The 19th Century in Television

Recently, I noticed there have been a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 19th century. Below is a list of those productions I have seen during this past decade in chronological:

THE 19TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

1. “Copper” (BBC America) – Tom Fontana and Will Rokos created this series about an Irish immigrant policeman who patrols Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood during the last year of the U.S. Civil War. Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh starred in this 2012-2013 series.

2. “The Crimson Petal and the White” (BBC) – Romola Garai starred in this 2011 miniseries, which was an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel about a Victorian prostitute, who becomes the mistress of a powerful businessman.

3. “Death Comes to Pemberley” (BBC) – Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell-Martin starred in this adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 novel, which is a murder mystery and continuation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”.

4. “Hell on Wheels” (AMC) – This 2012-2016 series is about a former Confederate Army officer who becomes involved with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad during the years after the Civil War. Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Common, and Dominique McElligott starred.

5. “Mercy Street” (PBS) – This series follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Josh Radnor and Hannah James.

6. “The Paradise” (BBC-PBS) – This 2012-2013 series is an adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1883 novel, “Au Bonheur des Dames”, about the innovative creation of the department story – only with the story relocated to North East England. The series starred Joanna Vanderham and Peter Wight.

7. “Penny Dreadful” (Showtime/Sky) – Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Josh Harnett star in this horror-drama series about a group of people who battle the forces of supernatural evil in Victorian England.

8. “Ripper Street” (BBC) – Matthew Macfadyen stars in this crime drama about a team of police officers that patrol London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in the aftermath of Jack the Ripper’s serial murders.

9. “Underground” (WGN) – Misha Green and Joe Pokaski created this series about runaway slaves who endure a long journey from Georgia to the Northern states in a bid for freedom in the late Antebellum period. Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge star.

10. “War and Peace” (BBC) – Andrew Davies adapted this six-part miniseries, which is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1865–1867 novel about the impact of the Napoleonic Era during Tsarist Russia. Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1870s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1870s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1870s

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1. “The Age of Innocence” (1993) – Martin Scorcese directed this exquisite adaptation of Edith Wharton’s award winning 1920 novel about a love triangle within New York’s high society during the Gilded Age. Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfieffer and Oscar nominee Winona Ryder starred.

 

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2. “The Big Country” (1958) – William Wyler directed this colorful adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s 1958 novel, “Ambush at Blanco Canyon”. The movie starred Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker and Charlton Heston.

 

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3. “True Grit” (2010) – Ethan and Joel Coen wrote and directed this excellent adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel about a fourteen year-old girl’s desire for retribution against her father’s killer. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hattie Steinfeld starred.

 

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4. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (2015) – Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge and Michael Sheen starred in this well done adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman who attracts three different suitors. Thomas Vinterberg directed.

 

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5. “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956) – Mike Todd produced this Oscar winning adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel about a Victorian gentleman who makes a bet that he can travel around the world in 80 days. Directed by Michael Anderson and John Farrow, the movie starred David Niven, Cantiflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton.

 

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6. “Stardust” (2007) – Matthew Vaughn co-wrote and directed this adaptation of Neil Gaman’s 1996 fantasy novel. The movie starred Charlie Cox, Claire Danes and Michelle Pfieffer.

 

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7. “Fort Apache” (1948) – John Ford directed this loose adaptation of James Warner Bellah’s 1947 Western short story called “Massacre”. The movie starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, John Agar and Shirley Temple.

 

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8. “Zulu Dawn” (1979) – Burt Lancaster, Simon Ward and Peter O’Toole starred in this depiction of the historical Battle of Isandlwana between British and Zulu forces in 1879 South Africa. Douglas Hickox directed.

 

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9. “Young Guns” (1988) – Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips starred in this cinematic account of Billy the Kid’s experiences during the Lincoln County War. The movie was directed by Christopher Cain.

