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.
It is fashionable, and has been for some time now, for Americans to dislike France. Our one-time close ally, the country that basically bankrolled the American Revolution, that gave the world Brigitte Bardot, Sophie Marceau, and Jean Reno — you surrender early in one little world war, and suddenly the US is holding a grudge against you for decades, exacerbated by your unwillingness to approve the occasional dubious war in the United Nations. Here, however, in this city of bon vivants and coquettes, we harbor no ill will toward our brothers and sisters on The Continent. They simply gave us and continue to give us too many wonderful things, including that statue I see in New York Harbor every day on my way to work.
And they gave us the risque magazine. Specifically, La Vie Parisienne, founded in 1863 as a guide to upper class and artistic life in Paris. Of course, anyone who knows anything about such circles both high and low knows that eventually a bared breast or naked bottom is going to find its way into the discussion, and before very long, La Vie Parisienne became the preeminent publication for those in search of a bawdy jest, juicy gossip, or investigative exploration of some manner of Bohemian life, preferably involving nudity. The magazine became hugely popular, and not just among the Parisienne libertine set. Imitators quickly sprung up, with titles like Le Sourire, Le Rire, Le Regiment, and Fantasio. It was not all about the coy mademoiselle or caddish gent, however, and like the early editions of its eventual descendant, Playboy, La Vie Parisienne also featured articles on style, finances, politics, the arts, and romance. So you could totally buy La Vie Parisienne just for the articles.
But if perchance your eye did stray and was drawn to those spicy illustrations, you would be inevitably greeted by a knowing smirk, a defiant liberty, and playful sauciness that became increasingly popular after the first World War and during the rise of the Jazz Age, flappers, and the tremendous sense of blowing off some steam and shedding inhibitions that did its best to lift the weight off the world’s shoulders during the 1920s. During the Great War, General Pershing himself warned American troops that under no circumstance should they submit their eyes to viewing such filth, which I’m sure resulted in a mysterious spike in sales for the publication. La Vie Parisienne continued to publish well into the 20th century, but with the rise of photographic magazines and increasing brazenness of the publications, the glimpse of stocking or artfully bared bosom from a loose Grecian tunic became quaint and then was surpassed and forgotten. In 1970, the storied and ground-breaking publication printed its final issue, though the name was sold and assigned to a new magazine in 1984, which continues publication now.
But for us here, as one would guess, we prefer the old days and old ways and the artwork of bold pioneers in sly sinfulness and mature mirthmaking like Georges Barbier, Gerda Wegener, Cheri Herouard, Georges Leonnec, Maurice Milliere, Sacha Zaliouk, Umberto Brunelleschi, Raphael Kirchner. There is such a…not innocence about their artwork, but an energy, a happiness, an idea that sexuality and playfulness and intellectualism were things to be loved, celebrated and enjoyed rather than demonized and shunted to the shadows of guilt and self-loathing. Such a joie de vivre. Without them, we might never have had…oh, who am I kidding? Nudie magazines were inevitable, since the first thing we do as humans with any new medium is use it to display each other naked. But still, we honor the magazine that started the ball rolling. So order yourself a French 75, put on some Francoise Hardy, and join us celebrating the magazine that dared celebrate our secret love of decadence and dandyism. On s’est bien amusé, darlings!
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.