. . . Sissies

. . .

Speaking of Turner Classic Movies.... College football may not seem tailor-made for the Rodgers-and-Hart treatment, but 1940's Too Many Girls is the best available record of the team's work. Unlike earlier translations (in which rights to the musicals were bought by moguls who then stripped out the songs because musicals are box-office poison) and later ones (which suffocated under tons of papier-mâché production values), "Too Many Girls" cakewalked directly from Broadway to Hollywood with score, arrangements, jitterbugging, newspaper headlines ("Pottawottomie U. Defeats Texas Gentiles"), and cast mostly intact. Desi Arnez is cute as a sweaty button singing "Spick-and-Span-ish," Ann Miller pounds her legs like Cassandra predicting Pearl Harbor, Lucille Ball is dubbed, Eddie Bracken enjoys being a sex object ("There are ten girls to every guy here. Go find your own ten girls."), and there's a formal experiment worthy of Hitchcock when, halfway through the big romantic duet, the film jumps forward to an eavesdropper's description of the duet: "And THEN he said, [crooning] 'I didn't know what year it was....' [shouting] HE DIDN'T EVEN KNOW WHAT YEAR IT WAS!" Essential viewing for the producers of America's Funniest Celluloid Closets.

. . .

It's got its good paragraphs, but E. E. Cummings's allegorical reading of Krazy Kat -- with Kat as democracy caught between Mouse-anarchy and Pupp-fascism -- has always rubbed me the wrong way.

For starters, Cummings refers to Krazy as "she" throughout, whereas the strip used "he" much more often. (Bowing to public pressure, Herriman experimented with unequivocal she-ness once, but decided it just didn't suit that dear kat.) Following a natural train of thought, Ignatz's rage could be better described as homophobic than as anarchistic: he hates Krazy not because Krazy is a symbol of authority, or repression, or respectability, or even stability, but because Krazy is eccentric, flamboyant, unaggressive, affectionate, and a little kwee.

For the main course, any historically-dependent reading misses Herriman's achievement: a complete universe grown from one necessarily inexplicable but endlessly fecund triangle. Jonathan Lethem came closer to the mark in his story, "Five Fucks," where the triangle is a mysteriously universal solvent; even Lethem took the easier way out, though, in making the triangle violently entropic rather than pleasurably generative.

As Herriman demonstrated in later strips ("A mouse without a brick? How futile."), Coconino's reality depends on support from each point of the triangle; as he demonstrated throughout the strip's three decades, the triangle supports an infinite unfolding of reality. Lacking that central mystery, other comics, no matter how minimalist or how beautifully drawn, seem artificial and puffy by comparison.

. . .

My favorite joke from A Nest of Ninnies by John Ashbery & James Schuyler:
"We can't let a lady drink alone, can we, Marshall?" Mr. Kelso said.

"Sometimes it's difficult to stop them," Marshall said.

Otherwise? The book's kind of OK, I guess. Like Dawn Powell except with no characters or structure. If you've read all the Dawn Powell novels, you might as well go ahead and try it.

Calling O'Reilly: I'd love to see the Joe Brainard cover illustration for this edition recycled on a Cross-Platform Java reference volume....

Cover Art

. . .

Self-expression: It's clear to the most casual reader of his books that Fr. Rolfe (aka Baron Corvo) was always his own hero. But since it's also clear that he was a raving loon, his attempts at self-portraiture convey nothing of what he was actually like. Thus my delight in The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography by A. J. A. Symons, which proves again that Venice is, in so many ways, the perfect place for a sponge.

My Penguin edition changes the subtitle to "Genius or charlatan?", but that's a stupid question when you're talking about a fiction writer. Symons's is more accurate: this biography is emphatically experimental in ways that gain Cholly's full approval:

1. Primacy of primary sources

Rather than going omniscient on us, Symons makes room for quoted documents and testimony (with the first-person account of his own research as a bridge), preserving subjectivity and increasing the odds that the reader will actually learn something.

