Friday, May 31, 2013
After a thoroughly uneventful flight, I've arrived in Cairo and am now ensconced chez nous. We're lucky, as you can see, in not being totally surrounded by the rather dire cement flats that dominate this part of town - the open view was one of the things that sold Mr. Muscato on the flat when first we saw it.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
A nice little piece of Egyptomania today, from that liminal period after the First War when Gibson Girls were morphing ineluctably into flappers, just as the era of Theda Bara was giving way to headier brews courtesy of the likes of Clara Bow. This Cleopatra wannabe would fit right in at one of Baz Luhrmann's Gatsby parties, don't you think?
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
As is now legend, when the work premiered in Paris, a riot nearly capsized the proceedings (although there was cheering and bows all around at the finale), and the resulting furor made the piece a byword for the adventurous avant garde. How much of that was canny marketing by M. Diaghilev remains unclear, but I am quite certain he knew his way around a claque and would have had no hesitation in deploying one to good effect.
At one point someone told me I bore a strong resemblance to Diaghilev, and while based on some photographs that may be the most equivocal of compliments, I wouldn't mind looking half so soigné as he does here...
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Based on this little gem, I wish we could use United Van Lines for our all-too-looming upheaval, now just a few weeks away. That way, no matter what hell we go through getting our hoarder's trove of stuff half way 'round the world, I could at least rest easy knowing that my chafing dish will get there safe and sound.
As is so often the case with missives from the last mid-century, too, I'm reminded what a slatternly sort I really must be. I've gone through something like eight major moves in the past 15 years, and never once did it occur to me to be concerned whether my moving van had been sanitized for my protection, a service in my experience hitherto restricted to motel toilet seats. Live and learn...
Monday, May 27, 2013
I'm increasingly intrigued by the plethora of video riches now available for the asking on YouTube, not to mention taking advantage of same to fill some lamentable gaps in my education. This weekend, for example, when not riveted by the Divine Miss M., I caught up on a very odd little film that is more discussed, I think, than seen: the Tallulah Bankhead vehicle A Royal Scandal.
Don't get too excited - it's awful. It looks like they spent 70% of a moderately exiguous budget on gowns that make Bankhead look less like Catherine the Great than whomever it was that Margot Channing was playing in Aged in Wood, and the tone is sufficiently uneven that it seems like nothing so much as a Sternberg script directed as a Ritz Brothers epic. Which is to say, I suppose, it's a Fox attempt at sophistication, and despite a great deal of Acting from Miss B. (some of it, to be fair, good fun), it's flat as a pancake.
All that said, I did sit up and pay attention during the brief appearances by today's celebrant (102, were he still haunting us only on film), Mr. Vincent Price. We are so used to him as a cheerfully menacing presence in bad horror films and on TV that it's easy to forget that he was in the beginning quite comely, not to mention that he had a good run as a leading man or featured player in the '40s before becoming entrenched horror pictures good and less so. In Scandal he's the cheerfully effete French ambassador, who ends up as the Empress's consolation prize when she loses William Eythe (who's kind of a bore anyway) to Anne Baxter (who has a couple of oddly Sapphic moments as a lady in waiting, and even they're not very interesting).
While Price will doubtless have a kind of immortality for having lent his voice to Michael Jackson's monster (in more ways than one) hit, I'm awfully glad that at the end of his long career, he had two roles that gracefully limn his range as a screen presence. In his final film, Edward Scissorhands, he revisited the Gothic guignol in which he he earned his living for so many years, gently sending up the very idea of a mad scientist, and it makes a fitting valediction. Three years earlier, though, he recalls his days as a more romantic type in The Whales of August, where he is a touching foil for its formidable stars, Misses Gish and Davis, playing a gentle, faded Continental aristocrat (a senescent edition of his earlier ambassador, perhaps).
In his private life he seems to have been rather cheerfully effete himself, and in his final marriage found a soulmate in the mordant Australian phenomenon that was Coral Browne. Immersed in art and cooking, they appear to have had a very good time. After Tallulah, she must have seemed a rest...
Sunday, May 26, 2013
Saturday, May 25, 2013
"Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation - not judgment. Camp is generous."
