1950 jazz mystery tries to take a step forward with an innovative approach.
When you maintain a website that discusses vintage paperback art, you stop being amazed when a cover isn't credited. This one for Bart Spicer's 1950 novel Blues for the Prince is unattributed, and that's too bad, because the painter put together a nice scene. What's unique about the novel, as you might guess from the evocative art, is its setting within the black American jazz community (the blonde singer at centerstage does not materialize within the narrative, by the way). The plot revolves around a white detective named Carney Wilde hired to disprove claims that a murdered jazz legend's music was all plagiarized. Wilde at first ignores the homicide because it's unrelated to his assignment of determining the provenance of the songs, but he soon finds that the plagiarism claims and the killing are intertwined.
Fictional detectives are usually idealized creations. They're the toughest, smartest, and most irresistible of men, so why not the most egalitarian too? Wilde is basically color blind, even within his interior monologues—which is to say, he's not faking his lack of prejudice. It's an interesting choice by Spicer, as Wilde moves through an entirely black world, but proceeds without seeming to notice anything in the way of major ethnic or cultural differences. Obviously, this is because Spicer's narrative constructs no differences. He doesn't write of any notable poverty, impactful racism, or police brutalilty. Wilde does, however, see something of a difference in class. The dead musician—Harold Morton Prince, aka the Prince—has left behind a rich family that has plenty to protect. Wilde is firmly on their side, not least because the Prince is one of his idols. But in investigating the crime he learns that legends are humans too, and that scratching the surface of an idol often reveals something beneath the gleam.
The tale benefits from its unusual setting. It's solidly if unspectacularly written, we think, and improves as it progresses, ushered toward its climax by a nightclub scene in which Spicer shows off his musical knowledge by taking nearly an entire chapter to describe a hot jazz set. His approach to the story in general is a question worth exploration. If not for a few descriptions and one or two incidents of specifically aimed language, Blues for the Prince could be like many other mid-century novels set within the jazz world—i.e. these could all be white characters and you'd have essentially the same book. So Spicer really did two nearly opposite things here: he foregrounded black characters in a mid-century novel in a way most authors would not, and he suggested a potential evolution of black-populated fiction to a state of pure entertainment devoid of topical issues. If the novel were just a little better it would probably be widely discussed today. As it is, this jazz mystery is still worth a read.
Matt Dillon gets on an unstoppable roll.
Above is a poster for the U.S. movie The Big Town, which is a drama released today in 1987, set in 1957, based on the 1967 Clark Howard novel The Arm. We like 1950s movies. And we like new movies set during the 1950s. It's always interesting to see an interpretation of the era, versus productions actually made during those years. The Big Town is a fun rendition, as pretty boy Matt Dillon plays a skilled young dice shooter who leaves podunkville Indiana for Chicago and experiences all its pleasures and pains.
On the pleasure side is femme fatale fan dancer Diane Lane, and bringing the pain is Tommy Lee Jones as a gambler who runs a crooked nightspot called the Gem Club—and who happens to be married to Lane. It's always a bad idea to bed a bad man's wife, but it's an even worse idea to break his bank for $15,000. Dillon does both. Later he tries to engineer a high stakes double-cross that will allow him to win the Gem Club in a craps game. Along the road from rags to potential there are plenty of subplots, including revenge, good girl redemption, and the struggle to retain's one's soul.
The Big Town is often called a neo-noir, and though any film with a crime focus and numerous night scenes tends to get that label slapped on it, in this case we feel like the designation is accurate. The movie deals not only with crime and gambling, but also takes passes at burlesque, racism, and the culture clash between ’40s style tough guys and new generation hipsters, with their sculpted hair and rock and roll attitudes. On the acting front, Dillon does a good job, and Jones is excellent as always, doing that unique thing he does. If you're looking for a fast period drama you can certainly do worse.
Excuse me, fellas, gotta go. Fleeting joy, followed by stinging disappointment and eventual doom are beckoning.
When you write more than fifty novels it helps to be highly imaginative, and Day Keene puts his brain through its paces in 1954's Joy House, a bizarre tale about a flashy mob lawyer named Mark Harris who flees his West Coast employers, wakes up in a Chicago mission after a five-week drinking binge, and is scooped up by a beautiful do-gooder widow who lives in a boarded up mansion. The widow became a recluse years earlier when her husband was murdered, and now all she does is take food to the mission three times a week, but when Harris moves into her house he awakens her dormant love glands and the two start really heating up the old pile of bricks.
