Sunday, April 25, 2010

Green Goddess Dip with Veggies

In It Happened One Night, Clark Gable eats a lot of carrots.  There's a legend that Bugs Bunny's character was inspired by Gable's wisecracking, carrot munching scenes in this movie.  Unfortunately, I absolutely hate carrots.  With a passion.  I hate their smell, their taste, the way they are abnormally orange...apparently I used to spit them back out at my parents as a child.

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night

My way around it?  I made my favorite Green Goddess Dip and surrounded it with veggies (yes, even carrots).  It's pretty easy to make, but you do need a blender or food processor of some kind.  This recipe is loosely based on Rachel Ray's Groovy Green Goddess Dip.

Green Goddess Dip
You'll need:
2 ripe avocados
1(2-ounce) can anchovies fillets, drained and chopped
1/2 a medium sized red onion, diced
1/3 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
4 tbsps fresh chives, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped tarragon leaves
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup lite sour cream
1/2 lite cream cheese
Some Black pepper and salt, to taste

Blend all the above ingredients until smooth (I used my blender). You can add more sour cream or cream cheese based on taste.  Thin out the dip with olive oil to make a salad dressing.  And for a different taste use Greek yogurt instead of sour cream and cream cheese (suggestion from my guests!).

This dip goes great with assorted veggies and pita chips but I also really enjoyed it on a burger.  Try it and see for yourself!
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It Happened One Night

"I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?" 
"YES! But don't hold that against me, I'm a little screwy myself!" --Peter Warne to Alexander Andrews upon receiving his $39.60, It Happened One Night, 1934

I find it much harder to write about a film I know and love.  And I do love this film.  The witty one-liners, the crazy plot stretches, and the overall sense of fun is something I’ve always loved about screwball comedies from the 1930s.  To all those who say romantic comedies aren’t real films of merit, watch this film.  Change your mind.

The Plot
Ellie Andrews, played by Claudette Colbert, is an heiress who has finally defied her father by eloping with a celebrity daredevil pilot, King Westley.  Her father interrupts right after the vows are exchanged and spirits her away to his yacht in Florida to talk some sense into her, but Ellie refuses all food and then dives into the ocean and swims to shore.  She grabs some clothes and money, and buys a bus ticket to New York and her new husband as her father’s men chase after her.

Peter and Ellie vie for the same bus seat

Peter Warne, played by Clark Gable, is a fast-talking reporter who has annoyed his editor one too many times with his tricks.  Desperately in search of a story, Peter boards a bus only to get into an altercation over a seat with spoiled Ellie, who while she has considerable spirit, is unable to function outside her usual pampered existence.  It doesn’t take long for Peter to guess her secret, and after Ellie’s head-in-the-clouds attitude causes her to lose her luggage and miss her bus, Peter appoints himself her protector until she gets to New York in order to get himself the “scoop of the century.”  He pretends to be her husband when another passenger, Shapely, starts harassing her.  She begins to trust him, though they continue to bicker.

Ellie falls asleep on the bus next to Peter

Peter berates Ellie for being fiscally irresponsible, and then purchases them a motel room when the bus stops for the night during a downpour.  He reminds her they must pretend to be husband and wife, as they haven’t the money for two rooms.  To assure her he’s not interested in her sexually, he erects a “Wall of Jericho” out of string and blankets, and then tells her to “join the Israelites” as he begins to take off his clothes to scare her away. 
The "Wall of Jericho"

As they eat breakfast in the morning, detectives from Ellie’s father enter their room, determined to search for her.  They play at being a squabbling pair of newlyweds so well that the detectives become uncomfortable and leave, causing the two to collapse in laughter.  On the bus again, Ellie and Peter are beginning to finally get along when suddenly the bus runs off the road.  A poor woman faints, leaving her young son so hysterical that Ellie impulsively gives him all their money so he may buy food.  Peter gets cornered by Shapely, who has realized Ellie’s identity as well and wants a cut of the reward money.  Peter manages scare away a suddenly terrified Shapely by convincing him that he is a gangster and that this is a kidnapping.  Peter grabs Ellie and they run off into the woods, making their way through fields and finally spending the night in a hay stack with only carrots to eat.  It is then that Ellie realizes how lost she would be without Peter, just as he realizes how he has begun to care for her.

