Archive | November 2012

Viva Italia – 4: Amore Piazza San Marco, Venezia – Com’ era, dov’ era

It breaks my heart when I think about the recent floods in Venezia which submerged the stone pavements of one of the greatest urban spaces in Europe, Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) and gushed into the Basilica di San Marco (Basilica of St. Mark). With water levels reportedly rising to a critical level of 59 inches above normal, they say it was the “sixth-highest level since records began in 1872”. Even though floods are no stranger to Venezia since this phenomenon occurs almost annually as a consequence of eustasy (rising sea level) and subsidence (lowering of the land), the frequency of the floods are rising. It not only brings about great inconvenience to the Venetians but also inflicts immeasurable damage to the Piazza, to the bell tower, the underground passages and all around instability to an area that was once proven as the best part of the Rialtine islands due to its harder soil.

 

Although, other tourist destinations of Italy like Firenze and Roma definitely registered better in flow of the tourists owing to the floods, I believe shops like Carlo Pazolini (Via Sestiere, San Marco) must have done brisk business in sale of waterproof footwear. Moving pictures of tourists wading through the water with plastic bags covering their legs and carrying suitcases on their shoulders flashed on televisions across the world. Whilst the rain hammered over the canals, the landscape had become dreary and you could see numerous traghetti (Ferries) and vaporetto (steamers) plying in a dull pace through the misty Canale Grande.

The gondoliers who normally look quite cheerful standing up (its second nature to them) on their black Triton looked wet and sullen. It should come as no surprise to find those who do not fancy walking around hours in wellingtons or over makeshift wooden walkways rather prefer the other non-waterlogged Campos of Venezia, off the beaten path, or walk around through the numerous alleyways with Italianized street names (the English names of artists and writers were changed during World War II), exploring whatever they are interested in.

 

With its intricate network of big and small canals, countless bridges, there is a mystic quality in Venezia that draws you there, at least more than once.  Whenever we are in Italy, especially in Padova, we would hop the short distance to Venezia to spend a day or two at this once principal gateway between the West and the East on which their commerce and wealth was raised.

 

According to tradition, Venezia was founded by Italian refugees fleeing the mainland for the safety of the islands occupying the Venetian lagoons when the Lombards attacked their cities in the late 6th century. They built houses on the muddy patches of land and made most of the abundance of fish and salt of the lagoons. It was in 697 AD that an alliance was finally formed by the communities scattered throughout the islands and elected their first doge – the ruler. By 12th century, Venezia had become a thriving city rooted on maritime trade and the city’s symbol would become a statue of the winged lion of San Marco, booty from the sacking of Constantinople.

 

Presently, there are two Venezias: one of the canals and the other of the streets, which I had explored numerous times. I had had an early breakfast that day before going for a morning stroll through the beautiful streets to the busy fish market, one of the city’s heritage sites, at the foot of the Rialto Bridge where fish was being sold for more than 1,000 years. This market was scenes of protests during last year when it was under threat of shifting for expanding the docks for the cruise ships. As I passed the market workers coffee stalls, I could hear a Veneziano greet his friend in Venetian dialect: Come, let us go have a glass!.

Hither and thither, your eyes could catch charming bits of ancient architecture, patches of brilliant colours, little shops and shrines. Though some of these alleyways are rather obstructed by scaffoldings supporting the rundown structures, here you could come across many bàcari, simple stand-up bars, that offer modest selection of wine and cicheti, traditional snacks made of local meat and fish: polpette: fried meatballs with a mixture of veal, potatoes and spices, or fried calamari or boiled octopus, etc. You could squeeze in next to the locals as they ate cold slices of polenta topped with mortadella or pickled fish, or halves of Mozzarella di Bufala with cherry tomatoes, basil and olive oil. During mornings, you could enjoy an Ombra or Ombretta which is the Venetian custom of having a small glass of wine in the morning. I tried that at the seafood Trattoria “Alla Scala” located at Corte Lucatello between Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco.

 

Having spent half hour at Chiesa di San Giuliano (dedicated to San Zulian/Julian who was martyred with his wife Basilissa in 304 in Alexandria) with its beautiful interior designed by sculptor/architect Jacopo d’Antonio Sansovino (1486-1570), I would finally decide to give my legs further rest at Caffé Florian at Piazza San Marco, the only piazza in Venezia since all the others are called “Campo”.

As I stepped into the Piazza now inundated with tourists, the ornate Basilica di San Marco stood at the Eastern side like an opulent backdrop to it. Sometimes called “Chiesa d’Oro” (Church of Gold), this place of historical association and worship for Venetians is the repository of the remains of San Marco, the second Evangelist and traditional author of the Gospel of Mark, secreted out of Alexandria (Egypt) in 828 and brought to Venezia hidden in salted pork to hoodwink the Muslim guards though it is believed that the head of the saint remained in Alexandria. Looking at the basilica from the Western side, I could see Palazzo Ducale to its right – both the edifices richly decorated with vermilion, blue and gold.

To my left, on the Northern side is the 152 meter long Pietro Lombardo’s Procuratie Vecchie (Old Procuratie) with Torre dell’Orologio (Clock Tower) situated at its end. Legend has it that the men who made that famous clock were blinded to prevent them from making another one for somebody else.

Procuratie Vecchie’s ground floor now houses the shops while offices occupy the upper floors. On the Southern side starting from the Campanile down is Procuratie Nuove (New Procuratie) designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi which appears weaker compared to Sansovino’s (yes, the one who designed Chiesa di San Giuliano mentioned above) better design for Piazzetta’s Libreria Vecchia. Construction of Procuratie Nuove began in 1583 and completed in 1640 after removal of Hospice Orseolo and some other buildings, setting the Piazza San Marco to its present boundary. You can see some of the demolished buildings in the painting “Procession in Piazza San Marco” by Bellini posted here.

This structure was the Royal palace during the Kingdom of Italy under the rule of the House of Savoy in 1861. Presently, the upper floors are occupied by the Museo Correr which features the art and history of Venezia. On its ground floor is where Caffé Florian is located, my present destination. Lining the Western side, where I am standing, is I’Ala Napoleonica (Napoleonic Wing) built on the site of one of the oldest churches of Venezia, the Church of San Giminiano, to extend the Royal Palace.

 

The highest structure in the Piazza is the Campanile (Bell Tower) of about 99 meters (320 feet) height – the eyes of the city watching over the lagoons. The construction of this tower is said to have begun in 912 opposite the Porta della Carta of Palazzo Ducale, but that structure was lost on the morning of July 14, 1902 when the tower gently collapsed, destroying the Loggetta and the Northern side of the Libreria Vecchia though, by the Grace of San Marco, as Venetians believe, not a single person was hurt except, I was told, a caretaker’s cat who was actually rescued to safety but ran back to retrieve something – maybe its nine lives were up. The Basilica di San Marco and Palazzo Ducale (which is not built on piles but rests on a stratum of stiff clay) situated few feet away were only breezed with the onrush of debris and dust which made the Venetians claim that “San Marco has been a good fellow”. The construction of the present bell tower upon the same foundation that was found to be strong enough, had started immediately and completed by 1912.

  

I have often seen large queues of tourists waiting to pay Euro:8 for the ticket at the entrance of the Campanile to go up the giant brick square shaft through the lift or a spiral ramp. There, you can experiment your photographic genius on fabulous views of Venezia, the stripped dome of the 17th century baroque church of Santa Maria della Salute  built in gratitude for surviving the plague, located at the entrance to the Canale Grande or look north to the Alps, or at the Adriatic in the south. At the apex of the bell tower which now houses only the largest among the 5 five bells, is the golden statue of Archangel Gabriel fixed on a rotating weathervane that moves to the direction of the wind. When the tower collapsed, the angel had fallen right in front of the Basilica, miraculously without so much of damage. Except for Marangona (named after carpenters), the other four bells were destroyed when the historic tower collapsed. In earlier times, each of the bells had a special purpose, of which Maleficio (Renghiera), the bell of evil omen, tolled for the execution of criminals.

During the days of war, the Venetian kept vigil on the sea from its bell chamber, at times gaping at burning ships or just looking at the masses of red-tiled roofs, chimneys to the mainland and beyond. It was from here that some of the powers that be of Venezia watched Niccolò and Matteo (Maffeo) Polo set out on a journey to the East in 1260 and again with Niccolò’s son Marco Polo and two missionaries in 1271. If the writings of 16th century travel writer Giovanni Battista Ramusio (1485-1557) is true, they had also watched Marco Polo command a galley against Lamba D’Oria (1245-1323), captain of the Geonese fleet when he arrived with 70 galleys to attack Venezia at the naval Battle of Curzola near the island of Korčula (now in Croatia), on September 9, 1298 in which Polo was captured. During our time, tourists used to carry a glass of wine to the center of the Piazza and stare at the magnificent Basilica while la Marangona bell of the Campanile struck the midnight hour – perhaps there is another tradition behind that….

The 320-foot Piazza represents the central place of the city life of Venezia.

 

We had spent countless hours walking around there amongst the throngs of people of many tongues in different costumes, the children enjoying the thrills of the massive number of fluttering pigeons, feeding them, laughing at the possibility of getting smeared by their droppings.

