Peach Melba

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PEACH MELBA

Below is a small article about a famous dessert created around the end of the 19th century at a restaurant in London. It is calledPeach Melba. I first learned about this dish from the BBC’s “EDWARDIAN SUPERSIZE ME” episode.

The Peach Melba is an ice cream dessert that includes peaches and raspberry sauce by the French born chef, Auguste Escoffier in honor of the famous Australian sorprano, Nellie Melba. In 1892, Melba was performing in Richard Wagner’s opera called Lohengrin at Covent Garden in London. The Duke of Orléans gave a dinner party at the Savoy Hotel to celebrate her triumph. Chef Escoffier, who ran the kitchens at the Savoy, created a new dessert for the occasion.

Escoffier used an ice sculpture of a swan that was featured in the opera. Ice cream rested on the bed of the ice sculpture. Escoffier then topped the ice cream with peaches and spun sugar. Eight years later, Escoffier created a new version of the dessert to celebrate the opening of the Carlton Hotel, where he had become head chef. Escoffier used dishes, instead of ice swan sculptures. And he topped the peaches with raspberry purée. Other versions of this dessert over the years have use pears, apricots, or strawberries, instead of peaches; and/or the use raspberry sauce or melted red currant jelly, instead of raspberry purée.

Below is a recipe for Peach Melba from the PBS website:

Peach Melba

Ingredients

6 ripe, tender peaches
Sugar
1 ½ pints vanilla ice cream (fresh homemade is best)
1 heaping cup fresh ripe raspberries
1 heaping cup powdered sugar
6 tbsp blanched raw almond slivers (optional)

Directions

Boil a medium pot of water. Keep a large bowl of ice water close by. Gently place a peach into the boiling water. Let the peach simmer for 15-20 seconds, making sure all surfaces of the peach are submerged. Remove the peach from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and immediately plunge it into the ice water for a few seconds to cool. Take the peach out of the ice water and place it on a plate. Repeat the process for the remaining peaches. When all of the peaches have been submerged, peel them. Their skin should come off easily if they are ripe, thanks to the short boiling process. Discard the skins. Halve the peeled peaches and discard the pits.

Optional Step: Place the peeled peaches in a large bowl of cold water mixed with 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice or ascorbic acid powder. Let the peach halves soak for 10 minutes. Drain off the water and gently pat the peach halves dry with a paper towel. This step will help to keep the peaches from oxidizing and turning brown. Sprinkle the peach halves with sugar on all exposed surfaces. Place them on a plate in a single layer, then place them in the refrigerator for 1 hour to chill.

Meanwhile, make the raspberry purée. Place the raspberries into a blender and pulse for a few seconds to create a purée. Strain purée into a bowl through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing down on the solid ingredients and agitating the mixture with a metal spoon to extract as much syrupy juice as possible. It will take a few minutes to extract all of the juice from the solids. When finished, you should only have seeds and a bit of pulp left in the strainer. Dispose of the solids.

Sift the powdered sugar into the raspberry purée, adding a little powdered sugar at a time, and whisking in stages till the sugar is fully incorporated into the syrup. It will take several minutes of vigorous whisking to fully integrate the powdered sugar into the syrup. Refrigerate the raspberry syrup for 1 hour, or until chilled.

Assemble six serving dishes. Scoop ½ cup of vanilla ice cream into each serving dish. Place two of the sugared peach halves on top of each serving of ice cream. Divide the raspberry sauce between the six dishes, drizzling the sauce over the top of the peaches and ice cream. Top each serving with a tablespoon of raw almond slivers, if desired. Serve immediately.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1910s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1910s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1910s

1-Mary Poppins

1. “Mary Poppins” (1964) – Walt Disney personally produced this Oscar winning musical adaptation of P.L. Travers’ book series about a magical nanny who helps change the lives of a Edwardian family. Directed by Robert Stevenson, the movie starred Oscar winner Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.

2-Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

2. “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” (1965) – Ken Annakin directed this all-star comedy about a 1910 air race from London to Paris, sponsored by a newspaper magnate. Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles, James Fox and Terry-Thomas starred.

3-Titanic

3. “Titanic” (1953) – Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb starred in this melodrama about an estranged couple and their children sailing on the maiden voyage of the R.M.S. Titanic. Jean Negulesco directed.

4-Eight Men Out

4. “Eight Men Out” (1988) – John Sayles wrote and directed this account of Black Sox scandal, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series. John Cusack, David Strathairn and D.B. Sweeney starred.

5-A Night to Remember

5. “A Night to Remember” (1958) – Roy Ward Baker directed this adaptation of Walter Lord’s book about the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. Kenneth More starred.

6-The Shooting Party

6. “The Shooting Party” (1985) – Alan Bridges directed this adaptation of Isabel Colegate’s 1981 novel about a group of British aristocrats who have gathered for a shooting party on the eve of World War I. James Mason, Edward Fox, Dorothy Tutin and John Gielgud starred.

7-The Music Man

7. “The Music Man” (1962) – Robert Preston and Shirley Jones starred in this film adaptation of Meredith Wilson’s 1957 Broadway musical about a con man scamming a small Midwestern town into providing money for a marching band. Morton DaCosta directed.

8-My Fair Lady

8. “My Fair Lady” (1964) – Oscar winner George Cukor directed this Best Picture winner and adaptation of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s 1956 Broadway musical about an Edwardian phonetics professor who sets out to transform a Cockney flower girl into a respected young lady to win a bet. Audrey Hepburn and Oscar winner Rex Harrison starred.

9-Paths of Glory

9. “Paths of Glory” (1957) – Stanley Kubrick directed this adaptation of Humphrey Cobb’s anti-war novel about a French Army officer who defends three soldiers who refused to participate in a suicidal attack during World War I. Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou and George Macready starred.

10-Somewhere in Time

10. “Somewhere in Time” (1980) – Jeannot Szwarc directed this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1975 time travel novel called “Bid Time Return”. Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour and Christopher Plummer starred.

“A ROOM WITH A VIEW” (1985-86) Review

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“A ROOM WITH A VIEW” (1985-86) Review

Ah, Merchant and Ivory! Whenever I hear those particular names, my mind usually generates images of Britons in Edwardian dress, strolling along a London street, across a wide lawn or even along some city boulevard in a country other than Great Britain. In other words, the images from their movie, “A ROOM WITH A VIEW” usually fills my brain.

Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory produced and directed this adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, which first hit the theaters in Great Britain during the early winter of 1985. Four months later, the movie was released in American movie theaters. Forster’s tale is basically a coming-of-age story about a young Edwardian woman, who finds herself torn between her superficial and snobbish fiancé and the free-thinking son of a retired journalist, whom she had met during her Italian vacation. The movie begins with the arrival of young Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin/chaperone Charlotte Barlett to a small pensione in Florence, Italy. Not only does Lucy have a reunion with her family’s local clergyman, the Reverend Mr. Beebe; she and Charlotte meet a non-conformist father and son pair named Mr. Emerson and his son, George. The Emersons agree to exchange their room – which has a view – with the one occupied by Lucy and Charlotte. Lucy becomes further acquainted with George after the pair witness a murder in the city’s square and he openly expresses his feelings to her. Matters come to a head between the young couple when George kisses Lucy during a picnic for the pensione‘s British visitors, outside of the city. Charlotte witnesses the kiss and not only insists that she and Lucy return to the pensione, but also put some distance between them and the Emersons by leaving Florence.

A few months later finds Lucy back at her home in Windy Corners, England. She had just accepted a marriage proposal from the wealthy, yet intellectually snobbish Cecil Vyse; much to her mother and brother Freddy’s silent displeasure. Matters take a turn for the worse when George and Mr. Emerson move to an empty cottage in Windy Corners, she soon learns that both George and his father have moved to her small village, thanks to Cecil’s recommendation. With George back in her life, Lucy’s suppressed feelings return. It is not long before she is internally divided between her feelings for George and her growing fear that Cecil might not be the man for her.

What can I say about “A ROOM WITH THE VIEW”? It was the first British-produced costume drama I had ever seen in the movie theaters. Hell, it was the first Merchant-Ivory production I had ever seen . . . period. Has it held up in the past twenty-eight years? Well . . . it is not perfect. The problem is other than Julian Sands’ performance, I cannot think of any real imperfections in the movie. A view have pointed out that its quaintness has made it more dated over the years. Frankly, I found it fresh as ever. Who am I kidding? I loved the movie when I first saw it 28 years ago, and still loved it when I recently watched it.

One would think that the movie’s critique of a conservative society would seem outdated in the early 21st century. But considering the growing conservatism of the past decade or so, perhaps “A ROOM WITH A VIEW” is not as outdated as one would believe, considering its Edwardian setting. Mind you, I found some the Emersons’ commentaries on life rather pretentious and in George’s case, a bit long-winded. But I cannot deny that their observations, however long-winded, struck me as dead on. More importantly, Foster’s novel and by extension, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay, makes Foster’s observations more easy to swallow thanks to a very humorous and witty tale. Another aspect that I enjoyed about “A ROOM WITH A VIEW” was how Foster’s liberalism had an impact on the love story between Lucy and George. I find it interesting how Foster managed to point out the differences between genuine liberals like the Emersons and pretenders like Cecil Vyse, who use such beliefs to feed his own sense of superiority.

While watching “A ROOM WITH A VIEW”, it seemed very apparent to me, that it is still a beautiful movie to look at. The movie not only won a Best Adapted Screenplay award for screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; but also two technical awards for the movie’s visual style. Gianni Quaranta, Brian Ackland-Snow, Brian Savegar, Elio Altamura served as the team for the movie’s art direction and won an Academy Award for their efforts. The art designs they created for the movie’s Edwardian setting is stunning. I can also say the same about the Academy Award winning costume designs created by Jenny Beavan and John Bright. Below are two examples of their work:

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And Tony Pierce-Roberts earned a much deserved Oscar for his beautiful and lush photography of both Tuscany in Italy and various English locations that served as the movie’s settings.

One of the best aspects of “A ROOM WITH A VIEW” has to be its cast of entertaining, yet flawed characters. First of all, the movie featured rich, supporting characters like Lucy’s charming, yet gauche brother Freddy; the very verbose and open-minded Reverend Beebe; the always exasperated Mrs. Honeychurch; the indiscreet and pretentious novelist, Eleanor Lavish (in some ways another Cecil); and the snobbish and controlling Reverend Eager. And it is due to the superb performances of Rupert Graves, the always entertaining Simon Callow, Rosemary Leach, the even more amazing Judi Dench and Patrick Godfrey that allowed these characters to come to life.

Both Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliot earned well-deserved Academy Award nominations for their unforgettable performances as Charlotte Barlett, Lucy’s passive-aggressive cousin; and George’s brash and open-minded father, Mr. Emerson. Charlotte must be one of the most fidgety characters ever portrayed by Smith, yet she conveyed this trait with such subtlety that I could not help but feel disappointed that she did not collect that Oscar. And Elliot did a marvelous job in portraying Mr. Emerson with the right balance of humor and pathos. Daniel Day-Lewis did not earn an Oscar nomination for his hilarious portrayal of Lucy’s snobbish and pretentious fiancé, Cecil Vyse. But he did win the National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actor. Although there were moments when I found his performance a bit too mannered, I cannot deny that he deserved that award.

The role of Lucy Honeychurch made Helena Bonham-Carter a star. And it is easy to see why. The actress did an excellent job of not only portraying Lucy’s quiet, yet steady persona as a well-bred Englishwoman. And at the same time, she also managed to convey the character’s peevishness and a passive-aggressive streak that strongly reminded me of Charlotte Barlett. The only bad apple in the barrel proved to be Julian Sands’ performance as the overtly romantic, yet brooding George Emerson. Too be honest, I found a good deal of his performance rather flat. This flatness usually came out when Sands opened his mouth. He has never struck me as a verbose actor. However, I must admit that he actually managed to shine in one scene in which George openly declared his feelings for Lucy. And with his mouth shut, Sands proved he could be a very effective screen actor.

Looking back on “A ROOM WITH A VIEW”, I still find it difficult to agree with that blogger who stated that it had become somewhat dated over the years. Not only does the movie seem livelier than ever after 28 years or so, its theme of freedom from social repression still resonates . . . something I suspect that many would refuse to admit. Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, along with Oscar winner screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala created a work of art that has not lost its beauty and its bite after so many years.

“SAVING MR. BANKS” (2013) Review

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“SAVING MR. BANKS” (2013) Review

When I first saw the trailer for the recent biopic, “SAVING MR. BANKS”, I knew I would like it. First of all, the movie was about the development of one of my favorite movies of all time, the 1964 musical “MARY POPPINS”. And two, it featured some very humorous moments that I personally found appealing. Not long after the movie first hit the theaters, I rushed to see it as soon as I possibly could.

Directed by John Lee Hancock, “SAVING MR. BANKS” told the story of “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers‘ two-week stay in 1961 Los Angeles, while filmmaker Walt Disney attempts to obtain from her, the official screen rights to her novels. The development of “SAVING MR. BANKS” began when Australian filmmaker Ian Collie produced a documentary on Travers back in 2002. He saw a potential biopic and convinced Essential Media and Entertainment to develop a feature film with Sue Smith as screenwriter. The project attracted the attention of producer Alison Owen, who subsequently hired Kelly Marcel to co-write the screenplay with Smith. Marcel removed a subplot involving Travers and her son, and divided the story into a two-part narrative – the creative conflict between Travers and Disney, and her dealings with her childhood issues. Because Marcel’s version featured certain intellectual property rights that belonged to the he Walt Disney Company, Owen approached Corky Hale, who informed former Disney composer, Richard M. Sherman of the script. Sherman supported Marcel’s script. Meanwhile, the Disney Studios learned of the script, as well. Instead of purchasing the script in order to shut down the production, they agree to co-produce the movie, allowing Kelly Marcel access to more material regarding the production of “MARY POPPINS”. The Disney Studios approached Tom Hanks for the role of Walt Disney, who accepted. When they failed to secure Meryl Streep for the role of P.L. Travers, they turned to Emma Thompson, who accepted it.

