Posted in 1930s, Movies

Extracting pleasure from horror

Released 29 December 1939 in the U.S. and throughout the world over 1940–41, this sixth film version of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of the final additions to what’s widely considered film history’s greatest year, and one of RKO’s most expensive pictures.

Unlike the 1923 Lon Chaney, Sr., version, the 1939 story doesn’t have much of a horror element, unless one considers it horror by default of Quasimodo’s deformity. It’s more historical romance and drama.

Also unlike the 1923 version, it has a happier ending, and doesn’t stuff in quite so many characters and subplots from the book.

In January 1482, King Louis IX (Harry Davenport) visits a printing shop with Jehan Frollo, Chief Justice of Paris (Sir Cedric Hardwicke). While Frollo sees this new invention as evil (as he does many other things), the King thinks it’s wonderful. Though he finds hand-written books more beautiful, they often take years to complete, whereas the printing press only takes a few weeks and is much cheaper.

The printer then shows them a new book, On the Freedom of Thought, by poet Pierre Gringoire. Frollo condemns him as a heretic, but the King believes it could be a great blessing if all of France learns to read thanks to this modern miracle.

While they’re in the shop, hunchback Quasimodo is ringing the bells. The King says he’s never heard a more beautiful rendition of Angelus.

Next day comes the Feast of Fools, which originated in proper liturgical observance but was later condemned by Church authorities because of its parody of ecclesiastical ritual and clergy. The common people of Paris turn out in droves for the celebration, which includes a play by Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien).

We then meet Clopin, King of the Beggars (Thomas Mitchell), who interrupts Gringoire’s play, and Romani dancer Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara). Quasimodo (Charles Laughton) is crowned King of Fools. In the book, he’s truly crowned Pope of Fools.

The party ends when Frollo takes Quasimodo home to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Being both deformed and Deaf, this is the only safe place for Quasimodo to live.

Meanwhile, Esmeralda goes in search of the King to beg for a permit to allow her people to live in Paris, and is caught by a guard. Several soldiers chase her all the way to Notre Dame, where she finds sanctuary with Frollo’s brother Claude, Archbishop of Paris.

While she’s praying to Mary for her people’s protection, Jehan Frollo sharply rebukes her, telling her she has no right to be in a church. Luckily, she then encounters the King, who promises protection.

For her own safety, Claude takes Esmeralda to the bell tower, but Quasimodo terrifies her, and she flees. Jehan orders Quasimodo to give chase and kidnap her.

Gringoire witnesses this and asks Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshal) and his guards to apprehend Quasimodo. Esmeralda falls in love with her rescuer Phoebus, but she’s soon compelled to marry Gringoire to save him from being hanged when he accidentally trespasses in the Court of Miracles (i.e., a slum).

Quasimodo is publicly whipped and forced to languish in the stocks. Jehan, always the fair-weather, self-serving friend, does nothing to help.

Quasimodo, who’s able to speak in a limited capacity, begs for water, and Esmeralda comes to his rescue.

That night, Esmeralda is invited to a party attended by the nobility. Jehan, who previously ordered the guards to round up and arrest all the Romani women to find his unmutual crush Esmeralda, uses this as an opportunity to get her alone and confess his feelings.

Esmeralda is much happier for stolen moments with Phoebus, who reciprocates her feelings. But an act of violence destroys this budding romance, and Esmeralda is falsely accused of the crime.

Will her innocence be proven before it’s too late?

A Universal Studios remake of the 1923 film was in the works since 1932. Originally, Boris Karloff was slated to play Quasimodo. In 1934, the studio regained interest in this project, and ultimately decided to cast Peter Lorre.

This obviously never happened, as the property was sold to MGM as a star vehicle for Paul Muni. MGM then sold the rights to RKO.

Screenwriter Sonya Levien (one of the highest-earning women in her profession in the 1930s) emphasized the parallels between persecution of Romani and Nazi treatment of Jews at the time.

Lon Chaney, Jr. was eager to play the role which made his father a superstar. Though RKO thought his screen tests were great, they felt someone else would be more suitable. British-born Charles Laughton was offered the part, but when IRS issues threatened his ability to work in the U.S., RKO offered it to Chaney again.

After his IRS problems were resolved, Laughton got the role back.

Maureen O’Hara, only 18 during filming, made her U.S. screen début as Esmeralda. Kathryn Adams had been set for the role, and was given the part of one of Fleur de Lys’s companions as compensation.

Claude Rains was set to play Jehan Frollo, but refused it after a very negative encounter with Laughton which ended their relationship.

The budget was $1.8 million ($33,497,870.50 today).

Just as in the 1923 film, Claude Frollo is a good guy while brother Jehan is the villain. In the book, it’s the opposite. The restrictive Hays Code forbade negative depiction of clergy.

Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, but despite its popularity, the exorbitant costs meant it only made $100,000 profit.

Hunchback was nominated for Best Sound and Best Original Music Score at the Academies.

