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.

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