“Behind a Mask” with Louisa May Alcott

As you may be aware, Greta Gerwig is filming her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 masterwork Little Women. This version is set to star Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet, James Norton, Florence Pugh, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep, and is slated for a Christmas 2019 release.

In the last couple of years alone, there’s already been a TV miniseries and a feature film, and in my opinion, it will be difficult to improve on (the best) Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version.

No matter… Little Women is a perennial springboard for many imaginations.

Gerwig has been involved with this production for two years or more, having been consulted to rewrite a draft just as she was finishing up her own script for Lady Bird, and the producer of the ’94 installment, Robin Swicord, is convinced she can innovate. Word is, Gerwig’s take will concentrate on the March sisters’ adult lives — not so much as girls, more as young women. So possibly less Concord with Marmee, and more Europe with Aunt March for Amy and New York City for Jo, say. (No word on whether she’ll be able to make Amy any less of a selfish, vain brat.)

Perhaps if this version does well, Gerwig or someone else will be interested in other Alcott works…such as a fascinating short story called “Behind a Mask.” I first became aware of Alcott’s short fiction while watching a PBS documentary on her and her family. Turns out, her life was no picnic. Much like the March girls, the Alcotts were broke a lot of the time (both families had four daughters, and a lot of Little Women seems to have been autobiographical). Her father was a Transcendentalist like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and although he wrote and spoke about that ideology all over the U.S., in addition to establishing an experimental school, he failed to consistently support the family. So what’s a nice girl from a good family supposed to do for money in mid-19th century New England? While still a teenager, Alcott worked at a variety of jobs: teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic helper, and, most often, writer. And the most lucrative writing was pulp fiction, or what was in the 1860s referred to by Alcott herself and others as “blood and thunder tales.”

Under the name A.M. Barnard, she wrote stories with somewhat opposite themes as Little Women. Gold-digging, revenge, adultery, murder, stealing, deception, betrayal, blackmail…you name it, A.M. put it in a story. This is stuff that would have given Professor Bhaer an attack of the vapors. Much like Jane Austen and the “horrid novels” she loved 70 years before, Alcott had a taste for less rarefied stories — and was able to make it pay. In 1862, she wrote in her journal, “Rewrote the last story, and sent it to L., who wants more than I can send him.” “Behind a Mask” is among the most interesting of this melodramatic oeuvre.

The story takes place in contemporary England and concerns a penniless governess who arrives at a great house and ingratiates herself with its inmates, the wealthy Coventry family, except for the oldest son and his cousin, who don’t trust her from the beginning. Only they can sense — spoiler alert: rightly so — that the demure young woman is nothing like what she seems.

When alone, Miss Muir’s conduct was decidedly peculiar. Her first act was to clench her hands and mutter between her teeth, with passionate force, “I’ll not fail again if there is power in a woman’s wit and will!” She stood a moment motionless, with an expression of almost fierce disdain on her face, then shook her clenched hand as if menacing some unseen enemy….Kneeling before the one small trunk, which held her worldly possessions, she opened it, drew out a flask, and mixed a glass of some ardent cordial, which she seemed to enjoy extremely as she sat on the carpet, musing, while her quick eyes examined every corner of the room….Still sitting on the floor she unbound and removed the long abundant braids from her head, wiped the pink from her face, took out several pearly teeth, and slipping off her dress appeared herself indeed, a haggard, worn, and moody woman of thirty at least. (11)

Soon enough, this unassuming yet devious personage puts the household in chaos, and brother is pitted against brother:

He looked at her with a despairing glance and stretched his hand toward her beseechingly. She seemed to figure a blow, for suddenly she clung to Gerald with a faint cry. The act, the look of fear, the protecting gesture Coventry involuntarily made, were too much for Edward, already excited by conflicting passions. In a paroxysm of blind wrath he caught up a large pruning knife left there by the gardener, and would have dealt his brother a fatal blow had he not warded it off with his arm. (34-35)

I’m not going to say much more about the story, other than it’s short enough to be effectively adapted as a feature film and twisty enough to keep people guessing until the last scene. It ought to be helmed by a woman, in any case, someone who can portray the 19th-century social/class differences without bogging the story down, as they are integral to the world Alcott writes about. Perhaps Gerwig, Sofia Coppola, or Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice) would take it on.

Quotations from Behind A Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. Edited and with an introduction by Madeleine Stern. Harper Collins Perennial, 2004.

Little Women (1994) stills from Movie-Screencaps.com

Lionel Atwill’s Double Life

Lionel Atwill, a fixture of action and horror films throughout the 1930s and 1940s, is a familiar face whose background was unknown to me, so I figured he’d be great to write about for the 7th Annual What A Character! Blogathon. To be honest, there’s a lot more story here than I expected.

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#TCMFF 2017 Recap

I love reporting all the goings on from the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival, held every year in Los Angeles. Not only is it a chance to see some great films with appreciative audiences, it’s also great to catch up with online #TCMParty friends who quickly become IRL friends, and to reunite with offline friends. It’s just a big classic movie love fest, as you can read below…more tweets and IG posts after the jump.

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Review: Movie Nights with the Reagans

I sometimes have difficulty separating an artist from their art, although I’ve been able to accomplish it several times. Would I be able to do so when the artist in question was a President of the United States whose art included not only films, but policies that transformed the Republican Party, the American economy, and the course of the Cold War? Movie Nights with the Reagans by Mark Weinberg has arrived to pose this question.

Whatever your feelings about Reagan’s politics, and mine are by no means completely positive, this new book affirms any belief in the influence of film on society. It is written by Mark Weinberg, who in 1981, when the book begins, was serving as an assistant press secretary at the White House. He was one of the few staff members invited along on the Reagans’ weekends at Camp David, where there is a movie theater. In the privacy of the Aspen Lodge, the First Family and their guests sat in comfy chairs as popcorn was served in baskets, and watched contemporary and classic movies on Friday and Saturday nights, in good times (landslide re-election) and in bad (assassination attempts).

The book is organized mostly chronologically, with one chapter per film, beginning with the first weekend trip of Reagan’s presidency in February of 1981 (the film was 9 to 5) all the way up to 1987, including September of 1985, when the chosen film was Ronald and Nancy’s only one together, Hellcats of the Navy, which was also the last feature in which either Reagan appeared. The connections between the films and the memories in each chapter can be tenuous but are nonetheless fascinating. Weinberg was in a unique position of truly unparalled access, enabling him to now deliver an assortment of anecdotes; he seems to have been both an employee and a friend of both the Reagans, with a closeness verging on that of family.

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31 Days of Oscar: Day 3

While there’s still a week of Best Picture nominees and winners left in TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar tribute, today our Sixth Annual blogathon of the same name draws to a close with a bumper crop of fabulous and informative entries centered on the Golden Man and his history with everyone from Janet Gaynor to Forrest Gump and Agnes Varda.

Always Try discusses Katharine Hepburn’s [many] Oscar Wins.

Another Old Movie Blog analyzes the context around Joan Crawford’s win for Mildred Pierce.

Life’s Lessons Daily Blog delves into the social and emotional significance of the Awards in More than an Award Show: Oscars, The Host and Forrest Gump (1994).

Blog of the Darned presents seven films that should have been nominated for Best Picture in Great Movies: 7, Oscar: 0.

Old Hollywood Films recaps the career and Oscar year of Janet Gaynor, The First Best Actress Winner.

Moon in Gemini recalls a wide range of Forgotten Oscar Nominees and Winners from The Racket (1928) to Brad Dourif (yes, he got the nod!)

Classic Film Observations and Obsessions investigates Agnès Varda’s turn at an Oscar with Face, Places (2017).

Silver Screen Classics examines the first film to win the “Big Five” Oscars, It Happened One Night (1934).

The Nitrate Diva analyzes Best Screenplay winner Pillow Talk, “a movie that empathizes with the problems of working women and takes their concerns seriously.”

This post is part of the Sixth Annual 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by myself, Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled, and Aurora at Once Upon A Screen.

Day 1 Posts

Day 2 Posts

31 Days of Oscar: Oscar SNUBS, 2018 Edition!

Gal Gadot, Patty Jenkins, and Lucy Davis on the set of WONDER WOMAN

Much like excellence in ice dancing, excellence in cinema is a subjective thing. The Academy Awards can only be a consensus on what is produced in a given year, but considering how difficult it can be to get even two people to agree on any film, it’s no wonder differences of opinion can and do crop up where gold is concerned, on everything from categories — which I have plenty of thoughts about, but that’s another post* — to particular nominees, or more to the point, NON-nominees. Herewith I present an unlucky 7 of this year’s most glaring Oscar omissions, in no particular order. Warning: There might be spoilers in here, depending on exactly what you consider a spoiler. Check them all out after the jump.

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Sixth Annual What A Character! Blogathon – Day 3

Welcome to Day 3 of the Sixth Annual What A Character! Blogathon, in which we celebrate those actors whose faces you know but whose names you may not. I’m your hostess for the Day 3 offerings. Be sure to also check out Day 1, hosted by Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled, and Day 2, hosted by Aurora at Once Upon A Screen. It’s been my pleasure to work with these two dames to shed some light on the names below the title. And now, on with the show…

First up, my co-host Aurora at Once Upon A Screen recaps the multi-faceted stage, TV, and film career of Mary Wickes from her earliest theater work to Sister Act and beyond.

Terry at A Shroud of Thoughts reminds us that William Schallert, who is so well-known for his intelligent and/or nice characters, could actually be “not exactly sympathetic…downright villainous.”

Crítica Retrô looks at a different kind of actor, Looney Tunes former main character and dependable sidekick, Porky Pig.LA

Cinematic Scribblings highlights standout Japanese actress Haruko Sugimura and her portrayals of “not always particularly pleasant people.”

Carole & Co honors “one of the foot soldiers of film (and TV) acting,” Nat Pendleton.

Prowler Needs A Jump surveys Patrick Magee‘s amazingly diverse, half-century career.

Co-host Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled provides a pronunciation refresher while honoring the oeuvre of Zasu Pitts.

That William Powell Site examines that star’s scene-stealing performance in Beau Geste (1926), “another opportunity for [him] to steal the show.”

LA Explorer catalogs the extensive career of Eddie “Rochester” Anderson through radio, films, and TV.

Silver Scenes recounts the life and work of “tough but lovable broad” Connie Gilchrist.

The Dream Book Blog reviews the roles of character actress and sometime Val Lewton muse Elizabeth Russell.

—> Stop back later in the day (Sunday, December 17, 2017) as I will be updating this list as more posts are published!

Bonus: Short clip featuring two of our What A Character honorees, Nat Pendleton and Zasu Pitts, in Sing and Like It (1934):

 

 

 

 

 

 

What A Character! The cast of ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS (1948)

I’m not really one for musicals. I don’t universally enjoy them all. But when I like them, I really like them, and they are among my favorite films of all-time. For instance, 42nd Street, Dames, Swing Time, Singin’ in the Rain, and Romance on the High Seas (1948).

To sum up the plot (bear with me): Married couple Michael and Elvira Kent (Don DeFore and Janis Paige) each constantly suspect the other of infidelity. Michael though is too wrapped up in his work to go on the vacations Elvira plans for their anniversaries, and every year he cancels and they stay home. In the course of booking these trips, she meets Georgia Garrett (Doris Day) at the travel agency. Georgia never goes anywhere either; she’s broke and only goes to the agency to window-shop. When the Kents’ third anniversary rolls around, Elvira has reason to suspect that Michael’s inevitable postponement of this trip, a cruise to Rio, is because of his new blonde secretary.

While she’s still fuming with jealousy, the travel agency mistakenly delivers Georgia’s passport photo to Elvira, and that gives the latter an idea: In these pre-Internet, pre-TSA days, Elvira will send Georgia on the cruise in her place, so that Elvira can stay home and keep an eye on her husband without him knowing she’s still in town. Her insistence on going on the cruise by herself heightens Michael’s suspicion, and he in turn hires private detective Peter Virgil (Jack Carson) to go on the cruise and keep an eye on Elvira. Only with the help of her Uncle Lazlo (S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall) does Elvira successully sneak Georgia onto the ship. Once the ship sails, many complications ensue.

It’s a plot of Shakespearean complexity — with songs! *

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What A Character! Daniel Stern – Wise-Ass to the Stars

Daniel Stern in Home Alone (1990)

By Jack Deth

Welcome all and sundry! Having been sidelined for awhile with the vagaries of an old body catching up with me, I was thrilled to see that the Sixth Annual What A Character! Blogathon was in the works, with some delightful selections from numerous cinephiles coaxing my attention to the newer batches of those who work in the background of sets and groups, inching their way closer to success.

To that end, allow me a few moments of your time while I dig out, dust off, root around, and unearth the career of some local homegrown Maryland talent in

What A Character: Master Craftsman Daniel Stern. Wise-Ass To The Stars!

Along with Chris Meloni (“Bound,” “Oz,” “Law & Order: SVU”) and Jonathan Banks (“Who’ll Stop The Rain,” “Wiseguy,” “Breaking Bad”), Stern was the tall, gangling scarecrow of an upstart who caught my eye providing sarcastic comic relief as one of four high school graduate buddies facing life’s daunting future in Breaking Away.

A Peter Yates-directed coming-of-age project from 1979, filmed in and around Bloomington, Indiana. A surprisingly good example of a on-location film that excels in “Bang For The Buck,” mixing teen angst, uncertainty, and a scaled-down version of a hometown bicycle “Tour de France” with the four friends — “Cutters,” named after the local families who cut and formed marble and granite for the state’s municipal and court buildings — going up against better-trained, -financed and -equipped fraternities. Adding a dash of underdog to the film’s drama and comedy that surprised audiences, the Golden Globes, and Academy of Arts and Sciences alike.

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Review: Hank and Jim and the 50-Year Friendship PLUS Giveaway

As a classic movie devotee, I’ve always wondered how two so different people as Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart — somehow he is never “James” — could maintain such a lasting and close friendship as theirs apparently was. I’d heard about the model airplane they built together, and the double dates. Yet Fonda was a New Deal Democrat who was married 5 times, had issues with his kids, and seemed to keep to himself; Stewart was a conservative Republican, got married once for life, had a decent relationship with his kids, and seemed to know everybody. The new double biography Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart, by Scott Eyman, acclaimed author of John Wayne: The Life and Legend, reconciles this conundrum, and in the process reveals that these two actors were more alike than I knew. Giveaway winner announced after the jump.
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