Monday, February 28, 2011

A Moment for Jane Russell: The Paleface

Here's to you, Calamity Jane
The Movie
Short post this evening in honor of Jane Russell, who died today.  Her two best movies were among my favorites growing up: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Paleface (directed by Norman McLeod, 1948).  The Paleface is (at least to someone who first saw it at age 12) a cornball movie with some really hysterical moments. It's the story of a yellow-bellied dentist with a mail-order degree (Bob Hope) and the gun-slinging toughie (Jane Russell) who uses him as cover to join a wagon train headed west in order to win freedom from a jail sentence by serving as a bounty hunter of sorts for the bandits also traveling in the train.  Add an Oscar-winning song ('Buttons and Bows'), some Wild West action and Bob Hope zingers and you have an overall enjoyable movie!

A publicity still from The Outlaw
Jane Russell
Ernestine Jane Russell was born in Bemiji, Minnesota in 1921.  Her family moved to California when Jane was still young, and it was there that she was discovered while working as a secretary in a doctor's office.  Howard Hughes signed her to a 7-year contract and initiated and nursed the controversy that resulted from her first controversial picture, The Outlaw.  The build-up was intense, but the movie's release was long delayed due to Hays Code-related controversy over the amount of skin on display.  Life magazine at the time even ran an article entitled 'Jane Russell Can Be Seen Anywhere But in a Movie', referring to her years waiting for the release of The Outlaw.  The article painted her as a good-natured, outdoorsy type (which many other interviews confirm) somewhat at the mercy of the publicity-man Russell Birdwell.  As a result of this publicity, Jane's pictures were popular WWII pin-ups, and in the Korean War it was reported that a hill was named after her (Jane Russell Hill).

Jane and Marilyn at Grauman's Chinese Theater (Life Magazine)
Following The Outlaw, Jane was in several forgettable pictures usually referred to as 'potboilers', eventually landing in The Paleface with Hope and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn Monroe.  After sequels to both pictures, film work eventually dried up and Jane turned to stage work, singing and commercial work, including serving as the spokeswoman for Playtex brand undergarments.  In her later life she became very religious, appearing on various talk shows, assisting with charitable programs and recording gospel music.

The Movie

Links and Sources:
Life Magazine  13 April, 1942
Life Magazine  27 October, 1952|79325

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The WWII Housing Shortage: The More The Merrier

The Movie:
I love this movie (directed by George Stevens, 1943) and have watched it more times than I ought to lately. The plot of the movie starts with Jean Arthur's character advertising to take in a lodger in her small Washington, D.C., apartment to help with the war effort.  The lodger, a meddling (and hilarious) old gentleman perfectly played by Charles Coburn, proceeds to rent out half of his half of the apartment to a 'high-type, clean-cut, nice young fellow' (played by Joel McCrea) in order to play matchmaker.  Antics ensue, including a few steeplechases through the apartment that shouldn't be missed.  Coburn won a Best Supporting Actor for his work in this film and the movie was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.  In short, this movie is delightful.  However, I've always assumed that the major premise - housing in certain areas during WWII so scarce that strangers had to bunk in apartment lobbies - was exaggerated...

You Think You're Being Novel, But...
After some quick research, I found that apparently the situation was not much exaggerated, and I am pretty obviously not the first person to have thought the housing crisis (in Washington DC in particular) was of interest!  Journal articles and books have since been written on the topic, and it was a subject that was mined frequently at the time for comedy and conflict.  Take for example this Jack Benny sketch described by Frank Krutnik in his article on the subject for The Journal of American Culture:
"Benny and his sidekick spend several weeks tramping round Washington in a fruitless search for accommodation.  When they do finally find a hotel with a vacancy, the owner tells them:  'For 25 cents, you can sleep all night in the cloakroom.  For 50 cents you can sleep all night in the jukebox... And for one dollar you can ride in the revolving door and sleep like a top.'  The sketch ends with the manager selling Benny a brick for $10; he throws it through the window, and is then carted off by the police for a restful night in the cells."  -Critical Accommodations: Washington, Hollywood, and the World War II Housing Shortage, 19 November, 2007.
The needs of war put the population of the US in flux, with more people needed in certain areas than there was space to accommodate them.  Washington, as the central command, was hardest hit.  Other areas that were centers of munitions and war machinery fabrication, such as Seattle and Portland, also found themselves in the same condition.  New housing was built in many areas to accommodate the influx of people, but until that housing was made available, people had to make do.  Even when new housing was put up, the restrictions on war-related materials were so great that units were often made using less than half the usual amount of materials. Rural areas were also hard hit, with large factories being built in areas with only a small population base.  As would be expected in a situation with many demands and scarce resources, prices rose and the number of people per house rose as well.

