Little Lady Hee-Haw; or, A Temple Fit for Goebbels

On my only trip requiring an overnight bag during this stay-at-home summer, my husband and I drove from our patch on the west coast of Britain to the thoroughly overcrowded Cotswolds and, upon my urging, made a stop-over at the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, an internationally renowned haven for second-hand book lovers.  Now, musty old volumes and COVID-19 do not quite go together – or so I thought – considering that retail spaces generally set aside for them are rarely supermarket-sized.  However, Hay, which depends on the trade, managed to make it work; and, meeting the moment by donning a mask, I got to enjoy an afternoon of socially distanced and sanitized hands-on browsing.

Not that I walked away with any tomes of consequence.  While at the Cinema bookstore – a shop not limited to publications related to motion pictures – I discovered a nook stacked with a curious assortment of ephemera: German movie programs of the 1930s.  I am not sure how they ended up in a Welsh bookshop – but that dislocation may well have extended their shelf life … until a German such as I came along and took an Augenblick to sift through them.

The program pictured above, dating from 1937, left me puzzled for a while.  I am familiar with many of Shirley Temple’s features – but I did not recall any among them bearing a title remotely like “Shirley auf Welle 303,” or “Shirley over Station 303.” So, I picked up this fragile brochure, and a few others besides, if mainly to tap their potential as pop cultural conversation pieces.

The film being deemed worthy of commemoration is Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, a DVD of which is gathering dust in my video library.  The title refers to an early twentieth-century children’s literature classic, although the movie version bears so little resemblance to it that it could hardly be considered an adaptation.  Not that the title of the novel would have resonated with German audiences. Meeting this challenge, the marketing people at Fox came up with a new one that might sound more relatable.

I suspect that the servants of the Nazi regime would have objected to the name of the titular character as well, being that Rebecca is Hebrew in origin, meaning “servant of God.” Shirley, on the other hand, was a household name, Ms. Temple having charmed audiences around the world since at least 1934. Like the titles of several other Shirley Temple vehicles released in 1930s Germany, the German version of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm therefore bears the first name of its star. Only Heidi stayed Heidi, rather than being translated into “Little Swiss Miss Shirley.”

A contemporary British program for the same film, also in my collection.

And yet, the effort to make the film seem more relatable to Nazi Germany’s picture-goers nonetheless resulted in a title that was out of touch with Fascist reality. In 1938, when the film was released in German cinemas, the idea of using radio transmitters for your purposes – or for the purpose of exploiting a child for your own purposes – was inimical to state-controlled broadcasting. On the air, it was always “Germany Calling,” a phrase famously used by the aforementioned Lord Haw-Haw beginning in 1939.

Germans would have struggled in vain to twist the dial and hit on a broadcast like Shirley’s, or they would have paid a price for such twisting.  Many of them listened via the Volksempfänger, a mass-produced receiver that was always tuned in to the Führer’s voice.  Imagine staying tuned to Fox News all day.  Then again, so many who do have the choice not to still do nonetheless, not unlike those who were complaisant during the rise of Fascism in Germany.

The change in title – and the recontextualization it achieves – is peculiar, and only a performer as innocuous as Shirley Temple could have gotten away with what otherwise would have been downright seditious: seizing the microphone and taking to the airwaves in a makeshift studio set up in a remote farmhouse.  Perhaps, the titular bandwidth – 303 – was to signal that Shirley’s broadcast had been sanctioned after all, 30 January 1933 being the date Hitler came to power. In the Third Reich, three was heralded as the charm.

For decades, the German film industry did wonders – or, rather, wilful damage – to international films with its dubbing of their soundtracks; voicing over and voiding the content of the source, there were many opportunities to ready a film more substantive than Rebecca for consumption in Nazi Germany.  I do not recall seeing this movie in my native language, although I do remember a festival of her films airing on West German television in the late 1970s.  Not that watching Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm in the original is an experience I am eager to repeat, clobbered together a vehicle for an overhyped and overworked child star about to wear out her welcome that it is. Variety dismissed the film at the time as a “weak story,” “indifferently acted and directed,” while claiming its lead to be “at her best.”

The German program does little more than summarize the plot as well as state the principal actors and main players behind the scene of the production; I am sure someone checked whether producer Darryl F. Zanuck was Jewish, which he was not. What struck me about the program was that it mentions the word ‘propaganda’ twice in the first paragraph, where it was used as a substitute for advertising (in German, “Werbung” or “Reklame”).  Sending up the excesses of US consumerism while promoting the ostensible virtues of country living, this trifle of a film – distributed in Nazi Germany by the enterprising and accommodating “Deutsche” Fox – could serve as a vehicle for anti-American propaganda at a time when increasingly few US films were granted a release in Germany.

