Friday, June 24, 2011

The Girl is....watching movies

When I was a kid, my mom bombarded my sister and me with films from the 1930s and ‘40s (with an occasional one from the ‘50s and ‘60s). I think, in her mind, it was a way of keeping us from the sex and violence of more contemporary movies, although truth be told there was just as much sex and violence, it just tended to start onscreen and quickly move off. Too poor for cable, I was initially reluctant to enjoy these Friday night black and white Blockbuster picks (couldn’t we at least get a movie in…gasp…color?), but I eventually fell in love with them. There’s something about the clothes, the dialogue, the music, the everything that made these films so much more of a fantasy than things being released in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I yearned to talk like the women who populated these films, to move with their slinky grace and assurance, to express emotion with a raised eyebrow, a flick of  a cigarette, and a single tear that fell without making my face red and my nose run.

Yeah, they had style. They had grace. 

And now that I have access to AMC and TCM I get to indulge in my love of all things Old Hollywood whenever I want. Here are a few of my favorites:

Stage Door (1937). Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers. A group of girls inhabit a boarding house for actresses in New York and go through the trials and tribulations of becoming stars. Katharine Hepburn as the rich girl playing poor lured me in, but it’s Ginger Rogers with her fast patter and fantastic dance steps that makes me keep coming back to this movie. The dialogue zings, but as funny of a movie as it is, it’s got an emotional one-two punch at its center. This is the movie that inspired my Rosie Winter mystery series set among (you guessed it) actresses living in a New York boarding house.

Philadelphia Story (1940). It’s my namesake, Katharine Hepburn again, this time paired with Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. More razor sharp dialogue (both Stage Door and Philadelphia Story were originally plays and it shows) as Hepburn’s Tracy Lord gets ready to remarry despite unresolved feelings for her ex, Cary Grant. While the three top billed stars are amazing, it’s the supporting cast I love in this film, especially Virginia Weidler as precocious Dinah Lord and acerbic Ruth Hussey as a love-lorn, wise-cracking photographer.

His Girl Friday (1940). The plot is similar to Philadelphia Story, but this time its Rosalind Russell’s fast-talking reporter that Cary Grant is trying to keep from remarrying, while she gets roped into the biggest story of her career. Another play turned film, what’s intriguing isn’t just the marvelous, quotable dialogue but the fact that Russell’s part (in the play, The Front Page) was originally written for a man and the romance angle wasn’t added until this film. 

All About Eve (1950). This time it’s Bette Davis in the lead in a film about an up and coming actress (Anne Baxter) who’s trying to usurp the career of one of theater’s grande dames. Witty, gut-wrenching, agonizingly frustrating, this is the movie that made me finally understand why Bette Davis was a star. Bonus points: it was Marilyn Monroe’s first film.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). This is my sole World War II entry (thought there’s a lot of other films I could list), but this is the one that really got me thinking about the war and its impact on the homefront and those who were left behind. The movie follows three vets as they return home and find their lives irreparably changed. Harold Russell, a real vet who lost both his hands in the South Pacific, won an Oscar for this, his film debut. It’s one of the few films that deals with what came after the war and how difficult it was for the returning vets to slip back into the lives they’d left four years before.

How ‘bout you? Got a favorite old movie you’d like to suggest?

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Girl is....interviewing Beverly Pollock

This is the first of what I hope will be a regular feature, interviewing folks who grew up during World War II about what their experiences. If you or someone you know would like be interviewed, let me know!

About Beverly Pollock: 
Bev (second from left -- hubba! hubba!) during the war.
Beverly Pollock (second from left) is a retired Director of Communications for the United Jewish Federation.  An accomplished writer, she authored “Quoth the Maven,” the national column that originated in the Jewish Chronicle, and the “Slightly Irreverent” column in the Monroeville Times-Express.  Her play Looking for Magic was workshopped at the Pitt Theatre, University of Pittsburgh and her full-length play It's Business, inspired in part on her experiences during World War II, had a staged reading at the Pittsburgh JCC in 2008.  With Shirley Katz she co-wrote and co-hosted a daily radio show "Those Two," for the average American housewife and the ordinary, everyday nuclear physicist.  Their “Will the Real Economy-Size Package Please Stand Up?” was performed throughout North America and recognized by President Lyndon Johnson at his signing of the Truth-in-Packaging Bill.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette honored her with the Community Champion Award because of her work in the AIDS Community. As a tribute to two precious sons who died of AIDS, Robert in 1991 and Larry in 1995, she and her late husband Mel founded Jews with AIDS in the Family with the support of Jewish Family and Children’s Service and the UJF.  Today she continues to volunteer at the Shepherd Wellness Community, the only AIDS Community Center in Western PA.   

