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31 December 2018

Ring in the New Year with Mae!

Mae's New Year's Eve gown
One of Mae West's most fun movies -- oh, well, they're all fun, aren't they? -- is Every Day's a Holiday, which is a period comedy set in turn-of-the-century New York. And it's really turn-of-the-century, as the film opens on New Year's Eve, 1899; a new century is about to start.

This was a momentous event that Mae,who was seven years old at the time, would have remembered, as would many of the cast and crew, including director Eddie Sutherland, and actors Edmund Lowe, Charles Winninger, Walter Catlett, and Herman Bing. Perhaps this explains the aura of authenticity and real excitement in the opening scenes. The story begins with Mae, as beautiful crook Peaches O'Day, a wildly successful con artist, selling the Brooklyn Bridge to an unsuspecting mark. Then she meets up with a handsome police detective,  Captain McCarey (Lowe), who warns her that the crooked Police Commissioner "Honest John" Quade (wonderful Lloyd Nolan) has it in for her and is looking for any excuse to arrest her. It's pretty obvious he's in love with her, but she says she could never go for a cop.

Wending her way homeward, she encounters another likely mark, Graves (Butterworth), whom she mistakes for a rich society swell -- but he turns out to be not a millionaire, as she hoped, but the butler of a millionaire, the irascible and eccentric Mr. Van Doon (Winninger). Though a straight-laced recluse, on being introduced to Peaches his whole outlook changes, and he too is ready for a night on the town. After a brief stop to burgle a department store, they all go out together to celebrate the new century.

They end up at Rector's, one of the most famous of New York's historic restaurants. The set is spectacular, with multi-level dining areas, mirrored walls, and glittering chandeliers. Rector's was a true marvel among restaurants, at once glamorous, since it was patronized by the stars of both the legitimate and the vaudeville stage, fashionable, as the haunt of the wealthy upper-crust, and also elite, a home for true gourmet fare.
Lillian Russell
Mae West knew this personally, as on one memorable occasion her parents, Jack and Tilly, took her there to dine, and they saw the stupendous beauty Lillian Russell (a great stage star, singer, and suffragette) and her beau Diamond Jim Brady, something Mae never forgot.

The multi-level dining room became famous for its luxury and beauty, with green silk wallcoverings and hangings, marble staircase, pristine white damask linens, and unique monogrammed dishes, glassware, and tableware.

A menu from Rector's

The menu gives an idea of the lavishness the New Year's celebration must have offered.

Mr Rector, the proprietor, is played by his son, George Rector. Upper-crust New Yorkers pack the place, dressed to the nines, but no one can equal Mae, in a gorgeous sequined Schiaparelli gown. Everyone has a whale of a time.Van Doon introduces her as his niece, who has been away at finishing school in France.
"When did you get back, dear?" a society lady inquires.
"I just finished," Peaches replies sweetly.

Peaches meets an old friend, Nifty (Walter Catlett) a theatrical producer who has the perfect show for her -- but the heat is on, and the Police Commissioner would certainly not allow Peaches to star in a show without trying to arrest her. But Nifty, Peaches has an idea. He knows just how she can be a major star and not get caught. She'll be somebody else! Peaches approves of this plan; "With one more brain, you'd be a genius," she tells him approvingly.

Edmund Lowe as Capt, McCarey, Mae West as Peaches

In furtherance of this plan, she even pretends to take a ship for Boston, leaving New York -- and Captain McCarey -- for good.
A few months later, a fabulous new musical comedy star arrives in town -- from France. It's Mademoiselle Fifi, "ze dark-haired woman of mystery." This is a cheerful and sly parody of various popular French chanteuses, particularly Irene Bordoni, who had made a hit in sophisticated New York with heavily accented but naughty songs like "Don't Look at Me That Way," written for her by Cole Porter. Fifi's wardrobe also seems to reference the elaborate costumes of turn-of-the-century Ziegfeld star (and spouse) Anna Held, who was not actually French but everyone thought she was.

Anna Held. Some hat!

