Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Automat: Thirty Day Princess

The Movie
   The consensus:  screenwriting credits by Preston Sturgess make a formulaic plot enjoyable, and top talent helps the cause.  The set-up:  Thirty Day Princess (1934, directed by Marion Gering) is set smack in the middle of the Depression and stars Cary Grant as Porter Madison III, a newspaper editor out to take down fat cat bankers.  When he hears word that the Princess of Tyronia is coming to New York as an introductory tour in hopes of securing an international loan arranged by one of those bankers, he becomes suspicious and sets out to investigate.  On the other side, the Princess Catterina (Sylvia Sidney) has contracted mumps and cannot fulfill her public duties.  The fat cat banker (Edward Arnold) looks for and finds a ringer in Nancy Lane (also Sylvia Sidney), a down-on-her-luck actress who takes the part of the Princess.
   I find the opening few sequences where the King of Tyronia meets the banker pretty interesting.  The King, who cannot even afford to give his daughter money for the movies, says he would like to give the peasants of his country electric lights and heat.  The banker asks the King how much he would need.  "Oh, about 5 million," says the King.  "No, no!" replies the banker, "50 million!"  Ring any bells?

The Automat
   An automat is an extinct type of restaurant first brought to the U.S. in the early 1900s, modeled after a Berlin restaurant, the Quisisana Automat.  Automats had been in Europe since the late 1800s.  In this type of eatery, one would get change from the cashier, then pay for meal items by inserting nickels and drawing the items one selected out from behind small glass-and-chrome doors.  Trays were available to carry the food, and, much like a cafeteria, a tray-slider was in place below the food cases, so that one could move down the rows, looking at options.  The kitchen was located behind the 'wall' and slots were refilled from the kitchen.  Food included items such as Salisbury steak, chicken pot pie, creamed spinach, rice pudding, baked beans, blueberry pie and many others, all of which were subject to high quality control standards.  Spigots were provided for coffee and other drinks.  Seating was also cafeteria-style, with a group of tables and chairs in the middle.  Side note:  the automat or studio set featured in Thirty Day Princess seems to be the same one where the great food fight scene in Easy Living was shot.
   Horn and Hardart were the entrepreneurs who brought the European model to the U.S., opening the first restaurant in Philadelphia in 1902.  From there on it was expansion time, and many Horn and Hardart automats would open up in Philadelphia and New York.  Competitors, who could see how well the H&H model worked, would open up other restaurants as well.  Drive-in restaurants struck a blow to the automat model of business in the 50s and 60s, and by the 1980s, with fast food becoming commonplace nationwide, the few automats that were left were hanging on by a thread.  Since the last Horn and Hardarts shut down in 1991, there have been several attempts at revival, but none have been successful in the long term
A kiss on the hand may be quite continental
but diamonds are a girl's best friend.
A kiss may be grand, but it won't pay the rental
on your humble flat, or help you at the automat...
                                     -Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Links and Sources
Automat, Wikipedia
Meet Me At the Automat, Smithsonian
The Automat
European Automats, Victualling
An East Coast Oasis, Victualling
A book about the Automat by one of the descendants of Hardart:  The Automat (M. Hardart & L. Diehl)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Tracing A Reference: Cynara

A guilty look.
 The Movie
   Free-associater that I am, I stayed away from Cynara (1932, directed by King Vidor) for quite a while, figuring it had to do with suffering, lost love and cyanide.  Having just watched this movie for the first time, I will say that I was spot on about two of these (and possibly even three).  I'd congratulate myself, but just the fact that this is a Kay Francis film pretty much gives the first two away.
   Ronald Colman has top billing in this flick, playing Jim Warlock (uh-oh), a lawyer with a high-flying career.  His wife, Clemency Warlock (Kay Francis), departs unexpectedly for vacation in Venice to get her sister away from a bad romance.  This leaves Jim, who up until now has been a happily-married man, at the mercy of a very bad octagenarian influence.  At his friend's not-so-subtle urgings to be less dull and get more variety in life, Jim responds to a girl he meets in a restaurant (Phyllis Barry).  He quickly quashes her advances, but when they are thrown together again at a bathing beauty pageant, the trouble really begins...

