29 December 2009

The Christmas Haul

It's been a rather unproductive December around these parts, I know. First and foremost, I hope your end-of-the-year holiday was happy (or merry, or joyous, or whatever modifier you prefer). Secondly, I'm off from work this week (as I was most of last week). Sitting around with little to do is kind of like reliving where I was last year, only with money. Speaking of which, I got a DVD player for Christmas, and proceeded to spend said money establishing the beginnings of a classic film DVD collection (after spending three days snowed-in at my parents' house, that is).

The first artifact to catch my eye at the local Barnes & Noble franchise was TCM's Buster Keaton Collection. It won't come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows me that I grabbed this set as much for Keaton's leading ladies as for the Great Stone Face himself -- the collection features Spite Marriage (1929), co-starring Dorothy Sebastian, and Free and Easy (1930), co-starring Anita Page. Well worth the price of admission, I'd say. Also included is The Cameraman (1928), Buster's first picture under contract at MGM.

Next up was the three-disc deluxe edition of The Jazz Singer (1927), the first major talking picture in the history of cinema. This is one hell of a package -- all manner of neat little Vitaphone shorts are included, as well as a few surviving excerpts from the lost Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929). On top of that, the set comes with all sorts of other little goodies -- photos, reproduction programs, etc. This is definitely a must-have for classic movie nerds.

Finally, I could pass up the chance to nab a copy of TCM's Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 2. This set contains five pictures: The Divorcee (1930) and A Free Soul (1931), both starring Norma Shearer, Three on a Match (1932) with Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis and (briefly!) Humphrey Bogart, Female (1933) with Ruth Chatterton and George Brent, and Night Nurse (1931), featuring Barbara Stanwyck in a nurse's outfit (and yes, that is as sexy as it sounds).

Next on the wish list: The Busby Berkeley Collection.

22 December 2009

Musical Interlude: A Bit of the Old Ludwig Van

Perhaps thirty minutes might be pushing the boundaries of what constitutes an interlude, but here is one of those happy instances where quantity and quality go hand in hand. Although not as renowned as his fifth or ninth symphonies, Ludwig Van Beethoven's seventh symphony is no less of a masterpiece. Add to this potent formula the fact that the piece is here performed by the great Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, and you might just have what one commenter called the best video on youtube. If you have half an hour to kill, give this great piece of music a listen (or put in on in the background while you read a book or fold laundry or whatever it is you do).

10 December 2009

Free Associations, Ep. 11: Song and Dance Edition

Hokey love songs? Check! Unsubtle sexual double entendres ? Check! Oddly effeminate male backup dancers? Check! Silly hats? You betcha!


07 December 2009

Jersey Girls

Joan Bennett - Palisades Park, New Jersey

Alice White - Paterson, New Jersey

Sally O'Neil - Bayonne, New Jersey

Ruth Harriet Louise - New Brunswick, New Jersey

29 November 2009

Relevant to My Interests, Ep. 20

Born Ethel Hilda Keeler in Nova Scotia, the former Mrs. Al Jolson is best known today for appearing in several Busby Berkeley musicals, beginning with 1933's 42nd Street, which made her an overnight success. Like many starlets, Ruby Keeler got her start under the aegis of Florenz Ziegfeld before migrating to Hollywood.

I'll be honest with you--it took me a little bit to warm up to Ruby Keeler. She didn't seem like much of an actress at first, but she's so face-meltingly cute that I couldn't help but like her more and more each time I saw hew in a picture (it's easy to see why Al Jolson was so smitten with her). Her aura of charming naivete makes her a perfect fit for the role of the ingenue.

The above photo comes from Shadow Waltz, a nifty little tribute site dedicated to Ruby.

25 November 2009

Hollywood Party (1934)

By 1934, the moving picture musical had come back to life in grand fashion after a near-death experience in the early part of the decade. Part of this second wave was MGM's 1934 production Hollywood Party. The picture stars Jimmy Durante and Lupe Velez as themselves, supported by a battalion of lesser stars and MGM contract players (this is definitely one of those "Hey, it's that guy!" kind of pictures).

Hollywood Party
is fairly thin in the plot department: Jimmy Durante is looking to secure a real lion for his next Schnarzan picture--an obvious jab at the Tarzan pictures--and decides to throw a huge party for Baron Munchausen in hopes of borrowing a lion from him. Naturally, all the stars of Hollywood are invited--all except Lupe Velez, Durante's Schnarzan co-star. Understandably miffed, Lupe crashes the party. Not that the plot matters all that much--the whole picture is really just an excuse to show of a melange of miscellaneous musical numbers and comic gags. The miscellany is accentuated by the fact that Mickey Mouse shows up about halfway through the picture and shows the partygoers a cartoon about chocolate soldiers going to war against gingerbread men. This in the same movie where Lupe Velez breaks an egg in Oliver Hardy's pants and Polly Moran gets felt-up by a fellow pretending to be a Greek nobleman.

This hodgepodge may seem like a recipe for disaster but it somehow manages to work. The musical numbers are--for the most part--pretty damned catchy (particularly the title song as performed by Frances Williams), and most of the gags are actually pretty funny. In addition, the picture is also rather short--at just barely an hour and a quarter in length, the movie ends before it can begin to drag. Furthermore, there's an awful lot of energy packed into that hour and fifteen minutes; there's never really a dull moment, perhaps largely because the pictures doesn't really have time to be dull.

Although Hollywood Party is essentially a vehicle for Jimmy Durante, and although the schnozzola is as good as one would expect him to be, it's Lupe Velez who really steals the show. In her limited screen time, Lupe is delightfully shrewish, in one scene going so far as to shoulder-throw Charles Butterworth into a nearby patch of rose bushes (Butterworth's deadpan style is pretty entertaining in its own right, for what it's worth).

But what, sir, of the plot? Does Jimmy Durante ever manage to get that lion from Baron Munchausen? Does Lupe Velez ever get that drink she wanted? And where did she find that dress? The world, sadly, will never know the answer to these questions. As it turns out, the whole party was just a dream--whilst waiting for his wife to get ready for a real party at Lupe's house, Jimmy fell asleep while thumbing through the pages of an old Tarzan novel.

Although it certainly isn't in the same class as the Busby Berkeley or Astaire and Rogers musicals, Hollywood Party is pretty good for what it is. It's a very, very silly movie, to be sure, and with a real "B-list" feel to it, but it is nonetheless entertaining. It was certainly a hell of a lot better than The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Let's save that trainwreck for another post.

Bonus Turkey Day content: The aforementioned title song, performed by the aforementioned Frances Williams. I am thankful for 1930s set design, among other things.

21 November 2009

Ten Years On

There's a fairly interesting article in the New York Times about the rapidly-approaching end of the decade and how this decade will be remembered. One perspective that isn't represented in the article, however, is that of one who came of age in the 2000s. These last ten years were an interesting time to be alive, fraught with political intrigue, full of social upheaval. I expect that years from now the 2000s will be remembered in much the same way that the 1960s are remembered--if there's a television show about life in the 2000s, it's going to be a lot more like The Wonder Years than That 70s Show.

While the 1990s were a time of optimism and prosperity, the 2000s were a time of strife and unease. The decade began with the scandalous presidential election of 2000 which delivered George W. Bush into the White House (for better or worse). Maybe there was a bit of flotsam and jetsam in the corridors of power, but that much, I figured, was to be expected. After all, anyone raised in a post-Watergate America was brought up in the common knowledge that all politicians are liars and cheaters. Perhaps it didn't matter who was pulling the strings--one politician was the same as any other (or so I thought, anyway).

Then, not even a year later, that day came. On that day, the decade began in earnest. Everyone will remember where they were and what they were doing when the world changed on the morning of September 11, 2001. The nation went to war that day, fueled by outrage and a berserk lust for revenge. Two years later, the United States invaded Iraq. Why? Nobody really seems to know why, even all these years later. Maybe we got tired of Afghanistan and decided to try something different. Whatever the reason we decided to start the war, it certainly doesn't seem to have made things any better for us. As we waged wars overseas, our economy began to fall into a shambles, until the whole thing very nearly collapsed in 2008.

This was the world in which I came of age. In the last ten years, I have seen that the omnipotence, invulnerability and moral infallibility of my country--convictions which, when the decade began, I held very dear--were simply illusions. That is how I will remember the 2000s: a decade of disillusionment.

16 November 2009

My Own Personal Purgatory

Ever since I first read the Divine Comedy, I have sought to adopt Dante Alighieri as something of a mentor (although I wouldn't presume that I have one tenth the talent he had). I strove to model my life after his in as many ways as I could, drawing parallels wherever I might find them. Three such parallels are of paramount importance: the life-changing unrequited love, the exile from the home city and the loss of the proper path. My circumstances may not have been as drastic as Dante's, but these parallel incidents had no less of an impact on my life than they did on Dante's life.

As Dante had his Beatrice, I had my own lost love. More accurately, I had a series of lost loves, totaling a half-dozen over the course of the past seven years. Dante's loss was perhaps more catastrophic than mine--he lost Beatrice through her own premature death, whereas my losses came about through my own bungling, my own inaction or the simple impossibility of my beloved loving me in return. But however the specifics of our respective heartbreaks might differ, the effect of heartbreak upon Dante and me was much the same. In our spiritual and emotional anguish, Dante and I took solace in introspection. Ultimately we both concluded--Dante, naturally, in an exponentially more masterful fashion than I--that love, even if it be unrequited, was the true path to salvation.

For Dante, salvation had a primarily religious meaning; that is, through his love for Beatrice he was able to overcome error and sin and once again walk the path to God. For me, on the other hand, salvation was more introspective and philosophical than it was literal. It was not from hellfire and damnation that I needed to be saved, but rather from the wicked, base and ultimately self-destructive elements of my own character. Even if my beloved did not reciprocate my affections, the sensation of simply being in love compelled me to better myself, both physically and spiritually. Because I was in love, I could shun the perverse, slothful and avaricious temptations of the world around me and instead focus on the noble and beautiful aspects of life.

The wounds of lost love were deep, to be sure, and they certainly left their scars; nevertheless, they did heal. The old wounds would be compounded by new ones, however, as both Dante and I found ourselves cast out from the cities we called our homes. The specifics again differ--Dante was exiled from Florence for political reasons, and I was compelled to leave Seattle by my financial difficulties. Nonetheless I too was forced to abandon the things I loved, and I too would come to know the bitter taste of others' bread, and how difficult the the path is for one who must ascend and descend others' stairs.

Dorothy Gale was right--there is no place like home. But Kansas City is not my home, no more than Ravenna was Dante's home or Tomis was Ovid's home. For me, Kansas--to say nothing of Missouri--is a vast wasteland, a sprawling prison cell from which I cannot seem to break free. Even more disheartening is the fact that my exile is also a return to a past from which I wanted to badly to escape. In my exile I find that I have lost my way, and am wandering directionless through the dark wood of error.

Owing to scale, depth and sheer audacity of the work, I consider Dante's Divine Comedy the single greatest work in all of western literature (although I am certain that legions of scholars and other literati will disagree with me quite vehemently). Less controversial (but perhaps more important) is the fact that the Divine Comedy has influenced me so profoundly that I at times consciously attempt to model my own life's journey after Dante's pilgrimage. After all, if one considers the pervasive theme of the Divine Comedy--namely, that love is the true means of salvation and redemption--one must conclude that it is a better guide to life than any religious text could pretend to be. That aspect of Dante's philosophy I have incorporated into my own.

11 November 2009

An Interview With Anita Page

From the distant past of 1993, here is an interview in three parts with Anita Page conducted by interviewer Skip E. Lowe (who seems like a native son of Fabulon, if you know what I mean). For a woman of eighty-three years, Anita still seems as sharp as the proverbial tack here. Particularly entertaining is the bit about starring alongside Joan Crawford. Also, I was especially overjoyed that she name-drops Dorothy Sebastian (I almost jumped through the ceiling out of sheer delight!).

Part 1:



Part 2:




Part 3:



It really is hard to believe that it was only last year that Anita Page finally gave up the ghost. A special thanks to YouTube user Aaron1912 for posting this interview.

30 October 2009

26 October 2009

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Although conventional wisdom holds that Universal Studios had cornered the market on monster/horror movies in the 1930s, Mystery of the Wax Museum -- a 1933 foray into the genre by Warner Bros. and Vitaphone Pictures -- surely deserves to be mentioned when the topic of classic horror pictures comes up. Lionel Atwill -- who seems to have made a career of playing a wide variety of villains -- plays the oh-so-inventively-named Ivan Igor, whose sculpture collection in London is destroyed in a fire set by a business associate out for a bit of insurance money. Igor's prized work, a sculpture of Marie Antoinette, is also destroyed. Twelve years later, Igor has -- big surprise -- gone a little mad and relocated to New York, where he has begun to rebuild his collection.

Enter feisty newspaper reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell), who is snooping about for a big story. As luck would have it, the body of young woman is stolen from the city morgue by a shadowy figure, and the trail leads to Ivan Igor's new wax museum. Meanwhile, Charlotte Duncan (played by Fay Wray, and who just happens to be Florence's flatmate) pays a visit to her boyfriend, an aspiring sculptor working under Igor's tutelage. Igor catches a glimpse of Charlotte, and realizes that she is the spitting image of his long lost Marie Antoinette sculpture. He requests the she pose for one of his sculptures and she, unsuspecting of his nefarious intentions, agrees. Thrills, chills and even the occasional spill ensue.

Although Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray get top billing, it's Glenda Farrell who steals the whole picture. She is eminently likable as the fast-talking, tough-as-nails Florence, and seems perfectly cast for the part. As a matter of fact, the character of Florence Dempsey seems like the spiritual predecessor of Torchy Blane, another gritty reporter type whom Farrell portrayed in no fewer than seven pictures. Lionel Atwill is also good in the role of Ivan Igor, staying far away from ham territory (I still can't get over that goofy name, though. It sounds the name of a lesser Bond villain). Fay Wray, meanwhile, hasn't much to do in this picture besides look pretty, horrified, or both (fortunately, she does a commendable job in both cases).

What might be most interesting about this picture, however might be just how surprisingly good it looks. Not only are there some unexpectedly artsy shots--including a particularly memorable one of a crucifix-clasping Joan of Arc sculpture (appropriately enough) going up in flames -- but the entire picture is filmed in two-strip technicolor, which makes everything look even better than usual, especially Fay Wray. Heck, even Glenda Farrell looks good in two-strip technicolor!

