Thursday, May 26, 2011
This is just a great movie. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz) is a quiet romance, but all of the main characters have enough edge and willfulness that the story never turns saccharine, and the minor players are acted with humor.
The story opens with Lucy (Gene Tierney), widowed for a year, declaring to her in-laws that it's time for herself and her daughter to move out. This doesn't go over well, but Lucy is determined. She takes herself to the rental agent and, after seeing and admiring Gull Cottage, she determines on the spot to take it. The agent is concerned, but rents it to her. She, her daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) and their longtime housekeeper Martha Huggins (Edna Best) move in, but it isn't long before Lucy discovers that the cottage is haunted by its former owner, an adventuring sea captain (Rex Harrison)...
A point of contention develops between Lucy and the Captain when she cuts down the monkey puzzle tree in the front yard of the cottage. I have always wondered what a monkey puzzle tree was - was it imaginary - and is the Captain right about the name?
The Monkey Puzzle Tree
The Captain was right - the 'Monkey puzzle' name comes from a specific anecdote, where an owner of one of the earliest examples of the species grown in England, in around 1850 in Cornwall, described the tree as something that would 'puzzle a monkey to climb'. The species was first introduced to England in 1795 by the naval surgeon on Captain George Vancouver's ship, who had been served a meal of the seeds in Chile.
The monkey puzzle is the national tree of Chile, and is currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN (International Union of Conservation of Nature) Red List because of logging for timber and for the creation of agricultural land in its native range. Current conservation efforts include mapping the distribution of the plant and developing infrastructure for restoration. In addition to being a popular decorative plant, the seeds of A. araucana have been used as food by the Chileans. The seeds are easily harvested when the cones drop, but this has not been developed as an agricultural crop because it takes a monkey puzzle 30-40 years to mature enough to produce seeds - a real barrier to efforts to restore naturally-propagating forests.
Links and Sources
Monkey Puzzle Tree, UNEP
Araucaria araucana, Wikipedia
Monkey Puzzle Tree, Global Trees Campaign
Monkey Puzzle Silviculture, About.com
Monkey Puzzle Tree, IUCN
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Back to the realm of pith helmets. The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935, directed by Henry Hathaway) stars Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, Richard Cromwell, C. Aubrey Smith and Mischa Auer in an adventure tale set in India when still considered part of the British Empire. Gary Cooper is the lead to the three main players, a brotherhood formed during duty in Bengal. In the course of duty they confront mortal danger and conflicts of love and duty.
While this movie is an excellent adventure movie that does more witty exploration of the internal conflicts of soldiers than most of the time, it represents the colonialist perspective of the Empire and has a few strikes against it when viewed from a modern angle. Reputedly Adolph Hitler's favorite film (I guess one film had to have that unfortunate distinction). Shot in California, not India. Native Americans were hired from the nearby rez as extras to act as the tribesmen. Stiff British actors as Arabic chieftans. But still! A grand adventure story of its times that has something to say about hard choices and loyalty, when one of the three main characters (whose father happens to be the regimental commander) is taken hostage.
The British Raj
|Maharani Laxmi Bai|
The road to the independence of India was a long one. Mahatma Gandhi began his calling as an agitator for civil and social rights in 1911; India would not gain independence from Britain until 1947 after many failed attempts and tiny steps forward. Self-rule was finally granted to the region, and it was divided into India and Pakistan. Burma was also originally a part of the Empire but became independent in 1937.
The Khyber Region
|gratuitous Cooper pic|
Links and Sources
West Bengal, Official Site
From Empire to Independence, BBC
Durand Line, Wikipedia
British Raj, Wikipedia
Indian Rebellion of 1857, Wikipedia
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
The Bride Wore Boots ain't a great movie, but it's an afternoon's entertainment, and a great example of Edith Head's mid-40's designs. And who could be a better clothes hanger for those outfits than Barbara Stanwyck, who stars in the movie as Sally Warren, a woman who loves horses and having her way. Opposite her is Robert Cummings as her horse-hating husband, Jeff Warren, a Civil War historian. Conflict arises when the youngest member Jeff's fan club, played with seduction by grown-up child star Diana Lynn, takes a real shine to Jeff. Through a series of unfortunate accidents, Barbara gets the wrong idea about Jeff's intentions and readies a quick divorce...
|Leopard! She's on the prowl.|
Edith truly had a wandering childhood, although she never spoke much about it. Bits and snippets gathered by her close friends hint at parents who never married, a portion of her young life spent in mining camps in the west and in Mexico, and finally high school in Los Angeles and college at Berkeley.
