A perfect fact to remember us by, we "post-moderns" or whatever we are: When we say that entertainment is "adult," we mean it is infantile. The pictorial spelling-out of exactly what happens when a couple goes to bed is in the "Billy learns how to tie his shoes" spirit of edifying books for toddlers. Vulgar words and obscene pictures are the quintessence of teenage- boyness. Compared with the typical modern flick, Dorothy Lamour's best pictures have a paradoxical superiority: They are better for children, and vastly more adult.
She died September 23 at 81. It is a painful era for lovers of American culture -- we are losing the remaining heroes and heroines of the golden age of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. A few months back, Gene Kelly, a wonderful song- and-dance man when he reined in his pompous, arty urges. Ginger Rogers last year; when you add up the crunchy wisecrack comedy (Fifth Avenue Girl, The Major and the Minor), the solid acting (Stage Door, Kitty Foyle), and the sublime art of her dances with Astaire, she was the greatest lady of American cinema -- a fact the obituaries forgot to mention. As for Miss Lamour, she was no Ginger Rogers. But she had great charm, a certain grace, and the marvelous art of keeping things in perspective. A heroine she was, of the wonderful age when the movies were grown-up solid citizens instead of (as the mood dictates) sullen prima donnas, foul-mouthed children, or raving nut cases.
People remember her seven "Road" films with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope (from The Road to Singapore of 1940 through The Road to Hong Kong of 1962) as corny. And they are -- corny and funny. Funny movies are still produced nowadays, but hers were more sophisticated than today's average comedy insofar as it is harder to be funny when you limit yourself to inoffensive words and inoffensive situations. Vulgarity has always been the shortest route to a cheap laugh. I don't claim there is no such thing as a modern-yet- sophisticated movie, or that Miss Lamour's pictures were sophisticated in absolute terms. No one called them sophisticated at the time. But the trend lines are interesting, and the sophistication trend is sharply down.
There is a wonderful, pure-essence-of-Lamour moment in the second worst Road movie, The Road to Bali of 1952. (Hong Kong is dead last.) She's a South Pacific princess, and Bing and Bob are adventurers who get lured to her island by a sneering bad guy who needs stooges to help him with his dirty work. She throws them a party. They sit cross-legged on the floor in kilts (never mind how the kilts got in there) on either side of her, and there follows a triple-decker, three-voiced fugue of a scene. The plot calls for the princess to demonstrate South Pacific sorcery, and so she makes a rope hang in air, a girl wriggle out of a vase. On top of that, the usual irrelevant Hope-and-Crosby clowning: "It's mass hypnosis!" "Where'd you learn a word like that?" "Don't listen to him, Princess, he got kicked out of kindergarten for cheating at finger painting." And superimposed on the whole thing is Miss Lamour's serene, priceless smile. In character she thinks these two adventurers are silly but sort of sweet. As an actress she thinks all three of them on that crazy set -- Bing, Bob, and Dorothy -- are silly but sort of sweet.
Her smile has the facts down perfectly. Bing is as unprepossessing a romantic lead as the movies ever produced. He always gets the girl (is the one-and-only actor ever to star with Astaire and get Fred's girl), but the basis of his romantic appeal is cornball ballads and nice guyness. He mocks his own singing style and big ears. Hope is the only comedian ever to succeed in being funny on the basis of really, really trying. And Miss Lamour, supposed focus of double-barrel Hope-and-Crosby romantic passion, is herself no spring chicken circa 1952; she has (eh-hem) put on a few pounds, and happens to be got up in a headdress that looks like the large transformers you see outside power plants, except diamond-spangled. The whole scene is just micro-inches shy of ridiculous, but she rescues it with the sheer knowing sweetness of her smile; because of that smile it is not ridiculous at all but funny and even a little bit touching.
She was the sarong girl, her unvarying title at the height of her career in the first half of the '40s. Her early pictures (Jungle Princess of 1936, Her Jungle Love of 1938, among others) established the sarong theme in an age when a movie goddess was supposed to speak softly but carry a big shtick, Homeric-epithet style. (Brunette-headed Dorothy, sarong-girl to the strong- greaved Achaeans.) With the first of the Road movies she hit her stride. These pictures, it is easy to forget, had substantial sexual content; it was no small responsibility being the sarong girl. They were deceptive cognac- filled bonbons compared with the shot-of-Thunderbird approach we favor today, and I would rate some of them higher in sexual-proof than the hauntingly subtle, mysterious allure of Sharon Stone -- Naked! or whatever they call movies nowadays. ("So don't miss Watch Demi Moore Undress, coming soon to a theater near you!")
