Monday, March 30, 2015

Pursuit of Happiness - English Style: the Barsetshire novels of Angela Thirkell

'Summer in Cumberland ' - British painter James Durden (1903 - 1993)

In between vintage mysteries as they arrive on my doorstep or on my new Kindle, I've discovered the delights of the very elegant British writer Angela Thirkell (1890 - 1961). Though Thirkell is considered by some as a 'minor' writer, in my view, she has the slyness and grasp of language of a Jane Austen had Austen lived and written in more modern times. (I must say that Thirkell often makes me laugh out loud and Austen, though very wise, makes me smile and shake my head in recognition but rarely makes me scare the dog with jollified outbursts.)

Thirkell's books are the sort of thing in which nothing much happens except the major and minor exigencies of day to day life, but still, you can't stop reading. Most of her books are set in the fictional county of Barsetshire (much earlier created by the 19th century author, Anthony Trollope) and the stories are all about the countrified life of the British upper classes before, during and after WWII. Every relevant and not-so-relevant thing is seen through a slightly jaundiced eye and described with the author's decidedly wicked wit and most of the books end in the happy embracement of a fortuitous marriage or, at the very least, a providential engagement or two.

At this stage of life, a battered old cynic (like me) really does value a happy ending here and there. But I love it when there is no attendant goopiness to gum up the works - Thirkell eschews goopiness. Her style may hide a hint of cold glitter beneath the surface, but it's up to the reader, I think, to decide just how much of it to unearth.

Thirkell's keen enthusiasm for a Britain that is no more and her casual indulgence of the eccentricities of the British upper (and lower) classes doesn't negate the occasional pointlessness of it. It is pertinent to remember, though, that these are among the sorts of people who kept German bombers at bay in the early part of WWII, did their duty, lived and died and loved their king and country.

A small bit of author bio: Angela Thirkell was the granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, daughter of a Scottish Classical Scholar and Oxford Professor of Poetry and through her mother (daughter of the painter) was also distantly related to Rudyard Kipling and P.M. Stanley Baldwin - according to Wikipedia.

Though some would suppose you ought to read the Barsetshire books in order, I haven't, and yet I'm enjoying every moment spent among the sorts of people whom I very much enjoy encountering in fiction. Such is Angela Thirkell's brilliant finesse that all snobbery is forgotten and forgiven. And the charm, oh the wonderful British charm - maybe in place to make up for the usually odious English summer weather which necessitates the warmth of blazing fireplaces in July and the fortification of copious cups of afternoon tea. But even on those rare occasions when the sun shines, tea and scones are never far away.

I've read nine of Thirkell's Barsetshire books so far, and can only think I found them at just the right time in my life.

Now rather than talk about any one specific book, I'll just quote (at length) from a favorite, AUGUST FOLLY (but Yvette, isn't that the same thing?), which will I hope, give you some idea of Thirkell's style, wit and charm.

I'm also including a link to a comprehensive list all of Angela Thirkell's books and also a page of book summaries, both provided by The Angela Thirkell Society of North America, a terrific place to go to find out more about Thirkell and her work.

"The little village of Worsted, some sixty miles west of London, is still, owing to the very defective railway system which hardly attempts to serve it, to a great extent unspoilt. To reach it you must change at Winter Overcotes where two railway lines cross.

Alighting from the London train on the high level, you go down a dank flight of steps to the low level. Heavy luggage and merchandise are transferred from the high to the low level by being hurled or rolled down the steps. From time to time a package breaks loose, goes too far, and trundles over the edge of the platform on to the line, but there is usually a porter about to climb down and collect it. 

When your train comes backwards into the station, often assisted for the last few yards by a large grey horse and its friends and hangers-on, you may take your seat in a carriage which has never known the hand of change since it left the railways shops in 1887. If it is market day at Winter Overcotes your carriage will gradually fill with elderly women, carrying bags and baskets, who prefer the train to the more expensive motor-bus, children with season tickets coming back from school, and one or two old men who still wear a fringe of whisker... 

...The line meanders, in the way that makes an old railway so much more romantic than a new motor highway, among meadows, between hills, over level crossings. At Winter Underclose, Lambton and Fleece, the train stops to allow the passengers to extricate themselves and their baskets from its narrow doors. It then crosses the little river Woolram and enters a wide valley, the further end of which is apparently blocked by a hill. 

Just under the hill is Worsted, where you get out. The valley is not really impassable, for a few hundred yards beyond the station the train enters the famous Worsted tunnel, whose brutal and unsolved murders have been the pride of the district since 1892.

The line is staffed and controlled by three local dynasties; Margetts, Pattens and Polletts. If a Margett is station-master, you may be sure that there is a Patten in the goods yard, or on the platform. If a Patten is engine-driver, his fireman can hardly avoid being a Pollett. If there is a Pollett in the signal-box, there will be a Margett to open the gates of the level crossing and warn the signalman that a train is coming. All three families are deeply intermarried.

Mr. Patten is the station-master at Worsted. His head porter is Bert Margett, son of Mr. Margett the builder, and his nephew, Ed Pollett, whose father keeps the village shop, is in the lamp-room, and gives such extra help as zeal, unsupported by intellect, can afford. He also has a genius for handling cars. 

The inconvenience of the hours of running is made up for by the kindness of the staff. They will hold up a train for any reasonable length of time if old Bill Patten, cousin of the station-master and father of the second gardener at the Manor House, is seen tottering towards the station half a mile away; or young Alf Margett, Bert's younger brother, from the shop, has forgotten one of the parcels he should have brought on his handlebars, and has to go back to fetch it. Since no trains can proceed until their various drivers have exchanged uncouth tokens of metal, like pot-hooks and hangers, or gigantic nose and ear-rings to be bartered with savage tribes for diamonds and gold, there is no danger.

Most of the land hereabouts is owned by Mr. Palmer, whose property, bounded on the north by the Woolram, runs south nearly as far as Skeyne, the next station down the line. East and west are Penfold and Skeynes Agnes, where there is a fine Saxon church. Mr. Palmer is a J.P., an excellent landlord, and owner of a very fine herd of cows which supply Grade A milk, at prices fixed by the Milk Marketing Board. His wife, in virtue of her husband's position and her own masterful personality, has taken the position of female Squire.

Of other gentry there are few in the immediate neighbourhood. Lady Bond at Staple Park does not count, because she and Mrs. Palmer have not for some time been on speaking terms. There are also the Tebbens, who live at Lamb's Piece, near the wood above the railway. 

At the moment when our story opens, on a warm June morning last summer, Mrs. Tebbens was in her drawing-room, reviewing a book on economics. Happening to raise her eyes to the window, she saw Mrs. Palmer opening the garden gate, so she went to warn her husband."

AUGUST FOLLY, 1936 - by Angela Thirkell

Once I'd read this far, resting comfortably in bed, snuggled under the covers with Rocky at my side, I had no choice but to stay up all that night and read the rest of the book, occasionally laughing out loud and enjoying myself enormously.

I suppose you have to have a bent for this sort of deliciously meandering writing to enjoy it as much as I do, but for those of us who do, Angela Thirkell's books are a gold mine. Put everything aside and go find some.

Need more convincing? Link to this 2008 Angela Thirkell opinion piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the NY Times.

P.S. And yes, I am bound to begin reading Anthony Trollope this year.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The 'Rivers of London' novels by Ben Aaronovitch - Urban fantasy at its lively best.