By making such trifles, and by marketing them for distribution in Nazi Germany, the US film industry contributed to the rise of Fascism, which, only after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hollywood films began to confront with a suitably glossy vengeance. By that time, US films were banned in Germany, and Shirley Temple ceased to be a leading lady – at least in motion pictures.

Undone and Dusted: The Long Art of Christopher Williams

“Glory be to God for dappled things,” Gerard Manley Hopkins famously exclaimed—in a poem, no less, that was first published some three decades after his death. The delayed recognition he received makes us now think of Hopkins as a modern poet rather than a Victorian one. Brought to light in the darkest of days, his words spoke to an inglorious post-World War world so different from the perfectly imperfect one he knew that he could hardly have anticipated it. And yet, anticipate us he did—and “[a]ll things counter, original, spare, strange.” Secure in his belief in the One “whose beauty is past change,” Hopkins could revel in all that is “fickle, freckled (who knows how?),” in a life that is protean, fleeting and undone—the ever unfinished and often dirty business of living reconciled to our longing for perfection, permanence, and the eternal.

 

“Glory,” I wanted to shout, for dusty things, for art so long that no one in a single lifespan can ever be done with it—and for a chance to dust off works neglected and ignored to bring them to life anew. Not because they are perfect, not because they are classic or timeless—but because, in all their sketchiness, patchiness and almost-but-not-quiteness, they remind us—and glorify—the long and short of life: the clouds on the horizon, the waves hitting the rocks, the light of the ever setting sun on ancient mountains. I was too busy tackling the dust (and keeping my mouth shut not to take it in) to wax philosophical and shout then—but I do think and feel it now when I look at some of the smaller canvases of Christopher Williams (1873-1934), a once well known artist, and native of Wales, whose forgotten and, in many cases, never before exhibited works I had a small part in putting back on public display here at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.

Far more than Williams’s monumental paintings of momentous historical, mythological, and biblical themes, which belong to an age fast fading in his day, what is glorious to me are his studies of sea, sky, and rock—of the mutable majesty, the perennial transience of nature that he sought to encapsulate while working against time: the dying light of day, the waves against unwavering cliffs, the clash of the evanescent with the apparently everlasting.

 

A few years ago, when I knew little of Wales and less of Williams, I visited one of the spots along the coast he had painted and compared what I saw to what he had depicted. The rocks were the same all right, but the sea and the sky looked nothing like the painting. Had he painted what he wanted to see, wanted us to see, or remembered seeing? Years later, when I returned to the same scene, the sea was turquoise, the sky cerulean—it was as Williams had pictured it. Only then did I appreciate the long hours he must have spent studying the light and the colors it creates. What was before him was fleeting—what is before us is unfinished—but what his quick brush transported one hundred years into his future is the product of a study far from cursory. Perhaps it takes a knowledge of the presence of something past change to see past the unchanging and glory in the changeable.

 
And there they are now, on view for a short while (until 22 September 2012), these past glimpses of change, these small studies alongside his finished—staid, staged and stately—compositions I helped to ready for the big show. Not that the project is done and dusted, as, together with my partner, Robert Meyrick, the curator of the present retrospective, I shall be co-authoring a book on the artist’s life and work . . .

Stiff Competition: A Hairspray to Defy the West End Elements

Funny thing about prejudice: if you let it take hold, it can deprive you and those around you of a real good time.  That, in a shiny Aqua Net shell, is the message of Hairspray, the musical.  And, boy, did I deprive myself . . . until now.  Sure, others around me still had that good time, but when Hairsprayhit Broadway back in 2002, I was as set as an untamed cowlick.  I would have none of it. My Aqua Net days were long behind me by then, and I was not going to splash out on a rehash of a late-1980s cult comedy about early 1960s culture-clashing teenagers, told in songs that a Porter and Gershwin kind of guy like me is not inclined to hum while wearing a shower cap. Well, Kiss my Kate! Last Friday, I finally woke up and smelled the coiffing.  “Good morning, Baltimore!” Andoh, never mind “beautiful”what a colorful morning it is.

Funny thing, too, that I only had to travel about half a mile to learn that musical lesson; no subway ride down to 42nd Street, no walk through London’s West End via Leicester Square (and TKTS).  Just up the hill, to Aberystwyth Arts Centre, where each summer a musical is staged that, as a tourist attraction, is far more reliable than our windswept seaside.  Over the years, I have seen eight of those summer seasons come and go, from Oliver! to Chess.  Boasting a cast whose list of combined Broadway and West End credits is way longer than I am in the tooth, this year’s production tops them all.

Its readily translatable story of teenage rebellion aside, Hairspray may not be the easiest piece of Americana to transplant to Wales.  Never mind references to Allen Funt, Jackie Gleason, and the Gabors, names not likely to ring for today’s young, British audiences the bells I and Tracy Turnblad can hear.  The Director’s Note in the program about Rosa Parks, whose image flashes on a big screen during one of the numbers, fills in some of the blanks.  This, after all, is American history, no matter how much John Waters it down.

