Text by Rick Ouellette, photos are archival except where indicated
When the iconic French actress Jeanne Moreau died last month, I’m sure most obituaries ignored her work in the 1955 film M’sieur la Caille, while lauding her performances in such classics as Jules and Jim and Diary of a Chambermaid. Known in the States (if it was known at all) as No Morals, it seems from the trailer to be at least a half-serious film about the shadowy world of prostitutes and gangsters. It’s even called an “art film” by the YouTuber who posted the trailer. But listen to the titillating, oversold narration that goes with the American sneak preview and you quickly realize this is just the sort of movie that could be peddled across the Atlantic as a sex film in the days before the large-scale production of straight pornography.
When No Morals landed in Boston, a few years before I was born twenty miles away, it was at the since-demolished State Theatre at a prime downtown location at the corner of Washington and Boylston Streets. The top photo is one of a series of images I gleaned from Google that taken together suggest the continual architectural and social transfiguration of an urban center over a century and a half. Going back that far, we find the original venue on that spot was Beethoven Hall. I love that name but by scanning that ads they ran (several are up on Wiki Commons) the programming had little to do with Ludwig Van and a lot to do with late 19th century diversions. There were comic operas, freak shows, minstrel singers and even Greco-Roman wrestling. If there were such a thing as a time-travel bucket list, I would pencil in “The Great English Mesmerist” Annie de Montford and her “amusing entertainments of psychology.”
Even better would be a time-lapse view of the historical transformation of just that one site. The first change came in 1879 when Henry E. Abbey, owner of the Park Theatre in New York, comprehensively re-built Beethoven Hall and named it the same as his Gotham property. The elegant interior space continued for years with the parade of comedies and singing shows under a number of different proprietors, one of whom was none other than Lotta Crabtree. Once dubbed “The Nation’s Darling”, Lotta started in showbiz as a girl in California Gold Rush country after being recognized by Lola Montes for her singing and dancing skills and comedic personality. By the time she migrated to Boston and took over the Park, she was one of America’s wealthiest and most popular performers. So popular in fact, that she felt the need to construct a private tunnel that went from the theater’s basement to the nearby hotel where she lived. Crabtree was also a philanthropist and some of her Boston charities still operate today, 93 years after her death.
I like Lotta a lotta: Ms. Crabtree in the 1870s.
What is less charitable is the fate of the Park Theatre in the years afterward. The playhouse gradually got into the burlesque business (the only local establishment to ever host a Gypsy Rose Lee striptease), then found use as a B-movie cinema as the once-impressive horseshoe shaped interior likely faded and it became The State. The racy fare showing here in a mixed urban tableau pre-dates (but not by much) the city-sanctioned red light district commonly known as the Combat Zone. By the time those lines of demarcation were drawn up, the State Theatre fit snugly up in the Zone’s northwest corner and was showing X-rated features one after another daily.
A forensic study of the top photo displays a transitory peek into an age that was already vestigial by the time I moved to Boston no more than two decades later. The 600 block of Washington Street is a vibrant jumble of visual cues: a second-floor bowling and billiards joint; a pizza joint with a delightfully off-kilter sign, two Civil Defense fallout shelter markers and, to the left of the theater, the Crabtree office building (the name is probably not a co-incidence) featuring the Progressive Clothing shop, where some nice suits can be seen hanging on a rack in the window.
That makes sense because the people on the sidewalk are so nicely dressed in the “Mad Men” style of the day. Even the guy in the outside ticket booth has a suit and tie. Under the boldly projecting marquee, anyone could have a nice look-see at the poster for The Shocking Set (where “men were playthings”!!) or the one for “No Morals” where Jean (sic) Moreau, although she’s probably just looking for love in all the wrong places, is claimed to have “many men on the string.” This double billing seems to suggest some early strain of erotic feminism. It’s a notion may have caught the attention of the shifty-eyed lady in the white coat who is suspiciously close to the ticket booth—if so, that would explain her assumed husband’s sheepish grin. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink!
Photo by author
By the time this era (and area) was replaced by the more openly raunchy Combat Zone, the marquee didn’t even bother with titles, never mind enticing phrases, it usually said something like “Continuous Adult Films XXX Shown Daily.” In 1990, the State Theatre was razed in the process of yet another (and current) transformation, brought on by civic improvement (though home video and the Internet had a lot to do with moving the sex industry off the street grid), university expansions and Ayn Randian real estate power grabs. In the photo above, taken on an early Sunday morning in 2016, the State Theatre would have been between the Cathay Bank and the CVS store on the right, part of the blank back wall of a Ritz Carlton complex. At this same spot fifty years ago, you would have been looking out onto maybe twenty theater marquees, and not just the naughty stuff. As lower Washington St. was one edge of Chinatown there wer kung-fu flicks and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey played at a now-defunct movie palace where now is the barren frontage of the building on the left. If I live long enough, even this view will become a complete stranger to me.
With No Morals sadly unavailable, my Jeanne Moreau tribute viewing was 1957’s Elevator to the Gallows, the taut film-noir that was Louis Malle’s first major work and a sort of springboard for the actresses’ later exaltation. Moreau is uncommonly beautiful and tersely soulful as the wife of an industrialist who conspires with her lover, one of her husband’s top men, to murder him. The scheme gets foiled when, unbeknownst to her, lover boy gets trapped in a lift. Confused and upset but still imperious, Moreau’s character—her world suddenly upended—famously wanders thru a shifting Parisian streetscape to the Miles Davis’ haunting score, in a fruitless search, lost as if moving thru a dream of a place she thought you once knew. How I relate.