Sunday, June 29, 2008

Movin' on Up...

...If not to the East Side, at least to the East Coast.

Here's hoping our KLM flights are less fraught than this vintage luggage sticker would seem to indicate...

Tout passe, tout casse, tout lasse...

When we got to Cairo, Mr. Muscato and I learned some sad news: the Nile Hilton, for decades the hotel in town, is closing at the end of the year. It will turn, by 2011 and after a major facelift, into a Ritz Carlton.

It's sad for a number of reasons. The Nile Hilton was Cairo's first international hotel; it opened in 1959, a fleeting hope that perhaps even with revolution and Cold War, Egypt was still moving forward:

Happier days: less traffic, clear air, and those fab mosaics...

It wasn't just any hotel; Jane Russell came for the opening:

And she brought hats!

It has, from its roof terrace, the most spectacular views in town, up and down the Nile. Here, looking South, with sunset approaching, felluccas sailing, and generally all right with the world:

When I first lived in Cairo, my crowd hung out at the Hotel's fabulously tacky basement disco, Jackie's Joint, dancing to Arab pop and Euro hits, ogling Cairo's gilded youth. Its bar, the oddly Beaux Arts Taverne du Nil, was for many years an excellent spot for meeting artistic gentlemen of many nations.

And then one fine August afternoon, I met the most marvelous person, right there in the Nile Hilton pool:

And the rest is history, or at least our history, because that person, O Best Beloveds, was Mr. Muscato.

I'm sure the Ritz Carlton will be very nice. But in a city that already has two Four Seasons (Four Seasonses?), multiple Intercons, Marriotts, Sheratons, etc., etc., it will be just another top-end spot for the drop-in tourist.

It's silly to be nostalgic for a Hilton, I know, but it wasn't, really, just any Hilton. Even telling a taxi driver, in your best Egyptian dialect, "Heelton e-Neel, lo samaht!" made one feel just a little more chic and a little more of the place, all at once. And not every place does both...

Image du Jour: Shriners!

Just because.

With July 4th a-comin', I have an urge to see grown men wear fezzes and drive tiny cars. Must be time to head home...

(Thanks, Megan!)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Tugboat Goddess

Marie Dressler! The unlikeliest superstar of the early talkies - a small mountain of a Vaudeville trouper with a face like a bull dog and a figure like the Rock of Gibraltar.

She had soldiered through three decades of an up-and-down career on stage and screen before MGM, desperate for voices, grabbed her, discovered what it had, and treasured her as it did few stars.

She had the most roguish stare this side of Valentino:

And when she stared through a lorgnette, it was never in disapproval, but only genuine confusion:

She had started out as a kind of frightening ingenue:

But wound up the toast of Hollywood, as evidenced by the starry company she kept:

A Barrymore, a Trouper, and the Boss's Wife's Patented Expression...

She played tragic, in Anna Christie with Garbo, and she played high comedy, stretching double takes into triples and quadruples in Dinner at Eight. She played opposite Gish, Harlow, Wallace Beery, Marion Davies, and a brace of Barrymores, among others.

She said, "I have played my life as a comedy rather than the tragedy many would have made of it," and that's something useful for all of us, I think. Her autobiography is The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling; I think she should have named it after another one of her pictures: The Divine Lady.

Itsi Bitsi Diva...

Dalida, so young, so gamine - Egypt's greatest export since Cleopatra's Needle.

Sublime and Ridiculous

Nefertiti - the name means "the beautiful one has come" - haunts Egypt. She was queen at a time that more than met the threshold for the enigmatic Chinese blessing "May you live in Interesting Times." She disappeared from history for a millennium or two (and therein lies a tale), and when German archaeologists discovered the original of this bust, they covered it in mud and smuggled it to Berlin.

This is but a reproduction, sitting in a bay window in a Cairo attraction that outcamps even the Umm Kulthoum Museum (no easy feat, that), the Gayer-Anderson House. It's a place that invites the question: Gayer than whom?

It's a disarming, enchanting thing, a vast, rambling medieval merchant's house (a pair of them banged together, actually), furnished by its last occupant (a British Major with a penchant for all things Oriental, especially if they had high cheekbones and were about 16). Highlights include the Queen Anne Dining Room, a little parlor in the most outré Louis Farouk style ever, and lots of portraits of both Gayer-Anderson and his petit amis:

Hmm. Think there was a little ego involved here? The house is chockablock with portraits, but this is my favorite.

The Major was apparently especially fond of this youngster, one Abdul, whose image is repeated in paintings and skethes throughout the house. The guide will solemnly inform you that they shared a room, pointing out the small pharaonic-style cot that sits at the foot of the Major's own, elaborately inlaid lit de chambre.

