Sunday, March 30, 2014

American Rose A Nation Laid Bare The Life And Times of Gypsy Rose Lee by Karen Abbott

I’ve been a classic movie fan long before Turner Classic Movies came along, and one of my favorites has always been the musical Gypsy, based on the life of burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. Biographical and historical films are notorious for taking great liberties with their subjects, so I always wondered just how much of the story was true, but somehow never got around to finding out. When I happened across this book I knew that time had arrived.

This book is not just the story of Gypsy Rose Lee, and how she became America’s most famous stripper, strutting across the stage, blending the bawdy and erudite, it’s also the story of burlesque, which is fascinating in itself. This is very much a story of guts and glamour, strained relationships, and the struggle for survival in the highly competitive theatrical world.

Gypsy, whose real name was Rose Louise, and her sister June, had the stage mother from Hell. Madame Rose, as she liked to be called, was a ruthless bisexual determined to see both her daughters become stars. Dainty blonde June was a natural born ballerina, a pint-sized Pavlova, despite her mother forcing her into toe shoes at too early an age against the advice of her dancing teacher, while Rose Louise, with her brunette hair cut in a Dutch boy bob was a tomboy, clumsy and seemingly devoid of talent. She became part of her sister’s act, playing one of the boys, and even a dancing cow, as Dainty June and her Newsboys toured the vaudeville circuit. Adorable June even landed a few roles in silent movies, including a part in a Harold Lloyd comedy short. But times were changing, radio and the movies were taking audiences away from vaudeville, and the girls were growing up. June rebelled by marrying one of the boys in her act and running away, leaving her sister behind to become the focus of their mother’s ambitious attentions. A new act was created—Rose Louise and her Hollywood Blondes, to spotlight the brunette Louise, but bookings were few and far between and the applause lackluster as vaudeville was in its dying throes. When they were accidentally booked into a burlesque house by mistake, Madame Rose decided to make the best of things and one night when the star of the show was absent she pushed her daughter to fill in and a new star was born—Gypsy Rose Lee.

As America entered the Great Depression, even Broadway was struggling to fill theatre seats, but the cheap entertainment of burlesque thrived.  Soon Gypsy was starring at Minsky’s, New York’s most famous and prestigious house of burlesque. She was finally the star of the family and her sister, the talented June, was struggling to make ends meet, competing in marathon dances and scrounging for legitimate roles.

Always self-conscious about her lack of formal education, Gypsy read voraciously. She was intelligent and expert at coining clever quips to pronounce as she stripped. She tried her hand at writing. Her works included a mystery novel, a play, and the best-selling memoir that inspired the popular musical starring Natalie Wood as Gypsy and Rosalind Russell as a superb rendition of her big-mouthed and ballsy mother, Rose. But even though she bared her body, Gypsy never bared her soul, even with her lovers, which included gangsters and famous directors; she always kept her real self to herself. She even made a bid for Hollywood stardom, but never rose above being a novelty act.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s well-written and engrossing. And the author had the good fortune to be able to talk to Gypsy sister, June Haver, before she died, and interview Gypsy’s only son, Erik Preminger. The only issue I had with it is the way its structured, it skips around instead of sticking to a cradle to the grave chronology, which I would have preferred; this was a little distracting and as I read it at a time when I had to sometimes put it down for a day or two, it was a bit difficult to pick up the thread when I was able to resume reading again. That aside, this is a great example of good, attention grabbing, and keeping, non-fiction.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Kay Francis A Passionate Life and Career by Lynn Kear and John Rossman

Kay Francis, this dark-haired beauty was everything a movie star was supposed to be—beautiful, glamorous, sophisticated, gorgeously gowned and coiffed, photographed to best advantage, starring in movies with leading men like Ronald Colman and Cary Grant that helped audiences during the Great Depression and World War II escape from their ordinary humdrum lives and all their problems. But that was all an illusion created by the Dream Factory that was Hollywood.

The real Kay Francis shunned life’s luxuries like couture clothes, mansions, and limousines, was frugal with her finances, and, ironic for a woman with a reputation as Hollywood’s clothes’ horse, whose movies were often a fashion parade, she was in reality more at home in slacks and sandals, and rather than desiring silver screen immortality she could not wait to be forgotten.

This book, which draws on Ms. Francis’ personal diaries and papers, gives readers a glimpse into the real life of this enigmatic star and the often sad and ugly truths behind the beautiful fa├žade, the failed marriages, one night stands, affairs with both men and women, numerous secret abortions, depression, and a long struggle with alcoholism. She often slept with stuffed animals and cried herself to sleep for being such “a damned fool” after tumbling into bed with someone. Sometimes it’s like watching a train wreck, but it’s a fascinating account of a largely, and unjustly, forgotten star’s tragic life. 

If you can, catch some of Kay's movies on Turner Classic Movies, and see why this woman was one of the biggest stars of the 1930s, I particularly recommend The House on 56th Street, an historical melodrama spanning the years 1905-1933 in the vein of Madame X and Stella Dallas about marriage, murder, and motherly love that often has viewers reaching for the Kleenex. Many, myself included, regard it as her finest performance.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Brilliance by Rosalind Laker

Years ago when I first began my love affair with historical fiction, I read a wonderful novel called To Dance With Kings by Rosalind Laker, set at the glittering court of Versailles and peopled with such personalities as Louis XV and Madame Pompadour, and Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen, so I was pleased to happen across a later novel she had written about the early days of cinema history with a heroine who rose from magic lantern show assistant to silent screen star. The classic movie lover in me couldn't wait to read this one.

I wish I could say Brilliance was brilliant, but lackluster sums it up best. It’s a rather ordinary rags to riches and love conquers all tale. It begins in 1894 when Lisette Decourt, runs away from home after discovering that her fiance is having an affair with her horrid stepmother. 

To preserve her anonymity, Lisette travels with an Englishman, Daniel Shaw, who operates a traveling magic lantern show (a popular form of entertain before the movies featuring glass slides sometimes accompanied by special lightning and sound effects) and becomes his assistant. Lisette is fascinated when Daniel tells her about the quest by Thomas Edison, and the Lumiere Brothers, whom Lisette conveniently knows, as they were neighbors of her late, lamented grandmother, to create a motion picture camera. He has even experimented with it himself. The two become lovers one afternoon, but afterwards Lisette flees. She knows that now that sex has intruded on their relationship they cannot go back to being just friends. 

As she builds a new life for herself, Lisette encounters many ups and downs, a spectacular run of bad luck in fact, and gives birth to Daniel’s child in a convent where nuns, who think they know best, give the child up for adoption without Lisette’s knowledge or consent.  Of course the lovers are ultimately reunited, a moving picture camera is developed, and Lisette, at first a reluctant actress, becomes a star, renowned for her portrayals of tragic heroines of history like Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette, and even survives a scandal.

The magic I encountered in the pages of To Dance With Kings is lacking, but its still fun, predictable, happily ever after escapist fluff, and you actually do learn a little about the early days of moviemaking along the way, so it’s not a bad book to pass the time with.