Saturday, July 25, 2009

Aphra Behn

And then there's Aphra Behn, one of the greatest female playwrights of all time, and it's an unfortunate commentary on today's crop of scribblers that one has to go all the way back to the 1600s to find greatness such as hers.

In 1664, Aphra Johnson married a dutch fellow named Behn and settled down in England. According to Wikipedia, "Some scholars believe that the marriage never existed and Behn made it up purely to gain the status of a widow, which would have been much more beneficial for what she was trying to achieve. She was reportedly bisexual, and held a larger attraction to women than to men, a trait that, coupled with her writings and references of this nature, would eventually make her popular in the writing and artistic communities of the 20th century and present day".

In 1666 Aphra was recruited by the Royal Court as a secret agent to spy on Antwerp by Charles II. Her code name for her espionage was Astrea, a name she also used as a thinly-veiled pseudonym for her later writings. Aphra became the lover to a prominent and powerful member of royalty in the Netherlands, and from him she obtained important political secrets for use to the English monarchy's advantage during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. A spy in the house of love, indeed.

Somehow, despite her service for her country, she found herself penniless and sent to "debtor's prison". Wikipedia again: "By 1669 an undisclosed source had paid Behn's debts, and she was released from prison, starting from this point to become one of the first women who wrote for a living. She cultivated the friendship of various playwrights, and starting in 1670 she produced many plays and novels, as well as poems and pamphlets. Her most popular works included The Rover, Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, and Oroonoko. Amongst her notable critics was Alexander Pope, against whom she has been defended."

What makes Behn so special is partially the startling openness of sexual topics for her time: incest, homoerotica, prostitution, crossdressing, lesbianism, and libertinism. The prostitute character Angellica Bianca in The Rover is widely regarded as being based on herself.

Of Behn's achievements, Virginia Woolf had this to say:

"All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds".

Other plays by Behn include: The Forced Marriage (1670), The Amorous Prince (1671), The Town Fop (1676), The Feigned Courtesans (1679), The City Heiress (1682), and The Emperor of the Moon (1687).

Quoting Wikipedia one more time: "Aphra Behn’s writing is unique for its time because of her use of the narrator’s voice and her innovative use of visual deceptions in her plays... Behn’s plays were also novel because she used visual cues in a way that they had never before been used. Dawn Lewcock comments on this ingenuity, saying "What is unique to Behn is not only her appreciation of the visual effects of a performance but also the way that she uses this to affect the perceptions of the audience and change their conception and comprehension of her plots and/or her underlying theme as she wishes by integrating the theatrical possibilities into her dramatic structure". Lewcock goes on to explain this with the mistaken identities present in The Amorous Prince where disguises play a crucial role in the plot of the play.

Behn's minor poetry, as collected in her Poems Upon Several Occasions (1684), is a veritable treasure-trove of her unabashed ideas about sexuality. These poems were written in the pastoral tradition, which she characterizes as specifically sexual. The world of the pastoral, which she fills with amorous shepherds and shepherdesses, creates for her a space in which to explore the nature and virtues of free love."

Friday, July 24, 2009

Wende Wagner

Another performer who led a more exciting life than most of us ever will, yet remains forgotten today.

Billy Wilder saw her in a swimming pool in a Florida hotel and invited her to a screen test, just like that. Mind-bogglingly, she turned down a chance to be in Wilder's film The Apartment, instead doing bit parts and underwater stunt-double work on shows like Wagon Train, Flipper, Sea Hunt, Perry Mason, Aquanauts, etc. Traveled the world as a fashion model. Became best friends with Sharon Tate and was her roommate for awhile. Married Robert Mitchum's son. Got plum roles as a starring regular in the Green Hornet TV series, and in Rosemary's Baby. Gave up acting after appearing in early 70s TV shows like Mannix and The Rookies. Became active in the Malibu Historical Society. Lost her home and belongings in a fire, then died of cancer in 1997 at the age of 55.

View: Wende Wagner on the What's My Line? game show (1960).

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Check Your Husband"

Love, love, love this routine from 1932's Over The Counter, starring Sidney Toler, Franklin Pangborn, and the perpetually amazing Eleanor Thatcher.

View: Check Your Husband (1932)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Patricia Neal

Film star Patricia Neal was born in a little spot in the road in Kentucky called Packard, in Whitley County.

She went on to study drama at Northwestern University in Illinois, then found fame virtually right out of the gate. Her first film, 1949's John Loves Mary, she had a small part playing opposite Ronald Reagan, and by only her second film, 1949's The Fountainhead, she was already headlining as a star with Gary Cooper. The Fountainhead was based on the novel by the always controversial Ayn Rand, who also wrote the screenplay for this adaptation herself.

