“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – Episode One “June-July 1861” Commentary

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“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – EPISODE ONE “JUNE-JULY 1861” Commentary

Judging from past articles I have written about the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy, one would surmise that of the three miniseries that have aired in the past decades (two in the 1980s and one in the 1990s) that I seemed to have the most problem with the second miniseries in the trilogy, namely “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. And if I have to be honest, one would be right. 

It is odd that I would choose the second miniseries as the most problematic of the three. “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” is set during the four years of the Civil War – a historical conflict that has heavily attracted my attention for so many years that I cannot measure how long. “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III”, which had aired at least seven-and-a-half years after the second miniseries, was set during the early years of Reconstruction and has a reputation among the “NORTH AND SOUTH”fans as being inferior to the other two. But for some reason, I have had more of a problem with “BOOK II”. So I have decided to examine each of the six episodes of the 1986 miniseries to determine why this chapter in the “NORTH AND SOUTH” trilogy is such a problem for me.

Without a doubt, Episode One of “BOOK II” is my favorite in the entire miniseries. It re-introduced the main characters from the first miniseries in the story. It also set the stage for the main characters’ experiences during the war, for the rest of the miniseries. It featured an excellent opening shot on the streets of Washington D.C. that introduced both Brett Main Hazard, and the slave Semiramis. It also featured a well shot sequence that centered around a colorful ball at the Spotswood Hotel in Richmond, attended by Ashton and James Huntoon, and Elkhannah Bent. Most importantly, it featured one of my favorite battle scenes – namely the Battle of Bull Run that was fought near Manassas, Virginia on July 18, 1861. If I have to be frank, this interpretation of Bull Run remains my favorite. Director Kevin Connors filmed the entire sequence with great style and skill and composer Bill Conti injected it with a brash, yet haunting score that still give me goose bumps whenever I watch it. Even better, the sequence ended with actress Wendy Kilbourne uttering one of the best lines in the entire trilogy.

I certainly have no problems with the miniseries’ production values. Jacques R. Marquette’s photography struck me as rather beautiful and colorful. This was especially apparent in the opening Washington D.C., the Spotswood Hotel ball and Bull Run sequences. If I have one complaint, I wish the photography had been a little sharper. Joseph R. Jennings and his production designs team did an excellent job in re-creating the United States during the Civil War era. Bill Conti continued his excellent work as composer for the saga’s production. But if there is one aspect of the miniseries’ production values that really blew my mind were the costumes designed by Robert Fletcher. I was especially impressed by the following costumes:

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I do have a few quibbles about Episode One. First of all, it introduced Charles Main’s role as a cavalry scout for the Confederate Army. Considering that he started out as a Captain in this miniseries, it made no sense to me that he and another officer – a first lieutenant – would be participating scout duties without the assistance of enlisted men. I guess one could call it as an example of the story being historically inaccurate. And I wish someone would explain why the Mains’ neighbors (or slaves) sent word to Brett Main Hazard in Washington D.C., of the injuries her mother, Clarissa Main, had suffered when Mont Royal’s barn was set on fire by Justin La Motte. Would it have been a lot easier (and quicker) to send word to Orry Main, who was on duty in Richmond, Virginia?

I find the idea of both George Hazard and Orry Main serving as military aides to their respective political leaders – Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis – very improbable. Following their graduation from West Point in 1846, the two friends had only served at least 18 months in the U.S. Army before resigning for personal reasons. Yet, after the outbreak of a civil war, thirteen years, the audience is supposed to believe that both were able to secure such high positions within their respective armies? Especially when one considers the fact that neither were politically active between 1848 and 1861? I find this very illogical . . . even for a work of fiction.

My last major quibble featured the character of Elkhannah Bent. What was he doing with the portrait of Madeline Fabray LaMotte’s mother? The audience knew that he had procured it from an expensive whorehouse in New Orleans. But Bent had no idea that Madeline was romantically involved with one of his nemesis, Orry Main, until after Ashton Main Huntoon informed him. So, why did he bother to get his hands on the painting at a time when he was ignorant of the romantic and emotional connection between Orry and Madeline?

I certainly had no problems with the episode’s performances. The cast, more or less, gave solid performances. But I was especially impressed by a handful. Two of the better performances came from Parker Stevenson and Genie Francis, who portrayed the recently married Billy and Brett Hazard. I was especially impressed by one scene in which the two nearly quarreled over Billy’s decision to transfer from the Corps of Engineers to Hiram Berdan’s Sharpshooters Regiment. Terri Garber and Philip Casnoff literally burned the screen in their portrayal of the early stages of Ashton Main Huntoon and Elkhannah Bent’s affair. This episode featured another quarrel . . . one between George Hazard and his sister, Virgilia, who had arrived in Washington D.C. to become a nurse. Both James Read and Kirstie Alley were superb in that scene. And finally, I have to single out Forest Whitaker, who did a superb job in expressing the resentful anger that his character, Cuffey, felt toward his situation as a slave and toward his owners, the Mains.

Although Episode One featured some stumbling blocks that I have already mentioned, I must say that it turned out rather well. For me, it is probably the best episode in the entire 1986 miniseries. Not only did it featured some excellent performances, it was capped with a superb sequence featuring the Battle of Bull Run, directed with skill by Kevin Connor.

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“MILDRED PIERCE” (1945) Review

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“MILDRED PIERCE” (1945) Review

I have been a fan of the 1945 movie, “MILDRED PIERCE” for years. Ever since the age of twelve. But many years have passed since I felt the urge to watch it. When I learned about the recent HBO version of the story, I decided to re-visit the past and watch the movie again. 

Based upon James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, “MILDRED PIERCE” is about a middle-class woman who struggle to make a new life for herself and her daughters and maintain their social position, following the break-up of her marriage during the last years of the Great Depression. After a difficult search Mildred finds a job as a waitress, but she worries that it is beneath her middle-class station. More than that, she worries that her ambitious and increasingly pretentious elder daughter, Veda, will view her new job as demeaning. Mildred encounters both success and failure as she opens a chain of successful restaurants, operates a pie-selling business and copes with the death of her younger daughter, Kay. Veda enjoys her mother’s newfound financial success but turns increasingly ungrateful and demanding, while openly condemning Mildred for becoming a working woman.