Peter teaches Ellie to dunk doughnuts
The next morning, Peter and Ellie attempt to hitchhike the remaining distance to New York.  Peter, as usual, is an old pro and high-handedly lectures Ellie on hitchhiking.  But when Peter is unable to flag down a single car, Ellie decides to give it a try by hiking up her skirt and extending her leg.  The first car comes to a squealing stop and Ellie smugly gets into the car as Peter fumes.  Their driver is slightly insane, singing loud operatic airs the whole way.  When they stop for gas, Peter and Ellie get out to stretch their legs, and Peter apologizes for always lecturing Ellie.  Peter suddenly gets up and chases the car, the driver having driven off with all their belongings.  After subduing the driver, Peter and Ellie drive the car to a motel that Ellie insists on stopping at, even though they are mere hours away from New York.  Ellie has read a newspaper story claiming her father has joined forces with King, agreeing to the marriage in his worry to get his daughter back.  But Ellie is reluctant to leave Peter, and as they are readying for bed, Peter talks about what he wants for the future.  Ellie runs over to his side in tears, claiming that she loves him and wants that life too.  But Peter grimly tells Ellie to return to her side of the “wall.”  As she sleeps, Peter comes to watch her, realizing he loves her too.  Not wanting to propose without so much as a dollar, Peter gets in his car and drives to New York, offering his editor their story in exchange for the money to marry Ellie.  But the suspicious motel owner wakes Ellie after Peter leaves and kicks her out for having no money.  Ellie believes Peter has abandoned her and calls her father to come get her.
Attempting to hitchhike
Peter drives back just too late, seeing Ellie drive away with her father and husband.  He returns the money to his sympathetic editor and then gets drunk.  Ellie prepares unhappily for a fancy wedding ceremony, but finally breaks down in tears and admits the whole story to her father.  She realizes that she has never been a serious person, but Peter has made her want to take charge of her life.  But Peter has sent a letter to Ellie’s father requesting money, and Ellie puts him from her mind (or tries to).  Peter agrees to meet Ellie’s father the day of her wedding, and asks only for the money he has spent on Ellie, $39.60, rather than the $10,000 reward.  Ellie’s father asks if Peter loves Ellie, and after much prodding he finally admits he does.  As Ellie and her father walk down the aisle, he mentions what transpired with Peter, and says he only wants Ellie to be happy.  If Ellie changes her mind, her father has parked her car out front.  Right before she says “I do” Ellie runs away and jumps in her car.
Ellie is about to marry King
Much later, Ellie’s father manages to get her marriage annulled by paying off King with $100,000, claiming it to be the best money he has ever spent.  As he starts to get drunk he receives a telegram from Peter asking about the hold up, claiming that the “‘Walls of Jericho’ are beginning to topple.”  Ellie’s father sends a reply: “let ‘em topple.”  The last scene is of the bemused owners of a motel, discussing the strange requirements of a newlywed couple who is staying in one of their rooms (a trumpet, a blanket and string).  As we look at the outside of the room, someone plays a trumpet as apparently the “Walls of Jericho” fall, and the lights go out in the room.
Peter and Ellie bring down the "Wall"
The History
It Happened One Night was the first of only three movies to win the “grand slam” of Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay).  It is currently number #3 on AFI’s list of best romantic comedies of all time, and #47 on their list of the best movies of all time.  This film is also largely considered the first “screwball comedy.”  It granted Frank Capra legitimacy in the film industry and a long standing career, and pulled Columbia Pictures from Hollywood’s “Poverty Row.”  It was even the inspiration for several Loony Tunes characters, as the film was a personal favorite of creator Fritz Freleng.  And it was almost never made.

Ellie stops a car
Frank Capra could not get leads for his movie.  Myrna Loy turned it down because a recent “bus picture” had failed; Robert Montgomery turned it down because he thought it “the worst screenplay he ever read.”  Not to mention that Capra worked for Columbia Pictures on "Poverty Row," a degrading term that was given to studios that produced low-budget B-movies.  Claudette Colbert repeatedly turned Capra down until he finally promised to give her $50,000 (double her salary) and to shoot the film in only 4 weeks.  Clark Gable was loaned out by Louis B. Mayer without his consent, because he had been a “bad boy” who had asked for a raise and Mayer wanted “to spank him” by reminding him how lucky he was to be employed by MGM.  Gable showed up drunk for his first meeting with Capra and reportedly said as he arrived for his first day of shooting “let’s get this over with.”  Colbert proved difficult on set and sulky, refusing to pull her skirt up to stop a car.  However when a chorus girl was brought in to be her body double, an outraged Colbert yelled “that’s not my leg!” and did the scene herself.

Peter starts to take off his shirt

The film was a sleeper hit, a success with both the critics and the public. Legend has it that sales of men’s undershirts plummeted after Gable undressed in the first motel scene and revealed his lack of one.  Frank Capra was finally able to tearfully accept his Oscar, and the biggest Academy Awards after party occurred later that night at his house, where he finished a magnum of champagne and passed out on his front lawn clutching his award.  Clark Gable said he “never expected to win one of these.  There are too many good actors in this business.  But I feel as happy as a kid and a little foolish they picked me.”  He later gave the award to a child who admired it, saying that it was the honor of winning, not the statue that mattered.  Claudette Colbert had chosen not to attend and was waiting for a train in her traveling suit when she won.  A member of the Academy’s press committee, Leroy Johnston, hunted her down and dragged her back.  Colbert worried that she’d miss her train and that she wasn’t dressed.  Johnston yelled, “but it’s the Nobel Prize of motion pictures!”  Colbert came, and in her speech and again backstage thanked Capra for making all this possible.  Her award was given to her by another new star who had received a miniature Oscar of her own: six-year-old Shirley Temple.

