A Sparkling Vintage Life


Sparkling Vintage Review: The Murdoch Mysteries

I’ve been enjoying a Canadian series on television that’s certainly not new (it’s on something like season 11), but it’s new to me. Set in the 1890s Toronto,  Murdoch Mysteries features a bright young detective who solves gruesome murders using tactics from the field of forensic science, still in its infancy–techniques we take for granted today, like fingerprinting.

I must admit, I don’t enjoy “gruesome,” and the term is apt in many episodes. However, the stories are well told, the  solutions are interesting and keep me guessing, and the characters are well established and mostly likeable. William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) is a serious, even brooding detective, an Irish Catholic recovering from a past heartbreak. Medical examiner Dr. Julia Ogden (Helene Joy) is, somewhat conveniently, a woman, equally bright and more than able to stomach the morgue procedures she performs with relish. There are hints of a budding romance between these two (no spoilers, please–obviously I’m not very far along in the series yet). Inspector Thomas Brackenreid (Thomas Craig) veers between doubt and awe at Murdoch’s unconventional methods. Bumbling constable George Crabtree (Jonny Harris) has the wide-eyed clumsiness of youth, but is a good-hearted chap, eager to be of service and learn the ropes from his mentor.

What else I like: The series mixes in real history, like storylines involving Nikola Tesla and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which is fun. And of course I love seeing the detailed settings, costumes and props depicting Toronto in the late-Victorian era.

I understand Murdoch Mysteries is based on a series of novels by Maureen Jennings. I must seek them out.



Sparkling Vintage movie: Lucky Star

lucky starI had the pleasure of watching Lucky Star on TCM the other night. It was produced in 1929, one of the last silent films to come out of Twentieth Century Fox  before the talkie era. It is a sweet, if fairly predictable, romance about two World War I vets–one a rich scallywag, the other honorable but minus the use of his legs–vying for the affections of a young farm girl played by Janet Gaynor. The girl’s widowed mother pushes her to marry Rich Scallywag and thereby lift the family out of poverty. But the girl’s heart, natch, belongs to Winsome in a Wheelchair.

Interestingly, this film was believed lost forever, but a pristine copy of it was unearthed in Amsterdam in the 1980s.

If you’re in the mood for a bit of silent spun-sugar, you can catch it on YouTube.





Down to Business: Top Secret Rosies and some random thoughts on work/life balance

top secret rosiesMy husband and I watched a fascinating documentary last night via Netflix. Top Secret Rosies tells the story of the highly talented and dedicated women who worked as “computers” for the U. S. government during World War II (at the time, the term “computer” referred not to the machine, but to the person doing the computing). Civilians all, these women used their well-educated mathematical minds in ballistics research for the military to increase the accuracy of weapons’  trajectories–in other words, to increase the likelihood that the torpedo or rocket would hit its target, no matter what weather or other atmospheric conditions prevailed.

This was fascinating stuff. I will set aside (temporarily) my personal feelings about things like carpet bombing and Hiroshima. I will also set aside (temporarily) my complete and utter awe of people who function easily in the world of higher mathematics, when the simplest calculations make my brain fog over like London in a Dickens novel. My focus here is on the women and the work the did, and the fact that they did it.

As I trawl around the blogosphere, I find a couple of common fallacies about women and work. Depending on the blogger’s personal and political ideology, it usually goes something like this:

“Before 1965, women were chained within their kitchens. The rare woman who sought a career outside the home was treated as a social pariah and blocked at every turn as she bravely trampled down barriers so that future generations of women would not be chained to their kitchens.”

or, at the other extreme,

“Before 1965, women sang joyfully within their kitchens. The rare woman who was forced by circumstances to work outside the home was an object of pity. If she worked because she (gasp) liked it, her family suffered for her selfishness, or she had to forgo family life altogether and return every night to a lonely supper of crackers and canned soup, which is exactly what she deserved.”

The first group attacks the second group by questioning their values. mocking all things domestic and calling women who pursue them all sorts of ugly names.

The second group attacks the first group by questioning their values, mocking all things industrial, and calling women who pursue them all sorts of ugly names.

Ladies, can we stop all this? Just stop.