For those who like horror movies, I can't recommend Mystery of the Wax Museum strongly enough. It's good, campy fun from what -- for my money, at least -- was one of old-school Hollywood's best years (that's 1933, for those keeping track at home). Vincent Price would remake the picture as House of Wax in 1953. A remake of the remake appeared in 2005, but nobody cares about that version, except maybe Paris Hilton. Mystery of the Wax Museum was included in its entirety on the DVD release of House of Wax, which makes the package well worth picking up.

[Poster Image Sauce]

20 October 2009

Five More Good Songs

I've been listening to rather a lot of music as of late, and rather diverse variety of music, to boot. The sole advantage of a morning commute that borders on thirty minutes in duration is that it gives me plenty of time to delve into my music collection (that's me, always looking on the bright side). Let's take a look at five songs that I've had on heavy rotation recently.

***

"The Elk King's Daughter"
Nest
Fabled Lore


The music of Nest is a stirring blend of folk music and ambient soundscapes. Aslak Tolonen is the creative force behind Nest, and he draws his inspiration from the natural beauty of the Finnish landscape. Appearing on Nest's 2000 demo tape Fabled Lore,"The Elk King's Daughter" is an especially atmospheric track that brings to mind a feeling of isolation. Yet rather than being melancholic, the mood is actually quite peaceful, as though it were the score of a fairytale. For me, this song is quite evocative of the foggy winter nights I spent in Washington. For those interested, the track is available for a listen at this site.


"It's Only A Paper Moon"
The Paul Whiteman Orchestra

As with many of the classic Jazz standards, there are numerous extant recordings of "It's Only A Paper Moon". The version I had in mind, however, is the 1933 version recorded by the Paul Whiteman orchestra with vocal accompaniment by Peggy Healy. This recording of the song was featured on the soundtrack to the Peter Bogdanovich film Paper Moon (1973) (the film takes its name from the song). It's one of those catchy old numbers that sticks in your head and stays there for quite a while. And yes, I did like the movie. Rather a lot, in fact.



"Cremation Ghat II"
Om

God Is Good

Om was formed from the ashes of the legendary Stoner Doom band Sleep. Om's meditative, quasi-ritualistic brand of music has always carried an oriental twist, but God is Good, the band's latest offering really allows those influences to shine through. "Cremation Ghat II" is perhaps the most memorable cut from the album; although it is not quite five minutes long, the track is quite epic within the confines of that short direction. The use of sitars give the song a decidedly Indian flavor, and the whole composition evokes a feeling of crossing the desert (or perhaps ascending to Shangri-La). Do give the song a listen over at Om's MySpace.


"Discipline"
Nine Inch Nails

The Slip


I used to listen to Nine Inch Nails quite a lot way back when (and by quite a lot I mean all the damned time). I've returned to listening to the band after an absence of a few years, and it seems that somewhere along the line I forgot just how good Nine Inch Nails really is. In May of 2008, Trent Reznor and company decided to give away a complete album to the fans, with no strings attached. That album was The Slip, and it's just as good as NIN fans could have expected it to be. My personal favorite track from The Slip would have to be "Discipline", with its driving tempo that is faintly reminiscent of 80s New Wave. The album is definitely worth getting for those unfamiliar with NIN's music (if there is anyone left who isn't by now), since it is not only quite accessible but also quite free.


Смуглянка ("Smuglianka")
Red Army Choir


You just knew these guys were bound to show up on this, didn't you? Although it bears the musical hallmarks of traditional Russian folk music, "Smuglianka" is actually a fairly recent composition (insofar as one may call the early 1970s recent). The song seems to have first appeared in a film about Soviet pilots entitled В бой идут одни «старики» (Only the Veterans Will Go to Fight). As for the song, it starts off softly but builds up to a frenetic crescendo during the chorus. It's also extremely catchy -- just have a listen, and I'll guarantee you that you'll have it stuck in your head for weeks).

16 October 2009

Musical Interlude: The Cossack Ride Over the Don



This is a fantastic song. Just give it a listen, and you'll wish you were a Cossack.

09 October 2009

A Classic Cinema Survey

I found a nifty little survey on classic cinema over at the blog A Noodle in a Haystack, and thought I'd give it a stab.

1. What is your all-time favorite Clark Gable movie?

Probably Wife vs. Secretary (1936). Yes, It Happened One Night (1934) was good, but everybody likes that one, so I have to go with a more unorthodox option. Idiot's Delight (1939) also deserves a nod.

2. Do you like Joan Crawford best as a comedienne or a drama-queen?

Yes.

...But to be less coy about it, I have to say that I like Joan a bit more as a comedienne than as a drama queen. Especially early on in her career, she seems much more natural in a comedic mode than in a dramatic one.

3. In your opinion, should Ginger Rogers have made more musicals post-Fred Astaire?

I don't think so. The musicals Ginger made with Fred would have been too tough an act to follow. And any leading man would almost inevitably have been unfavorably compared to the fleet-footed Mr. Astaire, anyway.

4. I promise not to cause you bodily (or any other serious) harm if you don't agree with me on this one. So please be honest: do you like Elizabeth Taylor? Hm?

I haven't seen enough of her pictures to formulate a reasoned opinion, to be honest.

5. Who is your favorite off-screen Hollywood couple?

Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst. Sure, the whole arrangement was a little creepy, but their relationship outlasted the average Hollywood marriage by decades. An honorable mention goes to Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg.

6. How about onscreen Hollywood couple?

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. It's a downright shame that they made only three movies together. A close second would be Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, with William Haines and Joan Crawford taking third place.

7. Favorite Jean Arthur movie?

Any of the movies she made under the direction of Frank Capra, although You Can't Take it With You (1938) would probably my favorite of that lot. Also deserving of mention are Too Many Husbands (1940) and The Talk of the Town (1942).

8. What was the first Gregory Peck movie you saw?

The Guns of Navarone (1961).

9. What film made you fall in love with Alfred Hitchcock? (And for those of you that say, "I don't like Hitchcock" -- what is wrong with you?!)

Probably Rear Window (1954). By the by, I think "love" might be putting it a bit strongly, but whatever.

10. What is your favorite book-to-movie adaption?

Pick any of the movies Stanley Kubrick made between 1971 and 1987. The three Hannibal Lecter pictures were also quite good (Anthony Hopkins wasn't in that fourth one, so it doesn't count). In truth, most great movies begin as great books, so it's virtually impossible for me to narrow it down to just one.

11. Do you prefer Shirley Temple as a little girl or as a teenager?

No.

12. Favorite character actor?

Probably Eddie Cantor--the nervous, little Jewish song-and-dance man.

13. Favorite Barbara Stanwyck role?

This one's a toss-up between Florence Fallon from The Miracle Woman (1931) and Phyllis Dietrichson from Double Indemnity (1944). Lily Powers from Baby Face (1933) isn't far behind.

14. Who is your favorite of Cary Grant's leading ladies?

Aside from Irene Dunne? Probably Katherine Hepburn for The Philadelphia Story (1940). Myrna Loy would be a close second for Mister Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948).

15. Bette Davis or Joan Crawford?

Do you really even need to ask?

16. What actors and/or actresses do you think are underrated?

I don't think Fay Wray really gets her due. When she wasn't being manhandled by a giant monkey or otherwise being compelled to shriek at the top of her lungs, she was actually a decent actress.

17. What actors and/or actresses do you think are overrated?

Although her style works well in silent pictures, I find Greta Garbo's swooning somewhat grating in talking pictures. Personally, I think Garbo owes her success more to onscreen presence than to acting ability.

Also, fuck John Wayne.

18. Do you watch movies made pre-1980 exclusively, or do you spice up your viewing-fare with newer films?

This one's a little difficult to answer. Generally speaking, I like classic films and modern films based on decidedly different criteria. I'm also more critical of modern films. Take from that what you will, I suppose.

19. Is there an actor/actress who you have seen in a film and immediately loved? If so, who?

Leslie Howard for his indomitable Britsh flippancy and wit, and Jeanette MacDonald for that voice.

20. Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire?

Fred, without a doubt.

21. Favorite Ginger Rogers drama?

Truth be told, I've never seen her in any dramas, so I really can't say.

22. If you wrote a screenplay, who would be in your dream cast and what roles would they play? (Mixing actors and actresses from different generations is allowed: any person from any point in their career.)

A biopic of Lyudmilla Pavlichenko, starring Dorothy Sebastian. Other significant players include Joan Crawford as a field medic, Evelyn Brent as a Commissar and Lionel Barrymore as Josef Stalin.

...Fuck off, this is the best movie ever.

23. Favorite actress?

It's a dead heat between Joan Crawford and Dorothy Sebastian.

25. Favorite actor?

Fredric March, without a doubt.

26. And now, the last question. What is your favorite movie from each of these genres:

Drama: That's a fairly broad category, but Amadeus (1984) comes to mind.

Romance: Until somebody makes a good film version of La Vita Nuova (which will probably never happen), this one's going to stay blank.

Musical: 42nd Street (1933).

Comedy: Like drama, this a broad category and extremely hard to pick. Duck Soup (1933) might be the one, though.

Western: The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957), if only because it's so damned hokey.

Hitchcock (he has a genre all to himself): The Birds (1963). I always root for the birds in this movie.

06 October 2009

Relevant to My Interests, Ep. 19

I know what you're thinking. "Just what's going on here?" you say to yourself. "Sarah Blasko isn't dead! And she's not pushing a hundred, either! What gives?" I guess it just goes to show you that I'm perfectly capable of being smitten by modern women, too. So you see, I'm not totally hopeless. Just mostly hopeless.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sarah Blasko, allow me to enlighten you. Sarah Blasko is a singer/songwriter from Australia. And she is fabulous in so many ways. Do yourself a favor and give a listen to some of her songs-you're certain to like what you hear.

[Image Sauce]

28 September 2009

P.S.A.

This looks like the sort of thing Max Fleischer might have come up with.
...If he was on acid.

17 September 2009

Am I Late for this Party?


... Who are you, and who let you in here?

16 September 2009

Fear of a Black President (or, Do the Right Thing, America)

Those citizens who wanted to believe that the election of Barack Obama would somehow issue in a new, post-racial era in America must certainly be feeling let down right about now. In spite of having reached the milestone of electing our first black president, race relations in America are about as tense as they've ever been (or at least since the era of the Civil Rights movement came to a close). The issue of President Obama's skin color just won't go away, as much as I would like it to. Vaudeville clown-cum-political commentator Glenn Beck accused the president of harboring "a deep-seated hatred for white people" fairly recently, and just in the past few days proponents of the president (including Bill Cosby, of all people) have accused Representative Joe Wilson (among other of President Obama's detractors) of being racists themselves. And just to make things all the more interesting, Turner Classic Movies just aired a film adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin last weekend (isn't it lovely when the planets align in such perfect order?).

It would probably be pushing the envelope to say that all of President Obama's opponents and critics are categorically racists, even though a number of them (and perhaps more of them than we may think!) probably are. There is much to be said for the reasoned critiques leveled at President Obama's policies by genuine fiscal conservatives, but those level-headed voices from the right wing have been unequivocally drowned out by louder, angrier (and, it must be said, more fanatical) voices. The president's progressive policies would no doubt be met in any case by vociferous resistance from the right wing -- indeed, health care reform has stirred up the hornet's nest several times in the past -- but the fact that President Obama is black is surely only stirring the pot even more. The majority of Americans, I would venture to say, are not consciously racist. The volatile nature of the contemporary American political landscape, however, creates a situation wherein subconscious racial misgivings can rise to the surface and boil over. The situation reminds me of Danny Aiello's character from Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing -- Sal Fragione manages to maintain peaceful relations with the black residents of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, but when the tensions come to a head Sal cannot help but give in to his unconscious racist tendencies.

Last weekend, some 75,000 people descended on Washington, D.C. to protest against President Obama, armed with the usual arsenal of signs denouncing the president as a socialist and accusing him of various misdeeds. It cannot be denied that the vast majority (if not all) of these protesters were white people intent upon "taking back" their country. The racial aspect of this -- not to mention other protests organized along "Tea Party" lines -- is much too significant to be ignored.

Those Americans who have given in to racist feelings need to realize that America is not (and furthermore, never has been) a wholly white nation. Blacks -- among other ethnic groups -- have been here just as long as whites have, and the black story is just as much a part of the American epic as the white story is. Though for most of this nation's history whites could conveniently ignore their black fellow citizens (to whom they had not been particularly kind, to say the least), the election of the nation's first black president has rendered that practice impossible, and a major portion of white America is bristling at the prospect of a black man as their leader. But black or not, the man is our president. And when he takes our hand to lead us, white America, what will we do? We must do the right thing.

30 August 2009

Brain Droppings

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's that time again! Thus, without further ado...

  • I am extremely disappointed in the political discourse in America. Insofar as any American political discourse can be said to exist, it is dominated by half-truths and mindless slogans vomited forth by those media pundits whom we have come to affectionately call talking heads.
  • I need a new job. My current one is utterly boring and completely unrewarding--I simply just don't care about structural engineering. Furthermore, it doesn't even pay well. I won't even bother to say anything about the management.
  • I'm fascinated by firearms, but I really can't stand gun people or gun culture. I have a deep suspicion that paranoid white men will ultimately wind up bringing about the downfall of the country they profess to be defending from various bogeymen.
  • I haven't really read any actual fiction in quite some time. As it stands, my reading list is dominated by books about Greece and Russia. That isn't necessarily a bad thing by any reasonable standard, but I suspect I ought to diversify.
  • The two most attractive ladies I have seen since returning to Kansas City have worked at a coffee shop and a Futon store, respectively.

25 August 2009

Five Movies I'd Like to See on DVD

I usually try to shy away from list posts--they've always seemed to me a sort of lowest common denominator of blogging (not that my posts consisting entirely of a sole image and a pithy caption are much better). Unfortunately, my soul-crushing and unrewarding job usually leave me so burnt by the end of the day from staring at computer monitors that I can't quite motivate myself to write anything more meaningful.

Apologias notwithstanding, let's have a look at five movies that I'd like to see on DVD. Although it would be nice, I'm not asking for anything Criterion Collection-quality, a digital transfer of a decent-quality print of the film is all I'm asking for. And with many classic movies making their way to DVD thanks to efforts such as the Warner Archive Collection, perhaps my hopes may yet come to fruition.

1. Palmy Days (1931)

In Palmy Days, Eddie Cantor wreaks havoc in what must be the sexiest bakery in the history of the world. The plot might be about as thin as pastry dough, but the musical numbers are catchier than the Swine Flu (featuring choreography by none other than Busby Berkeley!) and the gags are fantastic (including a scene wherein Eddie disguises himself as a bakery girl to escape from two mugs who want to beat the tar out of him). Besides, with donuts and the Goldwyn Girls, you can do no wrong. Along with the other five pictures Eddie Cantor made for Samuel Goldwyn, Palmy Days has been released on VHS, so one imagines that a DVD version wouldn't be too hard to pull off.

2. Show People (1928)

Show People is great for a variety of reasons--it showcases the comedic talents of Marion Davies and William Haines and the directorial skills of King Vidor, but it is also a highly entertaining send-up of the motion picture business. The innumerable cameo appearances by moving picture stars of the day are an additional plus. The Patsy (another delightful Marion Davies/King Vidor collaboration from the same year) has recently been released on DVD, can Show People be far behind?

3. Señorita (1927)


I haven't actually seen this picture, so I can't give an honest appraisal of it's quality. Nevertheless, Señorita deserves a DVD release by virtue of the fact that it is not only one of the (seemingly very) few Paramount pictures that survive from the 1920s, but it also stars Bebe Daniels. Feel my Pulse (1928) is also extant and meets both of the aforementioned criteria, but Señorita seems like the more interesting of the two pictures.

4. Our Dancing Daughters (1928) / Our Modern Maidens (1929) / Our Blushing Brides (1930)


By this point I should even have to explain why I want these three movies on DVD. Besides, can you honestly tell me that this wouldn't make a great boxed set? You can keep your Lord of the Rings and forget about Star Wars; there is only one trilogy that truly matters, and this is it.

5. The Big Parade (1925)

King Vidor's moving portrait of American soldiers in the Great War deserves to be counted among the greatest films of the silent era. The scale of the film is comparable to any of Cecil B. DeMille's or D.W. Griffith's epics, and the special effects are astounding (by the standards of 1925, at any rate). It's such an engrossing picture, in fact, that I forgot at times that I was watching a silent movie. This is one that I really would like to see released as part of the Criterion Collection. A DVD release of The Big Parade would be a benefit not only to lovers of classic films, but to lovers of film in general.

19 August 2009

I Feel Like Posting a Picture of Jean Arthur...

...so here it is. I'd like to raid her piggy bank. If you know what I mean.

...That made no sense. I'm sorry.

16 August 2009

Idiot's Delight (1939)


I just watched Idiot's Delight earlier today, and I have to say that I was quite pleasantly surprised. This was one of those movies that I watched largely because of who was in it--in this case Norma Shearer--but wound up liking for its own merits. Clark Gable was very much likable in the role of Harry Van, a veteran of the Great War turned showman. His only ever song-and-dance number (the celebrated "Puttin' on the Ritz" routine) is especially great, although it is quite clear that Gable is, by any stretch of the imagination, no Fred Astaire. As for Norma, her performance as an expatriate Russian noblewoman is enjoyable (if a little hammy, thanks to her decidedly Garbonian accent, and also in spite of her disconcerting wig). It is also worth noting that Norma not only speaks passable Russian (albeit only a few words and phrases), but also hangs by her teeth in an acrobatic act (although that was probably a double in that scene).

There are, however, more important matters than romantic comedy addressed in the picture. Idiot's Delight was released in 1939, when the storm clouds of World War II were gathering. The reality of global politics was not lost on the film's producers. The impact of the impending war on the various guests of the alpine hotel where Clark and Norma find themselves is well-illustrated: a pacifist (played by Burgess Meredith) is arrested and shot for seditious talk against the war, a German scientist abandons his pursuit of a cure for cancer in order to design weapons instead and an industrialist heads back to his factories to oversee the production of munitions. Once the war actually breaks out, the hotel is severely damaged by bombs.

Another point of interest about this picture is the fact that it actually has two endings. It might not be the first film to do so, but it must be among the earliest. In the "domestic" (i.e. American) version of the film, Clark and Norma survive the bombing raid unscathed and plan to begin a show business career together. In the foreign version, however, the bombing raid is much more dramatic and the two stars maintain their composure by singing a hymn as the bombs explode around them. In my opinion, the latter ending is much more interesting, and also a much more honest take on the nature of the impending war.

Idiot's Delight is a romantic comedy, to be sure, but it is a romantic comedy with a much more profound message behind the smooching.

10 August 2009

Musical Interlude: Dovator's Cossack Song



"Dovator's Cossack Song" celebrates the heroism of General Lev Mikhailovich Dovator and the men of his 2nd Guards Cavalry Corps, many of whom died in the defense of Moscow (as did General Dovator himself).

The lyrics:

Сквозь леса дремучие, с песнею весёлою,
С острыми клинками, на лихих конях,
Движутся кубанцы, казаки-гвардейцы,
Чтоб с врагом расправиться доблестно в боях.

Chorus:
Эх, бей, кубанцы!
Руби, гвардейцы!
Рази фашистов подлых, пощады не давай!
На победу славную, на защиту Родины
Нас водил Доватор, любимый генерал.

С именем Доватора, полководца смелого,
Грозною лавиной на врага мы шли.
Где прошли доваторцы - казаки кубанские,
Гитлеровцев полчища смерть себе нашли!

(Chorus)

Славными победами мы свой путь отметили,
Били мы фашистов, бьем и будем бить:
Пушками, гранатами, миной, автоматами,
Резать пулеметами и клинком рубить!

(Chorus)

05 August 2009

Free Associations, Ep. 10

Now just you put that bat down and hear me out on this.

Perhaps the similarities lie not so much in the characters of Ren and Stimpy themselves, but in a particular episode. In the episode Stimpy's Fan Club, it is revealed that Stimpy is by far the more popular of the duo, receiving scores of fan letters whilst Ren receives not a single one. Ren is quite hurt by this, so Stimpy attempts to make him feel better by apointing him president of the Stimpy Fan Club. This only forces Ren to read more and more of Stimpy's fan mail, which begins to drive him insane.

Ren's anger and resentment boils over in what has to be one of the most unsettling sequences ever included in what was allegedly a cartoon for kids. As he watches Stimpy sleep, Ren launches into a psychotic monologue and plots to kill Stimpy. He plans to snap Stimpy's neck, but suffers a rather graphic nervous breakdown before the deed can be carried out. The next morning, Ren disguises himself as Stimpy, and tells the mailman not to deliver any more fan mail. The mailman, however, only has one fan letter and it is for Ren. Ren viciously taunts Stimpy as he reads his fan letter aloud, only to find out that the letter was from Stimpy himself. Ren feels like a total ass, and Stimpy, ever the magnanimous one, forgives Ren.

To me, this seems like a fairly accurate parallel to the respective careers of Joan and Dorothy--the dumb one (Joan) became immensely popular while the smart one (Dorothy) suffered in obscurity. And although it (probably) never happened, the image of Joan and Dorothy doing the Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy dance is so silly that it actually causes me physical pain.

02 August 2009

Happy Birthday, Myrna Loy

No words. Just awesomeness.

31 July 2009

Old Man Depression, You Have Truly Done Us Wrong

A few nights ago, TCM aired Gold Diggers of 1933, one of the best-known Busby Berkeley musicals. One one level the picture is a lighthearted musical comedy, a study of theatrical spectacle that would wow the audiences of the day while allowing them a brief escape from the troubles of the real world. On another level, the picture is quite conscious of those same troubles. Ned Sparks (as producer Barney Hopkins) proclaims early in the picture that his latest show will be about the depression: "Men standing in lines, jobs, jobs, jobs!" is his apparent muse. The movie's spectacular closing number, a jazzy dirge entitled "Remember my Forgotten Man", reminds of the grim realities of life during the depression.

