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The Last Emperor

I know I saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor when it first came out, but now that I’m in China and know more of its history, I couldn’t pass up a friend’s offer to lend it to me.

The story is told in flashbacks as Puyi, China’s last emperor, reflects on his life now that he’s imprisoned by the Communists. He symbolizes all they hate about old China, but Puyi can’t really help that.

I vividly remembered Puyi, the tot who became emperor when his father was killed, getting taken from his home to the palace. I wonder why his mother didn’t live at the palace since her husband was the emperor. I’ll have to look that up. The film than continues by showing the folly of having a young boy assume the emperor’s throne. Now I’m sure someone else, like the Lord Chancellor was actually calling the shots, but that wasn’t in the film.

Since no one can correct the emperor, even when he’s 3 or 4, Puyi soon becomes a brat. He’s never able to leave the vast grounds. It isn’t until he’s seven that he’s able to see his brother, one of the few people who will talk straight with him. It’s quite bizarre to see this boy treated with such deference by hundreds of grown eunuchs, who indulge his every whim.

In 1912, China became the Republic of China led by Sun Yet Sen, yet we stay with Puyi, who’s shocked to learn that he’s no longer the emperor of China, he’s just the emperor of the Forbidden City and he can’t leave. I don’t fault the film with sticking with Puyi’s biography, but the events in his life made me curious about the wider history of China, which I know in outlines.

Throughout his life, Puyi seemed to be a puppet. Though he was allowed to have his way in trivial matters around the palace, he never governed. He talked of wanting to choose a wife who spoke English and French, but the dowager chose for him. In the film he seemed to get on well with is wife and his concubine, but according to an article in The Guardian, Puyi was pretty asexual and certainly not a big family man.

I found the parts with Mr. Johnston, the emperor’s tutor, played by Peter O’Toole, who can perform such a role with the needed aplomb, most interesting as Mr. Johnston was the only character with any force, the only one to question or challenge the emperor. He did so tactfully, but most kowtowed as they wanted the emperor to have his way, while they feathered their nests with goodies from the imperial storehouses and coffers. How that money and the opulence of the majestic lifestyle continued after the Republic took over mystifies me.

When the Communists arrest and interrogate Puyi, he had my sympathy, but I still yearned for a hero who would take action. .I wondered why he never left China. He seemed to have been conditioned early on to never go beyond the familiar.

He did flee the Forbidden City and lived in the Japanese legation and later Manchuria, where he thought he’d actually rule, but he was just a puppet for the Japanese. To me it was clear that once Japan surrendered he needed to leave. he was inert, either unwise or paralyzed to take action. The film with its majestic setting and costumes cries out for an epic hero. There’s a tension in this film that Puyi never was that sort of hero. And he suffered for that.

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Sepia Saturday

2015.05W-16

This weeks prompt inspired me to search for photos on dancing or dances, as in the sort where men in suits tripped the light fantastic with women in gowns. Flickr Commons came through with photos of graceful couples. Such grace and style.

Source: Library of Congress

Source: Library of Congress

Source: National Library of Australia

Source: National Library of Australia

Source: Library of Congress

Source: Library of Congress

His Second Wife

Ernest Poole’s His Second Wife follows Ethel  as she leaves small town Ohio after her father’s death. She goes to New York to live with her sister, Amy, a socialite and shopper, and Amy’s husband Joe and daughter. Ethel tries to fit in to the shallow scene Amy relishes, but just can’t. The superficial and materialism don’t appeal at all.

She’s after the new and exciting ideals, art and politics New York is supposed to offer. After Amy’s sudden death, Ethel stays to help Joe, but struggles to avoid getting trapped living her sister’s life.

Poole creates an original dilemma that rings true. Ethel isn’t the polar opposite of Amy as a lesser writer would have made her. She doesn’t hate shopping or all of bourgeois life, she just wants more. The novel recounts her struggle to find friends and to find her own identity, while evading Amy’s more manipulative friends who want to control Joe after he’s married Ethel. An original, compelling story, worth getting from Amazon, which offers it for free on Kindle.

