Having Wonderful Time

May 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

 

A couple years back I came up what I thought was a genius idea: summer camp for adults. Just imagine it: all those happiest, most carefree summers of your youth, packed with swimming, arts & crafts hour, and s’more-roasting under the stars . . . only this time with alcohol and sex. (Well, more sex. My sleepaway camp adventures ended in middle school, and took place at a church camp to boot, so the closest we got to sexin’ was en masse crushes on the boys from Cabin 6 with Devon Sawa hair and names like A.J. and Jonathan. But Little Darlings, Meatballs and Wet Hot American Summer make it clear I missed out.) What could be better? And how exactly was I the first person to think of this? We have adult kickball leagues, adult Chuck E. Cheese . . . how had nobody invented adult summer camp yet?

Then I watched the Ginger Rogers romance Having Wonderful Time and realized they had.

Ginger Rogers plays an overworked typist who’s been saving all her pennies for a vacation in the Catskills: at Camp Kare-Free, to be exact, which is . . . you guessed it, an adult summer camp. She shares a bunk with a handful of comic relief friends (including Lucille Ball), she eats breakfast in the mess hall where Red Skelton provides the guests with comedy routines about the proper way to dunk their doughnuts, and her days are spent horseback riding and canoeing on the lake while nights involve dancing and star-gazing on the camp’s veranda. The camp canteen is even fully stocked with liquor. Dream vacation, right? But Ginger’s got bigger dreams: her reason for taking this trip was to land a husband who can rescue her from her busy working girl life and the noisy family she lives with. Despite a rocky beginning, Ginger does manage to win the heart of camp waiter Douglas Fairbanks, but he, naturally, is penniless and in no shape to be rescuing anybody from anything. Misunderstandings lead to the usual romantic comedy hijinks, which are solved, 1930s-style, at the last possible minute before the fade-to-black.

I have no idea what happened to adult summer camps. Maybe they only ever existed in the movies in the first place. But one thing’s for certain: it’s time for a comeback. Anybody want to put a down payment on a little lakeside place in the Adirondacks with me?

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Top Hat

January 22, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’m probably going to lose all my musical-loving street cred by saying this, but I’ve never been the biggest fan of Fred Astaire musicals. This has less to do with Fred himself than it does with the form the musical took at the peak of Astaire’s career: pre-Oklahoma!, they’re intended to be nothing but trifles with spun-sugar plots and no character development, no emotional journey. While plenty of people love them, it’s not my favorite era of the musical’s development. Most of the Fred Astaire movie plots seem to take the same basic format: either he or his romantic interest (or both) are involved with other people, but they fall in love instead. This is a solid enough plot with enough variations to base a handful of movies on, but not an entire career, sorry to say.

Still, it’s not just the musical’s fault. There’s a line in movie-musical fandom that says you’re either an Astaire fan or a Kelly fan, never both, with the implication always that Astaire’s dancing was the purer version of the art form. Astaire was sophisticated, made it look easy, was always in a top hat and tails while he did it. Gene Kelly wasn’t a dancer, he was an athlete. He did musicals where he wore a baseball player’s uniform or a sailor suit or a terrible mustache. You see him sweat! You never see Astaire sweat. The idea that I have to pick just one seems overly restrictive to me, but if I have to limit myself, I’m a Gene girl all the way. The problem with Fred is that even here, when he’s young, he just comes off as old. Fussy. Ineffectual. I can never suspend my disbelief enough to buy the idea that women are chasing after him, fighting over him, can’t stay away from him. It’s a problem I have with Fred, with Bing Crosby, sometimes even with Frank Sinatra. Sometimes the qualities that made someone a star don’t universally translate over the decades. Seventy years from now, I imagine classic film fans will wonder why we were so hot for George Clooney.

But the biggest hurdle for me to jump is that Astaire always plays the same character. Always lovesick, always walking that tightrope between smarmy and charming. Never convincingly hot-blooded, never in over his head. Refusing to be seen in anything other than that damn top hat and tails. Would Astaire ever wear a terrible mustache or a baseball uniform if it fit the character? Never. Astaire’s a dancer, not an actor. And certainly there’s some comfort to be derived from that, a comfort that was probably more welcome during the Great Depression when Astaire’s career was at its peak. If you went to an Astaire film, you knew what you were going to get: Astaire, always in fancy dress, always calm, cool and collected, always twirling you away from your problems. It’s these traits that many Astaire fans still love in him to this day. Just not me.

With that introduction in mind, I enjoyed Top Hat more than most Fred Astaire films. Astaire is the same as ever–put-together, tuxedo-clad, head over heels in puppy-love. The plot is similar to other Astaire plots, albeit with a mistaken identities twist that I enjoyed more than most–while Astaire is trying to romance Miss Rodgers, she’s convinced that he’s the husband of her close friend. A comedy of errors ensues. But despite the same ol’ Fred and same ol’ plot, the movie has other charms. First there’s Ginger, whom I love anywhere. Then there are those absurd, amazing Art Deco sets, culminating in the wonder of a Disneyland-esque Venice pictured above. I could love this movie for those sets alone, and of course the highly artificial Fred & Ginger films work better on highly artificial sound stages than they would have on location. And the costumes–Ginger’s riding pants, that infamous feather dress during the “Cheek to Cheek” scene! The dancing, it goes without saying, is phenomenal. The supporting cast is stellar, the script is funny–basically everything except Fred works for me here. Sorry, Fred.

While the film is intended to be wholly superficial, the mistaken identity plot functions here as it does in many Shakespearean comedies, allowing the characters to allude to sex and adultery in a way that never could have been addressed in a 1935 movie if played straight. At one point, Ginger believes that her friend Madge is literally offering to share her husband with her–and Ginger, if we’re to take the movie seriously, considers it (despite being slightly appalled). The Breen Office only allows this because we, the audience, know they’re actually in love with different men. I’m not one of those Hays Code afficionados who believe that the Code made everything better by forcing filmmakers to allude to things and audiences to use their brains rather than having things spelled out for them, but Top Hat is a perfect example of films that are made better by implication only.

Anne of Green Gables (1934)

November 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

Jaded by too many early Hollywood book-to-movie adaptations where the film had nothing in common with its source beyond the title, I had low expectations for R.K.O.’s Anne of Green Gables. I figured they’d get the orphan part right, but she’d probably be played by a ringleted blonde rather than a pigtailed redhead, and no doubt the plot would be invented out of whole cloth . . . Imagine my eyes when Anne showed up looking just how I’d always imagined her, blathering about how awful it was to have red hair and asking to be called Cordelia and proclaiming things the White Way of Delight and the Lake of Shining Waters. The plot itself was a mish-mash of some anecdotes from the book and some made up ones (there’s a little Romeo & Juliet storyline inserted to keep Anne and Gilbert apart until the movie’s end), but they got Anne so right, I couldn’t even be mad, not even when they changed the plot to allow Matthew to live at the end. (Okay, that might have more to do with the fact that I love Matthew even more than I love Gilbert Blythe.)

I’ve always found it kind of strange that there’s never been a really great, really committed Anne of Green Gables movie made. The first three books of the series are tailor-made for it: pretty settings, period dresses, heartwarming drama, short episodic plots for children with short attention spans. The conservatives can approve of the family values; the liberals can approve of the fact that the “family” in question is non-traditional. The story is Canadian, and the Japanese inexplicably love it, so it’d do okay in the global market. The third book even has a love triangle that beats the pants off of Twilight‘s. It seems like a no-brainer.

Don’t tell me the lights are shining anyplace but there: the World’s Fair on Film

June 24, 2011 § 2 Comments

Chicago’s White City of 1893 was a quintessential American city, forced up out of marshland by sheer willpower and molded into Venetian-style waterways framed by magnificent Beaux Arts buildings just in time for the World’s Columbian Exposition to open, then abandoned to fire and decay as it drew to a close. It was a beautiful spectacle. One visitor described it:¬† “. . . there are some people who are letting the chance of seeing this White City, that rose like a Venus from the waters of Lake Michigan, slip from them forever. They are missing the greatest event in the history of the country since the Civil War.” It inspired two of America’s greatest wonderlands: L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City of Oz and Walt’s Disneyworld. And yet despite this, it’s never been the setting for a film. That drought will allegedly end in 2013, when Leonardo DiCaprio adapts Erik Larson’s spectacular book The Devil in the White City to the screen. In the meantime, I set out to find a few other fair-set films to enjoy . . .