Shirley Temple hands Claudette Colbert her Oscar

While It Happened One Night will live on in cinema as one of the best romantic comedies ever made, the 7th Academy Awards also left another legacy.  Bette Davis’s performance in Of Human Bondage was originally snubbed by the Academy.  The outpouring of anger over this in the film community was so overwhelming that the Academy quickly responded by allowing “write-in” ballots.  When Bette Davis still failed to win, accusations of ballot manipulation were made.  Bette Davis wrote in her autobiography that Jack Warner (her antagonistic studio head) had sent instructions that his personnel vote for anyone but her.  “Not since that decision in 1934," she wrote, "was so cavalier a verdict allowed to take place.  Price, Waterhouse was asked to step in the next year to count the votes, which they have done ever since.”  From 1935 up to present day, the firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers has been entrusted with counting the Academy ballots.  I hope you’re reading JC…

The Verdict?
About a year ago, I took a class called "Women in Film," where we read an article about the newest trend in romantic comedies, specifically Knocked Up, and how they differ from the screwball romantic comedies of the 1930s.  In the article, A Fine Romance, writer David Denby details the rise of "slacker-striver" comedies, with what he calls "the slovenly hipster and the female straight arrow."  In these films, which have risen to popularity in the last decade, the man is an underachieving, pot-smoking, child-like slacker, while the woman is beautiful, successful, and straight-laced.  The man is the hero who needs to grow up and enter adulthood, while the woman is the vehicle to help him do that, though according to Denby she "doesn't have an idea in her head, and she's not the one who makes the jokes."  The story is about his journey much more than hers, and while she needs to relax a little, it is the man who must come full circle, usually by getting a job or finally being mature.  She unbends by doing something a little wacky.  Contrast this type of film (Big Daddy, Wedding Crashers, Knocked Up, Fever Pitch, Failure to Launch) with It Happened One Night and other 1930s romantic comedies.  Even attempt contrasting it with more recent movies like Pretty Woman, Sleepless in Seattle, or Splash.  In a traditional romantic comedy, it is more likely that the man is the one who is straight-laced and successful, while it is the woman who is flighty, kooky, and more of a free spirit.  He needs to unbend and she needs to grow up, the direct opposite of the current trend.  They must both unbend and meet in the middle, where they can finally be together as equals.

As I sit here and watch Pretty Woman on TBS, I am increasingly disturbed by this trend that seems to be taking over our idea of what it means to be a successful couple. Not that I believe Julia Robert's prostitute is a model for an ideal relationship, but I wonder why it is so difficult to find a film now where the main characters are equals, and each shines even more brightly when the other is near.  In It Happened One Night,  Colbert and Gable bring out the best in each other's characters.  While Peter Warne is overbearing and cocky, Ellie's innate goodness and vulnerability make him soften and relax more.  He realizes that sometimes the best moments in life are the ones that spring up, unplanned and wild.  And after following Peter around, Ellie realizes that she can't always act impulsively and that there are definite consequences to her actions.  It isn't about her journey or his, but theirs together.  "I'm tired of running around in circles. He's right," claims Ellie at the end of the film, "that's what I've been doing. Ever since I can remember.  I've got to settle down."

I don't necessarily believe that female leads should always be  flighty heiresses and that male leads should be all buttoned-up, but I do believe that however they are portrayed they should be equals that meet in the middle.  I know it's possible; I've seen it in When Harry Met Sally, You've Got Mail, even Moonstruck.  When two characters are right for each other, there is a glow about them that ricochets off the language of a really good film.  You don't need special plot devices or flashy effects.  Good romantic comedies work because of human connection.  That's what this film has, which is why people 70-odd years later can still enjoy it and connect with it.  Why can't a film like this emerge now?  I'm not sure, and that scares me.  I'll keep waiting...
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Friday, April 16, 2010

Frying things is fun...

Since Cavalcade is possibly the most  British film I've EVER seen (and that includes Austin Powers in a Union Jack speedo), I thought Fish and Chips would be appropriate.  I actually can't take all the credit, it was my friends that suggested it.

French Fries go under my original category of things-you-don't-make-from-scratch (see my popcorn post).  I actually even bought back-up frozen fries so that we wouldn't go without should mine prove inedible.  Much to my surprise, there are both easy and delicious.  And deep frying something without a fryer, while a little treacherous, was not as difficult as I thought.  Which brings me back to my original point...frying things is fun!

For the Fish...
You'll need:
2 cups Guinness beer
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper
1 egg
At least 3 cups of All-Purpose flour
8 3-oz cutlets of boneless, skinless cod
At least 2 cups canola oil

  1. Pour and measure the Guinness, waiting for the foam to settle.
  2. Whisk together Guinness, baking soda, salt, pepper and egg.
  3. Continuously whisking, add flour in 1/2 cup increments, until the batter thickens and sticks to whisk.  
  4. Put about 1 1/2 cups of flour in separate bowl.
  5. If they are not already, cut the fish into manageable pieces (about what you would expect your slice of fish to be).  Heat on high about 3/4 cup oil in a large (4-quart) saucepan.  Wait at least 10 minutes, until the oil is definitely hot.
  6. Take the fish and dredge in flour, shaking off excess.  Next dredge in Guinness batter, completely covering fish. set aside on a plate.
  7. Slice off a small part of the fish and drop it in the oil, to test heat level.  If the oil bubbles and makes the frying noise, you're all set!
  8. Fry each piece of fish, about 5 minutes for each side.  When the fish is golden brown, it's finished.  Add more oil as needed.
  9. Garnish with lemon and tartar sauce and serve.  Yum!

