Top Five Favorite Episodes of “THE CROWN” Season Two (2017)

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Below is a list of my favorite episodes from Season Two of the Netflix series, “THE CROWN”. Created by Peter Morgan, the series starred Claire Foy and Matt Smith as Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh:

 

 

TOP FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “THE CROWN” SEASON TWO (2017)

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1. (2.05) “Marionettes” – After Queen Elizabeth II makes a tone-deaf speech at a Jaguar factory, she and the British monarchy come under public attack by an outspoken liberal peer named Lord Altrincham.

 

 

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2. (2.03) “Lisbon” – Palace insiders try to prevent the scandalous divorce of the Duke of Edinburgh’s aide, Lieutenant-Commander Mike Parker, that could reflect poorly on the former and the monarchy. Prime Minister Anthony Eden faces censure from his cabinet and the press over the Suez Crisis.

 

 

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3. (2.09) “Paterfamilias” – Prince Philip insists that Prince Charles attend Gordonstoun, his alma mater in Scotland. Also, he reminisces about the life-changing difficulties he experienced there as a student.

 

 

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4. (2.07) “Matrimonium” – A heartbreaking letter from former lover Peter Townsend spurs Princess Margaret to make a bold proposal to her current lover, photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones. The Queen has good news that causes complications for Margaret.

 

 

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5. (2.02) “A Company of Men” – Elizabeth feels disconnected from Philip during his five-month royal tour in the South Pacific. Meanwhile, Eden copes with ill health and international pressure to withdraw British troops from Egypt during the Suez Crisis.

 

 

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“JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” (1989) Review

“JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” (1989) Review

One of the most popular romance novelists to emerge during the 1970s and 1980s was Judith Krantz, whose series of novels seemed to be part romance/part family saga. At least six (or seven) of her novels were adapted as television miniseries. One of them was the 1988 novel, “Till We Meet Again”, which became the 1989 CBS miniseries, “JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN”

Set between 1913 and 1952, the early 1950s, “JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” (aka “TILL WE MEET AGAIN”) focused on the lives of Eve, the daughter of a French provincial middle-class doctor and her two daughters, Delphine and Marie-Frederique ‘Freddy’ de Lancel. The story began in 1913 when Eve met a traveling music hall performer named Alain Marais. When she learned that her parents planned to agree to an arranged marriage for her, Eve joined Alain on a train to Paris and the pair became lovers and roommates. Within a year, Alain became seriously ill and Eve was forced to find work to maintain their finances. With the help of a neighbor and new friend, Vivianne de Biron, Eve became a music hall performer herself and Paris’ newest sensation. Out of jealousy, anger and embarrassment, Alain ended their romance.

During World War I, Eve met Paul de Lancel, the heir to an upper-class family that produces champagne who had been recently widowed by a suicidal wife. Following Eve’s marriage to Paul, the couple conceived Delphine and Freddy and Paul became a diplomat. The latter also became estranged from his son Bruno, who was eventually raised by his maternal aristocratic grandparents, who blamed Paul for their daughter’s suicide. By 1930, Eve and Paul found themselves in Los Angeles, where he served as that city’s French consul. And over the next two decades, the de Lancel family dealt with new careers, love, the rise of fascism, the movie industries, World War II, post-war economics, romantic betrayals and Bruno’s villainous and malicious antics.

“JUDITH KRANZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” is not what I would call a television masterpiece. Or even among the best television productions I have ever seen. Considering its source, a period piece romance novel – something most literary critics would dismiss as melodramatic trash – it is not surprising that I would regard the 1989 this way. Then again, the 1972 Academy Award Best Picture winner, “THE GODFATHER”, was based on what many (including myself) believe was pulp fiction trash. However, “TILL WE MEET AGAIN” did not have Francis Ford Coppola to transform trash into Hollywood gold. I am not dismissing the 1989 miniseries as trash. But I would never regard it as a fine work of art.

And I did have a few problems with the production. I found the pacing, thanks to director Charles Jarrott, along with screenwriters Andrew Peter Marin and (yes) Judith Krantz; rather uneven. I think the use of montages could have helped because there were times when the miniseries rushed through some of its sequences . . . to the point that I found myself wondering what had earlier occurred in the story. This seemed to be the case with Eve’s backstory. Her rise from the daughter of a provincial doctor to Parisian music hall sensation to a diplomat’s wife struck as a bit too fast. It seemed as if Jarrott, Marin and Krantz were in a hurry to commence on Freddy and Delphine’s story arcs. Another problem I had was the heavy emphasis on Freddy’s post war story arc. Both Delphine and Eve were nearly pushed to the background, following the end of World War II. It is fortunate that the miniseries’ focus on the post-war years played out in its last 20 to 30 minutes.

