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Perennial Favorites: Books

 

People often ask writers what we read. In particular, people (and interviewers) often ask us what our favorite books are and who are favorite authors are. Here are some of mine.

 

The Dark On the Other Side
Patriot's Dream
The Sea King's Daughter
Someone In the House
Wait For What Will Come

by Barbara Michaels

 

 

DarkOtherSidePatriotsDream

SeaKingSomeoneHouseWFWWC

 

Since I'm listing five of her books, it's probably obvious that Barbara Michaels is one of my favorite writers. These aren't the only books of hers which I've re-read multiple times over the years; but these are my favorites, and they're the ones I recommend starting with, if you don't know her work. Michaels is a pen name of Barbara Mertz, an Egyptologist who has also written several excellent nonfiction books, such as Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt and Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt. In her copious spare time, she is also bestselling mystery writer Elizabeth Peters (see below).

These Michaels novels (which date back to the 1960s and 1970s) are romantic suspense tales with supernatural themes and shrewd wit. In the delightful Wait For What Will Come, a practical American math teacher inherits a crumbling family ruin on the coast of Cornwall where colorful locals warn her that she's going to become the victim of a homicidal merman whose legacy dates back to ancient times. In The Dark On the Other Side, a writer gradually comes to suspect that the famous man whose biography he's writing became so successful by invoking dark powers; this simultaneously chilling and amusing book is possibly my very favorite Michaels novel. The charming and interesting Sea King's Daughter centers around the survival/revival of an ancient cult at an archaeological dig in the Aegean; and the engaging and spooky Someone In the House is about an English teacher spending the summer in a haunted house. Patriot's Dream connects contemporary Willamsburg with an absorbing story of love, war, and betrayal buried in the colonial town's Revolutionary past. For me, these books are all the equivalent of comfort food, and I've read each of them any number of times.

 

Catch-22

by Joseph Heller

 

Catch-22

 

As far as I can recall, this was the only novel assigned to me in college that didn't feel like penance. (Why does formal education work so hard at getting people to hate reading?) In fact, I thought it was brilliant, and I've read it twice more over the years. Joseph Heller's darkly comic novel of WWII airmen is one of the most original, well-written, and compelling books I've ever read, simultaneously hilarious and horrifying throughout. If you've never read it, you don't know what you're missing.

 

Sinai Tapestry
Jerusalem Poker

by Edward Whittemore

 

SinaiJerusalem

 

These are the first two novels of the author's Jerusalem Quartet. Over the years, I've read these two books several times each. Whittemore was writing magic realism at least decade before it became fashionable in the US; so, although well-reviewed, he didn't experience the success that his work merited. The novels take place in the Holy Land during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the stories are characterized by amusingly eccentric characters, surreal premises, exotic settings, and soul-wrenching tragedies. When I was living in Jerusalem in 2006, I was regularly reminded of Whittemore's engagingly magical and accurate portrayal of it as a tragic and mysterious city for colorful madmen and fanatics, built upon layers and layers of time, where everything that happened before is still happening now.

 

Borrower of the Night
The Camelot Caper
Street of the Five Moons
The Seventh Sinner
Devil May Care
Legend In Green Velvet

by Elizabeth Peters

 

BorrowerCamelorStreetFiveMoons

7thSinnerDevilMaycareGreenVelvet

 

Elizabeth Peters is the bestselling mystery-novelist identity of Egyptologist Barbara Mertz aka supernatural romantic suspense writer Barbara Michaels (see above). Peters is best known for her long-running, highly successful Amelia Peabody series, about an eccentric family of British archaeologists working in early 20th century Egypt. My favorite Peters oeuvre, however, is her Vicky Bliss series, a set of comedic mysteries about an art historian, her eccentric boss, and her art-thief lover. Vicky Bliss first appears in Borrower of the Night, hunting for a lost treasure in a crumbling medieval castle in Germany, where she's hounded by would-be suitors and menaced by a villain in a full suit of armour. Her longtime love interest, Sir John Smythe (not his real name), first appears as the charmingly elusive villain in an unrelated book, The Camelot Caper, an amusing romp set in Britain's scenic West Country. Vicky and John meet for the first time in Street of the Five Moons, when Vicky goes to Rome to track down a ring of art thieves; and their mercurial relationship continues for several more delightful novels set in Sweden, Germany, and Egypt, involving ancient treasures and contemporary crime capers.