As a leeching paranoid, Rolfe/Corvo thoughtfully minimized the formal difficulties of implementing this approach, dividing his life neatly into sausage-shaped episodes wrapped around one (and usually only one) acquaintance who was first obsessively latched onto and later obsessively tied off.

2. Sympathy for the subject

Most biographers suffer from wildly inappropriate self-righteousness, and Rolfe/Corvo, who wears his faults not just on his sleeve but all over like a paisley three-piece suit, has been a particularly efficient self-righteousness vector: none of the books I've found by him have escaped a mean-spirited introduction. But Symons, bless 'im, bears in mind, through all storms of icky gossip, the gratitude befitting anyone who's been successfully intrigued by another human being.

Symons bends over backwards to interpret the life's events as Rolfe/Corvo might have, and, on top of that, as his first-person sources might have. And if his Unified Corvo Theory (all the Baron's problems stemmed from being born gay into an intolerant world) seems excruciatingly naive (I'm pretty sure Symons had plenty of gay acquaintances who didn't act like Rolfe/Corvo), at least it's helped bring other sympathetic readers into the fold.

Speaking of bending over backwards, Symons may be explicitly experimental, but that's the only way he's explicit. And I'd go so far as to call him a downright little tease when it comes to Rolfe/Corvo's final literary remains, a bundle of pornographic letters. On the Web, we can at least learn the name of the letters' recipient (Henry Scott Tuke's "most intimate friend, the pederast Charles Masson Fox") and their motive (to entice a new source of funds to Venice). But as for their contents -- and as for the Rolfian novels I've not yet found -- well, Symons may be able to conclude his book by saying that his Quest for Corvo has been satisfied, but I'm stuck with legendary-Bomp-recording-artist Professor Anonymous:
You know, it's been said many times:
Seek and ye shall find.
Well, I have sought,
And yet I'm still searching for the one.
And you know?
I guess my search has just begun....

. . .

Nothing ages like senility: A tale of two libraries

The Little Leather Library is a set of teensy-weensy cheaply-bound booklets stored in a plain cardboard container about half the width of a sneakers box, marketed around 1920. My father had a set (presumably inherited from his father), and they made up a large part of my childhood reading.

The "leather" looks like the seal on rotgut bourbon, the paper is the color of burnt caramel, and the smell is pure nostalgia. Aside from that, the Little Leather Library's enduring appeal for me lies in its editorial hand, which rested heavily on "modern classics" (i.e., the fin-de-siècle). Here are some volume titles:

Salome by Oscar Wilde
  1. "Fifty Best Poems of England" (including representative works by Francis Thompson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Georgina Rossetti, and Algernon Charles Swinburne)
  2. "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"
  3. "The Happy Prince"
  4. "Salome"
  5. "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"
  6. "Bab Ballads"
  7. "Barrack Room Ballads"
  8. "Short Stories of De Maupassant"
  9. "Man Without a Country"
  10. "Sherlock Holmes"
  11. "The Gold Bug" (the volume is filled out with a repeat of the first 30 pages of "The Gold Bug")
  12. "The Tempest" and "Midsummer Night's Dream" (and what other two Shakespeares could they possibly have picked?)
  13. and, for good or ill, most influential of the bunch, "Dreams" by Olive Schreiner
A heady mix for a healthy growing son of the US Navy...

+ + +

... and as a strapping middle-aged man, I was delighted to find the continuing education course that is The Golden Gale Electronic Library: a world-wide distributed database of texts viewable only with the the Golden Gale Book Reader program.

