Saturday, September 18, 2021

Your head may go reeling: Pre-code musical Murder at the Vanities

Murder at the Vanities (1934). Screenplay by Carey Wilson and Joseph Gollomb, dialogue by Sam Hellman, based on the play by Earl Carroll and Rufus King; directed by Mitchell Leisen.

Murder at the Vanities was released on May 18, 1934. It was barely in time. Just six weeks later, on July 1, the major Hollywood producers placed censorship of their movies in the hands Joseph Breen's Production Code Administration. Both scripts and final cuts had to receive Breen's stamp of approval. Under Breen there would be far less sexual suggestiveness, fewer scantily-clad chorus girls, fewer changing-room scenes, fewer suggestions of police incompetence and corruption, and fewer murders going unpunished.

Fortunately Murder at the Vanities got in under the wire, and so we can enjoy (and/or be appalled by) the elements that make Pre-Code Hollywood movies so engaging, including:

  • Bit players unaware that they will soon become stars:

Could that redheaded chorine among the blondes be Lucille Ball? Also appearing as an uncredited Vanities chorus girl, according to IMDB: Ann Sheridan.

  • Stars unaware that their Hollywood careers will soon end:

Handsome former Danish prizefighter and Hitchcock actor Carl Brisson, whose Hollywood career would continue for only two more movies after he appeared as crooner Eric Lander in Murder at the Vanities.

  • Julliard- and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art-trained performers slumming it in Hollywood:

Vanities headliner Ann Ware was 23-year-old Kitty Carlisle's first film role. The following year she would star in the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera before returning to New York and the Broadway stage.

  • Song lyrics extolling consciousness-altering substances:

Gertrude Michael as Rita Ross performing Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow's "Sweet Marijuana." Yes, that is a chorus line of guitarists in sombreros behind her. (And could the guitarist over her right shoulder be a young Alan Ladd?)

  • More song lyrics extolling consciousness-altering substances:
As we enjoy a cigarette
  • Yet more song lyrics extolling consciousness-altering substances:
And cocktails for two

Before vanishing into undeserved obscurity Carl Brisson introduced Johnston and Coslow's "Cocktails for Two," which begins, "Oh what delight to/be given the right to/be carefree and gay once again./No longer slinking,/respectably drinking,/like civilized ladies and men." Prohibition had been repealed just five months before Murder at the Vanities was released. [1]

  • Chorus girls with strategically placed seashells:
  • Chorus girls with strategically placed seaweed:
  • Chorus girls with strategically placed upper limbs:
  • Black and white dancers and musicians performing together:

Gertrude Michael as Rita Ross singing "Ebony Rhapsody" with dancers and Duke Ellington and His Orchestra.

The deliriously incorrect number from which the above still is taken is worth taking a look at in a little more detail. The production number takes up a full eight and a half minutes of the movie's 89-minute running time and is called "The Rape of the Rhapsody":

The Rape of the Rhapsody

The number opens with Eric Lander portraying Franz Liszt as he composes the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2:

Carl Brisson as Eric Lander as Franz Liszt

He is visited by Ann Ware's Muse and an inspiring vision of a stately dance by couples wearing Hollywood's idea of Broadway's idea of 19th-century dress (lots of flounces and feathers):

The scene dissolves into an orchestra playing a syrupy version of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, surrounding by an admiring audience of those couples:

But then jazz musicians emerge from behind the orchestra players and a brassy flourish disrupts the music's measured pace:

The jazz musicians quickly duck back down, and the puzzled conductor thinks his own musicians are deviating from the score. He tries to continue, but it happens again, and again. The orchestra gives up and the jazz musicians take their places. Curtains at the back of the stage part to reveal an elegant man in a tuxedo: Duke Ellington.

As the band swings into a jazzy version of Liszt's melody, the conductor rages: he tears at his hair, shakes his fist at Ellington and finally stomps off.

Now a chorus line of black women dressed as maids comes forward, and Rita Ross begins singing "Ebony Rhapsody":

There's rhythm down in Martinique isle
That has any minuet beat a mile
For low-down quality
And they call it the Ebony Rhapsody

Instead of playing music like you do
They supply a little classical voodoo
They keep swingin' that thing
And singin' that Ebony Rhapsody

It's got those licks, it's got those tricks
That Mr Liszt would never recognize
It's got that beat, that tropic heat
They shake until they make the old thermometer rise.

Soon the white couples in 19th-cenury attire are dancing along, with the women lifting their petticoats and kicking in unison. This is evidently "The Rape."

Then, "The Revenge": the orchestra conductor bursts back onstage—carrying a submachine gun:

Everyone is "massacred": Rita Ross, a trio of white tap dancers, the black chorus line (though not the white dancers behind them on the stairs), and Ellington's musicians. By the way, the killer conductor Homer Boothby is played by Charles Middleton, later Emperor Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials.

This number, filled with flagrant cultural appropriation and dubious associations (jazz = Africa + Latin America = the Caribbean = Martinique = voodoo, black women = maids, etc.), not to mention ethnic caricatures, salacious lyrics, suggestive movements and murderous violence, is remarkable even for Pre-Code Hollywood. And the notion that a jazz performance of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 constitutes the defilement of pure European high culture is jaw-droppingly racist, even for the time. At least the conductor is clearly meant to be a villain, not a hero.

