Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Toujours Gai, Mon Cher

Some call it the City of Light, others call it the city for lovers. Bursting to the brim with culture and romance, Paris has never lacked visual or visceral delights.
Whether the subject is falling in love in Paris or falling in love with Paris, itself, many a songwriter has been inspired by the city's charms. Songs from vastly different eras may all relate to Paris, yet of the following examples, only one has become a popular standard.

For many San Franciscans, December was filled with sadness and stress as a result of the recent election results and the deaths of several beloved artists. Thankfully, there were a few bright moments to raise one's spirits.

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On December 3rd, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival held a day-long minifestival at the Castro Theatre entitled A Day of Silents. One of the more delicious treats on the program was Ernst Lubitsch’s last silent film for Warner Brothers: 1926's So This Is Paris. If the plot seems awfully similar to the action in Johann Strauss II's beloved 1874 operetta, Die Fledermaus, one should not be the least bit surprised.

Poster art for 1926's So This Is Paris
Georgette (Lilyan Tashman) and her husband, Maurice (George
Beranger) are "artistic types" in 1926's So This Is Paris

The story is simple enough. Two couples live in apartment buildings on opposite sides of the street. Each consists of a husband and his bored, sexually-frustrated wife.

Georgette (Lilyan Tashman) and her husband, Maurice (George
Beranger) are "artistic types" in 1926's So This Is Paris
A partygoer enjoys a drink with Dr. Paul Giraud
(Monte Blue) in a scene from So This Is Paris

Under normal circumstances, there would be absolutely no reason for these two couples to get tangled up in each other's lives. However, Suzanne's voyeurism gets the best of her once she espies Maurice's exposed torso through his bedroom window. Pretending to be scandalized, she insists that her husband go across the street and insist that the rude exhibitionist immediately put on some clothes or close the drapes.

As Paul crosses the street, he passes Maurice (who has just left his building to run an errand). Upon finding the right apartment, Giraud discovers that Lalle's wife, Georgette, is a former lover from days gone by. An old spark is quickly re-ignited and, with no idea of what has transpired while he was gone, Maurice returns home, is introduced to Giraud, and effusively welcomes the good doctor into his home.

As Suzanne sits by the radio listening to dance music being broadcast from the Artists Ball that (unbeknownst to her) her husband has snuck out to attend, she imagines the excitement accompanying the music. With its almost kaleidoscopic optics and inebriated sense of joie de vivre, the exuberant Charleston dance is a highlight of the film.

While Dr. Giraud is out partying, Maurice responds to Suzanne's invitation to pay her a visit and quickly becomes inflamed with desire. A multitude of complications ensue. In her program essay, Margarita Landazuri notes that:
"Lubitsch had left Germany before the full flowering of Weimar excess, but the sexual innuendo for which he became famous is more playful than decadent. Flamboyant jazz-era Hollywood was a perfect fit for his witty visual commentary (also very Lubitschean is some sly Freudian business with a cane)."
Monte Blue shares a cigarette in a scene from So This Is Paris

Using a restored 35mm print from the Library of Congress, this screening was accompanied on piano by Donald Sosin. Others in the film's cast included Dot Farley as Madame Moreau, Max Barwyn as a detective, Sidney D'Albrook as a policeman, and a very young Myrna Loy as Georgette's maid.

Patsy Ruth Miller portrays Suzanne, a bored
housewife, in 1926's So This Is Paris

So This Is Paris proved to be a much-needed tonic for the audience in the Castro Theatre. Filled with Harold Grieve's handsome sets and a wealth of superb costumes, its droll comedy and exuberant spirit were a welcome relief from the world outside.

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My theatrical calendar for 2016 finished up with a production that could easily be described as a curious novelty item. Directed by John Fisher and Kathryn L. Wood (who jointly designed and directed the production as well), Theatre Rhinoceros staged Gertrude Stein and a Companion. Although the playwright, Win Wells, died in 1983, his play premiered off-Broadway in January 1986 with a cast headed by Jan Miner as Gertrude Stein and Marian Seldes as Alice B. Toklas (the script was published posthumously by Samuel French, Inc. in 1986).

Kathryn L. Wood (Gertrude) and Elaine Jennings (Alice)
co-star in the Theatre Rhinoceros production of 
Gertrude Stein and a Companion (Photo by: David Wilson)

Since then, the play has enjoyed numerous productions by small theatre companies, winning the Best Play awards at the Edinburgh Festival and Sydney Theatre Festival (as well as the Vita Award for Best Play in South Africa). It offers two juicy roles for the famous literary lesbians who, having grown up in the San Francisco Bay area, lived together at 27 Rue de Fleurus and socialized with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and others in Paris's community of artists.

Gertrude Stein and a Companion brings to life a form of intellectual intimacy that is rarely depicted onstage. Some of the dialogue in Wells's play has been culled from Stein's writing; other portions are his own. Where Wells succeeds is in capturing the spoken rhythms of two women who have grown so close that they don't merely complete each other's sentences; Gertrude and Alice joyfully play with words as if each new use of a word creates an idea bubble that can be volleyed between them like a tennis ball.

Kathryn L. Wood co-stars as Gertrude Stein in
Gertrude Stein and a Companion (Photo by: David Wilson)

Structured as a series of vignettes that jump back and forth in time, the play begins on July 27, 1946, as Alice announces that Gertrude Stein has died at the age of 72. Although Wells's play got its title from the fact that Ernest Hemingway disliked Toklas so much that he refused to say her name (always referring to her as Stein's companion), the script weaves a tapestry of a lesbian relationship that spanned four decades.

Whether they had to deal with the disapproval of Gertrude's brother, Leo, or cope with having Nazi officers billeted in their apartment during World War II, the quick thinking and resourcefulness of these two women got them through many a personal and professional crisis. Wells also makes clear that Gertrude was the "star" personality who needed to be pampered and tended to while Toklas (who, although she lacked any previous experience, launched a publishing company to preserve Stein's work), didn't let her Jewish background prevent her from traveling to Rome to convince the Pope to arrange a way for them to be together in heaven.

While Kathryn L. Wood delivers an ebullient and robust portrayal of Stein, I was more impressed with the way Elaine Jennings captures the sometimes mousy, yet often steely personality of Alice B. Toklas. Whether sneaking one of Matisse's paintings from Stein's formidable art collection out of their apartment in order to pay for the publishing costs for one of Stein's books or battling poverty and ill health in her later years (Toklas died on March 7, 1967 at the age of 89), Jennings offered a complex and layered character study of the devoted friend and lover who quietly ruled Stein's world.

Alice B. Toklas (Elaine Jennings) confronts a Nazi officer
(Haley Bertelsen) in a scene from Win Wells's play
Gertrude Stein and a Companion (Photo by: David Wilson)

Haley Bertelsen appeared in a series of cameos described in the program as "Everybody Else" while, to my amusement, John Fisher and Joe Talley were listed as understudies for the roles of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

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