Monday, December 31, 2012

Through the Years

"We have a whole new year ahead of us, and wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all be a little more gentle with each other, and a little more loving, have a little more empathy - and maybe next year at this time, we'd like each other a little bit more..."

Oh, I know.  Someone wrote it for her, and she read the words, turning the really rather ordinary sentiment into something more than that only through the indomitable force of her own personality - but as we see the old year out, it's far from the worst that one could hope for this new and unknown thing, 2013.

It's only this year struck me that I'm older, now, than Judy Garland ever got to be.  Through the years turned out to be not so very long for her, although of course for us as listeners, fans, appreciators, she has more than kept her word. 

As I look forward at my own second half-century, through the years is no longer the infinite parade of possibilities it once seemed, while all the years behind stretch further and further away.  Still, as we teeter on this annual threshold between past and future, through this state of what anthropologists call liminality, I know there's so much more to rejoice for than to pine about, and at midnight tonight, we'll raise a glass to what possibilities remain and toast the year that's been.  If nothing else, it's brought us safe this far. 

New Year's Eve is a reminder that we're all, in the end, in the same boat, striking out from familiar waters into something new and strange.  Here's to us, through the years, with high hopes for the year to come.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

'Round Midnight

Trust dear Miss Ann Miller to be the one to lead us on our way out of this old year - if there were anyone from Olde Hollywood with whom I think it would be a kick to spend New Year's Eve, I suspect it would be she.  Katharine Hepburn would want to do something improving - recite Longfellow, perhaps; with Bette Davis, the evening would surely end with recrimination and the furious tossing of barbed insults; Joan Crawford would make us go upstairs and ooh and ah over those damned twins; and, of course, Miss Garbo would really rather that we weren't there at all.  Ann, though, would meet us at the door with a nice cold glass of champers and the latest dirty joke, and isn't that how any New Year's Eve party should start?  Also, by 1:00 a.m., I don't believe it would take much to persuade her to put some Cole Porter on the hifi and recreate her big number from Kiss Me, Kate, which would certainly be a hoot.

Which brings us to an anniversary, for it was just 64 years ago today that Kate bowed on Broadway, starting on the journey that took it through a run of more than 1,000 performances there, a national tour that may still be rattling around somewhere, the splashy 3D MGM spectacular in which Ann stole every scene she could, a 1968 TV version starring the singularly unappealing combination of Carol Lawrence and Robert Goulet (they were married, but I can't imagine it helped any), and regular revivals from here to Tashkent.

As for New Year's Eve, we're running up the coast a principality or two and spending the big night with our pals The Teacher and his very fetching partner - if nothing else, it should be more festive than last year, when Mr. Muscato and I sat, each with a terrier on our lap, waiting for midnight so that we could for God's sake go to sleep.  I feared then that terminal middle-age had set in, but perhaps there's life in the old girl yet.  We shall see.

How about you?  To steal a line from dear Miss Whiting - what are you doing New Year's Eve?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

And Now, a Word from our Sponsor...

Well, it looks like our holiday plans are all sorted out for us.  I just can't get enough of Lefty Leffler and the boys!

Friday, December 28, 2012

When Worlds Collide

Yesterday's birthday girl, Miss Marlene Dietrich, gives what is apparently the bemused glance of death to a really rather touchingly terrified young Miss Barbra Streisand, who has clearly only this very moment realized that being Kicky at a Chanel runway show might be classified by some - Miss Dietrich among them - as Trying Too Hard.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Birthday Girl: A Glorious Voice

An embarrassment of birthday riches today, taking in everyone from Louis Pasteur to Oscar Levant, and from Marlene Dietrich to Cokie Roberts.  Here, however, we have a great lady who can hold her own with them and more, that inimitable practitioner of the gentle (and very nearly lost) art of musical satire, Miss Anna Russell.

If you know Miss Russell, there is is really no need to indulge in further superlatives; if not, it may at this rather distant remove from her heyday be difficult exactly to convey the impact she had on the occasionally rather solemn world of music when she burst upon the scene, as improbable a figure in her thirties as she remained for the rest of her long life.  Suffice it to say that rarely has anyone so deftly, thoroughly, and hilariously eviscerated the pretensions of High Art as she, wielding a combination of genuine authority on the subjects on which she discoursed and a mastery of broad comedy rarely equaled  - as a mistress of the double-take she is a peer of such immortals as Marie Dressler and Beatrice Lillie.

