Columns > Published on January 11th, 2016

5 Troublesome Birthday Parties in Literature and Film

They say it’s my birthday. I’m not gonna have a good time. Screw the Beatles — especially that eternally, irritatingly cheerful McCartney person — and their little song, too. Lennon called it ”a piece of garbage.” He was right. “Birthday” is just too fucking happy.

Today is, in fact, my birthday, today referring to January 11th, the day this piece went up on LitReactor. I’m not going to tell you how old I am. The information is easily found on the internet, so I see no reason to mention it here. Let’s just say that I’m one step closer to the grave and leave it at that.

My father died on my birthday, so there’s that. He was 90 and checked out on the day I turned 45. It was one of those cosmic jokes that just cracks up the cosmos but leaves me unamused.

With the day impending, I got to thinking about birthdays in literature and films. None of them were without trouble.

'The Moonstone' by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins has the distinction of having written the first English-language detective novel: The Moonstone. It’s a terrific (if lengthy) read, what with its oddball multiple narrators, wacky secondary characters, and not least, the mysterious gem that gives the novel its title. The Moonstone is a fabulously enormous yellow diamond that throws off an eerie glow at night, as though it was emanating moonglow. The diamond is Rachel Verinder’s birthday present on the day she turns eighteen. There are two problems. Close inspection of the jewel reveals a flaw in its center. Oh, and it’s also cursed. Happy birthday, Rachel!

The Moonstone once resided in a statue of Chandra, the (as the novel has it) “Hindoo” god of the moon. Pried out of the god’s forehead by a most culturally insensitive Brit during the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799, it came into the possession of a scoundrel named Herncastle, who – malevolently, it would seem – willed it to his niece, Rachel. He may as well have given her the plague.

Nothing good comes of the gift. Three Indian jugglers appear out of nowhere on the day of the birthday party and immediately cast a pall over the event. (Jugglers aren’t as creepy as mimes, but they’re equally annoying, especially to their colonial wardens.) On the very night Rachel acquires the diamond and shows it off as a pendant, somebody swipes it. One of the servants of Rachel’s mother, Lady Verinder, drowns herself in quicksand. The dead servant’s only friend, “Limping Lucy,” goes mad. Rachel agrees to marry her thoroughly unpleasant cousin Godfrey. Chandra is clearly not pleased to have a gaping hole in his forehead.

The solution to the crime arrives through the use of opium, a subject with which Wilkie Collins was quite familiar; he was addicted to laudanum, an opiate painkiller. I’ll say no more about the story – it’s a detective novel after all, and nobody wants to read a whodunit knowing who done it before even picking up the book.

Instead, I’ll cite two recommendations. Dorothy L. Sayers, author of the Lord Peter Whimsy series, thought that The Moonstone was "probably the very finest detective story ever written.” And T. S. Eliot, unable to resist taking a potshot at American literature, opined that it was “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe.” Take that, Edgar.

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'Stella Dallas' by Olive Higgins Prouty

This 1923 novel by Olive Higgins Prouty – who also wrote the equally cinematic Now, Voyager – was adapted three times for the silver screen. The second film, made in 1937 and starring Barbara Stanwyck, greatly expands upon the novel’s party. Here’s the set-up: Stella, whose gaudy clothes and low class behavior makes her a pariah among the censorious American bourgeoisie, plans a party for her daughter, Laurel, whom she adores. All the girls are throwing parties, Stella knows, so why shouldn’t Laurel have one, too? Characteristically, she overdoes it. Prouty writes: “Stella intended that Laurel’s party should surpass them all. There was going to be a tailless donkey, and a peanut-hunt, and a cobweb contest, and a Jack Horner pie, and creamed chicken, and ice-cream, and paper cups.” Creamed chicken and a Jack Horner pie and paper cups! What a shindig!

Prouty goes on to describe the exhilarating anticipation of waiting for the RSVPs over the weekend and the bright gleam in Laurel’s eyes when she leaves for school on Monday morning, a sparkle that made them look brilliantly black, “like pools of meadow brooks in mid-morning sunshine.” When Laurel returns for lunch, the shine is gone, “like the pools when the sun is hidden by clouds. Instead of the blackness and the sparkle there was a grave, wondering, bewildered look in them. ‘Nobody can come to my party, mother,’ she announced briefly."

Why? Because her mother is totally, tragically tacky.

The Stanwyck film pushes the humiliation much, much further. Written by two long-forgotten screenwriters, Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, and directed by King Vidor, the movie turns Prouty’s generic party into Laurel’s birthday bash, which ups the emotional ante dramatically. Stella decorates the apartment into a little girl’s extravagant dream – white ribbons and bows everywhere, perfect little table settings, and a huge, showy birthday cake. She hasn’t bothered with RSVPs, so they just sit there, Stella and Laurel, waiting for the other girls to arrive. Waiting. And waiting.

Nobody shows up. Even Laurel’s schoolmates think her mother is a tramp. Her birthday turns out to be a nightmare – as nearly everyone's birthday eventually does.

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'All About Eve' written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz

“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” This is one of the greatest lines of dialogue ever written. Joseph Mankiewicz wrote it for a film he went on to direct, All About Eve. 1950 was a banner year for terrific women’s dialogue; “Fasten your seatbelts” is right up there with “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small” and “All right, Mr. DeMille – I’m ready for my close-up,” both delivered by Gloria Swanson playing Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd.