Whatever Mae's actual fluency (I can only point out that she was fluent enough to sing an aria from the opera Samson et Delilah in French in her film Goin' to Town), Peaches' French accent is good enough to fool the New York audience of 1900.

I am particularly fond of the hilarious show-within-a-show that introduces Mademoiselle Fifi, which is a wonderful combination of Mae's shrewd self promotion and parody of the show business shorthand of ethnic cliche.

Irene Bordoni

The show opens with a scene of Paris, complete with Eiffel Tower, Moulin Rouge, gendarmes, flower sellers, top-hatted boulevardiers, and, of course, artists wearing berets, pointed mustachios, and smocks. Each group proclaims devotion to the beautiful Fifi, building up her entrance with a song that begins with the artists:

"We paint ze picture, We paint Fifi
We paint ze eyes, We paint ze hair,
We paint her here, We paint her there
And everywhere we paint Fifi!"

Then they are all overcome with Gallic enthusiasm as Fifi's carriage, pulled by two white ponies, approaches, and they all sing:

"She comes! She comes! Oh la la la la la!
Fifi! Tres jolie! Speak to me, Fifi!"

Mademoiselle Fifi
And the dark-haired, French woman of mystery steps down from her carriage, wearing a cloak of black lace, sequins, and feathers that stupendously turns into an enormous curtain backdrop for her "little French song.

This whole scene is at once spectacular and endlessly funny, a very affectionate burlesque of the many wildly overproduced shows that were so popular around the turn of the century. Mae must have seen many of them, enjoying the extravagance while seeing the humorous side. 

Capt. McCarey, who is in the audience, guesses who she is but has no intention of giving her away. Naturally, Mlle. Fifi becomes the toast of New York, and the Police Commissioner becomes enamored of her. In fact, he threatens to close the show if she doesn't look on more favorably. Peaches, not one to let an opening slip by, visits him in his office -- with an entourage including two wolfhounds, who she hands over to an assistant saying grandly, "Take the babies out for some air -- have some yourself." There follows another hilarious scene between Fifi and the Commissioner (Lloyd Nolan is priceless here) whom she whips into shape with a display of exotic French temperament, while behind his back she neatly lifts the criminal file on Peaches O'Day, so he can't lay a finger on her in any persona

Fifi: "I'm so temperamental I even annoy myself!"
Mae was so talented, so creative, and such an original, that I don't think she gets her due as an actress, in this case, as a comedienne. The way she plays the scene with Nolan, also no slouch in the acting department, is just as good as any top comic scene from any high-end screwball comedy of the 1930's. She juggles Peaches secret motive, her wish to distract and confuse Quade, and a tendency to get carried away in her portrayal of the exotic Fifi with perfect timing.

A word should also be said about Edmund Lowe, one of her best leading men. For one thing, he looks absolutely perfect in the role of a police detective of 1899. And he views the Peaches/Fifi character with a sort of humorous affection that is very charming.

Louis Armstrong sings, dances, and plays
The plot ends up with Peaches and her cronies, including the wealthy Mr. Van Doon, supporting McCarey as a reform candidate for mayor, opposing the forces of the crooked "Honest John" Quade.

Peaches calls out all her show business friends for a political rally, ending up with a big parade and, finally, a performance by guest star Louis Armstrong. Armstrong loved parades, and dances and plays up a storm -- accompanied by Mae on drums. In fact, I believe he had quite a hit record with the song written for  him, "Jubilee." It was originally planned that Armstrong have a speaking role, but he later explained that he knew Mae so well (mainly from the Cotton Club) that he kept calling her "Mae" instead of Peaches that they decided to dispense with the lines.

A ladylike little drum kit

This movie starts and ends with a celebration; maybe that's one reason it's so thoroughly jolly. It's a flat out comedy, and when you think about it, there's nothing particularly risque about it. Sure, Peaches depends on her beauty and sex appeal, but nothing actually happens, even with eventual boyfriend McCarey. I suppose this could be disconcerting to those who only think of Mae West as a sex goddess; but she was so much more than that. In this movie she shows an expert hand both as screenwriter and star, and the result is happy, good-humored fun -- with lots of feathers, lace, and sequins!

