Thursday, 27 November 2008

An early little xmas gift - for me. . .

I've been searching for quite some time for a slim console table with a shelf to place alongside my sofa arm and I've finally found the perfect one at Pier 1 Imports. I love the style which reminds me of summer days browsing sidewalk stands outside of used bookstores. The colour works perfectly with my decor and it fits the space to the millimetre! The clincher was its "name" - The Bookseller. It was obviously meant to be and so I splurged; it looks absolutely terrific in my apartment. The middle trough I'm using for books on the go or those I'm most anxious to tackle and the bottom shelf will house magazines and a few oversized art books. My mug of tea - on a coaster of course - will sit very nicely on the top, along with a few dictionaries and key reference books.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

A literary hunkering down for the winter. . .

Is it because the first cold snap has hit Toronto - it feels like January out there - or is it worries about the world economic crisis that has me predicting that I'll be cocooning at home a lot in the next few months? I've been stockpiling future reads and am finding myself irresistably attracted to long and challenging (not just in length but style and subject) books that will keep me happily engaged for days and days of intense reading. Here's what's on my-to-be-read-sooner-than-later, pile.

Starting with Alfred Döblin's monumental 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz about a small-time criminal in the 1920s Berlin underworld, with a narrative style reminiscient of Joyce. This is the one I'll probably start first in preparation for Cinematique's December showing of all fifteen hours of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1980 film adaptation. Yes, most of my friends think I'm nuts, but it's going to be shown over three days, so hardly unbearable, and it so rarely comes to the theatre that I can't miss the opportunity to see it on the big screen. I'm up for the marathon challenge and I have a few weeks to finish the 600 plus page novel first.

Then there's the hottest book being reviewed in blogworld right now - Roberto Bolano's novel 2666 (900 pages), available for the first time in English translation. The publishers have simulataneously and sensibly issued it as a hardcover and as a three volume paperback edition in a slipcase. This latter version is the one I bought and since the reviews have been stellar - it's definitely one I'm anxious to dive into.

Another 1920s modernist novel I've long had my eye on is Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter about a Scandavian woman's life during the Middle Ages. It's also part of my ongoing project to read at least one work by every Nobel Prize winner (she won it in 1928). My edition is over 1000 pages. And then there's Hermann Broch's trilogy The Sleepwalkers, which The Complete Review calls, "one of the towering achievements of 20th century literature." It follows characters from 1880 to the end of the First World War using a variety of styles and pastiches of styles. It clocks in at 648 pages.

Other books I'm dying to read:
Summer in Termuren by Louis Paul Boon (one of Belgium's greatest novelists)
The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell (this isn't out in Canada until March, but I've gotten hold of an early galley)
New Lives by Ingo Schulze (about East Germany after falling of the Berlin Wall)
And maybe it's finally the perfect time to get around to Robert Burton's 1400 page Anatomy of Melancholy. Or the other classics I've always been meaning to read - Dante, Paradise Lost, The Decameron, etc. Recession, what recession? My bookshelves at least are rich.

There's ne'er a villain dwelling in all Denmark. . .

I didn't think about it at the time when I was booking the tickets, but this past Saturday, I ended up seeing two plays that both had a connection to Denmark, and that both contained a set dominated by a large rectangular banquet table. Oh how I love delicious coincidences and unexpected connections.
The matinee was The Company Theatre's production of Festen, based on the 1998 dogme Danish film by Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov and Bo hr. Hansen. It takes place during the celebration of Helge's 60th birthday and his friends and grown children (all except for his daughter who recently committed suicide) have gathered for a meal and many toasts. But the guests get more than they bargained for, and in the course of the evening, painful family secrets will be revealed. Despite excellent reviews and a stellar cast, the production I saw seemed a little flat. I think the set annoyed me. While there were some very clever uses of one bed to represent several different bedrooms, I kept getting distracted by these huge floodlights placed around the stage. One critic suggested these were a nod to the play's origins as a film, but since the houselights remained on the entire time and the floodlights were never actually used, they seemed completely superfluous and silly. I do want to check out the movie however.
Then it was on to the Great Dane himself and a world sneak preview, courtesy of Necessary Angel Theatre Company, of Hamlet, directed by Graham McLaren, co-founder of Scotland's Theatre Babel. I saw his excellent production of Medea a few years ago that had the actors speaking in heavy Scottish brogues. His modern two hour version of Hamlet is still a work in progress; the full production will be touring next year and I can't wait. It's hard to do something new and exciting with such a well-known play, but the bits I saw were truly thrilling. The entire piece takes place in a dining room, with a banquet table showing the ravages of a previous feast with lots of empty beer cans. In the programme notes, McLaren writes, "the question I ask is, 'If Seneca were the dramaturge and Shakespeare the playwright, what might the result be?'" Well, a very violent and visceral version that also had some very clever moments of humour and modern satire. We first see Gertrude and Claudius as they come into the darkened room from a costume party - Gertrude dressed as Marilyn Monroe and Claudius wearing a gorilla mask. He gets her up on the table and hikes her skirt up and then Hamlet switches on the lights, literally catching Claudius with his pants down. Instead of spying behind a curtain, McLaren has Polonius hiding under the table and when Hamlet kills him, it's by pulling him and the tablecloth at the same time and bashing in his head repeatedly, leaving heavy bloodstains, not only on the cloth but on the floor; Claudius then subsequently rubs Hamlet's naked body into Polonius's blood. Yes - it was shocking, but the violence didn't seem gratuitous, although I will admit to a bit of anxious queasiness when Laertes and Hamlet started duelling with knives instead of swords. I don't know if McLaren's pared down version (the play starts with Hamlet's 'O that this too too sullied flesh would melt' soliloquy and two characters have wittily merged into one Guildencrantz) will be his final one or if it was just for this preview, but it's clear he is having lots of fun playing around with the text to induce new meanings from the language. Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' speech for example, comes after he has killed Polonius. This was an original, energetic and enthralling piece and it will be interesting to see how it evolves into the final production. Definitely one to keep an eye out for!

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

I listened to a simply marvellous ballet. . .

This weekend I went to see the National Ballet of Canada's production of The Seagull, choreographed by John Neumeier. Chekhov's play lends itself very well to a balletic adaptation - here Kostya and Trigorin are choreographers instead of playwrights with Arkadina a celebrated dancer and Nina ultimately becoming a chorus girl. This allows Neumeier to have fun with very different styles of dance and costumes, particularly for Kostya's experimental numbers. The set was absolutely stunning, but ultimately I found a good chunk of the production fairly dull. This may have been because I was up in the fifth balcony where it was unbelievably stuffy, but mostly I think the choice of music, particularly in the first act (Shostakovich's Sympony No. 15 for the most part), was too slow and plodding and just didn't do justice to all the tensions between the characters. As usual, Masha stole the show.
Still, I'm glad I went, if only to be introduced to an absolutely lovely piece of music (Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2 F-Major, op. 102), which was used for the first "innocent" dance between Nina and Kostya even though, dressed all in white, they could have just stepped out from a Calvin Klein ad. Ah, but what a lovely piece - I'm listening to it now on my iPod as I write this. Because of course - I had to go out and buy the CD. And as luck would have it, as I was browsing the racks I found another completely charming ballet CD to add to, of all things, my Noel Coward collection. Called The Grand Tour: The Ballet Music of Noel Coward, it contains the music from two ballets - The Grand Tour and London Morning. Now, these I would like to see!

The Grand Tour was created by choreographer Joe Layton and premiered in 1971. Set on the deck of a luxury 1930s cruiseliner, the ballet features solos and duets with the passengers who are none other than George Bernard Shaw, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (wouldn't that be fascinating to see?) and Gertrude Lawrence and Coward himself. According to the liner notes, Lawrence and Coward dance to "I'll See You Again" where they, "interlink cigarette holders in a most moving way!". Oh, how fabulous. The music is of course all based on famous Coward tunes and it's wonderful to have them given the full orchestra treatment on this CD.

London Morning was commissioned by the English National Ballet in 1959 and the plot is very simple. It's set in front of Buckingham Palace where a series of people pass by the gates and watch the changing of the Guard. There's a suburban family, business men in bowler hats, school girls, a sailor and a young American girl that he falls in love with - Coward has written music for them all. A lovely Pas de Deux for the lovers and even a bit of rain music at the end that segues straight into his song "London Pride" complete with chimes. And if I was just hearing this music (save for the last song) without knowing the composer, I would never have guessed it was Coward; one is simply not used to hearing allegros and preludes attributed to him. But I'm delighted to have discovered this additional musical side to him.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Music for November, or what happened when a violin began to play. . .

