Monday, July 28, 2008

6 Easy Pieces: Everybody's In Movies II

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presents:

Where You're Terrific If You're Even Good (1930-1962)


Anita O'Day, Hooray For Hollywood.
Dory Previn, Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign.
Judy Garland, Dear Mr. Gable (You Made Me Love You).
Roxy Music, 2 H.B.
Billy Bragg and Wilco, Ingrid Bergman.
Leadbelly, Jean Harlow.
New Bomb Turks, Veronica Lake.
The Upsetters, Big John Wayne.
Kim Carnes, Bette Davis Eyes.
Blue Oyster Cult, Joan Crawford.
Nirvana, Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle.
Dave Brubeck, Audrey.
The Clash, The Right Profile.
The Beach Boys, A Young Man Is Gone.
Siouxsie and the Banshees, Kiss Them For Me.
Cunningham, Norma Jean Wants To Be a Movie Star.
Dory Previn, Starlet Starlet On the Screen, Who Will Follow Norma Jean?

I am Hollywood, The Movies, The Faceless One with ten thousand faces.
I am all Ages, all Bloods, all Sexes...I am the Three Graces.
'Three!' shrieks Glockbauer, the Producer. 'Make it Thirty!'
I am all Beauty...Venus, Eve, Ishtar, Kwanyin and Dirty Gertie.
I am the Great Hermaphrodite...Male, Female and Neuter.
I am Lover and Beloved, Romeo and Juliet, The Sought and the Suitor...
I am Virtue in Rags, Sin in Sequins, Love in a Bustle,
Garbo, Gable, Grable, Bergman, Crawford...and Jane Russell.

Don Blanding, "The Faceless One."

Into the blue wonderland
Of Hollywood, the sun sinks, past the eucalyptus,
The sphinx, the windmill, and I watch and read and
Hold my story tight...

Randall Jarrell, "The Lost World."

Andreas Feininger, Times Square Movie Marquee (1940)

In a five-cent moviehouse on 42nd Street, New York, the shabby man slumps into a seat. What's on the screen barely catches his attention--it could be the "Onward to War" sequence in Duck Soup. Or Garbo in Queen Christina. Or Jolson in Hallelujah, I'm a Bum. Or Stoopnocracy. Or even King Kong. Whatever the film is, it does enough for him--it sings, sparkles, lets his mind drift. He dozes for a bit, rouses in a shudder, watches the faces shine before him. When the picture ends, he hauls himself from his seat, walks out of the theater, down the street to the next one. He buys a ticket, slumps into another seat.

This is the writer John O'Hara. It's 1933, and, after having written 25,000 words of a novel, he is completely broke. So he's drafted letters to three publishers, with a synopsis of what he had written and essentially begging for an advance so he could complete the book, put the letters in the mail, walked up to Times Square and has spent all day in the movies.

The story ends as any hack scriptwriter would craft it--O'Hara came back from the pictures to find messages to call all three publishers. The novel became Appointment in Samarra (which is finally being made into a film now, joining sister O'Hara adaptations BUtterfield 8 and Pal Joey), O'Hara became famous, drunk and bitter. But the rest of his fellow filmgoers, the confederacy of dreamers sitting in the stalls, went home to nothing but a room, and so they came back to the movies the next day. This was the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The movies characteristically offer us packs of lies, but we would not consume these lies so avidly unless we needed them...Movies preserve our moral slumber in the way that dreams are said to preserve our sleep.

Michael Wood, America In the Movies.

Cary Grant knows he's got it, and that you likely don't

From the dawn of sound films to the end of World War II, with a murky regal twilight that extended into the early '60s, the movies ruled the world's assorted daydreams and fantasies. We are quickly losing the last generation who remember what it was like--opulent movie palaces in every town, people going to the pictures as a nightly ritual, double-features, newsreels, cowboy serials. And most of all, the grand constellation--Wayne, Garbo, Cagney, Gable, Harlow, Jimmy Stewart, Myrna Loy, Grace Kelly, Bogart, Stanwyck, Randolph Scott, both Hepburns, Gary Cooper, Gene Tierney and so on--that held sway over the common imagination.

Saint Lombard, patron of glamorous causes

Consider an average person in the 19th Century, born in, say, the Upper Midwest. You grew up in a small town, surrounded by people you had known since childhood, married someone you likely had known since childhood, and so your standards of beauty and elegance were dictated solely by what you had seen. Perhaps a few times in your life you went to a city, caught a glimpse of a society goddess or saw a painting in a gallery.

Now imagine someone living in a small town in the Upper Midwest in 1935. Every night, the guy or girl goes down to the cinema and gorges on beauty, in varieties formerly available only to emperors. Hollywood is a great bazaar, its vendors importing the cream of every country (Sweden sends Garbo and Bergman, France sends Claudette Colbert, Belgium sends Audrey Hepburn) and lighting them perfectly, styling them immaculately, giving them words to say that were written by Faulkner or Fitzgerald or Ben Hecht or Joseph Mankiewicz. The final result is, naturally, overwhelming. The effects of the toxin have yet to be fully realized, but there is little doubt the movies have seriously warped the human race. Yet isn't life a bit more colorful than it would have been otherwise?

And so in various songs about Golden Age movie stars, the sense of adoration is inescapable, with the likes of Bogart or Bette Davis treasured as icons and ruling as metaphors, standing for whole provinces of the imagination left barren by their absence.

Tierney in Laura

The stars, in turn, were the contracted property of the great studios: schizophrenic RKO, producing Citizen Kane, Bringing Up Baby and the great Astaire/Rogers musicals along with the indulgences of millionaires Howard Hughes and Joseph Kennedy and "a long procession of ineffectual dreamers and bottom-line mediocrities" (Andrew Sarris); Warner Brothers, home of gangsters, delinquents and Bugs Bunny; Universal, empire of the specters (Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman, Frankenstein and their countless progeny); 20th Century Fox, saved from bankruptcy by Shirley Temple; elegant Paramount, which, with its ties to Germany's UFA, brought us Ernst Lubitsch and Marlene Dietrich (and yet which offered the Marx Brothers and Preston Sturges at their most anarchic); Columbia, the house Frank Capra built, which was run like a scrapyard by tightwad philistine Harry Cohn. And the king of them all, MGM, whose heads Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg and David Selznick held as much imaginative power over the American people as did Franklin Roosevelt.

Despite their various styles and specialties, the studios formed one plural: "the movies," an assembly-line dreamland generating 700 new pictures a year to feed viewer demand, which was insatiable. From 1939 to 1945, 85 million people went to the movies every week in the U.S., and consider that the total U.S. population at the time was about 135 million. In 1946, the absolute peak of the age, 100 million people went to the movies in a given week, while the average person saw 34 movies in one year.

The movies were equalizers, levelers, consolidators. So Ginger Rogers cracks a joke about Gertrude Stein in Top Hat, Byron and the Shelleys turn up in the prologue to Bride of Frankenstein, and someone asks Elvis what he thinks about Lennie Tristano in Jailhouse Rock.

The movies bled into each other and often seemed to inhabit the same world: the house of The Magnificent Ambersons is relocated, a year later, to The Fallen Sparrow; Julius Caesar, the Brando version, uses the same sets and costumes as Quo Vadis?. When Cary Grant first meets Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday, Grant says "Haven't we met somewhere before?", which many would have gotten as a joke about Grant and Bellamy playing almost identical roles in The Awful Truth. Citizen Kane is a Hollywood patchwork--Orson Welles used clips from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mary of Scotland, took a door from Gunga Din and even borrowed some bats from Son of Kong. (All examples from Wood's America In the Movies.)

"Hooray for Hollywood" was written in 1937 by Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting for the Busby Berkeley musical Hollywood Hotel, and it soon became the town's theme song, being both celebratory and wryly deprecating (though over time, it became purely a booster anthem, played at movie awards shows without any sense of irony). This version, recorded by Anita O'Day using a Jimmy Guiffre arrangement (and with some updated lyrics), is from 1959, on the now out-of-print LP Cool Heat.

Popular delusions and the madness of crowds

When I was twelve or thirteen I went to movies all the time--American movies. But I did not know there were directors of movies. I always thought the actors did everything.

Federico Fellini, interviewed by Lillian Ross.

And so, some songs about those who seemed to do everything in those years:

Judy Garland in The Broadway Melody of 1938

Judy Garland's mash letter to Clark Gable, which she performed at age 15 in The Broadway Melody of 1938, made her famous and led her to land the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. So "Dear Mr. Gable" is a Möbius strip of a song, celebrating and begetting stardom in turns. On The Best of Judy Garland.

Greta Garbo tries out for the USC track team, 1926

Maybe it is like the dreams you have when some one you have seen in the cinema comes to your bed at night and is kind and lovely. He'd slept with them all that way when he was asleep in bed. He could remember Garbo still, and Harlow...But he could still remember the time Garbo came to his bed the night before the attack at Pozoblanco and she was wearing a soft silky wool sweater when he put his arm around her and when she leaned forward her hair swept forward and over his face and she said why had he never told her that he loved her when she had loved him all the time? She was not shy, nor cold, nor distant.

Ernest Hemingway, For Whom The Bell Tolls.

The Bogart man is not defined by his accidental respect, or his contempt, for bourgeois values, by his courage or his cowardice, but above all by this existential maturity which gradually transforms life into a stubborn irony at the expense of death.

