SPECIAL POST: Flicks Wednesday: Post World War II Adultery In East Side, West Side (1949)

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***This post is part of the Remember Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.***

***Some spoilers***

Stanwyck 1950sPhoto Credit: Signed publicity photo of Barbara Stanwyck, circa 1950 (around the time she made the film East Side, West Side), from RR Auction: Wikiwatcher1/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

My all-time favorite classic Hollywood actress is Barbara Stanwyck. Hands down. Stanwyck graced the big and small screen from the silent era up until a few years before her death in 1990 and during all that time, she was never anything but professional, stylish, and powerful. Unlike equally great actresses like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, you didn’t hear a lot about behind-the-scenes diva antics with Stanwyck. She always took herself seriously and those she worked with seriously and she never let her ego get in the way. It’s no wonder that other actors like William Holden and Kirk Douglas credited her for helping them on their paths down the Hollywood yellow brick road.

So naturally when Crystal at The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood blog asked me to participate in the Remember Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, I was ecstatic. I could talk about Stanwyck and her work in every Flicks Friday blog post without a problem and in fact have discussed one of Stanwyck’s earlier films here. But for this blog post, I decided to focus more on one of Stanwyck’s later films, a melodrama called East Side, West Side (1949). This film, coming so close after the end of World War II, straddles the fence between 1940’s marriage ethics and post World War II awareness that women’s place wasn’t just in the home anymore as compliant and supportive housewives.

James MasonPhoto Credit: James Mason, 1946: Michael0986/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

The film is a little reminiscent of the Douglas Sirk films of the 1950’s in that the romantic drama is layered on a bit thick but well carried over by an all-star cast. Stanwyck plays the rather insecure but elegant and good-hearted socialite Jessie Bourne. She is married to Brandon Bourne, played by James Mason. Mason portrayed many charming but dangerous villains throughout his career and although he isn’t exactly evil in this film, his charm does get him into trouble. The film focuses on the way in which the Bournes’ reconciliation after Brandon has strayed crumbles when his old girlfriend, Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner) comes back to town after a year of absence.

Where Stanwyck shows off her talents is in the way that she portrays the transformation from forgiving and dutiful wife to independent woman. When the film opens, everything is peachy between the Bournes, though we’re made to understand that things weren’t always like that between them and that Brandon’s straying a year earlier caused friction in the otherwise happy marriage. But although Jessie is forgiving, she is not blinded to forget his indiscretion. We see this when her friend Helen Lee (played by Nancy Davis – aka, the future Nancy Reagan) tells her that Brandon’s old fling, the woman who almost drove a wedge between them the previous year, is back in New York. Jessie already knew this, having seen an item about it (along with the usual insinuations) in the society column of the newspaper, which she tries to hide from Helen. Nonetheless, in true blue-blood high society fashion, Jessie covers her worry, insisting that she trusts her husband.

Van HeflinPhoto Credit: Studio publicity still of Van Heflin, taken before 1964: El Matador/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed

However, once it becomes clear that Brandon has resumed his affair with Isabel, the reality of who he really is sets in for Jessie. It doesn’t happen overnight and this is one of the ways in which Stanwyck’s brilliance shines through. In an era when the quick change, emotionally, that is, was the order of the day (think: two people who absolutely hate each other discover they are the love of each other’s lives halfway through the film), Stanwyck always kept it real, displaying a realistic emotional build up so that she doesn’t suddenly appear to have realized what a jerk her husband is. Before this happens, Jessie meets and befriends a young aspiring model Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse, in one of her few non-singing and dancing roles) who introduces her to the man she’s been in love with all her life (but who is not in love with her), Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin). Although the two never really develop a romantic relationship, the chemistry between them is unmistakable (just as it was in an earlier film they did together three years earlier The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers) and Dwyer represents the exact opposite of what Brandon is – a street kid who made good from the Lower West Side. In addition, Isabel makes clear what her intentions are with Brandon in a showdown (which doesn’t turn into a smackdown, thanks to Jessie’s self-control) between the two women.

At the end of the film, when Isabel is murdered and Jessie is exempted from having done it, we would expect her to pull a Norma Shearer move (that is, forgive her husband once again and hold out her arms to him as Shearer did at the end of The Women ten years earlier), now that the woman who came between them is gone. But not this time. Jessie calmly packs her bags and announces that she wants a divorce – no drama, no bitterness. She simply realizes that she is better than the man she married and deserves better (though the film leaves it open-ended whether she will end up with Mark or not.

It’s true that East Side, West Side is not on the list of one of Stanwyck’s best films. But, as all great actors, even when the film isn’t the best, her performance is always stellar. Her character not only stays true to Stanwyck’s own sense of independence and ability to face reality but it also hails in a new era of women that were no longer willing to fall for the illusion that marriage should always be all butterflies and candy.

Further Reading:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041327/ (IMDB page for East Side, West Side)

http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/2214/East-Side-West-Side/ (TCMdB page for East Side, West Side)

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/east_side_west_side/ (Rotten Tomatoes page for the film)

http://journeysinclassicfilm.com/2015/07/23/east-side-west-side-1949/ (a great review from the Journey In Classic Film blog)

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Past Blast Tuesday: Rebel Suffragist Muriel Matters

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WFL Plaque 2015

Photo Credit: commemorative plaque of The Women’s Freedom League, taken on September 25, 2012 by Simon Harriyott of Uckfield, England: File Upload Bot (Magnus Manske)/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

There were many women who brought women’s rights to the forefront and in the early 20th century, these women helped bring awareness to sexism and overturn antiquated ideas of the separate spheres. Recently, some of the heavy hitters of this movement in Britain came to the forefront with the release of the film Suffragette last year. However, when I saw this on Pinterest, I got curious about Muriel Matters and went in search of more information. What I discovered was a suffragist who worked in the same time frame as the more famous suffragists depicted in that film but became more of a rebel within the movement rather than part of the main vein of it.

