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Thursday, 31 January 2013

Book Review: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

The Lifeboat tells the story of a group of survivors of a shipwreck in the Atlantic who find themselves on a lifeboat awaiting rescue. The protagonist, Grace, is amongst them, having only been married a few weeks and knowing that her new husband is probably dead. There is a greater problem than loss facing the survivors though: the lifeboat is dangerously overcapacity and it becomes clear that some will have to be sacrificed if any are to survive.

I loved the premise of this book and, thankfully, enjoyed the book itself just as much. Grace is an unreliable narrator in the best tradition and throughout the novel you're never quite sure if her word's to be trusted. Muddying the waters are the flashbacks to her life before the shipwreck and how she met her husband. And since the bulk of the novel is a transcript from her official statement who knows what the truth is?

I suppose my only real difficulty with this were the number of survivors initially in the lifeboat. It made them tricky to keep track of and I did have to flick back frequently to remind myself who was who. This obviously became less of a problem as the novel went on and, in all fairness, the predicament of the lifeboat required the number of survivors on board to be there. However, as far as problems go, this was a slight one. In all other respects it was an exquisite novel. It works on the basic level of human survival but there are many levels to survival and many degrees of complicity in the battle for survival.

I can't say too much without spoiling key elements of the plot. All I'll say is that in the prologue it's revealed that Grace and two other women are standing trial for their lives and then I'll recommend - again - reading the book. An evocative period novel which feels more immediate because of the overarching questions about humanity.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Classic Film Review: Sister Kenny (1946)

Sister Kenny is a biopic of the life of Sister Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian bush nurse who discovers an effective treatment for infant paralysis following polio. Sister Kenny (Rosalind Russell) has on her side the pleasant Doctor McDonnell (Alexander Knox) but faces the wrath much of the medical establishment - they don't want to accept her 'dangerous' theories and she spends her entire life trying to fight it. This costs her many things, not least her relationship with Kevin Connors (Dean Jagger).

Of course, this is fictionalised biography and so dramatises certain parts of Kenny's story. However, the bulk of it remains true to the honour of this incredibly persistent woman and it is compelling because of the underlying truth. One aspect that is contentious is the fact that it features no Australian actors but, on balance, it was better to have none that to ruin the film with bad attempts at accents. As it is, the story stands by itself. The backdrop isn't as important as the woman herself.

Rosalind Russell was nominated for an Oscar for this performance (and won a Golden Globe) and there is no doubt she deserved it. She was 29 at the time of filming but progressed through forty years on screen and it wasn't just a question of good lighting, costumes and make-up. She was phenomenal, every movement perfectly suited to both the character and the character's time of life. She became Elizabeth Kenny and that's not always easy, especially when the person you're portraying is still alive. This film succeeds on a dramatic level and perhaps that's the only level that really matters but it's also a sympathetic portrayal. In the end, it doesn't matter if some of it's fiction because it remains true to the woman.

There are a couple of stand-out scenes. When Elizabeth attends her first case and treats the paralysis with hot rags before trying to get the girl's legs moving again the tension in the scene is high. Elizabeth doesn't have the answers, doesn't really know what's going to happen and is fraught with worry whilst trying to keep a lid on it in front of her patients. A wonderful few minutes from Russell. Secondly, the break between Elizabeth and Kevin is subtly acted by Russell and Jagger and doesn't descend into melodrama. Finally, there is the moment when Elizabeth walks into a lecture theatre full of students to confront her biggest antagonist. I won't ruin it but it's really the best scene of the film.

I didn't expect too much from Sister Kenny but I was happily proved wrong. This is an outstanding performance by Rosalind Russell and the sense I get as I'm going along this journey through classic films is that she's going to end up high on my favourite actresses list.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Wherein Rosalind Russell Helps My PhD

I now at least have a valid reason for all those classic films I watch. One of them drew a connection for me over the weekend that I'd completely missed in my PhD research and gave me another hypothetical lead for for the cause of a character's disability.

Now, the disability strand of my thesis is only one chapter long but, really, I like to think it's the most important. That's possibly because it's the one I'm working on currently but we'll deal with that notion when I start on the next chapter. Anyway, in it I hypothesise about the rather vague descriptions of the disabilities of two Edmund Yates characters. It's all conjecture but the possibilities of hereditary problems throw up a few interesting angles for the chapter.

In a much-needed break from work I watched the first half of Sister Kenny, a 1940s biopic about an Australian nurse who found an effective treatment for infant paralysis brought on by polio (a review of the film will follow in a few days). A light pinged on in my brain. Although it should've, polio hadn't made it onto my original list of wacky and obscure diseases that could cause disability and yet the symptoms and results could match the character's very neatly. Polio was apparently identified in 1840 so it was recognisable - but not treatable - at the time Yates was writing.

So there we are. I've got a legitimate reason for indulging in one of my favourite pastimes. And if that indulgence includes Rosalind Russell who am I to argue?

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Classic Film Review: Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock is a riveting film which stars Spencer Tracy as John Macreedy, a stranger who gets off the train at Black Rock - the first time the train has stopped there in four years. It's a small town full of people suspicious at his appearance, more so when he starts asking questions about a Japanese farmer who used to live in the area. The main ringleader of the opposition is the intimidating Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), aided by his gang of friends including Hector (Lee Marvin) and Pete Wirth (John Ericson). However, two members of the community are more receptive to Macreedy's mission - Sheriff Horn (Dean Jagger) and Doc Velie (Walter Brennan). But as the search becomes more dangerous will Macreedy make it out of Black Rock alive?

