My partner is always making fun of the fact that every time I flip to Turner Classic Movies, I drool over the clothes. “Ooooh, look at that hat,” I’ll gush out loud. (Hence my little Gravatar portrait, in which I pretend to be Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday — because those were some clothes!) The two of us differ on the question of whether this attention to great outfits hinders my attention to the plots.

I could probably write 3,000 words about Ginger Rogers’ clothes in her films with Fred Astaire. But can we just note this sweater-dress? Relevant note: this is from Carefree (1938), and this unsubtle design undergirds the film’s plot about psychoanalysis. See how this works? The sweater is sending Fred subconscious messages about falling in love with his patient! Sure, he may be hypnotizing her, but just wait till he’s smitten!


Now, friends, please don’t tell me I could make such a sweater myself. That is so not going to happen. Let me just enjoy the sweet vintage-ness of this sweater-dress in its pure Ginger condition.

Don’t you wish this was your best friend? That slight smirk, which revealed maybe a little self-deprecation in with its pragmatism. I can’t see this face without seeing the woman in Rosemary’s Baby and Harold and Maude — because, you know, sometimes a face is perfect all the way from youth to seniority. Ruth, R.I.P.

Ginger Rogers, actor

31 August 2012

I’m still buried under piles of paper, moving boxes, notes to myself about next week’s lectures, and paperwork — you have no idea how much universities rely on busywork and excessive documentation — but my father just sent a lovely short New Yorker piece about Ginger Rogers that I had to share.

To be precise, it’s not an essay about Rogers’ dancing. It’s about her acting.

She’s most famous for dancing with Fred Astaire, of course; but the writer Arlene Croce asks us to set that aside for the moment and think about Rogers as a subtle presence in more than just those films. When she wasn’t wearing white gowns that showed off her beautiful back, or ostrich feathers, or that great dress with the sunflower/starburst pattern from Shall We Dance (1937), she often appeared as working-class girls, women hard on their luck. Like Polly Parrish in Bachelor Mother (1939), or the titular character in Kitty Foyle (1940), or the nose-to-the-grindstone dancer in Stage Door (1937). She was Everywoman for that dark era of the Depression just as much as she was its glamorous ballroom dancer.

Croce argues that her subtlety led her to be underrated as a talented actor, one who excelled particularly in the embodiment of the struggler, the striver, that woman with a sense of humor yet a clear sense of self-worth in the face of difficulties. She was “the fabulous Miss Average, imaginative, unsentimental, the dyed-in-the-wool product of an era and one of its immortal symbols”:

…suppressing her anger, she smiles through clenched teeth. She isn’t going to take his guff, but she isn’t about to lose her temper, either. Manners matter to her. When you don’t have any money — and in the Depression nobody had any — manners, morals, ethics, are coin of the realm. In her continually wounded sense of self-worth and her spirited defense of it lies the drama of Ginger Rogers. It transcends self-interest; it is in essence idealistic, an insistence on the dignity of the individual, the responsibility of the citizen, the honor of the woman she knows herself to be when she’s at the top of the stairs.

What a nice piece of writing. And a particularly nice sentiment for these hot days, as I’m struggling to complete paperwork or deal with my internet provider over the phone. Aren’t we all Ginger, at some level?


Lord knows how they persuaded her to put on this getup. That fez/turban; the tantalizing nakedness. But Carole Lombard always seemed to be game for trying things. She earned her earliest role in 1921 at age twelve, when a director saw her playing baseball in the street. Later on she revealed onscreen a neat, unexpected combination of traits — as David Thomson puts it, she had “a powerful attraction for men because she could be elegant and kooky, gorgeous and grounded; a lover and a pal all at the same time with the best cheekbones this side of Marlene Dietrich.”

Back to the horrors of finishing an article — wonder if it’s easier to write semi-naked, with a fez/turban on one’s head? But lord knows I don’t have the energy for the makeup. (Thanks to the Charlie Parker folks for the image.)

from Holiday Inn (1942)

My Facebook feed is full of people speaking optimistically about the new year, so I am driven to be perverse about it (it’s an election year, after all).