Something about this series caught my eye somewhere, somehow, and you know how that goes. My local library only had one book available - NOT the first in the series - so I ordered the first, RIVERS OF LONDON (aka MIDNIGHT RIOT), online, read that, then jumped to next to last, the very excellent BROKEN HOMES, which was the one and only title the library had, and then I was on to the almost as equally excellent FOXGLOVE SUMMER  which is the latest book and not the second or the third. Luckily, I'm not anal about reading things in order - except sometimes.

I'm pleased to say that this is a series that just gets better and better and that's not easy to do when I remind myself how absurdly high-concept the first book, RIVERS OF LONDON, actually was. Not an easy act to follow, by any means. This is a hellish brew of CSI, police procedural and Harry Potter, all set in a gritty modern day London and its environs. Lots of gory doings when you involve practitioners of magic, spells and general witch-craftery with the Metropolitan police and even, tiny as the department may be, within the actual police force, since crimes involving skulduggery of the magical sort must, of course, be handled by specialists.

Very understandably, it takes a wizard to catch a wizard - but don't get us started on fairies, unicorns and werewolves, not to mention the gods and goddesses of the River Thames. And no, here they are not, in general, the sugary benign (well, except for the werewolves) creatures we're used to reading about in other venues.

Enter our dynamic duo: the very enigmatic Inspector Nightingale, he of the mysterious background, a cop/wizard who's been around since before WWII and is not necessarily showing his age and his current apprentice (the first in fifty years), the laconic constable Peter Grant who discovers, one night, while out on patrol, that he can see dead people. That is, the specters of the dead.

Needless to say, Grant is immediately recruited by Nightingale - who happens to be lurking about - as a trainee wizard in an adjutant section of the Metropolitan Police Force so secret that most don't know it exists and is only reluctantly called into action when supernatural forces are suspected at a crime scene. (Wouldn't you love to see the guys who bring us Law and Order tackle this one? Bom. Bom.)

This is a London (with occasional trips to the countryside, as in FOXGLOVE SUMMER) not so beloved by tourists, the London of grisly doings, bad traffic and blood-thirsty specters of the night.

In the hands of a less talented writer than Ben Aaronovitch this might have been just another fantasy pastiche, but this guy really knows how to write, seems to know how the police force actually works and better yet, he KNOWS the highways and byways of London - so we have plenty of gritty verisimilitude. It's the kind of deal where while you're reading you're believing that this sort of thing actually exists. Wizard cops, I mean. It all makes some kind of loony sense. Suspension of disbelief. You know how much we love when that happens smoothly and naturally.

Plus the tales are told in first person narration, which I also love. Especially when the narrator, in this instance, the young and often bemused cop/wizard-in-training, Peter Grant, is such a delightful person to spend time with. He is an engaging combo of laid-back cynical with a dash of stalwart and the occasional flash of sleuthing brilliance. Plus, it's interesting to have a hero who is of mixed race (his mother is from Senegal), especially in stories set in London and thereabouts.

All in all, a terrific series well worth your time even if you normally aren't fascinated by this sort of thing which I generally am not. Except when it's this well done.

Warning: There are, here and there, some rather gruesome crimes involved, so take heed. But if I didn't succumb to the vapors, neither should you. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Saturday Salon: An Honest Day's Work

'Pot of Tea and Ice Cream ' - American illustrator  Edmund Marion Ashe (1867 - 1941)

'The Postman' 1931 - British painter Alan Sorrell (1904 - 1974)

Part of Riker's Island Mural 1937 - American painter Harold Lehman ( 1913 - 2006)

'Fireman with Hat', 1992 - Contemporary American painter Steven Assael

'The Manicurist' - French painter and caricaturist, Albert Guillaume (1873 - 1942)

'The Dentist' 1934 - Irish painter Sir John Lavery (1856 - 1941)

'The Piano Tuner' - American painter/illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894 - 1978)

'Valencia Fisherwomen' - Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863 - 1923)

'The Maid' - Australian painter George W. Lambert (1873 - 1930)

'The Concerto' 1935 - British painter and print maker Cyril Power (1872 - 1951)

'Late Night DJ' - American painter Ernie Barnes (1938 - 2009)

'St. Just Tin Miners' 1935 - British painter Harold Harvey (1874 - 1941)

'Autumn' - American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889 - 1975)

French painter Edouard Joseph Dantan (1848 - 1897)

'Covent Garden' - Scottish painter William Bruce Ellis Rankin (1881 - 1941)

'Builders' - Contemporary American painter Steven Huston

'Official Rat Catcher to the city of Birmingham' 1927 - British painter Arthur Charles Shorthouse (1870 - 1953)

Study for 'Last Load of the Day' - American contemporary painter Steve Huston

Daily toil. A prime subject for artists - the perceived nobility of workers in their chosen (or in many cases, not so chosen) professions, trades, occupations, craft, jobs.

 These are some of my favorites by painters and illustrators you may or may not be familiar with.

"Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short, for a sort of life instead of a Monday through Friday sort of dying." - Studs Terkel

Friday, February 20, 2015

Review: MURDER BY LATITUDE (1930) by Rufus King

This book by an author foolishly forgotten has everything you'd want in a mystery and then some. I began reading - not really knowing what to expect - and didn't/couldn't stop until I was over half way through and the only reason I did finally stop was that is was four in the morning. I am now proposing we start a Rufus King Fan Club - with myself as president.

Rufus King (1893 - 1966) was an American mystery writer born in NYC and already seven years old at the dawn of the exciting twentieth century with its influx of new-fangled inventions sprouting right and left and two World Wars on the horizon. He lived long enough to see the advent of most of what we take for granted today. In his time, King was as famous and sought after a writer of whodunits as Ellery Queen and the rest of the American Golden Agers. But have you ever heard of him? Probably not. I had only vaguely done so and have just recently read this one book of his - the others being a bit pricey online.

First a bit of bio from Mike Grost at gadetection:

He [King] was educated at Yale, joined the army in 1916 and later went to sea as a wireless operator. During the 1920's he originated the upper-crust detective Reginald De Puyster in a series of magazine stories. A more famous character, Lieutenant Valcour, appeared in his first novel, MURDER BY THE CLOCK (1929). A further series centered on Stuff Driscoll, a criminologist in a sheriff's office. He [King] also wrote humorous plays with detective themes.

MURDER BY LATITUDE (1930) is one of several sea-faring whodunits written by King and features his laconic NYC cop, Lieutenant Valcour. This time out, Valcour is on board the Eastern Bay's scheduled voyage from Bermuda to Halifax, on the trail of a murderer whom he suspects is on board. Well, you know, this sort of mystery - murder on board ship - is like manna from heaven for me. I fairly leaped into the book. Don't you love when that happens?

The plot:  A chap named Gant, the ship's wireless operator (and incidentally, the ONLY crew member on board who knows how to use the necessary contraption), is ruthlessly murdered after receiving an important message - from NYC police headquarters - which would have given Lieutenant Valcour an eye witness description of a killer. Since of course the killer has destroyed the initial message, Valcour is in a quandary, with several suspects among the passengers and even, perhaps, the crew.

Among the passengers is the enigmatic Mrs. Poole, an older woman in stubborn defiance of her true age, honeymooning with a new and sexy young hubby (her fourth or fifth) whom she's picked up on a Bermuda beach. Though in reality she is only as young as surgery and make-up can make her, she is rolling in dough and, as we know, good looking young men without inclination to earn a living, must have means.

