June 2008 Archives

think fast, mr. moto

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June 26 movie: Think Fast, Mr. Moto. TCM's special month on Asians in Hollywood is over. I had another 4 or 5 movies saved on the DVR, but with work right now I didn't have time to watch them before the cable company replaced it. I'm most bummed out about losing a documentary about Anna Mae Wong a war movie about Jimmy Stewart in China.

Anyway this is the first of Peter Lorre's Mr. Moto movie, and after seeing Think Fast, Mr. Moto on TCM, I had to get this one from Netflix. Being the first in the series, Mr. Moto is played much more ambiguously -- it's not clear whether he's a villain or hero until the very end.

the crimson kimono

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June 25 movie: The Crimson Kimono. James Shigeta's first movie, this was a detective story and a love triangle. Shigeta and Glenn Corbett are partners and best friends who fall for the same woman, Victoria Shaw. Also starred the wonderful Anna Lee as a modern artist and modern woman, Hollywood style. In her first scene she sprays beer on an abstract canvas, laughs and declares it "Nude Attending Celestial Bodies!"

In terms of depictions of Asian Americans, this movie was a case of two steps forward, one step back. On the one hand, the romance between Shigeta and and Shaw is portrayed in a positive light. As is a fascinating look at the "little Tokyo" neighborhood in LA. On the other, when racism comes up in the movie, it's presented as being all in Shigeta's imagination. The movie seems to be suggesting that in 1959 white Americans were completely free of racism, and if only those pesky ethnic people would stop imagining things and get over it. Which, um, yeah. Also straining credulity is when Shigeta says he had never once experienced racism before. As TCM's guest expert pointed out, the character would have been 10 or 11 when the war broke out, and would have been in an internment camp. I think that being imprisoned based solely on one's race counts as experiencing racism.

The best thing about the movie is James Shigeta. He said in The Slanted Screen that during the filming of Flower Drum Song a studio exec told him he would have been a huge star if he had been white. He really did have a movie star quality about him. I found a nice tribute on Youtube with clips from a bunch of his movies:

the slanted screen

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June 24 movie: The Slanted Screen. This wasn't really a movie, rather a PBS special from a few years ago about Asian men in Hollywood. They showed lots of clips from movies we'd just seen in the TCM feature this month, plus many we'd already seen before. There were interviews with lots of Asian American actors too. The differing reactions to Bruce Lee were interesting: some of the younger actors said that Bruce Lee made them feel proud to walk down the street for the first time. Then another complained that everyone thinks he knows kung fu and it's all Bruce's fault.

It seemed like the documentary must have taken several years to make. Because based on the narration it sounded like it had been made around 2000. Then at the end they showed a clip from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. But earlier in the show they had mentioned John Cho, one of the stars of Harold and Kumar, but only talked about an earlier indie movie he was in. Also, you could tell it had been made by PBS and not a major studio, because the lighting in the interview segments was terrible. Even the movie stars like James Shigeta looked like hell. And may I say, making James Shigeta look bad is a major, if dubious, accomplishment.

A couple of major omissions: first, Ang Lee. His early movies Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet really should have been mentioned in the segment about indie films from an Asian American point of view. Second and even more glaring: George Takei. They did show a brief clip of him on stage doing some kind of message-y play, but no interview and nothing about Star Trek. We thought maybe they were ignoring him because the documentary was specifically about the movies. But then they did a whole segment on the Vietnamese actor in 21 Jump Street. So that theory doesn't hold water.

As far as I know Mr. Sulu was the first major Asian character on any TV show whose race was irrelevant. I can't remember ever seeing an ethnic stereotype in Mr. Sulu, and I can't imagine why they wouldn't talk to George Takei in a documentary about Asian men in Hollywood.

the best man

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June 20 movie: The Best Man. Have I mentioned how much I hate Time Warner Cable? We had to have our DVR replaced a few months ago, and the new one is clearly screwed up. Sometimes it refuses to record programs -- no warning, we just go to watch a show we'd scheduled and it says "The program could not be recorded because the channel is currently unavailable." Sometimes it only records half a program and then stops without warning. Sometimes all the DVR controls lock up and all we get is a black screen. I've had 4 phone calls with tech support and 1 service call to the house, and none of them will agree to replace the box. The people on the phone just keeping saying "Call us back if it happens again!" and the service call guy said it was the line, not the box. He said he would put a tracker on our line and call me back in five days, and of course he never did.

So anyway. This movie was one of the ones that recorded half-way and then stopped in the middle. I was so furious. I'd been looking forward to the movie for over a week: I've been working really hard on this project and every day I was thinking about getting to Friday and getting to watch The Best Man. And then the stupid DVR craps out halfway through. And then tech support said it would be a 30 minute wait to talk to anyone. Words cannot express ... well, the tantrum I threw, if I'm going to be honest.

Georg called them the next day, scheduled a support call, even stayed home to meet them because I couldn't that day. And lo and behold, they gave us a new DVR. Which works just fine, not a problem in sight. So much for the guy who told me it was the line, not the box. Come to think of it, this is the second time I've driven myself to distraction trying to get a response out of Time Warner tech support, and then Georg called and got an immediate solution. What is it with those people?

The good news is they showed The Best Man again tonight, so I finally did get to see it. Good thing too, because Netflix doesn't have it. They really ought to get it before November.

china doll

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June 18 movie: China Doll. Victor Mature plays an American GI stationed in China who falls in love with a Chinese woman (Li Li Hua). The plot is repulsive -- Mature accidently buys her as an indentured servant for three months, then he's totally mean to her, until her abject servility and supreme housekeeping skills gradually win him over -- yet somehow the movie manages to be charming. Until it becomes completely tragic. It's a major tearjerker. Most notable for the fact that the rest of the soldiers and nurses don't object to the romance. Well actually they do object, but not because of race: they think Mature is taking advantage of her.

The cast also includes an incredibly annoying smart-aleck Chinese boy who hangs around the base and translates for Li Li Hua. It's kind of interesting the way they handle the language issue: when American characters are around, the woman and the boy speak to each other in Chinese without subtitles; when they're alone they speak English and we're to assume it's really Chinese. It's extremely confusing in one scene where the boy is teaching the woman a few words of English to say to Mature, but the whole conversation is in English. I was also amused that the boy clearly did not speak Chinese & had been taught a few words for the movie. (It's been 20 years and my Chinese is about as bad as his, but I'm not trying to pass myself off as Chinese in a movie!) She would speak to him in fluent, perfect Mandarin and he would respond with halting phrases in a terrible accent.

bridge to the sun

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June 18 movie: Bridge to the Sun. This was a deeply affecting story about an American woman (Carroll Baker) who falls in love with a Japanese diplomat (James Shigeta) just before the war. They marry over the objections of her family and have a little girl. Then the war breaks out, he's expelled from the US, and she goes with him to Japan. It's kind of amazing to me how much movies changed in the 50s. In the 40s you couldn't show an interracial kiss. By 1961 when this movie was made, they not only kiss, they're shown in bed together. Well sort of: it's a tatami mat so maybe Americans wouldn't realize it was a bed. Still, they were lying in it and he was partially undressed. Unthinkable just a few years before. Heck, most of the movies I watch have the "one foot rule" firmly in effect.

The movie also shows a fairly unflinching look at the racism the couple faces in both countries, and the hardships they suffer in Japan during the war. It was based on a true story, from the wife's autobiography. This movie was really good. I missed the very beginning -- the part where they fall in love -- and I really hope TCM shows it again soon so I can see the whole thing.

up for air

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So I haven't posted in a while, as you may (or may not) have noticed. What can I say, work has been kicking my ass. Enough said about that.

This morning was BMI reporting day at the station. I guess I should mention that I've taken on a second radio show for the summer. It's a playlist show, just an hour long, from 9-10 am on Wednesdays. I took it to help fill holes in the summer schedule. It's fun to do playlist again, although not so much right now when I can't really spare the time.

Anyway, this morning was BMI reporting, which I had never done before. For three days every DJ has to write down songwriter information about every play. BMI collects this information from hundreds of stations and uses it to allocate royalties payments for the year. It's a bit of extra work to write all this stuff down -- on paper! -- on top of our regular playlist (why they couldn't just add a field to the normal electronic playlist is beyond me), but not that bad. The biggest problem I had was feeling pressure to make every play count: to play only artists I like and respect who aren't super famous and could use the money. I played as many of my favorites as I could fit into an hour (minus the playlist requirement of course) and the whole way home I kept thinking of others I should have played.

