“LITTLE WOMEN” (2019) Review

“LITTLE WOMEN” (2019) Review

Ever since its release in movie theaters back in December 2019, many moviegoers have been in rapture over “LITTLE WOMEN”, filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel. The movie did acquire several acclaims, including Oscar nominations for two of the film’s actresses, Best Adapted Screenplay and an actual Oscar for costume design. I never got the chance to see it in theaters. I finally managed to see it on the HULU streaming service.

Anyone familiar with Alcott’s novel knows that it conveyed the tale of four sisters from a Massachusetts family and their development from adolescence and childhood to adulthood during the 1860s. The first half of Alcott’s tale covered the March sisters’ experiences during the U.S. Civil War. In fact, Alcott had based the March family on herself and her three sisters. Unlike previous adaptations, Gerwig incorporated a nonlinear timeline for this version of “LITTLE WOMEN”.

There were aspects of “LITTLE WOMEN” I truly admired. I did enjoy most of the performances. Or some of them. I thought Saoirse Ronan gave an excellent performance as the movie’s leading character Josephine “Jo” March. I thought she did a pretty good job of recapturing Jo’s extroverted personality and artistic ambitions. I do wish that Gerwig had allowed Jo to convey some of the less pleasant sides to her personality. Do I believe she deserved her Oscar nomination? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Although I thought she gave an excellent performance, I do not know if I would have considered her for an acting nomination.

But I was more than impressed by Eliza Scanlen, who portrayed third sister Elizabeth “Beth” March. Although her story more or less played out in a series of vignettes that switched back and forth between the period in which she first caught the scarlet fever and her death a few years later; Scanlen did a superb job in recapturing the pathos and barely submerged emotions of Beth’s fate. It seemed a pity that she had failed to acquire any acting nominations. One last performance that really impressed me came from Meryl Streep. I have always regarded the temperamental Aunt March as a difficult role for any actress. And although I do not regard Streep’s interpretation of the aging matriarch as the best I have seen, I must admit that for me, she gave one of the best performances in the film. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Bob Odenkirk and Florence Pugh, who also received an Oscar nomination for her performance as the youngest March sister, Amy. About the latter . . . I really admired her portrayal of the older Amy March. But I found her performance as the younger Amy rather exaggerated. And a part of me cannot help but wonder why she had received an Oscar nomination in the first place.

Jacqueline Durran won the film’s only Academy Award – namely for Best Costume Design. Did she deserve it? I honestly do not believe she did. I did enjoy some of her designs, especially for the older Amy March, as shown below:

I found the costumes worn by Pugh, Streep and many extras in the Paris sequences very attractive and an elegant expression of fashion from the late 1860s. Otherwise, I found Durran’s costumes for this film rather questionable. I realize both she and Gerwig were attempting to portray the March family as some kind of 19th century version of “hippies”. But even non-traditional types like the Marches would not wear their clothing in such a slap-dash manner with petticoat hems hanging below the skirts, along with bloomers showing, cuts and styles in clothing that almost seemed anachronistic, and wearing no corsets. The latter would be the equivalent of not wearing bras underneath one’s clothing in the 20th and 21st centuries. Someone had pointed out that many of today’s costume designers try to put a “modern twist” to their work in period dramas in order to appeal to modern moviegoers and television viewers. I really wish they would not. The attempt tends to come off as lazy costuming in my eyes. And this tactic usually draws a good deal of criticism from fans of period dramas. So . . . how on earth did Durran win an Oscar for her work in the first place?

I understand that “LITTLE WOMEN” was filmed in various locations around Massachusetts, including Boston and Cambridge. A part of me felt a sense of satisfaction by this news, considering the story’s setting of Concord, Massachusetts. I was surprised to learn that even the Paris sequences were filmed in Ipswich, Massachusetts. However, I must admit that I was not particularly blown away by Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography. Then again, I can say that for just about every adaptation of Alcott’s novel I have ever seen.