As Valcour surmises, the mystery centers around Mrs. Poole and her convoluted family history. In New York, the initial murder victim was Poole's first husband, an event which does not seem to upset the lady over much.

The other passengers on board the Eastern Bay - an eccentric bunch - are several young men of various attitudes and looks, a couple of spinster sisters, an elderly husband and wife, and a guy who wears high heels. Now I don't know about you, but high heels on a man - even a man obviously meant to be gay, seems a bit much. I can't remember when high heels were ever worn with men's clothing (by men, that is) even way back when. But I'm assuming the author means men's shoes with a raised heel? Not, I assume, women's pumps. I was never sure. But anyway, it's only a minor point. And the guy who wears 'em makes no apology for this idiosyncrasy, so it's soon forgotten and/or accepted as the killer strikes yet again.

Note: At one point in the book, Valcour must decide if the murderer is a woman masquerading as a man or a man masquerading as a woman. Hint: Mrs. Poole had an 'adopted daughter' who she'd tired of and given away when the child was nine years old, never to be seen or contacted again except through yearly drafts from lawyers.

Sexual identity is the unusual main theme of MURDER BY LATITUDE and Rufus King handles this very well. He makes no secret of the fact that Gant, the radio operator, had a close pal among the crew, a pal who is grieving and hoping for revenge. With his help and that of the Eastern Bay's voluble captain, Valcour will use his wiles to ferret out a canny killer who seems always to have luck on his side.

I am duly smitten with Rufus King and Lieutenant Valcour and hope I've convinced you to try this book which is one of the easiest to find online for hardly much money at all. Abe Books is currently my 'go-to' for 'cheap' vintage and I always think if I can't find it there at reasonable cost, it probably doesn't exist. I'm not talking about collectible copies, of course - just decent readable ones.

And for another look at MURDER BY LATITUDE, from another Rufus King admirer, check out The Passing Tramp's earlier review.

Also, we musn't forget John at Pretty Sinister Books, who is also a Rufus King aficionado. Here's his review of King's MURDER MASKS MIAMI, Lieutenant Valcour's last case.

And Vintage Pop Fiction's review of King's, 'Very highly recommended'

Something New

I've begun - with this year's list - to add stars to the books I read during the year. So if you'd like to see how I rate what I read, just check out the 'Pages' list on the left hand side of the blog under, 'Books Read in 2015'. Since I don't know how to make cute little stars, I'm just writing it out in a different though easily legible font. You'll get the idea.

But keep in mind that as a rule I generally like most books I finish or else I wouldn't finish them. And, of course, I don't list a book unless I have finished it. It's just my own pedantic way.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Book Review: HUNTINGTOWER (1922) by John Buchan

It's very early days yet, but any book I read from now on will have to go a mighty long way to thrill and enchant me in quite the same way as John Buchan's HUNTINGTOWER has. What a marvel of a book!

John Buchan: What a man. What an amazing life. What a writer. HUNTINGTOWER is just the perfect sort of book for a cold and snowy February.

I've already read Buchan's THE THIRTY NINE STEPS and know the film well of course, and I'm also reading - very slow-going because I'm reading online - GREENMANTLE. I also have MR. STANDFAST lined up as well - all three titles are Richard Hannay books.

But much as I like Buchan, I don't enjoy reading on my computer screen (don't have a Kindle) so it sometimes takes me as long as a year to finish up a book there. It's just the way I am hard-wired (or not, as the case may be). Having said that, it is so very difficult to beat free down-loading. I'm thinking maybe I'll just get the audible versions at some point. We'll see. I'm slogging along.

But, happily, I picked up a very nice paperback edition of HUNTINGTOWER online and read it through in two nights. This is a Buchan 'romance' in the great tradition of romantic adventures so favored by writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson or Sir Walter Scott though it takes place in the 'modern day' of 1922 or so. But it is also a tale with a dark undertow of unregenerate villainy, outreach of the revolutionary scourge rampant in Russia in the early part of the 20th century.

Our hero is Dickson McCunn, a nice, middle-aged Scottish grocer who has sold his very successful Glasgow emporium (and its two branch stores) to a big chain and is able thereon, to lead a life of leisure.

Dickson yearns for adventure and the romance of the open road. He has a couple of weeks to himself as his wife has gone off to her favorite spa where she '...put on her afternoon dress and every jewel she possessed when she rose in the morning, ate large meals of which the novelty atoned for the nastiness, and collected an immense casual acquaintance, with whom she discussed ailments, ministers, sudden deaths, and the intricate genealogies of her class.'  None of which interest Dickson in the least.

No, he is off on a walking tour of the Scottish highlands - looking for adventure and whatever comes his way. Though cognizant of the fact that, at his age, he really and truly would not know how to deal with 'Adventure' if it did come his way in large doses, Dickson still yearns for, maybe, a small sort of adventure, something appropriate to his nature and stature. To that end he perforce comforts himself with idyllic thoughts, romantic poetry and moody scenery - languid stops amid the heather and the bracken and the crisp beauty of the Scottish hills stir the longing of his soul.

Not to mention frequent stops at accommodating inns along the way:

Now the Black Bull at Kirkmichael is one of the few very good inns left in the world. It is an old place and an hospitable, for it has been for generations a haunt of anglers, who above all other men understand comfort. There are always bright fires there, and hot water, and old soft leather armchairs, and an aroma of good food and good tobacco, and giant trout in glass cases, and pictures of Captain Barclay of Urie walking to London, and Mr. Ramsay of Barnton winning a horse-race, and the three-volume edition of the Waverley Novels with many volumes missing, and indeed all those things which an inn should have. Also there used to be - there may still be - sound vintage claret in the cellars. The Black Bull expects its guests to arrive in every stage of dishevelment, and Dickson was received by a cordial landlord, who offered dry garments as a matter of course...(Dickson having been caught in an exhilarating downpour while perambulating the countryside.)

At the Black Bull the would-be adventurer first meets John Heritage, ex-soldier, erstwhile poet, admirer of the struggling proletariat, absorbed in a book of poetry. A glance convinced Dickson that the work was French, a literature which did not interest him. He knew little of the tongue and suspected it of impropriety.

Presently, and almost quicker than Dickson, perhaps, would have liked, Adventure with a Capital A, descends on him: a beautiful Russian princess in the immediate neighborhood needs saving. She is being held prisoner in a place called Huntingtower, an isolated, abandoned and decrepit manor perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. A princess in a tower. Yes.

But really, is it any of his business? muses Dickson. After all, it may be a hoax. Things like this don't happen in reality. And anyway, he's much too old to be involved in anything this hare-brained.

So, what if John Heritage thinks he has recognized a voice singing in the night? Heritage is younger and stronger - if he fancies himself a knight-errant, so be it.  - let him go off on a wild goose chase. He, Dickson, will continue on his walking tour.

Well, of course, he doesn't, he can't. His own self-esteem will not let him desert a fellow-being in trouble.

What happens next is as thrilling an adventure as anything Dickson could have invented for himself, an adventure which will test him to the very marrow of his being. In addition, he will be introduced to several wonderful - even life altering - characters.

Not only John Heritage, who, after making a bad first impression, turns out to be as stalwart and loyal a friend and hero as anyone could hope to meet, but also, very unexpectedly, young Dougal and his barefoot, skinny and bedraggled band of steadfast Glaswegian 'boy scouts'  (aka the Gorbals Die-Hards) without whose help, the Princess would have surely perished. Then there's the elderly and very canny Scottish villager, Mrs. Moran, whose indefatigable spirit, gumption and notions of right and wrong will, at one perilous point, help save the day.

As for the villains, there are many - even a hunchback with a limp! Thugs, mindless minions, and an evil master criminal who will stop at nothing and arrives at just the right point in the narrative, eager to do his vile worst - exactly the sort of villainy we yearn for - at least in books.

In the meantime, Dickson McCunn has undergone an evolution: the grocer has discovered in himself a man of action, a man who can be counted on, someone who may be relied upon not to quit when the going gets rough. The adventure he craves, arrives and finds him ready and able to heed its call - after an initial bout of disbelief and self-doubt, which I'd add, is only prudent.

John Heritage too has made a discovery - his cynicism has taken a beating - he has found that, despite his early protestations, his soul does, indeed, crave romance. Heritage goes so far as to quote Tennyson (a poet he'd sneered at) quite willingly, finding that, after all, the Victorian Poet Laureate did have relevance.

'And on her lover's arm she leant, 
And round her waist she felt it fold,
And far across the hills they went
In that new world which is the old:
Across the hills, and far away
Beyond their utmost purple rim,
And deep into the dying day
The happy princess followed him'

He repeats the last two lines twice and draws in a deep breath. 'How right!' he cries. 'How absolutely right! Lord! It's astonishing how that old bird Tennyson got the goods!'

What an absolute delight of a tale. I'm in love with the whole idea of the hesitant, middle-aged, secretly romantic English male enjoying scenery, reading poetry and stumbling over an amazing adventure.  I also love the idea of an odd bunch of willing help-mates who will fight to the death - if need be - to save the princess in peril. Honor's the thing here. I love that too - old fashioned notion as it may be. Such a wonderfully developed and dramatically exploited tale. I can't wait to read it again.

Found my copy at Abe Books for very little money.

Lots of love going on in this review, but I simply couldn't help myself.

Friday, January 30, 2015

My Vintage Haul

Over the past month or so, I've scored a nice bunch of vintage books online (and not as I would have preferred, digging around in the back room of an old and musty bookstore), STILL, it's better than not having them at all. 

Shall I set aside what I'm currently reading and dive into my new stash?

How do you handle a new onslaught of books in the mail? It's so hard to stop the hankering to drop everything. 

I mean, look what I have sitting here, simmering and waiting:

THE FOUR FALSE WEAPONS (1937) by John Dickson Carr. 
A Henri Bencolin mystery. This is only my second Bencolin book. The creepy-crawly CASTLE SKULL is still the one and only of this French sleuth's adventures I've ever read so I'm really looking forward to my second sojourn with the suavely eccentric Parisian. For some odd reason I've always thought that CASTLE SKULL was the one and only Bencolin book - link to my review.

DEATH IN THE FOG (1933) by Mignon G. Eberhart
Ooooh, this one sounds all dark and spooky and as we know, Eberhart loves things that go bump in the night. I remember reading this author years ago but for the life of me I can't remember what books of hers I actually read - this was in the time before I kept a reading record. (If I'd known that my memory was going to go bust, I certainly would have begun recording my reads much earlier.) I did read WHILE THE PATIENT SLEPT (that much I do remember) a while back and wrote about it on the blog. Link to my review.

Next: A lethal anthology: LETHAL LADIES featuring three novels, two of which I've NEVER read and one which is long overdue to be re-read: 

THE LADY VANISHES (1936) by Ethel Lina White (the novel upon which my second favorite classic Hitchcock film is based). I've never read any of White's books so this will be a double pleasure I'm sure.

LAURA (1942) by Vera Caspary I've never read any books by this author but of course I love and am very familiar with the Otto Preminger film starring Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney. Very eager to read the source material of one of my  favorite films.

REBECCA (1938) by Daphne du Maurier Read this many, MANY years ago, love the film with Olivier and Fontaine and well, it's just time for a re-read. A good book for a cold winter night.

Next: An Alistair Maclean Anthology: 

H.M.S. ULYSSES (1955) 

Am I in heaven or what?

Oh, mustn't forget to mention: HUNTINGTOWER (1922) by John Buchan -  It arrived early, a few weeks ago - my review will be up and running just as soon as I can manage it. Hint: I LOVED THIS BOOK!!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Favorite Books of 2014

2014 was a great reading year. In fact, I read so many wonderful books that it was more difficult than ever to cull my absolute favorites. For this end of year list I've excluded re-reads as it is to be assumed that, generally, if I re-read a book, it's because I loved it the first time and want to repeat the experience. So, without further ado, here are my Top Ten favorite first time reads of 2014 plus five runners-up.

1) LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson - Yvette's Book of the Year. Thinking back over the year and if I had to pick just one book to recommend, this would be it. My review.

2) WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE? by Maria Semple - Yvette's Runner-up Book of the Year. The second book I'd recommend most from the past year. Another popular choice that, unexpectedly, lived up to the hype. My review.

3) THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY by J.R.R. Tolkien. An absolutely wonderful reading experience. My favorite of the three - to my surprise - THE TWO TOWERS, the second in the trilogy. (I was beguiled by the walking and talking trees.)

4) THE BONES OF PARIS by Laurie R. King. Paris in the twenties. An eerie tale of dark doings, creepily inclined 'artists' and ex-pats, a missing girl, and a down and out detective. My review.

5) ASSIGNMENT IN BRITTANY by Helen MacInnes. The author's second book - a fabulous WWII spy thriller not to be missed. My review.

6) THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY by Gabrielle Zevin.  Absorbing and engaging. A moving novel about spiritual loneliness, the love of books, the workings of a bookstore and the often confounding unexpectedness of life. A.J. Fikry is an emotionally detached, woebegone (and rather cranky) widower who owns a bookstore in a place called Alice Island in which he is fortunate enough to be the only game in town - book-wise. When I read that a book is about 'redemption and reformation' I usually run the other way. Those two words mean 'book club book' to me and that's not my gig. But occasionally one will slip in under my guard. This one did and boy am I glad.

 7) FROM LONDON FAR by Michael Innes. A wildly energetic and very odd thriller /farce combo from the erudite Mr. Innes. An Alice in Wonderland story with a middle-aged philologist named Richard Meredith in place of Alice and a tobacconist's shop cellar in place of the hole in the ground. Very strange, but I loved it.

8) SUDDENLY AT HIS RESIDENCE by Christianna Brand. 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. Who killed grandfather as he was about to change his will yet again? The eccentrically inclined Inspector Cockrill is called upon to find a very clever killer. My review.

9) THE SILKWORM by Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling (The first book, THE CUCKOO'S CALLING was also excellent, but I think I liked THE SILKWORM just a tad more.) In the second book in the Cormoran Strike series, Rowling takes on the dark asides of the publishing industry with gusto. Owen Quine, a pretentious, pompous, untalented and unloved writer with a taste for Jacobean dramatics, goes missing and his hapless wife asks Strike to find him primarily because she's run out of money. One grisly murder discovery later and said wife quickly falls under suspicion.

I am very eagerly looking forward to the next Cormoran Strike mystery.