I also had a problem with how Marin and Krantz ended Delphine’s relationship with her older half-brother Bruno. In the novel, Delphine ended her friendship with Bruno after his attempt to pimp her out to some German Army official during the Nazi’s occupation of France. This also happened in the miniseries, but Marin and Krantz took it too far by taking a page from Krantz’s 1980 novel, “Princess Daisy” . . . by having Bruno rape Delphine after her refusal to sleep with the German officer. I found this unnecessary, considering that the two screenwriters never really followed up on the consequences of the rape. If this was an attempt to portray Bruno a monster, it was unnecessary. His collaboration of the Nazis, his attempt to pimp out Delphine, his sale of the de Lancels’ precious stock of champagne and his participation in the murders of three locals who knew about the sale struck me as enough to regard him as a monster.

My remaining problems with “TILL WE MEET AGAIN” proved to minor. Many of Krantz’s novels tend to begin as period dramas and end in the present time. I cannot say the same about her 1988 novel. The entire story is set entirely in the past – a forty-year period between pre-World War I and the early 1950s. Yet, I managed to spot several anachronisms in the production. Minor ones, perhaps, but anachronisms nevertheless. One of the most obvious anachronisms proved to be the hairstyles for many of the female characters – especially the de Lancel sisters, Delphine and Freddy. This anachronism was especially apparent in the hairstyles they wore in the 1930s sequences – long and straight. Most young girls and women wore soft shoulder bobs that were slightly above the shoulders during that decade. Speaking of anachronism, the actor who portrayed Armand Sadowski, a Polish-born director in the French film industry, wore a mullet. A 1980s-style mullet during those same 1930s sequences. Sigh! The make-up worn by many of the female characters struck me as oddly modern. Another anachronistic popped up in the production’s music. I am not claiming that late 1980s songs were featured in the miniseries. The songs selected were appropriate to the period. However, I noticed that those songs were performed and arranged in a more modern style. It was like watching television characters performing old songs at a retro music show. It simply felt . . . no, it sound wrong to me.

Despite my complaints, I did enjoy “TILL WE MEET AGAIN”. In fact, I believe that its virtues were strong enough to overshadow its flaws. One, Judith Krantz had created a first-rate family saga . . . one that both she and screenwriter Andrew Peter Marin did justice to in this adaptation. Two, this is the only Krantz family saga that I can remember that is set completely in the past. Most of her family sagas start in the past and spend at least two-thirds of the narrative in the present. Not “TILL WE MEET AGAIN”. More importantly, this family saga is more or less told through the eyes of three women. I have noticed how rare it is for family sagas in which the narratives are dominated by women, unless it only featured one woman as the main protagonist. And neither Eve, Delphine or Freddy are portrayed as instantaneous ideal women. Yes, they are beautiful and talented in different ways. But all three women were forced to grow or develop in the story.

Being the oldest and the mother of the other two, Eve was forced to grow up during the first third of the saga. However, she spent a great deal of emotional angst over her daughters’ lives and the fear that her past as a music hall entertainer may have had a negative impact on her husband’s diplomatic career. Eve and Freddy had to deal with a disappointing love (or two) before finding the right man in their lives. Delphine managed to find the right man at a young age after becoming an actress with the film industry in France. But World War II, and the Nazi regime’s anti-Semitic policies managed to endanger and interrupt her romance. Freddy’s love life involved a bittersweet romance with an older man – the very man who taught her to become a pilot; a quick romance and failed marriage to a British aristocrat; and the latter’s closest friend, an American pilot who had harbored years of unrequited love for Freddy until she finally managed to to notice him.

