“…give him the air!”

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Sometimes after a busy day in our shop I feel absolutely soaked and saturated in scent. I am exuding fragrance from every pore, like a dying agar tree or a sticky cistus bush. Scent seems to be within me as well as without. I am, as the French say, wonderfully  “embalmed”¤ in perfume, like the ancient Egyptian procedures evoked in ANUBIS. I am pleased to remember that the necromancer sorcerers and priests of Karnak & Thebes used fragrance as a spell to reconstitute flesh and to renew life. Being pickled in perfume can be a rather attractive sensation, although it is disconcerting when taxi drivers lower the windows during the ride home; or if people look askance and shift themselves on the Tube. Mind you, the most unsettling thing on the Underground nowadays is that I need only step into a carriage to have kind young people leap to their feet, proffering seats. It is very kind but also a memento mori.

The other day, I was given a lift to the shops. At the traffic lights I looked over into the car drawn up alongside. Despite it being a warm sunny morning all the windows were sealed. The driver stubbed out one cigarette and in a single smooth fluid movement lit another. “Kid like you shouldn’t smoke so heavy”. Quite a rare sight these days, to see someone so kippered in tobacco smoke. I thought of all those post-war British movies which revel in the evocation of claustrophobic smells. Remember a badly hung-over Jean Kent frowsting between grubby sheets with a caged parrot at the end of her bed?  There are bottles of every sort all over the place, and a quarter ounce of “Seduction” is ungraciously slammed down on the dressing table as the woman In question¤¤ examines her furred tongue in the glass and lards on more lipstick.

How the camera lingers over the slovenly antics of Susan Shaw in ‘It Always Rains on Sunday’ (1947). She comes home from a dance at 3am, too drunk to undress, and falls into bed in her clothes: later we see her hanging up her crumpled frock, evidently preparatory to another outing. No question of the dry cleaners: maybe a dab with a petrol-soaked rag later. Presently, she has a bath in front of the kitchen range and washes out her undies in the dirty water. As I watch these films over and again, I notice all the open doors and windows¤¤¤. People then believed in fresh air, and the directors and set dressers never forgot it. Considerably more recently – 30 years ago – I remember my father, purple in the face, wrenching open sealed windows (like Louis XVI at Marie Antoinette’s bedside) in over-heated restaurants. They’d have the police on him, now.

It’s all very different from a tv ad I saw last night – a strange thing! A young woman is unaware that her lovely home reeks of dog. Her guest is repelled. A huge title flashes up to announce she’s become “NOSE BLIND”. (I gather there’s another version featuring a chap whose furniture is impregnated with the smell of beefburgers: other people’s lives…!).  Our parents and grandparents were only too aware that they had to be on the lookout for unwelcome odours, and so they took natural precautions. If you fried fish, then you opened the house doors fore and aft for a cleansing through-draught. But the poor confined girl with the bulldog has become complacent and anosmic in a world where everything is ruthlessly deodorised, disinfected and hermetically sealed: and in which no one now expects to eat a peck of dirt before they die.¤¤¤¤

When I’m drenched in scent like a pre-Revolutionary Marquis  – last Friday it was with LITTLE BIANCA, our new rosy and romantic Exclusive by Alberto Morillas – I like to pass the fragrance on. And one does so, willy nilly, like the coloured dust from a butterfly’s wing. If you are well perfumed the sillage will lightly and persuasively invade the auras of those you meet, greet and embrace. Greek courtesans, it is said, used to immerse their sandals in fragrance and so lay an enticing trail in the dust. A perfumed scarf or handkerchief will pass on a Chinese whisper of scent. No doubt I leave traces on those Underground banquettes or cab seats. Should you be intrigued by this idea, let me remind you that the palms of the hand are wonderful conductors of scent: spray them with your fragrance and you will leave a little of yourself on everyone & everything you touch.

There was a most amusing man on the wireless recently, talking about the connection of hands across history and peoples. Apparently when Barry Humphries shook hands with Arthur Miller all he could think was, “This was the hand that once caressed Marilyn”. Well – I have shaken hands with Daniel Day Lewis – Miller’s son-in-law – so I’m now a tiny link in that immortal adamantine chain.

