Imagination, Ingenuity & Initiative Pay Off! (Diet for Dreamers)

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Sometimes having a big budget really pays off. Other times….

Kong was king at the box office.

RKO Pictures once enjoyed status as one the major Hollywood studios. A few of us may remember the studio chiefly for the legendary 1933 film King Kong, a special effects extravaganza that astounded moviegoers in its day. RKO also was famous for its madcap romantic comedies, and had produced a string of popular and profitable movies starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. At some point, however, the studio went into a financial nosedive: a handful of artistic giants had made their way into the control tower at RKO.

Bigger became a production byword at RKO, and in 1941, after giving free reign to director Orson Welles, the studio released its biggest picture yet, Citizen Kane; and although the movie was a critical success — today it’s considered one of the greatest movies ever made — it lost mega-money at the box-office. (Quick, someone say “Rosebud!”) A few months later RKO followed up with another commercial failure directed by Welles, The Magnificent Ambersons. Like Citizen Kane, the picture was critically acclaimed but came in way over budget. RKO quickly aborted Welles’ third film, but the damage had already been done. RKO had lost close to $2 Million.

Orson Welles as the titular tycoon in Citizen Kane.

RKO needed to get out of debt, fast!  But to do so they needed to make some profitable movies — on shoestring budgets. Tarzan would help save the day. Johnny Weissmuller swung into the role and starred in six crowd-pleasing movies for RKO that made use of stock footage of African wildlife. George Sanders and his brother Tom Conway also did their parts, in numerous entries in the inexpensive but highly entertaining mystery franchises The Saint and The Falcon.

The real savior of RKO, however, was Val Lewton. This little-known filmmaker had worked on the classics A Tale of Two Cities and Gone with the Wind. When Lewton arrived at RKO he found he had his work cut out for him. At a time when the other major studios were producing movies with budgets of over $500,000 each, RKO asked Lewton to make them a movie for less than $150,000.

RKO: “If you go over budget we’ll wring your little neck!”

On top of that, RKO wanted a horror picture, because Universal Studios was having so much success with their slew of Frankenstein and Mummy movies. Then, just to add insult to injury they saddled Lewton with a title for the picture, “Cat People”! Lewton probably shook his head in disbelief and asked “Seriously?” But instead of walking he started working: he assembled a team of writers and directors that included Robert Wise, who’d go on to later fame and fortune directing The Sound of Music and Westside Story.

In 1942, the horror picture Cat People, directed by first-timer Jacques Tourneur, premiered. Val Lewton had produced the movie with the improbable title, but had worked from an original screenplay based on his own 1930 short story “The Bagheeta.” The film was moody and atmospheric, but there were no monsters and nothing at all grisly took place in front of the camera. Lewton had seen an opportunity and had taken the initiative; but instead of making a run-of-the-mill horror movie, he had created a psychological study that relied more on imagination than special effects, and on ingenuity to overcome obstacles.

Cat People is creeeeepy!

RKO probably looked at the movie and wondered what had they gotten themselves into now. But Cat People, costing a mere $141,659, brought in almost $4 million in its first two years. And Val Lewton? He had saved the studio from financial disaster. RKO quickly rewarded their savior, by asking Lewton to continue to make really inexpensive horror movies with really stupid titles. And definitely the worst title RKO stuck Lewton with: I Walked with a Zombie!  Lewton didn’t let it ruin his day. He made another incredibly intelligent and memorable film. And before he left the studio, Lewton had made eight of the coolest, most highly regarded movies in RKO’s history.

Imagination will always trump budget; and initiative and ingenuity will win the day. So no matter what you’re facing, keep your chin up. And seize your opportunities. Above all, “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin….” (Zechariah 4:10 NLT)

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Wrongly Rejected (Encouragement for Creators)

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Jonathan Swift once wrote, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” (from Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting) Swift’s pithy but pessimistic saying inspired the title of John Kennedy Toole’s comedic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, published in 1980 — 11 years after the author committed suicide. No doubt Swift’s words also described Toole’s general outlook on life.

John Kennedy Toole

Toole’s novel featured the misadventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, a well educated but lazy 30-year-old man living with his mother in an uptown New Orleans neighborhood in the early-1960s. Walker Percy, in his introduction to the book, describes Ignatius as “a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” Ignatius is a dreamer who doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the world; a man born at least a century too late, and who feels that fate is against him.

Toole had a lot in common with his literary character. Toole (December 17, 1937-March 26, 1969) was something of a scholar who lived in New Orleans with his mother well into his adulthood. And apparently he shared with his literary creation the same paranoia, the same fatalistic worldview. Toole spiraled into a deep depression following years of rejection slips. His first novel The Neon Bible was repeatedly rejected, and the writer finally shelved the book. His next and only other novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, fared no better. At the promising age of 31, Toole took his own life.

Toole’s mother never found the original manuscript for Confederacy, but one day she came across a smeared carbon copy of the novel. She wanted to see her son’s book published, so she, too, tried to interest a publisher — any publisher — but to no avail. However, like the persistent widow of the Bible verse Luke 18:5, Thelma Toole refused to give up. She contacted Walker Percy, an author and college instructor at nearby Loyola University New Orleans, and asked him to read her son’s manuscript. He politely refused. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She continued to pester the instructor, now demanding he read it.

Percy writes in his introduction: “…The lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript. There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. …My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading. In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.”

Percy recommended Toole’s book to an editor at Louisiana State University Press, and A Confederacy of Dunces was finally published in 1980, with a print run of a mere 2,500 copies. The novel was an immediate critical and popular success, was quickly reprinted (and is still in print today), and ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981. Was its author right? Was the world filled with dunces too blind to see his genius — and all of them arrayed against him? That’s not important, really.

The lessons we truly need to take from Toole’s story are about persistence and seeking help, both emotional and practical. We’ve mentioned the importance of having a “Barnabas” (a facilitator, or someone to help open doors of opportunity, as in Acts 9:26-31) — as well as the importance of being a barnabas. Imagine how differently things would have turned out if initially someone had just taken the time to read Toole’s manuscript; or had been there to share the author’s sorrows. Toole probably would be alive today, and we’d have several more books by him.

Please take the time to see what people “are about.” Don’t slam the door before you even give them a chance. And if you can, be a Barnabas! On the other hand, if you feel like you’ve reached the end of your rope, whether due to rejections or other problems, please don’t wait to reach out for help — to a doctor or a spiritual leader. The world is NOT against you! People can be callous and uncaring, but few if any actually have an agenda to keep someone from succeeding. Above all, if you have a pessimistic, paranoid, even fatalistic outlook on life, put your focus on God. He is 100% FOR YOU.

“What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31 NIV)

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