Archive for the Drag and/or LGBT Category

“Nefertitty in Space” and Why Lola Rock’N’Rolla is Our Favorite Film-maker

Posted in African American Interest/ Blackface/ Minstrelsy, CAMP, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Drag and/or LGBT, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2014 by travsd

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I don’t think it’s too much to say that Lola Rock’N’Rolla is now my favorite film-maker. The Mad Marchioness and I attended the world premiere of Lola’s new opus Nefertitty in Space at Anthology Film Archives on Monday, and only just now am I recovering from the onslaught of camp excellence, let alone the excitement of seeing so much burlesque, drag and variety royalty all in one place: Hovey Burgess, Murray Hill, World Famous Bob, Gal Friday, Albert Cadabra, David Bishop, Legs Malone etc etc etc not to mention the film’s star The Maine Attraction who sat behind us with her highly supportive mom.

Maine falls on top of me with her drink

Maine almost falls on top of me with her drink

“I just wanna be John Waters!” Lola declared at the end of the festivities…and we do indeed need someone to fill that niche now, have needed that for TEN BLOODY YEARS, because that is when Waters made his last friggin’ movie (his most recent planned film project, a Christmas movie called Fruitcake died in the oven back in 2008). But there is so much of her own that Lola brings to the table that I think calling her the heir to John Waters would be selling her short (as much as we need an heir to John Waters). For one, her love of genre seems wider, deeper and more ambitious than Waters, who has always been pretty strictly focused on exploitation films. In a manner that reminds me of the Kuchar Brothers, her “B movies” attempt big budget spectacle, and she dares pay homage to classics with reach beyond cult aficionados.

Her first film Dragzilla (2002) is like an opening salvo in a campaign to conquer the underground, one cardboard building at a time:

Then there is her zombie send-up Night of the Living Gay (2006):

And who could forget I Was a Tranny Werewolf (2009):

Whereas Waters is a genius of effect, and certainly a genius of comedy, there is something to be said for the focused messaging of Lola’s films. Like Waters, she is a gay film-maker. In her films she frequently returns to the theme of queer people and other outsiders as monsters, and ridicules that representation, which in the end amounts to a simultaneous catharsis, exorcism and celebration.

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In the Nefertitty series, she ups the ante by helping us do the same thing about race. In these blaxploitation send-ups, burlesque star The Maine Attraction plays the titular ‘titty, a foul-mouthed, street-wise ghetto chic SOMETHING. Is she even a cop or a private eye like Pam Grier’s characters? I don’t think so. I think she’s just herself: Nerfertitty, a blaxploitation heroine qua blaxploitation heroine (I said “heroine”, not “heroin”).

Now, this is a genre ripe for parody. In fact even when it was originally in full-bloom, the classics of the genre were usually smart self-parodies, 1972’s Blacula being the supreme example. Mel Brooks went there early with Blazing Saddles (1974), although he flinched from going all out (originally the film was to have starred Richard Pryor – that would have been a VERY different movie). Then Keenan Ivory Wayans went there for real in I’m Gonna Get You Sucka (1988), Quentin Tarantino produced a loving tongue-in-cheek homage in Jackie Brown (1997), and Scott Sanders created a dead-on formal spoof in Black Dynamite (2009). (Judging by that time-table it looks like the world wants a blaxploitation satire flick every ten years).

The original Nefertitty joint came out in 2011:

Several things about Nefertitty set it apart. One is context. This is a Lola Rocknrolla film. We know there’s more to it than a stand-alone goof because we have her whole body of work to look at, and it’s plain from the way she tells the story. There is no pussyfooting here. The film-maker and her actors jump with both feet into stereotype (both black and white) like it was a swimming pool full of champagne. But there is something else at work. Blaxploitation has always been a complicated genre (as have many previous forms of American show business). At best it’s an unresolveable question. Yes those historical films back in the early ’70s did emphatically NOT depict a lot of black doctors, statesmen, philosophers and rocket scientists, but instead a bunch of pimps, hookers, junkies and drug dealers (and, the brothers and sisters who bust them). But on the other hand, the form was chic, its stars were admired and set the fashions throughout the show biz world for the entire decade. For better or worse, people EMULATED these films. And this was the first time in history black Americans had a widespread cinematic format in which to take chances, stretch their legs, and just BE….as opposed to playing menials, servants and sidekicks in a “white story”. And though blaxploitation films were the farthest thing from a representative “black story”, they were a mainstream forum for black acting, black music, and black culture in general. There is a certain palpable joy and liberated energy in these movies. (We watched Shaft, Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem and the Blacula films on TCM just a few weeks ago, so it’s all fresh in my head.) As Nerfertitty, Maine Anders broadcasts that exhilarating feeling of “owning it” that is the whole performance style. Then she compounds that feeling with the giddy gas of getting to send it up, all done with a wicked, mischievous gleam in her eye worthy of Arlecchino.

