“IRONCLADS” (1991) Review

“IRONCLADS” (1991) Review

Between the late 1980s and the first few years of the 21st century, communications mogul Ted Turner had produced or oversaw a series of period dramas in the forms of movies and miniseries. Aside from two or three productions, most of them were aired as television movies on the cable network TNT, which is owned by the Turner Broadcasting System. One of those productions was the 1991 movie, “IRONCLADS”

Set during the first year of the U.S. Civil War, “IRONCLADS” is a fictional account of the creations of the first two American ironclads, C.S.S. Virginia (also known as the U.S.S. Merrimack) and the U.S.S. Monitor, and their clash during the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862. The movie began in April 1861 with the U.S. Navy personnel being forced to evacuate the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, following the state of Virginia’s secession from the United States. During the evacuation, Quartermaster’s Mate Leslie Harmon deliberately interfered with the militarily necessary demolition of the Navy Yard’s dry dock at Hampton Roads Naval Base in order to prevent collateral damage and civilian casualties in the city, as Confederates overran the base. While stationed in Norfolk, Leslie had made friends. Unfortunately, his actions were noticed and he found himself facing court-martial. It seemed the newly formed Confederate Navy used the undamaged naval yard to raise the sunken U.S.S. Merrimack and refit it into an ironclad ship.

Union officer Commodore Joseph Smith gave him the choice between facing court-martial or serving as a Union spy. Leslie was assigned to work with a Virginia belle from Norfolk named Betty Stuart, who had become an abolitionist and Unionist during her years at a boarding school in Baltimore. Betty had also recruited her mother’s maid named Opal and the latter’s husband, Cletus, as part of her spy ring. Using Leslie’s past actions during the Union evacuation as an excuse to label him a Confederate sympathizer, Betty introduced him to Norfolk society. This allowed the pair to spy upon the activities surrounding the development of the Confederate Navy’s new ironclad ship. At the same time, the Union Navy recruited John Ericsson to design their own ironclad ship.

Many years – and I do mean many of them – had passed since I last saw “IRONCLADS”. It is a miracle that I was able to watch it, considering that it has yet to be released on DVD. When I first saw “IRONCLADS” over twenty years ago, I had been impressed, despite it being a low-budget television movie that aired on a Basic cable station. But seeing it again after twenty-five years or so . . . I am still impressed. I honestly did not think this movie would hold up after a quarter of a century. Mind you, “IRONCLADS” had its flaws. I think this movie could have been longer . . . at least thirty (30) to forty-five (45) minutes longer. After all, it is about the first two ironclads in both U.S. and world history and I believe that Leslie and Betty’s activities as spies in Norfolk could have been expanded a bit.

But my one real problem with the movie is the romance between Betty Stuart and Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones of the Confederate Navy. It was bad enough that Lieutenant Jones, who was roughly 39 to 40 years old during the movie’s setting was portrayed by actor Alex Hyde-White, who must have been at least roughly 31 years old during the movie’s production. Worse, Betty Stuart was a fictional character. Lieutenant Jones . . . was not. The movie did an excellent job in portraying historical characters such as John Ericsson, Commodore Joseph Smith, Captain Franklin Buchanan of the C.S.S. Virginia, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and yes, President Abraham Lincoln. But the movie made a major misstep in creating a romance between the fictional Betty and the historical Lieutenant Jones. I hate it when writers do that. I still have bad memories of George MacDonald Fraser allowing a historical character to be the illegitimate son of his fictional character, Harry Flashman. And the real Catesby ap Jones was already a married man with children during that first year of the Civil War. For the likes of me, I could not understand why screenwriter Harold Gast could not allow Betty to have a romance with another fictional character, who happened to serve aboard the C.S.S. Virginia under Buchanan and Jones.

Despite the above problems, I can honestly say that I still managed to enjoy “IRONCLADS”. Thanks to Delmar Mann’s direction and Harold Gast’s screenplay, the movie proved to be a heady mixture of espionage, military conflict and history. Step-by-step, the movie took television viewers on a road mixed with fiction and fact to that famous sea battle that stunned the rest of the world. What I found even more interesting – and I am sure that many might find this a reason to criticize – is that in an odd way, the production provided well-rounded characters from both the North and the South.

The Betty Stuart character proved to be rather ambiguous. She was a product of the Virginia upper-class, who became an abolitionist and pro-Union . . . without informing her friends and family about her change of allegiance. And yet, her love for Lieutenant Jones led her to betray her allegiance and beliefs. Her situation proved to be so complicated that the only advice I can give is to watch the film, if you can find it. Another complicated character proved to be the Northern-born navy quartermaster-turned-spy, Leslie Harmon. He got into trouble in the first place, because he thought more of the Norfolk civilians than destroying that dry dock. And while one can admire him for his humanity, I found it interesting that he never really considered the slaves who served the upper-and-middle-class citizens of that city. Until he became a spy and witnessed a Confederate Naval intelligence officer named Lieutenant Gilford harshly ordered Cletus to provide another glass of champagne for him. Leslie eventually confessed that he had never paid attention to Norfolk’s slaves before the war.

