1927: Nickel-hoppers and Taxi Dancers

When was the last time you watched a silent film? Try this entertaining, 1926 short film, The Nickel-Hopper starring adorable Mabel Normand. It’s about a young girl who earns her living as a “taxi dancer”. During the Jazz Age, dance halls were preferable over ballrooms and were popular for men because it didn’t matter your height or your looks, you could rent a taxi dancer for ten cents if she had an open slot on her dance card. The girls usually kept half the amount, hence the name “nickel-hoppers”.

The research continues exploring the year 1927 in America, and this silent film provided a wealth of insight into the culture. The character Paddy is twirled about on the dance floor by a dozen men during the course of the evening. There’s always someone who wants to take her home. It’s a simple plot–poor girl tries to catch a man who will deliver her from poverty and rag-doll job and into respectability. Oliver Hardy plays the enthusiastic drummer at the dance hall, and a very young Boris Karloff plays the predator who wants to take her home. She outwits him and charms, Jessop, the handsome, rich bachelor.

Barbara Stanwyck is a nickel-hopper in the film, Ten Cents a Dance.

Most taxi dancers were girls looking to make money. I’m thinking about my character Sally, my young Barbara Stanwyck inspiration, who will manipulate her aunt into renting an empty room in Jerome, Arizona so Sally can turn it into a dance hall. Of course, that means music. Irving Berlin, Ira and George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Gene Austin–I love their songs.

 

I will certainly place the current hits of the time into the second novel, Inside the Gold Plated Pistol.  These songs are a part of American pop-culture, and accentuate the historical climate perfectly.

Here is another Berlin classic, “How Deep is the Ocean”. Released in 1932, it shows the popular genre of the ballad. Billie Holliday’s version is my favorite. Anyone else appreciate the romantic, sweet music of the 1920s?

Silly love songs. Where did they go?

 

Read This: Four for you

Looking for something good to read? Here are a few entertaining novels I’ve recently read:

Science Fiction: The Wind Up Girl

It’s the 24th Century in Thailand and gene-hacked food is owned by corporations and bio-terrorism is the norm. Enter genetically programmed slave-girl, Emiko, an obsolete Japanese sex-toy who runs for her life. Filled with mystery and plot-action, it’s a great read. When all hell breaks loose between the military, officials, con-artists, and unlikely heroes, it becomes a page turner. This would be an excellent film. It’s only a matter of time.

The Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes wrote this 2011 Man Booker Prize winner and it’s a concept driven, not a plot-driven story. A modern British man reflects upon his life and the past friendships which profoundly affected him. It’s brief and full of rich wisdom. I liked it because the character sketches Barnes created were vivid and unsentimental. He captures the concept of time, memory, redemption, and forgiveness. It’s a novel where the characters seep into your skin like a British mist and leave a lasting impression about the meaning of life.

On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Henry Lee, a Chinese American boy, and Keiko Okabe, a Japanese girl become friends at an all-white private school in Seattle. After the December 7 Pearl Harbor attack, executive order 9066 issued the detainment of Japanese citizens. Families were escorted to military camps as prisoners until the end of the war. Henry risks the wrath of his racist parents and travels to Idaho to visit and court Keiko, for whom he has fallen in love. Ford created the historial climate and devoted his time creating characters and developing their friendships. He could have but did not jump on a soap box and lecture to the reader about policy or unfairness. He shared a teenager’s story about friendship and love and it was a beautiful story. My favorite of the summer reads.

The House Girl

Another historical fiction novel I enjoyed was the 2013 best seller by Tara Conklin. One narrator is Josephine, a house slave on a Virginia plantation during the 1850s who runs away. The other narrator is a modern NYC attorney, whose case involves reparations for the descendents of slaves. Carolina Sparrow’s research leads her to the story behind Josephine, the house girl. The split narration is a nice technique, but I do admit I liked Josephine’s history twice as much as the angst of ambitious Carolina Sparrow. I did enjoy Conklin’s descriptions and I liked the book despite the distractions of two unrelated characters.

What did you think of these novels?

Film Spotlight: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

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Days that live in infamy are particular to every country. In the United States, what happened on September 11, 2001 is shelved in the mind along with the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941 and J.F. Kennedy’s assassination, November 22, 1963. On September 11, normalcy was stripped away and vulnerability and violation filled us all. Solemnity existed on multiple levels. Personally, many knew someone in the city or intimately involved with the day’s destruction. Regular time stopped and the interruption seized hold and shook hard as we stayed glued to the television for details and answers. The days and weeks unfolded and we prayed and cried and blessed the heroes and victims. Documentaries were made commemorating the efforts of fireman and doctors and nurses and policemen and military personnel and politicians. Families of those who passed shared their grief and we grieved with them. Today, a classy memorial is at Ground Zero with a saved Pear Tree, water falls, the names of the fallen, and two beams of light ascending to the clouds at nightfall.

The 2012, Best Picture nominee Extremely Loud and Extremely Close starred crème de la crème actors, Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. The script seemed like it was in good hands. Eric Roth adapted his screenplay from Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel by the same name. I’ve been an admirer of Eric Roth as a screenwriter for a long time. Consider his track record: Forrest Gump, The Horse Whisperer, Ali, Munich, The Insider, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. If Eric Roth is involved with the project, odds are excellent the script will be intelligent, sensitive, and dynamic.  So why was this film either reviled or respected?

I have a tendency to focus on what’s great about a film and ignore as much as possible what’s annoying. If you haven’t seen Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I would focus on the performances of the supporting cast, like the marvelous Max von Sydow, who was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Viola Davis had a  strong presence on the screen, too.

The principal child actor was eleven-year-old Thomas Horn as the grieving son, Oskar Schell. While I understand critics thought his frenetic screaming and exuberant rants annoying, I thought it was exactly the delivery he should have given if you consider the style of a Jonathan Safran Foer novel which is full of frenetic exuberant screaming. Some didn’t like the adaptation at all, but I don’t think of a book and a movie as the same story at all. They are two texts, related, but I never had a problem if the film version strayed from the book. Is Safron Foer’s book better than the film? Oh, yes. But I still enjoyed the film for more reasons than I disliked it.

The film is about the effects of a catastrophe, a day of infamy in a boy’s life, whose father dies on 9/11 and he reaches beyond the grave and inspires his son to move on. It’s not a plot driven story but rather character driven. It’s a film about the healing process of a brilliant son who can’t handle the horror of losing his idol. That’s powerful stuff. If it weren’t associated with the events of 9-11, it might have scored higher with critics who panned it for superficiality of a national tragedy. I didn’t see it that way at all. Too bad Bullock’s character didn’t have more dimension other than the mother who has to live with the knowledge if her son had to lose a parent, it would have been her in the casket rather than the father. Ouch.

I’d rate the film 7 out of 10.

Which camp do you fall in?

Is it possible you don’t know what happened on 9/11? Here’s a succinct summary.

http://www.history.com/topics/9-11-attacks

Stop-Motion Animation

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It’s my favorite kind of animation. I admire the artists who move their subjects shot by shot to create a story with a unique twist.  There’s something very comforting about the format designed for children. Lately, I’ve noticed stop animation films are aimed toward adults. Here are two I like very much:

Mary and Max (2009)

Based on a true story, it’s a sublime dark comedy. Definitely for adults. You can read my post here:

http://cindybruchman.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/film-spotlight-mary-and-max/

 Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

What is the true form of reality? Can you prove God exists if you can’t see Him? If you can’t hear a tree fall in the woods, did it fall? Is perceived reality the same as the true form of reality? Ah, those wonderful philosophical questions. If you can spare three mintues, watch this clamation short.  It’s great.

There are cozy, stop-animation films aimed specifically for children to entertain. Now think about stop-motion animation from the past twenty years. Do many seem rather dark to you?

Coraline (2009)

Coraline is creepy. Taking a format designed for children and twisting it to appeal to adults is what animation is all about these days. There’s something about a doll-face or protagonist devoid of eyes that’s disturbing.

I guess that’s the point. Are you brilliant Tim Burton or nuts? What a dark empire you have created.

In the past we had King Kong and Ray Harryhausen’s magic. What about today’s stop animation? What are some of your favorites?

There are times when stop-motion animation in an adult film is very effective. Do you like the Brothers Quay? In the film Frida, their sequence to illustrate her tragic accident was outstanding.

Five Shots: Desert Green

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September in North Central Arizona is a great time of year to see spearmint tall grasses and red earth mounds around the Sedona area. A day can start sunny and bright and switch to menacing within a few hours. Here are five plus two shots of a September day from my neck-of-the-woods.

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Jim, Bear, and I hiked up a mound for a view of the Red Rocks ten miles away.

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Monsoon rains drop in a few times a week which are violent and dramatic and lots of fun to watch from the deck.

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Which shot of September do you like best?

Creating Fiction: Thanks, Barbara Stanwyck

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Researching the historical climate circa 1927 leads me down one road and then another; it’s a fun way to get lost. Trying to conceive original characters depends upon a vision and then allowing the characters the flexibility to form themselves out of the mental “mud” you are spinning.

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Thanks, Barbara Stanwyck and the Ziegfeld girls for providing me clues about a lifestyle for a principal character, Sally, in my second novel, Inside the Gold Plated Pistol.  Are you curious how facts and fiction blend together to create the historical climate? Excellent.

My character Sally wants to be a performer especially in films. Vaudeville acts, traveling dance troupes, nightclub dancers and the high-class Ziegfeld Follies were ingredients in the Jazz Age across America. Though the Wild West was technically dead in 1927, no one told the 15,000 residents of Jerome, AZ. Copper miners,  cowboys, Indians, dance-hall girls, and prostitutes fused with the best technology of the age and imitated urban entertainment like the New York City Ziegfeld dancers. While looking around in the New York Library public archives, I learned Billy Burke, the Good Witch of the North, was married to Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932). Several silent-era actors and actresses transitioned from the chorus line made famous on Broadway by Ziegfeld from 1907-1931. This is where Barbara Stanwyck comes in. You can read all about her life here:

http://www.biography.com/people/barbara-stanwyck-9492274

Orphaned at four and a frequent run-away from foster homes, she and her brother were raised by her sister Mildred who was a dancer and not much more than a child herself. Barbara Stanwyck became a Ziegfeld dancer at fourteen and that led her to pictures and whose sixty-year career and 80-plus films in Hollywood made her a film legend. Imagining Barbara Stanwyck as the driven girl who possessed grit, sex-appeal, and survival instincts are traits I have placed into my fictional character, Sally. I speculate how young Barbara Stanwyck might have reacted when I send off Sally on her adventures in Jerome.

The pictures taken by Ziegfeld portrait photographer, Alfred Cheney Johnston, are exquisite. They reveal volumes about the costumes and personalities of the dancers within a male-dominated culture. They were human dolls to fantasize about and lust after in the name of beauty and art. The nude shots were artistic and beautiful, but I can’t help wonder if the girls liked the posing or if they felt they had to further their career or as a way to put food on the table. Sex appeal has been a central part of the success of a performer. This is fuel for plot development and character building for Sally. How will Sally react to exploitation?

The stories behind individual Ziegfeld girls deserve more attention. In addition to Billy Burke, there’s Canadian Mona Parsons who saved allies in WWII from the clutches of Nazis, and Pearl White, Barbara Stanwyck’s silent-film idol. Mona will become the source of inspiration for a different character in Inside the Gold Plated Pistol. Here’s an article I read about Mona Parsons:

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/mona-parsons/

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What Ziegfeld stories do you know about? Do you have a favorite?

Mad Scientist, Alienated Creature

Having just watched The Machine, I thought it a clever update on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. At the core, it’s the same story: a misunderstood scientist creates a creature which turns against society/government/the creator. It’s a variation on a Frankenstein theme. Using technology, man crosses into God’s realm and creates a monster. The monster is sweet, pure, childlike. Through adult manipulation, it turns confused often running away or recognized as a “mistake” and is hunted down and destroyed. The story never ends happily and the audience feels empathy for the monster. There have been many films utilizing this theme, and I think it relavant.

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Caradog W. James wrote and directed this British Science-Fiction thriller, The Machine. The opening scene really had me hooked. The mishap with the brain-damaged veteran who trips the red alert lights and goes on a reflexive killing spree, and blood disappears into the red-lit room was ghastly and effective. Toby Stephens played the gifted scientist with sensitivity, and the performance by Caty Lotz was mesmerizing. She wowed me as the cyborg creation who grows disenchanted about this new world her creator brought her in to. The film had its faults like the constant darkness of the military fortress or the overly-simplistic evil, military bureaucrat Thompson, who wants to take the creature, Ava, and use her as a weapon of destruction. He is able to manipulate her because Vincent, played by Toby Stephens, is attending to his dying daughter for whom he hoped he could fix.

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The purpose of Science Fiction is to raise questions about society and imagine a world if a scenerio played out. The ambiguous, abrupt ending had many reviewers scratching their heads. What makes a human, human? Is Ava alive because she is conscious? Is the daughter alive if her consciousness is captured on a screen but has no body? What kind of life is that? It’s a pertinent issue, and I liked the ambiguity. Was Vincent wrong for saving his daughter? Shouldn’t Ava take the computer plate and pitch it into the ocean? Would that be murder? It raises that ethical question–just because we can manipulate life, should we?

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Any time a film produces more questions than it answers has me overlook flaws. The special effects were outstanding in The Machine, and I appreciated the film much more than the critics, apparently, and that’s okay with me. It’s a heavy, dark film and not for everyone.

What film did you like which raised an ethical question about life and death and our human need to control it?