Anyone familiar with Cain’s novel would immediately realize that screenwriters Ranald MacDougall, William Faulkner and Catherine Turney took a great deal of liberties with the plot. One, the movie only spanned at least four to five years, in compare to the nine years featured in the novel. Any references to the Great Depression were eliminated altogether. However, the movie did feature one scene in which Mildred wrote the year 1939 on some document. In the novel, Mildred’s younger daughter was named Ray, not Kay. Nor did she die in the bedroom of the house owned by her father’s mistress, Mrs. Biederhof, as shown in the film. And Mildred’s friend, Lucy Gessler and co-worker Ida Corwin were combined into the wise-cracking Ida, who started out as Mildred’s boss and ended up as her partner (or manager – I am still not certain). References to Veda’s training as a pianist and later success as an opera singer, were tossed. The movie only made brief mention of her training as a singer. More importantly, Mildred’s second husband, Monty Beragon, was never killed. In fact, there was no murder mystery at all in Cain’s novel. Monty’s murder was invented by the filmmakers, because the old Production Code required that evildoers – namely the selfish and pretentious Veda and Monty, who were caught necking by Mildred – be punished for their misdeeds.

Even after so many years, “MILDRED PIERCE” remained a very entertaining and energetic film. Somewhat. The movie had one or two problems. One, why on earth did the screenwriters allow Ray (pardon me) Kay to die at the home of Bert Pierce’s mistress? How tacky is that? Why did he not have the good sense to take his younger daughter to the hospital? When I first saw the movie years ago, I had no problems with the murder mystery that had been included in the plot. But when I watched the movie recently, it finally occurred to me that the focus upon Monty’s murder in the first fifteen or twenty minutes nearly bogged down the movie’s pacing. I found myself longing to reach for my DVD remote and push the Fast Forward button. But a part of me argued that I had to watch every moment of the film to fully appreciate it. Fortunately, the movie eventually delved into Mildred’s back story, which included the breakup of her marriage, the job hunt, Ray’s (pardon me) Kay’s death, her first meeting with Monty, the launch of her first restaurant and most importantly, her relationship with Veda. As the unfolding of Mildred’s life weaved its magic spell, the script occasionally broke away from this very entertaining melodrama and forced us to contemplate the identity of Monty’s murderer. And every time this happened, the movie nearly grounded to a halt. I used to derive a great deal of pleasure when the very evil Veda was revealed as Monty’s murderer. Unfortunately, the pleasure of that moment failed to grasp me, the last time I saw “MILDRED PIERCE”. I finally remembered that when I first saw the movie, I knew that Veda was the killer. And her reason for killing Monty? After Mildred had interrupted Veda and Monty’s passionate embrace, the latter made it clear to his spoiled stepdaughter that he would always love Mildred. Go figure. When I first saw the movie, I cheered when Veda was being led away by the police. But after my last viewing, I realized that transforming Veda into a murderer did not solve the main problem – namely Mildred’s unhealthy love for her daughter. As Veda was being led away by the police, the look on Mildred’s face expressed her continuing obsession over the former. Nothing had really changed – at least not the relationship between Mildred and Veda. In the end, attaching the murder mystery did not solve a damn thing.

But despite these flaws, “MILDRED PIERCE” is still a first-rate movie after sixty-six years. The screenwriters and director Michael Curtiz handled the meat of the story – Mildred’s tormented relationship with Veda – with great skill and drama. I was happy to notice that the best aspects of Cain’s plot remained intact. My favorite sequences include Mildred’s lessons on the restaurant business as a waitress, the introduction of Monty’s character, the showdown between Mildred and Veda over the former’s waitress uniform, and Veda’s attempt to blackmail the wealthy Forresters with a fake pregnancy. I also have to commend Curtiz for providing the movie with his usual brisk pacing. I realize that I had earlier complained of the pacing featured in the movie’s first 15 to 20 minutes. And although the movie threatened to bog down in the scenes that featured the murder mystery, I thought that Curtiz handled the other aspects of Mildred’s life with his usual competent and artistic manner.

Fans of Cain’s novel have complained that this adaptation have skimmed one or two strong aspects of Mildred’s personality – namely her narcissist obsession toward Veda. I cannot say that I fully agree with this criticism. Mind you, I do believe that the movie failed to delve deeply into the aspect of Mildred’s personality that led her to indulge in Veda’s desires at nearly every opportunity. But MacDougall, Faulkner and Turney’s screenplay did not ignore it altogether. In the argument scene that featured the Pierces’ breakup, Bert pointed out Mildred’s penchant for indulging Veda’s whims . . . almost to the point of ignoring younger daughter Kay. Mind you, Bert is not completely blameless, considering his lack of interest in Veda and his failure to provide for his family. And in another scene, Mildred’s snobbery and class aspirations – something in which she had passed on to Veda – is apparent in her insistence that Kay continue with her dance lessons, despite the latter’s tomboyish nature and disinterest in any kind of social aspirations.

What can I say about the cast of “MILDRED PIERCE”? To be honest, I cannot find fault in the performances featured in the movie. Many have criticized Bruce Bennett for giving a dull performance as Bert Pierce, Mildred’s first husband, who leaves the family in a financial lurch. Mind you, his portrayal of Bert did not exactly rock my boat. But I did not find it dull – especially in two scenes that featured a heated argument between his character and Mildred. Butterfly McQueen gave an entertaining performance as Mildred’s maid, Lottie. Even more importantly, her character was not the wince inducing cliché that she portrayed in 1939’s “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Jo Ann Marlowe was charming as Mildred’s earthy and tomboyish younger daughter, Kay. I especially enjoyed her little spoof of Carmen Miranda. Both Jack Carson and Eve Arden gave deliciously sarcastic performances as Bert’s ex-partner Wally Fay (Burgan in the novel) and Mildred’s boss-turned-partner Ida Corwin. In fact, both were given some of the best lines in the movie. I cannot help but wonder if this line – “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.” – had led to Arden’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

Zachary Scott has portrayed a good number of heels throughout his movie career. But none of them had been as interesting as his performance as Monty Beragon, the Pasadena socialite who becomes Mildred’s second husband. Instead of portraying Monty as a one-note villain or sleaze, Scott portrayed the character as a complex personality that seems to convey both some of the good and a good deal of the bad in humanity, and who became a tool in Mildred’s campaign to win back her daughter . . . and grew to resent her for it and his willingness to become her gigolo. Ann Blyth earned a well deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination for her portrayal of Veda Pierce, Mildred’s snobbish, selfish and ungrateful older daughter. And I must say that she did a superb job. What impressed me about Blyth’s performance was that not only did she convey all of the venality of Veda’s personality without going over the top, she also managed to hold her own against the powerhouse of Joan Crawford. Speaking of the latter actress, the role of Mildred Pierce must have seemed like a godsend to her career. After eighteen years with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Crawford found herself shoved aside for new starlets to fill the studio’s roster. Warner Brothers saved her career with a new contract and the Mildred Pierce role. And Crawford gave it everything she got. Some have accused the Hollywood icon of being obvious in a pursuit for Oscar gold. Personally, I simply saw a first-rate performance. She did an excellent job of conveying Mildred’s determination to become a successful businesswoman and obsession toward winning Veda’s love. Most importantly, I do not believe that she was “over melodramatic” as some critics have claimed. If I have to be honest, I consider Mildred Pierce to be one of her best roles.