She was taught to sew as a young child and got her first break in costuming at the studio that would soon become Paramount, where she found a job working as a sketch artist and assistant to Howard Greer. She would continue to work at Paramount for over 40 years. She married twice and had no children.
|Edith and Edna (rogerebert.com)|
Over her many years as a costume designer, Edith found insulation from volatile studio politics by working with the stars to give them what they requested and by being extremely diplomatic. Films she would design in her long career included The Lady Eve, Holiday Inn, Roman Holiday, The Birds and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Her final memorial was a black-and-white film set in the 40s, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, with Steve Martin, released soon after she died in 1981.
Links and Sources
Costume Designer's Guild
This one looks interesting, lots of pictures, good text: Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood's Greatest Costume Designer by Jay Jorgenson
A great overview text by a man who knew her well: Edith Head: The Life and Times... by David Cherichetti
Edith Head, Wikipedia
Edith Head's How To Dress For Success
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Side Note: Lynn Bari
Links and Sources
Motivational Speaking, Wikipedia
Dale Carnegie, Wikipedia
Dale Carnegie Corporate
Foxy Lady - Lynn Bari
A Film Pioneer
The very earliest techniques discovered by Melies were enabled when the film he was working with was accidentally doubly-exposed or changed speed in some way. He also invented the purposeful double-exposure, used the first dissolve and the first scene of an actor playing opposite himself. He applied his sense of theater to films, being the first director to put scenes together, rather than film in a single shot.
Story was a part of Melies' oeuvre, but in general, he was more concerned with appearance and visuals (mise en scene) than in pushing the envelope of technique. The truth was that he had found techniques and a format that appealed to him, and he was most interested in exploring all the boundaries of that format. After a few years, cinema techniques had progressed to the point where his films were looking distinctly old-fashioned. His films fell out of favor, and he ultimately declared bankruptcy, losing his theater. After eking out an existence selling trinkets in a small shop, his was rediscovered in the 1930s, ending his days as a recipient of the Legion of Honour for his contribution to cinema. A quote about Melies describes his skill:
Ultimately, Georges Méliès wasn't a filmmaker. He was, in truth, a film magician. A conjuror who experimented with films, but who was more concerned with how the film reflected his concept for the tricks involved than for the evolution of the new art form. As a filmmaker, Méliès may have stopped producing important films by 1903. But as a magician, he continued to create dazzling presentations of cinematic marvel. - E.H. Larson
Inspirations from this film include the Smashing Pumpkins' 'Tonight, Tonight' music video and influences can also be seen in modern-day Victoriana, like the film Moulin Rouge.
Links and Sources
Georges Melies, Wikipedia
Georges Melies, EarlyCinema.com
Georges Melies, Victoria Cinema
The Thin Man fame plays Mr. Smith as the dog worth a custody battle.
Tan for Deception
Tan for Health
Maybe they were, and maybe they weren't. Sun lamps advertised in Life magazine at around the time this movie came out (below right) were advertised as a way to get a tan; other advertisements emphasized the healthful aspects of light exposure. Use of light as a health treatment began in the late 1800s and 1903 a Nobel Prize was given to Niels Ryberg Finsen in recognition of his work using light therapy to cure lupus vulgaris. The first sun bed was invented by J.H. Kellogg of cereal fame as a health device and used by Edward VII of England and others who could afford to have access. In modern times, light therapy is used as a treatment for many skin disorders, as well as for pain management and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
The Fad for Tan
Nearly everyone wants to be rich, or at least look rich, so the lower classes ape the upper crust, even when it comes to skin tone. Back in the days when most of the populace worked in agriculture, lighter skin meant that the person had the means to stay indoors away from the fields, and fair skin was in vogue. Nowadays when tanning is synonymous with skin cancer, it's hard to believe that staying pale could be deadly, but the lead-based white powder once in vogue in ancient Greece and Rome could eventually cause death by lead poisoning. Later, arsenic-based face powder was considered an improvement.
Links and Sources
A History of Tanning, Times Online
The Look: A History of Tanning
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Sun Tanning, Livestrong
Lupus vulgaris, Wikipedia
Light therapy, Wikipedia
Sun Tanning, Wikipedia
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
|The many faces of Miss Davis|
Short one. There's not much to say about a clip joint, except that it's a place where suckers are conned into paying way too much for poor entertainment. The rotten entertainment can take various forms: the promise of sex (not achieved), of booze (watered down), singing (off-key), gambling (rigged), and so on. One article from the 1932 New York Times tells the tale of a businessman held for two days in a joint, finally freed after signing over a $1000 check. 'Clip joint' as a term came into being during the Depression, but the concept is age-old and clip joints are still around today in various forms.
Links and Sources
Clip Joint, Wikipedia
Seven more men tell clip joint losses, NYT June 9, 1932
Sunday, May 8, 2011
California Mining Rush
Trying not to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn't seen the movie, the action towards the end of the film takes place in the California desert, part in an active town and part in the ruins of an old mining town. As I watched this movie, I started wondering just how many vacant towns sit in the desert after all these years. The answer is that many still exist, in differing states of repair. Most mining towns in California came into existence in the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, to exploit rich deposits of gold, silver, borax, tungsten, chrysolite and other minerals. The towns experienced booms at peak extraction and crashes when the resource was tapped out. They were either supported by another livelihood such as agriculture or manufacturing, or died out as residents left.
The state of ghost town remains is different from town to town, and depends on a lot of factors. Weather, geographic location, visitors and original construction material and techniques can all play a part in how well a site is preserved. Eastern California has an ideal dry climate for the preservation of artifacts, and the remote locations of many of the sites keep them from being visited frequently by vandals. Many mining camps were exactly that - camps - and the major structures were tents; in many of these locations, little to nothing visible is left. In other locations, where building materials were wood or stone, remains are still visible. The modernization of travel by rail and eventually by car also led to the end of many western towns as travel became quicker, requiring fewer stops along the way.
Calico, California, the site of filming for The Prowler, is located west of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert just north of Barstow.
"There's no argument that Calico is a real ghost town. Established in 1881, Calico produced $86 million in silver and $45 million in borax during its glory years. At its height, the town boasted a population of 1,200, 22 saloons, a "Chinatown," and a well-known red light district. When the price of silver plummeted in the 1890's, the town survived on borax revenues until its official death in 1907." -Roadtrip America
|Don't forget to draw the curtains.|
California Ghost Towns
Calico, San Bernadino County, Wikipedia
Friday, May 6, 2011
The definition of 'donnybrook', from a local source:
"A 'donnybrook' is sometimes used to describe a general melee or row particularly in 'stage oirish' situations. The scenario seems to be that we all go around wearing funny hats and red beards shouting 'Shure' and 'Begorrah' while we beat one another with small blackthorn sticks." -The Clare Champion, 2010The term comes from the Donnybrook Fair, held in the Donnybrook (Domhnach Broc) section of Dublin from 1204 AD until the 1850s, when it was banned. Originally begun as a fair for merchants and artists, by the 1800s the fair became notorious for its drunken carousing and, above all, its fighting.
Medieval fairs (the source of our modern day Renaissance Fairs) were started by the Normans as a way of promoting trade, and were a good source of funds for the church. Merchants and musicians would gather to hawk their wares, and all would have to pay fees to the holder of the fair charter, which was originally granted by King John of England and passed from hand to hand for centuries after. By the 1700s, the focus of the fair was less on trade and much more on entertainment and drinking. Dublin had expanded, and its suburbs were also encroaching on the traditional fair grounds, which had originally been outside of the city walls. A campaign was got up by the locals, the charter bought out and the fair closed down.
Links and Sources
|if Monet painted drunken fistfights|
Family and Community in Ireland, Clare Local Studies Project
Donnybrook Fair, Wikipedia
Donnybrook, World Wide Words
Oh, Donnybrook..., Clare Champion
The Irish Family..., Fairfield University