Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I've Got a Date (in Constantinople)

This deathless clip - from the fabulous "Around the World in Eighty Ways Revue" of the one and only Miss Vickie Eydie (of whom there is no doubt that she is a lounge act) - heralds some amusing news, darlings. 

Yes, it's true - I'm jetting off to meet Mr. Muscato on the shores of the Bosporus (where we will no doubt get preposterous).  He's crossing the Med from Cairo with some friends, I fly in from the Sandlands at very nearly the same time, and we'll all have a jolly long weekend in Taksim. 

I was last in Istanbul (not Constantinople) nearly ten years ago, in what turned out to be the waning months of my carefree bachelor days.  In memory it was a supremely amusing place, and if at that time that involved some unlikely-to-be-repeated naughtiness, well - that's nobody's business but the Turks...

Happy Hallowe'en!

Well, it may not be the most practical of last-minute costume suggestions (and given that this photo was snapped in 1955, it's distinctly avant la lettre), but isn't this just about the most fabulous Nell Carter costume you can possibly imagine?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Meanwhile, on the Dance Floor...

Something about costume parties simply brings out the animal in Lady Shufflehampton.  I think she's meant to be Bloody Mary from South Pacific, but I'm really not at all sure...

Monday, October 29, 2012

A Word to the Wise

On this day in which weather figures large in so many minds, a little good advice from Liza.  I hope all my dear Gentle Readers on the U.S. East Coast, at this trying moment, keep in mind those words to live by:  Keep it together, Minnelli.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Birthday Girls: Elsa and Edith (Now with More Elvis)

Two of Hollywood's most interesting eccentrics were born on this date, both in one way or another ugly ducklings who made themselves into swans.  In this clip (although not, of course, in its screencap) we see one of them, Miss Elsa Lanchester, onscreen, wearing the work of the other, Miss Edith Head.  The film is a 1967 concoction called Easy Come, Easy Go, which stands as not exactly a landmark in that most undemanding of film genres, the Elvis Presley picture.  Even by those standards, this number, "Yoga is as Yoga Does" is at best a curiosity, however amusing it may be to see a veteran character actress, apparently in the absence of any better direction or choreography, improvise a few Bollywood moves right on the spot.

One wonders, in fact, how much Miss Head actually had to with Miss Lanchester's getup as a New Age guru-ess - these robes and beads look suspiciously like what one imagines Miss Lanchester's wardrobe in private life might have been like, and around the time this was filmed, Miss Head was engaged in a number of higher profile (and higher prestige) pictures, including Natalie Wood's very dressy Penelope, Barefoot in the Park, and gowns for the notorious stinker The Oscar.  At the time, her name went on Paramount pictures no matter how little she actually did - although one hopes she might have had a hand in Elvis's rather flattering little black number here.

Lanchester and Head worked on five of the same pictures between 1948 and 1967, but it's doubtful that any of the former's roles proved very taxing for the latter.  Lanchester played a sensible private-duty nurse in Witness for the Prosecution, for example, requring only a uniform and smart cape, while as a bohemian artist in The Big Clock, she wears more or less what she's seen in here, albeit with a modicum more tailoring.  The other two are a Martin-Lewis epic and a forgotten programmer called The Girls of Pleasure Island, neither of which sound especially promising.

Of course, there's really only one costume closely associated with Elsa Lanchester - her tattered bandages and laboratory sheet in Bride of Frankenstein.  While one can only dream of what Edith Head might have done with that in place of Universal house designer Vera West, it's hard to imagine anything more effective.  Perhaps, all those years later, reduced to playing a punchline for The Pelvis, Lanchester remembered her glory days; if nothing else, her Yoga schmatta has something of the same line...

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: My, My, My Delilah

Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

Or, perhaps even more so, lolling around in one.  Just ask Miss Hedy Lamarr, who appears to be having a Maria Montez moment on the set of Samson and Delilah...

The (Not So) Mysterious East

While Mr. Muscato is off with the family in Egypt, I've been blessed with a visit from My Dear Sister, en route to Very Important Meetings in India (the Sandlands being, if nothing else, an excellent stopping-off point).

She makes an excellent house guest, as we have remarkably similar tastes, dislikes, and bedtimes (three crucial things, I think, for anyone sharing quarters, even briefly, even if Mr. Muscato and I have long since reconciled ourselves to very different thinking about the third of these important qualities).  As this is a very long weekend hereabouts, celebrating the Eid al Adha (the second of Islam's two principal holidays, and in terms of its effects on local life, essentially Christmas Week), we've been revelling in our leisure, reading a great deal, eating tremendously well, and only occasionally doing something in recognition of her status as, more or less, a tourist.

Today, for example, we went exploring up in the Big City, driving up to Dubai early enough to have some hope, mostly realized, of missing the heaving holiday crowds of vast families out for a good time.  In the course of our day, we enountered the charmingly Moorish court above, with its graceful arches and fountain topped with sculptures of flyin falcons, and I only wish I could tell you it was in some forgotten corner of an obscure traditional souq.

Instead, I must confess, it's a relatively quiet corner of the otherwise relentlessly futuristic Dubai Mall, home to a vast skating rink, a vaster aquarium, and something like a dozen Starbuckses, one of which is more or less just out of the frame (as are a Pinkberry and the local Forever 21 - the shops at Dubai Mall being a genuinely mixed bag, running from Dior to, well, Forever 21).  Nothing, really, in Dubai, is quite what it seems.

I did score on the shopping front, as the Mall also features both what is likely the best bookstore in Arabia, a huge and entrancing branch of Kinokuniya, Japan's finest bookshop, and an almost equally large branch of Virgin Megastore, a shop that feels increasingly retro in a world of music downloads and streaming movies.  At the former, I picked up the newly published volume of the selected letters of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (I had no idea she was such a prolific correspondent - it's thick as a brick, and I can only hope its chockablock with choice barbs about the Duchess of Windsor), while at the latter I got a bargain-basement price on a DVD of Death on the Nile, a film that, given its rather extraordinary cast and its association with my favorite place (or at least my favorite river), I'm ashamed to say I've never seen.

So that's what we're up to, on this pre-Halloween weekend that looks to be the start of a stormy week for any Gentle Readers on the U.S. East Coast.  How about you?

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Revolutionary Costume for Today

This may not look like much of a scandalous photo, but it is.  Ignore the sloppy ankle socks and the egregious shoes: this is a picture of high - and dangerous - fashion.

The lady on the left was known by many names.  She was born Li Shumeng, in girlhood called herself Li Yunhe, became a well-known actress in Shanghai as Lan Ping ("Blue Apple," which seems a rather Dada touch), and finally emerged on the world stage under two names:  Jiang Qing, Madame Mao Tse-Tung.

She spent the first several decades of her time as the wife of China's leader in near obscurity, but that ended in the mid-sixties, when she took direction, to the extent it had any, of the wave of anarchy that engulfed the country and became known as the Cultural Revolution.  For Jiang Qing, it started with culture in a very specific way, as she took control of the country's performing arts, replacing China's wild diversity of traditional and modern plays, operas, dance works, and films with a small number of enormously formulaic "model revolutionary operas," kitschy epics that mashed together Soviet ballet, Chinese traditional styles, silent-film emoting, and heaping doses of leaden rhetoric (we saw a snippet of one last August, you may recall).

In 1967, Jiang Qing first turned her attention to fashion, in this case fashion-as-weapon, using a faux pas by her rival (a woman called Wang Guangmei, wife of Mao's second-in-command) to destroy her and to establish herself as China's de facto tastemaker.  On a 1963 state visit to Indonesia, Wang Guangmei had the poor judgment to put aside the drab military fatigues that dominated Chinese public life in those days, appearing instead in a silk dress of old-fashioned cut and a string of pearls.  For her fashion daring she paid dearly.  As the tide of the Cultural Revolution crested, Jiang Qing made an example of her in front of a million-person demonstration, dragging her out in a grotesque parody of her supposed finery (including ropes of ping-pong balls from which dangled insulting placards) and decrying her bourgeois decadence.  Wang spent more than a decade in prison - a high price for a night out on the town.

As the years passed, Madame Mao remained, to an extent, preoccupied with style.  What to wear in revolutionary Beijing was a vexing question, and after so many years of essentially unisex green pantsuits, it may be that she had become bored.  In 1972, she met with a Western journalist wearing a tailored shirtwaist dress of a design that recalled the 1950s, when for a few years a Soviet-inspired frock called a bulaji had been considered acceptable (it's basically what Jiang Qing's companion on the right is wearing).

Within two years, as the onetime Shanghai leading lady plotted to follow her husband as top leader of the Chinese revolution, she spared time to consider what the women of her country might wear as a distaff version of the ubiquitous Mao suit, a kind of National Costume with Revolutionary Conscience.  Her interest appears to have arisen in part about concern about her own image as a 1974 state visit by the glamorous Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos approached.  What in due course appeared is, more or less, the outfit in which we see her above, which has become known to history as the Jiang Qing Dress.  It takes the basic form of the bulaji, but adds elements of traditional Chinese fashion, especially the V-neckline with its inner band in constrasting white and the longer, fuller skirt, which in some examples is finely pleated.  One can only imagine what Chinese women, after twenty years of trousers and jackets, made of the spreading skirts and narrow bodices of this new, semi-mandatory fad. 

Whatever their thoughts, however, the reign of the Jiang Qing Dress was brief, for within two years, Mao was dead and his widow jailed, one of the Gang of Four accused of trying to sabotage his legacy and subvert his legitimate successors.  On the few occasions when Jiang Qing was seen in public between her downfall and her death fifteen years later, she eschewed her eponymous costume for a sober trouser suit.  Perhaps, having been burned by fashion just as once she had torched her rival, she decided it was safer to go smart casual.  Just as well, for however chic Lan Ping may have been in '30s films, you have to admit that in a baggy aqua shirtwaist, she's no prize.

