Holiday Movie Marathon: Christmas in Connecticut (1945)


Title: Christmas in Connecticut
Release Date: August 11, 1945
Director: Peter Godfrey
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

The movie begins with the travails of WWII sailor Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) who survives 18 days in a life raft and a long recovery in the hospital back home. He becomes obsessed with food and particularly the columns of Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck), a mother who writes about cooking and domestic life from her farm in Connecticut. The earnest publisher of her magazine, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) learns that Jones is a fan of Lane, and comes up with a publicity stunt of having the war hero spend Christmas at her farm.

There’s only one problem: Elizabeth is a single “career gal” who lives in New York City and knows nothing about cooking. Luckily, Elizabeth’s long-time suitor John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) is an architect with an actual farmhouse in Connecticut and is willing to pose at Elizabeth’s husband (and ultimately marry her for real). Elizabeth’s friend Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall) is a restaurateur who agrees to come along and do the cooking. All of this takes way to long to set up in the movie (as it takes too much space for me to summarize) but once all the pieces are set in place, the movie really shines.

When Elizabeth and Jefferson finally meet, it’s love at first site. There are a lot of comic hijinks of Elizabeth trying to keep up with the imagined life of her column, especially for Yardley’s benefit. But the movie is also surprisingly progressive as we learn that Jefferson is actually far more domestic than Elizabeth. This is especially true in a scene where he expertly bathes Elizabeth’s borrowed baby when she has no clue. The babies themselves are in fact left in the care of Sloan’s housekeeper by immigrant women working in war factories. The war has turned traditional gender roles upside down and this movie seems to be saying that they don’t need to go back to them. Stanwyck’s performance is particularly brilliant and she delivers lines that clearly indicate that she’s had it with societal expectations even as she’s forced to go along with them. (For more on the subversive elements of this movie see this recent article from the AV Club).

The slow start to this movie could use some judicious editing, and there are some subplots I’ve left out of my summary that aren’t too interesting, but overall, once this movie gets to Connecticut it’s a great rom-com. By the way, despite the movie taking place over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, it is not a particularly Christmas-y movie. Also, in an odd bit of trivia, this movie was remade in the 1990s as a tv movie directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger! I’m not going to watch that one.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Mystic PiZZa (1988) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time.  I haven’t seen many movies starting with Z much less any that I want to watch again, so instead I’m reviewing a movie with TWO “Zs” in it! This post contains SPOILERS!

TitleMystic Pizza
Release Date: October 21, 1988
Director: Donald Petrie
Production Company: Night Life Inc. | The Samuel Goldwyn Company |
Virgin Vision
Synopsis:

This movie is a coming-of-age, romantic comedy about three young women living in the village of Mystic, Connecticut: the sisters Kat (Annabeth Gish) and Daisy (Julia Roberts) and their friend Jojo (Lili Taylor).  They all work as waitresses at the titular pizza restaurant, and the movie covers the period of a few months where they each have a challenging relationship with a man.

Kat is intelligent and hardworking and planning to start studying astronomy at Yale in the spring semester.  Daisy considers her a goody two shoes. To make more money Kat is hired to work as a babysitter for Tim (William R. Moses), a young father who wants someone to look after his daughter while his wife is in on an extended business trip in England.  Kat and Tim bond intellectually and physically leading to an extramarital affair that ends in heartbreak for Kat.

Daisy feels that her mother looks down on her for not being bright and ambitious like Kat, as well as being judged in general for being promiscuous.  She meets a handsome preppy Charles (Adam Storke) at a bar.  He proves to be less snobbish and more accepting than his friends and family.  But he also has an ongoing quarrel with his father and puts Daisy in an embarrassing situation when he uses her to show up his family’s elitism.

The movie begins with Jojo getting cold feet at her wedding to the fisherman Bill (Vincent D’Onofrio).  She’s torn by her love for Bill and her sense that she’s too young to commit to marriage, children, and the domestic life.  She’s also frustrated that Bill, a devout Catholic, will not have sex before marriage.  Their relationship has its ups and downs before they reconcile and marry for real at the end of the movie.