Peters' other series is a set of four novels featuring Jacqueline Kirby, who first appears as a librarian in The Seventh Sinner, set in Rome, and then as a houseguest in the amusing Murders of Richard III, set at a house party in England. Kirby then goes on to become a modestly successful novelist in Die For Love and Naked Once More.

Peters has also written many delightful stand-alone mysteries whose plots often involve archaeology, folklore, or history. In Legend in Green Velvet, an archaeology student winds up being chased through the Scottish highlands in the company of a royal look-alike; in Devil May Care, a pet-sitter is menaced by peculiarly colorful attempts at burglary; in The Love Talker, the local woods seem to be haunted by faeries; in Summer of the Dragon, an eccentric millionaire disappears after making a mysterious discovery at an archaeological dig. Like the author's Barbara Michaels novels, these are books I enjoy curling up with to re-read every few years.

 

The Face In the Frost

by John Bellairs

 

FaceFrost

 

I first read this book, which is often categorized as a Young Adult novel, when I was fifteen. I've read it several times since then, and it's probably my all-time favorite fantasy novel. The Face In the Frost had a formative influence on my ideas about fantasy storytelling in many ways. It's both wondrous and prosaic; the lead character faces towering magical events and saves the world... but he also deals with mundane practical problems, which makes him accessible and real, despite his extraordinary skills and magical world. The book is terrifying and funny by turns, and that sort of sensibility has always attracted me as a reader and influenced me as a writer. Like all good fantasy (in my opinion), the book is about fundamental human issues, such as friendship, loyalty, duty, sacrifice, betrayal, greed, facing your demons, dealing with consequences, choosing your path in life, and—of course—good and evil. And, overall, it just has a wonderful atmosphere that makes me want to crawl inside the novel and live there when I'm reading it—and I consider that an essential quality of good fantasy writing: to lure the reader into your well-textured world, rather than to bludgeon the reader with your world-building.

 

The Corinthian
The Reluctant Widow
Devil's Cub
Sprig Muslin
The Talisman Ring
Venetia

by Georgette Heyer

 

CorinthianRelucWidowDevilsCub

SprigMuslinTalismanVenetia

 

Although Heyer was a successful historical novelist and contemporary mystery writer, she's best-known for the comedy-of-manners romances she wrote, set in the Georgian and Regency eras. Amidst stiff competition for the slot, I'd have to say that The Reluctant Widow is probably my favorite Heyer novel. It's tremendously engaging farce with a delightful cast of characters following a cheerfully absurd and intriguing plot involving spies, smugglers, housebreakers, a good-natured lad who's always in trouble, a dog who's always in even more trouble, an excessively fussy houseguest, and a local lord who considers all this to be run-of-the-mill stuff. In the wryly charming Corinthian, an aristocrat fleeing marriage takes up with a young girl disguised as a boy who's also fleeing marriage, and they soon encounter thieves, murder, and dim-witted young lovers. In Devil's Cub, a wholly unsuitable Marquis becomes determined to marry a nice young woman; in Venetia, a nice young woman becomes determined to marry a wholly unsuitable lord; in Sprig Muslin, a bachelor gets saddled with troublesome young lovers while trying to pursue his own courtship; and The Talisman Ring is an amusing adventure involving bandits, lovers, and mistaken identity. The cheerful elegance, charm, and high adventure of these books always sweeps me away, no matter how many times I read them.

 

The Raphael Affair

by Iain Pears

 

RaphaelAffair

 

Before becoming the bestselling author of weighty mainstream novels, Iain Pears wrote half a dozen books in this delightful "Art History Mystery" series, mostly set in Europe, featuring an Italian art squad detective, her shrewd boss, and her diffident English art-dealer boyfriend. The Raphael Affair was the first of the books, though I'd say they can all be read in any order. The protagonists are engaging, likeable characters, the mysteries are eventful and clever, the ambience is always charming, and Pears' extensive knowledge of art and art history enriches the stories tremendously.

