Thursday, November 23, 2017

Hillwood Mansion Part I

Marjorie Merriweather Post was the heir to Postum Cereal Company which eventually turned into Post Consumer Brands. She lived from 1887 to 1973. In addition to having a central roll at the company, she also collected French and Russian art and was a generous benefactor to many charities. She also had three homes, one of which is Hillwood Estate in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. She bought the property in 1955 as her "Spring and Fall" home (she had a home in Florida for the winters and another in upstate New York for the summers). She made many expansions and additions before moving in. After her death, the home and the art therein became a place for future generations to enjoy and learn from. Her will specified that it be turned into a museum.

We visited the home in October 2017, and naturally started our visit at the visitor's center.

Visitor's Center, Hillwood Estate

Bust and quote of Marjorie Merriweather Post

Picture of Marjorie

After paying our entry fee, we received self-guided audio recordings which are much easier than being on a guided tour when you have kids of varying ages and interests.

The mansion is approached by a circular driveway, the way that visitors would have come back in the hayday of the estate. A winged statue of Eros greets the vehicles and pedestrians.

The mansion


By the entrance to the house are some statues of dogs. Marjorie had a succession of pet dogs, some of whom are buried in the pet cemetery out back (which we will visit in a future post about the gardens).

Petting one of the dogs

The entrance, slightly eclipsed by shrubbery

The entry hall makes a great impression with a two-story ceiling and multiple paintings from 1700s France and Imperial Russia (1800s to early 1900s).

Stairs dominated by Catherine the Great's portrait

Rock crystal chandelier

A woven Russian portrait

An 18th century chest of drawers!

Just around the corner is a powder room where female guests refreshed themselves.

Ladies' Powder Room

Down a side hall is a wet bar that serves the Pavilion, an addition made in 1957 to help Marjorie entertain guests.

Unassuming wet bar

Very assuming pavilion

The room includes a balcony with theater seating. The seating is appropriate since the room has a projector in the balcony along with cleverly hidden speakers and a drop down screen. After dinner, guests could enjoy a movie! The couches even have drink and snack trays built-in.

Balcony with wet bar below

Snack-ready couch

Nesting tables

As with the rest of the house, works of art are also sprinkled in among the other finery.



The French Drawing Room is another area that saw a lot of guests and party goers. As the name suggests, the room is dominated by art works and decorations from late 1700s France. The "windows" are really curtained double doors that were opened out onto the French garden, expanding the space.

French Drawing Room

Fireplace with portrait of Empress Eugenie (wife of Napoleon III)

Close up of the fire place

Bleu celeste Sevres porcelain

Roll top desk with monogram "MA"--maybe Marie Antoinette?

Linking the Pavilion and the French Drawing Room is the Russian Porcelain Room, set-up from the 1950s to display Marjorie's collection. The drawers underneath the cabinets have information about the displayed items, allowing visitors both in Marjorie's day and today to learn more. The floor inlay with a double-headed eagle is a symbol of Russia.

Russian Porcelain Room

Floor inlay symbolizing Russia

Double-headed eagle in the dishware

Also connected to the Russian Porcelain Room is the Icon Room, which showcases sacred art objects from Imperial Russia. The highlights here are the Imperial Easter Eggs crafted by Carl Faberge's firm. Czar Alexander III gave his wife a specially commissioned Easter egg each year beginning in 1885. His son Nicholas II continued the tradition for his mom into the 1900s, though he also gave an egg each year to his wife.

Icon Room

Gilt icons

Three teaching saints

Faberge eggs

The first floor library is a more intimate room, used to entertain friends and family. It has a model of the yacht "Sea Cloud" which Marjorie loaned to the U.S. Navy in World War II.

First floor library

More of the library

The dining room is large and spacious, with oak paneling from a Parisian home built in the 1700s. The table has several leaves, one of which is on display to show off the fine craftsmanship.

Dining room

Table leaf

Dining room fireplace

A side table

A breakfast room juts out from the dining room and provides a more intimate and casual space for lunches and dinners. The audio-guide told us that Grape-nuts were served at every breakfast, a nod to Marjorie Post's company.

Breakfast room

Breakfast dishes

More of the house in the next post!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Movie Review: Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers on a Train (1951) directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Two men meet accidentally on a train. Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is a minor tennis star planning a political career after tennis. Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) is a chatty socialite with lots of ideas but little execution. He feels held back by his father, a rich man who ought to be giving Bruno full freedom rather than expecting him to work. He's so frustrated, Bruno wishes his father was dead. Bruno has read about Guy and knows quite a bit--Guy is dating a senator's daughter but still hasn't finalized a divorce with his current wife, who has been running around on Guy. Guy demurs about whether he is angry enough to kill his wife. Bruno pulls out one of his ideas to solve both their problems--they should swap murders! Bruno could kill Guy's wife and he would never be suspected because he has no motive. Guy could kill Bruno's father and also be free and clear. Guy is clearly uncomfortable with the conversation but humors Bruno until Guy gets off the train. He assumes Bruno is kidding around.

