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.