Monday, March 31, 2008

Cockeyed, maybe. Optimist? not so much.

So, Ben Brantley loves the new LUPONE GYPSY production. Somewhere between finishing the Encores! run and starting the Broadway one, he reports, Patti started playing the character, instead of just playing herself playing the character. I'm inclined to believe him, since his memory of her Encores! performance squares with mine: at that time, he writes, "...this powerhouse actress gave a diffuse, narcissistic performance that seemed to be watching itself in a mirror." Now, he says, things have changed: "If in the Encores! version of “Gypsy,” Ms. LuPone seemed to be trying on and discarding different aspects of Rose as if they were party hats, she has now settled on a single, highly disciplined interpretation that combines explosively contradictory elements into a single, deceptively ordinary-looking package."

That sounds very tempting, I must admit. It almost makes me want to run out and buy tickets. Almost, but not quite. Because I ran out to buy tickets for that diffuse, narcissistic performance last summer, and left feeling a bit cheated. And now I'm afraid I'm suffering from Gypsy fatigue. It was, after all, not even five years ago that I saw the last Broadway revival of Gypsy, the one that starred Bernadette Peters, and that was enough to keep me satisfied for a long while. Ben Brantley loved that production too, by the way, but (surprise!) his review focused squarely and solely on the leading lady, even more than his review of the current production does. I love Bernadette more than most, but she wasn't the only thing Sam Mendes's production had going for it. Brantley barely noticed Tammy Blanchard, who played Louise, while I couldn't take my eyes off her -- her performance was so honest and naked and thoroughly realized. (At least, it was by the time I saw the show, more than six months later.) She broke my heart every time she was onstage. Laura Benanti's Louise, in the Encores! production, was disappointing by comparison. Maybe all this rehearsal time has made the difference for her too, but I'm not in a hurry to find out. To me, the decision to put this production on Broadway felt, and still feels, like it was made by Momma Rose herself in a "Coming Up Roses" moment. Unnecessary? Unlikely to make money? Ha! Finished?! We're just beginning... And nothin's gonna stop us till we're through!

Speaking of things Broadway doesn't need: are you rushing to get your seats for the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific? Yeah, neither am I. A couple years ago I caught an airing of the recent Carnegie Hall concert version -- the one that starred Brian Stokes Mitchell and Reba McIntyre -- on PBS. It probably goes without saying that they were in the middle of a membership drive at the time, and they broke in at one point to interview Stokes himself, visiting the studio to show his support for public television. The well-meaning but clueless anchor gushed about what a great show South Pacific is and asked if this production might end up on Broadway, since the show was so obviously ripe for revival. Watching at home, I said, "God, no!" But Stokes was more diplomatic, answering carefully, gently, that South Pacific is just a little bit, er, dated, and that in this case the concert format is perhaps the best venue. Amen, brother. But Bartlett Sher isn't afraid to referee the contest between book and score (which will win?!), and Lincoln Center isn't afraid of the money it will bring in by presenting the "first-ever Broadway revival" of the neglected-for-a-reason South Pacific. So we'll have a couple contenders for the "Least Necessary Revival of a Musical" category this year.

I guess I'm going through a cynical phase -- I'm having trouble working up excitement about much on Broadway at the moment. But you know what I am excited about? Next season's revival of Godspell! Necessary? Perhaps not. Potentially disastrous? Absolutely. And maybe, by the time it rolls around, I'll be cringing. But for now my hopes are high, not least because the extremely appealing Gavin Creel has signed on to play Jesus. Who wouldn't follow him?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Lipstick Jungle recap: episode 7

Did your celebration of Holy Thursday/Purim keep you from watching the season finale of Lipstick Jungle? My recap will tell you what you missed.
Nico invited Victory to the basketball-watching party, but not Wendy, because they're so totally not even talking, you guys. Victory seems to be trying to bring them back together, but I'm having a hard time listening to what she's saying because I'm so distracted by her...well, I guess you could call it a "blouse." But it seems like she has it on backward, because you can see way too much of her chest. I'm not talking cleavage here; I'm talking broad swaths of skin and bone. Like she's about to be prepped for an echocardiogram. It's about as far from "flattering" as you can possibly get.
Was Victory's ugly top the worst thing about this episode, or just the most memorable? Read the rest and see for yourself.