We might talk about "the sexual sub-text of the Road shows," except that there is nothing sub about it. The sex is high-octane, more X than R. The first time you see Miss Lamour in The Road to Singapore she is wearing a filmy dress plus tasseled bra, and she is part of a nightclub act that also stars her nasty keeper and a horse-whip. As the act gets underway she holds a cigarette between her lips; he whips it in two. More neat tricks follow. She makes up to Bing and Bob, and when she heads off in their direction the bad guy slaps the whip round her belly and reels her in. She rolls her big eyes tragically and hustles out with the visiting Americans, follows them home, and later on lets her hair down and gets into her sleeping sarong for a nighttime-and-moonlight number. In case you missed the point, she launches her next Road picture (Zanzibar, 1941) by getting sold as a slave. This time she has the sarong on from the start (what else would you wear to a slave sale?), a tattered little off-the-shoulder number; her hands are manacled and she glances round the room in tiny peeps like an anxious kitten. The sale turns out to be a scare -- she and a girlfriend induce gullible romantics like Bing and Bob to buy her in a phony auction and set her free, and the ladies split the take with the auctioneer. But who cares? The audience got what it paid for. "She seems so unconscious of her deshabille," said the New York Times review of Singapore, "you just know her director and camera man were not for a minute."
Yet it was all harmless; if pornography happened, it was only in the privacy of your own mind -- a place that, so far as today's Hollywood is concerned, doesn't even exist. Miss Lamour provoked not lust so much as wistful desire. During the war she was "the girl," E. B. White reported, " above all others desired by the men in Army camps." She was busy during the war; she had more on her plate than being desirable. She toured the country selling war bonds. She was so good at it, the government put a private railcar at her disposal. She sold 300-odd million dollars' worth and got a commendation from the Treasury Department twenty years late, in 1965. Flogging bonds wasn't fun-and-games -- "a typical day for Miss Lamour," said a news story, "embraces about ten hours of war work." But when she showed up at the Martin Airplane factory in Baltimore, the management refused admittance and she had to make her pitch out front. No insult intended, the company explained; just that "when any good-looking woman walks through the plant it costs us 1,000 man-hours of labor. Dorothy Lamour might cost us half a bomber." Understood. "So she stepped aside," the story reports, "like a good patriot."
E. B. White, I would judge, had a thing for her. He analyzes the universal truths of maleness in terms of her status as Number One Dreamboat -- tongue in cheek, but with acute interest. "If you know what a soldier wants, you know what Man wants." Which is? "A beautiful, but comprehensible, creature who does not destroy a perfect situation by forming a complete sentence." (She speaks with "studied native-girlishness," noted the Times reviewer, quoting Miss Lamour's remark about a rival for Bing's affection: "She is ver- ree prit-tee, no?")
"Man's most persistent dream," White continues, getting serious, "is of a forest pool and a girl coming out of it unashamed, walking toward him with a wavy motion, childlike in her wonder, a girl exquisitely untroubled, as quiet and accommodating and beautiful as a young green tree." We are not supposed to write like that anymore. Now we have revoltingly vicious, wildly obvious rap songs, patronized by suburban youth and defended by yammering morons in the name of art. Is that a good swap? Satisfactory? Swinish obscenity is okay, disgusto-puko pornography is okay, but polite society is scandalized by the word "girl." Hence movie titles like "Pretty Woman," which hit home with the overwrought phoniness of Victorian euphemism run amok. The oblivious headline of a recent news story about female reporters: "The Boys on the Bus Are Women. "
A constant and besetting phoniness -- our whole society rings with it like churchbells. In abolishing the idea of flirtatious or sensitive or shy or graceful or delicate or romantic or girlish femininity, replacing it with the lie of the manly woman, we have made our culture -- look around you! -- hideous. Joyless. Graceless. Ugly as sin.
Miss Lamour's best movies were no masterpieces; they were merely lovely and still are. "Casual and refreshing spontaneity" said a reviewer of her work in Zanzibar, which is exactly right. In Singapore, she races into a village square, Bob chases after and grabs her.
Bob: "Why, she's got it!"
Dorothy (tragic, sobby): "I have not!"
Bing, wrestling Bob to free her: "What has she got?"
Bob: "She's got . . ." And all three break into "An Apple for the Teacher," a song-and-dance number. Turns out idea was to draw a crowd and gyp some money out of them. Dorothy hams it up between the two hams-in-chief with her angelic-suave-arch smile that always looks as if she is about to burst out giggling. In The Road to Utopia of 1945, the best of the series, she sings a little number that became a hit -- Don't tell me I'm smart, tell me how you like my personal-it-tee. . . . She is supposedly a vampy femme fatale, which she realizes is ridiculous, given her always-considerable difficulty not giggling in people's faces; and once again her smile takes it all in, so knowing and yet so sweet. An interviewer asked her if she had ever studied acting or music. "No," she said, "can't you tell?" In her graciousness she achieved lasting dignity, and we will remember her as a woman who did her country good. Sold a bunch of bonds, made fine, funny movies, cheered us up, heartened us, brightened the dreams of a lot of lonely GIs.
Bob Hope survives, though evidently his health is not so hot. I wish I could meet Hope and tell him he meant a lot to us; that my young boys love his Road pictures and we watch them together all the time. I won't ever, but it's gladdening to think that other people have told him. And her friends, I am sure, told Dorothy Lamour the same thing.
A survey discovered that, nowadays, "movie star" is the bottom-ranked career American parents want for their children. Today's stars are richer and a lot more self-important than Dorothy Lamour, but the sense of having buoyed the country just a little is a thing all their money will never buy them.
By David Gelernter