Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Holy Cow! More about Elsie

So apparently, I was pretty ignorant regarding the yesteryear fame of Elsie the cow.

During my research yesterday, I realized that I was much more familiar with her in this way:

Elsie's appearance in the 1940 film Little Men was her first and only role, but her fame as the official face of the Borden company is easily seen by the abundance of other goods which bear her likeness:

              comic books                                      board games                                      sugar and cream dishes

                                pull toys                                        stuffed animals                            cook books

 Even though she was quite famous, and made alot of money, she was unfailingly patriotic. Like other well-known Americans, she made the best of wartime, and was featured in a campaign explaining shortages and rationing to consumers.

So there ya go. Once again, my obsession with old movies has launched me on a tangential journey on which I discover some little interesting tidbit. 'Elsie' was the name bestowed upon her after she was chosen to represent Borden's at the 1939 New York World's Fair. 

Here she is siting for her official portrait. 

The back story on the cow, whom the crowds favored so much that the company was inclined to purchase her from her original owners for future use, is that she came from Elm Hill Farm in Brookfield, MA. Her real name was "You'll Do Lobelia."

This has to be the most glamorous cow that's ever graced this green planet:  She was so popular as Elsie, Borden decided to give her a boudoir and a cross-country tour. She traveled first class on trains and chartered airplanes.  

She even had her own her four- poster canopied bed!

In Hollywood, she was welcomed by a brass band and such luminaries as Kay Francis, Spencer Tracy, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne. 

It's very reassuring for this animal lover to see know that she had a good life, because as any star will tell you, fame has a price. On April 16, 1941, while on her way to Shubert Alley in the Theater District of New York City, her truck was hit from behind by another truck while stopped at a traffic light on Route 25 in Rahway, NJ. She suffered neck and spine injuries and was returned to her home at the Walker-Gordon Farm in Plainsboro, NJ. She could not be saved, and she was buried on the farm.

Would you lie to know more about famous animals?

Perhaps the next installment should focus on Jimmy the Raven.  .  .

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Little Men (1940) review, OR My Introduction to a Famous Cow

So I was browsing around on the Roku, and I cam across a cgannel called a Very Roku Halloween. I thought "JACKPOT!". Halloween is my favorite holiday, and since I quit cable a few years back, I've missed the viewing staples such as It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

The channel does offer some classic horror movies, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but for some reason which I still don't understand it also featured the 1940 rendition of Little Men, the sequel to Little Women.

Since I enjoy watching various productions of my favorite book and critiquing them, I decided to give it a whirl.

Let me emphasize again, that everything about my viewing experience was confusing. I don't understand why this film was featured in a channel dedicated to Halloween, but that's easily overlooked in my excitement at the potential for discovering hidden gems of Hollywood.
The music in the opening credits immediately reminded me of the overture from Gone With the Wind, which was unexpected but nice.
But then I was confused again when a cow was credited in the opening credits. That's right folks, Elsie the Cow turns in a memorable performance in her portryal of Buttercup. Maybe that would be pretty memorable if Buttercup was a human, or a horse or a cat, but she's a cow. So the cow is getting credit for a being a cow? OK.
What's even more hilarious is that
Elsie "the actress" has her own IMDB page.
NOW, I was hooked. I had to see how this cow factored into the film presentation of the sequel to my favorite book, a beloved classic.
According to her screen time thus far, Elsie made a name for herself at the New York World's Fair. And my further research, yes, I actually did research on a cow for more time than I'm willing to admit, revealed that she was pretty famous around this time because she was being featured in advertisements for Borden milk.So, maybe she does deserve her own film credit. I decided to March (get it?) on in the story of Little Men.
So the opening of the film introduces the viewer to characters named Major Burdle, and his secretary, who looks like a poor man's version of Jean Harlow in a hair snood. Then a character named Willie comes in with the devastating news(?) that Lefty is dead.
"What? Who the hell is Lefty?" I wondered. Shouldn't I be in Plumfield, reunited with my old friends Jo and Professor Bhaer? Shouldn't I be watching John Brooke and Meg's twins, Daisy and Demi play with the other pupils? Instead I got this:
Apparently, this awkward exchange is the back story of Danny. Danny is the first inkling of textual truth in this portrayal of Little Men, because the story is focalized through him, which is how the reader is introduced to other characters. Unfortunately, Danny seems to be mimicking Mickey Rooney's performance in Boys Town, which is almost as anachronistic as the actress' dark eyeshadow.
The rest of the story is a little more recognizable because it takes place at Plumfield and there are other children at the school, which is the essence of Alcott's sequel. However, it does diverge from the text in some significant ways, the biggest one being that in the novel, the school is sponsored by Laurie, who is inherently wealthy. The plot of the film centers on the possibility of Plumfield closing due to lack of funds. So, this film rendition is completely excluding a major part of Alcott's literary world.
Isn't that kind of like if a Harry Potter film exluded the part about Harry's mother being born to a Muggle family?
So if you haven't guessed already, my overall opinion about this movie presentation of Little Men is pretty poor.
The best part about watching this movie comes not for the librarian part of me, nor the Alcott enthusiast ,but for the amateur classic film historian:
Remember how I said that the opening credit music reminded me of the Gone With the Wind overture? Well, it's probably not a coincidence since This film uses several of the Gone with the Wind exterior sets, including Tara.
Also worth noting is actress Lillian Randolph, who portrays the cook Asia. Her name might not register with you, but you probably recognize her from her roles in The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer (another one of my favorite movies) and It's a Wonderful Life (one of everyone's favorite movies).
I guess I'll have to watch the 1934 rendition of Little Men next, mostly just to see Ralph Morgan, brother of Frank Morgan (He's the Wizard of Oz) play Professor Bhaer.
It doesn't appear to feature any cows though- will it even be worth it?
Hollywood needs more cows!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