Emmeline Pankhurst

Photo Credit: Portrait of Emmeline Pankhurst in 1913 from the Library Of Congress: Durova/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Although Matters is known for her contribution to the British suffragist movement, she was, in fact originally from Australia, which was one reason why she was never really part of the “cool kids” represented by Emmeline Pankhust and her set. Keep in mind that for many years, Australia was almost like the neglected child of Britain rather than a country in its own right and was known as the place where outlaws, convicts, and misfits who couldn’t or wouldn’t live in the UK ended up. In truth, Matters had a taste of women’s rights well before her British sisters, as South Australia, where she was from originally, gave women the right to vote in 1894.

But Matters didn’t start out with ambitions to see women get the vote although she was exposed to it early in life and certainly influenced by it. She actually started out as an actress performing in music halls and saloons around Australia. But encouragement to take her talents to London brought her to the UK. Music hall gigs were few and far between and so she worked as a journalist to help support herself. This led her to interviewing a Russian anarchist who challenged her to do more with her life than acting. Considering Matters’ roots, it was perhaps no surprise that she turned to suffragism.

WFL President

Photo Credit: Postcard of Charlotte Despard, president of the Women’s Freedom League at around the time that Matters was involved with the organization, 1910: Acabashi/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Matters’ direction in this movement was more left of center. She became part of the Women’s Freedom League, a sort of alternative group of women’s rights activists who worked parallel to Pankhurst and her cronies. I think it’s not much of a stretch to see what attracted Matters to the WFL. This group saw the Pankhurst organization as less democratic and more hierarchal (with Pankhurst and a select few making decisions regarding activities and organization rather than leave it to the decision of the majority) and also more geared towards the higher social classes. This is actually not a new complaint about the women’s movement, as the second wave feminist movement also received complaints of hierarchy and bias towards certain social (and racial) classes.

Matters did a lot for the WFL. This included a caravan tour in 1908 where she and others established more branches of the organization, a balloon flight intended to scatter flyers about women’s rights, and a lecture tour. However, her most famous activity was perhaps when she and another suffragette chained themselves to the grill that separated women spectators from completely seeing the activities in the British House Of Parliament in protest of banning women from governmental activities. Their agitation caused Matters to be arrested for obstructing justice and serve time in jail.

Matters’ attempts to do more with her life than just be an actress extended beyond women’s rights. She also fought for rights for the poor, helping mothers and children in the slums of East London. Later, her work included educational reform, protest against World War I, and even a stint as a candidate for the Labour Movement seat in the House of Parliament in 1924. Although she didn’t win, the fact that she, as a woman, was able to run for office, a position that she herself helped to make a reality, was a significant achievement in her long career as a suffragist and reformer.

Further Reading:

http://www.murielmatterssociety.com.au/Muriel_Matters_Society_Inc./The_Muriel_Matters_Society_Inc..html (homepage of the Muriel Matters Society)

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3646366/?ref_=ttpl_pl_tt (IMDB page for the 2013 TV movei Muriel Matters)

http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/oct/11/muriels-neglecting-an-australian-suffragettes-unsung-legacy (article on Matters from The Guardian)

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Flicks Friday: Defying The Mother In Separate Tables (1958)

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***Some spoilers***

Gladys Cooper Mrs. R.B., the gaslighting mother in Separate Tables. Not a woman you want to mess with…

Photo Credit: Cropped screenshot of Gladys Cooper from the Now, Voyager trailer, 1942: Rossrs-commonwiki/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

Although I adore classic films, there are only a handful of films that speak to me so much that I can see them over and over again and find something fascinating each time. The sleeper film of 1958, Separate Tables, is one of those. One of most fascinating aspects of this film is the relationship between a mother, Mrs. Railton-Bell (played by Gladys Cooper) and daughter (played by Deborah Kerr). The relationship is a complex and subtle one that results in an act of defiance at the end.

Although Separate Tables has been compared to other star-studded films such as Grand Hotel, the former, unlike the latter, has none of the glitz and glamour. Both films include an impressive cast and both focus on different characters in one contained place (what is known as the crucible in plotting) where they cannot avoid facing their demons. But Separate Tables is much more subtle. It takes place in a small hotel on the English coast rather than a famous high-end hotel in the center of Europe. The inhabitants are not wealthy or well known as they are in Grand Hotel. They are people with modest incomes and many of them are elderly, looking for a place to retire and live a quiet, uncomplicated life.

Mrs. Railton-Bell (or, as another character named Major Pollock, played by David Niven, calls her, “Mrs. R.B.”) and her daughter Sibyl are two such characters. As some of the oldest inhabitants of the hotel, Mrs. R.B. considers herself the queen of the Beaugard Hotel and reigns with the kind of superiority that one would expect of such a character. In the shadow of her mother’s strong and somewhat controlling personality, Sibyl is bashful and oppressed. The film makes clear in a very 1950’s way that any discussion about romance or sex in front of Sibyl could cause a nervous breakdown.

