A little lesson from Miss Bakaire on the essentials of fabulousness - a headpiece to die for, a couple of insinuating numbers, and a deathless belief in one's own mythos. Even here, with all the limitations of an early-TV variety special, in Germany yet, Josephine demonstrates why she was one of the very great sensations and, among other things, a matchless dancer...
Friday, February 26, 2010
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Actually, we're having a rather Anacin kind of week at the Café, darlings, for which apologies. I'm sure things will look brighter by the weekend, which after all in this part of the world is practically moments away...
Saturday, February 20, 2010
Friday, February 19, 2010
In memory, it will always be 1953, the year that saw her headline three of MGM's favorite things: a much-loved classic (The Desert Song), a hagiographic biopic (So This is Love, the story of Grace Moore, herself a onetime MGM asset), and a great big Broadway hit, Cole Porter no less (Kiss Me Kate). In the last, it must be admitted, she's really very good, happily sending up her image and gleefully sparring with dreamy costar Howard Keel.
If all her parts had been as challenging, as off-kilter, as Kate's Lilli Vanessi, she might have had a longer career, but audiences were tiring of operetta and what Lena Horne later called "pretty mouth" singing. After only one more picture (the creaky Vagabond King, from a 1925 Friml original, at Paramount and opposite the not exactly Keelische Oreste Kirkop), Grayson moved on to theatre, television, and graceful retirement.
She was a lovely lady with a lovely voice who appears to have lived a dignified and happy life, and if that's not the stuff of tabloids and Hollywood legends, it's still no mean feat. What leading lady of today will have as good a name in fifty years?
Last night's treat was the comparatively least celebrated of Warner Bros.' run of early thirty musical spectaculars, Dames. There are perfectly legitimate reasons that it doesn't have the stature of, say, 42nd Street or Golddiggers of 1933, but it's still a fine evening's entertainment.
Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler do their usual business (brash and blushing, respectively) quite competently, and Joan Blondell, as always, livens the proceedings. The plot requires Guy Kibbee and ZaSu Pitts, as Keeler's parents, to bumble and dither as is their wont, but Pitts is oddly absent, doing nothing with what is basically a pretty nothing part (she looks like she wishes she were back with Stroheim in Greed).
The real reason for these pictures, of course, isn't the plot, but rather the numbers, and here Busby Berkeley certainly delivers. From an idyllic Central Park setting for the rather treacly "When You Were a Smile on Your Mother's Lips (and a Twinkle in Your Daddy's Eye)" to set the Powell-Keeler romance moving to the title number that highlights the inevitable show-within-a-show, the music moves along briskly. A bizarre Gibson Girl/Gay '90s number, "The Girl at the Ironing Board" gives Blondell the chance to frolic with an entire laundry's worth of en-puppetted long johns (a feint at least in part a result of her advanced pregnancy during filming).
One thing this picture does require is a very high tolerance for the standard that it launched upon the world, "I Only Have Eyes For You," of which one hears a very great deal in the course of the film's 91 minutes. It first appears early in the picture, but then gets the full-fledged demento Berkeley treatment later on, in an extravaganza that imagines the Second Coming as the Apotheosis of Ruby Keeler, or perhaps what Kim Jong Il might get up to if he had an unlimited supply of white organza (and Ruby Keeler). It might seem the last word in Bekeleyiana, but in reality it only sets the stage for the big "Dames" finale, which, like the rest of the best of Berkeley, is basically indescribable.
Actually, it's what Leni Riefenstahl might have done if she'd had better drugs and a sense of humor. In fact, it's odd having seen this movie and the Leni documentary in one week; it causes all sorts of thinking about what was really going on in people's minds in the 1930s.
I've decided that there is a truly fundamental difference between Riefenstahl's massed thousands of perfect Aryans and Berkeley's intricate compositions of giggling Hollywood chorus girls. It's that Leni came out of entertainment (having started as a dancer - of sorts, if the clips available are any indication - and actress) and applied what she had learned there to the glorification of Fascist pomp and circumstance. By contrast, Berkeley took his military-academy background - his love of regimentation, precision, the endless geometric replication of pattern - and applied it to the most basic tropes of show-biz: boy meets girl, kids meet fame (on a soundstage the size of all Burbank, in the company of endless numbers of extras moving in unison).
