Sunday, September 30, 2012

Black swan, white swan





Wind and fire and. . . Debussy

there is no translation
for streams of pure meaning
and pure fire
like motion
and speed
who made thee
my steed

the language of motion
the swiftness
that casts all words
into fire
by the moment

I dreamed of horses
crashing in surf
each shining in color
as with birth and the sea
I ache to see
the shell of words we live in
is prison
we die inside it
die to creation
the way life creates itself
second by second

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Painted Doll: the magic of the early talkies

The Wedding Of The Painted Doll

It's a holiday today
The Wedding of the Painted Doll
It's a jolly day
The news is spreading
All around the hall

Red Riding Hood & Buster Brown
The Jumping Jack Jumped into town
From far and near they're coming here
Church bells ringing, bringing

All the little dollies from the follies
With the painted cheeks
Little Mama doll has fussed around
For weeks and weeks

Shoo the blues
No time to lose
Rice and shoes
Will spread the news
That it's a holiday
Today's the Wedding of the little Painted Doll

Here come the bridesmaids
Look at them in their places
Look at the fancy laces
Look at them as they smile
All sorrow away

Here comes the bride now
Look at the little cutie
Look at the little beauty
Look at the little doll
It's her wedding day

Here's the preacher and all look
As he takes his little book
He is sure he knows his stuff
'Cause he's done it oft'n enough

Here comes the bride groom
Ready for the service
Just a little nervous
Now the preacher says,
"You're married to stay"

It's a holiday today
The Wedding of the little Painted Doll

Arthur Freed (W) & Nacio Herb Brown (M)
from the 1929 movie, "Broadway Melody"

I finally found a YouTube clip of one of my favorite Hollywood production numbers. It's one of my favorites because it's just about the first Hollywood production number ever, from the 1929 curiosity Broadway Melody. Then of course you know what happened. It was taken down due to one of those silly rules, such as the law against theft.

So I put up the closest thing I could find, which is grainy still pictures, but the music is good.

The days of early sound must have been heady and terrifying: everything was dumped upside-down. Theatres had to scramble to convert all their equipment, careers were shattered, others sprang up full-blown like Athena from the head of Zeus. (Sorry, I used that metaphor a few posts ago, but it was too good not to repeat. This Oscar Levant stuff is getting to me.) It wasn't so much actors with "good voices" who were able to make the switch, but actors who were able to adapt their style to something more fluid, more subtle, with no more fluttering eyelashes or jabbing, full-body gestures.

Try something here, if you will: look at some silent films, both dramas and comedies (and turn off the wretched music that usually goes with them: when I say silent, I mean silent). Then watch some black-and-white movies from ten years later, with the sound off. Observe carefully. It's a whole 'nother ball game, like comparing stage acting to screen acting. The old large gestures won't play. Often, one murmur will do.

This doesn't mean sound films are "better", but they do seem to be from another planet. Much as I'm intrigued by them, I find silent pictures hard to follow. I'm one of those auditory types, and seeing lips moving with title cards strains my imagination.  Except for Harold Lloyd comedies, the pace of silent film seems much slower, and I was raised as a vid-kid on television that, by comparison, moved at light speed.

So, with the release of that awful non-talkie The Jazz Singer (featuring Al Jolson, the most repulsive performer who ever lived), everything changed. Garbo walked in and mowed everyone down with a voice that was heavily accented, "foreign", and far too deep and gruff to match her ethereal beauty. Something about it worked, it snagged people, grabbed them viscerally. Comedians such as W. C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy, who already had a loyal following in silent pictures, exploded overnight into international stars: and need I tell you why?

So anyway, this Broadway Melody, which I have watched on Turner Classics (bailing halfway through the first time because the non-musical part of it is just so awful) is a fine example of the partial transformation that audiences gobbled up at the time. It's a sort of cliche of early talkies that everyone had to cluster around a microphone hidden behind a potted palm, but it actually is true that these movies had a peculiarly static quality. Nobody knew how to deal with a microphone, which to the actors (mimes, by our standards) must have seemed like a voice-sucking monster. That explains why they had to include frenetic production numbers like this one, to keep rigor mortis from setting in.

