“BARBARY COAST” (1935) Review

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“BARBARY COAST” (1935) Review

I have seen a good number of television and movie Westerns in my time. But I find it rather odd that it is hard – almost difficult – to find a well known story set during the California Gold Rush era. And I find that rather surprising, considering many historians regard it as one of the most interesting periods in the history of the American Old West.

Of the movies and television productions I have come across, one of them is the 1935 Western, “BARBARY COAST”. Directed by Howard Hawks and adapted from Herbert Asbury’s 1933 book, the movie told the story about one Mary Rutledge, a young woman from the East Coast who arrives in 1850 San Francisco to marry the wealthy owner of a local saloon. She learns from a group of men at the wharf that her fiancé had been killed – probably murdered the owner of the Bella Donna restaurant, one Louis Chamalis. Upon meeting Chamalis at his establishment, Mary agrees to be his companion for both economic and personal reasons. She eventually ends up running a crooked roulette wheel at the Bella Donna and becoming Chamalis’ escort. But despite her own larceny, Mary (who becomes known as “the Swan), becomes disenchanted with Chamalis’ bloody methods of maintaining power within San Francisco’s Barbary Coast neighborhood. He even manages to coerce a newspaper owner named Colonel Cobb, who had accused Chamalis of a past murder, into keeping silent. During a morning ride in the countryside, Mary meets and falls in love with a handsome gold miner named Jim Carmichael. Life eventually becomes more difficult for Mary, as she finds herself torn between Jim’s idyllic love and Chamalis’ luxurious lifestyle and his obsessive passion for her.

Judging from my recap of “BARBARY COAST”, it is easy to see that the movie is more than just a Western. It seemed to be part crime melodrama, part romance, part Western and part adventure story. “BARBARY COAST” seemed to have the makings of a good old-fashioned costume epic that was very popular with Hollywood studios during the mid-to-late 1930s. If there is one scene in the movie that truly personified its epic status, it is one of the opening sequences that featured Mary Rutledge’s arrival in San Francisco and her first meeting with Louis Chamalis. Mary’s first viewing of the socializing inside the Bella Donna is filled with details and reeked with atmosphere. Frankly, I consider this scene an artistic triumph for both director Howard Hawks and the movie’s art director, Richard Day.

“BARBARY COAST” went through four screenwriters and five script revisions to make it to the screen. The movie began as a tale about San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, but ended up as a love triangle within the setting. This was due to the Production Code that was recently enforced by Joseph Breen. The latter objected to the original screenplay’s frank portrayal of the San Francisco neighborhood’s activities. By changing the screenplay into a love story in which the heroine finds redemption through love for a decent sort, the filmmakers finally managed to gain approval from Breen. Although Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were credited as the movie’s writers, screenwriters Stephen Longstreet and Edward Chodorov also worked on the script, but did not receive any screen credit. Personally, I had no problems with this choice. Thanks to Hawks’ direction, moviegoers still managed to get a few peeps on just how sordid and corrupt San Francisco was during the Gold Rush.

The movie also benefited from a first-rate cast led by Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea. I would not consider their performances as memorable or outstanding, but all three gave solid performances that more or less kept the movie on track. I found this a miracle, considering the emotional rifts that seemed to permeate the set during production. As it turned out, Robinson and Hopkins could barely stand each other. However . . . there were moments when Robinson and McCrea’s performances were in danger of being less than competent. Robinson nearly veered into the realm of over-the-top melodrama while conveying his character’s jealousy in the movie’s last twenty minutes. And McCrea came off as a bit of a stiff in most of his early scenes. Only with Walter Brennan, did the actor truly conveyed his sharp acting skills. As for Hopkins . . . well, she gave a better performance in this movie than she did in the film for which she had earned an Oscar nomination – namely “BECKY SHARP”.

The movie also featured competent performances from the likes of Walter Brennan, Frank Craven, Harry Carey, and Donald Meek. But if I had to give a prize for the most interesting performance in the film, I would give it Brian Donlevy for his portrayal of Louis Chamalis’ ruthless enforcer, Knuckles Jacoby. Superficially, Donlevy’s Knuckles is portrayed as the typical movie villain’s minion, who usually stands around wearing a menacing expression. Donlevy did all this and at the same time, managed to inject a little pathos in a character who found himself in a legally desperation situation, thanks to his loyalty toward his employer.