There were scenes from “LITTLE WOMEN” that I found memorable. Those include Jo March’s initial meeting with her publisher Mr. Dashwood; Amy March’s conflict with Theodore “Laurie” Laurence over his behavior in Paris; Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s marriage proposal, and especially the montage featuring Beth March’s bout with scarlet fever and its consequences. However . . . I had some problems with Gerwig’s screenplay.

As I have stated earlier, “LITTLE WOMEN” is not the first movie I have seen that utilized the non-linear plot technique. I have seen at least two adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. Two more famous examples of this plot device were the 1995 film, “12 MONKEYS” and two of Christopher Nolan’s movies – 2000’s “MEMENTO” and 2017’s “DUNKIRK”. How can I put this? I feel that Greta Gerwig’s use of non-linear writing had failed the film’s narrative. It simply did not work for me. Except for the brilliant montage featuring Beth’s fate, it seemed as if Gerwig’s writing had scattered all over the place without any real semblance of following Alcott’s plot. If I had not been already familiar with Alcott’s story, I would have found “LITTLE WOMEN” totally confusing.

I also feel that because of Gerwig’s use of the non-linear technique, she managed to inflict a little damage on Alcott’s plot. Despite the excellent scene featuring Laurie’s marriage proposal, I felt that Gerwig had robbed the development of his relationship with Jo. I also believe that Gerwig had diminished Jo’s relationship with Professor Bhaer. In the film, Bhaer had expressed harsh criticism of Jo’s earlier writing . . . without explaining his opinion. But he never added that Jo had the potential to write better stories than her usual melodrama crap. Why did Gerwig deleted this aspect of Professor Bhaer’s criticism? In order to make him look bad? To set up the idea of Jo ending the story as a single woman, because that was Alcott’s original intent? Did Gerwig consider the original version of this scene a detriment to feminist empowerment? I am also confused as to why Gerwig allowed the March family to push her into considering Professor Bhaer as a potential mate for Jo? This never happened in the novel. Jo had come to her decision to marry the professor on her own perogative. She did not have to be pushed into this decision. Come to think of it, exactly how did Jo’s fate end in the movie? I am confused. Did she marry Bhaer after rushing to the train station in order to stop him from leaving for California? Or did she remain single? Whatever.

And why on earth did she position Amy and Laurie’s first meeting after the former’s hand had been caned by her school teacher? Gerwig had transformed an incident that had taught Amy a lesson about self-respect and generated the Marches’ righteous anger against a schoolteacher’s abuse to one of comic relief and a cute rom.com meet for Amy and Laurie. What the hell? Someone had once complained that Gerwig may have assumed that everyone was familiar with Alcott’s story when she wrote this screenplay. And I agree with that person. Earlier I had questioned the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ decision to award the Best Costume Design statuette to Jacqueline Durran and nominate Florence Pugh for Best Supporting Actress. But I also have to question the organization’s decision to nominate Gerwig’s writing for Best Adapted Screenplay. I honestly believe she did not deserve it.

There were aspects of “LITTLE WOMEN” that I found admirable. I was certainly impressed by some of the film’s dramatic moments. And there were a handful of performances from the likes of Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlen and Meryl Streep that truly impressed me. But I cannot deny that the other members of the cast gave either first-rate or solid performances. In the end, I did not like the movie.

I believe “LITTLE WOMEN” should have never been nominated for Best Picture. Greta Gerwig’s use of the nonlinear technique did not serve Louisa May Alcott’s plot very well. If I had not been familiar with the novel’s plot, I would have found this movie confusing. Aside from Ronan’s Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, I feel that the other nominations and Best Costume Design win were undeserved. And a part of me feels a sense of relief that Gerwig had never received a nomination for Best Director.

“THE IRREGULARS” (2021) Photo Gallery

Below are images from the Netflix limited series, “THE IRREGULARS”. Based upon the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the series was created by Tom Birdwell:

“THE IRREGULARS” (2021) Photo Gallery

“This Is a Mistake”

“THIS IS A MISTAKE”

I have heard that in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent protests against police brutality, Disney Parks have decided to change the theme of its Splash Mountain attraction in all of its theme parks. Instead of an attraction based on the 1949 animated film, “SONG OF THE SOUTH” and the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris, Disney Parks has decided to change the attraction’s theme to one based on the 2009 animated film, “THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG”. And I believe this is a big mistake.

