Thursday, September 30, 2010

In Memoriam: Tony Curtis, 1925-2010

Son of Ali Baba was the movie in which I had to stand at the top of a hill and tell Piper Laurie, "Yonder lies the castle of my father, the caliph." It came out, "Yondah lies the castle of my faddah," and I never heard the end of it. Forty years later my friend Hugh Hefner quoted it back to me: "Yonder lies me faddah's castle." I said, "Hef, I never said that. And even if I did, whose fault was it that they constructed the line that way, to start a sentence out with yonder? They wrote it, and I got stuck with it." Hef said, "Don't tell people that, Tony. It's a legendary story about you and Hollywood, whether it's true or not."

I've thought about that a lot, and I think I understand what he means. But I'm still sensitive about coming out of New York and being Jewish, and all the mockery of that line sounded to me like a putdown not just of New Yorkers but of Jews. British actors could get away with coming in and playing Roman generals or anything else, but if an American played the same kind of part, he got rapped because he sounded like he came from New York or Boston or some other recognizable place.

To me, "Yondah lies the castle of my faddah"--that mockery--was a lot like the words kike, nigger and fag. It signified a putdown, an inability to accept the differences or the logic of other people. I didn't like it then, and I still don't like it. I didn't like the idea that New Yorkers, in particular, were denigrated by high-tone English assholes, you'll excuse the vernacular.

--from Tony Curtis: The Autobiography, written with Barry Paris, 1993

Of all the words from and about Tony Curtis, these are the ones the Siren instantly recalled on hearing of his death this week, age 85. Not "Yondah…," which he may never even have said, but his furious reaction to the legend, 41 years later. Other actors went on talk shows and sat down for print interviews and laughed or shrugged off the mockery they'd endured. Not Curtis. It needled him, and nothing was going to stop him saying so. He was too much the Bronx native to let a slight pass. He was going to stay worked up about it as long as you kept bringing it up.

Maybe it isn't attractive to everyone, but the Siren loved that about Curtis, suspecting as she does that most actors retain insults a lot longer than they want to let on. Curtis was always ruthlessly frank, whether or not it was going to make him sound like a nice guy. And it's that stubborn, grudge-holding, proud and contrary streak that runs through his best role, Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success. Falco has to take a lot of humiliation too, but the reason he is willing to do it is to get to a place where nobody will ever dare mock him again. Such sympathy as you have for Falco comes from Curtis, tearing out his lines like he's pulling the Scotch cork out with his teeth: "I don't want tips from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the big players."

All that is there in some of his other best work, too, like Joker in The Defiant Ones, just about managing the Southern accent and more than succeeding in showing a criminal's dawning awareness that he isn't the only thing in the world that matters. And when it wasn't on screen, it was on set, working itself out in demands for respect that Curtis didn't always get. The Siren thinks of Some Like It Hot and Curtis, who was usually best the first time a scene was filmed, watching Billy Wilder favor Marilyn Monroe as she blew line after line, take after take. And after the picture's done Curtis responds to an inane question about what it was like kissing Marilyn with the spectacularly tasteless riposte, "It was like kissing Hitler." "There's been a lot of bullshit written about that Hitler line of mine," he said. "It was just a throwaway line."

Then there's Curtis, enduring an agonizingly long shoot on Spartacus, surrounded by English actors playing Roman generals, turning to dainty Jean Simmons and groaning, "Who do you have to fuck to get off this picture?"

Curtis disdained Method acting and was always willing to say so, often at some length. "It drove you crazy because it was all just jerking off in Macy's window," he said; as far as Curtis was concerned, it was all people trying to ape Brando, "but it was Marlon's own personal brand of madness, and it couldn't be duplicated." His own philosophy of acting was something far less personal: "To tell you the truth, I never thought of movies as an art form. I thought of it as a means of entertaining people, or letting them forget whatever it is they want to forget for a few hours in a dark theater. It's not as complicated as a lot of actors like to make it out to be." A philosophy like that probably came in handy for something like 40 Pounds of Trouble.

As hotheaded as he could be, Curtis still paid due respect to those he admired. He called Kubrick "a genius with the camera" and his favorite director, saying he thought Kubrick's greatest skill was his ability to work with actors. Curtis also talked about what he learned from talking to Laurence Olivier: "You know Tony, clothes make the actor. Dress the part, look at yourself, and you are the part."

