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An Ode to the Barber Shop

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Isn’t it amazing just how much of our lives we take for granted? The vast majority of us have never really taken into consideration the organizational effort that goes into running a local library or operating a small business. Like most of us, I have eaten at pubs, borrowed library books, and gotten my haircut without giving a second thought to the little intricacies that make such things possible. Then my barber decided to retire.

If I’m honest, learning that John, my barber of over five years, had decided to retire threw me in a loop. The prospect of finding a decent, skilled barber who could deal with my thick, wavy hair seemed virtually insurmountable. The truth is that the relationship John and I had ran deeper than just mere haircuts. Our friendship was based on a familiarity built over a number of years. John knew my hair and knew how I liked it. And I had the honour of having my hair cut by a man who had been barbering since the mid-sixties, and who was a pillar of his community.

John was one of a dying breed: the traditional barber. They offered men a haircut and, perhaps, a shave (occupational health and safety not withstanding), and little else. These barber shops were usually small and run by only a few men. They had built personal relationships with their clients over a number of years. These barbers knew their customers, knew their backgrounds, and knew how they liked their hair. (Naturally, this was dependent on clients returning to the same barber year after year, month after month).

The traditional barber is a relic of a bygone age. Whenever I think of old-fashioned barber shops, I think of the 1920s to the 1950s, of a world of glamour and sophistication when ladies wore evening dresses and men had neat hair and wore dinner jackets. When I think of old-fashioned barber shops, I think of the Rat Pack and James Bond and the movie stars of the 1930s to the 1950s. For me, the old-fashioned barber shop is synonymous with timeless male style.

Sadly, society no longer believes in style, glamour, and sophistication. The traditional barber shop has given way to a cruder, wannabe variety. These establishments are more masculinised hair dressing salons than proper barber shops. These places think that by offering cheap haircuts in an atmosphere immersed in masculine nostalgia – usually achieved through wood paneling, empty Jack Daniels bottles, and pictures of men doing “manly” things – they can achieve the mantle of the traditional barber shop.

The truth is that they can’t. Gruff looking barbers with arms covered in tattoos are about as far away as one can get from the dapper gentlemen who cut men’s hair in the past. When I walk out of the barber, I want to look and feel like Cary Grant, not like a thug. John made that happen for me. He and his kind are vanishing rapidly. They will be missed.

HOLLYWOOD STEPS OUT

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There is more to life than just politics. And in the spirit of such a sentiment, this article will take a light-hearted focus on an aspect of popular culture. In specific, it will examine the stars, personalities, and faces that are featured in the 1941 Merrie Melodies cartoon, Hollywood Steps Out.

The cartoon takes place in Ciro’s Nightclub, which is located from 1940 to 1957 on Sunset Boulevard. A neon sign ironically advertises a meal for $50.00 (US$860.00 in today’s money). The first two stars we see are Claudette Colbert (1903 – 1996), famous for playing sophisticated women in light-hearted comedies and emotional dramas, and Don Ameche (1908 – 1993), a film and radio personality who played debonair men. Seated behind them are Adolphe Menjou (1890 – 1963) and Norma Shearer (1902 – 1983), who played spunky and sexually liberated women.

The first interaction occurs between Cary Grant (1904 – 1986), iconic for playing debonair leading men, and the Swedish-American film star, Greta Garbo (1905 – 1990), who is acting as the cigarette girl.

In the next scene, we are introduced to Edward G. Robinson (1893 – 1973), who rose to fame playing gangsters in films like Little Caesar, talking to Ann Sheridan (1915 – 1967). Robinson makes reference to the fact that Sheridan had been voted the actress with the most “oomph” by asking her how her “oomph” is.

The cartoon then pans across a series of tables. At the first table is Henry Binder and Leon Schlesinger (1884 – 1949), both of whom were Warner Brothers staffers. The next three tables are empty. The first is reserved for Bette Davis (1908 – 1989), famous for playing unsympathetic, sardonic characters. The second is reserved for Kate Smith (1907 – 1986), the corpulent American signer. The third is reserved for the cast of Blondie, a radio sitcom that ran from 1939 to 1950. Finally, a fire hydrant has been reserved for Daisy the Dog.

The cartoon then takes us to the cloaking room. Johnny Weissmuller (1904 – 1984), an Olympic swimming champion best known for playing Tarzan (the famous Tarzan yell is his), hands Paulette Goddard (1910 – 1990), a former Ziegfeld girl and film star, his coat. Following Weissmuller is the burlesque dancer, Sally Rand (1904 – 1979). Rand hands Goddard her famous feathers and leaves, presumably naked.

At the bar sits James Cagney (1899 – 1986), famous for playing gangsters, Humphrey Bogart (1899 – 1957), famous for playing cynical and hardboiled characters in film noir pictures, and George Raft (1901 – 1980), also famous for playing gangsters. They are depicted drinking, planning a crime, and pitching pennies.

Harpo Marx (1888 – 1964), the famous prankster of the Marx Brothers, is seen lighting a match under Greta Garbo’s feet.

Next, Clark Gable (1901 – 1960), the undisputed King of Hollywood and star of films like Gone with the Wind, is depicted sitting alone at a table.

Bing Crosby (1903 – 1977), a famous crooner known for songs like “White Christmas, introduces the composer Leopold Stokowski (1882 – 1977) as the evening’s entertainment. Stokowski was best known for his work on Disney’s Fantasia.

In the restaurant, Dorothy Lamour (1914 – 1986), an actress and singer, asks James Stewart (1908 – 1997), known for playing shy, everyman characters, if he would dance with her. Stewart runs away after seeing Lamour dance and leaves behind a sign saying, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (a reference to one of Stewart’s films).

Several famous stars are depicted on the dance floor. Tyrone Power (1914 – 1958), known for playing swashbuckling and romantic leads, dances with the Olympic champion figure skater and film star, Sonja Hennie (1912 – 1969). Frankenstein is depicted dancing mechanically. The Three Stooges, one of the most iconic slapstick comedy groups of all time, poke and slap each other in rhythm. Oliver Hardy (1892 – 1957), the fatter half of the Laurel and Hardy comedy duo, dances with two women at the same time. Finally, Caesar Romero (1907 – 1994), dances with Rita Hayworth (1918 – 1987), star of films like Gilda.

Mickey Rooney (1920 – 2014), who found fame playing Andy Hardy, and Judy Garland (1922 – 1969), a notable singer, dancer, vaudevillian, and film star best remembered for playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Rooney asks Lewis Stone (1879 – 1953), an American character actor, if he can have a “heart to heart talk” with him.

For the next performance, Crosby introduces Sally Rand (he introduces her as Sally Strand, no doubt for legal reasons) and her famous bubble dance. The radio personality and bandleader, Kay Kyser (1905 – 1985), calls to his students. These are William Powell (1892 – 1984), known for playing debonair men, Spencer Tracy (1900 – 1967), known for his natural style and versatility, Ronald Colman (1891 – 1958), Errol Flynn (1909 – 1959), the Australian-American film star famous for playing swashbuckling heroes, Wallace Beery (1885 – 1949), and the English cricketer and film star, C. Aubrey Smith (1863 – 1948).

The Austro-Hungarian born actor, Peter Lorre (1904 – 1964), known for playing creepy and cowardly characters, is depicted sitting at a table by himself. Henry Fonda (1907 – 1982), known for playing characters brimming with heroic integrity, sits at the next table. The voice that calls out “Hen-ree” is a reference to Alice Aldrich of the Aldrich family. Finally, J. Edgar Hoover (1895 – 1972), the legendary first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is depicted repeating “g” over and over again.

At the next table is Boris Karloff (1887 – 1972), most famous for playing Frankenstein, Arthur Treacher (1894 – 1975), a comedian best known for playing stereotypical Englishmen, Buster Keaton (1895 – 1966), a silent-era comedian who legendary status is bettered only by Charlie Chaplin (1889 – 1977), and the Russian-American film star, Mischa Auer (1905 – 1967).  The man who asks them if they are enjoying themselves is Ned Sparks (1883 – 1957), a Canadian character actor known for playing serious characters.