In fact, everything consider a part of an independent identity is denied Sibyl. She is still her mother’s child as Mrs. R.B has successfully debilitated her to the point that she is dependent on her mother for her mere existence. In one scene, Sibyl suggests to her mother that she might try to apply for a clerical job that she saw in the want ads of the paper. In a rational and oh-so-sympathetic voice, her mother easily talks her out of it, reminding her of “what happened the last time”. This implies that Sibyl had made an attempt to release herself from her mother’s grasp in the past by getting a job and the results had been disastrous. Indeed, although we are never told the details, other guests who have been in the hotel as long as the Railtons seem to know about Sibyl’s “fits” and what provokes them.

David Niven

Photo Credit: David Niven (who played Major Pollack) accepting the Academy Award for Best Actor In A Leading Role at the 1959 Oscars for this film, uploaded on July 4, 2013: SchroCat/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

Nonetheless, there is a hint of Sibyl’s redemption through her obvious infatuation with Major Pollock. “The Major” is not much of a dashing figure by anyone’s standards. Graying and stuttering, he has a propensity towards pumping up his credentials (for example, telling tall tales about his combat experiences during World War II when he later admits that he worked in the supply unit and never really saw the battlefield). However, he is as shy as Sibyl and, more importantly, respectful of her sensitivities and accepts her for who she is.

But Sibyl is controlled by her mother with an iron hand to the point of almost giving up the Major. Her affection for him is the one thing that her mother seemingly cannot touch until it’s discovered that the Major was arrested for what would today be considered sexual harassment. When Mrs. R.B discovers this, she takes her role as queen of the hotel and calls all the guests together to insist that they ask the hotel proprietor, Pat Cooper (Wendy Hiller) to throw the Major out. Her friend and fellow hotel old-timer Lady Matheson (Catherine Nesbitt) makes her promise not to tell Sibyl about it, knowing how she will react. However, Mrs. R. B is a classic gaslighter. She uses subtle manipulation and shows a compassion she doesn’t feel to get what she wants. Seeing the opportunity of getting her daughter off of her infatuation over the Major for good, she “reluctantly” reveals why she is calling everyone together by showing her daughter the newspaper article of the Major’s arrest. Sibyl’s devastation is complete as she cuts her hand on her mother’s glasses (which she has gone upstairs to fetch) and has one of her “fits”.

Deborah Kerr

Photo Credit: Deborah Kerr in 1957 (about the time she made Separate Tables), cropped screenshot from the film An Affair To Remember: Ian Dunster-commonwiki/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

It is perhaps the realization that the Major is fallible that gives her the courage at the end of the film to defy her mother. The last scene shows the guests having their breakfast at “separate tables” in the dining room. Miss Cooper has made it clear to the Major that she has no intention of asking him to leave though the Major, perhaps out of embarrassment of having Sibyl know about his reprehensible behavior, insists on doing so. When he goes into the dining room to have his breakfast, he expects to find everyone following Mrs. R. B’s lead in shunning him. But when Mrs. R. B tries to force her daughter to leave the dining room, she refuses. This act of defiance is perhaps a small one but a start for someone like Sibyl in establishing her independence and pulling away from her controlling mother.

Separate Tables has a lot going for it, including a production company run by one of classic Hollywood’s most respected stars (Burt Lancaster) and the beautiful Rita Hayworth as a former fashion model in one of the key roles. But less flashy characters like the R. Bs and Major Pollock present a much more interesting and psychologically complex portrait of love and mother-daughter relationships.

Further Reading:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052182/ (IMDB page for Separate Tables)

http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/20965/Separate-Tables/ (TCMdB page for Separate Tables)

http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9802E7DE153DE53BBC4152DFB4678383649EDE (A 1958 film review from The New York Times)

http://www.hollywoodsgoldenage.com/movies/separate_tables.html (A nice review of Kerr’s role from the Hollywood’s Golden Age page)

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Past Blast Tuesday: Jeanne Bertrand – The Mentor Trumped By The Artist

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Maier Exhibition Jeanne Bertrand housed photographer Vivian Maier and her mother and was likely an influence on Maier’s character studies.

Photo Credit: Onlookers at a gallery admiring the portraits made by Vivian Maier, taken by Thomas Leuthard, uploaded on December 10, 2014: Thomas Leuthard/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Several months ago, I wrote a blog post about the recently discovered work of mid-20th century photographer Vivian Maier. Maier made headlines in 2009 when a large body of her work was discovered by a lawyer who bought boxes of her photographs at a garage sale, unaware of the brilliance and remarkable talent that lay behind them in the photographer who led a quiet and humble life as a nanny.

While researching Maier, I discovered that Maier and her mother had lived with a woman named Jeanne Bertrand who was described as one of the most promising portrait photographers of the late 19th/early 20th century and that got me interested in learning more about this photography pioneer.

What followed was both a lesson in frustration and an instruction on early 20th century women artists. As I exhausted my internet searches, what kept coming up was websites that focused on Maier. Indeed, it almost seems as if this photographer, once hailed as the most promising in the field, had completely disappeared under the recent prominence of her protegee. So this blog post will be a short one.

Actually, it’s not clear whether Bertrand was even much of a mentor, as some sources claim that Maier was a child when she and her mother lived with her. Other sources mention that it was Bertrand’s enthusiasm for photography (along with her own mother’s encouragement) that started Maier on her way.