But you know what? Despite some of the performances – especially Brian Donlevy’s and the movie’s production values, I did not like “BARBARY COAST”. Not one bit. There were at least two reasons for this dislike. One, I was not that fond of Omar Kiam’s costume designs – namely the ones for Miriam Hopkins. The problem with her costumes is that Kiam seemed incapable of determining whether the movie is set in 1850 or 1935. Honestly. A peek at the costume worn by the actress in the image below should convey the contradicting nature of her costume:

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The other . . . and bigger reason why I disliked “BARBARY COAST” is that the plot ended up disappointing me so much. This movie had the potential to be one of the blockbuster costume dramas shown in movie theaters during the mid-to-late 1930s. If only Joseph Breen and the Censor Board had allowed the filmmakers to somewhat follow Asbury’s book and explore the colorful history of San Francisco from the mid-1840s to the California Gold Rush period of the early-to-mid 1850s. Despite the colorful opening featuring Mary Rutledge’s arrival in San Francisco and the subplot about the Louis Chamalis-Colonel Cobb conflict, “BARBARY COAST” was merely reduced to a 90 minute turgid melodrama about a love triangle between a gold digger, a villain with a penchant for being a drama queen, and stiff-necked gold miner and poet who only seemed to come alive in the company of his crotchety companion. To make matters worse, the movie ended with Mary and Jim Carmichael floating around San Francisco Bay, hidden by the darkness and fog, while evading the increasingly jealous Chamalis, before they can board a clipper ship bound for the East Coast. I mean, honestly . . . really?

I have nothing else to say about “BARBARY COAST”. What else is there to say? Judging from the numerous reviews I have read online, a good number of people seemed to have a high regard for it. However, I simply do not feel the same. Neither director Howard Hawks; screenwriters Ben Hetch and Charles MacArthur; and a cast led by Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea could prevent me from feeling only disappointed. Pity.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1880s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1880s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1880s

1. “Stagecoach” (1939) – John Ford directed this superb adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s 1937 short story, “The Stage to Lordsburg”, about a group of strangers traveling by stagecoach through the Arizona territory. Claire Trevor, John Wayne and Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell starred.

2. “The Four Feathers” (2002) – Shekhar Kapur directed this fascinating adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel about a former British Army officer accused of cowardice. Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hounsou and Kate Hudson starred.

3. “Back to the Future Part III” (1990) – Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd starred in this third installment of the “BACK TO THE FUTURE” TRILOGY, in which Marty McFly travels back to the Old West to prevent the death of fellow time traveler, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown. Written by Bob Gale, the movie was directed by Robert Zemeckis.

4. “Topsy-Turvy” (1999) – Mike Leigh wrote and directed this biopic about W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and their creation of their most famous operetta, “The Mikado”. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner.

5. “Tombstone” (1993) – Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer starred in this colorful and my favorite account about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the famous O.K. Corral gunfight. George P. Cosmatos directed.

6. “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939) – Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in this adaptation of William Gillette’s 1899 stage play, “Sherlock Holmes”. Directed by Alfred L. Werker, the movie co-starred Ida Lupino and George Zucco.

7. “The Cater Street Hangman” (1998) – Eoin McCarthy and Keeley Hawes starred in this television adaptation of Anne Perry’s 1979 novel about a serial killer in late Victorian England. Sarah Hellings directed.

8. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945) – Hurd Hatfield and George Sanders starred in this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel about a handsome young Englishman who maintains his youth, while a special portrait reveals his inner ugliness.

9. “High Noon” (1952) – Gary Cooper won his second Oscar as a town marshal forced to face a gang of killers by himself. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, the movie was written by blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman and co-starred Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado.

10. “Open Range” (2003) – Kevin Costner directed and co-starred with Robert Duvall in this western about a cattle crew forced to take up arms when they and their herd are threatened by a corrupt rancher.

Scotch Egg

Below is an article about the British snack known as Scotch Egg:

SCOTCH EGG

When I first learned about the dish known as Scotch Egg, I had assumed that it had originated in Scotland. Silly me. Basically a snack, the Scotch Egg is usually served at picnics or inside pubs. Today, the Scotch Egg can be found at supermarkets, corner shops and motorway service stations throughout Great Britain. Here in the United States, they can be found at British-style pubs and eateries. They are usually served with hot dipping sauces such as ranch dressing, hot sauce, or hot mustard sauce.

Many food historians claim that the exact origin of the Scotch Egg is unknown. Many believe that it might be a descendant of a form of the Mughlai dish called “nargisi kofta”. However, the London Department store, Fortnum & Mason, claims it was inspired by the “nargisi kofta” and invented the Scotch Egg in 1738.

