Long ago and worlds apart in small-town Minnesota

It’s quite surprising I don’t recall hearing about the Betsy-Tacy series till a few years ago, since I read so many other old books and series when I was in elementary school. For whatever reason, I just never saw or was told about these books until I was well past the age of the intended primary audience.

This 10-book series is strongly based on author Maud Hart Lovelace’s own life, so much so it’s all but a memoir with different names and a few tweaked details. Apparently it has quite a cult following, with many people effusively crediting it with their decision to become writers, citing it as one of their favorites growing up, and calling the characters friends.

There’s even a Betsy-Tacy Society, with regular events like trivia contests, Victorian Christmas parties, concerts, wine-tasting fundraisers, and writing workshops. They also have a gift shop and give tours of the real-life places in Mankato, Minnesota which feature in the series.

But does it hold up for someone only coming it to as an adult, without rose-colored childhood nostalgia?

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A month before Elizabeth (Betsy) Ray’s fifth birthday, a new family moves into the house across the street. Both houses are at the end of Hill Street, which aptly has a big hill behind it. Betsy is very excited to learn the new neighbors have a little girl her age, since none of the other kids on Hill Street fit that description.

The new girl, who’s extremely shy, runs away when Betsy tries to meet her on a snowy March day. She shouts out her nickname, Tacy, and for some reason Betsy thinks she’s calling out a mocking name. (Even if someone has a very unusual name, why would that be your first thought?!)

Next month is Betsy’s fifth birthday party, and Tacy is among the guests. Betsy learns her name is Anna Anastacia, and that Tacy is her nickname. (Mrs. Lovelace found the name Tacy in a Colonial newspaper while researching another book. It was a 16th–18th century Puritan name derived from Latin tace, “be silent.” As for Anastacia, that spelling seems really out of place on an Irish–American Catholic girl born in 1892.)

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The two become instant BFFs, and they begin having all sorts of old-timey fun and games like playing pretend (though these magical stories are written as though they’re actually happening!), eating lunch in a piano box, going up the Hill Street Hill and sitting on a bench, hanging out on the hitching block, buying candy for a penny, starting kindergarten, playing with paper dolls, dyeing Easter eggs, selling colored sand, dressing up like their mothers and going calling as them. At the end of the book, they meet their new BFF Thelma (Tib) Muller.

A couple of problems crop up, but they’re all rapidly, smoothly resolved—Tacy running away from school in tears on the first day during recess, Tacy’s baby sister Bee dying, Betsy being upset when her parents have a new baby.

And speaking of the lattermost, Betsy’s dad was so sure he’d finally get his precious male heir and Junior, he didn’t bother thinking of a girl’s name! He asks Betsy and her older sister Julia, the day the baby is born, to give her a name!

Other than that, nothing really happens. Everything and everyone are all happy-clappy in this idyllic small town full of comfortably bourgeois people. Betsy and Tacy never quarrel. No neighbors ever confront them about how they’re screaming at the top of their lungs in the middle of the street.  Their only consequences for mild misbehavior seem to be mild scoldings and their parents quickly laughing off their antics.

Plus, it’s written in that dated, distant, spoilerific God-mode, so I never felt in anyone’s head or like there were compelling, emotional stakes.

Sorry not sorry, but I need a real reason to care about characters and storylines beyond them being thinly-fictionalized memoirs of an old-timey childhood. Having grown up poor and working-class, I know real life ain’t like a Norman Rockwell painting or Andy Hardy movie for most people, and can’t relate to such idyllic tales. My great-grandparents, who were born around the same time, only wished they could’ve had such happy, innocence-laced childhoods!

Also, even a deliberately episodic, character-based story needs hung on some kind of narrative arc.

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The second book is pretty much exactly the same, a bunch of random episodes in an unrealistically idyllic small town, only with a third girl added. And did people in the 1890s really think trouble automatically begins when three girls become BFFs?! Plenty of trios have been friends for decades!

The first chapter pissed me off, when the girls make themselves look like (physically) dirty beggars and pretend to Mrs. Ekstrom at the top of the hill that they’re starving. Betsy and Tacy’s older sisters come in, and they cowardly flee, whining, “They’re eating our cookies!” Mrs.  Ekstrom didn’t make those cookies for YOU!

There are more playing pretend episodes written as if these magical things are really happening. The girls also attend a street fair with a flying lady, build a miniature house in Tib’s basement, bake a repulsive concoction with literally everything in the pantry and predictably get sick, and start a secret club.

