Women in Horror: Coven

 

As part of my February Women in Horror series, today I am featuring the fabulous actresses of American Horror Story.  The most famous of these are perhaps Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange.

These three ladies did not begin, nor spend their acting careers exclusively in Horror. All three had Oscar-nominated silver screen performances in a variety of genres before they came together on the bizarre cast of AHS. Yet they make the small screen sizzle in their frightful performances. The characters they have played range from carnival freaks to asylum inmates to psychopathic killers. And of course, witches!

No season of AHS showcases women as well as Season Three: Coven.

It all begins at Miss Robichaux’s Academy in New Orleans. The resident students are modern day descendants of those who escaped Salem hundreds of years before. Current coven members include the clueless Zoe (Taiessa Farmiga) who recently discovered her dark powers cause brain hemorrhages. Zoe will uncover more talents slowly and find she can operate a chain saw well.

Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) is a descendant of Tituba. Queenie, like a human voodoo doll, has an ability to inflict pain upon others while doing herself harm which she does not feel.

Nan (Jamie Brewer) is an autistic clairvoyant who will read your every thought.

Madison (Emma Roberts) is  a spoiled actress who has seen the seamier side of life.  (Madison has more rough times ahead including death and resurrection. Stay tuned.)

The girls are under the care of Ms. Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulsen)  owner and operator of the Academy. Cordelia will be given a very interesting “sight”…

At the academy, the girls are to learn the fine arts of sorcery and magick that will help them lead their coven into the future.

The only problem is, the academy is falling apart. Cordelia’s leadership is weak. She has always lived in the shadow of her estranged mother Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) who happens to be the Supreme Witch – the powerful queen who is able to perform the Seven Wonders.

To make matters worse, back in the bayou, a swamp witch named Misty Day (Lily Rabe) has been burned at the stake. Luckily for Misty, she is a necromancer and is able to revive herself from death.

Fiona, worried about the new persecution, heads back the academy to take matters in her own hands. A few field trips are in order for the trainees.

But it won’t be easy.

Dark and evil happenings have long occurred in New Orleans. Back in the 1800’s Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) became so sadistic toward her slaves and family members that voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) decided to bury her alive! Madame LaLaurie has been living in a casket for three hundred years.

The aging Fiona, obsessed by the notion of youth and eternal life, frees Madame LaLaurie from her coffin in hopes of discovering some longevity secrets. She also makes her way into the 9th ward where the ageless Marie LaVeau has operated the same beauty shop for some three hundred years.

Her secret? Marie has made a deal with voodoo god Papa Legba. And his terms didn’t come cheap. But Marie won’t be revealing her secrets to Fiona any time soon; the voodoo priestess has been engaged in a power war with the witches for centuries.

Excitement ensues as Fiona’s powers dwindle, while she realizes that one of the young prodigies is destined to be the next Supreme. But who?

Watch the series to find out!

Fiction and Truth: Madame LaLaurie

The truth behind some of the characters of Coven is as gory as the series itself. Take, for example, Madame LaLaurie.

The real Madame Delphine LaLaurie (1787 – 1849) was a Creole socialite who spent her time hobnobbing with the upper echelon of fashionable New Orleans.

Madame LaLaurie, a three time widow, apparently kept a respected place in society until April 10, 1834, when a fire broke out in the LaLaurie residence. Police and fire marshals arrived. There in the raging flames they found Madame LaLaurie’s cook, a seventy-year-old woman, chained to the stove by her ankle. The cook later said she herself had set the fire as a suicide attempt, as living under the confines of Madame LaLaurie had become intolerable and she was afraid she might be “punished” by being sent to the “upper chamber”.  Slaves taken to this chamber never came back.

Bystanders responding to the fire attempted to enter the upper chamber to ensure that everyone had been evacuated. Upon being refused the keys by Delphine, they broke down the doors.

As you may have suspected, the “upper chamber” was a real life chamber of horrors.

According to the New Orleans Bee, they found “seven slaves, horribly mutilated … suspended by the neck, with their limbs stretched and torn from one extremity to the other.”

The slaves had been imprisoned in the chamber for several months. They were “emaciated, and showed signs of having been flogged with a whip, bound in restrictive postures, and wore spiked iron collars which kept their heads in static positions.”

When the discovery of the abused slaves became widely known, the good people of New Orleans came to attack the LaLaurie residence. According to the newspaper, this angry mob “demolished and destroyed everything upon which they could lay their hands”. The sheriff intervened, but by the time the destruction was complete, “scarcely any thing remained but the walls.”

The real, restored LaLaurie Mansion can still be found on Royal Street in the French Quarter.

The real Delphine LaLaurie then reportedly high tailed it to the docks where she jumped a boat for France and was never heard from again,

In American Horror Story, Delphine does not get off so easy. Suffice it to say, she will pay for her crimes in unusual ways…

Once exhumed from her coffin, Fiona brings Delphine back to the house and decides it might be fun to make her serve as the slave of Queenie. When Marie Laveau gets involved, there is further hell to pay.

You can’t blame Marie for being angry. Among Delphine’s many crimes, perhaps the worst was when she took her houseboy Bastien – who happened to be Marie’s lover – and changed him into a real life minotaur by attaching a bull’s head to his body.

Marie Laveau

The real Marie Laveau  (1801– 1881) was a highly respected Louisiana Creole practitioner of Voodoo.  Her practice included rootwork, conjuring, Native American and African spiritualism, mystic Catholicism and what is known today as “New Orleans Voodoo.”

Marie Catherine Laveau was born as a free woman of color in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Her mother, Marguerite Henry, also a free woman of color, was of Native American, African and French descent. Her father, Charles Laveau Trudeau, was a white surveyor & politician who served on the New Orleans City Council and also as an interim mayor.

On August 4, 1819, Marie married Jacques Paris, a French immigrant who had fled the  Haitian Revolution in the former French territory Saint-Domingue.   Their marriage certificate is preserved in the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.  The wedding mass was performed by Father Antonio de Sedella. They had two daughters, Felicite in 1817 and Angele in 1820. Jacques died in 1820.

Marie then entered a domestic partnership with Christophe Dominick Duminy de Glapion, (a white man of French descent) with whom she lived until his death in 1855. They had 7 children according to birth and baptismal records. Apparently, two of her daughters were also named Marie — and had striking resemblances to their mother. The daughters also practiced voodoo, and may have been confused with their mother. This lead to the belief that Marie could be “in two places at one time” and also had abnormal longevity — as her daughters were seen about town after her death and may have been confused with Marie Sr.

Or were they? Many superstitions are still associated with Marie’s grave. Some folk believe she still walks the earth, and have been known to petition her for favors.

Marie is, of course, most famous for her magick.  Rumors state she had a pet snake, Zombi, named after an African god. She was also a devout Catholic. Her practice mixed invocations of  Roman Catholic saints with African spirits. She was known to cure mysterious ailments. She could exact revenge when justice was needed.

The real Marie Laveau did indeed own a beauty parlor.  She was a hair-dresser for wealthy New Orleans women.  It is said she had a network of informants she developed through her beauty shop connections. She appeared to excel at “obtaining inside information” on her wealthy patrons. (She was, after all, a politician’s daughter!)

The Marie of American Horror Story is just as slick politically. However, due to her bargain with Papa Legba she will bear no children of her own (although she may have to kidnap a few from the local hospital to keep Legba happy.)

With this much historical and horrific material, you can imagine the gore that peppers this series. If you have not yet seen it, I suggest you do so immediately! Cook up a pot of jambalaya, watch by candlelight and be transported. Appreciating the performances of these amazing women is a great way to celebrate Women in Horror Month.

 

 

 

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Time Traveler’s Day!

 

The lure and lore of time travel has long fascinated many people. From Marty McFly’s Back to the Future escapades, to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, the idea never ceases to intrigue. Who wouldn’t want the chance to fix our mistakes, change history, see the future or just explore some period we find interesting? On this day, December 8, we celebrate all that and more!

This holiday, invented in 2007 by an online group known as Koala Wallop, is technically called ‘Pretend to be a Time Traveler Day’.  Because it is all pretend and make-believe, right?

Is time travel really possible? If so, how would it happen? Would we need a machine, as suggested by H.G. Wells? Could we travel through rock formations like Claire Frazier? Jump across the Brooklyn Bridge like Kate and Leopold?  Or would hypnosis work, like Christopher Reeve in Somewhere in Time? 

According to Wiki: “Time travel to the past is theoretically possible in certain general relativity spacetime geometries that permit traveling faster than the speed of light, such as cosmic strings, transversable wormholes, and Alcubierre drive. The theory of general relativity does suggest a scientific basis for the possibility of backward time travel in certain unusual scenarios.”

Quantum physicists are making new discoveries every day. They have mathematically calculated the existence of eleven different dimensions, all of them involving the placement, misplacement, and elasticity of time.

There have been several weird incidents that suggest time travel has occurred. Fasten your seat belt and keep an open mind! Then decide for yourself what’s fact and what’s fiction…

1. The Time Traveling Hipster

This photo, taken in the 1941, seems normal enough upon first glance. But look closer. The young man in the center is dressed in modern clothes and definitely looks out of place.  Did he pop in from another era?

To be fair, some historians have debunked this, claiming that the sunglasses were indeed in style in the 1940’s, as was the single letter sweater. The camera he is holding would have been available also. But I still say the guy looks too hip for the scene he is in!

2. Mike Tyson’s Boxing Match

The year was 1995. The smart phone obviously had not yet been invented And yet! Caught on tape, there is a man recording the match, seemingly on a smart phone.  Take a look at this video. The device does look like a smart phone. A comparison is shown to other recording devices available at the time, and none of them match what is being used.  What do you think?

 

3. The Charlie Chaplin Time Traveler

In 1928, Charlie Chaplin made a silent film called The Circus. He used several extras/ unknowns as pedestrians. Watch closely in this one scene, where a woman appears to be talking on a cell phone! The video repeats and zooms in so you’ll get a closer look. You’ll see that she even pauses and hesitates, clearly talking into the device.  If this woman is a time traveler, she was smart to get herself in a Chaplin film. Maybe she knew he would become an acclaimed star and millions would see this footage.

 

4. The Massena Company Woman

Speaking of cell phones, this footage was taken in 1938, at the Massena Aluminum Company in New York. A woman appears to be chatting on — yes, a cell phone! Her companions take it in stride. Could the whole group be time travelers? (Imagine how strange a cell phone would have looked in 1938. Remember the old days when if you heard someone walking down the street chattering you thought they were mentally ill?)

 

** I should note that hand-held walkie-talkies were being developed in around 1937, but they did not look like this. They were far clumsier! Plus, civilians did not have access to them, as they were used mainly for the military.  (And you thought cell phones of the 1990s were cumbersome? 🙂 )

5. The Teleportation Angel

This is perhaps the strangest one of all. Could a time traveler come in as an angel and perform a heroic act?  The following footage was caught on a surveillance camera in China. Watch closely, about 15 seconds into the film. The biker nearly gets hit by the truck, but a mysterious hooded figure saves him. The frantic driver gets out of the truck to investigate, and they are both gone! (Yes, it could be fake, but this looks very realistic.) Decide for yourself 🙂

 

5. Andrew Basiago and the Gettysburg Address

Andrew Basiago is an American lawyer.  From his videos he appears to be a normal guy, reasonably intelligent, and not a complete crackpot.

Basiago claims that between 1962 and 1972, the U.S. government (specifically the CIA and DARPA) ran a top secret operation called ‘Project Pegasus’. This program led to the  development of many highly advanced technologies — stuff like teleportation, contact with extra-terrestrials, and yes — time travel.

According to Basiago, when he was a child, he was selected from a “psychically gifted group”  to become a time traveling liaison. He was sent to meet historical and future dignitaries, as well as various extra-terrestrial entities. He says he was sent to meet Abraham Lincoln at the Gettysburg Address. There is a picture to prove it.

This photo is from The Library of Congress, taken at the Gettysburg Address, 1863.  Basiago says he is the child in the picture.  He also says he had stepped into a “plasma confinement chamber in 1972 New Jersey, and hopped back to 1863 Gettysburg.” Somewhere along the way, he lost his shoes. He was given a new pair, obviously too big.

Far fetched? Maybe so. But keep in mind this operation is allegedly created by the CIA — they are known for their astoundingly unethical and secretive operations.

In this video, Basiago explains more. (Running time is about 1 hour 30 minutes.) Could he be telling the truth?

 

Whether you are a believer or not, have a fantastic Time Traveler’s Day! Just remember, Kate met Leopold through time travel. And all she had to do was challenge her own cynicism, accept his strange mannerisms, be open to possibilities, then leap over the Brooklyn Bridge — according to mathematical calculations that designated a break in the fabric of the time-space continuum…

May all your other-worldly dreams come true 🙂

 

 

 

A Halloween Treat: Witchcraft Through the Ages

 

Happy Halloween to all you beautiful ghouls, goblins, horror fans, heretics and lovers of the macabre! Today for your viewing entertainment I have a special surprise!

Long before ‘The Witch’ and  ‘The Blair Witch Project’ terrified movie goers, there was this 1922 silent movie gem, called Haxan ( German for ‘The Witch’.)

IMDb describes it as : “Part history lesson followed by re-enactments with actors, this film takes depicts the history of witchcraft from its earliest days through to the present day (in this case,1922 or thereabouts). The result is a documentary-like film that must be among the first to use re-enactments as a visual and narrative tool. From pagan worship to satanic rites to hysteria, the film takes you on a journey through the ages with highly effective visual sequences.”

It is a thoroughly entertaining and interesting film. Luckily I found a beautifully restored version on youtube. Hope you enjoy it!  Running time is approximately 1 hour, 45 minutes. Have a delightful Halloween!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Witchy Wednesday: The Owens Sisters

 

The women of the Owens family are under a curse. A terrible, inescapable curse of the worst possible kind. It goes as follows: Any man who falls in love with one of them will, through some unexpected accident or unforeseen circumstance, end up dead.

The curse began some 300 years ago in colonial Massachusetts when ancestor Maria Owens was condemned to death for witchcraft. She was put to the hangman’s noose but escaped through magic. Maria was then banished to a small island off the coast. She was pregnant,  and although her lover had promised to come for her, he never showed up. Maria vowed to never again deal with the messy heartbreak of love. That vow, it its weird twisted way, turned into a curse against all men who dared love an Owens woman.

Now, sisters Sally and Gillian had better watch out!  Of course, as luck would have it, both of them are going to fall in love. More than once.

Practical Magic, adapted from Alice Hoffman’s 1995 novel of the same name, is one of my favorite witch movies!  It stars Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as the two sisters, who are orphaned after their parents die of curses and broken hearts. The girls are sent to live with their Aunts in the sleepy Massachusetts town where prejudice against witches still runs rampant.

Stockard Channing and Diane Weist are their wild and wacky aunts who eat chocolate cake for breakfast, cast love spells for the neighbors and dance naked in the moonlight.

As Sally and Gillian come of age in their Aunts’ glorious seaside mansion, they start to realize the true nature of their powers. Neither girl cares to practice magic.

Subdued, bookish Sally (Sandra Bullock) is the more gifted of the two, though she rarely casts a spell.  Wild child Gillian (Nicole Kidman) cares more for boys than witchery, and even runs away from her Aunts’ home to increase her opportunities with men.

The sisters are separated for a time, but, connected by blood and a psychic bond, they are never far apart.  Gillian gets involved with an abusive man named Jimmy Angelov.

One night, Sally gets a premonition that Gillian is in real trouble and immediately flies across the country to rescue her. She finds Gillian held hostage, but the forceful  Jimmy kidnaps both sisters.  An accidental overdose of belladonna, administered by Sally, sends Jimmy Angelov to sleep with the angels. Or in his case, the demons…   The sisters then find themselves in a tight spot; they are inadvertent murderers.

What to do?

Rather than let Jimmy stay dead, they decide to try their hand at necromancy.  The Aunts warn against it, believing he may come back as something “dark and unnatural”.  Gillian assures them that he always WAS something  “dark and unnatural”.  What have they got to lose?  But will the spell work?

To make matters worse, when Jimmy is reported as a missing person, detective Gary Hallet (played by Aidan Quinn) comes investigating.

The detective may have a hard time arresting Sally when he realizes he is falling in love with her.

Practical Magic, released in 1998, is a fun, sometimes spooky, romantic comedy.  The movie recently made news headlines when co stars Bullock and Kidman showed up as presenters at this year’s Academy Awards. As the women reunited, Practical Magic fans conjured up the notion of them doing a sequel to the movie.

Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock Oscars 2018

Whether or not this will happen remains to be seen, but one thing is certain; there will never be a shortage of fans hoping for it.

Throughout the movie, we find a number of spells and occult references. Here are some fun witchy facts:

It Runs in the Family

Sally and Gillian are descendants of Maria Owens who cast spells, broke hearts, and escaped the noose through magic. In reality, very few modern day witches can claim this kind of bloodline. Most witches are self made, through their own discipline and study of the Craft. There are, however, several families in  the Salem area who claim blood relations to those who were arrested for witchcraft in the 1692 witch hunts.

Bella Donna, the Beautiful Lady

Atropo Belladonna is a poisonous plant. It has been used as a sedative and antispasmotic.  Large doses can be deadly.  In medieval Italy, young women put drops extracted from the plant into their eyes. This dilated their pupils, creating an effect that was considered to be beautiful – hence the name Belladonna, which in Italian means “beautiful woman”.

Yeah. Because nothing says sexy like the pie eyed opiate induced dummy stare 🙂

J.R.R. Tolkien fans might remember the character Belladonna Took Baggins. She was the wife of Bungo Baggins, lady of Bag End, and mother of the original ring bearing hobbit Bilbo Baggins.

Blood Drinking Optional

The character Jimmy Angelov, played by Goran Visnjic, was supposed to be from Transylvania. We are not sure if he was an actual vampire, but his Romanian roots certainly lent an air of darkness and danger to him. In real life, Goran Visnjic is from Croatia. Close enough.

In the 1998 movie, a ten year old Evan Rachel Wood played Sally’s daughter Kylie.  Kylie took after her Aunt Gillian in both looks and temperament. We might wonder how she’d grow up…

Since then, Wood took on a bunch of noteworthy roles, including a vampire in True Blood.

Herbal Medicine

When a frightened Gillian returns home with a bruised face after Jimmy has assaulted her, Aunt Frances, in typical witch fashion, suggests applying mugwort.  In Medieval Europe, mugwort was believed to be a magical herb that would protect against evil spirits, diseases and misfortunes.

Don’t Know Your Past You Won’t Know Your Future

While fans may be clamoring for a sequel after seeing Sandra and Nicole on the red carpet, author Alice Hoffman has actually written a prequel. This book, called The Rules of Magic, tells the story of the Aunts, Frances and Jet, when they lived as teenage witches in 1960’s New York City.  Read more here.

And finally, no review of Practical Magic would be complete without a visit to Midnight Margaritas! Watch as the Aunts stir up a powerful brew.  Grab some limes and enjoy the show 🙂

 

 

 

 

Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, 50th Anniversary

 

Today, March 4th, 2018, marks the 50th Anniversary of the premiere of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film”Romeo and Juliet” at London’s Odeon theater.

With a host of talented actors, rich period costumes and lush cinematography, this gorgeous movie is arguably the best ever adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.  Famous critic Roger Ebert included it in his list of ‘Top 100 Films’. Ebert wrote, “I believe Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made.”

The movie won a Golden Globe Award for Best English Language Foreign Film.  It won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (Pasqualino De Santis) and Best Costume Design (Danilo Donati).  It was also nominated for Best Director and Best Picture, making it the last Shakespearean film to be nominated for Best Picture to date. Coincidentally, the anniversary of its London premiere just happens to fall on the same day as this year’s Academy Awards presentation.

This movie is unique in may ways. Director Zeffirelli had the innovative idea of using  teenage actors for the roles of the star-crossed lovers.  This was the first time in the history of the play’s performances that actual teenagers were cast to play the teenage roles. Olivia Hussey played Juliet and Leonard Whiting played Romeo.

Hussey and Whiting both received Golden Globes for ‘Best New Stars of the Year’.

Zeffirelli also chose unique historical locations, adding to the rich authenticity of the movie, which was set in 14th century Renaissance Italy.  These locations included:

The Palazzo Borghese, which was used for the famous ‘balcony scene’. The Palazzo was built by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the 16th century. It is located in Artena, 20 miles south of Rome.

“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!”

The interior church scenes (where Romeo and Juliet are wed) were filmed at a Romanesque church named St. Pietro Somaldi in Lucca, Tuscania, 50 miles northwest of Rome.

“For by your leaves you will not stay alone, till Holy Church incorporate two as one.”

The tomb scene (where both lovers commit suicide) was also filmed in Tuscania.

“O happy dagger, this is thy sheath. There rust and let me die.”

The Palazzo Piccolomini, built in 1460 by Pope Pius II, served as Capulet’s magnificent palace. It is located in Pienza, Siena province.

“His name is Romeo, a Montague, the only son of your great enemy.” 

The dueling scenes  were filmed  in the old Umbrian town of Gubbio.

“A plague on both your houses!”

Some fun facts:

  • Paul McCartney was being considered for the role of Romeo, before Zeffirelli plucked Lenoard Whiting from the London stage. Although I love the Beatles, Paul as Romeo would have been a terrible mistake!

Paul McCartney as Romeo

  • Anjelica Houston was considered for the role of Juliet, but her father, director John Houston, insisted she work on another film (one of his own) at the time.
  • Olivia Hussey was originally rejected because Zeffirelli thought she was overweight. Upon her second reading, she had apparently lost weight and was accepted.
  • During the Italian filming, Zeffirelli once again became concerned with Olivia’s weight and insisted she not be served any pasta on the set. (I know!  Rude, inconsiderate, and possibly damaging — both physically and psychologically — to a teenage girl.)

  • Because there were nude scenes in the film, Zeffirelli had to get special permission to film 16 year old Olivia topless. Len Whiting was already 17 and of legal age for nudity.

  • Sir Laurence Olivier, who happened to be in Italy at the time of filming, reportedly showed up on set asking if he could contribute.  He became the narrator, and also dubbed lines for the actor Antonio Pierfederici who played Lord Montague but had a thick Italian accent. Sir Laurence’s contributions are not listed in the credits and he would accept no pay for them, stating he did this out of his ‘great love for Shakespeare’.  What a guy! 🙂
  • In 1977, Olivia Hussey and Laurence Olivier reunited, along with co star Michael York (who played Tybalt) for the production of  Jesus of Nazareth. Hussey played Mary the Mother of Jesus, Olivier played Nicodemus and York played John the Baptist.

  • Produced with a budget of just $850,000, the movie went on to earn nearly $40 million at the box office and later earned another $18 million in re-releases and rentals.
  • Thom Yorke of Rodiohead reports being very moved by Zeffirelli’s film. He later went on to compose music for the 1996 version of Romeo + Juliet, directed by Baz Luhrmann. Yorke said, “I saw the Zeffirelli version when I was 13, and I cried my eyes out, because I couldn’t understand why the morning after they shagged, they didn’t just run away.”

Many readers of R & J have wondered the same thing. Young love can be messy.

If you have not yet seen this phenomenal movie, I suggest you rent or stream it at once!

And finally, in honor of the 1968 London Premiere, here is a youtube compilation where Queen Elizabeth herself greets the young stars. Hope you like it!

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Marlene Dietrich

 

mar

Decades before  Madonna shocked audiences by planting a kiss on the unsuspecting Brittany Spears at the 2003 VMA awards, there was Marlene Dietrich!

She was an actress, singer and activist, born on this day, December 27, 1901 in Berlin, Germany.

Dietrich, an outspoken bisexual, wowed the world with cross-dressing and gender bending long before gender fluidity was even a concept. She deep kissed her female costar in the movie Morocco, way back in 1930.

dietrich

Born to humble beginnings but with a decided love of the stage, Dietrich started out in chorus and vaudeville, quickly making her way into silent films in the 1920’s.  It was her role as the decadent cabaret performer Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel (1930)  that brought her international fame. With it came a contract at Paramount Pictures.

Her style may not have been suited to everyone, but a certain section of Americana could not get enough of this Berlin siren.

marlene_dietrich_the_blue_angel

She  moved to the United States that same year, and went on to star in several motion pictures, including Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus. She was nominated for an academy award for her role in Morocco.  Throughout her career she enchanted audiences with her languid smile, sexy voice and smoldering eyes that understood the world, perhaps all too well.

Dietrich was married to director Rudolf Sieber. They had one daughter, named Maria, born in 1924.  However, Marlene had numerous lovers  — apparently all approved by her husband.  Reportedly she had affairs with: Gary Cooper, Douglas Fairbanks Jr,. John Wayne, James Stewart, Orson Welles, Lili Damita (wife of Errol Flynn), Claudette Colbert, Dolores del Río,  the French singer Edith Piaf, and possibly Greta Garbo.

Hollywood beauties come and go, but one unique thing about Dietrich was her anti-Nazi activism. In 1937,  when the Nazi Party was on the rise, Marlene was vacationing in London. Officials from the Nazi Party approached her and offered her a lot of money to return to Germany and become film star in the Third Reich.  Marlene flat out refused! She returned to the US and applied for citizenship, which was granted in 1939. Throughout her life she remained a politically active United States patriot.  She also renounced her German citizenship in 1939.

Throughout the 1930’s and 40’s Dietrich took a radical humanitarian stance against the Holocaust.  She created a fund to help Jews and dissidents escape from Germany.  She donated her entire salary from the movie Knight Without Armor (a whopping $450,000 — which was worth a lot more back then!) to help the refugees.

In December 1941, the U.S. entered World War II, and Dietrich became one of the first celebrities to help sell  US war bonds. She toured the US from January 1942 to September 1943 (appearing before 250,000 troops on the Pacific Coast leg of her tour alone) and was reported to have sold more war bonds than any other star.

The soldiers loved her!

marlene 2

During two extended tours in 1944 and 1945 Marlene performed for Allied troops in Algeria, Italy, the UK and France. She then followed General George Patton all the way to the front lines in Germany.  When asked why she had done this, in spite of the obvious danger, she replied, “aus Anstand“— “out of decency”.

Marlene continued to perform throughout her lifetime.  She even had a cameo role in a movie called Just a Gigolo, with another cross-dressing icon, David Bowie, in 1979.

In the 1980’s Dietrich was keen to see the fall of the Berlin Wall and a unified Germany. She reportedly stayed in contact with world leaders by telephone, including Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.  Her monthly telephone bill was over $3,000.  That is a lot of talking!  Perhaps she, along with Reagan, was pleading “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” 🙂

Dietrich died in Paris in 1992, at the ripe old age of 90. She was given a ceremonial funeral, attended by nearly 2000 people. The United States Medal of Freedom was displayed at the foot of her coffin in honor of her duty.

Because the Berlin Wall had by then been dismantled, Marlene requested in her will that she be buried back in Germany with her family.  She was interred at the Städtischer Friedhof IIIBerlin-Schöneberg, next to the grave of her mother, Josefine von Losch, and near the house where she was born.

Here is an English version of  her famous song “Falling in Love Again”.  Hope you like it!

 

Happy Birthday Marlene!

marlene

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Hitchcock!

 

hitch

If you have ever watched the original Psycho, or The Birds, or Rebecca (preferably alone on a stormy night, with all your doors bolted) you know what it is to experience Alfred Hitchcock at his best.

The Master of Suspense, the Sorcerer of Shock, and the King of Comeuppance — Hitchcock is by far one of the best film directors of the 20th century.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on this day, August 13, 1899 in Leytonstone England. His father was a greengrocer, his mother a homemaker. He was the youngest of three children, an average student and a bit of loner.

But yawn. That story is far too mundane. Something must have happened in his formative years to help create his twisted persona, to turn him into the Tyrant of Terror, who would later alarm the world with his disturbing psychological horror.

It turns out a few things did happen. (His birth date fell on a Friday the 13th. That ought to tell us something, heheh.)

When he was five years old, Hitchcock’s father wanted to punish him for ‘behaving badly’.  Little Alfred was sent to the local police station with a note asking the officer to ‘lock him up in jail for five minutes’.  This incident left a lifelong scar on Hitchcock, possibly influencing his frequent themes of harsh punishments, wrongful accusations and sly retributions for evil doers. He had a permanent fear of the police.

He also had a permanent fear of Jesuits.

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Hitch was raised Roman Catholic and attended Jesuit Grammar School at Saint Ignatius College. Years later, when asked in an interview how he – a  polite gentleman – managed to create such malevolent stories, Hitchcock replied: “I spent three years studying with the Jesuits. They used to terrify me to death and now I’m getting my own back by terrifying other people.”

His 1953 film I Confess starred Montgomery Clift as a Catholic priest who is wrongly accused of murder, but also hears the confession of the true murderer — and is sworn to secrecy by his priestly vows.

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Hitchcock’s first job was as a draftsman for an electric cable company called Henley’s.  Even then, as a teenager, he was already writing scary tales. Some of these were published in the company’s newsletter, The Henley Telegraph.

Hitchcock’s first piece, “Gas” tells the story of a young woman who imagines that she is being assaulted one night in London—but the twist at the end reveals it was all just a hallucination in the dentist’s chair induced by the anesthetic.

Interestingly, one of the episodes featured on Alfred Hitchcock Presents seems reminiscent of this tale. In the newer version, the woman’s hallucination involves a futuristic society in which all men have been eradicated through a medicine originally intended to kill rats.  There are no more men in the world! Babies are born through test tubes and they are always females! The woman wakes up from her dream to find that in reality, a famous scientist is currently experimenting with a medicine which will rid the world of rats!  The woman takes a shotgun, attempts to kill the scientist and… Well, you will just have to watch the episode to find out what happens.

His other early stories also indicate Hitchcockian creepiness and weird sexual overtones. One short story “And There Was No Rainbow” (which some folk thought should have been banned)  tells of a young man who goes out looking for a brothel, but instead stumbles into the house of his best friend’s girl. Hitch also wrote a piece called “Fedora” which gave a ‘strikingly accurate description’ of his future wife Alma Reville, although he had not yet met her!

At the tender age of twenty, Hitchcock got a job at Paramount Studios as a title card designer for silent films. Within five years he was directing those films.  His first commercial success was a thriller called The Lodger about London’s notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper.  

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 Around this time Alma Reville became Hitch’s assistant director. The two were married on December 2, 1926.   Alma became Hitchcock’s closest collaborator.  He rarely discussed her contributions to his films, although some were credited on screen. Alma was clearly ‘the woman behind the great man’ but she avoided public attention.

Hitchcock had the unique experience of working in the film industry as it evolved through all its massive changes of the 20th century. In 1929, his production company began experimentation with sound, producing the first ‘Talkies’.  Hitchcock’s contributions included Blackmail, The Man Who Knew Too Much and his highly acclaimed The 39 Steps, which made him a star in the United States.

