From Sunset Boulevard to New England

DATELINE: Gloria Swanson’s Late Career as Artist

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This year’s holiday treat was to discover a 1974 painting done by legendary screen actress Gloria Swanson, hanging in the parlor not far from our Thanksgiving dinner table.

If you recall, Miss Swanson made one of the all-time comebacks in movies when she starred in 1950 with William Holden in Billy Wilder’s classic tale of Gothic Hollywood, called Sunset Boulevard.

Her final scene remains chilling and pathetic, as she descends the grand staircase of her old Hollywood Hills home in final madness and tells the director, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”

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Who knew that nearly 25 years later, Norma Desmond was painting acrylic oil scenes as a hobby?

We encountered her 1974 rendition of an old, faded gray barn on this holiday 43 years after she painted it, hanging proudly in the home of an art collector and movie fan where we enjoyed an invitation to dinner.

How intriguing that the creative juices of Swanson, a macrobiotic diet advocate, emerged from this sad landscape. It is a giant picture, three feet in height and four feet across. The colors are muted, like a silent movie depiction.

Dilapidated in the snow, fallen in disrepair and probable despair, the old barn stands proudly alone. Its carriage door is ajar, broken open, letting whatever creature wanders by to enter its cold and empty interior.

It seemed to us to be a place along the “Road Not Taken,” that lovely poem by Robert Frost who lived a few miles away in New Hampshire. Miss Swanson presents us with a scene that comes right of out Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (which was also set a few miles away, in fictional Grover’s Corners).

Miss Swanson’s picture, painted while she lived in New York, a dozen years before she passed away, now has a special place in the home of a long-time fan. We think she would be happy to hear how much this work from the last days of her life, largely unknown, is appreciated.

We felt privileged to stand before it to reflect on life and the passage of time.

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Scarecrow Festival for Halloween

 DATELINE:  Jaffrey, NH, the Real Grovers’ Cornersscarecrow2

Around this time each year, small-town Americana in the location of Jaffrey, New Hampshire, holds its Halloween Scarecrow contest.

For one month, residents line up a series of ghoulish scarecrows along the intersection at the center of town, not far from the bandstand and the old White’s Mill that was owned by the famous Massachusetts family that once lived on Old Mill Circle across the state line.

The homemade scarecrows of Jaffrey are judged by a committee during the fall festival, but while they hang on their crosses, it is vaguely reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s horror scene at the end of Spartacus when the road to Rome is lined with crucified slaves.

This mishmash of creatures resembles all kinds of people and are equally distracting and disturbing, but within the fun of the Halloween season.

In our opinion, Jaffrey is the real inspiration for Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our

Town. He called his little NH town on the Massachusetts border, Grovers’ Corners.

Some think it is north of Jaffrey in Peterborough, where Wilder lived his summers. Indeed, arty Peterborough even has a plaque to honor itself, but the more modest Jaffrey better fills the bill.

Wilder makes up some coordinates, longitudes and latitudes are off deliberately as the author tried to obscure his inspiration for the setting of Our Town. And, besides, the railroad of 1910 ran over the border in local Winchendon, not far from Jaffrey, and is featured in the play.

You won’t convince us that the place where the scarecrows roost is not Grovers’ Corners where a gothic cemetery scene highlights the 1938 play. The scarecrows are a recent tradition, but make Jaffrey the best bet as Grovers’ Corners.

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Our Town Too Close for Comfort

DATELINE:  Thorton Wilder Classic

the deadDoro Mirande, Fay Bainter, and Martha Scott, stand out among the dead.

With music by Aaron Copland and set design by William Cameron Menzies, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town of 1940 is an emotional wallop, despite Hollywood’s interfering new-fangled ending. It’s the sort of thing that gave Hollywood a black eye for years.

Once the staple of high school reading lists, Our Town has fallen out of favor being the work of a dead white guy. Of course, that was the point of the play: but we now agree that Our Town is wasted on anyone young. And wisdom is never an easy lesson.

If you are beyond middle-age, seeing this again will be chilling. Instead of a homespun tale of Americana, this is a cynical and downbeat tale of birth, life, and death.

Though it starts out with amusing details of a 17-year old boy (William Holden, looking adolescent) and his next door girlfriend Martha Scott, as George and Emily. Set in 1901 until 1913, it seems like a quaint Mayberry in New England story.

Grover’s Corners was fictional, of course, set on the border of New Hampshire. Well, that’s where we live now—which certainly gave us pause. We are in the midst of the world of Our Town (exteriors filmed nearby). Wilder wrote the play while staying in Peterborough at the writers’ colony.

The setting feels more like Rindge or Jaffrey, NH, than artsy Peterborough.

The final third of the film takes place in the graveyard, brilliantly depicted with the dead (most of the cast) standing in solitary, morose fashion. It is a frightful depiction of what death means, and what life becomes.

According to this story, you have one day to re-live, as a ghost in time travel. These are trendy concepts today, let alone in pre-World War II America.

The ghosts debate that you should choose the most unfortunate day to re-live because happy times will be unbearable.

Performances are powerful—realistic and distressing. This is not a story for young people, but in 30 years they may be drawn to the play’s extraordinary insights, even those scornful diverse young critics of today.

Death is a great equalizer. The film is not tragic, only whimsical.