Bessie Loves Kitten

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: Once in awhile I do a random search at the crossroads of my two interests, early film and cats. It rarely turns anything up, but once in awhile I find something of interest. (The first such score of a photo of a young Jean Arthur holding a toy black cat can be found here.) This interesting 8″x10″ of Bessie Love playing with a kitten materialized the other day.

Both in subject and in execution, it appears to be a candid photo snatched up at the studio on the spur of the moment. (The quality of the photo suggests that it isn’t a proper still or photo shot under optimum conditions, although an original photo.) It is inscribed only Bessie Love on the back and is undated. It has many pin holes poked in the corners and has obviously spent time, beloved, on someone’s wall or board, held by push pins. Bessie has her luxurious hair (in my opinion one of her outstanding features in her early years) tucked under this kerchief, protecting it between scenes.

The tiny kitten has an unreasonably large rope tied around him or her, a serious attempt at keeping it where someone wanted it, but still ready for a little play with Bessie however. The kitten has that vaguely adolescent look, getting a little leggy and a tad less fluffy adorable. Let’s hope the complicated rope corralling of this fellow or gal meant that someone was taking care of this kit and (for those of us who worry about such things) it ultimately had a good home.

For those of you who are not familiar with Bessie, a quick bit about her and an early few photos below snatched off of Google. Born Juanita Horton in Midland, Texas in 1898. The young Bessie was eventually introduced to D. W. Griffith at Biograph Studios by Tom Mix of all people. She generally played wholesome parts, although I think it is fair to think she was a tad less utterly wholesome in her personal life. I found reference to her liking to promote herself playing the uke in somewhat rougher joints and venues for which she was criticized.

I probably first saw her in The Good Bad Man with Douglas Fairbanks in 1916. (Available on Youtube here if you are curious.) However, my first distinct memory of her was seeing her in The Matinee Idol one afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art, a film notable for having been directed by a young Frank Capra, made in 1928. Bessie transitioned into talkies and, although her star fades decidedly by the 1930’s, she continues working at least in bit parts, for virtually her entire life. I tend to think of her as playing a lot of roommates and best friends in thirties films of a type.

Eventually she makes her way to England and continues working there on stage and film, embraces Christian Science as a religion. She has parts in both Hollywood films Reds and Ragtime notably however. The last entry listed in her filmography is in The Hunger in 1983. She died in 1986.

Meanwhile, I am glad someone managed to capture her on this sunny day, playing with this little cat between scenes, for posterity – and I am very pleased it has come to take its place in my kitty photo archive.

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Rattled

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: I have made much of my reticence to acquire these delicate celluloid toys known and a few of the times I have written about them can be found at these links here – Fear of CelluloidFunny Little Felix and Ding Dong Kitty. However, I am here again today with an item I have purchased whose fragility in some ways defies its very creation as a baby toy. This rattle was made to be extra light and to a large degree expendable I would think. After all, they were purchased for baby to chew on, beat against things and, yes – rattle, and ultimately probably to lose if not mutilated entirely.

This one has a splendid rattle and kitty Cookie immediately took an intent interest, even as I removed it from the box and packing it was shipped in. Between the great rattle and the cat shape, I would imagine that this fellow would have been one of baby’s favorites. One of the weird things about celluloid is how light it is – it has no weight at all really, so it is easy to imagine that even a very small infant could have made this one of the first items it was able to clench in their tiny fists. Oh the better to command that rattle yourself!

As you can see below, he has not survived unscathed, and the back of his head is dented. He bears no markings of manufacture or place of origin. I have a nagging feeling I have seen the cat face before on something. It has to be said that he isn’t an especially jolly puss, is he? I might go so far as to say a sour puss. Still, with the shape of him, that big bow and the nice little handle (good for some chewing too) I can imagine being perfectly charmed by mom waving him in my face. I don’t pretend to know anything about contemporary toys for tots, but somehow I doubt there are rattles quite as charming as this one. If I am wrong, please let me know.

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Somehow he has wandered into this century and come to rest, for now anyway, among other cherished cat items where he will hopefully remain unscathed for a bit. That assumes that I keep him away from Cookie. Kitty claws and teeth can do more damage than a small child is likely to I do believe.

