful, because as early as June 1901, Charles Rugowitz is already serving on the house committee of the Home for Hebrew Orphans[10]. He was still on the house committee in December 1907, when he helped to arrange a fundraising dance at the Musical Fund Hall at 8th and Locust Streets. And, yes, I appreciate the irony of a Jewish fundraising dance being held on the evening of Christmas Day.

That same year, Charles briefly co-owned a shoe store in West Philadelphia (5145 Haverford Avenue) with a man named Lewis (or Louis) Maltz; the former would serve an executor of the latter’s will in May 1924[11]. Emanuel Rugowitz, now 18, lived that year at 5136 Haverford Avenue (across the street) and managed his father’s shoe store.

By 1909, however, the Berman-Rugowitz partnership was coming to an end, as Charles Rugowitz had moved to 245 South Street—one block east from his cousin Max, just off the northeast corner of 3rd and South Streets. Here he would live through 1919; by 1921, he had moved to 114 South Street, where he and Pearl would remain until his death on March 25, 1931 at the age of 68. He left an estate of $15,500 in trust for his wife (and, with her passing, their six children and the Home for Hebrew Orphans, among other recipients)[12]; that would be worth about $235,000 today.

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But let us return to 1910, when the Rugowitz cousins—Charles and Max—first started living just one block apart on South Street.

Ten years earlier, a 21-year-old jeweler named Joseph Feinberg was living with his brother Nathan and his family at 122 Kenilworth Street—just a few houses west from where Louis Berger and his family would be living in 1902.

But by that year, Joseph had married Fanny Lieberman and opened a jewelry shop with her at 606 S. 3rd Street. This was just three doors down on the west side of 3rd street from the southwest corner of 3rd and South Streets, diagonally across from where Charles Rugowitz would move in 1909 (one year after the Feinbergs moved to 246 N. 2nd Street, unfortunately).

It was at 606 S. 3rd Street, however, that Louis Feinberg was born on October 5, 1902. And perhaps it was here that young Louis accidentally spilled the acid his father used to detect gold content on his left arm, burning him so badly skin grafts were required. After taking up the violin to strengthen his arm, Louis became so proficient that he began to perform locally. He also briefly took up boxing while attending Central High School, winning one bout, until his father put a stop to it.

He did not graduate from high school, choosing to perform instead—play the violin, perform Russian dances and tell jokes. In 1921, he appeared on the same bill as Mabel Haney, who later became his wife. Perhaps it was around this time that Louis Feinberg adopted the stage name “Larry Fine,” because he soon joined his wife and he sister in act called “The Haney Sisters and Fine.” While performing in Chicago, IL one night in 1925, a vaudevillian comedian named Ted Healy caught a performance along with two members of his act: brothers Moe and Shemp Howard (born Moses and Samuel Horwitz).

When “Larry Fine” then agreed to replace Shemp, that started the process resulting in the formation of The Three Stooges (with the addition of Jerome Horwitz, better known as “Curly” Howard), who would make 190 short films for Columbia from 1934 to 1958, becoming one of the top comic acts of the 20th century.

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The idea to honor the birthplace of Larry Fine/Louis Feinberg began with a suggestion in the Philadelphia Weekly. David McShane was commissioned to create a mural on the wall of Jon’s Bar and Grill (which moved into 606 S. 3rd Street in 1981); it was dedicated on October 26, 1999, with Larry Fine’s sister Lyla (then 78 years old) in attendance. The mural was repainted in October 2005—and I took this photograph of it in July 2013.

Sadly, in November 2018, Jon’s Bar and Grill announced that it was closing after 37 years in business.

I would like to think that a young Louis Feinberg, with or without his family, would have found his way at least once a few blocks south and east to the bakery of Rugowitz & Berman at 712 S. 2nd Street.

Or, conversely, it is easy to imagine the successful baker Charles Rugowitz spending time shopping for watches or other jewelry in Joseph Feinberg’s shop at 3rd and South Streets.

Even if neither of those things ever happened, though, I would still be fascinated by the fact that my great-great-uncle lived for nine years just a stone’s throw from where the great Larry Fine was born…and that perhaps, just perhaps, my grandfather lived across the street—however briefly—from Larry’s then-single jeweler father.

Until next time…

[1] He died on November 14, 1954, nearly 12 years before I was born. This is important because it is Jewish custom not to name a newborn after a living person.

