"...it's like Will Rogers, Jean Shepherd and some grumpy Jewish man all rolled into one."

Friday, November 13, 2015

Tightening The Neuse

I was watching an old movie the other evening and heard a character describe herself as an "entrepreneuse". Never having heard the word before, along with the plummy accent the actress affected for the role, it took a moment for the term to register. Once my brain caught up with my ears, I realized how she had identified her vocation: a female entrepreneur. In today's world we strive to avoid gender-specific titles, not only to sidestep accusations of sexism but because anything a man can do, a woman can do while going backwards and wearing heels. Which, in my opinion, should prevent women from becoming Uber drivers but government regulations insist otherwise.

Performers such as Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman are today referred to as "comedians" rather than "comediennes". When I was growing up, variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were popular on TV. Each week's installment was likely to feature a woman introduced as a "comedienne": Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields, Joan Rivers. While Diller and Fields are long gone, Joan Rivers’ career lasted right up until her untimely death in 2014, by which time she was called just a "plastic surgery nightmare" -- every bit the equal of men like Kenny Rogers or Carrot Top.

I racked my brain to come up with all the other "-euse" words I could recall: 
  • Chanteuse:  A woman who really can't sing yet appears in a nightclub where smoking is still permitted. Historically, the term is most closely associated with French performer Édith Pilaf, an international sensation best known for her timeless hit, "La Vie en Arroz".
  • Chartreuse: A truly hideous color unless your wife is wearing something featuring it, in which case it's best acknowledged as "retro".
  • Pampleneuse: A female grapefruit
Perhaps I didn't so much rack my brain as give it a gentle squeeze.

The movie I was watching was The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, released in 1939 and starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The Castles were essentially the Astaire and Rogers of their day: a husband and wife team who introduced the tango, among other dances, to European and American audiences. The couple was popular before the advent of movies as we know them, so they gained fame performing in ballroom settings and theater stages. Their signature dance was known as the "Castle Walk", which was recreated in the movie and can best be described as a man and woman, both named "Castle", walking around the perimeter of the dance floor. Occasionally they would break into a sideways skip before bringing it down a notch and returning to walking. Inexplicably, this became an international sensation, with society-types quickly adopting the dance because it relieved them from anything requiring coordination or rhythm or the need to actually, you know -- dance. But back in 1910s the Castles were a big freaking deal, becoming superstars not only for their routines but also lending their names to dance studios, nightclubs (where maybe they met a chanteuse or teu), footwear and other fashionable clothing items. Irene was also the Jennifer Aniston of her times; she got a short trim that came to be known as the "Castle Bob" and women across the country flocked to hair salons to have their tresses so coiffed, coming home to show off the style to spouses who, just as today, didn’t notice anything different.

The film ended on a tragic note, which at first I thought was dramatized for cinematic input but learned was true -- Vernon Castle, who was English by birth, enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps during WWI (receiving the Croix de Guerre for his actions in combat) and died in a plane crash in 1918 while serving as a flight instructor. He essentially sacrificed himself because he always insisted on taking the front seat in a Jenny biplane's cockpit so his trainees would be safer sitting in the rear. To avoid a mid-air collision with another cadet's plane, he stalled while attempting a steep climb and crashed, killing him but leaving his rear-seat student with only minor injuries. While I'm sure this was tragic in real life, the cinematic version was made unintentionally hilarious due to the flying recreations using then-state of the art special effects; i.e., model planes "flying" via the use of hidden sticks and the dramatic "crash" looking as though the model was dropped into one of those dioramas you'd make for elementary school projects.

The movie came to a rapid conclusion after Vernon's/Astaire's demise, even though Irene lived on and had a pretty interesting second act -- briefly continuing her showbiz career, remarrying several times and eventually becoming an animal rights activist -- until her death at age 75 in 1969. The Hollywood version of their lives skipped over lots of other interesting tidbits: the Castles toured with an all-black orchestra; their long-time personal assistant (played in the movie by the inestimable, and very white, Walter Brennan) was also a black man; their manager (the "entrepreneuse" mentioned earlier) was reportedly a lesbian – although the movie hinted at this since the character met the Castles while she was travelling through Europe with a female companion. Of course, two women can travel though Europe and share a hotel room and that doesn't necessarily mean they are gay. Whereas if two dudes were to do that, the odds change dramatically. In fact, that story was made into a movie a few years ago -- J. Edgar.

The Castles' story strikes me as a film begging for a modern-day remake, a la Moulin Rouge! as directed by Baz Luhmann. Their lives contain so many elements of dramatic and societal significance: the nature of fame, the impact of war, issues involving race, class distinctions and sexual identity, animal rights -- all wrapped up in romance and with plenty of opportunities for big production numbers where populations of entire cities break out in vigorous walking. And when the scene is recreated -- where the entrepreneuse first meets the dancing couple -- she can stand tall and proudly proclaim her modern-day identity:" I... AM... A... MOMAGER!"

Oh, sorry -- that dialogue is from another script under development: The Story of the Kardashian Clan -- Episode 1: What A Bunch Of Entrepre-losers.

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