The Mod Guide to Crime Drama: The Untouchables


The Untouchables were something of an iconic group of federal prohibition agents that operated between 1928 and 1933, later immortalised in public consciousness by a memoir of two former said agents, Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley. The book sold well enough that a fictionalised television drama based on it was developed and aired on the ABC Network in the US from 1959 to 1963 (the same span of time as Peter Gunn). The writing was consistently pretty good, as was the cast, but for the standard of the time, it was possibly the most graphically violent series on television, some critics even proclaiming it “unfit for television” —now, by modern standards, it’s almost tame, but often enough there are scenes that can shock even myself, and I practically grew up on Law & Order and NYPD Blue.

The writing and direction was strong, it certainly holds up to the former controversy in that sense, but here’s a major flaw to the series that I noticed right away: This show is anachronistic as hell. Remember, this is set in the late 1920s and early ’30s. The hair, especially on the men, is awfully dry during an era when Brylcream ruled men’s hairdressing with an iron fist, and it’s awfully volumunous for a period when a deep side-part and slicked-back was pretty much the only way for a “real man” wear his hair (unless you were Ramon Novarro, but that’s another story for another time), I’ve watched maybe half as many episodes as were ever produced and still have yet to see a woman with fingerwaves, several women sport haircuts and styles that didn’t really happen until 1960 (including one low beehive / bouffant in at least one episode), the clothes are all late 1950s / early ’60s, and the jazz is often more cool than hot. Menus on chalkboards have 1960s pricing. This show has a bizarre penchant for putting the men in zoot suts, which didn’t really exist until later in the 1930s and didn’t have any real popularity until the 1940s. Dresses have 1960s waistlines and skirt hems —which would’ve been scandalous when compared to the standard just-above-midcalve flapper hemlines. The writing certainly tends to carry the story well enough that sometimes I forget about the wall to wall 1960s pretty early on, but other times, I just forget that it’s supposed to be set in the 1920/30s. It’s like watching Dirty Dancing and immediately forgetting that first scene where Jennifer Grey’s voice-over explains that it’s set in 1963, cos dear lord does everything else about that film look and feel 1986.

In fact, the egregious anachronisms give me incredibly mixed feelings about this show. The writing, direction, and acting is all great. Care is certainly made to give most episodes a feel of 1930s gangster films, or at least that this is giving a nod to that genre. As a period piece, though, it’s a complete failure that manages only slightly better to capture the early 1930s than, well, 1986’s Dirty Dancing managed to capture the early 1960s. It’s quite watchable, but more as a quality crime drama that was popular and controversial for its violence in the 1960s, but as a piece about the prohibition era, it ignores the changes made in the thirty years between the era it depicts and the era it was produced in.

In short: I want to like this show more than I do. I love me some quality crime drama television writing, and this has that. As a crime drama alone, it’s fairly good. On the other hand, anachronistic period pieces bother me more than they seem to bug most other people, and when I can list off at least eight things off the top of my head on how this scene alone fails as a period piece1

…then it’s far too distracting for me to enjoy. Your mileage may vary.

1: Elizabeth Montgomery’s hair in the opening credits; Montgomery’s dress in the scene — waistline, hemines (that double-skirt thing is very 1940s), style; Montgomery’s handbag (too big); Montgomery’s hat (WAY too big); Robert Stack’s hat; Robert Stack’s suit

Sunday at the Gallery

Erte, Charleston couple; c1926?

Erte, Charleston couple; c1926?

The Great Gatsby

You’ve just watched the trailer to the lost silent film, The Great Gatsby, released in 1926. If you’re critical of the fact that novels give way to hasty film versions at a supposedly alarming rate in the last decade, keep in mind that the novel was published in 1925. Film historians, basing their belief on reviews, are generally of the opinion that the lost silent was the most faithful film adaptation of the book, but personally, I really love the 1974 film —and anyway, short of another freak find of film cans in a grain silo or something, this trailer is all that survives of the silent.

Great love story of our time? Oh, Mr Trailer Narrator… Did you even watch the film? I mean, I’m not denying there’s a love story in there, but it’s not what you think it is.

The 1974 film starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow (I always love Farrow’s performances, and in this she was as perfect as one could imagine) is fair enough. Upon its release, it was praised for sticking closely to the novel, but oddly criticised for failing to portray The Jazz Age through Nostalgia Goggles —but considering the philosophical themes of the story, wouldn’t something thouroughly stteped in nostalgia sort of miss the point? I swear, sometimes I want to take a cricket bat to film critics (one of the few I regularly find myself agreeing with being Doug Walker of That Guy With the Glasses —but then, hating Moulin Rouge! [NOT the 1953 biopic of Toulouse-Laurtrec starring Jose Ferrer on his knees portraying the 5’1″ descendent of inbred French aristocracy, but the jukebox musical with the exclamation point in the title —which also features an ostensibly Puerto Rican actor as the French painter, this time John Leguizamo, who is given a similar digital treatment to make Elijah Wood and Sean Astin into Hobbits] as much as I did is never a bad thing).

The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic story about a man who does everything he can to attract the attentions of high society, especially one woman in particular, seems to, and at one point, feels he has made it to the top, only to learn that the woman he’s pined for (and the Old Money society he’s tried to impress) is still unimpressed with his working class / white collar criminal background (he’s a bootlegger during the Prohibition era), and will never love and accept him. Gatsby’s character is sort of a satirical inverse of Trimalchio, a character in the ancient Roman novel Satyricon (and Trimalchio was Fitzgerald’s preferred title for the novel, but his agent advised against it), and the novel itself is more a classic satire of the socio-economic class system as much as it is a tragedy of the titular character.

I first became a bit excited to learn of a 2012 remake of the film —and then I learned that the film due for a 2012 release is directed by the same man who directed William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, two films where the only thing I praiset is use of songs performed by Gavin Friday in the soundtrack albums. I am not confident that this will be a decent film.

Just going by the trailer: It looks like everything that sort of worked about the other two films is present in this one, and yet the trailer leads me to believe that it’ll be subjected to the same music-video style editing, where you can’t actually appreciate the visuals and design, and (just as I hated about Romeo + Juliet), it’s trying too hard to be “dark and edgy”, where what works about the story is the juxtaposition of shallow lightheartedness with virtue and misguided determination. This is not a story about being brooding and “edgy”, it’s a story about doing everything one can to be at the top and impress people, only to end up without happiness —and this is not adequately satirised with a Romeo + Rouge! “dark and edgy” atmosphere. The trailer suggests that this is one of those films that’s going to have a few nice points (which one may not be able to fully appreciate because it looks and feels like a music video) but which misses all the nuances of the source material, which is what makes it so engrossing and thus adds to the timelessness of the piece.

But hey: Shit sandwich? Tastes great! I doubt there are going to be very many people who will realise how shitty this film even seems from the trailer, and so will flock the the cinema, their minds already made up that “nice title card + obligatory Baz Lurhmann dark atmoss with random sparkly shit = OMG! REESE’S-MASTERPIECES!!!”, and this will thus be public opinion of an objectively bad film that can essentially buy a good review.

1920s nostalgia of the 1960s and 1970s

The Boy Friend is probably Ken Russell’s best musical. Modified from the original stage script from 1954 (which was a comic send-up of Rodgers & hart’s 1926 musical The Girl Friend) to be presented in a similar “play within the film” format Russell revisited with Salome’s Last Dance from 1988, though this is far more complex. Set at an unspecified year (though judging from the clothing and such, I’d guess about 1926-28-ish for the approximate date Russell was going for), it’s generally pretty accurate as a tribute to the Jazz Age and the height of Art Deco popularity in design and costuming.

Thoroughly Modern Millie is cute, but very much anachronistic of the 1960s, visually, in ways that make Russell’s film clearly superior. I swear, half these costumes are modified from Mary Quant designs —which would be a good thing, if making a film about 1967 (the year of its release), but not for a film set in 1922. The women’s hair is all 1960s. The men’s hair is all 1960s. Unlike The Boy Friend, at least half of the music is taken from the 1910s and 1920s (though some from later than 1922), but performed in a manner closer to 1960s tastes.

All in all, I like both films, but for different reasons. Julie Andrews clearly is the better singer/dancer/actress than Twiggy, Millie is lighter and more overtly comedic and more specifically spoofing nostalgic and modern sentiments, which is certainly better suited to certain moods (though in general, I tend to prefer “artier” and more serious fare, even in comedies), and Carol Channing is always memorable and entertaining. On the other hand, Ken Russell did his homework for the look and feel of the Boyfriend, and while clearly making the story more complex and serious, also created the superior atmosphere for a genuine tribute to the 1920s. It’s the difference between “film as art” and “film as broadly humorous commentary”, and overall, both hold up pretty well, but by personal opinion, I think Russell’s film is better, cos it’s closer to my own personal tastes.

Old School

Key and Peele – Old School from George Smith on Vimeo.

Spot On Etsy Tuesday

So, as always, here’s my new listing for the week, and this week, it’s a twofer:
As I say in the listing for the white-on-black one, the reason I have two Yardbirds badges is because at OWOT4: Kinetic Underground, back in 2005, I was in a last-minute rush to get more badges made, and, in a panic, I couldn’t think of anything good, so I inverted The Yardbirds one and had an extra design to fill my board with. I’ve never been at all happy with the black one, so if you love me, you’ll buy them out and blast them into space, aiming for the sun.

I love this cute little Midcentury clock, and I know where to get it repaired. If you love me, you’ll either let me buy it, or (better yet) buy it for me and pay for its repairs. Sleek Deco styling on the lucite aside, the typography on the numbers is just gorgeous, and you know I would give it the best, most wonderful home ever. :-)

This Queen Bee design sheet is cute in a way that’s not ultra saccharine. I think I might get these so that I’d have them the next time my hands are feeling up to badgering. I initially found these in the Treasury list “Diamond Jubilee…God Save the Queen..I mean it maaan!“, but honestly, it’s the only item I felt was really noteworthy-enough for this round-up.

The “Domesticats” cross-stitch kit is cute, ultramin modern design, and in all honesty, probably fairly accurately describes my life. The same seller also has just the pattern and all these other modern, minimalist cross-stitch kits and patterns based on the work of Kerry Beary, whose work automatically makes me think of that of Shag; but Beary honestly adds enough of her own clear spin on things that I just can’t trash-talk her work. It’s minimalism, things are going to look like other things fairly easily.

In the early 1970s, there was a bit of a 1920s revival fad (probably ushered in by the success of 1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie and then encouraged by Twiggy’s two Golden Globe awards for 1971’s The Boyfriend), and this charming PDF of a vintage 1970s pattern for a halter top and matching cloche hat is sure to get knitters into 1920s/30s fashions happy.

This sort of flapper-inspired crocheted dress (the lines are very mid-1920s) is something I’d actually place to the early 1970s —according to my mother, there was a fad for all sorts of needlework as boho women were having their first major round of babies, and (as she put it) “it was sort of ‘hip’ for women aspiring to be the ‘cool mom’ to do stuff with their hands so that they could still dress fashionably; realising it kept you from smoking too much around the baby was a bonus”.

This goldtone cigarette tin with decoupage may be over-priced a li’l bit, but I think I want it bad. The photo and advert (clearly two different cuttings) are just gorgeous, and the added rhinestones are a nice touch.

The Modern World was Born in the 1920s

Mod was born in the Twenties.

The 1920s was the decade that everything about youth previously imagined turned upside-down. This was the decade of the flapper, the first major wave of androgynous fashion, the decade Amerikan women finally had the universal civil right to vote in national elections, and the same right was afforded to women of UK nationality before the decade was over. This was the age of Jazz, and in several flavours, and also the decade that Blues began to gain its audience. This was the decade of Art Deco, and its sleek, “mineral”, modern lines and angles. The decade that Frank Lloyd Wright’s simply gorgeous architecture shocked a public cautious of anything other than Neo-Gothic or Neo-Classical. The decade of the bobbed haircut and slim suits a good four decades prior to their re-discovery by Mods.