THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH

Does this melody ring a bell?

Does the name Ringling Bros. ring a bell?

If it does, the connection between the two should be clear as a bell, because that melody was used for decades on Hollywood soundtracks to accompany circus footage. The most famous circus of them all was Ringling Bros., which was founded on April 10, 1871, merged with Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth in 1919, and closed on May 22 2017.

I recall seeing a circus as a young boy (regrettably, I don’t recall if it was Ringling Bros.)…. but this post’s focus is on circus movies, two of which I’ve seen several times since I was a teenage boy: Charlie Chaplin’s THE CIRCUS, and {The Marx Brothers) AT THE CIRCUS.

THE CIRCUS (1928) is not as well known as such Chaplin masterpieces as THE GOLD RUSH, CITY LIGHTS, and MODERN TIMES, but it is still a great show. Here is the trailer, followed by the closing scene when the circus leaves town with the circus girl he loves:

AT THE CIRCUS (1939) isn’t one of the Marx Brothers’ best films, but it has one of Groucho’s most famous scenes:

How this song came to be written is a story in itself, but the history of Lydia actually pre-dates the song. In Germany in the 1920s, an entertainer named Wilhelm Bendow had a stand-up act as Lydia Smith, the tattooed lady, in which he wore a body cast and performed a satirical sketch. It is no stretch to assume that American lyricist Yip Harburg had heard of that act when he and composer Harold Arlen wrote the song in 1939 (yes, it’s the same Harburg and Arlen who earlier in 1939 wrote OVER THE RAINBOW and the other great songs in WIZARD OF OZ).

As for the song’s lyrics, Harburg was a friend of Groucho, and both were fans of Gilbert and Sullivan. One evening (as AT THE CIRCUS was being developed) at a gathering at Groucho’s house, they were playing G & S records and singing along. Harburg was inspired to show his G & S-like inventiveness with rhyme scheme and verbal dexterity by writing a song for Groucho for the film, and the result was Lydia, The Tattooed Lady.

But the song ran into trouble with the Breen office censors. Quoting Harburg: “That song was thought to be risqué, and we had a hell of a lot of trouble with it. This was 1939 and censorship was at its full height. We were told we would have to cut it out of the picture. Harold and I were mad. Finally, we got an idea of how to save the song. We put in a final verse to legitimize [it]”:

She once swept an admiral off of his feet
The ships on her hips made his heart skip a beat
And now the old boy is in charge of the fleet
For he went and married Lydia.

There have been other circus movies (including the 1952 opus with the same title as this post, starring Jimmy Stewart as a circus clown), but that would make a three-ring circus of this post, and two is enough for this old boy.

The Big Top stops here.

 

 

 

 

EAST IS EAST AND WEST IS BEST?

Hat-check girl in Mae West’s first film: “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds.”
Mae West: “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”

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Some actors and actresses (and I don’t mean this pejoratively) basically play themselves in their films, while others are so believable and natural in varied roles and genres, they completely inhabit whatever given character they portray. An example of the latter, going back to Hollywood’s Golden Age, is Henry Fonda (if you think he played only serious parts, you haven’t seen the classic 1941 comedy, THE LADY EVE, in which he co-starred with Barbara Stanwyck — another of the most versatile players of that era).

Mae West was of the first category, very much the Diamond Lil character she created. Today being her birthday (8/17/1893), it’s her day to sparkle:

It has been said that “Mae West literally constituted a one-woman genre.” Basically playing herself, she was one of the country’s biggest box office draws in the 1930s, despite being almost 40 years old when offered her first movie contract (by Paramount) in 1932. Previously, she’d appeared in a number of rather risqué plays, including Diamond Lil and her first starring role on Broadway (appropriately titled Sex), which she wrote, produced and directed. As with all the plays she wrote and performed in, there was much controversy and publicity, and it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling.

Her first film (see opening quote) was NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, making such an impression that co-star George Raft reportedly said, “She stole everything but the cameras.” Her next film, SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933), featured Cary Grant in one of his first major roles, and was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. It was such a big moneymaker that it saved Paramount from bankruptcy in the midst of the Great Depression.

West went on to make six more movies in the 1930s, but in 1934, the Production Code began to be strictly enforced, and censors doubled down on her double-entendres. By today’s standards, such censorship seems ludicrous, but those were moralistic times, and after her last ‘naughty’ picture for Paramount in 1937, they thought it best to terminate her contract if they knew what’s good for them. She did manage to make one more hit movie, co-starring with W. C. Fields in My Little Chickadee for Universal Pictures in 1940.

Unbawdied and unbowed, when asked about puritanical attempts to impede her career, West wisecracked, “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.” Not for nothing was one of her nicknames “The Statue of Libido.” She died in 1980 at the age of 87.

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Coincidentally, August 17 is also the birthday of my mother, who passed away 17 years ago. Happy Birthday, Mom — YOU WERE THE BEST.

LONG TIME, KNOW, SEE….

[To] someone with a longer perspective, someone looking at us, we’d look like a bunch of ants on a log, running around. And every hundred years, it’s like somebody flushes the toilet and the entire planet is changed. –Woody Allen

I have lived, not a hundred years, but almost as long as the 78 year old Woody Allen —  long enough to appreciate where he’s coming from. It’s a different world from the one I grew up in the years preceding, during and after World War II, with a culture so completely changed that if I’d fallen asleep in that generation and awakened in this one, I might think that either I or the world had lost its marbles. Indeed, it’s like somebody flushed the toilet, and the marble in space we call earth became a different planet.

Now, I’m nostalgic about a lot of things, but I’m not one of those antedeluvians with rose-colored glasses about the past. There have been changes for the better and for the worse, and as much as I mourn the loss of what was (or seemed) wonderful then, it wasn’t all wonderful by a long shot. Those who “want their America back” want an America that never was whole or without shortcomings.

I would love to get that America back where drugs were a relative anomaly.

I would hate to get that America back where racism was as normal as everyday life.

I would love to get that America back where mean-spirited discourse wasn’t fuckin’ de rigueur (if you’ll pardon my French).

I would hate to get that America back where censorship trumped artistic freedom.

I would love to get that America back where the good things in life were more intrinsic than superficial.

I would hate to get that America back where the likes of McCarthyism fanned jingoist fears and ruined careers.

I would love to get that America back where popular music knew the meaning of sophisticaton.

I would hate to get that America back where the average lifespan for men in the year I was born was 56 1/2 years. By all rights, if I’d fallen asleep in that generation, I should’ve died before I woke up in the present generation. Talk about exceptionalism! Is this a great country, or what?