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June 1st

On this day in 1568 Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, who was the third Duke of Alba, a general and a governor of the Spanish Netherlands, got all killy and oversaw the beheading of 22 noblemen. If you’re worried that maybe he had to sit around for ages as each noble got up to the executioner to have his head chopped off, don’t. The beheadings were done simultaneously, so it was all over and done with in a jiffy!

Come and have a go if you think you are hard enough

For some reason, the people of the Low Countries weren’t overly keen on Fernando. Maybe it was because he thought that they were all the spawn of the devil for their Protestantism, or maybe they envied him his fancy armour and his psychopathic eyes. Who can possibly say! Fernando had been a general in the army of Charles V and upon his abdication, Philip II of Spain. To say he was a bit vicious would be on a par with saying that David Cameron is a bit of a posh twat. Fernando was well scary. Philip II reined him in a bit, but then decided that he’d be a good bloke to send into the Netherlands to start getting a bit scary on many a protestant arse. Fernando was well up for it.

To be fair, Alba wasn’t just going to the Netherlands to kill people. He was also there as governor to make them pay really high taxes to the Spanish king. Lots of people, protestant and catholic, were a little miffed by the tax thing and got themselves a little organised and a little rebellious. A lot of the rebellion was in Brussels– and yes I know that Brussels isn’t in the Netherlands, which is why I’ve also mentioned the Low Countries, which included Belgium, Luxembourg and even a bit of France and a bit of Germany – so Alba and his troops set off there where he set up a council and declared loads of people guilty of treason and rebellion without going to the trouble of trying them. They weren’t all protestant either. By this stage he was basically pissed off with anyone who wasn’t singing off his hymn sheet (the song on his hymn sheet was “Do what I say or die MoFos. Amen”). Thus it was that on June 1st the first batch of noblemen were entered into a  new sport of synchronised decapitation, funnily enough an event that has yet to be accepted into the Olympics. A few days later

2 ugly blokes and 2 fit birds semi-naked and loving mass-decapitation

some more were beheaded. Then it all get totally out of order, there were battles, there were whole towns sacked and every inhabitant murdered. It was not very nice at all.

By 1573, Alba was asking the king to let him come home to Spain, because he was getting a bit too old for all the murdering, so home he went and after a few hiccups got to be Viceroy of Portugal before dying at the very grand old age of 75. His death certificate notes that he died of boredom because he was too old for all of the killing. Shame.

Although the Dutch and Belgians really hated him, he wasn’t viewed in the same way throughout Europe. Strange to say he was very popular in Sweden where they secretly admired the cut of his jib.  This fact remained pretty much hidden until 1975 when Abba released their single Fernando, which was all about how great Alba was. Ironically enough, it reached the number one spot in both Belgium and the Netherlands and despite being one of their shitter songs, is Abba’s best-selling single.

Today’s birthday was an easy choice for me, because on this day in 1926 Marilyn Monroe was born.

This Beaton portrait was Marilyn's favourite photo of herself

I am aware that I could talk about her all the live long day and not even be slightly tired of her, but I recognise that not everyone shares my enthusiasm, so I’ll go carefully with this and try not to be too long-winded (no laughing at the back!). Most of you know the famous facts of her life and death, so, er, I’ll try to come up with things you might not know. Let’s see. Her first husband, Jim Dougherty, had worked alongside Robert Mitchum at a defense plant, before joining the marines. He’d shown Mitchum photos of his wife, then known as Norma Jean, in a bikini. Mitchum thought she was lovely, but that it was a bit off of Jim to be showing rude photos of her to his mates. Monroe and Mitchum went on to work with each other in River of No Return. They got on well despite clashes with their director, Otto Preminger, Mitchum’s heavy drinking and Monroe’s difficulties.

