Believing in Labels; or Long-distance Travel, Hands On

I am somewhat of a ‘jacket potato,’ as my mother-in-law recently labelled a certain garden-variety of vegetables, soi-disant, that ostensibly thrive in domestic interiors.  A book-jacket potato, perhaps; but straitjacket comes to mind as well in these sport-jackets-are-for-hangers days of sitting none-too-pretty.  

Not that, in my case, being pomme-de-terrestrial is a recent development.  When I was a child, my mother-by-law used to admonish me for being what in my native tongue is called a Stubenhocker: someone not readily dissuaded from following an inclination not to venture beyond the threshold.

I was that all right; but persuading in other than laid hands-on ways was complicated by the fact that I grew up in one of the most unappealing and polluted parts of flat-as-tarmac North Rhine-Westphalia.  There’s a pre-industrial reference to that region in the opening paragraph of Candide, which the editors of Norton’s explain thus to the reader: ‘Westphalia is a province of western Germany, near Holland, and the lower Rhineland.  Flat, boggy, and drab, it is noted chiefly for its excellent ham.’  Voltaire himself, so the editors note, described the region as ‘vast, sad, sterile, detestable countryside.’  A frank enough assessment to cure any ham of homesickness.

Creating a new virtual home for myself was one of the projects this summer; and my Sitzfleisch (buttocks to you) was sorely tested as I was scanning items from my ephemera collection for online display.  Take these luggage labels, for instance, which I exhibited as part of my (Im)memorabilia exhibition back in 2014 and reserved another spot for in Travelling Through in 2018.  Their erstwhile collector, whose Latvia-to-London history of wartime displacement is still waiting to be told, probably did not visit most of these places and ‘palaces,’ but the labels may well have been a source of vicarious enjoyment as the trading of Glanzbilder – glossy pictures sold in sheets at the local kiosk for trading among pocket-money possessed youngsters – was for my former self in bleak Westphalia.

But I am in danger of veering off-topic, self-imposed and accommodating as it is.  I was speaking travel – a language that’s beginning to sound a lot like Latin.  There is so little of it this year that the aforementioned outing to Hay-on-Wye seemed like an exploratory mission to a Shangri-La of normalcy.  To think that, in 2019, I started out in Sydney and ended up in Lisbon, with extended visits to my old neighborhood in Manhattan and trips to Amsterdam, London, and Florence in between.  It’s the Stubenhocker in me that shall pull me through the pandemic; that, and lexical acrobatics.

I picked up some examples of these former suitcase adornments and searched online for the places they advertise.  Are any of them still operating, I wondered? Or might this year have dealt a final blow to yet another pile of real and conceptual bricks in the service of an industry that, for decades, naturalised and solidified our bourgeois divisions of home and abroad, work and leisure, of holiday and everyday?

Luggage label, Excelsior Hotel Ernst, Cologne, Germany

Cologne Cathedral caught my eye – natch – and brought back memories of countless walks past that sooty Gothic spire rising next to the main train station that was my terminal for entering and exiting the ancient city of Köln.  It’s a sight that, decades later, became a lingering presence in my Gothic Imagination lectures – the cathedral, I mean, not the station, although, come to think of it, the back then equally sooty and rather more mysteries-filled and fantasy-fueling Hauptbahnhof haunts my teaching as well.

The Excelsior Hotel Ernst was – and is – about as likely a place for me to flop as is the Tomb of the Three Magi that is housed in the cathedral nearby.  The only five-star hotel in the old part of the city, it is so close to Dom, in fact, as to warrant its domination of the label design.  On its booking website, the establishment claims to have been privately owned since 1863; but the original building, which predates the 1880 completion of the permanent construction site that is the cathedral, was torn down in 1909.   Two decades later, the rebuilt hotel was reserved for the British army, which occupied it and much else besides until 1926.  Another two decades after that, it was still standing, albeit not without damage, having survived, like the battered Dom, the air raids of the Second World War.  And, yes, it weathered the economic fallout of COVID-19, opening again in May 2020 after a brief shutdown.  The fragile label, meanwhile, has lost little of its gloss.