Through the urging of her literary agent, a financially struggling P.L. Travers finally decides to leave her London home, and agreed to meet and negotiate with Walt Disney in Los Angeles over the film rights to her “Mary Poppins” stories, after twenty years. While in Los Angeles, Travers express disgust over what she regards as the city’s unreality and the naivety and overbearing friendliness of its inhabitants like her assigned limousine driver, Ralph. At the Disney Studios in Burbank, Travers collaborates with the creative team assigned to develop the movie – screenwriter/artist
Don DaGradi, Richard and Robert Sherman. She finds their casual manner and their handling of the adaptation of her novels distasteful. And Travers is also put off by Disney’s jocular and familiar personality. She pretty much remains unfriendly toward her new acquaintances and a new set of problems arise between her and the studio. Her collaboration with the Disney Studios also reveals painful memories of her childhood in 1906-07 Australia and memories of her charismatic father, Travers Goff, who was losing a battle against alcoholism; and her mother Margaret Goff, who nearly committed suicide, due to her inability to control Goff’s heaving drinking.

Hollywood politics can be mind-boggling. I learned this valuable lessons, following the reactions to not only the recent historical drama, “THE BUTLER”, but also the reactions to “SAVING MR. BANKS”. The first movie came under fire by conservatives for its historical inaccuracies, when President Ronald Reagan’s son accused that movie of a false portrait of his father. Some four-and-a-half months later, many feminists accused the Disney Studios of not only damaging P.L. Travers’ reputation, but also of historical inaccuracies. Actress Meryl Streep, who had been an earlier candidate for the role of Travers, added her two cents by openly accused Walt Disney of being a bigot on so many levels, while presenting an acting award to Emma Thompson. Since political scandal brought “SAVING MR. BANKS” under heavy criticism for historical accuracy or lack of, I figure I might as well discuss the matter.

Was the movie historically accurate in its portrayal of P.L. Travers? Many criticized the movie’s failure to delve into the author’s bisexuality and relationship with her adopted son. What they failed to realize was that Travers’ sex life and adopted son had nothing to do with her creation of “Mary Poppins” or her dealings with Disney. The movie they wanted was the movie written by Sue Smith. And Alison Owen had put the kibbosh on those storylines long before the Disney Studios got involved. Disney did meet with Travers at her London home. Only he did so in 1959, not 1961. But the movie was accurate about him gaining the movie rights after her 1961 visit. Disney’s 1959 London trip only resulted in his acquiring an option – which gave the filmmaker a certain period of time to acquire the actual film rights. However, Travers’ family, the Goffs, moved to Allora, Queensland in 1905, not 1906 as the movie had suggested.

Was Travers that difficult, as suggested in the movie? I honestly have no idea. Richard Sherman made it clear that he found her difficult to like. I have read somewhere that Travers had managed to alienate both her adopted son and her grandchildren by the time of her death in 1996. And there are also . . . the audio tapes that recaptured Travers’ sessions with Don Di Gradi and the Sherman Brothers in 1961. Tapes that she had requested. She did not come off well in those tapes. Critics also claimed that the movie idealized Disney. Here, I have to keep myself from laughing. Granted, the movie and actor Tom Hanks portrayed the “Disney charm” at its extreme. But the movie also made it clear that Disney was utilizing his charm to convince Travers to sign over the movie rights. And quite frankly, his charm came off as somewhat overbearing and manipulative in some scenes. I perfectly understood Travers’ reaction to the sight of Disney stuffed animals, balloons and fruit baskets in her hotel room. And I certainly sympathize with her reaction to being dragged to Disneyland against her will. I have loved the theme park since I was a kid. But if I had been in Travers’ shoes, I would have been pissed at being dragged to some location against my will.

When the movie first flashed back to Travers’ Australian childhood, I had to suppress an annoyed sigh. I really was not interested in her childhood, despite what the movie’s title had indicated. But the more the movie delved into her childhood and made the connections to her creation of the “Mary Poppins” and the development of the 1964 movie, the more I realized that Kelly Marcel had written a brilliant screenplay. By paying close attention to the story during my second viewing of the movie, I noticed the connections between the tragic circumstances of Travers’ childhood, “Mary Poppins” and her 1961 Los Angeles visit. Some of the connections I made were the following:

*Travers’ aversion of Southern California weather, which must have reminded her of Australia and her childhood

*Her aversion to pears, which reminded her of Travers Goff’s death

*Her aversion to a Mr. Banks with facial hairs

*Her aversion to Mr. Banks’ cinematic personality

*Her aversion to the color red, which may have also reminded her of Mr. Goff’s death

*Her reaction to the Sherman Brothers’ song – “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank”, which brought back painful memories of an incident regarding her father at a local fair