Spencer Tracy gives a phenomenal performance as the one-armed stranger, especially considering he doesn't really talk that much. His mannerisms and quiet nature are central to the film and make for compelling viewing. Equally, the supporting cast are all very good, the most notable being Dean Jagger as the sheriff whose drunken state and nervous disposition contrast well with Tracy's Macreedy. Anne Francis also turns in a decent performance as Liz Wirth, though as the only woman in the cast she feels a bit of an anomaly at times.

There are two things that make this film exception apart from Tracy: the setting and the dialogue. The former is integral to the film, showing the desolation of Black Rock and Macreedy's isolation once he's there with no way of escape but it's used very effectively. One of the most important conversations of the film takes place on the railway track, a symbol about the inevitable progression of the story if ever I saw one. Equally, the dialogue throughout is sharp and rarely redundant. Almost every scene of this film is a work of art that moves the story forwards.

Overall, this is a tense film with some memorable moments, although these are as likely to be the 'quiet' ones as the moments of truth and revelation.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Classic Film Review: The Sky's the Limit (1943)

The Sky's the Limit is a charming Fred Astaire film about a decorated pilot who sneaks from a personal appearance tour to drum up war support to enjoy himself for a few days. Fred encounters Joan (Joan Leslie), a photographer sick of being asked to take pictures of boring celebrities while there's a war going on. Fred is enchanted and makes it his mission to get to know her better, fighting her corner with her boss (and prospective husband) Phil Harriman (Robert Benchley) and moving into the same building. However, as she tries to get him a job, he keeps his true vocation to himself, intent on being a man first and a decorated pilot second.

This has no pretensions to being much beyond light entertainment. That said, it beats many contemporaries by being more amusing than usual. The dialogue feels wittier than some Astaire films I've seen minus Ginger Rogers but it also has some depth to it. While ostensibly a propaganda film, it does look at the effect being a so-called hero can have on someone who just wants to go back to the life he had before but in a very light-hearted manner.

There are some wonderful moments in this. For instance, Fred follows Joan onto stage to entertain and they share a hilarious duet 'A Lot in Common With You'. Then, later, Robert Benchley as Phil entertains with his excellent 'after-dinner speech', his trademark and something which had me in fits of laughter. Then there is the absolute gem of the film: Fred Astaire's performance of 'One For My Baby' where he lets his emotions out via the medium of dance. The number is what this film's remembered for but, really, it's a pleasant romantic comedy with a good main cast. Joan Leslie is more than capable of keeping up with Astaire in the dance numbers along with their verbal sparring scenes and it's nice to see their rapport. Overall, this is an enjoyable film with some excellent moments. A must if you like Fred Astaire, with or without his dancing shoes on.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Classic Film Review: Anastasia (1956)

Anastasia stars Yul Brynner as General Bounine, an opportunistic businessman who has been searching for the perfect face to carry off the perfect fraud - he will produce the Grand Duchess Anastasia and take a share of the money that comes along with the claim. He plucks a suicidal woman from the banks of the Seine and convinces her to play the part. It helps that Anna (Ingrid Bergman) has already professed to be Anastasia during her time in an asylum. In fact, she seems to believe she is the Grand Duchess and gives a performance so enticing that even her critics are convinced. However, will she be able to convince the Dowager Empress (Helen Hayes)?

Ingrid Bergman is captivating in this film from her first appearance as a destitute woman through to the finale. The 'truth' becomes irrelevant as you watch the slightly mad woman do battle with Bounine and his friends, along with anybody else who tries to use her as a pawn. Brynner also puts in a very good performance as the impassive Russian who still manages to betray some of his feelings later in the film. The supporting cast is also good, in particular Martita Hunt as Baroness Elena von Livenbaum.

With filming locations in Britain, France and Denmark, Anastasia makes for sumptuous viewing. There are a few technical glitches with dubbing becoming more than evident but, overall, it maintains the illusion of 1920s decadence very well, particularly in contrast to the destitute Anna. However, I do have one major gripe pertaining to the ending. If you've spent the entire film hinting at a potential romance between two characters and those two characters get their 'happy' ending, at least have the decency to show it on screen and not have it reported by other characters. While I understand why the decision was made it still jars given how much time has been dedicated over the film to showing the evolving relationship.

Nevertheless, Anastasia  is a good film, primarily because of Bergman's performance. It's hardly a profound film but no less enjoyable because of it.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Book Review: Elijah's Mermaid by Essie Fox

Having read The Somnambulist by Fox last year (review here), I was delighted to receive a review copy of Elijah's Mermaid from the publisher. Fox's second novel more than lives up to the promise of the first, so much so that I read the final third in one huge gulp, unable to sleep without finishing it.

