Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Why the US is More Gosford Park Than Downton Abbey

The Colbert Report has picked up on Fox News's absurd praise of Downton Abbey and its job-creating serf system.

But that system was prettied up mightily for TV. The 2001 movie from which the series is based, Gosford Parkalso written by Julian Fellowes and, unlike the sanitized TV version, directed by VIP Robert Altman—paints quite a different picture of the aristocracy. 

An upstairs/downstairs story set in the same time period as Downton, Gosford Park also stars Maggie Smith as the blunt and bossy matriarch and also has three daughters--two beautiful, one not--plus a shy, stringy haired and obsequious servant intrigued by a nasty blue-eyed valet; a slim and stately blonde servant who knows her place; and a comely, earnest daughter with a brunette bob involved in an inappropriate clandestine affair. Even the sets are nearly identical, down to the candlesticks.

In Gosford, the Lord is rather a monster who so mistreats his help that he gets his comeuppance at their hands, doubly so. The Lady is not, in any sense of the word, a lady. Smith's character enjoys dishing with the servants, and uses them for spies. The help truly dislikes their overlords, knowing full well that they are unfairly treated workers.

Gosford Park won nearly every Best Director award worldwide and Fellowes picked up an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Co-producer was Bob Balaban, who plays the American movie director in the film, and also did a cute guest spot as a medical marijuana doctor on HBO's Entourage. The TV version of Gosford, with aristocrats who care about their servants, is a PBS fundraising monster praised for its authenticity of set and costume design. 

Americans have a warped view that all of us will be rich someday: boys want to be Michael Douglas in Wall Street and girls still believe in Prince Charming (hell, they're all dressing like slutty princesses now). Even during the Great Depression, the favorite board game was Monopoly, in which the winner takes all, to hell with the rest of the players. As I learned on Netflix recently, Monopoly was first invented by Lizzie Phillips in 1923 as The Landlord's Game, to illustrate the downside of concentrating land in private monopolies. If you doubt the inequities of our system, you can also see the 2006 documentary The One Percent on Netflix.   

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Remembering Janis

In a gentler world, Janis Joplin would have turned 70 today.

I just came across a Dick Cavett episode filmed only two months before her brightly burning candle burned out. Janis gives an astonishing performance of "Half Moon," showing she's in full control of her tight-as-a-drum band, the aptly named Full Tilt Boogie.

Afterwards, she stands up for pot to fellow guest Gloria Swanson, talking about repression in the 1920s when Swanson was making movies. "Back then you couldn't drink because they didn't like it. Now you can't smoke grass," Janis said. "Back then you couldn't be a flapper because they didn't like it, and now you can't play rock and roll ...It seems to me that people who went through all that prohibition and flapper times should realize that young people are always crazy, and to leave us alone." The audience applauded their agreement.

Just afterwards, Cavett promises his audience a lift from the following Pepsi commercial. Nowadays Beyoncé, whose daughter with Jay-Z was honored with a medical marijuana strain named for her days after she was born, has taken criticism for pushing Pepsi at the upcoming Superbowl. Too bad she can't promote something actually uplifting.

Joplin was at her blues-belting best in this song about Mary Jane, sung it in the style of her idol Bessie Smith. The song laments the high cost of pot: "When I bring home my hard earned pay / I spend my money all on Mary Jane." Sadly for Janis, heroin and Southern Comfort—whose maker reportedly gave her a fur coat in appreciation of her endorsement—were cheaper.

I saw this iconic picture of Janis at a Mill Valley record store once years ago, in front of which was planted a little girl demanding to know who she was.

At the 2005 Grammy Awards Joplin was honored by VIPs Joss Stone (who looked the part) and Melissa Etheridge (who sounded it). There will never be anyone, anywhere, like Janis, but her torch has been passed to a new generation.

UPDATE 2017: Hot Auction Going For Janis Joplin Pic With Michelle Williams

Monday, January 14, 2013

Did Richard Nixon Finger Louis Armstrong's Wife Lucille for a Pot Bust?

Louis and Lucille
On the evening of January 16, 1954 Louis Armstrong sat at the Alexander Hamilton Hotel at 631 O’Farrell Street in San Francisco and wrote what has been called “one of the most stunning documents Armstrong ever composed.”

"Mr. Glaser, you must see to it that I have special permission to smoke all the reefers that I want to when I want or I will just have to put this horn down, that's all," the letter says, addressing Armstrong’s manager. "I can gladly vouch for a nice, fat stick of gage, which relaxes my nerves, if I have any...I can't afford to be ...tense, fearing that any minute I'm going to be arrested, brought to jail for a silly little minor thing like marijuana."

The incident that prompted Louis to write about his love for marijuana was the arrest of his wife Lucille on marijuana charges in Hawaii on New Year’s Day, 1954. Lucille was nabbed by federal narcotics agents at the airport where a US Customs inspector found one cigarette and two stubs, totaling 14.8 grams of marijuana, in her eyeglass case.

The bust was a big deal: Louis almost lost a charity gig for the March of Dimes and was nearly barred from performing in Hawaii. Lucille posted $300 bail and appeared at a day-long hearing on January 5 with Louis sitting in the spectators’ section.  She pleaded guilty for expediency, she said, but protested her innocence. It's been widely speculated that it was Louis's stash, but the small amount of pot found in Lucille's personal belongs makes me wonder if she was a Tokin' Woman herself.

The judge reduced Lucille’s fine to $200 owing to her husband's good works. "At the start of 1954, he was at the peak of his popularity and was already being touted as an ‘Ambassador of Goodwill’ due to his tremendous popularity overseas," wrote Ricky Riccardi, who details the incident in his book What a Wonderful World.

An often-told story relates that Armstrong once prevailed on Richard Nixon to carry his valise containing pot through an airport for him. LA-based trumpeter Jack Coan, who toured the Midwest with Louis and Pat Boone in 1967, told me in October 2012 that that Satchmo laughed heartily every time he told the story, pinpointing the locale as Japan.

Both Armstrong and then-VP Nixon toured Japan in late 1953, just before Lucille’s arrest. The courier caper most likely would have happened on December 14, the day Nixon left Japan and three days before Louis's first concert there. 

The timing begs the question: Did Nixon or someone in his entourage figure out the Vice President had been used for a drug mule and fail to see the humor in it, leading to Lucille's arrest?

Louis hadn’t been in trouble with the law since 1930, when he was arrested outside the Cotton Club in LA while smoking a joint. That incident and his subsequent jailing ultimately lead to Joe Glaser, an Al Capone acolyte, taking over Armstrong’s career, and later suppressing his writings about marijuana.

Lucille Armstrong in 1983
A former dancer at Harlem's Cotton Club, Lucille Armstrong became a community activist after Louis's death, drafted by Gov. Rockefeller. Deciding drug rehabilitation wasn't her thing, she chose an appointment on the NY Committee on Aging. 

Riccardi, who is the archivist at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, credits Lucille with preserving Armstrong's letter to Glaser, and his taped audio version.  

"Can you imagine anyone giving Lucille all of those headaches and grief over a mere small pittance such as gage, something that grows out in the backyard among the chickens and so forth,” Louis emoted in his letter. “I just won't carry on with such fear over nothing and I don't intend to ever stop smoking it, not as long as it grows. And there is no one on this earth that can ever stop it all from growing. No one but Jesus--and he wouldn't dare. Because he feels the same way that I do about it."

The San Francisco hotel
where Louis wrote about gage.
Gage “ain't nothin' but medicine," Louis concluded, words that will resonate with medical marijuana advocates in the city where he wrote them. The medical marijuana movement began in San Francisco, where activist Dennis Peron rallied the HIV/AIDS community to fight for their rights in the early 1990s. The state Proposition 215 followed in 1996, making California the first state to legalize marijuana for medicine.

Those events and others will be marked by a conference happening January 26 & 27 at Ft. Mason Conference Center in San Francisco, sponsored by California NORML. The conference will take place at the 100th anniversary of cannabis prohibition in California. 

It’s high time to end the Hundred Year Weed War that has harassed and imprisoned so many of our citizens, including some of our best and brightest.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

How Paulette Goddard Turned on Fred Astaire?