First of all, why can Disney Parks not consider the idea of maintaining the present theme of Splash Mountain and create a new one based on “THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG”? What is the point of erasing the “SONG OF THE SOUTH” theme from its Splash Mountain attraction? “THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG” theme . . . with a mountain setting? That does not make any sense to me, considering the 2009 movie was set in late 1920s New Orleans and the swamps of Southern Louisiana. “SONG OF THE SOUTH” was set near the region of Stone Mountain, somewhere between Northern and Central Georgia.

If Disney thinks it is being politically correct in the wake of the Black Lives Matters movement, they are mistaken. The Brer Rabbit stories are basically AFRICAN-AMERICAN folklore,which served as a metaphor for the struggles of African-American slaves before and immediately after the Civil War. Three African-Americans on a Georgia plantation had told these stories to Joel Chandler Harris, a white teenager they had befriended during and after the Civil War. Harris had worked for their owner and later, employer. When he later became a journalist and a writer, Harris took those stories and had them published under the “Uncle Remus Tales” title between 1880 and 1907. The character of Uncle Remus served as a metaphor for those three slaves-turned-freedmen, whom Harris had befriended. What Disney Parks is doing is misguided lip service to the Black Lives Matter movement. If Disney Parks really want to pay tribute to the movement, it would maintain Splash Mountain’s original theme and create a new attraction based on “THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG”.

Now that I think about it, what is really racist about “SONG OF THE SOUTH”? The Uncle Remus character? The fact that he is a former slave? Or that he was friendly with two white kids? Or that he still lived on a plantation after the Civil War? Uncle Remus was based on the three slaves that Joel Harris had befriended on a plantation. How else does anyone thinks Harris had found out about the Brer Rabbit stories? By eavesdropping on the plantation workers? Are people upset that Uncle Remus had served as a narrator, telling these stories to white kids? I also noticed two other aspects of this situation. The 1946 movie was set during the post-Civil War era. One of the film’s main protagonists, a young Georgian white boy named Johnny, who happened to be the son of an Atlanta newspaper journalist in post-Civil War Georgia. Aside from Uncle Remus, Johnny had befriended a poor white girl and the son of a black sharecropper during his family’s visit to his grandmother’s plantation. The movie has nothing to do with reinforcing the so-called “glories” of the pre-Civil War Old South. None of the live-action characters in “SONG OF THE SOUTH” – including Uncle Remus – or the film’s actual plantation setting is featured inside Splash Mountain. So again . . . why does Disney Parks feel it needs to change the attraction’s theme?

The Brer Rabbit stories are metaphors about how generations black Americans had SURVIVED the horrors of American slavery, after they and their ancestors had been dragged to North American and to different parts of the South and forced to work for nothing against their will. Do many people have a problem that comedy was an element in the stories? That is how the original stories were framed. At least “SONG OF THE SOUTH” is actually based on African-American culture or folklore. Despite having an African-American woman as its leading character, “THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG” is not. It is a movie based on “The Frog Princess”, a 2002 novel written by E.D. Baker, a white American woman. She had based her novel on who based her story on “The Frog Prince”, the 1812 novel written by the Brothers Grimm . . . two white European men.

By replacing the “SONG OF THE SOUTH” theme inside Splash Mountain attraction at the Disney theme parks with one from “THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG”, Disney Parks is erasing one theme based on African-American culture and replacing it with one based on European culture. Replacing “THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG” lead character from a white European woman to an African-American woman does not change that fact.

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1920s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1920s:

 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1920s

 

1. “Boardwalk Empire” (2010-2014) – Terence Winter created this award winning crime drama about Atlantic City, New Jersey during the Prohibition era. Inspired by Nelson Johnson’s 2002 book, “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City”, the series starred Steve Buscemi.

