My new article for September is up on The Cultural Gutter. The Sci-Fi Life is my “getting to know you” piece, discussing why I think “gutter culture” matters and how it came to be such an important part of my life.
Here’s a shock: Teleport City is a strong supporter of the burlesque arts and any other form of performance during which women and/or men find themselves increasingly deprived of their vetements. New York, of course, has a long and storied history of burlesque performance beginning as early as 1840 but really catching fire with the first visit to America of Victorian era burlesque troupe British Blondes, led by dancer, comedian, actress, and theatrical producer Lydia Thompson. The shows were a combination of acts, including comedians, singers, acrobats, dancers, wrestlers, strongmen — whatever you could come up with, really. Although burlesque fell out of favor in England near the turn of the century, Americans — especially in New York — picked up the ball and ran with it, with early pioneers like the Minksy Brothers pushing the shows as far as moral crusaders would allow them — and then a little further, including the introduction of “coochy” dances that would evolve into the striptease that came to dominate the burlesque performance (and frequently get them shut down).
She was the Paris of the East. And the Whore of Asia. Shanghai in the 1930s was a dizzying mix of glamour, seediness, decadence, intrigue, and political turmoil. A city divided up by conquering countries, where her own people were relegated to third class citizens. A city would-be adventurers and femme fatales came to make their mark or destroy themselves in those opulent dens of vice. Spies, warlords, gangsters, gamblers. And drifting through it all was the sound of Shanghai music driven by the voices of its divas. Vamps. Coquettes. The voices of a city whose name was synonymous with vice. The city, the country, the entire world was about to go to war. But in her smoky nightclubs and dancehalls, the sirens of Shanghai enchanted everyone.
Laura La Plante was one of the luminaries of silent era cinema, making a name for herself when she was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, a promotional stunt arranged by the United States Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers to promote up and coming new actresses. During the 1920s, she appeared in more than sixty films, including one of our personal favorites, 1928′s The Cat and the Canary. Like many, her career did not survive the transition to talkies, and though she was the lead candidate to replace Myrna Loy in the Thin Man series when that star was mulling over the notion of leaving the films, Loy ultimately decided to stay and that was about it for La Planta, who moved to London, worked occasionally, but more or less went into retirement, emerging in the 1950s to do a turn on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life and, later in life, at a Night of a 100 Stars event during the 1980s.
But we love her for her role as a plucky heiress surrounded by sinister events in The Cat and the Canary — and we love her for the free spirit that sometimes led her to have a problem keeping her clothes on, including a stint as a nude model.