If I ever have to do this again I will try to play less sample-based electronic music. Because a lot of that stuff has no songwriter credit (in which case I wrote down the producer, let BMI figure it out). The biggest bummer was playing John Wesley Harding, whose music I adore, and then too late reading the label and seeing that he's ASCAP, not BMI. So he won't get a dime from that play. Sorry, John Wesley Harding! I tried, I really did. If we do ASCAP reporting this year I'll try to sub a show in the reporting period and play 2 of your songs.

the ascent of man

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June 17 movie: The Ascent of Man. CD4 includes 3 episodes: "The Ladder of Creation" looks at Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, who came up with the concept of evolution by natural selection. "World within World" examines the creation of the periodic table and quantum physics. "Knowledge or Certainty" is the episode everyone talks about, and with good reason. In it Bronowski discusses the incomplete nature of all human knowledge, and the disastrous, sometimes monstrous consequences of belief in absolute certainty. The part that always gets mentioned is the end, when he visits the concentration camp where members of his own family died. But the entire episode is so powerful. Bronowski's poetic narration, which he wrote, is inspiring. Here's a quote, from a scene early on where he examines a human face with a whole range of instruments and describes the flaws in each method:

"We are here face to face with the crucial paradox of knowledge. Year by year we devise more precise instruments with which to observe nature with more fineness. And when we look at the observations they are as uncertain as ever. We seem to be running after a goal which lurches away from us to infinity every time we come within sight of it."

go for broke!

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June 16 movie: Go for Broke! 1950 movie about an all-Japanese unit who fought in Italy and France during WWII. The movie starred Van Johnson as a racist officer who initially resents being put in command of, um, well he uses a word that I won't use on my blog. As the movie goes on he comes to know the men and learns to respect them.

At some point I realized that I had seen this movie a long time ago. I recognized two scenes: one of the Japanese soldiers adopts a pig and keeps it as a pet, and a battle scene where one man is way in the back firing some kind of rocket launcher on a little stand, and the men in the front call back to him, "Fifty feet to the right! Now thirty feet forward!" Bizarrely, I don't remember noticing first time around that all the soldiers were Japanese. I just remembered it as a war movie, not "an all-Japanese war movie."

This was good, an entertaining ensemble with a good proportion of comedy and drama. If it were made today it would come off as a bit preachy, especially when they're talking about the internment camps. But it was made just a few years after the camps existed, and many Americans didn't even know what had happened, so I think the tone was warranted.

(Then again, though it boggles the mind there are some in America today actually arguing in favor of the WWII internment camps. So maybe a little preaching on why it's wrong to imprison an entire class of American citizens based purely on their ancestry wouldn't be uncalled for.)

tcm alert: the best man


This Friday at 8pm TCM will be showing The Best Man, an excellent political drama about a down-n-dirty presidential campaign starring Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson and Lee Tracy. The other day I was trying to think of good movies to kick off the campaign season and this was the first that came to mind. Thanks, TCM, for showing it! They will also rerun the movie on Saturday June 28.

TCM also has a good description of the movie on their website, including gossip about who the main characters might have been based on (the movie came out in 1964) and details about the horrifying script changes Frank Capra would have made if he had ended up directing the movie, and thank god he didn't. Warning, the description of Capra's proposed changes includes spoilers, so best to read it after watching the movie. The Best Man is worth seeing unspoiled.

cyd charisse 1922-2008

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Dancing legend Cyd Charisse died today. My sympathy for her widower Tony Martin (they were married for 60 years!), her children and grandchildren.

Charisse was one of the greats of Hollywood dancing. I think my favorite of her movies is The Bandwagon with Fred Astaire, because she gets to really act, not just dance. Here's my favorite number from that movie, the sublime "Dancing in the Dark":

And here's a fun clip from On An Island With You. Here Charisse tangoes with Ricardo Montalban, accompanied by Xavier Cugat.

extra keyboard

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Last night I spilled a drink on my keyboard. Tried to mop it up but the keyboard gradually stopped working. Grr. Drove out to the Apple store after work today and picked up a new one. Turns out they don't sell normal keyboards anymore, just those flat ones that look like laptop keyboards. I tried one in the store and it felt okay, and besides what choice did I have? I had to buy a new one.

Well as it turns out, I didn't really. Because when I got back I discovered that my old keyboard had dried out and works fine again. Now I have to find time to go all the way back to the Apple store to return the new one. At least I hadn't opened it yet.

I must say I was impressed with the checkout system. Both cashiers were busy but a guy with a little handheld card swiper thing rang me up. He offered to email the receipt to me -- my email address having popped up on the handheld thing after he swiped my card. I had the receipt by the time I got home.

teacher's pet

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June 16 movie: Teacher's Pet. I don't have much to say about beyond what I said last time. Except praise for Gig Young as Dr. Hugo Pine, Doris Day's overachieving boyfriend. Young walks a fine line between endearing and insufferable throughout the movie, somehow managing to achieve both most of the time.

