17 July 2014

Here's to Elaine

"Let's hear it for the ladies who lunch—Everybody rise."—Stephen Sondheim

Today we lost a legend. An actress and singer who appeared on stage and in film and television for nearly 70 years, Elaine Stritch with her brassy voice and sharp observations was an original who epitomized what it meant to be a New Yorker even though she was born in Detroit, Michigan. Yes, she could be difficult and blunt, never mincing words when it came to her opinion, but she was also a professional who was always toughest on herself. 

Born on February 2, 1925, Stritch was a convent school girl who after graduation moved to New York to study acting at the New School. She ended up staying for 71 years until retiring to Birmingham, Michigan last year. After making her Broadway debut in Loco in 1946, she would go on to be a cast member in multiple Broadway productions throughout her career including Pal Joey, Bus Stop, Sail Away, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?A Little Night Music, and most famously Company. She had roles in a variety of television shows including her last as Alec Baldwin's mother in 30 Rock and starred in numerous films including A Farewell to Arms, September, and Small Time Crooks

She didn't have an easy life; she lost her beloved husband, John Bay, to cancer after ten years of marriage and battled alcoholism with varying degrees of success. In her later years, diabetes and memory loss made performing extra challenging yet she continued on, making public appearances almost until the end. 

Stritch spent her last decade in New York living in room 309 at the Carlyle Hotel where for eight of those years she performed a cabaret show downstairs at the Carlyle Café wearing her signature outfit of white shirt and black tights (no pants). The documentary Shoot Me, which was released in February, centers around her last show at the Carlyle (I highly recommend it).

I greatly regret that I never got to see her perform live. Her passing in many ways is like the end of an era; there will be other stars of the stage but there will never be anyone quite like Elaine Stritch.

14 July 2014

Schiava Turca

"Schiava Turca" Parmigianino (ca. 1531-34)

Saturday I took advantage of a free morning to dart over to the Frick Collection (which was, blissfully, near empty) to see a mysterious Italian woman.

There in the center of the Oval Room was Parmigianino's "Schiava Turca," a masterpiece of Renaissance art. Beautiful with a direct gaze and slight smile on her face, the subject of the painting exudes an air of confidence that only adds to her allure. The mystery is no one knows who she is. Some have said she is a fantasy, the ideal woman as imagined by the painter. Others have ventured to guess that she's Giulia Gonzaga, a young noblewoman. Curator Aimee Ng suggests that she may actually be a poet, perhaps Veronica Gambara, who would have been known to Parmigianino and his circle. Hence the title of the show, "The Poetry of Parmigianino's Schiava Turca." 

What we do know is that she was neither Turkish nor a slave. A cataloguer at the Uffizi in the 18th century wrongly identified her as wearing a turban, which led to her misleading name. The rich fabrics of her gown threaded with gold chains on her sleeve tell us she came from wealth and her headdress is not a turban but a balzo, which was popular with court women in Northern Italy at the time. 

As for the poetry connection, there are clues in the painting that could be read as supporting this claim. In the center of the balzo is a medallion of a winged horse, a Pegasus, often used as a symbol of poetic inspiration. And while she is holding an ostrich feather fan, it could represent a feathered pen. Her pose and attitude could also signal that she's a member of an artist circle, not troubled by social convention. Yet whether she was a poet or not, we will never know.

She is accompanied in the exhibit by portraits of four Renaissance men: another Parmigianino, two Titans (one of whom is the playwright Pietro Aretino), and a Bronzino. The last one, of Lodovico Capponi, comes closest to rivalling "Schiava Turca" in the attitude department yet he is but a court page, certainly no match for a grown woman of the world.

Once owned by Cardinal Leopoldo de' Medici, "Schiava Turca" has resided at the Galleria Nazionale di Parma since 1928. This is the first time that she has visited America. She is at the Frick Collection through July 20, 2014, after which she will travel to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. For more information, visit the Frick's website here.

13 July 2014

Bastille Day


This afternoon Bastille Day was celebrated a day early on the Upper East Side. Hosted by the French Institute Alliance Francaise, three blocks of East 60th Street were taken over by vendors selling food, drinks, and gifts along with various organizations advertising everything French from learning the language to travelling to French-speaking countries. There were also wine tastings for the adults and face painting for the children.


The day was filled with performances including Can-Can dancers, a marching band, and Les Petits Chanteurs de Monaco (school boys who sounded like angels). Everyone seemed to be having a good time even if the humidity made it a tad uncomfortable.

The highlight for me was running into singer/actor Patrick Bruel whose photo I quickly snapped (I felt like a member of the paparazzi). If you're not familiar with his work, you should check him out (he's performing in New York on November 1).

There was a surprise waiting for me when I got home and started to look through my photos. While attempting to photograph the balloon man, I unknowingly took a photo of the legendary Bill Cunningham. At first elated, a second later I realized I probably ruined his shot. So apologies, Mr. Cunningham. If I had been paying more attention, I would have moved out of the way.

Leaving the event, there was one last special treat in store. Across Fifth Avenue, next to the park, was a collection of classic Citroëns, many of which had Quebec plates. It was such a delight to see the various models and all their different colours. Wouldn't it be lovely if everyone drove cars like these?

So Vive La France and Happy Bastille Day!

09 July 2014

Painting Food



What do marmalade, Stilton cheese on a digestive, trifle, and a cup of PG Tips have in common? They're all quintessential British foods, which for some may conjure up images of a faraway homeland or for others simply remind them of what’s in their pantry. Artist Joël Penkman has reproduced these along with many other British food favourites in a series of delightful paintings.

Born and raised in New Zealand and now living in Liverpool, England, Penkman hopes that her paintings will “make people smile.” Some of the works are pretty (summer fruit jelly) while others cause a brief shudder (black pudding—so wrong). All of them are incredibly detailed with some appearing at first glance to be a photograph.



"Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce" Joël Penkman

Have no ties to British cuisine? Not to worry because she also has an American series, which was commissioned for the book A Taste of America by Colman Andrews. Looking at the items representing the 50 states, there were some that I was unfamiliar with—Maytag blue cheese from Iowa, smoked catfish pate from Mississippi, Mayhaw jelly from Georgia, Goetta sausage from Ohio—while others I knew very well—Sriracha hot chili sauce from California, maple candy from Vermont, Kona coffee from Hawaii, a box of baked goods from Two Little Red Hens in New York. The one downside of looking at Penkman's work is it will make you hungry; "Biscuits in a line" made me want to run down to Myers of Keswick and grab a packet of Bourbon biscuits.

Prints as well as some of the original paintings are available for sale so you can hang some fish fingers (sorry they come with ketchup not custard) on your wall or a good old American glazed donut. To see all of Penkman's series, visit her website here.

07 July 2014

Capa Covers the Tour de France




This weekend saw the start of the 101st Tour de France. Covering a total distance of 2,277 miles, this year’s race began in Leeds (UK) and will go through parts of Belgium, France, and Spain before finishing in Paris on July 27. 

While fans today can watch television coverage of the race, in the early days one had to rely on photographs in the newspaper or a magazine to tell the story. In 1939, Paris Match hired Robert Capa to shoot the 33rd Tour de France. Having just returned from covering the Spanish Civil War, it must have been a welcome change for the young photographer. 

With war clouds gathering, Germany, Italy, and Spain all declined to participate that year. Yet even in such tumultuous times, the race went on. Taking place July 10-30, the race covered 2,625 miles through France and Monaco, and was won by Belgian Sylvère Maes. It would be the last Tour de France until 1947.

Capa spent most of the 20 days shooting from the back of his friend, Taci’s, motorcycle, not the safest means of transport. While Capa’s resulting photos appear to focus more on the spectators and the cyclists off their bikes (not to mention his fellow photographers) than on the actual race itself, he still managed to capture the determination and camaraderie of the competitors as well as the genuine enthusiasm of the crowds as witnessed in the delightful photos above (I like to believe they were cheering on Monsieur Pierre Cloarec, whose bicycle shop they are standing in front of, but who can know for sure?). 





To see more of Capa's images of the 33rd Tour de France, visit here

04 July 2014

Happy Fourth!