New Year's Eve, 1899, was a big event all around the world. Here are some other souvenirs:

Piccadilly Circus, London, 12/31/1899

12/31/1899, Vienna, Austria

A New Year's Card, 1899

16 December 2018

Elizabeth Patterson: Quiet but Enduring Triumph

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Elizabeth Patterson in about 1914

Elizabeth Patterson's role in the unconventional holiday classic, Remember the Night, is a prime example of the way her intelligence and delicacy of touch added to the whole film. She is the loving spinster Aunt Emma who has helped raise her nephew (Fred MacMurray) along with his widowed mother, her sister. When he unexpectedly brings home a young woman, Lee (Barbara Stanwyck), who is from a far different, and much more difficult, background for Christmas, the family welcomes her kindly. In a key scene, Aunt Emma unpacks a beautiful turn of the century gown for Lee to wear for a New Years party. It is clear that the gown is Aunt Emma's, and that at one time she had every expectation of being a bride -- not a spinster aunt. She conveys this with a light touch, and real emotion, but without a hint of self pity. That is acting.

Elizabeth Patterson in about 1938
Everyone who knows classic films has seen Elizabeth Patterson. In the movies, she was a little lady with a long, expressive face, gray hair usually worn in a bun, and a voice equally useful for acerbic asides or nostalgic reminiscences, narrow-minded condemnation or wisecracks.She was featured in such classics as A Bill of Divorcement. The Story of Temple Drake, So Red the Rose, Small Town Girl, High Wide and Handsome, Sing You Sinners, Tobacco Road, and literally scores more. She was the middle-aged secretary in Dinner at Eight whose confrontation with Marie Dressler doesn't go so well, for example, and the spinster aunt who contributes a hilarious imitation of Mae West's walk in Go West Young Man.

Patterson's hilarious take on Mae West's walk in Go West Young Man

Elizabeth Patterson was in fact a remarkable person, probably one of the most successful actresses ever in her particular corner of the profession. Her career spanned more than sixty years of continuous work, something practically any actor who ever lived would envy.

Born in 1875 to an upper-middle-class family in Savannah, Tennessee, she came into a small inheritance in her early twenties and used it to travel to Europe. In Paris she saw the Comedie Francaise; in London, she was able to witness the legendary productions of Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre featuring the great Ellen Terry. Patterson made up her mind that that was what she wanted to do, despite the objections of her family. And she did it.

She joined a well-known repertory company in Chicago, and from then on never looked back. She gained invaluable experience, touring the country with professional theater companies, playing everything from Shakespeare to children's fairytales.

In 1914, she joined the famous Washington Square Players, an extremely prestigious New York company that premiered new works by George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O'Neill. All the while, she caught the attention of critics and was frequently singled out for praise, in comedy, drama, classics, and iconoclastic modern works. There were not a few occasions where she was considered the only good thing in the show.

Through the decades. she mastered every new medium that came along. She made her first silent film in 1926, and her first talkie in 1929. She worked in radio, and by the 1950's moved successfully into television. In fact, probably more people saw her work on the I Love Lucy show, as Lucy's neighbor Mrs. Trumbull, than saw her films and stage work put together.

Known to her friends as "Patty," like many actors who had lived life on tour (which had been the lot of players for centuries), Patterson found an unexpectedly comfortable home in Hollywood where she could work as much as she wanted with no need to travel between jobs. In fact, she lived in the extremely classy Roosevelt Hotel, which was ultra-modern at the time, having been built in 1927. In those days it was not uncommon to actually choose a hotel as a permanent residence, which provided not just a place to sleep but room service, maid, cleaning, and any other concierge services one could wish; all-in-all, not a bad way of life! She never married, but remained close to her family, which included a brother and sister and numerous nieces and nephews. She was able to live independently until shortly before her death at the age of 90.

Elizabeth Patterson lived a life of determination, creativity, and achievement, almost the ideal life for and actor who loved to act. Her career is, in its own non-flashy way, inspiring.