[2] His United States of America Petition for Naturalization, dated October 26, 1906, lists the day as “May 5, 1898.” However, the Tongariro did not make its maiden Liverpool-Quebec voyage until August 1898, three months later. Louis Berger was most likely simply off by one year in his recollection—the last Liverpool-Quebec voyage began on May 6, 1899. If he, Ida and their four children (their last child Julius would be born in Philadelphia in 1904) boarded the vessel the night before their departure, that would be May 5, 1899—exactly one year after the date written on his naturalization petition.

[3] I scoured the 1900 United States Census, to no avail.

[4] It is about 500 miles from Montreal and about 600 miles from Quebec City.

[5] When I was a boy my father and I prepared a list of “Bergers —  death dates” which included a Joseph Berger and his wife Lena. Joseph Berger’s death date is listed as “March 6, 1900,” when in fact (according to his headstone) it was March 6, 1898. That same headstone tells me he was born on April 18, 1860. My guess is that he too was born in Przasnysz—but I may never know for sure. He married the London-born Lena Cohen around 1879 or 1880…and by April 1881, when their eldest son Philip (who appears on my “death dates” list) was born, they were living in Philadelphia. While there are a handful of listings for “Joseph Berger” in the Philadelphia city directories starting in 1888, none seem to fit the broad criteria (or were still alive—going by their listed occupations—after 1898). Only in 1899, does “Lena wid Joseph” first appears, with the address 702 Clymer Street. Given that Joseph, Lena and three of their sons (Harry, Philip, William) appear on the “death dates” list (implying a close familial relation), and given that Joseph was born just nine years before Louis, I assumed Joseph and Louis were brothers. However, examination of each of their headstones (it is often the case that the Hebrew names of the deceased—“first name, son/daughter of father’s first name”—are also written on the headstone) reveals Joseph was the son of Yitzchak (usually Anglicized Isaac) while Louis was the son of Shmuel Meyer (Samuel Meyer). My new working hypothesis is that Joseph Berger and Louis Berger were first cousins…making Joseph Berger my first cousin three times removed. All of which is to suggest that another reason to for Louis Berger to choose Philadelphia as the new home for himself and his family was the presence of his first cousin’s widow Lena and their eight children (as of May 1899).

[6] I suspect Kenilworth once ran from river to river, but has since been chopped up into a handful of one-block lengths to accommodate larger structures.

[7] The westernmost stretch of Callowhill has long since been demolished to clear the way for the admittedly majestic Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which ends at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[8] Rebecca was born on August 15, 1863, in modern-day Lithuania, while Harry was born on December 12, 1874, presumably in the same place.

[9] It seems cousin Charles bought the property for him from a Patrick Sexton for $1,450 on July 9, 1903; this would be about $42,000 today. “REAL ESTATE TRANSFERS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), July 11, 1903, pg. 5.

[10] “Hebrew Orphans in New Home,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), June 24, 1901, pg. 8.

[11] “WILLS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), May 2, 1924, pg. 32.

[12] “W. M’L.FREEMAN LEAVES $214,048,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), April 1, 1931, pg. 12.

Choosing the funny and the absurd…

There are very few persons, places or things I outright despise.

One of those rare things is St. Valentine’s Day (despite my fascination with what happened that day in Chicago, IL in 1929). I generally believe that cynicism is toxic—but I am irredeemably cynical about this “Hallmark holiday.”

My objection to the holiday was originally rooted in being mystified what purpose it serves:

  • Anyone currently in a romantic relationship should not require a specific day of the year to demonstrate her/his affection for her/his partner. I still leave my wife Nell a scrawled “good morning, I love you” note every night before I go to sleep (though now it also encompasses our daughters and our golden retriever Ruby), even after 11+ years of marriage.
  • It does not apply to anyone NOT in a romantic relationship—and it may even cruelly exacerbate such a person’s loneliness.

Two things later occurred on February 14 which cemented my disdain for this holiday:

  1. A college girlfriend broke up with me as we rode the commuter rail back to New Haven, CT from New York City (before falling asleep with her head in my lap).
  2. In 2007, Nell (then my girlfriend) had a D&C to end a partial molar pregnancy; the pregnancy had not been planned, despite my having spent four years working as a researcher in family planning. In an additional, more bittersweet bit of irony, going through this traumatic experience together (there were months of weekly blood tests to confirm the absence of the molar tissue) actually spurred us to make our relationship permanent; we married that October.