André Bazin, "The Death of Humphrey Bogart."

If I had to choose one image by which to remember Bogart, it would be of that one mysterious moment in The Big Sleep when Bogart finds himself alone in a sinister room...Bogart seems lost in thought as he looks for some invisible clue. But he is no merely deductive detective; he has staked his whole life on the solution to the mystery. He has thus brought to the screen his own very personal gravity. That is why he has proved to be irreplaceable in the decades since his death.

Andrew Sarris, You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet.

It's all in the corner of his mouth:
Baby if we're gonna go we'll both go
My way, and his foot deep on the gas
With the needle (close-up) leaping to eighty.
She's shaky but ready to call his bluff...

Norman Rosten, "Nobody Dies Like Humphrey Bogart".

"2 HB," Bryan Ferry's tribute to Bogart, is on Roxy Music's 1972 debut album.

I saw all the pictures that Ingrid made in America. Of course [they] weren't all masterpieces, but I remember very clearly that whatever she did I was always fascinated by her face. In her face--the skin, the eyes, the mouth--especially the mouth--there was this very strong radiance...

Ingmar Bergman, on Ingrid Bergman.

When Rossellini the love pirate returned to Rome smirking over his conquest, it was not [Bergman's] scalp which hung from the conquering hero's belt; it was her very soul. Now what his left of her has brought two children into the world--one has no mother, the other is illegitimate.

Sen. Edwin C. Johnson, speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate, 14 March 1950. During the hour-long speech, Johnson also called Ingrid Bergman a "free-love cultist," an "apostle of degradation" and a "powerful influence for evil."

In 1949, Ingrid Bergman, one of the most popular film actresses of the decade, fell in love with the director Roberto Rossellini, had a child out of wedlock with him, and left her husband and daughter. Bergman was more artistically ambitious than many at the time recognized, and her affair with Rossellini was in part a way to escape conventional Hollywood pictures and make more realist, less commercial films. The resulting scandal had Bergman denounced in the press, excoriated by politicians and eventually sent into exile in Italy.

The fracas didn't end Woody Guthrie's crush on Bergman, though--his ode to her, referencing Stromboli, the first film Rossellini and Bergman made, was written around 1950 and was put to music by Billy Bragg decades later; on Mermaid Avenue.

In truth, the Blonde Bombshell was the accidental invention of an inept hairdresser. She emerged from the hair-dryer overcooked and white-hot platinum, making us forget there were blondes before her. It hardly mattered that this was a mistake; the look took and the rush was on. All across the country, drug stores had a hard time keeping stocked in peroxide.

Harry Haun, on the 50th anniversary of Jean Harlow's death, 1987.

...To air you give magical sleekness. We shall carry you into Space
on our shoulders. You triumph over all with warm legs and a
smile of wistful anxiety that's cover for the honesty
spoken by your grace! Inner energy presses out to you in warmness--

you return love. Love returned for admiration! Strangeness
is returned by you for desire. How. Where
but in the depth of Jean Harlow is such strangeness
made into grace?

Michael McClure, "La Plus Blanche."

Leadbelly strikes his guitar, yelps, delivers the news: "Jean Harlow died the other day," he sings. Recorded in 1944, on Mount Everest of Blues Singers.

Doctor left, he was looking mighty sad,
'this is the hardest case I ever had.'
Jean Harlow said just before she died,
'two more moving pictures I would like to write.'

"Veronica's witch-lock received the stamp of approval of young girls the country over"

From an interview with the New Bomb Turks' Eric Davidson, in 1998:

Veronica Lake? Isn't that the actress that Kim Basinger's character in L.A. Confidential kept getting mistaken for? Isn't that a reference that goes even further back than, say, Whitesnake?

"Yeah," says Davidson, "even my parents went 'Oh yeah, Veronica Lake.' But it was just because I had been renting some movies she was in, and I like old '40s film noir and she was in a couple of them. And she's real hot."

There you go. The New Bomb Turks, from Columbus, Ohio, have been making records since the early '90s, "Veronica Lake" is on 1998's At Rope's End.

Marlene Dietrich is singing a lament
for mechanical love.
She leans against a mortarboard tree
on a plateau by the seashore.

She's a life-sized toy,
the doll of eternity;
her hair is shaped like an abstract hat
made out of white steel...

Allen Ginsberg, "The Blue Angel".

Bette Davis had wanted to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, and still seethed about it decades later. "It could have been written for me," she said of the script. "It was insanity that I not be given Scarlett. But then, Hollywood has never been rational."