From what I could find out about Bertrand, she did indeed have enthusiasm for her art. Born of an immigrant French family, she came to the United States as a child. Her father was a merchant who, like many immigrants, came with great expectations to America and died poor and embittered. Bertrand followed a familiar pattern in the late 19th century and early 20th century of young immigrant women doing factory work. She worked in a factory that manufactured needles for sewing machines and according to her own words, hated the monotony and oppressive sweatshop conditions. Interestingly, one of the reasons why Bertrand’s work made such an impression so as to have her featured in the Boston Globe article referenced below is that she had taken up photography at a relatively late age (seventeen or eighteen) and had only been working at it for four years before the article was published. But what Bertrand lacked in experience she made up for in passion. By her own account, she became fascinated by the nuts and bolts of photography one day when she decided to have her own picture taken. With a certain gumption that many people weren’t used to in women during this time, she asked the photographer for a job. He insisted that he would never take anyone inexperienced but it’s clear that he was impressed by her enthusiasm and called upon her to help him with some equipment a few days later. Eventually, Bertrand learned the trade from him and ended up helping him run his business.

As for Bertrand’s photographic style, there is very little information and I couldn’t locate even one photograph taken by her. What we do know is that she was a portrait photographer and focused on character studies. Some sources mention that the aspects of Maier’s photographs that many find so fascinating – the still-life study of people living their lives on the street – was influenced by Bertrand’s work.

Other than that, we really don’t know much about Bertrand’s life and work. Although this blog post doesn’t really add much new information, I felt it was important to include it. The fact that a woman who has been called a pioneer of photography almost completely disappearing can’t be emphasized as well as the irony that she may have influenced one of the more recent discoveries in the photography world. Since one of my goals for this blog is to unearth forgotten women artists, this post needed to be written.

Further Reading:

http://www.vivianmaier.com/about-vivian-maier/ (the Vivian Maier website with a section about Bertrand)

https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=fr&u=https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeanne_Bertrand&prev=search (translation of Wikipedia article on Jeanne Bertrand)

http://www.tecomm.com/JBertrand.pdf (PDF version of the Boston Globe article about Jeanne Bertrand written in 1902)

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Flicks Friday: The Changing Face Of Addiction In Classic Film

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***Some spoilers***

AlAnon Logo Alcoholics Anonymous began in 1935 as a peer support group for alcoholics.

Photo Credit: The Alcoholics Anonymous logo, retouched and cropped, by Vangore on September 10, 2013: Technical 13/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 3.0

One of the things that classic film does is make us aware of the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of people in history, ranging from the admirable to the absurd to the downright prejudice. I remember several years ago when I taught a U.S. History course to undergraduates in Texas. One of our lectures focused on the Civil War and post-Civil War era, including the status of African Americans and racism at the time. As part of our lecture, we watched a clip from the D. W. Griffith film Birth Of A Nation (1915). In this clip, Southern virtue was at stake and who should come riding in to save the day? None other than the Klu Klux Klan. It was well known that Griffith, a Southerner and son of a Civil War veteran, had portrayed the KKK not as the monstrous racists that most of us think of them today but as heroes. This shocked my young students who had been raised with entirely different values. They couldn’t understand how such a film could have become so popular in its time.

In this same way, I came across the ironies of how alcohol and drug addiction were treated in film while I was researching my blog post on silent film star Alma Rubens. In that post, I talked a little bit about the “cocaine comedies” of the silent film era. Both drug and alcohol addiction were indeed seen as targets for comedy in the silent film era and Pre-Code Hollywood but as these began to become serious issues in American society after World War II, Hollywood likewise changed its tone and brought out some very potent films that took substance abuse in the serious way that we take it today.

It might be hard to believe now, but addiction was treated as something that filmmakers exploited for comic purposes in the silent era and even into the 1930’s. In addition to the “cocaine comedies”, the character of the drunk was always good for comic relief in silent films. For example, in the Charlie Chaplin film City Lights (1931), drunkenness is used to great comic effect as Chaplin’s Little Tramp becomes the great friend of a character dubbed as An Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers) when he saves him from suicide one night. The millionaire invites him into his home and lavishes him with champagne parties, warm clothes, warm food, and a warm bed. The catch is that all this generosity comes only when the millionaire is drunk. Once he is sober, he not only forgets who the tramp is but rejects him as any high society man would.

To be sure, there were also films in the Pre-Code Era that showed drug and alcohol addiction for what they were – tragic social issues. Many of these films connected alcoholics and drug addicts (especially the latter) with immoral and criminal behavior. For example, the 1932 film Three On A Match shows the decline of Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak) once she leaves her stable husband in search of a more exciting life and ends up involved in alcohol and drug addiction as she shacks up with a gambler Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot), going as far as to place her infant son in a filthy and vice-infested environment and neglecting his basic needs. In the 1933 horror classic Mystery Of The Wax Museum, a drug addicted character is forced to reveal information that leads to the destruction of the wax museum and its creator (Lionel Atwill) when the police deprive him of his drug “fix”.

Ralph rapes Mary

Ralph rapes Mary

In Reefer Madness, one of the consequences of teenagers who get high on marijuana is that a young woman ends up getting raped, as shown in the scene above.