 

 

2. “Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Five Little Pigs” (2003) – In this beautifully poignant tale, Hercule Poirot investigates a fourteen year-old murder of a philandering artist, for which his client’s mother was erroneously convicted and hanged. David Suchet starred as Hercule Poirot.

 

 

3. “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” (2012-2015) – Essie Davis starred in this television adaptation of Kerry Greenwood’s historical mystery novels about a glamorous socialite who solves mysteries in 1920s Melbourne. The series was created by Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger.

 

 

4. “Rebecca” (1997) – Emilia Clarke, Charles Dance and Diana Rigg starred in this television adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel about a young bride haunted by the presence of her new husband’s first wife. Jim O’Brien directed.

 

 

5. “Peaky Blinders” (2013-2019) – Steven Knight created this television drama about a Birmingham crime family in post World War I England. Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory and Paul Anderson starred.

 

 

6. “The Day the Bubble Burst” (1982) – Joseph Hardy directed this fictionalized account of the events and forces that led to the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The television movie’s cast included Richard Crenna, Robert Vaughn, Robert Hays and Donna Pescow.

 

 

7. “The Great Gatsby” (2000) – Robert Markowitz directed this television adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel about the Jazz Age. Toby Stephens, Paul Rudd and Mira Sorvino starred.

 

 

8. “The Forsyte Saga: To Let” (2003) – Damian Lewis, Gina McKee and Rupert Graves starred in this adaptation of John Galsworthy’s 1921 novel, “To Let”, an entry in his The Forsyte Chronicles.

 

 

9. “The House of Eliott” (1991-1994) – Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins created this television series about two sisters who create this dressmaking business in 1920s London. Stella Gonet and Louise Lombard starred.

Favorite Miniseries Set in 19th Century Britain

Below is a list of my favorite movies and television miniseries set in Britain of the 19th century (1801-1900):

FAVORITE MINISERIES SET IN 19TH CENTURY BRITAIN

1. “North and South” (2004) – Sandy Welch wrote this superb and emotional adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel about the well-born daughter of a former English clergyman, who is forced to move north to an industrial city after her father leaves the Church of England and experiences culture shock, labor conflict and love. Daniela Danby-Ashe and Richard Armitage made a sizzling screen team as the two leads.

 

 

2. “Pride and Prejudice” (1995) – Even after twenty-four years, this adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, which stars Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehrle, remains my all time favorite Austen adaptation, thanks to Andrew Davies’ excellent screenplay and the cast’s performances. I cannot describe it as anything else other than magic.

 

 

3. “The Buccaneers” (1995) – Maggie Wadey wrote this excellent adaptation of Edith Wharton’s last novel about four American young women who marry into the British aristocracy is also another big favorite of mine. I especially enjoyed the performances of Carla Gugino, Cherie Lughi, James Frain and Greg Wise.

 

 

4. “Emma” (2009) – Sandy Welch struck gold again in her superb adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel about a genteel young woman with an arrogant penchant for matchmaking. Directed by Jim O’Hanlon, Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller starred in this fabulous production.

 

 

5. “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (1996) – Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens and Rupert Graves are fabulous in this excellent adaptation of Anne Brontë’s 1848 novel about a woman attempting to evade an abusive and alcoholic husband. Mike Barker directed this three-part miniseries.

 

 

6. “Wives and Daughters” (1999) – Andrew Davies wrote this excellent adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1865 unfinished novel about the coming-of-age of a country doctor’s daughter. Justine Waddell and Keeley Hawes starred in this four-part miniseries.

 

 

7. “Jane Eyre” (1983) – Alexander Baron wrote this excellent adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel about a destitute, but strong-willed governess who falls in love with her mysterious employer. Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton made a superb screen team in my favorite adaptation of the novel.

 

 

8. “Middlemarch” (1994) – Andrew Davies adapted this superb adaptation of George Eliot’s 1871 novel about the lives of the inhabitants of an English town during the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. The superb cast includes Juliet Aubrey, Douglas Hodge, Robert Hardy and Rufus Sewell.

 

 

9. “Jack the Ripper” (1988) – This two-part miniseries chronicled the investigations of Scotland Yard inspector Fredrick Abberline of the infamous “Jack the Ripper” murders of the late 1880s. Excellent production and performances by Michael Caine, Lewis Collins, Jane Seymour and the supporting cast.

 

 

10. “Bleak House” (2005) – Once again, Andrew Davies struck gold with his excellent adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1852-53 novel about the pitfalls of the 19th British legal system and a family mystery. Anna Maxwell-Martin, Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson and Charles Dance led a cast filled with excellent performances.

 

“NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy Locations

Below are images of locations used in the television adaptation of John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. The three miniseries aired between 1985 and 1994:

 

 

“NORTH AND SOUTH” TRILOGY LOCATIONS

Boone Hall Plantation; Mount Pleasant, South Carolina – This plantation had served as the exterior shots for the Main family’s South Carolina plantation, Mont Royal in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOKS I & II”:

 

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Stanton Hall; Natchez, Mississippi – This mansion was used for the interior shots of the Main family’s South Carolina plantation house, Mont Royal in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOKS I & II” :

 

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Calhoun Mansion; Charleston, South Carolina – This manor house served as the Hazard family’s Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania mansion, Belvedere in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOKS I & II”:

 

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Greenwood Plantation; St. Francisville, Louisiana – This plantation had served as the South Carolina plantation, Resolute; which was owned by the Mains’ neighbor, Justin LaMotte in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOKS I & II”:

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Jefferson College; Washington, Mississippi – The rooms at this former all-male college had served as the barracks at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I”:

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Sunset Station; San Antonio, Texas – This historic train station had served as the rail terminal station in St. Louis, Missouri in “HEAVEN AND HELL – NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK III”:

 

Eggs Benedict

Below is an article about the breakfast dish known as Eggs Benedict

EGGS BENEDICT

I have known about the American breakfast dish, Eggs Benedict, since I was a child. However, I have yet to experience it. After learning about the origins and ingredients for Eggs Benedict, I believe it is time to remedy my lack of experience. 

Eggs Benedict is a traditional American breakfast or brunch dish that consists of the following – two halves of an English muffin, topped with a poached egg, bacon or ham, and Hollandaise sauce. Many variations of Eggs Benedict have been created over the years. Among the most popular are:

*Eggs Florentine – which substitutes spinach for the ham or adds it underneath. Older versions of eggs Florentine add spinach to poached or shirred eggs.

*Eggs Chesapeake – substitutes a Maryland blue crab cake in place of the ham.

*Eggs Mornay – substitutes Mornay cheese sauce for the Hollandaise sauce.

*Irish Benedict – which replaces the ham/bacon with corned beef or Irish bacon.

*Eggs Cochon – a variation from New Orleans restaurants which replaces the ham with pork “debris” (slow roasted pork shredded in its own juices) and the English muffin with a large buttermilk biscuit.

The following are conflicting accounts to the origins of Eggs Benedict:

One of those accounts claimed that Delmonico’s, the famous restaurant in lower Manhattan claimed on its menu that the dish was first created in one of its ovens in 1860. The restaurant also claimed that one of its former chefs, Charles Ranhofer, had published the recipe for Eggs à la Benedick in 1894, naming it in honor of two of the restaurant’s patrons, Mr. and Mrs. LeGrand Benedict.

A retired Wall Street stockbroker named Lemuel Benedict claimed in an interview recorded in the “Talk of the Town”column of The New Yorker in 1942, the year before his death, that he had wandered into the Waldorf Hotel in 1894 ordered “buttered toast, poached eggs, crisp bacon, and a hooker of hollandaise” in the hopes to find a cure for his morning hangover. Oscar Tschirky, Waldorf’s maître d’hôtel, was so impressed with the dish that he put it on the breakfast and luncheon menus, but substituted ham for the bacon and a toasted English muffin for the toast.

The third account to the dish’s origin came from Edward P. Montgomery on behalf of Commodore E. C. Benedict. In 1967, Montgomery wrote a letter to then food columnist Craig Claiborne that included a recipe he claimed he had received through his uncle, a friend of the commodore. Commodore Benedict’s recipe, via Montgomery, varies greatly from Ranhofer’s version. The recipe called for the addition of a “hot, hard-cooked egg and ham mixture” in the Hollandaise Sauce.

Below is a classic recipe for Eggs Benedict from the Betty Crocker website:

Eggs Benedict

Ingredients – Hollandaise Sauce

3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup firm butter

Ingredients – Eggs Benedict

3 English muffins
3 tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon butter
6 thin slices Canadian-style bacon or fully cooked ham
6 eggs
4 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
Paprika, if desired

Preparation

1. In 1-quart saucepan, vigorously stir egg yolks and lemon juice with wire whisk. Add 1/4 cup of the butter. Heat over very low heat, stirring constantly with wire whisk, until butter is melted.

2. Add remaining 1/4 cup butter. Continue stirring vigorously until butter is melted and sauce is thickened. (Be sure butter melts slowly so eggs have time to cook and thicken sauce without curdling.) If the sauce curdles (mixture begins to separate and melted butter starts to appear around the edge of the pan and on top of the sauce), add about 1 tablespoon boiling water and beat vigorously with wire whisk or egg beater until smooth. Keep warm.

3. Split English muffins; toast. Spread each muffin half with some of the 3 tablespoons butter; keep warm.

4. In 10-inch skillet, melt 1 teaspoon butter over medium heat. Cook bacon in butter until light brown on both sides; keep warm.

5. Wipe out skillet to clean; fill with 2 to 3 inches water. Add vinegar to water. Heat to boiling; reduce to simmering. Break cold eggs, one at a time, into custard cup or saucer. Holding dish close to water’s surface, carefully slip eggs into water. Cook 3 to 5 minutes or until whites and yolks are firm, not runny (water should be gently simmering and not boiling). Remove with slotted spoon.

6. Place 1 slice bacon on each muffin half. Top with egg. Spoon warm sauce over eggs. Sprinkle with paprika.

Top Favorite U.S. CIVIL WAR Novels

Below is a current list of my top favorite novels set during the U.S. Civil War: 

TOP FAVORITE U.S. CIVIL WAR NOVELS

1. “Love and War” (1984) by John Jakes – This is the second of a trilogy about two wealthy American families – the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina – during the mid-19th century. This superb novel is about the two families’ experiences during the U.S. Civil War.

2. “The Beguiled” (1966) by Thomas Cullinan – A wounded Union soldier ends up in the care of the occupants of an all girls’ school in Virginia, during the Civil War; and ends up having an emotional impact on both students and teachers.

3. “The Killer Angels” (1974) by Michael Shaara – This historical novel about the Gettysburg Campaign during the summer of 1863 won the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction in 1975.

4. “The Titans” (1976) by John Jakes – This fifth novel in Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles” told the story of various members of the Kent family and their experiences during the first few months of the U.S. Civil War.

5. “Lincoln: A Novel” (1984) by Gore Vidal – Part of Vidal’s “Narratives of Empire” series, this novel told the story of President Abraham Lincoln’s presidency via the eyes of various historical figures.

6. “Freedom” (1987) by William Safire – This novel focused on the first two years of the U.S. Civil War via the eyes of historical figures as they grapple with the dilemmas of political morality raised by secession and war.

7. “Cold Mountain” (1997) by Charles Frazier – The author won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction for this tale about a Confederate Army deserter during the last year of the Civil War who walks for months to return to the love of his life in North Carolina.

8. “Unto This Hour” (1984) by Tom Wicker – This novel recounted five long during the Second Battle of Bull Run campaign via several characters.

9. “The Last Full Measure” (2000) by Jeff Shaara – The author wrote this sequel to his father’s novel, “The Killer Angels”, about the last two years of the Civil War.

10. “Grant’s War” (1992) by Ted Jones – This novel proved to be an interesting take on the “mock documentary” in which an early 20th historian interviews several Civil War veterans on how General Ulysses Grant conducted the war.

“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.

Chicken à la King

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

CHICKEN A LA KING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicken à la King

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

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

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