So, this will shock you—I can tell you it shocked me—but I realized I've wanted to shoot you since our very first date.
Marian Marsh was born in what is now Trinidad and Tobago, but which was at the time of her birth part of the British West Indies. She started life as Violet Krauth, but for Hollywood changed her name. She appeared in such films as The Road to Singapore, Crime and Punishment, In Spite of Danger, Murder by Invitation, and the horror classic The Black Room. All worthy achievements, and she also founded a nonprofit called Desert Beautiful, which had a mission to preserve the environment of Palm Desert, California, where she lived after retirement. The organization lasted for about fifty years, which is quite good for a nonprofit. The above photo, made back when she was interested only in murder, is from the 1931 drama Five Star Final.
Murder mystery explores the turbulent years of pre-Malaysia Singapore.
We grabbed this beautiful hardcover copy of Suddenly, at Singapore from Scottish publishers William Collins, Sons & Co. for two reasons. First, the cover art is by the legendary Barbara Walton, one of the great illustrators of the mid-century period, and the title promises exotic thrills. Though we're lucky enough to live in an exotic land ourselves, we never get tired of tales set in Asia, Africa, or the Mediterranean. And speaking of exotic, Gavin Black is a pseudonym far less exotic than the author's real name—Oswald Wynd. Why use a pen name when you're named Oswald Wynd? Beats us, though the fake name does sound more real.
Anyway, Suddenly, at Singapore involves the Harris Brothers, two adventurous anglos born and raised in Singapore who own a shipping company that, in addition to legit cargos, transports black market weapons around the Java Sea in a fleet of Chinese junks. The story opens with the older brother Jeff being murdered, and younger brother Paul vowing revenge—as soon as he figures out who ordered the killing. He's also involved in an as yet unconsummated martial affair, and is trying to send his wife back to the U.S. to get her out of his hair. The two plotlines eventually braid together, and pretty soon the hero and both his women are in all kinds of difficulties.
This was a quick read, decent not great, but with nice local color derived from Black's/Wynd's time spent in the region. The story takes place before Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak merged into Malaysia, and Black channels some of the political tension and economic lawlessness that prevailed during that time, but doesn't delve into it in a detailed way. He would do that later, though—we gather that this was the first of numerous Paul Harris thrillers. We also hear from those in the know that Suddenly, at Singapore is the worst of the lot, so we may try the second book Dead Man Calling when we get the hankering for South Seas craziness again.
I call this one Robbie, the second one Chip, and the third one... well I forget. But they're all great!
Above are three promo photos of U.S. actor Fred MacMurray, two from his film noir Singapore, and one of unknown provenance. While MacMurray made his name in deadly serious films such as Double Indemnity and Pushover, many fans remember him better as the affable father from the television series My Three Sons, on which he starred from 1960 until 1972, as the show chronicled the life of a widower and his three sons Robbie, Chip, and Mike. Why was he a widower? We don't think it's ever revealed, but perhaps a firearms “accident” had something to do with it.
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.
One Wong makes everything right.
This fun poster was made for the 1978 action flick Cleopatra Wong, aka They Call Her...Cleopatra Wong, and it's signed by someone named Eddie Damer. We can find zero information about Mr. Damer, which we like to think is because he moved into another career after being paid for his artistry in handshakes, backslaps, and a rubber check. Which is to say, Cleopatra Wong is a not a b-movie, but z-movie, a riff on the blaxploitation classic Cleopatra Jones. It was put together by Filipino producer Bobby A. Suarez and made in English with Singaporean actress Marrie Lee in the lead role as an Interpol agent tasked with busting an international counterfeiting ring. These counterfeiters are bad people. They're centered in a Hong Kong nunnery, where they're forcing the nuns to host the operation, and plan to kill them when they've outlived their usefulness. Only Wong and her intrepid team can stop these fiends. There are some positives here, including effective location shooting and Lee's kung fu, but there's also clunky direction, atrocious acting, and a script that must have been written on a typewriter with seven missing keys. The movie sank with barely a ripple upon release, but was revived on the Asian festival circuit in the early 2000s and now is considered a schlock classic. It certainly has all the hallmarks, and overall we think it's worth watching, but you may want to soak your frontal cortex in alcohol beforehand. Cleopatra Wong premiered in Singapore this month in 1978.
And life flows along with a smile and a sarong.
American actress Dorothy Lamour, who we shared a nice promo photo of back in 2011, changed onscreen fashion with a constant array of sarongs that caused her to be dubbed "The Sarong Queen.” She first wore one in 1936's The Jungle Princess, and from there donned the distinctive garment for Her Jungle Love, Road to Singapore, and a score of other movies. This shot was made while she was filming the John Ford adventure Hurricane. Parts of the production took place on Tutuila Island in American Samoa, which is why some sources say the photo was made there, but it was really shot on Santa Catalina, in the Channel Islands off California. It dates from from 1937.
Monroe may wobble but she won’t fall down.
Marilyn Monroe shows up just about everywhere, and here she is yet again where we didn’t expect to see her—fronting a Malaysian film publication that appeared today in 1953. The magazine, called Filmalaya, is in English, which marks it as aimed at the British colonial community that occupied the upper stratum of society in Malaysia and Singapore. The cover photo is from a publicity series made when Monroe filmed the movie Niagara in Ontario, Canada in late 1952, and let’s just assume her perch is not as precarious as it seems and there’s a handy ledge or lawn behind her in case she goes heels up. But if she does, there are other stars in the magazine, such as Joan Collins, Betty Grable, Rhonda Fleming, Ava Gardner, and Nat King Cole.
Filmalaya represents an interesting snapshot into colonial society, as in the article about Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in London, which describes the thrills and excitement in Malaysia during the event. Doubtless, the mood around the Commonwealth probably seemed festive when viewed from inside the colonial bubble, but we doubt actual Malaysians were particularly moved. Needless to say, this magazine is rare, but luckily items from Asia are often a bargain, so this cost a mere six U.S. dollars. While the inside is nothing special visually speaking, that doesn’t matter when the magazine has this great cover and is such an informative slice of history. We’ve uploaded a few of the best pages below. Enjoy.
If they aren’t in your city already, they’ll be there soon.
We would love to have been part of this. Yesterday Mexico City had their annual La Marcha Zombie, or Zombie Walk, with the goal of setting a new record for the number of zombies (held by Buenos Aires, which had assembled 25,000 shambling undead just a few days earlier). As you might deduce, zombie walks are growing more popular globally, and have been staged in places as far flung as Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Mar de Plata, Exeter, Santiago, and Singapore. According to Wikipedia, the first walk was held in Sacramento, California in 2001, and now hundreds of cities have them. Perhaps in a decade or two, social scientists will tell us the complex reasons behind the rise of zombie walks, i.e., the trampling of individuality in the modern world, the rise of ravenous greed and the death of caring, etc., and that, ironically, one day sooner than most people think, the masses will rise up and destroy the elite few that have enslaved them. Okay, maybe that last part is just what we think. But complex reasons aside, from our non-scientific perspective, we’d do a zombie walk just because it looks fun. And do you think there’s any zombie sex going on afterward? Why of corpse there is.
Move your ass, Mary Ann! This lunatic has killed the Skipper, Gilligan, Ginger, and the Howells—and we’re next!
So, we have four or five more issues of the Aussie magazine Adam that we're planning to post, and above you see the cover of one of those, from July 1973. We had been searching around for more issues when out of the blue we got an email from Jim/Australia informing us that he had written for the magazine back in 1975. His stories appeared under the name Mike Rader, and we had posted three issues in which his fiction appeared. Those issues, with the stories “See Rome and Die,” “Deadline Portugal,” and “Hellbound Express” can be seen here, here, and here.
And here’s Jim: In the 1950s-1970s, most Australian writers had few opportunities to sell their work locally. They had to send their work to publishers in the UK. So local magazines like Adam, and pulp fiction houses like Horwitz, inspired and encouraged a lot of Aussie writers to take their first steps. At the time, I was working in advertising, I was time poor but dying to start writing stories, so I targeted Adam. I concocted the name Mike Rader (it sounded like a raider!) and they bought virtually everything I sent in. I found it helped to attach an idea for the illustration with each story—that way they could picture the finished product before they started reading. It was a good discipline for me; I started by dreaming up a movie poster-style scene; if I couldn't think of anything exciting, then I scrapped the story idea and moved on. (Besides which, advertising people are trained to think visually.) What also helped my work sell was the fact I respected the craft; I didn't look down on the genre. By the way, I never met the editor, but I had his letter pinned up on the wall—it said, “We like your stories, please send us more!” Since then, I've written 122 books for children, and books on advertising.