The novel has two interconnecting strands. Web-toed Pearl was found in the Thames as a baby and subsequently brought up in the House of the Mermaids, a brothel under the direction of Mrs Hibbert with the menacing presence of Tip Thomas nearby. Protected until the age of fourteen, she then realises she's been protected simply to be sold to the highest bidder. This turns out to be Osborne Black, an artist obsessed with mermaids in search of a muse. Meanwhile, Lily and Elijah Lamb were twins deposited at the Foundling Hospital and finally reunited with their grandfather via the intervention of publisher Frederick Hall. However, a trip to London and a chance meeting with Pearl changes Elijah. Soon he receives an offer he can't refuse and moves to London, leaving Lily anxiously waiting for his letters.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of Elijah's Mermaid are the various settings which spring to life on the page. The brothel is one such setting but my personal favourite was Dolphin House, Black's home, where you can almost smell the damp seeping from the book. There's an appendix included where you can read about the inspiration for the settings which was a great idea.

Story-wise, I think the novel was flawless. Although some of the twists I anticipated, many I didn't and, anyway, it was wonderful to sit back and let the story unfold. Lily and Pearl are two contrasting heroines, with different knowledge about the world, and these differing viewpoints help keep the novel interesting. One of the most memorable characters, however, isn't even human - I'll let you discover that one by yourselves.

The thing that makes Elijah's Mermaid so compelling is probably the drift between respectability and the Victorian underclass. The two merge tantalisingly at times and it certainly helps to make the novel fascinating, especially to someone as interested in the period as I am. Above all, however, this book is an excellent story with twists and turns galore. Definitely worth a read, whether you're fascinated by the Victorian period or not.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Classic Film Review: Went The Day Well? (1942)

An Ealing Studios masterpiece, Went The Day Well? tells the story of a sleepy village which finds itself the prisoner of German soldiers in preparation for a big invasion. At first the villagers are fooled into thinking it's a British regiment billeted in their village but when the truth is uncovered it sparks a violent change in the German plans. Complicating matters is the fact that the local leader of the Home Guard Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks) is a German spy, putting the villagers on the back foot as he thwarts their attempts to seek help.

This is a gripping film, mainly because it takes the time to set the villagers up properly, giving the audience reason to care about them (aside from the obvious fact that they're British and fighting with the Germans). A few of the more significant characters are the post mistress Mrs Collins (Muriel George), sailor on leave Tom Sturry (Frank Lawton) and mother/daughter of the manor house, Nora (Valerie Taylor) and Mrs Fraser (Marie Lohr). Engagement with these characters help add tension to the film, especially when Nora is the first one to realise that the soldiers are German and she and her mother are the ones who uncover the treachery of Oliver Wilsford. Another main player is George (Harry Fowler) a boy who risks his life to get the message out.

In an era of propaganda the Germans are, of course, portrayed as brutes willing to murder a priest in cold blood but there are two good performances from Basil Sydney as Major Ortler and David Farrar as Lieutenant Jung. There are also many memorable incidents within the film, notably Mrs Phillips's act of resistance, Nora's final confrontation with Wilsford and Mrs Fraser's act of heroism when faced with a grenade.

I do, however, have a few criticisms. The framing technique, using the church warden at the beginning and end of the film to say that Germans are buried in the village, rather dilutes the effect of what could've been a very effective revelation during the story itself. I'd imagine this had propaganda considerations but it is a shame that more tension wasn't drawn from the aspect. Equally, I felt slightly cheated at the end with the speed in which the rescue was dispatched before the church warden finishes his tale. I would rather have had a few minutes of calm for the villagers to reunite and come to terms with their losses. As it is, Nora's big moment is not even mentioned by other characters and this feels like a rather large omission: instead of the villagers having a moment to comprehend the betrayal of one of their own, it's brushed over to be dealt with off-screen. While I understand that the producers wanted to finish on a note of triumph, it seems a little harsh to the viewers who have spent time hoping these characters would survive.

Nevertheless, this is an excellent film. Watch out for an appearance by a young Thora Hird armed with a gun!

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Classic Film Review: Of Human Bondage (1934)

Of Human Bondage is labelled as Bette Davis's breakout role and she certainly shines as Mildred, a cold-hearted woman who winds trainee doctor Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) around her little finger. Following their initial meeting in a cafe, Carey is smitten, despite the fact that Mildred only tolerates him because he adores her. Although he breaks away and manages relationships with Norah (Kay Johnson) and Sally (Frances Dee), there's always the chance the Mildred will pop up and ruin everything. The film is based on the book by W. Somerset Maugham (reviewed here last year).

Leslie Howard portrays the slightly uncertain Carey magnificently but, really, this film belongs to Davis. Although her accent wobbles at times that's negated by her otherwise excellent performance. The major confrontation scene as Mildred tells Carey what she really thinks of him should go down as one of her best moments on film.

In other ways, Of Human Bondage falters a little. It's difficult to stomach Carey allowing her to repeatedly ruin his life, even more so than it was in the book. Although his club foot goes some way to explaining his choices, it's used as an all-encompassing tool to stop much character introspection. Equally, the way the film flits about a lot can be distracting, fragmenting an exceptionally long book into numerous bites of scene that occasionally only scratch the surface.