During the shooting of The Fountainhead, Neal began having an affair with the then-married Cooper. She was 23, he was 48. Neal became pregnant by Cooper and had an abortion. Their secret relationship went on until 1950, when Cooper's family got wind of it somehow. His wife sent Neal a threatening telegram, and his daughter berated and spat on Neal in a public event.

In 1951, playwright Lillian Hellman introduced Neal to Roald Dahl, the British author who would go on to write Man from the South in 1959, James and the Giant Peach in 1961 and Charlie & the Chocolate Factory in 1964.

Neal and Dahl married in 1953, and their marriage produces five children. Unfortunately, their household was an ill-fated one. In 1961 their infant son Theo was badly injured when a taxicab slammed into his carriage Neal was pushing. They lost a daughter to measles in 1962. In 1965 Neal herself suffered a series of brain aneurysms and was in a coma for weeks. It took her three years to recover, with Dahl patiently helping her rebuild herself.

In 1983 Neal divorced Dahl when she discovered he had been having an affair with Felicity Crosland, a mutual friend. Whether or not Dahl reminded her that she herself had been on the rebound from a very ugly extramarital affair with Gary Cooper when she met him, we can only wonder.

After that, Neal became extremely religious. She converted to Catholicism shortly after her split from Dahl, and later become a "born again" Christian. Today she is still very active in showbiz, at the age of 83.

Though she's best known for her appearances in the films Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Hud, for my money, her crowning glory is A Face in the Crowd. Here, she found herself at the center of one of the most important pieces of 20th century film history, in the Elia Kazan story of an evil and manipulative drifter (Andy Griffith) who - shock, shock, duh - becomes even more evil and manipulative after they mold him into a successful radio/television star with a cornpone Tennessee Ernie Ford-type program called "Cracker Barrel". Throw Walter Matthau, Tony Franciosa, Lee Remick, and Grand Ole Opry ventriloquist Rod Brasfield (pictured below) into the mix, and what a pip it was.

The film Psyche 59 is another especially noteworthy notch in the Neal oeuvre. It's a peculiar noir-ish psychological drama that was way ahead of its time, way too dark and way too weird for audiences of that era. Neal's character suffers psychosomatic blindness due to emotional/sexual trauma (I betcha Pete Townshend saw this movie before he wrote Tommy), and makes a nearly-naked appearance in a scene that somehow amazingly got past the censors of the day.

It also starred Samantha Eggar (The Collector, Walk Don't Run, Doctor Dolittle) and Nazi concentration camp survivor Curd Jürgens (The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, The Spy Who Loved Me, and the Wernher Von Braun bio-pic I Aim At The Stars).

In one eerily prophetic scene in Psyche 59, Neal's character is asked what's wrong with her vision. She replies, "There's nothing wrong with my eyes. It's in my head. Pressure on the brain center from a brain hemorrhage."

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Grand Guignol

In 1897, an entirely new form of entertainment came into being at Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in the Pigalle district of Paris.

The Grand Guignol pioneered horror as a theatrical genre, inspired partly by the Penny Dreadfuls (the original tawdry pulp fiction) and no doubt colored by the horrors of the relatively recent Jack the Ripper murder spree.

“One day men will look back and say I gave birth to the twentieth century.” - Jack the Ripper

1897 was also the year that Philip Burne-Jones painted The Vampire (see image below), and Bram Stoker published Dracula, clearly indicating that a general sense of erotic bloodletting was in the air, quickly becoming the prevailing planetary Zeitgeist and not just a fad. In France especially, there was a palpable and ominous feeling that the end of civilization had come, and they called this the fin de siecle. And then they nursed it, they rehearsed it, and then gave out the news.

The Grand Guignol's name was a sarcastic and irreverent in-joke whose meaning is lost on most today - Guignol was the name of a puppet in an overwhelmingly popular and beloved puppet show in the 1800s. A modern equivalent would be if, say, a snuff-porn-film company were to call itself "Ultra Mickey Mouse". Because of the common association of the name "Guignol" with puppetry, there was also an implied dehumanizing element, suggesting that the live actors onstage were merely puppets.

The original mission of the Grand Guignol was to present plays about disenfranchised sorts who were not usually considered appropriate subject matter: prostitutes, criminals, con-artists, drifters, grifters, drunks, bums, perverts, lowlifes, etc. This quickly drifted into deeper and deeper waters of sex, insanity and violence until it became the tail that wagged the dog. Playwright Andre de Lorde authored over 150 plays for the Grand Guignol, all of which dealt with gory, shocking and anti-social themes. Actress Paula Maxa become famous for her work in the Grand Guignol's horror plays - saith the Wikipedia:

"From 1917 to the 1930s, she performed most frequently as a victim and was known as "the most assassinated woman in the world." During her career at the Grand Guignol, Maxa was murdered more than 10,000 times in at least 60 different ways and was raped at least 3,000 times."

Among the plays staged by the Grand Guignol during its glory days:

  • L'Homme de la Nuit - A sympathetic story of an unrepetant necrophiliac, based on the true story of Sergeant Francoise Bertrand, a man sentenced in 1849 for violating tombs and mutilating corpses.

  • Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations - When a doctor finds his wife's lover in his operating room, he performs a graphic brain surgery rendering the adulterer a hallucinating semi-zombie. Now insane, the lover/patient hammers a chisel into the doctor's brain.

  • Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous - Two hags in an insane asylum use scissors to blind a young, pretty fellow inmate out of jealousy.

  • L'Horrible Passion - A nanny strangles the children in her care.

  • La Fosse aux filles - A man addicted to prostitutes discovers the horrors of syphilis.

    The Grand Guignol cleverly heightened the impact of their shock plays by alternating them with comedy skits, thus "cleansing the palate" for the next round of travesties.

    The mind-numbing horrors of the Nazis and World War II made the Grand Guignol irrelevant, and the place was on its last legs by the 1950s. Anais Nin bemoaned the theatre's decline in her diary in 1958:

    "I surrendered myself to the Grand-Guignol, to its venerable filth which used to cause such shivers of horror, which used to petrify us with terror. All our nightmares of sadism and perversion were played out on that stage. . . . The theater was empty."

    The Grand Guignol closed in 1962. Its spirit lives on today, however, in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, in the Molotov Theatre company, and of course, Catclaw.
  • Thursday, July 9, 2009

    Fern Andra

    The fact that you've never heard of Fern Andra is proof positive of a concerted conspiracy to suppress all that vital and vibrant in this world.

    Fern's real name was Vernal Andrews and she was born in Watseka, Illinois, on November 24, 1893. She got into showbiz as a toddler via her stepfather Frank St. Clair, who did a slackwire/tightrope act in circuses and outdoor vaudeville shows. Fern did tightrope performing, plays, musicals, and operettas, including a prestigious performance at the Globe Theatre in Chicago, all before reaching puberty.

    At the age of 16, Fern joined Bird Millman's Trio, another tightrope/vaudeville troupe, and went on to even greater heights including performing for President Theodore Roosevelt. Fern moved to Europe in 1911 and became a full-time actress on stage and in film. She was beloved in England and especially in Germany, where she made many films, such as Das Ave Maria and Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire. In the latter, she appeared nearly nude in a body-painted outfit. In Vienna she became a student of the great Max Reinhardt and appeared in many of his plays and films.

    Fern's personal life was one of complications and intrigue. She was accused by the German government of being a spy for the USA, but she was cleared of all charges thanks to a defense by the esteemed Baron Friedrich von Weichs, who she went on to marry. She miraculously survived a plane crash in 1924, one which killed The Red Baron's brother.

    During the 1930s, further scandal occurred when Joseph Goebbels came to power in the Nazi party, and it was learned by the public that he and Fern had been close. Prior to his Nazi career, Goebbels was a theatre tutor and a playwright. (According to Wikipedia, "Goebbels was embittered by the frustration of his literary career; his novel did not find a publisher until 1929 and his plays were never staged.") According to Erin Taylor's tribute to Fern:

    Fern closed her studios and production company in Germany and, to show her allegiance to the United States, broadcasted anti-Nazi messages in German to Europe. By this time, Fern's career was over, but she recovered her reputation in Hollywood's social circles.

    Fern fled Nazi Germany and returned to America in 1938, settling down with a producer/playwright named Samuel Edge Dockrell, and led a quiet life until her death in Aiken, South Carolina on February 8, 1974.

    Unfortunately, very little of Fern's film work survived World War II, and we mostly have only fragments and pieces of her appearances. It's tragic, because Fern was a pioneer not only in acting, but in writing, directing, and production. The IMDB lists 52 films in which she acted, but also 18 that she wrote the script for, 14 that she produced, and 11 that she directed. It's likely that still more existed, records of which are now forever missing.

    Among the lost jewels of her directorial oeuvre: 1915's Gesprengte Ketten ("Exploded Chains"), 1918's Drohende Wolken am Firmament ("Threatening Clouds at the Firmament"), and 1919's Der Todessprung ("The Leap Into Death").

    Wednesday, July 8, 2009

    German Zodiac Production Number

    This peculiar and enchanting German film clip, with a zodiacal motif, turned up on YouTube with little or no explanation of its source or context. According to someone who posted a comment, the first singer is Vera Bergmann, the second is Rose Rauch and the "Sun" is La Jana.

    View: Zodiac-themed German production number (1938)