That is, although in some ways the products seem almost eerily similar, they're actually coming at each other from entirely different universes. One gilds a vacuous evil, giving it a frozen, gimcrack glamor; the other adds a backbone of steel to the June-Moon-Spoon of a thousand nights in Vaudeville, turning it into true cinema that's still, by virtue of its inherent absurdity, gloriously entertaining and oddly human in scale. Surely there can be few less Fascist concepts than 350 dancing Ruby Keelers, let alone having all of them serenaded by the keening croon of the eternal juvenile Dick Powell.
If only he could have done more with poor ZaSu...
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Still, I think we can't forget what an extraordinary creature she was in her prime, as here, a vision in orientalische Halston with the whole world ahead of her. There have been few more lovely women in recent decades, and if her film career never went much beyond Cabaret and Barry Lyndon, both of those are in their own ways landmarks in which she is very, very effective.
Here at the Café, Miss B. holds a special place, having been responsible for one of the very first little traffic spikes back eons ago when all of us were mere cyber-tots. Much should be forgiven the fabulous, but the killer combo of trout pout and a forehead as flat and immovable as the Antarctic do try one's patience, if not one's admiration for all that went before...
It was especially thoughtful of the designer to have included this tome's original title, so that paperback buyers needn't have fretted whether Red Carpet for Mamie Eisenhower (or is it actually the more stentorian Red Carpet for MAMIE EISENHOWER?) was in fact a new and different biography than the seminal Red Carpet for Mamie that they had bought in hardback last year when they were on vacation at Ogunquit and it was the only thing the damn drugstore stocked besides the awful Taylor Caldwell novel that Aunt Gert gave them at Eastertime.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
The film is far more than the story of Hitler's favorite filmmaker, the woman whose rollercoaster career took her from silent stardom in the now unwatchable genre of German Mountain Epics to scubadiving at 90+ in the Indian Ocean - heights and depths, indeed. What it really is, I think, is an almost continually frustrated attempt to answer one question: "What was she thinking?"
For decades she maintained one obdurate story: she was an apolitical artist, one who got caught up, all unawares, in the frenzy surrounding the rise of Nazism and who just happened to create its most enduring visual records. She was, in fact, a victim - of Goebbels, who repeatedly frustrated her perfectionist vision; of her postwar critics, who saw in Triumph of the Will the potent danger of a genuinely gifted eye meeting a poisonous message; and even of later writers, like Susan Sontag, who looked at Riefenstahl's '60s work photographing African tribesmen and saw a continuation of her Nazi-era celebration of what we know think of as body Fascism.
In the movie, she hews to this line, a nonagenarian vision of raddled UFA glamour as she tells her well-worn tales, dimpling guilelessly at the camera like the old pro she truly was. She compares herself, repeatedly, to Dietrich, whom she admires, it seems, not for her boldly anti-Hitler stance, but simply for having escaped and endured. She notes that she needed the same kind of lighting Marlene required - a high single spot to create the legendary shadows - and makes the dubious claim that she had been in the running to be Von Sternberg's Lola Lola in The Blue Angel.
Only once does the mask drop. Reunited in the stadium of the 1936 Olympics with two of the cameramen she had schooled to realize her almost demented glorification of athletic perfection in Olympia, she sits, during a break, chatting with them, apparently unaware her mic is live. Suddenly, briefly, her days as the toast of Berlin come to life. The three dispassionately move from talking about apertures and exposures to chitchat about the more routine assignments of who filmed who - "Ah, ja, you went to Moscow with Ribbentrop, no?" and for just that moment, you realize what an abyss she is, a vacancy, not apolitical but amoral, genuinely unable to fathom the bizarre experiences she has been through.
At the end of the film, she tries one last justification, another repetition of her tropes - I was not a party member, I never said anything anti-semitic, people lie so terribly about me, I was (looking very much intact) "shattered" to learn of all the atrocities, what could I have done ... and it occurred to me. Leni, in the end, really is a Lola Lola, a woman who, for film as the original was for sex, is so wholly self-absorbed, "von Kopf bis Fuß " made for nothing else, that she just ... can't help it.
