Author Archives: becky.bradway@gmail.com

A war comedy? – the 1926 version of What Price Glory

gloryI’ve been reading up on World War I memoirs and watching silent films trying to get some sense of depictions of the war during the lifetimes of those who were actually there.  I was looking forward to watching What Price Glory?, as it was based on a play by Maxwell Anderson and Lawrence Stallings.  Based on the title and the credentials of the writers, I figured it had to be a serious anti-war movie.  That it features Victor McLaughlin (who was so great in The Informer) and Edmund Lowe were again pluses in its favor (although I was a bit dubious at the prospect of Dolores Del Rio playing a French woman).  And it’s directed by Raoul Walsh, who just two years before directed The Thief of Bagdad and two years after Sadie Thompson, both movies I love. — Well, maybe I was expecting too much, because I was completely let downsoldier dog what price glory

What Price Glory? tries to make war look fun.  Except for about twenty minutes of battle scenes, it’s a string of gags about sleeping with French girls and/or soldiers laughing at their superior officers.  I guess if it wasn’t a war movie, I would have found some of this pretty funny — though even at that, the jokes wear thin, since they’re awfully repetitive.  It’s frustrating, really, because this movie should have been good.  McLaughlin and Lowe are both excellent as rivals for pretty much everything, particularly the affections of women.  McLaughlin is a big dumb lug (of course) who is entertaining to watch; Lowe is the handsome, serious soldier.  war is fun what price glorywar is still fun

The movie picks up considerably in the second half — once we really get into the war.  That’s when it finally shifts out of the farcical tone and lightweight character development into the real point of the film.  This isn’t to say that even then the film loses its humor; it’s that the humor no longer dominates or seems forced.  Director Raoul Walsh seems to be more confident and involved, and there are a number of great moments.  The battle scenes, while done quickly and not entirely realistically (I was always aware of being on a set), still manage to give a bit of a sense of trench warfare.  (There’s mostly, though, quite a bit of “blowing stuff up” — not nearly as boring as World War I actually was).  The later scenes with Charmaine (Dolores Del Rio) are sometimes moving as she wonders which of her suitors she will be with and what will become of them both.  There’s a good risque moment when it’s clear that she and the sergeant plan to sleep with one another; it’s handled well — it’s clear but subtle enough to slip past the censors, and really quite sweet.  And the scene when she visits the soldier’s grave is lovely and genuinely moving.  blue war what price gloryVictor McLaughlin is particularly excellent throughout this part of the film; in fact, he carries it.  HIs emotions are quietly handled, revealed through quick expressions covered by a show of humor or anger.  Even the cinematography becomes more interesting.  The dialogue is still way too heavy-handed and speech-y, possibly because it’s adapted from a stage play.  But at least it’s trying to finally live up to the promise of its title.

dolores what price gloryI kept wishing I could rewrite this movie, and I found it strange that so many cliches could come from a play by two good writers.  (And I think these were cliches even back then.)  The men who turned the play into intertitles must have been slumming.  Of course, since the film is silent, we’re not going to “hear” most of the dialogue, so it’s possible that much of the real wit and tragedy was lost in the transference to silent film.  It shouldn’t have had to be that way, though; certainly there were extremely effective silent war movies, including some adapted from novels.  It made me curious enough try to find the actual stage play.  Except – wait….It’s very difficult to actually find this play.  It’s out of print and there seem to be no digital copies lurking around on the internet.

Finally I’ve come to accept that I can appreciate the film for its good moments and for its historical value.  The play was, after all, a huge hit on Broadway, so perhaps the humor-battle mix was something that people felt they needed then.  And I think I’m fascinated with the way it uses a kind of unironic slapstick humor and tries to meld it on to a war film with a message.  That doesn’t mean I’d go out of my way to watch it again, though.

This film isn’t currently available on DVD except for some cheap-o versions on movie fan sites (which is how I got mine).

This is Victor McLaughlin's tattoo of "Sapho" -- a pretty good joke, really.

This is Victor McLaughlin’s tattoo of “Sapho” — a pretty good joke, really.

 

 

 

a letter by Robert Graves

I was looking up some information about the poet Robert Graves and his attitudes about Americans — trying to get a sense of it for a scene I’m working on.  Anyway, although it had nothing to do much with my book, I ran across this funny letter that Graves wrote to Commentary magazine in protest of an article about him.  I get a kick out of Graves.

 

Robert Graves Demurs

(the November 1956 issue of Commentary magazine)

To the Editor:

Gratified as I am by being considered worthy of a profile in Commentary, I find that Mr. Arnold Sherman has made a number of misstatements which greatly embarrass me. Here are a few:

1) He did not accidentally meet me on a beach. He first came knocking at my door, without an introduction, and asked for a brief interview for a local Palma paper. I gave it to him, telling him just what to say. He printed it, and that was that. I gave him no authority to publish an interview in the U. S.

2) My only comment on American swimmers was that most of them like the water warmer than it ever gets in Britain; hence on cold days one can distinguish Americans from British.

3) I did not dive into the Mediterranean on the beach where we afterwards met. The water there is only about a foot deep for some twenty yards out.