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The girls cut their hair after Tacy recovers from diphtheria, with the intent of making memorial jewelry, and their parents completely overreact initially (because God forbid a girl might have SHORT hair!), but quickly laugh it off and even out the rough edges. It reminds me of the chapter in the dreadful Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family where Mama tells Charlotte and Gertie that Papa would’ve given them the worst beating of their lives if she thought they gave their cousin Ruthie a bad haircut on purpose. WTAF!

The girls decide to hang bags around their necks and fill them with stones every time they’re “bad,” and soon are delighting in “naughtiness” so they can add more stones on purpose. Their “misbehavior” is truly tame, like putting mud in their pockets, calling their sisters stuck-up, making faces at people, and picking flowers in their own gardens. You rebels, you!

At the end of the book, they meet Tib’s beautiful Aunt Dolly from Milwaukee.

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Honestly, there’s no narrative drive to hook me. These girls’ lives are too happy-clappy and picture-perfect, and I don’t see them growing and maturing beyond getting a bit older. There are no serious consequences for anything they do wrong, as there are for girls like Anne Shirley, Cady Woodlawn, and Laura Ingalls. Nothing truly bad ever happens to them. They get to do whatever they want without any real pushback.

Slice of life stories still need some dramatic tension and a sense that these episodes are connected in some way. I don’t like my books to be as syrupy and annoyingly perfect as Full House in written form.

A quintuple shot of antique horror

Jehanne d’Alcy, star of lost film Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb

As always, my yearly October salute to vintage horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries kicks off with grand master Georges Méliès. Sadly, two of his 1899 films represented here are lost.

Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (known in its original French as simply Cléopâtre) stars Méliès as a tomb-robber and Jehanne d’Alcy as Cleopatra’s ghost. Our dastardly tomb-robber chops Cleopatra’s mummy into pieces, then “produces a woman from a smoking brazier.”

D’Alcy was the first film actor to portray Cleopatra VII (albeit as her ghost). She and Méliès later became one another’s second spouses.

On 22 September 2005, it was announced this film had been found, but alas, it turned out to be a different film with the robbing of an Egyptian tomb.

In The Devil in a Convent (Le Diable au Couvent (1899), Satan arises from what appears to be a baptismal font and disguises himself as a priest delivering a sermon to nuns. They flee in fear when he transmogrifies back. When he’s alone, Satan conjures up several demonic statues, a large mask, and many other devils.

Their fun in the convent ends when the nuns return. The other devils flee, and Satan is pursued by many priests. An angel statue comes to life and slays him with a sword, and Satan vanishes in a cloud of smoke.

In 2010, Cinémathèque Basque received a box of 32 films in 35mm, including hand-coloured copies of The Devil in a Convent and another 1899 Méliès film, The Mysterious Knight. These films were rescued from a rubbish bin in Bilbao, Spain in 1995.

The Pillar of Fire (Danse du Feu) (1899) was originally released in the U.S. and U.K. as Haggard’s “She”—The Pillar of Fire. The Devil, dressed in green, leaps out of a cauldron and begins creating smoke all over the room with a bellows. He then conjures a young lady who performs a serpentine dance before disappearing in a column of smoke.

This was the first film based on British writer H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She: A History of Adventure. Given the scant length of films in this era, Méliès chose to use title character Ayesha (not the protagonist) as inspiration for one of his famous trick films. There are at least ten other film adaptations of this book.

Occultist Count Alessandro Cagliostro, né Giuseppe Balsamo (1743–95)

Cagliostro’s Mirror (Le miroir de Cagliostro) (1899) is sadly lost. It depicted a basket of flowers appearing in large frame on a wall, followed by a beautiful young lady’s picture. Her picture becomes animated, and she begs to get out of the frame. A visitor starts to comply, only to see her turning into a skeleton and huge devil’s head.

Faust and Marguerite (known in French as Damnation du Docteur Faust) (1904) was Méliès’s fourth and final film adaptation of the German legend of Faust, a scholar who makes a deal with the Devil and finds himself in way over his head after the initial thrill wears off. Once more, Méliès played the part of Mephistopheles, the Devil.

Unfortunately, this film isn’t widely available to the general public in its 15-minute entirety. A print with some missing scenes is held at the Paper Prints collection in the Library of Congress, and a short fragment of the 15th and 16th scenes is in a private British collection.

Like many of Méliès’s other films, this one too is meant to be played alongside spoken narration. It can be difficult to figure out exactly what’s going on without this narration. Those who’ve seen F.W. Murnau’s classic 1926 Faust will be familiar with the storyline, though there are some divergences.

This particular Faust adaptation is based on Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera. Méliès’s 1903 version was based on Hector Berlioz’s 1846 opera.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part VI (The history of sound on film)

The Dickson Experimental Sound Film, 1894 or 1895

One of the myths about the early sound era is that The Jazz Singer was the very first talking picture. While it was certainly the most successful up to that date, and has become the best-known early talkie, it was far from the first experiment.

The thing that elevated TJS above all over sound-on-film experiments was Al Jolson’s incredible star power, charisma, personality, talent, personal affinity with the story. Had George Jessel’s demand for a higher salary been granted, silent cinema may have continued much longer.

This is a Kinetophone (or Phonokinetoscope), the technology used to create The Dickson Experimental Sound Film. It was Thomas Edison and William Kennedy Laurie Dickson’s attempt at creating a sound-on-film system, a Kinetoscope accompanied by a phonograph. A Kinetoscope is a single-user film-viewing device with a peephole.

The Kinetophone didn’t attempt to synchronize sound and image. Instead, people listened to the phonograph through a tube. Only 45 were ever made, and only three Kinetophone films are known to survive. The others are Nursery Favorites (1913) and a 1912 demo.

Other early sound-on-film systems included Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre, Théâtroscope, and Phonorama (or Cinemacrophonograph), all used by the 1900 Paris Exposition. While interesting experiments and novelties, they weren’t practical or popular.

Lack of efficient synchronization was the main problem. Audio and visual images were both recorded and projected with different devices, and thus rarely worked in exact harmony. Proper playback volume was also difficult to achieve, particularly in large theatres.

Sound recording systems of this era were of generally low quality, unless the performer were planted right in front of the clunky acoustic horn. In the early sound era, this dilemma manifested itself again.

In 1902, Léon Gaumont, a pioneer of the French film industry, demonstrated his sound-on-disc Chronophone system to the French Photographic Society, using an electric connection he’d patented. In 1906, he débuted the Elgéphone, which used compressed air for amplification. The Elgéphone was based upon the British Auxetophone.

U.S. inventor E.E. Norton’s Cameraphone was Gaumont’s systems’ main competition, though neither adequately addressed the three main issues with sound-on-film technology. They were also too expensive.

In 1907, Eugene Lauste, a former Edison employee, got the first sound-on-film technology patent. His system transformed sound into lightwaves which were then photographically recorded directly onto celluloid. However, he never made effective use of this.

In 1913, Edison débuted a new cylinder-based sound-synching system, also called the Kinetophone. Unlike the earlier Kinetophone, this one projected films onto a screen instead of necessitating individual viewing through a peephole.

An intricate pulley system connecting the projector and phonograph enabled synchronization, though conditions weren’t often ideal. After barely more than a year, this system too was retired. Popular interest in sound-on-film had also abated.

The Photo-Drama of Creation (1914), a four-part, eight-hour Jehovah’s Witnesses’ film, synchronized live action and slides with music and lectures on phonograph discs. This was the first major film of that type.

Over nine million people in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand saw it. The budget was $300,000 ($7,173,000 today).

Slides used in The Photo-Drama of Creation

In 1914, Eric Tigerstedt (one of early 20th century Finland’s most important inventors) got a German patent for his sound-on-film innovations, and demonstrated this to scientists in Berlin.

In 1918, Hungarian inventor and engineer Dénes Mihály submitted his Projectofon system to the Royal Hungarian Patent Court. He received his patent in 1922.

In 1919, U.S. inventor Lee De Forest got several patents which led to the first optical sound-on-film system with commercial potential. Soundtracks were photographically recorded onto a filmstrip’s side to create a composite print. If audio and visual were properly synchronized while recording, it would be accurate in playback.

Another system came from research engineer Joseph Tykociński-Tykociner. In 1922, he demonstrated it to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, but it was never used commercially.

15 April 1923 by New York’s Rivoli Theater, De Forest Phonofilms gave the very first commercial screening of sound films. A series of shorts accompanied a silent feature.

Though the company created some original films, most of them were celebrity documentaries, and comedy and musical performances. De Forest’s sound-on-film system was used through 1927 in the U.S., and till the end of 1930 in the U.K., but Hollywood remained skeptical.

