Best moment of the day: child picks out “Ode To Joy” on the piano, gets all the dynamics and timing right. Worst moment: realizing that the nap would not happen today, because after-school gym let out 42 minutes late. If that’s the worst, it was a good day.
One of the things of which I’m constantly reminded is that the America everyone remembers and wants to bring back never existed, at least not all at once. (This is the theme of the larger Thing I’m working on, if you care.) But there are persistent undertones whose rise and fall you can track, and they’re usually thrumming behind the glossy facades of pop culture. (Or the dour, tar-swabbed, trash-strewn balsa-wood facades, depending on your perspective, and the era.) That’s one of the reasons we seem to think the counterculture was, well, the actual culture. It won, in the end, and so its early days seem like new shoots on the tallest tree. The trouble comes when you realize that you always notice the new developments, and never have the chance to see the old things vanish. They're gone before you miss them. I've been spending a lot of time trying to assemble the Thirties in my head, which leads us to . . .
Black and White Tuesday, the weekly feature about pop culture in the time before color. The first movie has nothing to do with the 30s - it's a German silent film by Mirnau, usually referred to as “F. W. Mirnau,” to distinguish him from Harvey Increase Mirnau, or other Mirnau-named directors. It’s called “The Last Laugh,” and follows the emotional and psychological trajectory of a large old man busted down from doorman to bathroom attendant. It has no title cards, no plot aside from what I’ve just described, and acting so broad it’s a wonder they didn’t invent Panavision just to capture the acting. It has its merits – the opening sequence shows the life of a German city on a rainy night, shot from the lobby so we don’t have to get wet, and it’s marvelous to watch. Then it’s lots of goggle-eyed disbelief from the walrus-mustached main character. I would have enjoyed it more if I’d paid enough attention, but silent dramas tax me in ways that silent comedies never do. I mention it for the “twist” ending, described thus:
Really puts you in the middle of the story, doesn’t it? In real life, which we have painstakingly attempted to reproduce, the old man dies shortly after the scene you just saw, but who wants to be a Dieter Downer? Here’s what happens:
Yes, Mr. Money. This leaves our hero with millions, and he promptly takes up an unusual hobby, namely, impersonating Captain Kangaroo if he’d lived during the Revolutionary War:
Not sure the flower’s big enough, but the war had a devastating impact on the German Floral Industry. On to the next one, which was mostly made of heavy lead:
I’d enjoyed the previous Gold Diggers, because they had those insane Busby Berkeley numbers. You can’t look away from those things –as examples of innovative camera work, passé standards of pulchritude, editing, special effects, they’re remarkable. The movies I’d seen had lots of musical numbers, and while I’m not a great fan of musicals, I love them some out of proportion to my disinterest in the genre. The plot of this one concerns insurance salesmen – yes, insurance salesmen, who had a hard row to hoe in ’37, what with the interminable Depression – and the canny, sassy, unromantic dames what aimed to fix their chapeaus for a man with money, honey, etc. So you have Dick Powell grinning his way around a bad moustache, a trio of ladies on the make, an old geezer with a bad heart, and somehow it all ended in a nightclub where the laws of space and time were distorted to create a vastly improbably musical number, “Love is Just Like War.” As with the last time I watched one of these movies, I can’t get the song out of my head.
First, the couples are sitting in immense rocking chairs. Noted.
Then Joan Blondell gives this mercenary sing-spiel – excellent delivery, and amusingly cold-hearted lyrics. I love the way she says “Why yes, yes” in an offhand fashion that flirts with the meter without giving it a kiss. As for “am I too brutal? Maybe” and the fluttering eyelids that precede the line: brrr, and yowwr. It only took a quarter century to undo about 500 years of tradition about how women should behave. War, the Jazz Age, the Crash, the Long Trough: everyone grew up, very quickly. Note the expressions at the end – a sisterly “know what I mean,” a wry “that’s the way things are, Mabel” and a big false Hollywood grin. (Mouse over to activate controls.)
A sudden love attack and I’d have all his jack. (Incidentally, she married Dick Powell – during the filming of this movie, or shortly afterwards. )
Well, after the female of the species announces her plans, the chairs return:
The male of the species is now the size of a marital aid, his potency and usefulness cut down by protracted economic dislocations! After more crooning, there’s – well, I don’t know how to describe it, except that the horrors of WW1 had been forgotten by ’37, and the war to come was foreshadowed by a horrible new advance in military tactics: the motorized trench. Stay where you are, men – we’re advancing! (Mouse over to activate controls.)
Then there’s marching Berkley style, with the usual massed arrays of high-contrast figures with diaphanous flags. I know it’s a bit much to read into this, but it’s hard not to see a world leaning away from war while its feet slip down the muddy incline. Nothing in history is ever a surprise, in retrospect.
I always wonder who these women were, and how many people today know that Grandma was a Busby Berkeley dancer. I’d google it, but the only thing worse than finding out no one knows is finding an entire site devoted to the offspring of Berkeley dancers, and I hadn’t seen it before.
Here’s the whole scene; the mail co-star died of drink, and you’re not surprised; there’s something of the cheerful-but-desperately-unhappy-total-drunk everyone knows in college. I’ll point out something I say once or twice a year – the sound of those massed voices, which was the standard sound in those days, has an oddly haunting appeal today, because most people of my generation first encountered it in the opening credits of "The Wizard of Oz," our first introduction to pre-WW2 culture.
If you’re wondering why this stuff was “rediscovered” in the “Camp craze” of the 60s, as Wikipedia notes, it’s because people were stoned, which possibly enabled them to see it without sneering.
New Comic – adventures in Cold War Babe-related espionage – and of course buzz.mn throughout the day. See you there!