4 for texas

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June 14 movie: 4 for Texas. How does a movie starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Anita Ekberg, Ursula Andress and Charles Bronson manage to be so boring? If you figure it out, wake me up and tell me.

daughter of shanghai

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June 13 movie: Daughter of Shanghai. This was a fairly conventional movie about attempts to foil human trafficking into California. Mostly notable for being the first Hollywood movie with two Asian heroes played by Asian actors: Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn. He's a detective (or maybe an FBI agent, I wasn't quite clear) and she's the daughter of a prominent San Fransisco businessman.


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My two interview shows about WWII are online as podcasts!
Click here for the 25 May 2008 interview with Derick Ovenall.
Click here for the 1 June 2008 interview with Giuseppe Bucca.

Or you can go to the iTunes Music Store and search for "derick ovenall", "giuseppe bucca" or "divavillelounge". (is that not cool!) Note: these podcasts include only the interview portion of the program, no music. Due to licensing issues, WXDU cannot podcast programs containing copyrighted music.

politics: voter registration


I think I'm going to put "politics" in the title of every post about politics, so that people who aren't interested can easily skip them.

This morning S. and I volunteered to do voter registration. It was great! I'm really glad we did it. And really glad S. came too, as it was much more fun with a friend.

We went to the Durham Farmer's Market first. Which might seem like a bad place to go, as the percentage of registered voters is really high. But on the other hand, the people there tend to be pro-Obama so it's a good place to ask for volunteers.

Between the two of us we got contact information for almost 20 volunteers in an hour and a half. We would ask people as they walked by if they were registered to vote, and if they said "yes!' enthusiastically or said anything pro-Obama then we would ask if they wanted to volunteer. If they said they wanted to help later on but didn't have time right now, we would tell them about the website my.barackobama.com. Some people sounded like "not right now" meant "leave me alone," but most people sounded like they genuinely wanted to help closer to the election. And if people were giving off a "don't bother me" vibe, like they didn't slow down when asked if they were registered to vote, then we generally didn't ask them about volunteering anyway.

The only people I think I shouldn't have asked were a gay couple with a little boy. They sounded enthusiastic when I asked about their registration, but said "no!" in an offended tone when I asked about volunteering. Then I remembered that Obama is pretty weak on gay rights -- he's better than McCain but has spoken against gay marriage -- and those guys had a kid. I can see how it would offend to be asked to give up my time to work for a candidate who wouldn't protect my family.

People were really enthused and many stopped to have conversations with us. Many said they were already volunteering. One woman told us she had made phone calls, donated, and written to the Obama campaign to suggest who she thought they should nominate for vice president (Jim Webb). She even stopped by again to see us on her way out and gave us strawberries. Lady, you were my favorite person all day! We also saw one woman wearing a Hillary t-shirt. As she was walking away she yelled out, "If he's smart, he'll choose her as vice-president! If he's smart!" I kept my opinion to myself. No point in antagonizing people.

S. also registered 6 voters, which really impressed me! She said that most of them were people who had recently moved and needed to change their registration.

I also ran into one of my old libertarian friends. Who raised an eyebrow when he saw my Obama pin, but was nice enough not to give me a hard time about it. Besides, who can complain about a voter registration drive? It's about as pro-democracy as activism gets. We offer to register everybody, not just Obama supporters, and they can check whatever they want under "party affiliation." The form even has "libertarian" on it, although I think anyone who checks that will be registered as unaffiliated since the Libertarian Party got screwed by the state again.

When the Farmer's Market wound down they sent us to the Food Lion on Roxboro Road. Where there was a more constant flow of traffic, but also more people who were in a hurry or clearly not interested in politics. I did get one registration there. There was someone else who said she wanted to do a change of address when she came out of the store, but I saw her leaving while I was busy helping the first woman fill out her form.

The big excitement at the Food Lion was the crazy man who talked to me forever -- 15 minutes maybe? I'm not kidding, he went on and on -- and I'm honestly not even sure what he was talking about. Something about women being sexually harassed at their jobs in cemeteries, and the crazy man's mission in life is to bring this to the attention of public figures and then call them cowards when they don't immediately call a press conference to denounce the conspiracy of sexual abuse in North Carolina cemeteries. He told me he had sent material to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Erskine Bowles and Elizabeth Dole, plus numerous local politicians, and all of them were "cowards" who "don't give a damn." He kept asking me if I give a damn and if I think he gives a damn. I told him I could tell he certainly does give a damn .. a crazy damn! Okay, that last part was just in my head.

