“RAINTREE COUNTY” (1957) Review

“RAINTREE COUNTY” (1957) Review

As much as some people would hate to admit it, “GONE WITH THE WIND”, the 1939 adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, had really cast a long shadow upon the Hollywood industry. Before its release, movies about the Antebellum and Civil War period were rarely released. And by the mid-1930s, Civil War movies especially were considered box office poison. Following the success of “GONE WITH THE WIND”, many Hollywood studios seemed determined to copy the success of the 1939 movie. 

Although “GONE WITH THE WIND” was definitely a Selznick International product, it had been released in theaters by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios, thanks to a deal that allowed the latter to help producer David Selznick finance the movie. Although MGM had released a few movies set during the mid-19th century – including “LITTLE WOMEN” and “SOUTHERN YANKEE” – it did not really try to copy Selznick’s success with “GONE WITH THE WIND”, until the release of its own Antebellum/Civil War opus, “RAINTREE COUNTY”.

Based upon Ross Lockridge Junior’s 1948 novel, “RAINTREE COUNTY” told the story of a small-town Midwestern teacher and poet named John Shawnessy, who lived in 19th century Indiana. Although most of Lockridge’s novel is set in the decade before the Civil War and the next two-to-three decades after the war, the movie adaptation took a different direction. The movie began with John’s graduation from his hometown’s local academy. Many people in Freehaven, Indiana – including John’s father, his teacher/mentor Professor Jerusalem Webster Stiles, and his sweetheart Nell Gaither – expect great things from him, due to his academic excellence. But when John meet a visiting Southern belle named Susanna Drake and has a brief tryst with her during a Fourth of July picnic, his life unexpectedly changes. Susanna returns to Freehaven a month or two later with the news that she is pregnant with his child. Being an honorable young man, John disappoints both Nell and his father by marrying Susanna. Their honeymoon in Louisiana starts off well, but John becomes aware of Susanna’s mental instability and her suspicions that she might be the daughter of a free black woman who had been Susanna’s nanny for the Drake family. However, the Civil War breaks out. Susanna’s emotional state becomes worse and she eventually leaves Indiana for Georgia, the home of her mother’s family. John joins the Union Army in an effort to find her.

After viewing “RAINTREE COUNTY”, a part of me wondered why it was regarded as a Civil War movie. The majority of the film’s action occurred between 1859-1861, the two years before the war’s outbreak. A great deal of the film’s Civil War “action” focused on the birth of John and Susanna’s son – the day the war started, one night in which Susanna informed John about her family’s history, and his rescue of young Johnny at a cabin outside of Atlanta. Otherwise, not much happened in this film during the war. Hell, John eventually found Susanna at a Georgian asylum . . . right after the war. Why this movie is solely regarded as a Civil War movie, I have no idea.

I realize that “RAINTREE COUNTY” is supposed to be about the life of John Shawnessey, but he came off as a rather dull protagonist. Some critics have blamed leading actor Montgomery Clift’s performance, but I cannot. I simply find John to be a rather dull and ridiculously bland character. Aside from losing control of his libido when he first met and later married Susanna, and being slightly naive when the movie first started; John Shawnessey never really made a mistake or possessed a personal flaw. How can one enjoy a movie, when the protagonist is so incredibly dull? Even if the movie had followed Lockbridge’s novel by exploring John’s post-war involvement in politics and the late 19th century Labor movement, I would still find him rather dull and slightly pretentious. Characters like the volatile Susanna, the mercenary and bullying Garwood P. Jones, the witty Professor Stiles, the gregarious local Orville ‘Flash’ Perkins and even Nell Gaither, who proved to harbor flashes of wit, malice and jealousy behind that All-American girl personality were more interesting than John. How can I get emotionally invested in a movie that centered around such a dull man?

I find his goal in this movie – the search for the “raintree” – to be equally dull. Thanks to Lockridge’s novel and Millard Kaufman’s screenplay, the “raintree” symbolizes the Tree of Knowledge, whose golden boughs shed fertilizing blossoms on the land. In other words, John’s goal is to search for self-knowledge, maturity, wisdom . . . whatever. Two main problems prevented this theme from materializing in the story. One, Kaufman barely scratched the surface on this theme, aside from one scene in which Professor Stiles discussed the “raintree” to his students and how its location in Indiana is also a metaphor for American myth, another scene in which John foolish searches for this tree in the local swamp, a third scene in which John and Susanna discusses this myth and in one last scene featuring John, Susanna, their son James, and Nell in the swamp at the end of the movie. Am I to believe that the movie’s main theme was only featured in four scenes of an 182 minutes flick? And the idea of John spending most of the film finding self-knowledge, wisdom, etc. strikes me as superfluous, considering that he comes off as too much of a near ideal character in the first place.

To make matters worse, the movie had failed to adapt Lockridge’s entire novel. Instead, it focused on at least half or two-thirds of the novel – during John Shawnessey’s years during the antebellum period and the Civil War. Let me re-phase that. “RAINTREE COUNTY” has a running time of 160 minutes. At least spent 90 minutes of the film was set during the antebellum period. The next 40 minutes was set during the war and the right after it. at least half or two-thirds of the film during the antebellum period. The rest focused on the Civil War, which struck me as something of a rush job on director Edward Dmytryk’s part, even if I did enjoyed it. In fact, I wish that the film’s Civil War chapter had lasted longer.

Since the John Shawnessey character and his story arc proved to be so boring (well, at least to me), I did not find it surprising that Dmytryk and screenwriter Millard Kaufman ended up focusing most of the film’s attention on the Susanna Drake Shawnessey character. After all, she emerged as the story’s most interesting character. Her childhood neuroses not only made her complex, but also reflected the country’s emotional hangups (then and now) with race. And there seemed to be a touch of Southern Gothic about her personal backstory. But in the end, both Kaufman and Dmytryk fell short in portraying her story arc with any real depth. It is obvious that the conflict between Susanna’s love for her nanny Henrietta and her racism, along with the survivor’s guilt she felt in the aftermath of family’s deaths had led to so much emotional trauma for her. But Kaufman’s screenplay failed to explore Susanna’s racism, let alone resolve it one way or the other.

In fact, the topic of race is never discussed or explored in “RAINTREE COUNTY”. I found this odd, considering how Susanna’s emotional trauma played such a big role in the film’s narrative. The movie featured two African-American actresses – Isabel Cooley and Ruth Attaway – who portrayed the maids that Susanna brought with her from Louisiana. Their presence in the Shawnessey household created a major quarrel between the pair in which John had demanded that Susanna free them or he would leave. And yet . . . Kaufman’s screenplay never gave the two maids a voice. John Shawnessey never really explained or discussed his reasons for being an abolitionist. Although the movie did point out both Southern and Northern racism, no one really discussed slavery with any real depth. Racism only played a role in Susanna’s emotional hangups about her family and nothing else.

In one of the movie’s final scenes; John’s father, Professor Stiles, and Nell were among those who tried to encourage John, a former abolitionist, to run for Congress. To protect the South from the post-war Republicans like Garwood Jones . . . who was definitely a Copperhead Democrat during the war. Watching this scene, I found myself scratching my brow. To protect . . . which South? All of the South? Or the white South? One would think that a former abolitionist and pro-Lincoln supporter like John would be a Republican. I can understand him not being interested in “punishing the South”, or white Southerners. But what about the former slaves of the South? Kaufman’s screenplay did not seem the least interested in pointing out how the freedmen would need protection. And John Shawnessey seemed like the type of character – judging from his pre-war and wartime views on abolition – who would be interested in the fate of those former slaves. Unfortunately . . . the topic never came up.

I have two last complaints about “RAINTREE COUNTY” – its score and title song. I was surprised to learn that Johnny Green had earned an Academy Award nomination for the score he had written for the movie. How in the hell did that happen? I found it so boring. And bland. It was a miracle that the music did not put me to sleep while watching the film. Producer David Lewis had hired Nat King Cole to perform the movie’s theme song, also written by Green. Look, I am a big fan of Cole’s work. But not even he could inject any real fire into this song. Like the score, it was dull as hell. And the song’s style struck me as a bit too modern (for the mid 1950s) for a period movie like “RAINTREE COUNTY”.

Was there anything about “RAINTREE COUNTY” that I enjoyed? Well . . . I enjoyed the art direction and set decorations featured in it. Both teams received deserved Academy Award nominations for their work. Academy Award winner Walter Plunkett (who had won for “GONE WITH THE WIND”) had received an Oscar nomination for his work in this film:

However, I have noticed that like his costumes for female characters in “GONE WITH THE WIND”, Plunkett’s costumes for “RAINTREE COUNTY” have touches of modern fashion in them . . . especially some of the hats worn by Elizabeth Taylor and Eva Marie Saint.

The movie also featured scenes and sequences that I enjoyed. I thought the Fourth-of-July foot race between John Shawnessey and “Flash” Perkins rather permeated with the atmosphere of a mid-19th century Midwestern town. I also enjoyed the humor featured in this sequence. I was also impressed by the New Orleans ball that John and Susanna had visited during their honeymoon, along with John’s visit to a New Orleans “quadroon ball” (I think it was) in order to privately speak with Susanna’s cousin Bobby Drake. Thanks to Dmytryk’s skillful direction and the production designs, I was impressed with the sequence that began with the celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s election as president on Freehaven’s streets and ended with the party as the Shawnessey home held in honor of Susanna’s emancipation of her two slaves. Another sequence that impressed me featured Susanna’s revelations about the true circumstances of her parents’ deaths to John. I found it very dramatic in the right way and it featured a fine performance from Elizabeth Taylor.

But the one sequence I actually managed to truly enjoyed featured John Shawnessey’s experiences as a Union soldier with the Army of the Cumberland. The sequence began with John’s humorous and enjoyable reunion with both “Flash” Perkins and Professor Stiles (who had become a war correspondent). The film continued with a fascinating montage featuring John and Flash engaged in battles at Chickamauga, Resaca and Atlanta, punctuated by Professor Stiles’ grim and sardonic commentaries on the warfare. The action and suspense, along with my interest, went up several notch when John and Flash had become two of Sherman’s “Bummers” (foragers) during the general’s march through Georgia. The entire sequence featured the pair’s arrival at Susanna’s Georgia home, the discovery of young Jim Shawnessey and their encounter with a Georgia militia unit led by a wily Confederate officer. This sequence featuring John’s Army experiences proved to be the movie’s high point . . . at least for me.

“RAINTREE COUNTY” featured some decent performances from the supporting cast. Walter Abel and Agnes Moorehead portrayed John’s parents, T.D. and Ellen Shawnessey. I found Moorehead’s performance satisfactory, but I thought Abel’s portrayal of the idealistic Shawnessey Senior rather annoying and a bit over-the-top. I have to say the same about John Eldredge and Jarma Lewis, who portrayed two members of Susanna’s Louisiana family. DeForest Kelley (who was eight or nine years away from “STAR TREK”) seemed both sardonic and witty as the Confederate officer captured by John and Flash. Rosalind Hayes gave a poignant performance as the housekeeper formerly owned by Susanna’s Georgia family, who rather “delicately” explained Susanna’s emotional turmoil to John.

The supporting performances in “RAINTREE COUNTY” that really impressed me came from Lee Marvin, who was a delight as the extroverted and good-natured Orville “Flash” Perkins. A part of me wishes that his role had been bigger, because Marvin’s performance struck me as one of the film’s highlights to me. I heard that Rod Taylor had went out of his way to be cast as the local scoundrel (read: bully) Garwood Jones. Taylor gave a first-rate performance, but his role struck me as a bit wasted throughout most of the film. I was impressed by Tom Drake’s restrained, yet sardonic portrayal of Susanna’s Cousin Bobby, especially in the scene in which he revealed that Susanna had been somewhat older at the time of her parents’ deaths. Nigel Patrick gave a very memorable performance as John’s mentor, Jerusalem Webster Stiles. Mind you, there were times when I found Patrick’s performance a bit theatrical or overbearing. But I also found his performance very entertaining and humorous – especially his monologue for the Army of the Cumberland montage in the film’s second half.