An ongoing subplot involves the Mystic Pizza restaurant where the owner Leona (Conchata Ferrell) treats Kat, Daisy, and Jojo like her own daughters.  The restaurant is known for its excellent pizza that features Leona’s secret recipe in the sauce. A famous and stodgy tv critic visits the restaurant and although there are several mishaps serving him, when his review is televised he declares the pizza to be “superb” leading to an uptick in business.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

First and foremost, this movie is set in Connecticut, which when you’re a kid growing up in Connecticut on a steady diet of movies set in California and New York, is a big f’in deal!  Mystic is home to two of the state’s biggest tourist attractions, Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium, so every Connecticut schoolchild went to at least one of those places on a field trip. I also visited several times with my family.  People from the 47 states with more territory than Connecticut will laugh, but as a kid, the journey from our home in the western end of the state to Mystic felt soooooooooooooooo long.

Anyhow, I watched this with my family on cable or VHS sometime in the year or so after it was released.  I remember enjoying the movie greatly and forming a deep celebrity crush on Annabeth Gish even though all the other boys went for Julia Roberts.  In the 1990s, on a visit to Mystic, I dined at the original Mystic Pizza restaurant.  The pizza is – in fact – really good.

What Did I Remember?:

I specifically remember Julia Roberts dumping fish into the preppy’s sports car and Lili Taylor yelling at her boyfriend from the drawbridge.  Otherwise, I just remembered general impressions and plot details.

What Did I Forget?:

I forgot a lot.  Like I didn’t remember that the movie begins and ends with weddings.  I didn’t even remember that Kat and Daisy are sisters.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie does a great job on focusing on relationships – not just man-woman relationships, but also among family and friends.  It also captures the class dynamic in Connecticut of working class, Catholic enclaves (Portuguese-Americans in the movie, but Italian-American where I grew up) competing with the wealthier elites. The men in this movie are all horrible in their own way, but also have good qualities, so it is believable that 2 of the 3 relationships are reconciled by the film’s end.

The movie also has some great set pieces, like when Jojo, Daisy, and Kat steal Bill’s truck and sing along with Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” (another great scene I was surprised I forgot about). The acting is really good in the movie and a lot of the cast went on to stardom.  Roberts, of course, became one of the biggest Hollywood leading ladies within a few years of this movie.  Meanwhile, Taylor became the indie movie queen in the 1990s. Gish’s career isn’t as illustrious but she did star in The X-Files for a few seasons. Even Matt Damon makes his film debut as Charles’ younger brother.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Younger viewers may laugh at the 80s hairstyles and fashions, but they still look pretty good to me.

Is It a Classic?:

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say yes.  It holds a special place in my heart at least.

Rating: ****

Book Reviews: Cartoon County by Cullen Murphy


Author: Cullen Murphy
Title: Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe
Publication Info: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
Previously Read By the Same Author: Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage (with William Rathje)
Summary/Review:

Cartoon County is a memoir/biography/history by Cullen Murphy of the comic strip cartoonists and illustrators who lived and worked in Fairfield County, Connecticut in the post-World War II era. The book focuses on his father, John Cullen Murphy, who illustrated the comic strip Big Ben Bolt and took over Prince Valiant from its creator Hal Foster in the 1970s.

I feel destined to read this book, primarily because I grew up loving newspaper comics and fascinated by their history (although these days I exclusively read the comics’ mockery blog, Comics Curmudgeon). I also grew up in Fairfield County myself, and as a kid was proud that Beetle Bailey cartoonist Mort Walker lived there. My father took us to the Museum of Cartoon Art in a castle-like house that Walker opened in nearby Port Chester, NY.  The author of this book was even of the most famous alumni of my high school – along with Broadway actor David Carroll, baseball player Tim Teufel, and publicist Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy – and a customized panel of Prince Valiant graced our school’s trophy case.

Murphy writes about growing up in a community of comics illustrators of the “Connecticut School” where his father and the other fathers he knew did not join the crowds of men in gray flannel suit taking the commuter rail to New York City.  Many of these men (and for the most part, the comics was a man’s trade) came of age during World War II where they used their artistic talents in their military service.  After the war, Connecticut was an affordable place where they could get homes with studio space near the publishing houses of New York (it’s alarming to think that Fairfield County was ever affordable!). These cartoonists include Mort Walker, Jerry Dumas, Stan Drake, Dik Browne, Ernie Bushmiller, Milton Caniff, and Crockett Johnson, among many others.  The School included daily comic strip cartoonists, New Yorker cartoonists, editorial cartoonists, and magazine illustrators.

The book covers a lot of territory.  First, it’s a personal memoir of Murphy’s father, who had the practice of using a Polaroid camera to photograph himself (and any family members or friends in the vicinity) in various poses to use as models for his illustrations. Starting in the 1970s, Murphy would work with his father as the writer of Prince Valiant.

Second, it’s a broader history of the Connecticut School cartoonists who were his father’s friends and colleagues. Murphy details their experiences in WWII, settling in Connecticut after the war, and the interplay between their comics.  Events like Look Day at the New Yorker (the one day each week when cartoonists gathered in New York to show their gags to the magazine’s editors) and National Cartoonists Society brought together cartoonists for business with a heavy side of socialization. The men came together for parties and games of golf (which seems to be the origin of the all-too-many golf gags in newspaper comics) as well.

Finally, the book is a tribute to newspaper comics as a unique American art form of the 20th century.  Murphy has some interesting observations on the cartoonists.  While his father was a strong Republican, most of the cartoonists were politically liberal and lived lives of noncomformity for their time. Sentaro Este Kefauver conducted a congressional investigation of the comics industry in which Pogo creator Walt Kelly declared that being a “screwball” was a badge of honor for cartoonists. The comics were innovative for time, and I learned about a short-lived strip of the 1960s called Sam’s Strip (predecessor to Sam & Silo), which Jerry Dumas created as post-modern, metatextual experiment that left comics readers scratching their heads. And yet newspaper comics on the whole tended to be conservative, and as the generation of cartoonists died (many passing on the legacy strips to their children and grandchildren) and newspapers themselves went into decline, comics failed to adapt to the new reality. Murphy mourns the past but still sees hope in the underappreciated work of graphic novels.

This books is richly illustrated with comics panels, original works of art, and photographs.  It’s a great way to dip one’s toe into a time and place when kids gleefully anticipated the Sunday papers wrapped in the full-color comics section.  It tells the story of the men who brought this joy and some of the behind the scenes secrets of their craft.

Recommended books:

  • Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman by Patrick McDonnell
  • Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist by Chuck Jones
  • The Mad World of William M. Gaines by Frank Jacobs

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Stranger (1946)


Title: The Stranger
Release Date: July 2, 1946
Director: Orson Welles
Production Company: International Pictures
Summary/Review:

This atmospheric film in the film noir style tells the story of a Nazi war criminal hiding among the unsuspecting citizens of a Connecticut town. As someone who grew up in Connecticut, I’m surprised that so many of these classic films I’m watching are set there, particularly one with Nazis.  The film begins with Edward G. Robinson (who I liked so much in Double Indemnity) Mr. Wilson of the War Crimes Commission releasing a low-level Nazi named Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) in hope of leading him to one of the Nazis most notorious masterminds.

In Harper, Connecticut, Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) has taken the identity of Professor Charles Rankin, a teacher at a boys academy, and marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice.  Rankin murders Meinike so that his past identity will not be revealed and attempts to bury his body in the woods.  Wilson stays in the town for several weeks hoping to catch Rankin in a mistake that reveals himself, as well attempting to shake Mary’s faith in her new husband.  The thrill of the movie is less of a “whodunit” than a “how is this going to shake out?”

Billy House is featured in a prominent role as Mr. Potter, the gossipy druggist who comments on the goings-on in the town while playing checkers with his customers (including Wilson and Rankin).  House provides comic relief but his character is also oddly unsettling.  Storywise the script is fairly predictable and dialogue unnatural, but it’s worth watching for the acting, and Welle’s use of light and shadows and long takes.  It’s also remarkable that a fictional film about a Nazi war criminal was completed so soon after the end of the war.  Additionally, it is the first film to include documentary footage of the liberation of concentration camps.

Rating: ***1/2

Album Review: Little Dark Age by MGMT


Album: Little Dark Age
ArtistMGMT
Release Date: 2018 February 9
Favorite Tracks:

  • Little Dark Age
  • Me and Michael
  • One Thing Left to Try

Thoughts:

Little Dark Age sounds like it was recorded in 1985 and has been sitting in a vault all these years to finally be released.  You could find it on the shelf somewhere between Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and the Pet Shop Boys, and even the lyrics of songs like “She Works Out Too Much” sound like commentary on the 80s aerobic craze. The songs on this album are hit or miss, and it’s never going to live up to Oracular Spectacular, but it’s a fun pop confection.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare


Author: Elizabeth George Speare
TitleThe Witch of Blackbird Pond
Narrator: Mary Beth Hurt
Publication Info: Listening Library, 2002 [Originally published in 1958]
Summary/Review:

As a child growing up in Connecticut, I developed a passion for history, particularly colonial American history and local history.  Yet somehow I missed this children’s novel set in 17th-century Connecticut.  Until now!

Kit Tyler leaves her home in Barbados after the death of her grandfather and seeks out her aunt in Wethersfield, Connecticut. While welcomed warmly to join her aunt’s family, Kit misses the sunshine and tropical splendor of Barbados, not to mention the slave labor that had kept her from the daily drudgery she now shares with her cousins.  Her free spirit is also at odds with the strict discipline of the Puritan community.  She finds a kindred spirit in Hannah Tupper, the “witch” of the title who is actually a Quaker forced to live on her own in the marshy areas on the edge of town.  As their friendship blossoms, suspicions grow in the community leading to accusations of witchcraft.

It’s a good novel, and while not 100% historically accurate, it uses its colonial Puritan setting well to create the atmosphere for a story of a positive young female character for the 20th century when it was written and now the 21st century as well.
Recommended booksJohnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol I: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson, and Blindspot by Jane Kamensky & Jill Lepore
Rating: ***1/2

Old MacDonald’s Farm


I often find myself idly surfing the net and making discoveries of something from my past. Recently, I became reacquainted with Old Macdonald’s Farm, a place in Norwalk, CT that I loved to visit when I was very young.  Before being closed and replaced by a corporate office park, Old Macdonald’s Farm had:

  • an old-fashioned country-style restaurant that looked like it was in a barn with the booths decorated as stables (complete with the names of horses on plaques over the booths)
  • a candy store with lots of different types of penny-candy including every imaginable flavor of candy sticks.
  • a petting zoo with goats, sheep, cows and other farm animals.
  • a small amusement park with a train ride and other rides that appealed to small children

When it closed, I was heart-broken, especially since a covered wooden bridge was preserved to connect the very modern office park to its parking lot.  My younger self cursed the corporate suits who destroyed this little bit of Americana every time I passed and saw that bridge.  Okay, maybe not, but it was some similar emotion.

There’s not about Old Macdonald’s Farm on the web, but I found a couple of photos.  I was awestruck by how the photos look just as I remember.  The first picture is of the restaurant from a website called Cardcow which collects old postcards.

Vintage Postcards from Cardcow.com
Wow! The pot-belly stove, the rafters, the farm implements, the barrels, the checkered table cloths -- all just as I remember!


Cardcow.com

The next picture is from a photo blog called Serendipitous by a woman named Kathy Chiapetta.  The photos appear to be scanned from a 2005 Darien Times article which is not available online.  The one thing I don’t see in any of the photos is a big waterwheel that impressed me as a child.

This picture looks like it was taken well before I was born, but otherwise it's pretty much how I remembered it. I was convinced that these stalls were actually once used by horses.

Thanks for indulging me. If you have memories and pictures of Old Macdonald’s Farm please let me know.
Previous Trips Down Memory Lane:

Mission: Boston


With the first day of spring upon us and Boston officially thawing out, it’s time to get out and do something!  There are many things to do and sites to see right near home that I always find a way to procrastinate, some for several years running now.   Here are ten things to do in metro-Boston that I’ve never done before that I would like to do between now and Thanksgiving.

  1. Finally visit The Museum of Bad Art in Dedham
  2. Tour an old house like the Loring-Greenough House in JP, the Gibson House Museum in Back Bay,  the Nichols House Museum in North End, the Shirley Eustis House in Roxbury and/or the oldest of them all the James Blake House of Dorchester.
  3. Walk through the Mapparium at the Mary Baker Eddy Library.
  4. Check out the new Institute of Contemporary Art.
  5. Check out the view from the observation deck on the Customs House tower.
  6. Walk the African-American Heritage Trail.
  7. Get back to nature at the Boston Nature Center. (completed 5/25/09)
  8. Take in a vintage baseball game, preferably on Georges Island.
  9. Sample the beers at the Samuel Adams Brewery Tour.
  10. Commune with the fuzzy pigs at Drumlin Farm. (completed 8/26/09)

Of course, I’d like to get out of town and do some things outside of Boston as well.  Here are five things in greater New England that I’ve never done before that I’d like to do in the same time period:

  1. Watch the second largest St. Patrick’s  Parade in America in Holyoke, MA. (completed 3/22/09)
  2. Journey through a world of art and culture at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA
  3. Get my public transit geek on at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, ME (completed 6/21/09)
  4. Visit the literary landmarks of Hartford, CT: the Mark Twain & Harriet Beecher Stowe houses
  5. Stroll around historic Providence, RI and perhaps witness WaterFire.

If I do any of these things, I will of course blog about it here.  Come join me if you want to do these things too!