I have mentioned before that when I clasped Marlene Dietrich’s hand back in ’72 – the nails painted to match the gold and rose Balenciaga trouser suit – the hand was curiously and wonderfully perfumed. In fact it dripped & dropped perfume, like the myrrh so sensually described in the Song of Solomon. If you have a sense of romance, picture that gallant inventive little German hand – frost-bitten from the War – passing on its redolence to Piaf, Alexander Fleming, General Patton, Jean Gabin, Moshe Dayan, the Beatles, Gary Cooper, Noel Coward, Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Princess Margaret, Orson Welles,  JFK, Fred Perry, Audrey Hepburn, the Burtons ….and on & on. It’s a glorious metaphor for the irresistible pervasiveness of smell and scent. Doors and windows cannot keep perfume out: as Nancy Mitford wrote of the Duc de Richelieu, if you put him out of the door he comes back down the chimney.

Pass it on!

¤ “embaumer 1.vt to embalm 2. vt to give out a fragrance, be fragrant; l’air embaumait le lilas – the air was balmy with the scent of lilac..” – Collins Robert French Dictionary.

¤¤ in the film of the same name: 1950.

¤¤¤ take a look at Fred and Laura’s well-aired house in ‘Brief Encounter’.

¤¤¤¤ LW has already consumed his share, and keeps on munching.

All Hold Hands!

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Well, this has been a dismal week that has led us a weary way to midsummer and to the Referendum. Strange auguries!¤ The scent of the roses has been blotted out by the constant rain: the inundation of the Midlands has been terrible. All I can smell are water and damp; bubbling drains, wet conifers and woody bonfire smoke.

“Praise for the sweetness
Of the wet garden..”

But things can go too far; get out of hand. It is more like October than June. The downpours have bleached the landscape to a uniform shade of dun, like very old cotton garments. I’ve been watching greedily the rose buds thicken and proliferate on the bushes since March and now they have burst indeed, but into only poor sodden rotting sponges. I’ve been waiting for the perfume of those Constance Spry’s for eleven months and now I’ve all but missed it. Like Ayesha, I must wait a small eternity for the pillar of living flame to come rolling round again.   “Chastening work, gardening!” – a terrible reminder of the vanity of human hopes. The only thing to hold onto is, that the garden ultimately rights itself in an eternal cycle, and certainly not solely by the agency of human hands.

Our hands! The hands that will duly inscribe the ballot paper on June 23rd now tie up the shattered lupins and collect the snails in a pail. Hands that speak a second language, and reveal in their marks and movements, their opening and closing, all the secrets of their owner’s character. What the Chinese admiringly call “orchid hands”.

And those “pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar…pale hands, pink tipped, like Lotus buds that float …pale dispensers of my Joys and Pains…”. Or, as it may be: dry, cracked and crinkled like autumn leaves or baby armadillos¤¤.

Hands – like our noses and sense of smell – are even more individual than we once thought. Pathologists can now identify a person by the whorls, flecks and lines on the back of a hand as definitively as by finger prints. And look at your palms, lined like miniature maps of the universe – the tracks of the stars and of your tears. “All human life is here”.

Years ago, long before I came to work at Les Senteurs, I lived for a season in Germany. An aged neighbour, with whom I used to drink Advocaat and eat Spekulos biscuits of a Friday evening, told me I had hands like the Madonna. I have never had such an extravagant – fanciful, even – compliment, before or since. The dear lady still had very sharp eyes: she must have seen something that neither I nor anyone else ever has. She also told me that during the War her husband – a relative of Chekov’s – had obliged her to wear a certain perfume simply because it was endorsed by the actress Zarah Leander for whom the late Herr Zirkenbach had had “ein Schwarm”.

We were looking at the shop the other day at a French phrase book published by the Daily Mail in 1930 – “Conversations of Real Use”. There is included a charming vignette “At The Perfumery”: interestingly, the vendeuse sprays the scent on Mme Dupont’s palm, not her wrist or the back of the hand. The fleshy palm (often a cannibal treat in times gone by) is an excellent reflector of perfume: it holds and disperses fragrance well and tenaciously. In addition, the palm is convenient and highly accessible for smelling while one is assessing the effect. And besides, if you wear scent on your palms, you will leave your exotic invasive imprint on everything – and everyone – you touch. A delicious memory, a fragrant echo left in your wake: an act of possessing – “I belong to Mme Bonaparte”.

It may well be that for us reticent British this is going just a little too far; a disconcerting act of intimacy. And I daresay the wrist is also a more practical and democratic area for testing: putting perfume on the palms is a bit like growing six inch Manchu finger nails. Unless you lead a life of complete luxurious leisure, the palms are going to be speedily corrupted by the countless smells of daily life, one rapidly succeeding the other. On the other hand, once your choice is made why not try the trick, at least for one enchanted evening? If you jib at spraying direct onto the hand – and, ladies! watch your nail polish! – then add your scent to a spot of unfragranced hand cream and so apply. I have been on the receiving end of this style of vampery: it is quite intoxicating. We are so sensitive to new smells that you only have to shake hands – at the very least – to seem subsumed in the other’s aura, drenched in their personality. ¤¤¤

You all remember what Chanel said – “wear perfume wherever you wish to be kissed”. The romantic novelist Elinor Glyn – the original identifier & curator of “It” – is said to have suggested to Rudolph Valentino that he kissed the palm of his leading lady’s hand rather than the conventional back. The result is well known – fans jumped into live volcanoes. Enjoy your perfume responsibly!’