Despite the saga being dominated by Eve, Delphine and Freddy; the two male members of the de Lancel family also had strong roles in this saga. I thought both Krantz and Marin did an excellent job in their portrayal of the complex relationship between Paul de Lancel and his only son and oldest child, Bruno de Lancel, who also happened to be Delphine and Freddy’s half-brother. I also found it interesting how Bruno’s unforgiving maternal grand-parents’ over-privileged upbringing of him and their snobbish regard for Eve had tainted and in the end, torn apart the relationship between father and son. Mind you, Bruno’s own ugly personality did not help. But he was, after all, a creation of the Marquis and Marquise de Saint-Fraycourt. Ironically, Paul also had his troubles with both Delphine and Freddy – especially during their late adolescence. Between Delphine’s forays into Hollywood’s nighttime society behind her parents’ backs and Freddy’s decision to skip college and become a stunt pilot, Paul’s relationships with his daughters endured troubled waters. And I thought the screenwriters did an excellent job in conveying the diplomat’s complex relationships with both of them.

And despite my low opinion of the hairstyles featured in “TILL WE MEET AGAIN”, I cannot deny that the production values featured in the miniseries struck me as quite impressive. Roger Hall did an excellent job in his production designs that more or less re-created various locations on two continents between the years of 1913 and 1952. His work was ably supported by Rhiley Fuller and Mike Long’s art direction, Donald Elmblad and Peter Walpole’s set decorations, and Alan Hume’s cinematography, which did such an exceptional job of capturing the beauty and color of its various locations. However, I must admit that I really enjoyed Jerry R. Allen and Robin Fraser-Paye’s costume designs. I thought they did an excellent job of recapturing the fashions of the early-to-mid 20th century.

If I must be honest, I cannot think of any performance that blew my mind. I am not claiming that the acting featured in “TILL WE MEET AGAIN” were terrible, let alone mediocre. Frankly, I believe that all of the major actors and actresses did a great job. Courtney Cox gave a very energetic performance as the ambitious and aggressive Freddy de Lancel. Bruce Boxleitner also gave an energetic performance as Jock Hampton, the best friend of Freddy’s husband . . . but with a touch of pathos, as he conveyed his character’s decade long unrequited love for the red-headed Mademoiselle de Lancel. Mia Sara gave a spot-on portrayal of Delphine de Lancel from an ambitious, yet insecure adolescent to a sophisticated and more mature woman. And again, I can the same about Lucy Gutteridge’s portrayal of Eve de Lancel, who developed the character from an impulsive adolescent to a mature woman who proved to be her family’s backbone. Hugh Grant was sufficiently sophisticated and hissable as the villainous Bruno de Lancel without turning his performance into a cliche. Charles Shaughnessy skillfully managed to convey to portray the worthy man behind director Armand Sadowski’s womanizing charm. John Vickery gave a interested and complex portrayal of Freddy’s British aristocrat husband, Anthony “Tony” Longbridge. And Maxwell Caufield was excellent as the charming, yet ego-driven singer Alain Marais. I believe one of the best performances came from Michael York, who was excellent as the emotionally besieged Paul de Lancel, struggling to deal with a stalled diplomatic career, two strong-willed daughters and a treacherous son. I believe the other best performance came from Barry Bostwick, who was excellent as Freddy’s first love Terrence ‘Mac’ McGuire. I thought he did a great job of portraying a man torn between his love for Freddy and his guilt over being in love with someone who was young enough to be his daughter.

Look, I realize that “JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” is basically a glorified period piece melodrama disguised as a family saga. I realize that. And I realize that it is not perfect. Nor would I regard it as an example of the best American television can offer. But at its heart, I thought it was basically a well written family saga that centered around three remarkable women. Thanks to Judith Krantz and Andrew Peter Marin’s screenplay; Charles Jarrott’s direction and a first-rate cast, the 1989 miniseries proved to be first-rate piece of television drama.

 

“VICTORIA” Season Two (2017) Episode Ranking

Below is my ranking of the Season Two episodes of the ITV series called “VICTORIA”. Created by Daisy Goodwin, the series stars Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria: 

“VICTORIA” SEASON TWO (2017) EPISODE RANKING

1. (2.06) “Faith, Hope & Charity” – Horrified by the Great Famine in Ireland, both Queen Victoria and the Reverend Robert Traill try to persuade Prime Minister Robert Peel’s government and the British clergy in the country to take action.

2. (2.09) “Comfort and Joy” – In this Christmas episode, a pregnant Victoria receives a “gift” from King Gezo of Dahomey in the form of a young African princess who had been his political prisoner. Meanwhile, Prince Albert desperately tries to introduce the German Christmas custom to the British court, despite the tension from unwelcome guests and personal problems.

3. (2.01) “A Soldier’s Daughter” – While Victoria deals with postnatal depression following the birth of her oldest child, Princess Victoria, Albert and Peel scramble to hide the grisly details of the Retreat From Kabul near the end of the First Anglo-Afghan War.

4. (2.07) “The King Over the Water” – Following two assassination attempts, Victoria and Albert travel to the Scottish Highlands becomes guests at the 6th Duke of Atholl’s home, Blair Castle, for a private retreat. However, the retreat is nearly ruined when the couple ends up lost in the countryside.

5. (2.08) “The Luxury of Conscience” – Albert unwittingly creates more political problems for Peel, when he supports the latter’s efforts to repeal the Corn Laws.

6. (2.04) “The Sins of the Father” – Victoria gives birth to a second child, Prince Albert-Edward (future King Edward VII). While she deals with postnatal depression for the second time, Albert’s father dies. Albert travels to Coburg and learns an ugly family secret from his uncle, King Leopold of the Belgians.

7. (2.05) “Entente Cordiale” – Victoria drags Albert and the British Court to France in an effort to convince the country’s King Louis Phillippe I to deter the latter from arranging a marriage between his son Duke of Montpensier and Queen Isabel II of Spain.

8. (2.03) “Warp and Weft” – Moved by the plight of a silk weaver in Spitalfields, Victoria throws a lavish medieval ball at Buckingham Palace with all attendees wearing outfits made in the impoverished area. Meanwhile, she becomes aware of former Prime Minister Lord Melbourne’s failing health.

9. (2.02) “The Green-Eyed Monster” – Victoria becomes pregnant with her second child and develops a jealous suspicion that Albert might be attracted to Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, who is a mathematician associated with the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.

“THE CLOCKS” (2009) Review

“THE CLOCKS” (2009) Review

While perusing the list of novels written by Agatha Christie between 1957 and 1973, I noticed that only five of them featured Belgian detective Hercule Poirot as the main detective. Five out of sixteen novels during this period. Considering how the author used to churn out Poirot novels and short stories like nobody’s business in the previous decades, I could not help but wonder if the author’s interest in the Belgian detective was on the wane. 

This certainly seemed to be the case for her 1963 novel, “The Clocks”. Although Poirot was the investigator who solved the mystery, he barely played a role in this investigation. Major supporting characters like Colin Lamb and Inspector Richard Hardcastle visited the crime scenes and questioned the suspects and other witnesses. They fed the information to Poirot, who exercised his “little grey cells” and solved the case. This is one reason why the 1963 novel was not a particular favorite of mine. Thankfully, the 2009 adaptation of “The Clocks” proved to be a different kettle of fish. Unlike his literary version for this tale, actor David Suchet’s Poirot was, without a doubt, the mystery’s main character.

Although the 2009 television movie, “THE CLOCKS”, provided some minor changes to Christie’s novel, it also featured two major changes. I have already commented on how Poirot had a bigger role (as he should) in this television adaptation. The setting for “THE CLOCKS” also underwent a major change. Instead of being set during the heyday of the Cold War, the 2010 television movie was set near the end of the 1930s, with Europe (and eventually the rest of the world) on the cusp of World War II. And the narrative’s B-plot reflected this. In “THE CLOCKS”, the character of Colin Lamb has been changed to Colin Race, conveying the idea that he is the son of of an old friend of Poirot’s. And instead of being an MI-5 (Special Branch) agent investigating a pro-Communist spy ring, Colin is a Royal Navy officer working for MI-6 and investigating a possible pro-Nazi spy ring in Dover. Also, the character of Richard “Dick” Hardcastle has become a slightly xenophobic police officer, who resented Poirot’s presence in the investigation. Despite these changes, the core of Christie’s narrative managed to survive for this adaptation.

“THE CLOCKS” began as a spy story in which MI-6 operative Colin Race finds himself investigating the theft of classified documents from a naval base at Dover Castle. Apparently, Colin’s girlfriend had spotted the thief/German spy, but was killed by a speeding car before she could apprehend the thief. Colin’s girlfriend left a clue, leading Colin to a neighborhood in Dover. Upon reaching one house on a street shaped like a crescent, a young woman named Sheila Webb races out of it, screaming that she had found a murdered man inside, along with a collection of clocks. Colin seeks Poirot’s help to solve the murder mystery, in case the murder proves to be connected with the spy ring he had been investigating and his girlfriend’s death.