The summit of her art is unquestionably her dissection of Wagner's Ring Cycle, although her comprehensive guide to the writing of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta certainly has its partisans as well.  Personally, I feel lucky to have been introduced to her work at a dangerously early age, and I'm happy to confess that at various times in my life, back in the days when I was making an exiguous living on the fringes of the music business in New York and elsewhere, I have relied on what I gleaned from her recordings to seem a great deal more learned than ever I actually was. 

Here she introduces us to the basic necessities required for undertaking a career as a singer, and as a veteran of more than one encounter with that most fearsome of creatures, the Metropolitan Opera Soprano, I can attest that the description that closes this clip is as accurate a one as you ever will find.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Back on the Chain Gang

Ah, the sad return to reality; never pleasant, it's somehow extra dispiriting to have to go back to work on the day after Christmas, even though it's not exactly the most productive day of the year.  Over at Golden Handcuffs Consulting Amalgamated International, you could have shot cannons through some departments today, but I'm being a good soldier and "holding the fort" as someone inevitably puts it.  For reasons that will become apparent in good order, I'm not complaining.

We had a lovely Christmas, and I hope you did, too.  Mr. Muscato's legendary turkey recipe did its magic once again, and I must say that overall our Christmas lunch was something of a success, with guests sprawled around the living room well into the evening and the dogs beyond replete.  At least we only have more day until the local weekend, which we will probably spend doing a very great deal of not much at all, quite happily.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

They're Heee-eeere!

"I can't believe she did it again this year!"'

"What - came two hours early or brought along Sheila from Accounts Receivable?"


"Well, what do you want me to do about it?  She's your Aunt Claudia - go and get them a glass of Cold Duck or there'll be hell to pay.  I've got to finish getting dressed."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Familiar Footprints

Christmas Eve already; how this year has raced by.  We're not, despite the insipration of Miss Kate Smith  here (and I am mad for her seasonally festive gown - she's like a vast present trundling down toward the adoring crowd), spending it in our home towns, of course. If nothing else, that would mean Mr. Muscato and I being thousands of miles apart, which is hardly ideal and would upset the dogs no end.

It's an appealing notion, though, isn't it?  Going back in time, going back home - carols in the square, laughter everywhere - but far from practical.  Back in my hometown, the square (we actually had one, smack in the center of downtown where your town square should be) is practically abandoned; it's been thirty years since there was a department store downtown, and even the imposing old Carnegie-built town library has closed, replaced by a cheerless brick box miles away.  They may have carols in the strip mall at the edge of town where all the big-box stores have been closing these past four years, but that hardly seems the same thing and not the stuff of which socko Hollywood Palace numbers are made.

No, we are resisting nostalgia and having Christmas right here in the Sandlands.  It always seems very "White Christmas"-sy - the orange and palm trees do indeed sway, although we are very far away from Beverly Hills, L.A. - but over the years we've gotten used to balmy Christmas Eves and soldier on with all the heavy traditional favorites, leavened with mangoes and Egyptian delicacies and other innovations that certainly would have puzzled the old folks at home.  This year, friends from our days in the Sultanate have flown in from the neighboring Sandland they've wound up in, and we're being quite merry.

Even here, I have a few reminders of Christmases past - ornaments we put on our little tree, some dishes and silver and even a pot or pan or two that figured in those vast Christmas dinners that rolled titanically out of the kitchen under the watchful eye of the grandmothers and aunts.  I will likely at some point tomorrow spend a moment or two by myself, with the memories that I'm the only one on this side of the world to have, watch the ghosts come and go in my mind.  But just for a moment or two.  I know how lucky I am - lucky to have the sentimental memories (the dreams and just pretending), but luckier still to have the now from which to reminisce.  After all these years, at Christmas Eve, I've learned, my hometown is wherever I am spending it, wherever that may be.

Santa Bolly

It seems that dear Mr. John Abraham recently took time out of his busy schedule to preside as a visiting secret Santa at a Bollywood charity party.  Hurry down the chimney, indeed...

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Pet Peevey

"The ultimate Camp statement: it's good because it's awful..."
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

In which case, this is the greatest few minutes in television history.  And just try to get it out of your head.

You're welcome.

Apparently, even though I've only just run across this little gem, it's actually a fairly popular seasonal novelty song; I can only be grateful, I suppose, that I've been spared this long.  As for little Miss Gayla Peevey, this appearance would seem to be the highlight of her career.  She certainly gives it her all, and if the passing years have either revealed or imposed a distinctly unnerving subtext (I mean, really - "give him his massage"?), that's not her fault.  You have to admit, if nothing else - she plays jacks beautifully.

Friday, December 21, 2012


The dreaded screen of doom.

I never cease to be amazed, amused, and annoyed (in turn) by the censorship that is rife in the Sandlands.  Print censorship is annoying enough - if a book or magazine is simply unavailable, that's frustrating, but unless you're the author or engaged in a very specific research project and not able to travel, it's not something that you're constantly aware of.  One rung up that ladder is the occasional censoring still seen, mostly in magazines, but occasionally on consumer-product labels and elsewhere; that usually takes the form of Sharpie-swipes creating impromptu fichus, sleeves, and/or skirts for inadequately covered female models.  More rarely yet, you'll get this month's copy of some glossy monthly, only to note a suspicious lacuna, in which, say, page 64 is mysteriously facing page 73, and flipping back to the table of contents you realize you won't be reading the latest seriocomic diatribe about the bizarerie of Dubai or exposé of the more colorful doings of some member of the royal nomenklatura.

Online censorship, though, takes things to a whole different level.  You notice it so much more frequently, for one thing, and it's so widespread and, at least in part, so seemingly arbitrary.  The various filters in use are clearly meant to protect delicate local sensibilities, and so the Wonderful World of Pornography is put beyond the pale, up to a point.  Religion is sensitive, so don't try to find sites that ridicule (some of) it.  And of course we can only say good things about the glorious state of this glorious nation, and why on earth would any good citizen (or resident, since we're all under the same watchful eye) want to read anything different?

But today, these attempts to keep us good and pure (and docile) are increasingly irrelevant and quaint.  Annoying still, but quaint.  Anyone with the slightest techno-savvy can with relative ease set themselves up a proxy and surf away at even the vilest filth or wildest calumny against Sheikhs X, Y, or Z.  Beyond that, the censorship itself doesn't really work - there's plenty of naughtiness that slips around, past, and through, of all kinds.  Meanwhile, though, the breadth and indiscriminate nature of the blocks interfere with all sorts of perfectly respectable and practical online activity - doing research on breast cancer is perhaps the classic example of this, almost impossible since the operative word is frequently, as it were, on the no-fly list.

After so many years out here, one mostly gets used to it, putting up with the slight reduction in speed that comes with surfing via VPN (virtual private network, for those who live in freer climes).  Still, even so, sometimes something will still surprise.

This week, for example, home with my cold, I've been, as previously noted, Youtubing a lot.  So there I am, working through snippets of What's My Line? and enjoying the ever-changing array of obscure movies that come and go.  All wrapped up, a terrier on each side and, within the limits of feeling lousy, having a marvelous time.  So far, so good.  Then I say to myself, "Self," I say, "let's find another bizarro Christmas video to post.  Dear Thombeau has already beat me to one holiday favorite [Andrea Martin as Ethel Merman singing "Silent Night" way back on SCTV's Liberace Christmas Special], but let's think... I know!  I bet Shirley Bassey has some really cringeworthy yuletide goodies out there!"

And so I duly type her name.  And then:  the dreaded screen of doom.  Blocked.  Shirley Bassey?  For God's sake, in the last year or so we've had Amy Winehouse (pre-mortem, not that many in the audience could tell), Madonna, and JLo play live in this country, not to mention the Scissor Sisters - but Shirley Bassey is too risqué for online viewing?  I tried it again.  Same thing.  I tried a different browser.  Same thing.

I tweeted out my puzzlement (as one does - and by the bye, are you following me on Twitter?  You really ought to, you know.  Go do that, but then come right back.).  One kind soul tweeted back: "Because believing that diamonds are forever is blasphemous?"  It's as good an explanation as any, I suppose.

Actually, it turns out, it's still puzzling, but not really anything to do with the tigress of Tiger Bay.  Having done a little more fiddling around, I quickly established that one could watch the full range of Dame Shirley offerings, as long as one didn't search by name.  I tried her first name: no problem.  I tried her last name: blocked.  I tried lots of variations on it: mostly blocked.  For a while, I thought that perhaps there was some local cultural taboo of which I was unaware against things like bassists, bassos, and bassett hounds, when finally lightning struck.  Of course; I had been blind.  It wasn't B-A-S-S-E-Y or any other variety of it that was the problem - it was, in fact, just three of it its component letters:  A-S-S.  That's what the delicate flowers that live in these parts aren't supposed to see on YouTube.  Ass.  Fine, fine ass.

