Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Painting by Thomas Lawrence
We've discovered a printing error in the Northanger Abbey issue of The Storybook Home Journal:

On page 20 under the "Sally Lunn" recipe, it should read:
"1 1/4 cups milk" instead of "1/4 cups milk." 

Reprints of this issue will include the correction.  We apologize for the inconvenience and wish you happy baking!

And for those enjoying part two of Elspeth's art lessons for children, which also appears in Northanger Abbey, click here to access the list of art lesson resources we mention in the article.  There's something for everyone: little ones, students, and adults.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

80th issue now available

Northanger Abbey
The Northanger Abbey issue of The Storybook Home Journal is now available from Al Young Studios.  This issue features these regular sections:

Gardening - To Love A Hyacinth
Hearth - A Notion Of Drawing
Kitchen - In Quest of Pastry, Millinery, and Young Men
Storybook Decorating - The Breakfast Room
Workshops - A Campaign Breakfast Table
The Writer's Garret - A Journey Into The Wilderness

Shop windows along the streets of Bath,
beckoning passersby to sample confection-
ery delights, was the inspiration for this
installment of The Kitchen. Recipes in-
clude the Bath treats traditionally known
as Sally Lunns. Other recipes feature
Raspberry and Candied Almond Tart, a
2-minute tart dough that simplifies a
savory delicacy like Eggs and Bacon Tart,
a sweet version of the dough, and,
finally, York Hotel Soup.
-- Photograph by Elspeth Young
Northanger Abbey is the 80th issue of the Journal, published bi-monthly since November 2000.  All 80 issues remain in print and are available individually or in groups directly from Al Young Studios.
     These are the issues of the Journal that feature the works of Jane Austen. They are for sale at www.alyoung.com, exclusive retail outlet for the artworks and publications of the artists and writers of Al Young Studios:

Pride and Prejudice (vol. 3 no. 2)
Persuasion (vol. 6 no. 2)
Emma (vol. 8 no. 5)
Austen In Autumn (vol. 10 no. 6)
Mansfield Park (vol. 12 no. 3)
Sense and Sensibility (vol. 13 no. 4)
Northanger Abbey (vol. 14 no. 2)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Leave Winter Without Leaving the House

by Nancy Young
with photographs by Tanner Young and Elspeth Young

Painting by Nikiforos Lystras
If you dream of some peak at the sun or ache for a long weekend of warmth, you know you live in northern climes and it's winter. But if a ticket to Crete, Corsica, or Cannes wasn't  one of your stocking stuffers on Christmas morning, spend a leisurely breakfast with a large bowl of sunshiny oranges, clementines, or mangoes, some rosewater-scented honey, and one of the slightly indulgent delicacies described here. Then dream away.

Koulouri (aka Simit, etc., etc.) is a Mediterranean tretat that's been around long enough to have a different name in half a dozen languages and scores of secret recipes. Crusty, circular, and topped with sesame seeds is the basic common denominator, but there are many fine variations and recipes available. This is our contribution--slightly sweet, slightly rich, rather wonderful.  Most recipes call for white flour exclusively, but we like a touch of wholegrain to lend a little Old World rusticity--all white will make for a lighter bread, however. We used black sesame seeds, but traditional sesame is more common. (If you're sesame-challenged, poppy seeds are a good alternative.) Start it before heading to bed and enjoy it fresh at brunch. The rolls can be generous--about 4 ounces each--or a smaller 2-ounce size. This recipe makes 10 to 12 large rolls and about twice that many small ones. The recipe can easily be cut in half.



2 1/4 cups lukewarm water
3/4 teaspoon yeast
2 tablespoons honey
1/3 cup olive oil
Up to 6 1/2 cups flour--as much as 1 cup of which may be whole wheat
1 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons honey mixed with 2 tablespoons water
2 to 3 ounces sesame seeds

Place the water in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer and sprinkle-in the yeast. Add the honey and stir--the yeast should look creamy within a few minutes. Stir-in the oil, 5 cups of flour, and the salt. Mix well using the dough hook, then add the balance of the flour(s) a half-cup at a time until the dough clears the sides of the bowl. Mix for an additional 2 to 3 minutes, and then remove the dough hook, cover the mixing bowl, and allow to rise overnight--or for 6 to 8 hours. When fully risen, deflate the dough and divide into 1- or 2-ounce pieces. On a lightly floured board, roll them into cylinders, let them rest for a few moments, then roll them out farther. (The resting of the dough makes them roll into longer, more even ropes.)
Twist two together and then tuck the ends together to form a circle, as shown here. Place the sesame seeds in a shallow bowl, brush the top of each wreath with the honey mixture, then face-plant it into the sesame seeds--replenishing the seeds as necessary.  Place the rolls on silicone- or parchment-covered baking sheets, and preheat oven to 425 degrees. Allow them to rise until doubled--about 45 minutes--then place them in the oven. Bake until lightly golden--about 12 to 15 minutes for 2-ounce rolls and 15 to 18 minutes for the 4-ounce rolls. Cool on wire racks.

Choreki (aka Tsoureki)

One of the great mysteries of my childhood was black licorice. Not how it was made or when it was invented--but why anyone would eat it. My father had a "secret" snack drawer (is any drawer full of sweets ever hidden from the industrious child?) in his home office and it contained an expensive and elite brand of black licorice. For this he needed no hiding place. From my sister, yes. From me, never. I assumed licorice could only be explained as a relic from some bygone and benighted era before real candy was invented. The box was very handsome, and enticed me once or twice, but however refined the licorice, it still made for a tell-tale black tongue redolent of anise-flavored dissatisfaction and a residual yearning for some genuine treat like chocolate.

My palate has grown up since then. I can taste the bitter alongside the sweet; but I still don't like licorice--though I do love Choreki, an anise-spiked festive bread from Greece. While it's largely associated with the Eastertide, I like Choreki as a winter treat when visiting some white-washed village under azure skies overlooking pristine sands and turquoise seas seems particularly appealing--but is also particularly unaffordable.

This recipe makes four large wreaths (braids are actually a more common form, if you prefer; but I use the shape of Koulouri loaves instead.) This recipe is a variation on the Lucia Loaves from last month with the following changes: Substitute 1 3/4 cups milk for the 2 cups milk, 3/4 cup sugar for the 1/2 cup, and 2 teaspoons ground anise for the cardamom. Adjust the topping in the following manner: Use 1 egg yolk beaten with 1/2 teaspoon water, and then sprinkle the loaves with ground, sliced, or chopped almonds, some sesame seeds, and a sprinkling of sugar.

Continue to follow the recipe, but shape the loaves as shown here. Then follow the second rise and baking instructions for Lucia Loaves.
If your yen for the Mediterranean leans to the other side of the Ionian and Adriatic Seas, try our Zaletti Cake. We recently baked it in a pound-cake form and liked it even more than usual.

In any event, happy travels!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

After-Christmas Gift Exchange: Taking Back Some Stuffed Shirts – Holiday and The Late George Apley

by Nancy Young

Holiday (1938)
 In the post-Christmas and early January days of eating, shopping, and watching bowl games and parades, two films are well worth chancing after your favorite team has been knocked out of contention or the computation of how many daisies, roses, and gardenias went into making barge-sized parade floats just doesn't hold your interest. Both films are holiday-ish, without being overtly so, and therefore tuck very neatly into the after-Christmas days—particularly since they're all about happiness being more important than money (something it's good to remember when all the funds vanished under the Christmas tree). They're also about hollowness of social standing (something it's good to keep in mind when you still can't afford that BMW, no matter how good the year-end lease arrangements might sound). Holiday (1938) begins on Christmas and ends in the first days of January. The Late George Apley (1947) begins at Thanksgiving and ends in June. Both are adaptations of very fine plays; and each is just over an hour and a half long, so neither need cramp too many lingering holiday festivities.

Holiday tells the tale of the love-at-first-sight and the instantaneous engagement of two twenty-plus-somethings (played by Cary Grant and Doris Nolan) while on on holiday at Lake Placid. The holiday is quickly over, however, as Grant discovers that his bride-to-be is the second daughter in one of America's fully-stuffed-shirt "sixty families." And in the family, all that wealth and influence cannot be handed over to a man—no matter how dashing and self-made—without an effectual struggle, particular in view of the fact that his "mother was not even a whoozits." However, at the culmination of a successful stock deal, Grant comes to be deemed fully acceptable to his manipulative fiancée and her domineering dad (Henry Kolker). But the elder daughter (Katherine Hepburn) likes him with or without funds, and heartily approves of his plan to take his earnings and enjoy an extended holiday in order to find out who he really is and what he really wants out of life. Some distress, some fun, and the remainder of the film ensues.
Holiday is one of several films that match-up Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in starring roles, although it's less touted than Bringing Up Baby or Philadelphia Story. Holiday lacks the performing finesse of either star, showcased, for example, in Philadelphia Story—they recite many of their lines as though the film were still on-stage and they had to project their feelings to the back row (perhaps, in part, because Hepburn understudied the role of Linda Seton in the original play)but there are still some wonderful lines and delightful deliveries that more than compensate. On hand, and very loveable, are Jean Dixon and Edward Everett Horton as Grant's dearest friends; and also on hand, though tragically loveable, is Lew Ayres as Hepburn's younger should-have-been-a-musician-but-instead-is-an-alcoholic brother. Don't be frightened: this is a comedy, after all, and some great repartee and true love win out in the end.

The Late George Apley (1947)
In the midst of the fame and fortune resulting from his iconic "Mr. Moto" novels, John P. Marquand paused long enough to write a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel satirizing Boston's uppercrust: The Late George Apley. Apparently already uncomfortable with looking on while the term "loosely based" modified his Moto books into film, Marquand collaborated with fellow Pulitizer-winner, George S. Kaufman, to transform his largely epistolary novel into a play. Kaufman brought a large measure of his genius to bear in the very clever dialogue, and the themes and characters remained fairly intact. Critics were mystified, however, when the 1947 Hollywood film version appeared and moved farther away from both novel and play. I admit to being something of a novel-to-film purist, but since the list of people who have either read the novel or seen the film is relatively slim, I can say—even though Marquand would roll over in his grave—I really love this film for its own sake. Of course, like Holiday, it suffers some from the are-we-making-a-film-or-filming-a-play dilemma, but I don't mind a bit being charmed and having a good laugh into the bargain.
Percy Waram, who reprized his role from the original Broadway play, steals the show, but everyone, especially Mildred Natwick as his haughtily silly wife, seems to be having fun. Dapper Ronald Coleman, who plays the title character, makes an unexpectedly delightful curmudgeon; and I rather enjoy the fact that he learns to remove a good deal of starch from his stuffed-shirt persona during the course of the film—however contrary to the novel the change might be. British-born actress, Peggy Cummins, arguably has too much of the nineteen-forties in her dress and demeanor to be believable as a turn-of-the-century belle, but her endearing voice quality and enunciation make up for it. 

So, if you want a cerebral satire, read the novel. If you want to laugh and relax at the end of the holidays, watch the film. And since neither have a whole lot to do with each other, you can readily do both without much harm to either, let alone yourself.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Sweet and Bright: St.Lucia Day

Painting by Francisco de Zurbaran
Photograph by Al R. Young
My husband Al's two years in Scandinavia when a young man provided him, among other things, with three imperishable predilections: a love of  light, of warmth and of cardamom.  So St. Lucia's Day, when light wins out over darkness and the warmth of flame re-emerges--and almost as important, when there's cardamom-spiked bread for breakfast--we like to take advantage of the concept.

When Elspeth was young (pictured right), we dressed her in full Lucia regalia and made the more traditional saffron-scented "Lucia Cats," sometimes even taking them about the neighborhood; but now we observe the tradition by making loaf-sized Lucias, use the slightly less traditional cardamom flavoring, and gobble them up all day long.
Painting by Carl Larsson

Today we have particular reasons to feel bright and warm--the Christmas Journal is finally done and on its way!  And we hope that it brightens up your world when it arrives at your home.  Meanwhile, here's our recipe for the Lucia Loaves shown here.  It's a large recipe, but it's easily cut in half--just substitute 2 eggs and one egg white for the egg measurement below, so that you don't have to think too hard about how to get one-half of an egg white.
Photograph by Elspeth Young

Lucia Loaves by Nancy Young

2 cups lukewarm milk
1 tablespoon yeast
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup softened butter
4 eggs, plus one egg white
1 tablespoon salt
Up to 2 tablespoons cardamom, according to taste
About 6 cups flour
1 egg yolk beaten with a little cream or milk
Some unrefined cane or turbinado sugar for sprinkling

Place the warm milk in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer, and stir-in the yeast and sugar.  Allow the yeast to proof for about 5 minutes. Stir-in the butter, eggs, salt, and cardamom along with 5 cups of flour. Using the kneading attachment, beat the dough for about 3 minutes. Check the dough. If it seems too slack, add more  flour, a half cup at a time, until dough is soft and velvety.

Photograph by Elspeth Young
Remove dough from attachment, cover and allow dough to rise until doubled—about 60 minutes. When dough is fully risen, deflate and cut into four equal pieces.  Roll them into yard-long ropes and shape into 'S' shapes using the instructions from the Pane Siciliano.  Place loaves on baking sheets, brush with the egg glaze, and allow loaves to rise until doubled again—30 to 60 minutes.   Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Once braids have risen, brush once more with egg glaze and sprinkle lightly with sugar.  Bake in the preheated oven until golden brown—about 35 minutes.  Cool on wire racks for half an hour before slicing.   This makes large, golden loaves that freeze well, so it's a perfect bread for enjoying throughout the holidays or for giving away to anyone who needs a bit of sweet brightening in their lives.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Black Friday and Dark Chocolate

We liked this Victorian summation of Christmas shopping, right, from an 1876 etching reflecting the fact that nothing much about the urge for bouts of seasonal spending has changed in 137 years.  The poem that originally accompanied it, spoke of  "shopping, shop, shop, shopping," until everyone was "dropping, drop, drop, dropping."  And that was even before "shop, shop, shopping" already commenced as soon as the pumpkin pie had been served up on Thanksgiving Day, and Black Friday became a synonym for a make-or-break Holiday business season.
Photographs by Elspeth Young
But now that Thanksgiving and Black Friday are the stuff of memories, and peace has been restored to the planet--even Wal-Mart--and pie pumpkins are languishing in the produce aisle or canned pumpkin has been marked down into the reasonable range, a great use for pureed pumpkin--in addition to our Sleepy Hollow Pumpkin Pie--is pumpkin butter. It's one of those makes-you-feel-virtuous-while-you-indulge-yourself treats--and this one is particularly indulgent, because we spike it with dark chocolate. (Though if your predilections run to milk chocolate, substitute away.) Homemade pumpkin puree, as well as the canned versions can vary quite a bit in thickness, but it doesn't matter too much in this easy oven version--simply let a puree of a thinner consistency bake a bit longer.
You can serve this up mixed into yogurt, or as a topping on crackers, bread, or toast (with or without a touch of cream cheese or butter beneath.)
Meanwhile, you'll find us visiting with Saint Nicholas for our soon-to-be-shipped Christmas issue (enjoy the sneak peek, right!).

Dark Chocolate Pumpkin Butter by Nancy Young

One 29-ounce can of pumpkin puree or 3&1/2 cups homemade pumpkin puree
1&1/2 cups sugar (we like unrefined cane, but white or brown works as well)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1&1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons butter, melted
1/2 to 3/4 cups dark chocolate pieces (depending on preferences)

Heat an oven to 350 degrees, pan-spray a 2-quart or larger, ovenproof casserole and stir together all the ingredients, except the chocolate, directly in the casserole dish. Place into the oven and let the mixture cook gently down--removing it from the oven and stirring the mixture about every 20 minutes or so-- until it's reduced down to a thick, spreadable consistency. This takes anywhere from about 75 to 90 minutes. Remove from the oven and add the chocolate pieces, just barely stirring them in. Let the butter cool to room temperature, and then refrigerate until ready to use. The flavor of the butter improves after 24 or more hours, but the taste is great to begin with so no worries if it's gone before bedtime. It makes a nice hostess gift or a sweet neighbor gift all through the Holidays.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Bartlett Variations

Photographs by Elspeth Young
Bartlett pears are early, inviting, and sweet. Good recommendations, but they do have one flaw--they mature with something of the propensities of lemmings--one leaps over the ripeness rampart and all the others immediately follow. One day they're hard and green, and a few days later they're speckled and squishy. But another fiat in their favor, of course, is that when ripe they can be made into so many other commendable comestibles--the pear jams and "Davy's Cake" from Anne at School, for example. We also love them in the "Barton Cottage Savory Pie" from our Sense and Sensibility issue. It's a recipe we make frequently in many forms--for the pear, we just omit the ham and shallots. We also make the pie similarly with peaches--though the peaches do take some extra bake time. And we also make it with apples, in which case we leave the shallots and ham in.

The "Baker's Overnight Corn Bread" from Mississippi Summer makes a wonderful base layer; and the dough can also perform as a cozy crust for the variation of an exquisitely simple pear or apple tart. Like all fall fruit, however, pears make for a fabulous fruit crisp. The following is our favorite version. Since many large appetites live at my house, and I like to deal with reality whenever possible, I make it in this generous size, but it can be cut in half and baked in a smaller casserole. The recipe works with a wide range of the fruits filling trees and fruit stands at the season of the year. In addition to the pears, try it with apples, nectarines, plums, Italian prunes or peaches--though you may wish to have some extra cream or ice cream ready to counter tartness for all but the pears and apples. Serves 12 or more anywhere but my house.

Fruit Stand Crisp 

by Nancy Young

Preheat oven to 375 degrees, and butter or pan-spray a large casserole or gratin dish (around 2 to 3 quarts) and set aside

6 to 7 large pears, peeled, cored and sliced into twelfths
2 cups quick oats
1 cup spelt or whole wheat flour
3/4 cup sugar
11/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon or ginger
A pinch to 1/4 teaspoon salt (optional)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chilled butter cut into small pieces
1/4 cup cream or half and half

Place the pears into the casserole. If they're going to sit awhile sprinkle lightly with sugar to keep them from discoloring. Place the oats, flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt, if using in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer and stir until well mixed. Add the vanilla and butter and cream or half and half and mix until lightly they're distributed. Bake until fruit is tender and crust is golden--about 40 minutes, though it will vary with the type and ripeness of the fruit. Serve warm or at room temperature.

If you're in a big hurry, you can mix it up by hand in big mixing, substituting an equal amount of melted butter for the cold butter cut into pieces. It's a little better with the mixer, but you may be the only one who notices--especially if there's cream.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Staying After School

Photographs by Elspeth Young
 Our Twain issue steamboated itself out to subscribers last week, a little slow due to a stem-to-stern overhaul of The Journal's working space (the second, and hopefully, final one this year!)

So this week we're already deeply entrenched in Dickens' Little Dorrit in order to make up for lost time; and since all sorts of make-up work is heavy on our minds, we wanted to take a moment to share a few things here on this very neglected blog.
The Country School by Winslow Homer

First, we had no opportunity to use two beloved Winslow Homer paintings in Mississippi Summer, but since they're perfect for back-to-school days and particularly for staying in from recess or staying after school to do do make-up work, we've shared them here.

The Noon Recess by Winslow Homer
Second, some make-up work that goes all the way back to last September. We've wanted to share this source where you can a have a step-back-a-century listen to a few of the period songs that have been featured in past issues--including an extra taste of Samuel Clemens Mississippi River via Stephen Foster. It's a cyberspace visit with the "EMG Colonel" that's given us a good deal of delight for a long time. We should have shared it while preparing our Betsy's Wedding issue--because it has a splendiferous version of "Good Morning, Mr. Zip, Zip, Zip" (and other of the songs sung by The Crowd at Tib's wedding) and even more so, because of the rattling-good reading (by Alfred Noyes himself) of The Highwayman (which Joe and Betsy read while on their honeymoon, sans Alfred Noyes himself, of course.). There's even some of A.A. Milne reading all about Pooh, Piglet and Woozles (we mention it even though there's no evidence that anyone from the Violent Study Club ever brought Winnie the Pooh as a favored text, but it is at our house.)

Here's a list, therefore, of other pieces that have been recommended in recent issues of which there are period renditions at The Colonel's YouTube Channel:

Painting by Francis Barraud
Betsy's Wedding (Vol 12 No 6):

Doctor Thorne & Framley Parsonage 

A Mississippi Summer (Vol 13 No 5):

Lastly, still more make-up work by way of a recipe for a blender form of bouchons which we came up with awhile back that reminded us of the blackened stacks of steamboats, and so are perfect as part of a Mississippi River send-off. We featured a bouchon recipe a few months ago that's still a keeper--but this bouchon batter stirs up extra fast and means a batch of intense chocolate bliss can be ready from cocoa measuring to cooling rack in half an hour or less--though I believe bouchons improve an hour or more out of the oven, providing they last that long.

If you have an induction-based blender that can heat ingredients while blending, you can warm the eggs up for a few seconds, otherwise it's crucial to have eggs at room temperature.

Blender Bouchons by Nancy Young

4 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
A fat pinch of salt
1/2 cup cocoa (I use indulgent Callebaut cocoa, which is available in bulk at really great prices from a local supplier, Orson Gygi. They also sell it online, and I've seen other online sellers as well if you don't have a good baking supply shop in your area.)
Any of the following flavorings: 1 teaspoon almond extract,or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract plus a fat pinch ground cloves, or grated rind of one orange, or enough imitation rum flavoring that anyone walking into the room knows what you've been up to (I also get that from Gygi's.)
1/2 cup ground almonds (If I don't have any already ground, I grind them in the blender before adding any other ingredients. The order of ingredients up to this point doesn't really matter.)
1/2 cup butter, melted and slightly cooled
1/2 cup, plus 1 tablespoon flour

Heat an oven to 375 degrees and butter or baking-spray 12 bouchon, popover or muffin tins and set aside. Put the eggs, sugar, salt, cocoa, flavorings and ground almonds in the blender and process until smooth. Add the melted butter and process just until incorporated. (This is one of those potentially-pesky-don't-overmix-don't-over-bake recipes, but one batch should give you the hang of it, and will be highly edible no matter what.) Barely mix in the flour by running the blender for only a second or two until just incorporated--or for a method even less inscrutable--simply toss the flour into the mixer and stir it in by hand with a skinny spatula until the white of the flour has just blended. Spoon as equally as possible into the prepared tins--this is probably the most time consuming bit, especially since male family members may be trying to prevent you from you baking it, because they think it's perfect prior to heat--and bake (despite all protests) until cakes are set, but still moist in the center--about 12 to 15 minutes. Makes one dozen. Dust with a little powdered sugar, if desired.  Very nice with fresh fruit in season.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Look At Miss Marianne's Music

By Elspeth Young
One of my favorite things about creating The Storybook Home is the need we have to choose the subject for each article. Each issue becomes a treasure hunt for us—combing through each book, deciding what topics we'll be burrowing into during the months of research and creation. Sense and Sensibility was no whit behind in tantalizing our historic and creative curiosities. From down-sizing from Norland Estate, to the mulberry trees at Delaford, to Elinor's painted firescreens to the dainties Mrs. Jennings offered the grief-stricken Marianne, we've been stepping into Regency England Jane-Style, and loving every minute.

Painting by George A. Reid
But as always, there's a treasure hunt tidbit or two which gets left out of the issue—the casualty of finite space. This time, one of the leftovers was a portion of the Music Box—my own discoveries about Marianne's music. Reading Austen's descriptions, I wondered what “opera duets” would have enticed a Willoughby or Marianne—Mozart? Gluck? Handel?—especially since the word “opera” contains such a wide swathe of traditions and definitions, and no film adaption of the novel gives much of a hint. (Though I imagine Jane would have wished for a composer like Patrick Doyle to compose especially for her heroines' pleasure.)

The answer to my opera question sent me on quite an interesting and unexpected odyssey. While Jane, herself, loved Haydn, Handel, Gluck, and other high-brow opera greats, her music books show equal proof of a taste for Arne, Dibdin, Shield—low-brow comic opera buffs of England's 18th century. Surprisingly, however, the little hint Miss Austen leaves in her narrative as an “opera, procured for her by Willoughby, containing some of their favourite duets, and bearing on its outward leaf [Marianne's] own name in [Willoughby's] hand-writing...” may point more favorably to Marianne and Willoughby inclining to the comic opera of the day—precursors of operettas more in keeping with Gilbert and Sullivan than Montiverdi—ballad operas filled to overflowing with the melodrama, ecstasies, and exaggerations similar to Marianne's own first love. By the time Marianne brought her “handsome pianoforte” to Barton cottage, complete piano transcriptions of decades-popular English operas were available for any Willoughby to purchase for their love, or any Lady Middleton to leave open on their instrument—and would have been much more readily available than a commercial piano transcription of “The Magic Flute” for instance.  Such simplified folios enabled a musical evening filled with myriad melodies and merriment, or an afternoon overflowing with a young lady spending “whole hours at the pianoforte alternatively singing and crying,” performing songs of love unrequited, the sighs of amorous youths, marriages forbidden, elopements indulged, reversals in fortune, and romantic reconciliations.

Photograph by Elspeth Young
Many such transcriptions are digitized and widely available in both libretto and score in online archives. Their leather bindings, marble endpapers, and hand wrought elegance are a visual feast in their own right and, whether or not the music is deserving of a second listen, the folios, at least, are definitely worth celebrating. (As you can see, we couldn't resist recreating facsimiles of our own Willoughby-inspired leaflets to grace a “piano-forte” of our own, pictured right.)

