Category Archives: John Gilbert

Coming Soon on Public TV: THE PASSION OF MISS AUGUSTA

THE PASSION OF MISS AUGUSTA airs on Alabama Public Television Sunday, October 2, at 6 p.m. EST.  The drama/documentary, produced by filmmaker Robert Clem, highlights the life of Augusta Evans Wilson and her best-selling novel, ST. ELMO.  The uniqueness of THE PASSION OF MISS AUGUSTA is that it is structured around two settings: the mid-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century.  The film is a visual smorgasburg of nostalgic landscapes and  imagery.  The story shifts from the 1860s to the 1950s, from black and white to technicolor, from sub-titles to sound.  The theme highlights the changing roles of women and the language of romance during those eras.

If you have the opportunity to see THE PASSION OF MISS AUGUSTA, don’t miss it.  The trailer is a treat in itself.

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Augusta Evans Wilson

THE PASSION OF MISS AUGUSTA goes beyond fiction drawing parelells between Augusta Evans Wilson and the novel’s heroine, “Edna Earl.”

Note: The ST. ELMO novel was made into a silent film in 1923 starring  John Gilbert , my favorite actor.saintelmobookcover-1

 

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ST. ELMO: Book Review

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ST. ELMO, by Augusta Jane Evans, was written in 1866. ST. ELMO was the third bestselling novel (after BEN HUR and UNCLE TOM’S CABIN) in the 19th century, equivalent in popularity to the 20th century novel GONE WITH THE WIND. In fact, according to Margaret Mitchell’s biography, Rhett Butler was modeled after St. Elmo Murray. The book inspired plays and was adapted to film in 1923. The ST. ELMO silent film, starring John Gilbert and Bessie Love, is sadly a lost film.

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John Gilbert in ST. ELMO (Fox, 1923)

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The story begins at the foot of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Today that part of Chattanooga is named after the book.) “Edna Earl” is an orphan of humble means living with her grandfather. Early one morning, Edna stumbles upon a duel in which a man is killed near her home. Having witnessed the duel from beginning to end, she is permanently traumatized by the incident. The victim’s body is laid out in her house. When the victim’s wife comes to see the body, she dies from the shock.

Edna Earl is horrified by the damage that the senseless duel has caused. Meanwhile, Edna adores her grandfather, who is a blacksmith. One day on the way to her grandfather’s shop, she encounters a gruff, arrogant man who is in need of a blacksmith to replace a horse shoe. Edna directs him to her granphotoMA31468942-0002dfather’s shop. The man is impatient, swearing as he waits for her grandfather to finish the job. As the man rides away, Edna’s grandfather says to her: “He is a rude, blasphemous man.” Edna notices that “the rude blasphemous man” drops a book as he rides away in haste. The book is a leather-bound copy of DANTE with the initials SEM inside the flap. Edna learns to treasure the book for its text and illustrations.

When her grandfather dies unexpectedly, Edna tries to make it on her own. Just 13-years-old, she boards a train bound for Georgia. The train wrecks. Many die but Edna survives and is rescued by one of the locals, “Ellen Murray,” a wealthy widow. Edna begins to recover under the widow’s care. The two bond and Mrs. Murray decides to raise the orphan, as if she were her own child. Then, something happens that shatters Edna’s contentment. Mrs. Murray’s son arrives home.

Edna hears his harsh voice in the next room and realizes that he is “the rude blasphemous man” who disrespected her beloved grandfather. She returns his copy of DANTE at the first opportunity, realizing that the initials SEM stand for “St. Elmo Murray.”

Throughout the rest of the novel, Edna Earl is torn between loathing and loving St. Elmo. He’s the Byronic type that women love to loath and loath to love. “He’s like a rattlesnake that crawls in his own track, and bites everything that meddles or crosses his trail.”  But in time, Edna is “disquieted and pained to discover” in “his bronzed face . . . an attraction–an indescribable fascination–which she had found nowhere else.”

The conflict in their relationship stems from the issue of dueling, a common practice in Augusta Evans day. But the sub-theme–feminism vs. anti-feminism–is the theme that catches the modern reader’s attention. When I say “feminism,” I don’t feminism as we define it today. The book was written long before women had the right to vote. So while “Edna Earl” disapproves of women in politics, she believes that men and women are intellectual equals and applauds women with literary careers.