What year did you graduate from high school?  

Where was your high school?  
Girls High School in Atlanta, GA.

How did you get to and from school?  
Street car.  Had to transfer mid way.  That's how you met your girl friends from over the city and gabbed all the way to school.  Sometimes I got car sick if I didn't eat breakfast first.  Often I had to stand all the way.

What did you wear to school each day?  
Skirt, shirt, bobby sox, saddle shoes.  Sometimes you wore a ribbon in the back of your hair.  The night after a prom, you would wear the flowers in your hair, on the side.

What was your typical school day like?  Who were your closest friends?  
Took French and Latin.  Hated geometry, algebra.  Wrote a skit for some kind of yearly school day... Loved to pun.  Lillian  Rosenberg and Rose Reisman were my closest friends along with Sarah Spiegelman, who actually had classes with me.  Mother thought my friend Lillian must be wild because her folks gave her a car for her 16th birthday, an unheard of thing.    

Were you allowed to date?  
Yes.  My first big crush was on Leon Rocamora, who was a senior at GA Tech when I was a senior at Girls High.  We met when I was emcee of a party my club (the Cardozians, named after Supreme Justice Cardozo) gave.  Most of my remarks were puns and he got up and started making puns too (even though he was with another girl and I another boy).  I remember his line: "Let's Beverly the hatchet!"  I can remember a fraternity party he took me to, how carefully I did my hair, etc.  And we double dated with his friend who rented a Model T.  We sat in the open back rumble seat and my hair just flew in the breeze.  But he didn't seem to mind!  I met Mel the summer after I graduated from High School.

What did you do for fun on Friday and Saturday nights?  
Movies (I saw the opening night festivities of "Gone with the Wind" on Peachtree Street (which was closed off) near the Fox Theatre in 1939 and saw in person Clark Gable, Carole Lombard (his wife), Vivien Leigh, Evelyn Keyes (an Atlanta girl who used to live on the same block as I did when I was in grade school).  We also bowled a lot, except it was with the small pins.  I never saw the larger pins until I moved up Nawth.

Did you have a curfew?  
Not really.  But I had enough sense to call my folks if I'd be out after 11.

Would you consider yourself a good girl or a bad girl?   
By the way, we used the term "wild," not "bad girl."   

In your mind, what sorts of behaviors did bad girls engage in?  
I was a nice girl, as you would expect.  I never really heard of "bad" girls who went all the way.  Every girl was a virgin until she got married.  A wild girl would neck and (gasp) pet with all the guys.  Necking was from the neck up; petting was from the neck down.  You had to be careful of boys with "WHT"  (wandering hand trouble).

What’s your earliest memory of the war?  
I was a freshman, a day student; (today you might call me a commuter) at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA.  Today it is a very fine school, at the top of women's colleges.  In 1941 there were about 500 students.  I remember going to Murphey Candler  Hall to hear the address by President Roosevelt, declaring war.  He was a magnificent speaker.  I confess I was pretty shallow initially.  My main worry was whether my boy friend Mel, who was to come visit me at the end of the month, would still be able to drive down.  He was.

How did the war change life for you?  
The war made us grow up in a hurry.  Mel and I got married May 18, 1944 in New Haven, Ct while he was stationed at Yale.  We went to NYC on weekends and got great tickets at theatres because he was a serviceman.  Usually we would just pay the minimum $1.20 ticket but if there were spaces, the usher would give us the upgraded $2.40 ticket or the prized $3.60 orchestra or loge ticket seat.  We were together for several idyllic months in Augusta GA, while he was in the Air Corps, and then he was sent to a couple places I couldn't go to and then overseas in 1945 to the China/Burma/India Theatre - - in Calcutta for 13 months before he was discharged on March 17, 1946.  I'll always remember St. Paddy's Day with great fondness!  For most of the time I was in Atlanta with my folks and working in our little grocery store.  I can tell you some stories about our war time experiences.  Then I went to Gallitzin the Oct before Mel came home because his father was not well.

Thanks, Bev!

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Girl is...thinking about Deanna Durbin

In The Girl is Murder, teen sleuth, Iris Anderson, and her friends are obsessed with actress Deanna Durbin (born 1921), so much so that Iris belonged to her fan club and her former best friend kept a scrap book of clippings about the actress. So who was Deanna Durbin and why were so many young women drawn to her?

Durbin was a child star known for playing the “ideal teenage daughter” in films like Every Sunday and Three Smart Girls. Like Judy Garland, she was also a singer and frequently sang in her films.  In 1939 she shared the Academy Awards Juvenille Award with Mickey Rooney for ""for their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players, setting high standards of ability and achievement." There was a large variety of merchandise sold to cash in on her, including Deanna Durbin dolls and dresses. In fact, by the time she turned twenty-one, she was the highest-paid woman in the United States and highest-paid female film star in the world.

Take that, Lindsay Lohan.

As Durbin entered the 1940s, she yearned to become a woman on film just as she was becoming a woman in real life, but like many child stars she had a hard-time transitioning into more sophisticated roles since her fans preferred her in light, comedic parts. She ultimately ended up retiring from acting in 1949, when she was only 28 years old. In her only interview after her retirement, granted in 1983, she explained that while she loved performing and working in film,  "What I did find difficult was that this acquired maturity had to be hidden under the childlike personality my films and publicity projected on me.” She also bemoaned the bad quality of the films she was making in exchanging for so much money. You can read the whole interview here.

Durbin inspired one of the largest, most devoted fan clubs in history (and fans are still out there -- just take a look at the comments on the youtube clips featuring her). Among the teenage girls who worshipped her was Anne Frank, who had a picture of the actress hanging in the room where her family hid during World War II. Durbin was also fictionalized in two novels, where the actress was a Nancy Drew-like character. She was also Winston Churchill's favorite actress.

Here's a clip of fifteen year old Deanna singing "I Love to Whistle" in the 1938 film Mad About Music.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Girl is...thinking about Zoot Suits.

A friend reminded me that today is the anniversary of the Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots. That seems like an excellent way to kick off my brand spankin’ new blog!

Zoots figure prominently in The Girl is Murder, the first Iris Anderson mystery which comes out in just a few brief weeks. In my case the suits in question are being donned on the East Coast in 1942. 

So what were zoot suits? The large, baggy suits with tapered pants, padded shoulders, and made of loud fabrics (bright colors, huge pinstripes) were worn by youth during the 1930s 1940s and became closely associated with jazz music and swing dancing, since so many of those who donned them also frequented swing clubs (they were also style de riguer for the musicians in these clubs). The majority of those who wore the “zoot” were Mexican-American, African-America, and Italian-American youth, people on the fringe, so to speak, who were looking to express themselves and to remind society that they knew they were outsiders. They spoke in swing slang, wore their watches on long waist chains, and roamed together with like minded peers.

Sounds pretty innocent, right? But the suit wasn’t just a costume. It became a symbol for a lot of complex things. The war changed families. With fathers gone and mothers working, delinquency was on the rise because there was no one at home to monitor young people’s behavior. The zoot became associated with this lawless youth, a new class of criminals committing petty crimes out of boredom. And because these suits were oversized and involved a lot of fabric, which was a luxury during war since fabric needed to be used to make military uniforms, purchasing and wearing the zoot was seen as an act of national defiance, a wasteful way of thumbing your nose at the war effort (in fact, you had to go to a back alley tailor to even get them made). And that’s what ultimately led to the clash between soldiers and the zoot suiters in LA, and similar, riots in other parts of the country. 

And now a musical interlude: