On This Day in 1903: A Girl Named Lily Enters a Nickelodeon-crazy World

The “On This Day” feature I inaugurated last Friday as an experiment in blog-streamlining turned out to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated. To be sure, there is no lack of pop cultural fodder to be culled from various sources, even though I soon realized it would not suffice simply to delve deep into the pit of “unpopular culture” in order to conjure up something worthwhile and intriguing to me. Not that I minded having to read a Shakespearean tragedy or Victorian poetry to make it all work to my satisfaction. Nothing is less pleasing than the presentation of mere trivia. Trivia, after all, is everything about which one has nothing to say.

Matter is never trivial—minds are. Any tidbit is a tadpole out of which may grow a stimulating thought. As soon as a piece of otherwise useless information is brought into meaningful relationships, as soon as it becomes the plaything of the imagination, it ceases to be mere quiz piffle. As I discovered, however, it can become quite burdensome and tedious to let the calendar dictate what datum should be dusted off and taken for an airing. Unless, of course, the day happens to be 13 September—the birthday of my favorite motion picture actress, Ms. Claudette Colbert.

Today, nearly a decade after her death, the charming Parisienne born Lily Claudette Chauchoin is mostly remembered for her Oscar-winning performance in It Happened One Night, the only cinematic landmark in her long and lucrative career. I have ceased to be amazed how many well-educated people draw a blank when confronted with her name. She is not one of the untouchables, no larger-than-life goddess like Garbo or Dietrich. She has not inspired the cult following of queer icons like Joan Crawford or Bette Davis. She is no longer thought of as being among the accomplished or outstanding actresses of her day (that is, the 1930s and ‘40s)—probably because she was so decidedly of her day. 

During the Depression and the lean years of wartime rationing, Colbert represented the savvy and urbane gal who could make something out of next to nothing, who survived and thrived using her charm, her wits, and her gams. She wasn’t a gold-digger—she was an adventuress. Here’s a definition of the label, taken from Preston Sturges’s Palm Beach Story:

Colbert (about to run away from her husband): “I might not get married again. I might become an adventuress.”

McCrea (the befuddled husband): “I can just see you starting for China on a twenty-six foot sailboat.”

Colbert: “You’re thinking of an adventurer, dear. An adventuress never goes on anything under three hundred feet with a crew of eighty.”

Instead of waiting to land a husband, she was on her way to make a living. Her characters were rarely tawdry or shrill, rarely timid or severe, which rendered her inoffensive and commendable to audiences of both sexes. The quintessential Colbertian heroine got into precarious situations in order to get out of untenable ones. Standing the test of nonsensical commotion, she was the epitome of common sense. Accessible and admirable at once, she was always Practically Yours.

One biographer attributed her transient stardom to her inability to gauge which projects would translate into cinematic events of lasting brilliance, as well as her failure to forge long-term professional relationships with renowned directors or remarkable actors, connections that worked wonders for comparatively colorless actresses like Myrna Loy. Instead, worked most frequently with artists who, however commercially successful, are for the most part considered second-rate today (such as director Mitchell Leisen or actor Fred MacMurray).  While overstated, there is some truth in this observation.

Now, I don’t generally hold with the what-would-have-happened-if school of thinkers; but if you ever wondered what Colbert might have done with the parts played by Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams, Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth and Magnificent Obsession, or Margaret Sullavan in Shop Around the Corner, consider tuning in to the Lux Radio Theatre, where she was also heard revisiting the stage role that brought her fame long before Hollywood claimed her: Lou in The Barker.

Even when dealing with stage and screen, radio can often be relied give us a fuller picture; in this case, a fuller picture of an enterprising adventuress who made it her career to “paint the lily.”

Eran Trece for Dinner; or, A Spanish Lesson with Charlie Chan

Well, “gracias, muchisimas!” Thanks to some last-minute planning on my behalf, I’ll be off on a trip to sweltering Madrid, starting next Wednesday. It will be my first visit to continental Europe since I left my native Germany for New York City in 1990; and it has been even longer since last I’ve traveled to a country whose primary language I neither speak nor comprehend. Although I lived just below Spanish Harlem for many years and the majority of my students at City University colleges were Hispanic, I never picked up more than the odd word or phrase. Indolence and impatience aside, my main excuse is that I was too busy appropriating English and promoting it as a common language, the thorough knowledge of which would benefit all who choose to live in the United States.

