Tag Archives: Billie Holiday

My Man and Gay Divas

In  La Violetera (Luis Cesar Amadori, 1958) Sara Montiel’s rich aristocratic lover (Ralf Vallone) leaves her when after the death of his brother he inherits lands and title, must protect the family name, and can no longer afford to be seen with a lowly seller of violets/ music hall singer. She runs off and of course ends up triumphing in all the great capitals of Europe. The film offers a montage of her singing different songs across different capitals and in Paris the song she offers is ‘Mon homme’, which she begins singing in Spanish and then switches to French to flatter her audience.

Watching her sing the song made me wonder if there is an international repertoire that gay divas have in common. The song was introduced by Mistinguette in 1920. Arletty,  the glorious gay diva who, after being tried as a collaborator for having a Nazi lover during the occupation famously retorted, ‘My heart is French but my ass is international,’ also covered it. The song is basically sets to music the indelible character in Marcel Carné’s Hôtél du Nord minus  the ‘atmosphere, atmosphere!’: ‘on the ground we argue, she says in the film, but in bed we communicate, and on the pillow we understand each other’ (see excerpt below):

 

If you understand French, it’s worth listening to the two French versions side by side.

The song was made famous in America by Fanny Brice in 1921 and was such a hit she  even starred in a film by that name in 1928. It was famously revived for Funny Girl by Gay Diva extraordinaire Barbra Streisand below. Again it’s worth comparing Brice’s version to Streisand’s (below):

Another such comparison is that of the Billie Holiday and Diana Ross versions. Diana, or Miss Ross to you, had famously played Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. And Holiday’s great version of the song, had been a big hit in the thirties without quite eclipsing Brice’s version in the culture at large. It’s again instructive to look at these two versions together. Ross looks completely glam, interacts with the audience, says how hard the song is for her to sing. She takes the audience through the mechanics of the song. Her voice is unique, instantly recognisable, one of the great glories of American pop. But I don’t believe a word she says; and neither does she. ‘I hate that line’ she says after singing ‘He Beats Me too’.  Compare it to Holiday’s version below. It brings up all kinds of feelings, confused and contradictory ones, about a person and a way of life that can’t be contained by camp. The hurt bursts through.

 

Now let me take you to what started this off in the first place, Sara Montiel’s version. As you can see below, if it was difficult to believe what Ross was singing in the clip from Vegas above. Montiel doesn’t even try to communicate what the song is saying. Her number is so far removed from what Billie Holiday is conveying that it’s as if  from a parallel universe. With Montiel, it’s all about the dress, the hairstyle, the gestures; it’s all about her; and about inciting audience adoration. It’s all artifice, exaggeration, style, decorative beauty. Camp. ‘My job is not to be a good singer or a good dancer or a good actress. My job is to be a star’. And as you can see, the clip below puts you in no doubt of that fact. There’s nothing there about a woman who loves a man so she’s willing to share him, or get beaten up by him. He wouldn’t dare. That downtrodden woman in the song is transformed into an object of admiration and worship. She glistens, she beckons, she offers looks. It has nothing to do with the truth of the song. Montiel transcends hurt and oppression with gorgeous gowns and glamour. Glitter eclipses hurt.

José Arroyo

Easy Living (Mitchell Liesen, USA, 1937)

A screwball not quite up to the heights of the very greatest but with moments as fine as in any. Edward Arnold plays J.B. Ball, the ‘Bull of Wall Street’, a stockbroker so shocked by his wife’s spendthrift habits that he throws her latest sable out of their penthouse and onto the street, where it lands on Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) and changes her life. Ray Milland is J.B. Jr., the well-meaning but directionless son who goes to work at an automat to show his father he can make it on his own.

Soon everyone thinks Mary Smith is the mistress of one of the richest and most powerful men in the city and she’s showered with luxury hotels, couture and even money. However, it is JB Jr. who’s been staying in her hotel suite after having been fired for stealing a free meal for her and sparking a food fight at the automat. Yes, this is the kind of film where sables fall out of the sky and people wear gorgeous sparkly outfits, live in grand hotel suites, and can stand in their bathtubs amidst sculptures of Goddesses but can’t afford to eat at the automat.   Amidst all the farcical misunderstandings, the stock market goes up; it goes down; butlers have views on stocks; everyone’s on the make but everyone’s equally cynical except for Mary, who remains pure throughout, even when she’s furiously rampaging through stockbrokers’ offices with two huge and fluffy sheepdogs. Confusion ensues. Romance wins. Classes are reconciled; all with a gentle wit, much gentler than is usual for Sturges, who wrote the screenplay. Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin wrote the eponymous song, now a jazz standard thanks to immortal cover versions by Billie Holiday and Chet Baker, especially for the film. A mellow big-band version is the only soundtrack. It’s all pretty heaven jean-arthur   Easy Living is worth seeing for many reasons: Mitch Liesen sure knows how to film a glamorous image; and Jean Arthur, dressed by Travis Banton and photographed by Ted Tetzlaff, looks particularly lovely throughout — even her shoes sparkle and glow. The theme of appearances and advertising is one that Sturges would mine later, more thoroughly, and to slightly different effect in Christmas in July. Franklin Pangborn offers us Van Buren, an expert stylist of feminine couture, and really one of the loveliest of the famed Pangborn pansies. One can even begin to detect the formation of what would later become the Sturges stock company (Pangborn, William Demarest, Robert Greig as the butler).

The bathtubs are gorgeous
The bathtubs are gorgeous

Sturges blamed Liesen for ‘ruining’ his screenplay, which he thought a masterpiece, with bad pacing; and there is something to that: the food fight at the automat is beautifully filmed but the slapstick lacks snap. There are other niggles as well: the character of Mr. Louis Louis, the great Italian chef turned lousy America hotelier, is so caricatured it borders on the offensive; the last line about Jean Arthur finding her true calling in life cooking Ray Milland breakfast….well, it almost ruins the film. However, this has moments that are at least the equal of anything Stuges ever filmed himself (though more glamorous, less cutting and abrasive; the satire is sharper in Sturges’ own films): the interplay between Edward Arnold and his secretary, the firing of Jean Arthur, the beginning of the automat scene, the sable landing on Jean Arthur —  a moment that Rashna Wadia Richards says evokes the spectral eeriness of a surrealist nightmare and that James Harvey believes is the moment everyone remembers from the film — the song; and above all Jean Arthur herself.

Even the shoes sparkle
Even the shoes sparkle

Has Jean Arthur ever looked lovelier? It’s hard to think of another film in which she’s so carefully photographed and to such glamorous effect. Also, in relation to the classic period, we often talk about faces. ‘We had faces then’ says Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. But we rarely talk about voices. Yet think of how distinctive the voices were also: Bette Davis’ quick clipped pronunciation, Rosalind Russell’s foghorn, Katharine Hepburn’s grating Bryn Mar voice. Personally I prefer the low throaty ones that sound like an intimate whisper. I adore Margaret Sullivan’s, for example. But none affords me as much pleasure as Jean Arthur’s, surely one of the most expressive and distinctive voices of the period: low, soft, with a throaty crack and a squeaky end-note, a hushed sound full of a kind of feeling that first reverberates and then evaporates into a kind of sigh, particularly when it’s uttered in excitement. It, she and the film are a delight.

José Arroyo