Sunday, September 29, 2013

"WESTWARD HO!": Part Four - "THE CHISHOLMS" (1979)

Below is Part Four to my article about Hollywood's depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon the 1979 CBS miniseries, "THE CHISHOLMS"

"WESTWARD HO!": Part Four - "THE CHISHOLMS" (1979)

I. Introduction

The 1979 television miniseries, "THE CHISHOLMS" began as an adaptation of Evan Hunter's 1976 novel of the same title. It told the story of a Western Virginia family's trek to California in the mid-1840s. 

It began in 1843 with the wedding of Hadley and Minerva Hadley's oldest child, Will. Life for the Chisholm family at their Appalachian farm seemed charmed, until the members suffer a series of misfortunes by the early spring of 1844. Will's new wife died after giving birth to a stillborn child. Hadley managed to alienate the local plantation owner, known as "the Squire", after he terrorized the local preacher for using the wrong Bible passage at his daughter-in-law's funeral. And the family lost a valuable piece of land to an antagonistic neighbor, thanks to Hadley's late older brother. Years earlier, the latter had abandoned the neighbor's sister before a wedding could take place, and willed the land to her as compensation. Stuck with land unfit for farming, Hadley decides to move his family to California.

The Chisholms suffer a few more misfortunes during their trek to California. They discover from a Louisville merchant that they had began their westward trek at least a month too late. They made a second mistake by hiring an Illinois man named Lester Hackett to guide them west. The latter fell in love with Hadley and Minerva's older daughter, Bonnie Sue and ended up getting her pregnant before abandoning the family near St. Louis. Will and middle son Gideon left the family to track Lester to Iowa and ended up serving on a prison work gang for a month, for "trespassing" on the farm of Lester's mother. By the time the family reached the western plains, it suffered a major tragedy, which convinced them to end their journey at Fort Laramie, in present-day Wyoming.

II. History vs. Hollywood

Like "CENTENNIAL""THE CHISHOLMS" managed to be that rare period drama that managed to be historically accurate . . . or at least 95% accurate. In fact, I was only able to find one topic that struck me as historically inaccurate. And it proved to be minor.

When the Chisholms began their journey from western Virginia to California in 1844, they had left their old cabin in mid-spring. After all, they reached Louisville, Kentucky by May 16 or 17. Most wagon parties usually left Independence, Missouri, the jump-off spot for the western trails by that period. Even the infamous Donner Party left western Missouri sometime between May 16 and May 20 (in 1846). At least two people remarked on their late departure - a Louisville merchant and a saloon keeper in Independence. Aside from Minerva and youngest daughter Annabel, the rest of the Chisholms decided to continue the trek west in the hope of encountering more wagons.

Aside from "CENTENNIAL""THE CHISHOLMS" is the only production I know that covered a wagon journey east of Missouri. Most movies or television productions usually have wagon parties begin their journey in St. Louis or Independence. The Chisholms' journey included a river journey down the Ohio River aboard a craft similar to the flatboat; the crossing of the Big Blue River; and passing famous landmarks such as Scott's Bluff, Courthouse Rock and Chimney Rock.

Just prior to the Chisholms' westward journey, they acquired a larger wagon through barely fair means (which is another story). Surprisingly, the new wagon proved to be a decent-sized farm wagon, suitable for overland trails and not the lumbering Hollywood favorite - the Conestoga. However, the family not only loaded their wagon with essential goods, but also with furnishings that may have proven to become a burden on the animals pulling it - including a grandfather clock. The Chisholms never dumped any of their non-essentials along the trail. However, Will, Gideon and an Objibwe woman named Kewedinok they had met in Missouri did find several furnishings that had been abandoned by previous emigrants along the trail. The Chisholms used mules to pull their wagon across the continent. However, a lively debate on mules vs. oxen sprung up between Will and Lester Hackett. The family's mules also attracted the attention of a small group of young Pawnee braves, when the family traveled alone.