When I say crazy I mean "outpatient" not "what a character." The only part that really bothered me was when he pressured me to tell him where I worked, but eventually he gave up and went back to ranting about cowardly politicians who don't give a damn. He grabbed my clipboard and spent the whole rant writing gibberish on a piece of paper -- which alas, was the paper I had to turn in, otherwise I would have scanned it. I took a photo which didn't turn out at all. He just kept writing words and circling them: names of politicians, a court case file number, whatever. He reminded me a lot of Bill Dunn (favorite crank of many longtime Durhamites). He also told me that what I was doing doesn't mean anything and if I really gave a damn, I would spend the $160 to run for mayor. Um, sure, a crackpot run for local office makes tons more of a difference than participating in a voter registration drive. Whatever you say, Mr. Crazy Man!

Then after I finally got rid of him, he came back! He had gone to his car to get a piece of paper which he triumphantly gave me and S. (we were discussing leaving at that point). The paper was a photocopy of a news clipping, which had been written on so many times, in all different directions, and then re-photocopied, as to render it totally illegible. If that's what he's been sending to politicians then no wonder they all ignore him. He also ticked S. off by trying to get her to agree that teenagers are angry. He seemed very nonplussed at her insistence that the kids she teaches aren't angry. But what does she know, she only works with them every day.

After all that excitement we dropped off our materials at the organizer's house. Who was thrilled by all the volunteer names we had collected, and said they're going to do this every weekend all summer long. Their goal is to register at least 20,000 of the 36,000 unregistered voters in Durham County. That's a laudable goal, and I hope they're smart about sending people to different locations each week. It seems like if you go to the same place you're going to see the same people over and over, and the flow of new volunteers and registrations will dry up pretty quickly.

Then we had lunch at Chubby's Tacos, which was fantastic. The fresh pineapple drink really hit the spot after three hours in the sun and heat. Then I came home, took a shower and had a nice long nap. I'm really glad we went out, and I definitely want to participate again. I found out about this event on the Obama website and will check there in the future.

cha cha cha boom

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June 12 movie: Cha Cha Cha Boom. Santa Salsera and I watched this movie because it promised to star Perez Prado. Well here's the problem. Prado apparently spoke no English, so whenever he's on screen and not performing he's this mute figure, just standing around while the other characters discuss his future as if he wasn't even there. And the movie was a B picture at best, so Prado only gets a few musical numbers & the rest go to other acts we'd never heard of, who weren't nearly as good. And being a B movie, the movie part of the movie was really, really bad.

Watching this movie I came to the realization that the editing may be the single worst flaw in a bad movie. I can forgive bad dialogue, bad acting, a stupid plot. It's the editing that makes a bad movie feel so interminable. When you think about it, it's an achievement of sorts to make a movie full of Perez Prado mambos seem to drag on forever.

Which is not even to mention the racist element of a bunch of white record producers lifting Prado out of obscurity -- in the movie he isn't already famous in Cuba, but is discovered working on a sugar plantation! He leads the band which plays at the monthly fiesta for the plantation workers. (How a sugar plantation managed to get a full orchestra on staff is never explained.) The Americans take him back to New York and put him in a concert with their other no-name acts and boom, now Prado is a star.

I think you can tell that I didn't enjoy this movie at all. I think my time would have been better spent listening to a Prado CD. Thie movie reminded me a lot of Bop Girl Goes Calypso, which is not a recommendation. Santa Salsera said the movies Prado made in Mexico were much better. I think even without subtitles they would have to be more engaging than Cha Cha Cha Boom.

first, buy a watermelon

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Last night Santa Salsera and I had a fun evening of Mexican food and a bad movie with good music. (More on that later.) The dinner was at El Paraiso, which people in the know have apparently been hip to for awhile now but we just heard about it. It's a tiny place on Alston Ave. There are a handful of tables, a grill right out in front, and no menu, just the day's offerings written on a little white board. And really, really good food. I had tacos el pastor and they were fantastic! Santa Salsera had a sope and an empanada and she gave them both a high review.

There was a 10-year old girl taking orders; she sat down with us for a while and we had a nice conversation. She seemed really drawn to Santa Salsera. She told us that we looked like sisters (which made me feel good even though I don't think it's strictly true), her mother likes Beny Moré and she likes reggaeton. She wrote down for us the name of the Oaxacan town where she was born, and her full name (she has 5 names, of which she seemed very proud) and circled the name she goes by. We asked her how they make the watermelon drink, which was so good and tasted so fresh. She gave us this recipe:

1. Buy a watermelon.
2. Put it in the refrigerator for tomorrow.
3. Remove the beans.
4. Cook it.
5. Then it melts and you have the drink.

The best part was that she kept repeating steps 1 and 2. When she got to step 4 we were like, "wait, you cook it?" and she replied, "No. First, buy a watermelon. Second, put it in the refrigerator for tomorrow." Like it was really important that we remember that part, or else we couldn't make the drink! It was fantastic.

thank you, mr. moto

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June 11 movie: Thank You, Mr. Moto. Did you know that Peter Lorre starred in a series of B movies as a Japanese detective? I learned this a couple of years ago and I've been wanting to see one ever since. Thank you, TCM, for showing this!

Osborne and the guest host mentioned that Lorre's "yellow face" makeup couldn't disguise his distinctive voice, and I must say that watching the movie, it didn't seem to me that they changed his appearance at all. But then I compared photos online and realized that actually they did. The movie had the typical conflation of Asian cultures, most notably when a Chinese character played by a Korean actor commits Japanese ritual suicide.

broadway melody of 1938

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June 10 movie: Broadway Melody of 1938. Another winner in the Broadway Melody series. Again the stars include Eleanor Powell, Robert Taylor, Buddy Ebsen and George Murphy. This time the cast also includes Judy Garland, Sophie Tucker (as Judy's stage mom) and Robert Benchley. The plot has something to do with horses, there's some great dancing from Powell, Tucker has one brilliant solo, Judy gets a couple of songs including "Dear Mr. Gable, You Made Me Love You," and here's a short clip of Judy and Buddy dancing. Awww!

I just realized that I have now seen all of Buddy Ebsen's MGM movies as a hoofer. There are none left to discover. How sad!

lady of the tropics

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June 9 movie: Lady of the Tropics. Another tragic melodrama about ill-fated love between an Asian and a Caucasian. This one stars Robert Taylor as an American playboy and Hedy Lamarr as a half-Vietnamese, half-French woman living in Saigon. This movie must have been shocking at the time: when Taylor falls for Lamarr, he ditches his American fiancee and actually marries Lamarr. They're happily married for a time, although she can't leave the country so they're trapped in Saigon with dwindling finances. [spoiler] Eventually she tries to help him by whoring herself out, gets caught, kills a man and then conveniently kills herself just before Taylor would have to make good on his promise to take her back to America.

This movie was almost as objectionable as The Bitter Tea of General Yen but not nearly as bad as Broken Blossoms. Anti-Vietnamese prejudice is depicted as a bad thing, although in the end the movie does seem to agree that ethnic groups should not mix. It has the advantage of starring two of 1939's best looking actors, who have great chemistry together. And making Lamarr's character only half Vietnamese meant they didn't bother with the horrible eye makeup, which I learned from TCM's guest expert is called "yellow face." They did put the eye makeup on Joseph Schildkraut, who played a ridiculously unconvincing Vietnamese villain.

the mask of fu manchu

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June 7 movie: The Mask of Fu Manchu. Good God this movie was offensive. Boris Karloff stars as Fu Manchu, who wants to steal Genghis Khan's sword, thus becoming Khan's reincarnation and conquering the world. Or something. He's got a compound full of Poe-esque torture chambers, and Myrna Loy for a sex-crazed dominatrix daughter. Also costars Lewis Stone as the leader of the explorers.

The movie is so racist that when the British explorers open the tomb of Genghis Khan and all the native workers kneel in fear in front of the remains, the whites start kicking them to make them get up. It's so racist that the whole plot is based on Fu Manchu making Genghis Khan rise again and lead his people to victory, and no one even notices that Genghis Khan and Fu Manchu are not of the same people. It's so racist that Karloff literally tells his followers to "kill the whites! Take their women!" Which now that I think about it, is just as sexist as it is racist -- according to the movie white women aren't "whites" themselves, rather possessions to be taken away from whites.

In short, watching this movie made me feel dirty.

the bitter tea of general yen

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June 7 movie: The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Frank Capra movie starring Barbara Stanwyck as a missionary in China who is kidnapped by a warlord, the titular General Yen (Nils Asther). Stanwyck and the general fall for each other, of course, [spoiler alert] but he conveniently kills himself before they have to consummate the relationship with any physical contact. The "bitter tea" of the title is, by the way, the poisoned tea with which he does the deed. Nobody ever accused Capra of being overly subtle.


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An email discussion with Santa Salsera about modern Mexican salsa dancing sent me following links on Youtube, which led me to this amazing video of Mexican zoot-suiters dancing to Perez Prado:

The video (only a minute and a half long) seems to be a clip from a movie. That's Prado at the piano of course. My favorite part is when the guy scoots across the floor, then pauses to brush the dust off the back of his suit when he gets up.

not politics

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This afternoon was a particularly shambolic show. I had a trainee, and so of course I made tons of mistakes. Our first goof was not realizing that someone had unplugged mic 2 (can i just interject here, why the fuck would someone leave one of the mics unplugged?) and doing two talksets where people could only hear one of us. Then later after Ross came in and fixed mic 2, I didn't realize it was live and started whispering "pot down the music!" to the trainee, right into a live mic. D'oh! Oh well, no biggie, that's live radio. Besides, this way the trainee knows that everyone makes mistakes. See, I was doing it on purpose to make her feel more comfortable! Yeah, that's it! She was really good, enthusiastic and a quick learner.

The obscene heat level continues. We broke down and turned on the a/c on Thursday. We're still turning it off in the mornings to get some fresh air inside, and also so Jane can have some inside/outside time. She hates it when the door is closed and she has to choose one or the other. And we hate her scratching at the door constantly. The heat is supposed to break on Wednesday, and I sure hope it does. We're already seeing dieback on some of our plants. This morning I finished the mowing (Georg had done most of it yesterday) and it knocked me flat. I was planning to plant the Bluestone plants this morning but after the mowing, I just couldn't stand to be outside any longer.


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I didn't get a chance to watch it live, but watched Clinton's concession speech online this morning. I must say, I was blown away. For the first time I understood why her supporters are so into her. She said everything that needed to be said with tremendous eloquence and class. Brava.

I've been thinking that pretty soon I need to stop reading DailyKos. It's such an echo chamber that I think it can lead to distorted perceptions of what's actually going on, and as the election gets closer that can be bad for my state of mind. So what political websites do y'all read?

After reading this post I went to the Obama member site and signed up to find out about local volunteer opportunities. They have an event this coming Saturday to do voter registration. I'm thinking about going if the heat breaks. Anyone interested?

I forgot to mention, on Friday we went out with some friends to Taqueria Lopez which was showing the news on Univision. At one point the announcer said "la campaƱa de Obama" and in unison, all our heads snapped around towards the tv. Even though none of us speak Spanish so we had no idea what he was saying. It was a funny moment.

broken blossoms

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June 3 movie: Broken Blossoms. TCM followed The Cheat with this legendary 1919 D.W. Griffith movie. Along with Intolerance, Broken Blossoms was intended to respond to criticisms about the racism in Birth of a Nation. Well, Broken Blossoms may be every bit as racist as Birth of a Nation but Griffith clearly thought he was making a positive statement about racial tolerance. The horrible stereotypes were intended to be positive, sort of the 1919 version of "Asians are good at math." Richard Barthelmess stars as a gentle Chinese immigrant (known only as The Yellow Man) who takes in an abused girl played by Lillian Gish.

As with The Cheat I have to set aside my revulsion at the racial message and concede that the filmmaking is exceptional. As is the acting, especially Barthelmess, and no, he was not Asian. Of course it was common at the time, and for decades after, for white actors to play Asian characters. Barthelmess later starred in the horrible movie Son of the Gods, in which he plays a Chinese man passing as white, who finds out late in the movie that he really is white and was adopted by his Chinese family. Which plot twist works because audiences had already seen him as a Chinese character in Broken Blossoms.

Good commentary again from the guest expert, who pointed out a hilarious intertitle card that we noticed too: "Why are you so nice to me, Chinky?"

the cheat


June 3 movie: The Cheat. This month TCM's special feature is Asians in Hollywood. They kicked it off last night with all silent movies. The Cheat, from 1915, was notable for being the first big hit for both Cecil B. DeMille and Sessue Hayakawa. Hayakawa plays a Japanese ivory merchant who is accepted into polite society, until he shows his true evilness and assaults a society lady. A staggering array of ugly stereotypes at play here -- the Asian guy is an inscrutable villain who pretends to be our friend but is really a sadist out to rape our women. Interesting trivia: after protests from the Japanese government, Hayakawa's character was changed to be Burmese. The character is still clearly Japanese -- his house is full of shoji screens and he wears kimonos at home -- but the intertitles were changed to say "Burmese."

