American Authors: Louisa May Alcott

Liz: This month is American Author month on Our Mutual Friends blog, and this week our author is Louisa May Alcott of Little Women fame.
As most of you, I read Little Women as a teen for school and saw the movie with Winona Ryder. Here are my comments on the tale:
  1. It deserves its status as a classic story.
  2. I can’t believe they used an actual iron to straighten their hair.
  3. Let’s just say nobody better destroy a manuscript of mine.
  4. Poor Laurie. Love you like a brother.
  5. Sometimes a good scolding from a pretty girl can bring a guy back from his dissolute ways.
  6. How exactly do you pronounce “Bhaer”? (Jaz: Jo writes that it’s a cross between “bear” and “beer.” Bah-eer?) And did he have to be so much older than Jo?
  7. I admire the Littles’ charitable spirit.
  8. A tragic death seems to be inevitable in a classic. R.I.P. Beth
  9. If you feel inclined to see how your first name would look with a certain guy’s last name, don’t leave the slip of paper lying around where someone else can find it.
  10. If you have an interesting life like Jo’s, write about it instead of writing trashy or gory tales or whatever else is popular.
In addition to Little Women, I’ve read three other Louisa May Alcott tales. Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom were entertaining and enjoyable books, particularly Eight Cousins—a tale of an orphan girl and her hitherto unknown family, including a very likable bachelor uncle who becomes her guardian, seven male cousins, and several aunts and uncles. My favorite Louisa May Alcott is about a boy who runs away from the circus with a trained dog after his father, who left to find a better job, didn’t return. The boy and his dog are befriended by two girls and eventually taken in by a kind woman. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the book. (Note from Jaz: I googled it. Under the Lilacs. I forgot about this one — thanks for the reminder!)

Jaz: If I were to rewrite Little Women, it would go something along these lines:

Amy, the spoiled little brat, dies in Beth’s place. Beth marries the cute crippled boy and they produce five happy, healthy children. Jo and Laurie wed after all, globetrot the year round, and get into trouble and adventures. Marmie catches whatever it was Amy got, dies nobly and tragically, and the father returns from the war to board comfortably with Laurie’s lovable old uncle next door (Beth keeps the house). Meg moves far, far away with John The Tutor Man. Mr. Bhaer never enters the picture.

I read Little Women eagerly at the age of 11. Several rereads later I realized it was a bit … saccharine. And preachy. The end, where Joe marries the professor, seems abrupt, as if the author married her off simply to please her audience. Maybe not. It is a good book, well-written and full of most excellent morals and amusing situations. My cynical opinions are likely due to an overdose of L. M. Alcott literature. Among the novels I read (Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Jack and Jill, etc etc etc…), An Old Fashioned Girl and Eight Cousins proved the most enjoyable. Also, don’t forget to check out The Inheritance, Alcott’s first novel. It gives an enlightening look into the talent and imagination of a 17-year-old aspiring novelist.

These books are pleasant reading enough, but – as I learned the hard way – a little leaven leavens the whole lump. Which explains why I found her sensational romance novel, A Long Fatal Love Chase, refreshing. Romance! Intrigue! Suspense! And all so delightfully overdone. And if you can find other earlier novels of hers, I’d suggest those as well. You may be surprised.


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Halloween Movie Lists!

Happy Halloween! In celebration, Liz and I have jotted down literature and film suggestions for the ghoulish holiday.

Liz: Here are some movies and a few books that would go great with a cool and windy fall night.