The recipe for the Scotch Egg first appeared in the 1809 edition of Mrs. Rundell’s 1806 cookbook, “A New System of Domestic Cookery”. Mrs. Rundell and later 19th-century cookbook authors usually instructed their readers to served the Scotch Eggs hot and with gravy.

Below is a recipe from the Allrecipes.com website:

Scotch Egg

Ingredients

1 quart oil for frying

4 eggs

2 pounds pork sausage

4 cups dried bread crumbs, seasoned

1 cup all-purpose flour

4 eggs, beaten

Preparations

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Heat oil in deep-fryer to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).

Place eggs in saucepan and cover with water. Bring to boil. Cover, remove from heat, and let eggs sit in hot water for 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from hot water, cool and peel.

Flatten the sausage and make a patty to surround each egg. Very lightly flour the sausage and coat with beaten egg. Roll in bread crumbs to cover evenly.

Deep fry until golden brown, or pan fry while making sure each side is well cooked. Bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes.

Cut in half and serve over a bed of lettuce and sliced tomatoes for garnish. If mustard is desired it looks beautiful over this.

“JANE EYRE” (1973) Review

“JANE EYRE” (1973) Review

When I began this article, it occurred to me that I was about to embark upon the review of the sixth adaptation I have seen of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. I have now seen six adaptations of “Jane Eyre” and plan to watch at least one or two more. Meanwhile, I would like to discuss my views on the 1973 television adaptation.

For the umpteenth time, “JANE EYRE” told the story of a young English girl, who is forced to live with her unlikable aunt-by-marriage and equally unlikable cousins. After a clash with her Cousin John Reed, Jane Eyre is sent to Lowood Institution for girls. Jane spends eight years as a student and two as a teacher at Lowood, until she is able to acquire a position as governess at a Yorkshire estate called Thornfield Hall. Jane discovers that her charge is a young French girl named Adele Varens, who happens to be the ward of Jane’s employer and Thornfield’s owner, Edward Rochester. Before she knows it, Jane finds herself falling in love with Mr. Rochester. But the path toward romantic happiness proves to be littered with pitfalls.

After watching “JANE EYRE” . . . or least this version, I hit the Web to learn about the prevailing view toward the 1973 miniseries. I got the impression that a number of Brontë fans seemed to regard it as the best version of the 1847 novel. I can honestly say that I do not agree with this particular view. Mind you, the miniseries seemed to be a solid adaptation. Screenwriter Robin Chapman and director Joan Craft managed to translate Brontë’s tale to the screen without too many drastic changes. Yes, there are one or two changes that I found questionable. But I will get to them later. More importantly, due to the entire production being stretch out over the course of five episode, I thought it seemed well balanced.

I was surprised to see that “JANE EYRE” was set during the decade of the 1830s. It proved to be the second (or should I say first) adaptation to be set in that period. The 1983 television adaptation was also set during the 1830s. Did this bother me? No. After all, Brontë’s novel was actual set during the reign of King George III (1760-1820) and I have yet to stumble across an adaptation from this period. Both this production and the 1983 version do come close. But since“Jane Eyre” is not a historical fiction novel like . . . “Vanity Fair”, I see no reason why any movie or television production has to be set during the time period indicated in the story.

The movie also featured some solid performances. I was surprised to see Jean Harvey in the role of Jane’s Aunt Reed. The actress would go on to appear in the 1983 adaptation of the novel as Rochester’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax. As for her portrayal of Aunt Reed, I thought Harvey did a solid job, even if I found her slightly theatrical at times. Geoffrey Whitehead gave an excellent performance as Jane’s later benefactor and cousin, St. John Rivers. However, I had the oddest feeling that Whitehead was slightly too old for the role, despite being only 33 to 34 years old at the time. Perhaps he just seemed slightly older. The 1973 miniseries would prove to be the first time Edward de Souza portrayed the mysterious Richard Mason. He would later go on to repeat the role in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 adaptation. Personally, I feel he was more suited for the role in this adaptation and his excellent performance conveyed this. I do not know exactly what to say about Brenda Kempner’s portrayal of Bertha Mason. To be honest, I found her performance to be something of a cliché of a mentally ill woman. For me, the best performance in the entire miniseries came from Stephanie Beachum, who portrayed Jane’s potential rival, the haughty and elegant Blanche Ingram. I do not think I have ever come across any actress who portrayed Blanche as both “haughty” and lively at the same time. Beachum did an excellent job at portraying Blanche as a likable, yet off-putting and arrogant woman.

Many fans of the novel do not seem particularly impressed by Sorcha Cusack’s portrayal of the title character. A good number of them have accused the actress of being unable to convey more than a handful of expressions. And they have accused her of being too old for the role at the ripe age of 24. Personally . . . I disagree with them. I do not regard Cusack’s performance as one of the best portrayals of Jane Eyre. But I thought she did a pretty damn good job, considering this was her debut as an actress. As for her “limited number of expressions”, I tend to regard this accusation as a bit exaggerated. Yes, I found her performance in the scenes featuring Jane’s early time at Thornfield a bit too monotone. But I feel that she really got into the role, as the production proceeded. On the other hand, many of these fans regard Michael Jayston’s portrayal of Edward Rochester as the best. Again, I disagree. I am not saying there was something wrong with his performance. I found it more than satisfying. But I found it difficult to spot anything unique about his portrayal, in compare to the other actors who had portrayed the role before and after him. There were a few moments when his performance strayed dangerously in hamminess. Also, I found his makeup a bit distracting, especially the . . . uh, “guyliner”.

The production values for “JANE EYRE” seemed solid. I felt a little disappointed that interior shots seemed to dominate the production, despite the exterior scenes of Renishaw Hall, which served as Thornfield. Some might argue that BBC dramas of the 1970s and 1980s were probably limited by budget. Perhaps so, but I have encountered other costumed productions of that period that have used more exterior shots. I had no problem with Roger Reece’s costume designs. But aside from the outstanding costumes for Stephanie Beacham, there were times when most of the costumes looked as if they came from a warehouse.

Earlier, I had commented on the minimal number of drastic changes to Brontë’s novel. I am willing to tolerate changes in the translation from novel to television/movie, if they were well done. Some of the changes did not bother me – namely Bessie’s visit to Jane at Lowood and the quarrel between Eliza and Georgiana Reed, during Jane’s visit at Gateshead Hall. But there were changes and omissions I noticed that did not exactly impress me. I was disappointed that the miniseries did not feature Jane’s revelation to Mrs. Fairfax about her engagement to Mr. Rochester. I was also disappointed that “JANE EYRE” did not feature Jane begging in a village before her meeting with the Rivers family. Actually, many other adaptations have failed to feature this sequence as well . . . much to my disappointment. And I was a little put off by one scene in which Mr. Rochester tried to prevent Jane from leaving Thornfield following the aborted wedding ceremony with over emotional kisses on the latter’s lips. Not face . . . but lips. I also did not care for the invented scenes that included a pair of doctors telling Reverend Brocklehurst that he was responsible for the typhus outbreak at Lowood. What was the point in adding this scene? And what was the point in adding a scene in which two society ladies discussed John Reed during a visit Thornfield?

Overall, “JANE EYRE” proved to be a solid adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, thanks to director Joan Craft and screenwriter Robin Chapman. Everything about this production struck me as “solid”, including the performances from a cast led by Sorcha Cusack and Michael Jayston. Only Stephanie Beachum’s portrayal of Blanche Ingram stood out for me. The production values struck me as a bit pedestrian. And I was not that thrilled by a few omissions and invented scenes by Chapman. But in the end, I liked the miniseries. I did not love it, but I liked it.

“BLANCHE FURY” (1948) Review

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“BLANCHE FURY” (1948) Review

I suspect that many fans of costume dramas would be fascinated to know about the series of period dramas released by the British film industry during the post-World War II era. A good number of those films were released by a British film studio known as Gainsborough Pictures. But not all of them were released through this particular studio. Some were released through other studios or production companies . . . like the 1948 period drama, “BLANCHE FURY”.

Based upon the 1939 novel written by Marjorie Bowen (under the pseudonym of Joseph Stearling), “BLANCHE FURY”told the story of two lovers during the 1850s, who become embroiled in adultery, greed and murder. More importantly, Bowen’s novel and the movie was inspired by a real-life case involving the 1848 murder of an estate owner and his adult by a tenant farmer trying to stave off a bad mortgage. The story surrounding “BLANCHE FURY” proved to be a bit more complicated and melodramatic.

