Friday, June 6, 2014

D-Day

Today is the anniversary of D-Day, The Normandy Invasion which was called Operation Overlord during the war.
The lovely folks over at the BBC have complied recordings of the news casts from that day. Some are the original recordings, others are read  by actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Patrick Stewart.
Enjoy, maninis!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5jRMmQHNnXVTzfv8MCMcBdN/d-day-news-bulletins

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The rise of the Femme Fatale

“I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” Famous words from a loving homage to Film Noir vixen. Jessica Rabbit, the ‘femme fatale’ of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, while a cartoon and a contemporary creation, is a prime example of how sex and sexuality was used in the film noir genre. She is a prime example of how women have been pegged as the femme fatale for centuries. It isn't simply the femme fatales who utilize sexuality to further their goals in film noir. It permeates every inch of these films from the sets to the music to the thoughts running through the characters minds.
Double Indemnity is a prime example of film noir dripping with sexual overtones. Stanwyck’s Phyllis understands her appeal and uses it to her advantage. “Barbara Stanwyck as the femme fatale isn't as much a testimony to her beauty as it is to her superb acting and the magical noir cinematography of John Seitz. She's no voluptuary, no garter-belt maw of erotic death, but an atmosphere.”  Phyllis’s appeal is not some much physical, even though Stanwyck is luminescent in the film, her appeal is more visceral. She uses sex like a weapon and her pleasure is more political then sensual. Recalling the scene when Neff kills her husband, the audience sees a look on Phyllis’s face unlike any she has anywhere else in the film. It is a look of sheer pleasure. For the Phyllis character, the death of her husband and the pinnacle of her manipulation of is the climax of her planning. “Within the modernist sets of the classic film noir sex is primarily an act of self-destruction.” 
            “Marilyn Monroe and ‘Niagara’ – a raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control!” In 1953, and in today, Marilyn Monroe was the sexiest film star of them all. While the movie Niagara may not fall into the classic pantheon of accepted film noir standards it contains all the ear marks of the genre. In a role entirely different from anything she played prior, or after for that matter, Monroe transforms herself into the quintessential femme fatale. The character of Rose manipulates her husband, the unsuspecting Cutler couple, and everyone else around her. Like every good film noir, the bad guy gets it in the end. Monroe meets her fate at the bottom of a stairway, seductively placed of course. The film was not a critical success garnering a less than stellar from the New York Times. “Perhaps Miss Monroe is not the perfect actress at this point. But neither the director nor the gentlemen who handled the cameras appeared to be concerned with this. They have caught every possible curve both in the intimacy of the boudoir and in equally revealing tight dresses. And they have illustrated pretty concretely that she can be seductive—even when she walks.” 
            Modern Noir uses sexuality in a more overt manner. With the dissolving of the Hayes code, the film world has become free to paint a stronger picture with sexuality. Films like Chinatown and Sin City parade their sexual content out in front. It is no longer kept hidden or suggested such as in films like A Touch of Evil or Gun Crazy. Vera in Gun Crazy is a meant to be a femme fatale, whether the actress pulls off this title is debatable, but her seduction of Al is subtle. For Vera, as with Phyllis and Rose, the seduction occurs with a look or a subtle touch. This is in direct conflict to Nancy in Sin City. Hers is an overt sexuality.
            L.A. Confidential blends the delicate seduction of the Golden Age of Hollywood films with the post Hayes code films. The character of Lynn is our femme fatale, but she doesn't truly fit that mold. She is used by Pierce Patchett to manipulate police officers, high political officials, and studio heads. But with Bud the seduction is wholly for her enjoyment. She is drawn to Bud much the same way Annie and Bart are drawn together.
            While the love affair, sexual relationship, in Gun Crazy ultimately leads to the deaths of both Annie and Bart it is still different kind of relationship then say in The Big Sleep. Vivian and Philip have a slow and methodical relationship that takes almost the entire course of the film to develop. Annie and Bart are all but inseparable by the first twenty minutes of the film. This kind of relationship burns fast which is reflective of the end scene. Gun Crazy gives us a moralistic view of love and sex. The couple is not married and gives into their passions for each other and guns, giving them some kind of Bonnie Clyde feel. In Hayes Code Hollywood, this kind of relationship can only end badly, which in the case of Annie and Bart it does, with their deaths.
            Music also plays an integral role in the seduction of not only the protagonist but also the audience. For example, L.A. Confidential utilizes its soundtrack to set the mood and to suggest irony. The film starts off with Johnny Mercer singing “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Postive” just underneath the voice over of Danny Devito talking about the darker aspects of life in the City of Angels. Two of Mickey Cohen’s men are brutally murder by gunshots through the windshield of their car and the audience instantly hears Betty Hutton singing “Hit the Road to Dreamland.” Much of the music is utilized in this fashion. The underscoring of instrumental music beneath almost all the scenes containing Lynn succeeds in adding to her seductive Veronica Lake qualities.
            Love and sex are two sides of the same coin in the film noir genre. If the characters fall in love and try to refrain from succumbing to the physical side of the romance everything will result in a happy ending. For the characters of Annie and Bart and Vera and Al it is the opposite. In Detour, the filmmaker gives us the impression that Al never gives into the seduction that Vera attempts. However, one must assume based on the scenes in the car, the scenes in the hotel room, and Al’s inability to shake Vera that they have moved passed the suggestive stage of their relationship and have become physical.
            What does all this mean for the modern film interpretation of woman? One recent and prime example that comes to mind is The Avengers. In this film we are given two strong females, Agent Hill and Natasha Romanov a.k.a the Black Widow. However, if the viewer looks at the movies poster we see the male members of the Avengers, i.e. Iron Man and Captain America, in stances of power and strength, where the Black Widow has her back to the viewer showing of her posterior. Yes, the actress portraying the character is lovely but that is not the main tool of the Black Widow. So then we must ask why do the men in the film populate the poster in heroic poses and yet we accept the woman in a glorified sexual position?

            Sex and love, even in Hayes code Hollywood, played an integral role in Film Noir, as well as many modern genres. It was used to further the plot and to add a subtle, tangible essence to the films.  However, it seems it is always the woman who must bear the brunt of the misuse of sexuality. She is the creation that leads the seemingly good guy into a dark path. The Neo-noir films have also picked up on this aspect and have attempted to continue the trend. The old age rings true, sex sells and it will continue to be used as long as audiences are crying for it. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Girl who made Vaudeville Famous

You all know by now how much I love the wacky and diverse nature of history, especially the stuff that makes up American History. So much of it is not really known or taught and damn is it interesting. At least to me but we've established over the years of this blog that I'm a little nutty when it comes to my history. You like it that way. You know you do.

Vaudeville, the precursor to the movies and the birthplace of stand of comedy. The form of enteraintment tha gave us people like Gypsy Rose Lee, Abbot and Costello (Who's on First is arguabley the greatest peice of sketch comedy in the history of comedy) and our blog topic Eva Tanguay.

Who is Eva Taguay you ask? (Well not really ask more like sit and ponder about it at your desks or ipads or whatever thingie-mahjigs you use to read my blog) Well, little Ms. Eva is know as the 'girl who made vaudeville famous'...at least she is because she said so.

Eva was born in 1878 in Quebec (those wacky Canucks!) Before she was 6 her family had moved from Canada to Massachusetts..like ya' do. While still a little girl, she developed a passion for performing. By the age of ten she was actually performing professionally  in a stage adaptation of Little Lord Fauntleroy. In 1901 she landed a spot in a Broadway show.  By 1905 she as a solo vaudeville act and a huge hit.

She actually had a passable voice, nothing to write home about, but she was an amazingly engaging performing as well as a whiz at marketing. Plus she had a tendecny to sing bawdy and suggestive songs. What can I say, sex sells, dirty birdies! Eva went on to have a long lasting career sometimes earning as much as 3,500 a week at the height of her fame. Adjusted for inflation that's roughly 85,000 now-a-days.