The book is filled with explosive, romantic tension that just won’t quit. The characters are not particularly realistic; instead, they are larger than life, and that’s what makes the book fun to read.  However, ST. ELMO is not easy to read. You will find allusions to mythology mind-boggling at times, but if you like character-driven novels, you won’t be able to put it down. You have to read it more than once to truly appreciate this book. Parts of the book are hilarious, but you might miss the humor the first time around. Much of it is tongue in cheek.

ST. ELMO is enjoying a resurgence of popularity today. Deadra Lore of St. Augustine, Florida, is writing a ST. ELMO study guide that explains the foreign expressions, mythical references, and difficult words peppered throughout the story. Several years ago, filmmaker Robert Clem created a docudrama called “The Passion of Miss Augusta,” which highlights scenes from ST. ELMO and compares the fictional “Edna Earl” with her creator, Augusta Evans. He explores the feminist side of Augusta Evans with riveting drama and insight.

 

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ST. ELMO inspired THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER

 

 

 

When Do Books Need Subtitles?

Before choosing a title for your book, you might want to do an Internet search on the title you have in mind.  Your title may or may not be unique.  Although titles are not copyrighted, you need to make sure that your book isn’t confused with another by the same or similar name.

To be honest, I never thought to “google” the title of my novel.  I knew from the beginning that it would be “The Prince in the Tower.”  I chose the title before (or soon after) I started writing. The title is a reference to the main character, a fictional preacher who happens to be a John Gilbert look-alike.

I got the idea for the title after reading John Gilbert’s biography Dark Star: The Untold Story of the Meteoric Rise and Fall of Legendary Silent Screen Star John Gilbert..  Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, the author, refers to her father as “the prince in the tower” because he lived on Tower Road in Hollywood.

Even after I finished writing “The Prince in the Tower” and had it formatted for Kindle, I still didn’t think to “google” the title.  I had already chosen the subtitle, “A Modern Gothic Romance.”  And it’s a good thing I did.

Once the book was published, I noticed the title was in no way unique.  In fact, “the prince in the tower” or “the princes in the tower” brings to mind the hapless nephews of Richard III.  Check out “The Prince in the Tower” on Amazon.com, and you’ll see what I mean.

Not only did I choose an overused title, but the book cover features the Tower of London where the nephews were  imprisoned.

Fortunately, my subtitle sets the book apart from books under the same heading.  I can even change the subtitle as long I use a different ISBN. Without the subtitle, you can’t be sure if a book like mine is fiction, non-fiction, or historical fiction.

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“The Prince in the Tower” was inspired by him, not them.

“Oxalis” as a Literary Motif

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One of my favorite flowers is oxalis.  I never knew the flower existed until I read about it  in ST. ELMO by Augusta Jane Evans.  In the following paragraph, “Edna Earl” sees the flower and associates it with “St. Elmo Murray,” the man she is trying to resist.

Edna bent over her flowers, and recognizing many favorites that recalled the hothouse at Le Bocage, her eyes filled with tears, and she hastily put her lips to the snowy cups of an oxalis.  How often she had seen just such fragile petals nestling in the buttonhole of Mr. Murray’s coat.  (Page 290, ST. ELMO).

I was thinking about that and other passages in ST. ELMO  when i wrote the following scene between “Effie Beller” and “Gideon Baldwin” on page 69 and 70 of THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER.

“When are you fixing to come home?”

“In a few days.”

“Oh.”  Effie tried to hide her disappointment.  “I hope you’ll have plenty of sunshine at the beach.”

“And delay my return?”

They were standing in the sun room, and he was preparing to leave through the back door.  Impulsively she snatched a spray of oxalis from a ceramic pot and held it up to his lapel.

“What are you doing?”

“I’d like to put some flowers in your buttonhole if you don’t mind.”

“Why?”

“Because you remind me of someone.”

“Who?”

“St. Elmo.”

“I’m not a saint.”

“Neither was he.”  With trembling fingers, she slipped the posy into his buttonhole and started to walk away, but he seized her arm and turned her around.

I brought oxalis into the story again when “Effie’s” antipathy for “Rev. Baldwin” was near its peak:

He crossed the room to his mother’s dresser and returned with a handful of tissues.

As she dried her eyes, she heard him say in a voice unaccountably sweet, “I often forget  how sensitive you are.  You remind me of that dainty flower you gave me when I was leaving for Conference.  What was it?”

“Oxalis.”