*Her Aunt Ellie, whom she re-created as Mary Poppins

I also have to compliment the movie’s visual re-creation of both 1961 Southern California and Edwardian Queensland, Australia. Production designer Michael Corenblith had to re-create both periods in Travers’ life. And if I must be honest, he did an exceptional job – especially in the 1961 scenes. His work was ably supported by Lauren Polizzi’s colorful art direction, and Susan Benjamin’s set decorations. I also enjoyed Daniel Orlandi’s elegant and subtle costumes for the movie. I was amazed by his re-creation of both Edwardian and mid-20th century fashion, as seen in the images below:

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I found John Schwartzman’s photography very interesting . . . especially in the 1961 sequences. Unlike other productions that tend to re-create past Los Angeles in another part of the country (2011’s “MILDRED PIERCE”), “SAVING MR. BANKS” was shot entirely in Southern California. But what I found interesting about Schwartzman’s photography is that he utilized a good deal of close-up in those exterior scenes for Beverly Hills and Burbank in an effort to hide the changes that had occurred in the past 50 years. But as much as he tried, not even Schwartzman could hide the fact that the Fantasyland shown in the movie was the one that has existed since 1983. Mark Livolsi’s editing did a solid job in enabling Schwartzman to hide the changes of time for the Southern California exteriors. But I also have to commend Livolsi for his superb editing of one particular sequences – namely the juxtaposition of the 1961 scene featuring the Sherman Brothers’ performance of the “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” song and the 1906 scene of the bank-sponsored fair in Allora. Thanks to Livolsi’s editing, John Lee Hancock’s excellent direction and Colin Farrell’s portrayal of Travers Goff, this sequence proved to be the most mind-blowing and unforgettable in the entire movie.

Since I had mentioned Colin Farrell, I might as well discuss the cast’s performances. Emma Thompson won the National Board of Review award for Best Actress for her superb portrayal of the very complex P.L. Travers. She did a superb job in capturing both the author’s bluntness, cultural snobishness and imagination. The movie and Thompson’s performance also made it perfectly clear that Travers was still haunted over her father’s death after so many decades. One would think Tom Hanks had an easier job in his portrayal of filmmaker Walt Disney. Superficially, I would agree. But Hanks did an excellent job in conveying some of the more annoying aspects of Disney’s character behind the charm – especially in his attempts to win over Travers. And two particular scenes, Hanks also captured Disney’s own private demons regarding the latter’s father. Colin Farrell gave one of the best performances of his career as Travers’ charming, yet alcoholic father, Travers Goff. I was especially impressed by his performance in the Allora Fair scene. Bradley Whitford was cast as Disney Studios animator/screenwriter Don DaGradi. He not did a first-rate job in portraying DaGradi’s enthusiasm as a Disney employee, but also in portraying how that enthusiasm nearly waned under the weight of Travers’ negative reactions to the project. Both Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak were cast as the songwriting brothers – Richard and Robert Sherman. And they both did excellent jobs in capturing the pair’s contrasting personalities. Schwartzman was deliciously all pep and enthusiasm as the extroverted and younger Richard. And yet, he very subtlely conveyed the younger Sherman’s anxieties in dealing with the difficult Travers. Novak struck me as very effective in his portrayal of the more introverted and intense Robert. And he was also very subtle in portraying the older Sherman’s own penchant for bluntness, especially in one scene in which the songwriter openly clashed with Travers. Ruth Wilson managed to give a very memorable performance as Travers’ long-suffering mother, Margaret Goff. She was especially impressive in one tense scene that featured Mrs. Goff’s suicide attempt. And Paul Giamatti was simply marvelous as Travers’ fictional limousine driver, Ralph. He managed to be both sweet and charming, without being saccharine. The movie also featured solid performances from Annie Rose Buckley, Kathy Baker, Melanie Paxson, Rachel Griffiths and Ronan Vibert.

I must admit that I still feel angry over how “SAVING MR. BANKS” was deprived from any Academy Award nominations, aside from one for Thomas Newman’s score. And if I must be brutally honest, I did not find his score particularly memorable. I was more impressed by John Lee Hancock’s direction, the movie’s visual styles, the performances from a superb cast led by Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks; and especially the Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith screenplay. And considering how so much talent was overlooked by the Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts, I do not think I can take Hollywood’s politics seriously anymore. It seems a travesty that this superb film ended up as a victim of Hollywood’s flaky politics.

“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” (1984) Book Review

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“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” (1984) Book Review

Several years ago, I once posted a list of my top ten favorite historical fiction novels of all time. Susan Howatch’s 1984 novel, “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” made the list. In fact, I would go as far to say that it would have also made the list of my top favorite novels . . . period. I love it that much. 