The “seatbelts” line is both a promise and a threat delivered to an onscreen audience all too familiar with the speaker’s propensity for real-life theatrics. She’s a famous actress who knows how to keep herself at the center of attention, even (or especially) when she’s plastered.

People tend to forget two things about this magnificent line. First, it was written with Claudette Colbert in mind to say it, not Bette Davis. Davis inhabits the character, Margo Channing, so thoroughly that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Davis’ good fortune came at Colbert’s expense; Margo was to be Claudette’s starring role, but – lucky Bette – she injured her back just before the film was scheduled to start shooting, and Davis took it over.

What we also tend to forget is that the line is uttered at a birthday party. It’s for Bill (Gary Merrill, who went on to become the fourth and final Mr. Davis), Margo’s lover. Margo is perfectly willing to turn Bill’s birthday celebration into a calamity if necessary, as long as the key light remains on her face and no one else’s. “We know you,” Mrs. Lloyd Richards tells Margo; “We’ve seen this before. Is it over, or is it just beginning?” Margo doesn’t bother to dignify the question with a response and instead chugs down her entire martini, walks to the stairs, turns, and issues her promise/threat: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” And it certainly turns out to be so. Genius.

I can’t resist leaving All About Eve without mentioning that it was one of Marilyn Monroe’s early appearances onscreen. She plays Miss Claudia Caswell, the acerbic theater critic Addison DeWitt’s beard at the party. Talk about great writing….

A butler speeds past her.

Claudia Caswell: Oh, waiter!

Addison DeWitt: That is not a waiter, my dear. That is a butler.

Claudia: Well, I can't yell "Oh butler!" can I? Maybe somebody's name is Butler.

DeWitt: You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point.

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'The Birthday Party' by Harold Pinter

Pinter certainly knows how to stage a memorable birthday party. One of the first things he does is have the birthday boy deny that it is in fact his birthday. Meg tells Stanley that it’s his birthday. “This isn’t my birthday,” Stanley replies. Naturally she refuses to believe him.

Two disturbing strangers arrive at the boardinghouse that serves as the play’s setting. They ask for a room. “It’s not a boarding house,” says Stanley. Stanley is quite the contrarian.

Identities shift in The Birthday Party. Meaning turns into meaninglessness. Are the characters lying? Or do they really believe what they say when they say it? No wonder the play induced what one critic called “bewildered hysteria” in the audience. Its run in London’s West End was a mere eight performances.  

The party occurs in the second act. Stanley livens things up by attempting to strangle Meg. Meg, of course, has no memory of it the next day. The two nefarious strangers end up carting Stanley away. To where? No one knows.

What fun.

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'The Fellowship of the Ring' by J.R.R. Tolkien

In the unlikely event that there are any J.R.R. Tolkien fans left after Peter Jackson’s drastic overkill of a six-part hobbit-based film juggernaut bombarded audiences from 2001 to 2003 and again from 2012 to 2014, it might be nice to recall that the Lord of the Rings trilogy – the Tolkien, not the Jackson – begins with a birthday party. Bilbo Baggins, star of The Hobbit, launches what soon becomes his nephew Frodo’s epic quest by setting up a surprise ending to his long-planned eleventy-first birthday celebration. It’s a joint festivity, actually, for on that very day Frodo turns thirty-three.

Bilbo’s nearly fanatical desire to cause a scene leads him even so far as to invite the hideous Sackville-Bagginses – covetous Otho and his wretched wife, Lobelia.

But even the atrocious Sackville-Bagginses can’t ruin Bilbo’s good time. The party is superb. As it nears its end, Bilbo commands the guests’ attention. Tolkien writes, “My dear people, began Bilbo, rising in his place. ‘Hear! Hear! Hear!’ they shouted, and kept on repeating it in chorus, seeming reluctant to follow their own advice.” Not to be deterred, Bilbo ascends a chair and continues his speech. “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve. This was unexpected and rather difficult. There was some scattered clapping, but most of them were trying to work it out and see if it came to a compliment.”

Bilbo continues his half-charming, half-damning speech until its shocking conclusion: “…this is the END. I am going. I am leaving NOW. GOOD-BYE. He stepped down and vanished.”

Readers of The Hobbit know that wearing the One Ring makes one invisible and that the ring is even more addictive than laudanum. Before long, Bilbo is calling it “my precious,” and no good can possibly come from that.

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I’ll conclude this tribute to birthdays in literature and film with a rhyme from the parody classic Bored of the Rings, with its epic hero Frito Bugger (Dildo's nephew) joined by the dwarf Gimlet, son of Groin; the elf Legolam; the warrior Arrowroot, and the young whippersnappers, Moxie and Pepsi Dingleberry:

“U canleada horsta wata, bwana,
Butyu canna makit drinque!…
O mithra, mithra, I fain wud lie doon!
Valdaree valdera, que sera, sirrah,
Honi soit la vache qui rit.”

Happy birthday, me.

About the author

Ed Sikov is the author of 7 books about films and filmmakers, including On Sunset Boulevard:; The Life and Times of Billy Wilder; Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers; and Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.

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