Looking at Curtis was never exactly a chore. He swings past the camera for barely a few seconds, dancing a torrid mambo with Yvonne de Carlo in Criss Cross, and you gasp at how instantly you recognize him. It isn't just the searing good looks, it's the angry concentration. Is he playing a gigolo? If so, this is the least fawning gigolo in film history.

He had great talent, too infrequently used, humor and charisma and many flashes of good grace. But the Siren loved his fierceness. If there's an afterlife, she really hopes Curtis is giving Gerald Drayson Adams a piece of his eternally ornery mind.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

For Dennis: Freebie and the Bean (1974)

Nothing in this world helps with a bad time like family and friendship. And kindness expressed through a keyboard, often by people whose faces you have never seen, is an enormous comfort. It makes things a bit better. It makes you that much more grateful that you began the blog, and that people read and care about what you write. It also makes you realize that resuming a normal state of online affairs is one step, even if it's small, toward resuming other things as well. And so, back to the Siren, and back to bits of unfinished business.


The Siren has made many friendships through her blog, but Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule is particularly close to her heart. A few weeks ago, as part of our meeting of the minds, the Siren asked Dennis to assign her a movie out of her comfort zone. Dennis, ever courteous, picked something that adheres to classic precedent: Freebie and the Bean.

There is a fine old American movie tradition of crime thrillers with gleefully unintelligible plots. Here the Siren thinks of The Lady from Shanghai; after the credits rolled on that one, Harry Cohn offered one thousand 1947 dollars to anyone who could explain the plot to him. No one took him up on it. And sixty years later the Siren still couldn't earn that money, and she worships Welles and has seen Lady about four times. Nor could she break down the plot of Freebie for Dennis or anyone else, and she realized that was going to be the case as soon as she saw the opening scene. We start with the two cops of the title dumping garbage cans into the trunk of a car and getting really excited about a receipt. You realize that not only do you not know what is on the receipt, but nobody is ever going to explain it to you in a manner you can retain.

And, as with classics like The Letter, the opening anchors our themes, when an orange tabby cat that had crawled in a garbage can leaps out and the cops deposit the animal on the side of the road, miles from its home. Thus is established the insouciance with which Freebie and the Bean will treat bloody anybody interfering with what they want, which is to arrest a suspect. You don't know precisely why this suspect is bad--hijacking, it seems, although Freebie earns his nickname by hijacking quite a lot of stuff himself--but they really, really want this arrest.

The Siren can see why Dennis thought this would be a departure, despite her love for director Richard Rush's The Stunt Man. Serpico this ain't. Freebie (James Caan) steals everything but the dinner mints and the Mexican Bean (oh dear), played by Alan Arkin, upbraids his partner but then pummels the hell out of suspects right alongside him (your lips says no no, but your fists say yes yes). They blackmail businessmen, they threaten to throw a construction worker off a crane, later they beat up the worker and threaten to rape his girlfriend, they make arrests on false evidence, they drive through San Francisco like it's the Indy 500 track and dear god, they don't even brake for marching bands. They do not, however, fire their guns into crowds, which establishes their fundamentally caring natures, one supposes. The racial ad hominems are mostly confined to Latinos, but there is a trans character who's the most dangerous person in the movie apart from the leads and is depicted with particular venom.

But through it all the Siren enjoyed Freebie and the Bean, a lot, mostly for the charisma and chemistry of Caan and Arkin, the director's panache and the give-a-damn attitude toward audience expectations. Plus, aside from some moments where mayhem became cruelty, the movie is often very funny.

Freebie is famous for the car-chase sequences, which slam around San Francisco's hills and tight corners and through pedestrian plazas and, in one credulity-snapping instance, lead to a dive off a freeway ramp and into some poor couple's bedroom. The Siren found herself liking the action outside the cars more, though, as the fun of seeing bloodless drive-by injuries palled. She loved the crane scene, where the camera is planted just behind the actors and moves so closely with them that the Siren, her acrophobia kicking in big-time, was momentarily afraid Bean was going to throw HER off and not that ratty-haired worker.

A sequence in a bowling alley worked superbly, as the cops tail a hitman, monitor the guy's flirting and beer intake and follow him to the men's room, where their mark thoughtfully chooses a stall and not a urinal. The noisy payoff for the bathroom scene surely inspired a lot of other directors, but it's the prelude that's perfect, as Freebie and the Bean each tuck two guns into their waistbands, then check how their shirttails flop over the artillery with the fussiness of a new mother trying to hide the post-baby belly.