Back in the 1970s, Howatch wrote several family sagas in which the main characters were based upon members from a certain group from Britain’s Royal Family known as House of Plantagenet, which ruled the country between 1154 and 1485. The characters from 1971’s “PENMARRIC” were based upon the Plantagenet line that began withKing Henry II and ended with King John. 1974’s “CASHELMARA” featured characters based the line that began with Edward I and ended with his grandson, Edward III“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” also featured a character based upon Edward III, but he turned out to be a supporting one. The novel’s main characters were based on his children, two of his grandsons and a great-grandson, starting with Edward, the Black Prince and ending with Henry V“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” followed the fortunes of the Godwins, an Anglo-Welsh upper-class family that lived on an estate called Oxmoon, located near Gower in South Wales. The novel is divided into six major chapters, narrated by the following:

*Robert Godwin – oldest son in the family and a successful barrister who becomes a Member of Parliament
*Ginevra “Ginette” Godwin – Robert’s wife, distant cousin and childhood obsession, who was previously married to an Irishman named Conor Kinsella
*John Godwin – third son in the family and a diplomat with the Foreign Office
*Christopher “Kester” Godwin – Robert and Ginerva’s second son, who becomes master of Oxmoon upon his grandfather’s death
*Henry “Harry” Godwin – John’s oldest living son and Kester’s rival
*Henry “Hal” Godwin – Harry’s oldest son and a musician

“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” spanned at least fifty to sixty years – from 1913 to the late 1960s or early 1970s, covering at least four generations and two world wars. Although the novel is told from the point of view of six major characters, it also featured other never-to-be-forgotten characters from the Godwin family. The ones that really come to mind are Robert and John’s complicated parents – the emotionally unstable Bobby and his very disciplined wife Margaret; Declan Kinsella, Ginette’s oldest son from her first marriage; Bronwen Morgan, John’s mistress and third wife; Robert and John’s youngest brother, the somewhat coarse and unimaginative Thomas Godwin; and Harry’s first wife, the sexy and not-so-bright Belinda “Bella” Stourham Godwin, who becomes obsessed with conceiving a girl after an aborted teenage pregnancy.

What I found amazing about “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” is that it more or less continued the de Salis family saga from “CASHELMARA”, but with different characters. A family scandal involving Bobby’s mother and a sheep farmer named Owen Bryn-Davies ends up having a major impact upon the Godwin family. Both Bobby and Margaret spend most of their married lives trying to overcome the past with an ideal family life, living up to the twin creeds – “doing the done thing” and “drawing the line”. Unfortunately, Bobby’s ability to project an ideal image also leads him to become an emotional time bomb, with a penchant for womanizing. This penchant also leads to another family scandal – one that not only has an impact on Robert and Ginette’s relationship, but also on the question of Oxmoon’s true master, which culminates into an ugly rivalry between cousins Kester and Harry.

It is a skill to Ms. Howatch’s talents that I found the novel’s first two chapters fascinating. She did an excellent job in creating the novel’s setting and characters, and delving into the fascinating, yet problematic marriage between Robert and Ginette. But the chapters featuring John, Kester and Harry’s narrations prove to be the novel’s highlights. Howatch allows the readers to see how Bobby and Margaret’s efforts to maintain an ideal family fractured John’s personality – almost transforming him into some kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde. The ironic thing is that his “Hyde” persona proved to be a lot more beneficial for him. But John’s fractured personality, along with his twisted efforts to live up to his parents’ (actually, I should say his mother’s) creeds of “doing the done thing” and“drawing the line” seemed to have a negative impact on both his son Harry and nephew Kester.

The last chapter, which featured Hal’s narration, proved to be less fascinating than the previous chapters. This particular chapter featured a murder mystery within the family and Hal’s efforts to revive the family fortunes. Mind you, this story line did not strike me as compelling as the previous chapters, but I had no problems with it. But I did have a problem with two aspects of the novel. One, Howatch had an annoying habit of labeling certain characters via their nationalities. Celtics – especially the Welsh and the Irish – seemed to be described as emotional or almost fey. And the English are described as emotionally stunted, yet rational and clear-minded. I found this penchant rather infantile for a first-rate novelist like Howatch. Nor did I care for some the dialogue she had Bronwen’s mouth. It almost seemed as if Howatch tried to transform John’s Welsh mistress (later third wife) as some kind of Celtic mystic. And I really found it annoying. It is a miracle that Bronwen managed to remain one of my favorite characters.

Although I can honestly say that “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” is not perfect, I can also state that it is also one of my favorite novels of all time. In fact, I became so fascinated with it after my last reading that I found myself re-reading some of of the passages over and over again, until I realized that I need to put it down. It really is one of the best family sagas I have ever read . . . period. And I am amazed that there has been no television adaptation of this novel. A movie adaptation would be out of the question. The time constraints on the latter would make an adaptation out of the question. But as a television adaptation . . . “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” could prove to be as exceptional as the novel itself.

“The Wrong Class”

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“THE WRONG CLASS”

After two seasons of viewing Britain’s ITV series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, it occurred to me that there was something off about Julian Fellowes’ portrayal of one of the major characters. That character is Matthew Crawley. And it is an error that I am surprised Fellowes had made. 

“DOWNTON ABBEY” began with news of the sinking of the White Star liner, the R.M.S. Titanic in April 1912. This famous event also caused the deaths of James and Patrick Crawley, the heirs presumptive to the Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. This disruption in the line for the Grantham earldom forced Lord Grantham to seek his next heir, due to the fact that the title and estates only pass to male Crawleys and not to any of his three daughters. Lord Grantham’s new heir turns out to be his third cousin once removed, Matthew Crawley.

Introduced at the end of the series’ first episode, Matthew is a solicitor from Manchester, who lives with his widowed mother, former nurse Mrs. Isobel Crawley. When he receives word that he is to be the Earl of Grantham’s new heir, Matthew does not seem particular pleased. He is very reluctant to accept Lord Grantham’s invitation to move to Downton Abbey and become part of the community. Matthew is only willing to do so, only if he can continue his legal work. Members of the Crawley family such as eldest daughter Lady Mary and her grandmother Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham; along with servants such as butler Charles Carson seem to confirm Matthew’s worst opinions about life among the aristocracy. This hostility is especially apparent in his early relationship with Lady Mary and his reaction to acquiring a new valet/butler for his and Isobel’s residence, the Crawley House. Through Matthew’s first encounters with his Crawley cousins and Molesley, his new valet/butler; series creator Julian Fellowes emphasized Matthew’s social status as a member of the middle-class. And while the majority of the series’ fans and media seemed to accept this view, I find it hard to believe and accept.

These same viewers and the media seemed to believe that class structure and status in Edwardian Britain – especially for the upper classes – depends upon the size of an individual’s bank account. I am afraid that they would be wrong. Class was viewed differently than it is today. During the era of “DOWNTON ABBEY”, an individual’s social status was determined by “bloodline”, not the amount of money one possessed. This was especially true for members of the upper classes. To be a member of the upper class, one has to be part of a family that has owned land in the form of country estates for several generations. The owner of that estate was only required to in an administrative capacity and required tenant farms to earn an income. In other words, that person would be a member of the landed gentry. When an individual also has a title courtesy of royalty, he or she is considered an aristocrat. And his or her family members are also considered aristocrats . . . including cousins.

Despite being born in a middle-class environment and practicing a profession that society would view as an example of that particular class, Matthew Crawley has been a member of Britain’s upper class since birth. More importantly, as third cousin once removed and heir presumptive to the Earl of Grantham, he is also a member of the aristocracy, despite his upbringing. In fact, one can say the same about his late father, Dr. Reginald Crawley. Becoming a physician, marrying a woman from the middle-class and living in that existence did not change Dr. Crawley’s social status – something that he passed to his son, Matthew.

If the Matthew had been born out of wedlock, he would have genuinely been part of the middle-class. If his mother Isobel had been a member of Britain’s landed gentry or aristocracy instead of Dr. Crawley, Fellowes would have been correct to label Matthew as middle-class. This fate certainly awaits Lady Sybil and Tom Bronson’s new child . . . that is, if Tom manages to become a successful journalist. The Bronsons’ new child will certainly be regarded as someone from a lower class by those from the Crawleys’ social circle.

Why did Julian Fellowes label Matthew as a member of the middle-class in his script? AS a member of the upper class and a peer, he should have known better. Has he, like many others today, developed the habit of judging class solely plutocracy . . . mere wealth? That would have worked if “DOWNTON ABBEY” was set in the present time. But the series is set during a period in Britain in which class was still judged by bloodline, not the size of a bank account.

To label Matthew Crawley as a middle-class man, due to the environment in which he was raised . . . and despite his legitimate blood connections to the aristocratic Crawleys, was a mistake. It is not a mistake that will have major consequences on the series’ story lines. In fact, it is not a major mistake period. But I cannot help but feel amused whenever someone erroneously label Matthew as a member of the middle-class.

“A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” (1958) Review

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“A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” (1958) Review

There have been many versions about the April 1912 sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. Many versions. And I have personally seen at least five of them. One of them happened to be the 1958 movie, “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER”.

Directed by Roy Ward Baker, “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” is based upon historian Walter Lord’s 1955 book about the historical sinking. Since the 1958 movie was based upon a historical book instead of a novel, Baker, producer William MacQuitty and screenwriter Eric Ambler approached the film’s plot in a semi-documentary style. Even the movie’s leading character turned out to be the Titanic’s Second Officer, Charles Lightoller, who was portrayed by actor Kenneth More. The movie also featured other historical figures such as J. Bruce Ismay, Thomas Andrews, Captain Edward J. Smith and Margaret “Molly” Brown. Due to this semi-documentary approach,“A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” is regarded as the best movie about the Titanic.

I cannot deny that there is a great deal to admire about “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER”. Not only do I feel it is an excellent movie, I could see that Roy Ward Baker did his best to re-create that last night aboard the Titanic. He and Ambler gave the audience glimpses into the lives of the ship’s crew and passengers. The movie also went into great detail of their efforts to remain alive following the ship’s brief collision with an iceberg. Some of my favorite scenes include the Irish steerage passengers’ efforts to reach the life boats on the upper decks, the wireless operators’ (David McCullum and Kenneth Griffin) efforts to summon other ships to rescue the passengers and crew, and passenger Molly Brown (Tucker McGuire)’s conflict with the sole crewman in her lifeboat. But my favorite scene has to be that moment when the Titanic’s stern rose high before the ship sank into the Atlantic Ocean.

For a film shot in black and white during the late 1950s, I must admit that “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” looked very handsome. Legendary cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth’s phtography struck me as sharp and very elegant. I do not know if Yvonne Caffin’s costume designs for the movie’s 1912 setting was completely accurate, but they certainly did add to the movie’s late Edwardian atmosphere. Especially those costumes for the first-class passengers. I do have to give kudos to the special effects team led by Bill Warrington. He and his team did a superb job in re-creating the ocean liner’s historic sinking. I am even more impressed that their work still manages to hold up after fifty-four years.

The cast of “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” was led by Kenneth More, who portrayed Second Officer Lightoller with his usual energetic charm. More was ably supported by the likes of Laurence Naismith as Captain Smith, Michael Goodliffe’s poignant portrayal of ship designer Thomas Andrews, Frank Lawton as J. Bruce Ismay, George Rose as the inebriated survivor Charles Joughin and Tucker McGuire’s colorful portrayal of American socialite Molly Brown. The movie also featured future “AVENGERS” and Bond veteran Honor Blackman; David McCullum of “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” and “N.C.I.S.” fame; and Bernard Fox, who will also appear in James Cameron’s 1997 movie about the Titanic sinking. But despite the numerous good performances, I honestly have to say that I found nothing exceptional about any of them.

Like many others, I used to believe that “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” was the best movie about the Titanic. After this latest viewing, I do not believe I can maintain that opinion any longer. In fact, I am beginning to suspect there may not be any “ultimate” Titanic film. And “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” is not perfect, as far as I am concerned. Many have applauded the filmmakers for eschewing any fictional melodrama or using the sinking as a backdrop for a fictional story. Personally, I could not care less if a Titanic movie is simply a fictional melodrama or a semi-documentary film. All I require is a first-rate movie that will maintain my interest.

“A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” began with a montage of newsreel clips featuring the Titanic’s christening in Belfast. One, the ship was never christened. And two, I could see that the newsreel footage used in the movie dated from the 1930s. The movie tried its best to allow the audience to identify with some of its characters. But due to “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” being a docudrama, I feel that it failed to give an in-depth study of its more prominent characters . . . making it difficult for me to identify with any of them.

I realize that “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” was a British production, but I was amazed at the low number of American passengers featured in the cast. The 1953 film, “TITANIC” suffered from a similar malady – the only British characters I could recall were members of the crew. I do remember at least three Americans in the 1958 movie – Molly Brown; Benjamin Guggenheim, portrayed by Harold Goldblatt and a third passenger, whose name escapes me. I was satisfied with McGuire’s performance as Molly Brown and the nameless actor who portrayed the third American passenger. But Goldblatt portrayed Guggenheim as a member of the British upper class in both attitude and accent. It almost seemed as if the filmmakers wanted Guggenheim to be viewed as a British gentleman, instead of an American one.

Walter Lord’s book made it clear that one of the last songs performed by Titanic’s band was NOT “Nearer My God to Thee”. Yet, the filmmakers chose to perpetrate this myth in the movie by having the remaining passengers and crew sing the song en masse before the ship began to sink in earnest. This pious attitude continued in a scene aboard the R.M.S. Carpathia, in which the survivors listened to a religious sermon. Instead of projecting an air of melancholy or despair, the survivors, thanks to Ward Baker, seemed to project an air of the British stiff upper lip cliche. I feel that a melancholic air among the survivors would have made the scene seem more human.

I cannot deny that “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” is a first-rate look at the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. More importantly, the movie and especially the visual effects still hold up very well after half-a-century. But the movie possesses flaws that make it difficult for me to regard it as the best Titanic movie ever made. Perhaps . . . there is no best Titanic movie. Just bad or well made ones.