If it's any consolation, this particular oddity is limited to YouTube.  I've discovered that one can quite easily head over to Google, search on "ass" and "", and lose as many hours as you like viewing bootie in all its many forms (I think Mr. Peenee might particularly like this intriguing playlist, elegantly and concisely titled "hot men ass", for example).

Sigh.  It's this inconsistency that makes the censorship, ultimately, so pointless.  Since it can't really work, all it does is make the self-righteous feel more so, while causing those bound and determined to check out the forbidden fruit all the more eager to do so (and clever at doing it) and simultaneously inconveniencing those who just want to watch some bassett-hound puppy videos (very cute indeed, but not I'll wager where we'll find Peenee for very long).  I don't really see the point, and trying to see the point of the people who think it's a good idea just makes me tired.  Just another reason, as this old year wend its way to the finish-line, that the Sandlands and I may need to find a way to part ways in the new year.

And you know what's worst?  Dame Shirley, it turns out, is one of the few Entertainers With A Capital E who appears not to have ventured too frequently out into the dangerous realm of Christmas specials.  Don't worry, though - plenty of others have, and we still have four days to go...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Cover Girl

While the President is in the spotlight for nabbing the cover of Time this week, 69 years ago today that honor went to Miss Greer Garson, MGM's post-Shearer doyenne of prestige pictures and Great Lady parts.

It's funny, for I was thinking of her earlier today; I'm home sick with a very boring cold, and I've been amusing myself on YouTube watching bits and pieces and a couple of whole episodes of What's My Line?, which I really can't recommend highly enough to anyone with even a passing interest in the popular culture of the middle of the last century (a group I trust includes virtually all of the Café's Gentle Readers, no?).

Most famous for its Mystery Challenger segment, the program was really less a game show (in the Wheel of Fortune or the Supermarket Sweep sense) than a conversation, by a group of exceedingly smart and funny people, in the form of a game.  Garson was a lively Mystery guest, not least because she appears in the costume and more or less in the persona of Auntie Mame, whom she was playing on Broadway in 1958 (and she stumped the panel, which not many managed to do).  Her appearance is among other things an excellent lesson in the wielding of a cigarette holder, which is I suppose these days nearly as much of a lost art as buggy-whip making.  Most of all, she is amazingly likable, which, given her reputation in some circles as both chilly and smug, might come as a surprise.

Actually, I like Greer Garson a lot.  She was a created star (plucked out of a middling stage career in London by Louis B. Mayer to be his next Queen of the Lot) who actually took root - Anna Sten as Academy Award winner, if you will.  Changing fashions in movies meant that her career was fairly short, but in an oeuvre of only two dozen or so pictures, there are an awful lot of keepers:  her debut, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, set the template for the Garson character - loyal, plucky, smart, and lovely, and is still a guaranteed good cry.  Pride and Prejudice infuriates Austenites but is undeniably good fun, with Garson a mature Elizabeth Bennett (she hadn't arrived at MGM until she was 34, after all) who holds her own against champion scene stealers including Laurence Olivier and the redoubtable Edna May Oliver.

Within a couple of years of her debut, she really hit her stride, appearing, for example, in something rather rare at Metro, a two-star-lady feature, When Ladies Meet, against Joan Crawford and then achieving her apotheosis as what might be the screen's first Glamour Matron in Mrs. Miniver (another guarantor of waterworks).  Madame Curie, Adventure ("Gable's back and Garson's got him! - a tag line that proved more memorable, actually than the film, but still - Gable), then, later Sunrise at Campobello (improbably elegant as Mrs. Roosevelt - who, come to think of it, was another Mystery Guest) and The Singing Nun - she had a broader range than she is given credit for and was a bigger popular favorite than might seem the case today.  She's not Rosalind Russell (who among us is, really?), but based on What's My Line?, her Mame looks like it was a kick.

Time does funny things; these days, Garson is a bit of a punchline, remembered for her incautiously long Oscar speech (she got it for Miniver, and was nominated four more times, although, perhaps fearing an encore, Academy voters never gave her another nod) and for a stuffy solemnity that seems to have been far from the case (although Madame Curie is rather a chore, both hagiographic and laughably inaccurate).  She had the gift of playing nice characters (and who is nicer, in the end, than Elizabeth Bennett or Kay Miniver - let alone Eleanor Roosevelt?) memorably, which is a great deal harder than it looks and not generally the path to top roles (if it were, Ann Harding would have been the biggest star in Hollywood history).

She had a good run, and when she'd had enough, she married well (a Texas millionaire) and lived out what seems to have been a very pleasant life.  If that's not worth the cover of Time, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Are There No Workhouses?