The 39 Steps established two unique Hitchcockian traditions: the ‘Hitchcock Blonde’ and The MacGuffin’.

The Hitchcock Blonde was the beautiful, ice-cool, perfect leading lady who often became a victim of twisted circumstances.

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First personified in The 39 Steps by actress Madeleine Carroll, his other blondes included Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak and Janet Leigh. Hitch believed that these flawless, classy women left much to the sexual imagination –  they were ladylike in public but potential whores in the bedroom. He described this archetype as follows:

“I think the most interesting women, sexually, are the English women. I feel that the English women, the Swedes, the northern Germans and Scandinavians are a great deal more exciting than the Latin, the Italian and the French women. Sex should not be advertised. An English girl, looking like a schoolteacher, is apt to get into a cab with you and, to your surprise, she’ll probably pull a man’s pants open. … Without the element of surprise, the scenes become meaningless. There’s no possibility to discover sex.

The MacGuffin is a plot device — an object thrown in for the purpose of intriguing the audience, but which will have little consequence in the overall story.  In a lecture at Columbia University, Hitchcock explained The MacGuffin as follows:

“It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin”. The first one asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?” “Well,” the other man says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.”

The MacGuffin took on a life of its own in filmmaking. It is the Holy Grail of Arthurian legends.  Some modern examples include:  the Maltese Falcon in the film of the same name; the meaning of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane; the Rabbit’s Foot in Mission Impossible III, and  the Heart of the Ocean necklace in Titanic.

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Hitchcock’s recognition and fame continued to grow. In 1939 he received The New York Film Critics Circle Award for his film The Lady Vanishes.  Picturegoer Magazine called him ‘Alfred the Great’.  The New York Times called him ‘the greatest director of screen melodramas in the world’, placing him alongside other English treasures such as the Magna Carta and the Tower of London.

In 1940 Hitch directed Rebecca based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier. (If you have not read this masterpiece, you must do so immediately!) The film won an Academy Award for best picture, with a best director nomination.

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Hitch and horror novelist Daphne Du Maurier formed a natural collaboration. His film The Birds  — a story of rebellious birds that slowly and creepily take over a California town — was also based on a story written by Du Maurier.

A few years ago my local movie theater ran a big screen production of The Birds. Tippi Hedren,  an iconic Hitchcock Blonde who stars in the film, came in as a guest speaker.

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I swear to god she looked EXACTLY the same as she did in the film!  Some forty years had passed and the woman had not aged, not one day!  You will find pictures of Tippi Hedren on the internet where she looks older, but these (I swear!) are not real.  I believe she might actually have some weird Dorian Gray arrangement going on… Perhaps the internet pictures are aging as she herself stays young.  (Anything would be possible in Hitch’s world.)

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Hitchcock’s career peaked in the 1950’s and 60’s when he directed gems such as Rear Window, Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, and of course Psycho.  This movie was the creepiest creep-fest of all, about a young woman (Janet Leigh) who goes to stay at a hotel run by a taxidermy obsessed man (Tony Perkins) who has a strange relationship with his dead mother…

 

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Hitch’s television series ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ had a ten year run from 1955 to 1965. The fascinating thing about these segments is that, by today’s standards, they are very plain.  No bells or whistles, no special effects –  just simple black and white cinematography, flat lighting, and mostly unknown actors – yet the brilliant storytelling speaks for itself.

Equally entertaining was Hitch’s deadpan delivery  of introductions which always began with “Good Evening” and went on to speak of outrageous things.

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Hitchcock moved to California and became an American citizen in 1955, although still retaining his English citizenship. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1980, a few months before his death. Film critic Roger Ebert considered it something of a snub that the Queen took so long to give Hitch his knighthood, writing:  “Other British directors like Sir Carol Reed and Sir Charlie Chaplin were knighted years ago, while Hitchcock… one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, was passed over.” Maybe the Queen was a bit spooked by him, or reluctant to invite him to the palace?

On April 29th, 1980, Sir Alfred Hitchcock died of renal failure in his home in Bel Air California. Despite his professed fears of the Jesuits, two priests came in his closing hours, giving a final mass at Hitchcock’s home and hearing his last confession.

Gone but not forgotten, we will never ditch the Hitch!  He shall always be alive in legacy, legend and the ominous voice that warns to lock the doors and be afraid. Be very afraid.

Happy Birthday Alfred!

This short tribute is a great celebration of the man and his art. Hope you like it!