Thursday, January 28, 2010

A tragedy with a happy ending

Warning! Possible Spoiler Alert! And your blogger really hates spoilers!

The first stage adaptation of Edith Wharton’s bestselling novel The House of Mirth was not a success. In A Backward Glance when Wharton describes the reaction of William Dean Howells, who had come at her invitation to see the performance, she writes of “the lapidary phrase in which, as we left the theatre, he summed up the reason of the play’s failure. ‘Yes—what the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.’”

This seems to have done the trick at least in the beginning. The first film version of The House of Mirth, made in 1918 with Katherine Corri Harris Barrymore starring as Lily Bart, decided to go with the “Sleeping Beauty” ending. As Lily begins to succumb to the blissful sleep provide by her “medication” Lawrence Selden rushes in to her side, sweeps her up into his arms, and assures her that all will be well! This film is tragically among the lost gems of early cinema, and so one can only picture this beautiful scene in one’s mind’s eye.

Did the new ending make the film more successful? What did Mrs. Wharton think about this and about Hollywood in general? She said late in her life that movies were the ”killer of the imagination”, but earlier in her career she certainly understood their earning potential and influence on popular culture. Throughout her literary career she actively pursued adaptations of her works, and was very much involved in the dramatization of many of her most important novels. One of the great as yet unsolved and most intriguing Whartonian mysteries: Did Edith Wharton ever go to the movies herself? Aside from a brief mention of a movie or newsreel in Spain with Walter Berry in 1914, there are no explicit mentions in any letters or memoirs of Wharton’s attending a film. We do know that she disapproved of the reigning queen of the silent cinema, Mary Pickford, and made fun of Greta Garbo. She certainly used images and descriptions of movies in her fiction, from Summer onwards. How did she know how to write about movies and why did she have an opinion about the stars of the day, if she never saw a movie herself? This has puzzled Wharton scholars, and perhaps the answer will come in some as yet undiscovered archive. She certainly did attend stage performances of her novels and some of them met with her approval. The many radio, stage, screen and opera adaptations of her works which continue even today show that her appeal remains stong and crosses the boundaries of generations.

Jane Austen, who never loses her appeal, and Edith Wharton address similar societal subjects. Wherein lies the difference? Is it that Mr. Darcy turns out to be the most wonderful guy ever and he and Elizabeth Bennett live happily ever after? On the other hand, Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska are entrapped in a cycle of eternal frustration.
A tragedy with a happy ending?

Casting call comments

The Mount is thrilled to see that our casting call is already garnishing some interesting responses! However, a stalwart Mountie seems to have an issue with my suggestion of Squidward from Spongebob as Walter Berry. One feels that the resemblance should be glaringly obvious to all, from the high intellectual brow to the somewhat arrogant stance (see below). Her comments: "Tom Cruise as Morton!...not Teddy !!! That deadly cold charm. (blue eyes, Teddy's were hazel)...Hmmmm and as a (distant) and lowly cousin of Walter I think I resent that one....I will think on my "perfect Walt" !!!"

Although we stand by our choice, we will admit that Squidward does not sport a moustache. As this Mountie, who shall remain nameless here, is of an old Knickerbocker family and thusly a relative of Mr. Berry (the closest thing to aristocracy here at The Mount), we shall defer to her sensibilities and entertain other suggestions. Mr. Berry had electric blue eyes and white hair so our two next suggestions are the late Paul Newman, and the German singing superstar sensation Heino. (The image of Mr. Newman above is from the Daily Telegraph). The list is growing, so keep your suggestions coming in the comments!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Louis Auchincloss, 1917-2010

The Mount was extremely saddened to hear of the death of our great friend, Louis Auchincloss. He was a wonderful and gifted writer, a true successor to Edith Wharton as chronicler of society's many foibles, and a fine, witty, and generous person. His biography of Edith Wharton, who was a friend of his mother's, is at hand on your blogger's desk at the moment, having been used as a reference just this morning. His support of our work at The Mount was always so inspiring to those of us who work here. He gave us many generous gifts, from personal items such as portraits of Edith Wharton and her family to the even more precious gift of his knowledge of Wharton and her time.

Your blogger's last encounter with him was on a visit to The Mount last summer (above). We were in the library, which contains a work by Friedrich Nietzsche with the flyleaf annotated in Edith Wharton's hand. Most of the notes are references to various passages in the book (Der Wille zur Macht, Bd. 1, in a 1906 set of the complete works), but one of them is a little bit unusual. Wharton has written at the bottom of the page "50 grains of veronal is the minimum fatal dose", and there has been much speculation on the reason for this, was it perhaps research for The House of Mirth or The Fruit of the Tree?

Mr. Auchincloss saw it gave us his interpretation without hesitation: "She was planning on doing Teddy in!"

We will miss him very much and offer our sincerest condolences to his family.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Casting Call!!

Do you have a secret desire to be a casting director?
Ever spent hours around a café table, at your favorite pub, or even online debating the merits of the choices directors and producers have made for your favorite books or films?