After reading this review, one would suspect that my opinion of “MILDRED PIERCE” is not be as positive as it used to be. And that person would be right. My latest viewing of the film detected some flaws that I had failed to notice in the past. The biggest flaw seemed to be the screenwriters’ attempt to combine aspects of film noir and melodrama. It simply did not work for me, because the movie’s noir aspects dragged the pacing. But despite any flaws, I feel that the movie still manages to hold up very well after nearly seventy-four years. And this is all due to Michael Curtiz’s excellent direction, Ernest Haller’s photography, some very sharp dialogue and characterization, and a first-rate cast. Even after all of these years, “MILDRED PIERCE” is still entertaining to watch.

 

“GODS AND GENERALS” (2003) Review

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“GODS AND GENERALS” (2003) Review

In 1993, producer Ted Turner and director Ronald Maxwell released “GETTYSBURG”, a film adaptation of Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel, “The Killer Angels”. Shaara’s son, Jeffrey, wrote a prequel to his novel called “Gods and Generals”in 1996. Both Turner and Maxwell teamed up again 2002-2003 to make a film adaptation of the latter novel. 

Set between April 1861 and May 1863, “GODS AND GENERALS” related the American Civil War events leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg. Although the movie began with Virginia-born Robert E. Lee’s resignation from the U.S. Army, following his home state’s secession from the Union; the meat of the film focused on on the personal and professional life of Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson during those two years. It also touched on how Bowdoin College professor Joshua L. Chamberlain became second-in-command of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, his military training and his experiences during the Battle of Fredricksburg. But trust me . . . most of the movie is about Jackson. It covered his departure from the Virginia Military Institute; his experiences with the famous “Stonewall Brigade”; his experiences at the Battle of Bull Run; his relationships with both his wife Mary Anna, his servant Jim Lewis and a five year-old girl from an old Virginia family; and his experiences at the Battle Chancelorville.

“GODS AND GENERALS” had its virtues. One of them turned out to be Michael Z. Hanan’s production designs. Hanan and his team did a superb job in re-creating Virginia of the early 1860s. I was especially impressed by their recreation of mid-19th century Fredricksburg during that famous battle in December 1862. I wonder who had the bright idea of using Harper’s Ferry, West Virgina for that particular setting. Hanan’s work was ably supported by Kees Van Oostrum’s photography and Gregory Bolton’s art direction. Oostrum’s photography and Corky Ehlers’ editing was also put to good use during the Fredricksburg battle sequence. And I really enjoyed the costumes designed by Richard La Motte, Maurice Whitlock and Gamila Smith. All three did their homework in re-creating the fashions and uniforms of the period. Unlike “GETTYSBURG”“GODS AND GENERALS” featured major female characters. I suspect this gave the trio the opportunity to indulge their romantic streak with crinolines and hoop skirts galore.

There were some admirable performances in “GODS AND GENERALS”. Frankie Faison gave a warm performance as Thomas Jackson’s free cook, Jim Lewis. I was also impressed by Brian Mallon’s subtle portrayal of the concerned Major General Winfield Hancock, a role he had first portrayed in the 1993 film. It is a pity that Bruce Boxleitner did not receive more screen time for his role as Lieutenant General James Longstreet. He had taken over the role from Tom Berenger and gave a pretty solid performance. But alas, he did not receive enough time to do anything with the role. Alex Hyde-White gave an interesting portrayal of Major General Ambrose Burnside, whose decisions led the Union Army to disaster at Fredricksburg. Matt Letscher, whom I last remembered from 1998’s “THE MASK OF ZORRO” was very memorable as the 20th Maine’s founder and first regimental commander, Colonel Adelbert Ames. I could also say the same for Mira Sorvino’s portrayal of Frances “Fanny” Chamberlain, Colonel Chamberlain’s passionate and pessimistic wife. In fact, I believe she had the good luck to portray the most interesting female character in the movie.

So . . . what about the other performances? What about the stars Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall? I am not claiming that they gave bad performances. Honestly, they did the best they could. Unfortunately, all three and most of the other cast members had the bad luck to be saddled with very uninteresting characters, stuck with either bad dialogue or self-righteous speeches. In other words, I found them BORING!!! I am sorry, but I truly did.

First of all, Lang’s Thomas Jackson dominated the film just a little too much. Why bother calling this movie “GODS AND GENERALS”? Why not call it “THE LIFE AND TIMES OF STONEWALL JACKSON”? Even worse, Jackson is portrayed in such an unrelenting positive light that by the time the movie came around to his fate after the Battle of Chancelorville, I practically sighed with relief. Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain did nothing to rouse my interest in his story. In fact, he disappeared for a long period of time before he made his reappearance during the Battle of Fredricksburg sequence. And his appearance in that particular sequence was completely marred by him and other members of the 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment quoting William Shakespeare’s “JULIUS CAESAR”, while marching toward Marye’s Heights. Oh God, I hate that scene so much! As for Robert Duvall’s Robert Lee . . . what a waste of his time. Ronald Maxwell’s script did not allow the actor any opportunity to explore Lee’s character during those two years leading to Gettysburg. I realize this is not Duvall’s fault, but I found myself longing for Martin Sheen’s portrayal of the Confederate general in “GETTYSBURG”.

There is so much about this movie that I dislike. One, Maxwell’s portrayal of the movie’s two main African-American characters – Jim Lewis and a Fredricksburg slave named Martha, as portrayed by actress/historian Donzaleigh Abernathy – struck me as completely lightweight. Now, I realized that there were black slaves and paid employees who managed to maintain a friendly or close relationship with their owner or employer. But in “GODS AND GENERALS”, Lewis seemed quite friendly with his employer Jackson and Martha seemed obviously close to the family that owned her, the Beales. I could have tolerated if Lewis or Martha had been friendly toward those for whom they worked. But both of them? I get the feeling that Maxwell was determined to avoid any of the racial and class tensions between the slave/owner relationship . . . or in Lewis’ case, the employee/employer relationship. How cowardly.

In fact, this lack of tension seemed to permeate all of the relationships featured in “GODS AND GENERALS”. Aside from one Union commander who berated his men for looting in Fredricksburg, I can barely recall any scenes featuring some form of anger or tension between the major characters. Everyone either seemed to be on his or her best behavior. And could someone please explain why every other sentence that came out of the mouths of most characters seemed to be a damn speech? I realize that Maxwell was trying to re-create the semi-formality of 19th century American dialogue. Well . . . he failed. Miserably. The overindulgence of speeches reminded me of the dialogue from the second NORTH AND SOUTH miniseries, 1986’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. But the biggest problem of “GODS AND GENERALS” is that it lacked a central theme. The majority of the movie seemed to be about the Civil War history of Thomas Jackson. But the title and Shaara’s novel told a different story. However, I do not believe a detailed adaptation of the novel would have done the trick. Like the movie, it lacked a central theme or topic.

Perhaps I am being too arrogant in believing I know what would have made the story worked. After all, it is not my story. Jeff Shaara was entitled to write it the way he wanted. And Ronald Maxwell was entitled to adapt Shaara’s story the way he wanted. But I do know that if I had written “GODS AND GENERALS”, it would have been about the Battle of Fredricksburg. It turned out to be the only part of the movie that I found interesting.

 

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“RED-HEADED WOMAN” (1932) Review

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“RED-HEADED WOMAN” (1932) Review

According to Hollywood legend, at least a handful of movies made during the period known as the Pre-Code Era (1929-1934) had pushed the boundaries of on-screen decency so deeply that they may have been responsible for the stringent enforcement of the Hays Code between the mid-1930s and the late 1960s. One of those movies happened to be MGM’s 1932 comedy called “RED-HEADED WOMAN”

Based upon Katherine Brush’s 1931 novel, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” told the story of Lilian “Lil” Andrews, a young secretary at the Legendre Company who uses sex to advance her position there by instigating an affair with William “Bill” Legendre Jr., the son of her wealthy boss. During the course of the film, Lil engages in pre-marital sex, breaks up Bill’s marriage to his ladylike wife Irene. After Lil marries Bill following his divorce, she finds herself shunned by high society due to not only her home wrecking, but also her lower-class origins. Lil tries to force herself into high society by seducing the Legendres’ main customer, wealthy coal tycoon Charles B. Gaerste and blackmailing him into sponsoring her own party. But the plan backfires and a humiliated Lil sets upon a course that ends up threatening her tenuous marriage.

“RED-HEADED WOMAN” proved to be a difficult movie to make for MGM production chief Irving Thalberg. One, he did not care for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first draft, viewing it as too serious. Thalberg believed that the movie would be more of a success if it presented Lil’s antics from a humorous bent, so he replaced Fitzgerald with Anita Loos as the movie’s screenwriter. He hoped she would provide a story that was more fun and playful. And he proved to be right. Thalberg and associate producer Paul Bern originally hired Clara Bow for the role of “Lil” Andrews. Although she originally agreed to participate in the movie, Bow changed her mind due to her objections to the long-term contract that MGM wanted her to sign for the role. Thalberg and Bern then turned their attention to the studio’s new contract player, Jean Harlow, whose contract they had recently purchased from Howard Hughes. Studio contract employee Jack Conway directed the film. Four weeks after production ended, the movie was released in late June 1932.

In a nutshell, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a funny and sexy movie that holds up surprisingly well, even after eighty-one years. For me, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a humorous reminder at how little human nature has changed over the years, especially in regard to sex, gender issues, ambition and class bigotry. Used to the idea that single women eighty years ago (or even fifty years ago) never had pre-marital sex, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” must have seemed like a shock to the system to modern viewers. This makes me wonder how present moviegoers would view “RED-HEADED WOMAN”, if it had been made in recent years. Think about it. “RED-HEADED WOMAN” featured pre-marital sex, extramarital sex, and rough sex (all which were featured off screen). If made today, most of Lil’s sexual encounters would have made it in the final cut . . . along with some on-screen nudity. But for me, it is the story itself, along with actress Jean Harlow’s amoral portaryal, that struck me as both sexy and lurid. I suspect that any on-screen sex and nudity would have very little impact on the movie. But I cannot help but wonder if today’s writers would have given Lil her happening.

Thalberg was right to dump Fitzgerald’s serious screenplay in favor of Loos’ more risqué tale. I believe the latter served the story a lot better. Realistically, Lil Andrews is not a sympathetic character. And I suspect that if her tale had told in Fitzgerald’s more serious style, the general moviegoers would have been turned off by her antics. And I doubt that the emotional crisis that Lil had suffered from Bill Legendre’s first rejection of her following their first tryst or the class bigotry she had faced from her father-in-law and the Legendres’ friends would have garnered any sympathy for her. A good number of morality groups from the early 1930s were up in arms over Lil’s fate at the end of the movie. If Thalberg had chosen Fitzgerald’s script over Loos’, I suspect those moviegoers that had made “RED-HEADED WOMAN” such a big hit would have felt the same.

I did have a few problems with the movie. I realize that Thalberg, Loos and director Jack Conway thought it was best to introduce Lil Andrews’in a brief montage that featured Harlow spoofing the “Gentlemen prefer blondes” quote from Loos’ famous 1925 novel and the actress wearing a see-through dress (honestly, not much is shown other than her legs). Frankly, I found this introduction rather amateurish and stagy. I think Loos could have done better. Also, the movie seemed to permeate with class prejudice. I realize that Lil was supposed to suffer from such bigotry. But the movie fails to generate any real sympathy toward her situation, due to Lil’s role as a home wrecker. Even Lil’s best friend, Sally, did not seem particularly repelled by Lil’s antics. And it did not help that the movie’s most sympathetic female turned out to be the gentle and well-born Irene Legendre. Even Bill Legendre seemed to be viewed in a sympathetic light as a mere victim of Lil’s feminine wiles, instead of simply a cheating spouse. If Lil had not emerged triumphant in the movie’s last reel, I believe this movie would have turned out to be a real turn off for me . . . despite the comic tone.

The cast proved to be the best thing about “RED-HEADED WOMAN” . . . at least for me. Although Jean Harlow had become a star two years earlier, thanks to her co-starring role in Howard Hughes’ wartime opus, “HELL’S ANGELS”; her career had eventually suffered through a series of questionable roles. Thankfully, Paul Bern saw her potential and convinced the MGM brass to purchase her contract from Hughes. And she was perfect as the amoral and sassy Lil Andrews. She was not the first or would be the last actress to portray a woman who used sex to advance her social position. But thanks to a performance that featured not only perfect comic timing and some surprisingly emotional angst, her Lil Andrews proved to be one of the most memorable female roles not only from the Pre-Code era, but also from 1930s Hollywood.

Harlow received admirable support from Chester Morris, who proved once again his talent for roles that projected a male ideal corrupted by man’s inner lusts and other flaws. He did a very good job in combining both Bill Legendre’s superficial decency and inner bestiality. Both Lewis Stone and Leila Hyams gave solid support as Bill’s snobbish father Legendre Sr. and long-suffering first wife Irene. And I was somewhat surprised to see Charles Boyer in a small, yet charming role as Lil’s eventual lover, Albert. But the two performances (other than Harlow and Morris) that really stood out for me came from Una Merkel and Henry Stephenson. Merkel was a delight as Lil’s equally sassy friend, Sally, who seemed to enjoy a voyeuristic thrill from Lil’s sexy love life. Also, she and Harlow managed to generate a strong chemistry as the two best friends. I wonder if they had made any further movies together. And Henry Stephenson, whom I remember from two Errol Flynn costume swashbucklers, provided some great comic moments as the Legendres’ wealthy customer, who ends up in a tawdry affair with Lil.

“RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a comic gem from the early 1930s, despite a few kinks, including a class bigotry that nearly tainted the film. It featured a sexy tale and fine performances from a cast led by the incomparable Jean Harlow that still holds up after eighty years or so. As far as I am concerned, I consider it one of the highlights of the Pre-Code era. Producers Irving Thalberg and Paul Bern, screenwriter Anita Loos and director Jack Conway took on an improbable project and transformed it into a minor classic.

 

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“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (1995) Review

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“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (1995) Review

There have been numerous adaptations of Jane Austen’s celebrated 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice” over the past decades. Two of these versions happened to be BBC miniseries that aired in 1980 and 1995. It has been a long time since I have viewed the 1980 miniseries. However, I recently saw the 1995 miniseries for the umpteenth time and decided to finally write a review of it. Adapted by screenwriter Andrew Davies, the miniseries was produced by Sue Birtwistle and directed by Simon Langton.

Austen’s story centered around one Elizabeth Bennet, the second of five daughters of a country gentleman living in Regency England and the efforts of her parents (or should I say of her mother) to find eligible husbands for her and her four other sisters. Two of these men happened to be the wealthy Charles Bingley, who has moved into the Bennets’ Hertfordshire neighborhood; and his wealthier friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy. The cheerful Mr. Bingley has managed to easily win the favor of the Bennets and their neighbors. He has also fallen in love with Elizabeth’s older sister, the even-tempered Jane. On the other hand, the more reticent Mr. Darcy not only managed to alienate Elizabeth, the other Bennets and the entire neighborhood with his aloof manner, but also fall in love with Elizabeth. “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, more than anything, focused upon the volatile love story between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.

Like nearly every other work of art in existence, ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” has its share of flaws. Years after I first saw this miniseries, I still find myself wincing at actress Alison Steadman’s portrayal of the boorish Mrs. Bennet. I realize that the character possessed a wince-inducing personality. But there seemed to be a shrill note in Steadman’s performance during the miniseries’ first episode that made her portrayal of Mrs. Bennet seemed over-the-top. Another complaint I have about the miniseries is the lack of complexity in supporting characters like Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle – Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner – and Darcy’s sister, Georgiana. I found all three very likeable, but also slightly boring. They were the only characters that seemed to indulge in banal conversation that complimented everyone and everything.

I have two problems regarding the crisis over Lydia Bennet’s elopement with George Wickham, Darcy’s boyhood companion. One, I never understood why a calculating scoundrel like Wickham would bother to leave Brighton with Lydia in tow, on the promise of elopement. He knew that her family did not have the funds to buy him off. And I have read excuses, which explained that Wickham left Brighton because he had accumulated a good deal of debt during his regiment’s stay. I have also read that he took Lydia with him as an excuse to get out of town. With the promise of elopement? That does not sound right. Wickham was not a fool. It was bad enough that he had accumulated debts and had to get out of Brighton. But to drag Lydia in this mess did not strike me as logical. All he had to do was leave town in the middle of the night. Whether he was with Lydia or by himself, he ended up being absent without leave. I cannot help but wonder if Austen ever thought this through when she wrote her novel. The elopement crisis also forced Elizabeth to end her summer tour of Derbyshire with the Gardiners and return to her family at Longbourn. For the next twenty minutes or so, ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”grounded to a halt, while the Bennets received a series of correspondence and visitors. This sequence featured two scenes of a bored Lydia and an anxious, yet frustrated Lydia sharing a rented room in London, and two featuring Darcy’s search for the pair. This sequence also featured a meaningless visit from Mr. Collins in which he smirked over the family’s possible ruination for less than five minutes. These little scenes failed to help the sequence move at a faster pace.

Before one starts to assume that I do not like ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, let me make it clear that I enjoyed it very much. In fact, I absolutely adore it. Not only is it one of my favorite Jane Austen adaptations of all time, it is one of my top ten favorite miniseries of all time. Yes, it has its flaws. Even some of the best movies and television productions have flaws. And as I have pointed out, I do believe that the 1995 miniseries is no exception. But its virtues definitely outweighed the flaws. The miniseries’ five-and-a-half hours running time proved to be more of a virtue than a hindrance. But the miniseries format allowed viewers to enjoy this adaptation at a more leisurely pace than is allowed in a movie adaptation and the rich details of the story. I have seen at least five versions of Austen’s ”Pride and Prejudice”. I have noticed that the plots for two of the movie versions went into great detail of the novel’s first half – from the Bingleys and Darcy’s arrival in Hertfordshire to Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth in Kent. But after that first proposal, the movie versions seemed to zoom ahead to Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s visit to Longbourn. I cannot say the same for the two television versions I have seen – especially the 1995 version. Aside from the tedious “search for Lydia” sequence, the story’s second half proved to be quite entertaining – especially Elizabeth’s visit to Derbyshire, Lydia and Wickham’s visit to Longbourn as a married couple, along with Darcy and Bingley’s efforts to renew their pursuits of the two elder Bennet sisters.

It could be understandable that the movie adaptations seemed to focus more on the novel’s first half. After all, many consider it to be the best part. The Bennets’ encounters with Darcy and the Bingleys crackled with energy and great humor. The series of fascinating verbal duels between the two lead characters possessed that same energy, along with a great deal of sexual tension. And when one throws the obsequious and ridiculous Mr. Collins into the mix, one has the feeling of watching a comedy-romantic masterpiece. All of this humor, energy and romance, mixed in with an elegant setting seemed to be at an apex in the Netherfield ball sequence. Personally, I consider the dance shared warily between Elizabeth and Darcy to be one of the best written and filmed scenes in the entire miniseries. Another scene that many consider to be one of the best, featured Darcy’s first marriage proposal to Elizabeth, during her visit to Charlotte and Mr. Collins at Hunsford Lodge, in Kent. That particular scene has to be one of the most wince-inducing moments in the entire story. Why? Because I found it hard to watch Elizabeth receive that extra-ordinary marriage proposal laced with passion . . . and slightly insulting remarks about her family background on her mother’s side. And because I found it difficult to watch Darcy endure Elizabeth’s heart stomping rejection. Both Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth performed the hell out of that scene.