The other major stereotype in blaxploitation films is, duh, whites, invariably rendered as uptight assholes, clueless idiots, white collar criminals, shifty public officials, wanna-be fascists, and sometimes wanna-be blacks. Playing it this way was a stroke of genius on the parts of producers (apart from any intentional character defamation they may have engaged in): it struck the perfect balance between manipulating the resentments of black audiences, and stoking the sublimated guilt feelings of white ones. Lola goes here big time in both Nefertitty films. In fact, the big plague infecting the ghetto in the first Nefertitty is an insidious cocaine that turns the user into an albino honky. And here is Anders as an ofay police captain in Nefertitty in Space (like Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence she plays multiple characters in both films):

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Second is that, as always (and this is something that Lola can definitely be said to have inherited from Waters, and others such as Russ Meyers) she turns the heat WAY the hell up on the playing style. Here too (I’m assuming) she’s a conscious heir to the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which developed an entire playing style along these lines (and Lola has also done theatre, a show called Homo: The Musical.) This isn’t mere acting; this is PERFORMANCE. This is SHOW BIZ. It’s a movie as a “movie”, with no reality beyond the line-by-line, shot-by-shot immediate need to entertain and engage the audience. If your attention flags while watching this movie, you have issues and you probably need to check in someplace where they give you a pill and a plastic cup of water twice a day.

And, as always, Lola smashes in other genres and brings her insane imagination to bear, which takes this far, far beyond the realm of mere blaxploitation spoof, because no blaxploitation flick ever did anything as weird or as outre as smashing together blaxploitation with gay camp with Star Wars, as she does in Nefertitty in Space, in which the villain is the World Famous Bob as a floating, topless, tassled torso, who uses her breasts as a “white sabre”, shooting a ray that turns her victims into valley-girl talkin’ crackers. It’s clever casting indeed to give a gal named ‘titty an arch nemesis like World Famous Bob, whose pendulous jugs are the Eighth and Ninth Wonders of the World.

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At all events, here’s the trailer to the new film. It’s just about to make the rounds on the festival circuit and I’ll warrant it’ll soon be available online as well. Bottom line: all hail Lola Rock’N’Roller, whose movies put the spring back in my step big time.

Dr. Sketchy’s Returns Tomorrow: with Sammy Tramp!

Posted in Burlesk, Drag and/or LGBT, PLUGS, VISUAL ART with tags , , on November 21, 2014 by travsd

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Francis Leon: Minstrelsy’s Greatest Female Impersonator

Posted in African American Interest/ Blackface/ Minstrelsy, Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Drag and/or LGBT, Variety Theatre with tags , , , , , , on November 21, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Francis Leon (Francis Patrick Glassey, b. 1844). Eventually billed simply as “Leon” or “The Only Leon”, he was the foremost female impersonator in blackface minstrelsy.

Let it be known that the category of the “wench” was universally popular in minstrel shows — every comedian did drag, just like every comedian did blackface in the 19th century: if you didn’t, what good were you? But Leon was different from those lowbrow clowns. He was a hardcore female impersonator in the modern, vaudeville sense. He upped the ante, by being as convincing as humanly possible in his portrayals. It was no longer necessarily about comedy, it was about beauty and histrionic ability.

He went into show biz in his early teens. Because of his training as a boy soprano in church choirs he was able to mimic prima donnas, making him a novelty in minstrel shows. Rather than laying on burnt cork, he often portrayed “high yellow” dames, i.e. mulattoes. It’s said that there were as many as 300 dresses in his wardrobe, some of them costing as much as $400 — and astounding sum in those days. He presented refined opera and ballet and was renowned for the sensitivity accuracy of his representation of the fairer sex. In 1864 he formed his own troupe. Within a decade every minstrel company in the country had a Leon impersonator. The last historical reference to him is in San Francisco in 1883. Where and when he died remains unknown.

To learn more about the history of variety theatreconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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The Lady Had a Certain KULPability

Posted in Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , on August 28, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the late great character actress Nancy Kulp (1921-1991). Best known of course for her role as “Miss Jane” Hathaway, the love-starved spinster secretary on The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971), she played many such roles over the years, often as guest shots in situation comedies and dramas. Flat-chested, rail-thin, prim and proper, she seemed more than vaguely English, despite the fact that she hailed from Pennsylvania, and moved to Florida as a teenager. Originally trained as a journalist, in the early 1950s she went to work in the publicity department of a movie studio, where she was discovered by George Cukor, who encouraged her to try acting. She had many small parts in movies over the years (including many for Walt Disney), but it was her role as a bird-watching neighbor on The Bob Cummings Show starting in 1955 that forever cemented her profile as a highly eccentric — but very recognizable type.

"Be so good as to go, Jethro!"

“Be so good as to go, Jethro!”

As time went on, the iconography of the character she played gathered new shades of meaning. Just the other night, the Mad Marchioness and myself caught her in an episode of Sanford and Son. She had a recurring role on that show from 1975 to 1976  as the very whitest of white ladies, always to entrance and exit applause. People loved Nancy Kulp to death, much as they loved Tony Randall. I confess to being among the idolaters. She had so much class, and she didn’t apologize for it. She was absolutely willing to be 100% herself, to plunge right into the most vulnerable, humiliating sort of behavior for the sake of our amusement. Without debasing herself, mind you — just being human, but in the most courageous way. There is a ton to learn from the example of this actress.

And yes, she was of the L persuasion, research bears it out. I never make assumptions, as many seem to think it’s OK to do: “Of COURSE she’s this or that!” Of course, nothing. Kulp divorced her husband of ten years in 1961, thereafter secretly practicing her conviction that “Sometimes birds of a feather flock together.”, which is all she was willing to say on the subject. I guess there was more to that bird watching than meets the eye!

Here is a really nice clip of her The Bob Cummings Show a.k.a. Love That Bob. Genius!

To learn more about comedy history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Century of Slapstick #46: The Masquerader

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on August 27, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the 100th anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy The Masquerader (1914). The film is one of many Keystone and Chaplin comedies to be set in an actual movie studio, with Chaplin and cohorts like Fatty Arbuckle and Chester Conklin essentially playing themselves. When we first see Chaplin, he is out of make-up — probably a big treat for audiences of the time. He puts on his tramp get-up in a dressing room he shares with Arbuckle (just like real life). Then he proceeds to cause all manner of havoc, and gets chased off. Returning to the set in the garb of a woman, he entrances the director Charlie Murray for awhile. Then returns to form, eventually getting chased by everyone at the studio, and falling into a well. (When you didn’t have an ending for your Keystone comedy, “…and then everyone falls in the water” would do well enough!

To learn more about silent and slapstick comedy history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Charlie Chaplin is “A Woman”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on July 12, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin short A Woman (1915).

In this Essanay comedy, Chaplin plays his usual park masher, who ends up coming home with Edna Purviance and her mother (Marta Golden), whom, I must say are not very discriminating about whom they bring into the house. When the father (Charles Inslee) comes home, the Little Fellow runs upstairs and dons feminine garb as a means of escaping the house without getting his neck broken. Later after the father has made a pass at him, Charlie (now “Nora”) uses that fact to blackmail the dad into letting him date his daughter. And I must say he doesn’t make a bad looking woman!

A little over ten years ago, I worked up a screenplay with the intention of filming a re-make of this short, which is still on my to-do list as part of my series of silent comedy experiments like this one. ‘Til then, there’s Chaplin’s original version:

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Arbuckle, Keaton & St. John in “Good Night, Nurse!”

Posted in Buster Keaton, Comedy, Drag and/or LGBT, Fatty Arbuckle, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the  Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle comedy Good Night, Nurse (1918), featuring Buster Keaton, Al St. John and Alice Lake. 

This short seems at least partially inspired by Chaplin’s The Cure (1917). Arbuckle plays a drunk. When we first meeting he is loitering in front of a drug store in the middle of a monsoon, fruitlessly trying to get a cigarette lit. (BTW, that woman with an umbrella who blows by is Keaton, in drag). Fatty caps off his evening by bringing home a couple of busking musicians, a tambourine girl, and an organ grinder and his monkey. This enrages his wife, who sends him to a sanitarium the next day to dry out.  Keaton plays a scary doctor(when we first meet him he is wearing a bloody smock). St. John is his assistant. They put Arbuckle under ether for some unspecified procedure. Then Arbuckle “wakes” and makes several escape attempts, one with nymphomaniac Alice Lake (who immediately wants to break  back into the sanitarium once they’re out) and one with Fatty in the obligatory drag as a nurse. Found out, he flees, and through a contrived set of circumstances winds up in a footrace, which he triumphantly wins, only to be immediately caught again by Keaton and his orderlies. Which of course all turns out to be a dream (he’s still under the ether). Pound for pound (no pun intended), one of the best of Abuckle’s Comique shorts, I think

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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