“So incredibly small, so easily crushed.  Sometimes you wilt before my eyes and make me wonder what I have said or done to cause it.”  He paused for a moment, waiting for her to compose herself, and added, “Effie Belle.  Despite your belief to the contrary, I am not entirely the ogre conceived in your imagination, and If I can help you in any way–“

Every flower has a special meaning–or so I thought.  I based this belief on a book called “The Poetry of Flowers.” i was sure I could look up oxalis and find a romantic meaning.   However, the flower is not even mentioned in the book.

Some refer to oxalis simply as “clover” or “a creeping weed,” hardly a romantic description of my hallowed plant. Finally, I learned that oxalis is a member of the wood sorrel family.  Wood Sorrel means “Joy” and “maternal tenderness,” and that is an accurate description of the role that oxalis plays in THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER..

Often referred to as “shamrock,” oxalis is easy to find this time of year.  I found two different types of oxalis in a St. Patrick’s Day display at the grocery store.  My favorite is “snowy” oxalis, but you can also find oxalis with purple leaves and lavender flowers or with green leaves and pink flowers.

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Finding Inspiration in “The Merry Widow Waltz”

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THE MERRY WIDOW (MGM, 1925), starring John Gilbert and Mae Murray, inspired the following scene between “Effie Butler” and her guardian, “Reverend Gideon Baldwin,” in Chapter 17 of THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER.

“So tell me about the Confederate ball.”

“Well . . . from what I understand, most of the men are re-enactors, so they’ll be wearing Confederate uniforms, and most of the ladies will be dressed like me.  A band will play period pieces that we can dance to.”

“Can you waltz?”

“No, but I wish I could.”

“What time is your date?”

“Seven-thirty.”

“Good.  I’ll teach you.”

He directed her to the center of the room and rearranged the furniture, clearing space beneath the chandelier.  Then he turned the CD player on and as “The Merry Widow Waltz” began to play, bowed before her.  “May I have this waltz?”

His kingly manner surprised her as she drifted into his arms and waited for him to begin.  Effie tried to concentrate on the steps he was teaching her, but the scent of his aftershave and the touch of his hands were distracting.  In attempting to follow his lead, she tripped over his foot. He laughed, so did she, and they resumed waltzing.

“Where did you learn to waltz, Mr. Baldwin?”

“In high school and my name is Gideon.”  He smiled, revealing a perfect set of teeth, and Effie felt the full force of his magnetism.

Sunsets and Literature

photoMA31367462-0002How can anyone describe something as spectacular as a sunset?   Nothing can take the place of a photograph, can it?  Augusta J. Evans (1835-1909) creates a credible word picture of a sunset on page 116 of ST. ELMO, and the twilight that follows sets the eerie stage for the entrance of the Byronic protagonist “St. Elmo Murray.”.

The sun went down in a wintry sky; the solemn red light burning on the funeral pyre of the day streamed through the undraped windows, flushed the fretted facade of the Taj Mahal, glowed on the marble floor, and warmed and brightened the serene, lovely face of the earnest young student.  As the flame faded in the West, where two stars leaped from the pearly ashes, the fine print of Edna’s book grew dim, and she turned the page to catch the mellow, silvery radiance of the full moon, which shinning low in the east, thew a ghastly lustre on the awful form and floating white hair of the Cimbrian woman on the wall.  But between the orphan and the light, close beside her chair, stood a tall, dark figure, with uncovered head and outstretched hands.

She sprang to her feet, uttering a cry of mingled alarm and delight, for she knew that erect, stately form and regal head could only belong to one person.

“Oh, Mr. Murray!  Can it be possible that you have indeed come home to your sad desolate mother?  Oh!  For her sake, I am so glad!”

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It’s no secret that Augusta J. Evans is my favorite novelist and that ST. ELMO inspired me to write THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER.

Every Writer Needs Inspiration

 CREATE AN ATMOSPHERE CONDUCIVE TO WRITING

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Writing fiction begins with setting the stage.  The props are photographs, scented candles, and whatever-it-takes to minimize daily distractions and whisk you away to never-never land.

When I was writing THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER, I lit a rose-scented candle and kept a photo of my favorite actor in front of me, but I needed more.  So I added a sound track.  A novel, like a movie, needs a sound track, although no one will hear it but the writer. 

Steven Curtis Chapman, 4 Him, Jars of Clay, Burt Bacharach, Sting, and many other composers contributed to the soundtrack of my imaginary “film.”  Songs like “Call Me Irresponsible,” “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “The Look of Love,” “Prologue,” “Blind,” and “Head Over Heels” inspired many scenes.

Props and music help, but nothing inspires me like visiting the places I want to write about.

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