Christmas or no Christmas, Lady Shufflehampton has had it up to here with that dawdling, shillyshalling saleswoman.  Fifteen more seconds and she's going to kick her in the shin and remind her that Altman's isn't the only store in town with a Better Coats Department.  If that beezle doesn't finish writing up that new fox jacket this instant, there'll be no making her 3:15 at Elizabeth Arden...

Season's Gretchen

Much as I loathe the woman (and that's a lot), I have to give it up:  Loretta Young can really rock a slutty Santa outfit.

I wonder how she felt about her days in the stills gallery a decade or two on, when she was a Great Lady And Don't You Forget It?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Neither Heroes Nor Clowns

As you might have guessed, I find myself, this holiday season, rather morose - so many problems in the world (something one is even more aware of out here in the Sandlands, in close proximity as one is to political upheaval, not to mention social injustice on a scale and a class system as vile as one is likely to find anywhere in the world) and so few answers.

I suppose you won't be surprised that I've found, if not answers, then at least a little consolation, by watchng as many tacky holiday numbers as possible.  And, here, even finding as good a stab at an answer as I've come across yet. 

Leave it to the woman who kept up the spirits of a nation by keeping her eyes firmly fixed on "Tomorrow, when the world is free," to remind us that, as another British sensation once sang, love is all you need.  Ladies and gentlemen... Dame Vera Lynn.  It may be syrupy '70s pop, but she really socks it over.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The World This Christmas: a Meditation

Tonight, I want to look at the face of Lillian Gish.

Rightly or wrongly, I was raised to believe that she was the closest thing to perfectly good that a person could be, and tonight I feel the need of goodness.  It seems in short supply in this low world.  I need to look at the face of Lillian Gish.

When something evil happens, we dwell upon it.  We usually get it wrong, focus on the wrong thing, obsess; everything around us encourages us to that bad end.  We blame the media, we blame the vultures who descend on tragedy; we get sidetracked, we nitpick at little details and the little minds who blow them out of all proportion.  I have to look at the face of Lillian Gish.

I will admit it:  I have no special love for children, and I despise the aspects of our culture that are infantilizing, that promote the cult of children at a level of the saccharine that our Victorian forebears, no slouches they at the sentimental, might find embarrassing.  I am at times perplexed by those who choose to teach small children.  Tonight, I must look at the face of Lillian Gish.

What does it take, to look death in the eye and lie: there are no children here?  In Night of the Hunter, her greatest film, Lillian Gish says:  "I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds.  I'm good for something in this old world, and I know it, too."  She also says:  "You know, when you're little, you have more edurance than God is ever to grant you again.  Children are man at his strongest.  They abide." I hope that's true.  I hope that strong trees know their goodness, in the moment when they need to know it, and that children do abide.  I look at the face of Lillian Gish.

What is wrong with us?  I don't just mean the guns, the violence; I don't mean the systems that fail the dangerously sick, the disenfranchised; I don't mean the schools that have no idea of what to do with the odd boy out, or the neighbors, families, strangers on the street who miss the sign, the dangerous moment, the instant or two of no-turning-back.  I mean us.  Lillian Gish paraphrases from the Gospels:  "A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them."

I don't believe in God, anymore, and as a result I struggle to express how I define the abstracts, good and evil.  I do believe in them, however, and I've raised fruit trees, too; the Gospel parable, in this case, is on the mark.  I wonder what is we're bringing forth.  It goes beyond a single horror, one more blaring headline at the top of the hour.  I don't want to think too much about that corrupt tree, at what we are and have become and have and may bring forth.  I want to look at the face of Lillian Gish.  

In the final moments of her greatest role, having vanquished evil, singlehandedly (with the most effective line, perhaps, she ever delivered: "Get your state troopers out here.  I got something trapped in my barn."), Lillian Gish prepares her Christmas dinner.  She says: "Lord save little children. You'd think the world would be ashamed to name such a day as Christmas for one of them and then go on in the same old way."

We have to find a way to stop having reason to be ashamed.  I don't what that way might be, and at the moment I feel very far from ever knowing.  But we have to find a way.  She ends the film: "The wind blows and the rain's a-cold. Yet they abide...They abide and they endure."  I hope it's so. 