At the next table is Jerry Colonna (1904 – 1986), a well-known musician and comedian, sitting with the invisible man. Finally, the woman Clark Gable has spent the entire cartoon chasing is revealed to be none other than Groucho Marx (1890 – 1977).

FATS DOMINO

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This week for our cultural article, we will be celebrating the life of Fats Domino: the legendary New Orleans rock ‘n’ roller who died last Tuesday at the age of eighty-nine.

Fats Domino was born Antoine Dominique Domino, Jr. on February 26th, 1928, in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was the youngest of Antoine Caliste Domino’s (1879 – 1964) and Marie-Donatille Gros’ (1886 – 1971) eight children. and introduced him to New Orleans’ music scene, which would be a major influence on his later music. Fats’ came from a musical family. At seven-years-old, he was taught to play the piano by his brother-in-law, Harrison Verret (1907 – 1965). Additionally, Verret also introduced Fats to the New Orleans’ music scene, which would become a major influence on his later music.

By the age of ten, Fats was performing as a singer and a pianist. Four years later, he dropped out of school completely to pursue a career in music. To support himself during this time, Fats took on odd jobs – factory work, hauling ice, and so forth. By 1946, Fats had begun playing leading piano with the well-known New Orleans bass player and bandleader, Billy Diamond (1916 – 2011). It was Diamond who gave Domino the nickname, “Fats”. Years later, Diamond would reminisce:

“I knew Fats from hanging out at a grocery store. He reminded me of Fats Waller and Fats Pichon. Those guys were big names and Antoine—that’s what everybody called him then—had just got married and gained weight. I started calling him ‘Fats’ and it stuck.”

Diamond’s audiences were impressed by Fat’s rare talents and by the end of the 1940s the New Orleans’ pianist had attracted a very substantial following. As a musician, Fats was versed in numerous musical styles – blues, boogie-woogie, ragtime – and had drawn inspiration from pianists like Meade Lux Lewis (1895 – 1964) and singers like Louis Jordan (1908 – 1975).

In 1949, Fats met his long-term collaborator, Dave Bartholomew (1920 – ). Around the same time, Fats signed a record contract with Imperial Records. Fats’ first song with the label, The Fat Man (a play on his own nickname), would sell a million copies and reach number two on the Rhythm and Blues Charts.

Fats stood out as a performer due to the combination of his baritone voice, unique piano-playing style, the saxophone rifts of Herbert Hardesty (1925 – 2016), and the drum after-beats of Earl Palmer (1924 – 2008). The release of Ain’t That A Shame in 1955 exposed Fats to the mainstream public and helped make him the most popular African American rock ‘n’ roll artist. His upward trajectory continued with two film performances in 1956: Shake, Rattle and Rock, and the Girl Can’t Help It, and the recording of five top-forty hits, including, My Blue Heaven, and Blueberry Hill (which reached number two).

By the early 1960s, however, Fats music had lost much of its original popularity. In 1963, he moved to ABC-Paramount Records and parted ways with his long-time collaborator, Dave Bartholomew. The arrangement would be short lived with Fats parting ways with ABC-Paramount, returning to New Orleans, and rekindling his professional relationship with Dave Bartholomew in 1965.

Fats and Bartholomew would collaborate until 1970, culminating in the 1968 cover of The Beatles’ Lady Madonna (ironically, a tribute to Fats Domino in and of itself). During this time, Fats failed to experience significant chart success. In 1986, Fats was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of their inaugural lists.

Fats retired from touring following a health scare in Europe in 1995. Outside of the occasional performance at the New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Festival, he lived a mostly private life with his wife, Rosemary Hall (1930 – 2008), and his eight children. In 1998, Fats accepted a National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton (1946 – ).

Fats refused to leave New Orleans – and abandon his sick wife – during Hurricane Katrina. His home was badly flooded and he lost most of his possessions. He was rescued by the Coast Guard on September First. Following the disaster, Fats released Alive and Kicking and donated a proportion of the sales to the Tipitana Foundation which helped New Orleans’ struggling musicians.