Clara Bow

It's raining here in New York but the show must go on so it looks like fireworks as usual over the East River this evening. I spent the day with my friend and her twins at the New York Historical Society where we made tricorne hats and read Madeline in the "Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans" exhibit. Afterwards we headed over to the Time Warner Center for lunch at Bouchon Bakery where we had a nice view of rain-drenched Columbus Circle. Have a wonderful weekend and a Happy Fourth of July!

03 July 2014

Nothing Sacred

When the topic of screwball comedies comes up (one of my favourites), Carole Lombard is often mentioned as the queen of the genre. I wouldn't disagree with that title. She had the perfect mix of beauty, brains, and comedic timing needed to play a screwball heroine, a woman who could look seductive in one scene while laughing like a lunatic in another.

In Nothing Sacred (1937), produced by David O. Selznick and directed by William Wellman (yes, Wellman made a screwball comedy), Lombard gives a classic screwball performance in one of her most physical roles.

The film opens with shots of Rockefeller Center and Times Square with the words: “This is New York, Skyscraper Champion of the World...Where the Slickers and Know-It-Alls peddle gold bricks to each other...And where Truth, crushed to earth, rises again more phony than a glass eye...”

The Morning Star newspaper is hosting a benefit banquet to honour the Sultan of Marzipan (Troy Brown Jr.), who has offered to lend his support for a proposed Morning Star Temple (a museum of sorts). The only problem is, he’s not a sultan but Ernest Walker, a bootblack, which we quickly learn when his wife (an uncredited Hattie McDaniel) shows up with their four children. Reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March), who concocted the scheme, is quickly demoted to the obituary desk (located in a busy corridor).

He is soon begging his publisher, Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly), to give him a chance to redeem himself. Seeing an item about Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a young Vermont woman dying of radium poisoning, he convinces Oliver that there’s a story there and the publisher relents. Wally promises Oliver the biggest story he’s ever seen or “You can put me back in short pants and make me the marbles editor.”


Arriving in Warsaw, Vermont, Wally has trouble finding Hazel; the townsfolk, including a shopkeeper played by Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the East), are suspicious of newspapermen and refuse to speak to him. He finally tracks her down at the office of her doctor, Enoch Donner (Charles Winninger), who has just given her good news: his initial diagnosis was incorrect and she’s not going to die after all. Hazel is in tears, happy that she’s going to live but disappointed that instead of heading to New York to spend her final days she's going to be stuck in her small town. Wally believes she is upset because of her illness and before she can correct him, he offers to bring her to New York where the people will like her because she’s a “symbol of courage and heroism.” Seeing her chance to leave Warsaw, Hazel keeps mum about her news and agrees as long as Dr. Donner can come along.

Hazel’s arrival in New York is greeted with the headline “Doomed Girl Hailed Belle of New York.” She’s given a ticker tape parade and the key to the city (which she promptly tries to store down the front of her dress). She also goes to see the famous poet Ferdi Roassare (an uncredited Leonid Kinskey) who writes an ode to the dying girl. All the while Wally is by her side, taking her to see a wrestling match at Madison Square Garden, boating on the East River, and to the Casino Moderne. Noticing that her presence saddens those around her, Hazel starts feeling guilty about her ruse and gets drunk with hilarious consequences.



The next morning, suffering from a horrible hangover, Hazel tells Dr. Donner that she’s ruining Wally and when everyone finds out she’s a “good for nothing fake” they’ll blame him. Wally arrives with the news that he’s asked Dr. Emil Eggelhoffer (Sig Ruman) to see her in hopes of finding a cure. Not wanting to blow her story, Hazel decides to fake her own suicide; she leaves a note and then attempts to “jump” in the river (Dr. Donner is waiting nearby in a boat). Her plan goes awry though when Wally shows up to stop her. After they both wind up in the river, the drenched duo kiss behind a crate on the pier and agree to get married.


What follows is a ride back to the hotel courtesy of a fire engine (Hazel wears the fire chief’s hat and jacket) and the arrival of Dr. Eggelhoffer and his colleagues who soon assess that Hazel is not dying and give their findings to Oliver. He promptly informs Wally, labelling Hazel a “lying faking witch with the soul of an eel and the brain of a tarantula.” Wally doesn’t care because he’s in love with her and comes up with a plan: he taunts her into a fight so as to raise her temperature, making her appear ill. After they spar for a while, he knocks her out cold. Discovering Oliver hiding by the window, Wally wakes Hazel up and informs her that they’ve been found out. She promptly punches him in the jaw. Fed up with the lies, she confesses the truth to some waiting dignitaries who beg her to stay quite so they can save their own reputations.

The newspaper the next day announces that Hazel has left town and prints her farewell letter to New York in which she says that she’s had a good time but must face the end alone “like an elephant.” Soon afterwards a Mr. and Mrs. Cook are seen on board a ship bound for the tropics.

Nothing Sacred was filmed in Technicolor, a first for a screwball comedy and Lombard (it would be her only colour film). It’s great on one hand to see the actual colours of the costumes and sets but it’s hard not to think that it would have looked better in black and white. There's something about the time period that seems more suited to an absence of colour. One thing I did notice was that the scar on Lombard’s left cheek, which she received in a car accident as a teen, is noticeable in some scenes, something I don’t recall seeing in her black and white films. Another technical first is that it was the first time that montage and rear projection were used in a colour film.

The screenplay, written by Ben Hecht and adapted from the short story “Letter to the Editor” by James H. Street, is filled with sharp and witty dialogue. Apparently when Selznick refused to hire John Barrymore for a part that Hecht had written specifically for the actor, Hecht quit. A variety of writers were brought in to write additional dialogue and scenes including Budd Schulberg, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, and Ring Lardner Jr. In one scene, a group of children gather outside Hazel’s hotel room to serenade her with a song. A little ginger-haired boy for some reason has a squirrel in his pocket that escapes and runs into Hazel’s room and up her back. I couldn’t help but think this bizarre contribution must have come from a member of the Algonquin Round Table.


One of the funniest things about the film is how rude the characters are to each other, constantly telling people to shut up and hurling insults like fat-headed monkey, tittering imbecile, hophead, prize boob, king of the boobs, and snake brains. While Oliver calls Hazel plenty of names, newspapermen are treated even worse. The dislike of the press goes beyond just verbal abuse. When Wally arrives in Warsaw, he’s walking down a quiet street in the town when suddenly a little boy darts out and bites him on the leg. Yet it’s not just fakers and members of the press whose characters are called into question. The American pubic are also called out for their relentless pursuit of celebrity. In a film titled Nothing Sacred, no one gets a pass.

Screwball comedies are often known for their physically demanding scenes, something that Lombard excels at here. Whether she’s being pushed into the East River or passing out drunk at a nightclub, she does it with gusto and seems to be having a ball. In the most famous scene in the film, the fight between Wally and Hazel, Lombard flails around throwing punches and yelling while constantly falling down and getting kicked in the bottom by March until he finally punches her, and she takes her sweet time passing out. When she wakes and he explains his plan, she begs him “let me sock you, just once on the jaw” and does just that.

The role of Hazel Flagg seems tailor-made for Lombard who, in addition to being able to handle the physical challenges of the script, was a gifted comedian adept at the fast dialogue that Hecht was known for. And even when she's screaming or and carrying on in the film, she still manages to look beautiful (and if there were any doubts, the black and white newspaper images of her that pop up throughout the film are pure Hollywood glamour shots).


As for Frederic March, he is a fine actor who has some genuine good moments in the film, particularly when he goes to Vermont and in his interactions with his publisher. Yet there is something restrained about his performance as if he was never able to relax and give in to the insanity that a screwball comedy requires. 

Walter Connolly and Charles Winninger on the other hand seem perfectly at home in this genre, two strong character actors who grab the chance when they can to really own a scene. As for the slew of cameos by uncredited actors, it’s a whole lot of fun spotting them. 



A thrilling aspect of the film is the New York footage by cinematographer W. Howard Greene including shots of the Brooklyn Bridge and an aerial shot of the city when Hazel arrives in New York by plane. There's something fascinating about seeing Manhattan as it looked 80 years ago; in many ways it doesn't seem like it's changed at all. 

Carole Lombard considered Nothing Sacred to be one of her favourite films and while there are other screwball comedies that I like more, I love Lombard and her performance in this film.

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