Marilyn’s politics were very much to the left of centre and also very important to her. She hated cruelty, inequality and unfair treatment. When she got more power, she was sometimes able to do something to help. Most famously was the assistance she gave to Ella Fitzgerald. Monroe had got into her music while living briefly in New York – which is where she had the happiest time of her life – and hugely admired her talent. On returning to LA she discovered that her favourite nightclub, the Mocambo, would not allow

Marilyn in NYC, beautiful without make up

Fitzgerald to headline there, or perform there in any way, because she was black. Monroe had it out with the owner and ended up by saying that if he would hire Ella, she, Marilyn, would be in the front row every night. He did and she, late for everything, unreliable, Marilyn was there every night. Ella and Marilyn became friends and cared a lot about each other. Marilyn did many little things like this for those who were being treated badly, for workers, for orphans, for abandoned animals. She was a good person with a big and generous heart.

Norma Jean, the little girl who was never told she was pretty

She was well-read, but didn’t consider herself an intellectual. She was funny and charming. She was never truly happy, but, as she said herself, she could be gay. She was constantly trying to escape from the darkness of her past, the abuse, the abandonment, the feeling of being unloved and worthless. She never really managed and prescription drugs and dodgy psychoanalysis eventually did for her. I first saw a poster of her when I was ten years old and fell in love immediately. I’ve been in love with her ever since. I’ll

Smiling and beautiful

leave the last words to her:

“I used to think as I looked out on the Hollywood night. There must be thousands of girls sitting alone like me, dreaming of becoming a movie star. But I’m not going to worry about them. I’m dreaming the hardest.”

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May 30th

On this day in 1431 Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for being a heretic and wearing men’s clothes. The hussy.

A pretty much contemporary image of Joan

The day is celebrated in France and is a Catholic holy day (although not a holy day of obligation). It’s nice that the Catholic church remember her, as it was their English contingent that tried her and found her guilty in 1431 and then it took nearly 500 years to decide that she was a saint – she was canonised in 1920. I don’t know why this annoys me, as I don’t believe in saints, but it just seems that because she was a bit active and going out there and getting something done – which isn’t the Catholic model of the passive virgin female saint – they ignored her for as long as they could. In effect, I’m allowing myself to be annoyed by the sexism of an inherently sexist institution and about the canonisation of some girl when I don’t believe in any of that nonsense. And there was me thinking I was at the very least a semi-rational human being.

Anyway! The gen on this execution and martyrdom is as follows. We all know that Joan, or Jeanne or Jehanne heard some voices telling her to go and fight for the Dauphin and to help him beat the bloody English in a war that had been going on forever and a day. The One Hundred Years War, to be precise. So she got on her horse, dressed as a man, got herself some armour and went up to see the Dauphin and told him he needed to get his arse in gear and that she was just the warrior to get him out of schtuck. Of course she said it much more politely and in French, but you get the gist.

The Dauphin was wary at first. His father, Charles VI had been barking mad (he thought he was made of glass, which on a scale of 1 to that is one of the maddest things I’ve ever heard, ranks pretty bloody highly) and he didn’t want to let some girl with visions get in front of his army if she was either mad or could be proved to be not holy enough and therefore in league with the devil. He had some ecclesiastical types check her out and while they couldn’t confirm that she had been chatting with saints Catherine, Margaret and Michael, they were able to tell him that she was a top lass, very virtuous and properly holy and stuff. That was enough for him. To be honest, he was so fuckered at the time that he was prepared to try anything. This is hardly surprising; one can’t imagine a king in that period being all “Yeah, a girl, that’s just the secret weapon I need!”

So, young Joan, got on her warhorse, with a standard and a sword and marched out in front of the French army to give the English a bit

Joan being led to her death

of  a seeing too. And she did. Thanks to her, the English fortunes went into reverse and she did what the saints had told her to do; she got the Dauphin crowned King Charles VII of France. This is all pretty amazing really. She was an illiterate girl from a village. She had no training in warfare, she was about 19 years old and yet somehow, she managed to plan, strategize and bring victory to an army that until that point had been dead on its feet. That’s the thing with Joan, it’s not that she’s a saint that makes her notable, it’s the stuff she actually did and that history shows that she did. She stands out as an utterly amazing person whose deeds are pretty much beyond explanation.

Unfortunately, although she was the cause of victories and the king getting his crown, fortune very quickly turned against her. She was captured by Burgundian forces, who weren’t on the king’s side. At this point a ransom should have been paid and she should have been handed back to her family; this wasn’t going to happen given that her family weren’t wealthy. Charles VII should have paid to have her released, but he did not, which was frankly shitty of him. Joan attempted a few escapes, but was eventually captured again and then sold by the Burgundians to the English who were not at all happy with her. What followed was a trial so dodgy that even Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA and noted bent bastard, would have blushed at the proceedings. Joan had no one to speak for her, no recourse to legal representation, was refused the right to send word to those who could help her, including the pope and was basically stitched up like a kipper.

The transcripts of the trial show her as an uncommonly intelligent and quick woman. A lot of these can be read in George Bernard Shaw‘s Saint Joan. Shaw was so impressed by them, that he included much of Joan’s own words, verbatim, in his script. None of it mattered. The court who was trying her knew that they would execute her. They made up evidence, the ignored facts and within a short period of time found her guilty and sent her to be burned. She died in this most heinous of ways in front of a horrified crowd and at the hands of an executioner who feared for his soul, so wrong did he know this outcome to be. And then nearly 500 years later, she got to be a saint because, thankfully as well as being a top bird she’d also been a virgin. If she hadn’t been a virgin, she’d just be that bird what got burned. The Catholic church has standards to uphold after all!

 

Today was the birthday of Irving Thalberg, one of the greatest film producers of all times. His life was short, he died at the age of 37, but his achievements have rarely been equalled. He had a golden touch when it came to picking scripts, actors, directors and putting together films that were critical and commercial successes.

Thalberg with wife Norma Shearer in 1929. Effortless glamour

The Oscars has the Irving G Thalberg award which is given to producers whose body or work shows a consistently high level of achievement. It’s not awarded every year, because, frankly, there aren’t that many people whose body of work comes close to making them even slightly eligible.

Thalberg started work for Universal Studios at the age of 20. By the age of 21 he was the executive in charge of production at Universal City. He then moved to MGM where he was vice-president and supervisor of production. He reigned supreme until 1932 when he had a heart attack and was sidelined by Louis B Mayer, who was jealous of him, but thanks to Nicholas Schenck, who was president of Loewe’s (MGM’s parent company), this was more or less overruled and Thalberg went on to produce many more amazing films before his premature death in 1936.

He was married to Norma Shearer from 1927 until his death and they had two children. A brilliant and driven man, those of us who love movies have a lot to thank him for. Here’s a short list of some of those films:

  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
  • Greed (1924)
  • Flesh and the Devil (1926)
  • Anna Christie (1930)
  • Mata Hari (1931)
  • Freaks (1932)
  • Grand Hotel (1932)
  • The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)
  • Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
  • A Night at the Opera (1935)
  • Camille (1936)
This is a fraction of his output, but more than enough to see how damned good he was. Happy birthday, Mr Thalberg, if I believed in all that heaven stuff, I’d imagine you making films up there for all of us to see when we’re deaded!

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March 31st

On this day in 1930 the Motion Picture Production code was instituted. It was more commonly known as the Hays Code after Will H. Hays, the prick who thought it all  up. The code set down rules about what could and could not be shown on screen. I could be fair to him and say it wasn’t all down to him – because it really wasn’t – but he was a weasle-faced little shitehawk who became very rich from his 30-year foray into film censorship.

 

The Broadway Melody (1929). This was not acceptable after the implementation of the Code

I guess you’d like a bit of background, so here goes. Hollywood was generally thought of as a den of vice and by and large this perception wasn’t far off the mark, but as the film industry got bigger and the scandals multiplied, the rest of America became quite vocal about how disgusted they were and something had to be done. There were quite a number of scandals. Some of you will have read about Roscoe Arbuckle or learned of him in an earlier post. His “scandal” was seen as the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it wasn’t the only one and was far from the worst. There were the drug scandals: Olive Thomas was a star of silent movies who was a noted coke-fiend and who died in Paris after a night of booze and gak. What actually killed her was drinking mercury bichloride. Her husband (Jack Pickford, younger brother of Mary) was using it for his syphilis and she mistook it for a sleeping draught and died. This shocked the good folk of middle America as did the fact that Clara Bow put it about, Charlie Chaplin kept getting off with very young girls and the murder of director and actor William Desmond Taylor. Possibly worse than the murder was the fact that in the aftermath, one of the suspects, a 19-year old actress called Mary Miles Minter was discovered to  have been his lover.  The scandal killed her career.

 

There were other scandals that the public didn’t know about (the probable murder of businessman Thomas Ince by William Randolph

A rudy nudy of gakhead Olive Thomas.

Hearst for one and boys doing boys and girls doing girls and everyone snorting or injecting anything they could get their hands on), but what they knew was enough to make them think that those dirty boys and girls should clean up their collective act. Now of course, this had nothing to do with what was on the screen, but it made people hypersensitive to any notion of rudery. Contrary to popular belief there was a bit of filth and hows-your-father in movies prior to the late 60s, but throughout the twenties there were efforts to get rid of it and the 1930 Code which stayed a bit lax for four years but hit home like a big old puritanical hammer in 1934 was the death knell for things that hinted at s-e-x. The rules were too many to go into here, but basically words like “prostitute” were verboten, hinting at homosexuality was out, nudity, well what on earth do  you think? Sex was bad and if anyone had it outside of marriage they were not allowed to be happy. Ever. All bad deeds were to be seen to be punished and there was to be no miscegenation (ugly word, but kissing or love between people of different colours or races).

 

Now, in some ways the code meant that film makers had to be really clever at putting in content that could be ever so slightly risqué but still get past the Code. With each decade that passed they seemed to be able to get away with more, but they often had to pay for it. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” was only allowed after the studio paid a fine for being all sweary (this blog would cost me a fucking fortune. Oops, there’s another one) and some careers were pretty much ended by the Code. Hello Mae West.

The sixties saw the Code becoming more difficult to enforce and more at odds with societal mores.  Finally it was dropped completely – in favour of the age rating system – in 1968. Now people were free to fuck or say fuck to their hearts contents. This was mostly a good thing, although those of us who’ve had to sit through Porkies would probably have been happy for the Code to stay in place for just a decade or so more.

 

Today is the birthday of wonderfully strange-faced actor, Christopher Walken.

For many years I feared Walken because of his face and the way he played Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter. However, then I saw the SNL skit with Blue Oyster Cult and the cowbell and the Fat Boy Slim video and I realised that he is not scary at all. He is great.

 

A rare not-so-scary photo of The Walken

Christopher was born Ronald Walken but changed his name in 1964 because Ronnie’s a bit of a duff name (Unless you’re Ronnie O’Sullivan and I have the lust for you).  He started out as a dancer but got into acting proper and not prancing around in the mid-60s. He came to real prominence with the aforementioned Deer Hunter and won an Oscar for that role. Since then he’s been putting that face on the screen and making some people afeard regularly and extremely well.

 

Mostly I just love him. He’s so still and contained, his voice is instantly recognisable and full of a certain je ne sais quoi. In short Walken is bloody wonderful and as such should have a birthday all full of joy, cake and dancing. And some booze and whores if he likes that sort of thing.

Happy birthday scary face! I’m not scared of you these days, but sometimes I like to pretend that I am!

 

 

Twinkle Toes!



 

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