Thursday, January 31, 2013

The "Last of the Sunbeams" Says Goodbye

Alas, a Café favorite is no more, for the last of the Andrews Sisters, Patty, has gone to sit under some other apple tree.  She had a long, good life, I know, but it's still sad to lose another of the few (ever fewer) remaining links to the receding first half of the last century.

The kind of fame that the Andrews Sisters had doesn't really exist anymore - they were loved, warmly, as few other musical acts could ever hope to be, and while their popular image, established in the '30s but forever fixed in an eternal wartime 1944, never really allowed them to do much beyond what was expected, they did it brilliantly.  Their three voices, distinct, with Patty's strong mezzo anchoring Maxene's soprano and Laverne's deep alto, blended in ways that made it seem at times one voice with three tones, a distinctly pleasing effect that owed everything to the discipline of their work and nothing to the kind of studio trickery that makes so many of today's pop singers (barely) palatable.

Today we'll be hearing lots and lots of "Bei mir bist du schön," and "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," and, inevitably, "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," so I thought it might be fun to see what the trio did with something lesser known.  The Andrews' pictures would never be mistaken for works of art, this one (Her Lucky Night, 1945) very much included, but they were jolly affairs that were reassuringly upbeat for war-weary audiences and made heaps of cash for Universal.  In this number they wax Caribbean to "Sing a Tropical Song" (and why the girls kept getting handed ethnic material is a question for the ages, for these Greek-Scandinavians are just about as Anglo in presentation as you can be. Maybe that's why...) and have a good time doing so.  The film also included the better-known "Straighten up and Fly Right," which is almost as much fun, and it can even be seen in full in all its B-musical splendor (the sisters aside, the cast is pretty relentlessly B - even Bess Flowers gave it a miss).

The three sisters had ups and downs in their relationships, and through the years they grew tired of being thought of as a unit.  Patty's solo career was respectable, but there was always something missing in hearing any of the three voices solo.  I hope, living as long as she did and so much longer than her two sisters, Patty by the end understood what a special phenomenon she'd been a part of, and how much they meant.  Taking to the Twitter, Bette Midler (who did so much to bring the Andrews catalogue back to the fore when she made "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" a hit all over again) today called Patty "last of the sunbeams of WWII," and while Dame Vera Lynn might have a word or two about that, I love the image of the Andrews Sisters as sunbeams; warm and cosy and above all encouraging, it fits.  It's awfully trite to say, I know, but we will not see their like again.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Birthday Girl: Mambo!

In honor of the lady's 88th birthday, let's spend a moment celebrating Dorothy Malone's fabulously demented performance in a rather fabulously demented picture, 1956's Douglas Sirk epic Written on the Wind.  She's a heedless young Texas heiress who mesmerizes the boys with the wild abandon of her mambo, and then later selfishly mambos her tiresome father right down the stairs (which I swear are the same ones that turn up a few years later on The Beverly Hillbillies - is that even vaguely possible?

I will admit to being rather surprised that Miss Malone is not yet a Fabulonian, a nice thing to know; she's apparently a retired Dallas matron whose last cinema appearance, in Basic Instinct, I've managed to miss (as I have as much of the career of Miss Stone as I can manage).  She took the part in WotW in part to dispel the good-girl image that had with few exceptions kept her a second-string B player in more than 40 pictures, something it did with a vengeance, nabbing her an Oscar in the process.

To me, her mambo scenes are everything that is glamorous and ridiculous, fabulous and tawdry, repressed and over the top about the 1950s.  She's set off to perfection by a Freudian dream of a cast, with Robert Stack as her brother, a conflicted young husband, Lauren Bacall going all schoolmarm as as his fish-out-of-water wife, and (swoon!) Rock Hudson as the charismatic interloper who disrupts their lives.*  Malone plays her neurotic, alcoholic character with all the brio of an actress who's been bored for a decade and is on a make-or-break mission, her desperation fueling a characterization that sears through the artifice of what is after a truly silly melodrama and makes it something special.

Malone shares her day with a long line of wild-at-heart types, starting with the Empress Livia (Augustus's wife, and for all of us I, Claudius fans forever seen as Siân Phillips in full fury) and taking in FDR, Broadway titan Hal Prince, Goops author Gelett Burgess, cinema immortal Vanessa Redgrave, and TV half-of-team Dick (Rowan and) Martin.  It's also burdened with a few wet blankets, Dick Cheney chief among them, but really what day isn't?

I don't know about you, but I plan to mark the day with a quick mambo before bedtime...

* It also features dear Miss Bess Flowers in one of her trademark roles, Restaurant Patron.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Up There on a Visit

So I'm off on a brief road trip - just up the highway to Dubai on an overnight, which is a regular enough sort of thing, but this time, for various reasons, I find myself in the tender care of a particularly de luxe client and so have the view seen above.  I am, in fact, rather to my surprise, ensconced in a suite at the Armani Hotel, an intimidatingly contempo entity that occupies a number of floors in the vast monstrosity that is the Burj Khalifa, for the moment The Tallest Building in the World.

And I have to say it's all very odd.  Stark in its opulent simplicity, the rooms around me (and I think I've found them all, although since all the walls appear to slide open and reveal other spaces, I'm not entirely sure) range in color and tone from high gloss ebony (I sit even now at a writing desk finished like a concert grand piano and of similar dimensions) through a matte gunmetal gray.  The elaborately layered draperies (which rise and fall at the touch of a button) are variations on those shades, as are the almost equally elaborately layered carpets (faux-fur edged plush area rugs artfully placed over a woven floor covering that at some distant point in its tortured history may have been grasses, but which now seems more like an enormously enlarged houndstooth wool).  The whole effect is - unexpectedly, given how determinedly futuristic it all is - oddly retro, in the sense that it seems quite thoroughly 1970s.  I half expect to find cocaine on one or another of its relentlessly textured surfaces.

Just concluded is what I very much hope is the last of this evening's massive son-et-lumiere spectacles focusing on the lake that fronts this vast tower (and it's discomfiting to think that looming over my head is something like 150 stories).  It features dancing fountains that throw water a dozen floors or more into the air, great clouds of rolling smoke effects, and dozens of jets that propel great gobbets of Oz-the-Great-and-Powerful flames, offset by whirling searchlights and a sub-Orffian Carmina Burana-esque score of thundering drums and roaring orchestra.  Quite exhausting.

Other than planning to plunder everything moveable in the way of toiletries and other disposables (which will doubtless deeply please the magpie side of Mr. Muscato), I really don't know quite what to make of the place.  I've just survived the ordeal of having to speak to my "Lifestyle Manager" in order to ask for a little room service, and soon I'll have to face the even worse trial of determining how to turn off all the lights in order to grab a little sleep in a bed as austere and unyielding as a Corbusier facade.  Frankly, it's making me nostalgic in the extreme for the deeply comfortable but comparatively dowdy digs we normally inhabit in Dubai when on our own or Golden Handcuffs' nickel.