The moment Bette Davis appears on the screen there is an undercurrent of anxiety, her persona is projected not yearningly...but in the manner of woman who knows she has few options. Something has to Happen, and Quickly, for Bette Davis cannot sustain herself on complacency and self-satisfaction. She cannot play a waiting game; she must act for all she is worth, and she always did.

Sarris, You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet.

"Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes, was one of the inescapable hits of 1981--a marriage of inspired Hollywood nostalgia and early electronic percussion. On Best Of.

Joan Crawford doing her Davros-in-furs impersonation

Joan Crawford is the closest thing the movies had to Richard Nixon--she was ruthless, ambitious, skilled, cursed with an inferiority complex, forever nursing grudges, often resenting those to whom stardom came more naturally. She was more respected than loved, more feared than admired. She climbed to the top, and wound up becoming a dark joke in her later years; after her death she was defamed in the movies.

The zombie-like resurrection of Crawford is on the Blue Oyster Cult's 1981 Fire of Unknown Origin.

Harpo Marx jams with Salvador Dali

The movie's not always the sick man of the arts,
yours touched the stars; Harpo, your motion picture
is still life unchanging, not nature dead.
I first saw you two years before you died,
a black-and-white fall, near Fifth in Central Park;
old blond hair too blonder, old eyes too young...
I age to your wincing smile,
like Dante's movie, the great glistening wheel of life--
the genius happy...a generic actor.

Robert Lowell, "Harpo Marx."

O Harpo! When did you seem like an angel
the last time?
and played the gray harp of gold?

When did you steal the silverware
and bug-spray the guests?

When did your brother find rain
in your sunny courtyard?...

Or when you last powderpuffed
your white flour face
with fishbarrel cover?

Harpo! Who was that Lion
I saw you with?

Jack Kerouac, "To Harpo Marx."

"Audrey" is Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond's lullaby to Audrey Hepburn, who had just become a star with Roman Holiday and Sabrina. The Brubeck quartet was in the studio with photographer Gijon Mili, and was ready to record a "minor blues," when Mili closed his eyes, raised a hand and suddenly declared: "I'd like to see Audrey Hepburn come walking through the woods." Saxophonist Paul Desmond, his eyes glazing over, said "Gee, so would I." Brubeck counted to four, the quartet began playing, and "Audrey" was born. Reportedly, Hepburn loved "her tune" and would hum it while tending her garden.

With Bob Bates (b) and Joe Dodds (d). Recorded 12 October 1954; on Brubeck Time.

Mary Cecilia Brown
rode to town on the Malibu bus.
She climbed to the top of the Hollywood sign
and with the smallest possible fuss,
she jumped off the letter "H"
'cause she did not become a star.
She died in less than a minute and a half,
she looked a bit like Hedy Lamarr.

Dory Previn, "Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign."

As Hollywood was a dream factory, it had its share of casualties, discarded products and exploited workers. Its films often were written by drunks, directed by lechers, and starred egomaniacs, closeted gays, depressives, nymphomaniacs and dullards. The brilliant glow the movies generated had lasted for years, but by the time the studio system began to wane in the '50s, the shadows had covered the factory floor.

Dory Previn was born in 1925--her father, a shell-shocked WWI veteran, pushed her to be a performer and once locked her and her mother in their house for weeks. By the '50s, Dory had become a songwriter at MGM, where she met her songwriting partner and husband, Andre Previn. She wrote "The Faraway Part of Town" for Judy Garland, "Come Saturday Morning" for the Liza Minnelli film The Sterile Cuckoo, and the theme song to Valley of the Dolls. In the late '60s, Dory was hospitalized for schizophrenia while her husband ran off with Mia Farrow (prompting Dory to later write "Beware of Young Girls," while, in a dose of pure karma, Farrow and Previn's adopted daughter would run off with Farrow's then-lover Woody Allen decades later).

William Powell feigns indifference to Joan Blondell--it won't last

In 1972, Dory Previn made a concept album about Hollywood. It's a bitter, relentless, scattered, wry, pissed-off record, a deposition from someone who'd been in the game for years and has had enough of it. Along with Nathanael West's Day of the Locust, Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, James McCourt's Kaye Wayfaring in "Avenged" and Darcy O'Brien's A Way of Life, Like Any Other, it's one of the best, bluntest things written about Hollywood, and it's essentially been forgotten.

The LP's title track, "Mary C. Brown," parallels West's vision of Hollywood as a magnet for the desperate masses--the con men, shamans, junkies, agents, stage mothers, bookies and general losers--and then cuts to the literal fall (off the Hollywood sign) of a failed aspiring actress. The casting couch song "Starlet Starlet On The Screen" ("Who do you have to fuck to get into this ...picture?" the starlet whispers, coy but intent) contrasts one would-be ingénue's antics with a cold dissection of the shelf life of actresses' desirability. (Which hasn't changed with the years--take the repulsive Jonah Goldberg remarking, a while ago, that "Julia Roberts has lost her looks".)