In the 1979 miniseries, the Chisholms' westbound journey only took them as far as Fort Laramie. A brief, yet brutal encounter with the four Pawnee braves and a family tragedy convinced them to remain and settle on land near the fort. The miniseries' depiction of the emigrants' encounters with Native American seemed pretty realistic and balanced - except in regard to one matter. "THE CHISHOLMS" featured at least three violent encounters between family members and Native Americans. Family patriarch Hadley Chisholm brawled with a middle-aged Chickasaw man inside an Illinois tavern, which ended with the latter being nearly choked to death. And there were the four Pawnee braves who attacked the family (traveling alone) in order to take their mules and the women. A scene before the attack featured a rather funny conference between the four braves, in which they argued on whether or not to attack the family. The surviving brave of the attack discovered the Chisholms' presence at Fort Laramie in the last episode, and convinced a few other braves to help him rob the family's cabin.

But not all of the Chisholms' encounters with Native Americans were violent. The miniseries revealed Kewedinok's back story of how she became a widow, her violent encounter with white trappers in Western Missouri and her eventual meeting with Will and Gideon. The rest of the family became acquainted with former Army scout Timothy Oates and his Pawnee wife during the early leg of their journey, west of Independence. They also met two Kansa couples traveling eastward by foot in an encounter that led to some friendly trading. The same Kansa couples were later killed by whites, aside from one survivor who was found by Will, Gideon and Kewedinok.

I have only one major complaint about the miniseries' depiction of Native Americans. Many white characters such as Hadley Chisholm, Timothy Oates, and the Fort Laramie trader Andrew Blake never hesitate to express concern about Native Americans consuming alcohol. Hadley was the first to claim that "Indians had no business drinking whiskey". One could have easily dismissed Hadley's words as prejudice on his part. But other white characters also expressed the necessity of denying Native Americans any alcohol. I will not deny that alcoholism has been a problem for many Native Americans. However, it has also been a problem for other ethnic groups, including white Americans of Anglo-Saxon, Scottish or Irish ancestry. This was certainly the case in 19th century America. For example, at least two-thirds of the U.S. Army's officer corps were believed to be heavy drinkers. However, many white Americans (and perhaps other groups) tend to view certain certain groups - which included German and Irish immigrants, African-Americans and especially Native Americans - as naturally heavy drinkers, due to their own prejudices. The screenwriters could have been easily expressing the prejudices of these 19th century white men. But the gravity of Timothy Oates and Andrew Blake's words seemed to hint that this particular prejudice still existed by the late 1970s, when this miniseries was made.

Like "CENTENNIAL""THE CHISHOLMS" managed to adhere a lot closer to historical accuracy than the first two productions featured in this series. And like the 1978-79 miniseries, only one topic seemed to be the result of Hollywood fiction, instead of fact. In the case of "THE CHISHOLMS", it failed to overcome the myth of Native Americans' susceptibility to alcoholism. Otherwise, the mixture of historical fact and literary fiction proved to be well-balanced.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

"JUMPER" (2008) Photo Gallery

Below is a gallery of photos from the new action movie, "JUMPER". Directed by Doug Liman, the movie starred Hayden Christensen, Samuel L. Jackson, Rachel Bilson and Jamie Bell: 

"JUMPER" (2008) Photo Gallery

Monday, September 23, 2013

"4.50 FROM PADDINGTON" (1987) Review


"4.50 FROM PADDINGTON" (1987) Review

The 1957 Agatha Christie novel, "4.50 From Paddington" aka "What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw" has been a favorite of mine since I was in my early teens. There have been one film and two television adaptations of the story. I never saw the film adaptation, which starred Margaret Rutherford. But I have seen the two television versions. One of them was the 1987 BBC adaptation that featured Joan Hickson as Miss Jane Marple. 

"4.50 FROM PADDINGTON" begins when Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy, an old friend of Miss Marple, travels by train to visit the latter in St. Mary's Mead. When her train passes another on a parallel track, she witnesses a woman being strangled inside a compartment of the latter. Mrs. McGillicuddy reports the murder to Miss Marple, who suggests that she contact the police. But due to her age and inability to see the murderer's face, Mrs. McGillicuddy is ignored by the police. Miss Marple decides to take matters into her own hands by tracing Mrs. McGillicuddy's rail journey. The elderly sleuth's investigation leads her to the Rutherford Hall estate, where the railway borders at a curved embankment. Miss Marple recruits an acquaintance of hers, a young professional housekeeper named Lucy Eyelesbarrow, to hire herself out to the family that resides at Rutherford Hall, the Crackenthorpes, to continue the investigation. 

Considering that the 1957 novel happened to be a favorite of mine, I had hoped this adaptation by T.R. Bowen would prove to be very satisfying. Needless to say . . . it did not. I am not one of those who demand that a movie or television adaptation adhere closely to its source. But some of the changes made by Bowen in his adaptation proved to be rather annoying to me. And I do not believe these changes served the movie very well. Among Bowen's changes were:

*No one was stricken by food poisoning

*Only one member of the Crackenthorpe family was murdered, instead of two

*The above mentioned victim was killed in a hunting accident, instead of being poisoned

*The nature of the romantic triange between Lucy Eyelesbarrow, Cedric Crackenthorpe and Bryan Eastley has been changed considerably

*Instead of Detective Inspector Dermot Craddock investigating the case, Detective Inspector Slack from three previous "AGATHA CHRISTIE'S MISS MARPLE" productions served as the main investigator

*The addition of Chief Inspector Duckham, who was an invention of the screenwriter, was added.

As I had stated earlier, the novel featured the second appearance of Dermot Craddock as the chief investigating officer in a Miss Marple mystery. But instead of hiring John Castle to reprise his Detective Inspector Craddock role from 1985's "A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED", the producers brought back David Horovitch to portray the irritating Detective Inspector Slack. Horovitch had already portrayed Slack in two previous Miss Marple movies,"A BODY IN THE LIBRARY" and "MURDER IN THE VICARAGE". Horovitch is a first-rate actor, but the character of Detective Inspector Slack has always annoyed me. I would have preferred if Craddock had made his second appearance in this movie. To make matters worse, actor David Waller, who had worked with T.R. Bowen for"EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON", was added to portray Chief Inspector Duckham, a character who never appeared in the novel.

Screenwriter T.R. Bowen made matters worse with more changes. Instead of two, only one member of the household ended up murdered - Harold Crackenthorpe, who was a banker. And his murder was disguised as a hunting accident. Harold was murdered with poisoned pills. Bowen completely left out the scene featuring a mass case of food poisoning from which the family suffered. Although the subject of Martine was brought up, Bowen never made the connection between her and the best friend of Bryan Eastley's son, Alexander. And instead of following Christie's portrayal of the "love triangle" between Lucy, Cedric Crackenthorpe and Eastley, who happened to the widower of the late Edith Crackenthorpe; Friend decided to settle matters by having Lucy fall in love with Eastley, who was portrayed as an infantile and suggestible man. Even worse, Lucy seemed to have lost her sense of humor, thanks to Bowen's script and Jill Meager's uninspiring performance. Friend also transformed Cedric into an annoying and oozing ladies' man who tries to hit on Lucy every chance he could. In the novel, Cedric never openly displayed his attraction to Lucy, when he was swapping witty bon mots with her. Yet, Christie made it obvious that he was attracted. And the novel left the matter open on whom Lucy would choose open. 

But the one change made by Friend that really annoyed me, turned out to be the big revelation scene. After Miss Marple identified the killer to the police, the Crackenthorpes and Elspeth McGillicuddy; a ridiculous action scene was tacked on by Bowen, allowing Eastley to run after and have a fight with the fleeing killer. It was quite obvious to me that this scene was nothing more than a setup for the audiences to approve of the unconvincing love story between the humorless Lucy and the infantile Eastley. What an incredibly stupid ending to the story!

But despite these flaws, I still managed to somewhat enjoy the movie. One, Joan Hickson was great as ever as Jane Marple. She was supported by solid performances from Joanna David as Emma Crackenthorpe, Andrew Burt as Dr. John Quimper, young Christopher Haley as Alexander Eastley, Robert East as Alfred Crackenthorpe, David Waller as Chief Inspector Duckham, Mona Bruce as Elspeth McGillicuddy and even David Horovitch as Inspector Slack. Slack may have struck me as an annoying character, but I cannot deny that Horovitch gave a competent performance.

Another aspect of "4.50 FROM PADDINGTON" that impressed me was its production design. Raymond Cusick did a first rate job in transforming television viewers back to the mid-to-late 1950s. He was ably supported by Judy Pepperdine's convincing costumes - especially for Jill Eager and Joanna David's characters. I was not that impressed by most of John Walker's photography. However, I must admit that along with Martyn Friend's direction, Walker injected a great deal of atmosphere and mystery into the scene featuring the murder that Mrs. McGillicuddy witnessed.

It really pains me to say this, but despite Hickson's first rate performance and the production design, "4.50 FROM PADDINGTON" does not strike me as one of the best Miss Marple movies to feature the late actress. Another version was made in 2004 and quite frankly, it was not an improvement. Hopefully, someone will make a first-rate adaptation of one of my favorite Christie novels.

Friday, September 20, 2013

"MAD MEN": The Specter of Intolerance

”MAD MEN”: The Specter of Intolerance

Matthew Weiner’s acclaimed television series, ”MAD MEN”, has addressed many issues that American society had faced in both the past and today. Issues such as class, sexism, religion and race have either reared its ugly heads or have been brushed upon by this series about an advertising agency in the 1960s. 

The center of ”MAD MEN” is mainly focused upon advertising executive named Don Draper. But the series also focuses upon his co-workers at the firm he works at – Sterling Cooper – and his family in the suburb of Ossing, New York. But this article is about two of Don’s co-workers – namely a junior copywriter named Paul Kinsey and the firm’s office manager, the red-haired Joan Holloway.

In the series premiere, (1.01) ”Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, Joan was engaged in the task of introducing the newly hired secretary, Peggy Olsen, around to Sterling Cooper’s other employees. One of the employees happened to be Paul Kinsey, who briefly hinted that he and Joan had a romantic history in the past. This was confirmed several episodes later in (1.12) “Nixon vs. Kennedy”, when Joan and Paul had a bittersweet conversation about their past romance during an election party (Election of 1960) held at the office. Apparently, Joan had ended the romance when Paul revealed too much about their relationship. 

Joan and Paul’s relationship – or should I say friendship – took an ugly turn for the worst in Season Two’s (2.01) ”Flight 1”. Although this episode mainly focused upon another Sterling Cooper employee, Pete Campbell, facing his father’s death; it began with a party held by Paul at his apartment in Montclair, New Jersey. Paul’s guests not only included co-workers from Sterling Cooper, but also some of his African-American friends (or neighbors). One of those guests included Paul’s new girlfriend, a black woman named Sheila White. Paul introduced Sheila to Joan as his girlfriend. He also added that Sheila worked as an assistant manager at her local supermarket. Then he briefly dismissed himself to see to another guest. Once Paul left, Joan turned to Sheila and said the following: 

”"When Paul and I were together, the last thing I would have taken him for was open-minded."

In one sentence, Joan managed to stake her claim on Paul as a former lover and make a racist comment. Sheila merely responded with a polite compliment about Joan’s purse. She must have eventually told Paul, because within a day or two, Paul angrily confronted Joan on the matter. She merely responded by accusing Paul of using Sheila to look bohemian and”tolerant” to his friends and co-workers. She also managed to conveniently forget that Sheila worked as an assistant manager at the Food Fair and dismissed the latter as a mere check-out clerk. Too angry to respond, Paul stalked away. Later, he got his revenge by stealing Joan’s drivers’ license, making a copy of it and posting that copy on the office bulletin board. He did this to expose her age (which was 31 years).

Paul and Joan did not share any scenes together until the recent episode, (2.10) “The Inheritance”. In this particular episode, Sheila paid a visit to the Sterling Cooper office to meet with Paul for lunch. She also wanted Paul to join her on a voters’ registration trip to Mississippi. Did Joan notice the brief kiss exchanged between Paul and Sheila? Yes. Nor did she look particularly happy about it. This episode exposed Paul’s blowhard attempts to make himself look good in the eyes of others . . . especially in the eyes of Sterling Cooper’s black elevator operator, Hollis and the other members of the entourage he and Sheila accompanied on their trip to Mississippi. But I feel that it also exposed Joan’s own feelings about Paul’s relationship with Sheila . . . again. 

Don Draper gave Joan the opportunity to exact revenge upon Paul. In ”Inheritance”, Paul and accounts executive Pete Campbell were ordered to Southern California to recruit future clients in the region’s aerodynamics industry. At the last minute, Don decided he would replace Paul on the trip. He ordered his temporary secretary, namely Joan, to inform Paul in a memorandum that he would be taking the latter’s place on the trip. Instead of informing Paul by memo, she verbally told him in front of the other Sterling Cooper employees, during a baby shower for father-to-be Harry. And publically humiliated the copywriter, in the process. Joan got her revenge . . . for something she had set in motion, when she insulted Sheila in an earlier episode. Curious.

And yet . . . most of the fans of ”MAD MEN” seemed to sympathize with Joan and vilify Paul, in the process. Many of them seemed so intent upon pointing out Paul’s pretentious behavior or claiming that he does not really care for Sheila that they have ended up ignoring Joan’s racism. And there have been those who claim that Joan is not a racist. They insisted that she simply wanted to expose Paul’s poseur attitude. My question is . . . why? Why would Joan even bother? Both the series’ viewers and Joan received a firsthand glimpse of Paul’s pretentiousness back in the Season One episode, (1.12) ”Nixon vs. Kennedy”. In that episode, Paul had Salvatore Romano and Joan performed his one-act play that he had written, during the office party for the 1960 elections. The viewers also received an example of how dark Paul’s poseur streak can be when he expressed jealousy that Ken Cosgrove managed to get a short story published in ”The Atlantic Monthly” in (1.05) “5G”Whydid Joan wait until she met Sheila to point out Paul’s pretentiousness? Why did she not do this earlier? I have asked this question on several occasions. Most fans either ignore my questions or insist that Joan is not a racist . . . while at the same time, continue to deride or make a big deal out of Paul’s pretentiousness. 

In a ”Christina Hendricks Interview”, the red-haired actress had expressed dismay over the possibility of Joan being a racist, when she read the script for ”Flight 1”. Series creator Matthew Weiner told her that Joan was not a racist. He added that Joan was simply trying to expose Paul’s pretentiousness over his relationship with Sheila. Like many of the series’ fans, Ms. Hendricks accepted Weiner’s explanation. But after viewing ”Flight 1” and ”The Inheritance”, I can conclude that the writer/producer did a piss poor job of conveying Joan’s intention . . . or he had lied to Christina Hendricks. Right now, I am inclined to believe the latter.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

"THE GREAT GATSBY" (1974) Photo Gallery


Below are images from "THE GREAT GATSBY", the 1974 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel. Directed by Jack Clayton, the movie starred Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston: 

"THE GREAT GATSBY" (1974) Photo Gallery
























The Great Gatsby_Bruce Dern_1974

The Great Gatsby_Karen Black_1974

The Great Gatsby_Scott Wilson_Karen Black