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.