   Instead of cyanide, the title of this movie references a poem 'Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae' (I am no more the man I was in the reign of the good Cynara), written by Ernest Dowson. The poem's narrator speaks to Cynara, telling her how, while he drank, danced and made love to prostitutes, the thought of her turned these earthly pleasures into empty actions. Cold comfort, but a beautiful poem.
Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno
Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was gray: 
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. 
               -- Ernest Dowson (1876-1900)

   'Non Sum Qualis...' is a poem following the Alexandrine pattern of twelve-syllable lines. Margaret Mitchell took the title of her famous novel, Gone with the Wind, from the third verse. 

Ernest Dowson
  Dowson was a poet considered to be of the Decadent school, a contemporary and acquaintance of Oscar Wilde and Yeats.  He was born into a middle-class family in 1867 and trained at Oxford, but did not finish his course.  After his schooling, he spent some time in England, some in France and most of it in and out of pubs, taverns and dinner clubs pursuing a dissolute lifestyle.  During this period he completed a play, a novel, wrote for several journals and continued with his poetry.  Key to any detail of Dowson's life was his love from afar for the 11-year-old daughter of a local restaurant owner.  It is possible that 'Non Sum Qualis...' was composed for her.  She was either unaware of or unresponsive to his love, eventually marrying a tailor who lodged above the family restaurant.
   The biography of Ernest Dowson is short; he died of alcoholism at 32.  In memorial at the time of his death, many words of praise were written by a friend, Arthur Symons,  who also wrote the following about Dowson's short life:  "We get out of life, all of us, what we bring to it; that, and that only, is what it can teach us. There are men whom Dowson's experiences would have made great men, or great writers; for him they did very little." 

Original Reference
    The poem's title in Latin comes from an ode written as if to Venus by Horace, a classical Roman poet.  In this ode, the author asks Venus (the goddess of love) to let him alone because he feels he is too old to love again - he is not the young man he was when he was with Cynara - it would be more fitting if the passion were given to another man.  Yet by the end of the poem, the poet admits that he has succumbed to Venus, and passion for the cold-hearted young man Ligurinus has him tied in knots.

After a long cessation, O Venus, again are you stirring up tumults? Spare me, I beseech you, I beseech you. I am not the man I was under the dominion of good-natured Cynara. Forbear, O cruel mother of soft desires, to bend one bordering upon fifty, now too hardened for soft commands: go, whither the soothing prayers of youths invoke you. More seasonably may you revel in the house of Paulus Maximus, flying thither with your splendid swans, if you seek to inflame a suitable breast. 
As for me, neither woman, nor youth, nor the fond hopes of mutual inclination, nor to contend in wine, nor to bind my temples with fresh flowers, delight me [any longer]. But why; ah! why, Ligurinus, does the tear every now and then trickle down my cheeks? Why does my fluent tongue falter between my words with an unseemly silence? Thee in my dreams by night I clasp, caught [in my arms]; thee flying across the turf of the Campus Martius; thee I pursue, O cruel one, through the rolling waters.                 --Horace  (65 BC - 8 BC, Rome)
Links and Sources
The Works of Horace, Authorama
Poem -- Ernest Dowson, Wandering Minstrels
Ernest Dowson, The Victorian Web
Ernest Dowson
Gone With the Wind, Wikipedia
Horace, Wikipedia