¤ yesterday a great buzzard soared overhead in the vasty and briefly blue empyrean: now what does that signify?

¤¤ remember Madge, the outspoken manicurist of the Fairy Liquid ads?

– “Sorry I’m late, Madge, they were mending the roads!”

– “Looks like you stopped to lend a hand..”

¤¤¤ I am thinking of Dietrich’s hands exuding Youth Dew outside the Stage Door of the Queen’s Theatre: June 1972. (And see also today’s illustration, as above).

Blood And Sand: Part One

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The stirring emotional scent of wet earth and newly-turned soil – “the red earth of Tara” or the aubergine-purple ploughed fields of the Midlands – has influenced many fragrances. Eighty years ago Jean Patou’s Colony explored the swampy forest floor of Indo-China. But what of the smells of apparently barren terrain? Eternal wastes of wilderness; the endless deserts – burning hot by day, penetratingly cold after the nightly drama of the death of the sun. Icy conditions numb, shrink and diminish smells and their perception. Antarctic explorers tell us of months in the snows, smelling nothing at all except the occasional pungent whiff of guano from a colony of exceptionally fishy sea birds. Extremes of temperature do perfume no favours, as all good fragrance curators know.

Yet the romance of the bare eastern desert – “on your far hills, long cold and grey” – has inspired many strange, beautiful and remarkable scents. The magic of these lies in the shifting shimmering sands which ensnare and capture elusive and deceptive odours, yielding them up as a Fata Morgana, sporadically and reluctantly, under the probing and teasing of the perpetual winds. Each grain of sand is a minute particle of a lost desiccated civilisation; of primeval rocks; of vanished lives. Each is the tiny crystalline cocoon of an infinity of odiferous molecules: a perfume paradox of the quick and the dead. A master perfumer can create a living dream from a handful of desert dust: an expansive gorgeous butterfly crawling from a wizened brown chrysalis. A marvellous dream born of a gusty void.

The desert – “the face of the infinite” – represented the apogee of exotic eroticism to our great grandparents. The expansion and refinement of the science of archaeology awoke the hearts and minds of the late Victorians to the romance of the enigmatic sands. Those drifting dunes which had silently and implacably engulfed cities and empires in preservative powder now began to give up their secret lives & smells. The canopic jars, dried flowers and perfume phials found in the tombs demonstrated how important scent had been to these lost civilisations. It is not coincidental that the modern oriental family of fragrances was classified around the time of the Tutankhamun mania of the early 1920’s. Novels such as The Sheikh, Beau Geste and The Garden of Allah dropped the historical connections and ran with the raw appeal of the desert and its wild hot-blooded denizens, crazed by sun, wind and sand.

Some of my readers may remember Vallee des Rois, the heady Harrods perfume exclusive of the 1980’s: in its lapis blue sea-glass flacons, Vallee was more Nile than desert nullah. It was very sweet, and to me smelled of hot lemon & honey with a twist of tuberose. Elizabeth Moore’s Anubis captures the perfume of the Egyptian dead more dramatically and exactly. Here we smell kings and courtiers laid out for eternity in those spices, resins and incense oils which, through their own intrinsic magic restored the embalmed to the delights of The Second Life.

The moods of the ever-changing desert are sketched in Andy Tauer’s bewitching pair: L’Air du Desert Marocain and Le Maroc Pour Elle. If L’Air is the cool night wind of the Maghreb desert, then Pour Elle with its passionate musky jasmine is more reminiscent of Arab or Berber myth. Its heady odour is like that of a seductive succubus whirled into some semblance of human shape by wreathed blown sands, leading a man to perdition in a far mirage. It is the scent a cinema audience may imagine emanating from Marlene Dietrich as she kicks off her high heels at the climax of MOROCCO¤ to follow Gary Cooper and the Legion into the Sahara, bare headed and barefoot in a wispy cocktail dress.

Pierre Guillaume, too, has an affinity with the desert. Maybe perfumers love  this wilderness theme because it is as mutable, enthralling and elusive as fragrance itself. One’s mouth waters at the crimson oasis earth of Dhjenne, fertile with palms, green wheat and cocoa beans: “as pants the hart for cooling streams…”. Guillaume’s earlier fragrance, the graceful Harmatan Noir, is delicate and wistful – faint but pervasive trails of mint tea, white jasmine, cedar and salt carried on the air currents across the northern wastes of the Dark Continent.

The Romans – who inadvertently created the Sahara by the extinction of the once vast forests of North Africa – brought the desert back to the Seven Hills in the sinister shape of the sandy arena of the Colisseum: a miniature landscape peopled with African beasts and the condemned from all over the known world. It was here – “lit by live torches” and saturated by the smells of roses, incense, excrement and the “sweaty nightcaps” of the mob – that the concept of blood and sand was first horribly born. We shall consider this in more detail next week.

¤”She’s not half stuck on herself” murmured a girl sat behind the young Quentin Crisp at a London showing in 1930. You can rendezvous with Marlene, back in the desert & swathed in white chiffon, in the movie version of the GARDEN OF ALLAH, shot in beautiful 1936 Technicolor. “…In the silence you’ll hear a box-office record crashing..” ran the ambiguous ads.

The Coconuts

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When I was a tot we had a annual fair come to our village. It was held in the scrubby fields before the railway bridge, long since built over with offices and warehouses. Naturally, we never saw it all lit up by night; it was said to be unspeakably dangerous¤ after dark, and besides my mother had three children of five and under. My father hated fairs and had his work to do. So we went in the afternoon, in convoy: the pushchair, the pugs on leads continually underfoot, and Mrs Sarson bringing up the rear, full of dire warnings about carny folk, kidnapped kiddies and faulty machinery. We were allowed to go on no rides except the Dodgems and the Merry-Go-Round. Waltzers and the like (to my guilty relief) were strictly out of bounds. I was 23 before I took my first and only trip on the Big Wheel and at once wished I hadn’t.

Of course we were forbidden to eat any fairground goodies: the sugary-sizzling toffee apples, frizzly fries or clouds of tawdry-glamorous rosy candy floss. And of course we grizzled and whined until a taste was finally allowed – “you won’t like it, you’ll see!” – only to find it so much Dead Sea Fruit: the hard green apples so sour, the gleaming shellac coating so perilous to teeth and the floss sticking creepily to one’s face and clothes like shocking pink ectoplasm. Funny to remember how sticky hands drive small children mad. We were told to spit on an adult’s hanky and were then roughly wiped down like Mrs Tabitha Twitchit’s kittens.

There was a coconut shy. I don’t know if the nuts were glued on in the traditional way, but our infantile bombardment never shifted one. Then one year the publican’s son came with us and knocked off a prize and presented it to my mother on whom I think now he probably had a crush. We took it home, all rough and hairy like a shrunken head, and marvelled at it. No one had the faintest idea what to do with the thing beyond exhibiting its trophy status. The adults thought the contents were likely to be not particularly good for us: they had been through the privations of the World Wars, remember, and I think probably had very little idea what coconuts were, outside of the South Seas ads for Bounty bars (which nobody liked anyway).

“Oh! That poor Coconut!” It ended up cracked open with a hammer in the back yard, and then we gnawed the white flesh from the larger of the gritty fragments – a slow, messy and disappointing business. But the smell was good and I’ve loved any sort of coconut accord ever since, whether in soap, shampoo, hand cream, scent or mixed with raspberry jam in maids of honour. I find it sensuous and calming and fun.

It’s a tricky oil to play with in perfumery as an excess of coconut can be overwhelming & suffocating and too much reminiscent of sun tan lotion: however, a perfumer of imagination like the great Sarah McCartney makes a virtue of this with her witty trip to a very lickable seaside in WHAT I DID ON MY HOLIDAYS. Coconut is a quintessential perfume paradox: it often appears to be where it is not. As Miss Dietrich used to say: “Ich habe den Eindruck gegeben, nicht wahr? Aber ich war es nicht!”¤¤

In glorious tropicana scents like ASHOKA and COCCOBELLO an accord of fig trees or fig milk creates an olfactory illusion of coconut palms; and of the fragrant water contained inside the young green fruits that is suddenly the preferred health drink of the moment. Don’t say it was I that told you, but apparently the water is so pure and blessed that you can at a pinch use it in an emergency as a substitute for human plasma. And of course it is quite a different substance to the coconut milk which is prepared by human hands from the mature fruit, and which tastes and smells so good in a green Thai curry.