Photo Credit: Scene from the 1936 film Reefer Madness: Sugar Bear~commonswiki/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed

But by the end of the 1930’s, Hollywood was starting to make an attempt at viewing substance abuse seriously, especially when it came to young people. A string of films made during this time were aimed at teenagers and college students and their parents that outlined the dangers of vice, including topics such as teenage pregnancy, unsafe sex, and, in Reefer Madness (1936 or 1938), marijuana addiction. The film presents a cautionary tale of the consequences that teenagers expose themselves to when they get addicted to drugs, including rape and murder. These films were quite obviously propaganda in their preaching tone but they did begin to make the country aware that substance abuse was a growing problem among the young in particular.

Hayward Albert Ill Cry TomorrowIn the film I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Burt McGuire (played by Eddie Albert, above) becomes the AlAnon sponsor for Lillian Roth (Susan Hayward), helping her get back on her feet.

Photo Credit: trailer screenshot of Susan Hayward and Eddie Albert from the film I’ll Cry Tomorrow, 1955: Cicx/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

But it wasn’t until the 1950’s where the attitude towards alcohol and drug addiction really began to change. Prior to that time, it seemed as if Hollywood saw substance abuse as a moral issue, much like the general public. But at this time, there became more awareness that alcohol and drug abuse were not just about what happened on the outside (I.e., crime, vice) but also what happened on the inside (the destruction of the addict’s life and psyche). In addition, abuse was put in the contexts of the addict’s life as a way of understanding how one could become an addict. One film that illustrates these points is the Susan Hayward film I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955). The film is a biopic of the rise and fall (and subsequent recovery) of Broadway and Hollywood star Lillian Roth (played by Hayward) due to her alcohol addiction. The film shows us that Roth’s addiction didn’t come from a moral flaw but from a difficult background, including a “stage mom” (played by Jo Van Fleet) who pushed her to perform at an early age, the loss of her one true love, and her involvement with a very abusive man. Similarly, the film Days Of Wine And Roses (1962) shows the way in which Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) falls prey to alcoholism as a result of a false sense of self set up by his sleazy job as a press agent and how he drags down his wife Kirsten Arensen Clay (Lee Remick) with him, turning her from a clean-cut young woman who never touched a drop of alcohol into a neglectful mother who sets their apartment on fire from a careless cigarette during one of her alcoholic binges.

Because of this growing awareness that nurture has as much, if not more, to do with substance abuse than nurture, it’s not surprising that in both of these films, Alcoholics Anonymous plays an important role in helping the main characters get back on their feet. Although AlAnon began with fairly religious intents (as the link below discusses) in the late 1930’s, both these films focus on the idea that an addict must first admit he/she is an addict and explore the reasons why he/she is an addict as well as seek support and guidance from others if he/she wishes to clean up their lives. So addiction here isn’t about someone’s lack of virtue but about their circumstances and environment and, as such, there is a way to manage their addiction through support and understanding.

I think that watching the way in which substance abuse was treated as jest in early films still appalls many of us, but there is one thing to remember. A writer on one of my historical novel Facebook pages recently expressed her disdain for a movement in her country to change the names of great works of art that had non-PC terms in them, such as “Indian” instead of “Native American”. She pointed out that, as embarrassing and unfair as these terms might be, we still need to keep them, not just out of respect for the artist who named them, but also as a reminder of what we need to teach our children about what not to do or say. I tend to agree with this, as we can’t educate others about what is right and what is wrong unless we have examples of what was wrong in the past.

Further Reading:

http://dangerousminds.net/comments/cocaine_comedy_from_1916 (Article about “cocaine” comedies in the silent era)

http://listverse.com/2008/11/27/10-best-movies-about-substance-abuse/ (a list of top films about substance abuse, including some classics)

http://www.dickb.com/index.html ( a history of Alcoholics Anonymous)

https://www.na.org/?ID=PR-index (history of Narcotics Anonymous)

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Past Blast Tuesday: The Divine And Complicated Sarah Bernardt

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Sarah B Orientalism Portrait Note the exoticism that Berhardt radiates here with her dark flowing hair and tan skin and flowing wrap.

Photo Credit: Photograph of Sarah Berhardt by Felix Nadar, 1864: Mmxx/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Some time ago, I came across a lovely photo of Sarah Berhardt on Pinterest. I have always been fascinated by Berhardt so I decided it was time to do a post devoted to her.

For all intents and purposes, Berhardt was one of the first, if not the first, international celebrity actress. She earned the name “The Divine Sarah” by fans worldwide for her stunning dramatic performances and enjoyed a long and prosperous career.

But Berhardt, like most successful artists, had troubled beginnings. Her mother already came from questionable background (her own father was rumored to be a petty criminal) and she was not above doing what she had to do to support her daughters, including becoming a courtesan. Like many strong women, Berhardt grew up in the company of women (her mother and two sisters) without a father. She learned early in life that dramatic flair and beauty could turn a woman into a success in the 19th century.

Berhardt was sent to a convent (ironic, considering she was born Jewish) and contemplated becoming a nun, but decided eventually to attend the Conservatoire de Musique et Déclamation in Paris to study acting. Her dark and exotic beauty played into the Victorian fascination with Orientalism. She moved on to the Comédie Française where she made her debut in 1862 in the Greek tragedy Iphigenie by the French writer Racine. However, she was fired from the theater for getting into a tussle with an older actress and escaped to Brussels. She found success there, however, and played lead roles in tragedies such as Shakespeare’s King Lear and the Victor Hugo tragedy Ruy Blas.

Sarah B As HamletPhoto Credit: Potrait of Sarah Bernardt as Hamlet, from the United States Library Of Congress Prints And Photographs Division, taken by Lafayette Photo in London between 1880-1885: Durova/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Throughout her career, Berhardt pushed the envelope with her performances, taking on roles not only of strong women but also of male figures. She caused quite a scandal when she played the title role of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in London in the 1890’s and in the one-act play by Francois Coppee called Le Passant. Berhardt’s talents expanded to producing and directing when she bought the Theatre de la Renaissance and, later, the Theatre des Nations in the 1890’s. Her talents extended beyond the theater as well, as she was a sculptress and one of the earliest actresses in film, playing mostly in short films about her life. She even dabbled in art, creating interesting sculptures and paintings, of which about fifty survive today.

Sarah B Posing As Cleopatra A nice example of Berhardt’s flair for the dramatic in costume and pose.

Photo Credit: Sarah Berhardt posing as Cleopatra, taken by Napoleon Saroney in 1891: G.dallorto/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100 1923

Berhardt’s acting abilities leaned towards the melodramatic, a popular style in the Victorian era. She went big with broad sweeping gestures and expressions and, as her photographs show, costume and posing were high on her list. This is maybe what made her larger than life for many people, especially in the age before film. Her international success is astounding since, unlike film, a theater actress could not be known in the United States or London or anywhere else unless she had actually physically performed there. Her propensity for drama served her well in her real life as well as her professional life. It was rumored that, after a fire had destroyed her birth records, she took liberties with creating her own past, one that was much more respectful than her real past. In addition, when she seriously injured her knee in a 1905 revival of Tosca, gangrene set in to the point where she had to have the leg amputated and she preferred not to wear a prosthetic limb.

Sarah Berhardt was, like many artists, diverse with her talents and complex in her style. Her international success in addition to the popularity her acting reputation enjoys today indeed earns her a position as someone memorable and divine.

Further Reading:

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0076800/ (IMDB page for Sarah Bernhardt)

http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/bernhardt-sarah (A nice biography of Berhardt on the Jewish Women’s Archive site)

http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/archives/la-me-sarah-bernhardt-19230328-story.html (A 1923 obituary of Berhardt from the L. A. Times)

http://www.muchafoundation.org/gallery/themes/theme/sarah-bernhardt (Some beautiful art nouveau pictures of Berhardt)

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Flicks Friday: Esmeralda, The Prisoner Of Men In The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939)

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***Some spoilers***

Esmeralda Drawing Hugo Book Photo Credit: Illustration of Esmeralda for Notre Dame de Paris (French version of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame) by Victor Hugo. Artist unknown. From “Victor Hugo and His Time” by Alfred Barbou. 1882: Electron/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

This blog post was in the works for me for a while but it’s ironic that I ended up writing it so near after the death of the amazing Irish actress Maureen O’Hara. The Hunchback Of Notre Dame was only O’Hara’s forth film coming on the heels of another one of her admirable performances, Jamaica Inn, released the same year and also staring Charles Laughton. I’ll admit that I had been avoiding Hunchback mainly because it takes place in the Middle Ages, an era that is difficult for me to relate to. But when TCM showed it as part of their Halloween horror fest in October, I couldn’t resist taking a look. The film brings the issues of desire and religion and justice to a relatable level for modern audiences and both Laughton and O’Hara are excellent as usual. But what really interested me about the film was the character of Esmeralda (played by O’Hara) who essentially becomes the prisoner of every man she comes into contact with.

The story of the film is a classic. In 15th Century France, where the monarchy rules the peasant class with an iron hand (this was several centuries before the French Revolution) and “undesirables” such as heretics, gypsies, and physically or mentally disabled people. Esmeralda and the Hunchback Quasimodo (played by Laughton) fall into this category. Esmeralda is a gypsy who is being persecuted by Chief Justice Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke) because of the sexual desire she provokes in him. Several men try to save her throughout the film but it is only Quasimodo that succeeds in the end.

OHara Esmeralda HunchbackThe stunningly beautiful Maureen O’Hara, whom we lost on October 24, 2015 at the age of 95.

Photo Credit: Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame from the IMDB trailer, by RKO, 1939: Dr. Blofeld/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

It is no surprise that the men throughout the film only want to own the beautiful Esmeralda, with her warm sensuality and kind heart. The first of these is Frollo. When she enters the church, he immediately feels desire for her and tries to get her to stay but she runs away. Frollo, who has been Quasimodo’s caretaker since he was a child, sends him out after her but later denies that he was responsible for Quasimodo’s attempt to kidnap her. The one who saves Esmeralda here is Phoebus (Alan Marshal), the Captain Of The Guards and she immediately falls in love with him, thinking him brave and kind.

But before she can declare her love for Phoebus, the beggars enter the scene. Caught in the web of street beggars of the Paris underworld, Esmeralda becomes the possession of a poet Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien) in the literal sense. Gringoire, being held prisoner by the beggars as an intruder and sentenced to hang by them, is given one more chance to live by Clopin (Thomas Mitchell), King Of The Beggars – if any of the young women in the clan consent to marry him, he will be saved. The only one to come forward is the compassionate Esmeralda.