Eva Marie Saint had the thankless task of portraying the one character that most moviegoers seemed inclined to dismiss or ignore – local belle and John Shawnessey’s first love, Nell Gaither – the type most people would dismiss as some bland All-American girl. And yet, the actress managed to add a good deal of fire, passion and intensity in her performance, transforming Nell into a surprisingly complex character with some semblance of tartness. Elizabeth Taylor was luckier in that she was cast as the movie’s most interesting character – Susanna Drake Shawnessey. Taylor, herself, had once pointed out that she seemed to be chewing the scenery in this film. Granted, I would agree in a few scenes in which I found her Susanna a bit too histronic for my tastes. And Taylor’s Southern accent in this film struck me as somewhat exaggerated. I found this surprising, considering that I found her Upper South accent in 1956’s “GIANT” more impressive. But in the end, I could see how Taylor had earned her Oscar nomination for portraying Susanna. She took on a very difficult and complex character, who was suffering from a mental decline. And I was especially impressed by her performance in that one scene in which Susanna finally revealed the details behind her parents and Henrietta’s deaths. No wonder Taylor ended up receiving an Oscar nod.

Poor Montgomery Clift. He has received a great deal of flack for his portrayal of the film’s main protagonist, John Shawnessey. Personally, I agree that his performance seemed to be lacking his usual intensity or fire. There were moments when he seemed to be phoning it in. Many critics and moviegoers blamed his alcoholism and the car accident he had endured during the movie’s production. Who knows? Perhaps they are right. But . . . even if Clift had not been an alcoholic or had been in that accident, he would have been fighting a losing battle. John Shawnessey never struck me as an interesting character in the first place. Perhaps Clift realized it and regretted his decision to accept the role. However, the actor actually managed to shine a few times. He was rather funny in one humorous scene featuring Saint’s Nell Gaither and Taylor’s Garwood Jones. He was also funny in the moments leading up to John’s foot race against Flash Perkins. Clift certainly seemed to be on his game in the scene featuring John’s angry confrontation with Susanna over her slaves. Also, he managed to create some good chemistry with Marvin and Patrick during the Civil War sequence.

Yes, “RAINTREE COUNTY” had some good moments. This was especially apparent in the film’s Civil War sequences. I found the movie’s production values up to par and I was especially impressed by Walter Plunkett’s costume designs. Most of the cast managed to deliver excellent performances. But in the end, I feel that the movie was undermined by lead actor Montgomery Clift’s listless performance and uneven direction by Edward Dmytryk. However, the real culprit for “RAINTREE COUNTY” proved to be the turgid and unstable screenplay written by Millard Kaufman. Producer David Lewis should have taken one look at that script and realize that artistically, it would be the death of the film.

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TIME MACHINE: Armistice of 11 November 1918

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TIME MACHINE: ARMISTICE OF 11 NOVEMBER 1918

This month, November 2018, marked the 100th anniversary of armistice that was signed between the Allied/Entente Powers that included Great Britain, France, Italy and the United States and Germany, the remaining member of the Central Powers. This armistice ended the fighting in World War I. 

By late September 1918, war had waged between the Allied Powers and the Central Powers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa for roughly over four years. On the 28th of that month, the German Supreme Army Command had met with Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Imperial Chancellor, Count Georg von Hertling at the Imperial Army Headquarters at Spa in occupied Belgium. The Command had informed the Kaiser and the Imperial Chancellor that the military situation facing Germany was hopeless. Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff, probably fearing a breakthrough, claimed that he could not guarantee that the Germany’s front would hold for another two hours and demanded a request be given to the Entente for an immediate ceasefire. Then news came of the signing of the Armistice of Salonica at Thessaloniki, Greece; between Bulgaria and the Allied Powers on September 29, 1918. The Central Powers had lost one member of its alliance and the war hostilities ceased on the Bulgarian front.

