Plague Diary 3: Making Adjustments

Small World Books in Better Days

No one knows how long the current plague restrictions will be in place. I have to assume it will be for several weeks. During that time, I cannot go to the movies or dine at a restaurant or visit a museum. For lunch, I visited Bay Cities Imports, Santa Monica’s primo Italian import grocery, and bought one of their Spaniard sandwiches. Based on a review at the Food GPS site:

The Spaniard isn’t made to order; you’ll find them wrapped in white butcher paper on the deli counter, along with other grab-and-go sandwiches, meaning they may sit for awhile. Still, my experience with The Spaniard still worked out well. The small-ish sandwich was stacked with jamon serrano, coppa seca, honey ham, Pamplona chorizo, Gruyere cheese, oregano, parsley, roasted tomatoes, olive oil, black pepper, and rosemary on a chewy baguette. Next time, I’ll probably beg to go back to The Godmother like some kind of guilt-ridden sandwich adulterer, but I enjoyed my brief fling with The Spaniard.

Since I could not eat lunch at the store, I took my lunch with me and drove to Venice, stopping at a parking meter and munching away while a parking enforcement officer kept circling my car seeing if she could ticket me. I waved my sandwich at her by way of greeting.

After I finished, I popped some quarters in the meter and walked to Small World Books. As you can see in the above photo, the bookstore is in the same building as the Sidewalk Cafe. As the bookstore is run by the wife of the cafe owner, it was not altogether surprising that it, too, is closed for the duration.

So I headed home and watched a DVD version of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue (1993), which I loved. I plan to see the other two films in the trilogy—White and Red (both 1994)—within the next few months. After dinner, I read another hundred pages of Jan Neruda’s Prague Tales.

 

 

Zeppelin Orgy

Book Based on the Movie

No one could say that it’s a good movie, but it certainly is an outrageous one. Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan (1930) starts out as a fairly standard bedroom farce and ends with an hour-long orgy aboard a zeppelin that starts out being tethered at a New York airport, and ends up being destroyed in a sudden electrical storm. Oh, and by the way, it’s a musical.

I first saw the film when it was screened by the Dartmouth Film Society in the mid 1960s. More than half a century later, I was still amazed by the film, which was screened tonight by Turner Classic Movies (TCM).

The zeppelin sequence begins with a song and dance number which, no doubt, was considered very advanced for the time:

An “Electrical” Song and Dance Number Aboard the Zeppelin

Cecil B. DeMille was famous for, on one hand publicly adhering to Puritan morality, and on the other pushing the “sin” routines for all they’re worth. The film was released well before the Motion Picture Code was adopted in 1934. Between the advent of sound and the censorship of the Hays Office, Hollywood produced some pretty racy films such as Red Dust (1932) with Jean Harlow, Baby Face (1933) with Barbara Stanwyck, and King Kong (1933) with Fay Wray.

I remember seeing a racy outtakes reel from the latter film in which Kong exposes Fay Wray’s breasts and crushes a black native underfoot as if he were a cockroach.

The pre-code talkies produced by Hollywood tried to walk a straight and narrow path of Protestant morality, but had a little hypocritical fun doing it. The result is at times curiously sexy.

 

Phooey on the Oscars

I Continue My Decades-Long Boycott of the Oscars

Hollywood used to make great films. Sometimes they received awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. More frequently, they didn’t. The awards probably represented more than anything else the current state of film industry politics.

Every February, the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel presents its “31 Days of Oscar” series. Curiously, I find that TCM movies during this period are not as good or interesting as the usual offerings at other times. In fact, I am downright angry that the “Noir Alley” series hosted by Eddie Muller will not return until after the 31-day Oscar orgy takes place.

I am not even talking about the smarmy annual show where the awards are presented. Neither Martine nor I watch the show, which is understandable inasmuch as we do not bother to see the majority of films in contention.

So once again, we are on the outs as far as popular culture is concerned. No problem there!

 

Favorite Films: A Christmas Story (1983)

Scott Schwartz as Flick and Peter Billingsley as Ralphie

It’s refreshing that a film produced as late as the 1980s has become a legitimate Christmas classic. Seeing it repeatedly has not diminished its appeal, even when seen in bits and pieces on TV channels that played the film for 24 hours straight.

The director of A Christmas Story, Bob Clark, is a filmmaker who has not produced anything else that comes up to the standard of this, his masterpiece. I have read Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and loved it. As good as the original story was, the film was better. The direction of the actors, particularly the child actors, was as good as anything I have ever seen.

Peter Billingsley Faces Jeff Gillen as Santa

There is another reason I love the film. Although the story is set in Indiana, scenes were set on Public Square in Cleveland, Ohio, where I spent most of my childhood. I remember the Christmas parades there, and particularly the Christmas display windows at Higbee’s Department Store, which is clearly identified in the film. Other scenes may have been shot elsewhere, but most of the exteriors reminded me of Cleveland. Even Ralphie’s school looked exactly like Harvey Rice Elementary School, where I attended kindergarten and half of first grade. (I never finished first grade, but let that be our little secret.)

If I were the one scouting locations for A Christmas Story in such a way as to reflect my own childhood, I would not have done any differently than the producers of the film. That’s why every time I see this film, I am taking a trip down memory lane.