If you prefer your coconut served more sweet and gummy, try E.Coudray’s gourmand life-enhancer VANILLE & COCO.  BIJOU ROMANTIQUE on the other hand uses the accord as delicately and transparently as a piece of frosted sea glass through which you glimpse a triton’s garden of jewelled underwater flowers. Please also bear in mind that – as Frederic Malle and Dominique Ropion found when they created CARNAL FLOWER – the tuberose flower secretes a molecule very reminiscent of coconut. This adds a delicious ambiguity to many perfumes, notably Creed’s VIRGIN ISLAND WATER which reveals itself in many guises, rather like the antics of the Wizard of Oz: are you smelling waxen narcotic flowers or a Malibu cocktail – or a sparkling decoction of limes?

We’re all nuts for coconuts, us perfume knuts!

¤ fairgrounds certainly had a very alarming odour then – the sweating screeching barkers and their high-perfumed ladies; the oily engines; gaseous fumes; greasy illicit wads of paper money; fear.

¤¤ “I gave that impression, didn’t I? But I wasn’t!” ( Of her attributed eroticism )

WAIT FOR THE MOMENT WHEN: Orson Welles…

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… rolls & staggers into sex worker Marlene Dietrich’s establishment in TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) in search of Tanya’s pianola, chili and crystal ball. Hank Quinlan is an obscenely obese police chief on the U.S. / Mexican border: bloated, pocked and crippled by bitterness, prejudice, hate, alcohol and food.

“Have you forgotten your old friend?”.

Dark-eyed semi-gypsy Tanya glares at him blankly over the stained enamel cooking pot:

“I didn’t recognise you…you should lay off the candy bars …you’re a mess, honey”.

Tanya is a dusky cigar-smoking chili-brewing madam who offers all kinds of obscure pornographic services:

” The customers go for it. It’s old it’s new…we got the television too…we run movies…” (and the way in which she says this! Lewdness of lewdery!)”…what can I offer you?”.

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Dietrich and Welles were old friends – “when I’m with him I’m like a plant that’s been watered” – and he was fascinated by her, though apparently not sexually. She complained that he liked only blondes¤ but hinted that he saw her in a new light once she’d got Tanya’s black wig fitted.

That wig! Marlene apparently went through the wardrobe department and assembled her own costume of bits and bobs (a kind of hommage to Frida Kahlo). The wardrobe girls told her the wig had originally been worn by La Liz in RAINTREE COUNTY. Well, thought MD, it was made for a tart and I’m playing one so how apt. She loathed Taylor who had a disturbing trend of making off with her own lovers – Fisher, Todd, Wilding, maybe Burton…¤¤. Tanya has only four short scenes in TOUCH OF EVIL (all said to have been shot on location in a single night) – Dietrich and Welles were in high spirits improvising her role as they went along and giving Tanya the final (and best?) shot of the movie.

If you know THE BLUE ANGEL it is clear that Tanya is a sketch of Lola Lola grown well…not old, but ageless. She now has not only a pianola at home – “zu Haus in mein’ Salon” – but chili too : “Better be careful! It may be too hot for you.” Maybe she emigrated to Mexico pre-war or, more likely, was chased out of Germany in ’45 as a Mitlaufer. Lola is just the sort of little chancer who would have gone along with Hitler if she thought there was anything in it for her. Tanya’s cluttered dusty apartment is crammed with beaded fringed lamps, kitschy knick-knacks and even a stuffed bull’s head** that all remind us of BLUE ANGEL props. There are toys and so-shy’s (including a facetious plaster chipmunk) that echo the presence of Marlene’s own dolls that sat around in so many of her pictures in the early days. Above all there is the haunting rippling wonderful music (Henry Mancini’s finest hour) of the pianola (“at home my pianola Is played for all its worth”) echoing spectrally through the dusty, boiling hot-windy night which heaves with corruption, vitriol throwings, rapists and drug gangs; luring men and women to their doom like Lola’s burning moths.

This is still a shocking film, despite (or because of) being stuffed with outrageous black comedy – the Galgenhumor in which Orson and Marlene both revelled. Director as well as star, Welles has a lot of ironic fun with the placing & wording of signs – one of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s strippers, Zita, is blown to bits by a car bomb as her street wall poster – “ZITA: For this week only!” – is obliterated by acid. Back at Zsa Zsa’s joint there’s a sign prominently reading ‘Dining Room’ – presumably not an overused part of the house except for the proprietress’s preying on young flesh and the frailty of dirty old men. A dining room for vultures & vampires.

