I begin this post in tandem with the preceding: Pirates of the Caribbean. I’m half-way through the DVD, and love it. Thursday night Jan and I watched Delovely, the biopic of Cole Porter, and adored it. I’d already known the Cary Grant bio of Porter, Night and Day, a pack of lies and euphemisms we are assured. But I’m noticing a standard dishonesty in common between Pirates and Delovely: i think: I’ll have to check: but I’ll write what I think first, and pat myself or scold myself and apologize later.
Johnny Depp’s pirate captain Jack Sparrow, having crossed fortunes with Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly’s characters, is chasing the living dead J Rush’s Captain Barbossa: who had mutinied Sparrow’s pirate ship, the Black Pearl, out from under him, leaving him marooned. So: a living pirate ship is about to fight with a ghost pirate ship. That’s necessary background, but utterly beside my point. We’ve glimpsed female characteristics among some of the sailors in the first half of the movie. I was brought up on movies about British ships with women aboard, but the women were always elaborately protected virgins in love with Errol Flynn’s character. Here, in 2004 Hollywood/Disney, just before the fighting breaks out, the crew member with female associations jumps up and gives orders, then another female proves to be at the helm, fully female, long hair, buxom, in a dress. Mid-fight Keira Knightly, who’s been a dummy punching bag to be rescued female in distress so far, is the one with the Horatio Hornblower inspiration to drop the starboard anchor, turn broardside toward the pursuing Black Pearl, and salvo the Pearl out of the water.
But that’s not all: this and that crew has been populated by sub-human looking giants. One of the monster’s has been a black goliath. Now suddenly he too is giving orders. Mid-movie, the pirate ships are suddenly equal opportunity employers, glass ceilings, advantage to physical leverage, a thing completely past and out of date.
The Cary Grant Cole Porter movie imagined a life long romance between Cole Porter and wife to be, Linda Porter. Cole Porter loved her, she was the inspiration for all those hit love songs, and continued to be through a long life. Not so in the Delovely version. Porter was gay as a loon, and Linda was a fag hag who not only put up with it, she thrived on it. (I’ve known fag hags, and Ashley Judd’s Linda was very like.)
OK, fine: the later dated Porter bio is less full of lies than the ’40’s biopic. But is it truthful?
I’m not sure: but I’ll tell you what I suspect is cultural revisionism every bit as dishonest as the every-minority an equal opportunity profit sharer fraudulence of Pirates. Delovely shows Cole Porter as a young sophisticate, a Yalie, chain smoking and sipping chamgagne and picking up tuxedo clad playboys for an unending series of blow jobs and buggeries. I’ve known young Yalies too, and that too is very like: Yalies are full of fays. On the stand are bands that Cole Porter merges among: he knows their music, they know his. Very likely. Some of the musicians, especially the female singers, are black. That too could be very like: at least along 52 Street in NYC, in the ’30s the ’40s. But here’s what’s almost certainly wrong: ahistorical: a product of a whitewasher imagination: The private parties, in the Park Avenue Duplexes, and the night clubs too, are peopled with smiling blacks, immaculate in privileged in tuxedoes!
Uh, I don’t think so.
In the 1940s I studied Benny Goodman’s swing bands of the 1930s with a passion. By 1950 I knew about Bessie Smith dying outside a hospital that wouldn’t treat her because she’s wasn’t “white.”
I know of Lionel Hampton, hired by Goodman for his quartet, travelling with the band, and having to use a separate entrance, having to sleep on the bus. I know of Lena Horne performing at this or that club: where the club conspicuously threw away anything she had touched: plates, silver, glasses …
Lena Horne, or Bessie Smith, or Billie Holliday, could have performed at a club frequented by Cole Porter and his fags. Maybe Lionel Hampton was playing vibes for one number in the Stork Club. But Louis Armstrong, nor Billy Eckstein, nor Lester Young were dancing the evening away at the parties in the duplexes on Park or Fifth.
I don’t mean that all previous editions of kleptocracy parroted American racism of America’s 1930s, 1940s … I don’t mean that no ships ever had women among their crews. i certainly don’t mean that pirates were all male societies. Jorge Luis Borges’ astonishing Short History of Violence tells of a woman pirate in China who sounds like she could have given Ralegh, Drake, Blackbeard … or Barbossa a good run for their money. And certainly there have been cities were dark skin was no handicap. But New York City in 1930-something, 1940-something, was not among them.
You know about the Cotton Club? Famous Harlem night spot. Famous for black music, blacks dancing, for black pussy …? White went to the Cotton Club, they could fill their eye, their ear, with this and that. But could Louis Armstrong visit the Cotton Club? On the stage, yes, if they hired him. Then he would use the stage door. But he couldn’t come in the front door or sit among the guests, or ask Mrs. Vanderbilt to dance.
When Disney makes a Cotton Club memoir though it will be entirely different. It will mirror whatever delusion the year it’s made wishes on itself.
I just checked on a couple of things. The Cotton Club closed in 1936. But Satchmo had indeed played there, Duke had been the resident jungle genius, and Horne too sang there: age 16!