 

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10. “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) – Jon Favreau directed this adaptation of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel about an alien invasion in 1870s New Mexico Territory. The movie starred Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde.dom

“RIVER LADY” (1948) Review

 

“RIVER LADY” (1948) Review

While perusing the Internet on the career of actress Yvonne De Carlo, I noticed that she made a handful of conventional costume pictures for Universal Pictures, after she had signed a long-term contract with them in 1946. One of those films was the 1948 movie, “RIVER LADY”.

Set in the upper Mississippi River Valley during the decade after the Civil War, “RIVER LADY” is an adaptation of Frank Waters and Houston Branch’s 1942 novel. It told the story of a conflict between the citizens of a Minnesota mill town, the loggers who worked downstream and the lumber mill owners. The representative of a local lumber syndicate named Bauvais wants to purchase a struggling lumber mill from its owner, H.L. Morrison. But the latter refuses to sell. However, the owner of a gambling riverboat owner named Sequin manages to purchase the mill in order to provide a reputable job for her boyfriend, Dan Corrigan, a lumberjack whom she loves. However, Sequin has a rival in Morrison’s only daughter, Stephanie. When the latter learns about Dan and Sequin’s engagement, she exposes Sequin’s purchase of the Morrison mill. Dan becomes enraged when he realizes that his fiancee has manipulated his life and in a drunken fit, rejects the riverboat owner and marries Stephanie. Business sparks eventually ignite between a vengeful Dan and an angry Sequin, who has aligned herself with the mercenary Bauvais.

What can I say about “RIVER LADY”? I have seen my share of minor period dramas from “Golden Age of Hollywood” over the years. Some of them have been decent. Some of them have been surprisingly pretty good. Others have been . . . well, a waste of my time. “RIVER LADY” was a waste of my time.

Did “RIVER LADY” have the potential to be a pretty good movie? I do not think so. Frankly, I found it difficult to summon the energy to get excited over a messy rivalry involving the lumber business in 1870s Minnesota. And I am confused over Sequin’s role in this story. She purchased part of the Morrison lumber mill for lumberjack Dan Corrigan. But once he had dumped her, why was there no conflict between her and Morrison over Dan’s role in the business? Instead, she sat back and watched him use the business to engage in a conflict with her other business partner, Bauvais. Would it have not been easier if the writers could have found another reason for Sequin and Dan’s breakup? And why would Dan be so upset over Sequin manipulating him into a major position with the Morrison lumber mill . . . and not express any anger over the ugly manner in which Stephanie Morrison had interfered in his upcoming marriage? Odd.

Then again, I also realized that I did not really like most of the characters in this movie. To be honest, I just did not find them that interesting. Except for two . . . namely Sequin and Bauvais. I would never regard either of them as nice, but Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea did such excellent jobs in making both of them interesting and dynamic that it seemed a pity that neither ended the movie on a happy note. Rod Cameron and Helena Carter gave solid performances as lumberjack-turned-businessman Dan Corrigan and his bride, Stephanie Morrison. But to be honest, their performances seemed like a walk in the park in compare to DeCarlo and Duryea. And as a leading man, Cameron did not exactly rock my world . . . if you know what I mean. The movie also featured solid performances from John McIntire, Lloyd Gough, Florence Bates and Anita Turner. Only Turner really impressed me, for I found her portrayal of the Morrisons’ maid Esther rather witty. However, none of the cast members were not helped by D.D. Beauchamp and William Bowers’ dialogue, which seemed more appropriate for a 1940s crime melodrama, instead of a film set in the mid-to-late 1800s.

I have no idea on whether “RIVER LADY” was a “B” movie or not. It feels like a “B” movie, despite having a cast that featured the likes of De Carlo, Duryea, Cameron and McIntire. As a frequent visitor of the Universal Studios Hollywood Theme Park, it is pretty obvious that a good deal of the movie was filmed on that studio’s back lot. And although the costumes designed by Yvonne Wood struck me as pretty colorful, a bit too much of late 1940s fashion seemed to have crept into some of De Carlo and Carter’s 1870s costumes.