Luggage label, Hotel Viking (now Hotel Royal Christiania), Oslo, Norway

Resisting my cultural conditioning – the notion of vacationing, in my German childhood, being associated with going down south – I picked up the label promoting the Hotel Viking in Oslo.  It opened in 1951, an influx of visitors being expected in 1952, the year Oslo hosted the Winter Olympics; it was the first year in which Germany (both East and West) were permitted to participate since Berlin hosted in 1936.  Norwegians were not likely to relish the idea of uniformed German delegates and their concomitant supporters invading their capital.  The label design frames the new site in a traditional context, suggesting that, even when viewed from more venerable landmarks, it is a sight to behold. The hotel, now called the Royal Christiania – thus declaring itself traditional by referencing the erstwhile name of the city – is still open for business. The label drives home that the hotel was modern by declaring it to be approachable by car; these days, advertisers are less likely to turn the parking space into a feature.

Luggage label, Hotel Wittebrug, Den Haag, Netherlands

Now, I have never been to Oslo; but on one of my most recent trips to the continent – if ‘recent’ is the word – my husband and I took the train from Amsterdam to spent a few hours in Den Haag, where I had never been until then.  I now lecture in landscape art, so seeing paintings of that genre right where they were created in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic was as thrilling to me as the fantasy of time travel, dismissed as such pictures were by eighteenth-century academics, and many now still under their influence, as prosaic.  However, I would have looked in vain for the Hotel Wittebrug, which was torn down in 1972.

The labels are the stuff of daydreams for me at the moment; but they certainly invite further research.  Who designed them, and when? How does the design correspond with, or misrepresent, the site depicted? It is a project for someone who, like me, does not believe in the label ‘fine art’ and is not dismissive of products of culture that, like seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes, were commodities sold and bought on the market long before they ended up, removed from our everyday, in pay-to-enter venues set apart for our veneration of them and of the collections that now hold them.  

Handling these flimsy pieces of paper now, I am reminded most of all of what I am missing while the world is a world away.  Being out of touch does not quite feel as joyous when the sense of touch cannot be exercised occasionally by hugging an old friend or holding onto what seems more echt, or genuine, if it can be had, momentarily, for the holding …

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.

A Mighty Joe! But not without a plan …

Poster design by Neil Holland
using a 1940s concept drawing for Mighty Joe Young
As announced in my previous post, I am staging the exhibition Recapturing ‘Mighty Joe Young’ at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University (see poster for details).

This is my introductory text panel for the show:

From adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) to the latest installment in the Planet of the Apes saga, non-human primates have played a prominent part in the evolution of motion pictures. Ridiculous and sublime, they act as uncanny doubles of our uncouth selves.


Until well into the 1980s, silver screen simians were often aped by actors in hairy suits. A memorable exception is the original Kong, the uncrowned King of Skull Island. Mighty Joe Young (1949) is one of his descendants.

Joe was brought to life by the creative team responsible for King Kong (1933) and its sequel, Son of Kong (1933). The large volume displayed in the centre of the gallery is Joe’s baby album.

The album commemorates the collaborative efforts that earned Mighty Joe Young an Academy Award for Special Effects. Showing off the tools and tricks of the trade, it contains documentarian photographs as well as drawings and watercolour paintings by Willis ‘Obie’ O’Brien, the film’s ‘Technical Creator.’  The album also records the work of Obie’s apprentice, Ray Harryhausen, whose name became synonymous with pre-CGI fantasy film and stop-motion animation.

The album is on public display for the first time. It was compiled retrospectively, probably by a member of the crew.  Along with hundreds of books and journals, it was bequeathed to Aberystwyth University by the film historian Raymond Durgnat (1932–2002), to whose legacy this exhibition pays tribute.

Surrounding the album are posters, promotional materials as well as 1940s concept drawings for animated movies produced by Walt Disney and Fleischer Studios. Also on show are prints by Gustave Doré and John Martin.  Their fantastic and awe-inspiring images were precursors of cinematic spectacles. Both O’Brien and Harryhausen referenced them in their work.

As a curator, educator and writer, I aim to promote interconnections between the arts as well as the creative industries and academic disciplines devoted to them. Instead of imposing a context in which our album might be contained, I let it take over the gallery to disclose its stories and open new associations.

The public is invited to shape this evolving display by sharing responses to Joe in animation workshops scheduled during the show’s run. Like the homage in Lego you encounter in our gallery, the videos created in those workshops will become part of this exhibition.