Charlton Heston (the good cop to Welles’s fiend: his face stained with the same walnut juice as used on Marlene) makes a call from a drugstore and the camera lingers on the placard “If you’re mean enough to steal from the blind help yourself “. Meanwhile the visually challenged proprietress exudes in close up a chumbling motiveless menacing
malevolence. At the climax of the movie Hank Quinlan commits murder in a hotel bedroom and fatally leaves his incriminating cane behind on the bed rail as the ” Stop! Forget Anything?” sign swings unseen on the door.

LW might write a dozen blogs on TOUCH OF EVIL without ever exhausting its wit and febrile fascination. But, for now, to touch on smells – if ever a movie stank it’s this; and there’s another Wellesian irony here because one of the main preoccupations of the camera is a knowing prurient voyeurism. The camera becomes the lubricious evil eye of Quinlan as Janet Leigh gratuitously lolls on her motel bed in boned white satin underwear – one of several prognostications of Hitcock’s PSYCHO. Then as Leigh is (apparently)*** gang-raped by Mercedes McCambridge’s leather gang – “I wanna watch!” growls the voice that later dubbed Linda Blair’s possession in THE EXORCIST. Mercedes was another chum of Welles and Dietrich – she doesn’t even get a credit for her terrifying cameo. All done just for fun. And so, to complement this voyeuristic motif, we have simultaneously a bombardment of words and images to conjure a powerful sense of smell and corruption: “it stinks in here! It’s a mess, a stinking mess!”. Choking clouds of marijuana; stained sweaty clothes; corrosive acid; chili; old perfume; grubby old beds; tobacco; blood; hair lacquer; Uncle Joe’s greasy toupee – “you lost ya rug!”; heat; petrol; cordite; electricity; leather jackets; hair cream; burning flesh; sex; fear; panic. And finally, the dark river choked with rot and ordure and refuse, with Hank Quinlan floating dead on his back in the black oil-slicked ooze. Tanya, lured from her den, wrapped in a coat that might be black silk or leather, watches like an omniscient ambiguous Aztec spirit of the night wind:

“What does it matter what you say about people? He was some kind of a man…”

Not half.

ORSON WELLES 1915 – 1985
MARLENE DIETRICH 1901 – 1992

¤ but what of his marriage to Rita Hayworth? Her famous red hair was of course dyed but Welles also had a long affair with gleaming brunette Dolores del Rio. Maybe MD was barking up the wrong tree here.

¤¤ a piece of paper was found in the avenue Montaigne apartment after her death “Open letter to Elizabeth Taylor … why don’t you swollow (sic) your diamonds and shut up?” Paris Match at once published it. MD was certainly dotty about Burton, though if they had an actual physical affair this has yet to come to light. “I’m behind you, Marlene!” – remember?

# and wait for the wonderful shot of Welles posed beneath the bull and its halo of banderillas – Quinlan’s own vision of himself as the brave old beast martyred in the pursuit of his duty.

* the naïve censor is placated by a weasel line of dialogue later on: Welles laughing up his sleeve again.

Wait for the Moment When: In The Blue Angel

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…when Professor Rath (Emil Jannings) shuts himself in his chaotic study¤ to peruse the lubricious postcards of Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) confiscated from his somewhat mature high school pupils. His pose anticipates the fascinated KING KONG examining a doll-like Fay Wray cradled in his palm.¤¤ With the guilty furtiveness of a pornographer, he blows on the feathered card (bird imagery saturates a film which begins aptly with a shot of women loading geese into coops). The fronds fly up to reveal the Dietrich stocking tops and thighs, the objects of his coming destruction. Dissolve to Lola Lola in person, singing a jaunty rude song¥ full of triple entendre, on the stage of the Blue Angel cabaret.

Which itself is like a disturbed child’s cut-out toy theatre jam-packed with grotesques. As a director Von Sternberg, like de Mille, believed in giving the viewer plenty to look at. Moribund obese girls sit drinking beer passed up to them by the even fatter landlord; cut-out cherubs, sunbursts, fountains, clouds, stuffed seagulls and anchors hang over their heads. Nets are draped around like sticky cobwebs. Phallic symbols abound. Lola Lola is shot from below to give us an eyeful of beautiful legs,# pearly plump thighs and suspenders. (The bemused and besotted Professor will be later commanded to roll on Lola’s stockings for her). Dietrich wears the first of a collector’s wardrobe of weirdly fetishist costumes, a shimmering strappy maillot of black sequins with a spangled butterfly in her tong-frizzed hair. Here is Marlene but not as we later knew her: grubby, cheerfully greedy, stupid, sexy and (initially) rather endearing, even loveable, wiping the beer from her lips with the end of her sash. Lola is a dirty postcard come to life. She seems devoid of emotions, an easy-going tart who preys idly on men to relieve her ennui and only incidentally for whatever rewards are going – a bottle of Sekt, a pineapple, a fur coat and in the Professor’s case an offer of marriage, accepted for a laugh. But her eyes light up like a serpent’s, like those a beast of prey as the Professor peers in through the filthy windows and stumbles into the Blue Angel to be entangled in the fishing nets: Lola turns a stage spotlight onto him as he struggles like a bluebottle caught by a plump blonde spider in backless transparent panniers. Her closeup then is astonishing, not for the ethereal beauty revealed in SHANGHAI EXPRESS or BLONDE VENUS, but she because she looks dangerously mad, an erotic Lumpen vampire. She has come to life with the smell of fresh blood and found something to do with her evening.