Now, to be fair, I was so entertained by the events of St. Valentine’s Day 2001 (despite—or maybe because of—having recently ended two relationships[1]) that after my friends left my Philadelphia apartment in the wee hours of the following morning, I sat down at my computer to write everything I remembered about that day, intending to turn it into a short story.

I still have an inchoate, marked-up draft of “Valentine’s Day” in my filing cabinet.

Nonetheless, rather than dwell on the negative, I will instead share a handful of funny photographs, newspaper clippings and stories.

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This is the sign outside of our pediatrician’s office. Could the street address be any more perfect?

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This is an actual street corner in Wayne, PA. And it is only about a 10-minute drive west rom where Old Gulph Road crosses South Gulph Road to become Upper Gulph Road (making it the intersection of Gulph, Gulph, Gulph and Gulph).

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After Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and three firms, including the Internet Research Agency—home to a group of Russian “Internet trolls,” I began telling Nell (mostly in jest) that I wanted my own “Russian troll farm.”

Well…look what showed up in our dining room Christmas morning, 2018! (Thank you, Nell!)

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Who are you calling corny?

Daddy corn 10-12-2008

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As I research and write my book, tentatively entitled Interrogating Memory: Film Noir and My Search for Identity, I have spent hours reading through old newspapers. A joyous by-product of this activity is happening upon truly bizarre or funny articles/advertisements.

This appeared on page 14 of the March 27, 1910 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Maybe all the hours our daughters spend on the iPad or playing video games are not so bad after all…

Bonfire of the absurdities

What always gets me is the mental image of “the excited children danced about the blaze.”

I literally wrote “This just made my day…” when I clipped this advertisement (so cleverly disguised as an actual article its authors helpfully wrote “Advt” at its end) from page seven of the September 30, 1913 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Best Laxative for Bowels

If only our local CVS would start selling Cascarets so I can avoid the Coated Tongue I so often experience after imbibing Purgative Waters to stop being bilious!

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On December 20, 2014. six days after I successfully defended my doctoral thesis in epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health, I took our two daughters—then aged six and almost-five—for a drive, what we used to call “an adventure.” Meandering west, we wound up in the town of Hudson (birthplace of former Massachusetts governor Paul Cellucci).

What transpired there led me to write the following Facebook post (edited for clarity).

Call me Doctor Idiot. Earlier today, the girls and I went for a drive. Giving Nell a break, while seeking adventure. Wound up in Hudson, about 26 miles west of Boston. Parked in front of the Public Library at 4:45. [We see that it] closes at 5:00. Plan: use the bathroom [We did exactly that—used the restroom in the library, explored it, then left shortly before it closed at 5 pm], then maybe walk around [Hudson] a bit, eat something. Fine. We leave, and start to walk. Now [our younger daughter] needs a bathroom. Library [now closed]. We run down the hill past the closed diner, the dark gas station…to the McDonalds. While I wait for the girls, I instinctively look at my iPhone. Umm, where is my phone? Seriously, where is my phone?? Let’s see, I had it in the bathroom at the libra-…no, no, you have GOT to be kidding me. Girls finish [using the bathroom at McDonalds], we run back up the hill to the library. Completely dark. Locked. No answer to the frantic banging and knocking. Not open again until Monday. This is NOT good. Remembered the Hudson police officer parked across from McDonalds. So…back down the hill we run. Officer just about to pull out of the lot. STOP, I wave! Explain the situation. Very nice, but he gives me that look…are you serious? They’ve only just closed, I stammer. He hesitates, then reaches for his radio. Pauses. Finally relays my problem to the station. Now, we wait and see, he says. What do I do now? Do you have a car? Yes, parked in front of the library. Swing down here and park in the lot. So…back up the hill one more time. Pile in the car and drive down to the lot. I position my Honda next to his cruiser. No word yet, he signals to me. [While we waited, our older daughter], from the back seat [says]: Daddy, if you dropped it and someone picked it up, they can’t use it ’cause it has a password, so they might just throw it in the trash and it’ll get crushed. Aaarggh, I scream in my head. After 10, maybe 15 minutes, Officer Jesse…S-something starts to pull out of the lot, motions me to follow. I do. He drives to the library, pulls a U-ey, and parks in front. I park across the street and get out. leaving the girls safely buckled in the car. I see no library employees. Instead, three members of the Hudson Fire Department are standing there. Looking quite amused. One of them jangles a key ring. Don’t know if we can get in the front door–but definitely the side door, he says. None of the keys open the front door, so we all troop around [to] the right-hand side of the building. Seconds later, two firemen and I are standing in a foyer. The door in front of us has a number lock, but there is an unlocked door to our right. Leads to the Children’s section, downstairs. Firemen #1 walks into the dark room just ahead of me, holding a flashlight. Which bathroom? I point across the way. We walk inside, and he turns on the light. I don’t see my TARDIS-encased phone at first, and I start to panic. But then I see it, right where I had set it down. At that moment, the building alarm goes off. The Hudson Public Library has a VERY loud alarm. We head back outside, closing the doors. In the alley, I shake every hand I can, thanking them profusely, if a bit incoherently. How can I repay you guys, I ask. Oh, forget about it (for some bored firefighters, this was *fun*). You can make a donation to the library (check—[I sent them $50 that night]). Then I ran back up the alley, across the street to my patient girls. Gave them a big thumbs up. Sat down in the front seat, started the car…and got the hell out of Hudson!