I just learned that Petula Clark "outed" herself and co-star Fred Astaire as smoking marijuana during the filming of 1968's Finian's Rainbow. "There was a lot of Flower Power going on," she told the BBC.

The movie, directed by pot-puffing Francis Ford Coppola, is set on an agricultural cooperative where a character played by Al Freeman Jr. attempts to develop a pre-mentholated tobacco. The plot has co-star Don Francks trying hard to get a hand-rolled cigarette to produce smoke, and ends with the whole cast blissfully doused in smoke.

The Canadian-born Franks—a jazz singer, poet and Native American—used to perform a song called Smokin’ Reefers. "A smoker of weed in his younger years, he was a fan of the plant. He gave up drinking when he was 21, using the First Nations term 'firewater' when referring to alcohol." Source.
Hermes Pan with Ann Miller in "Kiss Me Kate"

I can't find any other reference to Astaire and marijuana, but the choreographer most closely associated with him, Hermes Pan, is described in a biography as offering both tobacco and marijuana cigarettes to guests at a 1949 dinner party at his home in Coldwater Canyon.

Astaire called Pan his "ideas man" and the two began their collaboration on "The Carioca" number for "Flying Down to Rio" (1933) (probably the most humorous dance duet ever). Pan also suggested Astaire dance with a hat rack in "Royal Wedding," and advised him how to do it. He continued to collaborate with Astaire right up until his last musical picture, Finian's Rainbow.

Pan's career began with an appearance as a chorus boy in the Marx Brothers' 1928 Broadway production of "Animal Crackers." At that time, marijuana was still legal, and Chico Marx told an interviewer in 1959 that Groucho took his name from the "Grouch bag" they'd wear around their necks in their Vaudeville days, adding, "In this bag we would keep our pennies, some marbles, a couple of pieces of candy, a little marijuana, whatever we could get...because, you know, we were studying to be musicians."

Pan was also close to VIP Diego Rivera, who may have turned him on to pot in Mexico, if Errol Flynn's account of his own experience with Rivera serves. Pan and Rivera met at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco in 1940, introduced by actress Paulette Goddard, who appeared in Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" and "Modern Times" as well as "The Women."

In 1943, Pan visited Rivera at his home in San Angel near Mexico City where Rivera asked Pan to pose for him dancing, so that he could work out techniques for depicting motion in his paintings. He also painted a portrait of Pan

Flynn wrote in his autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways that he visited Rivera in 1935, introduced by another actress, Dolores Del Rio (who also appeared in "Flying Down to Rio"). Rivera offered Flynn marijuana, which he smoked, and afterwards he could hear the paintings singing.

"Pan found life in Hollywood even more superficial and insignificant after his return from San Angel," wrote his biographer John Franceschina. Maybe the two-week posing process included puffing something mind expanding and if so, he shared some with his friend Fred.

Detail from Rivera's "Pan American Unity" mural
seems to depict a love triangle with Frida Kahlo,
himself and Goddard before the Tree of Life.
Goddard traveled to Mexico in 1940 for Look magazine ("Paulette Goddard Discovers Mexico"), where she reportedly met Rivera while living in the San Angel Inn across from his studio. She was "pursued" by Rivera and was a model for a mural he painted on San Francisco's Treasure Island. She accompanied him to California when he fled Mexico following death threats and attacks on him for his political activities. (Source: Pete Hamill, Diego Rivera, 1999.) A follow-up story in Look (July 20, 1940) is titled "Adventure and Mexico – Paulette Goddard helps Diego Rivera." The FBI soon put the actress under surveillance to investigate her political opinions and activities.

UPDATE 9/20 - Rivera's mural "Pan American Unity" was scheduled to be exhibited at SFMoMA in late 2020, but it seems that has been delayed although the museum will soon be reopening. UPDATE 11/22 - The mural is now viewable for free at SFMOMA through 1/23. 

As for Kahlo, a retrospective of her work was recently held at San Francisco's DeYoung museum. This drawing of hers from a letter that may indicate a medical use. More on Frida