Murder at the Vanities may have raised (or lowered) the bar for outrageousness, but the plot is as thin as a chorus girl's body stocking. Backstage at the Earl Carroll Vanities (an actual Broadway revue) someone on the catwalks high above the stage is dropping lighting instruments and sandbags onto the performers below in an attempt to kill Ann Ware. The chief suspect is second-billed singer Rita Ross, who is jealous of Ware's imminent wedding to Eric Lander.

Gertrude Michael as Rita Ross.

Ross also plans to blackmail Lander; she has discovered the secret past of Lander's mother (Jessie Ralph), a former opera star who fled her native Vienna decades ago and has been acting as the head seamstress for the show under an assumed name. But then a detective hired by Lander is found dead, and an attempt is made on Ross's life with a pair of sewing scissors. Meanwhile, police sergeant Bill Murdock (Victor McLaglen) is bumbling around backstage, barging into dressing rooms and leering at the barely-dressed chorus girls while arriving late to the scene of every crime.

The movie originated as a play written by Earl Carroll and Rufus King, which grafted a narrative through-line onto the typical Vanities revue structure. Although the play was a success, it could not rescue the revue format on Broadway. With the development of the sound film, the coming of the Depression, and rise of the integrated musical (in which the songs arose out of the story rather than standing as independent production numbers), high-budget Broadway revues such as the Vanities, Ziegfeld Follies, and George White's Scandals were less and less viable. The final Follies was produced in 1936 and the final Scandals in 1939, while the final edition of the Vanities in 1940 closed after just 25 performances (the 1926-27 edition had run for 303).

Ironically, Hollywood—one of the causes of the decline of stage revues—kept the revue genre going by producing "let's put on a show" musicals. These movies were essentially integrated musicals about the creation of number musicals; examples include Gold Diggers of 1933, The Great Ziegfeld (Best Picture of 1936), Babes in Arms (1939), and The Band Wagon (1953). (Two more movies based on the Vanities, Earl Carroll Vanities (1945) and Earl Carroll Sketchbook (1946), were among them.) Also ironically, the compilations That's Entertainment (1974) and That's Entertainment II (1976), which presented numbers from integrated musicals detached from their narrative context and presented as pure spectacle, were essentially revivals of the revue format.

So Murder at the Vanities represents both the last gasp of the Broadway revue and its rebirth in the backstage musical. And as with many Pre-Code movies, narrative coherence takes a back seat to sensationalism and suggestiveness. Don't say you weren't warned.

My head may go reeling


Murder at the Vanities is available on DVD in Universal's Pre-Code Hollywood Collection, which also includes Tallulah Bankhead in The Cheat (1931), the early Cary Grant movies Merrily We Go To Hell and Hot Saturday (1932), Claudette Colbert in Torch Singer (1933), and the young Ida Lupino in Search for Beauty (1934).

  1. A further note on "Cocktails for Two": the song has been recorded by Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Coleman Hawkins, Bing Crosby, Keely Smith, Ray Charles & Betty Carter, and Charles Mingus, but its most famous recording is the parody version with raucous sound effects by Spike Jones and His City Slickers. Lyricist Sam Coslow wrote of Jones' parody, "I hated it, and thought it was in the worst possible taste, desecrating what I felt was one of my most beautiful songs" (Cocktails for Two: The Many Lives of Giant Songwriter Sam Coslow, Arlington House, 1977, p. 145).

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Alison Bechdel: The Secret to Superhuman Strength

Image source: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Alison Bechdel's The Secret to Superhuman Strength (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021) is the third installment in her series of graphic memoirs. Her books do not follow one another chronologically, but rather re-examine and rework from different perspectives her experiences from childhood to later life.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) focusses on her father, and the impact of his emotional reticence, hypercritical perfectionism, secret gay life, and mysterious death on Bechdel and the other members of her family. Bruce Bechdel was both the town undertaker and high school English teacher. As well as an acute self-consciousness and an overactive inner critic, he also bequeathed to his daughter an enduring love of literature. Fun Home is filled with allusions to the books that inspired Alison's imagination and helped shape her sense of self as she grew up, moved away, came out, and discovered her calling as a writer and artist through her multi-character comic strip serial Dykes To Watch Out For.

Bechdel's second memoir, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama (Houghton Mifflin, 2012) spotlights the dynamics of her emotionally fraught relationship with her mother. A New York-trained actress, Helen Bechdel focussed her creative energies on appearances in community theater productions of The Heiress and The Importance of Being Earnest. The stage may have been an outlet for emotions too messy or too dangerous to express openly at home; enacting dramas onstage may have been a way of avoiding, or displacing, the emotional demands and conflicts of her marriage and family life. Are You My Mother? invokes the writings of psychologists Alice Miller and D.W. Winnicott in an attempt to understand how Helen's emotional unavailability left Alison to seek approval by taking on the role of the responsible child, a role that as an adult she finds she has internalized. When Are You My Mother? ends, Helen is calling Alison every day for conversation—or, rather, as the actress she remains, to deliver self-involved, self-dramatizing stream-of-consciousness monologues.

From the program for Fun Home, the musical by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel. Click the image to enlarge.

Towards the end of The Secret to Superhuman Strength we learn that quite a lot has happened in decade since Are You My Mother?: Bechdel was awarded a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, Fun Home was adapted into a highly successful Broadway musical, and her mother died. Another writer might have centered a memoir around any or all of these events. While the new book touches on each of them, it is instead primarily about Bechdel's lifelong quest to quiet her critical inner voices through physical activity.

