Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Characterization: Every Villain a Hero, Part 2

Last week we talked about how villains can be constructed along the same line as heroes.  (See part 1.)  Goals and motivations are just as important for bad guys as for good guys - maybe even more important.  So, now we know what evil deeds the evil-doers are trying to do...evilly.  And we have a grasp on their motivations (evil though they may be!).  What else is there?


The villain's background often ties in closely with his or her motivation.  This doesn't necessarily mean that all bad guys have to have some childhood trauma in their past (which is an interesting but overused theme).  But take a man born to privilege, whose riches are cruelly stolen away...might he not turn to crime and bad-guy-ery to regain that which he lost?  Just a thought!

Rene Belloq (Indiana Jones's nemesis in Raiders of the Lost Ark) - His motivations are unclear, although we do get the idea that he was brought up in a state of privilege.  Remember how he laughingly refered to the spirits he and Marion were drinking as "my family label"?  This again supports a motivation of pride, since a man like that could easily feel that the world and its riches were his for the taking.

Darth Vader (who needs no introduction!) - In the original Star Wars trilogy we don't get a good taste for Vader's background, except to know that he was Ben Kenobi's apprentice until he was seduced by the power of the Dark Side.  In the prequel trilogy, we find out that as a young man he was intelligent and capable, yet filled with pain and anger at the death of his mother. 

Hannibal Lecter (the penultimate villain) - When he was a child, he and his sister Mischa were happy and inseparable...until World War II brought the deaths of their parents, the occupation of their family estate by cruel and starving soldiers, and the brutal death of little Mischa.  This is a classic example of background playing into motivation and goals.  (Although it bears repeating that authors should play the "childhood trauma" card with extreme caution, as it's been used to near-cliche status in the past few years.)


Just as a well-rounded hero should have a few faults, a well-rounded villain should have some redeeming - if not endearing - traits.

Belloq - Aside from that snazzy linen suit, Rene Belloq also possessed a sense of humor and a love of antiquities.  More importantly, he had a soft spot for Marion Ravenwood.  And mutual admiration/affection (in other words, our villain likes/admires someone that the audience also likes/admires) can be a truly endearing trait.

Vader - Until Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader seemed to have no redeeming traits whatsoever.  But then we saw him kill the Emperor to save Luke, our hero.  And afterwards, when he said to Luke, "You were right about me.  Tell your sister, you were right," we saw that he did have a redeeming trait, and it was love.

Lecter - First thing that comes to mind is this sentence: "I'm having an old friend for dinner"  A sense of humor is Hannibal Lecter's greatest redeeming trait.  That and, of course, the fact that some of the people he killed were jerks. "Mutual enemies" can be as endearing a trait as mutual affection.  And that brings us to....


Introducing a Greater Evil into your story is a tried-and-true method for giving your villain more depth.  We think that the villain is the greatest evil in our story-universe, but then we introduce the super-villain, and we see that the villain is just the Little Bad - the super-villain is the Big Bad.  Sometimes the hero and villain have to work together to fight the Big Bad, and that always a produces a fascinating dynamic!

Belloq - Although Belloq was a thorn in Indy's side and a real threat to both his life and his mission, there was a bigger bad than Belloq: the Nazis.  Whereas Belloq's motives were pride and greed, the Nazis soldiers' motives were pure evil, and they were the true villains of that piece!

Vader - Although Darth Vader was the villain of Star Wars (or for the sticklers: Episode IV, A New Hope), during both Empire and Jedi we saw that he was mostly the evil enforcer for the Big Bad - the Emperor.

Lecter - In Hannibal, the Big Bad was really Mason Verger.  After all, Lecter may have been a cannibalistic serial killer, but Verger was a pedophile - and there is really nothing more evil than that. 

It's interesting to note that in the latter two examples above, the villain was responsible for the death of the Big Bad.  Darth Vader killed the Emperor, of course.  And in both the book and movie versions of Hannibal, Lecter convinced someone close to Verger to murder him. In a way, those villains were heroes - at least to the extent that their evil acts benefited the greater good.  Even Belloq was partly responsible for the death of the Nazis, since his pride convinced him that he could control the power of the Ark.


A well-crafted villain is one of the most entertaining aspects of fiction.  Remembering that the villain really thinks of himself or herself as a hero, and addressing their actions from the direction of "why is this right?" can help us to create villains who are realistic and memorable.  And after all, don't our heroes deserve great adversaries?
Do you have a favorite fictional villain?  What are his or her most redeeming traits?

Read more about writing:
Characterization: Every Villain a Hero, Part 1
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Monday, March 28, 2011

Movie Monday: 1931 - 4th Academy Awards


Well, unfortunately this week we have another film that's not available for home viewing in any way, shape or form.  The movie, East Lynne, is described below.

And the nominees are....

East Lynne
Starring: Ann Hardy, Clive Brook and Conrad Nagel
Directed by: Frank Lloyd

What's the story?  Based on the novel by Ellen Wood, it's the story of Lady Carlisle (Ann Hardy) a society woman who leaves her family. When her son falls ill, she returns home.  Despite being nearly blind from a bomb explosion, she is able to see her son one last time before he dies.

What makes it special?  There is only one copy of the film that's known to exist.  It's at UCLA's Instructional Media Lab, and it can be viewed by appointment.  (I'll meet you there!)

The Front Page
Starring: Adolphe Menjou, Pat O'Brien, Mary Brian
Directed by: Lewis Mileston

Where did I find it? I was supremely tickled to find this movie on Netflix Instant Watch! The sound and picture both leave something to be desired, but I'd give this one an extra point for convenience!

What's the story? Hildy Johnson (Pat O'Brien) is a newspaper reporter: fast-talking but good at heart. Hildy is engaged to pretty Peggy Grant (Mary Brian) and planning to move to New York for a higher paying advertising job. While Hildy runs around tying up loose ends, his mirthful but callous colleagues are hanging out in the press pool, waiting to cover the execution of Earl Williams (George E. Stone). Rumors of Williams' innocence abound, and when the incompetent sheriff lets Williams escape, a feeding frenzy erupts. Caught up in the excitement, Hildy gives an informant the $260 savings that he and Peggy have been hoarding.

Hildy is confident that the boss, Mr. Burns (Adolphe Menjou), will reimburse him when he gets the scoop, but he's wrong - Burns gives him the runaround. Things look bleak: Peggy is waiting at the train station and the clock is ticking. Then Hildy's luck turns around: Williams finds him and wants to surrender. Now Hildy is looking at a $10,000 reward. Burns gets wind of it, and convinces Hildy that this is the chance for him to make is big break as a reporter. Together with Molly Malloy (Mae Clark), the woman of ill repute who has been maintaining Williams's innocence all along, they stash the escaped con in a roll-top desk. Hildy and Burns are trying to coordinate his surrender while at the same time writing the front-page article that they're sure will put them on the map.

The story changes quickly, however, when they find out that the governor has granted Williams a last-minute pardon - and that the sheriff and mayor both knew about it, and were going to have him executed anyway! Why? Because there's an election coming up. So Williams is set free, and while there's no reward, there's definitely a story. But Hildy has decided that his newspapering days are over. He and Burns have a sentimental farewell, Burns gives Hildy his pocket watch. When Hildy and Peggy have gone, however, he calls the police in the next town (one up on the train tracks), and ask them to have Hildy arrested. "That son of a bitch stole my watch!" he says.

What makes it special?  This movie was based on the popular stage play of the same name, and although it's billed as a comedy, it has some very dark and cynical moments. There's a scene where the press pool boys have decided that Molly Malloy knows where Williams is hiding, and she's their ticket to fame and fortune. They advance on her like jackals, backing her up against the window. Desperate to get away from them, she climbs out onto the ledge and falls to the street below. Although she survives, we're left with the powerful impression of the press as a pack of wild animals, preying on a frightened deer. In this day and age, it's a widely-accepted concept that the media are opportunistic and that some even take a fiendish delight on exploiting the misery of others, but it was interesting to see this put forth in a film from the 1930s.

Starring: Jackie Cooper, Robert Coogan, Mitzi Green
Directed by: Norman Taurog

Where did I find it?  This one is not yet available on DVD, but it was recently broadcast on the Turner Classic Movie channel. 

What's the story?  Based on a popular comic strip, Skippy (Jackie Cooper) is a precocious little boy who puts most of his considerable smarts to getting out of the things his parents ask him to do.  He befriends Sooky (Robert Coogan), a young boy from Shantytown across the tracks.  When Sooky's dog Penny is taken by the the local dogcatcher, the boys work like mad to earn the three dollars they need to get Penny back.  But by the time they've earned most of the money, the cruel dogcatcher has already disposed of poor Penny.  To make matters worse, Skippy's father is the head of the local Health Department, and he's the one who signed the order for all the strays to be rounded up.  Dad redeems himself, however, by saving Shantytown from demolition.  And by the end of the film, Sooky has not one, but two new dogs.

