fragments of obsolete cinema
If you’re doing Thai film history, it helps to have friends who amuse themselves by trawling secondhand book websites. Some months ago Ida Aroonwong of Aan Journal passed me a hardback book she had come across by accident called A Thai in Hollywood (คนไทยในฮอลลีวูด). Published in Bangkok in 1950, this handsome volume has elegant, art deco inspired Thai fonts on the front cover. The back jacket makes the intriguing claim that the prose exemplified “the latest aerodynamic style (เพรียวลม),” and drew on the techniques of the close up, long shot, and flashback, emblematic of Hollywood films.
The writer is a man called Soonthorn Choophan (สุนทร ชูพันธุ์), an ex-air force officer who was working as a representative of MGM in Bangkok after the Second World War. As a dapper young man in his late twenties, one who knew how to slick back his hair and rest his arms just so on his hip when posing for the camera, Soonthorn was sent to Los Angeles to learn the ropes at head office. This memoir is the result of his sojourn – an engaging hotchpotch of travelogue, quotidian observations, and fictionalised dialogues. His tales of the city’s washed up sidewalk angels alternate with didactic advice for readers in Siam on the matter of correct comportment in the modern American style.
The theme of the memoir, which is meant to be part one, is “outside the studios.” It opens with a scene of Soonthorn waking up on the train from New York to a view of the Sierra Madre. He describes the breakfast menu served in the dining car – grapefruit, porridge, scrambled eggs, toast and coffee – charmingly adding that he had ordered the affordable set. For the benefit of less cosmopolitan readers at home, Soonthorn provides a helpful description of what a grapefruit is, “crossed between a pomelo, orange, and lime… but so sour as to embarrass the lime.” Were they ever to find themselves with one at a Western meal table, he instructs his readers to reach for the sugar, and to gently press down on the halved grapefruits with the back of a spoon in order to avoid getting squirted in the eye.
Once in LA, Soonthorn bumps into an old friend. Like him, the happy-go-lucky Kumut Chandruang was the generation of Siamese students who had turned up in the US just before or after the war. Kumut had achieved minor acclaim with the publication of an English-language memoir called My Boyhood in Siam. He now drove around town in a noisy, antiquated Oakland automobile. Boasting “a dental smile,” Kumut has caught the Hollywood bug and was drifting around town waiting for the casting agent’s telephone call.
To kill time he takes his pal to ogle at the exotic uniform of the usherettes at the Gaumont Chinese Theater. Driving out to the amusement wonderland Ocean Park, Soonthorn marvels at the speed of American driving. Unlike in Bangkok, he writes, road accidents here aren’t the bumps and grazes that often descend into bare knuckled scuffles. A collision in Hollywood is a high-speed affair that catapults bodies into the netherworld.
A recurring theme in the memoir is tipping – when to do it, how to do it, and how much to “throw at them.” Although not explicitly stated, the repeated instruction to readers of the necessity of tipping correctly in the US is a revealing indication of the fraught social status and self-perception of these new men. While they had acquired sufficient educational prestige and cultural capital to teach less worldly compatriots the difference between a Martini and a Manhattan, they were mindful of constantly being mistaken for a jek or a Jap. They had indeed arrived in Hollywood, but the farang they rubbed shoulders with were the bellboys and waiters, or those ever hopeful pretty girls who, at best, attended classes for aspiring starlets and did the laundry and mending for the real players and stars. Much must have hung on the distance quietly claimed by the flicking of those half dollar coins.
Accordingly, the most vivid part of the memoir is Soonthorn’s recounting of an eventful night out at the Earl Carroll nightclub. This expensive destination, chosen by one of Kumut’s old college friends who name was plucked from the phonebook as an emergency date, sends the chaps on a hasty tuxedo rental outing. The party books a table at the Earl Carroll, claiming Soonthorn’s status as an MGM representative. An amusing interior monologue describes Soonthorn’s anxious mental tallying of the evening’s expenditures against the dollar bills left in the pocket of his smart tuxedo. A cigar is held to his mouth by a buxom cigarette girl, one champagne bottle after another arrives, and the tips go flying out of his hands. Meanwhile, the maitre d’ discreetly rings MGM to verify the credentials of this stiffened and starched gentleman with a strange name. The MGM official asks to speak to Soonthorn, and to the young man’s immense relief offers to let him put the bill on the company’s expense account. He can pay it off bit by bit at a later stage from his training bursary. Giddily, Soonthorn orders a bottle of cognac, only to be corrected by Kumut. You ask for champagne by the bottle but cognac by the glass, he chastises his friend.
The MGM representative from Siam finally gets to work towards the end of the memoir. His training programme starts from the bottom as an usher in one of the theatres. This provides an opportunity for some interesting musing on the difference between cinemas in Bangkok and LA. Prices here were less differentiated than the complicated gradation at home, which echoed the class hierarchy in its effort to carve up social types, and its assumption that the upper floor of the auditorium must automatically be the most expensive. The ladies and gentlemen could place their feet above the heads of the hoi polloi, so to speak, but not the other way round.
May Adadol Ingawanij