Some 76 years later, things are starting to look just as grim. Though optimists insist that it simply isn't the case, it's beginning to look an awful lot like old man depression has reared his ugly head once again. Nearly ten percent of Americans now find themselves where Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon are at the beginning of Gold Diggers--out of a job and going flat broke. The unemployed of today clamor for "jobs, jobs, jobs!" just as much as the forgotten men of 1933.

Yet unemployment, overdue rents and thrift by necessity are not the only similarities to the depression years, nor are they the most unsettling. The most undeniable (and perhaps the most disturbing) evidence that we moderns are shuffling through a depression of our own lies in the stomach-turning fact that the Hooverville is back. It boggles the mind--how can such abject poverty exist in the most prosperous nation in the world? Is it an inherent failure of a Capitalist economy? Is it a result of the American's indifference to the plight of his countryman? Probably a combination of these and other factors, which are too numerous and complex to enumerate here.

My life hasn't gone where I wanted it to go over the past year or so, but it is certainly a sobering thought that there are others that are far, far worse off than I am. As for the rest of the nation, it remains to be seen whether or not Barack Obama can be the next Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

26 July 2009

Hey, it's Nat Pendleton!

If you're like me, much of the fun in watching old moving pictures is finding recurring actors in the supporting cast. Let's say you happen to be watching Manhattan Melodrama, when all of a sudden you point at the screen and say "hey, it's that guy!" Nat Pendleton is definitely a strong candidate for the ultimate "hey, it's that guy!" actor.

Although he appeared in well over one hundred pictures, about half of his roles were uncredited (especially in the early years of his career), and then they were typically the same sort of stock character--namely, the hulking no-neck gorilla. Having already achieved some renown as a Olympic silver medalist in the sport of wrestling, he might well have been lured into the moving picture industry by the promise of greater fame and fortune. Nat was never a major star, but after appearing in bit parts in quite a number of pictures (many of which were actually quite good, such as Baby Face, The Thin Man and Horse Feathers), he gained some attention for his role as Eugen Sandow in The Great Ziegfeld (pictured above, with the always awesome William Powell). Thereafter Nat had a relatively stable career, including nine performances as ambulance driver Joe Wayman in the Dr. Kildare series.

Keep an eye out for Nat Pendleton the next time you watch a movie from the 30s. You might be surprised at where he turns up! Nat Pendleton: a pretty cool guy.

[Photo via Dr. Macro]

22 July 2009

Mickey's Gala Premiere (1933)



Mickey's Gala Premiere is one of those animated shorts that is probably more interesting as an artifact of Hollywood history than it is as a cartoon. The whole plot of the short revolves around a premiere of the latest Mickey Mouse cartoon. Apparently Mickey's premiere is the social event of the season, since a virtual who's-who of the film stars of the day turn out to watch the antics of everyone's favorite corporate mascot (even Will Hays himself makes an appearance!). Old movie junkies will probably enjoy this one quite a lot, as it offers a great opportunity to spot their favorite stars in cartoon form.

Personally, I like this cartoon because it's probably the only time that Joan Crawford and Eddie Cantor ever appeared in a film together. Now there's a pairing I'd like to see. They're even sitting next to each other in the audience, for Pete's sake.

By the way, if someone could tell me who the fellow taking tickets about two minutes into the cartoon, I'd greatly appreciate it. I've seen him caricatured in many classic cartoons, but I have no idea who he's supposed to be.

20 July 2009

Relevant to my Interests, Ep. 18


If the name Ruth Harriet Louise is familiar to aficionados of old movies, it is most likely because hers is the name attached to so many of the great portraits of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's stable of stars during the late 1920s. Roth's photographs displayed (and, indeed in many cases, enhanced) the beauty and glamor of Hollywood's elite. Yet, as a quick glance at the striking self-portrait above will attest, Ruth Harriet Louise (née Ruth Goldstein) was not lacking in the looks department, either, so much so that she was occasionally mistaken for Joan Crawford (Joan, it may be said, owed much of her new found popularity to Ruth, who photographed her more than any other MGM player).

In spite of Ruth's talent for portraiture, however, her career at MGM came to an abrupt and unceremonious end at the end of 1929. Louis B. Mayer and the other studio magnates had taken quite a fancy to Clarence Sinclair Bull, while at the same time Norma Shearer (the undisputed queen of the MGM lot) began to favor George Hurrell. Ruth was ousted, and Hurrell was proclaimed the new head of MGM's department of portrait photography. Thereafter Ruth settled down, exchanging the working life for the family life, having two children with her husband (director Leigh Jason). In one of those great injustices of which the spirits of Hollywood seem to be so fond, Ruth died of complications from childbirth in 1940, not yet even forty years old.

Fortunately, Ruth's kleos lives on, and her portraits are renowned among Hollywood historians and classic film fans alike. The book Ruth Harriet Louise and Hollywood Glamour Photography is an excellent source for both Louise's photography and the details of her tragically short career as Hollywood's first female photographer (the above photo was scanned from my personal copy of the book, in fact).

12 July 2009

Evelyn Brent: Heroine of the Proletariat

Evelyn Brent is about to fuck you up, capitalist swine.

This is a serious candidate for the most bad-ass publicity still in the history of cinema. I definitely need to see The Last Command now.

[via Dr. Macro]

09 July 2009

The Curious Case of the Russian Liberation Army

One of the more obscure oddities of the Second World War--at least by the standards of western historiography--is that of the Russian Liberation Army (Русская Освободительная Армия). Comprised largely of Russian anticommunists and Red Army prisoners of war, the ROA was equipped by and organized under the auspices of the Wehrmacht. At the head of the ROA was General Andrei Andreyevich Vlasov, who had denounced Communism and defected to the Germans after his capture in 1942 (Vlasov had previously served with some distinction in the Red Army, in particular during the Battle of Moscow). Despite having been ostensibly formed to fight the Red Army and free Russia from the Bolsheviks (to say nothing of Stalin himself), the ROA was in actuality either deployed to the western front or relegated to rear-echelon duties, and did not see action against the Soviet army until 1945, when any realistic chances of German victory were long gone.

Not surprisingly, Soviet historiography considers Vlasov and his followers to be traitors. This is quite an easy interpretation to justify--the ROA sided with the invading Germans and eventually fought against their own countrymen. One might expect that sentiment to have carried on to the present day, and for the most part it has. On the other hand, there are those who hail Vlasov and the ROA as Russian heroes. Such an interpretation is not without its basis--the ROA did turn against the Germans in May of 1945, fighting alongside Czech insurgents against units of the SS.

However, the heroization of the ROA tends to ignore the true nature of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Quite common among the messages of German propaganda during the war was the idea that the Nazis were crusading to free Europe from the specter of Bolshevik domination (to say nothing of the Jews). Indeed, it was for this very reason that many joined the ROA (it's probable that many of those who enlisted in the Waffen SS did so for the same reason). The struggle against Communism might have been an accessory motivating factor behind Operation Barbarossa, but the ultimate goal of the German invasion of Russia was not to liberate the peoples of Eastern Europe, but to liquidate them: as outlined in Hitler's Generalplan Ost, some 50 million people were to be killed in order to achieve the necessary lebensraum for the German people, a number that makes the millions who did die in the Holocaust seem almost paltry by comparison.