*Update: TWoP seems to have misplaced the full-length recap of episode 7! I let them know, but I can't promise they'll fix it.

Minor irritations

To amuse you on this Easter Tuesday (Alleluia, by the way!), a litany of small complaints.

I went to my least favorite grocery store, Gristede's, this morning, which is a whole list of complaints right there. It's the closest supermarket to my apartment, but also the worst -- but I had to pass it on my way home from the post office, and I only needed a couple things, so I figured I'd suck it up. I needed to buy some ingredients for tonight's supper: fresh basil, which was not available from Fresh Direct, and rosemary, which I ordered from Fresh Direct but did not receive. They sent me oregano instead. So that's another complaint. Fresh Direct does have a very responsive customer service department, and they refunded my money as soon as I notified them (although the refund came in the form of a store credit, which is a bit sneaky). So now I have free oregano. But still no rosemary.

So anyway, I went to Gristede's, and I bought a few other things while I was there -- too many to fit into the bag I'd brought with me. The husband and I are trying our best not to bring more plastic bags into this apartment (and to use the ones we already have as trash-can liners), but I figured one more wouldn't hurt. But I got two more, because they always double-bag at Gristede's, even though the distinctive yellow bags have this printed right on them:
    New Stronger Bag
    No Need To Double
Either the Gristede's employees have not been informed of the magical properties of the new bags, or they have learned from experience that this statement is a lie. Or maybe it's all an absurdist joke, like "This is not a pipe." "No need to double," and yet we double. Doesn't it make you think?

When I got home I was confronted with another minor irritation: our mail carrier keeps putting mail intended for me, addressed to my maiden name, into a neighbor's letterbox, because said neighbor happens to have the same last name as I once did (and still do, as far as my credit card and insurance companies are aware). This Mr. Wilson does not live in the same apartment as I do, so you would think the fact that my apartment number is clearly indicated below my name would clear up any confusion. But it seems our mail carrier doesn't like to read past the first line of the address. So Mr. Wilson, whom I have not met, has to set aside the letters for me and leave them on the table in the lobby. I am grateful to him for doing so, but annoyed that, instead of waiting for me in our locked letterbox, my mail sits out in front of the elevators for all to see. Today it was a hospital bill. I am also worried that Mr. Wilson might be getting sick of this, and I'd hate for him to develop a grudge against us without even knowing who we are (presumably he is not too lazy to read past my name, and therefore he knows where we live). An angry face for you, mail carrier.

Finally, while I'm on a roll, I would like to complain about the many small, yappy dogs who reside in this and neighboring buildings. How do people live with that? How can you stand to have just one yappy dog, let alone several, in your small living space? But they are very popular in these parts, and when they meet in the hallway, or coming in or out of the building, or on the sidewalk, they let the world know how little they think of each other. And every night around 8:30, right outside our window, there is an explosion of yipping and yapping when two (or more?) dog-walkers meet on the street with their herds of tiny, angry dogs. Every single night. You would think someone might move their dog-walking up half an hour, or take a different route, but perhaps this little rumble is the highlight of their day. It does make me laugh to think that the street gangs of Hell's Kitchen have been replaced by gangs of small, rat-sized dogs wearing sweaters. But mostly I wish they'd just go away.