However, Esmeralda makes no secret of the fact that she is not in love with Gringoire but with Phoebus, who turns out to be just like Frollo, although less twisted and more overt with his desires. During a night of festivities for King Louis XI (played by Harry Davenport), the nobles have a party and Esmeralda gets locked into a compromising position with Phoebus, though he is killed before the seduction can occur. Unfortunately, it’s Esmeralda who is accused and convicted of the murder.

Laughton Hunchback Of Notre DamePhoto Credit: Charles Laughton as Quasimodo (the Hunchback) in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, 1939, taken on October 7, 2007 by Insomnia Cured Here: twm1340/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0

But just as she is about to hang, Quasimodo sweeps down from his place on the Notre Dame Cathedral bell tower and puts her out of harm’s way. Gaining access to her is difficult, as the Church was a sanctuary that the monarchy could not touch at that time. However, even though Esmeralda is safe, she is not free but kept captive in the bell tower by Quasimodo.

Although Esmeralda is exonerated from the crime in the end and restored to the Paris streets, she ends up with Gringoire, whom she realizes she has loved all along. It is perhaps no surprise that Esmeralda, a woman alone with no family, would not exactly be the mirror of feminine independence int he 15th century but it is significant that the beautiful and sensual gypsy woman is handed down from man to man in the film don’t just want to help her but want to possess her, whether through sexual conquest or desire or marriage or heroism.

Further Reading:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0031455/ (IMDB page for The Hunchback Of Notre Dame)

http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/2910/The-Hunchback-of-Notre-Dame/ (TCMdB page for the film)

http://www.kclibrary.org/blog/film-blog/program-notes-hunchback-notre-dame-1939 (Nice article on the film from the Kansas City Public Library)

http://www.wearemoviegeeks.com/2011/11/its-1939-the-hunchback-of-notre-dame/ (Thorough blog post about the film on the We Are Movie Geeks website)

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Past Blast Tuesday: Women Homesteaders In The 19th Century American West

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Oklahoma Land Rush One of the most infamous events during the homesteading period in America is the Oklahoma Land Rush, where thousands of acres of land was open to the public to claim for whoever could get there first.

Photo Credit: Oklahoma Land Rush from the McClenny Family Picture Album, 1889: Hendrike/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old

Not long ago, I was doing a lot of researching for the first book of my historical mystery series The Paper Chase Mysteries. In Book 1 of the series, The Pink Rose Murder, one of my characters is a prominent land owner and I wanted to research a bit more about land ownership in America in the early 20th century. This led me to homesteading in the American West in the 19th century and I thought it interesting to note the presence of women homesteaders in this history that are rarely mentioned.

Homesteading is perhaps one of the most prevalent legends of American history. Many films and books romanticize it as a time when the average person could pursue the American dream of owning his or her own land and home. Homesteading brings to mind visions of proud and persevering pioneers rattling through a desert wilderness in covered wagons with their wives and children, eager to tame a wilderness filled with harsh weather, hostile Native American tribes, and uncivilized surroundings.

And indeed the ideals of homesteading did begin in this way. The Homestead Act of 1862 had several purposes for the government. It was a way to populate the “wild West” territories that the government had recently acquired so that America could grow and prosper and it was also a way to make the American Dream of land and home ownership more available to the average Joe and Jane. The idea behind it was that anyone over the age of 21 (and this included not only men but also women and people of color) could own up to 160 acres of land in the West provided they lived there for five years and made something more efficient and useful out of it. As with most things in America, money talked, and an alternative to this deal was to purchase the land at $1.25 an acre after six months.

Oregon Land Ownership Line UpPhoto Credit: The last “line up” (i.e., the rush to secure claims on land opening up) outside the United States Land Office in Lakeview, Oregon, by the Bureau Of Land Management, 1907: File Upload Bot (Magnus Manske)/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 2.0

Of course, the homesteading dream didn’t quite live up to the ideal. Many people who migrated West didn’t always know what they were letting themselves in for. They had little or no farming experience and thus didn’t always have the skills to deal with the hardships of making the land useful, including harsh weather, wild animals, and wars with neighboring ranchers who used the land for their cattle rather than crops. It wasn’t uncommon for homesteaders to go into debt very quickly and abandon their homes and farms or declare bankruptcy.

However, homesteading did offer a shot at independence, not only for immigrant men who would have otherwise slaved away as laborers or factory workers making less than minimum wage and living in squalid tenements in the big cities, but also for those who had previously had no taste of freedom because of prejudice – African Americans and, of course, women. During the first twenty or thirty years after the passing of the Homestead Act, it seemed as if the idea of a woman owning her own land and working it wasn’t unacceptable. This is maybe because the harsh and foreign nature of the West made people throw aside the ideals of the separate spheres so that the “delicacy of woman” proved itself false when women participated in the hard work of farming the land and weathering storms, tornados, and hurricanes.

Chrisman SistersAnother well-known story of women homesteaders is the Chrisman sisters. These were four sisters who settled in Nebraska and build a successful homestead.

Photo Credit: The four Chrisman sisters (Lizzie, Lutie, Hattie, and Jennie) in front of their “little sod shanty on a claim” in Lieban Creek, Nebraska, 1887, from the book Story Of Our Land And People by Glenn W. Moon and John H. MacGowen, NP: Henry Holt And Company, 1955: Cat Sidh/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The first recorded woman homesteader was Mary Meier, a German immigrant who came to America with her husband and they homesteaded to Nebraska. Her husband died a few years later, leaving Mary alone to cultivate the land. About a third of the women homesteaders who went West actually did not start out as homesteaders but as wives of homesteading men and widowhood made them landowners and farmers. However, there were still two-thirds of the women homesteaders who came alone, many of them middle-aged and immigrants, their level of maturity and experience in life perhaps making them good candidates for the realities of frontier life sans men.

