Monday, March 27, 2023

Sooooooo... I wrote a book on the sly...

Yes, it's true.  I wrote a book this winter without telling anyone.  Well, almost anyone -- my husband and kids did know about it, and I eventually told a couple friends because I couldn't bear to keep it to myself anymore.  I was just having So Much Fun writing it!

If you're subscribed to my author mailing list, you've heard about this just a bit, as I announced it in my newsletter last week.  But I'd like to talk more about it here now.

This book is called Murder Most Foul, and it's a retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet set in 1940s California.  If that sounds awfully familiar, yes, I first had this idea ten years ago, and I wrote it up as a fake movie review right here back in 2013.

I have loved that idea ever since, but I was always so busy writing other things, I just never got around to trying to flesh it out.  Well, you may recall that I broke my arm back in June.  Typing was good therapy for getting my hand and arm muscles back in shape, but at that time, I was revising My Rock and My Refuge, and that involved a lot more using the mouse rather than straight typing.  So, I thought, what could I work on a bit now and then that would be typing new words, not fussing with revising already written things?

That's when I remembered Murder Most Foul.  I thought, you know, if I tried hard, I could write the whole first draft before Christmas, and I could give it to my friend Cheryl, who was even nuttier about Hamlet than I am... or, at least, just as nutty.  Cheryl and I became friends before my oldest kid was born, so at least 16 years ago.  Probably closer to 20.  We bonded over our shared love of Hamlet and Combat! and Vic Morrow, initially.  Although we never met, we corresponded by email and snail mail all that time.  We sent each other obscure adaptations of Hamlet on DVD, and lots of other fun little things too, over the years.  A retelling of Hamlet as a 1940s murder mystery would tickle her to no end.

So, I started writing, sometime in July, just a paragraph or a two at a time.  Slow work, but very satisfying.  I loved seeing this world and these characters come to life.  I would grin like a little kid whenever I was working on it because everything was gelling so perfectly.

I got about three chapters into it... and Cheryl died.  

This wasn't super unexpected -- she'd had cancer about eight years ago, and the treatments for that had taken a hard toll.  She'd been living in an assisted living facility for a long time, pretty much ever since she beat cancer.  Occasional bouts of pneumonia were the most-serious thing I'd heard of in recent times, but she was in her 70s and not in great health.  At the same time, her recent letters had been upbeat.  So, her death was a surprise.  

I stopped writing Murder Most Foul.  I'd had such a great time imagining how much Cheryl would enjoy it that, with her gone, I couldn't work on it anymore.

I finished My Rock and My Refuge and launched it into the world in November, and breathed a sigh of relief because I intended to take a couple of months off from writing and just enjoy watching lots of movies and reading lots of books.

That's when I suddenly felt the need to work on Murder Most Foul again.  I realized I loved it too much to abandon it.  Even though I couldn't give it to Cheryl for Christmas, I could still finish it.  I could dedicate it to her memory.  And, maybe I could even write it quickly enough that it would still be finished before Christmas.  I could give it to my best friend/writing mentor/editor as a gift instead!

I did not finish it before Christmas.

In fact, I finished it at the verrrrrrrry end of February, with two days to spare before a planned trip out to see my bestie.  I really wanted to surprise her with a new book to read when I got to her place, and I did it!

So, yes, I will have a new book coming out later this year that is NOT part of my Once Upon a Western series.  It's not a western at all, or a fairy tale retelling.  It's not even exactly the same as that fake movie review I wrote ten years ago, though it does have the same basic cast in mind.  But I love it a lot, and I hope a lot of you will too. 

Friday, March 24, 2023

"Inmate 78" (The Magnificent Seven, Season 1, Ep 8)(1998)

It takes Chris Larabee (Michael Biehn) a whole two minutes and seven seconds of this episode to get himself sentenced to five years of hard labor with no chance of parole.  That Chris, he always is a fast worker!

Chris has had the bad luck to slouch into the town of Jericho, a scummy nowhere town rotting from the inside.  Folks there have a jolly little set-up: slap a passerby in jail, claim they're a wanted criminal, and get them or their family to pay a ridiculously high bail fee.  If they can't make bail, they get sent to a hellhole of a prison to work as what amounts to slave labor.

You don't even have to guess where Chris ends up.  Of course, the minute they get him inside the prison compound, he makes a gutsy escape attempt, which ends with him getting sentenced to a few days in The Hole.  Which, as you can see, impresses and frightens Chris a great deal.

Those poor prison officials have no idea what kind of a feral critter has just landed in their midst.  I could almost feel sorry for them if they weren't all (except one guard) sadistic bullies.  Especially the Warden (Art LaFleur), who takes Chris's defiant sass as a personal insult and makes it his mission to grind our volatile hero into the dust.

Meanwhile, back in the unnamed town where the Seven keep the peace, Mary Travis (Laurie Holden) is concerned because Chris has been gone for ten days without sending word when he'll be back.  She asks Buck (Dale Midkiff) and a couple of the other guys if they shouldn't start looking for Chris, but Buck is convinced Chris has just holed up in some nice little brothel hotel and will come back when he's good and ready to.

I'm rather annoyed with Buck here because he knows that Mary cares about Chris, but he giggles like a twelve-year-old over how displeased she is when he implies that Chris is staying away from town (and her) for such a reason.  I expect that kind of behavior from J.D. (Andrew Kavovit) because he basically is twelve, but Buck is usually a lot more gentlemanly and kind toward the ladies.  I blame the writers for forgetting this about Buck, not the character himself.

Meanwhile, eight days in The Hole have not sweetened Chris's disposition any.

This ep is never stressful to watch because you KNOW Chris won't crumble under whatever pressure they bring to bear on him.  This is Chris Larabee.  It's honestly kind of a joy to sit back and watch him sass and snarl his way through.

Well, Chris has been out of  The Hole for about half a day before the Lawless Brothers (headed by Don Swayze) find him and try to kill him for shooting their cousin a few years back.

That goes about as well as you'd expect, considering it's three against one.  Chris probably would have taken them all down if one of them didn't have a shiv and slice Chris up with it.

At least he gets taken to the prison hospital instead of thrown back in The Hole.  This whole part where he's handcuffed to a bed, mostly shirtless, would be a little too much fanservice if he wasn't getting the cut across his abdomen sewed up by a shaky-handed prisoner.  That makes it really hard to watch, at least for me.

Back in town, Mary Travis finally convinces the rest of the Seven that Chris's disappearance isn't natural.  Led by Vin Tanner (Eric Close), they ride off to find him.  For a group of guys who have been hired to keep the peace in town, they sure do ride off in all directions and leave it undefended a lot.  Hmm.

The guys ride into Jericho and find it an unpleasant and suspicious sort of place.  Because they are intelligent and savvy that way.  They make themselves at home in the boarding house's barroom. (Hint: boarding houses don't usually have a barroom, so this is a big signal this town is many flavors of wrong.)  Josiah (Ron Perlman) and Vin try to charm some answers out of Jessie (Julianna McCarthy), the sweet old lady behind the bar.

She seems super trustworthy, right?  (Hint: trustworthy little old ladies don't usually tend bar.)

Nobody in town has seen Chris Larabee.  Or heard of Chris Larabee.  However, the sheriff and deputy would really like the Seven to leave town.  Which, of course, makes our guys very, very suspicious.  (Hint: most towns want customers who spend cash money to stay and enjoy the town as long as their money holds out.)

Well, the best way to make these stubborn heroes stay someplace is to tell them to leave.  Is it any wonder I love them all?

Meanwhile, for a guy whose will is supposed to be crumbling under the pressure of the Warden's shiny bootheel, Chris sure is looking mighty pleased with his bad self over how quickly he's worked his way to the top of various pecking orders at the prison.

Chris's triumphant smirking lasts for about twelve seconds, right up until the Warden drags a sick prisoner out of the hospital tent and tries to beat him into starting work again.

Chris Larabee won't stand for that.  He may be volatile, smirky, broody, sarcastic, and given to random acts of brash violence, but he has Justice running through his veins.  He cannot and will not stand by and watch a sick man beaten by armed bullies for not being able to stand up.

Ohhh, you can just see the Hero Vibes wafting off him, can't you?

Of course, the Warden beats Chris to the ground for this.  And Chris keeps standing back up, getting between the Warden and the sick prisoner.  His obstinate courage inspires the rest of the prisoners, and they clink their tools against any handy object in aural support, like scruffy, filthy cheerleaders.  Including the Lawless Brothers, who wanted to kill Chris themselves not so long ago.

Meanwhile, back in Jericho, the guys find Chris's gun at a general store.  They set about trying to find real answers as to his whereabouts in various ways, some subtle and some not-so-subtle, depending on if you're Ezra (Anthony Starke) or not.

Meanwhile, back at the prison, the Warden is picking on Chris again.  His cruelty and malice eventually disgust one of his guards (Anthony Lee), who resigns his post in protest.

Doesn't do Chris any good, of course.  Back in The Hole he goes, and this time, the Warden intends to see to it that Chris will never come out alive.

Meanwhile, back in Jericho, the sheriff has found one of those pesky handbills with Vin's name and face on them.  Those do have a way of cropping up at the most inopportune moments.  He thinks if he waves that handbill around, five of his six problems will go away, and he'll be able to toss Vin in prison.

Vin doesn't seem any too perturbed, though.

Neither do any of the others.  The sheriff's expectation that they would scatter at the threat of their compadre's arrest goes completely awry on him.

As a matter of fact, Nathan (Rick Worthy) informs him that they knew all about that particular wanted poster, and it doesn't bother them a bit.

Instead of trying to run, Vin stands up and challenges the sheriff to a duel on the count of three.

Don't you dig how they frame our guys from a low angle in this scene to highlight just how in control of the situation they are?  Don't you also love how many shots of Vin I can cram into this little section since he's my favorite?

Well, the guys break into the prison camp in a reasonably clever way, which I won't spoil for you here.  One thrilling gun battle later, plus an unpleasant incident involving a rattlesnake, and off the Seven go, back home to their unnamed town.

Man, that ep hits so many sweet spots for me!  Wrongful imprisonment, attempted prison escape, a rescue mission, a guy standing up to protect someone helpless, people rallying together against a bully, Chris Larabee handcuffed shirtless to a bed Vin Tanner being ridiculously calm and cool and adorable at the same time -- there is no wonder this is my favorite ep of this show!

I have had such a great time reviewing "Inmate 78" that I think I just might start reviewing the whole series.  There are only 22 eps (here's a list of my 10 favorites, if you are curious), so it wouldn't take me that long, even if I spent two hours on each review like I did this one.

This particular review is my contribution to the 9th Annual Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts.  I love this event!  It is always such fun to focus on just one episode of a beloved show.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Blogathons Coming Soon

Time for a reminder about some cool blogathons coming up this spring!

First, A Shroud of Thoughts is hosting the annual TV Show Episode Blogathon, which is always such a joy.  Get more info and sign up here.

Next, Taking Up Room is hosting the Seen On the Screen Blogathon in mid-April.  This one revolves around actual places that are portrayed onscreen.  Get more info and sign up here.

Third, I think my Shades of Shane Blogathon kind of got lost in the shuffle.  I probably announced it too early, but I was just so excited to discover that it was released 70 years ago this year, and released on my birthday, that I didn't want to wait to announce it.  Anyway, this blogathon is not about Shane itself, but about the actors and actresses who are in it -- the idea is to review something else they were in, not Shane itself.  If you haven't yet, please check out the announcement post and sign up to participate.

(edit) Fourth, Classic Film and TV Corner is hosting the Master of Suspense Blogathon at the very end of April.  This one is all about Alfred Hitchcock and his movies.  Get more info and sign up here.

Sunday, March 05, 2023

"A Song is Born" (1948)

A Song is Born
 (1948) is a remake of Ball of Fire (1941), and both were directed by Howard Hawks!  Or, rather, they're both based on the story "From A to Z" by Billy Wilder and Thomas Monroe.  They both have the same basic plot but, while Ball of Fire is a screwball comedy, A Song is Born is a musical comedy.  Although I enjoy the former more than most screwballs, I really do prefer the latter in nearly every way.  We'll get to that.

Like the earlier film, this is basically a retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, only it's about a nightclub singer on the run who seeks refuge with seven professors, plus an eighth professor who turns out to be a handsome prince, sort of.

The Totten Foundation is a group of eight musical academics who have been working on a comprehensive encyclopedia of world music.  Whenever their sponsor, Miss Totten (Mary Field, who played the same role in Ball of Fire!!!), threatens to cut off their funding if they don't finish their work soon, the older academics throw Professor Hobart Frisbee (Danny Kaye) in her path.  Miss Totten has a crush on Hobart and is always easily convinced to continue supporting their project if he's the one talking to her.

After spending nine years locked away in an old New York mansion, the professors tell Miss Totten they're nearly finished cataloging, describing, and providing musical examples for every single form of music from Baroque to barbaric.  But then, two window washers (played by the popular duo Buck and Bubbles, aka Ford L. "Buck" Washington and John W. "Bubbles" Sublett) introduce them to jazz music, and the academics have a crisis of conscience.  How can they say their work is finished when they know absolutely nothing about jazz and have not included it in their encyclopedia?

Hobart Frisbee sets out to learn about jazz, swing, Dixie, jive, blues, and everything else jazz-influenced.  He does this by visiting nightclubs all over New York City and listening to a dazzling array of actual musicians and bands, including Louis Armstrong and Tommy Dorsey (but not Benny Goodman because he is playing one of the other professors, the one up there wielding licorice stick).  While he's conducting all this research, Hobart eventually meets a girl.

Like so many Hawks films,  A Song is Born features a female character who has strength, style, determination, and a hidden sweetness that eventually shines through her tough exterior.  Here, it's a nightclub warbler called Honey Swanson (Virginia Mayo) who starts out an opportunistic conniver and winds up a softhearted sweetheart.  Honey's gangster boyfriend Tony Crow (Steve Cochran) is on the lam, avoiding a murder rap, and he tells Honey to find someplace to hide until he can quick marry her so she can't be forced to testify that his alibi for that murder is a phony.

Oh, and her outfit is super-duper similar to what Barbara Stanwyck wears in Ball of Fire too!  I love that touch.  They both have this weird shimmery skirt that's actually just strips of sequined fabric.  Both versions are pretty daring, if you ask me.

Hobart had invited Honey to visit the Totten Foundation to discuss jazz music, and she decides that is the perfect place to hide out.  She plants herself in the midst of all those professors in the middle of the night and refuses to leave until she's been able to educate them.  Musically, of course.

Honey is not the only performer Hobart invited over, she's just the first to arrive.  The next day, a whole lot of the musicians he visited (including Louis Armstrong and Tommy Dorsey) show up, and they play a perfectly delightful array of musical numbers, including the titular ditty "A Song is Born."  If you enjoy jazz, swing, or '40s music at all, you will be delighted by that whole segment.

Naturally, Hobart is dazzled by the glamorous, worldly Honey.  Naturally, she doesn't take him seriously at all.  But Hobart IS serious about her, and proposes.  Meanwhile, Honey's gangster boyfriend wants her to find a way out of the city that won't be spotted by the cops.  She's supposed to meet up with him out in the country for a quickie wedding.  

SPOILERS in the next two paragraphs!!!

Honey tricks Hobart and the other professors into taking her out to a gangster hideout, where she breaks Hobart's heart and Tony Crow smacks him around a bit for good measure.

Somehow, everyone ends up back at the Totten Foundation, including Tony Crow and his henchmen with a very deaf justice of the peace in tow to perform the wedding.  Honey realizes she's in love with Hobart and tries to get out of marrying Crow, but he threatens to have all the professors shot if she doesn't go through with the wedding.  However!  Love and music conquer all -- literally.  The professors use their knowledge of musical vibrations to overcome the gunmen and stop the wedding, and everything ends up happily.


I mentioned that I don't entirely prefer A Song is Born to Ball of Fire, and that really is only concerning the gangster boyfriend.  Steve Cochran as Tony Crow in this movie is pretty boring and rarely menacing.  He's annoying, and I feel very happy to see him get what he deserves.  But Dana Andrews as Joe Lilac in Ball of Fire is quietly, calmly dangerous, but also handsome and charming, which makes him much more formidable.  But, then, I'm a Dana Andrews fan, so I guess it's not shocking I prefer him.

Is this movie family friendly?  I think so!  There's the mildest of mild suggestiveness in a "mating song" performed toward the beginning, and Honey's nightclub outfit shows a goodly bit of skin.  She also shows off her legs to the professors to dazzle them.  One of the other professors is a widower and tries to give Hobart some marital advice that is very innocent and na├»ve.  There are a couple of kisses and the threat of violence.  No bad language.  I intend to show it to my kids one of these days.

This has been my contribution to the Danny Kaye Blogathon hosted by Poppity Talks Classic Film :-)

Friday, March 03, 2023

Shadows and Light: "The Blue and the Gray" (1982)

Some stories I first experienced at a young age feel as if they’ve always been a part of me. The 1982 miniseries The Blue and the Gray is one such tale. I can’t remember the first time my parents rented it on VHS. Nor the first time I made friends with the characters who inhabit it. It’s as if I’ve always known the Geyser family, their history, and how it’s bound up with our country’s struggle to truly become “the land of the free.” 

The Blue and the Gray follows a young man named John Geyser (John Hammond). Born and raised on a Virginia farm but employed by a Northern newspaper as a sketch artist, his loyalties and affections are tugged this way and that as the nation staggers toward open conflict. When a free Black friend of John’s gets lynched for harboring fugitive slaves, John becomes a staunch abolitionist in one night, storming away from his family and vowing he’ll have nothing more to do with them. 

John makes friends with a Union officer named Jonas Steele (Stacy Keach), who is my favorite character. Jonas is a secretive, mysterious man who is part spy, part Secret Service agent. Things in his past haunt him, though he won’t speak much of them. He takes a liking to John Geyser, recognizing his artistic talent, and their paths cross often. Jonas sometimes gets John a little closer to an important event or other, and John eventually invites Jonas back to his uncle’s home. There, Jonas falls in love with John’s cousin Mary (Julia Duffy). 

Between them, John and Jonas seem to be present at just about every important occurrence during the American Civil War. They meet at John Brown’s trial and hanging. John meets his future wife at the First Battle of Bull Run. Jonas introduces John to President Lincoln (Gregory Peck) so John can sketch his portrait. John stumbles about the aftermath of the Vicksburg siege in search of his sister. And weaving all around them are John’s siblings and cousins, some fighting for the North, others for the South. 

John learns over the course of the story that life is more complicated than the black and white drawings the newspapers print. Life is like his original drawings, shaded with many variations of gray. Shadows and light intermingle on the paper and in the real world. He must come to terms with his own human frailty and fierceness and the mixture of good and evil around him. For a time, it seems as if the horrors of war he witnesses will overwhelm John’s sensitive nature. Tragedy strikes his family again and again, just like every family involved in the war. But good comes out of it too. John and his family members tentatively begin healing, just as the country begins to do, when the war finally ends. 

It’s hard for me to think of many Civil War battles and other events without thinking of this miniseries, especially now that I live in Virginia. I’m not far from Manassas, site of the first and second Battles of Bull Run. John loses one of his brothers in the horrible inferno that consumed much of the Battle of the Wilderness; I live less than an hour from where that battle occurred. In fact, I have to drive through the Wilderness Battlefield State Park when I visit friends. It is always unsettling and eerie, for bits of this series flit through my memory and make me shudder. Of all battles in that war, I think the Wilderness scares me the most, and that’s largely due to how it’s portrayed in The Blue and the Gray. Sometimes, film and fiction can be almost too real to me. 

On the other hand, I’ll always imagine that President Lincoln sounded like Gregory Peck. That’s a wonderful voice to hear in your head when you read the Gettysburg Address. This miniseries also introduced me to the music of Bruce Broughton, whose scores have delighted me ever since. More than all of that, this story instilled in me early on the conviction that freeing slaves was a just and righteous reason to fight a war, but there were good and decent people on both sides of the conflict. Neither side was all good or all bad, but had people of both light and shadow. 

Above all, The Blue and the Gray impressed on me the awful toll that war takes on people. War tears families apart, injures people’s minds and their bodies, and affects every aspect of the lives of those involved. That’s a lesson I’ve held onto all my life, and it informs my own storytelling to this day.

(This post originally appeared in Femnista magazine on November 2, 2020.)