The Story of a Cheat

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The Story of a Cheat (1936) is a delightful comedy by Sacha Guitry, whom I’d never have discovered if it weren’t for my New Year’s resolution to watch old movies. In T he Story of a Cheat, Guitry plays a suave man who falls into one incident after another where he winds up stealing or conning someone. As a boy, he stole some money from his father’s shop. He got caught and was forbidden to eat the mushrooms served for dinner. As all his relations get poisoned, he lucked out and thus the confusion over whether honesty is the best policy ensues. No matter how bad things get, there’s always some silver lining and this hero winds up doing alright – as long as he’s dishonest. Whenever he’s honest, he gets in trouble.

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It’s a fun, entertaining French film told almost entirely through flashback and voice over. Big no-no’s for movies, but this does work. The Criterion Collection provides a nice essay on Guitry’s career.

Basically “China’s Got Talent”

I know cute baby and kid videos can be rather too cutesy and maybe this is, but it did make me smile and there are subtitles so you get a glimpse into Chinese culture via the judges and the boy.

Man in Grey

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James Mason’s debut movie, Man in Grey (1943) is part of the Criterion Collection. I wasn’t sure what I was getting when I picked it up at the library. Certainly, it would be a love triangle and it was described as a melodrama, so I expected big emotions.

The film opens at an auction in a mansion where a dashing WWII soldier More than anything Man in Grey focuses on a friendship between the kind, popular, generous Clarissa and Hester, a skeptical, poor girl who meets Clarissa at a boarding school where she’s taken on as a charity case. Clarissa is a friend to all and makes a point of reaching out to Hester, who’s aloof and snubbed by the others.

Hester runs off with the first boy she meets and brings a little scandal to the school. Clarissa somehow loses her fortune and her godmother encourages her to marry the wealthy, cold hearted Lord Rohan (James Mason). Rohan spends his time fighting and betting on dog fights and ignores Clarissa telling her right after their wedding that once they have an heir, they’ll live separate lives.

Later Clarissa sees Hester, who’s become an actress with a mediocre theater troupe. She convinces Hester to come visit her to relieve the boredom and isolation she suffers. Clarissa’s also brought Toby, a servant at the boarding school home with her.

Clarissa appreciates staying in Clarissa’s mansion and when she meets Lord Rohan is attracted to his dark, brooding personality. They’re more or less kindred spirits and an affair ensues.

As chance would have it Hester’s co-star, another 2-bit actor, is smitten with Clarissa and pursues her by taking jobs that put them in contact. He sees through Hester’s schemes.

Unwilling to play second fiddle to Clarissa, Hester takes action to get her out of the way.

I had an odd response to the film. I can’t recommend it, it seems dated and isn’t so bad it’s good. Still it was interesting enough to finish and see what would happen. Clichés abound as the dark haired woman, Hester is bad and unlikeable throughout and Clarissa, the blond is more virtuous. Toby is meant to be Black, but weirdly enough they hired a white boy to play the role and covered him in make up that looked like shoe polish. Clarissa has him dressed as if he was at an Indian court or like a 17th century footman.

The film was melodramatic somewhat like a cheap romance novel. I didn’t understand why this was a Criterion Collection film. I did read on their website that it was a highly successful film due to the racy story, which seems pretty tame, though most Hollywood films now don’t show the “fair-haired girl” cheating on her husband.

The essay on Criterion’s site offered this explanation:

With its overheated emotions and air of bodice-ripping unrefinement, The Man in Grey both flouted new guidelines from Parliament encouraging studios to produce tales of nobility and sacrifice for wartime audiences and disgusted critics, who saw it as the stuff of cheap paperbacks. This mattered little to moviegoers, who not only gobbled up the film’s plot twists, making it one of the year’s ten highest-grossing films, but also delighted in its fresh crop of stars, especially Mason, whose sensually cruel Rohan made him an overnight sensation. Despite its guilty pleasures, though, The Man in Grey is hardly frivolous: beneath its pulpy exterior, there’s a sophisticated depiction of the ways class and gender inform social interaction.