But Bruno isn't--he kills the wife and then starts pestering Guy to keep "his end of the bargain." Guy has a slim alibi for his wife's murder and plenty of motive, so the cops are all over him. Guy can't tell the true story to the police because Bruno will just say that they planned it together. How can he get out of an ever worsening situation?

Hitchcock puts together a top-notch thriller. The premise is a bit far-fetched but it plays out fairly logically and viewers get swept up into Guy's predicament. He tries to keep his girlfriend and her family out of it but Bruno becomes more insistent and starts invading their lives as well. Walker gives a great performance as Bruno, at times goofily earnest and at other times intensely menacing. The murder takes place at an amusement park and the big finale comes back to the amusement park. Both scenes deliver lots of tension and excitement. While not his most famous movie, this one is still quintessential Hitchcock.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Book Review: Alfred Hitchcock by Patrick McGilligan

Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

Alfred Hitchcock is a director whose name and appearance are instantly recognizable. Few moviemakers who spend their time behind the cameras are so famous. Perhaps it's because Hitchcock also came in front of the camera. He had cameos in almost all of his movies (of which he made fifty-three). More significantly, he hosted a TV anthology show called Alfred Hitchcock Presents where he made introductory and closing comments, often filled with self-deprecating (and sometimes sponsor-deprecating) humor. Movies like Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, and Rear Window are often cited in top 100 movies of all time lists.

He was born in 1899 to a greengrocer in the outskirts of London. The family had several shops and were prosperous enough to afford good schools. Hitchcock's first break in the movies was in the silent era. He designed the intertitle cards at fledgling movie studios. His meticulous nature, willingness to put in extra hours, and ambition for more soon led him to directing and writing. He had his first big hit with The Lodger in 1926. He went to Hollywood in the 1930s where he had a challenging time dealing with studio executives like David O. Selznick and with the Production Code. His movies often revolve around crime, psychology, and sex. He pushed boundaries where he could and became quite adept at "playing the game" of negotiating with the studio bureaucracies and the Production Code censors. As a filmmaker, he meticulously planned movies, often having several successive screenwriters polish and refine scripts to the point where Hitchcock had every camera move and angle planned out ahead of time. His hard work paid off as he eventually became a co-owner of Universal Studios and developed more, if not complete, freedom in making movies. He died in 1980.

This biography goes into great detail about his life, focusing mostly on his film career. Like many other director biographies, this book goes from film to film, describing the pre-production phase, the shooting of the film, and the critical and box-office reception for the films. The stories are interesting and fans of Hitchcock like me will have fun seeing the different ideas Hitchcock had for casting and for plot developments. His personal relationships with stars, studio executives, and writers is given in detail. Anecdotal evidence could show that Hitchcock was hard on his actresses, sometimes even abusively so in order to get the performances he wanted. This book tells the stories of when he did do that and when he didn't. He got along with some people quite well. The book also delves into his sexual obsessions (though he hardly ever acted on), almost too often for my taste, though such obsessions clearly resonated in his movies. McGilligan paints an honest picture of the man, not just a rehash of his public persona and famous anecdotes.

Recommended, especially for Hitchcock fans. It is 800+ pages, so be ready for a deep dive.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Book Review: Fairy Tail Vol. 15 by Hiro Mashima

Fairy Tail Volume 15 by Hiro Mashima

The Battle of Fairy Tail continues as Laxus' small cadre of wizards, the Thunder Legion, has been defeated. He has to enter the fray himself, though few of the Fairy Tail wizards are left. Heavy hitters Natsu, Erza, Mystogan, and Gajeel are still up for more fighting. They have to contend with Laxus's lightening magic and his Thunder Palace--a set of 300 small orb encircling the town of Magnolia which threaten to release an electricity attack on the town if the Fairy Tail people can't stop them in time.

The fights are exciting and they have a lot of kung fu-type sparring along with the magical strikes. I am impressed that the battles get more and more epic as the story goes along. You'd think a limit would eventually be hit but Mashima manages to squeeze out more as he goes. He puts in a little character development and some new mysteries as well, so there's plenty to enjoy.

The book includes a side story, "Natsu and the Dragon's Egg," which is very similar to one of the filler episodes on the anime series. The other typical supplements are provided.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Movie Review: Baby Driver (2017)

Baby Driver (2017) written and directed by Edgar Wright

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver who's in debt to a crime boss (Kevin Spacey) and is about to pay off that debt with one last job. He's the best driver in Atlanta and has always come through for the boss. But he also looks forward to being out of the obligation, especially since he's met a cute waitress (Lily James) with whom he hopes to make the ultimate getaway.