As anyone can see, the topic of slavery managed to play a strong role in this production. After all, Betty’s embrace of the abolitionist movement led her to become a pro-Union spy against her fellow Virginians. And she had recruited two of her mother’s slaves as part of her slave ring. What I found interesting about this movie is that it presented two incidents in which Opal and Cletus had individually faced the price of being slaves. I have already mentioned Leslie witnessing Lieutenant Gilford’s harsh and racist attitude toward Cletus. But for me, I was really put off by Mrs. Stuart’s decision to limit Opal’s “visit” to her sister to once a year. It was the manner in which she made this order. I found it cool, subtle, indifferent and self-involved. Naturally, Opal serving Mrs. Stuart’s needs was more important than the latter having the opportunity to see a relative.

However, this story is about the Monitor and the Merrimack. As I had earlier stated, the movie did a pretty damn good job in leading up to the events of the Battle of Hampton Roads. But let us be honest . . . the actual battle proved to be the movie’s pièce de résistance – from that first day when the Merrimack nearly made the Union blockade near Norfolk and Newport News obsolete; to the second in which the two ironclads faced each other. In fact, the battle took up the entire second half. Here, I think Mann, along with film editor Millie Moore, visual effects artist Doug Ferris and the special effects team led by Joel P. Blanchard did an exceptional job of re-creating the Battle of Hampton Roads.

However, the Battle of Hampton Roads sequence was not the only aspect of “IRONCLADS” that I enjoyed. Moore, Ferris and the visual and special effects teams did an admirable job in recreating Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia circa 1861-62. Their work was ably supported by Joseph R. Jennings’ production designs; the sound effects created by the sound editing team led by Burton Weinstein; the sound mixing team led by Kenneth B. Ross; Joseph R. Jennings’ production designs. By the way, the two sound teams both earned Emmy nominations for their work. I was surprised to discover that another Emmy nomination was given to Noel Taylor for his costume designs. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed looking at them, especially those costumes worn by Virginia Masden, as shown below:

I found Taylor’s costumes colorful and yes . . . beautiful to look at. But if I must be honest, his costumes seemed to have a touch of late 20th century glamour – namely those worn by the Virginian elite – that I found unrealistic.

Looking back at “IRONCLADS”, I can honestly say that there was not a performance that blew my mind. The television movie did not feature a performance I would consider worthy of an Emmy nomination. Solid performances came from the likes of E.G. Marshall, Kevin O’Rourke, Leon B. Stevens, Carl Jackson, Andy Park, Burt Edwards and Marty Terry. I thought James Getty was pretty serviceable as President Abraham Lincoln. However, I think he managed to really evoke the memory of “Old Abe” with one particular line – “All I can say is what the girl said when she put her foot in the stocking. It (the U.S.S. Monitor) strikes me there’s something in it.”

But there were performances that I found very noticeable and effective. One would think that Philip Casnoff’s portrayal of naval intelligence officer, Lieutenant Guilford, to be a remake of the villainous character he had portrayed in the television adaptations of John Jakes’ “North and South” novels. However, Casnoff’s Guilford was no copycat of Elkhannah Bent. The actor effectively portrayed a cool and ruthless spymaster willing to do what it took to protect his new nation. Joanne Dorian gave a very interesting and varied performance as Betty Stuart’s shallow and self-involved mother, Blossom Stuart. At times, I found her portrayal of Mrs. Stuart hilarious or amusing. And yet . . . there was that scene in which the actress conveyed the ugliness of her character’s selfishness and racism.

Another performance that caught my eye came from Beatrice Bush, who portrayed Mrs. Stuart’s enslaved maid, Opal and Betty’s fellow spy. During the teleplay’s first half, Bush gave a solid performance. But I was truly impressed by how the actress had expressed Opal’s shock and suppressed anger over Betty’s decision to inform Catesby about their findings regarding the C.S.S. Virginia’s plating. I wsa impressed by how Bush effortlessly expressed Opal’s anger without allowing the character to lose control. I also enjoyed Fritz Weaver’s portrayal of John Ericsson, the Swedish-born immigrant, who became one of the best naval engineers of the 19th century and designer of the U.S.S. Monitor. Weaver gave a very entertaining performance as the tart-tongued engineer who was constantly irritated by U.S. Navy and the Lincoln Administration’s doubts over his work or the use of iron clad ships.

Alex Hyde-White gave a charismatic portrayal of Confederate Naval officer, Lieutenant Catsby ap Jones. The actor did a good job in conveying his character charm, professionalism. He also effectively conveyed Jones’ anger and confusion upon discovering his love’s role as a Union spy. I really enjoyed Reed Diamond’s engaging portrayal of the earnest Union Navy quartermaster, Leslie Harmon. I enjoyed how his character had learned a lesson about himself and what this war was about. He also gave, what I believe to be one of the best lines in the movies. Both Hyde-White and Reed managed to create solid chemistry with leading actress, Virginia Madsen.

Speaking of Madsen, and managed to create a solid screen chemistry with lead Virginia Madsen. Superficially, Madsen’s Betty Stuart seemed like the typical lead in a period drama – a beautiful and noble woman of high birth who has become dedicated to a cause. What made Betty interesting is that she was a Southern-born woman from a slave-owning family who became a dedicated abolitionist. And this led her to become an effective and yes, manipulative spy. But what I found interesting about Madsen’s skillful portrayal is that her character proved to be surprisingly a bit complicated . . . especially when her role as a spy and her feelings for Catsby Jones produced a conflict within her.

I am not going to push the idea that TNT’s “IRONCLADS” was a television hallmark or masterpiece. It was a solid 94-minute account of the circumstances that led to the creations of the world’s first two ironclads – the C.S.S. Virginia (Merrimack) and the U.S.S. Monitor – and their historic clash in Virginia waters. A part of me wished that this movie – especially the details leading to the Battle of Hampton Roads – had been a bit longer. And I am not that thrilled over screenwriter Harold Gast using a historical figure like Catesby ap Jones as the love interest of the fictional Betty Stuart. But I believe that both Gast and director Delmar Mann had created an interesting, complex and exciting narrative that was enhanced by excellent performances from a cast led by Virginia Madsen.

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“MARY POPPINS” (1964) Review

“MARY POPPINS” (1964) Review

Looking at the 1964 movie about a magical nanny, one would be amazed that it took nearly 20 years to make it. I suspect that many did not predict it would become critically acclaimed. But if one is ever interested in the behind-the-scenes production of the film, one would have to read about it . . . or watch the 2013 movie, “SAVING MR. BANKS”. I am here to discuss the actual movie, “MARY POPPINS”

Based upon a selection of short stories written by P.L. Travers, “MARY POPPINS” tells the story of how two Edwardian Age children named Jane and Michael Banks, who request a particular kind of nanny after their latest one quits her job after enduring one too many pranks from the two siblings. Their father, a banker named George Banks, is too busy with his career and projecting the image of an ideal Englishman in order to pay attention to them. Their mother, although slightly more concerned about their welfare, is either caught up in the Suffregette Movement or too busy adhering to their father’s demands. After the departure of their latest nanny, Katie Nanna, Jane and Michael write a letter describing what they want in a new nanny. But Mr. Banks has different ideas – a nanny who is an effective disciplinarian – and tears up their letter.

However, the children’s letter magically reaches a woman named Mary Poppins. She appears at the Banks’ home the following morning to apply (or appoint herself) as Jane and Michael’s new nanny. Despite his initial reservation, Mr. Banks is impressed by Mary Poppins’ firm manner and hires her. With the help of friend named Bert, Mary Poppins introduces the Banks children to a new magical world. In doing so, she also manages to shake up Mr. Banks, his household and his livelihood.

I first saw “MARY POPPINS” as a child and immediately fell in love with it. For years, I have regarded the movie as one of the highlights of my childhood and one of the best films to be released from the Disney Studios. But recent criticism of Mary Poppins as a sugar-coated character of no substance, and of the film as an infantilization of P.L. Travers’ work and vision has led me to wonder if my childhood opinion of “MARY POPPINS” may have been overrated. After all, I had spent years judging the movie from the viewpoint of a child. How would I judge this movie from an adult who has spent the last ten to twenty years viewing movies with a critical eye?

As many have recently pointed out, the Disney Studios made a good number of changes to Travers’ stories. They also left out a great deal. To point out “all” of the changes and deletions would require an essay. And I am not interested in writing such an essay. Were there any aspects of “MARY POPPINS” that I disliked? Honestly? No. But there are aspects of the movie’s production that I wish could have been handled in a slightly different manner.

For quite some time, I never understood why “MARY POPPINS” was shot at the studio’s Burbank lot, instead of at England’s Pinewood Studios, where 1963’s “DR. SYN, ALIAS THE SCARECROW” and “THE THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA” were filmed. Like the two 1963 films, “MARY POPPINS” mainly featured a cast of British actors. Only four cast members were American born – Dick Van Dyke, Ed Wynn, Jane Darwell and Reta Shaw. I feel that if the movie had been shot in Great Britain, its exterior shots of the Banks and Uncle Albert’s neighborhoods and the City of London would have featured a bit more details – add more oomph to the movie’s visual British style. As for Tony Walton’s costume designs, I must admit that I found them rather charming, if not particularly mind blowing. However . . . I could not help but wonder why Mary Poppins’ skirts seemed a tad short for 1909-10 fashions. And I also end up wondering why Winifred Banks’ wardrobe seemed so limited. Unless I am mistaken, actress Glynis Johns wore only three costumes in “MARY POPPINS”. In fact, I suspect she wore one particular costume twice. And Walton designed her costumes either in yellow, powder blue or a combination of both colors. Although I found Johns’ costumes rather charming, they also struck me as a bit limited.

