Thursday, December 12, 2013

Sunset Murder Case - 1938 - an Art Deco mystery burlesque fest

Here's another little treat from

It's no masterpiece but it's a cultural relic that we're very lucky to have. It stars the ephemeral Sally Rand. She was a precocious girl from Missouri with big ideas. At 13 she was dancing in the chorus of a local show and a few years later made her way to Hollywood where she was quickly noticed. Dancing was her natural talent and not being of a shy nature, she gave full expression to her creativity through the sensuality of her body.

You may not have heard of Sally Rand. But you have most likely heard of her most famous creation, the "Bubble Dance".

The Sunset Murder Case treats us to a beautifully filmed record of her famous bubble dance early in the story. She's a "good girl", daughter of a murdered policeman, who infiltrates into the nightclub owned by the man she believes is responsible for her father's death.

The club's interior is a classic bit of Art Deco design and another treat in this filmic box of chocolates.

This was back in the days when men wore tuxedos, women wore beautiful gowns and everyone knew how to dance.

More stills from the bubble dance...

Isadora Duncan's influence is highly visible throughout, in both the asymmetrical movements and tunic of draped fabric, elements of Ancient Greek art that inspired Duncan. The Duncan connection is no surprise. Aside from the fact that she was already world famous, Duncan was a native of San Francisco and Sally Rand spent many critical years in her career working in San Francisco. For much of the 1930s she owned The Music Box, a burlesque theater that later became The Great American Music Hall. She was also a hugely popular and notorious performer at the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939 (subject of a Charlie Chan film I'll write about soon).

We're treated to her bubble dance and also her "fan dance", something she may not have invented but she certainly perfected. The fan, in fact, was an array of which peacock feathers, or more accurately, lyre bird feathers. The lyre bird is a naturally white peacock. Her stately dance, imitating the strut of the peacock, starts with a group of woman wearing Erte inspired gowns drifting around the stage, setting the mood.
 Finally they wander off and the peacock is left alone. She does her thing, making the most of the stairs, wandering in circles as peacocks are inclined to do, spreading her feathers out in a beautiful display, or letting them trail behind like the train of a gown. 
 The dance reaches its climax as the peacock twirls in excitement, its feathers spiraling around itself. Then gradually she comes to rest in the calm attitude of supremely confident beauty.
 I wish we could have had a closeup of the final pose. But it's a miracle this movie made it past the censors at all. The Hays Code was at its peak when this movie was made. In fact the censors insisted the original title "The Sunset Strip Murder Case" be changed and the "Strip" dropped. Clearly these dances were far more sensual than the Code would allow. In fact, based on Sally Rand's reputation alone, there were many movie theaters that refused to show the movie, and the city of Boston banned its appearance.
In addition to this priceless record of Sally Rand's work the movie provides a lot of delightful Art Deco design and atmosphere. It also provides, for comic relief, 2 charming characters, male and female sidekicks to the leads. Here they are the first time they meet. You might have guessed the girl's first impression isn't entirely favorable, although we learn that in fact she's quite smitten but hiding it well. They have some very punny dialogue. The girl, I'm guessing, was one of Sally Rand's compatriots in Burlesque, someone who appeared in only a very few movies, sometimes as uncredited extras and who is credited in this movie as Sugar Kane. Turns out she has a "real" name though, Kathryn ... Kathryn Kane. I think I prefer "Sugar". Aside from the few movies listed on IMDB and a few studio portraits listed for sale on eBay I can find no other record of her existence on the internet. Her romantic interest and comic foil is Dennis Moore, a fellow with a long career ahead of him in westerns but who makes a passable newspaper reporter in this movie.

 Here's Sugar Kane singing her number in the nightclub. I wonder what ever happened to her. The movie was made in 1938 and if she was in her early 20s at the time and were alive today she would be in her 90s. Not likely but possible. Did she make hay while the sun shone and then marry some nice young banker that came to her burlesque shows? Were there children and grandchildren? I wonder if someone points to her in this movie today and says, "She's my Grandma."
If I didn't write much about the men in this movie its because they didn't have a chance. These two beautiful ladies, Sally Rand, one of the great burlesque stars and a creative artist, and Sugar Kane, someone who seems to have been forgotten to history, both stole the show.