Indeed, rather than the secret to superhuman strength (the title of a pamphlet the young Alison sent away for after seeing an advertisement in the back of a comic book), Bechdel's real goal seems to have been to enter the state of receptive mental emptiness that taxing physical effort can induce. This state is similar to that of "flow," first named by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in which absorption in a task leads to seemingly boundless creative energy without the need for conscious intervention.

From The Secret to Superhuman Strength; click the image to enlarge. Image source: CBC Radio

Bechdel also touches on other paths she's taken to try to achieve that goal. These include martial arts—a donning of a kind of bodily armor, self-protection as a means of psychic protection; Buddhism (Shenryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind and Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums are featured); immersion in nature (Bechdel is overstimulated by urban noise and crowds); and the classic (and ineffectual) shortcut, alcohol, which both stimulates and dulls the mind. But she always returns to working out, biking, hiking, and running, which seems to be the activity that most directly enables her to achieve the state of mindless/mindful emptiness she seeks.

The literary touchstones in this installment are the Romantics Dorothy Wordsworth, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; the Trancendentalists Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson; and the Beats Gary Snyder and, especially and surprisingly, Jack Kerouac. The Beats' casual misogyny was of its time, but Kerouac's connections to nature, Buddhism, and alcohol resonate with Bechdel despite his limitations as a writer and a person.

One surprise for longtime Bechdel fans will be that The Secret to Superhuman Strength is in full color instead of the monochrome blues of Fun Home or reds of Are You My Mother? The rich new palette is thanks to Bechdel's spouse, the painter Holly Rae Taylor, to whom the book is dedicated, and who is thanked on the title page for her "extremely extensive coloring collaboration" and in the acknowledgments for all "she did to keep our lives afloat"; she also appears in the book as herself. Surely there is no greater love than to allow yourself to be written about by your life partner.

There are a number of themes touched on in The Secret to Superhuman Strength that will resonate with readers of a certain age (that is, Bechdel's age). The wonders of television (Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Greenjeans, Romper Room, Jack LaLanne, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, the moon landing), political and social changes, and, of course, the developments in outdoor, workout and sports gear over the decades. Inevitably, in covering so much ground some elements get less full treatment than others, and in particular some of the later sections of the book seem to pass over highly significant social and personal milestones rather quickly.

But as a beautifully produced and densely allusive survey of Bechdel's life from childhood until now, the book amply succeeds. If you're a Bechdel fan, you shouldn't hesitate to run out to your local independent bookshop and buy it. If you're not yet a Bechdel fan, I recommend that you start with Fun Home; you'll soon want to read everything she's done.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Doris Day: An appreciation

Doris Day around the time of Tea for Two (1950). Image source: Billboard

I had long thought Doris Day only worthy of disdain. She was the perpetual virgin, the whitebread archetype of marriage and suburban conformity whose signature song was the bland "Que sera, sera," belted out in Hitchcock's 1950s remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

But in the past few years I've come to realize that my contempt was misplaced—I had been seriously underestimating her. Day was a triple threat: she could act, dance (she clearly had ballet and jazz-tap training), and sing everything from torch songs to Broadway show-stoppers. In fact, it was the film version of a Broadway show (Pajama Game) that was my Doris Day conversion experience. 

Her virginal image also belied her real-life experience. By age 17 she was a big-band singer, and at age 18 married trombonist Al Jorden. He beat her during a pregnancy to try to induce a miscarriage, and they divorced before Day turned 20. At 25 as she was filming her first movie Romance on the High Seas she was two years into her second marriage, to saxophonist George Weidler, but the union was in serious trouble (they divorced a year later). As her co-star in that film, Oscar Levant, once quipped, "I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin."

Two years after her second divorce she married for a third time, to producer Martin Melcher, only to discover at the end of her film career that he'd bankrupted her. And she yet went on in her mid-50s to marry once more (the triumph of hope over experience, surely; that marriage also ended in divorce).

Below I survey some of Day's better-known films, but a word of warning: if you're allergic to glossy Hollywood musicals and/or outdated social mores, these movies are best avoided. Nonetheless, even when the movies themselves are less than great her work in them is very much worthy of note.

Romance on the High Seas (1948). Screenplay by Julius and Philip Epstein with additional dialogue by I.A. Diamond; directed by Michael Curtiz.

Doris Day as Georgia Garrett/"Elvira Kent" with the Page Cavanaugh Trio in Romance on the High Seas.

The dialogue is sparkling, as you might guess of a film written by the Epstein brothers (who wrote the Curtiz-directed Casablanca) and Diamond (Billy Wilder's co-writer on Some Like It Hot and The Apartment). In her first film role Day plays Georgia Garrett, a sassy saloon singer who dreams of foreign travel. She's so smitten with the idea that she goes to travel agencies and pretends to be shopping for cruises to exotic locales so that she can collect the brochures as fuel for her fantasies.

One day at a travel agency she encounters Elvira Kent (Janis Paige), who wants to take a long-postponed trip with her husband Michael (Don DeFore) to revive the flagging romance in their marriage and divert his attention from his stunning secretary (Leslie Brooks). When Michael comes up with yet another excuse that prevents his going and suggests that Elvira take the romantic South American cruise on her own, she becomes suspicious. She decides to use Georgia as a decoy on the cruise, offering her a dream trip on the condition that she travel under Elvira's name and send Michael an occasional telegram; Elvira will secretly stay in New York to spy on her husband to see if he's having an affair. Meanwhile, Michael is mistrustful of Elvira's pretended eagerness to travel by herself and hires a detective, Peter Virgil (Jack Carson), to take the cruise and watch his wife to see if she's having an affair.

When during the cruise Peter starts to fall for "Elvira" (actually Georgia, of course), the comic complications multiply. (Some detective: he didn't even ask to see a photo of the woman he's supposed to be shadowing? Whose hair is dark rather than blond? Never mind.) As leading men Carson and DeFore are uninspiring, but that leaves the focus instead on the fourth-billed Day and a colorful supporting cast prominently featuring the sardonic Oscar Levant, as always brilliantly playing himself.

If you're familiar with classic Hollywood you'll likely also recognize Franklin Pangborn (of the Preston Sturges comedies), Eric Blore (of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies), and S.Z. Sakall (Karl in Casablanca). Add appearances by performers such as Avon Long, Sir Lancelot and the Samba Kings, plus a half-dozen songs for Day by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, and there's no time for your higher brain centers to engage before the Feydeauesque false identities, mutual suspicions and erotic confusions are resolved and the couples are happily united.

This is the film that introduced "It's Magic," which instantly became a standard:

For reasons that are readily apparent audiences loved Day, and the movie was box office magic. Her film career was launched.

Calamity Jane (1953). Screenplay by James O'Hanlon; directed by David Butler.

Doris Day in and as Calamity Jane—a still that long deterred me from watching it.

The racial and sexual politics of this movie are indeed a calamity. The brownface "Injuns" exist only to mindlessly attack the Deadwood stagecoach and be mowed down by the shotgun-toting heroine. Meanwhile, Calamity shacks up (literally, in a shack) with frontier music-hall actress Katie Brown (the leggy Allyn Ann McLerie), and learns from her the regressive lesson that to catch the romantic eye of her bosom buddy Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel at his most Howard-Keelish) she has to pack away her butch buckskins and femme up—or down, depending on how you look at it.

Don't say you weren't warned. But if you are able to ignore all that (and not everyone can, or should—it's a lot to ignore) Calamity Jane gives Day a chance to shed (or at least complicate) her glamour and show off her athleticism. As the tomboyish "Calam" she does many of her own stunts, including riding horses, making a running leap onto a bar, and being lowered by her arms from a second-tier theater box onto the stage a dozen feet below. 

Calamity Jane also gives Day a chance to perform what became another of her signature songs, Sammy Fain and Paul Webster's "My Secret Love":

It's fun to watch Day play such a brash, indelicate character for most of the movie, but the wince-worthy racist and sexist stereotypes prevent me from ultimately recommending this one.

Love Me or Leave Me (1955). Screenplay by Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart; directed by Charles Vidor.

Doris Day wearing a Helen Rose creation as chanteuse Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me.

The story of a nightclub singer's rise to stardom and marriage to a controlling, violent man may have attracted Day because of the parallels to her own life. Singing hopeful Ruth Etting (Day) is spotted in a 10-cents-a-dance joint by Chicago gangster Martin Snyder (James Cagney), whose racket is shaking down nightclub owners under the cover of providing laundry services. Snyder aggressively takes charge of Ruth's career, strong-arming Ruth's way into a job singing a warm-up jingle for a male headliner, and then engineering the headliner's no-show so that Ruth can go on in his place. He peremptorily turns down a booking for Ruth in New York that he doesn't consider prestigious enough, and instead has her go on the radio, where her show becomes a hit. The Ziegfeld Follies are soon calling, and Ruth becomes the toast of Broadway for a time—but finds keeping Snyder at arm's length more and more difficult. 

Snyder's frustration and jealousy are further inflamed by Ruth's musical director Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell), who has made no secret of his attraction to her:

Ruth gradually comes to return Johnny's feelings, but her career is tied to Snyder. Snyder ultimately coerces Ruth into marriage, resulting in misery for all three.

Just for contrast's sake, here is Ruth Etting herself performing "It All Depends on You"; the uptempo approach typical of its time makes it a little harder to believe her when she sings "I can be sad" or "I can be lonely":

As with most Hollywood biopics, the film is a sanitized and glamourized version of real events, and liberties both large (Prohibition and bootlegging are never mentioned) and small (Alderman's actual name was Harry, not Johnny) are taken. Much of the glamour is provided by the gorgeous gowns designed for Day by Helen Rose (of Designing Woman fame), in which she looks smashing. Day surprises by playing Ruth as a woman whose sweet appearance conceals a will of steel, who knows what she wants and goes after it, even at the cost of her own happiness.

Cagney gives a fiercely driven performance as Snyder, the intensity of whose passion for Ruth is never enough to evoke responsive feelings in her. Cagney even manages at times to make Snyder sympathetic in his inability to help himself despite his recognition of the hopelessness of his situation. That hopelessness is emphasized by the nearly quarter-century age difference between Cagney and Day, and amplified by his looking and playing older, and she younger, than their real ages. (The actual Moe Snyder was only three years older than Etting.) 

In addition to the strong script and performances, Day sings a dozen standards, including the title track, "Ten Cents A Dance," "Mean to Me," "I'll Never Stop Loving You," "You Made Me Love You," and a lush version of "Never Look Back":

If I were trying to convince a Doris Day skeptic of her range in both acting and singing, Love Me or Leave Me might be the movie I'd choose.