Speaking of performances, one of the miniseries’ greatest assets was its cast. Jane Austen wrote a novel filled with some rich supporting characters. Director Simon Langton and screenwriter Andrew Davies utilized them very well. And so did the cast. Now, I cannot take back my complaints regarding Alison Steadman’s performance as Mrs. Bennet in the first hour. Yet shrill or not, she managed to capture her character’s personality perfectly. And so did Benjamin Whitrow, who portrayed the sardonic and long suffering Mr. Bennet. Some fans of Austen’s novel have complained about David Bamber’s buffoonish take on Mr. Collins, the Bennet’s obsequious cousin fated to inherit Longbourn upon Mr. Bennet’s death. But my memories of the literary Mr. Collins were that of a buffoonish man. However, Bamber gave his Mr. Collins a brief, poignant moment when Elizabeth took pity on his efforts to hide his slightly damaged pride with a tour of Hunsford. Julia Sawalha did a superb job in her portrayal of the youngest Bennet sibling – the thoughtless and self-centered Lydia. In fact, Sawalha managed to give one of the funniest performances in the entire miniseries. However, she had some stiff competition from the likes of Polly Maberly, who portrayed the slightly less flighty Kitty Bennet; and Lucy Briers, who portrayed the bookish and slightly self-righteous Mary Bennet.

One of the memorable performances in the miniseries came from actress Anna Chancellor, who portrayed one of Charles Bingley’s annoying and snobbish sister, Caroline. Chancellor managed to convey not only Caroline’s pretentious and spiteful sense of humor very well, but also the character’s desperate attempts to woo an uninterested Mr. Darcy. I believe that Crispin Bonham-Carter did a good job in infusing his character, Charles Bingley, with a good deal of bohemian warmth and cheerfulness. Yet, he had a tendency to read his lines in a broad manner that struck me as a bit too theatrical at times. I must admit that he could be very subtle in conveying Bingley’s attempts to suppress negative reactions to certain members of the Bennet family and his two sisters. Superficially, Susannah Harker’s performance as Jane Bennet seemed solid . . . almost dull. But a closer look at the actress’s performance made me realize that her she did a much better job in the role than most people were willing to give her credit for. She was excellent in conveying Jane’s heartbreak over the separation from Mr. Bingley. And she had one truly hilarious moment during the Netherfield Ball, when her character anxiously pointed out Mr. Collins’ intentions to speak to Mr. Darcy. But more importantly, Harker’s Jane seemed more like an older sister than the performances of the other actresses who had portrayed the role.

If I have to cite what I consider to be the three best performances in ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, they would be Adrian Lukis as George Wickham, Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy, and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet. In my opinion, Lukis’ portrayal of the charming and devious wastrel, George Wickham, is the best I have seen by any actor who has portrayed the role. I would not claim that he was the best looking Wickham. But Lukis conveyed a seamless charm that hinted a heady mixture of warmth, false honesty, and intimacy that could make anyone forget that his Wickham was a man one could not trust. And the actor achieved this with a subtle skill that made the other Wickhams look like amateurs.

Many fans and critics have labeled Colin Firth’s portrayal of Fitzwilliam Darcy as “smoldering” or “sexy” . . . worthy of a sex symbol. I do not know if I would agree with that assessment. What many saw as “smoldering”, I saw a performance in which the actor utilized his eyes to convey his character’s emotional responses. Whether Firth’s Darcy expressed contempt toward others, growing love and desire for Elizabeth Bennet, anxiety, wariness or any other emotion; Firth uses his eyes and facial expressions with great skill. Some fans have complained that his Darcy appeared in too many scenes in the last third of the series. I consider this nothing more than an exaggeration. Personally, I enjoyed those little sequences in which Firth revealed Darcy’s struggles to deal with Elizabeth’s rejection. While several others drooled over Firth in a wet shirt and breeches, I enjoyed the awkwardness in the reunion between his Darcy and Elizabeth. Firth earned an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of the complex and reserved Mr. Darcy. And as far as I am concerned, he certainly deserved it . . . and a lot more.

Jennifer Ehle won a BAFTA award for her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet, the vivacious leading lady of ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”. And it was a well deserved award, as far as I am concerned. Ehle not only formed a sizzling screen chemistry with Colin Firth, but with Adrian Lukis, as well. And like the two actors, she put her own stamp on her role. Ehle perfectly captured the aspects of Elizabeth’s character that many fans have admired – her liveliness, intelligence, warmth and sharp wit. Elizabeth’s habit of forming and maintain first opinions of others have been well-documented, which Ehle managed to capture. She also conveyed another disturbing aspect of Elizabeth’s personality – namely her arrogance. In some ways, Ehle’s Elizabeth could be just as arrogant as Mr. Darcy. She seemed to harbor a lack of tolerance toward those she viewed as flawed individuals. And thanks to Ehle’s skillful performance, this arrogance is conveyed in Elizabeth’s wit, barely suppressed rudeness and unwillingness to listen to good advice about making fast judgment about others from two people she highly admired – her sister Jane and her good friend, Charlotte Lucas.

The most important thing I can say about both Ehle and Firth is that the pair managed to form a sizzling screen chemistry. In other words, their Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy crackled with a great deal of energy, subtle sexuality and sharp wit. Their screen chemistry seemed stronger than any of the other screen couples who have portrayed the two characters. Surprisingly, I do have one problem with the two leads in the miniseries. And I have to place all of the blame on Andrew Davies, when he decided to faithfully adapt one scene in which the newly engaged Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy discussed the development of their relationship. Unfortunately, they came off sounding cold and clinical – like two psychoanalysts examining the genesis of their romance.

There is no doubt that producer Sue Birtwistle, director Simon Langton and the production team did a superb job with the miniseries’ overall production design. Mind you, I feel that the overall credit belonged to production designer Gerry Scott and art designers John Collins and Mark Kebby. They did a top notch job in capturing Austen’s tone from the novel by giving the miniseries a light and natural look to its setting. I could say the same for cinematographer John Kenway’s photography. I am not claiming to be an expert on the fashions of Regency Britain. Yet, from what I have read in other articles, many believed that Dinah Collin’s costumes closely recaptured the fashion and styles of the period when the novel was first published. I could not make final statement about that. But I must admit that the fashions perfectly captured the tone of the story and the production designs. If there is one other aspect of the miniseries that reflected its look and tone, I believe it would have to be Carl Davis’ score. Either he or Birtwistle made the right choice in hiring pianist Melvyn Tan to perform the score for the series’ opening credit.