They cut you up, and take the part that's tender/and when they're through, all that's left of tough

Hollywood had its occasional martyr, like Frances Farmer, who as a high school student wrote an essay called "God Dies": she went from being considered the next Garbo to being declared insane and institutionalized in the '40s. She's best known today as the subject of the Jessica Lange bio-pic and for inspiring Kurt Cobain's song, in which Cobain envisioned Farmer as an avenging angel leaving Seattle in ashes. On In Utero.

And then something extraordinary happened in the five years after the Second World War--the movies (which by the end of the war had become something akin to an international church of dreamers) began to die. When the war ended, some 100 million people per week on average saw a film in the U.S.; four years later, attendance had fallen to 60 million people per week. And the numbers would keep on dropping, bottoming out in the 1960s and early '70s.

You could blame recessions, inflation, the decline of the cities (most theaters were located in traditional downtowns, which were becoming shabby and deserted) and the rise of the suburbs, or the fact that a great many people now had small children to tend. There was the government-ordered separation of film studios and theater chains in 1948, which destroyed the classic Hollywood distribution system; and of course, there was the great usurper television. But there also was something intangible--the sense that perhaps people began to fall out of love with movies during these years.

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

Frank O'Hara, "Poem"

There were still movie stars, of course, though more and more the death impulse--which had been there since Valentino--lay at the core of the mystique: as much as people were in love with stars, they loved them even more once they were dead. James Dean, who had a lead role in only three films and who then died young and beautiful, became the template.

The Beach Boys' "A Young Man is Gone," their tribute to Dean, is somber to the point of ridiculousness, though the harmonies, as always, are transporting. On the 1963 LP Little Deuce Coupe.

He said go and fetch me my old movie stills!

An English punk rocker sits with his friends in a pub, thumbing through a paperback biography of a dead film actor. He interrupts the talk once in a while to repeat some lurid detail, to throw out a random fact. His friends don't know who he's talking about. "You know--Red River! A Place In the Sun!" Recognition dawns on one skinny punk who has been staring into an empty pint glass. "Maybe The Misfits!" Hollywood is a broken, common language the punks use. "From Here to Eternity." Of the film star, all that remains is base gossip--who he screwed, how much he drank, how many pills he popped, what caused the car accident that ruined his face.

"That's Montgomery Clift, honey!"; on London Calling.

Jayne Mansfield was one of the last pure products of Hollywood--a Technicolor cartoon of a film actress, and someone who, unlike the more ambitious, pretentious or depressed of her colleagues, loved being a movie star. And so, true to form, she went out in legend and horror, in a car wreck in 1967 in which she was rumored to have been decapitated. It wasn't true, of course, but they printed it nonetheless. "She lay twisted and broken on the side of the road. What a look of horror on her face...frozen in the terror of her fate."

"Kiss Them For Me" is Siouxsie and the Banshees' tribute to Mansfield, taking its name from the 1957 film she made with Cary Grant and using, in the lyric, Mansfield's favorite adjective--"divoon." On Best Of.

Monroe in an imaginary Europe, 1954

To be dramatic, which seems fitting given our subject, you could say the last tarnished remnants of Hollywood's golden age died in 1962, along with Marilyn Monroe, who was canonized for her miseries, celebrated for her pain, and long entombed, along with her lover JFK, in a celebrity pantheon of the Famous, Beautiful Dead. The complexities of the real-life Monroe, who was intelligent, subtle and funny, are scarcely remembered--only the aura of undesired sainthood remains.

Monroe was the subject of many schlocky tributes, particularly in the '70s--the most famous being, of course, "Candle in the Wind" (though the original studio cut is fairly restrained). Soon after Elton John's hit, the songwriter Johnny Cunningham wrote "Norma Jean Wants to Be a Movie Star" for the dreadful 1976 exploitation film Goodbye, Norma Jean, which was far from the first or the last of the vultures that fed on her legend; on Greatest Hits of the '70s.

Monroe, months before her death in 1962

Sensational Serial Thrills Along the Flaming Frontier as Redskins and Renegades Try to Stem the Tide of Empire! (From Columbia's Blazing the Overland Trail, 1956, the last movie serial produced in the United States.)

Filmgoers leaving theater, Tokyo, late '40s





Monday, July 14, 2008

6 Easy Pieces: Everybody's In Movies

The Kinks, Celluloid Heroes.
Velvet Glove, Movie Star.
Prince, Movie Star.

The picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood.

Die early and avoid the fate.
Or if predestined to die late,
Make up your mind to die in state.

