Archive for the Frenchy Category

Paul Colin: The Visual Spirit of Jazz Age Paris

Posted in African American Interest, Frenchy, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , on June 27, 2017 by travsd

June 27 is the birthday of the great French poster artist Paul Colin (1892-1985). A native of Nancy, Colin attended the École des Beaux-Arts and became a master of Art Deco style, incorporating earlier movements such as Cubism.

Colin had been living and working in Paris for over a decade when Josephine Baker arrived in 1925 to become his lover and muse. His most famous poster (above) is also the one that put him on the map. Baker and Colin promoted each other’s work; they became Parisian sensations hand in hand.

In 1927 Baker, all of 21, published a memoir, with illustrations by Colin:

From a 1927 event that drew 3,000 people:

Paris in the 20s and 30s was in the grip of Le Tumulte Noir, “The Black Craze”, and this inspired a series of works from him by that name, in which Josephine was not absent:

Exoticism was key to the fad; jungle themes were prevalent, as were depictions evocative of American minstrelsy caricatures. As a consequence, these Jazz Age images can be tough for us to unpack. Racist? Yet worshipful. The height of fashion? And yet animal, not quite human? “Negrophilia” — but how deep did that love run? As we say, Baker was his lover. If you’ll pardon the expression, Colin had skin in the game. The pair remained friends for life. But outside the nightclubs, cafes, and artist studios of Paris, racism continued to reign in French culture, as is it did throughout the Western world.

Colin had a wider scope of subjects, at all events. Here is an advertisement for the great clown Grock:

Here’s an ad for the 1926 Rene Clair film The Imaginary Voyage:

Colin advertised products of all sorts over the ensuing decades and turned out dozens of pupils through his “Ecole Paul Colin”. Before the dust had settled, he had created 1,900 theatrical posters, and numerous book, theatre set and costume designs.

Gay’s Paree

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Frenchy, Singers, Women with tags , , , , , on November 10, 2016 by travsd


Yesterday was one of America’s darkest days, and like many of you all I spent most of it immobilized, prostrate, occasionally mustering the energy to rail or theorize or eulogize or diagnose or plan or marvel or worry aloud or curse or console someone. When the day started I couldn’t image moving a muscle, possibly for days. But I had committed myself to seeing someone’s show weeks ago, and having had to postpone a couple of times, and this being the last night of the run, I dragged my butt to the club to see it.

As it happens (as she informed us halfway through the set) the performer was in the same boat; in shock and had to drag her ass there. Of course she was. It’s not commonly known, but that’s just about the hardest thing a performer has to do: rise to the occasion, put her heart into it, even when (for whatever reason) she doesn’t feel like it. People think show folks have it easy, but that is one area where they don’t. When you’re sick as a dog — you go on. When you’re in the middle of a breakup — you go on. When a loved one has died — you go on. Last night at Pangea, with America in ashes at our feet, Gay Marshall went on.

And if I had to see a show that night, this was a good one to see. Not just because Gay’s a highly professional singer with a winning personality (we’ll get to that) but because of the show’s content.  One is tempted to call her a Woman Without a Country, but really she’s a Woman with Two Countries. And I’m glad the other one is France. There’s only a couple of nation-sized shoulders out there America can REALLY cry on, and one of them is France’s. Lafayette? Franklin and Jefferson and Adams in Paris? The Statue of Liberty? The World Wars? “Je Suis Charlie”? We’ve bled and cried and been there for each other many a time. And the people of Paris understand the concept of a liberty loving nation being taken over by hostile Right Wing Forces. Yesterday, my friend Alyssa Simon shared this famous photo of “The Weeping Frenchman”, taken in 1940 as the French army was being disbanded at Marseilles and the Nazis were marching in. This is how many of us are feeling:


So, if anything, I had a fear of being overwhelmed by TOO much feeling, a sort of “La Marseillaise”-in-Casablanca moment and it would be unbearable. But, nah, the show was touching and romantic and moving and light and even irreverent. She loves her adopted second country, but not blindly. She has enough detachment to kvetch about the homesickness she had for America while she was there, and her exasperation at Parisian snobbery.  And, ya know how it is: I’m mourning my country at the moment, but I’m not exactly crazy about it right now either. So this was kind of perfect.