Where, then, does this leave the men of the ROA? Although its probable that many of their number were simply Nazi sympathizers, it seems perfectly absurd to think that they would advocate the genocide of their own people. Rather, the men of the ROA likely enlisted because--thanks in no small part to Nazi propaganda--they believed they were doing the right thing for Russia. The notion of a Russia free from Bolshevism must have been appealing, indeed; after all, untold millions died as a result of the Holodomor and Stalin's purges during the 1930s, and the curtailment of personal liberties under the Soviet government throughout its existence is well documented. Furthermore, if there is any sincerity behind the Prague Manifesto, the the cause of the ROA would seem quite just, indeed. Finally, its highly unlikely that either Vlasov or the men of the ROA were in any way privy to the details of Generalplan Ost--odds are that they would have been killed in the wake of German victory, along with the rest of the Russian people. Perhaps the devil you know is preferable to the devil you don't, after all.

What, then, is posterity to make of the Russian Liberation Army? Were they heroes, or were they traitors? Given the respective evils of Nazism and Bolshevism, it really is hard to say--choosing one over the other is like choosing whether to die of cancer or of lupus. Ultimately, they may be neither villains nor victims; perhaps, like the tens of millions of others, they were statistics--mere pawns in the calamitous waste of human life that was the Second World War.

05 July 2009

On Being an Aspiring Writer

Like so many other bloggers, I suspect, I aspire to be a "true" writer. I feel as though I have a tentative plan for my first attempt at a proper book outlined in my head, but I just can't seem to get it down on paper (and I do hope to produce a proper manuscript, not a simple word document). The problem, as it has always seemed to be, is that I just don't know where to begin. And even if I should manage to get started, I will still be plagued by myriad nagging doubts, primary among these the question of why anyone would ever want to read what I've written in the first place.

There are rather a lot of ideas swirling about the primordial soup of my mind, from grandiose scenarios to brief scenes to assorted paragraphs, scentences and fragments. Thousands of middles, a few ends, but--as ever--no beginnings; no means of getting to the middles and ends, let alone making them meaningful and interesting to an audience. So many themes, but no way of placing them in context nor of making them meaningful to anyone other than myself.

Yet in spite of all my doubts, I nevertheless feel as though I have to write. I have to secure some sort of legacy; I have to secure my share of immortality, no matter how minuscule it might be. It is highly doubtful that I will find a place in the literary pantheon, but if I can touch the lives of even a few people--that is, if just a few people are moved by and find pleasure in what I might create--it will all have been worth the effort.

29 June 2009

The Merry Widow (1934)

I have heard (or should that be read?) much ado about director Ernst Lubitsch and the certain je ne sais quoi he brings to his productions, known in filmophiliac circles as the Lubitsch touch. 1934's The Merry Widow, it would seem, demonstrates that touch in ample supply. What is on the surface a rather silly musical romance becomes, thanks to Lubitsch's superb direction (to say nothing of the outstanding cast!), a highly enjoyable affair. In The Merry Widow, royal guardsman Count Danilo (played by the absurdly charming Maurice Chevalier) is tasked with seducing and marrying the widowed Madame Sonia (played by the lovely and talented Jeanette MacDonald), the seduction and marriage being a means of preventing Madame Sonia from leaving the minuscule kingdom of Marshovia with her considerable fortune (which constitutes half of all the wealth of Marshovia). I hope that I won't be spoiling anything when I say that Maurice and Jeanette do inevitably fall for one another and wind up together (although the ultimate circumstance of their romance is not quite what one might traditionally consider romantic, albeit in a good way).

What can I say about this picture that hasn't already been said? It veritably drips with the elegance and opulence one expects from an MGM picture of the 1930s. Perhaps the most shining example of this is the grandiose waltz scene--clearly, no expense was spared in preparing this rather impressive number. Of course, Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald are excellent in the starring roles (the fact that they turned in such great performances in spite of their personal enmity is surely testament to their professionalism and ability as actors!). Miss MacDonald is also quite stunning throughout the picture, gaudy period garb notwithstanding. Edward Everett Horton is also great in his relatively small but quite likable part the distraught Ambassador Popoff, cementing his status as one of my favorite supporting actors. Una Merkel also makes a brief appearance as Queen Dolores.

Also of interest is the fictional kingdom of Marshovia itself. At the outset of the picture, we see that Marshovia is nestled between Austria-Hungary and Romania, in the region most would recognize as Transylvania (though there are no vampires to be found, barring the possibility that Maurice Chevalier is harboring a deep, dark secret). Culturally, Marshovia seems to be an amalgam of Russia, Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, giving it the appearance of semi-pastoral utopia that is just "oriental" enough to seem exotic, and just occidental enough to seem familiar. In fact, it is rather a nice analogue--both culturally and geographically--to the fictional kingdom of Graustark.

But I digress. I must say that I rather enjoyed The Merry Widow, and I expect that most other aficionados of classic movies will enjoy it just as much. Now I'm going to have to see the 1925 version of the film, as well (there was also a third version made by MGM, but that was in the 1950s, and, as a wise man once said, fuck that shit).

23 June 2009

"Excuse all the Blood"


Prior to her untimely death, Thelma Todd was well known in Black Metal circles for her distinctive vocal style and her occasionally gruesome onstage antics. She was also rumored to have kept a dead bird in a bag, which she would occasionally smell in order to, as she put it, "have the stench of death in her nostrils."

17 June 2009

Well, That's One Way to Do It


Judy Garland, Jack Haley, Ray Bolger and Burt Lahr do not fuck around.

14 June 2009

Ah, So That's Why You Love Lucy


As improbable as it may seem to one who only knows her from 1950's television shows, the truth still stands--Lucille Ball was, at one point in time, actually quite attractive.

13 June 2009

Free Associations, Ep. 9A: Taking the Joke too Far

In the last installment in my series of often bizarre free associations, I ruminated on the similarities between actress Joan Crawford and dictator Joseph Stalin, two of history's most memorable megalomaniacs. The similarities, it must be said, do not end with Mommie Dearest and Uncle Joe themselves. If Joan Crawford is the equivalent Stalin, it may be said with some--although not too much--certainty that Myrna Loy is the equivalent of Klim Voroshilov.
Kliment Yefremovich Voroshilov was one of Joseph Stalin's closest and most loyal accomplices, having served alongside him during the Russian Civil War. Likewise, Myrna Loy (nee Myrna Williams) began her Hollywood career at the same time as Joan Crawford; the two appeared as extras in the 1925 MGM production Pretty Ladies, and thereafter became life-long friends. Appropriately enough, Voroshilov was appointed both the Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council and the "People's Commissar for Military and Navy Affairs" that same year. Myrna would receive an honorific title of her own, eventually attaining the rank of "Queen of Hollywood" in 1938 (not quite the same thing as Marshall of the Soviet Union, but it's in the same ballpark).