10) FLETCHER'S END by D.E. Stevenson. I fell in love with the house first, then the characters. Fletcher's End is an old and decrepit house on the outskirts of a country village. The current owner, a young naval officer away on sea duty is looking for a quick sale. But with only an old caretaker 'in situ' and no real attempt to keep up the property - the garden is a jungle - the years pass and the house continues to sit empty and forlorn.

Enter Bel and Ellis Brownlee, happy newlyweds who are looking to settle in the country. They, with the convenient help of an architect friend, will discover that Fletcher's End has fine bones, beautiful structure and, with a few adjustments, is just the perfect place for them to begin their new life together. I adored this book and plan on re-reading it. In fact, I also mean to get the audio version. My review


I loved these books too. Really, in my view, you can juggle all of these fifteen, pick one or two and not come up with a loser in the bunch. (In fact, I loved most of the books I read this year. That's a problem when compiling this sort of list.)

11) SARAH MORRIS REMEMBERS by D.E. Stevenson. My review

12) QUEEN LUCIA, MAPP AND LUCIA, LUCIA IN LONDON by E.F. Benson. My review (Yes, I know I've listed three books, but it's all of a piece.)

13) THE DOG WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD by Alexander McCall Smith. My review

14) MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY by Winifred Watson. 
My review

15) THE VERGE PRACTICE by Barry Maitland. My review

A listing of all the books I read in 2014 (or for that matter all the books I've read in the past five years in which this blog has been 'in business') can be accessed at any time from the link on the left hand side of my blog under 'Pages'. But here's the link again, just in case you missed it. 

Since I rarely finish a book I don't like, most of the books on this list are eminently readable and quite a few of them I've reviewed. But this year there is an exception and that would be a rather unpleasant Margery Allingham book, THE FASHION IN SHROUDS which was finished by me only because someone had recommended Allingham highly and I'd heard of her Albert Campion series, of course, through the years. Horrible book. I won't make that mistake again.

One of these days I may decide to 'star' the titles on my list. But not just yet.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Detail from a J.C. Leyendecker Saturday Evening Post cover.

Wishing my family and all my friends, a VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR!  

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

MERRY CHRISTMAS! May God bless us every one.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Yet Again: My Favorite Quirky Christmas Movies (Heavy on the Quirk)

With your indulgence, this is a revamp of previous Christmas film posts. Nothing new is ever added, I stubbornly hold to the belief that nobody knows how to make this sort of movie anymore. 

1) MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS (1934) is watched religiously by me every year either at Thanksgiving or Christmas. It is ritual. I know the songs by heart and can often be heard  humming along tunelessly with the music and if I'm really in the mood, I'll sing the words too. When it comes to this movie I am incorrigible. Laurel and Hardy, Santa Claus, Little Bo-Peep, A cello playing Cat, A bomb throwing monkey and Boogeymen - what more could you want? 

My original review for you purists out there.

Do not, whatever you do, fall for the 'colorized' version, it is blech. Stick to black and white, if you can find it.

2) THE THIN MAN (1934) Obviously '34 was a good year for Christmas movies. The very suave and sophisticated Nick and Nora Charles solve a murder or two, drink endless martinis, kibbitz in Manhattan's best eateries and dives, and celebrate Christmas with a hotel room full of wise-cracking NY riff-raff. Again I ask, what more could you want? And when was the last time you saw a movie featuring someone named Minna Gombell? I ask you.

Poor hapless Minna looks perpetually shell-shocked. I think it's the eye-makeup. Elizabeth Arden it ain't. And note that her very icky gigolo-hubby is played by none other than the still-to-be-suave Cesar Romero.

3) AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS (1951) If you can find this early black and white television version, then this is the one to watch. A short opera written for television by Gian Carlo Menotti (who was one of the directors), it remains fixed in my mind and heart as sheer Christmas perfection.

Three Wise Men (Three Kings, actually), following their star, must stop and rest for the night and choose the very humble abode of a desperately poor widow and her young, mischievous, handicapped son who hops about on a crutch and can't help getting into trouble. He's very inquisitive, you see.

There's no cuteness though, it's all just glorious singing to glorious music as well as some dancing villagers and, near the end, a miracle. If you've never seen this, you're in for a wonderful treat. This unique production is one of several reasons I am a life-long opera fan.

4) LADY ON A TRAIN (1945) starring Deanna Durbin as a ditzy society babe, out from under the watchful eye of her indulgent dad, just in from the coast to spend Christmas in NY with her aunt. But as the train pulls into Grand Central the deb spots a murder from the window of her compartment and the hunt is on for a killer. (What else is a nicely bred young lady to do in NYC on Christmas eve?) 

There is a cast full of character stalwarts from the forties, including Edward Everett Horton (with, truthfully, not much to do), David Bruce, Ralph Bellamy (at his ultra creepy best), Dan Duryea (equally creepy, he just can't help himself), Elizabeth Patterson, Allen Jenkins and George Coulouris, there to prop up Miss Durbin who does a creditable job playing the ditz who drives everyone crazy. 

She even gets to sing Silent Night (in close-up) over the phone to her dad out in California. 
Here's my original review, if you're so inclined. 

5) THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1942) starring Bette Davis, Monty Woolly, Reginal Gardiner and Ann Sheridan in a loony tale of a famous New York radio personality/curmudgeon who is forced by circumstance - a slip and fall incident - to spend the holidays in the home of a 'normal' small town midwestern family (with money) whose lives he upsets in a hilarious and often fiendish variety of ways. This is SO much fun and as the quips and insults fly by quickly - you gotta' pay attention. Bette Davis plays quietly sweet (if gently acerbic) very well as the curmudgeon's secretary and general factotum.

Note: An adorably engaging impersonation of Noel Coward by Reginald Gardiner almost steals the movie from the ferocious Monty Woolley whom I adore.

Here is fellow movie maven Dorian's take on THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. Hint: She loves it as much as I do.

LADY IN THE LAKE starring Robert Montgomery, Audrey Totter and Lloyd Nolan. Based on Raymond Chandler's book. Spend Christmas with Phillip Marlowe and solve a murder, meet a gaily dressed gigolo and solve a murder or two while you're at it. My original review

Of course there are many versions of Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL, but this year I'm choosing the one originally made for television and starring the superb American actor George C. Scott, (he had that curmudgeon face down pat). Scott's English accent isn't very good, but it doesn't seem to matter, it all works for me. He really is wonderfully touching.

SUSAN SLEPT HERE starring Dick Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Anne Francis, Glenda Farrell and Alvy Moore. A saucy comedy in which Debbie plays a seventeen year old truant who takes an improbable detour at Christmas - brought about by the machinations of two soft hearted L.A. cops. Susan aka Debbie, lands in the apartment of man-about-town screenwriter Dick Powell whose dragon queen fiance is played to the absolute hilt by an all but snarling Anne Francis.

Yes the age difference between the two principals is a bit of a stretch, in truth, Powell is old enough to be Debbi'es father, though on screen he's supposed to be in his late thirties - yeah, right. Well, Susan does turn 18 during the course of the story so that makes her legal - just. There are no real love scenes so not to worry. It's all just light and frothy Cinderella fun. But if you're of a serious turn of mind, then skip it.

Here's my original review.

CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT starring Barbara Stanwyck , Dennis Morgan and Sydney Greenstreet. Barbara Stanwyck plays Elizabeth Lane, a magazine food writer whose warm-hearted articles about hubby, baby, home and hearth on a Connecticut farm are followed religiously by women all over the country. The only trouble is that Liz is single, doesn't know how to cook, and has no real love for the country which is just as well since she doesn't really have a farm in Connecticut.

Over Christmas she is forced to make this fantasy life come true for her boss, publisher Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet in a rare benign performance) who insists on spending a real old fashioned Christmas with Liz and her 'family' as they welcome home a war hero played by Dennis Morgan. Uh-oh.

A Christmas delight of confused identities and happily ever after.

Where are WHITE CHRISTMAS and HOLIDAY INN? Not quirky enough. Besides I'm not a fan of Bing Crosby.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Please pardon my disappearance...

I've been ill - spent Thanksgiving bed-ridden and feeling very 'woe is me' - you know how that goes. I'm slowly getting back to normal, but today's 'Forgotten Film Tuesday' post will probably not appear until tomorrow or the day after and at that it will be in the guise of My Favorite Christmas Films.

I'll follow that up next week with a list of My Favorite Books of the Year and then that will be it for December and into January. I really do need some time off to begin my new venture (if my freakin' health will allow it). That is, a brand new portfolio of art which I'm very excited about.

So I guess that means I'm un-retiring.

But ladies and gents, I'm a slow-worker. I need time and 'space'. Something has to give and that will be my blogging duties, at least for the near future.

I'll still be around, just not as regularly.

So bear with me, I'm a crazy old lady with dreams.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

10 Romantic Films to Cuddle Up With in a Snowstorm

Dee Nickerson - source

Snow is a'coming round the bend on the morrow - or so they promise. Plus it's Thanksgiving Weekend as well. Time for family, friends, good food, good films, good books. So I thought I'd revamp a couple of older posts primarily because I seem to be plagued lately by an attack of the 'what goes around, comes around' or words to that effect.

10 assorted films that make you 'sigh', along with a few runners up at the end. This is a re-working of two film posts from two years ago but I thought, 'what the heck', I love these films and never tire of talking about them. At my advanced age, I seem to go in a lot for repeating the things I'm most fond of (hence my current Re-reading Martha Grimes Marathon) - just wait, it will likely happen to you too. Why romance now? Well, why not? So, just in case you missed these the first time around:

(Warning: Stand by for overblown language. Romance and overblown often go together - at least in my mind.)

1) Jean Cocteau's LA BELLE ET LA BETTE (1946) Starring Jean Marais and Josette Day.

In my consideration, the most romantic film of all time. At least, my own favorite romantic film of all time. In its expert, occasionally startling visualization (the film often looks as if it takes place inside a darkened snow globe minus the snow). Cocteau reveals an enrichment of gorgeousness such as hasn't been seen on film since; dazzling imagery and the gift of a rampaging imagination capable of visualizing 'romance' as no one else ever had or has. If this is too overblown for you, my language, I mean, then so be it. I run out of superlatives.

(And for God's sake, if you haven't seen it and choose to do so, please see it in French with subtitles. The language, the sound of it, is part of the mysterious presence of the film. Though, of course, if you speak French, I imagine this would be less so.)

Starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.

An unique film that refused to leave my conscious/sub-conscious thoughts for days and days when I first saw it. Even now, I can still visualize certain scenes and some of the spare, bitter dialogue. (This is one of those films that you just never can forget.) This is a story of thwarted love that, at any moment, might have been otherwise had 'society' been otherwise. 

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is the story of two young men, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, dirt-poor, end of the road Wyoming sheep herders, wannabe-be cowboys, and the summer on Brokeback which indelibly marks them for the rest of their lives. Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger are both fearless actors and hold nothing back. They make you believe in what is happening.

Annie Proulx's short story is quietly and honestly told (not a single wrong note) by master film maker, Ang Lee. Yet, somehow, despite the bleakness at its core, it is a lovely, lovely film full of nuance and images seared in the heart.

When was the last time you saw a film and simply ached for the characters? BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is one of my all around favorite films of all time primarily because of the lasting impression it made on me.

Starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert

At the height of their attractiveness and screen power, there was no one quite like Gable and Colbert. And to think they hated making this picture and thought it would be the biggest flop of their careers - instead they all (film-makers included) won Oscars. One of the very few times a comedy has been so honored in Hollywood.

I saw this recently and again was struck by how well it holds up. The charm of it never grows old. Colbert is perfection in her part as the confused, spoiled, rich (but intelligent) runaway heiress who comes to rely on reporter Gable (she doesn't know he's a reporter) to guide her through the tricks and traps of the everyday world of folks who work for a living. She's come crashing down from her high tower (jumped off a yacht on her wedding day) and must now learn to navigate in murky waters she knows little about. Wise-cracking Gable has rarely been better. He is superb as the reporter who sees Colbert as his meal-ticket to Big Time journalism.

The film is scattered with the kind of superb character actors this golden era is noted for. Stand-outs: Walter Connolly as Colbert's rich, financier father. This guy made a career out of playing rich fathers. He exemplified them. I think he was born playing one. I love him. And of course there's also, Roscoe Karns about whom very little needs to be said. This guy was born with a wise-crack in his mouth.

4) MOONSTRUCK (1987)
Starring Cher and Nicholas Cage

Who would have thought that songstress Cher could act? Could carry a whole film on her shoulders? Could fashion the movie slap heard round the world? Not me, that's for sure. But Cher is unstoppable, unsinkable. The unflappable Miss Cher became a movie star in this film. (She won an Oscar too.)
And rightly so.

I'll never forget the scene at Lincoln Center: she, beautifully dolled up to meet Nicholas Cage, the loony bread-maker with the leather hand, their first and only date, to see LA BOHEME. After playing most of her part with graying hair and little make-up, she's a knock-out. Sigh. Of such stuff are dreams made. (I'm a woman and I'm not gay and yet I still felt the tug of her allure.)

It's not only Cage that falls in love with Cher in this movie. She is radiant. Matter of fact, it's the only film in which I've EVER liked Nicholas Cage. The very satisfactory ending round the kitchen table in the family's brownstone in Brooklyn, is just perfect. And by the way, this is one of those films that makes the simple warmth of family (even if some of them are nuts) devoutly to be wished for. And another by the way, this film introduces some of us to the elderly and charming Italian actor Feodor Chaliapin, who plays the eccentric grandfather in the film with very little spoken language, followed about by his gang of about 8 smallish dogs. The entry scenes of the dogs and the grandfather are highlights in the film.

Starring Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan

I've seen all the Tarzan films over the years - the Weismuller ones and others - but this remains my very favorite and, to my mind, the most romantic of what is, essentially, a series of jungle romances. (When they try to be anything else, they fail.) Though TARZAN THE APE MAN (the first in the series) could give this one a run for its money. If it weren't for the nude underwater scenes shot as if they were ballet (in TARZAN AND HIS MATE), I'd switch the numbers around. These scenes were censored when the film was originally aired on TV and for many years thereafter. Then, finally, they were returned to their rightful place. (Thankfully they weren't destroyed.) The last two times I've seen the film, the sequence was there.

The film also implies that Tarzan and Jane have, somehow, gotten married in the interim between this film (second in the series) and the first. But of course, we know better. I mean, who was there to marry them? They live on the freakin' Mutea Escarpment where the only neighbors appear to be animals, blood thirsty cannibals and other assorted unpleasant native tribes.

Well, either/or, this time out, Jane's friend Harry Holt, from the earlier safari which brought her to Tarzan's attentions and Holt's friend, a rather unscrupulous type, Martin Arlington, played by Paul Cavanaugh (in need of the fortune the cache of ivory in the elephant's burial ground would bring) head back to the Escarpment, a perilous journey every step of the way.

This film is notable for several things. The gorgeous nude underwater scenes. Maureen O'Sullivan (at least it looks like her, not a body double, though you never know) and Johnny Weissmuller, he in only his Tarzan regulation loin-cloth. They swim for several beautiful minutes, all underwater. (He has ripped a dress off her just before they dive in.)

The gown (among several outfits, dresses, hats, shoes etc.) was brought from England by Harry and the vile Martin in hopes that Jane, as a woman, would be shallow enough to be swayed by fripperies into returning to England with them. Do these men know women or what?

They've even brought a wind-up record player which, by the way, scares the hell out of the native bearers and transfixes Tarzan. The lascivious Martin, openly drooling over Jane who has tried on one of the gowns, dances with her - Tarzan should have dealt with him then and there.

Otherwise, Jane's fetching little jungle outfit is the scimpiest it will ever be. Between this and the third film, the censorship board came into being and Jane shows up in later films in this ridiculous neck to mid thigh outfit that just used to make us laugh. She became then and forever, Jane the mom.

There is also, unaccountably, one nearly nude scene in the film's beginning when Martin strips for a bath in a portable tub while having a conversation with Harry Holt. The only thing that prevents us seeing Martin's spare parts are a timely arrival of a servant who steps in front of the camera for a moment. Lots of nudity going on here. But all tastefully done. It does make you wonder, though...What? Oh sorry, my mind...uh, wandered.

A fun film. And never has the magic attraction between Weismuller and O'Sullivan been more apparent. I love it.

6) GIGI (1958)
Starring Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan, Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold.

This delightful, and at its core, somewhat sophisticated story of courtesans and the men who keep them, is based on the novels of the French turn of the century writer, Collette. The story was adapted expressly for the screen and turned into a musical French pastry (as only Hollywood can) by director Vincente Minnelli and writers Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.

Leslie Caron plays the young Gigi, a schoolgirl being trained for eventual duties by her grandmother and grand-aunt, both 'retired' courtesans, one more successful than the other. Gigi goes to her wealthy great-aunt's beautiful Parisian flat every day after school for lessons in deportment, the proper way to judge jewels and wines and how to clip cigars so the man won't have to do this little chore. Oh, and how to eat these annoying little bony birds with knife and fork and talk while chewing without opening the mouth. These are some of the funniest scenes in the movie. Leslie Caron is perfection as a girl judged a bit 'backward' by her family. She is viewed as too gauche, straight-forward and gasp, perhaps too intelligently precocious. How will they ever turn her into a 'proper' member of the courtesan class they do not know.

Louis Jourdan is also perfection as Gaston Lachaille, the wealthy Parisian man about town who, at a relatively young age, is already bored to tears with life. When his uncle, Maurice Chevalier, ever the zesty optimist tries to chivy Gaston out of his doldrums by proclaiming, in song, all that Paris has to offer, Gaston grimaces, "What a bore!" He refuses to be happy except when he's in the company of Gigi and her grandmother in their little flat with bright red painted walls. There he can be himself.

And by the way, isn't Gigi a delightful child? One very telling scene: when Gigi (spurred on by her grandmother and grand-aunt when they sense which way the wind is blowing - Gaston-wise), puts on a 'grown-up' sort of gown, Gaston, caught off guard, is affronted by the sight and storms out of the apartment. He has not seen what is happening right in front of his eyes. Gigi is growing up.

This is the most wonderful moment in the film for me, when Jourdan who is not a singer, still manages the song by Lerner and Loewe. As Paris slowly darkens around him Gaston walks, aimlessly with his dark coat, top hat and walking stick - such a dashing figure - so confused and unsure.

"Gigi, am I fool without a mind or have I really been too blind to realize?" Sigh! Double sigh!

Before you can sing a second chorus of the The Night They Invented Champagne, you will guess what happens next. The film is a delicious whirl of nights at Maxims, beautiful women, handsome men, champagne, sparkling jewels, gorgeous costumes, heartbreak, dramatic suicide attempts, reunions, and everything else frothy you can think of when it comes to turn-of-the century Paris. Shot on location, GIGI is a visual feast from beginning to end. Oh, and of course there's Maurice Chevalier at his most bon-vivant. What a charming personality. Just thinking about him makes me smile. He is superb as an aging roue who, somehow, still manages to stay young in spirit. "Thank heaven for little girls, for little girls grow bigger every day. Thank heaven for little girls, they grow up in the most delightful way."

(This is probably a sentiment that could not be expressed today without horrifying the politcally correct, but back then, delight in the difference between the sexes was still an allowable emotion.)

If you love Romance (with a capital R) and the whole idea of being in love, even if you're currently not, you must love this film. The funny thing is that though this is one of the most romantic films ever, there's really not a single love scene between Gaston and Gigi. It's all implied. Perfection.

7) A NEW LEAF (1971)
Starring Walter Matthau and Elaine May (who also directed)

Who would have thought that Matthau would make an excellent leading man in a romantic comedy? I mean, his was not, exactly, the handsomest facade in movies. We chatted about this for a moment or two over at Pattinase's blog - Matthau as leading man. Patti made a very wise observation, she says that Matthau had an 'impishness' about him. And it rang the bell for me. Yes! It was there in the eyes when he turned it on and the camera always picked it up.

It is this quality that stood him heads and tails above the handsome, glittering movie-star leading men of his era. Plus, the fact that Matthau practically steals every scene he's in AND thus is able to carry a movie effortlessly on his shoulders. There are some actors like that. Matthau was one of them. There may never be his like again.

I wrote about A NEW LEAF here on the blog a while back. So really, I have nothing more to add except: see this oh-so-wonderful film! If you haven't, already, that is.

8) TOP HAT (1935)
Starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

Oh the plot, the plot, the plot makes little sense except that somehow, it all works. Here goes: Ginger Rogers meets Fred Astaire in London. He is a dancing star working on a show produced by his friend, Horace Hardwick, played by the inimitable Edward Everett Horton. Through a series of missteps Ginger thinks Fred is married - she's mistaken him for the Horace Hardwick character.

Fred is staying in Horton's hotel room because the hotel is full or some other nonsense. That night, while showing Horace his new steps, Fred's tap-dancing wakes Ginger who is sleeping in the room below. Fred goes downstairs to see what the fuss is about since Ginger has complained to management that the guest upstairs from her is making it impossible for her to sleep. ANYWAY, once they meet, Fred is instantly smitten.

Ginger is a model working for a designer played by the wonderful Erik Rhodes (Alberto Beddini, a priceless caricature of an Italian designer who refers to himself in the third person), showing off his clothes in various tourist spots around Europe. (I think that's what she does, not sure.) Well, Ginger and her friend Madge, played by Helen Broderick, (who is married to Horace but, for some reason, Ginger has never met him, at least until the tap-dancing incident, she thinks.) go off to Venice for the weekend so that Ginger can get away and think things through. They're joined there by Fred who has followed Ginger and Horace, who is meeting up with his wife Madge. Get it?