Despite the hideous plot, the movie was very well made. It included the most realistic shooting I've ever seen in a silent movie -- maybe in any movie from the golden age of Hollywood. I also have to say I'm really enjoying the commentary from the guest expert, a U of D college professor who wrote a book about Asians in Hollywood.

take me out to the ball game

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June 2 movie: Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Very silly movie starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Esther Williams and Betty Garrett.

new plants

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Our order from Bluestone arrived! As always they packed everything really well. The plants all look healthy, excepting the lamiums which seem a little mushy, probably from the humidity of being packed in together with everything in the box. I'm sure they'll bounce back.

After four days in a cardboard box they have to stay in partial shade for a few days before we can plant them in the sun. In the meantime I walked around the garden and took a few photos. Things are starting to look nice, although of course there's still so much to be done.


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June 2 movie: Turnabout. Forgettable movie starring John Hubbard (who I thought was Ray Milland for most of the movie) and Carole Landis as a bickering married couple who are magically switched into each other's bodies. Also stars Adolphe Menjou and Mary Astor, in a strangely minor role.

the manchurian candidate

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May 29 movie: The Manchurian Candidate. This movie is so good that I almost don't know what to say about it. The scene at the flower club remains the creepiest thing I have ever seen on film.


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The thunderstorm held off, the EAS didn't spit any alerts at me, and the show went off without a hitch. What a relief!

After two weeks of Radio Madness, I almost don't know what to do with myself now. I think I'm going to watch a movie tonight and then go to bed early.

va bene

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This afternoon's interview program is ready to go. I hope the interview sounds good. I put a lot of time into it -- it ended up taking about 20 minutes for each minute of final audio. I have no idea how that compares to a pro. Probably a pro is much faster since I don't know what I'm doing. For instance yesterday morning I had the brilliant idea to google "audacity keyboard shortcuts," and suddenly everything became ten times easier.

The only thing I never figured out how to do was to fade in or out from one level to another -- in other words if you have part of the track that's quiet, and then it jumps to being loud, how to fade smoothly from the quiet level to the loud level. The "Fade In/Fade Out" commands fade from/to silence. I could have really used that because the volume of the original Italian dialogue goes up and down constantly -- at the beginning of each question you can hear a few seconds of it at full volume, then it drops out when the English voiceover begins. Since I couldn't fade smoothly between the two levels, I tried to adjust the volume at a point where it wouldn't be too jarring, between words or between syllables if that wasn't possible. There were a few places where it sounds bad but I hope no one will notice. Georg tells me I am obsessing way too much about these details because I've spent so much time listening to it so closely. As he correctly reminded me, most people listen to the radio in their cars.

I had originally intended to play wartime music, like I did with my dad's show last week. But as soon as I read the transcription I knew that wasn't going to work for this show. Signor Bucca's story is much more serious and that swingy big band music would sound totally inappropriate. So I decided to go for tone, and also focus on Italian & European music as much as possible: I found some traditional Sicilian songs that work (one recorded in 1927 that is amazing!), a slow piece from the soundtrack to La Dolce Vita, a song by Piaf, etc. And a few American songs as well that had the right tone. For instance a Mildred Bailey song called "When That Man is Dead and Gone" to play after he talks about meeting Mussolini. The song is actually about Hitler, but that's only specified once, and obliquely ("Satan with a small moustache") so I think it works.

Now the only thing left to worry about is the weather. There's a major thunderstorm system headed for us, predicted to be here right in the middle of my show. And that means EAS alerts. Lots and lots of EAS alerts. Every time a fast-moving storm reaches another town the EAS sends another alert, even if it's a hundred miles away and the people in that town couldn't possibly hear WXDU. The alerts are so disruptive: "BEEP BEEP BEEP! The national weather service reports that there is a thunderstorm warning in Iredell County! BEEP BEEP BEEP!" they interrupt the program without warning, and they last for thirty seconds or longer. About six weeks ago I did a show in which the EAS went off five times in two hours.

After spending months planning this show, I will be crushed if that happens today. I've decided that if the EAS is already going haywire by 2, I'm going to postpone Signor Bucca's show. I'll just do a regular show and hold the interview until next week. I'm taking all my CDs just in case.

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