Following the album’s release, Fats retreated back into private life and largely shunned publicity. In 2008, Rosemary Hall, his wife of fifty years, died of chronic illness. Fats joined her on October 26th, 2017, at the age of eighty-nine.

Fats Domino must be credited as a key pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll. Together with Jerry Lee Lewis (1935 – ) and Little Richard (1932 – ), Fats style of piano playing helped define the new genre of music and inspired dozens of future musicians. No wonder The Rolling Stone Record Guide likened him to Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790).

THE NIGHT WATCH

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This week for our cultural article, we will be examining Rembrandt’s (1606 – 1669) 1642 painting, “The Night Watch.”

“The Night Watch” represents a style of painting that was unique to Holland and the northern Netherlands during the 17th century: the Schuttersstuk. Furthermore, Rembrandt’s rendition is, in and of itself, a highly original rendition in that it does not rely upon the typical rows of figures common to the style. Instead, Rembrandt’s painting featured animated subjects engaged in the various duties and responsibilities of the Civic Guard.

Painted using oils on a 142.9 by 172.0-inch canvas, “The Night Watch” is Rembrandt’s largest painting. Despite its title, the painting is actually set during the day. The reason the painting’s background looks so dark is that the varnish Rembrandt used darkened over the years. It was restored to its original glory in the 1940s, but the name “The Night Watch” stuck. On a side note, it is interesting to observe Rembrandt’s well-known use of the technique ‘chiaroscuror’ (Italian for ‘light-dark’) which uses light and dark to create dramatic contrasts and a sense of three-dimensionality.

Painted during the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt was commissioned to create the painting by the Kloveniersdolen – the guild hall of the Amsterdam Civic Guard Company of Musketeers. In the Netherlands, Civic Guardsmen were tasked with the defence of their cities, the maintenance of law and order, firefighting, and forming a strong presence during festivities and parades for visiting royalty. Each company of Civic Guardsmen had its own guild hall decorated, according to tradition, with group portraits of distinguished members. These portraits were designed to evoke a sense of affinity between the members of the company and asserted their power and status within the cities they protected.

MOONLIGHT SERENADE

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This week for our cultural article we will be looking at Glenn Miller’s signature tune, the dreamy ballad Moonlight Serenade.

BIG BAND JAZZ

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Moonlight Serenade is a classic of Big Band Jazz, a popular form of music during the Swing Era of the 1930s and 1940s. Unlike smaller jazz combos, which relies heavily on improvisation, Big Band Jazz is usually highly arranged. It typically involves ten or more musicians, including a minimum of three trumpeters, two or more trombonists, four or more saxophonists, and a rhythm section consisting of a pianist, bassist, guitarist, and drummer

GLENN MILLER

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Glenn Miller was born on March 1st, 1904 in Iowa. His family moved frequently through his childhood: first to Missouri, then to Nebraska, before finally settling in Colorado in 1918. Miller briefly played the mandolin before switching to the trombone. He played in the school band while attending High School in Fort Morgan, Colorado.

Upon graduating in 1921, Miller joined Boyd Senter’s Orchestra. He left the band briefly in 1923 to attend college, but quit after a year to return to music. He worked with the Ben Pollack Band in Los Angeles, California, before moving to New York City to work as a freelance trombonist and arranger.

In 1934, Miller became the musical director for Tommy Dorsey’s Band. The next year, Miller would form an American orchestra for British bandleader, Ray Noble. That same year, Miller formed his own band and began recording under his own name.

The Glenn Miller Orchestra found fame in 1939 when it performed at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York.  The performance was broadcasted on the radio, exposing Glenn Miller to millions of people.

On December 15th, 1944, the transport plane taking Miller to the newly liberated Paris disappeared. He was forty-years-old.

THE SONG

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Moonlight Serenade was written in 1935 when Miller was working as a trombonist with the Ray Noble Band. In 1938, Miller used the song has a theme for his NBC radio broadcast.  On April 4th, 1939, Miller recorded Moonlight Serenade as a b-side for Sunrise Serenade.  The song became a success, becoming a top ten hit on the US Pop Charts, and reached number three on the Billboard charts, where it stayed for fifteen weeks.