Tomorrow, it's all back to reality, but right now I feel very Marisa-Berenson-shopping-at-Fiorucci, and while not even slightly the Armani type, I think perhaps I'll put a little Grace Jones on the iPod and pretend it's 1978 all over again.  If only I had the blow... but then again, at my age, I need my beauty sleep.  If I can figure out the bed, perhaps I'll get some.  Wish me luck.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Big Boy Bop

Big Boy Bop, oil on canvas, 1985, by diner painter extraordinaire John Baeder

Every once in a while I read something that just makes me want to go off on a bit of a rant, and today was one of those days.  The article in question is a weekend opinion piece in The Washington Post, "How 'Size Profiling' Harms Overweight Patients," by a UCLA professor called Abigail Saguy.  It talks about how doctors can overlook symptoms, misdiagnose them, or without reason attribute them to a patient's weight, if the patient in question is overweight.

Now, I have mentioned more than once hereabouts that I am in fact a stout party, and moreover one increasingly of what is referred to diplomatically as A Certain Age.  As some of you may remember, as a last kicker to what was otherwise a marvelous vacation last summer, I had a small health scare.  I'm not one to concentrate unduly on unpleasant things, so I haven't written much about the experience, or its aftermath.  In light of what happened, however, I can absolutely attest that when it comes to American healthcare, the phenomenon that Saguy describes is very much an Actual Thing.

Here's the deal:  I'm large; not grotesquely so, but definitely rounder than I was a decade ago.  Living in the unforgiving climate of the Sandlands means you spend too much time inside; its culture (such as it is) means that you spend too much time eating and drinking.  Add in a job that is both sedentary and time-devouring, and you are liable to end up fat.  Once upon a time I lived in cities where you walk miles a day as a part of everyday life, and on weekends you go dancing and playing tennis and all sorts of comparatively healthy pursuits. Here you drive everywhere, you toddle around malls, and you sit and eat and sit and drink and sit. Someday, I hope to live in a real city-city again.  Until then, while we're making efforts, it's not likely that Mr. Muscato and I will be seeing anything like lithe, svelte, or slender any time soon.

Moreover, I come from a very spherical gene pool - but one that is almost unnaturally vigorous and longevitous (is that a word? It ought to be: long-lived).  My paternal grandparents glowed with the kind of rotundity bestowed by a full-cream dairy diet, good country produce, and plenty of lovely lard-laced homemade baked goods, and both were in generally excellent health throughout their long (89 and 96) lives. Mother's side may have been slightly less extravagant, but was nonetheless sturdy and almost uniformly reached great age.  Our family photos all have a vaguely Botero air, and its rare to see a group picture that isn't posed around a table or with a groaning picnic in the middle distance.  We live well, and on the whole we live long.

But anyway, back to health care, and why remembering last summer made me so mad this morning.  When I got sick last August, it was with absolutely classic signs of heart trouble: shortness of breath, chest pain, and even shooting pain down the left arm.  When it got bad enough, a week or so after the first signs (denial runs strong in my people), we went to the emergency room, where the care was superb.  You want to see people in a metropolitan emergency room move, just try walking in as a middle-aged man, panting and sweaty, and tell the nice lady at the desk that you think you might be having a heart attack.  They were fast, and thorough, and within a couple of hours it was determined I wasn't in fact in immediate danger of anything they could find.  I was referred onward to a specialist, and that's when things, in retrospect, went awry.

Part of it may just have been that when you're a cardiologist, everything looks like heart, but for the next week or more, the doctor - who was well-meaning, I have to grant - put me through every conceivable test at her disposal to determine the state of my heart.  I was scanned and stress-tested and radioactive-dyed and God knows what, and every test result showed exactly what the first emergency room ones had: that I have an extremely healthy heart.

As a result, I was at long last sent on my way, with the last (and and longest) of the lectures that had started with my first appointment, about my weight.  From the moment I walked in, I suspect I was something of a frustration to the doctor.  The tests kept showing I was okay, but intermittently the symptoms continued.  She took family history and visibly wilted as I walked through the list, going back three generations, of fat and happy Muscati.  She brightened only when I mentioned my maternal grandfather, dead, sadly, at 46.  "Heart disease!" she exclaimed.  "No," I said - and I really almost felt sorry for her - "hit by a trolley." (a too early passing, and an ironic one - he was at the time commissioner of streets).

Only briefly fazed by her inability to establish a genetically-determined doom for me, she sent me on my way (which was, remember, halfway round the world) only with a recommendation that I lose weight.  Because my blood pressure was slightly high, I got blood-pressure medication; because my cholesterol was also borderline, cholesterol-lowering tablets.  Although she was deeply interested in signs of early morbidity in my family history, the fact that high cholesterol runs through it as well (with no apparent impact on lifespan - Grandmother Muscato's was something like 425) seemed much less interest.  She warned me I might be on meds of various sorts the rest of my life.

Throughout, I had tried to raise other possibilities with her and her colleagues - that the shortness of breath really seemed to be the problem, that it really only came on after meals, that just the day before the worst of my attacks I had walked five miles with no problem - to no avail.

I returned to the Sandlands thinking that since the heart was fine, perhaps the lungs were the issue (one other forebear who shuffled off the mortal coil relatively early did so as a result of consumption, so things pulmonary were always an issue at home).  I found a good pulmonologist here, and the difference in how he approached the situation couldn't have been greater.  He reviewed the cardio records from a couple of months earlier, heard me out about the shortness of breath and the sometimes conconmitant pain (mostly low-grade, sometimes less so), and did a basic lung-function test.  Along with a teenager's heart, it turns out, I have a pair of lungs to match.

"Yes," he said, "you should exercise more, and if you do that you'll probably lose weight.  But you've got a great family history, and I'm surprised that they would go through all those tests based on the symptoms you present and not recommend that you try an antacid.  If this is mostly coming on after you eat, it's probably more or less heartburn."

So now, after literally tens of thousands of dollars in medical care (blessings on Golden Handcuffs' gilded insurance plans), a two-week delay in getting home last summer, and all the joy of fearing that my heart was on the verge of giving right there on the spot, I've started occasionally taking what is more or less a designer-pharmaceutical version of Tums.  And nothing else.  My blood pressure was a tad high?  If you'd been in the middle of a rolling heart-attack scare for a week, so would yours.  Now it's fine.  Cholesterol?  I checked the numbers myself, and mine is high only on the most current, draconian charts; ten years ago it would have been solidly normal.

