I knew it would be a daring dress but this is a little ridiculous.
Vietnamese actress Mei Chen, aka Mei Chen Chalais, tries on a dress and immediately realizes her designer got her request for a plunging neckline confused. Chen isn't well known today, but she'll always have a place in our hearts for her lost world film Luana. And this crazy dress. The photo is from 1968 and first appeared in the magazine Girl Illustrated.
So when you sang “You're So Vain,” the song really was about me, wasn't it?
This is top work from artist C.C. Beale on this cover for Van Wyck Mason's Saigon Singer, especially the small elements of the background writing on the wall and the Siamese cat in the foreground. The singer of the title—who never performs “You're So Vain,” sadly—is Pamela Saunders, a former prisoner in a Japanese internment camp who survives filth and near starvation to resurrect herself as singer in Saigon. Along the way she becomes known as Black Chrysanthemum before adopting the stage name Xenia Morel. Her transformation is interesting, but the star of the story is Major Hugh North, who turns up in Saigon looking for a dossier containing the names of British and American traitors who during the war sold secrets to a Japanese general. Saunders-Chrysanthemum-Morel survived the prison camp by becoming the mistress of the general, and it's due to this close association that she possesses the dossier. She'll give it to North, but only if he pays her enough money to get to Paris, where she wants to continue her singing career.
Mason knew this part of the world and uses his knowledge well in writing of Saigon social life, oppressive heat, scented baths, tiger hunts, French legionnaires, and other you-had-to-be-there aspects of post-World War II Vietnam. As number thirteen in a series of exotic Hugh North mysteries (others were set in Singapore, Burma, Manila, Bangkok, et al) we sense a formula here, but in the end we liked it despite the usual flaws of colonialist fiction, and we were envious of Mason for having travelled in that part of the world during that time, and having been lucky enough to make a career of writing about it. Well, maybe we can't complain too much—we've hit some good spots too. And we write, though we get fuck-all for it. In any case, this particular discovery makes us curious about earlier Mason books, so maybe we'll check out some of his Hugh North adventures. Saigon Singer was originally published in 1946, and the above edition is from 1948.
It's Ho Chi Minh City (not Saigon). Why they changed it we can't say. People just liked it better that way.
This is a beautiful Spanish poster for the 1947 adventure Saigon, which opened in Madrid today in 1948. The film is one of innumerable mid-century thrillers set in foreign cities. At a time when the rest of the world was so distant and hard to reach, Hollywood fetishized it, romanticized it, and set stories wholly or partly in Mexico, Argentina, Morocco, China, Hong Kong, Martinique, and an entire atlas of other places. But today, with the rest of the world so easy to reach, Hollywood mostly tells audiences they'll be kidnapped or dismembered if they leave home. Saigon is old school. It makes viewers wish they could fly to mystical East Asia. Of course, the film's Saigon doesn't exist anymore, but the fact that Hollywood set a movie there tells you it must have been quite a place. But they say that about all the former colonial cities, don't they? Rangoon, Bombay, and Constantinople, as brilliantly eulogized in the satirical song by The Four Lads, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).”
Saigon deals with two recently discharged military buddies played by Alan Ladd and Wally Cassell who decide to stay in Asia to show their terminally ill third pal a good time before he dies in a few months. The third man doesn't know he's ticketed for oblivion, which leads to problems when Veronica Lake takes a liking to him. No matter how romantic old Saigon was, only so many tropical nights and platters of French-Vietnamese fusion cuisine can distract you from the fact that the love-hate relationship between Ladd and Lake is unpalatable. To us, slapping, insults, and over-the-top meanness feels like hate-hate. But put on your retro filter and you'll find a lot of comedy in this film, thanks to motormouth quipster Cassell. Some of his lines are truly clever. It wouldn't be exaggerating to say he makes the first sixty minutes of running time watchable.
When Lake inevitably falls for Ladd even though he's been treating her like a disease for hundreds of nautical miles, you'll accept it because it's a motif in old movies—though usually managed with a lot more charm and finesse. Overall we consider Saigon recommendable, but just barely. You know what we really took away from this movie, though? What you needed to do back then was open a shop and sell white suits. You'd have made a fortune. There are more white suits here than you can count. Far more than in Casablanca or Our Man in Havana. This film will make you wonder whether you can pull off the white suit. But even if you looked okay in it where would you wear it these days? Like old Saigon, that city is gone.
Nguyen proves to be an Enterprising star.
French born, half Vietnamese actress France Nguyen has had quite a few film and television appearances, but our favorite of her roles—of course—is that of Elaan of Troyius in the original Star Trek series in 1968. That character, a sort of deep space Asian and Egyptian ethnic mash-up who boards the U.S.S. Enterprise as part of a diplomatic mission, had tears laced with a powerful chemical that worked like a love potion. Kirk, of course, touched those and more, and ended up losing his head over her. In our opinion she didn't need magic tears to make that happen—Elaan of Troyius was one of the most mysterious and beautiful in a long line of beautiful and mysterious guest aliens featured on Star Trek. The top photo captures all the qualities that made Nguyen perfect for the role, and in the second shot you see her in costume as Elaan.
