Today we are delighted to welcome back our guest contributor Larry Michie, literary man of the world and former television editor of Variety.
Larry has a special interest in how classic movies are handled in and by fiction, especially the always-fascinating process of converting good novels into great films.
Larry continues to weigh in on our Blog as subject and fancy strike him. We hope you enjoy his contributions as much as we do. So, here’s Larry:
Imagine Busby Berkeley splashing a parade of prancing showgirls across a theater screen as Japanese bombers flatten nearby buildings and zeros strafe beaches where terrified hordes are trying to escape in any boat that can be stolen or commandeered.
Well, not long after Pearl Harbor, that was the scene in Singapore as recreated in the novel “The Singapore Grip” by the celebrated British writer J.G. Farrell (1935-1979). The movie was “Ziegfeld Girl,” a 1941 release that hit the screens just as World War II erupted in flame and gore.
The greater part of Farrell’s novel portrays British imperialism in Singapore and the highly profitable rubber trade there as rival businessmen elbow their way to wealth and power. Vivid and often hilarious portraits of British overlords, their families and their social maneuvers are scathing but so deftly written that one might suspect that Evelyn Waugh lurked nearby.
When the Japanese mount their attack, the British military is woefully unprepared and the outcome predictably dire. As the Japanese approach Singapore, their bombing reduces the city to ruins. A band of volunteers organizes a fire brigade, dashing from one flame-engulfed disaster to another, snatching sleep at odd moments, searching out hydrants in a futile effort to extinguish raging fires, and saving lives when they can.
At last they are forced to admit defeat, as the bombing has completely destroyed the city’s water mains. As the firefighters stagger back through the streets, they come upon a motion-picture theater that unaccountably is open and showing a film called “Ziegfeld Girl.”
Farrell writes: “This seemed such a cause for wonder that they stopped and consulted each other. Why not? Just for a minute or two. They had such a craving for normality, even if only a glimpse of it … even if only for a few minutes. So they went inside, and once inside in the darkness they kept falling asleep and waking up, paralyzed by weariness and comfort.”
A young man named Matthew, a prominent character in the novel, a decent and likeable fellow with fervent though wildly naïve ideals, wakes from a doze to see Hedy Lamarr, “beautiful, grave and sad,” arguing with her violinist husband because she wants to make money as a showgirl. A scene or so later, “A breathless, manic Judy Garland” bursts into the room where the girls were getting ready for their performance.
Soon, the Busby Berkeley extravaganza begins — he staged the big musical numbers; director of record is Robert Z. Leonard — with Tony Martin crooning “You Stepped Out of a Dream” to a celestial Lana Turner descending a large staircase. (The Nacio Herb Brown-Gus Kahn tune soon became a Turner offscreen signature, and was often played as she entered a night club or a restaurant.)
Matthew dozes off again, only to awake to Lana Turner dumping a lover for a “stage-door johnny.” Soon Garland was singing “Minnie from Trinidad,” and in a waking moment Matthew leaves the theater in hopes of finding the Chinese woman with whom he had fallen in love.
One helluva way to catch a movie, you may well say. But what a movie! While not a true classic it still merits a view today.
The clouds of feathers surrounding the ravishing Hedy Lamarr as she steps down the stairs in the opening number might as well have had Busby Berkeley’s name in blinking neon lights on her forehead, so clearly was his style stamped on the scene.
Judy Garland, of course, was just two years past her performance in The Wizard of Oz. And speaking of Hedy’s looks, don’t forget Lana Turner, an eye-popping beauty who plays a Ziegfeld girl who crashed out of show-biz because of demon rum – even though she was still a lovely lush.
The list of stars in Ziegfeld Girl has barely begun. There was James Stewart, Jackie Cooper, Edward Everett Horton, Eve Arden (guess what? She cracks wise!), Dan Dailey, and a spectacular aggregation of uncredited Ziegfeld Girls.
(Yes, that’s Stewart huddling above with Turner.)
Incidentally, one quaint aspect of the movie is the various ways in which it is strongly suggested, although not exactly mentioned, that the show girls barter their pretty flesh for rewards of jewelry and other bonuses. In 1941, movies couldn’t use the verbiage so familiar on the screens today. But those girls grabbed the gold, make no mistake about it. Hubba-hubba.
And by the way, if you’ve a taste for the best of British writing, try J.G. Farrell. His three celebrated novels, collectively known as the Empire Trilogy, are “The Singapore Grip,” mentioned above; “Troubles,” about the conflict between Ireland and England, and “The Siege of Krishnapur,” the tale of an uprising in India.
Th-Th-That’s All, Folks
Thanks Larry– look forward to your next entry. Meanwhile, if any of our followers have a particular Book To Film or Book inside a Film you’d like to tout… give us a holler.