The Lowbrow Lowdown
By: Femme Vivre LaRouge
This month I’ve decided to make it a double feature…and the theme is the roaring twenties!
First up for film is 1927’s It, the movie that made Clara Bow the very first ‘It Girl,’ and Hollywood’s first mass-marketed sex symbol. So, what is ‘It?’ As Elinor Glyn (whose novelette the film was modeled after) defined it, “‘It’ is self-confidence and indifference to whether you are pleasing or not, and something in you that gives the impression that you are not all cold.” Basically, ‘It’ is animal magnetism. While I see the merit in silent films, they usually don’t hold my attention, but Clara Bow’s charisma, vivid facial expressions, excellent comedic timing, and dynamic screen presence is just entrancing. Bow appeared in 46 silent films and, although she was one of the few to successfully make the transition to talkies, she preferred the action-oriented silents, which better suited her spunky character and spontaneous acting style (extra cameramen were usually set up for her scenes to catch her unpredictable actions). In 1931 she walked away from the film business; however, during her time as a Hollywood starlet, she was the subject of many a scandal, some probably true and many more likely not. (For more info on Bow, try Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild by David Stenn.) Also, rumor has it that the character of Peppy Miller in recent Academy award nominee, The Artist, was largely inspired by Miss Bow, as was cartoon favorite, Betty Boop.
Next up for film is the modern-made, The Cat’s Meow, released in 2001 and set in 1924. Although embellished, the story is based on a fated night aboard newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst’s yacht. Kirsten Dunst is charming as Marion Davies, Ziegfeld girl, silver screen actress, and long-time mistress to Hearst, and Eddie Izzard plays Charlie Chaplin (no introduction needed). Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, The Cat’s Meow stages one of the jazz age’s most famous Hollywood legends. The gist of the story is that Hearst, although married himself, jealously guarded Davies, and suspected her of carrying on with Chaplin behind his back, prompting him to shoot a man he mistook for Chaplin, in a fit of rage. However, the man turned out to be producer Thomas Ince, who died the following day, although the official record states that his death was due to a heart condition, which followed an attack of acute indigestion. Hearst was never charged, but the story lived in infamy as another of Hollywood’s great scandals. Regardless of whether or not Ince was really shot aboard the yacht, the film is an admirable piece of work.
This month’s literary adventure also involves murder, and even an appearance by William Randolph Hearst, but in this case it’s girl gunners, and they definitely did some time. Douglas Perry’s The Girls of Murder City tells the story of the real murderesses that the musical, Chicago, was based on. This non-fiction book reads like a novel, with titillating new details at the turn of every page. The book chronicles the lurid details of each girl’s crime and trial, the all- male juries’ reluctance to condemn a woman (especially if she was young and attractive) to the same sentence a man would receive, and the ingenious ways that lawyers, the media, and the women themselves played on that weakness.
It amazed me to find how much of the musical was actually based in truth, or at least the same version of the truth that the media was selling at the time it was all happening. This 1924 spree of shootings by women, targeted at their husbands or lovers, unsettled a society already in the midst of the upheaval of traditional gender roles. Furthermore, it illustrated the trend of treating criminals with the utmost célébrité. The play was written by Maurine Watkins, herself an unusual character and one of the first women to break into the field of crime reporting, and it is her dramatized account of women she actually interviewed. Aside from immense Broadway popularity, there have been no less than four film versions of the show since 1927, the most recent winning the 2002 Academy Award for Best Picture.
This month for music we have 1920s singer/actress, Helen Kane, the original ‘Boop Oop a Doop’ Girl. It should come as no surprise that Kane was also influential in the creation of the Betty Boop character (who, by the way, was originally drawn as a canine before she morphed into a cute girl with big hoop earrings, if you’ve ever wondered why her head has such a strange shape). In fact, Kane sued Paramount over it in 1932, charging unfair competition and wrongful appropriation in the cartoons. After all, Kane’s signature song, I Wanna be Loved by You, also became Boop’s signature song. Beginning on the vaudeville circuit and working her way through Broadway and Hollywood, Helen Kane was a cult sensation, spurning numerous look alike contests. She recorded 22 songs in 2 years, delighting fans with her bubbly, coy voice and blending of popular music styles.
For a modern chanteuse without the hiccuping and scat of Helen Kane, I recommend giving Janet Klein a listen. I absolutely adore her work, which so far includes six albums. Not only is she cute as a button and a fine ukulele player, but she is diligently working to preserve a portion of American popular culture that has been shunted aside. As Klein has stated, she sings “obscure, lovely, and naughty songs from the 1910s, 20s, and 30s.” Her backing band, The Parlor Boys, range from 6-12 musicians at any given time, and the group travels a great deal, performing at historical movie palaces and venues and doing extensive tours in Japan. A poet, visual artist, and collector of vintage sheet music, Klein is dedicated to maintaining the authentic integrity of the songs she covers. When asked in an interview with ‘Jazz Not Jazz,’ “Why do you want to recreate times gone by? And where do you see the relevance of this era for us today?” she answered beautifully with the following: “It is interesting that people ask this question. I wonder if historians are asked why they write books about the past or if they ask conductors why they put on concerts of classical music. For me, if there is such a thing as “progress” for societies, it seems that it has to include looking back as well as moving forward…and that it has to entail learning from and reflecting upon the past…and if we are smart, we’ll hang on to the good stuff and drag it with us into the future. The songs we do were not written so long ago, mostly written in America, yet they seem like music from a lost planet. There’s a familiarity and a strangeness that suggests something missing today.” For more information about the lovely songstress and archivist, visit her website at: JanetKlein.com
On to art of the visual variety- this month I’m highlighting famous pinup painter, Alberto Vargas. Vargas created show posters for The Ziegfeld Follies and Hollywood, pinups for Esquire, and was one of the most copied artists for WWII nose art. Hugh Hefner has written that the tantalizing cartoons and paintings Vargas did for Esquire nearly lost the magazine their USPS mailing permit, ending in a Supreme Court case and the decision to discontinue the use of Vargas’ artwork. Later, Playboy began to print the artist’s famous ‘Vargas Girls.’ A remarkable portraitist, Vargas excelled in watercolor, which was his most used medium. In 2003, a Christie’s auction resulted in the sale of one Vargas painting, Trick or Treat, for $71,600! In 1930, he married Ziegfeld girl, Anna Mae Clift, and remained true to her until her death in 1974, after which he abandoned painting. For the duration of their relationship, she was his model, manager, and muse. A lovely resource for his work is Alberto Vargas: Works from the Max Vargas Collection by Reid Stewart Austin, with a foreword by Hugh Hefner.
My last recommendation for this month is Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, at the Dallas Museum of Art, opening to the public on March fourth and continuing through most of May. The multi-medium exhibition is touring the nation, originating from the Brooklyn Museum. It is described as “the first wide-ranging examination of American fine art from the end of World War I through the start of the Great Depression” and “will demonstrate how American artists of the period embraced a progressive, idealized realism visible in a resurgence of figuration and in highly distilled images of American places and things.” I hope to see you there!