26 April 2009

St. Dorothy of Birmingham

Today marks the 106th anniversary of the birth of Dorothy Sebastian. I let the date go by without celebration last year, and Dorothy appeared to me in a dream and scolded me for missing her birthday (actually, she was scolding me for killing a cat earlier in the dream, but I'm sure she meant to get on my case about the birthday thing, too).

Dorothy was one among the scores of young beauties who came to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune. Unfortunately, like so many other young hopefuls, Dorothy never quite broke through to the highest firmament of moving picture stardom. She never managed to land a solid leading role, and her all-too-brief career came to an abrupt end in the early 1930s. Thereafter she was largely out of the public eye, notwithstanding a few appearances in the courtroom. Dorothy is nowadays remembered for her supporting roles opposite such names stars as Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, as well as for her off-screen romance with Buster Keaton. Yet there is much more than that to the story of Dorothy Sebastian.

Dorothy was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, the third of four children. In 1924 She set out for New York in search of bigger and better things, spending time as a model and a chorus girl in George White's Scandals, a revue very much in the spirit of Ziegfeld's famous Follies. It was during this time that she landed her first picture contract, and she appeared in her first on-screen role the following year. Dorothy's prospects for stardom took a major leap forward in 1926, when she signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (the contract would be extended in 1928). It was during her years at MGM that Dorothy made her most memorable film appearances, and rubbed elbows and lived the high life with some of the biggest names in the industry.

The good times, of course, never do last. Dorothy lost a few roles to other actresses--including a leading role opposite John Barrymore in 1928's Tempest that she believed would have made her a star. A nervous breakdown in 1930 only added to her troubles, and in 1931 she left MGM (whether she turned down a contract or was simply not offered one is not certain, but I have my nagging suspicions that the latter is the more likely scenario). Whatever the circumstances might have been, Dorothy's chances for stardom were essentially shot; she made a few pictures on poverty row and appeared in bit parts later on, but her ship had sailed.

Why is it that Dorothy never made it big in pictures? She was well-liked by just about everyone who met her, and she was certainly pretty enough for the silver screen. Perhaps she lacked a few elements of the ever-elusive Star Quality--Dorothy was great when she had good co-stars and good material to work with (as in her MGM pictures), but she couldn't carry a weak film like a Bette Davis could. Along those same lines, Dorothy didn't seem to have the temperament for the underhanded wheeling and dealing of studio politics--she freely admitted that she had little regard for studio hierarchy, and that she "talked right up to everyone".

But that mistake, I suspect, hints at the real reason Dorothy didn't make the cut in Hollywood: she simply didn't drink the proverbial Kool-aid. Dorothy never seemed quite willing or able to buy into the self-delusional madness that was the star system. Everything I've read about her suggests that she was much too honest to thrive in an environment where so many people were just as affected off the screen as they were when the cameras were rolling. Furthermore, she didn't possess the sheer ruthlessness required to be a major star, the ability to put her career before anything and everything else. Perhaps, at the end of the day, Dorothy was simply too much of a good scout to be a true movie star.

There might have been bigger stars or maybe even a few better actors in Old Hollywood than Dorothy Sebastian, but one would indeed be hard pressed to find a better person than she was. That she should have died from cancer at the relatively young age of 54 seems the ultimate injustice. Godspeed you, Dorothy Sebastian, wherever you are, and Happy Birthday. The bastards didn't deserve you.

[Image Sauce]

25 April 2009

Fantasia (1940)

Of all the hundreds of movies I've seen in my lifetime, none have had so lasting an appeal as has Fantasia, Disney's animated classic from 1940. When Fantasia was released on VHS in celebration of its 50th anniversary, I was fortunate enough to receive a copy. It was one of those videos I watched countless times--I was absolutely mesmerized by the marriage of sounds and visuals. This movie remains a cornerstone of my development--It's no stretch of the imagination to say that my love of music began with Fantasia. Furthermore, I think that the geneses of many of my interests and obsessions can be traced back to this film.

Essentially, Fantasia is a series of music videos that feature some of the great works of Classical music and the best animation the industry had to offer at the time. It was an evolution of Disney's Silly Symphonies, a series of cartoons identical in format to Fantasia, albeit on a much more moderate scale. The soundtrack was recorded by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and features eight selected pieces which represent a variety of styles and composers.

Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is the first piece presented. Although Bach originally composed the piece for the pipe organ, Stokowski arranged it for an orchestral performance, and the result is one of the best renditions of Toccata and Fugue that you will likely ever hear. The visual accompaniment to the music a series of abstract images and shapes; in effect, it is something of a spiritual predecessor to the modern day visualizer. It may sound boring, but it is actually quite effective--it serves as proof that you needn't associate music with any concrete images in order for it to be moving and engrossing to hear. Of course, as the introduction explains to us, that is the whole point of this segment.

The second piece is Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, most of which will be familiar to the modern listener thanks to countless versions of the music having been included in Christmas-themed movies, cartoons and commercials. In Fantasia, however, the music is set to a collection of scenes which illustrate the cycle of the seasons--specifically, the transition from summer to autumn to winter. The animation is absolutely top-notch in these sequences, and they are among the most visually striking and appealing sequences in the entire film. Although it is something a departure from Tchaikovsky's originally Christmas-themed ballet, this is nevertheless an excellent take on one of the most famous and beloved ballets ever written.

Next we have a somewhat abridged version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice by French composer Paul Dukas. Although this is the most famous sequence from the film (thanks in no small part to the appearance of cartoon icon Mickey Mouse), it is actually one of the scenes I like the least. I liked it well enough when I was a rugrat, but it hasn't really stood up well to the test of time. The animated aspect of the sequence is good enough, but the music just doesn't do it for me. I've never been a big fan of French classical music anyway.

Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was intended to evoke a primitive and savage atmosphere. That it literally caused a riot at its 1913 premiere is evidence of how successful it was in that intention. Disney's accompaniment to the piece keeps that spirit quite intact, depicting the violent birth of the planet and the evolution (in your face, creationists!) of life from single-celled organisms into lumbering, reptilian behemoths. This was one of my favorite sequences when I was a kid, if only because it had dinosaurs--the battle between the Tyrannosaurus and the Stegosaurus kept me riveted to the screen, even after having seen it three dozen times. Sadly, like The Sorcerer's Apprentice, I find that I like this sequence significantly less now--the music is too atonal, and dinosaurs just aren't as cool as they were when I was a kid.

Next is a brief interlude which includes an intermission, followed by a jazzy jam-session and a sequence wherein the viewer is introduced to a variety of instruments. For me, this probably the least interesting part of the film, so much so that I would usually fast-forward through it. It's a bit more interesting now that I know more about music, but it's still not one of Fantasia's best moments.

Fortunately, our patience for sitting through the intermission is rewarded with a sequence set to Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, entitled Pastorale. The music is set to a scene from the pages of Greco-Roman mythology, complete with fauns, centaurs, Pegasuses (or rather Pegasi?) and pudgy Bacchus mounted on a unicorn-donkey hybrid (who is given the amusing name of Jacchus). Everything is all fun and frolicking until Zeus crashes the party, bringing along a dopey-looking Hephaestus to keep him supplied with thunderbolts. Everyone scatters for cover as Zeus bombards the landscape with his lightning, but eventually the deity gets tired and decides to hit the celestial hay. It wouldn't be too far from the truth to say that this part of Fantasia is what sparked my interest in the Classical World, eventually leading me to pursue a degree in Classical Studies. Thanks a lot, Walt Disney. I blame you for everything.

The penultimate sequence features a variety of animals dancing to Amilcare Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours. It's a fun and enjoyable scene, but not anything spectacular. Of particular interest, however, are the Art Deco doors that open to begin this sequence and come crashing down to close it. It might be a bit of stretch, but one could argue that those doors planted the seeds of my current obsession with Art Deco (along with King Kong and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but those are matters for other posts).

Fantasia concludes on a two-part sequence which features Modest Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and Schubert's version of Ave Maria. The first part of this concluding chapter was and is my favorite part of Fantasia--in an astoundingly well-drawn and animated sequence, a devil-like being who roosts atop a mountain peak overlooking a village awakens from his slumber and summons forth the spirits of the dead from their graves. Chernabog--as this devil is called--is one of the coolest characters ever dreamed up by Disney; this guy is the entire reason why I think demons are so cool. We see that once night falls, Chernabog holds sway over all--he casts his shadow over the town, twisting the houses and buildings into evil caricatures of themselves, and plays with the dead souls as though they were little more than a set of macabre Legos. It's as though Disney was trying to capture the essence of evil itself on film, and this is probably as close as anyone has ever come to doing so (fun fact: Chernobog was an actual deity in the Slavonic pagan pantheon, and his name quite literally means "Black God").

This being Disney, however, the forces of evil must inevitably succumb to the forces of good. That being said, no other Disney movie has presented this idea in such an effective and truly beautiful fashion as does Fantasia. Chernabog's dark ritual is brought to an end by a light from the sky, and he is forced to seek shelter beneath his wings as the night begins to give way to day. A procession of pious townsfolk passes from the town and through a nearby forest, eventually ending with the sunrise. It's a surprisingly profound meditation on the victory of light over darkness, and of life over death. If all of this seems fraught with Christian undertones... well, it is. But the whole concept is presented in so earnest a fashion that one simply cannot help but be moved by it. I'll be honest: I was bored to tears by this concluding number when I was a kid. But after having seen some of the world, and having learned quite a lot about religion, I find that now I can truly appreciate its message.

If you still have any doubts at this point, let me assuage them for you: I love this damn movie. Yet as much as I love it, audiences back in 1940 were not nearly so receptive. To be perfectly honest, the movie bombed. This, however, shouldn't come as a surprise--given the nature of cinema in 1940, Fantasia seems very much like an art-house picture. If you expected a musical to be successful in 1940, you needed to have someone like Fred Astaire or Eleanor Powell dancing around. It was not until after the Film had be re-edited and re-released several times that audiences began to recognize Fantasia for the classic it truly was. To make a tired point, Fantasia is one of my favorite movies ever. If you haven't seen this picture yet, watch it. If you have seen it, watch it again. It really is that good.

22 April 2009

Dresden, 1945

The ashes of the "Thousand Year Reich."

20 April 2009

Non Sequiturs, Ep. 6

My profound thought of the day: there is something very dislocating about the fact that Harold Lloyd and Adolf Hitler share the same birthday (and only a scant four years apart, to boot).

19 April 2009

Lady of the Night (1925)

Lady of the Night is, for all intents and purposes, a vehicle for Norma Shearer, still a relative newcomer and a nascent star in 1925. Norma plays two characters of of decidedly different backgrounds--on the one hand is Florence, a respectable daughter of a judge and a society darling, and on the other is Molly, a girl who was raised on the mean city streets. Another interesting contrast between the two girls is the fact that Florence grew up without a mother, while Molly grew up without a father (we see Molly's father hauled off to jail at the beginning of the picture, having been proclaimed guilty by none other than Judge Banning, Florence's father). By a cruel twist of fate, Florence and Molly both fall in love with the same man, a successful inventor named David Page (played by Malcolm McGregor, who, by the way, was a native of Newark, New Jersey). The situation is complicated by the fact that Molly was previously entangled in a shaky relationship with David's friend "Chunky" Dunn (played by George K. Arthur). Although Molly spurns him in favor of his more successful and more handsome friend, Chunky nevertheless tirelessly venerates her.

It's less than revolutionary plot notwithstanding, Lady of the Night is a surprisingly good movie. Norma demonstrates just how good an actor she was in her day, turning in highly believable performances as two extremely different characters. Norma's Molly is especially sympathetic--she communicates with great effectiveness the exterior toughness, the interior nobility and the profound sadness and loneliness of a woman who feels unworthy of the man she loves (not that such a sentiment in inherently feminine, mind you).

Even if it were not a well-acted production, Lady of the Night would still be notable simply for being a damned lovely picture to look at. Rather than appearing simple black and white, Lady of the Night was shot on film that employs a variety of color tints that, aside from enhancing the various moods of the picture, also make Lady of the Night a beautiful sight to behold. That the film survives in remarkably good condition also enhances the visual aspect of the picture.

Finally, the enjoyability of the film for a modern viewer is enhanced by a modernized piano score (courtesy of Turner Classic Movies and composer Jon Mirsalis). The musical accompaniment fits the tone and feeling of the picture quite well, and never sounds out of place or exaggerated.

Lady of the Night was quite a pleasant surprise for me--it exceeded my expectations rather greatly. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a masterpiece of the cinema, but it nevertheless was a delight to watch. It also helps that Norma Shearer is rather pleasant to look at, especially when she appears as Molly; despite--or perhaps because of--Molly's somewhat trampy makeup, she is disquietingly beautiful (evidence of this can be seen on the right). But I digress. For fans of silent film, I can recommend Lady of the Night without a hint of hesitance.

[Image Source]

13 April 2009

Pimp my Ride

...with an 85mm gun.

06 April 2009


It's been a pretty hectic few weeks here in Sigmaville. I left Tacoma at the end of March, and the odds are that I probably won't ever return. I'm back in Kansas City, where I spent a painfully awkward adolescence and where I will probably be living for the next couple years. I know I'm going to miss the Northwest quite a lot--the four years I spent there were probably the best I'll ever see. Nevertheless they are gone, and it accomplishes naught to pine for the past. On the plus side, I finally managed to land a job, where I will start working tomorrow. After nearly a year of joblessness, it's both a relief and a source of trepidation to be going back to work.

For a while I was thinking of my expulsion from the Northwest as the end, but in the last few days I've begun to think of it as a new beginning of sorts. In a few months I'll hopefully be living on my own again. Kansas City isn't perhaps as bad I sometimes make it sound--after all, it is the city that at various times was home to Wallace Beery, Ginger Rogers, Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford. There also exists a great deal of Jazz Age and Art Deco ephemera in Kansas City, as the years between the two World Wars was a sort of heyday for the city. And besides, it's not as though I'm trapped here forever. I've been kicking around the idea of moving to Upstate New York In a few years--after I've paid off my student debts, upgraded my computer and bought a new car. Syracuse seems appealing, if only for the Niagara-Mohawk Building.

In any event, I've rambled on long enough for now. So that this post has some redeeming value, here's a picture of Myrna Loy.