Flick Favorites

For all of you who enjoy movies set in bygone times, films with strong female leads, I bring a list of recommendations. Period dramas I have enjoyed for their wardrobe, décor and cinematic style. Films I like to revisit for their characters and storylines. Films I have enjoyed for their music and cast. Films released in recent years or back in the 1990s.

  1. Agora, starring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, a female mathematician, philosopher and astronomer in late 4th-century
  2. Anna and the King, starring Jodi Foster as Anna Leonowens, an English school teacher in Siam in the late 19th century
  3. Being Julia, starring Anette Bening as Julia Lambert, a popular actress in London in the late 1930s
  4. Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams as two nuns in 1960s New York (Bronx)
  5. Driving Miss Daisy, starring Jessica Tandy as Daisy Werthan, a resolute widow in the 1960-70s
  6. Enchanted April, starring Miranda Richardson, Polly Walker, Joan Plowright and others as a bunch of English ladies who spent their holidays in Italy in the 1920s
  7. Fried Green Tomatoes, starring Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker as two friends who are mastering life in the Great Depression
  8. The Great Debaters, starring Jurnee Smollett as Samantha Booke, the first female member of her college’s debate team, set in the mid 1930s
  9. A Little Princess, starring Liesel Matthews as Sara Crewe, a lovely rich girl who loses everything when her father dies in WWI
  10. Miss Potter, starring Renée Zellweger as Beatrix Potter, the famous writer and creator of Peter Rabbit
  11. Out of Africa, starring Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen, A Danish lady who emigrates to Africa in the early 20th century
  12. Paradise Road, starring Glenn Close, Julianna Margulies, Frances McDormand and many others as female POW in Sumatra during WWII
  13. Tea with Mussolini, starring Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Lily Tomlin and Cher as five expatiates in Italy in the 1930s through 40s

This list, of course, is far from complete. So whatever you miss, please feel invited to share your favorite flick with a strong female lead! :)

A New Vice

As a kid, growing up, I always swapped books with my grandma. Together, we devoured Agatha Christie, especially her books with Miss Marple as the clever leading lady. Then, I fell for Perry Mason. With more than ninety published cases, I still haven’t managed to read all of him.The same goes for J.B. Fletcher and the murders she stumbled into in Cabot Cove. Now, a new character has won my heart: Guido Brunetti, the refined and sightly Commissario. Venice, his daily companion, is the distinctive home for his family, his friends and cases. A place more than an attraction swarmed by millions of tourists each year, pestered by oversized cruise ships and aqua alta. A town as unique as Brunetti himself, used by his creator as a main character. Venice, La Serenissima, the trading town crossed by canals and surrounded by water. A decaying beauty built on logs and land. A lagoon and setting donna-leon_bwthat has inspired many authors, from Shakespeare to Thomas Mann. And, for twenty-two years now, also Donna Leon.

It was a streak of luck that brought Brunetti on paper and into our lives as readers. Donna Leon, once an English professor, has lived in Venice for more than a quarter century. Her passion for literature, opera and Venezia jumps out on every page of her bestselling novels now available in many languages but Italian (upon the author’s insistence). She never expected to write more than one, a crime novel set in Venice with a character she genuinely liked. Twenty-three books later, she’s now a grande dame of mystery and crime. A writer whose protagonists are erudite, sophisticated and often angry at the world and its crimes. It is an intoxicating mix for anyone who enjoys authenticity and reliable characters, for anyone who has a heart for history and critical thinking. Brunetti’s cases are never as grim and gloomy as many Scandinavian novels, but neither are they la dolce vita and cotton candy. For anyone who likes a descriptive style, Italian food and a dash of philosophy, Leon’s books are the perfect pastime told in a pleasant pace. But be warned, once you’ve picked up the first volume, you may never want spend another day without Brunetti and his Venetian life.

Hungry now for more on Donna Leon?! Follow the links below to dive into her world.

To a Special Lady

Today, my grandmother would have celebrated her 97th birthday. Ninety-seven, the number alone sounds impressive, considering how much has changed since she was born in 1916, it’s nearly impossible to grasp. By today’s standards, people lived in the Middle Ages at the height of WWI. Technology and everyday amenities were still in their infancy, at least in comparison to our technified lives. In the past 97 years, progress has been made on the expense of tradition and time. Depending on your preference, those changes have improved our lives or deteriorated them. No matter how you feel about this development, there’s one thing you may not even have noticed: we as humans have changed, too. And while I still grew up with grandfathers in hats and grandmothers with luscious curls, today’s children rarely get in contact with a generation who still dared to grow old with grace. Personally, I loved having grandparents who had clearly aged. Two people who loved spending their time with me without constantly rushing away. A grandma who cooked, a grandpa who took his afternoon nap in his favorite wingback chair. Two people from a different generation who, from time to time, demanded quietude and patience, but made me laugh like no one else. They taught me things my parents couldn’t, spoiled me without forgetting to remind me of their rules and instilled the desire in me to be a better person. As a child I remember seeing many other sets of grandparents like mine in the streets. Old ladies with handbags full of helpful necessities and grandpas who used their umbrellas as canes until it started to rain. Today, I miss seeing that image: old ladies dressed to a tee, their hair as perfect as their demeanor. I can honestly say, I never heard my grandma using foul language or swearing, no matter how bad a day she may have had. I know that’s an ideal memory but also the childhood I was granted to have. It may be a special bond only grandparents share with their grandchildren, dulcified by the touch of an outgoing generation who grew up in a time so different from the world we are now living in. All those gentlemen and ladies, with their attitude, lessons and style, I love them dearly, the few representatives who are still gracing us with their presence. I really wish we would listen to them more closely and wouldn’t allow their children to take claim to all the positive changes we’ve benefited from in the past decades. So, on my grandma’s birthday, here’s my toast to all my much-admired ladies, those who are still with us and those who live on in my memories. Although today it isn’t always easy to see through, you have taught me so much about being a lady – how to present myself to others and myself, and most importantly, how to be modest in bad times and grateful when the sun is shining again. It’s something I value more deeply the older I get, a lesson I hope to be able to pass on to the next generation with the same kind of love, respect and dedication I was given by my grandma, my all-time favorite lady.

Screen Couples

We all know them: the Stoneses, the Andersons or the Stephenses. For some, they may be a guilty pleasure, for others a mere necessity to get a story told. For me, they are the cherry on top of any tale: fictional couples and their personal stories. On the fringes of drama, comedy and mayhem, romantic innuendo has always been my favorite treat. From Date with the Angels and Family Ties to Murder She Wrote or Babylon 5, I have a weakness for double entendre paired with a healthy sense of humor, smarts and mutual respect.

Della and Perry1) Perry Mason and Della Street, for example, have been my favorite couple for more years than I care to admit. On paper, radio and screen, the lawyer and his secretary know how to put a smile on my face. Committed to their work as much as to each other, the true nature of their relationship has always remained a mystery. For some fans, they are the best of friends while others suspect some hanky-panky behind closed doors. For me, they have long been married, the epitomized working couple who combines independence with traditional values. And that’s the beauty of those characters and their story. They ignite your imagination and tease you to the point of sizzling frustration with a simple look, remark or smitten smile. It is a tradition Erle Stanley Gardner himself started in The Velvet Claws in 1933 and lasted until 1994 when the last Perry Mason TV movie aired on NBC. Perfected by its signature cast, Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, Perry and Della have since lived on in the hearts of many fans, the flame of their romance burning more and more brightly towards the series’ end.

Jennifer&Jonathan2) The second couple I have loved for as long as I can remember are Jennifer and Jonathan Hart. Sophisticated, rich and charming, the Harts had everything including a mutually executed interest in solving mysteries. Following in the footsteps of TV’s Mr. and Mrs. North, they dug up trouble where it’s usually hard to find but their love for each other made their cases stand out from others. Together, they were invincible and (much like Della and Perry) have stood the test of time. A mere decade after Hart to Hart was canceled on ABC, the couple returned to television in 1993, matured, refined, and every bit as committed to each other as they had always been. Today, the Harts are still a dream couple for their fans, a twosome who showed their audience the ingredients of true love and how it beautiful life can be even if you are denied to have your desired offspring.

