Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Great Melodramas, edited by Robert Saffron with an introduction by Vincent Price (1966)

My next trip through the unread books on my extremely full bookshelves is the anthology Great Melodramas, edited by Robert Saffron with an introduction by Vincent Price (1966) that I bought at a library book sale. The volume contains four late nineteenth-century / early twentieth-century full-length plays, each of which lives up to the name of melodrama, although some are greater than others. The reader also gets a lovely introduction by Vincent Price (!!), where he briefly, but eruditely, talks about his experience playing the villain in Angel Street, and the differences for an actor when playing melodramatic roles (a type of role that Price obviously enjoyed). Here's a bit about each play:

Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, as adapted by Charles Fechter (1868)
Fetcher was a famous nineteenth century British actor (via France) who adapted Dumas’ tale of the ultimate revenge plot for the stage. This one was my least favorite of the four, having read The Count of Monte Cristo, and not particularly adoring Fechter’s pretty drastic changes. Still, if you were only tangentially familiar with the novel, you might get into this one. It was a semi-hit on the stage for Fechter, but saw greater acclaim after his death when James O’Neill (the father of Eugene) played the role for many years.

Secret Service by William Gillette (1895)
This Civil War melodrama was written by the actor / inventor / playwright and extremely fascinating guy, William Gillette. Gillette is best known for playing Sherlock Holmes on the stage after writing a Doyle-authorized play about Holmes and Watson to meet public demand for the enigmatic detective after the sad death of Holmes in The Final Problem (don’t worry, he came back to life later). Gillette is the one who gave Holmes his distinctive pipe and his original catch phrase, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow.” He also invented several much used stage effects and equipment, and wrote several melodramas, including Secret Service.

This play was extremely successful and Gillette played the lead role in it over 1,500 times. It was made into a film version in 1931 and again as a filmed play in 1976 starring John Lithgow and Meryl Streep. The play turns on a romance between a Confederate officer and a lovely young woman in Richmond during the civil war. Unfortunately, the officer is suspected of being a Union spy – but is love stronger than loyalty to a cause? There is, as you might imagine, some pretty cringey racial attitudes in this play, which is unfortunate because the action is pretty amazing. The scene with the telegraph practically jumps off the page. I know that sounds kind of dumb, but if any scene about sending a telegraph has ever been dramatic and exciting, it’s this one. You can read some details of the plot at this very nicely researched movie review, or read the whole play here.

The Letter by William Somerset Maugham (1927)
Maugham based this play on one of his short stories, and it literally starts with a bang when a woman fires a gun, a man yells “Oh my God!” and the woman shoots him again and again and again. The woman is Leslie Crosbie, the wife of Robert Crosbie, and the man is their neighbor, Geoffrey Hammond. Leslie claims Geoffrey tried to rape her and she killed him in self-defense, and she is taken into custody as a matter of procedure. It looks like a clear-cut case until a letter comes into play that casts some doubts on Leslie’s story. The action takes place in a British colony on the Malay Peninsula and the island of Singapore and, much like Secret Service, there is racist dialogue and plot points in the play. Still, Leslie is a pretty intriguing character, and the audience isn’t always sure who they should believe (or root for). This was made into a 1940 film starring Bette Davis and it looks suitably melodramatic.

Angel Street (aka Gas Light) by Patrick Hamilton (1938)
All the action in this play takes place in the living room of Mr. and Mrs. Manningham. The wife seems nervous and overly concerned with how the husband is feeling. The husband is confident and brash. Gradually the audience notices a pattern where the husband promises a reward (theater tickets, a nice dinner) and then takes it away due to the wife saying a wrong word or reacting in the wrong way. A big scene is made over a painting that has been taken off the wall, even though the wife denies having moved it. When the husband finds it behind the cupboard, he insists that she must be losing her mind, just like her mother. After he leaves for the evening, a strange man shows up – he’s a detective, and he has some very interesting information for Mrs. Manningham about her husband’s past life and his late night activities. This one was made into a film in 1944 starring Ingrid Berman, and is probably even more famous nowadays as the inspiration for the term “gaslighting” to describe the same kind of mental abuse Mrs. Manningham experiences in the play.

I would have loved to see Vincent Price in this one

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Cravan by Mike Richardson and Rick Geary (2005)

My next J. St. D. read is Cravan by Mike Richardson and Rick Geary (2005) ["Mystery Man of the Twentieth Century!"]. I had never heard of Arthur Cravan before, and he may just be one of the most unusual, vague, and frustrating historical figures I've read about. Rick Geary's proven way with odd historical figures (particularly his series on historical assassins / serial killers) is a perfect match for this crazy life story.

In fact, give yourself a second and check out Arthur Cravan's wikipedia page. And just try to stop yourself from falling into an internet research hole with the whole Cravan mythology. It's irresistible! Cravan described himself as "a poet, professor, boxer, dandy, flâneur, forger, critic, sailor, prospector, card sharper, lumberjack, bricoleur, thief, editor [and] chauffeur" (cited here), and at least half of those things are actually true! He made a name for himself in the Dada art scene, he rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous, he had sooooo many adventures, and then he mysteriously died at sea off the coast of Mexico when he was 31, leaving his pregnant bohemian wife behind. Or did he actually die after all? Much of the fun of the Cravan mythology centers around that controversy, and Geary and Richardson do a good job of explaining the many what if's (which also include a nice John Huston cameo!).

While the graphic novel doesn't slavishly follow every known detail of Cravan's life exactly, it definitely gives you a taste of the man and his world. And it's a damn fun read.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Best Tales of Texas Ghosts by Docia Schultz Williams (1998)

My dear Dr. Mystery bought this copy of Best Tales of Texas Ghosts by Docia Schultz Williams (1998) from the author herself when we were on one of her ghost tours of San Antonio as part of an archives conference I was attending. The tour was a little silly, but in a nice way, and Ms. Williams was a wonderful and enthusiastic host.

Although that was nearly ten years ago, I've finally gotten around to doing more than just skimming through the book. Now, I'm not going to say this is a great book or even that anyone interested in ghosts or Texas should read it, but if you are a combination of interested in ghost stories, interested in Texas history, good-natured about Texas ladies of a certain generation, and patient enough to handle a little repetition, this is a pretty fun read.

Williams interviewed people from all over the state who witnessed ghosts or unexplained phenomena at their properties. She combines these first-hand accounts with extensive research in local newspapers and, in some cases, in-person visits to the properties themselves. The book is organized by region and covers the entire state, although the majority of the stories come from the Dallas and San Antonio areas. As an archivist, the background research she did on small Texas towns and their historic properties is probably the most interesting part of the book, and Williams includes photographs that help illustrate the locations. While the stories themselves generally fall into a few preset categories (strange noises! cold spots! smell of perfume! seeing a woman wearing old fashioned clothes! things disappearing and reappearing!) some of them stand out from the crowd a bit and there is always enough variety to keep things a little interesting.

My one big criticism is Williams descriptions of people held under slavery (characterized more as "servants" with much of the cruelty glossed over or ignored) and Native American tribes (seen only as terrorizing bad guys who threatened the safety of the white settlers). This doesn't come up in every story but it made me cringe a little every time it did. This isn't unusual or even bad-intentioned, but it does date the author and take away from the impact of some of the tales.

To end things on a positive note, I'm going to share one of Williams' ghost poems, which are sprinkled throughout the book. She read several of these on our ghost tour and they were so sweet that Dr. M and I still quote one of them all the time ("At the Inn they call the Menger..."):

"Ghosts" by Docia Williams

Ghosts fly high... and ghosts fly low...
Where they come from we don't know...
Ghosts take off in roaring flight,
Most often in the dead of night.
They're often felt in spots of cold,
You feel their presence, we've been told. 
Some are large, and some are small,
Some, merely shadows on the wall.
Some are friendly, some are bad...
Some are playful, others sad.
They're often heard, on creaking floors,
Opening windows, slamming doors!
Wails and moans they sometimes make,
Making us poor mortals quake!
They like all kinds of dreary places,
Houses, churches, and open spaces....
Sometimes they swell in mist and fold, 
They're heard, we're told, in howls of dogs....
Some, balls of fire seen in the night,
All in black, or dressed in white; 
Some show a glimpse of shadowy faces,
Then, they're gone. They leave no traces
To ever let us mortals know
Where they come from... or where they go....