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Project Hamlet

Altman and Fellowes do "Upstairs Downstairs" and Dame Agatha – or do they?

Gosford Park: The Shooting Script - Julian Fellowes, Robert Altman

Well, strictly speaking they don't of course – Robert Altman, in particular, never simply tags onto an established genre; he plays with it and makes it his own by turning it upside down. So, while the idea for "Gosford Park" may have been inspired by murder mysteries "Christie style" and by the likes of "Brideshead Revisited" and the BBC series about the Bellamy's Eaton Square household, we leave familiar territory the moment we enter the estate ... through the servants' entrance; for although large parts of the action take place "upstairs," it is manifestly told from a "downstairs" perspective.

Academy Award-winningly scripted by Julian Fellowes (himself a descendant of British nobility and therefore able to draw on manifold personal insights in creating the movie's characters), "Gosford Park" is primarily an examination of the unquestioningly accepted rules of the early 1930s' British class society: where, beset by primogeniture and a lifestyle often beyond their means, an aristocrat's daughters and younger sons were compelled to marry rich to maintain their expected standard of living – making a marriage for love much less desirable than one for money, even to a disliked spouse, and a marriage for love almost akin to a crime if not combined with wealth –; where servants were a necessary element of the aristocracy's life, even if largely treated as non-persons, banished to the basement and not even allowed to speak if not spoken to when called upstairs by virtue of their duties (notwithstanding the almost friendly relationship often existing between members of the two classes outside the public eye); where the perfect servant's existence was a life so unrealized that it often resulted in an overbearing interest in all aspects of his employer's life and in a precise emulation of the latter's prejudices, standards and pecking orders; where nevertheless domestic service was an important finishing school, especially for girls, frequently employed as early as at 12 or 14 years of age; where both "upstairs" and "downstairs" the greatest transgression against social etiquette was the causation of any kind of scene, as nothing was to be talked about as if it were truly important – requiring an immediate return to form if a breach of decorum had occurred after all ... and where minute behavioral patterns such as a person's habits in pouring milk for his tea unfailingly exposed him as a member of one particular class, try as he might to associate himself with another. Yet, for all its observations, "Gosford Park" never judges: it takes each of its characters, and the entire unspoken "upstairs-downstairs" class arrangement at face value, leaving it up to its viewers to determine themselves what to make thereof.

 

Read more on my website, ThemisAthena.info.

Preview also posted on Leafmarks.

 


 

A Selection of Favorite Quotes

Henry Denton: You Brits really don't have a sense of humor do you?
Elsie: We do if something's funny, sir.

 

"Bought marmalade? Oh dear, I call that very feeble."

 

"Do you think he's the murderer?"
"It's worse than that – he's an actor!"

 

"If there's one thing I don't look for in a maid, it's discretion. Except with my own secrets, of course."

 

Lady Sylvia McCordle: Mr Weissman – Tell us about the film you're going to make.
Morris Weissman: Oh, sure. It's called "Charlie Chan In London". It's a detective story.
Mabel Nesbitt: Set in London?
Morris Weissman: Well, not really. Most of it takes place at a shooting party in a country house. Sort of like this one, actually. Murder in the middle of the night, a lot of guests for the weekend, everyone's a suspect. You know, that sort of thing.
Constance: How horrid. And who turns out to have done it?
Morris Weissman: Oh, I couldn't tell you that. It would spoil it for you.
Constance: Oh, but none of us will see it.

 

Constance: Tell me, what happened to William's little maid? I never saw her again after that dinner.
Mary Maceachran: Elsie? – She's gone.
Constance: Oh, it's a pity, really. I thought it was a good idea to have someone in the house who is actually sorry he's dead.

 

Morris Weissman [on the phone, discussing casting for his movie]: What about Claudette Colbert? She's British, isn't she? She sounds British. Is she, like, affected or is she British?