This is the strangest one ever, with girls being spun around like compasses, a preacher with Harold Lloyd glasses and rubber legs who appears to fall down the stairs, cartwheels and splits galore, girls with a pompom attached to one ankle (??), and precious lyrics sung by one of those young men with a falsetto voice. I also note a bit of '20s choreography I've seen before: the girls stand on one foot, the other leg extended, hold on to the extended ankle, and hop up and down.

The whole thing is so beautiful to look at: not "black and white", but silver and shine. The music has that charming, optimistic "oom-cha, oom-cha" quality that was so popular before the Depression brought it all crashing down. Soon would come a leap in sophistication:  better songs, real plots instead of stilted novelty-driven dialogue ("Take. . . him. . . for. . . a. . . ride"), Fred and Ginger. If you look at pictures from 1929, then pictures from 1931, you will be astounded at the transformation.

In the interim was a mad scramble, studded with quirky little sparklers like this one.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Cheap Trick of the Day

Let us now diss famous dames. . .

These quotes are, of course, borrowed.
But the person who originally used them
must've borrowed them too, eh? Truth is,
it's Monday and I don't feel like writing
anything. So I will let famous people
speak for me, saying colorfully nasty
things about women of note.

This was a long list and I
winnowed out the clinkers, noticing that
the only really good ones belonged to
another time and place. The art of the
gorgeous insult is apparently wearing

Please note: in keeping with my latest
obsession, we could not avoid including
several choice Levant quotes. I don't
think he sat around inventing these: they
just spontaneously sailed out of his
bizarre and fevered intellect, and straight
over everyone's head.

She was incredibly ugly, uglier than almost anyone I had
ever met. A thin, withered creature, she sat hunched in her
chair, in her heavy tweed suit and her thick lisle stockings, impregnable and indifferent. She had a huge nose, a dark
mustache, and her dark-dyed hair was combed into absurd
bangs over her forehead.
- - - Otto Friedrich (about Alice B. Toklas)


I loathe you. You revolt me, stewing in your consumption
. . . you are a loathsome reptile - I hope you die.
- - - D. H. Lawrence (to Katherine Mansfield)


Zsa Zsa Gabor

She not only worships the golden calf, she barbecues it for lunch.
- - - Oscar Levant (about Zsa Zsa Gabor)

The only person who ever left the Iron Curtain wearing it.
- - - Oscar Levant (about Zsa Zsa Gabor)

You can calculate Zsa Zsa Gabor's age by the rings on her fingers.
- - - Bob Hope

Katherine Hepburn

She has a face that belongs to the sea and the wind, with
large rocking-horse nostrils and teeth that you just know
bite an apple every day.
- - - Cecil Beaton (about Katherine Hepburn)

She ran the whole gamut of emotions from A to B.
- - - Dorothy Parker (about Katherine Hepburn)

Marilyn Monroe

Her body has gone to her head.
- - - Barbara Stanwyck (about Marilyn Monroe)

She has breasts of granite and a mind like a Gruyere cheese.
- - - Billy Wilder (about Marilyn Monroe)

She's a vacuum with nipples.
- - - Otto Preminger (about Marilyn Monroe)

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor looks like two small boys fighting
underneath a thick blanket.
- - - Mr. Blackwell

Every minute this broad spends outside of bed is a waste
of time.
- - - Michael Todd (about Elizabeth Taylor)

Other Actresses

Her hair lounges on her shoulders like an anesthetized
cocker spaniel.
- - - Henry Allen (about Lauren Bacall, 1994)


I treasure every moment that I do not see her.
- - - Oscar Levant (about Phyllis Diller)



In feathered hats that were once the rage, she resembles
a petrified parakeet from the Jurassic age. A royal wreck
- - - Mr. Blackwell (about Camilla Parker-Bowles)

(More) Literary Legends

A fungus of pendulous shape.
- - - Alice James (about George Eliot, pseudonym of Mary

Ann Evans)

George Eliot has the heart of Sappho; but the face, with the
long proboscis, the protruding teeth of the Apocalyptic
horse, betrayed animality.
- - - George Meredith (about George Eliot, pseudonym of

