Saturday, 11 June 2011

Hal Wallis and Casablanca

Yes. I know. Everybody comes to Ricks. Everybody knows about Casablanca. A movie that returns 16 million results in .13 seconds in Google.

Heres a niblet. Lena Horne or Ella Fitzgerald instead of Dooley Wilson? Hal Wallis did consider this.


or the alternative to the most famous movie ending of all time


Heh. August 7th . My birthday

Hal Wallis. Often overlooked. Always significant.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Fred Astaire

I’m watching the Fred and Ginger Box Set that Hari  bought me so kindly. I’m doing this for the fifth time – I think.

The first box (Or is it the second?). And I will drivel about the guy down there later.

The whole RKO bunch – especially the best of them – Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee are stand outs. Though I wonder how Universal got the rights for RKO movies in the UK.

Anyhoo (to quote Major Monogram), back to Mr. Astaire. Or, back to Mr. Astaire, Ms. Rogers, Mr. Horton, Mr. Blore, Mr. Polglase and Mr. Plunkett and Mr. Pan.

I think David Thomson in his review of Joseph Epstein’s Fred Astaire – called the stories “they were irrelevant upper-class fables with the sketchiest plots, a string for the pearls of dance routines married to some of our best popular songs”, and he isn’t too far wrong about that. The rest of the article is utter crap1. (I have to mention Self Styled Siren’s amazing blog here – its essential for anyone interested in old English movies) .  Even without the songs, the movie (Top Hat is what I’m on about, mostly, but the others qualify) would be a splendid little confection, a souffle that melts in your mouth, leaving just a lingering sweetness – a Joseph Cotten smoke ring, ethereal, ephemeral and its gone…

The thing to remember about Astaire was that he was deeply insecure about his dancing. He worked at it. It all seems so effortless and easy, but just take a look at the picture here

That doesn’t seem so easy. And he knew that he made it look good – as he famously said later “I suppose I made it look easy, but gee whiz, did I work and worry”. Or at another time – “I don’t think I was completely happy with any of my dances”2 . You get the picture of a perfectionist who knew he would never be perfect, doing what he would call “A sweat job”.  And in an age when every two bit celebrity calls himself or herself a perfectionist, it is refreshing to find someone whom everyone else called a perfectionist, but never applied that descriptor to himself. 

But there is perfection – whether its in the rollerskate dance to “Lets call the whole thing off”

Tapdancing on Roller Skates, to Gershwin

or the sandman dancing with an ashtray under his arm or a drunk destroying a bar while maudlin in self pity  in “one for my baby”

And thats not candy glass either–wartime sugar rationing meant it was the real deal

Astaire also seems a genuinely nice guy. Debbie Reynolds tells a story of how he found her, a seventeen year old crying under the piano, after a particularly harsh and punishing rehearsal during “Singing in the Rain”. He takes her out to his sound stage and asks her to watch him rehearse. She watches him struggle and struggle for an hour, sweating and red faced, at the end of which he comes up to her and says, quietly – “You see how hard it is? It never gets easier. This is how it always is”. Or take Cyd Charisse describing how Tony Martin knew who she had been dancing with that day – “If I was black and blue, it was Gene. If I didn't have a scratch it was Fred” Or David Niven’s summation- “a pixie — timid, always warm-hearted, with a penchant for schoolboy jokes”.

Recording "The Fred Astaire Story"Recording "The Fred Astaire Story"


For a guy who introduced some of the most famous songs in “The Great American Songbook”, he was remarkably diffident about his singing voice. “   It`s nice that all the composers have said that nobody interprets a lyric like Fred Astaire. But when it comes to selling records I was never worth anything particularly except as a collector’s item”, he said. Well. Not really.  Eight number 1 records and 18 top 10 hits isn't really “never worth anything”.`  Especially if one of them was “Night and Day”


Take a look at the song. Its a love story – the chase and the pursuit, the reluctance, the adoration and finally, the fantastic consummation – in four economical, graceful minutes. And Ginger’s look of astoundment in the afterglow of the that amazing dance sequence – I wish I could have some woman look at me like that – even if she was faking it Smile with tongue out.

Rejection, Persuasion and Consummation

If you want a much better discussion of the Astaire Rogers dance head over to Richard Corliss at Time – where he breaks down the “Caught in the Rain” song from Top Hat. The entire article is worth several reads, as well.

David Thomson says that Astaire was “Fred Astaire was not human, not sexual, not sexed”, but that’s just utter crap.  Look at the song and the dance and tell me it’s not about fucking.

Since Astaire started his stage career when he was four and a half, and was partnered with his sister. That must have taken its toll on the whole dancing bit, because his first partner, Clare Luce – had to prod him to amp up the sex appeal. “I’m not your sister, you know, Fred!” she’s said to have told him. Astaire romancing anyone seemed to be like a kid cajoling a female relative for sweets – “Oh, please don’t be that way”, he’d say. And then he would be tap tap tapping all around her, grabbing her hand and letting go at a look – he was a gentleman, after all, and before you knew it, there would be two pairs of feet tapping, skirts swirling over sofas and tables, and you would have forgotten your late 20th century cynicism and irony and be watching in slack jawed wonder.

When it comes to dance, I’m a philistine. The kind of thing I would normally watch involves well endowed women and metal poles, in dim lighting. My father still reminds me that I slept through a Padma Subramaniam recital. But I can watch Astaire again and again. It doesnt matter if he’s dancing  with a girl (The Ginger dances are special, of course, but Ginger needs a whole writeup herself) or a hatrack or a bunch of shoes.