I'm sure I could think of more petty things to get upset about, but I'll stop now and continue my attempt to be productive. I will leave you with one petty thing that I am proud of: I'm a "Comment of the Week" runner-up at The Comics Curmudgeon! As always, I'd like to thank Gil Thorp.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Prepare ye

When I was a kid, my favorite way to observe the long afternoons of Holy Week was to watch Jesus movies on TV. You could usually find something biblical on some channel, especially on Friday and Saturday -- King of Kings, Jesus of Nazareth, The Greatest Story Ever Told and so on. I didn't really care (or maybe even notice) which one I was watching. I couldn't have cared much, because when I've tried to reactivate this devotional practice as an adult, I've discovered that they're all terrible. Now, I haven't seen The Passion of the Christ, so I should make it clear that I'm not including that movie in this discussion. But based on what I have seen -- the films named above, and anything else that happened to be on television on Holy Saturday afternoon -- it is nearly impossible to make a serious film about the life of Christ that doesn't end up looking ridiculous. The stilted dialogue. The pseudo-British accents. The stunt casting. I tried to watch The Greatest Story Ever Told a few months back and found myself giggling more than I do watching Life of Brian. Jesus movies have their uses, I suppose -- we watched pieces of Jesus of Nazareth in my eighth-grade religion class, and details from it still enrich my visualization of certain Gospel stories. But I don't want Franco Zeffirelli's vision to overtake my own. And when I'm listening to the stirring cry of John the Baptist during Advent, the last thing I need is the voice of Charlton Heston ringing in my ears.

Therefore I am pleased to announce that this Sunday afternoon, my favorite channel, Turner Classic Movies, will mark the Easter holiday by airing my favorite Jesus movie:
    3:00 PM Godspell (1973)
    Contemporary hippies relive the story of Christ's ministry and crucifixion. Cast: Victor Garber, David Haskell, Lynne Thigpen. Dir: David Greene. C-102 mins, TV-G
As ridiculous as this may sound, Godspell -- which, yes, is a 1970s rock musical based on the Gospel of Matthew -- is the only Jesus movie that doesn’t make me snicker. And I think that’s because it’s the only one that seems to be interested in the message of Jesus’s life and ministry, rather than just the events. If musical theatre leaves you cold, Godspell probably won’t change that -- if the idea of telling any story through popular music strikes you as foolish, then Godspell must seem particularly ridiculous. But even if the style is not your cup of tea, this movie will still give you a better understanding of what Christianity is about than any other Jesus movie I’ve seen.If you are a musical theatre fan, you probably already know Godspell, though you might feel a little sheepish admitting you like it. I don’t see why you should. It’s appealingly conceptual, and the music is good. The lyrics are good, too, because Stephen Schwartz had the good sense to borrow almost all of them either directly from Scripture or from public-domain hymns. (Did you know that? I didn’t, until one Lenten Sunday when I was in college. I attended mass at an old-fashioned nearby parish and was taken completely by surprise when the cantor announced the recessional hymn: “Turn Back, O Man.” Same words, different tune. Talk about a disorienting experience.) Had the lyrics come entirely from Schwartz’s pen, the results might have been less moving -- I refer you to the regrettable couplet “We all need help to feel fine/Let’s have some wine!” for an example of what might have been. But when it came to plundering old hymnals he had very good taste indeed, and as I’ve come across more of those songs in their traditional settings, I’ve become more and more impressed with the lovely job Schwartz did putting that old wine into the new wineskins of 1970s pop. "All Good Gifts" is especially successful, I think, and I've actually heard it at mass once or twice -- with Schwartz's music.

Much of Godspell’s success lies in its refusal to take itself too seriously. I think it manages to be lighthearted without being lightweight. And because of that, the “contemporary hippie” atmosphere doesn’t obscure the message; it’s actually much easier for me to accept Jesus with an afro, facepaint and a Superman T-shirt than to look past the stilted posturing and sound-stagy settings of “realistic” Bible movies.

The movie version of Godspell has a couple major virtues besides its stage-musical source material: first, it was shot on location in New York City, and the use of locations is inventive and evocative – sometimes more than they could have known at the time, as when Jesus and John the Baptist tap-dance atop the brand-new World Trade Center. I know I can’t look at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Riverside Drive without thinking of the parable of the Last Judgment. The movie is an opportunity to see New York, and life in New York, in an entirely different light.