Gay’s backstory is that she’s a Cleveland native who had been singing a French repertoire for a while (Edith Piaf a specialty) and she went over to Paris to study the language, fell in love (with a man and with the city) and just stayed. She starred in the French production of Cats, playing Grizabella (the one who sings “Memories”, the Betty Buckley role, which is funny, because unbidden, I would have volunteered that Gay reminds me a bit of Betty Buckley even if I didn’t know that). And it seems like she has sung everywhere else in Paris:  from L’Olympia to the Folies Bergère to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to events in the Louvre to a sidewalk on a bridge over the Seine (just so she could say she did). And her show is presented as a travelogue. She has little wooden toy Eiffel Towers and Notre Dame Cathedrals etc and takes us on a musical tour of the city, interspersed with funny, vivid anecdotes about her experiences there.

Like many a French entertainer, she sports a cocked chapeau, a gesture that reminds us of what Americans are inclined to forget (if most of them even ever knew): despite our stereotype of the French as serious and sad intellectuals, as I wrote in both No Applause and Chain of Fools not only are they capable of having fun — as far as western culture is concerned they kind of INVENTED it. (Vaudeville, burlesque, cabaret — the very WORDS we use for show biz are French, because that is where show biz COMES from). So, though some of her numbers are sentimental and melancholy, some are just funny. She opens her set with one of these; “Another Song About Paris” by Dave Frishberg, the only totally English language song in her set. (Most of her numbers are French songs, half of which she’ll sing in the original, completing the song in her own English translations — a wonderfully vaudevillian technique, it makes the material accessible for those of us who love the culture but don’t have the language. It’s just good horse sense to meet us halfway).

Of the half dozen or so singers I’ve seen at Pangea over the past year of so, Marshall is the most technically accomplished, I think, negotiating some pretty tricky ground with seeming effortlessness.  At times it was as though she were pouring herself out to us like table wine. Numbers in the set included the boogie-woogie flavored “Les Grands Boulevards” (a number she first copped off an old Yves Montand record — phonetically — when she was ten years old); the funny “J’Suis Snob” by Jimmy Walter and Boris Vian; the patriotic medley “Les Grognards/La Colombe/Sons Of”, and ending her set on the heartfelt and timely plea for love “Quand On n’a Que L’amour” by Jacquel Brel, Eric Blau and Mort Shuman (it shouldn’t surprise you to know there were several Jacques Brel songs in the set). Then for an encore, the much more upbeat “Mon manège à moi”, also associated with Piaf, by Norbert Glanzberg and Jean Constanin. 

Sadly the present run is done, but I’m told a new show is coming up in the spring, and when it does, I’ll spread the word. As for my little vacation in the City of Light last night:  je ne regrette rien.

Repose en Paix, Pierre Étaix

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Frenchy, Movies (Contemporary), OBITS with tags , , , , , , on October 14, 2016 by travsd

Something fitting about Dario Fo and Pierre Etaix passing away within hours of each other. French clown, actor and comedy film-maker Etaix (1928-2016) was one of the happy discoveries I learned about when researching my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to YoutubeI seem to recall first hearing about the artist from Steve Massa, and there was a big screening of his films (which had long been unavailable) at the Film Forum a couple of years ago.

Etaix is often associated with Jacques Tati (for whom he assistant directed, and with whom he got his start) but his character and his style are very different. He was also in the Jerry Lewis movie The Day the Clown Cried (1972), which it looks like we’ll all finally get to see at some point in the not too distant future. Etaix had many more screen credits as an actor than as a director. He only directed a few films; most of them are available on Youtube. I watched ’em all. This one is probably my favorite, and how perfectly timed for Hallowe’en (there’s more than a little Hammer Horror parody in the fantasy sequences here–very well done) . The film is called Insomnia (1961).  Even so, I hope you sleep well, grand-père drôle!

Odette: International Variety Star

Posted in Frenchy, Hollywood (History), Music, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Odette Myrtil (Odette Quignard, 1898-1978).

Odette (that was often her entire billing) was a second generation stage performer. She was born in Paris and attended a boarding school in Brussels, where she studied voice and violin. By age 13, she was already playing professionally, and for the next several years she divided her time between European variety halls and stage revues. In 1916 her career took off when she starred in one of London’s biggest stage hits of the World War One era The Bing Boys Are Here.

Success came to her in America in 1923 when she played the Palace, a venue to which she returned many times over the ensuing decade. The following year she appeared in The Vogues of 1924. Her Broadway career reached its pinnacle when she starred in The Cat and the Fiddle (1931-1932), with songs by Jerome Kern and which played for nearly a year during the depths of the Great Depression. She next went out to Hollywood where she played bit roles and small supporting parts for a couple of decades. You can see her in such films as Dodsworth (1936), Kitty Foyle (1940), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), The Palm Beach Story (1942), Rhapsody in Blue (1945), The Fighting Kentuckian (1949), Strangers on a Train (1951), and The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954). In 1959 she returned to Broadway one last time to appear in the musical Saratoga. 