Tell you what. I’m going to watch Swing Time. And leave you with Corliss’ last words

In the pop culture war, sex won — real, insolent, dirty sex, not Ginger's kind. And class went to the back of the class. It sits there, ignored and aloof, waiting for the young to recognize it. Can't they see how sensational that slim figure back there looks in his top hat, white tie and tails, as an indulgent smile plays on his face and his feet describe elaborate designs on the schoolroom floor? Can't they see that Britney Spears is not dance — that Fred Astaire is? I hope, some day, the kids will get Astaire. He's too cool to be the property of fogies like me

1. Though Epstein writes for the Weekly Standard – which means I should automatically hate him. David Thomson wrote some excellent stuff about Howard Hawks and Cary Grant But this time, much as I dislike this,  I’m firmly on Epstein’s side. Astaire was no matinee idol, but to quote James Agate “May I suggest that the solution hangs on a little word of three letters? Mr Astaire's secret is that of the late Rudolph Valentino and of Mr Maurice Chevalier — sex, but sex so bejewelled and be-pixied that the weaker vessels who fall for it can pretend that it isn't sex at all but a sublimated projection of the Little Fellow with the Knuckles in His Eyes. You'd have thought by the look of the first night foyer that it was Mothering Thursday, since every woman in the place was urgent to take to her bosom this waif with the sad eyes and the twinkling feet.”

2. I paraphrase this one, couldnt find the original quote

Sunday, 5 June 2011

The Hindu Wars

Are disappointing. My first clue that “The Hindu” was not completely objective came when I was living in Hyderabad. Hyd was changing into Cyberabad at the time, and Naidu could do no wrong – atleast as far as the Hyderabadis were concerned. I tended to agree. After NTR’s populism and the Congress’ corruption, the man seemed like a breath of fresh air. You could see the city transforming from a sleepy grubby town that had grown too big to an actual city. But “The Hindu”’s Hyderabad edition was relentless in its criticism of Naidu. Some of the criticism was well founded – based on criticism of blind Neoliberal/IMF prescribed policies. Sainath’s excoriation of the TDP for ignoring the rural communities and the numberless suicides was appropriate and necessary. But the bulk of it was the way coverage was slanted. Every two bit Congresscreature who railed against Naidu could count on coverage, but very little Naidu said or did ever made it to the newspaper.

At first, I thought that it must be a local thing, that the Hyderabad editor was anti-Naidu and that the family wasn’t too concerned about what was primarily regional reporting. Naive? Yes. Plus, there was no doubt that the changes made to Hyderabad – the improved infrastructure, the cutting and streamlining of the bureaucracy, the excellent power situation – in my three years, I experienced only one major 7 hour power cut – and that was because of an accident at a power plant  - blinded you to the fact that farmers in their hundreds were killing themselves.

I could respect the position the paper took. It was going against the tide, at a time when everyone was going gaga about India Shining.

But these days, the paper has become ridiculous. It’s pretty much acknowledged that the paper is a daily apology for the DMK, and more than the DMK, Dayanidhi Maran. Oh, yeah. There are mealy mouthed editorials that come up once in a while about corruption, but these happen, not before reports of corruption become common knowledge, but well after. However, if the DMK is not implicated. Fire and fucking Brimstone, folks. Dayanidhi Maran – Oh Good guy – broken hearted over corruption. 323 telephones in his place, under the BSNL . See, we just found this on  Wikileaks, the same Wikileaks we were examining for several months now. As for the phone lines, why, here is Mr. Maran’s statement that he did no wrong. When the Express story was explicit that the lines were NOT in Maran’s name.

Then there are the tales of cowardice. An article on the SCV monopoly being shot down. Or this one, on the Radia tapes. Or this one, an abject apology for what? An article that mentioned the low opinion a German student had on a Kirloskar exhibit.

It just makes me sad. I think I preferred it when it was staid and bourgeois.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Best of Tamil Cinema–Merchandising

Well, yes. There were Chaplin dolls in the 1920s. And there was Mickey mouse – with his pocket watches and train sets in the 1930s.  But merchandising really took off, as far as I know, in the Star Wars era.

Here, we don’t really have anything comparable. Oh, the shops are full of Spiderman and Ben Ten and Speed racer figurines, but I can’t really remember ANYTHING from the Tamil cinema world, apart from fan made Rajnikanth T-Shirts. And you have to order them from the US or buy them handprinted on duster material from the pavement opposite Loyola college. [Unless of course, you’re Rose Tyler – Annamalai T-Shirt ahoy at 0:51]

So I was surprised to read about a merchandising boom in Madras presidency – way back in 1939 – starring – wait for it – Papanasam Sivan. The Tamil Thyagaraja himself. And it was the first Tamil movie to be banned. Of course, it was made during a time when you could say “Congress ideals” without cracking up. The story was serialized in Ananda Vikatan – written by Kalki, it was one of the first to use movie stills instead of the customary illustrations. It dealt with progressive issues of its day – untouchability, domestic abuse – to the extent of the battered wife telling her repentant shitheel husband to fuck off when he returned on bended knee – and the Independence movement (Or is it freedom struggle?). It even starred a spinning Mahatma – via interpolated footage.


And the poster, above? The guy in the suit is the philandering husband,  the girl in the suit is his mistress – obviously evil – they’re aping the Brits.

So why the FUCK haven’t I heard of this before?

Why haven’t I heard that this ran at Gaiety? Fucking Gaiety  theatre which used to show Ramarajan films? The theatre I visited once – when I watched “The Perils of Gwendoline” to see Tawny Kitaen’s tits? And that the director – hearing that the Government planned to ban the movie – announced free shows (can a director do that? Was he related to the theatre owner?). And people flocked in and watched until the police came in and lathi charged everyone out of the place.

Funny. Watching a movie can be revolutionary act, after all.

Which led to a whole deal of merchandise. Thyaga Bhoomi saree falls and handbags, blouse pieces and bangles. I wonder if anyone has them still.