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Singing Along II

As promised, here’s part II of my musical post. On this beautiful, sun-kissed weekend what else matters but some fresh air, a good smoothie and some swell tunes?! So here we go, lean back. This is Radio Talking Classics for you with a selection of classic songs from Hollywood, Broadway and beyond.

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Blacklisted

Today, I am sharing something I just stumbled upon the other day. Blacklisted, a radio piece by Tony Kahn, son of screenwriter Gordon Kahn who was persecuted for fifteen years from the late 1940s to the early 60s. Accused of being a communist, he refused to cooperate with the Hohblock7use Un-American Activities Committee and was thus blacklisted in Hollywood and driven into exile. Decades later, his son felt compelled to tell the story of his father’s fate and ultimately his own. A gripping tale about the beginnings of the Cold War and the effects of Second Red Scare on the lives of many artists, their friends and families.

Click here to listen to the complete radio play. If you’re interested in Hollywood’s Golden Age and it’s most unfathomable chapter, you won’t be disappointed, I’m sure. If you’re generally fond of American history, this will also please you beyond measure. Blacklisted is a personal piece that won’t answer all of your questions, but it offers a glimpse into an era we have learned to either glorify or demonize. It’s high time we listened more closely in order to get a better understanding of our own ambiguous times.

Singing Along

The sun is moody, my household’s a mess (as usual at the end of the week) and I have a long list of chores. And what do I do?! Procrastinate of course. I had a lovely breakfast, practiced my dancing steps and now I love to play some of my favorite songs to sweeten my day.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t stop singing along when a classic song comes up. Especially if it’s a tune I haven’t listened to in a while but have always loved. Once a song has popped up in my mind, another one usually follows and I end up with an entire playlist. So, fellow music lovers, let’s see what I’ve come up with so far. Maybe you’re in the mood to join my lilting.

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Memorable Finales

For anyone who knows me and anyone who has been following this blog it may be quite apparent: I’m fond of television. I refrain from saying good TV because that certainly lies in the eye of the beholder. Let’s just agree that TV classics have a special place in my heart and probably yours. That they have a quality most modern shows are struggling to repeat. That their appeal grows in proportion to their age, out of nostalgia for our youth or the good old days, I do not know. That will have to be a topic of another post. What I want to talk about today is an integral part of any television series. Finales, those long awaited yet dreaded farewells to our favorite shows. Those final episodes we miss when TV series get canceled on short notice.

Personally, I love a great finale when the audience gets a chance to say goodbye to their favorite characters and the writers get to wrap up their storylines. Some of my favorite examples are M*A*S*H, The Golden Girls, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5. All shows that stayed true to their formula and honored their protagonists by creating a melancholy but optimistic end. The West Wing as one of my favorite modern shows on the other hand aimed high but fell strangely flat. Set in a political environment, for me, the last episode was too quixotic to meet my expectations. Although it wasn’t as disappointing as The Wonder Years nor as sobering as The X-Files, it still lacked the critical essence of a program I had thoroughly enjoyed for seven years. It may be a matter of taste, but I like to imagine my favorite shows to continue ad infinitum. “Now it seems to me the place to start is at the beginning” will always be my favorite line to end a show. And who else could have said it but Raymond Burr on Perry Mason, a show that has out-classed many by paying tribute to its crew in the final episode. That’s my preferred way of saying goodbye. To leave the fans with a sense of gratitude, hope and infinity. The characters we’ve come to love over the years continue to exist even if we don’t get to visit them anymore on a weekly basis.

A great exception are finales that offer a conclusion to a finite storyline or explain events that seem to have pushed the boundaries of the original tale. Roseanne is such an example. Although not one of my favorite shows, the explanations the last episode offered to make sense of the exaggerated plot of the final season still resonate with me today. Equally memorable was Six Feet Under, a show I increasingly disliked over the years but always held in high esteem for its stellar cast. The outlook we got on the fate of the main characters met with a sense of closure that pushed the program on an almost ethereal level. The only other comparison that comes to mind is Malcolm in the Middle, a show completely different in style but similar in its ability to complete a given storyline.

With all these good examples, I almost shy away from mentioning the frustrating ones we all know exist. Those let down finales and anticlimactic farewells with the potential to ruin the fun of an entire show in retrospect. Battlestar Galactica is my favorite example. A show that lost its promise in the last season when it was interrupted by the Writer’s Guild strike in 2007. Chopped into two halves, the long awaited revelation failed to address one of the program’s most haunting signature sentences and ultimately revealed that the Cylons (like the writers) never had a plan. Although given the time to bring a complex story to a fruitful end, the final season was dragged out but rushed at the same time. Unlike Battlestar Galactica, ALF and last year’s Alcatraz did not even get a chance to conclude their stories which is probably the most dissatisfying way for a show to say goodbye. With a cliffhanger and many burning questions, fans were denied the satisfaction of a proper conclusion and thus nurtured the reluctance of fans to invest their time in new programs.

The most appealing alternative for anyone who has been left hanging in mid-air more than once may be the great array of mini series TV has spoiled us with over the years. These programs are, after all, thought through from beginning to end and offer a guaranteed conclusion (although not necessarily a happy end). Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House or Angels in America were all equipped with unforgettable finales that live up to the series’ initial promise of quality and entertainment. Each one of them a great treat for TV enthusiasts and a milestone in television history.

A Cat’s Meow

In college, I wasn’t particularly fond of linguistics. Although I gladly admit, sociolinguistics was an exception. I really loved comparing cultural influences on language and vice versa. Politeness was my favorite topic and it still amazes me how perceptions differ even in the same language area. My second favorite topic has always been American slang. Today, I’m not particularly up-to-date and an excessive usage of words such as epic and awesome tickles my risble muscles. Like as a filler word on the other hand drives me up the walls. What I prefer is slang from bygone eras, from the 1930s through 50s to be exact. Words, abbreviations, euphemisms – they are my secret vice. Here’s a list of my favorite expressions and their meaning. You may be surprised how many words date back to the era of Jazz, screwball and noir.

1930s

  • Blow your wig – become very excited
  • Blinkers, peepers – eyes
  • smooth, sweet, swell – very good
  • Cats or alligators – fans of swing music
  • Curve – disappointment
  • Cute as a bug’s ear – very cute
  • Dead hoofer or cement mixer – bad dancer
  • Dick, shamus, gumshoe, flatfoot – detective
  • Dig – think hard or understand
  • Dollface – name for a woman when a man is pleading his case or apologizing
  • Hard boiled – tough
  • Honey cooler – a kiss
  • Hop, rag, jolly up, romp, wingding – dance or party
  • Pill – disagreeable person
  • Scrub – poor student
  • Shake a leg – hurry up
  • Whacky – crazy
  • What’s your story, morning glory? – What do you mean by that?
  • You and me both – I agree

Do you want to learn more about slang from the 1930s? Check these two websites here and here.

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Recommendation Time

Every once in a whiletreat yourself it’s important to treat yourself. Good food, some shoe shopping or listening to records in a local store. It’s recommendation time again on Talking Classics. So let’s see what we have:

1) Do you know Caro Emerald?! She’s a Dutch singer whose second album is about to be released in the US on May 14. Mark your calendars, fellow lovers of new vintage, The Shocking Miss Emerald is a real treat.

2) For Perry Mason fans it’s a joy to hear that season 9.1 will soon be available on DVD – on June 11 to be exact. That leaves us with only one half season to complete our collections. Fingers crossed for the TV movies to follow soon.

3) Scarecrow and Mrs. King’s fourth and final season was recently leased on DVD for anyone who has fond memories of a lovely show that sadly lost its heart when its female protagonist, Kate Jackson, fell severely ill.

4) Book-wise, I finally finished reading Eve Arden’s wonderful autobiography. In Three Phases of Eve, the actress takes us on a journey through her life on stage, in movies and beyond. Filled with funny anecdotes, the book is every bit as witty and charming as the woman herself used to be on radio and screen.

5) And last but not least, a new shopping discovery of mine is Unique Vintage. For all you ladies out there who can’t get enough of classy patterns and styles, this site may be a great addition to your favorite retailers. I know it is to mine. ♥