Tonight, as Christmas comes, I want to look at the face of Lillian Gish.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Yuletide Che(e)r

Perhaps the least Dickensian person ever to have lived, Cher nonetheless gives the look (courtesy, of course, of Mr. Mackie) a whirl in this prime example of high-seventies medleymania, holiday division.  She's joined by TV staple William Conrad, who waxes unexpectedly RobertGouletische in his solo bit,* and ever so briefly by the soon-to-be ex-Mr. Cher, as well as, in passing during the grand finale, by the ever-pleasing Miss Teri Garr (the spotting of whom seems to be turning into a minor Café hobby).

The highlight, I think you'll agree, is the star's do-or-die assault on "O Holy Night."  Hers may not be the most orthodox rendition ever, but she certainly gives it her all, reminding us that in her heyday she had a helluva set of pipes and wasn't afraid to use it.

* And he's if nothing else undeniably a cheerier party guest than Peg.  You'll note that this very special moment on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour was taped in the same year as the special that produced Miss Lee's lugubrious turn.  There must have been something in the water.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Such Devoted Sisters

I had a feeling that our latest Mystery Picture wouldn't prove too mysterious to the Café's clever Gentle Readers, but I thought it was such a charming image that it deserved an airing nontheless. 

Dear Norma chimed in first, and quite accurately, to confirm that the two little girls in their Lewis Carroll-esque finery were in fact the glamourous pair seen above sharing a little all-too-rare together time.  Remarkably, both Miss Joan Fontaine and Miss Olivia de Havilland are still with us; perhaps it is the sheer strength of their celebrated enmity that keeps them going.  Their dislike apparently goes all the way back to their earliest childhood, meaning that it's entering its tenth decade - surely something approaching a sororal record.

However they feel about each other, I quite like knowing that such fabulous creatures still share this sordid world with us, and I can't help but think that when they go - they and their few surviving peers and colleagues - we will have lost something rather special.  And I still kind of hope, against all hope, that just maybe we'll get them back together one more time, Melanie and the second Mrs. de Winter...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Fashion Faux Paw

Don't you just hate it when you go to all the trouble of dressing up and somebody shows up wearing the same outfit?  Too provoking.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Lady Sings the [Christmas] Blues

I had long assumed that when it came to wrenchingly depressing holiday moments, nothing else was a patch on Judy singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in Meet Me in St. Louis.  As you can see, I was wrong. 

I can't help but think that this was not exactly what the producers of Julie Andrews's 1973 Christmas special had in mind when they settled on Miss Peggy Lee as a guest star, and I can only imagine what a befuddled national-television audience made of it.  If you only listen to the audio, it's a lovely thing; watch it, though, and it becomes a kind of psychodrama that's almost unsettling in its intensity.  Enjoy, if that's quite the right word (it's not).  We'll have to poke around for something cheerier for our next holiday music update...

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Have You Heard?

Well, it's true!  I'm branching out, having taken up an offer from dear Cookie to rent a chair over at The Hair Hall of Fame.  I look forward to taking on some of their most difficult and discerning customers, who God knows need all the help they can get.

Tell your friends and join the fun - but don't forgot to stop on back here; the Café gets awfully quiet without you, you know...

Monday, December 10, 2012

Birthday Girls: The Stars Next Door

Many happy returns today to two of Hollywood's most fondly remembered ladies; neither was ever the biggest star - one a second-tier leading lady, the other a reliable character trouper - but both delighted audiences for a goodly number of years, and both seem to have been thoroughly good eggs.

First born was Miss Una Merkel, who first saw the light of day in Kentucky in December 1903, while Miss Dorothy Lamour came along 11 years later in New Orleans.  We see them here in the one picture they made together, 1941's Road to Zanzibar, one of the genial programmers in which Dottie played longsuffering sidekick to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.  Playing a con artist, in this one she even gets her own sidekick, Una, and together they fuel as much plot as any Hope-Crosby opus ever needed.

Zanzibar was the second of the seven Road movies (the boys and Lamour went to Singapore first, and then on to Morocco, Utopia, Rio, Bali, and Hong Kong, although alas never again with Merkel).  While best remembered for these trio outings, Lamour had a quite respectable career on her own, frequently playing an exotic temptress (inevitably clad in sarong and a scattering of flowers), especially early on, in titles like Hurricane and Her Jungle Love.  When her career in Hollywood sputtered, she took to the stage with relish, keeping her face familiar in dinner theaters and joining the legion of ladies who barnstormed 'cross country in Hello, Dolly!  She was a terrific all-purpose star, one who could sing well, dance a little, and handle lines both comic and poignant.  She never made art, but audiences liked her, a lot, and even when she turned up at the very end of her career in dreck like Creepshow 2, it didn't do much harm to her image as the glamour girl you wouldn't mind having over for a cup of coffee.

