Book Review: China Dolls

Book Review: China Dolls by Lisa See

It is 1938, the tail end of the Great Depression, and San Francisco is trying to shake off its blues with a World’s Fair on Treasure Island.  They’re going to need a lot of employees for that, and the prospect of a job draws Grace Lee all the way from Ohio.  She’s from a small town where her parents were the only other people of Chinese ancestry; all these other people who look kind of like her is a bit of a shock.

China Dolls

It turns out that the World’s Fair can’t use a Chinese dancer, but there’s a nightclub called the Forbidden City that’s hiring, and they only want Chinese.  On her way there, Grace gets some help from Helen Fong, a young woman from a traditionalist family, and when they arrive, they meet Ruby Tom, a vivacious woman who’s changed her name because Japanese-Americans have an even tougher time getting good jobs than Chinese-Americans.

The three women try out together, and although only two are chosen at that time, they form a life-long bond.  However, each of them has secrets in their past, and those combine with their ambitions to turn them against each other as well.  World War Two in particular raises the stakes, and their careers and friendship may never recover.

This book is loosely based on real life Asian-American entertainers of the mid-20th Century, and there’s an interview with some of those real people at the end of the paperback edition I read.

Grace makes a good viewpoint character for the first part of the novel; her parents were very insistent on her being “American” so she’s a complete newcomer to Chinese-American culture and the full array of prejudice faced by Asian-Americans outside of her small town.  The reader learns along with her.  Helen and Ruby also have sections from their viewpoints, but at first are concealing details from the reader as well as their friends–we don’t learn some important information about Helen until nearly the end of the book.

Some of the behavior of the protagonists is pretty shabby, and a couple of the betrayals go well beyond what would break most friendships permanently.  Some readers may find it impossible to believe that the characters even speak to each other after what happens.

All three protagonists also have romantic difficulties.  Mistakes are made, and attitudes change over the years.  One of the characters winds up in a relationship that’s considerably less than ideal from just about every angle.

As you might have guessed, period racism and sexism play a considerable part in the story, as well as period homophobia.  Grace’s backstory involves domestic abuse.  There’s some use of period slurs, lampshaded towards the end by a modern-day (1980s) college student asking pointed questions about the attitudes of the past.

I’d recommend this book to people curious about the “chop suey circuit” that Asian-American performers were shunted into during the Twentieth Century–the “Random House Reader’s Circle” edition is designed for use by book clubs.

Book Review: Twin Cities Noir: The Expanded Edition

Book Review: Twin Cities Noir: The Expanded Edition edited by Julie Schaper & Steven Horwitz

Like the previously reviewed USA Noir, this is a collection of grittier crime stories from Akashic Books with a regional focus.  In this case, the cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota, and the surrounded metro area, plus one up north in Duluth (“Hi, I’m God” by Steve Thayer; a teenager drowns in Lake Superior…or does he?)

Twin Cities Noir

This is the “expanded edition” released in 2013 with three new stories, bringing it to a total of eighteen.   The new ones are conveniently all in the front in the “Star of the North” subsection, starting with John Jodzio’s “Someday All of This Will Probably Be Yours”  about a speed dating scam gone wrong.  The other sections are “Minnesota Nice”, “Uff Da” and “Funeral Hotdish.”

Each of the stories is set in a particular neighborhood, several of which I’m familiar with.  One scene takes place less than a block from where I live!  This makes it easy for me to picture the action in my mind.  This may not be as evocative for non-locals, but will please readers in the Twin Cities area.

Some standouts:  “Skyway Sleepless” written and drawn by Tom Kaczynski takes place in Minneapolis’ extensive skyway system.  The art uses the rectangular boxes of the skyway to indicate the maze-like architecture of the story, as people are found filling chalk outlines and no memory of how they got there.

“The Brewer’s Son” by Larry Millett is a period piece set in 1892 Saint Paul, and starring his series character, saloonkeeper and amateur detective Shadwell Rafferty, acquaintance of Sherlock Holmes.  The title character has been kidnapped, supposedly by the Black Hand, and Mr. Rafferty is called in by the concerned father.  This is noir, so expect some darkness.

Mary Logue’s story “Blasted” takes place in upscale Kenwood, as a police officer tells her daughter about a domestic dispute call that was the most frightening experience of her life.  The officer is still alive, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t good reason for fear.

The final story is “”Chili Dog” by Chris Everhart.  A small time crook stops in downtown Saint Paul for lunch, and things go very wrong for him.

As a crime story anthology, there’s a fair bit of violence, one story features domestic abuse, and there’ mention of suicide.

If you are local to Minnesota, or have lived here in the past, highly recommended.  The book’s pretty good if you’re not local, but you might miss some of the nuance.  Akashic may have a volume set in your area; check their catalog.   If you own the previous version, you might want to save money by going with the e-book, so you can check out the new stories without shelling out the big bucks.

Movie Review: Trocadero (1944)

Movie Review: Trocadero (1944)

Hollywood columnist Erskine Johnson (playing himself) needs a story for his Sunday slot, and goes to his favorite nightclub, the Trocadero.  It’s hopping as usual, but headwaiter Sam (Ralph Morgan) finds a moment between celebrity cameos and musical numbers to talk to the columnist.  He reveals that things were not always so rosy here….

Trocadero

The club used to be Tony Rocadero’s Restaurant, and we see the owner (Charles Calvert) at the end of Prohibition getting a legitimate liquor license.  He wants to turn his place into a class joint for the sake of his adopted children Judy and Johnny Edwards (Rosemary Lane & Johnny Downs.)   Unfortunately, he is killed in a street accident.  There’s only enough income from the restaurant to send one of the kids to college; the other will have to stay and help manage the place.

Johnny goes off to earn a degree while Judy takes over as acting manager and star singer of the night spot.  They struggle along until in 1935, the place is broke and about to close its doors.  Musical agent Mickey Jones (Sheldon Leonard) buys ten percent of the business as he’s convinced it can be revived with a new jazz band he’s representing.  Even this might not have worked, but then swing band leader Spike Nelson (Dick Purcell) barges in with his own musical troupe, and Judy takes the risk of having two house bands.

It’s obvious that both Jones and Nelson have more than a business interest in Judy, but she’s got a nightclub to run.  A slip of the tongue renames the place the Trocadero, it shifts emphasis from dining to dancing, and business heats up.

Some time later, Johnny has finally graduated from college, and returns.  Problem!  He’s fallen in love with society dame Marge Carson (Marjorie Manners), whose father (Emmett Vogan) owns a tobacco brokerage.  She’s less than enthused by the tawdry entertainment industry, and wants Johnny to join her father’s business.  So he can’t take over the Trocadero after all.

Judy has her own problems.  Jones is more or less okay with just being friends, but Nelson feels he’s been strung along too long and accepts another gig.  Only after he leaves does Judy realize that she actually loves the lug.

Meanwhile, Johnny discovers at the engagement party that Marge’s relatives are deadly dull people who care only for money and prestige, and look down on “hoofers” like himself.  He dances a fiery rebuttal and calls off the marriage.  He returns to the Trocadero to console his lovelorn sister and finally help manage the place, which is more popular than ever.

Which brings us back to the present day.    But this is a Hollywood musical, and there’s no way it’s going to end on a bittersweet note.

There was a real-life Trocadero nightclub, one of Hollywood’s hottest spots, but its history was nothing like this movie’s version.  Still, it’s a sweet story in its own way, a fantasy of making it in show business.  There are several fun musical numbers, including a grand finale with four, count ’em, four bands combining their talents.  One song in the modern section obliquely references World War Two, which was going on at the time.

As mentioned, there are several celebrity cameos, the most unusual of which is animator Dave Fleischer, with a little cartoon creature that comes out of his pen.

There’s of course lots of drinking, but the cigarette girl isn’t too keen on smoking (at least the Carson brand.)   Johnny and Judy do some playful scuffling, and have perhaps a bit too much chemistry for siblings, but that and the slightly offscreen death of Tony are it on the violence front.  By 1940s standards the movie is surprisingly non-sexist; no one thinks Judy can’t run a nightclub just because she’s a woman.

This is a lovely confection, fun but not very deep, and should be okay to watch with younger viewers.

Film Review: Hi-De-Ho (1947)

Film Review: Hi-De-Ho (1947)

Jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway (Cab Calloway) has a new manager named Nettie (Ida James).  His girlfriend Minnie (Jeni Le Gon) becomes insanely jealous, despite the relationship being purely professional.  When Nettie lands Cab and his orchestra a gig at the ritzy Brass Hat Club, Minnie hies herself over to a rival nightclub run by mobster Boss Mason (George Wiltshire).

Hi-De-Ho

Minnie convinces Boss Mason and his triggerman Mo the Mouse (James Dunmore) to try and lure Cab away from the Brass Hat Club and Nettie, or failing that kill him.  Just as the hit is about to go down, Minnie overhears a conversation between Cab and Nettie that reveals the truth of their relationship.  But is it too late to prevent tragedy?

This is another “race picture”, filmed with an all-black cast for showing in movie theaters catering to African-American audiences.   Even the cops are black!   As one might expect from a movie starring Cab Calloway, it’s a musical.

Good:  Cab Calloway was a national treasure and backed by some really wonderful jazz musicians and dancers in this film.  I’m not too keen on this particular rendition of “St. James Infirmary” but otherwise the musical numbers are excellent.

I also like the running gag of the one character who hangs around Cab all the time reading Variety and making smart remarks, but never takes place in the action and seems to have no actual job he does for Cab.

Less good:  The plot, thin to begin with,  resolves halfway through the movie, with the romance subplot resolved in a montage sequence no less.  The remainder of the film is a long performance by the now world-famous Cab Calloway and his Orchestra in a club…somewhere.

Problematic:   Cab is callous towards Minnie, and even slaps her to the floor when she backtalks him.  Later, Boss Mason does the same thing, and in both cases we are meant to think she had it coming.  Minnie having implied sexual needs is treated as a flaw in her character.  Nettie is subjected to a “you’re beautiful without your glasses” scene, though this is done without the dialogue.  On the other hand, Nettie is shown to be an effective manager for Cab in his early career.

Some viewers may want to skip straight to the last half of the film for the musical numbers.  Parents watching the movie with younger children may want to remind them that slapping around your girlfriend is no longer accepted practice, even if she’s being obnoxious.

Apparently, there’s also an earlier film short titled Cab Calloway’s “Hi-De-Ho” which has a different plot.  And here it is!

TV Review: Martin Kane, Private Eye

TV Review: Martin Kane, Private Eye

Martin Kane was a fairly standard private eye appearing on radio and television 1949-1951.  He was played by four actors on TV,  William Gargan, Lloyd Nolan, Lee Tracy and Mark Stevens, each with their own characterization, from mellow cynicism to outright rudeness.

Martin Kane, Private Eye

The most notable thing about the program is that it was sponsored  by U.S. Tobacco, so instead of smoking just being a habit of the characters, it was a central theme.  Kane loves him some Old Briar pipe tobacco, and there are lovingly shot sequences of him stuffing his pipe and lighting it.  In addition, there is always a scene set in the local tobacconist’s shop, staffed by Happy McMann (Walter Kinsella), who both helps recap the plot and shills for U.S. Tobacco.

I watched five episodes of the TV show on DVD.

  • “Altered Will”:  A wealthy inventor is murdered, and it’s obvious his will was altered.  But the person it was altered in favor of couldn’t possibly have been the murderer.  Could they?
  • “A Jockey Is Murdered”:  Martin Kane is asked to get a loan shark off a jockey’s back.  When the jockey turns up dead after he loses a race, the loan shark is about the only person who doesn’t have a motive.  The solution depends on a trivia point about racetracks that I was unaware of, due to never having been to one.  (And I am not sure it still applies.)
  • “A Crooner Is Murdered”:  A singer is killed in front of a crowded nightclub.  Turns out lots of people had good reasons to want him dead, including the person who actually wrote all his songs.   There’s a small bit with a particularly misogynistic bartender.  (On average, Mr. Kane is condescending to dames himself.)
  • “The Black Pearls”  Martin Kane is lured down to Florida to take the rap for a millionaire’s murder, involving the title rare luxuries.  He manages to turn the tables, of course.  Has an interesting murder method.
  • “The Comic Strip Killer”:  An eccentric comic strip artist is basing his plotline on a recent unsolved murder.   Basing it a little too closely for the comfort of the real people involved in the case.   They hire Martin Kane to find out where the artist is getting his information.  Both the artist and his guru are murdered before Kane can get the proof, but comic strips from beyond the grave give the final clue.  Kane is at his rudest here, calling the guru a fraud to his face.

A sixth episode, “The District Attorney Killer” is listed on the DVD, but it turned out to be another copy of the comic strip story.

The comic strip episode is the most interesting, otherwise it’s a fairly generic show.  The audience that might be best pleased is smokers who sorely miss the sensual treatment of tobacco on TV shows.

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