My character Jessie uses the term “blind pig” to refer to a speakeasy. I wondered about the origins of the phrase. The term dates from the second half of the 19th century, long before the Prohibition era. According to Kathleen Drowne, a literary scholar, it originated in Maine, the first state to have prohibition, where a nineteenth-century tavernkeeper “sold his patrons tickets to view a blind pig he kept in the back room. Along with admission, every viewing customer was treated to a free glass of rum.” During Prohibition, blind pigs often served a little food too, usually salty or spicy items like sausages or pretzels (see the box of pretzels in the picture?). Sometimes the food was free to entice patrons to stay longer and drink more.
In my Roaring Twenties mysteries, I stick close to the facts, and so whenever my characters travel, I put them at the right train station if at all possible. Since much of my story is set in Hollywood, I researched one of the main passenger stations in Los Angeles, La Grande, where the Santa Fe line stopped on its way to and from Chicago.
The train going toward Chicago was called the Chicagoan; the same train coming back west was called the Kansas Cityan. It took about 3 days to make the trip in the Twenties. That’s a long time to sit on a hot train–remember, no air conditioning, so the windows would be open and loads of dust would be blowing in, covering everything and everyone. There were toilet rooms with sinks but no way to take a bath or shower. Still, few complained, since many people alive in the Twenties could remember their parents or grandparents coming West in a wagon train.
I was thrilled to find this picture of La Grande station. This is how it looked when my characters used it. The place was torn down long ago.
It seems like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?–writing a script for a silent movie. What’s there to write, other than the occasional titles that interrupt the story? At least, that’s what I thought before I started researching this time period.
A lot of writers in Hollywood wrote film scripts for silent films. First, the writer supplied a basic “story line,” the overarching lot outline with character descriptions. If that was approved, he (or occasionally she, but not often) would develop the story line into a full treatment, creating scenes and situations, giving life to the characters. After approval, the next step was the script, or “continuity.” This involved breaking down the story into individual camera shots–long shots, medium shots, or closeups. When all this was complete, the result was typed up and carbon copies handed to the producer, associate producer, actors, script girl, director, cameramen, casting director, and anyone else involved in production. The whole precess, start to finish, might take as little as 6-8 weeks, but it was usually longer.
Often more than one writer worked on a script, which led to squabbles over whose name would appear in the film credits. According to Frederica Sagor, a Hollywood writer in the 1920s, she got credit for writing one film that she barely touched, and was cheated out of credit for some that she accomplished entirely by herself.
I use this informaiton in the third of my Roaring Twenties series, when I talk about Douglas Fairbanks writing his own movie script.
This green alcoholic beverage has had a colorful career since its debut in the late 18th century. Flavored with wormwood, fennel, anise, and other herbs, the beverage has a bitter, licorice flavor and a high alcoholic content. Drinking it was supposed to bring on hallucinations.
Absinthe reached the pinnacle of its popularity in the Roaring Twenties in Paris, where the bohemian population of writers and artists made it their trademark beverage in spite of it being illegal. Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and Ernest Hemingway are associated with absinthe.
There were several ways to consume the drink, but the most famous one involves placing a sugar lump on a slotted spoon held over a glass of absinthe, then pouring ice water over the sugar cube. The beverage turns milky.
Many countries banned the production of absinthe in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries because it was believed to be more dangerous than other alcoholic beverages. After this was disproved–it has no hallucinogenic effects after all–it gradually became legal. In 2007, it became legal in the United States, so you can buy it if you like. Personally, I can’t stand licorice-flavored drinks like pastis, ouzo, pernod, or anisette, so I’ll pass.
What a marvelous movie! I saw “The Artist” at a theater yesterday and was thoroughly entertained. I suspect this will lead to a lot more interest in the large number of genuine silent movies that still exist. I’ve watched several myself through Netflix and see one occasionally on television.
Do see “The Artist” if you haven’t yet. The acting is great fun–the laughs and gasps of surprise are there too.
The story is simple, a romance where one character’s career is rising and the other’s is falling. The main character, George Valentin, is Hollywood’s most popular leading man who, when talkies come, plummets from riches to rags. As his career tanks, that of young Peppy Miller skyrockets, turning her from aspiring extra to leading lady.
It will be instantly obvious to those who know about Hollywood in the Twenties that Valentin’s character is based on Douglas Fairbanks. First of all, he looks exactly like Fairbanks. He performs exactly the same sort of roles, and at one point, when the date says 1931, Valentin is shown reminiscing with his own old movies and the scenes they show come from Fairbanks’ 1920 movie, “Mark of Zorro.” (I recognized those scenes right away–the jump over the wall followed by a swarm of soldiers, the leaping somersault over the fence, and the jumps from rooftop to rooftop.) Fairbanks, too, failed to make the change from silents to talkies, although in his case it was more because of his age than ability. Valentin’s story also mirrors Fairbanks’ struggle with alcohol as his popularity wanes.