Joan Blondell in Dachau

A cigarette card image of Joan Blondell on display at Dachau
I am no historian. At least not in a traditional facts-and-figures sense. Early in life, I became doubtful of efforts to account for the present by recounting the past of a place or a people. Growing up – and growing up queer – in Germany during the 1970s and 80s, I was not encouraged to find myself in such accounts.  After all, how could I have developed a sense of being part of a national history? The present did not make me feel representative even of my own generation, while the then still recent past was presented to me as the past of a different country. A different people, even. A people whose history was not only done but dusted to the point of decontamination.


Visiting Dachau, June 2015
That many of those people – those old or former Nazis – were all around me and that the beliefs they held did not get discarded like some tarnished badge was apparently too dangerous a fact to instill. Pupils would have turned against their teachers.  Children would have come to distrust their parents.  They might even have joined the left-wing activists who were terrorizing Germans for reasons about which we, endangered innocents and latent dangers both, were kept in the dark.
As I have shared here before – though never yet managed adequately to convey – I left Germany in early adulthood because I felt uneasy about my relationship with a country I could not bring myself to embrace as mine. It’s been a quarter of a century since I moved away, first to the US and then to Wales.  For over two decades, I could not even conceive of paying the dreaded fatherland a visit.  Eventually, or rather suddenly, this changed. In recent years, I have found myself accepting offers to teach German language, history and visual culture, assignments that made me feel like a fraud for being second-hand when imparting knowledge about my birthplace.  I realized that I needed to confront the realities from which I had been anxious to dissociate myself.

This summer, I visited the Dachau concentration camp for the first time.  There, in the face of monumental horrors, I was drawn to one of the smallest and seemingly most inconsequential object on display: a cigarette card featuring the likeness of 1930s Hollywood actress Joan Blondell.

“Beaten to death, silenced to death”:
A memorial to the homosexuals killed during
the Nazi regime, made in the year I came out.
Dates and figures are no match for such a fragile piece of ephemera. To be sure, the macabre absurdity of finding a mass-manufactured collectible—purchased, no less, at the expense of its collector’s health—preserved at a site that was dedicated to the physical torture of real people and the eradication of individuality could hardly escape me.  But it was not this calculated bathos alone that worked on me.  It was the thought that I, too, would have collected such a card back then, as indeed I do now.  Investing such a throwaway object with meaning beyond its value as a temporary keepsake, I can imagine myself holding on to it as a remnant of a world under threat.

Looking at that photograph of Joan Blondell at Dachau, it was not difficult for me to conceive that, had I been born some forty years earlier, I might have been sent there, or to any one of the camps where queers like me were held, tortured and killed.  That minor relic, left behind in the oppressive vastness of the Dachau memorial site, speaks to me of the need to take history personal and of the importance of discarding any notion of triviality. For me, it drives history where it needs to hit: home—home, not as a retreat from the world but as a sense of being inextricably enmeshed in it.

Joan Blondell, meanwhile, played her part fighting escapism by starring in “Chicago, Germany,” an early 1940s radio play by Arch Oboler that invited US Americans to imagine what it would be like if the Nazis were to win the war.