For those not familiar with the genre (more commonly recognizable in their continental equivalents by Offenback, Rossini, or Lehar), the British ballad and comic operas such as Marianne might have performed, were generally compilations of songs and arias arranged and or composed by transforming popular broadsides, familiar folk tunes, and Italian arias into a play-cum-operetta of light-hearted romance and melodrama. (Some, like Thomas Arne, engaged in flagrant “Pastiche”--a kind of pre-copyright-plagarism—translating direct from Italian opera house to the Theater Royal, Drury Lane.)

In the era following England's first opera greats like Henry Purcell, silk-mercer-apprentice-cum -poet, John Gay, appeared on the scene, giving a fresh face to popular favorites like “Over the Hills and Far Away,” “The Broom,” and even “Greensleeves,” adding folk tunes to a smorgasboard-like array of songs known ever afterward as “The Beggar's Opera”--a parody of parodies that is attributed with launching Britain on a decades-long craving for comic opera which revived in Jane's day.

Not all comic opera was created equal, however (or at least I don't think so). Some scores seem heady, cumbersome, and repetitive; other librettos leave me believing they were merely an afterthought (or at least a misunderstanding on the part of composer and poets as to how many single syllables of English can be contained in a complete phrase of overly ornamented notes). But others are rather exceptional and deserving of attention. One such masterwork is Richard Brinsley Sheriden's libretto for “The Duenna” (incidentally praised by Lord Byron as “the best opera ever written”). Blessedly, its score by Thomas Linley the elder and his son (cleverly named “The younger) is equally worthy of praise, creating a Tour de force of real pleasure. My favorite, it's my personal belief that this was the very folio procured for Marianne, but the following shortlist is an equally plausible array of choices for any amorous John Willoughby:
Painting by William Hogarth, based on Act V of The Beggar's Opera
Artaxerces (1762) by Thomas Arne
Inkle and Yarico (1787) by Samuel Arnold and George Colman the Younger.
Liberty Hall (1785) by Charles Dibdin
Love in a Village (1762) by Thomas Arne and Isaac Bickerstaffe
No Song, No Supper (1792) by Stephen Storace and Prince Hoare
Resina (1782), by Frances Brooke and William Shield
School for Fathers; or, Lionel and Clarissa (1768) by Isaac Bickerstaff and Charles Dibdin
The Beggar's Opera (1728) by John Gay, and its sequel, Polly, (1729)
The Duenna (1775) by Thomas Linley and Thomas Linley the Younger and Richard Brinsley Sheridan
The Haunted Tower (1789) by Stephen Storace and James Cobb
The Pirates (1792) by Stephen Storace and James Cobb
The Waterman (1774) by Charles Dibdin

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Graduating to Summer : Forgotten Films

As the school year ends, we suggest three lovable films that suit the summery move from homework to housework and sweaters to shorts. Though any of them are worth a watch any day, there's something about each of them that feels a little like the liberty of packing away the algebra and geography texts and packing up for a lazily-sweet three-months of vacation. They all possess something of a university setting--"just around the corner from Columbia" in the first instance, and two fictitious colleges to run away from or back to in the second and third. The films' other common denominator is that each was directed by one of Hollywood's very best—and two of them add the further inestimable advantage of instruction in the art of dancing a once incredibly popular, “The Big Apple.”

Our favorite, and the best known of the three, You Can't Take It with You, was so deeply into the “best” category that it earned Frank Capra his third Oscar for Best Director—a total shock to Capra as the critics hadn't been overly kind—and the film danced away with the Best Picture honors as well. Columbia pictures paid what was then the astounding sum of $200,000 for rights to Kaufman and Hart's Pulitzer-prize winning play—and Capra left about $90K worth of it out of the adapted script in order to depict “Love Thy Neighbor in living drama” and to glorify “the bloke that bushes the broom” in his own audience-pleasing, common man style. 

Unlike some of his films, Capra was smitten with his entire cast, so much so that he further altered his pricey script to celebrate them. Since Lionel Barrymore, whom Capra described as “the humblest, most cooperative actor” he'd ever known, was his one-and-only choice for the role of Grandpa Vanderhof, he wrote in a fictitious fall into Grandpa's part in order to justify Barrymore's need to peform his part on crutches due to to crippling arthritis—and Grandpa also sticks to stamp-collecting rather than snake-charming. In an unanticipated bit of casting, because he needed a no-pretending, real-life xylophone player for the part of Ed Carmichael, Capra auditioned wide-eyed, wide-grinned Dub Taylor. When Capra asked if Dub if he had ever “played in a picture,” Dub responded, “No, suh, but I played in The Rose Bowl on the Alabama football team.” And that, too, was worked into the script, and even the film set as well, in the form of U of Alabama pennants adorning the walls. Infant phenomena, Ann Miller, who played “the awkward Pavlova” character of Essie Carmichael was only 15-years-old when the film was made—though if Capra—or anyone else for that matter—knew they were adapting to the needs of a minor on the set is unclear. The “Our-Gangish” crew of street urchins, teaching Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur to dance The Big Apple—or at least a little of it—however, are undeniably quick and precocious minors, and are yet another of Capra's inventions.

The play deservedly still runs in theaters nearly eighty years after it was written if anyone wishes to see the un-Capra-sized version; but You Can't Take It with You undeniably works at every possible level that Capra might have wished. It legitimately earns every laugh, sigh and tear.

Jimmy Stewart headlines our second choice as well in Vivacious Lady which debuted only a few months earlier in 1938 than You Can't Take It with You.  In both films Stewart was still a relative newcomer, and was in Vivacious Lady only at star-billed Ginger Rogers' request. Rogers thought Stewart could play the character of a conservative botany professor who falls in love-at-first-sight with a night club singer, and pull off a performance innocent, vulnerable and dashing. She was right. Rogers as the aforementioned (and highly appealing) chanteuse is as smitten with with the prof as he with her and wedding bells ring before twenty-four bells have past since their first introduction.  

The complications arise, of course, because whirlwind courtships frequently reap whirlwind consequences. The professor seems to have forgotten many details in the fervor of his infatuation including a father (Charles Coburn) who rules not only the roost but an entire university which holds Stewart’s job and future hopes, a mother (Beulah Bondi) with an easily flared-up heart condition, and even a fiance (Frances Mercer) awash with social importance and aggressive possessiveness. Add to the combination a perpetually-postponed honeymoon and the rest is some fine comedic comebacks and screwball comedy antics—including Rogers teaching her repressed mother-in-law to dance The Big Apple. While the script may not be Pulitzer caliber, there are several highly memorable one-liners worth a watch alone.

Director George Stevens is best remembered for heavy-duty drama like Shane and Giant, but our favorite of Stevens' films are those where his comedic talents shine through like Gunga Din, Woman of the Year and I Remember Mama. And his flare for the light and delightful in both dialogue and physical humor is in good form here.  

The comedy, Elopement (1951), as the name implies, also features overnight romance and its consequences—though in a post-scewball fashion. Anne Francis plays Jacqueline aka “Jake” Osborne, the way-too-accomplished daughter of way-too-successful-and-self-important Howard Osborne, played by the ever ascerbic Clifton Webb. In the midst of the activities surrounding her college graduation Jake finds herself dancing with her handsome psychology professor, Matt Reagan, played by William Lundigan. Feted and adored by all, she has been unwittingly even more adored by Reagan—whom she has distantly loved throughout her senior year. She's about to leave for a three-year apprenticeship in industrial design under a Swedish design-icon, but upon discovering Lundigan's feelings, she impulsively suggests they elope to Maryland. Reginald Gardiner, in one of his most likeable and cerebral roles as Jake's godfather visiting from South Africa, becomes her only confidante. Shortly after she bolts off in the middle of the night, her parents--with mother played most agreeably by  mother Margalo Gillmore--discover her absence and go in search of her, eventually joined by Matt's parents, played by Charles Bickford and Evelyn Varden. The sets of parents are poles apart—the Osbornes, sophisticated, the Reagans strictly down-home—opposites in in all but their opposition to the marriage. Betwixt the pursuing parents, distrust morphs into grudging admiration and finally friendship—almost as quickly as second thoughts begin to overtake the eloping couple.

This is a Henry Koster film who also directed classics like The Bishop's Wife and No Highway In the Sky, and though this isn't up to their caliber—it's still makes for light and easy early summer viewing.

Few cautions to parents exist--in Elopement there's a Miro-esque nude sculpture in the Osborne living room that a big screen might just catch larger than life, if that's a problem.  And in both You Can't Take it with You and Vivacious Lady, African-Americans are depicted in somewhat stereotypical, though loveable, fashion.  The only other sensitive spot comes in the dance steps selected for The Big Apple performance in Vivacious Lady.  The Big Apple, originally created and performed by African-American night club performers and later popularized throughout the country, has just under a zillion different steps that can be put together in a vast number of ways. "Praise Allah" is one of the dance steps used in Vivacious Lady that may seem rather insensitive in today's world.