May 30, 2013

Joseph Moncure March and The Wild Party

Joseph Moncure March's poem, The Wild Part was relatively obscure after its first publication.  March had been The New Yorker's first managing editor, but he quit in 1926 to write the poem.

It was published with illustrations by March's classmate Reginald Marsh in 1928.  Only 750 copies were published, but that didn't stop cities like Boston from banning it. The Wild Party did get something of a cult following and typewritten copies were distributed.  But, it was out of both legal and illegal print before the end of the 1930s. More recently, the poem has been re-issued, but usually as a censored version without "certain racial and sexual references."  However, writer and illustrator Art Spiegelman found an uncensored copy in a used bookstore and illustrated the entire text for a 1994 reprint.

The epic poem is about (what else?) a wild party told in rhyming couplets. 

The poem begins like this:

Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still,
And she danced twice a day in vaudeville.
Grey eyes.
Lips like coals aglow.
Her face was a tinted mask of snow.
What hips—
What shoulders—
What a back she had!
Her legs were built to drive men mad.
And she did.
She would skid.
But sooner or later they bored her:
Sixteen a year was her order.

 The main character, Queenie lives with her lover, a vaudevillian clown named Burrs.  They fight and to get over it, they decide to to invite their colorful friends and throw a party.  Before the night is over Queenie ends up carrying on with someone else which leads to disaster.

Oh, yes—Burrs was a charming fellow:
Brutal with women, and proportionately yellow.
Once he had been forced into a marriage.
Unlucky girl!
She had a miscarriage
Two days later. Possibly due
To the fact that Burrs beat her
With the heel of a shoe
Till her lips went blue.

March went to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter in 1929 and rewrote silent film, Hell's Angels into a talkie.  He wrote Hollywood screenplays until 1940.

May 25, 2013

Musings on The Great Gatsby

With the new Gatsby movie now out, I've been thinking about the adaptations that came before it.  1974’s Great Gatsby is the most remembered adaptation. The 1949 one isn’t remembered as much, and it’s too early to know how long Baz Luhrmann’s version will last in the public’s consciousness. The very first Gatsby adaptation however, is a lost film. It was a 1926 silent Paramount and the critics weren’t impressed. It starred Lois Wilson, Warner Baxter, Neil Hamilton, and the great William Powell. All that’s left of the film is the trailer. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald reportedly hated it, and didn’t even watch until the end. Zelda wrote to their daughter Scottie: “We saw ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the movies. It’s ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left.”

Though Fitzgerald would eventually try in vain to make it as a screenwriter, he didn’t write Gatsby’s screenplay. The silent film was based on the stage play written by Owen Davis. And considering The Great Gatsby’s transition from book to stage to screen, I consider adaptations and interpretations. I wonder how the play with all its dialogue translated to in a silent film. Nick Carraway’s narration, and the dialogue is so important. I can’t imagine Gatsby being boiled down to title cards, but apparently the film was criticized for having too many title cards.

The trouble with adapting Gatsby for the big screen is that there’s barely a plot. It was never intended to be performed. But then, Fitzgerald reportedly ‘wrote for the ear.’ He read each line out loud, so maybe, on a subconscious level he did sort of imagine it being performed. And it wasn’t that he didn’t have any experience with writing for performance. Fitzgerald had directed plays during his time at Princeton. He wrote a failed play, The Vegetable in 1923. But it seems he never could make a success out of that sort of writing.

There’s a sort of parallel to Gatsby’s early failure to translate on the screen, and Fitzgerald’s failure to become a successful screenwriter. His first foray into screenwriting in 1927 was a disaster. During that time in Hollywood, he worked on the screenplay of a flapper film called Lipstick that never got made. He reportedly had a difficult time trying to channel his talent into writing useable screenplays. Producer Joseph Mankiewicz would later say that Fitzgerald wrote literary novelistic dialogue “that lacked all the qualities required for screen dialogue.” Screenwriting was essentially an assembly line – several writers tinkered on the same script. And Fitzgerald never could accept that screenplays had nothing to do with what he wanted.

When it was originally published in 1925, The Great Gatsby failed. And though writers like T.S. Eliot and Edith Wharton praised his work, Fitzgerald never saw the book’s success in his lifetime. It only became popular in the early 1950s. Today, Gatsby sells hundreds of thousands of copies a year. And with the new film, it will probably end up being one of the top-selling books of the year in the United States.

Further Reading
"Slow Fade: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood" The New Yorker 16 Nov. 2009 by Arthur Krystal

May 22, 2013

President Coolidge's speech commemorating Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic

On June 11, 1927, President Calvin Coolidge awarded Charles Lindbergh the first Distinguished Flying Cross Medal for his transatlantic flight. Before his flight on May, 20, 1927, six pilots had died trying to cross the Atlantic to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize.  He left New York in the Spirit of St. Louis and the 3,600 mile flight lasted 33 hours and 30 minutes.  When he arrived in Paris, he became the first pilot to fly solo nonstop from New York to Paris. You can listen to the president and Lindbergh speak below.

Further reading
Lindbergh Flies the Atlantic, 1927
May 21, 1927 | Charles Lindbergh Flies Solo Across the Atlantic

May 8, 2013

Vintage Video: The Buffer Belt

The buffer belt was a Paris novelty that women tied around their waists.  It was designed to keep men and women apart while dancing.  I have to say, it's kind of a weird contraption, and based on the title card ("Every day in every way Continental dances get closer and closer, so the Paris Eves have just started "Buffer States" of their own") seemed to be more of a chastity belt substitute than a device that improved dancing.  This clip was filmed in about 1925 or 1926.

May 4, 2013

Kentucky Derby Day

Since today is the 139th Kentucky Derby I thought I’d write a little about some of the Derby’s history.

In some ways, things haven’t changed much. Tens of thousands of people would go to the track at Churchill Downs. The crowd started to appear early in the week in their cars or on trains. Special trains came in from cities like New York and Cincinnati. Hotels were usually fully booked. The Brown Hotel, which opened in 1923, was popular with visitors. The Derby was a fashion parade where some women went to show off their style. A single dressmaker could have orders of up to 1,500 dresses. Women wore dresses or, if they were more fashion forward - a suit with a jacket. Hat and gloves were also fashionable.

 Clubhouse view at the 1926 Derby.  [Via]

Some traditions actually started in the 20s. The playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” at each Derby was first recorded in the Louisville Courier Journal in May 8, 1921. Though the exact year the song was first played isn’t certain, a Kentucky owned horse, Behave Yourself, won that year and according to the Courier-Journal,

“To the strains of 'My Old Kentucky Home,' Kentuckians gave vent their delight. For Kentucky triumphed in the Derby.” 

 In 1929, the song was reported to have played repeatedly during the day and was probably first played as the horses gather on the track in 1930. In 1930 to the Philadelphia Public Ledger reported,

"When the horses began to leave the paddock and the song 'My Old Kentucky Home' was coming from the radio, the cheering started." 

A trophy wasn’t introduced until 1922 when the Ben Block, the owner of the champion, Morvich, was given a six-piece gold buffet service. In 1923, the owners of the winning horse Zev, where given an actual trophy. 1924’s winner, Black Gold was given a golden trophy to commemorate the 50th running of the Derby with a Golden Jubilee. The trophy is now thought to be the only solid gold trophy annually presented at a sporting event in America.

Here's some footage of the 1920 and 1929 races, respectively: