The peculiar innocence and comedic vulgarity of the past

The sexual innocence and comedic vulgarity in old movies reminds me that we’ve entirely lost the innocence and replaced it with crude sexual vulgarity.

InnocenceThis is not a post about politics. I need a break from politics. Instead, it’s a post that follows on from a conversation I had via email with a friend who saw Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. I’ve been aware of the movie for a couple of years now, since it was a project many watched with interest.

Peter Jackson took footage of WWI and brought it to life using technology that not only colorized it but sharpened it as if was filmed yesterday, not one hundred and more years ago. He then added voice overs and sound effects, making the footage as rich and full as if it were a documentary about the Iraq War, rather than WWI. I’ve already bought my ticket and will be seeing the Marin showing on December 27. I’m very excited.

My friend commented that, having already seen the movie, he couldn’t get one song out of his head. Here’s the song — Mademoiselle from Armentières — although it’s important you know that the crude footage is not from Jackson’s movie:

I know that song. I know a lot of WWI songs. My grandmother lived in Belgium during WWI and learned the songs during the liberation. When I was a child, we’d sing those songs with her: Over There, Mademoiselle from Armentières, How’re You Going To Keep Them Down on the Farm, and my favorite, It’s A Long Way To Tipperary. I still sang that last song with my children when they were little. I doubt they remember the song now, but back in the day, they were probably the only elementary school children in America who knew those songs. Judy Garland sings a great medley of some of those songs in an otherwise “meh” movie, For Me And My Gal:

Anyway, my friend said that what struck him so forcibly about the film in connection with the song was how innocent many of those young men were when they went off to war. While the song is about a lusty innkeeper’s daughter, many of the young men who went off to fight were virgins.

That didn’t surprise me. These young men were the last relics of the late Victorian period. While it’s unlikely that many Victorians disguised their piano’s legs to avoid offending sensibilities, the reality is that it was an innocent time. The burgeoning middle class in both America and England was incredibly high-minded. Young men read about chivalry, but not the bloody, violent, murderous reality that was medieval chivalry. Instead, they read about the romantic aspirations of medieval chivalry which, while they failed to tame those long-ago knights, were in fact exceptionally useful tools for civilizing Western culture.

By 1914, the chivalric concept that found its home in England and America in the second half of the 19th century had raised up several generations of young men and women who were imbued with notions of honor, purity, knights and fair ladies, brave battles with flags flying, and all the romance that could be associated with both war and courtship. In some ways, it was a lovely time.

It was certainly unlike our time, a time in which little boys are not only dressed like girls and paraded before homosexual bar flies, but publicly lauded for doing so; little girl’s clothing can be called little slut’s clothing; and song lyrics are about sex and even, in Rihanna’s case, violent sex. Back then, provided that they were middle class, children were allowed to be children, without sleazy sexuality being thrust upon them.

Of course, the downside was that this innocence prepared boys to be high-minded cannon fodder, completely unversed in true warfare. They believed war as an honorable, gallant adventure, rather than a painful, bloody, dirty business. (That’s how a lot of young men went into the American Civil War. Four years disabused them entirely of that notion, but by 1917, their sons and grandsons had forgotten those lessons.)

Speaking of girl’s clothing (and yes, this is yet another detour from my main point), I was as shocked as anyone when, in a recent Simpson’s episode, the writers tackled tawdry children’s clothing. The “Daddicus Finch” episode was yet another in a long line of slightly boring “Homer and Lisa bond” episodes. What made it stand out for me was the trigger for Lisa suddenly seeing Homer as an Atticus Finch character. An unwilling Homer took Lisa clothes shopping and was horrified by what he found in the store (starting at 4:20):

HOMER: Let’s get something sweet for my little girl. Sugar and spice and everything . . . what the?! [Seeing the signs for products.] “Twerking girl”? “Ho, Sweet Ho”? “Baby’s First Thong”?