Another feature of the place is the Major's extensive collection of life masks. Did I mention that in addition to being disarming and enchanting, it's more than a little creepy?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Image du Jour: a Must-Have

Perhaps the greatest toy ever:
Barbara Millicent Roberts as Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels, as dressed by Edith Head, and friends.

I don't usually lift quite so baldly from other blogs, but having seen this over on The Stranger's Slog, I simply have no choice. Not available, they say, 'til fall. What with that and the new Grace Jones, it's shaping up to be quite an autumn...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

MM in the ME

Egyptians, if I may generalize, have a movie jones akin to that of your average Chelsea boy who's seen one too many Thelma Ritter picture.

Mr. Muscato can be watching a 50s film on one of the Arabic movie channels (imagine a world with ten equivalents of TCM - that's Arabic satellite TV). I'll idly look up and ask, of some second or third lead in the background, "Who's that?" - and he's off, reeling off film titles, husbands, lovers, children... invariably ending with either "she's dead" (with backstory), "she took the veil" (with resigned expression), or "you saw her last week on that soap opera" (ditto, but at my stupidity).

Even I, though can always pick out a few stars - and one of them, most definitely, is Hind Rostom, who reigned throughout the 50s and 60s as "the Egyptian Marilyn Monroe."

There is actually some resemblance, mostly in the blondeness and in a certain vulnerable appeal. Hind, though, was made of much sturdier stuff than Norma Jeane.

She made dozens of movies, things like 1965's Immortal Love. In the poster, I think she looks less like Marilyn than like Patti Lupone playing Florence Henderson (now there's a script idea for someone!):

She did a good Magnani-esque smolder:

She's known in the West, insofar as she is at all, for playing a waif (well, a sexy waif) in 1958's Cairo Station, directed by Youssef Chahine, an auteur whose reputation is much greater in Europe than it is in Egypt.

Egyptians seem to like her best in less arty pictures, things like Shafiqa the Copt, a biopic in which she got to play a glam dancer and get the full 60s star treatment:

Remarkably, Rostom escaped the three fates (death, veil, soap operas), retiring at the top in the mid-70s, wanting her fans to remember her as she was. She still makes the very occasional appearance at this event or that.

Do you suppose this gives us an idea what a happy, older MM might have looked like?

As thoroughly demento as it can be, in some ways Hollywood on the Nile seems to have been a better place for its inhabitants than that other one...

Hind's movie posters courtesy of Movie Poster Collecting, part of the Movie Poster Page. They're fabulous!

Street Scene

In Old Cairo, an attempt at a glossy shop in a distinctly not-glossy neighborhood. The Arabic spells "ben-tee-oon." Well, they're trying.


I may or may not believe in a Creator, but I certainly believe that angels walk among us.

If I were building a LOL, the caption for this would have to be: "GRACE... ...I HAS IT!"

Long life, Madiba.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Birthday Girl: Eleanor Parker

The very chic Miss Eleanor Parker turns 86 today. She's been low-profiling it since a 1991 TV movie called Dead on the Money (downside: it stars Corbin Bernsen; upside: also co-starring is Sheree North, which has to be worth something), but she's very much still with us.

Because of that little musical she made, she's probably most remembered as a bitchy, brittle type; in fact, she was a real leading lady (if never a top star), one who leavened the Greer Garson/Deboah Kerr high-lady style with something earthier and warmer.

And she was very dressy:

My favorite Parker picture is the sudsy biopic Interrupted Melody, in which she suffers beautifully as a diva who's struck down by both polio and love trouble. It's a good old-fashioned wallow, and it makes one wish she'd had the chance to make more good weepies.

Even before I discovered her birthday, I was thinking of Parker this week, as yesterday we ate lunch at Cairo's magnificent Mena House Hotel, where the coffee shop has a view of the Great Pyramid (which is best seen from a distance - a distance, that is, from the hordes of ravening, deeply regrettable tourists).

One of Parker's most lavish (if not most successful) films, Valley of the Kings, was partly filmed at the Mena House, and she figures heavily on the illustrated menu (try the Club Sandwich, by the bye - very tasty).

The problem for any leading lady appearing with Robert Taylor was the sheer difficulty of being more beautiful than he. Parker held her own better than most.

Tarzan Boy

Over in his neck of the woods, TJB has been getting us all hot and bothered lately with tributes to such pulchritudinous screen greats as Guy Madison and Gordon Scott. I've decided it's time to come clean and confess my childhood Guilty Secret Crush, and in particular the film that filled my dreams for much of the Nixon administration:

I bet he could, the little slut. I know I could have...

