31 December 2013

New Year's Resolutions

Alice White

I love to make lists so naturally it follows that every year I make a list of new year's resolutions. In addition to the usual ones like eat better, move more, go to sleep earlier (this one should be at the top of my list), pay off that credit card, I normally will add something like practice your Italian, call instead of emailing people, don't take so many taxis, write and photograph something everyday, or get out of the city more often.

At the end of the day, the list is usually long and not at all realistic, a reason why so many people scoff at coming up with resolutions in the first place. They will say, "Why bother? No one ever sticks to them." And while that may be true in most cases, I still believe in them. A new year marks a change, a farewell to the old and a welcoming of the new. When that clock strikes twelve, you have no idea how the new year will turn out. It is, in a way, a blank canvas. So why not dream big and make grand plans to improve your life? Even if you don't adhere to everything on your list, at least give it a shot. You never know which ones might just stick.

30 December 2013

She Done Him Wrong

Pre-code films are often known for their bawdy language or double entendres. Yet most of them can’t hold a candle to Lowell Sherman’s She Done Him Wrong (1933).

Based on Mae West’s popular Broadway play, Diamond Lil, the script changed the name of West’s character to Lady Lou but kept her outrageous behaviour and saucy one-liners.

Set in 1890s New York, the film opens with a prologue about the Gay Nineties, informing the audience that it was a time “When they did such things and they said such things on the Bowery. A lusty, brawling, florid decade when there were handlebars on lip and wheel—and legs were confidential!”

Lady Lou (Mae West) is a singer at a saloon run by her benefactor Gus Jordan (Noah Beery) who showers her with diamonds. Lou is popular with everyone and spends her time off stage juggling various men. Among those are Dan Flynn (David Landau) who wants to oust Gus from power so he can have Lou to himself; Captain Cummings (Cary Grant), the director of the mission next door who’s always stopping by; and her former lover, Chick Clark (Owen Moore), who is doing time for stealing diamonds for her.

Mae West as Lady Lou

Meanwhile Gus' associate, Russian Rita (Rafaela Ottiano), arrives to discuss their business operations—a prostitution racket and counterfeiting money. Rita brings along her new companion, Sergei Stanieff (Gilbert Roland), who Lou finds to be “warm, dark, and handsome.” After being enchanted by her on their first visit, Sergei comes up to Lou's room with a diamond pin to add to her growing collection.

Learning that Chick has been threatening to kill Lou if she isn’t faithful to him, she goes to visit him in prison to assure him of her fidelity. In a hilarious scene, she’s greeted by each of the prisoners, all of whom have a past with Lady Lou. When one of them asks for another chance when he gets out in 15 years, Lou tells him "that's a date."

Regardless of Lou's promises, Chick breaks out of jail and shows up in Lou's room. She promises she’ll run away with him once she’s done performing on stage that evening, and has him hide out in the alley. But before she can go down to the stage, Rita shows up and, seeing Lou wearing the pin from Sergei, pulls a knife on Lou. The two struggle, and Rita ends up dead. Lou has her bodyguard, Spider (Dewey Robinson), dispose of the body and get Chick to wait up in her room.

She performs her next number, “Frankie and Johnny.” While doing so, she signals to Dan to go into her room where Chick shoots him. The ensuing noise draws the attention of the police and Cummings who turns out to be a federal agent working undercover to trap Gus and his cohorts. Everyone is arrested, including Lou who instead of being loaded into the police wagon with the others rides off in a carriage with Cummings who has a special diamond to put on Lou’s finger.

The script for She Done Him Wrong is filled with holes and at times seems to have too many plot lines going on, not to mention the ludicrous ending. But it doesn’t matter because it’s really a vehicle to showcase West’s particular brand of humour.

She's been mimicked so often that It’s difficult to watch West and not see her as a  caricature. But this is the original, the real Mae West with the hourglass figure, blonde coiffed hair, narrowed eyes, the smiling mouth that hardly moves when she almost purrs her lines, the Brooklyn accent, and that walk that would put a drag queen to shame (no wonder some people thought she was secretly a man). It may all be one big act but it’s one of the most recognizable in film history. 