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"
Herewith a Very Special Edition of SSCE, an old familiar treasure I was lucky enough to stumble upon this morning. It's one I suspect will be familiar to many a Gentle Reader, but it remains as wonderful the thirty-oddth time as it was all those years ago back in the summer of 1984. It's Bette Midler's epochal Art or Bust tour, seen in its full version (rather than the sadly trimmed hour-long HBO special that omitted, if memory serves, the incredible medley of "Broken Bicycles," "Everyone's Gone to the Moon," and "Here Comes the Flood"). It's all here - her swaggering "Pink Cadillac," the great bits of video from the Continental Baths and her breakthrough appearance on the AJC telethon, her Dolores DeLago disco marathon (in which the Harlettes prove they are troupers in every way), and finally a breathtaking "Stay with Me." It holds up.
Art or Bust came out just as I turned 21, and watching after very nearly three decades (and many, many viewings in the interim), it struck me how much it was part of shaping my taste, shaking me out of the solemnity of studying Art History and showing me that it was possible to take things - funny, sad, loud, mad - right to the edge and then that little bit beyond. We may none of us have the unstoppable momentum, the half-crazed inspiration, of the Divine Miss M. (I didn't then, and heaven knows don't have it today), but how lucky we are to bask in her glow, to draw on her energy - her extraordinary generosity as a performer - even now. If you've got a spare hour-and-a-half this Decoration Day weekend (for all you Statesiders), enjoy.
Friday, May 24, 2013
Roses and furs, yes, that I get. Personally, however, I wouldn't have thought a menacing stranger figured among the Seven Secrets. But what do I know? Selling to women has never been my long suit, and since it turns out that even though ol' Dottie's shuffled off this mortal coil these seven years, her company's still going strong, I'm going to assume she knows what she's doing. In case you were wondering, that is indeed Dottie herself there, by all appearances about to find out an eighth secret...
Thursday, May 23, 2013
Just 51 years ago today, none other than Gloria Vanderbilt DiCicco Stokowski Lumet Cooper (who had by 1962 gotten only as far as Lumet) modeled what's described as the new Marienbad (as in Last Year in...) hairdo.
It strikes me as an unlikely movie product placement, but then LYiM isn't exactly the world's most market-driven picture. It also strikes me that my own hair is now something on the order of twice as long as Gloria Vanderbilt's. For some reason, that amuses me immensely...
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
I'm not quite sure what this is, but I believe it may be a nearly perfect specimen of whatever kind of thing it actually turns out to be. And it has its own Know Your Meme page, for what that's worth.
And for what that's worth, this is pretty much the look of the moment in many of your more regrettable nitespots in this benighted part of the the world...
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
...and it really was a tale of love and glory. Four was the charm for Bogie, and 20-year-old Betty Perske found herself, at 20, embarked on a marriage that completed her transition into Lauren Bacall. They were two radically different people, at totally different times in their lives, but they made something that for many - in terms of intensity, devotion, and sheer charisma - stands as one of the marriages against which others can be measured.
For them, the old trope about Astaire and Rogers ("he gave her class; she gave him sex") morphs into something like "he gave her wry; she gave him warm." Together, whenever we see them together, they give us a particularly potent form of star power.
And it all happened today, May 21, in 1945. I'm glad the bride is still with us, and I hope she knows, no matter what the future brings, just what she meant and means, as time goes by.
Monday, May 20, 2013
James Stewart (105 today, in a better world) isn't always thought of as one of Hollywood's lookers, but he could do a dreamy gaze into the middle distance with the best of them.
He also does yearning awfully well, and for someone mostly remembered for his good humor and folksy charm, he has an off-kilter angle on obsession that makes watching him in something like Vertigo especially gripping (one minute he's all wry grumbles with Barbara Bel Geddes, and the next he's a sweaty perv losing it over Kim Novak, and it never fails to startle).
Once upon a time I was temping at Lincoln Center, typing (on an actual typewriter. Yes, it was the Pleistocene). I shared a tiny office with a formidable and elderly executive secretary who had gotten her start 'round about the glory days of Toscanini. One of the benefits of the job was that we had an intercom in the office so that we could hear what was going on downstairs on the stage - mostly it was orchestral rehearsals, but one week the hall was to be used for a gala. On the morning of the big day, We had the speaker turned down, as it was mostly tech run-through stuff, the stage manager shouting instructions and various people trying to focus lights and figure out entrances and exits. After a while, we realized it had gotten rather quiet.
Then, out of nowhere, we heard two voices familiar from a thousand late night movies: "Mister Stewart!" "Hello, Bette!"
She might have been old, but when she needed to, Miss Marzini moved fast - she was across the room turning that speaker up in nanoseconds. It turned out the gala was the annual Lincoln Center film tribute, and that year Bette Davis, the honoree, was to be introduced by Stewart. They ran through their bit, and after a minute or two, Miss Marzini looked at me, and I looked at her, and we scampered down the back stairs four or five flights and stood at the back of the hall to see the two spotlit figures, one tiny and wiry and electric even from that distance, the other tall and slightly stooped and just as courtly as one imagined, work out their business.
It was only a few minutes, but it was magic, and I don't know that either of us, Miss Marzini and I, got too much else done that day. We took the elevator back upstairs, and she of course had to call Mother up in Ossining to tell her everything, which took a while, and then I had to call one or two people who had to know that moment all about the Patrick Kelly suit and hat (in memory a brilliant green) Bette Davis wore, and then we just stared at each other and sighed. Seeing Davis, of course was amazing, but, oh, sighed Miss Marzini, Jimmy Stewart. In that oh was everything I needed to know to be certain that while the Cary Grants and Tyrone Powerses of this world have their place, never disregard the power of a quiet man with a charming stammer...
Sunday, May 19, 2013
As a taste in persons, Camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and to the strongly exaggerated... What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"
We're a day late with this week's Camp Explosion, I know, but while it's no excuse, the birthday of no less than the great Grace Jones makes it entirely appropriate to mark the day today instead.
Here we see her in surprisingly cozy form - perhaps something in the sheer surreality of the setting brings out the lady in her. Certainly, sandwiched between Dame Edna and late-period Tony Curtis, she seems by far the most conventional person on stage. A snippet of her 1989 hit, "Love on Top of Love" reminds us of what alluring fun her mainstream (comparatively) pop era was, while her anecdotes of wild Paris nights with Jerry Hall now have something of the air of Innocents Abroad. Who else would show up for a talk show - even a semi-spoof one - dressed as Delilah ("I brought my scissors along - anyone for a haircut?")?
Today, by the bye, this fierce creature is (are you sitting down?) - 65. I suddenly feel entirely better about my own recent milestone...
Saturday, May 18, 2013
Well, we're heading home, Mr. Muscato and I, but this snap from this afternoon is distinctly more scenic than the airport lounge in which we find ourselves at the moment, so let it stand as an indication of how lovely our weekend has been. The Bahrain boys flew out earlier this afternoon, so we had a nostalgic last evening to ourselves, revisiting old haunts and even pulling up outside the Villa Muscato 1.0, which is looking well (if, we couldn't help fancying, just the tiniest bit forlorn without us).
So tomorrow it's back to reality in that other, definitely less festive corner of the Sandlands, but every day brings us closer to the end of our Arabian idyll altogether. Being here these past few days has made our seven years in these parts feel very short indeed, but I'm glad we've had the chance to reconfirm that our old haunts are just as pleasant as memory has painted them. There's not much, I have to say (Mrs. Galapatti-da Silva aside) we'll miss from our current venue, so it's good to leave with pleasant memories uppermost in mind.
Friday, May 17, 2013
"I'd like some ice," she observed lazily, "for my water, but it's too hot to get up and look for a waiter."
"Don't worry," I replied. "It's nearly two, which means he'll be coming with our drinks any minute now."
One of the characteristic features of life in the Sultanate is that on Fridays, one cannot procure a drink 'til two, but you can, nonetheless, pre-order, so that at the magic hour, you needn't wait a moment longer than necessary.
We are vegetating in the shade, occasionally dipping ourselves desultorily in the turquoise pool or braving the long and winding stairs down to the beach and the tepid crystal sea. Last night we caroused our way through tropical cocktails at that local bastion of cultural authenticity, Trader Vic's. Tonight it's glorified curries at a trendy hilltop boite that morphs into a Bollywood nightclub later on.
Ah, but now it's two o'clock, so you'll forgive me...
Thursday, May 16, 2013
This number, by UK DJ/Songbird Sonique, played nonstop for what seemed the better part of a year on one of the satellite music channels we would watch when Mr. Muscato and I lived in East Africa. We were landlocked, and living in the chilly highlands, so this vision of a sultry pool party seemed teasing and unfair (never mind that neither of us were ever exactly the kind of pretty party boys who appear to hang out chez Sonique). It's another of the songs I would probably have never run across if not for the bizarre life I led, and another I can't imagine doing without.
Visions of pools and sunshine seem a little more to the point at the moment, however, as the Mister and I are even as I type back down in our beloved old Sultanate, lazing in the shade of our favorite tree at our old beach club. The Bahrain boys and some of their set have joined us, so it's all very gay in several senses of the word. The weather is hot but bone dry, the pints are exactly the opposite, and all's well with the world. Perhaps there's something to this being fifty business after all...
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
39 years ago this very day, photographer Gjon Mili caught this intense moment at a rehearsal in New York City. The work being considered by these two august gentlemen* is the ballet Dybbuk. Then in preparation for its Lincoln Center premiere, the piece featured the choreography of Jerome Robbins set to the music of Leonard Bernstein. As a piece of art, let's be tactful and just say it turned out to be not quite West Side Story. But what is?
Note the discreet and studious presence of one of Mr. Robbins's Nice Young Men. Unlike some, I'm guessing he was not hired because he could type. The dance world's funny that way. As was Robbins, from most accounts for that matter. Add him, by the bye, to the very short list of Great Names I've encountered (in his case, thankfully, only second hand) about whom I've never heard a nice word. His collaborator was something of a handful, of course, but generally, and justifiably, I think, considered a far pleasanter gent. It's some measure of Robbins's force of character that Bernstein looks almost - not quite - cowed.
There are some shows, in all media, that you know you'd far rather be at rehearsals than the final product, and this is one. Unless, I'm guessing, you were working for Jerome Robbins. In that case, I suppose you'd far rather be at the St. Marks Baths (well, it was 1974)...
* It took all the strength I have not to to title this post "When Ladies Meet."
Monday, May 13, 2013
Well, now that I've been so thoroughly outed by dear Mistress MJ, I suppose there's no point not admitting it: I'm old. This is not just a birthday, you see - it's one of those birthdays, the kind unreasonably freighted with significance just because they end in a zero.
Fifty. The very sound of it is Eeyorish. Fifty. The age at which Gloria Swanson starred in Sunset Boulevard, a full two years older than Bette Davis in A Catered Affair. It's the age - as all too many people are eager to remind you - that one becomes eligible for membership in the American Association of Retired Persons. Fifty. Oy.
Well, it's better than the alternative, I know that. And I'm also learning that all those people who go on about how you feel freer as you get older to do as you please, actually do have something of a point. Also, it's nice, sometimes, to have a great store of experience to drawn on, even if it's just to stare down some youngster. I found myself glaring sternly at such a one last week, a wee creature who had come to confirm whether some petty detail he found amiss could possibly be correct. "Well," said I, "given that this is something that I have been doing for a living for the past 32 years, and it hasn't been wrong until now, I think we might assume it's so, don't you?" Apparently I can look quite formidable with brows beetled, and he scooted off, cowed. I felt quite disproportionately pleased.
So our naughty weekend in Dubai was actually a birthday celebration, and a festive one at that, with a grand lunch at, of all things, a little Irish pub we like (they do a first-rate roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, and those of us that indulge in that sort of thing can avail ourselves of their excellent sausages, gloriously made of what in these very halal parts we refer to as "flat-nosed beef"). Present were all sorts of people from hither and yon, from a sweet young thing who thinks of Mr. Muscato and me as his uncles (bless) to a an old pal from West Africa days who's recently washed up on these shores. We ate and drank and laughed a lot, and I thought a little about the Long Strange Trip it's been.
Miss Rheba rang me up last night to commiserate, for she crosses the same Rubicon in just a few weeks. As we've known each other since we were 14, we have few secrets and always lots to talk about. "There are things we'll never do again," she said, "but I don't mind too much. No, I really don't care. Think of all the things we'll never have to do again. I figure we have 30 more years, easy, of not caring what people think, and what a relief that is. Imagine how much more fun we could have had at 25 if we could have just gotten over our cheap selves." I think she's right. Each decade's only gotten better so far, and with any luck, on that front, maybe things will hold, more or less like that, for one or two more.
In the meantime, we have much to do. Tonight we enjoyed an excellent dinner, Mr. Muscato having not only roasted a chicken and whipped up his patented garlic mashed potatoes (the secret, learned from Julia Child, is incorporating the garlic into a cream sauce that's then folded into the potatoes, not fattening at all, of course), but also baked a raft of carrot cakes, one of which will go to the office to feed my colleagues (perhaps even that infuriatingly youthful whippersnapper) at our weekly staff meeting. This weekend, we're apparently making a little jaunt one Sultanate down to our old stomping grounds, and on our return, God help us, we'll be just about a month out from totally uprooting ourselves and heading off on our next big adventure.
And, if nothing else, I get to keep an eye out for that AARP card...
Sunday, May 12, 2013
No, she's not my mother. Actually, we lost Mother Muscato almost ten years ago, and I'm still getting over the surprise.
Despite all she went through in her last couple of years - a familiar litany of complaints for women of her generation, the harsh follow-ons from everything that had seemed so au courant when they were girls, principally smoking - despite all that, I truly believed, on some level, that she was simply too strong-minded to let anything else, even cancer, have its way.
Until the end, she was a paean to the virtues of denial, stoutly maintaining that of course she was fine. Everything was fine. We didn't think all that much about it; her total distaste for bad news of any kind was an ingrained fact of life. When I moved away from home, after a few surprises I learned to phone home now and then for a rundown with her of elderly family and friends; "Oh," she'd admit grudgingly, "didn't I tell you? Cousin Adele died six months ago. Oh, come on, it's not all that sad - she was 87, for God's sake..."
I think, at the end, she must have thought a lot about just why she wasn't, in fact, a circus showgirl, or whatever it was that actually had been her dream a long ways back. I deeply suspect that where she ended up was pretty far from what she'd planned.
She married at the very tail end of the War and for more than half a century led a life that was was an almost entirely conventional blend of children, family, work, and church. In all that time, I don't think we ever, as you do, really thought all that much about her, if you know what I mean.
Until, of course, it was too late, which I didn't realize until we were clearing out her things. Having married into a family of packrats (just this side of Collyer-brother hoarding, really; Father Muscato has a warehouse he's never told the Evil Stepmother about), she went to the opposite extreme. Over time during her last couple years, she had pared her own possessions almost to nothing, easy enough to do when surrounded by her husband's and her children's plentiful detritus.
There were a few pieces of jewelry (charm bracelet, string of pearls, her mother's garnet set and her grandmother's jet mourning brooch...), a drawer full of neatly filed records (bills, taxes, mortgage) - and almost nothing else. She seems to have disposed of several generations worth of papers from her side of the family, from her great-grandparents' civil war letters to the correspondence her mother's mother had carried on with any number of interesting people she had met on long-distance freighter cruises (Great-grandmother Muscato shared a passion for penal reform with one, the gentleman who wrote 20,000 Years in Sing Sing; they had gotten to be chums somewhere between Shanghai and Juneau, and their letters had been numerous and voluble), and almost every scrap related to herself (this in a house that contained every Christmas card received since the Truman administration).
Except: in one dresser drawer, an unmarked envelope, large and faded yellow. In it were three or four magazines, story monthlies from the early 40s. There wasn't much to link them - they included a romance anthology, a "true confessions" format, and a Western, I believe. It was only as we passed them around, my siblings and I, that we noticed that each carried a story by an author whose name was an amalgam of our mother's mother's and her grandmother's maiden names.
We showed them to our father (already, although we didn't yet know it, trying to decide whether to wait until after the funeral to announce his engagement - but that's another story), and he said offhandedly that oh, yes, your mother had always wanted to be a writer. Those must be hers.