What the doctor and her colleagues in Washington saw, I'm convinced, was a fat guy, and not much more.  "Despite the fact that body weight is largely determined by an individual’s biology, genetics and social environment," writes Saguy, "medical providers often blame patients for their weight and blame their weight for any health problems they have."  What gets lost is the simple fact that just as not every thin person is healthy, not every person who is less so is cruising toward an early grave.  If I hadn't seen that second doctor, I'd still be downing those expensive meds and coping with their unpleasant side effects, which ranged from headache to sleep interruption to constipation (pleasant!).  I'm glad I'm not.

Meanwhile, to end on a lighter note - isn't that painting of the Big Boys just terrific?  The artist, John Baeder, has a passion for American vernacular architecture in general and for diners and diner-abilia in general, and I think his work is enormous fun.  Maybe I should get one to go with the Boteros...

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Birthday Boys: Nevertheless

Here to sing in a surprisingly lovely birthday to composer and screenwriter Harry Ruby is none other than that most surprising It Girl of the last couple of years, the apparently indefatigable Miss Betty White.  It's 1954, and her weekly program, full of the charmingly thrown-together feel of early television, allowed her to occasionally put over a song.  Who knew?

Ruby and his partner Bert Kalmar are part of that legion of remarkable musicians who, in the first half of the twentieth century, created a body of work that seemed like utterly disposable pop at the time, but which has proven in many cases to have amazing resonance and durability.  Whether light (and what is lighter, really, than "Hooray for Captain Spaulding"?) or, as here, achingly romantic, the kinds of songs that Ruby and Kalmar and their contemporaries created seem very likely to endure.  Running a close second in my affections to this number (Betty's fab, but I especially love the sadly under-Youtubed Karen Akers as well) is what is probably his best-known song, "I Wanna be Loved by You," made immortal first by Helen Kane and then again by Marilyn Monroe.

Also celebrating a birthday today is one of my favorite authors, someone who I have a feeling is rather something of a Ruby and Kalmar fan himself.  I first encountered Ethan Mordden through his fiction, and especially the through the books that started with I've a Feeling We're not in Kansas Anymore and evolved into the Buddies series, a set of books about a circle of men in Manhattan and what happens to them as the '70s evolve over the decades into a new century, nightclub hedonism turning into plague apocalypse and what comes after.  I love the books dearly and need to reread them; in them, Mordden combines the wry affection for his characters and close attention to the minutiae of daily life of Barbara Pym with a very contemporary (and very gay) wit and physicality.  He created a world in which friends could build what we now call a family of choice (then a revolutionary idea) and move seamlessly among worlds (uptown and downtown, high and low, Metropolitan Opera and bars and bathhouses).  His tales of New York days and nights were the backdrop against which I moved to the big city and one of the measures against which I created the life that late I led there for a decade or so.

Just as wonderful, though, are his nonfiction works, mostly on various aspects of the show business.  His Movie Star has been a huge influence to me in thinking about the Big Ladies and why we (mostly) love them, while his multi-volume history of the Broadway musical - a very personal, idiosyncratic, and anecdote-driven overview - is to my mind the best introduction to this treasurable art form that one could ask for.  Also marvelous are his look at the how the studio structure helped shape the movies of Hollywood's golden age, his take on opera divadom (the aptly titled Demented), and, more recently, The Guest List, on Manhattan's role in shaping American popular culture and, just last fall, a joint biography of that folie à deux, Weill and Lenya.

Maybe I'm right, and maybe I'm wrong... but nevertheless, I'm love with both of them.  But especially Ethan Mordden.  He's one of the few people I really would like not just to meet, but get to know.  Who knows? Maybe he reads obscure blogs that are, in one way or another, by-products of his sensibility   If he's not deeply creeped-out at that prospect, I hope he'll be amused.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Today in Polymorphosity

On this day in 1997, internationally renowned boxer Oscar de la Hoya ate a hotdog at a Superbowl party.

Question:  How is it even vaguely possible that, despite the widespread circulation of this striking image, it took more than a decade for word to get out that he was something of a major freak?  Hiding in plain sight if you ask me, and a picture that ranks right up there with the quadrennial images of people like Rick Perry and Marcus Bachmann having to deepthroat corndogs at various state fairs...

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Happy Organ!

"All Camp objects, and persons, contain a large element of artifice. Nothing in nature can be campy..."
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

And what, really could be more artificial than the Hammond Organ, especially on a mid-sixties German variety show and in the preternaturally enthusiastic hands of the artiste seen here, the remarkable Miss Cherry Wainer?  

When I first ran across her (surprisingly numerous) videos on YouTube, I at first took a fair amount of convincing that she was not in fact an invention of Amy Sedaris, but she does seem to be the genuine article. If a random organ-forum (and say that ten times fast) online is to be believed, she is now living in comfortable retirement in Las Vegas.  I wonder if neighbors in the condo complex gather surreptitiously near her patio when she practices?  I know I would...

Friday, January 25, 2013

Reading Rainbow

A lovely quiet weekend day here in the Sandlands; our friend The Teacher came in from her self-imposed exile out in a remote community a couple of hours from the capital.  She makes good use of our capacious guest quarters, and who can blame her?  When the biggest attractions of the community in which you live are the proximity of the border with Saudi Arabia and the even closer proximity of the vast barrenness known as the Empty Quarter, you deserve the more-than-occasional trip to the Big City (or what passes for it).

She had some shopping that needed taking care of, and so even though we had done our marketing yesterday (on the first day of our long weekend), we took her to the supermarket.  When it comes to groceries out here, there are several kinds of choices.  At the top are the glossy markets that cater principally to Western expats; these tend to have a British gloss, to carry a wide range of oddities like horseradish sauce and fresh raspberries, and to be wildly expensive.  Then there are the mall hypermarkets, which run to the vast, chaotic, and Subcontinental.  Smaller, if equally chaotic and frequently even more Subcontinental, are the myriad little corner stores, which have been the subject of some controversy locally (in a nutshell, the government wanted them closed as potential health hazards that also don't adhere to the carefully groomed overall appearance of the metropolis; they tried closing them en masse at the new year, after which there was a mass outcry, because suddenly there was nowhere to go to get that late night liter of milk or to have a loaf of bread delivered, and most have reopened).

Occupying a middle ground between the mall marts and the corner mom-n-pops (or mamaji-n-daddyjis, I suppose) are the Cooperative stores, which are aimed firmly at local nationals and those seeking a shopping experience less expensive than the Britemporia, less enormous than the malls, and more comprehensive than the corner shops.  Like the mall shops, they offer everything from boots to butter, but in reasonable quantities and in styles and sizes of both appropriate for large Arab families.  We tend to get to one every few weeks, as they offer some things, especially really good chicken, that can be hard to find elsewhere.

