A jazz legend shows her stripes.
Above you see a live concert photo of musical pioneer Jo Thompson, who broke segregation barriers as a jazz performer, particularly in Miami, where she played often and where this image was made by famed photographer Bunny Yeager. Thompson also performed in Detroit, where she was based, New York City, Havana, London, Paris, and other European hotspots. She isn't well known today but she's considered by jazz lovers to have helped pave the way for black performers who came along slightly later, and critic Herb Boyd said about her that she was, “a consummate storyteller whether standing or at the keyboard."
That being the case, we'll highlight a story Thompson occasionally told about Frank Sinatra, the hipster gadabout of the mid-century, who came to see her one night at the Cork Club in Miami. He was with Ava Gardner, and after the show invited Thompson to join them at their table. The Cork, being in the deep south, didn't allow black performers to sit at the tables, let alone with white companions. But Sinatra being Sinatra, the rule crumbled, at least for the night. Thompson greatly appreciated that. And the jazz world appreciated her. She was a trailblazer. She lived a very long time, long enough to receive many overdue tributes, before finally dying just two years ago of COVID-19.
Mogambo features the cruelest beast in all of Africa—and its name is Clark Gable.
As famous as Mogambo is, we'd never seen it, had never read a review of it, and had no idea going in what it was about except that it was a safari movie and a remake of the 1932 adventure Red Dust, which we'd also never seen. There are few hit movies—especially with stars the stature of Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Grace Kelly—that we don't know at least a little something about. So we cleared the slate, cooked up some popcorn in our special Lindy's hand-cranked popper, and settled in for a screening.
Shot in Kenya, Uganda, French Equatorial Africa (now Central African Republic), and the Tanganyika region of what is now Democratic Republic of Congo, the movie is about a hard-edged safari guide and hunter played by Gable (also the star of Red Dust, by the way) who tries to score with both Gardner and Kelly, and soon has them at each other's throats. These old movies often work on the presumption that the male star is irresistible—period. As a result, screenwriters were sometimes lazy. They'd fail to write the male lead with any charm at all.
That holds true here, as Gable is gruff, rude, twenty years older than Gardner, and almost thirty years older than Kelly. We're fine about the age difference, unlike the “age appropriate” crowd that thinks women are capable of making any decision except ones about whom they love, but because Grant is a complete sourdough some charm would have made Gardner's and Kelly's attraction to him more understandable. Handsome though he may be, here he's nothing more than moustache, hair tonic, and bossiness. But okay, Gardner and Kelly are both in states of need, and Gable is more than happy to introduce them to his bush snake, so what you get is a love triangle folded inside a Technicolor safari adventure. Fine.
The production is spiced up with majestic scenery, nice costumes, realistic animal footage, an overwhelming feel of the exotic, the tantalizing implication of intimacy with two of the most beautiful women in cinema, and a deft, assured performance from Gardner. In fact, while Gable is top billed, Ava gets nearly all the good lines. “Listen, buster,” she scolds Clark, “you and your quick-change acts aren't gonna hang orange blossoms all over me just because you feel the cold weather coming on!” That's a scathing way to call someone old and desperate. But Gable has his moments too. We liked when he blustered, “You know how it is on safari. It's in all the books. The woman always falls for the white hunter and we guys make the most of it.” That's meta, so we hear.
Obviously, tribespeople figure prominently, and you can discern marginal improvement in their portrayal since the days of Weissmuller's Tarzan. They're still just ornamentation in their own lands, but at least none lay down their lives to save a white man who's spent most of his screen time cracking a whip at them. Whew. Overall, we thought Mogambo was decent. Not great, mind you—because Gable deserved to play a more nuanced character and did not have that chance—but it was decent. It premiered today in 1953.
Something old, something new.
This is something a bit unusual. It's a life-sized promotional cardboard cut-out for 1982's film noir-sourced comedy Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, which starred Steve Martin and Rachel Ward. We thought of this film recently due to Martin's new Agatha Christie-influenced television mystery series Only Murders in the Building, which we watched and enjoyed. We first saw Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid years ago, long before Pulp Intl. and all the knowledge we've gained about film noir. We liked it much better during our recent viewing.
If you haven't seen it, Martin uses scores of film noir clips to weave a mystery in which he stars as private detective Rigby Reardon. Aside from Ward, and director Rob Reiner, his co-stars are Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster, Barbara Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Cary Grant, and many others, all arranged into a narrative that turns out to be about cheese, a Peruvian island, and a plot to bomb the United States.
The film's flow only barely holds together, which you'd have to expect when relying upon clips from nineteen old noirs to cobble together a plot, but as a noir tribute—as well as a satirical swipe at a couple of sexist cinematic tropes from the mid-century period—it's a masterpiece. If you love film noir, you pretty much have to watch it. Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid had its premiere at the USA Film Festival in early May, but was released nationally today in 1982.
In The Killers she's absolutely to die for.
We've shared Swedish, French, Australian, and U.S. promo art for The Killers over the years. But there was more than one U.S. poster, and you see an alternate version above, a nice crimson effort that has no artist credit. You already know the plot of this film, so we won't rehash it, but we wanted to single out something we love about film noir—the spectacular entrance of the femme fatale. Remember Rita Hayworth's first screen moment in Gilda? “Gilda, are you decent?” “Me?” That might be tops. Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, those white shorts and that weird headwrap. Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not. “Got a light?” There are many others, and men sometimes get good entrances too, but Ava Gardner's first moment in The Killers, sitting at a piano in a swank Manhattan apartment, with that light—you know the light we mean—glowing on her face, is another great example. Then she gets a song. You gotta love it.
When I'm a really big star there'll be a photo retoucher to make sure I have perfect armpits.
This scan made from a 35-millimeter slide shows Hungary born actress Ava Norring, who had exactly one credited role—that of Beatrice in 1952's The Snows of Kilimajaro, in which she appeared with her more famous namesake Ava Gardner. She later was featured in an eight page Esquire photo essay published in July 1955, but stardom was not to be. We love this shot, underarm razor burn and all. We haven't seen The Snows of Kilimajaro, but we're curious about it. The 1936 Ernest Hemingway work upon which it's loosely based is a short story (touching on standard Hemingway themes we discussed a while back), and it's always interesting to see how filmmakers flesh out something so slight. We'll get to the movie at some point, see both Avas in action, and probably report back.
No one's gonna save you from the beast about to strike.
Burt Lancaster as a doomed boxer named Ole Anderson, shot dead one night by a couple of hit men, is a seminal character in film noir. He epitomizes the major characteristic of the genre, that of a person caught in dangerous circumstances beyond their control. He's so caught he never tries to run or defend himself. He lets the killers shoot him. We didn't spoil anything by telling you that—Anderson is dead ten minutes after the movie opens. Using Ernest Hemingway's short story of the same name as a starting place, The Killers takes a typical endpoint for a film noir and flips the timeline around so that the drama becomes finding out why Anderson suffered such a hopeless demise. Sunset Boulevard would pull the same trick later in visionary fashion by having the dead character actually narrate the movie. We've shown you several posters for The Killers, but this one made for the Australian market is, well, killer. Compare it to the U.S. promo here. The movie premiered in Australia today in 1947.
George Raft and Ava Gardner are lost in tepid 1946 drama.
A whistle stop, for any who don't know, is a term for a small town, a place where a train pulls in for a few minutes before moving on. 1946's Whistle Stop is based on Maritta M. Wolff's acclaimed novel, published when she was just twenty-two. It was not only acclaimed, but controversial, as its frank language scandalized bluenoses of the era.
In the film, Ava Gardner returns from Chicago to her whistle stop home town and gets tangled up up with her ex, George Raft, who's a gambler and all around shady guy. Tom Conway has feelings for Gardner and hates Raft, and the rivalry leads to big trouble as both try to win Ava's affections. She doesn't help the situation with her fickleness. Each time Raft makes her mad she turns to Conway. Nothing good can result when hearts are used as toys.
This is another one of those old films that, because it has some night scenes and a partial crime focus, is labeled on some sites as a film noir. That's way off and you'll be disappointed if you watch it expecting noir. It's actually a melodrama, with star-crossed lovers, sweet violins, and a dance sequence set to the 1848 folk classic “Oh, Susanna.” Even Variety at the time called it “heavy melodrama.” There's a heist in the film, but heists happened in the movies before, after, and outside film noir. Raft is supposed to take part in the robbery, which as a bonus would result in the death of his rival Conway. Think things work out as planned? Not quite. We wanted to like Whistle Stop, because Gardner is ravishing, but it's not up to the standard of most old films. It premiered today in 1946.
She was one of the most watched people in the world—onscreen and off.
Whisper magazine, in this issue published this month in 1961, offers readers an interesting story about an unnamed millionaire's obsession with Ava Gardner. Apparently the millionaire hired people to follow Gardner around 24/7, all over the world, and report back to him, with this surveillance going on for years. The purpose? If he couldn't have her, he at least wanted to know what she was doing. Whisper focuses on a particular spy named Bill, the fourth of four spies employed by the millionaire, who Gardner came to be friends with and let live on her property, rather than have to sleep in his car night after night. Is this tale true? Maybe. Money buys a lot—including tolerance for bad behavior.
And speaking money, there's also a story on gangster Mickey Cohen, who counted among his consorts Liz Renay and Candy Barr, both of whom we've discussed, Renay here, and Barr here and here. Barr has also shown up in five magazines we've posted. The easiest way to see those is click her keywords and scroll. Cohen proves that no matter what people try to tell you, money is an aphrodisiac, because there's no way trolls like him could score beautiful dancers and models if it weren't for wealth. Take a look at the worst man in the world, and if he has money, he has a wife far more beautiful than makes sense.
