Monthly Archives: March 2013

Junior Miss by Sally Benson

I’m from St. Louis, so I grew up hearing Sally Benson’s name every so often.  I’ve never met anyone who’d read her short stories, and I never read anything by her in school.  That’s a shame, because she writes better short stories than most I read in high school.

In the past year I’ve read Benson’s Junior Miss and Meet Me in St. Louis.  It could be that I’ve seen the film adaptation of Meet Me in St. Louis too many times, or that I found stories that followed one character stronger than those that covered an entire family, but I feel that the Junior Miss collection is superior.

Junior Miss
By Sally Benson
Published 1941 by Random House
214 pages
Book-of-the-Month Club selection in May 1941

JM Cover

One-Sentence Summary: Judy Graves experiences the ups and downs of being caught between her girlhood and her teenage years in New York City in 12 funny short stories.

Jacket

Jacket

How I Found It: About two years ago, I was at a used bookstore that has a fantastic selection of old hardbacks.  I have a list of books and authors I check whenever I’m in a used bookstore.  When I got to Sally Benson, I found Junior Miss.  I had been hoping to find Meet Me in St. Louis, but that book isn’t always easy to find in the city of St. Louis, and there is something so romantic about finding a long-sought book in a store rather than by ordering it online.  I bought Junior Miss and finally gave it a try this past summer.  I read it in one day.  I considered slowing down to make it last longer, but I was having too good a time seeing Judy get herself into all sorts of situations.

The Setting:  New York City, c. 1940, in and around the apartment of a middle class family.

page 120

page 120

The Characters:  Judy Graves is a mature child or an immature young adult.  She has a good nature and struggles between holding on to her childhood and embracing adolescence.  Lois is Judy’s older sister and considers herself very grown up.  Their parents are kind but often baffled by raising daughters.  Fuffy Adams is Judy’s best friend and makes appearances in many of the stories.

The Best Thing: What moves me about Junior Miss is its sensitivity.  Being a young teen in late 1930s New York was not so different from my 1990s experience in a Midwestern suburb.  In “The Best Things Come in Small Packages,” the Christmas story, Judy goes from excitedly viewing the tree, to tearing up when remembering her pet who passed away in the past year, to contentedly getting presents she expected because she asked for them, to stealing a few minutes from family time to visit with her best friend—and compare their near-identical gifts.  It could be a description one of my Christmases.

In another story (“Les Temps Perdus”), Judy discovers that she had a pirate ancestor and writes an essay for school entitled “I Am Partially Pirate.”  Few of the stories really stand out- they’re all good.

The Worst Thing: It’s the bookworm’s cliché, but I’m sorry Junior Miss wasn’t longer, or that Benson didn’t write a sequel book about Judy’s college years.  It would have been funny to see Judy and Fuffy going off to live in a dormitory and getting into all sorts of sticky situations. 

Of Note: The title refers to the first of the stories in which the Graves family goes shopping.  Much to Judy’s dismay, she is too big to fit in a beautiful coat from the children’s department.  She resists shopping in the Junior Miss section because she wants the coat so much.

The name of the candy Junior Mints is a play on Junior Miss, and is noted on the back of each box.

Availability: Junior Miss is out of print, but used copies are available for 1 cent.

The Author: Sally Benson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1897.  Her family moved to New York City when she was a child.  Benson published 99 short stories in The New Yorker.  Only the two compilations mentioned above were published in book form; one must subscribe to the New Yorker to have access to the others.

Junior Miss was a Broadway play from 1941-1943, a radio show starring Shirley Temple in 1942, and was adapted for film in 1945, the year after Meet Me in St. Louis was released.  There was another Junior Miss radio series in the late 1940s that starred Barbara Whiting, who played Fuffy, Judy’s best friend, in the film.

After these successes, Benson had a career as a screenwriter, adapting Shadow of a Doubt, Viva Las Vegas, The Singing Nun, and others.  She was nominated for an Oscar for her 1946 screenplay Anna and the King of Siam (starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison).  She died in 1972 in California.

A book on Benson’s life and work by Dr. Maryellen Keefe will be released this year by SUNY Press.  I’m looking forward to the release of Quiet Little Affairs: The Life and Fiction of Sally Benson and will review it on this blog as soon as I get a copy.

The Film
Junior Miss
Released 1945
94 minutes
Black and white
Directed by George Seaton
Produced by 20th Century Fox

Differences: While not drastically different, this movie isn’t overly faithful to the book.  Like Meet Me in St. Louis, Junior Miss required some restructuring in order to have a linear plot rather than 12 separate episodes.  A storyline of Judy playing matchmaker, and getting in all sorts of trouble as a result, is added.  The big theme of the book—Judy is an awkward tween divided between things of childhood and the allure of young womanhood—is intact.

Cast: Peggy Ann Garner, Stephen Dunne, Allyn Joslyn, Faye Marlowe, Mona Freeman, Sylvia Field, Barbara Whiting, and Scotty Beckett.  Of the cast, Peggy Ann Garner and Barbara Whiting stand out.

Clips: You can watch the first minutes of the movie on Youtube.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69y1Th4HMNA

Availability: Many classics have been released in the last couple of years, and not just the big names and award-winners.  A DVD of Junior Miss was released last year.  No special features, but good sound and picture quality.

Recommendations

The Book: The highest recommendation.  This is the perfect book to read before bed because each of the twelve stories is fairly short.  I bought copies as gifts for friends and family.

The Movie: Recommended.