What makes it special? At nine years old, Jackie Cooper was the youngest person every nominated for Best Actor.  He went on to have a long and prosperous career, including playing Perry White in the four Superman films of the late 1970s/early 1980s.  At the 1931 ceremony, Cooper reportedly fell asleep on the shoulder of Best Actress nominee Marie Dressler. When Dressler was announced as the winner, Cooper had to be eased onto his mother’s lap. How adorable is that?

Unfortunately, there's also a much less adorable story about this film: when Cooper was unable to conjure up tears for an emotional scene, the director threatened to have Jackie's dog shot if he couldn't cry.  Well, cry he did, and the scene where Skippy's father tries to comfort his son after Penny has been killed will tear your heart out.
In this film you can see seeds of many other kids movies to come, from A Christmas Story to Goonies and beyond. 

Trader Horn
Starring: Harry Carrey, Edwina Booth, Duncan Renaldo
Directed by: W.S. Van Dyke

Where did I find it? This one is not yet available on DVD, but I was able to find the VHS tape on eBay.  The sound quality was unfortunately quite distorted, but the picture was fine. 

What's the story? While on safari in an uncharged realm of Africa, Aloysius "Trader" Horn (Harry Carey) and his protegee Peru (Duncan Renaldo) find the body of a missionary, Edna Trent, who had been killed by natives. Trent was searching for her daughter, who had been lost as a baby and was rumored to have been seen alive, raised by the indigenous peoples.

After much searching, they find the girl, who is living in a small village and has been raised almost as a goddess on account of her fair skin and blond hair. She is shocked and confused by the appearance of these people whose skin is the same color as hers. The tribesmen are set to kill Horn, Peru, and their faithful native guide Ranchero, but the girl, who has become enthralled by Peru's good looks and courage, orders the natives to release the men. They're not happy about it, but they do it. It looks like they're about to walk right out of camp, but then the natives decide they can't let the men take their goddess. Our intrepid heroes barely escape with their lives, and now they're left to make their way across the African plains.

What makes it special? The filmmakers (including cast and crew) spent a year in uncharted Africa filming this movie.  It was the first film about that continent that was not a documentary. 

and the winner is....

Starring: Richard Dix, Irene Dunn, Edna May Oliver
Directed by:  Wesley Ruggles

Where did I find it? I got the DVD from Netflix.  The picture and sound are in great shape.

What's the story? This is a tale that spans four decades - from 1889 to 1929. It's the story of a changing country, as well as that of a troubled family. Yancey Cravat is a Renaissance man: attorney, newspaperman, adventurer, outspoken supporter of the rights of Native Americans. In 1889, in wake of the the frenzied Oklahoma land grab, Yancey brings his wife Sabra and their young son Cimarron to the frontier town of Osage, Oklahoma. They brave the perils of the savage land (which comes mostly from the savage white folks who live there!) and help to build the town into a thriving community.

In five years, they have a successful newspaper and a new baby girl. But Yancey is restless, and takes off for more adventure. Left on her own, Sabra runs the newspaper (the Oklahoma Wigwam) and brings up the children. After five years, Yancey returns to his wife and family. He stays for as long as he can, his wanderlust is incurable. He drifts away again, into the wildcatting life of the oil-man, leaving Sabra to carry on alone once more. In his absence, the children marry: Cim to a Native American girl (much to his mother's dismay), and the newspaper grows ever bigger. In 1929, the Wigwam is celebrating forty years in business. Sabra hasn't heard her husband in many years, but she holds out a hope that he is still alive. And she has never taken his name off the header of the newspaper: Yancey Cravat, Owner and Editor.

Sabra is a woman of stature in her own right, having been elected to the Oklahoma State Congress. As she's returning home from her celebratory banquet, she hears that an oil rig has nearly exploded, and that if weren't for the actions of one old man, many people would have been killed. "He's in bad shape, chest crushed," the messenger says. "Don't know his name...some of the fellas call him 'Old Yance.'" Realizing that the man must be her husband, Sabra rushes to her the scene of the accident. She finds Yancey near death, and she gathers him into her arms. "Sleep, my boy," she whispers softly, as he slips away from her for the last time.

What makes it special? From an ethical perspective, the film is a paradox.  Yancey is a hardworking man who fights for the rights of Native Americans and welcomes Jews into the town's religious services. And although he remains faithful to his wife (or so we're led to believe), he abandons his family for the wild call of adventure.  And Sabra, although she is the true iron backbone of the family, making her way in the world of men with her head held high, is blatantly bigoted against the Native Americans. 

If that weren't enough, the stereotypical portrayal of the family's young African American servant, Isaiah (Eugene Jackson), is enough to make the modern viewer cringe.  I'll spare you the details, but suffice to say that Isaiah shines shoes, eats watermelon, and his happy antics cause the family much racist merriment.  He proves his own nobility, however, when lays down his life to protect two young children.

Cimarron derives its name from the Cimarron Territory, an unsettled area of the West and Midwest.  The film was the first western ever to win Best Picture, and it held that record until 1990, when Dances with Wolves won. 
NEXT WEEK: Arrowsmith and a Bad Girl! It must've been one heck of an awards ceremony!

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Great Reads Friday: Foxy's Tale by Karen Cantwell & L.B. Gschwandtner

Authors Karen Cantwell (Take the Monkeys and Run) and L.B. Gschwandtner (The Naked Gardener) decided they would like to collaborate on a project. They wanted it to be a book for and about women, but it had to be fun and they really wanted to throw a vampire into the mix. But their vampire would be . . . different. The result, now available for readers on Amazon’s Kindle, is Foxy’s Tale - this week's Great Read!

Foxy Anders has a list of problems as long as a shopping spree receipt from Neiman Marcus. She’s a retail spender with no money to spare and a former beauty queen with no man in her life. After a nightmare divorce she’s left with one asset, a building off Washington, D.C.’s classy DuPont Circle. By turning the ground floor into an antique shop, Foxy figures she has an excuse to spend money … that she doesn’t have.

Foxy also has a teenaged daughter, Amanda, who likes to blog secretly about her biggest problem – Foxy. At least, she thinks Foxy is her biggest problem. But that’s all about to change when she hooks up with Nick, a cute guy at school who evidently has a gift for attracting older women. Amanda just doesn’t know how much older they really are.

When Foxy rents the garden apartment to stylish, shoe-fettishista Knot, who turns out to have a knack for talking wealthy Washington A-listers into Foxy’s antiques, it looks as if Foxy will make it on her own after all. Except that Knot is also a genius at creating problems … in his love life.

They’re a quirky threesome to be sure, but when mysterious, bumbling, Myron Standlish arrives on the scene with a suitcase full of Yiddish-isms, he brings along his own set of problems, larger and stranger than all of theirs put together. Oy vey. How will Myron’s personal journey affect their lives? Well … that’s Foxy’s Tale.

A comic, chick lit, coming-of-age, vampire tale (sort of) where family triumphs over adversity and mother and daughter learn how to face the world as grownups – together.

What people are saying …

"Foxy’s Tale is irresistible fun – full of lively characters with a knack for trouble, laugh-out-loud dialogue, and story twists that will keep you reading deep into the night."– Kim Wright Wiley, Author of Love in Mid Air

From now until April 25th, Foxy’s Tale is available for just 99 cents, so if you’re looking for a light, fun read, give it a try today!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Characterization: Every Villain a Hero, Part 1

There's an old saying in fiction: every villain is the hero of his own story. I think Willem Dafoe summed it up perfectly when an interviewer asked him whether he preferred to play good guys or bad guys. "Don't make no difference," he answered. "Everybody thinks they're righteous."

And so it seems like we can take the same elements that we would apply to developing a hero and use it with a villain.  In fact, that kind of sounds like fun!  Why don't we do that with three of my favorite movie villains:

Rene Belloq from Raiders of The Lost Ark (the evil archaeologist).  He was unscrupulous, mean-spirited and greedy...but he sure could wear the heck out of a white linen suit!

Darth Vader from Star Wars (and I mean the original trilogy, of course!).  He was evil personified, scary-powerful and without mercy...and then we found out he actually had a gooey center of fatherly affection hidden under all those spare parts!

Hannibal Lecter, the penultimate villain, the cannibalistic serial killer that we all love to hate (or hate to love, as the case may be)!  In this case, let's look at the Lecter that we saw/read about in Hannibal, the final installment of Thomas Harris's trilogy, since it's in that story that he's really the main villain, not just a fascinating secondary character.


Heroes, villains, and supporting characters all want something.  Whether it's to save the world (or in this case, try to take over the world) or to pick up the dry cleaning on time (or in this to take over the world).

