Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sullivan's Travels: a Film that Every American Should See

I've been thinking a lot lately about Preston Sturges' classic 1942 film Sullivan's Travels. It has often been called the best movie about movies ever made. It takes sharp aim at privileged Hollywood liberals who try to raise awareness of social issues that they do not understand at all. Director Sturges also wrote the screenplay about a successful Hollywood director of light comedies who wishes to make an important movie about the plight of the downtrodden. Sullivan's project was to be called O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a title used decades later by the Cohen brothers for their homage to Sturges' film). Sullivan's studio tries to discourage him at first and then makes a publicity stunt of his attempt to do research by impersonating a hobo (brilliantly anticipating any number of modern "reality television" shows).

 While the movie was marketed as a romantic comedy, the comedy is definitely of the dark variety, and the romance does not take center stage. It does, however, play an important part in the story. Sullivan only begins to understand the real problems of poor people who cannot go back to their comfortable mansions when he meets Veronica Lake's character in this diner scene:

Their acquaintance grows, but they are separated when a series of misadventures leads to Sullivan losing his true identity, running afoul of the law, and being sent to prison.

The depiction of life on a prison chain gang is realistically bleak, so much so that the movie was banned from overseas distribution during wartime (for fear that it could be used as anti-American propaganda). Highly unusual for its time, it portrays incarcerated men in a sympathetic light and shows the very different versions of justice that exist for the rich and the poor.

In the end, Sullivan concludes that escapist entertainment is more valuable to the poor than serious films about their plight. Critics of the film point to that rather self-serving conclusion as the hypocritical moral of the story (when it was released, the NYT complained that "Sullivan should have been more affected by his experience than he seems to be"). I think they have rather missed the point. I believe the real moral of this film is that most of us spend our lives blithely unaware of our own privilege.

I think Sullivan's Travels should be annual viewing around the Thanksgiving holiday -- both to help us better appreciate what we have, and to help us feel genuine compassion for the downtrodden. I also think it should be required viewing for those in the publishing industry who make elitist distinctions between "literary fiction" and genre fiction. Just because a novel is structured to entertain and deliver a happily-ever-after does not mean it cannot make us think about larger issues. The value of entertainment and the HEA should also be weighed in the balance when considering the merits of a work.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Rags to Riches

A thought-provoking post on the Wonkomance blog got me thinking about how my own working-class upbringing has impacted my taste in romance novels.

I am one of those readers who prefers novels that provide an escape from real life rather than a story that mirrors the challenges that I have personally faced. To that end, I usually read historical romances, particularly those that take place in Regency or Victorian England.

I have noticed that most of the heroines are members of the gentry. They may be poor, but it is genteel poverty. The hero may have grown up poor, but by the time the story begins, he has usually amassed significant wealth through his own hard work and ingenuity. If he is a nobleman (or at least a gentleman), he may be facing debts that his forbears amassed and need to marry money for the sake of the family estate. He is almost never a poor man of the lower classes. One exception is Tessa Dare's Spindle Cove novella Beauty and the Blacksmith. I did not enjoy it nearly as much as her other books, perhaps because the HEA seemed less happy to me.

Less rare is the historical romance novel that features a poor, lower-class heroine who manages to win the love of a wealthy gentleman. It is hard to resist a good Cinderella story. I am currently reading The Bridal Season by Connie Brockway, which features an illegitimate music hall performer/con artist impersonating a noblewoman. Naturally, the hero is the local magistrate. I have no doubt that the two will eventually fall in love and live happily ever after. In keeping with the spirit of the Cinderella story, the heroine does have noble blood (she is the natural daughter of a viscount).

Here are some other memorable rags-to-riches historical romances that I have read over the years:
  • River Lady by Jude Deveraux - This book is unusual in that the heroine, Leah, grows up in grinding, not genteel, poverty; during their first encounter, the hero has concerns about her personal hygiene. After they are forced to marry, his female relatives do the requisite make-over to turn Leah into an acceptable wife. While the book's values seem shallow at times, it also makes a strong case that Leah's admirable qualities are largely because of rather than in spite of her unfortunate upbringing. She is intelligent despite being illiterate, and she has keen memory skills because she cannot rely upon written notes. The setting on the American frontier makes such extreme social mobility seem more plausible.
  • The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale - One of the most outrageous plots that I have ever enjoyed -- poor English shopgirl meets white Hawaiian ninja. Just go with it; you won't regret it. Check out the old Fabio covers and the author's amusing comments on the website (note that she names "shark" as the book's mascot animal, for obvious reasons).
  • An Offer from a Gentleman by Julia Quinn - The third book in the Bridgerton series was deliberately patterned after Cinderella. Sophie is the natural daughter and "ward" of a deceased nobleman, but her stepmother treats her like a servant (just like in the fairy tale).
  • Any Duchess Will Do by Tessa Dare - This is probably the least plausible plot in the Spindle Cove series, in which a lower-class farmgirl-turned-tavern-wench finds herself betrothed to a duke. The book is well-written and enjoyable, however, even if it required a greater-than-usual suspension of disbelief.
Happy reading. Try to turn in before midnight.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What to Wear in the Late 1780s

One of my current works in progress takes place mostly in London during the 1788 Season. I was aware that fashions evolved in the 18th century, with noticeable differences between decades and more radical changes after the French Revolution.

To help me visualize my characters and their social scene, I spent some time researching the fashions of the 1780s. When I first started writing, this would have involved a trip to the library and possibly a lengthy wait for an inter-library loan. Now, thanks to some excellent museum websites, I did not even have to leave the house.

Thanks to Pinterest (which I am only beginning to use), I have a handy place to gather my research for future reference.

While I enjoy oohing and aahing over the beautiful women's garments, I find the men's garments far more distracting. There is nothing like a well-tailored silk waistcoat with a dozen tiny buttons to make me think about undoing them.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Second Chances

Second chance romances are perennial favorites in both the contemporary and historical romance genres. It is human nature to want to go back and correct our past mistakes. In a way, second chance romances are both time-travel and alternate-history stories. We revisit the past with our knowledge of the future intact, and we enact our "what-if" fantasies. What if we were both ready to settle down at the same time? What if we were able to truly understand our loved one's needs and priorities? What if we had not allowed that bitter argument to fester?

Nearly a decade ago, I helped two friends move from their shared apartment near campus to a split-level house that they bought together. She was a young professional; he was still in grad school. They were both good friends to me and my husband. We had gone on trips together and shared many interests.

A little over a year later, I helped him move out of that house, alone, and depart for another state. Their relationship had not survived the pressures of different responsibilities and priorities. We were sad for both of them, but we understood. Our own marriage had weathered some serious storms over the past decade, and we knew very well how difficult it can be to stay together when it seems like your wants and needs are diametrically opposed at times.

We remained friends with both of them over the subsequent years, although it was never the same. We saw them both strive for happiness with other people. She and I bonded over tears and alcohol after the break-up of her rebound relationship. I tried to lend a supportive ear to each of them, as she dealt with some health issues and he dealt with the death of one parent and the increasing frailty of the other, while completing his degree and struggling to build a career in the current economy.

It was a relief and some consolation when the drama of their break-up receded and they rebuilt a friendship. We no longer needed to avoid mentioning one around the other, and we were occasionally able to socialize with both of them at once. She was able to share her own experiences and knowledge about long-term care to help advise him with his own family situation. They even started sharing rides to visit mutual friends out of state.

A few years ago, he confided to my husband that his current relationship was dying, a casualty of his changing life circumstances. My husband mentioned that his ex had not found anyone she could stay with long-term, and that he should consider getting back together with her. The advice, I must admit, was given for partly selfish reasons. I am reminded of an old episode of Roseanne, where the eponymous character laments her daughter's break-up with boyfriend David, because she already loves them both. "No new people!" she insists.

Last year, there were hints that their occasional ride-shares to visit friends were not merely to save on fuel and share the driving burden. By the time they finally, somewhat sheepishly, admitted to their friends that they were dating again, we had long since figured it out. They seemed to worry that we would disapprove or advise them against revisiting old mistakes.

On the contrary; we not only understood the appeal of a second chance romance, we firmly believed in their ability to make it work this time. We watched them both grow and change over the years, and we realized that they are now in the same place.

Several months ago, we helped him move into the new house that they bought together, and one of this Autumn's highlights for us was attending their wedding.

I am a sucker for a good second chance romance.