As long as Harris keeps a low profile his pursuers won't have success, but he and the widow become increasingly public—something Harris can't avoid because he hasn't been truthful about hiding from mobsters who want to kill him. Luckily for him, she wants to start life anew, and suggests moving to Rio de Janeiro. Excellent idea, but there's more going on than Harris knows. As imaginative as this story is, it could have been better written—a hazard when you publish seven other novels in the same year—but overall we liked it. We like the uncredited cover too. We'll have more from Keene later. After all, with fifty-plus novels to his credit, he's almost unavoidable.
It's not how you start. It's how you finish.
We've talked before about the mid-century tabloid interest in transexuals, and how several trans burlesque performers achieved widespread fame. Those old tabloid covers serve to contradict people who claim that trans issues are a product of the new millennium, or that “it didn't happen in their day.” They just didn't notice. As the links in the above post show, transexual entertainers regularly made headlines in tabloids that sold millions of issues per month. To the list you can now add Gayle Sherman, who you see on this cover of The National Insider published today in 1963. This wasn't the height of her fame. A year later Novel Books would publish I Want To Be a Woman!, touted as the autobiography of a female impersonator. And still, she was just getting started.
Sherman started life as Gary Paradis, but became Sherman after a name change at age sixteen. As a transvestite she scored a job dancing for the Jewel Box Revue, which was a comedic drag queen show that criss-crossed the U.S. for more than thirty years. Probably the Jewel Box Revue deserves a write-up of its own, but the shorter version is it was the most popular extravaganza of its kind, and was run by gay management who were marketing to straight audiences.
Sherman moved on from the revue and worked mainly in Chicago, appearing at places such as the Nite Life, where her act sometimes involved dressing as a witch doctor and roasting a fake baby over a fire while singing Yma Sumac songs. Sometime later she underwent gender reassignment surgery, and all the while was passing through a string of pseudonyms, among them Gerri Weise, Brandy Alexander, and Geraldine Parades.
She eventually opted for breast enlargement surgery and at that point became Alexandria the Great 48, a stage name under which she would become a national celebrity. The number of course referenced her bust size. She was sometimes dubbed “Sophia Loren's twin,” but when audiences paid to see her they got something wholly different. She had left burlesque and moved into standard stripping, sometimes appearing at porno cinemas between features. She continued dancing until 1967, when bluenose politicians in Chicago managed to outlaw nude dancing. Sherman became a hairdresser, and was out of the public eye until her death in 2019.
As we mentioned above, vintage tabloids often featured transexuals, and while those stories were always sensationalistic, they were also surprisingly non-cruel. Not always, but often. The editors' accepting stances probably weren't sincere. Because tabloid readership was generally a cross section of middle class, middle American squares, the tone of the articles tended be: “this wild stuff happens in Hollywood and Paris, but who knows, maybe it's more prevalent than you suspect where you live.” As the saying goes, even a stopped clock is right twice a day—the tabs probably nailed it. 1.4 million Americans identify as transexual. There's no total from 1963, but you can bet it would be more than a few. In National Informer, the excellent money quote from the Gayle Sherman article is: “My birth certificate is stamped male, but my body is stamped female.” We have a photo of her below, and she's all woman.
If you use the sleeper car you might never wake up.
This Italian poster for was made to promote Le jene di Chicago, which opened in Italy today in 1952, but was made in the U.S. and is better known as The Narrow Margin. It's a movie we talked about back in April. The Italian title translates as “the hyenas of Chicago,” which makes sense—a potential federal witness is dogged by a pack of predators that want to kill her. It's a movie worth watching. You can read about it here.
She's dangerous, untrustworthy, and cruel—but hey, what beautiful woman doesn't come with a little baggage?
We'd been meaning to get around to reading Milton K. Ozaki, aka Robert O. Saber for a while, and when we came across Murder Doll we took the plunge. Plotwise, Chicago private eye Carl Good finds himself in the middle of an out-of-town gangland takeover. This is no ordinary invasion—the head honcho is rumored to be the beautiful ex-mistress of an eastern mobster. The problem is nobody knows exactly who she is. Good is hired to find this bombshell criminal, as he coincidentally acquires both a hot new secretary and a hot new girlfriend. Hmm... Maybe one of them is not what she seems. This is a mostly unremarkable mystery that even a trip to a nudist colony can't elevate, but it started well, with a clever nightclub murder, and it's very readable in general, so we'll give Ozaki a pass for this lusterless effort and hope he dazzles us next time. It came from Berkley Books in 1952 and the cover artist unknown.
The walls close in on a cop and his witness in a trainbound crime thriller.
Another b-movie makes good, as inexpensive little film noir The Narrow Margin turns out to be an excellent expenditure of time. It's built around a great premise—tough cop Charles McGraw is tasked with escorting the widow of a gang lord from Chicago to Los Angeles to testify in a graft probe. A shadowy cabal of crooks plans to stop this at all costs, so the question is whether McGraw can get his witness to L.A. alive.
The widow/femme fatale is played by Marie Windsor of the cool Kubrick noir The Killing and the not-cool prison break thriller Swamp Women, and here she has a role perfectly suited for her as a jaded and selfish mobster's moll. She oozes cynicism as McGraw tries to reconcile his hatred for her with his duty as a public servant, but there's more to her than he knows, and Jacqueline White as another passenger is full of surprises too.
With much of the film taking place in the various cars and compartments of a train, the visuals and title mirror each other, and the same is true thematically, as the killers slowly close in, creating increasingly constrained circumstances for McGraw. With clever noir stylings, a plot that draws you in from the first minutes, and a surprising switcheroo, The Narrow Margin is a winner. It was remade in 1990 with Gene Hackman and Anne Archer, but the first and better version premiered in the U.S. today in 1952.
Any way you splice her she's pure perfection.
The above photo shows U.S. actress Geene Courtney posing with a fishing rod during November in Chicago, a city in which, that time of year, people's nasal hairs usually freeze into stalagmites after a few seconds outside. But during this particular November—1949 it was—Chicago was unusually warm, with the mercury at one point climbing to an amazing 76 Fahrenheit, or 24.5 Celsius. That quirk of the weather is why Courtney is in shorts and heels, rather than a parka and mukluks, and the result is one of sexiest vintage shots we've seen. As a side note, the only similarly named actress from the period we found online was Gene Courtney, with one “e”. She has credits starting from 1951, so Geene and Gene are probably the same person, equally beautiful.
After seventy-three years she's finally lost her title.
We've seen this photo in numerous online spots, and why not? It's amazing. But none of those sites bother to explain the provenance of the image. We dug around, and it appears we're the first website to have done it. The Mystery Writers of America, which was founded in 1945 in New York City and soon expanded to other locations, in its early years used to throw what they called a Clues Party. In November 1947 the party was in Chicago, and the MWA awarded the title of Mystery Girl to the woman who performed best in a scream test—as opposed to screen test. Four contestants—Marybeth Prebis, Betty Rosboro, Bobby Jo Rodgers, and Portia Kubin—let fly with their most bloodcurdling screams, and the winner was Kubin, above. The MWA stopped throwing Clues Parties at some point, which seems a shame, but they established the coveted Edgar Award, so maybe that's an okay trade. Kubin was probably an aspiring actress but a glance at various online sources shows no film credits, which means this was her only shot at celebrity. But what a shot.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1906—NYPD Begins Use of Fingerprint ID
NYPD Deputy Commissioner Joseph A. Faurot begins using French police officer Alphonse Bertillon's fingerprint system to identify suspected criminals. The use of prints for contractual endorsement (as opposed to signatures) had begun in India thirty years earlier, and print usage for police work had been adopted in India, France, Argentina and other countries by 1900, but NYPD usage represented the beginning of complete acceptance of the process in America. To date, of the billions of fingerprints taken, no two have ever been found to be identical.
1974—Patty Hearst Is Kidnapped
In Berkeley, California, an organization calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnaps heiress Patty Hearst
. The next time Hearst is seen is in a San Francisco bank, helping to rob it with a machine gun. When she is finally captured her lawyer F. Lee Bailey argues that she had been brainwashed into committing the crime, but she is convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to 35 years imprisonment, a term which is later commuted.
1959—Holly, Valens, and Bopper Die in Plane Crash
A plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa kills American musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper, along with pilot Roger Peterson. The fault for the crash was determined to be poor weather combined with pilot inexperience. All four occupants died on impact. The event is later immortalized by Don McLean as the Day the Music Died in his 1971 hit song "American Pie."
1969—Boris Karloff Dies
After a long battle with arthritis and emphysema, English born actor Boris Karloff, who was best known for his film portrayals of Frankenstein's monster and the Mummy, contracts pneumonia and dies at King Edward VII Hospital, Midhurst, Sussex, England.
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