So there we are, introducing The Teacher to the glories of Coop chicken, when I notice that they've recently enlarged their book and magazine section, adding several racks of children's books.  Now, that's a very good thing, as literacy (in any language) is a real concern here, as is a nearly total lack of a reading culture at any age, but especially for children.

A quick look at the rack, though, showed me why children might want to shy off from the products on offer.

First we had this puzzling book, which appears from the cover illustration to be a manga-style retelling of Saturday Night Fever, but which bears the wholly enigmatic title Serenity (leading all three of us to immediately bellow "Serenity now!").  The subhead ("Rant and Rave") only adds to the general confusion.

A quick whirl of the rack, however, really set us off...

Yes, this exists.  Tinkle, a primer for young readers in double digest periodical form.  Where learning meets fun, indeed.  We only managed to snap two of the covers before a wary staffer descended, but I think you'll agree they hardly look appropriate for young audiences.  I don't know what these three gentleman are up to, but the last time I saw that pose in a magazine, I was standing in a shop at 44th and Eighth Avenue at 2:00 in the morning in 1996.

As for this one, what can I say?  I don't know why the monkey looks so pleased, nor what the irate gentleman has been up to with his index finger.  All I know is that it's on the cover of a publication called Tinkle, which is ostensibly aimed at children.

And yes, I have been brave enough to try and check out the website.  I shudder to think what anyone looking through my search history would think of "", but now I have plenty of time to find out.  It's still under construction, but it doesn't disappoint when it comes to the (possibly) inadvertent double-entendres that are apparently Tinkle's speciality.

After that, as you can imagine, the rest of the day has seemed something of an anticlimax...

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Girl Reporter

Far be it from me ever to comment on a lady's age, but I have heard a rumor that Barbara Walters recently startled the studio audience at a taping of The View when she shared her memories of the first big story she nabbed, back when she was a just a cub reporter in Manhattan, struggling for an exclusive.  Yes, it's true: she was the girl who broke the shocking news that Stephen Haines was stepping out on Mary.

[Get well, Baba Wawa - TV wouldn't be the same without you.  Of course, only you could leaven the sad news of a fall - by having it take place at the British ambassador's residence!]

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Foggy Day...

January is always an interesting time out here in the Sandlands.  We're now in the midst of the brief, sudden Not Hot season, when for a few weeks we get just a touch of what it's like to go outside without flinching.  This morning, for example, was downright chilly by local standards (all the way down to 60 degrees or so Fahrenheit) and featured what was, I believe, the thickest fog I've ever seen.

Above is a snap of the Villa Muscato's little front pocket garden, taken this morning from the second-floor sitting room window.  Over there, beyond the bougainvilleas where there are just some ghostly streetlights, ought to be a moderately busy street, a parking lot, and the tantalizing park across from us (a constant annoyance, as it's open only to women and children, and very definitely not to dogs, which means that not only can we not make use of its broad paths and pleasant greenery, but neither can Mrs. Galapatti-da Silva use it to walk Koko and Boudi).  It stayed dark for what seemed an inordinate time, and such was the sheer density and almost sentient resolve of this fog that, at 6:00 a.m. or so when I first opened the front door to push out the dogs and pull in the morning papers, wisps and tendrils of it slunk into the front hall, and when I reached the front gate, the open door not thirty feet behind me gleamed palely, suddenly seeming a very long way off.

While we enjoy the change of pace these few weeks bring, we do dread the foggy mornings, for second only to the even rarer rainy mornings, they bring out the very worst in local drivers.  This was much on my mind today, as I had to head to meetings about two hours out of town, and I just knew the roads would be littered (sometimes quite literally) by drivers who thought the only appropriate response to having visibility of something like four yards is to go as fast as possible. Perhaps they think that if they speed sufficiently, the fog won't notice them (a process aided, I suppose, by the constant weaving from lane to lane); perhaps they think that they can outrun it.  Perhaps they're simply not very bright; I don't know.  I just know that I am grateful for the extraordinary skill and even more more outstanding patience of our office drivers, who manage to remain wholly unfazed even when totally surrounded by hordes of the single greatest menace on Sandlandian roads: Lexus drivers.  I don't know what it is about this specific brand - at heart, after all, not much more than over-blinged Toyotas - but it universally brings out a level of terrible road-safety approached only by local teens in Dad's Maserati (itself a remarkably common phenomenon out here).

Fortunately, by the time we were returning to the capital, the fog had lifted and the usual midwinter sun had returned.  It would have seemed quite cheerful, if not for the fact that this afternoon not only I, but both the dogs had dental appointments.  As a result, we are having a quiet evening, one in which Mr. Muscato is showing remarkable restraint, not mocking our aching gums by eating especially tough, crispy, or crunchy foods.  Instead, we had a supper of one of Mrs. G-da S's excellent soups, and I plan to slowly fade in a pleasant haze of Pinot Gri.

We are entering yet another long weekend, the very last of the long string of local and international holidays (which some years can mean we scarcely have a full week of work from mid-October on); ahead lies the long slog to summer and yet another Ramadan.  With luck, before the weekend's over, while we won't be having taffy or peanut brittle, Koko, Boudi, and I will be restored to something like dental health.  If nothing else, I'm pleased to think that at least for the next three days, I can enjoy the foggy mornings without having to dread the commute. Soon enough, the cool will be a fading memory, and we'll be back to the usual round of hot, hotter, hottest, so this is no small thing...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Maisie is a Star

Let's wish a happy birthday (her 104th, believe it or not, were she here to celebrate it) to Hollywood stalwart Ann Sothern.

Sothern's career is a bit of an anomaly; thanks to a combination of longevity (she worked steadily from the late '20s to the late '70s), versatility (she did musicals, comedies, and fraught romances with equal verve), and flexibility (she did lots of radio, segued comfortably to television, and moved serenely from leads into supporting parts), she had an A-list name based mostly on second-string properties.  Of course, at the top of her career, a steady presence in the B-unit guaranteed a savvy player regular exposure to audiences and, frequently, greater job security than having to carry all the risks that big-budget A pictures entailed.  Sothern took those advantages and ran with them.

We catch her here toward the end of the run of films that really solidified her name with moviegoers and accounting suits alike.  Sothern made ten Maisie pictures between 1939 and 1947, and if by 1946 and Up Goes Maisie (the ninth outing) some of the seams were showing, all told the series paid a lot of bills for MGM.  This one puts the saucy title character into a rather thin soup of industrial espionage (but don't you love the bit in which she's the Plain Secretary Revealed?), with the studio's reliable B-lead George Murphy as her love interest and icy sophisticate Hilary Brooke (herself a low-budget regular as Lou Costello's girlfriend) as an unscrupulous patent thief.

The Maisie pictures - too little seen today, really, like too many Bs - are frothy good fun, with reliable production values, the occasional "guest star" (Maureen O'Sullivan or C. Aubrey Smith and the like) on the way up or down, and lots of opportunities to admire Sothern's genial good nature, deft handling of warmhearted wisecracks, and always a little leg and a low-cut bodice.  Maisie's trademark look - round cartwheel hat, plentiful ruffles and furbelows, and a plunging sweetheart neckline whenever possible - was set early on and at times makes Sothern look like a living incarnation of a wartime pinup.  Which, I suppose, was rather the point.

The Sothern persona carried her well into the '60s, and if by the following decade she was mostly the best thing in some truly terrible pictures (supporting Tony Curtis in The Manitou, for instance, or playing Cloris Leachman's mother in Crazy Mama, a kind of Shelley Winters part gone wrong), she came out of retirement in 1987 and had one last chance to shine, ably supporting no less than Bette Davis and Lillian Gish in the charming (and I think under-rated) The Whales of August.  I doubt she found it too taxing to be in the presence of those two titans, or to deal with the querulous and frequently temperamental Davis - she had, after all, put up with Lucille Ball for years, as both a DesiLu star and a sidekick on various Lucy projects.  After that, even post-stroke BD in combination with St. Lillian must have been a cakewalk.  As the patient, commonsensical neighbor (a variation, really, on the part she'd been playing since the dawn of talkies), she more than holds her own against the two warhorses, Maisie grown older and wiser, but still tremendously charming.

Sothern certainly had the looks and acting chops to be a Big Lady Star, and I suppose at times it must have rankled to report in for yet another programmer or to sit just a little back on an A assignment so that Jeanne Crain or Jane Powell could shine (in an early foray into mother parts, Sothern sings and dances rings around the latter, the titular star of Nancy Goes to Rio).  That she is today remembered more fondly they - or than many of her coevals, for that matter - is a tribute to the work she did and to the warmth she effortlessly projected in even the least of her vehicles.  In a remarkable interview in The New York Times, done while she was promoting Whales, she summed herself up:  "Hollywood doesn't respond to a strong woman, not at all. I was too independent. How dare a woman be competitive or produce her own shows? My work was paramount. My training was to be on time and know my lines. There's never been anything scandalous about me, and to come out clean is pretty damn good."  Pretty damn good; that, she most definitely was.

Monday, January 21, 2013

File Under "Role Models, Not Followed"

When it comes to a reasoned consideration of the new White House 'do, let's remember that Mrs. O. might have gone down paths far odder than mere bangs.  Seeing her here in the presence of Cette Coiffure Incroyable, I personally don't see how she had the strength to resist its hypnotic power.

Just been watching it all, of course.  We do do spectacle rather well, when called upon to do so, although a great deal less Kelly Clarkson would have raised the tone immensely.  And I can't wait for the James-Taylor-in-Aretha's-Hat gifs...

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Birthday Girl: Madame Flair

Born 105 years ago today (although she would probably have told you it was 96), Fleur Cowles was one of those remarkable 20th century women - tough, ambitious, elegant, canny and depending on your perspective either fearless or foolhardy - who broke the barriers between what were then the separate spheres of men and women.  An editor, author, painter, doyenne, fabulist, and survivor, she made her way in both Business and Society through a carefully chosen and delicately navigated path of working hard and marrying well.

She's most remembered today for her greatest failure, commercially, and her greatest success, artistically: the ill-fated monthly magazine Flair, a hyper-ambitious attempt to combine the worlds of journalism, art, fashion, and literature in one extravagantly glamourous package.  Launched in 1950, it lost her millions, but it gathered for her a cachet that lasted the rest of her long life (she left for Fabulon only four years ago).

Flair, however wonderful,* is far from her only legacy; she also wrote an authorized biography of Salvador Dalí, a piercingly unimpressed take on the lives of Juan and Eva Peron, and a pair of relentlessly auto-hagiographic memoirs, as well as other books that she also illustrated.  She promoted the careers of artists as diverse as Katherine Anne Porter and marvelous illustrator René Gruau (whose portrait of her appears above), both of whom graced the pages of Flair, and she counted as friends everyone from Cary Grant to the Queen Mother.  If she was an unfailing social climber (and one not eager for the world to know that she entered it as Florence Friedman, daughter of a feckless novelty salesman), few have ever climbed so elegantly; her contemporaries were more than willing to forgive her occasional tiresomeness (and someone born Florence who calls herself Fleur was likely more than a little tiresome from time to time, don't you think?) in return for the enthusiasm and joy she brought with her.  We should all live so well, for so long...

* And it really was - among the things, alas, lost many years ago when I had an unfortunate fire were three of its only twelve issues, picked up for a song at a suburban Philadelphia flea market once upon a time.  If you've got a spare $300 or so, you can pick up her anthology, The Best of Flair, over at Amazon, or ten original editions at eBay.  As Mrs. Vreeland might have asked - why don't you?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: That's Entertainment?

"The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure..."
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

Oh, yes, that's entertainment all right.  Very, very disturbing entertainment.  Ladies and gentlemen, the Florida Trio!

It turns out that there are some very good reasons Vaudeville breathed its last...

Friday, January 18, 2013

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Laz Call

After yesterday's bout of Merm-mania and associated Theatre Queeniness, I thought perhaps a little beefcake chaser might be in order.  This toothsome gentleman, Lebanese lovely Rabih Laz, may be rather beefier even than our dear Mr. John Abraham, but I hope you'll agree he carries it well.  He first caught the public eye in a regional television program called Arab Gladiators, which I suppose now I'll have to go learn more about...

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Everything the Traffic will Allow

In honor of the great lady's 105th, and just because nothing perks up a drab Wednesday like a little Irving Berlin, I thought it might be fun to survey a few off-the-beaten-track versions of one of the Merm's signature tunes.  Sadly, there's no video evidence for my personal favorite, which is Tyne Daly singing a slow, slow, sad version of the song that, as she herself has said, "makes strong men weep."  Still, there's a surprising variety of takes on the old chestnut.  Sit back and enjoy.

First off, to get thing going on a truly surreal note, here we have the good Damen und Herren of the German Army's Heeresmusikkorps 4 in a swinging instrumental rendition filmed in a garden in Regensburg.  One can only wonder what the erstwhile Israel Beilin would have made of it...

Next up, Welsh songbird Mary "Those were the Days" Hopkin warbles her way through a rather solemn version of the song, as arranged by Beatles' producer George Martin.  Pretty.

Sister 'Retha's unexpected version is sadly truncated, but entirely creditable.  Of any version, hers perhaps approaches the original in terms of sheer lung power.

That said, this magisterial version by tragic UK thrush Lena Zavaroni comes close.  Unfortunately, it segues into one of those uncomfortable "End of Benefit Gala Finale" sway-n-sings, to "That's Entertainment," which rather undercuts the impact.