Would you have cast Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby, George Clooney as Batman, Keira Knightly as Elizabeth Bennett, Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, William Shatner as Alyosha? If you answered yes (or even no!) to any of these questions, then you are more than eligible to join The Mount’s Cast Your Own contest.

In conjunction with our 2010 exhibit Dramatic License: Wharton on Stage & Screen, we not only will entertain suggestions on the “perfect” Madame Olenska or Ethan Frome, but more perhaps the more challenging prospect of casting an imaginary “biopic” of Edith Wharton’s life here at The Mount. There have been several attempts at this already, but we at The Mount feel that the time is ripe for another! For the next few weeks we will post a brief biographical sketch of each of our main characters.

A few excellent suggestions have been made already: Julianne Moore as Edith Wharton, Tom Cruise as Teddy, the possibilities are endless! For example, your blogger cannot help but notice the very strong resemblance between Walter Van Rensselaer Berry and Squidward of Spongebob Squarepants fame!

We encourage all Whartonians and film buffs out there to post their own casting ideas in the comments section of the blog. We will take the most popular names posted over the next few months and make a shortlist for the competition. Rules and regulations will follow. Post early and Post often!

Wharton on stage and screen


At The Mount we are hard at work on our 2010 exhibit: "Dramatic License: Wharton on Stage and Screen". We want to share not only some of the most recent and well-known adaptations of her works, but also those which have faded from memories, such as a 1935 film called Strange Wives based on a Wharton short story initially entitled Bread Upon the Waters, and later changed to Charm, Inc. The movie Strange Wives was not a great box office hit it seems, but if anyone has ever seen it, please share!

Most people remember Michell Pfeiffer as Madame Olenska in the 1993 Age of Innocence, but we have tracked down other great actors who have portrayed Ellen on stage and screen including Beverly Bayne in a 1924 silent film, Katherine Cornell in the 1928 stage version, and Irene Dunne in the 1934 film version. Edith Wharton called one of them "my perfect Ellen". Any guesses which one she meant? Who would be your "perfect Ellen"? Think on it, blog it.

The Mount

Monday, January 25, 2010

Happy Birthday!!

Yesterday, January 24th, was the 148th birthday of our favorite author, Edith Wharton. We are celebrating here at The Mount with staff meetings, but cake (and gluten-free snickerdoodles) will fortunately be included! We hope that all of the Whartonians out there had a wonderful day, and though Mrs. Wharton did not always welcome "that melancholy 24th" there was one thing about it that she did appreciate, as she wrote in a letter to her friend Sally Norton: "The only thing that consoles me for its recurrence is the thought it brings me from friends, who, like you, have the genius of dates. Thank you again & again.”

Friday, January 15, 2010

Edith Wharton's New York

If you are a Whartonian, and in New York City this weekend, you might well want to join in the Municipal Art Society of New York's walking tour "Edith Wharton's New York". It begins at 2.00 pm on Sunday, January 17th. Meet at the N.W. corner of Fifth Ave. and 23rd St. As we have mentioned before, her childhood home on West 23rd Street is now a Starbucks, so if you get too cold and hungry you could quickly pop in and bask in the knowledge that you are drinking your latte in the very spot where Wharton began to practice her wonderful way with words. "The coffee was so exquisite that he asked for a second cup: such a contrast to the watery stuff at the club!" Depending on your opinion of Starbucks coffee, you might feel that this quotation, from The House of Mirth, suits the moment precisely! The above photograph of the house in 1880 appears in an interesting blog entry from The Edith Wharton Society.

Monday, January 11, 2010

In The Reef Edith Wharton wrote: “Silence may be as variously shaded as speech." That must serve as The Mount's blog's excuse for its own prolonged silence. This silence cannot continue, however, as Edith Wharton's presence in the wide world of the internets is as pervasive now as it has ever been. The Classics Circuit encourages the reading of great books by celebrating certain authors in book blogs. January has been Edith Wharton Month! Rather than list all of the many, many blog entries here, we prefer to eliminate the middle man and send the reader straight to the Edith Wharton Tour Schedule on their website.

This should keep all Whartonians suitably occupied, but if not, here follow a few more links.

January 7 was the seventy-fourth anniversary of the debut of two plays on Broadway, important not only to American theatre in general but to Mounties in particular. Both Edith Wharton's Old New York story The Old Maid, in Zoe Akins' adaptation, and The Petrified Forest, starring Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart in his breakout role, opened in New York that night. The significance of The Old Maid is self-explanatory. But as our readers know, The Mount's blog is founded on the premise that Edith Wharton is the centre of the cultural universe, and so The Petrified Forest also belongs here, as the film of the same name with the same cast also starred Bette Davis, who of course starred in the film version of The Old Maid (above, with Miriam Hopkins) in 1939. (Plus, your blogger has always has a bit of a "thing" for Leslie Howard, and welcomes any excuse to bring him up (also above, and looking lovely as ever).

Dame Judith Anderson starred in the Broadway version, and in yet another very fine sequitur we herewith present Judith Anderson reading the Gettysburg Address on the Ed Sullivan Show. The clip features the sculpture from the Lincoln Memorial by Edith Wharton's Berkshires neighbour Daniel Chester French of Chesterwood.