In The French Love we learn that what the French love is sex.
Random Japanese poster art today, a promo for The French Love, starring Jacques Fugie, Eva Saint (not to be confused with Eva Marie Saint), and others. Fugie, Saint and all the other actors listed as performers here were pseudonyms, but ones fabricated especially for the Japanese market. Thus you won't find any reference to an Eva Saint or Jaques Fugie anywhere else. The French Love actually starred Herman Ryan, Catherine Franck, Patricia Hermenier, and Rod Cameron in the story of an American journalist hooking up with two French flight attendants in Paris while covering the diplomatic meetings leading up to the treaty that ended the Vietnam War. Heady times, no? Leave it to the French to mix social commentary with smut. The movie was directed by José Bénazéraf, a softcore veteran who helmed something like a hundred erotic films between 1963 and 1999, as well as starring in some. Release dates on The French Love, aka merely French Love vary—many sources say 1972, but we think it was 1973.
National Spotlite illuminates the war in Vietnam.
This National Spotlite published today in 1970 features Dida Cahn, Donna Darling, American actresses Karen Thomas and Mary Weston, aka Venecia Day, and French actress Danièle Gaubert. The real centerpiece of the issue, at least for us, is George Davis's piece explaining that the U.S. was losing the war in Vietnam because the soldiers were having too much sex. A few choice quotes: “Even a visit to the barber is a sexual experience. While soldiers get their hair trimmed they are provided marijuana to smoke and a girl who performs orally while the customer sits in the barber's chair.” And: “Every building in Sin City [Saigon] is a brothel.” And this: “White females account for a sizable portion of the sex action in Saigon and the army camps as well [snip] particularly Red Cross girls serving in Vietnam.” As always, tabloid stories are a blend of fact and fiction meant to entertain, outrage, titillate, and even—on certain occasions—inform. Spotlite gets the job done. Many scans below and more tabloids to come.
It must be jelly ’cuz jam don’t shake like that.
We got curious about Nai Bonet, who we’d never heard of until last week, and after taking a stroll around the internet discovered she was pretty famous in her day and even released a 1966 single for which you see the sleeve above. The song is called “Jelly Belly,” with “The Seventh Veil” on the flipside. Bonet teaches fans to do her trademark Jelly Belly dance, which we can only imagine led to many sprained backs in mid-century America. But maybe you want to try. The instructions are in like Danish, but here’s the gist:
1: Clap your hands together and gently bow…
2: Put your hands over your head and I’ll show you how…
3: First you inhale (pull your tummy in)
4: Then you exhale (push your tummy out)
5: Hips go up…
6: …and down
7: Tummy round and round…
8: Shoulders shivering…
9: Everything a-quivering.
And presumably it's rinse and repeat at that point. For extra inspiration you can hear "Jelly Belly" here. Just remember—if you pull something, rest it, apply ice, and dream up a much better story about your injury than you were trying to get everything a-quivering.
Private Affairs joins the wild mix of 1960s tabloids.
This issue of the New York based tabloid Private Affairs appeared in June 1962, and features cover stars Kim Novak and American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell rendered by an uncredited artist. Inside the issue Affairs rehashes Novak’s various relationships, recounting how mafia goons threatened to kill Sammy Davis Jr. if he didn’t stop meeting Novak across the color line, how she accepted an expensive sports car as a gift from Ramfis Trujillo even though his hands were “bathed in the blood of executed political prisoners,” and how she shot down a smitten Charles Boyer by asking him in bewilderment, “How could you have thought I loved you?” The overarching concern is Novak’s longstanding unmarried status, wedlock of course being the default state for any normal woman. Novak was only twenty-nine at the time—but that was spinster age by tabloid standards. She eventually did wed when she was thirty-two, and it’s a wonder she made it down the aisle without the aid of a wheelchair.
Private Affairs moves on to Norman Lincoln Rockwell, who was making waves with racist rhetoric and a bold guarantee to win the White House by 1972. The question Private Affairs editors ask is whether Rockwell should be taken seriously. They answer by offering an anecdote about how German president Paul von Hindenburg scoffed at a fledgling Adolf Hitler by calling him a “silly little housepainter.” Ten years later, they note, there were 30,000,000 dead. “How far will America let the hate mongers go? Will an unsound branch on the tree of American democracy fall off or will it poison the organism?” they ask. It’s worth noting that while Rockwell’s anti-Jewish rhetoric clearly annoys the editors, they don’t offer any support for the African Americans he was likewise excoriating. But in the end, Rockwell was shot dead by a fellow Nazi. Whether he could have risen to political office is a matter of historical debate.
Private Affairs moves next to related subject matter by claiming that the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire that killed nearly five-hundred people in a Boston nightclub was set by Nazi saboteurs, and furthermore that the FBI covered that fact up. We wrote about the fire a few years ago, and you may remember that witnesses said the conflagration began with a busboy changing a light bulb. Private Affairs claims the bulb was a specially designed Nazi device that had a fuse inside instead of a normal tungsten filament. This fuse could be set for various ignition times, and a delayed setting allowed the saboteur got away. How the editors puzzled this out remains unclear, and there’s no explanation how a busboy randomly asked to change a burnt out light chose or was handed a deadly device rather than a typical bulb, but maybe those points aren’t important. Tabloids often fail to answer their own questions—the important thing is to stir up trouble.
Elsewhere in the issue we get Lana Turner, who Affairs claims let her daughter take a murder rap for her; comedian Dick Gregory, who is accused of stealing jokes; and Ingrid Bergman, who is shown with her later-to-be-famous daughter Isabella Rossellini. We also meet Nai Bonet, a famed Vietnamese bellydancer who within a couple of years would parlay her fame into a film and music career. Private Affairs is not a well known tabloid today—it probably arrived on the scene just a bit too late to carve out a readership when newsstand shelves were already packed with established imprints such as Confidential, Uncensored, Top Secret, Inside Story, Hush-Hush, et al. This particular issue—designated Vol 1, No. 3—is the only copy of the magazine we’ve ever seen. We suspect the brand was defunct within the first year. Many scans below, and more rare tabloids coming soon.
If there’s such a thing as the most amazing dress ever made, Carroll Baker wore it.
In the summer of 1964, promoting her movie The Carpetbaggers, American actress Carroll Baker attended a premiere at London’s Plaza Theatre in Piccadilly Circus wearing a $28,000.00 transparent dress from designer Pierre Balmain. She had worn it before at the U.S. premiere in June, which means Londoners had an inkling what they were going to see, but what resulted was, well, a circus. The crowd went nuts and the situation devolved into what some newspapers described as a near riot. The above National Examiner, published today in 1972, features Baker wearing what we noticed was a similar but not identical dress. We got curious where it came from, and so we went looking.
Turns out in late 1964 designer Oleg Cassini, entranced by the Balmain dress, designed a similar version for Baker to wear at a promotional event in Las Vegas. The difference is in the placement of the beading—Balmain’s left a v-shaped peek-a-boo, whereas Cassini’s left a diagonal opening across the chest. You can see the difference below. Cassini had built his version of the dress in Baker’s absence using a model of identical size, but it didn’t really fit because bodies have all sorts of differences, even if their crude numerical aspects are ostensibly the same. Baker endured eighteen precarious hours in a gown that was so tightshe couldn’t shake hands without it shifting to reveal parts she wanted to keep hidden. She later wore the dress—hopefully altered—at a premiere of Cheyenne Autumn, and a photo of her posing with a dozen costumed Native Americans survives today in the Associated Press archives.
But the dress wasn’t finished quite yet. The next year immortal costumer Edith Head designed yet another variation on Balmain’s original for Baker to wear promoting the film Harlow. We don’t know where the previous two gowns went, but the Head version, one of several she put together, survived and has appeared in Hollywood fashion exhibitions as recently as 2003. Baker also wore a Balmain (or Cassini or Edith Head copy) during a 1966 troop tour in Vietnam, and the only reason a full firefight didn’t break out among the GIs the moment she unveiled herself is probably because that version had no cut-outs (right).
Extreme publicity stunts were apparently not unusual for Baker. She considered herself a good actress, but felt that she couldn’t become a star in Hollywood without promoting herself as a sex symbol. “I’ve tried just acting,” she once said, “but sex sells at the box office.” As time wore on, she went from threatening to walk off the set of Station Six—Sahara due to the director pressuring her to appear nude to playing unclothed roles in The Sweet Body of Deborah, Così dolce... così perversa, and Paranoia, as well appearing nude in Playboy and Playmen. Nothing like a shrinking bank account to totally reshape one’s morals. In 1966 AP scribe Doris Klein wrote that Baker was “almost too pretty, too much like a slim teenager to play a sexpot.” But Baker became one of the biggest sexpots in the world. Looking at the 1964 Balmain, and the three to six versions that followed, we’d say it was inevitable.
A politics-free Olympiad? Only in our dreams.
Something we've had lying around for two years, this is the week we finally get to share this Japanese poster for the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. History books and our fathers tell us what a turbulent Olympiad that was. It was the height of Vietnam and the civil rights struggle, and African American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised up a black power salute on the medal podium while the U.S. national anthem was played. That is the event many seem to remember, but of great importance was the Mexican government’s massacre of unarmed student protestors in the Tlatelolco barrio of Mexico City. Although it happened before the Olympics began, the protest was tied to the games because part of the students’ dissatisfaction had to do with the Mexican government spending the equivalent of $7.5 billion to stage the event. Meanwhile, in Europe, the Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia, prompting medal winner Vera Caslavska to turn her head away during the playing of the Soviet anthem. 1968—you wouldn’t really call it a good year. But at least we have this good poster.
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