Now, there will always be exceptional women like those portrayed in Top Secret Rosies. No one’s suggesting that their lives are typical of every woman. After all, if they weren’t extraordinary, why would someone make a documentary about them? In Top Secret Rosies, most of the “women computers” eventually married and had children. Mind you, not necessarily during wartime, when they were working ’round-the-clock on secret government projects. But within their lifetimes, there was room for both public and domestic lives. Let’s just say they did their part to contribute to the postwar Baby Boom. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

The point of this post is that most women’s lives are, and always have been, an ebb and flow of varying responsibilities, even in the “bad old days” when they were “forbidden” to work, or in the “good old days” when they were “protected” from it.

When I worked full-time away from home, I was still a homemaker, in that I had a home to care for and a mouth to feed, even when it was just my own. Now that I’m at home most of the time, I’m still a businesswoman in that I have clients to serve, meetings to attend, and [sometimes infuriating] software to master. This is the case with most women I know. So why do we feel we have to choose a side and dig in our heels about it?

Just this morning I was reading in the Bible about Lydia, the “seller of purple cloth” who supported the apostle Paul’s ministry out of her abundant resources. Lydia may have been exceptional for her time. She may have been a single woman without children, or a widow with grown children (for everything there is a season), which would explain the freedom to travel around that was unusual for a female in her culture. But in the end, the important thing was not whether she was a businesswoman or a homemaker, or a bit of both. The important thing was that she followed Jesus Christ. That’s what she’s remembered for.

No matter what else I may or may not do in life, no matter what “season” I find myself, I hope the same will be said about me.


Retro Recipe Wednesday: How to Make a Sandwich

I found this adorable video by way of The Apron Revolution.  I love how the mother and daughter are working together in the kitchen to make tuna sandwiches for their guests. There’s something so homey and charming about such a scene.


The commentary that accompanies the video on YouTube is pretty amusing too. Some women seem most fearful that making a tuna sandwich for a boy will toss them straight back to the Victorian era and shackle them to the stove. Funny! I think we’d all be better off, health-wise and budget-wise, doing more of our own home cooking and relying less on restaurants and take-out.

What’s your favorite sandwich?

31 Days of a Sparkling Vintage Summer, Day 19: Going to the Fair!

County-Fair2“If you ever start feeling like you have the goofiest, craziest, most dysfunctional family in the world, all you have to do is go to a state fair. Because five minutes at the fair, you’ll be going, ‘you know, we’re alright. We are dang near royalty.'” (Jeff Foxworthy)

The county fair opens today! I can’t wait to go and see all the exhibits, the 4-H project displays, the prizewinning quilts and zucchini and baked goods, the cows and pigs and sheep and rabbits and chickens, to eat my annual elephant-ear (known elsewhere by its much more elegant name, palmier) and listen to bluegrass under the trees.

Fairs are an ancient tradition dating back millenia, although the word “fair” (or its more archaic form, “fayre”) has only been used since the Middle Ages. Wikipedia defines a fair as “a gathering of people to display or trade produce or other goods, to parade or display animals,” temporary in nature. Some fairs have carnivals and concerts with them; others are more sedate. In the U.S. state and county fairs have their roots in an earlier agrarian economy,and agriculture remains the main focus in many places. The fair was–and remains–a place to gather with friend, neighbors, and family, admire one another’s work of the year, purchase farm animals, eat bad-for-your-body-but-good-for-your-soul food, and for kids to run around like a pack of hyenas before the start-of-school lockdown.

If you’re wondering about how fairs used to be–and, in some bucolic places, maybe still are–watch the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical State Fair with Jeanne Crain and Dana Andrews (or the earlier 1933 version with Janet Gaynor and Will Rogers), or read E. B. White’s beloved classic Charlotte’s Web.

Fairs may be a lot different these days than they used to be. But some things never change. If you’re within weekending distance of a state or county fair, it’s worth the trip to take a step back in time.

Goodbye, Shirley Temple

shirley-temple-photo-3I was saddened today to hear about the death of Shirley Temple Black. As a dimpled, winsome child star in the 1930s, she cheered up millions of moviegoers during the dark days of the Great Depression. (In my current novel-in-progress, I’ve even named a girl character “Shirley” in her honor.)

Shirley worked hard, making some forty or fifty films over her lifetime, yet by most accounts emerged from stardom relatively stable and unscathed, unlike so many child actors. In adulthood she went into political life, eventually serving as U. S. Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia and as the Chief of Protocol of the United States during the 1970s.