So maybe she didn't want to be a circus showgirl; maybe she dreamt of being Katherine Anne Porter or Taylor Caldwell or her favorite author, Mazo de la Roche. And on Mother's Day, each year, I sit a moment and wonder what else it is we don't know about the sharp-tongued, irritable, meanly funny suburban matron who raised us and, if nothing else, helped ensure we all got the hell out of Dodge even if she hadn't.
The stories? Never read them. My sister got hold of the envelope, and she's her mother's daughter.
M is for... first appeared on May 10, 2009 and appeared again in 2012. And yes, I'm still getting over the surprise. Happy Mother's Day, Mother Muscato, wherever you are...
Saturday, May 11, 2013
There is a sense in which it is correct to say: "It's too good to be Camp." ...
Not only is Camp not necessarily bad art, but some art which can be
approached as Camp merits the most serious admiration and study.
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"
Let's have this wonderful moment, from 1975, stand as a birthday tribute to the song's creator, dear Mr. Irving Berlin. If, over his long life, he became something of an American institution, this lady is part of the reason why. Ethel Merman sang the work of all the greats of her day, of course, and while she did proud by Gershwin and Porter, and later on the likes of Sondheim and Herman, something about an Irving Berlin song fits her like a glove.
And never more, really, than this song, both her trademark and, on its own, a monumental summing up of the show-biz culture that was passing even as the show it's from, Annie Get Your Gun, took the stage. Seeing the Merm here, fronting a band that can really challenge her, is like watching a racehorse test its mettle. Within a few bars, she's abandoned even the minimal concessions of scale and gesture she usually made for TV and lets us see, if in an autumnal way, the sheer unbridled staginess of her performing style, her stand-and-delivery way of putting over a song. Some singers (Peggy Lee, Julie London) seduce you. Some (Minnelli and her mother, Streisand) sell it to you. Merman simply puts it out there, look at what I can do (and anything you can do, I can do better - that's more Berlin, actually).
What makes it Camp, though, isn't the song, or the singer - despite the chiffon muu-muu and the hair out to there, Merman is, I think, too good to be Camp. It's the whole package - the Boston Pops, Arthur Fiedler, the countless genteel households tuning in across the country on PBS, the adoration of the audience, even the hushed tones of Miss Bernadette Peters setting the scene. It's a tinsel setting for a voice of brass, but the voice cuts through the nonsense to deliver, once more, the goods: the costumes, the scenery, the makeup the props - all there, in front of you. When she sings it, what Irving Berlin knew as a fact is conjured up again, and it really is like no business you know.
Thursday, May 9, 2013
Well, perhaps not exactly the Waldorf, but certainly a place of comparable luxe and comfort. For various reasons, some of which may in due time be disclosed, Mr. Muscato and I have hied ourselves up the road to Dubai for a silly minibreak (a term I first encountered in the diaries of Miss Bridget Jones and have always liked).
Having arrived mid-afternoon (following a dramatic escape from the confines of the office), we have already steamed away our troubles and are now, as the snap attests, doing our best to distance ourselves from the cares of the world in our nearly favorite kind of place, a good hotel's club lounge. If things are quiet around here for a bit, blame the excellent and caring staff of Mr. Hyatt's little hostelry...
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
May 8, 1945 may have been V-E Day for much of a war-weary world, but for at least a few happy Londoners, it would seem that it was also TV Day. While the boy on the right is achieving a sort of Talullahesque insouciance, his companions are clearly indulging in what our pal the Professor refers to as "booger drag." Perhaps it was rationing, and they just couldn't get hold of a decent pair of heels...
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
If the photo evidence is to be believed, much of the fashion worn by the preening guests at last night's annual Metropolitan Museum gala was pretty woeful. Even so, the organizers of the celebration - in honor of the Costume Institute's new "Punk: from Chaos to Couture" show - certainly got one thing right: they hired Blondie as the evening's headliner, and it certainly looks like dear Miss Deborah Harry delivered.
I don't know about you, but I'm always touched by her presence, dear. I bet Mrs. Vreeland would have been, too...
Monday, May 6, 2013
In the second volume of this tremendously educational series, Jerry's Overdraft, Mr. Martinson of the greengrocer's there proves to be very generous to our hero, setting the scene for the epic third installment, Jerry Moves to Greenwich Village and Finds a Sugar Daddy.