 

It’s a shame that little is known about these women, although my research shows that more academics are beginning to delve into the history of women in the period of homesteading in America. The resilience of these women and their determination that they too should get a piece of the American dream is something to be admired.

 

Further Reading

http://ushistoryscene.com/article/1862-homestead-act/ (informative website about the Homestead Act of 1862)

http://www.legendsofamerica.com/ah-homestead.html (another excellent article on homesteading)

http://beatricedailysun.com/news/local/first-woman-homesteader-identified/article_fdb55885-736e-504b-a025-7a6589e771fa.html (article about the first woman homesteader on record, Mary Meier)

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1987-05-27/news/8702090185_1_invisible-women-census-records-frontier (Article about women homesteaders)

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Sunday Musings: Sunday Musings: National Novel Writing Month, Part 5: My NaNo 2015

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NaNo Vintage Postcard Photo Credit: NaNoWriMo calendar (in a vintage postcard format) 2012, taken on September 20, 2012 by Monda: Monda@NoTelling/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

This is the last post of my series on National Novel Writing Month (NaNo). My first post this month was a NaNo primer while my second was a more personal post about my past NaNo experiences. I then talked about pantsing vs. planning a novel and last week, I wrote about the drawbacks of NaNo. My last post goes back to a more personal reflection of how NaNo went for me this year.

I had a bit of a chaotic NaNo this year both personally and professionally. I decided to participate in NaNo this year at the last minute (about 3 weeks before November 1). Still, I had some time to do some planning for the novel that I wanted to do. As I mentioned in last week’s post, NaNo has always been a very fruitful platform for me to experiment with different genres and techniques. I have been writing historical mysteries but I wanted to try my hand at writing a historical novel with a women’s fiction twist to it. This was a challenge for me to plan, as even though the historical element of fiction has always interested me, building a story that doesn’t have a very distinct direction (like a mystery, which is pretty much a map of a search for who committed a crime and why) was something I hadn’t done in a while. Still, I managed to get most of the blueprint of the story down. This was also the first year that I decided to focus more on the story rather than the characters and let the characters develop as I wrote the book.

Gothic Novel IllustrationThe image above has all the elements of a gothic novel, including a creepy old house, an innocent damsel and a precarious villain.

Photo Credit: Illustration plate for the gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1794) printed in Berlin by Horace Walpole. Illustration by Johann Wilhelm Meil and engraved by Johann Friedrich Bolt, Source: EC75 W1654 764cℓ, Houghton Library, Harvard University: Rob at Houghton/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100)

Despite having a plan and feeling good about the project I had chosen, I was also playing around with an idea for a historical novel with gothic elements. I had a chance to write up a skeletal outline for that novel as well but decided to see how things went as November progressed.

From a personal standpoint, NaNo started out on shaky ground. While I was motivated to write the first novel, I developed seasonal allergies for the first time in my life which sent me to the doctor for the first time in a long time. After a prescription for nasal spray and a steady supply of Advil, I started to feel better, but then migraine headaches began taking over and I had days where I wasn’t able to do much more than curl up in bed with the blinds down.

I also found myself losing steam around the middle of the month with my first novel idea. This isn’t uncommon with NaNo, since you’re rushing through writing the novel without much time in between to think about how the story is going to go. Even with an outline, I found myself feeling like I was just writing words without meaning, kind of like eating without tasting. So I decided to put it aside and begin my second novel idea. I worked a few days on that and then the Paris attacks happened. I was as devastated as many other people and the morning after I heard about them, I woke up quite depressed. It seemed like the world was just getting crueler, more nonsensical, and more insane. I started to think about what was important to me and how I had been raised to see the world through black-colored glasses as opposed to rose-colored glasses. My parents are both very critical and pessimistic people and they taught me to see the negative in everything. It’s something I’ve been working on for a while, trying to accentuate the positive in life and not to fall into the dark hole of seeing the world as a cruel and violent place.

TEDB Book Cover v1 NaNoThe cover for my NaNo 2015 novel, The Education Of Daisy Bolde.

Photo Credit: A Girl Writing: The Pet Goldfinch, detail, oil on canvas by Henriette Browne, Victoria And Albert Museum, 1870-1874: Plum leaves/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

To that end, I also started to think about the kind of fiction I love to read and that I want to write. Fiction of strength, fiction that, unlike the real world, has a sense of justice, where people meet adversity head-on and even if they don’t come out on top, they learn something in the bargain. I felt that my first novel was really what I wanted to write so I went back to it.

I’m writing this with about a week left to go with NaNo. As to the burning question, will I win NaNo (and winning here means reaching the 50,000 word goal), the answer is, probably not. So you might ask, why bother pushing through to the 30th? For me, NaNo got me back into writer mode. For several months prior to November, I was in revision mode, trying to get the first book of my historical mystery series The Pink Rose Murder polished and ready to send out to beta readers. While I love revision, I was missing the excitement and dynamics of creating a fresh story. So that’s worth much more to me than finishing 50,000 words.

Update 11/30/15: Despite having had health issues this month, I managed to finish NaNo for the first time in the 4 times that I’ve done it!

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