Films:

  • The Mummy’s Hand
  • The Phantom of the Opera
  • Arsenic and Old Lace
  • Rebecca
  • The Wolfman
  • The Blob
  • The Creature from the Black Lagoon
  • The Uninvited
  • The Ghost and Mr. Chicken
  • The Canterville Ghost
  • Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man
  • Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
  • Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy
  • Ernest Scared Stupid
  • Topper Returns
Books:
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
  • Dracula by Brom Stoker
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Jaz: I concur with Liz on the second, third, fourth, sixth, seventh and last films. Also Jane Eyre. The rest I can’t say because — I’m ashamed to admit this — I haven’t seen/read them.
I will only add:
  • For Jane Austen fans, Northanger Abbey (satire of gothic romances, containing a dark gloomy abbey, a mysterious death, a tyrannical father and a damsel in distress … sort of). Watch the latest BBC adaptation starring Felicity Jones if you’re watching the film version.
  • The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). Feeeed me. FEEEEED MEEE!!!
  • The Thing from Another World (1951). Great film and unintentionally humorous, as is the case with many classic horror films.

There would be more, but the truth is many horror films frighten me with so little effort that I generally avoid them, even black and whites. But I see a few classic horror B films in my future … maybe. I’ll leave the light on.

The Phantom of the Opera

Welcome to Our Mutual Friends Blog! This month we’re talking about “scary” or ghoulish classic movies or books. We’re starting with The Phantom of the Opera.

Jaz on The Phantom of the Opera

I wish Hitchcock had directed a film version of The Phantom of the Opera. As it is, I contented myself with the 1943 movie starring Claude Rains (The Phantom), Susanna Foster (Christine Dubois) and Nelson Eddy (Anatole Garron). While Claude Rains was a talented actor, this role didn’t quite mesh with his onscreen personality. I see him as the repentant accomplice in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, not a sinister, masked musical fanatic. But I did like the effect of the ominous caped shadow fleeing through dark halls.

The film is based on a novel of the same name, first published as a serial in 1909 –according to the all-knowing google – by French author Gaston Leroux. I haven’t read it, but informed sources (i.e., my sister) clearly indicate the film is to the novel like a mini marshmallow is to a 24-oz steak: light and sweet versus dark and intense.

Susanna Foster and Nelson Eddy show off their gorgeous voices, and that helps make up for the film’s lackluster attempt at horror. There’s one scene in particular that I liked: when Christine stood in diva Biancarolli’s place and sang a succession of impossibly high notes as clear as glass. What a moment of triumph!

Clear glass aside, I found it a bit difficult to empathize with Foster’s character. She seems shallow and affected. Her joyful reaction to the news that Biancarolli had been taken ill, as well as her indifference to the rival suitors, makes her appear callous.

This film was not without humor – albeit unintentional. In one scene Anatole Garron breaks a deadly fall by gripping onto a stage curtain for dear life. After hanging there for a good while, he manages to catch hold of a rope and slide down to safety. The entire time, three workers on the stage below idly glance up at his antics. And the sight of the phantom working away at the chandelier’s giant chain with a tiny hand saw was rather humorous. I kept expecting him to turn away in frustration.

I didn’t have time to view the 1925 silent film, but it looks creepy. I might watch it this weekend. Expect an update soon …

Liz on The Phantom of the Opera

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched the Andrew Lloyd Webber The Phantom of the Opera and or listened to the soundtrack. However, the plot of the movie has several major holes, like how did a gypsy boy grow up in the caverns of an opera house to become a well-educated “genius” (according to Meg’s mother) living in posh surroundings? The 1943 movie of the same name has a much better plot and some pretty good music, though of a more classical bent that Webber’s score. I haven’t read the French book on which all of these are based, so I can’t compare them to it.

The 1943 movie: Claude Rains does an excellent job as the poor, soft-spoken violinist who morphs into the cruel phantom of the opera. In love with one of the chorus girl, Rains secretly pays for her to have voice lessons until he tragically loses his job due to arthritis or some joint trouble that hinders his playing. Having spent his savings on paying for Christine’s voice lessons, he tries to sell a symphony he’s written. The arrogant music publisher refuses to talk to him. Rains hears someone playing his composition, mistakenly believes the publisher has stolen his music, and goes mad and strangles the publisher. The man and his assistant were doing acid etching when Rains arrived, and the assistant throws the tray of acid into Rains’s face, causing the phantom’s famous deformity. Rains seeks shelter under the opera house and turns his love for Christine into a passion to make her prima donna at whatever cost—a much better origin for the phantom of the opera than that given in the Webber play in my opinion.