These days, resisting such study—and missing out intellectually and economically as a result—is being celebrated as multiculturalism, I suppose. Aware that I would miss out on Spanish culture unless I made a valiant if belated effort to train my tongue linguistically as well as culinarily, I popped in a DVD last night and watched Eran Trece. What better introduction to a foreign language than a lesson delivered by a Spanish re-interpreter of an American conception of the aphorism-peppered speech of a Chinaman! Charlie Chan, that is.

Eran Trece (1931) is the Spanish version of Charlie Chan Carries On, a copy of which has not yet resurfaced. It was produced in the early days of the talkies, when recasting rather than dubbing was being explored as a means of broadening the market for English and American films after the end of the silent era threatened to fragment the movie industry and diminish the potential of major studios like 20th Century Fox to generate global box-office successes. It was a costly enterprise that dubbing soon made redundant.

For anyone who has been exposed to dubbed films and the consequent muffling of cultural differences, the advantages of recasting will be readily appreciated, even though it meant that international audiences did not get to see the well-trained stars of Hollywood or Elstree, unless these performers were multilingual. Claudette Colbert, for instance, acted in both The Big Pond and its French version Le Grand Mer (1930).

Restaging also demanded a few rewrites to make an originally American or British film more intelligible or palatable to the international audience. For instance, when remarking upon a photograph of Chan’s many-headed family, characters in the original are reminded of Birth of a Nation, whereas the Spanish commentators liken it to a soccer team; apparently, not all silent movies translate quite so easily either. Eran Trece certainly has some Spanish blood in it; and even though much of it is spilled, the scenario includes a cheerful party scene with a fiery musical interlude that does not appear to be matched by the American original.

I neglected to mention that the copy I screened did not have English subtitles; so, being only vaguely familiar with the novel I read ages ago in a German translation, I availed myself of the scenario for the missing American film version, which is being shared online by the most generous and kindly guardian of the Charlie Chan Family Home. It was one of the most curious cinematic experiences I had since attending a MoMA screening of the fragmentary British-German coproduction of The Queen Was in the Parlor (1927), a silent film (neither scored nor accompanied by piano) . . . with Danish titles.

So, did I learn any Spanish last night? Well, not really, apart from Charlie’s frequently reiterated “Gracias, muchisimas”; but I’m sure I’ll remember the folly of this odd encounter with the Oriental hombre when confronted with the task of deciphering the dinner menus next week.

Hope on the Bottom Shelf; or, What to Do When the Cable Box Seems Barren

Moving to the UK from the movie junkie heaven that is New York City meant having to find new ways of getting my cinematic fix. Gone are the nights of pre-code delights at the Film Forum; no more silent film matinees at the MoMA (which is just concluding a Gregory La Cava retrospective); and no more browsing at J&R Music World—and all just a cab ride away. And yet, judging by who is posting reviews at IMDb, it becomes obvious that cineastes are not exclusively city dwellers (a review of the rarely screened talkie The Hole in the Wall may serve as a case in point). Just don’t count on UK television.

The commercial-free BBC 2 has proven the most reliable source of classic Hollywood fare, even though the screenings of old movies are generally relegated to the after-hours or late-morning time slots. There have been a number of pleasant surprises, such as a Val Lewton series (including the literate horror of The Dead Ship), the film adaptation of the Suspense radio drama “To Find Help” (reworked, not altogether successfully, as Beware, My Lovely) and several Claudette Colbert films (including Texas Lady, which I had never seen in the US).

Silent movies are unheard of, however; nor do pre-1940s films get much airtime (the team efforts of Astaire/Rogers and Laurel/Hardy being a notable exception). Still, this beats the advertisement-riddled offerings at TCM Britain, whose one-shelf library even infrequent viewers are likely to exhaust within a few months.

Since I am not an online shopper and still enjoy hunting trips per pedes, I have been checking out the DVD sections of the major music/video retailers here in the UK. Virgin is least attractive, stocking mainly recent titles at largely unacceptable prices. It is little more than a snazzy second-run theater where all the so-called blockbusters are dumped and repackaged as soon as they are pulled from the movie houses. Rather better are HMV and MVC. With some luck, DVDs of classics like All About Eve, Sunset Blvd., or The Third Man can be had for under £10, while lesser-known titles may be spotted (and left behind) sporting higher price tags bespeaking their exclusivity. At HMV, for instance, Tod Browning’s Freaks bears the label “An HMV Exclusive.”

And then there is FOPP. A smarter store with a larger number of classic or literary films, it boasts £5 and £7 DVD shelves. It’s a good place to set out from for anyone interested in setting up a library of essential Hollywood films. Many Hitchcock features can be had here for £5, and most DVDs are authorized studio releases, rather than the cheap transfers that end up in supermarket bargain bins. These copies are so washed out that it often difficult to distinguish the features of the players; even the rugged male leads seem to be getting the Doris Day treatment, as if shot through layers of gauze. The problem is exacerbated if the DVD image is projected onto a screen, as I am wont to enjoy my movies whenever possible.

Well, to FOPP I went last weekend; and, once again, hope lay on the bottom shelf: a copy of G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box. So, tonight is going to be spent looking at Lulu, our decidedly other Miss Brooks.

In Bed With Orson; or, How I Got the Wandering Ear

What I didn’t get to tell in Etherized Victorians, my doctoral dissertation, is how I love to cuddle up with a good voice. Aside from being rather too intimate an aspect of my passion for old-time radio to be shared in an academic paper, the sensuality and sway of the human voice, regardless of the words it conveys—seemed to be decidedly beyond the boundaries of my vocabulary.

I am hardly one to shy away from lexical experimentation; but I felt that I could not approach the subject—the mystique—of the vocal with the clarity and precision I aim for in all my linguistic playfulness. How, for example, could I describe the lush, seductive performances of Ann Sothern (as Maisie) and Natalie Masters (as Candy Matson), the sinister melancholy and paroxysmal fury of Peter Lorre (on Mystery in the Air, for instance), or the tender, tattered quavering of Gertrude Berg (matriarch of The Goldbergs) as I listen to them burble, groan, hiss and whimper, as I hear them snarling at or whispering to me? How could I intellectualize the suave and mannered cadences of Vincent Price as the Saint or the hammy bluster of Orson Welles as Harry Lime? Some passions are not to be explained, to be argued out of existence. They are to be reveled in, secretly, in the shelter of darkness.

There are many such pleasures to be had listening to recordings of US radio broadcasts of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, a period during which voices were trained for and attuned to the special demands of the microphone. For me, they can be found and felt when encountering a friendly and well-groomed speaking voice of an announcer like Harry Bartell; a distinguished, eloquent recital like Ronald Colman’s (as in his D-Day reading of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army”); a tough, noirish delivery like Joseph Cotton’s (on Suspense); an unsentimental everymanliness like Joe Julian’s (on Corwin’s An American in England); a glamorous, sultry purring like Marlene Dietrich’s (as the peripatetic adventuress of Time for Love), Ilona Massey’s (as a spy-catching baroness in Top Secret) or Tallulah Bankhead’s (in her memorable role as hostess of the Big Show); a warm, avuncular drone like Nigel Bruce’s (as Sherlock Holmes sidekick and narrator Doctor Watson), a smart and charming lilt like Claudette Colbert’s (frequently heard on the Lux Radio Theater; above, in bed with Welles and etiquette maven Elsa Maxwell) or a queer pomposity like Monty Woolley’s (in his role as the Magnificent Montague).

Quite often, these voices had to convey lines better left unspoken, words unworthy of the actor’s talent. Yet through the magic of timbre and intonation, gifted performers could imbue almost any line with feeling, subtlety, or sly innuendo. And I’m not even talking about the suggestive reading Mae West lent to her characterization of Eve that got her banned from the airwaves. Last night I went to bed with Dane Clark. I didn’t quite get through his performance of John Andrews in a NBC University Theater production of John Dos Passos’s “Three Soldiers,” but his voice still lingers in my mind’s ear this morning.

Ever since I got my first radio, as a child, I have gone in search of voices, soothing, thrilling, enticing. I was eavesdropping on a hidden realm the passage to which was the canal of an eager ear pressed close against the speaker. It was my keyhole to the world about which I knew yet little, a world to which I did not yet belong. It was a levitating grown-up table, an off-limits chamber made of air and furnished by my imagination. Today, these disembodied voices come to me mainly by invitation. Whom, I wonder, am I going to take upstairs with me tonight?