For more on Odette: go here. 

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


Armand Kaliz

Posted in Broadway, Frenchy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Armand Kaliz (Armand Kalisz, 1887-1941). Kaliz was born in Paris; of Polish Jewish parentage.

By 1907 Kaliz was in New York appearing in both vaudeville and the Broadway musical The Hoyden. One finds constant references to Kaliz appearing in vaudeville at least through 1919. He appears to have worked most consistently in dramatic and comedy sketches with a a partner named Amelia Stone, sometimes managed by Alf T. Wilton. At least one of these sketches was written by Edgar Allan Woolf. He also appears to have had a fine singing voice and appeared in musical sketches in vaudeville, and one later Broadway musical The Kiss Burglar (1918), although an arch review of that show by Dorothy Parker might explain why he didn’t do more Broadway work (she made fun of his accent (Found that in the indispensable Dorothy Parker: Complete Broadway 1918-1923 — thank you, Kevin Fitzpatrick!). He appeared on more on Broadway, in the hit revue Spice of 1922, which he also produced (it ran for four months, which isn’t too shabby).

By that point, Kaliz had also been a film actor for several years. It was for the cinema that he removed the troublesome, unnecessary “s” from his last name. He began his film career in 1917, still very much the silent era, and there he found his accent to be no encumbrance to his success. Films included The Siren (1917), Let’s Get a Divorce (1918) and The Stolen Bride (1927). He also had good roles in the earliest years of talkies including Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), The Aviator (1929), The Unholy Three (1930), Little Caesar (1931), and the Frank Fay comedy  God’s Gift to Women (1931). But his accent does seem to have caused him trouble in sound pictures and he quickly slid down the pecking order to walk-ons. By Flying Down to Rio (1933), his character is “One of Three Greeks”. Almost of his role from the end of the ’30s to his death in 1941 were uncredited.

To learn more about early film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc. For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Louis Gasnier: From the Champs-Élysées to Poverty Row

Posted in Comedy, Frenchy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Louis Gasnier (1875-1963). Fairly or unfairly, I mentally associate Gasnier with a handful of other directors (William Beaudine, Jean Yarbrough, Norman Taurog) who started out in silent comedy and distinguished themselves in the field, but ended their career at the psychotronic end of the spectrum.

“Max Takes Tonics”, 1911

The French born Gasnier was a stage actor and director who was hired by Pathé Frères around the turn of the century. In 1905 he discovered cabaret performer Max Linder, the world’s first international comedy star, directing or co-directing in scores of films from 1905 through 1913. This puts Gasnier on a par with people like Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin as a pioneer of early film comedy. This alone would be enough to merit his inclusion in the history books, but he then went on to even greater success in America.


n 1913, he came to the U.S. to head up Pathé Frères’ new American division. It was there that he he co-directed and produced one of the most successful movie serials of all time The Perils of Pauline (1914) starring Pearl White. This was followed up with another serial The Exploits of Elaine (1915, also with White), and then a great many popular features, usually adventure stories with exotic locales, including The Corsican Brothers (1920), Kismet (1920), Poisoned Paradise (1924), and The Parasite (1925). He also directed Stan Laurel’s last comedy short without Oliver HardyShould Tall Men Marry (1928).


As the sound era came in, for a while he directed for Paramount, usually helming their foreign language films. Paramount let him go in 1935, however. Desperate for a job, in 1937 he directed what has now (sadly) become his most famous film — the unintentional camp classic Tell Your Children better known today under its alternative title Reefer Madness (1937). This anti-marijuana instructional film was to be revived on college campuses starting in 1972, subsequently becoming one of the great cult films of all time,. Today his earlier triumphs  are largely forgotten and he is better known by far for this absurd exercise in misinformation and paranoid melodrama.

Gasnier retired from directing in 1940, spending the next 18 years in retirement.

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


For Bastille Day: How the French Invented Film Comedy

Posted in Comedy, Frenchy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2015 by travsd
Well known phallic symbol

Well known phallic symbol

The following is an excerpt from my 2013 book  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, published by Bear Manor Media, available from etc etc etc

…Just as jazz, the quintessential American music, was born as a hybrid between German marches and the syncopated playing styles of African-Americans, it might be useful to think of American screen comedy as the love child of another foreign import, the French farce, mixed with the limitless extravagance of the American imagination. As with the march, we start out with a fairly rigid European structure, pleasurable to experience, but a foreign import nonetheless. In skillful hands the French farce is as seamless as a series of geometric proofs, its symmetries and proportions all laid out according to strict, innate, universal laws. While some of Mack Sennett’s films may seem free-wheeling and plotless, many others borrowed their spines directly from pre-existing farces. At Keystone, Sennett actually had a translator on staff, converting the plots of French plays into English synopses for his use. It is a fallacy that Keystone worked without prepared scenarios. It would be more accurate to say that they sometimes worked without scenarios. Most of the time they actually had a working document prepared ahead of time, which they could then deviate from as the mood struck them during production. The films generally have some kind of funny or ironic story arc borrowed from farce.

Mack Sennett, "The Curtain Pole" (1909)

Mack Sennett, “The Curtain Pole” (1909)

As in farces, coincidental interaction rules the day in a Keystone comedy. If the hero flirts with a woman in one scene, and then runs afoul of a random gentleman in another scene, it’s a sure bet that those two will turn out to be a married couple later on, and that our hero will only learn this crucial information when he is hiding under the wife’s bed. These are some Keystone plots: A married woman with whom our hero had earlier flirted sleepwalks into his room, forcing him to hide on the roof when her husband comes home (Caught in the Rain, 1914). Two strange men accidentally switch jackets, each of which has something incriminating in the pockets, which their wives then find. Then they all meet in the park, adding pandemonium to the domestic strife (His Trysting Place, 1914). Two husbands flirt with each other’s wives in the park. Each woman calls a policeman to arrest the mashers, but now the women have since become friends and agree not to press charges against each other’s husbands (Getting Acquainted, 1914). None of these plots would have been out of place on the French stage or screen of the time.

While these scenarios are funny, they have another element, one Sennett seems to have imported almost by accident, like some disease hitching a ride with an invading army. This element is of course sex.  Recall that at the time, women wore corsets and weren’t allowed to even show an ankle in public, or even walk down the street unaccompanied. The art of the time was a reflection of the culture. Consider, for example, the raciest, “filthiest,” most controversial English-language play of that day: Mrs. Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw. A modern reader of the play might be forgiven for being a little confused by its reputation. The words “sex” or “prostitute” are never mentioned in the play, let alone references to the various acts the title character is supposed to have engaged in. Meanwhile, by contrast, all of the characters in French farces behave like dogs in heat. In Feydeau’s The Lady from Maxim’s (1899), a married man wakes up to discover that he has brought a prostitute home with him.  In Through the Window (1882), a strange lady walks into a man’s house and requests a bout of revenge sex so that she can get back at her husband.  In Hotel Paradiso (1894), a couple has every intention of engaging in an extramarital affair, but a chain of incidents prevents them from even getting to touch each other.

Inspired by this alternate reality of French permissiveness, Sennett attempted to transplant something like it to his native soil. This new universe is one where sexed-up slobs habitually just walk up to random girls and try to make their time. Borrowed from both the farce and the melodrama, it may be the most frequently used plot device in Keystone films. A guy spies a girl, starts talking to her, won’t leave her alone, trouble ensues. This kind of behavior was even more frowned upon in Sennett’s day than in our own and for all the same reasons. A woman’s reality in these films is downright dangerous. In Between Showers (1914), for example, the girl (Emma Clifton) is bothered by no less than four different men. She must feel like she’s got pork chops tied to her legs. Sometimes in these comedies it’s as though life has reverted to pre-civilization, where cavemen are just prowling around, on the hunt for women to bag and drag back to their huts by the hair of their heads. Indeed, in His Prehistoric Past (1914), that’s literally the plot of the film.

Max Linder, Father of Screen Comedy Before Either Sennett or Chaplin

Max Linder, Father of Screen Comedy Before Either Sennett or Chaplin

It’s not just sex that begins to rear its ugly head in the Keystone films, but on occasion even the scatological. The French are a freer culture; they have no hang-ups about the lower body. This is the nation of Rabelais, Voltaire, and de Sade. These are not people who pretend that certain bodily productions don’t exist. The action in Feydeau’s Hortense a dit: je m’en fous! (1916)* is precipitated by a cat peeing on a coat. In the Max Linder film Max’s Hat (1913), a dog pisses on our hero’s chapeau right on camera! By contrast, you don’t see a lot of urine in the American and English stage and screen during the Edwardian era. But the French influence will be felt. A few months after leaving Sennett, Charlie Chaplin would mistake a leaky baby bottle for a peeing baby in Easy Street. It’s more polite but it’s the same idea. And there were plenty of people who thought it was rude enough in 1916.

* Translates roughly as “Hortense said, “I don’t give a fuck!”

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my  book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc. For 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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