Robert Frost, "Provide, Provide."

Singers and songwriters, despite their arrogance, talents and inspired delusions, still live in the shadow of movie stars. When you think of the great rock stars of the 20th Century--Elvis, Lennon, Hendrix, Jagger, Springsteen--you realize they don't hold a candle to Greta Garbo or Humphrey Bogart. There is a hierarchy, and most musicians respect it. Yes, there has always been a bleed-through with pop music and film--such as in the '30s and '40s, when many film stars also cut records, or today, when any remotely talented twentysomething actress with remotely adequate vocals is in a band. But at day's end, the musicians are sitting anonymously in the dark, in love, as we are, with the faces shining above them on the screen.

Songs about movie stars tend toward the sentimental and the nostalgic, offering praise or eulogies for a film star loved in youth (or only yesterday); they seek to recapture the way the image of an actor's face, projected some thirty feet high and seventy feet wide, while we stare at it in darkness, can upturn the dry drudgeries of our lives and propel us into some greater dream. "I was watching a movie with a friend," Neil Young sang in "A Man Needs a Maid." "I fell in love with the actress--she was playing a part I could understand." (He was singing about when he saw Diary of a Mad Housewife, and its lead actress Carrie Snodgress, who he later lived with and had a kid with--Neil went one up on most of us). Many of these songs cross the boundary line into worship, for in recalling the power that movie stars have held over us, we tend to remember ourselves at a higher state of being, however delusive it was.

Take the Kinks' "Celluloid Heroes," in which Ray Davies devolves into a wistful child in the face of some lost Hollywood of his imagination. Even George Sanders, an actor almost forgotten today, leaves him drunk with admiration. (On 1972's Everybody's In Show Biz.) Or the gloriously overwrought "Movie Star," by the lost '70s band Velvet Glove (or New Velvet Glove), in which a starlet making it in Hollywood seems akin to one of the penitents in Dante's purgatory being allowed at last to sail up to the lowest sphere of the heavens.

Sometimes the fantasies are more base--we want to be movie stars because of the things we could get away with. Prince's "Movie Star," an outtake from 1987, has Prince trying on being a movie star like a fresh new set of clothes (for a brief moment, up until the night Under the Cherry Moon opened, Prince nearly was a movie star, but this track is more spoof than aspiration). (On the now out-of-print outtake collection Crystal Ball.)

Today's Divine Surprise (1912-1929)

Vernon Dalhart, There's a New Star in Heaven Tonight (Rudolph Valentino).
Vic Chesnutt, Lillian Gish.
Cleaners From Venus, Clara Bow.
Lou Reed, City Lights.
Curtis Eller's American Circus, Buster Keaton.
Nick Lowe, Marie Provost.
Bing Crosby and Paul Whiteman, If I Had a Talking Picture of You.

"Universal City, California, Only Municipality in World in Which Entire Population Consists of ‘Movie’ Stars, Swept By a ‘Votes for Women’ Crusade." Earliest printed appearance of the phrase "movie star," according to the Oxford English Dictionary: headline in Lima (Ohio) Daily News, 16 May 1913.

In the beginning, for some fifteen years after the Lumière Brothers first projected films for a paying audience, actors typically weren't credited on their movies. Studio heads believed that if actors became known by name among the general public, the actors could leverage their popularity for salary increases and would soon be bossing around directors and producers. This theory proved to be absolutely right, but the studios had no choice. The public demanded to know who "the Biograph girl" really was, and eventually producers realized they could make good money off the audience's desperate need to see their stars in whatever dreary picture the actors appeared.

Moviegoers, Washington DC, 1939

Greil Marcus, in Mystery Train, wrote about the first generation of rock & roll musicians: I feel a sense of awe at how fine their music was. I can only marvel at their arrogance, their humor, their delight. They were so sure of themselves. They sang as if they knew they were destined to survive not only a few weeks on the charts but to make history; to displace the dreary events of the fifties in the memories of those who heard their records; and to anchor a music that twenty years later [this was written in 1974] would be struggling to keep the promises they made.

Much of that can be said equally about the first generation of movie stars--Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Blanche Sweet, William S. Hart, Mae Marsh, Rudolph Valentino, Harold Lloyd, Barbara Bedford, and the brilliant clowns Chaplin and Keaton. Along with directors like Griffith, DeMille, Maurice Tourneur, Louis Feuillade and Victor Sjostrom, and cameramen like Billy Bitzer, they created the movies. Imagine if a group of some fifty people, over the course of a decade, had created the English language--much of its vocabulary, its idioms, its rhyme schemes, its tenses, its literature. That's essentially what these people did.

She is madonna in an art
As wild and young as her sweet eyes:
A frail dew flower from this hot lamp
That is today's divine surprise.