She Said It in English: Olympe Bradna (1920-2012) on Men, Mikes and Milk

Cover of Cinegram 60, Say It in French (1938) starring Ray Milland and Olympe Bradna
Cinegram No. 60
“Olympe Bradna is a diplomat of the first rank!” So declared the editors of Cinegram in an issue devoted to Say It in French.  In that now largely forgotten romantic comedy, Bradna co-starred as a French student who impersonates a maid to be close to an American lover (played by Welshman Ray Milland) expected to marry a millionaire’s daughter (Irene Hervey) to save his father’s business.  Maybe that sounded better in French, in which the comedy was first staged under the title Soubrette. Never mind.  The “petite morsel of feminine allure,” so the Bradna legend goes, had “only been kissed by two men during her whole lifetime”—that lifetime amounting to eighteen years back in 1938.  One year into her brief Hollywood career, Bradna had overcome her “anxiety and embarrassment” and forgotten about her vow that she “would never kiss” at all, “either on the screen or off, until she had a ‘steady’ beau.”  Having been teamed with both Milland and Gene Raymond (in Stolen Heaven), the actress was “all in favour” of on-screen romance; but, when asked whose lips she preferred, the teenager refused to kiss and tell. “If I did that, it would be, how do you say? ‘propaganda.’” In the context of European pre-war clamour and the business of Hollywood glamour, the word choice is peculiar, especially since Cinegram was a promotional effort aimed at British audiences.  It is a telling statement, too, as it suggests Bradna’s questioning of the role she was expected to play in the propagation and exploitation of her own image.
Far from naive, the French-born performer knew all about the real world of make-believe, which is why, in her future pursuit of “real romance,” she was determined to “go outside the show business.”  In the early 1920s, her parents, Jeanne and Joseph Bradna, had a successful bareback riding act at the Olympia Theater in Paris, after which venue Olympe was named and where she made her stage debut when she was not quite two years old.  Hence, I suppose, her expressed need for security: “[A]ctors are fellows with uncertain jobs.  They’re generally honest, gay, intelligent and interesting, but they lack that quality of stability that is so important to a girl who wants to establish a home.”
Autographed portrait of Olympe Bradna from the pages of Cinegram 60 (1938)
Bradna in Cinegram No. 60
Presumably, she said all this in English, rather than in her native tongue.  When she first set her dancing feet on the United States as a member of the Folies Bergère and subsequently performed at New York’s French Casino, she was so dismayed at her “lack of English that she determined to learn to speak the language properly.  She succeeded so well,” Cinegram readers were told, “that when it came to making this new picture she had to put in several weeks of hard work under a French tutor to get her French back to standard.”  A Hollywood standard, that is.  After all, in romantic comedy, a French accent was as desirable as a maid’s uniform.
Bradna’s language skills were put to the ultimate test when, on 14 November 1938, she went behind the microphone for the Lux Radio Theater production of “The Buccaneer,” co-starring Clark Gable as French pirate Jean Lafitte; but her part was suitably Old-World, and all over the map besides, to account for any foreignness in her speech.  Bradna assumed the role of Gretchen, which had been played on screen by the Hungarian-born cabaret artist Franciska Gaal.  “Oh, I don’t know how I sound, Mr. DeMille,” Bradna said to in the nominal producer of the program during her scripted curtain call, “a Dutch girl with a French accent in an American play.”  Supported as she was by Gertrude Michael and Akim Tamiroff, both of whom enriched American English with peculiar accents and inflections, she hardly stood out like a sore tongue.
Back page of Cinegram 60, Say It in French (1938) starring Ray Milland and Olympe Bradna
Say It: A rickety vehicle for Milland
Not that Bradna, who appeared on the cover of the 27 July 2 August 1938 issue of Movie-Radio Guide, was a stranger to the microphone.  According to the March 1938 issue of Radio Mirror, Paramount Pictures “put her into five consecutive radio guest-spots for a big build up—but without giving her a nickel.”  Perhaps, DeMille would not have given her a nickel, either, for the privilege of making it into a Lux-lathered version of The Buccaneer, one of his own productions, nor given her an opportunity to promote her latest picture, Say It in French, had he known what British Cinegram readers gathered by flicking through their souvenir program for Say It.  Bradna, they were told, had “startled experts by announcing that the secret of her facial complexion [was] a daily buttermilk massage.”  The maker’s of Lux Toilet Soap could not have been pleased at Bradna’s insistence, fictive or otherwise, that buttermilk was “all” she needed: “My skin may be ever so parched and dry before the routine, but afterwards it is as fresh and smooth as I could want!”
Wally Westmore, Paramount’s make-up chief, reputedly explained that the “secret”—an age-old French recipe for a youthful complexion perhaps not quite so difficult to achieve at the age of eighteen—lay in the rich oil content of buttermilk, which had the same “softening and freshening effect upon the skin as the most elaborate and expensive preparations used by the stars.”  That, of course, was just the claim Lever Brothers were making each week on the Lux Radio Theater, which might explain why Ms. Bradna was never again heard on the program, whose stars were handsomely remunerated for their implied or stated endorsement of the titular product.  Perhaps, Bradna was not “a diplomat of the first rank” after all . . .
Olympe Bradna died on 5 November 2012 in Lodi, California.

