03 February 2016

Pavlova of America


During the 1920s and 30s ballerina Harriet Hoctor, dubbed the "Pavlova of America” by showman Florenz Ziegfeld, charmed audiences with her graceful and unique dancing. Double-jointed, she was able to bend her body backwards and execute a perfect question mark, as seen in this photo, and incorporated her backbend into many of her dances.

Born on September 25, 1905 in Hoosick Falls, New York, she made her Broadway debut at just 15 in the chorus of the Ziegfeld produced musical Sally (1920) starring Marilyn Miller. After dancing on the vaudeville circuit, she was asked by the Duncan Sisters (huge vaudeville stars at the time) to join the cast of Topsy and Eva, a musical version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, which toured the country before opening on Broadway in 1924. After a 20-week run, Hoctor went on tour again before returning to Broadway for A La Carte (1927). 

Harriet Hoctor in The Three Musketeers (1928), Photo by Maurice Goldberg. While Hoctor was lovely
as a blonde, I like the bob and general flapper attitude in this photo. 

Having made an impression on Ziegfeld, she was cast in three of his productions: The Three Musketeers (1928), Show Girl (1929), and Simple Simon (1930). During this time Hoctor also participated in recitals, showing off her dance skills in various pieces including one based on The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe for which Hoctor tapped out of the sounds of the bird. This was accomplished by toe tapping en pointe, which is exactly what it sounds like— dancing en pointe with taps attached. Although not the only dancer to utilize this style of dance, Hoctor was one of the best.

In 1932, she travelled to London to perform at the Hippodrome in Bow Bells where she received huge ovations from the audience. Returning to New York, she appeared in a series of productions including Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1932) before she turned to film. She played herself in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and danced with Fred Astaire in Shall We Dance (1937) for which George Gershwin wrote a number specifically for her titled “Hoctor’s Ballet.” Back in New York, she was a member of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 along with Josephine Baker and Fannie Brice.

She spent the rest of the decade and the war years dancing on stage, including performing and choreographing dances at Billy Rose's nightclub the Diamond Horseshoe, after which she retired and ran the Harriet Hoctor Dance School in Boston for many years. She passed away on June 9, 1977.



Her appearance in Shall We Dance comes at the end of the film. She's in the first part of this clip (before the dancers with the creepy Ginger Rogers masks appear). Notice her name on the marquee in the opening shot? Look at how beautiful and effortless her movements are and how perfectly paired she is with Astaire. It was rumoured that Ginger Rogers didn’t want to make this film at first and that Hoctor was going to replace her. Rogers decided at the last minute to take the part. At least Hoctor got her own ballet, and we get to see it. Enjoy.

20 January 2016

The Sweetheart of Lisbon

Beatriz Costa (1930)

Beatriz Costa (1907-1996) was a huge Portuguese theatre and film star who, unfortunately, is not very well known here in the States. I became intrigued from the moment I first saw her image. Portuguese, dark bob, only five feet tall, that could be a description of me! (Sadly though, I can neither sing nor dance.) Of course, I wanted to find out more about her. Most of the information I did find was in Portuguese so apologies in advance for anything that I've translated poorly.

She was born Beatriz da Conceição in Mafra, Portugal on December 14, 1907. As a young girl she helped her mother who took in sewing and taught herself how to read at the age of 13. Enamoured with the stage, she used a connection of her stepfather’s to get a letter of introduction to a theatre manager in Lisbon and at age 15 she made her professional stage debut as a chorus girl in Tea and Toast (1923). She was shortly after renamed Beatriz Costa by Luis Gallardo.

Beatriz Costa from a studio session in Rio (1929)


The following year the theatre company travelled to Brazil where Costa earned raves from the public and the press, especially for her performance of the song “Mademoiselle Boy.” She returned to Portugal two years later where she continued to star in a variety of musical shows.

In 1927, she made her screen debut in The Devil in Lisbon followed the same year by Fátima Milagrosa in which she danced a tango with the future director Manoel de Oliveira. She also began sporting bangs, which would become her trademark. Although she was successful in film, she continued to perform on stage in a series of productions before going on another tour of Brazil. When she returned, she met with Paramount’s European representative and won the lead in Her Wedding Night, a remake of a Clara Bow picture and one of the first Portuguese talkies. Filmed in Paris, it brought Costa even more accolades.




By the 1930s, Costa’s bubbly personality and comedic talents had made her incredibly popular and she was given the nickname, “the Sweetheart of Lisbon.” In 1933, she starred in her biggest film yet, A Song of Lisbon. Billed as the “first Portuguese film made by Portuguese people,” A Song for Lisbon ushered in Portugal’s Golden Age of Cinema. In 1937, Portuguese moviegoers voted her the “Princess of Portuguese Cinema.” 

She ended the decade by making her last film, The Village of White Clothes, and returning to Brazil where she stayed for ten years, performing at the Casino da Urca; she would later refer to this time as “the best years of my life.” It was there in 1947 that she wed the Brazilian writer and sculptor Edmundo Gregorian. But the marriage didn't last, and they divorced two years later.

In 1949, she made a triumphant return to Portugal where she starred in a series of successful plays including Play the Music and Carry On. After her performance in Está Bonita a Brincadeira in 1960, she retired from the stage and travelled the world, attending theatre festivals and visiting with various celebrities. When she returned to Portugal, she moved into the Hotel Tivoli in Lisbon where she would live for the rest of her life. There she began a second career as an author, writing successful books about her career and experiences. I’m happy to report, she sported a bob with her trademark bangs even in old age. Although she received many requests to return to the stage she refused, citing the decline in the quality of theatrical shows. Costa passed away on April 15, 1996. 


Song of Lisbon is one of her few films to survive. Watch this clip where Costa awkwardly dances around and cannot hit a high note. She's funny and adorable in this scene and throughout the rest of the film; no wonder she was called the Sweetheart of Lisbon.

19 January 2016

It's Your Own Fault

"Something's always happening here. If you're bored in New York, it's your own fault."—Myrna Loy

18 January 2016

Boston Common at Twilight


Yesterday was the first snow of the season. In honour of the occasion, I’m taking a look at a favourite winter painting.
When I lived in Boston, I spent many hours at the Museum of Fine Arts. “At Dusk (Boston Common at Twilight)” by the American Impressionist Childe Hassam was one of my favourite paintings. Today, looking at it instantly conquers up a nostalgic mix of memories of both Boston and winter snow.
Here we see a mother with her two children feeding the sparrows on the Tremont Street Mall in Boston Common (a handy location for Hassam as it was across the street from his studio). This wide promenade in the Common, lined with elm trees on one side and Tremont Street on the other, was created for Bostonians to have a place to take a stroll, perhaps in the afternoon or on a Sunday dressed up in church finery. So refined.
While the site looks different today—the promenade was broken up with the addition of two subway entrances—it’s still recognizable as the Boston Common I’ve walked through so many times. What’s interesting to note is that the Common Hassam painted reflected changes that had occurred during his time as well; by the mid-1880s an increase in commerce in the area had resulted in new buildings and streets crowded with trolley cars and carriages.
I particularly love the light in the painting from the pink warmth of the setting sun behind the trees to the orange glow from the windows in the buildings. As for the snow, Hassam painted a very accurate depiction of snow that’s been walked upon. Looking at that path, I know all too well that by the next day it would have turned into a sheet of ice to be traversed at your own risk. Oh, winter in Boston. How beautiful (and dangerous) you could be.

05 January 2016

Between the Pages

Constance Bennett in Lady With a Past (1932)

A new year, a new slew of books to review. I read quite a few books last year but not nearly as many as I would have wanted. These are some of the titles I finished in 2015. And as a new year brings fresh starts, Bookshelf will be called Between the Pages going forward. Now, please, read on.

My Life in France—Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme
Paul and Julia Child moved to France in 1948 for Paul to start his job with the US Information Service. En route to Paris, they stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Rouen. Julia would later refer to it as “the most exciting meal of my life.” Thus began her life-long love affair with la belle France. In Paris, Julia began exploring all aspects of French cuisine, taking classes at the Cordon Bleu and ultimately writing her classic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The book is filled with charming anecdotes of her time in France from merchants she befriended to her experiments in the kitchen to the great love affair with her husband. Be warned: reading this will make you want to buy a ticket for France.

In 1930s Paris a blind girl named Marie-Laure learns the layout of her neighbourhood via a hand-carved miniature version lovingly created by her locksmith father while in Germany a young orphaned boy, Werner, discovers he has a gift for fixing radios. As the Germans descend on Paris, the Seas of Flame—a cursed diamond from the Museum of Natural History—is secreted out of the city to the seaside town of St. Malo where Marie-Laure and Werner’s paths will ultimately cross. I wasn’t expecting to like this novel as much as I did but the non-linear narration made for compelling storytelling and some of Marie-Laure’s scenes were particularly moving.

Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante—Susan Elia Macneal
Maggie Hope is back, this time travelling with Churchill to America to visit Roosevelt to discuss the country’s entry in the war. The mysterious death of one of Mrs. Roosevelt’s secretaries threatens to falsely expose the first lady to a scandal of epic proportion, and it’s up to Maggie find the killer and protect the nation. I’ve enjoyed all of the Maggie Hope books and this one in particular. I especially liked the behind-the-scenes look at the Roosevelts in the White House (FDR whipping up cocktails and lots of appearances by Fala) and the descriptions of Washington during wartime.

The Other Typist—Suzanne Rindell
Rose Baker is a police typist in 1920s New York, spending her days typing up confessions and her nights alone in her rented room in Brooklyn. Her world is changed with the hiring of a new typist, Odalie Lazare, whose fashionable appearance and carefree attitude fascinate Rose. Before long she is drawn into Odalie’s life, sharing her flat and frequenting speakeasies. But there’s something sinister bubbling under the surface that’s destined to result in murder. Reminiscent of a Patricia Highsmith story, Rindell does a good job at building the tension in the story and leaving the reader guessing at the ending.

Girl Waits with Gun—Amy Stewart
In 1914, the three Kopp sisters were driving in their horse and buggy in Patterson, New Jersey when a man hit them with his motorcar. The sisters tried to invoice for the damages but Harry Kaufman, the silk factory owner who had been behind the wheel, retaliated with threatening letters and rocks thrown through the sisters’ windows. The local sheriff did what he thought best—gave the sisters rifles for protection. This is the basis for Stewart’s novel, which revolves around the oldest sister, six-foot tall Constance, who uses her height to intimidate Kaufman and indeed waits with gun. This was a favourite read of mine last year. Stewart does a great job at fleshing out the portraits of the Kopp sisters and demonstrates how one can tell a fictional account of a real event well.

The Goldfinch—Donna Tartt
Thirteen-year old The Decker and his mother are viewing an exhibit at the Met when a bomb goes off, killing her and leaving Theo unharmed with a dead man’s ring and Carel Fabritius’ “Goldfinch” in his possession. Finding temporary shelter at the Upper East Side home of a classmate, he’s soon whisked away by his father to Las Vegas where Theo embarks down a drug-laden road with his only friend, a Ukrainian boy named Boris. When Theo returns to New York, he becomes an apprentice to an antiques dealer who lost his partner in the blast, the same deceased man whose niece Theo loves. It took me a while to get around to reading this book, and I’m so glad I did. Despite its heft, I found myself finishing it in a few days, drawn to the story of Theo and the fate of that glorious bird.

01 January 2016

Hello, 2016!


Hello, 2016! My list of new year's resolutions is long and complex, created with the full realization that most of them will not be achieved but there's no harm in wishful thinking is there? At the top of that list is a resolution to make the most of the next twelve months. No more procrastination—it's time to act (or dance if the occasion calls for it). So lets enjoy 2016 and all the possibilities it brings.

Gif of Louise Brooks from Love 'Em and Leave 'Em (1926). Taken from here.

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