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Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Some Favourite Lyrics

It's my birthday today and music is one of my passions so I decided to share a few of my favourite song lyrics with you. Some snippets are longer than others but all of these are beautiful. Well, I think so anyway. The images I get from them are quite potent. These are just five out of literally thousands of songs I adore.

  • It Never Was You - sung beautifully by Judy Garland in I Could Go On Singing, lyrics by Maxwell Anderson... 

An occasional sunset reminded me,
Or a flower hanging high on a tulip tree,
Or one red star hung low in the west,
Or a heart-break call from a Meadow Lark's nest,
Made me think for a moment,
Maybe its true,
I found him in the star,
In the call,
In the blue...

  • No Way to Stop It - sung in the stage version of The Sound of Music, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II...

A crazy planet full of crazy people,
Is somersaulting all around the sky.
And every time it turns another somersault,
Another day goes by.
And there's no way to stop it,
No, there's no way to stop it.
No, you can't stop it even if you tried.
So, I'm not going to worry,
No, I'm not going to worry,
Every time I see another day go by.

  • Gone - written and performed by Melody Gardot... 

I won't wake up, 
To the sound of your feet,
Walking down the hall,
Like a soft heartbeat,
I won't wake up,
Cause by the time that,
I do you'll be gone...

  • I Don't Want to Know - performed by Angela Lansbury in Dear World and written by the wonderful Jerry Herman...

Let me hide ev'ry truth from my eyes with the back of my hand,
Let me live in a world full of lies with my head in the sand.
For my memories all are exciting.
My memories all are enchanted,
My memories burn in my mead with a steady glow;
So if, my friends, if love is dead,
I don't want to know.

  • Vincent - written and performed by Don McLean...

Starry, starry night,
Portraits hung in empty halls,
Frame-less heads on nameless walls,
With eyes that watch the world and can't forget,

Like the strangers that you've met,
The ragged men in ragged clothes,
The silver thorn of bloody rose,
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow...


Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Book Review: The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green

The Leavenworth Case is told from the point of view of lawyer Mr Raymond as he gets drawn into a mysterious murder inquiry. Mr Leavenworth has been found shot dead in his library by his secretary, Mr Harwell. The house has been locked overnight and the only people inside were Harwell, the servants and Leavenworth's two nieces, Mary and Eleanor. The curious thing about Mary and Eleanor is that, simply by virtue of being prettier, Mary will inherit all her uncle's money. Does that give Eleanor or her sister the motive for murder? And why is one of the servants missing?

I enjoyed the plot of this book. I thought it was clever, though it felt a little static in the middle before Raymond set off on his mission to locate the missing servant. The resolution surprised me, though, and that's always a good thing with a murder mystery. However, about a third of the way into the book, I lost faith with the narrator and I found it difficult to recover from that. It was very difficult for me to accept that Raymond had not considered an alternative to one of his assumptions at all and, after that, I treated him as a guide but nothing more. I didn't see how he could've been so stupid to be honest.

The rest of the book was fairly good. The later scenes with Mrs Belden were very well written and, in truth, I felt more attached to her character than the narrator. Equally, the detective Mr Gryce was an excellent character, humanised by his gout that provides Raymond with an opportunity to follow up the case on his own. The complex relationships between the suspects are gradually drawn out, realistically so, but, again, I feel this hampered the middle section of the novel.

However, The Leavenworth Case works as a piece of detective fiction and is especially interesting as a nineteenth-century example written by a woman.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Classic Film Review: The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

The Devil and Miss Jones stars Charles Coburn as reclusive tycoon Mr Merrick who is appalled when an effigy of him is hung outside a department store he owns. Determined to bring the culprits to justice, he goes undercover as a slipper salesman in the store. Once there, he finds himself taken under Miss Mary Jones's (Jean Arthur) wing, who feels sorry for the hungry and helpless man she sees. Fellow colleague Elizabeth (Spring Byington) takes a different kind of shine to him. But of most importance to Merrick is Joe (Robert Cummings), the ringleader of the trouble - and Mary's boyfriend. Will Merrick press ahead with his plan to blacklist them all or will experiencing things from the other side of the fence change things for him? S.Z. Sakall and Edmund Gwenn also have supporting roles.

This is a fantastic film. It gets the tone just right, from Merrick's first intimidating scene interrogating his employees to being interrogated himself by his new manager at the store. Coburn is wonderful, bouncing off all the other actors without exception. Jean Arthur is also excellent, particularly in the scene where she's trying to club Merrick over the head with a boot. There are some excellent scenes including when Merrick asks his butler (Sakall) to bring in a girl to make a purchase in order to make him look good - but she won't play nicely. The Coney Island outing scenes are also excellent, particularly when Merrick gets himself accidentally arrested.

Merrick's romance with Elizabeth works very well and Mary does a good job of explaining what she likes about Joe in a memorable scene with Merrick on the beach. In fact, I can't think of a bad scene in this one. My only gripe, if I'm to have one, is that there was no scene between the revelation and the finale - it could've done with one just to iron out the tensions between Merrick and Elizabeth/Mary/Joe.

All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable comedy that works perfectly. With arguments about the rich having no concept of reality and advocating workers' rights, The Devil and Miss Jones is probably as relevant today as it was in 1941.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Classic Film Review: The Half Naked Truth (1932)

The Half Naked Truth stars Lee Tracy as Bates, an entrepreneur of sorts working for a carnival. His latest attempt to get money pouring in results in them being run out of town so Bates decides to go to Broadway and make a star out of sideshow dancer Teresita (Lupe Velez), taking his faithful friend Achilles (Eugene Pallette) along with him. They hoodwink impresario Mr Farrell (Frank Morgan) into taking Teresita on but stardom pulls the group apart and Bates's next plan involves a hotel maid (Shirley Chambers) and a nudist camp...

If this one sounds a bit mad that's because it is. Anything that involves a gigantic carnival fight scene, a dancer impersonating a Turkish princess, a lion in a hotel room and nudists driving through New York can't be described as much else. And I wanted to like it but, unfortunately, it left me a little bored.

I found it difficult to care about either Bates or Teresita. Not caring about them as a couple meant that their separation didn't really bother me too much. A character I did care about was Farrell, mainly because he was pushed from pillar to post by Bates and kept struggling to come out on top. Eugene Pallette and Shirley Chambers also put across their characters very well, especially in the scenes where he's 'teaching' her how to act - which usually involves them getting up close and personal.

Lupe Velez puts in a decent performance but without any chemistry between her and Tracy it's a drab film with some highlights. Her opening night performance is quite amusing, as are her interactions with Morgan. The film does feel tacked together in places, with little coherence and some fast-paced dialogue that can be tricky to keep up with. However, it's not all bad and, given how short it is, it's worth sitting through for a few amusing bits.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Classic Film Review: Love Affair (1939)

Love Affair tells the story of playboy Michel Marnet (Charles Boyer) and Terry McKay (Irene Dunne) who meet on a ship and fall in love. Michel wants to prove he can earn a living as a painter so they arrange to meet again in six months if they both feel the same. However, a tragic turn of events stops the meeting from happening.

This is essentially a film of two halves. The first half, set on the ship, is the story of two people trying valiantly not to fall in love because they don't want to hurt their respective partners. When the ship stops in Madeira, Michel visits his grandmother (Maria Ouspenskaya) and Terry goes along with him. This little group of scenes are perhaps the best in the film, including a scene in the chapel which is beautifully shot and creates a wonderful image which is referred to later.

The second half of the film is something of a painful love story. It alters very suddenly and from then on it's difficult to watch and, really, I wanted to throttle Terry for being so stubborn about the whole thing. However, the final scene between her and Michel more than makes up for the frustration preceding it. The dialogue between the two is more complex and more evocative than it has been throughout the whole film - and that's saying something. Boyer and Dunne play this final scene to perfection and I freely admit to shedding a tear.

On the whole, this is an excellent film with the main roles not overplayed by the two leads. It's a sensitive, clever piece that gets slightly sentimental in the second half when a group of orphans take centre stage but, for the most part, it remains a delicate film that is true to its characters.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Book Review: A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe

A Sicilian Romance has a typically twisted Gothic plot which I'll attempt to summarise without giving the end away. Emilia and Julia Mazzini lost their mother at a young age. Their father remarried to a young woman and lived away from the family castle with their brother Ferdinand. The girls are joined in their lonely life by their mother's faithful friend, Madame de Menon. Things change when the Marquis and his young wife come back to the castle. Julia is promised by her father to the ageing Duke de Luovo but has fallen in love with a friend of her brother's, Hippolitus. They plot to elope but the plan doesn't go smoothly...

This is an extremely atmospheric novel, playing on the spectres of an ancient castle and using the surrounding area - woodland, caves, secret underground passages - to great effect. It is also well-plotted with the end tying up all the loose ends completely and explaining all the mysteries put forward throughout. I have to say that certain events surprised me as I progressed and I simply enjoyed the twists and turns without trying to second guess everything.