By comparison, Merkel carved out a career as an indispensable supporting player, below the title but recognized with affection by audiences who could appreciate how her Southern sass and common sense could leaven turgid scripts saddled with predictable love-plot shenanigans that more often than not seemed to get in the way of the real fun to be had from backstagers, dance-hall sagas, and hospital dramas in the pre-Code era.  She spent much of the '30s under contract to MGM, which meant she got a better showcase as a character player than most leads got at lesser studios (like Lamour at Paramount, for example).  Never a full-on glamour girl like Dottie, she slowly matured into parts that kept her on-screen for a couple of decades after her brassy heyday; eventually, she even copped a surprise Oscar nomination for her supporting part in a pretty much forgotten Tennessee Williams pictures, 1961's Summer and Smoke.

What set players like Lamour and Merkel apart, not just from the biggest A-list ladies but from many of their counterparts - all the utility leading women and inveterate second-, third-, and fourth-billed actresses - was their own personal warmth, their complete lack of personal pretension, and the way that they were able (in large part because they didn't put on airs) to connect with audiences, first in the Depression years in which pretty much everybody went to the movies at least once a week, but then also for decades after, when many whose names for a while shined much brighter found themselves on Poverty Row, selling real estate, or worse.

One of things that consistently disappoints me about today's movies is how little place there is for performers like Lamour and Merkel.  Today's leading ladies don't need to put over a song (let alone in a sarong) in movies that mostly rely on sex, explosions, or zombies, and as for character parts, they have virtually disappeared.  For example, Mr. Muscato and I finally got around to seeing last spring's Streep picture Hope Springs.  Now, in these parts Meryl can do no wrong, and Tommy Lee Jones was very good indeed, but aside from them and some disappointingly pallid support from Steve Carell, the only other parts were more or less bits.  Today its all stars, and nothing else.  Why didn't Meryl have a real best friend, instead of a tiny scene or two with the wasted Jean Smart in what might have been the Una Merkel role?  What induced Mimi Rogers and Elizabeth Shue to take on nothing throwaway roles - glorified walk-ons, really -  that Metro would have worked up into a delicious running gags for Alice Brady or Norma Varden or Marjorie Main?  Why couldn't there have been a recurring bit - as an innkeeper, perhaps - for Eric Blore or Eugene Pallette?

Ah, well.  At least we can look back, and when we want to see how it was done back when they knew better, we need only set out down that Road.  I hear Zanzibar's very nice, this time of year, not to mention Utopia...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Mystery Girls:Two for the Price of One

I'd almost guarantee you know this pair of pretty Victorian maidens, so demure in their capelets and crinolines.  Does anyone care to guess either or both of their identities?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Get This [Holiday] Party Started

Well, if we have to have a Christmas, we might as well get it under way right.  This season, I think we'll look at some highlights of pop-cult seasonal celebrations, and of all of them, this, I believe, is the greatest and most demented.  For one brief, shining moment, this was mainstream American television (Saturday morning division).

For any gentle readers eager to relive the whole superb extravaganza (or those who just need a refresher on making potato-stamp Christmas cards), it's available here.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Sorry, John Can't Come to the Phone...

...he's all tied up.

It's been a shockingly long time since we've thought about longtime Café Bollycrush John Abraham, so when I ran across this intriguing snap, I just had to share it.

Apparently it's from a 2011 black comedy called Saat Khoon Maaf (Seven Murders Forgiven), in which our boy plays one of seven husbands bumped off by an unbalanced, serial-killing HindoGabor played by the lovely and talented Priyanka Chopra.

The picture only got middling reviews, but that image - let's just say it's food for thought...

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Kind Word, Two Kind Words...

Worried today, I'm afraid, watching the news out of Cairo.  It's not good, and it's hard to see how it's going to get better. 

In this mood, one needs a good solid dose of Dalida. 

Here the great Parisienne reminds us that she is in fact a daughter of the Nile, a little girl from Shubra (which is kind of like being from the Lower East Side, back when that didn't mean annoying and hipsterish).  The song is "Helwa Ya Baladi," - "My Sweet Land," more or less.  The opening lyric translates as "A kind word, two kind words/For my country/a sweet song, two sweet songs/For my country."  It's the sort of song that makes exiles and expatriates sadly nostalgic, recalling a past that, really, never was.