In another good sequence, the two cops accompany their suspect to a dentist's office and read magazines while you await the inevitable shoot-out. And after the shooting starts--and wounds the receptionist in the backside, but you don't hold it against the heros because gee, it's the sort of thing that could happen to anyone--the chase shifts to a couple of glass observation elevators, everybody still shooting over the Muzak.

The Siren's favorite moment, however, had no action at all--it was the "cops get upbraided by the DA" scene, a movie cliche high on most "oh god not again" lists. Still, it was hilarious, made so by the timing of Arkin and Caan and the perfect rhythm of their reactions.

An unexpected good time. So, Dennis. Does this mean I'm ready for the next Grindhouse Film Festival?

Sunday, September 19, 2010


When I was sitting on the sofa with Zahra last month, I knew it was probably the last time. She died last Wednesday.

If you fall in love with someone from another country, another religion and culture, you worry about being accepted by his family. I met Zahra and my father-in-law only once before my husband and I became engaged. They were kind and polite and the meeting went well, as such meetings go, but still I worried. And when we went to Lebanon to be married, my insecurity was at high pitch.

I am not sure how much that registered with Zahra, and how much she attributed to bridal nerves. She was throwing together a huge wedding in the space of two months. My assignment was to show up with two wedding dresses and my sister and learn my Arabic version of "I do." Zahra took care of everything else. She intimidated me--her beauty, her three languages, her chic, the way she could make a few phone calls and have the world snap into order.

We arrived in Lebanon in June 2000, just after the Israelis pulled out their last troops. Driving from Beirut to Tyre, in the south, was a short journey made much longer by what seemed liked a dozen military checkpoints along the way. In those pre-9/11 days the concept of being stopped by armed men was alien to this New Yorker, and I kept asking dumb questions.

"How do you tell if it's a Syrian checkpoint?" I asked. My future brother-in-law replied, deadpan, "See that huge picture of Bashar Assad? That's your tipoff."

"And," chimed in my future husband, "if they're ignoring everyone and talking on their cellphones, it's the Lebanese Army."

"But they just wave us through. How do they pick who they'll stop?"

"Oh," said Zahra, who was driving--she was the best driver in the family--"it's like everywhere else. They stop you if you look Arab." Both her sons laughed and laughed, and I thought, I need to vet my questions more carefully.

After we were married, we'd go to Paris, we'd visit my brother-in-law, or Zahra and my father-in-law would visit us. Zahra would arrive with two or three suitcases. One was always labeled "OVERWEIGHT." In it would be gifts for everyone, and food. My god, the food, pounds of it, stuffed in every corner of the suitcase. Zahra had spent a lifetime perfecting Lebanese cooking and she always brought French cheese, chocolate, foie gras. She tried to show me how to prepare things, but I was a beginning cook and a slow learner. Besides, her perfectionism was so complete I gave up immediately on emulating it. "I don't care what she says," I said to my husband when she was out of earshot. "I'm not making my own yogurt."

To go food shopping with Zahra was equal parts education and terror. My sister accompanied her to the Union Square Whole Foods and pulled me aside as soon as they returned. "I really like her," laughed my sister. "But man, she's tough. She was demanding that the guy at the poultry counter tell her how old the chicken was."

"What did he say?"

"He said, 'I don't know, ma'am. We weren't personally acquainted.' Zahra said that meant it was probably too old but we'd take it anyway."

Zahra's instructions worked better with other members of my family. I called my mother shortly after she had met Zahra, and Mom ended with, "I have to go finish the hummus."

When I got engaged I worried that not being Muslim would matter to my husband's Shi'a family. It didn't, not to any of them, least of all Zahra. "She just didn't want me to marry a fanatic. Any kind of fanatic," said my husband. I learned how true that was on my second trip to Lebanon.

Their apartment in Tyre was on the ninth floor of a building overlooking a local mosque. Day and night a muezzin sang from a minaret. I thought it was colorful and kind of charming. Zahra did not. One night after supper was cleared the muezzin was in full cry and I asked if that was the call to prayer. "It is NOT time to pray," snapped Zahra.

My husband explained that you could get a special prayer broadcast for you. "It's a recording. And he's singing, 'Blessings on Abu Hamid, he is a good man, a pious man, he prays, he has made the hajj. Blessings on his wife Hala, his sons, his daughters--we're up to the grandchildren now."

"It doesn't end, this man's family," groaned Zahra, who was pacing the living room. "And if you say to someone, 'Excuse me, but really I would prefer to spend my evening in peace without hearing about your prayers and your relatives,' they say to you, 'Oh. so you are not religious.' Meaning, oh, so you are a bad person." She checked her stride and shot an Arabic sentence in the direction of the minaret.