Miller’s Moonlight Serenade symbolises the sound of a by-gone era. An era when men wore suits and women wore dresses, and when Big Band Jazz ruled the airwaves. Why not consider giving it a listen?

MARTIN SCORSESE’S THE AVIATOR AND THE INCREDIBLE LIFE OF HOWARD HUGHES

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For our weekly cultural article, we will be examining Martin Scorsese’s 2004 masterpiece, the Aviator: a biopic of the legendary businessman, aviator, filmmaker, and eccentric, Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. (1905 – 1976).

THE FILM

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The Aviator stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn (1907 – 2003), and Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner (1922 – 1990). It focuses on Hughes’ glory years and is set between the late 1920s and the late 1940s.

The film essentially follows two competing storylines.  The first storyline depicts Hughes’ struggle with his mental health, his battle with his worsening OCD and paranoia which, by the end of his life, would culminate in utter madness. In this guise, Hughes is depicted as a man whose intense germophobia renders him unable to touch the doorknob of a public toilet (he has to wait for someone else to open the door so he can leave), who washes his hands so ferociously he actually draws blood, who gets stuck repeating the same phrase over and over again (“the way of the future, the way of the future, the way of the future”), and who locks himself in his projection room for months on end.

The second storyline focuses on Hughes’ life as an entrepreneur: his success as a filmmaker, his successful career as an aviation pioneer, and his fight with the Senate War Investigating Committee. In this guise, Hughes is depicted as a man of unbridled ambition spurned on by his incredible early successes and comforted by legions of romantic conquests (which would include Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, among others). The film opens with Hughes directing the Hell’s Angels (1930). An early theme is quickly established, with Hughes’ peers ridiculing him for his boldness and ambition.  By the end of the film, Hughes defies prediction by successfully test flying the H-4 Hercules.

HOWARD HUGHES: THE MAN

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The Aviator ends after Hughes’ after the successful test flight of the Hercules. In real life, Hughes lived another twenty-nine years and died a lunatic and a recluse. If you happened upon the man during the final years of his life you would describe him as an impoverished and gaudy man of six-foot-four. When he died of kidney failure in 1976, he weighed only 40kg, had grotesquely long fingernails, toenails, hair, and beard, and had hypodermic needles embedded in his arms. So unrecognisable was Hughes that the FBI was forced to rely on his fingerprints to identify him.

Howard Hughes ought to be remembered, and admired, as a brilliant businessman and pioneer. He was an eccentric perfectionist who, between the ages of eighteen and seventy, managed to amass a personal wealth of one-and-a-half billion dollars. He was a man who made remarkable, and often groundbreaking, successes in film, aviation, and real estate. Between 1926 and 1957, Hughes produced twenty-six movies, including Scarface (1932) and the Outlaw (1943), and directed the classic World War One air warfare film Hell’s Angels (1930).

As an aviator, Hughes’ not only helped to revolutionise air travel, he also set many aviation records personally. In 1935, Hughes set the overland flying record by travelling nearly 352mph over Santa Ana, California. In 1937, Hughes set the record for transcontinental flight by flying from Burbank California to Newark, New Jersey in seven hours, twenty-eight minutes, and twenty-five seconds. Then in 1938, Hughes, along with a four man team, circumnavigated the globe in a record three days, nineteen hours, and seventeen minutes.

In a re-release trailer for Hell’s Angels, Howard Hughes is introduced as:

“Howard Hughes: millionaire genius, was a pioneer in aviation and motion pictures. He defied convention,  set new patterns for others to follow, made stars of unknowns, and left the world a legacy of film classics.”

Howard Hughes represents a type of man that doesn’t really exist anymore: the bold, dashing, larger-than-life individual. A man who achieved incredible things against what was often overwhelming odds. It is characters like Hughes that build countries and improve the world we all live in. And it is films like the Aviator which presents their stories to us.