The politics of it all are complicated, and largely unpleasant.  Religion, in multiple forms, comes into play, and that never simplifies things.  What last year seemed as if it could be a revolution full of possibilities has soured; there are still possibilities, but few of them inviting.  I once imagined a quiet retirement there (well, as quiet as one gets in Cairo; it is after all a combination of Manhattan and Calcutta, on steroids), and now that seems to be one possibility that's fading.

I was talking about this recently when out with a group, about how hard it is to see a place you've loved drifting off, out of your grasp, the way a once-close friend can do sometimes when things go wrong.  One friend looked at me, long and hard, and I remembered he is Persian, his father an ambassador and his mother a great lady in a world that disappeared.  "Get used to it," he said.

And I suppose I will, some day, somehow.  In the meantime - helwa, ya baladi...

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Yes, it's a Good Day...

...or at least it was 79 years ago today, when the good people of Utah (of all places!) cast the deciding vote that ratified the 21st amendment to the U.S. constitution (Ohio and Pennsylvania chimed in the same day, just for good measure).  The 21st repealed the 18th, and our long national nightmare - 13 years without a (legal) drink! - and the foolish experiment that was Prohibition was over.

Naturally, I've had a little anniversary celebration.

I'll never forget how shocked I was as a child, riding in the back seat of my Aunt Edna's massive sedan in some unfamiliar part of town (the East Side was a mystery in our hometown, mostly), when she and my grandmother Muscato looked amused as we passed a faded storefront.  "You wouldn't believe it now, but once upon a time that was the most popular place in town."

"Why?" asked I, looking at the weathered facade and unpromising shop windows.

"In the back," replied Aunt Edna, blithely piloting her royal blue Pontiac Bonneville at her habitual 15 miles per hour, "was the speakeasy!"

"Oh, my," exclaimed Grandmother, throwing her hands up as she did when especially pleased by something, "It was grand!"

And the two old ladies went on to extol the virtues of the place, its tiny tables and Italian proprietor, its potent gin ("most of it was perfectly safe") and excellent band ("Oh, how we danced!  And on Saturday nights, they had a colored singer!").  This, from a pair of respectable sisters-in-law whose idea of Wild Nights was an extra glass of Riunite Lambrusco or a second Old Fashioned.  It was the first time I had ever imagined that anyone I knew could break the law (a state of innocence dented here, but shattered permanently after Uncle Alfred had his Little Accounting Troubles in '72 - the ones that meant we didn't see him until '79).

I'm willing to bet, however, that even at their maddest moment of Roaring Twenties excess, the folks who frequented Batista's - the grandparents Muscato, Aunt Edna and Uncle Russell, and their ilk - would have frowned on orgies.  What can I say?  It was that kind of town...

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

For Felix: Movie-Time Mash Up!

"Fasten your seatbelts - it's going to be a bumpy night!"*

One film still; one film line - but different films.  See the original madness here.  Give it a try!

* typo corrected - thanks, Vera!

Monday, December 3, 2012

My Day... a nutshell.  Don't ask.  Mother of God, please don't ask.  After a day like this, Mama smack.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Birthday Diva (and Friends)

There must be something about the day (or a day about nine months ago), for the little girl born Sophie Cecilia Kalos some 89 years ago today is only one of a bouquet of geniuses who celebrate today.

Joining the diva who became Maria Callas are everyone from M. Georges Seurat (who had such a memorable Sunday in a Park) to the fetching Miss Lucy Liu (a remarkable actress still, I think, in search of a great role, although the Kill Bill pictures came close).  Adding to the festivities are Broadway Divo Adolph Green, jazz thrush Sylvia Syms, stage luminary Julie Harris, and couturier/martyr Gianni Versace.

Of course, every silver lining has its cloud, and with all this richness we must also accept the regrettable Alexander "I'm in control here" Haig, television staple Cathy Lee Crosby (whom I've just learned is not, in fact, Bing's daughter, and who therefore makes even less sense than I'd thought), and onetime poptart, now pop-zombie Miss Britney Spears.

I was going to try and come up with something clever about Miss Callas, and when I thought of her, I thought (as I often do) of dear Mr. Leo Lerman, about whose marvelous journals published as The Grand Surprise I've often waxed rapturous.  The book is downstairs, and I am up; being lazy, I therefore Googled the pair, Callas and Lerman, and was startled to see in today's New York Times the obituary for Lerman's longtime companion, artist and looker (it was practically a second career, as it was for other 20th century luminaries like Ned Rorem) Gray Foy.  It's a lovely thing, this obituary, and I recommend it highly; it may not say much about Miss Callas, but it says a great deal about her world, which has, with Foy's passage to Fabulon, receded just that little bit further from our lesser days.