Centennial Summer (set during the Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, 1876)
The film: Fox’s response to the popularity of Meet Me in St. Louis (see below) was to put out their own world’s fair-set period musical. Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell are sisters who compete for the love of a Frenchman who’s come to town to prepare the French pavilion for the Centennial Exposition. The fair: Despite fears of an international boycott, the United States’ first official world fair went off without a hitch. This exposition was the first to feature a women’s pavilion, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Heinz ketchup both made their debuts. The arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty were on display during the latter half of the fair, and for fifty cents, you could climb up to the torch’s balcony; these fees helped to fund the creation of the rest of the statue.

So Long at the Fair (set during the Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1889)
The film: This 1950 British suspense film features Jean Simmons and David Tomlinson as siblings who venture to Paris for its world fair. After a night of Paris revelry, though, Jean awakens to find that every trace that her brother ever set foot in Paris–from his signature in the hotel’s guest book to his hotel room itself–has disappeared, and the hotel’s owners claim he was never there. Jean teams up with Dirk Bogarde–the only other person in Paris who remembers interacting with her brother– to solve the case of his disappearance. The fair: Held to celebrate the centennial of the storming of the Bastille, the Paris Exposition of 1889 is most famous for introducing the Eiffel Tower to the Parisian skyline. At the time, the statue was much hated and considered an eyesore. Writer Guy de Maupassant, when asked why he ate lunch at the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant most days despite hating the structure, responded that the reason he ate there was that it was the only place in Paris where you couldn’t see the Tower! Overseas, things were a little different–four years later in Chicago, the desire to outdo the Eiffel Tower led to the creation of the first Ferris wheel.

Meet Me in St. Louis (set during the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, 1904)
The film: This is, of course, the mother of all fair films, but the fair itself is mostly a framing device that only truly appears in the charming last scene of the film. The plot is a loosely connected series of vignettes about the Smith family and their five children (including Margaret O’Brien and Judy Garland at her most wonderful), culminating in Mr. Smith’s anguish-inducing announcement that he’ll move the family to New York for a job, taking them away from all their friends and new beaux–not to mention causing them to miss the upcoming world’s fair!. The musical, which used a mix of period songs (“Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis,” “Under the Bamboo Tree”) and ones written specifically for the film (“The Trolley Song,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) to great effect, inspired a number of other period musicals over the next few years, including On Moonlight Bay, The Belle of New York, and the world fair-set Centennial Summer. The fair: The 1904 Olympics, which had originally been awarded to Chicago, were relocated to St. Louis in order to be held concurrently with the exposition. Things were run so poorly–with the events being spread out over months and many non-American athletes not attending–that it nearly killed the Olympics off entirely. The fair was well known for popularizing ice cream served in waffle cones, and many other food products–from peanut butter to Dr. Pepper–were introduced or popularized there as well.

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (set during the Golden Gate Exposition, San Francisco, 1939)
The film: Sidney Toler stars as the controversial Chinese-American detective, who investigates the death of his friend after he supposedly commits suicide on a flight home to San Francisco. This film, like the Elvis one below, was not a period piece, being filmed and released at the same time it supposedly took place. The world’s fair setting is mostly a gimmick, since it barely appears. The fair: This exposition celebrated the completion of the city’s two new bridges, the Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. Treasure Island is an artificial island created specifically for the fair; afterwards, it was used as a naval base.

It Happened at the World’s Fair (set during the Century 21 Exposition, Seattle, 1962)
The film: Of all the world’s fair films, this Elvis Presley vehicle actually gives us our biggest glimpse at the fair itself–from the Space Needle to the monorail–as Elvis and his friend spend most of the movie hustling for money to buy back their cropduster. (Yeah, I think they were running out of plots at this point in Elvis’s career.) Taking the “cute kid” conceit of earlier Elvis films to its logical extreme, Elvis plays baby-sitter to a girl named Sue-Lin, who herself plays matchmaker between Elvis and Joan O’Brien, a nurse working at the fair. The fair: The Cold War colored all aspects of the 1950s, including the plans for this fair. Its intention was to prove that the United States wasn’t behind the Soviet Union, science and technology-wise, which led to this exposition’s focus on the future. The Cold War would play an additional role in the closing ceremony of the fair, when John F. Kennedy’s scheduled appearance was canceled due to what was later discovered to be the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Seattle fair also included an “adults only” portion, including naked “Girls of the Galaxy” and an R-rated puppet show. Don’t wait for any of that to show up in the Elvis film, though!

There is no rape scene in Gone with the Wind.

June 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

Gone with the Wind is something of a cinematic Rorschach test, and its ability to be all things to all people is a part of its long-lasting appeal. It’s racist, except when it’s not: the horrors of slavery are glossed over, the semi-complexity of the novel’s characters is reduced to stereotypes in the film, and the black actors were treated poorly at the premiere and, on some occasions, on the set–but the film was one of the only ones of its time to actually give black actors something to do besides stand in the background and smile ingratiatingly, and it led to Hattie McDaniel’s famous first Best Supporting Actress win. The film is pro-Southern, except when it’s anti-Southern: the antebellum South is romanticized (knights and ladies fair, a dream remembered, et cetera) but it also very blatantly spells out the fact that the South failed because they were cocky, ignorant bastards who were too wrapped up in their ladies fair and their code of chivalry to see the forest for the trees. It’s sexist, except when it’s not: Scarlett and Melanie are extremely strong female characters in different molds, with Scarlett breaking all the confining conventions to which her gender is held, and the focus on how war affects women was quite revolutionary for its time–but there’s a definite Taming of the Shrew vibe, and demure Melanie is clearly set up as the ideal of Southern womanhood, with even Margaret Mitchell herself expressing wonderment (a little disingenuously, in my opinion) at why Scarlett turned out to be so well-loved by so many. And then there’s the little matter of that rape scene . . .

There’s only one small problem with that: there is no rape scene in Gone with the Wind–and whenever anybody describes the staircase scene as such, I have to fight the urge to tear my hair out, weep, beat my chest, et cetera. To be fair to them, it’s easy to mistake the staircase scene for a rape scene when Rhett carries Scarlett kicking and screaming up the stairs–but to be fair to the movie’s directors, too, there’s not much more they could have done with the source material to make the scene clear, short of slapping a voice-over on it. It’s a scene that essentially requires you to be in the heroine’s head in order to parse what’s going on–and thus it’s one of the few scenes in the book that doesn’t translate well to the screen. Here’s Mitchell in that deliciously purple scene:

“Up the stairs, he went in utter darkness, up, up, and she was wild with fear. He was a mad stranger and this was a black darkness she did not know, darker than death. He was like death, carrying her away in arms that hurt. She screamed, stifled against him and he stopped suddenly on the landing and, turning her swiftly in his arms, bent over her and kissed her with a savagery and a completeness that wiped out everything from her mind but the dark into which she was sinking and the lips on hers. . . . She was darkness and he was darkness and there had never been anything before this time, only darkness and his lips upon her. She tried to speak and his mouth was over hers again. Suddenly she had a wild thrill such as she had never known; joy, fear, madness, excitement, surrender to arms that were too strong, lips too bruising, fate that moved too fast. For the first time in her life she had met someone, something stronger than she, someone she could neither bully nor break, someone who was bullying and breaking her. Somehow, her arms were around his neck and her lips trembling beneath his and they were going up, up into the darkness again, a darkness that was soft and swirling and all enveloping.”

And then, of course, the infamous morning after:

“Oh, she should be ashamed, should shrink from the very memory of the hot swirling darkness! A lady, a real lady, could never hold up her head after such a night. But, stronger than shame, was the memory of rapture, of the ecstasy of surrender. For the first time in her life she had felt alive, felt passion as sweeping and primitive as the fear she had known the night she fled Atlanta, as dizzy sweet as the cold hate when she had shot the Yankee. . . . When she thought of meeting him again, face to face in the sober light of day, a nervous tingling embarrassment that carried with it an exciting pleasure enveloped her.

‘I’m nervous as a bride,’ she thought. ‘And about Rhett!’ And, at the idea she fell to giggling foolishly.”