Although the film’s production designs struck me as a bit limited, I cannot help but admire the film’s cinematography and visual style. Edward Colman earned a much deserved nomination for his colorful and sharp photography for the film. Colman’s photography also enhanced Tony Walton’s pthe matte paintings created by Peter Ellenshaw. Since “MARY POPPINS” was filmed on the Disney Studios backlot in Burbank, Walt Disney and director Robert Stevenson not only had to depend upon Carroll Clark and William H. Tuntke’s art direction, but also the visual effects and special effects teams. But “MARY POPPINS” was set in Edwardian London. And since Disney, Stevenson and the film’s crew could not film in Great Britain, the production team had to rely on Ellenshaw’s beautiful and colorful matte paintings to add to the film’s visual look for its setting, as shown in the following images:

 

“MARY POPPINS” may not have been free of any flaws, but it still remains one of my favorite movies of all time. I had earlier pointed out that some critics have pointed out the movie’s failure to be completely faithful to Travers’ stories. Honestly? I do not care. It would have been near impossible for any screenwriter to be completely faithful. Travers did not write a single novel. She wrote a series of short stories and novellas. And since it is impossible for a screenplay to be completely faithful to a novel or stage play, what on earth made these critics believe Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi could have been completely faithful to Travers’ stories and still fashion a single narrative for the film? Ridiculous!

Personally, I am amazed that Walsh and DaGradi managed to wring a single narrative out of so many short stories in the first place. That must have not been an easy task. As the 2013 movie, “SAVING MR. BANKS”, had pointed out, Mary Poppins’ purpose within the Banks’ household was to save George Banks and his relationship with his children. And she did this in the most interesting way. Mary Poppins used her role as the children’s nanny to indirectly affect the family’s patriarch. Instead of utilizing traditional means to care for the children, Mary Poppins exposed Jane and Michael to her world – using magic to clean the nursery, an excursion into a sidewalk chalk drawing of the English countryside, and an afternoon tea party on the ceiling with Mary Poppins’ Uncle Albert. The children’s revelations of their activities naturally shook up Mr. Banks, along with the magical nanny’s subversive and cheerful impact upon the Banks’ household.

Unable to accept Mary Poppins’ impact upon his family and servants, Mr. Banks threatened to fire her. And this is where Mary Poppins, as the film’s trickster, pulled off a pièce de résistance. Before Mr. Banks could fire her, Mary Poppins managed to manipulate him into agreeing to take the children on an outing to his bank. However, the night before this outing, she decides to sing a song to the children about an old beggar woman who sits on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, selling bags of breadcrumbs to passers-by for twopence a bag,so that they can feed the many pigeons that surround her. Between the song and the children spotting the Bird Woman on their way to their father’s bank set in motion the chaos that followed and Mary Poppins’ plan to save Mr. Banks’ relationship with his family. Brilliant.

If the narrative that Walsh and DaGradi had created from Travers’ short stories had struck me as brilliant, the songs written by Robert and Richard Sherman seemed even more so. Aside from the performances, the Sherman Brothers’ songs seemed to be the heart and soul of the film. If someone was to ask me which song was my favorite, I honestly could not answer that question. Aside from two of them, I found most of their songs very memorable . . . even to this day. One of their songs – “Chim Chim Cher-ee” – was nominated for the Best Song Oscar and won. However, I must admit to being surprised that the beautiful and rather haunting “Feed the Birds” failed to garner any kind of nomination or award. Perhaps it was not as fully appreciated back in 1964-65 as it is today.

Both “Jolly Holiday” and </i>”Step in Time”</i> were not only entertaining songs, but they also provided the background for some very entertaining dance numbers. The first featured the very agile Dick Van Dyke and a quartet of animated pigeons. I found this dance sequence both funny and a joy to watch. You have to see it to believe it. As for the second song, it was featured in a show stopping dance routine that involved Van Dyke, Julie Andrews . . . and chimney sweeps. Between the song, the dance routines choreographed by the husband-and-wife team of Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood, and the London rooftops background, the entire sequence is one of the film’s highlights.

Another addition to the magic of “MARY POPPINS” proved to be its cast. The movie featured excellent voice performances in the chalk picture sequence from the likes of J. Pat O’Malley, Marni Nixon, Dallas McKinnon, and Alan Napier. Even Julie Andrews and David Tomlinson also provided voice performances. The supporting and cameo performances featured in this film were marvelous. The movie included excellent performances from Reginald Owen as the cankerous Admiral Boom; Elsa Lancaster as the disgruntled Katie Nanny; Arthur Treacher as the kindly Constable Jones; Arthur Malet as Mr. Dawes Jr., one of the board members of the bank that employed Mr. Banks; Hermione Baddeley and Reta Shaw as Ellen and Mrs. Brill, the Banks’ gregarious maid and cook; and a poignant cameo by Jane Darwell, who was convinced by Disney to make a brief appearance as the Bird Lady.