 

Once upon a time known as Broglio or Garden, this area was a grassy field consisting of a third of today’s space. I understand that a large elder tree stood on the site of the Campanile beyond which a river ran to the Canale Grande. In 1176, that area was filled up by the orders of Doge Sebastiano Ziani (1172-78) who also demolished the fortifications that existed there and paved the Piazza westward to the present boundary. As I stated above, the church of San Giminiano which existed at the South-West end would be demolished only during Napoleon I’s era.

 

No doubt, the hand of commercialism has now taken its grip on the Piazza.  Over the last many years, I have noted a sort of deterioration in its cleanliness. I had also noted a certain curiosity in the tourists that populated the Piazza, its corridor alleyways and the outdoor seatings of the cafés.

 

By now I have joined with my wife Carina at “Caffé Florian” where she had reached a couple of minutes earlier while, with Bianca’s interest in artistic works, it would take a bit longer for her to be back from the Basilica. Many a times we have sat at the outdoor tables of one of those expensive cafés lining the sides of the Piazza, more often at “Caffé Florian” as we are doing now, enjoying coffee or glasses of red wine and hors d’oeuvres, listening to the bells of the Campanile. I could see a boy sitting with his parents at the adjoining table enjoying a delicious looking tiramisu. Desserts are elegantly served in the northern part of Italy while, in comparison, the Southern versions are more sweeter. The boy was wearing a Venetian style black and gold Baroque half-mask which reached till the tip of his nose.

How wonderful it felt to sit there and have a cup of steaming hot coffee, take loads of pictures or enjoy watching people from different nations mill around amidst legions of pigeons barely parting for their feet. Some indulged in taking pictures, posing for cameras, their faces gleaming with happiness just for being there. Limiting my thoughts to the Square, I also find some in thoughtful concern, possibly fussed over the damage those protected pigeons inflict to the buildings that surround the piazza, a primitive, quite beauty brimming with history.

 

What’s more, those pigeons strutting about the feet are also historically connected to Venezia through Doge Enrico Dandolo who, we are informed, sent news to Venezia through a carrier pigeon about his victory over Constantinople. Or else, maybe they are unhappy at Venezia for having allowed those huge advertising hoarding of modern beauty products to obstruct the wonderful views of ancient architecture and works of art lining the Piazza. Or perhaps, knowing of the past splendor and prosperity of Venezia, they may be thinking of how wonderfully brilliant those buildings must have once looked and how much they are now in need of occasional cleaning/restoration. But then again, some may even be sad that all this didn’t rise up to their expectations. I turn back to my coffee.

It is the Venetian merchant Pietro della Valle (1586-1652) who introduced the coffee beans to Venezia. He is documented as the person who first imported the ancestors of the Persian cat into Italy in 1626. The most renowned of the coffeehouses that sprouted in Venezia is the famous Caffé Florian founded in 1720 by Floriano Francesconi who shortened his name to Florian as Venetians do. Located in the Procuratie Nuove of the Piazza, it had gained supremacy due to its position to the Molo (the main landing stone quay by the Piazzetta that was once the official landing spot) where sacks of coffee beans arrived together with silk, etc transported by the Venetian galleys.

The decorations in the interiors of many residences, hotels, and restaurants (including Caffé Florian) that feature silk fabrics is the tradition that goes back to the times when luxurious and precious textiles for display at spiritual services were brought from the East by Venetian traders and pilgrims. It had ever since played an important part in the development of design and style in the Romanesque art. Spiraling into a symbol of the city and a stage for social communication, Caffé Florian became part of the cosmopolitan Venetian lifestyle, a place populated by aristocrats, merchants, artists, the famous, and later ….

Of the many famous patrons who enjoyed its interiors furnished in purple satin, painted panels, mirrors, etc, I could easily think of Giacomo Girdamo Casanova sitting there enjoying biscotti and liqueur in female company. After some search, I came up with some of its famous patrons, except my name: George Gordon, the English poet, Lord Byron, Antonio Canova, the sculptor, Alfred de Musset and his lover George Sand (Aurore Dupin), Goldoni, the Venetian playwright, Goethe, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Pirandello, Rousseau, Stravinsky, Modigliani, Wagner, etc. When Wagner regularly visited Florian during breaks from writing the second act of “Tristan and Isolde”, the band would suddenly switch to his music. Silvio Pellico and Daniele Manin used to sit there and discuss politics when Manin played a major role in the history of Venezia during the Austrians military siege in 1849 when Venezia suffered bombardment from guns though the Austrians’ attempt to use a fleet of large balloon bombs did not work out. Fortunately, the Piazza was left undamaged from cannonballs as it was out of range of the Austrian guns. The Piazza also witnessed the assault on the Campanile by armed Venetian separatists to proclaim “independence of Veneto” in the night of May 8/9, 1997.

 

Fast forwarding to 20th century and the list becomes endless…. And through it all, I could picture Aristotle Onassis sitting there in early summer of 1957 after having met Maria Callas at that year’s party of Elsa Maxwell. Years later in early 1970s, Christina Onassis and friends would be there. Some time in 1955, Katherine Hepburn met Rossano Brazzi there in David Lean’s Summertime. Ernest (Papa) Hemingway was there…Prince Charles and Diana might have been there when they visited Venezia in 1985… My mind now drifted to the outdoor band playing Louis Armstrong’s “What a wonderful world”.

 

Facing Caffé Florian is Gran Caffé Quadri, the haunt of the Austrians during their rule of Venezia in the 19th century. Originally known as Il Rimedio in 1638, it switched to the present name when Giogio Quadri purchased it by late 1700s. After changing hands in 1830, I heard, it went to the Alajmo family playing host to personalities such as Lord Byron, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, Wagner, etc. We had had a sumptuous dinner there last night when Carina preferred Fegato alla Veneziana and polenta while Bianca had Bigoli col Tocio. I was happy with Isogliole in Crema di Gamberi. We had had dinner here last year when Andrea was here. All these main courses were served on Murano plates we enjoyed to the joy of charming service and delightful music of the 121 San Marco Band. I forgot the name of the wine. Italians are wonderful people – the wine they offered last night had tasted just fine for the occasion.

Thinking of all those illustrious personalities brings to my mind the picture of the bustling Piazza of those days: populated by a pageant of signorine in gorgeous costumes, signore in regular suits from which the vendors stuck out like sour thumbs, fashionable youth, the horse or mule-carts, sentry marches, bull-baitings, band performances, the beautiful solemnity of candle-lit processions, the constant religious activities in front of the Basilica and Palazzo Ducale, the aristocrats and wealthy traders socializing at the Caffé Florian. During summer nights, the Piazza would become livelier – a great deal of repetition ….

 

Being the main hub for tourists, the shops and the restaurants in its vicinity have been indulging in ways to turn a handsome profit on that fact with decoys such as outdoor seating with bandstands and quartets playing during April-October. However, the outside concert has a tradition that goes back to more than hundred years. In olden days, there were wine sellers situated at the base of the Campanile and they used to move their carts keeping up with the shadow of the Campanile when they sell cool wine during hot summer months.

 

The best time to browse through the shops lining the Piazza is in the morning just after the opening time when the Piazza is fairly devoid of many tourists. Then you can conveniently feast your eyes on the wide variety of touristy artifacts intermixed with Chinese reproductions. In between all this, especially on the further left side of the piazza near to Torre dell’Orologio, there are good displays of genuine Murano glass works that could give your heart a break. Besides the Basilica, the other places of interest in the vicinity are the Palazzo Ducale, the Correr Museum, etc. If you care to explore the side streets, there are some small shops dealing in antique crafts, old books, paintings, amongst clean cafés catering at reasonable price.

 

The waiter of Caffé Florian was charming and chatty as he noted our selections for the lunch. Insalata Mista with cheese Gnocchi ordered by Carina, I believe, would be preferred by Bianca as well. As for me, I decided on Triglie all’Orientale, Red mullet in Eastern style. Veneto being the land of great wines, we had a Schiopetto Podere dei Blumeri Rosso 2006.

 

San Marco Square can be a bit stuffy at times, but today there are fewer tourists. During the course of the history, the Piazza San Marco has gained an iconic status as the place that symbolizes Venezia in the eyes of the world. It was here in the Piazza where the helicopter landed with the statue of Our Lady of Fatima in 1959 as part of its triumphal march, encircled by the radiant escort of doves, throughout the Italian peninsula leading to Italy’s solemn consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

 

I was not born when that happened. I was not there when the emperors and kings, dukes and marquesses, knights, burgesses, counts and such people of authority were there.

I was not there when artists such as Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, or the Doges such as Enrico Dandolo or Lorenzo Tiepolo, lived there. I was not there when Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn romanced there in Roman Holiday, nor was I there when Daniel Craig ran around looking for Eva Green in Casino Royale. I was not there when the Romeos and Juliets from Bollywood like Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone of Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008) performed wiggles and shakes to rhythmic beats. I was not there last Wednesday November 21 to eat a bowl of “Castradina” soup made of smoked mutton and cabbage when it was served in restaurants around the Piazza to mark the celebration of the Festa della Salute  in remembrance of the plague of early 16th century. But I was there when the pictures you see here were taken. I was there when the outdoor band played Laura Pausini’s La Solitudine and Luciano Pavarotti’s version of O sole mio bringing sadness into my heart. And I wish to be there many more times….. for my children to be there with their children and so on…..

 

 

On November 1, I wrote about Castelo de São Jorge in Lisbon which miraculously withstood destruction from devastating earthquakes that destroyed the city around it. Proving how wonderful citizens of this world can be, Lisbon was rebuilt with great effort from generous handshakes of help that reached to it from all parts of the world. Here I draw your attention to another catastrophe that was waiting to happen about which all of us are well aware of and expert action is being taken by groups like Consorzio Venezia Nuova to protect historic Venezia. What is important here, compared to Lisbon, is that in the case of Venezia, there will not be any land to rebuild it. Some of the columns and doorways once on ground level are already submerged. Experts have located few older pavements beneath the present pavement of the Piazza.

 

Venezia is not neglected since works that have been going on for some years to fix moveable barriers that would rise from the sea and protect Venezia from high tides is expected to be operational by 2014. However, taking into account the research report of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography of University of California, San Diego that the city is sinking at a rate of 2mm a year, our help should not require a necessary pre-condition: disaster! Symbolically speaking, a handful of sand from each one of this world could solve that….

 

Venezia has given us hundreds of years of history and art. The Venezia that we love must exist for the future generations, too. As the Venetians say: “Com’ era, dov’ era” (as it was and where it was), We must all strive to find ways and means to save La Serenissima (the most serene) from her misery. That is our dream and I truly believe that dreams do come true – one day. Viva VeneziaViva San Marco…. Till next time. Ciao, Jo

 

 

(All Photos: © JS-CS-Bianca Celine Diane-Andrea Lalis Sebastine/Manningtree Archive.)

(Paintings of: “San Marco” by Jusepe Leonardo (1601-53);  “Procession in Piazza San Marco” (1496- aka: Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco) by Gentile Bellini (c. 1429-1507);  and  “Piazza San Marco with the Basilica” and “Piazza San Marco in Venice” by  Giovanni Antonio Canal (il Canaletto – 1697-1768) – Wikipedia – Public domain)

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Many Thanks

My “Thanksgiving” has wings and it goes to all my 105 friends and followers, “Commentators” including those who “Like” my postings in: “Mannintreearchive”. Your support means a lot to me and I love you all. Many thanks.  Jo

 

StarChoice 15: Adventures of Don Juan

 

(Aka: “The New Adventures of Don Juan”, “El Burlador de Castilla”, “La Avventure di Don Giovanni”, “Die Liebesabenteuer des Don Juan”, “Les Aventures de Don Juan” – Technicolor – December 24, 1948)

Back in 1944, Samuel Goldwyn productions released a romantic comedy titled “The Princess and the Pirate”, starring Bob Hope and Virginia Mayo which told the story of a distressed princess who travelled incognito on the high seas and was rescued by the most unlikely of the knights. The production of this swashbuckler was made with utmost secrecy to protect its ending which naturally caught the curiosity of certain studio heads in Hollywood.

 

At that time, the situation was ripe for a diversion from war movies which the audiences were getting tired of since the middle of 1943. Taking into account the major interest of the audience in the glitz and glamour of the movies of historical-romantic fiction set during 17th & 18th century, Jack (Jacob) Warner, the president of Warner Brothers Studios, decided to bring in some power of his own to such movies by casting Errol Flynn in a big-budget swashbuckler film he had kept in the wings for some time.

 

Back in 1926, Warner Brothers had made a silent version of Don Juan with legendry actor John Barrymore in the lead. Jack Warner had noted the parallels that connected the character of Don Juan de Maraña with John Barrymore and his fellow-drunk Errol Flynn whom Warner Brothers had initially employed at their Teddington studio. Warner draw up an action-filled script centered on the romantic exploits of Don Juan with Flynn as the title character. However, this version does not in anyway correlate to the drama, literature, poetry, or music of the Don Juan legend portrayed in earlier presentations. As an alternative to the youthful, morally righteous hero, the new Don Juan will be a distinct ladies’ man who would cut a dash on a horse and wield a sword even though he would be a tad more jaded and fickle.

The studio immediately swung into action and roped in director Raoul Walsh to start shooting in May, 1945, nearly four months prior to the end of World War II on September 2. The shooting dates were set up since few sets were already prepared. Then everything went topsy-turvy. An industry-wide strike of studio set designers that broke out in March, 1945 paved way to a bloody riot in front of the main gates of Warner Brothers studios in California on October 5, 1945 (known as Hollywood Black Friday). Although the strike came to an end one month later, it soon brewed up into another strike which lasted some 13 months before matters were somewhat sorted out. Several attempts by the studio to reorganize the cancelled dates of the project (initially with non-strikers/replacement workers) in the next two and a half years were met with failure.

Being the period following the end of the war when the box office receipts were slumped, in order to make the production economical, producer Jerry Wald (1911-1962) started taking steps to revise and embellish the script (based on the original story by Herbert (Addison) Dalmas (1902-1989)), with the help of a series of writers, including “Max Brand” (aka: Frederick Faust) and William Faulkner. Aside from the use of props and scenes from “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”, a sequence relating to a great ball was definitely removed from the final screenplay that would be at last credited to screenwriters George Oppenheimer (1900-1977) and Harry Kurnitz (1907-1968). Some people in the field of film-making have an innate ability to turn screenplays into star-studded blockbusters.

Director Vincent Sherman and George Oppenheimer were two of them. Oppenheimer who was the co-founder of the Viking Press, was often used to improve the scripts of others.

In 1948, “Adventures of Casanova” produced by Bryan Foy who had long association with Warner Brothers came out to good reviews. Starring Mexican actor Arturo de Cordova, this swashbuckler devoid of historical accuracy, was packed with first-rate swordplay about an 18th-century Casanova returning to Palermo, Sicily to help overthrow the tyrannical rule of the king of Naples. This is the first movie that was shown on WCBS-TV’s Channel 2 which would become the legendry late-night movie channel “The Late Show” in 1951. The film would act as a suitable precursor for Warner Brothers-First National Picture’s new Errol Flynn vehicle.

Adventures of Don Juan”, does not follow the basic storyline of a great lover’s entanglements with the Italian Borgia family, as featured in John Barrymore’s version. On the contrary, Flynn’s Don Juan de Maraña, living in 17th century Spain, is concerned with spoiling the dastardly schemes of the lovely Queen Margaret’s first minister, Duke of Lorca and wooing her.

Synopsis: Outskirts of London. The night had fallen now. We see a dark figure stealthily climbing a tree which was leaning towards the balcony of a villa. We can see a beautiful young lady anxiously looking down at the figure lifting himself up through the branches to keep up the secret rendezvous with her. The narrator had already started to explain the state of affairs of the period:

In Europe, as the 17th century dawned, mankind was lifting itself from ignorance and superstition. The old frontiers of the mind were rolling back. New books, new methods were aiding man in his time taught knowledge and wisdom. In the laboratory, in the arts, in every field of endeavour, man was lifting himself, hand over hand, climbing onward, ever upward. And on the outskirts of London, on a summer night, another man was lifting himself, hand over hand, climbing upward, ever onward toward his objective” – Count d’Orsini’s wife, Catherine.

Having climbed onto the balcony and into the arms of robust, rosy-cheeked Catherine, she demands to know what took him so long. Don Juan explained that no power on earth would have kept him away from her. In this entire world there has been only one image in his heart, one vision for his eyes. He had loved her since the beginning of time. Now Catherine was confused: She had only met him yesterday! Don Juan was ready for that: Yes, yesterday was when time began. After they surfaced from a kiss rooted in flowering passion, he tenderly assured her that he is hers alone – 101%. Yet Catherine could not believe him – he has made love to countless women. Once again his smile flashed. “Catherine, an artist may paint a thousand canvases before achieving one work of art. Would you deny your love the same practice?” He had apparently developed some wonderful poetic skills. When Catherine implored him to let her know how long he will love her, he decided to release her from her emotional chains. “Sweet lady, love is not measured in terms of time, but only in ecstasy.”

Don Juan found some ground for solace when she told him that even though she is married, she is unattached to her husband, Cecil, who is now on a hunting trip to satisfy his extreme fondness for grouse. Inside the privacy of her bedroom, their amorous exploits were abruptly cut short by the arrival of Catherine’s elderly husband. Vanity is fair in love and hate. Her wrathful husband promptly challenged Don Juan to a valiant duel of swords which Cecil was inevitably set to loose. Disappointments have taught Don Juan to be realistic. Don Juan de Maraña took the trouble to advise Cecil that he should be ashamed of himself to leave a beautiful young woman alone neglected while he indulged in his selfish pleasures – grouse hunting! When did he last tell her that she is beautiful? The man appeared to have a mental block when it comes to admitting he is wrong. Cecil should remind her of her beauty every day of her life. Write poetry, send her flowers (to which Catherine added: “and jewelry”) When he put her back into her lovely mood, she is such an exquisite delight. No argument there.

Though Don Juan departed from the balcony with a carefree smile, he and his faithful servant Leporello, were given chase by the guards of Count d’Orsini. On the road, they came across a cavalry of Queen Elizabeth of England who were waiting for the Duke of Cordoba to arrive by dawn to escort him along the road to London. Having been taken for the Duke of Cordoba, Don Juan and Leporello were accorded royal escort to London and to his bride.

 

They were led in a pageant parade through the streets of London town teeming with its populous. Though Lady Diana was reluctant to her betrothal to the Duke of Cordoba which ensured a new cycle of prosperity for England, having found the imposter to be Don Juan, she was over the moon that he had found her again.

 

She edgily poked his mind to remember of their secret tryst four months ago at the garden of a Countess in Paris. How could he forget those pleasantries and pleasures? As she bolted the door, a thin smile flickered on her lips, and there was a malicious glitter in her eyes. This time she will not let him forget her. It didn’t take much longer for the paramours to drift into a kiss which was broken by the arrival of the real Duke of Cordoba. Though Don Juan and Leporello were immediately imprisoned, they were soon paroled to the custody of His Excellency Count de Polan, the Ambassador of Spain.

 

With his release from the English jail, Don Juan seemed headed for the Spanish prison since having returned to Madrid, the Duke of Cordoba had complained to the weak and feckless King Felipe III and Queen Margaret of Spain about the series of amatory escapades of Don Juan de Maraña who had damaged the prestige of Spain and messed up the marriage of convenience shaped expressly for the purpose of peace between Spain and England. There is a fair chance of hanging. Count de Polan, who is a friend of Don Juan’s father, told him to leave London and return to Madrid to present himself before the Spanish Court for Her Majesty’s judgment.

 

The Count had written to the Queen urging that she deal gently with Don Juan. Though Don Juan claimed he knew nothing of matters such as court intrigue, the ambassador had maintained that he devote his time to help the heartbroken Queen to attain peace in her country ruled by the subservient sovereign King Felipe III under the influence of his first minister, who has been plaguing her of late. His loyalty to the Queen would help her to face the cunning Duke of Lorca who is hatching a ruthless plot to elevate himself as a power behind the throne. Don Juan and Leporello rode across the midlands into the city of Madrid….and so the future began….

 

The shooting of ”Adventures of Don Juan” started in October, 1947 under Vincent (Vince) Sherman (born Abram Orovitz – 1906-2006), a former American stage actor who joined with Warner Brothers in 1938 where he was assigned to their B-picture unit. Sherman who had associated with chubby dynamo Jerry Wald since “All Through the Night” (1941), had launched his directorial career with the horror movie “The Return of Doctor X” (1939). Owing to his experience in numerous Theatre Guild productions on Broadway, reworking of scripts and finally directing movies, Vince Sherman became an expert in film making: in its continuity and cutting and progression. He made films relishing in the love and devotion of his wife Hedda Comorau who turned a blind eye to, according to IMDB, his occasional romantic flings with actresses Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and later with Rita Hayworth. Being a good friend of Errol Flynn who was the big white hope of Warner Brothers, Sherman had no qualms when Flynn asked to direct him in ”Adventures of Don Juan” which he did with his customary efficiency.

1944 was a period when the Tasmania born Errol Leslie Thomson Flynn was spawning lot of publicity from his off-screen feats, especially the foul smell derived from his rape trial of 1943. Flynn had been an English repertory theatre actor before obtaining a contract with Warner Brothers and would become rated as the best swashbuckler of the sound cinema – an image created with the help of director Michael Curtiz with whom he finally quarreled and split.

Keeping up with the image of the daringly gallant and dashing swashbuckler, Errol Flynn maintained an appetite for a delightful and hard life. He had his own dedicated group of drinkers and keeping him within the production schedule was one heck of a job for director Sherman and unit manager Frank Mattison. The “Singing Cowboy” Gene Autry once said, “(Flynn) spent more time on a bar stool, or in court, or in the headlines, or in bed, than anyone I knew.” He was once described by David Niven as “a magnificent specimen of the rampant male.” The frivolous, sardonic, and rather witty initial scenes of Don Juan wooing an enamoured Catherine and the inevitable encounter with her enraged husband is a spoof of the personality of Don Juan and of star Flynn himself.

While the burden to carry the film focused on the title character is loaded on the star performer; few weeks into the production, Flynn disappeared out of town for a few weeks, possibly for one of his major binges, leaving the artistic collaborators in the enterprise to shut the unit down and wait it out until he returned. When he finally positioned himself before the camera, he appeared sodden with alcohol which was consumed from mid-afternoon onwards, forbidding him from going on with a scene for long. This is despite Flynn’s famous trick of spending half hour in the steam room to get the booze off him. However, all this resulted in a good deal of additional set ups, retakes, editing rhythms and extra time though Sherman once said that this happened only once.

 

Despite the studio’s endeavor to wink at Flynn’s age, there was some concern about the roughened state of his face from his hard living.  In spite that Flynn sometimes failed to generate the excitement of the performance of Douglas Fairbanks or Burt Lancaster, I think he had great personal style and that the flamboyant Flynn’s physic was tailor-made for the swashbuckling roles. Being a great natural athlete, it was Flynn’s lighter-than-air agility, light-hearted seriousness, a degree of grace and style, and pure English-speaking voice which turned out “Adventures of Don Juan” to be a good film.

The role of Spanish Queen Margaret was portrayed by the Uppsala born 28-year old Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors (Elsa Viveca Torstensdotter Lindfors – 1920-95). Before she was imported to Hollywood by Warner Brothers in 1946, she was appearing on stage and in films having been trained at The Royal Dramatic Theatre School in Stockholm like her fellow Swedish actresses Greta Garbo, Signe Hasso, Mai Zetterling and Ingrid Bergman.

Queen Margaret would be Lindfors’ first appearance in a Warner/Hollywood movie. I have a strong feeling that the appearance and mannerism of Lindfors in the role of Queen Margaret had influenced in formulating Sophia Loren’s character of Doña Jimena in “El Cid

The role of the subservient King Felipe III is played by Romney Brent (1902-76), the dapper Mexican actor/director also known as Romulo Larralde.

Buckinghamshire born stage actor Robert Douglas (Robert Douglas Finlayson – 1909-99) was a student of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and appeared on British stages before he moved to Hollywood after the war and specialized in roles of suave and arrogant villains. Douglas stars as the king’s illusory minister, the Duke de Lorca who had his heels on the king’s neck. This role was originally meant for Claude Rains and later for George Coulouris. Well versed in swordplay, Douglas had studio experience in having dueled with the likes of Stewart Granger, Robert Taylor, Burt Lancaster, etc. Douglas’ stylish daredevil duel with Flynn on the grand staircase in the king’s palace, though at times not totally fair, has by now attained cult status.

Burly Alan Hale Sr. (Rufus Edward MacKahan – 1892-1950) was a cheerful actor who played heroes in silent action films and similar to his role of Leporello, was often cast as a jovial sidekick of Errol Flynn. Having acted in period films such as “The Last Days of Pompeii”, “The Man in the Iron Mask”, “The Sea Hawk”, his career would see him acting as Little John in three movies, viz., “Robin Hood”, “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and in “Rogues of Sherwood Forest”. Interestingly, innovations such as the folding theatre-seats and hand fire extinguisher are credited to him.

The lady in the coach at the end of the movie is played by none other than  Nora Eddington (1924-2001), the second wife of Errol Flynn whom the nineteen year old Nora had met in 1943 while working at the courthouse where Flynn was undergoing trial for statutory rape from which he was acquitted. Unfortunately the couple who married in 1944 at Mexico will be divorced in 1949.

The former child stage star/leading lady Ann Rutherford (Donna Elena), character actor Robert Warwick (aka: Robert Taylor Bien – Count de Polan), British actor Aubrey Mather  

    

(Lord Chalmers), former child actress Helen Westcott (aka: Myrthas Helen Hickman – Lady Diana), dwarf actor Jerry Austin (Don Sebastian), Douglas Kennedy (aka: Keith Douglas – Don Rodrigo), Jeanne Shepard (Donna Carlotta), Mary Stuart (Catherine), G.P. Huntley, Jr. (Count d’Orsini), Spanish Opera singer Fortunio Bonanova (Don Serafino), Irish character actress Una O’Connor (Duenna), heavily-built Canadian actor Raymond Burr (Captain Alvarez), etc rounded off the supporting cast.

 

The film features impressive photography by English Cinematographer/actor Elwood (Bailey) Bredell Sr. (1902-1969), a former lab technician who would, while working with Universal Studios during the period 1937-46, reveal his cinematographic skills in films of genre: thrillers and film noir. Bredell’s chance to picture big-budget movies came after his shift to Warner Brothers in 1947, when his sumptuous visual style attained a new dimension in filming that resulted in richly textured images which embellished movies such as “Adventures of Don Juan”, “Female Jungle”, and “Journey into Light”, the latter of which also offered him occasion to work with Viveca Lindfors once again. For “Adventures of Don Juan”, Bredell and his team not only took care of the artistically and dramatically expressive angles, but generated a mixture of shadows and diffused lighting that would provide a memorable atmosphere of sinister visions to the frames.

The film is edited by Alan Crosland, Jr. (1918-2001), the son of Alan Crosland who directed “Don Juan”, the 1926 silent film of Warner Brothers starring John Barrymore. Crosland. Jr’s expert editing patterns can be noted in the brisk pace as the duel heightens, as well as in the smooth flow of scenes he had put together from the asymmetrical frames occasioned by disruptive filming.