What else can I say about “RIVER LADY”? Despite first-rate performances from Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea, along with the colorful production; this is a movie that I doubt I would be interested in watching again. Once was enough.

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” (2015) Review

 

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” (2015) Review

Following the success of his 2012 movie, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, Quentin Tarantino set about creating another movie with a Western theme that also reflected today’s themes and social relationships in the United States. However, due to circumstances beyond his control, Tarantino nearly rejected the project. And if he had, audiences would have never seen what came to be . . . “THE HATEFUL EIGHT”.

The circumstances that nearly led Tarantino to give up the project occurred when someone gained access to his script and published it online in early 2014. The producer-director had considered publishing the story as a novel, until he directed a reading of the story the United Artists Theater in the Ace Hotel Los Angeles. The event was organized by the Film Independent at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) as part of the Live Read series. The success of the event eventually convinced Tarantino to shoot the movie.

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” is at its heart, a mystery. I would not describe it as a murder-mystery, but more like . . . well, let me begin. The story begins in the post-Civil War Wyoming Territory where a stagecoach rushing to get ahead of an oncoming blizzard, is conveying bounty hunter John Ruth aka “The Hangman” and his handcuffed prisoner, a female outlaw named Daisy Domergue. The stagecoach is bound for the town of Red Rock, where Daisy is scheduled to be hanged. During the journey, an African-American bounty hunter named Major Marquis Warren, who is transporting three dead bounties to the town of Red Rock, hitches a ride on the stagecoach. His horse had died on him. Several hours later, the stagecoach picks up another passenger, a former Confederate militiaman named Chris Mannix, who claims to be traveling to Red Rock in order to become the town’s new sheriff. The stagecoach passengers are forced to seek refuge at a stage station called Minnie’s Haberdashery, when the blizzard finally strikes. The new arrivals are greeted by a Mexican handyman named Bob, who informs them that Minnie is visiting a relative and has left him in charge. The other lodgers are a British-born professional hangman Oswaldo Mobray; a quiet cowboy named Joe Gage, who is traveling to visit his mother; and Sanford Smithers, a former Confederate general. Forever paranoid, Ruth disarms all but Warren, with whom he had bonded during stagecoach journey. When Warren has a violent confrontation with Smithers, Daisy spots someone slip poison into a pot of coffee, brewing on the stove. Someone she recognizes as a fellow outlaw, who is there to spring her free from Ruth’s custody. And there is where the mystery lies – the identity of Daisy’s fellow outlaw.

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” marks the sixth Quentin Tarantino movie I have ever seen. I also found it the most unusual. But it is not my favorite. In fact, I would not even consider it among my top three favorites. And here is the reason why. “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” struck me as being too damn long with a running time of two hours and forty-seven minutes. I realize that most of Tarantino films usually have a running time that stretches past two hours. But we are talking of a film that is basically a character study/mystery. Even worse, most of the film is set at a stagecoach station – a one-story building with one big room. Not even Tarantino’s attempt to stretch out the stage journey at the beginning of the film could overcome this limited setting. And due to the limited setting and film’s genre, “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” is probably the least epic film in his career, aside from his first one, 1993’s “RESERVOIR DOGS”. At least that film did not stretch into a ridiculously long 167 minute running time.

I also thought Tarantino made too much of a big deal in the confrontation between Major Marquis Warren and General Sanford Smithers. Apparently, Warren had a grudge against Smithers for executing black troops at the Battle of Baton Rouge. I find this improbable, due to the fact that there were no black troops fighting for the Union during that battle, which was a Union victory. There were no black Union or Confederate troops known to have taken part in that particular battle. Tarantino should have taken the time to study his Civil War history. But what really annoyed me about the Warren-Smithers confrontation was that Tarantino thought it was necessary to include a flashback showing Warren’s encounter with Smither’s son, which resulted in the latter’s death. I realize that the Warren-Smithers encounter allowed Daisy’s mysterious colleague to poison the coffee. But a flashback on Warren and Smithers Jr.? Unnecessary. I also found Tarantino’s narration in the film somewhat unnecessary. Frankly, he is not a very good narrator. And I found one particular piece of narration rather unnecessary – namely the scene in which Daisy witnessed the coffee being poisoned. Tarantino could have shown this on screen without any voice overs.

Despite these flaws, I must admit that I still managed to enjoy “THE HATEFUL EIGHT”. It featured some outstanding characterizations and dialogue. And it seemed the cast really took advantage of these well-written aspects of the script. I am not surprised that the film had received numerous nominations for Best Ensemble. Although the running time for “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” might be longer than it should, I have to give Tarantino kudos for his well-structured screenplay. He took his time in setting up the narrative, the mystery and his characters. And although he may have overdone it a bit by taking his time in reaching the film’s denouement, Tarantino delivered quite a payoff that really took me by surprise, once he reached that point. Unlike many movie directors today, Tarantino is a firm believer in taking his time to tell his story. My only regret is that he took too much time for a story that required a shorter running time.

But what I really liked about “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” is that it proved to be a new direction for Tarantino. In this age filled with lack of originality in the arts, it was refreshing to see there are artists out there who are still capable of being original. After viewing the movie at the theater, it occurred to me that is was basically an Agatha Christie tale set in the Old West. Tarantino utilized many aspects from various Christie novels. But the movie resembled one movie in particular. Only I will not say what that novel is, for it would allow anyone to easily guess what happens in the end. Although many of Christie’s novels and Tarantino’s movies feature a good deal of violence, “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” featured very little violence throughout most of its narrative . . . until the last quarter of the film. Once the Major Warren-General Smithers confrontation took place, all bets were off.

I wish I could comment on the movie’s production values. But if I must be honest, I did not find it particularly memorable. Well, there were one or two aspects of the movie’s production that impressed me. I really enjoyed Robert Richardson’s photography of Colorado, which served as Wyoming Territory for this film. I found it sharp and colorful. I also enjoyed Yohei Taneda’s production designs for the movie . . . especially for the Minnie’s Haberdashery setting. I though Taneda, along with art directors Benjamin Edelberg and Richard L. Johnson, did a great job of conveying the Old West in that one setting.

Naturally, I cannot discuss “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” without mentioning the cast. What can I say? They were outstanding. And Tarantino did an outstanding job directing them. As far as I know, “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” marked the first time at least three members of the cast have worked with Tarantino – Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Channing Tatum and Demián Bichir. Otherwise, everyone else seemed to be veterans of a Tarantino production, especially Samuel L. Jackson. “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” marked his sixth collaboration with the director. It is a pity that he was not recognized for his portrayal of bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren. As usual, he did an outstanding job of portraying a very complex character, who not only proved to be a ruthless law enforcer, but also a somewhat cruel man as shown in his confrontation with General Smithers. Actually, most of the other characters proved to be equally ruthless. Kurt Russell’s portrayal of bounty hunter John Ruth struck me as equally impressive. The actor did an excellent job in conveying Ruth’s ruthlessness, his sense of justice and especially his paranoia. Walton Goggin’s portrayal of ex-Confederate-turned-future lawman seemed like a far cry from his laconic villain from “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. Oddly enough, his character did not strike me as ruthless as some of the other characters and probably a little more friendly – except toward Warren. Jennifer Jason-Leigh has been earning acting nominations – including Golden Globe and Academy Award Best Supporting Actress nods – for her portrayal of the captured fugitive Daisy Domergue. Those nominations are well deserved, for Jason-Leigh did an outstanding job of bringing an unusual character to life. Ironically, the character spent most of the movie as a battered prisoner of Russell’s John Ruth. Yet, thanks to Jason-Leigh, she never lets audiences forget how ornery and dangerous she can be.

Tim Roth, who had not been in a Tarantino production since 1995’s “FOUR ROOMS”, gave probably the most jovial performance as the very sociable English-born professional hangman, Oswaldo Mobray. Bruce Dern, who was last seen in “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, had a bigger role in this film as the unsociable ex-Confederate General Sanford Smithers, who seemed determined not to speak to Warren. Despite portraying such an unsympathetic character, Dern did an excellent job in attracting the audience’s sympathy, as his character discovered his son’s grisly fate at Warren’s hands. Michael Masden gave a very quiet and subtle performance as Joe Gage, a rather silent cowboy who claimed to be on his way to visit his mother. And yet . . . he also projected an aura of suppressed danger, which made one suspect if he was Daisy’s collaborator. A rather interesting performance came from Demián Bichir, who portrayed the stage station’s handyman, Bob. Like Madsen’s Gage, Bichir’s Bob struck me as a quiet and easygoing man, who also conveyed an element of danger. I was very surprised to see Channing Tatum in this film, who portrayed Jody Domergue, Daisy’s older brother. Although his role was small, Channing was very effective as the villainous Domergue, who could also be quite the smooth talker. “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” also featured excellent supporting performances from the likes of James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Lee Horsley, Zoë Bell, Keith Jefferson and Gene Jones.

Yes, I found “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” too long. I feel it could have been cut short at least by forty minutes. And I was not that impressed by Quentin Tarantino’s voice over in the film. I could have done without it. But despite its flaws, I cannot deny that I found “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” to be one of the director’s more interesting movies in his career. With a first-rate cast led by Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason-Leigh; and a screenplay that seemed to be an interesting combination of a murder mystery and a Western; Tarantino created one of his most original movies during his career.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1880s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1880s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1880s

1. “Stagecoach” (1939) – John Ford directed this superb adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s 1937 short story, “The Stage to Lordsburg”, about a group of strangers traveling by stagecoach through the Arizona territory. Claire Trevor, John Wayne and Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell starred.

2. “The Four Feathers” (2002) – Shekhar Kapur directed this fascinating adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel about a former British Army officer accused of cowardice. Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hounsou and Kate Hudson starred.

3. “Back to the Future Part III” (1990) – Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd starred in this third installment of the “BACK TO THE FUTURE” TRILOGY, in which Marty McFly travels back to the Old West to prevent the death of fellow time traveler, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown. Written by Bob Gale, the movie was directed by Robert Zemeckis.

4. “Topsy-Turvy” (1999) – Mike Leigh wrote and directed this biopic about W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and their creation of their most famous operetta, “The Mikado”. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner.

5. “Tombstone” (1993) – Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer starred in this colorful and my favorite account about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the famous O.K. Corral gunfight. George P. Cosmatos directed.

6. “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939) – Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in this adaptation of William Gillette’s 1899 stage play, “Sherlock Holmes”. Directed by Alfred L. Werker, the movie co-starred Ida Lupino and George Zucco.

7. “The Cater Street Hangman” (1998) – Eoin McCarthy and Keeley Hawes starred in this television adaptation of Anne Perry’s 1979 novel about a serial killer in late Victorian England. Sarah Hellings directed.

8. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945) – Hurd Hatfield and George Sanders starred in this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel about a handsome young Englishman who maintains his youth, while a special portrait reveals his inner ugliness.

9. “High Noon” (1952) – Gary Cooper won his second Oscar as a town marshal forced to face a gang of killers by himself. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, the movie was written by blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman and co-starred Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado.

10. “Open Range” (2003) – Kevin Costner directed and co-starred with Robert Duvall in this western about a cattle crew forced to take up arms when they and their herd are threatened by a corrupt rancher.

Jambalaya

Below is an article about the American dish known as “Jambalaya”:

JAMBALAYA

One of the most popular dishes to originate in the southern United States is a dish from Louisiana called Jambalaya. The dish has its origins in the Spanish dish known as paella. There is also a similar dish from the French province of Provence called jambalaia. Both are dishes that are mash-ups of rice, meat, vegetables and saffron.

Jambalaya originated in the French Quarter of New Orleans, during the late 18th century. The Spanish, who controlled Louisiana and the Mississippi Valley at the time, made an attempt to recreate paella in the New World. But since saffron was unavailable due to import costs, the Spanish used tomatoes as a substitute for saffron. Despite Spanish control of the region, the French dominated the population, since they were the original founders of the colony. The French utilized spices from the Caribbean to transform this paella copycat into a unique New World dish.

Many would be surprised to learn that Jambalaya proved to become a very flexible dish in Louisiana over the years. It has evolved into three distinct recipes. The original version, known as the Creole or “red” Jambalaya, featured tomatoes. The second version, which is common in the parishes in Southwestern and South-Central Louisiana, is a “rural Creole” Jambalaya that contains no tomatoes. The third version is known as “White or Cajun Jambalaya” in which the rice is cooked in stock and separately from the meat and vegetables.

The recipe for Jambalaya made its first appearance in the 1878 cookbook called “Gulf City Cook Book” by the ladies of the St. Francis Street Methodist Church in South Mobile, Alabama. Jambalaya experienced a brief surge of popularity during the 1920s and 1930s, due to its flexible recipe. And in 1968, Louisiana Governor John J. McKeithen proclaimed Gonzales, Louisiana as the Jambalaya Capital of the World. Every spring, Gonzales hosted the annual Jambalaya Festival.

Below is a recipe from the Epicurious.com website for Jambalaya:

Jambalaya

Ingredients

1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 medium cloves garlic, peeled
1 large green bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
2 celery stalks, diced
3 tbsp fresh Italian parsley, minced
4 oz extra-lean smoked ham, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
5 oz boneless, skinless chicken breast, diced
1 large bay leaf
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 can (28 oz) diced tomatoes
1 can (8 oz) tomato sauce
3/4 cup brown rice, uncooked
1 1/2 lb medium shrimp, peeled, deveined and chopped into bite-sized pieces

Preparation

Add oil to a large nonstick saucepan. Over medium heat, sauté onion, garlic, bell pepper and celery until onion is translucent. Add parsley, ham, chicken, bay leaf, and cayenne pepper. Cook, stirring often, 5 to 6 minutes. Add tomatoes (with juice), tomato sauce, and 1 3/4 cups cold water. Gently simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Pour rice into the pan and stir well. Bring mixture to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, covered, 45 minutes or until rice is cooked and absorbs most of the liquid. Stir in shrimp and cook 5 minutes more. Remove bay leaf. Season to taste with cayenne pepper and salt.

“LITTLE WOMEN” (1949) Review

“LITTLE WOMEN” (1949) Review

Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel is a bit of a conundrum for me. I have never been a fan of the novel. I have read it once, but it failed to maintain my interest. Worse, I have never had the urge to read it again. The problem is that it is that sentimental family dramas – at least in print – has never been appealing to me. And this is why I find it perplexing that I have never had any problems watching any of the film or television adaptations of her novel.

One of those adaptations proved to be Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1949 adaptation, which was produced and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. It is hard to believe that the same man who had directed such hard-biting films like “LITTLE CAESAR”, “I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG” and “THEY WON’T FORGET”, was the artistic force behind this sentimental comedy-drama. Or perhaps MGM studio boss, Louis B. Meyer, was the real force. The studio boss preferred sentimental dramas, comedies and musicals. Due to this preference, he was always in constant conflict with the new production chief, Dore Schary, who preferred more realistic and hard-biting movies. Then you had David O. Selznick, who wanted to remake his 1933 adaptation of Alcott’s novel. One can assume (or not) that in the end, Meyer had his way.

“LITTLE WOMEN”, as many know, told the experiences of the four March sisters of Concord, Massachusetts during and after the U.S. Civil War. The second daughter, Josephine (Jo) March, is the main character and the story focuses on her relationships with her three other sisters, the elders in her family – namely her mother Mrs. March (“Marmee”) and Aunt March, and the family’s next-door neighbor, Mr. Laurence. For Jo, the story becomes a “coming-of-age” story, due to her relationships with Mr. Laurence’s good-looking grandson, Theodore (“Laurie”) and a German immigrant she meets in New York City after the war, the equally good-looking and much older Professor Bhaer. Jo and her sisters deal with the anxiety of their father fighting in the Civil War, genteel poverty, scarlet fever, and the scary prospect of oldest sister Meg falling in love with Laurie’s tutor.

Despite my disinterest in Alcott’s novel, I have always liked the screen adaptations I have seen so far – including this film. Due to the casting of Margaret O’Brien as the mild-mannered Beth, her character became the youngest sister, instead of Amy. Screenwriters Sally Benson, Victor Heerman, Sarah Y. Mason and Andrew Solt made other changes. But they were so mild that in the end, the changes did not have any real impact on Alcott’s original story. Ironically, both Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason wrote the screenplay for Selznick’s 1933 film. I thought Mervyn LeRoy’s direction injected a good deal of energy into a tale that could have easily bored me senseless. In fact, MGM probably should have thank its lucky stars that LeRoy had served as producer and director.

As much as I admired LeRoy’s direction of this film, I must admit there was a point in the story – especially in the third act – in which the pacing threatened to drag a bit. My only other problem with “LITTLE WOMEN” is that I never really got the impression that this film was set during the 1860s, despite its emphasis on costumes and the fact that the March patriarch was fighting the Civil War. Some might say that since “LITTLE WOMEN” was set in the North – New England, as a matter of fact – it is only natural that the movie struggled with its 1860s setting. But I have seen other Civil War era films set in the North – including the 1994 version of“LITTLE WOMEN” – that managed to project a strong emphasis of that period. And the production values for this adaptation of Alcott’s novel seemed more like a generic 19th century period drama, instead of a movie set during a particular decade. It is ironic that I would make such a complaint, considering that the set decoration team led by Cedric Gibbons won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction.

I certainly had no problems with the cast selected for this movie. Jo March seemed a far cry from the roles for which June Allyson was known – you know, the usual “sweet, girl-next-door” type. I will admit that at the age of 31 or 32, Allyson was probably too young for the role of Jo March. But she did such a phenomenon job in recapturing Jo’s extroverted nature and insecurities that I found the issue of her age irrelevant. Peter Lawford, who was her co-star in the 1947 musical, “GOOD NEWS”, gave a very charming, yet complex performance as Jo’s next door neighbor and friend, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. Beneath the sweet charm, Lawford did an excellent job in revealing Laurie’s initial loneliness and infatuation of Jo. Margaret O’Brien gave one of her best on-screen performance as the March family’s sickly sibling, Beth. Although the literary Beth was the third of four sisters, she is portrayed as the youngest, due to O’Brien’s casting. And I feel that Le Roy and MGM made a wise choice, for O’Brien not only gave one of her best performances, I believe that she gave the best performance in the movie, overall.

Janet Leigh, who was a decade younger than Allyson, portrayed the oldest March sister, Meg. Yet, her performance made it easy for me to regard her character as older and more emotionally mature than Allyson’s Jo. I thought she gave a well done, yet delicate performance as the one sister who seemed to bear the strongest resemblance to the sisters’ mother. Elizabeth Taylor was very entertaining as the extroverted, yet shallow Amy. Actually, I have to commend Taylor for maintaining a balancing act between Amy’s shallow personality and ability to be kind. The movie also featured solid performances from supporting cast members like Mary Astor (who portrayed the warm, yet steely Mrs. March), the very charming Rossano Brazzi, Richard Stapley, Lucile Watson, Leon Ames, Harry Davenport, and the always dependable C. Aubrey Smith, who died not long after the film’s production.

Overall, “LITTLE WOMEN” is a charming, yet colorful adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel. I thought Mervyn LeRoy did an excellent job in infusing energy into a movie that could have easily sink to sheer boredom for me. And he was enabled by a first-rate cast led by June Allyson and Peter Lawford. Overall, “LITTLE WOMEN” managed to rise above my usual apathy toward Alcott’s novel.