Welcome back to The Deuce Notebook, a collaboration between Notebook and The Deuce Film Series, our monthly event at Nitehawk Williamsburg that excavates the facts and fantasies of cinema's most infamous block in the world: 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. For each screening, my co-hosts and I pick a flick that we think embodies the era of all-night bumping & grinding and present the theater at which it premiered.
Over the years, we’ve amassed a wonderful collection of devoted regulars who frequent our screenings, and, this month, we welcome one such friend, Caroline Golum, to guest-write for us. Caroline is a filmmaker, writer, and programmer whose first film, A Feast of Man, is now available on Amazon Prime… You can check out her film production work at Cinema Firmament; visit Screen Slate and her Notebook page for her writing, and Spectacle Theater, where she programs.
Caroline takes us on a twirl and spin around one of her favorite micro-genres below… a glittery-fabulous way to end our first year here on Notebook… Enjoy!
—The Deuce Jockeys
“Hold the pose, turn the nose Some fancy struttin' It’s a fact you from across the tracks You said you wasn't Everybody wants to be Bourgie Bourgie”
—Gladys Knight & the Pips, “Everybody Wants to Be Bourgie Bourgie”
Envision yourself in a sea of fog and cigarette smoke, skin dappled with blinking Technicolor lights, twisting and twirling in a teeming mass of eager, sweating strangers. In the center of it all, spitting shards of white-hot glitter hither and yon, a sparkling disco ball—the home planet of all dance fiends—makes its languid turn above the fray.
No other object—not a platform shoe, Quaalude, or pack of Virginia Slims—so readily symbolizes the heyday of New York City’s most decadent era. Known initially as the “Myriad Reflector,” the first patent for the disco ball was issued in 1917 by inventor Louis Bernard Woeste. A contemporary advertisement touted Woeste’s invention as “one that will change a hall into a brilliant fairyland of flashing, changing, living colors—a place of a million-colored sparks, darting and dancing, chasing one another into every nook and corner—filling the hall with dancing fireflies of a thousand hues.” If this isn’t an eerily predictive description of your quintessential disco club, I don’t know what is.
The Gallo Opera House opened its pearly gates in 1927 on Manhattan’s 54th Street. By the 1940s, it had become a CBS broadcasting studio, before assuming its final—most recognizable—iteration in 1977 as the famed Studio 54. Like the disco ball at its center, the notorious hotspot quickly became synonymous with the high-energy, gender-bending sound that (briefly) took American dance floors by storm. That the venue itself and its decorative centerpiece trace their origins to the 1920s is no accident: the Jazz Age was when that great American pastime, “living for the weekend,” was just learning to crawl. By the time the stock market crashed in October 1929, America’s appetite for crowded dance halls had learned to walk, run, and Charleston.
New York City’s nightclub culture boomed in the 1930s, bolstered by the repeal of Prohibition and the rapid expansion of radio technology. With liquor and champagne freely flowing, and the city’s population crowded with job-seekers from the heartland and abroad, Times Square and its surrounding neighborhoods played host to hopefuls looking for glamor and escape from the everyday. Coast-to-coast, listeners in Flyover Country could tune in to live music broadcasts from far-flung ballrooms, eavesdropping on cosmopolitan glamour in their kitchens, parlors, and social halls. Movie theaters, wedged between swell hotels and nightclubs along the Great White Way, hosted hungry audiences who gorged themselves on musical romances that always included a floorshow or two. Even the humbler fare offered a taste of city life in Depression-era pre-Code films like Three on a Match (1932) and Hello, Sister! (1933).
