Happy Birthday, John Waters!

John Waters as William Castle and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford on FX's FEUD

William Castle (John Waters) addressing the crowd at STRAIT-JACKET’s (1964) premiere as Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) listens on FEUD (2017) episode HAGSPLOITATION

I grew up in a John Waters household, so when I caught up with FEUD (2017), I was delighted to watch his cameo as shockmeister William Castle. My parents went to Waters’ movies, and my mom owns an ODODRAMA card gotten at a first run screening of POLYESTER (1981). Living in Massachusetts close enough to The Cape that Provincetown could be a day jaunt, she thinks she shopped in Dreamlander Divine‘s thrift shop, which he ran in his poor, pre-fame days. It was only a matter of time until we shared some of Waters’ movies together. I’ve now seen most of his films and read most of his books.

Which is how I know it was an honor for him to play Castle. Physically, the two men were very different. Waters has remained trim while Castle was heavier in comparison and thicker haired. FEUD show creator Ryan Murphy didn’t want Waters costumed to resemble Castle. No, fat suit as Waters said. Murphy was aware those in this know would delight in how meta it would be for Castle disciple Waters to appear as himself when portraying the other director.

If you haven’t read Castle’s memoir STEP RIGHT UP! I’M GOING TO SCARE THE PANTS OFF AMERICA, you need to. Waters wrote a loving and nostalgic introduction on how seeing Castle’s gimmicky movies as a kid inspired a love of cinema and the outrageous. There’s a joy in both directors’ works at defying convention to pursue their own visions. Keep on reading after the introduction, and you’ll learn a lot about B-movie making on shoestring budgets, including what it was like to work with Joan Crawford on STRAIT-JACKET (1964).

Happy birthday to John Waters, who doesn’t think he’s ever topped William Castle, but got to be him for a day! That must have been his best early birthday present.

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Quote: The Importance of Women Writing Their Own Stories

“I did this show called TRAILBLAZING WOMEN, and the biggest thing I’ve learned in two years of doing the show is that men write their history and that’s why they’re remembered more than women. Cecil B. DeMille made sure to write everything down, but all the other women that were working at the same time as Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith–there were women directors, they didn’t write their stories down, so they weren’t included in the history books. I think it’s really important for women to mention the things that they were a part of.”

–Illeana Douglas, co-host of the I BLAME DENNIS HOPPER podcast, episode 12/20/16

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Happy Birthday, Edward Gorey!

I first got my hands on an Edward Gorey anthology as a little girl, and I devoured it. The black and white imagery of other eras, the humor, and the outrageous outcomes appealed to me. Children like their grim tales, and these were beautifully illustrated. Gorey isn’t just for children. He can be appreciated by adults, too. If you’re unfamiliar with him, but like Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, or Charles Addams, then you’re likely to enjoy Gorey. As you might suspect of someone so visual, Gorey was a film fanatic. For his eighty-eighth birthday, here’s a peek at some of the films that influenced Gorey.

We’ll start off with silent film. Amy Benfer wrote: “Gorey’s work is formatted very much like an incredibly baroque storyboard for a silent film. Each vignette alternates between panels of painstakingly ornate hand-lettered text and black-and-white illustrations. Like silent film, the juxtaposition of image and text allows us time to consider both, as separate but inseparable parts of the same work.” These silent film techniques came from watching silent films at exclusive screenings and archives.

Amongst the films screened were Louis Feuillade‘s. As someone who knew Gorey’s work first and later watched Les Vampires and Judex, I suspected an influence, and his friend Alexander Theroux wrote about it in his book The Strange Case of Edward Gorey. The fashions, the decors, the visual textures, the faces, the black humor, the surrealism, and the not always pleasant outcomes even for the good of those films are all reflected in Gorey’s work. I used to say that Les Vampires was an Edward Gorey story come to life, but it came first. Gorey put on paper the essence of these films with his own twists.

The Gilded Bat and the animated sequences for Mystery show he mined Feuillade:

We see grand old houses, detectives, mysterious figures in black, people in peril, ballet dancers, upper crust soirées, bat imagery, secret messages decoded by a mirror, criminals afoot (albeit out of frame), and settings full of visual textures–from how they were drawn to prints and fabric contrasting with other decor.

Many of the above images are found in Les Vampires scenes:

Another Gorey film favorite involves the word vampire, Carl Dreyer‘s Vampyr. Gorey said, “You don’t see a thing and I think it’s the most chilling movie I’ve ever seen. I think your own imagination does a better job.” The film is much less plot driven than Les Vampires. Vampyr is more mood-driven. Instead of criminals inflicting chaos, it is supernatural evil that causes harm. The film was almost a silent, and it has more in common with silent film than sound. Since Dreyer had to reshoot dialogue scenes in different languages for international distribution, the dialogue is minimal. The lack of plot, dialogue, and explanation married with odd imagery and sounds brings unease.

Bringing unease was Gorey’s goal. Gorey’s quoted as saying in Ascending Peculiarity, “My mission in life is to make everybody as uneasy as possible. I think we should all be as uneasy as possible, because that’s what the world is like.” A film like Vampyr freed dialogue and images from meaning except what the viewer read into them. Gorey took that lesson and pushed it with the non sequitur filled The Object Lesson.

Despite the non sequiturs, our brains want to establish a plot and resolve what seems like a mystery of never ending detail that can only end badly. There is no meaning to the story, but it establishes a mood through images and text, much like movies can.

Gorey’s reputed to have consumed thousands of movies and books, he shows his influences, yet his work isn’t derivative. He uses film and literary techniques to create his own rendering of the world to reflect the realities he perceived. It’s a world we can step into opening the pages of his books, and he entertains us and makes us laugh, often out of discomfort. That might be the greatest compliment we can pay him.

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Elsa Lanchester, What A Character!

What A Character Blogathon 2012 Badge

This month I’m participating in the What A Character! Blogathon. Organized by Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, the blogathon celebrates those character actors and actresses whose impact on classic film warrants as much attention and discussion as any star’s. My subject is Elsa Lanchester, best remembered today as the Bride of Frankenstein, despite a career that spanned over fifty years in film, cabaret, theatre, and television.

I ordered her out-of-print memoir, Elsa Lanchester Herself, to prepare:

Elsa Lanchester Herself Cover

I managed to score online a first edition in near fine condition with a dust jacket in similar condition and protected by a Brodart cover for a reasonable price. That was hard to do. There were a lot of ex-library and beat up copies flooding the online marketplace. That helps prove that at one time there was greater general interest in Elsa Lanchester.

I love the art deco design which extends to the decorations bookending each chapter number:

Elsa Lanchester Herself Chapter Number Art

While they appear to be peacock feathers, they manager to evoke the angle of the Bride’s very distinctive hairstyle. That must have been intentional!

And here is a sneak peak of Lanchester and her many characters:

The Many Faces of Elsa Lanchester

UPDATE: My contribution to the blogathon is now up! Click here to learn more about the talented Elsa Lanchester and her portrayal of Queenie in Bell, Book and Candle.

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