The lovely and talented Mr. Nathan Lane leads the ensemble through a spirited rendition from Kenneth Branagh's moderately awful go at Love's Labour's Lost.  It's fun, but kind of lumbering.

Here's a version that competes head-to-head in terms of sheer show-biz professionalism.  Rosemary Clooney had the musical chops to give it more swing than the Merm ever tried, and by 1985, when this was taped, she had the backstory to make the lyric work, too.  Terrific.

Still, there's nothing like the real thing.  This one's familiar, I know, but I never fail to marvel at how, for whatever reason, the Muppets bring out something tender and rather magical in the old girl, a rare occasion in her later career in which she backed off from being "Miss Birdseye," unfroze her set-in-stone arrangements, and did something a little different.  The moment she gets to "the closing, when the customers don't come..." is indescribable.

Merman was a warhorse, a trouper, a star virtually from the first moment she set foot on Broadway.  Few performers have ever had a clearer vision of who they are and what they do, and if the price of that, in the long run, was that moments of spontaneity and vulnerability like the above were few and far between, it meant that she had the stamina to delight audiences, night after night, in halls around the world, for decades, live and in person and generally with nothing so vulgar as a microphone in sight.  It's almost impossible to imagine, in a world of spoiled divas and post-teen has-beens, the discipline and dedication it took, being Ethel Merman.  Brava to her, on her birthday and always.

Redux: Birthday Goddess, After and Before

It's a big day at the Café, kids - the 105th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest showpeople who ever lived, the brass-lunged, foul-mouthed, great-hearted self-creation that was - deep breath - Ethel Merman. Let's give it up.

The stage was her medium and the movies didn't ever do her justice, but thank heaven we do have a record of what she was like in action. Here are two clips, separated by something just shy of half-a-century, both of which in very different ways give me goosebumps.

First up, the Great Lady herself, in full flight on the Tony Awards, reprising one of her numbers from Annie Get Your Gun:

That's the diva we all know and love.

It's easy, in watching her make it look so easy, to forget the incredible craft that she puts into a song she's sung a thousand times before. She's an old lady, never a subtle presence, pushing a voice that while still titanic is worn around the edges, and yet she brings a genuine pathos to the song; that little break between the last two words speaks volumes about a life that knew heartbreak as well as triumph.

Once upon a time, of course, even she was young, attractive if not drop-dead beautiful, and, from the moment she first stepped on stage, incomparable at putting across a song.

To prove it, here's "An Earful of Music", from the 1934 Eddie Cantor vehicle Kid Millions. Cantor shows, stage or screen, were all about Cantor, but the audience must have sat up and taken notice of this young sensation, just four years away from having been Queens stenographer Ethel Agnes Zimmerman:
Except for the dress, which definitively proves that Goldwyn's Omar Kiam was no Adrian, she's pretty believable as a girl song plugger in a sheet music store.*

Young or old, she's amazing, irreplaceable, and a very great artist. Merman had a career like no other, and while she suffered the occasional misstep and, especially toward the end, made herself a shade too easy to parody, few performers have ever had a greater hit-to-flop ratio in their favor, had such a hold on their audience for so long, or did more to spread the word about the genius of America's greatest mid-century songwriters. Like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Jules Styne, we're in her debt. Happy Birthday, Merm!

* Now there's a line of work that's dead as the dodo.

First posted four years ago today, and amended only to update the year.  How time flies!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Three Girls Three

On a fine autumn day, there was nothing that Evelyn, Eve, and Lyn liked better than to dress up as Pat Nixon, link hands, and go for a walk on the shoulder of the Interstate while singing a hymn or two.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Birthday Girls: Stars Wavishing and Less So

Caught up in that little shopping frenzy yesterday, I missed a landmark birthday, that of longtime Café patroness and mascot, the magnificent Miss Kay Francis.  We see her here at the height of her glory, superb in all the trappings of stardom in the Golden Age: turban, stole, plunging décolletage, and an expression both mocking and enigmatic.

She was a not a happy lady, nor, from all accounts, a particularly sensible one when it came to most aspects of her private life.  Still, she accomplished one thing that in these intrusive, media-saturated days seems almost impossible:  when she was done with it all, when it no longer seemed worth it to keep up the pretense of being Kay! Francis! - and for a woman in her fifties, whose reputation always rested as much on her glossy appearance as her (underestimated) talent, and one given to excesses that can be distressingly aging, that must have been a lot of work indeed - she simply disappeared.

Try and find a photograph of her in retirement; with the exception of a couple of blurry personal snaps in one of the biographies that came out a few years ago, they would seem simply not to exist.  Not for Kay Francis the indignities of being trailed through the streets of Manhattan like Garbo or of being ambushed outside the doctor's office or worse that is the fate of too many stars today.  Of course, her determination to disappear (one of those biographies uses one of her own quotes: I Can't Wait to be Forgotten) was made easier by the complete collapse of her career and, for far too long (and for long after her early death, in 1968, at 63 or so) of her reputation.  It's only since TCM and other outlets have made more of her movies available to wider audiences that Francis's work has been restored to something like its proper place; like Marion Davies, she has benefited greatly from direct exposure to the actual films, which has allowed people to see for themselves that there is more to Kay Francis than overdressing and histrionics (although she certainly indulged in both).

Still, she resisted any and all temptations that came along and lived out her life entirely on her own terms, and when she died - alone, as apparently she wanted it - she died a rich woman who had if nothing else the satisfaction that she made her own decisions, however they turned out.

Today, by chance, is the birthday of another troubled, troubling Hollywood great, Miss Faye Dunaway.  The two make an interesting contrast.  Like Francis, Dunaway had a period of enormous success (it can be easy, now, to forget what a very topmost star she was for 15 years or so after her triumph in Bonnie and Clyde in 1967), followed by an ever greater period of near-total eclipse.  Unlike Francis, though, Dunaway for a long time seemed unable to give up the illusion - which must, in truth, be enormously intoxicating - of Great Stardom.  For years (turning into decades, since at least, with few exceptions, 1987 or so) she has appeared in almost nothing but trash, and great quantities of it - 16 films since 2005 alone, plus a couple of TV appearances.  Few stars have had as direct and seemingly enthusiastic a hand in the trashing of their own fame as Dunaway - yes, Francis made a trio of films at Monogram, but Dunaway did a thriller of sorts distributed by Troma and (a phrase I regularly recycle, as it so precisely defines her parlous situation) has consented to appearing fourth-billed in a Bai Ling picture.  It's a long way from Chinatown, Jake.

Lately, of course, she's been much taken by the idea of what looks to be a spectacularly misguided film version of Terrence McNally's Maria Callas stage hit Master Class.  Callas was another one who walked away; perhaps Dunaway should look a little more into the example set by her and Kay Francis, if only for the sake of her own, now so tarnished, legacy.

In any case, Happy Birthday, wherever you are, Kay Francis, and many happy returns, Miss D.  It may be cold comfort now, but as the years pass, you can at least know that your more dismal outings (Say it in Russian, anybody? Cougar Club?) will fade in the glow of Network and The Thomas Crown Affair, just we as now appreciate the glory of Kay in Trouble in Paradise and One Way Passage and don't pay all that much heed to Wife Wanted or Women in the Wind.

Steel yourself, though - there will never, ever be any piece of journalism on your life and work that doesn't mention (if it doesn't base itself around) Mommie Dearest.  Maybe you should have considered a Kay Francis biopic instead...

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Last Hurrah in Bangkok

We have, alas, returned from our little adventure in the exotic East.  Yes, the dogs were happy to see us (ditto Mrs. Galapatti-Da Silva, who in eight days had clearly had just about enough of them, bless her), but there's no denying that our winter holiday (and so the longer winter holidays) are over, and now the long slog toward summer is upon us.

We had an especially amusing last few hours in Thailand, however, having left the tranquil beach resort where we'd spent the last few days.  We met up with friends and filled out our experience as tourists in Bangkok by hitting the fabulous MBK center, a vast and quite wonderful emporium that is less mall a kind of concentration of Bangkok-ness, a six or so story conglomeration of discount electronics, market stalls, kiosks selling everything from Buddha heads to naughty devices, and pretty much anything you can imagine that you'd ever care to buy.  We went by tuktuk, as one does - I especially liked this gentleman's festive pink and white seats, which echoed the bright pink leopard print ceiling of the interior.

The MBK Center is tawdry and glossy and rather wonderful, as long as you don't think too closely about the implications of all those thousands of people and what looked to be about four emergency exits.

Seasonal decorations are everywhere in Bangkok, and MBK is no exception.  Oddly, in Thailand, Santa appears to have some sort of association with the space program, as he regularly appears, as here, in conjunction with what looks like SkyLab; satellite dishes and rockets also turn up here and there.

This gives no indication of either the density of the crowds or the intensity of the volume that envelopes you.  These corridors go on for what feels like three or four blocks.

Among other things, the place is a veritable festival of trayf.  I considered bringing a few of the manifold varieties of shredded, dried, and otherwise highly processed pork back with me to the Sandlands, just to see if they'd make it through, but decided that with a flight arriving at an ungodly hour of the morning, the last thing I needed would be a lengthy pig-related delay at Customs.

Dried fruit and other goodies proved to be much safer choices.

We found ourselves tempted by bling in many forms - these fine timepieces, for example, were being hawked by one stall proprietor as "A Number One Fakes!"  Some were so heavily encrusted that it was hard to tell fake what, exactly...

I had thought it would be hard to find trashier shoes than are found on sale at malls across the Sandlands.  I soon discovered that was I was quite, quite wrong.

Having been an aficionado of Engrish back in my Japanese days, I was happy to see that it's alive and well and living in Bangkok.  This sentiment could, I suppose, console us for forgoing the rhinestone watches.

Apparently, Amanda Lepore has a fast-food chain in Bangkok.  Who knew?

At a nearby eatery, a disconcertingly eager and seemingly cannibalistic pig advertises the delicacies to be found within.  Given Mr. Muscato's dietary proclivities, this joint was clearly off limits.

So we ended up at an excellent Japanese place nearby, drawn by its first-rate assortment of plastic examples of its offerings, and a good time was had by all.

We may not have gone for the watches, but we did very well on all kinds of tat, with which we plan to surprise and appall friends and acquaintances on a regular basis for the next few weeks - refrigerator magnets, novelty lighters, stuffed elephants in rainbow colors, and much, much more.

Within a few hours we were jetting back home, arriving to find the Sandlands surprisingly chilly (at least in comparison to Bangkok) and just about as dull as ever.  Tomorrow, it's back to the grindstone, but for now I'm holding on as firmly as possible to memories of mad malls, gilded temples, golden bar boys, and very nearly unwise amounts of excellent, ice-cold Singha beer...

Thursday, January 10, 2013


These people are entirely too happy about dish soap.  And they're on Thai television, every station, about ten times an hour.  Wait through the 20 second intro - it's worth it.

(and yes, that is the Thai for "And now, a word from our sponsor," at least to the best of Google's ability, up there in the headline.)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A Miracle for Breakfast

...Every day, in the sun, 
 at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.

- Elizabeth Bishop, "A Miracle for Breakfast"

So Mr. Muscato and I have relocated, after these last few hectic days, to a serene little resort down the coast from Bangkok.  Here we fully plan to do absolutely nothing at all to the very best of our abilities (and, when it comes to sloth, believe me, they are considerable) for the rest of our alas-too-short time in Thailand.  Which we've decided we like a very great deal indeed.

Our drive down was fascinating, as the landscape en route was such a remarkable gaullifmaufry of oddities ("Thailand, Land of Contrasts" - travelogue writing 101, I know - but it's so true!).  As the city receded, through the predictable mix of car dealers, factories, suburbs, shopping centers, it was replaced by a jumble of old and new heedlessly thrown together - rice fields, roadside places selling shrines and garden statuary and wooden furniture, petrol stations with old ladies peddling crafts and fruit outside the minimarkets, huge flyovers that swooped off toward what looked like country roads, and eventually the little seaside resort in which we find ourselves.  It's not one of the large, flashy, or notorious ones, but our hotel is on the beach and has what looks like an extremely promising spa, so we're happy as the proverbial clams.

Now the sun is up, the coffee is cooling here next to me, and I'm hearing rumblings from the next room that mean that Mr. Muscato is up and about.  Time to find that Miracle Miss Bishop talks about...

Monday, January 7, 2013

A Little Flesh, a Little History...

I suppose it's inevitable, if you're of a certain age, not to have "One Night in Bangkok" rolling through your head when you first visit Thailand.  Suffice it to say that, with the exception of any element having to do with chess, we've pretty much had it as our leitmotif for the past few days.

Let's see.  Bar tours? Check, courtesy of a friend of Mr. Muscato's who lives here.  Tuk Tuk rides?  Check, many times, as we are fairly entranced by these putt-putting (hence the name) open taxis.  Naughty revue?  Check, in spades - rather more graphic than expected, actually, and accompanied by some deeply unenthusiastic bondage (in what look like costumes left over from the Bangkok Light Opera's last production of Aida) set to an appalling heavy-metal/techno hybrid, which mostly made us giggle inappropriately.  Lots and lots of spectacularly delicious street food?  Oh so very much check.  On that count alone, we're tempted never to go home.

