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Film: The Case of the Mailbox Flag

By Henry P. Raleigh
ART TIMES Spring 2013

Milbox drawing by Henry P. Raleigh

I know you’ll wonder why I should take issue with such a seemingly trivial matter.  And I probably wouldn’t have had I not seen again, this time on cable, the 2002 film “Big Bad Love.”  Here was the second offense, the first having occurred in “A Christmas Story”, a film that appeared in 1983 and has come up every December since.  I didn’t really notice the problem in 1983; by the re-run in the following year there was no mistaking a serious flaw I could not easily overlook.  The young actor, Peter Billingsley, violated the fundamental rule of mailbox signaling: the flag is in the upright position when mail is to be picked up by the mail carrier, down at all other times. It’s the mailbox owner, you see, who raises the flag indicating to the carrier that he (or she, of course, although I’ve yet to see women so employed — I’m sure they could if they cared to) will find therein mail to be posted.  In sum, the mail carrier (of whatever gender) knows the upright flag means there is mail to be retrieved, replaced by the current delivery, if any. Opening and closing the box’s cover is included in the carrier’s duty.  When the entire service has been completed the carrier pushes the flag down and is on his (or her) way —job well done, too.

This is the way it's done and has been since I was a boy in every residence I’ve ever occupied that relied on a mailbox perched upon a stand.  It’s a tradition, I imagine, begun by the pony express riders employing red bandanas or the like.  You can imagine then my disturbance at seeing Mr. Billingsley removing his mail and pushing the flag up — to say nothing of the mailman’s distress when next making his rounds (the film is a period piece, the mail carrier would surely be a man).  Add to this that I had witnessed this mailbox fiasco every December for twenty-four years.  Yet I have to put this aside, painful as it had become, in consideration of the film’s authenticity in all other respects right down to the meat loaf and mashed potatoes, red cabbage stew, knickers, and Orphan Annie de-coder rings although my appreciation was rather dampened by the mailbox blunder.

It was the second viewing of “Big Bad Love” that finally did it for me. I could no longer restrain myself for at one of the opening scenes is shown a mailman (it’s a man without question) attempting to stuff a delivery of manuscripts into a rusty mailbox whose flag is clearing sticking straight up.  I won’t go as far as to demand that this be brought to national attention yet it cannot be denied that here is depicted a Federal Employee, mind you, committing what can only be called a misdemeanor.  I don’t know who is responsible for these errors.  Were they done out of carelessness, indifference?  Do we blame the writers, the director, the actors?  Don’t such things shake our faith in the integrity of the film?  Something should be done to see this does not happen again, I can tell you.

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