That’s not a rape. In fact, that this scene is not a rape illustrates the entire point of the 700-page story: that Rhett is Scarlett’s perfect match specifically because he’s the only one that can meet her on her level, beat her at her own game, turn her darkness into light. Does the scene start ugly? Definitely–and the altercation leading up to it, where (in the film), Rhett tells Scarlett to “observe my hands, my dear. I could tear you to pieces with them, and I’d do it if it’d take Ashley out of your mind forever. But it wouldn’t. So I’ll remove him from your mind forever this way. I’ll put my hands so–one on each side of your head–and I’ll smash¬† your skull between them like a walnut, and that’ll block him out” . . . is, in my opinion, even uglier. But an ugly, nasty scene though it is, it’s not a rape scene. Is Rhett a bastard and a half here? Yes–a drunk, emotionally abusive bastard, but not a rapist. Nobody has sex against their will in this scene. Scarlett is carried up the stairs against her will, but carrying someone up the stairs against their will isn’t rape, and she’s happily succumbed to the idea of sex long before they get to the top step.

While we’re on the subject of forgotten tropes, here’s another one: the forced seduction. While most common in romance novels, it enjoyed its heyday in movies, too, and Gone with the Wind is its prime example. Forced seduction stemmed from the pre-sexual revolution days when Good Girls Didn’t, which, for writers, raised the question of how to get a good girl (or, in Scarlett’s case, a wildly independent one) into bed with the leading man when she had no logical reason to be there. The admittedly imperfect solution they came up with? Have the leading man force himself on her. Of course, he can’t actually force her to have sex, as a real hero, no matter how unchivalrous, would never have to resort to forcing women to have sex with him–so a forced seduction is something that starts as a rape but transforms into consensual sex at some point before penetration. This was intended to take just enough culpability off the woman that her reputation remained undamaged, while still allowing the man to cling to the shards of his respectability–and whatever plot point needed to be fulfilled by the two characters coming together could still play out. This trope became mostly unnecessary after the sexual revolution and basically died off in the film world after that, although–oddly–it lasted well into the 1980s in the realm of romance novels.

I’m certainly not arguing that the story doesn’t showcase sexism in other ways, or even that the staircase scene isn’t plenty sexist in its own right–but it’s not rape. Blindly worshiping Gone with the Wind displays a lack of brain power, but roundly condemning it is just as easy, and often, just as wrong. Margaret Mitchell’s magnum opus, and the movie based on it, are two of the most morally ambiguous pieces of pop culture the 20th century produced. A little deeper digging is in order here.

White Folks in the Tropics: a Cinematic Celebration

April 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

I’ve discovered a new mid-century film subgenre! For the time being, let’s call it Jungle Love. (No, not that kind of jungle love. Given that the title of this blog includes the word “sex,” though, I have plenty of kinky Google searches leading to it. Might as well add to it!) This subgenre I’ve discovered combines elements of the romance, adventure, and melodrama genres into one entirely new fusion. Here are the essential elements:

  • Pretty white people. Often, a 25-year-old actress paired with a 50-year-old leading man.
  • An exotic, tropical setting largely populated by brown people. Often a plantation. India or Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) is the most common, but the rest of Asia, Africa, or even the Caribbean can substitute in a pinch. (For some reason South America is vastly underused for this purpose–maybe because the Brits never owned it.)
  • Romantic Complications. Usually this takes the form of a love triangle, but it can also consist of double love triangles (whoa!), love quadrangles, or simply one of those classic I-love-you-I-hate-you, back-and-forth pairings.
  • The interference of nature: generally a natural disaster, a plague, or a wild animal attack. Some ambitious films (I’m looking at you, Rains of Ranchipur) manage to cram in all three. This interference is generally meant to up the emotional stakes for the romantic leads (and maybe even kill off the unchosen party of a love triangle), but to a post-colonial viewer, just highlights the extreme self-centeredness of the protagonists, who keep blathering about their love lives even as thousands of “natives” die off in the background shots.

Bonus points awarded for:

  • Minor royalty.
  • Prostitutes/”good time girls”/”companions” (if we’re in the Hays Code era).
  • Blackface. Or yellowface . . . in most cases, literally orangeface, as the 1950s Hollywood attempt at making white characters look Indian was to spray them with a particularly garish, neon shade of self-tanner.

Need examples? Keep reading.

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