4) I do not stack my books several feet high in my study nor do I litter the floor with magazines. I have bookshelves like everyone else, and keep things as tidy as I can.

5) The subjects of my books “range from the life of Jesus to the reign of Claudius,” do they? Not a very extensive range, since the two men were close contemporaries.

6) I have brought up eight children, but only four in Majorca.

7) I do not translate obscure Latin treatises. Lucan’s Pharsalia and Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars, which will soon be on sale in the U.S.A., are neither treatises nor obscure.

8) I am not convinced that my poetry will endure, and never said so; and am not interested in posterity anyhow, as I have specifically recorded.

9) My remarks on Dylan Thomas, Eliot, and Pound have been printed accurately in The Crowning Privilege. I repudiate MT. Sherman’s version in toto.

10) I do not claim to be a scholar in any language.

11) I do not believe that I am the best living writer today, and will punch anyone’s nose who says either that I am, or that I claim to be.

12) I did not say that I bad the misfortune of visiting America. I said that while in America in 1938 I lost a lot of weight and a lot of money. It was a most important experience, which I would not have missed for anything.

13) There are no American writers seeded in my village “who write under my tutelage” and I never said there were.

14) I never said that my White Goddess is “illuminating and suggestive.” I never use either adjective.

15) I did not say more about Negroes than that I particularly liked two American Negroes who had come to Majorca: Alston Anderson the short-story writer, and Camilla Heron the anthropologist.

16) I did not say that there are parts of Majorca where a Jew cannot buy land. I may have said that no foreigner can buy land within five kilometers of the sea, without special permission—even Jews.

17) My children are learning Latin and French, not Greek.

18) I do not think that “women are the bane of the world”; but I do think that amateur journalists are.

19) Alec Guinness has not been hired for the leading role in a screen version of my I Claudius. It is not even sure Whether the picture will be made.

20) I did not say that Majorca has no tradition of art: it has a long and magnificent one.

21) I have written about thirty books in Deyá, not ninety; ninety is the grand total.

22) I did not meet Ezra Pound at a dinner; I met him in Colonel T. E. Lawrence’s rooms at All Souls College, Oxford. Lawrence’s sensible introduction was: “Graves, Pound; Pound, Graves. You’ll dislike each other.”

23) I did not say that American literary life is “unimaginatively dull and unproductive.” It is certainly far from being either.

24) My wife has never said: “Robert, will you do nothing today?” On the contrary, she is always trying to persuade me that I am overworking. On the occasion quoted she may have foreseen, with her usual intuition, that Arnold Sherman’s visit was going to do me no good in either the short or the long run. . . .

Finally, I must confess that Mr. Sherman is a nice guy and that I am sure he has not injured me on purpose; but his study of Oriental philosophy and his natural reluctance to face hard facts have combined to produce a caricature of me which, I fear, only my friends will recognize as irresponsible and absurd.

Robert Graves
Deyá, Majorca, Spain

J’Accuse! – World War I in the trenches & at home


j-accuse crosses
J’Accuse, directed by Abel Gance, is a long, intense, & strange exploration of World War I filmed during the time the war was happening. Released in 1919, the film by the early French auteur is a raging look at war and love that uses a romantic story to link the menage a trois relationship between its three central characters with the horrors of the front. One woman (not a very interesting one), a husband (very intriguing brute), and a lover (moony poet) are pulled into an ever-more-horrible situation as war makes victims of all of them. While the story might seem hackneyed and even befuddling today, I had no problem with the melodrama and found myself becoming involved in the ways that their threesome played out.jaccuse couple The long film brings the two men together on the battlefield and continually plays with the questions of who is strong and who is weak; who is ultimately kinder; who is most willing to sacrifice (and what). Back at home, the woman makes sacrifices of her own that impact the course of the story in even more complex ways. This is the plot that ties the strands together. The plot is not important. What matters are the scenes of war and the story of war’s impact; makes them matter is the way J’Accuse is filmed.

Watching J’Accuse is like falling into some slow and deliberate dream (not a nightmare, really). This makes its subjects of domestic violence, trench warfare, multiple betrayals, and pointless sacrifice all the more disturbing. We’re used to seeing random violence in contemporary films to the point that it’s barely noticeable. To see moments of brutality in a silent film that is beautifully composed is  jarring. That they slip in almost unannounced is even stranger. That everyone serves as a symbol, as a representative type, implies vast levels of darkness.

jaccuse face

An example of a quick moment of brutality comes early in the movie, before we even get to the war. This is when the husband, also known as the Brute, maritally rapes his wife. We don’t see the rape. What we see is her quaking by the bed, his hand coming down on her hair and pulling her up, and, for a moment, a glimpse of an exposed breast. That’s all. But I’ll never forget that image. This is only one of such moments in this film. Over and over, Gance juxtaposes beauty with evil and/or death, sometimes quite literally, as in a montage in which a closeup of a flower is contrasted with corpses in a trench.

