Tuesday, September 28, 2010

And the Winners are:

First of all, I'd like to thank everyone for their warm wishes on Scandalous Women's 3rd Blogiversary.  It means a lot to mean that you guys love the blog and these wonderfully Scandalous Women that I keep finding. And I also want to thank everyone for entering.  Please stay turned for more giveaways, particularly November when Scandalous Women will be celebrating Marie Antoinette's birthday (and mine!).

But now drumroll please, 

The winner of THE COUNTESS AND THE KING is Pen and Paper

The winner of the Plethora of Plaidy is: Shelli

I will be emailing you guys shortly to get your addresses.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Scandalous Women on Film: Calamity Jane (1953)

Doris Day - Calamity Jane
Howard Keel - Wild Bill Hickok
Allyn McLerie - Katie Brown
Philip Carey - Lt. Danny Gilmartin
Dick Wesson - Francis Fryer
Paul Harvey - Henry Miller
Chubby Johnson - Rattlesnake
Gale Robbins - Adelaide Adams
Francis McDonald - Hank
Monte Montague - Pete
The Plot:  This film is loosely and I do mean loosely based on the life of Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Canary). In this movie musical Calamity is a loveable scamp of a tomboy.  When the film opens, Calamity rides into Deadwoodon the stagec oach. When she claims that she shot over 30 'Injuns' she threatens to fill the person who disbelieves her story full of lead! The owner of the local saloon and hotel sends for a beautiful woman to appear on the stage, the latest "woman" turns out to be a man named Francis Fryer, who reluctantly does a stage act in drag. When the ruse is discovered, the men are pissed off, but Calamity vows to get them the one woman they are all drooling over: singer Adelaide Adams who is performing in Chicago or 'Chicagee' as she calls. Wild Bill Hickok bets Calamity that if she can get Adams to Deadwood to perform, he will come to the opening dressed as a Sioux squaw lugging a papoose.

Calamity goes to Chicago, where she gapes and gaws at the sight of the women in their finery on the streets of the city.  Adelaide gives her all her costumes to her maid, Katie Brown, since she's off to Europe as fast as she can get out of the 'Windy City'.  Katie, who longs to be on the stage, tries on one of the dresses and starts to sing. When Calamity walks in, she thinks that Katie is Adelaide, and convinces her to come to Deadwood. Katie, agrees despite her better judgement because it means that she can fulfill her dream of being on stage. The ride back to Deadwood is rocky, as they are chased by Indians but Calamity saves the day.  When Katie gives her first performance, she's understandably nervous, particularly when Francis Fryer recognizes her.  Tentatively she starts to sing until Calamity says she didn't sound that way in Chicago. Katie bursts into tears and admits that she is not Adelaide Adams. Everyone present is on the verge of rioting, but Calamity defends Katie by firing a shot in the air. They allow Katie to carry on, and her performance wins them over. On the balcony above, Bill Hickok, dressed as an Indian woman, ropes Calamity and hangs her high and dry.

Calamity and Katie become fast friends, and Katie moves into Calamity's cabin in the woods after giving it an Extreme Makeover from the Deadwood Kmart (Frankly I'm amazed that Katie didn't run all the way back to Chicago once she got a look at the rustic cabin). Of course, Wild Bill and Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin, both fall for Katie pretty quickly.  Katie, bless her heart, knows that Calamity is madly in love with Danny, and tries to steer him in her direction. Both men escort the women to a party at Fort Scully. Calamity is a big hit with the men when they see her dressed up as a woman but she becomes jealous after she catches Danny kissing Katie. Hurt and angry, she storms home where she throws all of Katie's stuff into cases. Calamity later confronts Katie at The Golden Garter while she is performing, and warns her to get out of town. But Katie is not intimidated. She takes a gun, and tells Calamity to hold up her glass. A gunshot finally rings out, and the glass falls from Calamity's hand, but it wasn't Katie who fired; it was Bill, who lets Katie take all the credit. Humiliated, Calamity storms out. But before she can mount her horse, Bill grabs her, throws her onto his horse-drawn cart and rides off.

In the woods, Bill tries to talk some sense into Calamity, and reveals that he shot the glass out of her hand to teach her a lesson. Calamity is heartbroken, while Bill admits that he was in love with Katie. Calamity tells Bill there won't be another man like Danny, not for her, however she and Bill end up kissing, and she realises it was him she loved all along. And when Bill asks her what happened to that lieutenant she was telling him about, she answers "I've never even heard of him."

The next day, Calamity sings the hit song "Secret Love" before she rides into town, but when she talks to the people, they just ignore her. She finds that Katie has left for Chicago. Calamity leaps back onto her horse and chases after the stagecoach, eventually catching up with it. She tells Katie that she isn't in love with Danny and is marrying Bill, and the two women become friends again. Of course everything turns out A-Okay and a spectacular double wedding ensues. When Bill finds Calamity's gun under her wedding dress, she jokes it's just in case any more actresses roll in from Chicago. The movie ends with the two happy couples riding out of town on the stage.

My thoughts:  This film is a hoot and a half.  It has nothing at all to do with the historical Calamity Jane and everything to do with at least some of the myths that spread about her in the late 19th Century (for a more accurate portrayal watch the HBO series DEADWOOD).  It reminded me of some of the Deadwood Dick dime novels that were a contributing to factor to Calamity's popularity. One of the funniest things in the whole movie is the depiction of DEADWOOD as a town full of men.  No brothels, just one bar that doubles as a hotel and the theater. Certainly no Al Swearingen or Seth Bullock in this film.  All the women seem to live at the Fort with the Army.

Doris Day gives a charming but broad performance as Calamity Jane, although she plays the role with gumption, she's not quite believable as a hoyden, although she has tremendous energy.  The film owes a great deal to the success of the Irving Berlin musical ANNIE GET YOUR GUN which was filmed by MGM starring Betty Hutton as Annie Oakley and Howard Keel as Frank Burns.  In fact Howard Keel plays Wild Bill Hickok in this film. In both films, the heroines realize that you can't get a man with a gun, although Annie Oakley is more feminine than Calamity.  This Calamity doesn't cuss and drink like the real Calamity.  She doesn't drink anything harder than root beer, but she certainly tells tall tales like the historical Calamity.  She's most effective in the scenes where Calamity discovers that Danny Gilmartin and Katie are in love, she tends to overact a little too much as the more tomboyish Calamity.

Poor Howard Keel doesn't have much to do as Wild Bill except trade tame barbs with Calamity, look handsome, and attempt to keep her out of trouble. He's a frontier Mr. Knightly to Calamity's Emma in a way. We rarely see him gambling, and there is certainly no whoring in this film.  The weakest part of the film is the love story between Katie and Danny, it happens way too quickly. It would have been nice to see him trying to court her on the sly.  Danny is also way to cavalier about Calamity's feelings, which makes him less sympathetic as a character.  I did like Allyn McLerie as Katie, she's delightful in her scenes in Chicago when Adelaide tells her bluntly that she'll never make in on the stage, and charmingly vulnerable and awkward when she gets up on stage for the first time. One of the best scenes is when she thinks when she first meets Calamity that she's a dude. Since she and Calamity had forged such a friendship, I would have liked to have seen Katie try to apologize and explain about what Calamity saw with Danny. It's an abrupt shift from Calamity tossing her out to the scene at The Golden Garter. Also, it would have been nice to have a scene where Katie helps Calamity dress like a woman for the first time, although the scene where Calamity comes in covered in mud ruining her dress is a classic.

Verdict:  Although the film has nothing to do with the real Calamity, it's nevertheless a fine fluffy piece of entertainment.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Hedy Lamarr and The Secret Communication System

A typical industry party in the Hollywood Hills is filled with chattering actors and directors, and those who desperately want to break into the business. A beautiful brunette actress, 26,  is introduced by another guest to an avant-garde composer nicknamed "The Bad Boy of Music." Discovering that he is an expert on glands, the actress asks him how she can go about enlarging her breasts. They continue to chat, the subject eventually turning to the war in Europe, and the very real possibility that America will be drawn into the conflict. The composer is impressed that someone so beautiful should actually have a brain. The actress confesses that she has to work twice as hard to convince people that just because she has a pretty face, the upstairs is not empty. The two settle down at the piano inside the house. The composer is again surprised that the actress is also an accomplished musician, able to keep up as he constantly changes the key, turning their duet into a game. To the actress, it seems like serendipity that she came to this party, and that she met this man.

The above scenario is not a scene out of a Hollywood movie, it happened in real life. The woman was Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) and the man composer George Antheil and together they came up with a secret communication system to use against the Nazi's that is the basis of technology that still affects communication systems today. Yes, Hedy Lamarr, the dark and sultry actress who slinked across screens during the 1930's and 1940's in movies like ALGIERS with Charles Boyer, and arguably her most famous film role as Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille's SAMSON AND DELILAH with screen hunk Victor Mature. She was called 'The Most Beautiful Woman' in Hollwood but she was overshadowed by other European screen goddesses like Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman. Not many people knew that there was actually a brain behind that beautiful face.

Born Hedwig Kiesler in November of 1914, she was the spoiled, pampered only daughter of a well-to-do Jewish banker and his musician wife. By the time Hedy was 19, she'd studied acting with famed director Max Reinhardt, appeared on stage and made several films including the notorious 'art' film ECSTASY where she not only swam in the nude but also simulated orgasm on screen. Legend has it that her director had to stab her with a pin in order to get the responses that he wanted.

It was her marriage to Fritz Mandl in 1933 that gave Hedy the basic idea for the technology that she and Antheil came up with. Mandl was a shady character, an arms manufacturer thirteen years her senior, who had no moral compass. He would sell arms to pretty much anyone including the Nazis (he spent the war in Argentina becoming a close advisor to Juan Peron.) Mandl was also a control freak who kept Lamarr a virtual prisoner, preventing her from pursuing her acting career.  He basically never let her out of his sight, when she wasn't acting as his hostess, entertaining and dazzling foreign leaders which included Hitler and Mussolini, he was taking her to business meetings with clients. Hedy clearly was paying attention to the conversations between her husband and his clients, particulary that Mandl had been working on a way to control torpedoes by radio. Finally having enough of her sadistic husband, Hedy escaped by drugging her maid and taking her clothes. She made her way to Hollywood where she was offered a contract by Louis B. Mayer and MGM. Mayer changed her last name to Lamarr after the silent film star Barbara Lamarr.

So Hedy's now in Hollywood, making movies for MGM when she meets Antheil. When she and Antheil becan talking, Hedy remembered that her ex- husband had been interested in control systems, and had conducted research in the field, particulary in regard to torpedoes. Some torpedoes were guided by radio signals, but the problem was that enemy ships could hear the radio signals sent from the firing ship, which meant that they could stop the signal from reaching the torpedo. Hedy came up with concept of 'frequency hopping' after their duet on the piano. Just as Antheil had kept changing the key as they played the piano, a ship could simply flip from one radio channel to another, that way the enemy couldn't hear the signal. She also knew that how to help the signal from the ship reach the torpedo's radio. Both radios had to change channels together.

Antheil contribution was to suggest that the device by which this synchronization could be achieved. He had once composed a piece using 16 synchronized player pianos. After working for several months with a professor from the California Institute of Technology who helped them iron out the bugs, they applied for a patent on June 16, 1941. Their invention would use slotted paper rolls similar to player-piano rolls synchronize the frequency changes, it even called for 88 frequencies just like the number of keys on a piano. It also specified that a high-altitude plane could steer the torpedo from above. They received their patent for the 'Secret Communication System' in 1942. However the U.S. Navy never used their idea, concluding that the device would be too bulky to fit into a torpedo. Antheil however insisted that the device could be made small enough to fit into a watch.

Instead of her 'secret communication system,' Hedy's contribution to the war effort ended up being the $7 million dollars she raised selling war bonds in a single evening. Hedy and Antheil never pursued their invention further and by 1959, the patent had expired. However the concept was taken up by engineers at the Sylvania Electronic Systems. The device they came up, which used electronics instead of piano rolls, was installed on the ships that were sent to blockade Cuba during the missile crisis in 1962. Subsequent patents in frequency changing have referred to the Lamarr-Antheil patent as the basis for their work, and their concept lies behind the principal antijamming device used today.

In 1997, Hedy Lamarr received the Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Lamarr was clearly a woman ahead of her time. The idea that she came up with along with George Antheil simply had to wait for technology to catch up with it. One has to wonder that if someone other than an actress and a composer had come up with the idea, if would have been taken more seriously at the time.


Barton, Ruth. Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2010.
Gaines, Ann. Hedy Lamarr: Discover the Life of an Inventor. Vero Beach: Rourke Publishing LLC, 2002.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Happy 3rd Blogiversary at Scandalous Women

Wow, I just checked the dates and today is the 3rd Anniversary of Scandalous Women! The time has just flown by. When I first started this blog, it was just for fun, wanting to write about some of these interesting women I was reading about. I was grateful if 2 people read my posts! In the three years since I started this blog, I've written almost 300 posts, had over 300,000 hits, reviewed countless books and films and written my first book which will be published next year.  In the next few weeks I will be reviewing the re-release of Desiree by Ann Marie Selinko, the movie musical Calamity Jane, and I have posts on Hedy Lamarr and a new series that I'm calling Poor Little Rich Girl, profiling women such as Brenda Frazier and Barbara Hutton. Also guest posts and interviews.

I want to thank all my readers who have followed this blog from day one, and all my new readers.  You guys are awesome! In honor of my third anniversary, I'm giving away to one lucky winner 3 of my favorite Jean Plaidy novels including THE MURDER IN THE TOWER which is based on the story of Frances, Countess of Essex, one of the first women that I profiled here on Scandalous Women.  The other titles are A FAVORITE OF THE QUEEN about Elizabeth and Leicester, and TO HOLD THE CROWN about Philip II of Spain and his wives.  Yes, it is a plethora of Plaidy.

And don't forget that I'm also giving away a copy of Susan Holloway Scott's THE COUNTESS AND THE KING.

Here are the rules for the giveaway. Again this is only for Canadian and American readers!  The contest runs from today through Monday, September 28th.

1. Leave your name in the comments and let me know whether you are interested in the Plaidy Books or COUNTESS AND THE KING

2. If you are not a follower and become one, you get an extra entry

3.  If you tweet about the giveaway, you get an extra entry.

Good luck!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Scandalous Interview and Giveaway with Susan Holloway Scott

Scandalous Women is pleased to have Susan Holloway Scott back to talk about her newest release, THE COUNTESS AND THE KING.  I have been a huge fan of Susan for years, starting with her colonial set historical romances written by her alter-ego Miranda Jarrett. I loved her her first historical fiction novel THE DUCHESS, about Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, but I have to admit that my favorite is COUNTESS AND THE KING.  Katherine Sedley is a delightful heroine, the type of woman that you can see yourself having a good gossip with but who would also be a loyal friend.

Welcome back to Scandalous Women, Susan! I can’t tell you how excited I was to read THE COUNTESS AND THE KING, about Katherine Sedley and James II. What led you to Katherine Sedley?

I’m glad to be back! “Scandalous Women” seems like quite the proper place for my heroines. I’m not sure that I was led to Katherine Sedley, so much as she grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. She kept turning up in research for my earlier books – she’s the heiress that John Churchill’s parents would much rather he’d wed instead of Sarah Jennings, and the young girl dancing jigs in the moonlight with Nell Gwyn at Epsom – and the more I read of her, the more intrigued I became. My editor was leery, because Katherine is such a relatively unknown historical figure, but I kept insisting she’d make a great book. And she did.

Katherine and her father have an unusual relationship for the 17th century, more companions than father/daughter. It reminded me somewhat of Ryan and Tatum O’Neal but less creepy and damaging! What do you think Sir Charles did right and wrong with his daughter?

Yes, I kept thinking of them as a misguided Hollywood father and daughter, too – the child as amusing companion or pet to the father instead of a daughter. In Sir Charles’s sort-of defense, he wasn’t much more than a child himself when Katherine was born, and teenaged fathers don’t always show the most mature judgment with their children. On the plus side, I think Katherine and Sir Charles had an unusually close father-daughter relationship for the time, and they shared things that they enjoyed – the theatre, books, sense of humor – that were of a more intellectual basis than most 17th c. fathers would share with their daughters (or any women, for that matter.) He also gave her much more of a choice in choosing her future husband, again very rare for the time, especially since Katherine was a substantial heiress.

On the bad side (and it’s pretty bad), Sir Charles was a dreadfully indulgent father by the standards of any era. The places he took his daughter and the company that he shared with her would probably be considered a form of abuse today, or at least extreme negligence. It’s surprising that I found not protest by anyone in the family or court about how Sir Charles was raising his daughter, but I suppose that must just have been the “way of the world” in 1660s London. I’ve also wondered if perhaps someone might have spoken up if Katherine had been a more-valued son – though then most likely he would have been shipped off to school instead.

I was very interested in what happened to Katherine’s mother. Historians now seem to think that she wasn’t mad at all, that her ‘madness’ might have been caused by mercury laden medicines that she was given. How do you think that her parents’ marriage affected Katherine’s attitudes towards love and marriage?

I find those new “revelations” about Lady Sedley both sobering, and very sad. (Also sad that it took 20th c. women historians to discover what their male counterparts had accepted for 300 years.) There are letters by Lady Sedley from her confinement abroad to various cousins in London, begging them to believe that she isn’t mad as her husband claimed, and begging, too, to return to London. It certainly puts a different cast on jolly old Sir Charles. I was also fascinated by how he seemed to believe that having his wife “put away” was as good as having been widowed, because he seems to have had no compunction at all about remarrying – even though at this time, English law considered bigamy an offense punishable by death.

I have to think that Katherine was affected by both her mother’s madness and disappearance from her life, and her father’s seemingly cavalier attitude towards it. How could she not? She certainly seemed very reluctant to marry herself, waiting until the advanced age of forty before she finally did so. In the world that Sir Charles showed to her as an impressionable adolescent, the mistresses had all the fun, while the wives were shuffled off to the country to breed while their fortunes were squandered by their husbands. She said that it didn’t seem like a good bargain to her, and she was right.

Katherine was rather unusual in a royal mistress, known more for her wit than her looks. Do you think her life would have been different or better if she had been born beautiful?

My guess is that the ridicule that she faced for her lack of beauty (at least beauty by the standards of her time – in her portraits, to modern eyes she looks quite attractive) must have sharpened the edge of her wit. Still, I doubt she would ever have become the standard, lolling court beauty of the time. She was too smart and too quick for that, and if her enemies couldn’t have attacked her for her “plain” face, then I’m sure they would have found something else about her to mock.

Katherine and James seem to be unlikely lovers, Katherine being a Protestant, outspoken and witty, and James the opposite. Yet there is little doubt that he loved her? What do you think drew the two of them together?

Based on James’s earlier mistresses, Katherine was his physical “type”: he seemed to have preferred thin women, and didn’t care as much about their beauty as their personalities. (His brother, Charles II, teased James about how his mistresses were so homely, that they must have been chosen for him by his priests as penance.) Not quick-witted himself (again, Charles teased James about always being a few steps behind), James admired Katherine for her devastating wit, and her ability to defend herself in any verbal battle. Doubtless she said many things at court that he could only wish he’d said first. She was also loyal to him as a man, not just a royal prince, and I think he responded to that as well. She didn’t romanticize him or gloss over his flaws (her most famous observation about James was that she wasn’t sure what he saw in her: it couldn’t be for her beauty, for she hadn’t any, and it couldn’t be for her wit, because he hadn’t any himself to appreciate it in her), but she seemed to have loved him for what he was.

James II has usually been portrayed as one of England’s worst kings: a tyrant, a religious fanatic, a bigot and more. But recently historians have taken a kinder view, that he’s been unfairly compared to Charles II, and that he was a good king just at the wrong time. Do you agree?

My feeling is that he was the wrong man for the job. He had good qualities – he was a very hard worker, he was physically brave, he was loyal to his friends, and once he converted to Catholicism, his commitment to his new faith was complete. But he was also inflexible, dogged, self-centered, and certainly not as intelligent as his older brother. He believed that he was divinely appointed to be king, and that Parliament and the rest of England should bend to his will, without any compromise from him. He also lacked Charles’s personal charm and charisma, and the gift for political machinations and back-stairs politics, all useful in a king, and in the end the very qualities that might have served James well as, say, the captain of a ship in his much-beloved navy, proved disastrous when he became king.

I was intrigued by the friendship between Katherine and Louise de Keroualle, the Duchess of Portsmouth. What do you think they both got out becoming allies as it were?

Louise was much more interested and involved in politics than Katherine. I think that with James as Charles’s heir, Louise was shrewd enough to see in Katherine a useful ally against a possibly unpleasant future. She might also have hoped to use Katherine as a way to keep James on course towards her dream of returning England to the Catholic Church (which staunchly Protestant Katherine would never share.) I also suspect she saw Katherine as simply a friend, another royal mistress who would understand what her complicated life entailed and wouldn’t judge her for it. Katherine liked Louise, and regarded her as a friend, and again, I’m guessing it was because of their shared places at court. Katherine had almost no women as friends: her caustic wit and unpredictable behavior likely scared them away. Beautiful, elegant Louise must have seemed like the coolest of the cool girls to Katherine, everything she wasn’t herself, and also one of the few others at court that she felt she could trust. An unusual friendship, to be sure, but it’s easy to see how it could have developed.

Unlike most women in the 17th century, Katherine was an heiress in her own right, and her father gave her the freedom to choose her own husband rather than trying to choose one for her. Yet Katherine still chose to be a royal mistress. Do you think that Katherine’s fortune helped or hindered her?

I think Katherine’s fortune gave her rare independence. Because she was financially free, and free, too, of having to find a husband for protection, she could do what she pleased. So yes, especially given her personality, that fortune was a true blessing!

This is your fifth book set during the reign of Charles II. Is there anything that you discovered about Katherine or the period that you couldn’t include in the book?

I would have liked to have continued Katherine’s story through the Glorious Revolution and James’s removal from the throne, and her late marriage. But once she breaks with James, the information about her becomes teasingly thin. There simply weren’t enough facts to be able to continue the story, and what I would have written would have become a whole lot more fiction than history. So, sadly, I chose to end the book where I did. But isn’t it fun to speculate what the later relationship was between Katherine and, say, John and Sarah Churchill?

One of things that I love about your novels is how vividly you bring historical figures to life. What are the pitfalls of writing about historical figures? And what do you see as the advantages?

I’ve always enjoyed the research side of writing historical settings, finding that single elusive little fact that brings the past to life, and rescues it from being dry old history. With characters based on historical figures, that research goes one step further. What can I discover about them will make them accessible to modern readers? How can I take the facts of their lives and weave them into a compelling story? The hard part, of course, is not to let research overwhelm story-telling. Research can do that in a non-fiction book, but in a novel, it’s deadly.

What is your writing process? How much research do you do before you start? Do you use the internet to research? Do you do an extensive outline?

I have a rough idea of where I want to go before I start, but I’m not sure I should dignify that as an outline. I concentrate more on thinking about the characters; like cat lovers and dog lovers, writers tend to be either character-driven or plot-driven, and I definitely fall into the character-camp. As for research, while I do some background study into the time period, I tend to research as I write, finding what I need for the story. This is the only way I can keep from being entirely swallowed up in research and only writing a book every decade. And yes, yes, yes I LOVE the internet for research! I was once a pure library-and-books researcher, but now more and more original source material is being put on the internet and being made easily accessible, day or night. I love being able to read a 17th century book from a rare book library in Oxford whenever I need it, and I like even better to be able to download a pdf of it onto my iPad. Very cool. True, the visceral connection that comes from actually touching a book from the past is lost in the electronic version, but I’m willing to trade that for the accessibility.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently working on an entirely different project that’s still set in Restoration England, but that’s more a historical novel than another fictionalized biography. I can’t really say more just yet, since not even the title’s set, let alone a publication date, but I will promise that it will be well worth the wait!

Susan has graciously agreed to giveaway a copy of the book. Here are the rules: This giveaway is only available to American and Canadian readers. The giveaway is open from today until 12 p.m. on Thursday, September 23. The winner will be announced on Friday, September 24th.
1) Just leave your name and email address in the comments if you wish to enter the giveaway
2) If you are not a follower and become one, you get an extra entry
3) If you tweet about it, you get an extra entry

Good Luck!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010




Amanda, I will be emailing you to get your address.

Thanks to everyone for entering.  Please stay tuned for the special 3rd Anniversary giveaway coming next week.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Scandalous Women on Film: Cleopatra (1963)

Cleopatra (1963)
Twentieth Century Fox
Written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz
Produced by Walter Wanger


Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

Richard Burton as Marc Antony

Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar

Carroll O'Connor as Servilius Casca

Roddy McDowall as Octavian

Martin Landau as Rufio

Hume Cronyn as Sosigenes

Andrew Keir as Agrippa

Kenneth Haigh as Brutus
George Cole as Flavius
Pamela Brown as the High Priestess
Cesare Danova as Apollodorus
Francesca Annis as Eiras
Richard O'Sullivan as Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII
Gregoire Aslan as Pothinus
Martin Benson as Ramos

My thoughts:  Pretty everyone, even if they have no taste for celebrity gossip, knows the backstory to the filming of Cleopatra.  It's the film that not only took two years to make, and almost bankrupted the studio, but it is also the film that ended two marriages, and gave the world the love story of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton or Le Scandale as it was known at the time. By the time the movie was released in 1963, the original cast had been let go (Peter Finch was supposed to play Caesar and Stephen Boyd Antony) and the director had been fired.  The film had been delayed because of Elizabeth Taylor's near death experience from pneumonia, and the production moved from the damp weather of England to the sunny climate of Rome.  This is the film where Elizabeth Taylor demanded $1 million dollars in salary, which was unheard of at the time.  The story goes that she asked for so much because she really didn't want to do the movie. By the time filming was done, Taylor had made out like a bandit, not only did she receive the million dollars but also $3,000 a week in living expenses, $50,000 a week for every week the film went over schedule, and 10% of the profits. Oh, and she didn't have to film during her period.  The film ended up costing $35 million dollars, makig it the most expensive movie at that time, and the third most expensive film in history. Although the film made money, it still ended up in the red, and while Taylor and Burton would go on to make more films, the director Joseph Mankiewicz would never make another film again.

Despite having read about this film in various biographies of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, including the most recent book FURIOUS LOVE, I've never actually seen this movie. This movie is long, I'm talking 'oh my god, is this movie still on?' long. It's four hours and it feels bloated, like when you've eaten too much turkey on Thanksgiving and you fall into a food coma.  I will give the film credit, it does give equal weight to to Cleopatra's relationships with both Caesar and Mark Antony. In fact the director had wanted to release two seperate films, the first ending with Caesar's death on the Ides of March. The production is lush, all that money clearly (at least what didn't end up in Elizabeth Taylor's pocket) ended up on screen, although the set design and the costumes owe more to the 1960's than they do to Ancient Egypt and Rome.

There are so many amazing scenes of spectacle, in particular the scene where Cleopatra arrives in Rome. She enters the city sitting on top of a giant replica of the Sphinx along with Caesarion. It is a stunning visual but I couldn't help thinking about the logistics, like how did they get the Sphinx to Rome? Did they build it there or did they just float it down the Mediterranean? Another fabulous scene is where Cleopatra entertains Antony on her barge.  There is an extended dance sequence with the god Dionysus (Antony's ancestor) and a woman made to look like Cleopatra as Antony drinks too much.

The film is hampered by the fact that there was no shooting script. Mankiewicz rewrote the film as shooting went along which meant the whole film had to be shot in sequence. It almost sounds as if the actors are improvising or just borrowing bits from Shakespeare and Shaw. Elizabeth Taylor plays Cleopatra as a mewing sex kitten in her scenes with Caesar and Mark Antony.  She looks stunning in her costumes but she never quite conveys the majesty or the politcal skills of the last Pharaoah of Egypt. Even when she flies into a rage at hearing the news that Antony has married Octavia, it's more of a minor temper tantrum. The screenplay also turns her into sort of the Lady Macbeth of the Ancient World, coaxing Antony and Caesar into greater ambition, which they enter into reluctantly. 

Rex Harrison is rather brilliant as Caesar and Roddy McDowell, saddled with blond hair, plays Octavian as a peevish and petulant schoolboy in the beginning, but one who is incredibly cunning underneath.  Poor Richard Burton is forced to wear tunics that border on the indecent throughout the film, seriously while Taylor wears floor length gowns, Burton shows a great deal of leg (and fantastic ones they are too).  He plays an Antony who is crushed by his relationship with Cleopatra, drinking more and more as the film progressed. He knows that he's lost the respect of the Romans but yet he's powerless to let go of this woman.

Verdict:  This film is worth seeing if only because they don't make movies like this anymore. And it's fantastic to watch as Taylor and Burton fall in love on screen. However, I would suggest that you not try to watch all 4 hours at one time.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Scandalous Women in Fiction and Giveaway: RIVAL TO THE QUEEN

In honor of Elizabeth I's birthday today, I'm giving away a copy of Carolly Erickson's new novel RIVAL TO THE QUEEN which is due to be published by St. Martin's Press at the end of this month. From the Publisher:  Powerful, dramatic and full of the rich history that has made Carolly Erickson’s novels perennial bestsellers, this is the story of the only woman to ever stand up to the Virgin Queen— her own cousin, Lettie Knollys. Far more attractive than the queen, Lettie soon won the attention of the handsome and ambitious Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, a man so enamored of the queen and determined to share her throne that it was rumored he had murdered his own wife in order to become her royal consort. The enigmatic Elizabeth allowed Dudley into her heart, and relied on his devoted service, but shied away from the personal and political risks of marriage.

When Elizabeth discovered that he had married her cousin Lettie in secret, Lettie would pay a terrible price, fighting to keep her husband’s love and ultimately losing her beloved son, the Earl of Essex, to the queen’s headsman. This is the unforgettable story of two women related by blood, yet destined to clash over one of Tudor England’s most charismatic men.

My thoughts: This book is a brisk, lively read but anyone who has read Victoria Holt's MY ENEMY THE QUEEN  or looking for a juicy historical novel promised by the title is bound to be disappointed by this book. In Erickson's hands, Elizabeth I is a jealous, cantankerous shrew, while Robert Dudley is the Elizabethan equivalent of Errol Flynn.  Everyone is a caricature including Lettice's father who is reduced to stern Puritan and an invented sister who serves as the villainess of the story, popping up to ruin Lettice's happiness. The biggest weakness of the book is Lettice herself who seems to go blithely through her life with no self-reflection. It's all "La La, maid of honor to the Queen, la la married to Deveraux, had children, la la, who isn't Robert Dudley a hunk! la la now we're in love and blissful, la la, oops he's dead but I have Christopher Blount to keep me warm la la my son is plotting against the Queen, bad Robin la la." Much is made in the beginning of the book of Lettice thinking that she and her siblings are royal through Mary Boleyn's liaison with Henry VIII but then its dropped. It never manifests itself in any kind of behavior.  Tracy Borham describes Lettice in ELIZABETH'S WOMEN as vain, grasping and snobbish and it would have been nice to see just a few of those traits manifest themselves in the book. The Queen takes against Lettice within minutes of meeting her for no apparent reason other than she's pretty. 

Because the book is so short (292 pages), 8 of Lettice's siblings fall by the wayside as if they never existed, as do 2 of Lettice's children by Walter Deveraux. For some reason, Erickson fudges the ages of Lettice making her 6 years older than she actually was when she married Deveraux.  Erickson places Lettice at events she probably wasn't at such as Amy Dudley's inquest, just so she can jump up and defend Dudley. The most interesting part of the book takes place in Frankfurt where the Knollys have settled during the reign of Mary I.

Verdict:  If one is looking for a light quick read this book is for you but I would suggest that you pick up a copy of Holt's MY ENEMY THE QUEEN as well.

Here are the rules: This giveaway is only available to American and Canadian readers. The giveaway is open from today until 12 p.m. on Monday September 13th. The winner will be announced on Tuesday, September 14th.

1) Just leave your name and email address in the comments if you wish to enter the giveaway
2) If you are not a follower and become one, you get an extra entry
3) If you tweet about it, you get an extra entry

Good Luck!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Scandalous Book Review: WHAT ALICE KNEW

WHAT ALICE KNEW by Paula Marantz Cohen
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Pub Date: September 2010

From the back cover:  Under Certain Circumstances, No One Is More Suited to Solving a Crime than a Woman Confined to Her Bed
An invalid for most her life, Alice James is quite used to people underestimating her. And she generally doesn't mind. But this time she is not about to let things alone. Yes, her brother Henry may be a famous author, and her other brother William a rising star in the new field of psychology. But when they all find themselves quite unusually involved in the chase for a most vile new murderer-one who goes by the chilling name of Jack the Ripper-Alice is certain of two things:

No one could be more suited to gather evidence about the nature of the killer than her brothers. But if anyone is going to correctly examine the evidence and solve the case, it will have to be up to her.

My thoughts: I was very intrigued with Sourcebooks offered me the chance to review WHAT ALICE KNEW. I've read Paula Marantz Cohen's contemporary books JANE AUSTEN IN BOCA, and JANE AUSTEN IN SCARSDALE, and enjoyed them immensely. The idea of the Jack the Ripper murders being solved by Alice James and her brothers sounded too interesting to pass up. I'm not a Ripperologist by any means but I've taken Donald Rumbelow's Ripper Tour in London several times, and I've seen FROM HELL and MURDER BY DECREE. So I'm familiar with the players involved with the story.

WHAT ALICE KNEW is a fascinating book. This is not a conventional historical mystery novel, although the Ripper murders are important to the story, it is the relationship between Alice and her brothers that really grabbed me. Alice is an invalid and has been for most of her life. She lives in London with her longtime companion in what used to be referred to as a 'Boston Marriage.' At the time of the Ripper murders, while Henry James is a successful author, he is by no means as successful as he would like to be. He's envious of the success of other writers such as Wilde and Samuel Clemens (who makes an appearance in the book), writers who he feels are not as talented or hard-working but who seem to sell more books. William James is the oldest of the siblings and a noted psychologist and philosopher. But all three have in some ways been scarred by their upbringing which Marantz-Cohen touches on slightly. Henry James Sr. wanted all his children to do something with their lives, to be peculiar. He felt that it was better to be an interesting failure than to be a middling success. 

The family dynamics come into play while they are involved with trying to find the who is the Ripper. Henry is the more social of the trio, and more at ease in society, while William has the more incisive mind. Alice's role as she puts it, is to take what both Henry and William find out and to put it all together.  Marantz-Cohen manages to evoke 1880's London without dumping too much information or description on the reader. If I hadn't known that this was her first historical novel, I would never have guessed. She has a very assured way of writing, equally at home writing about the London social world and the East End of London where a great deal of the action takes place.  John Singer Sargent and his sister, Ellen Terry and Walter Sickert all make appearances in the book but I was intrigued by the characters that are probably fictional, the Abrams family who play a role in finding out who the killer is.

From what I've read about Henry, Alice and William James, Marantz-Cohen captures their personalities perfectly. Reading this book almost made me want to go back and dig out my battered Penguin copies of WASHINGTON SQUARE and DAISY MILLER.  Anyone who knows anything about Jack the Ripper will probably be disappointed by who Marantz-Cohen fingers as the murderer, although she throws a few red herrings into the mix to keep the reader guessing. But as  I mentioned who the Ripper turns out to be, is besides the point. It is the relationship between the siblings, as old rivalries flare up, and loyaltie are questioned, that make the book so fascinating.

Verdict:  For a first time historical novelist, Paula Marantz-Cohen's WHAT ALICE KNEW, is a riveting look at the relationship of William, Henry and Alice James with a little mystery thrown in. Historical fiction lovers will enjoy the book but mystery lovers may find the resolution a little unsatisfying.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Beauty Tips from Lola Montez

In the 1850's Lola Montez decided to reinvent herself as a lecturer and her most popular lectures were about beauty. In 1859, Lola decided to capitalize on her success by publishing her beauty tips as THE ART AND SECRETS OF BEAUTY. The first New York edition sold 60,000 copies in it's first few months and it has been reprinted twice in America since 1970. French, British, and Canadian and French Canadian editions came out, and several translations done. The French Canadian version alone sold 45,000 copies. The volume, which is a slim 135 pages contains practical hints on beauty and hygiene, the advice remains remarkably undated.

From the introduction, "My design in this volume is to discuss the various Arts employed by my sex in the pursuit of this paramount object of woman's life. I have aimed to make a useful as well as an entertaining and amusing book. The fortunes of life have given to my own experience, or observation, nearly all the materials of which it is composed. So, if the volume is of less importance than I have estimated, it must be charged to my want of capacity, and not to any lack of information on tho subject of which it treats."

Lola recommended that women make their own beauty treatments instead of relying on those bought in stores, since they might contain harsh chemicals that were damaging. How she would have loved stores like Lush and The Body Shop where everything is organic and made with as few chemicals as possible. In her book, she provided formulas for skin creams, hair washes, waxing, and the like. One of her beauty treatments involved placing slivers of raw beef on your face before bed to prevent wrinkles, and using the fat of the stag to keep the form elastic. To prevent baldness, she suggested a pomade of rosemary and nutmeg. She even included her own formula for tooth powder and suggested that people brush after every meal. Here is her recipe to get rid of pimples:

There are many kinds of pimples, some of which partake almost of the nature of ulcers, which require medical treatment ; but the small red pimple, which is most common, may be removed by applying the following twice a day
Sulphur water. 1 oz.
Accetatcd liquor of ammonia .... J oz
Liquor of potassa 1 gr.
White wine vinegar 2 oz.
Distilled water 2 oz.

These pimples are sometimes cured by frequent washing in warm water, and prolonged friction with a coarse towel. The cause of these pimples is obstruction of the skin and imperfect circulation.

If you would like to increase your bust, Lola had a formula for that as well. (If anyone wants to try this at home, let me know if it works!)

1/2 oz of tincture of myrrh
4 oz. of pimpernel water
4 oz. of elderflower water
1 gram of musk
6 oz. rectified spirits of wine.

Softly rub the mixture on your bosom for five or ten minutes two or three times a day.

Lola was ahead of her time in many ways. She recommended fresh air, exercise, moderation in all things, and scrupulous cleanliness were the hallmarks of her beauty regimen. She also recommended that women abstain from alcohol but also coffee and heavy foods (no mention of tobacco, Lola was a heavy smoker). One of her many suggestions was that women wear light unencumbered dress, particularly for young girls whose bodies were still developing. That must have been a blow to the corset industry. Unfortunately, not many women took that bit of advice! A regular tepid bath was advised with bran to renew the skin and body.

She also wrote 50 "hints to gentleman" which were all tongue in cheek, outlining what a man should not do to win the heart of a woman. Here are jsut some of the hints to give you an idea:

Rule #1:  To make a woman fall tremendously in love with you, a man must make himself as big a fool as possible, in order to ensure the most speedy and triumphant success.

Rule #2: A guy will be a big hit with women if he pretends not to admire any particular woman, but claims that he loves and adores all women; which he can easily accomplish by staring insultingly at every pretty woman he meets. (I think we have all met men like this in our lives!)

RULE #3:  A man should boast that he has no higher ambition in life than merely to render himself agreeable to women.

Rule #4:  Men should pretend to be effeminate and add a lisping softness in their speech. It will go a great way towards charming a woman. They should only talk about balls, parties, fashions and the opera.

Rule #5:  A man should wear a lot of jewelry; if they don't have any of their own, borrow it, or get it some other way. (Apparently a number of rappers have read this chapter!).

Rule #6: Remember that faint heart never won fair lady yet, so men should push their suit with the determination and vehemence of an army of soldiers storming a fort. Women like men of courage, so a guy should entertain women with a running commentary of the number of men they've picked fights with at at parties and bars.

You can read the whole book over at Google Books.