Sunday, May 5, 2013
It's surely only happenstance that the attractive couple above share a birthday, but it's a pleasing conjunction of circumstances nonetheless.
Alice Faye and Tyrone Power made only three pictures together; all of them - In Old Chicago, Alexander's Ragtime Band (ballyhooed in this still), and Rose of Washington Square - more significant to the Faye oeuvre than to Tyrone's, but all solid yarns. Together, the two stars have on each other something of the effect attributed to the more prolific pairing of Rogers and Astaire: down-to-earth, commonsensical Alice grounds the ethereally pretty Power, while his admiration helps the audience realize that she's more than just a prole-pretty face.
I'm not really able to be impartial about Alice, about whom I've already shown myself enraptured. Power I find a more acquired taste, but he's certainly never less than decorative and frequently a great deal more. Both had relatively short, intense careers, with Faye walking away from Fox and movies at 40 (with nearly the finality of Durbin, athough she continued to flourish on radio for a decade after leaving Fox) and Powers dead at only 44.
They certainly make a pretty pair,and they seemed thoroughly to have enjoyed each other's company. They're both good eggs, wielding a kind of star power that's hard to imagine these days, and I hope that over the years they had many an amusing shared birthday. Do you think that in sixty-odd years anyone will wax nostalgic over the memory of any of today's screen couples?
Saturday, May 4, 2013
"Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot
be taken altogether seriously because it is 'too much.'"
- Susan Sontag
I've found myself thinking, rather to my surprise, a lot about Deanna Durbin since we learned of her death earlier this week. I've also listened to her a great deal more than I probably ever have before, and it makes me sad I hadn't done so earlier. Whatever you can say about her vehicles, which were pretty much doomed to mediocrity just because she was tied to Universal rather than a studio, like Metro or Paramount maybe, that could have surrounded her with taste and style, she herself is really rather marvelous. If nothing else, she's hugely livelier and more unaffected than her rather turgid reputation would suggestion.
She's remembered, I suppose, far too patly, as the stiff and stuffy girl soprano who represented High Culture against the swing stylings of the likes of Judy Garland - a role she played (without the stuffy part) exactly once, in an MGM short, Any Sunday. Her fans have known better, of course: she can act, she can charm, and more than anything else, she can sing, really and truly, in a way that puts to shame most of the other light soprano darlings of the day. There's a story that she turned down a chance to sing at the Met, and while that may be a stretch, it's not the ridiculous puffery it would be if attributed to, say, Jane Powell or even Kathryn Grayson.
It's moments like the above, however, that probably haven't helped her case. Here we have the climax of 1940's It's a Date, with St. Deanna singing Schubert in a Vera West habit that calls to mind the more risible moments of the old Radio City Easter Pageant. This is one of those sequences when the plot has long finished and the principals are assembled solely for the purposes of admiring the star as she trills her way to a lingering fadeout. On hands are, by Universal standards, a host of extras and a treasury of characters, led by Eugene Pallette and S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall (as the Famous Playwright whose vision this scene somehow fulfills), along with Kay Francis as Durbin's actress mother, at the start of her coast into supporting parts that ended in Monogram quickies and summer stock.*
It's all, in Sontag's words, just a shade "too much." But close your eyes, or better, focus them only on Deanna: that's real music, an old chestnut sung straight, and well, and on its own terms genuinely moving. The scene is Camp, through and through, but she's someplace else. Gratia plena, you might almost say...
* The part is by way of being a kind of rite out of passage out of stardom;
** Thanks to Gentle Reader Joel65913 for the correction. Why do those two ladies insist on confusing themselves in my feeble brain?
Friday, May 3, 2013
Basya Cohen was born 96 years ago today, in Brooklyn. Over the following nine decades, she turned herself into Betty Comden, one of the brightest lights of Broadway and one of a small handful of people - many of them, like her, self-created, smart, funny women of unconventional good looks - who can be considered quintessential New Yorkers. And of all the strange and wonderful things I've gotten to do in my own five decades to date, knowing and working with her is one of the two or three things of which I'm proudest. It wasn't for all that long - three or four projects over five or six years - but I had the incredible good fortune to watch her at work, in tandem, of course, with Adolph Green, and I did my best to make myself both useful and unobtrusive, both of which I think she appreciated.