Vachel Lindsay, "Mae Marsh, Motion-Picture Actress."

Mae Marsh contemplates the void

People did not know what to make of a girl who looked like that. Why employ one who without qualification of wealth, rank, fashion, or ability (so far as they knew) made them feel ordinary? Behind those large dark eyes and silent lips, what went on? It worried Boney Blayds & Co., and the more wholesale firms of commerce. The lurid professions—film-super, or mannequin—did not occur to one, of self-deprecating nature, born in Putney.

John Galsworthy, The White Monkey.

The price exacted for their own brief fame, and for begetting the golden age of Hollywood and modern celebrity, was that the founding generation's own lights quickly dimmed. In terms of popular music, they are all but anonymous--only a few contemporary songs about silent film stars were written, most notably "There's a New Star in Heaven Tonight," dashed out to commemorate (and cash in) on Rudolph Valentino's death in 1926 and recorded by both Rudy Vallee and Vernon Dalhart. As the 20th Century went on, the founders' names were reduced to half-remembered legend, then scarcely-remembered trivia, and then were forgotten altogether.

There are some exceptions, of course. Like Lillian Gish, the first great film actress, who sometimes would dance on the set with D.W. Griffith before a day's shoot and who would call him "Mr. Griffith" until the day she died. Unlike many of her peers, Gish lived out the whole of her long life in the movies--her first film was in 1912 (Griffith's An Unseen Enemy), her last was 1987's The Whales of August. An anecdote from the latter is that the director, Linsday Anderson, complimented Gish after a shot: "Miss Gish, you just gave us a marvelous close-up!" To which her co-star Bette Davis replied: "She should--she invented them."

There are only a handful of songs about her, the best being Vic Chesnutt's, an outtake from his 1994 album Drunk; there should be more.

Negri fumes

Oh for the days when vamps were vamps
Not just a bevy of bulbous scamps
The vintage vamp was serpentine
Was madder music and stronger wine.
She ate all her bedazzled victims whole,
Body and bank account and soul;
Yet, to lure a bishop from his crosier
She needed no pectoral exposure,
But trapped the prelate passing by
With her melting mouth and harem eye.
A gob of lipstick and mascara
Was weapon enough for Theda Bara;
Pola Negri and Lya de Putti
And sister vampires, when on duty,
Carnivorous night-blooming lilies,
They flaunted neither falsies nor realies.
Oh, whither have the vampires drifted?
All are endowed, but few are gifted...

Odgen Nash, "Viva Vamp, Vale Vamp."

Bara deigns to be Cleopatra

There are also the great silent movie vamps of Nash's poem, who linger deep in the recesses of cultural memory, and who bequeathed generation after generation of femme fatales. Most of them were Europeans, born to wreak havoc in the New World, like the Polish-born Pola Negri (watch this clip!), who seduced Chaplin and Valentino (Valentino's last words were allegedly "tell Pola I think of her," and she wailed and fainted at his funeral) and who even Hitler fell in love with; her moment of genius is Ernst Lubitsch's The Wildcat. There was the immortal French destroyer Musidora, best known as Irma Vep in Les Vampires, and the ill-starred Lya de Putti, who was born to an Austro-Hungarian Baron and Countess and who died ignobly in America, in a botched surgical operation to remove a chicken bone from her throat.

America had its own vamp exports, like Theda Bara (born Theodosia Goodman in Ohio, and whose stage name was an anagram of "Arab Death") the triumphant vampire of A Fool There Was (and who didn't even make it out of the silent era alive, having become a self-parody by the time she appeared as "Madame Mysterieux" in Stan Laurel's Madame Mystery). And, of course, flapperdom incarnate Clara Bow, commemorated here by the Cleaners From Venus, a British duo who were so lo-fi they only issued homemade cassettes in the '80s. (Originally on the 1986 tape Living With Victoria Grey; collected on Very Best).

He could hardly see another person without wanting to conquer them, to envelop them in the need to attend to him. Yet on occasion, he could be the real fellow, happy to go on a tour, thrilled by the crowd, so ready to be "Charlie" to greet the cry, "Look, there he is!" When great crowds of adoring fans came up to him he held them back a little just by acting out his surprise, his emotion, his being Charlie...Think of the stars who have been crushed by attention, and remember that Charlie exulted in it and was fueled by it , for he felt he deserved it.

David Thomson, The Whole Equation.

...We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!

And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on...

Hart Crane, "Chaplinesque." (Written after Crane saw The Kid.)

I was apprentice to a company of traveling acrobats, jugglers and show-people. That was in England, too, and oh, what hard work it was. I have never had a home worth the name. No association that might have helped me when I was young. Looking back upon it is no joke, and that is why it seems so out of place when I am made much of now.