Belloq - In Raiders, Belloq's primary goals seem to be: 1) To discover and sell archaeological treasures.  2) To best Indiana Jones.  Who can forget the line: "And so we see once again Indy, there is nothing that you can possess that I cannot take away"?  Mmmm!  I still get shivers!

Vader - To crush the Rebel Alliance.  (He's nothing if not straightforward about that!)

Lecter - When Hannibal opens, Lecter is in Florence and his goal is to make a success of his new position as curator of the Capponi Library (and presumably to pare down the more boorish faction of the board of directors!).  As the movie progresses his goal becomes to avoid the people who are trying to capture him and to "reunite" with Clarice Starling.


Underneath the goal (the thing that's being pursued and fought for) lies the motivation - the driving force behind both the goal itself and the actions that further it.

Belloq - The first thing that comes to mind as Belloq's motive is pride.  He wants to be the one to open the Ark of the Covenant.  He wants to conduct the ritual.  It's not so much a love of history and relics that drives him, it's the reflected glory that he feels.

Vader - The power of the Dark Side - and his own anger/fear, which is what left him open to seduction by the Dark Side in the first place. 

Lecter - The idea of remaking the world into his own twisted vision: a paradoxical vision filled both with horrific acts of violence and works of immense beauty.  The cellist in the local symphony lacks talent? Eliminate him so that a more gifted musician can take his place.  Pride also comes into play here, because Lecter's intelligence and self-control makes him almost godlike, at least in his own mind. 
NEXT WEEK: Part 2 - What makes your villains more heroic (at least in their own minds)?

In the meantime, who are your favorite fictional villains?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Movie Monday: 1930 (November) - 3rd Academy Awards

By the end of the 1930s, things seem grim.  On the world scene, Nazis become the second-largest party in Germany over communists; Hitler claims he would scrap Versailles treaty if he were in charge.  A giant meteorite lands deep in the Amazon rain forest; the explosion is the equivalent of 10 Hiroshima bombs.

Here in the States, the country is consumed with drought, unemployment and the re-legalization of liquor.  During July and August, Arkansas receives only 35% the amount of rainfall it had in 1929; the country-wide drought cuts corn bushel output by 690 million bushels; the Federal Government allocates $121.1 million for drought relief.  Secretary of Labor Doak begins plans to address the U.S. Labor void by deporting Mexican-Americans.  Franklin Roosevelt (who at the time was Governor of New York) takes a stand for dry law repeal as New York Labor Union leaders demand legal beer to help create jobs.  At the same time, auto plants in Detroit re-open, creating 150,000 jobs, and construction begins on the Boulder Dam. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that there are 30,000 miniature golf courses in operation, many of which earn a 300 percent return each month.  In aviation, the first east-west crossing of the Atlantic is achieved; TWA is formed through a merger of three airlines. 

In pop-culture, comic strip Blondie is introduced.  The Chrysler Building opens to the public for the first time.  On the radio are songs such as Embraceable You by George Gershwin; On the Sunny Side of the Street by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh; and Georgia on my Mind by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell. 


The 3rd Academy Awards ceremony was held on Wednesday, November 5, 1930 in the Coconut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Wanting to make the ceremony closer to the period of time the movies were eligible for the awards (August 1, 1929 through July 31, 1930), the 3rd Academy Awards ceremony was held in November, only seven months after the second Academy Awards ceremony.


The movies honored in this ceremony reflect the changing times: infidelity, war and the burgeoning power of women are repeating themes.  It's a very interesting and diverse group of films, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

And the nominees are...

The Big House
Starring: Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Robert Montgomery
Directed by: George W. Hill

Where did I find it? I bought the dvd on ebay.  The movie has been fully restored; it looks and sounds wonderful.

What's it about?  The movie opens with a scared young man named Kent (Robert Montgomery) being routed into prison. His crime: manslaughter. On New Year's Eve, he was drunk and ran over somebody with his car.  It was a mistake he's going to pay for.  Three thousand men are crammed into this prison built for 1800, and Kent is put in a cell with two of the most hardcore cons: Butch (Wallace Beery), also known as Machine Gun, is a hulking brute who's not afraid to use his fists.  Convicted forger Morgan (Chester Morris) is slicker and more refined, as we see him stare down Butch we get the feeling that he could be the toughest con in the joint.

Scared and frustrated, Kent is a primed to become a snitch.  A fellow inmate tells him that if he "gets the goods" on somebody they'll knock some time off his sentence.  And when Morgan is about to get early release for good behavior, Kent plants a knife in his bunk.  Morgan loses his early release and gets some time in solitary confinement.  He knows it was Kent who betrayed him, and he promises revenge.

When Morgan gets out of solitary confinement, he manages to escape.  He looks up Kent's sister Anne, and although we suspect that he's going to hurt her, instead he falls for her sweetness and beauty.  He tries to go straight.  Through Anne he meets the rest of Kent's family, and they befriend him as if he were one of his own.  The police catch up with Morgan, and he goes back to prison, where he learns that his old friends are planning a big escape.  Kent has managed to convince the boys that it was a Russian prisoner who planted the knife on Morgan, and he's been taken in on their plan to escape.  Morgan urges Kent not to do anything that will cause his family any more grief.  The gang gets the idea that maybe Morgan has gone soft after his time on the outside. 

They try to break out, but the guards are ready for them.  The cons are convinced that Morgan has turned on them.  A standoff occurs.  The cons threaten to kill all the guards that they are holding hostage.  In the ensuing firefight, Morgan and Butch are both shot.  Kent gets caught in the crossfire.  As Butch lies dying, he finds out that it was actually Kent who turned them in.  He apologizes to Morgan for shooting him, saying "I was only kiddn.' I didn't mean it."

The riot ends.  Morgan is rightfully credited as the man who ended the bloodbath, and the rest of his sentence is suspended.  He is bandaged and limping, but he is a free man.  He walks out of the prison gates, and into Anne's loving arms.

What makes it special? All the conventions we've come to expect from prison-life pictures can be seen here: racing beetles to ward off boredom, messhall riots, solitary confinement (which they refer to as "the dungeon").  Although the plot meanders and is at times very unrealistic (specifically the love story between Morgan and Anne), the strength of the characters makes this a total classic, and one that I will definitely watch again.

Starring: George Arliss, Joan Bennett, Florence Arliss
Directed by: Alfred E. Green

Where did I find it?  I bought the VHS tape on ebay.  Considering that it's a used VHS, the picture is not bad, but I admit I've been spoiled by the fabulous quality of all the restored dvds I've seen lately!

What's it about? England, 1874. Benjamin Disraeli has just begun his second period serving as Prime Minister, and the object most upward in his mind is securing the Suez Canal for England.  With Germany and France both exhausted from war, Russia's influence is beginning to creep over the globe.  Disraeli sees the Canal as the only way for England to maintain her power and security.

As a man born of Italian-Jewish descent, Disraeli already has two strikes against him.  Moreover, as the movie opens he has powerful enemies arrayed against him: in addition to the Russian interests, the head of the Bank of England is determined to support Disraeli's biggest political rival.  Disraeli's own clerk, Mr. Foljambe, is working as a Russian spy, and is secretly married to another spy, Mrs. Travers, who poses as a society woman with a husband abroad.

But Disraeli is not a man without friends.  His biggest ally is his wife, Lady Mary (Florence Arliss, George Arliss' real-life wife).  And there's the bright young Lady Clarissa (Joan Bennett).  Clarissa's beau, Charles Deerfort (Anthony Bushell) is at first in fiery opposition to everything Disraeli stands for.  But Disraeli engages the young man as a secretary and the two quickly become great allies.

Disraeli receives word that the time is ripe for England to purchase the Canal.  He goes to Lord Michael Probert, head of the Bank of England, and asks for a loan.  Probert refuses, so Disraeli turns to an old friend, Sir Hugh Myers, a private banker, who agrees to lend England the money.  Foljambe and Mrs. Travers catch wind of the deal, and Foljambe flees to Egypt to disclose the information.  Disraeli sends the young Deerfort after him, to overtake him and bargain on England's behalf.

At first it seems as if the plan will be successful: Disraeli receives a coded telegram that the deal had been made and Myers' check has been accepted by Egypt.  But then tragedy strikes: Myers arrives and tells Disraeli that the ship which carried the gold bullion intended to secure England's loan has been sunk: deliberately scuttled to prevent England from making good on her financial promise.  Not to be outdone, Disraeli calls for Lord Michael Probert and forces him to sign the note guaranteeing the loan.  The Bank of England operates under the permissions of Parliament, and Disraeli is not exactly without influence there. 

Probert signs the guarantee, and England becomes the owner of the Suez Canal.  Lady Mary falls ill, but she harnesses her strength and joins her husband at a ball in his honor.  They go to greet the Queen together.

What makes it special?  George Arliss won the Best Actor Oscar for this role.  He had played Disraeli several times in his acting career: at least twice on stage, and in a 1921 silent version of this film.  He portrays the Parlimentarian as a man of great charisma and intelligence, with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a keen insight into human nature.  I think that above all else, it's really Arliss' performance that makes this a great film.

The Divorcee
Starring: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery
Directed by: Robert Z. Leonard

Where did I find it? It's on Netflix as a Norma Shearer double-feature, paired with A Free Soul.  This disc also includes a wonderful commentary of The Divorcee which is too good to miss!

What's it about?  The movie opens in 1925, when Ted (Chester Morris) and Jerry (Norma Shearer) become engaged at a house party.  Their joy is marred, first by the brooding unhappiness of Paul (Conrad Nagel), Jerry's former boyfriend, and second by a tragic car crash: Paul, having tried to drown his sorrows, causes an accident which leaves their giddy, pretty friend Dorothy permanently disfigured.  Paul marries Dorothy while she's still in the hospital, while Ted and Jerry marry in a lavish church ceremony.

Three years later, Jerry and Ted are still happily married with careers of their own.  But in a moment of drunken weakness, Ted is unfaithful.  Jerry finds out, and although she tries to be modern and put the whole thing behind her, she has a drunken, weak moment of her own with their friend Don (Robert Montgomery).  In a rush of guilt, Jerry confesses to Ted, "I've balanced our accounts."  Ted and Jerry find that their relationship can't stand their mutual infidelity.  In an emotional scene, Jerry watches Ted pack his bags, and says, "Don't let's talk of men and women.  They do all sorts of things.  We've got to live our own life, dear, there's so much of it ahead."  And later, when she knows that reconciliation is hopeless, she throws clothes into his open suitcase utters a famous line: "So look for me in the future where the primroses grow, and pack your man's pride with the rest.  And from now on, you're the only man in the world that my door is closed to."

They get divorced.  Jerry is now officially The Divorcee, and she and Ted embark on their own voyages of promiscuity...and pain.  For Jerry this comes to a head when she is unexpectedly reunited with Paul on a train.  She breaks down and realizes how tired and unhappy she is.  She and Paul begin a committed - if adulterous (Paul is still married to Dorothy) - relationship.  Paul has been offered a job in the Far East and Jerry's company is willing to transfer her to the overseas office.  They decide to marry; Paul has told Jerry that Dorothy is very willing to divorce him. 

But this is proved to be false when Dorothy shows up at the apartment that Jerry and Paul have been sharing.  Wearing a black veil to hide her disfigurement, Dorothy asks Paul not to leave her; he has been the only happiness that she's known in her life. Jerry realizes that she's been missing her own happiness: Ted. And regardless of whether Paul and Dorothy stay together or not, she will never be happy again unless she reunites with her ex-husband.

She goes to Paris in search of Ted.  She finds him at a New Year's Eve party.  She tells him she's been miserable without him and wants to him back.  Ted says, "Are you sure, Jerry? Because I'd give my right arm for a second chance." And she replies, "I'm awfully fond of that arm. How about putting it around me?"

What makes it special?  This film was based on the novel Ex-Wife, which was so scandelous on its release that it was published under the name Anonymous.  The author, Ursula Parrot, couldn't reveal her name until the book had achieved best-seller status.  That says a lot about the subject matter, and the times in which this film was released.  For all that, this is a startlingly modern film, with sophisticated themes and a timeless dilemma.  It handles the subject of infidelity with delicacy and grace and gives a peek into 1930s life that we don't usually get to see.

The Love Parade
Starring: Maruice Chevalier, Jeanette McDonald, Lupino Lane
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch

Where did I find it? I rented the dvd from Netflix.

What's it about? Count Alfred Renard (Maurice Chevalier) is living in Paris on a diplomatic assignment from the mythical country of Sylvania. He has developed a reputation for amorous exploits; but when he romances the wrong Lord's wife, he is sent packing back to his home country. Queen Louise (Jeanette McDonald) is a young and headstrong ruler. Her royal cabinet have been trying to marry her off so she can produce an heir, but Louise is having none of that. When she meets the handsome, charismatic Count Renard, however, everything changes.

They marry. Renard is blissful at first, but he quickly becomes bored with his role as "first husband." While his wife is always off on affairs of state, he is relegated to playing tennis and being fitted for uniforms. Things come to a head when Renard bursts in on a meeting that Louise is having with her cabinet. They are discussing Sylvania's finances, and arranging to borrow money from another country. Renard insists he has worked out a way that Sylvania can increase its industry and therefore not have to go into debt. Louise orders him out of the room but he refuses to go. Finally she tells him that there is an affair of state that evening at the Opera House. It's vital for him to be there with a smile on his face. But after that, he can do as he pleases - he can even return to Paris if he wants.

Renard packs his bags and leaves the palace. Who does Louise think he is, to be ordered around in such a manner? But his love for his wife and his home country win in the end, and he appears at the Opera House as requested. Afterwards, Louise and Renard reconcile. She promises to include him in all parts of her life - including her duties as a ruler.

What makes it special? This is widely considered to be the first muscial in which the songs were integrated with the story. It was also the first big hit for Maurice Chevalier, whose songs Thank Heaven for Little Girls and I Remember it Well from the 1958 movie Gigi cemented his place in our culture as the ultimate Frenchman.

All of this is well and good, but the thing that made this the most special to me was the song-and-dance work of Lupino Lane, who plays Renard's valet Jacques, and Lillian Roth, who plays Lulu, a palace maid.  I found a clip from their best number on YouTube.  The really great dancing starts around 3 minutes 45 seconds.

And the winner is....

All Quiet on the Western Front
Starring: Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray
Directed by: Lewis Milestone

Where did I find it? I rented the dvd from Netflix.

What's it about? Based on one of the most famous anti-war novels of all time, this movie follows a group of young German students who volunteer to be soldiers during World War One.

As the movie opens, we see a classroom full of young men who are on the receiving end of what amounts to a high-pressure sales pitch, as their teacher extols the virtues of soldiering, and urges them all to join up and fight for their country. When the boys' unofficial leader, Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) hesitantly agrees to join, the others enthusiastically follow suite.

What follows is a story we've seen many times since this tale was first brought to film: innocent youth, gung-ho and sure they're going to enjoy the glory of war, is gradually exposed to the horrific reality of warfare: hunger, and pain, and death. In one memorable scene, Baumer is trapped in a foxhole with enemy troops swarming in. He watches them jump over his hiding place, and he prays that they don't look down and find him. When he is finally seen and someone comes to kill him, Baumer wounds his would-be assassin, incapacitating him. The two of them are trapped together for hours, and Baumer ends up taking care of the man who tried to kill him. The soldier eventually dies of his wounds, leaving Baumer shaken and stricken with grief, making desperate promises to care for the dead man's family.

The misery doesn't end on the battlefield. When Baumer goes home on leave after being wounded, he finds that he no longer fits at home, in this place that's been relatively untouched by war. His father's friends pull out a map and argue over battle tactics, telling Baumer that he and his fellow soldiers must be strong and stick it out. It's just a game to them; they haven't seen what he's seen. In his old classroom, the teacher who once urged him to join the army and defend his country, now asks him to speak to a new class of young men, and share with them the glory of being a war hero. He tries to explain that there's nothing glorious about being a soldier. All of his friends are dead; where's the glory in that? But he merely ends up confusing the students and infuriating his former teacher.

And so Baumer goes back to the battlefield, back to the only world he understands. In a foxhole, he sees a butterfly land on a clump of dirt. His smiles. His hand reaches out for it...reaches...then a shot rings out, and the hand goes slack.

What makes it special? Germany banned this picture in December of 1930.  In retrospect, this is a chilling gesture, hinting at the infamous propaganda and harrowing years of war that would come from that country soon after.  In a way it's also complimentary of this movie, in as much as banning the picture validates its power to communicate an anti-war message.

Lew Ayres, the star of this film, was himself hugely influenced by this message.  Although in 1929 Ayres starred opposite Greta Garbo in The Kiss, playing Paul Baumer in 1930 was his big break. The actor was deeply affected by content of the film, and when World War Two broke out, he served as a conscientious objector. In 1938 he had starred in The Young Dr. Kildare, and since then he had made over half a dozen more Kildare films. He was well on his way to super-stardom, but his objector status reportedly "outraged" America, and movie theatres refused to run his films. He served as a medic under fire in the South Pacific, and later as a chaplain's assisant in New Guinea and the Phillipines. When he returned home he found that roles for him were scarce, until Olivia de Haviland asked him to co-star in her 1946 film The Dark Mirror. After that, movie roles for him were still hard to find, but he managed to work steadily. He never lost his willingness to go against the status quo, either: an opportunity to play Dr. Kildare on television was lost when Ayres requested that there be no cigarette sponsorship for the show.