For Marlene, Lola was just a role, the one that finally set her on the road to real stardom and out of the black orbit of National Socialism. Leni, though, was the real deal, Dietrich's dark shadow. It's a paradox, then, that she enjoyed a long, vigorous old age and, finally, a measure of renown apart from her vilification, even as her braver, more clear-eyed coeval languished in a geriatric haze of liquor and self-pity in Paris. Good choices don't always make for happy endings, but even so, while both women may have had "wonderful, horrible" lives, I have to think Dietrich's was the better path.
Monday, February 15, 2010
Romero's was a fun career - steady work certainly, with 60-odd pictures behind him before he went into TV in a big way in 1950, enough familiar roles to make up for a fair number of quaintly obscure titles (Love Before Breakfast, anybody? Carnival in Costa Rica? Happy Go Lovely?), and a nice long old age to bask in the appreciation of fans. He worked with everybody from Shirley Temple to Divine, and he always seemed to enjoy himself.
Never married and one of Hollywood's favorite "Confirmed Bachelors," Romero earned the title noted above the hard way: no less than Joan Crawford, who no question knew from butch when she saw it, bestowed it on him.
Eilers is really is just the ghost of a name today. Here she seems just a shade too happy to be on the radio, although I suppose it could be the "yes, I still have a jawline" pose she's having to hold for a moment or two longer than is strictly comfortable. She's one of those people who was bigger then than we would credit today without ever having really clicked. She never did television - maybe she should have learned a thing or two from Butch.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Also celebrating today are a dizzying array of Café favorites: St. Eva of Gabor, eternal castaway/sex bomb Tina Louise, sex bomb/survivor Burt Reynolds, Method megastar Kim Stanley, bossa nova biggie Sergio Mendes, deft self-satirist Leslie Neilsen, and two of my favorite Egyptians: King Farouk and my very own Mr. Muscato.
We're less thrilled that he shares the day with a certain Mrs. Palin, formerly of Wasilla, Alaska, but we're going to be sloughing off that slight vexation with a quick road trip to this Dubai place that everyone's always going on about. If it's radio silence in these parts for the next few days, you'll know that we're having fun...
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Sadly, Maureen McGovern's startlingly funny version hasn't been Youtubed, although you can, if you like, catch a rather more elegant singing of it by the exquisite Dutch diva Elly Ameling (I adore how those ladies bring such a genial, "look Ma, I'm dancing!" air to their encore numbers).
Knowing you, though, you'll probably click right through to the (maddeningly unembedable) dance-spectacular featuring the improbable trio of Steve and Eydie and Gene Kelly. Nothing says Gershwin like a 1975 TV special, after all.
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
And you dreamed it all
And this is your story.
Do you know who you are?
You're the dream operator...
Monday, February 8, 2010
Hers is story that doesn't end well (death on skid row in 1947) and that didn't leave much behind - but, for a moment, in her gold lace wrap she was just about perfect, and it looks like she knew it.
Also, her final film has, I think, a marvelous title: Chloe, Love is Calling You. It ought to be a romantic screwball about a feckless heiress, with maybe a fun part for Helen Westley or Edna May Oliver as her aunt/chaperone. Instead, because by that point nothing was going right for Borden, it was in fact a lurid 1934 cheapie filmed in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Still - that photo, that moment...
Sunday, February 7, 2010
Saturday, February 6, 2010
Friday, February 5, 2010
For your (dubious) listening pleasure, Jacek "The Polish Bobby Vinton" (is that redundant?) Lech brings you his 1966 hit "Bądź dziewczyną moich marzeń" ("Be the girl of my dreams") .
It's notable mostly for the appearance on backup of a rarely seen legend: yes, here we have not only Thing One and Thing Two, but their lesser-known sister, Thing Three. If this is what they could come up with for primetime TV, imagine what the girls in the steno pool were wearing. Snazzy frock on the slightly-too-enthusiastic hostess, though, you have to admit...
