Here at Frock Flicks HQ we have access to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and some, ehem, other sources to watch historical costume movies and TV shows. Hey, we could even watch movies on ye olde DVDs sometimes! So we spend a lot of time in front of a screen, attempting to watch our endless queue. Alas, not every flick set in the past is worth our time (though for ones we DO review, use the search box or menus to peruse the archives!).
Here’s a little behind-the-scenes info: There are a lot of mediocre historical costume movies and TV shows out there! We’re not talking Snark Week-worthy travesties — we LURVE watching those. But some stuff is just distinctly average. These are boring movies, the dull shows, the ones with meh costumes and stories that can’t even rise up to the level of camp entertainment. Or the ones that are mildly entertaining, maybe have ‘good-enough’ costuming, or are moderately snark-worthy, but we can’t be arsed to work up a sweat about it.
Thus, this is an occasional series with our one-line reviews of things we’ve tried to watch but just don’t care enough about to write a whole blog post or podcast. Your mileage may vary!
April Morning (1987)
I tried to watch this for Snark Week purposes, but it’s REALLY focused on the boys so there’s not enough to snark. Chad Lowe’s father (Tommy Lee Jones) doesn’t understand him, but then the redcoats go marching through town and he gets to join the militia. It all takes place over about 24 hours, and not much of interest happens. Most of the women are super background and wearing very butter-churny sacks; love interest Ruth needs to put her hair up, but otherwise, meh. — Kendra
When, oh when, will a good version of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla be made? Because this ain’t it. Not vampiric, just vaguely weird, with boring costumes. — Trystan
Harmony Lane (1935)
The life of composer Stephen Foster, raging alcoholic, who ripped off Black musicians via minstrel shows to make a name for himself. Well, that’s what I got out of this movie. It’s free to watch on the Internet Archive, if you’re curious. — Trystan
The House of Eliott (1991-1994)
We already have Kendra’s mini-review of this series, but folks go wild about it when we post pix, so I thought I’d watch it for a full review and take screencaps ‘n stuff. But it felt distinctly MEH to me, and the costumes were just FINE nothing special. What am I missing here? — Trystan
Maybe it was fabulous compared to other crap in the early 1990s? I don’t remember! — Kendra
Life in Squares (2015)
I wanted to like this miniseries about sisters, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, and the whole Bloomsbury set, but it was slow-going while also fast-talking. I was only sporadically interested in the plot, and there was minimal in the way of 1900s costuming to interest me. — Trystan
Madame du Barry (1934)
We’ve raved about Orry-Kelly’s designs — and yes, they are gorgeous — and bemoaned how hard it is to find this film starring Dolores del Rio as King Louis XV’s mistress. Well, I found it, and meh? Del Rio tra-la-la’s her way through being a historical manic pixie dream girl, Louis XV is all jovial creepy uncle, Marie Antoinette is snooty from the start. About the only interesting performance (besides del Rio) is Verree Teasdale as the Duchesse de Granmont. I think the main problem is I couldn’t find it in high res, so I couldn’t see the costumes clearly enough. — Kendra
Mourning Becomes Electra (1949)
Based on the Eugene O’Neill play which is, in turn, based on Greek tragedies, this movie has a labyrinthine plot full of hateful characters. That, plus hoopskirts post-Civil War made me lose interest fast. — Trystan
Aretha Franklin IS a genius, and her life seems really interesting, and Jennifer Hudson is super talented … but somehow this biopic didn’t really help me to understand the singer’s life any better. I think the difficulty is in that there’s some mystery around the core pain in Franklin’s life, which the film has to be fuzzy about because no one knows the truth … but then that makes it harder to understand her. I don’t know. It’s not terrible! It’s pretty good! — Kendra
The Underground Railroad (2021)
I tried, and maybe I’ll come back to it. But the gruesome first episode was enough. It felt very “eat your vegetables” to watch that — here’s the horrors of slavery in HD detail. It can only get better from there, I hope, but I’m not especially engaged enough to find out. — Trystan
The War of the Worlds (2019)
This was the BBC three-part version set in the Edwardian era with Eleanor Tomlinson, Rafe Spall, and no costumes of note. It’s just a post-apocalyptic thing but vaguely 1900s, and I just couldn’t get into it. — Trystan
The Vineyard aka La Templanza (2021)
Where’s the wine? This telenovela promised shenanigans based around a family winery but I got nothing but cheesy mid-Victorian costumes and some not-very-racy romantic longings. MEH. — Trystan
What did you think of these movies or TV shows? What other stuff should we remove from our queue? Have you searched our site recently to see if we’ve already reviewed your faves?
I loved House of Eliot back in the day,,,but I don’t think it stood the test of time. The costumes were fun at the time,,and LOUISE LOMBARD NOM NOM NOM
I loved House of Elliott. I haven’t rewatched it, however I thought the costuming was spectacular.
“When, oh when, will a good version of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla be made?”
Probably about a year after they finally do DRACULA the way Bram Stoker actually wrote it— but only if the book-accurate DRACULA makes a shitton of money.
This question has nagged me for decades as well, and I’ve seen a lot of misfire shots at the material– VAMPYR (1932), BLOOD AND ROSES (1960), TERROR IN THE CRYPT (1964), THE BLOOD-SPATTERED BRIDE (1972), the Showtime NIGHTMARE CLASSICS adaptation CARMILLA (1989, set in the antebellum South).
It’s sad that probably the most faithful adaptation of CARMILLA is the 1969 Hammer Films/American-International Pictures co-production THE VAMPIRE LOVERS– which is still way too boob-oriented and exploitative (but look at who made it) and suffers from the lead role being insanely miscast (though I do love Ingrid Pitt).
I haven’t bothered with the newer ones, because the descriptions always indicate that liberties have been taken, and they don’t look like they’d be worth watching as a “re-imagining of the classic story”– which is pretty much all we ever get.
There was a 1966 ITV adaptation on the series MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION that’s now lost, though some other episodes survive. Given the state of British television at the time, it probably wasn’t any better than the others, but I guess we’ll never know. It’s pretty much impossible to find even a good description of the episode– though I have seen a couple of nondescript photos that don’t look promising.
Let me add that the “misfire shots” I listed still have some value as films in their own right– VAMPYR in particular– but they’re just not good adaptations of the source material, with only the Showtime version even getting anywhere close to the basic plot.
I second (third?) on The House of Elliot; I haven’t gone back and watched them, but the 1990s were a grim and bitter period in costume frocking on television (the third film in “North and South” for starters).
You must see French and Saunders do “House of Idiot”! Hysterical.
The book “War of the Worlds” is one of my favorites. But it has no women in it (the narrator’s wife at the beginning and end) and takes place “behind enemy lines” thru 95% of it so I wouldn’t expect too much costuming. It is in 1895 or thereabouts… which should’ve been a great place for some Martian steampunk in the fighting machines. The whole book takes place in like 48 hours or so and moves fast! Stretching it out to multiple episodes is a dreadful idea.
But I may have to check it out anyway.
House of Elliot was one of a bunch of shows that came out around the same time, Jeeves and Wooster being another, and I think it started quite well. Sadly it devolved into a sort of Georgian soap opera, lots of crying and wringing of hands. Some things as you say, don’t age well. Unlike the series of Mapp and Lucia that came out 10 years earlier and to my eye is still as fresh as a daisy!
The one with Prunella Scales, Geraldine McEwan and Nigel Hawthorne? Unbeatable in my memory, to the point I don’t dare rewatch it!
Pity about “Life in Squares”; the cast looks fabulous. (But I think it’s true that the Bloomsberries didn’t go in much for great frocks, especially during WWII.)
I watched Respect last weekend. I really wanted to enjoy it, but ‘meh’. The story wasn’t fleshed out enough to really make it clear what the hell was happening, or why it was happening. It was all ‘here’s a random famous person or some shit and oh, she had a kid at 12!’ It was pretty, but mostly a jumbled mess of storylines. I’ll stick with Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman for their excellence.
My movie watch group watched Respect a week or so ago. Content warning for domestic violence and strongly suggested sexual abuse of a minor. We all agreed that Jennifer Hudson’s performance was amazing but also that the movie overall was sort of flat. It also stopped too soon — it should have ended with Aretha seeking at Obama’s inauguration. Instead it stopped in the mid 1970s.
Laura’s costumes look super boring and vaguely Regency era TM, while Carmilla’s coustumes look marginally more interesting and 1780s/1790s, to my semi- untrained eyes at least!
THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) is also supposedly set in 1790, but the main women’s costumes aren’t that great– just vague Empire-waisted designs probably more concerned with cleavage display than establishing a period. (And at one point, a front-laced “Frederick’s of Hollywood”-style corset is seen.) The men’s and servants’ costumes are a bit better, but obviously stock rental pieces. And everyone’s hair is ridiculously 1970.
However, while Le Fanu’s 1872 source novella never gives an exact year the events are taking place, a portrait of the still-living Mircalla, Countess Karnstein/Carmilla dated “A.D. 1698” (chapter 5) and the narrator Laura’s description of Mircalla having been buried for “a hundred and fifty years” at the time of her final destruction (chapter 15) would place the story no earlier than 1848–possibly even several years later.
Other than the episode of the Showtime NIGHTMARE CLASSICS series that set the story in the antebellum South (to no real effect), I don’t think there’s been a “Carmilla” adaptation set in the mid-19th century– most are too early or are set present-day.
Le Fanu’s source material would seem easy to adapt faithfully, but for some reason, it’s always approached as something that “needs changes for a modern audience”– so that most adaptations just trade on the name recognition and the girl/girl attraction elements.
Someday I’d love you to do a thing about flashback episodes in TV drama – Buffy, Star Trek, whatever takes your fancy. Low-hanging fruit, I know, but…
Gill, I second this idea! I also love the idea of them critiquing dream and/or fantasy sequences that take place in a FrockFlick-desginated time period! I think if they did this though, they’d really have to relax their standards because generally those sequences that I’ve seen are meant to be fun, campy, or creepy and no accuracy is aimed at re the costuming. They’re often “we have to rent costumes for the high school play” quality. But, still, I think it would be a fun post!
LOVED House of Elliott. Couldn’t get through all of Life in Squares. I think House of Elliott should be reviewed here because the sisters work in fashion, and think that there was at least one fashion show per season. But also, to echo what someone said earlier, it could also have been good compared to other “crap” of the era. I do recommend the 90’s era TV show “The Untouchables.” I LOVED that show when I was younger, but honestly I can’t remember how many women’s costumes were a part of it. And I don’t know if you can find it anywhere these days.