Then again, it may not be the easiest thing, either, to translate the Civil Rights Movement into a musical riot without becoming as crude or politically incorrect as John Waters used to be.  But, whatever your own sense of otherness and experience of xenophobia might be—and “I Know Where I’ve Been”—Hairspray gives you enough of a whiff of those ill winds to make you investigate whence they blow.  “Run and Tell That”: if any production can communicate a shakeup without making anger the primary colour of the emotional rainbow, Unholy Waters! this can can.

You might expect—and forgive, too—any glitches or leftover curlers on opening night; but there were none here: upon pulling the lid, this Hairspraywas as solid as a freshly lacquered beehive.  Andrew Agnew is marvelous as Edna Turnblad, a part I identified so much with the fabulous Divine that I couldn’t face watching John Travolta in a latex mask.  Agnew makes you forget both—and he plays Edna in such an understated way that her big number “(You’re) Timeless to Me” makes you understand what, to someone of my certain age, is the warm heart of this show.  It’s a heart whose Beat you’d can’t stop without making Hairspray lose its maximum hold.

Edna might have missed every boat except the one she pours the gravy from; but she is not too old to kiss—and kick—the past goodbye and say “Welcome to the 60’s.”  This transition requires more than a new do or a swift costume change; and Agnew achieves it by centering Edna in the 1950s, a woman who loves Lucy though she might not like Ike—and who not only loves Tracy from the remove of a generational gap but gets her, too.

Tracy, of course, is her daughter—the embodiment of that new age—and Jenny O’Leary inhabits the role with the confidence and youthful energy for which it calls.  Tracy may not quite grasp just how seismic the event is in which she plays her part, an event—this much she knows—far bigger than “Negro Night” on the Corny Collins Show; but she approaches integration with the I-don’t-get-it naivety that has many of today’s youngsters baffled at their parent’s definition of marriage as a strictly segregated affair.

Hairspray leaves no doubt as to who “The Nicest Kids in Town” are; “nice” simply ain’t.  It is self-serving conventionality, a meanness of spirit that lingers under the neat surface like something you fight with lice shampoo.  How else to approach “Miss Baltimore Crabs,” Velma Von Tussle, a nasty piece of work done justice by Lori Haley Fox—and done in by the sheer force of Motormouth Maybelle, a woman who, like Edna, has seen better days, but whose better days were lived in times much worse.  

Marion Campbell, who plays Maybelle, comes on stage late to belt out her showstopper of a number—and her presence hits you like, say, Mahalia Jackson’s in Imitation of Life: a voice to be reckoned with, especially in a fight for equality.

Though the actress playing Tracy Turnblad receives top billing, it would be wrong to call the rest of the cast “supporting.”  Hairspray demands a great many good voices as it gives most of its characters the chance and challenge to shine, and everyone in this cast is living up to that challenge: Arun Blair Mangat as Seaweed, Samantha Giffard a Penny Pingleton, Morgan Crowley as Wilbur Turnblad, Hugo Harold-Harrison as Corny Collins . . .

The list is longer than that—but I’d be bald by the time I were done honor roll calling.  Besides, if I’m counting anything it’s the days until my next trip to the salon for another hit of Hairspray. Yes, funny thing about prejudice: once confronted, it can yield such eye-opening, ear-popping surprises.

So, toodle-oo to stiff upper lip! Stiff up yer quiff instead.

Mining Culture: The Welsh in Hollywood

It was too pleasant an afternoon not to be warming to it. The outdoors, I mean. Though all thumbs (and not one of them green), I nonetheless tried my hands at gardening again, transplanting English-grown Californian Lilac into Welsh soil. Unless deterred by the vagaries of what goes for “vernal” here in Wales, I shall probably spend more time tending to the plants than to this journal next week, when the storm-frayed and patched-up telephone lines to our house are scheduled to be cut down and replaced, a spring renewal of telecommunications during which service is likely to be suspended.

No internet, no landline, and no traffic along the already quiet lane leading to this hermitage I call home—it’s “a proper place for a murder.” That is how the setting of Night Must Fall was described when on this day, 27 March, in 1948, the famous and oft revived thriller by Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams was performed on the US radio thriller anthology Suspense.

Along with two members of the original (1935) London cast—Dame May Whitty (as Mrs. Bramson) and Matthew Boulton (as the inspector)—Robert Montgomery was heard in the role of Dan, the lady killer he had played in the 1937 film adaptation. As I realized after seeing it on stage, Night Must Fall is not your common crop of a crime melodrama. It goes beyond the question of whether or not the victim will die by asking us whether she ought to, by making us eager for the “must” of her demise and examine the decline and “fall” of our own civilized morality. As a psychological and ethical puzzler, it translates well into other languages and media.

Now, Night falls in Essex, England, rather than the wild west of Britain; but according to Williams’s stage directions, the character of “Baby-face” Dan “speaks with a rough accent” that, unlike Montgomery’s, is “more Welsh than anything else.” On Broadway as on the London stage, this “sort of Welsh” Dan (as his girlfriend describes him) was voiced by the very Welshman who created him. In an acting career spanning six decades, Williams was a frequent player in (mainly British) film, on stage and television; on US radio, he was heard in one of Norman Corwin’s plays for the United Nations. I recently spotted him in The Citadel (1938), his voice lending authenticity to the depiction of life in a Welsh mining town rendered unconvincing by the casting of Hollywood productions like John Ford’s Academy Award-winning How Green Was My Valley (another cinema classic I caught up with this year) or The Corn Is Green. The latter is based on an autobiographical play by Williams; but with stars like Bette Davis (on screen) and Claudette Colbert (on radio, nearly a decade later) taking on the role of a Welsh schoolteacher, it is the audience who is expected to be green.

Having lived in this country for well over two years now, I am all ears for representations and representatives of Wales in popular culture, whether in British cinema or American radio drama. What remains of this country once its landscape, language, and lore are forced through the filter of the camera or microphone, once it is translated by a popular medium like film and transferred to an international audience? During the next few months, leading up to a Welsh film festival hosted by the National Screen and Sound Archive here in Aberystwyth, I am going to mull over such matters from time to time.

To be sure, the landscape and culture of Wales have changed considerably since A. J. Cronyn’s Citadel and Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley were bestsellers in the US back in 1937-38 and 1940, respectively. Prominently featured in 20th-century popular culture (including the previously discussed “Comedy of Danger,” the first play written for radio), the mines have been shut down years ago and wind farms have replaced collieries. Today, however, the BBC reported that coal mining is making a comeback here, as the first “deep mine” is set to open in over three decades. Could this mean that Ms. Zeta-Jones is going back to her Welsh roots for a Hollywood returns to the Citadel, the Valley or other recycled Corn?

We Now Resume Our Regularly Scheduled Life

It has been a week of local excursions here in Wales, days spent sunbathing and splashing in the radioactive sea, bookhunting in Hay-on-Wye (the world-renowned “Town of Books”), dining al fresco, stargazing outdoors and on screen, playing with Montague, our unruly terrier, and being among friends (even after having been critiqued with the candor I reserve for those who matter to me). The occasion of it all was a weeklong visit by my closest if mostly long distance friend, the fatherland I haven’t set foot on for seventeen years. It is to him that I owe the wonderful book pictured above, a splendid addition to my collection of Claudette Colbert memorabilia.

Whenever I venture out to Hay, I return home with a few treasures. This time, I added a book on Harold Lloyd (my favorite silent screen comedian, whose films The Kid Brother, The Cat’s Paw and Girl Shy we screened during the past few days), as well as a coffee-table topper on screwball comedies (a book which I had previously gifted to abovementioned best pal, but with which I was pleased to get reacquainted). However convenient and economic it might be to browse and shop online, the thrill of the hunt (as previously described here), is something a carnivore of a booklover like me does not like to go without.

Now, the people of Film Pictorial, a British publication, are full of it. Legend, I mean, which is a term I much prefer to trivia when it comes to describing pieces of nothing from which to weave whatever your mind is up to at the moment. Trivia is for the mercenary; legend for the mercurial. I shall raid said volume from time to time here on these virtual pages. Where else might you learn whether or not you have a “Film Hand” from a writer who examines the “long little finger on the hand of Katharine Hepburn” or the “thickish fingers” of John Boles and Warren William to tell their temperament and acting skills?

The book also contains longer articles on “The Gallant Life of Norma Shearer” and takes readers to the homes of stars like Harold Lloyd, Bette Davis, and . . . Gordon Harker? Robert Montgomery, meanwhile, debates, along with Jeanette MacDonald, “At What Age Are Women Most Charming” and Myrna Loy reveals her “Own Ideas.” It’s all glossy but telling gossip, which I am looking forward to sharing, along with old news from , over the next few days.

Of course, my week was not without pain and what there is of sorrow in my life, among which my tumble down the slippery steps to my room and the breaking down of our car are the most dramatic examples. My lower back and my left toe still ache; the car might not be salvageable at all. In a matter of weeks, I reckon, such woes—which led to dipped feet in cooling springs and a ride through Wales in an Auto Club truck—will be nothing but cheerful anecdotes to be shared among chums. For now, they are inconveniences, at most.

As I have mentioned before, the weeks to come will be somewhat less than regular. On 7 August, I shall return, however briefly, to my old home in New York City. In the meantime, I resume my journal, hoping it will be appreciated by those who make it a habit to keep up with someone as gleefully out-of-date as yours truly, broadcastellan.