Everyone’s back; all is well. I drove to the airport in the loaner car – the Element is getting some upgrades at the dealership, and they gave me a 2005 Honda Civic. So naturally the family didn’t know what to look for when I pulled up. There’s nothing as selfish and disorganized as the baggage-area passenger pickup; on the best of days, it feels like the evacuation of Paris, without the Nazi shelling. The cars are stacked three deep; no one can get out and no one can get in, yet everyone gets out and gets in. Damndest thing.
After we reunited we headed to the Convention Grill for hamburgers and fries – it’s an ancient burger joint with the original counter from 1934. Take a look: it’s the Diner’s spiritual ancestor.
So how did I spend my time alone?
Got to the final level of Quake 4, and quit. Life’s too short to die that many times. I will never relive the glories of the boss level that ended Quake 2; I had stored up about 2 minutes of invulnerability, and just sat under the bad guy and gave him a rocket colonic.
Watched TV without the headphones, and discovered that over the last year, Gnat and / or wife have mashed enough buttons on the remote to completely screw up the sound settings. It’s now on Dolby Music Hall Disco Bass Surround, or something. Of course there is no reset option. I hate this receiver; always have. It’s a combo VCR-DVD unit, and when I bought it we still watched tapes. No more. Replacing it is out of the question, though; You can’t buy a combo DVD player / receiver without getting five speakers. I don’t need any speakers. I still have leftovers from the last combo unit that went kerfluey.
While everyone was away I watched a little TV – not much as I expected, really. Most notable: “Footlight Parade,” a 1933 Busby Berkeley musical. As noted before, I’m not much of a fan of the genre, although I love some musicals. I’ve only seen BB musicals on TV, long ago, in PBS-type documentaries that would pop up Saturday nights when I was a dateless loser in the dorm room. They always seemed . . . peculiar. Frightening, almost. As if there was something very wrong about them, and everyone knew it, but no one would say anything about it.
Well. I bought the Warner Brothers compilation of the Berkeley movies. “42nd Street” is fine enough – the star of course is Ruby Keeler, who dances like sacks of wet cement falling from a second-story window. It’s like watching an interpretative dance based on the Whack-A-Mole game. I don’t understand the attraction, but the musical sequences are interesting, and rather racy – whatever Dick Powell did after she drew the curtain on their honeymoon train berth, he did it quickly.
“Footlight Parade” was a different creature entirely, due mainly to a different creature entirely: Jimmy Cagney gives the whole silly thing a galvanic charge. If Gene Kelly had a cheerful American athleticism, Cagney sometimes looked like he didn’t know whether to dance or punch someone out. He’s marvelous. And again, he’s paired with ol’ spider-stomping Ruby.
The first number, “Honeymoon Hotel,” is a cheerfully naughty bit with a bouncy tune from the inexhaustible team of Warren and Dubin. Here’s a 1.7 MB MP3 of the tune, performed by Jack Hylton and his Orchestra. (It's never anyone else's orchestra, is it?) It has that simple inevitability of a great old show tune, a melody that can be played over and over and over as the action changes, never wearing out its welcome. The scene, however, concludes with a bothersome little “child” running around the hotel, causing mischief. It’s Billy Barty, who is obviously not a child, which makes it all the creepier; he’s like some Imp in Charge of Implied Pregnancies.
The second number, “By a Waterfall,” concerns a young woman who meets her boyfriend by the aforementioned water feature. He falls asleep, and she enters a fantasy world wherein she takes all her clothes off and joins several dozen equally unclad women in a waterfall of their own. Well of Loneliness, indeed: it's standing room only. When you see it now, you have to peel back 70 years to grasp the power of this particular image:
That's the lass en route to the waterfall. The upper-floor nudity is implied, of course. But the impact in part comes from the scale. These legs projected on a big screen were probably enough to make half the people in the audience swallow their gum.
The entire scene is from another dimension. Really. About 5,000 identical women in (white) skin-colored bathing suits performing intricate ballets, one of which, seen from overhead, appears to be a Salute To the Lower Intestine.
The accompanying featurette interviews John Waters – who looks like Howard Hughes’ happier immortal twin – and the sage of Baltimore points out how hard it is to smile underwater, to say nothing of hitting your mark. But they do. Watching this sequence, I got the odd feeling that time will somehow make this sort of art mysterious and inscrutable. It will not make sense. No one will know why they did it, or what it means. It exists outside any sort of normal context, and keeps rewriting itself from scene to scene until you have no realistic frame of reference. You can’t help but feel there’s something dangerous in all the spashy frivolity, too – this sort of dehumanized collective synchronization has a creepy Triumph of the Will undertone. But it says something about American culture that we were putting pretty girls into brightly lit water tanks, instead of making severe young party members stride around with torches at night. If you knew nothing of the two cultures and had to predict which would win a war, you’d put your money on the guys who could hit their marks in the dark. And you'd be wrong. God bless America:
The final number is almost an anti-climax, but that's because it looks like gritty realism compared to the previous number. Cagney stumbles through an opium den lookin’ for his Shanghai Lil, whose powers of erotic persuasion are evidently superhuman. Turns out she’s Ruby Keeler again, who is about as Asian and alluring as Granny Clampett.
But nevermind. There’s a long pan of the bar, as each patron wonders about the mysteries of Lil, or laments the fact that she turned him down. It’s the League of Nations: a Frenchman, a Brit, and even a rich-looking well-fed Levantine fellow: “said she von't be mine / for all of Palestine, Oy.” (Back when Palestine meant something different, of course.) A black soldier is drinking with a white prostitute – and given the all-caucasian cast of the show heretofore, the moment leaps right out.
Progressive? Well, perhaps, but if the message is that race-mixing is okay in a Chinese drug den, maybe not so much.
The mournful tune, however, becomes a military march, pounded out with grim insistence. The sailors deploy squares of cloth. Overhead shot: they form a flag.
The squares turn over:
The sailors regroup:
It’s the National Recovery Act logo. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a specific endorsement of a President or a particular policy. Ever. Anywhere.
And how long has it been since an economic program had a logo? Besides the WIN buttons, I mean.
Anyway, I have to upload this and get back to being among actual people again. I do recommend these movies; oddly familiar and sadly remote. Can't say you know everything about America in the 20th century without watching these a few times.
A few links before I go. (Sorry, didn’t finish the screed.)
“I want GLOBAL humiliation to help these punks realize what they have done.” Done and done! (bad language warning. Also MySpace warning – exposure to the idiots linked by that site may cause you to root for the bird flu.)
From the man who gave us “Rolie Polie Olie” and other delights: “The Guardians of Childhood.” (Sound warning; broadband recommended). It stands at the exact opposite of the universe as this.
The primary, literal definition of “floored.”
Screwed up the Instapundit podcast link I mentioned Monday - and by "screwed up" I mean I forgot to add it. Here you go.
New Quirk & Kings Features. Tomorrow: The return of the son of the Oak Island Water Feature, with a new surprise guest: the heretofore unsuspected side-pond overflow filter problem! See you then.