Not Just Housing

Not just housing, but a lot of other general things changed for residents of Washington during the war.  Another running joke in The More The Merrier takes its cues from the sex ratio of Washington at the time, estimated as 'eight girls for every fellow'.

'Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!'

The Movie:

Links and Sources:
David Brinkley of TV news fame was a teen in Washington when the war was on, and wrote a book 'Washington Goes to War' that details the changes brought to Washington by an all-consuming war, part of which was the housing shortage.  Again, I wish I could personally recommend it, but haven't read it yet.  This blog is turning in to a list of books I wish I had more time to read!  Amazon link:

Hazel Scott, Hot Classicist: I Dood It

The Movie
I Dood It (directed by Vincente Minelli, 1943) features displays of exceptional comedic and musical talent wrapped in a paper-thin plot involving sabotage and skulduggery during a theater production.  The movie a is remake of the Buster Keaton comedy film 'Spite Marriage' with musical numbers thrown in (a few are even recycled from earlier films).  Multiple stars are along for the ride, including Eleanor Powell and Red Skelton as the main characters with support from Lena Horne, Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra, Sam Levene, John Hodiak, Butterfly McQueen, Helen O'Connell, Bob Eberly and Hazel Scott.  I was drawn to this movie by the phenomenal dance numbers of Eleanor Powell, but it was really Hazel Scott's piano and vocal performance that surprised me.  I had never heard of her and wanted to know more...

Young Hazel
Hazel Scott was born on the island of Trinidad in 1920. Her mother, Alma Long Scott, was part of a jazz band, and began to encourage Hazel's tinkering on the piano at the age of three.  She and her family moved to the city of New York in 1924 (I haven't yet figured out why).  So obvious was her talent that at a young age Hazel was given free piano lessons by a teacher at Juilliard. 

Hazel the Performer
Hazel became a public performer in her teen years on the Mutual Broadcasting System and live in clubs and theaters around New York, with at least one gig at the Roseland Ballroom with the Count Basie Orchestra.  In the 1930s and 40s she was a nightclub pianist and singer in high demand, performing classical music as well as club standards.  Labeled as the 'hot classicist' by Time magazine, her nightclub performances were described by this vibrant quote:
Hazel Scott at the Stage Door Canteen, NYC, 1942 (Life Magazine).
"But where others murder the classics, Hazel Scott merely commits arson. Classicists who wince at the idea of jiving Tchaikovsky feel no pain whatever as they watch her do it. She seems coolly determined to play legitimately, and for a brief while, triumphs. But gradually it becomes apparent that evil forces are struggling within her for expression. Strange notes and rhythms creep in, the melody is tortured with hints of boogie-woogie, until finally, happily, Hazel Scott surrenders to her worse nature and beats the keyboard into a rack of bones. The reverse is also true: into Tea for Two may creep a few bars of Debussy's Clair de Lune. Says wide-eyed Hazel: "I just can't help it." (Time Magazine, link below)
She was a mainstay at Cafe Society, a prominent jazz nightclub.  In 1941 and 1943, she performed at Carnegie Hall as part of the 'From Bach to Boogie-Woogie' concerts.  Possibly at the behest of her politician husband to force the issue first thrust into the limelight by Marion Anderson in 1939, in 1945 Hazel requested a performance at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall.  The request was declined by the DAR executive committee, who preferred to keep their venue for "white artists only".  President Truman and his wife were applied to to redress the injustice, but despite sending a single round of sympathetic correspondence, they did not interfere.

