Saturday, January 29, 2011

Palaces, Freaks and Mae West

Last night, my inamorato and I traveled out to the glorious Landmark Lowe’s Jersey Theatre in Jersey City to meet up with friends and to watch a really odd, yet completely entertaining double feature consisting of Freaks and She Done Him Wrong. I’d never seen Freaks on the big screen and this was my first viewing of the Mae West flick.

First, though, a word about the movie theater itself: It’s a gorgeous, half-restored old time movie palace. Though marred by decay and neglect, it’s still romantic and beautiful. There’s even an organ that rises up through the floor Phantom of the Opra style. Oh, to see the Abominable Dr. Phibes there! It’s just across the street from the Journal Square PATH station, so it’s incredibly easy to get to from Manhattan. There’s really no excuse not to visit.

Back to the movies. As I said, it’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen Freaks. It’s still so wonderful, creepy and dreamlike. I’ve always loved circus stories, and this one is just great. I wonder how much influence it had on Angela Carter when she was working on her brilliant novel Nights At the Circus? It has that strange air so common in the films of the 20s and very early 30s, in which the setting is ill defined, is it America? Is it Europe? Is it modern? Is it Victorian? It’s impossible to tell, as they exist in a fictional film world dreamscape that you could never find on an ordinary map. Also of great interest to me, was seeing Olga Baclanova, one of the stars of The Man Who Laughs in a talkie role as the devious aerialist, Cleopatra.

She Done Him Wrong is a crazily over plotted hour of melodramatic, musical comedy, crime drama. Mae West was a wonder. Her sexual aggression is still completely transgressive and pretty shocking. Cary Grant is handsome as "The Hawk" and, really, I'm bound to be a fan of most anything where a shady character is known as "The Hawk". West spends the whole movie draped in diamonds and sequins and feathers, heavily corseted and in early middle age, she is a wonder. It's a performance that has launched a thousand drag queens, but I wish it had launched more lady performers, too. Women tend to be punished and mocked for sexual forthrightness, so it's not an easy path to take.

As my inamorato wrote a couple of days ago, the Landmark holds a special significance for us, as it was the site of our first date. We had time to kill before the start of the double feature, so we had gin and tonics in the dive next door, where we happened to make the acquaintance of the Landmark Lowes organist. He seemed very nice. Sadly, last night we found out that organist Ralph Ringstad, Jr. passed away in December from a fall. He was still a relatively young man, so his loss is particularly sad. He will be missed. You can see video of him performing here.

Tonight, continuing their weekend long pre-Code Festival, The Landmark Lowes will be presenting a double feature of Morocco (starring Marlene Dietrich) and Baby Face (starring Barbara Stanwyck). Information can be found here. These are two of my favorites, so you can bet that if it wasn't for tonight's performance of Dainty Cadaver, I would most certainly be in attendance!


Naked Playwright said...

Nice to read your first-hand account of the Pre-Code series at Loew's.
Come up and see Mae, you Brooklyn gal!

Caviglia said...

Thanks for reading!