Some Favorite Movies

Okay. It’s hot , it’s wet, I’ve biked enough, and so now I get to stay in and watch movies.

It’s the eternal question– you could be sitting in a hot tub, or on line at Publix, or coming out of the Confessional, or vacuuming the living room. No matter what or where, the query arises: “What’s your favorite movie??”

We’ve all been there, right? And how many of us have had the wherewithal to be able to instantly come up with a list of  favorites? Certainly not I; when asked that question, I feel as if someone has just said “Jim is so funny, aren’t you? Say something funny!!” In both instances, words fail me and my lips sew themselves together as if I’m about to be laid out: stuff cotton in my nostrils and place a pillow under my head– I’m doomed.

However, when you have some time to actually think about it, THEN the favorites come to mind easily. And they should really be favorites, not just a parroting of “best of” lists in order to impress everyone with the fact that you, too, adore The Bicycle Thief, City Lights, and Citizen Kane. Real favorites are films that you watch over and over again, whether or not they are intellectually uplifting, send a message, or solve the ills of the world. Favorites encourage you to let loose the hot and cold spigots of your emotions.

Here are some of mine, in no particular order…

Night of the Hunter— 1955. Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. And a lot of kids, including the excellent and moody Billy Chapin as John Harper and Sally Jane Bruce as his sister Pearl. This is my kind of movie: atmospheric, fantastic in its original sense, and searing. It’s also truly terrifying. Directed by Charles Laughton, it’s fraught with his psychological sensibilities (he was married to the bride of Frankenstein, after all, yet had a yen for the lads). Much of the film is concerned with Mitchum’s pursuit of orphans John and Pearl as they try and stay steps ahead of him: $10,000 had been hidden in Pearl’s doll by their murdered Daddy, and Mitchum– a lying, murdering preacher– is intent on getting it. Gish, with all her Bible-quoting, still needs a gun to shore up her religious convictions, and it comes in handy when Mitchum manages to find the children living with her. (Their widowed Mom, played as mush-mouthed and naive by Shelley Winters, is dispatched early in the film by Mitchum soon after he marries her.) This movie makes you sit up on the couch and really take notice.

The Birds— 1963. Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy and Veronica Cartwright. It’s all well and good watching this movie as a horror film about birds attacking people for no apparent reason, but when you grow up and watch it again, you realize it’s a film about women and the intricate relationships they form around one man: Taylor. Tippi, Suzanne, Jessica and Veronica dance around him and spin the plot as, respectively, new girl, old girl, mother, and sister. They intently watch one another’s every move and, with arched eyebrows or barbed comments, let you know just what they think of Rod. Granted, the young sister has no real stake other than as a catalyst to drive Rod and Tippi together, but still– she’s oddly involved, what with her lovebirds and insistence on having Tippi become a working member of the family. This movie is He Man as center of the caveman universe, and may the strongest woman come out on top. Is it resolved? Nope– those damned birds keep appearing in order to spatter droppings all over the plot, as guilt and conscience always do…

To Kill A Mockingbird— 1962. I read the book in eighth grade about nine thousand times, over and over, practically memorizing long passages, and when I was able to watch the film on television, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. This is a perfect movie– 99% true to the book, with the other 1% not really mattering at all. It’s photographed in black and white: detailed, mesmerizing and nuanced. The characters come to life as portrayed by Gregory Peck, Mary Badham and Philip Alford. It takes you along and sweeps you quietly into the story until you’re sobbing through the scene where Reverend Sykes says “Miss Jean Louise, stand up… your father’s passin’.”  Every minute of this movie is perfection.

Gone with the Wind— 1939. I used to wait anxiously for revivals of this movie so that I could run out to see it. I got to enjoy it at radio City Music Hall, the Alpine Theatre in Bay Ridge, and a couple of other places until it became available on VHS– a special edition from Reader’s Digest, boxed! There was something wrong with the synch, though: sound and scene were about a second out of whack, making for an annoying home theatrical experience because the glitch made all the film’s overdubbing doubly annoying. (Producer Selznick constantly tinkered.) Now I’ve got in on DVD– pristine and restored, which means I can watch GWTW every night of the week if I want, which I don’t. The first time I saw it, at the Alpine, I cried when the giant title letters rolled across the screen, and when Melanie died, and when Scarlett treated Rhett mean. having it wash over you like that elicits an emotional response you don’t feel at home, but that’s okay. You can stop and start the action at will, play things slowly, and scan for details you might miss otherwise. It’s a great film, though the end does seem rushed when everyone starts dying like flies: Mammy complains about miseries in her back; Bonnie Blue Butler breaks her neck jumping a fence with her pony; and Melanie dies after giving her last ounces of love and energy to a woman (Scarlett O’Hara) who doesn’t realize how much she cares about her until it’s too late. Tragedy! Vivien Leigh as Scarlett is unbeatable and perfect, considering how many actresses were considered for the role. She flounces and slaps and bridles and lies until she gets her way, a tour de force of a performance which rarely has her off the screen for almost all four hours of running time. I think everyone over the age of forty has seen this, and I thought it would remain an icon forever, but are younger folks aware of it?

The Women— 1939. This picture has become part of the lore and fabric in certain circles, and it’s a lot of fun to watch. It’s a major ego trip for MGM and its reigning female stars, many of whom were seriously (or not) considered for the part of Scarlett O’Hara. And do they ever shine! Each actress (there are no men in the entire film) gets her share of close-ups, clever lines, and costumery– even the peripheral figures manage to steal scenes. As a result, while many chapters impart very little information regarding the plot, these exist purely to showcase  the charms of these favorites: among many memorable moments, Norma romps with her daughter, Roz exercises, brawls, and bitches, and Joan takes a bath. And the crackling script carries it all along effortlessly. Especially memorable is the dressing room scene between Norma and Joan. Legend tells us that they couldn’t stand one another, but it was mainly Joan who resented Norma for the latter’s lofty position at MGM. (Norma helped build the studio with a series of popular box-office hits starting in the early 1920s, well before Joan arrived.) There’s something bitingly real about the way Joan directs her lines at Norma… when you know the history between them, you can sense that they’re based in her personal feelings. Joan made lots of wisecracks about Norma, yet Norma never retaliated. When she was once asked to respond, she decorously replied “I don’t think I have anything to add… Joan’s said it all.” Class! The movie is long– over two hours– and has that color fashion show insert that can be really annoying when you’re not in the mood for it. There’s lots of vocal overdubbing, and some of the sets look cheap, but hey– you’re watching it to see the girls!

The Thrill of It All— 1963. I first saw this in the Fortway Theater in Brooklyn the year it came out, and the whole block was talking about it. Doris Day was BIG in those days. Entire families made excursions to radio City Music Hall every time one of her movies came out, and she was just about the biggest star around. The Thrill Of It All captures and preserves the innocence that was 1963– America’s last whiff of it, actually– with Doris playing a doctor’s wife who becomes the TV spokeswoman for Happy Soap. She’s zany and appealing and very funny, the perfect foil to hunky husband James Garner. In fact, the chemistry between them is smoking; they spend most of the movie trying to jump into bed, but her budding new career thwarts their efforts. There’s a great cameo by Lucy landau as Mrs. Goethe the hefty German housekeeper– “doctor nicht IN!” Adding to the lunacy is Arlene Francis who, as an older wife, is expecting a baby. She’s 56 in real life and gives birth in a limousine stalled in traffic as James Garner races on horseback to help attend the birth. Doris pitches in and realizes, weepily, that she doesn’t want to be a TV star– she wants to be a doctor’s wife. (Very 1963.) All ends happily, with Doris and Jim strolling upstairs to the bedroom to create Child Number Three.

Other favorites:

The Stepford Wives (the original, 1975)– Horrifying: wives and mommies Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss as Connecticut housewives who have no idea what their husband shave in store for them.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) Bette Davis and Joan Crawford eat the scenery and all their co-stars in this camp melodrama that you can’t tear your eyes from. Also fun is Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, from 1964, this time with Olivia de Havilland giving Bette tit for tat. Adding to the craziness are Mary Astor– MARY ASTOR!!– and Agnes Moorehead.

Stage Door (1937) Kate Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Constance Collier, Andrea Leeds, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Gail Patrick, Ann Miller… .they’re all hear, talking a mile a minute and cracking wise in the Footlights Club, a residence for aspiring actresses. Excellent!

Three Women (1977) Robert Altman weaves the stories of his three leads– Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall and Janice Rule– into a strange, disturbing film resembling a dream. there’s no real plot, just a trio of personalities feeding off of and then ultimately mirroring one another. Shelley Duvall is especially affecting.

Cinema Paradiso (1988) An Italian filmmaker looks back on his childhood, most of it spent assisting (and antagonizing) his little village’s projectionist. Lots of scenes of excited moviegoers causing riots in the theatre when the film breaks; smoking; eating; talking; making out… just like Brooklyn! A really beautiful picture.

The Bicycle Thief (1948) Yes, a favorite. Conditions for the Italian population after the war were appalling, thank sto a number of factors. People did anything for work, including sacrificing their honor and dignity, and this film portrays it all. The scene with the bed sheets is especially devastating.

And so many, many more… but these are the ones that spring directly to mind. Enjoy… that’s what Netflix is for!

Where’s Grandma? (Not in the Osceola Vault.)

Me, inside the Osceola vault.

I used to work at the bookstore with a crazy lady named Becky. She’s a Florida native and has cousins around every corner, and she recently wrote a book about Umatilla for Arcadia Press describing the history of the small Lake County community, much of which was perpetrated by her extensive family. She reads my blogs and got in touch with me last week after reading my latest Oakland blog, and suggested a trip up to Geneva, a very small town in northern Seminole County.

“I want to find my great great great grandmother in the Geneva cemetery,” she said.

“Well, that should be easy,” I said. “She can’t have wandered very far.”

Her name was Mary Ann Higginbotham Hart, and she was born in 1817 and died in 1906. Our goal was to find the lady’s final resting place and then go looking for the Osceola vault– a bank vault used by the vanished timber mill town of Osceola to store money and valuables. I had read about it and seen it on Google Earth, and realized that I’d driven right past it months ago without noticing because a guy wearing sunglasses and a tractor waved at me as I rounded that corner on my way to finding the end of lonely East Osceola Road.

Like myself, Becky is game for getting into possibly precarious situations; also like me, she has a positive attitude guaranteed to get her out of tight places. Today, the two Pollyannas (one somewhat bald and hard of hearing, one talking in a loud twang) set out on a jaunt.

The Geneva area is country. You’ll see lots of indications that the natives respect Republicans, the Baptist faith, and fried pork rinds. (You usually find them all in one place, like a church cellar.)

A Geneva farmstead.

After a few well-marked turns, we found cemetery Road, which took us directly east into the Geneva Cemetery. It’s certainly a colorful and interesting cemetery, decorated in spots as if the surviving families were expecting the circus to pull into town any minute, but it’s actually a happy place. You won’t be set upon by officious yuppie women in blue suits wielding sharp clipboards, yelling because you placed red, white and blue plastic carnations into a vase. Here, it seems like anything goes:

We wandered up and down the rows looking for Mary Ann, occasionally calling out to one another across the rural stillness. Sometimes we’d confer with Becky’s phone, calling up the Internet for clues as to where she was located. There were plenty of Harts and Prevatts and Raulersons, all intricately connected (like I said, Becky has cousins all over the place, including underfoot)… but no Mary Ann.

Though it was well before noon, it was very warm, and soon a bank of fluffy gray clouds rained on us, considerably cooling things off. Was Mary Ann encouraging us to keep looking? Who can say? I finally decided that we should split up and each take half of the small cemetery, conscientiously reading tombstones until we found her, by golly! And we marched to the front (we’d started in back) and, sure enough, Becky found her even before we started looking hard, located right along the main road coming in. Yay! There was Becky’s great-great-great grandmother. Becky felt a keen sense of connection, and an ever more acute tie to the past, something which all native Southerners live for. never mind about the present– they dream they dwell in marble halls.

And now it was time to find the Osceola vault. Now, I knew what it looked like from online photos, but still: I had to see it for myself. This was ancient (for Florida) history, just laying out on a road somewhere for all to see.

We passed the Geneva Methodist church on our way out of town, which I wanted to enter but, as a snakeskin-booted young man informed me, services were being held: I could hear the preacher hollering inside.

Along the road heading into the country is a historical marker telling about King Philipstown:

Personally, I love the line “the Indians were repulsed… ” Though they mean “vanquished,” I like to think it meant that the Indians were repulsed by the awful things the white settlers were doing when they arrived. This marker is located at the entrance to a trail which we walked down for a minute or so: absolutely stunning.

Just a little bit further down the road we found… the Osceola vault! This is the only surviving relic of the old mill town of Osceola, which flourished from 1916 to 1940. (I read historical markers, or else I would be hopelessly confused.) The timber company’s valuable assets were stored here, well away from the “town” which was located a few miles south next to Geneva.

Of course I had to climb INTO the vault, but had to cross those weeds that you see. Now I understand why the English all carry walking sticks, which must be hell on the London subways, but I can see where they would come in handy in a place like this. I pressed on, flattening weeds and expecting snakes, spiders, and assorted vermin to leap at me, but nothing happened.

There’s no money inside the vault anymore– only what money can buy:

Above the entryway, which I noticed when I was well inside, were these clumps of web looking disturbingly occupied. I had to pass beneath them, naturally, to get back outside into the safety of the weeds…

At this point any normal people who have had their fill and started home, but I’d mentioned that I’d gone as far as I thought I could along East Osceola Road that last time, and of course Becky suggested that we go and see if it went further; according to the map, the road curved north, then west, and then possibly south to Highway 46 out of Sanford. We had to go and see.

A link to the Geneva Wilderness Area. 

Here’s what the smooth black top turned to soon after the Osceola vault:

Yes, there’s room for one vehicle; SOMEONE would have the right of way if two vehicles met, and we had a feeling it would be one of the natives.

We were charmed by a road called Gator Growl, and here’s what was almost at the end of it: the St. John’s River. (A vehicle met us face to face, but he turned off into a sideway and we pressed on.)

Somewhere along here was a sign that said “Residents Only” to anyone, mainly us, desiring to go further. If any patrol car could be found in this remote place, and the occupant decided to stop and grill us, we were ready with excuses:

“We’re looking at property.”

“There’s a cabin for sale that we want to look at.”

“We’ve been invited to a baptizing along the river.”

“We’ve been invited to a hanging, hopefully not ours.”

Nobody stopped us, and we drove on and on and ON, and it was beautiful and wild. Becky took the following three pictures:

Did we make jokes about furniture and household items made from cypress knees? Yes.

We went just past B.F. Egypt, and decided to not go much further– the map, upon closer inspection, indicated that the road eventually ended a short ways ahead. We turned around, precariously but carefully on the one-track trail, and got back to a turn– and found ourselves faced by three vehicles of varying sizes, all of which wanted to go through. There was lots of (wary) smiling and (wary) waving and assorted (wary) country-friendly hand signals until the four drivers decided which way to go; it was like a chess game but eventually we sorted it out and we were on our way  when Becky spied easy access to the river: up a short rise, past an outhouse which she was tempted to use, and then down a slope to the St. John’s. She parked, we set out and, just to make sure we meant no harm, Becky started calling out: “Hello??? Hello??? Hello???” her voice echoed through the loneliness, but nobody appeared except for the family of seven, each of whom had three eyes and wore clothes made from human skin. Kidding! Nobody was home, but Becky elected to not use the facilities.

Have you ever known a woman to pass facilities without availing herself of them? Becky did!

We eventually ended up back in Geneva by way of another street, and we came across the Radley House. Well, it’s the closest to the Radley House that I’ve ever seen in real life…

After all this rural, I treated to lunch at Cavallari Gourmet in Oviedo.  It was an odd though delicious jolt into the present after all the past we had immersed ourselves in. And many thanks to Becky for driving all that way; it was interesting talking during one of these little trips, as I am practically almost always off on my own. And Becky and all her cousins were fine company.

PhotoBike Tour 16– Oakland and West Orange County, Florida

Looking north along Florida’s Turnpike from the bridge on the West Orange Trail. This highway takes you, eventually, to Wildwood, where it meets Interstate 75. Follow 75 north and you will, after a few days, be on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula which is, for all practical purposes, Canada.

OFFSIDES!! Biking the West Orange Trail is an excursion into the past, a central Florida which hasn’t existed for over a hundred years. I don’t think most people realize the pedigree of the little towns and unincorporated communities they speed through on their bikes, skates, or even their feet. It’s great to schuss from the Lake County line east to Winter Garden, where you’ll stop to have lunch or a drink or browse the cool little shops; the direct line keeps you on the Trail, but i wonder how many people actually go offsides? I like to explore, and prowl. I see a dirt road, or a path leading through the orange groves, or a lonely side street… and there I go. I figure I’m on my bike and can make a speedy getaway if somebody starts yelling at me or chasing me, though so far that hasn’t happened in a big way. I respect private property, and seldom venture to intrude: if my curiosity gets the best of me in a potentially tender situation, I collar the nearest human and ask permission to prowl or take pictures. So far, everyone has said yes; there must be something about my face that disarms people. Or maybe they think “look at that poor idiot on his bike… let’s be nice to him.” This past Sunday I biked a good twenty miles or so in and out of Oakland and the communities of Killarney, Tildenville, and Hull island. Hull Island? Yes, Virginia, it exists for real as much as it does in your imagination… Near where the Trail crosses Deer Isle Road is the site of the Jones General Store at Killarney, an area settled in 1880. Here, a sawmill office, post office and general store were sited at various times in one building. You can still see part of the foundation.

This is the Hull Family monument, which you can see to the left of the bridge just after you cross it going east on the Trail. It says that the Hull Family has been here since 1905, which is a long time for central Florida. (The Pirates of the Caribbean ride isn’t even that old.) You are standing in the vicinity of one of the oldest orange groves in the entire state, though most of the trees are gone and you are lucky if you find some orderly rows of remnants. Hull Avenue in Oakland is named for the family.

Have you ever turned left onto Hull Island Drive while traversing the Trail? Here’s what you’ll find:

It’s a region of old groves and farms that have been worked for  generations, a real slice of Old Florida. And there’s an ashram here too– a slice of NEW Florida.

J.W. Jones Road is accessed just past the foundation of the Jones store, and you can easily bike it to the houses and three mobile home communities (Killarney Court, South Shore, and Gourdneck Village) nestled along the south shore of Lake Apopka. There’s a nice view of the lake, and a residence flying the actual flag of the Confederacy, not the battle flag we are all familiar with.

Continuing east, I paused at the rest stop just west of Oakland, and saw how the trees reaching toward the canopy reminded me of the soaring arches in a Gothic cathedral, which is where they got the idea: from observing how the trees kept themselves standing. Get off the Trail at Pollard Avenue and make a right; it’ll take you directly into the heart of the town’s African-American neighborhood. Here’s where a Masonic Temple stood up until just a few months ago on Sadler Avenue…

Here’s the non-updated image of the Masonic Temple from Google Earth:

I stopped a woman driving by and she explained that there were only a couple of old guys who still went to the Lodge, and that one had recently died, and so that was that.

There are three cemeteries in Oakland– one for white families and two for black families; it’s just the way it has always been.  (The older of the two black cemeteries is hidden in the dense growth west of town, only recently having been “discovered.”) In the white cemetery is the marker for James Gamble Speer, one of the area’s pioneer settlers. He and his family used to all be interred in the family plot on the north shore of Lake John, south of Tubb Street. When the property was sold to a developer, he removed all the headstones, piled them in a corner, and built houses atop the plots. James Gamble Speer (1821-1893) would NOT approve, and I hope he gives them all hell once in a while.

Here’s approximately where the Speer cemetery was located, south of Tubb Street; you go across the bridge that crosses over the Turnpike, and you’re at Lake Johns Circle. I walked through a belt of trees between two houses, and there was the lake. Southwest from here and across the lake is a peninsula which still does have a cemetery on it, nestled in the remaining orange grove.

The black cemetery serves as the final resting place for Samuel Pollard, for whom the street is named. And look… somebody brought him some sandwiches! I noticed a dirt track leading around the northern border of the cemetery, and so I decided to follow it, carefully. I mean, you never know what you will encounter among the trees. All sorts of possibilities entered my feverish brain, most of them ending dimly, but I was spared; I did see some piles of tires, assorted mounds of refuse, but nothing worse. I suppose people use it as a dump driving up off of Highway 50, from which you can see this cemetery. Sad. This path eventually popped me out onto Sadler Avenue, right where the Masonic Temple used to stand. I biked further east to the Vick house on Tubb Street, which used to be an Oakland schoolhouse for a time. It’s apparently the oldest home in Oakland, built as an inn in the 1860s. It became the Vick home in 1903. Beautiful and simple. A bit further east you come to Brock Street… here’s a gem of a house, perfect in its lines and aspect. It bears a resemblance to a home on Tildenville School Road South on Tildenville School Road, just north of where it crosses Oakland Avenue (438) sits this grand old house built in 1908. It was situated cater-corner of its present site until the 1990s when it was sold; the family let it go for a song and the new buyer had to move it to a new lot– thankfully minutes away, since it IS an Oakland grande dame and should therefore have been allowed to stay in the neighborhood. The present owners were on the front porch and graciously answered questions I had about the area, and then they magically invited me inside. (Do I channel Little Jimmy? Does he make an appearance and charm everyone?) I’d been in the house when it was being sold years ago– there was an estate sale then– and I remember it seeming very enclosed regarding rooms and hallways. The house is now so different– structural walls have been opened up, and everything is painted a bright white. Brick Road ends here at Tildenville School Road, a pleasant country lane that goes east to Winter Garden. (Actually, the Winter Garden city limits encompass Tildenville now). Brick Road is a remnany of Highway 22, which crossed the center of the state; Washington Street in Orlando was part of it, as was Story Road in Winter Garden– once also known as Washington Street until it was renamed for the Story family.

This home is located on Brick Road; it was built by a Willis and occupied at one time by Annie Connell, who taught at the old Oakland-Winter Garden School across the way.

Now we travel to south Tildenville, an African-American community separated from north Tildenville by Highway 50 and the Turnpike. The road becomes Avalon Road here. Just past the Turnpike overpass, on the left going south, you’ll find the entrance to the “West Orange, Country Club.” It was built in 1911 by the Mather-Smiths, a prominent Oakland family who found the existing golfing facilities in town too small– the Mather-Smiths loved to party, so they built their own country club and had a ball. All that remains is this archway. (UPDATE: See comments section regarding the existence of the Club’s guest house.)

I love the name: the O Deli.

Back in Oakland, I biked to the Presbyterian church (its third incarnation), hoping to get inside to see the preserved stained glass windows from the second church, which was a beautiful, ivy-covered brick building. It was Sunday afternoon, and services were over, and I wondered how I’d manage. Hmm. An older guy appeared after a few minutes to take down an Easter banner, and I asked about access. Well, everything was closed, services over , the building hermetically sealed, the works… and so I mentioned the stained glass and the guy said “oh yes, right through that church office door, and that’s open.” Oh. So inside I went, and there was this window… and there’s our man James Gamble Speer…

In that lobby area where this window is located, a man and his two young sons were sitting and waiting for someone; he saw me observing the window and mentioned that there was another one down a hall and in another office area. In that direction I could hear a string ensemble practicing, so I followed the sound of the sliding bow and came across a group of people playing in a room off the hall. They all stopped  and looked up as I looked in– the door was open, and their resin  ground to a halt. I was tempted to ask to join them on the flute, or perhaps the tuba, but before I could the conductor, an elegant older woman, asked if I needed help. I mentioned the second stained glass window and one of the ensemblists jumped up and offered to show me where it was. We had to go through the darkened sanctuary, where I almost stumbled into the older guy I’d encountered earlier: “I managed to find my way in here anyway,” I said, and he looked at me like I was crazy, but he did take me to the second window as the ensemblist returned to his practice… and here you see noted our friends the Tildens!

And finally, the Sadler house, built by the family who gives its name to Sadler Avenue. This was also once the house of artist Joe Burch. It receives a memorable Hallowe’en dressing each year. Right here along the road (Oakland Avenue / 438) are the Sadler oaks, planted by the family and now just as much a part of Oakland as the orange groves.

The next time you’re on the West Orange Trail, take a few detours and explore the historical offsides areas– these are sleepy parts of west Orange County that not many people get to see.

Thanks to Steve Rajtar and Eve Bacon for historical footnotes that lead me to these spots…