On the characterisation side, the characters were a little under-explored for my liking, taking a back seat to the complex plot but I expected that. I also felt characters were forgotten for long periods, particularly poor Emilia. Her experience of living at the castle after her sister has fled could have been a novel in its own right.

Some of the most potent scenes in A Sicilian Romance come from truly terrifying incidents. For instance, Ferdinand, languishing in the dungeon, hears screaming from another quarter of the castle. Another example is when Julia and Hippolitus find themselves in one of the most gruesome rooms imaginable. That scene alone is enough to make this book stand out but there are many others of merit.

A Sicilian Romance draws on a number of Gothic conventions but is no less enjoyable for it. Watch out for armed bandits, nuns, convents, secret prisons and poison.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Classic Film Review: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex stars Bette Davis in her first outing as Elizabeth I (the second one would follow in 1955's The Virgin Queen, although she would be playing a younger Elizabeth). Her co-star as the Earl of Essex is Errol Flynn, a surprising pairing but one that, for me anyway, works.

The ageing Elizabeth loves Essex but is fearful of both his ambition and the fact that he may not love her as dearly. The rest of her advisers also dislike him and take the opportunity to provoke him into a doomed campaign in Ireland. When they conspire to keep Elizabeth and Essex from contact it proves to be the catalyst for an ultimately fatal reconciliation.

Bette Davis is captivating, utterly without flaw and fitting the character as well in 1939 as she would do in 1955. There was something about her that made her ideal to play Elizabeth I and she truly makes the role her own. The direction of the film by Michael Curtiz is superbly clever at times. For instance, our first 'glimpse' of Elizabeth comes via shadows on her wall then the wait until we do actually see her face is cleverly drawn out. Shadows are also used to great effect towards the climax of the film. It's a loving piece of drama, put together using lavish costumes and some very fitting dialogue. Davis handles all her lines perfectly, providing them with enough zest for effect but not enough to spill over into melodrama.

There are three scenes which jump out at me as above the excellent standard of the rest of the film. Firstly, the mirror scene where Lady Penelope (Olivia de Havilland) jibes Elizabeth about her looks and she responds by smashing up every mirror in her room and ordering the rest to be removed. Secondly, the scene which directly follows this between Elizabeth and Margaret Radcliffe (Nanette Fabray). This is a touching, beautiful scene and I'm sorry that we saw no more of this small relationship. Finally, the final scene with Elizabeth sat in the Tower crying. Every expression perfectly befits the moment and leaves the audience with a lingering image. I can't praise Davis enough for this performance.

And what of the rest of the cast? Flynn is remarkably enjoyable and he and Davis have a good rapport (even if, as reports suggest, it was based on antipathy). Vincent Price puts in a few good lines as Sir Walter Raleigh; the same goes for Donald Crisp as Francis Bacon. Olivia de Havilland's role was unsurprisingly small and her part a little without definition but she makes a commendable effort when up against the screen presence of the mighty Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Classic Film Review: Government Girl (1943)

Government Girl stars Olivia de Havilland as Smokey, secretary to a new man in Washington, Ed Browne (Sonny Tufts). Browne needs to oversee the production of as many bomber planes as he can but finds himself faced with a wall of bureaucracy. He circumvents it but ultimately comes up against angry people who would rather he respect the red tape. Meanwhile, his feelings for Smokey have been growing but she's seeing Dana McGuire (Jess Barker), an ambitious man who finds himself on the opposite side to Browne and Smokey.

The problem with this film is that it tries to be two things at once. It could either be a drama about bureaucracy impeding the war effort or it could be a romance. It tries to be both and this just doesn't work. Sonny Tufts is ill-fitted to the role of leading man with very little character consistency. Olivia de Havilland saves the film from complete disgrace simply by being Olivia de Havilland but it's not enough. The plot is fragmented, trying to focus on the subplot relationship between May (Anne Shirley) and Joe Blake (James Dunn) who are desperately trying to have their honeymoon. There is a mad motorcycle ride involving Smokey and Browne then a completely nonsensical subplot involving a spy trying to obtain secrets from Smokey and May. It all adds up to a bizarre film.

The patriotism is undeniably and to be expected. However, it hammers home the messages of 'bureaucratic mess' and those 'good government girls' to the point where I ceased to care. It switches between seriousness and farce, quite badly in my opinion, and that is ultimately its failure. Even the rich character played by Agnes Moorhead disappointed through a complete lack of characterisation. It's interested as a piece of wartime propaganda but perhaps not as a film of artistic merit, although the mad motorcycle scene is quite amusing in its way.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Classic Film Review: Christopher Strong (1933)

Christopher Strong tells the story of a happily-married politician who falls in love with a famous flier, jeopardising his marriage and the happiness of all those around him. The title character is played by Colin Clive while Katharine Hepburn is Lady Cynthia Darrington, the woman who catches his eye in one of her earliest films. Lady Strong is played by Billie Burke while their daughter, Monica, is played by Helen Chandler. Rounding out the main cast is Ralph Forbes as Monica's married boyfriend Harry.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this film for me was understanding what Lady Cynthia saw in Sir Christopher Strong. His attraction to her is understandable but there is little about her feelings until later in the film. Arguably, Lady Cynthia is the most important character and deserves to be the title character. She is a record-breaking aviator who is very good at what she does. While Strong is a successful politician, yes, she seems above him in all senses of the word.

The supporting cast is good, especially Billie Burke. Intriguingly enough, the film doesn't dwell on the potential ramifications of Lady Strong finding out about the affair. She finds out fairly rapidly and her quiet reaction is heartbreaking to watch, along with a subsequent scene where she finds her husband listening desperately for news of Lady Cynthia's latest flight on the radio. Burke doesn't overplay these scenes when it would be very easy to do so and she shines all the better for it.

Unfortunately, parts of the dialogue melt into over-the-top declarations of feelings. Thankfully, these don't ruin the entire film but they do spoil parts of it. The best scenes for me are not the Hepburn/Clive ones but the ones where other people - Lady Strong, Monica - are involved.

The ending, though perhaps predictable, is well worth sticking around for. The montage scene of memories that Lady Cynthia dwells on during a flight is fairly innovative and effective for 1933. As one of Katharine Hepburn's early films, it signals the promise of what's to come and, if you ignore certain aspects, it's a very good analysis of infidelity, propriety and society. It also contains an attempt at a bedroom scene between the lovers - nobody is seen but the intention is very evident. Again, not bad for 1933.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Classic Film Review: Born to Be Bad (1950)

Born to Be Bad stars Joan Fontaine as Christabel Caine. After living with her poor Aunt Clara (Virginia Farmer) for most of her life, she moves to train as a clerk for her rich Uncle John (Harold Vermilyea). His current assistant Donna (Joan Leslie) is giving up work to marry the philanthropist Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott). When Christabel arrives she is physically attracted to novelist Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan) but also Curtis's money. Her kind, unobtrusive exterior masks a calculating young woman who is determined to get the kind of life she wants.

I was interested to see Fontaine as something of a villain. My previous experiences with her have been in inherently 'good' roles in films such as Rebecca (1940) and Jane Eyre (1943). However, the role suited her very well. Christabel is a complex character, saying one thing and wanting another, and Fontaine managed to pull this off with subtlety, particularly in the second half of the film. She was a manipulative character who, nevertheless, I half-wanted to see succeed but, ultimately, she can't be happy if she is sacrificing half of herself to fuel the other half.

I wasn't too sure about Robert Ryan as Nick. For me, he overplayed it in places. He was much more believable when he was being harsh and cutting. As soon as the character moved to expressing emotion, I lost a little interest in him. I also struggled with Zachary Scott as Curtis in places but this was due to the about-turn the character makes in the middle of the film with little warning and no real motivation. My favourite male character was probably painter Gobby (Mel Ferrer), a man who sees all and practically sees through Christabel from the start. He adds a little light humour to what could've been a heavy film. In addition, Joan Leslie as Donna was brilliant and I adored the scene where she confronts Christabel.

In places, this film is very clever and expertly put together. I don't think that Born to Be Bad is the best film any of those involved did but it unashamedly allows Christabel a decent ending, something I wasn't expecting. Overall, an enjoyable film.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

London and VPFA Conference (Part 2)

So, yesterday I discussed the non-conference aspects of my London trip which can be summed up like this: Merrily We Roll Along, Charles Dickens and spending money I can't afford on books on tea. Now we get down to the reason I was in London in the first place - my first real academic conference where I actually gave a paper.

Me being me, of course, I panicked before I got on the train, when I was on the train, when I went to sleep on Tuesday night and when I was paying homage to Charles Dickens the next morning. I got a little lost, considered staying lost then, finally, pulled myself together and went to the conference. My paper wasn't until Thursday afternoon but there was a lot to keep me distracted until then.