Aleister Crowley (Yeah, that Aleister Crowly, the one who founded the Golden Dawn and was a big old occultist ad sexual revolutionary) compared her to such music hall queens as Marie Lloyd and Yvette Guilbert. Mainly he liked her because she was a saucy minx who didn't really give a damn what people thought of her. She caused a row where ever she went with stories of kidnapping, stolen jewels, and throwing a stagehand down a flight of stairs (I myself had felt the need to toss a stagehand so she gets some sympathy from me on this one)

Her costumes were just as extravagant as her persona. In 1910 she appeared in a costume made entirely out of the newly minted Lincoln penny. She also wore a dress made of coral that weighed 45 pounds and one made of dollar bills. (Sound like anyone who know...Lady Gaga I'm looking at you girl) 

Eva retired from the stage in the 1930s, having lost millions in the crash of '29. She lost her sight to cataracts, which was reverseed thanks to surgery paid for by Sophie Tucker - her friend from the vaudeville days.

Eva died in 1947 at the age of 68 and is buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. She was portrayed by Mitzi Gaynor in the 1953 Biopic "The I Don't Care Girl" which means it's pretty white-washed like Hollywood did of it's racy stuff in the 40s-60s.

Anywho...Eva was really a precursor to Madonna, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, as well as others who go against the grain. These stars aren't really doing anything that wasn't done in Vaudeville in the 1900s. Everything old is new again. 


This is a recording, it's grainy and hard to understand as it would have been a Victrola recording, of her most famous song 'I Don't Care' which was recorded in 1922. She performed it in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1909 after getting Old Ziggy to take it away from Sophie Tucker. 

Eva spent a lot of her own money on promotions like billboards and such (She was doing what Angelyne does before Angelyne was even a speck of pink on the California landscape) She also married several times and divorced just as many. Plus she had affairs, highly publicized affairs. Many believe this was all a ploy to keep her name in the papers and in the public's eyes (Hey Kim Kardashian...your tricks are old hat.)


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

America the Beautiful...and the diverse

There's been lots of controversy about the Coca-Cola Company's recent Super Bowl commercial, "America is Beautiful". I'm sure you've seen it. The commercial is filled with clips from all over the country, starring everyday people in this big melting pot we call home. The controversy apparently comes from the fact the song is sung not entirely in English. Instead parts are sung in Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi, and other languages. (For the record I think it rocks because let's face it kiddos 1. America the Beautiful is NOT the National Anthem 2. Unless you are 100 percent belonging to a specific tribe of Native Americans, we're all children of immigrants and 3. It was just plain beautiful. So there) Because I like to the stir the (melting) pot a bit - see what I did there?? - the topic for today's blog is the woman who wrote America the Beautiful.  Katharine Lee Bates. 

Katharine was born August 12, 1859 in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and was the daughter of a Congregation pastor William Bates and Cornelia Frances Lee. Katharine was a smart cookie having graduated from Wellesly College in 1880. She went on to teach high school until 1893 (The same year Queen Liliu'okalani was overthrown remember?) before returning to Wellesly as an instructor.

She is well known for her children's books, travel books, and volumes of poetry. She also wrote the lyrics to America the Beautiful. She helped to popularize Mrs. Claus as well in a series of poems. One is called Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride. She contributed to periodicals like the Atlantic Monthly, The Congregationalist, and others. She was a lifelong, active Republican until 1924 when she switched parties to endorse John Davis instead of Woodrow Wilson. She spent the better part of her life as writer, teacher, and activist.

Bates died in Wellesly, Mass on September 28, 1929.

Now the 'controversial' part of her life. I put it in quotes because I know that in some circles it will be considered so. For me...not so much.