We checked out Jim’s Wikipedia entry, which led us to his publisher’s website and, sure enough, he’s put together a quite impressive bibliography. His million-selling Mr. Midnight series, and his newer Mr. Mystery collection, are both written under the pseudonym James Lee, and are described as being for Asian teens (Jim has lived in Singapore for 20 years). But they’re written in English and we suspect they have plenty of pan-cultural aspects. A few days after we first heard from Jim, he really surprised us by sending in some scans from two issues of Adam in which his fiction appeared. Since we already had today’s post ready to go, we’re going to share those a little later, so keep an eye open for them. In the meantime, enjoy the below scans from July 1973.
Update: a sharp-eyed reader informs us that the model featured in the photo series entitled "Cynthia's Poses" is none other than Rene Bond, who appeared in about 300 x-rated loops and films during the 1970s. Thanks to Rai for soptting that.
Only the good go to sleep at night.
The French coined the term film noir, so it seems only fitting to feature a collection of French posters celebrating the genre. Above and below are fifteen examples promoting films noir from France, Britain, and the U.S., representing some of the best ever produced within the art form, as well as some less celebrated examples that we happen to love. Of those, we highly recommend seeing Le salaire de la peur, for which you see the poster above, and Ride the Pink Horse, below, which played as Et tournent les chevaux de bois in France. Just a word about those films (and feel free to skip ahead to the art, because really, who has time these days to listen to a couple of anonymous internet scribes ramble on about old movies?).
1953’s Le salaire de la peur is about a group of men stranded in an oil company town in the mountains of South America. In order to earn the wages to get out, four of them agree to drive two trucks filled with nitroglycerine over many miles of dangerous terrain. The idea is to use the chemicals to put out a raging oil well fire that is consuming company profits by the second, but of course the film is really about whether the men can even get there alive. Le salaire de la peur was critically praised when released in Europe, but in the U.S., political factions raised their ugly heads and got censors to crudely re-edit the prints so as to reduce the movie’s anti-capitalist (and by extension anti-American) subtext. The movie was later remade by Hollywood twice—once in 1958 as Hell’s Highway, and again in 1977 as Sorcerer. The original is by far the best.
1947’s Ride the Pink Horse is an obscure noir, but a quintessential one, in our opinion. If many noirs feature embittered World War II vets as their anti-heroes, Robert Montgomery’s Lucky Gagin is the bitterest of them all. He arrives in a New Mexico border town on a quest to avenge the death of a friend. The plot is thin—or perhaps stripped down would be a better description—but Montgomery’s atmospheric direction makes up for that. Like a lot of mid-century films featuring ethnic characters, the most important one is played by a white actor (Wanda Hendrix, in a coating of what looks like brown shoe polish). It's racist, for sure, but within the universe of the film Lucky Gagin sees everyone around him only as obstacles or allies—i.e., equals within his own distinct worldview. So that makes up for it. Or maybe not. In any case, we think Ride the Pink Horse is worth a look. Thirteen more posters below.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1919—Zapata Is Killed
In Mexico, revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata is shot dead by government forces in the state of Morelos, after a carefully planned ambush. Following the killing, Zapata's revolutionary movement and his Liberation Army of the South slowly fall apart, but his political influence lasts in Mexico to the present day.
1925—Great Gatsby Is Published
F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby is published in New York City by Charles Scribner's Sons. Though Gatsby is Fitzgerald's best known book today, it was not a success upon publication, and at the time of his death in 1940, Fitzgerald was mostly forgotten as a writer and considered himself to be a failure.
1968—Martin Luther King Buried
American clergyman and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., is buried five days after being shot dead on a Memphis, Tennessee motel balcony. April 7th had been declared a national day of mourning by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and King's funeral on the 9th is attended by thousands of supporters, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
1953—Jomo Kenyatta Convicted
In Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta is sentenced to seven years in prison by the nation's British rulers for being a member of the Mau Mau Society, an anti-colonial movement. Kenyatta would a decade later become independent Kenya's first prime minister, and still later its first president.
1974—Hank Aaron Becomes Home Run King
Major League Baseball player Hank Aaron hits his 715th career home run, surpassing Babe Ruth's 39-year-old record. The record-breaking homer is hit off Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and with that swing Aaron puts an exclamation mark on a twenty-four year journey that had begun with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League, and would end with his selection to Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame.
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