You Can’t Take It With You; or, I Scan, Therefore I Am

I call them inventory days, those first few weeks of a new calendar year. It is a time when I play secretary to myself, when I organize and catalogue, shelve and throw away, when I look back at the places I’ve been to, the things I have done, the people I have met. Perhaps, I am getting it all wrong: the year is crisp—so, why am I rehashing what has been, obsessively reconstructing the past with the aid of notes in my calendar, correspondences, receipts and ticket stubs? I am not attached to the material evidence of my prior whereabouts and activities, mind. I jot down what I can glean from each scrap of paper and discard it posthaste. The records are gone, but my recordings of them remain. Such nonchalance is the prerogative of a diarist: not to feel obliged to prove—let alone account for—his or her existence to anyone else. I recount events in order to make them count rather than become accountable for them . . .

You can’t take it with you—but does that mean I should dispose of whatever I have consumed? I am not quite so indifferent when it comes to artifacts that, unlike my mind and body’s scant body of work, might be of consequence to posterity. I feel free to dispose of a photograph of myself after I scan it; but I am uneasy about doing the same to a piece of ephemera such as this souvenir program (from my collection of motion picture memorabilia). May the copy be a feast for greedy eyes as long as the original is removed from greasy fingers.

Sure, I enjoy surrounding myself with meaningful objects; but, my childhood teddy bear excepting, I am not attached to belongings. To have is utility; to hold, futility.

The chance of having and not holding is what attracted me to the immaterial world of radio dramatics. These days, I mostly collect what goes into one ear and, playing with it, delay the moment at which it comes out of the other. I amass what has no mass: digital recordings, not the physical vehicles on which they used to be stored (shellac, vinyl, magnetic tape).

Everything I have gathered is at my fingertips, nothing is filed away. My world and my vault are one. The files are backed up (this much I have learned from past losses)—but they are ready to go wherever I am. I can take it all with me; and doing so rather than storing things away enriches my life.

That said, I have to learn to cut short my inventory days; last year, they lasted for months. To cut a long time in storage short, I have booked a trip to New York this January. No doubt I will be both gathering new stuff for living and, as my past record tells me, look back and catch up. I know my failings. No saints need apply to preserve me.

The Touchables

The folks who proved that they had made their mark in Hollywood by leaving it in the cement slabs in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre had one thing in common. Besides having the stature of a movie star or Tinseltown personality, I mean. They could all stand up, bend down, and exert whatever pressure is required to produce those imprints. Even Charlie McCarthy, apparently. I always thought that it might please the supposed untouchables to be commemorated in a medium that is not as telltale about our inescapable senescence as a photograph or moving image. Many of us can stand up far longer than we can stand looking in the mirror.

Then again, the moving hands of time are readable in our footprints. Shirley Temple’s tiny imprint reminds us that, on 14 March 1935, she was at the height of a career that diminished as she increased in size. Still, the prints are meant to bespeak immortality. We don’t get to see the tracks of Christopher Reeve’s wheelchair, for instance. Nor is Zsa Zsa likely to be given the honor now to join those ladies in cement. These prints are all solid, no matter how much the concrete crumbles. The stars have bodies—and they are able and sound . . .

There is something reassuring in that solidity—if it weren’t for those cracks, and the puzzled looks I come across in the crowd gathered here to take pictures, mainly of themselves in front of a Hollywood landmark. Who was Rudy “My Time Is Your Time” Vallee, anyway? Norma Talmadge, who’s she? What were the Ritz Brothers all about? And who was that Sid fellow for whom they left those cryptic messages?

I got the space to myself as I have my picture taken with Marion Davies’s dainty indentations (dated 1929), my palm covering the hollow. No one is likely to pull a Lucy now; the Duke is still standing. Most walk right past—no, over—Ezio Pinza, whose block of concrete has become a mere steppingstone. Not a soul stoops to Monty Woolley. He’s the actor to whom my dog owes his name (I’m telling no one). I, too, I am out of touch.

There is one imprint, though, that keeps impressing after nearly sixty years. You can tell from the grime in the handprints of Marilyn Monroe just how many visitors have bowed down to approximate her posture, crouching over to show that they still look up to her. Screen partner Jane Russell’s palms are eloquently untainted by comparison. Marilyn—and we call her by her first name in recognition of her vulnerability—would be dead within ten years after being immortalized at Grauman’s. Our reaching out to her now is a belated, selfish gesture. You can’t expect rectitude from a crowd bent on lowering themselves for a photo opportunity. Remaining upright here means to be indifferent.

“Wipe your mucky paws,” I want to cry out. Yet these cultural touchstones are unlike other memorials to the untouchables. Here, we touch what we deem worth preserving. We bestow genuine stature with our own hands. We grasp at the chance to grease the Hollywood machine with our grubby palms, to fashion destinies with our filthy fingers. Since greatness does not rub off, most of us leave little more than a smudge. There is humanity in the residue of perspiration.

Cinegram No. 21 (Because It’s Some Holiday or Other)

It’s one of those days. I am reaching into my box of memorabilia, building paper bridges between the now and then. As I turn away from this little blue box—and from the scanner that transforms a printed image into a digital one—my eye catches another image, a framed poster on the wall of my study. And, once again, I become carried away, absorbed in the thoughts these two collector’s items—one British, one American—help to conjure, rather than in the appreciation of either. Besides, I have since retreated into our backyard to bask in the sunlight of a glorious spring afternoon. There’s time for all that, today. It is, after all, a holiday. Just what kind, though, I begin to wonder and allow the question to irritate me like ants running away with the picnic.

Now, you might say that a holiday by any other name smells just as sweet; but, if you ask me, “Bank Holiday” stinks. That is what the British insist on calling—or at any rate, are reduced to calling—some of their red letter days, including this one. Granted, considering the state of our financial system or individual finances, we might well be sitting round in a brown study, ruminating on our latter days in the red; but aren’t there any cultural cornerstones, historical milestones, or ancestral gravestones we ought to have our mind’s eye on?

We receive little encouragement from the dates as marked in our calendars. Here in Britain, we’ve got May Bank Holidays, and Spring Bank Holidays, and August Bank Holidays—and none of us are exactly laughing all the way to the nearest money-lending institution. Sure, we are not being pestered with notices demanding our immediate attention, but we don’t express our gratitude for not getting any bills by calling this a Post Office Holiday.

Not that all holidays are mere occasions for slipping into something comfortable or taking it off again at the beach; but we wouldn’t go so far, surely, as to declare Black Tuesday a day of observance by marking the anniversary of Wall Street laying an egg with a leisurely pancake breakfast. Sure, the banks are closed today; but is that what we are asked to celebrate?

How fortunate are those across the pond who can do as they please on Memorial Day. They may be decorating cakes instead of graves, but at least there is enough of a clue in the name to invite contemplation, encourage research or inspire gratitude. There is far more of a chance of drawing a blank if you’ve got nothing but “Bank” to draw on. If no consensus can be arrived at, if no joining of hands or thoughts is to be imposed, let any Bank Holiday become a blank one—and place on each celebrant the burden of making it meaningful . . .

Cinegram No. 14 (Because You Can’t Rely on Air Mail These Days)

I am taking the passing ash cloud as an occasion to dust off my collection of Cinegrams, a late-1930s to early 1940s series of British movie programs I recently set out to acquire. Immemorabilia, you might call them. Not quite first-rate souvenirs of, for the most part, less-than-classic films like The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel, or worse. These cheaply printed ephemera were designed—quite pointlessly, it seems—to encourage folks to keep alive their memories of something that may well have been forgettable to begin with. Sure, why not pay a little extra for a few stills of a picture that wasn’t much to look at while in motion? And why not pay still more to keep your “Film Memories” in a self-binding case, with your name on it— in gilt-lettering, no less? That was the offer made to British moviegoers anno 1937, who purchased Cinegram No. 14 to prevent Non-Stop New York from seeming all too fleeting.

Perhaps, I am confusing “forgettable” with “forgotten.” Non-Stop New York which is readily available online, has a lot going for it, quite apart from being a fast-paced romantic vehicle for John Loder and Anna Lee, helmed by Lee’s husband, Robert Stevenson, who would go on to make Flubber and Mary Poppins soar at the box office.

Efficiently if somewhat routinely lensed, this Gaumont-British production might have served as a project for the company’s most notable director, Alfred Hitchcock. Substituting airlanes for tracks, it’s the The Lady Vanishes in the realm of the birds. Except that, in this case, the lady—the young and innocent girl who knew too much—refuses to vanish, which makes the man whose secret she knows all the more eager to see to her disappearance.

The main attraction of Non-Stop New York is not its contrived plot, its charming leads or its rich assortment of goons and ganefs. Rather, it is the film’s setting, the futuristic plane aboard which this pursuit reaches its thrilling climax. It is a large, multi-story aircraft resembling a luxury liner—right down to the outdoor deck on which windblown lovers kiss by moonlight and villains go for the kill. There’s plenty of room for some old-fashioned hide and seek, as passengers are not crowded together but retreat into the privacy of their own cabins. Quite an extravagance, this, considering that the imagined travel time of eighteen hours hardly warrants accommodations fit for on a sea voyage, which mode of transatlantic crossing yet served as a point of reference to the production designers who conceived the vessel.

It took Christopher Columbus ten weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean, Cinegram No. 14 educated its readers. “Today, ten hours seem to be sufficient to complete the same journey.” Set in the seemingly foreseeable future of 1939, Non-Stop New York

anticipates the regular air service which before long [that is, after the end of the wartime air raids that, even in the age of Guernica, purveyors of escapist entertainment did not trouble themselves to predict] will be flying regularly across the North Atlantic and carrying passengers overnight between London and New York. Already survey flights are being carried out by Imperial Airways and Pan American Airways and these flights have shown that such a service is not longer a dream of the fiction writer, but something which to-morrow will be as commonplace as the many daily services of to-day between London and Paris.

The first experimental flights were made in the Summer of 1937. The British company made a series of flights with two of the Empire class flying boats, the “Caledonia” and the “Cambria.” The terminal points of these flights were Southampton and New York and the route followed was by way of Foynes, on the west coast of Ireland across the Atlantic, 1992 miles, to Botwood, Newfoundland. From there the flying boats went to New York by way of Montreal.

In all, 5 two-way crossings were made and these were carried out without incident and with such certainty that they reached the other side of the Atlantic within a few minutes of schedule.

On the last eastward journey the “Cambria” set up an all time record, making the 1992 miles in 10 hrs. 33 min. or at an average speed of nearly 190 m.p.h.

These flying boats will not be used for the Atlantic service when passengers are carried but it is probably that flying boats of the same type, but with greater power and greater ranger will be used. These flying boats may have a cruising speed of 250 m.p.h., and carry 20-30 passengers in a degree of comfort equal to that of the present luxury liner.

With its promise of a jet-setting tomorrow, a title like Non-Stop New York must have sounded thrilling to picture-goers anno 1937, albeit not nearly as thrilling as such a promise is to any present-day passenger awaiting the all-clear for departure at one of Britain’s dormant airports—among them a friend of ours whose plans for a birthday celebration in Gotham are being pulverized by the largest export of a cash-strapped nation to whom volcanic activity appears to be a natural substitute for banking.

Movies like Non-Stop New York and collectibles such as Cinegram No. 14 remind me that, in living memory, long distance air travel was rare and special indeed. They remind me as well of one momentous April morning in 1985—some quarter century ago—when my younger self first boarded a transatlantic flight to the exhilarating and treacherous metropolis that was New York City. Back then, we still applauded the captain who returned us safely to earth; nowadays, we merely moan when we are grounded for whatever strikes us non-stoppers as too long . . .

"Mike," for the Love of It

“What is there to say about what one loves except: I love it, and to keep on saying it?” Roland Barthes famously remarked. Sometimes, getting to the stage of saying even that much requires quite a bit of effort; and sometimes you don’t get to say it at all. Love may be where you find it, but it may also be the very act of discovery. The objective rather than the object. The pursuit whose outcome is uncertain. Methodical, systematic, diligent. Sure, research, if it is to bear fruit, should be all that. And yet, it is also a labor of love. It can be ill timed and unappreciated. If nothing comes of it, you might call it unrequited. It may be all-consuming, impolitic and quixotic. Still, it’s a quest. It’s passion, for the love of Mike!

“Mike” has been given me a tough time. It all began as a wildly improbable romance acted out by my favorite leading lady. It was nearly a decade ago, in the late spring of 2001, that I first encountered the name. “Mike” is a reference in the opening credits of the film Torch Singer, a 1933 melodrama starring Claudette Colbert. Having long been an admirer of Ms. Colbert—who, incidentally made her screen debut in the 1927 comedy For the Love of Mike, a silent film now lost—I was anxious to catch up with another one of her lesser-known efforts when it was screened at New York City’s Film Forum, an art house cinema I love for its retrospectives of classic—and not quite so classic—Hollywood fare.

Until its release on DVD in 2009, Alexander Hall’s Torch Singer was pretty much a forgotten film, one of those fascinatingly irregular products of the Pre-Code era, films that strike us, in the Code-mindedness with which we are conditioned to approach old movies, as being about as incongruous, discomfiting and politically incorrect as a blackface routine at a Nelson Mandela tribute or a pecan pie eating contest at a Weight Watchers meeting. Many of these talkies, shot between 1929 and 1934, survive only in heavily censored copies, at times re-cut and refitted with what we now understand to be traditional Hollywood endings.

Torch Singer, which tells the Depression era story of a fallen woman who takes over a children’s program and, through it, reestablishes contact with the illegitimate daughter she could not support without falling, has, apart from its scandalous subject matter, such an irresistible radio angle that I was anxious to discuss it in Etherized Victorians, the dissertation on American radio drama I was then in the process of researching.

Intent on presenting radio drama as a literary rather than historical or pop-cultural subject, I was particularly interested in published scripts, articles by noted writers with a past in broadcasting, and fictions documenting the central role the “Enormous Radio” played in American culture during the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. I thought about dedicating a chapter of my study to stories in which studios serve as settings, microphones feature as characters, and broadcasts are integral to the plot.

Torch Singer is just such a story—and, as the opening credits told me, one with a past in print. Written by Lenore Coffee and Lynn Starling, the screenplay is based on the story “Mike” by Grace Perkins; but that was all I had to go on when I began my search. No publisher, no date, no clues at all about the print source in which “Mike” first came before the public.


Little could be gleaned from Perkins’s New York Times obituary—somewhat overshadowed by the announcement of the death of Enrico Caruso’s wife Dorothy—other than that she died not long after assisting Madame Chiang Kai-shek in writing The Sure Victory (1955); that she had married Fulton Oursler, senior editor of Reader’s Digest and author of the radio serial The Greatest Story Ever Told; and that she had penned a number of novels published serially in popular magazines of the 1930s. That sure complicated matters as I went on to turn the yellowed pages of many once popular journals of the period in hopes of coming across the elusive “Mike.”

Finally, years after my degree was in the bag—and what a deep receptacle that turned out to be—I found “Mike” between the pages of the 20 May 1933 issue of Liberty; or the better half of “Mike,” at least, as this is a serialized narrative. Never mind; I am not that interested anyway in the story’s other Mike, the man who deserted our heroine and with whom she is reunited in the end. At last, I got my hands on this “Revealing Story of a Radio Star’s Romance,” the story of the “notorious Mimi Benton,” a hard-drinking mantrap who’d likely “end up in the gutter,” but went on the air instead—and “right into your homes! Yes, sir, and talked to your children time and time again!”

“Mike,” like Torch Singer, is a fiction that speaks to Depression-weary Americans who, dependent on handouts, bereft of status and influence, came to realize—and romanticize—what else they lost in the Roaring Twenties when the wireless, initially a means of point-to-point communication, became a medium that, as I put it in my dissertation,

not merely controlled but prevented discourse. Instead of interacting with one another, Depression-era Americans were just sitting around in the parlor, John Dos Passos observed, “listening drowsily to disconnected voices, stale scraps of last year’s jazz, unfinished litanies advertising unnamed products that dribble senselessly from the radio,” only to become receptive to President Roosevelt’s deceptively communal “youandme” from the fireside.

Rather than “listening drowsily,” disenfranchised Mimi Benton, anathema to corporate sponsors, reclaims the medium by claiming the microphone for her own quest and, with it, seizes the opportunity to restore an intimate bond that society forced her to sever. These days, Mimi Benton would probably start a campaign on Facebook or blog her heart out—unless she chose to lose herself in virtual realities or clutch a Tamagotchi, giving up a quest in which the medium can only be a means, not an end.


Related writings
“Radio at the Movies: Torch Singer (1933)”
“Radio at the Movies: Manslaughter (1922)”