We have not returned to Hudson since then.

Until next time…

[1] One would actually resume not long after—only to become the most tumultuous relationship of my life, before  ending for good in 2004.

When is a pleasure “guilty?”

I first watched The Cotton Club (Francis Ford Coppola, 1984) as a sophomore in college, under curious circumstances.

That year, I lived with two other men in a converted basement seminar room in Ezra Stiles College. The year before, that room had been occupied by a student we generally referred to as the “Saudi prince” (or was it “sheikh?”); I forget his actual nationality and title. He apparently purchased a great deal of electronic equipment—and by “purchased,” I mean “charged without ever paying”—which he used in secretive solitude.

All that remained when my friends and I moved into the room was the mid-1980’s version of a big screen television. Another classmate lent us her early-model VCR—which made the fact that one of my roommates worked in the Audio-Visual department all the more valuable.

I do not remember how a copy of Café Flesh turned up in our room…but that was quite an education for me (the previews were a hoot), back when adult films were expected to have at least some coherent plot. The film made enough of an impression on me that I purchased the terrific Mitchell Froom soundtrack on vinyl.

The Key of Cool

But back to The Cotton Club. I recall vaguely enjoying it (it is a beautiful film), even though much of the historical “back story” eluded me[1]. I also remember hearing stories about how its production was more interesting than the movie itself.

I thought little about the film after that until I kept happening upon it on television in the mid-1990s. And when I sat and watched it from start to finish for a second time, I very much enjoyed it. So much so that I bought the excellent John Barry soundtrack, my first tentative foray into jazz (which I now love) and learned more about the historical “back story” I referenced earlier.

Yes, the plot is overly ambitious and convoluted[2]. Yes, it garbles and condenses and rewrites the compelling underworld history of late-1920s/early-1930s New York City (e.g., the film ostensibly ends in 1931 with the slaying of Dutch Schultz—which occurred on October 23, 1935). Yes, it is too long…or too short, depending how interested in the interweaving plot threads one is.

But I now rank it among my 10 or 20 favorite films, recently purchasing a DVD copy when I was unable to watch it on of our streaming services. As it happens, I also have a copy of Café Flesh (on VHS), and I have previously discussed my continuing love another critical non-favorite I recently purchased on DVD, Times Square.

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One thing these three films have in common is a middling average score (on a 0-10 scale) on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB): 6.5 for Café Flesh and The Cotton Club and 6.7 for Times Square. For context, in his 2008 video guide[3], esteemed film critic Leonard Maltin gives The Cotton Club 2.5 stars (out of four) while giving Times Square a rating of “BOMB;” for obvious reasons, he does not include Café Flesh in his guide.

While not the worst-reviewed films ever (hello, Ed Wood!), neither are they among the greatest films ever made. Which begs the question (and setting aside the pornographic nature of Café Flesh) whether they could be characterized as “guilty pleasures.”

Which further begs the question: what makes a pleasure “guilty?”

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In this post, I gathered IMDB, RottenTomatoes (RT) and Maltin ratings data to “rank” the 47 Charlie Chan films released between 1926 and 1949. I decided to take the same approach with the larger universe of movies I like (loosely defined as “movies I have seen multiple times, to the best of my recollection”) to see if I could statistically distinguish “guilty pleasure” films (ones I love but to which critics/users respond with “meh”–or worse) from critically-praised films I love (e.g., L.A. Confidential, The Maltese Falcon, numerous films directed by Alfred Hitchcock or Woody Allen[4]—or starring The Marx Brothers), as well as from films SO bad they have become cult classics and/or been parodied on Mystery Science Theater 3000).

