Thursday, July 31, 2008

Such A Pretty Face

Long before Joan Rivers discovered the benefits of plastic surgery, many young Jewish girls were not only considered to be beautiful, but had a considerable amount of self esteem. A young woman's physical beauty was only part of the total package. Intelligence, wit, and personality brought an extra level of sparkle into play.

Several years ago, when the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screened the 1936 Molly Picon classic Yidl mitn fidl (which was filmed on location in Poland just before World War II), it was astonishing to see an entire cast of Polish Jews without a single reconstructive rhinoplasty. Look at some of today's highly sanitized beauty pageants and you will notice an astonishing vapidity among the contestants.

To say I was curious about a documentary entitled Miss Universe 1929 -- Lisl Goldarbeiter, A Queen in Wien would be a severe understatement. To my surprise, I got much more than I had bargained for. Using a similar technique to the one he employed in The Danube Exodus, documentarian Péter Forgács spun cinema gold from the amateur movies taken by Maritz (Marci) Tenczer. Along with some archival footage from nearly 100 years ago, Forgacs has imbued the story of a sweet Jewish teenager living in Vienna in the 1920s -- who was crowned Miss Austria and went on to win the 1929 Miss Universe contest in Galveston, Texas -- with a tremendous sense of history.

What makes Lisl Goldarbeiter's triumph so curious is her seeming lack of ego for a major beauty contestant. She turned down an offer from King Vidor to come to Hollywood and, in many clips, seems amused by -- but not desperate for -- the attention she receives. In some ways her beauty comes from her shyness and simplicity. Little makeup. No implants. No contest for today's bottle blonde media whores.

The key to understanding the film lies within the heart of the original filmmaker. It was Tenczer (Goldarbeiter's Hungarian cousin and second husband) who entered Lisl's name in the Miss Universe contest and lovingly filmed her throughout her life. While the documentary -- and comments made by the eldery Tenczer -- memorialize his life-long infatuation with his Viennese cousin, the historic value of the film is equally thrilling. There is some great footage of the streets of Vienna during the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s with occasional side trips to Paris, Bratislava, and Galveston. Lovers of antique cars may find themselves drooling at the shots of Lisl and her first husband's eight-cylinder Bugatti. Fashion mavens will love the footage of society balls.

The story of how Tenczer (a certified engineer) survived the war and eventually married the girl of his dreams provides a happy ending which shows love's flame burning brightly despite the hardships imposed by the Germans during World War II and the inevitable passage of time. Equally fascinating is Tulip Time -- The Rise and Fall of the Trio Lescano, a documentary by Marco De Stefanis and Tonino Boniotti which focuses on the Dutch singing trio who settled in Italy and were every bit as famous throughout Europe as the Andrews Sisters were in America.

Where today's musicians consider themselves worthy of a gold record with sales of 50,000, the Trio Lescano could easily sell 350,000 recordings of some songs. The children of a Hungarian circus artist and a Dutch soprano who performed in operettas, the three sisters started out as gymnasts who, even though they could not read music, knew how to pose and move. Soon after being discovered by impresario Carlo Prato at a circus performing outside the city of Verona, they were taught how to memorize new songs. Their innate musicality as circus performers helped them develop a uniquely blended sound which was always in synch and easily marketable.

Not only were the Trio Lescano the darlings of the popular music scene in Europe, Mussolini once danced with one of the sisters and confessed to being one of their biggest fans. That kind of adoration and worship quickly vanished in 1943, when the Trio Lescano's lyrics were labeled anti-fascist, their recording contract cancelled and the sisters revealed to be Jews. Soon they were arrested and held in custody. Following their release the trio sought to rebuild their career in South America but, while performing there, one of the sisters fell in love, married, and decided to leave the group. The film includes interviews with several other European musicians from the 1940s (including one woman who joined the group as a replacement singer).

The documentary neatly traces the rise and fall of Sandra, Giuditta and Caterinetta Leschan, whose careers ended in illness and surprising poverty. The musical score, with songs they made popular from 1938 to 1943, is an absolute delight. In addition to its musical interest, Tulip Time offers lovers of 1940s nostalgia a great look at hair styles and period costumes.

Definitely worth watching.

1 comment:

L said...

Great post. Hope I can find the films.