Posted in 1950s, Couples, Fourth Russian novel, Historical fiction, Writing

WeWriWa—Unexpected reaction

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes a bit after last week’s, from Chapter 55, “The Streets of the Future,” of my WIP A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University. This chapter, which closes Part I (to be published as Volume I), is mostly set over Orthodox Christmas 1950.

Twenty-year-old Bogdana Sheltsova, who survived two horrific, life-altering events six weeks apart, is now living with her aunt Fyodora in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. She didn’t expect her friend Achilles to visit with roses and a necklace after their awkward last encounter in the underground clinic where Achilles assists.

They retired to another room speaking privately, and though Bogdana agreed to be his girlfriend, she’s still not entirely convinced Achilles could really want someone as supposedly damaged as herself. She just removed her wig to let him see her real hair, which is slowly growing back from being shaved, and Achilles said it’s surprisingly cute.

Achilles rubs her shoulders. “Why don’t you stand up so I can hug you? I’ve wanted to do that for so long, but didn’t want to frighten you or violate doctor-patient boundaries. Do you feel safe doing that? I’ll understand if you’re still too afraid of having such close contact with men.”

“I’m always safe with my Achilles, my modern-day Greek hero.” Bogdana slowly stands up.

The moment Achilles’s arms encircle her, she freezes and begins gasping for breath. She closes her eyes and tries to raise her arms to push him away, but her entire body is immobilized. The ringing in her ears is deafening.

Posted in 1970s, Music

Happy 50th birthday, BOTW!

Image used solely to illustrate subject for purposes of an album review, and consistent with fair use doctrine

Released 26 January 1970, BOTW was Simon and Garfunkel’s fifth and final studio album, and was almost the next-last album I listened to in this lifetime. I played it the night before my August 2003 car accident, and when I was finally able to sit in a chair by my record player again, that was the first LP I put on the turntable.

Ever since then, hearing any of the songs can set something off in my psyche and give me a feeling akin to body memories, with my throat getting tighter. It’s not a PTSD trigger, but it brings back memories of those almost being among the final songs I ever heard.

S&G’s last album, Bookends, was released in April 1968, and recording for BOTW commenced in November. However, a long delay arose in January 1969—the filming of Catch-22, in which Art plays Nately. (This is a dreadful, dreadful movie, taking way too many liberties with the classic novel!)

When the duo got back to business in the studio, they had to decline a number of invitations, including Woodstock. Crafting their new album was top priority. In the end, they selected eleven songs. Several other songs, among them “Feuilles-O,” “Groundhog,” and “Cuba Si, Nixon No,” were left in the vault.

Track listing, with stars by the bonus tracks:

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” (#1 in the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, and New Zealand; #2 in Australia, Ireland, and Spain; #3 in Germany; #4 in Austria and South Africa; #5 in Switzerland and The Netherlands; #7 in Norway; #23 in Belgium)

“El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)” (written by Peruvian commposer Daniel Alomía Robles in 1913) (#1 in Belgium, Australia, Austria, The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland; #6, #11, and #18 on different U.S. charts; #14 in New Zealand)

“Cecilia” (my third journal’s namesake song) (#1 in The Netherlands; #2 in Spain, Canada, and Germany; #3 in Belgium and Switzerland; #4, #31, and #1 on different U.S. charts; #6 in Australia and Austria; #9 in Belgium; #19 in Rhodesia)

“Keep the Customer Satisfied” (later covered by Gary Puckett as a solo artist)
“So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” (not a fan of the overly long fadeout!)

“The Boxer” (#1 and #3 on different Canadian charts; #2 in Austria and The Netherlands; #3 in South Africa; #4 and #7 on different U.S. charts; #5 in Sweden; #6 in the U.K.; #7 in Ireland; #8 in Australia; #9 in New Zealand and Norway; #10 in Spain; #13 in Zimbabwe; #19 in West Germany)

“Baby Driver”
“The Only Living Boy in New York”
“Why Don’t You Write Me”
“Bye Bye Love” (cover of The Everly Brothers’ original)
“Song for the Asking”
“Feuilles-O” (demo)*
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” (demo take six)*

The album reached #1 in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Spain, and Norway. In Italy, it was #4.

While I truly enjoy this album, I don’t rank it in the same territory as PSR&T and Bookends. It’s a little too hit and miss. A truly classic album shouldn’t have so much filler!

Besides the four singles, my favorite tracks are “The Only Living Boy in New York” and “Song for the Asking.”

I originally rated it 4.5 on my old Angelfire site, but now I’d honestly give it 4 stars.

Posted in 1950s, Couples, Fourth Russian novel, Historical fiction, Writing

WeWriWa—Uncovered hair

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes a bit after last week’s, from Chapter 55, “The Streets of the Future,” of my WIP A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University. This chapter, which closes Part I (to be published as Volume I), is mostly set over Orthodox Christmas 1950.

