My favorite quote is about a cuckoo clock. Only, it’s not so much about a clock. It’s more about history and climate and culture. And art. And tyrants. This quote pits oppressive virtuosity against contented mediocrity. Stolen from a combative American painter, these lines were re-crafted by an innovative actor, director, and writer with the sole purpose of filling an extra seventeen seconds of screen time. Given all that complexity, it’s fascinating Orson Welles’ unscripted, romanticized dialog in the 1949 British film, The Third Man, has become known simply as the “Cuckoo Clock Speech.”
“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Breaking it down to specifics, this speech has more holes than Swiss Cheese, and has been ripped apart by historians, artists, intellectuals, and general know-it-alls, with the most argued points being:
- The House of Borgia was prominent during the Renaissance, not preceding it
- The Borgias reigned concurrent to the careers of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, not before. The Borgias were actually patrons of Michelangelo, while Leonardo was patronized by their arch-enemies, the Medici
- While the Borgias flourished in Italy, Switzerland had “the most powerful and feared military force in Europe” and was not the peacefully neutral country it would later become, in the mid-eighteen hundreds
- The Cuckoo Clock was invented in the Black of Forest of Bavaria (Germany) sometime in the seventeenth century, not in Switzerland
- Not much came out of Switzerland during the Renaissance Era because the country was isolated and poor, with thin mountain soil and a bad climate
Despite all those pesky, nitpicky facts, I find the overall theme of Welles’ speech to be spot on. I believe after times of destitution, turmoil, atrocity, and warfare, there is a rebirth, or even explosion, of art. And its mood—pessimistic, optimistic, or, God-forbid, neutral—is irrelevant, especially if said art is in the form of say…a Cuckoo Clock. Or, if you happen to be a mid-century modern nut and prefer your clocks to burst from the center without the aid of a startling, wooden birdie.
In the mid-1960s, my dad guarded the Berlin wall while stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army. A time of peace in the United States, I can only imagine the ongoing turmoil in East Berlin as people continued the difficult and blockaded process of recovering from a destructive war and ongoing oppression. Despite the strife he witnessed on the other side of the wall, my father returned to Kansas with a handful of souvenirs from his ancestral homeland: a small collection of Cuckoo Clocks. One he kept for himself and his future family, one he gave to his mother, and, we believe, he passed on a couple to his sisters.
I have the one he gave his mother, which hung on her living room wall for the remaining duration of her life—about forty years. Made in the mid-century and fashioned from wood, metal gears, cast iron pine cone weights, and a carved maple leave pendulum, this clock has, in effect, the exact same function as its stylistically modern cousins: to keep time.
Fifteen years before my dad snagged his German treasures, an archetype, mid-century modern clock design sprung from the minds at Nelson Associates in New York City, a thriving American metropolis never to be confused with Switzerland or the Black Forest. George Nelson’s company designed for the Howard Miller Clock Company beginning in 1947. The story of their first success in George Nelson’s words:
“And there was one night when the ball clock got developed, which was one of the really funny evenings. Noguchi came by, and Bucky Fuller came by. I’d been seeing a lot of Bucky those days, and here was Irving and here was I, and Noguchi, who can’t keep his hands off anything, you know—it is a marvelous, itchy thing he’s got—he saw we were working on clocks and he started making doodles. Then Bucky sort of brushed Isamu aside. He said, ‘This is a good way to do a clock,’ and he made some utterly absurd thing. Everybody was taking a crack at this, pushing each other aside and making scribbles.
At some point we left—we were suddenly all tired, and we’d had a little bit too much to drink—and the next morning I came back, and here was this roll (of drafting paper), and Irving and I looked at it, and somewhere in this roll there was a ball clock. I don’t know to this day who cooked it up. I know it wasn’t me. It might have been Irving, but he didn’t think so…(we) both guessed that Isamu had probably done it because (he) has a genius for doing two stupid things and making something extraordinary…out of the combination…. (or) it could have been an additive thing, but, anyway, we never knew.”
Given Mr. Nelson’s story, it’s up for debate if their initial clock grew out of warfare or brotherly love (using Orson Wells’ terms). Launched in 1948, the Ball Clock picked up the name “Atomic” because it resembled the structure of an atom. Perhaps not a coincidence, its inception corresponded with the infancy the Atomic Era in design.
Evolution pushed the Ball Clock toward arguably the most iconic clock design of the modernism movement, the Sunburst, or Starburst Clock. Much more versatile in interpretation than the Ball Clock, this new design was conceived in 1949 by Nelson Associates for Howard Miller. However, this new concept literally burst into an array of materials, complexities, and compositions by designers and manufactures around the world.
This last Thanksgiving, I picked up my second Starburst Clock. I was naïve enough to ask the check-out clerk at the antique mall if it worked, or if they had a battery we could test it with. He and I both examined how the movement was attached with itty-bitty screws to the back of the clock and gave in to the obvious hassle. I purchased as is, telling myself it could surely be repaired it necessary. The next day, after a bit of research, I realized it was a wind-up clock (so that’s what the funny looking hole on the face of the clock was for…). I didn’t have a winding key, and during my investigation the glass door covering the face came unhinged, so my next stop with the clock was the neighborhood jewelry shop.
When I retrieved the clock a week later, my enthusiasm for mid-century modern design was perhaps a bit over-the-top. The clock guy saw an opportunity and asked me to follow him to the back of the shop. What sat on a dusty shelf in a dark hall by the back door caused me to gasp. After he’d satisfied himself that it kept near accurate time, I bought yet another mid-century clock, this one at a bargain price.
Dugena is a German company that bought clocks and sold them under their own name, much like a department store brand. They re-branded this particular clock which was made by Hermle, a Black Forest clock maker that rose from the ashes in Germany in 1922, shortly after WWI. Surviving the depression and the devastations of WWII, Hermle went on to thrive in the mid-century and is still going strong today, manufacturing a wide variety of clocks, movements, pendulums and dials. Not unlike a twentieth-century Michelangelo, raising from “warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed.”
George Nelson, a student of architecture and an accomplished designer and writer, lent himself to a modern-day Leonardo de Vinci. Howard Miller, who put his stamp of approval on every clock Nelson’s team designed, was trained in the art and science of clock making by his father, Herman Miller, in the German Black Forest. While crafting his profound dialog, was Wells actually considering his contemporaries—modern day artists and patrons whose legacies carried on into our current century?
Historians may be satisfied with the Cuckoo Clock speech “holes” listed above, but artists, aficionados, and mid-century modern enthusiasts should demand an addendum. Although “every day” and functionally necessary in our modern world, a clock can’t be mocked for lacking significant artistic value. Considering that some of Nelson’s original clocks sold under the Miller brand are currently listed on online auction sites for thousands of dollars, it’s fair to say these objects are sought-out treasures.
Designed in America after many years of depression and warfare, and approved and marketed by a Black Forest trained patron, the modern Ball and Starburst Clocks united post oppression artistry with the true home of the Cuckoo Clock. That’s a well-crafted, lucrative twist of “brotherly love” even the Swiss would envy.
Reddit: Ask Historians. Web. 23 Jan 2018.
“House of Borgia”. Wikipedia. N.p.,n.d. Web. 23 Jan 2018.
“George Nelson (1908-1986), USA Biography and More”. N.p.,n.d. Web. 23 Jan 2018.
Joiner, Ronald. “Dugena Mantel Clock Revisited”. Antique and Vintage Clock Collecting and Repair. Web. 23 Jan 2018.
Oliver, Richard. “Franz Hermele Clock Company History”. Antique Clocks Guy. Web. 23 Jan 2018.