Next month: The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett


Dragonwyck by Anya Seton

The Novel

Dragonwyck
By Anya Seton
Published 1944 by Houghton Mifflin
255 pages

Dragonwyck Cover Page

One-Sentence Summary: Miranda Wells falls in love with and marries a rich landowner, but finds her ideals and her life in danger as she comes to know her husband.

How I Found It: Library bookfair.

The Setting: The setting makes this book unique.

Dragonwyck Author's Note

Beginning in 1629, Dutch settlers who moved to the American colonies and brought at least fifty families with them were granted deeded tracts of land along major rivers.  These lands were called patroonships and the men who such lands were called patroons.  Patroons had similar rights as lords in feudal times.  The Revolutionary War decreased their rights, but tenant farmers were made to pay exorbitant rents on lands that they had no option to purchase.   In 1839, the Anti-Rent War/Anti-Rent Movement commenced, lasting until 1852, affecting politics and leading to the downfall of tenant farms.  You can read more about patroonships on Wikipedia.

Dragonwyck’s antagonist Nicholas Van Ryn is a patroon in the 1830s.  Times are changing and farmers are beginning to fight for their rights.  He does not care about the problems faced by the farmers and is in denial that a revolution is on the way.

I had never heard of patroons before reading Dragonwyck, which appears to be the most (and only?) prominent novel to deal with this situation.

Add to this a gothic mansion at a large river estate and you’ve got a great place for a novel of historical fiction!

The Narrative: Third person limited from Miranda’s point of view.

Dragonwyck paragraph

The Story: Miranda Wells leaves her father’s farm in Connecticut to work as a companion for the child of prominent, prosperous relations, the Van Ryns, at their Hudson Valley estate, Dragonwyck.  Though warned by her father not to become accustomed to a lavish lifestyle and to stay true to her Christian upbringing, Miranda can’t help but fall in love with Dragonwyck, and with the married, moody Nicholas Van Ryn.  Upon the sudden death of his wife, Nicholas confesses mutual love and admiration, and it seems that they will live happily ever after.  With more than half of the novel remaining, this is not to be.

The Characters: The main character is Miranda Wells, a country girl who is dissatisfied with her life and all the marriage prospects in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Nicholas Van Ryn believes himself to be infallible and as powerful as a monarch in his kingdom of Dragonwyck.  Dr. Jeff Turner cares about his poorest and richest patients without being too good to be true.  Thrown in are spooky household staff, a haunting, and some of history’s notables, including Edgar Allan Poe.

Themes: spiritual and religious conflict, the journey from youth to maturity, ghosts, revolution, depression.

The Best: Miranda was a very well-developed character.  Her desire to leave a small town and experience the benefits offered by high society was as realistic as how she recoils from her life as the despised lady of the manor who is forced to conform to a hateful way of life.

The Worst: Dragonwyck reminds me in some ways of Rachel Field’s All This, and Heaven Too, which I reviewed in December.  Both books take place, at least partly, in New York, both deal with social upheaval, and both feature female characters who are enchanted with a way of life and the male who introduces them to it.

Dragonwyck, unlike All This, deals primarily with imagined characters, but both have cameo appearances by prominent artists of the day.  I sometimes feel like historical fiction is weakened by ordinary characters interacting with notables.  In All This, the acclaimed opera star Rachel and members of the Booth acting family appear, but as the novel is based on historical people and events, this was successfully executed.  In Dragonwyck, the inclusion of several notables in the plot seems forced at times.  At first I was concerned that the meeting between the Van Ryns and Edgar Allan Poe would seem contrived, but the scene plays out well enough.  Still, it was one of my least favorite scenes of the novel.

Of Note: Anya Seton was a popular writer of historical romance, and another of her novels, Foxfire, was adapted for film.

Availability: Available on Kindle and in paperback.


The Movie

Dragonwyck
Released 1946
103 Minutes
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Produced by 20th Century Fox

Review: Dragonwyck is a good movie that largely follows the book, but there are missing scenes.  I’m a little sorry that this one was shot in black in white.  It works that way, but it would have been nice to see the colors at and around Dragonwyck.

Differences: There are typical differences between the book and the movie, but I was impressed by how the film followed the book in terms of mood, character, and plot.

In the movie, almost all of the action takes place at Dragonwyck (it feels like half to two-thirds in the book), and only one scene is in New York City (in the book, the Van Ryns spend an extended amount of time there).  Jeff Turner never visits Greenwich in the movie, but he’s very present throughout the movie at and around Dragonwyck.

The ending is more dramatic in the book, and I am sorry it wasn’t filmed as it was in the book.  Little can be said without giving either ending away, but my interpretation is that the finish of the book was not in compliance with the part of the Hollywood Production Code and had to be changed for a 1940s audience.  I’d love to see a miniseries of Dragonwyck in the accurate manner of HBO’s Mildred Pierce, though perhaps not as lengthy.

Cast: The movie has an all-star cast.  I know that’s common in 1940s movies, but I think listing some of the performers and saying that they are all excellent in Dragonwyck should be adequate:  Gene Tierney, Vincent Price, Walter Huston, Glenn Langan, Anne Revere, Spring Byington, Jessica Tandy, and Harry Morgan (of M*A*S*H fame).

Awards: I couldn’t find anything about Dragonwyck had been nominated for any awards, which I think is a shame, because it’s as good as its contemporary films.  If you know otherwise, please leave a comment.

The Trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O5KiTFHnxn4

A Later Scene (spoilers, but captures the mood):

Availability: Available on DVD as part of Fox Horror Classics Collection, Vol. 2 and on a single-title DVD.

Recommendations

Book: Yes.

Movie: Yes.

Your comments appreciated!

Later this month on Reel Old Reads: Junior Miss by Sally Benson.