Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A motherlode of Roald Dahl trivia

If nothing else, you’ll come away from this post with a lot of great Roald Dahl trivia.

He’s the English wit behind “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Gremlins,” “James and the Giant Peach,” and so many more.

I’ve known that for years. The “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” book made an indelible impression on me as a child, and I loved the Wonka movie, as do my daughters. We prefer the 1971 Gene Wilder version, but it’s my understanding Dahl hated it and his family sanctions the one where Johhny Depp spends nearly two hours acting like he’s Michael Jackson only with less alabaster skin.

But in the last year or so Dahl’s stature in my eyes has soared. It started a while back when I was watching one of my favorite children’s movies with my 6 year old.

It was “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” the great 1968 movie with some of the best tunes in movie history. I just love it. Always have. The songs, “Toot Sweets,” “Me Ol’ Bamboo,” “Truly Scrumptious,” “The Roses of Success,” and so many others are perfectly catchy.

I also love it because mentioning it always enables me the smug opportunity to spring some surprising trivia on anyone within earshot. In fact, the author of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” is none other than Ian Fleming, the genius behind James Bond.

What caught my eye on that particular viewing was the screenplay was done by Dahl.

How about that, I thought. There must be more to this man than I imagined.

Boy, was that an understatement. I was in the library a few weeks ago and spied -- spied being the operative word -- the 2008 Jennet Conant book, “The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington.”

Dahl was war hero -- and a spy!

And, it seems, a bit of a roguish jerk.

He served the Royal Air Force in World War II with distinction until combat-related injuries grounded him in 1942 when he was assigned to Washington to help persuade America to shed its isolationist tendencies and join the war against Germany.

So when I say “spy,” it was nothing like the cutthroat spying done in Fleming’s Bond stories. But the 6-foot-6 Dahl did get laid an awful lot and I always enjoy reading about that under the guise of historical research.

“He’s a killer with women,” said actress Patricia Neal, Dahl’s wife from 1953 through 1983 and the woman who played Ma Walton in “The Homecoming,” the still-charming 1971 Christmas pilot for “The Waltons.”

The pair had five children in a marriage marred by tragedy.

In 1960, a New York taxi struck the baby carriage carrying their 4-month-old son, Theo. The infant suffered brain trauma and Dahl devoted himself to caring for the bed-ridden child. His inventiveness led him and two others (neurosurgeon Kenneth Till and hydraulic pump expert Stanley Wade) to develop the DWT (Dahl-Till-Wade) valve, a device still used to alleviate suffering.

The men never accepted a dime for the invention.

In 1965, he was again working with Fleming -- the pair served in the same capacity during the war -- and penned the screenplay for one of my favorite Bond movies, “You Only Life Twice.”

He and Neal endured a tawdry1983 tabloid divorce -- he took to shacking up with a cuddly mistress -- so bitter the author excised Neal’s name from posthumously published family trees making it appear she never existed, when anyone who remembers her in the jaunty Maxim Coffee commercials knows she certainly did.

So much fascinating stuff. But there was more!

I learned Conant, the book’s author, is the wife of “60 Minutes” correspondent Steve Kroft!

I thought, man, thank God I have a blog or all this Dahl house trivia would probably go to waste.

That’s me. Devoting my every waking moment to trivial pursuits so you can go about your business engaged in productive matters.

And I promise I’ll let know the instant I find out why this complex, brilliant man went his entire life and died in 1990 without ever once bothering to correct the obvious typo in his first name.

Related trivia . . .


Bryan Perrin said...

It freaks Me out how much you write about stuff that hits home with Me.
Check out Wes Andersons' stop motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox.
profoundly insightful!
keep on the trail

Chris Rodell said...

I'm always so happy to hear you're reading. Really, I imagine the stuff I write when it's good is just like so many of our conversations. Only more sober.

Joe Potts said...

Nice piece about a talented guy. Ironically, for many years I only knew Roald Dahl as the rather creepy host of "Way Out," an early 60's fantasy show, and the author of Alfred Hitchcock genre stories. I was shocked to later find out he wrote children's stories. A versatile writer!

Chris Rodell said...

Thanks, Joe. The book I mentioned deals mostly with his war years but, wow, so much that fascinates. I had no idea he'd hosted a show and contributed to Hitch. You'd probably enjoy the book for at least a good skim.

I've checked out the Joe Zone. Keep up the good work!