Whisper goes on to talk about Burt Lancaster's and Charlie Chaplin's lovers, teen-age drunks, Soviet honeytraps, U.S. prisons, Jane Fonda's professional and family lives, and more. It was a Robert Harrison publication that morphed from a cheesecake magazine with painted pin-up covers into a gossip rag. That happened around 1954, when the original Whisper, launched in 1946, began going broke thanks to an inability to compete with girly magazine numero uno—Playboy. But there was plenty of room in the tabloid market and Harrison made Whisper a staple monthly on par with Confidential, his flagship publication. We'll have more from Whisper later, as always.
Gardner and MacMurray juggle love and danger in wartime Malaysia.
We talked about the 1947 war adventure Singapore in August. Here's a beautiful Italian poster for the film, on which co-star Ava Gardner takes front and center, with Fred MacMurray lurking in the background. There are several Italian promos. This one is by Zadro, who painted a number of other brilliant pieces, but about whom little is known today. We'll get back to him. And you can read more about the movie here.
If at first you don't succeed, fly back to Malaysia and try again.
In the movies good girls always seem to fall for bad boys. In the World War II drama Singapore Ava Gardner is the former and Fred MacMurray is the latter, a smuggler of jewels. The two hook up in the titular locale, and when Gardner learns her new love is a crook, she accepts it with a rhetorical shrug. She asks merely if Fred is what the authorities suspect him to be, receives an affirmative answer, then asks if he can't sell jewels legally, receives the answer, “Yes, but at a quarter the price,” and that's it. She doesn't trouble her mind beyond that point, which we consider a major failing of Seton I. Miller's script.
It isn't the only failing. When it comes to areas of love and desire, the dripping melodrama of the dialogue puts MacMurray and Gardner in tough spots, and neither comes out unscathed. The good news is that in other areas Singapore fares better. The film weaves the tale of how MacMurray's plan to smuggle priceless pearls is cut short when the Japanese unexpectedly bomb the city. The love story, the smuggling plot, and the bombing are all told in reminiscence, bracketed front and rear by MacMurray's return five years after the tragedies and errors of his previous stint there. Now, with the city recovering from conflict, MacMurray tries to put together the puzzle pieces of the past.
We love old Hollywood's foreign fetish, its eagerness to set films in exotic locales. When it works well, as in Casablanca and its deft usage of Morocco, the result is magic; when it doesn't, as in, say, Miss Sadie Thompson and its setting of Pago Pago, the bells and whistles are a glaring reminder of missed opportunities. Singapore falls somewhere in the middle. We get to see a bit of Singapore when it was still part of Malaysia, which is interesting, but the most exotic sight to be seen is still Ava Gardner. For us, she was reason enough to take the trip. But just barely. Singapore premiered in the U.S. today in 1947. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1981—Ronnie Biggs Rescued After Kidnapping
Fugitive thief Ronnie Biggs, a British citizen who was a member of the gang that pulled off the Great Train Robbery, is rescued by police in Barbados after being kidnapped. Biggs had been abducted a week earlier from a bar in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by members of a British security firm. Upon release he was returned to Brazil and continued to be a fugitive from British justice.
2011—Elizabeth Taylor Dies
American actress Elizabeth Taylor, whose career began at age 12 when she starred in National Velvet
, and who would eventually be nominated for five Academy Awards as best actress and win for Butterfield 8
and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
of congestive heart failure in Los Angeles. During her life she had been hospitalized more than 70 times.
1963—Profumo Denies Affair
In England, the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, denies any impropriety with showgirl Christine Keeler and threatens to sue anyone repeating the allegations. The accusations involve not just infidelity, but the possibility acquaintances of Keeler might be trying to ply Profumo for nuclear secrets. In June, Profumo finally resigns from the government after confessing his sexual involvement with Keeler
and admitting he lied to parliament.
1978—Karl Wallenda Falls to His Death
World famous German daredevil and high-wire walker Karl Wallenda, founder of the acrobatic troupe The Flying Wallendas, falls to his death attempting to walk on a cable strung between the two towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Wallenda is seventy-three years old at the time, but it is a 30 mph wind, rather than age, that is generally blamed for sending him from the wire.
2006—Swedish Spy Stig Wennerstrom Dies
Swedish air force colonel Stig Wennerström, who had been convicted in the 1970s of passing Swedish, U.S. and NATO secrets to the Soviet Union over the course of fifteen years, dies in an old age home at the age of ninety-nine. The Wennerström affair, as some called it, was at the time one of the biggest scandals
of the Cold War.
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