eBook: Ragged Dick

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I’ve adapted the Horatio Alger, Jr. novel, Ragged Dick for English language learners. You can get it for just 99¢ on Amazon.com. The story’s got humor, history and adventure.

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À Nous la Liberté

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Directed by René Clair, À Nous la Liberté (1931) follows the attempt of two convicts to escape. One man succeeds, but his friend is captured. The man who escapes starts a new life selling phonographs on the street. Soon he’s prospered and owns a store. Not much later he owns a huge factory making thousands of phonographs. One memorable scene shows his workers marching in to work, punching in, taking their seats on an assembly line and working like machines, just as the factory owner had when he was in prison. The striking similarity is not accidental.

Later the factory owner’s friend is freed and by chance meets his rich pal. The film is full of such coincidences but they made me smile rather than roll my eyes. At first the prosperous man is leery. Does his old chum want to black mail him?

No. His old friend Emile is far more sincere, more innocent. Despite the soul-killing monotony, Emile wants to continue working at the factory so he can woo a woman he’s infatuated with. As the rich men’s high society friends talk about him behind his back and are stuffy bores, the factory owner opens his life and his wallet to his old pal to help him win this woman’s heart. Then the wheel of fortune turns against this pair of friends.

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The film does use sound, though sparingly. For much of the beginning I thought it was a silent film. Michael Atkinson applauds Clair for experimenting with should when directors like Chaplin where “too timid to.” It’s a fun, clever film that has an uplifting feel to it. I agree with critic Atkinson who describes as “bouncy with melody, soaked in spring light, wistful about the conflicted relationship between serendipity and love.”

Clair was the first to film a scene where all hell breaks loose when workers can’t keep up with the assembly line. His studio and some critics believe that Chaplin plagiarized À Nous la Liberté when he made Modern Times. Clair didn’t get involved and said since he appreciates so much of what Chaplin’s done, if he did borrow from this film, that’s fine. His studio disagreed and took legal action which dragged on for 10 years. They lost.

À Nous la Liberté has a surprising, positive (or perhaps naive) ending. I can see why the film was on a list of “Most Influential Films” I received at Act One. So glad my library had it.

The Queen of Versailles

I haven’t seen Keeping of with the Kardasians or The Real Housewives of Anywhere, but I imagine that The Queen of Versailles is one or two steps above them. American, opulent and way overstated, The Queen of Versailles is an anti-Downton Abbey.

This Sundance award winner documents the riches to rags story of the Siegels a nouveau riche  couple with 8 children building the biggest house in America. Mr. Siegel made his fortune in the time share business and got caught in the banking scandal of 2008. For most of the film, we see how this couple deals with the downward spiral.

Their goal is to keep the time share dynasty afloat and to stay one step ahead of the bankers, whom David Siegel sees as Shylocks and Jackie compares to vultures. Apparently, they’re blind to the irony. David’s fortune was also built on overselling to customers whose desires outstrip their ability to afford. Still since David really is anguished and is working hard to fix his problem concerned that his 7 children with Jackie will have to actually go to college and train for eventual careers. (I do admit that I was smirking as I wrote that last sentence.)

The family seems to be living in a fog and  always has been. Real conversations between them are few and far between. They talk towards each other and deflect a lot of what is said. Everyone ignores the real problems, just as they ignore the dog droppings that are in room after room of their garish mansion.

Enthroned, David and Jackie Siegel

The most genuine people are Jackie, Victoria, age 14, David’s middle aged son from his first marriage and David. Victoria’s endearing when she goes to bat for her mom, telling her dad that he ought to snap out of his funk for a few minutes for dinner since she and her mother went to the trouble of making it. The subtext is clear. You need to consider us more than the finances and the Shrek movie you’re watching in your man cave.

Interestingly, everyone’s more honest and authentic (as much as these folks can be) when they talk to the documentary maker. Victoria sees that her mom was a trophy wife in this May December relationship. She doesn’t put down either parent for that, but calls it as she sees it.

Jackie has charm and generosity that carry the film. I liked her in spite of myself. Yes, she goes way overboard; yes those boobs must be fake; yes, she needs to get with it and start saving and get her life together, but she’s likable and funny. She gives her high school friend whose suburban track house is in foreclosure $5000. Her comments could win Emmy’s if they came out of the mouths of sitcom characters.

Typically, I’d have nothing but contempt for these sorts of people, but they are just so hopeless and a few are funny, that I sort of like them. This may be wrong-headed, but I blame the system more than the people in this film.