To that end I compiled a list of 557 films I am fairly certain I have seen in their entirety twice (or, at least, I have seen all the way through once and large segments of at different times). I excluded the Charlie Chan films discussed in the previous post[5].

For each film I entered its:

  • Title
  • Year of release (according to IMDB)
  • Length in minutes (ditto)
  • IMDB score and number of raters
  • Tomatometer score (% RT-sanctioned critics deeming film “fresh”), average critic rating (0-10) and number of critics
  • Audience Score (% RT users deeming film “fresh”), average user rating (0-5) and number of user raters
  • Number of stars assigned by Maltin[6], with BOMB = 0.

I included year of release[7] and length as a way to distinguish older, shorter films from more recent, longer films. There are six slightly different ways to broadly measure a film’s perceived quality. I included three “number of raters” measures to see if there was a relationship between a film’s perceived quality and the number of viewers willing to take the time to quantify their opinions on-line[8].

I also divided the films into six broad categories[9]:

  • General  (64%)
  • Film Noir (19%)
  • Other Pre-1960 (7%)
  • Woody Allen[10] (5%)
  • Alfred Hitchcock  (3%)
  • Marx Brothers (2%)

Arguably, there is overlap between Film Noir (restricted for this analysis to films released between 1940 and 1959) and Alfred Hitchcock…and a few Other Pre-1960 films…but I am comfortable with these general categories.

I have complete data for 515 films. Eight films have no Maltin rating, either because they were released in 2008 or later (Frozen, Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian, The Spirit, Star Trek), are relatively obscure films noir (The Guilty, Night Editor—and the excellent Spanish film Muerte de un Ciclista [Death of a Cyclist]) or…I don’t know why (the charming 1992 film Jersey Girl). The latter four films also have no Tomatometer rating or critic average rating (along with 34 other films, primarily Film Noir); I entered “0” for the number of critic raters. All analyses were performed using Intercooled Stata 9.2[11].

Some of these variables do not follow a “bell curve” (or “normal”) distribution (Table 1). For example, while the average year of release is 1974, the median year (the value at which half of all values are lower, and half are higher) is 1982. The difference results from a “skew” towards earlier films.

Table 1: Summary statistics for Film Ratings Measures

Measure N Mean

(SD*)

Median Minimum Maximum
Year of Release 556 1974.1

(20.9)

1982 1920 2013
Length (mins.) 556 103.4

(17.8)

101.0 61 220
IMDB Score 556 7.1

(0.8)

7.2 4.2 9.0
# IMDB Raters 556 79,833.4 (184,390) 19,095 140 2,015,091
Tomatometer 517 77.1

(22.4)

85 0 100
Critic Rating 517 6.9

(1.4)

7.1 2.1 9.5
# Critics 556 40.0

(42.5)

30 0 342
RottenTomatoes Audience Score 556 71.9

(17.7)

76 20 96
RottenTomatoes User Rating 556 3.5

(0.4)

3.5 2.2 4.4
# RottenTomatoes User Raters 556 216,214.5

(1,965,582)

11,867.5 39 34,296,962
Maltin Stars 548 2.8

(0.7)

3 0 4

*SD=standard deviation, a measure of how tightly values cluster around the mean: the smaller the value, the tighter the clustering. In a normal distribution, 68% of values are within 1 SD, 95% are within 2 SD and 99% are within 3 SD.

Indeed, as Figure 1 shows, the distribution of release year is bimodal, meaning there are two “peaks” in the data: one in 1946-50, reflecting the preponderance of film noir titles among my multiple-viewing films, and one between roughly 1978 and 1999, my prime movie-attendance years (ages 11-33).

Figure 1: The Distribution of Year of Release is Bimodal

Film Release Years.jpg

See here for the distribution of Length, in minutes

There is also heavy skew to the right (a long “right tail”) in the three “number of raters” measures, with the median consistently lower than the mean. In the most extreme case, while 452 films (81%) had between 29 and 99,999 RT user raters, 13 films had more than 1,000,000 raters, topping out at a staggering 30,984,432 RT user raters for Donnie Darko and 34,296,962 for Spider-Man. Not surprisingly, these three measures are strongly related to each other: the average correlation[12] between them is a moderately high 0.41; the extreme right-skew of these measures is likely lowering the correlations. There is also a modest relationship between year of release, length and number of raters: films have gotten slightly longer over time (correlation [r]=0.25), while more recent films have more raters (mean r=0.22).

