Thursday, April 21, 2011

Frank O'Hara Goes to the Movies

"glorious Silver Screen, tragic Technicolor, amorous Cinemascope,
stretching Vistavision and startling Stereophonic Sound, with all
your heavenly dimensions and reverberations and iconoclasms!"
- Frank O'Hara, "To the Film Industry in Crisis"
Frank O'Hara (1926 - 1966) loved the movies. His poetry is bursting at the seams with actors and actresses, arcane film references, even Hollywood gossip. O'Hara literally composed love poetry to the entire film industry. (While he doesn't seem to make any distinction between "good" and "bad" movies, I'd hesitate to call his feelings about Hollywood uncomplicated. See his wry poem "Ave Maria" as evidence.) Without question, his most direct ode to the art of movie-making is "To the Film Industry in Crisis", available in The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara. This exuberant poem is breathless in its praise of everyone from Clark Gable to the extras.

Follow the link for my breakdown of the many film references in this poem:

"Richard Barthelmess as the "tol'able" boy barefoot and in pants"

A reference to the 1921 film Tol'able David, starring Barthelmess as a country boy struggling to prove his manhood.

"Jeanette MacDonald of the flaming hair and lips and long, long neck"

An actress primarily associated with musicals of the 1930s (often starring alongside Nelson Eddy), MacDonald retired from acting in the late '40s.

"Sue Carroll as she sits for eternity on the damaged fender of a car and smiles"

A reference to the 1929 film Girls Gone Wild, in which Carol played a character with the wonderfully phony-sounding name Babs Holworthy.

"Ginger Rogers with her pageboy bob like a sausage on her shuffling shoulders"

Legendary hoofer Ginger Rogers must have had a bob at some point, but I only remember her with blonde curls.

"peach-melba-voiced Fred Astaire of the feet"

O'Hara is working on a couple levels with this one. Peach Melba is a French dessert comprised of peach and raspberry sauces over vanilla ice-cream. So, he considers Astaire's voice to be delicious, maybe even decadent. He's also cleverly referencing another singer, as Peach Melba is named after Austrian soprano Dame Nellie Melba.

"Eric von Stroheim, the seducer of mountain-climbers' gasping spouses"

I think this is the funniest line in the entire poem. Eric von Stroheim was an Austrian-born actor/director, often cast as an amoral rake that "audiences love to hate." O'Hara is probably referencing the 1919 film Blind Husbands.

"I cannot bring myself to prefer Johnny Weissmuller to Lex Barker, I cannot!"

Weissmuller originated the role of Tarzan in the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man. Lex Barker was the tenth actor to portray the character onscreen, but it seems O'Hara considered him the definitive Lord of the Jungle.

"Mae West in a furry sled, her bordello radiance and bland remarks"

A reference to the 1936 film Klondike Annie, in which West plays a "kept woman" on the lam in Alaska.

"Rudolph Valentino of the moon, its crushing passions, and moonlike, too, the gentle Norma Shearer"

Two of the biggest stars of the silent era. Valentino's early death in 1926 (he was only 31 years old) caused mass hysteria among the most devoted of his legions of fans. Shearer retired from acting in the early '40s, having successfully transitioned to talkies. (O'Hara uses the word "moonlike" several times in his poetry. His poem to James Schuyler is one example, and it's a personal favorite of mine. " if I were Endymion and she, moon-like, hated to love me.")

"Miriam Hopkins dropping her champagne glass off Joel McCrea's yacht"

A reference to the 1935 film Barbary Coast, directed by Howard Hawks.

"and crying into the dappled sea, Clark Gable rescuing Gene Tierney from Russia"

A reference to the 1953 film Never Let Me Go, which starred Gable as a journalist married to a Russian ballerina played by Tierney.

"and Allan Jones rescuing Kitty Carlisle from Harpo Marx"

A reference to the 1935 Marx Brothers classic A Night at the Opera.

"Cornel Wilde coughing blood on the piano keys while Merle Oberon berates"

A reference to the 1945 film A Song to Remember, a biopic of Frederic Chopin.

"Marilyn Monroe in her little spike heels reeling through Niagara Falls"

A reference to the 1953 film Niagara, in which Marilyn Monroe does considerable running in decidedly unsuitable footwear.

"Joseph Cotten puzzling and Orson Welles puzzled and Dolores del Rio eating orchids for lunch and breaking mirrors"

A reference to the 1943 film noir Journey Into Fear. The orchid-eating reference relates to a bizarre Hollywood rumor that actress Dolores del Rio survived on a diet of orchids.

"Gloria Swanson reclining, and Jean Harlow reclining and wiggling, and Alice Faye reclining and wiggling and singing"

Both Harlow and Swanson were glamorous leading ladies of the 1920s and '30s. Swanson returned to acting in 1950 for an outstanding role in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, a devastating indictment of the film industry. Alice Faye was a popular performer in the 1940s. Though generally associated with musicals, she was a versatile actress, one notable example being the 1945 film noir Fallen Angel.

"Myrna Loy being calm and wise, William Powell in his stunning urbanity"

Powell and Loy acted together in fourteen films, most notably as Nick and Nora Charles in the six Thin Man movies. O'Hara nicely sums up their appeal, as no one has ever done urbanity with the same charm and ease that Powell did, and Powell was certainly at his best when playing off of Myrna Loy's knowing tranquility.

"Elizabeth Taylor blossoming"

Elizabeth Taylor was quite literally raised in public; from her child acting days in Lassie Come Home and National Velvet, to her acclaimed performance opposite Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, to her mature, complex performance as "Maggie the Cat" in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She passed away March 23, 2011. See our Media Corner obit.