Today, with China a major player in the world and a comparatively open country (even if it did block the New York Times for its domestic readers today), it's amazing to think how little we knew about the place just a few decades ago, what a paucity of information leaked out to the West.  For a long time, the Jiang Qing dress was more or less a myth, dismissed as just another of the wild calumnies directed against Madame Mao by her enemies, who called her "the White-Boned Demon" and accused her of trying to become a new empress, on the model of several who took power over the centuries in pre-revolutionary China.  The posters and cartoons that accompanied her fall often showed her in some version of the Dress, as if it stood for all her evil just as Wang Guangmei's pearls had represented her revolutionary backsliding.  What goes around, comes around, in politics and fashion alike.

An Australian scholar called Antonia Finnane has written a fascinating essay on the Dress and its social and political implications.  As for me, my favorite take on Madame Mao comes in the form of opera, the very format that she sought to mold her in her image just as she did her countrywomen.  John Adams's brilliant Nixon in China features Jianq Qing as a terrifying harridan who intimidates poor Pat Nixon and finally takes center stage to declare, in thrilling coloratura, "I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung/ ...When I appear the people hang... upon my words."  Sadly, at least in the pictures from productions that I've seen, the Dress doesn't appear.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Birthday Boy: The American Olivier

Kevin Kline, having survived a stint with Miss Patti LuPuone and more than two decades as Mr. Phoebe Cates, appears, alas, not to be (as Frank Rich dubbed him) "the American Olivier" when it comes to a shall-we-say fluid private life.  Pity, given how promising this very mid-eighties lavender ensemble would seem to be.  Whatever the reality, he's long had a piece of my fantasy-heart, whether in modes heartbreaking (Sophie's Choice) or immortally ridiculous (A Fish Called Wanda).

It's hard to credit that he's 65 today, but many happy returns all the same.

Oh, and remember my ongoing follicular crisis?  At the moment, this is more or less the overall effect I'm rocking, grooming-wise.  I only wish the general effect were even fractionally as successful...

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

And Now, a Word from Our Sponsor

...Or, really just an excuse to have a look at a soon-to-be-famous chest.  How many of these fresh (not to mention almost manically clean) young faces do you recognize?  It's a pretty remarkable gathering of talent for a product described even on its own package as "beige."

Monday, October 22, 2012

File Under "Dismissals, Curt"

These days, of course, eBay and company do a brisk trade in last year's hats, but I suppose the sentiment still stands.  Just don't tell poor Princess Anne - she's still wearing last century's hats...

Sunday, October 21, 2012

George McGovern, RIP

The 1972 presidential election is the first I remember clearly, although I do have one flash of '68, when I was pushed forward from a crowd out at our little city's "international" (a couple of flights a week to Toronto) airport to shake hands with the gentleman above.  Father Muscato was a bigwig Republican, and I suppose I was a good photo op, me in my little sailor suit.  I only wish I had the photo, even though I don't suppose Pat was there, in her good Republican cloth coat and Librium daze.

By '72, even the parents' support for Nixon had frayed, and I've long suspected that it was that year that my mother first voted Democratic (she didn't admit it until '84, precipitating a crisis chez nous that didn't fully heal until '92, when even Father Muscato finally, grudgingly switched sides).  I'm quite sure that this remarkable promotional piece had little influence on her (we were definitely more in the Rockwell than the Warhol camp in those days), but isn't it a marvelous little bit of surreality?  I'm trying to imagine a parallel today, and the closest I can think of is an Obama poster by Jeff Koons, but even that wouldn't be nearly as out of left field as the idea of Andy Warhol getting political, or even knowing what politics is.

But it was clearly the season for things coming out of left field, not least the candidate himself.  It's telling that even here, it's George McGovern's opponent who features, for McGovern was always as much about his issues and his ideas as his own public persona.  He was an enormously polarizing figure, not so much for his own, essentially irreproachable self (World War II pilot, dutiful public servant, thoughtful, sobersided...) as for the uncomfortable truths he put in front of the public:  the war in Vietnam was unwinnable and wrong; the militarization of America was unsustainable; there had to be a solution to the gnawing growth of poverty.  The wide margin by which he lost - even against the president who within two years would be forced from office, in part as a result of election-related dirty tricks directed against the McGovern campaign - meant that never again (so far, at least) would an outright progressive be a serious American presidential candidate (today's liberals look an awful lot like Eisenhower Republicans, and our current "socialist" president is at best a centrist next to '70s Democrats).

McGovern is best remembered for one loss.  But his life, when you look at the 90-year sweep of it, is anything but a loser's game.  He served his country and lived the ideals he believed in, fighting hunger and opposing war until the end.  He was a far from perfect person who never pretended anything else, and in the maelstrom of American political life, that in itself is something to admire.  His long journey is over, and we are the poorer for his death.  How many people said the same for Warhol's unappealing subject?

Who, by the way, had a clammy handshake and breath bad enough to shake the composure of even a five-year-old.  Were that photo to survive, I have a feeling it would not be flattering to either of us.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Master of the House

Well, one of two them, next to whom the two bipeds are mere supernumeraries.  Here we see Boudi in his favorite sunny corner in the drawing room at the Villa Muscato.  The rather regrettable white slipper chair was some previous tenant's idea; we inherited a great deal of tat courtesy of one of my predecessors over at Golden Handcuffs Consulting Amalgamated International, which provides not only employment, but also furnished accommodation to its lucky expatriate employees.  The crimson cushion, the blue-bordered fauxbusson, and the chinoiserie mirror, though are all ours.  Ditto the Yorkie, however much he thinks he owns us.  Some day I look forward, once again, to living with my own furniture.  If you're not careful, I'll show you the sofa, a swaybacked federal edifice in a distinctly dispiriting shade of pea-soup floral jacquard, and you'll know exactly what I mean.

If I'm in a domestic mood this weekend, it's because things are uncommonly quiet hereabouts.  Mr. Muscato is off for the approaching local holidays to see after Mama and the family in Egypt, leaving me and the dogs bereft.  Actually, I have to admit that, on a strictly temporary basis, it's rather nice, as I have a far greater tolerance for our lesser cabaret singers than Mr. M., and so have the music on whenever I like.  Still, I'll happily trade even dear Marie Blake for Mr. Muscato when it's time for him to come home.  Heaven knows the dogs will; they are already thoroughly bored with just me around to divert them...

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: A Sea Change

The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance.
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

Today's SSCE requires me to, as David Niven said of the Oscars streaker, reveal my own shortcomings.  I have to admit that I either never knew or have utterly forgotten that the great British director/aesthete Derek Jarman filmed a version of The Tempest, let alone that it featured such a magnificently charming thing as this interpolated number.

Miss Elisabeth Welch, who was rather the UK's iteration of Miss Mabel Mercer, ravishes the eye and ear, singing "Stormy Weather" (very much her tune, long before it was Miss Horne's) in a costume that conjures up both her own glory days in lavish London revues and a thoroughly 1979 take on an Erté fairy queen.  It is a '30s moment, transmogrified, with its sailor suits and baroque shepherdess costumes, and above all by Welch's own serene, imperial presence, into something quite appropriately, for the work, "rich and strange."

I'm especially charmed by the way in which she has completely conquered the lineup of fetching young chorus boys - I wouldn't be at all surprised if Jarman hadn't briefed them on just why they should be amazed at the woman who, at the time she breezed through this lovely moment, had been a star for rising 60 years.  I couldn't be more pleased to have accidently stumbled on this while lost in the wilds of Youtube, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Birthday Girl: She is Telling us...

Jennifer Holliday had the great gift - ah, but double-edged, as so many of fame's gifts are - of a signature role.  In only her second Broadway outing, she achieved a perfect synthesis of individual talent and ideal part, and it is hardly her fault that everything ever after has seemed something of an afterthought.  Thirty years after Dreamgirls, she remains a working performer (she finished up a brief run, in fact, in what she says is her last go at Effie this past July, in St. Louis; reviews were positive, if tactful), and she can go to her grave knowing that her great moment was preserved: here, at the 1982 Tonys.

This is, simply, a one of a kind performance:  vocally fearless, utterly without vanity, a titanic eruption of pain, wounded pride, fury, and a love that rages at its own inability to make things right.  It takes a bad moment in a reckless woman's life and turns it into an epic meltdown, one is both musically overwhelming and psychologically totally convincing.  Holliday, under the acute direction of Michael Bennett, delivers something that is both shockingly non-naturalistic (sheer soap opera in the dialogue and pop-recitative that opens the number, and then as it all builds, something like kabuki as she staggers, pleads, implores, and ultimately collapses) and completely, uncompromisingly real.  Anyone who isn't riveted by the 6:00 minute mark, when Effie more or less leaves reality behind, has neither heart nor soul (one wonders, too, whether actor Ben Harney, as the manipulative Curtis, had any hearing at all left in his right ear by the end of the show's original run).

"I am Telling You" is a pop-opera "Rose's Turn," but sadly for Holliday, it didn't, as for Merman, cap a long career.  Instead, it set a standard that no future material could live up to, no future performance match.  What do you do for the rest of your life, if you climb Everest the first time out?

Jennifer Holliday has spent three decades finding that out, and it is to her credit that she's done so with grace and perseverance.  She is 52 today.

Worth Reading

Just a quick one, darlings, 'cause your Uncle Muscato has a new obsession - in my constant search for fodder for your entertainment and enlightenment, I've run across the extraordinary Mary Worth and Me, and I'm now hip-deep in the Worthiverse. 

If you can't get enough of meddling old biddies and comic-strip snark, you'll follow me right over.  You'll thank me - it's advice worthy (get it?) of Mary herself.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

RIP: Goodbye, Emmanuelle

From Amsterdam comes the sad news that Sylvia Kristel, soft-core superstar of the 1970s, has returned to Fabulon.  Kristel occupied an uneasy place in films, neither an outright porn queen, but even so, never quite respectable.  She had a bumpy private life (a too-colorful childhood, the usual range of addictions, followed by the concomitant financial straits) and only limited success in later years in finding something to do outside of tawdry films.

Today, Kristel's brand of knowing naughtiness seems as far away and downright quaint as anything in the careers of either of this week's two earlier ladies, Misses Gish and Shearer - Emmannuelle was marketed as "a film that won’t make you feel bad about feeling good,” a quintessentially '70s sort of notion.  Her kind of exploitation picture may have been supplanted by, in turn, hardcore, home video, and most recently the pornucopia that is the Internet; still, she was a lovely woman in her way and an influential figure in the shadier regions of film history.  If nothing else, she has delighted vast audiences of lonely businessmen in cable-subscribing hotels around the world for many years, and that deserves a nod.

As for her most famous character (although she also took on both Lady Chatterley and Mata Hari at various points)?  Emmanuelle has taken on a life of her own, in variations from Black Emmanuelle to Emmanuelle in Space.  I suppose it's just a matter of time until Zombie Emmanuelle, but Kristel fans know the truth - accept no substitutes.  Fire up the Cinemax time machine, and return to an age of soft focus, cheesy string-heavy soundtracks, synthetic fabrics and simulated coitus; for a good time, call Sylvia...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Au Petit Matin

MGM's 1938 Marie Antoinette is a film better known as the Widow Thalberg's last fling with the Grade-A Prestige Pictures she'd been making since she hit her stride at the top of the decade than it is as an actual movie-to-have-seen.*  I haven't, and so was all the more surprised to see, as above, how realistically - for a Norma Shearer picture - it plays the dénouement of the sad lady's life.  Would you know this was Norma Shearer, if you didn't know it was Norma Shearer?

All of which comes to mind because today marks the 219th anniversary of the onetime Austrian archduchess's death-by-guillotine.  It was an extreme end to a life of extravagance and so has remained a source of much fascination ever since. 

As a character, the indispensable IMDb tells us, the ill-fated queen has appeared in nearly 100 differents guises on the large and small screens, with a cavalcade of actresses joining Shearer, from silent pioneer Julia Swayne Gordon in 1916's My Lady's Slipper to Jayne Meadows as a guest on Steve Allen's faux/historico talk show, Meeting of Minds.  She has inspired at least one contemporary opera, The Ghosts of Versailles (I was at the premiere, but really almost all I remember is Marilyn Horne playing Samira the Turkish Entertainer in an interpolated star turn that really could be a Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion all on its ownsome).  She also crops up in La Révolution française, the 1973 rock opera by the team of Boublil and Schönberg, who went to on operatize, as it were other picturesque conflicts in Les Mis and Miss Saigon.   She gets to sing a very pretty song, "Au petit matin (16 October 1793)", which you can sample here.

All of which risks our losing sight of the two women really on my mind, the queens of France and MGM.  You can see Shearer's excellent work en route to the scaffold here, but it's best to turn off the execrable music.  The woman she's portraying certainly could never have dreamed how very wrong things would go in her once-charmed life, nor that her death and those of her family would set a dark pattern for so many to follow: her nephew (several times removed), Maximilian of Mexico; the Romanovs in their Ekaterinberg basement; the boy-king of Iraq and his family.  Shearer, of course, kept her head (although, in the end, not her mind), but lost her career. 

Both, I suppose, might be seen in different ways as object lessons of what happens to vain, silly women who suddenly find themselves defenseless after a lifetime of cosseting, but that seems unduly harsh to both.  How much nicer to remember the pretty girl, actress and archduchess alike, setting out on a great adventure that brought her, for a while at least, to the top...

* But oh, you say, what about The Women?  Well, it certainly was an A, even an A+, but it's an ensemble epic, by no means a star vehicle, and by no means a typical Shearer outing.  Actually, it should have been the picture that reinvented her, but after that there are just three pale copies of her earlier triumphs, over and out.  The Women is a treasure, but for Mrs. Thalberg, a dead end.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Birthday Girl: Silent Star

The lady seen here, had she been marginally longer-lived, would be celebrating her 119th birthday today, and for a while it seemed quite likely she might.  Lillian Gish had an old soul, and for decades she was the presiding spirit of the Silent Movies, at times almost singlehandedly keeping alive the flame of an art form that conquered the world and then vanished overnight - almost.

We see her here toward the end of her Top Stardom, when she was for a few years Queen of the Lot at MGM (a rather different thing in 1927 than it would be a decade later, but still hardly chopped liver), as a Scottish lass in Annie Laurie.  Why she appears to be dressed more as a Russian tsarevna is one of those mysteries of Hollywood we hear so much about.

In an excellent essay on Gish and her career, author Don Callahan observes, " a career that spanned seventy-five years, she was a girl of 19 who seemed like 90 and at 90 she seemed like a girl of 19."  I think that seems just right.  Here she's at the further end of her long life, elegant as always in her ruffles and turquoise lavalier (a very Gish-y word, somehow).

Watching Gish act is a revelation; she was among the first to maximize film's potential for reading a performer's mind, to take advantage of her incredibly expressive eyes and the microscopic movements of her face in extreme closeup.  She acts with her stillness.  She is at the same time an enormously physical actress - her mad scene in Broken Blossoms is one of the most punishing sequences ever filmed, exhausting in its extremity, and of course the scene on the ice floe in Way Down East is quite rightfully among most famous ever filmed (the whole movie's pretty great, but if you've never seen the ice sequence - watch a bit of it now).

She is the start of a chain of such actresses, with some of whom she has only technique in common - I would include among them Louise Brooks (who is infinitely more carnal), Garbo (distinctly less cerebral), and, more recently, Julie Christie (a woman where Gish is more often a waif).  Her greatest descendant, to me, is Meryl Streep, who has Gish's gift of effortlessly dominating the screen, her simple presence throwing everytone around her into the shade, but in a totally untheatrical (seeming) way.  Several British actresses - Emma Thompson and Dame Judi Dench, for example - can also recall the Gishian simplicity and directness of approach, albeit in a way that seems a great deal more academic than the style of acting that Gish developed the hard way, in long, arduous barnstorming on stage as a child and through endless trial-and-error in the early days of one reelers.

I admit, though, that I'm not totally unbiased in my devotion to Lillian Gish (even though I share with Callahan deep reservations many aspects of her life, not least her slavish devotion to D.W. Griffith (an essential film pioneer, but not the paragon of genius whose myth she tirelessly promulgated for decade after decade).  She was a household saint as I grew up, for my grandmother (the racier of the two; not the be-hatted clubwoman) had in her youth played piano in silent-movie theatres and considered her just this side of heaven (she even met her once, a moment recounted ever after in the way that one might talk about being introduced to Athena or Eleanor of Aquitaine).  As children, we were even told the plots of Gish films as bedtime stories, with elements of real life blended in - something easy, actually, to do with her movies, for one instinctively feels that she is as noble in suffering as her Hester Prynne, as brave in life as she is in The Wind, and as obdurate and timeless as she is in her greatest sound film, Night of the Hunter.  She may have revered Griffith, but it is Laughton, in that last film, who ensured her immortality in sound as well as silent film.

So it's a joy to think of her on this, her birthday.  I never met Miss Gish, but I went to her funeral, in March of 1994 at St. Bartholomew's in New York (she's still there, actually, along with Dorothy and their beloved, indomitable mother).  It was a lovely occasion, solemn but joyful as one can be when remembering someone who lived so long and did so much.  I was there to accompany one of the elderly Theatrical Names for whom I occasionally BirdieCooganed in those days; he was much affected by her going, but utterly out of his element in St. Bart's unbending High Anglican splendor.  "Well," he kept muttering, "this explains a lot.  She was e-pis-co-pal.  Who knew?"  (Being of the theatre, Broadway division, to the core, I have a feeling he just assumed everyone was Jewish, with an overlay of WASP to one degree or another).

It's not what he was thinking, I'm sure, but it's true.  "Episcopal," at its root, refers to one who oversees or presides, as a bishop or other leader.  Gish, really, is nothing less than the presiding genius of the cinema.  She is 119; she is the fragile girl first seen in 1912's An Unseen Enemy; she is the nonagenarian who glows with light in The Whales of August; she is eternal.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Crazy

Camp turns things on their heads; it approaches the solemn with levity and ridicule, and it finds the tragic that lurks, so often, just slightly in the wake of the funniest things.  It revels in excess.
It goes without saying that Mr. Sondheim is one of our geniuses, of course, but there's no denying that his acolytes at times can treat him with the sort of Parnassian ultra-seriousness long reserved for (to consider one of his polar opposites) Herr Wagner.  Therefore, when you take one of his most revered anthems of psychic pain, mix in one of his comic numbers (and actually try to make it funny, rather than, as so many performers do, merely demonstrating that it's clever), and let 'er rip - the results are exhilarating.
And, when, to top it all off, the performer in question is the magnificent, long undervalued, and (now) sorely missed Miss Dorothy Loudon - it's simply heaven.
Loudon is one of those New York stage ladies of the last century whose affect was simply too broad, too volatile, and too, simply, theatrical, to take them to the very first rank of stardom, but who were, each in her own way, irreplaceable.  Elaine Stritch, who has found superstardom of a sort in her old-old age, is another; Mary Testa, the darling of Broadway aficionados (and still very much with us) but unknown west of Tenth Avenue, is another.  To be in their presence is electrifying, whether in a long-running role or, as here, at a gala one-off, because you can never be quite sure what's going to happen - or rather, since mostly they are total pros, they milk the sense that anything's possible (good or bad) to give the audience that much more sheer pleasure, even as they maintain total control - observe each pause and glance Miss Loudon gives - how she gets a vast laugh, at a crucial moment, just by the set of her jaw.
That's show biz, kids - and it could drive a person crazy.  I know, for me, it has, in the best sort of way.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Never Forget...

...Mrs. Rittenhouse is judging you.  And on the whole, she's not impressed.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Bollywood Update: New Boy in Town

As we continue to explore the richness and diversity of the Subcontinental cinema, it's important to discover new talent, don't you think?  This gentleman, for example, has been a fixture of India's non-Hindi film industries for the past decade, making some 70 films in Malayalam, Tamil, and Telegu.

He rejoices in the euphonious name of Prithviraj Sukumaran, and he is only now making his actual Bollywood debut, in a new picture called Aiyyaa, which is apparently a sort of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? for the new century.  Popular ingenue Rani Mukherjee has the Katharine Houghton part, with Prithviraj as the slightly-too-dusky love interest.  The still above is from one of the picture's steamy musical numbers, "Aga Bai," which you can check out here if so inclined - there's an intriguing sequence featuring the leading man in white organza and gold earrings, if that's any incentive.

He's only just recently bulked up to become the remarkable creature seen here; it's a striking effect, but I can't help regretting, ever so slightly the somewhat goofy charm (and especially the classic 'stache) that he's sacrified on the way:

I fear that what he's gained in Imposing, he may have lost in Endearing.  We'll have to hope that in future outings a balance is struck.  In any case, it does seem he'd bear watching...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Birthday Girl: Hat Sister

Let's wish a very happy 114th to an American pioneer, once the most famous milliner in the world: Miss Lilly Daché.  We see her here in one of her trademark creations, a broadbrimmed combination of latticework and flowers that must have cast extremely flattering shadows in the right light.

Daché's name may not be quite as recognizable today as those of other fashion giants of her era (which spanned the '30s to the '60s), but it still has a certain cachet (and not just because it rhymes).  She lives on, if nothing else, in the mocking second verse of the lovely song "Tangerine": "Tangerine / She is all they say / With mascara'd eye and chapeaux by Daché!"

Myself, I remember her because of Grandmother Muscato's hats, the very best of which were Dachés picked up during her trips to the big cities (Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and the occasional whirl of New York).  She wore them long after their creator retired in the late '60s (to the highly un-fashion-sounding Delray Beach, Florida, of all places), and I even had a few, for a while, after Grandmother left us for the Celestial Fitting Room in the Sky (lost, alas, along with so many other minor treasures, in the Great Fire of 1988).  I particularly recall an extremely beautifully draped tocque in oyster satin, a little miracle of grave elegance, as well as a more festive number in mauve velvet, with a swoop of silk lilacs that tumbled dramatically down one side, offset by a wave of velvet-dotted netting in the same shade.

In addition to her hattery, Miss Daché was a pioneer of brand diversity, adding to her line not only some rather predictable accessories such as gloves and stockings, but also neckties and other sundries, eventually even selling her name for use in a line of men's shirts.  You can find samples of all, should you be so inclined, out there in the great Internet bazaar.  Just remember - if you see that lilac velvet number, I want it back!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Question Time: Ask the Oracle #3

Okay, most of these I can see.  Sadly, the question of her continued existence is all too germane (and it's not unkind, I think, at this point to wish her godspeed to a better place, however glamour-diminished a world she'll leave behind).  Of course, she is, in fact related, if only by marriage, to the tawdry sisters who wear a pale imitation of her crown of celebritude (she's their step great-grandmother, as nearly as I can make out).  And she is, at least in part on her mother's side, what dear Dame Edna calls a "Red Sea pedestrian."

But, really - pregnant?  The poor woman was born, even if we credit the latest possible date, in the fading glory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Spare her something, for heaven's sake, in what the Enquirer would once have called her "sad last days."

Monday, October 8, 2012

Cacciatore! Belladonna!

I'm not too proud to admit that when I think of the eponym for today's celebration, this is pretty much what comes to mind.  As a child, my disappointment that in reality Isabella of Castile wasn't all that much of a Mae West impersonator was almost offset by the slightly later realization that she really was Henry VIII's mother-in-law.  Well, his first mother-in-law, at least.

In any case, a happy Columbus Day to any Gentle Readers who go in for that sort of thing.  Any excuse for a Looney Tune, don't you think?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Leggy Lady

Just 52 years ago today, Miss Betty Grable struck a pose.  It might have been nearly two decades since a not-dissimilar picture vaulted her to superstardom, but she still had her fair share of It, no?  She's 44 or so here and looking damn good.

I think Grable should be the patron saint of late bloomers.  She didn't really hit it big until a dozen years and more than four dozen pictures into her film career, but she made up for lost time by thoroughly enjoying her decade as box-office catnip.  No one would accuse a Betty Grable movie of being art, but in their day they were enjoyed by audiences around the world as few before or since can claim to be.  When her day in the spotlight waned, she gracefully moved on (saying "Go and get yours, honey - I've had mine!" to Miss Monroe on the set of How to Marry a Millionaire, her last big hit) and had a more than respectable time of it in nightclubs, on stage, and in the occasional TV appearance.

The only thing that troubles me about this alluring snap is the date - is there a stage-costume exception to the immutable rule about white shoes and Labor Day?  One does hope so...

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Run for the Border

The world "border" aside, no real connection.  Still, a rather compelling image, no?
Pardon the long silence, kids, but Mr. Muscato sprang a weekend getaway on me, and after a long, fraught week, away we got.

We visited our dear old friends from Sultanate days, a lovely couple who are probably the closest thing we have at the moment who appoximate that somewhat dated concept, Circuit Boys.  Except that they're funny and nice and smart, as well as indefatigable.  They're now living in the very pleasant city of Manama, in a very glam development completely built on reclaimed land and somehow as a result quite surreally artificial. 

As is true of most places out here in the Sandlands, for example, they have what would be a stunning view, were it not for the abandoned half-finished towers, forlorn construction cranes, and several additional, as yet unoccupied, artificial islands between them and the sea.  Their flat came furnished in a style that veers wildly between Bond-esque High Modern and English Cottage - dangerously low white-leatherette sofas and lots of chrome, against a background of cabbage-rose wallpaper.  Oddly successful, taken on its own terms.