jaccuse frontAbel Gance briefly served in World War I before being discharged because of his health. He created J’Accuse because of the deaths of so many people he knew and because of all that he witnessed on the battlefield. Filming took place between August 1918 and February 1919 (armistice was declared in November 1918), and some of it took place at the front. He enlisted in the Section Cinématographique and filmed the battle of Saint-Mihiel; this footage appears near the end of the film.  The depiction of trench warfare, however, goes through half the film; recreated fictional footage is juxtaposed with actual images from the front. jaccuse dead march 1 J’Accuse builds slowly to a shocking death march that used two thousand actual soldiers. Surely they knew their fate, and of course we do; this makes this already eerie, disturbing scene particularly unforgettable. Gance said in an interview with Kevin Brownlow, “The conditions in which we filmed were profoundly moving… These men had come straight from the Front – from Verdun – and they were due back eight days later. They played the dead knowing that in all probability they’d be dead themselves before long. Within a few weeks of their return, eighty per cent had been killed.”Jaccuse march

The images in this film are exceptionally beautiful. Many frames can be separated out to create a lovely artistic photograph. To an astonishing degree Gance and cinematographer Léonce-Henry Burel are able to convey myriad meaning in single images or in particular brief scenes. It is why silent film was the perfect mode for Gance’s work; words are not only not necessary, but they actually get in the way. Gance’s career barely survived the silent era, and his sound work was never as good, though he lived for many years after it.jaccuse old people

There are a number of surreal and/or fantasy moments in the film. Sometimes these take place when a character is daydreaming of someone or imagining a situation. Sometimes they involve the dancing skeletons that appear throughout the film. Sometimes they simply come in some kind of startling closeup of an ordinary object when we don’t expect it. I found these to be fascinating even when at times they didn’t quite work. Later filmmakers borrowed from these techniques (over and over again).jaccuse dream woman

The acting in J’Accuse tends to be of the overly histrionic sort that many silent movie performers fall into. The exception was the work of Severin-Mars, who portrays the husband, Francois. His role is the most nuanced (and probably the one that most interested Gance), as he transforms himself from a killer (one of the first images involves him sitting with his dog beside a slaughtered deer) to, well, a sanctioned and heroic killer who comes to a better understanding of his fellow humans. Jaccuse brute It would have been easy to play his character as evil, but instead he becomes almost sympathetic — well, as sympathetic as anyone in the film actually is — as he is shown to be genuinely in love with his wife and very sentimental. I found this realistic, as brutal men often do also have just this type of sensitive side. Severin-Mars was also featured in Gance’s film La Roue, and he died a few years after making J’Accuse. The female role in the film is one of tragic victimization, and although the actress Maryse Dauvray is beautiful, that’s not enough to pull the character further.  To Gance’s credit, though, he at least attempts to address the situation at home for those isolated people who lack knowledge of the fate of their loved ones. jaccuse woman in doorway As for the character of the poet, his fate is not surprising — and, like Dauvray, the actor Romuald Joubé is more eye-candy than good at acting. But maybe this is all to be expected when the characters are fundamentally types placed in an epic scenario.The film was a hit in its day in its native France, giving the lie, I guess, to the notion that art films don’t make money. It did well in Britain, too, although Gance and Pathe Studios had difficulty getting it distributed in the States. Eventually United Artists came through; this was when UA was jointly owned by Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin, and Griffith. While J’Accuse was expensive to make, it made back far more. And its wide distribution allowed it to become an influence on countless artists.

Filming J'Accuse on location: (l to r)  Marc Bujard, Maurice Forster, Antonin Nalpes, and Abel Gance

Filming J’Accuse on location: (l to r) Marc Bujard, Maurice Forster, Antonin Nalpes, and Abel Gance

J’Accuse is currently available in a fine DVD edition from Lobster Films in conjunction with Flicker Alley.

 

 

 

 

 

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a World War I poem by Edmund Blunden & the River Kwai

Sessue Hayakawa in The Bridge Over the River Kwai

Sessue Hayakawa in The Bridge Over the River Kwai

I was looking for poems today by the poet Edmund Blunden, a British writer-soldier who survived World War I and suffered a lifetime of post-traumatic stress. Last night I watched The Bridge on the River Kwai, the classic David Lean movie about World War II. I’ve noticed that many war movies, beginning from the beginning of war movies, often have a little scene of soldiers entertaining themselves with a makeshift floor show. If the film concerns the Brits, the floor show is always a group of Monty Python-esque crossdressers clowning it up. Kwai drag This scene in River Kwai is astonishing in the way it cuts the show with the actions of other soldiers, particularly in the intercutting of the intense, seemingly calm Japanese officer who prepares for life or death while the soldiers dance. This morning in reading an Edmund Blunden poem I found a similar use of cross-action between the show and the reality just beyond. Some World War I poems are brutal in how much is held back but conveyed in a few pointed lines:

Concert Party: Busseboom

The stage was set, the house was packed,
The famous troop began;
Our laughter thundered, act by act;
Time light as sunbeams ran.

Dance sprang and spun and neared and fled,
Jest chirped at gayest pitch,
Rhythm dazzled, action sped
Most comically rich.