As you’d expect from a case study of sadomasochism, the film delights in casual images of cruelty, nastiness and threat. A dead canary is thrown into the stove by a shrewish landlady, a muzzled bear is pulled through the dressing rooms, moths burn in the lyrics of Lola’s song, an emasculated dumb clown mourns and gawps. The Professor bullies his pupils: they trip, entrap and spank the class sneak. Everyone shouts, fights, sneers and blusters – and lives in dread of the police. The characters in this most interior & claustrophobic of films crash, push and trample around like stockaded cattle. Lola’s frilled knickers (dropped, inspected, pocketed, used as a hanky) become the focus of everyone’s attention. It’s like a crazy drunken nightmare: and like a dream it is carnal, comic, surreal and terrifying by turns, each quality taken to extremes. As in a dream, too, the setting is vague and timeless. The very first shot of the movie is of Grimm/ Expressionist rooftops & gables establishing a dark Hansel and Gretl territory where any horrors may happen. There is no sense of a particular era: the studio streets are crooked medieval alleys and it is a shock when we briefly see the cast wearing fashions of 1929. There is a curious echo of THE BLUE ANGEL in Tod Browning’s much-banned FREAKS (1932): both as regards similarities of plot, setting, atmosphere, and in the climax of both films. The last few minutes of THE BLUE ANGEL achieve a rare pinnacle of hand-over-mouth horror as the pervasive bird motif explodes* once again back on the stage of the cabaret. (Wait for the moment when Hans Albers unpacks the straitjacket…).

This was intended to be Jannings’s film**, not Dietrich’s. His is the name above the title. The later fate of the cast after Hitler came to power is bizarre, extraordinary and tragic enhancing both the gloom and magnetism of the film. Marlene took American citizenship and metamorphosed into the most enigmatic and enduring of 20th century movie legends; for my money she was never again as good on screen as in The BLUE ANGEL. A luminous, unearthly and impossible glamour replaced her earlier liveliness and spontaneity. Her lover Von Sternberg helped her realise her potential as one of the most startlingly beautiful women of the cinema; but even as he laid the foundation for her legend Von Sternberg came close to ruining her as an actress. In 1929 Dietrich was heavier but sprightlier; and so assured, so natural, so spontaneous, so entirely within character – “she doesn’t ‘act’ common – she IS “. THE BLUE ANGEL is one of those rare and wonderful films when a star personality, a director’s vision and a script come together perfectly. As Marlene tugs at her crotch, snaps her suspenders and clucks like a hen we gaze fascinated at one of the great instinctive performances of cinema history.

This sinister hypnotic gripping film is as rich in the suggestion of stale, disturbing, invasive smells as it is in its startling and thrilling exploration of the new sound technology***. Dietrich herself was one of history’s great perfume lovers. In the movie our olfactory imaginations are constantly stimulated: cosmetics, creams and a large atomiser on Lola’s dressing table; face powder blown in the Professor’s eyes, endless cigarettes and unclean silk stockings; sweat, hair oil, burning hair and papers; cheap make up, ratty old clothes and wigs; chalk, dust and decay, slopped beer, pigs trotters with sauerkraut, “the roar of the crowd, the smell of the greasepaint”. And of course those eternal knickers. Even the Professor’s name is repeatedly corrupted from Rath to Unrath (“excrement”, by your leave). Which leads our noses into the animal stenches of lust, sex and body fluids. No wonder THE BLUE ANGEL was banned in Germany outright after 1933. The prurient, sensory realism of the post-Inflationary Weimar depression – the smell of moral rot – had no place in the Nazis’ own hellish version of puritan hygienic nightmare.

¤ we have already been told that it smells.

¤¤ and, as in KONG, here too it is Beauty that kills the Beast, after first driving him mad.