Christine has two suitors in the movie, a tenor played by Nelson Eddy and a policeman. Both are likeable and their attempts to beat the other out and win Christine’s affection are humorous.

The end of the movie was a bit surprising, but I won’t give that away. I’ll simply recommend you watch the movie to find out what happens.

September Swashbucklers: The Princess Bride

Liz:

10 Reasons to Like The Princess Bride

  1. “As you wish” (especially when said as tumbling down hill)
  2. “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
  3. “Inconceivable.”
  4. “Rodents of unusual size? I don’t think they exist.”
  5. “He’s only mostly dead.”
  6. “True love”
  7. Swordplay left handed and then right handed.
  8. Both drinks had poison
  9. Names like Buttercup, the Dread Pirate Roberts, Miracle Max, and Prince Humperdinck
  10. A grandfather reading to his sick grandson, but skipping the kissing scenes at grandson’s request

Aside from being remarkably quotable, The Princess Bride has likeable and memorable characters (like Fezzik) and just memorable characters (like Vizzini), a great swashbuckling scene, a sweet giant, a fairy tale feel, and a touching frame story. To my surprise, it’s actually based on the 1973 fantasy novel of the same name by William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay for the movie. I have the book, though I’ve never read it. The book’s cover announces it is an abridgement (though its size belies that) of a work by S. Morgenstern. Don’t be fooled: there’s no such unabridged book or such an author. That’s just part of the fun.

What do you like about The Princess Bride? Have you read the book?

Jaz: Last month a friend confessed that she’d never seen The Princess Bride. “Inconceivable!” I thought. Hasn’t everyone watched this film?

Sadly, no. And for those who haven’t, I have this to say: you must watch this film at least once in your life. Add it to your bucket list (or whatever else you call it). For my part, I’ve seen it one too many times – and still the “game of wits” scene never fails to make me laugh. The Princess Bride has everything one could wish for in a fairy-tale swashbuckler: corny, dominating theme music, quirky loveable characters, cheesy special effects, over-the-top acting, improbable situations, and of course, plenty of swashbuckling swashbucklingness.

As I recall, the film was – overall – pretty faithful to the book. It omitted Prince Humperdinck’s former matrimonial interest, a woman obsessed with hats, and tweaked the ending to make it more palatable to American audiences (in the book the story ends with Inigo’s life in peril as they are pursued by Humperdinck’s men). Sorry, spoiler. You know me.

Another thing I like about The Princess Bride is how it revolves around a grandfather, the narrator, reading aloud to his young grandson who’s in bed with a cold. Every so often the boy interrupts when the story gets mushy: “They’re kissing again. Do we have to read the kissing parts?” and, “Is this a kissing book?”

Well, is it a kissing film? It’s a little bit of that, and so much more. But you’ll have to find out the rest for yourself.

September Swashbucklers: The Scarlet Pimpernel

Liz: The idle fop is secretly a dashing hero. This may make you think of Zorro, but it’s French aristocrats, not peons, that need saving in The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baronness Orczy.

I wonder if it’s the love of the unexpected or the feeling of being in on a secret that makes stories of heroes in disguise so thrilling. Whatever it is, that attraction is certainly present in The Scarlet Pimpernel. In addition, there’s brilliant disguises, danger, threats, secret note burnings, daring rescues, quick-witted remarks, and, for romance lovers, a man desperately in love with a woman he must pretend to be relatively indifferent to. All the makings of a great swashbuckler.

PLUS, it has a poem! One of my favorites! Think fop with monotone voice and monocle: “They seek him here. They seek him there. Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven—is he in — (Ladies gasp and turn away!) That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.”

Despite the action and romance of the story, Sir Percy reciting that poem is my favorite scene.

I have watched two movie versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel. A 1934 version with Leslie Howard, and the 1982 version with Jane Seymour as Marguerite Blakeney. I prefer the 1982 version, though it differs from the book. The most notable difference is that Percy does not try to rescue the dauphin in the book, but the father of Marguerite’s friend. I was surprised to learn that Baroness Orczy wrote several books on Percy and Marguerite, so some of the adventures in the movie may be in later stories.

Having read the book more recently than watched the movie, I won’t say too much about the movie. I also don’t want to spoil anything for those who don’t know the story. And I highly recommend watching the movie and reading the book.

Only one criticism comes to mind with regard to the book: the romance is a little too worshipful. Too much talk on how beautiful, dainty, clever, etc., Marguerite is and how she’s adored. That’s a trifle annoying, but, otherwise, it’s a great novel.

Jaz: There’s no doubt about it, Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel is over the top. She overuses words like “superhuman,” “childlike” and “whilst,” and the tender love scene made me laugh aloud. But that’s all part of its charm.

Whilst I reread this novel of – perchance – superhuman writing effort, my childlike wonder was awakened like a precious rosebud unfurling itself in the dim, grey light of early dawn.

Okay, not really. However, there’s plenty of action contained within, enough to last for a pleasant afternoon or two. Pride, passion, intrigue, and violence intertwined at the dawn of the French Revolution make for an entertaining read. And at the center of it all, snatching condemned aristocrats from a bloody death at the guillotine, stands a mysterious English hero known only as “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” What’s even more fun is that Orczy doesn’t reveal the hero’s identity right away – although it may be obvious to astute readers (or cheaters who google it).

On rereading The Scarlet Pimpernel, some things didn’t make much sense to me. Such as, if Armand were under the Scarlet Pimpernel’s care, why did Marguerite freak out so much about Chauvelin’s threat? Surely the fact that the Pimpernel saved countless lives meant that one extra person would be no burden.

Plus, I couldn’t empathize with the heroine. Marguerite is haughty, selfish and privileged, only caring about her husband, Percy Blakeney, once she realizes he no longer worships the ground she walks on. She deserved a good put-down (which she got, thankfully).

As for the 1934 film version … I have to say it: what a bore! The story dragged, situations were changed and new ones added in for who knows why. The film reveals the Scarlet Pimpernel’s identity in the opening scenes, spoiling any mystery involved, and also altered the end. And Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon’s chemistry left something to be desired. Like chemistry. Am I being too mean? Okay, I’ll be nicer.

Aside from the chemistry thing, Howard played his part well, as did Raymond Massey in the role of Citizen Chauvelin. His villainous performance was a delight to watch. Scene-wise, one stood out: Marguerite’s dramatic moment of realization.

There are several adapations of the novel, but if you want to watch another version, might I suggest “The Scarlet Pumpernickel,” starring Daffy Duck? It’s equally inaccurate, and I guarantee you’ll laugh.

Favorite Romances: Beauty and the Beast on Film

Jaz on Beauty and the Beast (Film versions): When anyone mentions the tale “Beauty and the Beast,” I immediately think of the Disney film. And is it any wonder? Colorful and brimming over with catchy tunes and whimsical characters, it’s a delight for the eyes and ears.

There are other film adaptations, of course, Beastly being the most recent. Fifteen minutes into it, I walked out. The word for the film is inane. Poor acting and vacuous dialogue dominated. The main character didn’t match the title description at all; he just looked like he’d been taken unawares by a tattoo artist obsessed with plant roots and computer chip designs. The director obviously thought he didn’t look that bad, either: one scene showed the shirtless hero working out his abs. Anyway, after that scene and hearing the characters discuss for the third time whether it would rain tomorrow or not, I had had enough. I also watched another film adaptation when I was about seven that featured a man in a creepy hairy costume.

But I digress.

The first half hour of the Disney version introduces us to Belle, the beautiful and independent intellectual who yearns for excitement in her mundane life. She almost verges on whininess. It’s understandable: there’s no one there she can relate to, excepting maybe the book-shop owner. But when – thanks to her father’s lack of common sense in travel plans – she finds herself in a magical castle inhabited by cheerful furniture and a fearsome beast, Belle throws herself on the bed and mopes.

Belle, you’ve got adventure. So stop whining.

She does eventually take my advice and finds the Beast is a kindred spirit. And you can’t help but like a person (or creature, I should say) who owns a library the size of a football field or two.

A note on the beast’s character: he is emotionally vulnerable, parallel with the original story. When faced with the prospect of life without her, he loses all interest in it. Belle, on the other hand, balances her relationships. She cares most for her father, and we get the sense she could live without the Beast and still have a fulfilling life.

Throughout the tale, Lumière and Cogsworth, the film’s secondary characters, provide laughs and excellent entertainment, especially during the film’s highlight song, “Be Our Guest.” Just thinking about this scene makes me happy. The entire soundtrack is flawless, but this is my favorite. Next in line would be “Gaston.” He may be sexist, ignorant and arrogant, but does he have a voice! And a swell cleft in his chin.

The film has its dark side nearing the end, as most Disney films do: Gaston’s plot to force Belle to marry him, the march to Beast’s castle, and finally the fight between the two. But (overlooking the transformed Beast’s rather effeminate appearance) everything ends perfectly and the main characters live happily ever after.

This is, without a doubt, Disney’s best animated film.

Liz on Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s animated classic:

I think the phrase “animated classic” describe the movie quite well. It’s animated, and it’s…well…classic. The story, with its independent heroine and non-love-at-first-site romance, is unlike the other Disney animations. The musical score is fantastic (I still love to sing the songs), and the secondary characters Mrs. Potts, Chip, Cogsworth, and Lumiere are so entertaining themselves I don’t mind when the story takes us away from Belle and Beast.

As strange as it may sound, one of my favorite parts of the movie is the prologue. There’s something about the narrator’s voice and the music (which reminds me of Saint-Saens’s “The Aquarium”) that is enchanting. Sometimes, when I need a break, I’ll watch the prologue and the first song. Speaking of the first song, I want to read the book Belle is given. It sounds like a fun adventure/romance story.

I was cleaning out my closest at home a while back and found my Beauty and the Beast coloring book. One of the few pictures colored in it was that of Belle in the field of dandelions. Even as a kid I connected with Belle’s yearning for adventure and her desire to be understood.

As I was writing this post, I had to stop and ask myself why, when I watch the movie, I cheer for the Beast, instead of Gaston, to win Belle’s heart. After all, both the Beast and Gaston are arrogant and not always cordial to those around them. Perhaps, it’s because of the hint of the outcome in the title, or compassion for Beast’s suffering, or perhaps it’s that Beast is set up to change and Gaston is not. It’s interesting how we are directed to consider characters in a certain way.

Since Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite Disney movies, I was very excited to buy it on DVD recently. Only, I wish they had not added in the “Human Again” scene to the new special edition; there was a reason it was left out of the original release—it’s not as good as the other scenes.

What do you love or dislike about the film versions of Beauty and the Beast?

Favorite Romances: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Jaz on Pride and Prejudice

The first time I heard Pride and Prejudice read aloud, I laughed.

I’d already seen the 1945 adaptation starring Greer Garson and Sir Lawrence Olivier – it was my favorite film – but when my sister read Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s verbal exchanges aloud as we sat at the dinner table, I knew I had to read the book for myself. And as soon as possible.

I was probably 11 or so at the time. I remember because my mother said I was too young to understand it and would have to wait a bit. Oh, the trials of being young!