Here are the distributions of these variables:

IMDB raters

Critics

RT Users

The remaining seven variables were generally normally distributed (means≈medians. Thus, films averaged 103 minutes in length (one hour, 43 minutes), with approximately two-thirds of films (66%) between 88 and 113 minutes long; eight films were more than 2½ hours long, topped by JFK (three hours, nine minutes), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (three hours, 25 minutes) and The Ten Commandments (three hours, 40 minutes). Not surprisingly, the 33 films between 61 (Dick Tracy, Detective) and 79 minutes long had a mean year of release of 1943.5[13].

There was reassuring consensus between the ratings, as the means of IMDB score (7.1), critic rating (6.9), RT user rating (3.5 out of 5 = 7.0 out of 10), and Maltin stars (2.8 out of 4 = 7.1 out of 10) all converge around a “good, but not great” 7 out of 10. Moreover, values tended to cluster relatively around the means (i.e., SD<<mean). Thus, 90% of IMDB scores were between 6.1 and 8.3, 80% of critic ratings were between 5.5 and 8.8, 93% of RT user ratings were between 5.8 and 8.4 (adjusted for a 0-10 scale), and 73% of films were assigned between 2½ and 3½ stars by Maltin (6.2-8.8 on a 1-10 scale). Fifty films I have seen more than once were assigned four stars by Maltin, whereas he rated only four of them “BOMB”[14]. The average correlation between the six pairs of ratings is a 0.75, meaning there is broad agreement between IMDB users, critics, RT users and Maltin (though mean correlation jumps to 0.85 without Maltin’s scores).

IMDB scores

Tomatometer

Critic rating

Audience Score

RT User rating

Maltin Stars

The story is similar for the Tomatometer and Audience Scores, although the former is skewed by 50 films with a Tomatometer of 100 (Audience Scores top out at 96[15]); both measures have higher medians than means. On average, 77.1% of critics, but just 71.9% of RT users, rate a given film as “fresh.” Fully two-thirds (67%) of Tomatometers are 75 or higher, while a similar percentage of Audience Scores (65%) are between 67 and 94. The correlation between the two measures is 0.72.

Across all six ratings measures (15 pairs of measures), finally, the average correlation is 0.76; without Maltin’s ratings, the average jumps to 0.83 (mean r w/Maltin=0.64).

In general, however, the vast majority of these 557 films fall in a fairly narrow range between “not bad” and “fairly good.” Bear in mind, however, that this is the universe of films I have chosen to see again; this could easily skew all of the ratings values up slightly.

**********

To separate the films into “quality” categories, I used a technique called factor analysis[16].

Factor analysis groups variables into underlying “dimensions” (or “factors”). We have already seen evidence of two dimensions in these 11 measures: six (IMDB score, Tomatometer, critic rating, Audience Score, RT user rating, Maltin stars) are all fairly highly correlated with each other—and thus with a single dimension we could call “perceived quality,” while the three “numbers of raters” measures (plus year of release and length) are modestly correlated with each other—and thus with a single dimension we could call “public awareness.”

And that is precisely what the factor analysis revealed[17]. Two factors alone accounted for 95% of the total variance in these data, which is remarkably high.

The first factor (71%) was dominated by IMDB Score, Tomatometer, critic rating, Audience Score and RT user rating[18] as well as Maltin stars and year of release. This is clearly “perceived quality.” For each film, I determined how many SD above or below the mean (set to 0) its perceived quality (PQ)[19] is.

Here are the 17 films with PQ>1.5:

The Maltese Falcon (1941 version) 1.51
Chinatown 1.52
To Be or Not To Be (1942 version) 1.53
North by Northwest 1.53
It’s a Wonderful Life 1.56
Metropolis 1.58
Kind Hearts and Coronets 1.58
On the Waterfront 1.59
Rear Window 1.61
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1.61
Double Indemnity 1.61
Citizen Kane 1.62
The General 1.65
The Third Man 1.66
Casablanca 1.70
Sunset Boulevard 1.75
M 1.78

Just to reiterate: these are not the best films ever made, nor are these my favorite films (to be honest, I don’t love Sunset Boulevard, and I burned out on It’s a Wonderful Life). They are simply the most highly-rated films I have seen multiple times; Nonetheless, this is a very impressive list of films, of which The Maltese Falcon is easily my favorite, followed by Rear Window.