His Family

Ernest Poole, author of The Harbor and Giants Gone was the first novelist to win the Pulitzer Prize and he won it for His Family. In His Family, Roger Gale tries to live out his promise to his dying wife to keep his daughters together, to really know each one. Each young woman is distinct and unless they were sisters they’d never cross paths. Set in New York around the time of WWI, the novel follows Gale and his three daughters through a tumultuous era. Deborah throws herself into her work as principal for a tenement school. Edith obsesses over being the perfect mother making sure her children have the perfect childhood and Laura flits about as a “modern woman,” which by her definition means being a fashion plate who dances a lot.

Roger owns a clipping service, not the usual business featured in novels. His perspective of his daughters and life in this era was perceptive and genuine. He cares and yet feels unable to influence or understand his daughters. Life hands them surprises and tragedy, catching everyone off guard. Roger is as shaped by his daughters, particularly Deborah, as they are by him.

Here are a few favorite quotations:

“He saw each of his daughters, part of himself. And he remembered what Judith had said: ‘You will live on in our children’s lives.’ And he began to get glimmerings of a new immortality, made up of generations, an endless succession of other lives extending into the future.”

“Queer, how a man can neglect his children, as I have done … when the thing he wants most in life is to see each one …happy.”

“He had thought of childhood as something intimate and pure, inside his home, his family. Instead of that, in Deborah’s school he had been disturbed and thrilled by the presence all around him of something wild, barbaric, dark, compounded of the city streets, of surging crowds, of rushing feet, of turmoil, filth, disease and death, of poverty and vice and crime.”

The Jungle

Friday I saw a marvelous play adapted from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Staged by the Oracle Theater, a cast of about a dozen actors brought the meat packing industry and Chicago slums to life. While The Jungle’s most known for exposing the terrors of the food industry, the book and the play both reveal how immigrants were swindled through bad real estate brokers and others trying to make a quick buck.

How on earth would you depict the slaughter of cows in a tiny theater? Or a big one for that matter. The Oracle did this with amazing creativity using large rolls of butcher paper, ink and woodblocks to imprint the cows before the audience. The paper also served as a screen to project the waves of Lake Michigan or a canvas for painting the bars of a prison.

The show offers much more than ingenious stagecraft. Every performer gave a compelling performance which featured lots of singing.

As if a good play isn’t enough, the price is outstanding. The play was free. The Oracle Theater models its finance on public radio where subscribers donate what they can on a monthly basis. If you can’t pay, that’s fine as The Oracle wants everyone to be able to see a good play.

I do hope they succeed and are around for years to come.

Tickets are available at publicaccesstheatre.org. Street parking is readily available.

Sepia Saturday

open sepai

This week’s Sepia Saturday is an open theme. It’ll force me to post some Mr Selfridge photos I haven’t had time to upload. These are from Selfridge Archives and WTTW’s Ask Jeffrey segment on Harry Selfridge.

harry-selfridge-rosalie

Harry Selfridge (r) with daughter Rosalie

Rosalie and Violette Selfridge

Rosalie and Violette Selfridge

Selfridges_heritage_1885-1890

Marshall Fields where he innovated shopping

Marshall Fields where he innovated shopping

Older Harry on top of his store

Older Harry on top of his store

Oxford St. Selfridges in 1909

Oxford St. Selfridges in 1909

Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge

shopping selfridge 2

Lindy Woodhead’s Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge provides the context and biography of H. Gordon Selfridge, Harry or Chief to his loved ones or employees. Woodhead chronicles Selfridge’s life from his youth when both his brothers died and his father deserted the family to his death. “Mile a Minute Harry” was a dynamo who started working at age 15 and made his way to Marshall Field’s in Chicago where his innovations in display and showmanship revolutionized shopping. It’s thrilling to read of this era when there was so much change and when drive and imagination could, for some, propel them to great wealth. (That still happens but so many fields have matured and aren’t new frontiers. Certainly retail isn’t half as exciting as it was when Selfridge started.)

Selfridge became a partner at Field’s due to his own chutzpah by just directly asking the much more reserved Marshall Field, who was going to offer it down the road. But when Field’s was choosing a successor, Selfridge knew it wouldn’t be him so he left Marshall Field’s and tried to start a store in Chicago. While it failed because the city just did not have enough sales staff of the ilk that Field’s had, Selfridge did make money on selling his store to Carson, Pirie, Scott. Too young to retire, he opened a store in London, a city that was stuck in time with fuddy duddy floorwalkers who’d expel any browsers. As the itv/PBS program shows Selfridge’s was part department store, part theater (an a hell of a lot like Marshall Field’s down to the evergreen bags). I enjoyed the book’s detail and rooted for Harry as he devised creative means to make shopping fun and his store bigger and amazingly service-oriented (like Field’s was).

After 1918, when his wife Rose dies, Harry’s life starts to slide, which made reading rather sad. The store was still successful, but Harry’s proclivity for women, showgirls to be more exact, got him mixed up with such greedy, shallow women. He lavishes them with jewels and money to gamble/lose that you feel the impending financial ruin coming. It’s sad because had Rose lived longer, Harry probably would not have wound up in a two bedroom flat after selling all his property and losing most of what he built up. (I so hope the TV show takes its time running through history. The man’s life is just so sad at the end.)

Woodhead offers a lot of context including what was going on in entertainment, politics and city history for both Chicago and London. She shares what his friends and relatives thought about Harry, what allies and adversaries he had. Yet I felt there was a distance between Selfridge and me, the reader. So many questions may not be possible to answer. Harry did burn a lot of his letters when he got older. It’s rather cloudy how Harry and his wife met and what their courtship entailed. I didn’t feel I knew Harry the way I knew Proust after reading his biography. That might not be fair since Proust was a writer and probably more self-absorbed than most. Woodhead’s very thorough in her research so I grant if there was information to be had she would have found it. But perhaps Harry was the sort of life of the party that no one really knows well.

Poems of the Week

patrician

I found these in a digitized children’s book on the Library of Congress’ website.

The Patrician

Ah, sweet Lucinda, best of girls,
How quick to take advice.
Behold her with unpapered curls,
And frock so rich and nice!

Her haughty stare! Who would suppose
That dress would change her so
Oh, blessed influence of fine clothes,
How much to thee we owe!

The poems are written by Carolyn Wells, who was a rather prolific writer of children’s poetry and prose. These appeared in a collection called Children of Our Town, published in 1902. She was born in 1902, two years after Rose Selfridge.

plebian

The Plebian

Lucinda’s tastes are so depraved;
She likes to play and romp
With children poor and ill-behaved,
Who boast no style or pomp.

Their costumes are not quite correct,
They have no pretty tricks;
Lucinda! pray be more select,
In higher circles mix.

Mr Selfridge Comments and Recap

Kitty tells everyone how to do their job

Kitty tells everyone how to do their job

The opening this Mr. Selfridge episode with the removal of all German products was a great way to show the patriotism and anti-German sentiment of the day.

Poor Franco, Victor’s dashing brother, got rejected when the brown-haired girl at the cosmetics counter wouldn’t go out with him because her father forbids her to date “foreign” men. Mind you Franco was born in Britain. Seems she could have been more diplomatic.

The weasel-y Thackery spies outside the store to see what Henri’s up to. He disapproves of Henri’s hat, a Hamburg, though we learn that during the war they were renamed. Agnes was still upset with Henri, who does owe her an apology for being so abrupt and rude the day before.

At home Harry finishes an early morning interview with his reporter friend Frank. Harry makes it clear that he disapproves of the U.S. profiting from war by selling to both the Germans and British. I do agree and didn’t realize we did that. We also learn from Rose that Americans are hurrying home to the U.S.

Gordon, who’s now promoted to the tea department, is getting friendly with Miss Calthorpe, the young lady who’s training him. They do make a good couple and he’s gallant enough to buy her sister a beautiful doll after remembering something she mentioned in passing.

In a department meeting Kitty manages to take a compliment and turn it around to put down all the other department heads. I enjoy her lack of self-knowledge and her usually harmless egotistical quips that just make her look silly in spite of herself. Miss Mardle’s heavy sigh said it all. I love how the shows humor surfaces from Kitty, Mr. Crabb and sometimes Mr. Grove’s little blunders. Harry shares a nice moment with Miss Mardle encouraging her to enjoy her money. Yes, live a little, Miss Mardle. “Your brother would have wanted it.”

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Selfridge Background: Window Displays

mr.-selfridges window

Here’s some information I got from Gale Virtual Reference on window displays in the 18th – early 20th centuries. Interesting that L. Frank Baum was involved in this business:

WINDOW DISPLAYS

The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw an evolution in shopping spurred by a faster turnover of manufactured “fashionable” goods and an increase in department stores selling them. These shops pioneered new techniques of window display. Rather than piling their stock up—as had been common in markets and bazaars—they sold goods in mannered and self-conscious window displays, intended to sell nonessential goods.

In cities, where competition was strongest, stores had larger windows and more frequently changing displays. A visitor to London in 1786 wrote of “A cunning device for showing women’s materials whether they are silks, chintzes, or muslins, they hang down in folds behind the fine high windows so that the effect of this and that material, as it would be in the ordinary folds of a woman’s dress, can be studied” (Adburgham, p. 6). This comment suggests that there was an awareness of sophisticated marketing techniques and a developing vocabulary for display in the late eighteenth century, which would be developed but not improved upon by later generations.

By the nineteenth century the small store with glass windows and some form of gas lighting dominated the main street. The arrival of department stores in the 1850s—multistoried buildings that utilized plate glass in long, uninterrupted window displays—would herald a new display aesthetic. Fashion goods began to be displayed in lifelike room settings, with mannequins. Known as “open displays,” these windows relied on themes and narratives, rather than sheer quantity of goods, for visual impact. The window display was now contextualizing goods, giving them precise domestic or cultural settings and imparting qualities other than practicality and price. In these displays the fixtures, stands, and mannequins, came into their own. Unfashionable stock goods continued to be displayed as though they were on a market stall—piled high or stacked in rows in the windows in “massed displays.”

Professionalization of Display Trade

These open displays were developed first in America, where the professionalization of the display trade had begun in the late nineteenth century. The display technocrat L. Frank Baum (who would later write The Wizard of Oz) began the first journal aimed at the display trade— The Show Window in 1897—and founded the National Association of Window Trimmers in 1898, which did much to raise the status of window trimmer to that of display manager. America had a large number of colleges teaching commercial design based upon the work of pioneering consumer psychologist Walter Dill-Scott, author of Psychology of Advertising in 1908. His theories for appealing to hidden desires of customers using particular colors, images, and formations in advertising layouts were applied to window display though numerous handbooks and journals detailing the creation of the “selling shop window.”

This approach was brought over to England by Gordon Selfridge (a friend of L. Frank Baum) and his dis-play manager, Ernst Goldsman. Both men had worked at Marshall Fields department store in Chicago in the 1890s, where Selfridge had introduced radical and innovative methods of display and marketing, starting the first window displays and display department. Selfridge’s department store in London opened in 1909 with the longest window facade ever seen in Britain. The store achieved instant fame for its window displays: “They gaped in amazement at the American-style window-dressing with its life-like scenes and with wax models arranged in realistic poses” (Honeycombe p. 205). Goldsman was integral to the professionalization of the British display trade, founding the National Association of British Display Men in 1919. Such display organizations disseminated new ideas via lectures, display fairs, and their journals.

Works Cited

Audas, Jane. “Window Displays.” Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. Ed. Valerie Steele. Vol. 3. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005. 434-436. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.

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