Mary Ann Evans)

Every word she writes is a lie, including "and" and "the."
- - - Mary McCarthy (about Lillian Hellman)

Isn't she a poisonous thing of a woman, lying, concealing,
flipping, plagiarizing, misquoting, and being as clever a
crooked literary publicist as ever.
- - - Dylan Thomas (about Dame Edith Sitwell)

I am fairly unrepentant about her poetry. I really think
that three quarters of it is gibberish. However, I must crush
down these thoughts, otherwise the dove of peace will shit
on me.
- - - Noel Coward (about Dame Edith Sitwell)

In her last days, she resembled a spoiled pear.
- - - Gore Vidal (about Gertrude Stein)

She was a master at making nothing happen very slowly.
- - - Clifton Fadiman (about Gertrude Stein)

Virginia Woolf's writing is no more than glamorous
knitting. I believe she must have a pattern somewhere.
- - - Dame Edith Sitwell (about Virginia Woolf)

(Favorites? Am I prejudiced in favor of Oscar Levant?
His jibes  shouldn't have worked because they were full
of unlikely words like 'barbecue' and 'Iron Curtain', but
they win the prize for originality and sheer goofiness. In
second place, the "nothing very slowly" about Stein,
who really seems to get it in these things. Also, did you
notice the similarity in pose between Dylan Thomas
and Marilyn Monroe? Each of them whoring in their
own special way.)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Oscar Levant: The Lost Interview

An interview with Oscar Levant

(from Pulse Magazine, April 7, 1960)

Hello, Oscar. Nice to meet you. You know, I almost said “Hell, Oscar.”

(laughs) It would have been more appropriate. Come right in to my den of thieves.


I steal material all the time, everybody thinks it’s mine. It’s all in the delivery.

You mean a “special delivery”.

Aha, a smart-ass kid! We oughta get along just great.

 OK, Oscar Levant, let me get right down to it. What is it that drives you?

Drives me? I have a chauffeur, but it’s a “he”, not an “it”.

You know what I mean.

Drives me, it’s probably just the will to get up in the morning.

Is that hard for you?

Don’t pry.

OK, I won’t. Sorry. I want to know what. . . I hate to say “inspires” you.

Thank you.

Let me rephrase the question. Did you choose music, or did it choose you?

Do you need to ask?

Would you have done anything else?

I probably would have done practically anything else. The rule in our house was absolute perfection. One wrong note was a source of shame. It drove me absolutely crazy. See, now you have your answer!

As to why you went crazy?

I might have been crazy from the beginning.

So in what way did you depart from absolute perfection?

In just about every way. I hated my teachers. I hated my father. I hated my piano.

I have to tell you a story. Nobody in our family had any talent whatsoever on the keyboard, even though a few of them are professional musicians. When my brother was practicing, he kept trying to leave the room but my mother would stick her head in and say, “You have to practice for half an hour!” At one point he slammed the lid down and opened the front door and yelled at the top of his voice, “I HATE THE PIANO!”                  

(Laughs with a wicked expression)

I love piano stories. I hated the piano too. Or I hated what it did to me.

Did you never feel you’d mastered it?

No performance is ever as perfect as the one that exists in your mind.

That’s profound.

No it isn’t, I forgot my Demerol this morning.

Oh, so that’s supposed to be funny?

It gets big laughs.

So when did you decide to. . .

To be a sellout? That’s what they say about Levant. That he’s a sellout, that he sold out to Hollywood and cheap fame as a movie sidekick who plays cornball classical music between production numbers.

Are you?

A sellout?  Oh sure. But I make a lot better money. And it’s a way to stay out of the concert hall. It’s the ninth circle of Hell up there. (lights another cigarette)

But you’re so good. I mean, you’re –

Let’s get on with the Gershwin stuff, shall we? I know it’s coming.

OK, the Gershwin stuff. May I ask what he was really like?

Nothing like that limp-wristed Robert Alda who played him in the film. Had to dub all his playing for him.

Oh, THAT film! The one where you played yourself. What was it like to play yourself?

Let’s not get obscene here.

I don’t mean play “with” yourself.  I mean – portray yourself in the film.