When I’d matured to the ripe old age of 13, I took it hungrily from the shelf and devoured every word. I hated Mr. Darcy as Elizabeth did, cringed with her, commiserated with Wickham, discovered the truth with her and finally fell in love with Darcy. Since then it’s been on my list of favorite literature. I’ve read it countless times, seen three different adaptations and a Bollywood spin on it (very inaccurate and entertaining) …

But I will not read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Unless, of course, Liz asks me to.  (Liz: I would never ask you to make that kind of sacrifice! But I must admit to being curious about it.)

What can I say about the novel that has not already been said by learned scholars, mediocre authors and terrible bloggers alike?

Nothing. So I’ll point out just one thing: Mr. Bennet doesn’t exclude Jane when he describes his daughters as “silly and ignorant” with not “much to recommend them.” I’ve always wondered at it. Jane may be good, he seems to say, but she has no character, no spirit. Not like his “little Lizzy.” Jane does as she is told, whether she agrees with it or not. In the end she ends up pleasing her parents by marrying the rich man she conveniently loves. Mr. Bennet jokingly congratulates her:

“You are a good girl … You are each of you so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved on; so easy, that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income.”

Jane responds with, “Imprudence or thoughtlessness in money matters, would be unpardonable in me.”

But she ignores the first accusation. Interesting.

I think Elizabeth would have married Darcy even had her parents refused.

Also …

Mary and Mr. Collins would have made a great couple. Wouldn’t you agree?

Liz on Pride and Prejudice: As much as I talk about Pride and Prejudice, you’d think writing about it would be easy, but it’s not. There’s so much to say I don’t know where to begin. So, instead of covering the entire book, I’ll focus on one aspect of the novel: why men should hate Mr. Darcy.

As a loyal Jane Austen fan, it annoys me when someone makes a derogatory comment about her novels or characters. Mr. Darcy is a frequent target of such attacks. However, I recently realized men should hate him. Why? Because he’s tall, handsome, wealthy, and has a gorgeous estate? No, though, like Elizabeth Bennet, Pemberley would tempt me to marry him. Is it the insidious way Mr. Darcy inspires women with the hope of being the object of an unconquerable and persevering love? Most men, understandably, would prefer a choice in the lady they fall in love with and to receive encouragement from her instead of rejection.

That could certainly be grounds for dislike of the long-suffering Mr. Darcy, but the real basis for men hating him is his willingness to change when he realizes his faults. This is the draw of Mr. Darcy for women (for me, at least).

Overall, Mr. Darcy’s character is excellent, but he has one main flaw—pride. Pride that leads him to treat those beneath him in position or talents with contempt. Yet, when he is confronted by his sin, he admits it (begrudgingly at first, but he does admit it) and does something about it. Men should hate Mr. Darcy for setting a high standard. He puts to shame those content to be “pretty good,” who excuse their faults by saying “that’s just me.” I might add Elizabeth Bennet sets the same example for women.

Brief Comments on a Few Characters:

Elizabeth and Jane Bennet: I wish I were as sweet and selfless as Jane and as independent and witty as Elizabeth.

Mr. Darcy: An imperfect man with an improving character.

Charlotte: I like her, but I just can’t fathom anyone being as unromantic in her hopes and dreams as her.

Mr. Collins: Yikes

Mr. Wickam: Despicable

Lydia: Poor, foolish girl.

Kitty: I have high hopes for her.

Colonel Fitzwilliam: I would like to know more about him. I’m disappointed he wouldn’t give Lizzy a serious thought because she wasn’t rich enough to support the second son of an earl, but I can’t help but like him anyway.

Georgiana: I wish Jane Austen had written a sequel to tell of Georgina’s courtship and marriage.

Mary: I feel for her as the plain sister, but her attempts to get admiration only made things worse for her.

What are your thoughts on Pride and Prejudice? Do you know of any other reasons why men should hate Mr. Darcy?