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Technicolor: Vertigo

The Movie
    Hitchcock's classic.  For most movie recaps, I don't mind gabbing on about what happens here and there in the movie, but to know too much about this movie before watching it would negate the point of the film, so will keep it brief.  Vertigo (1958, directed by Alfred Hitchcock), is a slow-paced thriller set in San Fransisco. Indeed, the city and the Bay Area are just as much of a star of the film as its charismatic lead (I'm sorry that I can't attribute charisma to Kim Novak in this movie, although she does well enough in the second half).  The movie was not a box-office or a critical success when it was released, but is considered by many people today to be one of his finest.  As for me, I still prefer North By Northwest.
   Jimmy Stewart plays 'Scottie' Ferguson, a former police officer who is forced to take a leave from the police department when an on-the-job tragedy that leaves him with acute acrophobia, or fear of heights.  As he is pondering what to do to fill his empty days, an opportunity presents itself in the form of an old acquaintance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore).  This acquaintance is very concerned about the mental state of his wife, Madeline (Kim Novak).  As Elster tells it, Madeline may or may not be possessed by the spirit of a Spanish woman who, deprived of her child and love, took her own life a century earlier.  Jimmy is hired to investigate Madeline's activities, but and soon finds himself becoming over-involved and fascinated by the vulnerable blonde...

   How do you visually and non-verbally represent the state of a disturbed person's mind?  For Alfred Hitchcock, it meant swirling visuals and rapid-fire changes from normal color to color overlay.  The highly saturated look of Technicolor was perfect for these sort of effects, and Hitchcock was familiar with the process having made his first Technicolor picture, Rope (also starring Jimmy Stewart), ten years prior to filming Vertigo.
   Technicolor was formed as a company in 1915 by three engineers, two of them from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (the Tech in Technicolor), according to this excellent website.  The intent of the two founders was to devise a workable method for filming and projecting color images.  The first film from the new company was shown in 1917, but the early technology used two separate projectors and the alignment of the two to form a cohesive image proved to be too difficult for frequent use.
The Toll of the Sea:  red, green, no blue. 
   In 1923, the group finally turned a profit with The Toll of the Sea, filmed by a new process that utilized a beam-splitting prism to separate the filmed image into red and blue-green negatives.  Once developed, the negatives were aligned and run through the projector.  Over the next several years, studios would commit to filming partial segments of certain films using the Technicolor process, but held off using the method for complete movies.  In 1926, Douglas Fairbanks commissioned the process for The Black Pirate.  The film was a success, but for Technicolor, it was another learning exercise; after successive showings, the heat of the projection lamp warped the two prints, causing a distortion in the film that caused erratic changes in projection focus.  Each print was sent back to Technicolor to be flattened, an expensive undertaking.
   The Viking, filmed in 1928, was the first full length Technicolor film with sound and using the new dye transfer technique that eliminated the need for back-to-back prints, putting all colors on one film strip, although the technology to capture only two colors was available at the time.  The new process was well-received and several new pictures were commissioned, but with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, business took a hit.  The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) was the last such two-color film.
   Over a period of the prior years, the group had not been sitting on their laurels, and in 1932 they went to Walt Disney to see if his studio would serve as guinea pig for their 3-strip process.  Flowers and Trees, a Silly Symphony musical cartoon, was the result.  In the 3-strip process, a black-and-white receiver film was coated with a film that would allow it to accept the color dyes.  Green, red and blue negatives were also created.  Through a special process involving a gelatin wash, complimentary dye colors to the green, red and blue (cyan, magenta and yellow, respectively) were printed on the black-and-white ground film.  The accuracy needed for this process was printing within 8/10,000 of an inch.  Becky Sharp (1935) was the first full-length, three-strip picture.  The last was made in 1953 after Eastman Kodak developed the technology to replace the bulky three-strip camera with a single-strip.
   In 1952, a camera had been developed that recorded images to film using standard color photography processes.  Although the bright look and high quality of Technicolor remained popular for some time, it was a time-consuming and expensive process, made even more expensive by the requirement that each Technicolor camera was rented from the company and was accompanied by a color specialist and the need for the intricate dye transfer process.  By the time Vertigo was made, use of Technicolor was in slow decline.

Links and Sources
Technicolor, Wikipedia
Most of the material summarized above came from ten pages of easily understood Technicolor history at the American Widescreen Museum website
I tend to agree with several points about the movie noted here (spoiler)