The standard of papers was excellent, as were the plenaries by Dr Elizabeth Hurran and Professor Pamela Gilbert. I particularly enjoyed the guest speaker, Rose Collis, and her talk about 'Grave Matters'. With that and Hurran's paper focusing on anatomy, I came away from the conference a little overwhelmed by dead bodies.

It's difficult to say which of the panels I enjoyed most or, indeed, which individual papers. As I said, the standard was excellent and the topics were diverse. It was unfortunate that my panel 'The Male Body' was up against 'The Female Body (i)' as the papers in there were very interesting. But, really, choosing between panels over the two days was exceedingly difficult - that's a good thing.

And how did my paper ('Androgyny and Disability in Sensation Fiction') go? Well, here are the facts:

  • I didn't flee the room
  • I got through with minimal pauses and didn't stop for more than a few seconds at a time
  • I didn't lose my voice
  • The PowerPoint worked
  • I answered a couple of questions without panicking

Take that as you will.

There is one other thing to mention about the conference - and that is how amazingly drunk I got on Wednesday night. Something to do with free white wine on an empty stomach. Nevertheless, it calmed me down a little and I started talking...and talking...and talking. I'm assured I didn't say anything I shouldn't have. Ahem! 

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

London and VPFA Conference (Part 1)

I spent Tuesday to Friday last week in our over-heating capital. The purpose of my visit was the conference mentioned in the title but I also found time to do a few other things. The title of this post is a little misleading - this part will talk about London and the second part will discuss the actual conference. goes.

Me being me, I got myself worked up into quite a state before I left. My first 'job' was meeting the lovely Laura (@HistorianLaura on Twitter). We had a late lunch at Pizza Express which I thoroughly enjoyed. Nice and easy conversation with someone on my wavelength - perfect! 

That evening I was fortunate enough to have a cheap theatre ticket. I've wanted to see Merrily We Roll Along since I heard Jenna Russell had been cast and Maria Friedman was directing. Thanks to a last minute deal I found myself in the second row of the stalls gaping up at the stage. What a performance! Sondheim is never easy and you really have to concentrate - especially with a show that moves backwards - but the production was gorgeous and the acting sublime. Clare Foster and Jenna Russell's versions of 'Not a Day Goes By' were probably the highlights for me but 'Old Friends' was up there too, along with 'Franklin Shepard, Inc'. Now, here's the thing. On the performance I went to the role of Charley was taken on by the understudy, Matthew Barrow. I wasn't going to comment on his performance at all because it was the embodiment of what I felt Charley should be. He was outstanding, particularly in 'Franklin Shepard, Inc', which requires energy and a certain connection with the audience. Jenna Russell's Mary also needed this and there was no doubt she succeeded. I know Sondheim isn't for everyone and the woman sat beside me asked what the hell was going on at the interval. But, for me, it was a perfect first Sondheim for me and I'm grateful I managed to land a ticket I wouldn't have otherwise been able to afford. 

On Wednesday morning I had a few hours to kill before the start of the conference. So where better to spend it than the Charles Dickens Museum on Doughty Street? I did get told off by one guide for not lingering to listen to her rehearsed introduction but, really, I knew enough about Dickens to proceed without help. It was a wonderful little house and I thoroughly enjoyed looking round. I also had an excellent chat with another guide about my PhD before I left. Then I went down to the cafe and had a cup of tea in the back garden. As you can see from the pictures it was a gorgeous day out there. 

After I'd finished my tea I inevitably stepped into the shop. As well as a keyring, I bought the book and postcards below. The postcards are just beautiful and, really, anything that mentions Wilkie Collins I can thoroughly justify...right? I do love Hesperus books - I always get the sense they're lovingly created. 

For now I'll skip over Wednesday afternoon and all day Thursday and skip straight to Friday. I had to go to Foyles to pick up a Proms book for my grandmother. Naturally, with the music department being on the top floor, I got a little sidetracked as I progressed. I'm sure the saleswoman thought I was a bit mad: a Proms guide, a self-editing book, a Katharine Hepburn biography and a Stella Gibbons novel? Well, I'm certainly varied!

My next shop was The Tea House in Covent Garden. I've recently gone a little nutty on loose leaf tea so I decided to indulge my new obsession and I bought the below teas. I've tried all of them. The Moroccan Mint is luscious, light and still lovely. The Tutti Frutti smell nearly knocked my socks off but thankfully the taste is less intense. However, it's the Calming Tea that looks like wood-chip that really astonished me - because of the ginger, I think, it has a little kick to it making it, remarkably, the tastiest of the bunch. Also, the prices were extremely reasonable and they should last me a while. I've got no reason not to be relaxed with these in my possession!  

So that was the so-called 'fun' part of proceedings. I'll tell you almost all about the conference tomorrow...

Monday, 15 July 2013

Book Review: Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey tells the story of a young woman who wants to help her impoverished family by going out to work as a governess. The first family she works for is troublesome to say the least and so she leaves. The second family she finds a position with include a flirty girl who enjoys mischief-making and could easily quash Agnes's one chance at true happiness.

There were some excellent passages of description in this one and also some interesting sparring dialogue between Agnes and Mr Weston, the curate and the object of her affections. In some ways, these conversations reminded me a little of Emma and Mr Knightly in Jane Austen's Emma. There are little segues within the novel to tell other small stories, the most striking of these being Nancy Brown's tale. The descriptions of the children and their misbehaving aren't overdone, although the overall effect of them is to make you question how frequently this was the experience of Victorian governesses - this is an alarming prospect!

Is Agnes too idealistic a heroine? In parts she certainly seems too bland but this in part is made up by the way the other characters behave on the page. Rosalie, the eldest daughter in the second family Agnes works for is an interesting one - toying with men's affections, deliberately trying to entice Mr Weston once she realises that Agnes is drawn to him and, ultimately, discovering that the life her mother wanted for her is a miserable one. Equally, I found Mr Weston an interesting character and most of the children Agnes encounters caught my attention too. Fundamentally, Agnes has to be a bit too noble in order to put up with what she does. I don't think it damaged my enjoyment of the novel at all.

While I didn't like Agnes Grey as much as I liked The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (reviewed here), it is a very good book. Evocative and thought-provoking, it again mad me sad that we never got the chance to read more from Anne.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Classic Film Review: The Black Shield of Falworth (1954)

The Black Shield of Falworth stars Tony Curtis as Myles, a man who has been brought up as peasant with his sister Meg (Barbara Rush) but whose history hides a more noble past. He goes to train with the Earl of Mackworth (Herbert Marshall) where he hopes to learn the truth about himself but finds himself in constant battles with the other squires and also falls in love with Mackworth's daughter, Lady Anne (Janet Leigh). Mackworth's patronage to Myles becomes more important when King Henry IV (Ian Keith) arrives, influenced by the vindictive Earl of Alban (David Farrar), who played a hand in the misfortune of Myles' family.

It's a bit of a complex plot - it also includes Prince Hal played admirably by Dan O'Herlihy - but an enjoyable, liberal, look at history. With lavish costumes and beautiful sets, it brings to life a castle of the era and some superb performances give the film a good lift. I wasn't too sure at the beginning of Tony Curtis as a peasant or a knight but he grew into the role. As ever, Janet Leigh stole the show for me in a period role which reminded me of her performance in The Vikings (1958, reviewed here). Of course, Curtis and Leigh were married when this film was made, throwing a new slant on the relationship portrayed within it.

It's a vibrant film that wouldn't win awards for historical accuracy but it is a good example of when Hollywood historical drama works. The choreography of the numerous fight scenes, for instance, is superb, with characters jumping, falling and being thrown all over the place. At the heart of the film is a mostly likeable hothead but, I have to admit, I was very interested in the character of Meg and her romance with Francis Gascoyne (Craig Hill) which dipped in and out of the story far too often. While it got a resolution there should have been a few more scenes devoted to it in my view. While we saw the evolution of the relationship between Myles and Lady Anne, we weren't given the same opportunity between Meg and Francis.

The Black Shield of Falworth decently mixes drama with a few moments of amusement, showcasing Janet Leigh's comic talents at times. There is a liberal smattering of violence and death towards the end in some more of those wonderfully choreographed scenes but this is a good film, an enjoyable historical romp with some excellent performances.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Classic Film Review: Higher and Higher (1943)

This madcap film stars Jack Haley as Mike O'Brien, valet to the broke Mr Drake (Leon Errol). To appease Drake's creditors, Mike suggests a plan whereby they dress up the scullery maid Millie (Michele Morgan) as Drake's daughter Pamela and marry her off to a wealthy man who would then save Drake's finances. The man they settle on is Sir Victor (Victor Borge), although he may not be all he seems. Rounding out this rather nice cast are the ever-wonderful Mary Wickes as Sandy, Barbara Hale as Katherine Keating and Mel Torme as Marty. However, the third-billed star shines the brightest - Frank Sinatra playing Frank Sinatra.