Naturally, there are a few minor differences. Primary among these must be the fact that Myrna never threw her former comrades under the proverbial bus for the sake of purging opposition from the party (although she might have, had Joan asked her to). Secondly, Myrna never had the honor of having a tank named after her (although she damned well deserved it!). Finally, it has to be said that Klim Voroshilov was rather a bumbler, both on and off the battlefield--his less than stellar leadership cost the Soviet Union tremendous casualties during the Winter War, and he later made an ass of himself by dropping the ceremonial Sword of Stalingrad when it was presented to him (whilst Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt were watching, no less!). Myrna would never have conducted herself in such a shameful manner in the presence of her superiors. Furthermore, she no doubt would have crushed the Finnish army in a matter of days, had she been in charge.

One final thought: if Joan Crawford is Stalin and Myrna Loy is Voroshilov, I suppose that would make Christina Crawford the equivalent of Yakov Dzhugashvili.

10 June 2009

A Sure Sign of Obsession

I fell asleep extremely early last night, with the result that I had many quite vivid dreams. One of these took the form of a picture that starred Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy and Clark Gable (rather an ensemble cast, to say the least). As is so often the case with dreams, the details are sketchy, but I do remember that Myrna Loy was some sort of con-artist-cum-jewel thief, and Norma Shearer was the intended victim. What role Joan Crawford and Clark Gable played is somewhat less clear, but I'm fairly certain that they would have struck up a romance that would have complicated Myrna's diabolical schemes in some way or another.

There was also a merry-go-round involved, but I'm not sure that that detail doesn't make things even more confusing.

Ultimately, I am left with two nagging, unanswered questions: Why wasn't this movie ever made? And why can't I have more dreams like this?

06 June 2009

Normandy, 6 June, 1944

The Great Crusade begins.

04 June 2009

Musical Interlude: Любо братцы , любо

This is one of those songs that I like to sing at odd moments (or at least try to sing, given the linguistic difficulties).

Как на грозный Терек выгнали казаки,
Выгнали казаки сорок тысяч лошадей.
И покрылось поле, и покрылся берег
Сотнями порубаных, постреляных людей.

Любо, братцы, любо,
Любо, братцы, жить!
С нашим атаманом не приходится тужить!
Любо, братцы, любо,
Любо, братцы, жить!
С нашим атаманом не приходится тужить!

Атаман наш знает, кого выбирает-
Эскадрон по коням, да забыли про меня.
Им досталась воля да казачья доля,
Мне ж досталась пыльная, горючая земля.

Любо, братцы, любо,
Любо, братцы, жить!
С нашим атаманом не приходится тужить!
Любо, братцы, любо,
Любо, братцы, жить!
С нашим атаманом не приходится тужить!

А первая пуля, а первая пуля,
А первая пуля в ногу ранила коня.
А вторая пуля, а вторая пуля,
А вторая пуля в сердце ранила меня.

Любо, братцы, любо,
Любо, братцы, жить!
С нашим атаманом не приходится тужить!
Любо, братцы, любо,
Любо, братцы, жить!
С нашим атаманом не приходится тужить!

Жинка погорюет, выйдет за другого,
За мово товарища, забудет про меня.
Жалко только волю во широком поле,
Жалко мать-старушку да буланого коня.

Любо, братцы, любо,
Любо, братцы, жить!
С нашим атаманом не приходится тужить!
Любо, братцы, любо,
Любо, братцы, жить!
С нашим атаманом не приходится тужить!

Будет дождь холодный, будет дождь холодный,
Будет дождь холодный мои кости обмывать.
Будет ворон чёрный, будет ворон чёрный,
Будет ворон чёрный мои волосы клевать.

Любо, братцы, любо,
Любо, братцы, жить!
С нашим атаманом не приходится тужить!
Любо, братцы, любо,
Любо, братцы, жить!
С нашим атаманом не приходится тужить!

Как на вольный Терек, как на грозный Терек
Выгнали казаки сорок тысяч лошадей.
И покрылось поле, и покрылся берег
Сотнями порубаных, постреляных людей.

Любо, братцы, любо,
Любо, братцы, жить!
С нашим атаманом не приходится тужить!
Любо, братцы, любо,
Любо, братцы, жить!
С нашим атаманом любо голову сложить!


And if it seems that these musical interludes seem to have a decidedly Russian flavor... well, they have.

31 May 2009

Fun Facts


Fun Fact: Hitler had an invisible friend named Möckey Maus.

21 May 2009

The Miracle Woman (1931)

Released by Columbia Pictures in 1931, The Miracle Woman tells the story of a of disillusioned pastor's daughter (played by Barbara Stanwyck) who falls in with a con-man named Bob Hornsby and takes up evangelism for profit. Sister Florence Fallon (as she is called) soon finds herself the centerpiece of an immense evangelical movement, fueled by her fiery radio sermons. Florence and Bob rake in the cash, under the pretense of taking donations to build a tabernacle. Meanwhile John Carson a blind former aviator named turned songwriter, plans to commit suicide, but happens to overhear one of Florence's sermons just as he is about to take the fatal leap from his window. After attending (and taking part in) one Florence's sermons in person, John finds himself smitten with her, and volunteers his services as a hymn writer. Florence soon finds herself just as smitten with John, and becomes quite conflicted about the great scam in which she has involved herself. Florence tries to quit the racket, but being the cad that he is, Hornsby blackmails her into staying with the program (and thereby with him). How ever will the star-crossed lovers extricate themselves from this sticky situation?

The Miracle Woman is an unapologetic criticism of religious hypocrisy and those who would use religion for their own ends, so much so that a title card explains this to the audience rather bluntly at the start of the picture. Moreover, the character of Florence Fallon is a not particularly subtle jab at Aimee Semple McPherson, who conducted a similar mass-media religious campaign in the 1920s and 30s. In many ways, the picture's message is just as relevant today as it was in 1931. Florence's sermons carry with them all the bombastic pageantry and ritualistic spectacle of a National Socialist Party rally. Particularly interesting is the chorus of believers, clad uniformly in white with a large cross and an FF monogram emblazoned on their shirts. Although it all feels quite extreme and is perhaps somewhat exaggerated, the whole extravaganza nonetheless calls to mind images of modern day evangelical conventions and mega-churches.

The poignant social commentary is complimented by solid acting, in particular on the part of Barbara Stanwyck. Even though she had fewer than ten pictures under her belt at this point in her career, Barbara shows some astounding talent. Her tirade against the congregation of her late father's church at the outset of the picture is perhaps the foremost example--she begins as half-hearted and inwardly resentful, but soon explodes into outrage and just indignation as she lashes into the shocked churchgoers. It is a gripping and utterly believable performance; the sort of thing about which professors of acting must have wet dreams. David Manners turns in a sympathetic performance as the blind (yet multi-talented) John Carson, but he is naturally overshadowed by Barbara Stanwyck (along with pretty much everyone else who appears on the screen).

Finally, the cinematographic aspects of The Miracle Woman are just as solid as its thematic aspects. Even if he was prone to sentimentality in some of his pictures, Frank Capra made some of the best movies to come out of Hollywood, and The Miracle Woman should be counted among his best pictures (even if it is obscure by comparison to the likes of It's A Wonderful Life). The Miracle Woman features some quality camera work, and despite being an early talkie, never feels stiff or static. Capra does a particularly great job conveying a sense of chaos in the pictures final scenes.

All in all, The Miracle Woman is a quality landmark in the curriculum vitae of both Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Capra. It has been released on VHS and airs occasionally on TCM. Although it is not available on DVD in the US, in does appear in a British boxed set. Whatever the format, the picture is well worth watching if the opportunity should avail itself.