Pajama Game (1957). Screenplay by George Abbott and Richard Bissell; directed by Abbott and Stanley Donen.

John Raitt (Bonnie's dad) as Sid Sorokin and Doris Day as Babe Williams in Pajama Game.

A hugely successful Broadway show (winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1955), Pajama Game was transferred to the screen with its creative team and cast largely intact—with one key exception. On Broadway the role of Babe Williams was played by Janis Paige, who, when she'd portrayed Elvira Kent in Romance on the High Seas, was billed two spots above Day. As evidence of the different trajectories of their film careers in the succeeding decade, the now far more famous Day was brought in to replace Paige for the movie version. (They would work together again in the 1960 movie Please Don't Eat the Daisies, which this post will pass over in silence.)

Babe Williams (Day) is the head of the union grievance committee at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Company; Sid Sorokin (John Raitt) is the new factory manager. The workers are asking for a 7 and 1/2 cent hourly pay increase, but Sid must enforce the hard line of factory owner Myron Hasler (Ralph Dunn). It's inevitable that despite misunderstandings (and being members of historically opposed classes) Babe and Sid will come to a labor-management accord on both the personal and professional levels. Along the way: choreography by a young Bob Fosse and energetic songs by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (also writers of the songs for Damn Yankees), including "Steam Heat," "I'm Not At All In Love," and "There Once Was A Man" (actually written by Frank Loesser, according to Raitt).

But in addition to those brassy numbers the show also includes the gorgeously wistful ballad "Hey There":

In retrospect Pajama Game's story of a strike at a garment factory was already outdated. It belonged more to the era of union militancy before WWII than to the 1950s, when unions traded guarantees of labor peace for modest wage and benefit gains. But speaking of being instantly outdated. . .

Pillow Talk (1959)

Doris Day as career woman Jan Morrow and Rock Hudson as footloose bachelor Brad Allen in Pillow Talk.

In 1748 Samuel Richardson wrote in the preface to Clarissa Harlowe, or the History of a Young Lady, that he'd written the novel "to warn the inconsiderate and thoughtless of the one sex, against the base arts and designs of specious contrivers of the other. . .[and to caution them against] that dangerous but too-commonly-received notion, that a reformed rake makes the best husband." Evidently Day's character in Pillow Talk, Jan Morrow, never got around to reading Richardson.

Jan is a single woman with a successful career as an interior decorator. Unfortunately for the no-nonsense Jan, she shares a party line with Broadway composer Brad Allen, a playboy who spends most of his daylight hours on the phone sweet-talking his stable of girlfriends. To Jan's great irritation, he not only hogs the line when she needs to make business calls, he also plays for each of his girlfriends the same love song, "Inspiration," which he claims was "written just for you."

One night out at a club Brad overhears a woman complaining about the guy who shares her party line. He recognizes her voice: it's Jan, of course. Brad is instantly attracted, but realizes that if he introduces himself she'll reject him without a second thought. So he puts on a fake (and terrible) Southern accent and pretends to be "Rex Stetson," a millionaire Texas rancher. While Rex is wooing Jan with dinners and late-night phone calls, Brad pretends to have overheard a phone conversation between them on the party line and disparages Rex in order to spur Jan's praise of him. Jan is utterly smitten with Rex, and as they are heading to a weekend in a country cabin together we hear her (surprisingly explicit) thoughts:

But of course she'll ultimately discover that she's been deceived, and will seek her revenge.

I confess that I found Pillow Talk more entertaining than I had expected, despite its paucity of songs for Day (in addition to "Possess Me" there's only the title song and the cringeworthy novelty number "Roly Poly"). But just a few years after its release the movie's social mores would seem like ancient history (and the sources of much of its humor would seem unfunny). Pillow Talk tries to wring comedy out of the predatory Brad's bachelor pad, which features pushbuttons that automatically convert the sofa into a bed and remotely lock the door to prevent a reluctant date's escape. There is also a lot of coded innuendo about "Rex"'s effeminacy (although shouldn't that make us wonder whether Brad's rampant womanizing is just overcompensation?). And finally, even in 1959 it was probably quite a stretch to imagine that two adults who were seeing one another romantically would spend a chaste weekend together in a cozy country cabin, although it must be said that a similar situation occurs in Patricia Highsmith's novel The Cry of the Owl, published three years later.

The gay subtexts of Pillow Talk are made starkly apparent in Mark Rappaport's video essay Rock Hudson's Home Movies (1992), included as an extra on the Criterion Collection DVD of All That Heaven Allows (1955), director Douglas Sirk's melodrama masterpiece starring Hudson and Jane Wyman. It was seeing Rappaport's film that made us curious about Pillow Talk, and ultimately inspired the at-home Doris Day film festival which led to this post; a post on Douglas Sirk may follow soon.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Mozart and Salieri: The School of Jealousy

François Boucher, Lovers in a Park, 1758 (detail). Image source: Timken Museum of Art

In my previous post Mozart and Salieri: The Magician's Cave I mentioned that during Mozart's lifetime Antonio Salieri was by far the more popular composer. That began to change shortly after Mozart's death in 1791. Throughout the rest of the decade Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) continued to be performed regularly at Emmanuel Schikaneder's Theater auf der Wieden, leading to the revival of Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Rescue from the Harem) and then the Mozart-Da Ponte operas in German translation. Salieri stopped composing operas after 1804, and even his most popular operas gradually fell from the repertory. In the meantime Mozart was increasingly recognized and embraced by writers such as E.T.A. Hoffmann ("Don Juan") and Alexander Pushkin ("The Stone Guest" and "Mozart and Salieri"). By the end of the 19th century Mozart was considered (rightfully) as one of the greatest composers ever to have lived, and Salieri was all but forgotten, except (unjustly) as his rival and nemesis.