When I was a child, Shirley’s old movies often ran on Saturday-morning television. Even then, my peers were declaring her “corny,” but I loved to watch her sing and dance. To me she optimized childhood innocence, optimism, and even femininity (all those petticoats! all those ringlets!)–qualities that were quickly fading out of style even back then. Changing social values made a laughable anachronism of her golly-gee demeanor.

Today’s smart-n-sassy young ladies have traded in their fluffy dresses for cleats and helmets, their tap-dancing for twerking. Today, Honey Boo-Boo sets the standard of modern girlhood. Because “progress,” dontcha know.

You could not get much less hip or cool than Shirley Temple. Her movies were saccharine and melodramatic and unrealistic.

And if you ask me, the world could use a little more Shirley.

My favorite Shirley Temple movie is A Little Princess. What’s yours?

Dishing about Downton Abbey {SPOILER ALERT}

mary crawley mourningFor those of you in the United States, did you watch the Downton Abbey Season 4 premiere last night? What did you think?

I was surprised by O’Brien’s move, grieving with Lady Mary, shocked shocked shocked by the nanny, loved how things turned out between Mary and Carson. As always, I was impressed by the attention to detail, such as the solid black of deep mourning giving way to mauve for the lighter “second mourning.” As Emily Post explains it in her book, Etiquette (published in 1922, the same year that this season opens), “The young widow should wear deep crepe for a year and then lighter mourning for six months and second mourning for six months longer. . . . People in second mourning wear all combinations of black and white as well as clothes of gray and mauve. ”

Re Mary’s grief, which seems maybe excessive to our twenty-first century sensibilities, Emily Post writes, “Persons under the shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally but are all unbalanced physically. No matter how calm and controlled they seemingly may be, no one can under such circumstances be normal. Their disturbed circulation makes them cold, their distress makes them unstrung, sleepless. Persons they normally like, they often turn from. No one should ever be forced upon those in grief, and all over-emotional people, no matter how near or dear, should be barred absolutely. Although the knowledge that their friends love them and sorrow for them is a great solace, the nearest afflicted must be protected from any one or anything which is likely to overstrain nerves already at the threatening point, and none have the right to feel hurt if they are told they can neither be of use nor be received. At such a time, to some people companionship is a comfort, others shrink from dearest friends. One who is by choice or accident selected to come in contact with those in new affliction should, like a trained nurse, banish all consciousness of self; otherwise he or she will be or no service—and service is the only gift of value that can be offered.”

Seems like nowadays we expect people to bounce back from deep grief in a matter of days. I’m not sure if this quick return to business-as-usual is such a great thing for the person suffering a significant loss. What do you think?

Regarding Mary’s future, Mrs. Post writes, “There is nothing more utterly captivating than a sweet young face under a widow’s veil, and it is not to be wondered at that her own loneliness and need of sympathy, combined with all that is appealing to sympathy in a man, results in the healing of her heart. . . . There is no reason why a woman (or a man) should not find such consolation, but she should keep the intruding attraction away from her thoughts until the year of respect is up, after which she is free to put on colors and make happier plans.” I wonder what those “happier plans” might be for Lady Mary.

In other news, I also had the joy of attending a Downton Abbey premiere party in Coeur d’Alene, sponsored by Idaho Public Television. I’d estimate that about 80 people (many in costume–my tribe), gathered to nibble on appetizers, sip wine, listen to a string quartet, and pretend, if only for a couple of hours, that the Hampton Inn was Highclere Castle. There was a costume contest, and the winners’ costumes were fabulous (although my own personal most-creative award went to the man at my table who dressed as the late, great Matthew Crawley, complete with bloody head wound.) The centerpiece of the event was being shown the first hour of the premiere on the big screen, but had to wait to watch the second hour at home on Sunday night along with the rest of the country.

One of the unexpected joys of going to a Downton Abbey party was hearing the reactions of a large audience, as if we were in a movie theater, but with everyone being familiar with the characters and backstory. Maybe that’s a glimpse of what my football-loving friends enjoy about watching a televised game in the company of like-minded friends–the collective groans, sighs, gasps, and sniffles as the action unfolds onscreen.