Which puts me in mind of a nice line from the BBC series Luther, spoken by the best character in the show: Alice (Ruth Wilson), the psychopathic serial killer. “People lie to themselves about three things: they view themselves in implausibly positive ways; they think they have far more control over their lives than they actually do; and they believe the future will be better than the evidence of the present can possibly justify.”

I do love a sardonic, serial-killing buzzkill. But don’t worry, friends: there’s a Masked Avenger here, too.

from The Gold Rush (1925)

New Year’s is so overdetermined. We’re trained to believe that we’ll kiss that special person at midnight (just like in When Harry Met Sally!); that singing Auld Lang Syne can only bring a sweet melancholy (what IS that song about, anyway?); that we don’t look stupid when we dance; that we’ll look gorgeous in our sequined gowns and black ties; that we’ll remember that night forever. That it will be a turning point toward happily ever after. If Wilson’s Alice were here to scour us with her cruel eyes, we’d feel much more acutely the folly of that wishful thinking.

from After the Thin Man (1936)

So instead I’m going to show you a few other images from Hollywood’s New Year’s Eve Past. For example, the party thrown by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in her grand Sunset Boulevard (1950) mansion, intended to be a romantic event just for William Holden and herself. At least she had a great time, at least for a while.

A sweeter memory: Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) recovers from her suicide attempt and returns to C. C. Baxter’s (Jack Lemmon) miserable little place on New Year’s Eve in The Apartment (1960). “I love you, Miss Kubelik. Did you hear what I said? I absolutely adore you,” he says earnestly. “Shut up and deal,” she replies.

And finally, the sweetly anticlimactic conclusion of Radio Days (1987), when the Masked Avenger (Wallace Shawn), Sally White (Mia Farrow), and other radio stars file off the roof as the snow begins to fall. “Beware, evil doers, wherever you are!” the diminutive, funny-looking Avenger says to the world out there, as he shuffles downstairs.

That’s how I want to start this New Year: Beware, evil doers, wherever you are. (And that means you, GOP candidates.)

A little trans love for today.

Katharine Hepburn, always reliably mannish

Josephine Baker, dontcha know.

Gladys Bentley

Marlene Dietrich, who I could look at all day

Garbo as the eminently queer Queen Christina

Some days just call for women in suits. And why not a day when I hear all manner of nonsense from/about my former university. To use spelling shamelessly lifted from Comradde PhysioProffe (whom I secretly want to marry in spite of my obvious trans love and because of his excellent spelling, accuracy on sports issues, and cooking panache) in order to express my utter outrage at all things university/administration/department bullshitte:

fucke you too, with your goddamn motherfucken sanctimonious displays of “importance” shitte. The only thing you goddamn fucken white motherfuckers do is stabbe people in their backs, even better if they’re helpless grad student shittes. I know you do this bullshitte because you are fucken afraidde all the fucken time and that you have sought out the easiest motherfucken targets. In the meantime congrats on your displays of power, assholes. I can only trust in karma.

It was the film that got her noticed by Hollywood: The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel), directed by the magnificent Josef von Sternberg in the most luminous of blacks and whites. Dietrich was already nearly 30 and absolutely dripping with sensuality; because she hadn’t yet been placed on the Hollywood starvation diet, she wasn’t so gaunt and languid; she exudes an athletic frankness that makes her more sexually appealing. As Lola-Lola, the cabaret’s star singer, she spends most of the film in teasing little outfits belting out tunes like “Falling in Love Again” — and she absolutely rips the heart of Prof. Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) to shreds.

Let’s pause for a moment on Marlene Dietrich in half-dress (I mean, we’re only human, right?). Late ’20s and early ’30s movies loved to tease us with scantily-clad women — even an amateur film lover like me has seen Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Miriam Hopkins and other actresses stripping down to their unmentionables. There’s a knack to it. These actresses must do it as if getting quasi-naked is natural; but of course it’s not, particularly as the screen usually has at least one man looking on to be titillated on our behalf. It’s as if the actress is showing us, this is what it’s like to be a modern woman! Yet they somehow can’t do it without appearing coy, self-conscious.

