Tuesday, February 21, 2017

New opera with Louise Brooks inspired character debuts in Chicago

The Invention of Morel, a new 90 minute opera with a Louise Brooks inspired character, has received its world premiere at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago, Illinois under the auspices of the city's Chicago Opera Theater. Additional information on the production can be found here.

The Invention of Morel is a music theater adaptation of the 1940 novella by Adolfo Bioy Casares. The score is by Stewart Copeland (the co-founder and drummer for the Police), with stage direction by the English actor-writer Jonathan Moore. Copeland and Moore collaborated on the libretto. The opera was commissioned by the Long Beach Opera and Chicago Opera Theater. (Excerpts from The Invention of Morel were performed as part of the New Opera Showcase, presented by OPERA America and NOVUS NY orchestra on January 18, 2016, at Trinity Wall Street.)

The opera features "wonderfully alluring" Valerie Vinzant as Faustine, and Andrew Wilkowske as the Fugitive. Baritone Lee Gregory is the Narrator (the id of the Fugitive), and tenor Nathan Granner is Morel. Kimberly E. Jones played Dora, Barbara Landis is the Duchess, Scott Brunscheen is Alec/Ombrellieri, and David Govertsen is Stoever. The set designer is Alan Muraoka, lighting designer is David Martin Jacques, the video designer is Adam Flemming, and Jenny Mannis is costume designer.

courtesy of Chicago Opera Theater

The full opera debuted in Chicago on February 18th. In it's reviews, the Chicago Sun-Times described the work as "the alternately unnerving nightmare and beautiful fever dream of a man on the run who sees no hope for his future until he conjures a relationship with an enigmatic woman," adding  "Invention of Morel deftly balances period charm with a contemporary sense of artificial reality." The Chicago Tribune said it was "a brilliant piece of musical surrealism, 4 stars."

Casares' La invención de Morel is widely considered the first literary work of magical realism (predating the kindred fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and others). It features a character named Faustine who was inspired by the author's affection for Louise Brooks. Casares said as much in interviews in later years. Those facts are seemingly not lost on the designers of the opera, who have modeled their Faustine characters after Brooks' appearance, especially her signature bob.

courtesy of Chicago Opera Theater

Though not as well known as it should be, The Invention of Morel has had a unique, lingering resonance. throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Casares’ book was made into a French movie called L’invention de Morel (1967), and an Italian movie called L’invenzione di Morel (1974). It is also believed to have inspired the Alain Resnais’ film Last Year At Marienbad (1961), which was adopted for the screen by the French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. Brooks herself ended up on the cover of a recent edition of Casares’ book, which in turn was given a shout-out on television series Lost (2004 – 2010).

Notably, this is not the first time a contemporary opera singer has been modeled after Brooks, (a one-time Chicago resident). Witness William Kentridge's recent staging of Alban Berg's opera, Lulu, where the appearance of the Lulu character was meant to evoke the actress. The source material for both operas, of course, bear a relationship to Brooks as well, as Brooks starred as Lulu in a 1929 film adaption of Frank Wedekind’s earlier play, Pandora's Box. [The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra staging of William Kentridge’s production of Lulu was recently released on DVD / Blu-ray on the Nonesuch label.]

The Chicago Tribune noted: “As the Fugitive (forcefully sung and acted by baritone Andrew Wilkowske) falls desperately in love with a mysterious beauty who's one of Morel's guests, the symbolically named Faustine (a character inspired by the 1920s film star Louise Brooks), we see the Narrator (the excellent baritone Lee Gregory) pouring his confusion and fears into a diary. He tries to catch her attention and persuade her to return his longing, but she remains as remote as the rest.”

courtesy of Chicago Opera Theater
About the opera, the Chicago Opera Theater wrote, "This world premiere opera is based on "La invención de Morel," a 1940 novel by the influential Argentine author, Adolfo Bioy Casares. The story for this opera does not live within the classic constructs of time and space, but instead explores powerful driving forces of human emotion: love, desire, and sacrifice. . . .  An escaped fugitive arrives on an isolated, strange island. While exploring his surroundings, he observes a group of tourists and quickly realizes something is not quite right in this paradise. Intrigued yet wary of these eccentric visitors, he begins to fall in love with one--a strikingly beautiful woman. He discovers these visitors are here at the invitation of Morel, a mad scientific genius, for the unveiling of his latest mysterious invention. When his heart pulls him helplessly toward this beautiful woman he must ask himself how much he is willing to sacrifice to be with her."

Chicago Opera Theater's world-premiere production of Stewart Copeland's "The Invention of Morel," conducted by Andreas Mitisek, continues through February 26 at the Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Ave., in Chicago, Illinois. Tickets are $39-$125; more information at 312-704-8414 and www.cot.org. Here is a short animated piece summarizing the story.

a variant on this piece was published in the Huffington Post

Monday, February 20, 2017

Film critic Richard Schickel dies at age 84

The film critic Richard Schickel has passed away at the age of 84. I met him once, when I hosted an event with him, some five years ago. He was the film critic for LIFE and TIME magazines, and was the prolific author of some 37 books on the movies and movie stars. I have autographed copies of about a dozen of them. I especially enjoyed his biography of D.W. Griffith, which won the British Film Institute Book Prize.

His books on Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, James Cagney, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Alfred Hitchcock and Elia Kazan are well worth checking out, as are his various documentaries.

Schickel wrote and/or directed more than 30 documentaries, mostly for television. Schickel started his movie making career in 1971 by writing the BBC documentary The Movie Crazy Years. Soon thereafter,  he wrote and directed a series of PBS documentaries under the title The Men Who Made Movies -- individual installements were on Golden Age directors William Wellman, Vincente  Minnelli, Raoul Walsh, King Vidor, Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock. The series became a book, which I also have. Schickel also edited 2006’s The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian, which I have and would recommend.

On his Facebook wall, film historian Frank Thompson wrote a moving tribute to Schickel and the debt he and everyone who loves film and film history has to the late critic.

Schickel both wrote and directed his documentaries, mostly. They include The World of Willa Cather, a documentary about the Nebraska novelist, in 1977; the Walter Matthau-hosted CBS piece Funny Business, highlighting the best in movie comedy, in 1978; The Horror Show, a history of horror movies hosted by Anthony Perkins (1979, CBS); James Cagney: That Yankee Doodle Dandy (1982, PBS); 1987’s Minnelli on Minnelli: Liza Remembers Vincente; Cary Grant: A Celebration (1988, ABC); Gary Cooper: American Life, American Legend (1989, TNT);  Myrna Loy: So Nice to Come Home To (1990, TNT); the Sally Field-hosted Barbara Stanwyck: Fire and Desire (1991); Hollywood on Hollywood (1993, AMC); the Emmy-nominated Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey (1994, AMC); The Harryhausen Chronicles (1998, AMC); the Emmy-nominated Shooting War: World War II Combat Cameramen (2000, ABC);  Woody Allen: A Life in Film (2002, TCM); Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin (2003); Scorsese on Scorsese (2004, TCM); Watch the Skies!: Science Fiction, the 1950s and Us (2005, TCM); and the three-part series You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story, which aired in 2008 as part of PBS’ American Masters.

Schickel received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964. He received the National Board of Review’s William K. Everson Film History Award in 2004, and the Maurice Bessy Award for film criticism in 2001. He was also honored by the  Los Angles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics.

When I met him, I asked Schickel about Louise Brooks. He told me that he liked her, thought her tough, and similarly admired William Wellman, Brooks' director in Beggars of Life.

Richard Schickel has died. His film history remains: his love of the movies is still alive.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Just Found Footage of Louise Brooks Favorite Author Marcel Proust

It's well known that the French writer Marcel Proust (who authored Remembrances of Things Past, or In Search of Lost Time) was Louise Brooks favorite. In 1982, in an article in the New York Times Book Review titled “Books that gave me pleasure,” the actress is quoted: “I have been reading Proust all my life, and I’m still reading him.”

In the screen capture pictured below, the elusive author can be seen wearing a grey coat and a dark bowler hat.

Now comes word that a Canadian professor claims to have found the only existing moving picture of the French writer. According to various news sources including the Guardian (UK), "The black-and-white footage of a wedding cortege filmed in 1904 shows a brief glimpse of a man in his 30s with a neat moustache, wearing a bowler hat and pearl-grey formal suit, descending a flight of stairs on his own. Most of the other guests are in couples."

To watch the entire clip, visit this link. Though just a fragment, this is very exciting news. Who knows what other lost fragmentary footage might be found? (A Louise Brooks fan can hope, can't they?)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Closing Time: Paintings by Max Ferguson with Louise Brooks

Check out this nifty video tribute to the paintings of Max Ferguson (a fan of Louise Brooks). The actress is featured early on; and she is not the only movie legend spotted in this tribute. Can you spot the other. (Clue: he included an image of Brooks in one of his recent films.) Bonus points to those who can name the musical accompanist depicted in the painting which includes LB. And by-the-way, the music accompanying the video is "Closing Time" by Tom Waits.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Happy Valentine's Day from the Louise Brooks Society

I am not sure when this Valentine's Day card dates from, but I might guess it is the late 1920s or early 1930s. What caught my eye is the reference to "A gal in every port" and the inclusion of a bobbed female in the lower middle. This figure could be meant to be an Asian, or it could be meant to loosely resemble Louise Brooks, star of A Girl in Every Port (1928). Who knows, except Cupid?

Friday, February 10, 2017

Celebrating Black History Month: the career of Edgar Blue Washington

There were few African-American actors in the films of Louise Brooks. Such were the times, and such were the stories. African-Americans, in bit parts, can be found in The Street of Forgotten Men (1925), American Venus (1926), Canary Murder Case (1929), and King of Gamblers (1937). Perhaps there were one or two others in one or two of Brooks' lost films.

Certainly, the most prominent part played by an African-American was the role of Black Mose in Beggars of Life. Black Mose was played by Edgar "Blue" Washington (1898 – 1970). Unusually so, Washington received sixth billing, and his name appeared on the screen alongside stars Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen, Robert Perry and Roscoe Karns. Throughout his long film career, Washington appeared mostly in bit parts. Beggars of Life marked a high point.

Washington was an actor (sometimes credited as Edgar Washington and sometimes Blue Washington) as well as a one-time Los Angeles prizefighter and Negro League baseball player. He appeared in 74 films between 1919 and 1961. In between acting jobs, he was also an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. The nickname "Blue" came from director Frank Capra, a friend.

Washington was born in Los Angeles. Before getting into acting, he played for various teams in the Negro League. He was a pitcher for the Chicago American Giants starting in 1916. And in 1920, he was invited to join the newly formed Kansas City Monarchs, where he started at first base and batted .275 in 24 official league games. After a few months of barnstorming, Washington left the Monarchs. In December of 1920, after he had started acting, Washington rejoined the Los Angeles White Sox for a few games; he was also believed to have later played for Alexander’s Giants in the integrated California Winter League.

Harold Lloyd helped Washington break into films, and this pioneering African-American actor appeared in the legendary comedian’s Haunted Spooks (1920) and Welcome Danger (1929). Sporadic work followed throughout the 1920s, as Washington appeared in movies alongside early stars Ricardo Cortez, William Haines, Richard Barthelmess, Ken Maynard, and Tim McCoy.

Beggars of Life director William Wellman worked once gain with Washington in The Light That Failed (1939). The actor also appeared in a few films helmed by John Ford, including The Whole Town's Talking (1935) and The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). Other notable movies in which Washington had at least a small part include the Charley Bower’s short There It Is (1928), King Vidor's all-black Hallelujah (1929), Rio Rita (1929), Mary Pickford's Kiki (1931), King Kong (1933), Roman Scandals (1933), Annie Oakley (1935), Cecil B. DeMille's The Plainsman (1936), and Gone with the Wind (1939).

He was in three installments in the Charlie Chan series, and appears as Clarence the comic sidekick in the John Wayne B-Western Haunted Gold (1933).

Despite the fair amount of screen time Washington enjoyed in this rather poor, 57 minute film, he is only named in this trailer.

Washington also had small roles in The Cohens and the Kellys in Africa (1930), Drums of the Congo (1942), Bomba, the Jungle Boy (1949), and other lesser fair. Unfortunately, many of these and earlier roles traded on racial stereotypes. His last part, as a limping attendant in a billiards hall, was in the classic Paul Newman film, The Hustler (1961).

This blog is indebted to Mark V. Perkins excellent biography on the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) website. Give it a read.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Louise Brooks and Wanda Hawley

Louise Brooks is a magnet of meaning.... I just came across this short video clip, in which Emeritus Film Studies Professor Claudia Gorbman of the University of Washington discusses silent film actresses Louise Brooks and Wanda Hawley. I am not sure if this video clip comes from a larger film, or not, but it is worth a viewing. Give it a play.