Saturday, 27 August 2016

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Richly textured elegance with banality, filth and deviance

Today marks the centenary of Erich von Stroheim Jr, an undistinguished assistant director of films and several western TV series including The High Chapparal.

His father, however, was far more interesting to us here at Dolores Delargo Towers - possibly the most recognisable of (male) silent-film-to-talkies visual self-creations...

"In Hollywood, you're as good as your last picture."

From the Harvard Film Archive:
Upon his entry into America in 1909, Erich Oswald Stroheim (1885 – 1957) crowned himself Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim, embellishing his own legend before it began. Though the Austrian's mythic heritage involved a decorated military past and aristocratic background, von Stroheim's most notorious distinction became his relentlessly catastrophic relationship with Hollywood studios and the tragic fates that befell most of his cinematic output. If his films were not permanently mutilated by studios (Foolish Wives, Greed, The Wedding March) or turned over to other directors and altered forever (The Merry-Go-Round, Queen Kelly, Hello, Sister!), then they were simply lost (The Devil's Pass-key).

His embroidered persona masked relatively humble beginnings and a youthful struggle both personally and professionally. However, once he entered Hollywood as a European and military consultant, set dresser and extra, his meticulous eye for detail quickly attracted attention. Exploiting his unconventional looks, he sported dashing military outfits and paraphernalia, adding odd mannerisms when in front of the camera. After working as an assistant director on several pictures, he employed his eccentric magic on and off screen in D.W. Griffith's Hearts of the World (1918) and obtained a leading role in Allen Holubar's propagandistic The Heart of Humanity (1918), which locked his villainous, monocled Hun persona securely in place. After the war ended, the evil German type that audiences "loved to hate" faded from popularity and von Stroheim needed a new role. This came with his directorial debut, Blind Husbands.

Credited as one of the first directors to portray his heroes and heroines as realistic, flawed characters who often succumb to desire, von Stroheim rejected stars and sentiment. The lights and darks in his cynical view of humanity were always shaded tones, highlighted with symbolic artistry and black humour. Offsetting a richly textured elegance with banality, filth and deviance, von Stroheim exposed aristocrats in their pyjamas and moustache bands. He focused on aberrations, idiosyncrasies, and deformities, inserting debauched orgies and sexual fetishes wherever he could while masterfully conveying believable, intricate emotions in the face of the often-overwrought theatrics of silent cinema. The result is a kind of enchanted realism where sincerity, love and goodness are always under threat by greater forces – societal, carnal and spiritual... [However] he could not escape his difficult reputation or his grandiose visions – both incompatible with the studio system. Von Stroheim was only able to release the first half of what was to be a two-part saga in the form of The Wedding March, while Queen Kelly – a stormy collusion of morbid content and bad timing – knocked von Stroheim out of the director's chair and back to acting. The last nail in his directorial coffin came with the strange and sexually frank Walking Down Broadway which reached audiences severely edited with no director credit as Hello, Sister!.

Beyond starring in mostly low-budget movies as parodies of himself, von Stroheim did enjoy a handful of significant roles. In Jean Renoir's classic Grand Illusion (1937), he plays a German pilot whose flaws and misfortunes are encapsulated by a somewhat comic neck brace which was, of course, von Stroheim's contribution. And his memorable turn in Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo (1943) eventually brought him the role for which he is most widely remembered, Norma Desmond's enigmatic butler in Sunset Boulevard.
For all his hubris, his apparently impossible-to-work-with reputation, his fantastical mythologising of his own life and background, he was certainly a man whose image - and image is, after all what counts on screen - will forever be indelibly associated with the decadent early years of cinema. For that, we applaud him.

Erich von Stroheim by Arthur Lennig.

Friday, 19 August 2016

I don’t do fashion, I am fashion

"A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous."

"Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. It is the opposite of vulgarity."

"In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different."

"I don’t do fashion, I am fashion."

"You live but once; you might as well be amusing."

"A woman can be over dressed but never over elegant."

"Only those with no memory insist on their originality."

"Fashion changes, but style endures."

"Nature gives you the face you have at twenty. Life shapes the face you have at thirty. But at fifty you get the face you deserve."

"I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t think about you at all."

Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel (19th August 1883 – 10th January 1971)

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

A cry against conformity, a shriek against boredom

"[Camp is] always, and at whatever cost, a cry against conformity, a shriek against boredom, a testament to the potential uniqueness of each of us and our rights to that uniqueness." George Melly, from the preface of Camp - the Lie that tells the Truth by Philip Core [one of my favourite books of all time].

The epithet "Camp" could have been invented for Mr George Melly, whose 90th birthday it would have been today. Paradoxically "Good-Time George" was not particularly effeminate, nor robustly homosexual (although he had many "flings" - as recounted in detail in his first volume of autobiography Rum, Bum and Concertina), yet he exuded a flamboyantly defiant air of swagger against the po-faced world of Jazz purists, perpetually displaying his "love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration" [to quote Susan Sontag's epic Notes on Camp], and was eternally adored for it - equally by those who were "in on the joke", and by those who merely appreciated the work of a supremely talented "English eccentric" and raconteur.

Who else but George - a huge fan of the likes of Bessie Smith and her contemporaries - would dare to perform (with his gravelly baritone voice) a Trad-Jazz cover of Jelly-Roll Morton and Lizzie Miles's I Hate A Man Like You, gender references intact? And that was just one among a huge repertoire of boundary-pushing, somewhat smutty covers he did, not least I Want My Fanny Brown:

He even sang lead vocals on a song about an archetypal "Dirty Old Man", Old Codger, the b-side of Walk On By by The Stranglers...

Who but George would bring lurid, luminously-coloured zoot-suits and velvet fedoras to the stage at venues ranging from Ronnie Scott's legendary West End venue to cabaret clubs in New York to the Reading Festival? He even took it a step further when the mood suited him, according to his obituary in The Telegraph:

On one occasion at Ronnie Scott’s Melly had decided to perform in full drag, and sent John Chilton on to the stage to tell the audience that he was indisposed - but that, luckily, his aunt Georgina, who knew all of his songs, would valiantly fill the gap. "Georgina" duly swept on stage, and the disguise was so complete that the audience was wholly deceived.

He was uncompromising in his anti-religious stance (Mr Melly was at one time President of the British Humanist Society), spoke voluminously about personal freedoms - in particular his support for the permissive society in the 60s - and, as well as myriad fellow Trad-Jazzers, counted among his friends a coterie of like-minded "eccentrics" including Molly Parkin, Francis Bacon, Maggi Hambling, Peggy Guggenheim and even Rene Magritte.

"Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style - but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the "off," of things-being-what-they-are-not." [Sontag again]

And, for those of you of more of an "artistic" bent, why not join George in a special BBC Arena documentary about his love for Surrealism? Here's The Journey", or The Memoirs of a Self-Confessed Surrealist:

Alan George Heywood Melly (17th August 1926 – 5th July 2007)

More of the marvellous Mr Melly here, here and here.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Only those who have had the privilege of being present can fully realise what it is like

I recently purchased [as is my wont, for a couple of quid at an Oxfam charity shop, no less!] a copy of the memoirs of today's birthday girl, Queen Victoria's granddaughter Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein. With its simply descriptive title My Memories of Six Reigns ["Cousin Louie", as she was known in Royal circles, was born in Victorian times, lived till she was 84, and saw the ascendancy of Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII (briefly), George VI and Elizabeth, our present Queen], from what I have read so far it is a deeply personal account of her myriad encounters with Emperors and Empresses, Kings, Queens, Dukes, Margraves and the rest; her travels around the world in an age when international transportation and communication was somewhat rudimentary; and her charitable work; as well as the effects of two World Wars and the social changes they brought to Great Britain.

Some of the vignettes are quite amusing, including this one about Queen Victoria:
One afternoon, I was sitting in my room when I received an SOS from Her Majesty's page telling me that the Queen wished me to go to her at once. I leapt out to the corridor and found her half sitting and half lying in a little passage. "My dear, I have had a terrible accident."

"Good heavens, what?" I said.

Apparently the horses had shied and nearly upset the carriage and, in Grandmama's words, [the gillie] "lifted me out of the carriage and, would you believe it, all my petticoats came undone!"
Close your eyes and just imagine Dame Maggie Smith saying those lines.

I have, of course, featured Her Highness - and that renowned Beaton portrait - before, and recounted her disastrous arranged marriage to Prince Aribert of Anhalt (who was caught with his pants down with one of the manservants!). Of that particular episode in Marie Louise's life, and the fact that she refused to ever accept that the marriage had legally ended despite it never really having begun, her uncle, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) apparently said: “Ach, poor Louise, she has returned as she went - a virgin.”

And thus she stayed. It's no wonder she had so much time for collecting the details that made up her memoir, such as this one:
The dignity and really overwhelming beauty and solemnity of a Coronation ceremony cannot be conveyed in words, and only those who have had the privilege of being present can fully realise what it is like.

One little incident at Edward VII’s Coronation I think might be mentioned. My seat was just behind that of my dear Aunt Beatrice, and under the Royal Box was displayed all the priceless Church plate belonging to the Abbey.

