Sunday, September 14, 2014

FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: Today's the DAY!

Flash Fiction Challenge Links

Links to other stories written for this year's one and only Flash Fiction Challenge, are followed by my own story sparked by a painting by Polish-American illustrator, W.T. Benda. Thanks so very much for participating.

Prashant C. Trikinnad - The Confession

Elizabeth Grace Foley - The Letter

John / Pretty Sinister Books - Come Like Shadows

We're a small group but we're select and famed for our exclusivity. 

W.T. Benda 

A Simian Fairy Tale

“Monkeys, who very sensibly refrain from speech lest they should be set to earn their livings.” Kenneth Graham, ‘The Golden Age’

In one of London’s finer neighborhoods, on the top floor of a darkly decaying Gothic house, in a smaller room set aside for servants years ago and now used mostly for storage, a woolly monkey named Percival LaFarge sat idly atop an old trunk, enjoying a brief respite, munching on a filched banana tart. Happy enough not to be wearing the inelegant cap, jacket and plus fours he was obliged to cavort around in five afternoons and one evening a week, he scratched his plump belly and used the end of his long tail to destroy several ancient spider webs clinging to the draped furniture.

When the dust cleared and he’d finished sneezing, the monkey spotted an old metal box whose lock appeared ripe for the picking.

Most of London by now, knew of Percival LaFarge’s incredible gift for human-like gab, never suspecting that the seemingly impossible trick was NOT due to the cleverness of his master, the reclusive Hugo Hicks, whose gift as the finest ventriloquist – a talent he claimed to have picked up from a band of roving gypsies - in all Europe was an absolute fabrication. This secret was known only to himself and his sister Harriet (called Harry) who lived with him, their peripatetic parents having been killed by bandits in Egypt years before, leaving the siblings impoverished.

Needless to say, it was essential no one realize that Percival LaFarge’s speaking ability was the real thing lest he be removed from the brother and sister's care and shut up in a laboratory to be studied or worse, dissected.

Afternoon teas with Percival at which the monkey discoursed on a variety of subjects at five pounds a head (10 pounds for High Tea) had become so popular that Harry had happily quite her job and given herself over to designing outfits for an occasionally reluctant Percival to sport – he loved the jaunty red fez with black tassel best and it was often difficult to get him to switch hats to accommodate the rest of his stylish outfits.

Very important talks were currently in the works for Percival to star in a stage production WITH music – Cole Porter had been approached - as well as an illustrated book, a project which had captured the interest of Salvadore Dali. The brother and sister had also exchanged exploratory telegrams with film star Charlie Chaplin. Though of course, silent film would defeat the whole purpose of Percival’s chatty charm, but Chaplin felt this could be overcome in some way.

How this fairy tale came about:

Percival LaFarge realized very early on that humans being what they are, keeping his gift of gab a secret would be paramount to his continued good health. But when he’d first stumbled through a broken window and into the lives of that sad, woebegone pair of humans living in that big empty house near the Thames, it had seemed like fortune had finally smiled on him. The kind-hearted young woman who’d found him battered and bruised, wounds incurred while fleeing from a bunch of raucous boys down a dark alley, gasped with horror at his condition. The quick-witted simian was no stranger to rough handling, but it seemed a good idea at the moment to play up his condition for all it was worth.

After much lamentation, ‘Oh, poor thing, poor thing,” encouraged by Percival’s (slightly exaggerated) piteous cries, the young woman gently treated and bandaged him.  “Oh look how thin he is, Hugo. He must be famished, poor thing.”

“Yes, so you said. Someone’s pet, do you think?” said a tall young man in a frayed dressing gown. “Or maybe a runaway from the circus?” He gave Percival an assessing look. “Didn’t we see some handbills recently? DeWhite's Circus of Incomparable Delights.” But at the sound of the dreaded name, the monkey had let out a shriek and covered his eyes – piteously. He had found that with humans, ambiguity never did any good.

“Oh my goodness, Hugo That must be it. That horrible circus. We can't send him back. Look how he shakes.”

“Well, we can’t keep him, Harry. He’s a Woolly Monkey. Class: Mamalia, Order: Primate, Family: Atelidae, Genus: Lagothrix, Species: Simia lagotricha. It’s not as though he were a dog or even a cat.” He adjusted his eye glasses and looked more closely. “Not a bad specimen of his type, I’d say. They keep a stuffed pair at the museum.” 

At this, Percival was seen to role his eyes. Piteously.

“I don’t care,” said Harry, “he’s in a terrible state. We don’t have much, Hugo, but what we have we can certainly share with this sad creature. I insist.”

When it came to his sister, Hugo could be amiable and if it pleased her to keep a monkey in their dark gloom of a house, then so be it. It was the liveliest he’d seen Harry in months. He went down to the kitchen and returned with a crust of bread and a bit of fruit which the monkey, with squeaks of ecstasy, quickly made a feast of.

“It’s best not to get too attached though, someone will probably come looking for him.” said Hugo and left the room. He still had several hours of work to put in, studying notes he’d brought home that afternoon. His part time job at the university cataloguing rare species of lichens for a book the head of the department, a famous botanist, was currently writing, only brought in the barest minimum of income but it suited Hugo's meager talents. His love of plant-life and the decrepit greenhouse up on the roof were the reasons he fought tooth and nail with their creditors to keep the family home from being sold. To that end, Bianca had been forced to take a job as companion and general dogsbody to an old and rather unpleasant French countess.