Here’s what I looked like, a semi-confusing conglomeration of decades, but somehow it worked:

downton abbey rotated

Sparkling Vintage Faces: Nancy Carroll

Nancy Carroll

Nancy Carroll

I’m basing the physical appearance of my lead character, Marjorie, on 1920s screen icon Nancy Carroll. I chose Nancy partly because I think she’s pretty, and partly because I wanted Marjorie to look very different from her friend Dot, who is described as looking like Louise Brooks (right).

Louise Brooks

Louise Brooks

Here’s a write-up on Nancy Carroll from a 1930 book, Stars of the Photoplay:

“Nancy Carroll is a real daughter of the big town. As Nancy Lahiff she went to parochial school in New York City, where she was born, November 19, 1906. and at 17 went on the stage as a dancer in Shubert musical shows. She married Jack Kirkland, a newspaperman, who is now a Hollywood scenario writer. Her big film chance came in “Abie’s Irish Rose.” Nancy is 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs 118 pounds. She has red hair and blue eyes. The Kirklands have a little daughter.”

Not realizing Nancy had red hair (hey, there are limits to black-and-white photography!), I made Marjorie’s hair brown. Marjorie is also bigger than Nancy, which gives her a little trouble when trying to fit into narrow 1920s fashions. As Marjorie might say, “I have the perfect figure–for 1910,” not such a great thing in 1925.

Later sources tell us that Nancy Carroll’s birth name was Ann Veronica Lahiff, that her ancestry was Irish, and that her musical background came in handy when silent films gave way to talkies and musicals. In 1930 she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for The Devil’s Holiday. Fans loved her, but the studios didn’t, because she had a reputation for being difficult to work with. In the mid-1930s Paramount released her from her contract, and in 1938 she stopped making films and returned to the stage. In 1951 she appeared in a film version of “The Egg and I,” along with her daughter, Patricia Kirkland. Nancy was married three times and died in 1965.

Had you ever heard of Nancy Carroll or seen any of her movies? Celebrity is so fleeting, isn’t it? An actor or actress can be a huge star to one generation and virtually unknown to the next. What do you think of her looks? Does she look anything like you imagined Marjorie would look? 

Scott and Zelda and The Great Gatsby: Bee’s Knees or Bum’s Rush?

great gatsby movieConfession time: I haven’t worked up the nerve yet to see the new version of The Great Gatsby. I’ve heard mixed reviews and think it might make me crazy, ruin my ears, or scorch my eyeballs. I’d be eager to know what those of you who’ve seen it thought of it.

As a person who writes about the 1920s, I was interested to learn something about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing career. Having read and enjoyed The Great Gatsby in a college course, all I knew about the author was that he wrote tons of stories, articles, screenplays, and novels while also maintaining a frenetic, alcohol-drenched lifestyle with his wife, Zelda. I can’t imagine how he could do this and still be a productive writer, seeing as how I have trouble putting two sentences together if I’ve had so much as a poor night’s sleep, too much sugar,  or too many distractions (and when I have writing to do, everything qualifies as a distraction).

I ran across a description of Fitzgerald’s writing life in Nathan Miller’s book New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America. Mr. Miller had this to say about Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby:

“Yet in the midst of this shambles [a troubled marriage to a mentally unbalanced wife, a serious drinking problem], Fitzgerald’s imagination, creativity, and nerve did not fail him. The new book, called The Great Gatsby when it was published in April 1925, fulfilled all his earlier promise. In telling the story of the rise and fall of Jimmy Gatz, otherwise known as Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald created, in only fifty thousand words, a lasting portrait of the time. His theme was a universal one: the corruption of the American Dream by the American Nightmare. . . . Scenes, passages, and lines from the book remain with the reader long after it has bee put aside. Who can forget the image of Gatsby staring fixedly at the green light that shines–and promises–at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock? or that her voice “is full of money”? And, like Nick Carraway, the book’s narrator, we hear the faraway music of Gatsby’s lavish parties where “‘men and girls came and went like moths upon the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.'”

I thought the book also offers a clear and compelling illustration of the sheer futility of seeking-soul satisfaction in the world’s pleasures instead of the things that truly satisfy–the things of God. Not likely a theme that Fitzgerald intended, but that’s what I get out of it nonetheless–an illustration of having everything yet having nothing.

If you’ve seen the movie, what did you think? Do you think it does justice to the book (if you’ve read the book)? Should I take a chance and plunk down some money at the box office this weekend?