TBT: Meeting Mo

Today's Throwback Thursday post goes back to 2011.

I was fortunate enough to earn my master's degree from Simmons College, in the prestigious Children's Literature program. It was something I wanted for years before I ever applied. I remember once I found out that an advanced degree was available in the subject I loved, and the location was on the East coast, I would occasionally let my mind wander, and soon enough I'd be online, reading the course descriptions.

I had a wonderful experieince in my two years at Simmons, and one of the courses I especially looked forward to taking was Picturebook. Whenever I say that to people, they say something along the lines of "How cute!" or "What fun!". It was fun, but it was alot of hard work, too. Aside from the regular types of papers, involving literary theories, styles of art and illustration, and visual literacy, we had a mammoth project: a 100 page paper. Technically, it was 50 two page papers, but it was all due at the same time.

Fortunately, the course was not all work and no play.  Near the end of the semester, we took  a field trip to the Eric Carle museum in Amherst, MA. We went on a day when author/illustrator Mo Willems was presenting, so were like groupies. We all spent our rent money in the bookstore, and then waited in line for hours to meet him and have him sign our books. I'm a big fan of Elephant and Piggie, and how can anyone not love the Pigeon?

We had a group picture taken with him, and I love this photo. After grad school, many of my classmates moved away. I'm still friends with alot of them on Facebook, but we all moved on with life: marriage, babies, careers, etc. But this picture is a reminder of how we all met in the first place, and why we all love Children's Literature, and the trials and tribulations we went though that no one outside our program can relate to (like having to choose a single sentence of the Victorian novel Tom Brown's Schooldays, and write a paper using New Criticism- uuuuuuuuugggggggghh).

Something else I love about this picture, is that it's my kind of posing. I hate having my picture taken. I usually avoid it like the plague (or New Criticism). But if I'm allowed to be silly, it's fun.
And it was Mo's idea to make monster faces.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I take alot of joy in Disney movies, especially the ones that were released when I was young; it's like a time portal into my childhood. But it was only as an adult that I began to really think critically about the stories and the messages contained in them. It's pretty easy to see that most of the Disney princesses emerge from a daddy-daughter relationship. Freud focused his theory of the father complex on ambivalent feelings for the father on the part of the male child, as an aspect of the Oedipus complex.  But according to Jung,  females are also able to develop a father complex, which might be either positive or negative.

Let's start with The Little Mermaid. Ariel is the youngest daughter of the Sea King, and true to Andersen's text, she is enamored with the world above the water. Her father forbids her to have any contact with it, so is forced to hide her fascination with it, as well as her extensive collection of artifacts salvaged from sunken ships. When her father becomes aware of her continued interest with humans, and her new interest in a particular human, he sets out to eradicate this rebellious streak in her. I think this scene is the most authentic in communicating the nature of their relationship because the dialogue sounds authentic: Ariel's pouty "I don't care" is the favorite uttering of sixteen year old girls. But furthermore, the symbolism of Ariel hiding behind the Prince Eric effigy at first, and later desperately trying to protect it (she's literally between a rock and hard place) represents the classic struggle of a daughter to distance herself from the central male figure in her life only to seek a new one.