Today a highly unscientific search of the global library catalog WorldCat turns up more than 30,000 books on Mozart and his works in all languages, including more than 3,000 that are categorized as biographies (the first, by Franz Xaver Niemetschek, was 78 pages long and published in 1798, seven years after Mozart's death). By contrast, there are only about 600 books on Salieri and his works in all languages, including four dozen biographies (the first, by Albert von Hermann, was 24 pages long and published in 1897, seven decades after Salieri's death). For every book published about Salieri, 50 have been published about Mozart.

Antonio Salieri, by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, 1815 (detail). Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Four of Mozart's operas, including the three with libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte, are among the ten most performed operas in the world, according to; Salieri's operas have been all but absent from the stage for more than two hundred years. But without Salieri there would have been no Mozart-Da Ponte partnership. When Da Ponte came to Vienna in early 1782, he carried a letter of introduction to Salieri from Caterino Mazzolà, poet of the court theater in Dresden and librettist of Salieri's Venetian opera La scuola de' gelosi (The School of Jealousy). A year later the letter bore fruit. Da Ponte wrote in his Memoirs,

. . .I chanced to hear a rumor that Joseph II was considering reopening an Italian Opera in his capital; and remembering Mazzola's suggestion, the thought flashed upon me that I might become a poet [librettist] of Caesar. . .I called on Salieri, to whom I had delivered Mazzola's letter on my arrival; and he not only encouraged me to apply for the post, but volunteered to speak himself to the Director of Spectacles [Count Rosenberg] and to the Sovereign personally, of whom he was particularly beloved.
Salieri managed the matter so deftly that I went to Caesar for my first audience, not to ask a grace, but to give thanks for one. [1]

Despite never having written a play, much less an opera libretto, Da Ponte was appointed to the position of poet to the court theater and held this position for eight years. During that time he wrote libretti for both Mozart and Salieri, as well as several other composers. One of his first tasks after receiving his appointment was the revision of Salieri and Mazzolà's La scuola de' gelosi when it was chosen as the inaugural production of Joseph's new opera buffa troupe.

Lorenzo Da Ponte, engraved by Michele Pekenino after a portrait by Nathaniel Rogers, ca. 1822 (detail). Image source: Wikimedia Commons

While it's incontestably true that Mozart is a greater composer than Salieri, it's also true that Mozart and Da Ponte borrowed (and generally improved) musical and textual ideas from Salieri's operas. This borrowing has become even clearer from the new productions and recordings that have begun to appear over the past decade or so, and La scuola de' gelosi is a case in point. 

In La scuola a Count, whose affections are estranged from his loving wife, plans to seduce a woman from a lower class: Ernestina, the wife of the merchant Blasio. There are disguises, false assignations, and a denouement in a garden where all the couples surprise one another and the jealous Blasio and the straying (and also fiercely jealous) Count are chastened by their faithful spouses.

If this sounds reminiscent of the plot of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), it's actually the other way around: La scuola was written in 1778, six years before Beaumarchais' play La folle journée, ou Le mariage de Figaro was first produced and eight years before Mozart and Da Ponte's Figaro had its première.

La scuola prefigures Figaro not only in its plot and text, but also in its music. In Act II La scuola's Countess sings an aria in which she yearns for the return of her husband's love:

The singer is Francesca Mazzuli Lombardi with L'Arte del Mondo conducted by Werner Ehrhardt. The words of the aria:

Ah, sia già de' miei sospiri
sazio il fato e sazio il Ciel!
Abbastanza a' suoi martiri
mi serbò destin crudel.

Fra gli orrori d'avversa sorte
dovrei sempre i di passar?
Il tormento della morte
men terrible mi par.

Torna, torna, amato sposo
al desio del primo amor,
e bei giorni di riposo
sien compenso al mio dolor.
Ah, may both fate and Heaven
be sated with my sighs!
I have been tortured enough
by my cruel destiny.

Am I doomed to dwell always
among the horrors of suffering?
The torments of death
seem less terrible to me.

Come back, come back, beloved husband
to the desire of our first love,
and beautiful days of peace
will reward me for my sorrow.

"Ah, sia già de' miei sospiri" may remind you of the arias sung by the Countess in Figaro. In "Porgi amor" she sings, "O love, offer me some relief / For my sorrow, for my sighs! / Give me back my beloved / Or let me die" with the same descending melody on the word "morir" with which La scuola's Countess sings "crudel." And the structure of "Dove sono" from Figaro is audibly similar, at least to my ear:

The singer is Nadine Sierra in live performance with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra conducted by Patrick Summers. (For my post about Nadine Sierra and this production, see The Marriage of Figaro.) The words of the aria:

Dove sono i bei momenti
Di dolcezza e di piacer?
Dove andaro i giuramenti
Di quel labbro menzogner?