In fact, on average, these films have an IMDB score of 8.3, a Tomatometer of 98.2 (all≥93; six=100), a critic rating of 9.1, an Audience Score of 93.1 and an RT user rating of 8.4 (on a 0-10 scale); three have 3½ Maltin stars[20], with the rest having four. These could all be considered “Classic” films, including three silent masterpieces (Metropolis, Caligari, The General), given their average release year of 1944; only Chinatown was released after 1970 (1974). The average length of these films was slightly higher than average (108 minutes).

At the other end of the spectrum—and now we are getting to the heart of the matter—are the 22 films with PQ<-2.0:

Who’s Harry Crumb? -2.06
Cookie -2.06
Doctor Detroit `2.07
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen -2.10
Once Upon a Crime… -2.17
Sunset -2.19
Dog Park -2.24
Mannequin -2.24
Young Doctors in Love -2.26
City Heat -2.28
The Phantom -2.32
The Marrying Man -2.33
Thank God, It’s Friday -2.35
The Meteor Man -2.42
Mixed Nuts -2.55
The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag -2.59
Wholly Moses! -2.61
Random Hearts -2.63
Wild Wild West -2.69
Hexed -2.74
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle -2.87
The Opposite Sex and How to Live With Them -3.06

Poor Arye Gross, who starred in two 1993 films—Hexed, The Opposite Sex…—that are two of the three worst-rated of the 515 films with complete data (I suspect The Spirit, from 2008, would also be in this low-rent neighborhood). On average, these films have an IMDB score of 5.3, a Tomatometer of 21.3 (Once Upon a Crime… has the only Tomatometer of 0 in the group), a critic rating of 3.9, an Audience Score of 35.3 and an RT user rating of 5.0 (on a 0-10 scale); the average Maltin stars is 1.6, ranging from BOMB (n=3) to three (Cookie). These are relatively recent films, with an average release year of 1991; only Thank God, It’s Friday was released before 1980 (1978). Perhaps mercifully, these films averaged 98 minutes in length.

The three films closest to the mean of 0 are Murder by Decree, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask and Heaven Can Wait, with PQ of -0.004, -0.004 and 0.004, respectively. All were released in the 1970s, with average scores similar to the overall averages.

As for The Cotton Club and Times Square, they had PQ of -0.68 and -0.85, respectively—definitely in the bottom 25% of films I have seen multiple times.

The second factor (24%), meanwhile, was dominated by critics (factor loading=0.78), IMDB users (0.73), year of release (0.54), length (0.39) and RT users (0.33). This is clearly “public awareness.” For each film, I determined how many SD above or below the mean (set to 0) its public awareness (PA) was. Topping the list, with a whopping 7.1, is The Dark Knight, followed by Batman Begins (4.9) and Spider-Man (4.4)—three blockbuster superhero films from the 2000s. At the other end of the spectrum are four films released between 1935 and 1943: Mad Love (-1.30), Journey Into Fear (-1.30), Room Service (-1.29) and the film I consider the first film noir of the classic era: Stranger on the Third Floor (-1.28).

From the perspective of guilty pleasures, however, this particular dimension is far less interesting than the first one.

Before determining what films are my “guiltiest pleasures,” here are mean PQ values by category:

Category # Films PQ
Other Pre-1960 36 1.11
Alfred Hitchcock 18 0.99
Marx Brothers 9 0.65
Film Noir 80 0.60
Woody Allen 25 0.28
General 347 -0.34

Given that 11 of the 17 top-rated films are in the Other Pre-1960 category, it is not surprising that these 36 (of 39 overall) films have the highest average PQ, followed by my favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock.

As noted above, I do not necessarily love—or even much like—every one of these 557 films; some I saw multiple times when I was young (e.g., The Apple Dumpling Gang, Hot Lead and Cold Feet) but barely remember now. And there are films I quite like that are NOT on this list simply because I have yet to see them a second time (e.g., The Shawshank Redemption, Zodiac, Shutter Island, Watchmen). But those latter films are generally well-rated (e.g., mean IMDB score=8.2), so they are hardly “guilty pleasures.”

And…finally…to discover which of these multiple-viewed films are my “guiltiest pleasures,” here are the films with PQ<-1.00 I would give a 5 (or maybe 4.5, out of 5) on the “how much I like it” scale.

  1. Thank God, It’s Friday
  2. Doctor Detroit
  3. The Shadow
  4. Radioland Murders
  5. Legal Eagles
  6. Tapeheads
  7. Mystery Men
  8. Empire Records
  9. The Secret of My Success
  10. Johnny Dangerously
  11. So I Married an Axe Murderer

Each of these films are in the General category and were released during my prime movie-attendance years (1978-99), with a mean release year of 1989; I did not actually first view Thank God, It’s Friday and Empire Records until the last five or so years. They average 101 minutes in length, only slightly shorter than average. Their mean IMDB, critic and RT user ratings (on a 0-10 scale) are 6.0, 4.9 and 6.0, respectively, suggesting they are relatively more popular with the broader movie-watching public than with critics; this is echoed by having an average of only 1.8 stars from Maltin (median=2). By the same token, the average Audience Score for these 11 films (51) is higher than their average Tomatometer (43). Finally, they are far less well-known (or, at least, have fewer viewers willing to rate them online, even anonymously), averaging 19,604 IMDB raters (median=12,292), 28 critics (median=17; Mystery Men had 103) and 55,464 RT users (median=9,198).

As I hypothesized, while these films are certainly of less perceived quality compared to the other 546 films I have seen multiple times, objectively they tend to fall in the middle of the “quality” spectrum, or even a hair above it–neither truly excellent nor truly awful.

They are mostly just…meh, according to the larger universe of film critics and casual fans, with the latter being just a bit more accepting of these films than the former.

And all I will say in defense of these films is that there is a fascinating temporal intersection in Thank God, It’s Friday when the late Donna Summer (near the height of her career), a pre-fame Debra Winger and a pre-Berlin Terri Nunn are all looking into the same bathroom mirror.

Finally, to come full circle: The Cotton Club and Times Square rank as “only” my 13th and 16th guiltiest film pleasures, respectively, using this very subjective (and subject to change) method. Still, that puts them in…good?…company.

Until next time…

[1] I expect to revisit this film in more detail in a later post, but for now I will simply say the film revolves around the legendary Harlem night club—owned by powerful bootlegger and fixer “Owney” Madden—between 1928 and 1931, when “Duke” Ellington, then Cab Calloway, directed the house band. A key subplot revolves around Arthur Flegenheimer (aka Dutch Schultz) and his violent takeover of the Harlem numbers rackets.

[2] The film follows two sets of brothers in conflict with each other—one white, one black—with one of the white brothers being close friends with one of the black brothers, while each of those two friends has a love affair blocked by external forces. The parallels are fascinating and complex—but they are only part of the overall storyline.

[3] Maltin, Leonard ed. 2008. Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide: 2008 Edition. New York, NY: New American Library.

[4] Despite my ambivalence about Allen as a human being, I still love many of his films.

[5] Only Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum has a complete set of RottenTomatoes values.

[6] For nine older films, I used the rating in the 2003 edition, as Maltin stopped including many older films in later editions.

[7] As well as date of release, which I do not analyze here.

[8] Recognizing that these primarily measure a film’s overall “visibility.”

[9] I could easily have added “starring John Cusack,” “Jerry Lewis,” “David Mamet,” “Star Trek,” “The Pink Panther,” “Batman,” “Coen Brothers.”

[10] Including What’s New Pussycat.

[11] StataCorp. 2005. Stata Statistical Software: Release 9. College Station, TX: StataCorp LP.

[12] A measure of linear association between two variables ranging from -1.00 (every time one increases, the other decreases) to 1.00 (every time on increases, the other decreases).

[13] That said, Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent masterpiece Metropolis is a full 153 minutes long.

[14] Besides Times Square, they are Mannequin, The Opposite Sex and How to Live With Them and Thank God It’s Friday.

[15] Pulp Fiction, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, The Usual Suspects

[16] I experimented with cluster analysis, which groups cases instead of variables, but found little of interest.

[17] Principal factors, with an orthogonal varimax rotation, forced to two factors.

[18] Each had a “factor loading” (essentially, correlation with the “underlying dimension”) ≥0.87. The factor loadings for Maltin stars and year of release were 0.72 and -0.52, respectively.

[19] Using the “Predict” command in Stata. In essence, it converts each variable to a “z-score” (mean=0, SD=1), recalculates the factor loadings, then sums each value weighted by the factor loadings.

[20] To Be or Not to Be, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.