Now this is a Venice never dreamed of except in Hollywood. It beats even the one in Las Vegas. What an immaculately perfect place, everything white and sparkling. Such gorgeous, gleaming effervescence, the enormous hotel rooms, the set decorations, the gowns, the men in black tie, anyone likely, at any moment, to break out in song and dance.This was the age of art-deco writ large across the silver screen, mostly in dazzling white against black. It was all a lovely musical dream. An era that will never come again.

Once there, all sorts of further missteps are taken by our little group, though not, of course when Fred dances with Ginger to the tune of Irving Berlin's Cheek To Cheek. (Ginger wearing the famous feathered gown which Fred and the director had thought impractical since feathers fall off the dress as they move about, still I love the way Ginger looks in it.) OMG, no wonder she falls in love with him. Fred Astaire had the knack, once he started dancing, of making women swoon with very little effort. When he and Ginger get to the end of this particular number, she gives him such a wondrous look, really as if he'd actually just made love to her. Which, I suppose he had, in dance. Wonderful scene.

Anyway, after a few more missed connections, Ginger marries her ludicrous designer boss, reasoning that Fred wouldn't dare come after a married woman. But then, after yet another mis-understanding, it turns out that Ginger isn't REALLY married, Madge finally figures out what's going on and sets Ginger straight. All is forgiven. Edward Everett Horton gets a black eye and Ginger and Fred dance off into their happy ending.

Starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn

Cary Grant at his zenith. Katherine Hepburn at hers. Both at the top of their comedy game. Who couldn't love this movie? He plays a befuddled, distracted paleontologist who is about to be married to the wrong woman (not Hepburn). They both work at a small museum which is desperately short of grant money. Despite being socially inept, he must figure out how to get an endowment from a wealthy type he's never met. In the meantime he is putting together the huge skeleton of a brontosaurus. (They're not called brontosaurus now, but you know what I mean.)

In his search for an endowment, Grant is off to Connecticut to try and meet up with a certain society-type money-man. There he makes the mistake of running into Katherine Hepburn who plays a scatter-brained, very wealthy society girl who, instantly, falls in love with Grant and spends the rest of the movie chasing him. Basically that's it. Oh, there's a leopard involved too, the 'baby' of the title. Two leopards, really. One sent from Africa as a gift for Hepburn and one escaped from a circus - one sweet-natured, one not. Lots of confusion when one leopard is mistaken for the other. And last, but not least,there's a funny little monster of a dog who practically steals all the scenes he is in.

Not only are Grant and Hepburn wonderful (they seem made to play these sorts of roles with ease and finesse), but the supporting cast of characters is top-notch as was often the case in films of this era. There are hilarious scenes at Hepburn's family's country estate where Hepburn steals Grant's clothes so he can't leave and he's forced to wear one of her dressing gowns, jodhpurs and riding boots. (The only clothing he can find in that moment.) He walks around adjusting his eyeglasses and looking absolutely lost at sea.

In the meantime, the small monster dog (really a wire-haired terrier) has stolen the fossil bone Grant had been carrying around (for reasons I can't remember). He'd left it in a box on the bed in a guest room at the estate. The dog, naturally, runs off with it and buries it somewhere on the grounds.

There's a very funny dinner table scene with Grant, Hepburn, the aunt, played perfectly by May Robson AND the aunt's dinner guest, a big game hunter played by Charlie Ruggles. Every time the dog leaves the dining room Grant thinks he's going to find the bone so he jumps up, then Hepburn jumps up and they both run around chasing the dog then return to the table and continue the meal. In fact, there are funny scenes all throughout this very screwball comedy as Grant tries to get away from Hepburn, find the bone and get back to his original purpose of searching out an endowment for the museum. But every step he takes is thwarted by Hepburn. I mean, she is relentless.

Now played by anyone else, this part might not have worked. You might have wanted Grant to strangle Hepburn and be done with it - OR - let the leopard have her. But instead of being annoying, most of the time, Hepburn is endearing. She is SUCH a lunatic. But a lunatic in love. Someone not to be trifled with.

Grant, helpless, just falls deeper and deeper into this maze of confusion until, after awhile, there doesn't seem to be a way out except to give in to Hepburn. He is delightful as a man whose whole life is turned upside down in one short 48 hour period. And, let's face it, he does play something of a dweeb which makes you wonder what Hepburn sees in him from the get-go. What, am I kidding? Look at the man. Ha!

The ending is unforgettable. Won't say a word except: brontosaurus skeleton. Well, that's two words. Figure it out.

A great romantic farce of a movie made at a time when actors knew how to do screwball. No one knows how to do this anymore. It's a dead art. Lucky for us, we have these films to show us how it was done, once upon a time.

Starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson

One of famed director Douglas Sirk's romantic extravaganzas filmed in the lushest technicolor imaginable. Middle-aged, upper class widow, Jane Wyman has two grown children and a very settled life with her country club friends, playing cards, always behaving and doing all the boring stuff that a woman in her position was expected to do in the 50's. She is not really very happy though she pretends she is. Well, she is EXPECTED to be happy. Even her grown children seem to think her restlessness is untoward. What else could Wyman want? (Well, how about a television at Christmas - that ought to keep a mom satisfied.)

Even better how about Rock Hudson? He is the gardener she's recently hired to work around her property. He is younger than she (very daring in those times) and the sort of man her friends and her children would never in a million years suspect Jane might have an eye on.

He is the sort of man who sees no social barriers or if he does, steps right over them. He's a disciple of Thoreau, all he-man lumberjack physicality, a nature-lover with the soul of a poet. A perfect part for the young god that was Rock in his prime.

Anyway, they fall in love after Rock shows Jane a different sort of life than the dreary one she's used to. And once he takes her to his magical mill house complete with ancient wheel and stone walls and fireplace, well, what's a girl to do? He also has great salt-of-the-earth friends who drink cheap wine, fashion pot-luck dinners, sing songs at the drop of a hint and probably write poetry.

Well, once Jane introduces Rock as her new beau to her friends and children, the you-know-what hits the fan. Oh no, mother, he's not your sort, he's not your kind, he's a - horrors! - gardener. What would people think? Eventually all this wears Jane down and she breaks it off with Rock. Fool that she is.

As a reward, the kids buy her a large console television set so she won't ever be lonely. (This is an especially sad little scene.)

Well, eventually Jane comes to her senses and she and Rock work their way back to each other. But not before tears are shed, apologies are tendered, and Jane's daughter comes to the realization that being a woman of a certain age doesn't mean her mother's emotional life is over.

Certainly not a great film, but a great romantic film. The sort that makes you sigh and makes you believe, at least for a minute or two, that love really does conquer all.

NOW, for some runners-up:

starring Ziyi Zhang, Takeshi Kaneshero and Andy Lao

starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan

starring Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal

14) NOTTING HILL (1999)
starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant

15) A ROOM WITH A VIEW (1985)
starring Helena Bonham Carter, Julian Sands, Maggie Smith and Daniel Day-Lewis

16) ROXANNE (1987)
starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah

17) MAURICE (1987)
starring Hugh Grant, James Wilby and Rupert Graves

18) SPLASH (1984)
starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah

19) DIRTY DANCING (1987)
starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey

starring Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney

starring Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr

You will no doubt notice that I've left off the Colin Firth version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE though it is hard to beat this for romance with a capital R. But I have a reason: It was a television series. Not strictly a film

Since it's Tuesday, don't forget to check in later at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other films other bloggers are talking about today.