Perchè mai, se in pianti e in pene
Per me tutto si cangiò,
La memoria di quel bene
Dal mio sen non trapassò?

Ah! se almen la mia costanza,
Nel languire amando ognor,
Mi portasse una speranza
Di cangiar l'ingrato cor!
Where are those lovely moments
Of sweetness and pleasure?
Where have the promises gone
That came from those lying lips?

Why, if all is changed for me
Into tears and pain,
Has the memory of that sweetness
Not vanished from my breast?

Ah! if only, at least, my faithfulness,
Which still loves amidst its suffering,
Could bring me the hope
Of changing that ungrateful heart!

The musical and textual echoes among these arias suggest that the Countess in Figaro was modelled at least in part on the Countess in La scuola.

Wolfgang Mozart ca. 1782, unfinished portrait by his brother-in-law Joseph Lange (detail). Image source: Wikimedia Commons

La scuola also seems to have inspired Mozart and Da Ponte's Così fan tutte (All women are the same). When Blasio and the Countess learn of the Count's scheme to seduce Blasio's wife, a mutual acquaintance (who himself yearns after the Countess) advises them to turn the tables on the Count by pretending to be lovers and making him jealous. Shades of Don Alfonso advising (and manipulating) the couples in Così. And in La scuola's finale Blasio and the Count offer as a reason for men to remain faithful that "tutte son la stessa cosa" (all women are the same). Da Ponte's original title for Così fan tutte was La scuola degli amanti (The School for Lovers), and he originally offered it to Salieri as a sequel to La scuola de' gelosi. But after composing the opening numbers Salieri did not continue, and Da Ponte took the libretto to Mozart. (For ways in which both Così and Don Giovanni echo the Salieri-Giovanni Casti opera La grotta di Trofonio, please see Mozart and Salieri: The Magician's Cave.)

The 2015 Deutsche Harmonia Mundi recording of La scuola de' gelosi by L'Arte del Mondo conducted by Werner Ehrhardt is charming. All of the vocalists acquit themselves more than honorably, and the women (Francesca Lombardi as the Countess, Roberta Mameli as Ernestina, and Milena Storti as Carlotta, the Countess's maidservant) are especially good. While Massimiliano Toni's continuo fortepiano occasionally may be a bit overactive for some tastes, Ehrhardt's tempos are well-judged and the playing of the ensemble L'Arte Del Mondo sparkles. The full recording is available on YouTube and elsewhere, and is recommended; it received an honorable mention in my Favorites of 2019: Recordings. Salieri may not have been Mozart, but being Salieri was more than sufficient.

Image source: Presto Classical

  1. Memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte, translated by Elisabeth Abbott. J.W. Lippincott, 1929, p. 129. Da Ponte's gratitude to Salieri had waned by the end of his tenure as court theater poet. In 1791, after Joseph's death and the accession of his brother Leopold II, Da Ponte was dismissed. He wrote out a list of enemies, among whom he listed his "Principal enemy: Sig. Salieri." One of Salieri's crimes, in Da Ponte's view, was that "he assigns prima-donna roles to [Caterina] Cavalieri," Salieri's mistress, instead of to Adriana Ferrarese, Da Ponte's mistress. Da Ponte's intriguing came to nothing, and his accusations were mis-aimed: Salieri is unlikely to have prevailed on Leopold to dismiss Da Ponte, if for no other reason than that his influence was sharply diminished under the new ruler. Under the new regime Salieri himself lost his position as musical director of the court theater, although he remained as Hofkappellmeister.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Steel-True: Barbara Stanwyck

Victoria Wilson, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940. Simon and Schuster, 2013.

Barbara Stanwyck, born as Ruby Stevens, was orphaned by the time she was four: her mother died as the result of an accident and her widower father abandoned the family. Growing up in foster homes and with relatives, by age fourteen she was working as a chorus girl in New York nightclubs, and before she was 20 had begun appearing in movies. Her first films were not successful, but her husband Frank Fay paid for a screen test that convinced director Frank Capra to cast her in Ladies of Leisure (1930). After it did well at the box office, Stanwyck went on to appear in a series of Pre-Code films now considered classics. 

The late 1930s and early 1940s witnessed the fading of the careers of many actresses who had come to prominence in the early years of the sound era, such as Ruth Chatterton, Mae Clarke, Bebe Daniels, Miriam Hopkins and Ruby Keeler. But Stanwyck's appeal only grew: during this period she worked with directors such as King Vidor, Cecil B. DeMille, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and Howard Hawks, becoming one of Hollywood's highest-paid stars.

The story of her rise from poverty and neglect to movie stardom would seem to require no great effort from a biographer to maintain the reader's keen interest. But Victoria Wilson's A Life of Barbara Stanwyck is such a mess it's hard to know where to begin. It offers page after page (nearly 900 of them) of runaway research, poor writing and sloppy editing. (Ironically, Wilson is a senior editor at Alfred Knopf.)

Wilson seems to have no sense of the significant—or even relevant—detail, and no idea what to leave out. She includes the date of Lee's surrender to Grant and information about the mourning flags and rosettes displayed following Lincoln's assassination (p. 5), because Ruby's paternal grandfather and two half-uncles served in the Union Army 45 years before she was born. She offers a four-page discussion of the development of the movie serial, including an extensive description of the plot of The Perils of Pauline and four paragraphs on its star Pearl White, because it was Ruby's favorite serial as a child (pp. 19-22).