It's been one of those weeks when I've serendipitously been led up so many wonderful musical paths touching on so many of my current and expanding interests, that it's left me awed and humbled by the emotional power of so many amazing artists.

It's been years since I've attended a concert by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, but I went Wednesday night to hear a programme they were billing as a night of English music. The line-up was "Four Sea Interludes" from Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, Ralph Vaughan Williams' beautiful, beautiful Symphony No. 5 in D Major - both composed during the Second World War - and the North American premiere of Mark-Antony Turnage's violin concerto Mambo, Blues and Tarantella. In honour of Remembrance Day week, I've been listening to Britten's War Requiem, based in part on the poetry of Wilfrid Owen, both on CD and in this interesting, newly released DVD of Derek Jarman's film adaptation, using archival footage and symbolic theatricality all set to Britten's music. The cast is wonderful - Laurence Olivier as an older veteran clutching the photo of a nurse to his chest; Nathanial Parker as Owen, and the luminous Tilda Swinton playing different generations of nurses.

Of the three concert pieces, my favourite was definitely the Vaughan Williams but while I found the Turnage a bit too jarring and not quite my cup of tea, I couldn't help but marvel at the technical artistry required and displayed by the violin soloist Christian Tetzlaff. Someday I would definitely like to see or hear a recording (is there one available out there?) of Turnage's opera based on Sean O'Casey's play, The Silver Tassie - one of my favourite First World War plays. His musical style would definitely suit the play's second act, set on the battlefield and in stark, expressionist contrast to the realism that permeates the rest of the play. His new piece definitely had me yearning to hear more of the violin - is there any better instrument to accompany the melancholy, dark and windy nights of November? I'd forgotten that Roy Thompson Hall has an extremely well-stocked Music Store with very knowledgeable staff and so off I went at intermission to browse. And found some wonderful discs. I'm still on a Weill and Cabaret high and so I picked up Speak Low: Songs by Kurt Weill sung by Anne Sofie Von Otter (which includes a recording of "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" - a song I've been looking for since I first heard it during the Kurt Weill night at the Cabaret Festival) and Ute Lemper's Blood & Feathers: Live from the Cafe Carlyle which is absolutely FANTASTIC! Everything - the incredible singing, the flirtatious banter, the humour - I love, love, love this CD. It has the BEST version I've ever heard of the song "Cabaret" which Lemper turns into a medley infused with bits from Weill's "Mack the Knife", Edith Piaf songs, the odd line from Kander and Ebb's other big musical Chicago, and other songs from Cabaret. The CD also has a terrific Moon Medley where contemporary songs by Van Morrison, Sting, Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits fit perfectly with Weill and Brecht's "Bilbao Song" and Harold Arlen's "It's Only a Paper Moon". And speaking of Tom Waits - I just saw the Tarragon Theatre's incredible and inventive production of Black Rider - the crazy musical collaboration with Waits, Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs. I must get the CD for this as well - loved the songs.

But back to the concert hall's music shop and in the racks, just a finger's tap away from Weill was William Walton. I found a great 1954 recording of Facade - Walton's musical accompaniment to the poems of Edith Sitwell. The poems are read - sometimes at incredible tongue-twisting speed - by Sitwell herself and Peter Pears and they are terrifically funny - a cross between Noel Coward and Gilbert and Sullivan. The CD also includes music from Walton's Henry V with Laurence Olivier doing the key speeches. I'm glad to have them, but for my money, I prefer Christopher Plummer's rendition - his voice is so much richer. And to go off on another tangent (sorry - it's just been one of those rich weeks!), I've recently finished Plummer's memoirs, In Spite of Myself and it's a terrific read - full of naughty stories from the theatre and film worlds, a magical, wistful portrait of a vanished Montreal, and a look at the early days of the Stratford Festival. Plummer is a great writer and very honest about his many vices and arrogant ego, but just as generous to the many people who have helped him in his career. One of the best books I've read all year.

But my ultimate goal was to find some violin music. And so Naxos to the rescue. My final purchase of the evening was a disc called Opera Fantasies for Violin. Just a violin played by Livia Sohn accompanied by Benjamin Loeb on the piano. A lovely CD, including a riff on Bizet's Carmen by Jeno Hubay and my favorite piece, "From My Window" from the opera Ainadamar by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. The story centers around the poet Federico Garcia Lorca who was executed during the Spanish Civil war and the music is haunting and melancholy. Oh, and was this a coincidence or delicious fate? On this CD is also an arrangement of songs from Weill's Threepenny Opera, the violin plucking away at Mack the Knife. I love it!
All my senses have been thrillingly challenged this week. Let the wind howl outside my window and the rain batter down on whatever leaves are still stubbornly clinging to almost barren trees. I shall crank up the Lemper or drown it out with piercing violins.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

The horror, the horror. . .

It's a little late for Hallowe'en, but I've just finished reading this fascinating anthology of horror plays from the early 1920's. London's Grand Guignol and the Theatre of Horror by Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson, charts the two year history (1920-1922) of a company established by José Levy at the Little Theatre, that ran a series of programmes of short plays that aimed to thrill, chill and shock audiences. Inspired by the Parisian Grand-Guignol, these plays - ten out of the forty-three produced, are featured in this book - included comedies about sexual morals and horrific dramas both in subject matter and violent theatrical execution. As the authors write in their introduction, this type of theatre was perfect for a post war audience, "that was eager for thrills and excitement - the artificial, high theatricality of on-stage horror, rather than the devastating reality of the horror that had so recently taken place on the battlefields."

Each night saw four to six of these short plays performed; some were French translations, but many were commissioned from British playwrights. Levy also managed to engage excellent actors - such as Sybil Thorndike and her husband Lewis Casson - who revelled in the variety of plays and their dramatic potential. The book contains chapters thoroughly outlining the history of this company and the plays it produced, its continual struggles with the censors, its critical reception and legacy, and wonderfully describes the type of acting and staging required of this unusual genre. There are also detailed introductions to each of the ten plays.
And the plays themselves are incredibly interesting to read even if the more comic ones have dated somewhat. Such as The Better Half, one of Noel Coward's earliest plays about a wife no longer in love with her husband who sacrifices her marital status, so that he can be with a woman who is. Not very shocking by today's standards, or indeed by the subsequent plays that Coward wrote. However, many of the horror plays are just marvellous in their gruesomeness. In H.F. Maltby's The Person Unknown, a WW1 soldier with bandages covering his "face all blown to hell", comes back to exact the promise sung by Daisy in a popular recruiting song: "We will love you, hug you, kiss you, when you come back home again. . . " She naturally recoils with deadly results. Christopher Holland's The Old Women is a creepy play set in a lunatic asylum and features a particularly graphic ending. My favourite is Eliot Crawshay-Williams' The Nutcracker Suite. In this innovative play, a husband plots revenge on his adulterous wife by contriving to lock her and her lover in a room that he has rigged up as a giant nutcracker with a ceiling that will gradually lower itself until the offending pair are crushed between it and the floor. I would love to see a production of this - the curtain becomes the ceiling with the actors having to react to their shrinking space as it lowers. There's a photograph included from the original performance and just looking at it gives me the shivers.

There are a number of pictures of the great Sybil Thorndike in this anthology and it made me itch to see her act. So I turned to the one DVD movie that I own with her in it - Alfred Hitchcock's 1950 film Stage Fright where she has a small but very funny supporting role opposite Alistair Sim as half of a disdainful, estranged couple. The movie is not one of Hitchcock's best, but is worth watching if only for the luminous shots of Marlene Dietrich and its sneaky ending. And I had forgotten about the opening credits which also imaginatively plays with a theatrical curtain - one that "rises" on the city of London. Had Thorndike been reminiscing with Hitchcock about her Guignol days?

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Passchendaele the film. . .

