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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Kiss me, my fool.

ThedaBarawikimedia

To celebrate the centenary of its release I sat down and watched ‘A Fool There Was’ on the You Tube: the great sex shocker of 1914 which propelled Theda Bara upon the world, the first screen femme fatale: The Vamp. Hard to believe that an almost mythic movie has played for 100 years. Bara (nee Goodman) died, not old, the year I was born. Refused a certificate in Great Britain, the movie still retains the power to shock, not by its prurience but in the final shots of a man reduced to human wreckage and total physical & psychological degradation. I squeaked aloud in my chair. ‘Some of him lived / but the most of him died’ reads the title card. It’s a theme that von Sternberg and Dietrich returned to with even greater effect some 15 years later: a pillar of society reduced by sex to a baying, dying beast.

Theda Bara has less to do in the film than I had imagined: she is taller, too, and rather more attractive. She was probably the cinema’s first brunette leading lady, the original wicked dark-haired temptress, a creature of the Night destroying the daughters of Light and their lawful wedded husbands. Her wide mouth is covered in lip rouge which photographs as black, and her huge inky eyes are liberally smeared with Vaseline and candle smoke. She is heaped with clothes in the especially hideous styles of the day; in one sequence her feet become entangled in her fish tail train. I can’t decide whether this is a cute device to give the viewer an eyeful of her ankles or whether the director either didn’t notice or couldn’t be bothered to cut.

Roses, cruelly used, are her leit motif. We first see the Vamp smelling two flowers, then tearing them to pieces: the destruction of her prey, the denial of her own femininity, the end of innocence. In one sequence of startling phaliic symbolism she disarms a rejected admirer who draws a gun on her by stroking the the revolver – now detumescent and redundant – with the rose she carries. Whereat the wretched man shoots himself.

The Vamp and her confreres play cards, loll around half-dressed, let down their back hair and indulge in a lot of what my mother used to call ‘posturing’. But interestingly perfume is not part of the picture. Scent does not appear though the viewer rather anticipates shots of atomisers and drenching showers of musky fragrance as an additional sign of shameless sin. After all this film was made in a Golden Age of perfume: L’Heure Bleue, Jicky, Quelques Fleurs, Narcisse Noir, Phul Nana, Shem-El-Nessim and the early Coty repertoire were all by then on the dressing tables of the rich & fashionable.

Maybe Theda Bara’s director – Frank Powell – felt that his Vamp should exude her own seductive and noxious aroma, like a night-blooming flesh-eating flower; that she should lure men to their doom by an involuntarily secreted deadly & delectable unnatural odour. Writings and novels of this period describe scent as being emitted by hair, clothing, furs, fabrics and furnishings rather than by the skin …” a faint delicious fragrance hung about her..”. But perfume actually poured onto the skin? Or oozing from it? A subject then ‘too difficult even to talk about’ as the adverts used to say. Too animal, too raw, too downright carnal: ideal for Theda Bara.

Now all you have to do is run the movie!

Image: Wikimedia Commons

HMS Titanic

The Titanic

My eye caught this week by a 1st Class Sunday Luncheon Menu from the Titanic, up for auction shortly and expected to fetch in excess of £100,000. The last lunch before the sinking, and a most extraordinary menu it looks to the fine diner of today: mutton chops, corned beef, beetroot and lettuce, brawn, cockaleekie soup, dumplings,jacket potatoes and custard puddings; lager at 6d a tankard. One might say at best, plain and hearty. I thought of the great Edwardian beauty Diana Cooper and her comment in extreme old age,”no wonder we were all so fat – even the ballerinas.”

So this is what the Astors, the Guggenheims and the Strausses (who owned Macy’s) tucked into. And the exquisite Lady Duff Gordon (sister of best-selling novelist and inventor of the “It” girl, Elinor Glyn). Under the nom de guerre of “Lucile” she was then London’s leading couturiere: later that night as she sat in a lifeboat in a icy sea surrounded by drowning souls, her only comment was to remark to her lady-secretary,”there is your beautiful nightgown gone!”

I discovered the Titanic one Christmas afternoon in the 1960’s when A Night To Remember popped up on tv: it was strong stuff for those days and made my parents (not generally squeamish)feel rather sick. But the disaster and all its attendant myths, legends and factoids cast its heady spell over us as it has done across the world for a century.
So many anecdotes, factoids and theories now encrust the wreck like barnacles: the cursed mummy of an Egyptian princess in the hold, bound for a New York museum; a priceless jewelled copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; the prototype of Creed‘s Erolfa found in a stateroom; the anti-Catholic propaganda encoded on the hull; “Nearer My God To Thee” as the liner finally roared to the bottom of the ocean; and was she in fact after all deliberately scuppered as part of an insurance scam?

I’ve also wondered (as the two tragic anniversaries coincide this spring), whether the news of Scott’s expedition and death in Antarctica was already known to Titanic passengers as they sailed. Did these two sagas of British bravery and (sometimes) heroism burst on the public almost simultaneously? And on a more frivolous note, had those hearty eaters in 1st Class flacons of Quelques Fleurs, L’Heure Bleue and Narcisse Noir tucked in their muffs and Dorothy bags? Not to mention Jicky for the bold, and Apres L’Ondee for the demure. Did they radiate sillage of Phul Nana, Hasu No Hana and other Grossmith perfume spectaculars as they walked off their meals on B deck; or unwound their fur boas and hobble skirts for a massage or Turkish bath?  No doubt Piver’s spicy masculine leather scents and Houbigant‘s innovative Fougere Royale were well known to the valets of Ben Guggenheim and J J Astor: “We are dressed in our best and prepared to go down like gentlemen”.

Technically all the above should have been available, tho I cannot yet trace the month in 1912 when L’Heure Bleue and Quelques Fleurs were launched. Perfume archives tend to be rather meagre; but, regular readers, please write in if you can shed more light. Your views on this and any topic always invaluable. Probably you’ve read about Night Star, the fragrance inspired by perfume phials found in the wreck. Maybe some of you are booked for the centenary memorial cruise out of Belfast in April and have already chosen an appropriate scent.

There is something magical and deeply moving to know that you will be smelling a perfume that was in the air on that fatal night of 14/15 April. People often neglect their sense of smell but think! To smell, say, Fougere Royale is the sensory equivalent of hearing Hartley’s band playing ragtime; tasting the corned beef hash or the salt air of the northern Atlantic; seeing the iceberg looming out of the dark….Brings it home to you, doesn’t it? Gives you goose bumps. As it should.

For C. – because it happened on her birthday.

Image from titanicuniverse.com