Percival LaFarge to the rescue:

LaFarge had always been extremely cautious while in captivity, but he now realized that perhaps, the time had come to do something with this cumbersome talent of his. After his escape from the brutish circus animal trainer who’d bought him from a seedy first mate who’d stolen him from the cabin of the deceased sea captain who’d captured him in Brazil, the primate was looking for a change of pace.

Essentially a pragmatist with the occasional bout of optimism thrown in for good measure, a tight-lipped Percival had, for a full week, observed the fatigue and worry which plagued the brother and sister and resolved to do something to repay their kindness to him. One evening, having decided on a course of action, he shocked the pair almost out of their wits by introducing himself and commenting on the terrible weather.

After much swooning (on the part of the sister) and incredulous sputtering (on the part of the brother) a plan was hatched at the wily Percival’s instigation.

The monkey was happy enough now to pretend that his chatter was all due to Hugo’s manipulation.  The story would be given out that the young man’s incredibly realistic and heretofore undiscovered ‘talent for ventriloquism’ was something he’d never revealed before simply because he had not thought it necessary.

With the cunning of his species, Percival knew that their intended audience would want to believe him to be speaking but choose to think that it was all due to Hugo even as their eyes and ears told them otherwise – humans, he’d found, were always ready to deceive themselves. No one would suspect a monkey might be truly capable of speech. In fact, if questioned, Percival himself would have shrugged his little shoulders and pretended that no one else in his large jungle family had ever spoken a word - the truth being quite the opposite.

Six Months Later:

Word about the monkey’s propensity for charming conversation while sitting prettily at a tea table (he had his own petite china tea set) in a red fez, bow-tie, paisley waistcoat, little tweed jacket and corduroy plus fours, soon got around and before too long, even the Queen herself had requested a special Percival performance. The brother and sister’s success was thus assured. The benefits of a reigning monarch’s approbation were incalculable – the Queen was actually heard to titter. “We are amused.”

The architecturally gothic horror of a house was saved from the indignity of being sold at auction. Hugo and Harry paid their bills, renovated the greenhouse, brought in comfortable furniture, had the walls replastered, papered and/or freshly painted and settled in, for the first time in years, to enjoy their lives. There had even been enough left over for Hugo to purchase the rare plants he coveted.

The plot thickens:

Matters would take an unexpected turn when a year into their ruse and the public having showed no inclination of tiring (children throughout Britain were now often spotted carrying Percival monkey dolls and sales of Percival monkey clothes had never been better), the crafty simian attracted the attention of Martin Cavendish, a reporter who, in the guise of a gentleman (unfortunately in trade, but one can’t have everything) began courting the naive Harriet, attempting to insinuate himself into the lives of the brother and sister.

Harry had, in her first giddy days of imagining her spinster status coming to an end, talked freely (perhaps too freely when prodded by a glass or three of champagne) about Percival LaFarge and what the dear monkey meant to her and her brother.

One evening when a tear in the hem of her gown necessitated Harry’s leaving the room for a few moments and Hugo had just excused himself to fetch a bottle of brandy  - brother and sister being understandably reluctant to hire much staff – Cavendish used the time to investigate the large salon (in which the family received company) for any interesting papers, notes or journals. Surely there must be something, some proof. He had, as yet, been unable to search Hugo's study. 

At the precise moment when he was looking behind a large Henri Matisse portrait of Percival LaFarge, feeling for hidden crevices, the hall door opened and Percival sauntered in holding, with as much disdain as it was possible for a monkey to express, an egg yolk yellow waistcoat, “Harry if you expect me to actually be seen in public in this execrable - !” But he got no further, caught off guard, the monkey took one look at the startled Cavendish and let out an intense oath (learned in his sea-faring days). 

A white faced Cavendish, in his turn, found himself leaning against a wall for support all the while pointing a finger and gasping, “I knew it, I knew it!”

What happened next, happened so quickly that by the time Hugo and Bianca returned, running and out of breath, alerted by the commotion and scream, it was all over.

“What is the meaning of this!?” said Hugo attempting calm, glancing up at Percival who, wearing nothing but pale blue plus fours, was at the moment hanging from the chandelier by one long arm and an even longer tail. The monkey squealed in agitation and did his own pointing - at a large sack which had been flung on the floor.

“That bloody creature bit me!” shouted Cavendish forgetting there was a lady in the room. “He bit me. Look!” He held out a hand and showed them a jagged scratch on his thumb.

“I’m so sorry, Martin. I can’t imagine why Percival – “ she stopped, her look of initial concern turning to suspicion. “Where did this come from?” she asked, picking up the burlap sack.

Percival’s screeching rose to a crescendo and Hugo suddenly realized what the monkey was trying to tell him. “Okay, Percy, I've got it," he said. The monkey instantly quieted down though an unintelligible muttering could still be heard roiling about in his throat. 

"What about that sack?" asked Hugo. "Harry do you remember bringing a sack in here? I certainly don't."

"No," said his sister in a barely audible voice.

“It was on a table," said Cavendish. "Maybe I knocked it to the floor when the monkey attacked me. Monkey bites are nothing to laugh at,” he added when he noticed Hugo’s grin.

“You’ll have to do better than that,” said Hugo.

“Never mind,” said the disgruntled reporter gingerly wrapping a handkerchief around his wounded hand, “That bloody monkey can talk. Try and get out of that one. I heard him. Just now. Clear as day."

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Harry, folding the sack mechanically, giving her hands something to do.

“Please watch your language, Cavendish.” Said Hugo coldly, don’t make me have to knock you to the floor."

The crystal teardrops on the chandelier tinkled softly as Percival swung back and forth, keeping a close eye on events below. This was a side of Hugo he’d never seen before. It was interesting.

“I'm sorry, Harriet," said Cavendish,"but this is news. I suspected there was something strange about that b – that blasted monkey all along. All right, here’s my proposition, I want to be the first to write the story. Give me an exclusive and I'll see that my paper pays you both plenty."

“How could you, Martin, how could you?” said Harry in a choked voice.


W.T. Benda - source

Slightly shame-faced, Cavendish mumbled a few words but Hugo interrupted. "Are you mad? I don't know what you think you heard here today but whatever it was, it was certainly not a talking monkey." He poured himself a brandy. “Look, why don’t we sit down and talk this over calmly.”  He sat on the sofa and gave the appearance of a reasonable man making a reasonable request.

“You can’t fob me off," said Cavendish, "I know what I heard. You’ll have to give him up now anyway." He held up his injured hand. "You can’t keep a dangerous beast in the middle of London. So let me write up my story, interview the three of you and then we’ll see what’s what. You’ve had a good run. But you can’t stop the truth coming out now.”

Percival let out a screech. Startled, the angry reporter looked up and said, “Come down and tell me that to my face, you ugly little freak. They’re going to lock you up and probably cut you open and won’t that give me a laugh."

“Martin!” said Harry with an anguished cry.

Percival swung from the chandelier to the top of a bookcase and out through an open window, grabbed at the vines and climbed up towards the roof.

 “Aren’t you going after him?” asked Cavendish making a movement towards the window.

“There’s no need,” said Hugo. “We couldn’t catch him if we tried. I don’t think he’ll go far.”

“Hugo, do you think I ought to – ?” asked Harry, giving Martin a dark look of loathing.

“Oh yes, you wouldn't want to lose your meal ticket,” said Cavendish with a sneer. At which point, Harry stepped forward and slapped his face, hard.

Hugo pretended nothing untoward had occurred. “Don’t worry, if I know Percy he's just feeling a bit sulky. He'll be back."

With a hand on his cheek, Cavendish sat on the nearest chair, “Why don’t I wait with you then?”

“I think you’d better leave,” said Harry, steely voiced.

“No, I don’t think so, Harry, my dear. That gabby monkey of yours will make for the biggest sensation the world has ever seen. After this I’ll be able to write my own ticket.”

“An excess of hyperbole,” said Hugo as he poured a brandy and handed it to Cavendish. “You can’t prove a thing.”

“Maybe I’d better not drink this,” said Cavendish with raised eyebrows. “I wouldn’t want it to cloud my senses.” He poured the drink into a vase of flowers and watched the water turn a reddish purple.

"How melodramatic you are," said Hugo, grinning. "You don't supposed I'd try to poison you?" 

But Cavendish just lit a cigarette.

The explosive denouement:

Upstairs, Percival opened the metal box he’d found weeks ago and retrieved the object he’d known would come in handy some day. He did what needed to be done with a few deft movements of his long thin fingers then climbed out the window and  back down the way he’d come.

In the salon, brother, sister and craven reporter made for a cheerless evening tableau.
“This is so preposterous,” said Harry after a few minutes. “No one will believe you no matter what you write. Everyone knows that Hugo is a wonderful ventriloquist. Percival is one of the most beloved animals in all England. But. He. Doesn't. Really. Talk."

“How stupid do you think I am? Yes, you had me fooled at first,” said Cavendish with a nod. “But some things here and there didn’t make sense to me. I have a good reporter’s nose. And what I heard this afternoon – with my own ears – proved that I was right. I'm staying here until I get the truth."

Two shots rang out.

“Percy, what have you done?!” cried Harry jumping up from her chair.

“He tried to put me in a sack,” said the monkey, placing the derringer on a table top.

"I'd better find a shovel," said Hugo.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Just a REMINDER, that the FLASH-FICTION CHALLENGE day of reckoning is this coming SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 14th.

Therefore I'm taking the week off to concentrate on my story which still needs to be thought of and written. I've always been a last minute sort of gal.

The following is a link to my original post outlining the rules and for viewing of the three illustrations which have, hopefully, already sparked an idea or if you're like me, will, hopefully, spark an idea in the next day or two .

If you don't have a blog, please send your story along to me in an email and I'll see about posting it.

Even if there are only three or four of us, I'm very much looking forward to reading your stories.


Friday, September 5, 2014

FFB: Doctors and Nurses - The Way They Used to Be.



source - Cover art: Isabel Dawson





source - Cover art: Bob Abbett 1961






source - Cover art: Robert Maguire

source

Remember these? Well, even if you never read them (and I don't think I did) these covers may still be familiar to you on some vague level. If only to remind you (me) that once upon a time nurses went about in crisp white uniforms and starched white caps.

Don't forget to check in at Patti Abbott's blog, Pattnase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tuesday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Television: INSPECTOR ALLEYN MYSTERIES (1990's) starring Patrick Malahide


Some long time readers of this blog may know that once, several years ago, I went on a Ngaio Marsh reading binge and read ALL her mysteries in one fell swoop. I get like that sometimes.

New Zealand born Ngaio Marsh wrote 32 novels all featuring her elegant, handsome and ultra suave detective, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn of the C.I.D. (Metropolitan Police - London) and almost all featuring Alleyn's cohort, Inspector Fox (or B'rer Fox, as Alleyn refers to him).

Later in the series, Alleyn will marry (he meets his testy future wife, painter Agatha Troy, in the sixth Alleyn mystery, ARTISTS IN CRIME). Troy (as Alleyn calls her) will later feature in several of the books: her debut book of course (in which she seems remarkably unlikable and you wonder what Alleyn sees in her but Troy is an acquired taste and she grows on you), as well as in FINAL CURTAIN, A CLUTCH OF CONSTABLES and SPINSTERS IN JEOPARDY. There are probably a couple of others but I can't remember which ones at this particular moment.

At any rate, there will also be a son born to the Alleyns in due time, a charming loquacious boy who makes his especially memorable co-starring debut in SPINSTERS IN JEOPARDY, an odd sort of book which has become a favorite of mine - it's one of several Alleyn books I make a point to reread now and again.

To see a full list of all of Ngaio Marsh's books, please use this link to her Fantastic Fiction page.

Anyway, on to the main subject of today's post, the televised series of the Roderick Alleyn books:

For reasons that remain unexplained, Netflix currently only has six of the nine episodes available for streaming under Season One and Season Two. The remaining three episodes have gone missing for ages now and I've given up hope of ever seeing them anywhere. There also seems to be a pilot episode (1990) starring the more conventionally handsome (not that there's anything wrong with that) Simon Williams (from UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS) as Alleyn, which I've never seen.

Available for viewing now:

A MAN LAY DEAD
THE NURSING HOME MURDER
FINAL CURTAIN
 -and-
DEATH IN A WHITE TIE
HAND IN GLOVE
SCALES OF JUSTICE


The casting, as in most British television programs is brilliant and quirky. Chief Inspector Alleyn who is described in Marsh's books as remarkably handsome is played by the not so remarkably handsome but still remarkably intriguing Patrick Malahide. He is oddly handsome and gently persuasive plus he looks wonderful in his elegant tailored suits and spiffy homburg hat. At least I think it is a homburg. There is something about Malahide (who is best known for playing smarmy bad guys) that is both appealing and menacing. Not the usual sort of casting at all. I like him very much.

Here he is called upon to play an upper class snoot with a slightly mysterious past (he is obviously of the moneyed class and has a titled brother in government) who is devoted to his job, brooks no malfeasance and yet remains likable. Somehow it all works.

Patrick Malahide and Belinda Lang

Malahide even manages to appear hapless when dealing with his lady-love Agatha Troy (the prickly Belinda Lang, another bit of great casting - she is just as I imagined her from the books).

I never did get used to William Simon as B'rer Fox, but that's probably my failing and not his.

The stand-out episode for me, though the entire six are each wonderful in their own way, is HAND IN GLOVE because it co-stars Sir John Gielgud who is one of my all time favorite actors. No one can play 'fussy' and snobby while remaining likable as well as Gielgud does. He is such a pleasure to watch. Here is a man who was one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of any generation and yet he never seemed to mind doing television. Thank goodness.

In HAND IN GLOVE we also have Geoffrey Palmer. The rubbery, gruff faced actor who is well known to many aficionados (myself included) as the unlikely leading man in the British romantic comedy television series, AS TIME GOES BY, opposite Judy Dench. In HAND IN GLOVE he plays the murder victim, a gruff (Palmer makes a specialty of this), pompous and rather nasty individual with a liking for upsetting people.

But all six episodes are worth a good look since besides being unusually faithful adaptations of Marsh's books, they also feature the sorts of wonderful British character actors who seem to grow by the bushel full in merrrie olde England. It is Anglophile heaven for those of us who like to indulge in that sort of thing.


Reminder: Since it's Tuesday, don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other Forgotten or Overlooked Films, Television and/or other Audio Visuals other bloggers are talking about today. We're an exceptional bunch.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Saturday Salon: Wonderful Watercolors

Contemporary painter Gabby Malpas - source

Contemporary Polish painter Grgegorz Wrobel - source

Contemporary Russian painter Galina Vasilyeva - source

Alfred Renaudin (1866 - 1944) Nasturtiums - source

Swedish painter Carl Larsson (1853 - 1919) - source

Scottish painter Sir William Russell Flint  (1880 - 1969) - source

Contemporary painter Bella Foster - source

Giacinto Gigante with additions by a Bornone pupil - The House of Castor and Pollux, Pompeii - source

Contemporary painter Danielle O'Brien - source

Russian painter Catherine Klein (1861 - 1929) - source

Contemporary painter Dana Brown - source

Contemporary American painter Susan Abbott - source

Watercolor is extremely difficult to master as anyone who's tried knows all too well. Oh anyone can splash colors about, yes, but to splash in a disciplined manner, well that's rather a different kettle of fish. Especially since water has a mind of its own.

Friday, August 29, 2014

FFB: DEATH OF JEZEBEL (1948) by Christianna Brand


Since John over at Pretty Sinister Books raves about this particular Brand book and I'd never read it, and since a hard copy of DEATH OF JEZEBEL is difficult to come by without shelling out big bucks, I went ahead and ordered it from audio.com (I joined a while back) and boy am I glad I did.

Yes John, you were absolutely right. This is an ultra-FABULOUS book. I'm not sure it's the best of Brand but close enough. I think I still like SUDDENLY AT HIS RESIDENCE just a teensy bit more. But why quibble. Both books are extraordinarily good.

Christianna Brand is the Queen of Multiple Endings, but in DEATH OF A JEZEBEL she reaches for the stratosphere of multiple endings. Wow. But rather than detract from the thing (or add their own makeshift tedium) as some of these tricky endings do, in Brand's book they just add more and more dazzle to the whodunit atmosphere. Just when you think: AHA! Another clever ending presents itself. Surprise! To me it was obvious that Brand was having a bit of fun with the reader. But when you're a genius you can get away with this sort of thing.

An English pageant, knights in armor, horses, a princess in a tower, a cozy cast of intriguing characters, a locked room murder in full view of Inspector Cockrill (in London for a conference but missing is regular stomping grounds, Kent, where everyone knows who he is and treats him accordingly) and a large audience. The perfect crime? We shall soon find out that where Inspector Cockrill is concerned, no crime is too bizarre or too convoluted to solve.

Isabel Drew (the erstwhile 'princess in the tower' waiting up there to make her pageant entrance on cue) is the 'jezebel' in the title. Bitter, beautiful and bitchy, Isabel thinks nothing of dabbling in a spot of opportunistic blackmail. A clever woman who's been around the block a few times, she is no longer in the first flower of youth and knows her days and nights of opportunity are numbered. A careless sort, Isabel is utterly self-absorbed and oblivious to the feelings of others.

Seven years before, Drew and a male friend participated in a sordid event which led to the suicide of Johnny Wise, a young and impressionable British flyer visiting London from his home base of Malaysia - or as Isabel insists on referring to the place, 'the malaise'. Also involved in the sad affair was the equally young and impressionable Perpetua Kirk (known as Pepi) who was Johnny's fiancee.

Now with World War II finally over, it seems that the past has reached out, determined to seek vengeance for the terrible death of a fair-haired boy whom everyone loved.

When threatening notes are discovered, Pepi asks her old friend Inspector Cockrill to take a hand. She invites him to attend a rather preposterous pageant planned by some of her acquaintances. "Ah, the British and their pageants." mutters Cockrill. But he likes Pepi and wishes she'd get over the events which blighted her life seven years before.

What follows is not only a mystifying locked room murder staged in front of a large crowd of spectators - none of whom sees anything worth noting - but a nasty be-heading as well. Ah, the British and their juicy Golden Age murders.

I'm a sucker for this sort of thing.

My unabridged audio version was beautifully narrated by Derek Perkins.

While Patti Abbott is away from her desk, Evan Lewis will be collecting links at his blog Davy Crockett's Almanack. Don't forget to take a look to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Tuesday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Film: FROM THE TERRACE (1960) starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Ina Balin.


The main reason to watch this movie is Paul Newman at the very height of his incredible Technicolor good looks. And hey, that's quite good enough for me.

FROM THE TERRACE (1960) is directed by Mark Robson from a screenplay by Ernest Lehman - based on the book (with quite a different ending) by John O'Hara. In truth I did try to re-read the book, but it was hard going so one reading, oh-so-long ago, will have to suffice.

This is a typically glossy film of the period except that here it's Joanne Woodward (who usually played a drab) who gets to parade around in jewels, designer duds and platinum hair, not her usual ambience. She has little to do except play a spitefully unfaithful wife whom it is impossible to like. This is difficult because the tendency is always to like Joanne Woodward, here you can say she's definitely cast against type.

David Alfred Eaton (Paul Newman) is a young man on the go. He is the son of a distant self-made business man (Leon Ames) and, if I remember correctly, a mother who drinks, played by Myrna Loy. Alfred has much to recommend him: good looks, drive, intelligence, good looks, pluck, a will to succeed and finally, good looks and uh, well, good looks. Hard to avoid that.


When Alfred meets the blond vision of his dreams, society miss Mary St. John (Joanne Woodward) she is unfortunately already taken, engaged to Jim Roper (Patrick O'Neal) a future doctor. Roper is perfect hubby material for Mary since he practically oozes money and sophistication and is just as shallow as she is.

But Alfred doesn't pick up on the warning signals. He is brash enough to think he's got the world by the tail.

What with one thing and another, the feckless  Mary soon ditches Jim and gets engaged to the besotted Alfred who can't get over his good fortune. Mary has the connections he lacks, she has the society family (which, needless to say, is not overjoyed to see Alfred join their ranks) and best of all, she will be the perfect sort of wife for a young man who plans on hitting it big in business.

Alfred makes himself believe that the hard-to-please Mary wants the same things he does. Uh-oh.



Some time later, husband and wife are on their way someplace, bickering in the car. Poor discontented Mary can't understand that to keep her in the style that she is accustomed to being kept, Alfred must work hard and often be away from home for days and weeks on end. (His work has something to do with airplanes, I think. I'm doing this post from memory just to be contrary.) So what is a lovely, hot-blooded, passionate woman  (cold appearance to the contrary) to do - languish on her own? I think not.

Anyway, while driving along a winter road, Alfred and Mary spot a young boy ice skating on a pond. When the boy plunges through the ice, Alfred pulls the car over, jumps in and rescues him.

It turns out that the boy is the grandson of Felix Aylmer (James Duncan MacHardie) the very wealthy chairman of a Wall Street firm. The boy's father, however, is a round little weasel who though grateful that Alfred saved his son's life, still recognizes in Alfred, an alpha-male rival to reckon with. When old Aylmer offers Alfred a job at his firm, Alfred readily accepts and soon is on the fast-track towards the top. (Goodbye to his airplane business, hello, Wall Street!)

As his marriage disintegrates, Alfred suspects that his wife's old boyfriend Dr. Roper is back on the scene. And of course he is, in fact, he hardly ever left. Honestly, that Mary is such a slut. But she does wear awfully chic clothes.

In the meantime, Alfred is warned by old Aylmer that he (Aylmer) abhors scandal and that if Alfred aspires to join the board of directors, he must avoid scandal in any way shape or form. Uh-oh.

One day Alfred, away on business in Pennsylvania, meets the beautiful and virginal Natalie Benzinger (Ina Balin) and her parents. Natalie's dad owns the business that Alfred's firm is interested in. The Benzingers have a large comfortable home in the country filled with the sorts of things that tell us that they are nice people, comfortable in their own skins - not at all the sort who carry on as most of Alfred's country club friends do. Alfred is bowled over by the family's warmth and Natalie's quiet beauty and manner. In truth, she appears to be the polar opposite of slutty Mary back in their NY penthouse carousing with the good doctor.

Alfred and Natalie are obviously smitten but since nothing can be done about it, they say goodbye.

But one evening Alfred and Mary run into Natalie who's in the city for some shopping. Clever Mary instantly realizes that Natalie and her hubby have met before and that they are in the thrall of some deep emotion.

Back at the penthouse, Mary rubs salt in Alfred's wounds and calls Jim Roper to arrange a date while poor Alfred stands there like a shlump.


Natalie, in the meantime, throws caution to the winds and asks Alfred to arrange a hotel room assignation. Uh-oh.

After a nice love scene (finally) between Alfred and Natalie, photographers break into the hotel room and take pictures of the couple in a clinch. The next day a package of pictures arrives on Alfred's desk.

Remember that round weasel I told you about? The father of the boy that Alfred saved from drowning? Well, his resentment of Alfred has only grown as he's watched Alfred's rapid rise in a company owned by his own family. Not only that, but the weasel has become involved in some nefarious and illegal business dealings which Alfred knows about and refuses to keep secret. Uh-oh. You know where this is headed.

Well, in the end (a dilly as Alfred is about to be named a member of the Board of Directors), Alfred must choose between success and the woman he loves.


The odd thing about this film is the total lack of sizzle between Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (his wife in real life of course) and the crackling sizzle between Paul Newman and Ina Balin. Occasionally Newman's good looks would overpower the women he played against, I mean, look at him. But Ina Balin, who was not conventionally beautiful, held her own. To my eye, they look good together. Go figure.

Joanne Woodward is a wonderful, occasionally powerful actress but her one weakness (if she has any) is that she can be a little distant no matter the role she's playing. Sometimes this works very well for her and sometimes it doesn't. My favorite role of hers (though she was superb in THREE FACES OF EVE for which she won an Oscar) is as the young girl opposite Yul Brynner in the pretty lame adaptation of Faulkner's THE SOUND AND THE FURY. Talk about sizzle.

Brynner and Woodward though they do not have a love scene in the entire film and for most of that he is her overbearing guardian and she just a young gangling, coltish sort of girl, sizzle enough for several films. Brynner's smoulder alone....Well, it did something to me, sitting in the movie audience all young and impressionable.

FROM THE TERRACE features a hefty cast of reliable character actors who help things along. Among them: Myrna Loy, Leon Ames, Malcom Atterbury, George Grizzard, Barbara Eden, Elizabeth Allen, Ted de Corsia (playing very much against type), Patrick O'Neal and Howard Caine as the weasel.

Don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other Forgotten, Overlooked Films, Television and/or Other Audio Visuals, other bloggers are talking about today. We're an esoteric bunch. 

Source of scenes from the movie.

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Selfie. More or less. Mostly less.

Portrait d'Yvette by French avant-garde painter, Francis Picabia, 1942 - source

Except for the hair color, this doesn't look anything like me, let me assure you. The simple and self-centered truth is that I  like this painting because it's not only a 'Portrait d'Yvette' but it's dated 1942, the year of my birth.

Lately I've come across several Yvettes - kind of a weird feeling - in two recently read books (one I finished, one I didn't) and then this portrait today. I'm slightly taken aback since I can't ever remember seeing my name used for characters in fiction. (Except for Guy de Maupassant's short story 'Yvette' which I don't remember reading.) Has that ever happened to you? Well, if your name is Jack, it happens all the time and ho-hum.

But for us Yvettes out here, all this is a memorable and rare occasion.

When I was a kid I disliked my name intensely since it was odd and I always had to spell it out for people and, worst of all, Yvette wasn't conducive to a nick-name. Such are the trifles that make misery for young and tremulous ids.

Friday, August 22, 2014

FFB: SUDDENLY AT HIS RESIDENCE (1946) by Christianna Brand


Far as I'm concerned, Christianna Brand (1907 - 1988) wrote three mystery classics (of those that I've read so far): GREEN FOR DANGER, TOUR DE FORCE and SUDDENLY AT HIS RESIDENCE which I finished just a few days ago.

These three books feature Brand's elusive creation, eccentric British Police Inspector Cockrill, usually referred to as 'Cockie'. If you haven't read them, I recommend dropping everything and doing so forthwith. They are THAT good. GREEN FOR DANGER, of course, was turned into a terrific movie starring Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill.

Another of the brilliant doyennes of the Golden Age of Mystery, Christianna Brand is less well known today than Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers and the like, but to my mind, she was just as fiendishly clever.

Though in this particular book, Brand doesn't do a great job of defining Cockrill except for the fact that he rolls his own cigarettes, smokes like a chimney and wears a straw boater, oddly enough, I didn't find this all that bothersome. For whatever reason, in Brand's brand of mystery telling, the overall impression is so good, re: plot and suspects, that the detective is more or less lost in the shuffle. Not a problem with me though ordinarily it should be.

Maybe it's best that the detective does fade into the background in certain instances.

An English country house mystery is always a good thing. An English country house mystery set during the Blitz (WWII) is even better, especially since this impacts the story very satisfactorily in the end.

Question: Who killed grandfather just as he was about to change his will - yet again? (When will these rich and cantankerous old gentlemen learn that loudly broadcasting a change of will is not, generally speaking, a good idea.)

The March clan gathers at the family estate, Swanswater, to honor the day Grandfather Richard's first wife passed away - she who still rules the roost though she's been dead lo, these many years. Sir Richard's current wife Bella (who had been his mistress during the first marriage)  puts up with this yearly event with a certain amount of stoic fortitude, remarkable in and of itself considering that the older her husband gets, the more he reveres his first wife's memory. Guilt and general petulance will do that to a man.

So much guilt and so much petulance that he is constantly threatening to disinherit one family member over and above another for this or that infraction. So another altercation is hardly unexpected especially when all their nerves are frayed by their own individual needs and deeds, not to mention, the clamor of an on-going war.

Even worse and against his doctor's wishes, Sir Richard, who has a ticky heart, insists on spending the night - alone - out in the Grecian folly (or lodge) where his first wife died, there to muse on the wonderfulness of her being. This naturally disconcerts the family who, for various and sundry reasons, would prefer that Sir Richard not go off by himself to brood, especially in his present state of mind.

His death (at first thought to be a natural occurrence brought on by rancor) is discovered in the morning along with the additional drama of it apparently having occurred in a 'locked room'. The folly was surrounded by freshly sanded paths upon which any intruder OR family member would have left vivid prints had they approached the building. How did the killer get in, do this deed and then disappear without leaving footprints?

Everyone has their own theory and the author gives us enough of them (and enough red herrings) to confuse the issue nicely.

When a second murder occurs and that too has a 'locked room' flavor to it, well, it's almost an embarrassment of riches for Inspector Cockrill who understands almost immediately that the murderer must be a family member.

Among those staying at Swanswater is Bella March's thoroughly spoiled and neurotic grandson Edward who has managed to convince himself and everyone else that he is mad, bad and dangerous to know. So when suspicion lands heavily on Edward - in truth he wonders himself if he didn't do it -  the family circles the wagons. After all, the poor boy can't help the way he is - can he?

SUDDENLY AT HIS RESIDENCE is an intelligent and clever mystery which takes place in a secluded, claustrophobic setting with few suspects and less clearly defined motives than most stories of this type. The murders spring purely from the character of the killer and Cockrill, near the end, pulls off a neat bit of obfuscation in the interest of justice. And even thought the denouement wavers slightly under the heavy weight of a deux ex machina intervention, the thing serves its purpose spectacularly well.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at Patti Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other Forgotten or Overlooked Books, other bloggers are talking about today.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tuesday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Film: THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE starring Dorothy McGuire, George Brent and Ethel Barrymore


Directed by respected film veteran, Robert Siodmak, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE stars Dorothy McGuire, George Brent and Ethel Barrymore.

This is an oddly titled film (based on the novel by Ethel Lina White) because the 'spiral staircase' which, to my way of thinking, should be prominently on display front and center, is rarely on show and when it is, it's shrouded in shadows and hardly visible. (I blame the camera angles.) I kept looking for the spiral - where is it? I'm still not sure I actually saw it.They do show a spiraling staircase in the opening credits - BUT, NOT THE ONE IN THE FILM. I mean, huh?


Not the greatest of films for sure, but it has enough of a creepy quotient that I thought I'd write about it primarily because in the cast are featured two of my very favorite acting nonentities: George Brent and Kent Smith. YES! Together in one film. Proof positive that they are not the same person (my theory as you may know from a previous post) or else it's a dazzling display of movie magic from 1945.

Kent Smith on the left and George Brent on the right. The duo of Mr. Bland and Mr. Blander.

Here they are as dull and wooden as they've ever been. So much so that it's worth watching the movie for them alone. Why? Well, to see just how monotonous two men can be and still get away with starring in films. Perverse I know.

And the third guy (Gordon Oliver) in the cast is just as bad, in fact he's SO bland that if I had to pick him out of line-up, I couldn't. As a criminal he would probably have made big bucks because no one could have ever described him accurately. Other than two eyes, a nose and a mouth, you'd be hard-pressed to go further.

Admittedly, I watched this from beginning to end with a snarky smile on my face, actually thinking that at some point I might begin to like it.. Oh there were a few enjoyable parts, but on the whole, unless you have a contrary sense of humor (sort of like mine) you'd probably be better off seeing something else.

Here's the basic story:

The setting is small town America way back when. People are still using the horse and buggy for transportation, but since silent films have made their debut (and there is a telephone in the house) it could be anywhere from 1894 - 1929 - though the clothing suggests turn of the century. Americans just don't do this sort of thing as well as the Brits, costume and setting-wise. Unfortunately, the entire thing looks very much like a stage play or little theater production. The whole thing (except for maybe a couple of outdoor scenes) was filmed on a sound stage so you get the idea.

At any rate, the first few rather creepy scenes set up the premise: a serial killer is going around strangling 'defective' young women. Of the three victims so far, one limped, one was 'simple', one had a scar - and our heroine, you guessed it, has a perceived defect which sets her up nicely for the murderer. Dorothy McGuire plays Helen, the paid companion (at least that's what I think she is) of an elderly woman who spends all her time in bed, rolling her eyes and making a nuisance of herself as old ladies were wont to do in those days. She's played by Ethel Barrymore who had exaggerated eye-rolling down to a science if you want my opinion.

The whole movie takes place in the space of one day and night so things begin moving right along from the first.

It must be Helen's day off because she's been in town to watch a silent film and is on hand when the latest murder is discovered (in the same building where they're showing the film). This whole early sequence is handled well enough I suppose - especially the eerie close-up of the killer's eye.

Yeah, pretty creepy.

Shortly thereafter, an undaunted Helen is on her way home after being warned by the local constable to be careful since there's a killer on the loose and  it's going to be dark soon - uh-oh, and what's more a storm is approaching. Okay, we'll leave the eye-rolling to Ethel Barrymore.

But luckily, young doctor Parry (Kent Smith) comes by in his buggy and offers her a lift - he's in love with her, you see, and she with him. BUT, there's a fly in the ointment of love: Helen is mute. A terrible experience in her past has rendered her unable to speak. But we're given to understand that it's a kind of hysterical illness and not based on any physical deformity. Too fine a distinction for the killer, I suppose.

The cozy ride is interrupted as a young boy comes to fetch the doctor and so Helen must walk the rest of the way home. She meanders and soon it's dark and the skies erupt with thunder and lightning. (Well, we knew that would happen.) Finally showing some fear, Helen rushes home in the rain, through a tangle of wet bushes and trees and we see the shadowy outline of a dripping man (he's wearing a slicker) lurking in the trees. Yeah, that part was scary. But Helen makes it inside even after dropping her keys and having to flop around in a puddle looking for them. These things will happen when you're in a hurry and a killer is on your trail.

"Get out of this house. NOW!!! Immediately!!! This minute!!!! Don't wait another second!!! Go NOW!!!

Back indoors, we meet the other inhabitants of the huge, silent and rather ugly house. Upstairs in her room there's the bed-ridden Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), a cantankerous old lady who knows that something evil is about to happen - though it would have helped things along if she'd told someone her suspicions - but then there'd be no story. You know how that goes.

Please note that the staircase behind George Brent and Dorothy McGuire is NOT a spiral one. The spiral (more or less) is reserved for the basement stairs glimpsed only in candlelight. 

Then there's her son Professor Warren (George Brent) who does I don't know what in his office downstairs aided by a beautiful secretary named Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) who apparently is no better than she should be having caught the eye not only of the professor but of his younger half brother Steven (Gordon Oliver), a slimy Lothario.


Then there are the 'servants': Mrs. Oates (the wonderful Elsa Lanchester) who cooks and cleans, but she also drinks, and her hubby, the grumbly Oates (Rhys Williams) who does whatever else needs doing inside and outside the house. There's a nurse (Sara Allgood) upstairs who takes care of Mrs. Warren but she really has little to do since old lady can't stand the sight of her. Oh, there's also a lovable bull dog who does even less. But he does get some cute close-ups.

Anyway, from the getgo, the old lady begins warning Helen to get out of the house immediately if not sooner. Though she won't say why. Helen apparently weary of being warned goes about dreaming of her doctor (there's a whole dream sequence showing their wedding which ends in disaster since poor Helen can't utter the magic words: "I do."), seemingly oblivious that evil is about to put the kebosh on her happiness.

Once Blanche is murdered, after stupidly going downstairs to the basement in the dark with only a candle to light the way - what is it with these women??? Dark basement. Candle light. Creepy house. Hasn't she ever read a book?

Well, once Blanche's body is discovered, Helen begins to take the immediate danger more seriously. In the end she shows herself to be a young woman with gumption and oh yes, she does overcome her affliction.


Now that I think back on it, maybe the film wasn't half-bad. But it doesn't hurt to approach the thing with a jaundiced eye and a reverence for banality.

Since it's Tuesday, don't forget to check in on Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other films, television or audio/visuals, other bloggers are talking about today. We're an eclectic bunch.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

FLASH-FICTION CHALLENGE 2014




Okay, FLASH-FICTION CHALLENGE aficionados - are you ready to write up a storm? It's time for another of our little writing phantasmagorias (as I like to call them). This will be our one and only Fiction Fest for the year since 2014 seems to have come and almost gone already. (Where does the time go?)

The rules:

Simply pick an illustration from the three shown above and create a short story around it. Let's not get bulky, try and keep it all to about a thousand words or less. Just realized that a thousand words is nothing much so disregard that and use as many words as you feel your story deserves. Within reason, of course. Maybe a limit of 3,000? 

No prizes except the thrill of writing a story on a dare. Even if you've never written anything like this before, join in. It's all about the fun of seeing what your imagination can come up with. Any style is fine. Any idea will work as long as you keep in mind the illustration and what it might portend. The rest is up to you.

I've arbitrarily chosen September 14th (which is a Sunday) as the date for The Big Reveal. (Is that too much time? If you'd rather it were sooner, make a suggestion in the comments.) So that gives us a month if you're like me and put everything off or simply have too busy a life to just drop everything and take on something new. Plus remember that there's a long holiday weekend in that mix.

So let me know if you'd like to join in (don't be shy, this is NOT a competition) and we'll take it from there.

On September 14th, post the story on your blog. I'll collect the links and post them here as well along with my own story. Then we'll have a nice round-robin of reading and friendly critiquing.

Do try and keep 'expletives' (if any) in your story to a bare minimum. This is a family blog atmosphere and I am a strict task master.

In the final post on your blog, use the illustration you've chosen to write about but make sure you source it as I have and give the artist's name and link to his bio.