"What did she just say?"

"She said," replied my husband pleasantly, "that she hopes Abu Hamid gets scarlet fever." Zahra looked at him and said something else. "And now," he added, "she says I have to stop translating."

I gave birth to twins in May 2003. Zahra and my father-in-law arrived with a present for me, an antique gold necklace of traditional Arab design, so breathtaking I snapped the box shut after one look because it was too much. I was a wreck. The pregnancy was difficult and the birth was worse. I hemorrhaged and came within drops of needing a transfusion. Loss of blood made breastfeeding basically impossible. I thought if I was going to start my babies on formula I was already ruining their lives. My mother came, cared for me, but had to leave. My father-in-law left. My husband went back to work. Zahra stayed, monitoring the babies' every ounce of formula, getting up at night to give them bottles, feeding me spinach every way you could prepare spinach and trying to coax me to eat liver, to help counter a killer case of anemia.

Like many women, I had textbook postpartum depression, and like many women, I decided that couldn't be it. Obviously it was normal to cry each day from three to five pm while the babies napped. Depression was banal, and I was interesting. I was incompetent.

And how was I going to become competent if Zahra was doing everything? As the weeks turtled by, my resentment grew. She was interfering. She was controlling. She was trying to show me up and take over. I picked squabbles again and again. I half-listened to what she said and made an MGM production number out of doing the opposite.

Oh, I wasn't a complete ingrate. My own mother had raised me too well for that. I expressed thanks from time to time and told her I appreciated her staying so long to help me out. But when she left, I was relieved. Now I could care for my children in my own way. I could go to the damn grocery store and buy some yogurt.

I wish I could say I quickly owned up to my behavior, but it took an accretion of small things: Zahra insisting that my husband and I go out to dinner while she took care of the babies. Zahra treating my daughter's diaper rash with a weird concoction of rose water and cornstarch. Zahra scouring Paris outlets to buy stacks of clothes for the kids, then playing with them for hours.

By the time my third child arrived, I was listening, and she began to tell me stories of making homes in Ivory Coast, in Yemen, in Sweden. ("Our car was stolen the first week. Can you imagine? In Stockholm? No one stole our car in Beirut!") She told me about struggling when her first son was born. I stuffed grape leaves with her and we watched bits of old Egyptian movies. She, in turn, learned to let me do things even if I did them badly. Instead of jumping up to take over, she would let me chop the onions, though she watched the knife and my fingers as if waiting for Freddie Krueger to strike.

We became friends.

One day when we were visiting Paris I went shopping for a wedding gift for a friend. Zahra's gifts had continued--more jewelry, a Cartier scarf, a silver lace top, a silk shawl, a 1920s-style dress. I tried to reciprocate but she had so much already that everything felt like a near miss. I went into a store in the Marais that specialized in antique French linens. As I selected something for my friend, it occurred to me that this was the sort of thing Zahra might like. I picked out a lace table covering, had it wrapped and took it back to the apartment, convinced I'd found the perfect item at last.

When I returned, Zahra was alone; my husband had taken the kids to the park. I proudly gave her the present, she unwrapped it and exclaimed over its beauty. Then, because she was Zahra and everything was always orderly in her house, she went to put it away. I followed her into the dining room and watched as she swung open a door in the bottom of the china cabinet. And for the first time I saw she had a huge stash of antique linens stored there. The pile must have been a foot high. She took out a bunch of them so she could stack the tablecloth in the correct size order, and I gaped at the superfluity of my gift. I realized Zahra was hugging me.

"Farran," she said, "I love you, dear. I do. You are my family." She was crying. I began crying. I told her I loved her too, that I was so sorry for being a brat after the twins were born. She said she understood. And we stood for a bit, hugging and crying over the tablecloths.

Zahra was diagnosed with cancer in January 2009. It had metastasized. But I deceived myself almost to the end. Less than a year into the Lebanese civil war, this woman had crossed the Green Line in Beirut to get to the airport and get her sons to Paris. In Saudi Arabia she had gone into the markets without hijab, asserting her right as a foreign national to keep her head uncovered. "They waited on me," she told me, "but they were horribly rude." Zahra was, as my sister had said, tough. She couldn't be cured, but surely she could hold out for a long time.