Prince Maximilian of Baden replaced Georg von Hertling as Chancellor of Germany on October 3, 1918 in order to gegotiate an armistice. Two days later, the German government sent a message to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to negotiate terms on the basis of his Fourteen Points. The points or Wilson’s demands included the retreat of Germany from all occupied territories, the cessation of submarine activities and Kaiser Wilhelm’s abdication.

Then on October 17, 1918; the Allied forces made its final push towards the German border. While the British, French and American armies advanced, the alliance between the Central Powers began to collapse. The Ottoman Empire (Turkey) signed the Armistice of Mudros on October 30, 1918; ending the hostilities in the Middle East. On November 3, Austria-Hungary signed the Armistice of Villa Guisti with Italy, ending hostilities on the Italian front on the following day, November 4.

By mid-to-late October, Germany began to crumble from within. Faced with the prospect of returning to sea, the sailors of the High Seas Fleet stationed at Kiel mutinied on October 29. Within a few days, the entire city was under their control and the revolution against the empire spread throughout the country. On November 9, 1918; Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated from Germany’s imperial throne. The former monarch slipped across the border into the Netherlands and remained in exile until his death in 1941, at the age of 82. A German Republic was declared and peace feelers extended to the Allies. Also on November 9, Max von Baden handed over the office of Chancellor to Friedrich Ebert, a Social Democrat. Ebert’s SPD and Erzberger’s Catholic Centre Party had enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the Imperial government since Bismarck’s era in the 1870s and 1880s. They were well represented in the Imperial Reichstag, which had little power over the government, and had been calling for a negotiated peace since 1917.

In the end, the Armistice proved to be a rushed process. The German delegation headed by Matthias Erzberger crossed the front line in five cars and traveled under escort for ten hours across the devastated war zone of Northern France. They arrived on the morning of November 8, 1918 and were taken to the secret destination aboard the Allied Powers’ Supreme Commander Marshal Ferdinand Jean Marie Foch’s private train parked in a railway siding in the forest of Compiègne. The Germans were handed the list of Allied demands and given 72 hours to agree. The latter included complete German demilitarization, immediate evacuation of occupied territory, surrender of weaponry, vacated territory to be occupied by Allied troops at Germany’s expense, and evacuation of German forces in Africa. The Germans were able to correct a few impossible demands (for example, the decommissioning of more submarines than their fleet possessed), extended the schedule for the withdrawal and registered their formal protest at the harshness of Allied terms. But they were in no position to refuse to sign.

On Sunday 10 November, the German delegation received news of the Kaiser’s abdication and departure via Parisian newspapers shown to them. That same day, Ebert instructed Erzberger to sign the armistice. The cabinet had earlier received a message from the German Army Supreme Commander Paul von Hindenburg, who requested that the armistice be signed even if the Allied conditions could not be improved on. Germany and the Allied Powers agreed at 5:00 am on November 11, 1918, to sign the Armistice of Compiègne. It became effective at 11:00 am (Paris time).

The armistice went through prolongation (extension) three times – between November 11, 1918 and January 10, 1920 – before it was finally ratified on that final date at 4:15 pm. Also ratified on that date was the Treaty of Versailles, which brought a final end to World War I. Celebration of the Armistice became the centerpiece for the war’s memories, along with salutes to the unknown soldier. Nations built monuments to the dead and the heroic soldiers, but seldom to the generals and admirals. November 11 is commemorated annually in many countries under various names such as Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, Veterans Day, and in Poland it is Independence Day.

For more information on the Armistice of Compiègne, read the following book:

*“Peace at Last: A Portrait of Armistice Day, 11 November 1918” (2018) by Guy Cuthbertson

“BLEAK HOUSE” (2005) Review

 

“BLEAK HOUSE” (2005) Review

Previously, I have confessed to not being much of a fan of Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. And if I must be brutally honest, that confession still stands. I have only seen at least five adaptations of his novels – two movies and three television miniseries. Out of the five productions, I tend to be more tolerable of the three television productions. And one of them is the 2005 miniseries, “BLEAK HOUSE”, the third adaptation of Dickens’ 1852-53 novel. 