Second, I can't say enough about Victor Garber's terrific performance as Jesus. All those other, more “historical” movie Jesuses are solemn and humorless. They look at you with sad (and almost always blue) eyes. They intone everything they say. Their hair is limp and drab. They seem like they might drop dead of malnourishment at any moment. Victor Garber’s Jesus is an entirely different sort of messiah: he has a soft, gentle voice. He’s always smiling. He seems to delight in telling stories, sharing the good news, being with his friends. He gets angry. He does silly dances. We never see him performing any literal miracles, but to me he is a much richer embodiment of what it means to be holy than any of the Jesuses in those other movies.

Of course, I can’t discuss Godspell without also discussing Jesus Christ Superstar, which I’d just as soon ignore completely. They’re both “rock musicals” about Jesus, and they both premiered around the same time, with film versions released in 1973. But (and I don’t mean this to be a joke) the similarities end there. Superstar is nominally about Jesus, but it isn’t the least bit interested in his mission, and it has a very cursory grasp on the events of his life and their meaning. The musical exemplifies all the pitfalls that Godspell avoids: the absurdity of “rock opera” in general and of Bible-based “rock opera” in particular; the ridiculous lyrics of Tim Rice; self-importance to the extreme. The movie, with its budget desert production values and “traditional” Bible-movie look, combines the worst of both worlds. Oh, there’s some fun music in the mess -- I can’t deny loving that opening guitar figure, and I have an embarrassing fondness for the song “Could We Start Again, Please?” But none of it has anything to do with Christianity, and I’m always a little embarrassed that people might think otherwise. I’m also insulted on Godspell’s behalf that these two are always mentioned in the same breath, because Godspell ends up getting some of the scorn that ought to be reserved for Superstar. Take the recent Broadway show Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, for example. Short got his big break in a touring company of Godspell, and that story is told, elliptically, in the show. But the musical number “Stepbrother de Jesus” is really making fun of Jesus Christ Superstar. Because Jesus Christ Superstar is ridiculous –- but when you look closely, Godspell really isn’t.

So this is just a heads-up for those of you who’ve never had the pleasure: TCM on Sunday at 3, right between Easter Parade and King of Kings. So you can do your own compare-and-contrast exercise! I’m about to get my Triduum on, so this is probably the last you’ll hear from me till next week. However you spend Easter -- or, if you prefer, Joan Crawford’s 100th birthday -- I hope it’s a happy one.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Lipstick Jungle recap: episode 6

Head on over to award-winning "entertainment blog" TWoP for this week's recap!
"All right, Mother Superior, you made your point," Nico grumbles. "Thank God you're not a mother," Wendy retorts. "What kind of values would those poor kids be growing up with?" Nico looks stung. Wendy is sorry she said it. We linger for a very long time on Nico, who is hurt, and Wendy, who is regretful, just to make sure you get it. That remark was very, very hurtful. We dwell on this for so long that I have to assume there's some reason, not yet revealed, that this was a particularly awful thing to say: Nico has struggled with infertility; Nico is the actual biological mother of Wendy's children; Nico had seven children who all died in a bus crash...something like that. But maybe not. Maybe this is just another of this episode's many instances of screwy editing/time-filling manipulation of footage. That's the fun of watching a new show whose original production schedule was mangled by a lengthy strike! You never know what you're going to get!
Foreshadowing or simple incompetence? You make the call.

Monday, March 17, 2008

He is the walrus.

No time for a real post today, but trust me -- this video is more entertaining than anything I could have come up with.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Pandoradipity in action

You might have noticed people who make their way to Restricted View are not always happy to find me discussing their work. (For example, a recent commenter felt that my recaps for Television Without Pity are lacking in, er, pity.) But not everyone objects! A month ago I told you all about my deep love for Pandora, the internet personalized radio thingie, and about how Pandora occasionally seems to know not only what kind of music I want to listen to, but also what I'm doing while I listen. Well, not long after that I got a very nice email from Danny Scherr, whose song "Fade Me In" took me by surprise as I was editing my honeymoon pictures. My mention of the song, and the weird concidence, took him by surprise -- and as he poked around here he discovered that we have some other things in common as well (one example: we danced to the same "first dance" song at our respective weddings!). The internet, she is a woundrous thing.

Danny very generously sent me a copy of his album Richmond Special, so I can enjoy his "basic rock song structures," "subtle use of vocal harmony," "mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation" and other pleasing qualities whenever I like. Lately it's been keeping me company while I cook. Pandora was right: I do like it! And I think "Fade Me In" is my favorite track. So thank you, Danny! And thank you to Pandora, and the internet in general, for keeping life interesting.

Speaking of Pandoradipity, I submit that the opposite of Pandoradipity is when you turn on the radio (or walk into a store where a radio station is playing) in the middle of a song, and then the DJ comes on to tell you what they've been playing, and it turns out you just missed a song you really love. I don't have a cute term for that, but I really hate it.

Friday, March 14, 2008

"Welcome to the 60's" what?

So, I finally saw Hairspray this week. The Broadway show, I mean, not the movie, nor the other movie. And it's entirely my own fault that it took me so long to get to the theatre to see this popular show that there are now not one but two Hairspray movies I haven't seen. Anyway, I'm not going to talk about the whole show, which you've probably seen already anyway. I just want to talk about one small part: the scene-change-accomodating reprise of "Welcome to the '60s." There I am, enjoying the show after a long day spent copyediting. The Dynamites, the show's black girl-group chorus, step forward and take turns riffing on the song's title, and one of them sings assertively: "Six! O! Apostrophe! S!"

You don't need me to explain why that made me cringe, do you? Somebody please tell me that actress was just ad-libbing. Tell me her part hasn't been written out that way, and performed that way, for the past five-plus years. Because I don't want to believe that the placement of the apostrophe is correct in the Playbill's listing of songs, but wrong in the actual lyrics. Don't MAKE me give you a lecture on the appropriate use of apostrophes, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Because I WILL.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

They said Wainscoting on the television!

Yesterday evening, while everyone else was reading all about the disgraced governor of my adopted state -- Eliot "I just met her; does that make it inappropriate for me to" Spitzer -- I was checking out this New York Times article about Hillary Clinton's Scranton-area roots. This morning, over breakfast, I checked out the Scranton Times-Tribune for local coverage of Hillary's campaign stop. It's always fun to see Scranton in the news, especially for reasons not related to The Office, and this isn't your typical "swing state is suddenly significant to politicians" story.

Is Hillary my candidate? I don't really know. I'm registered as an independent (which is a whole other conversation), so I haven't had to make a decision, and I've had less patience than usual with the foolishness that makes up 90% of political discourse. So I'm purely a spectator so far. But I will say that I have yet to see a photo of Obama or McCain sitting in a booth at Revello's with a slice of the world's best pizza in front of him. And an image like this is extremely persuasive, I must say. I'm getting hungry just looking at it. Anyway, the really big news from home is that Hillary plans to be back in Scranton for the St. Patrick's Day parade on Saturday. As the article notes, Obama has made no such promise. Perhaps he'd feel out of place wearing a "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" button -- but my husband observed that he could always try adding an apostophe to his surname for the day. O'Bama? What county are you from?

I didn't plan to take a blog-break, but there are many claims on my attention right now. My TWoP responsibilities, for one thing -- the people must have their recaps! RCIA activities in my parish are keeping me busy as we get closer and closer to Easter, and I'm trying to pay more attention to my own spiritual health as well. Much of my efforts have centered on what I'm reading, and the book I'm in the middle of now -- Faith Beyond Resentment, by James Alison -- is blowing my mind. So that's getting me excited about a bunch of other things on my to-read list. In fact, I may not resubscribe to The New Yorker, or anything else, after Easter, now that I've rediscovered the joy of reading these wonderful things called "books"! It turns out I can get along without a weekly dose of "Talk of the Town." Who knew. And then there are all the little errands that fill my days -- I just got a new cell phone, and switched plans (but not numbers) so that the husband and I can save some cash. So getting used to that will be a challenge -- I haven't even activated the new phone yet, and I can already tell that choosing the least-bad ringtone option is going to take some time. I have paperwork on my desk that I can't seem to get to: taxes, insurance claim forms, etc. I still haven't figured out what I'm going to do with my wedding dress, and I'm trying to finish up my share of the thank-you notes while people still remember our wedding. So please continue to have patience as I wrestle my life into order!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Lipstick Jungle recap: episode 5

Who else suffered through this week's episode? Relive the magic with me, won't you?
Tonight we find the girls (and Shane) at a jazz club, although the establishing shot puts them at "Sushiden Restaurant" (which, by the way, has a pretty hilarious website). It sounds like they've managed to find the only place in New York where you can still hear lite rock-jazz fusion played live. Normally -- barring time-travel -- you'd have to go to the fitting rooms of a low-end department store, or be put on hold by your doctor's office, to hear this sort of crap. Although I wouldn't have pegged Wendy and friends as smooth-jazz enthusiasts, they seem really into the music. Of course, they also seem to have been drinking since noon, so that probably explains their enthusiasm.
But how bad was Shane's music, really? Read the recap and find out!

Also, theatre fans take note: the best part of this episode was definitely Kerry Butler (now starring in Xanadu), who was hilarious as Victory's backstabbing assistant, Reese. Less exciting was Charles Busch's guest appearance, which turned out to be more of a cameo, and an oddly edited one at that. Did you see the part where his original line was completely overdubbed? I'd love to know the full story there...

Monday, March 3, 2008

Lipstick Jungle recap: episode 4

Now available: my latest recap of Lipstick Jungle. Which (I remind you) I am not watching on a volunteer basis.
At the police station, Chloe, now mostly sober, makes an ill-timed bid for a role in Parador's upcoming Jane Austen project. You know what the world doesn't need? Another Jane Austen-themed movie. But they don't seem to be going anywhere, do they? That's why, as soon as this recap is finished, I'm going to work on punching up my Northanger Abbey screenplay. (It's set in the future!)
Go read the whole thing. You know you want to.

Shearer? I just met her!

Tonight on TCM, a couple of pre-Code gems featuring my favorite movie star, the luminous Norma Shearer. She was MGM's most eminent lady in her day, but nowadays she's seldom mentioned, even by those with a fondness for old films. I think this is mainly because she retired, from films and from public life, shortly after turning 40, while contemporaries like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis stayed in front of the cameras for as long as they possibly could (albeit at an ever-greater cost to their dignity). Shearer's looks and style weren't as distinctive as Davis's, and her life story was far less colorful than Crawford's. Norma's studio-head husband, Irving Thalberg, is a more familiar personality than she to a lot of old-Hollywood buffs, and the fact that they were married is often (and rather unfairly) cited as the main reason for Norma's success as an actress. Joan Crawford famously grumbled that Norma got all the good roles because she was sleeping with the boss. It's a sharp line, motivated by resentment much more than reality, but these days it gets repeated as a casual statement of fact.

I myself only discovered Norma because of my interest in Joan. When I was studying in London, the National Film Theatre put on a lengthy Joan Crawford film festival, and I attended two screenings of movies I'd been meaning to see: Harriet Craig, the story of an obsessive housewife with some eerie foreshadowing of Joan's Mommie Dearest legacy; and The Women, a 1939 comedy based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce and featuring an all-female cast. That screening was on Easter Sunday, and I got the very last ticket -- I was providentially unable to find anyone to join me. I could go on and on about The Women (which I've seen many times since then) -- it happens to feature my very favorite Joan Crawford performance, hands down -- but the most wonderful thing about it was that it introduced me to Norma Shearer.

I can't quite put into words what I find so captivating about Norma onscreen -- her performances have an emotional depth that feels so novel for that time. I'm confounded by those who dismiss her as a silent-film starlet who never quite adjusted to the talkies. I've sought out some of her silent performances and am always deeply impressed by her ability to convey complex emotions without words. What makes her work in the talkies stand out, for me, is the way she employs that same ability, that striking physical presence, with ever-increasing subtlety. Directors who really knew how to use Norma Shearer (George Cukor chief among them) took advantage of her silent-film chops in wordless sequences that end up telling us more about her character than any wisecracking dialogue. I'm thinking of a particular scene in The Women where Mary Haines is on the phone with her (philandering) husband, who has just told her he won't be able to get away for a romantic weekend after all. She hangs up the phone, heartbroken, and returns to the luncheon she's hosting for her catty group of girlfriends in the next room. Cukor has the camera follow her all the way from the phone back to the table, and we watch her compose herself along the way, until she greets her friends with the same lighthearted gaiety she knows they expect. I always find it breathtaking. The film's many phone conversations are themselves revelations -- we never see Mary's husband, remember, and we never hear his voice. We deduce what he's saying from her responses, but even more from her expression as she listens. I also remember a scene in Private Lives where Norma stands on a hotel balcony looking out, and her face registers everything she feels about the man she's just married (in the room behind her) and the man she divorced long ago (coincidentally in the room next door). Private Lives is based on a Noel Coward play, so the emotional content is complicated and brittle, but Norma makes everything utterly plain without saying a word. I don't know whether she'd have done well onstage, in this or any play -- I would have enjoyed seeing her try! -- but I do know that, while Coward's dialogue is as witty as you expect, that long, silent stretch is my favorite part.

The reason I bring all this up is that tonight those of you with TCM have the opportunity to see the film for which Norma Shearer won her only Academy Award. From the schedule:
    8:00 PM The Divorcee (1930)

    The double standard destroys a liberal couple's marriage. Cast: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery. Dir: Robert Z. Leonard. BW-82 mins, TV-G, CC
Immediately following, a new documentary I can't wait to watch:
    9:30 PM Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood (2008)

    This documentary looks at how the social, financial and moral forces all helped shape one of the most intriguing periods in Hollywood history. BW-68 mins, TV-MA, CC
I find pre-Code movies fascinating from a social-history point of view, and The Divorcee showcases many of the era's most tantalizing features: heedless young people, defiantly gay (but not like that) in the face of Prohibition and Depression! Melodrama! Hilariously slangy dialogue! Cloche hats! Women with androgynous names and -- gasp -- slacks! Most of all, it has a healthy helping of moral ambiguity, the sort of thing the Hays Code was enacted to proscribe. In the end, The Divorcee is surprisingly conservative regarding marriage and infidelity and women's liberation, but it does engage progressive attitudes along the way, and the results are often bracing. Compare this to The Women -- produced six years later, under the watchful eye of the Hays censors -- to see what the Code was all about. The films end up in roughly the same place, but their journeys are very different. Also, as I said, Norma Shearer won an Oscar for her starring role in The Divorcee, and it is indeed a wonderful performance. A bit stagy, for sure, but that was the order of the day in 1930. Her voice is still a bit shrill -- over the years she learned to control her pitch to sound more attractive on film. But nobody had a wounded look to match Norma's, and that's the part of The Divorcee that has stayed with me.

There's more pre-Code Norma goodness on the schedule tonight/tomorrow morning, for those of you with a DVR (or lousy sleep habits):
    3:45 AM A Free Soul (1931)

    A hard-drinking lawyer's daughter falls for one of his underworld clients. Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Norma Shearer, Clark Gable. Dir: Clarence Brown. BW-94 mins, TV-G, CC
In my memory, A Free Soul feels much longer than its 94 minutes. Talkies had not yet learned to be light on their feet. But there are many delights to behold: Norma as a girlish, wisecracking flapper, flirting with dad (that's Barrymore, playing the alcoholic lawyer in a Prohibition-era film where "alcoholism" isn't named) and seducing a young (and mustacheless) Clark Gable with a scandalously revealing satin gown. This film also marks the first time that the wan Leslie Howard and the much more dashing Gable squared off as rivals for the heart of a spirited girl.

I'll probably watch The Divorcee, even though the ending always makes me angry, because I get a thrill from Norma's wild declaration of freedom. "From now on, you're the only man in the world my door will be closed to!" And I will certainly watch the documentary that follows. If you do the same, come back here tomorrow and we'll discuss our findings!