All those years I would listen to Zahra give advice on the phone, or hear of how she visited people who needed help. Now the members of her huge, far-flung family came to the apartment in Paris, one after the other, to stay a week or a month. "It's our turn," said my sister-in-law.

My turn came too, several times. I wasn't much good at it. I melted the handle on her casserole because I forgot to cover it before I put the dish in the oven. My twins battled over who got Boardwalk in Monopoly, and after I imposed a truce I saw the laundry I had abandoned was folded neatly on top of the dryer. I would snatch some time to write on the family computer, and when I got up I would see that the cups I had left in the sink were washed and put away. The youngest would have an accident, and I would find the kitchen floor had been swept while I was cleaning him up.

"Zahra," I pleaded when I found her in the kitchen, scrubbing at the bottom of a pan to remove a scorch mark I had been too lazy to clean off. "I know I'm slow. But I'll get to things, I swear. If you just sit down, I will take care of it."

"I know you're working hard dear," she told me. Indeed, she always had. "But I can't just leave things that need to be done. And I can't just sit. I need to do something."

From the time my twins were babies up to our last visit, Zahra would coo the same thing each time she embraced my children--"toa'brini, toa'brini insh'allah." It means, "May you bury me."

Children are meant to bury their parents. A daughter-in-law one day may bury the woman who raised her husband. English has no such blunt endearments, but then again, I don't know the Arabic for "not now."

Monday, September 06, 2010

Watching Movies with My Mother-in-Law: Love in Karnak (Gharam fi al Karnak, 1965)

The Siren has admitted before to gaps in her viewing history, and one of them is Egyptian cinema. She hasn't even seen a full film by the great Youssef Chahine. What little viewing she has done has been accomplished on trips to Paris--clips, sequences and scenes watched with her Lebanese mother-in-law, Zahra. Zahra grew up watching these movies in cinemas in Beirut and her home town, Tyre, and she has always been happy to expound on her favorites with her non-Arabic-speaking daughter-in-law. Zahra is also an indefatigable channel-surfer, so the movies have been viewed piecemeal, as she flips through the many Arabic channels they get via satellite.

With Zahra I've watched dance numbers by the exquisite Samia Gamal, romantic scenes with the actress Raqiya Ibrahim, songs from Leila Mourad. I've watched social dramas like one set in a hospital in a desert, which had an extraordinary sequence showing a riot for water. None of them were subtitled, and the Siren often hasn't bothered to ask for a translation, especially for songs, as the reply is so frequently "She's singing about loooove." From Zahra I hear about what she thought of the actresses and the movies, what she heard of the stars in magazines and newspapers, which scenes she remembers best.

On this visit, we came across a musical number from a film starring the Syrian-Egyptian singer Asmahan, the one big rival to Umm Kulthum. Asmahan died in 1944, age 25, under circumstances even the non-conspiracy-minded Siren finds fishy. The Siren watched with Zahra as ball-attired men and women waltzed around Asmahan. The singer's voice was magnificent and she had presence so strong you barely notice what else is in the frame.

"Is she singing about loooove?" inquired the Siren.

"No," retorted Zahra, as one who says take that, smart aleck. "She is singing about Vienna. How beautiful is Vienna." The chorus sank to the floor, champagne glasses aloft, and Zahra added solemnly, "And they should interdire this song."

"But why?"

"She is telling everyone to drink!" Zahra threw back her head and roared with laughter.

The Siren didn't realize it, but she was revealing the true extent of her ignorance, because this song is extremely famous.

So this post is in no way a deep or analytical look at the rich history of Egyptian cinema. It is, rather, about the pleasures of viewing unfamiliar movies with someone you love.

Last week the Siren and Zahra were on the sofa while Zahra flipped through news channels and the many romantic-type TV serials that play a lot during Ramadan. She lighted on a movie that looked very promising to the Siren: Mad Men-era costumes for a musical number being performed in an ancient Egyptian temple.

"Look," Zahra said. "This is the movie that has Lina's dance."

Explanation here. The Siren was married in Tyre in 2000, in a ceremony and reception organized by Zahra with military precision and detail. My husband told me it was going to be small. I arrived to find that in Lebanon, "small" means the ballroom of the local hotel, champagne, dancing, a five-foot-tall cake that you cut with a sword, 150 guests and enough food to feed them all through a four-month siege by the Prussians. It was, of course, a roaring good time.

And one of the Siren's favorite moments was a dance performed by her husband's cousin, Lina, who has spent years studying classical Arab dance. (Please note: My mother-in-law detests the term "belly-dancing." "It's classical, it's folkloric," she says. "It is not vulgar.")