“MARY POPPINS” marked the second teaming of Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber, who portrayed the magical nanny’s charges, Jane and Michael Banks. It seemed pretty simple to me why Disney had used this pair in three movies. Not only were they were first-rate actors who more than kept up with the likes of Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and David Tomlinson; they also had a great screen chemistry. In P.L. Travers’ books, Mrs. Banks was an easily intimidated woman who could barely maintain control of her household. In this movie, Mrs. Banks was a woman more occupied by her suffragette activities than her children. And she was portrayed by actress Glynis Johns. The latter gave a marvelous performance as a woman who seemed to hid her inability to protect her children from their father’s neglect with a few sympathetic words and her own brand of neglect.

If I had to select the most complex character in this movie, it would have to be Mr. George Banks of 17 Cherry Tree Lane and the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. Thanks to actor David Tomlinson in his first appearance in a Disney film, movie audiences were treated to a superb performance. Tomlinson skillfully transformed George Banks from a highly driven and disciplined man who was obsessed with order to an affectionate family man who had found a new lease on life. It almost seems criminal that the actor never received any kind of acting nomination for his performance.

Unlike Tomlinson, Dick Van Dyke did receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, thanks to his performance as Bert, Mary Poppins’ closest friend and jack-of-all-trades. Whenever Van Dyke’s performance in “MARY POPPINS” is mentioned, people seemed to comment on his Cockney accent. Granted, it was not perfect. But I have never considered it to be a travesty. I have noticed that whenever he spoke words with a long vowell, his Cockney accent seemed exaggerated. Otherwise, I had no problems. And if someone like Sean Connery can win an Oscar for portraying an Irish immigrant with a Scots accent, I see no reason why Van Dyke’s portrayal of Bert should only be condemned for a questionable Cockney accent. Besides . . . accent aside, Van Dyke gave a superb performance in so many other ways. He captured Bert’s charm, wit and a slight talent for manipulation with such perfection. Van Dyke was also given the opportunity to portray another character in the film – namely Mr. Banks’ elderly boss, Mr. Dawes Senior of the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. How often does one find an actor in his late 30s effectively portraying a 90-something year-old man? In my personal experience, very rarely. And to put the cherry on the icing, Van Dyke was never criticized for his British accent, while portraying Mr. Dawes . . . for good reason. Although there have been hints of his talent as a song-and-dance man in his first television series, “THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW”, this movie really provided an opportunity to convey how truly talented he could be.

Julie Andrews managed to capture the big prize for her portrayal of the film’s leading character, Mary Poppins. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Whereas many were distracted from Van Dyke’s performance because of his accent, others have lamented on how Andrews’ portrayal of the magical nanny seemed a far cry from her literary version. Granted, the latter was a plain-looking woman, somewhat more pompous and strict. Although Andrews’ Mary Poppins was more beautiful looking and somewhat warmer, she could still be quite sharp-tongued – especially when disciplining Jane and Michael. Andrews also did a great job in conveying Mary Poppins’ no nonsense behavior and massive talent for emotional manipulation. That one scene in which the magical nanny manipulated Mr. Banks into taking his children on an outing to his bank was just a joy to watch. Thanks to her skillful and award winning performance, Andrews managed to convey the reason why Mary Poppins is regarded as a trickster.

What else can I say about “MARY POPPINS”? Over fifty years have passed since the movie’s initial release and it is still – at least to me – a magical movie to watch. Yes, it had a few flaws. What movie did not? But thanks to P.L. Travers’ stories, Robert Stevenson’s marvelous direction, Robert and Richard Sherman’s music, the movie’s visual effects teams and the superb cast led by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke; “MARY POPPINS” remained timeless and magical as ever.

 

Chicken à la King

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Below is an article about the dish called Chicken à la King

CHICKEN A LA KING

Have you ever come across one of those dishes in which there are so many origin tales about it that it keeps your head spinning? For me, one of those dishes is Chicken à la King. And what I find so amazing about this it that the dish has always strikes me as so simple, it would never occurred to me that it had such a complicated origin.

Chicken à la King is a very simple dish to prepare. It basically consists of diced chicken in a cream sauce. The dish is prepared with sherry, mushrooms, and vegetables. And it is usually served over rice, pasta, or some kind of bread . . . like toast. It has become very popular with some to serve it over biscuits. The reason behind the complication over the dish’s origin is that several people have claim responsibility for creating Chicken à la King and no one has been able to confirm which origin tale is true. Here are some of the claims for the dish’s origin:

*Charles Ranhofer, chef of Manhattan’s Delmonico’s restaurant had created the dish sometime during the 1880s. According to this claim, Ranhofer created the dish for American race horse breeder/trainer, Foxhall P. Keene, and the dish was originally called Chicken à la Keene.

*According to another claim, someone cook at Claridge’s Hotel created the dish in 1881 and named it after Keene’s father, American stockbroker James P. Keene.

*George Greenwald of the Brighton Beach Hotel in Brighton Beach had created the dish in 1898 and named it after hotel patron E. Clarke King II and his wife.