Though the location filming was done in West Hills, Providencia Ranch (Hollywood Hills) and Warner Ranch (Calabasas), the interiors were mostly shot in semi-Expressionist sets at Stages in Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California, under the direction of Art Director Edward Carrere and Set Decorator Lyle B. Reifsnider.

 

The specially constructed magnificent sets of the king’s palace and the grand staircase adds colour and dynamism to the expertly choreographed duel between the heroic Flynn and scoundrel Douglas which takes place to the splendour of Max Steiner’s rousing score. The initial scene at the balcony gives a richly coloured texture, the streets of 17th century London and Madrid, the entire palace including the dungeon were all arranged to provide a picture-book-look by providing due consideration to the minute details. Edward Carrere justly received an Academy Award for the Art Direction for this movie.

 

The characters were dressed up beautifully by Costume designers Leah Rhodes, Marjorie Best (uncredited) and William (Billy) Travilla. The costumes that express authenticity, especially of delectable Viveca Lindfors, are befittingly designed, the influence of which is evident in the costumes worn by Sophia Loren in “El Cid” and “The Fall of the Roman Empire”. The black band around Flynn’s head during the final scenes conjures up the flair and grace of Douglas Fairbanks. The film would win the Academy Award for Costume Design. Dress designer Billy Travilla (1920-90) was an employ of Columbia Pictures from 1941 to 43 before he was brought to Warner Brothers by actress Ann Sheridan, where his first work is for this movie. He would later become famous for his dresses designed for Marilyn Monroe one of which is the snow white ivory halterneck cocktail dress blowing in the breeze in Monroe’s “The Seven Year Itch”.

 

Perc Westmore who handled the make-up for this movie is the son of George Westmore, the head of the famous family of Hollywood make-up artists who had earned their reputation during a period when none of today’s popular creams like Diors’ “Capture Totale”, or Lancôme’s “Génifique” to name a few, were available.

The enthralling dueling sequences were staged with a tongue-in-cheek approach by the team of Assistant Director Richard Mayberry, Fencing Master Fred Cavens and special-effects men William McGann and John Crouse blended together by maestro Sherman by casting doubles. The duel scenes in the dungeon, in the halls of the palace and on the grand staircase were aptly staged, even though Don Juan’s spectacular leap from the stairs during the duel was performed by Jock Mahoney (1919-89), the only stuntman who was willing to do that dangerous stunt and was paid S1,000 for it.

 

The film is laced with the romantic and richly melodious score of Austrian composer Max Steiner (Maximilian Raoul Walter Steiner – 1888-1971) with orchestrations by Murray Cutter. One of Hollywood’s most prolific film score writers, Steiner had provided music for “Gone With the Wind”, “Casablanca”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “The Jazz Singer”, to name a few. It was Max Steiner who first came up with the potentiality of scoring films with original compositions, convincing the producers about the important role music can play in conveying the mood, character and pace of a film. Originally, fellow Austrian Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was assigned to score for “Adventures of Don Juan” but was reassigned to Steiner since Korngold had left Warner Brothers by the time the filming was wrapped up.

To provide score for an action film like this is a complicated art requiring tremendous skill in precision timing which Steiner has fulfilled by providing the most enjoyable accompaniment to the pageantry and stylish scenes of the movie.

 

To promote the movie, Warner Brothers even reissued “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “The Sea Hawk” in America which performed very well in spite that they lacked Technicolor photography. Though “Adventures of Don Juan” did thriving business in Europe, it put up only a reasonable success in the U.S box office – a clear indication that Flynn’s golden days were not going to have resurgence and this expensive, but generally entertaining swashbuckler would be Flynn’s last big-budget extravaganza.

Every movie leaves something to the imagination. “Adventures of Don Juan” has a safe corner in the memory as a film created with the involvement of great talents who had impeccably crafted wonderful sets, high-end action scenes, colorful period costumes, a harmony of melodious, rousing score dominated by violins, trumpets, and drums – all that and more…

Take your pleasures where you can. The curious are urged not to miss it. Ciao, Jo.

(PS: The DVD of this movie is available with main dealers such as amazon.com, TCM Shop, etc)

(Text: © JS/Manningtree Archive)

StarChoice 14: The Million Pound Note

(Aka: “Man with A Million”, “Big Money”, “L’homme aux million”, “El millonario”, “Il forestiero”, “Sein größter Bluff – Colour – 1954) 

A true Englishman doesn’t joke when he is talking about so serious a thing as a wager”, wrote Jules Verne in “Around the World in Eighty Days”. This brings to my mind the high-profile bet the Virgin boss, British billionaire Sir Richard Branson made with Tony Fernandes, the group chief executive of Air Asia. By way of passing, I also remember a wager struck up between a couple of my friends during their recent shopping spree at an upper-class boutique in Madrid, when they came across a middle-aged Indian lady admiring the bridal gowns par excellence by prestigious wedding dresses designers displayed there. As for the subject of their bet, one maintained that the lady is looking for a wedding gown for her daughter while the other one heldthat it is for herself. Mind you, as it turned out, none of them were right. The salesman known to them from previous visits later told them that while seeing her off at the door, he had courteously complemented her that he is sure the bridal gown she just purchased would be lovely for her daughter.  Right away, she had given him a baffled look and retorted: “For my daughter?! This is for me to wear at a high society party back in Bombay!” That said, she walked out in a huff.

It is not hard to make a decision when you are firm in your belief as to its objective. Apparently, it is Victoria Beckham’s belief in her sense of style that earned her the Womenswear Designer of the Year award at the 2012 WGSN Global Fashion Awards. Quite similarly, the success in a wager is related to the belief in the standpoint of the bettor. However, to play safe from gamble, a better way to triple the money is to fold it thrice and stash it inside the wallet.

Today I am writing about a wager set by two Englishmen which is the theme of British director Ronald Neame’s “The Million Pound Note”, a film which is rated in a guide as “Witty, intelligent and charming”. Assessing the four main elements of movie making – script, acting, cinematography and editing, I have no reason at all to disagree to this rating.

The Million Pound Note” was released in the United Kingdom in January 1954. This Ronald Neame and John Bryan production was produced at Pinewood Studios in England in 1953 when the film industry and exhibitors were striving to curb the menace and progress of television against box office. It was during this year that 20th Century Fox released their initial CinemaScope film, “The Robe” and also when drive-in theatres sprang up across America. The year saw the release of “Bwana Devil”, the first film on Polaroid’s dual projector 3D system, the precursor to 3-D or three dimensional films. A string of high quality movies hit the screen during 1953: “Julius Caesar”, “Stalag 17”, “From Here to Eternity”, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, and William Wyler’s “Roman Holiday”, catapulting its leading star Gregory Peck to greater heights.

The tall, principled and handsome Gregory Peck was 37 years old when he was cast in the role of Henry Adam which was perfected for him. It is a jolly good treat to watch Peck’s unpretentious seaman going through the experiences goaded by a million pound note as he gained wisdom from the fascination it created in the London society. Born Eldred Gregory Peck, he had attended Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater in New York where performers like Grace Kelly, Geraldine Page, Steve McQueen, et al had attended, following which Peck performed on stage till the early 1940s. Actor Eli Wallach remembers him as “tall, slim, almost regal and very shy”, while his contemporary Karl Malden in his memoirs sums up Peck’s days as a stage actor as: “I knew right away that he was going to be a big star. He had a resonant voice and a winning, relaxed manner on stage.”

Peck’s opportunity came when Hollywood was experiencing the absence of romantic leading men due to the war, debuting with 1944’s “Days of Glory”. Having become an instant star with “The Keys of the Kingdom”, Peck was rated as a downright decent leading man. He had worked with Hollywood legends such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, William Wyler, Elia Kazan, etc, though some of his best films were under the direction of Henry King. His considerable charm had been put to effective use in comedies such as Stanley Donan’s “Arabesque” or Vincente Minelli’s “Designing Woman”, but Peck is least interesting when he is portraying straightforward integrity. Ever the gentleman, Peck was a “straight arrow, who took the job of acting seriously and analytically.” While acting, he maintained that anyone standing around in his eye line had to be moved off out of the way.

Esteemed as one of the great screen actors with a string of outstanding performances in movies, Peck went on to win five Academy Award nominations and won the Best actor Oscar in 1963 for his performance as the courageous small-town lawyer Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mocking Bird”. He was also awarded with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

He would become the first actor-president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for three years from 1967 to 1970, a period known for his efforts to rejuvenate the organization and its image by trying to bring in younger stars into its membership.

In 1953 when the pre-production work on “The Million Pound Note” was about to begin, Gregory Peck was in Italy acting in “Roman Holiday”. He was also going through a patch of despair due to separation from his Finnish wife Greta Kukkonen (née Eine Matilda Kukkonen), which was soon reversed when he fell in love with Paris-born journalist Veronique Passani, whom he met when she interviewed him for the French daily newspaper France Soir. Peck would marry her soon after his divorce from Kukkonen in 1955.

The Million Pound Note” starts with a display of the company logo of J Arthur Rank Organisation of a golden gong being struck by the gong man’s familiar slow-motion swing of arms. The man you see there is the English heavyweight boxer, Bombardier William “Billy” Thomas Wells, the first of Rank’s gong men. The credits are shown with melodious classical music with stirring effectiveness and snippets from instrumental version of the patriotic British song “Rule Britannia”.

According to the narration at the beginning of the movie, the story starts at a time when Britain was very rich, and deep in the vaults of England there was more gold than anywhere else in the world. Safe, people used to say, safe as the Bank of England. In this time, there lived two elderly and superbly wealthy brothers named Oliver and Roderick Montpelier at their grand mansion at Belgrave Square. Being a bit oddball in nature, they entertained different opinions regarding people’s attitudes to the symbol of wealth. Having decided to play a wager to prove this, the brothers acquired a single currency note for a million pounds issued on June 20, 1903 by the Bank ofEngland.

Oliver Montpelier thought that the note felt good and maintained that such is people’s attitudes to the symbol of wealth that by merely possessing this scrap of paper, without ever cashing it, you could have everything you wanted. On the contrary, Roderick found the note quite unique, an exquisite thing of beauty and believed that it would be quite useless if you were denied the right to cash it.

For now, we are introduced to the leading character of the movie, a penniless and friendless young seaman named Henry Adams from New England who was stranded in London. He was at his wit’s end for having failed in his efforts to find a job. As a last resort, he had even approached the Consulate of the United States of America where he encountered a display board which discouraged American citizens from approaching the Consulate for monetary help:

“This Consulate is not provided with funds by the U.S Government

for the assistance of needy Americans in London”

 

It was when he was trying to pick up a discarded pear from the pavement that he was invited by the two brothers to their mansion. Though Adam was expecting to find work from them, he was given a letter in a sealed envelope informing him that everything will be explained once he opened the envelope at two o’clock, exactly one hour and ten minutes from then.

 

On the strength of the assumed fortune in the envelope, Adam went into a decent restaurant and ordered a wonderful, long over due meal which explains the bill:

“Ham, eggs, steak, potatoes, beans, carrots, twice.

Trifle, cheese, coffee, two quarts of ale. Three and ten pence.”

On the threshold of being thrown out of the restaurant for non-payment of the bill, the envelope was opened to discover the note of the enormous value of One Million Pounds! The instant transformation in the attitude of all those around him owing to the gargantuan value of the note was evidently amusing.

 

Taken for an eccentric millionaire, the red carpet was rolled out for him. He is most welcome to come in anytime he wanted, and to have whatever he wanted. As for his present bill, he doesn’t need to pay it – just forget it, it’s of no consequence at all.

Upon rushing back to the mansion of the brothers to return the note, Adam learned from James, the butler that the brothers were unavailable, having gone abroad for a month. At this point, sitting on the stairs to collect his thoughts, he learned from the letter in the envelope that:

As his mind brooded over the contents of the letter, the note accidently flew off his fingers, the retrieval of which creates a series of funny sequences. In a while, the note again does the grand-work for him at the tailoring shop of Jonathan Reid who, upon seeing the note, takes it as their pride and glory to see His Eminence properly attired for the season.

 

From here, Adam is referred to as an admiral of the seas to the prestigious Hotel Bumbles, the very place to stay – quiet, modest and discretion itself. Having gone through further complications on arrival at the hotel, and after a good deal of Yes-my-lord-ing and Very-good-my-lord-ing, Adam was elegantly accommodated in the Bridal Suite after the current occupant, the Duke of Frognal, was instantly chucked out.

 

With his social status realigned, Adam started to move in exclusive social circles of the British aristocracy aided by the American Ambassador. This provided him with the opportunity to meet lovely Portia Lansdowne, niece of the toothy Duchess of Cromarty to whose reception at her Hampshire House he was invited to attend.

 

Some people will tell the world anything they know about everything. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Given that the sugar-coated rumour mills started to roll about his mere acquaintance with Lord Lloyd Hastings, the shares of Hasting’s company shoot up – a rather happy moment at the Stock Exchange.

Whilst Adam was all set to soar and score, things unfortunately started to look pretty foul when the Duke of Frognal pulls a prank and hides the note with the help of Renie, the hotel chambermaid. It was a wake up call for Adam. As Adam started to scale down the heights he had climbed, it began to dawn on him that he would have to actually spend the money if he wishes to live like a Lord….

 

Produced by Ronald Neame and British production designer turned producer John Bryan, the film features an array of British crew and technicians though a good number of the casts are not credited. The screenplay founded on an updated version of a short story by Mark Twain called “The Million Pound Bank Note” is by expert British documentary director and writer (Noreen) Jill Craigie.

The characters of the two brothers being integral to the structure of the film are joyously portrayed by two brilliant British actors. Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, jovial Ronald Squire from the Liverpool Repertory Theatre had acted in many light comedy roles before he appeared in the role of Oliver Montpelier. Wilfrid Hyde-White’s role as Roderick Montpelier, marks one of the various comedies he made before shifting to America in the 1960s. An impeccable character actor of stage and screen who had often acted opposite Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and is best remembered for his role as Col. Hugh Pickering in George Cukor’s “My Fair Lady” (1964) in which he sets up a wager with Prof. Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) challenging him to transform flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) into a lady.

Joyce Grenfell (born Joyce Irene Phipps) who portrays the Duchess of Cromarty was initially a radio critic columnist who went on to debut on the London stage before she made entertaining the troops her principal work during World War II, a period which she described as “The Time of My Life*. After the war Joyce, along with Viola Tunnard, her accompanist who was a gifted musician and able pianist, went for one more tour to “Re-Joyce” the troops, starting at Benghazi in December 1952 and finishing off in Malta by January 1953. Following this, she acted in a movie called “Genevieve” before her appearance in “The Million Pound Note”, which her mother approved since she was appalled of the number of unattractive characters her daughter played in films.

A.E. (Matty) Matthews in the role of the hard hit Duke of Frognal who repeats his title as a form of bragging about his “wealth” but is a lot poorer is perfectly cast. Matthews is popular for a crack he once made, “I always wait for “The Times” each morning. I look at the obituary column, and if I’m not in it, I go to work”. The film also stars Wilbur Evans (American Ambassador), Jane (Mary) Griffiths (Portia Lansdowne), bald-headed American actor Hartley Power (Lord Lloyd Hastings), Maurice Denham (Jonathan Reid), Reginald Beckwith (Rock), Brian Oulton (Lloyd), John Slater (Parsons), Hugh Wakefield (in his last role, Duke of Cromarty), Bryan Forbes (Todd), George Devine (Chop house/Restaurant proprietor), Hugh Griffith (Potter), etc.

 

The music is provided by prolific post-Romantic English composer William Alwyn and conducted by the Scottish conductor/composer (James) Muir Mathieson. Once a professor (from 1926 to 1955) at the Royal Academy of Music in London, Alwyn had progressed from scores for World War II documentary films  for the British Ministry of Information to scores for feature movies such as “Svengali”, “Zarak”, “Swiss Family Robinson”, etc. He has decorated the movie with classic symphonies; music that is both melodic and eminently accessible. At times, his tunes are both subtle and profound, dominated by violin notes, atmospheric waltzes, snippets from popular British music and he even used bits from the Yankee Doodle.

 

One of the greatest of British cinematographers, Geoffrey Unsworth is a recipient of an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire), and winner of two Oscars, among others. Unsworth has done a wonderful workmanlike job here, assisted by camera operator Jim Bawden. With a long string of superb films behind him, among them “A Night to Remember” (1958), “Cabaret” (1972), “Superman” (1978), etc, he died of a heart attack at the age of 64 on the set of Roman Polanski’s “Tess” (1979).

Production designer Jack Maxsted (“The Adventurers”, “Diamonds are Forever”, etc) together with John (Allan Hyatt) Box did the Art Direction for the film. Though Box’s career got an upshot with David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), he was known for recreating exotic locations in unlikely places. He had effectively constructed Chinese city walls in Wales for “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” (1958) when the unit was denied permission to shoot in China. When a Russian country house in snowy landscape had to be replicated in Spain for “Doctor Zhivago” (1965), he would accomplish that by using white plastic sheets and marble dust. (For references on John Box and William Alwyn, you may read my review of August 23: “StarChoice 9: Zarak”)

The Costume design is by Margaret Furse, the Academy Award Winner for Best Costume for “Anne of the Thousand Days” who also did costumes for “Oliver Twist”, “The Crimson Pirate”, “Mary, Queen of Scots”, etc. If one looks closely at Furse’s costumes in the movie, we can find out how the small details which would normally go unnoticed make an impact on the overall effect in the frames.

Make up and Hair styles are done by George Blackler and Biddy Chrystal respectively. Blackler had headed the make-up department for “Black Narcissus”, “Operation Crossbow”, “Dracula A.D. 1972”, “The Satanic Rites of Dracula”, etc; while the renowned hairstylist Chrystal (aka. Eileen Chrystal) has enough feathers to line her nest for having worked on movies such as “The Sword and the Rose”, “Sword of Lancelot”, “The Fearless Vampire Killers”, “11 Harrowhouse”, etc. While the set dressing is by Dario Simoni, editor Clive (Stanley) Donner cuts it all together.

As for director Ronald Neame, he was born in 1911 in London to beautiful silent film actress Ivy Close, Neame was the producer of British filmmaker David Lean’s (1908-1991) early British films “Great Expectations” (1946), and “Oliver Twist” (1948). Like director George Stevens, Victor Fleming, Phil Rosen, he was an outstanding cinematographer, before becoming an expert director at light, frothy comedies. Although Neame was uncredited, he was an assistant cameraman on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Blackmail” (1929), the first sound-on-film British talkie.

As in every movie, there is a price dictated by the subject matter, the content and the showmanship values. “The Million Pound Note” is a fairly pleasing comedy which aptly displays the Edwardian atmosphere, flavour and local colour of England. You could see the muffin seller walking down the street, the family picnic on the green grass, uniformed school children lined up for outing, etc.

 

With a witty, well-written screenplay by expert writer Jill Craigie, Neame didn’t have to run to the hull every other minute to check for leaks. The meal at the restaurant leading to the discovery of the note is beautifully staged and ably photographed by Geoffrey Unsworth while Alwyn’s pleasant music flutters all around it. Another amusing scene is the incident at Jonathan Reid’s tailor shop.

 

The scenes of Portia Lansdowne which ends with a pop at matrimony, provides the emotional quotient. In all fairness, the movie is nicely ornamented and acted under the graceful direction of Ronald Neame. Being a comedy, everything works out happily though the movie will set us thinking about the extraordinary way some people’s attitudes change by the symbol of wealth and also why some regard the rich as superior to the poor. “The Million Pound Note” is a classic comedy which can be watched by the whole family.

 

(Text: © JS/Manningtree Archive)

Viva Portugal: Castelo de São Jorge, Lisboa

Temptation came calling in the person of a TAP (Air Portugal) flight attendant with a face as soft as a powder puff. As our flight bumped high above the Bay of Biscay bound for Lisbon (Lisboa), the red wine she offered us to soothe our nerves was Portuguese, the name of which I forgot but according to her: “acclaimed by the American Global Traveler magazine to be among the best wines served on the wing.”

According to a young couple we had struck up acquaintance with us at London Heathrow, now seated close to us, our present airborne location is infamous for hurly burly air-pockets (similar to certain areas near Goa, India) but, nonetheless, it wasn’t bad after the wine. The young couple, Felipe, a Portuguese and his blonde British bride Sybil with Gok Wan eyeglasses, striped Breton top and skinny jeans, appeared so full of warmth and verve. Ever since my daughter started studying Fashion Design I had cultivated an eye for women’s fashion. We parted at Lisbon Portela Airport after exchanging contact details and handshakes. I would soon learn that this is a country where handshakes are exchanged at every encounter.

An hour earlier, when the Captain announced in the aircraft about adverse weather in Lisbon it should have told me something. It was raining cats and dogs when we touched down at the lovely, hilly Lisbon – the land of navigator Vasco da Gama who discovered a water route to India on May 20, 1498; land of Pedro Álvares Cabral who sighted the coast of Brazil in 1500, and of Ferdinand Magellan who set off on the first voyage around the world nineteen years later.

We couldn’t see anything through the lashing raindrops on the window panes of the taxi as we cruised north of Rossio through the 90mtr-wide Avenida da Liberdade (Liberty Avenue: Lisbon’s main boulevard built between 1879-1886 in the style of Avenue des Champs– Élysées in Paris). The sound of rain hitting the roof and jerk of the windshield wipers with a constant radius of curvature seems to set a perfect accompaniment to the drone of the car’s engine as we went around the Rotunda (roundabout), heading for our hotel.

Lisbon is sometimes called “the white city” due to its unique clear light. Well, the following day was bright and clear in conformity to that dictum. As we drove past Praça Marquês de Pombal in a taxi on our way to Alfama, the old quarter, we were able to see the monument at its centre: a statue of Marquês de Pombal and a lion elevated above a gigantic column symbolizing power and strength. His eyes were focused towards downtown he had helped to rebuilt while the broken rocks and tidal waves depicted at the base of the column symbolized the ruinous effects of a past earthquake.

This being our first visit to Portugal, it had left a good impression on me that I would often enjoy thinking about those days. Even now, as I write this, I can still remember the taste and feel and smell of Portugal.

 

Portugal is located in the western periphery of Europe and edged by the Atlantic Ocean. It was once called “the land on the edge where land ends and sea begins”. Convinced that the “earth is flat with an edge, Strabo, a Greek geographer from the period of Christ who travelled extensively, believed that the low headland Sagres at the southwestern point of Portugal where the Atlantic and the Mediterranean meet, was the end of the earth beyond which existed a frightening void with all kinds of monsters and beasts, at the extreme rim of which, ultima thule, “the water cascaded away into the unknown”.

In reality, Portugal is a beautiful country of white sunny beaches, rolling hills and mountains, rivers, plantations of olive and cork and populated by a rich panorama of humanity. It’s a country with an abounding prehistoric culture. During the course of history, this beautiful land sprawling on the wide fertile valleys was swept over by a series of invaders: Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans who called it Felicitas-Julia Olisipo. Then came the barbarians like Alani, Vandals, Suevi, followed by the Visigoths until the African Moors barged into western Andalucía in 711 and overran Lisbon in 714. The Moors called it Al-Gharb or Al-Gharb Al-Andalus and held Lisbon for a long period during which it enjoyed relative growth and prosperity. At that point of time, the Christianity which was confined to the north of Minho waited for the right moment to launch the Reconquista which finally occurred at Covadonga in about 718. Gradually towns fell, one after the other, under their control: Porto (868), Coimbra (878) and by 955, the initial raid was attempted on Lisbon.

Afonso Henriques (1110-85), son of Henri of Burgundy and his wife Teresa, who had achieved a brilliant military victory against the moors in the Battle of Ourique in July 25, 1139 was bestowed the title of King of Portugal in 1143 following the Treaty of Zamora signed at the Cathedral of Zamora which recognized the independence of Portugal from the Kingdom of León. Being the valiant warrior he was, reinforced by the help of the Bishop of Braga, Dom Afonso enlisted the armies of the Second Crusade, consisting of English, French, Flemish and German volunteers who were on their way to Jerusalem but had to break their journey at the mouth of Rio Douro in Porto in mid June due to bad weather. Afonso captured Lisbon in October, 1147 after a 17-week siege (July 1 to Oct 25).

The successful capture of Lisbon blossomed the legend proclaiming the bravery of a Portuguese warrior named Martim Moniz who, having seen the Castelo gates being hastily pulled shut by the Moorish soldiers, lodged himself between the huge doors, sacrificing himself but keeping the city gates open for the conquering armies to capture Castelo de São Jorge which eventually led to the defeat of the Moors and the creation of the Kingdom of Portugal under the House of Burgundy. In Moniz’s honour, a gate in the castle, with his bust on its niche, is named “Porta de Martim Moniz”. This honour would become the precursor for numerous memorials in his name that would prop up in Lisbon.

Those of us who are curious to know of the legend of Dom Afonso Henriques would be interested in the “Crónica do rei D. Afonso Henriques” by Duarte Galvaõ (1435-1517), the original of which is kept at the Museu Condes de Castro Guimarães in Cascais.

The weather was pleasant enough for us to pull down the windowpanes of the taxi which facilitated some still camera-works for Manningtree Archive. All the while, the Spanish singer/actress Rocio Dúrcal (Oct 4, 1944-Mar 25, 2006) was singing on the Taxi’s CD player. Our cheerful taxi driver was glad to switch to a song I liked when I spoke of Rocio he apparently adored. Rocio’s “La gata bajo la lluvia” is what feelings sound like – particularly the duet version with Argentine jazz pianist Raúl Di Blasio – very haunting indeed!

 

 

Going up to the Castelo de São Jorge from Baixa by taxi or Remodelado tram or just walking, you have to pass through the narrow and steep winding streets and alleyways of the old labyrinthine district of Alfama, with numerous small wine bars and restaurants hither and thither. We had spent the first part of the day visiting Sé Patriarchal Cathedral (aka: Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa or Sé de Lisboa), the imposing and austere monument with its restored façade of military-style crenellations, built soon after the banishment of the Moors from Lisbon. Soon afterwards, we went over to the Igreja de Santo Antonio da Sé and the Museu Antóniano located a stone’s throw away to the right side of Sé.

 

Hours later, we are up at Castelo de São Jorge, the nucleus of the medieval town. They say Lisbon comes from a Phoenician name which means “calm harbour”. Legend has it that this city located on the north-bank of the mighty Rio Tajo and perched on seven hills, similar to Istanbul (the city on the Seven Hills), was founded by Ulysses (Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey). It became the capital of Portugal only by 1260 when the capital was shifted from Coimbra after the Moors were finally all-cleared.

 

 

The View of Lisbon from different location from the ramparts of the Castelo, is magnificent. Down there, we could see Baxia, the lower quarter which is the heart of the city centre situated between the hills of old Moorish quarter of Alfama and Bairro Alto in the west. There lay before us a sea of old-world charm of red-tiled roofs, post-1755 architecture with a mixture of new ideas and styles. Looking at Rio Tejo, the largest river on the Iberian peninsula, up to Alcântara, we could see slow Transtejo ferries moving through the broad sweep of the river.

 

Further up to the north, soared the Ponte 25 de Abril, earlier known as Ponte de Salazar and inaugurated on August 6, 1966. No doubt, the castle’s vantage location 110 mtrs high on the most prominent hill had provided the ancient people with the utmost commanding position for several reasons.

 

 

The city you see down there is not in its original form but the one rebuilt following the devastating earthquake on the All Saint’s Day of 1755, five years after the catastrophe of the London earthquake. Given that the epicenter was at Oporto, in truth, the aftershocks were felt as far as Scotland, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Madrid, Morocco and even across the Atlantic. Although the Bairro Alta and Alfama were saved from much devastation, the loss of human life in Lisbon was higher than the Lisbon earthquake of January 26, 1531, so that corpses were taken out in barges to the mouth of Rio Tajo and sunk.

 

 

With massive international aid, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, later the Marquês de Pombal, went to rebuilt the city according to a neo-classical plan that was geometrically and functionally sensible. But it is a matter of fact that a historic town centre was lost in that uncalled for disaster, breaking off the precious cultural bond that existed between the city and its inhabitants. Conversely, it gave birth to an architectural style known as “Pombaline”. To this end, broad throughfares were created, pavements were provided to the streets according to the new idea from London, places for pedestrians were marked, buildings went up with elegant facades, regular windows and stonework painted dark red, pink, or ochre.

 

 

 

It is believed that Castelo de São Jorge was built in the middle of the eleventh century when the Moors were the rulers of Lisbon. However, scholars suggests the Castelo’s existence goes back to earlier Phoenician settlement and Roman oppidum long before the Moors came in and built their citadel and Casbah, adding further fortifications to its walls and towers.

 

 

 

Bearing in mind the site’s natural suitability for defense and surveillance, it was originally built as garrison for the military troops and in case of siege, to function as a sanctuary for the monarchy who lived in the hilltop Paço Real da Alcáçova (citadel). Once the Moors were removed, the governance of the city was undertaken from the Castelo. In 1255, it was made the royal residence of Dom Afonso III (1248-1279), followed by Dom Dinis (1279-1325) who founded the University of Coimbra in 1290 and formed the Portuguese navy in 1317.

 

 

 

Since the fourteenth century, by order of Dom João 1 the Good (1358-1433), it is named Castelo de São Jorge, after the patron saint of the knights and the Crusades. It was here that Dom Manuel I (Emanuel – 1469-1521), whose reign is remembered for his persecutions of Jews and Muslims during 1496-98, accorded a grand welcome to Vasco da Gama on his triumphant return from India round the Cape in 1499. When Dom Manuel I shifted his residence to his new palace downtown in 1511, the castle functioned as a theatre, prison and arms depot. In the aftermath of the 1755 earthquake, it fell into a long period of decay. In 1938, during a period of economic revival and industrialization under Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar, it underwent a complete restoration to reinstate its military heritage. The medieval walls were rebuilt, gardens added and populated with the likes of peafowls.

 

 

 

What remains now are eleven towers, the restored ruins of the palace and walls surrounding the compound, the shaded gardens, fountains, cafés and restaurants. While the numerous windows open to all parts of the city helped keep an eye on the city, its position on the highest hill prevented the attackers from approaching the castle from all sides. Representations from the developments in warfare achieved over the years can be noted on the Castelo’s features – the lookout posts (miradouro), the carved stone balconies, arrow slits, platforms on the rooftop for heavy artillery, protections to thwart anyone from clawing their way up the thick walls, the wider ramparts…. Even so, despite these thoughtful restorations, it now wore the look of a public park.

 

 

Having said that, I could not help thinking of its bygone glory. This is where the history of the city began. This is the castle on which the legend of knight Martim Moniz was made. These are the same great stones that Dom Afonso Henriques, the conqueror, had walked upon. As I stroll around, my mind reflected on how it must have been here during the Age of Exploration:  the soldiers sitting by the ramparts looking down at the city and at the busy waterfront full of ships and galleons, talking of the fabulous lands that lay to the East; the intense discussions before the fireplaces of the vaulted rooms of the Castelo as the noblemen of the monarchy shot the breeze about the land of spices or why spices are of importance since the crusades…..; of the legendry kingdom of Prester John, the richest monarch in the world….. The number of eyes that must have watched over the great caravels sailing from Belém through Rio Tejo bound for their maritime expeditions… to conquer new worlds….

 

With entry restricted by fee, the Castelo is open to the public all 365 days of a year. It offers not only excellent views to different parts of the city but also the chance to return to the past. We can climb up the towers, especially Torre de Ulisses (Tower of Ulysses) near the rectangular Fortificacao to look through the Periscope for a 360° view of the city, check Porta da Traicão (Traitor’s Gate) – a secret door on the northern wall which allows secret entrance when needed, walk along the ramparts or the narrow, cobbled streets of Santa Cruz, or wander through or just sit under the shaded trees of the garden and watch the locals play backgammon or cards. You can also take a break at Café do Castelo or inside the vaulted room of restaurante Casa do Leão, which together with Núcleo Museológico, forms part of the ruins of the former Paço Real da Alcáçova (Royal Palace of the Alcáçova).

 

Then there are the main towers: Torre de Menagem (Tower of the Keep), Torre do Paço (Palace Tower), Torre da Cisterna (Tower of the Cistern) and the Torre de São Lourenço (Tower of St. Lawrence), etc.

If you would like to see the seventeenth century statue of São Jorge, it is revered inside Igreja de Santa Cruz do Castelo, the twelfth century church (built in place of a mosque inside the Castelo’s compound) where the children of the resident monarchs of the Paço Real da Alcáçova in the Castelo were traditionally baptized.

Periodically, the castle offers cultural and entertainment programs for the visitors: a multimedia exhibition called Olisiponia about the history of Lisbon; a costumed dance show “Danças para trés princesa”(Dances for Three Princesses); “Mistérios e mitos e lendas de Lisboa” (Mysteries, Myths and Legends of Lisbon); “Artes Circenses” (Circus Arts); “Artes Belicas no Castelo”, a show of dueling knights of the Middle Ages, etc.

 

It had started to drizzle sometime back. We returned to the courtyard and the Observatory Terrace nearer to Porta de São Jorge, the front entrance (Saida). I turn around and look at the statue of Dom Afonso Henriques raised on stone, his hand holding the raised sword, standing so tall and proud. I can notice a faint smile playing on the lips of this valiant champion who became wiser by adversity and created a nation. At that moment, a quote from a poem (Before the Battle) by Irish poet Thomas Moore crossed my mind:

 

“But oh, how blest that hero’s sleep

O’er whom a wondering world shall weep!”

 The dusk is already starting to wear on. Looking out from the Observatory Terrace, we could see the Igreja and Monasterio de Sao Vicente de Fora to our left. Dedicated to São Vicente de Saragoça, the patron saint of Lisbon, it is built on the place where the German and Flemish crusaders camped to help Dom Afonso to capture Lisbon from the Moors in 1147. We will go there tomorrow.

As we walked out through the main gates into Rua do Caho da Feira, we could see a woman with a colourful silk scarf tied around her head sitting on the wooden garden bench under the shade of a tree. She was singing to the strums of a man playing a Portuguese twelve-stringed guitar. Another woman sat next to the man enjoying coffee and cakes with a certain passion. Beside her was an open leather bag stuffed with strings of spicy sausages and garlands of dried red chillies.

 

Every country has their culture – aspects that offer breathtaking insight into life, love, and literature. It is for us to make an effort to understand them and learn from them. No three guesses. You couldn’t miss the tones of her singing: Fado. Born of the troubadour ballads, it is Portugal’s bittersweet, disconsolate answer to the Blues, Tango and Flamenco. The fadisto appeared rather blasé about it, her melancholic tones meandering through soulful archaic phrases of lost loves and past glories.

Moments later, I learned that the song she manages to imbue with such a strong fado sensibility is “Ha festa na Mouraria” (There’s a festival in Mouraria). It is the one song most commonly associated with fado and immortalized by the legendary Fado singer Amália Rodrigues who helped to transform Fado into the style we know today. What a rightful song to hear at that moment about the rustic bairro overlooked by the Castelo de São Jorge where a procession was winding through its narrow streets.

As I tipped her, the man who played the guitar translated for me her comments in good English, “Señora Annalisa is the daughter of a nationalist and a beautiful gypsy woman. They were blessed with blue skies, green gardens and horses. Then he disappeared suddenly in 1967. Having led a hard life, her health is not good now. She has the spirit of Amália Rodrigues in her. She loves singing and has learned to live well for less. It’s God who let her embrace fado… when she sing fado, she is free of all pain.”

 

Why does a most enigmatic and indefinable of all forms of art called music cast a powerful effect on our minds and bodies? Is it that our feelings and emotions gain a structure and coherence from the configuration of music? Suddenly, another thought waltzed into my mind. Live Well for Less! Wait a minute – I have heard that slogan “Live Well for Less” somewhere before. It was while getting into the taxi when it suddenly dawned on me. Yes, that’s one of the slogans of the British retailers Sainsbury’s. Great! Until next time. Caio, Jo

 

 

PS: Emirates Airlines operates direct flights to Lisbon from Dubai with suitable connections from Cochin.

(All Photos (including S George veccide il drago by Paris Bordon – from a reproduction in our house): © Joseph Sebastine-Carina Sebastine/Manningtree Archive).

(The three paintings: “Vasco da Gama Leaving Portugal” by John Henry Amshewit, “The Siege of Lisbon by D. Afonso Henriques” by Joaquim Rodrigues Braga and “Conquest of Lisbon” by Alfredo Roque Gameiro, are from Wikipedia: Public domain)