Aunt Beatrice was very proud of her bound and specially-embroidered copy of the Coronation Service, presented to her by the Ladies’ Needlework Guild. Although I whispered a warning that, if she continued to fidget, it might go overboard, there soon came an agonized murmur: "Louie, it’s going – oh dear, it’s gone!" And gone it had with a terrible clatter among all that Church plate.

She meticulously detailed all the finery of the robes, gowns and various attire worn at different social events and at different times of day, but bemoaned the (inevitable) decline of formality into the 20th century. At one theatrical event she was pained to see: "the audience in ordinary day clothes in the theatre, even tweed coats and skirts, and showing the same 'laisser aller' in their mode of dressing..." She went on to remark: "I was dining the other day with a young foreign relative of mine at a very fashionable and well-known hotel, and he said to me, 'I think that I and the waiters are the only men in evening dress.'" I'm with Louie!

Facts about "Cousin Louie":
  • Despite her German title [which itself was eradicated by the King when WW1 began] she was born and brought up in England.
  • Her beautiful Cartier Indian Tiara was bestowed upon her godson Richard and is now worn by his wife Birgitte, as the Duchess of Gloucester.
  • At the coronation of George VI, she and her sister Helena Victoria walked in the procession of Princes and Princesses of Blood Royal, even though they were not actually so titled; they were also the last members of the Royal family to use the simple title "Highness".
  • Her father Prince Christian, who had lost an eye in a shooting accident, had a favourite party trick - he would open his prized collection of different-coloured glass eyes at the dinner table and proceed to pop out and pop back in again a selection of his choosing, to "amuse" his guests.
  • She instigated and oversaw the creation of the famous "Queen Mary's Dolls' House".
  • She also established the ‘Princess Club’ for the workers of Rotherhithe and Bermondsey, providing ante-natal care for expectant mothers, organising home visits from district nurses.
A remarkable woman...

Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein (born Franziska Josepha Louise Augusta Marie Christina Helena, 12th August 1872 – 8th December 1956)

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Queen of the Zeedijk, revisited

Bet van Beeren in 1966

Continuing our countdown to our trip to Amsterdam this weekend, I thought we should "revisit" (as we most certainly will do when we are there) a venue that is very dear to our hearts - Amsterdam's (if not the world's) oldest-established gay venue, the fabulously camp Cafe 't Mandje.

Here is what I wrote about the place after our first visit after it re-opened for business, in my other blog Give 'em the old Razzle Dazzle way back in 2009...
The legendary Cafe 't Mandje was originally founded in 1927 and run by one of the most loved characters in the area, Bet van Beeren, who bought it from her uncle and began running it as her own unique venue.

One of the most courageous pioneers of gay and lesbian liberation, in her leather jacket Bet would roar through Amsterdam on her bike with her latest flame riding on the back, and openly welcomed gay men and women in her establishment. All kinds came to 't Mandje - prostitutes, pimps, sailors, variety artists and tourists.

Bet was referred to as the “Queen of Zeedijk” and was known all over Amsterdam as well as across the Netherlands. She was entertaining and welcoming and enjoyed using the bar as her stage through some difficult periods, including the Nazi occupation during WW2 and hiding Jews from the SS patrols.

't Mandje was one of the first cafes where gays and lesbians could socialise freely - although smooching and same-sex dancing was not allowed, except on the Queen's Birthday. An owl sits behind the bar with little lights in its eyes dating back to the time when it was used as a signal to play it “straight” in case the police or suspicious stranger walked into the bar.

Most interestingly there was a tradition that people would leave something behind when they visited the bar: a ribbon, a pin, or in some cases, a tie. She would cut them off men, often with a butcher's knife(!). The ties were then be hung around the bar, and many of them are still there to this day.

Greet and Bet
In 1967, Bet died and was laid out on the billiard table in the bar for three days so that people could pay their respects. Bet’s younger sister Greet took over the bar and ran it for fourteen years, until the struggle with running the business in what was then a bit of a rough area (even for Amsterdam) became too much for her.

"Tante Greet"
Yet she refused to let the bar be taken over by developers, and it remained perfectly preserved until 2008 when after Greet's death, her niece re-opened it for business.

So important was the site, however, that part of the bar has been reconstructed at the Amsterdam Historical Museum, including the scissored ties on the ceiling, photo collages and the doodles and cards left by customers.

It is indeed a wonderful place to discover - so atmospheric! Most of the decor in the bar itself remains as it was in Bet and Greet's day, but the postcards and messages have been carefully photocopied onto wallpaper, and many of the original framed photos and cuttings are now copies.
...a place of pilgrimage...

Cafe 't Mandje*

* its name literally translates as the "Little Basket Cafe" - but we don't want any of those while we are there :-)

Monday, 1 August 2016