By G. Michael Dobbsnews@thereminder.com
Two fascinating documentaries were on my viewing list this week.
Bettie Page Reveals All
You say you’ve never heard of Bettie Page? Perhaps you’ve not. If you are a keen observer of American popular culture, though you’ve undoubtedly seen her influence.
Since the late 1980s and into the 1990s there has been a revival and re-discovery of this brunette pin-up queen with the trademark bangs.
Several new generations who never saw her almost underground photos or movies from the 1950s have hailed her influence on fashion and style as well as acknowledging the wholesomeness and joy she brought to pin-up art.
Page had a quality in her photos that was the counter-balance to the 1950s blonde bombshells such as Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren.
Page looked like she was having fun.
What made Page’s story so intriguing at the time of the re-discovery was that she had left modeling in 1957 and had dropped out of sight. It wasn’t until 1992 when a hand-full of fans was able to communicate with her.
Since then, thanks to news coverage, several books, many reprints of classic images and an immense array of merchandising, Page had some income in her last years that undoubtedly made her more comfortable.
In 2012 Forbes ranked her as one of the top 10 posthumous celebrity earners.
This tremendous interest in Page has brought about misinformation from some quarters and this new documentary from Academy Award-nominated director Mark Mori seeks to set the record straight with a candid narration recorded by Page before her death in 2008.
Page had hoped to be an actress, but got into modeling by accident. An amateur photographer approached her on the streets of New York City where she worked as a secretary. At the time, camera clubs were popular with the members chipping in to hire models to photograph.
She soon became a favorite with the photographers not just because of her looks, but also because of her attitude.
She branched out into professional pin-up work and did some of her most memorable shots with Florida-based photographer, Bunny Yeager. One of Yeager’s photos of Page landed her in “Playboy.”
Eventually she caught the attention of Irving Klaw, part of a brother and sister team who ran Movie Star New, a company that sold stills of actors to fans. The Klaws also had a lucrative side business of producing pin-ups. This is where Page – who quickly became a favorite among the customers – became the best known and, to some extent, infamous.
Klaw also produced some fetish photography that some people at the time considered obscene. In 1957, a federal probe into Klaw’s business shook Page, who also believed that being in her early 30s she was too old to continue modeling. She quit the business that year.
Plagued by bouts of mental illness, Page sought relief through attempting to have a stable marriage and religion. Her illness undermined her marriage and eventually landed her in a state mental hospital after she attacked a woman in a psychotic rage.
What is fascinating about her story is how her rediscovery and ultimate triumph was completely organic. It was not engineered by anyone, but rather made possible by people who were captivated by her photos and her mystery.
Mori is certainly sympathetic in his portrayal of Page, but he does present a complete picture through his interviews from fans, photographers and her ex-husband.
For students of American popular culture, this film is must viewing.
The First World War
One hundred years ago this summer, a group of Serbian nationalists managed to assassinate the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – an event that touched off the first worldwide conflict in human history.
There are no longer any veterans of World War I still alive and no eyewitnesses. The event has gone from something that is remembered to now something that is documented. What this brilliant 10-part series, based on the work of historian Hew Strachan, does so well is to put the events within a context that make the war relevant today.
Historians have noted that if the Serbs had missed their target – they only succeeded because Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s driver had taken a wrong turn – the world may not have seen the rise of Communism in Russia or the Nazis in Germany.
Filmmaker Jonathan Lewis has assembled a remarkable amount of archival footage – World War I was the first war to be filmed – and successfully tells the complex story of the war in a way even non-history buffs could follow.
If you’re like me, you may have relatives who were in the armed forces at the time or fought in the war.
This series adds much to the cursory lessons most of us received in school about the “War to End All Wars.”