It's difficult to say a lot about this film because it essentially repeats the same pattern: Carey gets his life together, Mildred ruins it. However, there are some excellent moments in this and it's worth watching for Davis's performance alone.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Maximising Productivity

Last week was a pretty productive week for me. I'm going to try an alternating system as far as word production is concerned. So a week on the novel then, perhaps, two weeks on the PhD. My old system of PhD during the day and writing in the evening stopped working late last year. I'm not quite sure why but it may have something to do with the fact that every time I had to 'switch gears' it took me longer and longer to get from one project to the other. I was getting too enthusiastically involved with my PhD (not a bad thing) and, more often than not, didn't want to stop working for the evening. I wanted to finish a point or finish some secondary reading or find something. Then, all of a sudden, time's disappeared and my fiction writing suffered as a result. Equally, on the days during November when I was forcing myself through NaNoWriMo my fictional focus was very strong and I didn't want to do anything else. So, it seems a new way must be sought.

Unfortunately, it's not as easy as saying 'pick a priority'. For several reasons, I can't do that, not least because I'm lost when I'm not involved in writing a story. If I'm working towards the aim of publication then I need to put 49% of my effort into my fiction, the other 51% belongs firmly to the PhD (for illustrative purposes here we're forgetting the other things I need to do this year for the time being). I mean, this is simpler than it looks. Yes, I have babysitting duties (which doesn't feel much like duty most of the time) but I have a woeful lack of a social life. In fact, my grandmother asked this weekend if '[I] only have one friend' before hastily adding 'round here' when she realised it sounded a little harsh. Well, yes, I do and that's probably all the better for my productivity.

I don't know if a week is the best time to spend on one thing before switching. What I do know is that last week I devoted myself to editing the middle of a novel and managed 19,907 words in seven days. This was the most finicky part of editing too - when earlier changes have been made to character and plot and you spend hours trying to make sure everything follows and that the whole makes sense. I long for the days when I was simply shredding my plot to pieces and didn't have to worry about the detail. Nevertheless, that concentrated effort brought that draft up 64,432 words so another concentrated effort in a week or so will finish that draft off. Then I get the out-loud read through which annoys the dog no end but we'll deal with that hurdle when we come to it.

We'll see if this new system holds me. I suppose it depends how enthusiastic I get at any given time about any given thing. However, my novel is all packed away again and I'm all ready for a week on the PhD now. Wilkie Collins and Edmund Yates better watch out...

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Lip Service Axed

Despite my open criticisms of Lip Service series two (see here and here) I'm disappointed to learn that it hasn't been renewed for a third series by BBC3. As I've mentioned previously, the second series became too fragmented for my liking, getting rid of three major characters in the space of two episodes and diluting the group aspect of the show. It could've been the stories that prompted the axe or it could've been the shift from Tuesday nights for S1 to Friday nights for S2. So far creator and executive producer Harriet Braun says she hasn't been given a proper reason by the BBC. However, I would say that if you muck around with things too much (I mean both the content and the time slot) then you have to be prepared for failure.

Still, I'm sad about the cancellation and there's one main reason for that - the character of Tess (Fiona Button). Unlucky in love, bit catastrophe-prone and extremely adorable, she became my reason for watching series two. How about a spin off - the incredible adventures of Tess on tour? Start in Scotland then buzz around the country. With all those audiences she would definitely find a woman...wouldn't she? It's something to think about.

Ultimately, whatever the justification for the cancellation, it's going to be a loss. I would've liked to have seen it return to the glory of the first series but, really, I'm not sure if that was possible. I don't suppose it's anyone's fault when actors need to leave to pursue their careers but I can't help thinking that swift exits were what set Lip Service down this road. Bye, bye, Tess. I'll miss you.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Books On Display

While I was out for a walk yesterday I passed a house with books on the windowsill of what what probably the living room of the house. Not so surprising, perhaps, but the thing that did grab me was the way the books were displayed - with their spines facing to the street. I mean, that could cause a few problems, couldn't it? When you want to pick a book to read you have to go out into the front yard to make your selection.

Of course, promoting the fact that you actually read isn't a bad thing - though it does disappoint me that such a thing needs to be explicitly stated by putting your books in the window. I'll admit to using window space for storage in the past but only when absolutely necessary - condensation and paper are two things that don't go well together. Mostly, though, I like to keep my books out of sight of the world at large. Step into the house, though, and you're assaulted by them. They're scattered everywhere, not just on the five bookcases downstairs and the two upstairs, but on the piano, dining table, desk and - yes, unfortunately - the floor on occasion. I suppose the difference is that I only 'flaunt' my literacy when I know you well enough to drag you into my house. (I'm sure that sounds wrong...)

Alas, I didn't dare go close enough to find out precisely which titles were facing outwards on that windowsill. It wasn't the kind of area where I should be caught looking through windows; I can't run fast enough to get away. But from where I stood they looked like thick wads of fiction. That adds another dimension to it, doesn't it? Not only is this person advertising the fact that they read, they're explicitly saying that they read thick books - so there!

Of course, it could all be a ruse. The books could be there to give the illusion that the householder reads and the reason the spines all face outwards is because they never have cause to pick up a title. I think that's the most disappointing thought I've had all week.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Classic Film Review: Holiday Affair (1949)

Holiday Affair is a festive offering that stars Janet Leigh as Connie Ennis, a widow with a young son, Timmy (Gordon Gebert). Connie earns her money as a comparison shopper but she's not very good at it, getting sales clerk Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum) sacked when he neglects to tell his superiors he's sniffed her out. There's an evident attraction between the two but there are a couple of major problems - firstly, Connie is still wedded to the memory of her dead husband and content to style her son in his image; secondly, she has been dating lawyer Carl (Wendell Corey), a dependable man who offers no risk at all.