The story begins with a beautiful impoverished gentlewoman named Blanche Fuller, who is forced to serve as a domestic companion for a wealthy woman (think of Joan Fontaine in 1940’s “REBECCA”). To Blanche’s great relief, she receives an invitation to become governess for the granddaughter of her rich uncle Simon Fuller. Upon her arrival, Blanche becomes romantically involved with Simon’s only son, the weak-willed Laurence. She learns that her uncle and cousin have assumed the surname of Fury, which belonged to the previous owner of the estate, the late Adam Fury. She also meets Philip Thorn, Adam’s illegitimate son, who serves as the estate’s head groom and resents Simon and Laurence’s possession of his father’s estate. Blanche decides to marry Laurence for the sake of security and wealth, but becomes dissatisfied with her marriage. She and Philip also fall in love and quickly drifts into a sexual affair. Longing for possession of both Blanche and the estate, Philip drags Blanche into a plot that leads to double murder.

The first thing that caught my attention about “BLANCHE FURY” that it is a beautiful looking film. Producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, director Marc Allégret and cinematographers Guy Green and Geoffrey Unsworth really made use of the Technicolor process. And if I must be brutally honest, I could say the same for the costumes designed by Sophie Devine, who created some colorful outfits for leading lady, Valerie Hobson, as shown below:

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Despite my admiration for the photography and costumes, I was not that impressed by the set designs and especially the production designs. Well . . . let me take some of that back. I had no problems with John Bryan’s production designs for scenes featured in smaller rooms – Philip’s quarters and a private bedroom or two. But I was not impressed by scenes in large rooms – you know, the drawing room, foyer or library of the Fury manor. Quite frankly, these “sets” resembled badly made matte paintings instead of lived-in rooms. Lifeless. An individual museum room with a collection of paintings looked warmer.

But I certainly had no problems with the story. The latter begins with Blanche in the process of giving birth before it flashes back to her days as a paid companion. Thanks to the screenplay written by Audrey Erskine-Lindop and Cecil McGivern, audiences received several glimpses into Blanche’s mindset – her frustrations as a paid companion and later, as wife to the weak-willed Laurence Fury; her sexual fascination with Philip Thorn and the later realization that she had bitten off more than she could chew, thanks to Philip’s murder plot. For me, the most memorable scene in the entire movie featured an argument between the unfaithful Blance and the arrogant Laurence, who had insisted that she interrupt her rest to entertain a guest who had arrived with him and his father in the late evening. Blanche’s blatant refusal to blindly obey her husband nearly caused me to stand up and cheer, despite the fact she had spent the last 24 hours cheating on him with Philip. I had an easier time understanding Blanche than I did Philip. He seemed to have this attitude that the Fury estate should have been given to him, despite being born on the wrong side of the blanket. And the fact that he was willing to destroy the Fuller-Fury clan (with the exception of Blanche), including Laurence’s young daughter, left me feeling cold toward him in the end.

“BLANCHE FURY” featured some very solid performances, despite a penchant for some of the cast to nearly drift into slightly hammy acting. I could never accuse Valerie Hobson of overacting. Mind you, her performance did not exactly knock my socks off, but I thought she did a pretty job. Her best moments proved to be the Blanche/Laurence quarrel and Blanche’s horror over Philip’s arrogant behavior following the deaths of her husband and father-in-law. I had recently come across an article suggesting that Stewart Granger was not exactly the most skillful actor. Recalling his performances in movies like “KING SOLOMON’S MINES”, “SCARAMOUCHE” and “BHOWANI JUNCTION”, I found this opinion hard to accept. But a part of me could not help but noticed that his performance in “BLANCHE FURY” – especially in the movie’s last half hour – threatened to wander in the realm of the melodramatic. Otherwise, I found his performance satisfactory. Michael Gough fared just as well as Miss Hobson as Laurence Fury – especially in the memorable Blanche/Laurence quarrel scene. Though, there were moments when I thought he would go a little overboard. Sybille Binder, who portrayed the Furys’ stoic housekeeper Louisa was just that . . . stoic. I thought she would play a major role in the movie. But in the end, I felt that her time was more or less wasted. Susanne Gibbs made a very charming Lavinia Fury, Laurence’s young daughter. But I thought the best performance came from Walter Fitzgerald, who portrayed Blanche’s no-nonsense uncle (later, father-in-law) Simon Fury. I found it rather interesting that Fitzgerald could portray such a blunt character with great subtlety. He seemed to be the only cast member who did not threatened to become melodramatic.

I may have had a few problems with “BLANCHE FURY”. But if I must be honest, I found it entertaining and rather satisfying. Thanks to Marc Allégret’s direction, Audrey Erskine-Lindop and Cecil McGivern’s entertaining screenplay, Guy Green and Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography and a solid cast led by Valerie Hobson and Stewart Granger, I found the movie more than satisfying.