Yes, Mike Henry, a very late-period Tarzan, as evidenced by the mod stylings of his comrades, who apparently include Tennessee Williams:

Mike was definitely a little more on the hirsute side than your average Tarzan, and that suited me just fine (still does!).

Perhaps I just liked his way with children. Mike and Boy really seemed to have something going:

Although the following still could - I'm sure did - fuel all sorts of wild thoughts about just what might be going on:

Ummm... You're home early!

This is absolutely one of those films I really don't want to see as an adult. It just can't live up to my dreams.

Boy - whose name in this iteration is Erik and who was in real life, such as it is, Steve Bond - grew up to become a sometime soap star and Playgirl model:
But somehow the magic was gone. Maybe it was all in the shag cut and the loincloth...

Image du Jour: Homesickness

If Mr. Muscato and I seem just a shade out of sorts these days - even here on the banks of the Nile - blame the bewitching, maddening creature seen here.

The great difficulty of travel is having to leave at home Koko the Wonder Dog, whom I will have to admit we refer to amongst ourselves as The Baby. He really is the most marvelous dog.


Leg Show: Golden Years

I don't know about you, but I like it when ladies of a certain age flash a little gam.

My grandmother would always, of certain of her acquaintances, observe "well, yes, she looks fine - but she's lost her ankles!" and then flash a demure glance down at her own dainty feet.

Marlene, of course, kept hers insured by Lloyds of London, and had them prominently on display when pitching Blackglama:

And it makes sense that a hoofer like Chita Rivera would keep hers in fine trim:

Elaine Stritch's trademark outfit seems designed to highlight her legs (in what I have long thought is the most calculatedly casual ensemble ever seen on stage):

I have to say it came as something of a surprise to find Mrs. Hart indulging in a bit of what Hollywood starlets once referred to as "Drape Art," but she carries it off:

It's even a pan-gender phenomenon, which in this case, at least, is a very good thing:

Those knees aren't getting older - they're getting better!

For the Man Who Has Everything...

I suppose it's just my dirty mind, but doesn't Pope Ratz look perhaps just a little too interested in the prezzie he's being given by the very dashing President of the Congo? The mind reels...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Street Scene

I was initially enchanted with a women's accessories shop called Dilemma; I then noticed that the real dilemma in this neighborhood is that no one has apparently cottoned on to the drug reference at the center of the O'Neill Jeans shop sign. In 1853, Mr. Levi Strauss did indeed open an emporium in San Francisco; how the O'Neills became involved (and what role cannabis and/or Rastafarianism played) is shrouded in mystery...

Bathe in the Fabulous

Miss Crawford emotes, mimes, and dances; Miss Moyet sings; Mr. Danorama directs.

(featuring cameo appearances by Misses Dunaway, Ball, and Vance)

We swoon and obey.

Picture This: Van Leo

Cabaret Dancer, 1940s
Fragments of old Cairo remain: the crumbling buildings that line the downtown streets, the faded cafés, the antique shops in backstreets full of Déco light fixtures and chipped sets of cocktail glasses.

And in the photographs of the master of Egyptian portrait photos, Van Leo.

Self Portrait

In the photographs of Van Leo, old Cairo comes alive - the Egypt of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, when it was a cosmpolitan country at the center of Arabic culture, film, finance, and intrigue, home to thriving commnities of Armenians, Greeks, Italians, English, French (not to mention the tens of thousands of Egyptian Jews whose absence today is a unspoken one).

He was born Leon Boyadjian, and as late as the turn of the century was a presence on the Cairo scene. One of the great proofs of my idiocy is not having been photographed by Van Leo while I lived here...

He is remembered for his intense, saturnine self portraits:

Which did, sometimes, show more than a flash of humor - as here, pictured as a gaucho:

He photographed le tout Egypte, people like intellectual and feminist (and possessor of the most expressive eyebrows this side of Miss Crawford) Doria Shafik:

But he was somehow most at home in the city's demi-monde, photographing the actresses, dancers, and hangers-on who filled the nightclubs and waited for their Big Chance:

He worked, as a studio and movie photographer, mostly unheralded outside Egypt, for his whole long life. He even, during her time in Cairo working with Youssef Chahine, photographed Dalida:

And who could ask for more than that?

There has been something of a renaissance in interest in Van Leo of late, as attested by this gallery with essay tributes from the American University in Cairo, as well as this gallery of almost demented glamour focusing on his entertainment photos.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Image du Jour: Dilemmas of Glamour

When the answer to "What to wear?" is: everything!

I bet you didn't know that Lebanon had a leading drag queen? Well, they do, and they're very lucky, too, for he is Bassem Feghali, and quite fabulous.