This is a surprising little film, making even the whirlwind romance angle seem credible. I adore Janet Leigh and this role suits her (even though she does seem a little young to have a six year old son, Leigh was only 22 at the time). Connie's business-like approach to life disintegrates when she encounters Steve, a man who eats his lunch in the park with the seals and feeds a stray squirrel whilst having the goal of moving to California to build sail boats. It's a simple enough choice - the exciting risk or the dependable lawyer - but Leigh's performance doesn't trivialise the decision. Equally, the rapport she has with Gordon Gebert as her son is delightful.

I continue to revise my opinion about Robert Mitchum (disliked him in River of No Return (1954) and His Kind of Woman (1951) but liked him in Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (1957)). He seems very comfortable in Holiday Affair and he and Leigh bounce nicely off each other. Wendell Corey puts in an adequate performance as Carl, reasonably likeable throughout, even when he realises the truth about his relationship.

This is a quiet film on many levels but touching because it deals with very human desires of safety and security. Those are enduring themes and that's what makes this film as enjoyable today as it was when first released. Although the finale may be predictable, it's no less sweeter for it.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Classic Film Review: Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

Sylvia Scarlett stars Katharine Hepburn as the title character, the daughter of a thief (Edmund Gwenn) who has liberated some expensive lace from his employer and needs to escape the country. A man travelling with a daughter would be too conspicuous so Sylvia becomes Sylvester. On the boat they meet Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant) who, after shopping them to customs for smuggling lace, invites them to come along with him and make some immoral money. Along the way they encounter artist Michael Fane (Brian Aherne), who Syvlia - still dressed as Sylvester - immediately falls for.

One of the main problems with this film is the incoherence. There seem to be a set number of 'situations' that the characters are boxed into with no real logic between them. In addition, the characterisation's a bit rubbish (you'd show more emotion if your father had stumbled off a cliff, I think) and some of the accents are appalling (surprisingly, Grant's is the worse of all!). However, it does have some comical moments stemming from the male impersonation of the title character. Hepburn, of course, does boyish extremely well and it's not a stretch to believe the impersonation - it's actually more difficult to accept the character when she goes back to being Sylvia.

One thing that did surprise me was the satisfying ending. The writers weren't overcome with the necessity to shoehorn the characters into the ending appropriate to the billing, perhaps the best bit of characterisation throughout the whole film.

This is an odd one - entertaining in parts, lacklustre in the main. However, it's worth watching just for Hepburn's performance as Sylvester (and there is an almost amorous moment where her step-mother decides to take a chance on her 'step-son').

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Classic Film Review: The Trouble With Angels (1966)

The Trouble With Angels stars Hayley Mills and June Harding as Mary and Rachel, two girls sent to a convent school who aim to drive the nuns round the twist with their pranks. Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell) heads a collection of individual nuns with their own little quirks, two of whom are no strangers to viewers of nun films - Portia Nelson as Sister Elizabeth (recognisable as Sister Berthe in The Sound of Music (1965) and the fabulous Mary Wickes as Sister Clarissa (known to many as Sister Mary Lazarus in the two Sister Act films). It's no exaggeration to say that I knew I was going to enjoy this film as soon as I saw Wickes in the cast but she was more than matched in performance by the rest of the actors.

Mary is full of 'scathingly brilliant' ideas which Rachel goes along with. Through the course of the film they set someone's head in plaster, give tours of the nuns' private rooms, have the fire brigade called out by accident when they're smoking in the cellars and, my personal favourite, replace the nuns' sugar with bubble bath which is one of the funniest scenes of the film. But, as time goes on, Mary's brash nature is assailed by seeing the truth about how the nuns live and, after being given another chance by Mother Superior, she turns things around most unexpectedly. Perhaps the best thing about Mary's evolution is that it isn't sudden. She still performs pranks as she's coming to her realisation but there are a couple of quiet moments that are all the more poignant for being rare.

Rosalind Russell is, of course, outstanding as Mother Superior. She makes a work of art out of twitching as lemon juice is accidentally squirted in her face and the film is peppered with her expressions and comments about the behaviour of the two girls. The rest of the cast is equally as enjoyable and, for film obsessives, there is a brief appearance by Gypsy Rose Lee as Mrs Phipps (Russell played Lee's mother in the retelling of her life four years earlier).

This isn't a film with pretensions to be anything but a family comedy and, as such, is highly entertaining.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Classic Film Review: Beau Brummell (1954)

Beau Brummell stars Stewart Granger as the title character with Elizabeth Taylor as Lady Patricia and Peter Ustinov as the Prince of Wales. It's a loose historical drama (the final scene between Brummell and the Prince, for instance, is entirely fictionalised) but manages to be enjoyable in places due to its verbal chicanery. This is a rather sedate film but an interesting one.

Brummell, the famous man of fashion, befriends the Prince of Wales after grossly insulting him. His friendship with the future king allows him to gain credit and so he builds up his collection of expensive clothes and objects while redecorating his luxurious home whenever the mood takes him. He also indulges in a little romance with Lady Patricia, already promised to somebody else, and tries to solve the Prince's own romantic difficulties with an unsuitable woman, Mrs Fitzherbert (Rosemary Harris).

Granger's performance is adequate enough but it's Ustinov's performance as the Prince of Wales that proves to be the highlight of the film. Extravagant, childish, frustrated, Ustinov portrays the Prince with more depth than I expected. There are some particularly good scenes involving him: the one that springs to mind is when he goes to see his mad father and is nearly strangled to death. Unfortunately, despite Brummell's flamboyance, Granger pales in comparison to Ustinov and Elizabeth Taylor's performance is also adequate but unremarkable.

This is a drama that thrives on dialogue, some of which is hilarious if you listen carefully enough. It has no pretensions to reality and so makes a coherent film of what seems to be an incoherent time.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Book Review: Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise by Sam Irvin

My first wisp of anything Kay Thompson related came on the expanded soundtrack to The Harvey Girls. There was a demo of her singing along with 'In the Valley' with Judy Garland and the voice caught my attention years ago - but I thought nothing of it. Then I read a couple of books about Judy and Kay's name popped up as a solid friend and Liza's godmother. Then, finally, I watched Funny Face and thought 'so that's Kay Thompson!'. It was like a lightbulb switched on in my head and I had to know more about this entrancing performer. Fortunately, Sam Irvin's comprehensive biography sheds some light on a woman who was well known in Hollywood circles but floundered beyond that.

Kitty Fink began life as something of an ugly duckling, overshadowed by her prettier sisters. She realised she excelled at entertainment and changed her name when she was sacked for tardiness from one radio job in the hope that her reputation wouldn't follow her. It did and that really began a life of close bonds followed by some cataclysmic rifts. What is most fascinating about Kay (and also most frustrating) is her conscious decision to take ultimate control of everything she touches. This probably stemmed from some disappointments in her early career, notably her axing from the Vincente Minnelli stage musical Hooray for What! in the late 1930s. It would've been her big break and composer Hugh Martin (of Meet Me In St. Louis fame) described the stupidity of that decision: 'To fire that marvellous woman was unforgivable. We all knew Kay was great. Star quality! She could have been another Ethel Merman. Nobody could understand it.' (p64)

With Kay there's a tremendous amount of 'what-ifs', some of them ruined by other people but some ruined by herself. Her most famous creations were her nightclub act with the Williams Brothers and the Eloise books. She took ultimate control of the former, essentially taking much of the profit and credit on herself. While she certainly deserved the credit, some of her manipulations of her performance partners (not limited to the Williams Brothers either) are plain cruel. For instance, Andy Williams (her lover at this point) wanted to use her arrangement of 'The Lord Is My Shepherd' on a new album and she outright rejected the proposal. Williams explained: 'I couldn't believe that she wouldn't allow me to perform the song...I had been with her when she wrote it, and I had sung it for her many times in her apartment. I guess that was Kay; she was possessive about everything she worked on.' (p328) This possessive nature reared its ugly head again when Eloise was adapted for television. A passing comment from Eartha Kitt about the actress playing the title character being the 'new' Eloise set Kay completely against the little girl, since she was thought of Eloise as herself and only herself. She set about taking creative control over the special - with disastrous results. Her star turn in Funny Face was also marred by problems when she and Fred Astaire fell out to the extent that he refused to attend the opening with her. Try rewatching the 'Clap Yo' Hands' sequence with this mutual dislike in mind and see how good actors both of them were!

There are so many little titbits in this book that it's a must for anyone interested in this era of film and music. Kay's involvement numerous talents is both astounding and exhausting but what comes across most potently is the waste of her own talents. She was an acquired taste and there are frequently stories behind many of her own songs, including in-jokes that make them difficult to comprehend outside showbiz circles. This book illuminates some of those in-jokes, allowing the songs to be heard in their original glory. I'll admit that I had only listened to the album I had of her work a few times before reading this book but now I can't stop playing it. My favourite song at the moment is probably 'Bazazz', a word she used in Funny Face and decided to create a song around, but they're all wonderful songs in their own way.

Sam Irvin tries to sum up what Kay was in the opening pages of his book: 'Not to name-drop or anything, but... Kay Thompson was Judy Garland's mentor and best friend and Frank Sinatra's and Lena Horne's vocal coach. She went to school with Tennessee Williams and got her first big break from Bing Crosby. She created a nightclub act for Ginger Rogers, and played charades with Gene Kelly. Bette Davis learned from her, Diana Vreeland was portrayed by her, and Danny Kaye masqueraded in drag as her. She auditioned for Henry Ford, trained Marilyn Monroe, channelled Elvis Presley, rejected Andy Warhol, rebuffed Federico Fellini, and got fired by Howard Hughes. Prince Aly Khan made a pass at her and the Beatles wanted to hold her hand.' (pxiv) And that's just the tip of the iceberg!

Thursday, 3 January 2013

...Onwards to 2013

Since I failed many of my goals in 2012 (see here) you might think I'd go easy on myself in 2013. No chance. What follows is an overview of the things I want to get done. Later in the year I'll probably compile another 'traffic light' post since the last one helped me focus my thoughts on what needed doing - even though I didn't do much of it at all in the end! So, here goes nothing...