She sacrifices her voice (much less painful than her tongue, as in the original story) to the Sea Witch in exchange for legs, so that she can go ashore, find the prince, and (silently) charm him. In the age of third wave feminism, it's a pretty horrible message that in order to make a man love her, a woman should be voiceless.
Ariel's voice, and tail, is restored when her time on land runs out. As stipulated in her contract with the Sea Witch, she is now her property, and we see her slowly devolve into a sea urchin.
Prince Eric defeats the Sea Witch, and the other sea urchins are restored to their original forms (mermaids and mermen who also defaulted on their deals), but Ariel is still confined by her fins. It's only through her father's power that she is able to return to land to reunite with her soon-to-be husband.
I guess if you want to be sentimental, you could say that King Triton is unselfishly allowing his daughter to live her dream, even though it pains him. But it must also be noted that he is sacrificing his power over her; earlier he told her as long as she lives under his ocean, she is to obey his rules. She traded in one kingdom for another.

All this being said, I still canot be trusted with the remote control during a viewing of this movie; it rapidly devolves into a loop of Part of Your World and a (bad) one woman karaoke show.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

TBT: 2009 Author Experience

For years I have been thinking that I need to blog about my children's literature related adventures.

I've been to Kensington Gardens to visit the Peter Pan statue twice, I visited the Paddington bear staue (and gift shop) at Paddington Station, I've walked through the wall at Platform 9 and 3/4.  I've been to Almanzo Wilder's home in Malone, NY, Orchard House in Concord, MA. I've made it a point to go to book festivals and discussion panels and book signings, and I have many wonderful memories, but I never wrote about them.

So here's one from 2009.

That year marked my aunt's (who is also my godmother) 60th birthday. I had already been planning to visit Colorado, and before long, it developed into a family reunion/birthday bash. My aunt is one of the people responsible for nurturing my love of reading. For as long as I remember, she was sending me books, specifically books illustrated by Michael Hague. She lives in the same city as him in Colorado, and she would often attend his book signings.

I think these books is the reason I have developed a bit of an obsession with attending author signings. You can love a book for any reason: the story, the characters, the illustrations, your own response to it. And it's nice to have a book that you love signed by the author, because it's special. But I have never bought an autographed book that was not autographed while I was standing right there, watching (like on Ebay or Amazon, or pre-ordered from a store). It just doesn't feel right to me. It's like the book was signed for someone else, anyone else, and I interfered.

It has to be the right combination: a book I love, an author that interests me, locale, cost.  .  .but when all those come together, it's fantastic.

It just happened that Mr. Hague, and his wife Kathleen, who authors many of the books he illustrates, were doing a signing one day during my visit to Colorado.

I made it a priority, and I was not disappointed. The line was not long, but the wait was a) because I was so excited and b) because unlike many authors/illustrators who just scribble their name with a generic 'best wishes' or 'happy reading', Mr. Hague takes his time on every single book inscription. I have books by him adorned with beautiful, almost full page sketches. The book are beautiful already because of the illustrations, and the original sketches inside make them special, but the "For Erin" inscription, and the experience of meeting him, make them personal treasures.

It's no surprise that I'm wearing tie-dye.
So I guess with the ever-growing popularity of the TBT, or Throw Back Thursday trend, in social media, I can dedicate future Thursday posts to writing down memories of my children's lit-centered life.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review of Malcolm Under the Stars

As previously mentioned, I am a sucker for animal stories. Last year I enjoyed reading Malcolm at Midnight, so I was excited to learn during a webinar I participated in that a sequel was on the way. I immediately requested an ARC so I could find out what the Midnight Academy was up to now.

In this follow-up, McKenna School is in danger of closing. Concerned about what will happen to the Nutters, Lankies, and themselves, the Midnight Academy decides to investigate further. They recover a rare coin and a strange code, which only adds to the mystery.

After striving to be accepted in the school, now Malcolm struggles to negotiate with all types of outdoor critters such as owls, cats and raccoons. Luckily, his honesty and and willingness to listen help him in his quest, and his survival.

Fans of the Poppy books by Avi will enjoy the sense of adventure, and even though there are no shortage of stories starring rodents, WH Beck's narrative has integrity. The pencil illustrations by Brian Lies once again add visual interest, and his style gives the animals a playful quality. No surprise since Lies has previously written and illustrated his books that star bats. (My favorite is Bats at the Library.)

I try to extract a crumb (as Malcolm would say) of wisdom from every single book I read, and I think I found the one in this book when I read this passage:

"You don't get to decide who to help or how to help or even to judge what kind of help they're asking for.  . .who are you to decide any of that?" (127).

To me, that passage represents one of the most important lessons I have learned in life. It's so easy to judge people, and sometimes we don't even realize we're doing it. What makes one person so superior to be able to judge another- aren't we all just trying to survive?

Malcolm Under the Stars will be released in August.

Monday, June 1, 2015

What is the Formula for Female? (This is not a math question)

I'm a documentary geek. I love them. One that I watched recently, thanks to Netflix, titled Beyond Clueless is dedicated to analyzing the enduring appeal of teen movies.

I didn't think that the commentary was mid-blowing or ground breaking, but I did enjoy all the clips from over 200 'teen' movies.

It is very successful in highlighting the formulaic approach that movie makers take when creating a film that is intended to appeal to adolescents.

The trope that frustrates me the most in this genre is the need to have a female character who is molded into a teenage goddess. Sometimes it's a male love interest who molds her, a la She's All That or 10 Things I Hate About You, but more often it's another female who decides that she can, must, be made better.

Of course, the male love interest is given a Nabokovian spin in What a Girl Wants, in which American teen Daphne goes in search of her British father, only to discover that he is running for election to the House of Commons to eventually become Prime Minister. To please her father and his social circle, she abandons her Bohemian style and adopts the upper-class sophisticated look, and conducts herself with manners and modesty.
Think of all the movies in which some poor naieve girl is taken under the wing of a socially superior Ms:
Clueless (1995)
Never Been Kissed (1999)
Save the Last Dance (2001)
Mean Girls (2004)
Legally Blonde somewhat reverses this expectation. Elle Woods is seemingly perfect with her blonde hair, designer wardrobe, and sorority girl status, and she even has a 4.0 GPA.  Unfortunately, her love interest unceremoniously dumps her before leaving for Harvard Law, stating that he needs to "marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn." So Elle trades in her Malibu Barbie dresses and Belair Princess persona to become a serious law student.
It's interesting that in order to try and win back her man, she must subvert her sexuality rather than display it. This is translated on film during a Halloween party, where Elle comes dressed as a Playboy bunny, only to discover that nobody else is in costumes.
The female sexuality is always center stage in this transformation: it's being subverted (for her own good, obviously), or it's being flaunted as an indicator of her value, or it's being used as a pawn in someone else's game:
In Save the Last Dance, Sara is invited by Chenille  to go to a club in the city. She shows up wearing a preppy, conservative outfit ("It's from the Gap"). She is already out of place because of her clothing choice, but her innocence is contrasted even more sharply when she discovers that her friend has an infant son, proof that she is sexually experienced. In order to blend in better with her urban setting, Sara takes lessons in dance moves and attitude from her love interest Derek. The dance moves are a far cry from the prim and structured ballet lessons she has taken for most of her life, and she is insecure in moving her body in these new ways. She asks Derek during a lesson "How's my butt?" to he replies "It's nice." They enter into a romance, taboo and frought with social conflict because of their different skin colors.
Tai becomes obsessed with fitting in and snubs Travis, the skater guy she likes.
She also points out how Cher is sexually immature when she candidly says "You're a virgin who can't drive."
Laney ends up at the prom with Dean Sampson, and he boasts that he is succeeding in seducing Laney and has rented a hotel room with intention of having sex with her.
Mia ditches her friends Lily and Michael when Josh Bryant invites her to a beach party. He uses Mia to get his fifteen minutes of fame by publicly kissing her, while Lana tricks her into changing in a tent, pulling it away as the paparazzi arrive, giving them a scandalous shot of her in a towel.
. Because Josie is posing as a highschool student, she is not able to pursue her real love interest Sam, her English teacher. She attends the prom with Guy, not because she loves him but because he's popular and her new friends approve of him.
And even though Elle has attempted to subvert her sexuality in hopes to winning back Warner, it still creates a problem for her when her professor makes a sexual advance towards her, baiting her with a prestigious internship at her firm. She rejects him, but is disappointed that her law school makeover was a failure because of her "blonde hair and big boobs."
There's always a moment of realization that although the 'after' might look better than the 'before' that it has come at the expense of her soul, if only temporarily. In the quest for acceptance, each girl represses her true personality and distances herself from the people and things that represent it:
slacker skater boys
Ultimately though, she is enlightened in a climactic moment of self realization.
She doesn't have to choose one persona or the other, she can incorporate the best parts of both for a new and improved future.
 It doesn't matter what color her hair is, how much lip gloss she wears, or how popular the guy she likes is; the key to happiness is self-acceptance.
She should not strive to change, but to grow.
Even if you're not a Shakespeare scholar, you can still take a cue from Hamlet:
"To thine own self, be true."
Oh yeah.   . .