Twenty-year-old Bogdana Sheltsova, who survived two horrific, life-altering events six weeks apart, is now living with her aunt Fyodora in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. She didn’t expect her friend Achilles to visit with roses and a necklace after their awkward last encounter in the underground clinic where Achilles assists.

They’re now in another room speaking privately, and though Bogdana has agreed to be his girlfriend, she’s still not entirely convinced Achilles could really want someone as supposedly damaged as herself.

Achilles gently strokes her face. “The only disgusting people are the ones who robbed you of your sense of safety and normalcy. Whether you believe it or not, I’ve chosen you above all others to love and cherish. You’ll be so pampered, loved, and protected for the rest of your life.” He touches her wig again. “May I please see your real hair? I only saw it the night we met, before you shaved it.”

Bogdana closes her eyes as she removes her wig. She bursts into tears when she feels Achilles tenderly stroking her very short natural hair.

Posted in New York City, Photography, Travel

A city long ago and worlds apart

Once upon a time, long ago and worlds apart, there was a great city teeming with vibrancy. People from all walks of life lived alongside one another, despite the age-old chasm between supreme wealth and profound poverty. All sorts chose to make this city their home—artists, intellectuals, writers, poets, actors, singers, musicians, seamstresses, tailors, dockworkers, factory workers, fishmongers, small business owners, department store salespeople, politicians, police, fire fighters, doctors, nurses, junkmen, clergy, teachers, grocers, florists, butchers, architects, millionaires.

They lived in structures ranging from tiny rooms to grand mansions, all contributing something to the life of this great city. Each neighborhood and district was like a miniature city unto itself. Despite the many wealthy residents, there were equal bourgeoisie and proletariat. A humble junkman or garment factory employee could live and raise a family there as well as a teacher, baker, or millionaire.

This city had a renowned public school system, and its free colleges were known as proletarian versions of Harvard, schools where one could get a top-flight education equal to that of any Ivy. While home ownership was out of reach for many, generations of lower- and middle-income people happily, comfortably raised families in fairly spacious apartments and took advantage of many public parks to compensate for the lack of backyards.

Then the ruling classes came together and hatched a plan to gradually take back the city for themselves. Though their plans were temporarily thwarted by the Stock Market crash, complicated forces came together in the wake of WWII which ultimately led the city from its most glorious pinnacle to a sharp downward spiral. It ultimately recovered, but it’s never been the same since.

As always, the very rich and very poor still live there, but it’s no longer the hospitable environment it once was for bourgeoisie and proletariat making a living and raising families, nor for bright-eyed intellectuals, artists, writers, musicians, actors, and political activists hoping to find like-minded communities.

But there once was a great city, long ago and worlds apart.

My theme this year is the New York City which now largely lives in memory. Though many of these places still exist, they’re not the same as they were prior to the city’s tragic slide into near-bankruptcy and high levels of crime, followed by most of Manhattan and large parts of Brooklyn in particular being gentrified by hipsters and turned into a playground for millionaires.

As was the case for most of my prior themes, this one too is related to my writing. The majority of topics have featured in my books set in New York, in particular The Ballad of Lyuba and Ivan, my family saga which will eventually span 1889–2000ish. New York becomes one of the major settings in May 1921.

I was inspired to make this theme because I’m so excited about the Konevs moving back to New York in June 1952, after living in rural Minnesota since 1929 and belatedly coming to realize that’s not who they are at all. They’re intellectuals and artists craving a like-minded environment, and they miss the convenience of living in the same city as their extended family.

Copyright Beyond My Ken

You’ll learn about places including:

Walden School, a renowned, innovative, popular progressive school on the historic Central Park West. The arts were emphasized, there were no entrance exams, and students had great leeway in choosing their own course of study.

Victorian Flatbush, the western part of Flatbush, Brooklyn, boasting the largest concentration of Victorian houses in the U.S. It includes many protected historic districts, including Ditmas Park, Prospect Park South, Fiske Terrace, Midwood Park, and the Beverley Squares. These are no urban houses either, but large estates with ample yards.

Marble Hill, Manhattan’s northernmost neighborhood, sometimes claimed as the Bronx because it’s on the North American mainland. To date, it’s one of the only affordable Manhattan neighborhoods left for normal people, and there are many detached houses on bucolic streets.

Rockaways’ Playland, a popular Queens amusement park which remained very successful after Coney Island’s depressing slide into decay and irrelevance. Sadly, large portions were destroyed by the evil Robert Moses to build yet another stupid road no one wanted. The owners resisted his attempts to shut down the park completely.

Garden School, an independent school in Jackson Heights, Queens which fosters a strong sense of community and academic excellence in a relaxed environment full of enrichment activities.

Tottenville, Staten Island, the city’s southernmost settlement, with a lot of Victorian houses and low population density.

As much as possible, I’ll focus on lesser-known places instead of ones everyone already knows about.

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My names blog will feature (mostly) Estonian names, with wildcards for the letters not found in the Estonian alphabet or any recorded loan names.