The Pleasure Of Being “Indiscreet”

The discovery of the remains of the Palace of Greenwich – where Henry VIII. Mary I, and Elizabeth I were all born – has caused great excitement in the archaeology world over the last couple of days. I should say it’s caused a great buzz, since most news reports are focused on the discovery of an area in which it is believed that the Royal bees were kept for making honey. Originally called the Palace of Placentia, it was the primary London-area residence of the Tudors, beginning with Henry VII in the 15th century, who significantly expanded the Plantagenet palace which stood on the site. The Tudor residence was torn down by the Stuart monarch Charles II in the late 17th century, as he intended to build himself a vast new palace on the site – which, as it turned out, was never completed.

If you’ve been to London, you know that today the site is mostly occupied by a group of singular buildings: the Queen’s House, a small royal residence by the English classical architect Inigo Jones, and the grand Old Royal Naval College, a joint effort by three of England’s most important Baroque architects: Sir Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hakwsmoor, and Sir John Vanbrugh. The most famous feature of the latter is its Painted Hall, which features a vast ceiling and wall paintings by Sir James Thornhill. Thornhill’s work celebrates the anti-Catholic effort to overthrow the Stuart Dynasty, spearheaded by the Dutch Protestant William of Orange and his English wife Mary – a repulsive, whinnying horse of a woman, who betrayed her father in order to get herself a nicer throne. As propaganda pieces ago, it really is over the top:

Thornhill

Coincidentally, over the weekend I happened to catch one of my favorite films, “Indiscreet” (1958), starring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, which has an interesting connection to this hall at Greenwich.

Someone once described “Indiscreet” as a “soufflé of a movie”, which is an entirely accurate description. It doesn’t have a particularly high rating on most movie rating sites, probably because it’s a piece of entertainment that is meant exclusively for grownups – and perhaps somewhat sophisticated grownups at that. If you appreciate subjects such as art, ballet, currency policy, fashion, international politics, and theatre, brought together in the form of an unsung operetta – complete with plot devices such as disguises, jealousy, mistaken identity, romantic escapades, and the tinge of social scandal, all topped off by a memorable musical score – this is the film for you.

There are two critically important scenes in the film which were shot on location in the Painted Hall. These days location shots like this would not cause us to bat an eyelid, since they have become commonplace, but at the time they enormously increased the costs of production. This is particularly the case in “Indiscreet” given that, in both scenes, the Painted Hall played host to events that required hundreds of very well-dressed extras.

The first scene at Greenwich is a sequence in the early part of the film in which Bergman, invited at the last minute to a white tie dinner lecture where Grant is to be the guest speaker, begins to become infatuated with him. As you can see here, although he is supposed to be talking about post-war currency integration, which with hindsight we realize is a distillation of some of the main talking points in favor of the creation of what is now the Euro, he is perhaps more interested in his dinner partner than in the gold standard.

Grant

Similarly, Bergman doesn’t know a thing about international finance, and yet you would think she was listening to one of the best speeches she has ever heard.

Bergman

The second scene shot in the Painted Hall comes close to the climax of the film, when the two return to Greenwich for a formal dinner dance. It gives you the very rare cinematic sight of two of Hollywood’s most famous stars dancing together for quite a good length of time – something which Bergman herself very rarely did on film. While the two dance somewhat conventionally for part of the scene, Grant is given the opportunity to show off his slapstick skills – he trained as an acrobat before appearing in Vaudeville, something which many people forget – to great effect. Unfortunately what he doesn’t realize at this point in the film is that Bergman has discovered an important secret that he’s been hiding from her, which explains the annoyed expression on her face.

Grant2

Whether you’ve seen the Painted Hall at Greenwich or not, seeing “Indiscreet” is well-worth the effort. It captures a time in Western history in which we aspired to be something more than what we are – and something more, in fact, than what we have now become. I think you’ll find it a wonderful slice of light, enjoyable escapism for a Saturday night.

I’ve Got Opinions (Here Are A Few)

It’s a curious sensation when you realize that you have become permanently linked with certain topics in the minds of other people.

Not infrequently, I get pinged regarding stories making their way around the interwebz, by readers who automatically associate me with the subject matter of the reporting – Renaissance altarpieces, Catalan cuisine, the planet Krypton, etc. There’s an expectation that I’ll have an opinion worth sharing on the story, whatever it may be. It’s incredibly humbling that you want to know what that opinion is, gentle reader, when far better writers than I do not get nearly as much support: so thank you for your continued patronage.

Here comes a brief potpourri of links and opinions for you to have a think about today. As it happens, all of the following stories are courtesy of readers who asked me about these subjects, or tagged me in posts about them. So as you can see, I really am paying attention, most of the time.

– There’s no news yet on any results from the exhumation and paternity test conducted on the remains of the late Salvador Dalí, which took place last week. News reports indicate that when his coffin was opened, the artist’s legendary mustache was found to still be intact and in place, nearly two decades after his death. Tests are currently being carried out by forensic pathologists in Madrid. I’m withholding judgment until the scientists and courts reach a conclusion, but you can guess my opinion about this whole thing given what I wrote previously.

– A fire in Normandy destroyed 182 objects and an entire wing of the Tatihou Island Maritime Museum (“Musée maritime de l’île Tatihou”, pictured below) – including three paintings on loan from The Louvre. The blaze was most likely sparked by two lighting strikes during intense summer storms. Estimates put the value of the lost works at somewhere north of $1.3 million. However institutions like that of the Maritime Museum on Tatihou and their holdings carry far greater worth than their intrinsic value would suggest, since these objects tell the preserved history of their communities. If you have such collections in your area, please go support them – they need your assistance to survive and thrive for future generations.

– Meanwhile in the Las Vegas ‘burbs, a hideous structure called Holy Spirit Catholic Church will soon be open so that everyone can come in and play “Tabernacle Hide-and-Seek”, that favorite Spirit of Vatican II game. About the only thing that’s marginally interesting about this church are its tapestries, from the same artist who designed the tapestries for the Taj Mahoney, a.k.a. the monstrosity known as the Cathedral of Los Angeles. (I’ve not made up my mind about his work yet: are they good, or are they just kitsch?) On the whole, the interior looks like a day spa in space as imagined by Roger Vadim, where one could have a seaweed wrap while listening to some Zen Buddhist chant piped through the sound system. But who am I to judge.

[N.B. Interestingly, another new parish named for St. Anthony of Padua opened in suburban Las Vegas last year, and while I can’t say that I love it, exactly, at least it looks like a Catholic church, and one that takes reverence for both the Blessed Sacrament and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass seriously.]

DC’s Underground “Cathedral” To Be Revealed

One of the most iconic structures in America may be about to reveal its hidden depths to the public.

The Lincoln Memorial, which opened to the public in 1922, is well-known to anyone who has visited the Capital or seen it on film. It was designed by architect Henry Bacon (1866-1924), working with his frequent collaborator, sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931). As a monument to one of our greatest Presidents, it stands as a singularly impressive piece of architecture at the western end of the National Mall here in Washington. As a public gathering place, its steps have served as a podium for significant historic events, such as soprano Marian Anderson’s legendary performance of 1939, or Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963.

The building has long served as a backdrop in popular films and television, as well, from “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” to “Forest Gump”. Clint Eastwood and Rene Russo sat on its steps eating ice cream at the end of 1993’s “In The Line Of Fire” for example. Mark Wahlberg came upon an unpleasant surprise there at the conclusion of the 2001 remake of “The Planet Of The Apes”, where director Tim Burton chose to play with the monumental sculpture of Abraham Lincoln, rather than the Statue of Liberty, as had been the case in the 1968 original.

What most people do not know however, is that this massive Greek temple – Doric on the outside, Ionic on the inside – sits atop an equally massive foundation which is, if not as impressive as the structure which it supports, nevertheless a work of wonder in itself. The undercroft, as this area is known, has been described as a “cathedral-like” space, and with good reason. Rising to three stories in height at its highest point, what is essentially a concrete basement has some rather grand passages, that would look perfectly at home in one of the dwarf kingdoms in “The Lord of the Rings”:


Thanks to a gift from philanthropist David Rubenstein, who wants to see the Lincoln Memorial fully restored for its 100th birthday in 2022, the National Park Service is now planning to rehabilitate this underground space in order to expand the useable footprint of the building. Currently a warren of crisscrossing pipes, electrical conduits, and – presumably – rat holes, the hope is that the undercroft could be reconfigured to permit areas for exhibition space and visitor facilities. This would hopefully allow the main floor of the building, which houses the monumental statue of President Lincoln, to be freed from the ignominy of pedestrian things such as a gift shop.

In order for this to happen, a number of bodies charged with preserving DC’s historic buildings will need to give approval, and that is no small thing. Previous attempts to make use of this invisible, wasted space have been shot down before. Yet given the new underground visitors centers at the Capitol (currently open) and the Vietnam Memorial (opening in 2020), it is not hard to imagine that a similar solution may be forthcoming for the Lincoln Memorial.

Filmmakers should not get too excited however: as of 2017, filming from within the Memorial is currently banned, and presumably that ban would extend to any basement rehab, as well.