40 years hence, Manhattan’s theatrical district began to take on a very different hue: post-War prosperity gave way to post-Stonewall austerity as the City’s manufacturing sector fell sway to the same corporate pillaging of its Rust Belt equivalents. Like the Roaring Twenties that preceded the first Great Depression, the 1960s was a time of tremendous social upheaval: shifting attitudes toward sexuality, racial justice, and the increasing profanity of mass media left their indelible mark on the following decade. The “hangover” of unfinished and uneven Civil Rights and women’s liberation movements permeated every aspect of the 1970s, while the social safety net developed in the 1930s—with spoils overwhelmingly delivered to white Americans, it should be noted—experienced the first of a thousand tiny cuts during a three-year recession from 1972 to 1975. Unemployment, while nowhere near the 25% rate that marked Franklin Roosevelt’s first three administrations, reached a historic high—and the cost of living, already on a steady upward tick, continued to climb. While New York City remained a cultural epicenter, the municipal coffers were alarmingly empty: white, middle-class households (and their employers) fled the city for the suburbs, taking their tax revenue with them. Social services for single parents, schoolchildren, the unhoused, and the mentally ill were stripped away, leaving a vacuum of hardship and hunger for its most vulnerable residents.
Movie admissions, lipstick, and liquor sales increase whenever the Dow dips, proving time and again that escapism reigns when times are toughest. For every secretary and office clerk of the 1930s who saved their pennies for a nightclub spree, we find their analogues in the 1970s, when New Yorkers of all stripes flocked to the smoky environs at Studio 54 or the Fantasia. Film historian, projectionist, programmer, and critic Marc Edward Heuck identifies this phenomenon as “making an art form out of going out”: everyday people seeking an outlet for self-expression not on a painter’s canvas, but on the dance floor. In contemporary films like 1977’s Saturday Night Fever or 1978’s Thank God It’s Friday, the working stiffs at center embodied their truest selves beneath those flashing lights, blossoming into unrecognizable paragons of glamour and poise.
On the other coast, while masses of horned-up John and Jane Does two-stepped the night away, the products of a short-lived cinematic revolution were emerging on the backlot. Beginning, arguably, with Arthur Penn’s 1967 crime caper Bonnie and Clyde, the “New Hollywood” era was a brief but impactful moment in studio filmmaking when hippies, film school drop-outs, and sundry other miscreants got their shot at running the biggest train set a boy ever had. Seemingly overnight, Hollywood studios shook off the shackles of the Production Code that reigned supreme since 1934, and mainstream moviegoers were treated to a realism heretofore reserved for the underground: “F” bombs were dropped and bare bosoms abounded. For a fleeting instant, studios ditched subtlety and threw their money behind unflinching, uncensored stories geared toward a grown-up audience.
This was the fertile field that came to yield a crop of films from Martin Scorsese, John Schlesinger, Peter Bogdanovich, and Francis Ford Coppola: filmmakers born between the World Wars who revered “classic” Hollywood cinema, but imbued their work with a contrasting rejection of business-as-usual politics. Their work embodies the enduring duel between nostalgia and radicalism, shaped by respective boyhoods spent absorbing cinema’s heyday. It’s no coincidence that box office receipts skyrocketed in the 1930s, before a long, slow decline exacerbated by television and the corporate consolidation of Hollywood studios.
Reflection and reappraisal were the hallmarks of New Hollywood filmmaking, producing stories that embraced, rather than ignored, a swelling cynicism in American life. Disillusionment with the optimism of the 1950s and “radical chic” of the 1960s—itself its own kind of “conformity”—gave rise to a wholesale renovation of Hollywood “genre” filmmaking. From “anti-Westerns” like The Shootist (1976), and post-Watergate conspiracy thrillers like The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975), to crime pictures like Taking of Pelham 123 (1974) or Looking for Mister Goodbar (1977), these films spoke to the inherent anxiety of a rapidly-shifting American life.
Within this canon of unflinching titles lay a gold vein of revisionist history, evidenced by a trendlet of 1930s period pieces that reexamined the Great Depression through the recent Recession’s dingy lens. For a generation of audiences raised on the false promises of American hegemony, these period films offered a means of analyzing our shared history, rhyming present-day struggles and foibles with hard luck stories on the nightly news.
THE DAY OF THE LOCUST (1975)
John Schlesinger’s contribution to the narrative revolution of New Hollywood began with 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, the first X-rated film to receive a wide theatrical release. Concerning two hustlers adrift in Mayor Lindsay’s New York, Cowboy brought the seedier side of sexual liberation from the margins to the fore, offering mainstream filmgoers their first taste of Andy Warhol’s Factory and the grindhouses of 42nd Street. That Schlesinger was himself a gay man bears some mentioning here: his treatment of protagonist Joe Buck (a porn-ready moniker if ever there was one!) is overflowing with empathy, portraying Buck’s journey from gigolo to doting life-partner as natural and necessary.
Released in May 1975, smack dab in the center of the “Me” Decade, Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust marks the Grand Guignol climax of the 1930s-does-1970s genre. That same summer, Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws would ring the first of many death-knells for studio-bred subversion, ushering in the blockbuster era proper and shifting Hollywood’s attention away from thoughtful experimentation and toward naked cash-grabbing. Fitting, then, that a sweeping adaptation of Nathanael West’s satirical 1939 novel would prove to be the swan song of this brief and beautiful moment.
After establishing his credentials within a new class of modernist writers, Nathanael went West in a wagon train of scribners and playwrights recruited from New York to add “realism” to Hollywood pabulum. The Day of the Locust was only his second book, written the same year he joined the ranks at RKO, and its disillusionment drips from every page. The protagonist, a young painter named Tom Hackett, is himself a member of this Hollywood brain drain, recruited from Yale by the art department of an unnamed Hollywood studio. Drunk on sunshine, champagne, and the seductive wiles of his aspiring starlet neighbor, Faye Greener, Hackett’s excitement quickly hardens into a cynical shell that proves to be his sole protection against the mercenary factory process of Hollywood filmmaking.
Like West, Schlesinger was born and raised in an upper-middle-class Jewish family, and both men were lured to Hollywood with the promise of abundant resources and relative creative freedom. Following the notoriety of Midnight Cowboy, Schlesinger returned to his native England for Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), a pioneering drama that explored the shifting sexual standards first touched upon in his Hollywood debut. It was four years before Schlesinger would direct another feature film, and adapting West’s short, borderline experimental novel proved to be a considerable challenge for the actor-turned-director. In his review for Time Magazine, future Scorsese collaborator Jay Cocks derided The Day of the Locust as “puffy and overdrawn, [it] sounds shrill because it is made with a combination of self-loathing and tenuous moral superiority.”
Peer beneath that “shrill,” shiny veneer, and The Day of the Locust is a funhouse mirror, melding the economic precarity of its Depression-era setting with a post-Recession avarice just on the horizon. Couched in Richard Macdonald’s splendid production design and exquisite costumes from Ann Roth (who is still going strong at 90, having recently won an Oscar for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Locust’s jaundiced side-eye glance at Hollywood simultaneously celebrated and indicted the free-wheeling decadence left in the long shadow of now-stale 1960s radicalism. Like Hackett, artists like Schlesinger, Scorsese, Bogdanovich, et al. were shouldered with a seemingly Herculean task: to bite the hands that fed them and poke holes in a system from within its confines.
As judge, jury, and executioner, West and Schlesinger pointed the finger not at rank-and-file moviegoers and weekend warriors, but at the top brass meting out crumbs of bread within the circus. Faced with the prospect of a dwindling tomorrow that may never come, forever chasing prosperity “just around the corner,” embracing hedonism over hard work and bootstrap ambition became a radical act. The climactic riot at the end of Locust is not a wave of wholesale destruction for destruction’s sake, but a collective paroxysm born of pent-up rage and stifled sexuality. Like the dance floor at Plato’s Retreat, the “Old Hollywood” on display in 1975 became glittering battlegrounds where the downtrodden and despised could exact their pound of flesh.
PAPER MOON (1973) & AT LONG LAST LOVE (1975)
Like his aforementioned colleagues, director Peter Bogdanovich was born in the years before World War II shook the last vestiges of the Depression from American life. Touted as the heir apparent to Orson Welles, Bogdanovich rocketed to relevance as an enfant terrible on the studio backlot. Within a class of young guns trained by Roger Corman, his abiding reverence for Golden Age Hollywood filmmaking is rivaled only by contemporary Martin Scorsese. One could convincingly argue that it bordered on fetishism, as evidenced by not one but two 1930s set films in his 1970s output.
His 1973 dark comedy Paper Moon is at its heart a rambling 1970s road movie, with a look that deliberately evoked Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans’ WPA photography. Adjacent to the “lovers on the run” genre explored in Bonnie and Clyde, or that same year in Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Bogdanovich cast real-life father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal as Moses and Addie, a G-rated true crime couple making their way through Dust Bowl-era Kansas in a rickety Model Ford.
In a truly wholesome spin on the genre, Moses scoops up Addie after the death of her mother (subtly referred to as the town slut), enlisting her saucer eyes and sassy demeanor as unbeatable tactics in his Bible-selling scheme. Tatum O’Neal’s Addie is an instantly recognizable trope to 1970s audiences: equal parts Little Rascal and post-divorce latchkey kid, growing up too fast in a take-what-you-can world without responsible adult supervision—in many scenes with her father, the younger O’Neal is the only adult in the room. By the time of the film’s release Ryan’s womanizing reputation was already the source of considerable gossip, and his portrayal of Moses is childlike where his charge is nonchalant: impulsive, greedy, but also infinitely forgivable.
Where Paper Moon owes a great deal to the pre-Code output of filmmakers like William Wellman and Mervyn LeRoy, his musical comedy At Long Last Love, released two years later, serves as Bogdanovich’s homage to the sparkling oeuvre of pervert genius Ernst Lubitsch. This time, handsome boy toys Burt Reynolds and Duilio Del Prete are matched quip-for-quip with Bogdanovich mainstays Cybil Shepherd and Madeline Kahn (who lost her Best Supporting Actress nomination in Paper Moon to co-star Tatum), as a pair of sneaking couples driven by jealousy and plain old lust into a Gordian knot of frivolity. A jukebox musical built on the music of Cole Porter, At Long Last Love reminded viewers that the free love and wife-swapping made mainstream by the Sexual Revolution was, in fact, old hat. For audiences newly awakened to the possibilities of polyamory, At Long Last Love was a glittering reminder that stepping out used to be so much more “aesthetic”: no bowl of keys in a sunken living room, just intrigue, champagne, and mirabeau. To quote Porter, “Everything old is new again.”
THE STING (1973)
Director George Roy Hill’s 1969 “anti-Western” Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is often mentioned in the same breath as Bonnie and Clyde, and not without good reason: both employed Hollywood’s loosening censorship standards and a radical use of the “downer” ending to great critical and financial success. In 1973, Hill reunited stars Robert Redford and Paul Newman as another pair of lovable ne’er-do-wells, cementing the duo as the era’s de-facto leading men. True to the spirit of their first Bolivia-bound pairing, The Sting operates within a “take-or-get-taken” world governed by honor among thieves. At the heart of Hill’s jaunty caper is a need for revenge, but the con itself—and not its spoils—are where the true fun lies.
Set, like Paper Moon, in a Midwest ravaged by the Depression, The Sting follows Redford’s sweet-faced himbo Johnny Hooker and Newman’s Henry Gondorf as they concoct, organize, and ultimately execute a Rube Goldberg-esque plan to part Irish gangster Doyle Lonnegan of his ill-gotten gains. As in Butch Cassidy, the fatherly dynamic between the two stars is rooted in a mutual appreciation for ruthless ambition and an overarching distaste for John Law. Gondorf is wise and wizened by years spent staying just ahead of the FBI, while Hooker was raised on the streets running penny-ante cons, his own headline-making score just out of reach.
As the big mark, Lonnegan—expertly played by Robert Shaw, in a performance that far surpasses his crusty sailor act in Jaws—embodies the twisted, shadowy side of the American dream: an Irish immigrant who clawed his way to the top through sadism, exploitation, and ruthless pursuit of the almighty dollar. Gondorf and Hooker are out for themselves, but just as a rising tide lifts all boats, so too does their scheme benefit the other chiselers in their circle. Such is the elaborate nature of this plan that it takes a Hooverville of fellow cons—some erudite, some dissipated, others simply game—played to great effect by a rogues gallery of character actors modeled after the stock companies of Hollywood’s Central Casting Rolodex.
The Great Depression was a fecund age for cons and chicanery, and The Sting is a winking homage to its spiritual forebears: Blondie Johnson, Trouble in Paradise, Smart Money, and countless others. By 1975, the corporate malfeasance undergirding our economy had become commonplace: union jobs were disappearing at a breakneck pace, the cost of living continued to climb ever-upward, and the high school diploma decreased in value as a certification for full-time gainful employment. Hill’s film, and its laudatory portrayal of Hooker and Gondorf’s brilliant scheme, took the “sting” out of this mounting anxiety with an escapist tone.
In 1970, then-president Richard Nixon signed Reorganization Plan No. 3, an executive order establishing the creation of an official Environmental Protection Agency. Two years later, as he publicly proclaimed his innocence in the throws of the Watergate Scandal, the science pointing to mankind's fatal impact on the planet at large was not only well-established, but well on its way to being largely ignored.
Produced and released by Paramount Studios in 1974, the Robert Evans-produced, Robert Towne-written Chinatown marked the birth of “neo-noir,” a modern update to the iconic genre codified by psychologically-tinged screenplays and expressionist mise-en-scène. Released four years after the establishment of the EPA, Chinatown emerged as an ur-text for future environmental crime dramas like Silkwood (1983), The Insider (1999), and Erin Brockovich (2000). Beyond its aesthetic fidelity to the Art Deco era—courtesy of Althea Sylbert’s costumes and production design from brother-in-law Richard—Towne’s screenplay thematically folds the narrative of 20th-century American progress in on itself, using the 1930s as a scalpel to dissect the New Deal and post-War policies that turned Los Angeles into a smog-riddled desert hellscape.
The set-up is pulp fiction pat, centering around detective Jake Gittes’ routine investigation of an infidelity case, but the ensuing murder and down-the-rabbit hole journey leads Gittes—and, by extension, the audience—into the backrooms of municipal power brokers, whose own greed informs the lever-pulling which controls every aspect of American life. Gittes discovers a citywide conspiracy to purposefully dry out the San Fernando Valley, devalue the once-fertile farmland, and repurchase the independent community for pennies on the dollar. It’s a devious scheme that presages Los Angeles’ use of eminent domain to bulldoze “undesirable” communities of color and dispossess the working poor. The deceptively simple real estate cash grab revealed a shadowy side of the post-War housing boom that created a permanent class of haves and have-nots. The Valley as portrayed in Chinatown is another universe entirely: closer to Grapes of Wrath than Day of the Locust.
LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1972) & CABARET (1972)
One can trace the aesthetic influence of the 1930s with an iconic pair of musical performances, both unleashed at the start of the recession in 1972: Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in the prestige biopic Lady Sings the Blues and Liza Minnelli as American-born, Weimar Berlin-based chanteuse Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Ross and Minnelli began their long, respective ascents to stardom as celebrated singers, confirming their legendary status with Academy Award-nominated turns as tragic songbirds.
Directed by studio journeyman Sidney J. Furie—born at the height of the Depression in 1933—and produced by Motown Productions, Lady Sings the Blues netted Ross an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. The golden statuette that year went to Minnelli for Cabaret, establishing American moviegoers’ taste for high-gloss pre-war period musicals. Unlike Cabaret, Furie’s Lady secured a well-deserved nomination for Ray Aghayan, Norma Koch and diva-dresser Bob Mackie for Costume Design. Perhaps AMPAS had an aversion to green nail varnish, else how could one explain the egregious elimination of designer Charlotte Flemming’s contribution to Minnelli’s iconic bowler-hat-and-romper look?