Thursday, February 4, 2010
The above was snapped during Miss Rheba's Christmas visit, in the garden of the Grand Mosque; the profusion of flowers everywhere is one of the distinct features of the local winter, not just in snazzy public places like the Mosque, but along the roadsides, in massed quantities on hillsides, and decorating intersections and traffic circles (the latter an endangered species as they are replaced by red lights). That they're all the sort of northern flowers - petunias and such - one finds in suburban English gardens only makes it that much more picturesque.
As usual, Mr. Muscato, Koko, and I have spent part of our weekend at our favorite seaside spot, joined this week by visitors from Europe (stunned at the sunshine) and the Emirates (stunned at the dire local nightlife). There is always great people watching at the beach - the Western tourists cluelessly wandering about in inappropriate swimwear, the gaggles of subcontinental gentlemen and local youth ogling same, and the wide variety of family outings - from nuclear families of three to extended clans of ten or more times that - enjoying sun and sand.
I'm particularly interested in how women deal with the competing and contradictory demands of modesty, fashion, and comfort. One solution is standard sportsclothes under the enveloping black abaya and headscarf - teen sisters racing along the beach after smaller siblings with the abaya sailing behind them, inevitably recalling comic pre-Vatican II images of nuns at play.
Another, very common in the Muslim world, is to try and meet all three priorities via layering. When I was living in Cairo, the fashion among junior misses was to go with the then-stylish strappy mini-sundress - over skin-tight jeans and turtleneck, creating a kind of slightly slutty (but totally covered-up) jumper effect.
Yesterday we encountered a remarkable local variation of that look that saw both the comfort and fashion angles taken to new extremes: a matron frolicking on the beach with her tots, resplendent in an ensemble that consisted of a scarlet tracksuit (the type with stripes down the sides, previously more familiar to me on elderly Italian gentlemen in South Philadelphia or perhaps on third-tier rappers) worn under a form-fitting metallic-silver jersey cocktail frock, complete with ruffled handkerchief hemline, the whole completed up top with a gold fishscale-pailleted scarf and down below with rainbow-striped platform espadrilles. Yes, the combo led to a certain amount of unavoidable lumpiness, but on the whole, whatever else you can say, Madam was fierce.
On a different note - why is it that, whether in times of boom or, as now, shall we call it lack-of-boom, that local building contractors don't seem to take any special advantage of the more comfortable weather? A very high percentage of the many high-profile projects around town seem more or less stalled - not only the ones with reputed Dubai-related money woes that clearly have been knocked awry by the financial crisis, but the publicly financed ones like the long-pending opera house.
A few are proceeding apace, but in general the city presents a silhouette of still cranes, a six-story high mini-version of Dubai's sixty-story skyline. If previous years are a model, come the summer, things will rev up significantly, because, of course, as much as possible has to be done and perfect by National Day in November. I think it would be a mercy to the workers, if nothing else, to reassign that deadline to the July accession anniversary, just so the rush could be going on now, when it's not pure torment to be outdoors.
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Monday, February 1, 2010
The clip's mise-en-scène recalls nothing so much as one of the era's lesser poolside gay porn romps, although the burly singer - perhaps "performer" would be a kinder, if no less euphemistic, term - appears considerably more butch than most stars of that genre in those days when Twinks Ruled the World.
And it's her birthday - 45 today. She's had the kind of life that can be summed up by pointing out that her short-lived popstar career was actually one of the saner things she's ever done...
It's always seemed to me that the light went out in Gable after Lombard's death, and except for the rare spark here and there (and some deeply touching moments in his last film, The Misfits - Monroe's influence?), something about losing her (and the War, I suppose, and just passing time) quenched what it was that had made him such a Total Star.
Sharing the day? Well, it's a mixed bunch - the great Victor Herbert alongside Saturday Night Live also-ran Garrett Morris; the inimitable Incomparable Hildegarde and byproduct-of-fame Lisa Marie Presley; two Very Different Divas, the superlative Renata Tebaldi and subculture superstar Exene Cervenka; and two of the more mordant talents of the Anglophone world, Miss Muriel "Jean Brodie" Spark and Terry "the Pepperpot Python" Jones.
Oh, and another lady who will shortly merit a post all her own. Don't say you haven't been warned...