My PhD is obviously the most important thing in my life. With a little bit of luck I'll be close to completion by the end of the year - or at least I'll have all the blocks in place and just need to rearrange them a bit. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but goals were meant to be challenging.

Related to the above, I want to get some conference experience under my belt. Talking in public is not exactly something I'm good at but it has to be battled at some point and now is that time. I've submitted abstracts for a couple of conferences already but if they don't come off then there's plenty more to have a crack at.

This post details all my major writing projects. In terms of priority for working on this year, I'd put them in this order: 'Lily', 'Danni', 'Liz', 'Lauren', 'Max' and 'Vic' (which is the actual order they were written in the first place!). Realistically, I think I'll only work on the first four of those - although all six would be nice. In addition, I'll try and resist adding new first drafts to my pot (excluding NaNoWriMo).

I'll participate in NaNoWriMo again - provided I have a decent idea come November.

I'm working on a transcription (and introduction) of Edmund Yates's Black Sheep for Valancourt Books (details can be found here). By the end of the year I'd like to have made a huge dent in this - if not have it completely finished and submitted.

Although I'm not quite sure where my work with 2020UK will take me this year but I'll continue working with the group.

I'm not taking part in any reading challenges this year but that doesn't mean I won't be reading! My marvellous Christmas present of a Kindle (thanks to my sister and family) means I've started downloading loads of things I didn't have access to before. Some of them are work related (complete works of Wilkie Collins and some lost texts of Mary Elizabeth Braddon have already found their way onto the list) but others will just be plain fun. In addition, I'll be watching loads of classic films this year as my reward for doing some of the above stuff that looks terrifying in a list like this.

You'll notice all of these are pretty much professional goals. Don't I have any personal ones? Well, no. Let's allow those to melt into the distance and focus on the stuff that's really important.

Farewell 2012...

At the beginning of 2012 I posted about what I hoped to achieve in the year. In addition to that, in September I compiled a 'traffic light' post about what I needed/wanted/would be grateful to get done in the last three months of the year. Time for seeing how I did.

1. I've signed up for two specific reading challenges this year (see the links on the sidebar). I aim to complete them. In addition, I want to read some of those books I've been meaning to for a while - Wolf HallThe Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister and Nella Last's War to name but three.
I failed at both challenges! The classics summary can be read here while the short story summary is here. However, at least I read loads of books this year, including a decent balance of non-fiction.

2. I daren't make any predictions about my PhD for the coming year. I just hope that I'm still studying at the end of 2012. Whatever happens, I've already learned a lot from my research. That'll never go to waste.
Well, I upgraded in the early part of the year and have been working hard at it ever since. I'm definitely still studying, though I'm a little further behind than I hoped (see below).

3. I want to complete some revisions of all four manuscripts I've got floating about. Two are in the later stages of development and two of them are first drafts. I will also aim to have at least one short story published this year and try and complete a few of the unfinished projects I've got hanging around.
I didn't quite complete those manuscript revisions. Really, I've focused all my revision efforts on one novel (the one that got me an agent) and I'm even running behind at that. But - and this is a healthy 'but' - I've got big plans for some of those manuscripts (for details of my major writing projects see here). I may not have put them into practice yet but at least the ideas are there. I haven't had any short stories publishing because, again, my enthusiasm for submitting waned early in the year when other pressing matters took over. It's still a goal but I don't think it's an immediate concern. As for the unfinished manuscripts - I didn't finish those but I did start (and finish) two more first drafts. 

4. I will continue working with 2020UK and hopefully attract more people to the ranks.
This one I've done! I've enjoyed my year working with like-minded political folk and I look forward to whatever 2013 brings in this respect. 

5. I'll continue being there for the people who need me (for babysitting or a chat) but I'm making no predictions about where I'll end 2012.
Fairly sure I've been a good aunt this year. I've been lacklustre in the granddaughter department but that's not entirely my fault - she's slowly mentally disintegrating and my best efforts can't reverse that. All I can do is answer the phone when she calls in the early hour of the morning and listen to her crying when she needs me to. She's not a damn burden to me and I resent the people who make her feel that way. 

My PhD has to take up one of the priority slots. I'm currently working on my second chapter (on disability representation in the works of Wilkie Collins and Edmund Yates, if anyone's interested) and I want to have that finished by the end of the year. Polished up to the hilt too. Got 3000 words which just need tinkering with then only another...10,000 of analysis or so. Easy. 
Failed. It isn't polished up to the hilt, nor is it actually finished. I'm close to completing a draft of it but that's not what I was hoping to achieve. Still, my supervisor seemed pleased by the fact I've pulled this chapter together more quickly than the last one and the next will be even easier because I've got pretty much all of my secondary reading out of the way but I'm not satisfied.

The novel that helped me get an agent is in the middle of a complete rewrite. When I say 'in the middle' I mean that I've only rewritten around 15,000 words so far. It was a 70,000 word novel and it's now shaping up to be around 85,000 I think. That makes me not so much 'in the middle' as 'somewhere near the beginning'. Nevertheless, I want this redraft to be finished by the end of the year.
Failed. Only up to 44,000 on the rewrite which might look good but it's not what I was aiming for. This needs blitzing - and soon. 

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is soon going to be upon us again. I've achieved the 50,000 target two out of three attempts and I am determined to give it a go this year. I already have my idea and everything. I enjoy taking part in NaNoWriMo because it gives me a first draft in the bag in a month which I can then work on later. I haven't yet had time to look at the one I finished last year but it's there waiting patiently in line!
Passed. Finished NaNoWriMo just over the 50,000 mark. My wrap-up post can be found here.

I'm around 36,000 words into another first draft (the one which I keep abandoning and picking up again). I'd tell you about it in detail but then I'd have to go and chop off my fingers from the sheer embarrassment of it. However, I would like to finish the first draft of this novel by the end of the year, and I don't see it stretching beyond 60,000 words. So that's doable.
Passed. Although it also barely scraped over the 50,000 mark, it's another first draft in the bag bringing my total to six manuscripts in progress.

I've been thinking over the second draft of another novel I've got on the go. Although I was surprisingly pleased with the way the first draft worked out, I know I've got to make some fundamental changes to the background of the piece and that'll impact the front story. So far I've got a few thousand words of the rewrite which I had to abandon after other areas of my life took precedence but I'd love to have a second draft finished by the end of the year. 
Failed. Haven't even looked at this one since September and there are others now ahead of it in the queue. 

Blogging is an important part of my weekly routine and I'm not given it up. After consultation, I've decided to aim for at least 40 posts in the next few months. At least. They will probably mostly consist of book and classic film reviews because I'm doing, well, a lot of reading of books and watching of classic films. In a way, blogging counts as the fun part of this list though, of course, it's all fun.
Passed. Forget over 40 posts on the blog - I got over 50! That's procrastination if ever I saw it. 

So, yes, my report card screams 'could do better'. On the other hand, I keep piling my plate full of projects so it's no wonder that I'm flagging. Nevertheless, 'could do better' means 'should do better' in my book. And I will in 2013. 

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

My Favourite Books of 2012

When I glanced through the list of books I've read this year (full list here) I groaned: how was I supposed to pick five out of that wonderful list that have been somehow better than the others? I had to limit myself to one Dickens, for instance, because other authors deserved a look in. It's a tricky one, this literary life.

Judy, A Legendary Film Career by John Fricke

This accessible analysis, full of quotes and pictures, covers the film career of my favourite actress ever. Many of the pictures were new to me and I gleaned so many titbits from this. In addition, it's a gorgeous book to hold and read. Perfection. You can read my full review here.

 The Somnambulist by Essie Fox

A wonderfully atmospheric novel set in Victorian England telling the story of several women intertwined by their pasts.This has some memorable scenes that have lingered with me. You can read my full review here.

Troubles by J.G. Farrell

An evocative look at the Irish Troubles in 1919, via the medium of Major Brendan Archer, a soldier who goes to reclaim his fiancĂ©. He finds himself in a dilapidated hotel surrounded by dilapidated guests and gets sucked into their lives through no fault of his own. You can read my full review here.

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

A difficult one to describe without giving away the plot but I will say this is an enormously atmospheric and spine-tingling read that leaves you wanting to read the whole thing again. You can read my full review here.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

One of the early books I read this year has endured. It's a mammoth work but quite possibly Dickens's best (that's always up for debate). A humorous, poignant and suitably complex book that I won't tire of rereading. You can read my full review here

Collected Book Reviews 2012

For ease of reference here is a complete list of the books I reviewed in 2012.

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

*Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

^Touchy Subjects by Emma Donoghue

The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly

Judy, A Legendary Film Career by John Fricke

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

*Bleak House by Charles Dickens

The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Trumpet by Jackie Kay

Nella Last's War

Kind of Cruel by Sophie Hannah

Across the Bridge by Morag Joss

The London Train by Tessa Hadley

22 Days in May by David Laws

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

^Sensation Stories by Wilkie Collins

The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller

The Group by Mary McCarthy

Up and Down Stairs by Jeremy Musson

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber

*The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Troubles by J.G. Farrell

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

*Emma by Jane Austen

Olivia by Dorothy Strachey

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach

The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus

Bedlam: London and Its Mad by Catharine Arnold

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

*The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Scourging Angel by Benedict Gummer

The Somnambulist by Essie Fox

A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin

The Maul and the Pear Tree by P.D. James and T.A. Critchley

The Bachelor by Stella Gibbons

*Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

*This book was read for A Classics Challenge 2012

^This book was read for the Short Story Challenge 2012    


Tuesday, 1 January 2013

2012 Short Story Challenge: Wrap-Up

Well, this makes two out of two reading challenges I failed in 2012! At least on the classics side of things I was close (five books out of the minimum of six) but on this I failed abysmally, reading only two short story collections over the year. This was my original list:

1. Night Shivers - Charlotte Riddell
2Sensation Stories - Wilkie Collins
3. Wish I Was Here - Jackie Kay
4. The New York Stories - Edith Wharton
5. The Collected Stories - Katherine Mansfield
6. Daughters of Decadence - Various
7. Touchy Subjects - Emma Donoghue
8. ???
9. ???

Out of those I managed to read only two. I started off bright enough in January with Emma Donoghue's Touchy Subjects, a collection I thoroughly enjoyed. Then in May I read Sensation Stories by Wilkie Collins. That's it. Shameful, I know, but there you go.

I'll get to all of these collections eventually but for now I'll just have to go off into the corner with a dunce hat!