In the early 1940s, Hazel was also featured in the movies Rhapsody in Blue and Broadway Rhythm.  Her talents for entertainment were put to good use for the war effort, as evidenced by the photo above and this Army/Navy Screen Magazine clip below (incredible style! But be prepared for potentially offensive wartime lyrics):

In 1950, Hazel Scott became the first black woman to have a solo television show, The Hazel Scott Show, which ran for only a few months on the DuMont Television Network.

In later years, she moved to the more liberated environment of Paris, where she continued to sing on stage in clubs.  She moved back to the US in the 1970s, continuing to sing and appear on television, including landing an appearance on the soaper One Life to Live.

Personal Life
Scott and Powell on their wedding day (Life Magazine)
Various sources describe Hazel Scott as 'outspoken' and she was noted in the press as a 'favorite tabloid character'.  Prior to her first marriage, she lived in suburban White Plains, New York.  Hazel was married to Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a representative to Congress for New York's 18th district and pastor of the 10,000-strong Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, in 1945. At their wedding, a double-line of people waiting to meet the bride and groom stretched around a full city block.  Hazel had one child with Powell, a son, before the couple divorced in 1956.  Interestingly, Time magazine also lists a marriage that Scott's wikipedia page does not; this marriage to a Swiss comedian 15 years her junior took place "eight weeks after she divorced Democratic Representative Adam Clayton Powell and six weeks after Powell married his pert Puerto Rican secretary".

She was tried (but not convicted) in 1950 by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and it was speculated that this trial and her listing as a Communist in the anti-Communist pamphlet Red Channels cost her her television show.  The show had been well-received by critics and had decent ratings.

Hazel Scott died of cancer in 1981. 

The Movie:

Links and Sources:,9171,872082,00.html,9171,778420,00.html,9171,792296,00.html,9171,773793,00.html
Life Magazine, 27 July, 1942.  Life's full archive here:
There is also a new biography of Scott.  I haven't read it, so can make no comments (tho' it sounds great).  Here's a link to the Amazon site:

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Early Passenger Air Travel: Foreign Correspondent

First Post!

The Movie
Joel McCrea stars as reporter Johnny Jones / Huntley Haverstock in Alfred Hitchcock's excellent thriller Foreign Correspondent (1940).  Jones is sent overseas to send back reports of impending war, getting more than he bargained for by stumbling on a German spy ring intent on uncovering secrets and bending a treaty in their favor.  Laraine Day stars as Jones' love interest and George Sanders provides his usual suave humor as fellow journalist Scott Ffolliott.

The segue into the final action scene in Foreign Correspondent occurs on an aeroplane crossing the Atlantic at the start of the World War II in Europe.  Above is a snap from the film, with Joel McCrea and George Sanders on the left looking slightly gloomy (don't know why, they've got plenty of legroom and four star chefs in the kitchen!).

Passenger air travel started seriously in the 1920s, and by 1940 was becoming increasingly popular.  At this time, it was still mainly a luxury for the wealthy.

Boeing 314
External shots of a Boeing 314 seaplane with four 1600 hp Wright Twin Cyclone engines were used in Foreign Correspondent to set the scene for the final conflict.  The Boeing 314s (six in all) were commissioned by Pan American to provide a long-range addition to their fleet of aircraft.  These craft were called 'Clippers' and featured seats that could be turned into bunks for the flights that sometimes lasted over half a day.  Full galleys staffed by a four-star chef, lounges and dining areas were also features of the Clippers.

Service Staff
Aircraft in 1940 were still unpressurized, so hospitality staff provided gum to help pop ears at altitude.  Air conditioning was still yet to be installed as well.  Help could be either male, as seen by the steward in the movie, or female. Stewardesses at the time were required to take grooming classes, to 'retain their femininity' and to SMILE!  Prior to America's entry into WWII, air hostesses were required to be registered nurses.  For their labor, they would earn around $125 per month, minus uniform costs.  Girdles were mandatory.

The Movie:

Links and Sources: