Film as History Skylark

The film Skylark is a wonderful continuation of the previous movie Sarah, Plain and Tall. The events take place in 1912 and are an accurate portrayal of history.

The story revolves around the Witting family who face new challenges of a drought and the possibility of fire looming over their farm. With these threats, the bonds of love and commitment between the family members (Sarah, Jacob, Anna, and Caleb) are tested. Cast members include Glenn Close as Sarah, Christopher Walker as Jacob, Lexi Randall as Anna, and Christopher Bell as Caleb. While Joseph Sargent and Glenn Jordan directed the film, David Shire served as the composer, Michael Brown as the editor, Mike Fash as director of photography, and Joseph Sargent again as the movie’s producer. Skylark is the second movie of a trilogy with Sarah, Plain and Tall and Winter’s End preceding and following it.

The story is based upon a novel written by Patricia MacLachlan who originally did not believe in sequels but then realized the characters of Sarah, Plain and Tall should be explored and expanded. With the second movie, many people, both in front and behind the camera, returned from the first. The cast stayed in a town called Emporia which was twenty five miles from the farm in which they filmed the movie. This farm which served as the location of production, was a real 240 acre Kansas farm owned by John and Ada Bryan. During the two-year time gap between the first and second movie, the owners of the farm decided to modernize their kitchen by replacing their wood stove and ice box refrigerator with state of the art appliances, new cupboards, sinks, and countertops. This presented a problem since many of the scenes in Skylark take place within the kitchen. In order to solve this dilemma, a construction crew worked round clock for four days replacing the 1992 kitchen with an 80-year-earlier Kansas farm house kitchen. After the film was completed, the kitchen was put back to its 1992 version. The director of the film realized that parts of the script involved things which directors are taught to avoid. These included films which were weather-dependent, a long way from civilization, and films in which featured child actors and those involving animals. All of these were dealt with in Skylark. Ironically, Skylark called for drought conditions in the wettest summer in Kansas history. Also, the set location was an hour from the first town, two leading roles were under the age of ten, and since the location was set on a farm, animals were required in its making. Although these are usually avoided, the producers of Skylark successfully took them head on. A part of the movie which actually happened was the barn burning scene. It was no Hollywood trick since an actual barn on a real farm in Osage Country, Kansas was set ablaze. Volunteer fire departments from Osage Country gathered while the scene was being filmed for safety. In return, the owners of the old farm were built a new one which was 100 years newer. Because of Glenn Close’s amazing performance in the movie, she was honored with an Emmy nomination. The broadcast of this three hour and eighteen minute movie in 1992 was the second highest rated movie of the decade exceeded only by the original Sarah, Plain and Tall.

The movie begins with Jacob, Sarah, Anna, and Caleb Witting having a family picture taken of them on their farm porch. On the way inside, Caleb writes “Sara” in the sand which represents the love Caleb wants Sarah to have for the prairie land. As the family is making their way into the house, it is revealed that Sarah’s cat Seal is going to have kittens. The next morning, the family returns from church and helps a cow give birth to its new calf which is named Moonbeam. Drought conditions are apparent when the dry crops and low water are shown in the film. The family receives letters from Sarah’s aunts discussing their green lands and cool waters which all the family members long to have. Caleb puts a glass symbolizing hope upon a wood post to measure the rain when it comes. The following day, the family goes into town for various reasons. When they return to their farm, they discover a fire which they rush to put out. Jacob firmly states that fires must be watched for both day and night. In the next scene, Sarah discusses her desire for a baby with her best friend Maggie. Later, because their well is so low, the Wittings make a trip to the river to gather water; however, when they arrive at its banks, they discover the river has dried up completely. Sarah confesses her hatred for the dry and barren land.

One day later, Sarah becomes hysterical when Jacob fires a gun at a coyote drinking out of their water supply. This hysteria is caused by the lack of water which Sarah is drinking. Sarah receives a birthday party where all her friends attend and dance to music. Anna wrote Sarah a book as her gift to her and in it she calls Sarah, mother. The neighbors tell the Wittings that they are leaving for a while since their well is dry. That night, a fire burns down their entire barn and Jacob tells Sarah that she and the children must leave. With this demand, Sarah, Anna, and Caleb take a train to Maine to stay with Sarah’s aunts. The aunts are called “the unclaimed treasures” with their silk dresses and no shoes. Sarah meets her brother William and his wife Meg for the first time in two years and is happy that her original family is reuniting. Back at the farm, Jacob comes close to selling Moonbeam; however, he realizes that the cow is almost like a family member and ends up keeping the calf. Letters are written between Jacob and Sarah, Anna, and Caleb. It rains in Maine and because neither the children nor Sarah have seen it in such a long time, they all play in the downpour. Jacob is shown rebuilding the barn with other men in their area and he looks depressed and lonely. William and Sarah reminisce about their childhood and how their father use to call Sarah his little Skylark. Then, to Jacob’s relief, it rains in Kansas. The family in Maine celebrates the town’s two hundredth birthday by watching fire works and having a picnic. Caleb reveals that he misses his father very much. The following day Jacob comes to Maine as a great surprise to everyone. All are content and Sarah tells Jacob that she is pregnant. The family comes home to a new barn and new kittens. Sarah then takes a stick and writes her name in the sand since she realizes she loves the land and the people who live on it.

One aspect of the movie which parallels with the time period of the story is the clothes that the actors in the film wear. They are a perfect portrayal of the clothes worn in the early 1900’s. The women wear dresses of plain colors with high neck lines and three quarter length sleeves accessorized with hats, bonnets, gloves, and fancy umbrellas. Also, they wore long, high-waisted skirts with long sleeve button up tops accompanied by belts or sashes in between the two. Aprons were also used when women were doing house work or other farm chores. Closed toed heeled shoes covered their feet, and their hair was usually loosely pined up. On the other hand, the men wore collared long sleeve button up shirts with vests, ties, and bow ties. Overalls and suspenders with buttoned plaid shirts also dressed the males during the 1910s. On special occasions, suits in tan and gray dressed up the men and matching hats provided the finishing touch to looking sharp. The attire present in the early twentieth century matches the costumes used in Skylark.

The scene in which the family goes into town provides an extremely well portrayed picture of the time period. Buildings which appear in the scene also appeared eighty years ago in the same manor. Buildings present in the town were labeled Saloon, Dry Goods and Clothing, Hats, Hays, Noises, Meat Market, General Store/ Post Office, and Southern Hotel. The train station and Church were other buildings on the set of Skylark. Also, a blacksmith is there where Sarah asks if her bridle bit is ready. Horse and buggy are used as transportation but one automobile is also seen, showing that some people did in fact have them during the time. The buildings in the movie are the same buildings which would have appeared in earlier history. The producer did an accurate job accounting for the correct layout and design of a prarie town.

The final aspect of the film which proves to be historically accurate is the transfer of letters between the family members. This film displays this correctly since in 1912, most people’s form of communicating with their loved ones over long distances was in the form of a hand written letters. The children tell their father how much they miss him as he responds with his love and updates of the farm and rain. Sarah and her brother and aunts also write letters since it is the only way for them to keep in touch. The fact that the post office is used to communicate in the movie proves that the film is parallel with history in the area of letter writing.

I believe this movie accurately portrays the history of living on the prairie in 1912. All aspects are in parallel with the time period in which the movie takes place. It is a well written film and I highly recommend it for those who enjoy a wholesome and honest picture.

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