Film Friday: Bright Star

Bright Star #1The rock stars of their generation, the romantic poets of Regency England like Byron, Shelley and Keats turned heads and set women’s hearts aflutter. And if correspondence had a Top 40 chart, Keats would have easily topped it with the passionate letters he sent to Fanny Brawne from 1818-1820.

Bright Star illuminates their ill-fated courtship in a light-infused film, filled with lush scenes of flower fields and blowing curtains, china cups and young love. Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish as Keats and Brawne convey their desire for one another in sidelong glances and the touch of their hands, dancing through the delicate steps of courtship two centuries ago.

Bright Star #2 Fanny Brawne saved the letters John Keats sent her, and gave them to her children as a legacy. Their lyrical passion is woven through Bright Star like threads of silver, but the movie wisely shows just glimpses of the actual exchange of correspondence because putting pen to paper is not as dynamic to watch as the results are to hear.

Bright Star #3“July 3, 1819
[Keats to Brawne]…write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.”

On screen, Fanny collects butterflies with her brother and sister, filling her bedroom with the flutter of wings.

Bright Star #4The film’s title is derived from a sonnet Keats wrote to Fanny, “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—” and he signed at least one of his letters to her “Your’s ever, fair Star…”

My daughter watched Bright Star with me and exclaimed, “It’s so sad, whether it happened three days ago or three centuries.”

Knowing the end mitigated much of the sadness for me. Instead, I was enthralled by the film’s beauty, of scenes that led me into still and lovely places, where I could hear birdsong and poetry.

Film Friday: Do you give Bright Star your stamp of approval?

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Bright Star

Fa La La La La

PutnamThe secret to a great holiday card is its universality — what works for Christmas will work equally well for Chinese New Year’s or Valentine’s Day or President’s Day.

I just received this cute little postcard from my publisher, G. P. Putnam’s Sons a couple of weeks ago. Because it has a February postmark, I know that it wasn’t lost in the mail somewhere. Publishing houses are busy places, and like me, they probably stretch their holiday wishes through more than one season.

Besides, the message on the back, “Wishing you a season full of high notes!” sounds as good to me now as it would have in December. My editor even added a little “Happy 2015!” to the back.

So maybe those of us who need more time to push all our greetings out the door should acknowledge that. Let’s eschew pine trees and jolly elves on our cards, and then any time of year can become “a season full of high notes.”

Lost and Found: Mary Shelley Letters

Mary-Shelleys-sealAs the author of Frankenstein, not to mention the wife of Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley holds a justifiably famous place in English literature. Biographers have poured over her correspondence and studied in minute detail what contemporaries wrote about her.

Frankenstein has been adapted to numerous movies and plays, the Creature is now a stock element of Halloween, and the concept of man playing God has become an archetype of the mad scientist in western literature and film.

Considering this intense scrutiny, it’s amazing that Professor Nora Crook of Anglia Ruskin University discovered 13 previously unpublished letters of Mary Shelley just last year.

Mary shelleyWhile the letters have not yielded great revelations, they do offer another peek into Mary’s personal life, her pride in her teenaged son and her friendship with the recipient, Horace Smith, a stockbroker friend of the family.

Plus, several missives still have affixed blobs of crimson wax stamped with Mary’s previously unknown (and surprisingly modern) seal.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I love Letterdipity!

Film Friday: Dear Ruth

Dear-ruth-1947Dear Ruth is frothy fun from 1947 (though it’s set three years earlier during World War II), starring William Holden at his charming best, Joan Caufield as Ruth and Mona Freeman as her younger sister Miriam.

A dashing young lieutenant (Holden) arrives at the home of Ruth and Miriam, eager to meet Ruth. Her parents are baffled about who he is, but finally realize that Ruth has been corresponding with the young airman while he flew missions overseas in Europe. From the way the lieutenant talks, a romance has blossomed through their letters.

Except it hasn’t, at least not for Ruth.

Dear Ruth 2After Lieutenant Seacroft leaves and Ruth comes home from work, the family discovers that 16-year-old Miriam was the lieutenant’s actual penpal, sending him a picture of her older sister and signing her name to some 60 letters. Even though she’s engaged to a dependable man, Ruth decides to maintain the charade because the lieutenant only has a two-day leave. Naturally, mayhem ensues.

Dear ruth 4Dear Ruth is a hoot, from earnest Miriam with causes like the drafting of women to Ruth’s indignant fiance, played by Billy De Wolfe. One-liners abound, and the action zips past from one zany situation to the next.

I remember watching this movie years ago on TV when movies from the 40s and 50s were commonplace on the local channels. I searched through library catalogs and streaming services to try to find it. No luck, and it was never released on DVD. But I discovered that someone uploaded the entire film to YouTube a couple of months ago. I don’t know how long it will stay there, but if you want to see Dear Ruth, here it is! (Note that the YouTube link below does not show up with all versions of the Safari browser.)

Film Friday: Do you give Dear Ruth your stamp of approval?

Civil War Mail

Civil war 3Next to decent rations and warm socks, what do soldiers want most when far from home? Mail.

Troops of the American Civil War were no exception. 3¢ postage would send a letter to a Union soldier; Confederates paid 5¢ (for up to 500 miles) at the beginning of the conflict, but 10¢ for all stamps after 1862. Letters that were forwarded because the army marched to a new encampment cost extra, and the soldiers on the receiving end had to pay for any postage due.

Civil War 4People wrote letters on lined paper and sealed them in 5 ½ by 3 inch envelopes that looked very much like those used today. Because letters were slipped into envelopes that could be glued shut, no one needed wax seals any more. And to dress up the mail, printers offered a slew of patriotic envelopes.

Most senders affixed the stamp in the standard upper right corner, but some either didn’t get that memo or wanted to send private messages via the language of stamps. According to one definition, an upside-down-stamp might mean “Do you remember me?”

Civil War 2

Of course, no matter how decorated the envelope or how much postage cost, what concerned soldiers and their families back home the most was hearing from their loved ones, even if the news was heartbreaking.

See more illustrated envelopes from the American Civil War.

Film Friday: Sarah, Plain and Tall

Sarah 3When Hallmark Hall of Fame gets it right, their movies can be magic. Sarah, Plain and Tall is one of their gems. The wonderful Glenn Close plays Sarah, opposite Christopher Walken as Jacob Witting, a widowed farmer still mourning his wife. They meet through letters when Jacob places an advertisement for a helpmate, someone who can “make a difference.”

Although the letters Sarah of Maine exchanges with Jacob and his children in Kansas are read only during the first few minutes of the film, their warmth and honesty set the tone for the entire story.

“I am strong and I work hard and I’m willing to travel, but I am not mild-mannered,” writes Sarah in her answer to the advertisement.

Sarah 2Six-year-old Caleb is enchanted by the idea of a new mother and asks his father to write for him: “He asked me to send you the footprint of his dog, Nick…He wanted me to tell you that he holds his breath, that he has been holding his breath for a long time.” Sarah sends Caleb a footprint from her cat Seal, so named “because she’s gray like the seals that swim off shore in Maine.”

Sarah 1Sarah tells about her life there in a letter to the the older child, Anna: “My favorite colors are the colors of the sea — blue and gray and green, depending on the weather. My brother William is a fisherman and he tells me that when he’s in the middle of a fogbound sea, the water is a color for which there is no name…Sometimes he sees whales.”

Eventually, Sarah leaves her coastal home for a potential new life in the green fields of Kansas. “I will come by train. I will wear a yellow bonnet…P.S. I am plain and tall.”

Wonderful cast, wonderful movie, and so nice to see Walken play someone vulnerable and tongue-tied without a trace of menace in him.

Film Friday: Do you give Sarah, Plain and Tall your stamp of approval?

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Hi from Arizona

burro025Here’s a fun find from my postcard collection — though I suppose any statement that includes the words fun find and postcard collection might be tagged an oxymoron by many…

I don’t know whether you can tell from this image, but the postcard follows the contours of the burro and his silly photoshopped hat.

Several years ago my mom sent it to my daughter and me from Arizona. She affixed a regular postage stamp to it, but the post office stamped a “12¢ postage due” message on the back, maybe because its irregular shape required special sorting methods.

By the time my parents took this trip, my father was in his 80s and my mom in her late 70s. I can date the card even though the postmark isn’t legible because of Mom’s reference to our cat Junior, short for Mickey Jr. Clues like that not only help us sort incidents into our lives’ chronologies, but trigger reminiscences to cascade like dominoes through our family histories until another story pops out. Not necessarily grand tales, the stuff of sagas and best-selling biographies, but little stories like the history of cats being named Mickey in my family.

Mickey 1When my parents drove east to California as a young couple, they smuggled in and out of motel rooms an orange kitten named Mickey. In a sense, he was their first child, and as such we have many photos of his kittenhood, including one of him sitting on the plaid upholstery of my dad’s prized Packard.

I remember Mickey as the old gentleman of my childhood as younger cats and kittens came and went in our household, living the free — yet dangerous — lives of outdoor cats on a busy street.

Mickey 2When I was given a new fluffy orange kitten of my very own, I named him Mickey Junior. He was a polydactl, seven toes on each of his front paws. Mom called them his baseball mitts. That first Junior lived with my parents until the ripe old cat age of 19.

A few years later, I visited the shelter to find a friend for my Siamese and brought home a white cat with orange spots and an orange striped tail, enough for me to dub him Mickey 3. And so it has gone, my daughter calling her orange kitten Mickey Junior and our collectively naming our current orange fluff ball Mickey Lu (after the friend who gave him to us), though we simply call him Kitten.

Mickey 3 Mickey 4 Mickey 5

That little story of the five Mickeys encompasses a half century, from the British rock invasion of the 60s to Neil Armstrong landing on the moon to my heading off to college and Australia to home computers, the Internet and blogging.

And it all leads to me sharing a postcard from my mom: Hi from Arizona.

burro card back

Rare Art of Letter Writing

write-more-lettersWith depressing regularity, I find essays and news articles about the “Lost Art of Letter Writing.” I even wrote one myself for Newsweek in 2001.

Yet, however uncommon it may be to receive a letter, the art is not lost. No one needs to research arcane manuscripts to discover how the ancients communicated with pen and paper. Office supply stores still sell envelopes; card shops, drug stores and bookstores sell notecards; and even supermarkets sell stamps. Postmen travel their rounds. We all know how to construct written messages as we prove daily with texts, emails, and tweets.

Maybe all we lack is that focused moment when everything magically comes together — paper, envelope, pen, stamp and purpose. Perhaps what was once a common solitary activity needs to be reintroduced in a more social setting.

vka-letters-229301-jpgA museum in Canada recently set up a letter writing station in conjunction with an exhibit, promising to stamp and mail any letters that people wrote on site. The Jaffee Center for Book Arts at Florida Atlantic University holds Real Mail Fridays once a month to couple letter writing with coffee and cookies. And several libraries and local organizations are hosting their own letter writing parties. Should I organize something for Post Whistle in my area? Stay tuned for more on that idea.

In the meantime, Valentine’s Day approaches, and that’s a great reason to pop something in the mail. Let’s make the Rare Art of Letter Writing a little more common in our own corners of the world.