¥ “It’s not that one…it’s the other one..” M.D.

# “Sweetheart, the legs aren’t so wonderful, I just know what to do with them” – M.D.

* just as Olga Baclanova ends up in the sawdust as the mutilated Human Chicken in FREAKS.

** as LW witnessed at a London screening about 20 years ago. An elderly German woman stood in the aisle crooning “Ach! Der Jannings! Der Jannings!” until implored to sit by a packed house. In the foyer afterwards, another woman asked her husband, “So – who was Marlene?” As Barbara Windsor once said to LW: “Manic, innit?”

*** THE BLUE ANGEL was Germany’s first major talkie.

EMIL JANNINGS 1884 – 1950
MARLENE DIETRICH 1901 – 1992

Toes Like A Monkey

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I once had a wonderful Swedish friend who worked for Oscar de la Renta. She had rippling tawny-gold hair and beautiful freckled hands with dark crimson lacquered nails. For winter parties she’d rub Body Shop vanilla oil into her skin, top it up with a veil of Chopard’s Casmir (in the lotus bottle, remember?) and pull a thick white fisherman’s sweater over the lot. The effect, I’m here to tell you, was devastating. “Ah”, she’d reply to all compliments “but I have a flaw: toes like a monkey!” She pronounced the word to rhyme with ‘donkey’, so these prehensile digits acquired for me their own esoteric glamour.

Heading the chapter on symmetry in our O level maths book at school was the Congreve quotation “I could never look long upon a monkey without very mortifying reflections”. For centuries monkeys and apes were used in art as symbols of folly, lust, greed and all the weaknesses of a creature that was seen as man degraded: parodies of humans who had fallen from grace and metamorphosed into graceless slaves of their own bestial appetites. Post-Darwin, the monkey assumed a different role in the scheme of evolution while artists such as Picasso, Rousseau, Matisse and Gaugin explored on canvas the animal urges inherent in man.

In the early 1930’s there was a craze for screen apes – King Kong and Cheetah course, but also the orangutan in The Murders in the rue Morgue and Mae West’s pet monkeys; Hans Albers and Luise Rainer dancing and singing the comic paso doble Mein Gorilla Hat ‘Ne Villa im Zoo. Especially we remember the huge gorilla shambling in chains onto the cabaret stage in Blonde Venus, then tearing off one of its own paws to reveal Dietrich’s luminously white hand garlanded in diamonds. (Was Billy Wilder maybe satirising all this singerie with the burial of Norma Desmond’s chimp in Sunset Boulevard?). Curiously but not coincidentally, this was also the era of such farouche leather scents as Knize Ten; the tanneries of all those variations on a theme of cuir de Russe; the animalic musks & pelts of Caron. And what was the best-dressed grande horizontale then wearing? Black satin, a string of pearls & monkey fur.

Have you met any monkeys, eyeball to eyeball? My grandmother knew one, next door, that spent his winters singeing his fur on the kitchen range. Her own mother had a peculiar horror of simians: the melody of the barrel organ coming down the street would prompt her to fly upstairs burying her head under the pillows until man and red-bolero’d marmoset could be bribed to take themselves off. As a child, I knew a monkey that lived in a pub and sipped stout; and I recall a beautiful blonde who nurtured two baby capuchins in her abundant golden hair – you’d see these minute hands like four spiders emerging from the roots, waving above the lady’s noble forehead.

The capuchins were immaculate, though I remember the ale-monkey whiffing a bit and of course the powerful smell of the monkey house at the zoo still lingers in the mind. Pungent animalic smells are of course by no means a turn-off for everyone: one of Louis XV’s early mistresses Pauline de Vintimille was said to reek like a monkey and the king was intoxicated by her. Perfumes that for me have hovered on the edge of the nauseous include Olivia Giacobetti’s famous Dzing! with its circus theme of civet and damp sawdust; and Weil’s peculiar but once greatly-loved Antelope which I found just too reminiscent of animal skin. It was rather like sitting in the back of a very expensive old car, beautifully hide- upholstered and a little too smooth in motion.

Just now we have taken delivery of the new Parfum d’Empire Musc Tonkin, a recreation of the traditional soiled old musk accords via floral, woody and fruity notes. Very convincing, highly disturbing. Gosh, how this scent clings, permeates and soaks in! My esteemed manager Mr Callum came into the shop the other day and caught my aura: “Aha! Wearing Musc Tonkin are we?” In fact I had merely held up the bottle to show a customer; I’d not even sprayed it. That’s musk in the old grand manner: musky monkey business.