Charlie Chaplin, interview with Photoplay, 1915.

Lou Reed's murky tribute to Charlie Chaplin, "City Lights," appears on one of his stranger records, 1979's The Bells. I like the track, though it sounds as though Lou, the producer and some hyperactive electronic musician all worked on the thing at different times without ever consulting each other.

Buster Keaton and stand-in

You may argue that Buster Keaton was the finer artist [compared to Chaplin]. But Keaton's perilous survival of physical disaster in his films was matched by the fiasco of his private life. Keaton was a wreck, ruled by others, painfully unable to keep up. Indeed, he was so beaten down in life, one wonders how he mustered the concentration to ensure the serene development of his comic scenes.

Thomson, The Whole Equation.

After the sacred grove of Hollywood
has babbled, flushed, and scattered,
his image quietly endures, surviving
even when the small boat of his career
launches bottomward sudden as an anchor,
his body stubborn as a buoy or pile
fixed on the horizon, until he sinks
(soon to return, grave-faced) beneath
his flat hat floating on the water.

Michael McFee, "Buster Keaton."

"He wasn't very good, was he?" Shirley Temple, in the early '60s, vetoing a proposed tribute to Keaton at the San Francisco Film Festival.

Prove the dire little brat wrong: watch One Week. Or The Boat. Or The Haunted House. Or Cops. Or The Playhouse. Or Neighbors. Or any of the features. And enjoy Curtis Eller's tribute to the man, which can be found on Eller's 2004 record Taking Up Serpents Again.

Marie Prevost and dog, in happier days

The end of the silent era came, as Hemingway once wrote, in two ways: suddenly and all at once. Driven by the upstart studios Warner Brothers and Fox, which were the first studios to embrace synchronized sound, sound films emerged in 1926, gained attention in '27 (with Jolson's The Jazz Singer) and reached critical mass in 1928. By decade's end, there were basically no more silent films being made.

There were many casualties among the actors, like Norma Talmadge, who left Hollywood forever after two flop sound films, and John Gilbert, whose woeful transition was parodied decades later in Singin' In the Rain. Yet perhaps it wasn't just that some actors had squeaky voices or Bronx accents. The talkies appeared at a generational turn--the audience was suddenly ready for most of the old stars to go out; it was as though, subconsciously, the world wanted to purge all of its daydreams and start its fantasies anew. With a Depression, fascism and war on the near horizon, dreams had to be made of sterner stuff.

Nick Lowe's "Marie Provost" (sic) details the lurid end of one of the silent movie queens--found dead of starvation and heart failure in 1937 in her cheap apartment on Hollywood West, her corpse gnawed on by her dog (who, to clear its long-abused name, was not trying to eat his owner but only to wake her). On the essential Jesus of Cool.

You can say, as Norma Desmond did, that the silent films didn't need dialogue, only faces, so that the silent movie stars were the purest gods of all; you could argue, as Chaplin did, that Hollywood had only really learned how to make films just when the silent movie era suddenly ended, setting back innovation a half-decade at least. But as is the case in most religions, a sacrifice had to be made. For the nation of dreamers to come had only just woken up.

"If I Had A Talking Picture of You," written by Lew Brown, Ray Henderson and Buddy DeSylva for the 1929 Fox talkie Sunnyside Up, is a victor's boast. This version, performed by Bing Crosby and Paul Whiteman's Orchestra, is on Paul Whiteman Vol. 1.

Oh No! Will Helen escape from the clutches of the young Marxist?


Don't miss in Part II: Garbo talks! Harpo honks! Joan Crawford rises from the grave! Mary C. Brown jumps off the Hollywood sign! Ingrid Bergman is denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate! James Dean has an appointment in Samarra! All in "When You're Terrific If You're Even Good," coming soon to your local movie palace.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Thomas M. Disch, 1940-2008.

Buffalo Springfield, On the Way Home.
Neil Young, Flying On the Ground Is Wrong (demo).
Buffalo Springfield, Expecting to Fly.

He wanted them, he said, to understand the wonder and glory of flight. There was nothing, he declared, so glorious, no ecstasy so sublime. What was it, he asked rhetorically, to fly? What did it mean? It was the act of love and the vision of God; it was the highest exaltation the soul can reach to; it was, therefore, paradise; and it was as real as the morning or evening star. And anyone who wanted to fly could do so at the price of a song.

The moment one leaves one's body by the power of a song, the lips fall silent, but the song goes on, and so long as one flies the song continues. He hoped, if he were to leave his body tonight, they would remember that. The song does not end.

Thomas M. Disch, On Wings of Song.

RIP. Essential Disch, if interested: The Genocides; Camp Concentration; 334; On Wings of Song.