With generals and lame privates both
Such charms worked wonders, till
The show was over lagging loth
We faced the sunset chill;
And standing on the sandy way,
With the cracked church peering past,
We heard another matinee,
We heard the maniac blast

Of barrage south by Saint Eloi,
And the red lights flaming there
Called madness: Come, my bonny boy,
And dance to the latest air.

To this new concert, white we stood;
Cold certainty held our breath;
While men in tunnels below Larch Wood
Were kicking men to death.

Judex – Feuillade’s caped crusader

judex caveI found myself taken in by the 1916 twelve-part French serial, Judex, created by Louis Feuillade (who also directed the serials Les Vampires and Fantomas.)

The whimsical saga of a caped avenger out to punish an evil banker and right assorted wrongs is enjoyable for its story and fascinating in a number of other ways. I have to admit that I got a lot of twisted joy at seeing a scamming capitalist banker locked up in a room, where he is observed squirming via Judex’s secret viewing screen. These claustrophobic scenes are almost paranoia-inducing, and I felt guilty taking so much pleasure in it. But the banker, after all, was so evil that he ripped off an old man and then ran him over with his car. And that’s just the beginning. — Actually, all the bad guys (including one especially bad woman) in the film are scheming, diabolical, mostly without conscience, and persistent.

The banker observed in his bunker via screen.

The banker observed in his bunker via screen.

So it is completely necessary that we have Judex and his brother sidekick to lay down some punishment. Judex – rather like Batman – is a brooding, mysterious sort who hides in a secret underground technologically-equipped den and wears a very dapper cape. Unlike the man of the bat, he doesn’t have a dark side. He is, except when suffering from love, cheerful as he balances wrongs. He is so cheerful, in fact, that I’m always aware that director Feuillade is having fun. Judex is full of jokes. The actors play to the camera, sometimes looking directly at it and practically winking. judex diana with gun Never do I feel any real tension or fear, as you might expect in a long serial that wants to bring the audience back to watch the drama unfold. I’m not terribly worried about whether Jacqueline, the banker’s daughter who gives away her father’s ill-gotten gains, is rescued. I’m more enjoying the antics of her kidnappers, particularly the mastermind played by Musidora (who also played Irma Vep in one of Feuillade’s other serials, Les Vampires). Musidora is clearly having a blast being bad, as her character lights up cigarettes and laughs at Judex’s attempts to stop her. Judex may need to save the banker’s daughter, but Musidora’s kidnapping nanny needs no assistance from anyone. If she needs a little hand on occasion, she can always use one of the male saps at her disposal.
Musidora descends vampishly.

Musidora descends vampishly.

Musidora and Rene Creste, who plays Judex, play perfectly matched enemies as they both win their days with style. Yet even their ultimate fine looks don’t keep them from always falling into the director’s jokes, as when the kidnappers are chased by Judex’s enormous pack of goofy dogs (an assortment of hound dogs, poodles, and terriers).

The film is often beautifully shot, which is something that takes it beyond the standard serial of the day, or even most films of the day. I’ve watched a lot of short films and serials and they usually appear to have been done quickly and cheaply. If this is the case with Judex, it doesn’t look it. (And given the director’s prodigious output of 700 mostly short movies, Judex couldn’t have been dwelt upon too long.) Shot by shot, the scenes are complex, detailed, and often set in unusual locations. judex seine It’s fascinating just to look at the backgrounds — in fact, the settings, the costumes, even the use of animals and birds are at least as interesting, if not more so, than the story and the acting. While the serial seems like a lark, great care was taken in the details and in providing a certain peculiar atmosphere. The banker’s prison room is not the only claustrophobic space in which a character is trapped. Nearly all of the rooms are traps of a sort, and the only freedom seems to come in the out of doors, whether this be two wayward children hitching a ride on the back of a car in Paris, or a pack of dogs racing through a grove of trees.judex dogs

Judex has what we might now consider a Communistic conscience. Made in 1914, films about the need to wrest control from robber barons and bankers were actually pretty common — or at least a good many of them are available now on DVD. D.W. Griffith built his early career around them. Judex hardly apologizes for the way that the rich are punished and those who give their wealth away are absolved. The banker’s daughter does not exactly receive an instant reward for giving her wealth to charity — she gives away her child to be raised by foster parents so she has time to work; she does it because it is the right thing to do. It’s hard to imagine such a notion appearing in any movie today. Then, in the pre-Soviet era, more European and American artists felt free to consider socialism as a reasonable alternative to the incredible abuses of capitalism (remember, this is before government safety nets), and there was a willing audience for movies that advocated sharing the wealth. Feuillade’s serials Les Vampires and Fantomas have similarly subversive elements and the same touches of surreal humor.

Louis Feuillade

Louis Feuillade

Louis Feuillade himself was the son of a wine merchant; after getting his degree, he served four years in the French army, worked as a journalist, and in 1905 began writing scripts, then directing, for Gaumont Films in Paris.
Gaumont Palace, movie studio & theater

Gaumont Palace, movie studio & theater

Gaumont was one of the leading studios in the 1910’s, experimenting with rudimentary sound (recording to disc, then played back in sync with the film) and colorization (hand painting areas of the frame or tinting certain scenes to elicit a mood). By 1909, Feuillade had already developed his mystical, dreamlike style with its fascinations with codes, letters, mysteries, and the occult.