Bates never 'married' but lived with Katharine Coman, a history and political economy teacher and founder of the Wellesly College Economics department, for 25 years until Coman's death in 1915. That's right, dirty birdies, the writer of America the Beautiful was gay. Suddenly all the bologna about the song not being sung in English in the commercial doesn't seem as big of a deal does it? (Not that is was really that big of a deal)

So there go. Feel free to run out and tell some of those cranky-butt complainers and see what happens...oh...and sing when you do. (I'm voting for heads to explode. Because that's how I am)


Monday, February 3, 2014

America's 'Titanic'

We've all seen paddewheelers in the movies and TV, some have seem them at Disneyland, others I'm sure have read about them. There is nothing that can conjure up the pageantry of the Old South like a paddle-boat (I mean this statement in regards of accepted stereotypes. When someone thinks of Louisiana or Mark Twain one can't hep but think paddlewheeler. Just saying) There is one such ship that will go down in history, but I bet you've never heard of the American Titanic.
On April 27, 1865 the SS Sultana, a Mississippi side wheel steamboat, exploded and become America's biggest maritime disaster. The story however was mostly overshadowed by another national event...the death of John Wilkes Booth that happened only the day before.
On April 21 1865 the Sultana took off from New Orleans with a relatively small group of passengers. Many were Union soldiers who had recently been released from a Confederate Prison and were on their way home. There was also some livestock on board. Like you do.
In Vicksburg they stopped to do some repairs on the boiler system. They were pretty shoddy and more of a patch job then the repairs that were truly needed. Actually what was needed was an entirely new boiler. Now in Vicksburg the small contingent of about 100 passengers blossomed into about 2,000. People fought, bribed, and crowded their way onto the ship until it was nay bursting at the seams. The capacity for the boat was only around 375 so you can see that it was severely overcrowded. Also many of the soldiers were weak and sick from their incarceration.
About seven miles from Memphis the shoddily repaired boiler blew. The explosion flung passengers everywhere. Off the deck into the water. Into each other. It also torn a huge hole in a section of the deck. Hot coals were strewn everywhere from the explosion thus turning the wooden paddlewheeler into an inferno.
It took an hour for the closest ship to reach the Sultana. The remains of the ship sunk near modern day Marion. Many of the passengers actually died of hypothermia because the water was near freezing. Many bodies were never recovered.
So there you go. The story of America's Titanic. Not as newsworthy of course but only because it was overshadowed by old Johnny Booth getting his comeuppance.
In 1982 the wreckage from the Sultana was located...under a soybean field. The Mississippi River has changed a bit over the years.
There are several songs about the Sultana. Check out Cory Brennan's Sultana for a good one.
Until next time, maninis.


Thursday, January 30, 2014

There's Magic in the Air

I'm a pretty lucky Mistress of History because I have some of the most interesting and diverse friends around. Thanks to one such friend, your intrepid leader 'o the blog got to set foot in the Magic Castle in Hollywood, CA.
Now I know some of you are squee-ing like some sort of teenage girl in heat and others are rushing to Google to figure out what the heck I'm talking about. Don't touch that dial - or trackball - or mouse - or touchpad - or whatever because I'm going to tell you right....now.
The Magic Castle is a showplace for some of the world's greatest magicians. It is also a place they can hang out, have drinks, or dinner with each other and watch each other perform. You have to be a member to get inside this illusive, secret club of prestidigitation (I'm really excited to have a reason to use that word, just saying) or know a member who is willing to put you on the VIP list so you can watch him perform.
The Castle was built in 1908 and was a private home to real estate mogul Rollin Lane until the 1940s when the Lane family moved away. At that time it was divided into multi-family apartments. Ultimately it was turned into a home for the elderly. In 1961, Milt Larsen - a writer for 'Truth or Consequences' bought the mansion with the express plan of turning into it a private club for magicians. Milt's dad was a world famous magician and this was a bit of an homage to him.
The Magic Castle opened it's newly refurbished doors in 1962 and has since been a place for magic and friendship.
The walls are filled with posters and props from some of the masters of the fields. People like Houdini, Copperfield, Blackstone (He was on Reading Rainbow), and Doug Henning.
We saw my friend perform in a smaller space on the bottom floor of the Castle called The Parlour of Prestidigitation. It gives you the feeling that you're in a Victorian parlor. Pretty neat. You have to pass down winding hallways, steep staircases, and across richly carpeted floors to get to it. The sense of history simply permeates the walls. You can't help but drink it in.
The usher announced my friend's act with flourish and a final comment about no picture taking. He teased the audience by dropping Cary Grant's name and said to come ask him after the show if you wanted to know why. Being the Mistress of History that I am of course I asked him. What a great story followed!
Cary Grant was on the Board for the Castle back in the Golden Age of Hollywood. He wanted to have one place in Hollywood where he could go without threat of cameras and reporters. So, he had the board implement the no-picture taking rule. Of course Cary being Cary he would stand outside and greet people as they came to visit the Castle...all the while denying who he was. Apparently people would call the next day or two and tell the staff what a wonderful Cary Grant 'impersonator' they had manning the door. Oh to be a fly on the wall for those nights!
There you have it. The Magic Castle in Hollywood has stood for over 50 years and contains a history the likes of which can not be rivaled. For the record, you have to speak into an owl and walk through a staircase when you enter the Magic Castle. It's the little things, maninis.
Neil Patrick Harris is the current president of the Castle. He is an amateur magician having learned tricks in his downtime during the filming of Doogie Houser.



Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Reflections on a Suit...being Battle Born

   A few years ago I went to Washington D.C. for the first time in eighteen years. I went with my brother and his wife; they are my favorite traveling companions. One sunny Friday afternoon, while my family napped, I journeyed to the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian. I had some time to kill before I walked over to Ford’s Theatre for a matinee performance of The Civil War. (Musical theatre nerd, remember? Plus Civil War is one of my favorite musicals of all time and I wasn't going to miss a chance to see it on stage. Brilliant modern staging. But I digress...)
                The museum was filled to the brim with eager and not so eager goers. Groups of school aged children obviously forced to endure a day at the Smithsonian Mall intermingled with a myriad of Midwestern families and hard –core history buffs. Now you all know the latter was me. I make no excuses for my American History geekiness. I embrace it.
                The artifacts that line every conceivable space of the museum were plentiful and amazing. But something like nothing I have ever seen before stopped me in my tracks. I went no further and soaked in the beauty of it, much to the unhappiness of those others around me. I was rooted to my spot and they had to travel around me.
                 It was Lincoln’s suit. The actual suit he wore to the office, you know that Oval one holds the Resolute desk and the 'red phone', every day. It was a faded black, almost a rich brown under the muted lights of the display case. My first thought at seeing this item was, Lincoln was skinny. Like proper skinny. He must have disappeared from sight when turned sideways. 
                After that came the overwhelming sense of history, of life and turmoil this suit had seen and was now confined in that glass case. The conversations this configuration of fabric and thread had been privy too was mind blowing. To everyone, including me, Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, the Father of the Civil War, one of the greatest president’s we have ever known as a people. But to me especially, he was something more.
                I am a Nevadan. Now I know what you’re thinking. What does that have to do with Lincoln? My states motto is Battle Born. You see, Nevada became a state October 31st, 1864. Lincoln was the president who gave my home a real American identity. Nevada was born in the heat of the Civil War, in the heat of battle, hence Battle Born. As I gazed on this suit, I couldn’t help but wonder was he wearing this when he gave Nevada Statehood?  What went through his mind when he made Nevada more than a territory out west he would never lay eyes on? He needed the electoral votes our state would provide in the upcoming election in order to be re-elected. That of course was one factor for Nevada Statehood, as well as the large amounts of silver and gold coming out of the area. But was there something more? Did he sit down in the dead of night as he was prone to do and look at a map, thinking that bit of dusty earth needs to be something more to America. What shall it become? As it turns out we aren't doing too bad. We could be better but Nevada has a rich and varied history (much of which people never even realize or come to know)
So to that I say Home means Nevada, home means the hills. Home means the sage and the pine. All this from a lanky man in a faded black suit.
 Thanks Abe.

(Oh and I'm totally listening to the Lone Ranger Theme song as I write this...because I can)