If you're looking to pass an hour watching this movie is certainly one of the most pleasant ways to do it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Dick Tracy Detective - 1945

As I'm not in the Middle East for the time being I thought I'd use the blog to share impressions of the fun old movies I've been watching lately. These all come from the great website a really excellent source for public domain movies that you can watch for free.

Tonight's movie is Dick Tracy Detective.
Morgan Conway as Dick Tracy
Anne Jeffreys and Tess Trueheart
Mike Mazurki as Splitface
Jane Greer as Judith Owens

The opening image, classic film noir, the night, a vacant storefront, high contrasts, long shadows, distorted perspectives. Dick Tracy's got it all and more, taking it from the level of style to the next level, a world all its own. The mysterious figure in black, as you will find out in moments, is the mysterious "Splitface" and he is on a rampage of unexplained, seemingly disconnected murders. We don't see him, only his silhouette...

 Dick Tracy himself, the man in charge, rock hewn jaw, eyes as cool as blued steel, a man's man.
And then, of course, there's Tess Trueheart, Dick's love interest, ever patient in her satin negligee and curls. She's no wimp though. She may be patient but she let's him know about it. And she's not about to be left behind when the chase for the villain gets hot. She's a real man's man's woman.
In Dick Tracy's world evil has an ugly face... in this case, Splitface... From behind the window he sees without being seen, but the window mullions not only frame him, they cage him. Evil is its own prison.
The set design is spartan. Like a cartoon strip there is no excess in the image. Here we are on a roof top, guarded by a metal barrier. There's no clutter. In the background are only just enough lights to suggest the skyline at night.
Vertiginous perspective, another hallmark of the style. Splitface watches from above, unseen. The strong horizontal light places him above the lit action, where he can watch in safety.
The undertaker, it's always convenient to have one around, if for no other reason than to have the hero walk through a room full of caskets. This man's balding head suggests an overactive intelligence, his beady eyes, a cunning mind, and his weak mouth and chin, a weak moral character. The slashing shadows behind him create an atmosphere of chaos and torment. All this is accentuated when in motion. That is part of the art of the "motion" picture.


Good triumphs over evil.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

My stuff and other nonsense

Most of you reading this will already know that I've left the job in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and I'm back in my home in Brittany, France. I made the move at the end of November but haven't kept up the blog since then. I'll try to make up for that with a few short posts outlining my interim adventures but today I'd like to skip the intervening months and write about this morning.

First, though, here's a photo for those of you who are more visually inclined. It's me with river Goyen behind me. Here in Plouhinec we have a lovely 19th century chateau that has been converted into apartments. That's it behind me.

A few days ago I got a call from the moving company, saying I could expect my stuff to arrive on Friday. I've spent the last few days madly cleaning up some space in the cottage so that I'd have some place to put it. Yesterday I got the back area on the ground floor broom clean and did the same for the attic bedroom. I was planning to go over the bedroom space with a damp towel today, to get the fine plaster dust that kicks up when I sweep. That was my plan for today. But fate had something else in store.

I was lying in bed at 8:30, groggy eyed and thick headed, trying to decide whether to get up or roll over and go back to sleep when the doorbell startled me up. I clambered out of bed, into the next room to open the window and look down in the driveway and what do you suppose I saw? The top of a moving van and the top of the head of a prematurely balding muscular fellow.

He looked up at me and I realized the decision had already been made, by forces greater than me. I was getting up.

My stuff had arrived! One day early.

Anyhow, I changed from my pyjamas and we got to work hauling 3 palettes of stuff. By 10:15am it was all done.

Everything seems to have arrived safely and undamaged, though I haven't opened every box. I pulled out a very small stack of books and my paintings, so that I could enjoy a little reunion with my stuff.

In think I'm going to take the rest of today off and relax. Maybe I'll paint.

love to all my family and friends

And a big THANK YOU to Tristan and Tina for doing all that hard work at the Concord end to get my stuff moved.