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Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Classic Film Review: The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The Lady Vanishes tells the story of Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) and her fellow bunch of travellers who are stranded overnight in an inn before their train gets started the next day. Before she gets on the train, Iris has an accident and is looked after by Miss Froy (May Whitty). After a nap, Iris wakes and discovers Miss Froy has vanished and none of her fellow passengers claim to remember her. Iris reluctantly enlists the help of Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) and they try to unravel the mystery of Miss Froy's disappearance. The cast includes Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as the cricket-mad Charters and Caldicott, Paul Lukas as Dr. Hartz and Cecil Parker as Mr Todhunter.

This is the third version of this story I've now seen. I reviewed the 1979 film starring Angela Lansbury last year and, though I watched the 2013 television adaptation, I didn't review it. However, Hitchcock's interpretation of the story is delicious and outstrips the others, no question. It's atmospheric and witty without being overblown. The scenes on the train, particularly, are well-executed despite the confined space.

The cast is practically faultless. Michael Redgrave's first appearances as the irritating Gilbert in the hotel felt like a flamboyant sideshow, but once they settled into their double-act 'Sherlock Holmes and Watson' personalities on the train, the relationship between him and Iris was one of the highlights of the film. In addition, Radford and Wayne are excellent in their supporting roles and everyone down to the nun played by Catherine Lacey fulfil their parts properly.

After seeing three versions, it's very difficult to come to the story fresh but it still kept my attention for the most part, mainly due to Margaret Lockwood as the heroine. It's a completely different role to to her partnership with Redgrave in The Stars Look Down (1940, reviewed here) and, as such, demonstrates the versatility of both. Their chemistry sees the film through with able support from everybody else.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2014: Once More Unto the Breach

I'm crazy. I mean, this is common knowledge and everything but it's being reiterated by the fact I'm actually attempting NaNoWriMo this year. I'm (hopefully, don't press for details for this) submitting my thesis in the next two months which (again, hopefully) means running around like a headless chicken making sure everything in it is damn near perfect. Much of this headless-chicken activity will (theoretically, again with the not asking) be taking place in November. So why the hell am I contemplating throwing NaNoWriMo into the mix?

Well, for starters, I've got an idea. When I wrote my usual list of 2014 goals, I said that there was an idea only I could write. I still believe that and, over the months, it's solidified. Instead of the abstract prospect, it's now rooted in a place and my second protagonist came to me with a flash. It's going to be difficult to write but I think I'll feel better for it.

There are other reasons I'm determined to participate. I love the online camaraderie that goes with it and I relish pushing myself to reach the 50,000 goal. In addition, I need to push myself in other ways this year, hopefully attending the write-ins properly instead of just hiding in a corner. Plus, I think the distraction of NaNo in the evenings after arguing with my thesis all day will prove beneficial. At least my novel is under my control... Until the characters take over anyway.

So what can I tell you about my NaNoWriMo novel for 2014? It's typical me so lesbian romance with twists and turns and it's set in a residential care home. That's all I dare share.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Classic Film Review: Swing Time (1936)

Swing Time tells the story of Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire), a dancer who is forced to leave his fiancĂ©e Margaret (Betty Furness) to go out and raise $25,000 so that her father will let him marry her. When he and his friend Pop (Victor Moore) get to New York, they encounter dance instructor Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers). Lucky tricks Penny into 'teaching' him to dance and they have the potential to be successful but conductor Ricky Romero (Georges Metaxa) wants Penny for himself and Lucky realises he's getting far too close when he should be itching to go home and marry Margaret. The wonderful Helen Broderick rounds out the main cast as Mabel.

I absolutely adored this film. It's rare that a musical of this era has numbers which are not only entertaining but also further the plot and characters. The score by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields is exquisite, including such gems as 'Pick Yourself Up' when Penny's trying to teach Lucky how to dance and 'A Fine Romance' when they're trying to resist each other in a gorgeous snow scene. Astaire's rendition of 'The Way You Look Tonight' is sweet, enjoyable for its sentiments and not the strength of his singing voice. The pinnacle of this film, though, is the majestic 'Never Gonna Dance' near the end. It not only serves as a visual representation of Lucky and Penny's romance, from their first walk around the dance floor to the Penny's walking away, but it's also a deeply sensual and passionate representation of love as a whole. I could easily watch it for hours and those dozens of takes it took to produce such brilliance was well worth Ginger's poor bleeding feet.

There are plenty of comic moments in this one, plenty coming from Victor Moore and Helen Broderick as Pop and Mabel. I enjoyed Broderick in the generally lacklustre The Bride Walks Out (also 1936, reviewed here) and she reasserts her comedic credentials in this one. In addition, Astaire and Rogers bounce off each other so well that every one of their scenes in a delight, from Lucky's first pursuit of Penny down the street to retrieve his lucky quarter to the finale. The plot, though light, is at least coherent and there are several link backs and pointers that demonstrate that the film was conceived as a whole, for example the trouser gag which begins and ends the story. Perhaps there was too much focus on Lucky's friends at the beginning, but once he got to New York, all that was forgotten.

Ultimately, if a film makes me smile just thinking about it then it's a good one. I haven't stopped smiling while I've been writing this review so take that as your recommendation.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Book Review: Love Alters ed. Emma Donoghue

Love Alters: Lesbian Stories, previously released as The Mammoth Book of Lesbian Short Stories, includes 29 stories split into the categories of 'Child's Play', 'Present Tense', 'Family Values', 'Past Times' and 'Possibilities'. These rough categories allow for some distinction as you go through the book but, really, the stories are generally wildly different to each other. It draws together authors from across the world with some brilliant stories, both heartbreaking and humorous, which analyse the finer points of life. The overarching banner may be 'lesbian short stories' but there's far more to this collection than that.

There are two stories that stick in my mind. The first, 'Self-Deliverance' by Elise D'Haene, is a checklist compiled by a dying man, Teddy, and his two friends, Alf and Ginnie. Meandering back and forth, D'Haene creates a story that's both rooted in the immediate problem yet tells you all you need to know about the characters. The second story, 'Did'ja Ever Hear of a Goolieguy?' by Anne Cameron follows a woman fleeing from her suffocating life with her partner who travels back home. Part myth, part reality, this one really struck me for reasons I can't define. Perhaps it was only that everything the narrator experiences is a thought-provoking metaphor for something else.

The 'Past Times' section throws up some interesting work. 'The Catherine Trilogy' by Ingrid MacDonald, the longest piece in the book, follows the life of a woman who passes her life as a man in 18th century Europe. I was hooked by the first part, endured the second and enjoyed the third, though I see the need for all of them. Also in this section was 'The Burning Times' by Sara Maitland, a potent tale of jealousy in the time of witchcraft trials, Emma Donoghue's 'The Tale of the Kiss' which tells of another 'witch' in a cave and the captivating 'The Woman Who Loved the Moon', a story that defies simple analysis.

Of course, there were stories in this collection that didn't take my fancy as much but I found something in most of them to appreciate. For example, Madelyn Arnold's 'See You in the Movies', about a woman going on a trip with her new partner and kids, made me laugh out loud while Dorothy Allison's 'River of Names' is a haunting look at the tragedies around one woman which she tries to share with her partner. Finally, one of the early stories 'Pamelump' is similarly thought-provoking, as it examines a girl and her disabled friend, utilising the simplicity of children to analyse very adult notions.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed this collection. I don't think anybody would love all of these eclectic stories but that just means there's something in it for everyone.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Let's Start at the Very Beginning...

I hope that title put 'Do Re Mi' in your head. It was rather intended to. Though this post isn't about musicals, it's about writing (for a change!). 

I've gone back to working on 'Lily', the first novel I completed. While the document is labelled 'Fifth Draft' there was an aborted attempt way back in the day so it's more like the sixth. Instead of going through it with a luminous pen, though, I'm typing the whole thing out from scratch. I generally do that with second drafts because there's so much to change but at this point it might seem a little silly, like giving myself far more work to do than I need to. 

However, it has the benefit of making me think things over. My sentence structure's evolved a lot since I last toyed with the novel and I'm more confident generally. There are some additional plot aspects I'm trying to weave in as I go but I wanted to make sure as much as possible had been looked over critically. I want this novel to be the best it can be, after all. 

So it's a lot of work and it doesn't end here. I plan on another pass through once I've finished this to check and improve syntax and grammar then I want to read the whole thing aloud. I'm not sure how long all this will take but I have other projects to intersperse with this one - many other projects. Not to mention that PhD which is taking up a good proportion of my time at the moment. I'm only really allowing myself to work on the novel after nine o'clock at night which means, of course, that some nights I just can't bring myself to. Which is fine. I've got my priorities and my PhD is top of that list, no question. But I've always been a multi-tasker. 

My inclination is to get this draft finished so that I can focus my attention on NaNoWriMo in November. Perhaps that isn't realistic but I'm going to give it a go. Because, really, I've got the words on the page, it's just a case of mixing them all up to make a novel. Right, Maria?

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Class Film Review: The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947)

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer stars Cary Grant as Richard Nugent, an artist with a penchant for getting into trouble. The first time we encounter him, he's up in front of Judge Margaret Turner (Myrna Loy) after being involved in a fight. She lets him off but later, after giving a lecture at a school, he finds himself the unwitting victim of Margaret's younger sister, Susan (Shirley Temple). To combat the affection Susan has for Richard, it's decided that he will pretend to date her to make her realise how unsuitable he is. Unfortunately, Margaret also finds herself falling for him, thanks in part to the interference of her Uncle Matt (Ray Collins). The cast is rounded out by Harry Davenport as Thaddeus, Rudy Vallee as Tommy and Johnny Sands as Jerry.

I enjoyed this much more than I expected. The delight of having Myrna Loy in a position of authority and being a responsible sister is juggled neatly with her gradually falling for Richard in a more believable way than is usual in these films. Plus, the chemistry between the leads is brilliant. Richard and Margaret's verbal sparring matches just sizzle and the sisterly relationship between Margaret and Susan is well executed. As a lovesick teenager who thinks she's wise beyond her years, Temple is brilliant and this performance really makes me wish her film career had continued for longer. This film does laugh at teenagers and their devout attachments but not in a way that comes across as condescending. It's an odd line but The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer manages it very well.

The script is witty and the film put together with the right mix of hilarious dialogue and action scenes. Of the latter, the best is probably the extended race scenes where Richard competes with Susan's 'other' beau Jerry to win but gets very messy in the process. Cary Grant is at his best in this film, suave and yet bringing in a touch of the David Huxley, especially when he finds himself in prison through no fault of his own. Myrna Loy is brilliant from start to finish and Ray Collins, one of the best character actors around, frequently steals scenes with an expression.

Overall, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is an enjoyable comedy that showcases the talents of all its cast without exception. Light-hearted, yes, but sometimes there's nothing wrong with light-hearted.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

ARC Book Review: Tinseltown by William J. Mann

The full title of this book is Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood. It centres on the murder of William Desmond Taylor in 1922, examining all available material to try and pin down the culprits after all this time. More than that, though, this book serves as a portal into the early world of Hollywood. Other people discussed at length include actresses Mabel Normand, Mary Miles Minter and Virginia Gibson along with Adolph Zukor, the ambitious founder of Paramount. This book attempts to uncover the 'real' Hollywood of the early 20s and, for the most part, it succeeds.

While the murder investigation does form the centrepiece of the book, it certainly isn't the only strand. I liked the fact that it begins with the day of the murder then flips back to document how the main players got to that point. Although I knew the murder was coming, sometimes I got so engrossed with the power plays of various people that I forgot about it. As a consequence, it came upon me as a bit of a shock, mainly because by this point I was emotionally attached - not so much to Taylor himself but to Mabel Normand. Mann's portrayal of Normand is nothing short of exquisite and, out of all the names who touch these pages, for me, the representation of Normand lingers most strongly.

Mann's style may not be to everyone's taste but it certainly works. He has painstakingly recreated as much of that period as possible using, as he explains in a note at the end, as many primary sources as he could get his hands on but, beyond that, he has immersed himself and his reader in the possible thoughts of his primary protagonists. This kind of speculation is just that but it works because of Mann's level of research: there is always the sense that his speculation stems from deep involvement in his subject and his use of photographs and weather reports to visualise what a street would've looked like from the view of one of his protagonists works extremely well. Similarly, the use of very short chapters, flicking around from person to person is something I enjoyed once I accustomed myself to it. Mann uses enough markers and reminders to satisfy his most forgetful readers and keeping all the major players in the air is a shrewd move for maintaining interest.

The book claims to offer the solution to the mystery that has foxed film buffs for ninety years. Do I think the conclusions are plausible? Yes, I do. Mann doesn't manipulate the evidence to fit his theory. He presents it all, including that for other suspects. In the end, though, the circumstantial evidence accumulated via Mann's diligent recreation of the Hollywood milieu swings it for me.

Tinseltown isn't only a gripping read but an excellent depiction of a world long gone. If you're interested in the early days of Hollywood and the power plays of the era then this book is highly recommended.

I received an ARC of this book direct from the publishers, HarperCollinsPublishers. And here's a nifty trailer for it: