A Procession of One

Continuation of: Distant Fire, Delightful Gleams

There are certain things in life one feels to be good and beautiful and must hunger after them. Throughout the 15th century Italy (1), it had become fashionable for men of wealth, influence and of the church to decorate their premises with fine arts of those derived from the classical Greco-Roman cultural heritage – collections primarily of Greek art from finds in mainland Italy and Sicily.

It is no small matter how much the architectural and artistic achievements of the ancient Greeks have set its effects on the Western culture in general. The renewed interest in the classical past and in the grammar of Greek architecture came not only with the progress in trade and banking activities of both Venetian and Genoese families in the Aegean, but also from the steadily growing awareness and appreciation in Western Europe for Greek literature. While, amongst other aspects, this was fostered by the printing of Greek type initiated by Aldus Manutius (ca. 1449-1515) in Venice’s Sant’Agostino neighbourhood, it also spearheaded an increase in the influx of visiting scholars between Western Europe and the Greek lands.

The taste for art collecting per se aroused far reaching expectations for a brilliant coterie of sculptors, painters, and goldsmiths which occasioned burgeoning of an imposing series of reproductions of Greco-Roman art, etc.

On an equal par with Genoa, Milan and Venice in northern Italy, Firenze of that time was one of the richest, liveliest regions of varied economic activity. Primarily a manufacturing centre with booming export trades, its principal foundation of wealth lay in the cloth industry. Furthermore, the Medici Bank which ranked as the biggest and most respected financial magnets of Europe was a prestigious laurel to Firenze’s singular privilege as the top most banking centre.

Mindful of the historical personalities of the wealthy merchant families of Firenze, foremost amongst men from the long line of bourgeois Mediceans includes: Cosimo de’ Medici (Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici/Cosimo the Elder (Pater Patriae, 1389-1464), his grandsons: Lorenzo de’ Medici (Lorenzo il Magnifico, 1449-92), Giuliano de’ Medici (1453-1478) (see profile pictures on the title card (2)), and counting two of their family popes: Pope Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici, 1475-1521, pope from 1513), and Pope Clement VII (Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici, 1478-1534, pope from 1523). As Mediceans, theirs was a procession of one – all too princely a Medici to neglect their great patronage for all kinds of arts and science. 

Essentially, the Medici transformed art’s status to “fine arts”. There is some modern-day appraisal that this view could be a myth created by the Medici themselves. Then again, to appreciate the many-sided aspects that could outshine this view, of course, one should go to Tuscany and Italy on the whole. Where better to do it than there?

The Medici’s endeavours helped to remove the impediment on opportunities at hand for their contemporary sculptors, painters, architects, and thereby enriched their earnings, career success and recognition. Above all, they paved the way for most of the artisans to demonstrate their brilliant talents and expressions through so many artistic treasures of the Renaissance. One such personage was Baccio Bandinelli (Bartolommeo di Michelangelo Bandinelli/Brandini, 1493–1560).

Baccio Bandinelli was one amongst the most favoured by the House of Medici which included the great maestro Michelangelo (Michelagniolo di Lodovico Buonarroti (1475-1564), Donatello (Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi, ca. 1386-1466), Bertoldo di Giovanni (ca. 1440-1491), Giuliano da Sangallo (Giuliano Giamberti, 1443-1516), Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, Ca. 1444-1510), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) amongst others.

Being one of Firenze’s principal mannerist sculptors, it was Baccio Bandinelli who created the sculpture: Hercules and Cacus(1525-34) which stands guard on a pedestal on the right side of the portal of Palazzo Vecchio while, a marble replica of Michelangelo’s David (1501-04) (3) stood in pride of place on the other side along the old Ringhiera (4).

Follow-on: “The Greek Connection” (Part 3)

  1. The term Italy in this write up refer to the country as a whole since Italy finally became a unified nation-state only in 1871;
  2. Picture credits of Title header: Source: commons.wikimedia.org: From left:

1) Ritratto di Cosimo il Vecchio – Portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder by Jacopo Pontormo (1494–1557) – Galleria degli Uffizi, Firenze;

2) Ritratto di Lorenzo Il Magnifico Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici by Giorgio Vasari  (1511–1574) – at Galleria degli Uffizi, Firenze; 

3) Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici by Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) – at Accademia di Belle Arti G. Carrara, Bergamo

3) This substitute of Michelangelo’s David was created by sculptor Luigi Arrighetti (1858-1938) with Saul Fanfani (1856-1919) and installed here in June 1910. The original David (installed in May 1504) was removed in 1873 to the shelter of Galleria dell’Accademia Firenze to avoid further weathering and damage. A bronze cast of David by Clement Papi (1803-75), can be seen at Piazzale Michelangelo, Firenze, where it was on view from September 13, 1875

4) Only the remnants of the original Ringhiera of the 14th century remains after its removal in 1812.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Distant Fire, Delightful Gleams

I have come where I have long desired to be…. – Charles V

Within the wide Piazza della Signoria and its Loggia dei Lanzi (1), the open-air museum on the southern side, there are many sculptural art from a time when Arts enjoyed extensive prosperity in Firenze (Florence), Italy.

This area was frequently bustling with activity before the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic took over globally and triggered significant precautionary restrictions such as traveller mobility, health-related formalities, border closures, travel bans, etc.

As in the case of Italy, the world’s fifth-most visited destination, the crisis inflicted a heavy toll on its tourism, plunging it into the worst recession since World War II. But the recent popular expression, “Even George Clooney doesn’t come anymore with this pandemic,” is now giving way to optimism among the population as there are efforts to reopen the country to tourism from June forward owing to the progressive easing of restrictions and the awaited EUDCC (EU Digital COVID Certificate) Gateway for safe movement between countries.

Being constant visitors, Firenze is always linked to our minds with summer and sunshine. When the blue Tuscan sky is magically clear or whenever we do not entertain any intention to swap Firenze (its palaces, monuments, galleries and piazzas, etc) for a full-field investigation of the towns and cities nestling in the hillsides of Tuscany, this here is one of the places where we often spent time during the Florentine leg of our visits.

A certain pleasing ambiance prevails at this sprawling Piazza with its public-space displays which are more conducive to us for serious reflection than just to sit elsewhere in Firenze and people-watch – even though, at times, with the pleasure of listening through earphones to the delightful masters of Italian opera: Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848), Vincenzo Bellini (1801-35), Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), or Giacomo Puccini (1858 –1924), in their home settings.

Compared to the public squares of Firenze such as Piazza del Duomo, Piazza Santa Croce, Piazza della Repubblica, the show-place of Firenze is Piazza della Signoria. This is reputedly the place where almost all the Florentine history probably has passed.

Adding to its plus side are all those strenuous sculptures executed with the most delicate mastery, as well as the great “Neptune” fountain (Fontana del Nettuno/il Biancone) of Bartolommeo Ammanati (1511-92). In many instances, it leaves distinct impressions and memories on the visitors.

During high tide of visitors in the Piazza, few may fail to notice an inscribed circular plaque on the pearl grey Pietra Serena (2) paved pavement which marks the spot of the Cimento di Fuoco, the ordeal of fire on April 7, 1498 when Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98) was hanged and burned.

Before the Loggia became a day-to-day controlled area for certain hours following an episode of vandalism to the marble statue of Pio Fedi’s “The Rape of Polyxena” (3), we used to sit on the left stone-terrace that runs between the two Corinthian columns, closer to the lion by F. Vacca (4), one of the two colossal marble Medici lions which flank the entrance of the Loggia.

The imposing Palazzo Vecchio loomed to our right. Its principal doorway with an overhead decorative fronton is conspicuous in the center of the two “termini” posts, which formerly served as supports to the chain to bar the entrance.

From where we sat, it was easier to clearly admire the topic of my present write-up located on our right side of Palazzo’s entrance: the white marble sculpture of the most celebrated of all the heroes of antiquity in the Renaissance’s colourless view of the Classical nude: Hercules.

Continued in Part 2: “A Procession of One

Notes:

  1. The loggia was variously known as Loggia dei Priori, Loggia della Signoria, Loggia dei Lanzi, Loggia di Orcagna, D’Orcagna – not necessarily in this order. By Benci di Cione and Simone di Francesco Talenti, the Loggia (1376-82) was originally designed to shelter the Signoria from adverse weather conditions during civil and religious ceremonies or to accommodate the Priori for their convocations of the people. In contemporary times, it suits as a venue for Live Orchestra concerts, etc.
  2. Pietra Serena: Sandstone typical of Florentine Renaissance architecture and building mainly extracted from the hills of Settignano and Gonfolina area/Lastra a Signa, in the northeast and in the west of Firenze.
  3. Pio Fedi’s “The Rape of Polyxena” (1865/6) depicts Achilles receiving Trojan princess Polyxena when she offered herself for the return of her brother Hector’s body. Having secured Polyxena in his left arm, Achilles’ sword is raised to beat Queen Hecuba, who is desperately trying to protect her daughter. The dead person under Achilles’ feet is the corpse of Prince Hector.
  4. The right lion is of Grecian origin brought from Rome together with the 6 antique sculptures placed against the inner wall.
  5. This is for Carina, my travel companion and wife, who understands perfectly what ‘dedication’ means.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

With Holier Heavens Above

During a stay in the Italian city of Firenze some years ago, it was on an April day we visited the medieval city of Siena.

Of the many Tuscan cities we covered during this visit – unlike Pisa with its historic churches, medieval castles and the Leaning Bell Tower of Pisa Cathedral; – or the gorgeous Lucca, the “city of 100 churches”, which does not occupy a hilltop position but takes pride for being the birthplace of the opera composer Giacomo Puccini; – or the port city of Livorno with its great seafood dishes and “Quartiere La Venezia”, – it was in Siena we dedicated more days on our itinerary to explore the marvels that awaited us.

It was whilst in Roma years ago, when the idea first entered our minds to include Siena in our bucket-list of places to visit.

At Roma, we had chanced upon the statue of the she-wolf who supposedly suckled the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Roma. This saga of Romulus and Remus holds the myth that Siena is founded by Senius, the son of Remus, and that Remus was, in the course of founding Roma, slain by Romulus. Yet another tradition has it that Siena’s name is related to the Gallic tribe of the Senones.

Located in the heart of Tuscany and enclosed within medieval walls, the city of Siena which rises up on the ridge of three hills has its ancient aspect still intact. Rich in medieval histories significantly from the Middle Ages, Siena is renowned for its time-honoured traditions, works of art and architecture, churches, museums, old patrician villas, brick-red buildings, narrow winding streets and alleys, fine cuisine, etc.

Unfortunately, our visit didn’t coincide with the traditional bareback horserace il Palio de Siena held two times every summer around Piazza del Campo, Siena’s main square where the old Roman forum once stood.

One of Europe’s greatest medieval squares, UNESCO has declared this historic city center as a World Heritage Site. Siena is featured in many movies including in one of Daniel Craig’s James Bond outing “Quantum of Solace” which shows snippets from the Palio race.

It is said that the herring-bone pattern of brick paving of the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo also symbolizes the cloak of the Madonna which shelters Siena.

At one of the restaurants in Siena where we dined twice, one could hardly miss a marble placard hanging behind the drinks counter. Its contents read:

Salve, Regina, mater misericordia,

Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra salve

Ad te clamamus, exules filii hevae. (1)

This placard initiated a friendly conversation with the “happily unmarried” owner of the restaurant who went on to explain that, ever since the battle of Monteaperti (September 1260) between Siena and Firenze, the Blessed Virgin had been the patron saint of Siena and the town had assumed the designation of Civitas Virginis. He was steadfast in his conviction that Siena is not only blessed by the Virgin Mary’s cloak, but also by two other saints of this city who were exalted by signs from God – i.e., St Catherine (1347-1380), a tertiary of the Dominican Order at Siena, and St Bernardino of Siena (Bernardino degli Albizzeschi, 1380-1444), the mighty preacher.

A Franciscan preacher and prominent proponent of devotion to the Holy Name, Bernardino is also credited as the creator of the YHS (or IHS) trigram from which the rays shine forth.

Siena is simply the town of Caterina Benincasa, better known as Saint Catherine of Siena. She was the twenty-third of twenty-five children of Lapa di Puccio dé Piacenti and Giacomo di Benincasa, a dyer by trade from the district of Fontebranda in Siena, a place permeated by the odour of tanning and dyeing.

A bundle of love and joy, Catherine embodied all the feminine virtues expected in a little girl. Living within close proximity to the convent church of Dominicans, she felt drawn to the morals and values of Christianity, and from the early age of six, experienced mystical visions. In 1363 at the age of sixteen, she received the habit of the Sisters of Penance of St Dominic, called the Mantellate. During the course of her life she practiced severe austerity and combined with prayer, self-denial and works of charity became an outstanding figure of medieval Catholicism.

It is written that Christ’s stigmata were imprinted on her body on April 1, 1375 during a visit to Pisa where for the first time she saw the sea. Fond of definitions, she would later record her mystical experiences in writing in addition to nearly four hundred letters she brought forth to people of Italy and Europe as a whole.

Other than St Bridget (Swedish princess Birgitta Birgersdotter, 1303-1373, the patron saint of Sweden) the mystic and foundress of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour; it was Catherine who predominantly prevailed on the deeply religious Pope Gregory XI (Pierre Roger de Beaufort – Pope from 1370-1378) to end the Avignon Papacy and return the papal court from Avignon to the Tomb of Peter, Roma, which the Pope did during mid-January, 1377 –the main and courageous event of his reign.

Both Catherine and Bernardino have encountered the flywheel of the great Pestilence that devastated Europe during their respective life times. They indulged in taking care of the sick and the poor, nursing the unfortunate multitudes of plague victims around them. We could relate to that situation owing to its similarity to what our world is experiencing now as the spread of Covid-19 achieves exponential acceleration.

Today, 29th marks the 641st year since St Catherine of Siena, the greatest of Christian mystics, died in Roma on April 29, 1380. She is enshrined in Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Roma while, among other relics, Her Sacred Head brought to Siena from Rome in 1383 is housed in a reliquary inside St Catherine’s Chapel at Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico in Siena. In June 1461, Catherine was canonized by Pope Pius II when with great solemnity the body of the saint, exhumed for the purpose, lay before the Pope holding a spotless lily (an attribute scarcely ever omitted in her paintings), that was placed in her hand.

It was in 1939 when, along with San Francesco d’Assisi, Catherine was declared as the patron saint of Italy by the newly elected Pope Pius XII. Another pious occasion was at a solemn ceremony, fragrant with Catherine’s spirit, in St Peter’s Basilica on October 4, 1970 when Pope Paul VI placed her in the list of the Doctors of the Church.

In 1999, vide an Apostolic Letter, Pope John Paul II proclaimed St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Teresa Benedicta of The Cross and St. Catherine of Siena, co-patronesses of Europe. That was the victory lap of the Godliness in those great women – and a reminder that there is a God who lives on in all of us – a divinity – a power for good.

I now take leave with Catherine’s own words: “Speak the truth as if you had a million voices. It is silence that kills the world.”

Until next time, Jo

NB:

  1. Hail, Holy Queen, mother of mercy; Hail our life, our sweetness and our hope; To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.
  2. This is dedicated to all the Covid-19 warriors, alive and dead, around the World.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Scoppio del Carro, Florence, Italy

For many years the enchanting land of Italy played host to us during our yearly visits. Such frequency is ample proof how irresistible the charm of “Bel paese” is to us. Italy perfectly fitted our idea of a beautiful panoramic tapestry running its length and width – endowed with all manners of fine features: nature, history, religion, tradition, arts, architecture, cultural heritage, romance, wine, cuisine and enthusiastic people. Giuseppe Verdi rightly praised it when he said: “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.”
But at these times, the mood is sombre. Italy is in the news for the wrong reasons – just as in the case of numerous countries. Many of us are on self-quarantine observing sanitised lifestyles, keeping social distancing day-to-day as precaution against a deadly virus hell-bent on wreaking havoc across the planet. The airports, railway stations, streets, stadiums, theatres, Malls, gridlocked traffic – all remain empty.
But what we see around us is love in action – the proclamation that the truest thing about us by this isolation is not our brokenness, but our belovedness. Our adherence to self-quarantine is the most remarkable act of human solidarity to conquer this daunting virus and it allows me to remain confident of our people’s ability to rise to any challenge.
During this Eastertide when Italy, like many countries, are struggling to defeat the menace of the virus, I indulge in quiet reflection focused on our past visits abroad, especially to Italy in 2012 when we had the pleasure to witness Scoppio del Carro at Florence during Pasqua. The relevant post is reblogged below. Jo

Manningtree Archive


Easter Sunday in Florence. The sky was overcast with dark clouds, as we walked up Via dei Servi, bound southwest towards Piazza del Duomo. Of all the beautiful names this city is called, especially Firenze as we call it with our Italian friends, there are also those who lovingly use its most beautiful form, Fiorenza, for it is still considered the flower of all Italian graces. As regards this write up, I would rather refer to it in its simplest form: Florence.

Only few meters ahead, beyond the curve of the street, stood the magnificent cathedral of Santa Maria della Fiore (Il Duomo) crowned with Filippo Brunelleschi’s soaring octagonal dome resting on a drum. It had rained during the early hours of today when we returned to our rented apartment in Via degli Alfani following the midnight Mass at this cathedral – something we had…

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The Roots and Wings of Valentine

Manningtree Archive

1

Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year – the holidays of the short evenings are over. The spring vegetables are slowly entering the markets. Given that love is the keynote of that sweetest day of February when moments are made into memories, shops have displayed pretty favours for exchange between lovers and couples to mark the Valentine’s Day. As usual, a good number of high-flying hotels will be a much sought after destination on the 14th of this month for the lovers and couples out for a memorable candlelit evening of gastronomy, drinks, music, romance and to feel like a million dollars.

2Where we live, distinctive venues for such occasions are many and more are sprouting up every other month. Ecstatic to get it going, the dining tables there will be prettily decorated with fresh flowers, ferns, bisque cupids, candles, tableware, in addition to scattered red rose petals over…

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DESK SET

1957 – CinemaScope – Color by De Luxe – 20th Century-Fox

A couple of days ago, we had the pleasure to watch Desk Set, a crackling comedy which scored a genuine acting triumph for the romantic team of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

One of the newly acquired DVDs to our archive, Desk Set invites one to the Research and Reference Department of the fictitious Federal Broadcasting Company in New York. Located on the 28th floor, this department is run by the self-assured, and regretfully unmarried, Bunny Watson (a newly rejuvenated Katharine Hepburn) who works congenially with smart, clean appearing co-workers: Bunny’s breezy ally and sturdy supporter Peg Costello (comedienne Joan Blondell, chosen over actress Thelma Ritter); Sylvia Blair (dashing Dina Merrill, daughter of billionaire Marjorie Merriweather Post, in her début role); and Ruthie Saylor (Sue Randall, aka. Marion Burnside Randall in her youthful freshness).

Equipped with a library containing a wide range of informative data for their manual reference, their responsibility in that corporate environment was to answer almost any query for information covering a wide field. Their motto: Be on time, do your work, be down in the bar at 5:30. As often as not, the kind of abstruse questions they encountered goes like: “What is the highest lifetime (baseball) batting average?”; “I’m trying to find out the truth about the Eskimo habit of rubbing noses. Do they rub noses, or don’t they?”….

Into their cheerful work place walked in a strange character who identified himself as Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy). His face appeared stern, mask-like, almost as though he was trying to keep his feelings hidden. No sooner had he appeared, for reason initially unbeknown to these girls, he looked around the office and started measuring the layout with a tape measure – at one stage, seeking assistance of the girls for this purpose. Maybe he’s an interior decorator assigned to redecorate their department? – or to build a Midget golf?, or is it going to be a Snack bar?, or maybe they are getting an air-conditioning unit, finally? But he didn’t look anything like an interior decorator – rather like one of those men who’s just suddenly switched to vodka.

When Bunny met Richard upon her arrival back from an appointment at IBM and a small shopping at Bonwit’s, she had wondered if he is from the story department. But that was soon cleared when he revealed he’s a methods engineer – adding that every time he mentioned what he does, people go into a panic. Before she could extract further information, Richard was called upstairs to meet the company’s boss Mr. Azae at his office.

In fact Richard is the efficiency expert assigned there on secret orders of Mr. Azae (Nicholas Joy) to investigate ground setup to install an ingenious electronic brain which Richard has invented. The machine is to be initially activated at Bunny’s reference department. For that reason, Richard intends to hang around that department for a couple of weeks, maybe a month, to get a comprehensive picture of its working. According to Mr. Azae, it’s vital that this be kept a secret from everyone, especially the girls in Research. Of course, it’s almost impossible to keep anything a secret around there.

When Bunny accepted Richard’s invitation for lunch, Peg in her wisdom suggested she try the chicken with truffles, Poularde truffée, expecting Richard would take her to the marvellous Le Pavillon, the finest French restaurant in New York. In all sincerity, Richard’s idea of place for lunch was the rooftop of their building in that grey, chilly weather. What an ideal place for concentration where they can cheerfully banish thoughts of waiters, people, telephones, central heating – save for some pigeons up there – so what?

At the rooftop, a table was soon set. Bunny’s face looked as if she had suffered some bereavement. She noted that he had brought along roast beef, ham, cheese and plenty of hot coffee for a square meal. Their lunchtime conversation illuminated him about the little research she undertook on him and she showed off her knowledge that he is one of the leading exponents of the electronic brain in USA. Richard was just ahead of his time. He is the creator of an electronic brain machine called EMARAC…. the Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator – an electronic information retrieval system which offered quick access to enormous amount of detail – the machine she had seen at its demonstration at IBM earlier.

Of late, Peg was the first one to fear from the mistaken notion that the electronic brain will replace them sooner or later. Indeed, the electronic brain in the Payroll of their Federal Broadcasting Company was designed by Richard and no sooner had it installed there to perform tasks faster than the staff, half the department had disappeared. Worries about their jobs proved to be a persistent cloud over the heads of Sylvia and Ruthie while Bunny found herself drifting closer to Richard in spite of her affection for her conceited paramour Mike Cutler (Gig Young), the in-charge of her Reference Department, who found his relationship interfered by the intrusive methods engineer.

The wise-cracking, adorable Peg was trying to encourage Bunny to resist setting her heart on the elusive Mike who, having declared his love, isn’t proposing but even so, the starry-eyed Bunny seemed too willing to give it all up to become Mrs. Mike. In Peg’s book, Mike will certainly take romance but just isn’t the domestic type – he was running at least two horses.

At one instance, Bunny invited Richard to her apartment during a storm. She suggested he dine with her – well aware that the very fact they were dropped at her apartment by the office grapevine Mr. Smithers himself who had too lively a mind, would set tongues wagging soon. Inside the apartment, Richard kicked up his heels and made himself cosy in the man’s robe she lend him to replace his wet cloths and other accoutrements. This should be the starting point of a real relationship between them. But then before the dinner was over, they were taken by surprise when Mike suddenly turned up and in Mike’s amorous temperament, Richard’s mere presence in her apartment was enough to trigger misunderstanding.

Just as the girls feared, the machine was soon set up in their Reference department where a prim and officious Miss Warriner (Neva Patterson) from the lab arrived to run the EMARAC’s operation. Miss Warriner didn’t look like Dracula’s sister but, no doubt, was there to suck out their jobs. Then came the pink slips in their pay envelops bolstering their suspicion that they are to be canned – replaced by the electronic brain EMARAC or “Emmy”……

Known in UK under the alternate title “His Other Woman”, this lightweight comedy yarn produced by Henry Ephron is typical in having a sense of anxiety in an enclosed place where automation and love clash. Filmed at the 20th Century-Fox Studios lot and Rockefeller Center, Manhattan, New York City, director Walter Lang (King and I) blend the pace and the rhythm, the overtones and meaning of the screenplay as a whole. Desk Set teems with clever and witty dialogue, coffee break, 5 0’clock cocktail, rooftop luncheon, fabulous Xmas party, love affairs, few bars of songs, a good deal of tomfoolery, and that ever reigning universal compulsion called office gossip….before the happy finale.

The screenplay by Phoebe and Henry Ephron (parents of writer Nora Ephron) is based on the play Desk Set by playwright William Marchant. Before writing the screenplay, the Ephrons had gone to New York to make note of the spots where the laughs came in its Broadway stage production produced by Robert Fryer. The play had opened at the Broadhurst Theatre, New York on 24 October 1955 and starred Shirley Booth (Bunny Watson), Dorothy Blackburn (Peg Costello) and Byron Sanders (Richard Sumner). As of the closing date of 7 July 1956, it did 297 satisfactory performances.

Spirited actress Katharine Hepburn’s volatile style as Bunny Watson contrasts beautifully with the steady unpretentiousness and shrewd underplaying of Spencer Tracy as Richard Sumner – a role Spence had initially refused.

A whizz in biology, Katie wanted to be a surgeon but her fascination with acting led her to an acting career on Broadway in 1929. The Connecticut-born Katharine came over to Hollywood with aspiring actress Laura Barney Harding, and launched a magnificent career with her screen début in director George Cukor’s adaptation of Clemence Dane’s play A Bill of Divorcement (1932).

According to Cukor, Katie was quite unlike anybody he had ever seen and although she had never made a movie, she had a very definite knowledge and feeling right from the start. A Bill of Divorcement was soon followed by remarkable performance in Morning Glory (1933) based on Zoe Akins play. The movie brought her an Oscar for Best Actress – Katie’s first Oscar.

However, Katie’s public appeal was beset by her unspectacular looks and astringent quality of acting in her early films. Not unlike Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich who ignored what people thought, she too was gathering up reams of attention for wearing men’s clothes before it was acceptable. A magazine quoted her liking for dresses: “I do have a dress or two. I wear a dress only when it would look conspicuous to wear these clothes.”

Although at that time she was gracelessly branded box-office poison who emptied a theatre faster than a fire, she relentlessly worked her way to the threshold of glory through movies of some of the world’s renowned directors including John Ford, John Huston, George Cukor, David Lean, Stanley Kramer, Sidney Lumet, etc.

She is best remembered for Bringing Up Baby (1938) Katie’s first comedy; Holiday (1938); The Philadelphia Story (1940) all the above three with Cary Grant; The African Queen (1951) one of Katie’s favourite films; The Rainmaker (1956) with Burt Lancaster; and later in the screen version of Tennessee Williams’ short play,  Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) with Elizabeth Taylor; besides Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967 – Oscar for Best Actress); The Lion in Winter (1968 – Oscar for Best Actress); The Trojan Women (1972) with Geneviéve Bujold; On Golden Pond (1981 – Oscar for Best Actress), etc.

The teaming of life partners Katie and Spence brought forth nine movies – starting their first pairing with the gentle sex-comedy, Woman of the Year (1942 – Oscar-winning screenplay by Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner, Jr.); Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952) – both films written by Garson Kanin and wife Ruth Gordon); Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) which was Spence’s last film appearance and Oscar-winning story/screenplay by William Rose; besides Desk Set, their eighth teaming and first film together in colour.

In Desk Set, Spence as efficiency expert Richard creates a sympathetic, complex character in spite of the initial suspicion of the reference department girls.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin-born Spencer Bonaventure Tracy had initially believed he might become a plastic surgeon. But following military service, he had taken up acting on stage. According to a magazine article attributed to MGM stock player Selena Royle, it was Selena who recommended Spence for a leading stage role when she was a star of a stock company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Once when her company was to open, the show’s producer was distressed over the sudden departure of the leading actor. A replacement could not be arranged immediately from New York. At that time, a boy had walked in asking for a job. He had no experience but wanted to be an actor. Just as the boy started to walk away, Selena had suggested that he be allowed to read for the role. That boy, Spencer Tracy, was then accepted for the role which marked his entry into the profession. Shortly afterwards, Selena’s faith and helping wand worked again for Spence when she, on hearing that her friend George M. Cohan was preparing to produce a play called Yellow, obtained a copy of the play and rehearsed Spence secretly in the lead role. In the audition she managed to arrange for him, they knew he had a natural talent for acting. The final win-out for Spence was the lead role in Yellow – an ample qualification to graduate out of stock and to a grade-A Broadway play. Furthermore, it led him to the lead role in The Last Mile.

It was Spence’s performance in John Wexley’s successful powerful prison drama The Last Mile (initial title: All The World Wondered) which opened on Broadway in February 1930 that caught the attention of veteran director John Ford. He advised Fox Film Corporation to hire Spence who earlier had un-credited appearances in two short films of Warner Bros.

Coming over to Hollywood for a one-picture contract, he shared début feature-film roles with Humphrey Bogart in John Ford’s Up the River (1930). Then again, when Nunnally Johnson suggested casting him in the role of notorious gunman Jesse James’ brother Frank in Jesse James (1939), an unconvinced Darryl Zanuck had said “Tracy will never make a star. ….Just lacks the juice for a star.”

On the other hand, a book quotes director Stanley Kramer’s observation “….(Tracy) remains to me probably the world’s greatest moving picture actor. No one was more talented – it was the chemistry of his roles that made him so good.” That appeared more truthful since Spence’s talent was honoured with Oscars for Best Actor for two consecutive years for the role of Portuguese fisherman Manuel Fidello in director Victor Fleming’s Captains Courageous (1937) adapted from the 1897 novel of Bombay-born Rudyard Kipling; and for director Norman Taurog’s Boys Town (1938), a semi-biographical movie based on the charitable activities of Father Edward J. Flanagan. It was couple of years later during the formative days for the production of director George Stevens’ Woman of the Year when Spence and Katie met for the first time and became romantically involved.

The capable supporting cast of Desk Set includes: Ida Moore as the tiny old “trademark” woman who gets one cracking with her silent walk in appearances. Harry Ellerbe (office grapevine lawyer Mr. Smithers), Nicholas Joy (Mr. Azae), Diane Jergens (Alice), Merry Anders (Cathy), Rachel Stephens (Receptionist), Sammy Ogg (Kenny), and others…

The crew: Leon Shamroy (Cinematography), Robert Simpson (Film Editing), Cyril J. Mockridge (Music), Lyle R. Wheeler/Maurice Ransford (Art Direction), Hal Herman (Asst. Director), Charles LeMaire (Executive Wardrobe Designer), Ben Nye (Makeup), Helen Turpin (Hair styles). The credits also acknowledge the cooperation and assistance of the International Business Machines Corporation.

Broadway designer and three-time Academy Award for Best Costume Design winner Charles LeMaire’s outfits in this movie are versatility personified, the kind of tailored sophistication for the modern girl who wants to look chic on the job, for daytime dates, luncheons, and for dinner. Master costumer LeMaire who would leave his job at Fox in 1959 for freelancing had a track record of dressing just about every major movie star – among others Jean Peters, Gene Tierney, Susan Hayward, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, Sophia Loren, Jennifer Jones, Marilyn Monroe,…,.

Following the world premiere engagement of Desk Set at the Roxy, New York attended by a goodly number of celebs, LeMaire’s original fashions conforming to the cinematic environment in the movie arose wide spread interest, especially among those working women who couldn’t resist new fashions or to look tailored and neat. As a toast to them, he had appearances at Bon Marché, and Strawbridge & Clothier store for style-shows to show off his outfits in Desk Set.

An amusing comedy that generates steady excitement to all types of audiences, Desk Set is rich in delights for all those who love office ambiance.  Until next time/Jo

Notes:

  • DVD/Blu-ray of most of the movies mentioned in this article is available with leading dealers.
  • For promotional purpose, DVD sleeves/posters are shown here. Source: Wikipedia, amazon.com, imdb and from my private collection.
  • This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to the movie reviewed above. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Anne of the Thousand Days

Manningtree Archive has its own story – of memories one has of the past which reflect in the private collection its title implies – a non-profit library stacked with books, movies and music. Looking at it in the right way one can see that this collection is like an ever-growing garden, no doubt. Here below is a promo write-up presenting one of the movies in our collection.

Anne of the Thousand Days

(1969, Panavision-Technicolor, Hal Wallis Production/Universal Pictures)

Produced by veteran producer Hal B. Wallis (Becket, True Grit, Casablanca, Little Caesar) and directed by Charles Jarrott, this engrossing costumer with authentic sets explores the life and times of King Henry VIII. and his pursuit and conquest of the beautiful Anne Boleyn that changed the course of English history.

Adapted by Richard Sokolove from the play by Maxwell Anderson, the events, though in-accurate, are set in one of the great eras of English history – and include the tragic day of Tuesday, 19th of May 1536 when hapless Anne was beheaded by the black-masked French executioner’s sword on Tower Green in the Tower of London. She is a prisoner of history and the facts of that history are now widely known.

 Hal Wallis, a giant in the film industry, was always deeply interested in English history. In 1964, his stunning historical spectacle Becket was released – superbly acted by the million-dollar piece of talents Richard Burton (as Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket) and Peter O’Toole (as King Henry II.) and helmed by director Peter Glenville. Becket was a moneyspinner. According to Wallis, it was during the filming of Becket when Burton showed his interest in filming Anne of the Thousand Days and wanted Wallis to buy the play for him. At length, this was duly done surpassing incidental issues regarding the play’s rights.

In a role originally offered to Buenos Aires-born actress Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet, 1968), the young French-Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold shines as Anne Boleyn, the winsome young Maid of Honour who danced into Henry VIII’s line of vision and eventually became the second of his succession of wives, fostered by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

Hailing from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the convent-educated Bujold had appeared in Montreal’s theatre productions and in films such as director René Bonniére’s Amanita Pestilens (1962), La Fleur de l’Age ou les Adolescentes/Adolescents (1964), before she was chosen in Europe by French director Alain Resnais to play in La Guerre est finie/ The War Is Over (1966) opposite Yves Montand and Ingrid Thulin. This was followed by Le Roi de Coeur/King of Hearts (1966) and Le Voleur/The Thief of Paris (1967). However, her only successful performance during that time came in the title role of Isabel (1968) – written, produced and directed by her then husband Paul Almond. In their 28th September 1970 cover story on Bujold, Time magazine called Isabel a success d’estime.

Hal Wallis who screened movies in his private screening room at home in search of new talents was impressed by the sensitivity, warmth and youthful maturity of Bujold’s performance in Isabel for which she won the Canadian Film Award for Best Performance by a Lead Actress. He has now found his Anne Boleyn and words were pledged to Bujold.

Richard Burton who held approval rights over his co-star, also found her acceptable. Burton’s position garnered all respect. Bujold reminded him of “the late and lamented Vivien Leigh.” Burton insisted that Bujold, whom he nicknamed “Gin”, must be given ‘star’ treatment as he did himself. This didn’t digest well with wife Elizabeth Taylor who haunted the set to keep an eye on them.

Producer Elliott Kastner (Where Eagles Dare, 1968) had earlier sought Liz Taylor to do a film at the same time as Richard Burton did Anne of the Thousand Days. During the early pre-production stages a problem arose – a sense of onrushing doom for the movie. Indeed, it was the role of ravishing Anne Boleyn which Liz wanted to play.

Hal Wallis took Liz’s request with gloomy silence of disapproval. She has past her prime to play the beautiful and coquettish young Anne. According to Wallis, Burton who was there chipped in and skilfully let the steam off: “Sorry, luv. You’re too long in the tooth.”

References to Anne’s appearance from all that I have read indicate that, besides her tall stature and classical oval shaped face with a deceptively prim mouth, the other notable feature of this refreshingly witty conversationalist was her expressive dark eyes and a wealth of black hair.

When the film was released, Bujold’s success in the role of Anne was so pronounced that it earned her the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama, turning her into an overnight sensation in Hollywood. Some critics hailed her as the new Hepburn.

With many royal roles gracing his acting career, playing royalty was nothing new to Richard Burton. Seeking a powerful screen performance, Burton donned the part of Tudor King Henry VIII. (Reign: 1509-1547) – that finest dressed sovereign with a beard of gold, gigantic appetites and a will of iron who desperately desired to swiftly divorce Katherine of Aragon, his queen of nearly 2 ½ decades, to hastily wed the dazzling Anne Boleyn although her elder sister Mary Boleyn’s improper familiarities with Henry VIII. were hardly a secret in a close court where it is hard to keep secrets.

With this role, Burton entered the realm of actors who has portrayed the controversial Tudor monarch marvellously interpreted previously by Charles Laughton in the sweeping biographical movie, The Private Life of Henry VIII. (1933, D: Alexander Korda).

Greek actress Irene Papas is the richly apparelled, Queen Katherine of Aragon, daughter of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile who proffered royal support to Christopher Columbus in his expeditions. Papas came across perfectly as a queen lovely in person and in mind – truly gentle and feminine in her manners as Katherine of Aragon is reputed for.

The Toronto-born Shakespearean actor John Colicos as the villainous Thomas Cromwell and one of Britain’s most brilliant character actors Michael Hordern as Anne’s father Sir Thomas Boleyn; give noteworthy performances in their pivotal roles.

Apparelled all in red is Anthony Quayle as the skilled diplomat Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. During his earlier stage career, Quayle had tackled the title role in director Tyrone Guthrie’s theatre production of Henry VIII at Stratford-on-Avon. In that fine performance, Quayle’s Henry, with short red hair, was a very political king, strong and vigorous with a lust for life. Soon after watching the play in 1950, His Majesty King George VI. (r.1936-1952), who was with Queen Elizabeth, had gone to the dressing-room and congratulated Quayle on his splendid performance. Adding to Quayle’s favourite part of his growing resume, this portrayal as Cardinal Wolsey in Anne of the Thousand Days won him the nomination for the Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role category in the 42nd Academy Awards 1970.

Others in the supporting roles are:

Joseph O’Conor (Bishop John Fisher),

Peter Jeffrey (Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk),

director Jarrott’s then wife Katharine Blake (Elizabeth Boleyn),

Valerie Gearon (Mary Boleyn),

William Squire (Sir Thomas More),

Terence Wilton (Lord Henry Algernon Percy, heir to the Earl of Northumberland who offered Anne Boleyn his hand and heart);

Lesley Paterson (Jane Seymour);

Nicola Pagett (Princess Mary);

Amanda Jane Smythe (Baby Elizabeth), et al et al.

At the insistence of Richard Burton, Liz made a surprise (un-credited) appearance in a bit role as a masked lady with low-cut gown in a scene featuring Katherine of Aragon being interrupted while praying in Greenwich Chapel. A report indicates that Liz Taylor purportedly received pay of $35 for the afternoon’s work. Un-credited bit roles feature Liz’s daughter, Liza Todd and Burton’s daughter, Kate.

Crew includes:

Bridget Boland and John Hale (Screenplay);

Georges Delerue (Music Composer);

Arthur Ibbetson B.S.C. (Cinematography);

Maurice Carter (Production Design);

Lionel Couch (Art Direction);

Margaret Furse (Costume Design);

Mary Skeaping (Choreography);

Richard Marden (Editor) and others.

Made at Penshurst Place, Hever Castle (Kent) and Shepperton Studios outside London, the film, sprouting from a script of 144 pages long, brims with excitement, pageantry and scenery reflecting the Tudor love of music, dancing, gardens and flowers. At that juncture when the filming was being completed, the whole world was abuzz over the landing of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin on the moon on 20th July 1969.

Anne of the Thousand Days was released three months early and qualified for ten Academy Award nominations. Margaret Furse (Becket, The Lion in Winter) was the winner of Oscar for Best Costume Design. Her richly superb costumes were patterned after the famous portraits by German painter Hans Holbein the Younger whilst the period costumes and footwear were prepared by London firms: Bermans and Frederick Freed, respectively. The other Golden Globe awards honouring the film came for the categories: Best Motion Picture – Drama; Best Director; Best Screenplay.

Anne of the Thousand Days was selected by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for the Royal Film Performance and shown at the Odeon Leicester Square, London on 01 February 1970. Prominent among the dignitaries presented to Her Majesty on that unique Annual event for charity was the film’s producer Hal B. Wallis, wife/actress Martha Hyer and Geneviève Bujold clad in a long white gown with a white cape worn over it and escorted by director/husband Paul Almond. A well-made movie – it’s our turn to have a good time. Jo

Notes:

  • Some delightful remembrance of King Henry VIII in our collection: The Sword and the Rose (1953, James Robertson Justice), A Man for All Seasons (1966, Robert Shaw); Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972, Keith Michell), The Prince and the Pauper/Crossed Swords (1977, Charlton Heston); Henry VIII (2003 TV series, Ray Winstone); The Other Boleyn Girl (2008, Eric Bana).
  • DVD/Blu-ray of the movies referred to in this article are available with leading dealers.
  • Image source: Wikipedia, amazon, Pinterest, and from my private collection.
  • This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to the movie reviewed above. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.

(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)