As I had earlier stated, I am not a big fan of Christie’s 1963 novel. While some might find the idea of Poirot being reduced to a minor character who solves the mystery in an armchair rather amusing, I did not. I could not, especially if this was supposed to be a “Poirot” mystery. And as I had earlier pointed out, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt director Charlie Palmer ensured that Poirot would be the main character in this adaptation. I also enjoyed how the narrative allowed Poirot and Colin’s search for the spy ring and missing document overshadow their efforts to find the killer responsible for the mystery man’s death, along with the deaths of two other characters – Edna Brent, a typist and colleague of Sheila Webb’s; and Merlina Riva, a former stage actress who claimed to be the widow of the dead man discovered by Colin and Sheila. Throughout the story, those viewers unfamiliar with Christie’s novel might find themselves wondering if Sheila was responsible for the deaths, if the deaths had anything to do with the German spy ring, or if the three victims had been killed for another reason. Overall, I believe “THE CLOCKS” is a solid adaptation of Christie’s novel, but also an improvement.

However, there is one aspect of Harcourt and Palmer’s adaptation that I do not regard as an improvement. I refer to the character of Colin Race. One, this secondary lead character came off as less than intelligent than his literary counterpart. Colin was able to solve the mystery of the spy ring without Poirot’s help. And two, in the television movie, he struck me as a slightly shallow man who was able to transfer his affections from one woman to another within a few days. I found this rather tacky. I believe Harcourt’s screenplay made the mistake of having Colin involved with the doomed Fiona Hanbury, whose activities led him to another clue regarding the spy ring, at the beginning of the story. Worse, it did not take Colin very long to develop romantic feelings for Sheila Webb after meeting her. And he met Sheila in less than a week after Fiona’s death. Even when he was still mourning Fiona’s death, he was falling in love with Sheila. Really? This is just tackiness beyond belief. Colin’s romantic relationships in this movie made him look like a shallow idiot who seemed to have this need for romance in his life 24/7.

The television movie’s production values struck me as very impressive. I thought Jeff Tessler’s production designs did a great job in recreating Dover circa 1939. His work was ably supported by Miranda Cull’s art direction and Sheena Napier’s costume designs. I have mixed feelings about Peter Greenhalgh’s cinematography. On one hand, I found movie’s photography very colorful and beautiful. In fact, I thought it did justice to the production’s locations in London and Kent. But I did not care for the hazy veneer that I felt almost spoiled the photography. I found it an unnecessary device for indicating that this story was set in the past. And it reminded me of numerous period dramas in the 1970s that also used this camera device . . . unnecessarily.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s cast. David Suchet, as always, gave a sharp and elegant portrayal of Hercule Poirot. In fact, his performance reinforced my relief that the screenwriter and director had given Poirot a bigger presence in this adaptation than in Christie’s novel. Despite my irritation with the Colin Race character, I cannot deny that Tom Burke gave an exceptionally skillful performance. He almost made me believe in the plausibility of Colin falling in love with one woman, while still grieving for another. I was very impressed by Jaime Winstone’s portrayal of the ambiguous Sheila Webb. I thought she did an excellent job in conveying both the character’s desperate need for everyone to believe in her innocence and her occasional lapses in morality. Phil Daniels was excellent as the slightly aggressive and xenophobic Inspector Richard “Dick” Hardcastle. Lesley Sharp gave a very subtle performance as Sheila’s no-nonsense boss Miss Martindale. And I was very impressed with Anna Massey’s performance as Miss Pebmarsh, the blind owner of the house that contained the dead man and the actress’s final role before her death. Like Winstone, Massey did an excellent job of portraying a very complicated and ambiguous character, who was haunted by the deaths of her sons during World War I. The television movie also featured excellent performances from Geoffrey Palmer (father of the director), Tessa Peake-Jones, Jason Watkins, Beatie Edney, Abigail Thaw, Guy Henry, Stephen Boxer, and Frances Barber.

In the end, I believe that “THE CLOCKS” was a solid adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1963 novel, thanks to a first-rate script by Stewart Harcourt and first-rate direction by Charlie Palmer. My only true complaint was their handling of the Colin Race character. The television movie also featured excellent performances by a talented cast that included David Suchet, Anna Massey and Jaime Winstone.

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1940s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1940s: 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1940s

1. “Homefront” (1991-1993) – Lynn Marie Latham and Bernard Lechowick created this award-winning series about the residents of a small Ohio town in post-World War II.

