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.

Lottie Pickford

I originally wrote this post on 17 March 2019, for that year’s April A to Z Challenge, but decided not to use it. Since I didn’t have an original post ready this week, let’s finally move it out of the drafts folder already.

Lottie Pickford (née Charlotte Smith) (9 June 1895–9 December 1936) was born in Toronto, the middle of John Charles Smith and Charlotte Hennessy’s three famous children. She was a daddy’s girl, and got the nickname Chuckie because her dad initially, mistakenly thought she was a boy when she was born.

Her dad died of a blood clot in 1898, and after struggling to make ends meet, the family turned to acting in 1900. They eventually moved to New York for greater opportunities, though oldest child Gladys was always the most popular.

In 1907, Gladys changed her name to Mary Pickford, and the rest of the family became Pickfords too. Mary signed a contract with Biograph Company in 1909, and got her siblings Jack and Lottie jobs there too.

Of the three Pickfords, Lottie appeared in the fewest shorts. When Biograph went to California in January 1910, to scope out a potential future studio location and film Ramona in authentic settings, only Mary and Jack went.

Lottie nevertheless continued acting in Biograph shorts.

Lottie made her first feature in 1914, The House of Bondage, which was also her first starring role. She played a prostitute, the exact opposite type of character her older sister Mary was already famous for. The film was poorly reviewed, and considered too crude and vulgar.

Her next film, The Diamond in the Sky serial, only came to her because Mary turned it down. Lottie’s pregnancy temporarily halted the production of this serial, and earned her a short blacklist. Though she was married, female stars just didn’t have babies during this era. It seriously jeopardised their careers.

The three siblings appeared in their first and only film together in 1915, Fanchon, the Cricket.

Lottie let her mother adopt her daughter Mary Pickford Rupp, born in 1915, and rename her Gwynne in 1920. In 1919, Lottie separated from her husband Alfred, and they divorced in 1920.

She took a break from acting during 1918–21. Her return to the screen, They Shall Pay, co-starred her future second husband, Allan Forrest. They married in 1922.

Lottie took another three-year acting break, and appeared in two more films before retiring—Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924), in which sister Mary was the star; and Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925), in which her brother-in-law Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., was the star.

She married twice more, and died of a heart attack at age 43.

Quintuple antique horror from Monsieur Méliès

As always, my yearly October salute to vintage horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries kicks off with grand master Georges Méliès. This year, I’m fêting four films from 1900 and one from 1905 (respectively 120 and 115 years old). Obviously, the horror/fright element is nowhere near comparable to that in a more modern horror film, but we need to judge films by the standards of their era. Retroactively applying modern sensibilities to things from bygone eras is an exercise in foolishness and obliviousness.

The Cook’s Revenge (La Vengeance du Gâte-Sauce) released sometime in 1900. Due to the nature of the cinematic industry in its infancy, we don’t always have exact dates or even cast lists. This film was long believed lost, but finally resurfaced in Manosque, France.

A saucier (Méliès) attempts to kiss a waitress in the kitchen, and she drops a stack of plates from shock. To avoid being blamed, he jumps into a cupboard to hide and leaves her looking like the guilty party. After she’s fired by the head waiter, things quickly go from bad to worse. The saucier is beheaded when the head waiter closes the cupboard door, and the macabre horrors keep increasing.


The Misfortunes of an Explorer (Les Infortunes d’un Explorateur ou Les Momies Récalcitrantes), also from 1900, survives only in a fragment of about 20 seconds. An English explorer (Méliès) enters a sarcophagus in an underground tomb and inadvertently unleashes a ghost. This ghost then becomes a vengeful goddess who summons three Ancient Egyptian monsters who attack the explorer and seal him inside the sarcophagus. The goddess presently sets it on fire. When she stops the fire, the explorer escapes.


The Rajah’s Dream (Le Rêve du Radjah ou La Forêt Enchantée), another 1900 entry, was available in a hand-coloured print like about 4% of Méliès’s other films. These prints fetched a higher price when sold to film exhibitors.

A Rajah’s sleep is disturbed by a butterfly, which he tries to catch in vain. After he gives up and returns to his bed, he magically finds himself in a park. The chair he tries to sit in keeps vanishing out from under him and moving all around, before turning into a dead tree, a monster with moving arms, a demon, a boxer, and finally a parade of lovely ladies.

The Rajah’s hopes of romantic fun are dashed when the ladies transmogrify into an attempted beheading party!

The Wizard, the Prince, and the Good Fairy (Le Sorcier, le Prince, et le Bon Génie), our last 1900 film, features a prince who visits a sorcerer. Presently the magic tricks commence—a vanishing table, a cauldron transmogrifying into his sweetheart, the lady vanishing. The prince wanted more time with his girlfriend, and tries to kill the sorcerer with a sword.

In revenge, the sorcerer turns the prince into a beggar and summons a crowd of women in bizarre, creepy costumes. The prince begs them for his life, and he’s finally able to leave with his sweetheart, while the sorcerer is locked in a cage.


The Black Imp (Le Diable Noir), from 1905, exists in two different versions. It’s the story of an imp who makes mischief in a hotel room, jumping about and making things appear and disappear. He makes even more mischief when a respectable lodger (Méliès) arrives, though the imp is now hidden from view. His antics reach their height when the bed is set on fire. Everyone is shocked when he reveals his presence.

A voyage into the Sun

Released 29 October 1904, Le Voyage à Travers l’Impossible (Voyage Through the Impossible) is a sequel of sorts to director Georges Méliès’s 1902 classic Le Voyage dans la Lune. This time, the intrepid explorers and their mad scientist leader travel to the Sun. Like the former, it satirizes scientific exploration.

As some might surmise from the title, it’s partly based on Jules Verne’s 1882 fantasy play Journey Through the Impossible. Méliès loosely interpreted the concept, however, seeing as the explorers in Verne’s story travel to the centre of the Earth, a distant planet, and the bottom of the sea, not the Sun.

At 374 meters, this was Méliès’s longest film to date. Le Voyage à Travers l’Impossible was one of the most popular films in the early years of the twentieth century.

Like many other Méliès films, this too was hand-coloured. Unlike other Méliès films, however, this one appears to have no spoken narration which goes along with it. The summary is derived from his own description.

The Institute of Incoherent Geography wants to embark upon a world tour like no other, one which shall “surpass in conception and invention all previous expeditions undertaken by the learned world.” Prof. Daredevil speaks first, but his plan is soundly rejected as out of date.

Next to speak is mad engineer Mabouloff (Méliès) (called Crazyloff in English-language materials, seeing as maboul means “crackpot” and “crazy” in French). He proposes an impossible voyage taking advantage of “all the known means of locomotion—railroads, automobiles, dirigible balloons, submarine boats…”

His proposal is met with most enthusiastic approval, and the society immediately begins preparing for this crazy voyage.

The voyagers and their required equipment take a train to the Swiss Alps, where the adventure truly begins. The first proper leg of the journey transpires in Auto-Mabouloff (which kind of resembles a golf cart), which takes them through the Alps.

Sadly, the car crashes while trying to cross the summit of the Rigi. Mountaineers come to their rescue and rush them to hospital.

Upon recovering, our intrepid travellers take a train which attempts to climb a second Alpine summit, the Jungfrau. This time, they’re successful, thanks to dirigible balloons tied to the train. Their journey takes them all the way into space and eventually the Sun, where they crash-land.

The intense heat is too much to bear, and the travellers climb into an icebox they conveniently brought. All, that is, except Mabouloff, who’s horrified to presently open the icebox door and find his friends frozen in a huge ice block. Luckily, the fire he starts with help from some straw soon revives them.

Everyone relocates to their submarine, which lifts off from a solar cliff and travels back through space, finally landing in the ocean depths. After several minutes underseas, a boiler causes an explosion, and the travellers are spewed into the air.

They land at a seaport, along with the submarine wreckage, and triumphantly return to the Institute of Incoherent Geography. They’re welcomed back with a grand reception.

Méliès also filmed an optional epilogue, sold separately, which starts in Mabouloff’s study. There he’s criticised by the Institute for losing so much precious transportation equipment during this impossible voyage.

Mabouloff lays out a plan for recovering the equipment—a magnet to collect the lost car in Switzerland, the train in the Sun, and the submarine underwater. This magnet works just as proposed, and a celebratory banquet is held to laud Mabouloff.

The epilogue was believed to be lost till the 1970s, when Méliès scholar John Frazer found it in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’s archives, along with other negatives from Star Film’s New York office. Despite this, a 2008 Méliès filmography lists it as lost.

A twofer of D.W. Griffith horror

Though many associate director D.W. Griffith with extremely long, preachy, over the top epics, he has quite a multifaceted body of work, particularly before he began making the features he’s best remembered for today. During his five years at Biograph Studios, he directed hundreds of shorts with very diverse subjects.

The Sealed Room, released 2 September 1909, was based on Edgar Allan Poe’s 1846 story “The Cask of Amontillado” and Honoré de Balzac’s 1831 story “La Grande Bretèche.” The latter story takes its name from a manor. A bretèche, or brattice, is a little balcony with machicolations (openings where stones and hot liquids could be poured on invaders).

The King (Arthur V. Johnson) throws a party, and afterwards brings his mistress (Marion Leonard) into a dovecote through a secret entrance. Later he becomes suspicious of her fidelity, suspicions which prove correct.

She’s chutzpahdik enough to bring her lover (Henry B. Walthall) into the dovecote. It’s only a matter of time till the King opens the curtains and spies the unthinkable.

The lovers don’t realise they were seen, and continue merrily cavorting as the King’s men seal the entrance. When his mistress goes to let her lover out, they discover they’re trapped. Panic and terror erupt as the King taunts them on the other side.

Released 24 March 1914, The Avenging Conscience was based on Edgar Allan Poe’s famous 1843 story “The Tell-Tale Heart” and his final complete poem, “Annabel Lee” (1849). The latter concerns a love so strong it creepily continues beyond Annabel Lee’s death. Every night, the narrator sleeps beside her seaside tomb.

Throughout the film, there are quotes from the two literary inspirations.

An unnamed young man (Henry B. Walthall) is raised by his indulgent uncle (Spottiswoode Aitken) after losing his mother in infancy. When he grows up, he throws himself into establishing a successful career. However, his single-minded focus is derailed when he falls in love with Annabel (Blanche Sweet), much to his uncle’s outrage.

As Griffith was so wont to do with establishing his ingénues as sweet and sympathetic, Annabel too is shown cooing over a baby animal, a puppy she rescues from behind a wire barrier.

The young man initially stands firm in his commitment to Annabel, no matter how opposed his uncle is to the match, but later gives in. He and Annabel agree to never see one another again.

There’s a subplot of a romance between a maid (Mae Marsh) and grocery boy (Bobby Harron). Their carefree, unopposed romance stands in stark contrast to the thwarted one of Annabel and the protagonist. Unlike the latter couple, they come from the same social class, and neither has high expectations of conducting oneself a certain way.

The maid and grocer go on to marry, have a baby girl, and create a happy home, while Annabel’s life is very lonely and melancholic, and our protagonist has financial success but not personal happiness.

Annabel continues suffering without her love, while the protagonist becomes consumed by images of death and creepy-crawlies stalking their prey. He decides his uncle, the source of all his personal anguish, must die.

Though he had the perfect chance to take out his uncle during a nap in the office, he chickens out. When his uncle awakes, he asks for money. If his uncle gives it to him, he’ll go away.

His uncle refuses, and a fight breaks out. The protagonist ends up strangling his uncle, little realising he was secretly seen through the window.

Full of terror when the witness (George Seigmann) begins knocking at the door and shouting, the protagonist covers his uncle with a coat. He steps outside and tries to play it cool, but it’s no use. To buy the witness’s silence, he promises to pay him well when his inheritance comes due.

The protagonist hides his uncle’s body in the fireplace wall, replacing each brick very carefully so no human eye can detect anything.

Questions arise about what happened to his uncle, but no one suspects the protagonist, who receives his full inheritance. Annabel soon comes to visit to pay her sympathies, and it seems like the beginning of a rekindled romance until the ghostly visions start.

Annabel is afraid he’s more than just mentally deranged, and leaves.

Sleep provides no respite, as the haunting visions continue. He hies it to a sanitarium in hope of gaining relief from these hallucinations, and returns home believing he’s cured. But his greatest horrors are only just beginning.