The character of Peppy Miller, enthusiastically played by Berenice Bejo, could be any one of several actresses who rose from obscurity to fame due to their looks, talent, and silver screen charisma. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise the superb acting skills of the little dog! I guess he won’t be nominated for an Oscar.
The Smithsonian website carried an interesting article about this film. See www.smithsonian.com/silentfilm
I saw Midnight in Paris last night. Why oh why didn’t someone tell me what a good movie that is? Or maybe they did, and I wasn’t listening because I dislike Woody Allen. Thankfully, that didn’t keep me from watching his movie, because I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Time travel pieces don’t usually appeal to me, but this one was charming. One must suspend disbelief when the main character, Gil, a frustrated American writer vacationing in Paris, gets picked up each night at midnight by people in an antique car and steps into the Golden Age of Paris, the 1920s world of Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Each night he returns to the Twenties and his new friends, which he vastly prefers to his life and friends in the present. There’s a lesson to be learned, and when Gil learns it, he gets the girl!
The subject of the film was quite familiar to me, since I had just finished reading “The Paris Wife,” a fictionalized account of Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, who lived in Paris for most of their five year marriage, a time when Hemingway was poor and unknown. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others figure in that story too.
If you like the Twenties–and if you don’t, why are you reading this blog?–see this film. It provides a marvelous glimpse of Paris in the Twenties, not to mention lovely photos of Paris today. And read “The Paris Wife” for another take on life in Paris during these magic years.
Mickey Mouse made his debut in Steamboat Willie on November 18, 1928. This is his 83rd birthday. It is also Minnie’s birthday, as she, too, appears in this seven-minute, black-and-white cartoon for the first time. Walt Disney did all the “voices” (or more accurately, made all the noises, since there isn’t any real dialogue). Film historians consider the cartoon important for its use of synchronized sound, the first, or one of the first, to achieve this technological feat.
Have a look! And Happy Birthday, Mickey and Minnie!
Wasn’t Ken Burns’ “Prohibition” series great? That man invented the historical documentary with the Brooklyn Bridge story in 1981 and has been going strong since. Nothing tops his Civil War series, in my opinion, but Prohibition was superb. I learned quite a bit that will be useful in my writing and confirmed that I hadn’t made any egregious errors in what I’ve already written.
I learned the origins of a couple words: SCOFLAW. The dictionary says “contemptuous law violator” and dates the word to 1924, right in the middle of Prohibition. But the rest of the story is interesting: a publication offered a prize for the best word to describe those who flouted the laws, and this was the winner. And BOOTLEGGER? The dictionary gives several definitions for smuggling illegal liquor, but the story behind the word is that it dated from the 1850s in Maine, when men would hide bottles in their pants leg. Why Maine? It was one of the first, perhaps the first state to pass a law prohibiting the sale of alcohol in 1851. Because the state borders Canada, people who wanted liquor could walk across the national boundary to buy liquor and carry it back in their pants leg.
I was going through an old trunk with my mother last month. She had forgotten what was in it, but she remembered as soon as I pulled out the various articles of clothing. A dress that had been worn by her grandmother around the turn of the twentieth century, two fancy shawls from the same era, a couple dresses her mother had worn in the Forties, and so forth. She didn’t want them. I didn’t want them. So I took the lot to a local vintage clothing store where the owner was ecstatic to have the opportunity to buy such clothing in relatively good condition. (“This is why I went into this business,” she said happily.)
At the last minute, I held one dress back. The vintage clothing store owner confirmed what my mother had said, that this was a day dress from the Twenties. It is a simple dress, cotton, straight waisted. I washed and ironed it, and if the occasion arises, I plan to wear it. Maybe my Roaring Twenties mystery series will get published, and I’ll need to appear at some book signing or conference and can wear something that not only dates from the era, but was owned by someone in my family. Here it is. Look at the cutwork lace. Really lovely work, and it’s “just” a day dress for casual wear!
The trouble with Prohibition is that it made liquor illegal . . . which made it impossible to regulate. Historians estimate that by the time Prohibition was rescinded in 1933, about 98% of all liquor contained poisons of some sort. Scary, huh?
Part of the problem was greed, part was amateur manufacturing. Adding embalming fluid gave bathtub gin an extra kick, so that was not uncommon. Some say this was the introduction of fruity mixed drinks, which were invented by bartenders to cover up the bad taste of the illegal hooch. Adulterated booze was known as money rum, sometimes bathtub gin. It was seldom real rum or gin, just moonshine, and it was often deadly.
Seems everyone knew someone who had died or gone blind after drinking bad booze. It probably happened far more often than anyone today appreciates–without any reliable statistics (it was illegal, after all) we can’t really know the extent of the devastation. Estimates by historians today suggest that during the first year of Prohibition, one thousand people died from adulterated liquor. By the fifth year, the annual toll had risen to four thousand. Why didn’t this cause more of a scandal? Remember, communications in that era were weak. People didn’t know much about what was going on in other states or even other parts of their own state. It’s a very sad side of the madcap “Roaring Twenties.”