 

Backyard Kitties

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: While the wonderful and somewhat strange symmetry of this photo was what appealed to me when I purchased it, there is a homeyness to it that scratches at my brain too. My grandmother was the last person I know who wore an apron like the one shown here so it makes me think of her. She wasn’t the person in the family to be feeding the cats however; she didn’t especially like cats – although she would occasionally allow if they were doing something cute. She was somewhat puzzled by our unlimited affection for them and generally took the German Shepard’s part in most pet disputes that erupted and would sneak her treats.

I am thinking of my mother’s mother and she was more of a dog and bird person. Growing up my mother had a small dog named Queenie, a dog which may doubled as a part-time hunting dog for my grandfather. This was her only childhood pet. Later when my mother was older, her mom adopted a parrot. Ironically my mother, who ultimately went onto become a champion of our feathered friends (mostly in the form of rescuing injured waterfowl) disliked the bird intensely. I believe his name was Mike. He was evidently allowed to fly free around the house and would attempt to take your breakfast from you. I had heard about Queenie over the years, but I think I was an adult before I even heard my mother speak about Mike. It gave me a very different perspective on my grandmother – who never struck me as the sort of person who would allow a beloved bird to fly around the house and try to drink your coffee.

Looking carefully at these two felines, while the one cat appears to be solidly black, there is a thin white line that makes me think he actually has a white tummy, escaping the bad luck label. The other is a friendly looking orange stripe – a favorite brand from my youth. I think we had four oranges over the course of time. Meanwhile, it is their precise positions and almost identical curling of the tails that make this photo a hoot. They are permitting petting, but were probably thinking more along the lines of food or treats of some kind appearing from this food-smelling cooking person.

These are backyard cats and remind me that the kitties of my youth were free range – in and out of the house, roaming the yard and neighborhood. It wasn’t unusual to see your cat in someone else’s yard as you drove by, although I believe it did make mom raise an eyebrow. To my memory they were generally collected in the house for the evening after they had their dinner inside. In the same suburban neighborhood, pet cats are now indoor only for the most part. Transgressors risk being impounded. While I understand the multiple motivations behind this, a longing for that bit of feline freedom tugs at me and perhaps it is still different in other communities. For us it is a time now gone by way of large cotton aprons and cats being fed out back.

 

The Elephant Eyes Have It

 

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Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: Today’s Pictorama is an odd item in a few ways. It was found, not purchased and it was Kim who encountered it on the street one day, not me. (Kim casually, somewhat unconsciously and occasionally, collects detritus – generally interesting metal bits and tiny plastic toys – off the street. These pile up in his pockets and eventually migrate to shelves in the apartment.) Elephants make up only the tiniest subset of collectibles and collected here at Deitch Studios (although for one you can see this nifty box Kim gave me here), but Kim and I have a soft spot for elephants, both real and toy. I for one have always wanted a good size elephant on wheels riding toy and keep a weather-eye out for the right one. Today’s item isn’t an especially old toy like most of the early 20th century items in the house, some starting to bump up toward the 100 year mark now. He began life as standard issue contemporary. I sometimes worry about the child who must have been sad to lose him.

For those of you who follow us on a variety of social media you might know that we went to the Prospect Park Zoo this summer, following our noses on an elephant that was or might have been story, research for a tale Kim is mulling over for his next book. This September, in his work that combines dance and music about animals called Spaces, Wynton Marsalis informed that elephants can be trained to dance in tandem, perhaps the only animals to do so. In another performance he also reminded that, while elephant hide is advertised to be tough, it is in reality very sensitive both to touch and the sun, and therefore that you might want to bring one some lotion if you had the chance to meet one.

This little fellow was found by Kim many years ago now. His is a simple and economical profile, but somehow has just enough elephant charm. One day I came home from work and much to my surprise, Kim had replaced the elephant’s casually applied on and missing features (shadows of his former eyes and toes can be seen if you look carefully) with painted on Deitchien new ones, making him a one-of-a-kind. He has subsequently taken up residence on a shelf, after sampling several other perches in the apartment. He is shown below in a page from Kim’s book Alias the Cat, sitting on his desk. That was probably shortly after Kim christened his new features.

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The one thing we all know about elephants is their great memories, repositories of much which of good and bad. They hold long grudges and deep affections, almost as if these were in proportion to their out-sized selves. I like to think this fellow is grateful to Kim for rescuing him from the streets of New York and supplying him with a fine new set of sporty features. For us he is a lucky elephant and are pleased that he is a member of the family here, contentedly spending his days amongst the kitties and toy cats.

 

Doll House

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Pam’s Pictorama Post: I walked past this store yesterday while running some errands. I believe this establishment did a stint on Lexington Avenue, where I would occasionally admire the wares in the window. A number of years ago it moved to East 78th Street, oddly enough, in a storefront where I once bought high-end vintage clothing. I was pleased to see it hadn’t disappeared. While it isn’t a block I find myself on too often, when I do I like to take a few moments have a look in the window. (It is next to Orwasher’s Bakery and I have to tear myself aware from the temptation of the bread and bagels in their window – yesterday I was only saved by the line of people more or less going out the door!) However, I will say I have a complicated relationship with dollhouses.

I had a nice dollhouse when I was a kid – it was about the size and shape of the one top left, sort of a two story horizontal model. It was handmade, like these, but unlike the one indicated it was closed on three sides, with a cheerful exterior in some detail, although nothing like this intricate yellow number above. It was white with light blue trim.

I both loved it and was somewhat frustrated by it. For one thing, I wasn’t actually much of a doll playing child. (Barbies were the exception and they were a creative endeavor for me – I hope to consider those in a subsequent post.) I do not believe I actually had dolls which were the inhabitants of said house. Scale was issue – you have to sort of figure out what works in proportion to the size of your house and furnish and inhabit accordingly. I purchased furniture over time, but it was expensive and I was not good at making my own. Something about it was a bit intimidating, and I never embraced just playing with it. It somehow didn’t inspire creativity in me. I would set it up and marvel at the tiny pieces admiringly – periodically our cat Snoopy would crash into it, and decide it was a splendid place for napping and everything would need arranging again. (I was a bit annoyed, but never one to deny my cat any pleasure even then.) I would have loved to electrify it – to me that would have been the height of fascinating – have lights I could turn on and off, but although I saw such things I had no idea where to start with such a project.

The idea of miniature worlds continued to fascinate me. I went through a long terrarium stage as a child. I was stuffing dirt and plants in every container I could get my hands on with varying degrees of success. As an adult I have considered recreating some of those terrariums and photographing them. Climbing inside those little, interior worlds of my own creation and sharing my bird’s eye perspective. Kim and I talk occasionally and ongoing about the ideal miniature town, most likely to be given life through his drawings someday than anywhere else. It will have an elaborate train set up and jolly houses like the yellow mansion above. I briefly went through a stage of considering taking on a dollhouse again as an adult and approaching it more organically and creatively, making the furniture and shaping the interior less inhibited by the conventions of scale and reality. My own dollhouse was long given away however and the issue of space in a cramped apartment made it unattractive to pursue.

I was greatly under the spell of Rumer Godden’s book The Doll’s House which, if you are not familiar with it already, is a juvenile chapter book about the Doll family. It is a bit terrifying actually, with an awful, proud doll named Marchpane which is introduced into the lives of the happy Doll family – ending in the death of one of the celluloid dolls by melting! Oh my. I bought myself another copy of it a few years ago and can’t lay my hands on it right now, but found it almost every bit as frightening all over again when I read it. (In researching this I discovered she is also the author of the novel Black Narcissus, on which the somewhat creepy and alarming film with Deborah Kerr is based. Makes sense!)

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The sight of a great dollhouse, such as the Stettheimer one at the Museum of the City of New York which I think of as the ultimate version in some ways, still sets my heart racing and the wheels turning in my head. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death created by Frances Glessner Lee is another such perfection, although her intention in creating them was forensic study rather than creativity or play. Fascinating! I realize that somehow my childhood dollhouse experience was somewhat stillborn and it still itches at the back of my brain. Perhaps this toy collector will have a chance to travel down that particular road still.

Touring Car

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: I believe I have written a bit about my early days of toy collecting. The origin of my toy joy wasn’t cat related, not mohair or cartoon themed gems. My fascination was entirely fueled by motion and in that, I embraced wind-up mechanical toys and battery operated ones with impunity. The finicky nature of aging battery toys – not to mention keeping batteries on hand, but not stored in them where they corrode – made collecting them somewhat less attractive over time.

Early on though some immediately captured my imagination, and I believe that the first version I saw of this was older. If memory serves that version had Asian occupants. I spied it in an antique toy store, however it exceeded my thin budget at the time. The photo taking tourist, as I think of her, was the selling point for me. She turns and snaps photos, camera lighting up as do tiny headlights on the car. The memory of it lingered and I kept a weather eye out for it.

To my joy, this ultimately turned out to be a fairly common toy. I do not remember how I came to acquire my version except to say that I remember that it was new or at least new-ish when I acquired it, although without a box which seems odd now. There is no evident brand or maker’s name on it, nor country of origin. It’s unmarked state makes it hard to research so I am unable to discover if it had an early predecessor, as memory serves, or not. I acquired it in the pre-eBay days. Now that I think of it, this may have even been a gift, the thoughtful offering of a then paramour.

However, while I had trouble Googling it this morning, I did find one on eBay right away, same model, selling for less than $40. There are a few videos of it working on Youtube, some slight variations on this theme (two men in a car or the woman sporting a kerchief), but the woman’s flash doesn’t work in any of them, nor does it work in the one for sale, so clearly the best part of this toy (for me) is the weak design link.

Despite having spent the last decade or two on a shelf in my bedroom, mine has deteriorated with time. The fragile strings that hold the man’s arms have gone slack, there is corrosion in the battery box. So I am afraid that it’s operational days are behind us. While some toys were built to withstand time, others were ephemeral pleasures and I guess this one falls in that category. Still, there is a collector’s impulse itching to keep an eye out and see if I can’t find another that does indeed work…stay tuned.

…and the Hankies Have It

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Pam’s Pictorama Post: Perhaps yesterday’s post about Dad’s handkerchiefs (which can be found here) was partially inspired by losing this lot of bizarre beauties on eBay this week. These are proclaimed as one-of-a-kind, but I sort of assume they were either from a kit of some kind or at least the design was something one could trace out of a magazine and work from. Still, they hail from Australia and my chances at purchasing another set are rather slim and about this I am a bit sad. Nonetheless, the photos are jolly and despite the fact that I rarely feature items I have not purchased, I was inspired to share them today.

These appear to be rather serious linen hankies, a bit heavier than I would be inclined to carry, although obviously I would have embraced these particular delightful items for their frolicsome Felix-ness. As a small child I was taught how to do simple embroidery – cross stitching on doilies if memory serves. (I feel old thinking about this suddenly – man, I can’t imagine anyone’s grandmother teaching them that today, or even owning doilies or embroidered tablecloths for that matter.)

While gifted in many creative ways I am the first to say that all aspects of sewing escape me. I believe I was able to complete a sort of nominal cross stitch project as outlined above, but I never graduated to anything as complex as these merry Felix renditions. Knitting completely mystifies me, despite adequate and dedicated teachers, and I never met a sewing machine I didn’t jam immediately. My sister Loren didn’t embroider or knit, but she sewed clothing well. I can, for the record, sew buttons on properly however.

Those who know me are aware I got the cooking genes (although again here, Loren was the baker in the family) as well as drawing, painting and, at one time sculpting, so no complaints. Interesting though to have, during my half century lifetime, seen the world abandon embroidered tablecloths and doilies on coffee and end tables. I read an article recently that posed that the utter failure of the antiques market was due to the fact that the kitchen has become the heart of entertaining and family time in the home. The loss of interest in the dining room and the living room as where you entertained eliminated a desire for a certain kind of furniture, silver service and the like. Kim and I live in a single room and the two of us can barely fit in our kitchen with the cats at the same time; therefore, I’m not sure I had fully become aware of this shift in contemporary home life. I can say however, send your antique toys my way if you tire of them, even in one room, I continue to acquire.