Oscar versus the Information

Curator's Note

My generation does not know who Oscar Levant is. So how did I come to know him? It’s a long story, starting with playing Gershwin’s Preludes for my Aunt Lucia. She had a preference for distance, the aura of absence … would act out scenes of Colette or Proust in fragments, ask me to play piano phrases again and again in her living room. “Oh that’s from that movie where Joan Crawford walks into the ocean in her gown.” She was never good with specifics. But a little phrase of Max Steiner on the back of a piece of sheet music provided an instant soundtrack for a Joan Crawford suicide she acted out over and over again one afternoon, adding bits of new information with every replay of five bars of music. After Lucia died, I happened upon a film encyclopedia referencing the Crawford ocean suicide, and co-starring Levant—in his most luminous role (Negulesco’s 1946 Humoresque). Over the years, I sought out other signs of Levant. Yet closing the gap of distance tends to disappoint, even as it enlightens.

His appearances in MGM musicals were painful to watch; his smile was more like a forced rictus imposed upon him by the dictates of Hollywood merriment. After Humoresque, fans can witness his health disintegrating like no other Hollywood personality; even though his humor was intimately tied to the high functioning of his mental capacities (Aldous Huxley once said Oscar Levant “represents intelligence”), it flaunted their ultimate failure (when he wasn’t joking about his drug addictions, he was performing his mental illness as dark comedy, unraveling before your very eyes). For years I searched out films like Minnelli’s The Cobweb and clips from Levant’s early Los Angeles television show, which Steve Allen described as having “all the fascination of an automobile accident.”

Here, on YouTube, is a clip from that show, culled from some archive to which I normally would not have access, or which I would have had to travel long distances to access. What is the difference between instant Levant, and Levant imagined over the interval of years? How does Levant, the host of the once-popular radio show “Information, Please” become a kind of parable of information itself?

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