 

Past Imperfect
Snobs

by Julian Fellowes

 

PastImperfectSnobs

 

Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes was born into the British upper-crust, and in these novels, he interprets their social structure and values for the rest of us. He's also witty, shrewd about human nature, and a wonderful writer. In Snobs, a middle-class Londoner marries for money and position, and then finds it rather difficult to lie in the bed she has made. In Past Imperfect, a middle-aged writer revisits the people and places of his youth, searching for a mystery baby as he reflects on the rise of the new upper-class and the demise of old one. I'm really looking forward to Fellowes' next book, whatever it may be; but it could be a long wait, alas, since he has a busy and successful career as an actor, scriptwriter, and director.

 

Kim

by Rudyard Kipling

 

Kim

 

Although Kipling's work reflects various attitudes that were typical (as well as some which were not) of the colonial/imperial era in which he lived, he was nonetheless a compelling writer whose work conveys a passion for life—and for the East. Kim is a wonderful, endearing character, and this novel takes him on a great adventure through the exotic landscape of India in a story populated by memorable friends, mentors, and adversaries. Above all, Kim's love for travel, for The Road, spoke to me strongly when I first read this book in my youth, and it still speaks to me now whenever I re-read this engaging story.

 


Nine Coaches Waiting
The Gabriel Hounds


The Merlin Trilogy:
The Crystal Cave
The Hollow Hills
The Last Enchantment

by Mary Stewart

 

Merlin

NineCoachesGabrielHounds

 

I've read Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy twice, and I would say that, along with T. H. White's The Once and Future King, this is the Arthurian saga that everyone should read, even if you never read any others—indeed, even if you hate Arthuriana. It's absolutely gorgeous storytelling. Stewart also wrote engaging romantic suspense novels from the 1950s onward, and any number of successful romance writers cite her as an influence. She's particularly good at evoking a sense of place and making her settings feel textured and alluring. Stewart is a wonderful prose stylist and possibly the only writer I've ever read who can hold my attention for a whole paragraph of describing foliage. These two are my favorites: The Gabriel Hounds is set in Lebanon, way back when Beirut was a popular tourist destination (some forty years ago), where a determined young woman goes to visit an eccentric relative who plays at being a modern incarnation of Lady Hester Stanhope (an artistocrat who set herself up as a minor prince in that region in the early 19th century); and in Nine Coaches Waiting, probably my favorite of Stewart's romantic suspense novels, a boy's nanny in Southern France begins to suspect that his guardian is trying to murder him.

 

A Natural History of the Rich

by Richard Conniff

 

NaturalRich

 

This oddball nonfiction book is one of my very favorite reads. Conniff is a naturalist who applied his usual methods of studying and comparing species in their natural habitats... to studying the ultra-rich. The result is extremely amusing, but also surprisingly interesting. It's one of the quirkiest, most engaging and fun books I've ever read.

 

A Natural History of the Senses

by Diane Ackerman

 

Senses

 

The first time I read this nonfiction book, I was skeptical that anyone could hold my attention for several hundred pages by writing about the five senses. I was wrong, and this quickly became one of my favorite books—and Ackerman herself became one of my favorite writers. I have since read a number of her books, and I particularly recommend The Moon By Whalelight and A Natural History of Love . (I've got her two most recent books and look forward to reading them soon.) An accomplished poet, Ackerman combines her intense sensibility for language with her enthusiasm as a naturalist and historian to write voluptuously readable, fascinating nonfiction. A Natural History of the Senses, probably her most commercially successful book, is perhaps the best example of her work. It's evocative, compelling, amusing, fascinating, very well written, and highly original.

 

The Razor's Edge

by W. Somerset Maugham

 

RazorEdge

 

I've read this book four times—although, as it happens, I otherwise don't care for Maugham's writing and have never been able to get all the way through any other book of his even once. The Razor's Edge is about an unconventional young man ardently searching for the meaning of life in the 1920s and 1930s after surviving combat in WWI; over the years, his globe-trotting occasionally brings him back into contact with the novel's other characters, including Maugham himself. I first read this book as a teenager, when it seemed incredibly worldly-wise and exotic to me. As an adult, each time I read it, I have a different reaction to it, depending (no doubt) on where I am in my life. Most recently, I mostly admired how smoothly and masterfully Maugham tells his story, how polished and assured his craftsmanship is here. I look forward to finding out what I'll get out of this wonderful novel the next time I read it.

 

Thus Was Adonis Murdered

by Sarah Caudwell

 

Adonis

 

This was the first of four (only four, alas) mannerly mysteries that British attorney Sarah Caudwell wrote before dying of cancer when she was sixty. The books comprise a mystery series featuring a group of charming, eccentric, sophisticated young barristers (lawyers) in London; each book is narrated by their friend, a quirky, erudite Oxford don (professor) of indeterminate age and gender. If I had to pick my favorite writer, it would be probably Caudwell—so it galls me that she only wrote four books! In Thus Was Adonis Murdered, Hilary, the narrator, helps clear a friend of murder charges incurred while on an art-lovers tour of Venice. Hilary narrowly saves another friend from murder in The Shortest Way To Hades, in which various heirs to a fortune become alarmingly accident-prone. The arcane world of international tax shelters leads to murder in the witch-infested Jersey Islands in The Sirens Sang of Murder; and a quiet English village becomes the setting for blackmail, psychic phenomena, and mysterious deaths in The Sibyl In Her Grave. I find these clever, colorful, wryly witty tales the most charming and overall enjoyable books I've ever opened, and I've long since lost count of how many times I've read them. For me, sitting down with a Caudwell novel is like spending time with one of my most amusing and eccentric friends.

Stars

Perennial Favorites: DVDs

 

Like the books listed above, these are all DVDs that I count among my favorites.

 

Asoka
(2001)

In Hindi with English subtitles

 

Asoka

 

I'm a huge Bollywood fan and, this being the first Bollywood film I ever saw, it holds a special place in my heart, since it's the movie that commenced my journey into this exotic and colorful cinema. It's also exactly my sort of movie! I'm a lifelong fan of musicals, historical epics, and high adventure, and this film combines all those genres, as well as comedy and romance. Loosely based on a true story, the film recounts the life of the warrior-king Asoka, who conquered and ruled an empire in India around 250 BC. After winning the Kalinga War, which is still one of the bloodiest wars in India's history, Asoka renounced violence, became a Buddhist, and spent the rest of his life reigning in peace and passing laws that promoted social justice and tolerance. In this beautifully filmed, exotic Bollywood tale (which includes a love story and colorful musical numbers, as well as bloody battles and personal tragedy), Asoka is played by India's top box office star, the compelling and charismatic Shah Rukh Khan.

 

Band of Brothers
(2001)

 

BoB

 

This gritty and gripping HBO mini-series about a company of paratroopers in Europe in WWII is one of the most moving and compelling things I've ever seen—all the more so because it's based on the real lives of the men of Easy Company, which veterans are interviewed in a documentary that accompanies the series. They were ordinary men who gave the last full measure of devotion. The combat scenes are riveting, the scripts are excellent, and the cast includes a number of excellent actors relatively early in their careers, such as Damian Lewis, Kirk Acivedo, and Ron Livingston.

 

Brain Donors
(1992)

 

BrainDonors

 

This adorable, little-known comedy can best be described as a Marx Brothers movie that the Marx Brothers didn't live to make. Without in any way immitating Groucho, Chico, and Harpo (no one here walks with a crouch, speaks with an Italian accent, or is a mute with a curly wig), the three main characters clearly fill story roles that the Marx Brothers would have filled if the movie had been made 50 years earlier. A fast-talking John Turturro plays an ambulance-chasing shyster who woos a wealthy widow and takes over management of her ballet company, along with the help of a conniving cab driver (Mel Smith) and a cheerfully dim-witted servant. The movie is a comic gem, and the climactic scenes, where the bad guys and good guys are chasing each other around the theatre during a gala performance of Swan Lake, is priceless.

 


Rick: This gun is pointed right at your heart.
Renault: That is my least vulnerable spot.

 

 

Casablanca
(1943)



 

Casablanca

 

Nazi Officer: What is your nationality?
Rick: I'm a drunkard.

Renault (to Rick): I've often wondered what brought you to Casablanca. I like to think that you killed a man. It's the romantic in me.

 

This is probably my all-time favorite movie. I've seen it so many times that I pretty much know all the dialogue by heart—and yet I still thoroughly enjoy watching it, even so. In case you've spent your whole life chained to the floor of an underwater cave, here's a brief plot summary of this famous movie: Humphrey Bogart plays Rick, an embittered nightclub owner in French-ruled Morocco in 1941, where well-dressed war refugees from all over Europe congregate. One day, Victor Laszlo, a resistance leader, arrives and starts seeking passage to America. Renault, the self-serving French chief of police (played with cynical charm by Claude Rains) decides it's in his own best interest to assist the Nazis who want to prevent Laszlo from escaping their reach. Rick's chilly indifference to all this evaporates when he discovers that Laszlo's traveling companion is Ilse (played by a luminous Ingrid Bergman), the woman who broke Rick's heart back in Paris. Before long, everyone's conflicting plans depend on what Rick, who holds the key Laszlo's fate, will decide to do.

The film has a fantastic script and a large, colorful cast of characters all pursuing their own goals. Everyone turns in excellent performances, and the supporting cast includes wonderful character actors such as Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, and Sydney Greenstreet. Although filmed in black-and-white on the Warner backlot during WWII rationing, the setting looks wonderfully foreign and exotic. For a fascinating account of the making of this movie—and of conditions in Hollywood, in general, during the war—I highly recommend a terrific book called Round up the Usual Suspects by Aljean Harmetz.

 

Rick: They caught a lucky break. Yesterday, they were just two German couriers. Today, they're the honored dead.

 

Dil Se
From the Heart
(1998)

In Hindi with English subtitles

 

 

This unusual Bollywood film was a flop in India, but a big hit overseas with Non-Resident Indians, and it was the first Bollywood movie ever to break into the UK's box office top ten chart when it was in theatres there. The inimitable Shah Rukh Khan plays a Delhi journalist who goes north to report on Kashmir, a region torn apart by violence. He meets and becomes obsessed with a mysterious woman (played by the compelling Nepalese actress, Manisha Koirala). As he pursues her with his desperate and repeatedly spurned love, he gradually realizes that she's far more involved in the troubles of Kashmir than is safe for either of them. This is a gritty, dark film about individual lives ravaged by politics and factional violence, and all of the characters' behave in ways which are very difficult to understand from a Western perspective. But it's also a moving, compelling film about people following their hearts without reservation and meeting their destiny without flinching. Although not typical of the genre, it's one of my favorite Bollywood movies.

 

The Avengers:
The Emma Peel Collection

(1965-1967)

 

 

For many years, the debonair and charming Patrick MacNee (whose autobiography, Blind In One Ear, is worth reading) played John Steed, a dapper British secret agent who didn't carry a gun (after fighting in WWII, MacNee said he never wanted to use a gun again, not even in performance). The specific (and too brief) era of this British TV series that made it internationally popular and remembered fondly for decades afterward was the roughly 2-year period (1965-1967) that Steed's crime-solving partner was Mrs. Emma Peel, played by the sleekly elegant Diana Rigg. In an era when female characters were usually traditional stereotypes, Mrs. Peel (a young widow) was an extraordinary creation: A highly intelligent, well-educated, successful, confident, self-reliant woman with well-honed physical combat skills. Steed and Emma are elegant and erudite, and their adventures are always bizarre and quirky, the tone usually light and whimsical. The stories are full of eccentric minor characters and odd twists and turns, as well as witty dialogue between Emma and Steed. The years of The Avengers before and after Diana Rigg, when Steed was partnered with other characters, aren't worth hunting up; but the Emma Peel years are delightful and well worth watching.