Some of the songs in Higher and Higher are forgettable. However, two Sinatra numbers went on to become standards - 'I Couldn't Sleep a Wink Last Night' and 'A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening'. There's something pure about Sinatra's voice in the early 40s, making his performance on these songs nothing short of captivating. He also does an excellent job on 'The Music Stopped', a song new to me and possibly unjustly forgotten. There's an excellent comic duet he has with Marcy McGuire called 'I Saw You First' to look forward to as well. The stand-out 'other' song is probably 'You're On Your Own' but, again, the few lines of the reprise by Sinatra are more memorable than the actual performance by the cast.

That's not to say that the acting performances are drab, just that they're overwhelmed by Sinatra's singing talent. Jack Haley gives a good central performance, although I couldn't really connect with Michele Morgan. Anything with Mary Wickes in it already has the thumbs-up from me and she was as funny in this as I've seen her in other films. Another favourite performance of mine came from Elisabeth Risdon as the stately Mrs Keating - a rather understated performance that offset some of the madness going on elsewhere.

The storyline is, essentially, barmy but that doesn't mean it's a bad film. There are plenty of humorous moments and Sinatra gently lifts the whole piece up to another level. Even with my ambivalence towards the heroine, I enjoyed this one.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Classic Film Review: Bedlam (1946)

Bedlam stars Boris Karloff as Master George Sims, fictional ruler of the famous Bedlam hospital in the eighteenth century. Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) becomes interested in raising money to improve the conditions at the hospital after seeing inside. However, Sims doesn't want her to disrupt his profitable and enjoyable system of control and mistreatment. He has her committed to Bedlam where she tries to alter things from the inside while her Quaker friend (Richard Fraser) and Whig politician friend (Leyland Hodgson) try to free her.

Aside from a few moments in the middle, this film wasn't as dark as I expected it to be. Much of the preamble takes place outside of Bedlam and focuses on Nell's interactions with Sims, her benefactor (Billy House) and her two friends. By the time she actually ends up in Bedlam there isn't as much tension associated with the prospect as I thought there should be. However, some of the scenes once she's inside more than make up for the lengthy preamble as she faces her fears and steadfastly opposes Sims.

Karloff puts in an impressive, occasionally subtle, performance as Sims, particularly engaging in his early scenes when he's putting on a mask of congeniality. Richard Fraser is perhaps too stern as the Quaker - although that is essentially his character trait - but Billy House as Lord Mortimer is enjoyable, infuriating and sometimes just odd. Special mentions must also go to Glen Vernon as the gilded boy, a very small part that was utterly enthralling, and Vic Holbrook as Tom.

And what of Anna Lee? At time during the opening and middle I found the character a little too upright, as though Lee was trying too hard to be aloof. As the character mellowed, so did the performance and I warmed to the character as the film went on.

Bedlam has several layers to it, depicting a few characters with tantalising backstories I wished were covered in more detail. While it isn't a spectacular film, it has a quiet intensity to it which builds throughout. Sims fate is one that I think will linger with me for a while and that's down to the power of Karloff's face. Worth a watch for the 'battle' scenes between Karloff and Lee alone.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Utilising a Work Diary

Back when I first started my PhD (three years ago nearly, *gulp*) my supervisors advised me to keep a daily diary to keep track of what I was doing. I didn't comply. The most they got from me was a monthly report on what I'd done since our last meeting. I felt that, on a daily level at least, I was doing very little. It was mostly reading and what a daily diary would've established to me at that point was that I was barely moving, even potentially moving backwards.

But last summer something changed. It may have been walking into Paperchase and seeing all the pretty diaries or it may have been a latent sense of responsibility but, whatever, I walked out with an academic diary with enough room per day to make notes on whatever I've accomplished that day. To make it work for me I decided to branch out from just academia because I spread myself so thin sometimes that it can look like I'm doing nothing. I am - just not perhaps the PhD work I should be doing all the time. I started it at the end of June last year and started my second one just this week. I'm still a little selective about what I put in though. Here are things that get listed:

  • Tangible PhD work - planning sessions with actual notes, primary and secondary reading, chapter writing, chapter edits
  • Word counts for whatever WIP I'm on with (I've worked on 8 separate novels during the year apparently) or edit figures 
  • Book reviews
  • Classic film reviews
  • Television reviews
  • Other Secluded Charm blog posts
  • One Yorkshire Voice blog posts

When you add all that lot together it does seem like I'm doing something. Although there are odd gaps in the year where I've allowed myself a few days off, there is usually two or three things written down in a day. By the end of the week it makes me feel as though I've accomplished something. It helps that I'm now doing tangible PhD work - a few years ago I wouldn't have been able to quantify what I was doing and trying to would've depressed me I think. Still there are a few things that don't get put in the diary:

  • Fan fiction, though I write much less of it these days
  • 'Fun' reading book completions - this comes neatly under 'book reviews' anyway 
  • Watching the classic films I then review 

All in all, this little book makes me feel like I haven't wasted the last year, even if I have spread myself extremely thin at times. Onwards to 2013/14...