 

The Year of Noir

A Scene from the Noir Film The Big Combo (1955)

For me, 2019 has been the year of noir—both film noir, and somewhat less markedly, noir literature. I have just finished reading the New York Review edition of Elliott  Chaze’s 1953 novel Black Wings Has My Angel.

In my Goodreads.Com review of the novel, I quote this incredible passage from page 35:

After all, no matter how long you live, there aren’t too many really delicious moments along the way, since most of life is spent eating and sleeping and waiting for something to happen that never does. You can figure it out for yourself, using your own life as the scoreboard. Most of living is waiting to live. And you spend a great deal of time worrying about things that don’t matter and about people that don’t matter and all this is clear to you when you know the very day you’re going to die.

I wondered in my review why, after attaining a dominant position in the world after World War Two had crippled most everyone else, and after years of growing prosperity, the pessimism of noir became such a persistent theme in literature, film, and even art (q.v. Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”).

The best film noir productions I have seen in the last twelve months include (in the order I have seen them):

  • Joseph H. Lewis: The Big Combo (1955)
  • Byron Haskin: Too Late for Tears (1949)
  • Robert Montgomery: The Lady in the Lake (1947) – based on Raymond Chandler’s novel
  • Anthony Mann: Border Incident (1949)
  • Phil Karlson: 99 River Street (1953)
  • Norman Foster: Woman on the Run (1950)
  • Edmund Goulding: Nightmare Alley (1947) – based on William Henry Gresham’s novel
  • John Huston: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
  • Samuel Fuller: Pick-Up on South Street (1953)
  • Fritz Lang: The Big Heat (1953) – probably the best of the bunch
  • John Huston: The Maltese Falcon (1941) – an early outlier
  • Fritz Lang: Clash by Night (1952)
  • Frank Tuttle: This Gun for Hire (1942) – based on Graham Greene’s novel A Gun for Sale
  • Abraham Polonsky: Force of Evil (1948)
  • Alexander Mackendrick: The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

More than half the films were viewed on the TCM channel’s excellent “Noir Alley” series hosted by movie scholar Eddie Muller.

Although I consider myself an auteurist critic, I included the directors’ names in the list because of how widespread film noir productions were, especially in the postwar period, coming from a variety of studios and many different directors. Many were produced on shoestring budgets and sneaked through even though they were opposed by many studio heads, such as Louis B. Mayer of MGM.

Later this week, I will present a list noir writers who were partly responsible for the film trend.

 

 

The Annual Stooge-a-Thon

The Original Thee Stooges: Larry Fine and Moe and Curly Howard

Today, Martine and I attended the Three Stooges 22nd Annual Big Screen Event at the Alex Theater in Glendale. I think that the two of us have attended some 16 or 17 of the annual screenings over the years, missing only those years when I we nt off to South America in November. This is probably the only Stooges event where all the films shown are 35mm prints direct from Sony Pictures, which owns the rights to the Columbia Pictures screen archives.

The Stooges shorts are much more fun to watch with a large, enthusiastic audience—and attendance filled about 95% of the seats this afternoon. (We usually attend only the matinee performances.) Shown, in order, were the following Stooges shorts, all produced by Columbia:

  • “Pardon My Scotch” (1935)
  • “Saved by the Belle” (1939) directed by Charley Chase
  • “So Long Mr. Chumps” (1941)
  • “Studio Stoops” (1950) with Shemp Howard
  • “Three Pests in a Mess” (1945)
  • “Dizzy Pilots” (1943)

Between the two of us, Martine is the big Stooge fan. I was surprised to see that up to 40% of the audience consisted of women, who appeared to be as enthusiastic as the men.

For Martine, it was an opportunity to have some great chicken. For lunch, we went to Sevan Rotisserie Chicken on Glenoaks and, for dinner, Elena’s Greek and Armenian Restaurant on Glendale Boulevard.

 

 

Old Town Music Hall

The Facade of the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo

On hot summer weekends, Martine and I frequently found ourselves in the coastal enclave of El Segundo. Its southern boundary is the huge Standard Oil refinery, the second (“El Segundo”) to be located in California, the first being in Richmond. North is Los Angeles International Airport, and east lies the Pacific Coast Highway and a commercial/industrial area. The western boundary is the Pacific Ocean.

Situated on Richmond Street half a block from the refinery is the Old Town Music Hall, a former silent movie theater built in 1921. In 1968, it was re-opened as a repertory film theater and concert venue featuring a Mighty Wurlitzer organ.

A typical film screening features old classical films, opening with a Wurlitzer organ concert, followed by sing-along slides of old musical favorites and occasionally a short film. In October, we saw three films of a Halloween horror film series, including the original Frankenstein and Dracula as well as The Black Cat, which starred both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. There are also programs featuring classical musicals and short comedies and cartoons.

In addition, there are occasional live music concerts, which we have not attended.

Interior of the Old Town Music Hall

The theater is run as a nonprofit organization under Section 501(c)(3). There is seating for only a couple hundred people, so profits are pretty much out of the question. The whole operation is clearly a labor of love.

We’re looking forward to a program of Laurel and Hardy shorts to be shown next weekend.