SALES CLERK: Those are just a few of our high-end brands. We also have “Call of Booty,” “Raggedy Anorexic,” “The Edge of 13,” and, for boys, “Jack the Stripper.”

HOMER: Oh, for crying out loud! Okay, that’s it. I’ve heard enough and three past that. My daughter is still a sweet little girl. [Grabbing a string bikini off the rack.] What the? [Grabbing a thong off the rack.] Oh, come on! [Grabbing a sleazy swimsuit off the rack.] My daughter’s not a sex object. She’s a respect object. Innocent girls. Knee socks. Grow up too fast. I will see you all in court. [At which point all the Mom’s in the store applaud and Lisa sees Homer as Atticus Finch.]

We do not live in innocent times.

But once again, let me get back to my main point, expressed in my post title, about the peculiar combination of innocence and vulgarity that characterized the past.

Over the past couple of weeks, TCM (which is about the only TV I watch aside from Supernatural) has been having a Dick Powell retrospective. Powell had an interesting career. A tenor, he hit the big time as the “juvenile” (i.e., the young, male singing lead) in that groundbreaking 1933 movie, 42nd Street.

After 42nd Street, Powell was in an endless string of 1930s and 1940s musicals. He was in all of the Gold Digger movies, plus a bunch of other light musicals with Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, and Blondell, to name but a few. Almost all of the movies had music with melodies by the phenomenal Harry Warren, and lyrics by everyone from Al Dubin to Johnny Mercer. Busby Berkeley choreographed many of them. The movies are usually pretty bad, but I love fast forwarding from one musical number to the other.

Powell was a very pleasant actor, although it’s hard now to imagine him as a romantic leading man. He had a slightly over-sized head, chipmunk cheeks, and an unusually wide, mobile smile, that made him look like a happy goblin. But Powell’s characters were invariably sweet and honest, and he could sing.

Indeed, here’s Powell in 1933 singing with The Mills Brothers. This is an unusual moment in early Hollywood that saw blacks and whites performing together as equals:

Then, in 1944, when Powell was way too old to play “juveniles,” he got the role of Phillip Marlowe, the hard-boiled detective, turning his career around in an instant. It was an impressive transformation and gave him a strong second career until he died, way too young, in 1963.

Let me once again drag myself back to the main point. Watching all these Dick Powell musicals from the 1930s highlighted the bizarre mixture of innocence on the one hand and really crude humor on the other hand that was so typical back in the day. Take Hollywood Hotel, for example.

Before I get to my point (and yes, I get very discursive when I talk about old Hollywood movies), Hollywood Hotel is another movie in which black performers and white performers shared the screen. I cannot recommend highly enough this Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, and Teddy Wilson performance:

(As another aside, the movie includes Sing, Sing, Sing. The reception for that number was so good, Benny Goodman was inspired to perform at Carnegie Hall. The rest, of course, is history.)

But back (yet again) to my main point. One of the songs in the film is a charming number called “Let That Be A Lesson To You.” It’s first performed by Benny Goodman, with the leader singer being the delightful, “you’ve got to see him because he’s so over the top” Johnny “Scat” Davis. After Davis does the first version, the scene shifts to a drive-in where Dick Powell is working as a waiter. The song is playing on the radio, and Powell sings it along with his love interest, Rosemary Lane. Soon, everyone at the drive-in sings along.

Sadly, I can’t find video of the whole number, but you can hear the song here:

Also, this 23 second snippet gives you a sense of what an “over the top” performer Johnny “Scat” Davis was. He was married with children, but nowadays I’d honestly expect to see him in a dress performing in a drag show:

You can see that same inimitable style here too (from the same movie):

But I’ve gotten off track again. (I do love old musicals and the stories behind them.) What this whole post has been building up to is the way the movie stages the song Let That Be A Lesson To You. So, let me drag you back to that drive-in I mentioned, where Powell is working as a waiter. It’s a great scene, with families, old men, little kids, and college kids all singing along. That’s the wholesome part that was such a staple of American musicals for decades.

The interaction between Powell and Lane highlights that their romance is wholesome in a way unique to those old movies: sweet songs; restrained, closed-mouth kisses; tremendous respect from the boy towards the girl; and soft love and affection from the girl to the boy. Try to imagine that nowadays in pop culture….

But back (again) to the song. If you listen to the whole thing, at 3:40 minutes in, you’ll hear something weird: A woman with a bizarre, squeaky voice, and a man with a tuneless, rough voice. And this is where the vulgarity comes in, because those two singers exemplify a certain truly vulgar vein comedy that ran through all those 30s musicals, whether Warner Brother or MGM, or any other studio.

The woman is Mabel Todd, who was married to Morey Amsterdam. If Amsterdam’s name is familiar, it’s because he played the wisecracking Buddy Sorrell in The Dick Van Dyke Show. The Amsterdam-Todd marriage lasted 11 years, ending in 1945. Famously, their divorce was so bitter that Amsterdam would never speak of it and even tried not to speak of Todd again. As he later said, “She was an interesting talent that is truly forgotten . . . even by her first husband.”

Todd’s brand of humor was “Dumb Dora.” With her wide mouth, short chin, and squeaky voice, she played a variety of stupid, grasping (that is, truly physically grasping), but never evil, women who threw themselves at men. And when I say “threw themselves at men,” I mean that literally. She wasn’t a vamp; she was an over-eager toddler.

The man you hear singing is Ted Healy. If you’re a fan of the Three Stooges, that name may sound familiar. The Stooges broke into Hollywood in an act called “Ted Healy and his Three Stooges.” Here’s footage of an early Ted Healy act with only two stooges:

As you can see, the act is juvenile and vulgar, not in a sexual way, but in the way of terribly low humor.

Healy, in fact, was a vulgar man. By the time of Hollywood Hotel, it’s apparent that years of alcohol abuse had roughened his features and his voice. That movie, in fact, was the last anyone would see of Healy. He died not long after, in a sad and sordid way. Although he was a rough character, Healy adored children and he’d just had a son — his first child.

Healy went out drinking to celebrate his new baby, and got into a fight with three men. What happened that night is unclear, since Hollywood was still carefully cleaning up its scandals back then. The men might have been anonymous college students, or they might have been Wallace Beery, Albert R. Broccoli (of James Bond fame), and Broccoli’s cousin, Pat DiCicco. In any event, the men brutally beat Healy and he died shortly after the fight, whether from injuries he sustained or from nephritis and organ breakdown due to chronic alcoholism. It may also have been a combination of everything that killed him. Guys with damaged kidneys and a decomposing liver are not going to respond well to a savage beating.

Be that as it may, I’d like you to see what passed for humor in 1933, right alongside almost Victorian sweet and wholesome romance. While I don’t have a clip of the whole Let That Be A Lesson To You, I do have a clip of Todd’s and Healy’s part:

To me, there’s nothing charming about it. It ruins a cute song, slows down a great number, and is stupid and vulgar in a creepy, unpleasant way.

I don’t think I’m alone in my reaction to that bit of shtick. Nowadays, of course, you’ll have people looking completely askance at this kind of crude physical humor (especially considering that Healy has a ready-made #MeToo claim against Todd). At the same time, both Hollywood and a large share of the American audience, think nothing of having people run around naked, have sex within minutes of meeting, sing about S&M relationships, and do all sorts of anything-but-innocent stuff in popular culture.

I actually don’t have a conclusion to draw. This was all observation, about a time so far-away and different that it’s almost impossible to comprehend.

Just for fun, I’ll leave you with my current favorite Harry Warren, Al Dubin, Dick Powell song:

(If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to converse with me in person, this post is pretty representative. I never lose side of my main point, but I do take frequent conversational detours on the way there.)