|Just outside the front door|
You never know in NJ what winter will bring. Sometimes (though not often) the snowfalls start in October and keep piling on top of us for the next five months. Other years we get a dusting or two in February, and that’s the end of it. This year, the first snow since last March fell yesterday. It wasn’t much – just enough to stick – but it counted. It provided a bare excuse to spend the weekend at my home in the woods with a book and DVD. Both are worth a look.
One Touch of Venus (1948)
The 1980s romantic comedy Mannequin frequently appears on “Guilty Pleasures” lists, but the 1948 inspiration for that movie is largely forgotten. One Touch of Venus turned up frequently on late night TV when I was a child. It was a favorite of my sister and I enjoyed watching it with her. Since then it all but has vanished from the airwaves. Not even TCM has it on regular rotation. Prior to this past weekend I hadn’t seen it in more than 50 years. I had forgotten completely that it was a musical. So how does it hold up decades later?
One Touch of Venus was a successful Broadway musical starring Mary Martin in the early 1940s. The music was changed and curtailed significantly for the ’48 screen adaptation but the script was scarcely altered. Stage and screen are two very different media and scripts are rarely interchangeable. That is the biggest weakness of the movie production, particularly with regard to the overly-broad-for-screen character Eddie Hatch. Nonetheless, the overall result is still modestly pleasant fare.
Plot: Department store magnate Whitfield Savory (Tom Conway) buys the relic statue Anatolian Venus as an attraction for his store. In an inebriated moment, window dresser Eddie Hatch kisses the statue. Venus (a stunning Ava Gardner) comes to life and causes any number of comic complications before being recalled to Olympus by Jupiter. In the meantime she also resolves a number of romantic issues for the people in the store. Much of the comedy is provided by the unrequited affections of the female characters, which is a reversal of the usual state of affairs then as now (as current news all too relentlessly demonstrates). Eve Arden as Whitfield’s competent right hand operative is especially splendid.
This movie is no classic in any sense other than age. However, if you are looking for light mindless entertainment and are thinking “maybe Mannequin,” try One Touch of Venus instead. It is better, which isn’t saying much but is saying something.
Thumbs ever so mildly Up.
Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914-1921 by Laura Engelstein
The global history of the 20th century is very much a history of the varying fortunes of Russia. In world wars, proxy wars, cold wars, ideological contests, and the post-Soviet restructuring, when Russia wasn’t the central player it still was a weight that tipped balance scales. The key moment that defined Russia’s 20th century was the 1917 October Revolution. Yale historian Laura Engelstein released her book on its 100th anniversary.
The events covered by Engelstein are covered by many other books on my shelves. (My degree is in history, which isn’t one that’s likely to fill a graduate’s pockets but is one likely to fill his or her bookcases.) However, they tend to suffer from being either too general (e.g. histories of WW1) or too specific (e.g. individual biographies or particular accounts of the February and October Revolutions). By covering the whole period of World War, Revolution, foreign intervention, Civil War, and consolidation with the New Economic Policy in a single volume, Engelstein is able to put events in proper context with sufficient detail but without overwhelming the reader.
The astonishing evaporation of imperial authority in early 1917 by no means ensured that the Bolsheviks would prevail in the end even with Lenin’s single-minded dedication to that outcome. Engelstein details how it happened that they did, through a mix of random events, politics of division, and calculated violence.
Thumbs solidly Up.
Clip from One Touch of Venus (1948)