*William “Bill” King , a cook at the Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia, had created the dish sometime during the 1890s. When King died in 1915, several newspapers gave him credit for the dish. Most people believe this is the most plausible origin of the dish.

Although the recipe for the dish was included in cookbooks throughout the first two decades of the 20th century, like 1906’s “The Fanny Farmer Cookbook”, Chicken à la King really became popular during the middle to late 20th century. Regardless of who was truly responsible for the creation of Chicken à la King, below is a recipe for it from the Betty Crocker website:

Chicken à la King

Ingredients
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1 small green bell pepper, chopped (1/2 cup)
3 ounces fresh mushrooms, sliced (3 ounces)
1/2 cup Gold Medal™ all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/4 cups Progresso™ chicken broth (from 32-ounce carton)
2 cups cut-up cooked chicken or turkey
1 jar (2 ounces) diced pimientos, drained

Preparation
1. Melt butter in 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook bell pepper and mushrooms in
butter, stirring occasionally, until bell pepper is crisp-tender.
2. Stir in flour, salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until bubbly;
remove from heat. Stir in milk and broth. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Boil and
stir 1 minute. Stir in chicken and pimientos; cook until hot. Serve over rice.

Note: You can serve Chicken à la King over rice, any other kind of past, toast or even biscuits. The choice is yours.

Favorite Films Set in the 1800s

Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the decade between 1800 and 1809: 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1800s

1. “Emma” (1996) – Gwyneth Paltrow starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel about an upper-class Englishwoman’s attempts to play matchmaker for her friends and neighbors. Co-starring Jeremy Northam, the movie was adapted and directed by Douglas McGrath.

2. “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003) – Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany starred in this Oscar-nominated adaptation of several of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. The movie was co-written and directed by Peter Weir.

3. ‘Buccaneer’s Girl” (1950) – Yvonne De Carlo starred in this entertaining romantic adventure about the relationship between a Boston singer and an elite sea trader/pirate in old New Orleans. Directed by Frederick de Cordova, the movie co-starred Philip Friend and Robert Douglas.

4. “Captain Horatio Hornblower” (1951) – Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo starred in this adaptation of three of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. The movie was directed by Raoul Walsh.

5. “Mansfield Park” (1999) – Patricia Rozema adapted and directed this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about an impoverished young woman living with her wealthy relations. Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller starred.

6. “The Duellists” (1977) – Ridley Scott directed this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1908 short story, “The Duel” about a small feud between two Napoleonic officers that evolves into a decades-long series of duels. Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel starred.

7. “Lloyd’s of London” (1936) – Tyrone Power was featured in his first starring role as a young man who worked for the famous insurance corporation, Lloyd’s of London, during the Napoleonic Wars. Directed by Henry King, Madeleine Carroll and George Sanders co-starred.

8. “Carry On Jack” (1963) – Bernard Cribbins, Kenneth Williams and Juliet Mills starred in this eighth entry in the “Carry On” comedy series, which is a spoof of the high-seas adventure genre. Gerald Thomas directed.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (2015) Review

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (2015) Review

I have never seen “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, the 2015 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, in the theaters. And yet . . . my knowledge of this film led me to view two previous adaptations. And finally, I found the chance to view this adaptation, directed by Thomas Vinterberg. 

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” told the story of a young 19th century rural English woman named Bathsheba Everdeene and the three men in her life – a sheep farmer-turned-shepherd named Gabriel Oak; her neighbor and owner of the neighborhood’s largest farm, William Boldwood; and an illegitimate Army sergeant named Frank Troy. Bathsheba first met Gabriel Oak, a former shepherd who had leased and stocked a sheep farm. Gabriel proposed marriage, but Bathsheba rejected his proposal even though she liked him. She valued her independence more. Later, Bathsheba inherited her uncle’s prosperous farm, while Gabriel’s fortune disappeared when his inexperienced sheep dog drove his flock over a cliff. When the pair’s paths crossed again, Bathsheba ended up hiring Gabriel as her new shepherd. Meanwhile, Bathsheba became acquainted with her new neighbor, a wealthy farmer named William Boldwood. He became romantically obsessed with her after she sent him a Valentine’s Day card as a joke. But before she could consider Mr. Boldwood as a potential husband, Sergeant Frank Troy entered her life and she immediately fell in love and married him. Eventually, Bathsheba came to realize that Frank was the wrong man for her.

A good number of people compared this adaptation of Hardy’s novel to the 1967 movie adapted by John Schlesinger. Personally, I did not. As much as I enjoyed the 1967 movie, I have never regarded it as the gold-standard for any movie or television adaptation of the 1874 novel. But like the other two version, Thomas Vinterberg’s recent adaptation had its flaws. Looking back on “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, I can honestly say that I had at least a few problems with it.

I wish the running time for “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” had been a bit longer than 119 minutes. I believe a longer running time would have given the film’s narrative more time to explore the downfall of Bathsheba and Frank’s marriage. Unfortunately, it seemed as if Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls had rushed through this entire story arc. I was surprised when Bathesheba admitted to Gabriel that her marriage to Frank had been a mistake on the very night of hers and Frank’s harvest/wedding party, when an upcoming storm threatened to ruin her ricks. I realize that this conversation also occurred during the night of the harvest/wedding party in the novel. But from a narrative point-of-view, I believe this conversation between Bathsheba and Gabriel would have worked later in the story . . . when it has become very obvious that her marriage to Frank has failed.

In fact, Frank Troy’s entire character arc seemed to be rushed in this film. Many have complained that Tom Sturridge’s portrayal of Frank was flawed. I do not agree. I did not have a problem with the actor’s performance. I had a problem with Vinterberg and Nicholls’ portrayal of Frank. In my review of the 1967 adaptation, I had complained about the overexposure of Frank’s character in that film. In this version of “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, Frank’s character seemed to be underexposed. Aside from a few scenes that included Bathsheba and Frank’s first meeting, his display of swordsmanship, his revelation about his true feelings for Bathsheba and Boldwood’s Christmas party; I do not think that this movie explored Frank’s character as much as it could have.

Another aspect of Frank Troy’s arc that suffered in this film was the character of Fanny Robin. Anyone familiar with Hardy’s novel should know that Fanny was a local girl who worked at the Everdene farm. Before Gabriel’s arrival, she had left to become Frank’s wife. Unfortunately, the wedding never happened because Fanny went to the wrong church. Frustrated angry, Frank prematurely ended their relationship. If Frank was underexposed in “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, poor Fanny was barely developed. I could solely blame Thomas Hardy for this poor use of Fanny’s character, since he was also guilty of the character’s underdevelopment. But I have to blame Vinterberg and Nicholls as well. They could have easily added a bit more to Fanny’s character, which is what the 1998 miniseries adaptation did. Alas . . . audiences barely got to know poor Fanny Robin.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” may not have been perfect, but I still found it to be a first-rate film. One, it is a beautiful movie to watch. “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” may have lacked the sweeping cinematography featured in the 1967 movie, but I must admit that I enjoyed Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s elegant, yet colorful photography. I can also say the same about the Art Design team of Julia Castle, Tim Blake and Hannah Moseley; and Kave Quinn’s production designs, which did a stupendous job of re-creating a part of rural England in the late 19th century. But I really enjoyed Janet Patterson’s costume designs, as shown in the images below:

 

Although the novel was published in 1874, Patterson’s costumes made it apparent to me that Vinterberg had decided to set this adaptation during the late 1870s or early 1880s. Did this bother me? No. I was too distracted by Patterson’s elegant, yet simple costumes to care.

Yes, I had a problem with the film’s limited portrayal of Frank Troy and especially Fanny Robin. But I still enjoyed this adaptation very much. The reason I enjoyed it so much is that Vinterberg and Nicholls did an excellent job of staying true to the narrative’s main theme – namely the character development of Bathsheba Everdene. From that first moment when Gabriel Oak spotted the spirited Bathsheba riding bareback on her horse, to her early months as moderately wealthy farmer, to the infatuated bride of an unsuitable man, to the emotionally battered but not bowed woman who learned to appreciate and love the right man in her life; “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” allowed filmgoers share Bathsheba’s emotional journey during an important period in her life.

The ironic thing is that Bathsheba’s story arc is not the only one featured in this film. Both Vinterberg and Nicholls also explored Gabriel Oak’s personal journey, as well. Superficially, Gabriel seemed to be the same man throughout the film. And yet, I noticed that Gabriel seemed a bit too sure of himself in the film’s opening sequence. He seemed sure of his possible success with a sheep farm and his efforts to woo Bathsheba. And yet, between the loss of his herd and Bathsheba’s rejection, Gabriel found himself forced to start all over again with his life. Although he remained constant in his love for Bathsheba and his moral compass, it was interesting to watch him struggle with his personal frustrations and setbacks – especially in regard to his feelings for Bathsheba.

Whereas audiences watch Bathsheba and Gabriel develop, they watch both John Boldwood and Francis Troy regress to their tragic fates. The strange thing about Frank was that he had a chance for a happier life with Fanny Robin. I still remember that wonderful sequence in which Frank waited for Fanny to appear at the church for their wedding. It was interesting to watch his emotions change from mild fear, hope and joy to outright anger and contempt toward Fanny for leaving him at the altar, all because she went to the wrong church. I still find it interesting that Frank allowed his pride and anger to get the best of him and reject the only woman that he truly loved. Boldwood . . . wow! Every time I watch an adaptation of Hardy’s story, I cannot help but feel a mixture of pity, annoyance and some contempt. He truly was a pathetic man in the end. Perhaps he was always that pathetic . . . even from the beginning when he seemed imperious to Bathsheba’s presence. After all, it only took a Valentine’s card – given to him as some kind of joke – to send him on a path of obsessive love and murder.

The performances in “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” certainly added to the film’s excellent quality. The movie featured some pretty first-rate performances from the supporting cast. This was apparent in Juno Temple’s charming and poignant portrayal of the doomed Fanny Robin. I was also impressed by Jessica Barden for giving a very lively performance as Liddy, Bathsheba’s extroverted boon companion. The movie also featured solid performances from Sam Phillips, who portrayed Frank’s friend, Sergeant Doggett; Victor McGuire as the corrupt Bailiff Pennyways; and Tilly Vosburgh, who portrayed Bathsheba’s aunt, Mrs. Hurst.

As I had earlier pointed out, many have criticized Tom Sturridge’s portrayal of Frank Troy. I do not disagree with this criticism. If I must be honest, I was very impressed with Sturridge’s performance. I thought he conveyed the very aspect of Frank’s nature – both the good and the bad. This was especially apparent in three scenes – Frank’s aborted wedding to Fanny, his initial seduction of Bathsheba, and his emotional revelation of his true feelings for Fanny. It really is a pity that Vinterberg did not give Sturridge more screen time to shine. Thankfully, Michael Sheen was given plenty of screen time for his portrayal of Bathsheba’s possessive neighbor, John Boldwood. I must confess . . . I have never seen Sheen portray any other character like Boldwood. It was a revelation watching the actor beautifully embody this emotionally stunted man, who allowed a silly Valentine’s Day joke to lead him to desperately grasped at at prospect for love.

I had never heard of Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts until I saw this film. This is understandable, considering that “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” was the first English-speaking movie in which I had seen him. Vinterberg must have been a major fan of Schoenaerts to be willing to cast him as the obviously 19th century English shepherd, Gabriel Oak. I am certainly a fan of his portrayal of the stalwart Gabriel. Schoenaerts did a superb job in conveying Gabriel’s emotional journey – especially in regard to the ups and downs in the character’s relationship with Bathsheba. I am still amazed by how the actor managed to convey Gabriel’s emotional state, while maintaining the character’s reserve nature.

I believe Carey Mulligan may have been at least 28 or 29 years old, when shooting “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, making her the second oldest actress to portray Bathsheba Everdene. Some have complained that Mulligan seemed a bit too old to be portraying the early 20s Bathsheba.  I can honestly say that I do not agree. During the film’s first 20 minutes or so, Mulligan’s Bathsheba did come off as a bit sophisticated and all knowing. It eventually occurred to me that the actress was merely conveying the character’s youthful arrogance. And yet, Mulligan skillfully  conveyed the character’s personal chinks in that arrogance throughout the movie – whether expressing Bathsheba’s insistence that Gabriel regard her solely as an employer, the character’s embarrassment over being pursued by the obsessive Boldwood or Frank’s overt sexual attention to her, or her desperation and humiliation from his emotional abuse. Mulligan gave an excellent and memorable performance.

I cannot say that the 2015 movie, “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” is perfect. Come to think of it, none of the adaptations I have seen are. Despite its flaws, I can honestly say that it is another excellent adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, thanks to Thomas Vinterberg’s direction, David Nicholls’ screenplay and a superb cast led by Carey Mulligan.

 

 

Top Favorite Television Productions Set During the 1500s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1500s: 

TOP FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET DURING THE 1500s

1. “Elizabeth R” (1971) – Emmy winner Glenda Jackson starred in this award winning six-part miniseries about the life of Queen Elizabeth I. The miniseries was produced by Rodney Graham.

2. “The Tudors” (2007-2010) – Michael Hirst created this Showtime series about the reign of King Henry VIII. The series starred Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Henry Cavill.

3. “Elizabeth I” (2005) – Emmy winner Helen Mirren starred in this two-part miniseries about the last 24 years of Queen Elizabeth I’s life. Directed by Tom Hooper, the miniseries co-starred Jeremy Irons and Hugh Dancy.

4. “Wolf Hall” – Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis and Claire Foy starred in this television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel of the same title and her 2012 novel “Bring Up the Bodies” about the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the court of King Henry VIII. Peter Kominsky directed.

5. “Gunpowder, Treason & Plot” (2004) – Jimmy McGovern wrote this two-part miniseries about Scotland’s Queen Mary and her son King James VI, along with the Gunpowder Plot. Directed by Gillies MacKinnon, the miniseries starred Clémence Poésy, Kevin McKidd and Robert Carlyle.

6. “The Borgias” (2011-2013) – Neil Jordan created this series for Showtime about Pope Alexander VI and his family, the Borgias, around the turn of the 16th century. The series starred Jeremy Irons, François Arnaud and Holliday Grainger.

7. “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” (1970) – Keith Michell starred as King Henry VIII in this six-part miniseries about the monarch’s relationship with each of his six wives.

8. “The Virgin Queen” (2009) – Paula Milne wrote this four-part miniseries about . . . of course, Queen Elizabeth I. Anne-Marie Duff and Tom Hardy starred.

9. “The Other Boleyn Girl” (2003) – Philippa Lowthorpe directed this adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s 2001 novel about Elizabeth I’s aunt, Mary Boleyn. Natascha McElhone, Jodhi May, Steven Mackintosh and Jared Harris starred.