I’d say it was a snap, but I don’t think I ever really figured out my character.

But you kept the coffee-and-cigarettes mode.

Sweetheart, that’s the only mode I have.

Is it your “shtik”?

Jesus, where do you get these words? What makes you think I’m Jewish?

It was the way you hugged Steve Allen on his show.

I hugged him “Jewish”?

I had to translate it.

(Laughs again) So did these guys send over somebody they think can stay ahead of me, or what?

No one can stay ahead of you.

Better for them. Listen, if I hugged Steve Allen any way at all they’d say I was a faggot. I was friends with Gershwin, and he was supposed to be a faggot, so that made ME a faggot by association.

I get the feeling you’re not a faggot.

Not lately. I think I’ve forgotten how, due to lack of practice. I have a lovely wife,  I mean it sincerely, June, she’s just terrific, we busted up last week. No, seriously, I don’t think I’d be alive without her and I don’t know how she puts up with me.

She loves you.

Loves me, as in popular song? Or loves me, as in, she loves him one minute and hates him the next? That would be my wife.

Do you ever stop joking? Do you ever get truly, deeply serious about things?

You mean, do I ever explore the darkest recesses of my tortured psyche?

Something like that.

Yeah, all the time.

At the piano?

Why would I damage my piano like that?

At the psychiatrist’s office? I saw him on your TV show the other day. That’s an innovative idea, to invite your analyst to come on your show.

He’s the only one I could get on such short notice. Adlai Stevenson bailed out on me at the last minute.

What do you say to your psychiatrist?

HELP!. . .  HELP!

Does he help?

I’m not sure there is such a thing as help, I mean on this plane of existence. I think you are who you are. It might be worse if I didn’t go.

Do you run in little circles inside your head?

What sort of question is that?

Just curious.

If you mean, am I a manic-depressive, of course. That’s the only diagnosis they could come up with that was frightening enough.

What are the highs like?

I don’t even know I’m on a high until I come down and realize that I’ve been babbling and swinging from chandeliers for weeks. Usually turns out I’ve offended a lot of people.

It sure smells like cigarettes in here.

The place is one big ashtray.

Are you hooked?

(Gazes at interviewer, lights another cigarette)

Would you play something for me right now?

I thought you’d never ask.

The Humoresque?

Which one?

Dvorak. Am I pronouncing that right?

No. Do you know there are words to that piece?

I didn’t! Why don’t you sing them?

Right now?

Right now.

(He sits at the piano, fidgeting and taking 2 or 3 minutes to get settled.)

Like a bike but so much cuter

Is my tiny two-wheeled scooter,

And I ride it ‘round and ‘round each day.

Though it has no engine on it,

Once I place my feet upon it

Merrily I’m on my way.

When I grow older

I may be bolder

And I’ll think of aeroplanes

And auto-mo-biles. . .

But right now when I’m outside

I’m satisfied to guide and ride

My tiny little scooter

With two wheels!

Oh, that’s lovely!

So are you, sweetheart. Come back any time. (Coughs, drapes arms around interviewer in Jewish embrace)


Friday, September 21, 2012

Barbecue Joe and his Hot Dogs - Tin Roof Blues (1930)

Hot Dog Blues by Barbecue Joe and his White Guy Band
Oh yeah.

Since you left me, mama
I got dem ole
Hot Dog Blues.
Got it so bad I bin puttin'
Mustard on my shoes

Since you left me baby,
I'm hangin' roun'

With a big bunch of Jews!
(musical interlude)

Boss man sez 
I gots ta pay my dues
(thump thump thump)
With the mob on my case,
I cain't see how I can refuse

And though you're thinkin', baby
That it's only a ruse
And though you're thinkin', baby
That I've lost my muse
And though you're thinkin', baby
That I'se exclaimin' "J'accuse"
(while reading Spinoza)

It don't make no difference, naw sahhhhhhhhh. . .
Cuz I've got dem -
Got dem -
Ohhhhhhhh, cuz I've got dem -
Got dem-old hot dog blues:
Gotta get down to de cawnah store to buy some,
I ain't got no time. . . to. . . loooooooooose!