In Our Opinion

THE AGE OF CHISELRY

By • Mar 24th, 2002 •

Share This:

Pert Kelton

Oh Talkies; you were so young and unapologetic. Your players weren’t necessarily pretty, but they had snappy comebacks and sassy retorts, haiku spit straight from America’s open sewers, tenements and speak-easies. Inhale that pure, sweet spleen of Edward G. Robinson (“Aah roll your hoop”) or William Gargan (“Ring off, dumb-bell”).
I imbibe the voice of James Cagney with twisted glee, as if I’m celebrating some perverse victory when he yells, “Down, bezark, down!” What is this gloomy zest for life, something ricocheting in the atmosphere, a hip jazz tempo — can we honestly call it escapism? We want to be able to go crazy, but with someone holding our hand.
Each hairy-knuckled Adam did his level-best to fast-talk us out of The Great Depression. Every hard-knocks Eve whispered New Deal Dada to quiet our jangled nerves and howling bellies. Up on the screen, no fantasy, ourselves, one choral personage laughing backwards in sync sound, unrepentant, unredeemed. Zasu Pitts, Evalyn Knapp, Glenda Farrell, Pert Kelton – strange and lovely names echo immortal in my ears, women who kissed “yeggs” and stayed out late with their “bindelestiff” pals.

Empty pockets? We called them “Hoover Dollars” or, drooping inside-out, “Hoover Flags,” banners of a bedraggled nation. Those who spoke Pig Latin (many were fluent then) said “oday” for the money nobody had, a.k.a. “mezuma,” “sugar,” “cush,” “potatoes.” The short, punchy use of words, poetry with grit – our Two-Fisted Humanism muscled its way into the Sound Era as movie palaces rumbled.
Neglected stars and former sages, charming dynamite one and all – let’s hear it for “mugs,” “lugs,’” “twists,” and smack-offs.” On an arched footbridge over a wandering stream, Dot slips Rick one of her two pilfered hotdogs – “Sorry there’s no mustard,” she says. Joan Blondell is Dot, a miracle of cupie-doll presence in her every scene, and yet she walks our mean streets in job-hunting shoes: “Worn so thin I could stand on a dime and tell you whether it was heads or tails.” The Voice of Experience!
For a moment there, major film studios cranked out artifacts of real attitude and opinion. It was no gag when the country’s vast nocturnal dream began leaving our secret language naked, our dialects humbled. Pull on these lines and Sexism, Racism, Homophobia stand before you. We are there, and guess what? It’s another here and now.

We’d glide with the Great Cagney, out from behind Sing Sing’s iron gate – smack into the arms of silky blondes. His banter reached us as crucial revelation: “The Age of Chivalry is dead – this, honey, is the Age of Chiselry.” A glowing sentence, it should provoke thought, but actually it dazzles, spits on Uncle Sam’s wingtips, shakes the old codger until the American Dream skitters like plug nickels on pavement.
What follows, thanks to Hollywood’s Production Code, is an imposed Age of Innocence. Yes our cheeky little Dot goes straight. She, along with American cinema generally, is infantilized, if not lobotomized when in 1934 The Legion of Decency zips up Betty Boop’s pants.

What did we lose by trading reality for the shadow-play of The Code? A sullied and hard-bitten fairytale kingdom, complete with guides to escort us there, our spieling pre-Code hucksters. Ask Lee Tracy what we lost: “Try a Hurricane Cocktail – one part gin, one part tomato juice, and one part champagne – and you’ll never know there was a depression.”
Light patter – at once LOADED and utterly unmoored – has now evolved into the dread sound-bite so that today Washington gloms our would-be Stylists for Truth, recruiting them instead to the politics of Chiselry (brought to new fruition). Waiting here in Brooklyn for The Even Greater Depression, I leave you with this bit of razzle-dazzle from early Sound days: “Say listen – I’m so flat I could walk under a snake’s belly with a high hat on, and an umbrella in my hand.”

Lines
PARACHUTE JUMPERS (1933)
Frank McHugh: “It’s gettin’ so my stomach does nip-ups every time it hears a nickel drop in the automat slot.”
BROADWAY TO HOLLYWOOD (1933)
Durante snubbed: “Say listen brother, they don’t bury anybody in a high hat.”
THE IRISH IN US (1935)
Concerned mom, Mary Gordon, to darling son, Cagney, out on his own for the first time: “If you get any thinner you’ll have to drink muddy water so they can’t see through you.”
KEY HOLE (1933)
An upscale dinner tidbit from Ferdinand Gottscalk:
“I tell you Skylar, ten million is cheap for that string of power companies – I recommend the roast duck too,”
MAN’S CASTLE (1933)
Flossie learns Trina the ropes:
Flossie (Marjorie Rambeau): “Who ever heard of a bindlestiff gettin’ money?”
Trina (Loretta Young): “What’s a bindlestiff?”
Flossie: “A guy who can’t stay put, ‘cept maybe in jail.”
FUGITIVE LOVERS (1934)
Letty (Madge Evans) tells would-be boyfriend, Legs (Nat Pendleton):
“You’re too big for one man – you oughta’ incorporate.”



Daniel Riccuito is an artist who has exhibited his paintings in solo and group shows in the New York City, and who teaches at The School of Visual Arts. Somehow he has found the time to develop a book about film: a love letter to the 1930’s, reveling in the lost language of celluloid as it was back in the day, retrieving, displaying and analyzing defunct American dialects and metaphors. It is FIR’s pleasure and privilege to present this excerpt of Daniel’s upcoming work.

Tagged as:
Share This Article: Digg it | del.icio.us | Google | StumbleUpon | Technorati

Leave a Comment

(Comments are moderated and will be approved at FIR's discretion, please allow time to be displayed)