With all these cliches, Baby does have one thing going for him--he has tinnitus, a constant ringing in his ear from a childhood accident. To get rid of the noise, he constantly listens to music on iPods, often using the music as inspiration or motivation in his driving...or walking....or whatever he's doing in life. In the hands of director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim), this idea becomes the central conceit and artistic muse of the movie. Every car chase (and there are plenty) is set to music, along with foot chases, dramatic scenes, and comic moments. The film is not just edited to the music. Often long tracking shots also sync up with the beats and the lyrics of the songs. Visually, the movie is amazing.

The story is a bit formulaic but the cast makes the most of it. Even when they are cliched, the characters are still interesting and do have occasional moments to step up and be more human and more individual. There's nothing really deep in the movie, but it is very entertaining and well put together.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

TV Review: Doctor Who: The Ark in Space (1975)

Doctor Who: The Ark in Space (1975) written by Robert Holmes and directed by Rodney Bennett

The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) materializes the TARDIS on a space station orbiting the Earth in the far distant future. The Doctor explores with his companions Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry (Ian Marter), only to discover the station is deserted (except for thousands of people in cryogenic sleep) and apparently sabotaged. The Doctor makes some repairs which activates the security, causing complications. Also, the repairs start the revival sequence for the humans on board. They've been set aside to avoid an apocalyptic disaster on Earth, though they should have been revived centuries ago. The problem is the Wirm, a parasitic intergalactic species that landed on the station a long time ago and is now attempting to take over all the humans. Can the Doctor and his companions save humanity?

The story has a slow start (the first of the four episodes is almost dispensable) but picks up speed as it goes along. One of the revived humans, the station's commander who is nicknamed Noah (hence the "ark"), gets infected and becomes the main villain, though he struggles to maintain his humanity even as he slowly transforms into a Wirm. The special effects are low-budget (the aliens are actors covered in green bubble wrap!) and are, at best, less convincing to contemporary eyes. The commander's struggles against transformation are overacted and also less satisfying (and there's a weird edit that's explained in the supplemental material on the DVD). Even so, his character has an interesting arc that isn't as obvious as it seems. The ultimate resolution isn't surprising but is satisfying.

Tom Baker is in top form as the Doctor. He combines the intelligence and arrogance with a sense of wonder and admiration of humans that makes him an inspirational hero. He hardly ever resolves his problems with fighting (either fisticuffs or laser guns). Often the show lets the companions do that stuff. Baker is charming and odd, with plenty of eccentricity and cleverness to see the situation through.

Recommended, though be sure to make allowances for 1970s BBC visual effects.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Fort McHenry 2017

We visited Fort McHenry again (see our last visit here) and managed to see some new stuff. We were happy that we arrived early enough to participate in the flag ceremony. Every morning at 10:00 and evening at 4:00 the flags are changed and visitors can assist. During the day they display a replica of the original flag from the battle. Overnight, they have a smaller, regular flag with lights on it (because the flag is supposed to be lit after dark).

Unfolding the big flag

Base of the flag pole

Slowly hoisting it 

Two flags pass each other

Almost at the top

We walked around the pathway on the fort and admired the defensive cannons.

Cannons defending the mouth of Baltimore Harbor

"Whoa, this is serious!"

View of the pathways

From the pathways, the flag in the fort looks mighty impressive.

Viewing our work

We weren't at the fort with the Cub Scouts, so we were free to wander. My children were interested in the ammunition magazines that circle the fort. In between the guns are mounds of buried rooms where ammunition was stored to be both convenient to the guns and safe from being blown up by incoming fire. We tried to go in a couple of the magazines but didn't see much.

One of the ammo storage areas

Little more than an entrance

We did go through some of the buildings and see what life was like at the fort. The officers' mess was set up for a meal, though the room was also the sleeping quarters as well as the dining room!

A meal fit for an officer circa 1814

The interior magazine holds a lot of simulated gunpowder, which the children enjoyed seeing.

Gunpowder reserve

Just outside the magazine is one the the cannon balls from the bombardment two hundred years ago!

British cannon ball

Checking out the spare cannons

The next area had displays on the history of the fort, including Major George Armistead's request for a larger flag: "We have no suitable ensign to display over the Star Fort, and it is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance." The new flag was 30 feet high and 42 feet long. The smaller "storm flag" was only 17 by 25 feet!

Checking out Maj. Armistead

Reading flag trivia

Nicer officer quarters

In one of the fort's entryways the children discovered a small passage that sneaks around. It's not so impressive in this picture but we were amazed when a child went in the small hole and came out the back hole.

Secret passage!

We packed a picnic lunch and enjoyed eating it so much that we forgot to take pictures from the Seawall Trail out on the water's edge of the park. Maybe next time!