    For the Chips...
    You'll need:
    Approximately 5 large Russet potatoes
    2-4 tbsps Extra Virgin Olive Oil
    Garlic Salt
    Old Bay Seasoning

    1. Preheat the oven 435 degrees.
    2. Wash and dry the potatoes.  Slice them lengthwise into circles, and across again into fry sticks.
    3. Place the potatoes on a nonstick baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil.  Add garlic salt and Old Bay Seasoning to taste.
    4. Bake the fries until golden brown, squishy on the inside and crispy on the outside, about 45 minutes.  Sprinkle salt over the top and serve with ketchup!

    *I like this option because it is slightly healthier than frying the fries.  You can fry them as well, which I did with the oil right before I fried the fish.  The taste wasn't that different, but try both and see which works for you!

    When you start frying, it's hard to stop.  My friends wanted to fry more things, and we ending up dipping red onions in the batter and frying them as well!  I suddenly understood what I had never before: what makes a frying machine so popular.  We were turning into a mob, shooting quick glances around the kitchen, trying to find other things we could fry.  But in the end the fish and chips were a huge success.  We ate them with malt vinegar, tartar sauce, and ketchup.

    In addition, I'll definitely be making my own fries from now on.  They were so easy and I knew exactly what went into them.  I made the freezer fries, and was frightened to see that no matter how long I left them in the oven, they stayed the same color.  Next to my homemade fries, these fries glowed a sickly highlighter yellow. Scary.
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    Thursday, April 15, 2010


    "Dignity, greatness, and peace."-- Robert Marryot in his New Year's toast to the future at the end of the film, Cavalcade
    This film was almost impossible to find.  Which is sad because it is actually a fairly decent film.  What makes one decide which films are worth preserving and which should stay lost?  I can't imagine why an Academy Award winning film like this is in serious jeopardy of being forgotten.  Maybe, as Americans, we can't find the desire to save something that is so quintessentially British.  But this film has so much to offer, and while it sometimes suffers from being pompous and overly long, it has much more right to be preserved than, say, The Broadway Melody.

    The Plot

    Jane and Robert with their children
    The film opens on the Marryots, a well-to-do British family about to celebrate the new century, 1900.  Jane and Robert Marryot, played by Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook,  gather their two sons, Joey and Edward, and toast with their servants, parlor maid Ellen Bridges, played by Una O'Conner, and the butler, Albert Bridges, played by Herbert Mundin.  Shortly thereafter, both Albert and Robert go off to fight the bloody Boer War in Africa.  Jane is distraught, hardly comforted by her friend, Margaret, and Margaret's young daughter, Edith.  When they both return, whole and safe, Jane collapses in his arms.  Albert tells his wife that he has bought a pub with Robert's help, and they will now go live there and run it.  Ellen is skeptical, liking her job "in service."  Queen Victoria dies and everyone watches the end of an era.

    Albert, Jane, Robert, and Ellen
     It is 1907.  Albert has devolved into a drunken bar owner, and Ellen despairs of him.  She has tea with Jane, where their 8-year-old daughter, Fanny, shows her skills as a dancer.  Just as Jane and a grown up Edward (he appears about 18), are to leave, Albert arrives on the scene, drunk and irrational.  He smashes the new doll Jane gave Fanny, and then chases her as she runs into the street.  Albert is hit by an carriage and killed instantly.
    Albert and Fanny

    A few years later, Jane meets Ellen again as both families walk along the boardwalk in Brighton.  Ellen shows off the prize Fanny has just won for dancing, and says she is finally profiting from the pub without her husband.  Edith and Edward go off on their own to the beach and profess their love for one another.  Edith stares dreamily off into the water, claiming that she has always longed to go on a ship.

    Edith and Edward 
    In April of 1912 they are finally married and aboard a ship for their honeymoon.  Edith claims that they are perfect in that moment, but she wonders if anyone can stay happily married, especially with the world changing so quickly.  She loves Edward now, but doesn't know if it will last.  But this, she decides as she kisses him, is their perfect moment that will last forever.  They walk inside from the deck of the ship revealing the ship's name on a life preserver: Titanic.

    A few years later the family is celebrating the New Year again.  Edward and Edith have drowned, and the rest of the family are on the brink of World War I.  Joey, who has been something of a careless boy living only for pleasure, tells his father that he would like to join the military and fight in the war.  His father, though retired, plans to join up again as well.  Before Joey is shipped out, he and his friends enjoy a drink at a club.  Soon a beautiful blonde comes out to perform her dance number.  Joey discovers she is Fanny Bridges, and hides in her dressing room, surprising her when she returns.  He tells her he thinks she is beautiful, and the two fall in love.

    Over the war Joey writes to Fanny, and visits her as often as he can.  Fanny has become a celebrated singer, dancer, and actress, while Joey has won accolades at war.  Though neither have informed their families, they both confess their love for one another, and Joey proposes.  Fanny is troubled by the difference in their stations and doesn't immediately accept him.  They both plan to discuss the matter after the war is over.  Joey then visits his beloved mother, who is one again upset by the pointless of war.  He visits his father back at the front, who is one of the commanders.  His father informs him the war is months from an armistice.