Casting Minnelli as Bowles or Ross as Lady Day was more than a gimmick. The child of musical star Judy Garland and her then-husband, director Vincente Minnelli, Liza was marked from birth for a life of stardom. Raised in the public eye, by 1972 she began to establish herself as a unique presence on stage and screen—a little awkward, a little hyperactive, but far more than the sum of her famous parents’ parts. For a generation of singers like Ross, raised on Billie Holiday’s groundbreaking vocal style, the memory of her unique sound was still very much alive in 1972, a scant 16 years after her untimely death in 1956. While Holiday’s earliest recordings were, by then, nearing 40 years old, her feelings and struggles are very much situated in the “here and now,” and Ross’ portrayal of Holiday reflects their enduring power. Critic Charles Champlin, in a contemporary review for the Los Angeles Times, touted Ross’ portrayal as “one of the truly fine screen performances, full of power and pathos and enormously engaging and sympathetic." Despite the film’s whitewashing of Holiday’s sexuality and political activism, Ross gives body to the voice that became synonymous with heartbreak, creating a throughline from Holiday’s Depression-era life and work to the present day.
The singers’ public personas and private lives remained front-page tabloid fodder throughout the 1970s, due in no small part to their status as fixtures at Studio 54. By decade’s end, both Ross and Minnelli’s discographies would include an arsenal of chart-topping hits that dominated the airwaves and dance floors. Their contributions to the genre—musically, but also aesthetically—secured them a prize far more valuable than any Academy Award: that of unassailable drag icons.
Ever the fashion plate, designers and ready-to-wear labels were quick to adopt the pair’s revived 1930s silhouettes—itself a reaction to the “mod” look of the 1960s. Baby doll dresses and Mary Janes were on the way out: a newfound embrace of Old Hollywood “femininity,” with a dash of androgynous appeal, overtook the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. High-waisted, wide-legged pants nod to Katherine Hepburn, bias-cut dresses in rayon offered thrift and glamour, easily taking a girl from the steno pool to the dance floor after work hours.
While public dancing—and, later, moviegoing—had been a staple of American life for decades, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of these communal pleasures as boundary-blurring sources of romance and reprieve. Dancing is where people go to get close—and the vogue for disco gave an emerging class of straight people license to “cruise” within the boundaries of “good taste.” The soda fountain pick-up or sidewalk hanky-drop might have worked when Grandma went a-courtin’, but the liberated woman of the 1970s had a different appetite entirely. Disco was just one thread in a tapestry of great works by queer people and people of color that permit “square America” to let their proverbial hair down and step into the night.
What stars aligned to wed past to present across these disparate spheres? Young rebels in Hollywood turned their reverence for Fordian studio filmmaking into an insightful critique of the “Keep Your Sunny Side Up” messages that defined their boyhoods. Clubs that once boasted floor shows of wiggling chorines were abandoned, then repopulated, by men, women, and everyone in between writhing and grinding to eight-minute long tracks made by electronic machines. The house dresses seen in the pages of The Ladies’ Home Journal became, under the fairy touch of Diane von Furstenberg, an iconic wrap dress, designed to be slipped on the morning-after without waking your host.
Amidst a nation-wide economic crisis there was, even four decades apart, a moment worth celebrating. New York City couldn’t avoid the pinch, but here discos sprung up like wildflowers in the wreckage of old nightclubs and ballrooms, while moviegoing reached a fever-pitch. First- and second-run theaters at the top of the food chain were apex predators in an ecosystem of arthouse, independent, and outright pornographic exhibitions. On any given night, you could take your special someone to the latest Bergman film, or pull a “Travis Bickle” and drag them to The Opening of Misty Beethoven (and often on the same block). The avenues for ego death during this heady heyday were as numerous as mirrors on a disco ball: take in a picture of dubious quality, drop in at Roseland for the early set, and finish your night at the Paradise Garage or the Loft. Monday through Friday, you were punching the clock, but when that whistle blew, a thousand glimmering paths opened up before you.
—Text by Caroline Golum