Oh, and some standard tourism, too, mostly consisting of, first, a leisurely visit yesterday to the Jim Thompson House, a handsome house museum that once belonged to a rather mysterious American silk magnate.  The serene scene above is from its lovely and tranquil garden.  Today, for the second half of our tourist odyssey, we subjected ourselves to the strict care of a brisk and vigorous guide called Siriporn (before you start giggling inappropriately, the "r" is silent.  Which is a good thing, since Kittyporn is apparently another popular name).  She hustled us through a haze of temples, Buddhas (large and small; bronze, gilt, stone, and gold; standing, sitting, and reclining), and other historical sites, interrupted by a hair-raising ride on a long-tailed canal boat, which did allow us to have a look at some of the less flashily Tokyoesque sides of this incredible city.  Perhaps when I've recovered, I'll show you one or two snaps from that part of the trip.

But not, definitely, from Babylon, a most intriguing gentlemen's spa... Oh, we've kept busy, all right.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Go East!

Having survived the holidays more or less intact, Mr. Muscato and I are heading off for a lovely little break.  After more than six years here in the Sandlands, we've never before tried any of the more exotic destinations that are comparatively short flights away, so we decided to start the year off with a jaunt to Thailand.  I believe that we'll have connections to the great wide world at the excellent hostelries I've chosen, and I'll do my best to keep you up to date with our adventures.

I'm normally an in-depth preparer when it comes to new destinations, but the pace of the last few weeks has made that impossible; as a result I'm relying almost entirely on distant impressions of The King and I and a few tips from a pair of colleagues who used to live in Bangkok (surely the most bawdily named world capital in history).  I'm sensible enough to eschew Mrs. Anna's crinolines, but part of me is inevitably going to be expecting to hear The March of the Siamese Children as we land.

Wish us luck - and do send along any thoughtful travel recommendations you may have, or at least ones that would be sensible for a pair of stout parties of indeterminate age.*

* Note to MJ and her gang:  that means no donkey shows and nothing involving ping pong balls.  A boy has to have some standards... 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Lady and her Music

I'm reading a biography of Lena Horne at the moment, marveling at the enormous strength of character it must have taken to have made for herself the life that she did, faced as she was at every turn by the most unpromising circumstances you can imagine, from a spectacularly unhelpful family background to the seemingly insuperable walls of racism into which she ran at every turn.

Most remarkable, so far (I'm just about halfway through) is how entirely she had to create herself, the public image that became Miss Lena Horne.  She was at the beginning a gawky, unmusical chorus girl, with early observers at a loss trying to figure out why it was that audiences were drawn to her.  It's as if she started with the star quality, and only on top of that built the craft that helped it shine through.  It seems impossible to believe, but many, early on, were deeply unimpressed by her singing, ridiculing her too-careful diction and, in the beginning, her inability to connect on an emotional level with the lyrics she sang.

Well, she certainly took care of that, turning her early limitations into her greatest assets, selling the numbers she sang by crisply putting over the words while finding ways to subtly make even the blandest arrangements bluesy and insinuating.

We see her here in the era that must have been for her the most infuriating of her professional life, even as it brought her the mass audiences on which she built the subsequent decades of her long and distinguished career.  Her contract with MGM at first seemed like an amazing breakthrough, the first time an African-American performer made it to the top in the movies without kowtowing to demeaning and degrading stereotypes.  The problem was that, without those stereotypes, even L.B. Mayer - her greatest partisan - didn't really know what to do with her.  Instead of becoming a genuine leading lady, she found herself dropped into film after film as a specialty number, as disposable as the kinds of novelty acts that lesser studios like Fox threw into their comparatively ramshackle musicals.  She even found herself resented by other black performers, particularly the ones who had built successful careers on the very roles - servants, mammies, comic buffoons - she repudiated.

Here she briefly takes center stage in Words and Music, the 1948 attempt to dramatize (and sanitize) the life and work of Rodgers and Hart.  She puts over "The Lady is a Tramp" like nobody's business, looks sensational in her Helen Rose costume, and turns the artificial conventions of being an MGM girl singer (the stylized gestures and what she would later call "pretty mouth singing") into something that only highlights the arch and genially racy nature of the song (her little moué at being "all alone when I lower my lamp" is worth the price of admission).

Horne seems to have been a complicated lady, one whose public image - all dignified achievement, ladylike glamour, and slighty haughty intelligence - masked a lot of anger, resentment, and even bitterness.  Never mind.  The best of her shines through in even her most perfunctory movie appearances, and later on she found ways to channel her demons into performances - on Broadway and beyond - full of fire and self-mockery.  Personally, I can't think of anybody I rather have on hand for a trip to Hobohemia, can you?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year, New Man

Why not start out 2013 appreciating a little beauty?  Here at the Café, regulars will know, we have a bit of a thing for tall, dark, and handsome, on the order of Bollywood's Mr. John Abraham, fetching Mr. Upen Patel, sometime Mr. Egypt Tarek Naguib, and such Hollywood staples past and present as Messrs. Kline and Gable.

Here we have a new addition to our stable, as it were - Turkish star Burak Özçivit (don't ask me - I haven't the foggiest on how to pronounce it; any and all suggestions welcome). He's popped up on the radar of late because Mr. Muscato has become addicted to a new soap opera on local television; it's an Arabic-dubbed version of the blockbuster series Muhteşem Yüzyıl (The Magnificent Century, known in Arabic as Hareem al Sultan, meaning The Sultan's Harem).  It's a sprawling costume drama of the life and times of Suleiman the Magnificent, and it's basically Dynasty in turbans and fab Ottoman court costumes.

Among other things, the period setting requires the male half of the cast to sport an alluring range of facial hair, and it's this that has really brought our Mr. Özçivit into his own. He's been around for a while, it seems, as one of Turkey's leading male models and a dabbling actor, but the addition of the moustache seen here has transformed a pretty but rather bland young man into... something more special.

Sadly, Turkish stars don't have the pleasing tendency of their Bollywood brothers to drop their shirts at the least provocation, but Mr. O. has the charisma to make fully dressed seem almost as alluring as the alternative.

In any case, between the distractions offered by the moustache and all its counterparts on the other actors and the splendid outfits (the ladies of the harem swan about dressed in massive velvet gowns and quantities of jewelry, while the men run to embroidered vests and inventive headgear), I'm enjoying Hareem al Sultan almost enough to ignore the woeful dubbing, which is very much on the level of that seen in Mr. Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily? - lots of bits in which voices float over faces that stopped speaking moments ago, and/or great stretches of frantic acting dubbed with something along the lines of "Yes, Your Highness."

It's all very fraught, with a level of slapping and storming in and out of palace chambers that would do Aaron Spelling proud.  If only there were more scenes set poolside at Topkapi...