GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL (1966)

GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL is a self-reflexive work of sorts: penned by POPULAR HOME magazine editor Robert Dougherty, it’s a recounting of “The Notorious Life of Dirty Helen Cromwell”, straight from her mouth, according to Robert.

Dirty Helen Cromwell (Helen, from here on forth), was — for some time — a Milwaukee fixture from the Prohibition age. While she was reluctant to lay down roots anywhere, she did find a home in Milwaukee with her boozy outpost THE SUN FLOWER INN, which is where Robert first met Helen.

What follows is Robert jotting down Helen recalling a good forty years of ‘good times’ as a self-proclaimed ‘woman of pleasure’. In other words: a sex worker. There’s a moment where she wishes that the term ‘call girl’ was popular in her time.

The tales recalled in GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL are certainly those of a willful, self-possessed woman, one who isn’t a skin-flint, but values what remains in one’s pocket, while still living a remarkable life, one the that included all sorts of fashionable dovetailing, as well as shoulder-rubbing with Al Capone.

“My advice is not to accept initiations to these cruises if you aren’t prepared for certain eventualities.”

That’s about as dark as Helen deigned herself to deal with, but as one dives deeper into GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL and reads about the litany of dead husbands, and the brave face she plastered on, the harder the read becomes. This is a memoir/auto-bio where the absence of details are more damning than the inclusion; you can almost feel the hurt in certain eras of hers that she glosses over, ambiguous hurt that hits harder than when she discusses the death of one of her several husbands.

That said, yes, you do have to read in-between the lines for that. Otherwise, it’s a bold, brash tale of a bold and brash and gregariously singular woman who made her place in Milwaukee. That alone is reason enough to read her tale.

Purchase: https://feralhouse.com/good-time-party-girl/

LIZZIE: THE MUSICAL (2010+)

(Theatre/YouTube) Another theatre production, but this one is far more accessible, as there’s an original cast album and a number of clips and performances available on YouTube. As you might surmise from the title, it’s a rock opera with a different take on the legend of Lizzie Borden, authored by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner, and Alan Stevens Hewitt. The official website describes it as so:

“LIZZIE is four women fronting a six-piece rock band.

“LIZZIE is Rage! Sex! Betrayal! BLOODY MURDER!

“LIZZIE is American mythology set to a blistering rock score with a sound owing less to Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber than to BIKINI KILL, the RUNAWAYS, and HEART.”

So, yeah, that ticks all of my boxes, and hopefully yours too.

The production I saw was executed by Chicago’s Firebrand Theatre who are an “equity musical theatre company committed to employing and empowering women on and off the stage” and it was a goddamn blast. I can’t wait to see another of their offerings, but definitely jump at the chance to catch any production of it, if it hits your area.

HOUSE OF BORDEN (one of my favorite renditions of my favorite number, but I’m not sure why they had one of them play two parts):

What may be my new favorite YouTube theatre trailer, for what looks to have been a brilliant Canadian production (although it does untether the actors from their mics, which is not in line with prior productions):

Lastly, every time I rediscover this musical, I can’t help but endlessly re-listen to it.

THE DROWNING GIRLS (2008+)

(Theatre) I rarely write about theatre because it’s so niche, privileged (as in: expensive and caters to those who can afford it) and ephemeral, but this piece has stuck with me. THE DROWNING GIRLS is a stageplay from Canadian playwrights Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson, and Daniela Vlaskalic, based on the actions of real-life Victorian George Joseph Smith who drowns three older women he recently married in their bathtub, mostly for profit and, probably also: sadism. In other words: a cautionary ghost short for the women in the audience, just like so many horror tales.

While most of the productions follow the same simple staging — three bathtubs, three women in nightgowns, mostly soaking wet for 70 minutes straight — I’m sure they all vacillate wildly in tone. (After all, that’s one of the fascinating parts about theatre.) The production I saw was helmed by Madeline Keller and was stunning and powerful and vengeful.

No matter the production, I think it’s interesting enough to chance it.

GOTHIC (1986)

(Plex/tubi/VOD/Vudu) This is the predictable final entry in a three-part series of recommendations regarding films about Mary Shelley. It is, of course, Ken Russell’s GOTHIC (1985). Again, I’m no Mary Shelley scholar, and — given this final entry — it should be obvious that I have no interest in discussing the veracity of the portrayal of these real-life persons. (I simply don’t have the knowledge, but I don’t begrudge those that do.)

While GOTHIC is, on the surface, about the storytelling night between Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley’s stepsister Claire, it’s primarily concerned with Mary and her life and her way of coping with this foursome, which becomes heightened via what one surmises is a fever dream.

GOTHIC is essentially fan-fiction, occasionally slash-fiction and, surprisingly, posits Mary as, for all intents and purposes, the Final Girl, with Lord Byron being the executor of the madness they endure. (Or not; there are many ways you can read it, but that’s my interpretation.)

There’s a lot to unpack in this film, far more than I can do justice to in a simple post, so I’ll just note a few highlights and leave it at that:

  • As usual, Russell has a ton of visual anachronisms, one of the boldest being the hexagonal ceiling molding designs, which are then mirrored when Mary finds herself as a prisoner.
  • It portrays Mary as someone who doesn’t buy into Percy’s ‘free love’, and touches on her problematic pregnancies.
  • I just happened to be going about this three-part project as I was reading MEN, WOMEN, AND CHAIN SAWS, which spends a significant amount of time talking about horror films’ handling of eyes, then Percy seeing nipples as eyes, which MEN, WOMEN, AND CHAIN SAWS author Carol J. Clover touches on regarding the feminine masochism viewing perspective, and yeah, there’s not more perfect film for that than this.
  • I’ll also note: I first saw this film at what I think is absolutely the perfect time in one’s life, in my mid-teens, thanks to my friend Chris, although I do know I spent a lot of time staring at the LaserDisc cover well before actually watching the film. I hadn’t re-watched it until today. It is far crazier and hornier than I remember, and I can’t believe we got away with watching it while his parents were away.

My friend Mark pointed out two other Mary Shelley films, both released in the late 80s, which I have yet to watch — there are DVDs available of both, but they can’t be streamed — that I hope to catch, and perhaps you may be interested in them as well:

ROWING WITH THE WIND (1988):

HAUNTED SUMMER (1988, which certainly backgrounds Mary, but is very much about her):

And, of course, here’s the trailer:

MY BRILLIANT CAREER (1979)

(Criterion/HBO MAX/VOD) I previously recommended Gillian Armstrong’s OSCAR AND LUCINDA but, apart from her 1994 adaptation of LITTLE WOMEN, she’s perhaps best known for her first feature film MY BRILLIANT CAREER, an adaptation of Miles Franklin debut novel of the same name.

MY BRILLIANT CAREER stars Judy Davis (she’s been in everything from BARTON FINK to NAKED LUNCH to FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN) as Sybylla Melvyn, a rather immature, somewhat naive, headstrong young woman in late 19th century Australia who wants to create, to impress herself on the world, and certainly doesn’t settle for simply getting married and settling down, even when she finds herself enamored with Harry Beecham (Sam Neill in one of his earliest film appearances).

MY BRILLIANT CAREER was released midway through the Australian New Wave film movement and, while it’s Armstrong’s first feature, it’s a remarkably well-executed film — she clearly knew what she wanted to do with it — and Donald McAlpine’s involvement as cinematographer lends a rustic, but striking atmosphere to the film, ably switching from pristine upper-class interiors to dust-enveloped farms.

Yes, Sybylla can be a bit much and maddening at times, but her journey is a worthwhile and rewarding one, without being treacly.

THE DUST BOWL (2012)

(hoopla/VOD) When I first heard that Ken Burns was working on a documentary about the Dust Bowl, I was already neck-deep doing research for a very Dust Bowl-centric novel and I thought to myself: “Well, I might as well give up on it now, because soon there’ll be a storm of Dust Bowl novels and the market will be exhausted.’”

For whatever reason, that did not happen. (Also, while I did finish a very rough version of the novel, I ended up abandoning it as it deviated too far from what I wanted it to be.) When Burns’ THE DUST BOWL did come out, it didn’t have the buzz that his recent documentaries have had. Hell, I heard more people talking about Burns’ BASEBALL doc than THE DUST BOWL.

Ken Burns has always been able to turn what could be a dull American history lesson into something immensely watchable; dramatic, even. He even managed to make the story of the creation of the United States National Parks into a riveting six-part documentary series. However, the Dust Bowl itself, just on paper, reads like a horror story. It doesn’t necessary require Burns’ deft touch.

If you aren’t familiar with the Dust Bowl, it’s one of the earliest and one of the worst, man-made environmental tragedies ever. Basically, the US government had a ton of unworked land in the Plains and then handled out lots for folks to head west, to settle and farm. Families rushed out and overworked the land to the point where the soil ended up turning to dust. Then a severe drought arrived and, because nothing could grow, there was nothing to catch the wind in the plains. The winds stripped all of the newfound dust from the ground, causing the ‘dust storms’ that barreled over the lands. Oh, and all of this occurred during The Great Depression.

To be clear: we’re not talking about temporary tornados here; we’re talking about stories-high loads of dust covering the lands for days on end. Houses were literally buried in dust. Everything in your house was covered in dust. You ate and breathed dust. The dust chewed through everything, eroding wood, clothing; farm animals would suffocate on it; children spewed up dirt.

These storms lasted for a decade because, there was no way to stop them without rehabilitating the land and, because of the prolonged drought, that simply couldn’t be done, not the way the current farmers tended their lots. Those lands had literally became deserts. Everyone that had been lead out there by the government, told to farm away with abandon, were left with less than nothing. (Yes, this was definitely Burns’ attempt to bring attention to climate change.)

Burns has always been best at leveraging photos for visual props as opposed to film footage, as photos allow him to unfurl his trademark sense of fireside storytelling at his own pace, but there are more than enough snippets of environmental footage that really hammer home the scale, monstrosity, and devastation of the storms. Anyone could make an effective cautionary tale documentary from that footage because it’s that spectacularly unreal, and it encompasses everything about America at that point in time.

It’s also worth noting that, unlike many Burns’ docs, a number of those who lived through the Dust Bowl are still alive, so there are far more first-person accounts than you’d expect from a documentary of his. It’s an enthralling, often tragic documentary, one which captures the tension of how the US was handling the plains at that time.

I’d imagine the same reason why THE DUST BOWL didn’t gain traction like prior Burns documentaries is the same reason I never learned about the Dust Bowl until later in life. It’s the tale of an American failure on American land that was spearheaded by an American government and resulted in the ruin of many American families and individuals. It’s a man-made disaster that folks just want to sweep under the rug and, yeah, that doesn’t make for the coziest viewing, but it’s history worth knowing.

HOW THE UNIVERSE WORKS (2010-Present)

(Discovery+/fubo/Science Channel)? This will definitely date me, but one of my formative memories is of being dragged out of bed by my father in the middle of the night to see Halley’s Comet. See, I loved reading about space, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime event. We drove out to the middle of nowhere — easily done when you live in Vermont — but, when he set up my telescope, I refused to look, scared of peering into the unknown. I was too young to have an existential crisis but, upon finally squinting through the telescope’s lens and seeing the burst of light in my telescope, well, it made me feel very small and very alone and very scared, but also in awe of the universe.

Now that I’ve technically grown up, practically every night I reinstill that cosmic feeling by letting this show lull me to sleep.

HOW THE UNIVERSE WORKS features an assortment of cosmologists, astrophysicists, theoretical physicists, and other scientists (including Michio Kaku) who discuss the theme of the episode, say, about new discoveries regarding the moons of Saturn, or expound on neutron stars, but more often than not it’s concerned with black holes. While they’re excitedly chatting away about their life’s work, or while Mike Rowe is narrating some connective tissue to help viewers understand the concepts, the show throws a bevy of impressive space CGI at you.

It’s been running for nine seasons now, although a fair amount of the recent seasons consist of three pre-existing hour-long episodes wrapped into one, which makes it perfect for half-awake background viewing.

It’s worth nothing that there are a ton of smaller clips from the show available via YouTube. Science Channel has even conveniently assembled an entire playlist of them, which should make for quality background viewing for you, too.

MR. SOUL! (2018)

(HBO MAX) I’m embarrassed that I was completely unaware of the existence of the Black variety TV show SOUL!, which ran from 1968 to 1973, a bit before my time. The show was an overstuffed marvel of wall-to-wall talent, featuring musicians, writers, and poets, and this documentary that extolls it is absolutely fascinating.

Despite the doc being named after the host of the show, Ellis Haizlip, and co-directed by his niece, it’s rather light on particulars about his life. Instead it focuses more on what he accomplished through the show than being a personal profile, which isn’t an admonishment, merely an observation.

Either way, be prepared to take notes while watching it, as there are a litany of acts and individuals noted in the doc that deserve your additional attention.

(Grateful to Damon Locks for posting about this doc, which I wouldn’t have otherwise seen.)

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (2021)

(HBO MAX/VOD) JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH leaves HBO MAX after March 14th*, so you only have a few more days to stream it, and it’s goddamn it’s well-worth your time.

I’ll try to keep this brief, because every hour I dilly-dally writing this is an hour you’ll miss out on the streaming window, but JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is the rare docudrama that would’ve been just as rich as fiction. Despite being shot in Cleveland, it feels like midwest Chicago — they nailed the molding! — the cast is amazing, and it resonates in a way that say, TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 does not.

  • Again, not shilling. Just trying to get folks to watch a quality film.

80 BLOCKS FROM TIFFANY’S (1979)

(YouTube) A pointed documentary on the gangs of the South Bronx in the 70s by Gary Weis (who at the time was working with Albert Brooks on filmed SNL bits), inspired by the Esquire feature SAVAGE SKULLS.

While Weis often uncomfortably inserts his privileged white, outsider self into the interview room with his subjects, he doesn’t edit out the folks that call him out on his motives, and he does make an effort to dig into the personalities of those embroiled in gang life. The end result is a number of strange profile pieces and re-enactments that feel like an ill-fitting but important portrait of 70s New York City.

Sadly, the doc has only had the barest of releases — it was shot to fill time during a SNL summer hiatus only to be scrapped by NBC execs, then used as an educational film for a bit, then had a limited DVD print run over ten years ago — but you can view it (albeit with abrupt commercial interruptions) here: