Dear friends and readers,
If you read my other blog, Austen Reveries, you know I’ve been working on a paper on the importance of screenplays to be given this March at the ASECS, part of my larger project on Austen films, and just enjoyment of, interest in screenplays.
This week I’ve been reading great and powerful screenplays, chosen mostly as a result of what’s in print and well-prepared in two sets of what ought to be famous collections (John Gassner and Dudley Nicols, 10 Best Film Plays, 1942, and Best Film Plays  of 1943-44; and George Garrett, Jane Gelfman, and O. B. Hardison Jr’s Film Scripts 1, 2, 3, 4 (1970s). This to help me demonstrate the centrality and great power of them when well-prepated, and how they are a new changeable experimental genre, worthy reading and study in their own right. When I read Dashiell Hammet’s Watch on the Rhine adapted from Lillian Hellman’s stage play of the same name, the experience was gripping, almost as good as watching it. When I read Graham Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man this week (once again), maybe it was better in some ways. To my surprise, and not meaning at all to have Downton Abbey in mind (though Fellowes has been smart enough to publish the screenplays of the first three seasons completely annotated, with omitted scenes, stills, the works), I discovered a real provable source for one of the striking episodes of the first season: The Flower Show. Here is a still from that in Mrs Miniver:
First let me suggest just a few of the characteristics of screenplays that put them apart from other genres that I’m working on: The writer writes with camera visualization in mind, and an awareness of there will be a world created by the hallucinatory screen from production and costume designs: screenplays presuppose encompassing specific worlds constructed so the viewer shall suspend disbelief, and within this assumed imagined environment the scripts present bits of dialogue, descriptions of movements of setting, suggestions for actors and silent moments, and camera angles as a quick succession of fluid and suggestive experiences with movement involved, freed of the time and space of a literal stage. In recent contemporary films what happens in this film is conveyed through a continual movement back and forth between past and present time, with lingering voice-overs that spill voiced thoughts across the interwoven obsessively remembered past and present time in quick change montages. Studying film adaptations alongside the scripts has taught me the films are made of dislocated series of images which can be moved about; Sarah Cardwell demonstrated these are not in the present tense, but tenseless or timeless (in her essay “About Time”). The relation of the words, the dialogue and voice-over, crucially tell the relationships in time between the images. They are concentrated, the feel is intimate because of the close-ups, split seconds of visualization brings us close-up and magnifies the experience. From this comes fan groups for cults of stars. If you know who played the parts and have not seen the movie, you try to visualize the actors and actors; if you don’t know who played the parts, or the screenplay was never filmed, you try to cast it with favored actors and actresses.
In the second Gassner and Nicols volume the screenplays are accompanied by stills from the films dropped it (like illustrations for 19th century novels) at the spots in the screenplay they visualized. That’s also done in the New Market paperback shooting script series, and in many publications of screenplays — often the better ones will have essays by the writer, or a journal of the filming, or particulars about production design, costumes, houses …. Mrs Miniver is in the first volume so I went onto the Net to find stills. I was not surprised to discover I could not find shots for the most traumatic and best scenes — that’s typical. What one finds are stills where the people look beautiful. It’s also hard to find stills of landscape, and the encompassing world which is so central to films. I did find this one of her compassionating the German soldier after he terrified, threatened and was ready to kill her but then sat to eat and wait, and collapsed:
First the 1940s screenplay is extraordinary. It is not by Joyce Anstruther (also a poet) whose columns in the 1930s were a precursor of The Egg and I, or Bridget Jones, the self-deprecating woman, here quietly ironic about much of her life, but herself the cynosure of competence and complacent assured middle class life (discussed extraordinarily well by Alison Light in Forever England). I can see from just reading the screenplay, how it could have the effect on its viewership it did. It subscribes to the most appealing myths of what England is. Paradoxically at the same time like so many movies of the 1930s and 40s the central characters are upper middle class and as a matter of course have servants (This is true of the characters in Watch on the Rhine, it is not true of the characters in screenplays starting in the 1960s, then we are no longer in firm middle class households, no servants anywhere, e.g, Darling a 1965 screenplay and movie, The Apartment, same era). Mrs Miniver opens in an expensive men’s club in Pall Mall; they are going about their business undisturbed as yet. She is the wife of such a man; we see her first jumping off a bus and rushing back to an expensive shop to treat herself to an unnecessary concoction of a hat. Yet as the story went on, and we go home with her, are introduced to her servants (whom she treats well but keeps in good order by her benign orderly ways herself) I believed in her and these children. Her grown son home from Oxford. The girl he meets and falls in love with — but lacks her upper middle class rank (Orwell would find all the careful nuancing par for the course).
Well emotions are worked up as this orderly life begins to fall apart, but everyone is stout together. I found myself coming close to tears, especially when the family was in the bomb shelter under their house, intensely engaged when the German soldier broke into Mrs Miniver’s house (of course she dealt with him, a bit of luck too, which Mrs Miniver ever has). One of its authors was William Wyler, and apparently some of the lines he wrote for the screenplay were used by Roosevelt in one of his speeches. The sense of the characters are turned far away from Anstruther then.
What startled me though is here is an important story in the first season of Downton Abbey. Remember that Flower Show and how the dowager at the very end gave the prize for roses to Mr Moseley’s father. It had been assigned her as always. The way you can tell if something is a source is if the source has something idiosyncratic which is repeated. In Mrs Miniver the movie the prize is again award to the great dragon lady turned women-with-heart-of-gold, Lady Beldon and similarly when up there Lady Beldon lies and gives the prize to the man who deserves it.
It was then I asked myself if Mrs Miniver had a first name. Had Anstruthers and now these writers gone so far as to imitate earlier novels and not give us a first name for this lady. I hunted and found that at night when they talk (in separate twin beds of course) Mr Miniver who is referred to as Clem often calls her Kay.
Much is left out by Fellowes from the original: Mr Ballard (Henry Travers) who grew the beautiful rose wanted to name it Mrs Miniver and that had angered Lady Beldon as no rose should be named after a non-aristocrat. She had learned to accept that, and was about to about to accept seeing her granddaughter become engaged to Mrs Miniver’s son; Fellowes instead has Mr Moseley’s father accepting that he will always win second place though it breaks his heart. But Lady Beldon has always gotten it the way the Dowager had. The moment is much stronger in Mrs Miniver because of this secondary story of love and because the sirens have begun to wail loudly that the German bombers had been seen on their way.
Mrs Miniver is an important source text for a significant Downton Abbey the first season, and the attitude towards war in the second. In Mrs Miniver we see how class barriers break down and how everyone is valued together as they fight — so too in Downton Abbey season 2. (Sigh … .). Flower shows and the beauty and science in Kensington Gardens (its world-wide reputation alongside the Bronx Botanical Gardens) remain important symbols for middle class English-speaking people today. Another story in the first season, about Carson’s past was modelled on a story about Hudson’s past from the 1970s Upstairs/Downstairs. But using Mrs Miniver exposes how Downton Abbey repeats all the myths of this movie — other images in the movie reappear in Downton Abbey.
Let me bring up another unlikely or unexpected collocation: Dora Bruder, the autobiographical meditation by Patrick Modiano who won the Nobel this year. One theme of his book is how Dora Bruder, this young girl was just thrown away, powerless flotsam and jetsam when things got at all rough — or when the establishment decreed. Well in Mrs Miniver at said Flower Show we see a group of working class children from London who have been parceled out to people like Mrs Miniver. Of course not quite living in the great houses, or put in an attic, but that is not mentioned. We are to look quite sentimentally at them and think what an opportunity to get into the country. When the reality is these children in this movie are Dora Bruders. Who cares what happens to them as individuals, who considers it? how they got back home? if they got back home? why these were sent?
I did come across two other more general sources for Cora, Lady Grantham: I’m following a Future Learn course on British imperialism (on which much more in another blog) and came across the name of Mary Leiter, Lady Curzon, the first American wife of a Viceroy of India during the Raj, and aspects of her life reminded me of Cora, Lady Grantham. I like reading memoirs, someone recommended to me Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan (1877-1964), who wrote a readable autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold.
Mary’s book is a slender volume of letters selected out of volumes and volumes by John Bradley. Once Mary Leiter marries and becomes the viceroy’s wife her life is endless showing of herself for spectacle, and having babies and caring for them. She becomes less open too, much less. The glimpses of a worthwhile person become rare. She begins to sound like Jane Austen’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide when she poses, and registers no sense at all of what she (as a symbol and to keep up in this life style) is costing everyone else. Mary Leiter died of disease, sick and ailing by her early 30s, probably childbirth at the age of 36-37. Her mother-in-law died young too, similarly.
A biography by Nigel Nicolson tell you that Mary Leiter had been the daughter of a man who was a partner in one of these huge luxury-serving department stores that opened in the 1880s in NYC, London, Chicago — a Mr Selfridge (!), and Nicolson’s book opens with the portrait of such a store. These are a dying breed; now we get these cavernous warehouses of mostly junk. There are still a couple of them around: Lord and Taylor’s on 37th and 5th was still practicing making the person shopping feel as if he or she were a rich guest and all the objects important art, the experience somehow home-y, comfortable — complete with coffee for free at 9:30 (this was only 3 years ago). Anyway all her life she lived in a privileged environment, a glass box — only her real body she could not escape nor diseases. She was thought Jewish or half-Jewish because some names in the family “seemed Jewish.” In fact they were Memnonites. So she fits Cora, Lady Grantham — a link between one costume drama and another.
CVB reminds me of the Mitford sisters; she has that strong sense of what she deserves, who she is, and while she was wholly tyrannized over as a child (she was even whipped), and when a young adult could be coerced into making bad important decisions (like marrying the super-rich Duke of Marlborough), give her time and she gets out of it — and married a nobody Frenchman who she lived happily with in France until WW2 when they escaped to the US. Lady Carnavon, the turn of the century owner of Highclere Castle who wandered about the world as an anthropologist of sorts, was a strong independent individualist iconclastic too — none of them stayed home to obey any gongs for dinner ….
Long ago at the close of Caleb Williams William Godwin had his imprisoned driven-insane servant hero, ask why are these people numinous (he had actually told the truth about his employer killing a man), why is are they so much more valued than others. The interest of Modiano’s book is how hard he tries to discover her life and what happened to her, and that he does find a trail. It’s much more than a detective story.
Here is one of Joyce Anstruther’s poems — about whom I’ll write one of my foremother poet blogs next week, the first I’ve done in a couple of years:
Dedication to an Unknown Reader, from The Glass-Blower (1940)
Like rays shed
By a spent star
The words of a dead
That through bleak space
Unchecked fly on,
Though heart, hand, face
To dust are gone;
And you who read
Shall only guess
What thorn-sharp need,
What love, lust, dream,
Shudder or sigh
Lit the long beam
That meets your eye:
Nor guess you never
So well, so true,
Shall comfort ever
Reach from you
To me, an old
Black shrivelled sphere,
Who has been cold
This million year.
She was nowhere as uncomplicatedly competent and cheerful as she made her Mrs Miniver to be. See my preliminary foremother poet blog: Joyce Anstruther.