In the end, ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” became one of the most acclaimed miniseries on both sides of the Atlantic. Even after nineteen years, it is still highly regarded. And rightly so. Despite a few flaws, I believe it deserves its accolades. As far as I am concerned, the 1995 miniseries continues to be the best adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. I also believe it is one of the best adaptations of any Austen novel, period.

 

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“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Two – “THE WAY WEST” (1967)

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Below is Part Two to my article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon the 1967 movie, “THE WAY WEST”

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Two – “THE WAY WEST” (1967)

I. Introduction

Based upon A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s 1949 novel, “THE WAY WEST” told the story of a large wagon train’s journey to Oregon in 1843. The wagon train is led by a widowed former U.S. Senator named William Tadlock (Kirk Douglas). A former mountain man named Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum) is hired as the wagon party’s guide and among the last to join the train is farmer Lije Evans (Richard Widmark), his wife Rebecca (Lola Albright)and their 16 year-old son Brownie (Michael McGreevey); who were living near Independence when the wagon train was being formed.

During the journey to Oregon, the movie introduced audiences with the other members of the wagon train. They included a family from Georgia named the McBees (Harry Carey Jr., Connie Sawyer and Sally Field), and the recently married Johnnie and Amanda Mack (Mike Witney and Katherine Justice). Personal friendships and animosities flourished during the 2,000 miles journey. Summers managed to befriend both Lije and Brownie Evans. The latter fell in love with the McBees’ extroverted daughter Mercy, who developed a crush on Johnnie Mack. The latter had difficulty consummating his marriage with a sexually unresponsive wife. Frustrated, Mack turned to Mercy for a brief tryst. Senator Tadlock proved to be an intimidating, yet manipulative leader. Only two people dared to question his decisions – Summers and Lije. Especially the latter. Although willing to question Tadlock’s leadership, Lije was reluctant to replace him as the wagon party’s new leader.

“THE WAY WEST” received a good deal of negative criticisms. It has also been compared to “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” to its detriment. I plan to write a review of “THE WAY WEST” in the future. But right now, I am more interested in how the movie fared in regard to historical accuracy.

II. History vs. Hollywood

The Tadlock wagon party headed for Oregon Territory in 1843, the year known as “The Great Migration of 1843” or the “Wagon Train of 1843”, in which an estimated 700 to 1,000 emigrants left for Oregon. The number of emigrants in Tadlock’s party and the year in which the movie is set, seemed historically accurate. “THE WAY WEST” also featured a few well-known landmarks along the Oregon Trail. Such landmarks included Chimney Rock, Scott’s Bluff, Independence Rock and Fort Hall. Fort Laramie did not play a role in the movie’s plot.

So far, “THE WAY WEST” seemed to be adhering to historical accuracy. Unfortunately, this did not last. One, the wagons featured in the movie came in all shapes and sizes. They ranged from farm wagons to large Conestoga wagons. I cannot even describe the wagon used by the McFee family. It was not as heavy as a Conestoga, but it was long enough to convey Mr. McFee’s peach tree saplings across the continent. The draft animals used by the emigrants turned out to be a mêlée of oxen, mules and horses. The movie did point out the necessity of abandoning unnecessary possessions to lighten the wagons’ loads. Only, it was pointed out when the wagon party attempted to ascend a very steep slope what looked like the in Idaho.

“THE WAY WEST” did not feature a large-scale attack by a horde of Native Americans. But the movie came damn near close to including one. The wagon party first encountered a group of Cheyenne warriors not far from Independence Rock. When one of the emigrants, Johnnie Mack, mistook a chief’s young son hidden underneath a wolf’s skin as a real wolf and shot him, the wagon train made tracks in order to avoid retribution. The Cheyenne caught up with the wagon party and demanded the head of the boy’s killer. The other emigrants declared they were willing to fight it out with the Cheyenne, until they discovered they would be facing a large horde of warriors. In the end, Mr. Mack confessed to the crime and allowed himself to be hanged, in order to spare Brownie Evans from being handed over to the Cheyenne by Tadlock.

Dramatically, I found this sequence to be effective. I admired how director Andrew V. McLaglen developed the tension between the emigrants, Senator Tadlock and the Cheyenne demanding justice. Historically, I found it a mess. The number of Cheyenne warriors that had gathered for the sake of one boy struck me as very improbable. The only times I could recall that many Native Americans gathering at one spot was the council for the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie and the Battle of Little Bighorn. And considering that the Cheyenne nation were spread out from the Black Hills in present-day South Dakota to southern Colorado, I found this encounter between the Tadlock wagon party and the Cheyenne historically improbable.

“THE WAY WEST” fared somewhat better than “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” in regard to historical accuracy. But I found it lacking in some aspects of the plot. Like the 1962 movie, “THE WAY WEST” proved to be more entertaining than historically accurate.

 

“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” (2001) Review

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“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” (2001) Review

Over seventeen years ago, the BBC aired “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW”, a four-part television adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel. Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by David Yates, the miniseries starred David Suchet, Shirley Henderson and Matthew Macfadyen. 

“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” told the story of a Central European financier’s impact upon upper-crust British society during the Victorian era. Augustus Melmotte arrives in London with his second wife and his daughter, Marie in the 1870s. Not long after his arrival, Melmotte announces a new scheme to finance a railroad project from Salt Lake City in Utah to the Gulf of Mexico. And he promises instant fortune to those who would invest in his scheme. The Melmotte family is also surrounded by a circle of decadent aristocrats and nouveau riche businessmen, all trying to get a piece of the financial pie. One of the investors is Sir Felix Carbury, a young and dissolute baronet who is quickly running through his widowed mother’s savings. In an attempt to restore their fortunes, his mother, Lady Matilda Carbury writes historical potboilers – a 19th century predecessor to 20th century romance novels. She also plans to have Felix marry Marie, who is an heiress in her own right; and marry daughter Henrietta (Hetta) to their wealthy cousin, Roger Carbury. Although Marie falls in love with Felix, Melmotte has no intention of allowing his daughter to marry a penniless aristocrat. And Hetta shows no interest in Roger, since she has fallen in love with his young ward, an engineer named Paul Montague.  However, Montague also proves to be a thorn in Melmotte’s side, due to his suspicions about the legitimacy over the railroad scheme.

As one can see, the story lines that stream from Trollope’s novel seemed to be plenty. In a way, the plot reminds me of the numerous story arcs that permeated 2004’s “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT”. Although some of the story arcs have nothing to do with Augustus Melmotte, nearly everyone seemed to have some connection to the financier. The exceptions to this rule proved to be the characters of American-born Mrs. Winifred Hurtle, Roger Carbury and Ruby Ruggles, a young farm girl who lives on Roger’s estate. Mrs. Hurtle’s story was strictly limited to her efforts to regain the affections of former lover and help Ruby deal with the licentious Sir Felix. Roger’s story arc was limited to his unsuccessful efforts to win Henrietta’s heart and deal with his knowledge of Paul and Mrs. Hurtle’s relationship. Fortunately, “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” seemed to possess a tighter story than “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT”. To a certain degree.

But I cannot deny that “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” was one of the most entertaining adaptations of a Trollope novel I have ever seen. If I must be honest, I enjoyed it more than I did “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” or 1982’s “THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES”. One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was due to its portrayal of society’s greed and opportunism. I have heard that Trollope had written the novel in protest against the greed and corruption of the 1870s, which resulted in the Long Depression that lasted between 1873 and 1879. The ironic thing is that the economic situation that Trollope believed had permeated British society during the 1870s had been around for a long time and would continue to permeate the world’s economic markets time again – including the recent downturn that has cast a shadow on today’s economies. Trollope’s Augustus Melmotte is today’s Bernie Madoff or Robert Maxwell.

Another aspect of “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” is that it revealed the darker aspects of Victorian society on a more personal level. I did not know whether to be amused or disgusted by the manner in which young British scions such as Sir Felix Carbury scrambled to win the affections of Marie Melmotte and get their hands on her money; or desperate debutantes like Georgiana Longestaffe willing to marry Jewish banker Mr. Brehgert, despite her contempt for his religious beliefs and social position. I doubt that the likes of Georgiana would never contemplate becoming an author of cheesy novels, like Lady Carbury or marrying a man with no funds – like .

Thanks to Davies’ screenplay and David Yates’ direction, “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” permeated with a richly dark and comic style that beautifully suited Trollope’s tale. Hardly anyone – aside from a few such as Paul Montague, Hetta Carbury and Mr. Brehgert – was spared from the pair’s biting portrayal of Trollope’s characters. Two of my favorite scenes featured a ball held by the Melmottes in Episode One and a banquet in honor of the Chinese Emperor in Episode Three. The banquet scene especially had me on the floor laughing at the sight of British high society members gorging themselves on the dishes prepared by Melmotte’s cook.

Although “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” is my favorite Trollope adaptation – so far – I must admit that I had a few problems with it. One, Andrew Davies’ portrayal of the Paul Montague character struck me as slightly boring. Like his literary counterpart, Paul found himself torn between his love for Hetta and his sexual past with Mrs. Hurtle. But Davies’ Paul seemed so . . . noble and stalwart that I found it hard to believe this is the same gutless wonder from Trollope’s novel. And if I must be brutally honest, I found his relationship with Hetta Carbury to be another example of a boring romance between two boring young lovers that seemed to permeate Victorian literature. A part of me longed for Paul to end up with Winifred Hurtle. At least he would have found himself in a more interesting romance. I have one more quibble. In a scene featuring a major quarrel between Melmotte and his daughter Marie, there was a point where both were in each other’s faces . . . growling like animals. Growling? Really? Was that necessary? Because I do not think it was.

One would think I have a problem with Cillian Murphy and Paloma Baeza’s performances as Paul Montague and Hetta Carbury. Trust me, I did not. I thought both gave solid and competent performances. I feel they were sabotaged by Trollope’s portrayal of their characters as “the young lovers” and Davies’ unwillingness to put some zing into their romance. Miranda Otto made a very interesting Mrs. Hurtle, despite her bad attempt at a Southern accent. And Allan Corduner and Fenella Woolgar both gave solid performances that I did not find particularly memorable. On the other hand, I felt more than impressed by Cheryl Campbell as the charming and somewhat manipulative Lady Carbury; Douglas Hodge as the love-sick Roger Carbury; Oliver Ford-Davies as the grasping, yet bigoted Mr. Longestaffe; Helen Schlesinger’s funny performance as the clueless Madame Melmotte; a poignant performance from Jim Carter, who portrayed Mr. Brehgert; and Anne-Marie Duff, who managed to create a balance between Georgiana Longstaffe’s strong-willed willingness to marry a man of another faith and her self-absorption and bigotry.

However, the three performances that stood head above the others came from David Suchet, Shirley Henderson and Matthew Macfadyen. Suchet could have easily portrayed the scheming and gregarious Augustus Melmotte as a cartoonish character. And there were times when it seemed he was in danger of doing so. But Suchet balanced Melmotte’s over-the-top personality with a shrewdness and cynicism that I found appealing – especially when those traits mocked the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of British high society. Shirley Henderson proved to be the perfect person to portray Melmotte’s only daughter, Marie. Superficially, she seemed like a chip off the old block. But Henderson injected a great deal of compassion and poignancy into Marie’s character, making it very easy for me to sympathize toward her unrequited love for Sir Felix Carbury and the heartache she felt upon discovering his lack of love for her. Matthew Macfadyen must have finally made a name for himself in his memorable portrayal of the dissolute Sir Felix Carbury. I cannot deny that Macfadyen revealed a good deal of Sir Felix’s charm. But the actor made it pretty obvious that his character’s charm was at best, superficial. Considering some of the roles he has portrayed over the decade that followed “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW”, I believe Macfadyen’s Sir Felix must have been one of the most self-absorbed characters in his repertoire. And he did a superb job with the role. It is a pity that he never received an acting nomination or award for his performance.

One cannot talk about “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” without pointing out the sumptuous production designs created by Gerry Scott. They were superb. With contributions from Diane Dancklefsen and Mark Kebby’s art direction, Caroline Smith’s set decorations, Chris Seager’s photography and Andrea Galer’s costume designs; Scott and his team did a wonderful job in re-creating Victorian society in the 1870s. I was especially impressed at how Galer’s costumes captured the early years of that decade. I would never call Nicholas Hooper’s score particularly memorable. But I cannot deny that it suited both the story’s theme and setting.

Although I found a few aspects of “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” to complain about – notably the Paul Montague and Hetta Carbury characters. I cannot deny that it is a first-rate production, thanks to Andrew Davies’ adaptation, David Yates’ direction and a fine cast led by David Suchet. More importantly, the story’s theme of greed and corruption leading to economic chaos was not only relevant to the mid-to-late Victorian era, but also for today’s society. “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” strike me as a story for all times.

 

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