Lina danced beautifully, but this information was completely new to the Siren. "You're telling me that when Lina danced at our wedding, she was doing a number from this movie?"


"Somebody did a dance number from a movie musical at MY wedding? An OLD movie musical?"

"Yes," grinned Zahra. "You're pleased?"

"That," I said, with strong emphasis, "is THE COOLEST THING EVER."

"OK," said Zahra, setting down the remote. "We'll watch. I think Lina's dance is coming up."

Zahra told me the movie was called Love in Karnak (Gharam fi al Karnak, 1965) and was produced, written and directed by Aly Reda. Mahmoud Reda (the Siren has been unable to track down the precise relationship, and Zahra herself wasn't clear on it) was the man on screen sneaking around the ancient temple wearing a bowling shirt. Reda, a major figure in Arabic dance, clearly took some film-dance influence from Gene Kelly. His moves were very athletic and very balletic. "Many female dancers in Arab cinema," said Zahra. "Not many male. He is one of the few."

We were well into the movie and evidently in a dream sequence, with Reda moving gracefully around the temple spying on the proceedings as a pharaoh was carried in on a sedan chair and and a dance number was performed by a chorus line of beauties. "The beauty of our sun," translated Zahra as they sang, "in our country it is always spring." And then the dancers moved to the side, the door swung open and in came the heroine (Farida Fahmy).

"Aha," said Zahra. "Here is Lina's dance." And indeed it was, move for move, although despite Fahmy's skill the Siren's preference was for Cousin Lina. Lina had also incorporated some of the chorus's later moves into her performance.

The dream sequence ended and the scene gave way to Reda and Fahmy's dance troupe building a theatre at Luxor, quite like Judy and Mickey or Summer Stock. Lots of rhythmic shots of hammering, sawing, and people forming work lines and doing fun things like using a plank as a see-saw. In addition to the hero and heroine there was a sidekick in a porkpie hat and there were also plenty of showgirls in mufti, wisecracking away, which did the Siren's heart enormous good. Even Egypt has wisecracking showgirls. They unite the world.

Luxor looked beautiful, clean and empty, as Reda and Fahmy met beside a temple pool and had what was obviously the "big breakup before the make-or-break show opening." "I visited Egypt around this time, in the early 60s," remarked Zahra. "Beautiful. Big boulevards with trees. Lovely hotels. You could drive anywhere. Only 26 million people then."

"Why, how many are there now?"

"Eighty million," she replied. I absorbed that astonishing fact while the scene changed to backstage with a miserable Reda getting ready for his show, and more fabulously smart-mouthed showgirls chatting. Back to the sidekick trying to get Reda to buck up. Then we cut to Fahmy's hotel room, where she was wearing a fetching dress and throwing a bunch of other cute things into a suitcase while nursing one hell of a snit. The sidekick showed up and they argued.

"He's trying to tell her the show must go on," I announced.


"I don't need subtitles," I crowed, immensely pleased with my backstage-musical decoding skills. "I don't even need you to translate."

I had to back off that a bit, however, when Fahmy sent the sidekick away with a flea in his ear and the movie moved to the show's opening number, a sword dance by Reda. "He is singing about a blonde," translated an amused Zahra. " 'I am in loooove, the fire of my love burns…' " Almost without exception the dances were shot very simply, but that was fine with the Siren, as she couldn't get enough of the troupe's energy and grace.

Reda left on a motorcycle to bring back Fahmy, and his journey was intercut with the showgirls' number, which Zahra also translated: "This is a popular-type song. 'This is the daughter of the mayor, see how she dances.' " The daughter of the mayor apparently has adorable verve and sways her flouncy skirt quite a bit. "This is how the people look at her"--with hands waggling near their faces. Man the Siren loves her showgirls.

The movie wound down, with Fahmy showing up at the last minute for her big number with Reda, which again showed a lot of Kelly influence, specifically some of the sweeping circular moves from "Love Is Here to Stay" in An American in Paris. And the Siren says if you're going to be influenced by a romantic pas de deux, you could scarcely do better.

Another big number, which Zahra told me was Nubian in origin, and then the final shot, of three poodles seated in the audience. That 42nd Street-type touch cemented the Siren's delight in the movie. It adhered to every backstage-musical trope you could imagine, but it was done with color and sparkle and enchanting sincerity. The Siren would like to see it all one day--with or without subtitles, but most definitely with Zahra.