Mr. Selfridge, Season 2, Episode 3

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In the third episode of Mr. Selfridge’s second season, Delphine Day (Polly Walker)organizes a card game with some of the influential movers and shakers she knows including Harry and Lord Loxley. It’s wonderful to see the smug Loxley lose to Harry.

People are coming to terms with the war. Agnes receives a letter from her brother George and though it’s been redacted he seems chipper. Miss Mardle takes in a Belgian refugee. She expects Florian to be a woman’s name, but it turns out that her refugee is a young man, a rather innocent and attractive Belgian. If he brings any chocolate into the house, she’ll be putty in his hands. This mix up is rather weak. Of course, Miss Mardle could arrange to have a woman live with her and someone else could take in Mr. Florian.

I’m worried about Henri who’s very mysterious this episode. His secret life remains so, to a larger extent. He’s giving lots of money to a suspicious looking man, who’s supposed to track a woman down for him. Since he’s gotten on Mr. Thackery’s bad side, Thackery follows him around town looking for dirt. Henri had best watch out. My guess is that while the problem may not be innocent it’s not as bad as it seems. Thackery expects that Henri is a German spy. Poppycock, Thackery. Poppycock.

Things are looking up for Lady Loxley as her husband’s finances are going up since he’s getting kick backs for army procurement deals. She’s been authorized to get a new wardrobe. It’s a pity that Mr. Thackery just couldn’t pick up on the newer trends. All he could show her seemed dated, though I thought the gowns were stunning, just not right for wartime.

Rose was used nicely in this episode. She saved the day as the store must employ women in the warehouse. Their garments made work nearly impossible. No one at the store really knew what to do, but Rose stepped in and figured it all out. Later when Mr. Crab organized shooting practice for store employees, Rose impressed her son Gordon with her expertise. I love seeing these new facets of hers and I’m glad to see she and Harry’s marriage is improving. Yet I do fear Daphne is up to something with Harry. She was needlessly secretive about the card game when she saw Rose.

All in all, the season’s shaping up nicely. The new characters are intriguing, though troublesome and having the mother and girls away makes the cast size more manageable for the writer. I don’t miss Miss Love at all or Harry’s philandering. While that will no doubt return, I’m glad the show isn’t all about infidelity and illicit romance. The show had a sleazier streak last season, which I’m not missing.

Mr. Selfridge, Season 2

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Mr. Selfridge’s second season kicked off a couple weeks ago. The first episode picks up as Selfridge’s is about to celebrate its firth anniversary. Time’s flown by and it shows for some and not for others, which is odd. I was glad to see my favorite characters/actors, but the first episode was strange because the story pretty much wipes aside, or minimizes the problems Harry faced at the end of season 1 when his wife, fed up with his philandering and the public ridicule of a satirical play about Harry, left as did his best friend and most talented colleague, Henri LeClere. As if that weren’t enough, Harry’s reporter pal childishly turned on him, because he wasn’t available mmm.

I found it implausible that Harry wasn’t more affected by isolation. He’s a gregarious man who needs his social network to make him who he is. Without that energy, Harry’s nothing. He’d have hit rock bottom and then had to find new friends as well as new loves. He did find new women to replace his lover Eva Love, but Henri and Frank’s friendships were left void. I didn’t buy that that wouldn’t have left a big hole or that Selfridge would have tried to fill it. I also found it odd that Rose, Gordon and Frank all reappear at the same time. Yes, it’s the anniversary, but someone would have reconnected earlier and others might never have.

It’s just weird that in pre-WWI era Agnes, Kitty and Vincent are still single. One of them would have married. It’s odd that we don’t really know why Henri hit the skids. If J. Walter Thompson, New York didn’t work out, why not return to Chicago’s Marshall Fields, Macy’s or Paris? Why would he wind up in squalor? It’s not like he’s a gambler or drinker. I’m also surprised that Miss Mardle has chosen to stay on at Selfridge’s and work with her lover Mr. Grove as his new, young wife has baby after baby. Only a glutton for punishment would. Since she took a risk on Selfridge’s store, you’d think she’d have the pluck to get a new job.

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The second episode, where Henri seems to return for good, had a better storyline. I’m glad that Miss Mardle has come into money. We’ve got some new villians this year. Poor Lady Mae is married to a wife beater, who’s destitute. He’s cut off her funds since he has no money. It’s good to see Harry defend Lady Mae and all women against this abusive blackguard.

Rose is back and has taken up with a new friend, Miss P whom she met on the ship back to London. Rose needs a few more friends in London, but it’s just too convenient for the writers to make this one the owner of a risqué bar. Mr. Selfridge always tries to titillate in an anachronistic, implausible way.

Agnes’s character and storyline draw me it. I’m happy to see her back from Paris where she apprenticed at Galleries LaFayette. As the new head of display she’s got her hands full, particularly since the new head of fashion took an immediate dislike to her and is doing his best to sabotage her. Thank God, Harry knew that Henri would consider coming back if it were to help this damsel in distress, (whom he loved and left). Though I like Victor, I prefer to see Agnes with Henri. Most characters don’t get two fine young men to choose from. It’s an embarrassment of riches, in a way.

Mr. Selfridge

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That sign is the spitting image of Marshall Field’s sign

I never saw Mr. Selfridge last year. I’d left the US and just didn’t get hooked. Friends thought it wasn’t up to Downton Abbey and no one I knew followed it. From the promos the show seemed more brash, than Downton so I wasn’t drawn to it.

However last year I loved The Paradise, a period drama covering the same exciting era of the development of department stores, which affected women’s rights and freedoms. Shopping was revolutionized (a mixed blessing) as now it wasn’t just a task, but a creative, imaginative endeavor. With a lull in programming for the Anglophile who likes history, I gave Mr. Selfridge a try.

At first I really didn’t like it. Though he was inventive and a caring employer, Harry Gordon Selfridge (Jeremy Piven) is a womanizer, drinker and a bull in a china shop. Though he’s married to a beautiful, smart woman who is portrayed as having no problems in the bedroom, he prefers to frequent girly shows and pursue Eva Love, a burlesque singer. Granted this girly show is PG by our standards, it wasn’t then and it’s hard to get drawn into a show about a pig, after watching Downton Abbey where high standards predominate.

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I’m not sure why, but I did stick with the show and liked it more as time went on. The female characters in this era of suffragettes and working women drew me in. We’re supposed to identify with Agnes (Aisling Loftus), a shop assistant who gets sacked for letting Selfridge behind the counter in the first store she worked in. The stern floorwalker saw this and saw her exchange with friendly, American Selfridge and gave her the sack saying “We’re not that kind of store.” Out on the street, unable to find another job with a younger brother to support, Agnes summons the pluck to ask Mr. Selfridge for a job. Pluck’s Selfridge’s life’s blood and he hires her. In the first season Agnes’ growth has been as compelling as watching Selfridge succeed. She’s been promoted to lady’s fashion, fallen in love (though she doesn’t call it that), escaped a drunken, abusive father and shown her talent for design and retail. She’s not as interesting as The Paradise’s Denise, whom I think has more spark, but her rags to riches story entertains.

In the first episodes it was hard to watch Rose Buckingham Selfridge (Francis O’Connor) put up with her philandering husband. That hasn’t gotten easier, and I cringe when Rose gets too close to a starving artist, who later tries to come on to her teenage daughter, but Rose’s scene when she puts Harry’s lover, Eva in her place showed grace under pressure. Rose is complex and it can’t be easy to be married to Harry, not just because of his carousing but also due to his personality.

Like Downton Abbey, subplots and secondary characters like the sophisticated, conniving Lady Mae Loxley (Kathleen Kelly) who arranges Selfridge’s financial backing when his first partner pulls out, Mr. Grove the head of staff who’s wife is an invalid so he’s got a thing going with the strict head of accessories, Miss Mardle. I will criticize Mr. Selfridge for trying to spice up history for the sake of ratings. While infidelity is nothing new, it’s rampant in this drama and it comes across as a play for ratings. One philandering character is enough for an hour’s television. Give other characters other problems. (I doubt that request would be heeded.)

Henri Leclair (Grégory Fitoussi of Engrenage fame) lends savoir faire to the store as he’s a master of window design. He’s also a pillar for Selfridge, a loyal colleague and friend from their days in Chicago. He adds romance as towards the end of season 1, he turns to innocent Agnes to replace his French lover, a modern woman who always wears a tie and who works for J. Walter Thompson. I was sorry to see how Agnes got left and didn’t quite buy how stoically she let him off the hook.

The show’s a bit of a guilty pleasure. It could be better, but I guess I’m on board for another season. Some critics have pointed out that Piven’s not good with nuanced emotion. Close ups should stop. They fall flat. (Downton doesn’t use them.) I think that would help. That’s probably valid, still since Selfridge puts so much of his heart into his store, his work family.

Sherlock: The Sign of Three

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Warning, readers: Spoilers below.

John Watson marries Mary Marston in this episode. Yet Sherlock in many ways overshadows the couple, as one would expect. While the secondary characters like Mrs. Hudson are excited for the couple most are worried about Sherlock. How will he handle this change in his friendship with Watson? I’d rather the big question surrounded solving a crime and capturing the criminal.

The episode did have its bright spots: the costumes were splendid as were the settings. I really liked the bright yellow walls in the place where the reception was held.

The episode started with Lestrade desperately trying to capture three elusive bank robbers. A series of scenes shows the police’s near misses over the course of a year. (Why wasn’t Sherlock brought in to help?) Just as Lestrade and his officers are about to make their arrest, he gets a text from Sherlock. “Help!” Though capturing these robbers is crucial to Lestrade, he decides to race over to 221 B Baker Street to help Sherlock. Since he thinks this plea indicates a dire emergency, Lestrade calls the station to send loads of officers over to 221 B.

But wouldn’t you know it was a big misunderstanding? Sherlock just needed a question about John’s wedding answered. If we hadn’t seen this sort of joke before it would be funny. The show’s done this before with John racing to Sherlock’s aid for a false alarm. While Sherlock’s behavior wouldn’t change, those around him would learn and would think twice before sounding the alarm or racing to him. Why didn’t Lestrade call first? He’s not an idiot.

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The show was uneven to me. Because of all the attention paid to the wedding and how Sherlock would cope, I felt the show was off kilter. The first crime we see involves the murder of a Royal Guard and that was undertaken mainly as a diversion to get the boys out of the house.

There were some scenes with Mycroft which seemed superfluous. Since the episode is entitled “The Sign of Three,” and does borrow characters’ names from “The Sign of Four, I’d hoped we’d see some version of the annoying, and humorous Abernathy Jones, whose in that novel. A modern Abernathy Jones could be hilarious or vexing and intrigue us all. We don’t need Mycroft in every story.

The crimes seem tacked on as if its a bother to deal with them, which shouldn’t be the case. They are the crux of the series. Jonathan Small, the murderer, has a personality and back story that’s paper thin. In the original there’s much more dimension to him.

The writers fill the time with sequences that wore out their welcome fast. I didn’t need to see a protracted stag party/pub crawl with Sherlock and Watson getting plastered. Sure, if you must, show them getting drunk, but do it quickly. The humor of the drunk stumbling around is of the lowest order. I can do without the cliché. Also, the wedding speech dragged on. Though it was interspersed with lots of flashbacks, it still dragged. The speech contained some touching moments and did provide some exposition, but it went on far too long.

After last week’s episode, “The Empty Hearse,” which was weighed down by nods to fans and fan fiction, this episode made me long for Jeremy Brett‘s Sherlock Holmes. While I’m fine with the idea of deviating from tradition, I do still want a good story and not a potentially good story hidden amongst easy gags. It seems like writers Moffat, Gatiss and Thompson, are drunk on the show’s popularity and have taken to writing to the giddier fans. I could excuse a fluffy episode like this if we weren’t limited to three Sherlocks a year.

Not to harp too much about the original, but in the novel, we do learn why John so loves Mary. He worries about whether he’s too poor for her as she’s the heir to a fortune. He describes her character and in the end he is able to propose. I have liked the character of Mary Marston played by Amanda Abbington does a fine job, but she doesn’t have much background. She’s a beautiful cheerful woman who doesn’t try to divide these friends, but there’s no sign of why John’s marrying this beautiful, cheerful woman rather than another. In the book, that was clear.