 

Emma (1996)
Pride & Prejudice (1940)
Pride & Prejudice (1996)
Sense & Sensibility (1995)

EmmaP&P1940

P&P1996S&S

 

I like Jane Austen's work, but I wouldn't describe myself as a fanatic for her novels, nor for movies based on her novels... And yet, I realized when assembling this page... at least four of my favorite movies are Austen adaptations. So maybe I'm a closet Austen fanatic? At any rate, these four adaptations are scrumptious. The 1940s movie version of Pride and Prejudice, filmed in black-and-white, is absolutely charming and well worth watching. It stars Greer Garson as Elizabeth and Laurence Olivier as Darcy—and this is the only portrayal I've ever seen wherein I, like Lizzy, fall in love with Darcy. Although there've been several other adaptations of P&P, the 1996 miniseries with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is the only one I've liked—and, indeed, I absolutely love its charm, elegance, crisp dialogue, and lively atmosphere, and have watched it many times. Sense and Sensibility, in which Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet play sisters with very different temperaments, is a lovely gem of a film, chock full of terrific actors, engaging (and also engagingly loathesome!) characters, lovely direction, and a very well adapted script. And the exact same thing can be said about Emma, in which Gwyneth Paltrow plays a precocious heiress who can't resist matchmaking, no matter how disastrously her efforts turn out. For me, these films are all the cinematic equivalent of high-quality comfort food.

 

Kal Ho Naa Ho
Tomorrow May Never Come
(2003)

In Hindi with English subtitles

 

Set in an Indian immigrant community in New York City, this delightful romantic comedy is one of my favorite Bollywood musicals. It's about a Christian Indian family (Christianity is the third-largest religion in multi-cultural India, after Hinduism and Islam) struggling both emotionally and financially after the death of their father, until a newcomer to the neighborhood starts changing all their lives. The amazing Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan is at his very best as the newly-arrived madcap busybody interfering in everyone's lives and hiding a tragic secret of his own that keeps him from declaring his love for the sharp-tempered girl-next-door whose life he brightens. The music is wonderful, and New York looks gorgeous and romantic. There are a number of engaging comedy scenes between SRK and actor Saif Ali Khan, who's in love with the same girl, and the film portrays a sweet and unusual love triangle. Although, like most Bollywood films, aspects of the movie will probably be baffling to Americans unfamiliar with the genre, this is nonetheless a very accessible movie and a good film to start with, if you'd like to try the most popular style of cinema in the world (Bollywood's global audience is actually bigger than Hollywood's, though Bollywood is still little-known to American audiences).

 

The Last of the Mohicans
(1992)

Mohicans

 

This is far and away the best adaptation ever made of this classic American novel (and, indeed, it's a lot better than the book—which I found it a struggle to get through). Daniel Day Lewis is captivating in the role of Nathaniel, the adopted white son of a Mohican father, living on the frontier in 1750s colonial America. When the French and Indian War (i.e. the North American front of the global Seven Years War) breaks out, Nathaniel winds up rescuing and then escorting to safety (no mean feat) the daughters of a British commander stationed at a besieged fort—one which is destined to fall to the French. This is an exhilerating adventure film set in a ravishingly beautiful landscape where pristine wilderness is gradually giving way to colonial settlements, territorial skirmishes are increasing between natives and newcomers, and—finally—war engulfs everyone as the great powers of another continent struggle for dominance in the New World. It's also a wildly romantic love story about a man who'll do anything to protect the woman he loves. And it's just a great historical epic that sweeps you into another world.

 

Lawrence of Arabia
(1962)

Lawrence

 

This classic, Oscar-winning David Lean epic based on the life of T.E. Lawrence is almost 50 years old now; I've seen it many times, and I still find it absolutely enthralling every time I sit through it. A young Peter O'Toole gives an outstanding performance as the brilliant, tortured, controversial scholar who served as the British military liaison to the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks during World War I, helping to capture key positions and cities (including Damascus). O'Toole is supported by an exceptional cast: Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guiness, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains, Anthony Quayle, and so on. In addition to top-drawer actors portraying compelling characters, Lawrence has a great script, one of the most hauntingly beautiful music scores every written for a movie, some of the most exciting battle scenes ever filmed, and some of the most breathtaking cinematography of all time. And, as a great epic should, it transports you entirely into another world when you watch it.

 

Libeled Lady
(1936)

 

This delightful film is my favorite example of the golden age of screwball comedies, which films were so popular with audiences who were living through the grim realities of the Great Depression. Myrna Loy plays a wealthy heiress who decides to sue a New York City newspaper for a ruinous sum after it prints a libelous story about her. The newspaper's unscrupulous editor, Spencer Tracy, decides that the best way out of this disaster is to hire an even more unscrupulous fixer, played by William Powell, to create a scandal in the heiress' life so damning that it will destroy her libel case. And Jean Harlow plays the frustrated fiancée whom Tracy keeps abandoning at the altar as the plot complications escalate. All of the actors are absolutely delightful in this witty, fast-paced comedy which includes numerous plot twists and curves.

 


The Marx Brothers: Silver Screen Collection:
The Cocoanuts (1929)
Animal Crackers (1930)
Monkey Business (1931)
Horse Feathers (1932)
Duck Soup (1933)

and

A Night at the Opera (1935)

MARX BROSNightOpera

The brilliant Marx Brothers' delightful first five films have been collected in a DVD box-set. The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers—which is a particularly good Marx movie—were filmed in New York (the subsequent movies were all made in Hollywood) and were adaptations of successful Broadway plays in which the Marx Brothers had also starred. Their masterpiece was their fifth film, Duck Soup, a brilliant, anarchical satire in which Groucho plays the newly-appointed leader of the obscure nation of Freedonia, and Chico and Harpo play spies from the neighboring enemy state of Sylvania. More than 75 years after the Marx Brothers made this movie, it's still fresh, original, and hilarious. It was also ahead of time, experiencing mixed reviews and disappointing revenue at the time. The brothers' film career was revitalized by producer Irving Thalberg in their next movie, A Night at the Opera, which was a more conventional film (as Marx comedies go). Thalberg worked on one more hit with the Marx Brothers, A Day At the Races (fun, but not a particular favorite of mine), before dying of pneumonia at 37. The Marx Brothers went on to make about half a dozen more films, none of them very good, and then decided they were too old and too rich to keep doing this. But they did continue leading interesting lives. (I recommend reading Harpo's autobiography, Harpo Speaks!, which is back in print now. It's a fascinating and charming book.)

 

The Mummy
(1999)

Mummy

 

This hit film from the late 1990s is a great favorite of mine. High adventure, supernatural menace, archaeology, comedy, romance, historical costumes, exotic setting, terrific actors—what's not to love? Brendan Frasier plays a post-WWI adventurer in 1920s Egypt who agrees to help nerdy librarian Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) and her cheerfully thieving, gambling grifter/preacher brother (John Hannah) search for a fabled ancient city that's been lost in the desert for 3,000 years. In the course of their escapade, they encounter competitors, desert raiders, a very nasty resurrected mummy, deadly booby traps, ancient ghosts, and a powerful curse. Two sequels to this film were subsequently released, one bad and the other awful; but this first film in the franchise is a gem.

 

My Man Godfrey
(1936)

 

Another classic from the golden age of screwball comedy, this movie acknowledges the miseries of the Great Depression more than most such films did, while nonetheless maintaining its light-hearted tone. Carole Lombard plays a bizarrely impractical and eccentric heiress from a wholly chaotic wealthy Manhattan family. One night, she meets a homeless hobo, Godfrey (William Powell), whom she impulsively hires to work as her family's butler. Godfrey turns out to be well-educated, articulate, and cultured, as well as skilled at managing the zany household with discretion and tact. While a romance develops between a reluctant Godfrey and the crazy heiress, it's gradually revealed that Godfrey, who's been living in a cardboard box, comes from one of New York's most privileged families, and also that the privileged family he's currently working for is about to join the bread lines. Leading lady Carole Lombard, who was married to Clark Gable, died in a 1941 plane crash, while on a tour to promote the sale of war bonds; this film is her most famous performance.

 

Of Love and Shadows
(1996)

LoveShadows

 

This darkly beautiful film is based on my favorite Isabel Allende novel (of the same title). Antonio Banderas gives a gentle, charismatic performance as a psychologist who's working as a freelance magazine photographer while living under the repressive 1970s Pinochet regime in Chile—a reactionary police state in which psychology is no longer a viable profession. He and his brother, a priest, also work secretly for a human rights organization, gathering evidence about government atrocities and trying to help the victims. He meets and falls in love with a pop-culture journalist, played by Jennifer Connelly, who's carefree and apolitical... until she covers a story which exposes her first-hand to the government's murder of innocent civilians. The horrific experience compels her to seek justice—in a society where that could get her killed. It's a tender l love story, as well as a moving tale of ordinary, decent people confronting horrific circumstances.

 

The Scarlet Pimpernel
(1982)

 

This wonderful made-for-TV movie is the best of the various film/TV adaptations which have been based on Baroness Orczy's unforgettable character Sir Percival Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, about whom she wrote a series of novels (the first one was published in 1905). The talented Anthony Andrews plays Sir Percy, who is known as a vain and half-witted fop in late-18th century English high society—but who is, in reality, a master of disguise and deception, and the brilliant leader of a secret network of heroes and spies devoted to rescuing people from imprisonment and execution during the infamous Reign of Terror in revolutionary France. Jane Seymour is exquisite as the strong-willed French actress whom Percy marries and then fears he can't trust. And Ian McKellen chews scenery with skillful flair as a high-ranking official of the Terror and a viciously determined enemy of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Great scenery, sets, costume, and music round out this well-written, well-acted, classy production. (There's also a 1934 black-and-white Pimpernel movie adaptation, starring Leslie Howard, which is nicely done. But I would advise skipping the late 1990s series of made-for-TV Pimpernel movies with Richard E. Grant, in which neither the casting, the writing, nor the direction work well.)

 

The Pirate
(1948)

 

Pirate

 

This Vincent Minelli film is probably my very favorite movie-musical from the commercial heyday of the genre. The swing-era Cole Porter score doesn't really work with the historical setting, but the music is nonetheless lovely, the costumes and sets are gorgeous, the performances are delightful, and it's a wonderful story. Judy Garland plays Manuela, an outwardly prim young woman in a sleepy village in the old Spanish Caribbean who's about to be married off to the town's stuffy middle-aged mayor. When a strolling player (Gene Kelly) who has fallen for (and been rejected by) Manuela discovers her most secret yearnings—that she fantasizes about being abducted by the notorious pirate "Mac the Black" Macoco—he decides that in order to prevent her from marrying the mayor, he'll pretend to be the deadly pirate. It's a wooing strategy that turns out to have complicated and comedic consequences for everyone in the story. Unfortunately, the sensibilities of the era turned this charming movie into a commercial flop. Kelly's dance sequence with the Nicholas Brothers, who were African-American, led to the movie being banned or bizarrely edited in various venues in the segregated South; other movie-goers wanted to see Kelly tap-dancing rather than handling a sword and a whip; and audiences didn't like seeing girl-next-door Garland in this sexual and sharp-tongued role. These are all qualities, though, which make the movie such a delight!

 

The Thin Man movies
(1934-1947)

 

Based on a detective novel by Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man (1934) was so popular that it spawned five successful movie-sequels over the next dozen years. (My favorite is the second film, After the Thin Man, set in San Franciso and involving crazy relatives, gangsters, and a very young James Stewart.) The elegant and charming William Powell and Myrna Loy play Nick and Nora Charles, a couple of wisecracking amateur sleuths. Nick is a rakish and respected former police detective who retired from the force upon marrying Nora, a wealthy heiress. (During the grim years of the Great Depression, light-hearted comedies about the idle rich were particularly popular.) Nick and Nora party, drink, travel—and investigate the murders that keep crossing their path. It was the charming and happily married couple at the center of these mysteries which made the series so popular. Nick and Nora are just great fun to spend time with—an adventurous, elegant, witty couple who thoroughly enjoy each other's company.

 

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