Rene Poyen in an earlier version of the Licorice Kid

Rene Poyen in an earlier version of the Licorice Kid

He often used the same actors in his films, having a stable that included Musidora, Rene Poyen (who plays The Licorice Kid), Marcel Levesque, and many others.
Musidora

Musidora

The most interesting characters in the movie (far eclipsing Judex himself) are The Licorice Kid and Diane Monti, the scheming “adventuress” with a “gang.” The Licorice Kid is a moppet street urchin who smokes cigarettes and works for small change (but does not beg). Chaplain uses a similar (but more innocent) kid in The Kid, five years later. Rene Poyen, who plays the Licorice Kid, is a scene stealing ham, but is fun to watch, and he mostly saves us from sentimentality in his scenes with “Little Jean,” the curly-haired, kissy-face son of the always imperiled Josephine. There are some completely casual takes of the Kid stealing rides, smoking, making wisecracks, and lounging around in general adult manner while often saving the day.judex licorice smoking The other scene stealer is Musidora, who plays Diana Monti, the evil governess. Diana Monti (and Musidora, I think) is such an intelligent, observant, wily, smart ass character. While the banker’s daughter is constantly being kidnapped, Diana Monti has endless schemes for kidnapping. Musidora doesn’t play Diana as an over-the-top witchy evil stepmother type; Diana is actually believable, an attractive-but-not-unusually-so woman who can out-think all of the men around her, those bumbling weak idiots. Diana doesn’t use the men just to use them (like a vamp), but uses them to help her execute her grand schemes, which the men fall into mostly out of greed, not out of infatuation. (This isn’t to say that Diana/Musidora doesn’t “work it” by brushing a man’s chin with her hand or leaning over him as if she is oh-so-interested. In fact, she will often do this and then roll her eyes as soon as the fellow is looking away — she does this so subtly and quickly that it feels completely natural; she always lets us know that Diana Monti is never a fool for love.)judex musidora eyeroll
Diane Monti & Morales, conspirators

Diane Monti & Morales, conspirators

Feuillade doesn’t costume Musidora in outlandish or even sexy garb. There’s no fake glamour here. She looks great in black. But she also looks great in white and in a polka-dot tie. Her beauty comes less in her face and body than in her expressions, which are generally snide, impatient, laughing at the act she’s putting on, thoughtful, and happy when coming up with her next scheme. This is a very advanced female character for the period. Mary Pickford had pluck and smarts, but she also wore little girl braids. Lillian Gish had exquisite beauty, but wasn’t allowed to really show off her mind. Even Louise Brooks often had to go through some kind of degradation. Musidora, daughter of feminists, has and keeps the upper hand. I give Feuillade a great deal of credit for never trying to put her in her place.
The Licorice Kid and Little Jean

The Licorice Kid and Little Jean

I’ve read that Judex was wildly popular in its time, but was dismissed by some of the critics then and later for being a popular serial, a casual entertainment. This seems to me quite unfair. Although it’s a serial in twelve parts, it’s superior to most serials I’ve watched from the period and later. (Hate me movie fans, but it’s much better than nearly all serial Westerns and Sherlock Holmes episodes.) It’s stylish, it’s funny, it’s classy, and for some reason even the story suckered me in. Yes, who is Judex, damn it? Why does he hate bankers? (Resolved on disc 2.) Why does he insist on falling in love with the banker’s daughter? What will Musidora try next to get the fortune and is it at all possible that the banker will never escape? Will Musidora’s boy toys survive? Will Judex unleash his pack of dogs again? — The plot is just fun enough, and silly enough, and everyone is on the joke, for me to want to keep watching on to the next episode, just like that guilty pleasure of watching Shameless on Netflix one episode after another. And so Louis Feuillade solves the mystery of the one hundred year time differential by making it not matter at all.

Judex is available, beautifully restored, on a two CD set from Flicker Alley.

Judex's brother & the Licorice Kid take a conference call.

Judex’s brother & the Licorice Kid take a conference call.

judex musidora in car
The banker's daughter, played by Yvette Andreyor

The banker’s daughter, played by Yvette Andreyor

judex musidora undress
Mother gives her boys a lesson in revenge.

Mother gives her boys a lesson in revenge.

Inspectin like Van Vechten – part one

“So like Van Vechten/Start inspectin’/Go Harlem Go” – Andy Razaf, Go Harlem, 1930

Everyplace I looked when I was researching my book, up popped Carl Van Vechten. (His photographs of some of the famous people he knew in his lifetime are scattered throughout this posting.) I could not shake this troublesome bon vivant who seemed to know nearly all of the important American artists in my time period (which runs from about 1905 through 1932). And he lived for quite some time after this, too. Carl-Van-Vechten Although he’s now known mostly for his role in the Harlem Renaissance, and the authoring of a notorious book, his creative reach actually went far beyond that. I think of him as being a kind of early, less talented version of Truman Capote. (He even looks a little like Capote.) He knew all of the most interesting writers — and musicians, theater and film people, artists, journalists….He made it his business to have his nose in all kinds of business, and the more parties (and alcohol) that involved, the better. He went to all the best soirees; he had the best salon; he snuggled up to rich people (and everyone else); he was gay. (Critics used to hedge here and say “bi” or even “maybe bi” — he was married for years to actress Fania Marinoff —

Fania Marinoff in her apartment

Fania Marinoff in her apartment

but in the period, gossip had it that he was gay, and he left behind a stash of nude male photography and jokes about homosexuality kept in files to be only opened ten years after his death. His sexual identity, of course, had an impact on who he knew, where he went, his willingness to dress flamboyantly (which was ridiculed in print), and how people perceived him (again, he was often ridiculed). It’s also helping to create a resurgence of interest in his work and life.