As for West as an actress, she isn't particularly great and her singing is nothing to write home about (although her intonation does remind one of early jazz singers) but she can deliver a liner like no one else.

She also recognized talent when she saw it and surrounded herself in the film with a strong cast starting with a very young Cary Grant wearing way too much makeup. West always insisted that she gave him his first big break but he had already stared in some other films including Blonde Venus with Marlene Dietrich. Nonetheless, Grant gets second billing in a film filled with some big names including those from the silent film era—Owen Moore, Mary Pickford’s first husband, and Gilbert Roland, who was indeed very handsome.

The costumes by Edith Head are stunning, as should be expected, and the sets look like the Bowery albeit a whole lot cleaner (a shot of a man cleaning up after a horse on the street doesn’t even touch on the amount of filth one would have found).

And then there is the dialogue, specifically West’s lines. In addition to the famed “Why don't you come up some time and see me?” there are priceless others, some of which had me laughing out loud.

Lady Lou: “Listen, when women go wrong, men go right after them”

Cummings: “Haven't you ever met a man that could make you happy?”
Lady Lou: “Sure, lots of times.”

Serge: “I am delighted. I have heard so much about you.”
Lady Lou: “Yeah, but you can't prove it.”

Lady Lou: “I wasn't always rich.”
Pearl: “No?”
Lady Lou: “No, there was a time I didn't know where my next husband was coming from.”

Serge: “The men in my country go wild about women with yellow hair.”
Lady Lou: “I'm glad you told me. I wanna keep straight on my geography.”

[Cummings shows Lou a pair of handcuffs.]
Lady Lou: “Those absolutely necessary? You know I wasn't born with them.”
Cummings: “No. A lot of men would've been safer if you had.”
Lady Lou: “Oh, I don't know, hands ain't everything.”

These lines show West to have been a great comedic writer. And she didn’t keep all of the good lines for herself either.

Frances: “You know, ever since I sang that song it's been haunting me.”
Rag Time Kelly: “It should haunt you: You murdered it.”

It’s easy to write West off as someone who happened to make a few films with some witty dialogue. But West was a ground breaker for her time. Just a few years after women got the right to vote, she was staring in Broadway shows that she also wrote and directed. And after going to Hollywood, she became one of the highest paid people in the country.

So if you've never seen Mae West, check out She Done Him Wrong. It's short, funny, and  is currently streaming on Netflix.

27 December 2013

Remember the Night

December is Barbara Stanwyck month at Film Forum, and I’m sorry to say I missed most of the screenings. Some of the films I’d seen numerous times before (Double Indemnity, Meet John Doe, Baby Face) so I decided to see ones that were new to me. One night I went to a triple feature of early Stanwyck films: one stinker, Mexicali Rose (1929); a so-so mystery, The Locked Door (1929); and a decent sob story directed by Frank Capra, Forbidden (1931). Then on Christmas day I spent the afternoon watching Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Mitchell Leisen’s Remember the Night (1940), written by the brilliant Preston Sturges.

The film opens with a woman nicking a bracelet from a jeweller and being caught shortly after trying to pawn it. She turns out to be Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck), a woman with a record and no permanent home. Later at trial, she’s represented by a blustery blowhard of an attorney whose antics annoy the prosecuting ADA John Sargeant (Fred MacMurray). Worried that the jury will take pity on a woman, especially at the holidays, John manages to get the trial postponed until after the new year. The only problem is Lee is broke and with no place to live. So John posts bail for her and
 proposes that since she's a fellow Hoosier, she can hitch a ride with him to Indiana where he'll drop her off at her mother's on his way home to his family (this would all happen, right?). Lee agrees even though she hasn't been back since she ran away years ago. 

After a detour finds them spending the night in a field, they’re woken in the morning by a nosey cow before getting “arrested” by the farmer whose land they’re trespassing on. With some quick thinking on Lee’s part they get away and arrive at her childhood home only to discover that her mother wants nothing to do with her. 

Feeling sorry for Lee, John takes her home with him where his family warmly greets her. Lee, grateful for such kindness, insists on helping with the washing and cooking, and finds herself enjoying the country life, including the square dance she attends with the family on New Year’s Eve. As to be expected, John and Lee fall in love but after his mother (Beulah Bondi), who knows about her past, tells Lee how hard John had to work to get where he is, she promises to leave him alone.

On their way back to New York by way of Canada (to avoid Pennsylvania where they’re “wanted”), they stop at Niagara Falls, and John suggests that Lee run but she refuses. Back in New York, she stands trial and John tries deliberately to lose the case. But Lee’s love for him makes her decide to finally do the right thing. 

There were some corny elements in the film (mainly plot devices) but it still managed to be a solid film. This was due in part to Sturges’ smart dialogue, particularly the lines given to Stanwyck’s character. 

John: You threw a lighted match into the wastebasket?

Lee: Well I wasn't aiming for the spittoon.

John: You know that's called arson?

Lee: No! I thought that was when you bit somebody!

Incidentally, this was the last of Preston Sturges' scripts to be directed by someone else. His next one, The Great McGinty, would mark his directorial debut.

And speaking of the actors, Stanwyck once again manages to play a dame (there’s no other word for it) like no one else. Few actresses were able to display that combination of street smarts and vulnerability like she could. She’s a bad girl with a heart of gold only there’s no cliché about her because Stanwyck makes her characters seem real.

As for Fred MacMurray, I’ve come to realize that he’s underrated most of the time and it’s only in the hands of a good director that you see how good he can be (watch Double Indemnity if you don’t believe me). Even though his character’s being ridiculous (as in no ADA would ever do what he does in a million years), MacMurray doesn’t invite scorn from the viewer but rather makes one believe that his character is simply doing the right thing. 

Also kudos to the great supporting cast including Beulah Bondi as John’s mother, Elizabeth Patterson as Aunt Emma, and Sterling Holloway as cousin Willie who supplies a lot of the comic relief (if he sounds familiar it's probably because he would later became the voice of Winnie the Pooh). And then there is Fred “Snowflake” Toones as John’s foolish black valet, Rufus. While not an uncommon role in films from the time it doesn’t make watching his scenes, which are are not even remotely funny, any easier. Unfortunately, a sour note in an otherwise sweet film.

Remember the Night plays at Film Forum through December 31, 2013. For more info, visit here

24 December 2013

Ready for Christmas?

Mary Pickford

Leave it to our Mary to be concerned about the working girl; she was probably the hardest working woman in Hollywood. 

For those celebrating Christmas, I hope you do indeed have all of your presents wrapped, your cards mailed, and the kitchen stocked with goodies so you can relax a bit. There's nothing more stressful than running around on Christmas eve trying to do a million things. 

To all my dear readers, however you celebrate the holidays (or not), have a lovely evening and enjoy the day off tomorrow.

23 December 2013

Meet Me In St. Louis

Sunday morning I found myself happily ensconced in a seat at Film Forum for a screening of an old favourite: Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). I have seen this film at least a dozen times if not more but never on the big screen and boy was it a treat.

In many ways, Meet Me in St. Louis is a perfect film with just the right blend of drama, humour, romance, and music. Using the seasons to divide the story into four sections, the film covers one year in the life of the Smiths, a well-to-do, middle-class family living in St. Louis in 1903.

Parents Alonzo (an attorney) and Anna Smith preside over their brood consisting of their son, Lon Jr., and four daughters, Rose, Esther, Agnes, and Tootie. Wise Grandpa and a salt of the earth maid named Katie round out the household.

The story opens on a warm summer day and quickly establishes the various family members. Mr. Smith is at work; Mrs. Smith and Katie are in the kitchen making ketchup; Grandpa is in his room picking out what hat to wear; Lon Jr. is looking at his Princeton catalogue; Agnes is returning from a swim; Tootie is tagging along with the ice delivery man; Rose is getting ready to wash her hair while waiting for an expected long distant call (and, hopefully, a proposal) from Warren Sheffield; and Esther is returning from a game of tennis. There is mention of the upcoming World's Fair and many of the characters are seen singing "Meet Me in St. Louis." Everyone agrees to having dinner an hour early so that they are can be out of the dining room when Warren Sheffield calls Rose. Needless to say,when Mr. Smith arrives home, things do not go according to plan.

Meanwhile, Esther has been pining over John Pruett, the boy next door, and her efforts to get his attention are rewarded when she and her siblings throw a party, and the two are finally introduced. Sparks fly and soon after John joins Esther on a trolley ride out to see the construction of the World's Fair.

Their relationship is tested though on Halloween when Tootie is found injured and claims that John attacked her. Esther decides to take matters into her own hands and confronts John, punching him in the face. After Agnes arrives home the truth comes out: the two girls were in the midst of attempting a dangerous prank with the trolley when John dragged them away so they wouldn't get into trouble (the two youngest Smiths seem to have a fascination with the morbid). Esther apologies and all is forgiven. 

Yet that same evening the family’s happy world is shaken up when Mr. Smith announces that his firm is sending him to New York and that they will have to leave St. Louis. Everyone is devastated.

Winter finds the house packed up in anticipation of the impending move. At the Christmas Eve Ball, the elder Smith siblings at first are without dates but by the end of the evening Lon is with Lucille Ballard (a visitor from back East), and John proposes to Esther who bursts into tears at the thought of being parted from her family.  

Returning home, she has a conversation with Tootie, who’s waiting up for Santa, about the move. A tearful Tootie runs out into the garden to destroy her snow people because she'd rather "kill them" if she can’t take them to New York. Mr. Smith witnesses this and has a change of heart. Calling the family together, he declares that they will stay in St. Louis after all. The family is happy once again including Rose who finally gets that proposal.

The film ends in the spring of 1904 with the family attending the World Fair. Gathered together, watching the lights go on, they are overwhelmed by the grandness, and Esther utters the final lines: “I can’t believe it. Right here where we live. Right here in St. Louis.”

Meet Me in St. Louis is thoroughly delightful and one of the best of the MGM musicals. The cast is stellar, beginning with Judy Garland who is absolutely radiant. When she was first told about the role she didn’t want to do it because she had just recently graduated to adult roles and thought that playing a high school girl would be a step back. Luckily, she changed her mind. Esther Smith is the type of role that Garland was so good at: the young woman who is a mix of sweetness and pluck with a good dose of humour (Garland had excellent comic timing).

She also never looked more beautiful on screen. Much of this is due to make-up artist Dorothy Ponedel whom Minnelli personally chose. Garland was reportedly so happy with the results that she requested Ponedel for the rest of her films. She was also dressed in gorgeous outfits by Sharaff that flattered, including a dark red gown for the Christmas Eve Ball and the layered white confection and matching hat at the end of the film. And one cannot discount the film’s director who strove to capture Garland at her best. The two fell in love on set and married shortly after the film was over.

Leon Ames and Mary Astor are the perfect Mr. and Mrs. Smith; Harry Davenport makes a loving Grandpa; Tom Drake as John Pruett is a bit bland but good looking; Lucille Bremmer is right as big sister Rose; and the incredible Marjorie Mains as Katie is excellent, getting most of the laughs in the film. As for Margaret O’Brien as Tootie, I know that some people adore her (she even won a special Oscar for this role) but for me she’s just a bit too cute, a little too precocious.

Shot in glorious Technicolour, the film is lovely to look at. Minnelli made great use of colour from the costumes to the rooms to the red and white striped awnings over the windows of the house.

And then there is how he chose to shoot the scenes. At the Christmas Eve Ball, the camera pushes in from outside and stays high, showing the dancers on the ballroom floor, their gowns of various shades swaying across the floor, before coming down to focus in on Rose and Esther. When Esther and Grandpa waltz around the room, the viewer sees them dance away from the crowd and behind a Christmas tree. Without missing a beat of the music, Esther reappears in the arms of the newly arrived John and the two blend smoothly in with the other dancers. This scene brings to mind the brilliant ballroom scene that Minnelli would later film in Madame Bovary.

For the Halloween scene in which the local children burn old furniture and dare each other to ring someone's doorbell and then throw flour in the person's face when they answer (which they call “killing” someone), Minnelli had the camera shoot low to give the impression of seeing everything from Tootie’s viewpoint. It's a departure from the rest of the film and the studio apparently wanted it cut from the film but it works and adds the right tone.

The best though is the scene with Esther and John at the end of the Smith-hosted party. Esther asks John to accompany her around the house as she turns off the lights because she’s “afraid of mice.” He agrees and as the two move from room to room, the light getting dimmer and dimmer, you see John falling for Esther. Finally there are just two lights left on behind a glowing Garland. John is totally smitten with her as is the audience.

Minnelli had begun his career working as a set designer in the theatre and his legendary eye for detail is apparent in this film. The large Victorian house that the Smiths reside in is shown in all its glory with each room decorated and filled with items that make the house appear like a real home (it was, in fact, built specifically for the film on the MGM lot). Even in the opening scene in the kitchen, the ingredients that are shown and used give the appearance that they are really making ketchup.

Last but certainly not least there is the music. The film mixes traditional or preexisting works like "Skip to My Lou" and "Meet Me In St. Louis" with some new ones written specially for the film by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. "The Boy Next Door," which establishes Esther's crush on John Pruett, is the first song in the film (if you don't count the snippets of "Meet Me in St. Louis"). Esther sits staring across at his place, singing lines like "but he doesn't know I exist," with a poignancy that is pure Garland. "The Trolley Song" on the other hand is upbeat and fun with its "Clang, clang, clang went the trolley; ding, ding, ding went the bell." As for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," it's absolutely heart wrenching and probably as depressing a Christmas song as you can get. All of these songs showcase not only Garland’s range but also perfectly reflect the changing moods of the story.

At Sunday's screening, the audience laughed at all of the jokes, some people bobbed their heads along to the songs, and at the end there was applause. As I said, a perfect film.

21 December 2013

It's Wintertime

“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says "Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.” —Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass.

It's Winter Solstice, the official start of winter and the longest night of the year. Pagans gathered this morning at Stonehenge to celebrate. I myself am off shortly to St.Thomas Church to hear their famed men and boys choir sing Christmas carols. Happy Winter, everyone!

20 December 2013

Terror of the Soul

The “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, 1848.

My tuxedo cat Poe is named for the master of the macabre so I had to check out the Morgan Library’s exhibit “Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul.” With items from the Morgan’s own collection, the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at The New York Public Library, and the personal collection of Susan Jaffe Tane, the exhibit looks at Poe's work as poet, short story writer, and critic and the influence he had on subsequent artists.

In a gallery fittingly painted blood red there are a variety of Poe’s publications including three copies of his first published work, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), one of the rarest books in American literature (only 12 of the 50 published copies are known to still exist) and the first printing of The Raven in The New York Evening Mirror, which brought Poe fame in 1845. Among the manuscripts is one of only three existing pages of The Lighthouse, which was unfinished at the time of Poe’s death, and The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether (1844), which was taped together to form one paper roll, bringing to mind Jack Kerouac’s On the Road manuscript. There is also a large collection of Poe’s criticism, which was the main form of income for him throughout his life.

The most interesting items though are his letters. There are practical letters written to editors with requested corrections to a manuscript and ones to friends in which he promises to do better, in particular to stop drinking. Responding to an aspiring poet seeking advice, Poe wrote, “"Be bold—read much—publish little—keep aloof from the little wits and fear nothing." One of the most touching is to a woman with whom he was romantically attached toward the end of his life, Annie L. Richmond. To her he writes, “I must send a few words to let you see and feel that your Eddy, even when silent, keeps you always in his mind and heart.” Letters like these help to make Poe seem more human.

I have to insert here how shocked I was at how beautiful Poe’s handwriting was. Neat and precise, sometimes impossibly small, it was lovely to look at. And it wasn’t just the letters; there are poems and stories that he copied out perfectly without a single mistake or cross out.

The final part of the exhibit is devoted to writers who have acknowledged their debt to or admiration for Poe, from Oscar Wilde to W.H. Auden to Stéphane Mallarmé (the French recognized Poe’s importance early on). Even cantankerous George Bernard Shaw waxed "Poe constantly and inevitably produced magic where his greatest contemporaries produced only beauty."

Images of the author are found throughout the gallery from the famed “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype, taken four days after he attempted suicide by overdosing on laudanum in 1848 to the modern painting done by Michael J. Deas for a US postal stamp in 2009. In all of the depictions there are those familiar haunted dark eyes and broad forehead. Poe may have been difficult to be friends with and certainly a lot of his troubles were of his own making, but it’s hard not to find some sympathy for the artist whose life was filled with tragedy and ended in Baltimore in 1849 at the age of 40.

Yet the exhibit wouldn't be complete without at least one nod to Poe's gory reputation. In a glass case is a piece of Poe’s original coffin (he was dug up and reinterred in 1875). A touch of the lurid lest we forgot who we're talking about.

The exhibit is at the Morgan Library through January 26, 2014. For more information visit here.

16 December 2013

Good Night, Sweet Prince

Brash, charismatic, a little crazy, intelligent, talented, entertaining, he was one of the finest actors of his generation. And now Peter O’Toole has taken his final bow.

I’ve always adored O’Toole. He was a brilliant actor, sliding effortlessly between drama and comedy, equally comfortable quoting the words of the bard or Bertolt Brecht. A delightful storyteller, as demonstrated on numerous chat show appearances, he proved also to be a fine writer with his two-volume memoir Loitering With Intent. He was incredibly handsome in his youth, so much so that Noel Coward told him after seeing Lawrence of Arabia, “If you'd been any prettier, it would have been Florence of Arabia.” Unabashed about his drinking and hell raising, the stories of his drinking (he said that once he went out for a beer "at ones local in Paris and woke up in Corsica") and carousing with the likes of Richard Harris, Richard Burton, and Robert Shaw are the stuff of legend and make today’s bad boys seem just that, boys. Above all, he had presence; when he walked into a scene or onto a stage the air seemed to come alive, and you couldn't help but keep your eyes on him. He lived a long life for one who had done so much hard living but it still filled me with sadness when I read the news yesterday of his passing.

As a teen he wrote in his notebook “I will not be a common man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony. I do not crave security. I wish to hazard my soul to opportunity.” I think that he fulfilled that wish. Good night, sweet prince.

13 December 2013

I Know

Ziegfeld Girl with Boudoir Doll by Alfred Cheney Johnston

Yes, I know. I've been lax about blogging this month. The truth is I've been working overtime on a project the last few weeks and haven't had the energy to write much. But this weekend,with snow expected to fall, I should be able to catch up on some writing (after I decorate the tree and flat, that is). So check back in next week for some new tales. And have a lovely and warm weekend.

09 December 2013

Cats and Girls

"Thérèse" Balthus (1938)

“Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations,” an exhibit of works by the Polish-French painter Balthus currently at the Met, focuses on two of the major themes in the artist's work with uneven results.  

It opens with a self-portrait, “His Majesty the King of Cats” (1935), which shows a thin, almost dandy-like Balthus with a cat rubbing against his leg and a stone tablet that reads ““A Portrait of H. M. The King of Cats, Painted by Himself.” The painting establishes the artist’s connection with the feline world; some think that the cats featured in Balthus' works are actually stand-ins for the artist himself.

While cats show up in a handful of the paintings, girls can be found in the majority of the works with the best ones in the first gallery—a series of paintings he made of his young neighbour Thérèse Blanchard. Sometimes seen lounging in a chair, other times exposing a shock of white underwear, 
Thérèse appears bored, the epitome of sullen youth. The portraits also have a Lolita quality about them, leaving a feeling of unease with the viewer. Finding out that Thérèse died at the age of 25 makes these paintings all the more striking knowing the bold little girl never grew old.

These works are so strong that the ones in the other galleries subsequently pale in comparison, sometimes quite literally. Even the large portraits done in the 1950s of Frédérique Tison, Balthus’ favourite model, and others where the girls are partially dressed or nude lack the impact of the Thérèse works. 

Yet the painting that I found the most shocking is “The Cat of La Méditerranée” (1949) made for a restaurant that the artist frequented. Featuring Balthus with a cat’s head and a rainbow made of fish, it is simply bizarre and was a surprise to see hanging on the wall of the Met.

"First drawing from Mitsou" Balthus (1921)

For me, the best part of the exhibit is found in a small, darkened gallery: 40 ink drawings done when Balthus was just 11 that tell the story of Mitsou, a stray cat whom he discovered one day and who became his companion until one morning when he just vanished, breaking the little boy’s heart. Published as a book in 1921 by Rainer Maria Rilke (a friend of Balthus’ mother), they are lovely to see with their almost woodcut quality and tell a sweet story. In the end, they made the exhibit worth seeing.

The exhibit is at the Met through January 12, 2014. For more information, visit here.

02 December 2013

The Little Giant

What does a bootlegger do when Prohibition ends? In Roy Del Ruth’s The Little Giant (1933), he tries his hand at becoming a member of High Society.

Edward G. Robinson is J. Francis “Bugs” Ahearn, a Chicago gangster who, when not busy bootlegging, tries to better himself by reading books and buying art (a scene early in the film in which he tries to explain to two of his cohorts the meaning of an abstract painting is particularly fun knowing that Robinson became a huge art collector in real life). When it’s announced that Prohibition is being repealed, Bugs and his right hand man, Albert J. “Al” Daniels (Russell Hopton), head out west to Santa Barbara where Bugs rents a large mansion (20 rooms, 14 bathrooms with tennis courts) from an estate agent, Ruth Wayburn (Mary Astor) who he hires to help him adapt to his new surroundings. Ruth is actually the owner of the house who has fallen on hard times, a fact she keeps secret from Bugs.

Soon Bugs is attending polo matches and dressing up in tuxedos for dinner. He falls for a blonde socialite Polly Cass (Helen Vinson) and becomes eager to ingratiate himself with her family. Little does he know that they’re just a bunch of swindlers interested in his money; before long he’s buying polo ponies from the son, an expensive ring for Polly, and the family’s worthless investment firm that’s been selling phony bonds. Once he learns the truth from Ruth, who’s fallen for Bugs, he sets out to make things right and calls in some friends to help refinance the bonds, “the Chicago way.” The film ends with a happy Bugs, back to being his old self and together with the woman he really loves.

Mary Astor and Edward G. Robinson in The Little Giant

After making a name for himself playing bad guys, The Little Giant marked Robinson’s first foray into comedy, and he rises to the occasion. There is a genuine sweetness to his portrayal of Bugs, a man who just wants to fit in. He also displays strong comedic timing and does a great send up of his gangster persona. Hopton is a competent sidekick, Vinson is a good femme fatale, and Astor is likable as Ruth, not yet exhibiting the icy exterior that seems to coat her later performances.

Most of the comedy in the film is drawn from Robinson and Hopton’s bulls in a china shop situations. At a restaurant where the menu is in French, Bugs orders with a horrendous accent. “When’d you learn to talk this monkey jabber?” asks Al. “Oh, I used to own 10 percent of a French dame.” When Ruth points out a statue and tells him “that’s a famous Siamese beauty,” Bugs responds, “Where’s the other one? I always thought they was twins.” The film also has a “polo” scene near the end that’s wacky and hilarious (think polo, gangster-style).

This being a pre-code film it also has its fair share of risqué scenes for its time. In one scene, Polly and Bugs are sitting on a bench when she leans back, thrusting up her chest, and asks if he likes her perfume. He leans right in and takes a deep sniff. And when Bugs asks Al if he’s ever seen anything like the painting mentioned earlier he responds, "Not since I've been off cocaine."

If you’ve never seen Robinson do comedy, watch The Little Giant. And even if you have, check it out anyways.

28 November 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

"Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade" Elliott Erwitt (1988)

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I'm staying in the city this year and am looking forward to spending the next few days checking out some galleries, taking some long walks, and enjoying everything pumpkin. I hope wherever you are, you have a wonderful holiday and fun with family and friends.

22 November 2013

Remembering JFK

President John F. Kennedy and John John in the Oval Office, October 1963. Photo: Stanley Tretick.

Today is the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. Instead of dwelling on the horrible events of that day and thoughts of what might have been, let's remember the happy times that came before. And with that in mind, here are some images of President Kennedy with his children, Caroline and John John, who undoubtedly brought him much joy.