“BLEAK HOUSE” has several subplots . . . typical Dickens. But all of them are somehow connected to one plot that centers around a long-running legal case called Jarndyce v Jarndyce, which came about due to conflicting wills. One of the potential beneficiaries under the case is landowner named John Jarndyce, who is designated the legal guardian of two wards, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, who are also potential beneficiaries. He also becomes the guardian of a third ward, an orphan named Esther Summerson, whom he hires as housekeeper for his estate and Ada’s companion. Unbeknownst to everyone, Esther is the illegal daughter of a former Army officer and drug addict named Captain James Hawdon aka “Nemo”, who makes his living as a copyist for law firms; and Lady Honoria Dedlock, the wife of baronet Sir Leicester Deadlock.

As it turns out, Lady Deadlock is also a potential beneficiary of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. When she and Sir Leicester are informed of the court’s decision regarding the three wards by the latter’s solicitor, Mr. Tulkinghorn, Lady Deadlock visibly reacts to the handwriting on an affidavit. Mr. Tulkinghorn notices and sets out to investigate the identity of the affidavit’s copyist, in the hopes of financially benefiting from Lady Deadlock’s past. He also recruits the help of Lady Deadlock’s maid Mademoiselle Hortense, his associate Mr. Clamb, a greedy moneylender named Mr. Smallweed and the unintentional assistance of a young man named Mr. Guppy, who works as a legal associate for John Jarndyce’s solicitor, Mr. Kenge.

I also enjoyed two other Dickens productions to a certain degree – the 1998 miniseries, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, and the 2008 miniseries, “LITTLE DORRIT”. But if I must be honest, I found the narratives for both productions a bit hard to follow, due to the slightly chaotic nature of the source materials. “BLEAK HOUSE” turned out to be a different kettle of fish. Like the other two productions, it possessed a good number of subplots. In a way, it reminded me of “LITTLE DORRIT”, as it focused on the mindless and useless confusion of the chancery. But what I really admiIt was probably due to all of the subplots’ connections to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. Or it could be that Dickens had simply created a main narrative that I found easier to follow. Just about every subplot either connected directly or indirectly to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. A good example of a subplot that connected directly to the story’s main theme would be Richard Carstone’s blatant attempt to pursue a ruling on the case that would favor him and his fiancée/wife, Ada Clare, who also happened to be a potential beneficiary. And excellent example of the narrative’s indirect connection to the Jarndyce case proved to be the subplot involving Lady Deadlock (another beneficiary), her illegitimate daughter Esther Summerson and her husband’s solicitor, Mr. Tulkinghorn. In fact, this particular subplot proved to have the biggest impact upon Dickens’ narrative. I thought it was certainly the most interesting.

It also helped that the story’s leading woman character, Esther Summerson, did not prove to be another one of Dickens’ “angels in the house” types. Yes, Esther was a warm and decent woman whom most of the characters liked. But she was also a woman who remained traumatized by her status as an illegitimate child and the emotional abuse she had endured from a self-righteous and highly religious woman she believed to be her godmother, but who turned out to be her aunt. Because of her abusive past, Esther suffered from a lack of esteem. I must admit that I am only familiar with at least four Dickens novels. Because of this, Esther proved to be the first Dickens leading lady who was portrayed with such complexity.

In regard to characterization, my only disappointment with “BLEAK HOUSE” proved to be the story’s antagonists. As I had earlier pointed out, I am only familiar with four of Dickens’ novels. For a man who had no problems with pointing out the evils of modern 19th century society, he seemed very reluctant in creating villains who are from the social elite. His villains are either lower or middle-class . . . or they are foreigners. The closet Dickens came to a well-born antagonist in “BLEAK HOUSE” was the selfish and amoral sponger Harold Skimpole. However, in compare to Sir Leicester Deadlock’s middle-class solicitor, Mr. Tulkinghorn, and Lady Deadlock’s French-born maid, Madame Hortense; Skimpole is, at best, a minor comic villain.

