Wait For The Moment When: Bubonic Plague

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…” The Black Death” – comes to Paris in 1889. This is the ghastly premise of SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950). Ingenue Victoria Barton (Jean Simmons¤ at her shrillest) arrives from Naples with her brother Johnny (David Tomlinson) for the opening of the Exposition Universelle. John feels unnaturally tired. During the night, the bell in his room – No 19 – at the Hotel de la Licorne¤¤ rings and rings and rings. The night porter – sturdy but apparently half-witted – goes upstairs. It is 1.50 a.m.

A fresh and brilliant May morning dawns for the Exposition; everyone dresses in their best, blithe as larks. But Room 19 and its occupant have now unaccountably and completely disappeared.

This short and pacey movie pivots on two pairs of brothers and sisters: in each case the woman proves the stronger and more vigorous half of the partnership. John and Vicky have a relationship more akin to that of father and daughter; they are also mistaken for man and wife¤¤¤. Their opposite numbers are the hotel proprietress Mme Herve and her submissive brother Narcisse. Madame is played by Cathleen Nesbitt, Rupert Brooke’s great love. She is the dominant figure of the entire film, stealing the picture from a cast which includes Dirk Bogarde, Honor Blackman, Andre Morell and Eugene Deckers. Playing the predatory concierge as a French Mrs Danvers, and terrorising – though never subduing – the tiresome but persisent ‘petite Anglaise’, Cathleen also finishes as the (implied & ironic) heroine of the picture. In removing the English patient to a remote provincial hospital and by denying his very existence, Mme Herve has saved France and the vast investment of the Exposition from scandal and complete disaster. The unspoken inference is that despite her GASLIGHT tactics with Miss Barton, Madame may well end up by being decorated with the Legion D’Honneur in appreciation of her quick thinking. A subversive view of our French cousins if you like.

The film presents other ambiguities. Has the plague in fact been securely contained in a convent lazaret? We remember the early scenes of the picture with Johnny Barton already sickening on the boat¤¤¤¤ to Marseilles; his mingling with the crowds in the lobby of the hotel; his evening with Victoria at the Moulin Rouge. And here the film cheats a little as the famous dance hall did not open until October 6th, a month before the end of the exposition. Be that as it may, we see the famous elephant and the knickery girls¤¤¤¤¤ leaping about and descending to the dance floor by saucy chute. One dancer even sits on John’s knee and steals a kiss. Goodness! His infection must already be all over Paris by the time Mme has his room bricked up. Maybe there is a hint of this in the black lace domino donned by Victoria. A decorative disguise which also suggests a sinister facial rash or skin eruption; a more glamorous version of the leather hoods and masks worn by seventeenth century plague doctors.

Death is in the air, literally. On the Champs de Mars we see ‘Nina and Louis’ gaily ascending in an air balloon only to be burned alive as the thing mysteriously ignites during the flight. Jean Simmons’ facial reaction to this horror is inadequate – as though she has missed a ‘bus – but the incident suggests a universal meaningless malevolence now abroad in Paris. The appalling reek of the balloon wreckage encourages the viewer to consider disease as many people would have still thought of it in 1889 – the widespread notion that sickness is spread by smell; the ancient miasma theory. We have another clue to the importance of smell in the presence of tardy decorators in the Hotel de la Licorne and the concomitant odour of paint. Not to mention the impressionist canvases in Dirk Bogarde’s atelier and – maybe – the extremely elaborate dresses of the women, boned and buckram’d and bustled: entirely restrictive and quite unsuitable for touring a vast exhibition on a warm May day. “Horses sweat, gentlemen perspire, ladies gently glow”.

And then there are the lavish dressings of the hotel sets: busy, fussy, crowded, claustophobic. Mme Herve’s private parlour is an extraordinarily faithful re-creation of late Victorian interior decoration – a closed and airless room crammed and hung with thousands of knick-knacks and gewgaws. in the early 1950’s the craftsmen who built these sets could – like the costume designers – still remember the authentic look of such things from their youth. We can also appreciate Mme’s priorites – her worldly goods and respect for her own wellbeing – reflected in this crammed assemblage which includes a comforting champagne bucket.

My grandmother (1891 – 1966) certainly subscribed to miasma theory. I remember very well as a child being made to cover my mouth and nose with a handkerchief, preferably cologne-soaked, when passing pools of stagnant water or whiffy ditches – sure breeders of disease simply by inhalation of odour. Mrs Taylor had learned these theories from her own father who was famous for his championing of The Leicester Method in his work as Health Inspector of Leicester. The city was still experiencing smallpox epidemics as late as the early 1930’s: my great grandfather had died in 1923 at 1979. He had never retired. He – like many contemporaries – had vehemently resisted inoculation, instead recommending isolation and seclusion of patients and (as in ‘The Tale of Mr Tod’) intensive fumigation of their bedding, belongings and premises. The sick were sealed up with their families, just as in 1665. Then, Londoners had packed their mouths and nostrils with herbs and spices before venturing on to the streets and believed the plague smelled of sweet rotting apples. And maybe they were right: we know now that dogs can be trained to smell cancer in humans, and to detect the ketones which predict the approach of an epileptic seizure.

We have already remarked on the role of the Moulin Rouge in SO LONG AT THE FAIR; and we see the Eiffel Tower as it was then presented – though not yet quite finished – as the official gateway to the Exposition. But a third Parisian icon of 1889 is not referred to. For this was the year in which Aime Guerlain launched the farouche and magnificent Jicky upon the world. A candidate for the accolade of being the first ‘modern’ perfume, Jicky is still, despite 21st century tinkering, a stunner. I first read about this scent about 100 years ago in J R Ackerley’s startling & singular memoir My Father And Myself. Old man Ackerley was not only the Fyffe’s Banana King but a bigamist who treated both wives to huge bottles of this most eccentric of scents. (J.R.’s mother kept a pet fly in her bathroom). Entranced by the name and the context, I took myself off to Harrods to smell Jicky for myself: with all that coumarin, vanillin, patchouli lavender and civet I thought it the wildest thing I had ever encountered.

Years later, I took a large flacon of Jicky eau de parfum with me to Samarkand where it helped to pull me through a devastating bout of food poisoning. The aged and resourceful chamber maid swabbed me down with a filthy floor cloth dipped in raw vodka, and I made with the Jicky. My temperature fell from that moment and I was soon fit to be bundled onto a bus bound for Bukhara: the designated hotel in that city was – we were told – built on the site of a medieval plague pit. It was undoubtedly haunted. A curious set of circumstances, weirdly  foreshadowing those of SO LONG AT THE FAIR…

¤ she lived in my road, in N7. The current occupants of the house are trying to get up a Blue Plaque.

¤¤ The Hotel of the Unicorn: the unicorn may be lured, trapped and harnessed only by a pure & virtuous maiden. Our Miss Barton.

¤¤¤ in the 1938 German version of the story VERWEHTE SPUREN, an UFA vehicle for Kristina Soderbaum, the unlucky couple are mother and daughter.

¤¤¤¤ a ship which looks very similar to that which crushes Magwitch beneath its paddles in David Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Is it the same?

¤¤¤¤¤ the girls of The Damora Ballet, screen can-can dancers par excellence? Unbilled: but I think it must be them. One or two of the faces look familiar – and of course the legs…

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