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Sunday, September 18, 2011

My Fair Lady

I spent this weekend in the sunny, fresh air of Florida's southern Gulf Coast but under a personal dark cloud as my mother remains in critical condition in the hospital. I stayed two nights at her otherwise empty home and my brother stayed with me, overnight Saturday, keeping me from too much morbid reminiscing there. Obviously, we had a lot to discuss, mostly indoors but also, in the evening, under the constellations in the clear night, on the lawn, with the scent of jasmine and lavender surrounding us as we reenforced our fraternal bond over a few beers.

Pop music was such a big part of our upbringing. I remember, as a pre-schooler, graduating from my Little Golden Records when my mother bought me my first 45 rpm: "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" by Miss Patti Page. A few years later, when Mom took me to a downtown record shop, I chose the original London cast recording of My Fair Lady with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. It was a thing that made Mom go hmmm as the probably-gay salesclerk chirped, "He's so precocious!"

My brother and I settled on a double-feature, from Mom's collection of dvds, to end our night. First, we watched Cobra Woman (Universal, 1944) starring Maria Montez, the Queen of Technicolor and Icon of Camp Style, in her greatest role. Or should I say "roles" as Ms Montez portrays both good-girl Tollea and her evil twin, the seductive and cruel high priestess Naja. Her co-star is handsome Jon Hall who wears the same outfit, appropriate for cruising the Folsom Street Fair, throughout.

The action mostly takes place on a volcanic South Seas island with exterior shots that bear a suspicious resemblance to the L.A. Botanic Garden. You haven't lived until you see Maria do the Cobra Dance in front of a serpentine puppet, undulating and spinning in a klutzy frenzy as she points out maidens to be sacrificed to the volcano god.

With her thick Dominican accent, Ms Montez barks out lines like "I am da rrrightful rrruler of dis island!" and "Geef me da cobrrra joo-uls!" My brother noted the plethora of turbans and other ridiculous headdresses that overwhelm Cobra Woman in a manic display of tacky costume design. It was the unintentional laugh-fest we needed during this trying time.

The second feature was Warner Brothers' stark and gritty "Caged" (1950) starring Eleanor Parker who received an Oscar nomination for this. She portrays 19-year-old Marie Allen, an innocent sent to women's prison who, instead of being reformed, comes out a hardened criminal.

Hope Emerson's prototypical nasty matron, Evelyn Harper, was also Oscar nominated. The entire supporting cast is divine, especially Agnes Moorehead (as the warden seeking reform), Betty Garde and Lee Patrick (in thinly veiled Sapphic parts).

Reportedly, screenwriter Virginia Kellogg had herself incarcerated and weaved true stories she witnessed into her screenplay. With striking brilliance, this social critique of the penal system also presciently details paternalistic sexism (before the term was coined), ingrained misogyny and female bonding. The very powerful direction is by John Cromwell.

I went to sleep that night secretly thanking my mother for helping to mold and shape my tastes, for the music she bought me when I was a kid and for all the films she introduced or took me to. Not only could I obviously not be the individual I am today without her but, in terms of pop culture, I might be so much the poorer. The music and movies she led me to, in our working-class surroundings, buoyed me for a lifetime, Technicolored my world even when things got grey and brought joy to my life. Had she been home this weekend, no doubt we'd be watching newly discovered old film gems on Turner Classic Movies, our dialog a running commentary.

Does enchantment pour out of every door? Mom, it's just on the street where you live.

4 comments:

  1. This is an amazing piece; made me cry. You were so lucky to have each other.

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  2. Ditto. Made me cry as well. Beautifully written...love and xo's to you....

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  3. Great piece. I cried too.

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