I have few other complaints about “BLEAK HOUSE”. One complaint I have about the production was Kieran McGuigan’s cinematography. I had no problem with the production’s exterior shots. Since the miniseries was shot in High Definition Television format, McGuigan’s photography in the exterior shots captured all of the details of the set designs, props, the performers’ costumes and make-up. However, I could barely see anything in those shots set at night time and especially many of the interior shots. There were times when I felt I was merely looking at a dark screen. And I must admit that I found some of McGuigan’s camera angles rather disconcerting and there were times when I found it difficult to ascertain what was going on in a particular scene. Jason Krasucki and Paul Knight’s editing did not help. Both men had utilized an editing method that I found irritating. Whenever the miniseries moved from one scene to another, the two film editors utilized a fast shift that I found unnecessary and tonally off-putting. Perhaps producer Stafford-Clark had hoped that the fast shifts between scenes and the odd camera angles would make “BLEAK HOUSE” look modern. Honestly, I found these aspects of the production tonally off and unnecessary.

I have one last complaint. I never understood why Stafford-Clark and the BBC felt it was necessary to present the miniseries, with the exception of the first one, in half-hour episodes. Others had complained, as well. The response to this criticism was that Dickens’ long and complex novel required the fifteen installments in which it was presented. But honestly . . . the BBC could have presented the miniseries in eight hour-long episodes. Why was that so hard to consider? Every time an episode ended after 27-to-30 minutes, I felt a sense of frustration. And there were times when I found myself trying to remember which episode out of the fifteen installments I had to choose to continue. Unfortunately, the BBC went on to utilize the same format for its 2008 miniseries, “LITTLE DORRIT”.

Aside from those complaints, I really did enjoy “BLEAK HOUSE”. For me, the heart and soul of the production proved to the array of characters and the fabulous actors and actresses who portrayed them. “BLEAK HOUSE” featured first-rate performances from the likes of Timothy West, Alun Armstrong, Richard Harrington, John Lynch, Sheila Hancock, Tom Georgeson, Anne Reid, Richard Griffiths, Joanna David, Catherine Tate, Louise Brealey, Harry Eden and especially Ian Richardson, whom I found particularly entertaining as the kindly, yet witty Chancellor. I also enjoyed those performances from Warren Clarke, who gave a broadly entertaining performance as Mr. Boythorn, an old friend of John Jarndyce; Hugo Speer, the proud and struggling former Army sergeant and former friend/subordinate of Captain Hawdon; Pauline Collins, who struck me as particularly poignant in her role as the warm-hearted, yet long-suffering Miss Flite; Lilo Baur as the ambitious and vindictive foreign-born lady’s maid, Madame Hortense; and especially Phil Davis, whose colorful portrayal of the mean-tempered and greedy moneylender, Mr. Smallweed, made evil look so entertaining with his caustic remarks and now famous catchphrase:

“Shake me up, Judy! Shake me up!”

Nathaniel Parker gave a particularly memorable performance as the manipulative, yet self-absorbed sponger, Harold Skimpole. A part of me remains amazed that John Jarndyce had regarded him as a friend for so long. Carey Mulligan gave a warm, yet interesting performance as one of Mr. Jarndyce’s wards, Ada Clare. What made the actress’s performance interesting to me was her ability to convey not only Ada’s positive traits, but the character’s unrelenting blindness to her love’s flaws. Speaking of Ada’s love, Patrick Kennedy was excellent as Mr. Jarndyce’s other ward – the charming, yet undependable Richard Carstone. I must admit that Richard proved to be one a rather pathetic personality, who was always chasing a path toward quick riches, whether it was by jumping from one profession to another or putting all of his hopes on the Jarndyce v Jarndyce case. Burn Gorman was a hoot as the friendly, yet ambitious and clever law clerk, William Guppy, who became enamored of Esther Summerson and who figured out the connection between her and Lady Deadlock. As much as I liked him and Gorman’s performance, I could not help but suspect that Guppy’s idea of love was somewhat shallow

In my personal opinion, there were four performances in “BLEAK HOUSE” that reigned supreme. Those four performances came from Anna Maxwell-Martin, Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson and Charles Dance. Now, I would not regard the character of Josiah Tulkinghorn as subtle or even two-dimensional. But thanks to Charles Dance’s subtle and malevolent portrayal, which earned him an Emmy nominatino, audiences were privy to Mr. Tulkinghorn’s talent for manipulation and coercion. Denis Lawson earned an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of John Jarndyce, the kind-hearted landowner who took in Esther, Richard and Ada. Lawson did an excellent job in balancing Mr. Jarndyce’s wise counseling of the three young people, willful blindness to Mr. Skimpole’s machinations and subtle selfish desire for Esther’s hand in marriage. Gillian Anderson earned both an Emmy and a British Academy Television Awards nominations for her portrayal of the story’s femme fatale, so to speak – Lady Honoria Dedlock. The American-born Anderson did a superb job in conveying her character’s complex and mysterious personality. Superficially, the Esther Summerson character seemed like another one of Dickens’ “angels in the house”. Thanks to the author’s pen and Anna Maxwell-Martin’s superb performance, Esther proved to be a warm, yet troubled young woman struggling to find a place for herself in the world and overcome her past trauma at the hands of an emotionally abusive guardian. Not only was Maxwell-Martin received a well-deserved nomination from the British Academy Television Awards, she also won.

No movie or television production is perfect. I had some problem with the miniseries’ editing, camera angles, and television format for “BLEAK HOUSE”. But aside from these quibbles, I can honestly say that I truly enjoy this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1852-53 novel. It is one of the few Dickens’ stories that do not seemed marred by too many subplots that are unrelated. And I believe that screenwriter Andrew Davies, directors Justin Chadwick and Susanna White, along with a superb cast led by Anna Maxwell-Martin truly did justice to the novel.

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1600s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1600s: 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1600s

1. “The Man in the Iron Mask” (1977) – Richard Chamberlain starred in this entertaining, yet loose television adaptation of Alexandre Dumas père’s 1847-1850 serialized novel, “The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later”. William Bast directed.

2. “The Musketeers” (2014-2016) – Adrian Hodges created this television series that was based upon the characters from Alexandre Dumas père’s 1844 novel, “The Three Musketeers”. The series starred Tom Burke, Santiago Cabrera, Howard Charles and Luke Pasqualino.

3. “Shōgun” (1980) – Richard Chamberlain starred in this award winning adaptation of James Clavell’s 1975 novel about an English sea captain stranded in early 17th century Japan. Co-starring Toshiro Mifune and Yoko Shimada, the miniseries was directed by Jerry London.

4. “The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders” (1996) – Alex Kingston starred in this adaptation of Daniel Dafoe’s 1722 novel about the fortunes of an English criminal named Moll Flanders. Adapted by Andrew Davies, the miniseries was directed by David Attwood.

5. “By the Sword Divided” (1983-1985) – John Hawkesworth created this historical drama about he impact of the English Civil War on the fictional Lacey family during the mid-17th century. The series included Julian Glover and Rosalie Crutchley.

6 - The First Churchills.jpg

6. “The First Churchills” (1969) – John Neville and Susan Hampshire stared in this acclaimed miniseries about the life of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough and his wife, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. David Giles directed.

7. “Lorna Doone” (1990) – Polly Walker, Sean Bean and Clive Owen starred in this 1990 adaptation of R.D. Blackmore’s 1869 novel. Andrew Grieve directed.

8. “The Return of the Musketeers” (1989) – Richard Lester directed this adaptation of Alexandre Dumas pere‘s 1845 novel, “Twenty Years After”. Michael York, Oliver Reed and Kim Cattrall starred.

9. “Lorna Doone” (2000-01) – Amelia Warner, Richard Coyle and Aiden Gillen starred in this 2000-01 adaptation of R.D. Blackmore’s 1869 novel. Mike Barker directed.

10. “Jamestown” (2017-present) – Bill Gallagher created this television series about the creation of the Jamestown colony in the early 17th century. Naomi Battrick, Sophie Rundle and Niamh Walsh starred.

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.

 

 

“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, Mary Poppins set in motion the chaos that followed and her 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 “Step in Time” 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 vowel, 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.

 

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.