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Book Review: The Lair of the White Worm by Bram Stoker

The Lair of the White Worm is a horror novel that unsettled me perhaps as much as it did its first readers. It tells the story of Adam Salton, an Australian who moves to England to make contact with his great-uncle. His arrival coincides with the arrival of the heir of Castra Regis, Edgar Caswall, who creates problems in the neighbourhood by seeming to apply his mesmerism skills on a local farmer's granddaughter. Adam becomes involved in this due to his relationship with the poor girl's sister. However, another woman has her eye on Edgar Caswall and Arabella March has a dark secret of her own.

While I enjoyed this I'll get my gripes out of the way first. I thought the beginning of the story dragged a little as Adam learns the historical basis for the environmental oddities. While this is vital to later comprehensive it felt as though it was shoehorned in through rather uninspiring dialogue between Adam and Sir Nathaniel. In addition, I thought the story was diluted somewhat by actually utilising Caswell and Arabella points of view. For me, it would've been much more effective if we'd only heard what they were doing via the use of servants perhaps. Also, the relationship between Adam and Mimi jumped a little too much for my liking. A theme of this novel seemed to be exposition when it wasn't necessary and insufficient development when it was necessary.

However, these niggles aside, I found The Lair of the White Worm to be one of the most disturbing books I've ever read. The final scenes, gory and sickening, have to go down as one of the most graphic descriptions of gore I've ever encountered, let alone in a book first published in the early twentieth century. Stoker uses all his descriptive powers in the final pages and it more than makes up for the ambivalence I was feeling on the points mentioned above. Stick with this one if you want nightmares.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Book Review: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome tells the story of the title character's doomed romance with his wife's cousin. This is a 'vision' of Ethan's story, told via the medium of an unnamed narrator. Married to Zeena, the woman who nursed his mother, Ethan has gradually fallen in love with Mattie, her cousin and their home help. Zeena is sickly and difficult while Mattie is young and cheerful. Ethan is jealous of her potential relationship with another villager at first but when the two get to spend an evening alone together, it's clear that his feelings are mutual. But Zeena has her suspicions and attempts to thwart the illicit relationship.

The title character is perhaps secondary to the harsh landscape that he inhabits. From the opening pages, this bleak environment takes centre stage and colours every scene. At no point during the story did I feel remotely happy or content - I was always unsettled and apprehensive, something that Wharton brilliantly suggests on every page.

Characterisation comes second to the setting but is inextricably linked to it. A few scenes linger in my memory, particularly one of the early ones where Ethan is spying on Mattie taking part in the village festivities and then makes himself known to her. Ethan is invoked brilliantly here as a character where in the framing story he has simply been a shadow of a man. Another memorable scene is the climactic one, where Ethan makes a dangerous decision, and the quiet scene that follows and concludes the novel.

Desolate and heartfelt, this is an engaging story that retained my interest until the final pages. The little twist was unexpected and I appreciated it, although it doesn't live on in my memory half as much as the bleak landscape does.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Some Wise Words - Anne Bronte

As I was reading Agnes Grey last week (review will arrive, I've currently got a bit of a backlog), aside from thoroughly enjoying the book I kept stumbling across pearls of wisdom. One stuck out as something that I want to always bear in mind when constructing emotion and, particularly, thwarted love in my writing. This passage comes just after the heroine has had a pleasant encounter with the object of her affections:

'But our wishes are like tinder: the flint and steel of circumstances are continually striking out sparks, which vanish immediately, unless they chance to fall upon the tinder of our wishes; then, they instantly ignite, and the flame of hope is kindled in a moment.'

I love the extended metaphor and I love the sentiment. I reread the passage about eight times to absorb it fully and I'm almost relieved that it caught my eye. It's something that seems so obvious yet, as a basic concept of humanity, it's something a lot of writers gloss over in their bid to 'just write'.

Seems I'm building up a bit of a knowledge base when it comes to showing affection on the page. Remember, I'm not allowed to say 'love' either...