Sunday, January 29, 2012

Double Feature: The Artist(ic) Descendants

The stars aligned yesterday.  Or maybe it had something to do with the increased waves of solar activity we’re experiencing.  Whatever the reason, Steve and I found ourselves without children or responsibilities for several hours, and we did something we haven’t done since our pre-children life together: we attended two Oscar-nominated movies in one afternoon.

We saw The Artist and The Descendants, both of which are up for Best Picture, and both of which made me think of my great-grandparents G. Oliver and Islea Riggs, for much different reasons.

The Artist is a black and white, mostly silent movie, and it’s delightful (if you go, and you should, remember that word silent – the Lakeville 21 Theatre ticket booth had signs notifying potential viewers of this fact; I suppose people have complained after watching the first few minutes, thinking something was wrong with the sound system). 

The movie takes place in Hollywood in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when talking movies began, and silent movies were abandoned (here’s a link to the New York Times review).

My great-grandmother Islea used to play the organ for silent movies at the Paramount Theatre in St. Cloud, and I thought of Islea as I watched a scene in The Artist where a live orchestra accompanies the premiere of a movie featuring George Valentin (played by the wonderfully expressive French actor Jean Dujardin) at the height of his popularity.   

The Artist isn’t the first movie to chronicle this period, when many silent movie actors lost their jobs because they couldn’t make the transition to talkies – think Singing in the Rain, which The Artist evokes in some ways – but I imagine many people like Islea also were affected by this change, which eliminated the need for live musicians to accompany the movies.

The Paramount, formerly the Sherman Theatre, underwent renovations in 1930 to accommodate the new “talkies.”  I don’t know when the theater showed its last silent movie, or when Islea stopped playing there.  I wonder how she felt about it?

Islea Graham Riggs
I loved the costumes in The Artist, especially the hats.  The cars were neat, too, and really helped drop me into that time period – which, in my great-grandparents’ case, meant St. Cloud, during the rising popularity of G. Oliver’s St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band.

Another part I loved about the movie was the dog, played by a Jack Russell named Uggie, who has his own IMDb page.  The dog is Valentin’s faithful companion on and off-screen.  And I couldn’t help but think of G. Oliver and Islea here, too, because they also were known for having faithful canine companions.
G. Oliver with dog Toby; the woman might be Islea, but it could also be G. Oliver’s sister Daisy.
The other movie we saw, The Descendants, is completely different from The Artist – it’s in color, for one thing, it’s full of colorful language (note the ‘R’ rating) and it’s set in modern-day Hawaii.  But the past plays an important role in the movie, too, which makes sense given its title.  The protagonist, Matt King (played by George Clooney), can trace his island roots back several generations to indigenous and missionary ancestors. 

The main plot of the story involves Clooney’s character discovering, after his wife has been seriously injured in a boating accident, that she’s been cheating on him.  He tries to sort this out as he, the “back-up parent,” reconnects with his two daughters (here’s a link to the New York Times review). 

A subplot of The Descendants concerns a large tract of pristine land on Kauai that King and his many cousins have inherited, and a decision they need to make regarding its sale.  This part of the movie made me think of the Riggs family cabin on Grace Lake, near Bemidji.  It was a sanctuary for G. Oliver for decades during his career as a band director, and my dad has memories of spending time there as a boy. 
The Riggs family cabin on Grace Lake, near Bemidji.
G. Oliver moved to the cabin full-time in 1944 after his forced retirement from his St. Cloud job, two years after Islea’s death.  He soon came out of retirement to conduct a band at Red Lake High School (here, again, I’m reminded of The Artist, and its themes of the old being pushed out by the young, and of the possibilities of career reinvention).

When he died in January 1946, G. Oliver had been planning to sell the cabin to a neighbor who operated an adjoining resort.  My grandfather Ronald and great uncle Percy (Pete) followed through with this plan.

Although it would might been nice if the property had stayed in the family – I know other families who own properties up north that have been in the family for generations – it’s also possible that it would have created family divisions, like in The Descendants – cousins arguing over its use, whether it should be sold, and if so, to whom.
A postcard from the Dean Davis resort, sent to my grandparents in 1951.
I don’t know what’s become of that property, and I’m curious to find out.  Louisa is attending French camp this summer in Hackensack, and when we pick her up in mid-July, we plan to take a side trip to Bemidji and see if we can find the spot where the cabin had been located.

If nothing else, the adventure could be material for a Lawler/Riggs family home movie, which, given our cast of human and canine characters, is certain not to be silent.


  1. Hey! This looks great on my iPhone.

  2. Joy,

    The Descendants was written by Jim Rash who plays Dean Pelton on "Community." Don't know if you caught that in the credits. I didn't know until I happened to read it in Shari's Entertainment Weekly the other day. I want to see it and The Artist.

  3. Brendon,

    I read that in EW a few days ago but totally forgot about it when we saw the movie. He's a talented guy and hilarious in the show. We just saw the paintball episode last night.