In 1919, German inventors Josef Engl, Hans Vogt, and Joseph Massolle patented the Tri-Ergon system, and gave a public screening 17 September 1922, by Berlin’s Alhambra Kino. This became Europe’s dominant sound-on-film system.

In 1921, Orlando Kellum created Photokinema, which was used for a few shorts. It was most famously used for sound effects, singing, and an introduction in D.W. Griffith’s bomb Dream Street.

In 1923, Danish engineers Axel Petersen and Arnold Poulsen created the Cinéphone system.

Things began changing with the advent of Vitaphone. In 1925, Sam Warner of Warner Bros. saw the potential of Western Electric’s sound-on-disc system, and convinced his brothers to experiment with it by New York’s Vitagraph Studios, which they’d recently bought.

They renamed the system Vitaphone, and publicly débuted it 6 August 1926, with a full-length synchronized soundtrack and sound effects for Don Juan. The film was accompanied by eight musical shorts and a four-minute introduction by the infamous Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

While sound-on-film technology ultimately triumphed, sound-on-disc was initially superior due to lower costs and greater audio quality. More and more films were released with synchronized soundtracks and sound effects, along with more Vitaphone shorts, until the historic night of 6 October 1927.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part III (The life of Al Jolson)

It was hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) that George Jessel demanded too much salary from Warner Bros. for the lead role of The Jazz Singer. As talented and popular as Jessel was, Al Jolson was the only one with the charisma, star power, voice, and raw personal authenticity to carry the film and make it the first successful sound on film experiment.

Asa Yoelson was born 26 May 1886 in Sredniki, Russia (now Seredžius, Lithuania). Its Yiddish name was Srednik. Thankfully, he was spared the fate of the rest of Srednik’s Jewish community. On 4 September 1941, the Nazis murdered 193 people near Skrebėnai.

Asa was the baby of five children born to Moses Rubin Yoelson (1858–23 December 1945) and Nechama (Naomi) Cantor (1858–6 February 1895). His older siblings were Rose, Etta, a sister who died in infancy, and Hirsch (Harry).

Like many people in that era, he didn’t know when he was born, and chose 26 May 1886. His sister-in-law Margaret Weatherwax, however, claimed he was the same age as her father, born in 1881, and that he was 46 when he married her 18-year-old sister Ruby Keeler in 1928.

In 1891, Asa’s father immigrated to the U.S., and by 1894, he’d saved up enough money to bring his wife and children over. When they arrived, he was working as a cantor at Talmud Torah Congregation (now Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue) in Washington, D.C.

Sadly, Asa’s mother died in 1895, aged only 37. This sent him into a deep depression and withdrawal, and deeply affected him for the rest of his life. Later, his father remarried a woman named Ida, shown in the previous picture.

Asa was taken in by St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys (now Cardinal Gibbons School), a progressive orphanage in Baltimore. Another famous alum was Babe Ruth, who enrolled in 1902.

Asa and Hirsch were introduced to show business by entertainer Al Reeves in 1897, and began singing for money on street corners as Al and Harry. They often used the money for National Theatre shows.

In 1900, he moved to New York, where his first show was Children of the Ghetto. Then, in 1902, he began working for Walter L. Main’s Circus as an usher. Main was so impressed by his voice, he hired Asa as a singer in the Indian Medicine Side Show.

The circus folded that same year, leaving Asa unemployed. In 1903, he was hired for one show of Dainty Duchess Burlesquers. His rendition of “Be My Baby Bumble Bee” was so strong, he was kept for future shows.

This show too folded within the year, and Asa joined Hirsch, now a vaudeville performer called Harry. Though they gained nationwide bookings, live performances were no longer so popular, thanks to the rise of movies.

In 1904, the renamed Al began performing in blackface, which was a huge boost to his career. Harry left Al and their partner Joe Palmer following an argument, and the duo wasn’t as successful as the trio.

In 1906, Al was left solo. He soon became a nationally successful vaudeville singer. For awhile, he lived in San Francisco (wanting to cheer up earthquake survivors), then moved to New York in 1908 with his new wife Henrietta.

His singing career began growing by leaps and bounds after this move. By 1914, he was a huge star, and by 1920, he was Broadway’s biggest star.

Al went from strength to strength, becoming more popular and beloved with each new show and song. At 35, he became the youngest person to have a theatre named for him, Jolson’s 59th Street Theatre (later renamed the New Century Theatre, and razed in 1962).