Their particular development is one that tries to offer all things to all tenants, so they live in a very contempo midrise building of flats called Terrazo Venezio Mansions, which is sandwiched between a complex of highly Arabesque villas lining quaint canals on one side and a very strange set of rowhouses done up in a style that can only be described as post-apocalyptic Chinoiserie, as if Frank Gehry were designing The Mikado.  It all makes the staid old neighborhood of the Villa Muscato seem very dull indeed.

As, really, does their city entirely next to ours.  Throwing ourselves into our hosts' quite capable hands upon arrival on Thursday evening, we sampled the nightlife in a series of low and lower dives that kept us quite merrily occupied until something like 5:00 a.m. on Friday morning.  Things are distinctly less discreet up in that part of the world, and, if nothing else, fashions are far more extreme.  Local boys swan about in skintight jeans, acid-colored chiffon shirts, Cuban-heeled ankle boots, and two varieties of all-the-rage coiffures.

I really wish I'd been able to take pictures.  The first, and ever so slightly more butch 'do is a sort of sideways Mohawk along the back of the head; it looks as if the wearer had a kind of hair-tiara made up of all the hair from the ears back; the front consists of a stiffly gelled sweep that ends in face-framing swirls.  It's quite complex, but not nearly as ridiculous as Hairdo Number Two, which is really nothing more or less than a mid-sixties Barbie Bubble Cut, achieving at its most extreme dimensions approaching that of a beach ball.  Worn on a fashion doll, it's nostalgic.  Appearing on well set-up mid-twenties Arab boys with wispy moustaches, it's alarming.  They look as if they've been rummaging in the wig-trunk of the Vandellas, actually, and I tended to giggle.

Needless to say, we found it all highly diverting.

The difficulty of the place is that they are going through a spot of bother politically, disconcerting if you live in our part of world, which is so calm as to seem sedated - we're just not used to tanks in the streets, towers of smoke from burning tires in the distance, and having to recalculate routes to the mall dependent on which roads might be closed for rioting.

The rest of the weekend was a tad calmer than our first night, although it is to an extent in even such recent memory a haze of martinis, shisha (Mr. Muscato's particular weakness), and running from place to place with the boys' very cosmopolitan crowd (come to think of it, we had quite a few cosmopolitans, too), which runs to glamorous Lebanese girls named things like Zizi and Mimi, elegant German boys called Manfred, and a raft of JohnAbrahamesque Indian men.

The brief flight home this evening felt rather like decompressing after a deep-sea dive, but the sheer joy of the terriers, as always, helps reconcile one to our rather quieter existence.  I'm being very naughty and taking tomorrow off, and am quite happy to let the mayhem of my offices take care of itself for a day.  Perhaps I'll dig out some heavy-duty haircare products and see if I can back-comb myself into a middle-aged interpretation of a Bahraini boy's night out...

Monday, October 1, 2012

(Belated) Birthday Girls: Diamond Lil and Friends

I realize it's a day late and a Deutsche Mark short, but I've been feeling remiss - having gotten all caught up in Cher-Demi-Sissy excitement (yeah, there's something there's not enough of hereabouts - sissy excitement...) that I didn't note what an extraordinary day for birthdays it was.

Leading them off, above, is that sultry Teutonic stage and screen sensation, Lil Dagover.  As this still demonstrates, she was a past mistress of the Fraught Moment, deftly handling the tricky combination of cocktail hat, summer furs, gloves, hankie, and what may either be a bow-shaped clutch or an actual bow - whether or not part of the rest of her costume is unclear.  She also deftly handled the Nazis, remaining a popular favorite before, during, and (perhaps most remarkably) after her country's Distinct Unpleasantness. 

Dagover was an international favorite of the '20s, and although a brief foray to Hollywood at the dawn of the Talkies failed to make her a second Dietrich there, she retained her Continental allure well into the '60s.  When she died in 1980, it was apparently news to all but a surviving childhood friend that she had throughout her career shaved a decade off her age (and was in fact 90, not 80, at her death).  At least, when she left Los Angeles, she had a career to return to.  When Garbo and Dietrich proved to be about as far as audiences would go in the Exotic Temptress Vein (not least because so many silent favorites proved unsellable in talkies), the likes of Dagmar Godowsky, Isa Miranda, and Olga Baclanova were left with not much to do in a business that suddenly prized perky more than tempestuous.

But back to the day, which has its fair share of both.  Other remarkable ladies born as September fades into fall include Silent Casualty Renée Adorée (a victim of drugs, not just a thick accent and a penchant for smoldering, as was Baclanova), eternal lady Deborah Kerr, great dame Angie Dickinson, sixties/seventies thrush Marilyn McCoo, and the lovely and talented Miss Rula Lenska (if you've never caught her in the act, go here now - you'll thank me.  She's the brunette.).  Holding up the male side of this distinctly camp assemblage:  Truman Capote and Marc Bolan, more than a match for perhaps all but Dagover.

Although I'm sure that both were a dab hand with a cocktail hat...