I saw this movie a week or two ago but wanted to let it sink in a bit before I posted my thoughts on it. I really, really wanted to like it more than I did because I admire Paul Gross's tenacity in getting the film made and what he accomplished on a mere $20 million budget (that's huge in Canadian movie-making terms) is fairly impressive. And it's an important part of Canadian history that deserves to be told and remembered.
Briefly (without giving too much away), the story centers around Michael Dunne, played by Gross, who is invalided out of the trenches suffering from shell shock, and in disgrace after going AWOL following his killing of a young German boy. Back in Calgary, now released from hospital, he is assigned to the recruitment office and he falls in love with his former nurse - the daughter of a German father who fought and died on the other side. When her brother enlists, even though he suffers from asthma, Dunne returns to the war to look after him and the movie ends with their experiences at the Battle of Passchendaele, one of the most horrific battles in terms of conditions and casualties.
So let me start with the good things. There are some incredible shots and beautiful cinematography. Again, given the small budget, the war scenes are some of the best I've ever seen in a WWI film - Gross really captured the mud, the rain, and the endless stretches of churned earth where, in one spectacular overhead shot, it's completely impossible to even see the demarcation of the two lines - it's just one horrific, grey stew of misery. And there's an ugly bit with a rat, but it was effective. I also admired how the script wasn't a one-dimensional story - it touched on a lot of different historical issues including anti-German sentiment on the homefront, the plight of boys not medically fit to fight, but recruited out of desperation as the war dragged on, the "myth" of the crucified Canadian soldier, and the complicated notions of atonement and duty. The acting is solid from the entire cast. The character of Sarah Mann, the nurse (played by Caroline Dhavernas), was wonderfully and sensitively drawn and not just a stereotypical love interest just randomly inserted. And there was one great line spoken by Michael in the trenches. It's pouring rain and mud and he turns to another soldier and says, "do you see any poets in this shit?" This is a good joke as Michael has re-enlisted under the pseudonym of McCrae - Canada's most famous war poet who penned "In Flanders Fields".
So why my reservations? Frustration mostly - because with so many good things going for it, Gross unfortunately resorted to so many cliches that they became extremely distracting. I don't mind a good love story in a war movie. I do object however, to a completely unrealistic and silly consummation scene that is just gratuitous. And the constantly repeated refrain of the film, "There's only one rule - don't die" was grating. I won't spoil the last half hour, but will only add that it's SO laden with over-the-top imagery that it's hard to tell which is the greater burden weighing on the soldiers - the symbolism or their heavy, mud-soaked uniforms and kits. Maybe the problem is that Gross is wearing too many hats - he wrote the script (based on stories from his own grandfather's experiences), directed, starred in, and produced the movie and some critical distance might have helped. Maybe the problem is that he had to do it all in order to get the film made.
Oh, it's worth seeing at least once. I just can't get my mind around how much better the film could have been. It'll be interesting to see if it gets any international releases. I can't see it showing in the U.S. even though the rest of the world has been bombarded with their military films. I can see that there might be some interest in England though. Canadian reviews have been mixed and while the movie isn't breaking any box office records, it seems to be doing respectably and was widely released across the country. I'll probably give it another viewing when it comes out on DVD.

Monday, 3 November 2008

On viewing Brief Encounter for the umpteenth time. . .

What can I say? I just adore this movie, which I've seen dozens of times on television and via DVD (one of the first I ever bought), but never until today on the big screen. What a treat, via Cinematheque's David Lean retrospective. It's just so beautifully filmed. My favourite scene now (it changes at every viewing) is when Laura is travelling back home by train after Alec has declared he loves her ( I have a major crush on Trevor Howard), and she's looking out the window and fantasizing about how their lives might be if they were younger and free. They are clichéd, romantic dreams of waltzing at parties, watching the moonlight on the deck of a ship, escaping to a tropical island etc, but her reflection in the mirror - as Lean films it - looks so beautifully young and hopeful - it's just mesmerizing. As Alec says to her, "you're only middle-aged once" (now my favourite line, perhaps my new mantra!)

And I love that one of the books that originally got me interested in women's writing between the wars, was also inspired by Brief Encounter. Nicola Beauman's A Very Great Profession, originally published in 1983 by Virago and recently reprinted by Beauman's own successful publishing house, Persephone Books, is such a terrific introduction to women's writing of this period. Beauman writes in her introduction that the idea for the book came after seeing the movie on television:

In it the heroine, Laura Jesson, goes into the local town every week to do a bit of shopping, have a café lunch, go to the cinema and change her library book. This is the highlight of her week. It was the glimpse of her newly borrowed Kate O'Brien in her shopping basket that made me want to find out about the other novels [she] had been reading during her life. . .


I kept the picture in my mind of Laura Jesson taking elevenses in the refreshment room of Milford Junction and returning home with her Boots library book. It seemed so strange that an enormous body of fiction should influence and delight a whole generation and then be ignored or dismissed.

Organized into subject headings reflecting the preoccupations of the times such as "War", "Surplus Women", "Feminism", and "Domesticity" and making clear distinctions between "Romance", "Love" and "Sex", the book not only introduces dozens of writers but clearly places them in historical and literary contexts. I have discovered so many great and enjoyable books, both from this critical study and from Persephone Books which I collect. Do take a look at their website and sign up for their lovely newsletter which is free with annual purchases of their books. They are beautifully designed with endpaper reproductions of fabrics from the period in which the book was written or set, and each comes with its own bookmark. I treasure the one from A Very Great Profession which is the photo of Laura with her shopping basket that graced the cover of the Virago edition. In my fantasy bookstore, there would definitely be a whole section devoted just to Persephone Books - I've never read one that I didn't enjoy. My favourites are: William - An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton, Saplings by Noel Streatfeild, Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum, Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll, Manja by Anna Gmeyner and The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby. They've even reprinted a Canadian classic - Ethel Wilson's Hetty Dorval. I just received their latest catalogue and newsletter in the mail and am really looking forward to the spring publication of Nicola Beauman's new book, The Other Elizabeth Taylor - a biography of yet another terrific and unjustly neglected writer.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

A Glamourous Night with Novello. . .

I'm feeling rather wistful this morning. Last night I attended a concert by the Toronto Operetta Society - an evening devoted to the songs of Ivor Novello, many of which I had never heard before. I absolutely adore the music from this period, and Novello's tunes (like Noel Coward's) are so beautiful and romantic and catchy too. Some of the selections such as "And Her Mother Came Too" or "I Can Give You the Starlight", I was familiar with from the soundtrack of the movie Gosford Park where the fetching Jeremy Northam plays Novello and does wonderful renditions of his songs. And on the whole, I think much of Novello's work sounds better sung by men rather than soprano women - the male vocal range seems to suit the style, and the articulation of the lyrics is often improved at a lower octave (although one of the best male singers from last night embarrassingly forgot the words to not one, but two songs and actually had to start one number over again from the beginning. He recovered well but one was worried about him every time he appeared on stage - I think he did a cramming session over the intermission; no flubs in the second act) Still, many of the selections were taken from Novello musicals (Glamourous Night, Perchance to Dream, The Dancing Years) and written specifically for a female soprano and certainly "A Violin Began to Play" or "Love is My Reason" works in that regard. And it doesn't matter who is singing "Keep the Home Fires Burning" or "We'll Gather Lilacs" - hearing those two songs always chokes me up. There were CDs available for sale in the lobby and I bought this compilation sung by soprano Marilyn Hill Smith. It's very enjoyable to listen to, but I'll also be searching out collections recorded in Novello's lifetime.

Novello was also a screen idol, and another of my weekend purchases was The Ultimate Hitchcock Collection - a 6 DVD set of twenty of Hitchcock's earlier works, including many of his silent movies. One of these is 1926's The Lodger - starring Ivor Novello -which I'm really looking forward to viewing as I've never seen any of his films (Novello that is, not Hitchcock). The set also includes the 1928 film of Noel Coward's Easy Virtue which will be fun to compare with the recent version I saw at the Toronto Film Festival. This was a fairly cheap set given how many movies are on it, and so I wasn't surprised to see that the prints are quite grainy and scratchy - Criterions these are not - though they are still easily watchable. And it's filled with tons of interesting stuff I've never seen and which doesn't appear to be available in better quality DVDs. There's a 1930 version of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock (he's one of my favourite Irish playwrights). And 1939's Jamaica Inn, based on Daphne du Maurier's novel is also included. Then there's Secret Agent (1936) based loosely on W. Somerset Maugham's spy novel Ashenden, starring John Gielgud and Peter Lorre. Not to be confused with Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent which is also included under its 1936 film title Sabotage. What a bargain at $25.00 - enough goodies to keep me occupied for weeks.