In spite of how many modern people don’t understand the historical context and intent of blackface, this method of performing gave him a freedom to step into an alternate persona, disguise his true origins, express the Jewish liturgical tradition and cry of suffering, introduce jazz, blues, and ragtime to white audiences.

His blackface stage persona, Gus, was also smarter than his white masters, often helping them out of problems they’d made themselves. There was no bigotry or racism intended.

Al had many African–American friends, and promoted their careers at a time when Broadway barred them. He also demanded equal treatment for African–American co-stars, and was the only white person allowed into an all-Black Harlem nightclub.

When he learnt Eubie Blake and Noble Sissie, musicians he’d never met, had been denied service by a Connecticut restaurant, he tracked them down and took them to dinner himself. He and Blake became great friends.

The African–American community saw Al as a great friend and ally.

Over the course of his life, Al starred in many live shows and films, entertained the troops, recorded many songs, and starred on the radio many times.

He was married four times, to Henrietta Keller, Alma Osborne (professionally known as Ethel Delmar), Ruby Keeler, and Erie Galbraith. He adopted a child with Ruby in 1935, Al, Jr. He and Erie adopted Asa, Jr., in 1948, and Alicia in 1949.

With Ruby in 1934

With Erie and Asa, Jr., in 1948

While entertaining troops in the Pacific during WWII, Al got malaria and had to get his left lung removed. In Korea in 1950, the dust and dirt of the front clogged his remaining lung and sapped his health.

On 23 October 1950, he collapsed of a massive heart attack. His funeral was one of the largest in show business history.

A triple dose of antique horror

Welcome back to my yearly October series on classic horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries! This year, I’m starting off with three Georges Méliès films from 1897, and will also be fêting The Unknown (1927), The Mummy (1932), Häxan (1922), The Lodger (1927), Freaks (1932), The Cat and the Canary (1927), Phantom (1922), Vampyr (1932), Hilde Warren und der Tod (1917), the lost Lon Chaney, Sr., films London After Midnight (1927) and A Blind Bargain (1922), and Nosferatu (1922).

Let’s get started!

Le Château Hanté was released as The Devil’s Castle in the U.S., and The Haunted Castle in the U.K. In spite of its British title, it’s not one and the same as the world’s first horror film, the 1896 Méliès film I featured last year.

Two men enter a castle, one dressed in red and the other in brown. The man in brown offers his friend a seat which moves away. When the man in red goes to fetch the chair, it turns into a ghost, a skeleton, and a knight in armor. When it disappears, the man is confronted by Satan, and his escape route is blocked by a ghost.

This film was Méliès’s first collaboration with Elisabeth Thuillier, who ran an all-women’s film coloring lab in Paris. They worked together till 1912, when he left filmmaking. This is also the second Méliès film featuring Satan.

The Bewitched Inn (L’Auberge Ensorcelée) features Méliès as a traveller who can’t get any rest in his hotel room, as he’s beset by obstacle after obstacle in his quest to change into pyjamas and crawl into bed. His clothes and the furniture all vanish, fly up to the ceiling, or move around the room. His candle also explodes. He finally gives up and leaves.

This is the first known Méliès film to feature inanimate objects coming to life, something he did many times in his films. The theme is very similar to 1896’s A Terrible Night (which I discussed last year), and would be used again (with considerable expansion) in 1903’s The Inn Where No Man Rests.

The special effects were achieved through substitution splice, wherein the camera would stop as something was added, changed, or removed. Méliès used this technique many times. The inanimate objects were animated with wires, and the exploding candle used pyrotechnics.

Sadly, Le Cabinet de Méphistophélès (alternately titled The Devil’s Laboratory, The Cabinet of Mephistopheles, and Laboratory of Mephistopheles) is lost. Only about 200 of his 520 films are known to survive.

Out of anger and frustration at his financial ruin and fall into obscurity, Méliès burnt many of his negatives. In 1917, the French Army occupied his office and melted down many others for celluloid (boot heels) and silver (ammo). The rest were lost due to the all-too-familiar deterioration of nitrate.

As suggested by the title, the story was inspired by Faust, and is believed to be the very first film adaptation of this timeless story. It’s also believed to be Méliès’s very first literary adaptation.

The synopsis says Mephistopheles cavorts about in various disguises before revealing his true self. Along the way, he does magic tricks, presumably objects appearing, disappearing, and moving around. I’d also assume Méliès plays Mephistopheles.