    Fanny and Joey

    The armistice is to be declared any day, and Jane waits hopefully for news.  Her now wealthy in her own right, Ellen visits Jane at her home.  While Jane greets her with joy, Ellen treats her stiffly.  She tells Jane that she has discovered a letter from Joey to Fanny, and reveals their relationship.  Jane is obviously distressed when Ellen suggests they marry, but refuses to comment on her son's life.  They begin to argue, when a message arrives declaring Joey dead.  Jane faints dead away as Ellen drops her act of superiority and cares for her.

    It is New Year's eve, 1932, and Margaret, Jane, and Robert have all grown old.  Margaret leaves for a date with one of her many beaus, and Jane and Robert toast the New Year, now a family tradition.  They toast to England and hope for peace.  Though they have lost so much to England, they have found solace in each other and their love for their country.  The film ends with a montage of different scenes from the film overlaid with Fanny singing and a field full of crosses.

    The History
    In 1933, Hollywood was having a difficult time.  The studios had been barely scraping by since the depression, and FDR's bank holiday on March 5th caused even further damage to the largely credit dependent studios.  The labor negotiating department of the Academy formed an Emergency Committee, which then recommended a 50% pay cut for all studio employees for two months.  While this might have worked for Mr. Mayer, the lowly technicians would have had difficulty getting by.  They changed to a sliding pay scale, but even this wasn't good enough for those touchy writers.  They left the Academy and formed the Screen Writers Guild in April of 1933.  When studio heads refused to restore full salaries after two months, several members resigned, including the current president.  By October, the Academy had introduced its new regulatory code, which put a ceiling on the salaries of writers, actors, and directors, but not on those of studio executives.  They also declared that talent agents had to be licensed by the producers they worked with, and that artists could not accept bids from other studios when their contracts were up for renewal until their current studio had decided to pass.  Thus the Screen Actors Guild was born and actors began leaving the Academy in droves.

    Despite all the controversy, the 6th Academy Awards were as highly attended as ever.  A decision to have the awards given out by calendar year pushed the ceremony back some, and the ceremony was moved from November to March of 1934.  In a last ditch PR effort, the Academy made the event as fun as possible, encouraging people to dance to Louis Armstrong and his band before settling down to dinner and the awards.    This was also the year that the statuette got its name.  According to legend, Academy librarian Margaret Herrick said upon seeing the statue, "It looks like Uncle Oscar!"  The nickname became a derogatory word for the award until Walt Disney, winning his second consecutive award for "Best Cartoon," respectfully referred to the award as an "Oscar." The nickname took on an entirely new connotation that is still used today.

    Cavalcade was originally a play written by Sir Noel Coward who then sold the movie rights to Fox for $100,000.  Veteran Hollywood director Frank Lloyd dove right into the sweeping British epic and Cavalcade was a hit with the critics, although not as much with the box office; people far preferred such apple pie American fare as State Fair.  Nevertheless Cavalcade was nominated for "Best Art Direction," "Best Picture," "Best Director," and "Best Actress," only losing the last category to Katherine Hepburn's performance in Morning Glory.  Diana Wynyard would later be have her footprints at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, in honor of her role. When the Awards host, comedian Will Rogers, announced that the winner of the "Best Director" award went to his friend, Frank, director Frank Capra jumped out of his seat, ran to the stage and waved to the spotlight, shouting "Over here!"  He was left to slink back to his table when the spotlight actually stopped on Frank Lloyd, later calling the moment "the longest, saddest, most shattering walk in my life.  All my friends at my table were crying."

    Cavalcade is largely lost to audiences today, dude to its limited availability.  It is remembered as a rousing, emotionally patriotic film that sometimes dips into excessive melodrama.  So few have actually seen the film that it is distinguished as having the least number of votes of any Academy Award winning film on IMDb.

    The Verdict?
    When I began this project, I made sure that every film was available for viewing in some form.  For both Wings and Cavalcade, I discovered that I was able to watch both on YouTube in 10 minute increments.  Obviously this wasn't ideal, but I thought it added some funny ridiculousness to the project.  Wings was uploaded by several different people with good quality.  For Cavalcade, I found only one.  A Portuguese person by the username of  "pacocasacarra" had uploaded the entire film.  Not only did it have Portuguese subtitles, but each clip simply had the title of Cavalcade, so I had to guess which clip came after another.  I sighed, decided this was part of the adventure, and bookmarked the page.  This past weekend I settled down to make sure I could watch the film, and discovered to my horror that "pacocasacarra" had been banned from YouTube, presumably because he/she was uploading copyrighted material.  Now I was really starting to freak.  Cavalcade is only available on DVD in a Korean version, of all things.  I could buy it used as a VHS on Amazon, but I would have to wait a week to ship and then somehow figure out a way to find a VHS player (not as easy as it would have been 10 years ago).  I frantically googled, hoping someone had uploaded the movie on some of the less reputable video sites.  Nothing.  I was just about to give up hope when I decided to check a torrent site.  I never expected that among all the pirated programs and movies there would be someone who would upload a pirated, torrent version of Cavalcade.  But someone did.  One person.  I personally think it is "pacocasacarra," as I still had to endure the Portuguese subtitles.  I like to think of him as a knight of lost cinema, a renegade film pirate with a mustache who serfs the web and uploads impossible-to-find old movies.  But I digress...

    VHS cover of Cavalcade (Robert and Jane)
    I enjoyed Cavalcade.  It parades the Marryot family through the most important British events from 1900-1933, and pits them against a rapidly changing world.  Cavalcade endeavors to show the clash between the Victorian attitude of Jane and Robert and the more modern sensibilities of both their children and, to a certain extent, Ellen.  Jane and Robert seem confused by the changes that effect them, but manage to stay cocooned in their bubble of upper class respectability.  And while Edward seems to take for granted the happiness of his future married life, Edith is much less sure.  She questions whether love can last in a marriage, a question that would not have been a consideration for her parents generation. The egocentric reflection of the kind that Edith embarks on is a far more 21st century conversion, so much so that Edward cannot seem to come to grips with it.  Then there is Ellen, who at first is the parody of a dutiful cockney servant, directly apposed to change.  By the end of the film, her daughter is an actress, hobnobbing with the rich while dating her mother's former employer's son.  Ellen herself, all dressed in furs, approaches Jane as an equal to propose the marriage of their children.  It is unclear, however, how much we are meant to sympathize with this new world.  Every person who conforms to the new century dies or comes to a bad end.  In the end, we are left with only Jane and Robert, in their same house, following their same rituals.  All who have followed the future are gone.  And of course, though no one knew it, a new war was about to follow this one.  A war that would be much worse than the last.

    Though it sometimes seems like a history lecture, and can be heavy handed when assigning the moral of the film, Cavalcade is not a film to be thrown aside.  It raises important questions, and I hope that it isn't lost forever.  I told a friend tonight that I didn't mind revealing the end of the film, because I knew she would never see it, even if she wanted to. It's so sad to me that that's true.
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    Friday, April 9, 2010

    I saw it and thought...I could do that...Easter Cake!

    Happy Easter!  Like a good Catholic (my family is laughing at me right now), I went home and spent Easter Sunday with my family.  My mother put me in charge of the dessert, and I decided that this would be a perfect time to exercise my creative skills.  Searching (my new favorite site), I found a picture of a beautiful Easter cake.  According to Amanda's Cookin', she used something called a checkerboard baking set to make this cake.  Unlike Amanda (but probably like the rest of you) I didn't have that set, and I didn't have round cookie cutters.  So I decided to use my own ingenuity in making the cake.  It worked, but maybe next time I'll just make Betty Crocker mix out of a box...

    Checkerboard Easter Cake
    You'll need:
    4 1/2 cups cake flour
    2 tablespoon baking powder
    1 teaspoon salt
    2 1/2 cups buttermilk
    8 large egg whites
    3 cups sugar
    4 teaspoons grated lemon zest
    2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
    1 teaspoon pure lemon extract
    3 different colors of food coloring
    3 9-inch round non-stick cake pans of equal or similar shape

    1. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter the cake pans and line the bottom of each with parchment paper.
    2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a separate bowl.
    3. Whisk together the buttermilk and egg whites in another bowl.
    4. Put the sugar and lemon zest in a mixer bowl or another large bowl and mix them together until the sugar is moist. Add the butter, and working with the paddle or whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, beat at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the butter and sugar are very light and fully combined. 
    5. Beat in the extract, then add one third of the flour mixture, still beating on medium speed. Beat in half of the milk-egg mixture, then beat in half of the remaining dry ingredients until incorporated. Add the rest of the milk and eggs, beating until the batter is even, then add the last of the dry ingredients. Finally, give the batter a good 2-minute beating to ensure that it is thoroughly mixed.  There will be A LOT of batter.
    6. Separate the batter evenly into three separate bowls. Add food coloring into each bowl and wisk thoroughly to combine, scraping at the sides. Repeat for the other two batches. I used Amanda's colors of pink, purple, and green because I thought they were the most Easter appropriate, but you can use really any colors.  Be careful with the dye, you only need a few drops!
    7. Pour the differently colored batters into three different pans.  Bake for 25-35 minutes, checking after 25, or until the cakes bounce back rather than jiggle when you touch them- a thin knife inserted into the centers should come out clean. Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes.  Invert and cool to room temperature right side up and peel off the paper liners

    The Frosting
    I decided that I liked my frosting recipe better than Amanda's.  I made two batches, one that went in between the cake layers, and one that covered the entire cake.

    Inner Frosting
    You'll Need:
    2 sticks of butter
    4 1/2 cups powdered sugar
    4 tablespoons milk
    1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
    1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
    1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa power

    1. Beat together all the ingredients except the sugar  and cocoa powder until smooth.
    2. Combine the sugar and coca powder and then add them in half cup increments, beating after each addition.  This should give you enough frosting for the layers in between the cake. You can add more of any of the ingredients to suite your particular taste or consistency requirements.
    Outer Frosting
    You'll Need:
    2 sticks of butter
    4 1/2 cups powdered sugar
    4 tablespoons milk
    1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

    Repeat the instructions above.  This frosting is just a basic vanilla frosting.  If you prefer chocolate, you can add cocoa power or melt 2 cups of melted semi-sweet chocolate chips.  I've also made Bailey's frosting, Oreo frosting, or almond frosting by added almost extract.  It's up to you!

    To Make the Cake Look Pretty

    Now you could just stack the cakes on top of each other and use the "inner" frosting for in between the layers.  But how fun is that?  I did something much more insane.

    When the cakes are cool, slide a long, sharp knife across the top of the cake and cut the tops of each cake off until each cake is flat.

    Flip the cakes over (VERY CAREFULLY) and cut them into concentric circles, like the picture above.  I made patterns out of paper and cut around them very carefully with a knife.  After the pieces are cut, move the circles and fill each cake with different colored circles.  Each layer needs to be a different color, otherwise it doesn't work.  Use the "inner" frosting to put frosting in between the circles to hold them together, kind of like glue.  Spread the top of one layer with frosting and then CAREFULLY (all of this needs to be done very slowly) place the next layer of top.  Repeat.

    Frost the entire cake with the "outer" frosting.  So you don't rip up the cake, pour all the frosting on top and slowly work your way down.  Wet a napkin to remove excess frosting from the cake.  Because it was Easter, I topped the cake with Malt Ball Easter Eggs.  You're free to add whatever you want!

    Would I make this cake again?  Maybe.  It is very labor intensive, but it looked so cool afterward that I didn't regret the work.  I think this only works if you are feeling ambitious, have lots of free time, and have a special occasion to cook for.  For an everyday cake, skip the checkerboard.  I don't really know how this relates to Grand Hotel.  Maybe because it is a fancy cake.  No one really eats in the movie, so I'm willing to call this a hotel cake.  I asked my brother to come up with a connection between German hotels and this cake.  He said, "They both crumble at the hands of the Americans?"  Possibly inappropriate.  But it works...
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    Grand Hotel

    "Grand Hotel... always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens." --Doctor Otternschlag, Grand Hotel
    This film prescribes to the belief (still prevalent in films today) that if you pack enough stars into one film it will have to be a hit.  Although this is not always the case, with the amount of talent bursting at the seams of this movie, it is impossible for it to fail.  And it doesn't.  Through sometimes plodding in its pace, Grand Hotel weaves an interlocking collection of stories together in unexpected but ultimately satisfying ways.

    The Plot
    Joan Crawford as Flaemmchen
    Greta Garbo as Grusinskaya
    Flaemmchen and Preysing
    Welcome to The Grand Hotel in Berlin, Germany, home to Europe's rich and famous, and full to bursting with interesting characters.  There is Baron Felix von Geigern, played by John Barrymore, a devil-may-care womanizer and war veteran, who has turned to gambling to increase his seriously depleted funds.  Grusinskaya, played by Greta Garbo, is a spoiled, perennially depressed prima ballerina who is still suffering from her defection from Russia.  Wallace Beery plays an industrial tycoon, General Director Preysing, who married his way into his job but is now trying to push a merger through just to stay afloat.  His newly hired stenographer, Flaemmchen, played by Joan Crawford, pines for the Baron while fending off the advances of Preysing.  Otto Kringelein, played by Lionel Barrymore, is a man who has just discovered he has a terminal disease, and has decided to quit his job as a bookkeeper in one of Preysing's factories and live the remainder of his life in the most extravagant way possible.  Lastly is Dr. Otternschlag, played by Lewis Stone, a disfigured war veteran who hangs around the Hotel, commenting on them all.  Hanging around the fringes are Grusinskaya's many attendants, the head porter whose wife is in labor, Preysing's laywer, and the other hotel guests.
    Flaemmchen and the Baron

    Preysing is worried.  If his merger doesn't go through, his company is sunk.  But the merger will only come through if "The Manchester Company" agrees to do business with him.  His lawyer hires Flaemmchen, a beautiful stenographer with aspirations to act, to assist him before the meeting.  Kringelein throws a fit because he wants a much better room than he has, and is finally accommodated.  The Baron befriends the hapless Kringelein, and the two of them meet Flaemmchen as she waits outside Preysing's room.  The Baron makes a date with Flaemmchen for the next night at 5pm, while waiting to see if he can catch a glimpse of Grusinskaya, to whom he has been sending frequent gifts.  Grusinskaya has been performing badly, and is suffering from bouts of melancholy that make her unable to sleep or dance, which in turn causes her staff to tear their hair out in frustration.  Returning from an incomplete dancing engagement, she turns everyone out of her room, uttering her famous line, "I want to be alone."  What she doesn't realize is that the Baron, up to his ears in gambling debts, has been coerced into stealing her priceless pearl necklace and is now trapped inside her room.  He reveals himself to her, while confessing that he has also fallen in love with her.  She tries again to send him away by repeating her famous line, but he stays and she finds herself falling for him as well.

    Grusinskaya and the Baron
    Grusinskaya and the Baron
    Preysing stops Flaemmchen and Kringelein
    Preysing and Flaemmchen
    Preysing meanwhile has received a note that the Manchester deal is not going through.  At his meeting he tries to evade a straight answer, but finally is forced to lie and say he does have the Manchester deal to guarantee his merger.  Grusinskaya and the Baron spend the night together, and the next morning she invites him to travel with her.  The Baron refuses to take her money, but tells her he will find a way to make the money and get on the train with her the next morning.  Grusinskaya is happy once again, and her staff is relieved.  The Baron, however, is depressed.  He keeps his date with Flaemmchen, but tells her he loves another.  She is disappointed, but agrees to dance with the lovable Kringelein.  Preysing, witnessing this, becomes angry and tries to separate them.  Kringelein and Preysing exchange words, but after Flaemmchen finally dances with Kringelein she goes with Preysing up to his room.  She agrees to go with him to Manchester, and to stay with him in his suite at the hotel, though she is clearly repulsed by him.

    Flaemmchen witnesses the Baron's death
    Kringelein gambling with the Baron and Dr. Otternschlag

    Flaemmchen and Kringelein
    Increasingly desperate, the Baron tries a number of ways to pay off his debts.  He gets Kringelein to help run a gambling ring from his room, but he goes bust while a drunken Kringelein doubles his money.  Distraught, he tries to steal money from Preysing's room, only to get caught by Preysing himself as Flaemmchen is undressing in the next room.  They struggle, and Preysing hits the Baron over the head, inadvertently killing him.  Preysing tries to get a horrified Flaemmchen to cover for him, but she runs crying to Kringelein, who reports him.  Preysing is carried out in handcuffs and Kringelein and Flaemmchen run off to Paris together.  Fearing another bout of depression, Grusinskaya's staff hide the Baron's death from her, insisting that he will join her on the road.  As she leaves, finally happy, Dr. Otternschlag affirms his opening line, that nothing really happens at the Grand Hotel, although so much has.

    The History
    Irving Thalberg, "Boy Wonder" and creative mind behind MGM, purchased the rights to Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum and first produced a successful Broadway play before turning it into a film.  Before Grand Hotel, it was considered too costly to have more than one or two big stars per picture.  But Thalberg decided to launch the first "all star" film and choose five top MGM stars to play the major roles.  While both Barrymores agreed, Garbo, Beery, and Crawford all had their doubts.  Greta Garbo thought 27 was too old to play a ballerina, and only agreed after she was given control over who played her love interest in the film.  Beery thought the role would be too unsympathetic and damaging for his image, finally agreeing after Thalberg told him he would be the only one with a German accent.  Lastly, Crawford had to be persuaded into the role, as she thought that most of her scenes would be censored and she would lose screen time.  She wasn't completely wrong; theaters in more conservative states cut her racier scenes.

    Flaemmchen and Preysing

    When Thalberg eventually got everyone on set, things went a little more smoothly.  The famously reclusive Garbo surprisingly got along well with John Barrymore, even allowing the publicity department to take rare behind-the-scenes photos.  She requested that the love scenes in rehearsal be lit with red lighting so as to be more romantic.  Garbo and Crawford never appeared in the same scene together, so that one wouldn't upstage the other.  The director, Edmund Goulding, did decide to add more Garbo scenes after previewing the film, concerned that Crawford was stealing the show.  All the hard work and risk paid off; after a star-studded opening night, Grand Hotel would turn out to be one of biggest grossing MGM films of all time.  Grand Hotel has the dubious honor of being the only film to win "Best Picture" but not be nominated for any other category.  Incidentally, to prevent last year's disaster, the Academy made a rule that prohibited speech-making at the Awards.  This would also be the year that Walt Disney would win an "Special Award" for creating Mickey Mouse, and winners' names would be broadcast on a screen behind them with a small clip of their film.

    Barrymore and Garbo backstage
    Grand Hotel is still famous today.  Garbo's line, "I want to be alone," is ranked as #30 on AFI's List 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes.  It is also the line that managed to sum up Garbo's attitude toward her fame for the rest of her life.  It was the first all-star drama in Hollywood and also the first film that followed characters in one large setting, their lives either overlapping or completely separate.  This is what is now known as a "Grand Hotel theme" and has since been used in movies that have since been set at airports, aboard ocean liners, in large department stores and so forth.  While it has been criticized as being overly dramatic and "largeish," Grand Hotel is usually remembered for its glamorous theatricality and star power.

    Filming of Grand Hotel
    The Verdict?
    The best description I can come up with for this film is "luxurious."  The women vamp their way through the film with low, throaty voices, dressed in silk stockings and robes.  The men wear expensive suits and plow their way through the film with heavy, important dialogue.  It is a melodrama, and it is as though the director is attempting to pack as much action as he can into each scene while still muffling the whole thing with expensive decor.

    I don't suppose I'm making much sense.  Put it this way: this movie has rich people fighting, falling in love, falling in lust, dying, and gambling.  We as the audience are both very aware of the humanity of the main characters while simultaneously marveling at how fabulous they all are.  It's fun!  It's like watching an old Hollywood soap opera with better acting but less overt sex.  The thing about movies like this, however, is that they cause the audience to focus on who the actors are rather than the parts they are playing.  The entire movie, I didn't think that Grusinskaya was doing something, but rather that Greta Garbo was.  Some parts were a little slow, and it was difficult to focus because the plot really didn't matter.  New characters kept popping up all the time, each with a new story or problem.

    The best part was discovering these old Hollywood actors.  Isn't Greta Garbo gorgeous, in a surreal, otherworldly kind of way?  And looking through these pictures, don't you desperately wish you had Joan Crawford's legs?  And watching both Barrymores allowed me to compare them to the current famous Barrymore, John's granddaughter Drew.  The stars make the film, without them this film would be just another 1930s melodrama.  It is worth watching just for the thrill of seeing incredible actors waltz around a plush hotel, draping themselves over divans and uttering "I want to be alone."  Hell, it's worth it just to hear that one line.
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