Dietrich added something more: a slightly surly aggression. It’s gorgeous.

There was something more, too. She never seems to demand your attention — she almost seems to disdain your attention — but she gets it all the more. Just watch this 1930 screen test she did for von Sternberg, in which she goes between playing up the ingénue and spitting out stray bits from her hand-rolled cigarette, which she smokes in a somewhat masculine way. I couldn’t help but think of the glorious bisexual world she inhabited in 1920s Berlin and Vienna, which suited her sexual preferences and permitted her to wear the men’s clothes she wore so beautifully (and became so famous for in 1930’s Morocco, in which she kisses a woman on the lips). She’s all about gender play.
That’s not to say she was limited onscreen. One of my favorite scenes in The Blue Angel shows her playing a new bride with a freshness and wit — yet also with love in her eyes that can’t be hidden. She has just married poor Prof. Rath and they’re having supper with her motley cabaret crew. Suddenly she begins to cluck at Rath — literally make little hen noises as she gives him a loving/naughty look, and even poke him a bit with her nose. Yet she does it so gently that it’s as if she knows he may not join in, or become embarrassed. Slowly, Rath starts to crow like a rooster, displaying the same pride and self-satisfaction as he develops a more full-throated cock-a-doodle doo. This might be one of the most delightful mini-moments onscreen I’ve ever seen.

Rath is so, so happy at that moment. It might be the first — and last — time he’s happy. Before he meets Lola, he’s simply a foggy, absent-minded professor type whose gymnasium (i.e., college prep) students just do what they will. After he meets her, he can hardly exist without her. Their marriage makes him a laughingstock. I’ll tell you what my big takeaway was: Professor Rath takes the cake as the most pathetic professor ever portrayed onscreen. And it’s worst of all when he’s recruited into the cabaret act as a clown.

Most of all, The Blue Angel pulls off an amazing trick — it takes an old chestnut of a mismatched love story and follows it through, mainly within the walls of a fantastically low nightclub, yet Von Sternberg’s directing somehow makes it all fresh. It also shows a fascinating side of Berlin in 1930 — the prevalence of Semitic-looking characters, club denizens of African descent, the odd array of freakish cabaret singers and actors, the fabulous sets and twisting, exotic street scenes. It almost makes you want to cry for what was lost throughout the course of the ’30s and ’40s with the rise of Hitler and National Socialism. I’m so glad Dietrich made it to Hollywood so early. But her life (as well as her body) was altered in the process. This film feels like a glimpse of what might have been if history had gone a different way. 

She was director James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), of course, and she would have been 109 today if she were still alive. Elsa Lanchester, born on this day in 1902 and died in 1986. That hair and that wide-eyed horror at her condition is so memorable, as much to me as the original Frankenstein (1931)’s distress. She was created solely to be The Monster’s partner, his friend and bride; yet when she looks on him and realizes her fate, she cannot stop screaming.

I can’t ever think of these films without thinking of the film Gods and Monsters (1998), a vivid fictional account of James Whale’s later years as an aging gay man in Hollywood during the horrors of the 1950s, a man whose memories become confused with his films. One of the best gay films ever, and all the better for Ian McKellan’s magnificent performance. Yet I’ve always wondered what kind of a tale might be told not by the god or the monster, but the Bride whose creation — like Eve’s — so much presumed women’s compliance with male plans and fantasies.

I went to see this film because it was described as classic pre-Code — i.e., made before the censors in Hollywood took all the sex and nudity and corrupt cops out of film — and also because it stars the elegant Warren William, so skilled at playing the slithering, soulless society cad (you’d never guess he’d been raised in a tiny burg in Minnesota by looking at his Roman nose and high-society accent). But within a few minutes I realized that Skyscraper Souls is one of those rare films that has so many current-day tie-ins to financial irregularities and real-estate fraud that one can only marvel at its rediscovery. On the surface it looks like an old-movie melodrama that warns us about the multiple dangers of the city; but ultimately it seems to be one of those rare documents that shows us how relevant the 1930s Depression is to our own.

Almost all the drama takes place within a single skyscraper — the fictional Dwight building, which towers over even the Empire State Building. Warren is David Dwight himself, the man with the vision and political ties to get the building built, overcome skepticism, and stand as the figurehead for capitalistic greed and risk. From the beginning, we know he’s at risk for defaulting on his massive loan and that his investors want to pull out. He calls the building “a model of engineering, this spirit of an age crystallized in steel and stone.” “It goes halfway to hell and right up to heaven and it’s beautiful,” he rhapsodizes.

But Dwight isn’t the central character: that belongs to the young Lynn Harding (Maureen O’Sullivan, Mia Farrow’s mother and Jane to Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan). Just look at that dark hair and pixie smile — the Irish immigrant O’Sullivan was a delight. As Lynn, she’s new to the city where she works as a secretary for her mother’s oldest friend, Sarah, a sophisticated 30-something businesswoman in a secret and doomed extramarital affair with Dwight. Sarah has promised to protect the youthful, innocent Lynn against the dangers of city life. She’ll need protection, because the Dwight Building is full of wolves eager to get a bite of her — one of whom will be the ur-wolf, Dwight.

The usual misogyny infests this world of skyscrapers and high modernism. As Lynn makes her way to work every day, men in the building swarm around her like flies, asking her out for dinner and a little pawing. One of these is Tom (Norman Foster), a young office worker trying to make it in the big city. Tom begs, cajoles, harasses Lynn until she agrees to go out with him — and then tries so desperately to work his way around her bases that she comes to work the next day in tears, furious and humiliated. No wonder when the dashing, womanizing Dwight pays attention, she’s flattered. We’re supposed to prefer Tom and view his stalker/date-rapist inclinations as boyish ignorance, but one can’t help but think that all of her options are bad.

Meanwhile, Dwight struggles to regain control of his building. He’s seriously over-mortgaged and deep in dept to the point of being close to losing the building to the bank altogether. Threatened by his investors, he decides to take the risky move of artificially inflating bank stock during one crazy day of Wall Street trading. Since he lacks money for this, he enlists a partner — a dumb millionaire sucker, easily entranced by the women Dwight sends his way — and the trading begins. Lynn’s sort-of boyfriend Tom throws in his life savings and invests, as does all of Dwight’s business investors. Then, at the appointed time, Dwight sends the stock crashing to the ground — now possessed of the funds to buy himself out of his debts. In short, he sacrifices everyone around him, and the public good overall, to pursue his capitalist vision.

Hell ensues and the body count piles up. The film offers up some stunningly dark visions of the financial desperation wrought by such greed — darker, really, than almost any other early 20th-c. film I’ve ever seen except Erich von Stroheim’s silent masterpiece Greed (1924). When his former partners confront Dwight about his perfidy — which has led to at least two suicides — Dwight is unmoved: 

Listen, if I double-crossed somebody else for you I wouldn’t be a double-crosser. I’d be a financial genius. You’d profit by it. You’d love it. You’d love me. I’d be your pal, your leader. But I put one over on you, so I’m a double-crosser. It’s all in the point of view, gentlemen. But don’t despair. There’s lot of small fry that you can double-cross. Just like the good old days … before you got out of your class.

It’s kind of amazing to see inklings of what film could do before the moralists got their hands on script approval and storylines by 1934 or so, thereby changing the possibilities for film. Films became relentlessly clean for decades — until the slow demise of the Code by the 1970s. It’s not just that pre-Code movies offered so many scenes of female undress; they also had the chance to portray the ugliest side of the Depression in a way that seems stunningly modern now. Just think about the rosy, pull-yourself-up message of this summer’s Larry Crowne: and then think how different the summer movie season would be if our films portrayed the true devastation of our own financial crisis. Not uplifting, to be sure — but true.


22 June 2011


No time today to do anything more than think about kissing — the sheer indulgence of it, the framing of it in a nice scene, and its darker side — for a brief moment before returning to the business at hand.