Aside from the fascinating story of its star, All Quiet on the Western Front is a movie that stayed with me for quite some time after I watched it. It's a stark, gritty film that doesn't shy away from the brutality of its subject. And in many ways, it's the grandfather of all the great war epics that came after it.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Stages of a Writers Career, Part 3: Published and Promoting

And so not only have you finished your first novel, you have actually published it - whether on your own, or with a publisher. Wow, those are both huge accomplishments.  Now all that's left for you to do is to sell your work to the reading public!

Um, er, and how does one do that, exactly?

Part 3: Promoting Your Book

Challenges - Well for starters, there are the two biggies: time and money.  Effective promotion can cost a lot, both in hours and in dollars.  And how do you know if what you're investing in will pay off in book sales?

There's also, again, the issue of volume.  There are a lot of writers trying to sell a lot of books.  If your particular book isn't on the front racks of Barnes & Noble, how are readers going to find you?

Helpful Hints - Most of these ideas I got from talking to other writers, and if you're feeling lost, other writers are always a good place to start.  Bounce ideas off each other - chances are, you have tried some things that others haven't, and vice versa!  And in the meantime, here are a few other things you can consider:

Find your brand.  You may have heard this before.  But what does it mean? Well, the simplest definition is this: it's your identity as a writer.  Your brand is intimately tied to the genre in which you write.  And no gender-bias intended, but this appears to be much more important for female writers than it is for male.  Men tend to be "horror novelists," or "science fiction authors."  Their name and writing style itself tends to become their brand.  Not so for women.  We may be "horror novelists" and "sci fi authors," but for some reason we have to code ourselves as "romantic thriller writers," or "paranormal authors."  Why is this? Your guess is as good as mine!  (And if you think that this is a bogus observation, feel free to discard it.) 

You can get a good idea of how writers are branding themselves by checking out their websites.  For example, the following brands are evident on the websites of these bestselling authors: Brenda Novak - "Sophisticated, evocative romantic suspense."  Debbie Macomber - "Wherever you are, Debbie brings you home." We could probably do a whole blog about this subject in an of itself.  But the bottom line is, finding your personal brand will help your readers identify with you, and that will make them more likely to want to buy your books.

Explore the Internet.  Ah, the majestic power of the mighty Interweb!  Where would we be without it? (Back in 1989, I guess!)  Explore the Internet and find where readers are hanging out, and where writers are meeting up with them and getting to know their public.  Facebook, Goodreads, Kindleboards, Amazon discussion threads are all good places to start.  Remember to be friendly and polite: readers respond better to writers who aren't only trying to hock their wares.  Learn the etiquette of whatever website you find, and you could find your public, ravenous for your books!

Figure out what works for you.  Promotion can take hours and hours and cost lots of money.  Don't try to be everywhere and do everything.  Take it slow, see what's out there, and figure out what will work for your time and budget.

If you like, you can start by telling us, here on this blog, a little about your book!

Read more about writing:
Stages of a Writers Career, Part 2: Publishing for the First Time
Stages of a Writers Career, Part 1: Finishing Your First Novel
See all of Misha's writing blogs.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Movie Monday: 1930 (April) - 2nd Academy Awards

Well, we're only two weeks into this cinematic adventure, and I'm already learning a lot!  In 1930, there were actually two - that's right, two - Academy Award ceremonies!  The first ceremony (and the one on which this week's blog focuses) honored films released between August 1, 1928 and July 31, 1929. 

1930 (January - June): A BRIEF RECAP

Seeing as how there were two Oscar ceremonies in 1930, we'll split our recap into two parts.  After all, it's only fair!  Here are a few things that happened in just the first six months of 1930:

Charles Lindbergh arrives in New York, setting the cross country flyig record of 14.75 hours.  Anna Christie, Greta Garbo's first talking picture, opens in the United States.  Her first line in the film? "Gif me a visky, ginger ale on the side, and don' be stingy, baby."  In March, Mahatma Ghandi and a group of followers begin the Salt March, a trek to the sea where they intend to manufacture salt in defiance of the British government's monopoly on salt production.  Ghandi is arrested by the British in May. President Hoover assures the public that the worst effects of the Depression will be over within 90 days: "Prosperity is just around the corner," he says.  Scientists report the discovery of a ninth planet (Pluto) at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.  The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (also knowns as the Hays Code) is adopted by the film industry. Movie ticket prices began to decline after the stock market crash of October 1929; in March 1930 they are around 27 cents each.


The 2nd Academy Awards were presented on April 3, 1930.  Unlike the 1929 Oscars, the winners were not announced in advance.  The ceremony was broadcast live on the radio; it honored films released between August 1, 1928 and July 31, 1929.  Since these awards were given out more than eight months after the end of the eligibility period, it was decided that the next ceremony would be held only a few months later, in November.  As a result, 1930 became the only year in which two Academy Awards celebrations were held. 

Another notable (and mysterious!) thing about the second Oscar celebration is that it's the only year in which there was no official list of nominees!  Later research by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would result in an unofficial list of nominees, based on records of which films were evaluated by the judges.  And these are the films that I watched this week.


Included with this list is a movie which I couldn't see: The Patriot (1928).  Unfortunately it's one of those films that's never been released on home video, probably because they don't have a film print that's complete enough to restore.  The movie is listed below, with a little bit of info.

And the nominees are....

The Patriot
Starring: Emil Jannings, Lewis Stone and Florence Vidor
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch

What's it about?  In 18th-century Russia, Czar Paul I (Emil Jannings) is a brutal yet pathetic dictator, who holds the mighty country tightly in his tyrannical grasp.  His friend, Count Pahlen (Lewis Stone), begins to question whether the Czar should be allowed to rule.  The Count joins a plot to assasinate his friend - a plot hampered by the beautiful Countess Osterman (Florence Vidor, former wife of the great King Vidor, who directed films from 1913 to 1980).

What makes it special?  It was the last silent film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar; it won the award for Best Writing Achievement.  You can read more about it in this article by Gabriel Ruzin.  And although the film itself is lost to history, the trailer remains.  I've included it here:

The Hollywood Revue of 1929
Starring: Conrad Nagel, Jack Benny, Joan Crawford, and a whole slew of MGM contract players.
Directed by: Charles Reisner

Where did I find it? I bought the DVD on eBay.  The quality of sound and picture was excellent.

What's it about?  It's a good, old-fashioned singing and dancing variety show.  Co-hosts were Conrad Nagel (the handsome leading man who would go on to star in at least one more Best Picture Nominee, 1930's The Divorcee) and funnyman Jack Benny, whose television show The Jack Benny Program ran for fifteen years.  There were over a dozen acts in this one, and it would be a bit difficult to give you a summary of each one.  But for me, some of the highlights were these:

A young and incredibly elegant Joan Crawford does a musical number - singing, dancing and showing off her gorgeous legs.  Comedienne Marion Davies, who was W.R. Hurst's longtime romantic companion, does a perky tapdance number.  And Laurel and Hardy do a bit that ends up with Hardy slipping on a banana peel and falling face-first into a giant cake covered with whipped cream. 

One of my favorite segments was a scene where Norma Shearer and John Gilbert do the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.  Then someone yells cut, and they walk "off camera" and have a talk with the director, played by Lionel Barrymore, who says that the studio has re-written the script.  "The kids don't like this Shakespeare stuff," says Barrymore.  "The studio wants the scene to be more modern."  So back Norma and John go to the balcony, where the re-do the 1929-modern teenage slang!  I must admit that I laughed out loud.  And you know what makes this segment extra-amazing?  It was done in color!

What makes it special?  I'm actually not a huge fan of musicals, but in spite of that, and regardless of the fact that the jokes were corny (which is natural, considering that they were old even when this one was filmed!), this is a real treasure.  To think that all of these great stars were captured together, on the same piece of moviemaking. If you're a fan of musical variety shows, you should definitely look this one up if you get the chance!

Starring:  Chester Morris, Harry Stubbs, Eleanor Griffith
Directed by: Roland West

Where did I find it? This was the first of my Movie Monday films that I was able to find on Netflix!  The picture quality was good, but the sound went in and out.  However, considering the age of the movie I was very happy with it.

What's it about?  Handsome prohibition gangster Chick Williams (Chester Morris) has just gotten out of prison and returned to the loving arms of his mob family.  With his new-found freedom and a gorgeous gal on his arm, he seems to have the world at his fingertips.  His new girl, Joan Manning (Eleanor Griffith), is the daughter of a police sergeant, but that doesn't prevent her from being a wide-eyed innocent who fully believes Chick when he says he was framed by the "coppers."  

During a warehouse robbery, a policeman is killed.  Chick is suspected, but Joan gives him an alibi, saying that he was at the theatre with her when the robbery took place.  And then, in an act of defiance against her father, she drops one more bombshell: she and Chick have gotten married.

During a taut, terrifying interrogation of a petty crook, police secure testimony that Chick is the shooter.  Fearful that Joan's alibi may not be able to hold, Chick and his cronies attempt to secure another "witness" on his behalf, but they make their biggest mistake in soliciting the help of an affable drunk who is actually undercover police officer Danny McGann (Regis Toomey). Joan knows that McGann is a cop.  She wants to keep his secret but accidentally gives him away. 

McGann is killed.  Joan doesn't want to believe in Chick's guilt, but when she threatens to defy him, he shows his true colors.  "I killed that cop," he tells her, taking joy in watching Joan's faith disappear.  "You're my wife and you'll do what I tell you."

At that moment the cops bust in.  They take Chick prisoner, but he escapes, making his way up to the roof.  He tries to jump from one building to the next, but he misses, and plunges to his death in the alley below.

What makes it special?  This flick was what's known as a "transitional talkie." It was filmed both with sound and as a silent picture.  It's also credited as being the first Impressionist gangster film, which means (as near as I can tell!) that it has a kind of avant gard aesthetic quality.  The exterior night backgrounds are hand-drawn in what I call the "comic book style." 

Lines between good and bad are blurred in this film.  The criminals are definitely portrayed as villians, but the police aren't much better.  The scene where they force an implication of Chick out of a petty criminal, by threatening to shoot him, is pretty brutal.  Of course we've seen that kind of scene a million times in movies since then, but at the time it must have seemed especially shocking and gritty, and it still packs a heavy punch today.

Chester Morris, who plays Chick Williams, is definitely the standout actor in this picture.  (We'll see him again in the 3rd Academy awards with the movie The Divorcee.)  On screen he goes from urbane young man wrongly accused of criminal activity, to tough-guy mobster as he plots his alibi with his cronies, to smirking villian as he confesses his crimes to his wife, and ends up as just another cowering, pathetic crook as he bargains with the police for his life then tries to make a getaway.  In the hands of a lesser actor these transitions would have been impossible, but he pulls it off.  He was nominated for Best Actor (he lost to Warner Baxter, star of In Old Arizona). 

The seeds of many future gangster flicks, most notably The Departed, can be seen in this movie.  On its own merits it drags a bit, but anyone interested in early crime pictures will definitely want to check this one out!
In Old Arizona
Starring: Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe, Dorothy Burgess
Directed by: Irving Cummings

Where did I find it?  I rented the dvd from Netflix.  The picture was good - especially the wide shots of the Arizona landscape.  The sound had undergone restoration and is in great shape.

What's it about?  The Cisco Kid (Warner Baxter) is the "Robin Hood of the Old West."  With a $5000 price on his head, he could be the most wanted man in Arizona.  But this is no callous badman, no ruthless villian: he's a gallant and gracious thief.  While holding up a stagecoach at the beginning of the film, he assures the occupants that he never steals from passengers; all he wants is the Wells Fargo gold.  He even goes so far as to buy a brooch from one of the young ladies riding in the stagecoach before riding off with his good manners intact, and the stolen gold tucked into his saddlebags.

Army Sergeant Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe) is dispatched to bring the Kid to justice.  The two meet in a barber shop, where the Kid is getting himself all cleaned up to go and visit his lady love.  Of course, the Cisco Kid is well aware that Dunn is hunting him, but the good Sergeant doesn't realize that this affable Mexican gentleman is actually the bandit he's looking for until after his prey had ridden away.

The Kid goes to visit Tonia Maria, the girl he loves best.  Not realizing that she's been unfaithful to him in his absence, he showers her with gifts and affection.  As a favor to him, she goes to take a message to Mickey Dunn, and she and Dunn hit it off.  They conspire together to capture the Cisco Kid.  But he gets wind of the plan, and executes a complex revenge, tricking Dunn into shooting Tonia Maria.

What makes it special?  Warner Baxter won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in this picture, and he does seem to hit all the right notes as the charasmatic anti-hero.  He's a dead-eye shot, a generous tipper, and he can carry a tune like nobody's business.  Baxter manages to balance the Kid's borderline-buffoon quality with the dark underbelly of the man betrayed.

Another interesting thing about this film is that it's apparently the first all-sound Western (although it's really more of a tragic love story than a shoot-'em-up cowboy flick).  One sound effect in particular, that of ham and eggs sizzling on a stove, must have caused quite a sensation.  It was a real techical achievement.

And I can't leave this film without mentioning again the extraordinary footage of the America Southwest.  They are clear and beautiful and altogether remarkable - what a wonderful job of photography and restoration!

And the winner is...

The Broadway Melody
Starring: Charles King, Anita Page, Bessie Love
Directed by: Harry Beaumont

Where did I find it? Netflix

What's it about?  Feisty and ambitious Harriet "Hank" Mahoney (Bessie Love) and her shy, beautiful sister Queenie (Anita Page) bring their sister act to New York with dreams of making it big on Broadway. Hank's boyfriend Eddie Kerns (Charles King) has a job in a Broadway revue called the Zanfield Follies. Although Hank and Eddie have been together for awhile, when Eddie and Queenie see each other it's love at first sight.  But they don't breathe a word about their feelings. 

Eddie manages to bring the girls into the show, but things don't stay rosy very long.  Hank's stage time is reduced, while Queenie's is increased.  In an effort to keep her feelings for Eddie at bay, Queenie allows a rich investor, Jock Warriner, to court her.  Hank watches with horror as Queenie descends from young innocent toward kept woman.  She struggles to keep Queenie the same girl she's always been, but Queenie fights her every step of the way.

Jock has gifted Queenie with a luxurious new apartment.  On the night that she's supposed to move in, he throws her a party.  Hank and Eddie try to keep her from leaving the theatre and going to the soiree.  There's a terrible fight, and Hank realizes that Eddie is in love with her sister.

Queenie escapes and runs off to the party.  Hank tells Eddie, "If I were in love with someone the way you are with Queenie, I'd go after them and do whatever I had to to get them back."  Eddie hugs her and runs out the door to be with the girl he loves.  He arrives at the party just as Jock is about to force himself on Queenie.  Eddie saves her, getting himself pretty well beaten up in the process, and they leave together.

Months later, Hank is pacing anxiously in her apartment.  Eddie and Queenie rush in, freshly back from their honeymoon.  The reunion is awkward but happy.  And Hank can't stay long - after all, she has a new partner and they're about to leave for a brand new tour.  But Hank is sure she'll be back on Broadway before too long.  "It's cream in the can, baby," she says pluckily. 

What makes it special?  This was MGM's first all-talking musical feature.  It was also the first musical to spawn sequals: Broadway Melody of 1938 (which will appear on our blog in a few weeks) and Broadway Melody of 1940. 

Of all the movies I've seen so far for this blog, Broadway Melody was the most modern, and that made it - for me, at least - the most enjoyable.  It's a story about sisterly devotion (Hank and Queenie are both willing to give up the man they love so that the other can be happy), and it's a story about the kind of courage that's needed to follow your dreams and still maintain your integrity.  I thought it was great!
Next week: war, infidelity and the ultimate Frenchman!  (How's that for a teaser?)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Great Reads Friday: After by Marita Golden

Growing up in Washington, D.C. Marita Golden's gifts as a writer were recognized when she was a child and encouraged by her parents. Her mother told her when she was twelve, that one day she was going to write a book. From poems and articles in the high school and college newspapers, Golden moved in her twenties to free-lance writing for publications as diverse as Essence and the New York Times. She is also the author of fourteen books of fiction and nonfiction.  The Black Caucus of the American Library Association awarded Marita Golden an Honor for GUMBO an anthology of fiction by African American writers which she edited with the late E. Lynn Harris, and the Literary Award for Fiction for her novel After. And it's this book that I'm so thrilled to share with you as this week's Great Read!

For twelve years Carson Blake inhabited a world of his own creation. Scorned by the father who was incapable of showing him affection and nearly consumed by the mean streets of Prince George’s County, Maryland, Carson did what no one else could: he saved himself.

After joining the police force and building a family with his wife, Bunny, Carson is finally in control of his life in the enclave where African American wealth and privilege shares the same zip code with black American crime and tragedy. Both Carson and his wife have great careers and three beautiful children: Roslyn, Roseanne, and Juwan. Carson is a devoted father, determined not to be the father that Jimmy Blake was to him. But while Juwan’s astounding artistic talent is his father’s pride, the boy’s close relationship with classmate Will conjures up emotions and questions in Carson that threaten to spill over and poison the entire Blake family.

And then, one night in March, nearing the end of a routine shift, Carson stops a young black man for speeding. He orders Paul Houston to exit the car and drop to his knees. But when Houston retrieves something from his waistband and turns to face Carson, three shots are fired, one man loses his life and two families are wrenched from everything that came before and hurled into the haunting future of everything that will come after. When it is revealed that Paul, a son of educators and a teacher in Southeast D.C., was only holding a cell phone, Carson’s carefully woven world begins to unravel.

After is a penetrating work of discovery for a man whose life careens more than once off the edge of disaster. Golden’s astounding prose will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.
What do readers say?
"The plight of the black man has never been as magnified as it is in recent times. Albeit, and with much fanfare, there have been a plethora of books detailing the ills but rarely solutions. Now comes a brilliant story told from the imaginative mind of erudite scribe, Marita Golden with a book entitled, AFTER. This, her latest offering delves into the life of Carson Blake fighting demons that threaten to consume him lest a plan of salvation can be part of saving grace. Urban angst, coupled with dysfunctional familial life can wreck havoc and leave scars that are definitive of years of strife. Much should be said about the brilliance of illuminating light when a stand is made for challenge and change. Blake's stupendous effort to do just that makes this novel worth reading for redeeming value and for the mere triumphant nature of another black man pulled up from the depths of despair."   - A.C.R

Check out Marita's website to find out more!

Or buy AFTER today from!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Stages of a Writer's Career, Part 2: Publishing for the First Time

Okay, so you've finished your first novel (or your first big writing project).  Before we go any further, let me say: congratulations!  Just think about how many years you spent thinking, "If I could just finish that first book...."  And now you've done it! 

So what's next?

Part 2: Publishing (or Getting Published) for the First Time

Challenges - Few things in life are as challenging as trying getting published. The frustrations are many, and the victories are few and far between. First, there's the sheer volume of competition. Trying to land a major book deal is kind of like shooting an arrow at an apple from a mile away, while 5000 other people are aiming for the same apple!

There's also the "time factor." Some agents and publishers will take six months to a year to respond to your initial query. If they request the manuscript, it could be another six months to a year before you hear back. And if you're offered a contract, it will likely be a year or more before your book goes into print (and before you get the final installment of your advance, if you've been offered one).

Helpful hints - Well, I've painted kind of a dark picture, here, but please don't despair! There are a few tried-and-true things that writers can do to ease the journey along the road to publication:

Name your genre. This can be difficult for many writers. It was for me! After all, your work is unique, and many books don't fit into a neat little genre box. But imagine this: You're selling a car. A prospective customer asks, "What kind of car is it?" If you say, "It's difficult to describe," you've probably lost your sale. If you say, "It's a four-door sedan," you have a much better chance of moving that baby! And it's the same for readers, publishers and agents. They want to know what it is they're buying. So study up on genres, find one that seems to fit your work, and then go with it.

And if you're having trouble figuring out which genre is right for your work, pick a book that is similar to yours and look it up on Amazon to see in which category it's listed. That will at least give you a place to start.

Work out your "blurb." There are two ways that writers use the word "blurb." One is short review that can be used to promote the book. (As in, "I'm so excited! Stephen King gave me a blurb!") And the other way refers to a short, gripping description of your story. It's what which will appear in your query letter. It is usually two or three paragraphs. It describes your story, draws in your readers, gives publishers and agents a sample of your writing skill. Read the backs of DVD cases and books to get an idea of how the pros do it, and work your blurb until it's perfect!

Get your manuscript edited and/or proofread. Unfortunately, yes, this does cost money. A professional editor may charge anywhere from one to three dollars per page (sometimes more). But having a set of experienced, impartial eyes look over our work can prove to be invaluable. Trying to judge which chapters to cut can be like asking yourself which of your fingers you're willing to do without. You want your manuscript to be as tight, as professional and as ready for the presses as possible!

In later blogs we can talk more about genres and about publishing options for writers.
Do you have any stories (be they mystery, comedy, or horror) about getting published?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Movie Monday: 1929 - 1st Academy Awards

Wow, my first Movie Monday blog!  I'm so excited! 

There are two movies we're talking about this week: two of the three movies that were nominated for the first Best Picture Oscar!  (The third movie, The Racket, is supposed to be on its way from a rare movies web dealer.  I ordered it awhile ago but it's taking it's sweet time getting here.  Well, I guess it's traveling all the way from 1928, so we should really give it a break, right?  I've listed it below but obviously I couldn't give it the full treatment that the other two films received.  When it gets here I will do a special edition of Movie Monday and we'll enjoy it then!) 

And so on with the show!

I'm sort of making up the rules for this blog on the fly, and I'm looking forward to evolving it as we go along, so please feel free to leave honest feedback.  Is there something more you'd like to see?  Something less?  Let me know!

At first I wasn't going to talk about the endings of the movies, thinking that maybe folks would prefer to see the films for themselves, and not have the endings spoiled.  But to be honest, I sometimes find it annoying when I read articles about movies that don't tell me how the story ends - especially if the film is hard to find, or something I may not ever see for myself.  And so, fairly warned be thee, says I: for here be spoilers!

In later blogs, I don't know if I will achieve the level of detail in my descriptions of the stories as I did in this one.  I only had two movies to write about this week; next week it will be five, and before long it will be ten per week!  (Hmmm, I may have to take a leave of absence from work to really see this thing through.  Well, if it's gotta be done, it's gotta be done....)


1929 was a a year of tragedy and triumph.  Wyatt Earp died and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born.  Seven mobsters were gunned down in what became known as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and the first nonstop flight from England to India was completed.  In January, Herbert Hoover was inaugurated; in the inagural parade, he and his wife rode through the pouring rain in an open carriage.  On with the Show, the first all-color, full-sound movie debuted in New York.  The prosperous Jazz Age came to a close and the Great Depression began when the stock market crashed in October.  Babe Ruth hit his 500th major league home run against the Cleveland Indians.  Movie tickets cost around 35 cents each.  And on May 16, 1929, the very first Academy Awards ceremony was held.


The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was established in 1927.  By then, of course, the motion picture business was going strong.  It had been almost a full century since moving images were first produced on revolving drums and disks in the 1830s, and more than two decades had passed since "The Nickelodeon" - the first successful, permanent theatre showing nothing but films - opened in Pittsburg in 1905.  In those days, programs were about thirty minutes long, and consisted of several films which were several minutes each.  During World War One, the exhibition of films changed from short programs to the feature-length films we know and love today.  Those films were part of the Silent Era, of course, but by the end of 1929, Hollywood would become almost all "talkie." 

Louis B. Mayer reportedly claimed that the Academy Awards were more or less a way to manipulate actors and directors.  "I found the best way to handle [them] was to hang medals all over them." 

Hmmm, well, at least he was trying to catch his flies with honey (although I'm sure he used his fair share of vinegar, too!).

The first Academy Award ceremony honored the best films of 1927 and 1928. Nominees were notified by telegram in February 1928, judging started in August of that year, and winners were announced in February 1929, over two months before the actual awards ceremony.

For some reason I wasn't expecting a lot from these first few films.  Although I've seen - and loved - many silent films, somehow I was anticipating three overly-melodramatic stories with cartoonish acting and cardboard sets.  I couldn't have been more wrong!

Watching these movies I was reminded again and again of a scene in Hollywood Boulevard (one of my favorite films and a contender for the 1950 Best Picture Oscar).  Joe Gillis (William Holden) is trying to add dialgoue to a monsterously overblow script which Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) sees as her sure-fire comback to the bigtime.  She scoffs at his attempts, saying scornfully, "Words! We didn't need words! We had faces." 

Oh, how true that was!  The faces in these films could recite a dozen lines of dialogue with the pressing together of trembling lips, or the starry shine of suppressed tears in the corner of an eye.  I am so thankful that these movies have been preserved so that I can watch them now, nearly a century after they were made.

And the nominees are....

The Racket
Starring: Thomas Meighan, Louis Wolheim and Marie Prevost
Directed by: Lewis Milestone

What's it about? An honest police captain vows to bring down a powerful bootlegger who is protected by corrupt politicians and judges.

What makes it special? It was produced by the legendary Howard Hughes. According to my research, only one copy of the film is known to exist, and that one was found in Hughes' private collection after his death.  The film was restored, and it was broadcast on Turner Classic Movies in 2004 and 2006 - the first public showing of the film in decades.  Oooh, I can't wait to see it!

7th Heaven
Starring: Charles Farrell, Janet Gaynor (winner, Best Actress for Sunrise, that same year)
Directed by: Frank Borzage (winner, Best Director)

Where did I find it?  I bought the dvd on eBay.  Generally speaking the video quality was good, but there was some distracting flicker and darkness in the corners of the screen.  It's wonderfully orchestrated, however, with crashing symbols punctuating explosions, and subtle sound effects playing up the striking of the clock.

What's it about?  Based on a stage play and set in Paris, this is a "feel-good" wartime romance about having faith and fighting for what you believe.  Chico (Charles Farrell) is a strapping young man who works cleaning the sewers.  He dreams only of being a street washer, so that he can work above ground in the sunshine and fresh air.  "That's where I should be," he tells Rat, his faithful friend.  "After all, I'm a very remarkable fellow!" 

Diane (Janet Gaynor) lives in abject poverty, at the mercy of her cruel and alcoholic sister Nana (Gladys Brockwell).  When we first meet Diane, she is cowering on a filthy floor, being whipped by Nana.  "Stop your whining about stolen goods," Nana orders when her arm has grown tired.  She hands Diane a bag.  "Take these and buy me some absinthe!"  A possible end to their destitution arrives in the form of a rich aunt and uncle.  But Diane's honesty ruins their chance.  "Tell me, have you girls kept yourselves clean and decent?" the uncle asks.  "If you haven't I won't have you in my home."  Although Nana is twisting Diane's arm painfully behind her back, Diane can't bring herself to lie.  She tearfully shakes her head no, admitting in that moment that both girls have debased themselves in their struggle for survival.  Nana is so incensed that Diane has thrown away their golden ticket, that she chases her down the street and tries to strangle her.

Witnessing the scene, Chico steps in and saves Diane's life.  Gradually, the two of them fall in love.  Before they can get married, however, war breaks out, and Chico must leave to fight.  An open and defiant atheist, Chico declares "I'm going to give God one more chance.  Let this be a successful marriage!"  Instead of rings, he and Diane exchange religous medals.  As he walks out the door, he turns to look at her and says, "Let me fill my eyes with you one last time!"  And he promises that every day, at eleven AM, he will come to her and they will be together in their own Heaven.

No sooner has Chico departed than Nana returns, with the same riding crop she used to use to beat her sister.  She pulls the religious medal off Diane's neck and starts to strike her, but Diane is having none of that.  She takes the crop away and drives Nana to the door, snatching her medal back and pushing her sad excuse for a sister down the stairs and out of her life.  She rushes to the window and watches below as troops are marching out of Paris.  She holds the medal triumpantly in the air.  "Chico!" she cries, as if he can hear her, "I'm brave!  I'm brave!"

Years go by.  Chico is a corporal, fighting in the thick of battle.  Diane works in the munitions factory.  But every day, as the clock strikes eleven, they grasp their medals and look upward, thinking of each other.

Chico is wounded in a terrible battle.  He manages to crawl into the foxhole, where he pulls off his medal and give it to an officer.  "Tell Madam Chico that I died looking up," he says.

Back in Paris, on the day that the Armistice is declared, Diane gets the news that her beloved husband has died.  At first she won't believe it, but when the priest gives her his medal, she breaks down.  She denies her belief in God, and declares that she thought Chico had come to her every day at eleven, but that she was fool.  "I'm right back at the beginning," she says, slumped over in defeat.

Down in the street, Chico pushes his way through the crowd that is celebrating the end of the war.  He drags himself up the stairs, shouting for his wife, but he can't be heard over the crowd.  Then, as the clock strikes eleven, he stumbles into the room.  He calls for Diane, his arms outstretched, his eyes wide and sightless.  At first Diane can't believe it's really him, but then she goes to him, and they collapse on the floor together.  She touches his blind eyes.  "My eyes are still full of you," he tells her.  Then adds, "I won't be blind for long.  I tell you, I'm a very remarkable fellow!"

What makes it special? The dialogue is wonderful.  Okay, I know that's a weird thing to say about a silent movie, but it happens to be true!  In film - in any writing, actually - dialogue should be unique to the character; the words a character speaks should help us understand who he or she is.  Chico's constant declaration of how remarkable he is, as well as his habit of referring to God as the Bon Dieu, reveal more about him than his mile-wide shoulders or golden (yet manly) curls. 

Janet Gaynor as Diane was a revelation - for me, that is; I'm sure that most old movie buffs have been enamored of her for ages!  She was one of those actresses that was in the movie business from the very beginning, and she worked all her life; her final role was on The Love Boat in 1981.  In 1929 she won the Best Actress award for F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans (which is also an extraordinary film, if you ever get the chance to see it!).  She will cross this blog at least twice more: in 1933's State Fair, and 1937's A Star is Born.  I can't wait!

As 7th Heaven opens, the first card says, "For those who will climb it, there is a ladder leading from the depths to the heights - from the sewer to the stars: the ladder of Courage."  That sums up this movie beautifully, and the theme is carried right through the picture.  From the long, ladder-like staircase that leads Diane from the street to Chico's apartment above the rooftops of Paris, to Diane's own couragous confrontation with her wicked sister, to the triumphant "love conquers all" ending, this is a truly inspring film.
And the winner is...

Starring: Richard Arlen, Buddy Rogers, Clara Bow
Directed by: William A. Wellman

Where did I find it? I bought the dvd on eBay.  The quality of the was remarkably good - very little distortion.  It was a pleasure to watch.

What's it about?  This is a truly classic war epic in which you can see the seeds of many war movies to come.  Jack Powell (Buddy Rogers) is a middle-class boy who dreams of flight.  David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) is Jack's rich neighbor, sensitive yet manly.  Both boys are in love with beautiful society girl Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston).  Her heart belongs to David, but when war breaks out, she allows Jack to take a photo of her for good luck.  Meanwhile, Jack's neighbor Mary Preston (Clara Bow, Hollywood's first "It Girl") is in love with Jack but he - like so many men before and after him - is too blind to see the charms of the girl next door.

When the movie opens, Mary is helping Jack complete modifications on his old jalopy.  He wants nothing more than to "make 'er fly."  He dubs his speedy new vehicle The Shooting Star.  Mary paints a star on the side of it, then bashfully says, "You know what you can do when you see a shooting star, don't you?  You can kiss the girl that you love best."  Unfortunately Jack doesn't take the hint, and dashes off to find Sylvia.

When World War One begins, Jack and David both enlist in the newly formed Army Air Service.  Rivals at home, they face the horrors of war together and become friends for the first time.  Things turn especially tragic when David's plane is shot down.  He manages to survive the crash and steal a German plane, but Jack, driven mad with anger at what he thinks is the death of his friend, is determined to kill at least "one more Kaiser" in revenge.  In a moment that is both horrifying and heartbreaking, Jack mistakenly shoots David and kills him.

The war is over, and Jack returns home to a hero's welcome, but for him the homecoming is not so joyous.  Bravely he faces David's parents, who know that he was the cause of their only child's death.  They meet him stony-faced, their eyes accusing.  But then David's mother breaks down and embraces Jack.  "I wanted to hate you," she weeps,"but it wasn't your fault.  It was war."

In the end, Jack returns to his own parents' house, and pulls the cover off of The Shooting Star.  He sees Mary, peering over the hedge at him, as she has done so often before.  Mary has had her own adventures in the years since they've seen each other.  She signed up for service and went oversees to be an ambulence driver.  She and David have both changed. 

They sit together and look up at the night sky.  A shooting star - a real one - zooms across the heavens.  Jack says, "You know what you can do when you see a shooting star, don't you?" Mary smiles and nods, remembering.  As Jack leans forward to kiss her, the screen fades to black.

What makes it special? Several things stood out out for me while watching this movie.  First and foremost is the incredible aerial photography.  In an age when most people had never been in an airplane, this movie may have been their first chance to see what the tops of clouds looked like!  Some amazing shots include aerial dogfights, soldiers parachuting out of blimps, bombs plummeting to earth and heart-stopping plane crashes.  This was moviemaking on a huge scale, and must have been a massive undertaking for the film makers. Toward the beginning of the film there's also a beautiful (but not as dramatic) shot of David and Sylvia sitting together on a swing.  The camera follows their motion back and forth, making us feel like we're in the swing with them. 

The scene that I found most heartbreaking was the one in which David's parents say good-bye to him as he leaves for training.  Call me a sap, but there was no way to avoid tearing up as David's mother hands him a tiny stuffed bear that was his favorite toy as a child.  And when Jack returns the bear to her later, after David is killed...well, suffice it to say, I was glad to have a box of tissues handy!

Last but not least is the brief appearance of a young Gary Cooper.  He plays Cadet White, a seasoned flier who gives Jack and David their first taste of loss in the war.  He's only on screen for about five minutes, but he cuts a rakish, impressive figure.  In front of the camera he's charismatic, magnetic, and it's easy to see how he became a legend in his own right.


So, how did we do with our first Movie Monday?