Eventually I made the decision to leave New York, and that meant leaving behind Miss Comden and the others of her extended circle with (who am I kidding? for) whom I worked. I decided that as tempting as it was, being the Nice Young Man who helps out in a pinch was not a long-term career strategy, and that all the exciting opening nights and terrific travel, the enviable Rolodex and the easy familiarity with people whom I was raised from earliest childhood to revere, wasn't a trade-off, long term, for one's own life. It was a wrench, and it's been sad ever since to watch them go, one by one, while I've been on the other side of the world.
Not long ago, though, I ran into someone from those days, a man who is now a Power to Reckon With, in fact, in rarefied circles of High Kultcha. He was surprised to find me, a former Nice Young Man, way out in the Sandlands, and we had a long and surprisingly philosophical chat over drinks, at one of the silly places here sixty-odd stories up looking out at the sand and dust and distant water. I told him that, wonderful as it had been, I had seen too many too-old people still trying to be Nice Young Men, and I thought it might be soul-killing. He looked at me thoughtfully, a look you've seen in the Sunday Arts and Leisure Section, and told me something very nice: he remembered me, he said, because he was backstage at some rehearsal once, when I was working for a friend of Miss Comden's, a very great figure indeed who was revered for his art and notorious for his fondness for the young and handsome. He was standing with a couple of the hard-boiled old timers who do the heavy lifting of making art look easy - lawyers, producers, managers, the unsung backstagers - and one said to the other, watching me be a Nice Young Man to, at the moment, a very tetchy and impatient legend, "well, if nothing else, I'm glad he finally hired one who could type." Meaning, he said, one who wasn't pretty and useless and in it for the room at the Four Seasons or the table at Le Cirque. "I thought," he said, "You'd probably do fine."
I have. I still regret Miss Comden, though, and I hope that she had, through those later years, a Nice Young Man to keep things humming for her. She deserved it. "Make someone happy," she wrote, "Just one someone happy." As far as that goes, that's me.
(Hmmmm. I just checked, and apparently I used the self-same title for a birthday post for Miss C. in 2009. I stand by it, though, both as a little play on one of her lesser shows and as a fine expression of how I feel about her.)
Thursday, May 2, 2013
Dear Mr. John Abraham has gone distinctly butch for his latest epic, a rather grim-looking picture called Shootout at Wadala. He sports a rather more traditional Bollywood hero than usual - short hair and trim moustache, and is even more than usually formidably fit. I thought about running the controversial big number from the picture, "Laila" (one of the things I like about Bollywood is that even the wildest action pictures still contain a Big Number or two), but he remains resolutely shirt-wearing throughout, a sad fact that can't overcome even the most extravagant production values.
His costar in the picture is Miss Sunny Leone, a new sensation in Mumbai, but a fixture in Hollywood - or at least the San Fernando Valley - for the past decade. Given the Indian film industry's notable conservatism (despite its fevered romances, morality still rules with a firmness not seen in American pictures since the Hayes Code), it's fascinating that it has so readily embraced a woman whose previous titles include Alabama Jones and the Busty Crusade, The House of Naked Captives, and the particularly piquantly titled Shut Up and Fuck Me.
Well, if nothing else, John can give her a run for the money in the busty stakes...
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Another great one gone: Universal's savior, the little girl with the prima donna voice, Deanna Durbin. As this shot proves, she had the moxie to make it as a grown-up star, but instead left for France and more than six decades of what sounds like a perfectly happy and rewarding private life. Her resolute silence has meant that she's a comparative unknown, but one had only to see the expression on Mother Muscato's face when her name came up to know what a Very Big Star she had been (she was on a very short list of Mother's Immortals, a curiously mixed ensemble that in addition to Deanna included Mary Martin, Roberta Peters, Gordon MacRae, crooner Al Martino, and, in later years, Sade, whom she referred to exclusively phonetically, as "Sayd").
Meanwhile, in a shadowy lair high above Grosvenor Square, the fine-veined hand of Luise Rainer crosses off another name...