2. “Mob City” (2013) – Jon Bernthal starred in this six-part limited series that was inspired by John Buntin’s book, “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City”. Co-starring Alexa Davalos and Milo Ventimiglia, the series was created by Frank Darabont.

3. “Agent Carter” (2015-2016) – Hayley Atwell starred as Margaret “Peggy” Carter, an agent with the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) in the post-World War II Manhattan. Created by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the MCU series co-starred James D’Arcy and Enver Gjokaj.

4a. “Band of Brothers” (2001) – Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced this outstanding television miniseries about the history of a U.S. Army paratrooper company – “Easy Company” – during the war. Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston starred. (tie)

4b. “The Pacific” (2010) – Spielberg and Hanks struck gold again in this equally superb television miniseries about the experiences of three U.S. Marines – John Basilone, Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge – in the war’s Pacific Theater. James Badge Dale, Joseph Mazzello and Jon Seda starred. (tie)

5. “Manhattan” (2014-2015) – Sam Shaw created this series about the creation of the first two atomic bombs at Los Alamitos, New Mexico. The series starred John Benjamin Hickey.

6. “The Winds of War” (1983) – Dan Curtis produced and directed this television adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1971 novel. The seven-part miniseries starred Robert Mitchum, Ali McGraw and Jan-Michael Vincent.

7. “Pearl” (1978) – Stirling Silliphant wrote this three-part miniseries about a group of men and women who experienced the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Angie Dickinson, Robert Wagner, Lesley-Ann Warren and Dennis Weaver starred.

8. “The Jewel in the Crown” (1984) – The ITV aired this award winning television adaptation of Paul Scott’s “Raj Quartet”novels (1965–75) about the end of the British Raj in India. The fourteen-part miniseries starred Art Malik, Geraldine James, Charles Dance and Tim Pigott-Smith.

9. “Foyle’s War” (2002-2015) – Anthony Horowitz created this television crime drama about a British police detective during World War II. The series starred Michael Kitchen, Honeysuckle Weeks and Anthony Howell.

10. “RKO 281” (1999) – Liev Schreiber starred as Orson Welles in this 1999 television adaptation of 1996 documentary called “The Battle Over Citizen Kane”. The television movie also starred John Malkovich, Roy Schneider, James Cromwell and Melanie Griffith.

TIME MACHINE: John Brown’s Christmas Raid Into Missouri

TIME MACHINE: JOHN BROWN’S CHRISTMAS RAID INTO MISSOURI

When people think of 19th century abolitionist John Brown, they would usually bring up his activities against pro-slavery factions in the Kansas Territory in the mid 1850s, especially the lethal attack he had led against five pro-slavery settlers near Pottawatomie Creek in May 1856. Or they would especially bring up the famous raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (West Virginia), with the intent to start a slave liberation movement. However, toward the end of the 1850s, Brown became known for another raid that led him from Missouri to the Canadian border. 

On December 19, 1858; a biracial Missouri slave named Jim Daniels had encountered one George Gill, a free black man who happened to be one of Brown’s lieutenants near the Missouri-Kansas border. Daniels complained to Gill that his owner Harvey Hicklan planned to sell his wife and children, along with another slave. This sale threatened to break up his family. Gill informed Brown, who saw Daniels’ situation as an opportunity for a raid to liberate slaves and strike a blow for abolitionism. Earlier, he had conveyed his plans for an anti-slavery raid into the South, via the Appalachian Mountains to his Northern-born abolitionist supporters. But they had dismissed the idea as unrealistic and advised Brown to return to Kansas and lie low. However, Brown saw Daniels’ plea to help prevent his family from being sold as an opportunity. He believed this raid and the 1,100 mile exodus to Canada would provide a good deal of press attention for his cause.

Brown’s previous activities, especially the Pottawatomie Creek killings had made him persona non grata with many Americans – including a good number of abolitionists – by late 1858. Many Southerners wanted him captured or dead. His return to Missouri soil had infuriated many citizens of that state. By December 20, Brown had managed to gather twenty (20) riders to lead this latest raid into Western Missouri. He split his followers into three groups in order to free neighboring blacks on the same trip. Brown’s group held up Harvey Hicklan at gunpoint, extracted Jim Daniels and the latter’s family and took some of Hicklan’s possessions to support the freed slaves. Brown sent a second group to John Larue’s nearby farm t liberate four slaves and kidnap Larue as a hostage. A third group, led by Aaron Stevens (another Brown lieutenant), surprised David Cruise at his farmhouse and liberated a female slave. Believing that Cruise was reaching for a weapon, Stevens shot him dead.

Cruise’s death transformed the raid from a rescue into an act that infuriated Kansans, Missourians and Southerners. The act, the slave escapes and Larue’s kidnapping led to a great deal of negative press by the newspapers in those regions. Missouri’s governor, Robert Marcellus Stewart, offered a reward of $3,000 for Brown’s capture. Because of the publicity, Brown’s efforts to lead the fugitive slaves and his men through Kansas and up north became increasingly difficult. Brown and his men were forced to keep the fugitives hidden inside the homes of anti-slavery supporters in the area near Osawatomie, Kansas for a month. One of the fugitives, a woman who happened to be pregnant around the time of her rescue, gave birth to a baby boy, who was named after Brown. However, the abolitionist, his men and the fugitives realized that none of them were safe, especially after nearly being spotted by pro-slavers on two separate occasions. On January 20, 1859; Brown, his men and fugitives resumed their journey north by heading for the Kansas-Nebraska Territory border.

Despite the negative press that covered Brown’s journey; Brown, his men and the fugitives continued to receive aid from local anti-slavery supporters. On the night of January 24, 1859; Brown, Gill, eleven fugitives and the newborn baby had arrived at the farm of Major James Abbott near Lawrence, Kansas. Abbott provided them with food, clothing and fresh horses before they resumed their journey. Brown and his companions were nearly captured, following their arrival in Topeka, during a severe snowstorm. They were forced to spend the night at a nearby village called Holton. The following day, the party – including the remaining raiders – reached Spring Creek. Unfortunately, the water was too high for crossing by wagon or horseback. Brown was nearly in a state of panic, for he had learned both a local posse and one sent by Missouri’s governor were waiting for them. Brown and his party managed to slip away to Fuller’s Crossing . . . where a large posse of around one hundred men awaited them.

Brown remained calm and led his party across the raging creek. Following the crossing, the raiders and the fugitive slaves became engaged in a gun battle with eighty members of the posse. In a bold move, Brown and his party charged the posse members and drove the latter out of the area. The posse members were so intent upon retreating that two men rode some of their horses, digging their boot spurs into the animals. Ironically, there were no fatalities during the incident. Not only was it reported by the press, but also dubbed in newspapers as “the Battle of the Spurs”.

After traveling through the eastern half of the Nebraska Territory, Brown and his party reached the free state of Iowa. Brown had used the state as a hideout during his anti-slavery activities in 1855 and 1856. Although they were allowed shelter in some of the Iowans’ homes, they were not allowed to remain longer than one night, due to David Cruise’s death. However, Brown and his party received friendlier receptions in communities like Des Moines, Grinnell and Springdale. Brown and fellow raider John Henry Kagi were nearly captured when they made an overnight visit to Iowa City. On March 9, Springdale’s citizens accompanied Brown’s party to West Liberty, where the latter boarded a railroad box car to Chicago, Illinois. They arrived in the latter city on March 11, at 3:30 a.m.

The party remained at the home of private detective and future Secret Service leader and Presidential bodyguard,Allan Pinkerton. The detective hid them at his home and at two other houses for several days, as he tried to raise funds for the raiders. Ironically, Pinkerton managed to raise a good deal of cash from fellow members of the Chicago Judiciary Convention, when he blurted out John Brown’s presence in the city.

After raising $600 dollars, Pinkerton and his son conveyed Brown, the fugitives and the raiders to the Chicago railroad station. They boarded a boxcar for Detroit, Michigan. Upon their arrival in Detroit, the fugitive slaves and most of the raiders boarded a ferry that conveyed them across the Detroit River into Canada and freedom. Only Brown remained in the United States. After bidding them farewell, he headed for Oberlin, Ohio in order to visit the imprisoned rescuers involved in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue.

The Christmas 1858 Raid of 1858 led to a 1,100 mile journey from Missouri, through Kansas Territory, Nebraska Territory, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and finally Canada. The raid provided a great deal of national press coverage for John Brown. President James Buchanan offered a reward of $250 for Brown’s capture. Missouri Governor Robert Marcellus Stewart continued to offer a reward of $3,000. The raid convinced Brown’s Northern abolition supporters that his plan for a raid into the South via the Appalachian Mountains in order to lead the slaves into a major rebellion might work. Seven months later, John Brown led his famous raid to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

“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.