It’s a bleary day for me, as I was up far too late living the glamorous life of an “extra” on a TV show filming here. More or less, I showed up, was dressed by professionals in clothing much more frumpy than my own, then waited and waited until I was used in a scene, where I stood near a computer workstation and pretended to fill out a form. I was playing a nerd who works in a sort of lab, and since in real life, I am a nerd who works in a sort of lab, it was a pretty easy job. Also, I can fill the heck out of some forms, you guys.
It was a lot of fun, a cool reason to get out of the house for a while, and I also got more experience on an actual bigger-budget set. In addition, in about six weeks I’ll have the ability to look at the finished product and know I had a small, small (we’re talking microscopic, here) part in helping it come together.
This seems like a great time to segue into talking about another book, and today it’s Noel Streatfeild’s The Painted Garden. This book is also known as Movie Shoes in the US, but I’ve never liked that title. I mean, I get the whole “shoes” thing for linking Streatfeild’s books, but I’m not really sure what a “movie shoe” is, unless it’s something like that hideous grandma number I wore last night (and that was more of a “TV shoe,” technically). So I’m going to call this book The Painted Garden.
The story is about three British siblings, the Winter children, who take a extended family vacation of sorts to the US, where the black-sheep-middle-child, Jane, lands the starring role of Mary in a film of The Secret Garden. Do I need to tell you how much 10 year old me would be frothing at the mouth at that fantastic premise? Kids, all you have to do is go to Hollywood and BAM! You’re discovered and you’re playing the lead. Yeah, baby!
In usual Streatfeild style, the other children in the family are also interested in developing their careers in the arts–the oldest girl, Rachel, is a dancer, while the youngest child, Tim, is a talented pianist. It’s worth noting that this book is one of the three Streatfeild novels in which the Fossil sisters from Ballet Shoes appear. An older Posy Fossil helps Rachel find a dance teacher and cheers her up when she’s not cast in a film, while Pauline Fossil, now a glamorous young movie star, confesses that she despises working in the movies and longs for the day when she can return to the legitimate theater (please say this with the appropriate nose-in-air tone) and play cool roles like Lady MacBeth. Fun! When the Fossils hear about the Winter children’s struggles with funding their artsy ventures, they laugh in sympathy. “Oh, Garnie, isn’t she like us!” says Pauline. Streatfeild apparently doesn’t mind calling attention to the fact that she repeats the same themes and characters over and over in her novels, but that’s okay–we don’t mind, either.
Meanwhile, young Tim finds himself a gig on a popular weekly radio hour, because hey–it’s the 50s or something, and people were still doing such things. He spends his time on the air playing piano and trading jokes with the show’s Emcee, and even though Tim’s only 8 or 9, no matter–he’s a prodigy with a British accent and the Americans can’t get enough.
However, while it could be said that both Rachel and her brother Tim are Naturals, Jane is decidedly not, and this is really her story. She’s never acted before and she’s soon in hot water with the film people. They’ve cast a completely inexperienced unknown child as their lead, yet they somehow can’t understand why she’s so good at some scenes and bad at others. The grumpy-spoiled-Mary scenes early on come easily to Jane, but the Mary-turns-nice scenes later in the filming do not. Jane is, on the whole, an unhappy person, given to thinking negative thoughts about life not being fair, etc. (and quite honestly, her uber-talented-and-flaunting-it siblings aren’t helping). Even so, anyone would find it hard to be nice when acting with Maurice Tuesday, the spoiled Brat playing Colin. He’s egotistical and two-faced but maddeningly talented, both a Beauty and Natural on film. His dreadful mother is clearly the creator of this monster; Mrs. Tuesday is an indulgent Stage Parent who brags about Maurice and rails at the director when her boy’s every demand isn’t met. “She thinks Maurice is perfect and never stops talking about him, and I’m so ashamed because she’s English,” says Mrs. Winter. Representing your country well in foreign lands is a big theme in this book.
Eventually, Jane learns what film-making is all about (waiting around, wearing clothing you’d never pick out yourself, apparently) and how boring and unglamorous it can be. However, from the friendly soft-spoken boy who plays Dickon and his sweet down-homey family, she does learn a bit of acting Craft, sort of a Magic If idea. By imagining hard, she manages to tame (or at least tolerate) the monster Maurice. Being an animal trainer is Jane’s real dream, so in this way, she’s clearly a Reluctant in this story–she didn’t enjoy being a film star enough to ever want to try and act again, unless it was in some sort of movie with a gazillion animals. And even though the film turned out well with Jane in the part, it’s clear in everyone’s mind that show business is not for her.
In the very end, the family prepares to return to England with a wiser, more mature Jane getting a tiny bit more respect from her brother and sister. The Painted Garden will always be one of my favorite Streatfeild books, despite its being rather dated, because of the culture clash of UK vs. US, and the odd and interesting Old Hollywood content. I also have a huge soft spot for our heroine Jane, a girl who knows she’s a difficult person, but Just. Can’t. Stop. Each time I read this book, I sympathize with her and I’m glad she gets her moment to shine.