21 November 2013

Happy Birthday, Björk!

Today is Björk's birthday. Born on November 21, 1965 in Reykjavik, Iceland, she continues to be one of the most interesting and innovative musicians around. In addition to being a big fan of her music, I love her videos, so many of which could pass as short films. Bachelorette, from 1997 and directed by Michel Gondry, is one of the best. Enjoy!

18 November 2013

Fall Roundup

The fall so far has been filled with events of all sorts and as a result I haven’t had time to post about everything. So I thought I’d share some brief recaps of a few of them here.

A modern actress who I love is Juliette Binoche. She always imbues a rawness in her performances that results in more realistic characters. Her latest film is Bruno Dumont's Camille Claudel 1915, which tells the story of the first year of the great artist’s incarceration by her family in a mental institution where she stayed, even though doctors encouraged the family to bring her home, for the last 30 years of her life. Filmed on site at a real institution with actual patients, it was emotionally draining to watch. Yet Binoche was mesmerizing as usual and her portrayal stayed with me long after I left the cinema.

To celebrate the release of the Criterion Collection’s new Rossellini/Bergman box set, Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò at NYU hosted a special screening of the one of the films—Journey to Italy (1954)—along with a panel discussion with some scholars, and Isabella and Ingrid Rossellini. Isabella had to cancel at the last moment (she broke her hand that morning) but Ingrid was there, telling stories about when they were children including the time their father, a big animal lover, brought home a kangaroo. The film about a troubled marriage was strong and gave an up close look at life in post-war Italy.

One of the best concerts I’ve seen in a long time was a performance by Mariza, the Portuguese Fado singer, at Carnegie Hall last weekend. She was, in a word, amazing. For two hours she poured her heart out, singing traditional Fado songs as well as some new ones. Dressed in a long gown, the striking 6-foot tall singer spoke with the audience between songs, explaining the origin of the music and thanking her talented band. The audience was enthralled and was up on their feet by the end, cheering her on. She announced that she’s coming back to New York next year, and I for one can’t wait.

Under the Table: A Dorothy Parker Cocktail Guide is a new book by Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, the president of the Dorothy Parker Society, which tells the story of Mrs. Parker and her circle and the cocktails that they enjoyed. The book is great fun, and I'm looking forward to trying out some of the recipes. At the launch party for the release at the Algonquin Hotel, my friend and I sampled one of the drinks from the book, an Algonquin Cocktail (rye, vermouth, and pineapple juice), before turning to my classic go-to, the Manhattan. I think Mrs. Parker would approve.

And speaking of books, Elliott Erwitt’s Kolor is the latest from the incomparable photographer, gathering together his colour work for the first time. The International Center for Photography (ICP) held a book signing for the new publication, and I was thrilled to get to meet a man whose work I so admire. I wanted to tell him how much I loved his work and how one of the most popular posts on this blog was the one about his ICP exhibit from a few years ago but I thought that would be silly and just thanked him instead while I grinned like an idiot.

14 November 2013

Happy Birthday, Lulu!

Louise Brooks by Eugene Richee (1927)

Louise Brooks was born on November 14, 1906 in Cherryvale, Kansas, and became one of the most iconic images of the Jazz Age. She dazzled theatregoers in New York when she performed with the Ziegfeld Follies and the George White Scandals and was the first person to dance the Charleston in London. When she turned to motion pictures, she stole every scene she was in. Her two films that she made in Germany in 1929 with G. W. Pabst, Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, are considered masterpieces of the silent era. And her hairstyle, a black bob that Kenneth Tynan referred to as a "black helmet," is one of the most famous hairstyles of the 20th century, copied by women everywhere, including myself. I've long looked up to her as a role model, someone whose "I don't give a damn attitude" I wish I could adopt more often. So Happy Birthday, Lulu! You're the cat's pajamas.  

13 November 2013

I Say a Little Prayer

"Every time I'm in New York I say a little prayer when passing the Empire State Building. A good friend of mine died up there."—Fay Wray, who played Ann Darrow in the original King Kong (1933)

How stylish is Fay in this photo? Favourite outfit of the week. Photo from here.


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