Carl Van Vechten was a cultural critic, first in Chicago, then in New York. He published essays and reviews about the arts in major New York newspapers and magazines, giving him a great deal of power over the artists who courted his favor. His collections of criticism provide wide ranging information about the arts of the period, and he was willing to shift easily between what was then considered to be high art (Stravinsky) and low art (Bessie Smith).

Mabel Dodge & Tony Luhan, 1934.

Mabel Dodge & Tony Luhan, 1934.

His novels are mostly about Carl Van Vechten, even when he attempts to adopt a black narrative persona. They are, for the most part, romans à clef. My favorite of his books is actually his first, Peter Whiffle, a satire on the salon run by the rich white New York flibbertigibbet Mabel Dodge. He, like Truman Capote, mostly revealed dirt about his friends, most of whom were not only tolerant, but flattered. His specialty was light, rather silly, witty, observational books about social circles. Even Nigger Heaven, the book that cost him his career, was centered around social observation. Van Vechten really was always inspectin’.
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

Lena Horne, 1941

Lena Horne, 1941

Van Vechten is a complex figure, one that I’m still trying to understand. It is less that he himself is difficult — it’s the legacy of his role that creates the problem. Van Vechten shot a hole in his reputation by writing a book from the point of view of a black man, setting it in black nightclubs, basing characters on real people in the black community, and — the real sin — calling that book Nigger Heaven. At the time the book was written, Van Vechten had many friends, among them many close black friends — important black friends. These included Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, James Weldon Johnson, and Countee Cullen. Hughes and Johnson helped Van Vechten with the book, in fact, while Countee Cullen broke ties with him for fifteen years.
James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

n heavenBefore and after the book’s publication, Van Vechten actually did, in practical terms, a lot of good work in promoting black writers, musicians, and actors by giving them positive reviews in white magazines and newspapers. And he began doing this even before the time period of the Harlem Renaissance. While his novel is offensive in some ways, it’s actually more progressive than the work of most whites of the period. I’ve read memoirs, essays, novels, and other accounts by his peers, and the offhand racism expressed in them is truly shocking. Honestly, they would nearly all avoid taking any kind of black art seriously at all, and would not find black people worth writing about. (It’s this dismissiveness that is really creepy.)

Langston Hughes, sharp.  1934.

Langston Hughes, sharp. 1934.

This doesn’t excuse Van Vechten; it only makes the point that he basically meant well. And his information about nightclubs and people from the period is useful from a historical standpoint. He spent much of his spare time hanging out in black clubs, and his descriptions are apparently accurate.
The interior of Connie's Inn, one of Van Vechten's haunts.

The interior of Connie’s Inn, one of Van Vechten’s haunts.

Van Vechten’s favorite club in the 20’s, and a club featured in Nigger Heaven, was Small’s Paradise, which considered kicking him out after he published the novel. The book made him seem no longer a friend, but someone slumming and taking notes. This is a film clip that features quite a few of the Small’s entertainers from 1933, including Roy Eldridge on trumpet, Dickie Wells on trombone, Mabel Scott singing “Stop the Sun, Stop the Moon,” the dancing of Henry “Rubberlegs” Williams, a jazz singer as well as a dancer, and Elmer Snowden on banjo. If I had been around then, I would have tried to hang out here, too.YouTube Preview Image

More to come!

Orrick Johns and his Olives

One of the very sporadic “characters” in my book is the now forgotten poet Orrick Johns. In fact-checking my own work (yeah, jeez), I came across this very strange and, I thought, cool poem that he wrote in 1915. It appeared in a little magazine called Others which was edited by poet Alfred Kreymborg. To the poem momentarily. First this picture of Alfred Kreymborg taken by Edward Weston in 1920, which I only include because I like it:

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Alfred Kreymborg, by the way, wrote an interesting memoir called Troubadour, if you’re at all interested in modernist poets & artists, published in 1925. I like Kreymborg; he’s unpretentious when writing about his artist friends. He refers to himself in third person, by the way. It’s unfortunately hard to find, and doesn’t seem to have a free digitized version floating around yet. I bought mine used.

But I meant to talk about Orrick Johns, since I’m posting his poem. I unfortunately don’t have much to say about him. He was friends with Sara Teasdale and Zoe Akins; they grew up together in St. Louis, and all moved to New York about the same time. He was somewhat scandalous for winning a major poetry prize out from under Edna St. Vincent Millay’s fine poem
Renascence, which everyone believed she should have won, but didn’t because Orrick had the poverty & depression vote & had more friends. Sadly, even Orrick Johns didn’t think he deserved the $500 prize. But according to Sara Teasdale, he was a mopey sort anyway, in part because he lost a leg as a child when he was hit by a streetcar. Max Bodenheim wrote a poem about him, and Kenneth Rexroth mentions him “hopping into the surf on his one leg” in his moving poem Thou Shalt Not Kill. Orrick Johns, like so many from this era, was a suicide.

Here’s what Bodenheim wrote about him in To Orrick Johns:

O tangled and half-strangled child, you shrink
For ever from yourself, and wear a pose
Of nimble and impenetrable pride.
Yet sometimes, wavering on the sudden brink
Of jaded bitterness, you drop your clothes
And weave a prayer into your naked stride.

And here is Orrick Johns’ poem Olives, a cut and paste from the journal Others.

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a little more about Ethel

ethel-waters-01-smroots-ewIn 1921 Ethel Waters was picked up by Black Swan Records, a publisher of what were then known as “race records.” Initially, race records were for black audiences (right?), but it wasn’t long before white people started looking for them, too. Black Swan was a label out of Harlem, and Ethel was one of their first artists. Her first record sold 500,000 copies in six months. This is phenomenal by the standards of the day, and especially so considering that she was among the earliest black artists to be recorded. Ethel’s account of her first recording goes like this:

…. I found Fletcher Henderson sitting behind a desk and looking very prissy and important. … There was much discussion of whether I should sing popular or ‘cultural’ numbers. They finally decided on popular, and I asked one hundred dollars for making the record. I was still getting only thirty-five dollars a week, so one hundred dollars seemed quite a lump sum to me. Mr. Pace paid me the one hundred dollars, and that first Black Swan record I made had Down Home Blues on one side, Oh Daddy on the other. It proved a great success … got Black Swan out of the red.
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Here’s an audio clip of Down Home Blues, 1921, on Black Swan.
The biography Heat Wave by Donald Bogan is an interesting account of the personal and professional life of this complex woman. Her rise from poverty to becoming an actual recording smash and occasional film star really is quite amazing. She had a genuine ability to connect with her audience in a way that feels warm and sincere. Her directness, which was sometimes simply mean-spirited and angry in her personal life, comes across in her work as a kind of intimate honesty. We feel connected to a real woman. To me, there’s an element of pathos in some of her work that strikes me as a genuine — not a pose — though it can appear in the silliest of scripted situations. I found myself moved by her sweet singing in this scene from the 1943 film Cabin in the Sky. She’s performing here with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (on guitar) and Bill Bailey (the tap dancer).YouTube Preview Image

I found another film clip, this from 1933 and a film called Rufus Jones for President. Try to look past the racist mugging if you can and just listen to Ethel — except, well, you might take note of a seven-year-old Sammy Davis, Jr. serving as the judge. It’s a shame that the films we have of black performers in this era are often full of racist touches — but they’re all we’ve got. The lyrics to Underneath a Harlem Moon are really pretty weird; the song is written by Mack Gordon, a Polish Jew. Sometimes it’s racist, yet in the period it was written was widely performed by black jazz artists. Yuval Taylor on his blog Faking It points out that in the movie, Ethel changes the last half of the song and claims it for her own. (At least we think it’s Ethel who changed it? It’s hard to be sure about that, I think.) These are the lyrics:
Once we wore bandannas, now we wear Parisian hats,
Once we were barefoot now we wear shoes and spats,
Once we were Republican but now we’re Democrats
Underneath our Harlem moon.

We don’t pick no cotton, pickin’ cotton is taboo.
All we pick is numbers, and that includes you white folks too,
’Cause if we hit, we pay our rent on any avenue
Underneath our Harlem moon.

We just thrive on dancin’;
Why be blue and forlorn?
We just laugh, grin, let the landlord in–
That’s why house rent parties were born!

We also drink our gin, puff our reefers, when we’re feelin’ low,
Then we’re ready to step out and take care of any so-and-so.
Don’t stop for law or no traffic when we’re rarin’ to go,
Underneath our Harlem moon.

And here is the performance in question, from Rufus Jones for President:

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My reading about Ethel primarily goes through the 1930’s, so the following comments speak to who she was at that time. (I actually find her later appearances in so many “mammy”-type roles a little depressing.) There’s been a lot of discussion about Ethel being bisexual. It’s true. But as Donald Bogan points out, and as I’ve found in all kinds of reading from the era of the 1900-1930’s, this was not all that uncommon. A lot of women, especially younger ones, had sexual and romantic relationships with other women, and then went on to marry men. They seem to be a bit iffy on whether they considered themselves to be lesbians; generally, they didn’t. There’s considerable denial, professing it all to be a kind of experimental fluke. (Maybe it’s not all that different now.) Others remained in same sex relationships to some degree or another throughout their lives, as Ethel did, even when she had three husbands. These choices by female performers made sense; they were preyed upon by managers, stage door dandies, producers, and on and on, and they hung together out of protection. (You can even see this in a lot of pre-code movies – think Joan Blondell rolling her stockings behind the stage door. The movies don’t show the women sleeping together, but it’s often just a kiss away.) Performers had to sleep and dress in close quarters, and sometimes share beds, and, well, it seemed natural. Ethel as a young woman did have a relationship with a dancer, Ethel Williams, that lasted several years, until Ms. Williams got married. (Ethel Williams’ story is interesting, too — she was a whiz at the dance the turkey trot, and was in one of the most important early black musical plays, Darktown Follies.) Ethel Waters was apparently a bit of dog for a good deal of her life — she got around and didn’t mind who knew it. She was her own woman. waters

Ethel Waters, Sweet Mama Stringbean

a young Ethel Waters

When I was growing up, I watched way too much TV. I realize now that what I was seeing were the fading careers of once great actors/actresses, singers, dancers, comedy hams, and the like, many of whom first got their start in vaudeville. As a child, I was a bit confused about why these people seemed to be special or important — there was a sense of some kind of great past there, but what that past might be completely escaped me. Now that I’ve begun watching and listening to these performers in their prime, and learning something about the history of the period, I understand in a very different way what led them to be who they were on my television screen. For some of them, it was quite a fall — though they were probably happy enough for the money and the attention. (My favorite example of this is Barbara Stanwyck who is so wonderful — so daring, tough, dignified — in so many old movies, and who ends up as a stiff old bat on The Big Valley. Sigh.)

One of those people who made the rounds of talk shows, variety shows, the occasional dramatic shows, sit-coms, and even religious revivals was Ethel Waters. I had no clue until fairly recently who Ethel Waters really was. I thought she was just like a nice old grandma in a mammy scarf, because this was nearly always the way she was presented. (This was the 60’s & 70’s, by the way — I’m not THAT old.) Here’s a picture of that Ethel: images-1
Even at that, though, she seemed more interesting than Pearl Bailey, another TV staple. Ethel Waters was…blunt. Funny. A little bit strange. She was one of the ones I didn’t understand. (There were a slew of such people — performers who seemed to be hiding something, something darker and more complicated than I was allowed to know, like those double entendre jokes so popular in sanitized TV land.)

I know now that Ethel Waters was an artist. A real blues singer who evolved into a musical theater performer and later into a movie actress. Maybe her voice wasn’t as great as so many I could name (Ma Rainey, Billie, Bessie, others), but there is a certain quality to it that is arresting. She’s a storyteller who compels the listener to pay attention, as if she’s sitting there across from you telling you a truth. She’s also plain fun. If it’s on record, it’s easy to imagine the whole act — the costume, the dance, the wide eyes and the sly wink, the wide and beautiful smile. She had style. Her earliest work, which is what interests me most, is light, sprightly, lilting, and, well, almost sweet. Sweet from a woman who was by most accounts not exactly sugar and sun, and for good reason. Ethel Waters was a survivor, a fighter who grew up the red-light district in Chester, Pennsylvania and did whatever it took to escape.

It’s hard for me to see her playing maids, mammies, cotton pickers, and, again, maids. It had to have been far harder for her to do it. No wonder she was pissed off. Luckily, she still has a few special moments on film that transcend these roles and give me a sense of what Ethel must have been like when she wasn’t having to kowtow. (And even stuck in a horrible role, she still was lovely, transcendent.) One of my favorites is from 1929, Birmingham Bertha. More to come.

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Theda Bara, the vamp


Theda Bara, the original female vampire or “vamp,” manslayer extraordinaire — well, I finally watched the only movie of hers on Netflix, A Fool There Was, from 1915. (Only a few of her films still exist.) For a brief time in Hollywood there was a run of vamp movies, with the star of that moment being Theda Bara. I found this pretty bad movie to be fascinating in the way it depicts women and in what I found to be a hilarious performance by Theda. She is just the ultimate in evil woman camp. The video clip I’ve inserted (which I didn’t make) shows some great scenes from that film combined with some nice shots of Theda in various costumes.

As a quick critique, the movie is sheer post-Victorian melodrama, with women divided between the perfect, forgiving, somewhat frumpy wife with an adorable angelic blond headed child who always says her prayers (and believe me, in this movie they were so boring!) and the eternally watchable, fun, blackhaired woman playing poker and then lounging on a chaise Theda Bara. She and the script are absolutely over the top, even by early film standards. She causes one man to blow his brains out on the boat that she has taken in order to lure a diplomat away from his mission and into her clutches. Of course, she then leads said wealthy politician to drink and dissipation, and he eventually goes mad. And she laughs — hahaha! She traps them with a flower, then throws the flower on their graves. Theda throws in some interesting nuances, too, that make the character almost (well, not quite) believable — she owns it. The woman is cranky. She’s demanding. She’s bored. She has nothing to do but trap men and lure them to their doom. Even then, she looks annoyed about the whole thing. This makes her more than just a slink-around vampire.

This movie is a hoot. Yet I think at the time it was probably seen as a straight up cautionary tale. — It’s worth watching just to see Theda roll her eyes at the silliness of it all and wear some really cool costumes.