When we took a bus tour of London many years ago, the guide pointed out that all the iron work outside the apartment windows was painted black. She said this practice dated to the reign of Queen Victoria, who was so distraught by the death of her husband, Prince Albert, that she called for the paint job as a sign of mourning. That sounded a little hokey to me, but it made a good story.

Victoria’s mourning for Albert, who died in 1861, was no joke, however. The queen was plunged into a lengthy state of depression, and lived a comparatively isolated life for a British monarch, although surrounded by her children and official household. One person who managed to pierce the shell around the queen was John Brown, a Scottish servant. Their relationship is the subject of the 1997 film “Mrs. Brown,” which stars Judy Dench as Victoria and Billy Connolly as Brown.

The queen had retired to Balmoral Castle after her husband’s death, and Brown — who had a long-standing association with the family — was sent there principally to care for her pony and accompany her when she chose to ride.

From the start, Brown showed the queen none of the truckling deference she was accustomed to. In fact he spoke to her rather bluntly, addressing her as “woman,” and said exactly what was on his mind. This appealed to Victoria, and she started to rely more and more on Brown’s advice, and he more and more took control of the affairs of the castle, and particularly of anything that had to do with the comings and goings of the queen.

This development along with Brown’s abrupt personality and penchant for drinking irritated pretty much everyone else in the household, especially Albert Edward, the prince of Wales, the queen’s son and later King Edward VII. Meanwhile, there was mounting pressure for Victoria to become more visible to her subjects — pressure that included a movement in Parliament to deinstitutionalize the monarchy. At first Brown supported the queen in her resistance to this pressure, but his change of heart on the matter led to a crisis in their relationship.

To what extent, if any, there was a romance between Victoria and John Brown is still a matter of conjecture. Certainly folks at the time thought there was something afoot, and that’s why the queen was derisively referred to as “Mrs. Brown.”

Although certain aspects of the story are fictionalized in this account, the movie basically portrays real events. The film was made by the BBC for television, but instead it was released as a theatrical property and made a lot of money. The performances, including Anthony Sher’s turn as a foppish Benjamin Disraeli, are outstanding. Judi Dench won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for an Oscar.

Books: “Isaac’s Army”

November 10, 2012

Warsaw came as a surprise to me. Because of my uneducated impressions of Eastern Europe, I expected the city to be grim, but it was not. Warsaw was lively, handsome, well-swept, festooned with parks, and imbued with the spirits of such as Paderewski, Chopin, and Wojtyla.

But as satisfying as it was to see the city thriving, it was impossible to escape reminders of its darkest days, when it was occupied and devastated by Nazi Germany — and its Jewish population virtually exterminated — a period that is described in vivid human detail in Matthew Brzezinski’s book, Isaac’s Army.

Brzezinski, who has been a reporter for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, concentrates in this book on the walled ghetto in which the Nazis confined hundreds of thousands of Jews in subhuman conditions until most of the poor people were either worked to death, killed by hunger and disease, shot to death in summary executions, burned to death in their homes and hiding places, or shipped off to death camps.

I saw remnants of the ghetto in Warsaw, but it seemed almost like an abstract idea. In Brzezinski’s book, however, the depth of the depravity with which the Nazis and their collaborators treated Polish Jews comes through with shocking force.

Brzezinski is particularly interested in a relatively small group of Jewish men and women who recognized from the beginning that the Nazi presence was an imminent danger to their community and were not willing to stand by and let the Germans proceed unhindered. The writer relates the stories of about a dozen individuals who were in that category. They belonged to underground paramilitary organizations that struggled to maintain some semblance of resistance to their persecutors. These folks defied and undermined the Nazi attempt to isolate the Jews and ultimately, in 1943, participated in the uprising that stunned and momentarily humiliated the SS when the “supermen” entered the ghetto with the object of leveling it.

Unfortunately, as Brzezinski relates, Polish Jews were not of a single mind about how they should respond to the Nazis or whether  they should respond at all. They also were sharply divided over issues such as Marxism and Zionism.


They were frustrated by the fact that so many people and nations were indifferent to their plight, and they had to resort to bribery and subterfuge to accumulate even the poor excuse for an arsenal they had to defend themselves against the combination of Adolf Hitler’s insanity and his military machine. Their situation may have been hopeless to start out with, but Brzezinski shows that some of them would not give up hope or, at least, would persist in their  struggle against the Nazis even when hope was gone. While this book, on the one hand, records one of the worst examples of human cruelty, it also records one of the best examples of human resilience. The account of a  few score sick and starving Jews escaping the ghetto by stumbling for hours through a sewer laden with human excrement, corpses, and rats is disgusting to the imagination. At the same time, it is uplifting to know that people who would not concede their right to dignity and justice were willing to undergo even that in order to deny Hitler his dream of eradicating Judaism in Europe.

“Babes in Arms”

November 4, 2012

JUDY GARLAND and MICKEY ROONEY

Knowing that a storm visitor was a fan of Judy Garland, I picked out Babes in Arms from the On Demand list, and wound up watching it myself. I did that because this 1939 film was based on a 1937 Broadway musical by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. I’ve always been curious about that show, but I’ve never seen it produced on stage. I knew well before the movie was over that the stage show has to have been better.

This was one of the “let’s put on a show” movies that Garland made with Mickey Rooney. It turns out that it was only loosely based on the Broadway show. In fact, I have since read that once the brains at MGM got  the rights to the show, they made wholesale changes to the script and threw out all the songs except the unmemorable title song and the memorable “Where or When,” which was introduced on  Broadway by Ray Heatherton (who later had a long run on television as the “Merry Mailman”) and Mitzi Green.

RAY HEATHERTON

That means, that MGM — specifically producer Arthur Freed — cut “My Funny Valentine,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “Johnny One Note,” and “That’s Why the Lady is a Tramp” (which is heard only as incidental background music). Freed added two old songs of his own — “I Cried for You” and “You Are My Lucky Star” — and he and Nacio Herb Brown wrote “Good Mornin'” especially for this movie. E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen, who had contributed three classic songs to The Wizard of Oz, were employed on this movie to write “God’s Country,” a heavy-handed finale that was influenced by the war under way in Europe.

This film was directed by Buzby Berkeley in an era when the canteen didn’t stock de-caf coffee. It is, in a word, exhausting. The production numbers with their quick-step marches are dated and Rooney in particular, as talented as he is, is manic —  a fault that is made more conspicuous by the fact that Garland’s performance is comparatively understated.

Apparently there was some racially insensitive material in the Broadway production, and there is  an offensive minstrel sequence in the movie. Blackface was common into the 1950s; in fact, when I was a kid, my parish used to stage annual minstrels complete with end men in burnt cork exchanging idiotic banter with “Mr. Interlocutor.” It’s as hard to watch now as it should have been then.

Rooney and Garland in blackface

I’ve read some attempts to rationalize this display, including one argument that the caricatures were mild, but there is nothing mild about Rooney’s lampooning in particular. He’s Jolson in overdrive.

There is a clever number in which Rooney and Garland do good-natured send ups of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. This scene was cut from copies of the film distributed after FDR died in 1945, but it has been restored and is one of the most worthwhile things in the movie.