The program is -- well, let the coder without sins throw rocks at it; Greek font or no Greek font, I wish I could extract the whole text into an editor and be done with it -- but what a public service in these texts! Starting from the sizable splash of the leaden Benson brothers' upper-class Anglo-Catholic end-of-the-nineteenth-century public-school boy-mania, Golden Gale has captured over a hundred volumes of otherwise vanished ripples. So far, I've galed along to:

  • "Don Tarquinio: A Kataleptic Phantasmatic Romance" by Fr. Rolfe (Baron Corvo), a Renaissance adventure that grounds the Baron's personal obsessions solidly and satisfyingly in historical context and beat-the-clock narrative structure.
  • "Stories Toto Told Me, or, A Sensational Atomist" by Baron Corvo (Fr. Rolfe), the most popular of the Baron's work in his own time, and a typically queasy mix of pedophilic exploitation and Catholic aesthete speculation. The next best thing to tertiary syphilis.
  • "Plato and Platonism" by Walter Pater, first recommended to me by Samuel R. Delany.
  • "The Outcry," Henry James's novelization of a very bad Henry James play that attacks those beastly Americans who come over to good old England and start appropriating....
  • "William Blake: A Critical Essay" by Algernon Charles Swinburne: "But if we regard him as a Celt rather than an Englishman, we shall find it no longer so difficult to understand from whence he derived his amazing capacity for such illimitable emptiness of mock-mystical babble as we find in his bad imitations of so bad a model as the Apocalypse: his English capacity for occasionally superb and serious workmanship we may rationally attribute to his English birth and breeding...."
  • ... with more to come, I'm sure.
Toto by Baron Corvo

. . .

There aren't many things I've been overly optimistic about, but one of 'em was that we'd have a lot more websites like Ian McKellen's by now. Intelligent celebrities have even more reason to be wary of journalists than big business monkeys are, and taking charge of your own quotes is pretty much the same idea as a company's publishing its press releases on the web, except more entertaining:

[Christopher Lee] loves stories about actors and I amused him last week with one he didn't know, which I was told by Brian Bedford: "Noël Coward reads a poster: Michael Redgrave and Dirk Bogarde in The Sea Shall Not Have Them! 'I don't see why not -- everyone else has.'"

. . .

Movie Comment: Chuck & Buck You got a friend

(concluding our Sexual Degradation Special)

So I wanted to finish up with a couple of male sexual degradations, you know, just for variety's sake, but I couldn't remember any, mostly 'cause I don't think it really counts as degradation if the guy is paying for the service. (Feel free to submit your own suggestions in the upper right corner....) There are those great male sex symbols of the 1920s and 1930s, but one of the reasons they're sexy is that they all seem so cheerful, like big happy puppy dogs (ref. yesterday's episode).

The best I can come up with is Hollywood's more-revived-than-ever interest in ugly, sweaty, stupid, disgusting, and utterly isolated homosexual characters. You know, the kind of thing junior high kids and other morons have in mind when they say stuff like "That's so gay." As far as I know, this was re-initiated by Boogie Nights, which posited a 100%-heterosexual porn industry in which an actor with a twelve-inch dick somehow became a star. Huh. Anyway, the one homosexual in the porn industry (heck, in all of California!) was, of course, very lonely.

The tradition continues with Chuck & Buck, which is powered by a lot of pleasing Albert-Brooks-style squirm humor but which wants to show off its indie muscles by going all "dangerous" on us. And what's more dangerous than a gay guy? Gee, how about a gay guy who actually manages to ever encounter even one other gay guy in Los Angeles? Yeah, I know, that would defy credibility....

Personally, I think the story would've worked a lot better if it had been about the degrading relationship between a Hollywood producer and a Hollywood writer.

. . .

Leslie Cheung  
Here Comes Trouble
1956 - 2003
  Late on Thursday, I attended Leslie Cheung's farewell concert. (The funeral was scheduled for even later, I guess.) It was a small venue, and I was seated fairly high in the balcony. That turned out fine, because it happened that Leslie Cheung was startlingly tall -- eight or nine feet tall, at least! (He looks much shorter on film.) We made eye contact!

After the show, I was happy but a little drowsy, so I stopped at an unreconstructed diner for coffee. I must've nodded off, because next thing I knew, it was morning. I asked the proprietor behind the counter -- a gruff old guy -- what I owed.

He said "25 cents."

"25 cents? That's impossible. I know I had more than one cup, and what about the other people at my table?"

"It's 25 cents."

I gave him five bucks and told him to keep the change, but he insisted on giving it to me, in the form of a bundle of micropayment traveler's checks and coins mounted in cardboard.

"This alone must be worth more than five dollars," I said, trying to return one of the coin collections.

He stood there with his gray-haired arms folded.

As tributes to Leslie Cheung go, that one was less odd than the one accorded by our newspaper of erasure, the New York Times. In a fit of shame, they've removed access, but, if memory serves, it was buried at the bottom of a puff for an MTV movie, mentioned Chow Yun-Fat as much as the deceased, relied on pre-1997 press clippings for information on his sexual identity, and ignored most of those roles noticed even by the NYT over the years.

My own list surprises me, once assembled, by the range his consistently self-pitying timbre was able to cover:

  • the epitome of teenage angst in Nomad
  • bumbling wimp in Chinese Ghost Story
  • idealistic cop in A Better Tomorrow
  • the infatuated rich kid of Rouge
  • damaged cocksmith in Days of Being Wild
  • sword-wielding assassins tragically reformed and cynically resigned in Bride with White Hair and Ashes of Time
  • turning drag farce to grand opera in Farewell My Concubine
  • the misty gigolo of Temptress Moon
  • and Argentina's most dysfunctional boyfriend in Happy Together
Surprises, I think, because, although he was central to the success of all these movies, he was never the point of them in the way that other stars might be.

The sheer daring of HK actors can make it difficult to come up with Hollywood comparisons. But in a boyishness that verged on the cadaverous, in his perfectionism, and in his persistent cold distance, as if all his masks, no matter how varied, were carved from a single unbreachable shell of loneliness and disdain, Cheung reminds me of Henry Fonda. A Fonda who skipped John Ford and went straight from Fritz Lang and Preston Sturges to Sergio Leone.


. . .

Lover Doll

Tony Randall, 1920-2004

"Oh, he's great. Like a comic machine. You feel like Heifetz when you work with him."
- Frank Tashlin, 1962

1960s Hollywood was no place for Heifetz. Tony Randall's first featured role (that's Rockwell P. Hunter, sweetie) remained the permanent high point of both his career and Tashlin's.

Like other virtuosi, Tashlin composed to his instrument. Although anyone could've sold the movie's big quotable gags even Tom Ewell my favorite moments in the film register solely through Randall's precise, agile delivery:

"Wait, that's 'Yankee Doodle.'"
"No. Stop that!"
"Yes, I think so."

Every nuance its own gem.

Definitively widescreen, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is a broken-winged bird when pan-and-scanned; if laserdisks, TCM broadcasts, or theatrical showings aren't at hand, I recommend waiting for a DVD.

Those who'd like to pay Randall the fitting tribute of close attention can meanwhile console themselves with the last great performance of his seven-year reign as funniest actor on film, Send Me No Flowers. Imperturbable even in self-pity, Rock Hudson seems to transfer the burden of his fatal secret to Randall, who balances Hudson's noble-showdog obtuseness by a sentimental trajectory through denial, despair, degradation, and rage: the suburban neighbor of Dorian Gray.


Renfrew here. I had the feeling this would be a place with a fitting Tony Randall tribute. I do believe the late-great deserves as much kudos for his turns on "Late Night" at the end of his career, as, without the worries of script and plot movement to worry about, he could just do his schtick, whether it was making sperm donor jokes or having himself slopped in mud. Doing anything for a laugh put him as much in the Catskills tradition (though I think he never trod the boards there, once) as Hollywood.

I'd love to see some of those appearances. I had no idea, though I'm not surprised by his dedication to the job at hand. Not after hearing his rendition of "Poop poop poop-poop, poop poop poop."

Dude. What's My Line rerun. Dorothy Kilgallen like a recently decanted sauterne, Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams with Edie being the linear subject. I didn't catch the whole thing but in addition to B. Cerf and Audrey Meadows, and the aforementioned darling Miss Kilgallen, the fourth panel member was...Tony Randall. And he won too.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.