Ruby Stevens around age 17. Photograph by Alfred Cheney Johnston, ca. 1924. Image source: Wikipedia

And we find ourselves reading salacious stories about another chorus girl named Lucille LeSueur, ("known in Kansas City, Missouri, as Billie Cassin"), including allegations that she bragged to a producer about her skill at fellatio and "was walked in on by a Ziegfeld dancer late one night in the bedroom at a party making love to a well-known actress. Nothing surprised people about Billie" (p. 48).

The only thing that might surprise the reader about Billie is that when she became a movie actress she changed her name to Joan Crawford, information that Wilson passes on so obliquely that it's easy to miss. After a mention of the movie Sally, Irene, and Mary, which co-starred Constance Bennett, Sally O'Neil, and Crawford, we learn that "Sally O'Neil called Billie 'Freckles,' though Joan had long wanted to be called 'Butch'" (p. 55). The mid-sentence name-switch from Billie to Joan is the only indication in the book that they are the same person. Incidentally, Lucille LeSueur, Billie Cassin and Joan Crawford are listed separately in the index with no cross-references, as though they are separate, unrelated individuals.

Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse (1931). Image source:

Wilson often adds the insult of sloppy writing to the injury of irrelevant detail. When Calvin Coolidge is mentioned Wilson can't resist quoting his most famous utterance: "'The business of America is business,' Coolidge said" (p. 46). But as the Library of Congress makes clear, in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, D.C. on January 17, 1925, Coolidge actually said "the chief business of the American people is business." If you're going to place Coolidge's cliché in quotes you should at least get it right (but why include it at all?).

The Noel Coward play The Vortex is described incoherently: "Its caricature of well-mannered, light-hearted moderns, 'flowers of evil' nourished on [does she mean "by"?] a civilization that made rottenness so easy, amused audiences until the third act, when playgoers were stunned by mother and son—Lilian Braithwaite and Noel Coward—and revelations of sexual excess and drug addiction" (p. 54). Stunned by mother and son. . .doing what, exactly? (In the play, in the third act the son confronts his mother about her lack of maternal feeling and confesses his drug use: each agrees to try to change.) And in what way is this relevant to Ruby, who at the time was in the chorus of a variety show called Gay Paree?

Barbara Stanwyck and Theresa Harris in Baby Face (1933). Image source: Midnight Only

Theater history is clearly not Wilson's forte: she also garbles the technical details of playwright and producer David Belasco's innovative lighting system (p. 69), and misquotes the opening lyric of "Tea for Two" from the 1925 Broadway show No, No, Nanette (p. 105; when sung by a man, as in the show or in Frank Fay's nightclub act, it would be "Picture you upon my knee" and not, as Wilson has it, "Picture me upon your knee." The latter version may derive from the words that Doris Day sings in the movie Tea for Two, which wasn't made until 1950. In addition Wilson implies that Irving Caesar's lyrics were written by composer Vincent Youmans).

But she's not much better when it comes to the movies. In Remember the Night (written by Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen), Stanwyck plays serial shoplifter Lee Leander; Wilson writes of her co-star, "Fred MacMurray was to be the hard-driving assistant district attorney prosecuting the case who, instead of sending her to jail, falls in love with her. Leisen thought MacMurray was a good-looking actor—with a beautifully built body and great legs, six feet four, tall and lanky—but MacMurray was quiet, genial, modest, and inexperienced" (p. 801). Later we read that by the time of Remember the Night "MacMurray had appeared in twenty-four pictures as a leading man. . .he'd starred opposite Hollywood's top actresses, including Ann Sheridan (Car 99), Katherine Hepburn (Alice Adams), Sylvia Sidney (The Trail of Lonesome Pine) and Irene Dunne (Invitation to Happiness)" (pp. 819-820). In what conceivable way, then, could he be described as "inexperienced"? It becomes evident later that Wilson seems to mean that when he was starting out in his film career he was inexperienced—as are most people when they are just starting out in a profession.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Remember the Night (1940)

Finally, here is a caption from a picture of Stanwyck on page 857 of the hardback edition, quoted in its entirety:

With Frank Capra during production of Golden Boy, visiting the set of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; both Columbia Pictures, 1939. Capra's next picture, his first with Barbara in eight years, would be their fifth collaboration. She was making Golden Boy and was also visiting Capra on the set of his movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, being made at the same studio.

Not Columbia Pictures, by any chance?

Amid all the dross Wilson does manage to record a few insights about Stanwyck's film work, but they are buried in such a mass of undifferentiated detail that they lose impact. Steel-True reads like a first draft that went straight to the printer; the book would be twice as good if it were half as long. Is there no such thing as a copy editor any more? 

One also quails at the thought of what is to come. When the book ends in 1940 Wilson has made it less than halfway through Stanwyck's film career. Stanwyck would go on to star in 48 more movies, including The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, Christmas in Connecticut, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Sorry, Wrong Number, No Man of Her Own, Clash By Night, and There's Always Tomorrow. She would then have a second career on television, with featured roles on the shows Big Valley, Dynasty, and The Colbys, and many guest appearances. Wilson takes about 800 pages to cover the years 1927-1940; at that rate she has about 3000 pages to go before her biography will be complete. The time required to read Wilson's recounting of Stanwyck's life would be far more profitably spent watching Stanwyck's movies instead.

Posts about Barbara Stanwyck's films: